Month: July 2018

Whistling in the Dark

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Arrogance can be cute in children but appears decidedly less so in adults. Presumption borne of inexperience is understandable. There are situations when humans are operating in the dark and forced to simply make stuff up in order to cope. These situations may be more common than we would care to admit.

The thirteen Thai boys who were trapped in the cave sat in the dark for over a week until suddenly, and from their perspective, unexpectedly an Englishman in a scuba outfit surfaced, shone a flashlight into their faces and asked “is everyone all right?” They assured him they were all OK. He said “Help is on the way” and went back where he came from.

Naturally the boys talked among themselves, and hatched a plan. The first boy they would send out would be the strongest of the group. He would be best able to quickly ride his bicycle from the cave entrance to his parent’s house and assure them they were OK. Little did these boys know that as each arrived to safety he would be conveyed by a personal helicopter to a hospital, assigned a personal physician, and that hundreds of millions of people in different parts of the world were watching the progress of their rescue with baited breath. They had no prior experience or current information to make them think their plan for the strongest boy to pedal home was not a sound one.

Another example of trying to make plans with limited data.

In the mix 1960’s, anthropologists discovered that people living on remote Pacific Islands had built replicas of radar towers, airplanes and army barracks out of bamboo. They were hoping these would once again attract “cargo.” The oldest members of their community remembered that over twenty years earlier, their peaceful island had suddenly swarmed with United States Army soldiers who built landing strips, barracks and then airplanes which arrived with cargo. The islanders’ lives were changed in an instant. The army and all that equipment stayed for a while, then when the war ended they quickly packed up and hurriedly left. A few things were inadvertently left behind, and these things became sacred objects, deciphered only by priests. The chief of their tribe would don a pair of headphones that had been rescued from the burn pile in order to hear spirit voices tell when Cargo would return. He chanted “Roger Wilco” into a bamboo replica of a microphone. Young people begged their elders to recant once again the stories of that glorious time, when their island was awash in cargo, when chewing gum and snickers bars flowed like water.

We like to think we’re more sophisticated than either of these groups for we know what’s up. We’ve identified the causative factors at work in our lives, that we’re in control of our algorithms and hence our destiny. But there’s a good chance that we’re just little boys whistling in the dark to keep our spirits up. If we enjoy good fortune, we like to take credit for it. If not, we complain bitterly and try to blame the persons or forces we imagine have robbed us of our happy birthright.

 

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Counting My Blessings in Thailand

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If I could only tune into the good luck I’m already enjoying, I would fret less. But first I have to become aware of my good fortune, and for someone with a pessimistic bent, that doesn’t come easy. It’s not like I’m obviously winning the lottery every day. My luck comes in drips and drabs, accumulating in secret places. Most of the time I don’t know where to look to find it. I’m much more acutely aware of what I don’t have.

Right now I can’t get this ten-year-old laptop to go online. It wouldn’t work at the hotel and it’s not working at a coffee shop. By the way, I am the only male out of twelve people in this coffee shop, Even though Thailand is a Buddhist Patriarchy, it’s really a Matriarchy. Women do everything, are everywhere, and the men are largely invisible.

So I’ll write, which is what I’m supposed to be doing anyway. Even though everyone else in this coffee shop is online, using their smart phones, I’m the one who considers himself a writer and am pecking away at a mute laptop.

Oops, now a policeman just entered the shop, so there are two males and twelve women. I just ordered another coffee, and even though my receipt will yied yet another Internet password, it is all for naught.

When I think about what is actually happening now, today, it is rather unusual. We’re riding a rented motor scooter through scary traffic to a mental hospital in Khon Khaen, the largest city in Isaan, a province of Thailand. There we will attend the closing two hours of a conference put on by Alcoholics Anonymous. There are a few Thai members and an equal number of Caucasian members. I may be called upon to take the microphone and speak for a few minutes. The greatest number of attendees are Thai men in hospital gowns, who are patients at the alcoholism and drug treatment program. They listen respectfully while the rest of us talk at them.

Most of we foreigners have decades of abstinence under our belts. The Thais, a few years. The patients, a few days or weeks. Maybe someone in the room has only hours, and to him this appears a hallucination, these elderly white men talking in a strange language and then a translator who has no idea how to talk into a microphone, translates what we say in a distorted growl, because he is holding the microphone too close to his mouth, and the level is set too high. Maybe they can understand him, but I who speak Thai better than all my peers can’t decipher a word.

Another two young women arrive. I think it’s safe to conclude that coffee shops are a young woman thing here. By now the policeman has left, called away to duty. I regain my role as sole sultan of this caffeinated harem.

What’s Travel Besides Going on Vacation?

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The most interesting part of travel is seeing the goodness in people in various places. There are plenty of kind, gracious, generous people in all corners of the world. Quite often they are neither rich nor celebrated. They are often extremely patient. They are generous with their time and those who have the least to give are often the most free with what they have.

I’m in Thailand, on the other side of the world from where I lived most of my life.

Every day I drive a motorcycle around this nutty country and don’t get killed, it’s a good day. I’m sliding by on motorcycle grace. There were hundreds of times today when I could have become a bundle of meat on the highway, and didn’t.

Every day my heart decides not to attack me, I’m a winner. Since I’ve already had a heart attack and survived it, chances are that’s the way I’ll meet the end, if I don’t first end up in a motorcycle wreck here in the country with the highest motorcycle fatality rate in the world.

Obsession or Enlightenment?

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Right next to our house is a ruined temple. It lies directly to our west, and in the evening the sun sets over the temple Lately, I’ve been photographing it every day, for the clouds change in the background. It can be quite dramatic.

I haven’t decided if I have developed the Buddha nature and can dig the profundity of everything around me, or if I’m just lazy and easily obsessed by that which takes little effort to find. Here, in northern Thailand, the vegetation doesn’t resemble anything in the States except maybe Florida. It’s the kind of place you need air-conditioning for most of the year.

Here are a bunch of pictures of this same view.

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A Fable, A Parable

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The ship had no captain, so the storms terrified the crew. They were already evenly split on believing that the navigator knew his job, but with no captain and no time or inclination for democracy, they were perpetually terrified. They were lost and a storm was raging all around them.

If only they could find respite from gale winds and crashing waves long enough to elect a captain they might be able to rekindle hope, but for now that seemed impossible. With each minute that passed, despair grew, until it was a palpable presence.

The crew began to fight among themselves. In the face of impotence, they ascribed blame. It was easier than doing nothing at all. Someone must be wrong, someone must be punished. Being right while others are wrong makes not knowing what to do slightly more tolerable.

In the face of all this uncertainty, some passengers and…

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While I’m still on the planet

 

 

I’m listening to Chopin nocturnes and wondering how someone who changed the world of music so completely came to be who he was, to achieve the level of mastery he did, and to persist creating something new despite few financial rewards. It just seems incredible that there was a world of music before Chopin that did not directly lead to his output. I’ve listened to others who pointed a bit in that direction, but he pretty much had the field all to himself. He invented the Nocturne and the Ballade. He sprang full-grown as a brilliant innovator. All over the world people are studying his music yet. Ten thousand Asian girls under the age of twelve are learning to play his compositions.

I am sixty-eight and I’m just about to launch into a Nocturne I’ve always admired but been reluctant to tackle because it’s either got four sharps or flats, depending on how you want to score it. Hopefully I’ll get to memorize it while I’m still on the planet.

What now? What next?

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What do most people do to pass the time of day? I don’t have the faintest idea, and I’ve already been alive for sixty-eight years. I never have the faintest idea what I should be doing with myself. Maybe that’s why I became a writer.

Writers don’t often know what they’re going to write when they sit down to do so. Inspiration arrives or it doesn’t. The words fly onto the screen or page or they don’t. Sometimes the output is a pleasant surprise; sometimes it’s a crashing bore. But it’s something. It’s an activity that forestalls me asking myself “now what?”

I’m well aware there are people with no active inner life. They tend to watch a lot of television. If you’re studying something, like a musical instrument, you can devote hours to practice. Because I’m retired, I do more than my share of practicing the piano.There are rewards…

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