These Foolish Things


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Martin Luther wrote this to a friend in 1530: “Whenever the devil harasses you thus, seek the company of men, or drink more, or joke and talk nonsense, or do some other merry thing. Sometimes we must drink more, sport, recreate ourselves, aye, and even sin a little to spite the devil, so that we leave him no place for troubling our consciences with trifles.”

 

As a boy on New Year’s Eve 1912, nine year-old Louis Armstrong snuck into his mother’s bedroom and borrowed a pistol from the pocket of one of her customers. His mother was a prostitute, his father had abandoned the family, and they lived in a rooming house in the Red Light district. Armstrong fired the gun at midnight to celebrate the New Year, but lucky for all of us a policeman happened to be standing nearby and arrested young Louis. A judge sent him to the Colored Waif’s Home. On the way there the driver said “Don’t look so sad, son. This is a good place. We have a band. What instrument would you like to play?” Armstrong’s eyes brightened. “The drums!” he said. “Well, we’ve already got plenty of drummers, but we need someone to play the bugle when we raise and lower the flag. You think that might interest you?”

 

Within a few years Louis Armstrong was playing trumpet in New Orleans brothels He was in the right place at the right time for it was there and then that Jazz pretty much took shape. He is certainly the person most responsible for its popularity across the globe. Bing Crosby, who was the most popular singer of the day said that he thought Armstrong was the best singer alive.

 

Billie Holiday sang like Armstrong played the trumpet. Jimi Hendrix said he wanted to play the guitar the way Little Richard used his voice.

 

In 1955 in New Orleans, Little Richard pretty much single-handedly invented Rock and Roll in much the same kind of way Armstrong had forty years earlier. His first big hit was a sanitized version of a dirty song he had been singing for years to entertain the kind of people he hung out with, prostitutes, drug dealers, and petty criminals.

 

Until he sang at a high school talent show, nobody at Hume High noticed Elvis. Before his appearance on the Ed Sullivan show, the Hillbilly Cat had been driving a truck. Elvis told interviewers that his singing idol was Dean Martin. Dino had obviously modeled much of his style on the crooning of Bing.

 

The real mystery is where did Bing come from?

 

Bing was not born in a brothel in New Orleans, but to an Irish working class family in Spokane, Washington. He was well-educated and briefly attended law school before deciding to drop out and become a musician. He played the drums pretty well, but his crooning and his intelligent use of the newly developed microphone was what set his apart from his peers.

 

Within a few months of arriving in Los Angeles he was the talk of the town. He easily transitioned from microphone to motion picture camera, and led the way for Sinatra and Presley to do the same. Even though modern day listeners think of him as a square, Bing thought of himself as a proto-hipster.

 

In retrospect, all these developments seem unlikely. Culture and new ideas leap in unpredictable spasms.Until Michael Jackson’s Thriller album, Bing Crosby’s Christmas album was the highest selling album in history. Quincy Jones produced Thriller and it turns out he and Ray Charles had been roommates in Seattle, after the blind pianist arrived after getting as far away from Florida as he could by Greyhound Bus.

 

Decca records rejected the Beatles, deciding they had little to offer. George Martin proved otherwise. Aretha Franklin really took off artistically when Jerry Wexler of Atlantic records understood and appreciated the real depth of her talent. Otis Redding was working as a chauffeur when he wrote and recorded “Respect.”  Two years later Aretha had the mega hit, but Otis did it proud, as well. Marvin Gaye was a session drummer at Motown in Detroit when one day he filled in for an absent singer.

 

There’s a line in the Bible, “God chooses the foolish things of the world to confound the wise.”  Even if you don’t believe in God or the Bible, you’ve got to admit that the delightful surprises Fate unleashes as it twists and writhes its way through Space and Time give us cause for hope. Nobody has any idea of what’s really going on. We might as well expect to be pleasantly surprised.

 

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Time to Get Serious


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All  this laughing  through tears isn’t going to get our grandchildren a better world in which to live. Some serious bad stuff is going down and somebody somewhere is going to have to take a stand to stop it.

The first step involves naming. It’s not just Fox News or CNN, it’s corporate lying. It’s not just quirky candidates, it’s pathological narcissism and limitless greed. Rather that a little deal, it’s a big mess, and the costs to clean it up will prove staggering.

Serious people used to be valued, at least in certain positions. Now everybody has to be entertaining first and then maybe capable of taking action when conditions are right, but you can’t blame them too harshly because doing the right thing can sometimes be a tough call. In general, there’s a general feeling of impotence and hopelessness that has trickled down from top to bottom. Facts don’t matter as much as beliefs. Judge me on my intentions, not my actions. Cut me some slack!

It’s amazing what some people were able to accomplish back before foolishness and whimsy became a way of life for most public figures. Now everybody’s a comedian and nothing good seems to be coming down the pike. I’d like to believe that we haven’t all turned into characters from a Seth Rogan comedy, but maybe I’m fooling myself.Maybe we really are all self-absorbed dimwits and will get exactly what we deserve.

 

A CHEERFUL THOUGHT


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In 1859 a solar storm, a geomagnetic event, sent a gale of charged particles through the vacuum of outer space and towards Earth. This storm was so powerful that it knocked out the only form of telecommunication that existed at the time, the telegraph. Such powerful storms occur on average once every five hundred years. If such a storm were to happen today, it would knock out the Internet, GPS, and most forms of broadcasting.

 

The last time this happened, the world was a simpler place. People ate food that grew nearby. Financial markets were not highly leveraged. Nobody expected to be able to deal with the kind of complexity we rely upon today.

 

If GPS goes, so will air and ship travel. Tropical fruits could no longer be part of a North American or European diet. Where would we get coffee or chocolate? Tourism will vanish for a while.

 

So will international banking and most trade. If the Internet goes, people will keep trying to log on to find out what’s going on. The organizations and systems the Internet replaced would have to be resurrected. That would take some time. During this period of crisis, it would not be unusual for other, bigger crisis to emerge. A Perfect Storm of problems, which could combine to amplify the sum effect and result in real catastrophe. 

 

When famine occurs, it doesn’t take as long as you might assume to lose a lot of people. It’s a matter of weeks until the tipping point is reached. And then bodies start piling up, usually on street corners, left there during the night. We don’t have much experience of this in the West, but in the East they’ve had plenty.

 

One would have to be foolish to think that such an event will never occur. Of course it’s not a case of “if” but “when.” So what are we doing to prepare for this day?

 

In a simpler era, amateur radio operators offered some form of mass communications during emergencies, but if this happens, I think we’re going to be looking at mayhem. Most of us no longer own a radio, much less a short wave radio. I used to be able to send and receive morse code, but that was a long time ago, and today my telegraph key lies moldering in some Midwestern antique store.

 

I do, however, still remember the morse code for SOS.

 

MOVING DAY


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We’re moving today and tomorrow.  Today we pack up the few things we have in our pied a terre in Santitham, place them under the seat of my two motor scooters and scoot off to the new house, about five miles southeast of here. It’s in a neighborhood called “Snail Pond” which is historically prone to flooding. I’m not so much afraid of floods as I am of mosquitoes, now that Zika virus has been reported in Chiang Mai.

 

But it rained hard last night and is dripping even as I type this. With little in the way of infrastructure, when it floods in Thailand, it really floods. Our convenient room in the big city cost us 4,200 baht per month, about $120 U.S. dollars. No worry about floods there, for it’s on a fifth floor of a building new and clean. The room was small, with a balcony and a great view, but otherwise it was sort of soul-less and even though the air-conditioning was top notch, it was not place I wanted to hang out. Our rented house half an hour north in Mae Rim was a meager structure as well, but situated near the mountains. I could be riding in endless greenery in a matter of minutes. It cost 4,000 baht a month, which is about $110 dollars. Our new house promises to be quite luxurious and large, and will cost almost exactly what we were spending for the other two places. So it’s a lateral move cost-wise but probably a step up in long-term comfort. I’m hoping I will become less restless living there, and spend more productive time reading and writing in my office. Yes, I’ll have an office of my very own. 

 

I can’t believe I’m moving again. Every move I’ve made in the last ten years has surprised me, for I thought the move before was to be my last. I certainly drag much less with me now than I did ten years ago, when I fancied myself an antiques dealer with an auction shopping compulsion. On this new move I will have to buy a refrigerator, TV, electric stove, a few used tables and chairs, and I’m convinced these will be the last appliances and pieces of furniture I will ever need to buy. One of these moves I’m going to prove myself right about that.

 

It will be good to live in only one place. Every time I’ve tried to have a city house and a country house, it has brought me little in the way of peace of mind. Where did I leave those reading glasses? Here, hotel rooms are very affordable.

 

I no longer have any items in storage back in America. Most of what I now own could fit in the trunk and back seat of a Volkswagen Beetle, the same state of affairs I enjoyed back in 1975, when I moved everything I owned from Iowa City to Los Angeles. I was convinced it would only be a matter of a few weeks before I “made it.” My talent was such that I was certain to “be discovered.” I drank a lot back then, and smoked a lot of dope.

 

Now I no longer expect anything from my moves except having to learn a new neighborhood. Where is the closest coffee shop with wi-fi? At night in my new home, which way to the bathroom? Where are the light switches?

 

The older I get, the more I appreciate the Christian concept that we are all just pilgrims, passing through. The Buddhists here in Thailand are big on this concept, too. Everything is change. Here, they burn your body at the nearest temple. If you can afford it, they set off fireworks while they’re burning you, probably to scare you on your journey. “Don’t stick around, you’re dead, be off!” Boom!

 

Reverie


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For the last couple of years, I have been waking up in the middle of the night.  I used to blame my bladder, but lately that poor inflexible bag isn’t even the culprit. I simply don’t sleep like a kitten anymore. Now I nap fitfully like an old lion, one eye half-open while my snaggle-toothed mouth flaps with my breathing.

 

During these times of nocturnal wakefulness I flip open my laptop. In the place I’m currently living, my landlord turns off the wi-fi from around midnight to dawn, so I’m not able to indulge in my Facebook addiction, the one where I scroll endlessly up the Meme River, looking for something that might interest me long enough to double click. I have come to believe that my landlord is doing me a service by depriving me of the Internet for this interval.

 

Most of the flotsam and jetsam I encounter are political posts,which bore and depress me. I don’t care much about the elections back home. I don’t even care about the lack of elections here in Thailand, which has enjoyed the relative stability of a military dictatorship for the last two years. I like coming across pictures with clever captions, and think that I’m especially good at coming up with them. By simply right-clicking, I can steal any picture I find on the net, then write a clever caption, but without pasting the words over the image, an act I consider inelegant and boorish.

 

Since my chromebook is barely a computer at all without wifi, I am forced to use it only as a typewriter. That can be a good thing. I am suddenly allowed to concentrate on one thing, instead of being teased and tempted by the torrents of online nonsense. Now, alone with the contents of my own head, I am free to pursue a series of thoughts that develop a common theme. I can write an essay!

 

These midnight moments are what has been called “reverie.” The word implies contemplation. It often happens at night, when the rest of the household is asleep.

 

Maybe someday soon it will be illegal to entertain your own thoughts without instantly sharing and mixing them with the thoughts of others. The conspiracy theorist in me can imagine such a future.

Focus on the Good, Ignore the Bad


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It really doesn’t matter where you live, and it almost doesn’t matter under what circumstances you’re living. Every day you have a choice to cultivate gratitude or to find fault in your surroundings. One way leads to happiness or at least contentment, and the other to misery for you and those unlucky enough to find themselves in your presence.

 

Unfortunately, many of us are convinced that our greatest talent lies in discernment. Nobody’s Fool, we are obliged to point out what’s wrong, who’s lying, and to remember these failings with pinpoint accuracy. We are the avenging angel’s right hand men, helping usher in the day of reckoning as it dawns.

 

As an expatriate, I am tempted every once in a while to offer my opinion on how the locals run this place. Certain that they’re simply too shy to ask my advice, I formulate advice in my head, ready to share it at the first opportunity. Because Thailand has been in political crisis ever since I first landed at the Bangkok airport in 2008, I have had many opportunities to offer such advice.  Someone who’d been here awhile took me aside and said “whatever you do, don’t say anything about the monarchy.  Nobody wants to hear your opinion regarding that.” I’ve heard it said “the most expensive advice you’ll ever get is free advice” but in this case, not so.

 

Thailand is the most foreign place I’v ever spent a lot of time.  Central and South America are simply Latin-flavored America compared to this place. As long as I keep my discerning eye focused on what I enjoy about these differences, I’m doing fine. And as long as I keep my mouth shut, I’m doing even better.

 

 

DISCOURSE REVIVED


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Social media is not designed to promote debate. The audience one finds there is hand-picked, pre-selected. It’s preaching to the choir. Because Facebook is the way most people interact with others at a distance, its very popularity has come to diminish the role of discourse in what we imagine to be a free society. Indeed, many young people do not understand the role of argument or discourse, imagining that their manufactured beliefs and shopping preferences define them and their peers.

In much of the developing world free speech is at a minimum and a free press almost nonexistent. Democracy can’t function because loyalty is the supreme virtue, and extreme fidelity doesn’t allow much room for divergent opinions.

The country I came from used to pride itself on being a democratic republic, but today most people hate politics and would rather submit to a benign dictator if they could only find one.

Because I’m an expat and far from home, my main contact with others online is via Facebook, which was developed as a way to help college students find like-minded friends. It is all about peer groups, and finding your “peeps.” If you express an opinion that sets you apart from your peers, you will eventually be “unfriended.”

One of the explanations for Facebook’s financial success is that by being structured in this way, it can deliver advertisements to targeted groups, about which much is known because the members volunteer tons of information about themselves with every post and every reaction to a post.

This is fine if that’s all we want from communication, but I suspect that many of us, especially the more mature members would enjoy discussing complicated issues without the onus of being “popular.”

Could Facebook be modified to encourage rational discourse about complicated issues, rather than encouraging superficial and infantile reactions? Maybe this could be done with specific pages that would serve as forums to address specific issues. Politics. Banking. Theater. Literature. Music. Art.

Despite the trivial nature of most Facebook posting, its dominance could be tapped for the greater good. Politics doesn’t need to be a dirty word, and the lowest common denominator in the Arts doesn’t always need to command the greatest amount of attention. Facebook is just a tool, one that could be modified to be more effective for the greatest number of people. It could facilitate real, complex communication instead of simply pandering to the herd.