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.

Work in Progress

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This morning I took a strong pharmaceutical stimulant and will use the added energy and my newly focused attention span to write a novel which I will complete by tonight, when the drug has worn off. Now I am experiencing elation, my mood is soaring, and I can hardly type fast enough to keep up with my thoughts. Yes, I must remember to tell the story of that time in Los Angeles fifty years ago when I came upon a coffee shop full of transvestites. And the altar boy story, don’t forget the one about the time I fell through the ice, or the cave in Mexico that was full of human excrement, and the monkey that broke into my room in Nicaragua. All this must be preserved and fitted neatly into a narrative!

Plot and structure do not come easily to me, but colorful details are a dime a dozen. Obviously the protagonist should be a thinly disguised version of me, and all the zany characters and outlandish happenings can easily be summoned from my memories, which now swirl about me like colorful mists.

The climax will involve a near-death experience, when I am comforted to learn that the soul persists after painlessly passing through the veil. In this novel I will experience true love, meet my soul mate, the one who was conceived with me in mind. I will be tempted by fame and fortune, but reject both in favor of more substantial and long-lasting pleasures.

As I write, I can imagine the movie that will be made. Johnny Depp can play me. But who will play me as a boy? As an old man? I can’t deal with that now, I have to keep typing.

To whom will my protagonist disclose his deepest and darkest thoughts? A sidekick. Dennis Hopper would have played him in the movie, but he’s been gone for a while now. The new American Friend. Weird little guy who is humble to the point of maybe being retarded. A good listener. He doesn’t judge. At the climax he is suddenly and unexpectedly killed in a horrific accident. “Good-bye little buddy. And thanks.”

Will any of the women who come and go throughout this story be virtuous and honest, or will they all be deviously addicted to silly dreams of soul mate romance? Will they all be in therapy, or will one reject the popular paradigm? In order to appeal to modern readers and viewers, at least one female character must prove to be strong and decisive, but there is no need to make her a romantic interest.

Oops, I’ve done it now. My thoughts are racing so far ahead that I’ve lost track of my center, my core. My monkey mind is all that I can access, and it’s chattering away like bad talk radio, like a taxi dispatcher’s radio squawking constantly even if no one is listening.

Maybe Jack Kerouac had ingested a different form of speed when he wrote “On the Road.” The continuous roll of paper that fed through his typewriter kept getting inked., but my digital diary is winding down. It sputters, and then it stops.

 

 

Orange Moon Rising Over Tak

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A hot day,  a warm night with a steady breeze from the West. Across those mountains the sun is setting behind lies the country of Burma, or Myanmar as it likes to call itself nowadays. Happy teenagers crowd around the food stalls on the banks of the river, near the foot bridge that crosses it. There’s  still a lot of dust and smoke in the year, for it hasn’t rained in  months. To this Midwesterner it feels like October, but it’s almost March. Soon, hot season will arrive. The rains won’t come until June.

 

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Me, Hold a Grudge?

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After four hours of riding the motorcycle in the heat and dust, I treated myself to a ninety-minute Thai massage at the shop near our hotel in Tak. We’re two-thirds of the way home. Time to celebrate.

The shop was cool and quiet, the lady masseuse seemed to know what she was doing. But then the client in the next bed over was one of those Thai men who are totally addicted to his cell phone. Even while getting massaged, he needed to watch an action movie on his phone, complete with explosive sounds and occasional screams.

Surely, the sweet girl working on him would suggest he turn the phone off. No such luck. She worked away, smiling placidly, while I imagined getting up, calmly talking his phone and throwing it out the window. But then I realized, he would protest, so I might as well simply climb on top of him and pummel him in the face with my fists, as rapidly and forcefully as possible. Come to think of it, I might as well strangle him for good measure, lest he summon the strength to retaliate.

This train of thought did nothing for my mental of physical state of relaxation. I think my therapist might have noticed my tension, for she said something and the man turned his phone off. I managed to will myself limp for a few minutes, and that seemed to reset my racing mind.

Only a few minutes passed before I found myself recalling the treasurer of a self-help group of which I was once a member, who calmly announced at one of our meetings that since the mother of one of our members had recently died, she authorized spending forty dollars to send flowers to the funeral. She was sure no one would object, so she hadn’t brought it up before. I remember thinking, “That’s the last donation I’ll ever make when they pass the basket.”

Then I recalled that this incident happened at least twenty years ago. Why was it still floating around in my brain?

I used to think I possessed an especially easy-going nature, not harboring grudges due my my inherent sweetness. But then I realized I still remembered the time I loaned a boy in my third-grade class a nickel. The year was 1958. We were standing with some boys our age at the local five and dime, near some gumball machines. He asked me if I could borrow a nickel. I had a nickel, and I wanted to fit in with these boys and he was a “cool kid,” good looking and popular. His father had a good business. My father was unemployed. We had recently moved to town, hoping he would find work. So, I said “OK, I’ll lend you this nickel, but you have to promise to pay it back.”

He laughed and said “of course I will.”

The next week, at the same spot, I asked him to return my nickel. He sneered and barked scornfully, “it was only a nickel!” The other kids laughed. I remember the moment as if it were yesterday. I remember where the others were standing, the way the light came into the store through the automatic doors out onto the street. Something calcified inside me at that moment, something that I have used as justification for harboring that resentment for sixty years.

No wonder I find it hard to relax sometimes.