Friday, October 31, 2008

Adaptability

Even Google can't tell me this morning who penned the ancient proverb, "You can't teach an old dog new tricks." I did learn that it appeared in a book on husbandry in 1530 in a different form as: "the dogge must lerne it when he is a whelpe, or els it wyl not be; for it is harde to make an olde dogge to stoupe." But this was probably a truism even back then. (Here President Lyndon Johnson lifts his beagle "Him" by the ears, creating a storm of controversy. "He enjoys it," Lydon proclaimed. "My mother used to pull my ears, and it never got that much attention.")

My life now is a race against the clock. The sclerosis of age threatens on every side. Coming to Bangkok was a thumb in the eye to the Grim Reaper. I am forced to adapt daily to changing conditions, and it is my theory that this will keep me if not young then at least flexible. Isn't Googling a new trick?

Take my teaching. Proceeding under the assumption that I would have the same group of 4th-year English majors for another term, I had prepared a course of lessons using an advanced text. I was handed a roster with their student numbers (everything else was in Thai). But last week I learned the roster was given to me in error. I would, in fact, be teaching a new batch of 3rd-year students whose English was at a more elementary stage. I had only a few days to rethink the course.

My two classes in Listening & Speaking English II are on Wednesday afternoon, but the first meeting last week fell on Wan Phra, the Buddhist holy day corresponding to one of the four phases of the moon. So it was moved to Saturday. Only two students (out of 44 registered) showed up, both young monks from Shan State in Myanmar. I talked to them with Dr. Abby, the Thai woman who teaches Analytical Reading to the same two groups of students in the classroom next door. Winging it, I described a course similar to what I taught last term: grammar lessons, partner or small-group discussions followed by individual oral presentations, songs in English with an exercise to identify missing words in the lyrics, weekly writing assignments on a variety of topics, and practice with new vocabulary by writing a sentence a day. I've already received my first papers back by email.

Timeliness is not much of a virtue in Thailand; the school term always starts slowly. This week over half of my first class was absent, but only three were missing from the second class. My old students were in rooms down the hall and their teachers never arrived. Mai pen rai (don't sweat it). I was surprised to find no students from Laos in my new group, but over half were from Cambodia and Shan State (who outnumber the others), and their journey to university in Thailand cannot have been easy. I had them each interview and introduce another student and was impressed with their English abilities. Several who took my assessment quiz proved themselves the equal of my best 4th-year students. I struggled to link names with faces. It is certainly true that it is harder for a caucasian to descern differences between Asia faces (and the reverse, too, I'm sure). And I was once again awed by their seriousness and their quick-to-ignite sense of humor. Adapting here is simple; they are teaching me how to teach English. Each class ends with a Buddhist chant.

The rainy season is due to end soon, but until the monsoon passes there is a daily downpour often with thunder and lightning. I love to watch the sound and light show from my 10th floor window. The storms are rarely cold and depressing, as in Santa Cruz, but more like the warm summer rains I remember from growing up in North Carolina and Georgia. I stroll through the puddles in my shorts and flip flops, the fancy umbrella I bought at REI in Larkspur keeping my head and shoulder bag dry. Traffic always seems to slow even more when it rains, and traveling by bus can be challenging. After class this week I waited 45 minutes for the number 79 bus (I could have walked the distance in 20) before giving up and taking a taxi. When the taxi entered what looked like gridlock around the corner, I got out and walked for another 10 minutes to my building. But the gridlock quickly broke and I watched my taxi breeze past. To get to school, I usually take the green number 40 bus. Tiny and battered, most Thais are horrified when they hear I risk using this line, considered dangerously reckless even by natives. It's a short commute. I can leave my apartment 15 minutes before class starts and arrive on time.

Marcus is back. We met at Pandit Bhikku's talks last year and immediately got on each other's wave lengths. I was sad when he left to teach English in Seoul, Korea, but was able to keep up with his thinking by reading his excellent Journal with its reflections on moldy apartments, deadening split shifts at school, and a Buddhist practice inspired by the Korean perspective. After an abortive trip home to England, he chose to return to a good teaching job in Bangkok, and found an apartment in my neighborhood. A serious Buddhist and a vegetarian, Marcus challenges my assumptions and conclusions and our conversation forces me to sift through half-considered opinions. I hope I can do the same for him. Tomorrow we will meet at the Starbucks in Central Pinklao where I will introduce him to Tony Macgregor, a Canadian studying in the master's program in Buddhist Studies at Mahachula. Tony, who has a room not far from Marcus, was a journalist until recently in Korea and I'm sure they will find many friends in common.

The political situation in Bangkok seems more dire daily. This morning's headline in the online edition of Bangkok Nation is: "Violence Grows as Confrontation Looms." Bombs have been thrown, people killed, different factions, in red shirts and yellow shirts respectively, threatening mayhem against the other. Yet everyday life in Bangkok away from trouble zone is unaffected. That Thailand's seat of government has been occupied by a mob since August is a scandal. Both sides claim to protest in the name of democracy, nation and monarchy, but their constituencies are narrow. The police are impotent, after a crack-down went awry when tear gas cannisters proved deadly, and the military remains above it all...for now. The Queen has shown support to the anti-government demonstrators, a powerful gesture in this country. It's not dissimilar from traveling with The Who in 1973, waiting for their celebrated madness to erupt (it did, in Montreal, and we all went to jail). At the very least, traffic will undoubtedly get worse as tuk tuks and buses compete for road space with tanks.

George is recuperating in the hospital from an operation to give him a new knee, but his stay is lengthening as he struggles to get the pain under control and learn to walk again. We exchange encouraging mobile messages. Jerry learned that circulatory blockages are the cause of leg pain when he walks and will get an MRI next week to diagnose the problem. We are all dealing with the ravages of age. I woke up with new tooth pain in an area of the jaw where I still have teeth.

There is little new that I can say about the global economic meltdown and the presidential election. Naomi Klein in The Nation calls the bailout "Bush's Final Pilage," and compares it with the looting by European colonialists of African wealth when independence was declared. The Republicans are rushing to loot the Treasury on behalf of the banks before Obama takes over. I downloaded Barack's expensive infomercial and will watch it later today. The BBC showed clips of his appearance with Clinton in Florida. David Sirota warns in CommonDreams.org that an Obama presidency could become a Clinton third term if the hacks waiting in the wings resume their place and the administration recapitulates its pro-corporate positions. "Clinton officials had a hand in the key deregulatory policies that led to the financial meltdown, and the key free-market fundamentalist policies (rigged trade deals, corporate tax loopholes, etc.) that are hollowing out the economy," Sirota writes. I watch for information about a new stimulus package to help middle Americans. The last one helped me. The $300 check deposited in my U.S. bank almost covered my rent here in Bangkok.

Pim came to see me on Tuesday. She had left a few things behind in my apartment and said it was because she hoped she could return someday to cook and clean for me. While I thought this made little sense, given her decision to separate, I let her know that my room was dirty and I was eating frozen food from 7-11. When we met at Tesco Lotus to get supplies, seeing each other for the first time in three weeks, she broke into tears. I could not figure out why, but I held her hand. Back home, she cooked shrimp in oyster sauce with rice, broccoli and carrots. While the rice was steaming, she cried some more, and I held her. But I also felt that there was a new barrier between us. After dinner, she went back to her room, returning the next morning to make breakfast for me. After I left to teach, she cleaned the apartment and washed a half dozen tee shirts. When I got home she was gone and other than a brief SMS reply to my thank you message, I haven't heard from her for two days.

The end of our romance has required infinite adaptability from me. Our differences in age, language and culture, have made it impossible for me to "figure it out." Little makes sense, either her attraction to me in the first place, or her current intention to care for me on a limited basis. She told me once again that she cannot live with me, be my girlfriend or marry me, because I am too old. Now I think she wants to be my friend and even, perhaps, to see me in the role of a father (hers died when she was 12). In Thai culture, you show love by taking care of the other. For men, this means financial support. For women, it means cooking, cleaning and washing. The other night Pim even clipped my raggedy nose hairs. Platonic or paternal love in Thailand is very intimate!

She told me that she is reading this blog. I asked if it was all right with her that I wrote about us and even included photos, and she said yes. I'm not sure how much of my English she understands (even my children complain about my inflated vocabulary), but she did indicate that she read I'd brought Nat home for one night. So she probably also read about my date with Yim (which never happened; Yim has only kept two of our eight appointments). I am not sure what my seeing others had to do with the invisible wall I felt between us. She is unwilling or unable to explain to me what she wants (and does not want) from our relationship. The tears have me befuddled. She can't very well be jealous, given her decision to separate. So I have to adapt. At first I resolved to end it, unwilling to evolve from lover into friend. But now I think it better to accept whatever happens between us, the pain and the pleasure, and go with it. Given her subsequent silence, I must also move on. Tomorrow I'll meet my new friend Tik at the Siam Paragon film festival to see the Thai romance, "A Moment in June."

Adaptation! (as sung to the tune of "Tradition" from "Fiddler on the Roof").

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Father Geoff is My Hero

Not many (any?) priests are willing to stand up and speak out against Roman Catholic Church policy in public. The Church is not a democracy but an authoritarian institution ruled from the top (currently Pope Benendict XVI) on down. But Father Geoff stood up in his pulpit at St. Paul Newman Center in Fresno, California, on Oct. 5 and told his parishioners that the California Bishops' support of Proposition 8, a state ballot measure that would make it unconstitutional for gays to marry, was morally wrong. And, he added in an interview with local media, I'm a gay man.

In his Sunday homily, Father Geoff said the hierarchy's instruction to vote yes on Proposition 8
has placed me in a moral predicament...At what point do you cease to be an agent for healing and growth and become an accomplice of injustice?...The statement made by the bishops reaffirms the feelings of exclusion and alienation that are suffered by individuals and their loved ones who have left the church over this very issue...How exactly is society helped by singling out a minority and excluding them from the union of love and life, which is marriage?...This ‘theology,’ which is parroted by clerics in polished tones from pulpits, produces the very prejudice and hatred in our society which they claim to abhor.
"How is marriage protected by intimidating gay and lesbian people into loveless and lonely lives?" he asked his listeners. "I am morally compelled to vote no on Proposition 8." He ended his sermon by telling the congregation: "I know these words of truth will cost me dearly. But to withhold them...I would become an accomplice to a moral evil that strips gay and lesbian people not only of their civil rights but of their human dignity as well."

Five days later he received a letter from Fresno Bishop John T. Steinbock firing him as pastor for the center which primarily serves students and faculty at Cal State Fresno. "Your statement contradicted the teaching of the Catholic Church," the bishop wrote Father Geoff, "and has brought scandal to your parish community as well as the whole Church."

Father Geoff told the Los Angeles Times that he became a priest 23 years ago, working in parishes in Visalia, Merced, Bakersfield and the nearby town of Arvin. He also served as a chaplain in the Air Force Reserve at Edwards Air Force Base near Palmdale in the early 1990s. In an interview with LA Times columnist Steve Lopez, the 50-year-old priest, who had lived in Cuba until the age of 4 and grew up Catholic in Florida, said that he knew as a teenager he was gay. He dated girls "to keep up appearances" but was miserable about it, and he began questioning his faith. When his family moved from Florida to Redondo Beach in the 1970s, Farrow, still in the closet, joined St. John's Seminary in Camarillo where he prayed to God to "please make me normal, please make me normal." Asked by Lopez why he stayed in the Church, Father Geoff said, "I'm not happy with the current administration, but I haven't shredded my passport."

I've come late to this issue, since I no longer live in California. But my attention was caught by the story I saw on Google News about Father Geoff's heroic defiance of Church authority . Since then I've learned that polls show the vote will be close. More money, over $60 million, has been raised and spent on both sides than for any other ballot proposition in America this election season. The biggest donor is the Catholic fraternal order, Knights of Columbus. And they're definitely in favor of making it impossible for gays to marry. There is some question of whether the constitutional amendment can be applied retroactively, which means that the many same-sex marriages already celebrated in California since last spring will remain legal even if Prop 8 passes. Good old liberal Attorney General Jerry Brown got the proposition titled "Eliminates Right of Same-Sex Couples to Marry," which upset the hell out of the religious fundamentalists who wanted it called the "California Marriage Protection Act."

Besides the Catholics, the Mormons, a gaggle of fundamentalist denominations and some orthodox Jews, Prop 8 is supported by John McCain. Opponents include Obama and Biden, both California senators, Rep. Nancy Pelosi, several liberal Jewish organizations and all six Episcopal bishops, not to mention Gov. Schwarzenegger. All of the state's major newspapers have editorialized for a no vote. The latest poll I saw has 52% against, 44% in favor of the measure, with 4% undecided.

In his interview with Father Geoff, Lopez mentioned those who quote the Bible to condemn homosexuality and gay marriage. "The Bible is not a book, it's a library written over 15 centuries," the priest told him, suggesting that Christianity has and should continue to evolve. "People who approach scripture in a literal fashion are attempting to manipulate God himself."

It's the Grand Inquisitor all over again, murdering Jesus to preserve the institutional church.

For more from Father Geoff, take a look at his web site.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Rule, Derek!

A rousing punk version of "Rule, Britannia!" performed by the artist known as Jordan is a show stopper in Derek Jarman's classic 1977 film "Jubilee" which I saw yesterday at the 6th annual World Film Festival of Bangkok. Even though I've long been repulsed by the destructive aesthetic of punk, I found the film, and Derek Jarman's life riveting. The screening of "Jubilee" was followed by Isaac Julien's recent BBC 4 documentary, "Derek," with interviews by Colin MacCabe before the director's death at the age of 52, and a commentary by Tilda Swinton, described as Jarman's "muse" (she appeared in several of his films). From the afternoon's two films, I concuded that Jarman, a British artist and gay activist who died of AIDs in 1994, has been, I think, unfairly pigeonholed as a just a gay filmmaker.

I've been curious about Jarman for some time, and had downloaded of copy of "Caravaggio," his film about the Renaissance artist who, like himself, had trouble finding financial backers for his work. But I hadn't yet watched it. This film will also be screened at the World Film Festival along with "The Angelic Conversation," a surreal film illustrating the homoerotic possibilities in Shakespeare's sonnets as read by actress Judi Dench. "Jubilee," looking more like an Andy Warhol or Kenneth Anger experimental film, can also be seen as an extension of Stanley Kubrick's 1971 film, "Clockwork Orange," with its vision of gangs of youth engaging in "ultra violence" in an apocalyptic Britain. The anarchistic violence in "Jubilee" is even more startling and graphic, but there is also beauty inherent in the compelling eccentric characters that people his "post modern" (seen as graffiti in one of the opening scenes) vision to mark the 25th silver jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II's reign. Mad the pyromaniac, played by Toyah Wilcox (now a TV personality who records voice overs for "Tuletubees" and who is married to musician Robert Fripp), breaks down in tears after castrating a policeman who has murdered her friends, two gay brothers (one played by Ian Charleson, later to win an Oscar for "Chariots of Fire").

Amyl Nitrate, played by Jordan (real name Pamela Rooke), is the girl gang's anti-historian, and she has some of the more interesting lines. "History still fascinates me. It's so intangible. You can weave facts anywhere you like. Good guys can swap places with bad guys." In the past, she reads from her book, "desires weren't allowed to become reality. So fantasy was substituted for them - films, books, pictures. They called it 'art.' But when your desires become reality, you don't need fantasy any longer, or art." Jordan, once an icon of the punk world, is now a veterinary nurse in Sussex and breeds Burmese cats.

This aesthetic philosophy is echoed by another character, Viv: “Artists steal the world’s energy...They become blood donors. Their life blood drips away till they’re bled dry, and the people who control the world make it as inaccessible as possible by driving the artists into corners. Our only hope is to recreate ourselves as artists, or anarchists if you like, and liberate the energy for all.” Trying to control the energy is Borgia Ginz, played by the blind actor Jack Birkett, the music mogul who has taken over Buckingham Palace and turned it into a recording studio. “As long as the music’s loud enough we won’t hear the world falling apart!," is his motto. Presiding over a wild party in a cathedral, dressed as a cardinal, Bogia (the name is revealing), declares: "Without progress life would be unbearable. Progress has taken the place of Heaven. It's like pornography; better than the real thing." There is just enough truth is this to leave one squeamish. And with an aging Hitler by his side, he sums up the depravity of the present.
This is the generation that grew up and forgot to lead their lives. They were so busy watching my endless movie. It's power, babe. Power. I don't create it. I own it. I sucked and sucked and I sucked. The media became their only reality and I own their world of flickering shadows.
A magazine in London charged that the film's "determined sexual inversion (whereby most women become freakish 'characters', and men loose-limbed sex objects) comes to look disconcertingly like a misogynist binge." But for punk historian Jon Savage, the misogyny was the point: "Those scenes are about that kind of cruelty which was so evident at the time. It doesn't endorse it. In fact it doesn't endorse anything very much." Jarman called himself a “controversialist,” according to Dennis Lim in the New York Times. But he was "no mere troublemaker. Aesthetics and politics were, for him, inseparable. His signature combination of beauty, wit and anger was a polemical stance." Jarman was an aggressive outsider. Asked by Lim what her friend would think of the Oscar she won for "Michael Clayton," Swinton said, “I think he would have laughed and laughed and laughed and laughed and laughed.” And then, she added, “he would ask me for the thing to melt it down into an artwork."

In the interviews, Jarman comes across as a charming, intelligent and witty, a kindly uncle rather than an angry gay auteur. We learn that he's a gardener who collects rocks, that his cottage is full of crucifixes, and that he likes to gossip about Thomas Aquinas, the Catholic saint. At the age of 9 he was discovered in bed with a boy at public school and the trauma forced him to block out sex until he was seduced in college when he was 22. He had been a set designer for Ken Russell's "The Devils." Film attracted him because it was a communal activity, and when he was diagnosed as HIV-positive in 1986, he became an activist for gay causes. “I think he made films primarily for the company,” Swinton said. “Working with him was to work alongside him.” In the documentary the actress speaks of his boundless generosity. I found myself sad that this man I never knew was no longer around to help the world in its present perilous state.

In addition, "Jubilee" is a fascinating piece of cultural history. Jenny Runacre plays both Queen Elizabeth I and Bod, the queen of the girl gang who mugs Elizabeth II in one of the opening scenes. Her first film role was in John Cassavetes' "Husbands" and she was in the original London cast of "Oh! Calcutta!" with its famous nude scenes. She currently is an art professor. Richard O'Brien, who plays the first Elizabeth's advisor, John Dee, wrote "The Rocky Horror Show" and played Riff Raff in "The Rocky Horror Picture Show." Columbia in the play and film was Nell Campbell who is Crabs in Jarman's film. During the punk period, she owned three different clubs in New York City. Adam Ant, Jordan's boyfriend, played the Kid in "Jubilee" and was spotted by a smitten Jarman before he'd even formed his first band. But he refused to do a scene where he was raped in a photo booth by two policemen. Adam (or should I refer to him as Ant?) continues to perform and record today. In his biography, he referred to Jarman unkindly as a gay terrorist filmmaker. Wayne County, a celebrated transsexual actress and perform, played Lounge Lizard, and there were cameos by music groups Siouxsie and the Banchees (who later called the film "hippy trash") and The Slits. Music was scored by Brian Eno, a frequent collaborator with Toyah's husband Fripp (whom I met on King Crimson's first tour of the U.S. in 1969). "Jubilee," according to historian Savage, has "aged amazingly well. It's the best film about punk, for all its failings."

For a more extended analysis of this amazing film, check out the 2003 academic article by Jon Davis and this comprehensive piece from Jim's Reviews. A good backgrounder is Stuart Jeffries "A Right Royal Knees Up" in the London Guardian from 2007.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Crossing Bangkok

I don't live in the sticks, or even in the suburbs. My apartment on the 10th floor of Lumpini Place is two bus stops beyond the Pinklao bridge over the Chao Phraya River. Bangkok has no one major city center, and to reach my friends in Sukhumvit across town takes patience and a sense of adventure. On Wednesday as rain clouds gathered I waited in front of my building for the air-conditioned 511 bus which came fairly quickly. There are a couple of poor women who seem to live at my bus stop and one of them was dozing as I got on the bus.

I was on my way to meet Jerry and we were going to Bumrungrad Hospital on Sukhumvit Soi 3 to see George who had gotten his right knee replaced the day before. I allowed an hour for the trip which is what it has averaged in the past. On the other side of the bridge entering Ratchadammoen Road where the Democracy Monument is located, the bus stopped and traffic froze. I had heard that a rare pro-government rally was being held by the King Rama V statue and assumed the demonstration had impacted traffic, as they usually do. After ten minutes of no movement (except for the motorbikes that weave around the vehicles freely), I got out and headed toward the river to take an express boat taxi. But the pier next to Thammasat University only serviced cross-river ferries. So I took one to Wang Lang Pier where a I got on a tourist boat as the sky darkened.

A couple of tattooed ladies with dreadlocks were taking pictures as the rain begain to fall. Soon the crew was rolling down the plexiglass side panels as passengers rushed to the middle of the boat to avoid getting wet. I tried to read my novel. Before long the water was pounding the roof of the boat and pouring off the side. The sky behind Wat Arun was now almost black and the wind was whipping up whitecaps on the normally flat river, now a chocolate brown from rainy season runoff upcountry. As we left the pier near the flower market and approached Memorial Bridge, a mighty gust hit the boat and pushed it backward. We felt out of control as the boat drifted backwards, and then slid around and backed into a pilon of the bridge with a loud crash. Passengers began looking for the life jackets which were stored under each seat as the tour guide (this was one of the slower and bigger river taxis for tourists) called on us to be calm. The boat was able to turn back to the nearby pier as the storm raged (have I mentioned the spectacular lightening and thunder?), and the crew lashed us to another boat that had stayed behind. Just as quickly as it began, the wind and rain subsided, and we resumed our journey downsteam to the Takhsin bridge where I got off to take the Skytrain to Sukhumvit. I met Jerry at the head of Soi 8 and we talked up to the mammoth medical facility to find and console George. The journey for me from one side of Bangkok to the other had taken over two hours. (The excellent photo above of Bangkok's skyline during the storm was stolen from The Bangkok Bugle blog.)

George was not in good shape and he gave a pale imitation of his usual bon vivant self. He had been an NGO lawyer in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, for nearly ten years and left almost a year ago when the stress of fighting for justice against the corrupt government finally overwhelmed him. We met at the wedding of Jerry's stepson in Surin in January and quickly became close friends. On his healing journey around the world this past year, George had attended the funeral of his mother in America, explored job possibilities in Europe and Africa (an ex-Catholic, he searches for social injustices everywhere (Jerry says he's an ageless Boy Scout), and sought a cure for a teenage knee injury in Eugene, OR, runner's capital of the world. When an operation was deemed necessary, he returned to Bangkok where medical care is still affordable. While he praised the beauty of his physical therapist (I said I was interested in a consultation), he told us of a restless night with insufficient pain medication. His leg under the bandages appeared twice its normal size, and a tube drained fluids into a bottle beside the bed. We sat on a couch designed to provide a bed for family members who typically remain around the clock in Thai hospitals to supplement care. I took him 2000 baht worth of phone cards (George is the fastest SMS typist I know and writes longer messages than anyone; he has friends around the world).

"I'm feeling my age," said the 60-year-old athlete who wanted a new knee so he could continue to run, swim and climb mountains. Jerry, the senior member of our triumverate, had open heart surgery in the same hospital a couple of years ago, and he is putting together a humorous book on aging. You have to laugh, for there is nothing more boring than a conversation about the physical challlenge of advancing years. Until George spoke up, I was feeling pretty chipper about being a 69-year-old farang in a country were age is honored, not least by beautiful and still vigorous women in their thirties with young children and extended families to support. My online search to find a maid who liked to snuggle had been drawing a substantial number of hits. But if I went down the road behind George, it was likely that I needed a nurse instead.

Since my return from the islands to an empty nest a week ago, I've been in the doldrums. I haven't blogged since then. It's all I can do to leave the apartment to buy bread for peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, drink a cappuccino at Starbucks in Central Pinklao (yes, I'm paying for the comfortable chair), and buy the copy of the Bangkok Post saved for me by the newsseller who is encouraging me to speak English to her two children, Mime and Belle. The crosstown jaunt was a rare exception. I watch BBC-TV news until I've memorized the stories, chuckle at last years episodes of "30 Rock" and "The Office," water my few plans which are looking pitiful, and stare at the gorgeous view of Bangkok's suburbs to the northwest from my balcony.

I did manage a trip to school (10 minutes by a bus and brief walk) to inquire about the next term. Information has been hard to come by. I have to go to the administrative office of the Humanities Division and hang out with Dr. Subodh from India who teaches psychology and some of the other teachers who speak only a smattering of English. This time I learned that I teach the same two groups of students on Wednesdays and our first classes are next week, Oct. 29th. One of the clerical monks gave me a class list and I spoke with two of my students who seemed very relieved to hear that I was coming back. But once again I was unsuccessful in getting paid. They've given me money for half the classes I taught, up through Aug. 11th. But when I ask about the remainder, everyone forgets their English. My boss, Dr. Suriya, makes promises on the phone to look into it, but he was out of town when I visited. I know they're good for it, but I'd like to get paid before next month's rent is due.

In all of my subjects -- religion, sex and politics -- I'm failing. The Little Bang Sangha is on hiatus through the Christmas season and I can't seem to meditate on my own. My attempts to find venues for Cyprian when he comes here in February have so far gone for naught. Sister B did write to ask if I would lead another pilgrimage to Shantivanam in a year's time, and, although willing, I feel far removed from the ethos of Sangha Shantivanam, my friends back at Holy Cross in Santa Cruz. Hopefully, Meath will come to my aid. A former priest, disciple of Father Bede's, a participant in interreligious dialogue (he knows the Dalai Lama), and an experienced tour guide in India, his help will be invaluable. As for sex, that should be embarrassingly obvious. And politics, well...

I've sat on the paperwork for getting an absentee ballot until it's clearly too late. I just didn't feel like voting, even though I know Obama is infinitely better than McBush, and the well-dressed (have you read what the RNC spent on her clothes??) Ms. Palin. Since California will undoubtedly go for Obama, my vote is not needed. If I was from Florida or Ohio it would be a different story. And I'm also not excited, not motivated, by all I've read of Obama. He was lackluster in the debates, doing just the minimum to make McCain look frantic. I think he's just another Clinton: sounds superficially good but controlled now, hand and foot, by the corporations and special interests that have financed his campaign and will control his future. While the "free" market melts down, Obama will not look for a substitute for capitalism as an economic system. While the economy can only be kept going by government intervention and tons of taxpayer money, he isn't making a case for stronger government. The McCain-Palin thugs who shout "terroris!," "socialist!" and "kill him!" at their rallies scare me, and it's quite possible that a white backlash will defeat the first half-black candidate. If so, America is doomed (and I'm not that hopeful it will make it even with an Obama administration that will be buried in debt and war commitments).

I can't begin to explain what's happening in Thailand. Even the bloggers on whom I depend seem to have given up. As we enter the season of celebration (loi krathong, the funeral of the King's sister, and the King's birthday), the anti-government and pro-government forces seem more polarized and prepared for confrontation. The police, shamed by two failed efforts to dislodge protestors from the seat of government, is ineffectual. The army, defender of country and monarchy of last resort, claims that present office holders must be responsible. The courts continue to find Thaksin and his successors guilty of various counts of malfeasance. I cannot understand the laws they broke and the significance of convicting an exiled ex-prime minister. Troops from Thailand and Cambodia face-off on the border over an ancient Khmer temple and land both countries claim. I tried to find a PAD demonstration last week but the hordes of yellow-clad shock troops passed through Siam before I got there. With Pim gone, I no longer watch the Thai news channels nor receive her explanation of events. I feel more isolated.

After visiting George, Jerry and I went to the luxurious Face Bar to see an exhibit of photography by farang Tom Hoops who apparently took up the craft a year ago. The large b/w photos of people, mostly heads, were gloomy and sometimes shocking, nothing you'd put up on your living room wall. The place was filled with tall, very tall, farang men and women. We left for another bar, The Penalty Point (a sports bar, obviously) where his friend Richie was suppose to be singing. But another fellow, bald with a Tom Jones set of pipes, was trying to entertain the sparse crowd. Thai ladies in cocktail dresses tried to catch the customers' attention. After one beer we walked two blocks to the Cactus bar in Soi Cowboy where four bored naked ladies danced minimally for the three men watching them. Although it was a depressing evening, Jerry and I enjoyed each other's company, particularly now that it is so difficult for us (me) to get together.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Viva la Vida


I used to rule the world
Seas would rise when I gave the word
Now in the morning I sleep alone
Sweep the streets I used to own
Music can touch me in deep places that thought cannot reach. When I first heard the song "Viva la Vida" by Coldplay, I collapsed inside, defenses down, the house in ruins. The insistent violins, the upbeat tempo, the chorus of words that speak of triumph and loss, all combine to reduce me to tears, again and again. Listening to this song on the trip by plane and bus from Krabi to my home in Bangkok on Wednesday helped me to withstand the current chaos of endings and beginnings in my life.
One minute I held the key
Next the walls were closed on me
And I discovered that my castles stand
Upon pillars of salt and pillars of sand
Viva la Vida is Spanish for "Long Live Life!" The words were carved into the flesh of a watermelon in the last painting (above) by Mexican artist Frida Kahlo. She died not long after, in 1954, at the age of 47. She had been very ill for much of her short life, suffering from serious injuries received in a bus accident. Her leg had been amputated the year before and she contacted pneumonia. But in her diary a few days before her death, she wrote: "I hope the exit is joyful - and I hope never to return - Frida."
I hear Jerusalem bells a-ringing
Roman cavalry choirs are singing
Be my mirror my sword and shield
My missionaries in a foreign field
Frida's gesture of thumbing her nose at death, and the joy of this song, help to epitomize the thirst for life I feel at this late date, and my conviction that life as we live it, the pleasure and pain we experience in and through it, is not the symbol of something better but rather is in itself the ultimate reality. We do not live for some future reward. It is not required of us to transcend flesh, but rather to enoble and beautify it.

I am rather a latecomer to Coldplay's song from their CD, "Viva la Vida or Death and all his Friends." It was released last May as a single and topped the charts in the U.S. and U.K. Singer Chris Martin told an interviewer that the song lyric, "I know Saint Peter won't call my name," is about not being "on the list. I was a naughty boy. It's always fascinated me that idea of finishing your life and then being analyzed on it. And this idea runs throughout most religions. That's why people blow up buildings. Because they think they're going to get lots of virgins. I always feel like saying, just join a band." Bass guitarist Guy Berryman said, "It’s a story about a king who’s lost his kingdom, and all the album’s artwork is based on the idea of revolutionaries and guerrillas." The cover art steals from Eugene Delacroix' classic painting of "Liberty Leading the People," commemorating the French revolution of 1830 which overthrew the monarchy. Life in this sense must be taken by force from those who would stiffle the fresh air of democracy. The protagonist of the song "Viva la Vida," however, is not an evil or misguided man like King Charles X, but every man (or woman) who has reached for the throne and lost it (like in Graham Nash's song, "I Used to be a King"). I can identify with this.

I came home from my sojourn in the Thai islands of the South Andaman Sea to find an almost unbearably empty apartment. All of my things were still here but everything of Pim's was gone. We had exchanged a few text messages while I was away. She offered to water my plants, and had invited me to visit her new place on my return. But I finally came to the conclusion that I could not easily trade love for friendship, and wrote her an email saying goodbye. She sent me her apartment key and door pass by mail the next day. I miss her terribly and wish her well. This is the best outcome for both of us. I do not regret a moment of it, not the pain I feel now from a broken heart, nor the joys we shared together. Love is always a risk, and one cannot endure its ecstasy unscathed. I think healing cannot take place without accepting both the pleasure and the pain.

But do not weep for me, my friends. The night of my return, Nat came over to visit. She was my companion on a trip to Luang Prabang in Laos a year ago, and she is taking a massage course at Wat Pho. After graduating, she is thinking of taking a job in the Czech Republic for which she interviewed last week. This weekend I have a date with Yim, a young woman I met online when I was still in California. She teaches Thai to visitors from Japan and Korea and wants to improve her English. I've made numerous new friends on ThaiLoveLinks, the dating service that brought me both Pim and Nat and have chatted with some on MSN Messenger. But the thought of replacing Pim in my life is bittersweet. I do know, however, that I am happiest in a relationship, and I see no reason to become a hermit at this point.

I didn't do much on my vacation. The snorkling and diving tours advertised on every corner in Koh Phi Phi and Koh Lanta did not tempt me. I went drinking in no bars (the karaoke joints on Lanta were supposedly the hot spots) and met no strange women. In fact, I had few conversations with anyone. I didn't even swim very much and was careful to lather myself with sun block when I went outside, so I have no tan as evidence of my trip. I read a couple of books and did a morning's worth of work on my English class for next term. I watched lots of American sitcoms on my laptop, and a few good movies. Everywhere I walked, pushing my bum knee to its limit, and on Lanta I road all around the island on a rented motorbike. That was the most fun. I felt a bit guilty for my lack of incentive, and I'm sure I would have done more had I had a companion as I did on other vacations. I passed up street food for the security of restaurants usually recommended by Lonely Planet. By now readers should know of my addition to cappaccino which is easily fed everywhere these days. The internet brings news of the world to even the most remote of islands, so I kept in touch with political events in Bangkok and Washington.

Everywhere I visit I imagine as my final resting place. Koh Phi Phi was too tiny and crowded whereas Koh Lanta presented some distinct possibilities. I can imagine living in a cheap room at Khlong Nin or Hat Ao Kantiang in the far south. There isn't much to do. I don't think the island has a cinema, and the only bookstores carried recycled mysteries and romance novels. Perhaps that indicates opportunities, should I need to augment my retirement income if the global economic melt down heats up over here. Koh Lanta is probably much different in December in the high season when hoardes of tourists descend on the island. But I think I'll return around Christmas time and scout around for a room with a sea view, and perhaps a rocking chair.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Joe the Plumber Won the Debate

Democratic Obama and Republican McCain met in the final presidential campaign debate and the clear winner was...Joe the Plumber.

Ohio resident Joe Wurzelbacher (later identified by Associated Press), or "Joe the Plumber," was mentioned over a dozen times in the debate. He was introduced by McCain who claimed the plumber told Obama (pictured here) that his economic plan would keep him from buying the business he worked for. This must mean that Joe makes more than $250,000 a year, confirming most people's suspicion that plumbers clean up. "I'll help you buy that business, Joe," McCain promised. "I'll keep your taxes low." Obama said Joe's concerns about his tax policies were misplaced. "He's been watching some ads of Sen. McCain." Then he patiently tried to explain that most small business owners made less than his cut-off for tax relief, and that his plan would help them, not the Exxons and Mobils of the corporate world. Joe, who told the AP that his name being mentioned in the campaign is "pretty surreal," did not reveal who he would vote for.

McCain used the encounter to argue that his opponent wanted to promote class warfare and "spread the wealth." The feisty former POW was in full-on attack mode and besides tarring Obama as a typical tax and spend liberal, likened him to Herbert Hoover (a real stretch) for policies that would restrict trade and raise taxes. At one point he slipped and called the Democrat "Senator Government" before claiming that Obama wants government to take on every job, "too much government" for the Reagan ("my hero," he said in the last debate) Republican. He even cried: "Why do we always have to spend more?" while apparently forgetting that he'd just supported a $700 billion government bailout of Wall Street.

But this is an odd thing to say when both candidates agree that government must take control of the financial system to stave off a global economic meltdown. I've just finished reading last week's Newsweek with its cover story on "The Future of Capitalism." All of the writers conclude that laissez faire, unregulated capitalism, the darling of Reagan Republicans for years, is dead. But what will emerge from the mess? Environmental socialist Mike Davis, in a wonderful article for CommonDreams.org, writes that, "Although I've been studying Marxist crisis theory for decades, I never believed I'd actually live to see financial capitalism commit suicide. Or hear the International Monetary Fund warn of imminent 'systemic meltdown.' The economy is Obama's Grand Canyon, Davis says, explaining that the first Europeans to discover the great gorge were too awed to see it clearly. "Like the Grand Canyon's first explorers," Davis writes, "we are looking into an unprecedented abyss of economic and social turmoil that confounds our previous perceptions of historical risk. Our vertigo is intensified by our ignorance of the depth of the crisis or any sense of how far we might ultimately fall." He isn't sure Obama is up to the task of seeing clearly.

Davis concludes by bringing up Obama's me-too'ism foreign policy from the first two debates:
It is bitterly ironic, but, I suppose, historically predictable that a presidential campaign millions of voters have supported for its promise to end the war in Iraq has now mortgaged itself to a "tougher than McCain" escalation of a hopeless conflict in Afghanistan and the Pakistani tribal frontier. In the best of outcomes, the Democrats will merely trade one brutal, losing war for another. In the worst case, their failed policies may set the stage for the return of Cheney and Rove, or their even more sinister avatars.
I found the debate another bore, although the post-debate polls pundits were united in seeing Obama as the clear "winner," whatever that means. Moderator Bob Schieffer of CBS asked some excellent questions of the two seated debaters, and both did their best to ignore the nuances, choosing to emphasize familiar talking points instead. Neither said whether they were willing or not to try and control medical costs, or whether the other's veep candidate was less qualified. Both ignored the possibility of reducing energy needs rather than fulfilling them through nuclear power and offshore drilling. Although the stock market had plunged once again that day, and markets were reacting negatively all around the world, the economic crisis seemed little more than a blip on their campaign rhetoric radar. They refused to answer Schieffer pointed questions (as they did in the last two debates) about what effect the huge trade deficits and Wall Street bailouts would have on their health care and education proposals.

McCain was nastier, bringing up wild charges about 60's radical Bill Ayers and the community organization group ACORN that have become central to his negative smear campaign. Claiming to be "a federalist," preferring state over federal intervention, the Republican gave a spirited defense of his anti-abortion position, but contradicted himself by advocating federal aid for troubled schools, "the civil rights issue of the 21st century" (clearly an attempt to mention and trump race in the same statement). Both advocate more charter schools, but do not reveal what competition would do to our under-funded public schools and the underpaid teachers. Obama was heavy on specifics, using a professorial tone to emphasize core issues of importance to the middle class (no one speaks for the poorer classes any more). He was cool and upbeat, certain about "what the American people want," and optimistic: "We can disagree without being disagreeable," and "Our brightest days are still ahead." Deeper questions, the bigger picture, were studiously avoided by both men. The Republicans, from Reagan to Bush, have trashed America and Obama neglected to deliver the criticism this disaster demands.

Joe the Plumber, first cousin to Palin's pal, Joe Six-Pack, is a sorry symbol of America's future.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Hedonism 101

As the days go by, all of the usual habits and routines fall away, and a kind of numb bliss sets in. Planning the day takes little time and effort: wake, eat, walk, soak in the surf, eat, nap, soak in the surf, eat, watch videos on the laptop, snack, sleep. There is plenty of down time for the memory to do its dance of regret, but, as the ocean breeze said to the fly: beat it! I have no patience for worry or what ifs.

Many if not most recipes for happiness throw in a beach on a desert island. It's been part of my retirement plan for ages. Koh Lanta, however, is not exactly deserted, even if the numbers of visitors are down now at the tail end of the low season. At first I thought the two main beaches, Khlong Dao and Phrae Ae, were underdeveloped. Most of the resorts are out of sight from the inland highway which is dotted with a variety of businesses in various stages of construction and disrepair. There are lots of open spaces. Aside from Saladan, a few blocks of town clustered around the boat docks, there seemed to be no other centers around which residents and tourists might gather. Koh Lanta is one long strip mall.

After I arrived on the boat from Koh Phi Phi Thursday, I rented a Yamaha motorbike and I've been exploring the island. On Friday I traveled down the western coast almost as far south as Mu Koh Lanta National Park (the dirt roads are muddy from recent rain so I stayed on pavement). The half moon beaches are more beautiful as you leave the more populated north, and the occsionally rocky shore, from some vantages points on hills, looks almost like Big Sur. Khlong Nin was especially nice, with guest houses tucked in amongst trees, and I made a note to stay there on my next visit.

On the way back, I stopped at the Green Leaf Cafe at Khlong Khoang for a cappuccino and talked with the owner, a young British woman who came to Thailand three years ago, married a Thai man and stayed. Now they live on Koh Lanta for the season, October through May, and she works in London when the monsoon rains drive everyone away. She told me that 80 per cent of the island's residents are Muslims, something I suspected from seeing the many mosques, as well as women wearing black shawls, and men in white robes with embroidered pillbox hats. The first morning I was awoken at 5 by a call to prayer from a nearby minaret. "But they're mellow," she assured me, meaning not your usual terrorists. I asked her about the birds in cages on her patio, and in front of businesses across the street (the Where Else? guest house). Hers looked like a black cockatile with a hat on its head. I've seen bird cages everywhere in the islands, and she told me it was a fad. They have contests to see which sings the best, she said, and later, driving over the mountain along the spine of the island I saw a huge gathering of men with bird cages, an avian version of Thai Idol I suppose.

Yesterday I traveled down the Eastern side of the island, and though you can't see the sea until you reach Lanta Town, the countryside, with rubber plantations everywhere, tall houses on stilts, even a corn field, was lovely. There was almost no traffic. Ban Koh Lanta, Lanta Town, was the original port and commercial center of the island with ships traveling to Phuket, Penang and Singapore. Some of the buildings are over 100 years old. When I arrived there was a ritual (I suspect Chinese) going on at two altars on the main street that involved people dressed in white, shirtless men with whips, a priestess, a woman in white who looked like a bride, incense, offerings of fruit, and, at the end, very loud fireworks. I think it had something to do with the vegetarian festival that just ended. Afterwards there was a feast that included two Buddhist monks, so it must have been ecumenical. It was too early for lunch, but I went into one of the restaurants on stilts above the water and ordered a lime shake (my refreshment of choice these days) to enjoy the incredible bay view. I suppose when the high season begins next month Lanta Town will be crowded with tourists, but for now I seem to be the only farang. On the way back, I took the cutoff that took me up over the mountain, past Mai Kaeo Cave and a small village where a bustling market was in process, returning to the western highway by Klong Toab, a stretch of white sand dotted with rocks.

Taking a holiday on a Thai island is not all hard work. In addition to fine "American" breakfasts at Lanta Bee Garden, I had a very delicious sirloin steak on the deck at Lanta Tavern one evening. There was some excitement when we heard a collision nearby, "third this week," according to the Aussie owner. This time it was a motorbike and a dog ("There are lots of wild dogs in the neighborhood," he said; "I hope it was the one that has been bothering me.)." Last night I went to one of the seafood restaurants in Saladan and had three tiger prawns. Very tasty, but most of them are head and I was uncertain what could be eaten. Cappuccino, of course, is available everywhere, but I have not yet found a good source for gelatto.

In the mornings I've taken long walks down Hat Khlong Dao, avoiding the south end where the wild dogs run rampant near the Time for Lime guest house and cooking school (the owner takes in strays). Yesterday morning I headed up towards the highway through the bungalows at D.R. Bay Lanta Resort and got lost. Thai residents and workers live appear to live along the inner road, an unlovely shadow behind the more glamorous resorts and spas. Eventually I found my way to the northern bay and finally back to the beach, but it felt a bit like a maze. It's a small island, how can one get lost? The weather has been a bit chancy. Much of yesterday afternoon, after I returned from Lanta Town, it threatened to rain. Twice I canceled my planned seafood dinner before deciding to risk it. After a few sprinkles, the clouds opened and the evening ended with a full-blown sunset.

The man with the pony tail in the front bungalow has a wife and two small kids, and speaks with a kind of Scandinavian accent. Three doors down from me are two women and a man. I chatted with one of the women about the possible danger from jelly fish; her accent was German. The man looked bright red after a day at the beach yesterday and I hope he has some healing ointment. There are sandals outside the nextdoor bungalow so it looks like a neighbor arrived last night. The restaurant here is full of Thais who seem to be family or relatives of the workers. The sea is always in full view. Yesterday I visited Relax Bay Tropicana, a guest house recommended by Lonely Planet. Like many of those I saw on Koh Phi Phi, it was clearly aimed at the backpacker, and tourists who require the illusion of roughing it (bamboo walls, cold showers). I'm no pioneer; give me the basic comforts in my paradise.

But, sometimes, into my revery will come creeping the thought: What am I doing? Is hedonism an end in itself? Is the pursuit of happiness a defendable option? Aristotle thought happiness was the end all and the be all of existence, and quite a few philosophers have agreed with that goal in its various guises. My Buddhist and Christian friends, however, take a dim view of pleasure. On this trip I'm not meditating, I'm not praying, and the only intellectual stimulation I've had in the past couple of days was from a cheesy mystery, Cat & Mouse, by James Patterson. While eating a chicken sandwich at a Swedish delicatessen for lunch, I listened to the call to prayer coming from the Muslim mosque across the highway. There was a time when I would find the reminder to turn within, to get in touch with God, a worthy spiritual nudge. But today I wondered why religions deem it necessary for their adherents to turn away from life in order to perform their duty to God. I think my father was right when he said he found God on the golf course. Any deity worth its salt would affirm life rather than deny it; it would not ask us to look under rocks or inside our bodies to find paradise. Paradise is here, now, if only we have eyes to see.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Low Season on Lanta

The boat from Koh Phi Phi yesterday carried a full load of backpackers across the bay to Koh Lanta, the second island paradise on my holiday itinerary. But what I found was a ghost town. It couldn’t be more different from Phi Phi. It’s a much larger island for one, and usable beaches stretch over 25 kilometers north to south leaving plenty of room for the world’s tourists.

But few have yet come. The main reason is it’s still the low season and the boats have only begun running. Todd from Perth, the owner of the Koala Bar down Khlong Dao Beach from Lanta Bee Garden where I am staying (500 baht a day for a/c, tv and hot shower), told me the season doesn’t get underway until October 15th, the day I fly back to Bangkok, and Lanta doesn’t get crowded until December. So at the moment many of the stores, restaurants and other facilities are closed. Another reason for the lack of visitors might be the political situation in Bangkok. And of course because of the economic meltdown, few might be able to afford the long flight here.

Phi Phi’s tiny “village” was claustrophobic; Lanta’s population is spread out along the west coast, from Saladan in the north to a national marine park in the south. It reminds me of Koh Samui’s undeveloped areas. In fact, I’d even call it underdeveloped. I had to search for a cappuccino. With Dr. Holly’s help (she recommended Lanta Bee Garden), I found a small, tasteful cafĂ© not far from the ferry dock. Transportation is mainly by tuk tuk, and I discovered them to be expensive (40-50 baht for what seemed like short trips), so I rented a motorbike (for 300 baht a day) and intend to explore the island during my four days here.

I arrived just before a thunderous cloudburst and settled in while the late rains pounded the beach not far from my door. Later in the evening I witnessed a grade A sunset. This morning I took a long walk down the beach and managed to fend off a pack of dogs that smelled my blood. Coconut husks make good weapons. Long-tail boats were loading cargo taking it away to unknown ports. Walking down the wide beach I spotted numerous large jellyfish waiting for the tide to carry them out to sea. Swimming could be dangerous here. While the beach is still largely empty, there were several groups of families outside the Southern Lanta Resort which Todd told me was owned by Scandinavians. A place next to it advertised yoga and meditation, but it was closed. I rode my motorbike down to Phra Ae beach and found...nothing. Even though it's the second major beach on Koh Lanta there was no "village," just a shop here and a restaurant and bar there, most closed for the season. Most of the resorts and guest houses are hidden behind scrubby vegetation. There are a distinct lack of palms here.

I began writing this post on the terrace of the LBG restaurant across from my room after breakfast, surrounded by (I think) members of the owner’s large family who run the place. The tuk tuk driver who brought me rom the boat thought it was closed, probably because there is work being done on the two-story units at the front on the highway. The TV above the tables is tuned to ASTV which broadcasts the PAD rally in Bangkok 24-7. Most of the TVs in Koh Phi Phi were likewise telecasting the anti-government speeches. While the government might be more popular in the north and northwest, this is a region of Thaksin haters. I’ve eaten dinner and breakfast here and the food is good if a bit expensive, making up for the very cheap accommodation. There seems to be only one other guest, a farang with a pony tail. Now I'm in the travel office where I've been permitted to use the ethernet connection to the internet. This spot is turning out to be an excellent choice. Thank you, Dr. Holly.

For entertainment I've got BBC and the stash in my laptop. The other night I watched "Elegy" with Ben Kingsley playing a literature professor at Columbia who falls for a slightly-older Cuban student played by Penelope Cruz. The gap between their ages is huge, but not so big as that between Pim and I. Nevertheless, I could identify, with the conflicted academic and with the feelings he had for the icon of beauty and youth. The ending has a neat twist. It was directed by Isabel Coixet, whose "Secret Life of Words" I loved, from Philip Roth's "The Dying Animal." Last night I watched "Constantine's Sword," a documentary to go with James Carroll's book about the roots of Christian anti-Judaism. It's an excellent expose of the long history of Christianity's campaign against the "killers of Jesus," and its complicity even today with the current pope. Carroll, a former priest and anti-Vietnam war activist, is a wonderful novelist and writer with a regular column in the Boston Globe. And I finally finished Dave Eggers' contemporary classic, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. It's a memoir, which some have called "creative non-fiction," about the death of his parents and the parenting of his younger brother while leading a 20-something orphan's life in San Francisco. It's funny and tragic and I loved the way he dramatized his fears and fantasies. I wouldn't call it a masterpiece (it was nominated for the Pulitzer), but I think with a little discipline (a good editor would have been helpful), he'll be a major writer. Before falling asleep last night, I watched a couple of episodes of "The Office."

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Visionless Quest

OK, I'm a wuss. I checked out of my primitive bamboo bungalow on Koh Phi Phi and into a soulless cement block next door yesterday because it had air conditioning, a shower with hot water, and a TV with cable so I could watch the debate this morning (Tuesday night in the U.S.) between Obama and McCain. What a disappointment (the shower and the cool room without mosquitoes were great)! The town hall format in Nashville, with the genial Tom Brokaw coordinating the questions from the audience and the internet contained no surprises and little passion. Obama was cool and McCain paced up and down like a feisty boxer. The word "maverick" was not used and I did not hear "change" emphasized. It was a scripted encounter with familiar campaign talking points, managed by handlers behind the scene to promote image over substance. Although I am certain Obama would be a better choice, more intelligent and reasonable than the last generation of Republicans, I found the lack of a global vision on both their parts disconcerting.

"The American workers are the best in the world," McCain crowed, and Obama nodded in agreement. Tell that to the third world. Thais (and Mexicans and Indians, etc.) work harder than anyone I've ever seen in the U.S., and for lower wages. "America is the greatest force for good in the history of the world," trumpeted McCain, claiming that like Teddy Roosevelt he spoke softly and carried a big stick. Roosevelt, one of the most imperialist of presidents, started wars and killed non-white people wherever it suited U.S. commercial interests. "We all agree," agreed Obama, "that we're a great nation and a force of good in the world." Oh yeah? Americans are so insular that only when they venture out of their country without blinders on will they realize how truly hated they are. The world wants our dollars (which are losing value rapidly). Read historian Howard Zinn if you want to find out how far reality diverges from the rhetoric expounded by nationalists like McCain and Obama.

The two candidates agreed that Israel is the U.S.'s strongest ally and should be protected from the evil designs of a nuclear-armed Iran. They were in agreement that the "war on terrorism" should define American foreign policy in the 21st century. They both advocate offshore drilling (though not as stridently as McCain and Palin) and they are all for more nuclear energy, while at the same time claiming to want to protect the environment. An entire generation of activists have protested that nonsense (at least Obama realizes that there is a disposal problem). I heard very little from either about limiting our energy needs as a way to combat energy dependency. Most of the questions were sidestepped adroitly by both politicians. When asked whether health care should be a commodity, both chose to talk about their respective plans. Obama did say, however that health care is a right, whereas McCain called it a responsibility (the patient's, not the society's).

It was a pretty poor performance. I didn't expect anything from McCain, but I still have some hopes that Obama will transcend politics as usual. While he talked about moral values, he didn't discuss social justice, at home and abroad. Speaking of capturing Osama is a convenient way to avoid responsibility for the global mess the world is in. A new policy is needed for the Middle East, one that puts Israel in its proper place as a religious state that persecutes Arabs. The current economic meltdown should enable a vision of an alternative economics, one with morality at its heart, that does not put profit above all. This vision I did not hear in today's debate.


But enough about politics. After my initial negative impression of Koh Phi Phi, I found myself on a lovely beach yesterday surrounded by a bevy of beautiful girls in bikinis. Though the water was shallow, it was a delightful place to soak and float while the fluffy clouds drifted by. I enjoyed a refreshing banana-mango-watermelon freeze, and for lunch I hiked a short distance down the beach to an al fresco restaurant where I enjoyed a tasty lunch, all the while watching the long-tailed boats coming and going, and the sun worshippers turning as brown as the many Thai workers who serve them. In the evening I crossed to the other side of the ithimus and enjoyed a candlelight dinner next to the beach.

This morning I awoke to find yet another cat sleeping on my balcony outside the new room. I have never seen so many cats and kittens in one place before. My new theory is that the many victims of the tsunami on this island have come back as cats because their souls could not leave this spot. There are far fewer dogs, though I did see a white lab chasing a frisbee yesterday in the surf and catching it easily (he was chased by a beagle puppy).

On the way home through the village last night, my feet sore from a full day of hiking from one side of the island and back again, I decided to get a foot massage. Every other store front is devoted to this Thai art with ladies in front singing out "masssssage" to the passing parade. I picked one at random and lay back in a comfortable chair to have my feet...actually, my legs, from groin to little toe...rejuvenated. Business was brisk and a half dozen people were either in chairs like me or on mats getting their bodies burnished, with oil and without. While it was quiet, there was an occasional groan of delight. The price was 300 or about $10. I think tonight I'll go for the entire torso.

Thunder and lightening last night heralded a refreshing rain shower. Today the sky was filled with thunderheads, and as I revise this blog in the evening I can hear peals of thunder overhead. In Bangkok over 400 people were injured when police attempted to disperse the PAD mob with tear gas that was trying to shut down Parliament. One man was killed and another had his leg blown off. This makes no sense to me. Tear gas only troubles the eyes. The PAD demonstrators were shown in photographs to be armed and there were apparently grenades or small explosive devices thrown. The Queen has donated money to a hospital treating the injured. Another hospital has refused to treat injured police. I expect to see the military take over any day now. What a mess.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Can't Take Phi Phi

It's supposed to be paradise, right? But it's more like a backpacker's Disneyland, with the tiny rabbit warren of main streets packed with dive shops, internet cafes, travel agencies, restaurants, minimarts, guest houses (or stores with back rooms to rent), massage parlors and bars. Koh Phi Phi, a tiny island off the Southern Andaman coast that was devastated by the 2006 tsunami, has been reconstructed as a faux paradise, tourism modeled after a vision of endless 7-11's.

The fact that I'm probably the oldest person on the island doesn't help. An endless chain of backpack-toting 20-somethings parade down the paved pedestrian thoroughfares. There are neither cars nor tuk tuks, and the only transportation is by bicycle (which wheel dangerously in and out of traffic). Porters carry bags by wheelbarrow from the boats to their owners' accommodation. The isthmus between the two beaches, Ao Ton Sai and Ao Lo Dalam,which was flattened by the big wave, is now packed with new one and two-story buildings. The beach at Ton Sai is fouled by a flotilla of boats, and the beach at Lo Dalam at low tide last night revealed a cornocopia of trash.

Yeah, I know, bitch, bitch, bitch. But some of my friends have complained about my sunny disposition. I suppose this holiday might have improved with company. The visitors here seem to travel in clumps, and I've never been very gregarious with strangers. I did have an enjoyable conversation on the boat from Krabi yesterday with a young law student from Israel. He told me he thought the law was humanity's only hope. We shared our mutual love for philosophy and he wondered why people did not seem to recognize the authority of rigorous thinking. This morning he said hello to me at the Pee Pee Bakery and then rushed off for a day of diving. I didn't get a chance to tell him my objections to religious states and how I thought Israel should become a multi-cultural nation, a true democracy.

I booked a bungalow at Chunut House based on LP's recommendation: "On a quiet path away from the bazaar of the tourist village, this place is refreshingly tranquil." It's a hefty hike away from the action, up a steep hill (a giant must have designed the steps). Quiet, yes, but mosquitoes kept me awake and when I did finally fall asleep the chickens scratching outside my window woke me back up. A black kitten with white paws meowed at my door and kept my company while I got dressed. The room is oh too quaint, with bamboo walls, and the tiled bathroom is picturesque, but could use hot water for the shower. The design is remarkably like Eric's bungalows at Indiana Cottages in Pai.

When the fireworks went off last night at one of the Ton Sai bars, I was in bed watching an episode of "30 Rock." They throw Half Moon parties here (tonight, I think) and feature fire twirlers like those we saw on Koh Samet. The typical bar decor features Rastafarian colors and peace signs. One of the bigger watering holes is called Hippies. The only wildlife I've seen is a monkey riding in a basket on a woman's bike. When I took their photo, she frowned at me. Although the walkways are packed with pedestrians, the beaches seem relatively empty. I suspect that the resorts, hotels and guest houses are less than half full. I can't understand the current construction boom.

In many of the shops in the village, TVs are tuned to ASTV and the PAD rally in Bangkok. Apparently things are heating up. According to The Nation website this morning, police teargassed demonstrators trying to prevent the opening of Parliament and PM Somchai's policy speech. Dozens were injured. Over the weekend, two of PAD's leaders were arrested, including Chamlong the spiritual center of the anti-government protest. On the TV screen are the words in English: "Final Showdown." PAD has been attempting to provoke a military coup for months and this may be their big play.

Now I have to decide my next move. Billboards all over town advertise package day trips to beaches and caves, with snorkling and food provided. I did that in Hawaii years ago and am now motivated to repeat it on my own alone. Dare I go swimming in the muck and trask? I have work I could do on my next English class, and books to read. This should be a time to chill, not make big decisions. I could change rooms, find a place with A/C, a hot shower, TV and maybe even wireless (I'm writing this in a bookshop cafe, one of the few places advertising free wireless.). The mosquitos continue to nibble through the faux repellent I bought last night.

The boat to Koh Lanta leaves at 11:30 every morning. But I may find the same paradise in trouble on that island as well. The LP tells me that I can still find "old-school hippyish Lanta charm on the southwest beaches but inthe north every spot of beach and murky little back road has bungalows popping up like pimples on an adolescent's chin." Charming. There are more clouds today and maybe a monsoon storm might eclipse my choices.