Friday, May 29, 2009

Debating Democracy

Sometimes only humor can dispel the clouds of gloom circling the globe. South Korea's former president, beleagued by scandal, commits suicide and North Korea tests another nuclear device in the face of world condemnation (while threatening to attack the south for objecting). California's high court affirms the voter's rejection of gay marriage, and the state's economy goes into the toilet (Paul Krugman thinks my old homeland is becoming a banana republic); gays and the soon-to-be unemployed take to the streets. Heroine Aung San Suu Kyi is tried (again) by the military junta in Myanmar and faces additional time in prison while the world's diplomats wring their hands, powerless to help her. Israel announces it will expand its illegal West Bank settlements to allow for "natural growth" and Obama wrings his hands (they should be dismantled, not "frozen"). Suicide bombers continue to kill innocent civilians in Pakistan and Iraq. The H1N1 strain of flu marches from country to country, sickening and killing thousands. Sri Lanka refuses to allow aid works to help hundreds of thousands of Tamil refugees displaced by the recent bloody conflict. Obama's choice of a Latina for the Supreme Court draws howls of rage on the ravenous right. Italy's Fiat buys Chrysler and GM teters on the brink of bankruptcy. Numerous British members of Parliament have been exposed for using public money to pay for private expenses. Millions lose their jobs as economics around the world continue to slide downward.

Can we do anything else but laugh?

Muslims are an easy target. The Bangkok Post reported this week that a 22-year-old unmarried Bangladeshi woman was caned 39 times for alleging that a neighbor was the father of her son. The neighbor, holding a Koran in one hand, swore to the village clerics that he was innocent. The mother was hospitalized with critical injuries. Fundamentalist Muslims (I despair of find any others -- if there are moderate Muslims, they remain silent) are fond of caning and stoning and beheading as punishments for those who transgress the law of Allah. They (it's a male-dominated religion) clothe their women in shapeless black, and these walking shrouds (not unlike the nuns above) are a frequent sight on the sidewalks of Sukhumvit. All fundamentalists are a threat to post-Enlightenment freedoms. After the leader of a Sikh group was assassinated in Austria last week, riots erupted in India among various factions of this less than peaceful religion. The new prime minister of India, Manmohan Singh, himself a Sikh, appealed to all people in the Punjab to avoid violence and maintain peace, and claimed that "Sikhism preaches tolerance and harmony." The dead Sikh lead a sect composed primarily of Dalits, or untouchables, and apparently caste differences were at the root of the dispute.

I've been having an argument on Facebook with Ellen, my old friend who recently came to visit me in Bangkok. After Rush Limbaugh and ex-veep Cheney declared Colin Powell was no Republican, and Rush and Newt Gingrich declared court nominee Sonia Sotomayor a "hack" and "reverse racist," I wrote on FB that I was tired of "all the ignorant crap that comes out of the mouths of Republicans in the USofA. What don't Limbaugh and his lunatic followers move to North Korea or Burma?" But then I pushed it one step forward and wrote: "I forgot about Iran and Israel, two other places where democracy is nonexistent and the radical right would feel at home." Ellen took exception to my charge that Israel was not a democracy. I won't repeat her response (I think you have to have an account on FB to read it), but I'd like to restate my position.

Israel is by a design a religious state, and religious states like Israel, Iran and Saudi Arabia (among others) are by definition undemocratic. Only members of the dominant religion have full rights as citizens. Those who do not share the religious beliefs or the enthnicity of the majority (Jews are defined by blood and descent rather than belief) are minorities, like blacks under apartheid in South Africa, outcasts in their own land. I do not believe that Arab residents of Israel, Christians as well as Muslims, are at all equal to the Jews. In response to the argument that Palestinians want the eradication of the state of Israel, I believe that they primarily want the eradication of oppression. This is necessary, as well as equal rights in a land they must share with the Jews if there is ever to be peace in the region. THAT would be democracy. Settlement "natural growth" and high walls will never end the conflict there. I was also told that "Jews" is not a proper way to refer to Israelis. But this is precisely my argument. Only Jews, secular as well as religious, are full citizens of Israel with equal rights. Religion is also a problem in Thailand where to be Thai is often defined as being a Buddhist. But in the south of the country, near the border of Malaysia, a Muslim country, an insurgency has been fighting for independence for hundreds of years, ever since Malay principalities were absorbed into Siam. Because they are Muslim rather than Buddhist, they suffer from not being full citizens of Thailand.

Thirty of my forty-four students showed up on Wednesday for the first full day of the new term. I asked them what they had done for the nearly two-month summer holiday, and they told me about trips home to their villages, or a period of teaching Dhamma to children at an upcountry temple. A few stayed in Bangkok "to read English book" they said, but I suspect most watched football games in England on their TV sets. One talked about his daily exercises in the small room where he stays. Over half of my students have come to Bangkok from Cambodia, Laos and Shan State, Myanmar, and they have to learn Thai before they can study English because almost all of their instructors in the English major program use Thai to teach them English. They also must learn Pali to study Theravada Buddhism's texts in their original language. I feel humbled as I struggle to learn to read signs in Thai. This term I will attempt to increase their reading and listening comprehension and try to improve their pronunciation. It's a good thing there is a microphone and speakers in the classroom or I would never be able to hear their soft, uncertain voices. This is my second term with these students and I'm happy to have learned most of their names. They are incredibly earnest, making eye contact and listening intently to my every word (shyly telling me sometimes that I talk too fast). I was very moved and excited to be teaching them again, despite the humid heat that had perspiring profusely under my button-down blue shirt, tie and black slacks. How strange to have finally found my vocation on the eve of my 70th birthday!

I am very happy to be living in Thailand, despite the fact that I've been told by several Thais that "you think too much." Yesterday I made the long march across town by bus and Skytrain to see my friend Jerry, exchanging books and information for the first time in several weeks. I gave him Michael Connelly's excellent new mystery, The Scarecrow, and he gave me Eric Weiner's book, The Georgraphy of Bliss, with a subtitle that explained: "The grumpiest man on the planet goes in search of the happiest place in the world." Jerry pointed out that Weiner's title for a chapter on Thailand is "Happiness is Not Thinking." I can't wait to read it. I've collected a pile of internet reprints on the subject of happiness with the intent of writing a blog post or article about it eventually. I think I want to show that happiness is not all it's cracked up to be, and that the motives for our behavior are often mixed; hedonism is not a universal goal. I've been told that the joy Thais take in sanuk, fun, is the result of a religion that teaches that suffering is the inevitable consequence of life. Thinking can making sanuk difficult, and that is perhaps why some Thais caution me against it.

Last night I joined my friends in the Little Bang Sangha for a talk by Jeffrey Oliver at the lovely new boutique hotel, Ariyasom Villa, on Sukhumvit Soi 1. Jeff, an Australian who took off his monk's robes (he studied meditation in Burma) because he thought he would be a more effective teacher, presented a "toolkit" of techniques to produce "awareness with wisdom." They included appreciation, forgiveness, loving kindness, death and concentration. His teaching is a congenial insightful repackaging of familiar wisdom that bears repeating, and while I shouldn't quarrel with accepted truths, I cannot help but point out several problems.

The beginning of the talk was a discussion of negativity. Since we can't know the future, our fears are about what might happen, not what will. We are "stuck in negative programs," complainers and "negative thinkers" who project our fears, like someone who sees a big, black dog and is certain it will bite. Another example was our fear of seeing someone point a gun at us, surely a justified fear. But the dog might not bite and the gun might not go off. Rather than fear the future we should practice appreciation of the present. This teaching seemed to be in the tradition of the power of positive thinking and the effectiveness of affirmations. But then Jeff shifted his focus to the value of negative experiences. Like Pema Chödrön, who advises her students to lean into pain rather than fleeing from it, Jeff proposed that pain and even cancer can be opportunities for deep appreciation of life as it is. I found this to be two different views of negativity which could, in fact, conflict.

Like most intellectual Buddhists, Jeff's teaching is very mind-centric. In his view, the body seems to fall away and the mind is all. In fact, I think this might lead to solipsism, where there is only my mind and no others, if pushed too far. The biggest consequence, however, is a neglect of the body. What I think we need is a teaching that the mind is physical as well as mental. At one point he said "we don't need friends, just our own mind." I found this startling. What about the Buddha's teaching on interconnectedness (which is stressed by Thich Nhat Hahn). His current teacher, Jeff said, advised him to do anything with his body while watching his mind. This leads to a lessening of importance for meditation which involves focused attention. And it also could lead to a neglect of politics and of social injustice. Indeed, Jeff advised that we should determine if a proposed action is harmful or hurtful. "If it's not your problem," he said, "step back." A Buddhist practice that ignores the body and steps away from politics, including the essential debate about democracy, in Thailand as well as in Israel, is not for me.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Fear Itself

I'm embarrassed to report how easy it was earlier this week to renew my visa and work permit for another year. In my last post, I described the terror that gripped me whenever approaching the Thai bureaucracy. Last year it took me almost six months to secure the necessary working papers. Submitting an incorrect signature would earn a stern reproof, reducing me to the status of a stuttering child. In Facebook, my son Chris described this as "typical Yaryan behavior - expect the worst and hope for the best." President Franklin D. Roosevelt, in his first inaugural address during the heart of the 1930s Depression, expressed his "firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself -- nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance." Well, I advanced this week, but not without feeling a little silly.

Maybe it was the uniforms. When I arrived at the busy Immigration office on Suan Phlu Monday morning a little after 9 I was surprised to find some empty chairs in the large waiting room. There was a noticeable lack of chaos. Was it the swine, er, H1N1, flu, or the absence of tourists due to recent political instability (not to mention the unidentified illness that killed two people in a Koh Phi-Phi guest house) ? I noticed that all of the clerks behind the various counters were wearing new dark green uniforms. I'd not seen these before during my many visits. My last had been two months before to report my address (residents must check in every 90 days). The clerks looked very efficient in their military garb. My number was called within five minutes and the woman at window 1 smiled at me, checked my documents quickly and collected 1,900 baht ($55). Less than a half hour later I retrieved my passport with its new stamp: May 31, 2010. No problems.

It took only a little longer at the Ministry of Employment. This office was also fairly empty, even though the school term is beginning and I expected to see more aspiring farang teachers. The clerk (this one in mufti) corrected the dates on my employment contract (my Thai colleague had copied an earlier draft from last year) and approved all the other documents. Dr. Chartchai's power of attorney, with the two 10-baht stamps I'd purchased earlier, was not even necessary. I paid a processing fee of 100 baht ($3), and then another 3000 baht ($87) before picking up the work permit with a new stamp renewing it for an additional year. It was not yet lunch time and I was finished, a legal worker in the Land of Smiles (where thousands work under the table, as undocumented teachers of English like myself, or in construction where the many illegal Burmese immigrants find jobs). The entire process had taken only a morning's effort. Heavy rain slowed the taxi on my way back home.

How do we tell the difference between unfounded fears and the the real threats that provoke a valid flight or fight response? In my life I've encountered very few events like the latter. Most of my fears arise out of worries about what might happen. The Buddha's first "noble truth" was about the ubiquity of suffering. But I do not think he meant simply the suffering that accompanies life, the pains inherent in the body's birth, illness and death. Unnecessary suffering is the product of the mind, of projecting our fears onto the world. For this, his teaching proposed a cure, the eightfold path. FDR had it right. This general, all-purpose, one-size-fits-all terror is "nameless, unreasoning, unjustified." But it is the suffering brought about by irrational fears that causes us the most pain. I'm not so afraid of death these days, but it's the pain that might accompany illness that sets my teeth on edge. Just shoot me, I think. But if dying is as easy as renewing working papers in Thailand, then: no problem.

The school term began last Friday with a convocation at Buddhamonthon I did not attend. But yesterday I did put on a new pair of pants (to accommodate my expanding girth) and a shirt and tie, and went to my first class. I'll be teaching 4th-year students this term, the same monks I had in my two classes last term, and was looking forward to seeing them again (you can see them on my Flickr site). I went to Wat Srisudaram, signed in and got to my classroom early. While the room had been cleaned since the end of school two months ago, the white board had not. I opened the windows and turned on the fans (no a/c here) and scrubbed the board as clean as it would get. I hadn't planned a lesson, but thought I'd get them to talk about what they did during their holiday. I brought a new syllabus to hand out, and had prepared song lyrics ("Home" by Michael Bublé) with blanks for them to fill in while hearing the music from my iPod.

But no one came (what if you gave a party and ... ?). I sat in the empty classroom for nearly an hour and read a newspaper. There were students in the courtyard down below, but I suspect this was their first term and they did not know the tradition of skipping the first week of school. Last year only two of my 40-some students came to the first class. But they were 3rd year students then and probably hadn't yet learned. A few other teachers I saw yesterday laughed when I told them my students were missing. I discovered that Asst. Prof. Kovid, whom I knew from last year, will be teaching again in the room next to me, but neither he nor his students (which we will share) had come to school. I experienced the same silly feeling I had when the renewal process failed my expectations.

The traditions are a little different at secular schools. On Tuesday I went with Mot to her dental appointment in the clinic at Prasanmit University. On the way in there was a large group of students wearing green shirts in a garden outside watching a lip-synced musical review in which the performers, as far as I could tell, were imitating the opposite sex. On the way out I saw several small groups of students sitting blindfolded on the ground while others taunted them. This episode of hazing or initiation during the first week of school was quite common at Thai universities, Mot explained, although she hadn't participated in it at Ramkamhaeng University where she studied general science (but now can't find work teaching in her field). To me, they looked like sad groups of refugees arrested by border guards. I think non-attendance is a less harmful and demeaning tradition.

Along with the monsoon rains in Thailand come fruit. Suddenly the sidewalk tables are heavily laden with piles of purple mangosteens, hairy red rambutans, the smelly durian, litchee nuts and the delicious yellow and green mangos (rose apples have mostly disappeared). The 24-hour minimart in my building stocks a wide variety of fruit juices, and, in addition to apple, orange and cranberry juice, I often buy kiwi as well as mangosteen juice (each mixed with grape). The fruit photos in this post were taken at the top floor market in Central World where there is also the largest selection of dried fruit I have ever seen, with taster cups for the curious like yours truly.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Staying in the Land of Smiles

Probably coined by a PR man, "The Land of Smiles" (sometimes shortened to LOS) is an apt description of Thailand and reflects the fact that Thai people smile a great deal here, sometimes when they are happy but often when they are embarrassed or upset. Whatever the cause, a smile invites reciprocity. I smile more now that I live in Bangkok.

But smiles are in short supply at the Immigration office, my destination for tomorrow. No matter the hour, the large room is a zoo filled with harried and frustrated tourists and expats trying to negotiate the Byzantine (and frequently changing) requirements of the Thai bureaucracy. Many of the clerks are rude and flaunt their power. I have been reduced almost to tears by a curt dismissal for an incorrect signature on a document after hours of waiting. But if I want to remain in this Land of Smiles, I must endure the gauntlet at least once a year.

Many employers in Bangkok handle all the paperwork for foreigners, but not the undergraduate Division of Humanities at Mahachulalongkorn University where I am employed as an English teacher. So last week, Dr. Subodh, a colleague from India who teaches psychology, and I began to gather the necessary documents for extending our visas and renewing our work permits which all expire on May 31st. Our bosses turned us over to an administrator who speaks little English, so we called on other teachers to help us translate our needs. Documents, most in Thai, require seals and "outward" numbers in addition to the correct signature. We used last year's documents as models and corralled willing collaborators in the office to fill out the new forms in Thai script.

In addition to an employment contract, we needed an appointment letter which must be signed by the rector of MCU, a very important man who oversees numerous campuses serving the needs of thousands of monk students. Two weeks ago the Most Venerable Prof Phra Dharmakosajarn presided over a major three-day conference of Buddhists from all over the world. I figured he would be on vacation. But we were told to go to his temple, Wat Prayurawongsawas before 8 on Thursday morning. It was beginning to rain, and Dr. Subodh and I got into a taxi and battled heavy traffic on the first day of public school. Built in 1828, Wat Prayoon is a large and impressive temple complex across the river from the flower market, and we made numerous inquiries before being directed to the rector's "kuti," or residence, a nondescript two-story house. Entering through the kitchen, we sat in a cluttered waiting room with several monks clutching papers that needed to be signed. Finally the rector emerged. He smiled and apologized for keeping us waiting, and explained he had been upstairs working on his address to a convocation of students that afternoon. I had met him once before, at a conference of English teachers at the new Wang Noi campus near Ayutthaya which he had guided from conception to completion. He asked about my degree in history and said he eventually wanted a graduate department in history at MCU. Both a scholar and an administrator, Dr. Dharmakosajarn has established MCU as the preeminent Buddhist university in the world, host to the annual gathering of similar schools. He was very gracious, signed our documentaries quickly and offered Dr. Subodh an umbrella for the deluge outside his door.

The following morning Dr. Subodh and I braved the continuing rain storm to go to Wat Srisudaram to meet with Dr. Chartchai Phithakthanakhom, a layman and assistant to the rector at MCU. He also teaches Buddhist psychology in the Department of Education at the Wang Noi campus. Dr. Chartchai spent over an hour with us, helping us to fill out forms in Thai and signing those requiring official approval. His patience, courtesy and kindness in such a mundane yet for us necessary task was an example of Thai culture at its best. Although a rigidly hierarchical society, most superiors consider it a moral duty to help those lesser folk in need. Somehow this makes negotiating the bureaucratic mine field endurable. Dr. Subodh flies to India next week for an early June wedding and was anxious to file his documents quickly, so he left for the Immigration madhouse on Suan Phlu in the Sathorn district. That evening he called to say he'd been been approved for a temporary visa extension (I was expecting a full year) and would have to renew his work permit upon his return. I dread the trip tomorrow like a forced march to the dentist.

The annual (I hope!) visa boogie is stressful because of what I fear might happen ("Get out! And don't come back!") rather than what will probably happen (several interminable waits and a couple of official stamps). Good psychological advice, as well as Buddhist teaching, tells me that my perceptions are clouded by my feelings. I told Ellen during her visit earlier this month that I loved living in Thailand because I couldn't read the signs (literally and figuratively) and therefore everything was new and surprising. While I think this is true, I am also a creature of habit and fear change. How to reconcile this? In a climate of uncertainty, I take refuge in my tiny apartment where possessions are piling up but the furnishings remain the same. When I was young and had to share a bedroom with my brother, I would construct a private space in the garage behind curtain walls where everything was mine. The condo I rent at Lumpini Place feels like that space. From my bed on the 10th floor, I enjoy the son et lumière storms of thunder and lightening that are beginning a month early. My routine varies little. In the afternoon I take my cappuccino at Starbucks in Central Pinklao. The staff know me now and greet me by name, which feels wonderful.

Uncertainty about permission to stay in the Kingdom may be affecting my relationship with Mot. Her visits are a regular feature of my life now, although her room and office located across the city and her six-day work week restrict the time we spend together. Her sister, with whom she lives, is beginning to suspect that the "friend" she stays with some nights might be a man, the same person she talks with on the phone in English. "But you are my best friend," Mot assures me. She says that she cannot be my girlfriend, that her family in Roi Et would not approve, and she worries about who will take care of me when I get old(er). We spend less time outside than I did with Pim, who ended our relationship for much the same reasons Mot gives, and find refuge from the world together in my room. As my 70th birthday draws near, and my body continues to remind me that aging is progressive, I wonder how long I can I can find solace in romance. Mot's delight in discovering the permutations of two bodies in space gives me hope that illusions might last. But that damned winged chariot keeps hurrying near!

Everyone here seems waiting for the shoe to drop. The Red Shirts held a big rally but rain disrupted any talk of revolution. The Yellow Shirts talk about forming a political party (which is odd, given that they believe in a mostly appointed rather than elected parliament). Despite Abhisit's talk of moderation, web sites are censored and lèse majesté charges are filed for merely mentioning the monarchy. There is much hand-wringing over the decline of tourism, but two tourists died of mysterious causes on Koh Phi-Phi and a foreign woman was strangled in Krabi. The English press is full of angry letters about the 150-baht ATM charge for foreign cards. Next door in Myanmar the generals continue to persecute poor Aung San Suu Kyi and fellow ASEAN members gently urge them to stop. Yet there is a new political awakening in Thailand, writes Malaysian journalist Philip Golingai. He reports that Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a lecturer in politics at Chulalongkorn University, believes that the elite consensus that held Thailand's government together for many years is breaking down and something new is emerging. "Thitinan likened the Thais’ political awakening to a westerner’s first taste of sticky rice and mango. 'If you never had it, you would never miss it. But once you’ve had it, you might want another bite,' he said."

But in the Sydney Morning Herald, Peter Hartcher writes that the Thai smile "has become a grimace." In the 1990s, Thailand was seen as the major developing democracy in the region and Indonesia was a basket case. "If Thailand seemed to represent sunrise in South-East Asia, Indonesia appeared to be the region's nightfall." But now the tables have turned. Indonesia is stable and tolerant, while "Thailand is now a wreck, suffering a constitutional crisis, emergency rule and an investment strike." Thailand's trajectory changed with the 2006 coup, Hartcher says. "The essential difference is that Indonesian power elites universally respect the legitimising power of democracy. The Thais have not."

I've just finished an excellent history, Thailand: The Worldly Kingdom, by Maurizio Peleggi in which the professor of history from Singpore applies postmodern categories of analysis (both culture and "official" histories are determined by power relations) to the Land of Smiles. Democracy, he writes, is "the official ideology of the post-absolutist state." Military dictators called for "Thai-style democracy, which, says Peleggi, was nothing more than paternalism. Whether determined by "money politics" (i.e. Thaksin) or the military, Thai-style democracy, with the King as head of state (the claim continues to be made today) , seems to leave the rural poor out of the picture. Democracy is "an especially malleable ideology," Peleggi writes, and it "continues to be defined by the power holders as much as by those who seek power."

I'm also reading Thailand: A Short History by the late David Wyatt of Cornell University. His is a more conventional political and economic history tacked onto to a slight social history. It's interesting that both historians use the modern name which came into use only after 1932 when Siam became a constitutional monarchy. Both paint a picture of an extremely malleable environment before borders became defined and races essentialized. Various tribal people mingled and intermarried. Armies led by semi-divine rulers traversed the landscape of Southeast Asia, kingdoms rose and fell. As elsewhere, the historical chronicles, more literary than factual, only report the deeds of kings and not the views of illiterate common people. Eventually, Thais came to be those people who were Buddhist (which created problems for Muslims in the south as well as Chinese immigrants who were treated like Jews) and submitted to the Chakri kings (after 1782) within physical boundaries largely determined by treaties with the French and British who held all the cards. Today Thailand is 95% Buddhist ("Christian America" has no such majority) and its residents are united (and identified) by their love for the King. Any changes to the religion or the monarchy would be unimaginable. But, as Buddhism teaches, nothing is permanent.

This is a very exciting time to be living here. If everyone keeps smiling...

Sunday, May 10, 2009

The Cruelest Month

T.S. Eliot begins The Waste Land, his epic poem about the disintegration of civilization after the first world war, with: "April is the cruelest month." But I think he was wrong. It's May.

I've always liked May best. Back in California where I lived for most of my life, Spring is in full bloom. The cold winter rains have ceased. The bees are buzzin'. In the mountains above Santa Cruz, the red earth smells sweet and beckons with a siren's call. In May the sins of the past can be forgotten. Failed New Year's resolutions are safely tucked away. I could start over in May, write a whole new script. So much promise, and yet, so many illusions.

Here in Bangkok, the heat is oppressive. People cover their heads with whatever they are carrying to avoid the sun's bright lash. Upcountry, rice paddies are being prepared for the next crop and await the onset of rain. But all we've had so far are tantalizing glimpses, brief but thunderous showers which wet the streets but dry instantly when the sun returns. School will soon begin after the long "summer" holiday and the nearby Tesco Lotus store is full of student uniforms on sale (light tops, dark bottoms). Despite the heat, however, scores of jazzercisers turn out at 6 every evening to move, shake and sweat. This is the lull between the heat of April and the storms of June.

I swelter in my 10th floor room, making plans and discarding them quickly: the trip to Ko Chang's beaches, an evening in Kanchanaburi on the River Kwai, a visit with Marcus to the Korean temple. Even the crosstown journey to Jerry's apartment seems impossible. I start reading novels and give them up after less than 50 pages. In the middle of the night I awake and worry about my visa and work permit which expire on May 31st. So far I've received no word on what or when I'll be teaching next term. Classes might begin on May 19th, or (I'm told) they could be delayed a week. Students never come the first week. I've three weeks to navigate the bureaucratic mine fields (it took me six months to process the paperwork last year, but renewals are supposed to be easier and quicker). I tell myself that if Mahachula fails to rehire me or produce the necessary papers in time, I will survive. I can stay here indefinitely on tourist visas, leaving the country every ninety days to get a new one. Jerry just returned from Vientiane, Laos, with a bus full of long-term expats who do just that. I don't need to teach, but I would miss it terribly.

There is also somewhat of a lull in the global political storms, as near as I can tell from my morning surfing on the internet. Innocents continue to die in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Taliban strives for supremacy in Pakistan, but in Gaza the oppressed are silent (or is it a media blackout?). The H1N1 (formerly swine or pig) flu has fallen out of the headlines, and may be no more serious than the usual flu epidemics that swirl around the globe. Still, a number of writers, like the marvelous Mike Davis, make a convincing case against factory farming for causing the recurrent influenza epidemics. A story over two years ago in Rolling Stone pointed the finger at mammoth Smithfield Foods, "Pork's Dirty Secret," and, it turns out, their branch in Mexico was at the epicenter of the current outbreak.

I continue to watch Obama warily from afar. The news has been full of the importance of the 100-day mark, which I see as little more than media chicanery. What's worrying, however, is how similar the world looks since the Great Change. The wars rage on, despite the clear will of voters that America disengage from its illegal encounters. The only solution we've been given for the global economic meltdown is to throw trillions of dollars at the very folks responsible for the mess. Writer and prophet Chris Hedges calls the President no more than a brand. "Obama brand is designed to make us feel good about our government while corporate overlords loot the Treasury, our elected officials continue to have their palms greased by armies of corporate lobbyists, our corporate media diverts us with gossip and trivia and our imperial wars expand in the Middle East." For evidence, Hedges reports that The Obama campaign was named Advertising Age’s "marketer of the year" for 2008 and edged out runners-up Apple and "The junk politics practiced by Obama is a consumer fraud," argues Hedges. "It is about performance. It is about lies. It is about keeping us in a perpetual state of childishness. But the longer we live in illusion, the worse reality will be when it finally shatters our fantasies."

In Thailand, Prime Minister Abhisit appears to be currently in control, although Yellow Shirt leader Sondhi Limthongkul claims that the military, one of Abhisit's prime supporters, was behind the recent attempt on his life. The situation is more grave than the banking crisis, Abhisit admitted in an interview with the New York Times. “The divisions here are certainly a lot deeper and have a more complicated background to it,” he said. “It’s going to be more difficult and take more time.” Sondhi said at a press conference that the attack on him was a signal to others. “The message was that if Mr. Sondhi could be killed, so could Mr. Abhisit.” David Pilling in the Financial Times pointed out some of the "fatal flaws" that have wrecked Thailand's promise, including "a seemingly intractable political crisis" which has "undermined the already shaky confidence of foreign and domestic investors." The attempted assassination of Sondhi has revealed intriguing sub-plots in the Thai standoff, according to Nicholas Farrelly and Andrew Walker. "If diehard Yellow Shirts like Sondhi have found themselves vulnerable, and can no longer rely on their old friends, then the more dangerous plotting has probably only just begun." Shawn W. Crispin, who appears to have inside sources, writes in Asia Times Online, "Once-coherent forces are fragmenting in Thailand, promising to complicate standing political alliances while disintegrating others." Crispin, unlike most observers, remains hopeful. "If Abhisit successfully oversees constitutional reforms and a mass amnesty," then the recent street protests "may yet represent the fringe of an emerging new political order." Few, however, see amnesty for banned politicians and charter revisions as remotely possible in the face of strong opposition from the Yellow Shirts. Today (Sunday) the Red Shirts are holding another rally at a Buddhist temple in a northern suburb of Bangkok and more than 20,000 participants are expected. The last big rally here ended in street violence and a state of emergency.

For something completely different, I took Mot to see "Star Trek" on Friday. Because of the International Date Line, I was able to impress my Facebook friends by seeing the new film, a spectacular prequel to the cult favorite TV show from the 1960s, before they could. Mot, of course, had never heard of "Star Trek" before, but she enjoyed it as a good science fiction adventure film with lots of nifty special effects; the first filmed version of "Star Trek" came out the year she was born. The action in the latest version kept us on the edge of our seats at the Central Pinklao cinema. We ate sugared popcorn and I sipped a big Coke, while around us the packed audience of mostly Thais seemed to enjoy the film. It was the "soundtrack" version, which means Thai subtitles rather than dubbing. Back home, I tried to explain to her the characters: Spock, Kirk, Scotty, Dr. McCoy, Chekov, Sulu and Uhura. I downloaded from iTunes an episode from the TV series, "The Devil in the Dark," so she could see the original actors who played the characters. "They look the same," she said, and they did, even down to the feisty McCoy's eye raising. It's a terrific film, even if it lacks Gene Roddenberry's recurring theme of tolerance, and I was very happy to see Leonard Nimoy return as the aging Spock (but I won't tell you how he does it). As we watched the old show, I remembered seeing it forty-some years ago. My brain is cluttered with Sixties nostalgia.

It's not that I haven't been busy this month. Life has overtaken the writing of this blog. My old friend Ellen Sander arrived at the end of last month. We'd last seen each other over 30 years ago. She'd been rock critic for the Saturday Review and had published Trips: Rock Life in the Sixties. When we met she was living in Bolinas and raising her son with Jac Holzman, head of Elektra Records. Since then, like myself, she has had many lives, writing poetry and computer manuals, and teaching English in China. Now she has settled down in Maine and writes Crackpot Chronicles and Site for Sore Eyes. We met again on Facebook, and she decided to come to Bangkok to visit Jerry and I, as well as Marc, with whom she worked in the computer industry. I enjoyed introducing Ellen to the river, the Reclining Buddha at Wat Pho, to the Skytrain, and to the joys of dining at a food court in a luxurious mall. This weekend she's in Chiang Mai and next week she goes to China to visit old haunts. I love being a tour guide, and never stop trying to convert visitors to a love of Bangkok, the love affair Janet Brown expresses in her Tone Deaf in Bangkok and I've tried to write about here.

May is full of important dates. May 1st is May Day, all over the world except in the U.S. where Labor Day is pushed back until the end of summer. May 5th was the 59th anniversary of the coronation of His Majesty the King and hundreds of thousands of Thais gathered on Ratchadamnoen Avenue to celebrate. Ellen caught a glimpse of the royal limousine. And May 8th was Vesak (or Vesakha Puja) Day, the most important holiday in the Buddhist calendar, which commemorates the Buddha's birth, enlightenment and death. Several days before, I attended two days of the three-day conference on Buddhist approaches to the global crises. There were thousands of Buddhist monks and nuns from 80 countries and an equal number of lay people, not to mention academics. It was organized by my school, Mahachulalongkornrajavidyalaya University (MCU) and held at three different sites. I went on Tuesday to the new MCU campus at Wang Noi near Ayutthaya to listen to a rash of papers on economics and politics from a Buddhist perspective (I couldn't find the room where environmental issues were discussed). Many were thought-provoking and I will chew over them before giving a sample here. On Wednesday I went to the UN headquarters in Bangkok where guests gathered to hear Prime Minister Abhisit deliver a short speech affirming the importance of Buddhism to Thai identity and culture (it reminded me of the U.S President's prayer breakfast). I spoke with delegates from Norway, Germany, England, the U.S. (Ron Nakasone from GTU in Berkeley) and Japan. The variety of colorful monk robes was awesome. And the food was terrific. MCU spent a fortune on the event, paying transportation and expenses for all delegates. The cultural show held in a large plaza on Tuesday evening was spectacular.