THIS COULD BE HEAVEN OR THIS COULD BE HELL


I first came to Thailand on a month-long teaching assignment. Surprised to find that I had four days off over the New Year, I decided to get out of Bangkok and see something of the countryside. After asking around, I decided on a bus to the border of Cambodia. There’s a casino there, as well as a huge market. Foreigners go there to check out and back into the country, thus prolonging their tourist visas.

At the Cambodian border I found a dumpy guest house near a strip of tourist-related bars and massage parlors, and since I don’t drink, retired before that tedious countdown to the new year that is the bane of anyone with a mental age older than thirteen. I managed to doze off for a few moments, but then with all the noise found myself unable to sleep. I noticed that I could hear multiple bar bands from the strip nearby. As the evening wore on, every band at each club played Hotel California by the Eagles, always with the same note-perfect copy of Joe Walsh’s signature guitar solo. In every rendition the singer was phonetically trying to copy the vocals, but without knowing what the words meant. As I lay there, I must have listened to eight different versions of the song, punctuated at midnight by fireworks being set off in a nearby field.

I suppose the Eagles are quite aware of the strange popularity of this song, and how it has become a staple of bar bands all over the world. Here in Indochina I thought it odd that I was forced to listen to a song that was popular back when I was in my twenties and living in California. At no time did I hear an original Eagles recording, but I did hear a variety of Cambodians singing “you can check out any time you like but you can’t never leave.”

Now that I live with a Thai woman and have made Thailand my home, I see more clearly the depth of the United States’ cultural domination of the globe. Wipa likes to watch action movies, and these are almost always made in the United States. The story is simple enough to understand even by reading subtitles, as explosions, gun battles and car chases don’t require translation. Living on the other side of the world, we watch America every day, on TV.

America has won the culture war, and dominates the world of entertainment, but when I was last home I saw an awful lot of angry, frightened and chronically frustrated people who were curious about my life in Northern Thailand. I spent three weeks in the San Francisco Bay Area, where the average rent for a studio apartment is $3,000 a month. All I had to do was tell people that I rent a little house here for $110 a month. That gave them pause. Often people would exhale as if they had been kicked in the stomach.

I’ve heard that sound before. When I was in college, a few of us went to the cinema to see a new documentary film about the Vietnam War. Hearts and Minds included a scene so shocking that the audience around me made that same exhalation. Here’s Wikipedia’s entry:

A scene described as one of the film’s “most shocking and controversial sequences” shows the funeral of an North Vietnamese soldier and his grieving family, as a sobbing woman is restrained from climbing into the grave after the coffin.The funeral scene is juxtaposed with an interview with General William Westmoreland telling a stunned Davis that “The Oriental doesn’t put the same high price on life as does a Westerner. Life is plentiful. Life is cheap in the Orient.”

There is another scene in the movie where a man in North Vietnam shows the camera where his house was before the American bomb hit. He had just lost his wife, son and daughter. He shows the camera where each family member was at the moment of impact, and then finds a scrap of fabric in the rubble. “Look,” he says “this is my youngest daughters shirt. She was feeding the pigs when the bomb hit. Now the pigs are alive but she is dead. Why don’t you take this and show it to Nixon, murderer of civilians? Throw this in his face!”

You can see the film on YouTube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xC-PXLS4BQ4

Since I’ve been in Southeast Asia, I’ve journeyed to Vietnam and Laos, the places on which we dropped three times more bombs than were dropped in all of World War II by both sides, and I still don’t know what I can do to meaningfully react to this fact. Nobody wanted to kill me in those places, though I don’t know why.

 

 

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SO YOU’VE MOVED TO THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WORLD. NOW WHAT?


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It used to take more get up and go to move across the planet, but ever since jet travel it’s been pretty painless.  Now there’s no major discincentive to discourage the indolent from finding their way to places where they can simply hang out the way teenagers hang out at the mall. Old guys don’t stare at their phones as often as teenagers do, but like their younger counterparts, the expression on their faces is usually a mask of boredom.

If you didn’t have any ambition where you came from, you’re not going to suddenly catch on fire in a new place. The challenge of learning a new language, of developing a hobby or mastering a musical instrument doesn’t appeal to everyone.  In fact, most people are content to watch paint dry as long as they’re not actively in distress.  If you classify girl-watching as a profession, then you’ll find a myriad of tropical countries where that could become a full-time job. The fact is, most of us get what we’re looking for.  If all you want is the absence of something you don’t want, then you’ll end up the proud owner of nothing much.

I know guys here who fill their days by watching sports from the United States on satellite TV. They have to set an alarm to see their favorite games, because they often air at four in the morning. I could see doing that every once in a while, but as a major time-filler it lacks depth.

I write, but as anyone who has followed the ups and downs of the publishing industry lately, that doesn’t mean anyone wants to publish or pay for my writing. Content is free, nowadays. If someone at a cocktail party asks me what I do, I can always say I’m a writer, but that lacks the cachet it once had. If my unfortunate cocktail party companion further inquired have I had anything published, I could nod gravely, without adding that it was thirty years ago. Yes, I once showed promise. So what am I working on now? Hmm, a memoir. The Life and Times of Yours Truly. Soon to be a major motion picture, starring Montgomery Clift as James Dean, and me as Hedda Hopper.

If anyone asks me what I’m doing in Southeast Asia, I can pretend to be a spy, or a professional do-gooder of some kind. I work for an NGO. You’ve never heard of it. We help rescue retirees with dementia from an uncertain fate. But no one asks. There are no cocktail parties. Just fat old men leering at Asian women.

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And then there’s me, typing away on my laptop, thinking I’m special.

 

 

 

 

No Guarantees


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When I was in my twenties, I would set off on long trips with not much more than a hundred dollars in my pocket.  I had no credit card, and since debit cards and ATM’s hadn’t been invented yet, the cash in my billfold was all there was. Nothing really concerned me, as I floated along like Mr. Magoo, blindly avoiding mishaps without having the good sense to know how lucky I was. In all my years of hitchhiking and driving long distances across borders, nothing really bad ever happened.  Sure, I stayed in some miserable hotels, but I picked them out because they were dirt cheap and I full of what I thought was “atmosphere.”

In 1972, I spent a month in Mexico on one-hundred and seventy-five dollars.  I survived for five weeks in Europe in 1971 on three hundred dollars, and that included a few days in Paris.  Back then, Europe was cheaper than the States. I stayed in hostels and bed and breakfasts, sometimes paying as little as three dollars a day for bed and board.  One day I ate only candy bars and oranges, but usually hunger wasn’t even an issue.  One night in Paris I slept in a parking garage.

As I look back somewhat astonished by my recklessness, I realize that the big difference between then and today lies in the fact that then my parents were still alive.  Somewhere, in the back of my mind, I knew that if things got too bad, I could always call them (though International calls were very expensive) and they would find a way bail me out. Or try to.  It never came to that, but I guess that’s how I justified my lack of fiduciary caution.

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Who will come to my rescue now?  Here, in Southeast Asia, six foreigners were recently executed for drug smuggling.  These were young people who had thought to make a quick buck by bringing drugs to Bali.  I’m sure if I had been in their position and so tempted, I might have been just as stupid.  Again, luck was with me in my twenties. Surely, I had no more common sense than they, and was every bit the smug hipster as these lads who recently faced an Indonesian firing squad.

I remember once being pulled off a Mexican bus by soldiers and carefully searched for drugs.  I didn’t have them, they didn’t plant any, and they let me go. Just lucky, I guess, because I didn’t have any reluctance to use drugs if they were freely offered.  I was just too cheap to buy my own.

As we age, all the things we had taken for granted are removed, one by one, sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly, but they all leave.  Looks, health, mental quickness, natural talents…they’ve only been on loan even though we thought they were our birthright. Fortunately, some of us we weren’t totally reckless in our salad years and still have something left over to help us coast to the finish line.

I keep thinking “This hanging around third world countries is fine as long as I’ve got no real problems and some money in the bank, but what happens if I become infirm or broke?”  Then places like Switzerland and Norway don’t seem so boring.  I wonder what it takes to immigrate there?

Decrepit hippies are probably not high on their lists of potential permanent residents, but there are ways to sneak through the filters they’ve imposed.  Note to self: remember to stash enough cash to hire a Norwegian immigration attorney when the shit finally hits the fan.

Nobody really knows what the future holds for them or anyone else, but we sure like to pretend we do, for what feels like sanity and hope is often just desperation and wishful thinking creating a dream world.  In 2007, I remember reading business journalism praising the selling of collateralized mortgage debt and subprime mortgages. The rise in home values was a good thing until the moment it wasn’t.  Those financial wizards were geniuses until the moment they were fools.

Nobody knows what’s going on and nobody’s in charge.  It’s all a crap shoot, so we might as well enjoy the game because there are no guarantees regarding who’s going to win or even whether the other players will play by the rules. Those retired American orthodontists who buy beachfront properties in a banana republic may be rudely awakened one day by soldiers pounding on the front door of their McMansions.  The officials and agents who smiled accepting money to purchase a retirement Xanadu may suddenly look away as the newly suntanned retirees are being deported at gunpoint.

Hard to Be Here Now No Matter Where You Are


BEWARE OF ENTERTAINMENT

The expectation or demand that life be entertaining is a new phenomenon, one that has blossomed like an algae bloom in the last thirty years or so.  Just yesterday, I was receiving a massage in Chiang Mai, Thailand, and on either side of me lay people in their twenties, who spent their massages playing with their smart phones, furiously scrolling up and down, hoping to be distracted from this deeply pleasurable and therapeutic experience by catching sight of a photo of  cute puppy or a meal one of their friends just ate. Certainly, given the rate they were zipping through these posts they weren’t doing much real reading, nor could they be noticing their massage, the thing that they were paying for and was happening to them here and now.

When the novel was first created, in the beginning of the nineteenth century, some warned that it would encourage the foolish and impressionable to waste their valuable time on trifles instead of concentrating on and working for what mattered. Nowadays, we would praise anyone who had the concentration to read a novel. We would declare that person a student of the arts, an intellectual.  Try teaching a college class that requires reading a novel and see how many of the students voluntarily submit to such torture.

Constantly seeking distraction or entertainment becomes addictive, and as with most addictions, you can never get enough of what you don’t need.  You end up trading the Real McCoy for its shimmering substitute. And when that trade proves unsatisfactory, you find there are no refunds.

Family life is more than a few good-looking actors sitting on couch trading witty comebacks. Romantic love is more than the titillation of a first kiss.  We all know that at least theoretically, but when faced with an opportunity to choose the real over the virtual, most of the time we leap for the illusion. This is why so many of our young people hope to enter the Entertainment Industry. Everyone is vaguely aware that there’s big money to be made there for simply goofing around and creating ghosts.

When you ask young people what they would like to be when they grow up, a discouraging proportion volunteer “a celebrity.”  The idea that a person would not be celebrated for outstanding achievement in a certain area, but rather that the state of being celebrated would itself become a full-time job is a relatively new one.  Think Paris Hilton, role model for a generation.

Entertainment is a first cousin of advertising, that all-pervasive enterprise which seeks to invent heretofore unknown needs and then fill them. Again, the end result is wasted time and resources, disillusionment, and bondage.  Far from being a lofty goal, the chronic thirst for entertainment proves the greatest obstacle to achieving any lofty goal.

But this process of fooling Pinocchio into becoming a donkey on Pleasure Island begins in his seemingly simple desire to be distracted.  Please, amuse me, now, this instant, or I’ll die of boredom! So you turn back to your smart phone, hoping this time the voyeuristic hit will satisfy. Most of the time it fails to, but intermittent reward is the essence of addiction. Usually, when you yank of the slot machine handle not much happens, but every long once in a while…jackpot!

I enjoy a good movie as much as the next guy, but I only go to the cinema maybe once a month. My cell phone is the cheapest one available, and the cost of operating here in Thailand is absurdly cheap, about three dollars a month.  I make or receive about one call per day. Compared to most people, I spend more time in content creation, and because I don’t speak Thai and am much older than the target audience, there’s nothing for me to watch on Thai TV.

I fear for the young people of the world, whether in developing or developed economies. The Man has you by the throat and you don’t even know it. In fact, you’re grateful. The harder he squeezes, but more you’re willing to give up.  As it says in the Bible, Esau sold his birthright or bowl of porridge, and when he wanted a refund, it was denied him, though he sought it with bitter tears. Youth and health are a gift, a temporary gift that will eventually be taken from you. Wasting it chasing phantoms is grim folly.

 

Delightfully Thin


Most people around here aren’t fat. There are a few who are obviously obese, especially children who have become addicted to sugar and white flour convenience foods sold at the mall, but in general, Asians have escaped the frozen pizza/french fry school of eating that has fattened so many in the West. Here, people eat noodle soup for breakfast. Their idea of a big carbohydrate pig-out involves fried rice.

If you examine photographs of Americans taken before the mid 1960’s, we all looked like this, too. Look at any archival footage from the early fifties, and people are positively skinny. Men in their forties had twenty-eight inch waists. Now the average middle-aged man has a forty-two-inch waist, and he’s not someone you’d call “fat.”

Zillions of words have been written about it, and it all comes back to what we consider “food.” Much more effort is spent packaging foods than in creating good foods. Much more of our supermarket shopping dollar is spent on the colorful packaging than on the item itself. If you took everything in a typical American supermarket and distilled it to its essence, you’d end up with a pond of corn sweeteners, a pile of white flour, and few smaller piles of chemicals, and a parking lot full of colorfully printed cardboard.