Monday, February 24, 2014

The Precariousness of Friendship

Not very long ago, I lost a friend.  She can still be found but she prefers it not to be by me.

The reason she no longer wishes to hear from me seems almost silly, but apparently not to her. After a lunch together that went wrong for a number of reasons (missed communications about time and place, for example), I mentioned in an email to a mutual friend that "she's got to be the most fidgety person I've ever met."  Because the comment was accidentally attached to another email to both of us, my remarks were included in a later response, and she saw them.

My apologies were to no avail.  Stung by my judgement, she offered a few of me.  That they didn't seem true was irrelevant.  I'd hurt her and she managed to hurt me back.

The roots of our friendship did not go very deep.  We met in Bangkok a few years ago and shared our stories, and when she traveled elsewhere we continued an email/Facebook relationship which included playing a long-running internet word game.  It always made me happy to see her, and I liked to think this was reciprocated. I continue to believe I am good friend material and am rarely critical about the traits or opinions of others which might differ from my own.  My intentions, I feel, are always honorable even though they may not always be perceived as so.

So to experience dislike always comes for me as a shock.  It happened a couple of years ago with a friend I'd made at the expat Buddhist group in Bangkok.  We commiserated and appreciated each other's ideas and writing,  and we exchanged biographies and our thoughts about religion. One Christmas season he took me to the Anglican caroling service.  I brought him to the meeting of a Catholic meditation group.  Then something I wrote in a blog about Buddhism and a particular teacher offended him.  He sent me angry emails that impugned my motives and intentions.  The defensive response I offered fell flat.

A few years later we actually rekindled our friendship.  But it didn't last long.  We had a difference of opinion about Muslims.  He thought their religion was little more than institutional terrorism.  My position, that there are fanatics in all religions and that the basic beliefs are benign and can be compatible, was rejected out of hand by him.  For the second time, he blocked me on Facebook and cut off all contact.

I've never been very confrontational.  Some of my oldest friends are extremely conservative in their political views and we walk the tightrope of friendship by steering clear of political imbalance.  Two friends from high school I loved dearly both died last year.  The joint memory of our times together in the past outweighed the fact that I was a communist, or worse, in their eyes. Others from 50 years ago have not cut me so much slack and they have de-friended me over incommensurate political views.

At least three Jewish friends from my days in the music business in the 1970s, have cut off all contact with me because of my support for the Palestinian cause and criticism of Israel.  One had even come to visit me in Bangkok and was a guest in my home.  Her identity was so tied up with Israel that she found it impossible to forgive my view that treatment of the Arab minority was akin to apartheid in South Africa.  I enjoyed her company and her perspective on life but she was unable to appreciate my dissonance.

I can't help wondering if my explanations for the loss of friendships are only justifications I use to bolster my self image as a kind and harmless friend whose tolerance is not matched by others. The friendships that led to two marriages both degenerated in the end to conflicting stories told by angry adults.  The first lasted 10 years, the second 24.  In the beginning love was blind, in the middle it negotiated and compromised, and by the final days it snarled and sputtered out accusations that were more satisfying than true.

Perhaps there is something wrong with me.  I try to interrogate myself as honestly and thoroughly as possible.  There are clues everywhere.  Why have I not been in contact with my two youngest offspring for over a year?  My son wrote a letter strongly critical of my lifestyle which I took in the spirt of "fuck you."  My daughter refused for over five years to explain why she took the loan I co-signed and used it for living expenses rather than the school for which it was intended.  The final straw was her email about a psychic who had told her she was molested by me when she was two, and she wanted to know if it was true.  I de-friended them both on Facebook, petty yes, but the only reaction that made sense at the time.  Social networks have come to define my relationships.

The wife who divorced me after 24 years tried to keep in touch, "for the sake of the children," until she discovered a sizeable debt on her credit report from a card we had taken out together years before but one on which I had unintentionally retained her name.  It wasn't deliberate, but the debt was now too high to be easily paid off.  That displeased her greatly, and she no longer encourages me to stay in touch with our children.  This is clearly my fault and I'm contrite, but not overly so.  She'll be fine until I die and the credit buzzards go after their money.

My oldest son and my brother are Facebook friends and we occasionally comment and like each other's digital offerings.  This family interaction certainly contains none of the warmth or intimacy of an in-person visit, but given my distance from them, it's all I can manage for now.  While I take our relationship for granted, I also know that words and deeds in the past have made it difficult to achieve the kind of closeness of the TV families whose lives we shared when we were young.

At 74, I can't afford to lose many more friends or family members.  Fortunately my Thai wife is loving and considerate, and promises that she will take care of me when I begin to drool and forget.  I wonder if she realizes the extent of her commitment?  When I can no longer teach or move about easily in this big city, we will retire to her village in the north where my Social Security will provide comfort for my entire extended Thai family.  Of course, if the bullets start flying in Bangkok, this move may happen sooner rather than later.

I do have friends.  When I returned to Santa Cruz in 2010 I was astounded to discover how many people were still willing to call me friend and help me at a stressful time.  I continue to correspond by email/Facebook with friends I've known for much of my life.  Here in Thailand, I've met a number of new friends through the Buddhist expat group and at several other discussion groups in which I participate, and I even have a few Thai friends from school.  While not as social as my oldest friend Jerry, I manage to set up a couple of appointments for various events almost every week. Essentially, however, I'm more solitary than social and enjoy the company of myself at home, connected to the world through the internet, and able to sample the cornucopia of entertainment offerings via torrents.

Once I thought that wisdom would come with age, but now I know that time brings more confusion rather than certainty.  When I was a young father I tried to be the sort of guide that I thought parents should be, but I rarely felt successful at it.  I was a late bloomer in school and didn't go to university until midlife when I stayed for over 15 years and three degrees; none of my children emulated me.  My daughter disliked my name so much she picked her own, the maiden name of a maternal grandmother.  Despite recent setbacks, I have always felt more successful as a friend.  Many I've kept for over half my life and the internet enables those without computer phobia to keep in touch.  Some of the friends I'm making now will last the rest of my life.  If only I don't blow it.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Sorrow in the Land of Smiles

Smile though your heart is aching 
Smile even though it's breaking

These are tough times in Thailand which has long been dubbed the "Land of Smiles" (LOS).  An article in the New York Times spoke of the "slow strangulation" of the country's democratically elected government by a mob that has been protesting in the streets for the last three months. Tourism in Bangkok has declined drastically during the peak season, people have been laid off, traffic is snarled more than usual, the caretaker government is paralyzed and the economy is in free fall. There have been 16 deaths and nearly 700 injuries from clashes between pro and anti government supporters since the street rallies began.  Time Magazine headlined a story on the country's political history: "Thailand Was Never the Land of Smiles, Whatever the Guidebooks May Have Told You." An Aljazeera correspondent reported "Frowns in the Land of Smiles."

While the human smile is universal, it does not always indicate happiness, pleasure or amusement.  Often it is more of a grimace, the emotions behind it of embarrassment or even terror.  Some speculate it evolved from a primate's clenched-teeth expression designed to convince a predator it was harmless.  Smiles are signals which communicate varieties of information (like the flirting smile which indicates sexual interest).  There are significant cultural differences.  Especially in Asia, people smile when they are confused, angry and embarrassed.  Frowns are considered impolite, whatever the social situation.  Consistency, however, is important.  When Thai Prime Minister Yingluck was seen to smile shortly after an emotional statement in which she appeared to cry, her detractors claimed she was a hypocrite.

I've been thinking a lot about happiness

My wife tells me I'm being "too serious" when I obsess over the current political situation, spending hours on the internet, Facebook and Twitter, posting and retweeting the latest news or rumors.  Thais value fun (sanuk in Thai) over seriousness, whatever the topic. When I tell my students they should be serious about learning English they look at me as if I were mad. Although many Thais do indeed worry (a friend's wife can't sleep when there is trouble in the fields for her crops), the cultural influence of a fatalistic view of Buddhism does encourage resignation over the effects of kamma for past actions.  Past events create current realities.  For every crime you must do the time.  And be happy about it.

The metta prayer, in which the faithful hope for a world in which "all beings may be happy," is important for Buddhists, especially in Thailand.  In a simplistic manner of speaking, happiness is the consequence when suffering is relieved.  The Buddha taught that living in a human body is characterized by a general form of anxiety (usually translated as "suffering") that is caused by the thirst for more, the avoidance of pain and pursuit of pleasure, a motivation that could also be seen as a natural life force.  Thwarted desires for anything create pain of loss. The way to avoid this pain is to accept the consequences of our prior actions and lead ethical and productive lives from then on according to a specific eight-fold path. To practice this teaching (and meditation is only one step on the path) leads to  happiness.

To be happy while people are injured and dying for their political beliefs or for their role in the tragedy that is currently being enacted in Thailand seems despicable.  And yet, as only an onlooker, a guest in the Kingdom where I am not a participating citizen, there is little else I can do beyond wringing my hands in front of a laptop screen and commiserating with expat comrades. Today is Wan Phra (monk's day, one of the four monthly phases of the moon) and last night I bought four garlands of flowers for the collection holy images on our altar atop the bookshelf.  I filled the shot glasses with water (and red soda for Ganesha) and silently wished that all people be happy, especially those suffering on the streets of Bangkok, and I added the hope that all those filled with hate on both sides of the conflict have their hearts melted and be able to hear the cries of the other.  Mercy is mandatory.

And may happiness in the LOS be a reason for dancing!

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Drinking the Kool-Aid

The cheering and whistle-blowing followers of Suthep Thaugsuban in Bangkok could not be more unlike the Americans who moved to Guyana in the 1970s to start a commune called Jonestown. Their leader was a charismatic preacher who promoted racial integration at his Peoples Temple in San Francisco.  His goal had been to use Christianity to spread the message of socialism and he was highly regarded by people of influence in the city and state of California.  But he was also a paranoid drug addict.  When he felt threatened by exposure in the media, he took his entire community of followers to Guyana where they established what Jones described as a "socialist paradise" and "sanctuary" at a remote place he named Jonestown.

What happened on Nov. 18, 1978, is a major event in 20th century history.  When a U.S. congressman flew down on a fact-finding visit, accompanied by defectors from Jonestown who said their children had been taken from them by Jones, the entire community committed mass suicide.  Over 900 people, including some 300 children, drank cyanide mixed with grape Kool-Aid and died.  The congressman and several others were killed by gunmen sent after them by Jones, and the leader himself died from a gunshot would to the head.  He told his willing followers that death is "just stepping over into another plane" and that it's "a friend." The phrase "drinking the Kool-Aid" has become a well-known metaphor that "refers to a person or group holding an unquestioned belief, argument, or philosophy without critical examination," according to Wikipedia.

I use this metaphor to describe the followers of Suthep who have been demonstrating against the Thai government on the streets of Bangkok for two months because I think that, like the innocent followers of Jim Jones, they are gripped by a delusion that flies in the face of reality and they are unable to contemplate the unintended effects of their actions.  The men, women and children of Jonestown, an idealistic multi-racial group of people from San Francisco, had become seduced by the paranoid fantasies of their leader who believed the American government was out to get them (their children would be tortured if captured he told the parents).

Many segments of the population in Thailand have been suffering from a form of mass hysteria over the Shinawatra family for the last eight years.  Thaksin Shinawatra was elected prime minister in 2001 but his government was overturned by a military coup in 2006.  A successful business tycoon, his political party reached out to voters in rural areas who had been ignored by the ruling coalitions in Bangkok since the constitutional monarchy was established in 1932.  This success, as well as questionable financial dealings and an autocratic style of governing that involved censorship and human rights abuses, was deeply disturbing to the traditional centers of power in Thailand.  But although he was sent into exile and the constitution was rewritten by the military to block future executive overreach, his popularity continued to win elections, even after judicial "coups" had thrown two more Thaksin-allied prime ministers out of office.  In the 2011 election his sister Yingluck overwhelming defeated the Democrats, a party that came to power through back-room deals, led by Abhisit Vejjajiv and his deputy prime minister, Suthep.

Street mobs against Thaksin in 2006 had preceded the coup.  Last June people took to the streets in Bangkok again, this time wearing "V for Vendetta" masks from the movie of the same name about a future anarchist revolutionary who took the identity of Guy Fawkes, the British hero who attempted to kill King James I (the mask was more pictorial than reflecting the protesters sentiments about monarchy...loving the King was one of the reasons why they hated Thaksin).  Then at the end of the year his sister made a few false steps that stoked the latent hysteria about her brother.  The opposition party withdrew from Parliament, forcing her to call a new election.  Suthep also resigned from the Democratic party and became the mob's spokesman.  At its peak, an estimated 200,000 people took to the streets, now demanding the "eradication of the Thaksin regime."  Despite the fact that Yingluck had received a significant majority of the votes in 2011, Suthep called for nothing less than her removal and "reform before election," a slogan without any details.

The hatred I hear on the streets for Thaksin these days is difficult to fathom. He was gone by the time I arrived in the fall of 2007.  Most of what I know of him comes from a very detailed biography, Thaksin, by the British writer Chris Baker and his wife Pasuk Pongpaichit, an academic economist, as well as from their excellent History of Thailand. Thaksin came from a wealthy Thai-Chinese family in Chiang Mai and made a fortune cornering the cell phone service market based on exclusive leases.  He was no more corrupt than other politicians, but avoided oversight when he became PM.  His was the first mass-based political party in Thailand and uniquely successful.  His enemies envied his success, his wealth, and his popularity, and accused him of undermining Thailand's "democracy with the King as head of state."  Since his exile, he has been accused of running Thailand by proxy, and there is truth in this charge with his sister currently the head of state.

Thailand's protesters like to have fun (sanuk in Thai).  Demonstrations are dense with theatrical aspects: slogans, flags and tokens to show their allegiance, like pictures of the King, the Thai flag colors used for various patriotic bling, and the ever-present whistles (for "whistle blowers" who wish to "shut down Bangkok" before they "restart Thailand").  Since the non-stop rallies began on January 13, there have been continual speeches and entertainment from the various stages that block major intersections in central Bangkok.  In the beginning, Suthep claimed it would be only a few days before Yingluck would resign to join her brother in exile in Dubai.  The election, boycotted by the Democrats, has come and gone with candidate registration and polling blocked by protesters.  The various agencies and courts set up by the military constitution in 2007 are deliberating various charges against the government and members of Yingluck's Pheu Thai party.  Participation by the largely middle class followers of Suthep has flagged during the hot days but surged in the evenings when those attending forgo entertainment on TV for the sanuk protest rallies.

In trying to understand what seems to me to be irrational hatred of and mass hysteria against Thaksin, the closer I could come to it was McCarthyism in America in the first half of the 1950s. During the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, Republican Sen. Joseph McCarthy made outrageous claims about the existence of Communists in government.  He was widely followed and applauded by those fearful of the "red menace." People were looking for "Reds" under their bed!  McCarthyism, according to Wikipedia, has come to be seen as the practice of "making accusations of disloyalty, subversion, or treason without proper regard for evidence."  The rhetoric against Thaksin from Suthep and his minions revolves around "corruption" and the need for "reform," but these words are left without much detail.  Winning elections has meant "a dictatorship of the majority," and the accusation that the only way Thaksin's candidates like his sister can win elections is through "vote buying," a charge that falls apart under analysis.  Yingluck's enemies resort to gender abuse and call her "slut," "bitch" and worse.  The arguments from anti-government protesters, who reveal a distaste for democracy when they can't win elections (the Democrats last success was in 1992), are passionate and designed to appeal to emotions rather than critical analysis.

It's difficult if not impossible to argue with Thaksin haters.  They demonize their enemy by putting him in a class with Hitler and Satan.  Everything he touches or influences, like his sister, is soiled.  The fact that Suthep's political career has been marked by corruption charges is irrelevant.  Thaksin's considerable rural power base is dismissed and the voters ridiculed as uneducated and interested only in his money and populist health and economic policies.  Most of all, the followers of Suthep seem blind to the consequences of removing an elected government from power.  What will the people who elected Yingluck do?

I've already overreacted to the political situation in my adopted country, twice.  Before the "Shutdown Bangkok" campaign began, I stocked up on water which was in short supply during the floods two years ago.  But Bangkok absorbed the protests with little immediate effect.  Then on the day of the elections, like many others I expected widespread violence as protesters attempted to prevent voting.  For the most part, that didn't happen.  Now that the economy is in free fall, the peak tourist season has been terminally disrupted, and many government offices are operating out of borrowed locations because ministries have been shut and workers turned away, it almost seems like a normal way of life.  The fireworks during Chinese New Year set a few nerves on edge.  The worst that is contemplated now is civil war with Thailand splitting in two and Yingluck's government moving to Chiang Mai.  Of course this sounds alarmist.  Thais are known for their smiling faces, even when everything is going wrong.  Surely nothing this drastic could ever happen?

Yesterday the government made a feeble attempt to take back some of the locations occupied by Suthep's mob.  At the first sign of possible violence, the police withdrew.  It's possible the military, no fan of Thaksin, is protecting the protesters until the courts can do their dirty work.  Some believed it was a way to discourage people from attending Suthep's "love fest" on Valentine's day.  But I went to one of the three major rally sites last night and it was packed from people from what looked like all walks of life in Bangkok, if not Thailand.  These haters of Thaksin and followers of Suthep's have drink the Kool-Aid.  No election or even a military coup will reverse their conditioning against the exiled PM's detested "regime."  There is simply no way forward at the moment that will preserve the unity of Thailand.  The gulf is just too wide.  Am I being alarmist?  I hope so!

Tee shirt sellers and other vendors are happy with the protests

Friday, February 07, 2014

Glory Days in Publishing

For four years of my life I labored in the California vineyards of Guitar Player Magazine and its associated kin, Contemporary Keyboard and Frets (under the umbrella of GPI Publications).  Now a book is bring put together by former staffers, writers and musicians called Guitar Player Magazine: The Glory Years, 1967-1989, to be published by Hal Leonard Publishing Corp.:

This is my contribution:

Before I arrived, 3rd issue, 1967
When I left my job in January of 1975 as west coast A&R and publicity director in Hollywood for Atlantic Records, I thought I was leaving the music business forever.  My girlfriend and I packed our things in a U-haul truck and migrated from Venice Beach to northern California to live a carefree lifestyle.  We moved into a house under the redwoods in the Santa Cruz Mountains that we shared with a couple of UC Santa Cruz students. My plan was to write poetry while collecting unemployment.  But a year and a half later I was knocking on Jim Crockett's door at his sumptuous suite of offices over a carpet store in Saratoga to ask him for a job.

My girlfriend -- not that one but the next one -- was pregnant.  Unemployment had run out, and I was working part-time for a weekly Santa Cruz newspaper setting type and laying out pages for the printer.  The free paper had an insert covering local culture and occasionally I contributed reviews and stories, just as I had for the Los Angeles Free Press during my five years in the music business.  After a year on unemployment and poor-paying part-time work, the need for a larger income had become insistent.

Jim Crockett
It was quickly apparent I was not a good fit for GPI, the magazine publishing company Crockett had developed almost from scratch, starting with Guitar Player and growing into Contemporary Keyboard (later Frets and others).  They were magazines for musicians written by musicians. I thought of myself more as a writer than a musician, and my guitar skills were extremely limited.

Jim and I had talked occasionally on the phone when I was a Hollywood PR man and tried to talk him in writing about my recording artists. But we'd never met.  At my appointment I saw he was a trim fellow with a goatee who moved and talked slowly, but with deliberation.  GPI did not need another writer.  What it needed was someone to take over preparing the issues for the printer who could paste up galleys of type, ads and photographs according to Jim's design.  It was only part-time work to start with a less than modest salary, but I was given the glorious title on the magazine mastheads of Art Director.

Those early days in Saratoga with the GP and CK staff were nearly 40 years ago so I no longer remember much of the details.  It was informal and fun. Of course we didn't wear ties, it being California Casual every day.  There was lots of play and socializing during the sunny days, which meant that getting the magazines out on time frequently required evening hours.  Since I had a wife and baby at home and had to commute long distances over the hill from Santa Cruz to the office, I protested at staff meetings about the unpaid overtime.  This was not a popular view, with Jim or the employees, most of whom were single, lived not far away, and enjoyed the excitement of the deadline crunch.  I was seen as the guy that kept banker's hours.

The move to Cupertino was highly anticipated.  We posed for photos on the land where construction was to take place.  The completed offices with a large warehouse were impressive, the inside windowless offices less so.  Jim ruled his domain from a tastefully decorated corner suite.  My art studio was very well appointed, although I continued to cut galleys with an X-Acto knife, once accidentally slicing my hand and bleeding all over the layout pages.

Our neighbor, as many here will mention, was a start-up computer company called Apple. Gradually they would grow to take over all the nearby buildings and eventually practically the whole town, their skyscrapers plastered with the Apple logo.  I remember when they went public and I contemplated buying stock; a road not taken. What I remember is the donut store at the end of the block and the Japanese restaurant in front of our building.  Some of us would go running around the campus or swim at De Anza College not far away.  There was room in the warehouse for back issues, supplies and the regular jam sessions with notable musicians joining in and Jim banging the drums.  I even played the sax and clarinet a couple of times. Workers from Apple would come over to listen and some of them even joined in.

The number of employees increased with the move but we still felt like a family.  There were picnics together in local parks, parties at people's homes, the annual Christmas shindig, and even the weddings of a couple of staffers.  My wife and baby would join in but the distance always set us a bit apart from the social scene.  Some of the employees shared recreational drugs, at work and also after hours, and I must confess to being one of them.  But of course that was long ago. And I will mention no names other than my own.

My wife and I also became friends with Jim's wife, Rebecca. When they divorced, she would come to visit us in Santa Cruz.  Looking through our photograph albums one day she picked up photo one and said, "Who is this handsome man?"  A couple of days later I introduced her over the phone to my friend Jerry Hopkins who lived in Hawaii.  And a week after that she went to visit him.  Their marriage lasted ten years.  Now Jerry lives in Bangkok and is married to a Thai woman with a farm upcountry.  He's my oldest and closest friend these days.

As Art Director, Jim occasionally gave me freedom to design layouts, but they were never as good as his.  The editors would provide photos to illustrate their stories.  I remember I used one of the Grateful Dead that came, I was told, from their manager's office.  When the issue was published, I got an angry call from photographer Jim Marshall who had been a friend when I worked for record companies and hired him for jobs.  Jim used to come to my office to examine my music book collection to see who was using his photos without permission.  Then he would call his lawyer to sue.  He was notoriously volatile, and was upset over the Dead photo that he claimed was his.  He said he would kill me because I stole his art.  For a while I was genuinely concerned because I knew he owned a gun and was famous for threatening those who did him wrong.  We had done drugs together at Willie Nelson's 4th of July picnic in Texas and it was rumored that cocaine was his downfall.  As I remember it, we eventually paid him something for the photo.  It was cheaper than a funeral for me.

Gradually I became more involved in magazine publishing and the business side of the enterprise rather than the editorial or art content.  After leaving the music business in LA, I stopped keeping up with new innovations (were there any?) and could contribute little to office conversations about so-and-so's playing ability (for we were a magazine for musicians and not for simply fans).

With Jim and others on the business side of the staff, I attended magazine conferences and read the publishing trade press.  The idea of modeling circulation and production excited me and  I convinced Jim to sign up for Kobak Business Machines (KBM), an east coast company that provided this service via phone line and printer.  I moved up to position of circulation director and was involved in choosing a new printer in Long Prairie, Minnesota.   This required trips for a printing consultant to a tiny town in upstate Minnesota where everyone worked for the same company; in snowy winter it was lots of fun. Taking estimates on circulation and ad sales from the ad directors, subscription rolls and newsstands, I would input figures into the program to predict our P&L for each issue.  I found it fascinating, and occasionally accurate.

After four years with GPI, events conspired to my leaving.  Our landlady in Santa Cruz broke up with her husband and needed to live in our house.  My wife's sister in Connecticut had gotten romantically involved with a drug dealer and we wanted to separate them.  But most importantly, I now had visions of using my GPI experience to climb the ladder of success in New York publishing.  So I resigned in the summer of 1980.  At my going-away party, Jim gave me a beautiful hand-made leather shoulder bag.  (I'm sad to report that while drunk one night in Manhattan I left it behind in a taxi.)

My family I moved east where I worked in circulation at Billboard Publishing and as general manager of Theatre Crafts Magazine.  At TC, I got Radio Shack computers for staff writers and learned how to convert their files to type for the printer.  Magazines were begin to figure out the possibilities of computers and I was a bit of an innovator on a minor scale. Jim and his wife Bobby (who had grown up in Connecticut) came back to visit. Two years of commuting by train to the city finally got to me.  And after our son was born at Yale Hospital, we packed up a U-haul and moved back to California.  Instead of returning to GPI (another road not taken), I got a job in the Alumni Association office at UC Santa Cruz.  A year later I returned to complete my Bachelor's degree, and continued study for 18 years until I received a Ph.D. in history.  Now I teach English to Buddhist monks in Thailand, and keep in touch with my old friends from GPI on Facebook where it seems they all have pages.  What a long strange trip it's been!