People all over the world are self-isolating with a steady diet of takeout and fear porn. Is it any wonder we can’t offer each other advice about what is real and important? Instead, we are caught in an echo tunnel of rumor, opinion, occasional malice underpinned by self-loathing.
It’s time to reach for Perry Como. Listen to the soothing murmur of his voice. Sink deep into his sonic sea of tranquility. Be not afraid.
When I first came to Thailand, I was working in Bangkok on a month appointment. Had a few days off, and decided to get out of town, so I went to MoChit station and took a bus to the Cambodian border, where there is a casino and a big used goods market. On the way back, I noticed the bus was stopped and borded several times by army officers who scanned the faces of the passengers, ordering several off the bus. They ignored me. Then I learned they were looking for Cambodians. Since this was my first time in southeast asia, I hadn’t yet noticed any differences in the looks of people here. But these guys could spot a Cambodian across a crowded bus.
Now I live in Chiang Mai, where the “foreigners” are mostly Lao or Burmese. In any case, they are the underclass, doing work that Thais would prefer not to be bothered with. If I see a truck carrying twenty people crowded together in the back, they are Burmese workers on their way to or from a construction site. The maids in hotels are almost all Burmese. The Burma border is very close.
Now, thanks to Covid 19 (here they pronounce it “Covid-Nineteen” in English, to emphasize that it comes from somewhere else) fear of foreigners is once again in favor. People from Myanmar keep their heads down. The Minister of Health railed against “dirty farang” a few months ago, using the word they use to describe caucasians. Asians aren’t farang. Don’t know what the word is for non-Thai asians.
I have a lot of free time and own a motorcycle. There’s virtually nothing holding me back from entertaining myself.
No one knows the day or the hour, so we just act as if. We breeze along, oblivious to the forces that conspire to kill us. I am as guilty as the next guy. I drive a motorcycle multiple times a day in a country that has the highest motorcycle fatality rate after Libya, which really isn’t a country anymore, just a launching spot for rubber dinghies full of desperate refugees headed for Italy.
Yes, I continue to make plans, albeit tentative ones. If I’m still around tomorrow, I plan to stop by a nearby hospital and have some tests done. They’re having an “end of the year” promotion, and the common blood and urine tests combined with a few others will set me back about seventy dollars. Since I am seventy years old, that seems like a prudent thing to do. But maybe I’m over-reacting. After all, when my number’s up, it’s up.
I could do a lot with seventy dollars. I imagine I could enjoy ten to twelve hours of Thai massage at that rate. Of course, I’d have to spread it out over time. Twelve hours of Thai massage would probably prove fatal.
Most dishwashers are capable of speech. Their vocabulary might be limited to table ware, pots and pans and various detergents, but they can carry on a conversation about things you might want to talk to your dishwasher about. After all, this is 2020. Artificial Intelligence has seeped into every aspect of our lives, with varying levels of success.
But even dishwashers must reach the end of their days. As they shuffle off this mortal coil, they may rumble and gasp, spurt hot, soapy water when least intended, and fail to properly clean your dishes. You must reduce your expectations of your dishwasher. It is getting old. It maybe not be here next year or even next week.
Try to sympathize rather than scold. When talking to your dishwasher, emphasize all the good times you spent together, all the meals you prepared and the machine cleaned up after. Let the dishwasher know you appreciate all the times it worked as expected.
I am scouting a new path, and forging new tools to help me enjoy the journey. My old habits have brought me mostly ennui and pain. From now on, I will try to find new ways to live.
When in doubt, I will do nothing. Although I may not be able to wait until certainty arrives, I should at least be able to resist the compulsive and repetitive behaviors that have brought me this far down. I have sunk to previously unimaginable depths. The financial future looks bleak. My reputation is in tatters.
Old friends avoid me. Now that I drool uncontrollably and palsy shakes my limbs, I am unlikely to make new ones. I could assume that somehow this is all my fault, karmic retribution for my past deeds, but I don’t think that will get me anywhere I want to go. Neither saint nor sinner, I am merely a garden-variety human being, struggling to make the best of the situation in which he finds himself.
Should I expect redemption? A bounty of good luck? Absolution for past failings, and the sympathy of bystanders? Hardly.
When I stole that bus I knew what I was doing. When I forced the children on it to walk into the desert without food or water, I was fully aware of my actions. What I failed to understand were my motives. They were obscure to me. Before that incident, I had never thought one way or the other about school buses, yet one proved to be my undoing.
Fortunately, every one of those school children survived, though I’ve heard that a few are still undergoing therapy. The owner of the school bus declined to press charges, for it was revealed that the driver was taking an unauthorized cigarette break and flirting with the cashier at the gas station. He shouldn’t have left the keys in the ignition and the door wide-open.
My lawyers tell me that I’ll likely get off with a sentence that remands me to mental health counseling. After a year or so, I’ll be free of the ankle bracelet and able to come and go as I please.
You can’t fight on all fronts all the time. Decide what’s important to you and then focus on what you can do about that. Everything else is simply a distraction.
Time spent scrolling through social media is largely wasted. You might as well flip through the pages of a catalog hoping to find some bauble to buy that will make you feel less like a loser. Any effect shopping might have will prove highly transitory.
Especially with the advent of the Internet and cellphones, focused attention is at a premium. Without the ability to concentrate, we can’t expect to accomplish much. The only times during the day when I feel the benefits of one-mindedness are when I’m swimming laps at the pool, practicing the piano, and writing. I wish I could add reading to that list, but most of what I read is skimming, to see if I can find something worth my time to slow down and actually peruse.
My opinions don’t matter much. Not even to me, but I can’t imagine anyone else taking them seriously enough to consider their merits. Who cares about my opinions if I don’t?
Things are the way they are, probably for a reason, but even if not, why should that be a matter of debate? Why is our opinion about what actually exists newsworthy? Only the most narcissistic of us would imagine that to be the way things should be.
How infantile. How vain. How completely lacking in proportion. A volcano explodes. How do you feel about that? Would you like to share your feelings with others? Speak directly into the microphone. Meanwhile hot lava runs down the side of the mountain and fans out into the streets. The sky turns back from pumice. “I’m not sure I approve.”
“We’ll be back in a moment with the opinions of other people, some of whom might have understood our question. Others will simply talk to hear the sound of their own voice. Hopefully, they will ultimately feel shame for wasting out time with their nonsense, but even prattle has its place in contemporary discourse, because nobody’s really paying attention. We’re overwhelmed with uninformed opinions. So, in order to further distract you and for your viewing pleasure, here’s a picture of a moose mating with a picnic table.”
The world is ending, but I forgot to notice that fact until it was too late for me to do anything about it. Not that there’s much that I could have done. Forces are at work that are greater than my power to affect them. Like chicken little, I could have sounded an alarm, but nobody pays much attention to my Facebook posts. If I show a picture of a cute kitten, I can get a few “likes.”
The good news is that it’s not my fault the world is ending. Lots of things are my fault, like my lack of gumption, get-up-and-go, and the fact that I had to retire early to a third-world country because I forgot to make much money when I was working. I could look at that as a “bad thing,” but I could just as easily count myself fortunate that I ended up here in Thailand. If I had been any more of a “success” this might not have been a logical choice. I could have ended up in a big house in the suburbs of a Midwestern city, polishing one of my many vintage cars and watching my wife vacuum our vast expanse of indoor carpeting.
My life here might not be perfect, but it doesn’t involve bondage to too many items that need constant maintenance. I remember talking to an Iowa farmer and he told me that he finally realized that he had to maintain over nine hundred tires on multiple machines, cars, tractors, motorcycles, trucks, lawn mowers, etc. And that wasn’t counting all the engines that demanded frequent maintenance, all the blades that needed to be sharpened. No, compared to him I’ve got it easy.
OK, so I’m getting fat. I can’t stop eating donuts, cookies, drinking sodas and it shows. As much as force myself to exercise, I can’t work off all those extra calories. Yes, I’m obviously bored. I need a challenge.
Maybe I don’t need to do more, but rather less. Relax and let things unfold as they are. Nothing really stays the same, but my fears of boredom make it seem that way. Nothing much is required of me. Acceptance is my job now.
Just ordinary people came, the kind you see all the time. Not especially smart or good looking, they came in droves and stood waiting for something to happen. Only nothing happened. No one told them what to do and eventually they drifted away, going back where they came from.
There was nothing you could say about them that would paint a clear picture. Some were fat, some thin, some young, some old. I got the impression they didn’t think they were “special” in any way. They just wanted to show up in case somebody was giving away something for free, or there was a party of some kind going on. Some fun to be had.
Garden-variety people, the kind who don’t make enormous waves as they wade through the waters of life, are still good for something. They form an audience, if not actors. They’re the customer base for business, voters for politicians, what the Germans called the “lumpenproletariat.” Despise them at your own risk.
I am one of them. In fact, I have hopes of being elected their leader, not because of any special qualities I might posses, but rather because I am so hopelessly ordinary. My subjects are made of the same stuff as is their King.
And as a King, I will not have to wait long for a Queen to appear. Ambitious women abound. One will soon sit at my right hand and if, for some reason, I should falter, fail or sicken, she will be the power behind the throne. This is the way it has always been done, and this method has stood the test of time.
But please, don’t tell anyone. Don’t spill the beans. For my plan to be effective, it must remain a secret.
I promise to rule wisely, and fairness will be by motto. Fairness and enlightened self-interest. You will always know why I do what I do, because my motives will be transparent. I’m in it for me. Simple. Obvious. No deception needed.
I was correct, it didn’t take long for my Queen to appear. Her name was Tiffany, and she was enrolled in pre-dental hygiene at our local community college. Her sister Brandi was already a practicing hygienist and encourage her younger sister to take the leap. Their family was as common as families around here get to be. Mom was a licensed practical nurse, and Dad sold used cars. They lived in a new-ish double wide trailer and kept two dogs that barked a lot.
Tiffany latched onto me and wouldn’t let go. When I told her my plans for us, she got “super excited” and started planning our elaborate coronation ceremony. I cautioned her that we had to pretend to be a bit like England, where the royalty part was merely window dressing to a typical democracy, but she didn’t let that slow her down.
Every time I came up with a manifesto or proclamation, she would protest that it was too complicated. We needed to appeal to a third-grade level and this was strictly junior high. We couldn’t expect to garner popular support by going highbrow. I decided to trust her instincts. She and her family had their finger on the pulse of the nation more than I.
The royalty part would make it easier for our subjects to think of us as the mother and father of the nation. From now on Father’s Day would be my birthday, and Mother’s Day, hers. In an ostentatious display of compassion, we would hand out Christmas presents to be poor, presents that were paid for by taxpayers of our nation. In this way, we were inspired by many of the actions of Juan and Eva Peron, of Argentina.
Eventually, a few academic consultants persuaded us to drop the royalty aspect. Prime Minister or President would have to suffice. Titles like “Father and Mother of the Nation” were acceptable, but nothing more royal than that. We were free, of course, to devise our own ceremonies, rituals, ranks and honors. These would ensure loyalty and give the common man and woman something to admire.
Sure enough, we began to feel the first pangs of royal intrigue when her family members wanted to be venerated by royal rank. So we bailed on the royal thing just in time. Instead, we appointed them cabinet members, advisers, ambassadors. Dad became the Minister of Transportation. Brandy, the Minister of Health. The list increased daily.
The nation had not yet confirmed their desire for us to rule, but we could feel it all around us. Oh, it was hard for us to wait for that wave of popular will that would soon propel us into the “Beige Bunker” as we called the cement fortress that had always housed our executive family. We were not impatient, just eager to be of service. We were overwhelmed with patriotic fervor.
There was, however, a dark side to all this. Even though they kept their sentiments secret, there were those who were not on our side. We had enemies. They manipulated the minds of the elite. Even though their writings could not be understood by the common man, they were surprisingly effective in painting a picture of us as ambitious dimwits. The rumors found their way into print and onto social media. They mocked us!
The arrests came like lightning. Suddenly, we were hauled before a court of people we had never seen before and found guilty of sedition. All I remember is the “may God have mercy on your souls” part.
Our country still used the guillotine, and one was assembled in the main square. As the patriarch of our movement, I was to be beheaded last. From my cell I heard the vast crowd roar several times before I was escorted, blinking from the gloom of the Beige Bunker and into the sunlight.
As I stood on the platform where I was read the official charges against me by a hooded man, I glanced down to see the box that would momentarily receive my severed head. There were the heads of my family members staring up at me in wide-eyed disbelief. Brandi’s mouth was open, as if she were trying to say something. Too late, I’m afraid.
I knelt, and accepted my fate with as much dignity as I could muster. For I was a common man surrounded by my peers who had already decided my fate for me. My garden-variety head would soon join the others in that box. I heard crows calling to one another, and in the distance, a lawn mower. Someone was enjoying this autumn morning. I held my breath.