A Blank Slate




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!

Back In The Game




The  new job turned out to be no job at all. As is all the rage nowadays in office design, the work area was common. It felt like a university student union cafeteria. People younger than me sat at tables staring at their laptops. Coffee cups everywhere.


I had answered an ad, and the interview made it seem like something I’d be good at: writing quirky, interesting social media posts for a variety of products and causes. This is what I do anyway, for hours at a time, and if anyone is good at skimming the surface of things it’s me. Superficial is my middle name.


The others who I guess I should consider my co-workers, though I never saw anyone actually do anything I’d call “work,” considered themselves “Digital Nomads” and most seemed to own expensive Apple computers. Maybe their parents paid for them. Almost everyone sported a bluetooth earpiece. The men wore short hair and bushy beards. The women seemed unhappy and secretive.


I didn’t witness a lot of writing going on. Maybe they were coders. I’m still not sure what that means, but I say it every once in awhile to make it seem like I’m hip.


The first day at work I read some stuff and posted my takes on it. Nobody complimented me and nobody complained. After a few hours I decided to go home and wait for feedback. When I didn’t get any, I came back to the common workspace and did it again. Heck, if this was work, give me more of it. After a month, I got a raise.


As a retired expat living in Thailand, an emerging economy, I have become used to living on very little, so any increase in my meager pension is welcome, the more so for not being needed. I have no big plans anymore. I don’t want to own much, create much, or administer much. I don’t want to take care of anybody but myself, and even that gets easier the less I attempt.


So the idea that someone would pay me simply to be me seemed so astounding that I found it hard to believe. I had to leave my home country to have value. But it’s happening! I’m in the workforce again, but for the first time in many years as a winner, not a loser.


First thing when I realized this was going to work was to spend a good deal of mental energy imagining ways to mess it up. Surely I could become cynical and bitter for no good reason, for this has been my modus operandi in the past and I’m good at it. Even as I generated post after post I dreaded the moment when eventually someone would call me into an office and ask “Are you happy here?”


But so far that hasn’t happened. In fact, there’s no evidence this is in the works. So with my extra Internet energy and time I decided to launch my own YouTube channel.


Realizing that the popular video site is already awash in many old men ranting about this or that, I decided to hire a spokesperson, a cute Russian girl who speaks English in a charmingly erratic way. I have her read the usual YouTube content, conspiracy theories about the coming economic collapse, Rothschild domination of International politics and banking, FEMA sites, Obama and the Pope as Antichrist, Area 51, Reptilian Aliens among us, common household cures for cancer that the Medical Establishment won’t tell you…and these she delivers in her fetchingly obtuse way. The fact that she has little grasp of the content only makes her more watchable. Her inappropriate inflections are half the fun.


The first week we scored half a million views and then it really took off.  My share of Google ad revenue will soon surpass my salary at my new job. I gave Nadya a raise, but not too much of one, for I don’t want her getting any ideas about starting her own channel.


Content creation is easy, especially if you’re willing to simply copy what’s already out there.


I can’t say that any of this actually made me happy. It was nice to feel apart of something again, in the swing of things, but there was an equal sense that this was all nonsense and would soon dissolve as quickly as it had arrived.


Nadya would come once a week to record her video presentations. When it became obvious that we were onto something, I was tempted to buy a better camera, but then realized that by simply using her smartphone, the image gave her credibility. Eschewing a tripod, we set the phone on a desk, leaning against a few books, and that was that. It was close enough to her so we didn’t even need to use an external mic. And an excellent diffuse light came in through the windows of our common space, though I found that if we tried to record in the mornings it was too bright and there was too much activity in the room. An hour before dusk was perfect.


She usually brought a handsome young man with her, though as far as I could tell it wasn’t the same young man each time. These young Russian men and women are all over Thailand. They’re extremely good-looking and I get the impression they support themselves through modeling, although I’ve heard the wages paid by agencies and producers are pitifully low. Russians in Thailand are under special scrutiny by immigration, as the recent collapse of the ruble makes it hard for them to get by. The equivalent of thirty dollars for a day’s work is standard. I paid Nadya more than that, but not so much more that she would attract undue attention.


The boyfriend seemed disinterested in Nadya’s performances, and would wait for her while hunched over his phone, often wearing ear buds.  At first I tried being cordial, but after a few times of being ignored I decided to let him, whomever he was, have his space. Besides, he probably wouldn’t be here next week anyway.


This tangential glimpse into their lives made me realize I wasn’t the only lost soul in voluntary exile abroad. All these people disconnected from family and friends, wondering what they should be doing with themselves in the long run. We are the new legion of the damned, wandering Jews.


At least the Thai people who were born here know why they’re here. All of us, Thai and foreigner alike, believe that our lives are important, our comfort deserved, our plans worth striving for. Even the person sweeping the sidewalk believes his is a noble act, that it “makes merit” in some way. Most of the Thai people I’ve seen sweeping in public don’t seem to think the act is beneath them. Few Thais scowl when so engaged. I imagine if they hired foreigners to sweet the streets, we’d find an organized way to make it too expensive and complicated to do.


Until recently, I seem to have spent a lifetime grimacing while facing each new day. I want someone, somewhere to recognize that this has all been a tragic mistake, that I was meant for better things. I am Scuffy the Tugboat, from the Little Golden Children’s Books. And now that fortune has favored me, you’d think I’d be able to grin and relax, but a lifetime peeved is not easy to turn into one suffused in humble gratitude.


The calls started the beginning of the next month, after Google released data on website traffic. People called offering their services at increasing my already impressive numbers, a few called offering to purchase my site. For some reason Nadya was most popular in Paraguay and Turkmenistan. Her numbers were also impressive in Hungary and Nicaragua. There were tentative movie offers, but nothing substantial enough for me to bring them to her attention. Someone had already named a fish after her, but I doubt if that person had the International Authority to do so.  That fish-naming call had come from a scuba diving service in Australia.


I took none of this too seriously. If my unexpected success were to be a real, life-changing phenomenon, then it would last and develop naturally. If not, it would make a good story.


Nadya asked for a raise a few weeks later. This time she came to the video session with a new boyfriend, a mean-looking guy with a prominent scar across one cheek. Like her other companions, he ignored me, but she had changed. She was wearing much more makeup for one thing, and was dressed like a hooker. Maybe this was nothing new, maybe she always had been augmenting her income in this way, but now she looked the part.


I agreed to double her pay, but asked that she return to her former image, the slightly daffy, baffled girl. She returned from the ladies room with the makeup removed, but didn’t seem as happy and carefree as she had before. When I asked her if we were still on for the same time next week, she seemed tentative.


Over the next week I started bracing myself for what seemed a probable transition. I would need to find another spokesperson in case this one left. The concept was, I assured myself, the real treasure. Naive girl reads scary news. Everything is a false flag event, but you already knew that, it was just fun to watch her say it.


Meanwhile, at work they had me doing the most repetitive writing. For some reason, I had become the man of the hour when it came to publicizing skin-whitening creams targeted to Asian women. After the first hundred posts, I had run out of novel ideas, and found myself fighting the urge to say racist things I remembered from growing up in Missouri.  “You can never be too white!”  “How white of you!”


The next week, Nadya didn’t show for her session. I waited for an hour, then was on my way out of the building when I saw her latest boyfriend leaning up against a car and waiting for me. His message was succinct. “Nadya want thousand dollars.”


I laughed and kept walking. Actually, I was quite relieved. As I rode my motor scooter home, I felt like a kid in an ad for motor scooters. A thousand pounds lighter, floating down the road.


I quit the job and bought some pro-equipment, lights, camera, microphone and tripod. Having succeeded one way, I decided to try again on exactly the opposite track. I would be the host, wearing makeup to exaggerate my wrinkles and decrepitude. Instead of fear-mongering, I would only repeat happy news. Lost puppies found, baby kittens rescued, orphans adopted, the hungry fed and disease eliminated. It worked. Using the same YouTube channel, my viewers stuck with me, and within a month I was getting even more ad revenue, more offers from others.


Thus began my new life under the grace of Google, one post at a time.


Primed For A Drone Strike


I guess it all started when I became Amazon Prime. For some reason they told me that I qualified for free membership in their exclusive buyers club, and that from now on, free and nearly instant shipping for all my purchases would apply.


When I’m bored I like to shop online, and even before I became Prime have been guilty of buying things I don’t need, just because they seemed inexpensive. I have been surprised the next day to find a box or two or three from Amazon on my front porch, containing things I barely remember buying.


I wonder what possessed me to buy three kilts in different patterns? Surely one would have been enough, for I have never yet worn even one of the kilts in public, and it doesn’t look like I’m likely to do so anytime in the near future. And even though a nose flute is an easy instrument to master, I don’t know why I needed to buy one made from African Ebony.  Wouldn’t a plastic nose flute have sufficed?


OK, I forgot to add that I like to drink while I shop late at night, when everyone else is asleep. I sometimes I take Ambien to help me sleep, which as far as I can see is either a harmless or terribly dangerous drug. You can never tell what’s going to happen when you take Ambien.


Once after taking Ambien I came to standing in line at our local twenty-four hour supermarket, my arms full of groceries. It was three in the morning and I was naked. The others in line just ignored by nakedness, as did the cashier, a fact for which I am eternally grateful.


I decided that I must take action to break my dependency on online shopping, so I flew across the world (on a ticket purchased at a very reasonable price online) to a tropical resort. It proved excruciatingly boring, not just for me, but for all the guests. We sat dazed in the common area during the long, hot afternoons, staring at our laptops and cell phones, hoping for stimulation that we could not find in sun and surf. None of us had the least idea what to do with ourselves. Our hosts offered us speedboat rides to neighboring islands, but they promised to be carbon copies of this.


Of course, there was no point in going to the Amazon site, because even the most powerful drone could not make good on their Prime promise of two-day delivery. After a couple of brief swims in the warm, salty water, what was a person to do? I stopped wearing my watch, for watching the minute hand crawl in agonizing slowness was torture. My waterproof watch which only days ago had brought me joy, for it was accurate to the millisecond, using at atomic signal sent by shortwave radio to recalibrate itself, this the advanced Timex I had purchased only weeks before as one of my first Prime purchases, now totally without function. Here I was stuck in paradise unable to practice my primary addiction. I had signed up for two weeks of this, and there were no refunds to be had.


One afternoon I’d finally had enough. I snapped. “Boring!” I began to mutter, then grumble, then pronounce, then shout. “This place is boring!”


I looked around at my fellow vacationers. They hadn’t heard me, or if they had, they weren’t going to give me the satisfaction of being noticed. Most of them were wearing earbuds. I guess they were listening to the same music they listened to back home. I looked over at the bar, a separate hut on the beach. Two women and a man were actually talking to one another, but I suppose that could be attributed to the alcohol they were drinking.


Maybe I should close Facebook and concentrate on reading or writing something of substance. But then there was another ding alerting me to someone’s comment on one of my posts and I just had to look. Someone had used one of the new emoticons instead of the like button. Big deal. Summoning all my courage, I closed the app. I swallowed hard and began to shake. Looking around the common space I saw that everyone was still glued to their phone or laptop. No one was talking, or smiling, and the gentle lapping of surf as the tide came in was occasionally drowned out by a motorcycle driving down the sand path outside.


That’s it! Suddenly it came to me. I should start a recovery program for people addicted to social media!  Facebook and Twitter addicts who have lost all hope of ever freeing themselves from their desperate need for Internet community approval.  So I took action.  I made flyers and announced a meeting for Internet Addicts Anonymous.  We would meet in my bungalow that evening at 8.


For this, I decided to upgrade from the simple shack I was renting to a larger one, with air-conditioning. It was like moving to a palace. So what if the room was four times as expensive as the hut I’d been staying in, I was finally moving forward again.


Four people showed, two men and two women.  I recognized them from the community dining area we all shared. One of the men, a deeply-suntanned fellow even older than me, pretty much had his own table which he occupied all day. He smoked and divided his time between a mini-laptop and a smartphone. The two women seemed pretty normal, except they wore a lot of what I would call “bling.” Rhinestone-studded sandals, flashy turquoise bracelets, sunglasses with designer carrying cases. I could just imagine the price descriptions. “Regularly $189, now $59.”


The other man didn’t say much. He looked like a retired high school principal, which he well may have been. I got the impression he might get up and leave at any moment, so I braced myself for that event, promising that I wouldn’t let it upset the group.


We began by introducing ourselves, and then I made an opening statement about my tendency to shop in a trance state and then be surprised the next day or two by finding the purchases on my porch. I saw the others nod their heads. Then one woman suggested I was “powerless over Prime,” which I found poetic, but I thought she was headed in a Twelve-Step direction that might derail our little recovery group before it began, so I merely responded with “Yes, you might say that.”


The other woman suddenly confessed “I spend over eight hours a day on Facebook. That’s too much, right?”  Nobody said anything. The suntanned man said “I got you beat,” but then didn’t offer a precise figure.


“Should we go the Twelve-Step route?” I asked the group. Three of the four shook their heads “no.” Do you really want to change? Again, the same number shook their heads. The high school principal looked out the window like he finally saw someplace he’d really like to be. He suddenly spoke up.


“Why don’t we transfer addictions?  If we simply give up what we’re doing, we’ll feel empty and lost.”


“Good idea,” murmured the other three.


“Sex?,” suggested the suntanned man. “Swingers Group?”


The women looked sad.


“Gambling,” countered the principal. “Texas Hold ‘Em. You can make money if you’re sane and sober and willing to put in the time. And it’s extremely addictive.”


So that’s how it began, the thing that really took hold of my life, that changed me in ways I never could have predicted. I now never worry about price. Promotional pricing and discounts leave me cold. In fact, the cost of things doesn’t interest me. If I really want it, I’ll pay whatever price I have to in order to have it.
The five of us formed a tight little group, and since then we’ve recruited as many more. We all live together in a rented mansion in a place where the cost of living is a fraction of what we were used to. No longer victims of an obsession, we’re now entrepreneurs.