Saturday, April 26, 2008

Why Meditate?

With a picture of his spiritual mentor, John Main, behind him, Fr. Laurence Freeman, OSB, director of the World Community for Christian Meditation, came to Bangkok this week to speak to the small WCCM group here about meditation. Inspired by Main, a Irish Benedictine monk and priest who recovered a tradition of contemplative prayer developed in the 4th century by Desert father John Cassian, the WCCM was founded in 1991 after Main's death at the urging of Fr. Bede Griffiths. Fr. Laurence left banking in England to follow Main to Montreal where he was ordained a priest. He now travels tirelessly around the world, shepherding more than 1,500 WCCM groups in over 110 countries. The Bangkok group was formed twenty years ago, according to one of its founders, Emilie Ketudat. I saw Fr. Laurence last in 2006 at the Griffiths Centennary conference at the Camaldolese Hermitage in Big Sur, but I also heard him speak years ago on a program in San Francisco with Fr. Basil Pennington, one of the founders of Centering Prayer, the other Christian meditation organization (think Chevy and Ford).

Fr. Laurence, who has published many books (including a dialogue on Christianity with the Dalai Lama called The Good Heart: a Buddhist Perspective on the Teachings of Jesus), is an articulate spokesman for the value of meditation in a Christian context. But as a resigned Catholic, and a Christian now only in the metaphorical sense, I was looking for ecumenical wisdom. The topic of the all-day meeting was "Deepening Our Practice," which seemed to apply across the board, for a Buddhist as well as a Christian. Indeed, at the end of the day Pandit Bhikku said, "99% of what he said could have come from a Dhamma talk. It was only when we got to the Mass, that I was left scratching my head." The deeper question for me is: Why meditate? Even some Thai Buddhist claim it is not really necessary (the folks who focus on the metaphysical Abhidhamma texts). While sitting still may sound easy, anyone who tries it soon realizes that confronting the hell of your own thoughts can be a horrifying experience.

"At the heart of every religion is the experience of mystery, the contemplative spiritual core," Fr. Laurence told the group, which included Catholics, Lutherans and Buddhists. In "The Way of Peace," a WCCM initiative, Freeman and the Dalai Lama have met with others in "inter-religious intimacy and friendship" at Bodhgaya in India, a Benedictine monastery in Italy and in Belfast to discuss common ground. For the contemplative monk, God is the name of "a mystery to enter into, a relationship." While Buddhists may characterize this mystery beyond the chattering mind as emptiness, sunyata, Christians see it as a fullness, the space between words filled with the presence of the Holy Spirit. "We can know ourselves deeper than thought," Fr. Laurence said, and he presented a two-step method of meditation: 1. Letting go, take the attention off your thoughts, and, 2. Choose where to place your attention, on a word or mantra (he suggested the Aramaic word "marantha" which means "come Lord").

The Christian church had long forgotten its contemplative core, Freeman said, and employed the metaphor of a pair of reading glasses with one lens missing, an disorienting experience that actually happened to him. "There are two ways in church tradition of approaching the experience of God, the cataphatic and the apophatic." The first is the way of words, dogmatic and theological pronouncements, and the second, which had been marginalized for many years, is the way of silence. He told the story of St. Thomas Aquinas who spent many years writing his Summa Theologica before encountering the mystery and realizing that "everything I have written is straw." And St. Augustine, who said, "if you can understand it, it isn't God." For the German mystic Meister Eckhart, God, could only be found in silence. But Freeman believes you need both lenses to see, both approaches "to integrate the spiritual journey with life."

So there is a mystery ("the Kingdom of God is the experience of the mystery of God's presence") beyond the war of words and it can be encountered in a meditative practice (aka contemplative or "pure prayer), and this silencing is an activity common to all religious paths and spiritual traditions. In some, however, it has become a way to deny and escape the world. This other-worldly theology has become anathema to me. Fr. Laurence called on early theologian Origen to explain the worldly purpose, saying that meditation or prayer "calms the mind, reduces sin, and promotes good deeds." Freeman called Bangkok "a very agitated city," and said that meditation would promote a calmness leading to clarity and right judgment. Sin, he explained, is "what we do when we are not calm; the ego becomes enflamed." The afternoon session was devoted to showing how meditation, although a counter-cultural act, creates community in the face of hyper-individualism. In Sarajevo and in East Timor, WCCM groups are helping to ease tensions by teaching meditation. Children and convicts have benefited from the technique. "Wounded hearts carry seeds of more violence," Fr. Laurence said. Dialogue rooted in the practice of meditation can promote good deeds by contributing towards healing in the world.

It sometimes sounds too good to be true. Patricia Aburdene, who wrote Megatrends in 1982 with John Naisbitt, now believes in Megatrends 2010 that the solution to capitalism's problems is meditation (it will spiritualize the CEOs). I have my doubts. Introduced to meditation by Eido Shimano Roshi at the New York Zen Center in 1982, I purchased a zafu from the Integral Yoga store and studied Ram Dass's little book on meditation. For my first sittings, I used a three-minute egg timer, and sitting cross-legged on the pillow I tried to count to ten silently on the out breath. I couldn't do it without becoming distracted and forgetting what number I was on. It took me a few years to count to ten successfully. My meditation practice has had its ups and downs. When my marriage broke up, I joined Everyday Dharma in Santa Cruz and participated earnestly, sitting every morning on my own, with the group once a week, and on frequent retreats in the zendo and at Spirit Rock in Marin County. Meditation was also part of the ritual at our Sangha Shantivanam gatherings, this time with a Christian tinge. But that routine was broken by my move to Bangkok. Now I am trying to resume my practice, but my knees are stiffer and I left my cushion and bench back in California. In addition, my motivation has weakened.

So once again I wonder: what's it all about. What does Christian meditation have in common with its Buddhist (not to mention Hindu and Sufi) counterpart? "The real work of meditation," according to a WCCM brochure, "is to attain harmony of body, mind and spirit." The Creator, through the words of the psalmist advised: "Be still and know that I am God," and St. Paul wrote that "we do not know how to pray, but the spirit prays within us." Cassian, who influenced St. Benedict, the founder of western monasticism, believed that simple and constant repetition of a word or phrase was the best way of casting out distractions and trivial chatter from the mind, in order that it might rest in stillness in God. Thomas Merton, in his many writings which helped to resurrect this tradition of contemplative prayer, said that everything, even holy thoughts, would burn up in the fires of contemplation.

I sat yesterday in my room on the rectangle cushion I bought at Big C in Siam Square. Its fairly easy to sit now without moving and to watch my leg fall asleep. I repeated the mantra "marantha," not rhythmically but gently insistent. Within minutes my mind had wandered off to plan mundane chores as well as great deeds. Oops! Back to the mantra. Soon I was remembering a not-so-happy event dozens of years ago and feeling little nibbles of anger and resentment. Oops again! Back to the mantra. After about twenty minutes I found the urge to open my eyes overwhelming, and decided that was enough. This is what my meditation has been like for perhaps twenty years. No bliss, no wisdom, no enlightenment. I call it the Oops technique.

Fr. Laurence, who said "in a sense we are all beginning," called meditation "creative work" which involves going back to our source, to where God called us into being and where we will experience God's love. It's not a matter of becoming present to God, because "God is present to us or we would not exist." I have neither experienced God in my meditation, nor the stillness of nibbana, but only the steady drivel of my thoughts which threaten to bore me to death. I have not been conscious of the space between my breaths, just as I cannot sense when the right brain takes over from my left (or vice versa). What I do understand, only intellectually I'm afraid, is that the mind is an unruly servant and needs to be disciplined. Fr. Laurence advises that discipline, "not a popular word," is necessary for freedom to flourish. All spiritual paths teach that the self must be mastered, transcended or abandoned, and that knowledge or wisdom comes from "poverty of spirit" (in Christian terms) rather than possessiveness.

I'm afraid the goal is too glorious for me in this lifetime. My self is a petty tyrant but it is the only rock on which I know I can stand. I try to be kind, to tell the truth, and to not harm any living soul. As I wrote the other day, my love of this world, in all of its beautiful tangible forms, is too precious for me to want to escape it for some out-of-range chimera. Enlightenment and/or salvation is an elusive butterfly. Should I continue to meditate? A foolish consistency, as Emerson pointed out, is the hobgoblin of little minds. Ask me next week.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

The Pied Piper of Atheism

To the charge that he has set out to destroy Christianity, Philip Pullman has this answer. "Nonsense," he will reply. "God died a long time ago."

To celebrate Earth Day, I finished reading The Amber Spyglass, third volume of British author Philip Pullman's magnificent trilogy, His Dark Materials. I was inspired to read this fantasy series, ostensibly written for children, after seeing the film "The Golden Compass," which was made from the first volume, Northern Lights, and after hearing that Pullman's epic yarn was an alternative to C.S. Lewis's Narnia and pursued "an anti-Christian agenda." What I found was an enthralling epic drama that celebrates material reality with the enthusiasm of William Blake's "Every thing that lives is Holy." Rather than an anti-religious tract, Pullman's story attacks totalitarian authority and paralyzing dogma that has been used to control and imprison human freedom. I have been seeking a this-worldly spirituality, one that embraces material reality rather than denigrates it as "fallen" or "sinful." And in Pullman I have discovered a materialist prophet for the end of the age of other-worldly religion.

Prophets are controversial fellows. There are no less than 19 books about His Dark Materials (completed in 2000) listed by and not all are complimentary. Peter Vere and Sandra Miesel recently published Pied Piper of Atheism: Philip Pullman and Children's Fantasy with the very Catholic Ignatius Press. In an interview on Zenit ("The World Seen From Rome"), Vere said that "Pullman's work isn't simply about using fairy-tale magic to tell a good story. He openly proselytizes for atheism, corrupting the imagery of Lewis and Tolkien to undermine children's faith in God and the Church." The authors believe that it is "not OK for children -- impressionable as they are -- to read stories in which the plot revolves around the supreme blasphemy, namely, that God is a liar and a mortal. It is not appropriate for children to read books in which the heroine is the product of adultery and murder; priests act as professional hit men, torturers and authorize occult experimentation on young children; an ex-nun engages in occult practices and promiscuous behavior, and speaks of it openly with a 12-year-old couple; and the angels who rebel against God are good, while those who fight on God's side are evil. This is wrong." Miesel told the Zenit interviewer that "there's a great deal of cruelty and gore in the books, not just battles but deliberate murder, sadism, mutilation, suicide, euthanasia and even cannibalism. There are also passages of disturbing sensuality and homosexual angels who are 'platonic lovers'."

Now I know all this sounds like just another Hollywood plot, or a Dan Brown book, or maybe even a Mel Gibson film. But the trilogy's first volume won the Carnegie Medal for children's fiction in the UK in 1995, and the third was awarded the Whitbread Prize for best children's book in 2001, and the Whitbread Book of the Year award in 2002, the first children's book to receive the latter award. What gives? Is this another fundamentalist tempest in a teapot, or does Pullman have some important things to say about religion to both children and adults?

"There are some themes, some subjects, too large for adult fiction," Pullman told an interviewer. They can only be dealt with adequately in a children’s book." In "The Republic of Heaven," an essay written in 2001, Pullman compares the otherworldly Kingdom of Heaven, extolled by the Gnostics and allegorized by Lewis and Tolkien, with the everyday Republic of Heaven he finds in some children stories like "Jack and the Beanstalk." There, "the magic grows out of the most common and everyday thing, a handful of beans, and the beanstalk grows right outside the kitchen window, and at the end of the story, Jack comes home." In the Republic of Heaven, which becomes the goal of the rebels against Authority in His Dark Materials, there is a connection between all that lives rather than bondage to sin and redemption from life. Writes Pullman: "The republic of Heaven is also characterized by another quality: it enables us to see this real world, our world, as a place of infinite delight, so intensely beautiful and intoxicating that if we saw it clearly then we would want nothing more, ever. We would know that this earth is our true home, and nowhere else is. In the words of William Blake, one of the founding fathers of the republic of Heaven,
How do you know but ev'ry Bird that cuts the airy way,
Is an immense world of delight, clos'd by your senses five?"

Pullman counts Blake and John Milton, author of Paradise Lost upon which his trilogy is modeled, as his primary influences (the title of his work comes from the raw substance that Milton’s “almighty maker” uses to create life). Rather than focus on the Fall, as Milton does, Pullman has written this his story "resolved itself into an account of the necessity of growing up, and a refusal to lament the loss of innocence." The "sin" of Adam and Eve was in fact the beginning of the growth towards self-consciousness and maturity, a necessary evolution. In Pullman's tale, the fallen angels are heroes.

In an online interview with Peter T. Chattaway, Pullman said that for him, "God is a metaphor."
Perhaps it might be clearer to call him a character in fiction, and a very interesting one too: one of the greatest and most complex villains of all - savage, petty, boastful and jealous, and yet capable of moments of tenderness and extremes of arbitrary affection - for David, for example. But he's not real, any more than Hamlet or Mr Pickwick are real. They are real in the context of their stories, but you won't find them in the phone book.
It's wrong , he said, to think that only believers in God are inclined toward virtue. "What about the joy you feel when a good action of yours brings a happy result for someone else? What about the basic empathy we feel even for creatures who aren't human - a rabbit caught in a trap, a little bird inside the house trying to get out through a closed window, a polar bear drowning in a world where the ice is melting? That's not due to religion: it's due to the fact that we're alive and conscious and able to imagine another's suffering."
The plainest and simplest description of the world, for me, and the truest, is that there is no God, but that human beings are capable of great goodness and great wickedness, and we don't need priests or Popes or imams or rabbis to tell us which is which.
In The New Yorker, Laura Miller writes that Pullman's trilogy "may be the first fantasy series founded upon the ideals of the Enlightenment rather than upon tribal and mythic yearnings for kings, gods, and supermen. Pullman’s heroes are explorers, cowboys, and physicists. The series offers an extended celebration of the marvels of science: discoveries and theories from the outer reaches of cosmology—about dark matter and the possible existence of multiple universes—are threaded into the story."

Pullman told Miller that Tolkien's Lord of the Rings is "fundamentally an infantile work.” He is not interested "in the way grownup, adult human beings interact with each other. He’s interested in maps and plans and languages and codes.” Although the Narnia books "are a real wrestle with real things," and Tolkien's series is “just fancy spun candy," Pullman said that C.S. Lewis filled his books with "crazed, deranged Manichaeism...nauseating drivel." The idea of "keeping childhood alive forever and ever and regretting the passage into adulthood—whether it’s a gentle, rose-tinged regret or a passionate, full-blooded hatred, as it is in Lewis—is simply wrong.”

Calling himself a religious person, but not a believer, Pullman told James Mustich in an interview for Barnes & Nobel Review, that "religion begins in story," as an "attempt to make sense of what is incomprehensible to us, what is inexplicable, what is awe-inspiring, what is frightening, what moves us to great wonder, and so on. " But when religion acquires political power -- Jesus and St. Paul were quite clear about this, "it decides who shall live and who shall die. It decides how we shall dress, what we shall be allowed to read, whether we shall go to war, and so on. When religion acquires that power, it goes bad very rapidly."

Equally rotten is a disembodied religion. The angels in His Dark Materials are envious of human beings. Will, the Adam of Pullman's story, sees this:
They wish they had bodies. They are envious of us. They wish they could smell the roasting coffee and these things. They can't understand why we, who have the power to feel these things, who have nerves and senses, aren't in a continual state of ecstasy. That we can touch things, that we can hear things and smell things, and taste things.
If there is one thing that he wants his readers to take from the trilogy, the author told Mustich, it is "this emphasis, this continuing and strong emphasis that I put on the value of being alive and having nerves and senses -- of having a physical body."

Margo Jefferson, who titled her review in the New York Times "Harry Potter for Grown-Ups," notes that Pullman is "passionately against any religion that puts its vision of the spirit and the afterlife above human life and the natural world, where our moral and spiritual tests as well as our pleasures are found." His Dark Materials, wrote Michael Chabon in the New York Review of Books, "is explicitly—and materially, and often smashingly—about humanity." The villain of the piece is Jehovah, a dried-up ancient of days who was never more than an angel, perhaps the first to become self-aware.

I have not tried to review His Dark Materials critically here and have made no effort to give a synopsis of the plot and the characters in the trilogy. If you're curious, read the books (and see the movie as a teaser). What interests me is Pullman's view of religion, at least the Judeo-Christian version (his this-worldly emphasis comes closer to Buddhism). There are others who have spoken to me of a way to talk about -- and live -- a new understanding of reality, prophets like Doestoevsky, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Simone Weil and Thomas Merton. Perhaps I should include the Jesus of the Gospels (that he may only be a character in a story is unimportant).

Not long ago, I examined the recently published books by the new atheists, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris. Pullman, obviously a kindred soul, says of Dawkins' book, The God Delusion: "He seems to over-simplify, to insist on one single literal meaning for the word 'faith," and he doesn't acknowledge that God is a metaphor," perhaps a useful one. I think Pullman provides an alternative to the atheist nay-sayers by offering up a rich metaphor in his trilogy that shows why the "dark materials," matter and consciousness, are enough. We don't need, and in fact suffer from: God, Heaven and Hell. The world as it is, is holy. As William Blake wrote: "Eternity is in love with the productions of Time."

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Songkran: Thailand's Big Water Fight

I had been looking forward with curiosity and trepidation to Songkran, the Thai New Year's festival this month. It bookends nicely with Loi Krathong, the rice harvest festival in November, when Thais float little boats with flowers and candles on the rivers. At Songkran, however, they fill buckets with water and throw them at each other. That's just for starters. What began as a time to wash Buddha images and sprinkle lustral water on family and friends as a form of blessing has become the world's biggest water fight.

Songkran comes from a Sanskrit word meaning "astrological passage," and it marks the transition from Aries to Taurus. Similar to New Year's holidays in other southeast Asian countries, Songkran, which is held in the hottest month, signals the end of the dry season and the start of summer and the planting of new crops. According to Thai astrologers, the Sonkgran Diva for this year, 2551, is Thungsa Thaywee, a mythical figure who will bring sickness, death and disasters to the country. She's also a vegetarian. Like last year's Diva, Mahothorn Thaywee, her duty is to "protect the Earth and defeat the ogres that have harassed humans," one astrologer told the Bangkok Nation. Until 1888, Songkran was the beginning of the Thai year; April 1 was used until 1940, but now January 1, like most of the world, starts the new year. Water, as a symbol of fertility, is splashed to induce abundant rainfall in the new year, and it is also used in purification rites. But that was before super soaker water guns were invented in 1989 (I love Wikipedia).

Jerry has come to hate it, probably because a passing pickup full of hooligans once hit him with a pail of water that destroyed his hearing aid. So he tries to get out of town when the holiday falls every year between April 13-15. This year, because it came over a weekend, Songkran stretched from April 12-16. Pim and I decided to spend half of her holiday from the Post Office in Chiang Mai and half in Pai with Eric and Ket at their new hotel, Indiana Cottage. But even though she is a native and I am a good researcher, we weren't prepared for what transpired.

Our getaway weekend began with Pim's first airplane flight, on Nok Airways from Bangkok to Chiang Mai. Since we left after dark, all she could see were the bright lights of Bangkok, and, closer to Chiang Mai, a spectacular lightning display (which repeated itself on the way home), something I've never seen. She seemed calm but her palms were sweaty, and she confessed later to being worried at takeoff that the plane might not stay up. Before the trip, I soon discovered that Chiang Mai was a popular Songkran destination and it took several attempts before I found a room at Tri Gong Residence, run by a weathered and wise Thai man with the improbable name of Adam. It was located within the city moat in a backpacker ghetto off Thanon Moon Muang's Soi 9, an easy walk to Tha Phae Gate where all the action takes place. After checking in (and testing the wireless connection), we headed out for some street food. Squirt guns were on sale and we bought a couple for the next morning. Even though Saturday the 12th was not officially part of Songkran, since it began the weekend we expected some sanuk (Thai for fun).

After a sumptuous western breakfast at the Blue Diamond Cafe on Soi 9, we stripped down to what we thought were the essentials, filled our guns (I had something out of Star Wars and Pim a demure little fish squirter) and we went out looking for some action. People were lined up along the moat, pulling very questionable water (think: polluted) up with buckets and heaving them at the trucks, tuk tuks and motor bikes traveling down Th Chaiyaphum. As we hiked up to Tha Phae Gate, the traffic increased. There we found a baptismal frenzy of water fights. The city had installed metered pumps to provide ammunition. Pim's little squirt gun proved insufficient, and so she got a bigger one. When both our guns broke, we bought two more. Everyone was slinging water. Trucks carried big 10-gallon drums. Blocks of ice were sold and often it felt like a glacier was being poured over my head. While it is a Thai festival, the naturally aggressive farangs were enthusiastic participants, some in costume (like the two life guards in red) and many wearing rubber masks. Raincoats were popular. Bar girls and lady boys were dancing in the streets at the intersection of Kotchasan and Loi Kroh. After several hours of squirting and being soaked, we walked over to the Mae Ping River, fighting running water gun battles all the way, and onto the Nawarat bridge which was outfitted with fountains on each side that sprinkled the traffic, courtesy of the city fathers. There was no safe place for the waterphobic anywhere in the city. From the river we took a tuk tuk back to our guest house to assess the damage, but because of the huge traffic jam we had to walk through some of the crowded and wet streets and over the moat under our own steam (literally, when the hot sun hit our damp clothes).

The picture above was one of the last taken with my trusty old Nikkon which, when I took it out of the soggy pocket in my shorts, no longer worked. Likewise Pim's relatively new cell phone. Both were casualties of the water fights. Pim's purse and my wallet were drenched and we had to remove everything. The counters of our room were covered with drying money and other valuables. The dark bag I bought in Luang Prabang left a bright blue stain on my white tee shirt. That evening we found our way to Pantip Plaza in the Night Bizaar, a miniature version of the IT mall in Bangkok, where Pim got a new phone and I bought a Canon PowerShot A570. Although $90 less than the Nikkon I purchased from eBay over two years ago, this camera has 7.1 mega pixels, image stabilization, and a number of features not found on the old one. But I learned my lesson and kept it at home when the water throwers were on the prowl in Chiang Mai and Pai.

On Sunday we got to the Arcade Bus Terminal early but couldn't get a seat until the 12:30 minivan to Pai. Still, it was safe there, and I found myself ready to kill anyone who threatened me with a squirt gun while we were carrying backpacks and a suitcase full of fragile goods. I was clearly in need of some meditative quiet time. Pai is 134 kilometers northwest from Chiang Mai and, according to one tee shirt, the road contains 763 sharp curves. But the woman in the seat in front of us threw up her lunch before we'd even reached the curviest section. She stayed behind and the driver cleaned up as best he could. Pim's eucalyptus oil for the nose came in handy. I spotted a cremation out the window, the deceased in flames. We were greeted with water at nearly every turn, but thankfully the windows were shut tight. A bucket of water hitting the windshield of a van traveling 50k an hour makes quite a thud. It was hard to sleep. After nearly three hours, we reached the relatively quiet streets of Pai, a small village that has become for no readily discernible reason a popular backpacker's destination, and met my friend Eric who took us across the river to Indiana Cottage, the collection of huts that he and his Thai wife Ket recently opened.

I was last in Pai several years ago, just after the disastrous flood that destroyed most of the huts on the far side of the of the river where Indiana Cottage (their Thai partners were thinking of Indiana Jones and things Indian, when they named the place, and not the state) is located, and I was naturally concerned. But Eric, a musician and a house painter from San Francisco, assured me that the river had been dredged and the bank raised a few feet. In the river Monday evening, villagers were digging up sand to be used in the construction of a sand pagoda in the yard next to Wat Pa Kam. On New Year's Day, which began with amplified chanting at 5:30 in the morning, the pagoda was covered with flags and banners and worshippers filled the wat to pay their respects to the Buddha. The afternoon before, we had followed a colorful procession with Buddha images and young dancing girls through the village streets, our squirt guns at the ready. The water throwing was less aggressive by the Thais, more of a gentle sprinkling, which occasionally included talcum powder for good luck. But I left my camera back at the hut to be on the safe side. Hence the lack of colorful photos I might have taken of the parade.

Eric has been coming to Thailand for over twenty years, first to import goods for sale in the U.S., and later to open up a restaurant in Pai with Ket. They purchased land for their hotel before the flood and said that the rushing waters had done them the favor of demolishing old bungalows. Their new rustic cottages are all bamboo with teak leaves used for roofing. Bathrooms are downstairs with the main rooms raised up. The bedroom consists mostly of a large king-sized bed with a mosquito net (which was necessary). There is a large porch with pillows and a table which we used for eating the Isan street food we purchased one evening. Our cottage was shared with a talkative gecko who, though never seen, spoke to us in almost human tones. On the night we arrived we had dinner with Eric and Ket at a new Vietnamese restaurant. They like to keep track of the competition. And Pai is incredibly competitive. A recent article in the Bangkok Post claimed that, like Angkor Wat and Luang Prabang, it is way overdeveloped. (Marcus sent me an interesting article from the New York Times saying much the same thing.) Why would you want to go to Pai in the hot season? we were asked in Bangkok. My last visit was in November and the streets this time were uncrowded compared to then. Indiana Cottage is one of at least a dozen "resorts" built on that side of the river since the 2005 flood. While many of the shops and restaurants were closed for Songkran (employees having returned to their home cities and villages), there seemed more than enough establishments (including a new Black Canyon Coffee) to handle visitors. Shan women in colorful costumes with identical handicrafts lined the night streets and tee shirt vendors did a brisk business in Pai branded items. On New Year's Eve we attended a crowded "Cultural Festival" to listen to Thai singing and watch the dancers, and we popped balloons with darts to win two bags of snacks.

The high point of our time in Pai was on the roads, traveling through the valley and up into the hills on the Honda Icon motorbikes we rented. I felt like a cowboy (why doesn't the west fight global warming by trading in their bloated SUVs for economical motorbikes?) On Monday we rode up to Mo Paeng Waterfall where Thais were picnicking and sliding over the rocks. On the way up we stopped at the luxurious Muang Pai Resort where Eric and a friend were swimming in the pool. It was owned by a fellow musician. Eric is in the process of putting a band together which will play at Happy Yim, formerly a restaurant (serving Mexican food), currently a massage parlor, and soon to be a bar with music. On the way up to the falls we were liberally dosed with water and powder (the photo above was taken safely the next morning). Getting hit in the face with a bucket of water while speeding down the road is a jolt (Thai newspapers bemoaned the death toll of 324 and the 4,000 accidents over the holiday, mostly caused by drunk motorbike drivers). On New Year's Day, we rode our bikes to Wat Pra That Mae Yen in the hills above Pai with its wonderful views, and past the five elephant camps to Tha Pai Hot Spring Spa Resort where we had breakfast (accompanied by four hungry kittens) at a terrace restaurant overlooking the Pai River. We tried to visit the Tha Pai Hot Springs but their fee of 200 baht for foreigners seemed too steep for a look-see. So we returned to the main Highway 1095 and stopped at Pai Canyon where Pim dragged me up the hill to see what turned out to be a fascinating geological formation. After a look at the new airport (1600 baht for a 20-minute flight to Chiang Mai), we returned to Indiana Cottage to pack up for the return home.

On the minivan ride back to Chiang Mai, the scenery looked very familiar to a Californian. Pampas grass lined the highway. But the frequent groves of bamboo were strictly tropical.

The dry season appears to have ended decisively with heavy downpours in Bangkok, yesterday and today, accompanied by thunder and lightning. God's Songkran.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Confessions of a Mute Cineaste

Sometimes not being able to understand Thai is a real drag.

Last night is a case in point. I was excited to learn that "Syndromes and a Century," the new film by Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul, was being shown at a special screening at Siam Paragon Cineplex. "Saeng Satawat" (the Thai title) was voted the best film of 2007 by critic David Answen of Newsweek but it had been banned in Thailand. Now the director was showing a special "Thailand's Edition" of his film with the censored images blacked out.

Before coming to Thailand last August, I had seen Apichatpong's "Tropical Malady," which won the Jury Prize at Cannes in 2004, and I found his surreal style of film making mysterious and intriguing. "Saeng Satawat" was one of seven films commissioned by the New Crowned Hope Festival, part of Vienna's Mozart Year in 2006, and it premiered at the Venice International Film Festival. Film Comment voted it one of the best films of 2007. I added it to my list of must see films.

But it ran afoul of Thailand's archaic Film Act of 1930. Apichatpong submitted it to the censorship committee a year ago and was ordered to cut four scenes. When he refused and cancelled the film's release, the censors retained the film print because they said the director might secretly show it. (The censored scenes were quickly available on YouTube.) Apichatpong decided to appeal to the board last month, and was ordered to cut two additional scenes.

The original scenes the censors found objectionable show a young monk playing a guitar, a group of doctors drinking whiskey in a hospital basement, a doctor kissing his girlfriend in a hospital locker room, and two monks playing with a radio-controlled flying saucer. "Drinking whiskey in a hospital is not proper conduct by medical professionals,'' one examiner said. "Sure, doctors can kiss their girlfriends. Doing that at home is all right, but doing it in a hospital is inappropriate.'' A senior officer of the Culture Ministry told Time magazine: "Nobody goes to see films by Apichatpong. Thai people want to see comedy. We like a laugh."

That quote was on tee shirts being sold at the Bangkok screening yesterday by members of The Free Thai Cinema Movement which was jointly formed by Apichatpong, the Thai Film Foundation, Bioscope magazine and a number of artists and media activists. They gathered over 5,000 signatures in an online petition to end the practice of censorship and to implement a ratings system. Although a bill containing the ratings system was passed in December, the government maintained its right to cut and ban films. Apichatpong published "The folly and future of Thai cinema under military dictatorship" in the Bangkok Post, calling for an end to censorship and respect for freedom of artistic expression.

In an interview in the London Guardian, Apichatpong (whose friends call him Joe) called the 1930 censorship act
a vague statute that forbids the promotion of bad morals. In practice, that means films dealing with sex, religion and politics are taboo. But violence isn't. That's why you can see plenty of horror movies and comedies in Thailand, but very few political movies. Some film-makers say they have had to pay to get their films passed for exhibition.

The government's justification is that the Thai people aren't educated enough to deal with serious issues. The Ministry of Culture says the average Thai is educated to the level of a sixth-grader in a US school, and isn't ready for art-house or political movies.

Instead of removing the cuts demanded by the censor, Apichatpong decided to turn this "decree of amputation," as he calls it, into a form of protest art. Where the six "inappropriate images" are supposed to be, the director will either leave black or scratched frames for the entire length of each shot. The shortest one lasts a few seconds and longest seven minutes. "I'd like the audience to feel that they're forced to be in the dark, while the scratches signify an agent of destruction," he says. "If censorship is still with us, then maybe this is how we should watch the movies." At the Siam Paragon Cineplex the Thai Film Foundation is sponsoring an exhibition on the "History of Thai Censorhip." In addition to the tributlations of "Saeng Satawat," the exhibit traces movie censorship in Thailand and its connection to the country's politics since the time of King Rama VII ("Anna and the King of Siam" in all of its versions is still banned here).

Some of the exhibit was labeled in English, but most was not. Although I was told the film was subtitled in English, the discussion in the hall outside the cinema was confined to Thai. I stood among a large crowd of enthusiastic cineastes (some wearing tee shirts saying "No Cut No Ban") confined to my mute cage. After two hours, I went to the screening, exited to be finally seeing what all the tumult was about. It was scheduled to start at 8, but the audience trickled slowly in, and fifteen minutes later the director entered with a microphone to discuss his creation and its turbulent fate. I'm sure it was informative and fascinating to the Thai audience, but I found myself nodding off. So this is a story without a punch line. I cannot tell you how I liked the movie or what effect the censored scenes had on the audience. I got up and went home before the movie started.

"Saeng Satawat (Syndrome and a Century)" is playing for two weeks and I hope to finally see it when I return next week from Chiang Mai and Pai after the Songkran holiday. Pim and I will sample the festivities in the northern metropolis before heading over the hills to the little backpacker hangout where Eric and Get have added a new hotel, Indiana Cottages, to their Mexican-Thai restaurant, Happy Yim. I spent a pleasant few days there several years ago and am looking forward to seeing how the valley not far from the Burmese border has grown. An article in the Bangkok Post yesterday by Denis Gray adds Pai to Luang Prabang and Angor Wat as "Lost Gems," Asia's "once unique, remote places" that have been spoiled by mass tourism. There's always a naysayer who bemoans the passing of the "good old days." Change happens, Denis. He's upset because "the global migratory tribe appeared in droves, dragging its own culture along."

I have a page full of notes on subjects I'd like to write about. I saw "Fitna," the short film made by Dutch legislator Geert Wilders who juxtaposes verses from the Qur'an next to scenes of destruction around the world caused by terrorists flying the banner of radical Islam. My friend Marcus found it not as terrible as news reports would have you think, and I decided to see for myself. Wilder's film inspired mass protests by Muslims around the world, similar to those in the wake of the Dutch cartoon controversy and the poor schoolteacher who innocently named a teddy bear Mohammad. And don't let's forget the fatwa against Salmon Rushdie calling for his death because of his book Satanic Verses which supposedly insults Mohammad. It's apparently still in effect. For as long as I can remember, I have defended Islam as a religion worthy of respect and have argued, along with many good-thinking people, that the "Islamofascists" have perverted the religion of submission to the will of Allah. But I am beginning to think that the problem is rooted in their sacred text, a book much bloodier and more violent that the Old Testament of the Jews and Christians (which has some pretty horrifying passages in it). Muslim fanatics, who call for a Holy War against the West, find support in their holy book. What if there were no such thing as moderate Islam? While there are secular Muslims in Turkey and a few other places (Saddam Hussein was more secular than religious), most followers of Allah appear to be intolerant and threatening to those of other (and no) faiths. This is scary. Is jihad personal or political? I intend to look into this.

There have been a number of articles locally and on the internet about the rising cost of rice and other staples on which the poor depend to ward off hunger. There are hunger riots going on right now in Haiti. Thailand is the largest rice producer in the world and is looking at emergency regulation against exports to prevent a possible famine in the country. Others not so fortune are trying to find alternative sources. Prices for wheat and corn are rising as fast as barrels of oil, and the dollar continues its slide while America stumbles into recession (even Greenspan, who probably bears much of the responsibility for it, now uses that term). Israel cuts off fuel supplies to the Gaza Strip in another retaliation for attacks by Hamas, and neither of the two Democratic candidates show much interest in offending radical Jews (where are the moderates?) by agreeing to negotiate with Hamas, the legally elected government of Gaza. And in Washington, George Bush remains in denial. Will my native land ever recover (although if you read Howard Zinn, it never had anything to recover from)?

Happy Thai New Year.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Finding the River

At sunset yesterday, I rode my rented bike down a long dusty road along a bluff above the sand bar that last October was the mighty Mekong River. Now it has shrunk during the dry season to a trickle that can barely be seen from Vientiane, the tiny capital of Laos. But at the end of the road, beside the aptly named Sunset Bar, I managed to catch a glimpse of the river in the distance. I have been entranced by the Mekong since the days of the Vietnam war when its name conjured up exotic mysteries and distant adventures. Now I am here beside it, and an amusement park is being set up on the river bank, dominated by signs advertising Pepsi and Beer Lao, for the New Year's celebration next weekend.

It was the fitting end to an intense day. My sole purpose for coming here this trip was to obtain a new visa for Thailand. I'm never very happy in the presence of bureaucracy, particularly if it controls my future, and my nerves were on edge as I rode my bike up to the consulate a half hour before the 8:30 opening. A few hundred people had beaten me to it. Outside the gate, a crowd of vendors sold visa forms and even filled them out, for a price. Although I'd brought a book to read, this was difficult while standing mostly in the hot sun for nearly two hours. So I watched the fascinating crowd. Behind me a trio from Morocco were chatting in French. Standing nearby was a tall Lao ladyboy with green fingernails and jangly gold jewelry. She was talking in a deep voice with a small Lao girl. A western man in a wheel chair on the sidelines watched the line move slowly. Two monks in orange robes stood by. An older Indian woman grabbed shade where she could while her son held her place. When I reached the outdoor shed, where processing took place, one of the two fans was working. I'd been advised to dress conservatively so I wore long pants, a blue short-sleeved shirt, and even socks with my shoes. It was a wasted effort, as the two over-worked consulate clerks barely saw me over the counter. I asked for a double-entry visa, two 60-day stays (each with 30-day extensions), and was told to go inside the main building and pay 2000 baht. More waiting inside a tiny room listening for my name to be called. I paid up and got a receipt for the visa which I will pick up this afternoon on my way to the airport and the flight back to Bangkok.

Vientiane is a comfortable place to wait. Yesterday I had a a lovely salad with a chicken sandwich for lunch at the Sticky Fingers Café, and beef and mushroom croquettes for dinner at YuLala, a tiny restaurant around the corner from my hotel that features Asian fusion cuisine with jazz on the PA system. And for dessert, I got a plate of sticky rice and mango, drenched in coconut sauce, at the Full Moon Café. Afterwards, I strolled through the amusement zone and watched Laotians at play. Every night seems to be a holiday. At a minimart, after fending off a few children looking for money (there are relatively few beggars here), I bought treats to nibble on while watching movies on my laptop back at the hotel. It's an easy and uncomplicated life and my retirement funds would certainly go even farther here than in Thailand. I seem to require less excitement and few diversions these days. I read less, walk alot, and watch more movies and TV. There are signs advertising jobs for native English speakers. But could I be happy here, away from my new friends in Bangkok, and Pim?

Communication with Pim has been relatively easy. If I stand on the bank of the Mekong, in sight of Thailand across on the other shore where my mobile phone service is located, it's possible to send and receive calls and messages. And each of us has a laptop with a web cam, so we can chat on MSN Messenger while looking at each other. One of these days, they'll develop the technology to include sound, and then we'll be in a Dick Tracy universe (except that his device was on the wrist). This is one of the reasons I chose the Chanthapanya Hotel, because of its free wirless. But the reception is dodgy and it's often a struggle to open web pages. Next visit I'll take a pool over the internet.

When it's relatively cool (think Fresno in the summer), I ride my bike. I soon found that the one-way signs mean little to two-wheeled traffic. In addition to cafés, the city contains some wonderful Buddhist architecture. This Buddha is at Wat Si Saket, the city's oldest temple (the rest were destroyed by vindictive Siamese during the many regional wars). Built in the 19th century by Chao Anou, a Laotian prince installed by Siam (his rebellion caused much of the destruction), the wat includes thousands of small niches in the cloister walls which contain silver and ceramic Buddha images like these seen here. It was closed during my previous visit, but this time I got to join a group of French tourists who were viewing the ancient inner sanctum where walls are crumbling and wood is decaying. At the eastern end of the city, I found Wat Si Muang which is the site of the city pillar, home to the guardian spirit of Vientiane. The hall was full for an early evening ceremony of some sort which involved lots of string, generally used to make symbolic connections (it's more animist than Buddhist, though it is hard to tell the difference). Across the street were some strange floral offerings, looking a little like the kratongs that Thais float on the river. Perhaps they will be used for the New Year's festivities. After the wat, I turned toward the river to ride past the huge Don Chan Palace, Vientiane's most luxurious hotel. It was build for the 2004 Asean conference on an island believed to be the home of a powerful naga, the sea beasts that patrol the Mekong.

I am more convinced than ever that Southeast Asia culture has a unity that is falsified by the artificial borders that separate Thai from Lao and Khmer (and the other ethnic groups). Laos is the smallest of the political groupings, its seven million landlocked people just beginning to rise out of poverty. There are no railroads, most of the roads are unpaved, and nearly 80 percent of the people work in agriculture. I have been told that more Lao live in Thailand than in their own country, mostly in Isan. Pim, like most of the Isan women I've met, speaks both Thai and Lao. Laotian women wear a distinctive dress called a phaa sin, ankle-length with a distinctive pattern at the bottom. But the men wear pants. Like Thais, the Lao love to eat and there are hundreds of small stalls along the roads with charcoal braziers cooking delicious smelling street food. These observations are superficial, I know, but with more time and study I hope I can begin to understand the commonalities of the people leaving in this corner of the earth south of China, east of India and north of Australia. I also hope to see more of it.

Monday, April 07, 2008

Lolling Around Laos

I am spending a long weekend in Laos, one of the last remaining outposts of communism. At the "instant visa" counter in the airport, sympathies are shown by the prices charged. Visitors from Cuba, Vietnam and China pay only $20 (interestingly enough, the fee must be paid in dollars) while Americans and most Europeans pay $35. Canadians for some reason must pay $42 and Swedes get off with only $31. Latin Americans are billed $30. I didn't notice the price for North Koreans. There are only a few few signs of the Pathet Lao government (now called the Peoples Democratic Republic, or PDR), which came to power in 1975 after a bloody civil war. I saw the red and yellow hammer and sickle flag flying from a hotel, and on signs at various government ministries, and I observed a girl at the local amusement park on the banks of the Mekong River wearing a Soviet Union tee shirt. One tuk-tuk bore Che Guevara's picture.

I'm here to get a new tourist visa for Thailand since the the three I purchased from the Thai consulate in Portland, Oregon, last summer finally ran out Saturday. But I failed to factor in Chakri Day, a holiday to celebrate the royal dynasty that has ruled Thailand since 1782 when the previous king was executed and the capital of Siam was moved from Ayuthaya to Bangkok. Monday is a holiday at the consulate here in Vientiane. So I'm kicking back and lolling around at the Chanthapanya Hotel in Vientiane across the street from the huge National Cultural Hall where a rare performance of a "Magnificent Music & Cultural Show" was put on last night.

Advertised to begin at 19:00, I arrived ten minutes early to find the large hall nearly empty. The flier I was handed at the door gave a date two days earlier and promised "Magnification Music." Forty minutes later, the mosquitoes began to nibble at my ankles. People, mostly families with small children, were slowly drifting in; they obviously knew it would not start on time. My ticket cost 50,000 kip ($5), but the usher could not find my seat so he chose one at random. The older American man to my right told his young Laotian friend that he would leave if it took much longer. Logos of the sponsors flashed on a screen while technicians tinkered with spotlights and special effects. A large Pepsi sign sat on the side of the stage. Two soldiers with guns stood on each side of the hall near the stage (were they supposed to prevent a mosh pit?). White chairs in the first row held assorted VIPs. Children ran up and down the aisles while the foreigners got impatient. The show finally began an hour late with a series of incomprehensible (to me) speeches. Finally the music and dance began and it was delightful. Aside from a man who did imitations of bird calls, it seemed to be a recital for a dance school and the talented kids were led by a woman who did everything: she sang, danced, played the drums and various traditional Lao music instruments, and functioned as the mistress of ceremonies. After an hour I left to find food when hunger trumped culture.

This was my second visit to the small Laotian capital (est. population 200,000) alongside the Mekong, which has now largely disappeared behind a huge sand island because it was the dry season. Laos (the final "s" is not pronounced here) was a part of French Indochina from 1893 until it achieved independence in 1954 and Vientiane still has a French feel. Street names are given as "rue" this and "boulevard" that. Baguettes are available everywhere, and I dined Saturday evening at La Silapa, a fine French restaurant, one of several in the city. There I heard on the PA my old favorite, "Lullaby of Birdland," which I first loved when I was 15 and heard Ella Fitzgerald sing it. Americans at another table where debating as to when the elite will give up their privileges in the face of global warming and the unrest of the poor. Food is cheap and most meals are under $3. I've eaten tasty dishes twice at the Full Moon Cafe, a hangout for backpackers with signs in English and comfortable pillows on benches along the sides of the room. They will also fill up your iPod with cheap tunes. Last night I ended the evening with sticky rice and mango with coconut sauce.

This morning I rented a bike (10,000 kip or $1 for 24 hours) and rode out to find the Thai consulate where I can apply for my visa tomorrow. The route took me up the broad Avenue Lane Xang which stretches from the Presidential Palace, past the baroque Patuxai victory monument (a four-sided imitation of the Arc de Triomphe), and up Rue 3 Sangre where many of the foreign embassies are located. The consulate, as I expected, was closed for the holiday. I didn't continue on to Pha That Luang, the large golden stupa that symbolizes not only Buddhism but Lao sovereignty (its image is everywhere here), because I toured that site on my last visit. Biking is relatively easy here because of the absence of heavy traffic (although there seemed even less when I was on foot). The proliferation of one-way streets took some getting used to. And I soon lost the lock I had failed to secure, but riding around the block I spotted it lying like a snake in the street. Because of the heat, my trips will be confined to the mornings and evenings.

Evening though the waters of the Mekong have moved closer to Thailand, the Laotian side is filled with outdoor restaurants along the sandy bank, amusements for children (including bumper cars which attracted the teenagers), games (mostly balloons and darts to throw at them), carts with tasty snacks, and loud music. Every night seems to be a party as they prepare for the New Year's celebration next weekend. I've found that my Thai mobile service works if I keep Thailand in line of site and so I can talk with Pim, who is keeping the home fires burning. We both agree that separation is not all its cracked up to be.

The streets are filled with colorful tuk-tuks, larger than the Bangkok versions, and their drivers (those not sleeping like one I saw in a hammock in the back) are insistent about taking you there. Equally insistent were the ladyboys who congregate on a corner near my hotel. Vientiane is not the wild west town it was during the Vietnam war, and I'm not aware of any open heterosexual bar scene here. Laos is full of "development" activity, with the World Bank, the UN, and a raft of NGOs headquartered here, offering funds and food for a country that is just now lifting its head out of poverty. Laos is the most bombed country in history, with U.S. pilots dumping loads on the countryside as they returned from bombing runs to Hanoi. Ladies in Vietnamese straw hats drag carts of vegetables and eggs up the streets looking for customers. As I ate my chicken and fried rice for lunch I was hounded by a succession of vendors who all offered me the same watches, massage implements and Viagra, not necessarily in that order. At Talat Sao, I wondered through three floors of shops, a low rent version of Bangkok's MBK. Many shops offered huge selections of pirated CDs and DVDs.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Paying Respects to the Princess

Pim and I dressed in black yesterday and went to pay our respects to HRH Princess Galyani Vadhana at the Dusit Maha Prasat Throne Hall in the Grand Palace compound where her body is lying in state. The elder sister of King Ananda Mahidol (Rama VIII) and King Bhumibol Adulyadej (Rama IX) died on January 2 from cancer at the age of 84. The Princess was a scholar who taught French at Thammasat University, and she was the patron of many charities and music organizations. Born in London, she was the granddaughter of King Chulalongkorn (Rama V). Promoted to the royal order of precedence by King (Rama VII) in 1927, she renounced her position just before the war to marry an officer in the army. Although that marriage ended in divorce, when her brother ascended to the throne she was reinstated. On her 72nd birthday she was given the noble title "Krom Luang Narathiwat Rajanagarindra" (loosely translated as "Princess of Narathiwat"), making her the only female member of the Chakri royal family in the reign of King Rama IX to have been bestowed this title. At her death, the King declared 100 days of mourning. Although this was official only for the royal family and government officials, it seems that all of Thailand is following their lead. The Princess's picture is everywhere you look in Bangkok, usually draped with black and white bunting. Commemorative books have been published and songs have been written in her honor (I have been trying to locate a copy of one haunting melody that I've heard played in shopping malls and on television). I was also unable to find a photo of the remarkable ornate scene inside the 18th century Throne Hall other than a postcard we were handed as we left, probably because photography is prohibited. After investing in a new black wardrobe, dressing up and riding through the 100-degree heat, we were only permitted a few minutes inside. There we sat on the floor and listened to the chanting of monks while government officers dressed in white uniforms sat on chairs. I had little opportunity to take notes. A special cremation structure is being constructed now in Sanam Luang, the park across from the Grand Palace. This site will also house the royal chariots and the funeral pyre to be used in the royal funeral procession later this year. The specially-designed structure will have a 7-tiered umbrella, instead of the normal 5, at the instruction of the King. Since it will be hand-built and hand-decorated, it will take 6-7 months to complete. A ceremony at Kuiburi National Park recently accompanied the felling of sandalwood trees to extract wood for the creation of the royal urn that will house the ashes of the Princess. According to one report, the province chief "assumed the role of royal household Brahman and conducted prayers to appease the tree spirits." These rituals surrounding the death of the Princess provide a fascinating peek into the culture of Thai monarchy, a small foretaste of what will take place here when the current monarch passes away.

A couple of days ago I received in the post a copy of Dana Frank's new book, Local Girl Makes History: Exploring Northern California's KITSCH MONUMENTS (City Lights Press). This was exciting, not only because Dana, a professor of history at UC Santa Cruz, is a respected public intellectual and a friend, but because I'm in her book. Too many years ago to remember clearly, she had come to me with an idea about a book of stories about sites in the Santa Cruz area she had encountered as a child growing up on the peninsula. Although intended for the general public, she wanted to recontextualize her memories to situate them within cultural and political history. These stories, she writes, from the "inventive landscape" of her childhood,
pulled me deep into reflections about the sobering politics of imperial ambition, racial projection, and subtle hierarchies of class and gender in the United States -- embedded deftly and thoroughly in the innocent landmarks of my childhood, and hence my own passage into adulthood as a Californian and as a citizen of the United States.
The first site that Dana picked was Big Basin Redwoods State Park which she had visited with her family and at summer camp as a Girl Scout. She remembered the park store where she and her sister would buy popcicles, the archaic practice of feeding the deer, and, the "most puzzling attraction" of all, a large slice of a redwood tree with dates pinned to the tree rings marking the tree's age: "1513 Balboa Discovers the Pacific Ocean," "1066 William the Conqueror Invades England," and, near the center of the 2,000-year-old giant, "Birth of Christ." Why commemorate those events?, Dana the historian asked me. Although I had spent many years researching the coast redwoods and the history of the social movement that preserved the old growth trees in Big Basin, that questione had never occurred to me. I found it fascinating, however, and encouraged her quest for an answer, loaning her books and research materials and introducing her to rangers at Big Basin. In the book she gives me a lovely description: "Silver-haired, with wire-rimmed glasses, Willie looks sort of like a tree sprite recently escaped from the forest."

What Dana discovered was the dissertation I never wrote, a persuasive argument that redwood trees were used metaphorically to further the goals of an imperialist and racist white American culture. Conquest and domination was the flip-side of preservation and conservation. Inscribed on the redwood rounds she found at Big Basin and other parks (even in England) was a "particular version of human history that recounts -- and celebrates -- a Eurocentric narrative of upward progress through European and U.S. imperialism." The big trees embodied Aryan purity and virility to admirers like poet Walt Whitman and Carrie Stevens Walter, one of the founders of the Sempervirens Club I lionized in my academic account of Big Basin. "The trees needed to be preserved as early as 1903 precisely because they were mostly dead and conquered already," Dana writes. Speaking of her inscribed redwood round, she realizes that "my beloved tree was not just dead, but forced after its death to symbolize, even celebrate the very conquest that felled it." The challenge, she concludes, "is whether we can separate our 'wonder and awe' at the sheer ancientness of these trees, from our narratives of imperialist conquest."

I've only had time to read the introduction and her chapter on Big Basin so far, but will soon see what new and interesting contexts Dana uses for her grown-up understanding of the Pulgas Water Temple, the statues of The Cats outside Los Gatos, and the Cave Train Ride at the Boardwalk in Santa Cruz. Dana, whose previous books include studies of gender issues, labor history, and banana pickers in Central America, is an engaged intellectual, whose enthusiasm and curiosity is infectious. Many academics I've met (and I almost become one) are tainted with the virus of cynicism. They distance themselves from the strum und drang of the world they pretend to understand and feel superior to its victims. Dana, like my mentor Carolyn Merchant, breaks that mold.

The big news in Thailand this week is underage castration. A headline on the front page of the Bangkok Post claimed that young transvestites were having their testicles removed because they thought it would give them smoother skin and make them more feminine. A gay activist had charged that a 16-year-old boy had been castrated last year in Bangkok. The Thai Medical Council, the professional association that establishes standards of practice for Thai doctors, issued a warning that clinics performing castrations on boys under the age of 18 were breaking the law, if there is no parental approval, and practitioners could lose their license and have their clinics closed down for a year. It also warned that castration would not necessarily enhance ones femininity. Clinics are offering castrations on the internet for 4,000 baht (130 dollars) a chop. One clinic was raided by police but apparently no underage patients were discovered. Thailand, according to one news story, "is famously tolerant of transsexuals, known locally as 'kathoey,' or the third gender. While they have traditionally been allowed roles in festivals and cabarets, they have in recent years sought to make inroads into mainstream society." Many kathoeys, or "lady boys," can be spotted in my neighborhood, men with masculine features and feminine breasts. While the number who have gone all the way is unknown, there is clearly a large market for female hormones.

Mango madness! This is the first time in Asia for me during mango season. Suddenly there are mangoes everywhere. Here you can see yellow ones for 20 baht each on a pushcart. Last week we found three for 50 baht, and Pim brought him a pair the other day that cost 36 baht (a little over $1). At Foodland there are about a half dozen varieties (mostly yellow and green) which seem to cost from 50-80 baht a kilo. I used to find imported mangoes in Santa Cruz. And I studied the deft way that my mentor Noel King cut the fruit, first into halves and then sectioned with cross-crosses of the knife, after which he turned each half inside out to separate the sections from the skin. I tried to follow his example but usually made a mess of it. Now I have a pro in Pim who first skins the fruit and then slices it into two halves around the seed. Occasionally we've gotten a sour one, but even without the full sweetness it is still the goddess of fruit. I fully intend to pig out this mango season in Thailand.

I'm proud to announce that Jerry and George have voted me Farang Rookie of the Year, in recognition of my amiability and adaptability. No higher praise could be received from my trusted peers.