Thursday, December 29, 2011

Coming Up for Air

Listen, are you breathing just a little, and calling it a life?
Mary Oliver, "Ever Tried to Enter the Long Black Branches"

During my years of expatriation, I have celebrated some singular Christmas holidays, from a hotel in Morro Bay in California to a friend's row house in north London and onwards to a Christian ashram in Tamil Nadu, India (twice). Some notable experiences, however, must await my posthumous memoirs to be fully told.  This year the stores in Bangkok marked the end of severe flooding by restocking their depleted shelves and putting up Christmas decorations everywhere.  While the religious touch is missing, Santa and his elves frolic under mammoth artificial trees outside shopping centers here, not so much to lure the tourists, I think, as because Thais love festivity (Valentine's Day and now Halloween are becoming very popular).

What I didn't expect was to be lying in a hospital bed several days before Christmas struggling to breathe.

Not long after Thanksgiving, Nan and I put up the tiny fake tree we bought two years ago and festooned it gaily with ornaments.  But we wouldn't spend the holiday together since she'd been invited to go on a student exchange trip to Brunei for 10 days with other students from her university.  The night before she left I came down with a fever but kept quiet about it.  My chest had been congested for weeks.  In the afternoon I felt progressively worse and took at taxi to Chao Phaya Hospital not far away (for me, a decision of last resort).  The doctor gave me some pills and sent me home.  But I didn't improve and four days later went back.  This time the x-ray showed pneumonia and my oxygen saturation percentage was dangerously low.  I was admitted immediately, given a private room, put on a bronchodilator device, an oxygen tube stuck in my nose, and pumped full of antibiotics and steroids.

Dr. Tanasit recognized the wreck of my lungs from their causes, an asthmatic childhood, several cases of youthful pneumonia, and probably thirty years as a heavy smoker.  Both my father and his brother suffered from emphysema.  A long time ago in California my breathing was tested and I was diagnosed with "impaired lung function."  Since it didn't appear to be progressive, I put off any worries.  The current medication of choice for maintaining airways and preventing acute asthma attacks are glucocorticoids combined with a bronchodilator, and I was prescribed the Advair discus, two puffs a day.  But when I moved to Thailand in 2004, I foolishly stopped taking it because of expense (though much cheaper here, of course) and possible side effects.  I also stopped taking my cholesterol-lowering statins, but that's another story.

My first memory of asthma was being rushed to the hospital in Greensboro when I was six because I couldn't breathe.  Treatment then was an oxygen tent and a nebulizer.  Worse attacks followed and I recall the distinct relief from suffering that a shot of adrenaline (probably epinephrine) would bring.  When it was difficult to breathe, I remember sitting hunched over in a chair struggling to draw air, mom hovering by my side.  It felt shameful to be an asthmatic because it limited my sports activities and I couldn't be like the other kids.  One summer I went to camp and had an attack in the middle of the night.  I still recall clearly dragging myself up the hill to the camp counselor's office, pausing to breathe by every tree.  My father drove up to the camp and brought me home.  Despite this disability, I took up the clarinet when I was 10 and managed to pump enough air through my woodwind instruments to dream of becoming a professional musician.  Once sprays were invented, for many years I took Medihaler-Iso, a bronchodilator that contains isoproterenol sulfate, a drug like epinephrine which overstimulates the heart and simulates an amphetamine high.  One druggy friend of mine was always trying to bum a puff.  For much of my life, though, I could neglect the act of breathing and smoke, snort and swallow dangerous substances with no thought for the future.

Until, that is, I became aware of the centrality of the breath and breathing in many religious practices like meditation, yoga and, in the Christian tradition, contemplation to which I had become attracted.  The goal of some meditative techniques is to silently observe exhalation and inhalation through the nose or from the rising and falling of the stomach without interference.  I could never do that.  No matter how I tried to let go, I always found myself attempting to force each and every breath.  Breathing is one of the few bodily functions that, within limits, can be controlled both consciously and unconsciously.  Meditation remained for me a struggle between conscious intention and blissful release.  I found it easier to count the breaths or recite a mantra but, as mentioned in a recent post, transcendence of any kind from the body proved impossible.

Breathing, the inspiration of air by creatures, the metabolism of oxygen, is one of the central metaphors for life in all cultures and languages.  As I lay in my hospital bed on Christmas Eve, watching James Bond movies on TV while medication designed to keep me alive dripped through the IV line, this was no trivial fact.  Nurses wearing face masks trooped through my room, periodically taking blood pressure (out of sight from the steroids), and measuring temperature under the armpit.  While washing me with a warm cloth, a nurse's aide shyly asked , "You love the King?"  Who was I to quibble?  My blood pressure was unusually high, and a dry cough failed to clear gunk from the plugged bronchial tubes.  At night I sweated buckets and saw LSD colors behind my eyes.  I had no idea if the infection could be stopped, or if I would ever regain full control of my lungs (no thought of abdication now).  Would I be able to teach again?  Was it time to go out to pasture?   Nan was far away and the internet was not cooperative.

Contemplating the possibilities took my breath away, or better, gave me some breathing room.  Air passed into, through, and out of my body (breaking wind, since the medication made it hard to poop).  Oxygen-starved blood can bring death quickly.  The Hebrews pictured God breathing the breath of life, ruach, into clay to make life; the breath returns when the mortal dies.  Sophocles wrote, "A human being is only breath and shadow." No one possesses for long this breath, called pneuma by the Greeks, spiritus by the Romans, and prana in India.  Is this metaphysical quality, beyond its gaseous substance, passive or active?  The Chinese call it qi, the Japanese ki, and French philosopher Henri Bergson named it "elan vital."  Yogis and various Eastern teachers believe we can use and direct this power to achieve remarkable deeds.  Some think that the universality of breathing affirms soul or psyche, while others believe its communal nature erases our personal attributes.  These questions made little sense at the time as I lay in bed on Christmas Eve, remembering Christmases past when I joined with fellow Catholic Christians in Santa Cruz and also in India to celebrate the incarnation of the spirit of God and the promise of goodwill to all on earth.

The doctor discharged me on Christmas morning and I felt reborn.  No one was home when I got back to my apartment but I opened the windows and let the light and air inside.  Foolish as it seems, I felt I had cheated death.  This time I got to keep my breath.  I could sing along with country singer George Strait: "Life's not the breaths you take, but the moments that take your breath away."  Bangkok outside my window seemed paradise.  There were more pills to take and baby steps to walk in recovering my strength, to the 7-11 next door and two days later up to Starbucks.  I've learned that asthma and emphysema now fall under the general heading of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) and that many of my older friends have it (my college roommate died of it earlier this year).  Nan returned to home our great double joy and the phlegm in my chest is gradually loosening, the breaths deepening.  A checkup today showed all chest infection gone.

I once again pay attention to the question above and to the challenge from poet Mary Oliver: "Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life."  And I could not speak of the importance and meaning of air better than she in her wonderful poem "Oxygen":

Everything needs it: bone, muscles, and even,
while it calls the earth its home, the soul.
So the merciful, noisy machine

stands in our house working away in its
lung-like voice.  I hear it as I kneel
before the fire, stirring with a

stick of iron, letting the logs
lie more loosely.  You, in the upstairs room,
are in your usual position, leaning on your

right shoulder which aches
all day.  You are breathing
patiently; it is a

beautiful sound.  It is
your life, which is so close
to my own that I would not know

where to drop the knife of
separation.  And what does this have to do
with love, except

everything?  Now the fire rises
and offers a dozen, singing, deep-red
roses of flame.  Then it settles

to quietude, or maybe gratitude, as it feeds
as we all do, as we must, upon the invisible gift:
our purest, sweet necessity: the air.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Long Live the King

We watched the celebration for King Bhumibol Adulyadej's 84th birthday on television.  It was a slightly muted affair because of the lingering flooding in Thailand that has caused over 600 deaths, driven tens of thousands from their homes, and destroyed crops and factories.  The King traveled in a motorcade from Siriraj Hospital (named for the Queen), where he has lived for over two years, across the Chao Phraya River to the Grand Palace.  The route lined with his cheering subjects was only a block away from our condo and if we'd known earlier we might have gone down to wave flags, and shout "Trong phra charoen!"(Long live the King!), as he passed by.   From a balcony in the Palace, surrounded by his extended family, he read a short speech to hundreds of invited guests in colorful civil service and military uniforms asking them to implement some of the many water projects he has proposed over the years to prevent such flooding.

In the evening, Nan and I went to Sanam Luang, the large parade ground opposite the Palace, to see the festivities up close.  We expected fireworks but they were apparently cancelled to make more funds available for needed flood relief.  The west side of the park, which recently had a full-scale make-over (and now bans over-night sleepovers, upsetting both the homeless and streetwalkers), was lined with booths from each province exhibiting their products and hundreds of food vendors.  The sky was filled with spotlights and dozens of khom loy (candle-lit sky lanterns). We walked to the long wall of the Palace to watch a son et lumiere show celebrating the history of Thailand and the King's life (you can see my video here. Afterwards, we joined the crowd of thousands to listen to performers on a huge stage in the middle of the grass field before walking back home across the bridge.

As is the custom, the King took the occasion of his birthday to pardon prisoners, 26,000 of them.  But this list did not include red shirts jailed for terrorism during the troubles a year and a half ago, nor the growing list of violators of Thailand's harsh lese-majesté law and the similar Computer Crimes Act passed by the military coup junta in 2007.  A few days after the King's birthday, Joe Gordon, a native-born Thai and naturalized American citizen, was sentenced to two and a half years in prison for posting a web link to a Thai translation of the banned biography, The King Never Smiles (written by American journalist Paul Handley and published by Yale University Press).   That this was done while he was living in Colorado made no difference.  When he traveled to Thailand for medical reasons, he was arrested and jailed without bail.  The U.S. Embassy and even Clinton's State Department have raised mild objections.  But Gordon's only hope now is a special pardon from the King which sometimes is granted to those who plead guilty (as he did).  When dissidents are arrested in countries like China, the U.S. is much more vocal.  Human rights groups around the world have called the possibile penalties for lese-majesté of from three to fifteen years "shocking" and unacceptable.

The original lese-majesté law dates from the early 20th century and, while common in other constitutional monarchies, is punished more severely in Thailand than anywhere else.  Critics say it is now being used politically to attack opponents, and some believe it harms the monarchy more than protects it.  David Streckfuss, author of Truth on Trial in Thailand: Defamation, treason, and lese-majesté (Routledge, 2011), says 478 known cases had been submitted to the Thai Criminal Court since the coup, and 397 cases between 2006 and 2009 compared with an average four or five a year in the preceding 15 years.  The conviction rate, Streckfuss says, is currently 94 percent.  Anand Panyarachun, a former premier and senior statesman, agreed with criticism that the law is misused, and said, "The harshness of the penalty should be reviewed."  Last month a 61-year-old grandfather with cancer, got 20 years in prison for sending four text messages to a government official deemed offensive to the Queen, the heaviest sentence ever handed down for a lese-majesté case.  Now called "Uncle SMS" by the Thai media, and protestors who have made him the poster child for the campaign to revoke the law, the man denies sending the text messages and says he doesn't even know how.  He wept in court and said, "I love the King."

It's impossible for a foreign expat to understand the depth of feeling on this issue and risky to speculate.  As a admirer of the red shirt movement and the Pheu Thai party it backed, which was overwhelmingly elected in the last election sending a rebuke to the Democrat party that was supported by the country's elite, I hoped to see significant changes when exiled formed Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra's sister Yingluck took power.  But the new politics looks a lot like the old.  Certainly the disastrous floods threw a monkey wrench into any planned changes, but it doesn't explain Yingluck's current coziness with the military nor her government's ongoing attempt to shut down internet sites and even threaten freedom of expression on Facebook and Twitter.  What's going on?

A major problem with lese-majesté laws is that the details of charges and evidence in favor of them remain secret.  Even questioning a court's decision is against the law. Since the public is unaware of the limits of free speech, all reference to the monarchy must be carefully censored.  If you believe the last two governments, nasty talk and images directed at the monarchy are rampant on the internet. Tens of thousands of web pages have been blocked.  Those who believe the King is universally beloved by his people might puzzle at this.  As a dedicated user of the net, however, I have never seen anything that could be construed as defamation or an insult (which is not to say all references are benign). Perhaps they are only in Thai.  I know of several sources that argue Thailand should become a republic and perhaps this kind of thing is the target of the laws.  The effect of blanket suppression of speech, however, is to make any discussion of the future of Thailand almost impossible.  The succession will be a critical transition for the country and no one is publicly talking about it.  In a Buddhist country where impermanence is a major component of the Buddha's teaching, Thais often act as if the present is forever.

My first memory of the King of Thailand was hearing that he played the clarinet and had jammed with Benny Goodman.  What a cool guy, I thought.  When I first arrived in Thailand, driving into Bangkok from the airport I saw his huge portrait on the side of many buildings.  Since then, I've been in homes in different parts of the country and his picture is everywhere, and not for show either.  Thais appear to respect and revere their King as much as a demi-god. From the 1950's onward, he established himself as the people's king, traveling throughout Thailand to learn of problems and propose solutions.  His proposals have usually had self-sufficiency as their goal and his focus has been on agriculture and the water necessary to grow crops without destroying them in floods (his suggestions too often ignored by governments).  In times of crisis, his intervention has sometimes served to calm opposing sides.  While religion can divide (Thailand's largest minority are Muslims), the reign of King Rama IX for over sixty years has been the touchstone for Thainess, the core of the Thai citizen's sense of identity.  What comes next and his legacy are too important to ignore.

Addendum: Pravit Rojanaphruk has an excellent analysis in today's conservative English daily, The Nation, on how the metaphor of Thailand as a family strengthens resistance to eliminating the lese-majesté laws. "The tradition of obeying the father at all costs has a negative effect," Pravit writes.  "Any doubts or questions from some of the 'children' are treated as something 'incomprehensible"'or even 'horrendous' by their 'siblings'. Severe punishment under the lese-majeste law is therefore a 'sensible' and even 'just' way of dealing with wayward 'children'."  Shawn W. Crispin, writing in Asia Times Online, thinks that "Yingluck's anti-democratic tendencies, in the name of upholding the monarchy, have disenfranchised many of the genuine pro-democracy activists in Thaksin's camp." Crispin thinks increasing use of the lese-majesté laws is because some monarchists want them upheld "in the run-up to what is expected to be a delicate and potentially destabilizing royal succession."  The big question: Is open discussion harmful or helpful?  Who benefits and who loses by preventing free expression?

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

On No Longer Meditating

I began meditating in 1982 and continued the practice, with some gaps, for 25 years.  But when I moved to a Buddhist country in 2007, I stopped.  The confession that I no longer meditate feels shameful and is not easy to make.  It is even more difficult to explain.  I expect disapproval, as if I'd written: "I no longer pray, go to mass or believe in God."  I know that this is disturbing to some friends.  How about: I also no longer exercise, take vitamin supplements, or do yoga, and I've stopped giving money to beggars and petting wild kittens. But I've also never been happier.

This blog post is a rumination on how meditation has lost its luster for me.  If I could say precisely why, the post would have been titled, "Why I No Longer Meditate."  Hence the philosophical underpinning.  I expect to be pitied, especially by some in the expat Buddhist community here in Bangkok for whom meditation is a sacred activity.

Lord knows I tried.  I gave away my zafu and two meditation benches in California before I left because I intended to travel light.  On settling here, I bought a couple of household cushions when I found nothing specially made for meditation.  I should mention that my knees have become increasingly unmanageable of late and I probably could no longer sit on even a bench.  During my first years in Thailand, I attended meditation retreats and talks but usually sat in a chair.  But there is something improper for me about meditating in a chair, though I do remember a meditator with a bad back in California who lay down flat on the floor for her practice.  Form, however, has always been as important as function for me.

My childhood was decidedly Protestant Christian.  I attended vacation bible school and youth camps and had a crush on the minister's daughter.  I devoured science fiction, and, when introduced to the idea that flying saucers might be real, swallowed it whole.  Those were the days when UFO were envisioned as saviors (Jung's last book described them as the metaphor for the scientific age). I encountered the many New Age ramblings of true believers in the 1950s and shared their enthusiasm for seeking esoteric wisdom. But ultimately their often racist views clashed with my passionate support then of the civil rights movement.  Along came the Beats whose writings opened the door to the East for me, the Buddhism of Kerouac and Snyder, and Asian spirituality appealed as an alternative to Christian platitudes.  But I did not try meditation until my secretary at a Hollywood record company initiated me into Transcendental Meditation in the early 1970s.  For weeks after, I recited my mantra and yearned for a bliss that failed to come (nor could I ever levitate as TM devotees claimed).

Life intervened.  In 1982 my second wife was pregnant with my fourth child.  We lived in Connecticut and I worked in Manhattan.  I was 42 and should have been happy, but all that I had was not enough; I wanted more, but I could not say what that would be.  In retrospect, it was a full-blown midlife crisis (the first of many). I began browsing the religion section of bookstores and visiting churches.  I read The Way of the Pilgrim and silently recited the Jesus prayer while riding New York's subway and buses.  At the Integral Yoga store off lower Fifth Avenue I bought a hard round cushion designed for meditating and I read Ram Dass's classic manual of instruction, Journey of Awakening: A Meditator's Guidebook.  At the same time I was also reading St. John of the Cross and imagining that I was entering the "dark night of the soul." On a visit to the New York Zen Center I attended an introductory session with Eido Shamano Roshi and learned how to hold my hands while sitting and walking.  In the early mornings I sat on the floor of the living room of our New England farmhouse and tried to count wordlessly to ten while a three-minute egg timer clicked away in the kitchen.  It took me a years to get to ten without losing my concentration because of the intervention of distracting thoughts.  It was also a long time before I could sit without overwhelming physical and mental discomfort for more than three minutes.

What did I want when I scanned the sky for flying saucers, read about the Great White Brotherhood in Tibet, or sat in a half-lotus position (back in the day!) hoping for satori or at least the cessation of thoughts that might precede an oceanic feeling of bliss (as promised in the books I'd read)?  I was dissatisfied and unhappy, in my 20s as well as in my 40s, and I wanted something else; I wanted to be somebody else.  Finding the secret might do the trick, soothe the discontent.  As a middle-class American, I had never really suffered.  My angst was existential, a gift from my culture.  There were too many choices, and if I failed or was bored, I had no one to blame but myself.  Perhaps everything was a lie and the truth lay elsewhere, in the Himalayas or in the wordless insight of a koan. Religion contains the original conspiracy theories.  Life is a mystery, and maybe Jesus, Moses, Mohammed, Buddha, and Lao-Tzu figured it out (or their followers).  The leader of our flying saucer study group received messages from the UFOs and published them as Wisdom of the Universe.  I wanted a little of that.  And so I labeled myself a "seeker" and set out on a path to find it.  I even tried science, exploring the mysticism of quantum physics in numerous books (my real life tutors included Fred Alan Wolf and Nick Herbert).  Through it all meditation was a constant companion.

I wasn't above mixing and matching disciplines and practices.  Under the influence of the monk Thomas Merton, whose writings revealed a suppressed mystical tradition in the Catholic Church and who also argued for a turn to the East, including meditation, I converted to Catholicism.  I found kindred souls among priests and nuns, even cradle Catholics, who embraced contemplation (another way of describing meditation), and who sometimes found more in common with Asian believers than the conservative Christians they sat next to church.  Rather than seek enlightenment, Christians often want to see God "face to face" beyond words.  The experience might be similar, but the names and description Buddhists, Christians, Hindus and others give to that experience varies according to the seeker's cultural and religious background.  For many, religions are so many fingers pointing at the one moon.

For the last 10 years, I have attended Catholic mass and meditated in countries around the globe, from Mexico to Guatemala and Argentina, and from India to Vietnam, Sri Lanka and Thailand.  I fully expected that my religious practices would continue when I moved permanently to Thailand.  But that did not happen.  My experience with Catholic worship services in Bangkok was not encouraging.  Priests tended to be aging and conservative in a country where Christians are a tiny minority and Catholics have only a historical edge.  In my second month in Bangkok I discovered a Buddhist group just forming for expats and tourists and I took an enthusiastic part in organizing talks and retreats.

At the same time I wanted to understand what Buddhism meant for Thais and to learn their rituals and practices.  The differences sometimes are huge.  For Western Buddhists, meditation is the core of their practice.  They take pains to describe Buddhism as rational and even scientific, a philosophy or psychology more than a religion in the Christian sense.  It is a path they choose to take.  For Thais born into a deeply religious culture, with Brahmanism and Buddhism mixed together with animist beliefs and practices, their religion is all-consuming and unquestioned.  More than the most fundamentalist Christians in the U.S., they take they whole socio-cultural package as truth, the way it is.  Their rituals are primarily devotional transactions involving gifts and donations which result in happiness and protection from harm.  Rather than salvation, the goal is well-being, freedom from suffering.  The Thai Buddhist cosmos includes ghosts, devas and a plethora of spiritual beings to the surprise of most Westerners.  Few Thais meditate.

During my visits to India I was always impressed with popular piety, the faith of the people, even though it superficially resembled the devotional Christianity that would put me off in its fundamentalist form.  In Asia, however, "religion" is an insufficient term to describe the worldview from within.  I have been attracted to this total faith even though I am sure I will never understand it deeply or be able to emulate it.  Still, it seems an alternative to the stripped-down Buddhism of the West with its focus on meditation.  I no longer understand the objectives of this meditation, and perhaps this is one reason why my incentive to practice it has withered away.  I go to the temple with my wife on wan phra days and on special occasions like the King's recent birthday, and we light candles and incense and present token gifts to the monks (necessities purchased in plastic buckets at the supermarket).  During the exchange we receive a blessing, and also offer blessed water to the shrubs outside the hall.  This procedure, as my wife has been taught, makes her happy and she believes it contributes to the merit of both the living and the dead.

So I no longer meditate.  Perhaps it's partly because my aging body cannot observe the proprieties of position, but even more it might be because the experience of thoughtlessness I once sought is no longer my spiritual objective.  Sure, mental reflection prevents stress and calms the mind's incessant preoccupation with self.  But how can you drop the ego while trying to change yourself?  I remember my friend Diana being astounded and then appalled to hear that I wanted to give up my ego in the pursuit of mystical enlightenment.  These days I think her reaction was proper.  Is the meditator a better person because of this experience, kinder and more compassionate?  Much Buddhist teaching (like its Christian counterpart) is about renunciation and the rejection of worldly things.  I am no longer convinced this is a desirable goal, at least for me.  I prefer a loving engagement with the world, one concerned with improving it and helping as much as possible to eleviate the suffering of others (for me teaching has become the tool I can use).  I no longer think of myself as a seeker; this life is it, this is what I've got, so I hope to appreciate and even love it  Much of my previous spiritual seeking came from a desire to change myself, a refusal to accept myself, warts and all.  If I renounce anything it is this fruitless goal.  If I have gotten one central message from the teachings of the Buddha, it is that refusing to accept things as they are only creates suffering.

Meditation today is as accepted as apple pie (to use an American image).  Speaking against it is unforgivable.  I do not want to imply in any way that it's bad, or harmful to health and sanity.  How can you go wrong sitting quietly, alone or together with other meditators?  For me, however, my motivation from the beginning was misguided.   Now I am content to be as I am, without seeking any change.  Rather than disparage or renounce the world, I would rather take a Walt Whitman-like joy in it, celebrating the life cycle eternal.

Monday, November 28, 2011


I had intended to write a rant about my bad experience with Experian, the credit reporting agency that is threatening my fiscal well-being.  But Thanksgiving intervened.

Last year this uniquely American holiday slipped by unobserved, but this year I wanted to introduce Nan to gluttony with gratitude.  We met Jerry at Bully's, the Sukhumvit eatery, after I'd seen a notice that the owner had hired a new chef six months ago.  Two years ago he and I had shared turkey and the trimmings at Bully's together, but last year in my absence the food was awful, Jerry reported.  The tariff was about $25.50 for all you can eat, one of the cheaper holiday buffets in town.  So Jerry agreed to give Bully's one more chance to redeem itself.  We skipped breakfast and Nan was excited about trying lots of new farang food. The feast was, to put it mildly, fantastic.  We arrived at 1 to find an empty restaurant and three tables loaded with freshly prepared traditional cuisine.  Nothing like being first in line.  Other than not seeing the whole, unsliced turkey, everything was perfect: tender turkey and ham servings, mashed potatoes with delicious gravy as well as scalloped potatoes and sweet potatoes covered in marshmallows, excellent stuffing, tender beans and peas, and a table full of cheese, fruit and pies: pumpkin, apple, cherry, pecan and key lime.  We stuffed ourselves, and waddled away from the booth two hours later.

Brother David Steindl-Rast, the doyen of gratitude, author of Gratefulness, the Heart of Prayer and creator of the web site, advises: "Love wholeheartedly, be surprised, give thanks and praise -- then you will discover the fullness of your life."  The realization of good fortune sometimes comes as a surprise if you expect the worst.  Sometimes I deliberately anticipate negative results in order to stave off disappointment, a pretty poor way to find pleasure.  But this year there was nothing to do but give in to gratitude.  I am thankful for so much!  My wife, the light of my twilight life, good companions like Jerry near and far (real and virtual), discovering the vocation of teaching and the joy my students' give me, the constant delight of everyday life in Thailand, good health and happiness, and, let's face it, the ability to chew good food with my real teeth (at least on one side).

I am well aware that the American Thanksgiving story is a myth.  Humorist Jon Stewart says it best: "I celebrated Thanksgiving in an old-fashioned way.  I invited everyone in my neighborhood to my house, we had an enormous feast, and then I killed them and took their land."  My progressive Facebook friends posted numerous links about Thanksgiving from the points of view of native Americans and turkeys (I doubt that tofurkey can be found in Bangkok, Don).  But I realized this week that you can take me out of America but you can't take America out of me.  The idealized memories remain.  During the last few years before I left for Thailand, I spent a number of delightful Thanksgivings with my son Chris and his wife Sandy who prepared a repast worthy of Gourmet Magazine and Martha Stewart.  More than the food, however, was the wonderful feeling I got from being in the bosom of my family (however illusory that might sometimes be).  Loving what once was and might yet be, however, does not negate a realization of the horrors perpetrated on the world by America, from the initial conquest to the current wars conducted by the swaggering bully.  As the radical essayist Linh Din put it, "Americans are for the most parts kind and generous, unlike its murderous government.  I'm claiming that our 99% are mostly fair and decent, unlike the 1% that rule and represent us."

Now comes the rant (I'm grateful for this forum): I treated Jerry to our feast in honor of his 76th birthday earlier this month ("A good number for trombones").  Fortunately, my credit card was accepted.  Several months ago, a Citi credit card I've had for 23 years was declined when I attempted to pay a hotel bill.  Online I learned that my substantial credit limit (I could have charged a new car) had been reduced to the amount currently owed, and on the phone I was told that a credit report from Experian had marked me as "risky."  Although Citi claimed I could see the report for free, Experian wanted $1 and I paid using the endangered card.  I discovered my daughter had missed two payments on her student loan that I'd cosigned and I was in default of the now $22,000 debt (she used it to finance life rather than school, which was a surprise to me). Although she paid the outstanding amount within a month, there was no recovering the lost credit limit.  Then I learned that Experian had been billing the card $14, increasing to $17, each month for their "services."  I had never agreed to that.  When I tried to view a new credit report online, the website program would not work.  I found I could cancel only by calling their number in America, and when I did, was told by the machine that it must be during weekly working hours.  Clearly Experian wanted to make it difficult to cancel something I never knowingly ordered.  Others have shared their experience of this scam with me, one that is engaged in by other "credit reporting agencies" as well.  So I cancelled the card that Experian's report had made no longer useable, meaning they could not collect the ever increasing monthly fee.  Now, every time I use one of my remaining credit cards I fear that the long tentacles of Experian will reach out and take it away.

The Christmas season in Bangkok began long before Thanksgiving.  They've been playing "Jingle Bells" for weeks in the Starbucks I frequent.  Above is the tree outside Terminal 21, the new luxury supermall at the corner of Sukhumvit and Asoke.  Other giant trees are going up outside stores in the shopping district that cater to EuroAmericans who might be culturally Christian.  I took Nan to Terminal 21 after the turkey buffet where we digested our food by strolling through the stores and doing some eye shopping.  Even more impressive than the San Francisco cable car on display or the miniature Golden Gate Bridge (the mall features theme areas for major cities) are the toilets.  I've learned these high tech contraptions are common in Japan now but this is the first I've seen with remote-controlled buttons combining both butt-washing and bidet features (I couldn't understand how to operate the dryer).  Ever been intimidated by a toilet?, asked my friend Ian who visited there several days later.  On Sunday night we put up our tiny artificial tree and inaugurated the seasons for ourselves.  Last year, when I was gone, Nan decorated the tree for her mother and Edward who were visiting.  In America, crazed shoppers are pepper-spraying each other to gain an advantage (imitating Lt. John Pike, the pepper-spraying cop who is currently enjoying his few minutes of fame).  We've not yet discussed our respective gift requests, although I had to throw a wet blanket on Nan's dream of going to Korea to play in the snow (I've lost at least a month's teacher pay because of the flooding).

Speaking of nam tuam (Thai for the flood), thousands are still suffering from the water that remains in suburban areas around Bangkok. One news report hoped they would be dry by New Year's Day.  Nan's sister Ann came to dinner the other night and she showed us photos in her phone of the water outside her condo in Bang Khae.  It's fairly clear now that the governor saved inner Bangkok by building barriers that have kept adjacent areas severely flooded.  In several cases, neighbors have organized to remove the walls that clearly discriminate between those with power and those without.  Thaksin Shinawatra's sister Yingluck is struggling to keep her government afloat and sharks and whales on every side are threatening to attack. Our neighborhood of Pinklao, however, is dry and after a week back home, life is returning to normal for the residents.  Traffic is jammed and the stores are full.  This man will have a hard time unloading boots that are no longer needed.  I'm especially grateful that we were able to leave town before the flooding got serious and could stay comfortably with friends and family until it was safe to return.  Nan went back to school today and in two weeks my university's long-delayed term is scheduled to start.  In the meantime I have my weekend linguistics class to teach.  Life is good.  Hear those words with the passion and gratitude I put into them.

Watermarks from the flooding in Pinklao are everywhere.  Here you can see the flood evidence with our building in the background (we're on the 9th floor of the 22-floor building so our balcony is out of sight).

Sunday, November 20, 2011

A Dry Upcountry Interlude

Green surrounding
Love abounding
You won't find a manhole there
"House in the Country," Blood, Sweat & Tears

Because of widespread flooding around the capital, most Bangkok residents were in no mood to celebrate Loi Krathong, the annual festival of lights on the water. But in northern Thailand, where Nan and I were staying while waiting for the water around our condo to subside, it was a big deal.  There were parades and festivals and contests to see who could launch the most spectacular khom loi (sky lantern).  Even though there are no big rivers in Phayao, the mountainous province where our home in the country is located, villagers launched small krathong (boat), made of palm stalks, folded leaves and covered with flowers and candles, into local irrigation streams in the rice fields.

During my first year in Bangkok, I joined a vast crowd of people (some said over a million) under the Rama VIII bridge on both sides of the Chao Phraya River where they put their krathongs into the water and the candle-lit craft floated downstream, creating an enormous mess for the clean-up crews the following morning. Many used styrofoam as the base rather than the biodegradable palm stalks or bread.  In subsequent years, I preferred to participate under the Pinklao bridge where kids collected 20 baht per boat to float them away from shore.  Colorful krathongs were on sale everywhere in the city and cheap, so there was no incentive to make my own.  Thais, however, learn from a young age how to fold and sew the palm leaves to make intricate patterns, and Nan and her friend Tum made a dozen for their families.

Some believe the celebration is related to Diwali, the Indian festival of lights which takes place at the same time.  It has nothing to do with Buddhism although it occurs on the full moon Wan Phra (monk's day) in the 12th lunar month.  In Nan's village, it began with tamboon at the local temple where Nan's mother brought a basket full of goodies, including slices of banana and sticky rice wrapped in palm leaves, and dedicated them to family members who had died.  The elderly monk read each note accompanying the gifts and was corrected if he skipped or repeated someone's intended blessing.

Festivities had begun a few days earlier, not long after we arrived on the bus from Si Racha after a 14-hour journey that required taking detours around flooded areas.  We made the decision to go north after a week south of Bangkok when it looked like the disaster would continue for some time.  Nan's mother and cousin Edward picked us up at the station in Phayao, the sleepy provincial capital, and gave me a brief tour of the waterfront guest houses and restaurants that look out on an impressively large lake.  The four days of Loi Krathong began with a carnival and beauty contest one evening in a large field in Pong, the county seat.  A dozen villages offered candidates and built colorful illuminated floats for them to ride on.  Here Edward grabs a ride on the float for the princess from Baan Thung Tae, his village.  There were booths selling everything from food (northern sausages) to toys, and I was persuaded to buy Edward a toy AK47 like ones the other kids had.  One stage featured traditional music and dancers and another close by was surrounded mostly by men listening to Thai rock and ogling scantily clad coyote or "itchy ear" (sexually suggestive) dancers.  Something for everyone.

Loi Krathong coincides with the Lanna (northern civilization) festival called Yi Peng.  This tradition includes the launching of khom loi, cloth lanterns set aloft like hot air balloons.  Dozens of lanterns were launched at the evening kick-off festival and villagers, in addition to setting off firecrackers, practiced daily with their homemade khom loi (one crashed flaming into a tree near our house and had to be quickly doused).  In the afternoon of Loi Krathong, everyone returned to the temple for the khom loi contest.  Similar events were taking place in nearby villages and we could see their lanterns floating high in the sky.  Here the emphasis was a size rather than illumination, and each khom loi was the creation of men from different sections of the village. Every launch was spectacular with much cheering from the large crowd.  These giant lanterns featured fireworks that ignited after takeoff and dropped a tail when finished.  Our neighbors across the street won the contest with a giant white lantern that failed to launch two times before achieving success. All afternoon they paraded through the village, playing music from loud speakers atop a truck, drinking whisky and congratulating themselves, while inside the houses people constructed their krathongs.

In the evening we visited several houses where the partying was continuing and collected a number of children with their krathongs.  One thing that struck me repeatedly during our two week's upcountry was the number of children, from newborns to Edward's age of 9 (teenagers seemed absent).  Many of the men in the village are gone, off to work in southern factories or in places overseas like Taiwan.  The children are being raised by mothers and grandmothers.  Sa, the sister of Nan's deceased grandmother, is helping to raise her great-grandson, a 3-year-old named Back whose mother, Ben, works in the bars down south.  I was also fascinated by the children's nicknames which included Big (Back's young uncle), Cham(p), Via and Vue, and Rung's stepson who is named Thaksin. The irrigation ditch where we set our krathongs adrift is behind the temple and fortunately the full moon illuminated our trek through the jungle to get there.  

After the high point came the doldrums.  There is not a lot to do in a rural Thai village and most people, who work hard in the rice and corn fields all day, go to bed not long after sunset.  We decided not to hook our stove up to gas and Nan's mother was quite happy cooking for us with her daughter's help.  She uses gas in the inside kitchen and wood fires outside.  Her cuisine was delicious, the ingredients of fish, pork and chicken along with fresh vegetables purchased locally.  They ate with their hands, combining balls of sticky rice with each serving, but cooked white rice for me and gave me a spoon and knife.  Nan's sister's boyfriend had told them sticky rice gave him gas and they worried about my sensitive digestive system which was unable to handle spicy food.  After trying to correct them, I allowed myself to be pampered.

Aside from a shopping trip to Chiang Kham, the nearest town with a Tesco Lotus, we stayed home.  Nan was content, cooking and visiting old friends, and playing with Edward, the son of her late aunt who is almost our child (he slept with us at night).  I'd brought both my MacBook Pro and iPad but the mobile signal was too weak to provide a reliable internet connection.  So I read novels ("Matterhorn," "M is for Malice," "Great House") and books about linguistics stored in my iPad and took both morning and afternoon naps.  And I watched episodes of "Enlightenment" and the older film "The Wanderers" (recommended by Pandit Bhikku), an eastern version of what I experienced in California in the early 1960s.  We visited Edward's school, which Nan attended as a child, to vote in an election for, I think, governor of Phayao.  Nan checked the box for "none of the above" despite my appeal for her to vote for the Pheu Thai red shirt candidate.  Aside from 15 minutes of English commentary in the morning, all the TV news was in Thai (except for RT -- Russian Today -- which kept me up to date in international news with a Rusky slant, i.e., the Asad regime in Syria is good, the protesters are manipulated by outsiders).

From SMS messages, I learned the start of the undergraduate term at my school had been postponed to Dec. 13, but that the street outside our condo was now dry and Central Pinklao had reopened.  My linguistic students asked me to return and resume our Saturday classes. So we bought tickets on a fancy new VIP bus traveling south.  But before we left, Nan's mom held a going-away ceremony for us, including Nan's brother Nok who had come from school in Chiang Rai for the weekend. It was conducted by a mor kwam, a specialist in the spirits whom I think would be more aptly called a shaman (he'd once been a monk).  The object in the middle which looks like a giant krathong had been constructed by several women in the villages and it included items of clothing from Nan, Nok and I.  We were connected to it, each other and the shaman by string while he chanted.  When he finished, participants tied string around both wrists of the three of us.  All this to say: "Good luck and bon voyage!"

Aside from one morning shower, the weather in Baan Thung Tae was lovely, cool enough to do without a fan or air conditioning.  Much of the time I rejoiced at being in paradise, while occasionally I was bored to tears.  I was too shy to strike out on my own, feeling more like an odd object of curiosity than a new neighbor.  I visited a rice mill but did not see it in operation.  The rice is just turning brown and harvesting has begun in some fields closer to the hills.  Men in the village are cutting thin strips of bamboo to wrap around the bundles of cut rice before they're fed into a machine to remove the brown seeds.  Jerry has learned to stay only 10 days on visits to his Surin farm.  Two weeks is a bit much.  Before I can stay longer I'll need a fast internet connection, a motorbike, and projects (offer English lessons to kids?).

When we got back to Bangkok there were boats outside our condo but no water.  The taxi from Mo Chit bus station only had to make one detour because the way was flooded and let us out within walking distance to our destination.  We saw water marks on buildings and huge piles of uncollected garbage.  The air smelled damp and a bit foul.   Traffic has not yet resumed its manic pace and although the area malls are open there are few shoppers.  The next day I saw people dragging destroyed possessions onto the sidewalk for the time when garbage trucks return.  Nine students out of 21 made it to my Saturday class, and I learned that the temple where the classrooms are located had been flooded for three days before the water retreated.  Looking into the library I could see that all the books had been stacked on upper shelves and remained dry. Nan's university is scheduled to open a week from tomorrow, but I do not know where my undergraduate classes will be held next month.  The flood water remains in Ayutthaya and now raised wooden walkways connect the different buildings at my campus in Wang Noi.  The main classroom building is occupied by refugees.  These people did not have our ability to leave town for an upcountry interlude.

This picture show the entrance to the valley where Baan Thung Tae is located.  In the distance, on the other side of the hills, is Laos and China.

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Evacuation From Bangkok


We didn't plan to leave.  It was the cockroaches that changed my mind.  On Thursday we walked up to Tesco Lotus to take money out of the ATM there and to eat lunch in the food court.  There were large pools of water on each side of the road that weren't there the night before and almost no traffic. Water was bubbling up out of the drains. An alley around the corner from our condo was flooded, and the lady who sells me the Bangkok Post and who lives there looked worried.  Anxious people with backpacks and suitcases were waiting for buses that were few and far between.  Coming up to the pedestrian overpass, I looked down and saw cockroaches scurrying across the sidewalk, lots of them.  People were stepping on them with a crunch and a squish.  I realized in a flash that they were running away from the advancing water.

We'd prepared for the coming flood, buying food at stores where supplies were dwindling and stockpiling bottled water whenever we could find it.  The condo management promised to take care of its residents and employees were busy sandbagging the front of the building and testing water pumps. Nan's friend from her village, the mistress of a Japanese businessman and mother of an infant, lives high up in a luxury condo a block away across from Pata Department Store, and the water there was already waist high.  They were unable to leave.  This, plus the ominously empty streets, the cars parked on the flyover to avoid getting soaked, and finally the cockroaches, freaked me out.  What if the power in our building failed, what if the water were turned off?

At first, experiencing a flood sounded like a lark, an adventure.  But just as I'd visited the red shirt encampment during the extended rally at Ratchaprasong last year but stayed away when the bullets began flying, I was not so sure I wanted to wade in waist-deep flood water mixed with sewage like the people seen nightly on the TV news in the suburbs north of Bangkok.  My university campus in Wang Noi near Ayutthaya was submerged and student dormitories flooded.  A friend's factory, one of tens of thousands, was put out of business by the waters that were slowly moving south towards the Gulf of Thailand with only Bangkok and its ten million residents standing in the way.  The closer the water got, the less adventurous I became.  After seeing the cockroaches fleeing for their lives, who was I to think otherwise?

We packed quickly, trying not to forget anything essential and realizing we had no idea how long we would be gone.  I felt like a traitor as we walked through the lobby with our bags.  The first bus that arrived took us across the river from our neighborhood of Thonburi (which I like to think of as the Brooklyn of Bangkok) and all there appeared normal, aside from the ubiquitous sandbags.  Everything is being done by the Prime Minister and the Governor (who are not often in agreement) to protect the inner city from flooding.  This means that water stays longer behind dykes in the north and is being diverted through the eastern and western (where we live) suburbs.  A lot of people are not happy with this arrangement, including the red shirts who had helped elect PM Yingluck Shinawatra thinking she would reverse Bangkok's centuries-long domination of the provinces.

We were voluntary evacuees, leaving on Thursday at noon, unlike the people in the truck at the top of this post (our building and even our apartment can be seen in the background) which I found on the internet.  A day before I'd taken this photo of the Rimnam restaurant on the banks of the Chao Phraya River, one of our favorite places to eat; it's clearly out of commission.  A friend and colleague from my university elected to remain in his condo not far from mine with his four-year-old son while his wife and an older son stayed on the second floor of her hair salon across the river.  Jerry in Sukhumvit, one of the protected areas (so far), reports that his soi is dry.  Nan and I got off the bus at Victory Monument and got in a van for the two-hour drive to Si Racha, a city in the province of Chonburi southeast of Bangkok and out of the flood zone.

We were welcomed by Nan's cousin Tai.  The mother of a two-year-old daughter named First and eight months pregnant, she lives with her husband Dong in free housing provided by his company, Thai Oil.  They share the small house with her sister and his mother, and his brother has been staying with them since his company in Bang Pa-In was flooded.  Wan, the sister, gave up her bedroom for us, and we shared meals and beer with the family and neighbors in the communal area under the house.  Friday evening we took them to dinner at a seaside restaurant in nearby Bang Saen, a beach favored by Thais which Jerry told me was developed by one of Thailand's biggest gangsters.  I found a gas station market not far away from their house that provided me with the Bangkok Post, cappuccino, and in the evening ice cream sundaes that rivaled Swenson's.  On the way back to Tai's house, we played with a quartet of wild puppies.

On Saturday we took a day trip to Koh Si Chang, a small island off the coast.  Without much of a beach, it hasn't been developed like Koh Samet not far to the east which it resembles.  We hired a tuk tuk for 250 baht on the ferry dock and he found us a restaurant on the bay that served a superb Thai breakfast.  The first stop on our short tour was a Chinese Buddhist temple high up the hill which required considerably climbing to reach a series of caves painted gold and filed with icons.  Nan threw sticks to discover her fortune and pronounced it good (that's a relief).  We paid a boy 10 baht to watch our shoes.  Second stop was the site of a palace planned by King Chulalongkorn but abandoned before it was finished (and the stones removed to Bangkok to build a palace there).  The lovely gardens remain and we sipped cold drinks on the verandah of one of the two houses constructed as temporary royal quarters.  Finally, we were taken over the hill to the one short stretch of sand where dozens of Thais sat under umbrellas eating and drinking while a few children and a couple of farang in bikinis dipped their toes in the ocean.  Back in Si Racha we fed squid to turtles swimming in a large pond in a public park next to the ferry pier.

It was clear that we couldn't stay with Nan's cousin until the water receded in Bangkok, so we checked out the times for buses north and bought tickets to Phayao.  For the time in-between we decided to go to Pattaya, a short distance south, and found a nice room at A.A. Residence on soi 13 for a reasonable price which included free wifi and two swimming pools.  The only language I hear now besides Thai is Russian and most of the signs are in both English and Russian.  The town is packed with people and they don't look like evacuees from Bangkok (I doubt that we do either).  Last night we had a splendid seafood dinner at King and afterwards strolled Walking Street to observe the Halloween madness (just a notch above the usual, with zombie the preferred look).  Today we'll swim and read and not think too much about what we've left behind.

We're really very lucky compared to those who have lost everything in the most widespread and destructive flooding in Thailand's history.  As long as our money holds out (and I'm dipping once again into savings to survive), we'll be ok.  Our house and Nan's family are waiting for us in Phayao.  We're told the weather is cold and will have to find some long-sleeved clothes today in Pattaya.  Everything will be OK in our 9th floor apartment, although if the power goes out the refrigerator will be pretty stinky when it's finally opened.  I think I left the wifi on, but remembered to close the windows.  Nan's university is now scheduled to begin Nov. 15, but it's in the flood zone so that's a long shot.  Wat Srisudaram, where I was scheduled to teach English to linguistics graduate students on Saturdays, is right next to the Bangkoknoi khlong which has overflowed.  I fear that the library on the first floor is now under water. Classes at Wang Noi cannot begin until the campus dries out some time in the future. Being temporarily homeless is kind of exciting, and it also underlines the Buddha's teaching on impermanence.  Nothing lasts.  The video below was shot from in front of our condo, Lumpini Place, and I found it on the internet.  I'm sorry I didn't get a chance to see the flooding up so close and personal, but I'm much less sorry that I'm able to enjoy this sunny dry day in Pattaya.  Next stop: Phayao.