What if…?


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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.

GET ALONG LITTLE KITTIES


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HERDING CATS

In the Thai language there is no word for “intolerance.”  The notion is so foreign to this Buddhist culture that promotes acceptance that they simply never got around to inventing a word to express the notion.  Thais  also tend not to have a lot of negative words.  I’ve never heard anyone described as “ugly.”  Instead, they say “not beautiful.”

When Thais drive, they do so in a way that mimics their language.  As far as I can tell, no notion of “right of way” exists.  People drive on the left hand side of the road, and when entering from the left, they don’t look behind to see if it’s safe to enter.  They just slide on in, expecting others to watch out for them.  Usually, it works, because no one is thinking “hey, I have right of way here and you’ve just invaded my space without asking.”  Such a person would have to be a foreigner, schooled in ancient inalienable rights that simply don’t exist here in a country where most people assume “we’re all just bumbling along as best we can, trying to be kind to one another.”

I’ve had a driver’s license here for two years now, but I wouldn’t assume that many of the Thai drivers I share the road with have bothered to do the same.  I’ve seen children as young as ten driving a motorbike containing three of their friends.  At night, they frequently drive with their lights out in order to economize on gas.  Often they drive the wrong way down a street, because the nearest turnaround is inconveniently distant.  I’ve never seen a police car chase someone down for a moving traffic violation.  Here police stage traffic stops, where they pull over anyone they think might be worth shaking down.  Foreigners are usually fare game.  I have been issued a ticket for “impoliteness” for driving without a shirt in hot weather.  The fine is about twelve dollars.  If you pay right there, you don’t have to go to the police station to collect your license.  I know another foreigner who was fined for smoking while driving his motor scooter.

Thai young people are most often stopped for not wearing a motorcycle helmet. They are simply too vain and rebellious to do so, and are willing to pay a fine that amounts to a full days salary at minimum wage. As much as they prize loyalty and obedience to elders, they also seem to lack the ability to fall into rank when it comes to discipline.  The image of herding cats springs to mind.  Siamese cats.

Chaotic but Human


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I ask myself why I spend so much time abroad, in places that are markedly cheaper that the States. Is it simply the monetary advantage of having my social security in dollars that lures me to these crazy places? Yes, in part, but it’s not enough of an incentive to explain what I find sufficiently attractive about living where traffic rules are non-existent, electric power is unreliable, rule of law is a myth, and they speak some impossible language that I cannot hope to master in the time I have left on this planet.

I think the reason can be simply stated, these places are not sterile and predictable.

Overall, I find a sense of freedom and possibility missing in most of the United States. All our wealth has brought us a surprising lack of options. In general, most people I meet seem either depressed or angry, feeling neither free nor hopeful. I don’t know why, because neither politics nor economic reality can fully explain it, but there is a general feeling of decline.

I just know how it feels to be me. When I was living in Iowa, I was single most of that time, and being too lazy to learn to cook I ate most of my meals at Hy-Vee and Hardees. I got fat. I took pills for depression and pills for my high triglycerides. Here, in Thailand, I eat in a great variety of places, where the food is prepared on the spot and contains lots of herbs and spices. I have lost weight.

At Hy-Vee, all vegetables were served soaking in a white liquid which I strongly suspect was cornstarch, sugar and some sort of preservative that made the peas and carrots glow phosphorescently. The meats I ate were from animals that had been fed growth hormones and antibiotics for all their brief lives.

Here most food is organic because farmers can’t afford chemicals. My cell phone here costs me about $3 a month to operate. There are numerous plans available. All the phones are unblocked, and a new phone costs about $15. SMS texting is free.

Just as in the First World, young people here are fixated on their smart phones, staring at them dumbly and constantly, waiting for that important bit of digital infotainment, but here the costs of internet access for smartphones is a fraction of what it is in the States. Oddly, Internet speeds seem about equal, even though the streets are lined with crazy wiring from fifty years ago, dangling from every lamppost.

My motor scooter costs me about $3.50 a week to operate, even though gasoline here is more expensive than in America. I rent a house here for $250 a month, about twice what a single Thai person would pay for housing. If I were willing to live twenty minutes from downtown, I could rent a three bedroom, two bath house for that price, but what would I do there? That reminds me of the four bedroom farmhouse I owned in Chelsea, Iowa, where I wandered from room to room sneezing and listening to echoes.

Coca Cola is everywhere. It’s even in Myanmar. Soft drinks take a great toll on human health, and I’m sure they’ll figure that out when they get rich enough to suck down a 64 ounce Big Gulp with lunch. Heart disease and diabetes are first cousins, and they both are exacerbated by sugar and white flour. If you eat enough bread and drink enough soda, you will die from them as surely as if you smoked four packs of cigarettes and day thereby courting cancer.

Nicaragua, Paraguay and Thailand have a lot in common. Most people in these places are poor, poorer than anyone I’ve ever met in the United States. But if all your friends are as poor as you are, you don’t feel as bad about it as you would if you were constantly comparing yourself to those who have more than you. You forget that you don’t have a 48 inch LCD TV and you don’t mow a five acre lawn with a riding mower. Your whole family shares one motor scooter, and that’s good enough most of the time.

If you go to places like West Des Moines you realize that there’s absolutely nothing happening there, and nothing ever will happen, because it’s laid out like a golf course. Every home is its own castle. If the City of West Des Moines wants to have a public event, they hire a Special Events Officer and she (mid-forties, frosted hair) gets press, radio and TV coverage of a non-event that pleases or inspires no one, but justifies her office and salary, and is declared a rousing success by all the other people on the City’s payroll, which partly explains why property taxes are so onerous.

Here is Thailand, they don’t have property taxes, or if they do they aren’t collected, which is another kind of problem, but I won’t go into it here.

No, this place is far from perfect. Nicaragua is a banana republic ruled by a despot and Paraguay suffers from African levels of poverty, but at least to this graying geezer, they’re all more interesting that sitting at the Hy-Vee dining area and hearing some geezer farmers talk about Terry Branstadt or how the Hawkeyes are doing.

So unless Medicare brings me home because I’ve suffered a health crisis that warrants the twenty-two hour flight, I think I’ll stay where I am for a while. I swim a kilometer every few days and I don’t smoke or drink. Maybe I’ll live a long time, maybe not. I just want however long it is to be interesting. I don’t want my choices limited to driving from one mall to the next, shopping at franchise stores and reading newspaper advertisements for inspiration.

The Fundamental Error


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THE FUNDAMENTAL PERCEPTUAL FLAW BEHIND MOST UNHAPPINESS

In the long run, what really matters is how we spend our time, not what we accomplish. If you have enough money to not worry about having enough money, then you can do something else with your time than make money. If you have enough stuff, then getting more will not make you happier. But what you do with this fleeting gift of time and health does matter. In fact, it’s all that matters.

Advertising and promotion make it seem like there’s something other than what’s right in front of you that will make all the difference to your happiness. That’s the fundamental error in a nutshell. Once you buy that lie, then you’re hooked on searching for different solutions to the same invented problem. So your life becomes a hustle, a chase, and the moments that might have been worthwhile seem empty and trivial. You’ve been sold a bill of goods!

When you seem to be on the winning side of that hustle, the illusion is exhilarating. You’re a winner! You’re managing your life well and reaping the just rewards of such diligence. You’re a smart shopper, a wise investor, a clever player.

On the other hand, when nothing seems to be going your way, then you’re in need of expert advice, a consultation, a series of tests, a new drug. It’s easy to see how arbitrary and foolish this dividing the present moment into “fun” and “boring” is when we look at others. Who hasn’t met a dentist in his forties who divorced the wife of his youth and took up with his much-younger dental hygienist? His wife got the house and he got a new convertible. Three years later, he’s trying to re-invent himself as a counter-culture type, attending Burning Man and writing a blog. Fifteen years later he’s living in the Philippines, sleeping with five different women younger than his youngest daughter and drinking himself to death. What happened?

He mistook the illusory hustle for life itself.

Of course, when I beat up on our hypothetical dentist, I’m really trying to throw focus away from myself. I am, of course, both the horny dentist and his complicit hygienist. Blaise Pascal, the French mathematician, said “Most of our problems are linked to our inability to sit quietly alone in a room.” That is a more elegant way of positing what it took me several paragraphs to say. As a generalization, most of us would agree that the present moment is sufficient for our happiness, but try telling that to an irritable five-year-old, or someone who’s spent the last hour in a doctor’s waiting room.

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Religion in Your Face (or Ears)


 

 

It’s five in the morning and I hear the call for prayer outside my window. I’ve gotten used to it, sort of, the way I got used to the Buddhist monks chanting over loudspeakers from the nearby temple in Thailand or Burma.  In Mexico I had to get used to church bells. It still amazes me that people in most parts of the world don’t think anyone has an aural right to privacy. And in most places, there is a state religion. It wouldn’t occur to them that it shouldn’t be so. Only in America do we assume that religion should be a matter of choice. We do, however, not tax religions, which, in effect, is a direct subsidy. I’m content to keep my opinions to myself on that one. I wish others would keep their religious chanting to themselves or at least stay away from microphones and loudspeakers when they do it.

How many of these can there be?


It’s unbelievable how many crumbling temples and stupas there are in Chiang Mai. Just when you thought you’d seen them all you wander down a back alley and there are three more, looking every bit their five-hundred-year age. Think how many more guesthouses and massage parlors they could cram in the old city if only they exported some of these piles of old brick to a theme park on the edge of town!