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.