Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Rage Against the Dying of the Light

Do not go gentle into that good night, 
Old age should burn and rave at close of day, 
Rage, rage against the dying of the light. (Dylan Thomas)

A few days ago, a man I knew casually at my university was shot and killed by a jealous ex-husband who also murdered the woman he was with before hanging himself.  My friend's name was Ittipol Buachart but I knew him as Paul, a debonair and well-traveled man who spoke impeccable English.  He was manager of customer relations for the Language Institute at my school and he led me to believe he was politically well-connected when he offered his help if I had any problems with my visa or work permit.  He also offered me a job after my short stint with the Language Institute ended for lack of paying students.  MCU's main campus is in Wangnoi, an industrial area near Ayutthaya, and the Language Institute was developing English classes for factory workers.  Because classes were scheduled in the late afternoon and commuting from Bangkok would be difficult, I declined.  Twice, Paul gave me rides in his car which he parked on campus, once to the Labour Ministry and once to a local hotel after a conference at school.  Even though I didn't know him well, his violent death came as a shock.  Raw news footage circulating on Facebook graphically showed all three bodies in a cluttered house in Lopburi.  No one would have figured that kind of ending for Paul.

Paul was probably in his early 50s, a young man, speaking relatively.  His violent death is yet another reminder that we cannot choose the way that we go.  Or when.  Death is not a comfortable subject (Thais pronounce all four syllables of "comfortable" with the accent on the second, and correcting my students is a ritual each term).  How easy it is to get distracted by life!  But "Death" in the title of a blog would be a turnoff.  Friends in my cohort are mostly in their 70s now and reading obituaries and noting the age of the deceased is a regular habit for us  Those younger have postponed indefinitely any speculation about the manner and timing of their passing.  But when someone we know dies, it's hard to avoid.

I still think often of my son Luke who died over two years ago in his mid 40s.  Since he was an obstinate alcoholic, it was a slow suicide.  Dear Holly, almost my age, died quickly in Bangkok last year from a fast-moving cancer that allowed her to sip champagne the night before her death.  But my cousin Ted died slowly from a rare disease that caused paranoia and dementia.  Joe, however, who lived not far from Ted in Oregon, died instantly from a heart attack; both he, Holly and Ted were in their late 60s.  Peter, my closest friend in Santa Cruz for many years, died in his early 60s of prostate cancer, the same disease I was diagnosed with over 10 years ago.  I don't know why it claimed Peter's life but has so far spared mine.

I'm not sure why Dylan Thomas gives me comfort and the courage to look mortality in the face.  That old reprobate certainly hastened his own demise at the age of 39.  After a month of sickness and excess in 1953, he died at a New York hospital of acute alcohol poisoning and pneumonia.  Did he "burn and rave at close of day" and "rage against the dying of the light," even though he was far from old?  Would he reaffirm that "death shall have no dominion" as he headed towards the grave?

The infirmities of old age are cumulative.  They creep up on us, a thief in the night, and rarely announce their appearance like a gunshot or a terrible pain in the chest.  Over the years, I have discussed suicide pacts with several different friends whereby we will assist each other in avoiding the indignities of a long terminal illness.  One of them was later diagnosed with Parkinson's and now he sits mute in a wheel chair, his life constricted by medication and caretakers.  Yet the twinkle in his eye when we're together tells me that he's not ready to go.   My father, who used to brag that he had never visited a doctor in his life and didn't get sick, ended his days companioned with an oxygen tank for his emphysema, sitting on a bench in the mall, envious as the elderly walkers strolled by him.  His twin brother, Ted, however, took his life with pills when his emphysema got too bad.   How can we know when it's time?

The three days I spent in the hospital last month jolted me out of my complacency.  When you ignore it for long as I have, the body exacts its revenge.  And I had prided myself for embracing a material spirituality, one that looked for no consolation in metaphysics or an afterlife.  Coming to live in Thailand was my way to affirm and celebrate the pleasures of "this one wild and precious life" (Mary Oliver).  Falling in love with and marrying a much younger woman was, I thought, not an escape from aging and death but a passionate acceptance of the pleasures of sensuality.  In this view, all physical life is sacred, and there is nothing particularly ennobling about the immaterial soul.

This goes against the accepted wisdom that old age is the time to prepare for death.  Phra Cittamasvaro, the British monk, who could be the closest I have to a guru here in Thailand (though not for the reasons he might think), has faulted me for the pursuit of worldly pleasure when I should be getting ready for the end of it.  Buddhists generally believe that the moment of death is important and it would be well to be meditating mindfully when it happens.  Other than as a stress reliever (and perhaps good for the heart), I no longer find myself much attracted to meditation (this may change, just as atheist soldiers always pray in foxholes).  And now we're back to speculating on the manner and timing of one's passing.

My right knee is giving me some grief.  Years ago I was told I needed an operation to repair it, but now the cost would be too great.  I'm on the lookout for a nifty cane.  For the last few months my left eye has been not been carrying its share of the work of vision; I've self-diagnosed it as chronic conjunctivitis but this could be wrong.  My fingers and a few toes are twisted by arthritis but remain able to walk, grip and type despite the sting and ache.  Of course my innards are as much trouble as always, with mysterious twinges and pains, and erratic (and colorful) bowel movements.  Although my weight has remained consistent at 81 kilos (up 5 since I came here 5 years ago), my stomach expands and sags.  Wrinkles abound and my neck resembles a turkey's.  You don't want to ask an old man how he is.  The boring recitation could go on indefinitely.

"Be Here Now" was good advice when Ram Dass published in 1971 his influential book on the spiritualism of the hippies, a movement that celebrated the physicality and potentiality of life.  I'm still a hippie at heart (although I was a worker with family responsibilities during the 1960s).  Even though Sakyamuni began his journey toward awakening upon learning about sickness and death, thinking about our own death takes us away from the here and now and prevents us from seeing the cracks where the light comes in.

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in.
--Leonard Cohen, "Anthem"
Then should we "rage against the dying of the light" when our time comes to go?  If by "rage" you can also mean passionately embracing life rather than its absence, then I suppose so.  In the book of Deuteronomy in the Bible, God says:
I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse.  So choose life in order that you may live, you and your descendants.
I hope to choose life always, even at the moment of leaving it.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Ethics of Internet Piracy

As someone who occasionally has not fully respected the Intellectual Property Rights (IPS) of content producers and providers, I feel I can offer an insider's perspective on the intense debate over censorship and piracy that led last week to the defeat of anti-piracy legislation in the U.S.  In one sense, it was a battle between behemoths: the music and movie conglomerates, threatened by the loss of ticket, DVD and CD sales, against the major gatekeepers of the internet, Google and Wikipedia foremost among them, who believed the proposed bills would introduce government censorship.

Among my friends have been numerous writers and musicians who make their living by selling their creativity to the public.  Replication of original work has been a possibility, and hence a threat, ever since the invention and widespread use of photography, copy machines and sound duplication devices.  In Vietnam and Cambodia I've seen children selling poorly-copied reproductions of bestselling books on street corners.  Counterfeit DVDs and CDs are on sale at sidewalk stalls everywhere tourists and Thais gather in Bangkok.  This also goes for fake Prada and Gucci items.  Somewhere a designer, singer and author are being short-changed by these criminal replicators.

Then there are the poor students and other cheapskates who have become accustomed to the internet and all its offerings being free.  Digital items are insubstantial, ethereal.  My copying of anything digital, from a photo to a pdf article or a selection of megabytes that constitutes a book or movie, is effortless, an instant of shoplifting that goes unnoticed in the grand scheme of things.  The problem comes when I download a book that I might have bought at the neighborhood store (or Amazon), or I grab a new CD or song at a BitTorrent site online that I might have purchased from iTunes or one of the few music outlets still surviving.  Copying becomes theft when it precludes a physical purchase, thus denying its creators their livelihood.  You might also argue that piracy contributes to the decline of bricks-and-mortar stores if the legal online megasellers had not already done that.

When I moved at 13 to California, the first friend I made in junior high school took me to the downtown area one Saturday where we browsed comic books at a cigar and news store (a type of retailer that has gone the way of the Dodo bird).  Paul was a man of the world and he stuffed a comic in his pants and strolled toward the door.  "Hey you!" shouted the clerk, and gave chase.  Appalled and fascinated, I ran alongside Paul until we outdistanced the man.  In high school I was always too scared to shoplift but I knew girls that stole cosmetics and boys that took 45rpm records from Woolworth's.  Years later, I was in a bookstore in Berkeley with the woman who was to become my second wife.  She took a hardback copy of Andre Codrescu's autobiography, The Life & Times of an Involuntary Genius, and stuck it in her purse.  Again, I was appalled and fascinated by the willfulness it takes to steal.  A little later, at the KPFA studios where Codrescu was doing an interview with my friend Pat, we showed him our trophy and he was duly impressed.  It was not long after Abbie Hoffman had written Steal This Book, a title which I'm sure did not make the publisher happy.

While working in the music business in the 1970s, I encouraged established photographers to take pictures of our artists and sell them to magazines and newspapers.  The enfant terriblé Jim Marshall used to drop by my office to look through my collection of books and magazines to see if anyone had used his highly regarded photographs without permission.  It was rumored that Marshall carried a gun which he had once used to someone's regret.  He was always cordial to me, and I hired him one year, all expenses paid, to take photos at Willie Nelson's 4th of July picnic. A few years later, when I was art director at Guitar Player, a photo came from the Grateful Dead's office for a story on Jerry Garcia and I used it, assuming that Marshall had been paid.  Apparently not.  When the issue was published, he called me and screamed for an hour, threatening to blow my head off.  At the record company, I often paid photographers a flat fee for publicity photos which would then be reprinted widely in connection with record reviews and interviews.  Each use, of course, meant less of a market for the photographer's original work.

Internet piracy is called theft, but it's the possible future lost sale that constitutes the loss since copying diminishes nothing.  If I copy a CD that I borrowed from the library, I add to the items in the world.  The library doesn't suffer.  My brazen girlfriend's theft of the book damaged the store by depleting its inventory, just as Woolworth's suffered from the raids by teen shoplifters on their stocks of cosmetics and records.  Codrescu could care less that his royalty statement would be shortened.  If she taken it out of the library and loaned it to me to read after finishing it, that would not constitute theft even though it means that I would not buy the book.  Confusion and contradictions abound over exactly what is theft when it comes to replicated products that were mass produced.

The historian in me cannot help but point out that in the 19th century, French anarchist Pierre-Joseph Prudhon claimed that "property is theft," which is an interesting way to looking at the todays charges that the piracy of intellectual property is theft.  And he was preceded by Jean-Jacques Rousseau who wrote,
The first man who, having enclosed a piece of ground, bethought himself of saying 'This is mine,' and found people simple enough to believe him, was the real founder of civil society. From how many crimes, wars, and murders, from how many horrors and misfortunes might not any one have saved mankind, by pulling up the stakes, or filling up the ditch, and crying to his fellows: Beware of listening to this imposter; you are undone if you once forget that the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody. 
Ownership is a modern concept.  Claiming authorship or of being the creator of words and notes for a piece of music parallels the the period of patronage when royalty basked in the glow of the artists they supported.  The rise of capitalism promoted individualism over community (and anonymity) and there were few creators who did not want to be remember by posterity.

The invention of photography was a disaster for portrait artists and painters renowned for their realistic works of art.  The camera could reproduce reality more faithfully.  So artists turned to more abstract themes in order to depict meaning from within rather than merely represent the external world.  Recording companies were threatened by the rise of radio in the 1920s, thinking that no one would buy records if they could hear them for free.  Fifty years later the Sony Walkman made it easy to record and share audio tapes.  Predictions of doom, however, failed to materialize.

The consolidation of content providers has raised different questions.  Huge entertainment and publishing corporations control most of the world's music, movies and books.  They finance and distribute the products of an increasingly homogenized global culture (with significant local variations, such as Korean pop, which is hugely popular throughout Asia but not America and Europe).  The "content producers" (a disagreeable name for creative artists) are often at the bottom of a hierarchy run by lawyers and businessmen (mostly).  It's hard to say how much an illegally downloaded movie, CD or book impacts their livelihood.  If the situation were different, if the writers and musicians could deal directly with their readers and audience, then stealing their work would be more ethically noticeable, and perhaps the idea that everything on the internet should be free would slowly change in the thinking of many consumers.

A new paradigm is needed for artist and audience.  The Occupy movements are showing a growing dissatisfaction with a world controlled by corporations.  Many are rejecting the notion that property takes precedence over people, and ownership over justice.  The concept of "intellectual property" is enormously flawed, allowing agribusiness to patent seeds developed over centuries and pharmaceutical companies to patent the gene sequences of indigenous people without their knowledge.  It was designed by corporations to maximize profit.

Musicians and writers must extricate themselves from this system which epitomizes the destructiveness of the global economy.  Both Amazon and Apple, through its iBooks program, have announced ways for writers to produce their own books and sell them online.  While both large companies must be treated with suspicion, the idea of creators taking at least some initiative and control is a good one.  Many musicians, including some like Radiohead, are learning how to use the internet to reach their listeners directly, cutting out the established music provider.  Music companies, like newspapers, will cease to exist in their present form.  YouTube has made it possible for film artists to reach a wider public and I'm sure high speed internet connections will allow filmmakers eventually to promote their creations outside of the corporate studio and distribution systems.

Internet piracy does not usually conjure up an image of Jack Sparrow in the Caribbean. But if I'm correct, the destruction of the old system of linking creators with their audience will pave the way for something new, just as capitalism did when it destroyed the old patronage system which funded composers and artists for centuries.  Rather than focus on the unethical counterfeiters in Asia, duplicating blockbuster movies on DVD and CDs by hit singles artists, we should think of the thousands of interested computer users who currently are illegally downloading movies, books and music as primed and ready to communicate directly with internet artists.

(For a more critical look at piracy, read Danny Goldberg's essay, "Kill the Internet -- and other anti-SOPA Myths," in The Nation.  He spent many years in the music industry after I left.)

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

In Defense of Sensual Pleasure

Gérard de Lairesse's Allegory of the Five Senses (1668)
Three days in the hospital with pneumonia makes one appreciate the pleasures of the senses.  Discharged on Christmas morning, I reveled in the warmth of the Bangkok sun as I got into the taxi.  Even the pollution smelled good.  At home I indulged myself by listening to Christmas songs, sipping soda and eating Oreos.  The familiar feel of our pseudo-velvet couch was comforting.  The very air taken in by my somewhat worse-for-wear lungs was nectar of the gods.  I was alive and loved it.

Pleasure gets a bad rap from all religions which see the physical as something to flee rather than embrace.  The body is the source of temptation, the root of evil intentions and bad deeds.  Despite my appreciation of many of the teachings of Buddhism and the Catholic Christian tradition, I cannot abide their distaste for the physical.  The mostly male priests and monks shun the opposite sex in order to preserve purity.  Each religion has an otherworldly, metaphysical goal: enlightenment for Buddhists and heaven for Christians.  And each contains doctrines that encourage renunciation of the world and the avoidance of physical temptations that appeal to the senses.

Buddhism advocates a middle way between indulgence and mortification of the senses, as my friend Phra Cittasamvaro points out in "So What is Wrong with Sense Desire?"  Even though "desire causes suffering" (one translation of the Second Noble Truth), not all desire is harmful, he believes.  Unrestrained desire is the problem.  Refined sense pleasures, for Mozart, Picasso, Shakespeare and the like, are "often blameless," although equal to coarser pleasures in their ability to distract from one's true goal.  And aspirations, desires for qualities such as compassion, patience and wisdom, as well as enlightenment, should be cultivated.  It's OK, he writes, "to enjoy nice food, good company or stroking your pet cat," but through meditation one sees that "sense pleasures are really a temporary cover for a deeper discomfort in the heart."

Since the Greeks, Hedonists have claimed that pleasure is the only intrinsic good.  Philosopher and gay rights advocate John Corvin disagrees:  He believes there are goods beside pleasure.  "But from the fact that pleasure isn't the only good, it does not follow that pleasure isn't good at all." He calls this argument the "Prude's Fallacy."  "To deny pleasure's value is just silly."    I doubt that many Buddhist teachers will ever see pleasure as a distinct good rather than a distraction from the only true good of enlightenment.  Buddha founded a community of renunciants who abandoned the world to concentrate on awakening from samsara as their teacher had done.  Today's sangha of monks in Thailand follow in that tradition.  I have no problem with anyone's choice of the robe and renunciation, and the practice of ritual and meditation to support that life.  Some of my best friends follow that path.  But I cannot agree with teaching that rejects the sensual pleasures which I feel help to make us fully human.

Prudes often argue that the senses require selfish gorging.  If food tastes good, the sensualist will gorge himself until he is bloated.  Even when there is someone hungry in the room, the glutton will feed his own desire to the exclusion of others.  The same goes in spades for sexual desire which is interpreted as inherently self-centered.  But arguing from extremes is to draw up a straw man, a figment of the prude's imagination.  People, as Phra Cittamasvaro suggested, learn to restrain their senses from an early age.  Delayed gratification, partly for the heightened sense of pleasure it can provide, is a basic lesson on the road to maturity.  But the most important factors that undercut the prude's argument are the developed virtues of compassion and sharing.  Contrary to the survival of the fittest crowd, human beings are designed to cooperate more than compete.  (I'll save footnotes for the book)  In the fulfillment of our sensual desires, most of us take others into consideration.  And we don't even need religious rules and threats of punishment to comply with this universal achievement.

I'd quote Walt Whitman, D.H. Lawrence, Henry Miller or Allan Ginsberg here, but I think I've made my point.  Along with my skepticism about karma and rebirth, this belief in the value of sensual desire restrains me from becoming a committed Buddhist.  Or at least it did until recently when I began reading numerous books and articles about the history of Buddhism and the current modernist interpretation of doctrine that has dominated east and west thinking since the 19th century.  Thai Buddhism with its infusions of Brahmanism and animism has fascinated me since I moved here in 2004.  Its iconography and rituals do not seem to fit within the western narrative of Buddhism, and I've discussed this anomaly in various blog posts.  Last week I attended a conference on Buddhist Studies at Chulalongkorn University where Justin McDaniel presented a radically different view of Thai Buddhism in his talk and in remarks at the launch of his new book.

The Lovelorn Ghost & The Magical Monk: Practicing Buddhism in Modern Thailand focuses on the practices of Thai Buddhists rather than history, doctrine and the institution of the monastic sangha.  McDaniel tells of the mostly legendary exploits of Mae Nak, vengeful mother and ghost, and popular 19th century monk Somdet To.  "Now it is painfully clear that any major study of Thai Buddhism is simply ludicrous," says McDaniel, "if these two are not prominently featured.  Ignoring them is ignoring what millions of Thai Buddhists know and value."  He aims to write about what Thai Buddhists do rather than explain what they believe or the meaning of their actions. And this involves him in "astrology, protective magic, fortune-telling, ghost belief, 'Hindu' deities, multiple Buddhas, [and] amulets," while "many scholars still dig and dig looking for their idea of Theravada buried under the weight of Thai culture...Looking for the Theravada, the Buddhist, and the authentic often prevents scholars from seeing what is going on."

I've only just begun reading McDaniel's book and cannot provide a proper review (for that, see Chris Baker's review in the Bangkok Post).  It's obvious to me this he is on to something with this radical approach.  A professor at the University of Pennsylvania, McDaniel has studied Buddhism in Thailand and Laos for many years and even wore a robe as a monk.  This is his second book and one I think that will prove controversial.  Nan and I maintain an altar of icons on top of our bookcase and freshen it with flowers and water for every Wan Phra.  We often  make merit at a nearby temple by taking gifts and lighting candles and incense while the monk chants a blessing over our goblets of water (which are then poured on the nearest bush or tree).  My western-educated brain is caught up in debates about beliefs and reality which make pure deeds difficult.  From my observation of my wife and her family, however, I do not see that concerns about sensual desires play a role in their practice of Buddhism.  More important for them is the practice of generosity and the metta prayer that all beings be happy.

As my body slowly recovers from the megadoses of antibiotics and steroids in the hospital to kill the infection and jump-start my lungs, I am enjoying the turning of the world after the shortest day at the Winter Solstice.  The sunrises have been spectacular lately and I try to capture the colors of the sky while waiting for my morning coffee to brew.  The dawn sun had moved a few degrees to the right of the Rama IX Bridge spire and is now moving back to the left.  This is all that I can know of the seasons in Bangkok, although occasionally the mornings are chilly (to Nan more than me who puts on a sweater).  Up north several provinces have been declared disaster zones because of temperatures that yet remain above the freezing mark but can kill Thais without heaters or warm clothes.

School resumed last week and I took the Mahachula pink bus to Wangnoi in Ayutthaya past fields still filled with garbage that floated in on the flood last month.  Many trees had died. Our classroom building has electricity but neither air conditioning nor functioning elevators (fortunately my classrooms are on the 2nd floor).  I learned that the subject of my new class for 4th year students is translation which might be a stretch for someone without one of the two languages needed.  For their first assignment, I asked them to find a short poem by Sunthorn Phu, considered Thailand's greatest writer, and translate it into English.  My usual class of 3rd year students in Listening & Speaking English has been cut in half and I will teach 14 students with a new Thai teacher taking an equal amount.  I'm not particularly happy about this non-sensical split but it will mean less papers to grade.  Only one student showed up the first day.  The graduate class in linguistics continues on Saturday mornings and students seem to be enjoying The Little Prince which I'm using for a text in hopes that it can provide examples of phonology, morphology, syntax and semantics.

The Buddhist doctrine of impermanence is continually affirmed as my body continues its relentless journey toward oblivion.  I learned last week of the deaths of my cousin, Ted Ballard, and my friend Joe Hudgins.  Coincidentally, both were 67 years old and lived near Ashland, Oregon.  Ted died on my birthday last year of Lewy Body dementia, a horrible mix of Alzheimer's and Parkinson's.  He'd built his own home on 140 acres in Gold Hill and was an accomplished master carpenter.  In college Ted was gardener for painter Morris Graves at his Eureka retreat and is mentioned in a poem by Graves' friend, John Cage.  Ted played the banjo, disliked the internet, and is grandfather to his step-daughter's son with Foo Fighter Nate Mendel.  His mother, my aunt Margaret, was an important mentor when I was falling in love with literature.  I miss them both.  Joe had the dubious fame in his youth of playing Dr. Flexi Jerkoff in the cult film "Flesh Gordon" (He's at 20 minutes to the hour in the poster).  In recent years he sold real estate and taught others how to sell.  Joe had a distinguishing laugh that you could hear miles away. He was a founder of the non-profit KSKQ in Ashland and hosted the first transmitter on his property as well as various radio shows. I'm happy to hear that he enjoyed himself at a New Year's Eve party the night before the heart attack that killed him.  R.I.P., Joe and Ted.

While I'm feeling better, a few aches and pains remain.  But impermanence was reinforced last week when I lost my wallet.  It either dropped out of my pocket, or it was picked from it during a crush of people getting on a bus after the conference.  I lost several thousand baht and a few important cards, but so far no one has charged anything.  The following night, as if to make sure I'd learned the lesson, I lost my house keys.  Needless to say, it took awhile to transcend upset and the fear that I really am losing it in general.  But, with the help of a good woman, I eventually was able to see that I'll never really lose it.  May all beings and especially my family and friends have a wonderful New Year in 2012 (or 2555 here, pronounced "song ha ha ha" which is quite funny).