Monday, January 16, 2012

There’s a ‘2’ in My Milkfruit Tree

Every day now for about a week an old-fashioned style 2 appears right around sunset on a lower branch of a milkfruit tree in my yard. (The fruit on my tree has deep purple flesh with a very sweet center; some milkfruit trees have green flesh. Its taste moves towards the chalky as you get close to the skin, and, as you would expect, it exudes a milky white juice.) All other times I’ve tried to see that 2, it’s just a clump of leaves. But then, against a subdued gray twilight background, it’s just above eye level when I’m sitting in my soft chair on my front porch and blares out to me like neon. It can’t last long, at any time a leaf or small branch will fall and my 2 will be history.
What’s doubly remarkable about that leafy message is that 2 is my number. Starting with my birthday which is on the 22nd, it’s been central to my numerical life. I spent a good part of my childhood at house number 20202. My house in Portland where I lived for 18 years was at 722. My Oregon driver’s license, which I’ve had for 40 years, has four 2’s out of a total of seven numbers. The number two signifies duality, the two sides of almost any question or person. Also the two parts that make a whole - positive, negative; male, female; left, right; right, wrong… and I’m as bifurcated as anyone.
About 10 or 11pm last August 21 I stepped out of my car at home after a night out and there was a large spectacular epiphyllum flower in bloom. (Epiphyllum is a spineless hanging cactus with thin flat leaves.) The bud stem had appeared several days before, but never having seen one bloom before (or for that matter since) I had no idea what to expect. Wow, was it showy  - It was six inches across with long blue petals radiating in a circle off a white center. And I’m thinking, Great display for the party tomorrow, but alas it didn’t even last till the morning. What a flash of brilliance to erupt and fade in such a short time. Are they - the milkfruit 2 and the epiphyllum bloom - omens that I’m about to abruptly fade away? Or do they mean my life is charmed?
For certain, I lead a charmed life, but equally, at the age of 70, who can say how fast I’m going to fade? Meanwhile, I’m having no trouble loving my life and having the greatest time of it, so I was set a bit off balance when my brother-in-law, being the brunt of my last post’s humor, took umbrage. Somehow in the process of defending himself he took my mention of my meager pension as an indicator that I was whining and feeling sorry for myself, whereas I meant only to contrast how great I feel with how little money I have.
On the other hand, nobody likes being poor. But being as I’ve spent nearly my whole life in that category - minus two short interludes after I sold my house in Portland and received an inheritance - I’m (relatively) very comfortable without money.
During a two year period living on the commune I had a total of $16 in my possession. Food, shelter and fuel were covered and I did my share (usually) of work around the place to compensate for having no dough. It seemed just natural then to extend that moneyless status out to the road where I did about 30,000 miles of hitching without money (out of a total of about 70,000). Amazingly enough, looking back, I survived quite well sans cash and sometimes even today wonder exactly how I managed those weeks at a time on the road, fed and taken care of by the cosmos, as it were. As recompense for going ‘naked’ I had experiences and insights no amount of money could replace. (Read all about it in my new book, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Enlightenment…forgive the shameless plug.)
At the same time, I always took money with me when I had it. More recently I did a couple of quite long hitches around the middle of the double oughts, but had enough money with me to stay in motels and pay for meals. Meanwhile, if the occasion arose, I’d have no problem sticking out my thumb and going anywhere I needed to (in the states anyway) on the spur of the moment, without cash. But once again, I wouldn’t do it voluntarily, so there’s your duality.
Aside from the odd ascetic or monk, nobody who’s poor ever turns away from mammon. There are people who eschew additional money when they already have enough, but even those are few.
Even living here in Cambodia where everything that’s important - food, shelter, clothing, transportation - is dirt cheap, my $800 per month income (Social Security plus writing) is not living high, though it does provide a good and healthy life and still affords lots of good times.
 Bro-in-law pointed out that Social Security is based on what you put in and I had my choice so why was I whining. Maybe there was a little whine there. I worked hard enough when I was working, just didn’t make any money because during the bulk of my working life in the states - 14 years - I was doing recycling, the bastard stepchild of American industry. The US gives a tax break for cutting down a tree but nothing for recycling paper. We also recycled certain materials for the good of it even when they were big losers on the balance sheet. As a result, I never earned more than $11,000 in one year in my life, though for more than half those 14 years, I kept longer than 40 hour work weeks and had a lot of responsibilities. That accounts for my meager pension, which is now, with this month’s raise, $660. 
(Don’t tell anyone but Social Security is part of an income-redistribution, communist plot to steal money from the haves and give it to the have-nots. The person who put ten times as much as I did into the system only gets out three or four times as much as I do.)
Had I been willing to wait till the age of 65 years and 8 months, I’d be getting about $800 now. The average pension is about $1200 per month. That would not finance the good life in Portland, say, but it would be just barely livable with enough to pay for the cheapest one bedroom apartment, keep an old clunker on the road, eat healthy but almost never go out or indulge in any of the dearer foods, drink low-down beers and rarely do it outside the house, always be late with bills because you are juggling your limited resources… well, you get the picture. That’s the way I’ve lived almost all my life, it’s second nature and to some extent I’m still doing it now.
But $660 in Portland? Painful. What if I didn’t know how to live outside the US? Well, I’d be whining for sure. Here I’m very comfortable though it’s still not a cushy life, and, as you might expect, I would like a bit more money to spend… another few hundred dollars would do; in fact, $1200 would be just fine. At the same time I still love my life the way it is and I’ll get along with what I have for sure.  
In two countries that I’m aware of - The Netherlands, Australia - everybody gets the same amount, in both cases about $1400 per month. That makes sense to me. The whole idea is to keep geezers off the streets and out of the poorhouse. And for we old-timers to be able to maintain a little dignity while our life forces are fading. A state pension is a form of insurance in case you made poor choices, were too lazy, indifferent or indigent to save for retirement or maybe had a run of bad luck. Whatever, it’s hardly the life of Riley.
            I chose to work hard for little, and now I’m paying for it, though karma being what it is, you do what’s given to you. It’s your choice but it’s even more a part of the grand plan, so you carry on day to day, month to month, year to year and before you know it you’re 70 years old. If you’re lucky like me you’ve found a place to be comfortable where you can take life easy. Working hard is great when you’re in the prime of life, and it’s good to be able to do it in spurts in your twilight years, but at 70 stress and hard work will only wear down the parts that much faster and shorten your life so once again I’m fortunate to have found my home.
            It’s been ten years since I came to Cambodia looking for work. I had tried to figure out a way to survive in the states, but my prospects were dismal. Like many events in my life, I was forced by circumstances to move on only to discover the perfect place for me.
            And a charmed place at that.