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.

1 comment:

Tallis Grayson said...

Hi Will,

I’ve just come from Marcus’ site. I was looking for information on Bangkok on Wikipedia and but your site is, of course, more personal. Nice touch. I enjoy reading about your adventures. Thanks for writing.