Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Breaking News: Some Pig

There are times when tragedy can only turn into farce. And humor, as we all know (i.e. Patch Adams), is the best medicine. The "BREAKING NEWS" on CNN this morning is the spread of swine flu from Mexico to the rest of the world. It has crowded out all other news stories, or turned them into versions of the flu story ("Investors Snap Up Flu Drug Stocks" and "Shares Drop Amid Flu Concerns" seem almost contradictory). Obama's upcoming 100-day mark is scarcely noticed, the recent right-wing tea parties organized by Fox News and the Texas governor's threat to secede from the union are now forgotten. Iran and Iraq, the Taliban's takeover in Pakistan, the collapse of peace hopes for Palestinians, even North Korea's rocket rattling, are all yesterday's news as scenes of face-masked Mexicans and deserted streets fill the TV screen. All I could think of was the insult to pigs by calling the threatened pandemic "Swine" flu -- "Take that, you swine!" The label "porcine" would be a lot less negative.

Jared Diamond, in Guns, Germs and Steel, wrote that the domestication of livestock was a "lethal gift" for civilization, and, along with crowded cities, the cause of most deadly plagues that ravaged Eurasia in the early modern era. These diseases also made possible the conquest of the Americas, for the Indians did not have animals to domesticate and so were not immune to the fatal illnesses that spread through both animal populations and urban areas. Their conquerors had developed immunities, the ultimate weapon. Bird (avian) flu and porcine flu owe much to the practice of factory farming, according to Dr. Michael Greger, who calls such farms a "Fast Track to Disaster."

Pigs get a bad rap. Something impossible will only happen, we say, when (fat) pigs can fly. I used to love to watch the piglets playing at the yearly Santa Cruz County Fair. And I'm ashamed to say I enjoyed the greased pig contest, though I always rooted for the pig. I am a big fan of Miss Piggy (although I am shocked at the "nip slip" photos available online where she rivals Janet Jackson's Super Bowl faux pas), and I adore little Wilbur who was saved from slaughter by Charlotte the spider when she wrote "Some Pig" in his barn. When I was a kid my parents gave me a piggy bank to encourage financial responsibility (it didn't work). I even liked Porky (the stuttering )Pig when I was a young boy addicted to cartoons, and my mother shopped at the Piggly Wiggly store in North Carolina where we lived. How could these creatures be damned as "swine"?

Life, of course, is not fair. The current flu epidemic may turn out to rival the 1918 epidemic, although we have more drugs to combat it now at our disposal. I may wash my hands more regularly but I don't intend to put on a mask, no matter what the news bulletins say here in Thailand. Bird flu was in season during my first visit here five years ago, and even though there were dead chickens on the ground at Jerry and Lamyai's farm in Surin, I remained unconcerned. Just foolish or reconciled to my fate, I do not know which. I suppose mu (pork) will disappear from the Thai menu here shortly. My friend Ellen arrives tomorrow night and will have to pass through the thermal sensors at Souvarnabhumi Airport which are designed to catch people running a fever. I wonder how it can tell the difference between a fever and the suffocating hot-and-humid air?

Life certainly sucked this week when it took Pedro Araya, a lovely man and a member of the Wright-Byrd-Troxell clan that I consider my extended family. A native of the Canary Islands, Pedro was the son-in-law of my friends David and Shirlee Byrd. Dead at the age of 61 from an apparent heart attack, Pedro would have celebrated his 30th wedding anniversary this week with Sarah, David's daughter. He was the father of Fiona, Ani and Carly. They lived in Arroyo Grande in central California and Pedro worked for many years at Rosa's a restaurant in Pismo Beach. He was a born bon vivant, a friend to one and all, always ready with a smile and a story. I treasure the conversations we had and wish his family well.

Since I'm on a negative streak, let me tell you about the week's financial problems. ATMs are a godsend to expats. My Social Security check is deposited into my Bay Federal account in Santa Cruz and I withdraw funds for expenses from one of the many ATMs available found everywhere in Bangkok. I never cease to marvel over the miracle of getting cash out of a machine. But last week I was given notice by one bank that 150 baht ($4.25) would be charged for every international debit card transaction. I'm already paying $2 to Bay Federal for most ATM withdrawals. I soon learned that almost all Thai banks had added the new charge, said to be the highest in the world, as a way to recoup losses from the global economic meltdown, I suppose. On the Thaivisa internet board I discovered that at least two banks had resisted the surcharge and I took money from one of them on the weekend. This comes at a time when Thailand is ostensibly worried that tourism will suffer irreparable damage from the economy and political troubles. Gouging tourists for ATM withdrawals does not sound like a nice solution. I keep my savings in another California bank and do my banking online, but last week the home banking page would not load. Queries to the bank produced no help. Then I tried a friend's computer with a different IP and, lo and behold, the page loaded. This means that TOT, the government utility that provides my internet service, is blocking that particular address. I know for certain that they are censoring many sites for perceived slights to the monarchy, but I cannot see why home banking is a threat.

The "Breaking News" about porcine flu came at a time that I found my interest in news from America on the wane. Jerry and I talked the other day about how the failure of Americans for eight years to challenge Bush over his disastrous policies can still make our blood boil. He's been an expat for more than a dozen years and I'm heading toward the two-year mark, but we still identify as Americans to some degree. Why? I'm reading Thailand: the Worldly Kingdom, a good book by Maurizio Peleggi, a historian in Singapore, and he focuses on the construction of identity, using the postmodern analysis made popular by Foucault and others who see all ideas and ideology as historical products of power struggles. History is the view of the winner. Even though the Thais consider their culture, their religion and the monarchy to be unique and essential (i.e., ahistorical), Peleggi argues that Nation, Religion and King, the three pillars of Thai identity, are all the result of contestation and struggle; there are winners and losers in this game. This goes for America as well, as historians like Howard Zinn demonstrate so shockingly. Political rhetoric seldom relies on impartial historical fact (facts are carefully selected by the spin doctors on each side).

Is it possible to survive without a particular identity? In the past week I've attended a couple of very interesting talks on the nature of the self from a Buddhist perspective, by U Vamsa, a Canadian monk ordained in Burma, and by Phakchok Rinpoche, a Tibetan monk. Each emphasized that the self is a historical construction, no less than the eternal verities we cling to for our identities, nation, culture, religion and our political views. U Vamsa quoted Mark Twain: "I've had a lot of trouble in my life and not much of it has really happened," to illustrate the suffering produced by the imagination. Life is hard enough as it is. Living happily ever after is not an option. While I found his appeal to "absolute reality," where there is no self, problematic (is there an unchanging reality, an escape from samsara?), I liked his advice that you have to have a self in "relative reality" before you can go beyond it. Thomas Merton said much the same thing to the novice monks under his care. Rinpoche, whose understanding comes from the Mahayana tradition (as opposed to the Theravada which dominates in Thailand), spoke of the Buddha nature within us all as something to uncover rather than to achieve. In his telling, however, it seems to be something essential, ahistorical. He told a delightful story about Milarepa and the demons to illustrate that what you see is what you are (when Milarepa saw a demon as his mother, he responded from compassion rather than fear). It all seems to boil down to right view.

As April draws to a close, the rainy season has begun. We've had a couple of rip roaring thunder and lightening storms that, according to Marcus, took the paint off the walls of his apartment balcony. The polarized political scene is quiescent, but possibilities bubble under the surface. There seems to be no middle ground between the royalist elite backed by the military and the red shirts from the countryside who seek to reclaim the democracy they feel was stolen from them by the yellow shirts and the politicized court system. In addition to Thaksin, several leaders are on the run and delivering manifestos about revolution. The King remains silent.

Jerry and I attended Janet's soiree last week on behalf of ThingsAsian Press to launch her book, Tone Deaf in Bangkok, as well as two travel books, To Vietnam With Love and To Myanmar With Love. I met Kim Fay who created the "With Love" series and who writes an interesting blog called Literate in LA. It was her mention of Eve Babitz that led me to Janet's blog and book (don't ask). And I also met the other Janet who designed their books. During the evening I had interesting conversations with a man who does web design for Father Joe and an English teacher living in Japan who has contributed to the travel books. The party was held at a disco on Sukhumvit Soi 12 and featured a tasty spread of food as well as free booze. The Bangkok literati were in attendance, inluding the everpresent Joe Cummings of Lonely Planet fame. I could only handle a couple of hours of socializing before heading off to my bed in the other side of the city.

Next week I plan to attend a three-day conference held by Mahachulalongkornrajavidyalaya University where I teach English. The annual international gathering of Buddhist institutions is co-sponsored by the UN in Thailand and marks the Vesak holiday which commemorates Buddha's birthday. Scholars from all over the world will be giving papers, and I always like a good academic shindig.


MCB said...

I literally stumbled upon your blog when I was researching the site of Thomas Merton's actual death south of Bangkok on Google. That led me to your posting on visiting the Red Cross Conference Center in late February. I have studied Merton quite extensively including a semester of independent study during grad school looking at his notion of true self v. false self within the books he published while alive.
In additon, I returned from SE Asia in early March from teaching English to Buddhist monks in Bangkok in a wat near Menham Plaza ( Ramada on the river ).

I also have a blog,Rounding60.blogspot.com, and posted every couple of days while there.
Your blog made me lonesome for all things Thai, and my beloved monks.
Mary Catherine

Dr. Will said...

Mary Catherine, we are indeed sympatico (at least in blog form). I will read your posts from Bangkok today. But how can I correspond with you? No email on your site. There is on mine. I love teaching monks. Will

Janet Brown said...

Just got back from Cambodia and had the very real pleasure of reading several new posts. Your online essays help to keep my brain alive--thank you!