Portraits in a Selfie Age

Most people don’t enjoy having their picture taken. Or at least that used to be the case. Now, at least among Asians, there’s a mania about it. At least where I live, the women take twenty pictures of themselves a day, always making the same expression. They also photograph their food as its served in a restaurant, before they dig in.

 

I take a lot of pictures of myself because no one else will show up to let me photograph them. I’m interested in lighting, photo-editing, and the technical aspects of photography. I also enjoy having a good portrait I can send off if the need arises.

 

OK, so I’m not as photogenic as I was thirty or forty years ago. Who is?

 

DSC_0792 (2)DSC_0795 (2)DSC_0807DSC_0812

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

Purposeful Forgetting

 

Phong Nha Park

DSC06228

When you’re an American expat and you want to move freely in the world, you have to deliberately not remember a lot in order to experience a sense of ease and comfort. Freedom from guilt means purposeful forgetting. You can’t very well vacation in a country that we bombed repeatedly for years because we disapproved of their self-governance.

The problem for Americans is that caveat rules out most of the developing world. Central America, South America, Indochina, the Middle East, Southern Europe…all have felt the lash of our enormous and deadly whip. If you’ve got enough in the bank you could confine your wandering to Switzerland or Scandanavia without having to flip into denial mode.

True, we didn’t bomb Argentina and Chile, we just sent Kissinger there to tell them they could take care of their Communist problem without worrying about interference from us. OK, in our role as Global Robocop we didn’t kill as many foreign people as Stalin or Mao did of their own, but that doesn’t exactly render us white as snow. We trained the assassins from Guatemala, Honduras, Salvador and we gave money directly to the Contras in Nicaragua.

In a few weeks I will be venturing to Dong Hoi,Vietnam. We’ll be taking advantage of a super cheap fare from our home in Chiang Mai, Thailand. The city of Dong Hoi is new, because we completely destroyed the old city in 1971. Back then we left the shell of one building and a palm tree standing. Dong Hoi had the misfortune to be the first city of any size north of the DMZ, and planes taking off from Danang airport found it convenient to drop their load there.

If my prior visit to Dong Hoi will serve as any indication, I expect to be treated cordially by the people I meet. The family members who run the hotel I booked were very nice to me last time. I rented a motorcycle from them and drove to Phong Na park, a lush forest preserve that hosts some of the most attractive limestone caves in the world. Fifty years ago there wasn’t much there to bomb, but we did drop tons of Agent Orange on the vast canopy of trees, because we called it the “Ho Chi Minh Trail,” and saw their vegetation as an affront to our security.

There is also a lot of unexploded ordinance there, so I won’t do a whole lot of hiking off the trails. The United Nations has done their best to help Laos and Vietnam clean up the cluster bomb mess we made, but they haven’t made much progress yet. We may have to pitch in.

In my search for a place to live out my golden years I’ve traveled to many former hot spots in Central and South America.

When I was in Argentina they were making efforts to remember and honor the victims of the military killing orgy that went on after Kissinger promised them a free hand. In Chile, our puppet Pinochet had his troops bomb the Presidential Palace while Salvador Allende, former President of the University of Chile and the first democratically elected Communist ruler of any country was inside.

The first time I visited Hanoi, I was staying in a hotel in an old part of the city and reading a book on the history of our war with that country. It turns out that Kissinger and Nixon hatched a plan to make the Vietnamese think Nixon was insane, and thus drive them to hurry to the negotiating table and sign a truce. On Christmas day we bombed Hanoi. Unlike our efforts at the end of World War II in Japan and Germany, and our police action in North Korea, we had reverted to the genteel notion of obeying the Geneva Conventions and not directly targeting civilians. Before the Chrtistmas Bombing (Operation Linebacker) most of our bombing in Vietnam was restricted to military targets. In Laos, because there were few military targets, we bombed anything that moved and kept that up for ten years. But anyway, on Christmas day, 1972 a bomb dropped from a B-52 pierced the roof of the hospital next door to the hotel in which I was now staying and exploded in the operating room killing everyone. I put down the book and stared at the wall that separated my hotel from the hospital. Why had the desk clerk smiled at me when I checked in? Why wasn’t there an angry mob outside demanding my head?

As the ugliness of global economic disparity continues to grow, there will be more refugees. Countries like Nigeria send thousands of young men north to Libya, where they climb into rafts and hope to make it to Greece or Sicily. Some of them do, and then they find their way to Calais, where nobody is glad to see them. They don’t know what else to do. The bottom billion people on this planet are sliding backwards. Their countries are not just falling behind, they’re falling apart.

Of course, it’s only matter of time before we bring them democracy, one bomb at a time.

 

 

the author reading this essay:  http://chirb.it/Mkxhp3

 

 

A Blank Slate

DSC06228

 

 

No Plan, Still Time Passes

It occurs to me that living in Chiang Mai, Thailand hasn’t really hampered my ability to be creatively productive. If I’m not writing or performing to the best of my ability, I can’t blame it on location. If I were hiding in a furnished room in Los Angeles, hunched over my laptop and drinking coffee from a paper cup (not Starbucks, too expensive) chances are my phone wouldn’t be ringing with offers from publishers, studios, or agents.
At the age of sixty-seven, I probably wouldn’t be going to parties a lot, either. The nightclub crowd would be unaware of my existence. Maybe I could pass myself off as Harry Dean Stanton’s younger brother, or Tommy Lee Jones’ cousin. A-list geezers.

No, I can’t blame Thailand for whatever difficulties I face as I trudge the lonely trail of senescence. Well, actually, there are a lot of us on that trail, only some are using walkers, others four-pointed canes, and the rest of us are hobbling with an uneven gait.

But again, what’s the alternative? The good doctors here are as good as they are in the States, at least as good at the doctors who will accept Medicare patients, and since the prices for medical intervention here are about ten times lower than in the States, that would about equal my deductible if I chose to return home to use the medical policy I paid for over a span of forty five years. That one, the one I don’t get to use over here.

Oh sure, the weather is too hot for me most of the year. Even most Thai people would agree with that. From November to January it gets cool enough up here in the north of Thailand so that a Westerner might consider putting on a light wrap after dark. That’s when the Thais think it’s time to unpack some serious gloves and fur-lined parkas.

I’m sure Lake Como or Martha’s Vineyard would be more to my taste. I hear Norway is spectacular from June to August. All of that has nothing to do with me now, nor will it ever unless Fate has some amazing twists and turns in store for me.

But none of that matters, because I’m happy with my current station. After a week in Krabi, at the beach, I’m home again with my piano and my Chiang Mai routine. I don’t do a lot, my days are pretty free, and I make sure to rest plenty after the smallest of exertions. You can never be too relaxed in retirement.

In Krabi we had comfortable hotel rooms for around sixteen and seventeen dollars, the flight there and back came to eighty five dollars each. The only thing there that significantly more expensive than Chiang Mai was massage, which was double the price, so we mostly avoided it.

Tomorrow I’ll go to my swimming pool and do a kilometer. Takes me half an hour. I’ll be the only person in the water, an Olympic-sized fifty meter pool. Then I’ll take a nap in the afternoon, because even though a kilometer is some swimmer’s idea of a mere warm up, to me it’s the whole enchilada.

Even though my e-mail provider Microsoft Outlook would like me to believe otherwise by sending me my calendar for the day, which contains events and tasks apparently set by others, some of whom I don’t even know, I think I have the day off. I do know for certain that I didn’t create these “events” or “tasks” they insist are real and fixed. As far as I can see, my days are pretty much a blank slate. Most of the time, I have not consented to be anywhere or to do anything.

Today my virtual assistant informs me that I have three events, but it soothingly assures me “you don’t have any tasks for today.” Free to come and go as I please, I intend to hop on my motor scooter or bicycle and zip around town, or drive into the nearby mountains. My photo blog shows lots of pictures of hills and trees. They all look the same, but I keep taking more.

I will also find time to play Handel on my electronic keyboard.

The interesting and encouraging thing about practicing a musical instrument is that you get better even if you take a week off. In that time when you weren’t practicing, you still improve. If you take more than a week off, that effect begins to reverse itself. It is, however, counter-intuitive that progress can be made by not practicing. I guess the chemical bath in which my brain cells seep gets work done even when I’m not on board with that.

When you make a deliberate attempt to stop doing, you find that your body is doing many things for you. I was already impressed by the fact that my heart continues to beat without my permissions, and my lungs go about their breathing business without my direction or urging, but this brain percolating thing is really something. It does so without being plugged into the Internet or a power source. It’s half-an-hour before dawn and it’s still working fine, which means it’s not even solar-powered. Who thought this one up? Give that guy a prize!

GEEZER TRAVEL

 

HOW TO ROAM THE PLANET LIKE A TEENAGER WHEN YOU’RE A GEEZER ABROAD

I started wandering whenever possible right after I found out there was no law prohibiting it. I got my first passport when I was eighteen, and visited my first foreign country, Russia. The year was 1968. I celebrated by birthday in Leningrad, and our tour group went to the theater to watch a production of Swan Lake. The sun didn’t set that night, it just hid itself behind some buildings at eleven and rose again two hours later.

I was hooked on travel. Money spent on travel beat money spent buying things. Cars, houses, boats…you can keep ’em. They require maintenance, steadily depreciate, and are forms of bondage disguised as assets. People even borrow money to buy them! Go figure.

I started going to Mexico first. You could drive there. From Missouri it took twenty-four hours, but that didn’t seem like too much for my roommates and I from the University of Missouri campus in Columbia, Missouri. Inspired by a Bob Dylan song, we drove to Juarez and stayed at the Hotel Diamante for two dollars a night, split three ways. A beer cost eight cents. Mystery meat tacos grilled on the street cost the same. I was further hooked.

I made twenty more trips to Mexico until I found you could fly pretty cheaply to other places if you planned ahead. So I went to Ireland, England and France, back when the cost of doing so wasn’t prohibitive. A hotel room in the left bank of Paris was a cheap as a Motel Six in Columbia, Missouri, and a heck of a lot more interesting.

I never gave much thought to making money for most of my life because practical matters left me cold. I graduated from a prestigious graduate school with a degree in Playwriting. There seemed no obvious path to monetizing this diploma, so I moved to San Francisco with five friends and we acted in a comedy troupe. Again, the dollars just flew by but not into our pockets.

Life happened. When I had three kids with another on the way I moved back to the Midwest to see if I could score a teaching job. A few temporary appointments came my way, but nothing that spelled tenure. My kids grew older and so did I.

When I was about sixty I saw the handwriting on the wall, and it said “take action or be doomed to a life as a charity case.” So I widened by travel scope. I went to Argentina about fifteen times, Nicaragua twelve, Ecuador, Peru and Colombia. All excellent places, but then I discovered Thailand, where I now live.

I’ve been lucky, and I know it. Some people have been luckier and some not so much. I have a cousin who is a billionaire. He recently endowed a building at his alma mater’s business college. When he spoke to the students at the grand opening, he advised them to not bother to learn a foreign language, as it was his experience that the international language of business is English.

His sister told me this. It gave me pause. I imagine he was speaking the absolute truth from his experience. When he travels on business, someone meets him at the airport holding a sign with his name on it. He is taken to the convention center/hotel where the staff all speaks English. No matter where he goes, in his world everybody who’s anybody speaks English.

My experience has been the exact opposite of my cousin’s. Nobody I meet in my travels speaks English, because I only go to places off the beaten path in emerging economies that haven’t quite emerged yet.

My cousin is my age, and I hope to compare experiences with him before we both make that last journey to the great beyond.

One benefit I have enjoyed was learning Russian, Spanish and Thai. I suppose if that had been my main goal I could have achieved it far more directly and economically than enduring bus rides where my fellow passengers held life poultry, the bus room being reserved for luggage and hog-tied pigs.

Why Thailand?

It’s cheap, it’s interesting, and they have Thai massage. The people are sweet. I like the food better than the rice and beans with a smattering of chicken or pork they eat in most of Latin America.

Heck, you gotta settle down someplace. Not choosing is also a choice, and an expensive one. So I chose Chiang Mai, Thailand, and so far I have no regrets. When I get really old I might choose a mountain village somewhere, but hopefully in a place where I don’t have to learn yet another language.

It occurs to me that living in Chiang Mai, Thailand hasn’t really hampered my ability to be creatively productive. If I’m not writing or performing to the best of my ability, I can’t blame it on location. If I were hiding in a furnished room in Los Angeles, hunched over my laptop and drinking coffee from a paper cup (not Starbucks, too expensive) chances are my phone wouldn’t be ringing with offers from publishers, studios, or agents.

 

At the age of sixty-seven, I probably wouldn’t be going to parties a lot, either. The nightclub crowd would be unaware of my existence. Maybe I could pass myself off as Harry Dean Stanton’s younger brother, or Tommy Lee Jones’ cousin. A-list geezers.

No, I can’t blame Thailand for whatever difficulties I face as I trudge the lonely trail of senescence. Well, actually, there are a lot of us on that trail, only some are using walkers, others four-pointed canes, and the rest of us are hobbling with an uneven gait.

But again, what’s the alternative? The good doctors here are as good as they are in the States, at least as good at the doctors who will accept Medicare patients, and since the prices for medical intervention here are about ten times lower than in the States, that would about equal my deductible if I chose to return home to use the medical policy I paid for over a span of forty five years. That one, the one I don’t get to use over here.

Oh sure, the weather is too hot for me most of the year. Even most Thai people would agree with that. From November to January it gets cool enough up here in the north of Thailand so that a Westerner might consider putting on a light wrap after dark. That’s when the Thais think it’s time to unpack some serious gloves and fur-lined parkas.

I’m sure Lake Como or Martha’s Vineyard would be more to my taste. I hear Norway is spectacular from June to August. All of that has nothing to do with me now, nor will it ever unless Fate has some amazing twists and turns in store for me.

But none of that matters, because I’m happy with my current station. After a week in Krabi, at the beach, I’m home again with my piano and my Chiang Mai routine. I don’t do a lot, my days are pretty free, and I make sure to rest plenty after the smallest of exertions. You can never be too relaxed in retirement.

In Krabi we had comfortable hotel rooms for around sixteen and seventeen dollars, the flight there and back came to eighty five dollars each. The only thing there that significantly more expensive than Chiang Mai was massage, which was double the price, so we mostly avoided it.

Tomorrow I’ll go to my swimming pool and do a kilometer. Takes me half an hour. I’ll be the only person in the water, an Olympic-sized fifty meter pool. Then I’ll take a nap in the afternoon, because even though a kilometer is some swimmer’s idea of a mere warm up, to me it’s the whole enchilada.

No Plan, Still Time Passes

Even though my e-mail provider Microsoft Outlook would like me to believe otherwise by sending me my calendar for the day, which contains events and tasks apparently set by others, some of whom I don’t even know, I think I have the day off. I do know for certain that I didn’t create these “events” or “tasks” they insist are real and fixed. As far as I can see, my days are pretty much a blank slate. Most of the time, I have not consented to be anywhere or to do anything.

Today my virtual assistant informs me that I have three events, but it soothingly assures me “you don’t have any tasks for today.” Free to come and go as I please, I intend to hop on my motor scooter or bicycle and zip around town, or drive into the nearby mountains. My photo blog shows lots of pictures of hills and trees. They all look the same, but I keep taking more.

I will also find time to play Handel on my electronic keyboard.

The interesting and encouraging thing about practicing a musical instrument is that you get better even if you take a week off. In that time when you weren’t practicing, you still improve. If you take more than a week off, that effect begins to reverse itself. It is, however, counter-intuitive that progress can be made by not practicing. I guess the chemical bath in which my brain cells seep gets work done even when I’m not on board with that.

When you make a deliberate attempt to stop doing, you find that your body is doing many things for you. I was already impressed by the fact that my heart continues to beat without my permissions, and my lungs go about their breathing business without my direction or urging, but this brain percolating thing is really something. It does so without being plugged into the Internet or a power source. It’s half-an-hour before dawn and it’s still working fine, which means it’s not even solar-powered. Who thought this one up? Give that guy a prize!

QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS

Don’t you get lonely? Homesick? Don’t you feel lost in such a foreign country?

Maybe there’s something wrong with me, but no. I have just as many friends here as I’ve had anywhere. True, I can’t talk to most of the people who live here, but I don’t need to. Our paths don’t intersect. And there are surely enough people who speak English and are roughly in my position for me to talk with if I need to talk.

Sometimes I find that I’m hoarse because I don’t talk for days at a time. I live with a Thai woman whom I call my wife. She can’t speak English, and my Thai is pretty poor, so we don’t talk a lot. Talking is overrated.

I never miss the States. Never. Sometimes I worry that America will self-destruct and I’ll be stranded on the other side of the world with no source of income. But that’s not a terribly realistic concern.

A more reasonable concern would be a health crisis that would involve either me paying out of pocket here or flying home to take advantage of medicare. But that’s too big to worry about. I mean, yes, it will eventually come down to that, but there’s no way I can prepare for such a nebulous calamity. If I want to start up Medicare Part B, the one that pays physicians fees, I have to make that decision months in advance. And that will seriously impact my social security pension, which is pretty much all I have. Then there are drug costs in America, which are about ten to twenty times what they are here. So, I think I’m better off trying to stay healthy and stay here awaiting the inevitable. This is, as my friend Lawrence once commented, sudden death overtime. Whoever scores the next goal wins the game.

The good news is that funeral costs here are also a fraction of what they are in the States. A simple cremation runs to hundreds of dollars, not thousands. Not that funeral price should be my concern, but it will effect those whom I leave behind. I’ve already resigned myself to the fact that I’m not going to leave much an estate for my children. Maybe something will happen to change that, but I’m not holding my breath.

Why do you go to a place that’s full of sex addicts, child molesters and losers? Why not stay home, or retire someplace nice?

I freely admit that a lot of the reason I’m here, or would have been in Latin America, has to do with the cost of living. The cheap places of the world attract more than their share of alcoholics, sex addicts, child molesters, because they can get away with a little bit more before they come to reckoning. But that doesn’t mean that everyone here is an addict on the run, nor does it mean that Monaco and Zurich aren’t home to plenty of addicts. The ones in rich countries are less obvious. They’re more discrete.

Ex-patriate scenes are not inherently creepy. To me, Chiang Mai feels like a college town filled with old people. That’s because my friends remind me of myself in college. As now, back then I observed no strict schedule, and was willing to cut class at the drop of a hat. Drop acid and go skinny dipping? Let’s go!

More interested in fun than in study. For the first couple of years in college I was a chemistry major. I would watch the Chinese and Indian chemistry students study for hours each night, while I got high and wondered how to chase women more effectively. Their families had sacrificed to send them to America and I was working an hour a day as a busboy to support myself in school. My parents paid a few hundred dollars a year for my tuition. At state schools like mine, that’s all it cost back then.

Now, I’m surrounded by men and women living on small pensions. As long as they don’t get extravagant or go crazy, they’ll do just fine. We talk about where to buy cheese or bread, things that Thais don’t eat. We complain about visa restrictions. Back in the student union at the University of Missouri we talked about where to buy pot and how to avoid the draft.

Nobody Brings All Their Crap Here

A great opportunity inherent in retiring on the other side of the world is that you’re strongly persuaded to get rid of most of the crap you’ve been dutifully hauling around for the last thirty years. That dining room table with eight chairs, the sideboard, the wardrobe, the boxes of pictures and old tax returns, the clothes that you were going to wear again one day when you lost weight…all of it goes before you move many times zones away.

The airlines help with this by charging exorbitant rates for extra luggage. Nevertheless, I met a guy who had brought kayaks, canoes, a grand piano, oil paintings in a shipping container and then paid for it to be hauled up the entire length of Thailand to the mountains in the North. Some people take their shit seriously.

I arrived here three years ago with two suitcases. Since then, I have accumulated a minimal amount of “stuff,” the things that one puts in no particular order in boxes and then hides under the bed. I change residences every year, so I am not tempted to engage in recreational shopping. It was a lousy pastime anyway. Back in Iowa, I used to frequent auctions and delude myself into thinking I was running an antiques business selling the smallest items on eBay. Truth be told, I was simply a shopping addict justifying his addiction.

I was bored and I didn’t enjoy my job. The perfect recipe for cultivating an addiction, and I became very good at fooling myself into thinking this was “entrepreneurship!” Yes, I was the Donald Trump of funky boxes full of other people’s crap, stored in the garage until I had time to go through them all, photograph the best of the haul, and then haul the boxes back to the auction! Did I have a truck? No. Were my items neatly shelved and organized? Of course not!

Out of sight, out of mind. Then, when the garage door refused to close, I knew I had to change my ways.

Now, when I go to a big box store, or a Goodwill, and see the hollow eyes of middle-aged people wandering the aisles with full shopping carts, I feel a mixture of revulsion and sympathy. There but for the grace of God go I.

Living abroad as I do, I get comments from people who say “I wish I could do what you’re doing, but I have too much stuff that I can’t get rid of.” The next most frequent comment is “I’m on medications that I’m afraid I wouldn’t be able to get over there.” They’ve also bought into the phony medical insurance “benefit,” where you think your medical insurance is providing a level of cost reduction or security. Here in Thailand, medical costs are a fraction of what they are in the States, often less than the deductibles most insured people pay for services and drugs.

The Mildewed Walls of Lamphun

Lamphun is a city about 20 miles south of Chiang Mai.  It was, at one time, it’s own kingdom. The downtown is full of modest old buildings. Rents are relatively cheap in this miniature Chiang Mai, with a moat and old brick walls to match its more famous cousin just up the road.

Here are a variety of pictures of the walls around most homes downtown. In some cases, you can see something showing through.

 

Possibility at My Fingertips

vincent_price.jpg

 

Today I’m starting to record little one-minute shows for my new YouTube channel. If I can stumble across the right formula and then learn how to publicize it, I might end up with a job I enjoy that makes money. Stranger things have happened. I might prosper and enjoy life at the same time.

 

Of course, the ability to enjoy my life as it is right now has always existed, though I was unaware of the fact that happiness is a decision we  make more than what happens to us. I only learned that recently. Too bad I wasted so much time waiting for circumstances to change so I could finally know contentment. In that way, I was like most Americans, hoping that something I purchased would change my life for me.

 

This YouTube thing might not pan out, but that’s OK. I’m flexible. Maybe I don’t have what it takes to seduce 13 year olds across the world into watching me on their cellphones. Maybe I’m not the kind of person who can go viral. I can live with that.

 

 

My Tummy Hurts

11745694_1185147494844093_5911110358052343008_n

When I have an upset stomach, I don’t sleep well. My dreams are troubled, and the conundrums I’m wrestling with in dreamworld aren’t as easily understood or deciphered as a simple upset stomach. Likewise, in my waking hours I am constantly trying to blame or fix whatever I think is troubling me, but there I may also be way off base. The cause of my dissatisfaction may be hidden, or not what I think it is.

 

When I’m happy or content, I don’t waste a lot of energy wondering why, but when I’m not, then I start inventing complex scenarios. Sometimes it seems like YouTube is awash in people who are convinced that whatever they’re experiencing is somebody else’s fault. If only the Illuminati hadn’t started World War II and the Rothschild banks weren’t in charge of our political system, then I might stand a chance at being happy. But since they are, I’m doomed. We’re all doomed.

 

Seems like everyone with an online presence has got at least an upset stomach that’s causing them to dwell on the negative.

 

The problem with poo-pooing all conspiracy theories is that some of them are right on the money. One has to make great leaps of faith to believe even part of the 9/11 Commission report. The official explanation for what happened that day reads like a highly implausible tale invented on the spot by a madman.

 

We’ve seen this kind of thing before. Convenient how Lee Harvey Oswald, the supposed lone gunman in the Kennedy assassination, was gunned down only hours after his capture. Not much time there for a proper interview. There have been so many obvious false-flag events that have been unmasked after having served their purpose to justify invasions of sovereign states that it would almost take more effort to prove the reasons we bomb those weak enough to be bombed are real than not. Experience tells us we should assume we’re dealing with subterfuge unless proven otherwise.

 

But everybody likes to think that they’re sane and the people who they find most annoying are nincompoops. I like to post 9/11 conspiracy posts on Facebook, and then am amused by people who respond with “I’m so sick of reading this nonsense…” Then don’t read it, my man. Nobody’s forcing you to read my posts, much less comment on them. I suppose you’re either better informed or saner than I am. By all means, show me another picture of your cat. After all, this isn’t the nightly news. It’s Facebook.