Monday, November 19, 2012

What, Me Worry?

No, this post isn't about Mad Magazine which is this month celebrating 60 years of looking satirically at American culture.  And it's also not about its icon, Alfred E. Neuman, who took up residence on the magazine's covers a couple of years after the first 26 issues were published as a comic book.  His stock answer to everything is the ironic, "What, me worry?"  My topic here, then, is worry, in particular and in general, something familiar to everyone born human.  I even think it  a better English translation for the Pali word dukkha than "suffering." This word is at the heart of the Buddha's dhammic analysis of our plight as living creatures who can reflect on their situation, recall the past, look forward to, and perhaps fear, the future.  Back in the New Age Sixties worry was condemned as a negative attitude.  And here in Thailand it's seen as an unproductive state of mind that gets you nowhere.  But I'm not so sure.  While I recognize that worry can be a tsunami of the mind that destroys everything in its path, I also believe that worry motivates, and that it is a spur to action.  Worry can also be seen as concern, for the messes we get ourselves into, the tragedy of the poor, the innocent victims of war, and the fate of the planet.

Perhaps I'm worrying more than normal these days.  I haven't been paid for the teaching I did last term for nearly four months, along with the other part-time English teachers. All we've been told is that there is an "accounting problem."  No, I'm not in Kansas any more.  Money, or the lack of it, is a definite trigger for anxiety about the future.  Speaking of that, how much of a future have I got?  It's amazing how fast the days go by now that I'm in my dotage.  While many Thais continue to tell me how strong I look (a euphemism for something, I'm sure), my body squeals otherwise.  The right knee, the left eye, my few remaining teeth, both ears, and the skin covering with its strange blotches and growths all cry out for expensive medical repair, but the budget says no.  A good friend has had bypass surgery and a pacemaker installed at a cost equal to the economy of a small country (even though half-price in Thailand for medical tourists).  My outstanding credit card debt would finance the start-up of a high-tech company.  You get the picture.

After my father died at 83, I learned from my mother that he had been a serious worrier.  I never knew.  For the last few years of his life he was proscribed Valium.  It helped him probably to forget two heart attacks, his emphysema, the table full of pills he had to take, and the tank of oxygen he had to carry with him to walk with the other old men at the Mall. During my wild amphetamine youth, I used to take doses of that drug to come down and sleep at night.  My first wife consumed Valium regularly, she said, to make her feel normal.  I've never tried any of the many new mood elevators and antidepressants like Prozac, et al, but I am suspicious that they mask rather the remove all the many causes of worry.  If the beast is knocking at your door, I don't think it wise to be wacked out on tranquillizers.  My son Luke's self-medication of choice was alcohol (although he also was quite fond of pharmaceuticals), and it eventually ended his life; no more worries.  I want to say, without sounding too Pollyanna here, that our task in life must be to learn to live with our worries rather than to make them disappear.  The wise Pema Chodron advises us to lean into them rather than to run away to the things that go bump in the night.

One of my biggest worries is that no one will like me.  This has gotten me in some serious trouble in my life with honesty and truth.  Right now I fear the Thai teachers and administrators at my university might shun me if I shout too loudly about not getting paid for my work.  Thais do not appreciate complaints unless they are couched in face-saving gyrations.  On Facebook, I'm discovering that my criticisms of Obama, U.S. policies in the Middle East and elsewhere, and, especially, my blunt condemnation of Israel and its occupation of Palestine, have enflamed the antagonisms of a few "friends."  I've been insulted and de-friended and suspect others are simply blocking or ignoring my links and posts.  I try not to retaliate in kind, but it's difficult, and I feel sad that people I knew and worked with over 35 years ago think me a bigot, an anti-semite, and in general a not very nice person.  Even though we shared anti-Tea Party views during the recent election, many, mostly Jewish, connections on Facebook will not listen to any criticisms of Israel and hate those who are willing to speak out.  I try to explain that it's the present nation of Israel I detest and not Judaism or any who self-identify as a Jew; I respect Jewish spirituality and studied it in school.  But like abortion, the debate over Israel is less words than rocks thrown.

The people whose respect I seek the most are my three remaining children, and the fact that I've moved halfway around the world from them makes conversation especially difficult.  But not impossible.  The new technology offers innumerable ways to communicate while not residing in the same room, or country.  Yet judgments and attitudes stand in the way.  I was an absent and misbehaving father for much of my tenure with two different families, and forgiveness is slow to emerge; maybe it won't.  It's painful to hear your choices mischaracterized and demeaned, and to see your desire to stay in contact refused as unearned.  Part of not being liked (or loved) is the awful shock of realizing that others do not know you as you know yourself, a wonderful human being, and to realize that nothing will change their opinion.

So I worry, about money, about my degenerating body, about a lack of understanding and respect from others, and about the state of the world.  Facebook, and to a lesser extent Twitter, has become my forum for finding out about the world and for expressing my opinions.  I scan the globe using email lists, a personalized and customized Google News, and Google Reader where I maintain a list of credible and interesting sources.  Despite my view that Obama is a moderate Republican (like the kind that used to exist but no longer do) in disguise, to the right of Clinton, whose foreign policies in most aspects duplicate those of the hated Bush II, I took pleasure in his visit to Thailand yesterday, kept track of his movements on Twitter, posted photos on Facebook as they became available, and watched video on the local TV stations and on YouTube.  Because I've chosen to stay here in Thailand, beside my loving and understanding wife, until I take my last breath, I'm vitally interested in the political issues at stake here between monarchists, militarists, true democrats (not the fascists who pretend), and Shinawatra partisans.  And living in Southeast Asia, I now take a close interest in the formation and actions of the regional association ASEAN.  What happens in Myanmar (I really prefer to call it Burma), Laos, Cambodia and Malaysia directly effect my life here.  There is much to worry about, and also much about life now that is exciting. To be concerned and also critical of the status quo is NOT to be negative and sad.

During the halcyon days of the Sixties, worries were so much simpler, although no less deeply felt.  We agonized over choices about work, lovers, music, and politics (I came of age with Vietnam), but there was always time and room for improvement.  At 73, I no longer anticipate an outcome I can oversee.  Back then, it seemed, we could change anything, even ourselves.  I've come to believe that our choices are much more limited by circumstances beyond our control, and that mantras and meditation are largely self-help illusions.  We humans are amazing self-replicating structures of living meat, and life is a one-of-a-kind adventure we experience through no fault of our own.  Given these restrictions, I believe we should make the most of it without resort to distractions that pretend an otherworldly wisdom.  "I put before you life and death," said God in the Biblical story.  "Choose life."  He forgot to mention that worrying is part of the process.

Monday, November 05, 2012

Broken Families, Lost Lineages

This decaying picture comes from a photo album my mother made for me about 15 years ago.  Some of the subjects are identified but many are not.  On the right are my father's parents, Helen and Ed Yaryan, and her sister, I think, is on the left.  It was taken in the early years of the 20th century.  I was taught about my family by my mother, who died 10 years ago, and by my father's older sister, my Aunt Margaret, who's been gone even longer.  That generation cared about lineage and were keepers of the flame of family, pasting photos in albums and noting names, making sure the past was kept in memory.  My children seem to have little interest in their ancestors.

These are my grandparents on my mother's side, Carly and Edmund Sheppard.  They were Canadians and my mom was born in Winnipeg but grew up in Montreal and Toronto.  On all of this, including names, my memory is hazy.  Long ago I put together a genealogy for both sides of my family but I think I left it in a box back in California. Now that I've scanned an album's worth of pictures, the legacy of my mother, into my computer, I don't know what to do with it.  My second wife and I were creatures of the age of equality and gave our two children double-barreled last names, a combination of our surnames; both hated it.  When she was young and rebellious, my daughter took a new name, that of her maternal great-grandmother, because she liked the sound of it better.  It's always felt like a personal rejection.  But, hey, what's in a name?

In the spring of 1953, my father took a job in Los Angeles and moved my mother, brother and I across the country.  After we'd gotten settled we drove up to the Bay Area where four of his five siblings were living, and his twin brother Ted came fout from Massachusetts for the unprecedented family reunion.  While growing up in Ohio, North Carolina and Georgia, I recall that every Christmas a huge box of presents arrived from our western relatives.  I only knew most of the from photographs.  At the reunion in Tiburon, I was the oldest of the many cousins and enjoyed my status.  Aunt Margaret took me under her wing and for the next few years she tutored me, not only in the family's history but also in literature.  She was a high school teacher and nurtured my interest in books and ideas.  She adored her younger twin brothers, particularly Ted, a character actor on Broadway, who shared her artistic and intellectual interests.  There were three more siblings who shared a mother, Frank, Mac and Nan, for my father's father had died young, during the flu epidemic I suspect, and his wife remarried a Mr. Duhme who preceded to squander much of the family fortune during the Florida land boom.

I'm mostly certain that this is my grandfather Ed with his twin boys, born in Toledo, Ohio, in 1908 but who grew up not far from St. Petersburg.  Homer, my father, and Ted were very close and very different.  Dad worked as a life guard and was a lifelong sports fan.  Ted aspired to play the piano. He only learned to play by ear, but was good enough to be the accompanist for Paul Robeson while working as stage manager for a tour of "Othello." That Ted was homosexual was never doubted (except by Frank's wife Mary who had a crush on him) but also never discussed by anyone in the family.  Dad didn't get along with his stepfather and was exiled to military school in New Mexico where he learned to play the drums in a roadhouse band.  Ted was a favorite of his wealthy grandmother in Toledo, and was taken under her wing.

These are my maternal great-grandparents on my mother's father's side,  both Sheppards whose full names I've forgotten.  My main genealogical interest was in exploring the Yaryan side of the family, because it was an unusual surname and probably also because I'm the product of a paternal culture.  The Sheppards migrated to Canada from the British Isles and were no doubt sheepherders. Perhaps the variant spelling was a way to put rural roots behind.  Mom was born Alyce Anita but changed her name to Peggy.  Her father was a successful architect who came to live with us in the early 1950s after his wife died.  Apparently he never knew how to take care him himself and he was helpless without her.  I recall him as a cribbage-playing, pipe-smoking, rather formal and taciturn man who didn't care much for teenagers.  After we moved to California he slowly slid into senility and was sent away to a nearby retirement home.  My one visit there was a horrible experience which put me off aging foreer.

Mom's only sibling was a considerably older brother named Ferris who left home as soon as he could.  Their mother apparently was exceptionally unaffectionate and didn't care much for the role.  Her daughter was sent away to convent school and they were lifelong antagonists.  Ferris led a rather secret life but I recall his son Kenny who came to visit shortly after I was born and helped take care of me, as did my Uncle Ted, when my mother was hospitalized for post-partum depression.  Kenny returned during the war years and I idolized him, but after the war ended we never heard from him again.

Ferris Sheppard, seen here with Kenny, went to California and we visited him once after moving there.  I recall little except that he was bald and everyone was a little tense.  My mother did not stay in touch with him.  Then six years ago I heard from his grandson who just happened to be living in Santa Cruz where I lived.  I got together for lunch with him and his mother, my first cousin, who lived over the hill in San Jose, and I shared a few photos I had of his father and grandparents.  I don't know how Barry found me but we were happy to connect.  Barry is a well-known cellist who has studied with Ravi Shankar and performed with the sitar player's daughter at the concert for George Harrison in London after the Beatle's death.  You can see my cousin in the DVD.

Everyone but my father is in this picture of his five siblings so perhaps he took the photo.  Ted is on the right.  He welcomed me into his small home in Cuernavaca, Mexico, when I dropped out of Berkeley to find out who I was, and we traveled around the country together.  Later he moved to San Diego with his long-term partner but after becoming disabled by emphysema he took his own life.  Margaret, standing next to Ted, was married late to a lovely man who also happened to be an alcoholic who used to go on long benders.  They had one son, Ted, who became a master carpenter; he died last year.  In the middle is Mac, a corpsman during the Pacific campaign who was forced to collect dead bodies and broke under the strain.  He was an alcoholic for many years, and after his nurse wife died of cancer, his three daughters were raised by Frank on the far left.  Frank and his Catholic wife could not have children.  He was a real man's man who fished, loved Hemingway, and who kept a copy of Bertrand Russell's Why I Am Not A Christian on his bedside table to rattle Mary. Nan, the only surviving sibling, married a pilot and had a slew of children.  They became fundamental Christians and spoke in tongues.  Ted told a story of attending a meeting with them at their church where most of the worshippers were black, contrasting starkly with the blonde, blue-eyed family.

This is the oldest photo in the collection my mother sent me.  It was probably taken in the 1890s in Toledo where my great-grandfather Homer T. Yaryan, seen on the left, built a room on his mansion to hold seances in order to investigate spiritualism.  He was a friend of Arthur Conan Doyle, who was also passionately interested in it and who stayed with my relative when he traveled to America with his family during a respite in the Sherlock Holmes narrative.  I'd seen this photo when I visited the Society of Psychical Research in London where great-grandfather had donated his papers.  Supposedly the bald, mustachioed man is Homer's long dead brother and the large man is the spirit medium.  Homer T. was a successful inventor who heated the sidewalks of Toledo to melt snow.  He also set out to expose the unscrupulous mediums but in the process found some, like this one, whom he believed were genuine.

Here is my family in about 1952.  We lived in western North Carolina where my father sold glue to plywood manufacturers.  My brother Geoff is three years younger and now has just turned 70.  Life was so different back them.  I had a very comfortable middle-class life and a happy childhood.  But I grew up in the 1950s and learned toward becoming a juvenile delinquent. The generation gap was wide.  After I discovered music, art and literature, I found much to criticize in the tastes of my plebeian parents.  They were Republicans and hated Negroes (before they were called blacks).  I wanted to become an actor but I'm sure my father feared I would become a fairy like his twin brother, and forbid it.  He wanted me to finish college because he didn't and thought it limited his employment opportunities.  I wanted to go on the road like Jack Kerouac.  As soon as it was possible (with a couple of false starts), I left home.  Though we stayed in touch and visited over the years, I rarely felt close to them and I think they never knew me very well.  I now know, at the age of 73, that it was my loss.

Geoff and I stay lightly in touch, but our disagreements in the past were so angry (he enjoyed them because he is a lawyer and good at it, but I didn't) that our relationship is somewhat distant. I am presently estranged from my two youngest offspring who took sides with their mother when our marriage collapsed, and who find more to criticize than like about my current choices in life.  My oldest son is responsive but not very curious about my current whereabouts.  I think he remains angry over how I abandoned him and his brother to a crazy woman when they were quite young.  It may have been a contributing cause of my second son's alcoholism which eventually took his life a few years ago.  Strangely enough, probably because of some problems in my own life, I felt closest to him, at least when he was sober.

I'm sure there are many people with worse stories than mine about broken families and lost lineages.  After all, I am a product of privilege, middle class and white.  Here in Thailand, as a farang I am considered "Hi-So" and can wander the halls of the expensive supermalls without embarrassment (poor Thais are very shy about intruding into the shopping palaces of the upper classes).  Much of my experience with family has been disappointing, and I accept my share of responsibility.  Not that there weren't good years, the 1950s out west, the late 1960s in southern California, and the last years of the 21st century in northern California.  But it mostly ended badly with bruised feelings and damaged egos.  Certainly I shared the experiences of my parents whose relationship with their siblings was often rocky.  They seemed to care more about the ties that bind, however, as my mother's loving construction of the photo album shows.  She would be very pleased to know I've made contact with her brother's long lost family.

They say your family has to take you in when no one else will, but that's not particularly true in the west where children are encouraged to be independent of their parents, and old folks are shuffled off to a retirement or nursing home.  Here in Asia, family is worshipped and elders are respected even when they don't deserve it.  I've become "Papa" in Nan's family and I believe they will care for me lovingly whenever the time comes that I no longer can do it all myself.  Of course there are benefits in having a foreign son-in-law, but these are calculations that take place on both sides.  It's sad that the story I've told here about my family, sketchy as it is and no doubt full of errors,  will have no audience in the future.