I live in Chiang Mai, Thailand. We’re about eighty miles east of the Myanmar (Burma) border. At the moment, the Burmese army is doing their best to kill civilians, especially those from other ethnic groups than the ones that form the upper crust and the military. These ethnic groups, many of whom speak a different language than their tormenters are running for the Thai border.
Infection rates for Covid are high among certain populations, because Burma is a poor country (unless you’re a military officer) and their healthcare structure is primitive. Even here in relatively prosperous Thailand, vaccination hasn’t really started. The Covid vaccination rate is less than one percent.
So if tens of thousands of infected Burmese people rush across the 1200 mile lightly or unguarded border, we could face a lockdown much more oppressive than the ones we’ve already endured.
The women were sitting on my bed when I checked into the room. They didn’t seem terribly interested in talking to me, which was fine, because I was tired from my trip and just wanted to relax. Maybe they came with the room. I was too fatigued to care.
At first I assumed they were twin sisters, because they were dressed alike, pretty in the same way and about the same age. But then I realized they didn’t even speak the same language. Neither spoke a language I could identify. I decided this was one of those dilemmas that would turn out best if simply left alone. I didn’t cause it, I couldn’t cure it.
I took a shower and came out of the bathroom wearing a the complimentary plush bath robe that came with this VIP room. By then the two women had stopped sitting on the bed and were playing chess on an elegant mahogany table near the window. The view of the city below was astounding. The women seemed so wrapped up in their game they didn’t notice it, or me, for that matter. However, I noticed what seemed like a mob of people running down the street in front of our hotel. You could see tanks and trucks coming at the mob from the other direction. Flames.
When I turned on the TV all the channels showed the same thing: an announcement reading Peace and Unity. Patriotic music. Later, I would find the conference I had come here to attend had been cancelled. The Prime Minister was in hiding. The army was in charge. I should prepare for frequent power outages. Food and water may temporarily be in short supply. Stay tuned for further developments.
Twilight came and I must have fallen asleep. When I woke in the middle of the night, the two women had already left. In the morning, there was man sitting at the same table at which the women had played chess. He was eating breakfast.
“Sleep well?” he asked, as I sat up.
“Fine. Who are you?”
“The name is Joseph Jameson. I’m here to make you an offer you probably won’t want to refuse. Care for breakfast?”
I didn’t feel like asking who was paying for our meals, though I had the sinking suspicion I would ultimately be the one to pay for room service upon checkout. But when would that be, anyway, now that martial law had most likely been declared?
“We need a caucasian expert to talk on television. Do you have a doctorate?”
“I spent a couple of sememsters in a community college in Iowa,” I replied.
“We’ll refer to you as Doctor anyway. We need to assure the populace that everything is under control.”
“Sure. Someone is in charge. That’s all they need to know. Just remember to downwardly inflect your voice at the end of each utterance to imply certainty. These are facts, not opinions. You’re not looking for approval or reinforcement.”
“And after that?”
“We’ll confer with the Ministers of Environment and Interior. They’re hiding in the basement of the Palace of Democracy. We need to give them some talking points. We’ll be traveling with a retinue of beautiful young women. In this country that’s important, it shows that you’re somebody important.”
“And then what?”
“And then we pay you several thousand dollars for your time and ask you to be available again if needed. We don’t know how long this period of uncertainty will last.”
There was a car waiting in front of the hotel, with the two beautiful women who had been sitting on my bed when I arrived and three more, very pretty younger women. Here I found they are called “pretties” and are valued only for their looks and youth. They were demure and shy, but made sure to sit as close to me as possible wherever we were, because that was their job.
The man who had negotiated with me drove, but before he took the wheel he donned a chauffeur’s cap and leather driving gloves. I guess here if you want to be taken seriously you have to look the part.
At the TV station I sat in front of a green screen while the man and woman who interviewed me sat in folding chairs in front of me. I glanced at the monitor and saw that through electronic wizardry it seemed if we were sitting in front of a lush, tropical forest, with a swimming pool off to one side. I repeated the lines that I had been coached to say, “This was nothing out of the ordinary, just the routine growing pains of newly emerged democracies. Of course other nations sympathized but were not overly concerned. If called upon to help, they would gladly do what they could. The United Nations was on our side. Everyone was on our side.”
Apparently my handlers were pleased with my performance, for on our way to visit the Ministers In Hiding the girls snuggled even closer to me. The general mood was optimistic. A few bombs and sirens going off at random intervals failed to spoil the mood. Much.
When we found him, the Minister of Health was in the basement, hiding behind a copy machine. He didn’t seem much like a Minister, and was dressed in dirty coveralls, looking very much like a janitor at the end of a hard day. It soon occurred to me that his appearance was deliberate.
“What do they want from me?” he pleaded, looking at me imploringly. I feigned compassion as best I could.
“It’s not about you. They want democracy,” I assured him.
“We tried that before. It didn’t work. My people are not ready for demoracy. They want a strong leader, someone to believe in.”
“Where is the Prime Minister?”
“I wish I knew. I would punch him in the nose.”
Another voice joined us, coming from a nearby closet. “He’s not at fault. It’s the Army. You know that as well as I do.”
Another man stepped out. My guide introduced him as the Minister of the Interior. I expected him to talk about politics or the state of the nation, but he had only one thing on his mind. “Please, get me out of here. I’ll do anything.”
We offered to let him ride in the trunk of the car, hidden under some blankets. He managed to climb in unnoticed, and even though we stopped for drinks and didn’t invite him along, he wasn’t resentful. We dropped him off at the bus station, and he shook my hand warmly. “Maybe I’ll see you in Chicago someday. Or Omaha. I have a brother in law in Omaha.”
We took the girls to an enormous apartment building that ran along the river. They smiled and said something in their language, and I smiled back and waved. That was it. Then the driver took me to the airport and paid me more money than I’d made for one day’s work in my entire life. I hoped to hear from him again, but he never called.
All your struggles have ended. You efforts have paid off. Finally, after long last, you have received the rewards you so long deserved.
It only gets better after this. The pleasant surprises keep coming. Just when you think delight can’t get any more delightful, it does. Hoo boy!
You want to share the good news with friends and family, but then you remember that they might not have it so good, and you don’t want them to feel envy. There are too many of them for you to intervene in each of their lives and make them better. No, they’re going to have to find their own way, the same way you did, after all these years of wrong turns and outright stagnation.
No reason to focus on the negative or even remember painful parts of your past. That’s all behind you now! Forgive and forget!
The hardest forgetting you’ll have to do is to not dwell on the past. Your past mistakes can haunt you. Forgiving yourself will be out of the question if you dare dwell on them. Yes, you’ve squandered opportunities, let people down, been dishonest, acted like an addict. Let it go. Start fresh.
There’s a word for you! “Fresh.” Air that isn’t stale is “fresh.” Nobody’s breathed it before. A natural breeze has brought it your way. It might possibly be part of the “winds of change.” An atmosphere of hope.
But you can’t enjoy that breeze if you’re still repeating the same old routine. Tired routines are enacted in a sealed chamber, in dim light, often in secrecy. Open the door to that room and stride outside. Anything’s better than what you’ve done before. Any air is fresher than what you’ll find down there.
People like to think they’re more adventurous than they really are. They loudly lament boredom, but secretely crave routine. They want the comfort of the familiar spiced randomly with the unexpected. Not too much suprise, but just enough to keep things interesting.
And so it was in this mindset that Recipient-of-Notice Sherry left her house with the vague intention of looking for a job. Any kind of job, so long as it wasn’t demanding or laborious. The word “labor” gave her the creeps. She had the distinction of having been fired from every job she had ever held. Usually, this would happen at her thirty-day review. Bosses were diplomatic about it, often saying things like “it’s apparent that your talents lie elsewhere.”
Truth be told, she had no talents, at least not obvious ones. She was more of a customer than a content-producer. If you gave her money to spend, she could manage that, but her ability to earn money was quite limited. Almost zero.
She had once been engaged to be married, but they never got around to setting a date. His lack of enthusiasm grew as time passed, mirrored by her own. “Oh well,” sighed her mother “I guess it just wasn’t meant to be.”
“Huh” said Sherry, who was watching television.
“You and Brad were not destined to be together,” said Mom.
“Who’s Brad” Sherry, asked.
Sherry was rarely fully engaged by anything, even of her own invention. She was always acutely aware of how arbitrary all choices ultimately proved, how rarely anything really important ever came about. In an earlier era, one would have calleld her “jaded.”
Her mother Marge didn’t know what to make of her. She kept hoping the girl would catch fire and take a genuine interest in something or someone. After all, the girl was approaching thirty. No longer a teen or a college student. Youth could no longer be used an an excuse for non-performance.
I’ve been alive for a very long time, and this shows no signs of coming to an end any time soon. Who knows, I might live to be a hundred. Hopefully, I’ll discover some kind of medicine or supplement that makes my remaining tenure more pleasant that I’ve been used to as of late. Lately, I ache all over and everything seems too hard. I make no plans, because bringing them to completion would just be exhausting.
Has all this life experience made me wise? Good question. Compared to some I’m always been clever, but as for wisdom, no. I’m just lucky to have survived. I remember in high school learning that there were special hospitals for boys who had broken their necks by diving into shallow water. They were paralyzed from the neck down and would be until they mercifully passed away from some unrelated condition. “That could have been me,” I thought.
In my crowd we had the usual number of young men who drove their motorcycles into trees at high speed. I went to my share of funerals. I witnessed many a grieving parent.
Eventually, with my youngest son, I became that parent.
There are many experiences that are common to some which I have not yet sampled. I’ve never been to prison. I’ve never killed anyone, nor have I been shot or stabbed. I know among certain populations those are common experiences, but they weren’t for me, and for that I am grateful.
It doesn’t seem to be suffering the same way America is. When we get a new Covid case confirmed, it’s national news. The U.S. has 4,000 people a day DIE!
Thailand has had many coups since the monarchy was modified to a constitutional monarchy in 1938. But I’ve never seen the prime minister or the King urge on a band of rioters to attack the Parliament, and then laugh as they watch it on TV.
Brains don’t help in most situations. In fact, they’re often a liability. People don’t like smart guys, they like sincere, hard-working normal Joes. So if you happen to be extremely intelligent, don’t wear your smarts on your sleeve. Keep them secret and use them in situations where a favorable outcome will make you seem simply lucky.
All the best film actors know this trick. Play stupid and you’ll make the audience feel smart. Let them see you strain to make sense of your character’s predicament. Allow them to see the wheels turning in his or her tiny brain.
Sympathy begins to have a chance when you stop threatening people. Stupid people know this deep-down, and use it to their advantage whenever their intelligence fails them. They affect a puppy-dog look complete with big, watery, sad eyes.
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.