Tuesday, March 31, 2009

A Farang Becomes a Monk

I met Frank a month after arriving in Bangkok in the summer of 2007. He and three friends invited me to join them for coffee after a talk in English about Buddhism. He had been in Berkeley during the People's Park demonstrations. Like the others -- Tom, Herb and Bill -- he was a long-term expatriate. He and Herb were single and we shared stories about our appreciation of Thai women. I was happy to find like-minded souls and it helped me affirm that I'd made the right move.

Since then, I've continued to run into him, as well as the other old guys, at various functions organized or publicized by Pandit Bhikku's Little Bang Sangha. I knew he was a serious student of Buddhism, for he was involved in translating portions of the Abhidhamma, the last of the three books in the Tripitika, the Pali canon of Buddhist scriptures. Even though I twice attended a study group, I found the text incomprehensible. Although compiled several centuries after the Buddha's death, it was attributed to him and contained answers for everything. One teacher claimed it predicted quantum physics. It was with some surprise that I learned he was to be ordained a Buddhist monk. The Little Bang site announced that he was "'Going Forth from home to homelessness' as the suttas put it." We were all invited to attend.

On Sunday I met Marcus beforehand at Ricks II, the new edition of the popular Banglamphu eatery, and we had a friendly argument about the significance of the term "Buddhism" (a useful label or a Western academic invention?) before heading off to the nearby Wat Thewarat on the Chao Phraya River for the farang's ordination ceremony (this lovely temple is right behind the guest house where Cyprian recently stayed). Many from the Little Bang gang were there. The monk-to-be greeted us on the steps of the temple hall where his guests were feasting on stir-fried clams. A Thai family had donated the reception as a way to earn merit. His head freshly shaved and he was dressed all in white.. Until Pandit explains the ceremony that followed, I can only speculate about what took place.

Out of the hundreds of thousands of monks in Thailand, I do not think there are many farang. Pandit has introduced me to a couple who've come to Bangkok, men from Canada, Australia and the United States. Recently I read Phra Farang: An English Monk in Thailand, an excellent account of the experience of Peter Robinson who, however, disrobed over ten years ago to run the Students Education Trust (SET). Robinson, as Phra Peter Pannapadipo, also wrote Little Angels: Life as a Novice Monk in Thailand, stories about young Thais who became monks to escape from poverty, broken homes, illiteracy and drug abuse. Many of their journeys sound remarkably similar to those my students have made, from small villages to academic life as university students, and Robinson has dedicated his life to helping them through the SET. For Thais, ordaining can be a short-term choice, a way to gain merit, usually as a gift to a parent, alive or deceased. But it's another matter entirely for a farang. Ordained along with the American was a young, heavily tattooed, Austrian man named Martin. He had been a student of Mai Chee Brigette, an Austrian nun who has operated until recently a meditation center near my apartment. Perhaps for him ordination was a form of graduation. But what prompted Frank to put on a robe and take up a begging bowl?

This blog post does not have the answers.The farang , to be henceforth known as Phra Adhicitto, was too busy with his many farang and Thai guests, many of whom were pressing ordination cards and gifts into his hand, for an interview. The ceremony was a delight. We processed from the hall under a hot sun and gorgeous thunderhead clouds to the temple where a dozen orange-clad monks sat in rows before a huge Buddha image. Martin had apparently already been made a novice and Frank's ordination was two-in-one, from layman to monk, moving quickly through the novice stage. There was much chanting, with each ordinee repeating phrases in Pali, and Frank was given a new brown robe (the temple in which he will live favors a darker color) which he put on, with Pandit's help, out of the audience's sight. Each man sat before a monk whose face was shielded by a Bo leaf-shaped fan, signifying he spoke the Dhamma and not his own opinion. Finally, the new monks were each presented begging bowls, a sign of their homelessness.

At the close of the ordination ceremony, the old monks left and the new monks sat with their bowls which were each quickly filed with gifts and money (which they can no longer handle, according to at least one of the very detailed 227 Vinaya rules for monks -- my favorite is, they must now pee sitting down). Phra Adhicitto (which Pandit says means "higher mind" as in a mind attained to high levels of concentration) was beaming . He and Martin will live at a wat in Nong Chok across the city near Suvarnabhumi Airport. I also heard that Mai Chee Brigette, who was much in evidence at the ordination, is closing her Taling Chan center and, after her annual trip to Europe, will start a new meditation center in Nong Chok. A number of her students, all in white, posed for photos with the new monks, as did a group of Little Bangers. Since monkhood is often temporary in Thailand and no shame is incurred by disrobing, I wondered if Frank and Martin would ever recover their secular names. Who knows? was the answer I got, in keeping with the Buddha's teaching that the only certainty is change (a bit simplified, I know, but true I suspect).

On his web site yesterday, Pandit rhetorically asked: "So who will we be ordaining next ? Any contenders ?" Not me, as he knows. I'm still wedded to the world. When I visited Wat Pah Nanachat three years ago, I was neither impressed by the monks nor the candidates for membership who seemed more interested in status than meditation and enlightenment. While I respect the choices of Pandit and Frank (and Cyprian) to give their renunciation a tangibility, I am still trying to understand the meaning of (my) existence within the world in all of its messiness. Marcus tells me that the Mahayanists believe samsara IS nirvana (or can be). Recently, while researching the differences between American and Thai Buddhist practices, I was surprised (no, shocked) to discover that Theravada doctrine holds that the Pali word sangha denotes only the monastic community. I had expected eventually to take the refuge vows, to acknowledge my respect for the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha, which is the minimum requirement that I know to consider onself a Buddhist. For me, the word "sangha" connotates the interdependent whole, Thich Nhat Hahn's "interbeing, and I would even lump rivers and trees in there. I helped form the Shantivanam Sangha in Santa Cruz and was a member of Carolyn Atkinson's Everyday Dharma sangha. I would not take refuge vows if sangha=monks, for I do not accept that monks are somehow superior to lay people, or even indispensable to Buddhism. According to the very popular Australian monk, Ajahn Brahm, however, Buddha designed the sangha to consist of celibate monks, and only these members have the authority to teach.
Many young lay Buddhist groups in Australia, Europe and the Americas are calling themselves Sangha, going for refuge to themselves, even worshipping themselves, and presuming this is Buddhism! This is sad, misleading and produces no progress on the Path.
Pandit disagrees, and says the Pali word means "group," which can include lay people as well as monks. But according to my research, this interpretation is a minority one in Theravada Buddhism. Marcus assures me that Mahayana Buddhism (he leans toward the Korean version) is much more welcoming and ecumenical. In the New Buddhism evolving in America and elsewhere in the west, monks are rare, partly because the supporting community is absent (a robbed monk with a begging bowl would be photographed in America but it's doubtful that his bowl would be filled with food.) The idea that the monastic community is essential to Buddhism and provides the "field of merit" for lay people would be greeted incredulously by most American Buddhists. In future posts, I will say more about the differences in Buddhism I have discovered and what they say about the practice of Dhamma as a religion (or, in America, a psychotherapy).

Today I'm recovering from a bout of conjunctivitis and my vision is a bit impaired. After a couple of weeks of "pink eye" that didn't disappear, I went up to the nearby Chao Phraya Hospital yesterday morning for some medication. The eye center was empty, I received an immediate appointment with a beautiful, young optometrist, and after less than an hour paid about $25 for everything, including antibiotic ointment and eye drops. My method of recovery has been to drink cranberry juice and watch movies on my laptop.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Losing Track of the Seasons

A few days ago the seasons turned somewhere, but not in Bangkok. Spring came to the northern hemisphere and a friend sent me a photo of ice breaking up on a stream in Maine. It was the vernal equinox for my former neighbors in California (I saw reports of unseasonable snow on the hills), while Cyprian currently touring in Australia experienced the autumnal equinox, the beginning of fall for the Aussies. Here in Bangkok, it's hot, and school's out for summer.

I've been warned about wearing a hat, and lathering with sun block. Thais cover their heads with handbags, shopping bags or newspapers when the sun beats down without mercy. Visitors like me sweat copiously (I've rarely seen sweat on a Thai) and my shirt changes color. Indoors, the air conditioning is always cranked up to frigid and I take a shawl with me to keep warm when I go to the cinema. The other day I bought a VIP ticket for 250 baht (over twice the usual rate) and found a blanket on my seat along with a complimentary beverage. That's luxury. The movie was "Street Fighter: the Legend of Chun-Li" and it was forgettable. But the coldness was memorable, like a spring breeze to an astronaut on Mars.

It was cooler on the river yesterday when I went to meet Janet Brown for lunch. A couple of weeks ago I stumbled across Janet's blog about her love affair with Bangkok, and the very next day I saw, and bought, her book with the same name, Tone Deaf in Bangkok and Other Places. She writes about Thailand in a way that inspires recognition and envy: THIS is what I've felt about the city since I first came here five years ago, and DAMN, I wish I could say it so well. I loaned Janet's book to Molly last week during her visit here and she loved it; on the way to the airport she confessed that she likes Bangkok. My tour and Janet's book did the trick.

Tone Deaf in Bangkok is a love letter to the city. "Like all lifelong relationships, this one has its flaws. It certainly wasn't love at first sight or a whirlwind romance, and I've tried to file divorce papers more than once, but I've always come crawling back." Janet was raised in Alaska and spent most of her life in Seattle where she worked as a bookseller, but after her two sons left home she came to Bangkok fifteen years ago to teach English. She came and went a number of times before deciding last year to return for good, "to remain until the day I die." When people ask her why,
I babble something vague and incoherent about the light, the food, the people, the climate, and the lack of earthquakes, which is a major strong point to someone who has always lived on a fault line. If pressed to go beyond that glib litany, I answer with a mosaic of facts: the beauty and ugliness that co-exist side by side, the warmth and humor behind the omnipresent masks of smiles, the irrepressibly free spirit of the city that is often regulated, but never with any lasting success. Then I get lost, in the scent of jasmine and the stench of garbage, in the shrill piercing of the whistles of security guards as they direct vehicles in and out of their domains, in the blazing colors of temples, in the frustration of being caught once again in the traffic jam of memory that traps me when I think of Bangkok.
So she tells stories about people and experiences she's had living in Thailand, about her neighbors and a handsome Thai language teacher, the wild cats she adopts, the difficulty of finding cotton underpants and clothes that fit, eating on the street, trying to master the difficult tonal language, and traveling to Cambodia to gawk at the Khmer temples and to Lopburi where the monkeys scamper around ancient ruins. And throughout this lovely, slim book, she eloquently explains why "I'm thoroughly besotted with Bangkok."
When I think of the many times I've cursed and complained about this city, it's strange for me to realize that my most enduring and joyful relationship has been with Bangkok, and I only regret it took me so long to find this place that I'm convinced is mine.
I was surprised to find this was Janet's first book. She has spent much of her life selling other's authors' books, and now she represents her publisher, San Francisco-based ThingsAsian Press, in Asia. A few weeks ago she visited Beijing, and soon she will travel to Singapore before returning to the U.S. to attend several major book fairs. Tone Deaf in Bangkok is beautifully designed, with excellent photographs by Nana Chen of scenes typical of the city. Janet is a traveler rather than a tourist, but her book might offer a new glimpse of the city to the short-term visitor.
Bangkok is a city that bulges with small adventures and large kindnesses, which can be found in a heartbeat if you leave your guidebook in your hotel room and avoid the spots where entrepreneurial souls address you in English.
I love that she calls Thonburi across the river where I live "the Brooklyn of Bangkok," a place "that looks far less interesting than it actually is." Whenever I see a farang tourist in the street here, I think they've lost their way. A couple of days ago I went to visit Jerry at his apartment in Sukhumvit to catch up on the news since he returned from visiting his family in Surin. In that part of the city tourists dominate, attracting the "entrepreneurial souls" Janet mentions, who survive or starve off the largesse of visitors fooled into thinking they're seeing the "real" Thailand. It's Thailand, alright, but one largely skewed by selling tourists a selective experience, mediated by luxury hotels, signs in English, bar girls, and Starbucks.

With the hot weather come gorgeous skies colored by varieties of blue and chrome, clouds to die for and the occasional thunder shower. I miss my kids, and teaching the monks. Last week I turned in grades for the term and on Monday I picked up my final salary (an envelope of cash, enough to pay April's rent). The day after Molly left I bought a new mobile phone, choosing a basic Nokia 3110 "Classic" (it's the most popular brand in Thailand) rather than an iPhone since the 3G network is not in operation yet in Thailand and Apple's technotoy is unduly expensive. All weekend I struggled to learn the new commands. I bought a cord to connect the phone to my computer and have managed to dowload songs to hear and photos for most of the friends in my phone book. But I continue to be frusted by the predictive text editor.

As I write this, I've been watching President Obama's press conference on CNN. How wonderful to have an articulate chief executive! But it's hard to separate the wheat from the chaff in the news about the global economic meltdown. Something's happening, but I don't know what it is. So I watch the baht/dollar exchange rate, hoping that it tilts in my favor. On the surface, the political scene in Thailand is placid. Prime Minister Abhisit smiles, is articulate like Obama, and fails to impress the opposition (like their counterparts in the GOP). The little people who are hurting are invisible, here as well as in the U.S. (where a questioner at the news conference claimed that 1 in 5 children is homeless). I suspect Thais are more resilient when poverty beckons than Americans and Europeans who look in vain for the expected safety net. The only net here is provided by relatives, and Thai families are usually close and supportive. Abhisit is promising a stimulus package of 2000 baht to selected citizens (which will skip over the poor illegal immigrants) but it's hard to see how that will solve long-term problems like an export economy faced with no buyers.

If only I had Janet Brown's talent for telling stories. Of course my sample is small; most of my Thai friends are younger women eager to learn English from a mature teacher. I am privileged to have a window into their lives. Lek learned that her father had been hospitalized with heart problems and diabetes. He left her mother when she was a little girl and her brother refused to loan her money for the trip to Surin. "He thinks my father ruined my life," she told me, "but he still my father." Lek has health problems caused, the doctor told her, by lifting heavy weights at work. She sent me a message from the hospital: "I am very sad." Mot also lost her father at an early age, from lung trouble. Now she shares a small room with her half-sister, a university student. "She's been in school for five years. I hope she will graduate soon." The sister is ten years younger and Mot subsidizes her expenses but forbids her from having a boyfriend until she graduates. She makes the equivalent of $12 a day teaching English and works six days a week. At 32, she has never had a boyfriend. Jin thought she had one, an Australian doctor she met online a year ago. Earlier this month they finally met in Singapore for a five-day holiday together. She had sex for the first time. It was wonderful, she wrote me, but his silence afterwards was upsetting. Jin sends him emails and text messages professing her love and asking about his future plans for her. He works in a hospital and raises two small kids as a single parent. He responded to Jin's upset with: "Whatever." What does that mean? she asked me.

Some of you have noticed that my blogging has slowed down to an average of four posts a month compared to the 6-10 each month last year. In April I will mark three years on the net, and I'm proud of what I've written and the photographs that I've taken and included. It's easier to write when life changes frequently. Now my existence seems more settled, more routine. The need for a re-entry permit and the bureaucratic red tape that entails has made me think twice about leaving the country, to visit Bali for example. April is a blank slate, and I continue to contemplate a trip to the beaches of Ko Chang, the "elephant island." However, there are new friendships in Bangkok that need cultivation. Also, I was asked to prepare a paper for a conference on global Buddhism in May hosted by my university. I've been researching the contrasts between a Thai Buddhism suffused by ritual and superstition with the generic American Buddhism focused on meditation. There is a wealth of material about the topic on the web, and I love a research project to get the intellectual juices flowing. Of course, I can write on the island as well as at home. Next Sunday my friend Frank from San Francisco will shave his head at the age of 72 and becoming ordained as a Buddhist monk. All of the Little Bang Sangha folks will be there to lend support and enjoy the post-ordination feast. Today I'm going to hear a talk in English by Burmese monk Sayadaw U Jotika. I'm told he's visited Santa Cruz, perhaps to speak at the Burmese temple in Boulder Creek on the road to Big Basin.

Janet was very complimentary about this blog, but I know my talents for writing are different than hers. I recall giving up the ambition to be a novelist after reading Lawrence Durrell's magnificent The Alexandrian Quartet, and relinquishing the desire to be a professional musician after realizing I could never be nearly as good as the people whose work I admired (Bud Shank, for example, who played masterfully the instruments I was learning). Maybe I'll write about Bangkok differently after reading Janet Brown. My hope is to be able to write about desire and aging from the inside in a way that inspires and encourages those who have been damaged by unreal expectations and the chains of culture. The method I choose is one of word jazz, riffing on a theme without pause or rewrite. I think to tell the truth about one's experience, rigorously and with humor and insight, is a worthy goal.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

The Kids Are Alright

If you're familiar with The Who anthem, you know it's about a father who feels he's "gotta get away," leaving his children behind with their mother. The title is both his hope and his excuse. I did that, got away twice, with two different sets of kids, to my eternal regret. This past week I've found that despite my misdeeds and absences, Molly and Nicky are really alright (with a major exception mentioned below). For those compassionate readers concerned about my mental health after the gloomy post last week, this was the perfect cure.

Nicky took a week off from selling status to customers of Marc Jacobs in San Francisco, bought a cheap round-trip ticket on a China Airlines flight via Taiwan, and endured a 20-hour journey to arrive in Bangkok last Wednesday. I took him to my apartment to cope with jet lag and returned to Suvarnabhumi to meet Molly. She has been in Bali recording a CD with the two other members of The Sirens from Santa Cruz. I was a bit late due to the usual traffic jam, but managed to greet her in the cavernous airport lobby with a gift of sliced mango and sticky rice, as I had Nicky. Both of them looked great, a little older perhaps since my departure from the U.S. a year and a half ago, but definitely more fit than their dad who has grown soft and fat in exile. We reunited in my tiny apartment at Lumpini Place. I got Molly a room at the nearby Pinklao Place so she could continue her morning practice of yoga and meditation. It's remarkable to spend time with two charming adults whose diapers you'd once changed. I couldn't stop pinching myself to see if they might disappear.

Because their visit was so short, and I wanted to share with them my love of Bangkok and Thailand, I scheduled the six days very carefully and packed the optimum amount of fun and new experiences into the time between arrival and departure. Thursday, however, I had intended to be a rest day so they might recuperate from their travels. But they were awake, ready and willing, and so we set out to see the city, getting around by bus, Sky Train, khlong taxi, tuk tuk and river ferry. I took them to the shopping palaces of Siam, where Nicky got to admire the Marc Jacobs outlet cateering to wealthy Arab sheikhs and the like. We had lunch in the busy Siam Paragon food court and browsed the HiSo market where strange Asian fruit is displayed alongside edible insects. After shopping at the more low scale MBK, we rode on the smelly khlong to the Golden Mount and climbed to the top of the huge stupa for a superb view of Bangkok. From there, the Khao San Road is a short tuk tuk ride away, and we strolled through this hippie backpacker's heaven to a cozy cafe for late afternoon espresso. Then we walked to the Phra Arthit pier and took a ferry across to the dock underneath the Pinklao bridge where we ate at a large riverside barbecue restaurant. A waitress (who later seemed offended at my insufficient tip) helped us set up the brazier on our table and we gathered raw meat and veggies to roast over the charcoal fire. The place was packed with Thais and there was live music on the other side of the roomy hall. Home was a short bus ride away.

On Friday, Nicky and I took a package tour to the ancient temple city of Ayuthaya, riding on an early morning boat taxi to River City where we boarded a bus that took us first to the royal summer palace compound at Bang Pa-In with its strange collection of Eastern and Western-influenced architecture. Molly opted that day to visit a low-cost dentist at Bumrungrad Hospital, the popular destination of medical tourists, most of them, it seems, from Muslim countries. In Ayuthaya we walked around the impressive ruins remaining after the Burmese destruction of the city in the late 18th century. The conquerors, even though fellow Buddhists, lopped off the heads of thousands of statues of the Buddha. The trip home down the Chao Phraya River was aboard a large tourist boat and featured a sumptuous buffet. We met Molly in the evening and I took them to Cabbages & Condoms for dinner, the restaurant founded by Thailand's major condom manufacturer with proceeds going to family planning and HIV prevention projects. Afterward, we strolled through the colorful farang-dominated Sukhumvit district, including a quick circumambulation of the Nana Entertainment Complex where they declined a visit to one of the many bars where poor girls from upcountry dance in skimpy costumes for mostly male tourists.

Since I'd shown them so much of Bangkok on Thursday, our tour on Saturday was shortened to allow more time for shopping at Chatuchak Market, one of the world's largest outdoor emporiums. We began with Wat Pho, the number one tourist destination in Bangkok with its large gold reclining Buddha and a complex filled with gorgeous examples of temple architecture, halls and chedi. It was early but the crush of tourists was already overwhelming. The overcast skies threatened rain so heat was not a problem. We rode down the river to the Saphan Taksin Sky Train terminus and our next stop was Lumpini Park, Bangkok's answer to Central and Golden Gate parks. The weather had kept the crowds away, so after a brief taste of greenery and fresh air, we walked up the street to the Erawan shrine where large crowds of Thais pay homage 24/7 to a Hindu image of Brahma, the four-headed god of creation, and register their gratitude for wishes granted by hiring the resident dancers and orchestra to perform. From there we caught the Sky Train to Chatuchak, which has to be experienced to be believed. Most of the thousands of shops are covered because of the possibility of tropical rain, and everything is on sale. It's easy to get lost in the tiny aisles surrounded by aggressive shoppers (Thais rarely push except for here). Buskers abound, include two Thai bluegrass musicians. Nicky and I wore out early, but Molly decide to stay. We left her with a group of Muslim salesgirls in a shop selling antique jewelry.

Early the next morning we took a taxi across Bangkok to Ekamai where we boarded a half-empty bus for the two-and-a-half hour trip to Ban Phe and the island of Ko Samet. After a short ferry ride, we got into a pickup bus which took us over a bumpy dirt road to Pudsa Beach where I rented two new A-frame rooms at Tubtim Bungalows Resort. This is the lovely cove where I'd stayed with Pim over a year ago, and it's the closest island beach to Bangkok. We swam in the clear blue water, sipped refreshing drinks and ate delicious food at Tubtim and at Jep's up a beach which is lined with hotels, guest houses and restaurants. And we each got a massage. There was time to talk about the past and the present and to draw closer together. We played with a batch of puppies, discovered a huge starfish half-buried in the sand, steered clear of the occasional dog fight, and marveled at the skinny yet muscular lady with the leathery tan who constantly walked briskly up and down the beach and performed her incredible morning yoga routine topless (Pim and I had watched her last year). And, since Nicky brought his laptop and wireless was available, we kept up with our email and Facebook accounts. It was a little like Paradise might be in the 21st century.

But worldly paradises rarely last. There were a few tense moments during our brief but fun-filled holiday, but we were able to find the love the underlay our differences. The last day on Ko Samet challenged us all. Exercise is Molly's religion; it keeps her sane, she told us. Early on Tuesday she went out for a run over the rocks south of Pudsa and returned limping. She was in considerable pain. In order to spend more time at the beach, I had tossed our return ferry and bus tickets, and had purchased seats on a speedboat direct from Pudsa to the mainland where we would be met by a taxi to take us to the airport. Nicky's flight left at 6 pm. Molly's injury made our departure difficult. At the airport she left in the taxi for Bumrungrad to have her foot examined and I bid Nicky adieu. At the hospital she learned she had indeed broken a small bone, and she was fitted for a removable cast and crutches. She was told that healing would take three months. On the way home she used my phone to inform her friends on Bali and after we got out of the taxi at my apartment building, she discovered that the phone, a book she was reading, and a bottle of water, had been left behind. The taxi never returned and calls to the missing phone remained unanswered. Despite my mellow resolve, I went ballistic; the phone was my lifeline to friends, as well as the ladies I have been courting. I was appalled at how dependent I had become on it. I did my best to curb my upset, but was not very successful. Molly was distraught at the havoc she had caused.

By dawn I had cooled. While Molly had not slept much, she was resolved to deal with her disability. Her friends were waiting in Bali and they were to open a concert there by Michael Franti of Spearhead next weekend. A publicity photo shoot was scheduled for that afternoon. We took a taxi to the airport where I got a wheelchair from Thai Airlines and a porter to guide her to the plane. We hugged and kissed at the same gate where Nicky had passed through the evening before. My kids had come and were gone, but they were alright. And so, I realized, am I.

P.S. I'd been looking at new phones even before this week but had decided I wasn't yet ready for the new 3G iPhone (since the 3G network was not yet up in Thailand and the phone is outrageously expensive). So yesterday I bought an inexpensive new Nokia 3110 phone and I've been busily figuring out its bells and whistles. It was easy to recreate my names and numbers and most of my friends would not have known I was off the mobile grid had I not told them. So much for dependency.

Two cheeseburgers in Paradise that I love:

Saturday, March 07, 2009

The Anatomy of Gloom

I feel better just writing down the title of today's topic.

Depression has rarely been a problem for me. My cure has always been to pursue a distraction, and I've got a suitcase full of them. Feel gloomy? Watch a movie, take a walk, sip a cappuccino, surf the net (the forbidden sites are particularly distracting). I've never taken an anti-depressant, although in my salad days I was big on cocaine, tranquilizers and muscle relaxants. Downers were appropriate only when the uppers wore off. Grass always made me paranoid. But that was long ago.

My internet connection is suffering from selective amnesia this morning. I can google but I can't wikipedia. The email and the social networking sites I frequent are "taking too long to respond." The Thai government is probably searching for frequenters of taboo domains. Yesterday they closed down one site and arrested the proprietors for posting material that violates the draconian lèse majesté law. My internet provider, TOT, is a government monopoly. Patrolling the net takes alot of bandwidth.

So this is all off the top of my head, without benefit of research. I've been feeling gloomy lately, disinclined to go outside (the heat and humidity make walking a poor choice of distraction). I break glasses (three in the last month). Just now I dumped granola all over the kitchen counter. Yesterday I tried to explain to a young friend why I thought getting a tattoo was a fine way to celebrate my 70th birthday in five months. But it didn't sound convincing.

Several of my children have suffered from debilitating bouts of depression. One turned to yoga, the other to alcohol, for solace. My friend Ellen, a student leader in high school, tried to kill herself several times with pills. "Why would you do that?" I asked her. "Because I felt no hope, no hope whatsoever," she told me. It's been nearly forty years since I last saw her. I wonder if she eventually succeeded? I've never felt the total absence of hope, but I have suffered attacks of ennui so wickedly paralyzing that making any plans for the future seemed pointless and even Utopian. Lately, I've begun to wonder: What's the use?

Realizing our gloom is undoubtedly a consequence of Buddhist practice which calls on us to watch how our minds work. Most of us are lost in our thoughts, driven by the turbulent winds of desire and fear. Like the Tule fog that often blankets inland California and causes multiple car wrecks, we cannot see clearly. Our life is an accident waiting to happen. And the more I generalize, the more I can distance myself from the incapacitation of gloom. That doesn't mean it goes away. It just allows me to pull the fangs of gloom out of my neck.

I have a folder of notes for a blog post on happiness. I wanted to contest the notion, prevalent in much Buddhist teaching, that humans are motivated solely by the goal of happiness. Thanatos, the death drive, is as important as Freud's pleasure principle. Some people actively seek the dark side. I know, I have talked with them about it. They walk around under a black cloud that will not go away. The choice is not between pleasure and pain (depressed people have been known to hurt themselves so they will feel something, anything), but between life and death. "I put before you life and death. Choose life," urges an Old Testament verse attributed to God that has always impressed me. Celibacy is not a choice for life. Life, for me, includes pleasure in all of its physical and intellectual forms.

But it's not always so easy. I see the hold that old habits have. My weight inches up towards the 200 mark because of the snacks I gorge on at night. Ice cream in any form is an addiction. Something sweet, a soda or chocolate, holds out its promise of satisfaction. The new 24-hour convenience store on the ground floor of my apartment bulding is full of distractions. I've lived here for nearly six months and my routine is in a rut. I drink juice and coffee in the morning while watching the news on CNN and BBC at the same time as I surf the net (when it's working better than today). Mustering the energy for a shower and a shave is tiresome. Going out n the street for a paper takes effort. Crossing Bangkok to visit my friends on the other side of the city demands a Herculean resolve. Almost every afternoon I take an hour's nap, the old man's prerogative. This is life? And yet, compared to the average Thai, I live like a king on my Social Security income. I don't need to work. I can do anything I want.

So what is the anatomy of my gloom? I'm old and aging fast, sliding down a slippery slope towards death and oblivion. Just rising from a seat becomes increasingly difficult; I have a hard time taking off the tops of containers with my arthritic fingers. I cannot touch my toes. My weathered skin sprouts strange growths that must be removed with a laser. Viagra is manditory. Who knows what unpleasant surprises the future -- even tomorrow -- will bring? Death does not scare me, though, and I suspect that the cessation of my brain activity will define the end of me, that complicated self created by over seventy years of interaction with the environment. No soul of mine will enter any pearly gates.

Gloom is not just the consequence of our inability to get what we want. I'm not going to live forever, and this body and face I possess (or that possesses me) will never challenge Brad Pitt, or even my aging hero, Sean Connery. So be it. But there are other goals less easy to give up. My academic career ended not with a bang but a whimper. I've not produced a body of writing that will be appreciated by posterity. These blog posts, such as they are, will have to be enough. And I've not been successful at forming a lasting relationship. Two marriages ended before their time. Other liaisons have been even shorter, although sometimes sweet. Now that I live in Thailand, I imagine finding someone here to share and fulfill my life, but I'm constantly attracted to inappropriate choices with predictable results. I am torn between solitude and loneliness. Sometimes the distractions run out.

Writing about depression is an excellent technique for dispelling it. What you can name cannot destroy you. Watching your mind can frustrate its control over your actions and addictions. But what you observe does not make you happy. I have a lifetime of failures to recall. I was a poor father and an inattentive lover. My ambition was weak and my achievements transitory. I have tried to be a faithful friend and to harm no one intentionally, but I have frequently stumbled. Selfishness is a relentless taskmaster.

But God! What a wonderful life I've had!

Sunday, March 01, 2009

It's Too Late

James Lovelock, the British scientist who hypothesized that the earth can be conceived as a kind of single super organism, which he named Gaia after the Greek goddess, now believes we are doomed. Highly respected for his theory by the Green movement, if not his skeptical fellow scientists, the 89-year-old Lovelock, in his "final warning," now predicts catastrophe by the end of this century in his new book, The Vanishing Face of Gaia.

"It will be death on a grand scale from famine and lack of water," Lovelock told Reuters in an interview this week. "It could be a reduction to a billion (people) or less." He foresees planet-wide crop failures, drought and death. By 2040, temperatures in European cities will rise to an average of 110 Fahrenheit (43 Celsius) in summer, the same as Baghdad and parts of Europe in the 2003 heatwave. "The land will gradually revert to scrub and desert. You can look at it as if the Sahara were steadily moving into Europe. It's not just Europe; the whole world will be changing in that way."

This may be hard to fathom while Europe and parts of the U.S. continue to weather an unusually cold and snowy winter (the temperature stays static as usual in hot and humid Bangkok). But the excess of carbon dioxide and other noxious emissions pumped into the biosphere by modern civilization's dirty production methods will produce paradoxical consequences, according to scientific models of global warming. "I don't see the efforts of governments around the world succeeding in doing anything significant to cut back the emissions of carbon dioxide," Lovelock said. Even reducing emissions now to zero won't work; it's too late. "It is a bit like a supertanker. You can't make it stop by just turning the engines off."

"The book is powerful," writes Camilla Cavendish in the London Times, "not only because of the scary scale and speed of change that Lovelock foresees, making the first chapters as pacey as a Hollywood romp, but also because he is a serious, hands-on scientist." Lovelock is a maverick not only because of his scientific ideas but also for his dismissal of many environmental icons. "He loathes wind farms, is passionately pro-nuclear and is scathing about 'saving the planet.' The planet will look after itself, he says. It's humans we need to save, and soon," writes Cavendish. But that optimism has apparently run out. Since the Gaia hypothesis was first posed in a book published in 1979, Lovelock has written a series of books with Gaia in the title and increasingly dire subtitles. Three years ago his offering was The Revenge of Gaia: Why the Earth Is Fighting Back - and How We Can Still Save Humanity. His new book's subtitle is A Final Warning: Enjoy It While You Can.

Several years ago, under the spell of environmental activism as I worked on a dissertation about how a small group "saved" old-growth redwoods, I might have found Lovelock's pessimism empowering, an incentive to fight the bad guys. Now I "become a fan" of his on facebook, the social networking site that draws me into its virtual room almost every day. In the news recently because of the owner's attempt to claim rights over posted data, facebook has made it possible for me to reconnect with old friends, some I've not seen for 30 to 50 years. I can share news, opinions and photos with Barbara, Gary and Ernie from high school, reminisce about the music biz daze in the 1970's with Ellen, Michael, Bobbi, Larry Pete, Todd, Baron, Harvey, Joel, Ben and Ed; learn about the latest happenings in Santa Cruz from Nick, Laura, Michael, John and Kusum, Lyle and Daria, Virginia, Bella and others; trade stories about Bangkok with expat friends Lee, Cindy, Lance, Tony and Peter; and connect with three of my four children as well as cousin Barry. And that's not all of the 50 people in my reunion list. There's also Colin in Germany and Francois in France, Meath in Australia, Andy at UCSC and Judy from Ojai, the drummer I met five years ago in India. Not all think it's a good idea to hang out online with everyone they've ever met. When I asked Paul, my best friend from junior high school, if he'd joined facebook yet, his response was: "God, no! What do you mean 'yet?'"

I'd like to find some of my former co-workers and friends from the Pasadena Star-News. I was a copy boy, reporter and a columnist there in the 1960s. It used to be one of the stars of the Knight Ridder group, but now is owned by a conglomerate that took over Ridder papers in Long Beach and San Jose; Knight Ridder merged with McClatchy in 2006. The five-storey building in downtown Pasadena where I worked was sold and the Star-News now operates out of a storefront and online. But at least it survives, for now. On Friday Scripps terminated the Rocky Mountain News which has been published continuously in Denver since 1859. And now Hearst, which purchased the San Francisco Chronicle in 2000 from the DeYoung family that had operated it since 1865, is threatening to close the morning daily where I spent an exciting summer as a replacement reporter in 1963. Now there is a facebook group dedicated to saving the probably doomed newspaper.

Can progress be stopped? When I worked at the Star-News, type was set by huge noisy machines on the 4th floor using hot lead; photographs were printed from zink plates etched by poisonous chemicals. Now it can all be done on a laptop computer. I'm stoic about the end of newspapers, depependent as they are on paper from diminishing trees and surviving on income from ads for products few really need. I can ignore the online ads easier on the web sites I search for important and interesting news. My teenage students at UC Santa Cruz did not read newspapers. I find it odd, however, that newspapers are on the rise outside of the U.S. and Europe. Bangkok has dozens of daily papers for its residents who nonetheless are increasingly learning to access web sites by mobile phone. I can let newspapers go (thanks for the memories), since I believe the anarchic internet will serve the information needs of democracy, but I will not give up books for klunky reading devices like the Kindle.

While Thailand censors scenes in films and on television showing sex, drugs and violence, their newspapers are free to publish the most horrendous photographs (this was true of papers in Mexico and probably elsewhere outside of the "developed" world). The latest controversy surrounds the head found hanging from a rope under the Rama VIII bridge last week, and the body that was once attached floating below in the Chao Phraya River. It was plastered over all the newsstand publications for a few days (but I cannot find it online to share with you). After initially thought to involve foul play, the head was eventually identified as belonging to a 52-year-old Italian down on his luck. A note was found at the guest house where he had just been evicted, reading "Thank you very much for everything. I'm sorry for the inconvenience." Tourist suicides usually get very big play in the local press. A suspicious number of them involve jumping from a building where they had been last seen with a prostitute. My friend Lek told me that she'd heard about a young Irishman without enough money for a plane ticket home jumping to his death from a fourth floor at Suvarnabhumi Airport last week. When I said the story was not in the local papers, she said that was because it was hushed up, bad publicity for Thailand. Perhaps.

After their conference had been postponed several times by political disruptions in host nation Thailand, leaders from the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) are finally meeting this weekend at a beach resort in Hua Hin, out of reach for various groups of protestors. At the top of their agenda (perhaps the only item) is the rapidly plunging economy of countries who survive (or not) on exports. Thomas Fuller, area correspondent for the New York Times, discovered that workers who lose their jobs in Bangkok are returning to their villages. " It won’t take them long to lose their bellies,” one village headman told Fuller. ASEAN leaders, according to the writer, "are expected to reaffirm their commitment to abolishing trade barriers by signing free trade agreements with Australia and New Zealand. And finance ministers have committed in principle to back up each other’s currencies in case they come under strain or attack." But there is little they can do "to mitigate the dramatic drop in demand for computer parts, shirts, rubber and palm oil — all exports that helped Southeast Asian development in recent decades and sent millions of people from villages into swelling cities."

The Thai economy shrunk an unprecedented 6% in the last quarter of 2008 and an estimated 1 million could soon be unemployed in a country of 65 million. While government stimulus measures attempt to pump around $5 billion to $8 billion into the economy, the loss in exports, might be two to three times what the government can spend, Fuller was told. There is only a tiny amount available to the unemployed, and only if they had paid into the system. I noticed yesterday that the baht had dropped to 36 to the dollar (it was 31 when I arrived a year and a half ago), good news to me and perhaps to manufacturers whose goods will be cheaper. But if no one is buying, this won't help.

It's sprinkling outside this morning which might keep the thermometer confined to the 80's today, but will do nothing about the humidity. I'm trying to decide if I want to attend the final performance tonight of "The Vagina Monologues" at the Patravadi Theatre on the river not all that far from where I live. It's a bilingual version, in English and Thai, and I heard about it from one of the actresses who joined us for our pilgrimage a week ago to the cottage where Thomas Merton died. Tickets for $30 include drinks and dinner, very tempting. The two friends I've invited have declined. For those readers curious about my current personal life (which has lately remained shrouded in mystery), there is no lack of companions. An insatiable stream of Thai ladies comes online in search of elderly farang gentlemen like myself who might teach them English. My cup runneth over. I try to discourage the young applicants, hoping to help them avoid disappointment (as I learned to my sorrow), but some are insistent.

There is little time for romance at the moment, however, as I prepare for the arrival of my two youngest children in a week and a half, and for the final week of the school term when I will give my monks their last exam.