PUTTING TOO MUCH WEIGHT ON THE NEWS


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NEWS AS A PERSONAL NARRATIVE

For most of us, reading the day’s news is one of the first things we do after awakening. We grab a cup of coffee and go online. Many of us also glean what’s happening from social media. In this way we attempt to construct a narrative that allows us to feel responsible and informed. We’re trying to act like adults.

We’re also trying to protect ourselves from being blind-sided by some new tragedy. Social pressure leads us to want to be among the group of those who have been informed about the latest developments. Otherwise we would seem like those poor souls who are out of the loop. The process begins in Junior High. You don’t want to be caught dead not knowing about the latest trends in fashion and music.

The “legitimate” news sites all cover the same ten or fifteen stories of that day. They are considered legitimate because somebody gets paid to research and write the articles. They attempt to provide “balance,” whatever that is. On the other hand, Social Media is a hall of mirrors, a closed system which seems open to its users but is really the best example of confirmation bias in action anyone has ever devised. Instead of being a forum for discourse, it’s a pep rally. Hooray for our side. Your “friends” read your posts and you read theirs. You share and like memes which are created by others. In this way you act like boys trading baseball cards at the playground. It’s a form of self-expression based on identifying with something bigger than you.

In Playwriting, they suggest that if a fact is presented in the first act, it must matter by the final act. We have all seen plenty of movies and TV shows, and we’re hip to foreshadowing. We know how to infer causality. We can even imagine reverse engineering plots in order to make a neat story with a tidy ending. What we can’t comfortably deal with is unscripted reality. So we imagine meaning where there is none.

We become irritated by news that doesn’t suggest a plot or a probable outcome. If we can’t tell the good guys from the bad, or get an emotional release from the climax, what’s the point in consuming this entertainment called “news?”

There are computer programs that help struggling authors write by suggesting the elements of creative writing. Plot twists, character traits, motivations, climaxes, resolutions. They are like those programs that help you do your taxes by asking your questions about your financial affairs.

We use these programs and forums in order to make sense of today’s world and because we’re lazy. Thinking and writing are hard.

At least lately, there is a palpable sense among most of my social media “friends” that the world is on the brink of collapse. Hurricanes, Global Warming, nuclear threats, an insane President, earthquakes, Planet X, solar storms, predictions about an imminent stock market collapse. People share a generalized fear that the world is out of kilter and wobbling uncontrollably.

I, however, think that this is normal for the conditions we’ve created. 24/7 news access and the ability to comment on it via social media have made Nervous Nellies of us all. When I was young, my family watched Huntley and Brinkley in the evening, after supper. The dishes washed and put away, the children in their pajamas, we would cluster in front of the TV and watch sober, middle-aged white men tell us what was happening, often in somber tones. Walter Cronkite was grandpa, providing assurance that all was under control, and that tomorrow would be no crazier than today had been. But now, those avuncular guys are gone. Now, we’re on our own.

Oh sure we have some assistance in selecting which memes we will like or share. We have Fox and Friends or NPR depending on our political bent, but the main stories of the day have been agreed upon by all the legitimate news sources, and it’s only up to us to judge their importance and their concordance with our beliefs. Is today the day I believe I should quite my job, cash out and run away? My general sense is that things are out of control and getting worse every day. Can I hang on much longer?

I think the reason we have the arrogance to construct these narratives is because we feel we have been abandoned by the experts we used to trust to do this work for us. Nobody trusts politicians anymore. Anybody who wants to can start a YouTube channel for free and use his smart phone as a camera. Nobody wants to be Chicken Little, believing every rumor and running about clucking in terror. So we reluctantly construct a narrative that seems to embrace or at least explain the main news developments of today.

But we are often dogged by doubt. I forget, is ISIS real or a construct of Israel and the Saudis? Which events were false flags? Is President Trump a successful businessman or a mentally-ill loser? Should I be buying Bitcoins? Is it time to upgrade to a better phone?

No matter which decisions we make and which we postpone making, we will never feel safe or assured that we have not completely gotten it all wrong, because we’re relying on a self-constructed narrative with occasional input from a peanut gallery of social media “friends” who also have no clue. Whether you’re a teenage girl agonizing over which shampoo to buy or a retired geezer wondering whether to start ticking off the items of his bucket list, we’ll still be fraught with anxiety because that’s what this whole news/social media thing was designed to do in the first place.

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CHOP WOOD


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I was riding my motor scooter from Mae Rim to Chiang Mai early yesterday morning and passed a group of women sitting by the side of the highway, crouched perilously close to traffic, all selling what appeared to be the same vegetables and fruits. As I drove by, the face of the newest arrival to the phalanx of sellers caught my eye. She was smiling broadly. Despite the fact that she was preparing to sit on hard concrete with her inventory spread in front of her on a piece of cloth, an inventory that in no way seemed unique, she was glad to be there.

Buddhism emphasises acceptance. If I were in her place, I would have a hard time accepting the fact that I was joining an already overcrowded market, and would find some way to stand out from the other sellers. If I could, I would also find a way to maximise my comfort. Maybe I would just throw up my hands and go home, vowing to find a better way. But not her. She was glad to be sitting on the edge of the road among friends.

In our neighborhood, recorded music comes over the public address system followed by announcements by the village head man. Listening to this is not optional. Here, there is no assumed or implied right to sonic privacy. I was complaining about this to a Norwegian woman who had been here longer than I, and she suggested instead of looking at this as someone stealing my right to privacy, I might view it as the gift of community.

As an American, I view my neighbors as competition. As Moe of the Three Stooges used to bark at his fellow knuckleheads “Spread Out!” Like Daniel Boone, when I can see the smoke from my neighbor’s chimney, I know it’s time to move on. Here in Indochina, tucked between the two most populous countries in the world, India and China, only the super-rich can afford such notions. Here, where most people drive motor scooters, those who have office jobs aspire to drive the largest trucks they can purchase, usually on loan, often with no money down.

As the Thai economy continues to tank, I imagine quite a few of those will hit the used  truck market. But none of this effects me, as I am not in the market for a loan, or a truck, or land, or a house. I’m here to live as simply and cheaply as I can, and maybe absorb some of that acceptance that allowed the woman I saw to smile as she joined her community.12791087_1691576444465036_1014755527651888389_n

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.

 

 

 

 

This Ex-Patriate Life Teaches You Something


I’ve been abroad for over a year now, and it’s a fundamentally different experience than I enjoyed coming and going on two or three-week vacations. After this long away from America, I finally get the fact that these funny-talking foreigners are just as smart as we are. I’ve been able to feel their mixed appreciation and resentment of how we Americans have conducted ourselves. And I realize that everybody knows it’s only a matter of time before China becomes the major power in the world.

Western Europe seems to have grown out of its tendency to wage war. For seventy years now, they have lived in peace. We Americans are getting awfully tired of bombing the countries that displease us. We realize that there are no “surgical strikes,” that there is no quick and easy in and out when it comes to invading sovereign nations. So maybe we’re done with war, too.

But what can be done about the rest of the world? That was the question that brought about the creation of the United Nations. We Americans don’t much care for or respect the UN, even though it’s headquartered right here, in Manhattan. The Love It Or Leave It crowd are the main critics of the UN, because Internationalism is the opposite of American Exceptionalism.  But what if the relative peace much of the world has enjoyed can somehow be credited to the existence of the UN?  Could it be that the UN deserves our respect and attention? Maybe we need to take a leading role in reorganizing it, so that it provides a true democratic voice for all nations.

The window of opportunity for us to take this leadership role in supporting and fixing the UN is closing fast. In twenty years, we will no longer be the biggest gorilla, the one who sits down wherever he pleases. We will be overshadowed by India and China, who will set the agenda as they please. So maybe now is the time for us to act in true leadership and humility and fix somewhat broken but nevertheless enduring United Nations while we still can.

Listening to Marvin Gaye in Dubai in 2013


I’m listening to one of my favorite albums ever, Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Goin’ On?” on Youtube, thanks to my great Internet connection here in our apartment in Silicon Oasis, Dubai. It’s chillly out tonight. I remember being really absorbed by this album back in 1972. I had a jazz show on the University of Missouri’s public radio station in Columbia, Missouri, and I found this album in the stacks. Jazz flautist Herbie Mann had written a note in the liner notes of his album of about the same time, praising What’s Goin’ On. So I played it on the air, then bought it, moved to Iowa City, and wrote a lot of my first plays listening to it. That was forty-one years ago. I’m still alive, but Marvin isn’t. I went to his wake, at Forest Lawn cemetery in Los Angeles, standing in line with about a hundred thousand people to file by his casket in a little chapel.

Strange to think it’s the same planet, the same me, now perched at the top of an apartment building surrounded by thousands of square miles of cold sand. I’m only a hundred miles from Iran! And still, I’m able to listen to my musical memories piped on command from the Youtube server in America, because somebody else loved Marvin Gaye, too and uploaded my favorite album.

Mentioning race is not off limits here.


This is a remarkably “can do” kind of place. In forty years Dubai has managed to house an international populace embracing over 200 nationalities, the world’s tallest building, the world’s largest golf course, and me. Yes, I’m Dubai’s latest attraction, having just spent the last year in Thailand.

In Thailand,  I was amazed to see want ads that read “Attractive, slim 25-year-old female sought for office manager position.” Routinely, university teaching positions were only open to people under the age of fifty-five. But Dubai has taken racism, sexism and ageism to new heights. Here you can’t even rent an apartment if you’re the wrong race, gender or religion.

Emirati’s, the Arabs who are actually from Dubai, run the place. Filipinos, Pakistanis and Indians do most of the service work for them. There is a tight-knit fraternity of Indian multi-millionaires who are important to the UAE economy, but the real power in this country is held by Emirati’s.

Recently, the government admitted that twenty percent of the young Emirati’s applying for marriage licenses were planning to marry their first cousins! As Sly and the Family Stone sang, “It’s a family affair.”
News articles omit actually naming the individuals concerned, but instead report their ethnicity.  Last week I read “Two Tunisian men were sentenced to three years in prison each for taunting an Emirati policeman who was taking a shower on the beach. They accused him of being gay and cursed God.”

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.