Our life is an apprenticeship to the truth, that around every circle another can be drawn; that there is no end in nature, but every end is a beginning.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Oh Give Me a Home

Last night, out for dinner and a few beers with Amanda, Heater, Rita, Sarah, and Zach, after a few spirited games of foosball on an ancient, dusty table we found in the back, which we illuminated with an old broken Chivas Regal lamp, we discussed our roles as teachers here in Isan, something we often do, trying to grasp the value and meaning of what we are doing in Thailand. A tricky and complicated business. Earlier we had been with Leo, a young man from South Africa who works in Tat Phanom in a large public high school in their private, within the school, English Program. Leo found his job through an agency in Bangkok and he is paid about 35,000 bht per month ( as compared to our 5,000). Students tuition into programs such as the one Leo works for, and they tend to be both more sophisticated and less respectful. Leo explained to us that the conditions improve as far as salary and worsen as far as teaching conditions and the attitude of students the closer one gets to Bangkok. It reminds me of when I moved to New York City in the summer of 1980, where what impressed this young man from the relative cow town Denver was the tightly woven juxtaposition of ancient physical, local trades such as cobbler and fishermen, and intellectual, global ones such as merger and acquisition specialists and bond traders, and the concomitant extremes poverty and wealth. Here in Isan we do not see, of course, wealth on the magnitude of a major city, but we are on the front lines of the transition between the agricultural, industrial, and post-industrial worlds. Idealistically, we are here helping give the poor farming children a shot at competing with those Bangkok kids. Little Ning, if she has the motivation and ability, can become a judge, or a pharmacist, or a company director someday and exercise her scientific or creative or leadership talents. About that, we feel all warm and wonderful. Economically it is a muddier river. We are small cogs in the great machine of progress aiding Isan move from a place of subsistence farmers and small villages, towards a place of industrial farms, Tesco Lotus stores, and KFC fast food outlets. For those of us who left the US to escape the deadening aspects of a highly productive, post-industrial capitalist society, who love the simplicity and clarity of knowing one's neighbors, living near one's immediate and extended family, growing the food one eats, living more in a physical than digital reality, it is hard to ignore our role in the crime. We might not be holding the guns used in the armed robbery, but at the very least we're the driver's ed instructor, teaching the getaway driver how to use the clutch and the rules of the road. To put it another way, we are like the elephants, working for our masters in the name of progress but to the detriment of our habitat. As Amanda astutely pointed out, first world countries of course depend on the existence of overcrowded and aspiring second and third world nations, where lax environmental and worker safety laws are the norm. We can be "post-industrial" and operate in a "creative economy" as long as we can buy our goods cheaply from places where people work for pennies a day and we can forcibly extract more food with chemicals and genetic engineering. And that brings up the second enormous challenge to continuing on our present path of world development, which is simply the environmental consequences of all this increase in consumption. The old adage A rising tide lifts all boats may have a very different and literal meaning with the melting ice caps. My brother-in-law an engineer and staunch capitalist, would sound the hopeful clarion of human ingenuity coupled with technology as the magic carpet ride out of our troubles, and part of me wants to believe it.  Still I tend to side with those old hippies and greenies who believe that even if we could all live the Jetson life, something important, something beautiful, will be lost. Coincidentally, I opened up the Bangkok Post page today to find this article on the disappearing water buffalo in Thailand:

Friday, January 28, 2011

Literally Perfect

Because of some sports event in the city, my schools were called off for the afternoon. So, after a fantastic lunch at the restaurant just down the road, I was dropped at my house. One PM. No plans or obligations until Monday morning 8:30 AM, when Snooker would be rolling up on his green and white Honda Wave. I could go for a bike ride or not. I could take a nap or not. I could crack my bottle of Regency brandy and pull a Ray Milland or (mercifully) not. I could open my computer and have my attention get sucked in and fragmented into the New York Times or IMDB or Facebook or the Bangkok Post. I could be ambitious and lesson plan for next week. I could jump on a saawng tao and go meet with Rita and Heata and Jes in the city. I could work out. I could veg out. I could be as industrious and creative, or as lazy and unimaginative as I liked. My choices were, naturally, limited by my pocketbook and my location. I couldn't go skiing as my son Conor did with his school snow day today in Maine. No reason to focus on what I could not do or what I lacked however. I snapped (can one really "snap" a digital photo? Is there a suitably modern word to go with the mechanics of the digital process? Eric?) the photo above seconds ago. I am still in shorts minus a shirt (don't worry ladies, no self portraits will be included). A light breeze blows through the house, keeping it somewhere just about 75 degrees. Humidity is hovering around 44 percent. Tonight will reach somewhere around 55 degrees. The highway construction in front of my house is finally finished, and the pyromaniacs formerly in charge of scheduling daily operations have apparently retreated to other locations or found new fetishes. Perfection.

How churlish it would be to spend even a lightning flash of a moment considering what I did not have or could not do. I didn't.  As I shed my school clothes and settled into the stretch ahead, I tried to remember just how long it had been since I experienced a similar set of circumstances; I guess it would have to be in 1984 when I lived in a small village in Southern France, I a freshly minted college graduate with a degree in English, cocksure, in love with language and fiction, sure I would, at any moment, be swept up and carried on some artistic, historic, relevant tidal wave. The world lay ahead of me at that point. When I wasn't chasing every female in sight, or drinking wine or coffee or smoking Drum cigarettes, or working with the ladies in the kitchen, I was reading. I was reading Henry Miller or the Marquis de Sade (who was exiled to the chateau at the top of our village), I was reading Vonnegut and Petrarch (who wrote his sonnets to Laura nearby). Books were my guide and my shield. Naturally books bled into the wine drinking and coffee drinking and cigarette smoking time as well.  I dreamed of the literary life- in my fantasy our lives would evolve into a page straight out of The Sun Also Rises. There truly existed in Lacoste a sort of fictional sweetness and Mediterranean light that shone down on us all in those ancient stone houses and cafes, some of which witnessed the Romans marching through 2000 years prior. Coincidentally, one of the songs I was most attached to on the French jukeboxes in 1984 was U2's New Years Day; now I read Bono's pieces on the New York Times and I am, as I write this, listening to him sing Beautiful Day. He still gives my heart a lift, his hippie shoulder to the wheel of fixing the world. This time around my solitary hours are different of course. How could they not be? Delightful in a different sort of way- a less fretful sense I might be missing something exciting happening somewhere else, that I might miss the wave. As I have found more open hours, the deep pleasure of fiction has sprouted once more. Perhaps it was teaching in the States, where so rarely does a work of deep and truthful literature reach its intended target. My new gig puts my focus on grammar, vocabulary, and the mouth and tongue motions necessary to produce our word sounds (English! That most unsteady and duplicitous mistress!) and heightens my daily awareness of the strange little inflections necessary to produce meaning; or else it was just the effects of keeping up with an ordinary life of bills and commitments (and that empty expanse of time is so crucial to the process, and so diminished in distracted modern life- when I was a teenager ALL my friends- jock and nerd, bright and dim- read Lord of the Rings in its entirety- we did because we were bored!). Whatever the cause, of late, reading fiction had not been what it was and could be. In this slow and "unimportant" place, reading has made good on its promise I'll be back. The afternoon, or at least 5 hours of it, disappeared into the new novel I picked up at the "World Teach Library",  Roberto Bolano's 893 page tome, 2666.
Dear me. A bona fide literary novel endorsed by the likes of Jonathan Letham and the National Book Critics Circle. Mentioned in the same breath as Gaddis and Pynchon and Marquez, and even Musil and Proust. I had never heard of the Chilean author; I gravitated towards Rushdie's  rock-the-world first  novel, Midnight's Children, but the copy was falling apart so badly I balked at having to keep the loose pages in order, and at the thought some might go missing. 2666 entranced from the first pages. The neighbors no doubt heard me laughing out loud at Bolano's audaciousness and acrobatic daring. Like the perfect Puccini aria, sections of writing stun. How can I be pulled into such intimacy so quickly? How can he toy with character and grammar so lightly and so effectively? How does he regulate the plot so expertly, choreographing such an airy dance between my expectations and his imaginary world? There is the world of dreams, a place we go into each night where boundaries disappear and the world is both absolutely believable and absolutely magical and irrational. And true to South American form, Bolano can make the incredible terrifically credible. Like dreams, a story can do something no video game or movie will be able to- at least if all the pyrotechnics of Inception are any indication, or the 500 million dollar 3D James Cameron spectacle. Sure they were fine, but I wouldn't put up either against the experience of an ordinary dream or a well told/written story. The other night, my good friend Nok, who has worked in the medical field for many years, told me of her encounters with unsettled spirits. In just a few simple stories, told in halting English, taking place in ambulances with dead bodies, in the empty hospital corridors late at night, she created a universe with its own laws and precepts. So it is with fiction, and again I have the time to explore within them. These parallel universes, some so beautiful and genuine, reflect light into my own. If I was a naturalist, like my old friend Sherry, I would be out in the rice paddies finding bugs, enlarging my world view. If  I was a painter like Monica or Chris, I would be translating this light and these sights into a kind of understanding. For myself, I am back with books, curious as to who left Bolano for me to find on the shelf. Was it destiny? Was it my predecessor Valerie? Mysteries and coincidences. Fortunately, when looking for the shape and meaning of these real and imagined worlds get very tough, and I must beat on, against the current but I want to remain fresh, I have my Clear Ocean Gatsby Double Protection.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Waterloo Part Deux

Okay so this morning, like the little pompous French general I am (actually only half French, and actually taller than most everyone here- another major self esteem booster), I arrived early to school (I think it is the new bike- cuts a 10 minute ride to 5) went straight to my morning battle with the covered dish fully expecting to win, as always (even the chicken foot did go down...mostly), but alas. I was ignobly out maneuvered and outflanked by these lovely pig's feet. And Caitlin Hynes thinks med school is demanding! It wasn't enough that they were cold. It wasn't just that the odd, brown-colored sauce looked like it would be much more at home in a yellowing jar labeled "Varnish-purchased 1965".  I might even have been able to somehow push aside the rather, ahem, hairier bits and find some nice smoked ham hock to nibble on. No, the kicker was the cloyingly smell of the sweet soup, reeking of sugar and cinnamon. Thank god I was alone at the table. I didn't even manage a single bite. I almost gagged on the smell alone. I snuck a few pieces, by flicking them with the spoon you see there, to a wandering bitch whose dugs were practically dragging in the dirt. I ate my rice up (mmm plain white rice with nothing), recovered the dish (which turned up again at lunch, mercifully accompanied by several other dishes), and slid it into the kitchen. I had been revealed, at least to myself, as the poseur my critics suspected. I am not making excuses, but maybe, maybe if they had the decency to give me a shot or two of the 120 proof rice whiskey to go with it I would have gotten some down. But I doubt it. It finally met its match at the eager chops (in the eager chops?) of 4 of my ten year old female students, who, all weighed together might equal my 170 lbs. Where is the culinary equivalent of Elba anyway?

Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Breakdown

So here I am a volunteer teacher and I have traveled all this way to live like a righteous dude- stripped down to the necessities, adhering to the local customs, reducing my carbon footprint, making do with the bare minimum. In many ways I left the United States with such eagerness because I felt crushed under its cycle of consuming, every day more of my "poor" students waddling into their first class carrying an over 300 calorie mocha raspberry Dunkachino something or other, bitching about their workload or how stupid the Melville reading was, or on the other end sitting in a concert by one of the preeminent string quartets in the world playing something literally mind boggling in its dynamism and seeing some bored Rockport socialite yawn and leave at intermission, leaving her front row seat empty. Even when I was working towards something in which I believed - helping bright and motivated students navigating the artificially treacherous waters of selective college admissions, to best enable them to achieve their academic potential after a dismally unchallenging high school experience- I found I could not help but focus mostly on the insanity of a $52,000 a year price tag, the indulgence of catering to students' luxuries, and the debauched and jaded sense of world weariness so pervasive on campus. I struggled with my declining financial status, in spite of working heavy and living light; my own childrens' choices, in spite of reading the books and going to the right parent groups; my waning sense of purpose, in spite of having my heart in what I thought was, if not a noble and wholly unselfish place, at least a positive and constructive one. When I came across this bit in the novel by A.S. Byatt I recently finished, it fit like O.J,'s glove should have back in the day:

"Sometimes I feel," said Roland carefully, "that the best state is to be without desire. When I look at myself-"

"If you have a self-"

"At my life, at the way it is- what I really want is to- to have nothing. An empty clean bed. I have this image of a clean empty bed in a clean empty room, where nothing is asked or to be asked."

"I know what you mean. No, that's a feeble thing to say. It's a much more powerful coincidence than that. That is what I think about when I am alone. How good it would be to have nothing. And the same image. An empty bed in an empty room. White."

And yet. Yet the moment I moved into my apartment I hustled up a very decent sounding little stereo. I wanted my Bassnectar and my Bach to resonate with excellent treble and bass. And yet. Yet I want my photos on this blog to be crisp and large and gorgeous. And yet. Yet I found I could not stand taking my old Zoom out even one more time,  could not listen to its Chinese steel creak and groan, or readjust the floppy chain, or fill the every-third-day-flat-tires. I told myself that I was afraid of the inevitable breakdown somewhere on a back road, when even with a phone I would not be able to guide someone to come and get me, but this could happen with a brand new bike of any quality. The truth of the matter was that I was riding less because I did not enjoy riding the Zoom. I could have made do, and if I was authentically poor I damn well would have. Instead I took a saawng tao to NKP and dropped $3500 bht ($116)- half my monthly stipend on a lightly used, much nicer bike. It is not the gorgeous Cinelli my father gave me, which I have awaiting me in the States, but I look on her with great fondness parked there in the corner of my living room.
So what am I really made of and what is my "white room" really about?  Clearly I indulged myself for sensous and aesthetic reasons. So what is wrong with chubby little Susie having her daily 48 ounces of coffee and chemical sugar substitute? And where does it end? On what philosophic grounds can I condemn the American magnate building a 344 foot yacht with its requisite helicopter pad and multiple jacuzzis?

It is an old story. I am sure all my former students could tell you all about Pfister and his moaning and groaning about American materialism. It was the only thing more boring than all those stupid books I had them read! This dichotomy of indulgence and abstention is readily evident in Thailand, and I suppose most emerging second tier countries- where monks symbolize the renunciation of the material world, but most people give to the monks in order to be lucky and get rich quickly. Heady stuff I am far too incapable of sorting out with my feeble brain. What I can tell you: It felt bloody wonderful to head out on my new bike out on the newly paved main highway, to feel its quiet wheels spin down the tarmac, to shift gears readily and efficiently, to feel the brakes pull me to a quick stop at the night market. So, yes, I still want that white room with a clean white bed, but I guess I want a few stylish white Apple products in there, and a bicycle or two...


Friday, January 21, 2011

Transformative Fire

Tuesday at lunch I was informed that Leudee (my director at Thai Samakee), and the bulk of the other teachers would be heading to a village cremation ceremony. There would be no further classes. I was given to understand that although I was in no way required to attend, I was also welcome to come, and as Kru Tuey made very clear, take photos. Having been to a village wedding and an army base birthday party, I was eager to witness this aspect of Isan culture. In fact, as I am scheduled to attend a city wedding this weekend, I was tempted to call this post, Two Weddings and a Funeral.  Even more tempting was the title Thai Barbecue, since this is what Tuey ended up calling it in explaining it to me. Tuey, a wild character, knew exactly what she was saying, cackling fanatically over the remark and repeating it several times. This in response to my questioning if the affair did not, well, smell pretty intensely as it burned. No! no!  You like barbecue? This is Thai barbecue!  Difficult to get a read on the tenor of the impending event. I had only my own Western sense of how to "be" at such a moment. Mostly, besides being highly intrigued, I suffered anxiety over offending my village, being either run out or possibly burned along with the corpse. Speaking of which, occasionally I will suffer a bout of a sort of experiential vertigo, where anything seems possible. I once daydreamed, in the middle of sorting through a bowl of god-knows-what bits and bones of god-knows-what creature, that I was daily being fattened up for some kind of ritualistic Thai cannibal feast, and for a few seconds it actually leaked into my brain as a plausible scenario. Anyhoo, I asked if I could nip home and get a black shirt since they were all in black and I had a feeling... Funny how I missed that memo. Someday I am going to come across a giant memo box somewhere at school, where all the notices explaining just what the fuck is going on day to day are piled up in a giant paper mountain big enough to ski down. Well, they all pointed to Leudee who was in a pink shirt like mine (Tuesday- King's Day- did I mention I love the King? I do), and Leudee shook her head in agreement and said, of course, Mai pen rai. So I packed into Tuey's Toyota with the other teachers, Leudee close behind, and we drove through the village and out into what they call "the forest", which  to us would be better described as "the small patch of ground where there are no rice fields yet". I don't think James Cameron is going to model his next 3D utopian alien planet on these forests, let me put it that way. We were among the first to arrive at a 30x40 foot cement pad with a tin roof facing the log pile pictured above. We took a seat in the fourth row of the neatly arranged ubiquitous plastic chairs (they come in blue and red- seems about an even split). I wondered at this choice of place until the pickup truck of monks arrived and stationed themselves in the first two rows, and then some very sharp politicians rolled up in their SUV's (the car to drive if you have money here- with the exception of a rare, stellar Mercedes). In the meantime I reflected on the size of the logs and the lack of kindling. Clearly there would be an accelerant  involved. And the permanence of the concrete pad denoted a regularity to the proceedings. I also had time to notice the crisp black jacket Leudee had donned over her pink shirt. Yes. The tall guy is a falang, and in case you couldn't pick him out, he is wearing a bright pink shirt to stand out against the night sky of black. Thank Buddha for Mai Pen Rai. Another way of interpreting it, at least for me lately, has been more of a Get over yourself! You are not that important! vibe. So I followed orders and I went where I wanted and took photos as I could. Discretion informed my movements and I tried to proceed with a pure heart- whatever that might be. But I admit I was after good shots too.

The monks spanned a range of ages, and they sat accordingly, the younger monks in the second row and the old geezers up front. They had a little time to kill, so this one decided to have a cigarette.
How does that jibe with the whole renunciation of the material world? He must be the Chris monk. The monk on the right with the glasses was the official chanter during the actual ceremony, and if his looks do not lie he was definitely the elder statesman. These monks exuded the kind of detachment and calm that indicates the depth of their practice. They are alert, yes, but absolutely no sort of self conscious vibe of judgment comes off of them. After 10 or 15 minutes more people arrived and took up chairs. Then came a sound of an amplified song and a line of younger monks came walking this rope to the log pile.
They were followed by young girls in white, including several of my students (So that's  why weren't in class- must be memo #409292). It turns out the woman at the center of the ceremony was one student's grandmother. Apparently she was married to a wealthy man, but then in her second marriage she did not do as well. I asked about alimony and, as far as I could understand, there is no such thing here. I could be wrong- I know enough now NEVER to assume I have emerged from a conversation with a complete understanding. (Case in point- I went into town the other day for a crescent wrench. I held up a fixed box wrench. I made the gesture over and over again of the same wrench but with an opening jaw. No? No way? You know what I mean? No? Out of stock? Never had those? You are very sorry? Okay, well thank you. Oh. and what is this as I am leaving? This nice pile of crescent wrenches? Oh. Can I please buy this? Thank you.) Anyhoo- if I have it right when a man and a woman part there is no legal recourse for the woman. It is a very patriarchal society so in some ways I can believe it.
Well, the rope was tied to this truck which carried the casket and several male family members. There was music being piped from those speakers on the truck, but for once it was a softer, sad and melodic music. The truck pulled right up to the woodpile ( with a little human group pushing), and the men took apart the elaborate casket construct and put just the casket on the wood. Then they unsealed the actual casket and the woman's son did something extraordinary. He leaned into the casket with his face and came flying upwards with a cloth covered in white powder in his teeth, which he flung with a jerk over his shoulder, covering himself with the white powder. It happened too quickly for me to get a shot, and I was too stunned anyway to operate the shutter. Tuey explained that this is a tradition and next to follow was washing of the woman's face with coconut water. Several family members and some young monks performed this rite. It was quiet. There was something absolutely wonderful about the tender way they did it.

Several women went around with platters of a sprig of wood shaving curled just so with a sort of prayer typed on it. I tried to pick one up for Tuey but she was adamant she must take her own. There was a hierarchical order to people going up to put these on the pyre, first family with some chanting by the monks, then her close friends, then the teachers who had her in school, and then there was the general scrum, of which I was a part.
 I should note that at this point there were close to one hundred people who had arrived walking from the family home behind the truck and who now sat in the grass all about us. There was one group of farmer men who sat over on their own, smoking and not doing much of the weiing and praying. This is just after I placed my merit stick on the pyre.
I said a little prayer thing- not really knowing what to pray for for a dead buddhist- I hope you don't come back? At least not as an American politician or media figure? I just said I hoped she was at peace where ever she was. You can see the suitcase on the pyre here and the big plastic bag of what looked like clothes or at least cloth of some kind. There followed a long session of chanting by all the monks, the ancient one leading on the microphone. They had strung another line of string from the casket to where he sat and chanted, which was then removed when they set two big-assed logs on either side on top. I am being a bit crude in using that term, but these actually crushed the casket, which I knew then was not made out of the dense mahogany seen nearly everywhere. A man in orange, but not a monk, lit some torches and handed them to the monks who had stepped forward.

While they were doing this, other men were liberally dousing the pile with some kind of gasoline, diesel or kerosene I am assuming since it did not explode when the monks torched it. Oddly, the moment it was ignited, the crowd dispersed. Clearly the ceremony and all of its symbolism was geared to the moments prior to the fire beginning. No one stayed to witness the actual fire doing its work, with the exception of the younger monks in the second row

Who seemed to be sitting more out of a sense of letting the crowd move on and the elder monks make their way back to the monk truck than any actual ritual or personal interest. A pyromaniac from way back, I could not resist approaching such a conflagration, especially one that included human, or at least fleshly, fuel.

I thought about the woman as I stood there. She was 52. Just a year older than me. Apparently she had been diagnosed with liver cancer a scant two months earlier. When I suggested it might be drinking unfiltered water-something I had heard from my British friend Allen-the teachers all insisted no, it was from eating too much raw Goong and raw fish- which I suppose could have something to do with the water or it could just be what the public here is afraid of the way we are quite sure that this, that, and the other thing is what causes cancer in the USA. It was. I would have to say a pretty good funeral- one I wouldn't mind. Out here in the open and simple. Befitting a villager's life, or perhaps any life when you get down to it- all the ashes to ashes, dust to dust aspects if you know what I mean. Beats a lot of Cadillacs and monster wreaths. I guess the flames are not hot enough, the way they are in commercial crematoriums in the US, to burn up the bones, so the next day the family comes back to sift through the ashes for them. They then take these to a wat for burial, though some people keep a bone or tooth to hang on a necklace as a charm. If any gold or precious stones turn up, it is considered a gift from the deceased to the finder. A few posts ago I titled In the End is my Beginning.  I took it from a TS Eliot poem since it fit the occasion of one year transforming into another, but it was the venerable Mary Queen of Scots who first uttered it, just before they chopped her head off. I suppose it had a political meaning, since her martyrdom would increase her reputation, but primarily she meant it to speak to her faith in beginning something better or at least different. I really wanted to stay and keep watching, but my ride was leaving. In the end it was just this young boy and I interested in looking into the flames as she made her journey from flesh to heat and light.

And then his attention turned elsewhere as well,

and it was only me and the ubiquitous blue chairs.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

ESL Teaching Tip # 1

When teaching long "o" sounds such as smoke, home, and hope to fifth graders, anywhere in the world, or most likely in the immediate galaxy, avoid using the following gesture to illustrate the word hole...

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Speaking Of Words

Here is a beauty by my young friend Zach Gomes via Yespoetry



We’ve got sweat-slicked brows, tuffs of loose, knotted hair
Our limbs dumbly droop and we stand on the roof

Of a three story flat up in Prenzlauerberg
Near five a.m. when the night’s at its end

When we shuffle our shoes and sometimes tip the booze
From the bottles that we’ve all left scattered around

Then the beer trickles down and it spreads on the ground
And turns the rooftop tar a shimmering black

I feel through my shirt the thick summer heat
The hairs on my arm, the trees in the street

Are bathing alike in a warm morning dew
And the cigarette smoke we let slip from our throats

Catches the first red rays as the sun shows its face
Through the chemical haze out in east Lichtenberg

We face the source of the light as it floods through Berlin
Not the city we know in this tangerine glow

In this rich warming shine that is washing our eyes
Black industrial pipes start to wiggle and writhe

And their steam hits the scaffolds, whose
Metal fingers grow limber as they stretch through the street

To shake the red trees from their lumbering sleep
Then the leaves that they drop start to flee and get caught

In the stares of facades in the communist bloc
With the refusal of death on their hot, heaving breath

The parks are all built out of paper and gold
With fountains that spew streams of molten stone

Our apartment stands firm in the boiling sea
Of the scars of old days which swell, throbbing like waves

It’s the city lain out, moving, alive, and just like that
A light, filmy rain sprays a sheet on the town

We try to claw it away, but the curtain stays down
Then we stir, soaked in the sun and the rain

It’s the start of the day
And we can go home to sleep and dream of sunlit Berlin

I stayed in Berlin in 1984 for two weeks, back before the wall came down. So long ago and this makes it come to life better than any photo. I was 25 and the world was a giant mystery. It still is.
 You can find a few more of  Zach's poems at:

It Takes X to Y

You must remember the popular saying, I think it was Hillary Clinton who was traveling about touting it some years back- It takes a village to raise a child-? That came to mind last Monday when I went to a wedding party in the village of Nong Ya Sai. I went as a last minute cultural expedition, courtesy of Mr. Jong, the school caretaker, because they know I am interested in becoming more involved in the village. This was not the wedding proper- rather more akin to the "rehearsal dinner" in the States, only everyone, as far as I could see, was invited. Crossing the main road into the village provided a terrific window into the lives of my students and their families off the res, where life is less formalized and structured. Treating me like an honored visiting guest, they immediately sat me down and piled a number of plates of food.
That dish in the immediate left foreground is raw beef, which naturally caused me a moment's hesitation, and of which I subsequently gobbled up almost a bowl and a half. They also gave me steak- pointing out its special nature through gestures and repeated inquiries as to whether I liked it ( I hadn't had it prior and in restaurants it is for falangs and very expensive).  You can see my old buddy Chang there in front of the village elder in the black. As far as I can tell the man in the elegant grey shirt is either an uncle to the  bride or her grandfather. The way they jumped to my needs and included me demonstrates something special about life in a village, something which I can't imagine anywhere else. Here is the young bride to be, a slip of a thing, 18, with her mother.
 I am sorry I only have this one photo and her eyes are closed. She is on the cusp of an important life transition, and all this hubbub was for her. It was a whole village event- a village who had a stake in this girl's happiness. All about me people were coming and going, pitching in, eating or not eating. A few of the older women go to dancing to the (of course) loud Thai music and tried to lure me in with them. I was busy eating.  Here is the kitchen behind my delicious food:
Yes it is gender segregated, that much is obvious, but I doubt had I wanted to jump in and cook they would mind.
In fact, the woman waving on the left this next photo was very hopeful I would!
What is also very apparent is the easy joy emanating from the gathering. While the adults were going about their various conversations and business, the children were running too and fro, doing their own thing, coming by to say hello to me and just playing in a very loose manner, the way kids do everywhere. Yet something about the particular way they are playing in the dust, in the shadows of their simple homes, and the way the adults are generally ignoring them, says more about the way a village raises a child than anything else. What Hillary, or Madison Avenue, or whoever came up with the folksy wisdom It takes a village... wanted those of us in our western, isolated suburban homes to imagine was a very hands-on scenario. Nurturing adults of all stripes keeping a constant watchful eye, ready to intervene at the slightest infraction of fairness or dnager: No, Bobwinga! That is not the moral way to proceed! Here is what to do! I greatly admire Hillary Clinton. She is tough and smart and brave and hard working as hell, and she is not a quitter. I am not saying I would vote for her- in fact I am probably against as many of her policies as for- but it is clear she has those attributes I mentioned. In fact she is very like some of the most admirable Thai women who are carrying their families single-handedly ( I should mention here that Thai women are notably loose with the idea of what is true and what is a lie!). But I think that Hillary in her village painting leaves the far more important aspect of village life out- that of freedom and accountability; that a village child is left to their own wiles much of the time, unsupervised, responsible for the nature and consequences of their decisions and actions. Yes, the ancient broom maker comes to share his knowledge with the children at school, and any grandma can tell any kid to get a chair or a glass of water for a stranger, but no, no one is going to sue me if one of the kids chops off a finger with the knife I give her to strip tamarind husks, no one is micro-managing the behavior which includes doling out justice or injustice and choosing teams fairly or unfairly, or doing anything potentially dangerous such as climbing on stacks of chairs that could tip over- i.e. discovering the world through trial and error, and pain and pleasure through experimentation.

Which all left me thinking what an empty statement the village one is as is so much in our media soaked, politically tired nation; how hard it is to say anything at all that is both meaningful and true. In the first world we have left the village behind, both its poverty and its loveliness. We're not going back there. In many ways I think these kids are most akin to the redneck families I know in places like Maine and Wyoming- places where they "cling to their guns and bibles". Here is a cute kid, yes? It takes a village to raise a child....
And here he is coming out the other side. Ummmmm....

Rednecks have some of that treasured freedom and looseness to their lives, and some of the connection to nature lost by the suburban and city kids, but they have no village. Because that is the other part of this scene which struck my so strongly- the sense of sharing- space, life, and "stuff". Maybe it is simply spending a life in a rattan house like this:
where not a whole lot you do is going to be private. The question, Are these villagers happy? seems exceptionally silly. As does the idea that we, given our technological, cultural and political status, are going to be swayed in our popular habits and direction by a pleasant quote (or even a deep concept such as global climate change), delivered by a career politician. Is it that our self-awareness runs too deep? Is this the natural cost of our multiculturalism? Or that we are simply seeing the end game of individualism coupled with capitalism? It seems we don't love anything the way the Thais do their king or their traditions. If Obama with his once in a generation eloquence and his biracial and worldly family cannot sway us to unity and self sacrifice, what possibly can? I read that a large solar power company has given up and moved operations to China- who is of course subsidizing the bejeezuz out of it. I see the latest murders in Arizona have only made the usual suspects vomit their predetermined responses. I guess that sounds a bit defeatist coming from a person who is trying to convey to you his experience through words and pictures. I do believe in words and language, their power to effect important shifts in a given life. Thanks to my education and the ironic nature of my culture, I am also all too aware of their artificiality and limitations. It is complex and what we yearn for in that folksy saying is ultimately something less so.
I remember once when I was traveling with my brother Chris through the southwest, many years back. We had been looking at all kinds of wonderful important historical art and enjoying it immensely. Still it was the picture drawn by a very young child, the typical mistakes in perspective and relative size and shape, yet done with a genuinely confident, pure hand, that made the biggest impression on Chris, then a young New York artist slaving at  a variety of odd jobs, living on nothing in cramped quarters, squeezing in his painting time in the middle of the night - That is what I am trying to find. That place of pure creativity in response to the world. With all that I know of art, and technique, and the world's history and the darkness of man's heart- that is what I am again trying to make.  I don't know if he still feels that way. It was a long time ago. Sitting at that table, unable to say more than a word or two of thanks to my hosts and the bride to be, I was afloat in a rare quotation free ether. For those two hours I had found my way back to something lost, something missing.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Wait 'til I Get My Hands On You

Can I suggest some music to go with this post? Open a separate tab and open this link. You can watch it with the images later...


Okay? Ready? Turn it up. Yes, nice atmosphere. Mmmmmmm. Let me know how the timing works out.
In the US we live increasingly non-touching lives. Oddly, as we have become more "liberated" it seems like we are ever more  anxious about our bodies and our personal space. When I was a kid, all the old men ran around without shirts, but now I rarely see that and I feel like I am being "gross" if I take mine off (even though I am still super hot). We worship the hairless teen six pack but only from afar, in safe two dimensions, on the billboards, magazine ads, and music videos. The hugs and squeezes I got from my teachers and all kinds of adults could cost a person their reputation and even job today. It has gotten so that I believe most Americans are very self conscious and weird about touching, though it is such an integral part of emotional well being. Thank God in Thailand this politically correct infection has not arrived. Men are exceptionally touchy feely, and though there are social taboos about going across genders, kids swarm me and most other adults for physical affection. It feels damn good.
My American touch adventures have included the following.
I have had Reiki performed(?) on me (I won it in a raffle- glad I didn't pay full fare); I have gone up to the front of a church for the "laying on of hands"(I was feeling damaged and thought it couldn't hurt-maybe it helped just a teeny bit); I have been punched in the face (I deserved it- I stole my best friend's girl for the prom); I have been poked and prodded by Western doctors (including once by my surgeon father-more odd for me than for him, I think); I have had my prostate checked(no comment); I have been touched tenderly by a mother and by lovers (again, no comment); Until yesterday, I had never had a professional massage. Sure, I got and gave the whole "Do you want a back rub?" thing in college, which was just a college way of asking if someone wanted to come and see your etchings (this caught on as a catchphrase when racy etchings in the 1930's, such as this one by Charles Martin,  were popular)
Talk about hands on! Anyhoo, as someone said when I told them I was going in for my massage, "Wait a minute! Wasn't it you who was all about getting a Thai massage when we first got here?"  Yes it was. But on our first weekend, when I was stymied by the mini-hoard of my fellow volunteers clogging the local massage conduits, I just never got back in. Life got in the way, in the manner it does with so many projects and desires. This Saturday was different. I had nothing else in town to do but acquire a crescent wrench to tighten the various shitty parts on my shitty bicycle. And so I went to "Jackie's lady". Everyone seems to have an opinion on just who is the best practitioner or the best value. There are the cheaper ladies uptown who give you a lot of bang for your buck, but they are likely to talk on the phone while they work, and you lay out in a more or less communal public space. There is the very Camdenesque boutiquey place on the hip street, more expensive, smells all perfumy. They use oils, and you are in more of a private chair, worked on without interruption. There is also the option of getting one in the middle of the busy Indochine mall. They seem to do a brisk local business, though none of the volunteers has yet frequented these. There is Sarah's blind masseuse who works through ones' street clothes. And there is "Jackie's lady". The one with the foot sign. This I learned was in fact one of those reflexology charts like this:
As there was no rational means of assessing something I had never experienced, I went in. I had to wait a half an hour, which was a good sign, I hoped. Miss San (she later asked my name and then said, "My name is San...Miss San!") walked me(literally by the hand) upstairs to a silent green sanctuary, lay a sarong on the bed, and departed.
That is when the panic set in. I couldn't help but remember Dwight's story of a similar encounter with a dermatologist's mole check (yes, pretty much the antithesis of this I admit), which had him stripping naked only to have her, on reentry, react to the sight of his bare bodkin with shock and dismay. A quick phone call to Jackie saved me.  Do I lay down to wait? Do I take off my shirt? Do I get naked? Okay, so, boxers on, sarong on, shirt off. Sit on the edge of the bed and read my novel. Act relaxed. I'm all cool with this.Here she is...There is nothing like sitting in a sarong in a quiet, curtained room with a cute woman in complete ignorance of each others' language.

Saying over and over, First time. First time.  and holding up an index finger only seemed to make me come across like some misguided pervert, who I assumed she would assume, would assume all the wrong things about what was available and slap me across the face with one of her small but powerful hands. Of course Miss San was nothing less than an experienced professional and within seconds I was on my back with one set of her fingers jammed deep into my thigh and the other so high up and hard in my groin I was tempted to cry for the police. If momentarily earlier I was worried my lizard brain might betray me with an embarrassing raising of the flagpole, now I was worried that I might never walk again. So...So... tense, she mimicked. And laughed. I try not to envision prior to experiences, the better to be open to what actually occurs, but I know I was bound by the conventional scenario in my head to a kind of kneading motion, some karate chopping and slapping, softening me up like a far overripe and tough candidate for kobe beef. Thai massage, at least as practiced by San, is much more about putting fingers, elbows, and I think maybe once or twice a knee, into various points around the body, holding them there, and doing a sort of separating motion. The rubbing was mostly a sort of cross motion on tendons in places like the top of my foot. I did manage to finally relax and go with it, mostly, when I came to trust she was not going to genuinely rupture my skin and snatch out my soul in some version of Steven Segal's martial arts death move. She climbed up on the platform and flipped me this way and that, teaching me a few words of Thai (left side, right side), and sometimes singing a little, quietly. At one point I almost dozed off. Two hours streamed by in a way I could never have ascertained accurately. For some reason, San found it hilarious when I said I was a Kru Assassamak (teacher volunteer) and when I paid her, her $14 (yes, cheap there, but pretty pricey here), and I said, "San, no assassamak" she thought it was funny as hell. When I walked out, I did not feel like some have described, 'like jelly', and actually I was a little let down. I felt good. Alert. Sort of more "aligned" as I walked. But I wasn't...high for want of a better word. Or maybe I was on a sort of subtle secondary layer. When you wait for something for 51 years I supposed it is pretty unlikely to exceed expectations. I think I will probably try at least one different place just to get a perspective bearing.

On the other hand, rather than diminishing, the episode has lingered in my memory in an expansive sort of way, so I won't be surprised if I find myself back in the green room, no longer a massage nube, ready to cinch up my sarong and take it like a human.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

In My End Is My Beginning

This is Phu (Mountain) Kradeung, at sunset on January 1st taken from the saawng tao stop where the six of us waited for our bus back to Khon Khen and home. On the highest cliffs, there on the right, was where we sat with a cast of thousands at daybreak of that same day, and where the following photo was taken facing the other direction:
This was taken at around 6am. Woken up by Rita's friend Sean at 4:45, we hiked a mile or so in a silent stream of strangely garbed Thais- flip flops, funny animal hats, an assortment of down parkas and flimsy windbreakers. This after the first night in Thailand where I was shivering cold, and even during this dark hike my muscles remained tense. As I hiked I thought of the New Year's I spent camping with my family on the banks of the St. George River in Warren Maine, ten years earlier at the change of the Millennium, when so many dark predictions of chaos and collapse were bandied about, paranoid citizens buying thousand dollar survival kits and the radio and television alive with fear mongering experts. On that night there were five of us (I think for some reason the dog was with us, so six in that case) wrapped into a double zipped monster sleeping bag, enduring a night which dipped close to zero Fahrenheit. We managed to stay warm. Ten years later I spent it in a one-man tent in a six dollar Tesco sleeping bag through which, if I held it to the light, I could see through like a mosquito net. I managed to freeze. It did not help my night's sleep that we had chosen a campsite next to a threesome of young men who had splurged on a bottle of Chivas Regal (easily over $1000 Baht) and engaged in a scintillating and wide-ranging conversation, which to me sounded much like drunk half geese/half sheep animals, well past the midnight/New Year's mark. At 4:45 I made sure to invite them on the sunrise hike and tried to help them awake with some choice pine cones found laying near my tent.
The trip began with a series of challenging bus miscommunications which meant that after being thrown off of our first bus for not having tickets in advance (we never had to before) we had to stuff ourselves three to a seat for several hours, cramping the poor locals who were just trying to get to work or back home to their families. We actually disembarked at the wrong town at one point and were nearly left behind before scrambling back on to sit on the floor. Phu Kradeung is a famous mountain and we picked the most popular day of the year to hike it. This meant that our experience was less than typical. I suppose it would be akin to dropping in at Vail ski mountain during Christmas break and seeing the gyenormous lines at every lift.

 Still, the mountain is meant to traffic large numbers of people simultaneously and there were some very "Thai" aspects to the experience, including the existence of professional porters that most people use to carry their gear up the mountain for 15 bht a kilo.
My pack with the two tents weighed just 12 kilos, so it would have been about $6 up and $6 back to have it ported.
These men and women were unbelievably strong and sinewy and they spanned a range of ages. It was not uncommon to see them stopping for a cigarette break!
 I tried shouldering one of these loads to get an idea of what they went through to make a living and it couldn't have been less than 45 Kilos. This particular one is mostly two large bags of rice, a commercial load if you will, headed up to be served at one of the multiple restaurants located at the top. It is Thailand afterall, so not only were there restaurants and souvenir shops on top, there were four or five locations on the way up as well. It sort of felt like a very slow Boston Marathon where you could throw down some carbs or a drink as you hiked along.

 Rita and I paced ahead, we both have a pretty fast walk in general, but we stopped to smell the flowers, listen to the wind and birds in the bamboo forests, and eat a quick slice or two of daang moh (red watermelon).

 There were sections that were rigorously steep (I have no idea how the porters managed them), and some of them had stone or steel stairs built to get you up.
We went round and round later about how they possibly carted all of the materials to build and supply the structures on top, but with the exception of one tractor vehicle moving trash we saw no evidence of anything being delivered without human power. There were signs to watch for wild elephants (unfortunately the only chang we saw was Ben and this very strange thing in all black),
and Sarah wondered why they couldn't be put to lugging things up, a preferable life in some ways to putting on a dog and pony show (that is an oddly mixed metaphor- an elephant putting on a dog and pony show), but I pointed out that such a remedy would then put the porters out of a job, and then we would have had to go to the "porter round up" in Surin and watch the porters reenact old battles and throw darts at oversized  dart boards and give people rides around town. Once we arrived on the summit, where the porters put down their loads and they were transferred to rolling carts, and we covered a flat sandy 3 k trail, we arrived at an enormous tent city.
I am just guessing, but I would say there were close to 6,000 people who spent New Year's Night with us atop the massive butte. All things taken into consideration, it was remarkably laid back and well run. There were cold showers and sinks and trash areas and the eating/shopping area. There were tents to rent, and, as we only discovered too late the next morning, sleeping bags for 30 bht!!! I can only compare it to my ski trips to Colorado during Christmas break, where you either have to accept the crowds and relax, or think about it cynically and ruin your own vacation. And unlike the glitzy crowds pushing their way to the chairlift on $1200 skis, the mellow Thai vibe allows for no one-upmanship or rush. Of course, the phenomenal green curry was jacked all the way up from $1 to almost $2!!!
 That hot food truly hit the spot as the temperatures plummeted with the sunset. None of us brought any genuine cold weather gear, and like soldiers talking about home cooking on a distant front, we huddled in the night describing in detail our wonderful down parkas and super-insulated sleeping bags back in New Hampshire and Maine and Snowmass. It was not hard to get out of the sleeping bag when Sean gave the alert, because I wanted to get moving and get the blood back into my extremities. That plan worked a little, but it did not provide enough of an upswing to counter the 40 minutes of sitting on the cliff in the dark. Those first rays of daylight of 2011 were all the more delicious as they represented not only new beginnings but WARMTH!

Then it was time to scurry back to our tents and a hot breakfast, which, coupled with the Thai sun soon did it work and had us all back to our usual sweaty selves. Rita's friend Sean who teaches in Chaing Mai and his girlfriend Bpalm had to get back to their car for a twelve hour drive home, and after much discussion, we decided to head back down ourselves rather than stay another night.

This meant that Ben, who was arriving a day late, would be making the trek up the mountain with all his gear for the shear exercise of it, unless he wanted to stay up  on his own. There are many waterfalls on the top of the butte, yet at this time of year they are close to completely dry. We too had a long trip home and thought it better to catch up on our sleep in Khon Khen so we could be in good teaching form for the 4th. We scooched over to the nearest waterfall, snapped a few photos, and broke down the tents.
 Ben arrived at noon, beating Rita and my time of 3.5 hours by 30 minutes, in great spirits, and met our news of departure with his usual mai pen rai. We did allow him to eat a delicious lunch before heading back down- always the worst part on the body, most notably on my poor 50 year old knees. I was happy to say they held up great and I only felt the stabbing pain of a thousand scalpels for the last 2k or so. We took this group shot at the last rest area before the final descent:
We had planned on buying some Leuaang mo (yellow watermelon) at this stop, but it was the only one where the confection was not available. I decided this was our elusive Moby Dick, the unsatisfied object of our desire which would call us back. If I do make it back to the top of Phu Kradeung, it will most likely be conveyed like this elderly fellow. We wondered if they were going to throw him off the cliff  in some death ceremony or if he had paid for a round trip.

 I was very hooked on this Moby Dick premise and thought we should each come up with a personal Moby for which we quested while in Thailand. If one managed to locate their Moby, they had to immediately imagine a new one.
 My Moby breached the very next day in KK when I obsessed on finding a small restaurant deemed by the Lonely Planet as "one of the best in all of Thailand..." Here we are trying to find it. Hopeless. That is the problem with guides like LP. They provide a backbone at most. There are far more great places than they mention, and the places they describe are as wont to have disappeared as not. We did have luck with one of their recommendations for dinner, and the hotel they suggested that Ben and I stayed in, at $1.25 each, was truly up my alley style wise- old and funky and full of history. Leaving the mountain early turned out to be an excellent decision since we were all wiped out by the descent and our lack of sleep. 
  And what would a trip be without a shot of Ben fast asleep?  He did, after all, make the trip up and back with a full pack in a day. Just after this shot, Rita put a banana chip into the poor boy's mouth and danged if he didn't start chewing it in his sleep. So we beat most of you to the punch on New Years. Rita actually sent her brother a text many hours later when it was midnight in Colorado. Though it was far from any of our ideal back to nature journey, we all agreed that to feel the upward trail underfoot, to hear the wind in the pines(!) on top, and most of all the general change from our rice paddy, daily burning life was well worth every baht and every hour on the bus. One particular aspect of the trip that made it especially fun was the inclusion of Sarah from Texas and Malibu Jackie from Massachusetts. I gave Sarah a hard time about her penchant for finding the deadly lining to any nice moment: What a sunrise! And if you stare into it you will go blind...Oh that sun feels so good after freezing! Yes and it gives you cancer...Sarah is our resident computer guru and she turns me on to great music. And Jackie? A hard headed, whiskey-voiced, fearless young woman who just takes any moment and by her presence makes it automatically more energized and happy. A talented photographer and like myself and Ben, one with genuinely itchy feet. Here she is giving the old Beantown B:
 Back home, thinking about our trip led me back to all the other mountains I have climbed, and all the endings and beginnings that make up a life. This led me back to one of my all time favorite poems I discovered at 16, the TS Eliot poem East Coker. Here it is in part and I cannot believe how well it fits my current state:
  Home is where one starts from. As we grow older
The world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated
Of dead and living. Not the intense moment
Isolated, with no before and after,
But a lifetime burning in every moment
And not the lifetime of one man only
But of old stones that cannot be deciphered.
There is a time for the evening under starlight,
A time for the evening under lamplight
(The evening with the photograph album).
Love is most nearly itself
When here and now cease to matter.
Old men ought to be explorers
Here or there does not matter
We must be still and still moving
Into another intensity
For a further union, a deeper communion
Through the dark cold and the empty desolation,
The wave cry, the wind cry, the vast waters
Of the petrel and the porpoise. In my end is my beginning.

and our cold night atop this Thai landmark led me then to the wonderful poems of Han Shan, translated by Gary Snyder:

Clambering up the Cold Mountain path
Han-shan (Cold Mountain), Han-shan (Cold Mountain) poetry, Buddhist, Buddhist poetry, Zen / Chan poetry, [TRADITION SUB2] poetry, Taoist poetry by Han-shan (Cold Mountain)
(730? - 850?)

English version by
Gary Snyder
Original Language

Clambering up the Cold Mountain path,
The Cold Mountain trail goes on and on:
The long gorge choked with scree and boulders,
The wide creek, the mist-blurred grass.
The moss is slippery, though there's been no rain
The pine sings, but there's no wind.
Who can leap the world's ties
And sit with me among the white clouds?