Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Goodbye 2009, Hello 2010

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times," wrote Charles Dickens in the first sentence of A Tale of Two Cities, and this description could apply to the days in which were are now living. No one seems sorry to see the decade go.

Dickens was writing about the period before and during the French Revolution. The novel was published seventy years after the bloody social upheaval that traumatized Europe for decades and his novel was partly a cautionary tale about what might happen in England if the social injustices of the 19th century were not addressed. Dickensian London may have been colorful, but hidden in the back alleys behind the impressive facade of the British Empire were the impoverished masses, in England and in her widespread colonies, who fueled the machine of modernity. A feudal agricultural society was dismantled to provide the labor that enabled the rise of capitalism. The plunder of the earth's limited supply of coal and oil supplied energy for incredible technologies that would change the face of the planet (and guarantee its eventual demise). Yesterday's aristocracy are today's bankers, lawyers and politician. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

This decade began for me with a diagnosis of prostrate cancer, the end of a 24-year marriage, and the first reality TV show in which one morning a bunch of terrorists discovered they could turn planes into weapons and destroyed two Manhattan skyscrapers while the world watched. Eight disastrous years of Bush ended with the ascent of Obama who has shown in his first year as president that, no, he can't. Working wasn't fun any more, so I retired with a pension and medical benefits and set out alone to see the world. After visiting countries in Central and South America, Europe and Asia, I resolved to settle permanently in Thailand.

Now in my 71st year I teach English to monks part-time and live with a wonderful woman in a 10th floor apartment in Bangkok. Every day is an incredible adventure. But the decade has also been tough for Thailand, with the rise and fall (and possible resurrection of) exiled Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Increasing polarization between the royalist yellow shirts and populist red shirts bodes ill for peace in the immediate future for this troubled land which is ruled by non-elected elites from Bangkok. But the real elephant in the room is the Succession and it's illegal to speculate about it. Ever the optimist, however, tomorrow we're traveling to the island of Ko Samui for a six-day vacation on the beach.Three nights from now we'll greet the second decade of the 21st century with hope that the world will eventually share our happiness and contentment with the way things have turned out for us.

We've been celebrating the end of the decade for a week. The picture at top was taken at E-San Tawandang, a large restaurant where we held a birthday party for Jerry's wife, Lamyai, on Christmas evening. The photo below was taken at an early New Year's party held the next night by our condominium complex, Lumpini Place. What I am not including is a video which shows me dancing with the Isaan ladies.

May all beings be happy, healthy and at peace. Happy New Year, dear readers.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Goodwill Towards All

Despite the over-the-top Christmas decorations on display everywhere in Bangkok for the last two months, December 25th is just another work day for Thais. I woke Nan fifteen minutes early and introduced her to the custom of opening presents before dawn on Christmas morning. She sang "Jingle Bells" while tearing open the gift-wrapped boxes to discover a hair dryer from Lin Ping (the baby panda at the Chiang Mai Zoo), macadamia nuts from Winnie the Pooh, a white tee from Santa, and earrings from me. Our tiny tree was festooned with the candy canes I discovered yesterday at Top Market on the shelf near the Hershey kisses which I also bought. Who needs a Christmas ham when you've got chocolate, nuts and candy canes?

Luke always found the holidays hard to take. I understood his disappointment: Christmas can never live up to our fantasies about it. Those of us who try fruitlessly to force reality into the pictures in our head of snow on the lawn, twinkling lights on the tree and sugar plums dancing in our head are doomed to despair. Life cannot compete with a Hallmark card. When my family disintegrated, old habits died hard. I've tried different techniques to avoid the holiday blues. Since my memories and dreams are relentlessly secular, I practiced putting Christ back in Christmas by celebrating the birth of the divine (in all of us, not just in Jesus), attending all the seasonal rites and rituals. Escaping the familiar is another good method. Two years ago I was surrounded by women in saris at an ashram in India. Last year I went to Pattaya where the bar girls wore revealing red Santa outfits.

This year I took a different tack. Outside of the few churches here, Thais have little familiarity with the holiday's religious roots. In a recent survey, many thought that Santa was the father of Jesus. Nan knew "Jingle Bells," but only the title and not the words. I resolved to give her the gift of Christmas. Maybe I could recapture the delicious memories of Christmas past by sharing the newness of it with her. We found a three-foot artificial tree in a box at Tesco Lotus and decorated it with garlands, bulbs and miniature Santas. It was too far from the outlet for lights but we put a silvery star on the top and gave Santa hats to our two stuffed pandas. On the walls we hung "Happy New Year" banners in English and Thai. I've got over 100 tunes on my iPod certified as Christmas music. And yesterday I actually had fun shopping at the Central Pinklao mall for presents that would make her smile (in addition to the black leather purse I bought her as an advance gift a week ago).

Thais are great givers of gifts. Generosity is central to the Buddhist dhamma. They give freely to the monks and to beggars on the streets. The stores are full of these gift baskets which are the traditional New Year's present. They're full of edibles, drinkables and healthy concoctions like "essence of chicken" which is a typical offering for hospital patients. Nan has promised to give me my gift tonight. I gave her a number of affordable suggestions. The other day we shopped for a gift for Jerry's wife Lamyai who celebrates her birthday tonight. Nan thought a scarf would be a good idea (and Jerry told us that Khmer women like to wear them), so we went shopping. It took quite a bit of browsing to find just the right scarf. The color and the material had to be perfect. The store wrapped it and Nan penned a message in Thai from us. Tonight we'll gather with her friends at a large restaurant in Bangkok that features Isaan music and food. Who knows? Maybe they'll play "Jingle Bells."

Baron is visiting from the states, his annual high season jaunt to Thailand. On his first day recovered from jet leg, we went for lunch at Cabbages & Condoms, the restaurant founded by "Mr. Condom," Mechai Viravaidya, which funds the Population and Community Development Association, an NGO dedicating to promoting sexual safety awareness. You'd be surprised what you can do with a condom besides prevent babies and AIDs (this life-sized Santa is one of several curious displays). And the food's good as well. I played tourist with Baron for a couple of days, going with him to a floating market outside the city and to the Jim Thompson House, now a museum to honor the man who introduced Thai silks to the world (but who disappeared on a trip to the jungle in Malaysia in 1967). One evening we went out with friends to hear the joyous rockabilly music of Peter Driscoll and the Cruisers. Baron is staying at the luxurious Ariyasom Villa, a boutique hotel on Sukhumvit Soi 1; I've attended several dhamma talks in their upstairs meditation room. It's not far from his favorite massage parlor (where "happy endings" are not permitted; it's an upscale kind of place).

The week before Nan and I had played tourist by visiting
Wat Boromracha Kanchanapisek Anusorn, a new Chinese Buddhist temple which was only dedicated last year after twelve years of construction. We traveled on a city bus for over an hour to get to Bang Bua Thong, a northwestern suburb of Bangkok, at the end of the line. The spectacular four-story temple has engraved granite columns, brass Buddha statues and carved-wood murals, all hand made in China. A wall of granite imported from China encloses the main entrance, and inside the central building are three Buddha statues, each 18 tons of brass, and in a second structure a statue of a 10,000-handed Guan Yin, the Goddess of Mercy, made of Burmese teakwood and carved in China. Another hall contains 10,000 tiny gold Buddhas. There are also facilities for novices and monks in the Mahayana tradition. The temple complex sits on 11-rai of land and was conceived by Phra Kanajanjin Khamma Punya Jariyaporn, vice-patriarch of the Chinese Buddhist sect, who hopes it will become a learning center for Mahayana Buddhism in Thailand where almost all Buddhists follow the Theravada tradition. The bus trip back took us along a highway lined with garden shops, and, since it was the weekend, Thais were out in full force to stock up on plants, bushes and trees for their homes. We've now got three plants on our balcony which are thriving thanks to Nan's green thumb.

It's not been easy to blog anything this month. Luke's death has cast a shadow over the December holidays. And Nan's mother is in the hospital in Phayao recovering from an operation to remove a tumor from her stomach. It's hard to find good news. The health reform bill just passed by the U.S. Senate seems woefully inadequate and an outright gift to the medical and insurance industries, but, like Obama, it's better than what Americans had before. No one seems happy with the outcome of the climate negotiations in Copenhagen. There is no light at the end of the multiple tunnels in the war-torn Middle East now that America's Nobel prize winner has declared that war can be a path to peace. This weekend the red shirts in Thailand will return to the streets to protest a government that represents powerful interests rather than the people. Is real democracy possible, anywhere? And yet, incurable optimists that we humans are, we must demand now and forever, peace on earth and goodwill towards all. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year (when we'll be on the beach in Koh Samui).

Thursday, December 17, 2009


The body of my son Luke, ravaged by drugs and alcohol, was consigned to the flames last week in a South Boston crematorium. There was no funeral service, and his mother will keep the ashes until she can scatter them over the waters of the Pacific Ocean that Luke loved so well. About the same time, outside Wat Lahan in a suburb of Bangkok, Nan and I bought flowers and an orange bucket full of practical goodies to donate to the monks, and we sat with one in a small room while he chanted, blessed us with water and accepted our gift which included a small piece of paper with Luke's name on it. This was a tamboon ceremony on Wan Phra (Monk Day, the Buddhist sabbath) and we "made merit" for Luke and all sentient beings. In San Francisco his friend Jennifer donated 2000 coats to the homeless and poor and dedicated this gift in Luke's memory. In California next Jan. 3rd, the Feast of the Epiphany, my friends Jerry and Sylvia have arranged for a mass to be said for Luke at Holy Cross Church. A Jewish friend in London has lit a candle for him. That Luke was not religious is unimportant. What difference do theological arguments make when your son has died and the event defies meaning?

How could someone commit slow suicide with vodka and pills when he was loved so much by so many? The response to my blog last week about his death and to posts on his Facebook page and mine has been overwhelming and heartwarming. Friends from high school, from his work at Industrial Light & Magic (ILM), and from his recent years in Bakersfield and Boston have sent comments and stories to me. "You are ingrained in memories of my youth, from Sonoma to San Francisco," Lisa wrote. "I will always remember you, a kind heart, distinctive laugh and a sweet spirit." Jon told of "long crazy nights" as also of climbing Mt. Lassen with Luke, "the fine person that you are, always one of my dearest and truest friends." Others recalled "such a dear and special man" who "loved the outdoors and had a great sense of adventure." A woman who was 15 when she fell in love with Luke writes that he was "loving and playful, compassionate, never judgmental, kind, always willing to listen and comfort, full of energy, and yes, even full of life." Another friend from high school, one of "the 'young punks' we all were," compared him to James Dean, and writes that he knew Luke "way back...where it all started, the partying...the drinking...the drugging...the pain." And a woman who went to her prom with Luke, "one of those life long friends from Sonoma," says "I suspect Luke knew he was loved and yet chose the 'lone wolf' side of himself and slid into the abyss to meet it."

Friends in Santa Cruz, where Luke came often to visit when he was in high school, recalled him fondly. Acacia told me, "I remember that cute little boy." And Jess, his close friend from that period, wrote that "I have lovely memories of his smiling freckled face I will hold forever." What a "tragic waste of a young life," wrote Shirlee, echoing messages from her daughter Diana and granddaughter Marina who all knew Luke as a charming young man.

Luke's coworkers at ILM remember him as a good and kind friend who liked to laugh and have fun. One, who "worked with him through tough times," also got to see "how he was able to help others through their difficult times." Elle said Luke "touched us and we enjoyed and commiserated, and laughed, and worked hard side-by-side. The darker side of Luke's struggle never erases the good times that we shared with him." Pete, who was hired by Luke for commercials, said working with him "was always an adventure." Another who worked closely with him said many of those who loved him "wished/hoped, as you did, that he could find a way to stop destroying himself. He just couldn't do it."

The pain of waiting for "The Call" struck a chord for many of Luke's friends. "I, too, wait for the call," wrote a co-worker from ILM. "It is my brother, in my case." Another wrote that "many of us around you are all facing similar challenges with a loved one in our lives." Perhaps there are a few other parents out there, said a commentator to my blog, "who will take your recount of events and use all of that to help themselves resolve similar difficulties with their sons or daughters." Sharing his story "will help others through their own demon chasing," said a commentator. "We all live with demons to some degree," my friend Virginia wrote, "and we all die. Choosing the healthy path all the time is difficult. Patty, who has been sober for 25 years, lost her brother "to the evil disease." Mark who teaches art in Santa Cruz said he would give my account of Luke's life to a high school student "who is on the same path as Luke was and whom I can only hope your storytelling may reach."

Many of the remarks I received spoke about the incomprehensibility of alcoholism. "It's absolutely a mystery why some people get sober and others never manage it," wrote an anonymous commentator to my blog. "Blame and talk bout responsibility are simply pointless -- it happens, or it doesn't, and there's no knowing why." Elle, who writes that she's lost many friends to suicide and crazy accidents involving vehicles, booze and drugs, has "come to realize that sometimes there is no solution, no answer to 'why.'" Another wrote that "psychological pain and its effects are sadly unpredictable, leaving everyone feeling helpless." Janet said, "It's a disease and far too many die from it." Someone who knew him when he lived in Bakersfield said his friends "could never understand the excruciating pain Luke experienced each and every day." Anita wrote about her small children, "and the thought of any one of them dying makes my heart ache." There is "no rhyme or reason to this," write a friend from Luke's ILM days, and he added, as did many, his hope that "Luke is at peace."

I haven't mentioned the many comments and emails I've received through the miracle of Facebook and Twitter that allows one to collect in virtual space nearly all the friends one's ever had from a long and scattered life. Whether they've lost a child, or someone else to the slow death of addiction, they offered the comfort of just listening and caring that so many people have been touched by Luke's short life and his sad end. Friends from high school have sent messages, people I knew in Europe before Luke was born, a number of acquaintances from the music business and my time at GPI Publications, and finally from many close friends in Santa Cruz and in Bangkok. I think about Luke every day and go over in my memory the times we were together, the sound of his voice, and the joys and the sorrows that we shared. I'm still angry, even hostile as one commentator put it, about the many bad choices he made and the constant refusal of offers of help. But in the end, it was his life, and I could not live it for him. I only hope that he is at peace now and that learning what happened to him might help to change the lives of others who are sliding into the abyss.

Friday, December 11, 2009

The Call

For some matters, only gallows humor will suffice. In our family we have long talked of waiting for "The Call" as our son and brother Luke lurched from one disaster to another in his 25-year descent into alcoholism. Somehow he would always recover in various intensive care units from suicide attempts as well as from seizures brought on by too little alcohol in his long-saturated system. He went from 28-day rehab to lock-down facilities, and often it seemed his only motive for drying out was to resume afresh his love affair with vodka and his abuse of anti-anxiety medication like Klonopin. Help was offered (he lived for years on disability funds in California and Massachusetts) and mostly refused. Last Monday The Call came. Luke's brother Chris didn't answer his cell phone from Luke's number in Boston, thinking it just more trouble, but he heard paramedics in the background. He phoned his half-sister Emma in Portland who called Luke's number and learned that the brother who had helped raise her with Chris had been found dead in bed at the age 0f 42. The Call came to me by email early Tuesday morning in Bangkok but I soon talked on the phone with my oldest son in Sonoma. For years, both of us have felt both helpless and angry at the waste of a life, but for now at least, our frustrated hopes and Luke's mysterious demons are silenced.

Luke was a lovely child. His freckle-faced smile could charm a room and he never lacked for friends. His mother and I separated when he was six and I'll never know what role any feelings of being abandoned would play in his development; he minimized it but I never escaped the guilt. I tried to stay close to him when he lived in Laurel Canyon and I in Venice by the beach, but when I moved to northern California and he to Durango, Colorado, it was more difficult. The boys stayed one summer with me in Connecticut and when I returned to live in Santa Cruz it was not far from Sonoma where both were going to high school. They would come down to visit our house in the mountains and made lasting friends among the kids their age in our community. Luke was always the center of his social circle, the confidant of all. Only when he got tired would I see his eyes dim and sense an inner darkness, whether illness or something deeper I could not tell.

The affluent suburb of Sonoma where Luke's successful step-father had his art studio was a hotbed of discontent and many of the youth and adults turned to alcohol and drugs to stifle their privileged angst. When I was a teenager in the similar community of La Cañada, drinking was also de rigeur, but we lacked the uppers and downers and the stuff you smoked and snorted. Luke tried everything and for many years it only seemed to enhance his charm. He was the life of every party. He told me once that since he was 17 not a day had gone by that he did not have alcohol in his system. A feisty rebel, he fought with his step-father, who was sometimes physically abusive, until deciding to join him; they became drinking buddies. After high school, Luke got a job in the mail room at film producer George Lucas' ranch in Marin County and before long worked his way up and into Industrial Light and Magic, the prestigious special effects factory founded by Lucas in Santa Rosa where Luke became the location manager for the commercials division. The work was intense but it paid well. Luke and his girlfriend had an apartment in Larkspur filled with toys, an aquarium and a telescope, as well as a state of the art sound and TV systems, and a guitar to stimulate dreams of becoming a rock star. He loved the sea and took diving lessons, and he also took acting lessons in hopes perhaps of finding film work through ILM. Occasionally it was difficult to tell the difference between ambition and fantasy in his thoughts.

When my boys were young, I took them to Florida to spend time with their grandparents and we went with my father to Disney World. After my dad died, my mother came to Sonoma to visit and took great pride in her grandchildren. Slowly, however, Luke's addiction was taking its toll. It may have played a role in the breakup of his long-term relationship. Then he was arrested for drunk driving on Highway 1 in Big Sur and my brother the lawyer got his penalty minimized. Luke moved into a cozy house in Fairfax but Chris and his wife Sandy began to notice destructive behavior. He was arrested for being drunk and disorderly and the binges became more frequent. He told me that his work made him anxious and that he drank to calm his nerves. Unknown then to me, he was also cutting himself on his arms, because, as he explained later, the pain made the other pain go away (most cutters are young girls). There was an embarrassing episode involving missing expensive account funds and he was fired by ILM. He found work as a freelancer for production companies in San Francisco. But gradually the fantasies took over.

After being hospitalized for what might have been an accident with barbiturates, Luke decided to live out the plot of one of his favorite films, "Leaving Las Vegas," in which Nicolas Cage plays a man with personal problems who resolves to go to Vegas and drink himself to death. But Luke only got as far as Bakersfield where his car collided with a truck and he was arrested and then hospitalized. My son would stay in this gloomy city, whose motto for many is "come on vacation, leave on probation," for several years. He applied for and began receiving disability which solved the money problem, and he learned how to manipulate the medical and social welfare systems. When the DTs got too much, he would threaten suicide and be hospitalized on a 72-hour hold in order to dry out with medication before a new round of abuse. Once, he was in the locked ward of a hospital after cutting his wrists. I visited him several times in Bakersfield, the last time when he lay in a coma after seizures caused by the impact of alcohol on his pancreas.

One of Luke's favorite films was "The Virgin Suicides," the story of teenage boys who became infatuated with five sisters who killed themselves. Another was "Girl, Interrupted," in which Winona Ryder plays a girl diagnosed with borderline personality disorder who becomes hospitalized, after a half-hearted suicide attempt, at the renowned McLean Hospital in Massachusetts. What attracted Luke was the community formed by the mental patients in the hospital to help and protect each other. He was in fact diagnosed with BPD and I was encouraged when I found out that the treatment can involve meditation. I understand the condition to be kind of a chronic immaturity. But he never underwent the treatment. He became obsessed with McLean, an enormously expensive facility, and wrote away asking for a kind of scholarship. When he was turned down, he decided to move to Boston anyway to be near McLean.

I was against the idea of Luke relocating to another city when his problems were unresolved, but in October of 2006 I decided to fly to Boston to celebrate his 39th birthday with him. He was drunk when I arrived at his apartment in Waltham -- it was because of nerves about the visit, he said. I left to see friends in New Hampshire and Vermont and when I returned he was sober enough to take a day trip up through Gloucester to Maine. We had a good talk but he would not commit himself to the attempt to quit drinking. We went to dinner at different restaurants (Luke always fancied himself a gourmet and could cook well when he was sober) and for walks along the Charles River. I went with him to see his therapist who seemed genuinely concerned about Luke and potentially helpful. And he took me to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting at McLean, more I think to show me the hospital than to go along with AA's 12-step program. I never saw in him the desperation for recovery that I think plays a necessary part in overcoming addiction. He was more concerned with getting his cocktail of medications fine-tuned so he would not have to suffer any discomfort. I think it was his fear of what he might have to go through to get to the other side of recovery that prevented him from making any serious attempt to stop drinking.

In many ways, however, Boston was good for Luke. After my visit he told his sister that he had resolved to quite drinking if he hurt anyone, and he could see that he hurt me by being drunk when I arrived. He bought a camera and started taking photos, and he found volunteer work at the New England Aquarium where he got to feed the penguins. He went online to meet women and started dating again (for a long time he had been afraid that his scars would put them off). Most of the women, however, were in treatment for addiction problems so they were people who could understand his situation, but who also posed a risk. He wrote emails nearly once a week in 2007 and most of them were hopeful. I was under the impression that he didn't start drinking again until the following year.

The following year, 2008, Luke went to Florida to visit an old high school girlfriend and she came to Boston with her children to spend Christmas with him. She told me by email that he'd been drinking again for the past six months and I confronted him about it. I told him I could not watch him commit suicide in slow motion and if he wanted to drink I would have to say goodbye. He was furious that his cover had been blown and called my attitude "holier than thou." I called him "stupid" for continuing to drink, and I wrote about his "slip" in my blog, words I now regret. We exchanged more emails, progressively less angry, which I'll probably save forever. In January of this year he wrote:
You also asked me whether or not I was prepared to stop drinking recently. I don't think myself or you has figured out the answer to that. Maybe someone who has about 30 years of sobriety can answer that question. If quitting was something that wasn't so fucking hard, then yes I would be happy to give it up. But it's a damn monkey on my back and I'm not going to lie and say I don't like the physical sensation I get from it.
A few days later he wrote: "It seems to me that this conversation is going nowhere really fast. Perhaps we should put this on hold for some time. Maybe that would be the best thing." In the next email, written three months later, Luke said his therapist had delivered an ultimatum "that I simply couldn't see eye to eye with so now we've taken a break and I don't know how long it will last. A shame, but our sessions were at a point where all we talked about was alcohol, and it [was] getting to where I couldn't discuss anything else on my mind. So I'm searching for a new therapist." Throughout the years Luke maintained that he drank because of psychological problems, and that these problems were not the result of his drinking; I always disagreed. I received a few more emails from Luke, on Father's Day, my birthday in July, and a couple in September, but all contained mostly trivial information, and little news about his health, medical or mental. His last email in mid-October thanked me for a birthday e-card (his 42nd) I had sent him, spoke about a recent snow storm, and mentioned that he and a friend were trying to figure out how to get enough money together for a trip to Thailand.

Last night I spoke via Skype with Jenny, a young woman who met Luke on a web site around Halloween and in whose bed Luke was found dead on Monday morning. She was attracted to him because he needed help she said, but was put off by his constant drinking and intended to separate from him this week. They had gone to visit Luke's mother and step-father at their Connecticut farm for Thanksgiving and Luke spiked his cranberry juice with vodka. The parents, both also heavy drinkers, did not notice. He was happy last Friday, she said, when they went shopping for food and he cooked her chicken quesadillas. They watched movies on the weekend, among them "Mosquito Coast" and "Harold and Maude" which he told her was my favorite film. But he had trouble sleeping at night and on Sunday said he was not feeling well, though he slept most of the day. That night he snored loudly but was breathing softly when she left Monday morning. Returning at noon, she found him cold and called for an ambulance. It was no use.

I've told this extended story because I don't know what else to say. The news of my son's death has left me numb. I've been waiting for the other shoe to drop for so long that all I can think is: "There it is." Since I no longer believe that the dead go to some better place (or worse), the old platitudes do not work for me. Yes, I am glad that Luke is no longer tormented by the demons I could never see nor understand.Early on, I attended some Alanon meetings, but they only wanted to fix me, rather than help me to know what was best to do for him. Was I wrong to refuse to talk or correspond with him when he was drinking? Was that good for him, or only for me? Since we'd both made some significant mistakes in our lives which had hurt others, in many ways I felt closer to Luke than to my other children. On a certain deep level, we could understand each other. But I was never able to determine to my satisfaction whether for him drinking was a choice or a compulsion he could not possibly avoid. Are some addictions terminal?

A life to be tragic must involve choice. How should we treat people who persistently pursue bad behavior, who lie to, manipulate, and wreak havoc in the lives of those who follow the rules? If Luke was simply sick, can we forgive him more easily? His life then was simply and unavoidably cut short, a waste of a potential life rather than a tragedy. There is no god up in the sky that I can shake my fist at, or from whom I can seek an explanation. If anything has come from this sorry state of affairs, it is the warm wishes of my many friends, old and new, who reach me now via the internet, telling me how sorry they are "for your loss." But I lost Luke long ago. Neither of us seemed to benefit from the struggle to understand the perspective of the other. And yet Luke will remain in my heart for as long as I breathe. This week the events of his life have passed before my eyes. I recall his birth in the 7th Day Adventist hospital in Los Angeles where they wouldn't let us smoke (those were the days when you could take your kids for a drive in a smoked-filled car with no feeling of guilt). I remember how he followed my example and played the clarinet in the high school band. And I remember his freckle-filled smile and hear his voice, "yooooo, Pop!" I will never forget.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Pretty in Pink

Because Thai astrologers have determined that pink is a healing color, hundreds of thousands (millions?) turned out in that color on Saturday to celebrate the 82nd birthday of their ailing King Bhumibol Adulyadej. Wearing our pink shirts, Nan and I plunged into the heart of the massive crowds in Bangkok to light candles and watch the fireworks display. Not only did I join in the prayers for the recovery of the world's longest-reigning monarch, but I also hoped to get a better understanding of what Thais feel about their King and why he is believed to be the nation's most important source of stability.

King Bhumibol has been at Siriraj Hospital for nearly three months since he was hospitalized for what was originally described as a fever and lack of appetite. Speculating on the seriousness of his illness is a punishable offense here. He has appeared in public twice in a wheelchair on the hospital grounds, but for his birthday (also Father's Day in Thailand) he traveled across the river to the Grand Palace where, sitting on a gold throne and wearing ceremonial white garb, he spoke briefly to the royal family and important dignitaries. After thanking them for coming, the King said,
My happiness and goodness will be preserved if our nation has prosperity and security with calm. You all have an important duty for the country and all Thai people must understand their duty clearly, and have in mind firmly to do their duty the best they can, for public benefit and to help develop the country.
His words will be examined very carefully by the different factions in this sharply divided country where the government of Prime Minister Abhisit, backed by the business community, monarchy and the military, rules from Bangkok while the impoverished rural hinterland continues to see the exiled Taksin Shinawatra as their savior. King Bhumibol's enigmatic utterances have occasionally led in the past to reconciliation between disputing forces, but for over five years the class conflict in Thailand has undermined stability, democracy and the rule of law. It's questionable whether calm can prevail.

A couple of Canadian tourists standing next to us were mystified by the colors (besides pink, many Thais wore yellow, the traditional color for the King since he was born on a Monday, the yellow day) and the pomp and circumstance. They were dazzled by the displays of light, colored fountains, large photos of the King, and numerous booths set up by government ministries along Ratchadamnoen. All roads were closed between the Sanam Luang parade grounds and the Royal Plaza in front of Amanta Samakhom Throne Hall where an elaborate son et lumière performance, "The King of Kings," with a full orchestra will be presented for the next week. We were standing with the Canadians in front of Democracy Monument, designed by an Italian fascist to commemorate the establishment of a constitutional monarchy in 1932. Thailand calls itself "a democracy with the King as head of state," but the reverential and even religious feeling Thais have for their King is unlike anything seen in Europe where only a few constitutional monarchies remain.

We began the day by joining a neighborhood celebration to feed nine monks in honor of the King's birthday. The night before Nan had prepared separate packages of canned fish, instant noodle soup, and rice to present at the tamboon merit-making ceremony. She had heard that there were to be 99 monks (9 is clearly the auspicious number) but we misunderstood the directions and found the small local gathering instead. The monks sat on a raised platform on one side of the road, united by a string, and chanted for the people who sat on plastic chairs. At a long table, offerings were collected for the nine begging bowls of the monks by a group of volunteers. A tall money tree with contributions to the temple stood at one end of the table. On another table was a pig's head, fruit and incense, something I've seen at Thai weddings. The festivities were occasionally interrupted by motorcycles, cars and even trucks carrying ice for street vendors who had to navigate the narrow street. After the chanting, the monks ate their breakfast while the crowd looked on, some of the participants offering envelopes of money to individual monks. When the monks finished their meal, a communal kitchen served rice soup with pork to all the guests followed by a sweet dessert. It was a lovely way to begin the day and probably was echoed all over Thailand .

Last Friday at our IDEA Group discussion, Jimmy had offered a developmental framework for looking at Thailand's continuing problems by thinking of it as a "newly industrialized country," a socioeconomic classification he found with help from Jeffrey Sachs' book, The End of Poverty, and with an assist from Jerrod Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel. While Sachs would like to eliminate extreme poverty with judicious foreign aid and Diamond sees unequal development as the result of geography, Jimmy presented markers on the road to full development using the categories of various thinkers. Patrick, however, pointed out that these categories tended to be Eurocentric and made it difficult to appreciate the uniqueness of Asian development. For example, it's very easy for westerners to criticise religion and royalism, two of the three pillars of Thai nationhood, for holding back both democracy and financial development, without understanding their use. I suggested that Thai Buddhism may be overly superstitious, but it does generate an incredible generosity on the part of believers here. And whatever you may say about religious devotion to the King, the monarchy has provided Thais with a sense of identity and belonging that is exceptionally strong. The upcoming succession will put that to the test.

It's doubtful that I will ever fully understand the attachment of Thais to their King. To speak of it with less than full appreciation is to enter dangerous territory and no doubt I've transgressed that border many times here. "It seems you love points of contention," one reader observed, "evidenced with your toe tapping the Royal boundary lines every week." I began this blog nearly four years ago with a desire to speak about the unspeakable, in particular matters of religion, sexuality and politics. But that kind of rigorous honesty has gotten me into trouble, and I have lost a few friends over comments and criticisms I've made. Lately I've been wondering about my stubborn defense of views and opinions that perhaps do not mean a whole lot in the grand scheme of things. Why am I writing this blog?

Nearly a year ago I was asked by a famous mystery novelist to take down from my blog any reference to her deceased husband, a distinguished professor of comparative religion whom I had served as a research assistant for over ten years. "It's kind of peculiar for my readers to follow a google alert that leads them to a blog with Barbie and Ken having sex." (see "Barbie Exposed") I deleted my departed mentor's name from my eulogy and only referred to him as The Professor. More recently I wrote about a comparative religions study group in which I participated, and included photos and some identification of various participants. I received an email from the president of the group's sponsoring organization in which she said I was "damaging the privacy of our members...Let me say it simply, 'this is not done.'" Shamefaced, I deleted the photos and any telltale identification. I have never valued privacy much and am always surprised to discover how important it is to some people. Or perhaps, as the famous writer said, it's the association with a blog that openly discusses forbidden subjects.

Other blog posts have ended friendships. Someone I regarded as a friend wrote that my description of a farang's ordination as a monk was "particularly nasty" because of my uncomplimentary description of his shaven head and the white robe he wore for the ceremony, as well as a reference to his reported pre-ordination peccadillos. I edited the offending remarks, but he said he stopped reading my blog again "after the rather gleeful heading of how you think we monks consider women ("Thai Monks Treat Women as Untouchables"). I was reporting on a talk by Pali scholar Richard Gombrich with whom I was in agreement, but I changed "Monks" to "Sangha" to indicate it was the authorities who had decreed that women could not touch male monks nor become full-fledged nuns in Thailand. He added that I had not done any "actual research into the matter," but when I sent him some confirming data he called me a liar. Soon after he wrote on his own blog a post about "intellectual Buddhists" who "tend to dispute with anyone who will listen. And then congratulate themselves for bravery." Was this me? I am still at a loss to know whether or not I should have censored my views and opinions in order to retain this friendship.

I lost another friend because of the critical remarks I made on another web site about a Burmese monk who had come to speak to a gather of expats. I wrote that he read his talk without animation in a soft monotone I could barely hear and suggested that his less-than-engaging (for me) presentation of Buddhism was probably not helpful for the average English speaker interested in learning more about Buddhism. Someone I had known for two years took great offense at this and in an email asked me to refrain from attending a Buddhist event he had organized out of fear I would criticize the speaker, his teacher. His email to me, laced with ridicule, referred without specifying it to a recent blog I had written on cognitive theories of religion, "Is Religion Natural?" He wrote that he knew "I was not a Buddhist or religious," and that my interest was merely academic, "so you might just be bored." And then he said, "when your cafeteria approach leads you to make public statements attacking Bhikkus for not being engaging enough, how can you expect me to react with delight." While he later apologized for the "tone" of his criticism of me, he said "I stand by what I wrote." I had naively assumed that someone with whom I had many conversations over the past two years would know me well enough not to make what seemed to me an off-the-wall judgment call. And yet it appeared that both friends had imputed to me ill will and evil intentions because of what I had written (and not who I was). I was stuck trying to defend myself as a good guy, with kind and compassionate views and opinions. It didn't work.

Another expat I met here sought to engage me in an email exchange about religion and the deeper quest for meaning. We had a lively exchange that involved several emails a day for a few weeks. He had a particular notion of the religious path and believed that inner experience was primary. While in general terms I do not have a problem with that, it seemed that I gradually became the target he wished to convert to his way of thinking and interpreting spirituality. When pushed back against the wall, I often turn argumentative and I sought refuge in deconstruction where all verbal claims appear suspicious. To him this was a typical use of the intellect, valuing reason over intuition. I began to feel that he was using me as a foil and wanted to pigeon-hole me as "the intellectual" and "the academic," two rationalist roles that he found objectionable. So I politely cut off the conversation and, since ideas seemed so important to him, any possibility of a close friendship between us

In Buddhist teaching, clinging to views and opinions is one of the four different kinds of attachment that lead to suffering, second only to bodily desire. According to Ajahn Chah, "The things of this world are merely conventions of our own making. Having established them we get lost in them, and refuse to let go, giving rise to clinging to personal views and opinions." But conventions are important in this world and we should respect them instead of appealing to a higher wisdom. Avoiding them gives rise to resentment on the part of others. "We live within conventions," the monk wrote. Problems occur because people cling to them." They have a use, "but in reality there really isn't anything there. Even people are non-existent." And Buddhadasa Bhikku in Handbook for Mankind adds, "To cling to one's own ideas and opinions is quite natural and is not normally condemned or disapproved of." Preconceived ideas and opinions we once believed passionately can be destroyed. So "it is necessary that we continually amend our views, making them progressively more correct, better, higher, changing false views into views that are closer and closer to the truth, and ultimately into the kind of views that incorporate the Four Noble Truths."

This blog is a long way from Truth with a capital T. Yet I hope that by exploring my world in words I can separate the chaff from the wheat and come closer to something deep and true. It is only the views and opinions, musings and speculations, of a 70-year-old expat in Bangkok who is struggling with the important issues of love and death and how to be a good person, a good parent to distant children, and a friend to all who would share his joys and sorrows in a spirit of humility and curiosity. Please don't judge me only by my words.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Confessions of a Absent Pater Familias

For many years, our family celebrated Thanksgiving with the extended family of my good friend Peter and that day was always a joyous chaos of kids and conversation, food and indigestion. After my immediate family fell apart, I went annually to my oldest son's home in Sonoma where his wife, with the assist of her sister-in-law, always prepared a feast that would make Martha Stewart proud. Last week, stuck in my apartment in Bangkok with bronchitis and laryngitis, I was able to see photos of this year's celebration posted instantly on Facebook from my son's iPhone. And my extended family gathered this year at the home of Peter's son (he's moved back into the house where he grew up) and he, too, posted a photo on Facebook, of a plate filled with turkey and all the trimmings. The matriarch of this clan, my friend and former landlady, sent me lots of details about who brought what to the Thanksgiving table. "Of course we missed you'" she wrote, "but I am getting used to not having you around."

It's hard for an American expat not to get sentimental; the myth of togetherness between the first colonists and the Indians they soon would drive out of New England (those they didn't kill) is drilled deep into our bones. And who can quarrel with the virtue of giving thanks, even if many of the 18th and 19th century Thanksgivings in the U.S. were celebrations of victory in battle? The overriding narrative is that Thanksgiving is a time for family and friends to gather for a celebratory meal and to count their blessings. It's a wonderful vision. I had intended to take Nan to meet Jerry and Eric at Bully's Pub on Sukhumvit, a bar owned by an American where Jerry and I had enjoyed a sumptuous repast of traditional turkey et al last year. But ill health forced me to cancel. So I stayed home on the couch, hacking and wheezing, and watched lots of movies (highly recommend: "Goodbye Solo," "District 9" and "The Private Lives of Pippa Lee"; Unfortunately the demise of torrent giant Mininova may make it more difficult to stock my film library).

It's not easy to write about the absence of family without sounding maudlin. I was once the most sentimental of pater familias. Hallmark card commercials would make me weep. I wanted so much to achieve the Norman Rockwell version of the Thanksgiving-Christmas season that failure was inevitable. My digestion system rebelled after days of turkey and leftovers. I found I could no longer shop for presents since nothing I found was good enough for those I loved. The reverse side of an obsession with holiday traditions is "bah humbug!"

My youngest son sent me a Thanksgiving email greeting the day after. The two middle children remained silent. All I had for consolation from Sonoma were a few online photos. Out of sight, out of mind, is trite but true. And of course I have no one to blame for the absence of family now but myself. I chose to cut my ties with America over two years ago to live permanently in Thailand. There were many different reasons to leave, but one was the failure of our family to stay together. While still living in proximity to past memories, I was unable to let go of might-have-beens. The new friends and adopted families I found did not make up for the two broken families (the first marriage ended 30 years ago) I had left behind in my wake. Only by redefining who I was, by starting life over in another place, did it seem I could put the shambles of a past behind me. Since all seemed to be doing fine without me, I could think of no reason not to leave.

When my marriage ended, I was told it would take me half the time we had been together to get over it. Another six years to go. I wonder if the same formula applies to expats. How long will it take for me to no longer think of myself as an America? Jerry has been here for 15 years and he reacts with disgust at the implied identification. I read the New York Times online and rant about the failures of Obama as an interested observer. Why do I care about Tiger Woods or Sarah Palin? It's difficult for me to abandon fahrenheit for celsius, pounds for kilos, and dollars for baht. I maintain a U.S. address at my son's house and bank accounts in California, while "true" expats have their Social Security checks sent directly here. Since coming to Thailand I've made as well as lost friends, met a fascinating array of international residents and visitors, and have been welcomed by several communities of expats, like the National Museum Volunteers and the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand. I'll never become fluent in the language and will always remain an outsider, but the rewards of living in the "Land of Smiles" continue to outweigh the disadvantages.

Chief among them is my relationship with Nan. She is the joy of my life now. An attentive reader will know that I have long been looking for love in Thailand, since my visit to Ko Samui nearly three years ago when I had a "girlfriend experience" with a bar girl there. A large number of foreigners come to Thailand looking for sex, an easily obtained commodity. I soon determined that this was not enough for me, and looked online for what I described as "the last love of my life." It's not easy being a cliché, an older farang who dates women young enough to be his daughter. Did I want their youth to rub off on me? I met some lovely women who had different reasons for wanting to take care of an old man, and one I lived with for ten months before she decided the age difference was too much for her. Six months ago I met Nan after an email exchange and took her to dinner at Sizzler (she wanted farang food). Improbable as it may sound, this young woman from a small village in Phayao in the north of Thailand and I fell in love with each other. We've been living together now for almost three months, and are building a family together. I met her mother, half-brother and cousin in Chiang Rai in September, and last weekend her sister Ann came to visit with her boyfriend Surin. At the end of the year Nan and I will take a luxurious six-day vacation on Ko Samui where my longing for love began.

I don't expect to become a pater familias (a term for the head of a Roman household) in the traditional sense. I cannot have any more children and Nan says she's fine with that. She feels as if Edward, the 7-year-0ld son of an aunt who died of cancer, and whom she helped raise, is her child. She knows that village life has little appeal for me, and that I believe my savings is insufficient to cover the "bride price" necessary for a Thai country wedding. My Social Security income and teacher's salary, however, is more than enough for a comfortable life in Bangkok. Surin, a retired bank official, is looking for a house in which to invest, one large enough for us with visits from Ann on weekends (she's still at university). Next year Nan will go back to school herself to finish the last two years of her bachelor's degree. I warn Nan that I may have no more than ten good years left, and she says that's enough for her (but jokes that she may die before me, you never know). We hold hands while walking on the street every day and snuggle on the couch in the evenings to watch a Korean historical soap dubbed in Thai ("The Painter of the Wind" with the ultra-cute Moon Geun-young playing a male artist). Yesterday she talked me into going to the hospital to see a doctor for my bronchitis and laryngitis where she translated for me, and now she makes sure I take the medication along with a honey-lemon concoction she made. I don't know what I've done to deserve this, but I accept it with gratitude.

Last week I went to the new Immigration Division office in the huge new Government Center on Chaeng Wattana near the old Don Muang Airport. Foreign residents have to report in person every 90 days from the date of their last entry into the Kingdom and my time was up. It's far to the north of the city proper and I took two buses and a special shuttle (a two-hour journey) to the facility which from the outside looks like a spaceship and inside resembles an artificial world. The old office on Suan Phlu was closer but was often as crowded as a cattle car. It only took 15 minutes to process my paperwork and afterward I explored the subterranean city of shops, cafes and banks. There were few people about and I expect many of the government offices have not yet been filled. Bangkok's notorious traffic and the threat from submersion by sea water because of global warming no doubt necessitate the move inland. The northern suburbs are a mass of construction with major university campuses and megamalls setting up shop. My return trip by taxi, Skytrain and bus was a half hour shorter if a bit more expensive. But it's a journey to which an expat must become accustomed.

I joined the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand (FCCT) a couple of months ago but have not visited their penthouse facilities very often since then. A week ago I attended new members night where quite a few old hands as well as newcomers were given a tour of the media offices that share space in the Penthouse with the FCCT. The BBC's new Asian correspondent, Alistair Leithead, let visitors pretend they were telecasting from the balcony studio with a real night skyline backdrop. Karen Percy, Southeast Asia correspondent for the Australia Broadcasting Corporation, took us around her offices down the hall which included a fake skyline backdrop. At AsiaWorks we were shown a full compliment of broadcasting services that are used by such clients as CBS, Al Jazeera and the Discovery Channel. CNN has an office in the building but it was not part of the tour. The FCCT bar is quite popular and one fiftyish Brit told me he comes frequently to get away from his Thai wife and two-year-old twins. The food is excellent and a trio was playing jazz tunes while overheard monitors showed scenes from a dozen TV networks.

Thankfully, I missed Black Friday back in the U.S. (or as I prefer to think of it, Buy Nothing Day), but it's impossible to escape the cheezy decorations in every major store here in Bangkok. Farang are few and far between in Pinklao, my neighborhood, but there is this monster fake tree rising several floors in the Central Mall and numerous models of Santa Claus on display at Tesco Lotus. The decorations, however, are relentlessly secular. I have yet to see a creche. Here, I don't feel obliged to buy presents. But I do have my eye on a new camera, my first SLR. It's a Canon 500D, and I've found a Japanese version that is nearly $200 cheaper. Yesterday I spied a small fiberglass tree on sale next to a selection of tinsel, ornaments and lights. I'm tempted to get it for our apartment so Nan can experience a little of the Christmas spirit. Last year I went for mulled wine and mince pies at the Anglican church and I heard a performance of Handel's Messiah at a Catholic church. I've even thought about taking her to a Christmas eve midnight mass, although it will probably be in Thai. This will be my third Christmas in Thailand and the old programming is fading away. Or maybe it's only hiding.