Sunday, February 15, 2009

Roses are Red

Red roses, real and fake, were on sale on ever street corner yesterday as Thailand -- or at least Bangkok -- absorbed another western holiday into its sponge-like culture. Valentine's Day, with roots in Chaucer's England, is a 19th century marketing invention designed to sell cards, festooned with cupids and hearts, along with flowers. The Catholic Church recognized at least eleven saints named Valentine but none was associated with romance (a martyr's death is the typical theme). The custom of sending cards arose in England in the mid-1800s and was copied quickly by Americans. More than a billion were sent yesterday, a close second for greeting card makers to Christmas. And that's without even counting countries like Thailand where flowers and cards have been proliferating for the last month. According to numerous newspaper warnings, Thai teens are quite likely to celebrate the occasion by having sex.

I received a few cyber Valentines on my Hi5 site, and I got email and phone messages from a couple of past and present Thai girlfriends. In the afternoon I met Bee, who has recruited me to teach her English, at one of the ubiquitous Bangkok shopping malls where I presented her with a single humongous long-stemmed rose (on steroids?) and corrected homework. In the evening I retired alone to my cozy room and watched "Cadillac Records," the fictionalized story of Chess Records and the rhythm and blues artists it launched, from Muddy Waters to Chuck Berry. Easily the high point of the film is Beyoncé's incredible portrayal of the gritty blues singer, Etta James. The representations of Waters, Little Walter, Howlin' Wolf and Berry were terrific. This was the music I cut my teeth on when I turned 13. But the song that always turns me to putty is Rodgers and Hart's song from the 1930s, "My Funny Valentine":
My funny valentine
Sweet comic valentine
You make me smile with my heart
This year, however, my heart is not smiling so much.

I doubt that they celebrate Valentine's Day in Gaza. There the color red is too reminiscent of the blood shed by innocents during the recent "war" in which a technologically dominant Israel made the civilians pay for the less than two dozen deaths over the last decade caused by the hand-made rockets Hamas has lobbed over the border. I've read that Israel still maintains a strangle-hold on the Gaza border crossings, preventing even cement to reconstruct the destroyed infrastructure along with sufficient medical supplies to treat thousands of injured, many of them women and children. The election in Israel last week spelled disaster for the feeble peace process; now the right wingers have the upper hand. It remains to be seem whether Obama will put the breaks on, but there are as yet no hopeful signs. He and Hillary have been knee-jerk supporters of the Jewish religious state. For yet another sane perspective on a tragic situation, please listen to the wise words of Bill Moyers here.

The news out of Washington is dismal. Obama's attempt to transcend partisanship was a total failure. The Republicans, fully responsible for the unwon wars and economic crisis inherited by the President, have decided to oppose everything he attempts in the hopes of returning to power should he fail. My economic guru Paul Krugman, the Nobel prize-winning economist and columnist for the New York Times, criticizes the just-passed stimulus package as inadequate and the bank bailout as a cash giveaway to "bunglers." Of course we should cut Obama a little slack during his first 100 days, but the consequences of failure could be a disaster heard round the world. With all this on his plate, is it any wonder that the Middle East will get short shrift?

Prime Minister Abhisit of Thailand admitted to CNN this week that mistakes were probably made in the recently-reported cruel treatment of Burmese refugees by the military. But no one expects heads to roll, given the military's role in his unelected rise to the country's top office. In the meantime, highest priority by the government has been given to perceived threats to the monarchy. Giles Ji Ungpakorn, a professor of political science at Chulalongkorn University, fled to England last week rather than face prison on a charge of lèse majesté for passages in his book about the military's 2006 coup. Last month, an Australian was sent to prison for three years for passages in a novel that sold less than a dozen copies. Giles, proudly identifying himself as a Communist, issued a "Red Siam Maifesto" from London that no one in Thailand is willing to print for fear of being arrested. In an interview, Abhisit claimed that Thailand’s lèse majesté law is analogous with laws against contempt of court in other countries, “because the courts have to be neutral and respected. The monarchy is a revered institution above politics and conflicts and therefore has no self-defense mechanism, that’s why we have the law.” The BBC's Jonathan Head and engaged Buddhist activist Sulak Sivaraksa are among those currently facing lèse majesté charges, and several thousand web sites have been censored for possible offensive opinions. Meanwhile, the anti-government red shirts have held huge rallies in Bangkok and upcountry, and only a few thousand police in Udon Thani last night keep the red shirts from clashing with their opponents, the yellow shirts, who brought down two governments before succeeding with Abhisit. These are perilous times in Thailand.

My youngest son Nicky is coming to Bangkok March 11 for a six-day visit with me. His sister Molly is in Bali recording a CD with her singing group, the Sirens, and I've been trying to get her a plane ticket to join us. Thai Airways, suffering from the airport closures last year and the drop in tourist visits to the Land of Smiles, is offering a special promotion to Bali, under $300 (the online price fuctuates) for a round trip ticket. But because I wanted a ticket that originated at Denpassar, I was unable to use the web site since Molly would need my credit card to board the flight. An airline customer service rep told me that I had to buy a ticket here which could be issued to my daughter by email as an e-ticket. But at the travel agent's office Friday I learned that the promotion price would not apply to a flight leaving from Bali. The full price? Over $1,000. So much for Thai Airways' attempts to attract passengers. Now I need to see what price Molly will have to pay in Bali and find out how to send her money for the ticket. I hope this works, because I'm eager to show my Bangkok to Molly and Nick.

I hope to be able to watch the Academy Awards when they are telecast live here at 8:30 am a week from Monday. Cyprian will be visiting Bangkok then and I'm not sure it's his cup of tea. I finally saw Anne Hathaway in "Rachel Getting Married" and thought her performance superb, the best alongside Melissa Leo's trailer heroine in "Frozen River." Both are long shots. Will they lose to Streep, Winslet or Jolie? Will it make any difference in the state of the world? Most of the nominated films have come to Bangkok but play in small theaters, unable to attract crowds more interested in "Inkheart," "Underworld: Rise of the Lycans," "My Bloody Valentine" in 3D, or (just opened) "Confessions of a Shopaholic" which might prove quite popular in this city where megamalls dominate the shopping zones. The biggest current hit here is "Red Cliff 2," John Woo's retelling of the Three Kingdoms history of China (the first part was shown in Asia last year; the rest of the world gets a condensed single version).

Nature is rearing her angry head once again. The devastating brush fires in Australia, even though some may have been deliberately set by arsonists, are a warning to humans who want to live where natural fires periodically burn (Californians learn this anew every year). And the crash of a plane near Buffalo which was caused by excessive ice tells us that natural limits abound beyond which our technological civilization cannot pass. Recently I watched Werner Herzog's excellent film about the South Pole, "Encounters at the End of the World," up for an Oscar for best documentary. "Not just another documentary about penguins," the director says, but rather a study of the people who live there and their reasons for exploring the edge of nature. More than a couple of his melancholic scientists are pessimistic about the future. A new study of global warming reveals that the pace is faster than thought previously. "We are basically looking now at a future climate that's beyond anything we've considered seriously in climate model simulations," Christopher Field, founding director of the Carnegie Institution's Department of Global Ecology at Stanford University, said at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Unexpectedly large amounts of carbon dioxide, caused by the excessive burning of coal, are being released into the atmosphere as the result of "feedback loops" that are speeding up natural processes. Last night as I watched a very red sun set through the industrial haze of Bangkok, I wondered how many more sunsets the planet could withstand.

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