Friday, January 24, 2014

Slouching Towards Obesity

What rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born.
W.B. Yeats, "The Second Coming"

A photo taken during my class last week unbeknownst to me has prompted serious thoughts about my stomach.

In his poem, Yeats was contrasting the post-World War I malaise with what could be seen of the future.  Rather than a peaceful Jesus returned to rescue humanity, he imagined the Egyptian sphinx rising up after "twenty centuries of stony sleep" and moving ungracefully into the world.  Instead of a utopian vision of future bliss, this image is distinctly dystopian.  Given the history of the late 20th and early 21st century, I have to admit Yeats was a prophet.

After accidentally stumbling across my photo on a student's Facebook page, I stood on the scale we hide under our bed to discover that I now weigh 86 kilos (nearly 190 pounds), up at least 3 kilos from the last time I'd checked.  Of course it's all in my gut which gravity has now encouraged to droop below my belt.  It's painful to realize one has become the worst cliché of a fat old farang in Thailand.  I'd been considering getting suspenders (braces for your Brits) to hold up my pants which might disguise the distinction between girth and waist.  But I've not actually seen anyone wearing them over here and a shopping expedition turned up none at all.  A style change, however, would not erase the fact that I'm growing obese day by day.

The revelation about my belly and the necessity to do something about it came during the second week of the Bangkok Shutdown. My worst fears about "Armageddon," as I referred in my last blog post to the siege of the city by thousands of anti-government protestors, have gone unrealized.  While the mob has closed almost a dozen intersections in the center of the capital to traffic in an effort to bring all government activity to a halt, Bangkok has simply absorbed them with urban antibodies to ward off the infection of chaos.  I did not need to stockpile water or food for the stores in my neighborhood remain well supplied.  It's hard to tell anything unusual is going on not far away.

In my mind I'm still as skinny as I was here playing volleyball on Venice Beach in 1974.  My weight for years was around 150 pounds and my stomach was flat, if not exactly a 6-pack.  While the rest of my body remains slim, my stomach has ballooned in the last 15 years.  I cannot see my toes; belts fail to prevent pants slippage.  The elevators in my condo have mirrors and I'm forced to review the damage at least twice a day.  Shirts sized XL seem too small.  I have been like a smoker who knew the dangers but loved his ritual cigarettes nonetheless (as I did for 30 years).  For me it was an addiction to Oreos and cartons of ice cream with chocolate bits inside.  I drank sweetened ice tea with meals and for a treat stocked popsicles in the freezer. I loved chicken skin and peanut butter sandwiches with lots of mayonnaise, and cheese popcorn with a Coke at the movies.  Cakes and donuts are temptations I rarely resist.  The reasons why I've gained 9 kilos since coming to Thailand six years ago are no secret. And the end is near.

The anti-government (some say anti-democracy) protest has been going on for several months, calling for Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, sister of the exiled and much hated (by Bangkokians but not by those in the rural northeast) Thaksin, to resign.  After a couple of weekend demonstrations which drew several hundred thousand people, protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban, deputy prime minister under the former unelected administration, set the "final battle" to begin on Jan. 13.  For me, it was the "rough beast" slouching into Bangkok. But once here, the beast was tamed. The rallies at a half dozen sites draw perhaps 20,000 nightly and resemble carnivals rather than stages in an insurrection.  During the days protestors, many bused up from southern provinces and now sleeping in tents, march to various government locations and try to shut them down or convince the civil servants to join them.  They've not been without violence.  At night shots are fired at rally guards and twice someone threw a grenade into a crowd, killing one man and injuring over 60.  Up in Udon, a prominent red shirt government supporter was wounded in a drive-by shooting at his home.

It may seem a stretch to pair concern about my weight gain with a siege of Bangkok bent on demolishing democracy in Thailand, but it's where my mind is at these days.  Armageddon is taking a long time.  When not preparing for class, teaching or reading my students' homework, I sit on the couch glued to my laptop, perusing twitter and the blogs and posts collected for me by my Feedly account. Occasionally I turn away from the news tweets and Facebook comments to watch a film or TV show I've downloaded ("True Detective" is my new favorite). And, until a couple of days ago, I'd snack on Oreos, ice cream, popsicles, popcorn, and anything else I could stuff in my mouth to make the uncertainty of the future go away.  Although I'm not really worried about my safety, I am concerned about what will happen next in Bangkok that might require some adjustments in our life here.

The two-week shutdown so far has had a devastating effect on tourism.  It's the peak season, and the upscale hotel where my wife works in the Siam district is down to 30 per cent occupancy when it's usually full in January.  While people buy protest-related tee shirts from vendors in the carless streets, the luxury malls and stores near them are almost empty.  There are various scenarios about where this is all going, none of them good. Though the election is scheduled for Feb. 2 it could be delayed by the courts since the opposition party is boycotting it and candidates could not register in southern provinces where the protestors blocked them.  Even if it's held it could be invalidated as happened in 2006.  Other court decisions could end Yingluck's reign with a judicial coup similar to what happened in 2008.  If Yingluck goes, the pro-government forces in the north and northeast have said they will fight.  More violence could bring about another military coup (there have been 18 since 1932).  People are talking about the possibility of moving Yingluck's government to Chiang Mai, and of the chances for a civil war in Thailand.

I visited four of the rally sites before the bombs made it more dangerous to hang out with the protestors, and I took a selfie like everyone else around me.  Participants take photographs, blow the now trademark whistles, and wear outfits customized with patriotic bling.  In my rounds I become increasingly aware that excess weight stresses my weak right knee, and can make it exhausting to climb up and down stairs.  This week I commiserated with my friend Jerry.  He's 78 and has survived open heart surgery and the installation of a pacemaker.  Because of a strict diet for his heart situation, Jerry weighs 70 kilos and looks quite svelte.  He eats only twice a day and avoids most of the fat and sugar that I consume.  Something finally clicked and I formed a few resolutions about eating and exercise (swimming has been curtailed by the chilly weather).  Can I change the future now by adhering to a disciplined program?  At the moment it still feels like slouching, a slow ramble not exactly in a straight line, but the destination is away from obesity and towards something more wholesome and lasting.  If Thailand descends into chaos and civil war, it might be a good idea to get healthy in order to deal with the challenges.

Thursday, January 09, 2014

Waiting for Armegeddon

Anticipating the shutdown of Bangkok next Monday by tens of thousands of anti-government protestors brings up memories of the great flood of 2011.  We knew it was time to leave Bangkok when the cockroaches came up out of the sidewalk pursued by rising waters.  By then the major thoroughfare outside our condo was nearly empty as were shelves in the nearby stores.  At first we journeyed south to stay with Nan's cousin and then north on a bus that skirted the flooded areas of the city to the province of Phayao where my wife's family lives in a small village.  In the beautiful (and dry) rural surroundings, we waited for two weeks until the waters subsided before returning home.

There the similarity ends.  While large protests have disrupted select areas of the capital for decades, this "final battle" has been planned to make Bangkok totally ungovernable and to bring down the administration led by Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, sister of the exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin. Given recent experience and statements, no help can be expected from either the police or military and the governor of Bangkok, whose sympathies are with the protest, has remained silent.  No one knows how severe the shutdown will be or how much suffering will be caused.  Even though its purpose is to overturn the government and end the "Thaksin regime," the collateral damage for ordinary people in the city could be extensive.

My wife is not a worrier and tells me, quite often, to cool off, to be less serious and not to think too much, the usual advice Thais offer to agitated foreigners.  It's true that spending too much time on Twitter, Facebook and the internet searching for up-to-date information about the shutdown, the protestors and the government's response can be deleterious to health.  My couch is well worn where I sit to commune with my laptop.  Rather than exercise, I snack on Oreos and ice cream, afraid to abandon the internet for fear I'll miss something.

Friends outside Thailand who come across stories from here that seem alarming will inquire about my safety, or ask if I fear the possibility of violence.  Not really, I tell them.  For the most part all previous violence has been localized, even in 2010 when nearly 100 demonstrators were killed and a thousand injured.  I could look out my window and see the smoke from a mall that had been set ablaze, but it was from a safe distance.  In 2008, anti-government mobs closed airports, but fortunately I was not flying anywhere.  Since I don't drive, clogged highways are usually no problem unless I'm in a bus.  And the BTS Skytrain travels above the crowded streets while the MRT subway goes underground.  There's always the river taxis to get where I want to go.

To be honest, the political strife in Thailand is exhilarating.  When I was a boy I wanted to grow up and lead an exciting life.  And for the most part I've achieved that aim, with no bucket list needed.  Since becoming an expat, I've studied the history and politics of the region diligently to try and understand events that sometimes mystify outsiders. Now that I've been taken prisoner by social media, I participate passionately in online discussions and exchange information with like-minded "friends."

I moved here for good not until after the "bloodless" military coup that ousted Thaksin in 2006. I remember people voting in a referendum to approve the constitution written by coup leaders that was designed to block politicians like Thaksin who had become too popular for the ruling interests. But in 2008, voters elected Thaksin partisans to office.  The first PM was ousted by a court set up by coup leaders because he received pay for hosting a TV cooking show, and his replacement fell afoul of other legal problems.  Through back-room deals, Abhisit, leader of the opposition Democrat party, was selected to replace the Thaksin party in office.  The two-month protest in 2010 was intended to force him to hold new elections, but these only took place after the protest was violently ended.  In the next election, Thaksin's sister won overwhelmingly with votes primarily from the northern and northeastern provinces.  Now her reign appears to be ending.

My intention here is not to provide a history of current events or to argue the pros and cons of Thai politics; I do that on Facebook and Twitter.  What I'd like to do is give a sense of what it feels like to be under siege and not to know what the future holds.  Recently my brother and I have been debating the significance of Near Death Experiences (NDEs).  For him, the evidence shows that non-local consciousness, unconnected with a body, is a real possibility.  But my reading of neuroscience in the past year has convinced me that consciousness, mind and self require brains.  I wonder why some people feel the need for a metaphysical soul that transcends death of the body.  "Are you going to be shocked if and when you find out you're wrong," he said as his parting shot.  I'll be surprised if I survive 2014, was my reply.

Uncertainty is a curious state to be in.  I told my students Tuesday that I didn't know whether we would have a class next week but I hoped we would.  If they can get through the blockade Monday and go to our campus an hour away near Ayutthaya, then I would try to get there on the school's commuter bus the next day.  But at this point, who knows?  I worry about Nan who works at a hotel in Siam near where several intersections are scheduled to be blocked.  She can use the river and Skytrain to get to work, but not after dark when river traffic ceases.  If the chaos is too bad she can sleep at the hotel.  We live in Pinklao, a section of Thonburi across the river and from the maps I've seen we should be able to move around this area with no trouble.

Thais ask me, as the head of my department did Tuesday at school, "When will you go back to America?"  They are thinking the political chaos that has plagued their country for so long will send me packing: 18 coups since the country was declared a constitutional monarchy in 1932, the shooting of citizens demonstrating in the streets in 1973, 1976, 1992 and 2010, intrigue around the Palace and draconian laws that make much discussion impossible, and traffic that defeats all attempts at control.  But from the moment I first arrived here almost 10 years ago I have felt at home in Thailand.  When asked why, I come up with the usual suspects: weather, food, beaches, friendly and generous people, Buddhism and temples, etc.  The reasons really don't matter.  I'm not a complainer like those sorry expats on the internet boards who come for beer, surf and women and hate everything else about their adopted country.  For me, it's just...home.

Today, however, the mob of protestors, led by the demagogue Suthep, will march on a trial run through my neighborhood a block away from our condo.  I'm leaving after lunch to go into the city to see a friend and attend an event held by my Buddhist group.  I may encounter them on my way to the river to catch a water taxi.  If I do I'll smile approvingly like a dumb tourist and take lots of pictures of the marchers.  I've done this several times so that all I know doesn't just come out of my computer screen.

There are many scenarios from different commentators about what might happen in the next week.  None of them are benign.  Yingluck has called for a new election on Feb. 2 which she will surely win, so the opposition is boycotting the election (this is a repeat of events of 2006).  In Thailand the military's role is to protect the monarchy rather than the people, and they have so far refused to help make sure the election takes place.  Candidates in southern provinces controlled by the opposition have not even been allowed to register by protestors.  Several court decisions in the last week could very well impact Yingluck and her political party which might prevent an election.

But the most worrying scenario involves the government's supporters in the north and northeast who have seen their will in several elections thwarted by powerful Bangkok interests including the military, and they've vowed to strongly resist the changes demanded by Suthep's mob of protestors who seek to end the election they cannot win.  At worst, Thailand could descend into civil war, with the possibility of the country splitting in two.  When the bullets start flying, we would then get on the next bus to Phayao. But it might take longer than the flood waters to recede for Thailand to return to normal.  This haunts my daydreams and tempers any excitement I feel about the grand drama of Thai politics to which I am a witness.