The Scramble for Privilege 

“If you want to be happy for a day, get drunk; a week, kill a pig; a month, get married; for life, be a gardener.” That’s a Chinese proverb.  I don’t know if it would make much sense to modern-day Chinese who seem to be scrambling to get ahead as fast as anyone on the planet, but it makes an important point.  Aggressive action to improve your status or acquire advantage probably won’t make you happier in the long run.

Much of what happens to us is the result of our actions, though sometimes we can’t see the causal connection. We see ourselves as victims. Everybody gets about the same amount of lucky breaks, but some of us know what do to with them while the rest of us insist on waiting for an easier, softer opening. Fact is, if you’ve identified and addressed your addictions, life can be pretty easy. Take it easy, act prudently, and wait for good fortune to strike again.

That sounds like a prescription for happiness, but it’s too simple for most of us to accept.  We would still rather believe that if only we manage our affairs better, we’ll be more successful, prosperous and happier.  So we lie awake at night, scheming. This time we’ll get it right.  We’ll hit upon the right formula.

But that’s not how peace of mind comes. Like the quality of mercy, “it droppeth as a gentle rain from heaven.” More than power, more than fame, more than riches, we hope to achieve peace of mind before we die.

I almost died a year ago.  Even though I had no history of heart disease, and had recently passed a medical insurance physical exam, I had a heart attack. Some recent events had transpired that were upsetting, and I allowed them to make me doubt my grasp on reality.  I won’t go into them here, but the story of the year before was quite fantastic and upsetting. But here I was back in Chiang Mai, a place I liked and felt comfortable in.

One scorching morning in June, as I sat in my guesthouse, checking my e-mail, an invisible hand gripped my esophagus and began to squeeze.  I thought “surely this is just indigestion,” but as the pain increased with no signs of subsiding, I decided to err on the side of caution.  Grabbing my wallet and passport and chewing a precautionary aspirin, I headed for the emergency room of a nearby hospital.

The whole way I kept thinking “I’m making this up. This isn’t happening. What a waste of time and money. They’re going to laugh at me and send me home.”

Instead they admitted me and rushed me up to stent surgery.  But as luck would have it, after threading the stent through my arteries to the main blockage, the surgeon could not proceed.  He came out and told me I was in terrible danger, that there was a huge blood clot lurking in front of the blockage, and they would have to abort the procedure and administer blood thinners.  Once the clot was dissolved after a few days, they would try again.

I began to feel scared, deeply afraid of dying. I thought “so this is it?  Too bad there’s no one around that I know to say good-bye to.”

They took me to the Intensive Care Unit and wouldn’t let me leave my bed for three days.  During that time, I had to pee in a bottle and to read lying flat on my back. I was bored and felt very alone, because no one spoke much English.  So I constructed an alternate universe to make sense of my reality.  I decided that this was a ward for people who weren’t really very sick at all, and that’s why we were all together, ten to a room.  This was like summer camp! At the time, I didn’t realize it was the ICU, and since this was the public hospital, I figured it was cheap and that’s why there were so many people around.  The nurses who checked on my spreading groin hematoma were my friends.  They liked me so much they wanted to pull my pants down every few minutes. They laughed at my jokes.

Finally, on the second day, I demanded to be allowed to go the bathroom. The nurses didn’t like it, but they let me use a walker to hobble over there.  Once inside, I heard a wailing noise.  A whole family was crying.  Turns out a patient just a few feet away had  died. This got my attention, for it underscored the gravity of my situation.  I was in a place where people just like me died despite all efforts to save them.

I later found out that fifty percent of people who have heart attacks die from them. My stent operation was not routine. The surgeon had not been exaggerating when he said I was in terrible danger. Three days later they performed as second operation and this time were able to place a stent.  A couple of weeks later they performed a third operation and were not successful in inserting a stent.  That blockage was too big to be penetrated.

During an aftercare checkup I asked the surgeon if I would have died that morning had I not gone directly to the emergency room.  He nodded his head and said “You would already be working on your next incarnation.”

Through all of this I still sort of believed that I made all of it up, that it didn’t really happen.  I found it hard to accept that it had been a real heart attack, and not a product of my over-active imagination.  A few months later I found that I have Parkinson’s Disease, though I had already been symptomatic for a few years. They can give you an exam in the office, but the only definitive test involves an autopsy.  The best test is if the patient responds to Sinemet, then it’s PD.  I took Sinemet and it alleviated most of the symptoms.

But then, after about three months, I started wondering if I made all this up, too, so I stopped taking the medication.  After one day, nothing happened.  After two days, I began to have slower reaction in my hands and legs.  After three days, my walking became a shuffle and my hands became useless, aching mittens.  So I started taking the medicine again, and after three days I was back to forgetting that I had Parkinson’s Disease.

I seem to have the ability to not notice really important things yet to readily manufacture beliefs with no supporting evidence.  So it should come as no surprise that I have often have a hard time managing my affairs. Common sense and practicality bore me.

I once had a psychotherapist who encouraged me to act as if I were a normal person.  Try to avoid being exceptional in any way.  Just fake it and see what happens.




I was watching television that day in 1955 when Pinky Lee had his heart attack.  Our Admiral set was in the “sun room” and I was sitting cross-legged on the floor in front of it.  Pinky Lee was one of my favorite shows, and I liked his crazy, energetic dancing and rapid patter.  He was dancing around singing

“Yoo hoo, it’s me,My name is Pinky Lee.

I skip and run with lots of fun

For every he and she.

It’s plain to see

That you can tell it’s me

With my checkered hat

And my checkered coat,

The funny giggle in my throat

And my silly dance

Like a billy goat…”

when suddenly he staggered, looked directly into the camera and said “Please, somebody help me!” and then keeled over. The cameras dutifully followed his descent, then held on his writhing, prostrate form to see if it was a gag. It was not. Then they panned to the audience, a bunch of kids and their moms, who were cheering and laughing because someone off-camera was urging them to do so.  Then they cut to a commercial.

I had my heart attack fifty-nine years later.  I was living in Chiang Mai. Thailand, and unlike Pinky, had not been dancing.  I had been checking my email when it felt like someone grabbed my esophagus and started squeezing.  The pain was sharp and growing.  I had read that in circumstances like this you should eat an aspirin, so I found one and gobbled it down. The pain did not subside.  Feeling like I was probably making too big a deal out of small thing, I nevertheless grabbed my wallet and passport and walking downstairs to the front desk, calmly asked the guesthouse owner to drive me to the Emergency Room. He did, and this probably saved my life.

Four days in Intensive Care and three stent operations later, I was sent home to recuperate.  During this time, the Thai military staged a coup, and all TV channels left the air, to be replaced by one showing the top military brass sitting at a table, looking uneasy on camera while one man speaking in Thai reassured the public that everything was under control. He later nominated himself prime minister and is still in charge.  Anyone who disagrees with him in invited to come in for an attitude adjustment.  Some of those people are still having their attitudes adjusted.

Since I don’t speak Thai very well and on that show there was no singing or dancing, and I felt too weak to watch TV anyway, I spent most of the next week lying on my back, staring at the ceiling and trying to process this sudden and unexpected turn of events.  I did manage to be grateful for air-conditioning as it was the hottest time of year, but as I had just arrived in town and had few friends or visitors, I had plenty of time to wonder how badly I wanted to live anyway. Theoretically I did, but since I wasn’t sure what was in store for me, I wasn’t quite sold on the value of longevity.

Now it is ten months later and even though I haven’t set the world on fire, I feel reasonably content.  I lost a lot of my savings paying my hospital bill, but I’m lucky it happened here, where medical costs are a tenth of what they are in the States.  In a couple of months I’ll be 65 and will be covered by Medicare, so I can fly across the world if I choose to visit a hospital again.  From what I’ve seen of them, I think I will pass on that opportunity unless I can see an obvious benefit.

Today, I swim and bicycle regularly and have lost about 25 pounds. My cholesterol level and blood pressure are easily managed by inexpensive medicines.  I take a baby aspirin a day to prevent a future heart attack.

If I stop and think about it, I’ve never had it so good. There is cause for hope and nothing to be afraid of, except death itself, which is inevitable.

This inevitability of death thing is so enormous that nobody talks about most of the time because there’s really nothing to say. The ship is sinking.  No doubt about it.  We’re all going to end up in the drink eventually, and the only variable is when.  How we fall into the water doesn’t matter so much. Yes, the ship is doomed and the Captain may already have left in a lifeboat, disguised as a woman. No matter, we all have just today.

here’s a link to an audio version of this essay


tirol 002



I’ve written in the past that sanity and gratitude are both choices, at least for most of us. In the long run, taking the big view, none of the problems we encounter matter too much. Of course, it’s easier to take that perspective when things seem to be going your way.

Ever since my heart attack and subsequent angioplasty, I’ve been largely confined to my room. Fortunately, here I have a computer, a piano, and a television which receives two channels in English, one of which keeps playing the same movie over and over again for a week at a time, and the other a French English language news service. Al Jazeera, BBC and CNN are still banned by the military, who are very much I charge. I could criticize them openly, post such opinions on Facebook and then wait for the knock on my door, or I could just shut up and mind my own business. More and more that seems like the best option.

If the Generals want my advice, they know where to find me. To the Thais, all of us European/American/Australian men look the same. I know, because I went to a government office to get my proof of residence form, and the man in charge had to search through a stack of them looking for mine. Each form had an I.D. picture stapled at the top, and to him we all looked alike. White men in their sixties, wearing glasses.

But in my mind I’m the center of attention around here. After all, I’m the old guy who limps around, his groin still swollen with hematoma from the blood thinners they administered (rat poison, really) to dissolve a clot they discovered when they went in to insert the stent. I’m sure all the massage girls in town are in mourning and miss my business, but don’t worry ladies, I will recover and be back lying at your feet again in no time.

Chiang Mai is surrounded by mountains, and the lure of winding mountains roads and misty forest scenery are powerful incentives for me to heal enough to mount my trusty scooter once more. I want to survive so I can have some more adventures. I also want to finally learn the piano pieces I’m working on, a couple of Handel pieces, a Chopin nocturne, a Satie Gymnopadie.

So compared to being dead, I guess my problems today are miniscule, and I can once more take my own advice and choose to be grateful, for that is the only road to sanity.