Sunday, July 26, 2009

What Now?

I feel a bit like this turtle I spotted at Wat Yannowa the other day. He's going somewhere, but where is anybody's guess. Now that I've recovered from my 70th birthday passage, what do I do for an encore?

On the morning of my natal day, Nan and I went to Wat Pathum, the large temple tucked between two giant shopping malls, Central World and Siam Paragon. I'd been to several religious rituals there and liked the meditation hall and the garden at the back populated by various large Buddhist and Hindu icons. I purchased a box full of goodies, including a new robe, and presented it to the monk on duty. He duly chanted a blessing and sprinkled us with holy water. At an altar in the meditation hall, we left flowers, incense and candles, and then processed nine times around an exhibit of Buddhist relics (collections of small stones said to be manifestations of Buddhas). Having performed the necessary birthday rites, we repaired to The Orangery, an outrageously expensive restaurant on the top floor of Siam Paragon and ordered salads and champagne. Then we followed this with a screening of "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince" at the IMAX Theater. The beginning bits of the film were in 3-D and required special glasses. The movie, for me, went downhill when the glasses came off. The screen at IMAX is 10 times bigger than in a normal theater but once your eyes adjusted to the size, it seemed little different. I've never read the Potter books and only appreciate the movies as our culture's current spectacle. This film, the sixth, seemed excessively dark (plot and cinematography) and the acting by the teen leads exceptionally wooden. Given my advanced years, I should have gone to see an Our Gang comedy or the Bowery Boys.

Several of my good friends have recently turned 80, so I feel like a youngster in their company and look up to them as role models. We're living longer, and better, than our parents' generation. But this doesn't make the search for a purpose any easier. The other day during our weekly conversation at Ricky's II Café, Bill said the goal of Buddhist-inspired people is to live a life of compassion for others. He lives in Trat near the Cambodian border and teaches the neighborhood kids English. Retired after working in international schools around the world, he is now contemplating the possibility of teaching math to the monks at my university. I'm almost ashamed at how easy my life is. I live the princely life on my Social Security income, many times the average wage here in Bangkok. I have no trouble filling my days with leisurely activities and I'm never bored. There is always the pool at my residence and Starbucks up the street. I'm slowly filling my small apartment with books. And yet I fret that some unknown obligation is not being met. Are we humans driven to find a purpose in every accidental situation?

After four weeks without classes, due to various Buddhist annual and monthly holidays that unfortunately coincided with my teaching day on Wednesdays, we finally gathered together again in the 3rd floor classroom at Wat Srisudaram last week. Because of schedule changes, we are having three classes in only eight days. On the first day back, I asked them to talk about their plans for the future. Almost all want to become teachers in their home village, and I hope I'm providing them a suitable example. Yesterday I had them interview another student and give comparisons ("I'm older but he's taller...") to teach comparatives and superlatives. There was lots of laughter as some claimed "I'm more handsome" and "he's fatter than me." My students love to have fun. Marcus and Colin teach college kids, boys and girls (and not a few "ladyboys"), and spend considerable time enforcing discipline ("I'm a Nazi," claims Marcus). Along with Bill, they were shocked at my lax attitude: My monks sometimes arrive late, chat on their cellphones, and talk among themselves while I'm writing grammar rules on the white board. Still, they're more serious about education than the spoiled students I taught in California, and life's too short to worry about a little frivolity in the classroom, I think. But it's not all fun and games. Next week I will give them a midterm examination.

I have become addicted to lakorns, the Thai version of TV soap operas. My father named me for the main character of "Just Plain Bill," a radio soap in the late 1930s, and as a child I used to sit at the foot of the large Philco radio listening to "Guiding Light" and "Stella Dallas" with my mother. Maybe that's why I am unashamedly sentimental and can be easily manipulated to tears by a heart-warming plot twist. In California I used to watch Mexican telenovelas to learn Spanish, and they are remarkably similar to the shows I have seen on Thai TV. One I watched recently was "Jade Cloud" which featured several families of Thais in the gem business in Hong Kong; the photography of the city was terrific and the plot was filled with romance, murder and mayhem. My favorite lakorn, "Rainbow Moon," has just finished this past week with a reconciliation between the pop singer Tawan (played by real life pop star Bie Sukrit) and his katoey (transgender) adopted father Aruk (played by noted actor and singer Pongpat Wachirabunjong). The lakorn ("play" in Thai) has been on for weeks, with a two-hour show twice a week. In one episode Tawan crashed his car and lost his memory, which enabled his mother, a prostitute who abandoned him at birth, to take advantage of his success and turn him against his father who was suffering from a brain tumor. Many scenes took place in various hospital rooms as different characters suffered illness, accidents and injuries. Actress Aff Taksaorn played love interest Fah whose parents were dead set against her relationship with Tawan (because of an evil boyfriend in league with the evil mother). The acting and the cinematography are stylistic and melodramatic, but general themes come through: Love and forgiveness ultimately triumph and evil receives its due. High art it may not be, but the moral instruction, while a bit simplistic, is right on target. In addition to Buddhist teaching, these lakorns may be responsible for the gentleness and kindness that typify Thai culture.

While I surf the news sites each day, I haven't gotten caught up in politics lately at the local or international level. Prime Minister Abhisit, currently hosting the ASEAN conference in Phuket which has been remarkably free of protest and violence (due to thousands of troops guarding the city), continues to muddle along while his administration, divided by conflict, accomplishes little of note. Today is Thaksin Shinawatra's 60th birthday and the red shirts are planning big celebrations. Their leader has hinted at a "big surprise" during his televised address ("Black Magic Buddhist Rites," claims The Nation.) . A poster of the exiled politician, promising his return soon to Thailand, has shown up throughout my neighborhood. I watch with sadness California's economic meltdown which will result in draconian cuts to the state's budget. As usual, the poor will suffer disproportionately more than the rich. Obama, like Clinton before him, seems to have hit a wall in his attempt to insure universal medical coverage and lower health costs. America's health-for-profit medical system is the shame of the world. Jackson's will, Palin's resignation and the unjustified arrest of black scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. provide fodder for the celebrity-obsessed U.S. press which long ago gave up substatial analysis of important issues. How can Israel's prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu get away with thumbing his nose at U.S. demands (rather, timid requests) that settlement activity be stopped? The battles in Afghanistan continue to claim innocent lives with no end in sight (the final word on that quagmire is Chris Hedges' "War Without Purpose").

And how about those anniversaries? Who decides, anyway, which dates are most significant? We've just been treated to a barrage of reminicenses on the 40th anniversary of the first trip to the moon, and of Woodstock a few days later (which is more important?). But I'm particularly happy that the 50th anniversary of the court ruling that overturned America’s obscenity laws is being celebrated. For more information about Barney Rosset, the publisher of Grove Press, who sued the Post Office for confiscating copies of the uncensored version of D. H. Lawrence’s 1928 novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover, read Fred Kaplan's story on "The Day Obscenity Became Art." As soon as Lawrence's dirty book became legal I read it, although I had long possessed illegal copies of Henry Miller's two Tropics novels that a friend had smuggled into the country from Europe some years before Rosset got them cleared in the 1960s. Although Muslim jihadists may disagree, we are better off without censorship. But if anything should be censored, it should be gratuitous violence of the kind we now read about daily.

And so it goes. Each day I consecrate my life to fate (or destiny, as a Thai friend puts it romantically), and offer my body to the strange tropical bugs that seem to love farang blood. What I thought were mosquito wounds turned out to be bites from a tiny black ant. The itchy red welts last for days. I stalk the occasional cockroach with poisonous spray, but most of them which primarily inhabit the kitchen are small. Except for the giant bug that wandered in under my door and I slaughtered as soon as I saw it. The body lies somewhere behind my TV cabinet. I don't get geckos on the 10th floor like the one that scared Colin's wife Newt (some irony there) at Ricky's II the other day. Of course there is the invisible H1N1 virus that is terrifying the world. I see an increase in face masks (some people always wore them because of Bangkok's notoriously bad air) but the majority of pedestrians seems as unconcerned as I am. Life is fatal; something's going to kill you eventually (do the bugs I kill realize this?). Nan has different colored face masks to match her outfits. She sees prevention as a fashion statement.

What now? Same as before.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

70 Years: My Life

Born July 19, 1939, Toledo, Ohio, U.S.A.

Graduated, John Muir High School, Pasadena, California, June 1957

Music Daze, 1970-1975

Santa Cruz, 1975-2007

Graduated with Ph.d in environmental history, UC Santa Cruz, 2002

My children: Luke, Chris, Nicky, Molly

Travels in the Americas, Europe, India & SE Asia, 2004 to now

July 19, 2009, Thailand

Writing, reading, talking, thinking, making love,
praying, teaching, living: And so it goes...

Friday, July 10, 2009

Stranger Than Fiction

When the Rev. Al said to the very Caucasian-looking young girl, "There weren't nothing strange about your daddy," I could hear the theme song from Twilight Zone in the background. No one was stranger than the King of Pop.

I've resisted writing about the strange life and tragic death of Michael Jackson. His music was a small part of the soundtrack of my life (now immobilized on my iPod), and I tried, and failed, to emulate his dance moves which now seem to be the basis of the repertoire of most global dance troupes. Everyone's death, to some extent, diminishes us. While the verdict is not yet in, news stories point to an gargantuan addiction to a cornucopia of pharmaceuticals. Jackson is not the first musical "genius" to succumb to the allure of drugged oblivion. At the memorial service in Los Angeles (a global event to rival state funerals like that for Diana), brother Marlon, speaking for many, said, "We would never, never understand what he endured, not being able to walk across the street without a crowd gathering around him. Being judged, ridiculed, how much pain can one take. Maybe now, Michael, they will leave you alone."

Fat chance. Michael is this year's O.J., the black man persecuted by a racist world. But wait a minute. Jackson wanted desperately to look white, and he enlisted an army of plastic surgeons and dermatologists to erase all racial traces from his face. The results have been compared to Marilyn Monroe as well as Batman's nemesis, The Joker (as played by Jack Nicholson rather than Heath Ledger). He hung out with white icons Elizabeth Taylor, Tatum O'Neal and Brooke Shields, not to mention his first wife Lisa Marie Presley, all beards that helped him hide what most people believed to be his homosexuality (I thought his high voice was a put-on until I heard some of his brothers speak; it must be genetic). The Staples Center was filled with a biracial crowd, but the performers and speakers were mostly black and they held Michael Jackson up as a beacon for race relations. I found it befuddling to think of his disavowal of blackness as an example for young people struggling toward racial pride. If Sascha Bruno Cohen were murdered by one of the redneck southerners he humiliated while filming "Borat" and "Brüno," would we hold up his fictional creations as an example for what it means to be white?

But just as I've been an inveterate ambulance chaser most of my life, fascinated by fires and car crashes, I have followed the news on CNN ever since Jackson's unexpected death was announced. I couldn't stay up for the memorial service, which began at midnight in Bangkok, but I've seen the YouTube clips and have even downloaded NBC's coverage (which I can't yet bear to watch). And I cried when daughter Paris told the cameras, “Ever since I was born, daddy has been the best father you could ever imagine. And I just wanted to say I love him so much.” Fatherless children disturb me deeply, whoever they are. But just like the forthcoming toxicology report and the myriad of legal disputes over Michael Jackson's will and considerable fortune (current sales may offset reported debts), the patrimony of these children is news. Who are they? We know that the mother of Paris and Prince Michael (now there's a normal name) is Debbie Rowe who apparently earned eight million for her work. The mother of the youngest, Blanket (cute), has not been revealed. But how could Jackson have been the biological father of any of them? Either they have two Caucasian parents or they've been visiting Jackson's dermatologist (who denied, sort of, that he had been the sperm donor), who employed Rowe as a nurse.

I don't need to mention the persistent charges of pedophilia. Jackson's early fame, and the beatings he reportedly got from his father, Joe, denied him a childhood. Listen to the words of his song of that name to discover clues to the bizarre person he became. "Have you seen my childhood? I'm searching for that wonder in my youth...No one understands me. They view it as such strange eccentricities...'Cause I keep kidding around, like a child." He recreated the land of Peter Pan where children never grow old, and admitted to interviews that he slept with his young guests. But a forthcoming book, Unmasked, by celebrity biographer Ian Halperin, says that Jackson was into men, not boys, and masqueraded as a woman with his lovers. Halperin said the star once picked up a construction worker in Las Vegas and swore him to secrecy. "The lover admitted Michael made him sign a confidentiality agreement." The author said the singer was no pedophile and went into hysterics when his insurance company paid millions to a teenage boy who accused him of molestation. What terrible demons drove him to dose himself with Demerol, Xanax, and drips of Diprivan, a drug normally used in operating theaters by anaestheologists?

The strangest rumor floating around the internet is Jackson's association with the number 7. According to one report:
Michael Jackson signed his will on 7/7/02. Michael Jackson's memorial was on 7/7/09 ... exactly 7 years after the will was signed. Michael Jackson's two biggest hits -- "Black & White" and "Billie Jean" -- were each #1 for 7 weeks. Michael Jackson's three biggest albums -- "Thriller," "Bad" and "Dangerous" -- each produced 7 top 40 hits. Michael Jackson was the 7th of 9 children. Michael Jackson was born in 1958 ... 19 + 58 = 77. Michael Jackson died on the 25th ... 2 + 5 = 7. And, finally, Michael Jackson has 7 letters in his first and last name. Yeah. One wag, familiar with urban legends, added that "I heard his assistant's name was Kennedy Johns and Kennedy's assistant's name was Jackson Michaels." Wow.

Nan's cousin Ben returned home to Phayao last night. We took her to the bus station at Mo Chit. Only 21, she seemed much younger. She was small, thin and prone to the giggles. It was her first visit to the capital and she had left her eight-month-old son back home with her mother. The baby's father was still in high school. Nan had first considered the local factory of her firm which supplies custom foam pads for packaging, but decided that the work might be too difficult for a girl who left school after the 6th grade and had never held a job. So she bought a portable stall for making crepes from a friend for 3000 baht (almost $100) and tried to teach her how to cook and sell the pancakes at a market. It was not easy. Ben wanted to sell clothes in a department store but Nan thought it would be too dangerous for her to work until 10 at night. Her cousin had difficulty understanding directions and figuring out bus routes. So after only a week in the big city she was back on the overnight coach to her village in the north, fortunate in that she did not have to stay in Bangkok to support her child since her own father, shamed by the illigitimate grandchild, makes a good income in Taiwan where he has worked for some years.

The calm before the political storm may end in Thailand next month when the twice-canceled ASEAN conference resumes again, this time in Phuket. Security is draconian. Protests or demonstrations of any kind of have been banned. The red shirts had been planning to celebrate exiled and fugitive Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra's 60th birthday next week with a large gathering in Sanam Luang, but it was prohibited by Bangkok authorities and Thaksin requested his supporters to honor him by making merit at their local Buddhist temple. The red shirts did protest yesterday outside the office of Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya who has been charged for his role in supporting the yellow shirts when they closed down the international airport last year. Their call for him to resign was refused. For an excellent review of the current political situation here, and the chaos that could reign when the royal succession occurs, read the excellent article in Bloomberg online by William Mellor and Daniel Ten Kate.

I didn't celebrate the 4th of July last week, mainly because the thought of barbecued hot dogs, kegs of beer, fireworks and flag waving stirred no emotion in my breast. I may have kicked the habit of patriotism. Nationalism has caused much harm in the world and continues with the help of extremist religion to wreak havoc everywhere. Here in Thailand, where I can never become a citizen, I've gotten involved in the study of how Thai identity has become constructed. The elites have employed legend and propaganda to create an imagined community that would promote unity and peace, and keep the rural poor in their place. Former Vietnam correspondent John Pilger, in an article in the New Statesman, is well aware of how American elites have used 4th of July rhetoric to justify wars, inequality and corporate rule. The only proper response to American's birthday is mourning, the British critic suggests. Little has changed with Obama, he charges:
Since 1945, by deed and by example, the US has overthrown 50 governments, including democracies, crushed some 30 liberation movements and supported tyrannies from Egypt to Guatemala (see William Blum’s histories). Bombing is apple pie. Having stacked his government with warmongers, Wall Street cronies and polluters from the Bush and Clinton eras, the 45th president is merely upholding tradition. The hearts and minds farce I witnessed in Vietnam is today repeated in villages in Afghanistan and, by proxy, Pakistan, which are Obama’s wars.
Of course, any diligent reader of Howard Zinn would never be able to celebrate the 4th of July with a clean conscience.

My oldest son turns 44 tomorrow. Happy Birthday, Chris!