Thursday, January 27, 2011

Let Them Eat Bread

I've been puzzling over this photograph for a week and have yet to learn what the loaves of French bread signify.  There is a sign in French but I can't make it out, and others are in Chinese or Japanese.  The occasion was a gathering a week ago organized by the left-leaning United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (popularly known as the "red shirts") at Ratchaprasong, the heart of the shopping area in Bangkok where a two-month sit-in eight months ago ended with the deaths of over 90 people and perhaps a thousand injured.  Despite a lengthy government investigation, no one has been held accountable and many red shirt leaders remain jailed without charge or trial.  Official gestures toward reconciliation went nowhere and the political divide between Bangkok's ruling elite and the rest of the country that seeks a stake in running things (i.e., democracy) is deeper than ever.

The red shirts are terrific symbologists.  Before the violence last year, demonstrators donated blood and then splashed it on the gates of Government House and on the door of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva's residence.  Vendors sold flip-flops with the faces of opponents printed on them so that walkers could exercise their disgust with the opposition.  The insult was taken so seriously that one vendor was jailed for selling them.  Homemade art at red demonstrations casts aspersions on the true gender of politicians and generals.  It was all very funny until the bombs and shooting began.

I've been trying to get up to speed on the current situation.   Since the ending of a nine-month-long emergency decree last month which curtailed much political activity, the warring factions have taken again to the streets calling for Abhisit's head and new elections.  The red shirts, who fielded perhaps a half million people the first weekend in January and 40,000 a week ago, are promising mass demonstrations weekly until the government resigns.  Agreeing with them on this, if nothing else, is the People's Alliance for Democracy (popularly known as yellow shirts), a radical rightist group that has contributed to the fall of three governments since 2006 and notoriously closed the international airport in 2008 with a sit-in.  They've just begun a sit-in outside Government House with 5,000 people that has closed the street and vow to remain until Abhisit quits.  In the past the chief bone of contention was Thaksin Shinawatra, the deposed and exiled prime minister whose followers form perhaps the core (but not all) of the red shirts.  Now, however, the issue is national sovereignty.  The yellow shirts and their allies, the Thai Patriots Network and the Santi Asoke sect of Buddhist purists are angry that the government won't make Cambodia return to Thailand a tiny sliver of border land that contains the contested Preah Vihear temple, a World Heritage site.  Earlier this month a group of Thais, including a member of Abhisit's party, were arrested by Cambodia for trespassing, but later released.   This only stoked the fires of patriotic outrage.  The military is rattling sabers along the border and has even ordered some expensive submarines, perhaps to make an attack by sea on its neighbor a possibility.   The who scenario is enough to make my head swim.

During the days of April and May 2010, Twitter and Facebook became invaluable tools for following the news in Thailand.  International reporters and foolhardy tourists took to the streets with their smart phones and sent photos and tweets to the followers like me eager for late breaking news but sensible enough to stay out of the danger areas of Bangkok.  It's easy to understand how important Twitter was to the short-lived protests in Iran last year and to the successful overthrow of the government most recently in Tunisia, still ongoing.  Right now there are angry and violent street protests taking place in Lebanon and Egypt and I would not be surprised to see them spread to other autocratic regimes in the Middle East and elsewhere.  Thailand and perhaps even repressive Burma will not escape their fallout.  The fear, of course, is that calls by the people for democracy and freedom from oppressive dictatorships might end in religious fundamentalist regimes.  But, as we've seen in Iran, a people with global awareness through social networking will not accept a curtailment of their liberty in any form.  I feel very hopeful for the future although I fear the birth pangs may be unpleasant.

Another welcome event is the explosion of leaks that are bringing to light many secrets the powerful of the world would not like the people to know.  There are far too many revelations to absorb and I am thankful to the newspaper reporters and bloggers who are selectively exposing and explaining what Julian Assange has wrought with his Wikileaks maneuvers.  I am still waiting to learn more about the leaked diplomatic cables from Thailand that unveil unguarded opinions causing tremors in high places.  But the most scandalous revelations at the moment are contained in the Palestine Papers which put the lie to U.S. neutrality and Israel's negotiations in good faith and show the Abbas government willing to give away almost everything to get practically nothing.  Robert Fisk has a very good analysis.  I would not be surprised to see major street demonstrations soon calling for the overthrow of the present Palestinian government. 

I'm a dedicated Facebook user and an occasional Twitter poster.  Only the technophobic can fail to see their usefulness.  I accept that print media and maybe even bookstores (sigh!) will eventually be replaced by the multiplicity of digital tools and platforms available and to come.  It's a whole new world out there, folks!  And speaking of new technologies, these are the nails Nan had had painted on before our evening dinner at Bayoke Tower last Sunday.  Each fingernail was painted separately by an artist at a booth in the Major shopping center up the street.  It took an hour, and they're quite remarkable.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Giving Thanks

On Saturday, Nan and I paid our respects to Kwan Yin (or Guan Yin), the Buddha of Compassion, at two different temples and gave thanks to her for my safe return.  First we had a vegetarian lunch in Chinatown in keeping with our vow to eat vegetarian once a week, no easy feat for a dedicated omnivore like myself (but the stir frys were tasty). Then we walked down Yaowarat to the Thian Fa Foundation shrine with its 900-year-old image of the female Bodhisattva carved in teak and covered in gold where a group of women in white were chanting while devotees like ourselves lit candles and incense.  The Foundation was established in 1902 by Chinese immigrants to Thailand to provide free medical care to the poor.

From Chinatown we took a bus to Wat Yannawa to pray before the 16.5-ton statue of Kwan Yin made of white jade and flanked by two other figures covered in gold leaf.  First we went inside the temple hall with its numerous shrines and museum of Buddha relics to sit at the feer of a monk who chanted and sprinkled us liberally with water (tapping our heads and shoulders with his whisk).  The water we were holding in small jugs was thus blessed and we poured it into cups and donated it to a bush outside the door.  Before leaving, we said prayers to an enormous statue of Thai's favorite Hindu god, Ganesha, and sat at the feet of three carved wooden statues of Kwan Yin at the other end of the hall.  For the first time I noticed they were all covered in strings of pearls which seem to be the goddess's favorite accessory. 

Afterward, we walked past Wat Yannawa's most famous asset, a giant Chinese junk made out of cement to honor the role of seamen on the Chao Phraya River which flows past the back of the temple.  To cap the day's mission of tamboon, honoring the goddess and making merit, we bought a loaf of bread and some pellets of food to feed the fish which shelter in the protected embrace of the temple pier out of reach of hungry residents and commercial fishermen.  Thai Children and camera-toting tourists slug handfuls of bread and spoonfuls of pellets into the water which churned with hundreds of them, some veritable sea monsters in size (and most of the catfish breed).  One family dumped a small fish off the pier into the river, a most auspicious way of gaining merit by giving back to Mae Nam, Mother of Waters. 

Homecoming was wonderful and it was disorienting.  My last days in Santa Cruz were very intense.  After the long flight home, my feet swelled up and a fog descended over my brain.  Staying in bed was a temptation, so long as Nan was near.  The familiar was strange and the strange was familiar, a desirable goal of Dadaists but unsettling to me nonetheless.  Oh, but I loved the heat!  California's last legacy for was a cold that chilled me to the bone but one natives pretended to ignore.  We set about resuming our routine (although waking at 4 am was not a part of it).  On that first Monday we went to Shabushi, a Japanese buffet at Central Pinklao Mall that features raw food on a circulating trolley that we cook in hot pots at our table (DIY cuisine is a specialty that Thai western restaurants ignore).    We shopped at Tesco Lotus to replenish the depleted refrigerator (Nan ate mostly street food while I was one).  Failing to find ink for my aging Lexmark printer (it was always a step-child), I bought a new Canon to replace it.

My first class at Wangnoi was postponed until Friday because Wednesday was Wan Phra (Monk's Day, the Buddhist sabbath), so I took the opportunity to visit my friend Jerry in Sukhumvit, riding the bus and Skytrain for the first time in three months.  On the way to Jerry's apartment, I stopped at Kinokuniya, the city's largest bookstore in Siam Paragon, and discovered no interesting new books were published in my absence.  It was a beautiful day, and walking down Jerry's soi I saw this new hotel with its uncharacteristically bright colors (though red is the traditional color of Ganesha whose shrine graces the hotel's corner to procure good luck for the owner and guests).  Jerry and I had lots of catching up to do, from family matters to political affairs, as well as sundry computer problems for which I am a consultant (his web browser icon had disappeared causing consternation; resurrected it).  We had an interesting discussion about expats and tolerance that aroused my curiosity.  He related a story about a world traveler he had met that was quite intolerant about the people and places he'd visited.  I thought tolerance came with the territory, when in Rome, etc.  Then I recalled the numerous posts to the Thaivisa internet board which whined with complaints about the Thai way of doing things, from business to love.  It seems as if a majority of expats that post and write letters to the English papers are highly intolerant of the red shirts and their demand for democracy and a stake in running the country.  These farang seem to prefer the elitist Thailand run by the military and the royalists, a situation that cannot last as the red shirts and their conservative yellow shirts (and the new Thai Patriots Network) take to the streets (20-40,000 red shirts gathered in Bangkok yesterday and said they will be back monthly from now until things change).

On Friday I took the 7:30 free bus to Wangnoi and after a delicious breakfast of congee with the other teachers and staff I was greeted like a prodigal son in the Faculty of Humanities office.  The new facilities are very nice and I even have a desk in the faculty office.  Dr. Aphivan had covered for me in my absence and I even got paid 12,000 baht for my time away (she taught double classes).  I will now teach about 30 students every Wednesday morning and afternoon, but for less than the six hours expected because of lunch and the early bus back to Bangkok.  I'll write about my students later, but only want to say now how wonderful it is to be back in the saddle.  Besides Thailand, my students come from Cambodia, Laos, Burma, Vietnam and China, and there is one laywoman among the monks, all of whom are in their 20's.  The room is big, the white board clean (and cleanable unlike the one at Wat Srisudaram), and cooled by air conditioning.

We ended my first week home by taking Nan's friend Aui ("we") to Baiyoke Tower to celebrate her birthday the day before, Nan's birthday earlier this month on the 12th, and my return to Thailand.  The buffet is on the 77th floor of Bangkok's tallest building, considerably higher than any contender, and the lights of the city twinkled below through the haze of the winter season here.  The wide selection of cuisines gave us much to choose from and various entertainers, from clowns to a magician and a troop of drummers playing on kitchen pots and pans, kept the diners amused.  We'd been there before in October to mark my departure and this visit was definitely a happier occasion.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

One World, One Love

Venus, the Morning Star, shines into my apartment window before dawn in Bangkok, Thailand, just as it did from above the garden hermitage where I was living in Santa Cruz, California just a few days ago. One world!  One love!

So far, morning is the best time when the fog of jet lag lifts from my brain enough that I can enjoy the thrill of being a global citizen, leaping the world at a single bound, defying the restrictions of geography.  Never mind that it took 21 travel hours (I lost Sunday) to fly 13,000 miles (with a short pit stop in Tokyo) to get here, into the arms of my wife Nan, back where I started from three months ago.  Pieces of my heart are spread all over.  Despite my initial resistance to the trip, the end result was wonderful: emotional and heart-warming reunions with my two sons and daughter, my former wife, and with dozens of friends who were able to look past my missteps to accept me as I am -- and who can ever ask for more than that? 

Kwan Yin (or Guanyin and other spellings), the female Bodhisattva of compassion, was my companion for the sometimes arduous journey, from the tiny golden amulet that Nan wore around her neck, to the collection of figurines in Annie's house, the hermitage where I stayed and in her garden, and finally to the large statue I gave to Ziggy in thanks for all her efforts on my behalf during my visit.  I presented it to her during lunch at the Thai Noodle Cafe (a modest but superior counterpart to the plethora of Thai eateries in the city) and the owner bowed and paid his respects as he passed our table, and pointed to the large portrait of Kwan Yin on his wall.  In her letters, Nan promised that"God, Buddha and Kwan yin" would protect me.   I bought two used books on her history at Logos before I left town.  Kwan Yin comes out of the Taoist and Buddhist traditions of China but has been also embraced in Thailand where a large statue for her veneration was recently erected at Wat Yannawa in Bangkok, a Chinese flavored temple on the banks of the Chao Phraya River.  We are going there on Saturday to make tamboon and give thanks for my safe return.

Chris, my eldest, came down from Sonoma to see me.  We ate fish at Riva on the wharf and watched a strange mating (?) ritual by sea lions who gathered in large pods on both sides of the pier, floating blissfully together with fins raised in the air.  I suspected it had something to do with a seaweed psychedelic.  An e-commerce VP now at Pottery Barn, Chris is my technology guru and gave me lots of reasons to get an iPad when the new improved models debut in April.  We're now playing a distance-defying Scrabble look-alike app on our hand-held devices, and he's whooping my butt.  Daughter Molly will be in the neighborhood next month when she comes to Bali to develop a clothes-designing business.  She's still driving the blue truck I gave her three and a half years ago and using it as a home away from home.  Nicky, my youngest, is now ensconced in LA where a career in music is poised to take off.  He came to see me with his lady Steff, and we dined on veggie burgers at the retro Saturn Cafe.

Nicky and Molly's mother and I met first by accident at the Octagon where I was communing with the computer one morning and she was delivering cookies.  We got together again a few days later for the first real conversation we've had in at least five years and probably ten when our 24-year marriage ended.  Any reluctance to talk was solely on my part as I nursed grievances for way too long.  I'm now able to see that the years together were perfect for us, as is even our separation which has enabled us to flourish in very different ways.  My trip was worth the price for that epiphany. 

Many of the friends who took care of me on this journey are members of Sangha Shantivanam, the small faith community I helped start over five years ago with Cyprian Consiglio, an inspired monk from the Hermitage in Big Sur who has opened the doors of perception for many with his inter-religious teachings based on the writings of Bede Griffiths in India (whose ashram we visited as a group in January of 2007).  I was able to attend their Sunday gathering, which featured meditation and a discussion of Aldous Huxley's book, The Perennial Philosophy, and I also meditated one noon in the the sangha room of Everyday Dharma where I had been an active participant for a number of years.  I was invited to a meeting of the men's group which once counted me as a member, held at the Santa Cruz Mountains home of Phil who was recovering from a nasty chainsaw accident.  Jim and I explored familiar places in the hills around Boulder Creek, including property where we had once lived which now resembles an unsuccessful meth lab.  Lyle loaned me a bike and I rode all over town on it (though unfortunately the helmet was stolen and I had to borrow Annie's).  I was reunited with the Troxell/Byrd/Wright clan at a party for Virginia's 52nd birthday where Shirlee's great-grandchildren blew out the candles.  One morning, Ernie, a friend from high school, drove up from Salinas in his wheelchair-accommodated van to give Nan and I an extremely generous wedding gift from he and Mark, my oldest friend and roommate at Berkeley  in 1960.  The sole unpleasantness was when I left my passport (including money and credit cards) on the counter in a bank, but it was discovered and kept in the vault until my return the next morning.  Each day in the final two weeks was filled with lunches and dinners and an occasional movie ("The King's Speech" was terrific).  And finally, on my day of departure, I ate breakfast at the Santa Cruz Diner with Gerry and Jim, friends for over 50 years, before driving over the hill on a glorious warm and sunny morning, and up the scenic 280 to the San Francisco International Airport. 

It really is one world, despite the distances which seem to divide us, and it really is one love that I feel in all its many permutations for these people who have meant so much to me in my long and irregular life.  One morning Jim and I walked through the ancient redwoods in Henry Cowell State Park (which is severely challenged by the state's draconian budget cuts along with many other crucial agencies and services).  I spent nearly ten years researching the history of the redwoods for my Ph.d. dissertation, and walking among them was akin to greeting old acquaintances.  At the entrance to the park is a rare Dawn Redwood from China which drops its leaves in winter, unlike its California cousin.  My good friends Jim and Mel are technophobic when it comes to internet communication so I may have to use oceanic snail mail to maintain our connection.  But others are more comfortable with email, Facebook, Twitter and Skype, and it took little convincing from me to persuade them that long distances are a pre-21st century delusion.  We will stay in touch easily, as if I've just moved down the block.

Thomas Wolfe was wrong: you CAN go home again.  And return home.  If the world is one, and love is one, there is no contradiction.  For my farewell dinner, I took Annie to Laili, a new restaurant on Cooper Street in downtown Santa Cruz that features a delicious Afghan cuisine with sauces that turn the pedestrian (chicken, lamb, dumplings) into the marvelous.  It was No. 2 in the recent New York Times story of what to do in Santa Cruz over a 36-hour visit.  There were a couple of earthquakes in the vicinity during my last week but none that caused damage and I didn't feel a thing.  The old building that houses Laili was once the location of a bank that was partially destroyed in the 1989 earthquake.  The insides were gutted and the lovely facade retained.  There's a metaphor there, but I'm not ready to spell it out.

Nan went off to work today in the new uniform which her company requires employees to wear ("mai suai," she says, "not beautiful").  I walked her to the bus stop where a large crowd of commuters, many in school uniforms, waited in the early morning haze.  So much has changed, so much stays the same.  Since this Wednesday is Wan Phra (Monk's Day), my first class teaching English to monks has been moved to Friday.  The baht is down and the dollar is up which means more value for me. I've been greeted as a prodigal son by the laundry lady, the woman who sells me the Bangkok Post in the mornings, a couple of baristas at Starbucks, a clerk at the 24-hour minimart downstairs and several of our building's cleaning ladies.  I've got to catch up on lots of movies: "The Kids Are All Right" this morning followed by "Black Swan" this afternoon.  The internet news is full of the Tunisian revolution which may change the politics of North Africa and the Middle East forever, and also the aftermath of the shooting in Arizona (was mental illness or "a climate of rhetorical violence" to blame?).  Here in Thailand, members of an ultra-right organization are in a Cambodian jail for trespassing across the border they dispute, and their supporters are threatening street demonstrations.  The left-wing red shirts promise another gathering on Jan. 23 (50,000 came out several weeks ago to call for a democracy in Thailand).  It's great to be home.

Friday, January 07, 2011

I Am Sea Lion, Hear Me Roar

They sound like a dog with laryngitis, woof woof, their bark carrying through the early morning air from the seashore to my garden hermitage in the foothills of Santa Cruz more than a mile away.  I can't hear the waves but I can hear the sea lions (distinguished from ordinary seals by that flap of skin that resembles an ear).  This fella (or lady as the case might be) rests under the pier at the end where tourists can get a glimpse of sea life at home.  Others recline on the aptly named "Seal Rock" near Steamer Lane, one of the state's premier surfing spots, and wait for the salmon to run.  Which, I discovered, they're doing now, from December through March.  The San Lorenzo River, which empties into the Pacific on the other side of the Boardwalk amusement park, used to be a prime site for salmon as well as Steelhead to spawn.  But stocks have dwindled in recent years for various reasons, including the seals who wait at the mouth of the river to munch on lunch or dinner, and fishing for humans is restricted now to "catch and release."  No more trophies or gourmet meals.

I don't know whether to identify with the endangered salmon or the sea lions shouting for joy, but I do know that this last week has been a glorious time of reunion with my family and friends.  The rains that drenched the state in December, filling reservoirs and making skiers deliriously happy, have abated and days on the California coast are clear and cool.  Perfect bike riding weather.  Each day I ride down from my temporary home into town to sip cappuccino at Lulu's and clean up a backlog of correspondence and projects on the internet.  My calendar is filled with lunch and dinner appointments.  And yesterday I rode my borrowed bike along the coast to watch the dance of surfers and seagulls and the parade of bikers, skaters, runners and walkers, and not a few mothers pushing strollers along the path above the beach.  The seascape, so familiar after thirty years of living in this place, is breathtaking. 

A week from tomorrow I leave San Francisco for the flight home to Bangkok via Tokyo, and I expect to see my wife Nan again after a three-month separation when she greets me at the airport around midnight.  Two days later I begin teaching again at Mahachula Buddhist University.  Nan and I have spoken via emails, letters, phone calls and Skype, but the distance is still heartbreaking.  I have promised her never to leave like this again.  On this side of the ocean, I have been reunited with my three grown kids.  Nicky and I ate cookies (the Thais just can't bake them like that), and Molly and I met for coffee.  We'll see each other again before I leave.  My eldest son Chris is coming down for a visit this weekend.  And just a little while ago I accidentally met my ex-wife Cici at the coffee house where I am writing this.  This month we mark the tenth year of our separation (both of us are now remarried) and I believe the old wounds are healed.  We made plans to get together again next week.

I will be leaving with my objective partially achieved.  My monthly Social Security income should be reinstated by the first week of next month.  I say "should" because the two clerks I spoke with on three separate visits to the office in Santa Cruz two months ago assured me that it would happen in December.  The clerk I talked to this week, however, said that they had each failed to do the necessary paperwork and that I should receive every agreement in writing.  I have her name and telephone number in case it does not happen.  The question of back payment of income was not resolved.  My faxed appeal from Thailand never made it into the system.  I was told I could begin the process anew, but that it would be difficult to handle from Thailand since a personal interview, not to mention extensive documentation, would be required before a decision would be made.  It also might delay my monthly income.  After a few minutes of thought, I decided to let the whole matter drop, even if I feel justice might ultimately prevail (can you win in a fight against City Hall?)  I'd rather not spend the next year or two engaged in a battle with this U.S. bureaucracy.  As long as I get the income due me from the system, I'm happy.

An old friend recently wrote me that he wished I were "making music, or some kind of art somewhere.  The thirst in your soul might be sated thereby.  All this seeking among the dust and ashes, this quest for some kind of renewal via young flesh, this blame-fulness directed at American culture/society/politics as the source of your discomfort with these days of old age, this ambivalence about the realm of the spirit . . . all these things would fall into some kind of perspective and be less of a torment (if that's the right word -- maybe 'distraction' is better) if you were able to be writing creatively, playing creatively, producing creatively, creating creatively.  Or so it seems to me."  I take his thoughts seriously since we have been friends since junior high school, even though in recent years we have kept in touch only irregularly.  He knows me best now, as do many, from what I write here in this blog.

He remembers when my dream was to play sax and clarinet in Stan Kenton's orchestra. But I ultimately missed the boat on music and art.  In later life I've become kind of a spiritual philosopher, somewhat academically trained, a homegrown intellectual.  But it seems I'd failed to communicate to him the joy of life I feel now in my 72nd year, the happiness I've found in Thailand with Nan and with the monks whom I teach.  And I do see my work in this blog as "creative," even if it reaches only a small audience.  The "thirst" he sees is mostly satisfied and I'm comfortable with a this-worldly spirituality that crosses the bridge between Christianity and Buddhism and pays its respects to the popular piety of believers like my friends at Holy Cross and my wife and her Thai family.  Perhaps I have spent too much time in "blame-fulness" directed at American culture and also at Thai politics.  I hope after this return to blogging that I can praise and celebrate far more than blame.

Thursday, January 06, 2011

Here Comes the Sun

Little darling,
it's been a long, cold, lonely winter.

Little darling,
it feels like years since it's been here.

Here comes the sun,
here comes the sun, and I say
it's alright.

Little darling,
the smiles returning to the faces.
Little darling,
it seems like years since it's been here.

Here comes the sun,
here comes the sun, and I say
it's alright.

Little darling,
I see the ice is slowly melting.
Little darling,
it seems like years since it's been clear.

Here comes the sun,
here comes the sun, and I say
it's alright.

(Thank you, George)

My friends, thank you for your love and support.  Happy New Year to one and all.