Back In The Game




The  new job turned out to be no job at all. As is all the rage nowadays in office design, the work area was common. It felt like a university student union cafeteria. People younger than me sat at tables staring at their laptops. Coffee cups everywhere.


I had answered an ad, and the interview made it seem like something I’d be good at: writing quirky, interesting social media posts for a variety of products and causes. This is what I do anyway, for hours at a time, and if anyone is good at skimming the surface of things it’s me. Superficial is my middle name.


The others who I guess I should consider my co-workers, though I never saw anyone actually do anything I’d call “work,” considered themselves “Digital Nomads” and most seemed to own expensive Apple computers. Maybe their parents paid for them. Almost everyone sported a bluetooth earpiece. The men wore short hair and bushy beards. The women seemed unhappy and secretive.


I didn’t witness a lot of writing going on. Maybe they were coders. I’m still not sure what that means, but I say it every once in awhile to make it seem like I’m hip.


The first day at work I read some stuff and posted my takes on it. Nobody complimented me and nobody complained. After a few hours I decided to go home and wait for feedback. When I didn’t get any, I came back to the common workspace and did it again. Heck, if this was work, give me more of it. After a month, I got a raise.


As a retired expat living in Thailand, an emerging economy, I have become used to living on very little, so any increase in my meager pension is welcome, the more so for not being needed. I have no big plans anymore. I don’t want to own much, create much, or administer much. I don’t want to take care of anybody but myself, and even that gets easier the less I attempt.


So the idea that someone would pay me simply to be me seemed so astounding that I found it hard to believe. I had to leave my home country to have value. But it’s happening! I’m in the workforce again, but for the first time in many years as a winner, not a loser.


First thing when I realized this was going to work was to spend a good deal of mental energy imagining ways to mess it up. Surely I could become cynical and bitter for no good reason, for this has been my modus operandi in the past and I’m good at it. Even as I generated post after post I dreaded the moment when eventually someone would call me into an office and ask “Are you happy here?”


But so far that hasn’t happened. In fact, there’s no evidence this is in the works. So with my extra Internet energy and time I decided to launch my own YouTube channel.


Realizing that the popular video site is already awash in many old men ranting about this or that, I decided to hire a spokesperson, a cute Russian girl who speaks English in a charmingly erratic way. I have her read the usual YouTube content, conspiracy theories about the coming economic collapse, Rothschild domination of International politics and banking, FEMA sites, Obama and the Pope as Antichrist, Area 51, Reptilian Aliens among us, common household cures for cancer that the Medical Establishment won’t tell you…and these she delivers in her fetchingly obtuse way. The fact that she has little grasp of the content only makes her more watchable. Her inappropriate inflections are half the fun.


The first week we scored half a million views and then it really took off.  My share of Google ad revenue will soon surpass my salary at my new job. I gave Nadya a raise, but not too much of one, for I don’t want her getting any ideas about starting her own channel.


Content creation is easy, especially if you’re willing to simply copy what’s already out there.


I can’t say that any of this actually made me happy. It was nice to feel apart of something again, in the swing of things, but there was an equal sense that this was all nonsense and would soon dissolve as quickly as it had arrived.


Nadya would come once a week to record her video presentations. When it became obvious that we were onto something, I was tempted to buy a better camera, but then realized that by simply using her smartphone, the image gave her credibility. Eschewing a tripod, we set the phone on a desk, leaning against a few books, and that was that. It was close enough to her so we didn’t even need to use an external mic. And an excellent diffuse light came in through the windows of our common space, though I found that if we tried to record in the mornings it was too bright and there was too much activity in the room. An hour before dusk was perfect.


She usually brought a handsome young man with her, though as far as I could tell it wasn’t the same young man each time. These young Russian men and women are all over Thailand. They’re extremely good-looking and I get the impression they support themselves through modeling, although I’ve heard the wages paid by agencies and producers are pitifully low. Russians in Thailand are under special scrutiny by immigration, as the recent collapse of the ruble makes it hard for them to get by. The equivalent of thirty dollars for a day’s work is standard. I paid Nadya more than that, but not so much more that she would attract undue attention.


The boyfriend seemed disinterested in Nadya’s performances, and would wait for her while hunched over his phone, often wearing ear buds.  At first I tried being cordial, but after a few times of being ignored I decided to let him, whomever he was, have his space. Besides, he probably wouldn’t be here next week anyway.


This tangential glimpse into their lives made me realize I wasn’t the only lost soul in voluntary exile abroad. All these people disconnected from family and friends, wondering what they should be doing with themselves in the long run. We are the new legion of the damned, wandering Jews.


At least the Thai people who were born here know why they’re here. All of us, Thai and foreigner alike, believe that our lives are important, our comfort deserved, our plans worth striving for. Even the person sweeping the sidewalk believes his is a noble act, that it “makes merit” in some way. Most of the Thai people I’ve seen sweeping in public don’t seem to think the act is beneath them. Few Thais scowl when so engaged. I imagine if they hired foreigners to sweet the streets, we’d find an organized way to make it too expensive and complicated to do.


Until recently, I seem to have spent a lifetime grimacing while facing each new day. I want someone, somewhere to recognize that this has all been a tragic mistake, that I was meant for better things. I am Scuffy the Tugboat, from the Little Golden Children’s Books. And now that fortune has favored me, you’d think I’d be able to grin and relax, but a lifetime peeved is not easy to turn into one suffused in humble gratitude.


The calls started the beginning of the next month, after Google released data on website traffic. People called offering their services at increasing my already impressive numbers, a few called offering to purchase my site. For some reason Nadya was most popular in Paraguay and Turkmenistan. Her numbers were also impressive in Hungary and Nicaragua. There were tentative movie offers, but nothing substantial enough for me to bring them to her attention. Someone had already named a fish after her, but I doubt if that person had the International Authority to do so.  That fish-naming call had come from a scuba diving service in Australia.


I took none of this too seriously. If my unexpected success were to be a real, life-changing phenomenon, then it would last and develop naturally. If not, it would make a good story.


Nadya asked for a raise a few weeks later. This time she came to the video session with a new boyfriend, a mean-looking guy with a prominent scar across one cheek. Like her other companions, he ignored me, but she had changed. She was wearing much more makeup for one thing, and was dressed like a hooker. Maybe this was nothing new, maybe she always had been augmenting her income in this way, but now she looked the part.


I agreed to double her pay, but asked that she return to her former image, the slightly daffy, baffled girl. She returned from the ladies room with the makeup removed, but didn’t seem as happy and carefree as she had before. When I asked her if we were still on for the same time next week, she seemed tentative.


Over the next week I started bracing myself for what seemed a probable transition. I would need to find another spokesperson in case this one left. The concept was, I assured myself, the real treasure. Naive girl reads scary news. Everything is a false flag event, but you already knew that, it was just fun to watch her say it.


Meanwhile, at work they had me doing the most repetitive writing. For some reason, I had become the man of the hour when it came to publicizing skin-whitening creams targeted to Asian women. After the first hundred posts, I had run out of novel ideas, and found myself fighting the urge to say racist things I remembered from growing up in Missouri.  “You can never be too white!”  “How white of you!”


The next week, Nadya didn’t show for her session. I waited for an hour, then was on my way out of the building when I saw her latest boyfriend leaning up against a car and waiting for me. His message was succinct. “Nadya want thousand dollars.”


I laughed and kept walking. Actually, I was quite relieved. As I rode my motor scooter home, I felt like a kid in an ad for motor scooters. A thousand pounds lighter, floating down the road.


I quit the job and bought some pro-equipment, lights, camera, microphone and tripod. Having succeeded one way, I decided to try again on exactly the opposite track. I would be the host, wearing makeup to exaggerate my wrinkles and decrepitude. Instead of fear-mongering, I would only repeat happy news. Lost puppies found, baby kittens rescued, orphans adopted, the hungry fed and disease eliminated. It worked. Using the same YouTube channel, my viewers stuck with me, and within a month I was getting even more ad revenue, more offers from others.


Thus began my new life under the grace of Google, one post at a time.





The Problem with Being On Perpetual Vacation


I recently spent three weeks in the Andaman sea islands of Thailand. Koh Lanta is especially favored by Swedes. So I got to see hundreds of Swedes on vacation. They’re a pasty-white, chubby bunch, who earned their vacations by sitting behind desks and staring at computer screens, so they’re entitled to sprawl in the sand as if they’ve been shot, or to tumble clumsily in this small surf as if they are swimming. It’s warmer and cheaper here than in Northern Europe and that’s why they’ve come this far.


But I’m not on vacation. I’m retired. There’s a difference. I’m not escaping from anything, except maybe the memory of what is was like to strain against the goads in order to not get fired from yet another disappointing career choice. Actually, I was never fully engaged in working for others, and my attempts at self-employment were characterized by frequent lapses into magical thinking and fantasy accounting.


Anyway, what pleases the Swedes bores me. So in escaping the need for gainful employment, I haven’t really solved my problem. I still have to find something to do. At least for a few hours a day, I hope to be fully absorbed by purposeful activity. You’d think that wouldn’t be so difficult. There are books to read and write, hobbies, musical instruments and languages to be mastered. Why can’t I simply dig in?


Dunno. Nothing seems to fit the bill, at least not for very long. I’ll start a book and forget that I’m reading it. Every once in awhile I can get excited about learning a new piano piece, but just as often I abandon that before I’ve mastered or memorized. Does YouTube really need another amateur rendering of a Handel Sarabande?


Maybe if I could learn to write music that creative act would open a door that has heretofore remained firmly shut. Erik Satie, a late bloomer, ended up being the composer of a substantial body of piano works that are still played today. He also wrote the score for a ballet or two. His quirky, melancholy Gnossiennes and Gymnopedes are what he’s best known for. Cervantes was chained to the wall of a Madrid debtor’s prison when he got the idea for Don Quixote. Maybe I’ve got a trick or two up my sleeve of which I’m as yet unaware.


How well I remember the uncertainty I faced when declaring a major in college. I started in the family tradition of Chemistry, then switched to Astronomy, then to Russian, eventually squeaking out of there with a B.A. I then went to graduate school in creative writing, where I earned the coveted MFA, which entitles one to a life of intermittent adjunct teaching and endless rejection. I’m thinking of starting a support group called “MFA Boat People” where those who had chosen this path recognize the true depth of their plight, finally casting their fates to choppy waters and pirates ready to decisively rape and plunder what illusory hope remains. We will get real while there is still time to do so.


Now there will be no further promise of empty certifications, no programs to which I could apply and temporarily celebrate acceptance. This is it. The real deal.


Here, along the home stretch, illusions count for nothing.


Love and Happiness


I’m listening to Al Green sing Love and Happiness, reminded of seeing him preach and sing at his church in Memphis.  I was there twice, the first time forty years ago, the second time last year.  He had, of course, aged during the interval, but he could still sing and burst into song when the spirit moved him. This occurred without warning, so the band had to be ready to fall in behind him, and in whatever key he chose.


I’m sitting on the front porch of our little bungalow on the beach at Go Jam, an island near Krabi. Everyone who lives here is Muslim, but all the tourists are Europeans and Americans. Lots of scowling Germans. I can always tell a German a mile away by his expression.


There’s a mosque right across the road from our guesthouse, and the call to prayer is really, really loud. Maybe they don’t want to leave anything to chance for the hard of hearing. Fortunately, the man who is singing has a sweet voice, and he sings on key, hitting the notes in that Arabic mode that is so distinctive.


Like most of Thailand, this place is is really inexpensive, and even though this is everybody’s idea of a tropical resort island, we’ve found private bungalows for as little as $8 a night. They’re not airconditioned, but a fan suffices, especially if you’ve first rinsed off in the shower.


No complaints, except that hanging out on the beach is boring. People who live in these places are too busy making a living to hang out on the beach, and even if they could, they wouldn’t want to. They consider the sun an enemy. During the heat of the day, they seek shelter. At twilight, suddenly the single road is full of motor scooters, often holding whole families, zipping to and fro. The children here seem really happy.


Primed For A Drone Strike


I guess it all started when I became Amazon Prime. For some reason they told me that I qualified for free membership in their exclusive buyers club, and that from now on, free and nearly instant shipping for all my purchases would apply.


When I’m bored I like to shop online, and even before I became Prime have been guilty of buying things I don’t need, just because they seemed inexpensive. I have been surprised the next day to find a box or two or three from Amazon on my front porch, containing things I barely remember buying.


I wonder what possessed me to buy three kilts in different patterns? Surely one would have been enough, for I have never yet worn even one of the kilts in public, and it doesn’t look like I’m likely to do so anytime in the near future. And even though a nose flute is an easy instrument to master, I don’t know why I needed to buy one made from African Ebony.  Wouldn’t a plastic nose flute have sufficed?


OK, I forgot to add that I like to drink while I shop late at night, when everyone else is asleep. I sometimes I take Ambien to help me sleep, which as far as I can see is either a harmless or terribly dangerous drug. You can never tell what’s going to happen when you take Ambien.


Once after taking Ambien I came to standing in line at our local twenty-four hour supermarket, my arms full of groceries. It was three in the morning and I was naked. The others in line just ignored by nakedness, as did the cashier, a fact for which I am eternally grateful.


I decided that I must take action to break my dependency on online shopping, so I flew across the world (on a ticket purchased at a very reasonable price online) to a tropical resort. It proved excruciatingly boring, not just for me, but for all the guests. We sat dazed in the common area during the long, hot afternoons, staring at our laptops and cell phones, hoping for stimulation that we could not find in sun and surf. None of us had the least idea what to do with ourselves. Our hosts offered us speedboat rides to neighboring islands, but they promised to be carbon copies of this.


Of course, there was no point in going to the Amazon site, because even the most powerful drone could not make good on their Prime promise of two-day delivery. After a couple of brief swims in the warm, salty water, what was a person to do? I stopped wearing my watch, for watching the minute hand crawl in agonizing slowness was torture. My waterproof watch which only days ago had brought me joy, for it was accurate to the millisecond, using at atomic signal sent by shortwave radio to recalibrate itself, this the advanced Timex I had purchased only weeks before as one of my first Prime purchases, now totally without function. Here I was stuck in paradise unable to practice my primary addiction. I had signed up for two weeks of this, and there were no refunds to be had.


One afternoon I’d finally had enough. I snapped. “Boring!” I began to mutter, then grumble, then pronounce, then shout. “This place is boring!”


I looked around at my fellow vacationers. They hadn’t heard me, or if they had, they weren’t going to give me the satisfaction of being noticed. Most of them were wearing earbuds. I guess they were listening to the same music they listened to back home. I looked over at the bar, a separate hut on the beach. Two women and a man were actually talking to one another, but I suppose that could be attributed to the alcohol they were drinking.


Maybe I should close Facebook and concentrate on reading or writing something of substance. But then there was another ding alerting me to someone’s comment on one of my posts and I just had to look. Someone had used one of the new emoticons instead of the like button. Big deal. Summoning all my courage, I closed the app. I swallowed hard and began to shake. Looking around the common space I saw that everyone was still glued to their phone or laptop. No one was talking, or smiling, and the gentle lapping of surf as the tide came in was occasionally drowned out by a motorcycle driving down the sand path outside.


That’s it! Suddenly it came to me. I should start a recovery program for people addicted to social media!  Facebook and Twitter addicts who have lost all hope of ever freeing themselves from their desperate need for Internet community approval.  So I took action.  I made flyers and announced a meeting for Internet Addicts Anonymous.  We would meet in my bungalow that evening at 8.


For this, I decided to upgrade from the simple shack I was renting to a larger one, with air-conditioning. It was like moving to a palace. So what if the room was four times as expensive as the hut I’d been staying in, I was finally moving forward again.


Four people showed, two men and two women.  I recognized them from the community dining area we all shared. One of the men, a deeply-suntanned fellow even older than me, pretty much had his own table which he occupied all day. He smoked and divided his time between a mini-laptop and a smartphone. The two women seemed pretty normal, except they wore a lot of what I would call “bling.” Rhinestone-studded sandals, flashy turquoise bracelets, sunglasses with designer carrying cases. I could just imagine the price descriptions. “Regularly $189, now $59.”


The other man didn’t say much. He looked like a retired high school principal, which he well may have been. I got the impression he might get up and leave at any moment, so I braced myself for that event, promising that I wouldn’t let it upset the group.


We began by introducing ourselves, and then I made an opening statement about my tendency to shop in a trance state and then be surprised the next day or two by finding the purchases on my porch. I saw the others nod their heads. Then one woman suggested I was “powerless over Prime,” which I found poetic, but I thought she was headed in a Twelve-Step direction that might derail our little recovery group before it began, so I merely responded with “Yes, you might say that.”


The other woman suddenly confessed “I spend over eight hours a day on Facebook. That’s too much, right?”  Nobody said anything. The suntanned man said “I got you beat,” but then didn’t offer a precise figure.


“Should we go the Twelve-Step route?” I asked the group. Three of the four shook their heads “no.” Do you really want to change? Again, the same number shook their heads. The high school principal looked out the window like he finally saw someplace he’d really like to be. He suddenly spoke up.


“Why don’t we transfer addictions?  If we simply give up what we’re doing, we’ll feel empty and lost.”


“Good idea,” murmured the other three.


“Sex?,” suggested the suntanned man. “Swingers Group?”


The women looked sad.


“Gambling,” countered the principal. “Texas Hold ‘Em. You can make money if you’re sane and sober and willing to put in the time. And it’s extremely addictive.”


So that’s how it began, the thing that really took hold of my life, that changed me in ways I never could have predicted. I now never worry about price. Promotional pricing and discounts leave me cold. In fact, the cost of things doesn’t interest me. If I really want it, I’ll pay whatever price I have to in order to have it.
The five of us formed a tight little group, and since then we’ve recruited as many more. We all live together in a rented mansion in a place where the cost of living is a fraction of what we were used to. No longer victims of an obsession, we’re now entrepreneurs.