Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The Decline and Fall of Reality

The year ending today, 2013 brought a slew of articles on the death of conversation and the disappearance of face-to-face connections because of the onslaught of social media. People more and more to look only at digital virtual reality and ignore what's going on around them. Talking or sending messages on mobile phones is said to now be a major cause of traffic accidents (one woman texting on her phone reportedly walked off a pier into the water).  Sherry Turkle says we've replaced conversation with online connection.
Human relationships are rich; they’re messy and demanding. We have learned the habit of cleaning them up with technology. And the move from conversation to connection is part of this. But it’s a process in which we shortchange ourselves. Worse, it seems that over time we stop caring, we forget that there is a difference. 
Turkle, in "The Flight from Conversation," urges people to look up from their devices and look at one another.  The author of a book on how people relate to their gadgets, Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other, she advocates an understanding of and a control over technology that seems less and less possible.  Social media is a convenient scapegoat for many disenchanted with the way modernity (or even post-modernity) has turned out.  In some ways they resemble the Luddites in early 19th century England who destroyed labor-saving machines that threatened to put them out of work and became a symbol for anyone who felt threatened by new technology.

It's now fashionable to protest proliferation of digital devices and the networks of apps to which we've become addicted. We even complain about it on Twitter, Facebook and LINE.  But we forget that smart phones and portable tablets are only the latest technologies to distract us from "real life."  Thais don't read newspapers on the Skytrain but when I was a daily commuter by train between Manhattan and Connecticut no one was without their newspaper (folding it to keep it out of your neighbor's face was an art).  Every invention that threatened conversation was been bemoaned by someone, from the telephone and typewriter to the fountain pen and paper.

As an active user of various social media (though I've never gotten into Instagram and rarely attempt a call with Skype), I frequently find myself defending it against attacks from modern Luddites and promoters of a kind of realism that often seems to downgrade imagination and fantasy, at least off the printed page.  Yes, as I travel around Bangkok, every other person I see in cafés and on public transport is looking at a small screen, taking a photo with their device, tapping out a message on the tiny keys or talking into a phone behind their hand (Thais are polite that way).  Today, at least in this Asian capital, digital devices are ubiquitous.  Is it a sign that civilization is crumbling?

I don't think so.  My argument isn't very sophisticated: This is the way it is.  This is what people choose to do in 2013. Accept it and quit bitching about it.

No one has to use the new technologies, just as no one is forcing the Amish to abandon their horses and buggies for gas-guzzling cars.  Many of my friends shun Facebook and Twitter and I know one or two who do not even own a mobile phone.  But even they might use the internet for email or research on the web.  You can pick and choose.  Some people of my advanced age, however, avoid the computer and all it entails.  They claim to prefer writing letters to far away friends instead of sending email. Hand-written messages, they believe, are so much more personal.  And they are.  As someone whose hand writing has always been illegible, even to myself, I always loved the more impersonal typewriter.  My father's secretary taught me to type when I was 12 on an ancient Underwood, and I carried around a portable Smith-Corona for years.

When I was teaching environmental philosophy back in California, I lectured on the unintended consequences of technology, and I have much sympathy for the old Luddites as well as the more recent activists who campaign against nuclear power (long before Fukushima proved correct their worst fears.  I know that chemicals developed for warfare were introduced into the environment after 1945 and the increase in use since then closely parallels the rise in cancer rates around the world. The consequences of new technologies are often not benign and impartial government and international agencies are needed to protect the public.

I'm not a very good Buddhist, but one of the messages that got through to me was that hoping that something might be different only brings discomfort and upset.  I wish that I were more handsome and leaner and that it wasn't so cold today.  The bird in the tree outside should shut up. Why is there so much conflict and misery in the world?  The Serenity Prayer is very good for this: "Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference."  Friends back in my town in California would complain about how bad the traffic had gotten.  It was so much better in the old days, 5 or 10 or 15 years before.  I loved Berkeley in the early 1960's before hippies, drugs and street people changed the scene irrevocably. Today's music is terrible: boy bands and sampling have ruined it.

The Oxford Dictionaries selected "selfie" as the word of the year for 2013.  When cameras shrank to the size of a pocket and then were put inside mobile phones, the world changed forever. Go anywhere today and people are photographing it and themselves in it.  In every restaurant people are taking pics of their food (I do it all the time). According to Turkle's article (above) some people have developed the skill of looking in the eyes of a person they're with while texting on the phone in their lap to someone else. Impolite, yes, but the end of civilization as we know it?

Back in the late 1950s, Erving Goffman wrote about the performative aspects of social communication in his now classic book The Presentation of the Self in Everyday Life.  Goffman echoed Shakespeare in seeing the world as a stage and everyone in it as actors in different roles.  I believe that the internet with its apps and smart phones with their tiny cameras have given humans lots of new ways to present themselves to others.  If there is no essential self (or soul), as Buddhists believe, then our self is a continuing act of creation brought about when our brains encounter the world.  And the drama goes on as long as we are alive.  As for me, my Facebook timeline and Twitter tweets give me a stage in which to perform my dance.  It's both a newspaper and the draft of a novel, as well as an art gallery where I display my photos, and a confessional couch where I can reveal inner most thoughts to those I consider "friends" (and FB allows for extensive categorization of relationships).  I can be my "self," the person I think I am, or I can create a new identity with an icon and a set of fabricated  attributes.

Conversations online and on LINE may be different from face-to-face interactions but they are still taking place and something is exchanged between human beings.  I'm connected virtually with people I've known at every stage of my long life. We exchange thoughts, opinions about current events, gossip, movie reviews, pictures and birthday greetings.  This is REAL communication, even if I'm at my computer in Bangkok and they're halfway around the world. Definitions that oppose "real life" to what we do with our devices are just as misleading and damaging as an addiction to the screen that makes looking into another's eyes difficult.  It's all "real," not just your slice of it.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Dreaming of Christmas

In this Buddhist country where I now live, Christmas has become a major holiday, at least for the shoppers.  Even in my large neighborhood mall, where seldom is a Western face seen, the stores are littered with fake trees, colored lights and misspelled displays like the above.  Christmas carols can be heard on the PA systems, beginning in early November, and the only thing missing is a Salvation Army Santa.  I try to be cosmopolitan, but there's just something so wrong with "Jingle Bells" in Thailand.

Last year there was still snow on the ground when we left Seoul on Christmas day after a week's holiday.  The day before, on Christmas Eve,  I had seen some Salvation Army Santas ringing their bells in the crowded shopping center of Myeong-dong, but I assumed that's because a quarter of the Korean population have embraced Christianity.  Here in Thailand they are less than one per cent; missionaries have always traveled an uphill road among the Thais.  In Seoul we saw street corner preachers and even a man on his knees praying while pedestrians swarmed around him.  The snowfall a few days before had been delightful. The possibility of experiencing it had been one of the reasons for our visit, but throwing snow balls failed to resurrect in me the Christmas spirit.

As a parent I tried to recreate the Christmas rituals of my childhood. The bigger the tree (and we had to chop it down ourselves) the better. I accumulated tree ornaments through two marriages (and left them behind in the divorce settlements).  On Christmas eve, just as my father had done with me and my brother, I read my children "The Night Before Christmas."  One holiday in Connecticut, when my brother-in-law's family traveled from Ohio to join us, we were without a copy and had to recreate the story from our collective memory.

My parents loved Christmas.  Every year they put cards received up on the wall and outfitted themselves in red.  When my brother and I were young, we went to bed without a tree and awoke to find a bejeweled fantasy surrounded by mountains of gifts brought by the Santa who had consumed the milk and cookies we'd left for him.  My mother would never let us see it until she'd made coffee and gathered her note pad to record who gave what for future thank you cards.  Our aunts, uncles and cousins on the West Coast combined their presents for us in a large barrel they sent overland weeks before.  In the evening, with the wrapping paper neatly folded and put away for next year, we'd play with our toys in the living room around the TV set where Perry Como would be singing Christmas songs like "O Holy Night" and "Silver Bells."

Bing Crosby's singing of "White Christmas" (seen here from the 1954 movie of that name with George Clooney's aunt Rosemary) is one of many musical triggers that evoke the Christmas spirit for me.  He first sang it in the 1942 film "Holiday Inn."
I'm dreaming of a white Christmas
Just like the ones I used to know
Where the tree tops glisten and children listen
To hear sleigh bells in the snow.
Whose heart cannot be moved by those lines? Well, it might be pretty meaningless to my neighbors here in Bangkok.  "White Christmas" is on every holiday compilation album and all popuar artists have sung it at one time or another, even Boy George and Lady Gaga.

When did it all go bad?  When did the Christmas dream become a nightmare?  It didn't happen with the realization that Santa Claus was only a fairy tale and Rudolph had no red nose.  For years I listened to the songs I loved each December, sent cards to my friends, cut down and decorated the biggest tree that would fit in my house, and bought more presents for my loved ones that I could afford.  I tried to replicate for my four kids the marvelous Christmas I spent at my father's cousin's farm in snow-swept Ohio when I was five just after the war.  They were rich and the tree in the entrance way was two floors' tall.  Or the Christmas when we traveled in a blizzard through Pennsylvania to my wife's brother's house in Cleveland.  Those Christmas dreams are sustained by the presence of children and the promise of peace on earth and goodwill towards all.

What turned me ultimately into a bah humbugger was the ever increasing necessity for more and costlier presents and the fear that they would never be good enough to please the recipient. Nothing changed, since Christmas has long been an exercise in consumerism.  I grew up and became less of a dreamer.  Snow was a paradoxical consequence of global warming and probably carried noxious chemicals or even radioactive particles.  We tried making rather than buying gifts, and that wasn't appreciated by the kids.  With friends in California from Denmark we celebrated their traditions of dancing around a tree lit with live candles followed by the drinking of aquavit and the eating of herring (this is the Christmas my two youngest kids will dream about and try to recreate some day).  But as the shopping season drew near ever year I would retreat into my shell and leave the decorating, buying and cooking to others.  It didn't go over very well.

The Christmas spirit didn't totally die for me, it just got less parochial.  In 2005 I celebrated a cold, drizzly Christmas in an Anglican church in north London, in 2007 it was in a Catholic ashram in Tamil Nadu, India.  The world now owns Christmas, even if it has lost its moorings in the birth of Jesus.  Back in the U.S. the Tea Party claims there is a war on Christmas because many have replaced "Merry Christmas" with "Happy Holidays."  Some in the religious right have always thought Santa a dangerous pagan.

Pagan Pattaya is all dolled up for the holidays with decorated trees and Christmas messages, many of them in Russian and Arabic.  In 2008 I spent my second Christmas there surrounded by poinsettia plants (not a native species) and naked Santas.  In the hotels there and in the supermalls of Bangkok there are trees taller than the tallest redwoods back in California and like the sequoia sempervirens they will last almost forever. I've been taking pictures of Christmas trees and decorations this year and this is perhaps why it seems a more popular holiday than ever before.  My wife growing up in a small village in Phayao only knew about Christmas because her aunt's boyfriend from Belgium decorated a tree and handed out presents to all the children.  Today, however, the internet and social networks have made it a -- if not THE -- universal holiday (sorry Tea Party folks, I have yet in my travels to see a creche with a baby Jesus and mama Mary outside of Christian precincts).

Nan and I have Santa hats and a reusable tree to which I added this year a string of colored lights.  There's a big tree in the condo lobby.  I have 80 songs in my iTunes in a Christmas folder and recently added "A Motown Christmas" and "Phil Spector's Christmas Album," two classics. Fortunately Nan has tomorrow off from work so we're planning to pick out presents for each other at the mall (nothing closes here on Dec. 25th) and have a holiday meal, perhaps a Japanese buffet.  I haven't sent any Christmas cards since I moved to Thailand since mail in the age of email and the internet is passé.  But I've filled my Facebook timeline with YouTube videos of my favorite Christmas songs along with the photos I've taken for the Christmas in Bangkok album.  There are a lot of good wishes swirling around the Net.  And if it weren't for the current insurrection in Bangkok, I might assure everyone of peace on earth and goodwill toward all.  It's only a hope now in Thailand.

Bah humbuggery, of course, coexists with a nostalgia for the Christmases in our (often false) memory.  The dream of Christmas promises much but rarely delivers, and disappointment is the seedbed of cynicism. The holidays are a time of sadness and even suicide.  My son Luke was as sentimental as me but he dreaded the Christmas season which made his chemical dependencies so much more difficult to control.  Fortunately my perennial sadness is now offset by a wonderful life. This song always puts me in the Christmas spirit wherever I am.


Saturday, November 30, 2013

Hatred is a Force that Gives Us Meaning

As I write this post, mobs of anti-government protestors are invading and occupying government offices throughout Bangkok.  Their leader, a former MP named Suthep, has vowed to bring down Thailand's elected government by tomorrow night.  For the past week, marches and demonstrations, marked by the screeching taunt of blowing whistles, have blocked streets and caused chaos in the capital.  Tens of thousands of Thais from Bangkok and the southern provinces have gathered around the Democracy Monument to listen to fiery speeches denouncing the "tyranny of the majority" and calling for an end to elections, and an appointed government under the authority of the king.  They are allied with the Democratic Party which has not won an election since 1992.  What unifies the protestors is hatred bordering on mass hysteria of one man, Thaksin Shinawatra, as well as his sister, Yingluck, currently the country's prime minister.

When I arrived in 2007, Thaksin was already in exile, having been deposed by a military coup the previous year that had been provoked by similar street protests organized by his enemies.  During my first months there was a referendum on a new constitution written by the military junta that passed narrowly.  It was designed to prevent the executive branch excesses of which it believed Thaksin was guilty.  I read the biography by well-respected academics Chris Baker and Pasuk Phongpaichit and learned that Thaksin had mixed business and politics in an unethical and sometimes illegal way, a practice common among Thai politicians in the past.  He built the country's first mass political party with populist policies that increased his popularity in the rural north and northeast.  Opposition to his power arose among the traditional elites centered in Bangkok and the 2006 coup, a much used technique in Thailand, cut short his reign.

At the next election, despite the junta, a party allied to Thaksin won easily.  Thaksin haters, now called "yellow shirts,"  put pressure on the government in 2008 by shutting down the international airport for a week.  And when the prime minister was deposed by a court decision because he accepted money to appear on a TV cooking show, his replacement, Thaksin's brother-in-law, was also removed by what has been called a "judicial coup."  After a few MPs changed their allegiance, Abhisit Vejjijiva, leader of the Democratic Party, was declared an unelected PM.  In 2010, supporters of Thaksin and the voters whose decisions had been overturned three times, now called "red shirts," occupied a section of central Bangkok for two months, their goal to force a new election.  Abhisit, with the assistance of Suthep, ejected the demonstrators with brutal force resulting in nearly 100 deaths and a thousand injuries.  Irony of ironies, in the election Abhisit finally agreed to call, he was overwhelmingly defeated by a new party led by Thaksin's sister, Yingluk Shinawatra.

The present crisis began when Yingluk's party foolishly tried to pass an amnesty bill that would have allowed her brother back in the country and able to claim his confiscated fortune, but would not have punished Abhisit and Suthep for ordering the killing of red shirt protestors in 2010.  It galvanized the resistance of all factions. However, after the amnesty bill was withdrawn, Suthep declared his intention was now to rid Thailand of the "Thaksin regime," and a week of marches and takeovers at numerous government ministries resulted. The huge government complex at Chiang Wattana in the northern suburbs of Bangkok besieged by over by an estimated 20,000 and most operations shut down, including Immigration where thousands of expats and tourists come daily to apply for visas.  Their pain will cause international grumbles.  But of course Thailand's present troubles are already major news in the world's press and social media.

While discussion of the monarchy is prohibited in Thailand with stringent laws punishing the slightest slip of the tongue, any talk about Thaksin is difficult if not impossible because of the implacable sides.  No one straddles the fence. Yesterday a German expat I've known for some time tried to convince me that Thaksin was the equivalent of Hitler.  When I said he was only a typical corrupt politician whose sins were shared by many others, he shouted at me: "You've been brainwashed!  On Facebook my opinions have been challenged by other expats who believe Thaksin's approval of extra-judicial killings of drug dealers puts him behind the pale.  When I suggested that most Thais accepted this violence at the time, as well as that of Muslims killed while in custody in the south where an insurrection has been ongoing for years, my views were ridiculed.

I borrowed the title of this post from Chris Hedges' book about his experience as a war correspondent, War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning.  He tells about becoming addicted to hatred of the other and of the eruption of rage at inappropriate times.  Veterans talk of their experiences in warfare as an intense meaningful time when everything made sense, when good was defending your own and bad was the enemy.  Hatred is a primal emotion that distinguished our side from theirs at a time when territory meant survival and loss of it death.  Today the other may be just like us but for something that sets them apart (religion is a powerful dividing force, but support of different sports teams will suffice). Shared hatred can promote group adhesion and identity.  But psychologists also tell us that what he hate in the other might be what we most fear in ourselves (confused sexual identity can be a problem here). And hatred is a bitter pill that often can hurt the hater more than the one hated.

Unlike other large protests in the past, which can be colorful and carnivalesque, I've stayed away from big gatherings during the past week as much as possible.  I see the masses of naive and utopian protestors as riding on a speeding train that is sure to crash, and soon. Given Suthep's uncompromising goal of total victory over the government, there cannot be a peaceful outcome.  Eventually the authorities, police and military, will have to confront the mobs occupying government offices and I'm sure there will be considerable violence. There was a protest in my neighborhood a few days ago at the Ministry of Culture and I walked up to see what was going on. A large police presence prevented anyone from entering the building, and the crowd was largely boisterous but not angry.  They were blowing whistles, snacking from the food carts, and taking selfies against the police background.  Apparently 14 ministries have been targeted like this one.  The anti-government protestors appeared to be mostly white collar and middle class with women in their office uniforms on lunch break.  As I write this, fights have broken out between pro and anti government protestors.

Thais enjoy life and sanuk (fun) is often the standard. Demonstrations, whether of red or yellow shirts, are not unlike a rock concert with lots of music and even dancing between the rip-roaring speeches that never mince words (according to translations I've seen). Even my sister-in-law went last night to sample the excitement.  The yellow-shirt PAD and the Democratic Party have tried numerous times in the last two years to rouse their supporters to come out in the streets to protest against Thaksin and Yingluk but nothing until now has achieved traction.  The amnesty bill did the trick, and now the mobilization has achieved critical mass, enabling Suthep to aim high, the end of democracy as it is commonly manifested in the west and the inauguration of a new form of absolute monarchy.  They may have as many as 50,000 troops to achieve this objective in Bangkok.  But an equal number of red shirts are gathering on the outskirts of Bangkok who will strongly oppose any regime change.  At the last election, over 15 million voted for Yingluk even though most knew her brother might pull her strings.  I doubt that these voters will appreciate being disenfranchised by a street mob unified only by hatred of the man in Dubai.

Until the hatred of Thaksin is discussed, debated, resolved and put to rest, Thailand can never advance beyond the political crises that have paralyzed it over for over a dozen years.

Below: I happened on this mob outside the Royal Thai Police headquarters.  Later it was learned that protestors had cut electricity to the facility and also to the hospital next door.  Soon there will be a response to such vandalism and it won't be pretty.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

The First Reality Show

Fifty years ago this week, my first wife and I were staying at my parents' house in western North Carolina.  We were recovering from a train crash a few days before on the border between Texas and Louisiana.  A woman in a pickup with her son and dog had driven into the third car back and derailed Southern Pacific's Sunset Limited from Los Angeles.  We were in the lounge car talking with new traveling friends on a sunny Sunday morning when the train car started jerking and tipping over. Aside from a few cuts and bruises, the passengers survived, but the occupants of the truck were killed instantly.

It's a peculiarly modern custom to celebrate milestones, like "fifty years," which mean little in the grand scheme of things.  We especially mark decades and quarter centuries as worthy of note to cheer or mourn.  Next summer I will turn 75 and I suppose there will have to be fireworks. The current generation now counts off the years from September 11th, 2001, when "everything changed."  But of course everything changes every day for somebody.  Two months ago we recalled the March on Washington fifty years ago that meant so much for the move of America away from its era of segregation. A week ago it was Armistice (or Veterans) Day when World War One ended. That date will get more fireworks next year on its 100th anniversary.

And yet...1963 is inescapably etched in my memory and in that of others in my cohort who remember what they were doing the day President Kennedy was killed.  My wife and I were moving from Berkeley to New York City to begin a new adventure.  Eventually we would continue on to Europe.  We were in our early 20s and relatively fearless.  The comfortable Fifties were giving way to new possibilities, and the symbol for the Sixties was our young president from Massachusetts and his fashionable wife.  I had chosen Kennedy when I voted in my first election two years before.

My parents were not particularly happy with my choice of a wife.  We'd gotten married earlier that summer by a Justice of the Peace in Laguna Beach.  "Living in sin" at our Berkeley apartment, where we pretended otherwise, made her insecure to the point of hysteria, and I imagined that legitimizing our relationship might help (it did, but only for a while).  My mother, who got up daily at dawn to mop the kitchen floor, would stand outside our bedroom door talking loudly in hopes that her new daughter-in-law would awake and join her.  But that was not to be.

I went out in the afternoon of the 22nd of November to do some errands with my mother.  We were returning from her dressmaker's and listening to the radio in the car when an announcement was made about Kennedy being shot.  It did not make sense.  When we got home, my wife, brother and father were in the living room watching our small black-and-white TV. There we stayed glued to our chairs and the screen for the next week.  Walter Cronkite (our announcer of choice) tearfully confirmed the president's death.  We learned about the arrest of Lee Harvey Oswald.  And two days later, in a live broadcast from the Dallas jail, we saw strip club owner Jack Ruby shoot and kill Oswald in a room full of police in full view of the news cameras. That too did not immediately sink in. A murder live on TV in our living room.

There have since been other significant events shown live on TV. But for me the killing of Oswald by Ruby in front of millions of viewers was the first reality show.  Though I missed the first plane, I saw the second strike the World Trade Center as I drank my early morning coffee.  Now that we have YouTube, there are horrendous videos posted daily, most taken down quickly if they disturb the sensibilities of viewers (like the recent video of a beheading that I mercifully avoided).  In some ways, seeing IS believing.  We know who killed Oswald because we saw it with our own eyes.  But there is still doubt that Oswald killed Kennedy, at least not without help, and a significant portion of the population believes the collapse of the Twin Towers was an inside job.  Of course, there were many who thought the moon landing was a fake despite the live telecasts from space -- "one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind."  Seeing is not always believing.

There's no denying that fifty years is a long time.  I've already lived out the three score and ten years allotted to me in the book of Psalms.  The difficult part is making sense of it as a whole. Like the simplistic definition of history, it was just one damn thing after another.  A friend recently asked me to play the game of posting some little known facts about my life; her's were all fascinating.  I couldn't come up with any. One's life is never a singular event when it is contemplated from within.  We're the only animal that can stand outside itself and see how it measures up to an imaginary standard.  I can chart the distance by comparing points in time and noting the difference.  Sometimes I fear that the outcome is rigged.

In November of 1963 I was a skinny lad of 24 with a bit of experience as a journalist ready to scale the ladder of success in Manhattan (my second attempt).  By the spring we were living in a garrett apartment in Greenwich Village on Christopher Street.  I was writing for a broadcasting trade journal and my wife was a copy girl for Women's Wear Daily.  She was friends with Eric Van Lustbader who was on the staff a dozen years before his first fantasy novel.  A year later we were living in London where our son was born.  I wrote about TV shows for a regional magazine and she stayed at home as an unhappy, unfulfilled mom.

Fast forward to November 2013, fifty years later.  When I look at myself in the mirror I see past the fat, the wrinkles and the sparse white hair to the callow youth I once was.  Have I progressed? Have I learned anything about myself or about the world to justify the time spent at living?  My home is in Bangkok on the 9th floor of an apartment building with an expansive view of the city's central skyline. Sunrise is a continual joy.  Social Security from the U.S. allows me to live comfortably and I supplement this income with part-time teaching of English to monks at a large Buddhist university.  I only work one day a week but the interaction with young and enthusiastic students from a half-dozen Southeast Asian countries gives me great pleasure.  Married for the third and happiest time, my wife cares for me with a respect and love I've never deserved.  She works at an upscale hotel and on her days off we play together, eating out, shopping, going to films. On extended holidays we've traveled to a number of Thai islands as well as to the Asian capitals of Singapore, Hong Kong and Seoul.

I can write easily about now and then, but it's the in-between years that escape the thread.  How did I get from there to here?  Were the choices I made at the time random and accidental, or was there a purpose to it all?  Often it's the harm I've done to family and friends that stops all thinking in its tracks.  If karma is real then punishment must be delayed for it seems I've lived a charmed life.

Now I'm an old man counting out his life in cappuccino spoons.  My two ex-wives despise me and most of my children as well as my brother no longer speak to me (or maybe I don't want to hear the judgements they have about me).  I go about my life halfway around the world from the California where I spent most of my years.  Sufficient funds and a marvelously developed social technology enable me to exist at a comfort level I could not imagine when I was younger.  Of course the sky could fall tomorrow.  The medical insurance I kept when I retired from UC is no longer sufficient to stave off emergencies, so health is the great x-factor. But until it's time to go I can enjoy my reality.  It's even documented with photos and videos on Facebook.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

My Uncle Ted

Ted and my father were fraternal twins, yin to the other's yang.  He was my Auntie Mame, the relative whose glamorous life held out the promise of adventure beyond the boundaries of home while rooted in the family.  Ted was an actor on Broadway, a pianist who had accompanied Paul Robeson, the host at an exclusive inn on Cape Cod, an expatriate in Cuernavaca, Mexico, and gay.

Mame was the subject of a book by Patrick Dennis in the 1950s about his eccentric aunt, and it was made with much success into a play, musical and film. I saw Angela Lansbury in the role in the 1960s.  By then, inspired by our adventures in Mexico together in 1962, I'd moved to Manhattan to become a writer.  Ted, on the other hand, fell ill with emphysema during our trip and moved to San Diego with George, his partner of 20 years, where they bought a house with money he'd inherited from his wealthy grandmother.

Dreams do not always turn out as planned.  The stories and poems I penned over the years have amounted to little and the only writing I've really done is here in this blog for the past half dozen years.  Ted, terrified of suffocating, took his own life with an overdose of sleeping pills in 1969. George succumbed to the alcoholism that had long plagued him.  He willed their house to a neighbor, who told me it was totally trashed, and his book collection to me.  Several boxes arrived at my house in Santa Cruz and they contained original manuscripts of stories George had written in the 1950s for shabby imitations of Playboy. There was also a heavily underlined copy in Ted's meticulous handwriting of P.D. Ouspensky's "In Search of the Miraculous."

I don't know who was born first.  Ted was named Edward after their father, and his brother was encumbered with Homer (later nicknamed Humpy by his friends), the name of his grandfather. They were born in Toledo, Ohio, where their grandfather had been a successful inventor.  He discovered a process to extract turpentine from pine tree stumps, and in Toledo he piped steam through pipes under the sidewalks to melt snow (old-timers still remember "Yaryan heat").  After their father died of TB while working at the family business in Mississippi, they moved with older sister Margaret to a mansion outside St. Petersburg, Florida, where their new step-father was a speculator during the land boom years.  Soon they had three new siblings, brothers Frank and Mac and sister Nan.

My father was bigger and athletic, while Ted was thin and often in ill health.  He learned to play the piano by ear and fooled listeners into thinking he could read music.  Neither boy got along well with their step-father.  And when Margaret, for reasons lost in the mist (she died in 2001), got into a dispute with her grandmother, somehow she and my dad were cut out of her will while the beloved Ted remained (this provided the inheritance to buy that house in San Diego). He was always good with old ladies!

Homer and Ted were room mates the summer dad worked as a life guard at Cape May, New Jersey.  Later I was told by my father that Ted couldn't be gay because he had been worried that he had gotten a girl pregnant.  My father soon got married and I was born in Toledo not long before Hitler invaded Poland.  During the early years of the war, Ted was stage director for a touring version of "Othello," starring Paul Robeson, and at after hours parties he would accompany the black actor/singer on the piano. Robeson was persecuted during the McCarthy period for his political beliefs and support for civil rights. After Ted joined the Army where he worked as an entertainer, he directed a version of "Little Women" with soldiers in drag for the troops at Camp Lee, New Jersey.  It made the pages of Life Magazine, and it was during that production that he met George, one of the actors. Dad's hand had been maimed in an industrial accident which confined his war service to Coast Guard duty on Lake Erie. After the war we moved to North Carolina, and were living in a small town in the western hills when Ted came to visit us in 1952 (the photo at the top of this post).

It was family legend that Ted was an actor on Broadway.  At the age of 12 I was madly in love with the movies and my dream was to become an actor, or better yet, a movie star. When dad told him of my ambition, Ted's advice was: Drown him!  He came to visit us during rehearsals for Horton Foote's play, "The Chase," directed by Jose Ferrer.  I later learned that his understudy for the role he played was Jason Robards.  In 1945, Ted had been cast by Ferrer in "Strange Fruit," a play made from Lillian Smith's novel about an interracial romance.  It was named after a song sung by Billie Holiday.  When "The Chase" opened, Ted told me that he got a playbill autographed for me by its stars, Kim Stanley and John Hodiak; sadly it never arrived in the mail. Neither play directed by Ferrer, unlike his Broadway hit "Stalag 17," lasted for more than two months. The movie version of "The Chase" in 1966 starred Marlon Brando and Jane Fonda in lead roles. Robert Redford and Robert Duvall were also featured and Richard Bradford reprised my uncle's role.

According to Ted, he was never more than a character actor, and after "The Chase" closed he gave up on Broadway.  He worked at the Queen Anne Inn on Cape Cod in Chatham, Massachusetts, where he was an all-around host and maitre d'hotel.  In the evenings he played piano for the guests.  And each winter when the snows came to the Cape, Ted would go to Cuernavaca where he bought a small row house on an alley in the northern part of the city.  He decorated it with indigenous art and his closest friends were Joaquin and Aurora, owners of a paint store, with whom he played canasta weekly and watched the bullfights on their TV.  He seemed fluent in Spanish, but he admitted to only knowing lots of modismos, expressions, enough to fool even the natives. Ted was also acquainted with the most celebrated expats there, Woolworth heiress Barbara Hutton, who had directed her mansion in Japanese modern, and actress Helen Hayes, as well as a number of "remittance men," many of them gay, who were expats supported by their wealthy families so long as they stayed far away from the ancestral home.

In Berkeley that fall of 1961 I was on the verge of flunking out of the University of California and had stayed in bed during the final week of the fall term during final exams reading science fiction.  I wrote Ted about my confusion and he responded with an invitation to come talk about it in Cuernavaca. My father took me to the bus station and I sensed some reluctance on his part to let me go, perhaps even jealousy.  Like Ted, I had been a sickly child, prevented from playing sports because of asthma.  I felt I had disappointed my father.  Their sister Margaret encouraged my interest in literature and told me often how much I like Ted I was (She had married an aspiring writer who became a refrigerator salesman and an alcoholic).  My younger brother, on the other hand, took after our dad.  The ride from LA to the border, and on a Tres Estrellas de Oro bus from Tijuana to Mexico City was the most fabulous journey of my life up to that time.

Ted met me at the bus depot and took me to a small hotel where we talked long into the night.  I felt an immediate connection, as if he understood me in ways my parents could not.  I suspected he was homosexual although we never discussed it while he was alive.  Those were closeted times.  It was rarely mentioned in my family.  Uncle Frank's wife Mary adored Ted and got furious if the possibility was ever entertained by anyone.  Ted and I went by bus the next morning over the mountain to Cuernavaca and I moved into his one-room house (plus kitchen, bathroom and patio).

I had brought my typewriter and he asked a friend to make me a writing table. I sat under the large Jacaranda tree in the middle of the patio which dropped its purple blooms onto the keys when I wasn't fruitlessly trying to create the great American novel, or at least a story or poem.  George was away (on a bender, it was implied), and we were joined by their friend Alicia from New York who had retired after a career with the Girl Scouts.  She was a short, dark and animated lady, probably a lesbian although it was never mentioned.  The three of us traveled south by bus from Cuernavaca, to Oaxaca, Tehuantepec and Salina Cruz, and across to Coatzacoalcos and Veracruz, before returning home.  It was a wonderful journey and I had my fill everywhere of ripe watermelon and fresh shrimp.

During my stay with Uncle Ted we attended a couple of parties held by remittance men and their friends.  One was in a house carved out of part of the old cathedral and restored.  Beside the pool a dance troupe from the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City twirled torches and performed an Aztec ritual for guests. At the home of the business manager for Helen Hayes, I swam in a large pool decorated with gold coins. Between that house and the one next door there was a small slum where the domestic help lived. While I was swimming, guests arrived on the lawn beside the pool in a helicopter provided by the Mexican Air Force.

After I returned home to Southern California following my two months as Uncle Ted's protege, in many ways I felt like a failure. I was 21 but still a naive kid, fearful of the looks given me by the Indians at the pulqueria on the corner, afraid to venture far on my own, and a poor student of Spanish. The confusion I felt about my life in Berkeley had only been temporarily abated.  On the trip I had not written anything halfway decent, save for a long poem about a train wreck in which many peasants were killed or injured that profited dramatically from their misery.  Ted had encouraged a romance with a young girl who worked in her parent's store near our house, and he also prodded me to go after another girl I met at a party who worked in the diplomatic corps. Both came to naught.  I preferred to fantasize about a girl back in California whom I learned, after I returned home, was engaged to marry a close friend.  I was an usher at their wedding.

But being with Ted in Mexico did give me a look at wider possibilities.  I didn't have to go back to school and settle down into middle class life like my parents.  After recovering from a bout of hepatitis (bad water on the bus ride home, I deduced), I set out on a cross-country train journey with my typewriter in tow to New York where I got in touch with Ted's friend Alicia.  She introduced me to her nephew Alan and I was given a temporary home in the Greenwich Village loft he shared with his artist friend David.  Without Ted that never would have happened. Another guest in the loft was a car salesman named John from England, and we got to know Manhattan together.  This first foray into New York lasted only four months.  A year later my first wife and I returned to New York for more adventures and the following year we moved to London where we shared our first apartment in Baron's Court with that same John.

Thanks, Uncle Ted, for your continuing influence on my life, and for being my Auntie Mame.

Monday, October 14, 2013

A House is not Always a Home

I was the owner of a house for abut a minute. Then the marriage fell apart and I ran off with my wife's buyout offer.

Home ownership is a key pillar in America's civil religion.  It's also a component in what it means to be a husband, a father and a man.  Not only the poor are homeless.

Owning a home was the goal touted for veterans after the second world war.  My father served in the Coast Guard on Lake Erie because he'd lost a couple of fingers in an industrial accident and the other services wouldn't take him (in later years he was unable to join the Elks or the Lions club because he couldn't perform the club handshake).  When he was hired to sell plastics in the south as a traveling salesman after the war's end, my parents bought a tiny house in Greensboro, borrowing money from relatives for the downpayment.  I was eight and I loved the big back yard with a tree I could climb. No more rentals like the apartments they'd had in Toledo.  My mom and dad traded up for the rest of their lives, buying houses in western North Carolina, Atlanta, Southern California and Florida.  After my mother died, my brother and I split the sale price for her cinderblock home. He bought an apartment and I spent my share on travel.

I was raised on cowboy movies and science fiction and the prospect of owning property, not to mention having a wife and children, never appealed.  I wanted a life of adventure.  The fact that paying rent produced no equity did not bother me.  I shared houses with friends who'd taken the plunge and noted their possessive joy, but it failed to change my mind.  House ownership was a complicated affair that chained one to an object that was a domineering mistress.

Women need a nest more than men, according to my understanding of sexual difference, and my first two wives were persistent in their desire to get a house.  Fortunately, I never saved enough money nor made a large enough salary to fill that need.  Whatever excess was available I preferred to use for travel (London 1964-66, Hawaii and Florida in the 1980s).

When my second wife received an substantial inheritance from a distant relative whom most in the family considered an oddball, all resistance faded.  My daughter and I found a house on a hillside in the Santa Cruz Mountains that was perfect.  It was surrounded by redwoods and fir trees, and had been enlarged from a cabin built by a friend, a piano player who taught music for years to prisoners at Soledad.  He and his wife, a stewardess with a drug problem, had a deaf child and when their marriage collapsed, he had to sell the property.

My good credit allowed us to finance a third of the cost of the house with two-thirds coming from the inheritance.  My wife began gardening big time, and she bought a hot tub.  A tiny cabin up the hill from the house became my book-lined study and it was there that I wrote most of my Ph.d. dissertation about the movement in California to save ancient redwood trees in the first state park. We were living in paradise, but time was running out.  She was particularly displeased when I refused to climb up on the roof to remove the leaves and clean out the gutters.  She loved hardware stores; I found them dreadfully boring.  A relationship that began when she admired my poetry which I read one evening in the restaurant where she was a cook was heading for disaster.

I don't have pictures of the house because I left all my photos behind when she told me she wanted to live alone.  The photo I took above is of one of the many Victorians in Santa Cruz where I visited not long before Halloween in 2010.

After the split, my daughter accused me of threatening to take away the house that she and her brother hoped someday to inherit from their mother who at that point held the purse strings.  They stayed with her and I went through a succession of rooms in the dwellings of friends before finding a secure rental in a pool house near the beach. I learned that my soon-to-be ex-wife expended considerable effort in getting the lowest possible estimate on the value of the house so as to lower the amount she needed to pay me to give up my half.  Her check for $20,000 provided traveling money for a couple of years. Her next husband was a plumber who knew his way around the hardware store and who installed a new wood-burning stove for her.  He also taught her to surf.

My son and his wife live in a palatial spread next to vineyards in the foothills of Sonoma County. He worked hard and was successful early in life when he and his wife made the decision not to have children.  They fill their rooms with dogs and cats, some living out their lives in the comfort of a house most people can only dream about.  It's basically a one-bedroom house with a couple of spare rooms over the garage, with a connected living room and dining room big enough to throw a large party.  I'm happy that someone in my lineage can have the chance to experience living in a 21st century plantation, but I found the small guest room upstairs fulfilled all my needs.  If my world here collapsed for any reason, it might be possible to retire there surrounded by grape vines and boutique vintners.

Now that I live in Thailand, I frequently run into expats who retain property back home which helps to fund their retirement (or escape) in Thailand.  Others talk of the condos they've purchased at prices far lower than they'd pay in the U.S. or England, or Denmark.  I've met people with maids and penthouse gardens.  My sister-in-law's boyfriend has put money down on a condominium that has yet to be constructed.  My wife would be very happy if we could figure out how to buy a place.  Jerry, who used money from writing to purchase a farm in Mendocino back in the 1970s, now visits his farm in Surin once a month where his wife stays to raise rice and pigs and they live in a house he built that is ostentatious enough to tell the villagers for miles around that a farang is in residence.

Social Security (which may be threatened when the U.S. government is forced to default on its bills in several days' time) and the small amount I earn from teaching English to monks will not permit me to share my wife's dreams, even if I didn't still have an aversion to owning anything so grand as a house and land or even a small condo.  I've always understood the practicality of buying over paying rent, and I feel the negative social pressure from being a man who lacks property.  But for now, this home of mine of less than 40 square meters, in which I've lived now for four wonderful years, will have to suffice.

What's the difference, then, between a house and a home?  At a bare minimum, I'd say that a house is a material structure and a home is more of a state of mind.  "Home" can be a wonderful metaphor that, for example, Brother David Steindl-Rast uses for his description of union with God which he sees as kind of a going home.  Graham Nash wrote this lovely song about living in a house in Laurel Canyon for several years with Joni Mitchell, but he is most certainly talking about a home.

Tuesday, October 08, 2013

Pissin' in the Wind

When I was a young man I used to be able to write my name by peeing in the dirt.  Sometimes my friends and I would have a contest to see whose stream could reach the highest point on a wall. The ability to piss higher, farther and longer was a sign of one's status in the teenage mafia. Even the girls learned a technique to pee while standing to show they were one of the boys. Holding one's pee would be a test of manhood.  "My teeth are floating" was a bit of braggadocio uttered while someone manfully delayed release.  A friend we all admired would hold the tip of his penis until it blew up like a balloon and then would let go his tsunami of pee.  Applause all around.

Urination and defecation may be the obligations that unite us as a species.  Asians are perhaps a little less uptight about it. In India and here I see men peeing often by the side of a road (I suppose women need a bush).  Although in Mexico I remember seeing an old lady spread her legs and her ankle-length dress to piss on the dirt of the alley where I was living. A recent YouTube video laughed at a mom for letting her young son pee into a plastic bag at a McDonald's.  Before I came to Bangkok I read that commuters here spent so much time in traffic that they needed portable potties. In Luis Bruñel's 1974 film "The Phantom of Liberty," people at a dinner party sit on toilets and occasionally retire to a small room to eat.  This reversal of habits is unsettling.

Old people think often about what goes in and comes out of the body, and how smoothly the process progresses.  In her last days my mother spoke of her need for a "stool softener," and when I visited her a couple of months before she died, she had an "accident" and refused to let me help her until after she cleaned the carpet.  A sign that my grandfather had to be moved into a retirement home was his inability to control his bowels.  For the young who poop and pee thoughtlessly, such attention to what should be natural is inexplicable.

The prostate gets in the way of a sleep-filled night.  This walnut-sized organ in males evolved to produce liquid to protect sperm, and like a donut it surrounds the urethra coming out of the bladder. In older men it becomes enlarged for various reasons and slows the stream of piss to a dribble.  Since I was diagnosed with prostate cancer eleven years ago, I have become an observer of the attenuated flow.  Lying down increases the need to get up and inhibits the bladder's ability to empty.  During the day however, I can almost pee normally (although I could only write the first letter of my name and not the whole kit and kaboodle).

I won't strain the reader's attention to mention the operation of my bowels, safe to say that "Bangkok Belly" from either tainted food or water can complicate the process.  When my stomach began to balloon with age, I determined that more regular elimination might keep the waist in check.  But this was a theory that never got off the ground.  At some point my innie became an outie and I found only drawstring pants would avoid the over-the-belt look.    If you Google my name you might find someone who won a beer belly contest with the look to go with it.

Jerry Jeff Walker wrote "Pissin' in the Wind" as a pessimistic antidote to Bob Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind," the anthem of the 1960's antiwar movement.  For Jerry Jeff, the best intentions can lead to naught.  I think he's on to something with this thought.  As I survey the world scene today, an almost mindless exercise with a computer and wifi, I see few signs of hope.  The efforts of capitalists and well-meaning political and environmental activists alike lead to universal blowback, the unintended consequences of both imperialism and good deeds.  Blaming the other satisfies no one.  There are health faddists who believe that drinking one's own urine can counteract the carcinogens produced by our industrial way of life, but I won't go there.  "Piss on it" is a blunt put-down, but doing it might put out a fire (that is, if you're young and your stream rages like Niagara Falls).

(Yes, that is me in the photo above, peeing off a cliff in Wisconsin.)

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Remembering and Forgetfulness

Nancy was an old horse destined for the glue factory until my father won her in a card game. At least that's what he told us. My father was a traveling salesman in western North Carolina and sold glue for plywood to furniture manufacturers.

Our house on the outskirts of a small town backed up to a pasture where an old mule lived. It was love at first sight for that mule when he saw Nancy and he followed her everywhere. When I rode Nancy around the pasture he was right behind us, both of them galloping as we neared the barn.

I remember Nancy, how it felt to sit on her and ride, and the feel of her skin when I brushed her after. It isn't just the photo that reminds me of her. The memory resides somewhere in my permanent hardware. I was 11, an asthmatic kid who couldn't play sports. Nancy allowed me to live out my cowboy dreams.

Our cocker spaniel Rusty would follow us around the pasture, sometimes stopping to sniff for wildlife. I remember with the clarity of an eternal playback loop the day I heard a screech of brakes and turned to see Rusty hit by a car on the highway. I saw him get up to snarl at the beast that struck him. But by the time I jumped off Nancy and ran into the road to rescue him, he'd died. Not long after our family moved to Atlanta and Nancy finally met her fate at the glue factory,

This story came to life in my mind as I was contemplating my forgetfulness. Last week I left my iPad Mini in the pocket in front of my seat on the commuter bus to school. With the help of a student and the secretary monk in my faculty, we called the driver who found and returned it. That same day I left my keys in the drawer of my desk. Fortunately my wife was home to let me in, but I had to have a spare made the next day since I wasn't exactly sure where I'd left them until returning to school two days later.

This is the time in my life when the specter of Alzheimer's rears it's ugly head. Several of my close friends have long worried about their poor memory. One forwarded my mail from the U.S. for awhile, until he accidentally threw away my renewed credit card and sent me his bills instead of mine. The other stopped driving long distances for fear he'd get lost.

My senior moments may be occurring more frequently. Usually it's the name of a friend or public personality that disappears. Occasionally it's the word for something I know well, like the local fruit mangosteen. Often I can remember the first letter which seems to survive at the retention center. Google has proven to be an invaluable resource for rediscovering the missing words.

My mother, who died shortly after her 90th birthday, wrote down things she didn't want to forget on post-it notes. They covered her kitchen. At the time I found it humorous, but now I admire her ingenuity.

Gene and Mary were already pushing 80 when I met them. They had spent a lifetime as good Catholics, raising a half dozen children and feeding priests supper in their home. But each had turned away from the institution. Gene and I were in a men's group where we spoke of religion in our lives, the good and the bad. Mary was diagnosed with Alzeimer's and for awhile was a care-free gray-haired hippie, picking flowers from private gardens and refusing to attend mass. Gene shared with our group the pain of watching the woman he loved slowly disintegrate. When I last saw her in 2010, the Mary I remembered was gone. Both she and Gene died not long after.

The films taking the ravages of Alzheimer's at their center are heartbreaking and uplifting. I've just watched "Stll Mine," with the ever gorgeous Genevieve Bujold as the 80-something wife losing her grip on reality while James Cromwell plays the stoic but loving husband by her side. It ends on a somewhat positive note. You can't say the same for Michael Haneke's award-winning "Amour" or Sarah Polley's "Away From Her," both magnificent films, yet sad.

As for me, so far, so good. I can usually find my phone (though the other day Nan had to ring it for me to see where it was hiding) and my glasses. They say an active mind helps, and mine is so busy that I'm going on a 3-day meditation retreat next month to slow down. I suspect the young mostly watch others and outside events, while we geriatrics watch our minds for signs of the Apocalypse. But it's all clear on my neural front for now.


Sunday, September 22, 2013

My Carpe Diem Moment

Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old time is still a-flying;
And this same flower that smiles today
Tomorrow will be dying.

I never planned to become a teacher.  It was thrust upon me when I found myself in Bangkok with nothing much to do.  A British monk suggested I speak to monks who were studying English at a temple across the river.  That visit led to an offer to teach a course in "Listening and Speaking English" (an ungrammatical title I've struggled with) and I continue to do so six years later.

In the 1989 film "Dead Poet's Society,"  an English teacher at a private school, played by Robin Williams, quotes from Robert Herrick's 16th century poem "To the Virgins, To Make Much of Time," and tells his students that the first line should be translated by the Latin expression carpe diem, "seize the day." The reason, he says, is that one day they will be dead and fertilizing daffodils like everyone that came before them. Live to the full now, he urges his students, and "make your lives extraordinary."

I had no clue how to teach young Thai monks anything, much less English.  But I'd been impressed by the attempt of that cinematic teacher to inspire his students to learn.  It's certainly impossible to open up a student's head and pour knowledge inside.   My own long academic career taught me the importance of going out and seizing it.  I treated the university as a candy store and spent nearly 20 years sampling and nibbling all the goodies.  In Thailand, I'd been told, the educational system is hierarchical with teachers, treated with the utmost respect, dictating what their students must learn (in most cases, memorize).  Critical thinking and curiosity were in short supply.

Armed with a textbook from Oxford for a model, I designed lessons that tried to strike a happy balance between studying and practicing English grammar. All of my students were raised in small villages where sending a son to the temple sometimes was the only way to feed him. They came from every Southeast Asian country and becoming a monk was probably the only way for them to get a university degree.  Though an Australian had taught at the school the year before me, I was usually the first native speaker my students, all majoring in English, had ever met.

Since I spoke almost no Thai, and, as I soon discovered, the English my students had so-far learned was very basic, communication in the beginning was not easy.  Added to this was the limited English of the faculty members who were teaching it.   Thai was used to teach the English majors, even the students from Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar who had to learn Thai first in order to study English.  Consequently, their pronunciation was primitive.  There was a sound lab for practice, but it had been "broken" for years (I later was told the same about the brand new lab at the Ayutthaya campus where classes were moved in my third year). Countering these difficulties was the enthusiasm for English expressed by my students. One reason was their passion for English football and pop singers like Michael Jackson.  Some would probably disrobe after graduation to become guides or open a business while many others told me they wanted to teach English at the temple near their home village.

My first classroom had fans but no air conditioning. And it had a microphone.  Besides enabling me to better hear my shy students speak, it encouraged me to become a standup comic.  I turned the chairs in a circle seminar style and prowled the room with the mic looking for ways to make them talk and laugh.  The latter wasn't difficult because Thais love to turn anything into sanuk, "fun." My lectures were usually punctuated with laughter, even on exam day when I wrote rules on the board which included "no electronic devices, no peeking, no dancing & no singing."

Speaking before the class was a different matter.  My students lacked confidence in their English proficiency and were hesitant to do anything that might result in a mistake, a consequence of their rigid training.  I told them making mistakes was the only way they could learn; if they didn't, there was nothing I could teach them.  Asking for volunteers to speak was a non-starter, so I learned to pick the first speaker and go around the room.  Each term there was usually one student who couldn't stop.  "Thank you for the microphone," they would say and would be off and running.  My job then was to give them the hook amid much laughter.

"What's good for the goose is good for the gander," goes an old expression (my students love learning English idioms and maxims).  Teaching these Thai monks has been my carpe diem moment.  I tried teaching in California after getting my Ph.d. in environmental history, but I found most of my students more interested in partying after class than doing their homework than exhibiting even an iota of intellectual curiosity.  I quit in order to travel instead of pursuing what as a less than promising academic future, never imagining I would find myself in front of a classroom again.  But it's become the most satisfying work of my life in a varied and spotty job resume.

In addition to teaching 3rd and 4th year students, I have also lectured in a graduate linguistics program and taught a few basic English classes to students in MA programs of education and public administration. For several years I've presided over competitions organized by students in the English Club with other schools. And I've given a talk on the importance of English as the working language of ASEAN, and assisted at a weekend English camp at another school in Bangkok where learning games were played by giggling undergraduates.  While coming as a surprise late in my career, I've done my best to seize the day with gusto.

This past week, however, I met my Waterloo.  I had been asked nearly two months ago to teach a 10-week, 40-hour class for university staff members during lunchtime.  Though I was not given much time to prepare, it seemed like a wonderful challenge.  I designed a series of lectures around the basics, from parts of speech to sentences, clauses and building a vocabulary.  My iPod Mini has the capability of showing YouTube videos and PowerPoint presentations and I gathered a cornucopia of slides and clips to enliven the two-hour proceedings.

Some twenty students, monks and laypeople who worked at the school, were expected and most came to the first meeting.  I was at my best, strutting around the room with the mic and exhorting my students to think, speak and laugh about the language they all knew a bit about (it was an "intermediate" class).  My timing was precise, knowing they all had jobs to do and were sacrificing their lunchtime to learn, and I ended each class with a music video and an exercise in which they filled in the blanks in a lyric sheet of words they heard sung. Everyone seemed pleased.

Attendance began dropping about week three.  Last week at the halfway point in the series, the class on Monday had only two students, one of them arriving an hour late.  Nobody came to last Friday's class, except for a couple of staff members from the Language Institute who had proposed the class in the first place and who now felt sorry for me.  Afterwards I went to see one of the missing students, a librarian, and he was most apologetic but said he needed to remain at work. The cause of the failure seemed simple enough: either these staff members decided they could not take time away from duties to brush up on their English, or my teaching was not appealing to them.  My wife suggested that since the course was free and voluntary, there was nothing to keep them coming. Paid class for credit have more incentives to continue.  Thais would never criticize my teaching for fear of causing me to lose face; all, therefore, had other things to do.

After Friday, I cancelled the remaining classes.  Even if a few attended, the continuity of my review of English grammar was broken (later topics depended on a familiarity with earlier ones). And it's much harder teach two students than it is a full classroom where I can interacts with a couple of rows of them.  

Part of me is happy that I no longer need to complete the lessons for classes 12-20.  I've had little free time for the last month because of the work load and the deadlines I imposed on myself. Now I can swim, read novels, and surf the web to my heart's delight.  But I already miss those moments when I stood before a roomful of students holding the mic and doing my English rap. I'm not sorry I seized those days, but I just want there to be more before I'm fertilizing daffodils.