Friday, June 24, 2011


Once when I was a hot-headed young man, I kicked a dent in my Volkswagen because it wouldn't start.  It felt good, for a moment.  But then I had many years of looking at it to remind me of the consequences of my temper.  "You've got to do something about that temper," my mother told me after I hit a neighbor boy in the head with a pipe, requiring a few stitches, when he refused to share a toy.  She said it again when I shot my younger brother in the stomach at close range with a BB gun which I thought wasn't loaded.  Frustration arises when the world doesn't work the way you want or expect it to work.  Sometimes this results in anger with awful consequences, and occasionally it produces emotions that harm only yourself.  "Holding on to anger," the Buddha taught, is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else, but you are the one who gets burned." Frustration impels you to pick up the hot coal.

In the election poster above, the candidate looks like I feel when I get frustrated.  Chuvit Kamolvisit is unhappy because politicians can't be trusted and are corrupt, and he offers himself as someone who will be honest. Chuvit boasts that he knows corruption intimately because he used to bribe the police to protect his string of massage parlors.  Frustration, as I experience it, does not lead to running for office. I'm not sure that Nan understands me when I tell her that I am frustrated.  Thais have words for helplessness, irritation, discouragement and disappointment, but not for the more fiery emotion that I call frustration.  And it might have something to do with their less aggressive sense of self.  They do not feel entitled, or stuck on the idea, as my father would put it, that "the world owes you a living."

I get most frustrated by inanimate objects (a kicked dog bites back), and the object of my despair last weekend was a computer program designed by Kobo, an online Canadian company that provides digital books, free and for sale.  A friend told me he bought Tyrell Haberkorn's new book, Revolution Interrupted: Farmers, Students, Law, and Violence in Northern Thailand from Kobo for only $13.  I've purchased ebooks from iBooks and Amazon which has a Kindle app for the iPad.  Kobo looked good.  It had reader apps for both the Mac desktop and the iPhone/iPad, so I downloaded them and they worked fine with a couple of free books that were included.  I set up an account and bought the book.  That was the beginning of my troubles.

For the next two days I struggled to find out how I could read the book I'd bought.  My Kobo account showed clearly that I had purchased the book and that it had been added to my library.  But neither of the Kobo apps I'd installed showed the book. I tried to delete the free books from my Kobo bookshelf in hopes that the paid one would be underneath, but that proved to be impossible.   I sent a couple of annoyed emails off to Kobo which were dutifully acknowledged by a computer which promised a reply soon. Numerous help pages at the Kobo site contained the information "content deleted by owner," not a good sign.  I searched the digital book and Mac forums online and found others had similar problems with Kobo.  As my frustration level rose, my ability to understand possible solutions fell, and it all seemed like gibberish to me.  Finally I resorted to planking on the bed and Nan fled our apartment with a friend for a less gloomy climate.  Over the next two days I learned about Adobe Digital Editions and downloaded the program which was able to read the book from Kobo's .acsm file.  Then I discovered the Bluefire Reader which could open the ADE file on my iPad.  Along the way I also collected Overdrive which will let me order digital books from the library back in Santa Cruz for which I possess a card and borrowing privileges.  Have I mentioned that a week later I've received no response to the half-dozen increasingly angry emails I sent Kobo?  I wasn't willing to pay for a phone call to their headquarters in Canada (and collect calls are impossible as I've discovered from a mobile phone in Thailand). After this, I deleted Kobo's apps from my machines and vowed to never set foot in their online store again.  But I'm cool.

The thing is, I knew that I was experiencing frustration and I could feel the anger bubbling close to the surface.  It was possible for me to watch it and to some extent control its expression.  Now that I no longer own a car, computers are usually the trigger.  I bought a new laptop recently with a more complex trackpad and I make frequent wrong finger moves that take me where I do not want to go.   But I'm too stubborn to buy a wireless mouse and keyboard like my friends.  So I swear a lot at the innocent machine.  Jai yen yen, cautions Nan from nearby when she hears my angry words, which means: "Cool it! (keep a cool heart)."  The opposite, jai ran, a hot heart, is the Thai expression for impatience, a state all too common for farangs.

After I began teaching at Mahachula Buddhist University, I encountered many unexpected situations that caused frustration.  Coming to school one day, I found that a a temple fair was taking place and all classes had been canceled.  No one thought to notify me.  The staff and faculty for the Foreign Languages Department speak limited English and simple requests are arduous.  Anything involving paperwork has been difficult.  Gradually I learned to expect the unexpected and my frustration lessened.  Until this term.  Now I teach at the new Wang Noi campus in an air-conditioned classroom with an excellent sound system and two wireless microphones.  The white board can be cleaned (at the other campus it was permanently gray).  I teach one day a week, two classes of "Listening & Speaking English," one in the morning and one in the afternoon, and am paid for 6 hours of work.

Usually I share students with another teacher who has class 1 while I teach class 2 and vice versa.  This year my partner didn't show up the first two weeks and I taught a combined class in the mornings.  Then I learned that a third class would be added for our students in the late afternoon which had the effect of shortening the morning class to two hours.  As it is, I think 2.5-3 hours a week is not enough to teach my subject.  Anything less is unacceptable.  So I complained, something Thai teachers almost never do (here are a group of them eating lunch).  I felt like a bull in a china shop.  Much discussion and activity took place; a new schedule was drawn up.  I thought everything had been straightened out.  Then the other teacher called a student to ask him to explain to me that I had perhaps misunderstood.  Now he will teach a combined class in the morning and I will have them for the longer afternoon session.  Fine.  Through these negotiations I was watching my frustration level, and noticed that it did not rise to the heights achieved by Kobo.  I think I am making progress.

While I'm on the subject of teaching and frustration, let me speak of the Sound Lab.  Students of English need practicer in pronunciation which can be quite difficult for Asians (just as their languages are almost impossible for Westerners).  When I was hired to teach English to 3rd and 4th year monks, I was happy to learn there was a Sound Lab available.  I soon found that the equipment was old and broken, and the only occasion I used the air-conditioned lab was to give students a final exam.  Imagine my joy when I heard about the new, modern Sound Lab at the Wang Noi campus.  Although it was locked, I looked in the window and saw 50 computer stations along with a large control panel.  I imagined that my students could spend an hour or two a week there and that their pronunciation would dramatically improve.

When I asked my department when the sound lab was open, I was told it was "broken."  Every time I went to the campus I would look longingly through the window at the brand new lab which had never been used.  A friend in the know told me that Thai universities, among other requirements, had to have a sound lab in order to be certified.  But that they work and were used is apparently not necessary.  I took every opportunity when talking with other teachers and administrators to urge that the Sound Lab be "fixed."  Finally, two weeks ago the door was unlocked and I was able to examine the equipment.  I soon realized that it was not being used because the instructions were in English and no one understood them.  I also believe it came with only limited instructional materials, audio and video (and no printed explanation of what or where they are).  Several hours of testing revealed a steep learning curve.  Last week I was unable to get in, so access is a big problem (giving me the key is out of the question).  Next week I was told I can take my class there.  At the very least, I discovered how to connect my iPad to the sound and projection system so I'll be able to show them some videos I found on YouTube.

Frustration is obviously relative.  On a good day, I am not bothered when the universe does not grant my request or recognize my importance.  I don't remember my mood on the day my Volkswagen wouldn't start but imagine that it was bad to begin with.  Sometimes we just need a trigger to release stress on an inanimate object.  Kind of like an earthquake relieves tension along fault lines.   When I get frustrated, I can sense clearly the shape of my ego.  Because I paid $13 to Kobo for a digital book, I deserved their attention.  Of course my upset was justified.  But, as the Buddha said, that hot coal of anger directed at Kobo burned me first, and drove Nan away for the evening.  At school I've learned to put my students first, even though I let my frustration show on the day all the schedule changes were announced, and then changed again.  It gave me a good topic for English conversation for that day: frustration.  At the memorial service last week for my friend Holly Dugan, who died at 71 of cancer, I was able to put my petty frustrations in perspective.  If Holly ever got frustrated with anything other than the idiocy of politicians, it didn't show.  All agreed on her equanimity of temperament.  The monks chanted her passing with passages from the Abhidhamma, we dinned on a sumptuous buffet supper at the Ariyasomvilla Hotel, and reminisced about her life among us.  A few days later, a group of her friends rented a boat and traveled down the Chao Phraya River to a spot that we figured would make a fine last resting place.  Using a plastic coffee cup from McDonalds, and led by her close friend Pandit Bhikku, we scooped out Holly's ashes and spread them on the water.


Anonymous said...

Hot coals in your hands.

Love that teaching from Buddha.

Sam said...

Your blog is obviously therapeutic for the author as well as addictive for the readers.

For what it's worth I think you will find your stress levels significantly lower when you finally retire from teaching, as I have done.

After all, even though I too had teething troubles, I finally mastered Kobo and save on average $2 per ebook now.