Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Making Out in the '50's

There is entirely too little sex in this blog despite its title.  My reticence has been mostly out of consideration for the feelings of my Thai wife who might find these teenage antics of mine unfathomable. 

This piece was written for Colman Andrews' Coast FM & Fine Arts Magazine and published in the February, 1973, issue.  The headline was "High School Confidential" with the subtitle of "Love in the '50's." I was only 34 at the time and looking back nostalgically on what seemed then to be a lost age. The subtitles are take from my junior high school yearbooks which are now long gone. The original photos are gone so I've added new ones to suggest the times. It's all true.  Only the names have been shortened to protect these now senior citizens from embarrassment.

To a cute necker. Good luck in 9th grade.
Jim B
Jim was the best "necker" in the eighth grade.  His succinct entry in my 1953 junior high school annual told me I'd made the grade.  Make out in the '50's was our religion and Jim was my guru. 

Twenty years ago this month I migrated with my parents and younger brother in a new Ford, west to Southern California. I was 13 1/2 years old and a social Neanderthal. My puberty began and ended with songs; "Oh Happy Day" by Lawrence Welk and His Orchestra heard on our car radio traveling along Route 66 towards the land of orange groves started it all; and, four years later, there was Buddy Holly's "Peggy Sue" on the radio in my hospital room where I lay with a broken thigh bone after driving drunk into a candy store following a college fraternity rush party.

To a very wonderful guy.

Laurie was my first steady girl (remember that phrase?) in the spring of our eighth grade. Jim's yearbook compliment resulted from his witnessing of my first fumbling attempts at passion with Laurie at a party. It was at that same party that Charlie P heard me emit a loud fart, during a comer embrace and humiliated me for weeks afterward by spreading the nasty rumor that my love-making was excessively noisy. Only the good Dr. Freud could have guessed what future havoc that trauma may have wrought.

I danced with Laurie at parties and at the eighth grade prom to "Song from Moulin Rouge." She was taller than me, classically beautiful in my memory, and I never laid hands on the forbidden areas of her body. I was a nice boy. My lust was confined to wet dreams. Several years ago I ran into Laurie at a coffee shop. She had married an undertaker and was dressed in the uniform of a middle-aged, middle-class matron. Only wide-open eyes and a giggly laugh remained of the girl I held hands with in her parents' living room.

Flashback: A few years out of college, Laurie and Carolyn lived in a hillside apartment in San Francisco, career secretaries by day, beatniks by night. I came over from Berkeley one evening for a party with Dick, who dated Laurie after me. Dick and Laurie and Carolyn and I fucked most of the night away and in the morning I went into Laurie's room and gave her a brotherly hug and kiss.

Lots of luck to a real cute guy.
Nancy R

A month after writing that, Nancy and I sat next to each other in a pew at the Church of the Lighted Window. Prompted by my guru, Jim, I passed her a note asking if she'd go steady with me. She accepted, and that evening I gave her a ring I'd bought at Woolworth's, a heavy 25-cent ring with the skull's head removed and replaced with my initials. Our affair lasted three weeks, three Saturdays at Jim's house where, while his parents worked, Jim and Judy and Nancy and I "made out" for eight straight hours, stopping only to get a Coke, to go to the bathroom, or to change the stack of 45's on Jim's RCA phonograph ("All Night Long" by Joe Houston, "One Mint Julep" by the Clovers, and more). "Making out" was hot and sweaty work but we were driven teenagers (that label, teenagers - an epithet or a badge of pride?). I hardly even minded Nancy's braces, which frequently sliced up my lips. And she never noticed that my Levis failed to fold the proper way in my crotch, a source of 'heartrending embarrassment to me. And my hands never touched the forbidden areas of her body.

Lest you think my hands remained virginal throughout junior high school, let me retell the events of New Year's Eve, 1953-54. Jerry and Addie and Melanie and I sat in the back of Jack's lowered Chevy during an aimless round-trip drive from Pasadena to Long Beach during which I managed to slip my shaking right hand into Melanie's pedal pushers, underneath the silky front line, and right onto the end-all and be-all for a 14-year-old boy/man. I hope the experience was as instructive to Melanie as it was to me. Not to be left out, Addie and Jerry enacted the same scenario besides us while Jack delicately tried to watch the road and the rear-view mirror (from which hung an enormous pair of angora dice) at the same time.

Your '40 is going to drag my '41 Chevy someday. Your (sic) going to have your (ass wiped). I'll have a G.M.C
Gary L  (Lip)

We have only had a ball together since 8th grade. Especially this past few weeks. I hope we only have a ball Wed. night and Graduation nite. I hope the fun we are having can last through the summer and even longer. I hope that you get your chance to be in that combo. Lots of luck next year.

My Love always,

Judy, bless her often-available bare breasts, had forgiven me for that night the summer before when Jim had lured her into the darkened school hall from the dance at the community Youth House next door, right into the waiting arms of three scared but eager teenaged boys who plotted to punish her for being a "P.T." (prick tease). (Those breasts were only available to a select few then.) Two of us held her arms, another put his hands over her mouth, someone ripped her pants off and Jim lit a match. For no more than a second we stared at a thatch of genuine female pubic hair (blonde), and then fled in separate directions while Judy screamed for help, While several teachers on duty at the dance searched through the school for us, I hid under a bush and then ran home over back roads. Judy told on everyone but Jim (he was a charmer) and I was "grounded" (restricted to home base in the evenings) for a month by my parents.

Jim was our leader. He wore his wavy brown hair (bleached blond in the summer sun with liberal applications of lemon juice) in a duck tail (also "D.A." [duck's ass]), was the first to get a pair of black "pegged" (A-1) pants, had brown loafers with pennies in the front as well as the (mandatory) black 'cycle boots, and was the first (he said, we believed) to actually sleep with a girl. It happened, so the story went, the summer before I arrived in California, one night at the home of his girl friend while her parents were out (our middle, upper-middle-class suburb had a high percentage of party-going parent alcoholics). Mark corroborated the story. He was feigning sleep in the living room in front of the T.V. while Jim and ... (her name is lost in the fog of history) went at it in the bedroom. Stealing a glimpse, Mark witnessed moving white limbs and buttocks and heard decidedly gooey sounds. "Yep," said Jim, "we went all the way." Later, she allegedly got pregnant by another, went to live with relatives, and disappeared into a private girls' school some miles away. Sitting at our permanent table in the cafeteria, Jim told and retold his story and reaped the glory, and later Mickey would pull out a plug of chewing tobacco and we were off into another voyage toward adulthood.

Drag scene from "Rebel"
Jim cultivated a friend a year older than he who had a car and a driver's license. He lunged ahead of us into the world of drive-in movies and lovers' lanes. The magical age those days was 15 1/2; that was when one became eligible for a learner's permit and a chance to use the family car -- as long as a properly licensed 16-year-old was around. (Everyone's 16th birthday was a rite of passage held at the Department of Motor Vehicles.) I paid $50 around my 15 1/2 "birthday" for a four-door 1940 Ford with baby blue primer paint, which sat in my garage, an apprentice auto mechanic's laboratory, for six months. Unlike most of my other friends, I was totally unable to understand the workings of a six or eight-cylinder automobile engine, but I did manage to drive the thing out of the garage on my 16th birthday. Not long afterwards, Jack talked me into letting him drive it in a drag race on a side street and when he floored the throttle the speedometer sped up to 120 but the car just rolled slowly forward, its U-joint or differential or something threaded. Jack tried to put a new one in later but only succeeded in snapping the rear spring. I think I got $5 from the junkyard. About that same time, Jim' persuaded his father, a car salesman, to buy him a nearly-new Oldsmobile.. A year or more later in, high school, reportedly in the back seat of that car, Jim impregnated his girl friend and both were forced to drop out of school, marry and adjust to the stigma of being teenage parents. They failed and Jim ran off to Hawaii, married and failed again, finally returning to Southern California where he married the ex-wife of that same friend mentioned in the first sentence of this paragraph. (When last seen five years ago, Jim was selling office furniture and studying law at night school. His confident tone of voice had turned into a pitiful whine and he had sunk from being a leader to becoming a follower of conservative fashion, politically and socially.)

Marlon Brando in "The Wild One"
Jerry M  I was tall and funny, always the first to coin the latest password of slang, always clad in cycle boots and sloppily dressed, always dabbed with grime and grease from working on his '50 Ford (with his cutting torch he chopped the roof down to about 'a foot, so that he had to ' squint in order to see out of the windshield). In high school, Jerry got the girl I had desired in my dreams ever since the day she had appeared at an assembly in a variety show from a junior high school across town. My loss, and his good luck, were tempered by the eventual revelation that she only had one breast, the other having been permanently stunted when a shingle fell off her roof and hit her on the chest in childhood (the story always sounded a little preposterous to me, but I wanted to believe it to salve my wounded pride). I saw Jerry five years ago and he had gone through the changes Jim had missed. Jerry was an automotive parts salesman (not a mechanic as we and he had predicted), immaculately and modishly dressed, had a girl friend who lived on a houseboat in Sausalito, and even admitted to having tried the illegal weed.

Jerry R, that sexual experimenter who had been beside me on that long New Year's Eve drive from Pasadena, to Long Beach and back, took Jim's place as my guru during the waning days of junior high school. Jerry taught me how to buy liquor: we'd wait in his car outside a liquor store in the black ghetto until an obvious wino staggered along, whereupon we would offer him an extra dollar to buy us something alcoholic (we didn't care what). On our first try, we ended up with a pint of apricot brandy and that became our steady drink for a few months.

Ellis L was 16 but looked 35 with a heavy beard that required shaving twice daily. He was famed for walking into Olson's Grocery Store, where he would buy a quart of Olympia beer, and then sit outside on the curb and sip contentedly, old Ellis, from the bottle still wrapped in a paper bag. Ellis became a lawyer and is reportedly practicing somewhere in Ohio. ,

Flashforward: At midnight, when I turned 21, I was sitting in a bar I had frequented all summer long with a couple of friends who, knowingly, broke into a rousing rendition of "Happy Birthday." I treasure the expression on the bartender's face when I proved my masquerade of age by showing him my driver's license, the real one and not the fake one we all laboriously fabricated from expired learners' licenses.

Taco party photograped for Sunset Magazine
Barbara had slumber parties for her girl friends and, because her parents were always either away or so drunk they didn't care, my friends and I were usually invited over. We would pop popcorn in the kitchen with the top off the pot, a dozen of us running around with bowls trying to catch the kernels before they hit the floor. Girls in pajamas, boys in peggers and T-shirts, we would turn the lights off and dance cheek-to-cheek in the dark to "Night Train" and "Be-Bop Wino," arms around arms for the slow dreamy songs and to the fast ones doing the Dirty Boogie (the "D.B.')  -- couples facing inches apart, feet planted firmly, right hands held, swaying back lasciviously until heads nearly touched the floor behind (the more daring guys allowed one knee to slip firmly between their partners' thighs).

Flashforward: Two years out of high school, Mark returned one summer from the University of Wisconsin to describe a "bad taste" party his fraternity had held. We organized a reasonable facsimile with wine served out of douche bags into urine specimen bottles, dildos fashioned from rubber-covered Kotex pads for favors, and costumes: loin cloths for the men, bra and panties for the women. Barbara, the Elsa Maxwell of the junior high school slumber party, ended up in my arms for a few hours of mutual regret at what we had failed to consumate years earlier. She ran off to Las Vegas for a quick marriage a few months later.

Making out in the '50's with Janet and, Sue and Pauline (when we kissed while lying on her couch listening to Jackie Gleason's "Music for Lovers Only" album she would blush beet red from her forehead to the top of her low-cut blouse; she too got pregnant by another and went away to a girls' boarding school) and Jackie (spurned for a ski instructor) and Sally and Gail and Cherry and ...

This bit of self-centered social history would probably be incomplete without a brief description of How I Lost My Virginity. It happened on the front seat of that same '53 Ford (by then repainted and engine overhauled) that had brought me and my family to California three years before. It was at a drive-in theatre and the movie was a re-release of "Bambi" which, no shit, was the first movie I had ever seen as a child. It wasn't exactly out of True Romance, but I was as proud that night as I'd been the year before when I'd won my letter in gymnastics by climbing the rope. And she didn't get pregnant.

We broke up four weeks later.

The article ended with my short biography until until the 1970's: Bill Yaryan went to high school in a suburb of Southern California, and was graduated "without honors" in 1957 He has written for a variety of newspapers, and has worked in record company publicity and public relations.

The author in the early 1950's

Saturday, July 19, 2014

75 Years Down the Road

My happy parents, Homer and Peggy, perhaps on the night I was conceived.
I heard the koel bird this morning down in the clump of trees below my building. It's been absent for a couple of months and I missed it in the mornings.  I don't know the migration pattern of this common Asia bird but it was always around during my first visits to Thailand and the sound of its call makes me feel at home.  That and the heat, and now the cloudy skies and monsoon rains.

Time passes so quickly.  I first encountered the koel in India during my initial voyage to this part of the planet ten years ago.  Another pilgrim at the ashram where I was staying called it the "orgasm bird" because of its cry which rises and intensifies a couple of times.  When I heard it again from the window of the P.S. Guest House on Sukhumvit Soi 8, it was a fitting symbol for my initiation into Bangkok where an obliging friend introduced me to the notorious Nana bar scene.

Newly born
My life has been a series of comings and goings.  Quick movements, like slight of hand; now you see me, now you don't.  Yet each move seemed destined to last a lifetime.  Only one move lasted for very long, though, and that was to the left coast city by the bay under the redwoods, long enough to raise two kids and a passel of friends.  The pattern for other transitions was set by my father, a traveling salesman, who took his family from the north to the south and to the west.  The uprootings and resettlings were never easy when I was a child, and yet I've replicated them in my own way.

It's my 75th birthday today and I barely know how I got here.  My father once said to me, "The older I get, the less I know."  At the time I was a young man with a discontented wife and two small boys and I thought it an odd thing for him to say.  Now, with my dad gone over 30 years, I know its truth.  It's not a matter of forgetting, or early onset of dementia.  The young require certainties to survive the slings and arrows of chance. Without them they would never have left the cave.

The Naval reservist and gramps
Ageing is alien territory.  While the elderly may often send out messages to their inheritors, these observations and warnings are rarely heard or understood by the young.  My mother's father lived with us when I was a teenager and I found him to be extremely annoying (he thought the same of me).  My father, however, played cribbage nightly with his father-in-law, tolerated his pipe smoking and his Canadian witticisms, while I hated him for forcing me to share a bedroom with my younger brother.  My grandfather grew increasingly crotchety and was shuffled off to an old folks home when he started shitting on the floor.  I rejoiced in my new bedroom (after the floor was cleaned) and forgot about him.

Now I'm older than my grandfather when he died and regret that I refused him the time of day. Here in Thailand the aged are treated with the utmost respect.  I've even been given a seat on the bus and Skytrain by younger riders who perhaps think grey hair a sign of wisdom.  The respect is often not merited as I well know.  Older expats, quite popular with the younger Thai ladies looking for a lift out of poverty, sometimes make me ashamed of my tribe.  They can be loud and obnoxious in public and unfairly critical of Thais on internet web sites.

With younger brother
Tourists who come to Thailand despite the ongoing political troubles can be roughly divided into two groups: the young looking for a beach or a beer on Khao San Road, and the old looking for bargains at the markets and interesting sites to check off on their bucket list.  I belong to neither tribe.  My people were seduced by something in Thailand -- the weather, the food, the women, or? -- and found a way to stay, sometimes for an annual extended visit and sometimes, like me, forever. I have met a considerable number of these intrepid adventurers, most of them men, and we share a curiosity and even passion about our adopted home, it's history, cultural and turbulent politics.

Many of them, like me, are happily married to Thais.  I swore off marriage after my second unhappy divorce.  Dating here was a different story.  One of the reasons I refused an operation for prostate cancer was the risk of neutering at a time when companionship had become very important.  But serial romance in the bars was unappealing to me.  Many expats become addicted to easy sex and fuel the bar scene for which Thailand has become infamous. Fortunately after two years I met the woman who has become my wife.  In two months we'll celebrate our 4th wedding anniversary.  Despite vast differences in age, language and culture, our relationship has grown into a deep and abiding love beyond what I ever would have dreamed.

Sometimes I try to imagine what it would be like if I'd remained in the California beach town where my life had been fairly content for nearly thirty years.  After my divorce I lived in a converted garage and walked or biked to the bookstores and coffee houses downtown.  I had plenty of friends, most of them my age or older, and occasionally I'd hear from one of my grown children.  I've never lacked for interests to engage my intellectual passions, and I've no doubt I would have been fairly satisfied as senility slowly set in.  One friend now is in an assisted living facility, and not a few have already died.

Me, Mom and her brother
Coming to Asia was a challenge.  It followed after several years of wandering to Europe, Central and South America. French and Spanish were a breeze compared to Thai which continues to resist all my attempts to understand and speak it. While superficially Bangkok appears to be a modern metropolis, there are layers upon layers to be found going back to antiquity. Urban and rural snuggle together in copacetic comfort on the city's streets and alleyways below skyscrapers and temple towers. I constantly find myself slightly off balance trying to reconcile what I see with the limited knowledge I possess. Whenever Thailand begins to seem as familiar as an old shoe, I open my eyes a bit wider because I know there is something I've missed. The surprises are exciting and invariably jolt me out of my septuagenarian slumber.

My fellow teachers and students at the Buddhist university where I teach English several days a week like to tell me, "You look so strong, ajahn!"  Most of them have rural roots and Thais who work on the farm age rapidly.  They're not used to seeing someone of my advanced years walking upright, and even, in the classroom, strutting and pontificating in an animated fashion.  I don't speak to them about my failing eyesight and faulty hearing, my tricky knee or arthritic fingers.  At the end of six hours of teaching, my feet ache and I'm utterly exhausted, and I usually fall asleep on the computer bus back to Bangkok.

In sum, a mysterious environment, a job where I play the standup comic to amused monks, and a loving young wife all keep me invigorated and -- dare I say it? -- youthful, more so than had I remained in a comfortable place back in the U.S.  It's not necessarily a prescription for avoiding the inevitable breakdown of the body.  But it will certainly refresh and rejuvenate the mind.  The down side to this expat's success story is the enmity of two of my three surviving children who are unhappy that their step-mother is younger than them, and the absence of so many friends apparently unable to use social media to maintain long-distance relationships.  I miss my old family and old friends. But I rejoice in my new life!

Saturday, July 12, 2014

The Myth of "Both Sides"

I've looked at life from both sides now
From win and lose and still somehow
It's life's illusions I recall
I really don't know life at all
Joni Mitchell, "Both Sides Now"

The photo above was initially misidentified by ABC-TV News in the US when announcer Diane Sawyer said it showed an "Israeli family salvaging what they can" from the devastation caused by a Palestinian rocket.  In fact, this is a portion of the wasteland in Gaza resulting from several days of bombing during Operation Protective Edge, the cutely named Israeli military campaign intended to wipe out the influence of Hamas in the Palestinian enclave that has been called by others "an open-air prison."  

From the New York Times:

Gaza Deaths Spike in 3rd Day of Air Assaults While Rockets Hit Israel

This headline two days ago is typical of the western coverage of the latest violence.  It pretends to be objective by covering "both sides" of the story.  Air assaults = rockets (both bad).  Last week I got into a Facebook debate with a couple of friends who were arguing that both Israel and Hamas were at fault for their current troubles.  These are friends who agree with my general criticism of Israel's oppression of Palestinians for the last 60 years.  But they also wanted to blame the Palestinian leaders, from Arafat to Abbas, for missing every possible opportunity to make peace with their Jewish neighbors.  I accused them of succumbing to "both sides rhetoric" in their stretch to balance blame for a situation that has defeated every peacemaker (Carter, Clinton, etc.).  By trying to see both sides as culpable, in my opinion this lazy rhetoric obscures the real culprits.

Here is a horrifying photo that shows the results of Israel's relentless bombing campaign against a captive population, a people who lack any means to defend themselves against the high-technology military hardware supplied by American taxpayers.  In its all-out war of collective punishment for several hundred rockets sent into Israeli territory (that killed no one), the victims are not terrorists but innocent civilians.  Many of them, like those lying here, are children.  Both sides?  Where are the photos of Israeli children? A French news source published a photo of Israelis sitting at night in deck chairs, eating popcorn, and watching the bombardment of Gaza. Each explosion brought cheers from the entertained crowd. Is this the other of "both sides"?

While the western press might by seduced by the myth of "both sides," in Israel there are journalists who challenge this paradigm. According to the courageous Haartez columnist Gideon Levy:
"There is no way to reach a just peace when the name of the game is the dehumanization of the Palestinians. No way to achieve peace when the demonization of the Palestinians is hammered into people’s heads day after day. Those who are convinced that every Palestinian is a suspicious person and that every Palestinian wants 'to throw the Jews into the sea' will never make peace with the Palestinians. Most Israelis are convinced of the truth of both those statements."
Farmer hugs olive tree while soldier looks on
Looking to identify both sides in the long-standing Israel/Palestine issue is morally abhorrent.  It blinds one to obvious facts.  Among them: Despite some well publicized terrorist bus bombings in Israel, the overwhelming number of casualties during the 60-year-struggle has been suffered by Palestinians.  Israel has ignored numerous United Nations resolutions calling on it to stop its territorial expansion.  Even though collective punishment is a war crime, Israel continues to target relatives of those it seeks and to demolish homes and olive groves, without even the fig leaf of law.  Israel controls access to Gaza and the West Bank and can turn off both water and electricity in the occupied territories, and has threatened to do so.  Numerous checkpoints make travel long and difficult, and the notorious wall, largely built on Palestinian land and often cutting through villages and farmland, has turned the West Bank into discontinuous ghettos (see map below).

Click on map to see shrinkage
News media usually attempt to find both sides of an issue in a quest for an objectivity which many critics believe is impossible.  Better to be obvious about one's biases, whether coming from upbringing, experience, or the powerful forces of culture, advertisers or governments.  For example, many stories propose that Israel is under siege by Arab terrorists who wish to eradicate the Jewish state despite the collateral damage to civilians caught in the middle.  But this is a chicken-and-the-egg argument.  Which came first?  Israel has paraded its victimhood for decades, despite having the most advanced military (thanks to the U.S.) in the region.  This story --- poor Israel terrorized by radical Islam -- obscures the steady theft of Palestinian land from 1947 until today and the obvious objective (to some) of the ethnic cleansing of the "Promised Land."

Finding "both sides" requires a great degree of generalization. My friends agree with me that Israel has long posed the greatest threat to peace in the Middle East and its oppression of Palestinians has done much to fuel Islamic extremism in the region.  Terrorists, after all, must use weapons of the weak to fight an overwhelmingly superior foe.  This is no excuse of injustice in whatever form it takes but it is an explanation.  For a short while after 9-11, some asked, "But why do they hate us so much?"  This question was largely abandoned in the run up to the Iraq war when Bush & Co. chose to attack a potential terrorist adversary rather than an actual one.  In rhetoric of "both sides," a future terrorist is equal to a present one.

"Both sides" rhetoric can also be found in Thailand where the forces of change, symbolized by Thaksin (the red shirts), have been struggling since the beginning of the 21st century with the conservative forces symbolized most recently by Suthep (the yellow shirts).  This way of putting it indicates an equivalence of the two forces.  When Gen. Prayuth declared a military coup seven weeks ago and took over the government, he said it was to stop the conflict between the two sides.  Many Thais bought this argument and have praised the military for stopping the endless pro- and anti-government demonstrations, the blocked streets, and the damage to the economy that harmed the wealthy as well as the poor.  He told all demonstrators, yellow as well as red, to go home while the military brought happiness back to Thailand.

Despite the rhetoric, it has become apparent since the coup that the military junta is carrying out the same agenda Suthep advocated during his seven months of agitation for the eradication of the Shinawatra regime.  The Pheu Thai government was overthrown and a new military constitution will probably make it all but impossible for anyone associated with the Shinawatra family to ever enter politics again. The double standards under the governments of Abhisit and even Yingluck, have continued. Red shirt media outlets have been shut down and leaders "invited" to government camps for an "attitude adjustment."  In Bangkok Suthep holds fund-raising parties with his supporters. Red shirts are disproportionately arrested and denied bail, while yellow shirts go free. The illusion of fairness was perpetuated by the claim that the coup's purpose was to stop the violence (which had declined even before martial law was declared) in order to allow democracy to return someday.  The general acknowledged "both sides," and had to step in like a referee to stop the fight.  But perhaps he was also the trainer of one of the fighters?

Looking at life from "both sides" is an illusion, as Joni Mitchell sings in her song.  It's a cognitive and rhetorical method to put our perceptions in boxes so as to categorize them and judge between them.  But life doesn't permit such an easy solution to the "blooming, buzzing confusion" that William James characterized as a baby's experience of the world.   We spend our lives trying to make sense out of it.  Often we are ruled by cultural and nationalist values that limit what we can see and understand.  Jews have been raised from birth to support Israel no matter what; urban and upper-class Thais have been taught to respect the monarchy and the military above all and to look down on the uneducated peasants outside of Bangkok.

It's probably impossible to avoid embracing some myths.  I was raised to believe in the myths enshrined in the Declaration of Independence.  Even after learning that it's author remained a slave holder and women were denied the right to participate in politics over over 100 years, I continued to feel that the notion of government directed by "the people" is a powerful force to motivate justice and impede injustice.  The reality of course is that money and power co-opt good ideas as well as bad.  Today America is controlled by corporations and banks whomever sits in the hot seat, and foreign policy is at the service of a military designed and funded to control the world (although it's not looking very successful at the moment).  "Both Sides" rhetoric dominates domestic politics and obscures the dismal failure of the two-party system.  It shoehorns a wide variety of of perspectives into two small boxes labelled "Democrat" and "Republican."

If you want to understand the fallacy of the myth of "both sides," look at what happened in America following the Declaration of Independence and the revolution against British control.  The native peoples of the continent, who perhaps mythically helped the European settlers with poor farming skills to survive the brutal first winter, were treated as impediments to expansion of the 13 colonies.  They were dehumanized, just as the Palestinians and the Thai peasants are dehumanized today by Israelis and the Bangkok elites.  This led to their virtual elimination and confinement on reservation where many remain over 200 years later.  Were there two sides to the Indian question?

Saturday, June 28, 2014

We're Not in Kansas Anymore

St. Thomas Aquinas: "Everything I have written seems like straw by comparison with what I have seen and what has been revealed to me."

Every few days the world turns, the poles shift, and I realize with a jolt that the certainties that formed the basis for my opinions were as worthless as straw.  Unfortunately, unlike the good doctor at the end of his life, nothing new has been revealed to me. The quest for wisdom has been a bust!

"The Wizard of Oz" was released a month after I was born and I've seen it many times; "Over the Rainbow" is in the soundtrack of my life.  I bought a copy of the film here with Thai subtitles for my wife's cousin Edward but he showed little interest in watching it during his last visit to Bangkok. It was the series of Spiderman movies that captured his attention.  The original Wizard book was written by a relative of a junior high school friend who has managed to turn Oz into an industry.  The ultimate message of the film -- "There's no place like home" -- is of not much use to someone whose home is a moveable feast.

This is the rainy season in Bangkok.  I can see the black clouds move across the sky from my 9th floor apartment.  Most days the sky darkens, thunder cracks, and a brief monsoon downpour sends pedestrians and sidewalk vendors scurrying for shelter. Most tourists avoid the rains by visiting Thailand in the dry season from November through March, unless there is political unrest which tends to scare them away.  I've learned to love this time of year.  Storms for some strange reason soothe my soul.  I am mad for thunder, lightning and the frenzy of rain drops.

Kansas is far away.  I crossed through it once on miles of interstate threading between corn fields probably filled with genetically modified crops.  Now the state is probably dotted by wells for hydraulic fracking.  Only a native like Dorothy could love that place.  Most of America seems just as strange to me now.  The sorry stories about surveillance, gun nuts and serial shooters, Tea Party craziness and another war in Iraq parade across my laptop screen and my eyesight grows dim.  I did not vote for Obama and I no longer care if he's beholden to the banks or a beacon of hope for the downtrodden masses still yearning to be free.  The news from the land of my birth is not good.  I blame the chemicals.

Now I'm living under a military dictatorship.  The civil war many feared after yet another coup d'etat in this once almost democratic country did not materialize.  After a month in power, General Prayut and his subordinates are now firmly in control.  There is little outward evidence that the new government is unelected, other than an occasional armed soldier or two, like the pair I saw yesterday on Phra Arthit near Khao San Road protecting the media offices of Sondhi Limthongkul, the yellow shirt editor. The malls are full of shoppers, the BTS and MRT trains are packed with commuters and the roads jammed as usual.  Stories in the news tell of those "invited" to "reconciliation" centers with the authorities to discuss their "attitude."  They invariably leave smiling, declaring their happiness and promising to refrain from political activity in the future.  Arrest warrants are issued for those refusing the invitation and not a few dissidents have gone into exile where they're trying to organize.

As mentioned in an earlier blog post, I'd expected something entirely different.  I've seen the movies and read the books about resistance and revolution.  In the first heated days after the coup, protesters, many of them students, employed symbolic signs of non-cooperation: banners in English, the three-fingered salute from "Hunger Games," passively reading Orwell's "1984" in public, and the final disruptive act, eating sandwiches while thinking about protest.  All of these acts were subject to arrest. After a week or so, even these protests disappeared.  Of course I have no idea what people out in the provinces are thinking and planning, but consulting the green tea leaves in Bangkok leads me to the conclusion that the overthrow of the last government has been largely accepted by the citizens as a good thing.  It will probably last a long time.

Since it's against the law to criticize the coup, my words are necessarily temperate.  But I must say that the widespread acceptance of military rule is depressing.  Criticism from outside the borders of Thailand has universal condemned the end of democracy (until the next election, now promised in October next year).  The response by some Thais has been to threaten a boycott of American and EU products and turn to China for support.  It's assumed that only a Thai can understand Thai history and politics.  This calls into whole question the social construction of "Thainess" and even the name of the country which was changed from Siam in the 1930s to appeal to western interests.

But I digress.  Thailand is not Kansas and I'm not Judy Garland.  Most of my students are from elsewhere: Bangladesh, Myanmar, Nepal, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos.  I put together a handout on the coup for our first class this term and many of them found it mystifying.  Not that the governments where they come from are more democratic and less militaristic.  There are no Switzerlands in Asia!

This term I'm teaching two days a week.  In addition to my advanced listening and speaking class for senior English majors, I'm now giving a course in how to teach English to first-year students in a weekend English MA course.  As a self-taught teacher who invented his lessons from scratch, I approach this challenge with some humility.  How much do I know about the subject after only seven years of experience here?  I'm still uncertain how much I help my students to improve their facility with the language I absorbed easily from birth.  Only a few of them have progressed to thinking in English which allows them to appear fluent; most are struck dumb when asked to speak a meaningful sentence or two.

When I began teaching English, I borrowed themes and material from the Headway series of textbooks published by Oxford, including the one I'm currently using, American Headway.  For the MA course, I visited the wonderful DK Books and its many shelves stocked with English instruction books, and chose Penny Ur's A Course in English Language Teaching.  Published two years ago by Cambridge, it provides a guide which I hope to adapt for my class of 45 students from mostly other Southeast Asian countries.  In the first three weeks of the term, however, our classes have been cancelled twice for ceremonial events (Thai schools seem to favor ritual over education).  At our only meeting I learned that the students had been split into two groups and my three-hour lecture had been cut into two hour-and-a-half sections.  Less work for me, but also less teaching for the students.

In the teaching textbook, Ur, a British OBE who taught ESL class in Israel, makes some points I first heard when I prepared a lecture several years ago on the 10-country ASEAN group which is using English as it's working language.  English today is no longer a foreign language.  It's an international language and for the majority of those using it, English is a second language, "globish" according to one article I reprinted for my students. The primary method of instruction these days is based on the "communicative approach," in which understanding is more important than grammatical correctness.  Grammar now takes a back seat to vocabulary.  What this means is that the native speaker is no longer king of the hill. A non-native teacher of English is a better model for students because they've gone through the process of learning English.  If nothing else, however, native speakers like me are seen as models for pronunciation.  But our days may be numbered.

Despite the military dictatorship, despite the uncertainty I feel over ever being able to teach my students anything worthwhile, I continue to see Thailand as "over the rainbow."  Strange that I never dreamed it.  And it's not bluebirds but the dove that comes to sit on my windowsill that makes me feel at home. California was my Kansas but I doubt that I would have been as happy rounding out my days there sipping cappuccino near the sound of the Pacific surf.  Familiarity was never my thing. Thailand is exotic and strange and not a day goes by without a puzzle I cannot solve.  Some expats deal with these mysteries by complaining about them.  But from my first day here I found the uncertainty exhilarating.  The novelty of living here has pretty much gone but the delight I take in the sounds and smell and blooming buzzing confusion of Bangkok street life has not faded.  Thank the goddess I'm not in Kansas anymore!

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Death Comes Calling

Dead men naked they shall be one
With the man in the wind and the west moon;
When their bones are picked clean and the clean bones gone,
They shall have stars at elbow and foot
Dylan Thomas, "And Death shall Have No Dominion"

I met Michael three years ago on Facebook.  It was a meeting of minds over the political issues of the day.  He was an Australian, not that much my junior, with a long career in the theatre back home.  In Thailand he was a teacher, a connoisseur of art, and a lover of elephants.  Even before we met I was captivated by his way with words, the comments he made, the exchange of messages with me.  Here was someone for whom life was no guilty pleasure but an adventure to be savoured.

We finally met at an art exhibit in a school near the flower market. He was one of the organizers and had little time to talk between posing for photos with some of Thailand's notable artists, all of them his friends.  But he introduced me to his longtime friend Susan, the guru of laughter yoga in Bangkok, and we too became Facebook friends and co-admirers of the marvelous Michael.  Over the next few years, Mikhun (as his Thai friends called him) and I continued to commune on Facebook and occasionally to meet for a meal or coffee. A big man, he used his body to punctuate his many stories, particular his eyes which sparkled with enthusiasm and joy.  Not long into our friendship, he moved to Chiang Mai to help with elephants who had been found to animate children with autism.  Elephants were one of his many passions and kids another.  After that, he moved on to Yangoon to be a school administrator and then a teacher. When his internet was working, we stayed in touch on Facebook.

With Susan and Banlu
Michael would return to Bangkok on visa runs and medical checkups and his cheap guest house of choice was in a backpacker alley not far from the river (during the flood of 2011 he messaged me frequently to hear about the rising waters). Earlier this year he left Burma for good and was recuperating following treatment for swollen ankles.  We kept in touch during Songkran when he was unable to go outside because of the water play.  At the end of the holiday I took him some books to read and we drank beer in the guest house restaurant close by a fan which blew the smoke away from his ever-present cigarette.

With Susan at our last dinner
Michael was obviously very seriously ill; the sparkle in his eyes dimmed. Where are all you friends, I asked?  Most of them are yellow shirts, he said, and don't like my politics now.  He tried to explain his departure from the school in Yangoon but it seemed a bit mystifying.  Now, he told me, he wanted to heal first and then return to Australia where he would have to live for two years to qualify for retirement before he could return to Southeast Asia.  Susan and I took him away from the guest house for a sidewalk dinner around the corner.  It was painful to see him walk so slowly with his cane.

Not long ago, Michael tripped and fell, and he lay two days in his guest house bed before the ambulance was called.  At Phramongkutklao Hospital the doctors examined a painful lump in his leg (that he'd been complaining about for weeks) and discovered a mass in his lung.  They diagnosed him with pneumonia and perhaps TB, maybe cancer.  I visited him in the 17th floor intensive care unit and saw the bruise on his head from the fall. His long-time partner Unn was with him when his heart stopped for several minutes.  And his sister in Australia was contacted and came to supervise treatment.  A feeding tube prohibited conversation and the last contact Michael had was through his eyes which could be quite expressive.  He died with a friend by his side who was playing recorded music for him. Before the day was out, his account on Facebook was filled to the brim with messages of sadness and love from his many friends in Thailand, Australia and Burma.

I didn't know Michael for long or very well and I regret that now very much.  It's not often you find a conversation partner so sympatico, even on Facebook.  No one has yet written his obituary (better yet, eulogy) so there is much that I do not know about his life. The many messages on Facebook speak of adventures going back years, of his love for food and drink, and, as I noticed so soon after we encountered one another, his passion for life.  He didn't speak all that much about his illness and I suspect was unaware of the prognosis.  In other words, he was the opposite of a hypochondriac. Our last conversations were about books.  Confined to the guest house by his swollen legs, he worried most about running out of something to read.

With Susan and his partner Unn
When Susan mentioned Unn to me I didn't recognize the name and thought it a friend from Yangoon.  When I brought Michael a couple of cartons of juice that he requested to the hospital, I asked who Unn was.  He turned to me, his face lit up with the biggest smile I'd seen from him in months, and said: "He's my partner!" When I was unable to help, Unn spent a day renewing Michael's visa with a letter from the doctors.  He was there when his friend's heart stopped.  Tonight is the third and last night of chanting at Wat Apai Tharam (Wat Makok), the temple behind the hospital where Michael died, and the cremation will be there on Saturday afternoon.

The death of a friend is always unsettling because it reminds us of our own mortality.  Next month I will celebrate my 75th birthday and am thankful for every day I've outrun the Grim Reaper.  My parents are gone, my son Luke, and Peter, my oldest friend, long dead from the same cancer I've now survived for a dozen years. I think about my young wife and worry that she will grieve for too long after I go.  But present worry about an uncertain future situation does little besides stir up unpleasant juices.  The present joy I take in living each day is no doubt related to its tenuousness.  Dr. Holly's death in Bangkok a few years ago helped me to sense that exquisite connection between life and death.  Without death, life would lose its ecstatic edge.  Death, even from those heartbreaking tragedies that so absorbed Dostoevsky's sleep, is not only the great equalizer but the finalizing event that animates life.