Let Somebody Else Worry About It


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I find myself habitually wondering if I should come up with a way to make money. I’m sixty-five years old, comfortably retired on social security and living in a place where even that income is more than enough. Being a foreigner, I can’t own land, but yet I am bothered by the idea that I should hurry up and buy some land and build a house, before prices rise.

This is surely nothing more than habitual thinking left over from when I lived in America, when I always felt poor, and worried that what little I had would soon be taken from me.

To counter these nagging thoughts, I merely tell myself “not today.” If becoming a land baron would really make me happier, then some opportunity will surely come along to make that possible. If not, then it simply was not meant to be, which is just fine with me, as I enjoy the relative simplicity of renting our little house and having as few responsibilities as possible.

If by some fluke of fate I do end up with more money than I need, then I will either have to give it away or start some charitable project, which I would then be forced to administer. No, let Bill Gates and Warren Buffett worry about those things. Today I’m quite proud of myself for having figured out how to reset the settings on my complicated camera to what they were before I toyed with them and messed them up. It is an amazing instrument and the pictures I took with it are unimaginably sharp. In fact here are a few. They are of trees along a stretch or road that takes off from near my house and climbs a nearby mountain.

I have heard that a rich man from Bangkok owns all this land, and I wish him well in all his endeavors. I hope he doesn’t sell the land to someone who will cut the trees down in order to make some sort of ugly resort, but if he does, I’m willing to focus my camera on other trees, for there are plenty around here to be photographed.

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Give Us A Song, Mother


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When you’re young, you don’t expect to know more than most people, and most people have that same expectation.  But then you graduate from high school, then University, and you suppose that your opinions matter. In fact, if you don’t suppose that then you’re really a washout, a nobody. In order to have and maintain status, you have to play the role of expert in at least some area.

Fast forward forty years.  Now you’re retired and nobody expects you to do much more than take care of your own personal hygiene and not cause problems for other people who are still stuck trying to make a living. Suddenly it’s OK not to know what’s up, what’s hip or hot, where things are headed, who’s responsible for what. It’s OK just to sit on the sidelines and wave as the parade goes by.

Sure, some old guys still like to argue about sports and politics with anyone who will listen or argue back, but deep down they know that their opinions no longer carry weight. Nobody cares, nobody’s listening, in fact, nobody’s even sure they’re in the right. They’re just flapping their jaws to hear them flap.

I lived in Iowa for a long time, and when driving through small towns one would come across the cafe where all the retired people in town were having coffee. In many small towns, retirees make up the vast majority of the population.  The men and women sit at separate tables, because their spouses certainly don’t care to hear their opinions on anything. When I would enter the room, all heads would turn to check me out, the stranger, just passing through. I was well aware that I would be the topic of speculation for a few minutes after I left, but that would quickly fade and broader topics would again take center stage, what’s wrong with young people today, which politician is the bigger crook, is allowing homosexuals to marry really causing this drought?

Some cultures award more status to the elderly than do others. Our culture puts of a premium of superficial attractiveness, and few of the elderly score highly in that arena. Where is the ten year-old who will ask Grandpa to tell that story again about an incident from his youth? Chances are Grandpa has never shared a story with this grandchildren, for the kids are all staring at a high-definition video display of a game, or mesmerized by their smartphones.

I have a friend about my age who lives here in Chiang Mai but who grew up on a farm in the west of Ireland.  The family lived in a sod house, whitewashed on the outside, dirt floor on the inside. No electricity or running water. After dinner, the family would gather in front of the first and one of the children would ask “Give us a song mother.” People still live that way in the poorest parts of the world, but it’s hard to find much of that in the somewhat developed countries, like Thailand, where virtually everyone has a cellphone that demands their attention every waking hour.

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REPORT FROM THAILAND


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We went to the movies last week at the nearby shopping mall.  I have never seen anyone Thai or foreign at the movies here who is even remotely my age.  Hardly anyone over the age of 25 can be found in one of these places.  The lobbies of the movie theaters thump with the music of nearby video game arcades.

There were ten theaters.  Eight of them were showing Fast and Furious 7, and the other two children’s cartoons.  She said she liked action movies and wanted to see Fast and Furious, a genre to which I had yet to become accustomed, but as I had even less desire to see the Sponge Bob movie dubbed in Thai, I consented.  The moment we sat down, she promptly fell asleep and I watched the movie alone.

Probably like it’s six previous incarnations, FF7 was an A-Team episode elongated.  Those I used to watch with my four-year-old son Caleb on our little black and white TV, but here I was thirty-one years later, watching a much louder version on a big screen, with my sleeping Thai girlfriend at my side.  This is the kind of movie where plot complications are solved by pressing a red flashing button marked “TURBO.” There were many gratuitous and sentimental pronouncements about the importance of family interspersed with explosions and gunfire.  I imagine this mindless American export is doing big business all over the world, whereas I’m just another old guy living on social security, so who am I to judge a world that increasingly has no meaning for me?

Today is the beginning of Songkran, the Thai new year.  Here they love holidays, and the government declares new ones all the time in order to buy votes.  This is the hottest time of the year, and the tradition is to stand on the side of the street and dump ice water on anyone who dares to venture by, especially those on bicycle or scooter.  It’s sort of cute for the first few minutes, but then you realize this lasts for five more days, and nobody ever seems to tire of it.  For the next five days, this will continue unabated. Again, it has little to do with me, for I’m just another senior citizen on a bicycle, ducking buckets of ice water thrown in my face by grinning youngsters.  I would have to strain to take any of this personally.

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.

RUMINATIONS OF AN OLD FART


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Where your treasure is, there will be your heart be also
– The Bible
Getting and spending we lay waste our powers
– Wordsworth

When I was in college, I didn’t have a girlfriend until my Junior year, so for those first two years I had plenty of time on my hands in the evenings. Our student union building housed an amateur radio station, a ham shack, and I was its most enthusiastic user. In fact, the club elected me their president, for the other members had girlfriends and outside interests which I seemed to lack.

My ham highpoint came when one winter night, using a mere seventy-five watts of power, I contacted another ham operator in Russia. Conditions, frequency, antenna tuning and luck came together to allow this connection to be made, thirty years before the Internet made such things commonplace. Wearing headphones and concentrating with all my powers, I was able to pull his dits and dahs out of the static. My fist hovered above the brass telegraph key, sending code at an agonizing five words per minute.

At first I thought maybe I was fooling myself, but no, real, credible information was being shared. We were communicating in Morse code, as my novice license did not permit me to yet use a microphone. Using commonly accepted Morse code abbreviations, we exchanged the details of our position, signal strength, antenna type and height, and our names. I’ve forgotten his by now. Let’s call him Igor.

What Igor and I talked about was what most amateur radio operators talk about. Ham Radio wasn’t about the substance of communication, it was about the equipment needed to communicate. Maybe the guys who had access to microphones could talk about normal guy stuff, sports, politics. We novices were limited to the bare essentials.

A few nights ago, I attended a meeting of the Photography Club here in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Everyone who showed up was a foreigner. They shared their pictures, but most of the talk wasn’t about the image or what it represented, it was about the camera and the lens used to capture it, or the software program used to modify the image.

It’s always been easier to talk about equipment than to critique or comment on art. The world of catalogues and gear magazines inspires us with impressive specifications and sexy photography. But most cameras sit in drawers, becoming obsolete after a few years. I’m sure there are a few die-hard amateur radio enthusiasts still out there, but they are the geekiest geeks of all, brethren to model railroad enthusiasts and retired guys who put model ships in bottles or build bird houses.

I have a friend here who is five years older than me, and he refers to this time in his life as “sudden death playoff.” In other words, if he is ever to score, now is the time. The clock has run down and all that’s left is the tie-breaking moment.

It got me thinking that he’s probably right. Where I put my attention was always important, but now it’s doubly so, because there’s not much time left to waste. If I ever had any nebulous, half-formed plans, now is the time to either discard or finalize them. Wallowing in uncertainty or indecision is all-around bad idea.

And the fact is, I love the manufacture of art above all other human activities. (I consider love-making an art form) So now is the time to whole-heartedly try to make all my actions artistic. Even more than the Zen concept of one-mindedness (chop wood, carry water) I want my one-minded focus on art to result in a purity of action and soundness of mind. This artistic striving might result in a final product that inspires or delights others, but it surely will result in me enjoying peace of mind and maybe even occasional bursts of joy.

By now I know that I don’t lack any tools to make my art. A newer laptop or a more expensive camera would actually impede my progress. I’d have to learn how to use them, to read instruction manuals, to go through set-up routines. No thanks. Been there, done that.

 

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We’re going to…


 

We’re going to Vietnam next week. I started reading about the place, my knowledge of it limited to the War of 40 years ago (which we lost. Fact facts, y’all, we pulled out, they took Saigon and renamed it Ho Chi Minh City. That means they won)  In that war, the Vietnames lost two million people and the U.S. forces lost fifty-eight thousand (with 300,000 wounded.

I remember being on a Peace March in Washington D.C., where I yelled the name of a dead soldier as I shuffled in line past the White House. Nixon wasn’t home to hear it. Back then you could get close to the White House. Now there are concrete bomb barriers everywhere. We were chanting “Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh, NLF is gonna win!” Little did we know at the time that our chanting was prescient.

Anyway, today in Vietnam, over half of the population of 87 million is under the age of thirty. Only ten percent are over the age of sixty. This Geezer is going to be special over there.

Hope they don’t hold a grudge.