work in progress
TOO RETIRED FOR COMFORT
mostly talking about what it’s like to be me
He found it hard to stick with any one thing. More than a short attention span, he manifested a terror of committing to a singleness of purpose. His life was a pastiche of unfinished projects, halfhearted dabbling, unfocused whimsy.
He was born that way. Often he would tell a friend who realized the depth of his affliction “It isn’t my fault. I was born this way.” Had he tried medication? No, sadly there was no cure for what ailed him. If there were, maybe he could have amounted to something, but since there wasn’t, he would have to be content with who he was, a person who left behind a trail of half-finished business.
One day he resolved to come up with a solution. He would devise a task so simple that follow-through would be effortless. He would simply count his breath as he went about his day. If he lost count, he would start over again, but he would always be counting. It would give him a sense of purpose and a plan he could stick with.
He found that counting grounded him. Counting your breath is so effortless that it doesn’t stop you from doing something else at the same time. You can’t easily talk and count your breath, but you can keep count on your fingers while you’re talking and then add that sum to the grand total once you’ve stopped talking.
Once he had improved his abilities to concentrate, he found that he could come up with new ideas that were popping up from some strange place inside him. A font of creativity with no known source, but it must come from a synthesis of what he was taking in. Things he’d read, movies he’d seen, conversations he’d had, all entered his psyche and then exited later as something different, improved, or at least mutated.
Now he needed more than just the ability to pay attention. He needed to find something worthy of that attention, something to pay attention to over a long enough time period to matter. He could learn a foreign language, master a musical instrument, take up oil painting…there are lots of activities that take years to achieve any sort of competency. He needed to choose.
It’s a hobby for a Thai man who loves making things out of terra cotta, the lightly fired clay that we are most familiar with as bricks. They’ve got clay by the ton down there, and in a park near the river that’s at least forty acres, maybe more, he’s built all sorts of things. Houses, temples, statues…and the best part is, he likes chaos. He likes leaving broken clay pieces lying on the ground, covered sometimes in leaves, plants growing through the piles, mold growing on everything. It gives it that romantic “abandoned temple in the jungle” look that is so evocative.
This evening I was getting a foot massage on the promenade that runs along the beach here in Prachuap Khiri Khan, a small city in the South of Thailand. I was amicably chatting with the ladies who intermittently called out to prospective customers who walked or cycled by. Then a Caucasian man who looked to be my age cycled up and stopped directly across the street. I expected them to call out to him but they didn’t. I noted that he was probably exactly my age. They said “he’s a bad drunk. He has no friends and no girlfriend and he’s always alone. Nobody wants him around.”
I kept watching him, and from this distance couldn’t tell if he was inebriated. He certainly wasn’t being overtly obnoxious. But he was alone, smoking cigarette after cigarette and looking like he was just about to come to a decision about something. He sat there for the duration of my massage, and when I left he was still there, staring at the middle of the road, as dusk gathered around us.
It was one of those “there but for the grace of God go I,” moments.
All the absurdity and stupidity displayed every day on the news, then amplified and echoed on social media, has the ability to distract us from developments more worthy of our attention. Yes, our government is corrupt, surely everyone is aware of this. We could consider the present state of affairs a crisis, or we could simply acknowledge that there are problems for which we will need to find solutions and move on. To allow ourselves to be absorbed by horror and anxiety serves no one. Maybe this permanent state of emergency is the plan the tyrants had all along. We can immunize ourselves by directing our attention at things that empower us.
I’m not talking about limiting ourselves to “happy news.” Being absorbed by the news in general, just like being too rabid a fan of any entertainment, is a large step on the path to powerlessness. What did people do with their free time before the Internet? Lots of different things that are still available to us now, if we can only look away from the fascinating horror that tempts us online.
What if the world we already inhabit were a thousand times more amazing than we can appreciate? Could be that we’re surrounded by good luck, magic, unimaginable opportunity, and fantastic wealth, but we can’t see it. Not yet. If we could adjust out thinking all this opportunity and wealth would come into view.
Maybe the solution to our temporary blindness is to give up. Stop trying to figure things out, make things happen, control outcomes. get people to like us or think we’re important. Just stop it. Wait a few days and see what happens.
Something will happen. Things will change, maybe for the better, perhaps quickly.
It’s worth a try. We can always go back to our old ways. Struggling to manage our lives as best we can, to squeeze the last drop of advantage out of every situation. The reason such actions haven’t brought pleasure or satisfaction so far might lie in the fact that contentment doesn’t arise from having advantage. Getting ahead is not getting happy.
I’m retired and living in Chiang Mai, Thailand, a metro area about as big as Des Moines, Iowa. Every once in a while I worry that my life is too tame, too predictable, and that I’ve bitten off too little to successfully chew. Thai women are lovely and even young women will smile (sometimes suggestively) at this sixty-eight-year-old walking fossil, it never snows, it’s never cold, and I can ride my motorcycle into the hills on a moment’s notice.
But then I see a Facebook post from Iowa and am reminded that any ennui I feel here would only be amplified there. In the Northern Midwest it’s cold over half the year. The state is mostly flat corn fields. I recently saw a photo of Storm Spotter training session at a local church. The students were old people who want to become trained and certified Storm Spotters for their local television station. The church was full. I am reminded of the omnipresence of churches and community colleges, of dreary training and certification meetings. White bread and jello. Creamed corn.
Now that Wal-Mart has done away with greeters, I don’t think there would be any jobs available, and prices for most things in the States are five to ten times higher than they are here. I see the stick, but where’s the carrot?
I paid into Medicare for forty years, which I can’t access it over here, but luckily most medical costs here are ten to twenty times less than they would be in America. I’m still in good health, and so I’m reasonably confident I could pay for anything less than catastrophic surgery out-of-pocket.
All of a sudden, occasional bouts of boredom don’t seem so bad.