FLORIDA MAN

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He sleeps in a pile of cardboard in an alley. The police know he’s there, but they usually don’t disturb him, because he’s less of a problem when he’s unconscious. It’s when he’s awake that he bothers people.

His ex-wife has a restraining order prohibiting him from coming within a hundred yards of their former home. The last time he came by he tried to steal the lawn mower in order to sell it, but she had changed the locks on the garage door.

When he drinks he quickly becomes angry at perceived insults and slights, eventually provoking a confrontation. Even though he’s clearly in the wrong, the net result is that someone else ends up paying for his tantrums. Always the victim, he nurses resentments and plots revenge which he can never seem to enact because he forgets his plans the moment he makes them.

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A REVERIE ABOUT BEING ME

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TOO RETIRED FOR COMFORT

He found it hard to stick with any one thing. More than a short attention span, he manifested a terror of committing to a singleness of purpose. His life was a pastiche of unfinished projects, halfhearted dabbling, unfocused whimsy.

He was born that way. Often he would tell a friend who realized the depth of his affliction “It isn’t my fault. I was born this way.” Had he tried medication? No, sadly there was no cure for what ailed him. If there were, maybe he could have amounted to something, but since there wasn’t, he would have to be content with who he was, a person who left behind a trail of half-finished business.

One day he resolved to come up with a solution. He would devise a task so simple that follow-through would be effortless. He would simply count his breath as he went about his day. If he lost count, he would start over again, but he would always be counting. It would give him a sense of purpose and a plan he could stick with.

He found that counting grounded him. Counting your breath is so effortless that it doesn’t stop you from doing something else at the same time. You can’t easily talk and count your breath, but you can keep count on your fingers while you’re talking and then add that sum to the grand total once you’ve stopped talking.

Once he had improved his abilities to concentrate, he found that he could come up with new ideas that were popping up from some strange place inside him. A font of creativity with no known source, but it must come from a synthesis of what he was taking in. Things he’d read, movies he’d seen, conversations he’d had, all entered his psyche and then exited later as something different, improved, or at least mutated.

Now he needed more than just the ability to pay attention. He needed to find something worthy of that attention, something to pay attention to over a long enough time period to matter. He could learn a foreign language, master a musical instrument, take up oil painting…there are lots of activities that take years to achieve any sort of competency. He needed to choose.

TRANSFORMATION AT LAST!

 

 

When I was in Dubai, we were befriended by an Emirati couple who tried their best to convert us to Islam. I thought that was odd, not knowing that any religion other than Christianity in its various forms and Mormonism, which sometimes claims to be Christian, did such a thing. Just like Christians, Muslims believe that they gain a higher status in heaven by finding converts to their faith. Buddhism certainly doesn’t try to make converts. They don’t want to save you soul from damnation, they just want you to stop hurting yourself in this life.

The central premise of Christianity seems rather strange the older I get. God had us torture and kill his only son so we could be reconciled to him after our first ancestors disobeyed him. Any way you rephrase that it sill doesn’t ring true or make much sense.

All the forms that twisted story took over the last two thousand years make even less sense. Unbaptized babies languishing in limbo, purgatory avoided through indulgences earned and bought, miraculous interventions by saints, bodies of the especially holy who have escaped corruption after death, the Rapture, the Mark of the Beast, the Battle of Armageddon, exorcisms, rosaries, holy medals, holy water, scapulars…the list goes on and on.

I’m sure if I’d listened to my Emirati friends I could have found out the quirks of their religion, but such details bore and depress me. I take no delight in the prosaic inventions of frightened minds.

Maybe the hall-of-mirrors effect of the social media artificially compounding my beliefs by exposing me to Facebook “friends” and their opinions has make me think more of us agree than is actually the case, but I really do have the feeling that people are getting ready to throw off such primitive notions and the prejudices that accompany them. Jingoism, nationalism, racism, even sexism may be posed for a hasty exit. Maybe Donald Trump is the last buffoon to act out on a world stage and his obvious limitations will suddenly cause most people to come to these realizations at about the same time.

 

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Different Yet Similar

 

 

Capitalist countries at relatively the same stage of development are pretty similar. They all think themselves democratic, yet only a handful are. Money talks more loudly in some places than other, but everywhere if it’s not shouting it’s at least mumbling in the background. Supposedly communist countries like Russia, Vietnam, Laos and China have some of the greatest disparities of wealth of any country, and no one is shocked by the special privileges enjoyed by the super rich.

There are many places in the world that do not entertain notions of the right to free speech. Asian countries put a lot more value on honoring and respecting your superiors than do western ones. Here in Thailand, discourse is suspect and debate is considered sedition. You can’t really have much of a democracy in a setting like that. You can call yourself a democracy. The “Peoples Democratic Republic of…” but Dear Leader always gets ninety-nine percent of the vote.

Everybody claims to value education, but what they mean by that varies from place to place. In many places teachers are expected to be autocratic. No Socratic discussions allowed. Student opinions are neither encouraged nor valued.

As writer Ivan Illich pointed out in his book Deschooling Society, “With very rare exceptions, the university graduate from a poor country feels more comfortable with his North American and European colleagues than with his nonschooled compatriots, and all students are academically processed to be happy only in the company of fellow consumers of the products of the educational machine. The modern university confers the privilege of dissent on those who have been tested and classified as potential money-makers or power-holders.”

It’s not education that we prize, but the stability of the power structure. We claim to exalt in freedom, but we work hard to deny it to those who deeply threaten the status quo. This is not just true of advanced, capitalist economies. They are simply better at hiding the true motives of the power elite, and corruption is less obvious, though no less prevalent than in banana republics or obvious dictatorships.

Preying on the Most Vulnerable

 

 

When I was fifteen, my first summer job was selling magazines door-to-door. Except there were no magazines. It was extortion, theft, and slavery. I never got paid, even though they told me I was their best salesman. Sleazy adults took a group of us kids who had been foolish enough to respond to their help-wanted ad to remote, all-black neighborhoods in St. Louis, where we went from house to house, offering subscriptions to magazines geared to a black audience, Ebony, Tan, Whirl, for a mere five cents a week. The profits would send a boy in their neighborhood to college. That was the sales pitch they had us memorize.

 

As way of encouragement, they kept telling me how much money I stood to make once my “orders cleared.” It turns out not only were there no magazines, but it was simple extortion. A “collector” came to their house a few hours after my visit and demanded payment up front for all the magazines they’d ordered. If they failed to pay he would go to the police.

 

It wasn’t sex trafficking, but it was trafficking, and the way such things usually work is the adults in charge take the kids far from home, house them in cheap motels, give them little freedom and no money, but reward them with pizza and soft drinks at the end of a long day. They also dish out loads of false encouragement, pie-in-the-sky promises of substantial money someday soon. The police are well aware of these operations, but have a hard time keeping track of them all. When one is shut  down, another opens in its place. There are a lot of kids hoping to land a summer job.

 

I feel like Trump and his multi-billion dollar wall are the modern version of this dilemma I once found myself in. Fortunately, I had an attentive father who advised me to quit immediately, that this was no legitimate enterprise but a scam. If it hadn’t been for his advice, I probably wouldn’t have had the nerve to quit. I probably would have been taken far from home, where I would be even more vulnerable to their lies. As it was, my handlers were mad at me for bailing out.

 

I’m now five years older than my father was when he died. Who will advise our nation on how to quit Trump and his empty promises? Who will stand up to the bully who has made a career of boasting and brow-beating? Who will free the vulnerable and trusting who still hope for what was promised?

 

In the Disney cartoon Pinocchio, many boys without good parenting found themselves turned into donkeys on Donkey Island, a place that at first seemed too good to be true, and later was found to be just that.

Bargain Hunting Through Life

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The price of things is not as important as the things themselves. If promotions drive your decision making, then you’re a victim, not a player. What seems like  freedom is bondage.

 

“Think of all the money you’ll save!” screams the advert. You have to resist that notion by summoning a quieter voice that reminds you how much more money you’ll save if you don’t buy anything at all.

 

As pastimes go, recreational shopping is a relatively expensive one, with few ancillary benefits. If you buy something you don’t immediately need, then you have to store it and find it again. For some people, that is a nearly impossible task. The fact that the purchase was totally unnecessary and driven by a general feeling of emptiness only make the situation more demoralizing.

 

So we might as well do what we really want to do with our time and resources, price be damned.

Good Luck, Non-Celebrity

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When I was in grade school, a neighbor’s family owned a reel-to-reel tape recorder. I envied them that amazing machine. I wanted to be able to record radio plays. They could do this whenever they liked. The father worked for a TV station, and had a Saturday morning show where they played black and white cartoons and Three Stooges shorts and Francis the Talking Mule movies and sometimes did their own skits in the studio. His son, who was my age, got to appear with his Dad in them. Now this was living!

By the time I was in college, cassette tape recorders had come into general use. Initially, they came with microphone jacks, but soon manufacturers didn’t bother with that added expense, because few people were using them. They were simply dubbing their LP’s onto cassette, using the line-in stereo jacks.

A few years earlier, in the Soviet Union, people were being arrested to recording and distributing tapes of poetry, songs, writers reading essays…anything you could voice. In Russian, this activity was called “samizdat.” The state found such activity threatening. There was no problem on our side of the world, because we just wanted to hear professionals do their thing. There was no American renaissance of radio drama or poetry readings. Nobody went to jail for sedition.

Now, thanks to the Internet and smart phones, everyone, everywhere can find an audience for audio, video, writing…there’s no gate and no gatekeeper. So are we witnessing an explosion of creativity? Not that I’ve noticed.

Most people on Facebook share memes created by others. That’s about as creative and personal as it gets. They “like” things. I, still struggling to find an audience, write blogs and link to them, write amazon kindle books and link to them, record videos as various imaginary characters…and it all adds up to nothing. I might as well be performing in front of a mirror or hollering down a drainage pipe.

Ease of access to the means of production wasn’t ever the problem. Now, the problem is nobody cares about anybody but the same few celebrities. If you’re not a celebrity actor, writer or musician, good luck finding an audience much less making a living.