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In The Kingdom of Make Believe



Black Pagoda Patpong Bangkok



To thine own self be true, says a famous father to a famous son, but like many things our fathers press upon us ego identity can be a heavy burden. After half a century of failures and embarrassments self awareness may feel like a stone around a man’s neck. Happily, when the self-loathing begins to crush a man there is a place where he can set down the hated stone and take on instead a light string of braided jasmine flowers. This place is called The Kingdom of Make Believe.

Always wanted to be a famous painter, but never had the talent or the determination to sustain years of study and practice? Move to the Kingdom and rent a shop front on any beach. Fill your new store with two-dimensional tropical landscapes populated by stiff palm trees and ill-proportioned buffalo. If you can’t manage even bad representational art simply throw cheap house paint at enormous canvases. Price them dear but not too dear.

Invent a history for yourself, cobbled together from the biographies of some artist you read about and the guy you most admired in high school. Wear the usual beach garb but spatter it with paint. Smoke and drink a LOT. The tourists will worship you. You can even teach classes. In this same way you can be a writer, a photographer, a sculptor, or a musician. Just say you are something, and in the Kingdom of Make Believe who would ever contradict you? Say it often enough, and with enough conviction, and you will actually become whatever you say you are. Being a writer is easiest, because you can pay to print a book with your name on the cover and who could argue with such an impressive prop?

Did you fail at a career back home? Did you have a boring job that never impressed the ladies? In the Kingdom of Make Believe you can be on vacation from, or be retired from, whatever career you choose. Hell, you can be successful at a different fascinating occupation every day. An airline pilot on Monday, gemologist on Tuesday, rock n’ roll roadie on Wednesday, aboriginal art dealer on Thursday, master chef on Friday, stock trader on Saturday, defrocked bishop on Sunday. In the Kingdom of Make Believe you only have to say the name of the thing and you become that thing.

The only caveat to remember is: make sure you establish the occupation of your audience before you begin spinning tales; it is embarrassing to be half-way through the description of your latest photo safari to Africa when you discover the man you’re talking to is the Director of the Omaha Zoo.

And on the subject of impressing ladies, remember that the Kingdom of Make Believe is populated by all sorts of impressionable women, who will line up to bat their eyelashes and make awestruck “Oooooooooh…” sounds over the man who can describe himself in glowing terms without the burdens of humility or honesty. There is of course a class of women in the Kingdom whose very job is to flatter men, and who actually do not care at all what a man is or has been or has done as long as he is even the slightest bit generous with his money. But there are also local women in the Kingdom who will believe that you are whatever you say you are because they have grown up thinking that all foreigners are exotic and special, and then there are female tourists who come to the Kingdom of Make Believe on holiday expecting to do a little reinventing of their own. Everywhere a man looks in the Kingdom he is likely to find a pair of admiring feminine eyes and a pair of gullible feminine ears.

Men who come to the Kingdom in order to design and construct new characters to walk around in find out early that being vague is crucial. You can say that you have twenty-five years of experience at something, but never say where. Say you’ve got a university education, or even that you taught classes in a university, but avoid mentioning the name of the institution or the years you were there. Say you served with distinction in the military, but avoid mentioning the branch or outfit or duty station. If you go to the extreme of creating a Web site to advertise the New You be careful not to include a resume or references. Mention that you have a list of prestigious clients but do not mention them by name.

Speaking of names, avoid using your own name in conversation, in e-mail, in blog postings or anywhere on your Web site. In the old days, when people still handed out business cards, there were guys in the Kingdom who had only their nickname on their cards, in fact there are some guides to the Kingdom that say the most important part of the whole transformation is finding the correct nickname.

Fate forces the most ridiculous names upon us at birth, and often our governments force us to list those lackluster names among the information included in our passports. But nobody can weave a beautiful tapestry of fresh identity while wearing a name tag that says, “Hi! My name is Dull Bob.” It’s even worse if the name on your passport is a name once in the newspapers for molesting the paperboy, or stealing the church charity funds. You don’t want Google bursting a perfectly enjoyable bubble of imagined autobiography.

The most common route to a Kingdom nickname is to pick a place name that has curb appeal, then attach a masculine given name to it: Yosemite Sam, Indiana Jones, Minnesota Fats. But you don’t need to limit yourself to the same old tried and true formula, in fact the choice of a nickname is one of the more enjoyable aspects of the whole delightful process of reinventing yourself in the Kingdom of Make Believe. Why not be “Haad Yai Harry” for a week, then pass as “Cheap Charlie” for a monsoon season in Surat, dabble with being “The Situation” for a Songkran holiday on Samui, then try on a weekend in Phuket as “Papa Joe” before finally settling in as “Big Dog” in Chiang Rai? In the Kingdom of Make Believe you never need to be somebody you don’t like.

It is of course important to always introduce yourself as The Nickname and never as The Passport Name. Always. This cannot be stressed too much. Nothing brings down the party like somebody knowing your real name. Somebody discovering your real name in the Kingdom of Make Believe is a terrifying experience. Men have been known to be recognized by their real name in a Patpong bar in the evening and be gone from Bangkok forever by morning. Not because they are still running from an arrest warrant back home, but because to be reminded of who you are, when you despise yourself, is horrifying.

The man in the mirror must be Superman, never Clark Kent, because Clark Kent wears glasses and is shy around girls and disappoints people and bullies laugh at him. Everybody loves Superman, even Clark Kent loves Superman. Clark Kent hates Clark Kent.

Happiness can only come with thinking of yourself as The Nickname, thus it is crucial to establish The Nickname in the mind of any new friend the moment you meet. It is essential that nobody ever questions that The Nickname is who you truly are. Practicing in front of a mirror helps. Extend the right hand, smile warmly, and say, “Hiya, Mate. Folks ‘round here call me Bloody Hell.” Put both hands up in front of you, palms out in a gesture of surrender, roll your eyes heavenward, and say, “Don’t ask!” Then laugh jovially and ask your new friend, “So where you come from, Mate?” Keep asking questions about him, because until you know who he is and where he’s from and what he does, you can’t know who you can safely be and where you can safely come from and what you can safely do for a living.

Every vacation destination has its dangers, and the Kingdom of Make Believe is no exception. The most common danger encountered by visitors to the Kingdom is an embarrassment of riches: it is so much fun to become new people that some men cannot stop. They read an exciting spy novel and the next day they’re a former CIA officer. They see an old Western movie and the next morning they wake up missing the 1,000-acre ranch they used to operate in Wyoming. They hear an old Dire Straits song that was popular when they were young and by that evening they’re a classically trained guitarist.

All this may sound like enormous fun, but the problem is that even in a Kingdom full of strangers a man is bound to gather a small circle of acquaintances who hear him talk about himself on more than one occasion. It is inevitable that somebody will begin to question why the decorated war hero who has been variously a New York City taxi driver and a modeling agent in Los Angeles and Meryl Streep’s acupuncturist and also once escaped from a Columbian jail now needs help figuring out the bus schedule for a visa run to Penang.

As in all things, where it concerns shedding the despised old worm that you were back home to emerge from your chrysalis a beautiful and beloved butterfly in the Kingdom, moderation is key. The most successful replicants never really talk about themselves. They simply go about their day, commenting on the weather or the price of beer, and let others establish their identity for them. “I heard he works for the American Drug Enforcement Agency,” or “I know for a fact his son is the drummer for Aerosmith.” These men are the Kings of The Kingdom of Make Believe.

A Kingdom whose borders are myth can have an infinite number of monarchs. There is still room in the Kingdom for plenty more Kings of Make Believe. We all need a vacation from ourselves now and then. When people ask, I tell them I never knew my father. It’s a lie, but not a symptom of psychosis. If I ever start believing the lie, or if I ever get mad at anybody who sees through the lie, I hope I’ll have sense enough left to seek professional help. Because the imagination is a nice place to visit, but you’d be crazy to want to live there.