Sunday, August 31, 2008

High Noon in Bangkok

As I write this, early Sunday morning in Bangkok, opposing mobs are gathering across the Chao Phraya River not far from my apartment. One group, calling itself the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD), wears yellow shirts and headbands. The other, the Democratic Alliance Against Dictatorship (DAAD), wears red. A leader of DAAD said his group would hit a gong to call for a mass rally instead of blowing a whistle as the PAD did. It's a beautiful sunny day for a putsch, a revolution or a coup, whatever you want to call a violent change of government.

Tens of thousands of PAD members have been rallying in the streets of Bangkok for several months, calling for for the resignation of Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej whom they charge is a stand-in for deposed PM Thaksin Shinawatra who recently went into exile in England with his wife to escape corruption charges here. Several days ago, this mob of ultra-nationalists and royalists took over Government House, Thailand's political heart. Black-clad thugs broke into the government's NBT TV station early one morning and attempted to force it to broadcast PAD programs; they failed. PAD members have closed three provincial airports (stranding tourists in Phuket) and unions have gone on strike in support, paralyzing the country by shutting down train service. Despite legal calls to remove demonstrators and warrants for the arrest of PAD's nine leaders on charges of treason, the police have been ineffectual in dislodging them. Tear gas was used briefly when a PAD mob besieged police headquarters, although neither side has admitted responsibility, and various scuffles have caused some injuries. PAD, quick to appeal to the law when isn't directed at them, has charged "police brutality!" and sued the police chief.

Little has been heard from DAAD until yesterday when supporters of both the deposed Thaksin and the beleaguered Samak began gathering in large numbers at Sanan Luang, the large park next to the Grand Palace in Bangkok. Speakers charged PAD with using "anarchist means" to achieve their objective, the overthrow of a legitimately elected government. A DAAD leader predicted that as many as 100,000 pro-government demonstrators would reach the park today and march to Parliament for the emergency session there to lend their strength to Samak. Their red color is ominous.

According to Shawn W. Crispin of Asia Times Online,
Bangkok has not experienced this degree of political chaos since the fateful events of May 1992, when anti-military government street protests took a violent turn and troops in retaliation opened fire on unarmed demonstrators, killing as many as 250.
Friday night Samak went to see King Bhumibol at his residence in Hua Hin to brief him on the situation but was unable to secure an audience until the next evening. Last night the ruling coalition of political parties organized by his People Power Party met at a Bangkok hotel. Although the prime minister did not attend, they emerged to say the coalition was firmly behind Samak and that he would not resign. Gen Anupong Paochinda, who commands Thailand's military, has also supported the prime minister, but, according to late reports, has told him he has no choice but to resign. A joint session of the Senate and House will be held early this afternoon to discuss the crisis. No doubt the mobs in yellow and red shirts will be there to shout (and more) their support for one solution or another.

Francesco Sisci in Rome's La Stampa (translated) compares the yellow shirts to the brown shirts in Mussolini's Italy:
Let’s call things with their right names. What the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) did on August 26 by storming a TV station, assaulting many ministries and then camping in the gardens of the government house was a putsch. It is only unclear whether the putsch was successful or not...

A coup d’etat in Thailand would be dangerous in normal circumstances, because it would push back the regional process of democratization, because it would be bad inspiration for Filipino or Indonesian generals eager to grab back political power thanks to the barrels of their tanks. Now, a putsch could be worse, a disaster as it would greatly enhance global instability by opening new fronts, new fault lines in this semi-new cold war period with Russia. The putsch in Thailand must be stopped...

The Italian fascists in the 1920s claimed to protect the national interests and accused all their political enemies of being traitors of the motherland. They brought Italy to ruin and caused the end of monarchy. Today the situation in Thailand is even more serious. The government has been democratically elected just seven months ago; opinion polls show that over 70% of the people are against the ongoing protest and in favor of the government; the PAD makes no mystery of upholding a strongly authoritarian agenda asking only 30% of the parliament to be elected – the rest should be appointees.
It's hard for a visitor to understand what's going on. Many PAD members fought alongside radical students against military-imposed governments in the 1970s and 1990s. Their rallies resemble mini-Woodstocks with folksingers entertaining between speeches, the audience filled with seemingly a cross-section of Thai society. When the billionaire Thaksin was democratically elected in 2001 and re-elected in 2005, many thought the age of army coups was over. But this self-made businessman, intent on modernizing and globalizing Thai society and political culture, alienated important segments of the country with his populist policies along with rumors of authoritarianism, corruption, cronyism and vote buying. The Thai electorate rapidly became polarized along pro- and anti-Thaksin lines. PAD was formed in 2005 to agitate for his overthrow and succeeded with the army's intervention in September. But the PPP replaced Thaksin's Thai Rak Thai Party and one of his lieutenants, Samak, was elected prime minister last December, with a majority of votes coming from the countryside where Thaksin is God. PAD reformed and has been campaigning with increasing strength against the Samak administration, culminating in what it has called the "Final Solution" this past week.

As I write this blog, I am watching Samak's weekly "Talk Samak Style" TV broadcast on NBT but am unable to understand what he is saying. I will wait anxiously for a translation on Bangkok Pundit, one of my prime sources of information and interpretation. Another is the web site of one of Bangkok's two English language dailies, The Nation, which has frequent updates. Crispin in Asia Times thinks this is PAD's "apparent last act." By not evicting the demonstrators from Government House, Samark is showing his (uncharacteristic) restraint. Thaksin's exile has enabled him to distance himself from his mentor. His strong ties to the generals and the King give him some protection against charges of wanting to overthrow the monarchy to establish a republic (which PAD claims was Thaksin's intention). But bloodshed in the streets can change everything.

Pim asked me the other day if I were "scared." About what, I asked. "Getting hurt," she said. Well, I'm not about to go across the river into the worst of it, I said, despite my desire to chronicle Thai life in this blog. I'll take my binoculars up to the 22nd floor of our apartment building to scan the skyline for signs of action. And I watch news videos of the crisis on one of the local TV stations which provide a bit of information and insight, even if I can't understand the commentary. I've never been in a revolution, coup or putsch before. It's a bit exciting.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

As the World Turns

Pim came back last night about 8:30.

At first she said it was because she needed a place to sleep until she found a room. When I told her on Sunday we had to separate, I had also said it was OK for her to stay here temporarily. It didn't take long before she threw her arms around me and asked to stay permanently. Of course I said yes. "I will tell my friends about you," she promised.

Now I am embarrassed about my dramatic post of Sunday. What I interpreted as tragedy probably looks like an episode in a soap opera. My young lover can't make her mind what she wants and I succumb to her every whim. The old dog has forgotten all his tricks.

After hearing the news, my friends had consoled me. Marcus wrote:
It's good that you let her go, and good if you can do so nicely. You are right, she is younger than you and, from what I've seen in your blog, never happy about telling her family and friends. How long could it really last? So wish her well and put it in perspective. A good year for you, for both of you, and now you can both move on.
Eric advised me to keep my chin up, and prescribed the traditional method of debauchery for healing a broken heart:
I'm envious of you, big time ! All those tens of thousands lucky available Thai girls out there just dying to meet somebody exactly like you. I figure by another two - three weeks you'll have trouble juggling them all, bad boy!
Holly suggested I "take a break & hit upscale the bar scene," a wine tasting with tapas this week at a watering hole in her neighborhood. She sent me the web link for a clinical study at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore offering psilocybin to people with a diagnosis of cancer ("probably you have to fake anxiety"). Jerry said he was there for me if I needed anything.

By this morning it was as if Pim had never left. She was in a rush to get to work early at the Post Office because the Peoples Alliance for Democracy is threatening to shut down the city today in its campaign to overthrow the Samak government. More than 100,000 are expected to block roads and surround Government House. At dawn a small group tried and failed to take over one of the government-owned television stations, NBT. The morning news shows police confiscating a variety of scarey weapons from protesters.

As I walked her to the bus stop, I told her we had to talk tonight, something farang like to do. Thais, on the other hand, according to Thailand Fever: A Road Map for Thai-Western Relationships (Bangkok, 2004), avoid confrontation at all costs, and will tell a "noble lie" to save face and the feelings of others. The authors, Chris Pirazzi and Vitida Vasant, write that truth takes a back seat. To deal with your partner's shyness and reservation, they offer this advice:
Whenever you sense the slightest bit of hesitation and even somethimes when you don't, gently, but persistanly ask her if everything is ok. Make it clear that you really want to know how she feels and you won't be offended, no matter what she says. Eventually, you will pry true feelings out of her and you should be able to make her happier.
Why didn't you call or send me a message yesterday that you wanted to come back? I asked. If you didn't want to separate after all, why didn't you try and talk me out of it. "Because I was scared," she said. "I didn't want you argue." She talked about her fears at work yesterday with her colleague Boy, a gay man who is her closest confidant. "What should I do?" she asked him. "Go ask if you can use the shower, and then walk out naked," was his suggestion.

If either of us are unhappy, I told her this morning, then we might have to separate, for good this time. We both know how hard it is for you to continually lie about our relationship. Each of us has to decide what is best for our life, to live together or to go our separate ways. Last night Pim said that she wanted to go with me to the Buddhist temple for tambon, to gain merit by giving a gift to the monks. "To celebrate our new life," she explained.

And Now For Something Completely Different: Prime time in Denver is drinking morning coffee time in Bangkok, very convenient for watching the Democrats Convention. This morning I saw most of Teddy Kennedy's courageous speech, and listened to Michelle Obama and her family. After the choice of Joe Biden, I knew that Obama was someone I could support. And listening to the couple's story has impressed me even more. They do articulate the core values of the Democratic Party, values I've subscribed to since I first voted for John Kennedy in 1960.

But the commentators also have it correct that the Democrats have must begin and continue to pound the record of the most unpopular president in U.S. history and his surrogate John McCain who would be one more unmitigated disaster for the country. Iraq should be named as an immoral and costly mistake (is that too soft a word?) and the collapse of the U.S. economy should be laid at the doorstep of Bush and the pro-business Republicans. Hopefully the Democrats have their big guns in reserve, but they've yet to be fired.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Love is Suffering

Pim moved out this afternoon. The note on the table said, "I am sory. And thank you for everything."

It happened quickly. Just yesterday morning we were holding hands as we waited for her bus to work. But I was already upset. It seems she had plans to go out with friends that night. So in the late afternoon I took the river taxi and Skytrain to see Jerry, and he and Eric and I went to Noriega's in Patpong to listen to Peter Driscoll's rockabilly band.

While there, I got this SMS from Pim: "I am not go home tonight. I know i not nice to i make you not happy. So up to you if you want to separat." I left after a few songs with commiserations from my friends, and went home to drink gin and tonics. I gathered up Pim's makeup from the shelf before the mirror in the bedroom and her toiletries from the bathroom and put them in a bag. In the morning I felt lousy.

I did not want to respond with anger to her message so I waited. I took my laundry to the machine downstairs, a job that had been Pim's. Then finally, after lunch, I sent this text to her: "You're right. I'm unhappy and want to separate now." She came home around 3 when I was taking a nap and saw my packing. I tried to talk but she would not answer and started to complete my work. It had been my intention that she would stay in the apartment, sleeping on the couch, until she found a new place to live. But I couldn't see how to apply the brakes. How could I explain my confused thoughts in an English she would barely understand?

I left for an hour, walking aimlessly in the street, wanting to give her space to do what she thought should be done. When I got back, she was still here and said she was going to her relative's apartment in Nana where her sister Song is currently staying. I began to sense that the decision for this departure was mutual. It's been coming for several months, since her last visit home to Kalasin. We talked, holding hands, she crying and me staring stoically into space, about the good times we'd had and how we wanted to be friends. "I want to help you if you need it," she said, knowing that my inability to speak or understand much Thai was a problem in this very Thai neighborhood. She said "I have to find my life. No more lying!" I gave her some money to help with what I knew would be a difficult time for her.

The move is only just begun. The bedroom shelves are still filled with her clothes. There is a selection of her shoes in the shoe cabinet, and she'll eventually retrieve her rice cooker and bathrobe. I don't know how long it will take to disentangle our lives after nearly a year together, almost seven months sharing the same small space here and at Siam Court.

"Love is suffering" is the tag Pim used for her internet profile when we first met last September. She had been jilted by an IBM repairman from America after a six-week affair. I felt sorry for her and tried to cheer her up. Perhaps she saw me as a way to regain her injured pride. Later she explained her first visit to my apartment which lasted until the next morning by telling me, "I wanted you to love me." It worked. I've discovered that the tag can be traced to French actress Catherine Deneuver who said, "Love is suffering. One side always loves more."

Pim assured me through her tears today that she loved me, squeezing my hand for emphasis. But I know that the difference in ages makes for a difference in attachment. I think she can let me go and move on more easily than I. There's nothing like an old fool. She will look for a younger man, someone who can give her a child and whom she can brag about to her friends. I'm sitting here now, with my usual emotional constipation at such times, trying to hold my broken heart together by tying it up in words.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

The Narrow Gate

Two steps forward, one step back. I picked up my work permit from the Ministry of Labor last Monday. After over a month of gathering the correct documents, my application was finally approved. But only until Sept. 11th when my visa expires. There was a bit of last minute bother about the job description, but apparently it was amended to everyone's satisfaction. I have been hired as a "special" teacher, whatever that means, which I'm told makes it easier to slip in as an exception (I'm past retirement age and I'm only working part time) to the general rules. I immediately took a taxi to the Immigration office where I expected to easily extend my "non-immigration B" visa for a year. Dr. Subodh from India had told me he got it quickly. After a long wait in the crowded office, I was told the letter of employment I presented was addressed to the Labor office and not Immigration. So the next morning I persuaded Dr. Chatchai, my contact at Mahachula University's administrative office, to write a new letter. With the this in hand, I returned to Immigration to endure a three-hour wait (the office closes for the noon lunch hour). When I finally took my turn at the window, I was told that the letter must be signed not by Dr. Chatchai but by the president of the university. Argh. So on Thursday I begged the chairman of the English language department at Wat Srisudaram for help. He doesn't speak very good English so I wasn't certain he understood my request. After all, the employer is supposed to secure the work permit, not the employee. But Dr. Suriya went into high gear and quickly put the necessary document together. Phra Tintawong, the secretary, took it over to the head office at Wat Mahathat to be signed. I should get it on Monday and will gird my loins for another encounter at Immigration next week. Once the visa is extended, I must return to the Labor office to extend my work permit in concert with the visa. Neither office is easily accessible, so I must take taxis. My taxi bill this past week was enormous. Nothing is easy in the bureaucratic boogie here in Bangkok.

I also got paid after kicking up a bit of a fuss. I've been teaching for three months and a couple of weeks ago was told a check was forthcoming. But it didn't. Finally I learned that as a part timer I get paid in cash, and someone had to go over to Mahathat to fetch my money. I was handed an envelope with 9,600 baht in it, my fee for teaching four 6-hour days in June at 400 baht ($12) an hour. I'd expected 500 ($15) from the contract they had give me which specified 12,000 baht a month. But I learned that the contract was for show, since it was necessary to earn that much as a minimum to get a work permit. And 400 baht is the "farang rate"; Thais earn less. So I went home relatively happy with my earnings. I'm not teaching for the money, anyway, and what I get is icing on the cake. I'm not sure why they didn't pay me as well for July, since August is already half over, but it's a start.

The expensive Elle watch I bought at Pata Department Store for Pim's birthday stopped working a week later. I took it back and the salesgirl had a new battery installed. But it still didn't work and she told me it must be sent to be repaired,"one month." I was disturbed by this news. In the West you get an exchange or a refund for a new purchase that fails to please. I was fairly certain that I could get Visa to cancel the payment. I called Pim and asked her to translate. As we were talking, the clerk knocked the watch a few times and it started running again. So I took it home. A day later it was dead once again. Pim decided to let it be repaired, and told me "jai yen yen yen" (cool your jets).

Yesterday at Central Pinklao, all selling stopped while Thai flyweight boxer Somjit Jongjohor battled Vicenzo Picardi of Italy to a 7-1 decision in his favor. Crowds gathered around every TV set in the supermall. This evening Somjit takes on Cuba's Andris Laffita Hernandez for the gold medal. Another boxer, lightwelterweight Manus Boonjumnong is also going for a gold this evening against Felix Diaz of the Dominican Republic. Thailand has only won two medals so far, a gold for weightlifting and a silver for taekwando, both to women. So it's safe to say that the entire country will be glued to their TV screens tonight. I've enjoyed the Olympics but what I've seen is all by accident. There is no TV schedule for the events in English. Synchronized swimming was hoot, and badminton was unexpectedly exciting. I missed the women's gymnastics floor final, but did get to see the Jamaican coast to a new record in the 100 meter dash. I'll watch the closing ceremony if I can since I so enjoyed the spectacular opening. And maybe in four years I can find my way to London.

Since writing about Jerry Wexler last week, my son Chris has been encouraging me to assemble my memoirs, even though I tell him that most of my stories about working in the music business are boring (or subject to censorship). Still, I began making lists of all the recording artists I'd worked with, met or simply heard in concert or, like in Austin, at Jerry Jeff Walker's house. I've been checking my memories with a few old friends from the business with whom I am still in touch. Maybe I can put together something for my children and have it privately printed. The older ones didn't see much of me and need to know why. The younger two think I never worked since I spent so much time at home when they were small, and they need to know that I once had a career.

My good friend Gerry, who introduced me to the pessimistic blatherings of Schopenhauer back at Pasadena City College fifty years ago, reminds me that "the thing about one's seventies (speaking for myself), is that the rate of overall deterioration picks up. Happy trails." Thank you for that, I think.

Pim is in the process of writing a new script for our relationship. She has been unable to tell her school friends in Kalasin about me for fear of losing face. The age range is just too great (and perhaps my retirement income is too small). One of them, Nui, recently moved to Belgium with her new husband, and now they talk and email incessantly. But Nui thinks Pim still lives alone in a dormitory and does not have a boyfriend. I'm not sure why she found it easier to tell some of her co-workers, as well as her mom and sisters. But the secrecy and her constantly lying is worrying. If she lies to her friends, will she tell me the truth? The other night she admitted to one of her friends that she'd met an "old farang" online and that he wanted to pay her to take care of him. While not getting much approval, that was a relationship which Thais could understand, tit for tat, an economic negotiation. I've decided that I can accept that story. I do need care (and will need more as my body deteriorates), and I can reward her for it. They don't need to know, yet, that we are sleeping together. Pim wants to tell the truth in small increments. Now I need to decide if the relationship is a fair exchange. After a nice start, Pim has stopped cooking for me, though she did iron my tee shirts the other day.

More troublesome is her social schedule which seems to be expanding. I plan my time around her time off only to discover that she has made other plans. Do we need to be together all the time? I feel like a high school lover, jealous that his girl wants to hang out with friends instead of him. Certainly they offer her something I can't provide, fun with contemporaries. So I find myself reacting by become aggressively independent. Pim, on the other hand, doesn't seem to mind when we spend time apart. When she hesitated this morning about telling me whether she was coming home after work, I took the initiative and told her I'd go to hear music with Jerry this evening. Then she told me that she'd run out of money for the month, despite my sizable donation. What did you spend it on? I asked. Her English ability vanished. So this weekend has begun with a fizzle.

Thursday I left school a half hour early and took at taxi to Wat Yannowa for the first of Pandit Bhikku's series of talks on "Live Dhamma: The Peaceful Teaching." He'd written an article that appeared on the front page of the education section of the Bangkok Post two days before and the room on the upper floor of the main temple building was filled to overflowing with English-speaking tourists and members of the expat community. Several monks from the temple joined him on the platform in front of the Buddha icons while several fans stirred the turbid air. Pandit cited one of the suttas, "The Elephant's Footprint," to introduce the Theravadan path toward's enlightenment. His clear and often humorous and self-depricating commentary presented Buddhism to a lay audience of people not likely to put on robes in the hopes that it would make the path easier. Many of the faces were new, but the faithful members of Little Bang Sangha were their to support their leader's continuing attempts to translate the Dhamma for Bangkok's English speakers.

Last night, Little Bangers Lee, Arthur, Jan and I met David Holmes for dinner in the upper room of a restaurant next to the Ari BTS station. Lee is an American who has lived in Asia for many years. He has a weekly show on radio where he plays mostly jazz but also George Carlin and Burt Bacharach. Jan from Switzerland and Arthur from England are both older retirees with Thai families. Lee's son with his ex-Thai wife is an art student at university. David is a Canadian who has taught in Germany and translated Pali scriptures into English in Sri Lanka. Now he lives in retirement on the River Kwai. I've never met anyone who lives the Dhamma more naturally, a storyteller who can discuss precepts or jazz, depending on the context. Our conversation with David ranged over a variety of topics, from the body, mind, consciousness and the illusory self to science, music, macaroni and skate keys. Next month David will give a talk to The Siam Society on Buddhism and the caste system. Not long ago we had a weekend retreat at the resort where he lives, and hopefully some of us will go up to visit him again soon.

It's back to basics for me after kicking loose the traces of my Christian faith. The core doctrine of Buddhism is there is no self. David can talk about that with a sly grin on his face, as if to say "now you see it, now you don't." We're socialized from infancy to believe in our self, the name we're given, the experiences we accumulate. How can the self not be real, something that might even persist after death (what else can be reincarnated for Christ's sake?). But the Buddha says no, the self is not real. The problem is we cling to the attributes of self, my identity, my money, my friends, and suffer greatly when nothing lasts (all is impermanent, is another essential component of Buddhist faith). Pandit cannot understand why I am attempting a new romantic relationship at this late date in my life when I should be preparing to die. It mystifies me as well. Can it just be the body heat we generate when we embrace? Buddhism can be every bit as abstract and otherworldly as Christianity, and I want to "save the appearances" (as Owen Barfield argued) by keeping body and mind together. I argued last night for the value of popular piety, the inbred spirituality that I've observed among people in India and Thailand. There is a sense in which rituals and icons sum up our encounter with the divine. There is nothing left over. But of course they also become the tattered tools of superstition. Buddhadasa Bhikku,one of my new heroes, wanted to purge Thai Buddhism of its dependence of spirit houses, protective string, magic and hungry ghosts. The icon in most spirit houses is Brahma, not Buddha. But you cannot have a this-worldly religion without honoring the beliefs of the people. There are too many priests.

Perhaps my resistance to Buddhist teaching, as well as Christian theology, has to do with my inability at present to put together a practice, either of meditation or devotion. My God has become the scenes on the street, from the raggedy soi dogs to the beggars, school kids and food carts. I want to find an embodied spirituality that I can embrace which gives me the warmth and security I have found in the arms of Pim.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Immaculate Funk

I was nervous as I walked up to the bungalow at the Beverly Hills Hotel. Before being hired as the west coast publicity director for Atlantic Records, it was necessary to get the approval of the company's two Great Men, Jerry Wexler and Ahmet Ertegun, legends in the music business. Ahmet had been easy. He laid on the Turkish charm and told me that he wanted me to be his eyes and ears on the coast (I soon learned he said that to everyone, including a number of notorious groupies). Jerry concerned me. He had started out as a writer for Billboard magazine, and the music he had produced with LaVern Baker, Ray Charles, Ruth Brown, Big Joe Turner and the Coasters was part of the soundtrack of my teenage years. He was known to be a music fan and an intellectual who could use words like the horn of a musician. I wanted him to like me. So I wrote down my musical autobiography, in which Atlantic's roster of artists had played such a large role, and presented it to him during our interview in the bungalow as an introductory gift. He was impressed, and very complimentary.

That was nearly forty years ago. Jerry died yesterday at his home in Sarasota, Florida. He was 91. Both of us left Atlantic in 1975, he because they'd sold the company to Warner Brothers-Seven Arts in 1967 and he was never comfortable in the corporate environment; and me because working in the music business had become too toxic. I needed to escape to northern California from the temptations of sex, drugs and rock and roll. I never got to know Jerry well, but we did speak occasionally when he visited the Hollywood office, and I remember him from the 1970 company conference in Palm Springs, the beginning of my tenure with Atlantic (I worked there at three different periods) and the 25th anniversary celebration in Paris a couple of years later when I dined with him and his then wife Shirley (St├ęphane Grappelli played for our meal).

The last time we met was under strained circumstances. Jerry was in San Francisco for Aretha Franklin's performance at Bill Graham's Fillmore. It was a memorable event. King Curtis led the orchestra and Ray Charles made a surprise appearance. It's all captured on a classic Atlantic recording. I was supposed to be assisting Jerry, and I set up several interviews with writers at his hotel. But I was being courted by jazz critic Ralph Gleason who wanted me to do PR for Fantasy Records in Berkeley, the company made rich by Creedence Clearwater Revival. Ralph had retired from writing his column for the San Francisco Chronicle and was now vice present of the company in which he had a financial interest (he was also the original investor for Rolling Stone Magazine). While I was visiting across the Bay with Ralph, Jerry was frantically trying to reach me (no cell phones in those days) about a canceled interview. He never forgave me for leaving him hanging.

“Immaculate Funk,” was Wexler’s phrase for the Atlantic sound, characterized by a heavy backbeat and a gospel influence. “It’s funky, it’s deep, it’s very emotional, but it’s clean,” he once said. Tom Thurman took the term for the title of his documentary in 2000 on "rhythm and blues," the label Jerry created at Billboard in the late 1940s for what had been called "race music." He was the son of a Polish immigrant who cleaned windows for a living, and a mother who wanted more for her son. She instilled in him a love for great books. He became passionate about music and in the clubs of Harlem and on 52nd Street he listened to Roy Eldridge, Sidney Bechet and Billie Holiday. Sent away to the midwest for school, Wexler played hookey in Kansas City where he heard Count Basie, Bennie Moten and soul singers like Joe Turner. When he returned to Manhattan he hung out with other jazz and blues fans like the Ertegun brothers, Ahmet and Nesuhi, and John Hammond who later made his name as a producer at Columbia Records. After five years at Billboard, Ahmet invited him in 1953 to become a partner at Atlantic and the rest is history. Recalling the early days, Wexler told an interviewer, "We didn't know shit about making records, but we were having fun." "To record Ray Charles all Ahmet and Jerry had to do was turn on the lights in the studio," says writer Stanley Booth, "and Ray didn't even need that." During Wexler's first two years at the label, 30 Atlantic sides landed in the R&B Top 10.

In his autobiography, Rhythm and the Blues: A Life in American Music (1993, co-authored with David Ritz), Wexler wrote about his background: "I was simmered in a slow-cooking gumbo of New Orleans jazz, small Harlem combos, big bands, Western swing, country, jukebox race music, pop schmaltz." He will long be remembered for convincing Aretha to abandon the pop songs she was singing and return to her gospel roots. That partnership resulted in such masterpieces as "Respect" and "Natural Woman" (which Wexler wrote). When Ahmet got more involved in rock, signing Sonny & Cher, Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones, and Crosby Stills Nash & Young, Wexler turned his attention south and utilized outstanding studio bands to record hits in Memphis and Muscle Shoals, Alabama, with Wilson Pickett and Percy Sledge. Eventually he moved to Miami where I watched him produce a session with the reunited Electric Flag in 1974. He also tried to start a country division for Atlantic, starting with Willie Nelson, but aside from Willie it never got off the ground.

I wasn't the only one to have a falling out with Wexler. He could be opinionated and abrasive. His former collaborators, Jim Stewart at Stax in Memphis and Rick Hall at Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, later came to see him as a carpetbagger coming down to pilfer the patrimony of Southern music. Wexler particularly disliked David Geffen, the wunderkind who rose from an Laura Nyro's agent to become the head of Asylum Records and a co-founder of Dream Works films, whom he called a "greedy agent." When Geffen came to Wexler to ask him to release Stephen Stills from his solo contract in order to form Crosby, Stills & Nash, the older man kicked him out of his office. According to Geffen, "Wexler wouldn't even listen to me. He treated me like dirt. He screamed and yelled and acted like I was looking to rob him." At a later meeting of corporate executives, Wexler screamed at Geffen: "You'd jump in a pool of pus just to come up with a nickel between your teeth, " while his former partners and Warner chairman Steve Ross looked on in shock. It was almost a badge of honor to be at odds with the jive talking hipster record producer.

A few years ago, according to Rolling Stone, Wexler put together a CD for friends of the recordings he was most proud of producing. It's a remarkable list: Professor Longhair, "Tipitina" (1953), Ray Charles, "I Got a Woman" (1954), Big Joe Turner, "Shake, Rattle and Roll" (1954), LaVern Baker, "Tweedlee Dee" (1954), Champion Jack Dupree, "Junker's Blues" (1958), The Drifters, "There Goes My Baby" (1959), Ray Charles, "What I'd Say" (1959), Solomon Burke, "If You Need Me" (1963), Booker T. & the MG's, "Green Onions" (1962), Wilson Pickett, "In the Midnight Hour" (1965), Aretha Franklin, "Respect" (1967), Dusty Springfield, "Son of a Preacher Man" (1969), Dr. John, "Iko Iko" (1972), Doug Sahm, "(Is Anybody Going to) San Antone" (1973), Willie Nelson, "Bloody Mary Morning" (1974), The Sanford/Townsend Band, "Smoke From a Distant Fire" (1977), James Booker, "Winin' Boy Blues" (1978), Etta James, "Take It to the Limit" (1978), Dire Straits, "Lady Writer" (1979), Bob Dylan, "Gotta Serve Somebody" (1979).

The pioneers are all gone now: Ahmet and Nesuhi and Jerry (the three pictured below), producer Arif Mardin, and Tom Dowd, the awesome engineer who started as a kid in the early Atlantic studio (actually an office with the desks pushed back) and became an innovator as the tape tracks multiplied, producing acclaimed albums by the Allman Brothers, Eric Clapton and the J. Geils Band (his work is chronicled in the 2003 documentary "Tom Dowd and the Language of Music"). I never more than rubbed shoulders with them during my brisk walk through the record business in the 1970s. But the music they helped make is a part of me, like bones and veins. "Dusty in Memphis" is still one of my favorite albums, Ray Charles taught me that musical genres are only guidelines, and Aretha is still the queen, despite her subsequent retreat into pop schmaltz.

There is a revealing and touching portrait of the R&B lion in winter in today's Washington Post. Staff writer Ann Hornaday visited Wexler last Spring when third wife, novelist Jean Arnold, was in a nursing home recovering from a stroke.
He ushered me into his darkened office ("my chamber of horrors"), where he kept in touch with family and friends by phone and fax ("I'm not online," he drawled in the elongated vowels of his native Bronx)...

Outside, palm trees swayed gently, while inside Wexler spoke of old times, new projects and lost friends like a man in a lush, quiet, green prison. Of a newly released record by a young artist covering one of his most legendary albums: "She has a beautiful voice, but there are no tracks." What kind of music was he listening to these days? "Mostly classic jazz. I can't stand rap -- there's no melody. And you can't understand a word they're saying." Does he hear from any of the artists he used to record? "Willie still checks in regularly," he said, referring to Willie Nelson. "He came to visit when he played the Van Wezel [Performing Arts Hall] in Sarasota. And Kris Kristofferson stopped by."
"Jerry is a deeply spiritual guy," says Stanley Booth, "but his religion is making music." Filmmaker Thurman asked the secular Jew and confirmed atheist, "What do you want written on your tombstone, Jerry?" He said, "Two words: More bass."

Writing about my glamorous past always brings up complicated emotions. For years I tried to forget about the five years I spent in the music business. It (the late nights, the drugs, the women) destroyed my first marriage and hurt my two sons. My second ex-wife refused to listen to my stories. And, truth to tell, they weren't very interesting. I didn't sing, I didn't write songs, and I didn't jam with the famous. A failed musician (just didn't have the chops), I was first and foremost a fan. I loved rhythm and blues, jazz, folk music and, to a limited extent, pop schmaltz (Perry Como and Teresa Brewer, among others). I even learned to love country hillbilly swing and Hawaiian hula music. But who wants to hear about how I snorted cocaine with ... ?

So here I am at 69 looking back on a lifetime of indulgence. Can I do penance for my self-centeredness by helping young monks learn English? Will I live as long as Jerry Wexler? If so, that means I have 22 years to make up for lost time.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

School Day

Today I teach English to the monks at Wat Srisudaram in Bangkoknoi, a suburb across the Chao Phraya River from the city center. The first of my two classes begins at 1, and I usually finish by 6:30. Today, however, Asst. Prof. Kovid, who shares my fourth year students, all undergrads majoring in English, is attending a seminar and has asked me to take both our classes. So I'll have to squeeze 56 orange-robed students into one small classroom. Since it means I run through the lesson plan only once and then get off early, I don't mind.

As is usually the case, my students are sending me their homework by email at the last minute. This week they are writing about their best friend. Some of their stories are delightful, but not a few have simply copied the example I gave them from the New Headways text, substituting only a few details. Originality is rare in the Thai educational system where students are trained to memorize and recite by rote. But despite the faulty punctuation and grammatical mistakes, I grade them for effort. A few steps out of the box always gets an A.

Last week we spoke about beginnings, in relationships as well as technology (inventions was a theme). Since they're monks and denied relationships with the opposite sex, I asked them to speak about their parents, how they met and when they were married ("years ago" was another lesson). One monk from Cambodia told the class that under the Khmer Rouge, couples were simply ordered to marry and reproduce, and this was how his parents came together. This same monk had written about how his classmates lost limbs in land mine explosions. Other monks proudly talked about the "love story" between their fathers and mothers. Many parents, too many for students this young, are deceased.

I'm incredibly lucky to have found this job. My monks tell me again and again how they want to return to their villages to help their people learn English. All have made sacrifices to leave family and friends to study in Bangkok, some crossing the border where they have to learn Thai as well as English. They tell me how happy they are to learn from a native speaker. And though they are serious about their education, they love to laugh. We have a lot of fun. What a contrast with my core students at UC Santa Cruz. Most of them were in school to party rather than study, and their goals were almost exclusively to graduate and make money; being of service to others was not on the agenda. Today the theme is food and I expect to learn how to make a variety of Southeast Asian dishes. Their writing assignment will be draft a message to reserve a hotel room by email. I doubt that any of them have ever stayed in a hotel.

Monday I moved one step closer towards long-term residency here, when my application for a work permit was accepted by the Office of Foreign Workers Administration in the Ministry of Labor. Dr. Subodh, the psychology teacher from India, had gone ahead of me and his advice on accumulating documents was invaluable. Pandit Bhikku accompanied me as translator and I'm sure his orange robe had an influence. There was little waiting, my papers were checked and approved and I paid a 100 baht fee. Next Monday I return and if all is well I will receive a three-month work permit and pay an additional fee of 750 baht. This will allow me to extend both my visa (before the current one expires September 11th) and my work permit for a year, renewable annually (more fees involved for this; residency ain't cheap).

The big news in Thailand is that Thaksin Shinawatra, the billionaire communications mogul, who has polarized politics here for ten years, has gone into exile in England. Both he and his wife faced a laundry list of corruption charges and she had been sentenced to three years in prison the week before. So they left Thailand for Beijing to watch the opening of the Olympics and then flew to London on Sunday night rather than back to Bangkok. The press has been full of screaming headlines ever since. Thaksin became prime minister in 2001 but was overthrown in a military coup in 2006. He returned to Thailand when politicians loyal to him were elected last December. But his suspected behind-the-scenes influence has divided Thailand into increasingly vocal and potentially violent pro- and anti-Thaksin forces. Pundits are furiously debating the effect of Thaksin's disappearance from the political scene here. No one really knows what comes next.

The Olympics has also been big news in Thailand, particular the gold medal win in weight lifting by Prapawadee Jaroenrattanatarak. Her mother fainted at the news and friends could be seen on TV trying to fan her awake. Other Thai athletes have not faired so well, though a boxer is still in contention. The different government-owned TV stations trade off coverage of events. Since commentary is in Thai, I have to scan the official Olympics web site to find out what I am looking at. The other afternoon I watched an exciting badminton match between Korean and Japan. Who knew such a sport could be spectator friendly? And the synchronized diving is quite beautiful. I also saw the U.S. gymnastics team lose to China. The Chinese are really psyched for these games, and I will probably root for them. After all, I'm an Asian now.

Monday was Mother's Day in Thailand. This is because it was Queen Sirikit's birthday. She gave a long speech on Sunday evening that was covered by all the TV stations (bumping Olympics coverage). According to the translation published the next day, she urged Thais to take care of their environment, water in particular (the klongs in my neighborhood are horribly polluted, resembling the dirty canals I've seen in India). I tried to find a photograph of the Queen from that evening but none were published, perhaps because she looks every bit her 76 years. There are large shrines everywhere to celebrate her birthday, including one in the lobby of my building. Most have paintings or photographs of her when she was much younger. I've seen numerous videos of the Queen's visits around the country over the years. In many she holds the arm of a general while a lady-in-waiting follows with a fan to keep her cool. She has a remarkable collection of turbans. Her Majesty is exceedingly respected in his country.

Last weekend Pandit hosted a gathering at Wat Mahathat. It was the monthly Saturday meeting for the English community, a long-running event, but only a couple of English speakers showed up. The topic was ostensibly Buddhist cosmology, but the co-speaker was Rory Mackenzie from Scotland, and his specialty is new Buddhist movements in Thailand. That's the title of his Ph.d. dissertation which was published last year by Routledge. After the meeting, Dr. Holly and I went to dinner with Rory. We learned that he came to Thailand twenty years ago as a missionary, and, after helping to start several churches, he now teaches Buddhism and theology at International Christian College in Glasgow and comes to Thailand once a year to give an 8-week course on Mahayana Buddhism at Mahachula. His book examines the Dhammakaya and Santi Asoke movements, both highly successful fringe groups here. The later is primarily composed of lay people and was excommunicated by the official Thai Sangha for its critical views of establishment religion. Naturally, that's the one I'm interested in. More on them later, after I finish Rory's book.

For those of you following my drama with Pim, we came close to breaking up again earlier this week. She works six days a week, and after she had spent last Saturday night and all day Sunday away with friends, I realized that all of her days off for the last month had been in the company of others, mostly those relatives and friends who have no idea that I exist. I was feeling neglected and rejected and let her know it. We spent a tense hour together, with her refusing to speak and me attempting ad infinitum to clarify my feelings. I'm not sure how much she understood, particularly my theory than when she is with people who know nothing about me she has no boyfriend and I have no girlfriend. I have used this to justify my conversations online with other women. At the end of our standoff, she sat next to me with her head on my shoulder and said "I'm sorry." It didn't take much of that to break through my shell.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

Spectacular Togetherness

The opening ceremonies of the 2008 Olympics, which I watched last night on Thai TV in real time (Beijing is only one hour ahead of Bangkok), was a riveting jaw-dropping spectacle, an over-the-top pageant that easily dwarfed any prior sports exgravaganza (Olympics, Superbowl, World Cup). The mix of art and beauty, music and dance, combined with elaborate CGI effects utilizing the entire National Stadium (nicknamed the "Bird's Nest") was engineered by Chinese film director Zhang Yimou ("Raise the Red Lantern," "House of Flying Daggers"). Over 15,000 performers took part in the elaborately choreographed drama showcasing China's traditions and culture before an audience of 90,000 including many heads of state. Leni Riefenstahl's documentary of the 1936 Olympics in Nazi Germany comes to mind.

But I don't want to bash China along with the rest of the western media for its attempt to control the Olympics (100,000 security police are on duty and 300,000 cameras keep watch for any threats to social stability). The government has outspent every other previous Olympics host by a factor of five, and even more than that by comparison on security alone. Pro-Tibet protesters have already been arrested and deported. Muslim activists in some regions of the country are under tight control. Naomi Klein calls this micromanagement "Police State 2.0" and asks: "Can China, despite the enormous unrest boiling under the surface, put on a 'harmonious' Olympics? If the answer is yes, like so much else that is made in China, Police State 2.0 will be ready for export."

I don't think we need a police state to control our populations. The media in America is very good at keeping a supposedly free people in check by bombarding them with enthralling trivia. Today's news about John Edwards' adultry is keeping the pundits gleeful and the public fed. Paris Hilton might take the Republican nomination away from John McCain. Here in Thailand, the border dispute with Cambodia is firing up nationalist and royalist sentiments. In the 21st century you don't need soldiers in the streets any more. Give the people bread and circuses.

I do love parades and pageants, and big sporting events are my meat and potatoes. While I am not a sports fan, and couldn't care less about the box scores, I do get excited about special events. I can enjoy the World Series, the Superbowl and even the World Cup, although I don't give a hoot who wins (I might attach temporary allegiances to particular teams and athletes). Best of all, I like the Olympics (with a particular fondness for the Winter event, especially the ski jump competition). While it may be stage managed and controlled by the host organizers and the Olympic committee, the individual competitions are real, with young trained athletes giving their all to win the coveted gold, silver and bronze prizes. What I disliked most in the past was the undisguised chauvinism of American TV sports commentors, something I will not miss here in Thailand (since I can't understand the Thai commentors). The best part of the opening ceremonies last night was the march of athetes into the stadium. They all looked so young and fresh and enthusiastic.

"One World, One Dream" is the slogan for Beijing 2008, and I will not be cynical. Despite the national banners (and I had not even heard of some of the 204 countries participating), the Olympics really does bring people together. It is a globalizing moment, not unlike the togetherness generated by the internet, or even Coca-Cola. While the nationalists and political idologies that divide are still with us, I believe that the more than 10,000 athletes that participate in this year's Olympic will not return home unchanged. The team from Iran followed Iraq into the stadium, both Israel and Palestine are in competition, and even Taiwan received cheers from the Chinese crowd. Athletes from North Korea and Syria, members of Bush's "Axis of Evil" along with Iran (and President Stupid was in attendance last night), will compete alongside Americans. Perhaps sport is war by other means. Certainly nationalism often bears an uncanny resemblance to fanatical loyalty to one team over another. But athletic competition is a lot less brutal, and rarely fatal (boxing might be an exception).

The opening ceremony began at 8 minutes after 8 p.m. in the eighth month of the 8th year of the 21st century, a most auspicious start. Boy came to our apartment last night to cook us a dinner of larb and kung. He took a few camera photos of his handiwork while we watched the athletes march into the Bird's Nest in Beijing. The festivities were still underway after we finished eating. Pim fell asleep on the couch while previous Chinese gold medal winners jogged around the track with the Olympic torch. She didn't see Li Ning, a six-time winner in gymnastics, vault through the air on wires to take a victory lap around the rim of the gigantic stadium before lighting the Olympic flame. She missed the fireworks all over Beijing to celebrate the beginning of the games. I'm sure I saw more on television than did the lucky few who were able to get tickets to the opening ceremony before it sold out. The video coverage was sensational.

I don't expect world peace to break out following Beijing 2008. But for the next 16 days I hope that the focus of the world's attention shifts a little from armaments to athletes, from attempts to achieve power and control by military and political means to the pursuit of excellence by young competitors at the top of their game. Watching their triumphs, and even their failures, at the Olympics in China might bring us all together, however briefly.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

The Wooden Beam in My Eye

Why do you notice the splinter in your brother's eye, but do not perceive the wooden beam in your own eye? (Matthew 7:3)
I am sometimes (often?) a stupid and inconsiderate man. And a hypocrite to boot.

On Monday night Pim asked me to meet her at 6:30 at the Central Pinklao shopping mall after she got off work. We were going to shop for her birthday gift, a watch. I was there as usual exactly on time. My second ex-wife thought punctuality a vice not a virtue, and could not imagine why anyone would want to arrive at a social function at the announced time. After 5 minutes of "eye shopping," I sent a "Where are you?" text message. A little later she called to say she had forgotten the time, was still at the office and would be leaving soon. I huffily replied that I would wait until 7 and no longer.

She arrived at 5 minutes past my deadline, after calling to plead with me to stay. She had in tow three of her postal colleagues and we all went off to dinner together. I hid my irritation so as not to embarrass Pim in front of her friends. All of them are interested in improving their English. So I announced over the meal, "My lesson for tonight is the word 'inconsiderate.'" It means, I explained, someone who is self-centered and thoughtless. An inconsiderate person is not aware of the needs and feelings of others. Pim got the unsubtle message and was most apologetic. We agreed that a nice watch would help her be less forgetful of our appointments.

My fear, of course, is that when she is at work or with her friends, particularly those unaware of my presence, she forgets about me. I am discovering new depths of insecurity after years of relative self-sufficiency. Steve, a colleague from GPI Publications in the 1970s whom I've recently re-encountered through the net, writes: "I remember reading that when an older man falls in love, he falls hard." As a confirmed batchelor, he's asking me for verification. When you're older, of course, it's more difficult to get up. My attachment to Pim has grown over the six months that we've lived together and the ten months that we've known each other. But because of the difference in our ages, and her reluctance to go fully public with our relationship, I feel lost in limbo.

I want to be with someone who is proud of me, I told her during a difficult patch, someone who will take care of me (in Thailand love is an agreement based on reciprocity), and someone who desires physical intimacy with me. All of this hit home, as intended. The truth is, Pim is superb in all categories, but the lapses are like mustard seeds which grow into the giant trees I fear. When we sleep apart, whether because her sister is visiting or because she's staying with friends after a late dinner, I fret. If she is not affectionate when she returns, my fear festers. She is bored with our love-making and finds my attention repulsive, I think.

It was in this mood Monday night that I reproached her for her lack of interest. "Do you want me to go see a bar girl?" I asked petulantly. No, she said softly. And then it came out. She was not feeling well; itchiness, pain and a discharge. I recognized right away that she probably has a yeast infection. And I remembered that she had told me about feeling itchy a few weeks before, and I'd also noticed a look of pain on her face when it should have registered pleasure. But she'd been too considerate of my needs to say anything.

It was an AHA! experience of the worst sort. While we may have some real mountains to climb if this relationship is to last, the fears and insecurities I've been feeling are the result of my self-centered thoughtlessness more than anything else. When the dark clouds disappear, I see before me a loving and sensitive lady who inexplicably loves both my intelligence and my broken-down body. She cooks, she cleans and she washes my clothes, and we snuggle in bed like two children in Eden.

Last night we bought medication for the yeast infection along with yogurt, and today I got some cranberry juice. This morning Pim went to work wearing her new silver Elle watch, the first she has worn since she was ten years old (its loss was a major childhood trauma). It may be raining outside, but the dark clouds (and the wooden beam in my eye) are gone (at least for now).

Monday, August 04, 2008

Bye Bye Bush

President Bush comes to Bangkok on Wednesday, the first anniversary of my arrival here last August. I wouldn't walk across the street to see the man whom I believe has incredibly hastened America's current decline, but his "Farewell to Asia" tour, no doubt an excuse for free tickets to the Olympics in Beijing which opens Thursday, gives me an excuse to use this press photo of the village idiot from Texas at prayer (next to his Godfather). He granted an audience to the Bangkok Post and other Asian journalists last week and it is astounding for its inanities. For a display quote, the English language paper used this: "There is a lot left to be done. In the Far East, absolutely." He said little else that was any more illuminating. Besides having dinner with Prime Minister Samak, among his stops while in the city (will he drop by the Nana bars while Laura is up at the border with Burma visiting refugee camps?) will be at the Human Development Foundation run by Jerry's pal, Fr. Joe Maier, priest of the Klong Toey Slum.

I have been heartened by the friends who've written to ask why I have not blogged for at least 10 days, a rare interlude in this space. They were concerned about the difficulties I've reported on with Pim, and no news is not always good news. But in this case, I've been busy, teaching English to the monks after a two-week hiatus for various Buddhist holidays, undergoing minor laser surgery for two skin irritations, and completing documents for my work permit application. I also attended a talk by Pandit Bhikku on the "Inner Guru" at the Shambhala Center in Bangkok, went bowling with Pim and her colleagues from Thailand Post, had dinner with Jerry and Lamyai during one of her rare trips away from the Surin farm, watched a half dozen episodes of the U.S. TV show "Mad Men" as well as the latest "Weeds," visited the new Bangkok Art & Culture Centre, and finished reading the autobiography by porn star Georgina Spelvin. Not a bad week's work for a retired gentleman.

Pim's younger sister Song (a family nickname meaning two; Pim's is Neung, which means one) arrived in Bangkok from Kalasin last week to begin a month-long training for a job selling cosmetics. She was here for Pim's 28th birthday which we celebrated with two of her co-workers, Boy and Jun. It was our first party and, amazingly, five people fit comfortably in our small apartment. At one point there were three in the minuscule kitchen helping Pim's best friend Boy cook a sumptuous feast (fresh shrimp was the dominant ingregient) which we washed down liberally with bottles of Bacardi Breezer rum sodas. Another reason for the party was to watch the finale of "Academy Fantasia 5," the hugely popular Thai talent show. Eight men and eight women started out in the contest 12 weeks ago, living together in a large mansion where they rehearsed songs and dances for the weekly Saturday night performances. AF5 was supponsored by True, a Thai communications conglomerate, and voting could be done only with mobile phones using its service. Pim and I had our favorites, Green, a willowy model, and Ron, a talented dancer with a golden smile. After Beau, perhaps the best singer, had been voted off, we decided that Good, with her Mariah Carey-strength voice, should be the winner. Green was the loser last week, however, and did not make the final five in the finale. At the end of the evening Saturday, Ron came in 2nd and Good 4th. The winner was Nat, a shy young man with an adequate singing ability and good legs (Pim was certain he was gay). The criteria was not talent so much as the number of votes you can muster from your fans. Boy, who proudly proclaims that he is "real gay," was very happy since Nat was his choice.

Pim is slowly introducing me to her postal colleagues. The party was my introduction to Jun who was recently married to a fellow Post Office employee. But he works several hours away and the couple maintains separate rooms, getting together only on weekends. Na, who has a similar situation with her husband, had come to see us not long after the move, and we went bowling with her and Boy a week ago. And on another night last week I met Chompoo at a sidewalk restaurant serving excellent Isan food. But Pim remains unable to tell her school friends about me, like Nui who flew to Belgium on Saturday with her new husband Ronnie, and Pik who joined them for a farewell gathering at the airport. Other than her mother and sister, other relatives, in Bangkok and Kalasin remain in the dark about Pim's old farang boyfriend. It remains a bone of contention. But at the moment we are cavorting like newlyweds.

The space-age Bangkok Art and Culture Centre opened at the end of July in an 11-storey building on the Pathumwan intersection in mall-packed Siam Square. Designed by Robert G. Boughey & Associations, the Centre was years in the making, but still has only an acting director, and the gorgeous building is mostly empty. The top floor is devoted to an exhibition of photographs by Princes Maha Chakri Sirindhorn, the King's unmarried daughter who is favored by Thais over her playboy brother. The show is called "Always Roaming with a Hungry Heart" (a quote for Tennyson) and consists of 230 photographs taken over the last five years during her trips to 20 countries. The royal photographer has an eye for color and line. I recognized a few of the locations (Krishna's "butterball" rock in Mamallapuram, India). Most are landscapes rather than of people, and a number were taken from helicopters, a VIP form of travel. There were a few people looking at her work, but most of the building was empty save for some janitors and security guards looking busy on every floor. The view from the top floor of MBK across the street and the Skytrain tracks is impressive. When the space is filled with shops, galleries and studios, it could become the hub for Bangkok's art scene. Now, the working artists only occupy the outdoor "mARTket" in front of the entrance, selling kitsch and crafts as well as paintings of The Buddha. In the evening I listened to a group of blind and crippled musicians on an outdoor stage playing "Country Roads" in Thai style.

Tuesday (Bangkok time)

I had intended to round this blog off with some pithy wisdom, maybe reference Bush again and offer some thoughts on the end of my first year in Bangkok. But my attempts at self-reflection yesterday came up empty handed. Last night Pim and I with three of her co-workers ate at one of the do-it-yourself barbecue places that Thais like so much. We cooked meat (outside as well as inside organs), seafood (including jellyfish, a first), mushrooms and other veggies not over an open fire but on a round heated griddle. I learned that the Thai expression for talking too much translates as "he (or she) has a dog in his mouth." My dinner partners wanted to know if Americans had as much fun as Thais when they go out to eat. I said that I could not recall any restaurants back in the U.S. where people cooked their own food. And eating the national cuisine at Mcdonald's is nowhere near as much fun.