Sunday, October 05, 2014

One too many mornings



A big part of me doesn’t believe, still, that “depression” exists.  According to the New Yorker:
There is little agreement about what causes depression and no consensus about what cures it…  There is suspicion that the pharmaceutical industry is cooking the studies that prove that antidepressant drugs are safe and effective, and that the industry’s direct-to-consumer advertising is encouraging people to demand pills to cure conditions that are not diseases (like shyness) or to get through ordinary life problems (like being laid off).
Louis Menand’s article, a review of Gary Greenberg’s book, “Manufacturing Depression,” continues:
Greenberg basically regards the pathologizing of melancholy and despair, and the invention of pills designed to relieve people of those feelings, as a vast capitalist conspiracy to paste a big smiley face over a world that we have good reason to feel sick about. The aim of the conspiracy is to convince us that it’s all in our heads, or, specifically, in our brains—that our unhappiness is a chemical problem, not an existential one. Greenberg is critical of psychopharmacology, but he is even more critical of cognitive-behavioral therapy, or C.B.T., a form of talk therapy that helps patients build coping strategies, and does not rely on medication. He calls C.B.T. “a method of indoctrination into the pieties of American optimism, an ideology as much as a medical treatment."
In other words, “depression is not a mental illness. It’s a sane response to a crazy world.”

According to Wikipedia:
The term "depression" is used in a number of different ways. It is often used to mean major depressive disorder but may refer to other mood disorders or simply to a low mood…  The diagnosis of major depressive disorder is based on the patient's self-reported experiences, behavior reported by relatives or friends, and a mental status examination. There is no laboratory test for major depression.
Essentially, it doesn’t exist, right?  But then there are days I wake up when I am unable to move.  Not literally, of course—I can roll over in bed, wiggle my fingers—but I don’t.  I lie there and I don’t move.  I think of all of the reasons I should move, or the things I could do that’d make me feel better, but I don’t do them.  I can’t bring myself to.  I rehearse a list of things I know to do, things I know help—heat, light, reading, baking, sitting in the sun, yoga, taking a long hot bath or a shower, going to a cafe or a library—but all of them, even the thought of them, even the first step towards them, feels like dust in my mouth.  I can’t move.  I don’t even pee when I need to pee because it requires too much energy to move to the bathroom.

In an earlier New Yorker article, “The Anatomy of Melancholy,” Andrew Solomon writes about his experience with his depression:  “My vision began to close.  It was like trying to watch TV through terrible static, where you can’t distinguish faces, where nothing has edges.  The air, too, seemed thick and resistant, as though it were full of mushed-up bread.”

I know that feeling.  For me the air feels resistant like mud, or like trying to swim against a current.  Motivation is a central problem.  I can think of a lot of things that make me feel better (writing, sunlight, a walk) but it is impossible to motivate myself to do them.  Or it’s possible but I can never do it.  Or I can do it sometimes, just not when I’m in the darkness.  In the hole, the bottomless pit, that Townes Van Zandt sings about above, so effortlessly.  The old lady catches me.

“Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me?” asks the Psalmist.

When I’m in the pit, pulling myself out is like trying to find pull myself from quicksand, use my own body as leverage.  It’s impossible to find any purchase.

Of course I can get out of bed.  It is possible.  It is not impossible.  And yet I don’t.  I lie in bed for hours—literally—not moving, thinking about doing something and not doing it.  Some days I can.  Some days I get up and take arms against the sea of troubles, even when it feels like moving through molasses.  Like swimming while drowning in a sea of mud.  Other days it is impossible.

In the wake of Robin Williams’s death, everyone is talking about depression, but not many people are saying anything useful.  Several times I’ve heard commentators say:  “just so we’re clear, ‘depression’ is a mental illness, not ordinary sadness or ‘feeling blue.’”  And I think:  oh, so what I have is just ordinary sadness.  Even when I’m not feeling sad at all.  Even when I’m feeling nothing inside but darkness, and heat and pain inside my head without actually experiencing heat or pain.

I’m sure Robin Williams and David Foster Wallace and everyone all thought they had ordinary sadness right up till the end.  How can we tell the difference when we’re in the middle of it?

Even Solomon writes, as he recovers, with the help of a vast pharmacopeia:  “I have felt blue sometimes, and on some days I have chosen not to work on this difficult subject…”  But how does he tell the difference?

I find it challenging to talk about, not because I feel guilty or ashamed, but because I don’t believe it exists.  I do feel guilty about my coping mechanisms—computer games and television and food—all things that other people assist me in feeling guilty about.  I feel guilty about my presence on the planet, about myself as a waste of space.  I feel “all the typical symptoms—hatred, anguish, guilt, self-loathing.”  But I don’t feel ashamed of the presence of the miasma itself because I don’t believe in it.

It’s also difficult to talk about because there’s nothing anyone can do to help.  Antidepressants don’t work.  Talking to other people just spreads the disease, if it exists.  Depression is contagious.  Why should I drag anyone down inside the pit with me?  I hate reaching out for help because then I have to admit that the only thing inside is an echo because all that exists in there is a big black hole and I can’t tell anyone without dragging them down too.

I’ve been feeling this way for twenty years, if not longer.  I wept the night before I turned ten because I realized my childhood was over.  Oh, wait—I was just feeling blue, right?  Even as a child, I felt something like nostalgia, a deep eternal grief at the passage of time.  I remember learning the word “melancholy,” and the idea that someone could be a “melancholic.”  I remember thinking, oh, so that’s what I am.  I developed obsessions that I treasured close to my chest, and when I shared them, carefully, and was rejected, I plunged into despair.  I lay in bed crying, before the age of eleven, telling my mother and sister that I had people who loved me, but no one who liked me.  How could they?  I remember listening to Puff the Magic Dragon and weeping:  Jackie Paper came no more!  Therein lay the essence of life’s tragedy!

Some days I wake up okay.  Other days I wake up unable to move.  Everyone blames negative thoughts, as proponents of CBT, and the power of positive thinking, believers in the pieties of American optimism, do:  change your thinking, change your life.

Andrew Solomon writes:
Once upon a time, depression was generally seen as a purely psychological disturbance;  these days, people are likely to think of it as a tidy biological syndrome.  In fact, it’s hard to make sense of the distinction.  Most depressive disorders are now thought to involve a mixture of reactive and internal factors;  depression is seldom a simple genetic disease or a simple response to external troubles.  Resolving the biological and psychological understanding of depression is as difficult as reconciling predestination and free will.  If you remember the beginning of this paragraph well enough to make sense of the end of it, that is a chemical process;  love, faith, and despair all have chemical manifestations, and chemistry can make you feel things.  Treatments have to accommodate this binary structure—the interplay between vulnerability and external events.

Vulnerability need not be genetic.  Ellen Frank says, "Experiences in childhood can scar the brain and leave on vulnerable to depression."  As with asthma, predisposition and environment conspire.  Syndrome and symptom cause each other:  loneliness is depressing, but depression causes loneliness.
For me, negative thinking is merely a symptom.  If I feel like things are hopeless I find a reason for why things are hopeless and I can find plenty.  But the hopeless feeling comes before the negative thoughts.  Sometimes the negative thinking catches me in a cycle and drags me deeper into the hole, but it’s almost worse when I feel nothing but emptiness and just like there’s nothing inside, not even negative thoughts.  And I can’t convince myself to do anything.

Since I was a child I’ve felt like suicide is a brave move, a way of using actual physical weapons against the sea of troubles, as Hamlet is the first to suggest.  “The ultimate hallmark of depression,” an “obsession with suicide.”  I think of those who have—Kurt Cobain, Elliott Smith, David Foster Wallace, Aaron Swartz, Vincent Van Gogh, Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf—as secret brothers and sisters.  On bad days I pore over their Wikipedia pages.  Those who had the courage to tell the truth to an empty, hopeless world.

Solomon:
…the particular kind of depression I had undergone has a higher morbidity rate than heart disease or any cancer.  According to a recent study by researchers at Harvard and the World Health Organization, only respiratory infections, diarrhea, and newborn infections cost more years of useful life than major depression.  It is projected that by the year 2020 depression could claim more years than war and AIDS put together.  Ant its incidence is rising fast.  Between six and ten per cent of all Americans now living are battling some form of this illness;  one study indicates that nearly fifty per cent have experienced at least one psychiatric disorder in their lifetime.  Treatments are proliferating, but only twenty-eight per cent of all people who have a major depression seek help from a specialist;  fifteen per cent of hospitalized patients succeed in killing themselves.
Watching Robin Williams movies helps.  It’s odd to me how many of them deal intimately and sensitively with depression and suicide. My favorite movie as a teenager, and maybe still, is "Dead Poets Society," and I was powerfully affected by two of his other movies, not as well known:  "What Dreams May Come" and "World’s Greatest Dad."

In “World’s Greatest Dad” Robin’s character writes a suicide note and then gets to see what happens afterward—in some ways, it’s a suicide’s watching of his own funeral, a fantasy wish fulfillment.  He says, presciently and half-sarcastic:  “Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem.”  But what if the problem’s not so temporary? 

In “What Dreams May Come” we get to see what happens after a suicide, too.  But this time from the other perspective.  From below the ground.

“What Dreams May Come” was horribly reviewed when it came out and still has a 44% rating on Metacritic.  I beg to differ with the reviewers.  Many parts of it terrified and entranced me when I originally saw it—joyful jumps through big messy wet swaths of color in heaven, walking on the disembodied faces of those in purgatory who don’t realize they’re there.  Since Robin’s suicide, I can’t stop thinking about the part when he dives down from heaven into hell, through an increasingly creepy and macabre dreamscape, where finally, at its very bottom, he finds his wife, who committed suicide.  She’s been sent to hell not because of her suicide but because of her own tendency to create “nightmare” worlds, the same tendency that led her to suicide to begin with.  She’s all alone, in darkness, living in a twisted version of their house, visibly tortured by her surroundings.

That part stays with me.  Because it’s what depression is.  When I’m there, I’m all alone, and nothing anyone could say could help or change anything.  Suicide and depression are really the same thing, because depression is already hell.

Jane Kenyon, a depressive and a poet, writes:  “Unholy ghost, you are certain to come again… and turn me into someone who can’t take the trouble to speak;  someone who can’t sleep, or who does nothing but sleep;  can’t read, or call for an appointment for help.  There is nothing I can do against your coming.”

In “Brothers Karamazov” Dostoevsky posits that heaven and hell are now, determined only by our frame of reference.  We are not condemned to hell in some future time;  if we are condemned to hell, we live there now.  The same with heaven.  Christ Jesus said:  “The kingdom of heaven is at hand.”  Here, now.

Dostoevsky:
“That life is heaven,” he said to me suddenly, “that I have long been thinking about;” and all at once he added, “I think of nothing else indeed…  Heaven,” he went on, “lies hidden within all of us—here it lies hidden in me now… we are all responsible to all for all, apart from our own sins, you were quite right in thinking that, and it is wonderful how you could comprehend it in all its significance at once. And in very truth, so soon as men understand that, the Kingdom of Heaven will be for them not a dream, but a living reality.”
Spoken by a character who committed murder, a murder he’s been hiding:  “I know it will be heaven for me, heaven, the moment I confess. Fourteen years I've been in hell.”

And here are words spoken by Father Zosima a prophet, a poet, a priest—someone who echoes both Christ and Buddha for me:
My brother asked the birds to forgive him; that sounds senseless, but it is right; for all is like an ocean, all is flowing and blending…  I ponder, “What is hell?” I maintain that it is the suffering of being unable to love...  there are some fearful ones who have given themselves over to Satan and his proud spirit entirely. For such, hell is voluntary and ever consuming; they are tortured by their own choice. For they have cursed themselves, cursing God and life.
Those "fearful ones" stay with me. “For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but a Spirit of love, of power, and of a strong mind.”  2 Timothy 1:7

I love that trinity.  Love, power, and a strong mind.  If I can have love and power and a strong mind, then I live already in the kingdom of heaven.  If I fear, then I live in an ever-consuming and voluntary hell.

But I fear so much, all of the time.  As Solomon writes:  "It’s possible to distinguish between anxiety and depression, but according to... a leading expert on anxiety, 'they’re fraternal twins.'"
A quote from Tina Berger:
I often explain it this way. If you go and visit a Western-trained psychologist for seemingly inexplicable anxiety, he or she will most likely ask you about your life and your job and your family of origin. You may receive a diagnosis and plan of treatment. The treatment will likely involve relaxation and stress reduction, perhaps some additional talk therapy to address past emotional wounding, and you may be referred to a psychiatrist for medical treatment with anti-anxiety medication. You may or may not find the source of your anxiety. Whatever the recommended course of treatment, unexplained anxiety is generally seen as a pathology here in the West. If you have anxiety and you can’t source it to an immediate and direct problem in your life, the general assumption is: something is wrong with you.

An ecopsychology-based perspective takes a much bigger picture view of anxiety, considering questions like, “How sane is it, to have no anxiety as such beautiful species of plants and animals disappear from the planet one by one?” “How sane is it to have no anxiety when we know children are dying unnecessarily from starvation in many parts of the world?” “How sane is it that we work such long hours to continue acquiring so many things that we will throw away in less than a year?”
How sane am I?  Not very.

One last Solomon quote:
At a cocktail party in London, I saw an acquaintance and mentioned to her that I was writing this article. 
"I had terrible depression,’ she said. 
I asked her what she had done about it.  
"I didn’t like the idea of medication,’ she said.  "My problem was stress-related.  So I decided to eliminate all the stresses in my life."  She counted off on her fingers.  "I quit my job," she said.  "I broke up with my boyfriend and never really looked for another one.  I gave up my roommate and moved to a smaller place.  I stopped going to parties that run late.  I dropped most of my friends.  I gave up, pretty much, on makeup and clothes."  I was looking at her in bewilderment.  "It may sound bad, but I’m much less afraid than before," she went on, and she looked proud.  "I’m in perfect health, really, and I did it without pills."
Someone who was standing in our group grabbed her by the arm. 
"That’s completely crazy.  That’s the craziest thing I’ve ever heard.  You must be crazy to be doing that to your life," he said. 
Is it crazy to avoid the behaviors that make you crazy?
Jane Kenyon writes, of emerging from a devastating depression:  “With the wonder and bitterness of someone pardoned for a crime she did not commit I come back to marriage and friends…  to my desk, books, and chair.”  She writes, of ordinary contentment:  “What hurt me so terribly all my life until this moment?  How I love the small, swiftly beating heart of the bird singing in the great maples;  its bright, unequivocal eye.”

So I make plans for a half-suicidal foray across the Atlantic.  Or I make sense of the world through art, as Townes van Zandt, the patron singer of depressives, did.  He also drank himself to death aged 53. Ernest Hemingway, with his shotgun, beat him by nine years.  Robin Williams beat him by ten.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Break

Weekday regatta at Mattapoisett Harbor
August is a good month to spend in Massachusetts.  There are regattas.  There is alleged sunshine, more than the rest of the year, at least.  There are clam bakes and fresh oysters and fluke sushi and better lobster than in Maine, if you can get your fingers into any.

Light at Mattapoisett
There are camping trips and sailing on ponds.  There are bonfires.  There is precious little swimming.  There is chilly yoga in sunlit patches.  There are car shows.  There are rainbows and sunsets and lighthouses.

Authentic New England clambake at the Marion VFW
The clam bake I refer to was especially spectacular.  It is impossible to sufficiently rave about the seafood around here, and how cavalier the locals are about its deliciousness.  New Bedford, less than ten miles away, whence both Ishmael and Herman Melville sailed, is still the largest working seaport in the United States in terms of volume of seafood caught.  The shellfish here, I would wager, are the best in the world.  As are the lobster, I believe.  Maine is famous for its lobster because they possess a larger quantity of them—Cape Cod lobster are rarer, sweeter, more expensive, and more succulent.  Scallop boats out of New Bedford bring in more money than the famous king crab boats in Alaska.

Clam closeup
Then there are the clams.  New England clambakes are legendary, even among those who have never been here.  The clambake is a traditional method for preparing seafood, using steamed seaweed and heated rocks buried under the ground.  In many places around the Cape, bars and restaurants advertise “authentic” clambakes.  But the one we attend, and that I blogged about way back when, in one of my earliest posts, actually *is* authentic.  It’s held at the VFW, and has been the same for decades.  The same, except now attendance is dwindling, with only 150 left of the 500 who used to attend annually.  Sadly, of the benches that were filled up when we attended eight years ago, only half were full this year.  They said they didn’t even break even this year, as membership in the VFW dwindles.

He ate four quarts--and flashes me a four to prove it
I understand, because it still feels like a steal to me.  $32 for all-you-can-eat steamed clams, haddock, sausage, corn, potatoes, butter, brown bread, and onions.  All of it steamed in beds of seaweed, dug into holes in the ground by veterans and volunteers.  There were so few people this year that we were able to fill up huge bags full of clams and corn to take back home with us.  Later, we transformed them into clam scampi.


A volunteer rakes the seaweed--still the same seaweed, the same rocks
It’s sad to me.  The VFW, and social organizations like it—clubs, churches, leagues—are the institutions that hold America together, that keep us strong.  When I was in college a book came out called “Bowling Alone.”  It told of the collapse in American community organizations from the fifties and sixties till today.  Back then, people joined bowling leagues, or the AmVets, or local social clubs.  Now we bowl alone.  We live, as we dream, said Conrad—alone.

Now people sit on their asses and watch television.  Play computer games.  Mess with the internet on their smart phones.  We shop at big-box stores.  We don’t go wade for quahogs or check lobster traps.  We don’t dig kelp and rocks to prepare food on a beach.  We buy bargain chicken grown in factory farms, chickens that can’t walk, that never see the light of day.  I’m one of them—don’t get me wrong.  Maybe we’ve gained something—freedom, Wikipedia—but we’ve lost a lot too.

Not that the seafood’s necessarily any better than farmed meat.  Grillabongquixotic doesn’t eat seafood for ethical reasons, after seeing firsthand the way the ocean’s been fished out.  These new fishing shows (Wicked Tuna, Dangerous Catch) glorify the fishermen out there, but ignore the quantities being taken and the dwindling fishery.  Scientists estimate that human beings have already reduced the population of big fish in the ocean to 10 percent of what it was in 1950.  We’ve eaten 90 percent of the fish that we had.  Already in Massachusetts, bay scallops, the sweetest of the shellfish, are gone.  This used to be the only place in the world where you could eat them.  Now there is not enough sea grass to support their reproductive cycle.  How many years till there aren’t any clams?

Some people eat meat and don’t eat fish—better to eat factory-farmed meat than fish out our remaining wild food.  But then some people don’t eat beef for ethical reasons.  Cattle emit methane (methane could provide electricity for us, I argue, but no one listens) and are grown on factory farms.  Chickens and eggs and hogs are problematic, too, with the vast pools of toxic waste their production manufactures.

In Thailand, I met a traveler from Peru.  He didn’t eat soybeans or any soy product.  He refused to.  He’d seen the forest in Peru being clearcut for soybean fields.  It was the first time I’d seen someone who ate meat, but not tofu, for ethical reasons.

So in August we ate our clams, bottom feeders, and we’ll keep eating them until they’re gone, I suppose—until the New England coast is remade by aquaculture.  Aquaculture and algae are among the few things that can save us from climate change, I believe.  Offshore wind and algae farms, with oysters and shellfish beneath the surf for protein.  Delicious, nutritious, and good for the planet.

Plus there’s all that butter.

August is a good month to spend in Massachusetts.  But now it’s September, and already it’s getting colder, the trees tinged with red.  Now it’s September, and as House Stark like to remind us, winter is coming.  Winter is coming, and with it the cold.

Friday, August 29, 2014

I saw a black branch

Shadow
And then my dog died.  In truth he died before my last post, a reason for my delay, and in truth he wasn’t exactly my dog either, even after all of these years.  After all of the times we walked and snowshoed together.  The border patrol used to buzz us in their helicopter, till they got used to us disturbing their radar, two little linked shapes strolling along the border.  He was never really my dog, despite that, although I wanted him to be.

Winter walk
All those walks together I remember.  The times he dragged me out, our mid-afternoon post-writing walk become an ecstatic habit, him leaping vertically and twisting in the air, overjoyed, tangling himself in his leash.  The times I dragged him onward, in ninety-degree August, towards the end.  The years I had him trained off leash, and he ran in front, along side, snuffling after rabbits and deer.  The times we went in fresh-crusted snow and he broke through the surface, yelping, while I floated on top in my snowshoes and he, panting, plunged on.

At rest, among books, like a good literary dog
I felt a slave to him sometimes, his neediness and whining, but on cold winter nights in Maine he’d jump and share my bed with me.  He’d sleep beside me and I loved him, loved wrapping my arms around his heft, his warmth.  I taught him “noses,” the command, and he’d touch my nose with his, and Eskimo kiss, not licking my face (I don’t like that) unless completely overcome by affection and unable to help himself.

In winter
One night, back when K. was here working on the boat and I was still traveling in Asia, the two of them sat together in the garage and when K. went to go back in the house he couldn’t get Shadow to wake up.  He couldn’t move him, couldn’t wake him, couldn’t rouse him—as if he were already half in the ether, already half-gone.  He could have drifted off into nothingness that night, without me.  But something called him, and he awoke, and pulled himself to arthritic feet, dragged himself up the stairs and waited another two months for me to come back.
Looking right at me
When I flew in it was the first thing he wanted to do, noses, reaching and snuffling his nose for me, his clouded, half-blind eyes seeking me out.  He waited for me.  Three days after I flew in he was shrieking because he couldn’t stand up, couldn’t get down the stairs.  Two days later his hips gave out and he couldn’t walk.  He lay in the dirt and cried.  Till we gave him oxycodone and barbituates and he passed.
At rest, in love
It kills me; he waited.  This despite how we tormented him over the years with our adventures, our absences.  We abandoned him again and again, leaving him with family that loved him, maybe more than we could, but how could he understand the inexplicable?  I swear he understood English, and each time I whispered where we were going and how long we’d be gone (when I knew) and that we’d come back, whispered in his glove-soft ears.  Maybe he believed me;  maybe he understood.  Because he waited.  Despite my disloyalty, despite traveling almost all of the time I had with him, the years he had on this planet, leaving him in the care of others.

Molting, as summer came on
The night before he died I held him.  I keep remembering how he couldn’t lift himself from the dirt, how we made a blanket nest and spread out a tarp beside him and slept in the dirt next to him.  Sometimes K. allowed me a shift nested against Shadow and I curled up against his heft and put my arm around him, crooked at ninety degrees, so that my bad shoulder could rest on his weight, supported, and I could let my whole weight rest on his body, all of me, and he was still strong enough to take it, he welcomed it, my weight releasing onto his weight.  We breathed together.  My breath calmed and his breath calmed and we sighed together.

In better days, hiking--I'm so happy now we took him with us on the Pinhoti Trail
The next morning he was suffering and couldn’t walk and we made the decision and put him down and it was both brutal and necessary.  He died in the dirt.  He was in pain.  He couldn’t walk anymore.  He was crying all of the time from pain, under his breath, trying to keep us from hearing.  He got up and walked around, briefly, just fifteen minutes before the lady came with her hypodermic needle.  It made me question what we were doing but not really—it was just another gift, towards the end, one more sniff around the yard.  What they use to euthanize dogs is an overdose of barbituates, the same as for Michael Jackson, and when she injected him, already tranquilized, he smiled.  A kind of high, a drifting into space.  And then he was gone.

Our winter snowshoe path beaten down
Half of me wants immediately to return to Maine and begin breeding husky-shepherd-wolf puppies, a whole sled-team’s worth, training them to be bird dogs or hunting dogs or service animals.  Other people say:  no more animals.  It’s too hard.  But I think although animals open our capacity for suffering they also open our capacity for joy.  Suffering is the human condition.  But so is joy.  My life would have been smaller without Shadow in it.

It’s also hard to imagine going back to Maine without him.  What kind of place will it be without him beside me?  It’s hard to remember the last time we dragged him away from his home for the sake of our adventure.  It’s hard to think of his face, his liquid eyes, his black-gummed smile, his velvet ears.

I’ve never lost a dog before.  I’ve never really had a dog before, and I have this sense that my grief is unseemly, if not indulgent.  Thinking back I remember my distaste for other people’s grief at the death of their dogs.  But unlike when a person dies, it seems that Shadow has been erased, that he ceased to exist, that no one wants to talk about him or acknowledge their grief.  You can’t have a funeral for a dog.

But he loved me better than a human being ever could.  He loved me completely and unconditionally and more and better than a human being.  His love was simple, without flaw, without grudge, freely give and freely received.  When I scratched his belly, when I gave him the hard pat he loved, he dissolved in joy.  I loved him with all my heart.  And he loved me.  I am grieving now not the end of his pain but how much worse a place the world is without him.

How many people are lucky enough to have their Jungian shadow made manifest?  How many women are able to become wolf maidens?  I keep hearing his whine, caught, distant, in the creaking of black branches.  I see tufts of his hair caught in the grass.

I suppose I wish I’d spent more time with him when he was alive, but who doesn’t wish that when someone dies?  I spent as much time as I was capable of spending at the time.  I never believed he could really disappear.  And now I have to be a person in the world without him.

I feel like Peter Pan.  I’ve lost my shadow, and with it my ability to fly.  All those walks together, not many, not enough.  His beautiful perfect soft glove ears are gone forever.  Ashes.  Ashes, ashes, we all fall down.  He’s in the wind now.  In the trees.  In the starlight.  Isn’t that what heaven is? His consciousness become all consciousness.  My Shadow.

Into the distance

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Marion, Massachusetts

Family
Coming back to the United States of America has meant a lot of change.  Some things I am happy about:  drinking water from the tap, paper towels in bathrooms, the fourth of July, cooking for myself, guacamole, cheese.  Being able to flush toilet paper down toilets without worrying about it.  Best of all:  pointing my feet at people without being rude.  Things I have not missed:  socks.  hoodies.  coats.  long underwear.  cold. 

I’ve been traveling a lot since I returned to America, and I am alleged to be writing about travel, and yet somehow travel within these United States feels less deserving of catalog.  But that is my own stingy prejudice, I know.  I spent two weeks in Chicagoland and a week in Ann Arbor—sampling local cuisine, attending local cultural events, and visiting local farms—all of which I would be proud to advertise if it were in Vietnam or Laos.  Why not here?

So.  On we go.

Sophia examines her trophy in private
On my third day after arrival I attended my niece’s championship baseball game, during which she scored the winning run, in the bottom of the ninth inning, thus winning the entire season after losing to the opposing team the previous night.  Too good to make up.  We sat in the rain to watch her, all five of us—my entire immediate family.  Do we resemble each other?


Beautiful sister
Then there are these interesting signs, still hand-painted, at Pan’s in Oak Park.  It’s a local grocer where my friend Amy used to shop when she lived down the street, when I lived several more blocks down, for three years.  We used to walk here and to the Avenue Ale House, our local, and the Mexican restaurant across the street.  It’s now something else, maybe high-end Mexican, next to the gastropub where this time I enjoyed Chicago gin and a burger made of local ingredients.  House-made ketchup.  Farm-to-table greens.


Fresh in the husk
In Ann Arbor, I visited a farm where we fed pigs corn.  I felt less bad about eating them after I saw them, in a farm’s usual way of hardening one against life’s cold realities.  I saw where they brewed their beer, and met co-op workers, who travel and freely work for room and board, at farms around the country.  This farm, Mulberry Hill, which runs a CSA (community-supported agriculture), also just held its own Ann Arbor version of Burning Man.


Ann Arbor farm

Although I complain about eating meat, I feel better about eating pigs after spending some time with them.
Cucumber and beans being prepared for CSA delivery
Sonia and I went for lunch at a vegan restaurant with vertical gardens.  We envisioned our own life of pro-gluten tee-shirts.  “Ask me about my gluten deficiency.”  I had vegetarian and organic mac and cheese, with local butternut squash in the sauce.  It was nutty and delicious.  We wanted to ask for extra gluten in our meals, but did not.
Vertical gardens, although it's hard to tell
My sister and I made paleo Thai food.  What, you say?  You didn’t know cavemen harvested rice kernels as they hunted and gathered?  That they pounded palm kernels together for sugar?  Well, now you do.

We also started quilting.  I am addicted, now, to patchwork, in all forms.  I bought a book on it, at an Ann Arbor book sale.  With pictures of the Baltimore album quilts, of which I'd never heard.

A quilt at the American Museum, not my photograph
And then I started searching online finding things like this:
Knitted patchwork, not my photograph
Or this:
Called a scrap-buster, but my favorites are the crazy quilts that use randomness as an organizing principle
(not my photograph)
Or this:
Something called domino knitting, where each block leads into the next--again, randomness, and I love it
(not my photograph)
Now I’m back in Marion, working on another boat project.  No travel, but future posts about teak and mahogany, the joys of hand sanding with 200-grit.  I slowly slip back on my socks.  The fan goes quiet.

Spirit, under construction
Here, too, I photograph beaches made of marble.  Regatta races in the fog.  I wrap my Thai fabric around my shoulders.  I want to be in two places at once.

Beach made of marble
Regatta in fog
Here, too, I am grieving, grieving and miserable.  My ability to speak and read and write Thai has been put in suspended animation, somewhere below consciousness, somewhere I can’t access.  I fall down body-image rabbit holes, something that didn’t happen as much in Thailand.  There is was normal for me to be bigger than an average person.  Here Americans look at me with cold scorn.  I photograph the surface of the water in Marion harbor, wearing my Bangkok tie-dyed clothes.  People stare.  Men.  I look at them and smile and they don’t smile back.  I wish I’d been brave enough to dye and dread-lock my hair, too.

I’m hungry all of the time because of no more Thai food.  Meal here consist of meat.  Bread.  Cheese.  I’ve eaten my last moo daeng, pad Thai, pad see eu, curry, som tahm, gai yahng.  I’m already forgetting how great it is to hear Thai, see Thai, speak Thai—food, language, people.

Moo daeng (red pork--okay, it doesn't look like I'm protein-starved based on this bowl)

Late lamented pad Thai
I even miss the smell the Argentine kid at Bluefin complained about, saying, on his first day in Asia, wrinkling his nose:  what I didn’t expect was the smell.

Every so often I catch a whiff of it here, in this air that smells like nothing, a whiff of the dank, fetid, rich smell of something rotten and it remains me of home.  What I wrote in my journal the first morning in Bangkok was:

It smells the same.  The humid air.  That eucalyptus and incense smell in the morning.  The mildewed bathrooms.

Is it the lack of light and vitamin D that brings me depression here?  Is it the meat-heavy diet?  My brother attributes the exponential rise of depression in modern America to the toxic hormones in our factory-farmed meat, animals that live and die in trauma, and the stress hormones in their bodies that go into ours.  In Thailand I lived on vegetables and rice and oil.  I ate fragments of egg and meat in almost every meal, but barely more than fragments.  When I bought a chicken skewer at the market I wolfed it, protein-starved.

Or am I deluding myself?  I had plenty of anxiety and depression in Thailand, too—fear of locals, fear of strangers, days when I just wanted to speak English and order pizza and stay in my room.

Or is it just aimlessness now that I’m back, not knowing what or where I want next?

Thursday, July 03, 2014

Oak Park, Illinois

Last Thai morning somtahm
I used to live here in Oak Park, down the street, on Cuyler.  Back then, I looked like this:

Me, in 2000
This was my apartment:

A shelfie, before they were called such
I lived there with my cat, Rumor, in a studio apartment for $545 a month.

Rumor, on my beat-up chair
I worked at a magazine office in the city, and I took the train in.  It was impossibly romantic.

Now it is fourteen years later. I moved here in April of 2000.  Two days ago I flew back into Atlanta and family picked me up and we drove through Chicago to its western edge, to Oak Park, where my sister lives with her husband and four impossibly beautiful daughters.  She keeps chicken and grows peas.  She longs for Thailand, as already do I.

So far today I have eaten leftover fast-food chicken and pizza and salad.  And fresh snap peas and a backyard chicken egg.  Since coming back to this land of cheese and wheat, I have eaten whole-grain bread and yogurt and cold hard cantaloupe.  What I have not eaten:  curry, pad pahk luahm, fresh raw Thai basil, somtahm, rice, chicken grilled over charcoal in its own fat, mango-yogurt smoothies, coconut bread.  My diet here is completely different, as is my sun intake.  It’s like my world’s upended.

I didn’t notice the absence of smell on my arrival that much this time, but when my brother and sister and I talk about the smell of Bangkok, it’s like we’re talking about home.  The smell of the khlongs, of the markets, of the city.  The humid darkness.

The sun stays up till eight o’clock here.  It mystifies me.  How can it be eight o’clock and it still be light?  As does the sun itself and its mysterious chill, its pallor.  It’s 75 degrees here this week.  At Bluefin, in the last week I was there, it rarely got below 80 degrees at night.  My feet are cold.  It’s the warmest month of the year and I need socks.

I continue traveling through my own home country.  Is this my home country?  Is the other?  Asked Pontius Pilate:  what is truth?

I just remember the first Thai I heard at Narita Airport, in Japan.  It was the final leg of the flight, on January 1.  A new moon.  Thai tourists were returning from Japan on vacation.  When they talked, it sounded like home.  This time, on flying out, in Narita I heard almost none—maybe a whispered word among Thai tourists disembarking—and I listened as the language went silent. 

Monday, June 30, 2014

Bangkok, Thailand

Home (among the many)
So I'm in an airport hotel and I'm heading home, I suppose, from another home, of sorts.  I've spent the last three weeks in Bangkok, down this small soi, in a room with a fan and a desk--reading, writing, hanging out with friends, just living.  I forget how much what I really want out of Bangkok, out of Thailand, out of Asia--is life--simply life--spicy somtahm in a sunlit kitchen, conversation into the evenings in the humid dark, Thai chatter on the streets.

I wanted to do all sorts of things with these last few weeks, forever forgetting to decide, and then just settling in the same place, deciding that maybe that's what I wanted anyway.  What I wanted about living in Bangkok was living in Bangkok, and all I could allow myself of that in this constant mess of travel is three peaceful weeks.  I sat beneath the fan and opened manuscripts I haven't looked at in years, sweat gluing my forearms to the table.  I walked to the market twice a day.  I talked Thai.  I made friends, finally meeting a Thai student of English willing to trade lessons with me on my very last week.

Always guilt haunts me.  Guilt about the Buddhism post I've been trying to write (and have now posted), about doing "nothing" with these last three weeks--when maybe nothing is what I've needed.  Maybe I've needed to lose the pressure to always be moving, roving, sightseeing.

What you want, in living someplace, are mellow afternoons when laziness swallows you, or the internet dissolves you, or you lose yourself in conversation.  What living someplace also means is the freedom to stay still, to get to know one street corner, one neighborhood's habits, its mangy dogs.  It means freedom to spend a Saturday afternoon in your pajamas, eating coconut bread and drinking coffee, listening to podcasts.  You know.  Home.

So guilt about the three weeks I allowed myself of Bangkok as home, and now guilt at how I squandered those weeks now that I'm leaving.  Never enough, never enough, I say.  I want more:  weeks, months, years in Thailand.

All the Thai people ask:  when are you coming back?

I don't know how to answer.  I'm not sure when I'm coming back, I say.

I think, but don't say:  Last time it took me fifteen years. 

Friday, June 06, 2014

Pa-Auk-Taw-Ya, Burma (Myanmar)

The nun in front of me -- blurred because I probably shouldn't have taken this photograph
My journey has led me to a meditation center, one of the largest in Burma, where I intended to stay six days but am being tempted to stay longer, despite the relative torture of vipassana meditation.  I thought my background in yoga would better prepare me for this excruciating practice, but it turns out they are almost diametrically opposed.  Yoga taught me to listen to my body by using my breath, to focus on my breath and that use that to attune to and move my body.  Vipassana is a different sort of meditation practice completely, a way of focusing exclusively on the breath in order to forget about the body completely.

I am studying here as a Christian, understanding the benefits of learning meditation.  As “Vipassana Meditation:  An Introduction” explains:

“Although Vipassana has been preserved in the Buddhist tradition, it contains nothing of a sectarian nature, and can be accepted and applied by people of any background.  Vipassana courses are open to anyone sincerely wishing to learn the technique, irrespective of race, caste, faith, or nationality.  Hindus, Jains, Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhists, Christians, Jews, as well as members of other religions have all successfully practiced Vipassana.”

The Psalmist speaks about meditation a lot, but it seems something Christians have completely abandoned.  It's unfortunate that Christians must come to Buddhists to learn meditation instead of the other way around, but I find many things about the way both faiths are practiced unfortunate. 

Also I am here to learn more about Buddhism.  But the more I learn the more I understand how thoroughly a Christian I am.  Both Christians and Buddhists can accurately call themselves Dhammists.  Dhamma is the essence of what Buddha taught, the “Way” or the “Path.”  Christians were originally called “Followers of the Way,” and Buddhists were originally called Dhammists, as Buddha preferred.

He was also an atheist who forbade his disciples to make graven images of him, or any representations of the Dhamma wheel.  Of course, they immediately begin making statues of him upon his death, and now Dhamma wheels in concrete line the walls of every Buddhist temple.  In that, and in many other ways, the followers failed to listen to the teacher.

Some modern theorists believe Buddha isn't a religious figure at all, but a psychologist, an anachronistic proponent of cognitive-behavioral techniques. Desire causes suffering, because we cling to the object of desire.  Detachment brings peace by preventing us from feeling the strong dug of desire.  Detachment can be taught, using meditation techniques.

These ideas I agree with, but I do not agree with those modern theorists.  There's a tendency in the west to idealize and water down eastern religion, to think of it as somehow more sacred and pure than our western Christianity, sullied by sex scandal and televangelists, but those who expound these beliefs as some kind of wishy-washy spirituality don't understand them.

So, as a corrective--Buddha's First Noble Truth of Suffering:
There are three kinds of suffering.
1.  The suffering of physical and mental pain.  Suffering that arises with birth, aging, and death, with sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, and despair.
2.  The suffering connected with change—due to clinging, even pleasant mental and physical feelings become a cause for suffering when they cease;  “separation from the pleasant is suffering.”
3.  The suffering within the aggregates of materiality and mentality—each aggregate is constantly arising and passing away, never the same from one moment to the next.  From the smallest particle and most rudimentary form of consciousness to vast universes and entire realms of existence, all mental and physical phenomena are subject to the inexorable law of impermanence.  This suffering is going on and around us all of the time.

In conclusion:  pain is suffering.  Change is suffering.  Impermanence is suffering.  Even happiness, or joy, are defilements, causes of suffering, because they are impermanent;  they change, cease, and fade, thus causing suffering. Everything is suffering.

It turns out Buddhist nuns are just as judgmental as Catholic ones.  That Buddhists are as unwilling to listen to their spiritual leader as Christians are.  They sully their temples with money and earn merit by doing good deeds, intended to prevent them from going to hell (the lowest level of reincarnated life) and provide them access to a better after-life (perhaps, if they have very good kamma, the realm of devas).  Buddhist nuns eye me askance as I walk to meditation.  Heaven forbid that I wear mid-calf-length yoga pants to meditation, which might actually allow me to better meditate.  No.  I must wear an ankle-length longyi, no bright colors, forbidding my long shanks from opening wide, causing my knees and hips to cramp in pain.

As in most practiced Christianity, appearance is far more important than truth. 

But Jesus' followers don't listen to Him much, either.  “Sell all you have and give to the poor.”  “Give to everyone who asks.”  “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and soul, and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.”  “The Son of Man has come eating and drinking... a friend of sinners.”  “Do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink.”

Because Christ came to overturn the law.  The Ten Commandments are not the essence of Christianity.  They're the essence of Jewish law, the law that Christ overturned, in favor of grace.  “Everything is permissible, but not everything is beneficial.”

I am an ecumenalist in that I believe that Christians have a lot to learn from Buddhists and Buddhists to Christians, but I don't think anyone can learn anything if the spiritual truth at the heart of faith is converted into a list of rules.  Don't dance, drink, or chew, as the Baptists used to say, or go with girls that do.  Buddhist monks and nuns have a full list of 227 rules they have to follow, a list that seems to be expanding, from five precepts to nine, Eightfold Path and Threefold Training, each subdivided into additional stages including additional rules and imperfections.  These include prohibitions against things like alcohol, drugs, and sex, of course, but also against eating any kind of meat, dancing, singing, music, all forms of entertainment, adornment, cosmetics, and "high and large (luxurious) beds."

It’s interesting that Jesus’ first miracle was changing water into wine, and for no especially important reason other than someone’s wedding.  Other than a communal celebration, which involved food and alcohol consumption as part of a celebratory ritual.  Or perhaps for no more important reason than for us to wonder why he chose this transformation as his first miracle.   It’s an anti-gnostic miracle, one that celebrates and includes the fleshly material world and its desires, rather than shunning it.

Also interesting that he build an entire sacrament around the sharing of food and wine, flesh and blood, also—the living proof of a violent sacrifice.  Thus negating three of the five Buddhist doctrines:  the consumption of meat, the consumption of alcohol, violence.

Not that I accept all of these parts of Christianity without equivocation, either.  But what I react against so strongly in both Christianity and Buddhism is judgment, especially towards things of the world.  People don’t understand gnosticism that much, but what I love about the church is how it’s established gnosticism as a heresy—saying that Christ embraces both the physical and the spiritual world.   It's as if Jesus is speaking to and rejecting the asceticism of the Jewish Sabbath--because he is coming to build not just a new heaven but a new earth.

"What Buddha teaches is dukka (suffering), and the escape from dukka."  And maybe this is where I wonder if the ways are going the same direction.  Because I believe what Jesus taught is grace, grace at the center of all things.  I believe meditation can allow us access to that grace, the light at the center of all things.

Probably Christians and Buddhists will both be angry at me at my twisting of their doctrine.  But I can't help it.  Isn't that the job of each of us:   working out our salvation, wrestling with our angel?

Sunday, June 01, 2014

Mawlamyine, Burma (Myanmar)

Decaying colonial mansion
Today I'm looking out over the delta and islands along which George Orwell once walked, the river heading into the Andaman Sea.  I chose to stay in Mawlamyine for three days partly as a kind of pilgrimage (see the masthead), to breathe the same air that George Orwell breathed, walk the same streets that he did.  On the day I arrived, the Breeze Guesthouse owner informed me that the building where I slept, and the surrounding buildings, are a hundred years old.  Well within the time that Orwell-then Eric Blair—lived here.  Did he drink afternoon tea in my bedroom?  (Not likely.  It was more probably servants' quarters.)  Did he make social calls on the balcony where I eat breakfast?  Did he stroll along the oceanfront boulevard, arm-in-arm with a lady and her parasol?

I wandered among the streets on a self-made tour.  His grandmother lived in this city all her life. Her house allegedly exists still, but no one knows where.  Every grand old example of colonial architecture I passed I imagined was it.  And say what you will about colonial fascism (and Blair said a lot), its architecture is grand.  This city may be my favorite example yet, better than boutiquified Georgetown and Luang Prabang.  Mawlamyine's grand old buildings are decayed, decrepit, rotting, their elegance and glamour somehow only enhanced.  Georgetown and Luang Prabang have already been recolonized by the nouveaux riches, but this town is real, authentic, hungry.

Never mind that the riverfront, below the gracious tree-lined colonnade, is covered in heaps of garbage, a festering noxious street-side landfill.

“Shooting an Elephant,” an essay I've never managed to read all the way through (do it yourself, if you dare—it's out of copyright, free for the reading, but I quail about the eleventh paragraph—see if you can make it farther) is set here.

It begins:  “In Moulmein, in lower Burma, I was hated by large numbers of people.” 

Critics believe his five years in Burma shaped the rest of his life, shaped his constant and unflinching opposition to totalitarianism, in all forms.  His first three years he spent farther to the north, in perhaps less polarized conditions, the setting of Burmese Days, his first novel.  There he learned Burmese, with friends saying he was able to converse fluently in “high-flown Burmese” with priests.  During his early rural posting he imprinted himself with blue circular knuckle tattoos, a common preventative against bullets and snake bites.

He continues in his essay:  “The sneering yellow faces of young men that met me everywhere, the insults hooted after me when I was at a safe distance, got badly on my nerves. The young Buddhist priests were the worst of all. There were several thousands of them in the town and none of them seemed to have anything to do except stand on street corners and jeer at Europeans.”

I feel echoes of the same visibility now, in the attention paid me.  The comments hooted after me are “helloes” and “I love yous” but it still gets badly on my nerves, on occasion.  Annoying occasionally, but not really so much, not in this town isolated from tourism for so long.  Mainly what I feel is gratitude for my presence, for the coming presence of tourism.

Attraction and hatred, two sides of the same coin—the same inability to see each other merely as people.

Blair was a cop, an ambassador of the system he despised:
At that time I had already made up my mind that imperialism was an evil thing and the sooner I chucked up my job and got out of it the better. Theoretically – and secretly, of course – I was all for the Burmese and all against their oppressors, the British. As for the job I was doing, I hated it more bitterly than I can perhaps make clear. In a job like that you see the dirty work of Empire at close quarters.  The wretched prisoners huddling in the stinking cages of the lock-ups, the grey, cowed faces of the long-term convicts, the scarred buttocks of the men who had been bogged with bamboos – all these oppressed me with an intolerable sense of guilt. But I could get nothing into perspective. I was young and ill-educated and I had had to think out my problems in the utter silence that is imposed on every Englishman in the East. I did not even know that the British Empire is dying, still less did I know that it is a great deal better than the younger empires that are going to supplant it. All I knew was that I was stuck between my hatred of the empire I served and my rage against the evil-spirited little beasts who tried to make my job impossible. With one part of my mind I thought of the British Raj as an unbreakable tyranny, as something clamped down, in saecula saeculorum, upon the will of prostrate peoples; with another part I thought that the greatest joy in the world would be to drive a bayonet into a Buddhist priest's guts.
For one thing this paragraph is perfectly written.  Each sentence follows the next as inevitable as a windstorm.  The entire essay is perfectly written, fierce profluence, one thought following the next inevitably.  That's why I can't finish reading it.  Especially the distance in his tone, a distance that allows the unsayable able to be said.

But he is graphic about how the unsayable affected him, and despite any internal conviction to the contrary he was hated and hated back.  Maybe the Stanford prison experiment has become a cliché, but in case you haven't heard it:  in the seventies a psychologist staged an experiment that set two groups of college students against each other—some were assigned as guards, others as prisoners.  In less than a week, the guards began inflicting psychological torture on the prisoners.  They took away their clothes, attacked them with fire extinguishers, prevented them from emptying buckets filled with human waste, confined them to dark closets, and refused to allow them to use their own names.  After only six days the psychologist discontinued the experiment intended for two weeks, as a third of the guards began exhibiting truly sadistic qualities.  The conclusion being that setting one group in power against another alone instills violence and hatred between the two groups.

I have a nascent political theory about post-traumatic stress and culture, that entire groups and subsets of oppressed and oppressors experience post-traumatic stress as collective entities.  We have a sense, in the west, that these ex-colonial countries just need to get their acts together, find democracy, the same way believers would tell people they need to find religion.  But the way most ex-colonial countries govern themselves—specifically, Burma—was modeled to them by us, by the colonial powers, with our white man's burden and noblesse oblige.

In Dawei, a Burmese friend Caroline (not her real name) showed me a pdf presentation for a business she’s enlisted in. 

“Taiwan,” she said, as if that proved its legitimacy.

I hope it’s not a pyramid scheme she’s bought into, but I have no way to know.  It involves door-to-door sales, a la Girl Scout cookies or Amway, of things like healthy herbal teas and skin creams made from odd plants.  One slide showed the arches of McDonald’s as a golden symbol of franchised success the world over, and she displayed it proudly to me on the same day I read of a riot in front of the Oak Brook corporate headquarters of McDonald’s, right down the street from where I used to work at a development organization.  I’m fairly sure I ate lunch at the same plaza where the riot happened.

I showed her images of the riot, trying to explain.  She looked bewildered.  McDonald’s is the Holy Grail here, as all American companies are, beacons of the kind of success Burma is reaching after.  I was able to explain with judicious use of my Myanmar phrasebook.

“McDonald’s president rich,” I said.  “Workers poor.”

“Same in Myanmar!” she exclaimed.  “Government rich.  People poor.”

I could have adapted Orwell’s line:  “All people are equal.  But some are more equal than others.”

Maybe we don’t torture anymore, unless it’s of accused terrorists in Guantanamo, or girls enslaved for our sexual pleasure, or Bangladeshi sweatshop workers locked in firetraps for our cheap clothing.  We have our own cowed, grey-faced prisoners—they’re just all black drug dealers.  We hold ourselves at a distance from our crimes so we can justify them.  Ignore the coming Holocaust brought about by our carbon dioxide waste.

Oppressive oligarchies are the same everywhere.

Our new capitalist colonialism, our consumer empire--the future tourist onslaught--is a welcome distraction for people here from the “younger empire” that supplanted the British.  But when every restaurant begins selling banana pancakes and every shop elephant pants—when Burmese people realize that, despite our dollars, their culture is dying, I wonder what their response will be.  I am still a colonialist, colonizing with my culture and money.  I float in the ether of my class, a class that allows me to travel for pleasure even with an income below poverty in the west.  I bring change.
The metal road was building and where it was impassable the Ford car took the bullock track;  here and there we splashed through shallow streams.  I was bumped and shaken and tossed from side to side;  still it was a road, a motor road, and I sped along vertiginously at the rate of eight miles an hour.  It was the first car in the history of man that had ever passed that way and the peasants in their fields looked at us in amaze.  I wondered whether it occurred to any of them that in it they saw the symbol of a new life.  It marked the end of an existence they had led since time immemorial.  It heralded a revolution in their habits and their customs.  It was change that came down upon them panting and puffing, with a slightly flattened tyre but blowing a defiant horn.  Change.      —Somerset Maugham, Gentleman in the Parlor
 I feel I have more to say about this--a lot more.  But no matter how much I write, I can't find a way to express just how Orwellian both modern-day Burma, and its counterpoint, the industrialized west, have become.  It's one of these things that takes time to tease apart in words.  It took Orwell ten years for his essay.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Setse Beach (Thanbyuzyat), Burma (Myanmar)

At beach with Burmese fans, next morning
On the train today no one wanted to sit beside me.  I’ve had this experience before, in Thailand—I don’t know if it’s from a misguided sense of respect, or because I am rank, or because of my prodigious size—which, even if I were supermodel skinny, would be prodigious here.  As Lonely Planet says, Burmese bums make Kate Moss look hefty.  So I sat alone, no one beside me, the two seats facing me empty, too.  While women opposite the aisle crowded against each other, one of them clearly ill.

We had assigned seats, so it wasn’t that much of a statement, but in the other areas of the train people felt free to change their seating arrangements according to convenience.  The four seats where I sat stayed empty almost the whole ride to Thanbyuzyat, until two gentlemen finally boarded with assigned seats opposite, and took them, reluctantly.

The Burmese friendliness is legendary and real, but on the train I felt much more conspicuous.  Foreigners rarely take this route.  The two girls to my left, white-skinned, wearing chic new longyis and tight shoulder-bearing tops, turned their bodies to face me and stared boldly for about half an hour.  Several train conductors were brave enough to sit down one row up, in the seat most convenient for looking, and gazed at me unabashedly until I’d stare back.  And many fewer smiles than I get when I’m on my walks through town.

I don’t know how to deal with the attention.  It makes me uncomfortable and a bit angry.  I stared back, for the most part, until I shamed them into looking away.  Maybe that’s the wrong thing to do, but I did it anyway.

After all, all travelers are ambassadors of sorts, ambassadors of culture, if nothing else.  So I shouldn’t begrudge them their full-frontal gaze of me, a real American, something they’ve only seen on television.  It’s like they were absorbing every aspect of my appearance, my body, my actions, my backpack, my clothing.

But it’s exhausting being the locus of other people’s anger, attention, curiosity, focus, envy, whatever.  And it’s constant, at least in these last few towns.  I’m ready to be in a world where other foreigners exist, maybe even the Thai tourist world of go-go bars and tee-shirt shops.

So I arrived at the train station after dark, disembarking at an unexpected stop—most farangs head to Mawlamyine—and bartering for my motorcycle taxi.  I decided to go out to Setse Beach because it was the only place I was sure licensed accommodation exists, even though I really wanted to explore Thanbyuzyat, the endpoint of the legendary death railway, constructed during World War II.  There’s a beautiful symmetry to it, at least in my imagination, arriving in Burma from Kanchanaburi, and following this course to the terminus of the same railroad.  But I had no idea how far away Setse was.

My motorcycle taxi drives me out of town as the sun sets and it darkens.  Before I realize it we’re in the middle of nowhere, driving through darkened fields full of rubber trees.  It’s exhilarating, the wind rushing through my hair, heading to an unknown destination.  Also dangerous.  Maybe that’s why it’s exhilarating.  I have the comfort of knowing that I have a size advantage on most men in Burma, but it’s still bizarre, my willingness to get behind someone on a motorcycle after a half-minute negotiation, to head into the unknown dark.

Then the motorcycle begins sputtering.  I’m not sure, since I’m not that familiar with engines, but it seems to be seizing in some ways every time he changes gears, laboring as we climb the hills.  I want to ask him about it, but I don’t know how.  Then I realize that he’s slowing to an excruciating pace whenever a vehicle passes us, even when the vehicle is going the opposite direction, and afterwards weaving all the way across the road.  Then I catch a whiff of something.  Gasoline?  No.  Alcohol.  My motorcycle chauffeur, halfway into the middle darkness, is drunk.

But what can I do?  Wait for the other shoe to drop is all.  The motorcycle does not break down.  We do not crash.  But when we arrive in Setse I see a giant billboard for a fancy-looking hotel called Paradise.  Oh no, I think.  Is this my promised accommodation? It has a pool.  A budget-breaker for sure.

We pass two other guesthouses, and we pull in, but my driver’s drunkenness is increasingly apparent.  He doesn’t know where to stop, doesn’t seem to be able to get off the motorcycle when we stop, doesn’t know where to go.  Both guesthouses reject me, and I can’t figure out why.  My driver speaks to the owners in hasty Myanmar language, and although I don’t understand, I already know what they’re saying.  They’re telling me to go to Paradise.

Finally, I give in, and decide to see how bad it is.  We drive down the road, pulling into a full-fledged resort—thirty uniformed attendants guiding us as we park, steering us past the internet and game room, the beautifully manicured gardens, employees watching HBO in a television room, the well-kept bungalows, into an air-conditioned reception area where I have to go through a metal detector.  It’s $40 for their cheapest room, a double, even though I’m just one person.  I could have just taken it and escaped.  I even have a stashed $100 bill for exactly this eventuality.  But I can’t do it.  Every fiber in me resists.  That’s an American price, I say, disgusted. 

I drive away with my drunk chauffeur.  He takes me to his friends’ house.  They’re thrilled.  They seat me in a chair and everyone gathers around, touching my skin, listening to my badly pronounced pleasantries, poring through my Myanmar phrasebook.  They want me to sleep there, on the bare teak floor of their front room, and part of me wants to, too.  But I know it’s illegal to spend the night with a local family.  And I also know I won’t get a moment’s peace—I’m the locus of everyone’s attention again, and I will be as long as I stay there.  Besides, there’s no bed.

The man of the house gets on his motorcycle and guides us back to the guesthouses we’ve already tried.  I argue.  You’re a guesthouse!  Give me a room!  But it finally clicks:  they don’t have a foreigner license.

We get back on the motorcycles and I’ve resigned myself to Paradise or the friends’ house, wherever they drive me.  But at the last possible minute they pull into another hotel, one I hadn’t noticed.  We wake up the front desk and they give me a room—gorgeous, with a patio facing the ocean—for $20 a night.  Still expensive, but I take it.

It’s a night when I’m absolutely exhausted and filled with relief.  With a traveling companion this wild-goose chase would have been an adventure and not a possibly hopeless and horrifying mission.  Maybe if I’d had someone along we would have taken the nice room and be watching HBO in air-conditioning.  With two people, $40 would have been the same price as what I’m paying here.  Maybe one of us would have convinced the other to get it—but then again, one of us would be blaming the other for the expense.

I persisted, found what I was certain existed, but what was it worth?  $40?