Sunday, April 05, 2015

The Meaning of Life


This cartoon is meant to be a joke, but in my case it's true.  The meaning of my life is largely told in this blog and on my Facebook page, expressed in the links, opinions, photos, check-ins and events of my life as it unfolds now in the first half of 2015 (tho since I live in Thailand I should perhaps write it as 2558, since the Thai year dates from the death of the Buddha).

In other words, after too many years of looking for the meaning of life in various forms of religion, different kinds of spiritual practices from the eucharist to meditation, and books about same, in connection with formal study toward several degrees in schools, I reached the conclusion that the search (quest or journey) only leads back to my own life.  There is no salvation, wisdom or enlightenment out there.  As T.S. Eliot so beautifully put it,
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.

I've had a long, good life with no regrets for any of the detours, wrong turnings, and missteps in my years of exploration.  I've learned something about myself in all of the experiences I have ever had, the good ones as well as the disasters (and there have been not a few of those).  But judging by the cartoons in Google Images about the one true meaning of life, it still remains a preoccupation of many.  There are lots of meaningful activities, from stamp collecting and and drug taking to sexual addiction and political campaigning.  Whatever we choose to do defines our identity and self-image and imbues our life with purpose (even crime is purposeful).  The most common way that people seek a purpose for their life is through religion.

This post is a continuation of my last when I set out to "find my religion" but only came up empty handed.  Wherever you look these days, religion is in the news. The main topic is Islamic fundamentalism with fanatics slaughtering the innocent in Manhattan, Kenya, Nigeria, Boston, Syria and other Middle East countries.  In Israel, Jewish fundamentalists (another term for truest believers) are attacking and injuring Palestinians in order to steal their land, with the connivance of Israeli forces that have bombed Gaza back to the stone age.  Fundamentalist Christians in America may be more benign, but with the aid of right-wing state politicians they are shrinking the voting franchise to remove the poor and minorities, and legislating against sexual tolerance.  Even Buddhists in Myanmar and Sri Lanka are forming racist nationalist fronts to protect their religion from what they mistakenly see as a threat from the small minorities of  Muslims and Hindus. All of these fundamentalisms share a similar characteristic -- hatred of those who are different.  While most of the conflicts may only be about struggles over land and the state (or tribe), the result of these comparisons is to tar "religion" -- whatever that word may denote -- with the bloody brush of hatred.

Karl Marx
Despite arguments from social scientists in the last century that modernization would gradually remove the need for religion, what Marx called "the opium of the people," it has not disappeared. The fall of the Soviet Union resulted in the return of orthodox Christianity, now a conservative force. Globalization has not been a melting pot, despite Facebook, Starbucks and American films. The reason for this was recognized by Marx who identified religion as the "sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions." Religion was an antidote at the time for the horrific conditions in the satanic mills of early capitalist industry.  Wherever people lack jobs, education and opportunities, and are oppressed by outside forces, they turn to the consolations of religion.  And this religion is not necessarily the "love your neighbor" kind.  It is often a tribalistic faith, viciously insular and exclusive, and it promotes views and attitudes that demonize outsiders in an attempt to provide a security and control that can only be illusory.

Manchester U fans vs Roma
What does this tribal religion have to do with gods, dogma, rituals and institutions, the stuff of atheist and anti-religious discontent? Very little, and only as a discourse that separates the sheep from the goats.  This religion is not about beliefs and propositions that can be discussed rationally, but it is rather a form of idolatry and identity somewhat similar to that of the football hooligans who regularly run riot after European games.  A professor of mine wrote a book about National Socialism in Germany as a religious movement.  Gang membership among minorities gives them a home in a strange culture.  Even second-generation immigrants in Britain feel so out of place that they run off to join ISIS in a search for meaning in their lives.

Karen Armstrong
Historians of religion like Karen Armstrong and Robert Wright try to sketch an evolution from the religious practices of hunter-gatherer tribes to the institutionalized faith that provided social glue for empires, from Constantine's Rome to Mughal India and the Ottomans.  Like empires, however, religious unity constantly broke into pieces.  Christianity fragmented in 1000 AD and again in the 16th century.  There is so little similarity between the Anglicans, the tent evangelists in the southern U.S. and the proselytizing Mormons in Latin America (to name only three sects) that "Christianities" is a better label for the largest of the so-called "world" religions.  The split between Sunni and Shia Islam is now well known because of news events (although Bush and his advisers to their peril knew little of it before invading Iraq). And even Buddhists have trouble finding commonalities between the three major divisions (four if you count western Buddhism which is quite different from the Asian varieties).

Christians in America hate the gays, Israelis hate the Arabs, warriors of ISIS hate all westerners, Sri Lankan Buddhists hate the Tamil Muslims, Hindu nationalists hate the Sikhs, Bangladeshi Muslims hate Buddhists and Burmese Buddhists hate the Muslims of Rakhine state.  And maybe even the Protestants in Northern Ireland still hate the Catholics!  Hatred is an equal opportunity passion.  What we hate too often defines who we are.

These hatreds resemble in many ways the antagonisms between tribes more than 10,000 years ago before many of the wandering peoples settled down in place to invent agriculture.  Before the population explosion when tribes stopped moving long enough to grow crops and raise animals for food, there was enough land so that tribes could remain self-contained and avoid others.  After agriculture, there would be struggles over land, and after the rise of city states and empires, struggles over territory.  Religion was the handmaiden, holding people together in common rites and rituals and separating them from the unbelievers.  It's still performing that role.

Robert Wright, among others, thinks that despite setbacks, religion has evolved.  Wright, a cognitive psychologist who describes himself as a materialist and an agnostic, defends moral progress in his fascinating 2009 book, The Evolution of God.  Since the pre-agriculture tribal period, people have gradually learned the benefits of extending moral consideration to those outside their own tribe.  “As the scope of social organization grows, God tends to eventually catch up, drawing a larger expanse of humanity under his protection, or at least a larger expanse of humanity under his toleration.”  This progress can be seen in the sentiments of the Golden Rule, "love your neighbor as yourself," which can be found in all religions. It's also taken time for "neighbor" to be seen as everyone on the planet.

From this perspective, religion is not about gods, heaven or hell, orthodoxy, and the nation favored by the most powerful deity, but about behavior in this life that leads to peace.  Morality is mutual interest, the compassion that arises when you contemplate the suffering of others that is much the same as yours.  Each of the so-called world religions has various foundational scriptures that believers cherry pick to find rules that align with their prejudices and exclusionary views. Homosexuality and abortion have become important to fundamentalist Christians despite their absence from most texts while other prohibitions are often ignored.  If religion had no other purpose other than to guide and encourage us into getting along with each other, it would probably fulfil the aims of the different founders.  Everything else, St. Aquinas said of human additions to the divine, "are of straw."

As for the meaning of life?


Friday, March 27, 2015

Finding My Religion


Over on Facebook I often find myself verbally butting heads with a co-worker from long ago over the topic of religion.  Even though I self-identify these days as a materialist and consider the twenty years I spent as a Catholic convert to be memories of times past, my position in our debates is always in defense of religion Whenever I link to a story that shows religion in any kind of a favorable light, I trust that my friend will soon comment on the dangers of all metaphysical world views, the superiority of science to religion, and the religious education of the young as a form of child abuse (here I'm doing a gross disservice to his more nuanced arguments).

Religion in all of its many forms has been a major curiosity of mine since I was seven and attended summer vacation Bible school at the Baptist church in Greensboro, North Carolina.  These days I usually write "religion" with scare quotes because I think no one has a comprehensive definition of the phenomenon with which I can agree.  The old "if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck" argument no longer seems valid.  It's not that there aren't any definitions but that there are way too many and most seem inadequate for describing what people do and think that might be called "religious." Those with the most rigid definitions tend to be atheists, those critics Schleiermacher called religion's "cultured despisers." In my experience, they inevitably try to dictate what the faithful must believe and then condemn it. Whenever I see this happening, I go into lawyer mode for the defense.

Now that I'm in the last quarter of my century, I live in Thailand where the religion of 97% of the population is said to be Buddhism. Christianity has never gotten much of a foothold here, and those Muslims living in the south have been trying to break away for decades. While Buddhism isn't officially the state religion, it's included in the government's purview and the current military dictatorship is trying to wrest control for prosecuting misbehaving monks from the ruling Sangha Council.  Buddhist temples here in Bangkok are almost as common as 7-11s.  They're usually crowded with Thais "making merit" (tam bun in Thai) by bringing gifts (often an orange bucket full of trivial items for a 20 baht donation) and receiving a blessing from the monk on duty.  We keep an altar of icons atop our bookshelf (photo above) and refresh the flowers and liquid offerings every Wan Phra (monk day on the four phases of the moon). My wife says her prayers each night before going to sleep, and when I ask what she prays for, she says "that everyone be happy."

My objective in this post and perhaps a few more in the future is to ponder the word "religion" and what the term might point to that both pleases and upsets so many.  I've written much about my own experiences with religious beliefs and practices here during the last nine years.  After all, it's the first topic in the title of my blog!  Now, however, I'd like to think a bit deeper about the disparate reactions to the phenomena that people generally think of as religious.  A number of my friends get absolutely venomous about any form of religion, and slam all of it as backward, stupid and possibly lethal. These days, fundamentalism, Islamic as well as Christian, is the object of their ire, but many atheists, new and old, argue that tolerance towards any religious thinking or activity is ludicrous.  Just as anti-drug campaigns declared that smoking marijuana opened the door to cocaine and heroin, anti-religion activists believe that even liberal or progressive religion is a stepping stone to fundamentalist extremism.

Maybe I'm tolerant toward religion because I never went to Catholic school and got my butt slapped by a nun with a ruler.  My mother joined the most fashionable churches in the many places where we moved as I was growing up while my father claimed he found his god on the golf course.  I learned about the different world religions from a couple of books given to me by a friend in high school.  In college another friend's outwardly respectable mother communicated telepathically with flying saucers and wrote a book called Wisdom of the Universe.  For a time I took part in her study group and fell in love with all the kookiness of New Age Thought that predates by many years the hippies and other more modern New Agers. For years I thought there must me something more to life and pursued a plethora of spiritual disciplines, from chanting, meditation and genuflecting to alcohol and psychedelics.  But I never had that AHA! moment I thought and hoped was possible at the end of the journey.

Despite the disappointment of not achieving what was after all only a creation of my imagination, I have remained compassionate toward others who continue to seek what I did not discover. It's up to each of us to find our own way, so why be angry with anyone who choses a path you would not? Of course it's easier to be tolerant of the seekers than of the true believers who think they've found the truth and urge, nay demand, that you recognize theirs and validate it by joining them.  I suspect the anti-religion activists are more angry about the finders than the seekers.  There is something obnoxious about the missionary who solicits your conversion and won't take "no" for an answer.

Atheism is not really an adequate term for despisers of religion.  It denies the existence of gods and other metaphysical entities but doesn't really get at the whole "spiritual but not religious" movement of seekers today.  What happens when you pull the rug of religion out from under their feet? Buddhism, at least the modern form of it in the west, gets a pass since many of its proponents argue that Buddha didn't propose a god.  There is ample evidence that Buddhism was re-tooled in Thailand, Tibet and Sri Lanka for western consumption, made to seem more scientific and anti-metaphysical than the early scriptures would indicate. There are passages in the Pali scripture where Buddha speaks of devas and the different realms of heaven and hell, embarrassingly close to the monotheistic cosmologies.  Visitors to Thailand are surprised to see so many icons of Hindu deities in shrines, to learn of the popular belief in spirits, both good and bad, and to hear of the many methods of protection against spirits enjoyed by Thais, from tattoos to amulets.

Despisers of religion prefer science based on evidence and reason as the best description and guide for reality.  The scientific method yields truth, or at least the best hypothesis until a better one comes along to explain the origin or the mechanics of how life works.  Any other method comes up with superstition and idolatry.  Religion is ignorance writ large.  To deny the facts of science is stupid, and dangerous.  After explicating the mechanics of evolution, Richard Dawkins has devoted his life to stamping out the disgusting vermin of religion.  Others have joined him: the late iconoclast Christopher Hitchings, philosopher Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris (who says he's a Buddhist) and the comic commentator Bill Maher who lampooned religious belief in his documentary "Religulous."  At times their activities have the air of a crusade.  The social media has allowed atheism to become more vocal and more prominent, although it remains the kiss of death of politicians.

Some pretty scary people can be found at both ends of the spectrum.  In America numerous elected officials are making pronouncements supposedly based on Christian teaching that encourage hatred and discrimination of others.  In the Middle East, fanatics claiming to be Muslims are slaughtering their opponents and anyone who gets in their way with Medieval efficiency.  Buddhists in Myanmar and Sri Lanka declare that Islam is a threat to their nationalist religion.  On the other end of the spectrum, official atheism in the Soviet Union under Stalin and Mao in China was responsible for hardship and death.  The Khmer Rouge in Cambodia and the Viet Cong in Vietnam destroyed churches and monasteries and tried unsuccessful to stamp out religion.  Eliminating religion is about as successful as forced conversions.  After the breakup of the USSR, orthodox Christianity came back with a vengeance and now is a conservative force in Russia.

Religion is the elephant and we are the blind describing it from different perspectives with only the other senses to go by.  My current point of view is to avoid the word "religion" as much as possible. It has become reified beyond all meaning.  Atheists frequently mean by it the religious institutions, authorities and sacred texts.  It's easy to ridicule the monotheisms by pulling texts out of context from the Bible or Quran.  Religion they believe refers to dogma, to the propositions that followers must affirm according to their leaders.  If you argue that Catholics get abortions and use birth control just like everyone else, they'll argue these are not really Catholics and remove them from the equation.

In place of "religion," there are many alternate ways to describe those participating in religious activities.  Here in Thailand, Buddhism (mixed with Hinduism and animism) is an intricate part of the culture; there is no division between the sacred and the secular which occurred after the French revolution and Enlightenment era in Europe.  One's religion becomes an essential part of one's identity, not unlike the team football fans root for.  The language used by co-religionists solidifies their community and allows members to be recognized.  While fundamentalists treat religious stories as literal truth, many traditions base their meanings on universal myths and pedagogical metaphors. Anthropomorphism, rather than being error, can also be a useful technique for negotiating the dangers of reality. Struggles between religions are quite often a conflict over something else, like land and resources, and religious identity can be used to compel participation.  To see religion as only institutions, authorities and texts is to miss the way that humans have used their imagination to make sense of their reality, and to find truth and beauty in the process.

I was thinking of R.E.M.'s song, "Losing My Religion," when I titled this post, and thinking of it ironically.  But of course I haven't "found" (or "lost") anything.  I was "in the corner" and now I'm out of it.  "Religion" is only a site of contestation, a term of dispute with no pure content.  And yet people fight and die for their religious concepts.  Academics declared for a few centuries that religion was increasingly unimportant and irrelevant.  Advanced civilization and modernity had no need of such illusory thinking.  But of course they were mistaken.  Current events show this.  And yet, no one can agree on what religion is.  How strange!

If these ideas seem scattered, it's because I have been thinking about them for a lifetime and their slipperiness and changeability make it difficult to put them into an organzied form.  If anyone finds these questions and proposals intriguing, and they speak to your condition, please let me know.  If not, no matter.  It's time for me to chew over these matters, organized or not, to find out how and what I think.  I will conclude with a couple of videos on the question of religion which I found interesting. Karen Armstrong is particularly astute at arguing persuasively that the meaning of "religion" today has changed considerably.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Dreaming of California


[This post is written for graduate students in a writing class for monks I'm teaching in Bangkok. Their final assignment for the semester is to contribute a post about their home for the class blog, MCU Travel Blog, and my intention here is to give them an example.]

In a 1965 record, the Mamas and the Papas sang about dreaming of California on a cold winter's day somewhere else where the weather is not so nice.

All the leaves are brown and the sky is gray.
I've been for a walk on a winter's day.
I'd be safe and warm if I was in L.A.;
California dreamin' on such a winter's day.

Downtown Santa Cruz
These words of mine are written in a tropical climate where the leaves are never brown and if the sky is gray it's because of farmers burning off their rice fields before summer planting. While I was born elsewhere, I lived for most of 60 years in California, both south and north, and the second half of that time was spent in Santa Cruz on the Bay of Monterey, as close a place to Paradise as I've ever found. California, where I lived in Surf City, is surely my home forever.

Santa Cruz Farmers Market
Growing up in Ohio, North Carolina and Georgia, I was 12 when my father came home one day to tell my mother, brother, grandfather and I that we were moving to Los Angeles where he'd found a job selling plywood in the lumber industry. California!  Where movies are made, and oranges grow on trees! I thought I'd died and gone to heaven.  My goal at this point in life was to become an actor and now I'd have my chance!

My cabin in 2010
After a memorable cross-country trip in our new 1953 Ford sedan, we found a "ranch" house in the northeast suburb of La CaƱada with an orange tree in the front yard and four in the back, all full of ripe and delicious naval oranges. Later the back yard trees were uprooted for a swimming pool.  The good life was great!  I attended junior high school, found girlfriends aplenty, dressed like a juvenile delinquent, climbed the rope in gymnastics, played clarinet in the orchestra and was chosen assemblies commissioner to MC at school functions.  Quickly I became a Californian, and every day on the way to school I picked an orange to eat.

Santa Cruz Town Clock
The native population of California was displaced in the 16th and 17th centuries by Spanish conquerers, and then the land became part of Mexico when they broke away from Spain in 1821. Twenty-seven years later gold was discovered in the Sierra mountains and the whole world rushed in to find some.  California was quickly stolen from Mexico and became the 31st state. Queen Calafia was the queen of Amazons in a 16th century Spanish novel.  Today, the state has the 3rd largest U.S. population behind Texas and Alaska, provides most of the fruit and vegetables eaten by Americans, and if it was a country would have the 8th or 9th largest economy in the world.  Non-whites (Mexicans, Asians and blacks) are now 60% of the population.

Santa Cruz Pier and Boardwalk
There are really two Californias, north and south, with different climates and even political leanings. The country's 2nd and 5th largest cities, Los Angeles and San Francisco, preside over each territory. Most of the water is in the north which means and empire dams and pipes to carry this valuable resource have been constructed to quench the thirst of the south.  The state's landscape is 1240 km in length between Mexico and Oregon, and 400 km in width between Nevada/Arizona and the Pacific Ocean. I lived for 20 years in the south, in and around Pasadena where I began my work life as a newspaper reporter. During my time in the rock and roll business I lived in Venice a stone's throw from the sand and surf.

Over the years on frequent trips to the north, where relatives lived in Tiburon and Berkeley, I fell in love with the cooler temperatures and greener hillsides.  San Francisco is a sophisticated city compared to the shabbiness of LA.  My first foray into big-time academia was at UC Berkeley but I dropped out twice, and I worked one summer as a vacation replacement reporter on the San Francisco Chronicle.  The north felt like more my style but I never managed to find a foothold in the city in those early years.

Seals gather beside pier
After getting myself fired as a music biz PR guy, I finally escaped to the north in 1976 and began a long tenure in the coastal city of Santa Cruz, between the redwood-covered hills and the rocky shoreline along the Pacific.  North of Monterey and south of San Francisco, it was a sleepy fishing town until the university and the hippies arrived in the mid 1960s. I lived in both cabins and houses in the mountains where hippies and rock bands (my friend Peter managed one of them) dwelt in communes, as well as down in the flats of the town where the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake disturbed the tranquility of the Victorian neighborhoods.  To make ends meet, I wrote and edited a local newspaper, handled art direction and circulation for a music magazine by commuting over the hill to Cupertino, and managed a database of alumni for the University of California's Santa Cruz campus. At UCSC my dormant curiosity about, well, everything, was aroused and I returned to study, lifting my head from books only after I'd received BA, MA, and finally a Ph.D. degree in the new century.

Ancient redwood trees
Santa Cruz is smallish, with a population now of about 60,000, three-quarters of whom are white.  It began in 1791 as one of the string of Spanish missions to spread religion by the book and the sword (a horribly large number of native Americans died from their ill treatment by the Europeans).   The city was incorporated in 1866 with an economy based on agriculture, lumber, gunpowder and lime (necessary for construction).  The first state park, established by middle class anti-logging activists in the early 1900s (my Ph.D. thesis), was at Big Basin.   Most of the Mexican immigrants, legal and not, currently live in Watsonville in the south county.  It earned the name "Surf City" (contested by Huntington Beach in the south) for the big waves at Steamer Lane next to the lighthouse.

Everyday Dharma
My wife and I raised two kids in the notoriously liberal and free-thinking place and time (Santa Cruz had a Marxist mayor for many years who also taught at the university).  I researched the redwoods and park history for my doctoral thesis, became a Catholic at Holy Cross, and meditated with the Everyday Dharma Sangha down the street. After I began traveling for community college Spanish classes (Mexico, Argentina) and to build houses with Habitat for Humanity in Guatemala, I also helped start an ecumenical spiritual group based on the teachings of Fr. Bede Griffiths who established an ashram for Christians and Hindus in Tamil Nadu, India.  I grew wings in northern California that hadn't yet sprouted during my years in the south.

Sunset along West Cliff
This has become more about my journey than about the landscape that supported and inspired it.  The central coast is incredibly beautiful and many times I drove along the ocean south to Big Sur (where I stayed at the Catholic monastery) or north up to San Francisco.  I sunned, burned and tanned in summers (when the ever-present fog had lifted) on the many gorgeous beaches where the sand is hot but the water too cold usually to swim.  In the hills around the city I hiked alone or with friends through the redwood and fir forests.  Most of the San Lorenzo Valley was clear-cut to rebuild San Francisco after the 1916 earthquake but by the 21st century much had grown back.  During my last and perhaps final visit (the high airfares) in 2010 I tried to hit most of the hot spots I remembered. The downtown area has evolved from the sleepy main street that I saw in 1966 to a cosmopolitan pedestrian mall with trendy shops and restaurants, perhaps too fashionable now for my tastes.

Where I used to teach
And yet...30 years is a long time to spend in a place and I sunk deep roots.  My memories of friends and familiar environments, in the town and up in the mountains, remain strong.  I left to become an expat in Thailand for reasons too numerous to list here, but it was never a rejection of the place that sustained me for so long.  I commune with friends on Facebook and follow news stories like the recent student strike over rising tuition fees that closed down the university for several days.  I left a good chunk of my heart back in California.


Wednesday, December 31, 2014

It's Been a Very Good Life



But now the days are short, 
I'm in the autumn of my years 
And I think of my life as vintage wine 
From fine old kegs 
From the brim to the dregs 
It poured sweet and clear 
It was a very good year 

No, I'm not signing out, yet.  But it's New Year's Eve, that time of the year when people take stock of the past and add up its pluses and minuses.  The media has been printing lists of the best and the worst of 2014.  I know it's artificial and a space filler, but there's nothing wrong with looking back so long as it isn't to scratch scabs and stoke the fires of guilt.

This has been the year that I turned 75.  I'm in the "autumn of my years," and when I reminisce it's not just about the last 12 months.  The knowledge that I could keel over at any moment prompts almost a daily summing up.  Did I do OK?

Building houses in Guatemala
This blog surfaced more than six years ago when I still lived in a converted garage in California and was coming to terms with my life as a non-working, single man after two long marriages and several careers.  Income from Social Security and my share from the sale of my mother's house, as well as a buyout from my ex-wife, brought economic freedom and an abundance of choices. I'd begun to travel a year or so before, to Central and South America, Europe and Asia, and I'd retired as a late-blooming teacher from the University of California at Santa Cruz.  The email letters I'd written to friends about my travels gradually morphed into this blog.

I gave the blog a title with the most inflammatory topics I could think of, and for the most part I think I've written about all three with enough honesty and pizazz to disturb a few sensibilities here and there.  My most popular post has been about sexpats in Pattaya and number two was about the death of President Kennedy, the first reality TV show. A post on the debate between religious and secular Buddhists comes in third and, surprisingly, the fourth most popular post was about my gay Uncle Ted.  At number 5 is a sympathetic post on the ethics of internet piracy.  For the most part I'm proud of my 559 posts (this being the 560th).  Sometimes I think about collecting the best bits for publication in a digital or paper book, but the challenge at this late stage feels overwhelming.  I suppose the posts will remain until the electrical power fails in some future climatological catastrophe.

Lately I've been less inspired to get on my soapbox about anything and so the posts per month have been dwindling.  (There is nothing more boring than a blog post about how I haven't written much lately!) Among other reasons for writing on this New Year's Eve, this post is a way to put at least something into December.  I don't think much about readers and only know who a few of them are. Blogger gives me lots of stats to inform me that my most popular post has been seen by 2,599 (probably all looking for what to expect in Pattaya), and that of the Kennedy assassination has had a little over 1,000 viewers.  I had 3,000 page views last month, but a typical post gets no more than a couple of hundred looks (who knows if they read it?).  Each year since 2007, when I penned 134, I've written fewer post; this year it's been a total of 23.  Perhaps I've said all I need to say?

The general thrust of most of my blog posts since moving permanently to Thailand has been: I'm happy.  After my first year in Bangkok a friend dubbed me "Expat Rookie of the Year."  That made me exceptionally proud! Little about my new life has disappointed me.  I wrote once that my biggest upset was caused by the typically slow stroll of Thais on the sidewalk.  Not in a straight line either! But such frustrations aside, leaving the U.S. and coming to this tropical land was the perfect solution to the slow death by boredom I was experiencing after divorce and retirement.  For most of my life I've felt there must be more to it than I was experiencing. But it was only after I came here, began teaching English to monks and met my lovely Nan, that I have felt that, finally, there is enough.

My academic career has been erratic.  I dropped out of UC Berkeley not once but twice.  My original major had been English, and the second time it was journalism.  I left to be a reporter rather than just study about it.  In mid-life I took a few night classes from time to time, in philosophy and math, and then some extension courses in quantum physics and new age thinking.  Finally, at 46, I enrolled again, finished a philosophy BA and kept going in a European history graduate program.  After a few bumps in the road, I graduated with a Ph.D. in U.S. environmental history.  Teaching was frustrating, however, because most of my students were more interested in smoking dope than in reading books. So I quit and went on the road.  In Thailand I was challenged to teach English to monks at the Buddhist university and I began my classes with some trepidation.  Six years later it's become the most rewarding career of my life.

For most of the time I've been teaching a basic listening and speaking class to 3rd and 4th year students majoring in English.  There are a few laypeople, more each year, but most are young Buddhist monks (and at least two non-Thai nuns). In the beginning they were largely from Thailand with some from Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar (Shan state in particular). Now, though, I've got students also from Bangladesh, Vietnam, Taiwan, Nepal, and southern China.  After a few years I was asked to teach linguistics in a weekend graduate program.  When an MA program in English began, most of my students transferred into it.  Last term I moved over and taught students how to teach English.  This term I'm teaching a writing class; I've got my students writing on Facebook and Twitter!  As a relatively new teacher, each class taught for the first time requires extensive preparation, and I love it! And I've become fascinated by the academic field of English for non-native speakers itself with its different acronyms -- ESL, EFL, ELL, etc.  Most English speakers today are non-natives and preparing students for communicating with other non-natives will necessitate a looser reliance on grammar and spelling.  I'd like to live long enough to write a book on "good enough English," and to teach strategies for dialogues between speakers of imperfect English -- "What did you say?", "Do you mean ...", and so on.  In addition to teaching classes, I'm now an adviser for students who are preparing a thesis topic.  Five of them are sending me work in progress.

Faithful readers (are there any still around?) know that I sampled the sexpat scene during my first trips to Thailand and found it ultimately unsatisfying.  Even before I moved, I was an engaged patron of a large online dating site where mostly Thai women looked for mostly farang boyfriends and husbands.  My first dates in Bangkok were with a number of patrons of that site.  Several I took on travels to Phuket and Luang Prabang.  My first girlfriend worked for Thai Post and asked me online to help her with English.  We lived together for nearly a year.  And then, in May of 2009, I met Nan for coffee.  She had posted another girl's photo on her profile so I didn't recognize her at first.  She wanted to eat farang food so I took her to Sizzler's.  It didn't take long for us to fall in love.  She moved in with me at the end of the summer and we were married a year later at the Bang Rak (rak is Thai for love) city hall..

I was a twice-married, overweight elderly American, and she was a young girl from a village in the northern province of Phayao who had come to Bangkok a few years before to find a better life. When we met she had an office job for a company that manufactured foam packaging and lived in a tiny room (office jobs don't pay very much).  Unlike others I'd met, she wasn't ashamed of the differences in our background and age and soon introduced me proudly to her relatives.  Now I feel like a member of the family.  I asked her what she wanted out of life and she said it was to finish university. So she became a student and graduated, as Thais do, in a colorful ceremony where she received a diploma from the crown prince.  Then she got certified as a physical therapist and for the past two years she has been working at a health spa in an upscale Bangkok hotel.  Next year she's thinking of exploring new options, and I support her in preparing for a future in which I will probably be absent.

Nan and I have a good life together.  Last April we vacationed in Kyoto, Japan, and our past holiday itineraries have included Hong Kong, Singapore and Seoul.  In Thailand we've visited the nearby island Koh Samed many times as well as Koh Chang, Koh Samui and Ao Nang.  I've been to her small village three times.  Next year we're talking about Shanghai.  In addition to working full time, Nan cooks most of my meals and keeps the house and our clothes clean.  On her days off we inevitably find a nice restaurant for lunch or dinner, our culinary ritual.  When not together, we keep in touch almost hourly on Line, the popular Asian social media app.  Her English has improved considerably over the nearly six years we've been together.  Sad to say, my Thai remains at a more primitive level.  Occasionally I irritate her by learning impolite Thai words all on my own.  Next month she celebrates her 30th birthday and we're planning a grand celebration. I can say without qualification that Nan (Thai name Siriporn) is my best wife ever!

It's here that this past year and my long life come together.  Both are "very good." Aside from my life with Nan, my teaching monks, and the Epicurean pleasures of daily life in the tropics, even the current political situation in Thailand is a plus.  No reality TV show could be more exciting.  The military coup of last May and its ramifications, the daily headlines hinting at mysteries and improbabilities beyond the ken of mere mortals, and the undoubtably exciting prospects for momentous change in that not too distant future make for a delectable social media stew. I put in a good three hours on the computer every morning keeping track of it all. I really hope I don't keel over tomorrow. Life now is just too much fun!

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Fathers and Sons



My father and my youngest son were both born on November 13.  Thirteen is considered unlucky, even in Thailand.  There is no 13th floor in my building, only a 12 and a 12A.  Dad was born on a Friday and always considered Friday the 13th in whatever month to be lucky for him.  My youngest son was spared that decision by being born on a Saturday.

This would have been my father's 106th birthday.  He didn't much like the increasing disabilities that come with age and he died in 1993 surrounded by medications for heart disease and oxygen for his late-onset emphysema.  I think it was all over for him when he was no longer able to walk in the mall in Florida where he liked to exercise with other senior citizens.  There was no funeral, just an afternoon party at my mother's house with a group of friends and my brother and I.  A few days later we spread his ashes on Tampa Bay where he sailed as a boy.  I didn't cry for him.  By then we had lived at opposite ends of the country for a long time.  Though I tried to visit every couple of years, it was hard to maintain intimacy with the occasional phone call. Two trips to Florida stand out: one on November 13 with my young son and family and another on Father's Day where he and I wore tee shirts designated for the day that my mom had had made for us.

Dad was a twin and he and his brother got very different genes.  My uncle was a closeted gay man, an actor on Broadway in his youth, a piano player who had once accompanied Paul Robeson when he stage managed a touring company of "Othello," and a traveler with a home in Cuernavaca.  His brother, my father, was a man's man, who worked as a lifeguard in his youth and loved all kinds of sports.  He also played the drums for a time when he was younger, and with his hands on the dash board of his car as I grew up.  He was a traveling salesman for much of his life, a heavy drinker, and a friend to everyone he met.  His father had died young and after fighting with his new step-father he was sent away to military boarding school in New Mexico. With me he was a stern disciplinarian but he loosened up when my brother came along and they had an easy friendship that I missed.  With the boy who was born on his birthday he was the ideal gramps (as you can see from the photo)

By the time my fourth child was born I was beginning to get the hang of being a father, I thought. My 2nd wife had put most of her maternal energies into raising our daughter and left me to bond with the boy while she went outside the home to exercise her body, first by lifting weights and later with Jazzercise and finally African dancing.  I had an easy job on the computer at school before I started taking classes and there was lots of time to cook dinner for him and for us to hang out together.  I encouraged his early interest in music and he took up the drums like my father, later learning the mysteries of electronic music.  I taught him to drive in the parking lot of a lumber yard. The two boys I had with my first wife suffered from my absence when I got caught up in the glamor of the music business in Hollywood, and when the marriage broke up and I left they were traumatized.  But in my second marriage, after learning how to co-parent with out daughter, I thought I'd become the ideal dad.

But after the second marriage ended and I moved out of the family home, our relationship changed.  When he was a teenager I'd gone back to school and poured myself into my studies.  I think I let him down at a time when I should have been throwing the football with him (unlike my dad, I was lousy at sports and consequently uninterested in most forms of it).  Troubles with his mother led me to put my attentions elsewhere.  Still, I helped him to move into an apartment in San Francisco and visited from time to time as he learned to take care of himself and worked at a variety of retail clothing stories. He continued with his music and I encouraged him to following his dreams, and for while he was quite successful.  He came to Thailand in 2009 with his sister and I shared with them the new life I'd made.  But something happened a few years later and he wrote me what I regarded as a "fuck you" letter, letting me know that he would never love me as much as his mother, that my constant queries about his life were unwelcome, and (the kicker) he thought my relationship with a much younger woman was evidence of a deviant life style.  It seemly came out of nowhere and it shattered me.  I did not reply and I ended our Facebook connection.

And yet...he is still my son.  And I think about him every November 13th.  Today he turns 32.  I don't know where he is or what he's doing.  My relationships with my ex-wife and my daughter have likewise soured.  Sometimes I wonder why I could not create the close intimacy with my kids that my friend Jerry has with his son and daughter.  They accept his outrageously deviant behavior here in Thailand far away from their families in California and Washington.  My closest friend Peter, who died of prostate cancer ten years ago, was an incredible father and I tried to emulate him without success.  His three children all flourished under his love.  Both my youngest son and daughter have struggled with their paths in life and I don't know how much is due to my poor parenting.  But it's what I've got and I have to accept it.  Happy birthday, dad, son.