I wrote the majority of what you’re about to read a few months ago while my wife and I were staying in Bangkok at the tale’s end of a long and luxurious honeymoon. Given The Rambler’s implied immediacy, I feel like this requires some explanation. Normally, my schtick is that I sit down and write straight through–right to the end. I take breaks for beer or scotch refills depending on the evening, and occasionally to relieve the spirits. I sometimes know what I want to write about when I close my office door and threaten bodily harm to anyone who hazards a knock, but many times I don’t; and even if I do know where I’m starting, I never know where I’m ending, which is why The Rambler fails sometimes, and why it is so exciting for me when it doesn’t. When you read The Rambler, you’re actually riding shotgun, right there with me. It’s why I use the second-person address so often. I really am talking to you, because… well, because talking to myself isn’t all that interesting. This whole project is the closest thing I can think of to Montaigne’s definition of the essay: to assay, to attempt, to try. When you give me your time–which is, after all, the only thing you really have–I feel genuine, honest-to-goodness gratitude. It’s that gratitude that inclines me to tell you that part of what you’re reading tonight was born somewhere else, written under a different moon, by someone long gone…
It’s my first international attempt at scribbled ecstasy, so you’ll have to forgive me if I turn left over right on these backwards lanes. We are currently staying at The Mandarin Oriental, Bangkok with a room view of the Chao Phraya River. It’s humid and wet all over this monsoon-soaked country. So deep inside the city, there’re no stars, only lights. Long-tails and party cruises speed by with bewildering frequency, announcing over and over again that we are pulsing inside one of the great human arteries.
The hotel and its guests–present company excluded–are steeped in fantastic amounts of money and leisure. For over 100 years, the Mandarin Oriental was considered the finest hotel in the world, providing shelter and luxury to various kings and queens, world leaders and celebrities, as well as writers like Ernest Hemingway, Joseph Conrad and Somerset Maugham. Needless to say, I don’t exactly fit in. Indeed, the whole place seems suspended above the familiar laws of society, amiably swung from trapeze wires of green and gold. Anyone who does not believe in an earthly paradise has not come close enough to the densities of wealth found in these places. You may not believe it, I know, but there are “islands of stability” which lie just beyond the radioactive instabilities of familiar wealth. Places where stable orbits spin unperturbed by global financial meltdowns, by economic downturns, by limits or overdrafts of any variety or shape.
Please don’t mistake me, the rich are no different from you or me: they’re monkeys too. But monkeys so thoroughly insulated from the jungle that they appear human–civilized even. Their preoccupations are refined and measured, sensible and polite. When I asked the former head of Ernst & Young’s middle east division, now one of the wealthiest men in Dubai, about the Arab Spring, he chuckled and said, “Yes, but the oil always floats.”
And when I asked one of the direct descendants of John Witherspoon–signatory on the Declaration of Independence–what he thought of the Arab Spring, he said, “I was in Cairo when all that craziness started, and Daddy,” yes, that’s right, daddy, “had to call in a favor from the state department to get me out.” After a long draw on his cocktail, he added, “You know a country’s in trouble when you don’t feel safe at the Four Seasons.” This same person managed to tell us within two minutes that he went to Eton, Princeton and Cambridge, in that order, and that “yes,” he knew Prince William–uh, I didn’t ask–and that he was having dinner that night with the Austrian ambassador because, “he’s a friend of the family.”
I should explain, however, that I don’t mean to imply superiority or to engage in a sort of up-the-anty smugness. Well, okay, I suppose I mean to imply and engage in both–although that just confirms my point. And my point is this: I’m no better than the men I’m dissecting. No better, at all. I’ve misrepresented many facts. I’ve quipped glibly about grave matters. I’ve felt untouched by the mud while swimming in the muck. And so have you. Anyone who’s spent any time crafting a Facebook persona has insulated himself in just the way these men do. Technology makes aristocrats of us all. Every status update, every polite and impolite silence, every hearty congratulation that shades a jealous eye, is the binary distillation of a polite and well-heeled society. Technology–from the Greek techne, which means art, or craft, and more problematically, artificial, or even better, fake–just like money hides the body. It hides our absurd limitations.
Is it any wonder that as Americans we are simultaneously obsessed with technology and authenticity? Is it any wonder that I am? Would Catullus use an iPhone? And even though I am sitting tonight on the fifth floor of one of the world’s great hotels, drunk on 21-year-old scotch, and fat on fine cuisine, I can’t help but wonder if I’m writing all this to convince myself I’m something other than what I am.
A lucky monkey near a lucky star.