Saturday, March 24, 2007

The Failure of Democracy

Democracy doesn't work if people don't vote. And voter apathy, not only in America but around the world, is undermining attempts to put political power in the hands of the people, all of the people.

But the very word "democracy" is put into question by claims from Bush & Co. that they are promoting democracy in the Middle East, when in fact they are staging sham elections in Iraq and ignoring elected leaders in Palestine. This is of a piece with the murder of the meaning of "freedom," when they claim that the "terrorists hate freedom." Seeing this misuse of language in the media, I no longer know what the words mean, beyond flags for undending warfare.

These thoughts are further reflections on the recent talk by Bill Moyers reported here yesterday. Moyers says he is obsessed by democracy, and argues that it is more than "what we were taught in high school civics -- more than the two-party system, the checks-and-balances, the debate over whether the Electoral College is a good idea." Behind all that is "the radical idea that democracy is not just about the means of governance but the means of dignifying people so they become fully free to claim their moral and political agency." Citing President Woodrow Willson, Moyers says that either "we take democracy into our own hands, or others will take democracy from us."

At that is what is happening today. Powerful interests, business and religious elites, are destroying democracy. And we are letting them get away with it by neglecting one of our most important tools, the ballot box.

California has one of the lowest voter participation rates in the nation, Moyers says, basing this on a recent article by Steven Hill in the San Francisco Chronicle which reports on several studies of voter participation and attitudes. The less than eight million who vote (out of a population of 39 million) are older, richer, whiter and more educated than the 12 million of registered and non-registered (but eligible) who do not show up at the polls. Frequent voters are more conservative. In most elections, little more than a third of eligible voters participate. All of this means that about 15% of adults make the political decisions in California, and they hardly resemble the state overall. There are two Californias, one that votes and the other that does not, and only a handful of voters elect political leaders who divide up the pie.

This is not a democracy where everyone has an equal say in the political process, even if we ignore campaign financing inequalities, along with powerful pressure groups that influence those few willing to vote. And California is not unusual; the problem is endemic. Moyers writes that "because our system feeds on campaign contributions, the powerful and the privileged shape it to their will. Only 12% of American households had incomes over $100,000 in 2000, but they made up 95% of the substantial donors to campaigns and have been the big winners in Washington ever since."

The election in 2008 will be the most expensive in American history with billions of dollars changing hands. Even the Democrats are rejecting public financing so they can raise more money to match the Repubican largesse. The rich, Moyers writes, cannot "see beyond their own perogatives. Fiercely loyal to their families, to their clubs, charities and congregations -- fiercely loyal, in other words, to their own kind," they narrowly define "membership in democracy to include only people like them." This means that they will vote to defend their money, their position and their privilege, doing whatever they can to deny the poor, the homeless, the illegals and the hedonistic young a share of their pie.

Moyers does not provide a solution to this quagmire, every bit as serious as the one in Iraq, beyond urging his audience to organize. And once organized, to vote the bastards out (I added that). Quite frankly, I don't see what can turn around voter apathy. We gave the vote to young people, and their turnouts are worse than all other categories, despite get out the vote campaigns on MTV. People act out of their interests, and the young are mostly interested in immediate pleasure rather than long-term goals. I think the poor and dispossesed in this country generally feel disspirited and powerless. Where are the leaders who might turn this around?

What will wake this country up?

Friday, March 23, 2007

Bill Moyers for President

Even Ralph Nader thinks it's a good idea. He wrote about it last October in Common Dreams:
Moyers brings impressive credentials beyond his knowledge of the White House-Congressional complexes. He puts people first. Possessed of a deep sense of history relating to the great economic struggles in American history between workers and large companies and industries, Moyers today is a leading spokesman on the need to deconcentrate the manifold concentrations of political and economic power by global corporations. He is especially keen on doing something about media concentration about which he knows from recurrent personal experience as a television commentator, investigator, anchor and newspaper editor.

A Draft Bill Moyers for President campaign began in 2005, but it didn't get very far. His lawyers sent out a cease and desist notice to the gentleman who proposed it. Then last summer, political commentators Molly Ivins (the late and lamented) and John Nichols both wrote columns about "wouldn't it be a good idea if Bill Moyers were our president." A web site was set up and online petitions were circulated, but the internet campaign didn't get very far, despite Nader's late seconding of the earlier motion.

I thought about this after reading the most recent transcribed lecture from Moyers to circulate on the internet, "A Time for Anger, A Call to Action," which appeared on Common Dreams yesterday. In it, he writes: "Our political system is melting down, right here where you live," and he describes a concentrated, coordinated assault on the democratic notion of equality conducted by corporate and theocratic interests. "Beginning a quarter of a century ago a movement of corporate, political and religious fundamentalists gained ascendancy over politics and made inequality their goal. They launched a crusade to dismantle the political institutions, the legal and statutory canons, and the intellectual and cultural frameworks that have held private power. And they had the money to back of their ambition," Moyers explains in the talk give last month at Occidental College in Los Angeles.

Financial inequality -- an increasing division of society by economic class -- and voter apathy have handed over our democracy to conservative corporate thugs. This is "the direct consequence of corporate activism, intellectual propaganda, the rise of a religious literalism opposed to any civil and human right that threatens its paternalism, and a string of political decisions favoring the interests of wealthy elites who bought the political system right out from under us," Moyers writes.

Not only have THEY stolen our country and our government, but "they hijacked Jesus" as well. Moyers, who places a high value on religious faith, cites the Jesus who loved his enemies and turned the other cheek, and argues that "this Jesus was hijacked and turned from a friend of the dispossed into a guardian of privilege, the ally of oil barons, banking tycoons, media moguls and weapon builders."

But the Jesus Moyers knows, the man who overturned the tables of the moneychangers in the temple because they had turned a house of prayer into a den of thieves, this Jesus grows angry and he takes action. This Jesus speaks Spanish and walks with the undocumented immigrants when they take to the streets to protest their exclusion. This Jesus is disgusted by the reign of the Pharisees in Washington and their holy war against the poor in this country and overseas. This Jesus, the one known by Martin Luther King, sees a new day dawning in the United States, the periodic revolution that Thomas Jefferson said citizens need to renew their spirit.

Moyers calls on the students at Occidental to take part in the revolution of the 21st century which will bring about a democracy that leaves no one out. "The only answer to organized money," he says, "is organized people."

This man is a prophet, and wouldn't it be nice to have one as the president of the United States?

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Citizen Ralph

Chris Hedges wrote recently: Ralph Nader "understands that American democracy has become a consumer fraud and that if we do not do battle with the corporations that, in the name of globalization, are cannibalizing the country for profit, our democratic state is doomed." (Hedges is the author of the wonderfully insightful book, War is a Force that Gives Life Meaning, and in this essential article he makes a strong case that Nader is a prophet rather than a pariah)

I agree with him.

Last night I saw the new documentary film about Nader, "An Unreasonable Man," and despite the shrill criticism in it of lefties who continue to blame Nader for Gore's defeat in the 2000 election, I came away convinced that Nader is right. The American political system is broken, and voting for the lesser of two evil candidates -- what Nader calls "the folly of the least worst" -- will not fix it.

"An Unreasonable Man" comes on the heels of "An Inconvenient Truth" in which a hypocritical Al Gore, who wastes jet fuel in his travels and electric power in his Tennessee mansion, trumpets a concern for the environment that was nowhere in evidence during his eight years in the White House with Bill Clinton, a corporate mouthpiece no less than his Republican kin. Who can fail to see now that the enfeebled Democratic Party is Tweedledum to the Republican Party's Tweedledee? Nader supporters have argued consistently for twenty years that there is not a dime's worth of difference between them, .

However, the documentary featuring Gore won an Academy Award, while the theater last night was mostly empty for the Nader film. After Bush was selected by the Supreme Court over Gore in 2000, Nader's supporters left him in droves. He was called a "spoiler" and prominent Nader voters like Michael Moore and Bill Maher got down on their knees on TV and begged him not to run again. Nader, in response, claims in his film that "Al Gore cost me the election." He says he is considering another run at the presidency in 2008, particularly if Hilary gets the Democratic nod.

Few would dispute Nader's dignosis of the American political system. As a lawyer and consumer advocate, his work was largely responsible for legislation in the 1960s and 1970s that gave us the Clean Air Act, the Mine and Health Safety Act and the Freedom of Information Act. He argued that automobiles were unsafe by design, and his revelations led to development of seat belts and air bags which have saved hundreds of thousands of lives. By attacking corporate crimes and misdemeanors, Nader was himself attacked, and a failed attempt by GM to dig up dirt on his private life resulted in a $425,000 fine which was used to fund citizen action groups, most notably Public Citizen. According to Hedges, Lewis Powell, who was general counsel to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce before becoming a Supreme Court justice, wrote a memo in 1971 which said:
The single most effective antagonist of American business is Ralph Nader, a legend in his own time and an idol to millions of Americans...There should be no hesitation to attack [Nader and others].
For his relentless criticism of U.S. and global corporate business practices, and for his campaigns to make America live up to her ideals, Nader should be cannonized. But what about his so far unsuccessful attempts to form a third party?

There is ample evidence in the film and from published research, that a poorly run campaign by the Democrats and a wishy-washy candidate lost the election to Bush in 2000, as well as in 2004. Gore and Kerry did not offer a clear alternative to the Republicans. If the Democrats really represented the people and had put forth a leader willing to speak truth to power (someone like Ralph Nader perhaps), then Bush and his conservative minions would have been a push-over. Maybe. There is still the problem of election campaign funding (The Republicans as the party of business have an edge there) and the hoardes of right-wing Christians willing to turn America into a theocratic state, on the order of Israel or Iran. It will be an uphill battle.

I voted for Nader, the Green Party candidate, in 2000, so this isn't the confession of a convert. But I have always been willing to listen to the pragmatic argument, the lesser of two evils line, that if we don't vote for the Democrat, whomever he or she may be, then the Republicans will stay in power forever. But I'm not marching there any more. This country is going down the tubes fast, and our highly touted political process is sick, perhaps terminal. I'm not even sure if voting has a point any more. But I'm damned sure I am not going to vote for Hilary.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Caught Between Two Worlds

While I ponder the recent disappearance and subsequent recovery of the new photo of me over on the right hand of this blog page, I also reflect on the experience of being caught between two worlds: the real and concrete one here in Santa Cruz in which I have lived for most of the last 30 years, and the world I left behind in Thailand last month which is fast taking on the dimensions of a fantasy.

Tied up in this dilemma, I have neglected my bloggerly duties here in this internet space I reserved almost a year ago. The universe spins on its axis, Bush continues to predict victory in Iraq, dismissed U.S. attorneys cause a scandal in Washington, Phil Spector goes on trial for murder, thousands march in various streets to protest the war, Brittany copes with rehab, The Rev. Al Sharpton finds out he is related to racist Strom Thurmond, Hilary and Obama wrestle on celebrity challenge, Thim sends me a letter from her rice farm in Udon province, and I sit slumped in in a stupor.

Well, not completely. Before my Sunday afternoon nap, I did my duty as commentator at Holy Cross's 8:30 mass, and then rushed down to the 418 where Molly was the DJ for Dance Church. About fifty dancers of all sexes, ages and agilities moved to the music she played, offering up worship to the spinning universe in a variety of ways. A young boy in a wheel chair was twirled around by his mother and her friends. Another man in a wheel chair, with neither legs nor sights, was touched and jostled by a number of smiling dancers. Beautiful, sweaty, and often braless women recalled the temple dancers of old. Children crawled underfoot, and I felt the spirit. Molly ended the morning with the Beatles telling us that all we needed was love, and for a moment I believed it. The dancers, exhausted from their energetic prayer service, sat in a circle and communed. It gave me hope.

Last Thursday Molly, her friend Rachel and I went to hear Patty Griffin at the Catalyst. A tiny red-headed thing, almost anorexic, Patty's deep and resonant voice filled the former bowling alley. Backed by two guitarists, a drummer, and a woman who played both standup bass and cello, I stood in the crowd with a succession of beers and felt myself transfigured by their sound. Patty, accompanying herself on both guitar and piano, can sing the blues, rock with the best, and write in a folky and sometimes country style about New England ice storms and trapeze artists who commit suicide. Her only hopeful love song was written for her dog. She's over 40, a native of Maine who has seen a bit of life, and her listeners came in all classes and sizes. The packed house loved her every note, and so did I. Four of her CDs grace my iPod.

On Friday evening, the community of believers, who hope that organized religion might withstand the Christian conservative onslaught of the last few years, gathered in the old wooden chapel of Calvaray Episcopal Church to mark and mourn the past four years of war in Iraq. We were surprised to find we could fill the place. Ministers, pastors, youth leaders and singers from a variety of Christian denominations read from scripture, sang from Psalms, recited the names of Iraqi and hometown dead, and prayed for peace. We marched behind a veiled Lenten cross, holding candles, to the statue by the town clock that memorializes innocents killed in war, and laid a wreath in tribute to the so-called "collateral damage" resulting from legalized violence. For a too-brief period, I again felt hope.

On Saturday morning, a dozen of us Camaldolese oblates gathered in the basement of St. Joseph's Church in Captola for a our semi-annual retreat to hear Fr. Daniel from New Camaldoli Hermitage in Big Sur speak about the "New Nomadism" (which he pronounced "nomadacism"). The search for security and stability often turns up only a mirage. We are a pilgrim people, on the move ever since Abram left Ur, and the only stability we can achieve is dynamic. As nomads ever in search of God, the touchstone of our faith is hospitality: how do we welcome and heal the other? There was an interesting discussion about "freedom," a word much used and abused by our politicians. Dan made a distinction between "freedom to," which often results in licentiousness, liberty run amuk, and "freedom for," which can lead to compassion. Such gatherings of seekers also give me hope.

Saturday evening, with my Cuban friend Ofelia, I went to see "Starter for 10," a light bit of fluff from England that Helen in London would call a "romcon" and we might label a "chick flick." It featured James McAvoy, the naive young doctor in "The Last King of Scotland," who comes of age at the University of Bristol in England when forced to choose between an uncaring buxom beauty and a Jewish campus radical, while also dealing with old friends back home who think he has turned his back on them. It's an old story but it was told in a delightful way by director Tom Vaughan from a memoir by David Nicholls. Afterwards we ate at Sitar, the new India fastfood restaurant at the end of my block. How convenient to be able to live on the same street with a movie theater and a restaurant (not to mention a gym, Toadal Fitness, that I have so far avoided)!

Last night I joined my adopted family to celebrate Lyle's 33rd birthday. I remember when Lyle was born. I went to his wedding when he and Daria echanged vows on the law of their house nextdoor to Lyle's parents, my dear departed friend Peter, who died three years ago on St. Patrick's Day, and Diana, who commutes weekly from her home in northern California to the Boardwalk to she earns a living as a facepainter. The party was held right here, where I live with Diana's mother, Shirlee, and her step-father David, my landlords. Lyle's kids Wyatt and Gwen watched their father blow out the candles on his cake and unwrap the expresso maker which he'd been given. It was a lovely scene, and I appreciate so much being included. Another sign of hope. The younger generation is going to do alright, if the world survives.

What about that other world, the one I left behind a month ago? Thim's letter came yesterday and my new friend Pim in Bangkok translated it for me, long distance. She wrote that she loves me and wants me to come back quickly and marry her. If not, she wants us to be together in the next life. But this is a dream, she writes, and telling it makes her cry. She remains in Udon, where both her parents are sick, tending to the rice farm. As I mentioned in my blog posting the other day, there is a cultural gap between the two worlds that is almost unbridgeable.

Almost, but not quite. In the last week I have discovered a web site where hundreds of Thai ladies -- widowed, divorced and single, with children and without -- are looking for farangs who will marry them and support their families, parents as well as siblings and children. Most of them are young and beautiful, and a 30-year age gap does not seem to be a liability. In my online conversations with a number of these ladies, I have learned much about Thai cultural values surrounding the romance of the sexes. Because their day is our night (14 hours later) and vice versa, I am finding my sense of time somewhat disoriented.

In addition to all my new friends, I have obtained a useful book, Thailand Fever, by a Thai woman, Vitida Vasant, and an American man, Chris Pirazzi. Each has crossed the cultural divide to marry someone from the other side. The book is written in both Thai and English and endeavors to explain American values to Thai women, and Thai values to farang men. Pim told me she had read it three times. Without going into detail, which might interest no one but me, I think that Thai cultural values dealing with sex and marriage are remarkably similar to those of the 1950s in America. Good girls don't do it until after marriage. Women yearn to care for their Man (the "total woman" ideal), who will in exchange take care of them forever. And there is a strong separation between good girls and bad, virgins and whores, despite the prevalence of prostitution in Thailand.

Still, there is little information about what happens when bar girls fall in love and when their clients become boyfriends. For both good girls and bad, however, family remains the central pole around which all turns. Men who marry Thai women marry their families, for better or worse, and financial support of everyone is expected and assumed.

The thought of two sick rice farmers in Udon who need my help is unsettling.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Remembering Four Years of War in Iraq

This appeared today in the Santa Cruz Sentinel:

Christian candlelight vigil to mark war anniversary

By Todd Guild, Sentinel Correspondent

When self-styled "peace worker" Annie Kelley attended an anti-war rally in Washington, D.C., two years ago, she walked into a religious revival and discovered an ally that surprised her -- the Christian community.

Kelley, a member of the Santa Cruz chapter of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, listened to impassioned speeches by Christian leaders speaking in opposition to the Iraq war and was inspired.

"I was excited about the possibility of both religious and spiritual organizations and communities bringing their voices together to speak out against what our government is doing in Iraq," she said.

Since then, Kelley has become entrenched in the interfaith peace movement, and on Friday will help organize a Christian candlelight vigil at Calvary Episcopal Church. The day will also mark the four-year anniversary of the Iraq war.

The Santa Cruz vigil coincides with more than 190 others across the nation, from San Francisco to Little Rock to New York City.

The main event is in Washington, DC, where more than 3,000 people are expected to advocate for peace. Participants there will attend a service at the Washington National Cathedral, then walk by candlelight to the White House, where they will remain until midnight.

"We believe that it's time for Christians who believe in peace to stand up and be counted," said William Yaryan, a parishioner at Holy Cross Church who will attend the Santa Cruz vigil. "I believe that Jesus was for peace. The Gospel message was one of peace, not of war"

Nationwide, the vigils were spearheaded by Christian Peace Witness, a coalition of religious groups from across the country. They're designed as an all-Christian event to dispel the belief that the majority of Christians favor the war, according to Katie Barge, spokeswoman for the group Faith in Public Life, which works with Christian Peace Witness.

"We felt it was important as a Christian community to make a strong statement that we object to this war," she said. "Where faith has been used as a justification for going to war, we're trying to use it to justify a call to peace"

Friday's event will be attended by members of churches across the county, including United Methodist, St. Stephen's Lutheran, Garfield Park Christian, St John the Baptist and the University Christian Campus Ministry at UC Santa Cruz. Up to 180 people are expected to attend.

"This vigil wouldn't have happened without Annie," said the Rev. Joel Miller of Calvary Episcopal Church. "It was her idea to have a local expression of a national effort"

While the event was organized primarily as a Christian one, Kelley is quick to point out that the doors are open to all members of the community.

"One of the most exciting things for me is that I've met a lot of people from the spiritual and religious community who didn't know each other before," said Kelley. "They all have a desire to speak out against our leaders. They're all on the same page in their communities, but they don't know each other. It's exciting to help those introductions happen"

The vigil will be 7 p.m. at Calvary Episcopal Church, 532 Center St. It concludes with a walk up Pacific Avenue, ending at the Town Clock.

Copyright (c) Santa Cruz Sentinel. All rights reserved.

Friday, March 09, 2007

Kor Toht -- ขอโทษ

I should have known better.

After all, my friend Jerry married a woman who worked in a bar in Bangkok, and he has warned me about all the pitfalls of falling in love with a Thai prostitute.

It's such a tired old cliché: fat aging farang falls for tiny, dark, black-haired beauty. She provides not only sex, but love, all the trappings of a romantic relationship -- for a price. He is smitten, infatuated, reliving his teenage
affairs; she is taking a calculated risk. In exchange for being his girlfriend and lover, she is gambling that he will take care of her, and her extended family. He wants romance and she wants financial security, to leave the bar scene, start a business and support her aging parents.

The Thai countryside, particularly in the northeast territory called Issan, is littered with Thai-farang couples who met in the bars of Bangkok and Pattya and fell into a relationship, romantic on his part and economic on hers. He is from Australia, Norway, Germany, even the U.S., and he sends her money to keep her from returning to work in the bars, and sometimes he even builds a house for her family and spends part of the year in Thailand with them. Some men bring their brides back to the home country, with all the attendant problems that cultural adjustment brings for the women. Some of the marriages even work out. But the internet forums are full of horror stories about how Thai women only want your money, and how their families bleed you dry.

The reality of it is much more complicated.

When I went to Koh Samui in January, I was not unfamiliar with the bar scene in Bangkok. During my previous visits, Jerry had taken me to sample the charms of Nana, Soi Cowboy and Patpong, and I visited bars in Chiang Mai on my own. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of open-air bars in Lamai Beach, each with a bevy of lovely bartenders waiting to service you. The first night in Koh Samui I sat on a stool at one such establishment and got involved in a long conversation with a leftwing coal miner from Australia. After about a half dozen Heinekens, I could barely see the muay Thai ring in the middle of the circle of bars, where lady boxers were battering each other with their hands and feet. I staggered home to my hotel room and awoke with a hangover.

The next night I was more careful, and ordered my second beer at Coco Bar around the corner from my hotel. All the girls had on red tee shirts with the bar's logo, and they were very friendly. The TV was tuned to a Thai soap opera and rock and roll was blaring from large speakers. I noticed a girl on the end of the bar who was quiet and almost mousey. I thought she was rather homely compared to the others with their makeup, short shorts and high heels. I noticed that several of the girls urged her to go over and talk with me. I bought her a drink, a soda, and we played a bar game that resembled an upright tic-tac-toe. I found her to be shy, sweet and charming.

Her name, she told me, was Thim. She was 35, unmarried and with no children, and her parents were poor rice farmers in Udon near the Laotian border. She told me that she had arrived the day before with her younger sister, who worked in a market in Bangkok. Nancy, another girl who worked at Coco Bar, was from Thim's village and she had offered her a job. Since neither of us knew more than a few words in the other's language, all of this information is questionable.

We went back to my hotel room together and she spent the night. The next morning after breakfast on the hotel terrace overlooking the sea, I asked her to stay with me. There were financial details to arrange, how much I would pay the bar for her absence, how much I would pay for her presence. Once the transaction was settled, thus began one of the most delightful times of my life. We held hands in the streets, shared the back of a motorcycle taxi on sightseeing trips around the island, and we bought each other gifts, gold jewelry for her, pants and shirts for me (on display in this photo). She brought strange and exotic foods to our hotel room and fed me while we were seated on the floor. I took her on her first plane ride and we went to the movies in Bangkok where she sat cross-legged in her seat, enthralled for two hours without moving. From the second day she professed her love for this fat old farang and eventually I did likewise. It seemed so easy, if not inexpensive. She also constantly worried about my leaving, and asked frequently about when I would return.

Fast forward to our parting 19 days later at the modern new Suvarnabhumi Airport. I went inside to catch my plane to London and Thim left in our taxi to visit her sister. There was a hole where my heart had been. I mourned her absence all the way home to San Francisco.

A friend asked if I was in love. "I am in delight," I answered. I knew that falling in love with a prostitute was an old and well-established faux pas. "They lie," I was told, "tell you what you want to hear." While I have come to see that paying for sex is acceptable in Thai culture (if not in the West), it was difficult for me to accept that a romantic relationship could also be purchased. Did Thim love me because I had a jai dii (good heart), or was she just with me for the money? I was looking at it from my point of view, not hers.

Isaan, the flat agricultural land of northeast Thailand, is the poorest region of the country. Jobs off the farm are rare and pay little. Most of the lowest-paid construction workers and the girls that populate the bars are from Isaan. And becaue family is the ultimate value in Thailand, they send much of their money they earn back home. Jerry told me that a shortening of the bar hours in Bangkok, proposed by successive morally concerned governments, would be a disaster in Isaan. Prostitution is an essential part of Thailand's economy.

Upon my return home, I printed up an album full of photos of Thim and I on Koh Samui and in Bangkok. I talked with her on the telephone several times, but the few stock English phrases she knew (one of them was "you are such a flirt") and the several sentences in Thai that I had learned did not make for an informative conversation. She had gone home to Udon to help her parents with the rice harvest. I told her that I was planning to return to Thailand in August. We exchanged vows and hung up. It cost me $20 to talk for seven minutes.

My fantasy was that I would move to Bangkok, rent an apartment, find a job teaching English, and that Thim would come to stay. The romantic idyll would continue on her turf. I expected her to get a job. She said she would find work with her sister in the market or in a restaurant. I didn't imagine that I would continue to pay her for services rendered, nor did I think about getting married (my two ventures into that realm were both flops). My vision was distinctly western, one where two independent people would freely choose to spend time together. It was a liberal, free-market view. And it clashed with Thai culture.

The internet enlightened me. I've discovered several forums where Thais and Western expatriates exchange information for interested readers. And I've found a web site where Thai women by the hundreds look for farang husbands. It is possible to chat with a variety of ladies of all ages about their expectations and their cultural standards. Most, I think, are not and have never been bar girls. Some have advanced degrees and work as nurses, teachers and engineers. Marriage for them comes definitely before sex, and it is an exchange: you care for (i.e. financially support) me and I care for you. What's more, marrying a Thai girl means marrying her entire extended family. Children are obligated to take care of their parents, and that includes the children's farang husbands. Jerry's extended family includes his wife's mother, two children, and numerous sisters and a brother and their offspring. He built them a house in Surin, and is paying for his step-children's education which includes motorcycles to get to school. In exchange, he says, the family will care for him when he gets too old to work.

From the Thai girls looking for husbands, I learned that many Thai men drink too much and that farangs, although some lied and played games, were mostly kind and generous. Best of all were older farangs, and it was not unusual for 30-year-old women to actively solicit marriage from 60-year-old men. In addition to youth and beauty, they were prepared to offer the Total Woman ideal (all the housewifely chores done with a smile) in exchange for total care and support. The language they use in their profiles is romantic and idealistic, straight out of a romance novel or a chick flick film.

I found two women on the web site who were willing to call Thim and act as translators for our communication. The first worked in an internet store and I asked her to help Thim navigate the computer and use the Yahoo email address I had set up for her. She wrote back to me that Thim told her she expected money from me for her to attend computer school. Another woman had a long conversation with Thim and learned that her parents were both crippled and required help with the farm. Thim told her she wanted me to send 2000 baht (about $80) a month to her. She was waiting for me to return and she was not looking for another job. And she also expected me to marry her as soon as I got there, because that's where love went, didn't it? Love, money and marriage.

I'm sorry, Thim. Kor toht (ขอโทษ). I didn't understand. It was not my intention to hurt you. But I am not going to send you money, and although I may continue with my plan to visit Thailand again in August, I am not thinking of marrying you. My fantasy of paradise is not the same as yours, and does not fulfill your very real needs. I wondered why you seemed uncomfortable when we visited one of the supermalls in Bangkok and walked through aisle after aisle stuffed with expensive consumer goods. Your reality back in Udon, where there is so much poverty that you are forced to sell your body to provide for your parents, is quite different.

If I can ever learn to find the words in Thai, I hope you can forgive me.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Beauty from the Sea

Over last weekend, I joined my old friends (but young at heart) Jim and Gerry in Monterey for our yearly reunion. The main goal of our trip was a visit to the Monterey Bay Aquarium. The last time I went I was with parents on a field trip when Molly was 13 (she's about to turn 30), and it was just as long for Jim. Gerry had never been there. I took lots of photos, most of them unusable, and one video. Here it is: My first experiment at uploading to YouTube. (And my offering joins about a dozen other videos there of jellyfish at various aquariums, a popular subject.)

The weather was beautiful, clear skies and temperatures up into the 70s. We fattened up on fish and steaks at various eateries and went to see a couple of movies: "Black Snake Moan" and "Wild Hogs" (the former because we wanted to oogle a half-naked Christina Ricci, and the latter because Gerry has owned several Harleys). I was the only one who liked BSN and mostly because of the good blues soundtrack. Even Samuel Jackson picked a guitar and sang, not half bad. Christina, whom I remember as a chubby youngster in films, is anorexic thin with dark eyes befitting her character who has found no drug she wouldn't ingest and no male she wouldn't ball. The less said about Hogs the better. John Travolta continues his downward slide in films. The premise -- four aging yuppies who take a road trip on their motorcycles -- has promise, but the plotting and writing was schlock. Hard to believe it was the top box office grosser last weekend. William Macy, however, was great as the wimp who discovers his inner biker.

Hanging out with a couple of old codgers like myself gave me another opportunity to marvel over the ravages of age. Bulging midriffs, half-assed attempts to diet, an unholy curiosity about the opposite sex (now that 99% of the women are younger than we are), rigid and dogmatic political views, disturbed sleeping patterns, and big cars. What were we thinking when we came out into the world!

The weather continues mild and warm here in Santa Cruz. I learned today that Daylight Savings Time (spring forward!) is coming this Sunday. It seems earlier every year, just like the Academy Awards. Part of my brain, though, is still on Thai time (18 hours ahead of California).

This weekend is the anniversary of the start of the fiasco in Iraq (how many years ago?). Many of my friends are trying to put together a prayer service or a vigil to commemorate the event. But of course we've been at war with Iraq since the first Gulf battle under Bush Senior. It just got hotter under Bush Junior. We've been slaughtering the Iraqis, just like the Vietnamese before them, for an ungodly number of years. What date do we pick?

I have little enthusiasm for empty gestures. I think the next elections will solve little, although we may exchange an idiot for someone with a little smarts, and a better ideology. But no candidate has expressed my feelings that America made a major wrong turn with the Bay of Pigs and the Tonkin Gulf lie, and is on a doomed course. Don't even talk to me about economics. We're in hock to the world, and the only reason they don't call in our debts is because we're the buyer of last resort, the only country who will buy all the crap from China and elsewhere.

So I continue to explore options for moving elsewhere. And from time to time I find a little beauty in the natural world, like the jellyfish tank at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

"All our theology is shit!"

My friend Ted is not one to mince words. I wrote this quote down because it had me in hysterics, but now, a day later, I can't remember at what in particular his irritation was directed. We both belong to a men's group composed of old left-wing farts, mostly discontented Catholics, and we meet twice a month in different homes to ponder the weekly mass readings and how they apply to the world, and we puzzle over the sorry state of the Church and its misguided hierarchy. This is not to say that we are total heretics. Most of us go to mass regularly and value the ritual and the sacraments, but we often differ from the faithful in our interpretation of scripture.

I was telling Ted about film director James Cameron's upcoming documentary for the Discovery Channel that claims to give evidence that a crypt discovered over twenty years ago in Jerusalem once contained the bones of Jesus of Nazareth. I was less interested in the documentary (without cable, I won't see it until it's released on DVD) than I was in the hysterical reaction to it by Christians insulted that Cameron, director of "Titanic" and "The Terminator," was trying to disprove the resurrection. It was "The Da Vinci Code" furor all over again, only this time Cameron, who made a documentary about the finding of the remains of the Titanic deep at sea, is claiming that his discovery is truth, not fiction.

I don't understand why some think the Gospel message of Jesus stands or falls on the truth of his resurrection from the dead (St. Paul clearly thought so). And this is where Ted and I got into the insufficiency of Christian theology. I told him that a member of our Sangha, a group studying the writings of Bede Griffiths on Hindu-Christian dialogue, was upset because Timothy Freke was invited to speak at a conference on Griffiths last summer in England. He called Freke a "self-styled, pagan-gnostic author," and said "he argues that Jesus never existed as a historical person but was rather a fictional construction from various pagan myths." But why, I wanted to know, is it necessary that Jesus was a historical person? Do all Buddhists believe that Buddha must have existed, and Muslims that Mohammed was a a real person? How about Hindus, the followers of the blue-skinned Krishna. Was he for real Arjuna's charioteer. I see the life and teachings of Jesus as a parable, and parables are powerful for what they say, and not because they are historically true.

Such questions get me into trouble. So I looked up Timothy Freke on the internet to see if he was a kindred soul. He has a web site and a Wikipedia entry, so it's easy to check out his views. My sense, from a quick scan, is that Freke is an enterprising New Age entrepreneur who is plowing the same contrarian field that Dan Brown and dozens of others have plowed. I had to laugh at his catch phrase for awakening: "lucid living." If his books help anyone to wake up to the timeless truth of non-duality, and to a desire for social justice based on the intuition of interconnectedness, more power to him. But I suspect his more immediate goal is to make a buck off of disenchanted people who know they're sick but can't find a physician.

Bede Griffiths was aware that a concern for historical truth, for facts that can be supported by science and reason, is a diversion. "The sacrifice of Christ is the central event of human history; it is the event which alone gives meaning to life," he wrote. But this truth is a mystery. The "dogmas of the church, of the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Eucharist, do not define the mystery properly speaking. They only express in human terms what he [God] has chosen to reveal concerning himself," according to Griffiths. "For the divine mystery can only be approached by faith." (Quotes from The One Light: Bede Griffiths Principal Writings, edited by Bruno Barnhart) Because the core of spirituality is a divine mystery, I think an obsession with historical reality, with what really happened, is a mistake. It's not important that Jesus really existed, or that he really rose from the dead. So I don't feel threatened by Brown's fiction or Cameron's possible discovery that the bones of Jesus once resided in a tomb in Jerusalem.

Christians are now observing Lent, the period between Ash Wednesday and Easter that commemorates the 40 days Jesus spend in wilderness where he was tempted by the devil. It is a time of fasting and repentence, of reflection and renewal. Our priest last Sunday spoke of his addiction to chocolate and his struggle to resist its charms. I thought this a trivialization of temptation and hoped that he would find something deeper for his homily, like addiction to power that tempts politicians and the yearning for world domination that attracts our leaders. At the end of his sermon he told of presiding over a funeral the day before for a 17-year-old girl who had committed suicide. "She had been unable to resist the temptation," he said, and his insensitivity shocked me. Is death addictive, like chocolate or power? At one time the church refused to bury suicides in the same cemetaries along with the virtuous others. Are we returning to that time?

In a recent column for the online site Common, Joyce Marcel wrote perceptively of the link between death and culture: "Anna Nicole Smith died for your sins, America." The writer's indictment includes that "cruel show," "American Idol," with its over 30 million weekly viewers, the universal desire to be famous, plastic surgery as a way to stay young and beautiful, "nitwit comedians who make jokes about women's 'racks,'" the rising popularity of "entertainment" publications that thrive on celebrity "news," and even gold-diggers looking to marry money, incoluding "all of you who married Donald Trump." Marcel sees Anna Nicole Smith's life as "almost a symbol of what America's become. Rapacious, willful, undisciplined, ignorant, venal, anything for pleasure, anything for conquest. Tell me that's not America incarnate."

While I was traveling in Europe and Asia and speaking with people from many different countries, I thought about America and wondered what went wrong in our culture. Has our technological progress and economic success blinded us to the plight of the poor and the destruction of the environment? Of course the wealthy are the same everywhere, unable to see past their privileges. But why in America, where all are created equal, is there so much inequality today? And why, when they finally earn a little leisure, are so many attracted to the "bread and circuses" of celebrity news, obsessed about the death and life of Anna Nicole Smith and Brittany Spears, as well as the winners and losers of "American Idol"?

I met few Americans on my travels and wondered where they were. I heard stories of Americans who sewed Canadian flags on their backpacks, fearful of people learning where they were from. I suspect that after 9/11, many Americans decided to stay home rather than see the world. Statistics are hard to come by, but it looks as if fewer Americans have passports than citizens from other countries (18-30% compared with 40% for Canadians, for example), and probably even fewer of these passport holders use them. This will change, now that visitors to Canada and Mexico are required to carry a passport. And I've learned that all soldiers sent to Iraq must have a passport (many of whom might not otherwise travel overseas). American is isolated in North America with only two borders to the north and south, and most Americans never cross them. Only Australia is similarly isolated, but I met lots of Aussies in Thailand. Another reason might be that Americas have less vacation time than travelers from other first world countries. Whatever the reason, Americans tend to be insular and isolationist. Even if they embrace the big picture, they have less experience with The Other.

So what's the answer? Turn off your TV, cross borders, and encounter the divine mystery in others.