Thursday, July 21, 2011

"Saint Peter don't you call me..."

You load sixteen tons, what do you get
Another day older and deeper in debt
Saint Peter don't you call me 'cause I can't go
I owe my soul to the company store
"16 Tons," Tennessee Ernie Ford

The lead up to my 72nd birthday this week was not pretty. A credit firm reported that my total indebtedness, if you count the student loan I co-signed for my daughter some years ago, was close to $40,000. For a mostly retired English teacher with no fixed assets, that's a bundle. One false step, like the payments my daughter missed recently, and your credit is wiped out. Next, an acquaintance of a half dozen years took exception to my political views on Facebook and dissolved our friendship in an email using the most vile terms possible. In addition, the flotilla to support Gaza was blocked, the Borders chain is going belly up leaving 11,000 booksellers out of a job, and Obama appears willing to sacrifice my Social Security in order to get a deal with the crazy Republicans who are hell bound to destroy government as we know it.

The news is not all bad. It's the rainy season in Thailand and Bangkok gets a daily deluge that cools and cleans the air and flushes the urban grime away. I love it. My weekly job teaching English to monks is a delight. Yesterday they sang me a raggedy version of "Happy Birthday" and I showed them the video of Michael Jackson's "Black or White" which contains a shot of some Thai traditional dancers as MJ travels the world promoting racial equality. A crew from the school's Language Institute dropped by the classroom to film the ajahn in action for a promotional video and I was in top form. My son Nicky the drummer continues on a world tour with his partner in music, Hanni El Khateb, and they are currently in Alaska after their second trip to Europe this year. Thailand's first woman prime minister is about to take office, and the International Court of Justice has ordered Thailand and Cambodia to pull back their sabber-rattling armies from around the ancient temple they both claim on the border. My proposal to write a paper on "Big Tent Buddhism" for a conference at my university in December was accepted and I'm finding that research on the differences between Thai and Western Buddhism is a joyful pursuit.

Last weekend was a four-day holiday celebrating Asalha Bucha, which commemorates the Buddha's first sermon, and Khao Phansa, the beginning of the annual three-month "Rains Retreat" which has been described as the Buddhist Lent. Nan and I took our plastic candle holders and joined a few friends at Wat Pathum Wanaram, the large temple between two luxury malls, Siam Paragon and Central World, where with thousands of devotees we walked three times around the complex holding our candles, incense and flowers.

Sasana Buddha, the teachings of the Buddha, pervade everyday life in Thailand. As I've written before, in practice Thai people combine Buddhism (or at least what westerners think it is) with Brahmanism from India and indigenous animism. I still have a string around my wrist tied by a monk at the Big Buddha temple in Pattaya several weeks ago after he'd chanted and sprinkled water on me. So far as I know, the Buddha didn't mention sacred string or baptism. Here you can see the culmination of a ceremony last week in the new restaurant in our building with the monk writing sacred symbols on the wall for good luck below a picture of King Chulalongkorn, Rama V, who is venerated by Thais as a saint (the current monarch is often described by outsiders as "quasi-divine"). These practices, so strange to my Christian Protestant upbringing, fascinate me. Many commentators write them off as superstitions, but I'd prefer to give them the respect that popular piety deserves.

Unlike my friend Dr. Sman, who celebrated his 6th cycle (of 12 years) birthday by renting a room in a restaurant for several hundred guests, I preferred a quieter affair. Nan and I reserved a table by the window at Stella Palace on the 79th floor of Baiyoke Tower, Bangkok's tallest building, and dined on Chinese cuisine at the Caravan Buffet. The rain held off to permit us some awesome views of the city at night far below. My wife gave me a lovely new tie which I sported the next day for the video cameras at school, and at home later she spelled out "72" in candles on the cake we'd picked out earlier in the day at S&P (she had "Happy Birthday Dr. Will" written on the top). It was a lovely day, and the cloud that had preceded it lifted.

Nan's brother Nok came to visit over the holiday from Chiang Rai where he's going to school. I was surprised that he didn't bring his guitar which has always been with him before, until I learned he was on a mission to buy a ukelele. That seemed odd to me, even though I'd witnessed a ukelele competition on the outdoor stage at Siam Paragon six months ago. What would Thais want with Hawaii's iconic instrument? There were none on sale at the two guitar stores in Central Pinklao near where we live. But a friend told Nan she saw some at the new Digital Gateway in Siam, and in the first store we came to Nok found a white one he liked for 23oo baht (about $75, and we paid half). As we walked around the mall afterward, we saw ukes of all sizes and prices on sale at three more stores. Apparently there is a craze for ukeleles in Bangkok at the moment. Who knew?

A couple of weeks ago Nan was called to Lopburi for the funeral of the father of a friend from the office where she used to work. I had dinner that night with Carlos, a journalist from Spain here to cover the election, and arrived home near midnight, about the same time as Nan returned. She and her friend Koi had decided on the way back that they wanted to hear some music, and with a little arm-twisting convinced me to take them to the nightclub near our house where we heard Sek Loso perform a year ago. Inside the club the noise was deafening. There had to be at least 1000 people there, drinking whisky and beer and standing in the aisles dancing. There was no cover charge and I remember the musicians as the house band that went on before Sek Loso. They played a medley of Thai hits and the audience sang along. At some point a comedian told jokes which I could not understand. A fight was broken up near the bathroom. We ordered a tower of beer and Nan and Koi ate a variety of Thai dishes and I nibbled popcorn. We were unusually inactive the next day.

On the eve of Nok's visit, I made my periodic pilgrimage to the Immigration office in the cavernous government building at Chiang Wattana. Expats must report their presence every 90 days and while some complain I've never minded. It's a long journey but there's a cheap van that leaves from my neighborhood, and I take a combination of taxi, Skytrain and bus to come back home. On the day I was there, I came upon this strange scene, a field of people on tables being examined by nurses. I suppose it was a free checkup for government employes. It gives you a concrete perspective on the size of that place.

On the way home I stopped to visit the new Buddhadhasa Indapanno Archives at the north end of Chatuchak Park. It was supposed to be a short walk but I got lost and had to exchange SMS messages with Pandit Bhikku who told me how to ask directions. Two people led by astray and I only stumbled upon the place by accident. But it was worth the digression. Buddhadhasa Bhikku was a reformist monk whose monastery is in Suan Mokh in the south. He wrote extensively and his output is being transferred to the newly constructed archive (which looked very empty when I peeked in the door). He decried superstitious practices and believed that all faiths were one, and he is very popular with educated Buddhists if not the masses. The Archives includes several places to meditate like this one overlooking a lake with pillows that resemble soft stones, both an inside and an outside garden, and there is a large bookstore with a few English translations of his books (the self-service pay system is curious but effective).

A huge weekend market takes place at the south end of Chatuchak Park next to the Mo Chit BTS station. Between the market and the Archives is a wide swath of nature, far bigger than Lumpini Park in the center of the city. The bike paths were filled with cyclists, most of them school kids, and I passed a large enclosed arboretum for butterflies. Since it was a workday, there were not many enjoying the grassy areas beside the large lake, other than a few couples and some artists. It was a rare oasis of silence in the middle of one of the world's noisiest cities.

I can't say I love the idea of aging another year. Only yesterday it seems I celebrated my 70th with Nan, sipping champagne over lunch at a Siam bistro, our future ahead of us. For my 60th birthday, while my former wife went to a nearby dance camp, I traveled up to Glacier Point in Yosemite and had my photo taken with Half Dome in the background. It was used in a book I wrote on the redwoods, The Sempervirens Story, that was published the following year. On my 50th birthday, I had a big party in the backyard of our house in Brookdale with all my Santa Cruz friends. Aging is relentless. How will I celebrate my 75th, or, perish the thought, my 80th? While I don't think there is an actual Saint Peter waiting to call me to the only-poetic pearly gates, I do believe I'm ready to go when the time comes, despite the fact that my life now with Nan is paradise. I'm strangely comforted by the fact that when I'm gone my debt will disappear.

Friday, July 08, 2011

Waking, and Staying Awake

My habit has been to wake each day just as the sky begins to turn. Our bed is level with the window and I have only to open my eyes to see the skyline of Bangkok and occasionally, high above, the morning star. This is the monsoon season in Southeast Asia and the sky is a spectacular canvas for all manner of clouds. Our apartment looks southeast and the sunrises are awe inspiring. I keep my camera by the bed and snap photos of the sky at all times of the day and night. In the last 14 months, I've logged over 200, some even worth posting on Facebook to the invariable oohs and aahs of friends.

Dawn is when I get up and stay up but it's not the first time I've gotten out of bed. There is nothing like an old man's prostate to interrupt sleep. Bangkok never rests and with the window open I can always hear traffic nine floors below over the sound of the fan (which never sleeps). All my life I've been able to fall asleep easily, but after a trip to the toilet in the middle of the night, returning to sleep sometimes remains an illusive goal This is the time for an unwanted check-in with my conscience. Why did I say that? How did that happen? It wasn't my fault! Guilt and regret come swiftly in the darkest hours of the night.

If I believed in karma, I would have to conclude that I must have mismanaged finances terribly in a previous lifetime and am paying for these misdeeds now. Last year a major snafu interrupted my retirement income, and I was forced to rely on part-time teaching, a dwindling savings account, and credit cards to survive before returning to the U.S. where the problem was corrected. Last weekend in Pattaya the hotel politely informed me that my Citibank card had been declined: do you have another? Fortunately, I did. Back home, I soon learned that the rather large line of credit on the card had been completely erased because of a "delinquent" payment on a credit report. Online, I paid Experian $1 for a "free" copy of that report (and had to sign up for a membership that would be billed in 9 days) and learned that I owned a total of $23,425 with payments 60 days past due.

( Pause for stress reduction exercise to avoid heart attack.)

Before moving to Thailand in 2007, I co-signed my daughter's student loan application. We've had a rocky relationship over the years and I wanted her to know I loved and supported her (and what better way to show it than financially?). She didn't provide much information and I didn't ask any questions. Turns out the loan was for $20,000 to attend an alternative healing school. But she didn't complete the course and instead used the loan money for living expenses. My daughter is a dancer and singer and has never had a "normal" job other than waitressing. Believing that loving fathers should respect and affirm their children's decisions, I didn't say anything -- aside from "I assume you're taking care of this" -- and neither did she.

A warning letter from the bank was forwarded to me a month ago and I emailed her a strong request that she take care of the late payments. What I didn't know, apparently, is that the loan had already been labeled "delinquent" and reported to the credit agency which, in turn, informed Citibank who took quick action in squashing my account. I had a long talk with a nice customer service lady in the Citibank "Credit Early Warning" department and learned that it takes a year to clear a delinquency label, even if the loan is being paid, before a credit limit can be restored. I saw on the Experian report that my other credit card companies had automatically received the bad news and fear now that all are in jeopardy.

Credit cards are my life raft in case of disaster. They served me well last year. I pay the minimum monthly balance religiously and have never been late. Although I have Blue Cross/Anthem health insurance which I can use in Thailand (Medicare is denied me overseas), the mostly likely emergency at my age would require medical assistance and I would need a credit card to pay the bill until reimbursed. So the possible loss of credit is daunting, and last week interrupted my sleep patterns. For once I couldn't fall asleep and tossed and turned much of the night (teaching class the next day was a challenge). To her credit, my daughter is trying to correct the mistake and is on the telephone with the loan company and Experian in an attempt to erase the "delinquent" label so that I can beg Citibank to overlook this one lapse. But I fear it will be difficult, and I also worry about the loan monkey on my daughter's back. She's trying to start a clothing business, and the bloomers she designed and had made in Bali are apparently selling like hotcakes. Bad credit and crushing loan payments will make life difficult for her. And there is nothing I can do to help.

Until my credit dries up, I continue to live as if there is no tomorrow. "Be here now" was always good advice. Last Wednesday I discussed the election in Thailand with my students and discovered that all of the Thai monks, if they were allowed to vote (and monks are not), would have cast their ballots for the winners, Pheu Thai and Yingluck Shinawatra. I suspected as much since they all come from poor families outside Bangkok, the ground of support for the Shinawatra family. We talked about the American custom of barbecue, burgers, beer and fireworks on July 4th two days before, and then I played them Tracy Chapman's scathing indictment of the culture of conquest in her song "America." Last week I received an email from a former student who studied with me in my first English class in 2008. After graduation he disrobed and is now an English teacher and translator for the Red Cross in Cambodia. Staying in touch with my students gives me hope.

In August and September I will teach the second half of a course in mass media for graduate students in the linguistics program at MCU, sharing the small class with Dr. Veerakarn. My job is to get them to talk in English for which they already have some proficiency. I've been researching syllabi in mass media and media studies courses to test the waters and to see what academics are now saying about the media. I've grown up with major changes in technology. Back in 1964 when Marshall McLuhan wrote "the medium is the message" in his pathfinding Understanding Media, mass communications were much simpler: newspapers/magazines and the radio were dominant, no mobile phones, no internet, TV still in its infancy (and black & white). Today the global audience is digitally plugged in; even the poor have mobiles and TV dish antennas. When I was a reporter in the 1960's, our paper set in hot type and printed on a huge rotary press in the basement. We wrote stories on manual typewriters. It was the dark ages of communication. A couple of the Thai students in our class appear to be close to my age so they'll understand. But I have much research to do before the class begins.

Be here now. Breathe deeply. Remember that you're retired.

With much fear and trepidation, last week I proposed a paper for a conference on "Buddhist Philosophy and Praxis" at my university in December. It's for a section on "Unifying Buddhist Philosophical Views," and I titled it: "Big Tent" Buddhism: Searching for Common Ground Among Western and Asian "buddhisms." Last year I gathered a pile of material on American Buddhism because what I thought was Buddhism in California seems so different now from the devotional Buddhism followed by most Thais and I wanted to compare and contrast. But in a fit of housekeeping before my trip to the U.S., I threw it all out (along with several thousand old photos I mistakenly deleted from my computer). Just as "Christianity" feels like a false reification of the diversity of "christianities," according to some theologians, I proposed that finding unity in "Buddhism" is illusive, and that some cultural versions differ so greatly from others than they cannot fit into the same tent.

What I quickly learned after a few days online research is that the term "western Buddhism" is in error. What many are calling "Protestant Buddhism," "Modern Buddhism," "Buddhist modernism," "consensus Buddhism," "secular (even atheist) Buddhism," "pragmatic (formerly "hardcore") Buddhism, etc., is NOT solely a western creation. It was co-created for two centuries with Asians who wanted to used Buddhism as a weapon to resist colonization and Christian missionaries. In Thailand and other nearby countries, Buddhism is a key element in nationalism, and is used to affirm the state as well as individual identity. Buddhism as practiced primarily in the west, with its focus on meditation and an absence of ritual, has a very distinct history going back to Sri Lanka at the end of the 19th century, and it continues to be affirmed today by such prominent Asians as the Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hahn, and the late Buddhadasa Bhikku in Thailand (here among the deceased I would also include the influential D.T. Suzuki).

Despite my inability to accept such Buddhist true verities as karma and rebirth, and my attraction to Stephen Batchelor's "Buddhism without beliefs," I find it impossible to ignore the very different Buddhism practiced by my wife and her family as well as millions of other Thais. This devotional Buddhism is a religion more than a philosophy or psychology and it combines elements of local animism and Brahamanism from India along with Jitaka fairy tale stories, Abhidhamma metaphysics and teachings from the Pali canon of scripture. These Buddhists regularly, even daily, visit the thousands of temples in every area of the country, offer food, gifts, flowers, candles and incense to monks and icons to gain merit, receive a blessing, sprinkled water, and a strip white string tied around the wrist. They wear sacred amulets, get holy tattoos and bow in respect to every spirit house, altar and ribbon-wrapped Bo tree. Few of them meditate. But by rejecting ritual and culture "superstitions," do modern Buddhists throw out the baby with the bathwater?

So my task, my desire, is to reconcile, in a "big tent," the everyday full-bodied devotional Buddhism of Thailand with the mental attitudes and practices of Buddhists in the west. No small feat. And I'm not even certain that my paper proposal will be accepted. I should learn later this month and the finished paper is due in October.

Add to the above "to do" list a study of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's book, The Little Prince, which is the topic of discussion at the next BuddhistPsyhos meeting a week from tomorrow. This is one of those "little" books I've had around for ever, always meaning to read but never following through. I finally finished a digital version of it last week. It's been called a Christian allegory so I'm not sure how it speaks to Buddhists. What I learned from online research this week is there are literally hundreds of sites ready to help students write papers about it. They make plagiarism so much more possible. I'm not unhappy to be no longer teaching writing to bored California undergrads.

All this is what I contemplate when I wake up at 3:30 am to pee. When the sun finally joins me I'm very happy.

Monday, July 04, 2011

The People Speak

From this morning's Bangkok Post:

Yingluck Shinawatra

A 'red tide' swept Thailand yesterday and drove the Democrat Party and its coalition partners from power.  In their place steps the woman who is on the verge of becoming Thailand's first female prime minister.

In the end, the near landslide results by the Pheu Thai party was almost anti-climactic. During the six-week campaign, the younger sister of exiled (and fugitive) former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra had been steadily gaining in the polls, despite the opposition's claims that was only a clone and mouthpiece for her much reviled older brother.  She was clearly a phenomenon on her own with a rock star's popularity, surrounded at every stop by adoring crowds and raised cameras.  In the final week, the Democrats, led by Abhisit and his sidekick Suthep, went negative, issuing scary warnings at Bangkok rallies not to vote for the terrorists that burned down the city.  That strategy might have succeeded in the capital where they won 23 out of 33 seats but it clearly failed in the north and northeast provinces which traditionally elect the ruling party.  Pheu Thai won a comfortable majority of 263 seats in Parliament which means they will not have to depend on a shaky coalition government as had Abhisit who came to power with the assist of the military and elites after two Thaksin-backed governments were sacked by court decisions. The primary question Thais have at the moment is: Will the powerful opposition forces abide by the election results and allow Yingluck to govern?

Nan and I spent much of the election weekend in Pattaya: eating, swimming, shopping, hiking, and staying out of the rain.  During the last leg of our journey home, the city bus we were on was involved in a fender bender. So we were forced to lug our bags through Sunday crowds on foot, passing the Pinklao polling place above where votes were being counted after the polls closed at 3 pm.  In our district, the Pheu Thai candidate was narrowly defeated.  Most of the poor who are forced by necessity to work in Bangkok maintain a legal residence in their home province and had to return to vote, which might account for the Democrat success in Pinklao and in the city.  There was clearly a festive air in the streets when news of Yingluck's victory spread.

Pattaya is not everybody's cup of tea, but it is a beachside city a relatively short distance from Bangkok (2-3 hours depending on traffic).   Nan took a memorable two-week trip there with her aunt when she was 14 and wanted to stay in the same place again.  I think not much has changed for the Lek Hotel, an aging outpost for expats and tourists.  Our room was spacious and comfortable and the breakfast buffet (not included) was varied and filling.  There are too many boats and waterskis just offshore for the water to be clean but the beach chairs are comfortable and the views entertaining.  We strolled the waterside boardwalk, threading out way between visitors from Europe, Russia and the Middle East and the food sellers, tour touts,  prostitutes and ladyboys that compete for their business.  Pattaya is a shoppers paradise and we ogled the wares in upscale malls and sidewalk stalls until we found just the right bathing suit for Nan.  She tried it out in the hotel pool.

Besides the sea views and the change of scenery, the main reason we like Pattaya is the food.  Here is the sumptuous repast we shared at King Seafood on Walking Street.  It's the slow season and the pier restaurant was almost empty. Nan had a Mai Tai and I a Margarita before the seafood salad, scallops, shrimp and fish arrived.   We ate slowly, and just as we finished, a mighty wind and pouring rain drove all of the diners inside.   The next night Pattaya was quite subdued as an election ban on alcohol took effect.  The bars were closed and streetwalkers huddled in front of Starbucks.  We enjoyed a drink-less dinner of creole cuisine at Café New Orleans around the corner from a darkened Boyztown.  The loud music from live bands the night before in the two bars next to the Lek was silenced as expats endured the trial by sobriety that occurs every religious holiday and election in Thailand.

The red shirt supporters of Thaksin rallied in the streets of Bangkok last April and May, demanding a new election.  Thaksin and his representatives have been unbeatable at the polls since he was first elected prime minister in 2001.  Those opposed to them have only achieved power by undemocratic methods.  Last year's demonstration ended with over 90 deaths and nearly 2000 injuries; scores of red shirts remain in jail.  No one has been charged or convicted of the worst civil violence in Thailand's history.  Yesterday, as the red shirts finally achieved their objective of a new election, Nan and I hiked up to the "PATTAYA City" sign, a trek not to be attempted by the faint hearted. The city that achieved its fame as a destination for R&R during the Vietnam War looked peaceful and beautiful from the hill above.  From the sign, we hiked through a park designated as "Rotary International Peace City" and up a hill to a temple featuring a big Buddha statue.  A monk was dispensing blessings and we took the opportunity to earn merit with a donation and receive a loop of string for our wrists.