Give Us A Song, Mother


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.





The Challenge of Unbridled Development

Maybe all development isn’t ugly, but if you’re looking for the exceptions to the rule, Thailand isn’t the place you’ll find it.  Here, anyone who has enough money to build anything can and will, and if permits are required, they will quickly be granted for sufficient consideration. The super-rich can afford architects and walled estates, but everyone else is simply encroaching on the landscape as quickly as possible and with little visible foresight.

It is the season for burning rice paddies in the North of Thailand, and in my search for a place with breathable air, I flew south from Chiang Mai to Bangkok, and then took a series of mini-vans until I found this place, Ban Kroot, a relatively unspoiled village on the Andaman sea coast. Palm trees abound, the beach is white sand and unspoiled, but the big question is, “for how long?”

There are a few resorts in town and a few new ones being built a few kilometers up and down the coast.  Dogs sleep in the middle of the road during the day.  Life moves at a leisurely pace.  Fresh ocean breezes make even a hot afternoon bearable.

But for how long? This is not just Thailand’s problem, but the whole developing world’s. The rich can do whatever they want, wherever they want.  They can hop skip and jump around the globe, following fashion and chasing novelty.  Most people in the third world never travel more than two hours from where they were born. This is it for them. Mess this up, and they will always live in a mess.

Yesterday I heard a retired guy about my age complaining that he used to spend a lot of time on the hippy full moon festival island Koh Panang twenty-five years ago, but upon a recent visit he was horrified to find that everything he had liked about the place had been destroyed.  He wondered if there were somewhere he could go where this would not be the case.  I wanted to throttle him for his arrogance and self-centeredness, yet I understood where he was coming from.

“Sure buddy, such a place exists, only it doesn’t have a name yet, at least not a name listed on travel sites. It’s a tiny village that nobody knows or cares about yet.  If you go there and make something happen that will attract other people, then they’ll move there and tell their friends, and then later, probably after you’re dead, it will become a horrible place that other old farts complain used to be a nice place.”

When I grew up in Missouri, there were no laws regulating billboards.  The highways were lined with the gaudiest and more lurid billboard advertisements, especially for tourist attractions.  “Meramec Caverns!  Jesse James Hideout!” “Onanadoga Cave!” Every barn within a mile of the Interstate highway was painted with ads. Until I visited Iowa, I thought that was normal.

But Iowa had regulated such advertising, so only sober, government signs were permitted.  South Dakota had taken a cue from Missouri, and you could mark your progress on Interstate 90 towards and away from Wall Drug by the inch, if you preferred.

Thailand is more like Missouri and South Dakota than Iowa. There is no regulation of any kind, for anything, as far as I can tell.  If you can pay for it, you can do it. And the public has no right to silence.  Sounds trucks blaring advertisements clog the roads of cities

Most of us find medieval villages and farmhouses to be more quaint and charming than Soviet apartment blocks.  Is this a function of their design, or their relative frequency? What about modern American apartment complexes designed to resemble medieval villages, with fake timber beams criss-crossing sheets of drywall?

It’s not just the development of land to which one can object, it’s the recurring, copycat events we stage in the name of culture.  How many film festivals do we need?  Is the current plethora of film festivals a sign of an actual cinematic artistic renaissance or the result of copy-cat maneuverings by regional development offices?

And what do they have to do with the actual state of creative dramatic Art in America?  If you passed a law forbidding theater companies from staging “A Christmas Carol” or dance companies from mounting “The Nutcracker,” most of them would go dark within six months.  How’s that for creativity? What’s really happening in the arts that we can get excited about?

Obviously to answer these questions requires defining taste, and that’s a hard thing to do, especially by proclamation.  One man’s eyesore is another man’s goldmine.

Guess I’m glad I’m not really in charge of much of anything, because then I’d have to go to meetings in stuffy conference rooms and endure power point presentations when I’m not listening to angry people complain about others people’s lack of good taste.