Sunday, August 30, 2009

The End of Camelot

I didn't want to write about the Kennedys. This Irish Catholic family from Boston has dominated the politics of my generation, for better and worse. I voted for Jack in 1960, hoped to vote for Bobby in 1968 before he was killed, and with others I thought Teddy would continue his brothers' legacy of inspiration in the White House until Chappaquiddick a year later ended that possibility. As the Senate's "liberal lion," Edward Kennedy has practiced the politics of redemption for forty years with many accomplishments. But when I contemplate that "one brief shining moment that was known as Camelot," the primary feeling I have is disappointment.

"Camelot," the musical about the court of King Arthur and his knights of the Round Table, opened on Broadway in December 1960, just weeks after JFK's election. Jackie made the mythic connection between King Arthur and the Kennedy White House in comments to a journalist not long after her husband was assassinated, and the link stuck. I was 21 when Kennedy was inaugurated, and he put an end not only to Dwight Eisenhower's drab Republican administration (personified by Veep Nixon) but to the cultural doldrums of the 1950s as well. Like Vatican II several years later, the new president opened the windows of the White House and let fresh air flow in. The Kennedys were sophisticated and intelligent and surrounded themselves with "the best and the brightest." There were then no dragons that these guys could not slay. President Kennedy created the Peace Corps which would allow idealistic Americans to serve the world, persuaded Britain and the Soviet Union to sign a partial nuclear test ban treaty, sent troops to Mississippi to protect blacks integrating the university, and promoted programs to explore space and establish a "New Frontier" to fight what he called the "common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease, and war itself."

In Cuba and in Vietnam, Camelot ended long before the shots in Dallas cut short JFK's life. While Cuba's isolation because of Castro's revolution, and America's involvement in a Vietnamese civil war after the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu, happened on Eisenhower's watch, Kennedy and his Round Table failed to see the consequences of the Bay of Pigs and the military escalation he ordered in Southeast Asia. For me, this blindness forever tarnishes his record. Robert Kennedy at first functioned almost as a hit man for his brother, and as attorney general he sanctioned the wire taping of Martin Luther King at the urging of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover who thought the civil rights leader was a communist. But I think Bobby eventually learned from JFK's mistakes, and as a senator from New York he spoke out against poverty in America and the war in Vietnam. But like his brother, RFK's life was cut short by an assassin's bullet. I cannot emphasize too strongly the effect that these killings (including that of the Rev. King) had on me and my generation. It told us that Camelot was a fairy tale fantasy but the dragons were real.

At his brother Bobby's funeral, Teddy attempted to keep hope alive:
My brother need not be idealized, or enlarged in death beyond what he was in life; to be remembered simply as a good and decent man, who saw wrong and tried to right it, saw suffering and tried to heal it, saw war and tried to stop it. Those of us who loved him and who take him to his rest today, pray that what he was to us and what he wished for others will some day come to pass for all the world. As he said many times, in many parts of this nation, to those he touched and who sought to touch him: "Some men see things as they are and say why. I dream things that never were and say why not."
These words could be applied to all of the Kennedy brothers. And the politics of redemption was the foundation of their good works. The family's fortune came from liquor sales (legal and illegal), real estate and banking transactions. Joseph Jr., the scion of the family, died during World War Two, leaving Jack to carry the flag. Although various children have taken positions in politics to continue the Kennedy legacy, none show signs of capturing the culture's imagination as did Jack, Bobby and Teddy. So while Camelot died on the beach of the Bay of Pigs and in the rice paddies of Vietnam, the presence and impact of the Kennedy dynasty will not fade quickly for those of us born just before and after the second world war in Europe and Asia. It made realists and cynics of most of us.

Once again the U.S. has a president who holds out hope to a world battered and bruised by wars and economic instability largely due to policies of the previous occupant of the White House. Obama is certainly intelligent and inspirational and his choices for members of his administration seem based more on competence than on ideology. But...we old farts have seen it all before. Bill Clinton and even Jimmy Carter came to Washington to make a clean sweep of the halls of power. Both were largely defeated by the institution of government that is controlled more by corporate power than good and decent men who attempt to right wrongs. America remains stuck in the quagmires of Iraq and Afghanistan, and appears unable to steer Israel toward a lasting solution in Israel/Palestine. The very money manipulators who disrupted the world's economies with their greed have been rewarded (rather than punished) by extravagant bailouts at the expense of taxpayers. And the prospects of universal health care, not to mention controlling the rising medical costs that benefit corporations and insurance companies, seem slim. What happened?

Maybe the answer is that America's stewardship (to put it nicely) of the globe is finished. On this side of the Pacific, most Asians believe the future is in the hands of India and China. The dollar's demise will mean poverty for me, but a new world currency, along with an end to the U.S. as the buyer of last resort, could result in a relatively stable new order independent of Wall Street and its lapdogs in Europe. This will certainly not guarantee world peace or an end to social injustices. China's record on human rights is poor, and society in India, as I've seen it, is an ungovernable chaos. Neither country will do much to end the rush toward global warming and world ecological disaster. I've been reading about the ugly history of Thailand's neighbor, Burma, and the 45-year military dictatorship that has impoverished and decimated its population. Both China and India have invested millions in Burma's economy (I've decided to no longer use the name "Myanmar," invented by the generals). Despite the moral example of Aung San Suu Kyi, any hope for eventual democracy in that country appears fanciful. America's demise and replacement as a world power will not change that.

Is my pessimism and cynicism showing? Maybe it's the chest congestion that began last week after I spent a long day at my university's new campus near Ayutthaya listening to talks and discussions in Thai that were mostly incomprehensible to me. The topic was Knowledge Management (KM), and that label on the slides at least was in English. I couldn't translate the details, but I've gotten very good at looking interested. In the classroom, even though there is a microphone, I have difficult hearing (from weakened eardrums) and understanding (from mangled pronunciation) my students when they make their weekly oral presentations. Last week they talked about whether they believed in ghosts, and what I was able to hear was fascinating. Since I want to encourage their speaking and give them confidence, I act as if every word is golden, even if much of it sounds like gibberish. Most are knowledgeable about grammar but are too shy to speak. KM sounds like another management technique similar to TQM, which was very popular at UC Santa Cruz. It's probably designed to get more work out of employees while fooling them into thinking they have increased power. At our small group meeting of English teachers, a proposed description of courses in both Thai and English was discussed. I saw that the syllabus for the two classes I've taught was not very useful since it left out most of what I've been teaching. I was an active listener.

I've spent the past couple of days in my room, taking aspirin and drinking lots of liquids. My inner thermostat seems a bit off but I can't label my dis-ease flu yet. I went outside to the store yesterday to buy ink from my printer and potato chips. Sometimes I hanker for American comfort food (I resisted the Oreos). so I understand my British friends whose food habits seem a bit strange given the Thai setting. Colin requires the Marmite of his youth, a spread for bread that I find bitter and, well, awful. He keeps a stash of it on hand at Ricky's II, the restaurant where he and my friend Marcus hang out after teaching English to coeds and ladyboys. The other day I was invited to lunch by Pandit Bhikku at a steak restaurant on the highway in Taling Chan between his temple and my apartment. Since he's a vegetarian, he ordered a salmon steak while I requested the T-bone on the menu. We began with a large order of French fries (which the British insist on calling "chips"), and I watched mesmerized as the monk made a sandwich of toast and chips. He seemed a bit miffed that I found this unusual. If there had been any Marmite, I'm sure he would have slathered it on the chips. I keep a supply of Skippy peanut butter and Smucker's jelly in my refrigerator (since the ants like it as well) and several times a week eat PB&J for lunch. Craving a snack yesterday, I bought a bag of Pepperidge Farm chocolate chip cookies. The cost was nearly $5. Because of my congestion, Nan insists that I drink warm water rather than cold, and I have tried to comply by making cups of green tea to drink while lying on the couch to watch movies. First I caught up on "Weeds" and "Mad Men." On Friday I watched a gripping Bette Davis film, "The Letter," from a Somerset Maugham story about a bad plantation wife in Malaysia, followed by "The Ugly American," with Marlon Brando as an initially clueless ambassador in a fictitious Southeast Asian country. Yesterday it was a fascinating documentary by Astra Taylor, "Examined Life," with comments about Socrates' advice from a group of philosophers including the charismatic Slovenian Slavoj Žižek. In the evening it was "L'heure d'été," the newest film by Olivier Assayas with Juliette Binoche, whom I love, in a tender tale of a family and the role art plays in its life.

On the subject of films, last weekend I went to the cinema to see Quentin Tarantino's new film, “Inglourious Basterds," which opened in Bangkok on the same day as in the U.S. It's a glittering cinematic achievement, a homage to war films filled with allusions and illusion by a master craftsmen who thinks violence is a theoretical position of merit. He knows how to rivet the attention of his audience and the first half hour is a bit like a shaggy dog story with a shattering ending. What holds it together is the performance of Christoph Waltz as Col. Hans Landa, the Nazi SS villain you love to hate. The premise now should be well known: Brad Pitt plays Lt. Aldo Raine, the white trash leader of a company of Jewish soldiers who kill Nazis behind enemy lines. That's it, and we're invited to appreciate the irony which is described in graphic detail, including the holocaust of the entire Nazi high command while watching a movie (film is never far from the plot). This is the kind of argument that makes revenge the epitome of morality, and after chewing over it for a week, I decided that Tarentino's movie was not a little disgusting.

On Friday I fly to Chiang Mai and Nan and her mother will meet me at the airport. I've learned that Nan's injuries in the motorbike accident were not as serious as I first thought; no bones were broken. But she was badly bruised and swollen, and her treatment at the local hospital included massage with hot bags of herbs (Baron treated me to a herbal massage on Sukhumvit Soi 8 last December and it was very soothing.) Last week her father was cremated and Nan fainted at the ceremony (she called it a "stroke" and I had to suggest otherwise). Nan's mother will drive us to some of the tourist sites on Saturday, including the celebrated Wat Rong Khun, the "white wat" constructed by a noted artist in the 1990s. I also want to see Mae Salong, the hillside Chinese village whose residents come from Yunnan province to the north. I will be in the Golden Triangle, not far from Burma where the military's war against ethnic minorities is heating up after a 20-year lull. Villagers in the north of Burma are fleeing from the fighting into China, up to 10,000 of them. There are a number of refugee camps along the border in Thailand for people displaced by Burmese oppression and I may learn more during my weekend in the north.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Thai Frankenfish is Yummy

The tastiest fish I've eaten in Bangkok was served whole one evening at a sidewalk restaurant. It was stuffed with herbs, rubbed with salt and grilled over a charcoal fire. The white meat was plentiful, without small bones, and aroi maak (very delicious). My friends told me it was called snakehead, or pla chorn, and I assumed it was because of its flat head. But I learned from Tony Bourdain's Thailand episode of "No Reservations" this week that the snakehead is a vicious predator that can walk on land and eat small pets.

"These are the fish that people introduced in America and they were crawling on people’s lawns and killing their poodles," Tony said to my friend Jerry as they feasted on snakehead at the Taling Chan Market on a trip up the khlong. "When released into a body of fresh water, these carnivorous beasts pretty much move on top the food chain like water-born gangsters, gobbling up every other fish in sight." A little research affirmed much of Tony's claim. A native of China, the snakehead snuck into America, either imported by an Asian hungry for traditional cuisine or a tropical fish enthusiast impressed by the fish's nastiness in an aquarium, and was found in a Maryland pond in 2002 eating its neighbors (but not, apparently, any pets). I discovered that the beast inspired two grade B scifi movies, "Frankenfish" and Snakehead Terror." It's been located all around the states and is now banned as an invasive and even dangerous species. Thais raise fish for food in backyard ponds, but the snakehead must be separated from catfish for it will devour its less aggressive watermate. Thais also feed fish as a way of making merit and I've tossed pellets and hunks of bread into the water at innumerable temple ponds.At left people gather on a dock at Wat Yannowa on the Chao Phraya River to feed what appear to be thousands of fish, and most, I think, are snakehead (the thought of eating fish from the polluted river is a bit disconcerting). At other temples, I've watched people release turtles, snakes and fish into rivers and canals to gain merit for an advantageous rebirth. Since seafood is a staple of the Thai diet, I question the logic of feeding fish and then eating them as a form of religious ritual.

I learned about "No Reservations," a show that airs on The Travel Channel, from Jerry who'd appeared with Tony on an earlier episode filmed in Thailand. This time he came during Songkran last April and the host and crew got caught up not only in water fights in Silom but also in the street fighing that paralyzed Bangkok for several days. There is a wonderful section of the episode (which aired in the U.S. Aug. 17) where he goes searching for cockles in the mud flats along the Gulf of Thailand. Now in its sixth season, the program features the foodie and former chef who searches the globe for unusual cuisine, and always presents it within a historical, social and political context. What ties everything together is Tony Bourdain's wonderful zest for life. As someone who has never learned to cook, and who often eats out of habit rather than desire, I've found that watching his show makes me ravenously hungry. Up until now I've avoided eating street-grilled sausage in Bangkok, but after seeing the section filmed in Bangkok's Chinatown where Tony raved about the sausage with ginger, I'm ready to give it a try. And pass me some more of that snakehead fish!

"How can you talk about Thaksin and Thai politics without mentioning the monarchy?" asked Jennifer, a friend from the Little Bang Sangha, in the elevator after the book launch party at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand last Tuesday. Chris Baker and Pasuk Phongpaichit's 2004 book about deposed and exiled Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra has been updated and reissued and the historians were joined on a panel at the FCCT by two popular Thai intellectuals, Pitch Pongsawat and Ukrist Pathmanand to discuss the current political scene. Since the entire board of the FCCT, along with president Jonathan Head from the BBC, has been charged with lèse majesté for allowing previous events that allegedly defamed the King, the participants were understandably cautious. Baker defended the absence of the monarchy from his book by calling it a "black box." Since "no one knows what's in it, I didn't want to write about rumors." Some in the audience questioned how Thaksin's "legacy" could even be discussed since he's still front page news, and the final chapter about his incredible impact on Thai politics has yet to be written. The day before, Thaksin's red shirt supporters had ceremonially submitted a petition with five million names to the King via the government, requesting a pardon for the former leader who has been convicted of corruption charges which many believe were politically motivated. Baker described Thaksin as "a man totally beneath principles. He became what people wanted him to become." And Pasuk, his wife, added that he was "a great opportunist in exploiting the situation to get into power," no different from any other populist. "He got into trouble because of so many demands he could not satisfy. So he becomes authoritarian and creates an oligarchy until he’s toppled." I look forward to reading their book. And that evening I joined the FCCT, a move that set me back 5000 baht ($150). The group meets regularly in a penthouse suite in Chit Lom for drinks and dinner, entertainment and interesting speakers on a wide range of topics.

During the discussion, Pasuk said she saw a move towards mass politics in Thailand, a move away from unity, from what the elites can manage. "So the government counters with mo-so, the moderation campaign, and the I Love Thailand campaign." Both of these campaigns, launched in the last few months, feature posters, TV spots, billboards and ads, but everything is in Thai so I cannot understand what it's all about. Baker, who writes under the pen name "Chang Noi" in The Nation newspaper, explained that mo-so stands for "moderation society" (in Bangkok the rich are often described as "hi-so," or high society people, and the poor consequently as "lo-so"). This propaganda program is organized by the Internal Security Operations Command of the Army and funded by a billion baht voted after the Songkran troubles. "The Army has long dished out PR on its own importance," writes Chang Noi. "After the 2006 coup, it poured men and money into a campaign to influence the hearts and minds of the Thaksinite North and Northeast. This moso campaign represents a new frontier - an attempt to influence society as a whole through public media." And it won't have much impact on the widening divisions in Thai society, he concludes. The I Love Thailand campaign is another propaganda move to induce unity (by implication "unity" is an anti-Thaksin, anti-red code word) by encouraging Thais living outside the country to stick up for the present government. Prime Minister Abhisit announced that the project was launched because when his government took office the country's image had been bruised by internal conflicts, violence and protests. The situation was made worse by violent protests by the red shirts in Pattaya and in Bangkok in April. (No mention is made of the closure of the airport by yellow shirts.) "What can you do to show your love for the country?" is a key question of the project, according to Satit Wongnongtaey from Abhisit's office who is in charge. The web page is designed to emulate Facebook and other social networking sites and includes "patriotic music." In Chang Noi's view, these costly internal propaganda campaigns resemble techniques used by many totalitarian regimes in the 20th century.
Both the moso and ILoveThailand campaigns are explicitly designed to counter the social and political divisions of recent years. For one, the answer is to act moderately. For the other, the answer is to unite. Neither campaign acknowledges that there might be some real causes underlying those divisions. Neither campaign suggests any solutions to such causes. Neither acknowledges that people may have plunged into political activism because they thought it was their civic duty and because they had the country's interest at heart. Both want to sweep real problems under the carpet where they will fester and ferment. Is this a wise strategy?
In another critique of the government's mo-so campaign, Pavin Chachavalpongpun described "moderation society" as "a sufficiency economy reloaded for a new generation," and called it "surely a no-go" in the Bangkok Post. Sufficiency economy is a notion of the King's that sounds anti-capitalist and environmentally friendly but would perhaps ultimately reinforce the class system and unequal distribution of wealth in Thai society and ensure control of the country by the elites. Pavin suggests that the "mo-so project is the latest political tool employed to undermine Thaksin and perhaps his supporters. In putting the royal concept of sufficiency economy up against Thaksin's borderless capitalism, the mo-so makers could have purposefully dragged the much-revered institution, once again, into the ring of political conflict with or without their intending it." Pravit Rojanaphruk asks in The Nation, "Why is the military educating us about democracy?" In Thailand, unlike most countries in Europe, the military is relatively independent of civilian control. "Despite its checkered record of staging one coup after the other," Pravit writes, "the Army runs a fat campaign to educate the populace about democracy." Earlier this year the Army was paid by the Cabinet to go to rural areas where Thaksin remains popular, "to educate people about "democracy"...Sounds like a bad joke doesn't it?" The Army in Thailand owns and controls major television stations and hundreds of radio stations, not to mention the fact that many generals (Thailand probably has a higher percentage of generals than any other major army) are on the boards of major corporations. "Equally disturbing about these extra-curricular activities of the military is that nobody seems to care about its ever-increasing role in Thai society," says Pravit. One might also ask, what does Thailand need an army (and a navy and an air force) for anyway?

The Little Bang Sangha met again last night in the mirrored Planet Yoga room underneath the California Wow megagym on Sukhumvit for the third in Phra Cittamasvaro's series of eight Rains Retreat talks. Last week Pandit Bhikku said that the way of wisdom is like a relay race, or the use of different modes of transportation for each leg of the relay in the race toward what Buddha saw as "the deathless." Each segment requires the development of different qualities, compassion, loving kindness, etc. Wisdom requires the willingness to change and grow out of the ego self. He compared mindfulness to the pivot in the center of the see-saw that brings balance. "The trick is to be with what is, not to create another state of mind." We must watch the process of thought and not get caught up in the objects of thought. This seems to require not thinking, which I find not only difficult to do but impossible to grasp as a concept (is that the idea?). A conundrum.

Last night Pandit surprised everyone by presenting a "guaranteed method" to have a beautiful meditation. Since hardly anyone is satisfied with what happens (or doesn't) when they sit on the cushion or chair, we were all ears. "The trick is to have lots of bad meditations," he said. He compared the trials of unsatisfactory meditation to St. John of the Cross's dark night of the soul. People like his friend in the hospital want to be happy and comfortable, "but it is easier to be mindful when you are uncomfortable." We search for bliss through the distraction of a perfect meditation rather than strive to see things as they really are which is the goal of wisdom. Just as in the cinema we see images rather than the screen on which they are projected, in life we are ensnared in the five hindrances, as the Buddha taught. During the 20-minute meditation, I found myself struggling to stay awake. And this, I suppose, was good precisely because it was bad.

Nan and I are speaking daily now. Since there is mobile phone reception only on the roof of her mother's house in the village in the province of Phayao, we talk after she gets to the hospital 30 kilometers away each day to have her back and arm massaged by a nurse using hot herbs. She tells me that her back is better, and that even though her father is still in a coma, she wants to return to Bangkok next month to be with me. I don't want her to take the long bus ride (over 11 hours) so I proposed flying up to meet her to bring her home. She said her mother could drive her to Chiang Rai three hours away by car (Chiang Mai is nearly a six-hour drive). I've never been to Chiang Rai, "the gateway to the Golden Triangle," and I've decided to spend the weekend there so we can see some of the area's sights together. I'm planning to buy tickets on Air Asia this afternoon, before I go to see Brad Pitt in "Inglorious Bastards" which opened yesterday. On Tuesday I am going to the the new MCU facility in Wang Noi for a conference of members of humanities faculties at the university different campuses around Thailand. This will be the second such meeting for me to attend, a mark of my increasing longevity in Thailand. And just as last year, I will miss the second day of the conference to teach my class, unlike many of the other ajahns. My students have seen too little of me this term because of all the cancellations and postponements, and I find it a bit ironic to talk with other teachers about methods of English instruction while neglecting the students we're are supposed to be helping. But perhaps that's an un-Thai way of thinking.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

40 Years of What?

If you're not a news junkie like me, you've probably missed the recent succession of 40th anniversaries: the first walk on the moon July 20, the taking of the Beatles' famous Abbey Road photo on Aug. 8, followed the next day by the Manson family's murders of Sharon Tate and her friends, and now, between the 15th and 18th of August, the 40th anniversary of Woodstock, our culture's "defining moment." I know, I should turn off the TV and stop surfing the net, and these questions wouldn't arise. But why 40? I think Ed Ward gives the best answer in his remembrance of Woodstock, "Beginning? Or End?" in the Boston Phoenix:
Forty, after all, is the new 50: the people who were 20 at Woodstock will be 70 on its 50th anniversary, so let's take advantage of the marketing opportunities while those folks are still alive.
Of course, I'm already 70, and maybe that's why I'm so cynical, and I'm also too poor to take advantage of the commemorative memorabilia offered on any of the shopping channels (which aren't available anyway on Bangkok TV). What's left to celebrate? Hurricane Camille, the most powerful in history, killed 248 people on the Mississippi coast 40 years ago tomorrow. The first ATM was installed on September 2nd (the day Ho Chi Minh died), the My Lai massacre by U.S. troops in Vietnam took place three days later, and in October during "Days of Rage" the National Guard was called to end demonstrations by the radical Weathermen protesting the trial of the Chicago Eight who had been blamed for riots the year before at the Democrat's convention. Nixon, who had taken over from Lyndon Johnson as president earlier in the year, went on TV in November 40 years ago to ask the "silent majority" to support his war policies while Vice President Spiro Agnew denounced the President's critics, who had held major antiwar demonstrations on October 15th, as "an effete corps of impudent snobs' and 'nattering nabobs of negativism." And last but not least in that memorable year of 1969 was the "Woodstock West" at Altamont on December 6th, the free concert in California by the Rolling Stones which ended the Sixties with violence and death. Will there be a 40th anniversary of THAT? Of course.

In 1969 I was a newspaper reporter in Pasadena, and publicist Sunny Schneer called one day to invite me to an outdoor concert in New York State. She had seen my column of record reviews (a shameless ploy to get free music) and promised a free ticket and backstage pass. But I had two young sons at home and was not free to fly away to a rock and roll picnic (which is what Woodstock sounded like). A few days after the event had made national headlines, I went to hear new super-group Crosby, Stills & Nash at a UCLA concert. David Crosby waxed ecstatic about how the hippie tribes had closed down the New York Thruway and had become a non-violent (if muddy) city of a half million. It seemed as if the hippie ethic of love and communal sharing had been resurrected by the large gathering. Two years before, after the "Summer of Love" when hundreds of thousands of hippies had converged on the Haight Ashbury in San Francisco, a march was held down the street in October to mark "The Death of the Hippie." According to one participant, "We wanted to signal that this was the end of it, don't come out. Stay where you are! Bring the revolution to where you live. Don't come here because it's over and done with." Crowding, drugs, homelessness and violence had taken their toll, and tarnished the hippie dream.

At the end of 1969, I was hired as the west coast publicity director of Atlantic Records in Hollywood. One of my first tasks was to publicize the soundtrack of Michael Wadleigh's Woodstock movie since Atlantic would release the soundtrack album. I visited the editing rooms and got to see early cuts of the hours of footage. Because of the number of artists who performed, there were high-level negotiations over who would be included in the film and who would be cut. Decisions were made not based on art but on money; managers and agents and lawers held the key. Missing from the original version of the film were the Grateful Dead, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Tim Hardin and The Band (this was partially rectified in the 40th anniversary edition released on Blu-Ray and DVD with two extra hours of performances). The Woodstock film and soundtrack recording were big business and still earn residuals, fueled by the 40th anniversary hullabaloo, which no doubt help to offset huge financial losses for organizers Michael Lang and Artie Kornfeld incurred when the concert became "free." The couple that appeared on the soundtrack cover only stayed one night at Woodstock and were too far away to see the stage, but, according to a recent newspaper article, were later married and are still together. “I know some people say Woodstock changed their life," said the woman in the photo. "But I don't think it contributed to who I am or who my husband is. I think we became the people we would have become anyway.”

New York Times columnist Gale Collins also went to Woodstock and mostly missed the music. "It never occurred to me anybody was going to want to discuss it 40 years down the road," she writes in "To Be Old and in Woodtock." "In fact, the only time I envisioned the concert having any impact on my future was on the way home when I decided all of us were going to die in a massive traffic jam." She spent most of the time looking for food for herself and friends. "Fortunately, it turned out that eight people could live on peanut butter and marshmallow fluff for much longer than you might imagine." But looking backwards, Collins realizes the event's true impact. "The Woodstock-mania must drive young people crazy since it is yet another reminder that the baby-boom generation is never going to stop talking about the stuff it did."

I don't want to puncture the myth of Woodstock because I wasn't there. George Clinton was, and when Ed Ward talked with him 10 years later he had this to say:
Man, don't even talk to me about Woodstock! I was there! Everyone's always saying how Woodstock was the beginning. Hell, no! It was the end! Once was a time, you wanted some weed, you could ask your friend and he'd lay some on you, and you'd pay him back when you had some. But at Woodstock, there were signs: "Weed for sale!" Once, a musician was a cat like you, only he could sing and play better than you — you know, like Bob Dylan — not some god on a stage! Woodstock invented rock stars, man.
Woodstock was the beginning of huge outdoor concerts, high ticket prices, and musicians with egos blown all out of proportion. Few remember that the model for Woodstock was the Monterey International Pop Music Festival, a concert held in June 0f 1967 at the Monterey Fairgrounds featuring performances by Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Otis Redding and the Who. It was organized by record producer Lou Adler and John Phillips of the Mamas and the Papas. Artists performed free with profits going to charity, and a film was produced by famed director D.A. Pennebaker. Numerous live performances were released on records but it was all small potatoes compared to the whale of Woodstock two years later. Fatherhood also caused me to miss the seminal Monterey festival as well as the smaller version that took place at Esalen on the Big Sur coast in September 40 years ago. Artists at that concert the week after Woodstock included Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, John Sebastian of Lovin' Spoonful, The Flying Burrito Brothers and Crosby, Stills & Nash (joined here by Neil Young). "Celebration at Big Sur" was not as successful a film as Wadleigh's "Woodstock," and there were no live recordings from the event. But I talked to many people who attended and they praised the small scale which was rarely to be repeated. I did go to the third version of Monterey Pop a year or so later and recall Joan Baez bringing her infant son on stage, people strolling through the fairgrounds under leafy trees, and a laid-back atmosphere reminiscent of the Newport Folk Festival I attended in 1964. Forty years later, we have the vacuous music scene foretold by Don McLean in "American Pie," when he sang "that music used to make me smile...a long, long time ago." Buddy Holly, the Big Bopper and Ritchie Valens died FIFTY years ago last February 3rd. That was something worth remembering.

Here in Bangkok, I mourn the present rather than the past. Nan left a week ago to take care of her father in Phayao where he was in a hospital dying of alcoholism. But on Mother's Day, she was thrown from a motorbike that collided with a car and broke her right arm and injured her back. I had not heard from her for three days when she finally called on Friday afternoon to tell me the news. The accident put Nan in the same hospital with her father, but unable to look after him. She was released at the weekend to stay with her mother in a village 30 kilometers away, but she has to return for physical therapy every day. Because of the injury to her writing arm, she can send email only with difficulty. To phone from home or send an SMS, she has to climb on the roof of her house, not easy at present. We spoke yesterday but it was hard to hear because of background noise and to understand her English. She said it was not easy to walk. And she discouraged me from visiting because her village is remote and "so far." I have no idea when we can reunite or what the state of our relationship will be. Before and after therapy, she continues to look after her father who was given six weeks to live by his doctor a week ago. The only thing certain is change, and there seems little escaping the solitude. Several friends have urged me to restart a meditation practice but at the moment all I can do is read, watch TV and sleep (though I did venture out of isolation to see "The Hangover" and "Trail of the Panda").

On Friday Jerry invited me to join him for a party on the balcony of John Everingham's house with a spectacular view overlooking the Chao Phraya River. John (left, with Jerry, right, and Scott Murray) is a photographer and publisher from Australia who swam across the Mekong River in the 1970's to freedom in Thailand with his Laotian girlfriend. This exploit was turned into a made-for-TV movie in 1982 called "Love is Forever" with Michael Landon as John. In Bangkok he built up a magazine publishing empire that was recently taken over by unscrupulous investors. So he's started a new enterprise on the internet, and the party was filled with colleagues and contacts. Jerry profiled John as "Hero/Entrepreneur" in Bangkok Babylon. In addition to collecting snakes (which might have been in the basement of the building I visited), John is the father of Ananda Everingham, a well-known actor and model in Thailand, who recently starred in the first official film from Laos, "Good Morning, Luang Prabang." Among the guests was Scott, a Canadian who is executive editor of Phuket Magazine, and who was wearing a hockey shirt which seemed a bit hot even for a Bangkok evening. He told me he's a member of the Flying Farangs, a hockey team of expats in Bangkok, who play games with teams from Abu Dabi, Mongolia, Dubai, Kazakhstan and China. Founded in 1994, the team practices at an ice rink on the outskirts of Bangkok and their shirt is hanging in the Hockey Fall of Fame in Toronto. The proceeds from tickets for their games go to Father Joe Maier's Human Development Center. Sipping a beer on the balcony as the sun went down, I listened to an American writer named Paul talk about the importance of white elephants in Southeast Asia, and explain that the expression "white elephant" came from the expense needed to raise and donate one of the rare animals to royalty who see them as legitimation of their rule. Thailand's king has 11 of them.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Divine Intervention?

Probably not. Watching the news from my former homeland is like beating my head against a wall. It only feels good when I stop. I agree with Bill Maher who was asked by CNN's Wolf Blitzer "if I thought Sarah Palin could get elected president, and I said I hope not, but I wouldn't put anything past this stupid country." Of course the blow back from those who disagreed was hysterical. In a transcription of Maher's response to the response on The Huffington Post, he said: "Until we admit that America can make a mistake, we can't stop the next one. A smart guy named Chesterton once said: 'My country, right or wrong is a thing no patriot would ever think of saying... It is like saying 'My mother, drunk or sober.' To which most Americans would respond: 'Are you calling my mother a drunk?'"

Over on Truthdig, Chris Hedges wrote that "Nader Was Right: Liberals Are Going Nowhere With Obama." I posted his column on my Facebook page, and some of my friends and family disagreed. Hedges, who I think is one of the most perceptive commentators around, points out that
The American empire has not altered under Barack Obama. It kills as brutally and indiscriminately in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan as it did under George W. Bush. It steals from the U.S. treasury to enrich the corporate elite as rapaciously. It will not give us universal health care, abolish the Bush secrecy laws, end torture or “extraordinary rendition,” restore habeas corpus or halt the warrantless wiretapping and monitoring of citizens. It will not push through significant environmental reform, regulate Wall Street or end our relationship with private contractors that provide mercenary armies to fight our imperial wars and produce useless and costly weapons systems.
His conclusion is that liberals should apologize to Ralph Nadar, Cynthia McKinney and the Green Party because they predicted this. They were right. In an interview with Nadar, the prophet pointed out that
This is the third television generation. They have grown up watching screens. They have not gone to rallies. Those are history now. They hear their parents and grandparents talk about marches and rallies. They have little toys and gizmos that they hold in their hands. They have no idea of any public protest or activity. It is a tapestry of passivity.
He didn't say it, but the conclusion can only be that prosperity and technology have driven Americans stupid, and apathetic. Of course there are also the stupid screamers who troop down to the town hall meetings on health care at the direction of the right wing gestapo and shout down any reasoned and intelligent debate over this crucial issue. Obama, like Clinton before him, cannot seem to overturn years of health insurance industry propaganda that any government involvement in health care, lowering costs and increasing coverage, is "socialized medicine." If this were Obama's only failure, perhaps we could cut him some slack. But what really has changed? People continue to die because of Bush's foreign wars, banks and brokers continue to rip off "bailout" funds, Israel is the tail that wags the U.S. dog, and Guantanamo remains open. It's not enough to argue that the wheels of power move slowly. Who is being fooled here?

The book shown above was one of 8,000 on sale aboard the good ship Doulos, a floating library and missionary effort run by Good Books for All (GBA), a German "charity." Thinking I might pick up a few good volumes (the word "Christianity" did not show up in any of the stories I saw), I took a taxi to the Khlong Toey Port yesterday for a first look at the harbor on the Chao Phraya River not far from the Gulf of Thailand. According to publicity, the ship was built in 1914, two years after the ill-fated Titanic, and it did look a bit worn. It claims to be the world’s oldest ocean-going passenger ship, and I believe that. Over the past 30 years, MV ("motor vessel") Doulos has stopped at over 100 countries in Asia, Latin America, Africa, Europe, Australia and the Arabian Peninsula. More than 21 million people have come on board to visit her "famous floating book fair." Before Bangkok, the Doulos had stopped at Sihanoukville, Cambodia, for 12 days. The ship's crew numbers over 300, all apparently fresh-faced young Christian youth from different countries who volunteer for the journey and the opportunity to convert the pagans. Judging by the many Thais loading up on volumes of conservative Christian theology, there are not a few converts in Bangkok. I actually bought a book, a biography of Br. Roger, the founder of Taizé, the only one I could find that didn't threaten hell and damnation.

I'm in a lousy mood today, and not just because the clouds and light pollution of Bangkok made it impossible to see any of the Perseid meteors showering down on the earth last night. After the book fiasco, I went to the Emporium cinema to see "Trail of the Panda," a lovely Disney movie imported from China about a young boy's effort to save a baby panda from capture. (The big news in Thailand for weeks has been about the panda born at Chiang Mai zoo. Over 20 million postcards were submitted suggesting names. The winner was "Lin Bing.") On the way back home I was chewing gum, a rare indulgence, and just after I'd gotten off the SkyTrain at Victory Monument, I bit my tongue. This is not easy since I have so few teeth, but it was a nasty cut and my mouth filled with blood. There was no place to spit, so while waiting for the bus I bought a bottle of water and rinsed, continually. It was the Queen's birthday and a big celebration was taking place at Sanam Luang. On a large TV screen near the monument, I could see fireworks. But by the time my bus arrived and started down Ratchawithi Road, people were leaving and the traffic jam was horrendous, even by Bangkok standards. For an hour I sat on a stationary bus, drinking blood and water and waiting for the traffic to advance. The trip home from the movie took two hours. Today my tongue is fat and sore.

I've avoid reporting recently on the Thai political scene, mostly because I cannot understand it. But next week could be important. The red shirts will submit a petition with four million names on Tuesday to the Palace requesting a pardon for exiled Thaksin Shinawatra from the King. Another petition from Thaksin haters opposes it. Legal suits have been filed on both sides. The rhetoric over these moves is hysterical (Thailand's counterpart to the town hall screamers). Also next week the police "reshuffle" will take place. I'm not completely sure what this is, but it involves promotions and demotions within the national police leadership, and it can be extremely political. The assassination attempt against media mogul and yellow shirt leader Sondhi Limthongkul several months ago is still under investigation and some suspect moves to bloc it as well as potential arrests for the closure of the airport last year by the yellow shirts. And finally there are court decisions on corruption charges which could change the makeup of political alliances. The words "coup" and "violence" are being muttered. The 77-year-old Queen in her annual birthday message said the 82-year-old King is healthy and takes daily walks on the balcony of his palace in Hua Hin. She was accompanied at the celebration by her son, the prince who could become the next king.

But these are not the only reasons for my discontent. When Nan arrived at the hospital in Phayao on Saturday she learned from the doctor that her father probably has only six weeks to live. He is dying of cirrhosis of the liver after a lifetime of heavy drinking. So she made the decision to stay with him and take care of him until the end. She quit her job in Bangkok and will have to give up her room after this month, unless her sister Ann, a university student in Nakhon Pathom, decides to keep it for liasons with her boyfriend. While I understand and admire Nan's desire to be with her father (as of the other day he could not recognize her), it presents a moral dilemma for me I cannot shirk. Despite the disparity in age, I had thought I had found in Nan someone I could love who would take care of me in my retirement. Not only was she affectionate, but she was also a great cook. She cleaned the room, washed and ironed my clothes, and was attentive to my every need. In exchange, I had agreed to pay for her two final years of university. She wanted to study business computers and we were researching different schools. The location would determine where we would move to find both a cheaper and bigger apartment. I'm still waiting to learn when my classes will move to the new MCU campus in Wang Noi near Ayutthaya. Ideally, we would move to the northern suburbs of Bangkok, definitely a new and different experience. But now I have not heard from her for over 24 hours. Mobile phone reception in her village is poor. Maybe she's run out of credit on her phone. I can accept uncertainty, but only up to a point.

Everything is on hold now. Nan's return is tied with her father's death, and I do not want to wish for the death of anyone. A six-week absence (if not more) after a two-and-a-half-month courtship is difficult. With her gone, I'm back to living alone in my room, reading and watching TV, occasionally leaving to teach or meet with my Buddhist group (tonight is the second talk in Phra Pandit's Rains Retreat series at Planet Yoga on Sukhumvit). This is exactly the situation I tried to avoid by finding a girlfriend and I have spent many months looking for the right one. Nan was unashamed of my age, told her friends and family about us, and held hands with me in public. But now she's gone. For how long? At my age, I have little time left to delay gratification. While I still believe the move to Thailand was the right one, I am feeling the stress and dissatisfaction that the Buddha referred to with the Pali word dukha (more popularly translated as "suffering"). There is little question that staying in the world risks dukha, and it would be better in some ways for me to prepare myself for the end and become a monk. But I think the Buddha was mistaken in offering humanity only an escape through renunciation and the joining of a monastic sangha. Certainly life involves suffering because of birth, death and illness. There is no escaping it if you choose to live in the world. Running away from this reality through the numerous distractions available (our modern life is pretty good at inventing them) is a mistake because it increases suffering ultimately rather than relieving it. I don't mind suffering because I've loved Nan who is presently gone from my life. I accept that everything changes. I just need to decide what to do next.

Saturday, August 08, 2009

Politics Turns Ugly in America

A series of town hall meetings around the U.S. during the August Congressional recess have turned into brawls with angry mobs objecting to Obama's proposals for health care reform. The attempts of senators and representatives to explain health care needs and ideas to their constituents at many locations have been drowned out by angry hecklers who have shown up at the meetings in force. Judging by photos and videos, the protesters seem well-off and white, many of them no doubt recipients of Medicare, but none of them among the more than 50 million Americans without adequate health insurance. It is the latest battle in the war of the haves against the have-nots in the world's wealthiest country where the bloated system of health-for-profit is a scandal.

The rage against Obama and "socialist" medicine has been stoked by right-wing radio and TV commentators and supported by contributions from the medical insurance industry. In some ways it's the last gasp of the Republican Party, but what may appear in its place could be worse. The angry mobs carry posters depicting Obama as Hitler or as The Joker. The demagogue Rush Limbaugh has fueled the Nazi charge in his popular broadcasts. Some carry signs identifying themselves as members of The Thomas Jefferson Club, a new right-wing libertarian group that is drawing national attention. Others refer to themselves as "teabaggers," radical conservatives who liken their activities to the Boston Tea Party held by 18th century rebels to protest Britain's rule. I learned from Paul Krugman's "Town Hall Mob," that Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary, "has compared the scenes at health care town halls to the 'Brooks Brothers riot' in 2000 — the demonstration that disrupted the vote count in Miami and arguably helped send George W. Bush to the White House. Portrayed at the time as local protesters, many of the rioters were actually G.O.P. staffers flown in from Washington." Many believe the mob scenes have been staged by radical right front organizations.

Krugman thinks the anti-health care reform brawlers are "probably reacting less to what Mr. Obama is doing, or even to what they’ve heard about what he’s doing, than to who he is." In other words, A black Democrat president. He suggests the "driving force behind the town hall mobs is probably the same cultural and racial anxiety that’s behind the 'birther' movement, which denies Mr. Obama’s citizenship." This lunatic fringe, supported by commentators like Liz Cheney and Lou Dobbs and people behind the "Swift Boat" story that torpedoed John Kerry's candidacy, thinks Obama cannot be president because he was born in Kenya or Indonesia and his Hawaiian birth certificate is a fake (you can see it here, and read about this latest bizarre conspiracy theory). Krugman warns that if Obama partisans do not regain the passion that fueled the initial campaign for health care reform, then this important issue will fail. According to Mark T. Harris, former senior editor for the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations, "it is going to take an extraordinary mass political campaign if the American health care system is ever going to catch up with an industrialized world that has long recognized health care as a public resource similar to education or fire protection."

Here in Thailand, my internet connection is in desperate need of some kind of health care. About 70 percent of my requests to Firefox result in "Page Load Error." After a half dozen tries, I finally loaded "Thailand cracks down on Web users for royal 'slurs," an article from the Christian Science Monitor on efforts to prevent lèse-majesté "crimes" by blocking thousands of sites on the internet which may possibly pose a threat to the monarchy. "At the Ministry of Information and Communications Technology," according to author Simon Montlake, "a 24-hour war room monitors the Internet. A senior official, Aree Jiworarak, says 90 percent of the sites the ministry blocks are outside Thailand, complicating investigations of lèse-majesté." For a couple of months I was unable to look at my online banking page, but currently it's available. Connectivity comes and goes. Is there anyone at the wheel? According to Montlake, "Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, who took power in December after months of paralyzing protests, has said he wants to strike a balance between free speech and respect for the constitutional monarchy. Critics say he has failed and is unwilling to take on conservatives in his administration that are leading the crackdown."

Nan is in Phayao where her father has been hospitalized. She got a midnight call from her aunt and was on a bus early the following morning for the 11-hour trip to her village in the north. Dad has been a heavy drinker for years and this time was throwing up blood before he was rushed to the hospital 30 kilometers away. Even though she was raised by her grandmother because her parents had to live far away for work, Nan sobbed when she heard the news. Her mother divorced him long ago and remarried, and yet Nan stays in touch with her father. For Thais, family ties are sacred and eternal. She's at the hospital right now, trying to talk him into giving up drinking. The doctor told her uncle that he does not have long to live. I remember how my second ex-wife tried unsuccessfully to convince her father to stop drinking. And he was a pilot for Eastern Airlines. After retirement, he continued to hit the bottle in Florida and was taken to the hospital many times after throwing up blood (a sure sign of cirrhosis of the liver) before he died. Alcoholism is an insidious disease. Is it an illness, or a matter of choice? Its shadow has passed over my family.

Pandit Bhikku began his eight-week series of talks on "This is the Way of Wisdom" last Thursday at Planet Yoga in the California Wow exercise complex on Sukhumvit at Soi 23. The mirrored room in the basement was packed with expats and tourists eager to learn more about the teachings of the Buddha. This is the third series of lectures under the auspices of the Little Bang Sangha during the rains retreat period. The first coincided with my arrival in Bangkok two years ago and I've been a friend of the 40-year-old British monk and an active member of the sangha he started ever since. He says the first talk always attracts a number of Thais who want to see "the farang monk," but that attendance will be smaller next week and beyond.

Pandit presented "the way of wisdom" towards the goal of enlightenment as a form of "inlooking" as opposed to "outlooking" which involves an object. He told the crowd that the Buddha first tried the way of concentration, which is like "chaining a wild animal to a post." This method, however, is driven by desire. Next he tried the way of asceticism, but starving himself did not lead to enlightenment. Finally, by sitting down under the Bodhi Tree and watching "the effervescent bubbling of sense data," the Buddha discovered that "nothing has stability" and that "nothing in this world is worth clinging to." If you try to be wise, you are already failing. Then Pandit switched metaphors and said the way of wisdom, conditioning the mind, is like tidying up a messy room. First you throw away what is not useful, and finally you throw away everything. "You can't make yourself wise," he said. "Your job is to keep watching."

And also to stop thinking. "Thinking will get you into trouble," he said. "It can justify anything." But this denigration of thinking troubles me. Planet Yoga was full of thinking people, trying to decide if the speaker's advice was useful to them. You make these decisions by means of thinking, by using reason to choose between alternative choices. I'm not sure how to give up thinking, without having a frontal lobotomy. "Wisdom arises by itself," Pandit says, and all we have to do is stop, watch and see. Watching involves withdrawing the mind from the six senses, which for Buddhists includes the mind. All of this seems very paradoxical to me. Of course, I can't write this blog without thinking. The counsel to "stop thinking" raises thoughts of totalitarianism, a universe of mindless robots, blissed out by choice rather than an alien invasion. I'll have to think more about this. (For more on this talk see Marcus' Journal and Pandit's notes.)

Next Wednesday is the Queen's birthday. It's also Mother's Day in Thailand. And I've just learned that it is also a school holiday, which means that once again my two classes will be canceled. I only taught two days in July due to various cancellations. It's hard enough trying to improve the English of my monks in only three hours a week. But when the schedule is interrupted so frequently, I despair. Still, I love my students. Last week I began the first of two afternoons of interviews, speaking with each student for fifteen minutes about their progress. I returned their midterm exams and went over corrected homework to see where they were having problems. I think they enjoyed the opportunity to talk with their "ajahn" face to face. One student gave me two books on Buddhism, and another brought me two apples (red and green), a piece of cake and a bottle of iced tea. Last term I took photos of each student during the interviews and they can be seen at my Flickr site. They may look alike, but each is an incredible person with unique memories and hopes. Last week I taught them the terms for giving advice, "should" and "must," and their homework assignment is to write a letter to a younger relative making suggestions about how to become a good person.

For my birthday, Nan gave me a case of "Essence of Chicken." She said that it was "good for your brain." Now, I was taught never to look a gift horse in the mouth by my mum. Plus, the gift was given with care and concern for my health. And at the age of 70, I can use all the help possible. So I accepted the gift in the spirit with which it was given and downed a little bottle of the bitter stuff while she watched. It tasted of course like concentrated chicken broth. I mentioned it at our weekly discussion round table and learned that Essence of Chicken is an extremely popular Thai gift, and one that is typically offered to people in the hospital. Once my eyes (and brain) had been opened, I began to see ads for it everywhere, including a huge banner in a Skytrain station. According to the Brands web site, "By increasing your metabolic rate, it helps to relieve fatigue and to restore both your mental alertness and physical energy (within 15 to 30 mins!). It has even been proven to help your body absorb and use vital nutrients like iron. You can be sure of all the benefits you’ve come to expect of BRAND’S® Essence of Chicken, and more! Simply put, BRAND’S® Essence of Chicken is your trusted friend, “For Mind. For Body. For Life.” Brand's products are manufactured by Cerebros, a large diversified corporation in Malaysia. According to one source, the company is run by accountants and lawyers rather than scientists and natural health specialists. Whatever. It's time for my daily swig.