Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Banana Republic With Nukes

Curiouser and curiouser!

This is from the wonderful Paul Krugman. He said it twice in his New York Times blog, "The Conscience of a Liberal," once last Friday, when Paulson was begging for Pelosi's support from Democrats on the Wall Street bailout, and again yesterday ("I'm just going to quote myself") after the Republicans torpedoed the giveaway in the House.
So what we now have is non-functional government in the face of a major crisis, because Congress includes a quorum of crazies and nobody trusts the White House an inch. As a friend said last night, we’ve become a banana republic with nukes.

What now? Kucinich and Michael Moore ("The Rich are Staging a Coup This Morning") are cheering the defeat, along with a plurality of fiscally conservative Republican representatives. It's a strangely non-partisan rejection. And it had a tumultuous effect on world markets. The Dow Jones Industrial Average plunged by 777 points to 10,365 - its biggest percentage fall for seven years and its worst drop ever in terms of points. As much as $1.2 trillion in market value was erased from American stocks, $500 billion more than the Paulson solution would cost. The front page headline in the London Guardian read: "Panic Grips World's Markets." Readers of the Bangkok Nation were greeted this morning with "World Markets, Companies Reel as US Rejects Rescue." The Huffington Post used the above graphic for their headline, "Dow Closes Lower Today than First Day of Bush's Presidency."

I'm fascinated by the news as it unfolds. It's like watching a train wreck or a forest fire, in slow motion. I agree with both sides. It's certainly wrong to throw money at the very folks responsible for the mess. And the American Empire could certainly use a bit of downsizing. But how will the global credit crunch impact the little people, the poor? The anarchist inside me rubs his hands in glee, but this bleeding heart liberal is also hemorrhaging. Of course I wonder when the tidal wave will reach me, when will my ATM card fail or the stores reject my pocketful of credit cards. Will the two credit unions that take care of my money in Santa Cruz eventually go under?

Everything else pales by comparison. Pim's departure tomorrow, the phone calls and emails from my students about their grades, the ghost in the DVD/VCD/CD player. Several times we've returned home to find music playing. It seems to have turned on all by itself. Pim thinks it's a ghost and is reluctant to be here alone. I think it has something to do with infrequent power failures. When the electricity comes back on, it somehow triggers the player's on switch. But maybe it's a ghost playing in the wiring.

At least one of the monks has been disappointed by the B+ I gave him for the class. How many people got A's? he asked. Nine, I said. How many B+'s? Also nine. When he tried to find out individual grades for different students, I told him I thought that would be unethical on my part. It's certainly less agitation than I encountered at UC Santa Cruz where half the class one quarter complained to the provost about my grading (egged on by one upset student, I think). But Andy set them straight; the teacher's decision is law.

I haven't been paid for any classes taught after August 11, and I'm still not certain when the next term begins, whether the 15th or 20th of October. Or which day my two classes will meet (Tuesday?). Uncertainty abounds in my life here. I purchased about $150 worth of materials for my next class (one friend was very surprised to hear I was willing to eat this expense), choosing the New Headway Upper-Intermediate series of books and CDs, published by Oxford Press. This may be a stretch. While 28 of my 52 students earned A's and B's, 15 received C's and 7 D's (there were two F's but they didn't complete the course). The range of knowledge in the class is vast. I must figure out how to teach both the advanced and the slow learners (they are all fourth-year students majoring in English) when the next term begins.

Yesterday I had my teeth cleaned in the dental clinic at Chaophraya Hospital up the street. The elderly dentist covered my face with a cloth, leaving only a hole for my mouth. He spoke little English, and when he finished (none of the three who've cleaned my teeth here has been as thorough as Lynn back in Santa Cruz), he said "no cavities." I haven't had any of them for more than twenty years. I was more concerned about the cap I'd been told needed replacing. On the way home, my tongue discovered that the old cap was gone, knocked off probably by his blundering. Most of yesterday I expected a toothache which never came. I will have to do something about getting a cap (I've always gotten temporary caps) or a crown. There is a private dental office two blocks away. I will check there to see if the dentist speaks more than a little English, or at least convinces me of his professionalism.

At the hospital I once again chickened out over talking to a doctor about my loose bowels: food, bad water or parasites? Since there is no pain and little discomfort, I've been relunctant to undergo the no doubt necessary tests. I also did not inquire into my tricky knee. The right joint makes an odd sound when I walk. I've tried an ace bandage to no avail. But again, since there is no pain, and only a little discomfort, I can easily put off the operation I will probably need eventually, if I want to continue to walk. The prostate, that malignant walnut, continues to remain silent.

I've become quite adept at traveling all over Bangkok by bus. Even with uncertain traffic patterns, I can usually arrive at my destination on time. And the bus is certainly cheaper than a taxi ride, 18 baht compared to nearly 100 for long rides. I even board the small green buses which are driven recklessly, their full loads, with most people standing, struggling to remain upright on the perilous turns. I've noticed that no one, I mean no one, reads on the bus. I'm the only person I see with a book. Same on the Skytrain and subway. While there are numerous daily newspapers and periodicals published here, people do not travel and read. Perhaps most are meditating.

I plan my day around picking up the Bangkok Post. It's saved for me by a lovely lady who operates a newsstand with her family across from the Tesco Lotus. Since she puts her one copy aside especially for this farang, I feel obligated to pick it up. She doesn't open up much before 10 so I can't read it with my coffee. If I leave this end of town earlier, I try to arrive back near the stall at night so I can pick up the paper before I go to bed. It makes me feel good to be known by at least someone in this oh-so-Thai neighborhood.

Pim is moving into her new room tomorrow. She found a place on the third floor of a dormitory for women with a private bathroom for 2,000 bath, 500 more than she paid last year (a sixth of what I pay). She says that she will have to move her possessions in stages, and that she really doesn't want the woman on the desk downstairs or the guards to know she is leaving (no doubt it would mean somehow losing face, even though it is she that is leaving me). Last night she said she wanted to think of me as her father and that she would call me "Papa," as Lamyai does Jerry (it's different, I grumped, they're married). If you were 50, I'd marry you, she said. That didn't make me feel all that much better. Let me know when you want to come get your stuff, I said. I might have a guest. She no longer seems troubled or jealous that I will be seeing other women. I said someone was coming next Saturday, but I did not tell her about Yim who accompanied me to the movies last weekend, and who is three weeks younger than Pim. I think that might prove to be more upsetting.

When Pim returned from Kalasin in July to tell me we must separate, I renewed my membership on ThaiLoveLinks, the dating site I began using in California after my visit to Koh Samui a year and a half ago. I met both Pim and Yim on TLL, as well as Nat, whom I took to Laos last year, and Apple, who traveled with me to Phuket. Nat is in Bangkok studying massage at Wat Pho and we've had lunch twice. I'll probably see her again this week after she finishes the foot massage course. Apple is in Udon where she has a rice farm and we have exchanged some recent friendly emails. There is no shortage of Thai women who want to care for an old farang, no doubt in return for supporting their large extended family upcountry. I target my search on TLL to women from 35 to 45 with photos in their profile who live in my area of Bangkok. There are several hundred, and quite a few respond to my vitual indication of interest.

What am I doing? I can recognize the difference between sex and love and take joy in finding them together. But I flourished during a mostly sexless marriage and I think I can survive here in Thailand as a single man living by himself. There are convenient outlets should unavoidable needs arise. I know that Pim cares for me but I've no illusions that it ever was romantic love. She was kind and always willing. But something has been missing, something my imagination too often provided. I'm sure my friends who've followed this melodrama are nodding their heads in agreement. Other friends simply cannot understand how a spiritually-inclined senior can persist in chasing skirts. Poor socialization, I suppose. My adolescent years were filled with spin-the-bottle games and worse. Suddenly I am surrounded by oodles of Thai women, with figures like my high school sweethearts, who are eager and willing to provide the girlfriend experience. Where is my resistance?

My aim in this blog is not so much to examine what I ought to do, but what I am in fact thinking and doing at the moment that I write. It's a crazy sort of self-reflection that requires a rigorous honesty and unstinting self-awareness, of the beautiful as well as the bad. Trying to be good often seemed to get me in trouble. Accepting my flaws and foibles feels like a more spiritual path.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Tweedledum & Tweedledee

Obama blew it.

I agree with Robert Dreyfuss who wrote in The Nation online about the debate yesterday morning (Bangkok time) that "Obama's performance was nothing short of pathetic, and only Democratic-leaning analysts and voters with blinders on could suggest that Obama won the debate. More important, he utterly blew a chance to draw a stark contrast with John McCain on America's approach to the world."

How many times did the Democrat say "Senator McCain is right" and "I think Senator McCain and I agree for the most part on these issues"? Is this an attempt to pander to the centrists, those few remaining moderate Republicans? Dreyfuss' colleague at The Nation, John Nichols, thought that both men "offered indications that they buy into much of the current consensus in Washington with regard to foreign policy -- a consensus that agrees on bloated defense budgets and over-the-top rhetoric especially with regard to the conflict between Israel and Palestine." Much of the time Obama sounded like a hawk, agreeing with McCain that Russia and Iran are bad, that Israel is our "stalwart ally" (according to Obama), finding common ground on torture (despite McCain's approval of waterboarding), and each echoing that we should move our troops from Iraq (is the "Surge" really winning, Obama?) into Afghanistan, and, if need be, into Pakistan over their objections (Obama is the more hawkish on this). Sure, McCain came across as a grump, and he repeatedly accused his opponent of being naïve on the issues that his experience as a POW and a senator for 28 years somehow qualified him to be an expert. “I’m afraid Senator Obama doesn’t understand” and “What Senator Obama doesn’t seem to understand” and “Senator Obama still doesn’t understand.” Through it all, Obama was cool, too cool. He reminded me of the glacial Adlai Stevenson, who was so smart and reasonable that he lost twice to the the the warrior Dwight Eisenhower (and McCain, you're no Ike) in 1952 1n 1956.

In the Washington Post, Tom Shales wrote that McCain "came across as condescending and even rude to his opponent, a bit of bad behavior especially evident because Obama may have overdone the fair-minded bit in many of his remarks and answers." Shales noted that the Republican had threatened not to show up for the debate when needed for his Kodak moment in Washington, a bit of grandstanding apparent to all but the most dim-witted. And when the encounter finally got underway, McCain found it difficult to look at Obama even though Lehr encouraged the two to dialogue on the questions he asked. On the Democrat's coolness and politeness to his opponent after McCain had dissed him for being naïve, Shales wrote that "Obama supporters must have been displeased, then, to hear their candidate keep agreeing with McCain, a case perhaps of sportsmanlike conduct run amok. Doesn't Obama want to win?"

"Over all, Mr. McCain was more charming and more colloquial" wrote Alessandra Stanley in the New York Times, but when he disagreed with Mr. Obama, "he had a scolding tone. He seemed almost piqued that he had to share the stage with a man who had been in the Senate only four years." On the other side of the stage, Obama was "not particularly warm or amusing; at times he was stiff and almost pedantic," according to Stanley. He was "calm, still, poised and more businesslike than personable. He was trying to be like John Kennedy talking about the space race, but he often sounded like a technocrat." His best comeback to McCain was when he reminded the elder statesman that when the Iraq war started in 2003, “you said it was going to be quick and easy. You said we knew where the weapons of mass destruction were. You were wrong. You said that we were going to be greeted as liberators. You were wrong. You said that there was no history of violence between Shia and Sunni, and you were wrong.” McCain's most interesting point was his factoid that "the average South Korean is three inches taller than the average North Korean." Huh?

In the beginning, Jim Lehr tried to get the candidates to talk about the huge Wall Street bailout, but neither was willing to commit himself, or suggest changes in the Paulson scheme under intense negotiation in Washington today. Obama failed to convincingly lay the economic crisis at McCain's door where it belongs. Why can't the Democrats easily make the case that America has been heading towards economic disaster since the Reagan "revolution" which McCain so blindingly supports? But when Lehr switched from the economy to foreign policy, the ostensible topic of the first debate, Obama did not condemn the "Bush Doctrine" which McCain supports (and Palin can't define). They seemed embarrasingly close on U.S. objectives in the Middle East. Dreyfuss in The Nation asked, "What about casting the principle challenge of foreign policy in terms of hunger, disease, lack of housing and access to clean water, that plagues the Third World and drives desperate people to violence?" From this perspective, the world's major problem is not terrorism but inequality.

I rushed from watching the disappointing debate to a morning screening of Woody Allen's "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" on the fourth day of the Bangkok International Film Festival at Central World's SF Cinema City multiplex. It's the festival's sixth year and over 100 films from all over the world are being shown. I couldn't pass it up. On the first day I sat through about an hour of Guy Maddin's experimental "My Winnepeg" (partly because that's where my mother was born) before walking out. While I appreciated his 2003 film, "The Saddest Music in the World," this b/w autobiographical mess put me to sleep. The next day I managed to stay awake during "Autumn" by Turkish director Ozcan Alper, about the slow adjustment of a man released from prison after nine years for a political crime, but mostly because of the gorgeous photography of the mountainous terrain along the border with Georgia. After skipping a day, I spent Friday at the movies, beginning with "Paper Cannot Wrap Up Embers," an intimately moving documentary of Cambodian prostitutes by Rithy Panh, a 44-year-old filmaker who escaped from the Khmer Rouge (his whole family died in a labor camp) to Paris where he has made several acclaimed documentaries about his country. After lunch I saw "Alice in the Land (Alicia en el Pais)," a debut flm by Chilean director Estaban Larraín which recreates the 180-kilometer journey of a 13-year-old Quechua girl from her village in Bolivia to a tourist town in the north of Chile where she wanted to find work. There was almost no dialogue and the scenes of incredible desolation almost put me to sleep until I found the film's spiritual rhythm and basked in its beauty. In a Q&A session afterward, the director explained that indigenous people in the region have been making such long journeys for generations, a practice inscribed in their culture, but it also indicates the drastic measures that must be taken by the poor to survive. My final film of the day was "Un Conte de Noël (A Christmas Tale)," a delightful French variation of "home for the holidays" featuring a deliciously dysfunctional family headed by matriarch Catherine Deneuve. Directed by Arnaud Desplechin, the film has a terrific cast and showcases the irrepressible Mathieu Amalric as Deneuve's mad son Henri. I loved it. Allen's new film appealed mostly for the glimpses of Barcelona, one of my favorite cities, and I wasn't disappointed. There was a generous selection of scenes filmed in view of Antonio Gaudi's imaginative architecture. The story was a bit silly (two tourists in love with an exceptionally charming Javier Bardam), but I particularly liked the crazy ex-wife played by Penelope Cruz pulling out all the stops. I'm taking a rest today, but intend to see a few more films before the festival ends on Tuesday.

From the film festival, with a sidetrip for a lunch of sushi at Fuji in MBK, I continued on to the Bangkok Art and Culture Center across the street to see the new venue's first major international exhibition, "Traces of Siamese Smile: Art+Faith+Politics+Love," with over 300 works in a variety of media on four of the new buildings floors. The curator described the exhibit as "controlled chaos," but the space is so large that it was never claustrophobic, including the video installations behind black curtains. I particularly liked a large sculpture in porcelin that turned Big Macs and Pepsis into religious and cultural icons. There was a small house filled with cartoons and a pond with real fish, and everywhere were various small sculptures on the floor of primarily faces and pets. Some of the smiles represented were not at all what the tourist agency must have had in mind when it co-sponsored the show, for they were more fearsome than friendly. The art centre remains mostly empty but it is beginning to draw Thais as well as tourists and I have no doubt that it will evolve into a major anchor for the Bangkok art scene.

One morning a week ago I got up early to watch the 60th annual Emmy awards from Los Angeles and was pleased to see my favorite, "Mad Men," take the Outstanding Best Drama prize. "In Treatment" is another show I've grown to love (suggested by Dr. Holly), and Dianne Wiest won for her supporting actress role of a psychologist. Unfortunately Gabriel Byrne missed the lead actor nod for his equally fine performance in the same excellent drama. Glynn Turman deservedly won a guest actor Emmy for his riveting portrayal of a father mourning his son, a suicide victim, in the same show. "Weeds" missed the awards for which it was in contention. Because they were big winners, I've downloaded "Recount" and "John Adams," two highly acclaimed specials that won Emmys. I continue to gather American TV shows that I can watch at my leisure, like "The Office," now in its 5th season, and the quirky "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia." I'm trying to like "30 Rock" as much as its fans, but I think it's an acquired taste. Tina Fey and Alec Baldwin won for their roles in that show. The awards show itself was a bit of a bust, particularly the five reality show hosts who supposedly were co-hosts. But I did like the confrontation between Ricky Gervais and Steve Carell, competing stars of the British and American versions of "The Office." I loved seeing Tommy Smothers finally get an award for his politically contentious 60s show, and Tommy is still having the last (funny) political word. Have I mentioned that I saw Tommy and Dick entertain at a Berkeley fraternity party when they were first starting out in their career?

If you've hung in with this blog post until the end, you probably want to know about what's happening with Pim and I. Well, she's still here. Not that we've abandoned plans to separate. It's just taking a while. She says she can't rent a room until the end of the month, which would be in a couple of days. Pim neatly packed her possessions into boxes she brought from the Post Office. I had put everything in bags and it was a bit messy. It still takes up a large portion of my small living room. I see more of her now that we're separating than I did when we were supposedly boyfriend-girlfriend. She cooks dinner for me, does the laundry and irons my shirts, and cleans the bathroom.

Last night we talked about what it means to "lose face." It seems to be a combination of embarrassment and shame brought on by going against the expectations of society, family and friends. I said it wasn't common in America where people are socialized to go it alone, ignoring for the most part the feelings of others and the rules of culture. Pim said a girl who got pregnant outside of marriage would lose face big time. We are separating because she believes she would lose face if her friends found out she were living with an old farang. I find it difficult to believe that love cannot transcend such limitations. Approval for Pim will mean a much harder life. The other day she said she could not ask me to take her back, after I had said I would not, because she would lose face. Thais do not risk asking for anything unless they are certain they will get it. I've seen this in other circumstances. But I did not argue the point with Pim because I don't want to make her decision any more painful than it is for both of us.

And, finally, R.I.P. Paul Newman. Other than early TV shows, I remember seeing you for the first time in "Somebody Up There Likes Me," the story of boxer Rocky Graziano, in 1956, watching from the balcony of the Crown Theater in Pasadena. You were Butch Cassidy, a couple of Tennessee Williams' studs, Henry in "The Sting," Eddie Felson in "The Hustler" and "The Color of Money," Hud and Cool Hand Luke.
Your acting brought me many hours of pleasure and insight, and your example of leading a life of integrity has been a great light to us all.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Corporate Socialism or Corporate Crime?

We're living in an Alice in Wonderland world.

It's easier for me to understand Thai politics than it is the global economy. And I haven't a clue what's going on here. Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej is gone, replaced by Somchai Wongsawat, brother-in-law of Thaksin Shinawatra, the billionaire populist deposed by the military and now in exile in England where he apparently still pulls strings. The anti-government protest, fueled by hatred of Thaksin and his successors, continues. And the economy, suffering from declining tourism and falling stock prices due to political uncertainty, is now reeling from the economic meltdown spreading outward from the United States.

What's going on here? I've read the news headlines, the columnists and the blogs, and I still don't know. When I told Jerry I wouldn't shed tears over a U.S. economic collapse brought on by Wall Street (and Republican) greed, he said, "You will, when the value of your dollar dries up." He's right. My money is in a Santa Cruz bank and I withdraw it here with an ATM card. When I arrived a year ago, a dollar bought 34 baht. It dropped down to 31 in the following months, but now has returned to 34. What if the dollar starts falling (it's plunged against the Euro) and doesn't stop? So now I am taking economic policies proposed in Washington more personally.

Bush's treasury secretary, Henry M. Paulson, Jr., has declared an emergency that requires an immediate $700 billion rescue plan for the financial system. Here's how a true maverick (unlike the faux maverick McCain), Vermont Senator Bernie Saunders, describes the move:
For years, as a member of the House Banking Committee and now as a member of the Senate Budget Committee, I have heard the Bush Administration tell us how "robust" our economy was and how strong the "fundamentals" were. That was until a few days ago. Now, we are being told that if Congress does not act immediately and approve the $700 billion Wall Street bailout proposal these "free marketers" have just written up, there will be an unprecedented economic meltdown in the United States and an unraveling of the global economy.

This proposal as presented is an unacceptable attempt to force middle income families (and our children) to pick up the cost of fixing the horrendous economic mess that is the product of the Bush Administration's deregulatory fever and Wall Street's insatiable greed. If the potential danger to our economy was not so dire, this blatant effort to essentially transfer $700 billion up the income ladder to those at the top would be laughable.

So the Republicans who supposedly despise big government, and who've cut taxes on the rich and funding for the poor, have overnight become socialists for corporatism, willing to pour the equivalent of another Iraq war into the coffers of criminals responsible for the greedy decisions that led to the meltdown. As Alice said, "curiouser and curiouser."

According to Chris Hedges, "The lobbyists and corporate lawyers, the heads of financial firms and the crooks who control Wall Street, all those who spent the last three decades assuring us that government was part of the problem and should get out of the way, are now busy looting the U.S. treasury." Hedges says that the culprits are the very same people responsible for funding the current Obama and McCain campaigns, and "the financial industry has come around to collect." So don't expect much oversight from the candidates or even the Democratic party.

Here is Hedges dire warning:

If the financial-services industry is able to suck us dry, our assets, from our homes to our retirement investments, will continue to tumble. Taxes will go up. Jobs will be lost. The grim economic indicators will get worse. The dollar, which has already lost about a third of its value against the euro, will continue to plummet. The rate of foreclosures, one in every 416 U.S. households in August, will skyrocket. Consumer spending, the engine of the U.S. economy, will continue to decline. Industrial production, which has fallen for three consecutive quarters, will fall further. Unemployment, which shot up to 6.1 percent in August from 5.7 percent in July, will get worse. These tremors presage an earthquake.
Ralph Nader, Hedges writes, warned of this economic earthquake years ago, and as recently as July, sent a letter to Congress warning that the federal government's bank insurance fund might be insufficient to handle the developing crisis in the banking industry. "The letter was, at the time, greeted with indifference and ridicule," Hedges says. "Rep. Spencer Bachus, R-Ala., at a congressional hearing, mentioned the letter and assured those present that 'Our banks are well capitalized, our deposit insurance fund is sound. There's absolutely no factual basis for saying that there's not money there to pay.' So much for the ignored wisdom of Citizen Ralph.

Hedges concludes: "If we bail out our corporate masters with hundreds of billions of tax dollars without instituting draconian market reform and launching criminal prosecution, we will be left to bear the cross of corporate malfeasance. We will pay for corporate crime. We will leave those who robbed us free to plunder."

Paul Krugman in the New York Times, writes that "some skeptics are calling Henry Paulson’s $700 billion rescue plan for the U.S. financial system 'cash for trash.' Others are calling the proposed legislation the Authorization for Use of Financial Force, after the Authorization for Use of Military Force, the infamous bill that gave the Bush administration the green light to invade Iraq." There is "justice in the jibes," he concludes.

I’m aware that Congress is under enormous pressure to agree to the Paulson plan in the next few days, with at most a few modifications that make it slightly less bad. Basically, after having spent a year and a half telling everyone that things were under control, the Bush administration says that the sky is falling, and that to save the world we have to do exactly what it says now now now.

But I’d urge Congress to pause for a minute, take a deep breath, and try to seriously rework the structure of the plan, making it a plan that addresses the real problem. Don’t let yourself be railroaded — if this plan goes through in anything like its current form, we’ll all be very sorry in the not-too-distant future

"If Wall Street gets away with this," William Greider writes in The Nation, " it will represent an historic swindle of the American public--all sugar for the villains, lasting pain and damage for the victims." The Bush administration cannot be allowed to led the lemmings over a cliff once again. It's time for people to stand up and be counted.

The agenda is staggering. The United States is ill equipped to deal with it smartly, not to mention wisely. We have a brain-dead lame duck in the White House. The two presidential candidates are trapped by events, trying to say something relevant without getting blamed for the disaster. The people should make themselves heard in Washington, even if only to share their outrage.

The last time that Bush stampeded Congrss into action, it sanctioned a deadly and costly preventative war in Iraq that punished Saddam Hussein rather than Osama bin Laden. Where were the weapons of mass destruction? President Clinton left a budget surplus when his term ended; after nearly eight years the Bush administration has driven the country's economy deeply into debt. The financial bailout will double the trillions already owed, which means foreign lenders will ultimately control the economy. If the U.S. weren't the linchpin to the global economy, it might go bankrupt. But global capitalists cannot permit that.

It all began, I've learned, with the bursting of the U.S. housing bubble. Since the 1970s, people thought that property values would rise indefinitely. Banks signed off on increasingly risky loans (no income, no down payment, low interest), thinking the property would secure the loan. But when prices plunged, householders and banks were left with houses worth less than the money owed on them. So the owners and then the banks defaulted on billions of dollars worth of bad loans. Financial institutions became leery of new loans and liquidity dried up. No money, no new purchases, no growth, global capitalism's greatest nightmare. In order to keep the system going, the government has chosen to prime the pump with billions (and maybe trillions) of aid. But this just rewards the corporate criminals and neglects the victims. I'm sure I've left out a few details, but I think I get the drift.

Don't expect Obama, much less McCain, to bite the corporate hands that feed them. Polls already show that average Americans are against the corporate bailout. They understand that the fox is in the hen house, handing out bibs.

Monday, September 15, 2008

The Whole World is Laughing (Part 2)

...at America.

Now, I know the picture at the left is a fake. But it captures the spirit of Sarah Palin, the young hockey mom from Alaska named as his running mate by the senile John McCain. I had to laugh when a CNN documentary yesterday mentioned that she ran away to get married when she was "almost eight months pregnant." As a right-wing Christian, abortion was out of the question (her pregnant 17-year-old daughter Bristol is due to marry her boyfriend any day now), and she gave birth to a child with Down Syndrome less than a year ago (net rumor mongers say she provided cover for an earlier child of her daughter's). Some might find these "family values" courageous, even admirable. She is also an avid moose hunter who hates gun control, believes polar bears should be taken off the endangered species list, flip-flopped on issues like the notorious "Bridge to Nowhere," advocates the teaching of Creationism in schools, is skeptical about global warming, attended five different colleges in six years (graduating with a journalism degree), thinks that some books should be banned from libraries, and wants to drill for oil everywhere in her pristine home state.

Her stints as mayor of a small town and now governor of the northernmost state are riddled with evidence of hypocrisy and cronyism (see the New York Times exposé for the latest). While claiming to be against "earmarks," one of McCain's targets, she has obtained more federal money per capita for Alaskans than any other state. In a highly controlled debut interview by ABC-TV's Charles Gibson last week, she revealed an appaling ignorance of Bush's preventative war doctrine, and claimed she was knowledgeable about Russia because it could be seen from an Alaskan island. "To many Europeans, especially of a liberal bent," the London Observer editorialized, "the emergence of Sarah Palin as one of the dominant forces in American politics is a cause for dismay." Movie reviewer Roger Ebert called her "The American Idol candidate":
What defines an "American Idol" finalist? They're good-looking, work well on television, have a sunny personality, are fierce competitors, and so talented, why, they're darned near the real thing. There's a reason "American Idol" gets such high ratings. People identify with the contestants. They think, Hey, that could be me up there on that show! My problem is, I don't want to be up there. I don't want a vice president who is darned near good enough. I want a vice president who is better, wiser, well-traveled, has met world leaders, who three months ago had an opinion on Iraq.
After watching moose-hunter Palin's pitiful performance with Gibson, and noting the current hysteria around her candidacy, New York Times columnist Bob Herbert writes that he has "the scary feeling, for the first time in my life, that dimwittedness is not just on the march in the U.S., but that it might actually prevail." Newsweek columnist Eleanor Clift said that Palin "is the most thinly credentialed vice presidential contender since Dan (potato with an "e"). Quayle, who was put on the ticket in '88 because the old guard thought a good-looking first-term senator could attract young voters." But Palin is more like Quayle's wife Marilyn, writes Clift, "whose speech at the 1992 Republican convention denouncing feminism and extolling traditional motherhood helped lose the race for the GOP." TV humorist Bill Maher got a lot of flack for saying that Palin now "has the opportunity to be on a ticket opposite of Barack Obama, the first black man she’s ever seen." As the mayor of a small town in Alaska, "When she got a phone call at 3 in the morning, it was because a moose had gotten in the garbage can." This is important, according to Maher, because McCain claims that "we’re at war, it’s a dangerous world out there. The Democrats don’t get that. I, John McCain, am the only one standing between the bloodthirsty Al Qaedas and you. But if I die, this stewardess can handle it."

Tom Friedman believes that Palin's extremist views and advocacy of drilling anywhere and everywhere for more oil to feed our addiction "is symbolic of the campaign that John McCain has decided to run. It’s a campaign now built on turning everything possible into a cultural wedge issue — including even energy policy, no matter how stupid it makes the voters and no matter how much it might weaken America." At the Republican Convention in St. Paul, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani a notorious cross-dresser (seen here in a fund raiser), roused the crowd with his cry of "drill, baby drill!" In his New York Times column, Friedman said, "In order to disguise the fact that the core of his campaign is to continue the same Bush policies that have led 80 percent of the country to conclude we’re on the wrong track, McCain has decided to play the culture-war card." With the economy crumbling and indecision the rule in the Middle East, the McCain campaign denounced Senator Barack Obama for using the phrase "lipstick on a pig" and put out a new television ad accusing the Democrat of wanting to teach kindergartners about sex before they learn to read. Can Sarah Palin “reform” Washington" Friedman's response: "as if she has any more clue how to do that than the first 100 names in the D.C. phonebook?"

"The feeling is familiar," writes Jonathan Freedland in the London Guardian. "I had it four years ago and four years before that: a sinking feeling in the stomach. It's a kind of physical pessimism which says: 'It's happening again. The Democrats are about to lose an election they should win - and it could not matter more.'"
But what of the rest of the world? This is the reaction I fear most. For Obama has stirred an excitement around the globe unmatched by any American politician in living memory...If Americans choose McCain, they will be turning their back on the rest of the world, choosing to show us four more years of the Bush-Cheney finger.
For America to make a decision as important as this one, "while the planet boils and with the US fighting two wars - on the trivial basis that a hockey mom is likable and seems down to earth, would be to convey a lack of seriousness, a fleeing from reality," and one that would show beyond doubt that America is in historical decline.

I can add little to the comments above. It's echoed by sentiments from my friends in the U.S. and Europe. America's insularity and native conservatism, its "me first!" attitude and jingoistic patriotism, is pushing a once noble symbol of democratic aspirations to the brink of disaster. America's fall might bring the rest of the world down with it. Who knew that a hockey mom could pose as dangerous a threat as a nuclear holocaust?

Friday, September 12, 2008

The Whole World is Laughing

...at Thailand.

Newspaper headline writers across the globe are having a field day with news of the court decision last week that Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej must resign because he hosted a TV cooking show after his election nine months ago. Here's one from the Guardian in London:

Ready, steady ... quit!
Pork leg in Coca-Cola does for Thai PM

A friend sent me a clip from CNN coverage of the story and asked "Is this for real?"

Yes. And most reports have used the word "farce."

A constitutional court ruled that Samak and his entire cabinet must quit over the program, a long-running cookery show called "Tasting, Grumbling," that he had hosted for the past eight years while he was Bangkok's governor, but gave up in April two months after becoming PM. Wearing an apron, the passionate gourmet would prepare on camera traditional Thai recipes like pork leg in Coca-Cola, before indulging in a rant on a variety of topics. The grumpy right-winger was a frequent visitor at restaurants or food stalls, followed by photographers as he offered cooking advice. He also hung out at "wet" food markets in Bangkok and while visiting other countries, where he demonstrated an expert knowledge of produce. The judges ruled Samak violated a clause in the constitution, which was rewritten after the 2006 military coup to eliminate conflicts of interest that plagued the rule of the telecoms tycoon Thaksin Shinawatra (whom the coup overthrew).

"This is a complete farce," said Giles Ungpakorn, a Thai political scientist, in the Guardian article. "This law was drafted to reduce big business's influence in government. But here a cooking programme is being equated with big business and the minutiae of the law is being used to get the government out, and the judiciary's taking part in the farce. It should have been thrown out of court."

But the farce is far from over. While the court achieved Samak's ouster, the objective sought by thousands of anti-government demonstrators currently occupying Government House (and forcing 3,000 bureaucrats to work at a partially-used airport many miles away), the news today is that Samak's People's Power Party (a reincarnation of Thaksin's political party which was disbanded) will relect him prime minister, since the law stipulates no punishment for his misdeed. Even Thaksin apparently phone PPP members from his exile in London to dictate that his successor should continue in office. Members of the ironically named People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD), an organization that seeks to limit democracy to representives of the military, monarchy, middle class and Bangkok elite, are not pleased and vow to continue their disorderly sit-in.

It's hard to keep up with it all. And it must be reported that daily life in Bangkok goes on as before, despite the farce that has paralyzed government, and severely impacted stock market prices and income from tourism as the busy season approaches. I can't say that fewer farangs carry shopping bags on the streets will disturb me.

And if I decide to find a beach on which o relax over term break, there should be plenty of hotel rooms available in Krabi, Koh Chang or Koh Samui. Yesterday was my final class in the 16-week term at Wat Sri Sudaram. Here some of my students check the list of missing homework assignments that they must turn in before I give them a final exam next Thursday. They are all fourth-year students majoring in English at Mahachula Buddhist University with one term left to go before graduation. Yesterday I asked them to speak for several minutes on what they have learned in my class. Since they're studying "Listening [to] & Speaking English," the presentation will contribute to their grade. On a scale of 10, my marks ranged from 5 to 9 (only the teacher is a 10), so abilities vary considerably. The lowest mark was given to Phra Suwit, a sweet almost-toothless man of 42, who smiled and said little. It probably should have been a 2 or 3, but I was practicing compassion (with others as well). I told them of my daughter Molly who is a natural linguist and is able to easily mimic Spanish, Portuguese (and currently German). But most people (like myself) have to struggle to master the pronunciation of another language. This was to encourage their sometimes indecipherble mumblings. On the whole, I was quite impressed with their performances, and not because they were effusive about the wonderfulness of their native-speaking teacher, Dr William. And certainly not because they presented me with the gift of a coffee & tea cup set. I was happy because they genuinely seemed excited about learning English and happy because of the grammar lessons, opportunities for conversation, and songs I'd played for them on my iPod while they filled in missing words in the lyrics.

When the nearly 50 oral presentations ended (accompanied by the sound of a particularly heavy torrential monsoon rain outside), I told them of my pleasure at being their teacher. I said I had not intended to come out of retirement to teach in Thailand, but that when the opportunity came, I decided to give it a try. I knew even less about teaching English than they did about speaking it. So they have taught me how to teach them. From the presentations, I told them, I've learned that I should speak slower and provide more opportunities for conversations in English between students. I've also decided that next term I will spend more time on pronunciation and will design exercises to test comprehension of spoken or written information. I've enjoyed teaching you more than the students I had at the University of California, I said. Many of them were not interested in study and their goals were to graduate and make money. You are all serious about learning, I said, and I know that most of you will return to your communities after graduation to offer service to your people. Your Buddhist values, I said, make a difference. I think (emphasis on uncertainty) I will teach the same students next term, and so I have purchased the New Headway Upper-Intermediate text, because it begins with the future tense, and I'm beginning to prepare lesson plans. All my instructions about turning in grades are in Thai and so I am flying blind. But I've used the computer to come up with a points system that looks pretty good, and which will allow me to explain and discuss anyone's grade. But I don't expect to fail anyone. Even those who missed classes have explanations that involving temple work and not laziness. These monks do not oversleep; they are up before dawn to collect alms and to chant the suttras. I am incredible fortunate to have finally, after many missteps, found my vocation.

Like a persistent cat who tries to burrow under the covers of your bed no matter how many times you throw it off, Pim has returned. But the situation has changed. I told her she was welcome to stay here until she finds another place. So after four nights away she came back and has slept for a couple of nights on the couch, her belongings still packed and stored in the living room. Last night she did not come here after work. Since we're no longer boyfriend and girlfriend, I told her, we do not have to keep track of each other's whereabouts. Since I see no way out of the impasse (I'm not getting any younger despite her laughing suggestion of plastic surgery), I am hopeful that we can be friends. I'm still not certain what Pim wants.

Actually, I did not throw her off the bed like the cat who came back; she left, three times according to my count, when the stress of leading a double life became too much for her. I always understood and was sympathetic. But we also seem co-dependent. My niceness makes it difficult for her to leave permanently. And I am addicted to her affection.

I have been taken to task by a number of people who found my remarks about withholding financial support "horrible" (according to one friend). I agree that I was letting my pain show, and my words were neither kind nor compassionate. But there is no way I can escape a cost benefit analysis; I'm a westerner and a concern for money is bred in my bones. When I thought we were a couple, I offered to contribute to her mother's support to keep Pim from having to get a second job. And when she told me that Thai girlfriends typically get 10,000 baht a month from their farang boyfriends, I offered her that amount (to include funds for her mother). My generosity went far beyond that girlfriend allowance, however, and I paid for everything when we were together, including dinner when we dined with her friends. But when she initiated a separation, for the third time, I felt enough was enough. No one has indicated how they might do this differently, given the same circumstances.

Another friend, a British monk, has a different perspective on my domestic troubles. He suggests that I could take this opportunity to "learn the lessons that pleasure will never equal happiness, and start looking seriously into a different way to find happiness than a woman to flatter you." He believes I should renounce my hedonistic practices "for the sake of something immeasurably more beautiful," what he calls (for his own path) "this Holy Life business." He hopes I can "get back to finding what is holy in your retirement and not squander this chance." He has been celibate for over 12 years and for him the path to wisdom and enlightenment transcends the physical, a domain that hinders more than helps. I also think he has a vested interest in celibacy that I don't share. Citing both Pema Chodron and Thomas Merton, I told him that "I think that my spiritual salvation is in the here and now, the messiness of life, the love of a woman and also her rejection of me." For some time now, I have been trying to articulate a spirituality that is inseparable from real life, one that does not look beyond, to a heaven or hell, or another life, one that dignifies and ennobles the mundane, the lowly, the physical. I don't offer it in competition to any other way, but only as a description and explanation of what I'm doing

We agreed, however, that my comments on meditation as a panacea to deal with the grief I've been suffering over Pim's rejection, was not a good idea. "It is always so sad," he wrote, "when I see folks get interested in meditation/God/spirituality when things go wrong, or they have a void to fill, and ditch it at the first entertaining distraction that comes along." Yes, certainly spirituality should not be yet another distraction, like TV, music, movies and girls. But, to avoid an intensified search when things go wrong would be to eliminate most foxhole conversions. Perhaps it's different in Buddhism, but in Christianity it is those who suffer most who seek and find consolation in what they perceive as God's love and forgiveness. Maybe what he means is that the world can always lure us away from what we know to be true. However, I resist the urge to split the world off from the truth.

But that's a decision in process.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

"Willie, what is love mean?"

My dear Pim,

I have been trying to figure out how to answer this question from you. I, who am so good with words, am struck dumb by the fact of love. The American jazz musician Louis Armstrong, when asked how to define the meaning of jazz, said, "If you gotta ask, you'll never know." I think love is like jazz, you can only know it from the inside, from the heart, and not from any definition which tries to capture it in words. If you don't feel it, you can't know what it is.

Then I think: I am not a very good person to ask about love. I have been married twice and both marriages ended in divorce from women with whom I am no longer friendly. I have had several other love affairs in my long life and most of those women left me because I was not then a good person. I have been a selfish lover, looking out for my own needs over those of the women I've been with. I wanted to be loved more than I wanted to love. And this I am convinced is wrong. Love can never be selfish. It must always be concerned with the well-being of the other person. Love is giving more than receiving.

Love is a deep, tender feeling, an intense emotion, that arises from an attraction or desire for someone or some thing. There are many varieties of love: for a parent, a child, close friend, a pet animal, a favorite place, music, a political ideal. Love between people is our concern. It is much more than just friendship, than simply liking someone very much, and it goes beyond lust or sexual desire. It includes the values of sympathy, empathy and commitment. Love has many stages: the puppy love between kids, the infatuation of teenagers, and the more mature love of two adults who almost become one complete person. "I want to grow old with you" is something lovers vow to each other. I wanted to grow old with my second wife, but she wanted a new life. So I decided to start a new life myself.

Sometimes people say: "I love you, but I am not 'in love' with you." I am not sure what that means (probably that they like you rather than love you). Others try to love everyone, even the whole world. I am not sure what that means either. If you love everyone and everything, the word does not make sense, it is emptied of all meaning.

You are probably asking this question because I have doubted your love for me. I did not think a young woman could fall in love with an old man, and suspected there were other reasons to explain your attraction to me. I don't know what you felt for your first boyfriend, or for Andy (were there any others?), but I suspect with Andy it was infatuation which is fascination mixed with excitement and a bit of lust. While there is "love at first sight," I think love needs to take time to simmer, like a good soup on the stove. During your brief affair, Andy did not love you and that rejection hurt. You went to bed with me, you said, because you wanted me to love you. My love would take away your suffering. And perhaps it did, for a while. But you did not stay with me because you loved me, but because I loved you, I was nice to you, and it felt good. That is not a promising beginning for a relationship.

I am sure that you cared for me. We care for our friends, but that is not necessarily love. You care for your sister, your mother, your grandparents, and they do for you. Care can sometimes be just a response to duty, your duty toward those who help you. You cared for me, I think, because I was kind and generous to you. You wanted to speak English all the time, you said, and living with me was convenient and comfortable. In the beginning, it was exciting for both of us to be together. We went on adventures and we had "new experiences." You had never lived with a man before, you had never really had a boyfriend. I think it was an experiment for you, trying your wings like a young bird learning to fly. You had fun playing house, cleaning and washing and ironing and cooking for me. But, like everything in life, it gets old. Maybe if I had been less nice to you, it would have been easier for you to leave me when it was time to go.

You tried to make our affair last. First you told your sister, then your mother, and finally your colleagues at work. But you could not tell your friends about me because, you said, you would lose face when they learned you were living with an old man. You also could not tell your relatives, your cousin in Bangkok or your grandparents in Kalasin because they would disapprove of you living outside of marriage with an unacceptably old farang. So our relationship had no future. In the beginning you offered marriage as a way for me to get a visa (no one would know except the officials). Then you realized our age difference was a permanent barrier to getting married in Kalasin (I offered) and I felt you slowly begin to slip away.

I don't know if you really loved me. I cannot see into your heart, I cannot feel what you were feeling. Probably you should fall in love a few more times with different people to decide on your own definition of love. I always loved falling in love. It was a delicious feeling. Everything took on a rosy glow, and in the presence of the beloved I felt like a king. Nothing was impossible. Being with her was divine, being away from her was hell. In my life I have often sought that feeling, but it cannot be deliberately found. It has to find you. You cannot wish or will yourself to fall in love. It always comes as a glorious surprise.

So I must ask myself if I have loved you. It was not love at first sight. I felt sorry for you and wanted to make you feel better about yourself. I was surprised and delighted by your desire for me. The small apartment seemed larger with you in it. I felt like a kid again and it was wonderful looking at the world through your eyes. It was easy being nice and kind to you. I learned so much from you about Thailand, its culture and its food. In many ways you were my teacher. When we were together it did not seem as if the age difference mattered. Only when we imagined seeing ourselves through the eyes of others did it seem a problem. But I did not know how hard it was on you to keep up appearances, to lie to your friends and relatives. My feelings for you were selfish. You were my possession and I did not want to lose you.

Realizing this now, I feel I can let you go. I always knew this affair was doomed, and I'm surprised that it lasted a year. You should have a younger man for a lover, someone of whom you can be proud and brag to your friends, someone perhaps who can give you a child. In the end, I can love you only by letting you go. Only in this way can I think of you rather than myself.

Now I am beginning to think that I can truly love you, as your friend.


Monday, September 08, 2008

A "Dear John" Letter from Pim

This was in my email in box when I got home last night:

"Dear Willie,

I am very glad to see you and know you. You are very nice with me and I like every thing you are (Jai dee). I am happy when we spend time togeter and stay in your room. but we has problem many time because my mind. Just one problem is I am too young for you and you are too old for me to live in the social.

when I go out with friends I has thinking difference and difference life. I has decided to leave from you but when I see you I could not do. How I can do that with some one who so nice with me and love me alot. and I dont want to make you sad I want to see you happy all the time.

now in this time I allso think same as you I should not come back again because the same problem will happen in the future again and again. I know we are all hurt. but I hope every thing will be good.

and this time it is difficult for us to see each other. I will go there to get my clothes and go to stay with my cusin for a few days. I will let you know when I go. you may dont want to see me and I can not see you either I dont want to cry. I am will happy if you happy and I hope we can be good friend.
take care..... love

It's a beautiful letter and I was very moved. Pim has never written this much to me in English before and I know she must have spent a long time with the dictionary putting it together. Even with grammar and spelling mistakes, it is very articulate. Here was my reply:

"Dear Pim,

I just got home and read your email.

I think I've known since you came back from Kalasin in July that something was wrong. I felt that you wanted to leave me but you did not know how to tell me. It has been very hard for me, watching you slowly leave. But now that it's finished, maybe we can start new lives.

It's better that I don't see you. Tell me when you want to pick up your things and I will go out while you do. When everything is gone, leave the key and door card behind.

I'm sorry you could not tell me your feelings before I gave you money. I took care of you like a girlfriend, giving you 10,000 baht for the last three months, but I did not receive much in return from you. I believe I was kind and generous. But you did not repay me in the same way, you did not take very good care of me. I think you treated me badly. I hope you will be nicer to your next boyfriend. I will be more careful before I give money again to a Thai woman.

But I want you to know that, except for the last two months (the move to Lumpini Place was probably a mistake, my fault), it has been a wonderful year with you. You have made me very happy. I will always remember when it seemed like we were in love with each other. I will never forget our trips to Koh Samet, Hua Hin, Chiang Mai and Pai. I believe you have a good heart and I hope you can learn not to lie to people that love you.


After a couple of hours of staring at her possessions, I went to work. And then I sent her this:

"Dear Pim,

Do not be surprised when you come here to find many of your belongings already packed and ready to go.

I needed to do this, to convince myself that you are gone and not coming back. I couldn't sit here and look at your things without crying. Keeping busy keeps the tears away. I didn't pack in anger. I'm not mad at you. I am just sad that that it became impossible for us to be together. Perhaps we should have realized a year ago that it wouldn't work. I should have said something when you asked to move in with me. But I was too infatuated (you'll need your dictionary for my emails) to say no. I've never been very good at telling you no.

So I wish you well. I hope you find what you're looking for in life.

I'll never forget you,

I'm a fast packer, and now I get to stare at a collection of bags and boxes . I'm not sure when she'll come to get them. I thought she would need to retrieve clothes for work. Perhaps she took a change with her when she left the apartment last Friday morning. When she returns, she will have to pack the clothes stacked in the bedroom shelves. It's not alot of stuff, actually, and it will probably fit in one of the small rooms they rent cheap to working girls in Bangkok. I'll probably give her the radio/CD player I bought so she can listen to music. Pim loves listening to love songs in English.

Jim writes from Fresno that he's leaving his second wife after perhaps ten years (guessing here) to move into an apartment next weekend. His two grown sons are coming down from San Francisco to join some friends who will help him move. Jim, who has a couple of years on me, has health problems and mobility issues. But, like me, he's looking forward to starting a new life. I wish we could check out each other's new digs. Yesterday I spent over $80 on books, the new novel by Denis Johnson, Eckhart Tolle's The Power of Now (our Buddhist film group is going to show some videos of his in two weeks), Dave Eggers A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius which Marcus loved,a book on writing Thai letters, and the New Headway upper-immediate series of learning English texts to help me plan next term's classes. I've got lots of downloaded films to watch and I'm looking forward to some serious reading in my Bangkok bachelor pad.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Off the Track

My emotional roller coaster ride did not stop last night. After a nap in the afternoon to recover from my harrowing experience with the motorbike, taxi and van, and my triumph at the Labour Ministry, I awoke to find a text message from Pim telling me she was going out to dinner with colleagues from work and would be home "late." A couple of hours later I sent her a message asking what she was doing. Drinking at the office with my friends, was her reply. And a couple of hours after THAT, she sent me a text saying they were off to visit a bar. "Sorry" was her final message at nearly 1 a.m. She never came home.

Obviously all of my words about what must be done to save our relationship have had little effect. After Pim returned ten days ago from our one-day separation, she went off the following weekend to Hua Hin for two nights with two friends from high school. Did you tell them, I asked upon her return, that you're living with an old farang? No. If you want to stay with me, I said, then you must tell them by the end of this month, or we will separate, for good this time.

I feel like I have egg on my face. What a stupid, silly melodrama. Jerry tells me not to call myself an old fool, but it's hard to avoid it.

I have to face the fact that I am part of Pim's strategy for living a better life. She enjoys the perks, the small but nice apartment, the 10,000 baht a month I have pledged to pay her (the girlfriend's fee), air-conditioning and a warm shower, the gifts I give her (a watch for her birthday, now repaired), the food I pay for, and the proximity to her work (a short ride across the Pinklao bridge over the Chao Phraya River). But she is not the sensitive and compassionate lover I'd hoped for. Perhaps she is too young and will grow into that role, but not with me. I had expected that we would have a dinner together last night to celebrate, or perhaps commiserate, the day's events, but she had other plans.

I haven't been able to sleep, and it's just getting light here in Bangkok. When I separated from my second ex-wife, I spent several months without sufficient sleep. It felt like an acid hangover. It's hard to focus on anything when your eyes are burning and your heart is pounding. And I was teaching a class at UC Santa Cruz and trying to finish my Ph.d. dissertation at the time. Last night when I should have been sleeping, I tried to watch a movie in Spanish, but the subtitles were difficult to follow.

Whenever Pim returns, I will tell her that it is obvious to me that we are no longer boyfriend and girlfriend. So I will stop subsidizing her lifestyle. She can stay here as a guest (not a roommate) until she finds something else. I hope we can be friends. Without my assistance, she will probably have to find a second job so she can continue to support her now-divorced mother. I'm sure she cares for me, but it is not and perhaps never has been love in the romantic sense. I was a "new experience" for her (a phrase we've used to joke about the unfamiliar). I am beginning to think there is much about her life that she did not reveal. The disconnect between her words and her actions recently has puzzled me. Probably like a new toy, she grew bored with living with a farang past his prime. Do I love her, or is it much the same? We met a year ago September 15th when I took her to lunch after becoming acquainted online. And it's been -- dare I say it -- a mostly wonderful roller coaster ride.

I would like to take the advice given by Marcus during our recent dust up and one-day separation: "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."

It's time to put my house in order and learn to live alone. Perhaps celibacy might be a good idea after all. Once I've recovered and gotten a good night's sleep, I'd like to work on my meditation practice and spend some time in the gym down on the 6th floor. And maybe I can finish seeing that movie. Now that I'm a legally employed teacher in Thailand, I want to get my life back on track.

Friday, September 05, 2008

Riding the Bangkok Roller Coaster

The Big Dipper in Santa Cruz is tame compared to the ride I'm on here in the capital of Thailand. Today was a good example.

I've been depressed for the past two weeks, worrying about the impending expiration of my visa, and with it the work permit I finally got last month. My three-month non-immigrant "B" visa ends on September 11th, and with it the work permit a day before, next Wednesday. Getting an year's extension for, first the visa, and second, the work permit, was supposed to be easy. Dr. Subodh from India, who also teaches at Mahachula Buddhist University (he's sitting beside me in the photo from the seminar at Wang Noi last week), had no problems. But I was turned away twice (once after a three-hour wait) from the counter for teachers at the Immigration office because my documents were incorrect. Dr. Suriya, head of the English language department and my boss, prepared new documents two weeks ago but the necessary signatures from the university's rector and the dean of humanities failed to quickly materialize. Last week one of the letters arrived but it had the wrong passport number (copied from Dr. Subodh's letter). So it was retyped and went back to headquarters.

I couldn't sleep. I imagined that, without the extensions, I would have to rush out of the country next Wednesday, probably to Laos, and settle for another tourist visa. Losing the all-important working visa and permit would mean I would have to start the bureaucratic process all over again, and it's taken over six months to get this far. I even began thinking about a return to the U.S., my life here in a shambles. What would I do there? I wouldn't even be able to afford to drive now!

So I threw a little fit in the English department office yesterday, telling Dr. Suriya (whose English is not all that good) that if I did not quickly get the correct documents I would be forced to leave Thailand and give up teaching English to the monks at Mahachula. I wouldn't be able to give them their final exam, nor could I assign them grades (since it would be illegal to work without the proper papers). Sure, lots of farang teach English illegally in the Land of Smiles but I wasn't prepared to break the law.

The documents arrived before I'd finished teaching my two Thursday classes. This morning I jumped in a taxi at 7:45 and was at the Immigration office when it opened at 8:30. I submitted the application, successfully this time, paid the 1,900 baht fee, and within the hour I had a my visa extended to May 31, 2009, the end of my current year's teaching contract. Across the street I had a copy made of page with the new visa date in my passport for the work permit application and grabbed the first taxi to take me to the Ministry of Labour. A half block up the street I realized my passport was missing, got out of the taxi and raced back to the copy store. A man standing on the corner with my passport looked at the photo in it, looked at me, and told me he'd found it on the sidewalk. I waved down another taxi and within a half hour was at the Labour office submitting my permit for an extension to match the visa date. It took another half hour to process, I paid the 3,000 baht fee, and left the building feeling joyous and exhilarated. I did it!

But the Bangkok roller coaster ride was not yet over. I got in another taxi to go to DK Books, the large outlet for English language teaching materials. Now that I knew I was staying and would teach next term, I wanted to look at a new, more advanced, textbook since I would be teaching the same students and didn't want to repeat anything. In the taxi I sent text messages to friends telling them of my good fortune. When we got close to the bookstore, I paid the driver and opened the door...

...and a motorbike racing between the taxi and the curb crashed into the door, bounced off and into the back of a van in front of us. I was stunned, seeing both bike and rider lying on the ground. Did I cause that? Jerry and others have warned me to always look carefully before opening a taxi door, on either side. Motorbikes are constantly weaving in and out of traffic. But the fault was mine. The drivers of both vehicles and I got out and the motorbike owner limped up onto the curb. There was no blood but his knee appeared hurt. A policeman was called. He led us around the corner to park where he took the IDs of the taxi and van drivers, and the motorbike rider. I called Pim and got her to talk with him. He said another policeman would come within a half hour to take a report. The back bumper of the van was scratched, the door of the taxi was dented, and the motorbike owner was limping. I feared the worst.

We waited and I fretted. From exhaltation to despair within seconds. I told Pim I wanted to do the right thing, but I didn't know what that was. I was frightened about the police. After standing around in the oppressive heat for nearly an hour, I asked the van driver, who spoke a little English because his job involved driving tourists around Bangkok, if I could make a contribution to each of them. I had 2,000 baht in my billfold. It turned out the taxi driver would be happy with 500 baht, but the injured motorbike owner wanted 3,000 baht (nearly $100). The van driver, my translator, said he would be satisfied with 2,000 baht. So we walked up the street until I found an ATM machine and withdrew 5,000 baht. The van driver stopped by the police kiosk and retrieved the ID cards (perhaps the police wanted us to settle it among ourselves anyway, since no one came to take a report), and when I gave each their share of the bribe they seemed quite grateful.

As soon as I walked away, the exhilaration returned, this time magnified by the successful resolution to this crisis. The bookstore didn't have all that I wanted, but it made little difference. I was free, no longer threatened by an encounter with the police which I was afraid might be even more costly, and I had legitimate working papers now which allowed me to remain in the Kingdom for another eight months. I returned home just before the skies opened and dumped a ton of monsoon rain over Bangkok, accompanied by lightening and ear-splitting thunder.

As for the political situation here in Bangkok, it remains the same, both sides hopelessly divided and no one any closer to offering a workable solution to the stalemate. Whatever happens, though, I know I'll be able to handle it. Jai yen yen.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Mob Rule?

Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej went on radio at 7:30 this morning to announce that despite widespread rumors he would not resign. "How could I resign? I cannot resign," Samak told the nation. "I will stay on to protect democracy of this country. The whole world is watching us." And he added: "I need to uphold the rule of law because we are not a barbaric country."

But that is precisely what he has not done since last week when tens of thousands of anti-government protesters, members of the ironically-named People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD), took over government offices, the culmination of 100 days of street rallies against the Samak administration. Despite declaring a state of emergency which prohibits gatherings of more than five people, the PAD challenge goes on. Samak turned over enforcement of martial law to the Army's chief General Anupong Paochinda who has done...nothing.

I'm a guest in the Kingdom of Thailand and am undergoing a crash course in Thai politics. Since this country became a constitutional monarchy in 1932 and changed its name from Siam to more modern "Thai Land," there have been numerous undemocratic changes of government, to the point where political instability seems to be a constant. And yet all factions continue to pay lip service to "democracy" as well as allegiance to Thailand's monarchy. PAD members wear yellow, the King's color, and carry has picture in their confrontations with police.

The Financial Times editorialized:
Thailand should pause. If Mr Samak is to fall from power, it should be by parliamentary means. Ruling coalition politicians may have grounds for ousting the prime minister in the event he mishandles the crisis. That would mean fresh elections. But the removal of Mr Samak by an alliance of street protesters and a reactionary elite would mean mob rule in Thailand.
I agree.

"There is a small possibility of anarchy. We will do so to pressure the government," Sondhi Limthongkul, a media mogul and one of the nine leaders of PAD, for whom arrest warrants have been issued on charges of treason, told foreign journalists. PAD is backed by affluent bankers, middle-class urbanites, conservative bureaucrats and the old-moneyed elite. "We can get the rich people supporting us to withdraw money from banks at a particular time," Sondhi declared. "The whole bloody financial system will come down." Since their occupation of Government House last week, PAD mobs have closed airports, disrupted train travel, and attempted to shut down a government TV station. A general strike yesterday, which included turning off electrical power, failed to materialize. "The PAD has no legitimacy anymore. It has become a very right-wing, conservative and intolerant group," said Naruemon Thabchumpon, a political scientist at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University. "They say they are pursuing direct democracy, but if so they must accept and obey the rule of law. This is direct anarchy."

How sad. The Thai stock market is plunging, tourists are canceling their vacations in the Land of Smiles, and even though daily life away from the protest zone seems normal, there are no easy answers to this conflict. In previous blogs I've tried to explain how the major divide centers on Thaksin Shinawatra, the billionaire who was elected twice by the people, deposed by the military a year ago, and who is now living in exile in London. But it masks a class issue. Thaksin was a populist and authoritarian and his support is primarily among the rural poor. They voted for him and for Samak, his successor. The urban upper classes could not abide this. They say these votes were purchased by corrupt politicians, and to some extent they are right. But politicians everywhere have always bought support with gifts, specificially jobs. Rural people are not stupid, according to Chang Noi, a columnist in The Nation.
The problem is not that upcountry voters don't know how to use their vote, and that the result is distorted by patronage and vote-buying. The problem is that they have learnt to use the vote only too well. Over four national polls, they have chosen very consistently and very rationally.
Now they take gifts from both sides and make up their own minds how to vote. PAD has proposed a "new politics" in which 70 per cent of Parliament would be appointed (by who?) and only 30 per cent elected. According to Chang Noi, PAD's "bleating about vote-buying and patronage politics is simply an attempt to undermine electoral democracy because it seems to be working."

According to an article in The Star of Toronto, Canada, "Thailand democracy [is] at risk."
"The issue at stake is whether or not democracy will continue in Thailand," says Charles Keyes, a University of Washington anthropologist who has devoted decades to the study of the southeast Asian nation.

"Either the will of the people will be allowed to determine the nature of the government, or there will be a return to an older authoritarianism, or 'guided democracy.'"
The Financial Times quotes several other sources sources critical of the anti-government mob:
"The PAD strategy . . . is to [generate] enough political chaos so that institutions and parties are destroyed and a ‘new order’ rises from the ashes," wrote Giles Ungpakorn, a political scientist at Chulalongkorn University, in an essay. “Needless to say, this new order will not be democratic nor committed to social justice and equality.”

Pokpong Lawansiri, a Bangkok-based human rights activist, also said the PAD’s campaign "would absolutely be a roll-back of democracy. What the PAD is demanding is very regressive."
The Wall Street Journal editorialized that "the PAD, are playing a dangerous game. If the Samak government is overthrown, there's no telling what might follow it. The best way to 'fix' democracy isn't to junk it, but to let it mature through peaceful transfers of power."

I do not understand why the PAD mob was permitted by the police to take over the seat of Thailand's government. Can you imagine what would happen if a few thousand people attempted to take over the White House in Washington? And once there, I do not understand why the PAD protesters were not evicted when the courts declared their "sit-in" illegal and issued warrants for the arrest of the mob's leaders. While the desire to avoid violence is laudatory, no other government that I know of would hand over the keys to the inner sanctum in the name of "civil disobedience" (I doubt that PAD understands or supports Thoreau and Gandhi's nonviolent use of that strategy).

Prime Minister Samak may not be the best leader for these times. And his less than year-old administration may not have produced any noticeable change. But the People's Power Party was fairly elected last December. Democracy, to me, means the people -- all of them -- have the opportunity to choose their leaders. And if the leaders fail them, then change may come again through the ballot, not through mob rule, or the Army's power. It has been suggested that Samak should dissolve Parliament and call new elections. While that would adhere to the Constitution, it would not satisfy the PAD because no doubt politicians loyal to Thaksin and Samak would be elected once again. So to prevent that, they want to trash democracy in Thailand.

As I write this, John McCain's choice for vice president, Sarah Palin, has been speaking to the Republican convention in Minneapolis. One CNN commentator said, "The most macho speech tonight was given by a woman." She was introduced by Rudy Giuliani, the former mayor of New York, and now a pit bull for the GOP. Over and over they spoke of McCain's experience as a POW in Vietnam, as if that somehow was a unique qualification to be president. Both of them did their best to ridicule Obama's credentials, seemingly unaware that all their charges of inexperience are equally valid for Palin whose brief career hardly makes her eligible to be president when the elderly McCain passes on. I couldn't help comparing the crowds cheering for McCain with the yellow-clad mob in Bangkok howling for Samak's head. And you know? I'm glad I'm here.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Obama for President

Before events spiral out of control here in Bangkok, I'd like to say a few words about Barack Obama. He's got my vote. That is, if I can figure out how to use it here. I joined the Bangkok for Barack Facebook group, and hopefully there is still time to register here (or use my not yet cancelled registration in Santa Cruz as an absentee voter).

The Democratic Convention in Denver, which I watched here on CNN, had me at Michelle Obama's heartfelt and homey speech on opening night. Ted Kennedy's farewell (probably) speech was deeply moving. I missed Hilliary the next night (the following morning here) but caught her husband's articulate itemization of the problems the Republicans have bequeathed the country, and Obama's eminent qualifications to address them. Joe Biden has always been a favorite of mine and I was happy to hear him sticking the knife in his old friend, John McCain. “These times require more than a good soldier," Biden told the convention. "They require a wise leader,”something not in the 72-year-old Republican nominee's resume, given his support of Bush policies.

Obama's speech was a dream, reminiscent of John Kennedy at his best and ML King's speech at the foot of the Washington Monument 45 years ago (which I watched on TV from my studio apartment on Berkeley's north side with my first ex-wife). Obama connected McCain to the “failed policies of Bush” and “the broken politics in Washington.” America, he said "we are better than these last eight years, we are a better country than this.” It’s not because John McCain doesn’t care, he told the crowd of 75,000 in the outdoor stadium while millions like me watched on TV around the world. “It’s because John McCain doesn’t get it.” Then he offered a laundry list of important liberal proposals, including tax cuts for the middle class and a pledge to wean the country from dependence on Middle East oil within 10 years. Campaign promises, yes, but good ones.

The convention finale, complete with fireworks and confetti, could not compete with the extravaganza in Beijing the previous week, but the familiar scene of candidates with their large families was inspiring nonetheless. Sure, there were platitudes and clichés in abundance. Are Michelle and Barack really that wholesome? He studiously avoided race in his speech other than to reference King's historical remarks, and I would have liked him to acknowledge the importance of immigration in America and the problems faced by undocumented workers. Why can't the Democrats call a spade a spade and accuse Bush & Co of war crimes (certainly Constitutional issues have been raised) for starting and continuing an unjust war against Iraq? They should not only be impeached but jailed for their infamies. In order to attract middle-of-the-road voters (who are they, anyway), they constantly moderate necessarily extreme rhethoric. But these are extreme times and they call for the truth. Obama came close in his acceptance speech, but he still walked and talked too much like a politician to my liking, his passion too restrained. Perhaps McCain's expected barbs will rouse his ire and let us see what an Obama unchained might be.

And then came the Republican September Surprise (the invasion of Iran will probably come in October): An unknown right-wing, evangelical soccer mom from Alaska was named as McCain's running mate, news shocking enough to force post-convention coverage of Obama off front pages and news shows. What were those heirs to Karl Rove thinking? Sarah Palin has risen from mayor to governor of her state in the past two years under a reform agenda (she opposed the "bridge to nowhere"), and clearly McCain's handlers thought she might attract the disenchanted Hillary supporters while giving their nominee new credentials as a mover for change (a word that Obama has surely a lock on). Anyone who would switch from Democrat to Republican for gender reasons alone is an idiot (dare I saw "feminazi"). She and McCain had never even met face to face befoe he chose her. Did he know that her 17-year-old unmarried daughter is pregnant, and that Palin is currently under investigation in "Troopergate" for sacking the public safety commissioner who refused to fire the policeman that divorced her sister? Or did he only know that she was a young woman with a Downs syndrome child who is passionately pro-choice for religious reasons? Family values anyone? Oh, and she also is in favor of drilling for oil in the Alaskan wildlife refugee, a proposal that McCain once opposed. Hurricane Gustav has given the Republicans a little breathing room, cutting short opening night ceremonies (Bush canceled his speech, probably much to the relief of many).

As I write this, Prime Minister Samak is appearing on all TV stations to explain his declaration of a state of emergency in Bangkok a couple of hours ago. I'll have to wait for a translation to learn what he said. But it was clearly prompted by clashes between pro- and anti-government protesters in the streets early this morning that resulted in one death and dozens of injuries. The battles occured even after soldiers had joined police to keep order between the factions. So Samak probably had no choice but to call for reinforcements with the emergency decree. "I decide to put Bangkok under state of emergency for what happened this morning," Samak said at a press conference. "This is the most lenient measure we can do at the moment because people in other provinces did not get involved in the incident." He added that people could continue their lives as usual. What this means is anyone's guess. All schools have been closed, but I don't know if this includes universities as well. It certainly gives Samak a free hand to clear the large crowds around Government House who have occupied administration property and offices for nearly a week. And they have vowed to stay until Samak resigns, a more distant possibility now.

Yesterday, I went to the Mahachula Humanities faculty office at Wat Srisudaram to find the answers to a couple of important questions. First, what happened to the documents I need to extend my visa and work permit beyond next week when they expire? They had been drafted ten days earlier and only needed signatures. After four hours, one of them arrived, but with the wrong passport number (they had copied a document used by another teacher). So I have to wait until today or tomorrow, hoping that the political crisis does not disturb anything. Second, I asked when I would be paid for teaching in July. The paymaster is gone until Wednesday, I was told. Third, when are final exams and how do I conduct them? I learned that the term has been extended an extra week due to a fair that closed school two months ago. As for when and how I schedule exams, I received the all-purpose Thai answer: "Up to you." And finally, I asked how I can get credit for teaching last Thursday since the office was closed and I was unable to sign in as usual.

The Humanities office was closed because of a two-day seminar at the new Wang Noi campus for teachers of English from Mahachula branches throughout Thailand. I learned about it the day before and was told it was mandatory. It was suggested that I cancel my Thursday class which I resisted (the 16-week class had already been canceled three times for various reasons). However, I agreed to attend the first day of the annual seminar and I'm glad I did, even though all the speeches were in Thai. The main address was by The Most Venerable Professor Dr. Phra Dharmakosajarn, Rector of Mahachulalongkornrajavidyalaya University (MCU), Ecclesiastical Governor of Region II, Chief Abbot of Wat Prayurawongsawat in Bangkok, and a member of the Secretariat to the Executive Committee for the Supreme Patriarch of Thailand. The Rector studied philosophy in Thailand and India, and his dissertation, written in English, compares the Existentialism of Sartre with early Buddhism. He illustrated his talk with PowerPoint slides that included pictures and quotes from Darwin and Machiavelli, as well as a drawing of a dinosaur, a big reptile with a tiny brain. Even without Thai I knew that he was warning about bigness (Mahachula is one of the largest Buddhist universities in the world, if not the biggest) and the need to adapt to changing conditions. In the afternoon the Vice Rector gave a two-hour speech about the uses of computers and the internet in education, with specific reference to new initiatives by Mahachula (I could figure out that much). After lunch, we broke up into small discussion groups and mine was headed by Dr. Suriya, the chairman of the English Language Department at our undergraduate campus. Dr. Supon on my left took notes in English which helped me to understand a bit of the conversation. As the token native English speaker, I was given the opportunity to say a few words and I talked about how I was given unlimited freedom to design my own course (I could tell that Dr. Supon felt there should be more rigorous guidelines and standards, and a uniform course description and syllabus for English classes). I explained the different strategies I use to get normally shy young monks to speak up in class, and I told them how happy I was to find a new career in the midst of retirement. My remarks were greeted with applause and I was invited to visit a couple of the other Mahachula campuses.

Mahachula's Wang Noi campus, on the outskirts of Ayutthaya an hour north of Bangkok, was built several years ago for a student population of 15,000. But only slowly have classes been moved from the current campus at Wat Mahathat and Wat Si. Many facilities are not yet complete, and about 1,000 first-year students attend classes Monday-Wednesday. I walked around the huge main building and saw many classrooms converted into dormitories with monks sleeping on mats and in tents. Those rooms used for study were electronically up to date and included air conditioning (my classroom is cooled only by fans and open windows). I found the architecture rather sterile and uninspiring and wondered if I will want to commute to teach there. More landscaping and halls full of chattering monks in orange robes might help warm it up. I'm not sure why the move is going so slow. I was told second-year students would move to Wang Noi next year, and third-year students the year after. The campus is rather remote, with a long walk to the nearest 7-11, and I doubt that students will be happy trading their busy neighborhoods in Bangkok where they live at different temples for the wide open rice fields of Wang Noi. The library at the new campus was new and well-stocked with English language texts, along with a selection of computers for monks to check their Hi5 sites. A year ago, the International Association of Buddhist Universities (IABU) was formed with its headquarters at Mahachula. In two weeks, Buddhists will gather at new new Wang Noi campus for the 1st IABU summit, its topic "Buddhism and Ethics." Before he left, I was introduced to the Rector and Dr. Suriya mentioned to him that my degree was in history. The Ven. Dharmakosajarn then told me about his plans to start a history department, beginning with Asian history and growing into a full-fledged faculty with courses in world history. I recalled that David Christian, whose "big history" text we used for a course in global history at UC Santa Cruz a few years ago, was a Buddhist and made a note to myself to get in touch with Terry Burke, his friend, who has become a leader in that new subdiscipline.

Dr. Suriya and my colleagues found it odd that I wanted to miss the second day of the seminar in order to go back and teach my students. We'd been bribed for our participation with the gifts of a 4 gig thumb drive and 1000 baht ($34). As it turned out, the next day's activities were abbreviated in order that teachers could return to their far-flung campuses in the provinces. I taught Asst Prof. Kovid's classes as well as my own, since he wanted to stay at Wang Noi. For their oral presentation, I had my students list the five things that made them most happy. Only a few mentioned money (more said it was seeing their mother). And after class I had plenty of time to take a boat on the river to Wat Yannowa for the second of Pandit Bhikku's series of talks on "Living Dhamma." I was a monitor, watching the fans and making sure there were enough chairs. Pandit's theme was morality, and he cited "The Wheelwright" story in the Suttas that points out the difference between two wheels that initially seem similar; one took six months to make while the second only two weeks. It's a "you can't tell a book by its cover" message. Morality is something internal, unseen. Perhaps the most important reason for moral uprightness "is that it makes you happy, and a happy mind is more easily concentrated," Pandit said.

His talk continued a conversation we'd had several weeks before about "merit making," the particular form Thai Buddhism seems to take with a religious practice more focused on accumulating merit through the giving of gifts to insure a good rebirth than achieving enlightenment. But I had misunderstood the value of merit (tam boon in Thai or dona in Pali), he told me. Its purpose is to bring the giver happiness which is the foundation of morality. It promotes generosity and compassion, and helps to make good deeds rather than evil ones habitual.
It is good and natural to celebrate anything good you have done. Naturally if you go telling people how great you are it will have the opposite effect to that desired, but otherwise do not get confused with the "selfish" argument. If it's good, do it. If you are doing it anyway, do it with the sense of offering, and not begrudging.
Pandit quoted from the Dhamapada: "A deed is good that one doesn't regret having done, that results in joy and delights."

A couple of hundred people from the English-speaking community crowded into the third-floor room at Wat Yannowa, many sitting cross-legged on mats. I talked with Paul who works at the British Embassy and who will miss next week's talk because of Prince Andrew's visit to Bangkok. Others told of their frustration in finding Buddhist teaching in English and their happiness to discover this gathering. The State of Emergency declared today prohibits meetings of more than five. I wonder if that will include educational and spiritual meetings like these talks. I hope not.

*This just in from Bangkok Pundit, my major source of information on the current political crisis here. Responding to travel advisories posted by South Korea, Singapore, Australia and the UK, he writes:
My advice is you are more likely to suffer an injury in a traffic accident - particularly on a motorcycle (not wearing a helmet, driving drunk, and driving in the Islands of course add to the risk) - than to suffer any injury from political violence in Bangkok.