Playing Hippie Fifty Years Later


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Yesterday I attended the Shambala Festival in Chiang Dao, Thailand. It’s a small city in northern Thailand that is dominated by a tall mountain that abruptly rises from the rice fields. It’s a lovely, dramatic setting for what is essentially a “Rainbow Gathering.” The participants were mostly young people, a mix of Thais, Europeans, Americans and Japanese. Anyone who wanted to walk around barefoot and smell of patchouli oil.

 

At age 67, I am the age of most of their grandparents. A chorus I’m a member of was performing at a small venue near the kitchen. We were by far the most professional and rehearsed of the small stage acts, but yet the audience sprawled in front of us was half-asleep. They were here for the long haul, days of hanging out. It was a bit unnerving to perform for such a laid-back crowd. On the other hand, I’m sure things liven up at night at the evening stage, now baking in the sun during the day but which would come alive after dark and would host amplified bands which would inspire hippie dancing. Shake your dreadlocks, baby.

 

There were many beautiful young people there but there is a new sort of odd, non-sexual thing happening now. No nudity. No coupling in public. Lots of hugging and flamboyant physical displays of yoga inspired gymnastics, but the obvious sexual attention-seeking is a thing of the past. They’ve moved beyond that.  As someone who was their age at about the time of Woodstock, I am pleased that there is still a demand and audience for this sort of thing, and glad to see that I am no longer the least bit tempted to partake of it. It never even occurred to me to sleep on the ground. I went into town and rented a hotel room, something you can do in Thailand with pocket change.

 

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You’re a Better Man Than I Am, Ho Chi Minh


I’m in Udon Thani, Thailand, the first city in Isaan you get to heading east from Chiang Mai. It would have been a twelve hour drive, but we flew for exactly an hour. Udon is oddly prosperous, and belies the general attitude toward Isaan one find in the rest of Thailand, which portrays Isaan as Dogpatch, the place where nothing happens more exciting than rice farming, and all the young women take the bus to the resort cities of Pattaya and Phuket in order to snag aging foreign husbands.

From the few hours I’ve spent on the streets and the gleaming new mall, there does indeed seem to be a surfeit of old Caucasian men being led around by much younger Thai women. The girls sitting in front of massage shops are not the least bit shy about grabbing a tottering geezer has he hobbles down the uneven sidewalk and steering him towards a massage with a happy ending. But Udon is also where a man who was already hooked in Pattaya goes with her back home to be near her family. Maybe that partly explains much of the apparent prosperity of this city, which only twenty years ago was quite a backwards place. As we flew in I saw many subdivisions with American-style newer homes, perfect for a retired foreign husband and his young Thai wife.

But there must be more to this place than simply that, because there are huge, modern condos springing up. I smell industry and private enterprise, those two paths to real prosperity that Vietnam seems so comfortable with and which Thailand has just started to embrace.

We rented a motor scooter and took off looking for something that would be different than the downtown, with its many massage parlors and bars. After driving into the setting sun for about twenty minutes we saw a sign “Ho Chi Minh historical site, 6 kilometers.” Ho Chi Minh? As in Uncle Ho? As in “Ho Ho Ho Chi Minh, NLF is gonna win!” which we chanted as we Vietnam war protesters circled the White House in 1969 to yell the name of a dead serviceman at Nixon, who had wisely decided to not be at home.

Sure enough, they had built some old-timey buildings on a piece of land in the middle of nowhere, and even though we arrived after the place was officially closed, we were able to enter through the closed but not yet locked gate and look around. Apparently Ho had found the time to spend a year or two in northeastern Thailand with a young Thai wife, in between his travels to more spectacular locations, like New York, Boston, Moscow, London, Paris and China. Born in 1890 to a family of school teachers, he traveled the world first as a cook’s assistant on ships, and then as a rising star in the Communist party. He spoke six languages fluently, and some Thai.

By the time the United States got our boots on the ground stuck in the quagmire, Ho had already defeated the French and was ready to retire, but he had to stay on a bit longer, although in a more symbolic role than training troops for battle. Heck, he was my age in 1955, and still terribly active, whereas I am most definitely out to pasture. You’re a better man that I am, Ho Chi Minh.

A couple of years ago when we toured Vietnam, we stopped at a marble factory in Danang, and I got dangerously close to buying a life-sized marble statue of Uncle Ho. They promised to ship it to Thailand for no extra charge. I thought “where else could I buy such a thing? And what a conversation piece!”

My little journeys have impressed upon me that Indochina really is a place of its own, sort of like the American Midwest is neither the East nor West Coast, and even though the countries of Burma, Laos, Vietnam, Thailand and Cambodia don’t share a common language, nor do the citizens of those countries resemble or trust each other much, Indochina is not China and it’s not India. To strain my metaphor a bit farther, the distance from Udon Thani to Hanoi is about the same as from Chicago to Memphis. Even a hundred years ago a determined traveler could make the journey in two or three weeks.  And Ho did just that.

 

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a recording of the author reading this essay can be found by clicking the link below

 

 

 

JUST FOR TODAY


PINKY LEE

I was watching television that day in 1955 when Pinky Lee had his heart attack.  Our Admiral set was in the “sun room” and I was sitting cross-legged on the floor in front of it.  Pinky Lee was one of my favorite shows, and I liked his crazy, energetic dancing and rapid patter.  He was dancing around singing

“Yoo hoo, it’s me,My name is Pinky Lee.

I skip and run with lots of fun

For every he and she.

It’s plain to see

That you can tell it’s me

With my checkered hat

And my checkered coat,

The funny giggle in my throat

And my silly dance

Like a billy goat…”

when suddenly he staggered, looked directly into the camera and said “Please, somebody help me!” and then keeled over. The cameras dutifully followed his descent, then held on his writhing, prostrate form to see if it was a gag. It was not. Then they panned to the audience, a bunch of kids and their moms, who were cheering and laughing because someone off-camera was urging them to do so.  Then they cut to a commercial.

I had my heart attack fifty-nine years later.  I was living in Chiang Mai. Thailand, and unlike Pinky, had not been dancing.  I had been checking my email when it felt like someone grabbed my esophagus and started squeezing.  The pain was sharp and growing.  I had read that in circumstances like this you should eat an aspirin, so I found one and gobbled it down. The pain did not subside.  Feeling like I was probably making too big a deal out of small thing, I nevertheless grabbed my wallet and passport and walking downstairs to the front desk, calmly asked the guesthouse owner to drive me to the Emergency Room. He did, and this probably saved my life.

Four days in Intensive Care and three stent operations later, I was sent home to recuperate.  During this time, the Thai military staged a coup, and all TV channels left the air, to be replaced by one showing the top military brass sitting at a table, looking uneasy on camera while one man speaking in Thai reassured the public that everything was under control. He later nominated himself prime minister and is still in charge.  Anyone who disagrees with him in invited to come in for an attitude adjustment.  Some of those people are still having their attitudes adjusted.

Since I don’t speak Thai very well and on that show there was no singing or dancing, and I felt too weak to watch TV anyway, I spent most of the next week lying on my back, staring at the ceiling and trying to process this sudden and unexpected turn of events.  I did manage to be grateful for air-conditioning as it was the hottest time of year, but as I had just arrived in town and had few friends or visitors, I had plenty of time to wonder how badly I wanted to live anyway. Theoretically I did, but since I wasn’t sure what was in store for me, I wasn’t quite sold on the value of longevity.

Now it is ten months later and even though I haven’t set the world on fire, I feel reasonably content.  I lost a lot of my savings paying my hospital bill, but I’m lucky it happened here, where medical costs are a tenth of what they are in the States.  In a couple of months I’ll be 65 and will be covered by Medicare, so I can fly across the world if I choose to visit a hospital again.  From what I’ve seen of them, I think I will pass on that opportunity unless I can see an obvious benefit.

Today, I swim and bicycle regularly and have lost about 25 pounds. My cholesterol level and blood pressure are easily managed by inexpensive medicines.  I take a baby aspirin a day to prevent a future heart attack.

If I stop and think about it, I’ve never had it so good. There is cause for hope and nothing to be afraid of, except death itself, which is inevitable.

This inevitability of death thing is so enormous that nobody talks about most of the time because there’s really nothing to say. The ship is sinking.  No doubt about it.  We’re all going to end up in the drink eventually, and the only variable is when.  How we fall into the water doesn’t matter so much. Yes, the ship is doomed and the Captain may already have left in a lifeboat, disguised as a woman. No matter, we all have just today.

here’s a link to an audio version of this essay