Thursday, December 25, 2014
It’s been almost six years
since my life partner of 30 years died. He died this time of year. This is the first holiday season since
John has been gone that a fog of grief hasn’t enveloped me around Christmas. Partly, I’ve been too busy to hang onto grief—working and rehearsing for
two plays have been pretty all consuming. (There was also a wonderful trip to
Hong Kong in November.) Partly, the compassionate intelligence that runs the
universe pushed me through a door to the other side of grief. It's pretty interesting on the other side if for no other reason than it requires me to be a lot less self-absorbed.
Thursday, September 4, 2014
In memory of Robin Williams, last night I watched What Dreams May Come, one of my favorite movies. Williams, in the film, plays a man who descends into hell to rescue his wife after she ends her own life. Hell is portrayed as a surreal state of self-absorption and denial that results in a person's total isolation.
This lines up pretty closely with what I think hell is.
I've watched What Dreams May Come many times, but what struck me last night for the first time was how much Robin Williams--if you added a beard-- looked like Norm, a friend I made in Portland, Oregon's skid row back in the late seventies.
Norm had been a philosophy major at Santa Clara College and it showed. Whenever we got into political, theological, or otherwise "deep" conversations about anything, he would inevitably switch sides in the middle of the discussion and argue the opposite point of view. This drove me crazy until I realized that although he could argue any perspective passionately, he really didn't have a point of view. Rather, Norm had points of view. It wasn't the position that mattered to him. It was the discourse.
We were both in our twenties, fresh out of college, and still believed that positions, opinions, ideologies--whatever you want to call them--mattered. Four decades later I marvel at the energy we had then to expend on such heated exchanges.
But we weren't just debating in an ivory tower. Both of us worked in an agency that tried to help chronic alcoholics in Portland's skid row. For the uninitiated, skid rows can be found in any city. They are areas packed with dank single room occupancy hotels (also known as flophouses), convenience liquor stores, Gospel missions, and bars where you can get fleas with your beer. The residents are generally men, many of whom are disabled military veterans, who have chronic alcohol and substance abuse issues. My job--on paper--was to be a crime victims' advocate. However, I did very little crime victims' assistance. The agency I worked for was pretty disorganized and rarely knew when cases were going to court. So mostly, I went around to the flophouses with a nurse and did health checks, delivered Meals on Wheels, and listened to the sad life stories of those who were sober for the moment.
It's an understatement to say that most chronic alcoholics living on skid row aren't especially concerned about hygiene. It took me a while to learn to control my gag reflex upon entering the foul smelling hotels. A lot of the guys told me they got mugged pretty regularly. Disabled and drunk, they were easy targets. You'd think the acrid odor of urine, excrement, and vomit that emanated from the men would have provided some protection against crime by acting as a chemical barrier. But when they staggered out to buy booze or smokes, thieves apparently didn't mind the reek, and clubbed or knifed the guys to steal what little they had. Who knows? The thieves probably smelled pretty bad, too.
Having the stench and violence of skid row as the backdrop for our heated debates about the meaning of life, the value of religion, and the causes of poverty and other social evils, gave Norm's and my exchanges even greater intensity than they might have had under other circumstances. To top it off, Norm was a Catholic-he was raised in an arch conservative Irish Catholic family-- while I had grown up in a fundamentalist Protestant church and had had a bellyful of Christianity. Mercifully, Norm was not pedantic or proselytizing about his religion. Even about Catholicism, he had multiple points of view and could poke fun at the Church with the best of them. He, unlike me, didn't take himself too seriously. In the heat of debate, he would wink at me, stroke his unruly beard, and break into the goofiest grin I have ever seen on God's green earth. The grin said, "Connie, you've been had." I saw that grin again and again as I attempted through arguing with Norm to make sense of skid row and to some extent of the larger world.
Norm was very popular on skid row. He was known for his kindness and integrity. The men who came into the agency always sought him out. Even when he had to put on a stern look to remove a client from the agency for being disorderly, he did it in a way that allowed the man to keep his dignity. I admired and respected that about him. Norm had a light touch with people. One of his favorite ways to get folks to ease up when they were getting too intense would be to say in a fakey hypnotic tone, "You are as light as a feather." And then grin. It usually got people to laugh. Even the drunk ones.
I haven't seen Norm for a long time. After a few years in Portland, he went back to California and became the director of a social service agency and I moved to Wisconsin to work as a counselor. What were the personal demons that attracted us to skid row in the first place? I don't think Norm had any but mine was that my father had died of liver disease due to alcoholism in a flophouse in Chicago. I never saw him when he lived on skid row but after he died, I guess some part of me wanted to see what that version of hell looked like. In Portland, I got to see the end game: the slow and excruciatingly painful suicide that uses alcohol as a weapon. My dad had definitely suffered as much or even more than those of us who had borne the brunt of his illness. After working on skid row, I hoped he wasn't suffering any more.
I can see and hear Norm in my mind's eye now. He's grinning. "Remember, Connie, you are as light as a feather." He's right, of course. In What Dreams May Come, Robin Williams' character rescues his wife from hell by being willing to leave heaven and to go and stay with her in hell. This action breaks her out of her self-absorption. They both float up like feathers into a heaven of their own making.
Wow. This would be a great discussion to have with Norm. I wonder what he's doing now?
Tuesday, June 17, 2014
I met Mwe Leng this past December through a foundation in Chiang Mai called We Women that helps promising young women from Burma get university educations in Thailand and elsewhere. "I want to become a nurse," she said so softly I could barely hear her. "My grandma died because there was no hospital or health care in the village in Burma where she lived." Mwe Leng's grandmother was in her fifties when she died of something people don't generally die from in the West.
What Mwe Leng didn't say, because she didn't have to since it was written all over her face, was "Please help me." So, I did. Tutored her in English, helped her get her American equivalency high school diploma known as the G.E.D., drilled her so she could pass the IELTS English proficiency exam, and assisted her in gaining admission to Chiang Mai University's International College School of Nursing. She's supposed to start in the fall.
Mai bpen rai as the Thais say. No problem. Except for one thing. Her mom fled Burma to live in a refugee camp on the Thai Burmese border where people aren't allowed to work so she has no money. Her dad's whereabouts are unknown. Mwe Leng's in Thailand on an education visa and is prohibited from working. She has no money to pay for this chance at a new life.
Her other options are to go back to Burma where there are few jobs and where she'll be persecuted as an ethnic minority because she is a Shan or to work as an illegal immigrant in Thailand, which all too often for young women means prostitution.
This is an often repeated story all over the world. Regimes persecute their own people, steal their land, squash resistance, and sell their countries to the highest bidders. They have become more sophisticated about their tactics recently and make sure that they placate the West by talking a lot about democracy and reforms. But rest assured, it's still all about the money and business as usual.
You've heard these stories before, right? Sad, but what can you do? You can't save the world.
An acquaintance of mine recently rolled his eyes at me when I told him Mwe Leng's tale. "Connie", he said.
"If it's somehow depressing, I know you're gonna be involved in it. Survivors of war, sex slaves, abandoned dogs, refugees, people who live on garbage dumps--you always have to be rescuing some creature or promoting a cause."
Yeah, yeah. Probably guilty on all counts. Yet, here I live in a part of the world where I can see clearly how small amounts of money directly put to beneficial use on a person's behalf --sans middlemen in the form of charities and ngos who skim administrative costs off donations-- can change the world.
But you can change the world for Mwe Leng. And change the world for you. Because when you help Mwe Leng achieve her goal of becoming a nurse, the world becomes a better place for everyone. The thugs and bullies running her country's government do not win. She does. And so do you.
Here's the pitch: Go direct. Five bucks. Ten bucks. Whatever you can spare. Please make a direct donation for Mwe Leng's education. www.gofundme.com/burmawarchiangmainurse No charities or ngos involved.
You have my promise that I won't make these appeals too often.
I'm hoping I'll win the lottery.
Until then, please help this young woman become a nurse and have a chance at a better life.
Monday, May 5, 2014
However, mai bpen rai (no worries) as the Thais say. I'm not alone in the car. Mr. Pradit, the taxi driver, is repeatedly turning the key and grinding the starter. It sounds to me like we're out of gas. I say so. Mr. Pradit ignores me and keeps grinding the starter. Thai men, like males everywhere, do not seem to enjoy when a woman tells them that they are out of gas. A security guard approaches us, smiles, and tries to help start the car by shifting it into neutral and grinding the starter. No luck.
Mr. Pradit gets on his cell phone. Excitedly, he tells the person he is calling what has happened and what he wants. I know enough Thai to understand that he wants the person to come to where we are and drive me to the airport in his car. I can hear the person on the other end speak Thai in a tired sounding voice. He doesn't sound too excited about coming to take me to the airport.
Mr. Pradit is insistent. Then he hangs up. "I call my brudder," he says, "to come take you airport."
"Mr. Pradit, I can just catch a songtauw (pick up truck taxi) down the street." I am concerned about how long it will take Mr. Pradit's less than excited brother to arrive to take me to the airport.
"No." Mr. Pradit says this as if I have just suggested something preposterous. It is a point of pride to him to get me to the airport by 10 pm, the time we had arranged. The security guard comes by again and calmly offers to help. Together, he and Mr. Pradit push the Lexus to the curb alongside the building and out of the way so that other cars can exit the lot. Before they start pushing, I offer to get out of the Lexus to make it easier to move. "No," insists Mr. Pradit again in a way that indicates that what I'm suggesting is absurd.
"Really, Mr. Pradit, it didn't sound like your brother was very excited about coming out late at night to take a strange farang (foreigner) to the airport. "How old is he, anyway?"
Mr Pradit says, "He two year older than me--72. He use to hold high position in government."
Mr. Pradit is my regular daily ride to and from the international school in Chiang Mai where I work five days per week. He also sometimes takes me to the airport. There is nothing on the car that identifies it as a taxi and there is no meter. All rides are negotiated. And Mr. Pradit is a bold driver even by widely accepted Thai "drive like a bat out of hell" standards. Think New York taxi driver and you get the idea.
Why do I ride with Mr. Pradit, you may wonder? Well, no taxis in Chiang Mai have meters. All taxi rides are negotiated. And unlike many taxi drivers, Mr. Pradit is extremely punctual and reliable. When he can't give me a ride, he takes great pains to arrange that his son will do so. Mr. Pradit is also remarkably kind. This probably is what I like the most about him. He has located obscure items in shops when I've mentioned offhand that I was looking for them. He's also helped me install light bulbs and water heaters in my condo. To top it off, Mr. Pradit is funny, speaks English well, and laughs a lot, although I notice that he's not laughing about this situation.
Looking at my watch, I see that it is 9:50. "Really, Mr. Pradit, I think I will get a songtauw." Just then, his brother pulls up-- in a Lexus. He nimbly jumps out. Like Mr. Pradit, he moves and looks much younger than his age. Both brothers are very trim and stylishly dressed. Not appearing terribly excited to see us, he speaks to his brother and then asks me if I speak Thai. "Nitnoy kah (a little)," I say. After that, he converses in Thai only with his brother. I am whisked away in the brother's Lexus with Mr. Pradit at the wheel. We make what must be the fastest and most hair raising trip I have ever taken to an airport. I arrive at Chiang Mai International precisely at 10 pm.
Mr. Pradit is beaming. "See. I tell you I get you here on time! Make sure you tell Nat." For some reason, at this moment, after a race to the airport, Mr. Pradit is thinking about Nat? It must be another point of pride.
Nat, my fellow partner in adventure who accompanied me to Chiang Mai, knows Mr. Pradit. The three of us have taken taxi rides together on many occasions. Nat especially likes to tease Mr. Pradit about his driving. Mr. Pradit especially enjoys pretending that he doesn't hear Nat or that he doesn't understand English that well. When Nat and Mr. Pradit are together, they remind me of Laurel and Hardy. Taking my cue from Mr. Pradit, I too pretend that I can't hear and don't understand English that well when they are together.
Upon my return from travelling, during my first ride to school with Mr. Pradit, I ask if he was in fact out of gas that night. He tells me that he and his brother, after dropping me at the airport, went and got several litres of gasoline in containers and retrieved the Lexus that was out of gas at the condo.
"Your brother didn't sound too happy that night, no?" I ask. "No. He wasn't." Mr. Pradit laughs.
"But he didn't have any choice, did he? He had to come to help, yes?" "Yes. No choice." Mr. Pradit laughs again. Such is the nature of Thai family obligations. We ride the rest of the way to school in contented silence. Mr. Pradit seems pleased that I as a farang at least now understand this much about Thai culture. And that I have learned this lesson from him.
Sunday, March 2, 2014
Therapy and service dog programs are in their infancy in Chiang Mai, Thailand (and I suspect in most of the rest of Asia). In fact, I have lived in Asia for almost four years and haven't spotted a "seeing eye" dog yet.
Seventeen local service organizations including the Chiang Mai Care for Dogs Foundation sent representatives to the fair to recruit student volunteers. Care for Dogs provides dog rescue, sterilization, vaccination, adoption, and outreach programs designed to help the large stray dog population in Chiang Mai. Since many Thais bring soi (stray) and other unwanted dogs to the Buddhist temples throughout the city, Care for Dogs has organized a temple outreach program called Hand to Paw. The program connects middle and high school students (with school assistance) to temples so that kids can help monks keep temple dogs healthy and not reproduce.
For more information about animal assisted therapy and Pet Partners, please visit www.petpartners.org
Thursday, January 23, 2014
Nat Hix has luck that borders on the supernatural. When I told an acquaintance that Nat always wins, he scoffed, "I'll bet he cheats". What this person didn't know is that with Nat's luck, cheating is completely unnecessary.
Even though he can't spell, Nat invariably wins at Scrabble. He also beats everybody at Monopoly, Backgammon, and Parcheesi. All board games as a matter of fact. How about electric games, you ask? What about Wii bowling, Xbox 360 tennis, or Zuma? Or anything else that involves a monitor?
Don't even think about it.
When you watch football games with him, don't be tempted to bet for the team he opposes. At the last minute, despite the fact that his team is impossibly behind, it will win with several hail Marys.
Our friend Steve hosts an annual Academy Award party. The gathering is black tie, has great food, and features a contest that involves selecting the winners in each of the Oscar categories. The person who guesses the most Oscar recipients wins. Steve warned me that he's always the champion of the contest. "I don't want to burst your bubble," I said, "but since you invited Nat and me, this is not your year. Don't take it personally. No one in his family will play any games with Nat with the exception of his son, a relentlessly optimistic young man who harbors the competitive hope that he will someday beat his dad at something."
|Portrait of a lucky man|
"Actually, I'm the one who always wins. I'm a pretty lucky guy," Steve smiled, clearly skeptical.
His optimism was short lived. A few days later at the party, as it became clear that Nat was going to win in all categories even though he hadn't seen most of the nominated movies, our normally upbeat and chatty friend grew quiet. When the party ended and we took our leave, all Steve could say was, "I used to be that guy."
Since Nat never loses, he does not understand the agony of defeat. Nor does he understand why people no longer ask him to join in any reindeer games. Surely people want to play a competitor who will give them a good game, says he. Yes, say I, but they also want to believe that they can win. Once they play you a few times, they realize they have no chance. It's no fun playing when you know before you start that you are going to lose.
Not convinced by my argument, Nat was later shocked to learn that a group of his buddies in Hong Kong had stopped inviting him to their regular poker games. Sure, he was still welcome to join them for drinks and dinner but poker? Cards ceased to be a topic of conversation when he was around. Shortly before we moved from Hong Kong to Thailand, he jokingly asked one of his buddies,
"Don't you guys play cards together anymore?"
"Sure," his friend shot back. "We just got tired of you taking all our money."
Nat couldn't believe his ears. "Connie," he said later, "I can't
believe they don't want the challenge of playing someone who will give them a good game." All I could do was roll my eyes.
Upon moving to Chiang Mai, Thailand, Nat made friends with a group of guys, both Thai and farang--that's Thai for foreign-- who invited him to play poker. This time, however, he asked me what
his strategy should be. It seemed he wanted to be invited back.
|Ganesha: the god of luck|
"Let them win once in a while."
"Oh, I can't do that. It's just not who I am."
"Well, after you win a few, excuse yourself and go to the
"I can't do that either. Guys want a chance to win their money back. And they don't like it when you disrupt the flow of the game."
"But you and I both know there's no chance they're going to get their money back."
"Yeah, but they don't know that."
I rolled my eyes.
Off he went that night to the poker game. But he returned uncharacteristically
"What happened?" I asked.
"Well, I decided to play the usual way and as usual, I was winning.That's when the guys decided it was time to take a break and get some drinks at the corner bar. Apparently, it's Thai custom that
the oldest person pays when groups go out. I was the oldest. Everyone started ordering drinks. Guys who hadn't even been at the game showed up. And there was this special "buy two beers get
one free" deal so everyone was ordering two beers."
"Did you ever get back to the game?"
"No. I left while I still had money for the taxi. I paid a lot more for drinks than I won at cards."
"Sounds like they got their money back and then some," I said, somehow without rolling my eyes.
"Yeah, but you know the good news?"
"There's good news?"
"I'll definitely be invited back."
Saturday, January 18, 2014
This month's blog is a little different: it's an excerpt from a novel I'm writing called Brighton Park. It's a fiction/nonfiction blend like all novels-- not autobiographical in many respects-- yet it describes the foundation for why I live in Asia....
“When I was in Japan right after the war ended", Uncle Wally said, "a family gave me a meal. It tasted good but I couldn’t figure out what it was. I asked the cook to tell me. He pretended he couldn’t speak English. But his English had been OK up to that point. I said he better tell me. ‘Rat’, the Jap said. I went around back and threw up. Then I thought about shooting him. A buddy who was with me told me it wasn’t worth risking a court martial for." Uncle Wally chuckled.