Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The State of My Studies

I had an epiphany of sorts Monday morning while falling asleep during a conference lecture about the state of Buddhist studies that I had anticipated would be fascinating.  The problem was not the speaker's, who is a world authority on Pali and Sanskrit texts, but mine.  His talk and the beginning of the next, by a woman from the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, bored me.  It seemed to be all about how many Buddhas can dance on the head of a pin, and I never cared for that kind of Christian theological nit picking when the subject was angels.  So I got up and left, less than two hours after the conference had begun.

"Know thyself," advised Socrates, and I've tried, lord I've tried.  But now in my seventh decade and running out of time, I am still a mystery to me.

One thing I've learned about myself is that I'm obsessive.  Once I get an idea in my head, I'm like a dog with a bone.  And earlier this year, after serving for the second time as secretary for an academic panel at an international Buddhist conference, I decided I wanted to be the bride and not the bridesmaid.  So I submitted a proposal for a paper on Buddhism to deliver at a conference in December and it was accepted.  I immediately dove into the research and collected a mountain of books and articles on the subject (metaphorically speaking, since almost everything is digital now).  It absorbed much of my free time.  Though I have a doctorate, I've had little experience giving papers, so I worried about it being good enough.  Increasingly I became distracted and temperamental.  Since I couldn't neglect my teaching, with classes now twice a week, the impact of my preoccupation and obsessiveness fell on my patient wife Nan.

Farang seem culturally predisposed to jai raan (a hot heart), the Thai term for impatience and upset.  This could be anything that upsets the delicate balance of the Thai social apple cart.  Advice offered to the worried and/or angry westerner is usually to cultivate jai yen (a cool heart) or, almost as often, to opine: "You think too much."  It's true, and I can often watch it happening through Nan's eyes, that volcano of emotion triggered in me by obsession, compulsiveness, frustration, concern and reaction.  I've written about this before, and I'm sure it's true for most of my expat friends, although many continue to blame the match rather than the fuel.

Loss of control is a convenient trigger.  The more time my obsessions require, the less wiggle room or down time I allow myself, and I get pissed at the noose I've tied.  The knot should be easy to undo if we've tied it ourself, but sometimes that doesn't work.  The trick is to see the connection.  This morning provided a great example:  I went down to buy a newspaper and forgot my key.  This is the first time that's happened in three years of living in this building.  Nan had just left for school.  I had money but no phone.  My first reaction, at the prospect of waiting eight hours for Nan to return, was shock.  But this loss of control didn't produce upset.  Shock was followed by laughter at the absurdity of the situation I'd created with my absent mind.  This was replaced by ingenuity:  I went to the office, communicated my problem, and a locksmith was quickly summoned who opened the door in a couple of minutes for about $13.50 (an outrageous fee here).

Last weekend, with yet another financial Sword of Damocles hanging over my head this month, Nan and I traveled to Pranburi on the coast south of Hua Hin in a car owned by her sister's boyfriend.  Surin speaks only a little English and his pronunciation is not easy to understand.  The original plan had been to go down Friday and spend two nights there since Nan and I needed to be home Sunday night.  But when Ann changed the days without telling us, and when I said one night was not enough, Nan felt caught in the middle and required some consoling.  So we stayed the one night and had to return to Bangkok by van.  The uncertainties and changes were a recipe for loss of control and I drifted in an out of jai raa, making both me and my wife unhappy.

Thais are much more accepting of disruptions in plans and the absence of control in a situation.  Loss of face (for example, by arguing passionately about something) is assiduously avoided.  I wanted Surin to know that it wasn't my fault that he had to pay for another night in the hotel room that we wouldn't use. At some point during the trip I told Nan that she was a person who lived by "faith" rather than reason, a low blow.  She, however, heard the word as "fake," and a little later told me with tears in her eyes that she was NOT a "fake person."  That required some unscrambling, and it also let me see how the carelessness of my words, particularly in this cross-cultural situation, can cause hurt.

So what does all this have to do with my epiphany during the boring conference lecture?  It was the realization that I have neither the time nor inclination to be the scholar at this late date in my career and play the game which my professor friend at the conference called "bullshit." Another scholar there said an expert in the field of Southeast Asian Buddhism had called a book I found stimulating "no good."  Such intellectual condemnation is commonplace in a profession where competition for right ideas can be cut-throat.  I remain curious about many things, not the least of them Thai Buddhism and its morphed twin in the west, but know now that I have neither the background nor the drive to explore a comparison in depth.  When I was 17 and recovering from a serious car accident, I sold my clarinet and alto sax after realizing that I would never become as good a musician as I wanted to be.  That goes for academia these days, although it's the accident of age that has prompted this reflection.  Now, with that mound of research material set aside, I might again find pleasure in reading novels, watching movies and snuggling with my wife.

We enjoyed our short trip to Pranburi.  The high point was eating, for Surin is very knowledgeable about the best restaurants where you can find the freshest fish and the tastiest cuisine.  We had an incredible lunch on Saturday in Cha-Am on the wharf beside the fishing fleet while a group of customers watched Muay Thai boxing on TV.  Dinner was at a place on the beach in Pranburi, a long strip beside the water dotted with luxury hotels, and a recommendation from Surin's friend got us a fabulous meal for four for under $30 with three additional dishes for free.  Again it was seafood, fresh from the water, and cooked to succulent perfection.  I wish I were a food writer who could adequately describe it (or even cook like that).  On the way down we visited the oversized statue of the famous monk Luang Por Tuad at Wat Huay Mongol, a place of pilgrimage where sacred amulets sell like hotcakes.  We stopped at a faux Fishing Village where no one fished and boated but lots of stuff was on sale, and in the evening we strolled through old town Pranburi where hundred-year-old shop houses are being restored for antique stores and coffee shops.  We swan in the pool of the Pattawia Resort and Spa, a large hotel catering to tour groups that has seen better days, and we spent a morning on the lovely beach at Khao Kalok where we  relaxed in the shade of a large cave-dotted cliff until the rains came.

Studying one's self and learning how to avoid suffering and hurting others requires a lifetime.  There doesn't seem to be a short cut.

And now for something completely different:  Lunch today.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Photo Porn and the Demise of a friend

My trusty Canon G11, companion on many adventures during the last year and a half, died this week.  I was photographing the English competition at my school (more below) and used the telephoto lens for a closeup shot of a speaker. When I turned the camera off, the lens refused to retract.  When I turned it back on, I got the message: "Lens error, restart camera."  But restarting didn't help.  With a little jiggling and pushing, I could force the lens back down, but clearly it was in trouble.  That night I learned from Google than a stuck lens was the most common problem for digital cameras and it was almost certainly fatal.  I tried all the possible fixes suggested at one web site but nothing worked.  Yesterday I took it to the Canon service center at MBK and was told that the lens must be replaced, at a cost of 8,900 baht.  Since the G11 originally cost 16,900 baht, all I could do was laugh.

Humor is the best medicine.  There was something poetic, and even pornographic, in the G11's ailment, stuck with an erected lens as if it had consumed too much photoviagra.  I was sure Hef would understand.  A friend once told me that his cure for erectile dysfunction was a needle with a prescribed chemical.  But he miscalculated and gave himself an overdose.  The subsequent trip to the hospital was painful and embarrassing for him.  The impolite Thai word for the male member is จู๋ which is pronounced "jew" (I hope my Hebrew friends appreciate this), and the word for erection is derived from the Thai for ice (hard water), น้ำแข็ง.  So my new name for the unfortunate situation with my G11 is จู๋แข็ง.  Nan wants it known that I learned this entirely without her help or approval.

This is one of the first photos taken with my new G11 on the King's birthday a year and a half ago (you can always see a larger version of my pictures by clicking on them).  It captured a clarity under low light natural conditions that none of my previous digital cameras could achieve.  Smaller than an SLR and bigger than a pocket point and click, the G11 was a bit bulky, but I took it everywhere. It featured an adjustable view finder that allowed for centered self portraits and shots from awkward angles. It wasn't easy to whip it out of my bag on the spur of the moment, a necessity for fast moving candids in this photographable city, but it satisfied my aesthetic needs  to make art out of my surroundings.   What do you do with a defunct camera?  I'm thinking of turning it into a planter, perhaps with an orchid coming up out of the lens casing.  I shall miss you, G11, but you'll be quickly replaced, probably today by a Canon S925 (less bulky, easy to whip out).

Speaking of photos, before I went back to California last year I attempted to clean out and rearrange my computer files and folders and managed to accidentally delete a photo storage file containing thousands of images from my world travels circa 2004-2007. The backlog of old photos had long needed purging but I didn't mean to throw out the babies with the bathwater.  Some of my artistic masterpieces were in that folder.  Fortunately I had saved a good selection from my trips at my Flickr site.  Last week I discovered a site called Flick and Share that makes it easy to transfer Flickr photos back to my computer.  This is a photo I took of St. Paul's Cathedral during a trip to London and Europe in 2005.

When people outside of Thailand think of food, they often conjure up visions of the archetypal Thai cuisine: satay, pad Thai, tom yum kung, spicy papaya salad and exotic deserts made with mango, rambutan and durian.  Yes, there's that.  Last night we ate at the noodle buffet in MBK that featured sauces of undetermined origin, fiery beyond belief, and a week ago Ann's boyfriend Surin took us to a tiny hole-in-the-wall shophouse restaurant in Rattanakosin, the old part of Bangkok, that cooked us a 4-star meal of various sea food.  Last week I showed Nan what wonders May Kaidee's restaurant in Banglamphu could perform with vegetables and tofu.  But old tastes die hard.  In the evening after teaching, I prefer to relax with a traditional American root beer float, and many mornings Nan cooks me a farang breakfast of scrambled eggs with cheese, crispy bacon, and toast with blueberry jelly.  And we both like Swenson's, the chain founded in San Francisco with outlets everywhere in Bangkok.  The cheeseburgers at Sizzler's (Nan likes the salad bar), which are equally available throughout the city and very popular, almost remind me of my former homeland.

The big event this week was an English "Quiz Contest" held at my university and organized by the English Club, most of whom are my students.  Two teams of three competed in each round with the first to get five correct answers advancing to the next round.  Several of us teachers were tasked with devising 500 questions in four categories: Buddhism, Economics, Politics and Thailand.  I was asked to read them (we went through them all and had to repeat the unanswered ones).  Students came from schools all over the area, and the audience was filled with monks and guests from Ayutthaya and vicinity where Mahachula is located.  I was on my feet for five hours until the final question -- "What is the name of Vietnam's currency?" -- was answered by the winning team with a shout:  "the dong!"  I loved it, and a good time was had by all.  You can see a clip of it on YouTube.

After more than a year of landscaping, Sanam Luang, Bangkok's large park and parade ground near the Grand Palace is open for pleasure seekers (although the prostitutes and sidewalk vendors have been kept away by the large police presence).  Many are unhappy about the new fence and restricted hours, but during both afternoon and evening visits last week Nan and I found the grounds to be quiet, peaceful and, overall, lovely.  The golden spires of the palace, beneath which Anna taught the children of the king, never fail to inspire awe.  We enjoyed watching the kites.  Soon, half the park will be taken over by elaborate funeral preparations for the King's cousin, only daughter of King Rama VI, similar to that two year's ago for the King's sister.

My intellectual and social life continues to be busy.  Recently our IDEA group discussed "hybridity" as a fruitful concept for problematic issues of identity, among other ideas, from a challenging book, The Ambiguous Allure of the West: Traces of the Colonial in Thailand.  On a couple of Thursdays I've met at a cafe in Siam Paragon with Ray from California and a few of his expat friends where they ogle the Hi-So girls and pontificate about the world.  Graham from Australia, who teaches English at an international school, told me that some teachers can make as much as 100,000 baht a month which is more than twice what I expected.  But I'm not ready to give up my monks and retirement for filthy lucre.  And I attended a stimulating talk by Tibetan nun Ani Zamba, visiting from her center in Brazil, who said the self is created in the process of perceiving things as if they exist independently of our perception: "Frozen entities, frozen self."  The cost of this illusion, she said, is high. Next week I'm going to a lecture across the street from Sanam Luang at the National Museum given by American scholar Justin McDaniel on "The Making of a Saint -- Somdet To in the History of Thai Buddhism."  And I'll also hear him speak at a conference on Buddhism at the S.D. Hotel almost next door to my condo, organized by Mahidol University.  It will be a busy week.  The BuddhistPsychos also meet to complete their discussion (some would say savaging) of "The Little Prince."  This weekend Ann and Surin are taking us for a short trip to Pranburi on the coast south of Hua Hin.  The Paradise boogie continues!

And next Wednesday, my daughter (whom I just learned is traveling in Spain), will turn 34 years old.  Happy birthday, Molly!

Thursday, August 11, 2011

A Toss of the Dice

They're rioting in Africa 
There's strife in Iran 
What nature doesn't do to us 
Will be done by our fellow man 

"The Merry Minuet," sung by the Kingston Trio 

When all else fails, buy a lottery ticket.  We bought two from this seller outside Wat Rakhang where Nan and I went to offer gifts in a plastic bucket (the standard stuff, tooth paste, etc.) and receive a watery blessing on my 72nd birthday.  I got a ticket with a six-digit number ending in "72."  Just to be on the safe side, Nan's ticket ended in "27."  They cost 100 baht each, 80 for the lottery and 20 for the ticket seller.  Most of the vendors are aged, infirm or disabled, and you're never more than a stone's throw from one in Bangkok.  There's also an illegal underground lottery where you can bet as little as a baht.  Nan once sold tickets but quit when it felt too dangerous. The underground lottery is popular in the villages where legitimate ticket sellers are rare.  When Jerry bought his wife a truck recently, most of their relatives put money on the numbers in the new license number.  His wife once won 8,000 baht in the national lottery and I would have been happy with anything as a sign of the universe's favor.

But we didn't win.  It's not my life that needs a boost, however, but the planet earth.  London is burning, the global stock market is tanking, a Christian fascist went wacko in Norway, and earthquakes and storms are giving evidence of serious tampering with the planet's weather systems by industrial civilization.  What's not to worry about?  But the only untoward event in my life lately was forgetting my card card in the ATM machine which required having a new one shipped from the states (it's the only lifeline to my income which is fast losing value along with the deflating dollar).

It's so hard trying to find a reason for everything.  I was trained like most westerners to trace effects back to their causes.  So I scour the print and electronic media to uncover reasons for the rise of the powerful lunatic fringe in America, the deadly persistance of the U.S. war machine in the Middle East, and the puzzle of Obama's lack of passion (and a backbone).  Sometimes it just feels like I'm spinning my wheels, and that all my posts, comments, likes, tweets and links are so much dust.  Thais take a different approach to confusion and catastrophe (or just the nuttiness of life).  Nan awoke the other morning and announced she wanted to tamboon (make merit) with a monk she remembered from several years ago.  I followed along on a short bus ride, and there he was, at his station by the 7-11, accepting gifts of food (we bought some from a nearby cart) and prayers from passers by.  My knees don't allow me to kneel like Nan so a folded my palms and bowed my head while the kindly old monk chanted a Pali blessing for us.  And you know, I felt better, intellectually cleansed (for a brief moment), by the experience.

Afterward, we went for a walk in the streets behind the major thoroughfare where Nan lived when she first came to Bangkok and found a different world, almost a village within the city, where only a little traffic flowed, small shops served the community and the jungle threatened to overwhelm areas of neglect, like this lot where an old campaign poster remains for the woman who has just become Thailand's first female prime minister.  It was a beautiful morning, the air was clear and not yet hot, and strolling through the quieted streets, visiting a temple on the way and sitting in a park by a canal, gave the mind pause from its incessant need to understand and explain.

I have been absent from these pages for three weeks not because there was nothing to report but because my life of retirement now seems excessively busy.  Much of the activity revolves around my school and teaching.  I gave my two dozen students a midterm exam and followed it with a day of interviews, talking with each monk (and one laywoman) about their results, homework and progress in the class.  They've asked me to prepare questions for a big contest in two weeks with 600 students from other universities (I picture a "Slumdog Millionaire" event)  and for me to be the MC.  I've begun teaching the second half of a course on mass media for graduate students in linguistics and prepared a spiffy PowerPoint presentation with film clips from YouTube.  But it was overkill for the six students at my first lecture who are struggling with basic English.  Next week I'll try something simpler.  And I'm deep into research for a conference paper comparing Buddhist modernism in the west, with its focus on meditation and absence of ritual, with a popular religiosity in Thailand that seamlessly blends Brahmanism and animism with a royalist-influenced Theravada Buddhism.  Every day I discover new insights.

I'll have to finish writing before the October deadline because Nan and I are flying to Chiang Rai after the school term finishes for a visit  with her family in the nearby province of Phayao.  It will be my first trip to the village and I'm frankly nervous.  We'll stay in her Aunt Ban Yen's house which will be ours whenever we decide to move there permanently.  Nan must graduate with a degree and perhaps work for a couple of years before that happens, and I need to maintain my health and ability to maneuver around and enjoy the city.  Still, Nan has been eye-shopping for a flat-screen TV since the house has none, and a credenza for it to sit on.  There are lots of horror stories about farang and their encounter with village life, and I struggle to keep my expectations unblemished.  I've met her mom, brother and cousin, but not her step-father, and they're lovely people.  As big city relatives, however, we'll be expected to help out, and my lack of understanding for the enormous affection and gratitude Thai children feel toward their parents sometimes confuses and saddens Nan.

Our social calendar has been full.  We said good-bye to our good friend Janet during a lunch by the Chao Phraya River at one of our favorite spots.  Janet penned the lovely poem to her adopted city, Tone Deaf in Bangkok, and writes a provocative blog with the same name.  But she's ended her second (or third?) tour of duty here and has just returned to her American home, Seattle, where her sons live and where she spent many years as a bookseller at Elliott Bay.  She'll continue to work for ThingsAsian Press and hopes to return to Bangkok for annual visits.  We'll miss her.  On a recent Sunday, Nan and I joined Ian and Paradee at Rot Fai Park for lunch and a possible bike ride.  The entrance to the park, on land owned by the railway union is close to the Buddhadassa Indapanno Archives which I recently visited for the first time, and I took them all on a tour.  There was karaoke singing on the ground floor (I resisted but Ian was willing, though never called) and an art show upstairs near the lovely mediation hall.

One evening we joined a group of Thais and foreigners at a dinner hosted by Sean, editor of Ratchaprasong News and international press officer for the red shirts during the protests last year in Bangkok.  Speaking to us were two members of the Pheu Thai party which recently won the national election, Dr. Prasaeng and Khun Samarn.  While they assured us that the reds, who strongly contributed to the landslide victory, and the new prime minister's government would be closely allied, many of the questions asked them centered around the possibility of unsavory political compromises and the probable response of their supporters.  Yingluck's cabinet, unveiled this week, contains no one closely tied to the red shirts, and it's believed that her brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, now in exile, influenced the choices so that the elite would permit them to govern.  It remains to be seen whether there will be unrest in provincial red villages.

This week the British monk Pandit Bhikku began his fifth series of Rains Retreat dhamma talks at a dance gallery off Sukhumvit.  I arrived in Thailand precisely four years ago and I quickly set about locating a source of information in English about Thai Buddhism.  A mae chee at Mahachula University directed me to the Little Bang Sangha which had recently formed and I attended the lectures Pandit gave that year at the Baan Aree Library.  There I met many of the friends I still know in Bangkok (sadly, Holly has gone) and at the first talk this week on "The Dance of Emptiness" I saw many familiar faces.  It was Pandit who encouraged me to teach English to monks and brought me to Wat Srisudaram where I spoke to the English Club and was offered a job in 2008.

And now for something completely different.  Last year Rubby, one of my Little Bang friends, suggested I register with a modeling agency that is always looking for non-Thais to hire for commercials or movies.  A number of people I know have been extras, and a couple appeared in "Hangover 2."  Nothing happened for me until last month when I was called to appear in a session to get stock photos of elders doing yoga and exercise.  The photographer was Rob Churchill who does wonderful non-commercial stuff, and I have no idea how this session will turn out.  Photos will be offered world-wide to anyone looking for old geezers working up a sweat (it was hard work!).  The session in an empty penthouse in Silom with incredible views of the city took only three hours and I was paid about $100.  I came home to tell Nan that I might become famous.  It was a lucky toss of the dice.

My friend Jerry has complained that there is entirely too little about sex in my blog, and he offered some biographical tidbits to spice up these pages.  But I think I'll wait until he and everyone we know is  dead and gone before revealing the shocking and salacious details he provided.  I'll write it up and stick it in a bank deposit box with instructions for publishing after the smoke has cleared.  Better yet, he should write about it himself and I'll review it here.