Saturday, September 19, 2009

A Home for Hip Geezers Part 3

This narrative started out being about hip geezer homes but then morphed into a screed about crunch times. In my mind they are strongly linked, but in reality don’t need to be. I’ll get to both, but first the latter. In biblical terms it’s referred to as The Great Tribulation; the worst times ever to befall the world. You know, when the proverbial shit hits the proverbial fan; when all world systems break down: succinctly characterized, if I must say so myself, by the phrase Entropy Gaia, which I coined in my novel, Y3K (which few have read but all but the intellectually challenged have liked… it has too many big words). (Forgive the shameless plug.)

In theory, at least, Cambodia like Oregon will fare better during hard times than many places because of the abundance of water, the most essential ingredient of survival. Like Oregon, its ground water has never been tapped to any extent. Many people here survive on extremely little, so will probably fare better than those who now live high whose fall will be extreme.

One problem here is that few country people have the small money it takes to have a well dug. I paid $350 for a twenty meter deep well which included a concrete pad and cast iron hand pump. Even in dry season ground water is only three or four meters below the surface at my land but they go down farther to be sure you have enough for irrigation. I didn’t want to pay for a wire, meter and electric pump (though they don’t cost much) since, not being around full time, someone might have tapped into my line to steal electricity. It happened to me in Phnom Penh so it’s not unusual here. Maybe even the pump might get nicked.

A few years back while visiting the countryside in hot season I witnessed an old guy at least my age using a shovel to dig, very slowly I should add, his water hole deeper in a 100 degree sun. The hole was about three meters before he started; with his efforts he was getting to soil moisture but not yet water. A majority of Cambodians live on less than a dollar a day so $350 for a well would constitute a princely sum for them.

Back on topic: hard times are not crunch times. It seems unlikely I’d be able to protect my property in the face of hungry neighbors. On a macro level, will the fact that the Khmer people recently went through the worst of times inoculate them from repeating those types of horrors, or would their history more likely portend a retreat back into collective bloodletting and insanity?

Moreover, do I want to be tied down to land when times are chaotic? Where ownership for non-citizens is not terribly secure? In a place which is welcoming now but could change drastically in extreme conditions? I’m currently enjoying my life here way too much to want to return to the States any time soon, but maybe I’d prefer being in proximity to my progeny at some future date.

By my prediction, Entropy Gaia begins in the mid twenty-teens and lasts for seven years of more or less intensity. The signature event is a multi-year drought in a context of economic chaos. For many people the contamination of their air, land and food supply will add to their trials. Disclaimer: My predictions have been wrong before - plenty of times, in fact - therefore I take no responsibility whatever for any wacky actions my readers may take based upon these ramblings.

On the other hand, is there any reason to think the US will be a safer place than Cambodia when food is scarce and gas costs $20 per gallon? Well, maybe, but certainly not in an urban setting; there are already so many guns and is so much violence, hard times can only intensify that American social malady.

Besides, you’ll need a place where you have the ability to grow at least a large part of your food supply, and it’ll need to be in an off-the-beaten-track location that’s reasonably defensible against the roving hungry.

What also must be considered is that America is a militarized surveillance state where the government has now taken upon itself the right to abduct citizens and non-citizens alike anywhere in the world, incarcerate and torture them and hold them indefinitely without charges, let alone trial. They don’t even have to tell the world who they are holding.

Everyone who attends leftist demonstrations is photographed by various police organizations. It would be extremely easy at this point for a right-wing government to target all demonstrators, or dope smokers, or whatever, as terrorists.

If you want to demonstrate at a political convention or at any kind of important international gathering, you get shunted off to a ‘free speech zone’ far from the action behind barbed wire and probably under a freeway, but if you’re a right-wing crazy you can bring loaded firearms, not to mention threatening signs, to an Obama event.

America has given gazillions of dollars to the big banks, but its citizens aren’t privileged to know how the money has been used. That would be too much of a burden on the banks. A public option for health care would amount to unfair competition to greedy-bastard insurance companies, so they get priority over the needs of ordinary human beings.

I feel thoroughly dismayed, disgusted, demoralized and more by what’s happening in the States now: The practice of feeding the rich while letting the poor tough it out, as is currently the prevailing philosophy, is destroying the world and the masses are cheerfully going along with it. Well, maybe not all that cheerfully but certainly not with the anger and revolutionary fervor it so deserves. Americans have been brainwashed into loving capitalism even when it is strangling them. To defend the rich even when they are being ripped off by them. To rail against socialism even while they benefit from socialist Medicare.

The world could’ve easily saved itself from itself if the elite who own it had just a smidgen of heart, empathy or compassion; but they clearly don’t, not even a whisker of it. They gleefully line their pockets with trillions of dollars of government handouts while bemoaning the cost of providing health care for commoners. They use the public money granted them in lieu of their malevolent mistakes to pay themselves huge bonuses and hire legions of lobbyists to resist the regulation they desperately need, and the country and the world needs.

It’s not too late for America to correct most of its ills - though not without some difficulty - but instead it’s rushing headlong into the abyss. And dragging the rest of the world along with it.

Anyway, I’d not be going back for the culture or my friends. While individual friends are irreplaceable, and I love my stateside ones dearly, I’ve accumulated lots of great friends here too. The potential for survival and proximity to my family would be the greater draws.

That said, I sure wouldn’t want to belittle commune life and certainly not the hip geezer home idea. The life we cobbled together on the commune, in very difficult circumstances, was precious and exceptional and would be an excellent way to live out the coming doddering days. It would also be something worth doing for its own sake, oldsters or otherwise.

We had a great time on the commune and gained an irreplaceable life experience. The bond we created has remained with us now for four decades. Furthermore, facing the future together would also give us an advantage during hard times.

At a certain point many of us will not be able to take care of ourselves entirely on our own. Besides, as my mother remarked, being together felt like living on a resort. For me it would be a fitting finale to a superlative and fascinating life. To be with my extended family and not only see my own children and grandchildren progressing, but all the other kids too. To witness the generations: a great privilege.

We have a strong reason to want to bring this idea to fruition - our previous experience together had its spectacular moments - but anybody my age with a countercultural disposition, even half of one, should be thinking about new kinds of places for oldsters, otherwise you may wind up in a middle-class fogey home/torture chamber and bemoan your fate till your dying days.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Obama + Health Care = Not Much

While his rhetoric soared, as usual, his reality was risible, as expected. He said many presidents have tried to fix health care but he’s determined to be the last to have to deal with it… Very sorry, Mr. O, but you’re going to have to do a lot better if you don’t want to the subject to be revisited in the near future.

Obama is generally an honest, straightforward kind of person, but when he said that extending coverage won’t start for four years because they want to take the time to do it right, the whole assembly should have broke into uncontrollable guffaws.

As remarked in a previous post, it only took 11 months, starting from scratch, to get Medicare up and running in the sixties and that was before computers. No, the real reason, I surmise, for delaying the start is to avoid paying for it when you also have wars to fight and bankers to coddle.

Today, it would take only a few months to ramp up Medicare to enroll the entire US population, not to mention the smaller number who would choose it over private insurance, if given the choice. But the current plan only provides choice to the indigent - those who cannot afford coverage on their own - for the rest of you suckers it’s the greedy-bastard insurance companies or nothing.

And if you choose nothing and get caught, you’ll pay a $4000 fine. It’s called an individual mandate, and it’s why, in spite of Obama’s fighting rhetoric and the tweaking he talks about regarding rules for insurance companies, the bloodsucking health care industry is all behind the Obama plan. If so, can it possibly be good for the people? I personally can’t imagine a scenario in which the insurance companies and I would be on the same political wavelength.

The proposal maintains employer based coverage, an evil in itself because it forces people to stay in jobs they may hate for fear of losing health care. This plan, even with a public option, won’t change that since, when your employment ends for whatever reason, you’ll have to come up with a lot of money to have coverage or go the indigent route.

The Dems plan is not universal. It’s expected that about 5% will avoid purchasing insurance; that’s 15 million Americans. It won’t save any money; the CEO’s will still earn outlandish compensation and there’ll still be a big chunk taken off the top in profit.

In comparison, single-payer automatically covers everybody and saves big money in the process. The latter is probably why discussion of it was taken off the table from the start: Once the numbers were officially crunched showing single-payer saving hundreds of billions a year, it would’ve been difficult to justify dumping it for the sake of protecting insurance company profits.

When you consider the majority of Americans – around 60% - are in favor of public involvement in health care and the vast majority of Democrats – around 90% - are, the current garbage bill is just an additional disgusting testament to the worthlessness of the Democratic Party.

There are, on the other hand, 60 members of the House who have pledged to vote against the plan if it doesn’t have a public option. If what they are eventually offered is the present totally inadequate public option, they should vote against it.

Furthermore, this should be a final test, a showdown, a call to arms. Activists should begin a campaign to defeat any legislator that doesn’t pledge to vote for single-payer to take effect on an ASAP timetable… fuck this four year bullshit. If not single payer than a strong public option that is open to everyone to join.

To placate the wingnut crazies, it should be possible to include an opt-out in a single payer plan; that is, if you prefer private insurance you could get a credit from the government based on actual Medicare costs.

For myself, I’m almost beyond cynicism in regards to US politics. Whether it’s health care, regulation of finance, global warming, never-ending warmongering, the trashing of the Geneva Conventions, I see no light on the horizon. A strong leader, an FDR, could’ve made big changes, but to expect Obama to fight for real progress; it seems unimaginable.

He does have an important redeeming quality; that is, he has the ability to admit his mistakes. Maybe that will eventually translate into the audacity to fight for those who elected him, but I’m not holding my breath.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

A Home for Hip Geezers Part 2

Here in Cambodia if you aren’t at a rural property full time everything that isn’t firmly nailed down will get ripped off. As a rule, Cambodians are a very warm, friendly, easygoing and welcoming people – every kid is taught to say hello to every Western face. Also, incidents of violent crime or robbery are nowhere near as likely as in many places in the States and many other parts of the world. Thievery, however, is rife.

For quite a long time my land wasn’t fenced off and was routinely used by the neighbors. After I built a barbed wire fence, which really doesn’t keep anybody out but is more a symbolic barrier, it still was used routinely whenever I wasn’t around, which was most of the time. I rarely got to the fruit before the locals and one especially cheeky bastard, in the words of an expat friend, cut my wires to bring in his cows to graze.

If I wasn’t going to be there full time, I’d have to hire a caretaker which wouldn’t cost much on a monthly basis but would require the expenditure of a grand or two for a shack for him to live in. I know people who’ve had no problem at all hiring locals but my luck has been dismal.

Many of them work on a peasant mentality. I hired my immediate neighbors to clear brush and told them I didn’t want any burning. People the world over love to burn: it’s cheap and easy and gives an immediate short term boost to soil fertility but in the long term it’s a disaster. It’s far better to chop up the brush, compost it and return it to the soil. That’s especially true here in the tropics where very heavy rainfall tends to leach out most organic material. They agreed to cut the brush but not pile it since it didn’t conform to their way of doing things… who’s paying whom, I ask?

I had a similar problem later when I hired a guy at the recommendation of a Khmer friend. I told him I didn’t want any burning, he remarked to another local friend that he understood I didn’t want any burning but when I returned to the land a week later there were ashes from many burn piles: What the F? I was being generous in compensation but he couldn’t stand to do it my way.

Everything has turned out not the way I planned it or imagined it. Half the fruit trees I planted have died, either from inadequate irrigation since I’d be gone a week at a time, or have gotten eaten by bugs or vandalized by the local kids. I got off on the wrong foot with a group of them right from the start.

The vegetable garden started off ok but most plants got done in by the neighbor’s free ranging chickens. I built a makeshift fence to keep them out but it only worked for a short time. Meanwhile, the tomatoes, which the chickens weren’t interested in, looked great at first but then all died out before they could produce much fruit. The soil is super easy to work with, but being mostly sand doesn’t have much in the way of organic material or nutrient value.

The ornamentals I planted suffered similar fates as the others with the final straw being them getting waterlogged by a storm last month which dumped 5 inches – 12cm – of rain in 24 hours. As mentioned previously, it would be relatively simple and straightforward to drain the upper part of the property into the rice paddy. Simple, that is, if I either had the energy to do it myself or hire someone else for the task, but I don’t. Otherwise large sections of it will be underwater for months. Nearly all the above problems would’ve turned out better if I were there full time.

Meanwhile, I’ve got a perfect setup in my rental house. It’s a single family on a city sized lot full of fruit trees which offer perfect shade for my ornamental plants. I’ve accumulated more than 100 potted plants there. Since I started spending 5 or 6 days at a time in Kampot I’ve had to bring the plants from Phnom Penh that can’t handle that period without water. On the outskirts of the capital on my way to the little berg, the highway is lined, for about one kilometer, with at least 100 small plant stores/nurseries. I often must stop and buy a few. Finally, I’ve had to bring those I planted at the land back to town since they were doing so badly there.

My landlady is a widow with grown children with family living next door. When I’m in Kampot she stays with family; when I’m in Phnom Penh she stays in the house: she cleans it, including washing my sheets, and keeps the plants watered. Because the family is next door and the neighbors all know each other, it’s much more secure than the land. She’s thrilled with my presence since my $150 rent has given her the money to improve the property and pay for college for her kids.

In the process of being turning off to the land and feeling content at my rental house, I’ve discovered that the hour or so I spend every day puttering with the plants or just gazing in awe at them is about all I need and can handle. When you add that to the couple hours I spend writing, a bike ride to town to check out the internet and maybe do some shopping and/or lunch, quality hammock time and my afternoon nap, my day is full. If my landlady does want the house back at some point, the plants are all potted so easy to move.

Breaking News: Kampot is under water with much worse flooding than last time. It’s more than a foot deep inside my house which means my plants are under water. I’m in Phnom Penh so I don’t know the extent of the damage but I fear for my green babies. A two meter storm surge combined with heavy rain has made for a watery world. The last flood only had water lapping up to the front stairs: the house is only a hundred meters from the estuary so if it goes over its banks it hasn’t got far to go to invade the house.

This is another case of me ignoring my own prognostications. Kampot is essentially at sea level on an estuary, so rising seas caused by global warming will eventually, or maybe sooner than we think, render much of the town uninhabitable. Which needn’t to have stopped me from enjoying the place in the interim. However, I clearly knew all of its cosmic problems in advance so I shouldn’t have tied myself down with property, which as it happens is now worth less than I paid for it. The land itself won’t be much affected but without a vibrant town nearby it won’t be the same.

So I’m thinking about selling. Conventional wisdom says real estate values always go up eventually so I should try to hold on till they do. Cambodia in general and Kampot in particular are still on an upward trajectory in spite of the global downturn so values might start to trend upward in a year or two. Or maybe not. By my calculation, backed by others who probably know more than I do, 2011 or so begins a prelude to a severe resource shortfall that peaks in the middle of the decade. As I see it this will bring on a galloping inflation, intensified in turn by extreme debt levels across much of the developed world. And, of course, this all happens as global warming begins to create havoc with the world’s climate.

I’ve heard that people who owned property during the Great Depression fared a lot better than the landless. But in this case it would clearly also depend on where the land was located. The land I have now does not seem to be the place for me in the long run. Maybe I should take the omens and get out while I can: during the coming instability, it might be difficult to sell. I’m no less committed to Cambodia for now, but need to stay light on my feet.

Everything is a learning experience.

Hey, this was supposed to be about hip geezer homes…

To be continued.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

A Home for Hip Geezers

Just recently old friends from my commune days broached the subject of recreating something akin to our community, in a 21st century reincarnation, where we could live out our doddering days in comfort. I’m not speaking so much of physical comfort as mental.

For four years until she died in 2007 I spent two to three weeks every summer hanging out with mom at her independent-living fogey home in a Minneapolis suburb. It wasn’t easy at the age of 84 to get her to leave her west side Manhattan apartment after 36 years but she was beginning to have fainting spells out on the street with no family in proximity to assist her. Through concerted effort on mine and my sister’s part, who lived in Minneapolis, she accepted the change and turned out to love it.

She thought of it as a resort. With a crafts room, spa, ice cream socials and other group activities I considered it more like a permanent summer camp for geezers. If you want to feel young, even in your mid-sixties, try hanging out in one for a while; it gives you a whole new perspective on being old. For her it was great, for me it was excruciatingly middle-class. To have to live out my life in one of those places I would consider to be a form of cosmic punishment.

The prospect, therefore, of hanging out through one’s waning years with dear hip old friends, not to mention being close to the kids and grandkids, is surely an enticing thought. At about the same time as my friends’ comment I had been rethinking my long term commitment to Cambodia, especially in terms of safety and sanity during approaching crunch times.

However, in the short term there’s hardly anything I can imagine, practically speaking anyway, that would lead me to want to leave my tropical home: I’m as comfortable and contented as I could hope to be – my material plane needs are simple and tropical living makes it easy to supply them. Also, I much prefer the hot to the chilly. As soon as the air gets a little nippy, actually anything less than 70 degrees, my nose starts to drip, giving me a constant annoying sniffle. In compensation somewhat the toe fungus I always have here in hot, humid Cambodia magically disappears soon after I arrive in the Northwest.

Still, I’ll easily take a climate which only requires wearing a long sleeve shirt a few times a year to Oregon’s near constant coolness. Sure it gets hot in the summer in the daytime, but before the sun even sets it’s long sleeve weather. One of the things I like most about the climate here is how it’s still in the 80’s at midnight: that never happens in Portland.

For another, my $636 per month Social Security wouldn’t get me diddly squat there. Here it affords a simple but comfortable life. There I’d be poor, angry, frustrated and feel constantly harassed by bills and the cost of surviving. Just like most of my life. I was too freaky to get a ‘real job’ when I was young, so that option is obviously out now. I may eventually earn more from my writing than the current pittance, but that remains to be seen.

Health care has to be a consideration when you’re 68 and you see the machinery slowly breaking down, but I’m in pretty good shape, all things considered. Partly I attribute that to having developed a strong aversion to doctors and medicine at an early age. I do take antibiotics once every few years or so and use Chinese medicine and codeine for a cold, otherwise I believe you need to live with it and let your body work it out. Medicine treats symptoms but not root causes. Then again I consider myself lucky in having a strong constitution, so I don’t get sick very often and then not seriously; at least never to the extent that I haven’t been able to handle it without drugs; I don’t even do aspirin.

I’ve only had health insurance for about four of the last 40 years, so once again I’ve been lucky. Moreover, I don’t expect to need health care much not having been to a doctor more than four times in the same 40 years (though I wouldn’t guarantee my memory). Other people with the same ailments would have gone more often but still not very much.

I’ve certainly subjected my body to its share of abuse, but have compensated somewhat, evidently, by staying active – I walk miles every day when I’m in Phnom Penh and do the equivalent bicycling in Kampot - and eating relatively well. I consider a meal without veggies to be naked and incomplete. I have a natural aversion to eggs and cheese so eat them only on occasion. I do eat hamburger meat mixed in with other food but every time I eat an actual hamburger, I think; that’s the last time. I’ll eat chunks of beef, but always trim off whatever fat I find. Same for my relationship to sausages and hot dogs; even if they sometimes taste good, knowing how they’re made combined with the havoc they play with my stomach means I eat them very rarely. Bacon tastes good but just looking at all that fat raises alarm bells in me. So once again, I’m lucky that some of my tastes and habits are good for me.

In the states, as a privileged senior, I’d have Medicare but that doesn’t include hospital stays, for that you have to pay an additional $90 per month. Also with the cost of drugs so high if there’s a serious illness it will require thousands of dollars for medicine. The Medicare drug benefit, which leaves many seniors with large drug costs, is another sick example of how the industry owns the government. And you can forget Obama’s health plan making a difference, as of now that’s a lost cause.

Regarding medicine the contrast to here is stark. For instance, I get buildup of wax in my ears. One time when I was still teaching I tried to conduct a class nearly deaf, so I have to keep up with it. There’s a mild, common acid solution you can buy that eats away at it. Back in the states you get a kit that includes a rubber suction device, that probably costs ten cents or less to produce, and a tiny bottle of solution. That runs for $6 minimum; I looked around a lot for something cheaper.

Here you don’t get the rubber device but you do get a bottle of solution five times as large for 12 cents. And that’s not even a patented prescription drug so there’s no reason whatever for it to be expensive. Except to generate excessive profits for those who control the markets. Here anyway there are no prescriptions: if you ask for it and they have it you get it. No fantastically paid doctor’s intervention is needed.

Medical care is cheap enough here but not very good so if you have a serious illness or have an accident and want quality repair work, you need to go to Thailand. A friend of mine was driving his motorbike in an overly intoxicated state and suffered multiple fractures in his leg. Another friend got him all drugged up and accompanied him on the short, 35 minute flight to Bangkok - a medivac would’ve been very expensive. Five nights in the hospital, everything included, came to $5000. It would have been a lot cheaper in Phnom Penh but his leg probably would’ve come out with some strange twists in it.

I digress. I was talking about my relationship to Cambodia. I visited two spectacular large urban gardens back in the states in 2007. That was not long after I got my inheritance and I was fired up to do something of the same order here in Cambodia - what people in cold climates call ‘house plants’ are at home outdoors here. My Phnom Penh apartment is half outdoors and ideal for potted plants and over the five years I’ve lived there I’ve accumulated lots of them – at one time about 80, including 20 orchids. They’re so cheap here I can’t resist buying lots; flowering orchids cost two dollars, large plants that would cost $50 there go for $5 to $7 here.

So I had great visions of a little tropical Eden when I returned from that trip and started looking for land in Cambodia. You technically can’t own it as a foreigner but 50 year leases are common and a lot of Western expats are doing it. Within a couple months of searching I came across a perfect little spot. It’s within bicycling distance – two miles - of Kampot, an up-and-coming little town and equally close to hiking trails in a nearby national park. Most places I looked at were either rice paddies, which flood in the rainy season and can’t be used until you spend a lot of money on fill, or land that was completely cut over with only small bushes growing. Either way it would’ve been years before any tree would provide shade or any part would start to look good.

In contrast my land is excellent piece of Cambodia which includes a small rice paddy, but also has meadows and clumps of trees, some of which are sizable. It has ten coconut trees and lots of cashew and guava trees, which grow like weeds here, and a couple of papaya trees which also volunteer easily. Add a couple of banana trees which grow easily and mature in three years and you have all the fruit you can eat. That’s the beauty of the tropics; there’s a constant year-round supply of food here for the picking.

All told, everything you could ask for in a nascent little Eden; at least in theory. However, I’ve gone through a rethink on both personal and macro levels. On the former I dreamed up plans for a modest but entirely sufficient house and got bids. It was at the high in the property market, and general inflation, which included building supplies, was widespread so the bids came in at $12 to 14 thousand when it should have been around $8 to 10. I chose to wait because of the cost, thinking materials were overpriced, and because I wasn’t terribly fond of my plans and thought I should do something better and more original.

Still, it wouldn’t have made sense to build since my access road requires a 4-wheel drive about 5 months a year. It’s close enough to the main highway to be accessible by walking and bicycling and I could have, with the permission of the local authorities, improved the road myself for about a grand, but my temporary fix probably wouldn’t have lasted more than one rainy season. When I bought the piece I was told the authorities were going to upgrade the road in the immediate future but that hasn’t happened a year-and-a-half later. I’m sure they’ll get around to it, they are making lots of improvements, but who knows when. Meanwhile I’d have to park my Camry and get there on foot, bicycle or small motorbike – what’s referred to as a scooter in the states.

The real problem would be getting there at night slogging through the mud past a gauntlet of barking dogs. It’d be bad enough getting through the dog patrol in dry season. In fact, the dogs of midnight are one of the few things I don’t like about Kampot and the only reason I drive my car the one mile from my rental house to the bars at night; I walk that far in Phnom Penh after the bars so that distance on a bike could only be easier.

However, the major problem is that I’m not yet prepared to live full time at the land, let alone in the Kampot area. For a long time I’d spend 7 days in the capital followed by 4 days in the little town. Now I’m getting close to parity in the time I spend in the two places. I’m addicted to Phnom Penh’s night life, but I am slowing weaning myself of it.

I’ve also got a lot more to write on this subject, so I’ll continue this in another post.