Saturday, April 12, 2014

To Be Me or Not to Be Me

Living in a Buddhist country, Thailand, I find it remarkable how little impact the Buddha's teaching about the self appears to have for the people around me.  They regularly frequent the many temples with flowers and incense to "tambun" (make merit) for the happiness and success of themselves and others, and to secure a favorable rebirth.  Their world is full of good and evil spirits that require small shrines full of icons outside buildings, religious tattoos, prayers and special amulets for protection. 

Since the Buddha's discourses were written down for his monastic followers, perhaps the teaching on anatta is primarily for monks.  The students to whom I teach English are mostly monks, and other than their robes and shaved heads appear to be little different from other young men their age in Thailand.  They joke about girlfriends and passionately follow British football teams.  All have digital devices and love the music of Michael Jackson.  When I taught the Five Precepts in English, none of them questioned the reality of a self that was able to abstain from killing, stealing, lying, intoxicants and sexual misconduct.

My monks are also aware of anicca (impermanence), the second of the three marks of existence.  When I ask them their plans for the future, they tell me no one can know what will happen.  But if I ask them "what if," then they shyly confess their dreams of becoming a teacher, a businessman or a tour guide.  Since all grew up in small villages where becoming a monk is the only way to get a university education, they know the dukkha (suffering) of poverty, the third mark of existence.  I'm sure they've also been taught the Pali terms for the Five Aggregates and can explain that the self and everything else is the result of prior conditions.  But how does this knowledge impact the effeminate monk applying makeup at the back of my classroom?

It always made sense to me that the Buddha in his teaching on anatta primarily intended to undermine a permanent or essential sense of self such as the eternal soul of Christians or the atman of the Vedas.  Buddhadasa Bhikku in Thailand described it as the "I, me, mine" that gets in the way of social relationships and makes it more difficult to feel compassion for others.  A self that is constructed by the brain through experiences of the body in the world makes perfect sense to me.  This provisional "self" dies with the brain.  And this is why the idea of reincarnation and kamma that connects successive incarnations makes no sense at all.

There is currently much theorizing about the idea of self and no-self by writers such as Julian Baggini, Jennifer Ouellette, Thomas Metzinger, Ray Kurzell, Patricia Churchland and others.  The idea of a constructed and impermanent self is no longer a surprising notion.   Only the religious faithful cling to an eternal self that can suffer rewards or punishment in an afterlife (or, as some Buddhists think, be reborn as a deva or cockroach in the next). 

Why then is the existence of a self such a sticky belief?  It must benefit the transference of our genes to the next generation, in Professor Wright's thinking.  If we were all meditating on a mountain or in a cave, there might be no next generation.  Selves are useful in an evolutionary sort of way.  They must be fed, clothed and housed, and for that a singular sense of being is necessary.  Selves incur duty and responsibility, imply an ethics, and they link us into a great chain of others.  Two selves are necessary to create the next generation.

To aid in this effort, our language locks us into a way of thinking about selves and objects.  For example, in my native English it is difficult if not impossible to speak from an abstract position; my view of the world is a perspective dictated by my body in space.  Generalities and objective claims are often only pretence. English sentences, I tell my students, must have a subject and a verb (although sometimes the subject is implied); e.g., "Speak!"  Gurus and enlightened humans have to struggle mightily to eliminate all subjectivity from their speaking and writing.  Even if all language is metaphor, a world of only objects makes little sense, and is of less interest.

I am comfortable with my self.  It has just as much solidity as the objects around me in my Bangkok apartment.  Years from now we'll all be gone.  While my brain and my body are showing increasing signs of age, they continue to provide an existence replete with security and surprise.  When it's time to relinquish this self I've labored long and hard with through the twists and turns of an amazing life, I hope to do so with gratitude and grace.

(This was written as a midterm assignment for an online course in Buddhism and Psychology given by Prof. Robert Wright of Princeton via the Coursera web site.)

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Peeking is Prohibited

No more pencils, no more books
No more teacher's dirty looks
"School's Out for Summer," Alice Cooper

School's out for what counts as "summer" in Thailand, mid-March through the end of May.  Most of the tourists have gone home and hot weather is upon us with the rains not far behind.  I finished teaching "Listening and Speaking English" (always embarrassed by its missing "to") for 3rd year students at Mahachulalongkornrajavidyalaya Buddhist University with a music video of Alice Cooper's classic end of term anthem.  Earlier this week I tortured them with a final exam.

For six years I've been teaching mostly monks who are majoring in English in the Faculty of Humanities at MCU.  The main campus is now in Wangnoi, an area on the outskirts of Ayutthaya where factories are taking over the rice fields.  My school provides several pink air-conditioned commute buses for teachers and staff that takes 1-1 1/2 hours each way, while students not living in the on-campus dormitory travel in a fleet of red leased buses from Bangkok where they stay at Buddhist temples around the city. Occasionally I have a layman or woman in my class and this term one of my best students is a bhikkhuni (nun) from Vietnam, but most of my students are men in their 20s from all over Southeast Asia.   This term they've come from Vietnam, Yunnan province in southern China, Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia, Nepal, and Bangladesh as well as Thailand. All are from poor backgrounds and my university may be their only opportunity for an advanced education.

Since I'm relatively inexperienced at the job, the key to my teaching method is humor, hence the "rules" shown above for my final exam. Despite the fact that they are Buddhist monks bound by a monastic rule that forbids lying and stealing, among other bad deeds, I know that they've been educated in an authoritarian system of mostly rote learning, and they'll cheat and copy if they can. So I taught them the English word "peeking" and I demonstrate it graphically, peering at the exam paper of a student next to me, which always brings laughter.  I also demonstrate teacher's "dirty looks" when I pretend to see peeking taking place across the room.  In addition, I make them put away their precious electronic devices (all of the monk students have computers and mobile phones) and any books or papers they brought along. Finally, since it's difficult for young men in a group to ever stay quiet, I emphasize my no-talking rule by including shouting and whispering (I should have added "murmuring" which is what I usually hear from my desk at the front of the room.  The other "rules" attempt to convince them that I'm not "too serious" (not a positive in this culture).

Thinking my Social Security income would be sufficient, when I moved permanently to Thailand in 2007 I never considered the possibility of teaching English, the most common occupation for expats. Although I had a Ph.D in history, I'd only taught classes for a couple of years before growing bored with my students, and I'd never taught anything remotely resembling a language. But a British monk who got his BA at MCU, and who thought I should do something more worthwhile with my spare time, encouraged me to visit his satellite campus in Bangkok and I was invited to address its English Club.  The only other native-speaking English teacher had left and I was asked to take his place teaching two classes of the same basic subject for English majors, one day a week. 

The offer came with the promise of a work permit which would remove the necessity of frequent visa runs needed for a longterm residency.   That was an ideal incentive. My friend thought all I needed to do was sit down and chat in English with the students, but I required more structure.  The truth is, I was scared witless by the prospect of attempting to teach English!  I had no idea how I learned it, and I doubted that the diagramming of sentences, so important in my elementary school, was still a common practice. So I found and read Barry Sesnan's How to Teach English and bought the Headway elementary textbook published by Oxford University Press in order to plagiarize its themes and make use of its grammar lessons.  Setting up my first few classes was relatively easy, but getting the work permit was an arduous process that took almost six months.  The Thai bureaucracy loves documents and signatures and stamps and they all have to be done without error. I trekked to the Immigration Office and Ministry of Labour many times before finally winning approval.  

Inner courtyard of classroom building
Before the department was moved to the Ayutthaya campus, my first classroom was rather primitive with only fans, ancient desks and chairs, and a blackboard that had seen better days.  In my first year, I moved from Sukhumvit to a condo in Pinklao not far from the classes at Wat Srisudaram.  Many of the students were eager and passionate about learning English.  I gave them topics for oral presentations that required them to talk in English about their lives, their families and home communities, and their path to the monkhood.  All of my students without exception have come from small villages. Those from outside Thailand had to learn Thai in order to study at MCU (more recently, there are BA and MA English programs in the International School taught in English).   My classes of course were exclusively in English, but I know that some of the other English teachers did a lot of their instruction in Thai. Classrooms were supplied with a microphone and a portable speaker, and from day 1 I discovered a irrepressible desire to be a standup comedian who also happened to teach English.  My students responded enthusiastically and I was off and running.

Linguistic students at Wat Srisudaram
English grammar by itself is mind numbing, so I tried to sugar coat it by reading stories from Bangkok's English newspapers, giving them song exercises where they filled in the blanks on lyric sheets (at first just audio but later watching music videos), pronunciation practice with elocution limericks, reading articles with each student taking a sentence, and a variety of lesson tricks found on the internet.  They wrote short essays every week along with five sentences using new English words they wished to add to their vocabulary.  I got most of them to send me their homework by email attachment and I encouraged them to find email pen pals with whom to practice their English.  Some laughed at the "old" music I played for them and suggested new songs and artist to me for exercises. Teaching was exhausting work since I rarely sat down, but from the beginning I loved it more than any other job I'd had in the past, and wondered why it had taken me so long to find my vocation.

As I gradually honed my skills (and continued to wonder whether my students were learning anything from me), I accepted other offers to teach.  I've held conversation classes for students in several different weekend MA programs at various MCU campuses, and I twice started classes for students and for staff in the school's Language Institute that unfortunately never found a large enough audience to continue.  When the Faculty of Humanities started an MA program in linguistics I was asked to teach for several terms, using PowerPoint and videos to lecture on mass communications and in an English class where I used The Little Prince for a textbook to illustrate linguistic concepts.  Being old and lazy, I've rarely taught more than two days a week, and as a temporary lecturer I get paid with envelopes of cash (sometimes many months' late).  

There's something wonderful about the episodic nature of teaching, even when the material is the same.  I usually teach the same students for two terms, an intermediate course followed by an advanced one.  Getting to know the students and especially the names of each (which are often difficult for me to pronounce correctly) is a challenging yet rewarding process.  But I'm always sad when the term ends.  It should normally last 16 weeks, but because of various cancellations I only got 12 weeks before giving the final exam.  And each week's class lasts 2 to 2 1/2 hours, not nearly enough I think to cement their learning.  My students, however, are enormously grateful and constantly tell me how wonderful I am (a bit of apple polishing, perhaps?).  At the end of the final class, as the sounds of Alice Cooper faded away, my students brought another teacher to the room and we all lined up for the obligatory class photo.  There is nothing forced about my big smile.

Thursday, March 06, 2014

Tourist, Traveler, Expat

"We shall not cease from exploration 
And the end of all our exploring 
Will be to arrive where we started 
And know the place for the first time.” 
T.S. Eliot Four Quartets

Tom Eliot started out in St. Louis, Missouri, but left for Paris in his twenties to study philosophy and write poetry, and he never looked back.  Settling in England, he converted to Anglicanism and took out citizenship, and became thoroughly British in everything but birth.

What is the difference between a tourist, a traveler and an expat?  At one time or another, I've been all three.  It doesn't seem quite accurate to call Eliot an expat, for he was a convert, trading one country for another. Although I've lived in Thailand now for almost seven years, I remain caught between two worlds, with one foot in the country of my birth, America, and another in this place I now call home.

Home, of course, is where the heart is, and that muscular organ in the chest that pumps our life's blood is always with us until the end.  Where we feel "at home" is another issue.  Some of us are never comfortable in our own skin and seek out comfort and peace ever elsewhere from our demons, through distraction, digression and even pilgrimage.  This "home" is a chimera, a carrot to drive the donkey cart of our self ever forward.  We think we can leave our troubles behind by going to a new place. Unfortunately, they're intimately connected to who we are and tag along.  There's no escape from the self, for that pesky traveler always finds a place to hide in our luggage.

Recently I was accused of pretending to be "an old Thai hand." Funny expression, that.  An "old hand" is someone skilled at something through long experience.  Back in 2008 when I was a newbie in Bangkok, a long-time resident in Southeast Asia jokingly nominated me "rookie expat of the year."  I accepted it with pride, but dreaded the day when I might lose my naiveté. Traveling around the world and living outside the U.S. for extended periods has been a joy because I find myself continually surprised by the unexpected.  I do not think surprise can be heightened through skilful means.  It must sneak up on you when you least expect it, and when you may in fact be looking for something else, like "home."

There's a definite pecking order between tourists, travellers and expats.  The traveler feels superior to the tourist and the expat looks down on both.  Tourists often travel in groups and follow an itinerary.  Their experiences are either of the "gee whiz, look at that!" variety or are followed by complaints about the food and the natives.  They collect destinations like playing cards (Grand Canyon! Angkor Wat! Disneyland!) Tourists take photos and buy souvenirs to share with friends back home.  They rarely visit the same scenic site twice.  Travellers seek out the unknown and unspoiled, take pride in spontaneity and the collection of visa stamps in their passport.  They make repeat visits and condemn change ("too crowded and noisy now that everyone's discovered it").  Some travellers become preoccupied with authenticity and hold out for surviving pockets of the "real" Africa, or Thailand, or Costa Brava, before it gets ruined by developers and bus loads of tourists.

Pico Iyer has written that "perhaps the real distinction lies between those who leave their assumptions at home, and those who don't: Among those who don't, a tourist is just someone who complains, 'Nothing here is the way it is at home,' while a traveler is one who grumbles, 'Everything here is the same as it is in Cairo -- or Cuzco or Kathmandu.' It's all very much the same." Tourists are looking for the familiar in the strange (and finding it lacking), while travellers are finding the strange to be all too familiar (and overly developed).

And what of the expats?  I suspect that most of them live outside of the country of their birth for economic reasons.  The majority have jobs that take them to far flung outposts of capitalism. They work for international corporations, NGOs, agencies of their governments.  Others, like myself to some extent, seek out places they can survive with a diminished (or non-existent) income where the cost of living is lower than back "home."  Attracted by prices more than people, these expats usually retain their habits of origin and often complain about everything in their adopted land (here in Thailand, they bitch and moan on  Some are fleeing past misdeeds for a blank slate future.  Perhaps a few expats are what used to be called "remittance men," exiled by their wealthy families for their dissolute ways.  Southeast Asia attracts expats who came here initially to kill small yellow people in wars of conquest but who fell in love with the place instead and found their home countries had paled by comparison.

Thailand was never on my radar growing up, India even less. But after my marriage ended and my family splintered apart, I took to the open road to fulfil a childhood dream for a life of adventure. I'd also been diagnosed with prostate cancer and was determined to live fully until I died. With enough money after my mother's death and the marriage settlement to pick and choose, I set off to see the world. Of course the model I was following was a mish-mash of movie plots, travelogues, and history books.  Reality always plays hell with the imagination.

I already had some experience as an expat.  Dropping out of college, I stayed with my uncle at his house in Cuernavaca, Mexico, for a couple of months which included a journey around the south of the country. In the 1960s, my first wife and I lived in London for two years where I wrote for a TV program journal and my first son was born.  We were too poor to travel much but did visit the continent a couple of times. During a long second marriage, my wife and I confined our trips within the border, traveling from California to New England, Florida and Hawaii.  When we separated I lived in a succession of small rooms and dreamed of wider horizons.

Sometimes I would embark on a series of journeys as a tourist, sometimes as a traveler.  I went with Habitat for Humanity to build houses in Guatemala, and studied Spanish with students from the local community college at schools in Oaxaca, Mexico, and Buenos Aires, Argentina.  With a group of Catholics I toured cathedrals in Britain, and continue on my own to visit places and see friends in Italy, Spain and Germany.  With another group I traveled to India for the first time to stay at a Catholic ashram in Tamil Nadu.  I returned there three more times, twice on my own and once as the leader of a tour group from Santa Cruz.  On that first trip to India I added a visit in Bangkok to see an old friend, traveled with him to his upcountry farm and continued to a monastery in the northeast where I wore white, and shaved my head and eyebrows for a 10-day stay.  That visit hooked me, and I returned two more times to Thailand, traveling north up to Chiang Mai and south to Koh Samui for some sun and surf, before I made up my mind to live here permanently.

If Pico Iyer's definition rings true, I have always been a traveler because I've been able for the most part to leave my assumptions behind.  All of my trips have include plenty of surprises, most of them welcome.  Even when I returned to places, like Mexico and India, I was able to see it with fresh eyes.  At the same time I have always been also a tourist, taking photos and collecting experiences which I could relay to friends in letters, emails, and now this blog.  I've checked cities off my bucket list, like Barcelona where I went to experience the marvelous organic architecture of Antonio Gaudi.   I went to the Sistine Chapel in Rome, Neruda's grave in Chile and Halong Bay in Vietnam because I wanted to have lived a life in which those places were in my memory.

Eliot's poetic plea to "know the place for the first time" has guided my wanderings as a tourist, traveler and expat.  Nothing is sadder than the jaded complaints of a traveler that "everything has changed, nothing is the same, it's all spoiled."  They will never be at home outside the borders of their native land (much less their mind) if they cannot take joy in variety and change, even if it may look at first glance as if paradise has been turned into a parking lot.  No expectations is the mantra. Bangkok feels like home to me even though I cannot understand the language and will always be seen by Thais as an outsider, a farang. Walking in the familiar byways of the city, even in the upscale super shopping malls, is never a disappointment so long as I have fresh eyes to see. This has been and will be the goal of my explorations.

Monday, February 24, 2014

The Precariousness of Friendship

Not very long ago, I lost a friend.  She can still be found but she prefers it not to be by me.

The reason she no longer wishes to hear from me seems almost silly, but apparently not to her. After a lunch together that went wrong for a number of reasons (missed communications about time and place, for example), I mentioned in an email to a mutual friend that "she's got to be the most fidgety person I've ever met."  Because the comment was accidentally attached to another email to both of us, my remarks were included in a later response, and she saw them.

My apologies were to no avail.  Stung by my judgement, she offered a few of me.  That they didn't seem true was irrelevant.  I'd hurt her and she managed to hurt me back.

The roots of our friendship did not go very deep.  We met in Bangkok a few years ago and shared our stories, and when she traveled elsewhere we continued an email/Facebook relationship which included playing a long-running internet word game.  It always made me happy to see her, and I liked to think this was reciprocated. I continue to believe I am good friend material and am rarely critical about the traits or opinions of others which might differ from my own.  My intentions, I feel, are always honorable even though they may not always be perceived as so.

So to experience dislike always comes for me as a shock.  It happened a couple of years ago with a friend I'd made at the expat Buddhist group in Bangkok.  We commiserated and appreciated each other's ideas and writing,  and we exchanged biographies and our thoughts about religion. One Christmas season he took me to the Anglican caroling service.  I brought him to the meeting of a Catholic meditation group.  Then something I wrote in a blog about Buddhism and a particular teacher offended him.  He sent me angry emails that impugned my motives and intentions.  The defensive response I offered fell flat.

A few years later we actually rekindled our friendship.  But it didn't last long.  We had a difference of opinion about Muslims.  He thought their religion was little more than institutional terrorism.  My position, that there are fanatics in all religions and that the basic beliefs are benign and can be compatible, was rejected out of hand by him.  For the second time, he blocked me on Facebook and cut off all contact.

I've never been very confrontational.  Some of my oldest friends are extremely conservative in their political views and we walk the tightrope of friendship by steering clear of political imbalance.  Two friends from high school I loved dearly both died last year.  The joint memory of our times together in the past outweighed the fact that I was a communist, or worse, in their eyes. Others from 50 years ago have not cut me so much slack and they have de-friended me over incommensurate political views.

At least three Jewish friends from my days in the music business in the 1970s, have cut off all contact with me because of my support for the Palestinian cause and criticism of Israel.  One had even come to visit me in Bangkok and was a guest in my home.  Her identity was so tied up with Israel that she found it impossible to forgive my view that treatment of the Arab minority was akin to apartheid in South Africa.  I enjoyed her company and her perspective on life but she was unable to appreciate my dissonance.

I can't help wondering if my explanations for the loss of friendships are only justifications I use to bolster my self image as a kind and harmless friend whose tolerance is not matched by others. The friendships that led to two marriages both degenerated in the end to conflicting stories told by angry adults.  The first lasted 10 years, the second 24.  In the beginning love was blind, in the middle it negotiated and compromised, and by the final days it snarled and sputtered out accusations that were more satisfying than true.

Perhaps there is something wrong with me.  I try to interrogate myself as honestly and thoroughly as possible.  There are clues everywhere.  Why have I not been in contact with my two youngest offspring for over a year?  My son wrote a letter strongly critical of my lifestyle which I took in the spirt of "fuck you."  My daughter refused for over five years to explain why she took the loan I co-signed and used it for living expenses rather than the school for which it was intended.  The final straw was her email about a psychic who had told her she was molested by me when she was two, and she wanted to know if it was true.  I de-friended them both on Facebook, petty yes, but the only reaction that made sense at the time.  Social networks have come to define my relationships.

The wife who divorced me after 24 years tried to keep in touch, "for the sake of the children," until she discovered a sizeable debt on her credit report from a card we had taken out together years before but one on which I had unintentionally retained her name.  It wasn't deliberate, but the debt was now too high to be easily paid off.  That displeased her greatly, and she no longer encourages me to stay in touch with our children.  This is clearly my fault and I'm contrite, but not overly so.  She'll be fine until I die and the credit buzzards go after their money.

My oldest son and my brother are Facebook friends and we occasionally comment and like each other's digital offerings.  This family interaction certainly contains none of the warmth or intimacy of an in-person visit, but given my distance from them, it's all I can manage for now.  While I take our relationship for granted, I also know that words and deeds in the past have made it difficult to achieve the kind of closeness of the TV families whose lives we shared when we were young.

At 74, I can't afford to lose many more friends or family members.  Fortunately my Thai wife is loving and considerate, and promises that she will take care of me when I begin to drool and forget.  I wonder if she realizes the extent of her commitment?  When I can no longer teach or move about easily in this big city, we will retire to her village in the north where my Social Security will provide comfort for my entire extended Thai family.  Of course, if the bullets start flying in Bangkok, this move may happen sooner rather than later.

I do have friends.  When I returned to Santa Cruz in 2010 I was astounded to discover how many people were still willing to call me friend and help me at a stressful time.  I continue to correspond by email/Facebook with friends I've known for much of my life.  Here in Thailand, I've met a number of new friends through the Buddhist expat group and at several other discussion groups in which I participate, and I even have a few Thai friends from school.  While not as social as my oldest friend Jerry, I manage to set up a couple of appointments for various events almost every week. Essentially, however, I'm more solitary than social and enjoy the company of myself at home, connected to the world through the internet, and able to sample the cornucopia of entertainment offerings via torrents.

Once I thought that wisdom would come with age, but now I know that time brings more confusion rather than certainty.  When I was a young father I tried to be the sort of guide that I thought parents should be, but I rarely felt successful at it.  I was a late bloomer in school and didn't go to university until midlife when I stayed for over 15 years and three degrees; none of my children emulated me.  My daughter disliked my name so much she picked her own, the maiden name of a maternal grandmother.  Despite recent setbacks, I have always felt more successful as a friend.  Many I've kept for over half my life and the internet enables those without computer phobia to keep in touch.  Some of the friends I'm making now will last the rest of my life.  If only I don't blow it.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Sorrow in the Land of Smiles

Smile though your heart is aching 
Smile even though it's breaking

These are tough times in Thailand which has long been dubbed the "Land of Smiles" (LOS).  An article in the New York Times spoke of the "slow strangulation" of the country's democratically elected government by a mob that has been protesting in the streets for the last three months. Tourism in Bangkok has declined drastically during the peak season, people have been laid off, traffic is snarled more than usual, the caretaker government is paralyzed and the economy is in free fall. There have been 16 deaths and nearly 700 injuries from clashes between pro and anti government supporters since the street rallies began.  Time Magazine headlined a story on the country's political history: "Thailand Was Never the Land of Smiles, Whatever the Guidebooks May Have Told You." An Aljazeera correspondent reported "Frowns in the Land of Smiles."

While the human smile is universal, it does not always indicate happiness, pleasure or amusement.  Often it is more of a grimace, the emotions behind it of embarrassment or even terror.  Some speculate it evolved from a primate's clenched-teeth expression designed to convince a predator it was harmless.  Smiles are signals which communicate varieties of information (like the flirting smile which indicates sexual interest).  There are significant cultural differences.  Especially in Asia, people smile when they are confused, angry and embarrassed.  Frowns are considered impolite, whatever the social situation.  Consistency, however, is important.  When Thai Prime Minister Yingluck was seen to smile shortly after an emotional statement in which she appeared to cry, her detractors claimed she was a hypocrite.

I've been thinking a lot about happiness

My wife tells me I'm being "too serious" when I obsess over the current political situation, spending hours on the internet, Facebook and Twitter, posting and retweeting the latest news or rumors.  Thais value fun (sanuk in Thai) over seriousness, whatever the topic. When I tell my students they should be serious about learning English they look at me as if I were mad. Although many Thais do indeed worry (a friend's wife can't sleep when there is trouble in the fields for her crops), the cultural influence of a fatalistic view of Buddhism does encourage resignation over the effects of kamma for past actions.  Past events create current realities.  For every crime you must do the time.  And be happy about it.

The metta prayer, in which the faithful hope for a world in which "all beings may be happy," is important for Buddhists, especially in Thailand.  In a simplistic manner of speaking, happiness is the consequence when suffering is relieved.  The Buddha taught that living in a human body is characterized by a general form of anxiety (usually translated as "suffering") that is caused by the thirst for more, the avoidance of pain and pursuit of pleasure, a motivation that could also be seen as a natural life force.  Thwarted desires for anything create pain of loss. The way to avoid this pain is to accept the consequences of our prior actions and lead ethical and productive lives from then on according to a specific eight-fold path. To practice this teaching (and meditation is only one step on the path) leads to  happiness.

To be happy while people are injured and dying for their political beliefs or for their role in the tragedy that is currently being enacted in Thailand seems despicable.  And yet, as only an onlooker, a guest in the Kingdom where I am not a participating citizen, there is little else I can do beyond wringing my hands in front of a laptop screen and commiserating with expat comrades. Today is Wan Phra (monk's day, one of the four monthly phases of the moon) and last night I bought four garlands of flowers for the collection holy images on our altar atop the bookshelf.  I filled the shot glasses with water (and red soda for Ganesha) and silently wished that all people be happy, especially those suffering on the streets of Bangkok, and I added the hope that all those filled with hate on both sides of the conflict have their hearts melted and be able to hear the cries of the other.  Mercy is mandatory.

And may happiness in the LOS be a reason for dancing!

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Drinking the Kool-Aid

The cheering and whistle-blowing followers of Suthep Thaugsuban in Bangkok could not be more unlike the Americans who moved to Guyana in the 1970s to start a commune called Jonestown. Their leader was a charismatic preacher who promoted racial integration at his Peoples Temple in San Francisco.  His goal had been to use Christianity to spread the message of socialism and he was highly regarded by people of influence in the city and state of California.  But he was also a paranoid drug addict.  When he felt threatened by exposure in the media, he took his entire community of followers to Guyana where they established what Jones described as a "socialist paradise" and "sanctuary" at a remote place he named Jonestown.

What happened on Nov. 18, 1978, is a major event in 20th century history.  When a U.S. congressman flew down on a fact-finding visit, accompanied by defectors from Jonestown who said their children had been taken from them by Jones, the entire community committed mass suicide.  Over 900 people, including some 300 children, drank cyanide mixed with grape Kool-Aid and died.  The congressman and several others were killed by gunmen sent after them by Jones, and the leader himself died from a gunshot would to the head.  He told his willing followers that death is "just stepping over into another plane" and that it's "a friend." The phrase "drinking the Kool-Aid" has become a well-known metaphor that "refers to a person or group holding an unquestioned belief, argument, or philosophy without critical examination," according to Wikipedia.

I use this metaphor to describe the followers of Suthep who have been demonstrating against the Thai government on the streets of Bangkok for two months because I think that, like the innocent followers of Jim Jones, they are gripped by a delusion that flies in the face of reality and they are unable to contemplate the unintended effects of their actions.  The men, women and children of Jonestown, an idealistic multi-racial group of people from San Francisco, had become seduced by the paranoid fantasies of their leader who believed the American government was out to get them (their children would be tortured if captured he told the parents).

Many segments of the population in Thailand have been suffering from a form of mass hysteria over the Shinawatra family for the last eight years.  Thaksin Shinawatra was elected prime minister in 2001 but his government was overturned by a military coup in 2006.  A successful business tycoon, his political party reached out to voters in rural areas who had been ignored by the ruling coalitions in Bangkok since the constitutional monarchy was established in 1932.  This success, as well as questionable financial dealings and an autocratic style of governing that involved censorship and human rights abuses, was deeply disturbing to the traditional centers of power in Thailand.  But although he was sent into exile and the constitution was rewritten by the military to block future executive overreach, his popularity continued to win elections, even after judicial "coups" had thrown two more Thaksin-allied prime ministers out of office.  In the 2011 election his sister Yingluck overwhelming defeated the Democrats, a party that came to power through back-room deals, led by Abhisit Vejjajiv and his deputy prime minister, Suthep.

Street mobs against Thaksin in 2006 had preceded the coup.  Last June people took to the streets in Bangkok again, this time wearing "V for Vendetta" masks from the movie of the same name about a future anarchist revolutionary who took the identity of Guy Fawkes, the British hero who attempted to kill King James I (the mask was more pictorial than reflecting the protesters sentiments about monarchy...loving the King was one of the reasons why they hated Thaksin).  Then at the end of the year his sister made a few false steps that stoked the latent hysteria about her brother.  The opposition party withdrew from Parliament, forcing her to call a new election.  Suthep also resigned from the Democratic party and became the mob's spokesman.  At its peak, an estimated 200,000 people took to the streets, now demanding the "eradication of the Thaksin regime."  Despite the fact that Yingluck had received a significant majority of the votes in 2011, Suthep called for nothing less than her removal and "reform before election," a slogan without any details.

The hatred I hear on the streets for Thaksin these days is difficult to fathom. He was gone by the time I arrived in the fall of 2007.  Most of what I know of him comes from a very detailed biography, Thaksin, by the British writer Chris Baker and his wife Pasuk Pongpaichit, an academic economist, as well as from their excellent History of Thailand. Thaksin came from a wealthy Thai-Chinese family in Chiang Mai and made a fortune cornering the cell phone service market based on exclusive leases.  He was no more corrupt than other politicians, but avoided oversight when he became PM.  His was the first mass-based political party in Thailand and uniquely successful.  His enemies envied his success, his wealth, and his popularity, and accused him of undermining Thailand's "democracy with the King as head of state."  Since his exile, he has been accused of running Thailand by proxy, and there is truth in this charge with his sister currently the head of state.

Thailand's protesters like to have fun (sanuk in Thai).  Demonstrations are dense with theatrical aspects: slogans, flags and tokens to show their allegiance, like pictures of the King, the Thai flag colors used for various patriotic bling, and the ever-present whistles (for "whistle blowers" who wish to "shut down Bangkok" before they "restart Thailand").  Since the non-stop rallies began on January 13, there have been continual speeches and entertainment from the various stages that block major intersections in central Bangkok.  In the beginning, Suthep claimed it would be only a few days before Yingluck would resign to join her brother in exile in Dubai.  The election, boycotted by the Democrats, has come and gone with candidate registration and polling blocked by protesters.  The various agencies and courts set up by the military constitution in 2007 are deliberating various charges against the government and members of Yingluck's Pheu Thai party.  Participation by the largely middle class followers of Suthep has flagged during the hot days but surged in the evenings when those attending forgo entertainment on TV for the sanuk protest rallies.

In trying to understand what seems to me to be irrational hatred of and mass hysteria against Thaksin, the closer I could come to it was McCarthyism in America in the first half of the 1950s. During the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, Republican Sen. Joseph McCarthy made outrageous claims about the existence of Communists in government.  He was widely followed and applauded by those fearful of the "red menace." People were looking for "Reds" under their bed!  McCarthyism, according to Wikipedia, has come to be seen as the practice of "making accusations of disloyalty, subversion, or treason without proper regard for evidence."  The rhetoric against Thaksin from Suthep and his minions revolves around "corruption" and the need for "reform," but these words are left without much detail.  Winning elections has meant "a dictatorship of the majority," and the accusation that the only way Thaksin's candidates like his sister can win elections is through "vote buying," a charge that falls apart under analysis.  Yingluck's enemies resort to gender abuse and call her "slut," "bitch" and worse.  The arguments from anti-government protesters, who reveal a distaste for democracy when they can't win elections (the Democrats last success was in 1992), are passionate and designed to appeal to emotions rather than critical analysis.

It's difficult if not impossible to argue with Thaksin haters.  They demonize their enemy by putting him in a class with Hitler and Satan.  Everything he touches or influences, like his sister, is soiled.  The fact that Suthep's political career has been marked by corruption charges is irrelevant.  Thaksin's considerable rural power base is dismissed and the voters ridiculed as uneducated and interested only in his money and populist health and economic policies.  Most of all, the followers of Suthep seem blind to the consequences of removing an elected government from power.  What will the people who elected Yingluck do?

I've already overreacted to the political situation in my adopted country, twice.  Before the "Shutdown Bangkok" campaign began, I stocked up on water which was in short supply during the floods two years ago.  But Bangkok absorbed the protests with little immediate effect.  Then on the day of the elections, like many others I expected widespread violence as protesters attempted to prevent voting.  For the most part, that didn't happen.  Now that the economy is in free fall, the peak tourist season has been terminally disrupted, and many government offices are operating out of borrowed locations because ministries have been shut and workers turned away, it almost seems like a normal way of life.  The fireworks during Chinese New Year set a few nerves on edge.  The worst that is contemplated now is civil war with Thailand splitting in two and Yingluck's government moving to Chiang Mai.  Of course this sounds alarmist.  Thais are known for their smiling faces, even when everything is going wrong.  Surely nothing this drastic could ever happen?

Yesterday the government made a feeble attempt to take back some of the locations occupied by Suthep's mob.  At the first sign of possible violence, the police withdrew.  It's possible the military, no fan of Thaksin, is protecting the protesters until the courts can do their dirty work.  Some believed it was a way to discourage people from attending Suthep's "love fest" on Valentine's day.  But I went to one of the three major rally sites last night and it was packed from people from what looked like all walks of life in Bangkok, if not Thailand.  These haters of Thaksin and followers of Suthep's have drink the Kool-Aid.  No election or even a military coup will reverse their conditioning against the exiled PM's detested "regime."  There is simply no way forward at the moment that will preserve the unity of Thailand.  The gulf is just too wide.  Am I being alarmist?  I hope so!

Tee shirt sellers and other vendors are happy with the protests

Friday, February 07, 2014

Glory Days in Publishing

For four years of my life I labored in the California vineyards of Guitar Player Magazine and its associated kin, Contemporary Keyboard and Frets (under the umbrella of GPI Publications).  Now a book is bring put together by former staffers, writers and musicians called Guitar Player Magazine: The Glory Years, 1967-1989, to be published by Hal Leonard Publishing Corp.:

This is my contribution:

Before I arrived, 3rd issue, 1967
When I left my job in January of 1975 as west coast A&R and publicity director in Hollywood for Atlantic Records, I thought I was leaving the music business forever.  My girlfriend and I packed our things in a U-haul truck and migrated from Venice Beach to northern California to live a carefree lifestyle.  We moved into a house under the redwoods in the Santa Cruz Mountains that we shared with a couple of UC Santa Cruz students. My plan was to write poetry while collecting unemployment.  But a year and a half later I was knocking on Jim Crockett's door at his sumptuous suite of offices over a carpet store in Saratoga to ask him for a job.

My girlfriend -- not that one but the next one -- was pregnant.  Unemployment had run out, and I was working part-time for a weekly Santa Cruz newspaper setting type and laying out pages for the printer.  The free paper had an insert covering local culture and occasionally I contributed reviews and stories, just as I had for the Los Angeles Free Press during my five years in the music business.  After a year on unemployment and poor-paying part-time work, the need for a larger income had become insistent.

Jim Crockett
It was quickly apparent I was not a good fit for GPI, the magazine publishing company Crockett had developed almost from scratch, starting with Guitar Player and growing into Contemporary Keyboard (later Frets and others).  They were magazines for musicians written by musicians. I thought of myself more as a writer than a musician, and my guitar skills were extremely limited.

Jim and I had talked occasionally on the phone when I was a Hollywood PR man and tried to talk him in writing about my recording artists. But we'd never met.  At my appointment I saw he was a trim fellow with a goatee who moved and talked slowly, but with deliberation.  GPI did not need another writer.  What it needed was someone to take over preparing the issues for the printer who could paste up galleys of type, ads and photographs according to Jim's design.  It was only part-time work to start with a less than modest salary, but I was given the glorious title on the magazine mastheads of Art Director.

Those early days in Saratoga with the GP and CK staff were nearly 40 years ago so I no longer remember much of the details.  It was informal and fun. Of course we didn't wear ties, it being California Casual every day.  There was lots of play and socializing during the sunny days, which meant that getting the magazines out on time frequently required evening hours.  Since I had a wife and baby at home and had to commute long distances over the hill from Santa Cruz to the office, I protested at staff meetings about the unpaid overtime.  This was not a popular view, with Jim or the employees, most of whom were single, lived not far away, and enjoyed the excitement of the deadline crunch.  I was seen as the guy that kept banker's hours.

The move to Cupertino was highly anticipated.  We posed for photos on the land where construction was to take place.  The completed offices with a large warehouse were impressive, the inside windowless offices less so.  Jim ruled his domain from a tastefully decorated corner suite.  My art studio was very well appointed, although I continued to cut galleys with an X-Acto knife, once accidentally slicing my hand and bleeding all over the layout pages.

Our neighbor, as many here will mention, was a start-up computer company called Apple. Gradually they would grow to take over all the nearby buildings and eventually practically the whole town, their skyscrapers plastered with the Apple logo.  I remember when they went public and I contemplated buying stock; a road not taken. What I remember is the donut store at the end of the block and the Japanese restaurant in front of our building.  Some of us would go running around the campus or swim at De Anza College not far away.  There was room in the warehouse for back issues, supplies and the regular jam sessions with notable musicians joining in and Jim banging the drums.  I even played the sax and clarinet a couple of times. Workers from Apple would come over to listen and some of them even joined in.

The number of employees increased with the move but we still felt like a family.  There were picnics together in local parks, parties at people's homes, the annual Christmas shindig, and even the weddings of a couple of staffers.  My wife and baby would join in but the distance always set us a bit apart from the social scene.  Some of the employees shared recreational drugs, at work and also after hours, and I must confess to being one of them.  But of course that was long ago. And I will mention no names other than my own.

My wife and I also became friends with Jim's wife, Rebecca. When they divorced, she would come to visit us in Santa Cruz.  Looking through our photograph albums one day she picked up photo one and said, "Who is this handsome man?"  A couple of days later I introduced her over the phone to my friend Jerry Hopkins who lived in Hawaii.  And a week after that she went to visit him.  Their marriage lasted ten years.  Now Jerry lives in Bangkok and is married to a Thai woman with a farm upcountry.  He's my oldest and closest friend these days.

As Art Director, Jim occasionally gave me freedom to design layouts, but they were never as good as his.  The editors would provide photos to illustrate their stories.  I remember I used one of the Grateful Dead that came, I was told, from their manager's office.  When the issue was published, I got an angry call from photographer Jim Marshall who had been a friend when I worked for record companies and hired him for jobs.  Jim used to come to my office to examine my music book collection to see who was using his photos without permission.  Then he would call his lawyer to sue.  He was notoriously volatile, and was upset over the Dead photo that he claimed was his.  He said he would kill me because I stole his art.  For a while I was genuinely concerned because I knew he owned a gun and was famous for threatening those who did him wrong.  We had done drugs together at Willie Nelson's 4th of July picnic in Texas and it was rumored that cocaine was his downfall.  As I remember it, we eventually paid him something for the photo.  It was cheaper than a funeral for me.

Gradually I became more involved in magazine publishing and the business side of the enterprise rather than the editorial or art content.  After leaving the music business in LA, I stopped keeping up with new innovations (were there any?) and could contribute little to office conversations about so-and-so's playing ability (for we were a magazine for musicians and not for simply fans).

With Jim and others on the business side of the staff, I attended magazine conferences and read the publishing trade press.  The idea of modeling circulation and production excited me and  I convinced Jim to sign up for Kobak Business Machines (KBM), an east coast company that provided this service via phone line and printer.  I moved up to position of circulation director and was involved in choosing a new printer in Long Prairie, Minnesota.   This required trips for a printing consultant to a tiny town in upstate Minnesota where everyone worked for the same company; in snowy winter it was lots of fun. Taking estimates on circulation and ad sales from the ad directors, subscription rolls and newsstands, I would input figures into the program to predict our P&L for each issue.  I found it fascinating, and occasionally accurate.

After four years with GPI, events conspired to my leaving.  Our landlady in Santa Cruz broke up with her husband and needed to live in our house.  My wife's sister in Connecticut had gotten romantically involved with a drug dealer and we wanted to separate them.  But most importantly, I now had visions of using my GPI experience to climb the ladder of success in New York publishing.  So I resigned in the summer of 1980.  At my going-away party, Jim gave me a beautiful hand-made leather shoulder bag.  (I'm sad to report that while drunk one night in Manhattan I left it behind in a taxi.)

My family I moved east where I worked in circulation at Billboard Publishing and as general manager of Theatre Crafts Magazine.  At TC, I got Radio Shack computers for staff writers and learned how to convert their files to type for the printer.  Magazines were begin to figure out the possibilities of computers and I was a bit of an innovator on a minor scale. Jim and his wife Bobby (who had grown up in Connecticut) came back to visit. Two years of commuting by train to the city finally got to me.  And after our son was born at Yale Hospital, we packed up a U-haul and moved back to California.  Instead of returning to GPI (another road not taken), I got a job in the Alumni Association office at UC Santa Cruz.  A year later I returned to complete my Bachelor's degree, and continued study for 18 years until I received a Ph.D. in history.  Now I teach English to Buddhist monks in Thailand, and keep in touch with my old friends from GPI on Facebook where it seems they all have pages.  What a long strange trip it's been!