Month: July 2016

VOYEUR?

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Sometimes I wonder if my attraction to Facebook and my habitual Internet news sites is voyeurism. Why else would I be so attracted to the superficial aspects of other people’s lives? Why else would I care so much about photography, and spend so much money and time to take pictures of people I don’t know or care about?

 

It’s not healthy. Not good for me or anybody else. It’s normal for early adolescents to be easily hoodwinked by an over-concern for appearance, but it’s tragic to see it in adults. At sixty-six I think I finally merit that classification, even though I often seem to have the mental makeup of a fourteen-year-old.

 

What is the difference between me sneering at Melania Trump at the Republican National Convention and an old lady peering through her curtains and judging her neighbors? Do I really care if the Clinton Foundation is corrupt? What does any of it have to do with me, anyway?

 

Now the news has become a 24 hour entertainment venue. I can watch it and think that by being an informed citizen I’m doing something productive, but I know that’s not really the case. If my use of the Internet and social media were to encourage and support others who were actually trying to do something productive, it would be a non-pathological use of these media, but all this gawking and rubbernecking in front of my laptop is getting me down. Guess I have to find a life that’s not about consuming and sharing images.

 

In this part of Chiang Mai, for some reason the power goes out often. Sometimes I can imagine an explanation for why it has failed, and other times, I simply shrug and look at the overhead wiring, a rat’s nest of weathered cables. Now that the rainy season is finally here it has cooled off a bit, so a temporary lack of air conditioning is no longer life-threatening, but it’s annoying to suddenly be deprived of the Internet. My computer freaks out. You’d think it was a Chromebook instead of a real laptop, but nowadays there’s little difference. Windows 10 is alarmed that it can’t verify my log-in, even though I never asked to have to log-in to begin with.

 

In fact, I never asked for Windows 10 to begin with. They sort of bullied me into it by warning me that the systems I had paid for and use in the past were no longer available. I used to think Google was the good guy, but now I think all these browsers and email providers are insufferable, trying to upload every image I capture or word I write, in case I might want to “share” it later with my “friends” who are obviously voyeurs like me. What they really want to do is become my storage provider, and eventually charge me for that service. I hate them.

 

Yes, I spend far too much of my time online, yes I do suffer from withdrawal pains if I am offline for more than half a day, yes, I care far too much about the reactions of my “friends” to my innumerable posts which are often simply cries for attention. Help, I’m on the other side of the world, living as an economic refugee in a country where no one speaks English. Sometimes when I’m out on my motor scooter I come across an elephant walking down the road. How’s that for noteworthy and unusual? Better take a picture and share it with someone who might think it unusual and even better, might envy me for having such an interesting life.

 

It’s all so horribly junior-high. Am I popular with my classmates? Mix that adolescent anxiety with the bucket-list concept for those heading to the last round up. As death approaches, I have a duty to myself and others to consume peak experiences that can be photographed, videoed and succinctly described in a caption that would not bore or confuse. If I fail to tick off the boxes on my bucket list, then I will end my days as a confirmed loser.

 

How do we escape this superficiality? By having a set of core beliefs that resist the ebb and flow of fads, the manipulations of advertising, the trends promoted by magazines (the whores of advertising), and the rigorous and soul-deadening edicts of the Establishment, whoever they might be at the moment.

 

When I was in high school during the Vietnam war, I would watch John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show, making fun of hippies and war protesters. I knew these men were not on my side. If push came to shove, they would be on top and I would be on the bottom. I vowed then and there to have nothing to do with them, the armed forces, ROTC, the Republican Party, Barry Goldwater, Richard Nixon and any of his minions, the names of whom: Haldeman, Ehrlichman, Kissinger…still make me queasy to this day. I recently learned that after John Wayne died, doctors found that he had eighty pounds of impacted fecal matter lodged in his intestines. This news did not surprise me.

Adoration Part 2

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What, if anything, might adoration teach us?

 

When I witness great beauty, I get all excited about the idea that it’s a doorway into even greater beauty. That’s it’s a portal to the transcendent. So when I hear a piece of music or see a painting or read a story that really knocks me out, I don’t just appreciate that in itself, I’m hoping that it’s the first taste to a much larger meal. I’m hoping it means something.

 

This desire to find import is hardwired into we humans, and if course like most instincts, they can far exceed their intended purpose and drive us and others crazy. When I find that my breath has been taken away by something outside myself, I get my hopes up. Just minutes before I was resigned to life being just this and no more, and suddenly it’s much, much more! It’s fantastic. I’m surrounded by things that are adorable!

 

When the Swiss scientist who first synthesized LSD left his lab and rode his bicycle home for lunch, he fell off the bike into a field of flowers and knew that he was not only tripping, but had made a great discovery. The world is more than what we thought it was.

 

Here are a few musical works that have given me a glimpse of the divine.

 

Bach Keyboard Concertos.

Chopin’s Ballade Number One and his Barcarole

Horowitz playing Lizt’s transcription of Wagner’s Liebestod.

Louis Armstrong playing “Strutting with some Barbecue”

Bix Biederbecke playing “Singing the Blues”

The Who playing “Won’t Get Fooled Again”

Anything by Elmore James

 

This is a short list of my faves, and I’m sure you have your own. There are Hopper paintings that not only take my breath away, but have the same reaction for tens and thousands of us. The hairs on the back of our necks stand up and salute the infinite.

 

This is adoration in progress. I want more of it. I want it at least every day. So how do I get there?

 

My intuition tells me it has something to do with getting out of myself long enough to really notice my surroundings. Stilling the chatter of the monkey brain. Looking for the good rather than finding fault.

 

I think there’s more to it than that, but it’s a place to start. I don’t think it’s too much to ask that my life be more about laughing and rolling around in a field of flowers than planning and scheming to get what I think I want or need.

WHAT TO ADORE?

Ancient Angkor Wat

 

I am now studying the Thai alphabet with the purpose of learning to read and write.  As a sixty-six year old, it has been about fifty-nine years since I first began this process, but on the other side of the globe and in English. Like learning to ride a bicycle, or swim, or play a musical instrument, rote learning is often tedious and humbling. By now I am used to engaging in activities in which I’ve already attained a degree of competence. But not here. I am fearful that I will be the only one in the class you can’t memorize and identify the strange letters. I waste energy blaming the Thai language for its multiplicity of letters, many of which seem redundant.

 

Wipa is studying English, and can already read and write our alphabet. Yesterday she showed me the word “adoration.” I thought that an odd word for a beginner to learn, but she didn’t think so, as religion is a big part of Thai culture. Buddhists Monks spend a lot of time praying, and some of that adoring this or that. Anyway, she didn’t think it an odd vocabulary choice.

 

That got me thinking about adoration. We modern, educated Westerners don’t spend a lot of mental energy in adoring anyone or anything. Adoration is for teenagers. Celebrities are adored. Hildegard von Bingen adored the Risen Christ, but the average American has to be content with admiring Kobe Bryant.

 

When was the last time I adored anyone? That took a while to summon from the memory soup. In eighth grade I adored a chubby girl with a sweet face whose name escapes me. My adoration of her was not a pleasant affair. I felt quite ill whenever she entered the room, because my desire for her was all-encompassing.

 

The last time I remember a pleasant and prolonged state of adoration was when I was in graduate school.  I was stoned on marijuana and listening to Bach’s Keyboard Concerto Number Three, the Adagio movement, and the snow was falling outside. Transfixed in rapture, my jaw dropped, I stared out at the heavy flakes falling in blue twilight, and understood for the first time the majesty of Bach’s accomplishment. I may have been drooling.

 

In my limited experience, adoration was ecstasy. I could stand some more of that. But who or what to adore, and how can I ensure my ability to notice that which is adorable?

 

If I could somehow manufacture a heightened emotional reaction to my study of the Thai alphabet, it would make remembering the letters easier. Because I find so much of modern life annoying, I dismiss it as being beneath the dignity of my attention. That kind of habitual process is a self-affirming prophecy. Not much room for adoration there.

 

But I long for complete engagement, for bliss, for transcendent moments that last more than a millisecond. The only way I know to have experiences worth remembering is to be as fully present as possible, which is hard while watching television or browsing Facebook.

 

Going Through The Motions


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It’s 11:17, Friday, July 8, 2016. I struggle to remember the year.

 

I’m sitting in a hippy cafe in Chiang Mai, a venue a lot like the hippy cafe I once lived above in San Francisco. That was forty years ago, so the hippies have changed, but not superficially. Blond kids with dreadlocks.

 

I don’t think I’ve changed much. I still don’t work for a living, and have plenty of time to hang around in hippy cafes. They have a  thing called the Internet now, and everybody’s staring at their laptops, including me, because I’m typing. I can’t remember what we did back then. Read?

 

Forty years ago instead of a laptop computer I had a portable typewriter and a bottle of white-out. As typists go I was fast and accurate, because other than my theatrical vocation of being an actor in a comedy troupe, typing for lawyers was my only source on income. Temporary Employment agencies would send me on assignments, usually to fill in for someone who was on vacation from their office job. The best paying of those jobs involved typing for lawyers, because they needed a lot of typing done and could bill their clients at a higher rate.

 

I never really thought of it as work, or of myself as a typist. I was an actor and a writer. Those were my calling. Typing was an intermittant day job. You can still run into lots of young people like my former actor self in big cities. New York and Los Angeles have the greatest number. They’re not really waiters or waitresses, they’re actors or dancers or writers just going through the motions until their big break.

 

That way of living is that it invites you to dismiss the importance of the present moment for some hypothetical future pay-off. It’s a guaranteed recipe for disillusion and unhappiness. It also insures that your performance as a waiter or typist will be half-hearted.

 

Now my excuse for not thinking what I’m doing is vital or important or even really real is because I’m retired and living in Thailand. This place is so completely different from where I came from that I can use novelty as a shield.

 

But it’s not that different, at least this cafe isn’t. It’s full of foreigners, children of privilege, college educated and adrift with their savings and trust funds. I remember the waitress at that San Francisco cafe sported a nose ring and went barefoot. She was a graduate of Oberlin College, with a degree in Women’s Studies. She asked me if I were going to the anti-nuke rally. I asked what aspect of nuclear were they protesting? Nuclear bombs, nuclear power, medicine? She made a face and scoffed “all of it!”

 

Not much has changed, even though forty years have passed and I’m on exact other side of the world.

 

A sound truck playing Thai music just passed, reminding me of where I am. A twenty-something couple who seem European just ordered smoothies. The more things change the more they stay the same.