Monday, March 28, 2011

Bus Stop in Bangkok

Bangkok has a bewildering variety of city buses in many colors, some with air-conditioning and some with only windows that usually open and fans which occasionally work.  If the traffic is not too band, they might even stop for you.

Many of the blue, red, orange, pink, white and yellow buses are banged up and well worn while others are brand spanking new.  Like the multicolored taxis on every street in the city, they run on clean natural gas fuel.  The Bangkok Mass Transit Authority (BMTA) operates most of them, but there are also numerous privately-owned buses, with some traveling along the same routes with government buses.  Most of the online descriptions of the bus system I've looked up are out of date (see here, here and here).  Transit Bangkok, however, has an excellent web site with route maps that are useful but could be confusing without previous experience in getting around the city.  Tourists, other than on the Khao San Road-Siam Square routes, avoid Bangkok's buses like the plague and normally I am the only farang on board.

I've made a virtue out of necessity.  My first apartment was within walking distance of the Sukhumvit Sky Train (BTS) elevated line and the BTS, along with the less convenient subway (MRT) and the Chao Phraya River boats, served all my transportation needs.  The boats are scenic and relatively slow, and the trains are high-tech and modern, but none of these means of travel are cheap by Bangkok standards.  The poor ride the bus.  And the geographically challenged.  When I moved three years ago across the river to Pinklao (which I like to think of as the Brooklyn of Bangkok), I had no choice but to learn how to get around by bus. 

My expat friends were of no help.  Bev, who has lived here for most of the last 40 years, told me she never takes the bus.  Like my old friend Jerry, who has lived in Sukhumvit for 18 years, she finds the alternative, taxis, to be cheap and plentiful.  I expect that for them, as well as for most short-time visitors, the buses seem crowded and dirty and the absence of any signs or directions in English make traveling fraught with peril.  I turned to my Thai friends for tutoring, bought a couple of bus maps in Thai and English (they tear easily from use), and researched the numbers on the buses that stopped near my condo on Boromarajajonani Road.  I learned that the orange, air-conditioned 511 would take me all the way past Central World to Sukhumvit and that the 28, which comes in different colors and climates, went to Victory Monument where I could get on the Sky Train.  To get to the temple where I teach not far away, I take the number 40; when I began using that line, the green buses were small with cramped seats, and (so I was told by Thais) dangerous.  Now the green "turtles" have been replaced by roomier orange models.  To get home from school, I take 79 to the stop in front of Pata, the department store several blocks away from where I live, and walk home.  In the mornings, Nan takes any one of a number of buses to the river where she boards a boat to Saphan Taksin near her office.  Sometimes I join her, like this morning when I took the BTS from Saphan Taksin to Bumrungrad Hospital where Jerry has just had a pacemaker installed.

 Riding the Bangkok buses is frequently a challenge.  Traffic is unpredictable, and even though there are usually alternative routes to any destination, often I seem to pick the wrong one.  I've been locked in traffic for over an hour in the same block, and I've been forced to stand in crowded buses for even longer.  There are straps and bars to hold, but the roads can be bumpy and the jerking of stop and go traffic makes standing difficult.  Seats over the wheel well leave little room for a relatively long-limbed farang but sometimes they're the only choice.  Getting into buses is also a problem since the steps are apparently designed for giants.  Disembarking requires a calculated jump.  Getting buses to stop for you is not always easy.  If traffic is heavy, they might race toward the light at the intersection and ignore commuters at my stop who are making the upside down come-hither sign with their hand that is the Thai signal for: Stop!  When a bus does stop, it might be a couple of lanes away which requires you to navigate between taxis and motorbikes to reach the open doors.  Getting the bus to stop is easier.  You push the bell and wait for the doors to whoosh open.  If it stops in the midst of traffic, you take your chances getting to the curb.

I hope this doesn't read like a complaint.  I love traveling around Bangkok by bus and rarely feel inconvenienced by the crowds or the slow traffic.  Thais do not push and shove and usually queue politely (although not in a straight line like the British used to).  I'm more patient now that I have an iPod Touch and can listen to podcasts while I wait.  Many of the bus have been personalized by the drivers with pictures and flowers and even stuffed animals.  Often it seems that the driver and bus conductor are a couple and they bring their children along for the rides.  The air-conditioned buses are usually too chilly and I prefer to ride with the window open so I can see the all the always-intriguing sights of Bangkok and inhale the smells (air pollution has never seemed a big problem to me, after having grown up in Los Angeles where it was worse).

Bus travel is cheap, with most trips less than half the cost of the trains and the river boats.  Some red buses are free, due to a recent government decree designed to win the support of the poor, and others are 7 baht (the dollar is currently worth a little over 30 baht).  The little green buses and now the orange ones are 6.5 baht.  The blue buses with open windows are 8 baht and the air conditioned vary between 10-24 baht depending on the distance.  By comparison, express buses to the airport are 150 baht, the same price as the new elevated train.  Taxis start at 35 baht and on the rare occasions when I use them it costs about 75 baht to get home from events in the center of the city.

I've intended this blog post to be an appreciation of the Bangkok buses and not a guide to their use.  It's a life skill not easily gained by an expat but worth the study and work it takes.  Tourists and residents who live in Sukhumvit or Khao San and restrict their travel to points reached only by boat or train are wearing blinders and miss many of the riches of urban life in this Thai capital. Get on the bus.  It's worth the risk!

Friday, March 18, 2011

America, Land of the Rich and Dumb

"Right now, this afternoon, just 400 Americans -- 400 -- have more wealth than half of all Americans combined," Michael Moore told tens of thousands of demonstrators who were protesting the outlawing of collective bargaining at Wisconsin's capital last week (and this appalling statistic was verified by PolitiFact).  "Four hundred obscenely wealthy individuals, 400 little Mubaraks -- most of whom benefited in some way from the multi-trillion-dollar taxpayer bailout of 2008 -- now have more cash, stock and property than the assets of 155 million Americans combined." 

If I had the patience for it, I could muster statistics to show that the story of America as the "land of the free and the home of the brave" is a myth.  Any reader of Howard Zinn's shocking People's History of the United States knows that.  Its infrastructure is decaying and the much vaunted systems of health care and education are in tatters.  States and cities are going broke.  Ever since Reagan peddled the bromide that markets are self-correcting and regulation is bad, corporations and bankers have profited while poverty and unemployment have risen in tandem.  In order to cut the taxes of the wealthy and reduce the power of the disenfranchised, Reagan and the Republicans set out to effectively destroy the central government (in Grover Norquist's words, to "shrink government to the size where we can drown it in a bathtub").  Under Bush and now his Trojan horse successor, Obama, they have largely succeeded).

Only the Department of Defense continues to be well funded, allowing the U.S to strut the world's stage as the global policeman.  The Pentagon and the corporate capitalists, who profit from weapons production and sales, are hand in glove.  As an expatriate in Thailand, I believe I now have a clearer perspective on how other people and nations interpret Washington's bullying swagger.   They don't like it.  Despite his premature peace prize, Obama has continued many of the abhorred policies of Bush: support for Israel, Guantanamo and torture, and alliances with dictators in the Middle East who are now being challenged by brave freedom fighters while the U.S. frantically plays catch-up. 
I'm not sure why I continue to care.  Since Berkeley in the early 1960s, I've been politically aware and angry.   I've been mad as hell about racism in the south and the testing of nuclear weapons.  While Vietnam was the central cause of my generation (It's called the "American War" over here), I've also protested the policies and actions of "my" government in Chile, Nicaragua, Cuba, Grenada, the Congo, Lebanon, Panama, East Timor, Iran, El Salvador, Haiti and Yugoslavia (to name only a few sites).  America seems to almost always have been on the wrong side of issues of peace and justice, arming and financing enemies of the people, wherever they might be.

But the filthy rich are only 2% of the population. What about the other 98%?  Why aren't the rest of them shouting "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it any more," like the frustrated television anchorman in the film "Network"?  Many Americans are out of work, their savings savaged by the financial meltdown, health care benefits slashed or denied, the schools of their children gutted by desperate cost-saving cuts as local governments go broke (America eats its young).  The youth serve multiple tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan and return home maimed and traumatized.  America has rarely had a very strong left or progressive movement and now their ranks are as depleted as the shrinking unions which supplied much of their muscle in the past.  How many Michael Moores, Amy Goodmans, Chris Hedges, Noam Chomskys and Medea Benjamins does it take to grow and sustain an opposition?  What accounts for the thunderous silence in the U.S. as the know-nothings and fascists take over the political system?

The plain unvarnished fact is that a large number of Americans are just dumb.  They are blind to their own self-interest, fooled into thinking that they are equal to the 400 moguls profiled by Forbes Magazine and might even become one of them some day if their luck turns.  Despite one of the bigger and better education systems in the world (which once was mostly free but now is too expensive for poor students), too many Americans are unforgivably stupid.  They read and believed Ayn Rand that to the victor should go all the spoils, and they bought the Tea Party line that immigrants are the reason they are unemployed and doctors are too expensive.  As long as they have their MTV and "American Idol," their iDevices and juicy gossip about Lindsay Lohan and Charlie Sheen, they don't seem to care about what they're losing, the disappearance of collective bargaining, affordable health care and the impending demise of free public radio. The craziest of them think that Obama is a Muslim (when he may be their greatest ally), abortion is murder and gay marriage is an abomination.  They support Israel because that's where Armaggedon is to take place followed by the second coming of Jesus.  Big government and Islam are the enemies they fear most.  Many of these lunatics are college-educated but their minds are impervious to reality.  Because their minds are made up, to point out facts to them is pointless. 

As Pee Wee Herman used to say, "I know you are but what am I?"  I can imagine this riposte from the radical, mostly Republican, right.  Clearly they are in the ascendancy in America right now.  The few liberals remaining are moving to the center to insure any influence they may have left.  After the conservative sweep in last fall's elections, we have the spectacle of the House Environmental Committee being headed someone who denies global warning.  How much worse can it get before the poor, the young and all the other disenfranchised take to the streets as the oppressed have done and are doing in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen, Libya, Saudi Arabia, and Morocco (there are more places but I don't want this to turn into a geography lesson)?

Some of my oldest and best friends are rich.  Not as well off as the Forbes 400, but they are certainly comfortable in their dotage.  (With my middling Social Security income, Thais believe me to be unusually rich.) They're good Christians and probably listen to Russ Limbaugh and Glenn Beck.  The amazing paradox is that Americans as a whole can be kind and generous, and fill the buckets for relief funds when tragedy strikes different corners of the globe.  Individually however, it's "every man for himself."  There is little compassion for the less well off and any community is either class based or generated by entertainment and sports.  As Paul Krugman recently pointed out, American is divided between liberal relics of the New Deal who advocate social responsibility and those on the right who believe that  "people have a right to keep what they earn, and that taxing them to support others, no matter how needy, amounts to theft. That’s what lies behind the modern right’s fondness for violent rhetoric: many activists on the right really do see taxes and regulation as tyrannical impositions on their liberty." Conservatives, according to George Lakoff in the Huffington Post,  "really want to change the basis of American life, to make America run according to the conservative moral worldview in all areas of life." They believe in individual responsibility alone, not social responsibility, and they don't think government should help its citizens. The model they appreciate is the family with a strict father at its head.  Budget deficits for these authoritarians "are convenient ruses for destroying American democracy and replacing it with conservative rule in all areas of life."

So I end, at this uncertain time while waiting to learn about the consequences of a nuclear meltdown in Japan following a devastating earthquake and tsunami, with the thought that "dumb" and "stupid" are perhaps too strong and even inaccurate to label what might be largely a difference in morality, one advocating social responsibility and the other individual responsibility.  America, since the days of the pioneers, has always been directed by the latter view.  The consequences, as Howard Zinn told us, were enormously destructive for the native peoples as well as the environment.  The world cannot afford to be ruled by cowboys.  It is horribly ironic that Japan, where the United States tested its first atom bombs, should become the graveyard for nuclear power.  Without this obviously dangerous technology, the globe cannot sustain its addiction for electricity, much less oil.  We have to learn to put society first and individual profit and wealth last if we want to survive beyond the next few years.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Life, and Other Alternatives

I find it difficult to accept that life, this life, my life, is an illusion.  Back in the est days, we used to say, "If you think this life is unreal, go stand in front of a speeding bus."  Last week a close friend revealed he has bladder cancer, and I learned that my college roommate has been diagnosed with lung cancer. My former brother-in-law is slowly dying from a degenerative brain disease.   Aging sucks!  But I hesitate to extend that to: Life sucks!  As a friend observed, "Consider the alternative." 

I doubt that anyone would want to read a blog simply entitled "LIFE."  The world is too much with us, all of us, for that to be of much interest.  A fish has no concept of water and air is invisible to us unless someone messes with it.  The Vedic sages in India and philosophers from Plato onward imagined that this "blooming, buzzing confusion" we all experience as life, our lives, is only an illusion, maya, the unreal dream of people in a cave, a view through a glass darkly.  There are lots of reasons for disparaging the information we receive from our senses about the world out there.  Prime among them is the search for certainty, for something, anything, that lasts and will not change.  Since it's not to be found out there in the world where everything changes and dies, then it must be the product of mental reasoning or mystical illumination, for logic and the divine are forever.

I'm wading in murky waters here.  My Christian friends are troubled by my rejection of the doctrines of bodily sin and resurrection, not to mention the very notion that Jesus is God, and my Buddhist acquaintances find questionable my rejection of karma and rebirth.  There is little encouragement here in Bangkok to pursue a Christian practice of ritual and prayer in the absence of a faith community and for some reason I find it more difficult to meditate in this Buddhist country than I did among the unbelievers back in the U.S.  What remains, however is this life I am living, with all its epiphanies and pains, joys and suffering.  Even if it hasn't lived up to my hopes and expectations, I don't want to run away from it into the arms of an imaginary savior.

These thoughts were stimulated by Pandit Bhikku's discussion of samsara on his Little Bang Sangha web site.  His Theravada Buddhist tradition usually says that samsara -- often defined as the endless cycle of birth, suffering, death and rebirth -- is the opposite of nirvana, or enlightenment.  If samsara is a place, then we must escape it to find relief from suffering.  In the Mahayana tradition, samsara and nirvana are sometimes seen as the same since every concept is void of existence.  To make the point that the two Buddhist traditions are compatible, Pandit Bhikku quotes from Theravadan monk Thanissaro Bhikku, abbot of a California monastery, who describes samsara is a process rather than a place.  He calls it "the tendency to keep creating worlds and then moving into them."  He says the literal definition of the Sanskrit term is "wandering on" (other sources say "keeping going," "cycle of continuity," and even "flux of life").  The problem, according to Ajahn Thanissaro, is that the worlds we and others create cause us great suffering, "keep caving in and killing us."  He says that "trying to stop samsara-ing" is like giving up an addiction or an abusive habit. The Buddha discovered the secret, and, "of those who have learned how to break the habit, no one has ever felt tempted to samsara again."

I have a problem with this.  For good reasons, early commentators accused Buddhism of nihilism and saw it as denying life rather than affirming it.  If you take the doctrine of rebirth out of the equation, samarsa can be a positive term to describe life in all of its phases, beautiful as well as ugly, horrifying and terrible as well as awesome and inspiring.  I take for my mentors in this rejection of reincarnation the atheist Buddhist Stephen Batchelor as well as Buddhadasa Bhikku, the Thai reformer who attempted to purge Theravada Buddhism of superstition (moving closer to Mahayana in the process).  In Buddhism as in Christianity, to renounce life in all of its physicality is to argue not that life is an illusion but that it is bad, the root of sin and defilement.  I think there is little question that this was the Buddha's insight, and he chose to turn his back on normal life as a renunciant and the founder of a monastic order of monks.   I have no problem with people choosing this option (some of my best friends are vegetarians, or football fans), but heartily disagree that the primary goal of life for all of us should be to end it or to live it in a radically restricted form.

According to the stories, the Buddha was extraordinarily sensitive to suffering.  He became aware not only of the normal pains associated with childbirth, sickness and death, but also of the psychological suffering we create with our minds as a result of our desires to hold on to pleasure and push away unpleasantness.  But his important realization that every created thing is impermanent led him not to embrace the messiness of life but to reject it.  Why?  The fallacy here is that human beings cannot live with an acceptance of suffering.  But there are many stories and accounts of the enobbling and even transformative power of suffering, for the patient as well as the caregivers. Yes, much can be changed and improved with an awareness of how the mind works.  But is the fact that love ends and people die a reason to reject the world and go into a cloister or monastery?  I think not.

So I reject the alternatives to life in favor of the process of samsara-ing, and I will attempt every day to live in this world as fully and aware as possible, looking for beauty and love as well as opportunities to express kindness and generosity.  This is what makes us human.  The alternatives to accepting our incarnation in these bodies are not satisfying.  To see life as an illusion and to search for Truth in hidden places is frustrating and pointless.  To see life as a snare and a pit from which we must escape leads only to the lonely wisdom of a survivor on a desert island.  I also find unhelpful the scientistic babble of the neo-atheists.  People are drawn to the unseen, just as they are attracted by beauty and love, and I'm learning from Thais to acknowledge the invisible forces and powers that surround us.  As this point I'm still in the kindergarten of a spirituality that draws on Buddhism, Brahmanism from India and the indigenous animism of Southeast Asia.  But I have good teachers and someday I may shed the ingrained skepticism and cynicism that a lifetime of living in the west has left as a legacy.

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Junk Email From The Grave

There is a story of a great spiritual master who was dying, surrounded by his grieving disciples. They cried, “Oh, Master, please don’t leave us.”

He answered, “Where would I go?”

 My son Luke has been gone for over a year now but I still get email from his "coolhand" account on Yahoo.  Instead of describing what it's like on the other side, his emails usually scream things like "Make Happy the Girlfriend!" with offers of pills for erectile dysfunction that I can obtain by clicking on dubious internet links.  Other emails from him offer cut-rate prices on purses and jewelry.  It's not that Luke when alive was averse to this sort of junk.  I know that he obtained Seconal for a suicide attempt from an online pharmacy, and I suspect that he was a regular consumer of internet medication in the months leading up to his death.  The first time I received this junk email, however, was a jolt, but afterward I realized the subject line of "Hi" or some such always exposed the fraud.  Luke was more of a "Yo!" than a "Hi!" kind of a guy.

Friendship on the internet means never having to say goodbye.  There is probably a way to get his Yahoo account taken down but I'm not ready to take that step.  I keep a folder in my Yahoo account with over 150 emails from Luke.  After his death, I did de-friend him on Facebook, but now I regret it.  He still has 87 friends there but I can't join them because there's no one to accept me back.  An ex-girlfriend set up a tribute page on Facebook which has 30 members, most of them high school friends, but I withdrew from there as well.  The woman in whose bed he died continued to post messages there on a monthly basis and they were too painful to read. 

When Shirlee's daughter Kathryn died last year someone managed to cancel her Facebook account after a period of virtual mourning during which friends posted tributes to her wall.  I'm reluctant to do that for Luke while friends continue to visit his page, even though I can't see what they're saying.  Who has the authority to dispose of the dead on the internet?  Luke's mother and I have spoken only once in years and that was when she asked me to send her $1,000 to pay half the cremation fee (I'm still doubtful that it cost that much but it wasn't the time to bargain).  Would she have to give permission for Facebook to put his page to rest?  Would we have to fax Luke's birth certificate as well as our marriage and divorce papers to prove we have the authority to erase his online presence?  I suspect this is new legal territory.

When my close friend Peter died I kept his emails to me for a few years before finally letting them go.  It is so strange to read words from the dead as fresh and alive as if they were just emailed.  When I heard last week that my old friend Bob Chorus had died of pancreatic cancer I turned to the email exchange we had a year ago before he got the diagnosis.  We met in the 1970s when I was a press agent in Hollywood and he was a music writer.  I really liked his wry sense of humor.  He used to buy an old clunker for $50 or less and when it stopped running he would abandon it and buy another.  He claimed it was the cheapest way to drive.  When my boys were small, we took them camping, in the backyard of Bob's rural cabin.  What particularly interested me was his later career.  He wrote that after
I left the music business, I got a job as an ambulance attendant, then a firefighter, owned a health food store, drove an airport bus in Vancouver, guarded parking lots, worked as a community mental health worker, had a little alley garage, farmed dope, then became interested in animal rights so used my ill-begotten loot to open an animal rights store in Vancouver, then eased into non-profits. I lived in Canada for 15 years (I'm a dual Cdn/US citizen). I swore I'd never move back to the states since Canada is so much nicer, but so much for swearing. I left the music business because I was tired of selling records. I still wanted to write but realized that I didn't have any experience so I didn't have much to write about. By the way, being a fire fighter is really a good job - people are always really happy when you show up for work. The only job I ever had that I preferred was picking navel oranges on Crete. That was spectacular. Working for Rolling Stone is right near the bottom of jobs I've done.
What he finally became, from Seattle 1999 onward, was a prominent animal rights activist, campaigning for the endangered with verve and wit.  He would dress up as a turtle or a chicken to campaign against abuse, or strip naked to protest the wearing of fur coats.  You can still read his blog (will this one outlast my demise?).  When he was diagnosed with terminal cancer last September, he wrote about it at AltDaily where he had a regular column. "I will probably be devoting much of my remaining time to traveling, seeing friends, tidying stuff up and running up my credit cards. I’m quite accepting of this diagnosis and am refusing any further medical care except for pain management. If lucky, I’ll have a couple of good months and a hell of a send-off." The story at the beginning of this blog was taken from Bob's final column in which he concluded: "I have had a really interesting life. I have no regrets and no bucket list, since I’ve done more in and with my life than I’d ever expected. My to-do list is done." We corresponded about our cancer situation and his decision to give it up without a fight, and he wrote to me:
Did you have people pestering you to get care for your prostate cancer? My two stepsisters and some other folks have been bombarding me with names of doctors and hospitals and seers and supplements. They somehow seem to feel that it is worth abandoning all your beliefs to gain a little bit extra time on Earth. I know they mean well but I'd prefer that they respect my wishes.
Bob died Jan. 2 in Virginia.   His Facebook page lives on.  And his partner, Pat Hull Vedomske, has put up a selection of photos which should be publicly accessible. 

Life after death makes little sense to me, and that includes the Buddhist notion of reincarnation which I find incoherent without a self that can be reborn (and it's the Buddha's explanation of mind and the absence of an eternal self that I find most persuasive).  But humans have been ritually burying or burning their dead since the dawn of time.  Is this a category mistake, or does it point to some enduring truth that makes no rational sense?  Here in Asia, respect for the dead is endemic, a cultural given.  They are on the other side, wanting to communicate if we can only figure out the means to transcend the barrier.  For me, however, my parents, my son Luke, and my friends Peter and Bob, are gone.  They are no longer evolving somewhere else.  They live on in the memories of those still alive.  And now, in this Age of the Internet, they will live on forever in digital bytes on Facebook and on enumerable web pages as well as in the photographs that will never fade.