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Thursday, December 25, 2014

And We Still Have a Long Way to Go

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.

This month's blog is a little different: it's another excerpt from the novel I'm writing. 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.... Oh, and one more thing...I have always loved libraries and The Brighton Park library was my first love. (To jog your memories, the main character of the novel is Kate, a sixth grader living in blue collar Chicago in the 1960s.)

Kate had once written a book report about Father Jacques Marquette, a Jesuit missionary who ventured from France to explore the Great Lakes region in the1600's. Her geography assignment had been to write something about a pioneer explorer with some connection to Chicago. Kate's favorite park was named after Marquette so she picked him.

Jacques Marquette spent a lot of time in what were now Michigan, Wisconsin, and Illinois before canoeing down the Mississippi to the mouth of the Arkansas River. When he got to the Arkansas, he found out that the Spanish were already there. This spooked him. The French and Spanish were not getting along at the time. He feared being captured. So he and his friends turned around and paddled back up the Mississippi. They returned to the Illinois Territory in late 1674. The World Book Encyclopedia and various biographies said different things so Kate wasn't too sure how it happened, but somehow Marquette became one of the first Europeans to winter in what would become the city of Chicago.

Winters in Chicago were windy, damp, and often brutally cold. When she asked her best friend what Catholics knew about Father Marquette, Daiva said that the nuns at Immaculate Conception called him Pere Marquette and told students that the Jesuits were the smartest priests in the Catholic Church. Kate thought that even if he was adventuresome, and according to her research, very good at learning languages--something Kate envied--Marquette couldn't have been that bright if he had other choices but decided to winter in Chicago. Or leave the sparkling light of France for that matter. But smart or not, Marquette was a famous pioneer explorer and many places in the Midwest were named after him.

Kate considered herself to be a budding, although not yet famous, explorer. She could get to Marquette Park by taking the Archer Avenue bus, transferring at Kedzie, transferring again at the Kedzie/55th Street bus hub and then riding to 67th and Kedzie where the park was. It was a forty minute trip from home. Kate knew this wasn't as long or dangerous as canoeing around on the Mississippi, but it was not as easy as taking one bus to get downtown to where the museums were. As a result, Kate didn't get to the park much. But when she did, she was glad for the effort. For one thing, Marquette Park was green and alive. At three hundred acres, it was the biggest city park on the southwest side of Chicago. It had lots of huge trees, a sparkling lagoon, and a rose garden. There was also a stone field house that looked like a castle. Once inside the park, Kate forgot the factories and rough and tumble industrial neighborhoods that surrounded her. She could almost see the light of France.

In late July, her parents, much to her surprise, told her not to go there anymore because it wasn't safe. Dr. Martin Luther King was set to lead a march at the park on August 5. Everyone was expecting trouble they said. Kate was stunned. Not safe at her beautiful park? And even worse: who was the snitch who told her parents she went there?

Her dad was edgily excited the entire week before the march. He drank even more than usual and muttered things about how they'd show that King troublemaker he shoulda stayed down south where he belonged. He began singing the Oscar Maier Wiener song around the house which was strange since he rarely sang. Plus, he didn't actually sing the real words which were, "Oh, I wish I were an Oscar Maier winer. That is what I'd truly love to be. 'Cuz if I were an Oscar Maier wiener. Everyone would be in love with me." Instead he bellowed, "I'd love to be an Alabama trooper. That is what I'd truly love to be. 'Cuz if I were an Alabama trooper, I could hang a nigger legally." 

Kate was disgusted. This was a new low even for him.

The day before the march, Kate went to The Brighton Park Library. She'd been working her way through the library's most up to date collection of World Book Encyclopedia published in 1965. Her goal was to read all the volumes cover to cover. Although currently in volume 10, she decided to detour to eleven that covered J/K.

Maybe the encyclopedia would help her unravel the mystery of Dr. King. Why was he going to march in Chicago? What was this "open housing" that he kept talking about? Why did so many people have such strong opinions about him? She had watched him speak on TV. He talked a lot about peace and nonviolence. But what did that have to do with Marquette Park?

World Book wasn't much help. There was only a brief entry about Dr. King describing him as a Baptist minister who was born in 1929 in Atlanta, Georgia. He had attended a bunch of different colleges including one in Chicago called The Chicago Theological Seminary. In 1958, he had written a book called Stride to Freedom. The encyclopedia went on to say that he led a Negro movement to end racial segregation in the U.S. by organizing peaceful protest marches as part of his "passive resistance program". It didn't explain what passive resistance was. Dr. King took part in these marches and for some reason was jailed several times. In 1963, he also did something to end racial segregation in Birmingham, Alabama but there was no mention of what it was.

She checked the date to make sure the volume was actually published in1965. It was.

Kate searched the shelves and card catalogue for books about him. There weren't any, including the one he had written, in the library. She even investigated the children's section where she rarely spent any time even though all she had was a juvenile card. Kate had devised a way to check out books from the adult collection which was where all the interesting books were. If questioned by the librarians who snarled when she tried to take out adult books, she said they were for her dad who worked long hours and wasn't able to get to the library when it was open. After all, this was partly true. Her dad--unlike her mom--loved to read even though his drinking prevented him from getting to the library often. He had taken Kate to the library when she was in second grade to get her first card. Because he especially enjoyed books about military history, he selected one for her about World War Two, but  because he was drunk, it was from the adult collection. She had struggled with it. Besides having a lot of big words, the story--something about a submarine--was pretty dull. However, she finished it and returned the book for a more interesting one about Paris. Kate had been hooked on the library ever since. 

But if this library didn't have books about Dr. King, what else didn't it have?

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Robin Williams and My Friend Norm in What Dreams May Come

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

You Can't Get There From Here

Mwe Leng, a slender 19 year old with intense sharp eyes, knows that she can't arrive at her dream of becoming a nurse from her home country, Myanmar, also known as Burma. She's a survivor of the long war the Burmese government has been waging on her people, the Shan, in its massive land grab that has been going on for the past fifty years. She's heard all the stories about how democracy is now coming to Burma but to her, it's window dressing. The government is still planting land mines in Shan fields, burning their villages, and killing all who resist.  She can't go home yet. She can only go forward.

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.  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

Laughing Man Taxi

It's 9:40 pm. I'm in a Lexus that won't start. It's blocking cars in the parking lot of my condo building. My plane leaves Chiang Mai in an hour. On top of this, I couldn't drive even if the car did start. Here in Thailand everything traffic related is the reverse of what it is in the U.S. so I don't drive.  And in any case, I don't have a Thai driver's license. Not that the latter matters too much since I suspect that many people who drive here don't have one either. But you get my drift.

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

Hand to Paw

Venomous cobras, water buffalo, elephants, geckos, pink dolphins, goats, and dogs--those of you who read this blog regularly know that I write often about my experiences with animals in Asia. And for quite some time, I've been thinking about how to connect animals and humans in a way that is almost unknown here.

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. 

The calming benefits of therapy animals and the usefulness of service dogs are taken for granted in the West. There are a lot of people in Asia, as in the West, with disabilities who would benefit from therapy and service animals. They are much needed in this part of the world.

I've been a counselor for a long time but it doesn't take counseling experience to recognize the calming effect animals can have on humans in a variety of settings. My first exposure to this effect was back in college when as a docent for the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago, I took parrots and ferrets into a children's hospital. Although the ferret was a tad cranky and the parrot had talons that required respect, the kids were delighted when we showed up. 

A second exposure was on a flight I took years ago on a small commercial airplane that ran into a lot of turbulence due to a thunderstorm between Erie, Pa and my Detroit destination. Fortunately, one man on the plane had a therapy dog. As the plane rocked and dived, all of the passengers strained to observe what the dog was doing. When we saw that he was stretched out on a seat soundly asleep, the humans collectively breathed a sigh of relief. If the dog was chilled out, things couldn't be that bad because animals have instincts about impending disaster, right? Every time the plane shuddered or swooped, all eyes turned to the dog. He remained asleep. As it turned out, things were pretty bad. The plane experienced numerous malfunctions and the thunder storm was so violent it forced us to land in Cleveland instead of in Detroit. But the dog was relaxed through it all and therefore, so were we.

During the years since that flight, I have seen therapy and service dogs in action in America at facilities for Alzheimers patients, at schools, and in nursing homes. The animals' effect on  humans in these settings is always the same. People relax. Animals' unconditional affection is powerful.

I now work at an international school in Chiang Mai that has a 60 hour community service requirement for high school graduation and as a counselor wanted to help students find community service placements. But more to the point, I wanted to create interest in establishing a community service project  at the school whereby students could interact with and assist animals. A service minded parent who loves dogs organized a community service fair with some help from me. The fair was held at the school last October.

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.

The Hand to Paw outreach coordinator is happily passionate about dogs and her work. Appropriately, her name is Joy. She represented Hand to Paw at the service fair and brought a charismatic therapy dog who was the most popular guest there. Later she met with an interested teacher and me to discuss the ground work that needed to be done to establish a student chapter at the school. She also met with the head monk at the temple (or wat) next door to my school and investigated the size and health of the temple’s dog population as well as the monks’ receptivity to student helpers. Joy learned that there were 8 dogs residing at the temple and that the monks would welcome help from the students. While we are still working on establishing a school chapter, eventually, the dogs, monks, and kids will connect for the benefit of all.

In preparation for starting a Hand to Paw chapter, I recently took an on-line Animal Assisted Therapy class through Pet Partners (formerly The Delta Society). Lots of American occupational therapists, counselors, nurses, and social workers took the class as well. One fellow student, Karen Donnick, shared the following powerful story which has made me even more determined to give animal assisted therapy a jump start in Chiang Mai.

"On our visit to the Naval Hospital, while visiting in patients' hospital rooms, a doctor came to us and asked us to visit a young family in the intensive care unit. Not being sure what to expect I took the time to wipe my dog down with Nature's Miracle Pet Wipes from head to tail, including paws. He had been bathed prior to visiting, but I wanted to remove anything that he may have picked up visiting in the patients rooms. The doctor escorted us into one of the cubicles in intensive care where three small children were huddled together in a chair. Their mother across from them was in the hospital bed connected to an IV and all sorts of monitors. The children's father was in the Navy, deployed, and their mother was alone with their children and seriously ill. The hospital staff was waiting for a family friend to come and collect the children. These three children had been at the hospital traveling with their mother from the emergency room to being admitted into intensive care, and they were beyond control. The eldest was 5 years old."

"The staff was at their wits end how to control these children, as they ministered to their very ill mother. They had exhausted their supply of peanut butter crackers, candy and cookies. We visited in the intensive care with the children until the family friend arrived about thirty minutes later to collect them. As I started to leave with a very sticky and exhausted golden retriever, the mother beckoned for me to come closer. I hadn't paid much attention to her the entire time we were entertaining the children and I was thinking about returning home and bathing the dog. I was amazed by her appearance when I approached her. Her skin was yellow and she looked gravely ill. "Thank you" she said, "I haven't allowed myself to be sick until today. You and your dog are angels, for the first time in months I could concentrate on me and not the children. " Then she hugged my dog and started to cry. "I am terrified that I am going to die." She hugged my sticky dog and cried for about three minutes. Then we quietly left. As I was driving home I wondered who was most moved by that experience. Sometimes the patients inspire the therapy team. It is experiences like this that keep me coming back with my special dog."

For more information about animal assisted therapy and Pet Partners, please visit
For more information about The Care for Dogs Foundation and its work in Chiang Mai, please visit

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Winning and the Luck of Being Invited Back

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."

(This is a repost of an entry published about a year ago. It is an advisory to all of Nat's football loving/can't wait for Super Bowl XLVIII friends in America and elsewhere.)

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Why I Live in Thailand: The Prequel

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.... 

Filled with rows of identical brown brick bungalows, Brighton Park brimmed with families who had had their lives upended by war and who now wanted what her parents called The American Dream, whatever that was. Near as Kate could tell, the dream meant living in the United States, which her parents said, was the best country on earth. In America, we have freedom, they told her.

While the adults went freely about their lives inside the windowless factories where they worked long shifts, packs of kids played kickball and Horse and hide and seek in the streets and alleys behind the factories. Daiva and she had met during games in these streets. If there had been a time when they weren't friends, she did not remember it.

Brighton Park was a neighborhood on Chicago's south side. Kate thought it was a dumb name. It was anything but bright. By noon every day, haze from nearby factories fogged the air and blocked the sun. And there weren't any parks.

A better name would have been Lithuania Town since more than half her neighbors had come to Brighton Park directly from the Old Country.

Her parents called the Lithuanians DPs. When she was a little kid, Kate didn't know what a DP was but she could tell by the way they said it that it wasn't a good thing. Wafting from DP houses was the foreign odor of beet soup and cabbage instead of the American smell of Hamburger Helper and instant mashed potatoes. The women tied brightly colored babushkas on their heads. They didn't shave their legs. The men wore socks with sandals and their pants never quite matched the color of their shirts. But worst of all was that they spoke Lithuanian in the shops, and on the streets and buses. This was America for God's sake, her parents said. People who come here should speak English.

The Lithuanians did not agree.

Daiva's and her own parents were in agreement about one thing though: the Brighton Park Public School was no place to send a kid. The giant stone fortress with gated windows and steel plate doors a few blocks from their houses looked like a prison. Neighborhood gossip said the teachers were terrible and that students were treated like inmates. Daiva's parents were Catholic so they sent her to all girls Immaculate Conception Elementary School where the students wore blue plaid uniforms with pleated skirts that they rolled up very short when the nuns weren't looking. The girls were required to attend mass each morning and school often dismissed early in the afternoon so the students could sell candy door to door to raise money. When they weren't in church or doing fundraisers for the school, Daiva said the older girls smoked in the bathroom and talked about things they did with boys.

Although Kate did not have to wear a uniform at her own Missouri Synod Lutheran school, she could not imagine students being allowed to hang out in the bathrooms, leave school early to sell candy, or talk about things they did with boys. Misbehavior was dealt with swiftly and publicly by teachers who were not shy about using a large wooden paddle they called “the Board of Education” for things like late homework, skirts that were too short, or overdue library books. Classes were disciplined, orderly, and quiet.

Daiva's school sounded like a lot more fun. Kate wondered secretly how she could become Catholic and go to Daiva's school without her parents knowing.

On a warm May Saturday morning, the girls sat on Daiva's porch. Mr. Petersonaitis, Daiva's dad was fixing the family's ancient push mower on the small square of crabgrass that constituted the family's front lawn. His sleeves were rolled up to the elbows. Kate noticed what looked like numbers tattooed onto his left forearm.

“Why does your dad have that?” Kate asked. “Have what?” Daiva flipped the long brown braids that reached down to her waist. “Those numbers?” “From the camps,” Daiva said, still more interested in her braids than in Kate's question. “What kind of camp puts numbers on people?' Mr. Petersonaitis suddenly looked up from the mower and quickly rolled down his sleeves. Kate realized that she had been staring at his arm. He disappeared into the backyard. “Papa doesn't like to talk about it much. All I know is that there was a guy who put a lot of people into camps because they weren't Russian.” My parents had to work hard there. That's why they left the Old Country. Wanna a popsicle?”

Kate did not want a Popsicle. She wanted to know about camps in the Old Country where people who weren’t Russian were tattooed and forced to work hard. Were there a lot of camps like that, she wondered? Were they still open? Was the Old Country the only place where there were such camps? Kate wasn’t Russian. If she went to the Old Country, would she be tattooed and put into a camp? If so, this seemed like a good reason not to go to the Old Country. And yet Daiva and her parents often spoke of returning to Lithuania. It was confusing. As usual, she had a million questions and few answers.

She followed Daiva to the corner mom and pop store where they sold cigarettes, milk, Wonder bread, bagels, candy, and popsicles. Kate got a red/white/blue Rocket Blaster. The Popsicle was so cold it stung her tongue as she bit off a chunk of blue ice. Daiva licked her Dreamsicle and talked incessantly about the reward a priest at her parish had promised she was going to get when she cut off her braids after she graduated in two years from eighth grade. Kate thought the whole thing was weird. Why would a priest make Daiva promise not to cut off her braids until she was in eighth grade and give her a reward because she then did? Kate had tried to get an answer from Daiva about this. Daiva said it was something someone who wasn’t Lithuanian wouldn’t be able to understand. Kate said, “Try me. What’s the reward?” “That’s what I mean,” Daiva said. “You don’t understand.” But Kate did understand. She was an outsider.

The wind shifted and the air began to smell like a feedlot. For years her mom had explained the stink by saying they lived near The Back of the Yards. Chicago after all was the hog butcher to the world. But by grade 6, Kate knew the slaughterhouses had closed years ago. This smell actually came from the Darling Fertilizer Plant. Darling and dozens of other factories that hedged Brighton Park on all sides spewed fumes day and night but Darling's mix of ammonia and manure pierced the nose and clung to clothing in ways the others did not.

Besides Darling and the Lithuanians' food concoctions, the other prominent olfactory feature of Brighton Park was the smell of the many of dimly lit taverns that occupied the corners of most blocks. When the doors of these establishments swung open, the reek of stale beer, cigarettes, and urine wafted out. Most of the taverns had some patrons who parked themselves on the tattered vinyl stools when the bars opened at 9 am and who drank and smoked uninterrupted for hours. These devoted drinkers could not be troubled to stop long enough to get up to use the toilet. Yellow puddles pooled beneath their seats. Daiva's parents did not go into the bars. Both of Kate's parents did.

In fact, they were frequent visitors to Ona's and Baly's Tap just across the alley next to their bungalow. Adjacent to the bar was an 8 x 10 patch of dirt surrounded by a chain linked padlocked fence. A large black Doberman named Prince paced the pen all day and well into the night. Baly said he was a guard dog although he never seemed to be allowed outside the pen.

Every morning on her walk to school, Kate studied the fence to see if there might be a way to help the dog escape.

That evening at the supper table, Kate asked her parents about the camps and numbers she had seen on Mr. Petersonaitis’ arm. “Stalin was the man who put the DPs in labor camps after the war,” her dad said while opening the fifth of many bottles of Pabst Blue Ribbon beer he would have that night. “Had the right idea, too. Those DPs helped the Nazis. If you ask me, we should get the balls in this country to put troublemakers into camps like Stalin did. Round ‘em all up and make ‘em work. I bet that nigger King never worked an honest day in his life. And he’s coming here to lead marches and stir up the jungle bunnies? Go back to Africa.”

Kate doubted that her dad could find Africa on a map.

“Oh, Bob, you don’t mean that,” her mom said quietly. She had only had two bottles of beer.

“Who are you to tell me what I mean?” He slammed his fist on the table causing a plate to clatter and break upon the stained linoleum floor. Not for the first time, Kate studied her parents and thought the two of them made quite a pair. Although he was only in his early thirties, her dad was almost bald and looked twice his age. With his big beer belly hanging over his belt, he reminded Kate of Jackie Gleason on The Honeymooners, but with less hair. Like Jackie, he was powerfully built. Her mom on the other hand had all her hair but was rail thin. Full of nervous energy, she waved her hands when she spoke and often flitted about whatever room she was in. Kate secretly called her Bird Woman. Physically, Bird Woman was no match for Jackie Gleason. And Kate knew from experience that what was about to happen was going to get physical.

She excused herself from the table and went for a walk. It was best not to be in the house during her parents’ arguments. By the time she got back, the fight would be over, her parents would be at the bar, the house would be quiet, and she could go to bed.

Kate knew that a black man named Martin Luther King was supposed to lead a march for something called open housing in nearby Marquette Park. Lots of Lithuanians lived in that neighborhood, too. And just like Brighton Park, there were no black people there. The only time Kate saw blacks—her Uncle Wally called them “the colored”-- was when he took her on the Archer Avenue CTA bus downtown to visit the Art Institute, Adler Planetarium, or The Shedd Aquarium. Once downtown, she would see many black people on the sidewalks, in the museums, and on buses. Her uncle under his breath often pointed out how thick colored people’s lips were and how curly their hair was. Kate didn’t think these things needed pointing out since she could see for herself but she didn’t say anything. Her uncle was probably going to buy her lunch in a restaurant which was a rare treat. No good could come of starting an argument. But after lunch when she pulled a stick of Juicy Fruit from her pocket, her uncle grabbed the pack away and told her it was jungle bunny gum. She said it tasted good and demanded it back. He refused and called her a jungle bunny. She put her hands above her head in imitation of rabbit ears and began to hop out of the restaurant. People stared. He returned the packet of Juicy Fruit.

They had a silent ride home on the CTA bus. Uncle Wally never took her on another Saturday expedition downtown. But by that time, Kate had an allowance and knew how to take the bus to the museums by herself. She continued the Saturday expeditions alone. This was preferable to going with Uncle Wally although she could not afford to treat herself to lunch even though museum admission was free. But now that her uncle was no longer with her she could spend hours studying the exhibits in detail and return to her favorite museum again and again. Kate spent the next year of Saturdays in the Art Institute of Chicago puzzling over Impressionism and Asian antiquities.

The Art Institute had many galleries of Impressionistic art. Most of the paintings were by French guys named Renoir, Cezanne, Monet, Manet, Matisse, and Degas.  But there were also other paintings by people like Sisley and Cassatt who weren’t French but had gone to France to paint. From what she could tell from Impressionism, the light in France was very different from that on the south side of Chicago. It was much more beautiful. French light shimmered. Someday she would go there and see it for herself.

Kate liked Renoir’s art the best because it glowed with the most color and joy. She found herself especially drawn to his painting of two young sisters sitting on a terrace by a lake. The girls had rosy cheeks and radiated health and youth. Both wore big hats. The older sister’s was red which was Kate’s favorite color. What fun it would be to sit on a shimmering lake terrace wearing a red hat in a happy glowing world. But for no reason at all, tears sometimes came to Kate’s eyes when she stood in front of the picture of the sisters. The tears always surprised her and she quickly blinked them away. Crying, she was pretty sure, wasn’t going to help her see the beautiful world the Impressionists saw.

The museum’s Asian galleries were even bigger than the Impressionism ones. Uncle Wally had taken her to see the Asian collection once to show her examples of “Jap” art. He was an ex-Marine who had fought in the Pacific during the most recent worldwide war. Bird Woman told her that Uncle Wally's wife divorced him while he in Japan. Now he lived alone in a rooming house near 47th and Archer. He held the Japanese responsible for this.  Referring to some sculptures of the Buddha, he hissed, “Japs pray to these statues. Didn't help them win the war though, the bastards.” Her uncle apparently had not noticed that museum signs said the art was from many places in Asia, not just Japan. Or maybe he thought all of Asia was just one big version of Japan?

“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.

Kate wondered if the cook had actually played a trick on her uncle because Americans won the war. But what if rats were the only kind of meat the Japanese had left when the war ended? Or maybe, the Japanese actually ate rats on a regular basis just like Americans ate hotdogs? Had her uncle ever asked an American cook what was in a hotdog? If he got an answer he didn’t like, would he consider shooting the cook?

Knowing that her uncle would not appreciate these questions, Kate didn't ask them. They left the museum shortly thereafter and then went to lunch. It was at that lunch that the Juicy Fruit incident occurred.

On her post Juicy Fruit trips to the Art Institute sans uncle, Kate noted the Japanese woodblock prints and Chinese jade carvings with interest but was especially attracted to the hundreds of sculptures of the Buddha from various parts of Southeast Asia. Kate didn’t know much about Buddhism but she liked the fact that all the Buddhas looked pretty relaxed and were smiling. Their eyes were half closed like they were watching some inner movie. Were they smiling because they saw the same shining world the Impressionists did?

Kate wanted to see what the Buddhas saw. Even if they did eat rats.

Daiva said she thought how Kate spent her Saturdays was weird. “You mean your parents let you get on the bus and go downtown by yourself?” “Yeah. They're usually too hung over in the morning to ask a lot of questions. They think I’m going to the library.”

“All day?” “Yeah, I tell them I have a lot of homework.”