Monday, June 25, 2012

The Kids are Alright

Sometimes, I feel I gotta get away
Bells chime, I know I gotta get away
And I know if I don't, I'll go out of my mind
Better leave her behind with the kids, they're alright  
The kids are alright
--Pete Townshend, The Who
But are they?

At the root of my feeling of incompetence (last blog post) is the certainty that I have failed as a parent.  When my boys were young, I listened to the chiming bells of rock and roll and had to get away from the family and a wife who constantly berated me for my selfishness and lack of attention.  Ultimately I walked out and left her with the kids because i told myself they would be better off.  I was wrong.  My oldest son became a workaholic, a successful one, and his brother an alcoholic who died several years ago at the age of 43.  Certainly their mother's neurotic parenting played a role in their upbringing, but I blame myself for abandoning them at an early age. Alternate weekends with Dad on bunk-bed cots in a Venice Beach apartment never made up for the loss of an in-home father.

I tried to be the doting father with my next family.  When my daughter was born I felt like I'd won the lottery.  We had a wonderful trip across the country together when she was five.  Because my wife felt it was damaging to be an only child, we created another.  And even though I'd never grown up imagining that I would be a father (girls play dolls, boys play soldier), I loved my third son as much as the other three and tried to right the wrongs committed first time around.  But when my wife withdrew as a lover to become a full-time mother, I distanced myself from the family and indulged my intellectual passions in university study. This self-centeredness brought trouble and a form of abandonment that took long for my family to forgive.  My father had been a man of discipline and silence, and I emulated him, thereby earning the enmity of my daughter.  She and I took adversarial positions and stubbornly refused to relent.  In our family I felt like the odd man out.

I was raised on "Ozzie and Harriet," the TV family ideal.  But we were nothing like the Nelson family (whose youngest, Ricky, became a rock and roll star). My father was a big man, a salesman, who liked sports.  I took after my petite redheaded mother, loved movies, music and art, and wanted to be a musician or an actor when I grew up.  My asthma kept me away from most sports.  Just like on "Leave it to Beaver," "Life with Father," and "Lassie," my mother ruled the kitchen and depended on Dad to keep order.  He did, at a time when spanking was socially acceptable.  When I dyed my hair blond against his orders, he cut it all off.  I was an angry child and a juvenile delinquent, a "JD" in the slang of the times, and couldn't wait to get out of the family home.  I fought with my younger brother and probably terrorized him.  Now, even though we are alike in many ways, whenever we try to talk, we end up arguing in a manner that is painful to me (he's a lawyer). When I finally went on my own, I hardly ever told my parents about my what I was doing.  I tried to phone them dutifully once or twice a month to check in. They rarely called me, I believe because my father thought parents should never interfere in their child's life.  We were all the victims of misleading expectations.

Having an idealized view of the family and the relation of children to parents is a problem.  But I am envious of my friends who tell me of the wonderful, close relationships they have with their children as well as their grandchildren.  Since we're in Thailand and most of their families are elsewhere, they exchange emails and even chat regularly on Skype.  Some have children who come to visit.  Their walls and web sites feature photos of former domestic bliss.  My younger two came to see me several years ago. This Father's Day my three surviving children sent me brief email and Facebook messages and even included photos of us together.  But however loved it made me feel, it wasn't enough.  On days that are not holidays, my progeny usually ignore my emails, SMS messages and Facebook attempts to connect.  They are not curious about the life I lead here in Thailand and have had nothing to say about my third marriage to a woman younger than all of them (of course this may be the reason).  They offer so little information about their own lives that it is impossible me the to say with The Who, "The Kids are Alright." I just don't know.  And, because of the guilt that I feel as having been a lousy father, I do not feel I have the right to ask.

The easy explanation is that it's my fault because I left them by moving to Thailand, another abandonment on top of all the others.  But it it didn't seem much different when I lived within driving distance of my two sons and daughter in California.  After the divorce, I spent considerable time with my eldest son and his wife at their home with a spare room over the garage.  They, however, never came to see me.  I often felt like The Man Who Came To Dinner and tried not to overstay my welcome.  Unfortunately proximity does not always produce intimacy.  I was never able to feel very close to my father, so perhaps I never learned how the dance is done.  Sometimes I think it's just as difficult for  children to learn how to relate to fathers if the early imprinting did not take.  We stand on each side of an unbridgeable gulf.

In Thailand it's very different.  As Richard E. Nisbett points out in The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently...and Why, children in the west are taught to be independent and self-sufficient.  Parents feel they have succeeded if their children can survive and prosper once free from the parental sphere of influence.  Asian children, however, are taught to be dependent on their parents forever, even when they are supporting them.  Westerners think of themselves as individuals, while Asians are taught that interdependence is primary.  The elderly are respected and even revered in Thailand (a major reason for retirees to move here) while in America they are shunted off to the old folks home as soon as they begin to drool and forget their children's names.

I know that my children love me.  I just don't know what that love entails.  I am not more uncertain of anything than of this.  My youngest once told me that it was the responsibility of the parent to keep in touch with the child.  He said this because his mother is on the phone to him and his sister daily or weekly.  That's what mother's do once the brood has left the nest.  On the other hand, my oldest son hasn't spoken to his mother in years, so I should feel lucky. I was taught not to impose on children who were busy living their lives.  It isn't seemly to beg for news.  So I piss and moan to myself and my much suffering spouse that my children don't care about me, and, in fact, find my neediness and very existence embarrassing.  I burned my bridges to them long ago when I was a selfish and absent father.

Pete Townshend's "The Kids are Alright" was included on The Who's first LP, "My Generation," in 1965, and it became an anthem for the disaffected youth, the Mods and the Rockers, in Britain's post-war generation.  It's been challenged in numerous covers, including "The Kids are Not Alright" by the Offspring and "The Kids are All Wrong" by Lagwagon.  By all reports, Townshend had a comfortable middle-class upbringing; his father was a saxophonist and his mother a singer.  But a few years ago Townshend was arrested and accused of accessing child pornography internet sites.  He claimed it was to research a book to support has campaign against such sites, but he was made to register as a sex offender nonetheless.  The Sun in London reported that Townshend admitted being abused as a young boy, "probably at the hands of a male guest of my maternal grandmother when I was living with her while my parents tried to work out a marriage problem." His daughter Emma, a Cambridge Ph.D., described her childhood to The Independent as normal and loving, if "extraordinary" (she was an infant at Woodstock). Not all families are alike.

It doesn't help that it takes the internet or the phone to connect and this distance and technology can perhaps dilute warmth and affection.  Social networking has made it possible for me to feel close to people long gone out of my life, people whose roots never ran as deep as those in my family, however infertile the soil.  I lead a full life these days, performing a service to my students by helping them with their English, loving a woman by offering her opportunities not possible for a single Thai from the country, and pursuing my curiosity into a number of subjects like Buddhism and the politics and culture of Southeast Asia.  I wish I could share my successes and even failures with my children.  But too many "mind-forg'd manacles" constrain us.

Saturday, June 09, 2012

How'm I doing? Fear of Failing

Ever since I can remember, fears of incompetency have tripped me up. Of course, touting successes, like showing this photo, is a typical way to compensate.  What you can't see was the egg on my face when my PowerPoint presentation on "Big Tent Buddhism" went over the time limit and I had to dump several crucial concluding slides.  At previous Day of Vesak conferences organized by my university, I had chuckled at the academics struggling to time their erudition to an unyielding clock, and this year it was my turn to fail.

Proposing a paper on Buddhism was an act of hubris.  I am not an expert or even a scholar of Buddhist Studies, and my meditation practice lapsed long ago.  Here I was, included with notable Buddhists from around the world, professors of Pali, founders of retreat centers as well as leaders in academic associations devoted to uncovering the foundational teachings and geographical spread of early Buddhism.  But in addition to fearing that my incompetency will inevitably be exposed, I possess a foolish sense of bravado, the vain expectation that following my curiosity will somehow be recognized and appreciated.

At the end of my truncated presentation, a monk stood and directed a question at me.  Because of my poor hearing and his accented English, I barely understood him.  I think he wanted to know if, in my understanding of changes in Buddhism to accomodate modernism, I considered Theravada Buddhism, the nominal practice in Thailand, to be modernist.  Most Thai Buddhist believe their religion to be the real deal, what the Lord Buddha intended.  So to argue that it's historical and has changed over time is akin to heresy.  I didn't want to offend, and I wasn't sure of his intentions, so I mumbled a completely inane response.  Incompetent!

More than 2,000 monks and lay people from 80 countries attended the Day of Vesak celebrations that took place at my campus and at the UN headquarters in Bangkok.  For some reason it was billed as the 2600th anniversary of the Buddha's enlightenment, although the Thai year now is 2555 in a calendar which begins 543 years before Western dates (and the same anniversary was marked last year as well; perhaps this will be the 26th century of his awakening).  If you want to download my obviously inadequate [insert ironic gesture] paper, click here.  If you want to read a pdf of the entire book of papers presented in my panel on "Unifying Buddhist Philosophical Views," download by clicking here.  You can check out other publications from the Day of Vesak 2012 conference at this web site.

So what is it about incompetency?  When I was a boy, I was lousy at sports.  In order to hide my incompetence, I sat out the games.  I loved music and played the clarinet and alto sax, but feared I could never be as good as the musicians I admired, so I sold my instruments and gave it up.  As the married father of two children, I refused to go camping with my family because I feared that I would be incompetent in the forest, unable to build a fire or erect a tent successfully.  I quit jobs I was good at because I knew that eventually I would be revealed as a pretender.  In school I took a seminar in environmental issues with Marxists sociologists who trashed my naive enthusiasm for a spiritual ecology, pointing out my ignorance and confirming my feelings of incompetence.  Going for a Ph.D. in my 50s was idiocy and the dissertation I produced, although accepted, was clearly incompetent.  What was I thinking?  Let me be clear:  I have been incompetent at many things in my life, most notably relationships with those I love.  Failing for me is no fantasy.  I'll save many of the details for my posthumous autobiography.

There are more than enough explanations for feelings of incompetence: lack of self-esteem, a tyrannical inner critic, fears of the judgment of others, ad nauseam.  It's an inside job.  The obviously self-confident people I meet daily could well be faking it.  You never know.  If you think you're not good enough, no amount of awards, compliments or praise (not to mention certificates like the one given me above) will suffice.  You're always trying to please an irrational taskmaster.  One defense against inadequacy is to be merciless in one's judgement of others, a trait I struggle to suppress.  It's reported that the Dalai Lama could not understand what Westerners meant by the problem of self-esteem.  My Thai wife finds this topic puzzling.  She says I think too much, and too much of my thinking involves worries.  Mai pen rai.  Chill out, dude!


My goal is to be less like the hesitant Basil (played by Alan Bates) and more like the fearless Zorba (played by that magnificent non-Greek Anthony Quinn) in the film version of Nikos Kazantzakis' wonderful novel, "Zorba the Greek."  Zorba, you may recall, was the master of failures.

I can at least report that as I hurl down the slick slide of aging, it has become easier to thumb my nose at the fear of failing.  What people think of me -- and isn't that at the root at the feeling of incompetency? -- is less important.  I'll never be that handsome devil, the intellectual giant or the author of paradigm-changing work.  It's all over but the shouting, and the dancing.  And that's just fine.  Hubris is a human thing.  We reach beyond our capabilities and most of the time fall flat on our face.  I can handle that.  The important thing is to go for it, to conquer our greed, anger and delusion as the people here are doing by shooting at symbols of what holds us back, according to Buddhist teaching.

The big news at the end of May was that I finally renewed my work permit for a fifth year after four arduous trips out of Bangkok to the Ministry of Labour office in Ayutthaya near my university where they carefully scrutinized my documents and found errors.  The Thai bureaucracy is Byzantine to the max.  The nearly three-month summer vacation has ended and the new 16-week term began last week, but only 4 of the 28 enrolled students showed up.  Good thing, too, because some of the classrooms were missing desks and chairs and a woman was mopping the floor in one where my afternoon class was to meet.  Working in a Thai university requires infinite patience and flexibility, something I'm slowing learning.  The term schedule is not yet fixed and students last week had not been told what classes they were taking (which partly explains the absences). There are no projectors for PowerPoint and video in the rooms I've been assigned so I was told to take another (not sure if the other teacher knows this).  I'm still waiting to hear if I'll be teaching graduate students in linguistics on the weekend closer to home, or when their term begins (not all students have the same dates).

Last night Nan and I celebrated the 3rd anniversary of our first date.  She wanted mashed potatoes, and we found them at the new location of Bourbon Street Restaurant & Oytster Bar near Ekamai bus station. She had lamb chops (not common in Thailand) with her potatoes and I had salmon with pasta. On our first date, after coffee, we went to Sizzler's because she said she liked farang food.  Sometimes she makes me an "American breakfast": scrambled eggs with cheese and bacon or sausage (hot dogs), with toast and jam.  The atmosphere at Bourbon Street was conducive to our celebratory mood, with classic rock and soul on the sound system.  Outside the soi was jammed with Friday night traffic and it took us over a half hour in the taxi just to get to the next major street.

I've quite been busy lately; besides the Vesak conference, six months in preparation, I met with members of the Buddhist Psychos to resurrect the discussion group which hasn't met since last September, watched an excellent Argentine film, "Un Buda," at the International Buddhist Film Festival being held this weekend at Central World, and attended a meeting on "Lese Majeste, Rhetoric and Dissent" at Sulak Sivaraksa's center which featured the revered engaged Buddhist, historian of nationalism Benedict Anderson, columnist Pravit Rojanaphruk, and "zenjournalist" Andrew MacGregor Marshall via Skype.  Video of the evening is now on YouTube.  The room at Sulak's compound was packed with mostly young Thais and a sprinkling of expats.  The Psychos are planning to meet later this month at a restaurant in Silom where the topic up for discussion with be the relationship between Master and Disciple, or teacher and student.  Nan's summer school ends with a final exam tomorrow and during her week off we're planning three days of relaxation and sun (rain permitting) on Ko Samed, our favorite getaway destination.  I don't expect the issue of my incompetence will arise at all.

And finally, a photo of my university where the instructional schedule might be late but the new rock garden looks great.