Friday, February 29, 2008

Rose of the North (1)

((Chiang Mai area in the North of Thailand, 1986.))

June 2

I whiled away the rest of yesterday avoiding the extreme heat, reading in the shade, planning excursions, finally venturing out as cooler evening came on. Had a glass of wine in a bar run by a Thai woman just back from two years of social work in Nicaragua. She dislikes the Sandanistas now, says the revolution has gone sour. (Some of her comments remind me of Jean Genet's play The Balcony, where the whorehouse revolutionaries become beasts and dictators themselves, once in power.)

A fruit smoothie slurped in a Euro-tourist cafe later let me observe other Thai women putting the make on Western travellers. No one approached me--not that I was looking for company, but one does feel somehow slighted... Actually the women of Chiang Mai are renowned throughout Thailand (and pictured in books and airline adverts all over the world) as the most beautiful in this graceful kingdom and any husband's most-prized "possession." And they are striking in appearance: paler skinned than the southern Thai, and presenting a more knowing, even arrogant, look on their lovely features. Yet not offensive; just confident of their special privilege.

Today I walked a few miles visiting various local wats. Given that each of them must have support buildings, stupas, chedi pagodas housing holy ashes, glass/porcelain/gold decorations, Thai serpents, and sometimes Chinese lion-like watch-dogs, somehow each still manages to look distinct. Ditto the Buddha images. While there are a dozen favored poses, each face has its own breadth and taper, or glint in the eyes, or set of the mouth--even when you examine a dozen Buddhas of the same pose side by side. All are serene, but some seem to smirk, others to leer; some have eyes open, others downcast or closed. But nearly all of the statues have a rather demure, sensuous, almost hermaphroditic shape. Except for the Starving Buddha/bones image, all are soft and fleshy, exhibiting graceful, rather feminine gestures. What does this signify?

I took most pleasure, however, in talking for an hour with a cheerful young monk anxious to practice his halting English. Pranong (pronounced Ba-non) comes from the northeast, near the Laotian border--where the armed clashes and shelling of refugee camps go on regularly. When Pranong learned that I'm a "writer," he scurried off to get the journal he's been keeping, in English, of his stay at this Chiang Mai wat. (I noticed several references to the city's good-looking women, the young sly boots!)

June 3

The weather brought hot sun in and out of clouds until 5 p.m. Now it's thundering and threatening to storm again. But I did get out on a rental bicycle this morning, pedalling 'roundabout some 25 kilometers of countryside. The core of Chiang Mai is a square-walled city, though without the towers and crenellations of European or Moorish castles. There are gates through each wall and a broad, quite beautiful moat/park around it (on three sides only, I think); and the confident, friendly air of the people confirms the area's reputation as a haven of education and cultured wealth. Many successful Thais maintain "summer" homes up in this region (the city's name or nickname in Thai meaning "Rose of the North"), where they come to escape the heat and oppressive urban confusion of Bangkok.

Once out the North Gate, however, and past the surrounding commercial-residential strip, I found farms galore, a couple of golf courses, little food-and-drink stalls along the roads, even a major Thai Army installation. Asked a few soldiers, in fact, where to find what I had actually ridden out to see: two stoneware factories making what's called "Thai Celadon," a pottery style and process imported from China about 1100 years ago, and used to produce lovely cracked-glaze pots and plates ever since. Had a tour, some cold water, and bought a small plate for $2, then rumbled back toward the city, sweating like a hog in the sweltering heat. The monsoon season is clearly upon us.

More wats en route, a fiery-hot lunch at a vegetarian restaurant, then home to collapse.

June 5

I purposely set yesterday and today aside for writing postcards, letters, and recalcitrant poems. But in take-a-break strolls I managed to find a small antique "Sukhothai" bowl (the Thai Celadon style of a hundred years ago), a collection of Hemingway stories, and a superior Indian restaurant in a spacious, sculptured garden setting. Otherwise I sat under the swirling fans of the Galare's ((guest-house I was staying in)) breezeway-styled dining area, conversing with the Thai help, some Canadian women, and Patrick, a microbiologist from Seattle ((further proof of the world's shrinking)). The two of us will stroll to the city's night market this evening, where I intend to learn by observing Patrick; here for a year, he's become an old hand at shopping and bartering...

June 7

The monsoons have arrived in full force with drenching storms these last two days. I ventured out early yesterday, however, on a bustling tour to outlying areas, me the only taker and my substitute guide speaking no English! But we got on--up many kilometers of climbing mountain road, to one of the King's alternate palaces, a seasonal retreat no doubt, where I saw shady gardens, long sweeping views of the surrounding plains, and posh marble buildings visitors are not admitted into. Then higher up, to the venerable monastery of Wat Doi Suthep, where a 300-step ascent leads to the mountainside-perched platform, which houses one of the Buddha's holy bones. Many worshippers, a few Western gawkers, but only one man and his son doing the traditional freeing of caged birds for good fortune, blessings on the person, and so on. ((This visit I expanded on in a poem which will appear next time.))

Back down the mountain and around Chiang Mai's perimeter to opposite-side craft villages: Baw Sang, where I saw the making of famed regional painted parasols (shipped a pair of them home), and Sam Kamphaeng, where I admired silkworms in various stages of larvae and labors, along with raw silk, weavers and sewers at work, and numerous bolts of colorful silk--even broke down and spent $60 on enough from one bolt to have a suit made someday... ((and I did too, the suit I got married in nearly two years later.))

A fixed price, unlike night-market shopping. There, you mingle with hundreds, locals and hilltribesmen, hunger-inducing food stalls and aggressive vendors (want a phoney "LaCoste" shirt for a buck?), shops upstairs, downstairs, and sprawling along several blocks and side-streets, teeming and raucous but, in Chiang Mai anyway, impeccably clean. And, as in other markets elsewhere, except for those like Patrick who speak the local lingo, the bartering proceeds by headshakes and hand signals, raised eyebrows and expressive shrugs, pigeon English mixed with scrambled Thai. Only a foolish farang tourist pays the asked-for price; the mutually enjoyed game is to "talk" the amount down by a third or more--a lot of work, of course, for something that already costs only a few dollars, but the proper course nonetheless.

Had trouble sleeping last night, woke today with the blind spots in vision that presage one of my rare migraine headaches, and soon got a doozy that left me sick and groaning near the guest-house telephone, awaiting a callback from Sandie... Then spent the rest of the day flat on my back, listening to the rain and feeling sorry for myself, racking my pain-wracked brain-pan for some solution to the anguish my travels are causing among my various loved ones. None of them really understands why I persist in this, my stubborn solitary sojourn in the world. Hell, I don't really know why myself; only that I must go on...

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

This Gift Reversed

Now that I'm a wise man of 65, all this looking back almost begins to make sense. One does need to take stock now and then, and writing an autobiography slightly disguised as a pop culture blog seems a more palatable (and possible) solution for my somewhat short attention span.

I do much prefer making new discoveries, hearing new music, reading new books, visiting new (as well as much-missed) places foreign and domestic. I've just returned from a whirlwind visit to Vancouver, Canada, occasioned by the amazing invitation of my pal, animator Marv Newland (introduced in blog chapter Newland of Animation, dated 8/20/07), to come use his spare ticket to experience sax giant Ornette Coleman--who in the event did so much more than simply blow Free Jazz. His three-bass band was crisp and tight, and funky when necessary, leaving the quintet's frail but phenomenal frontman to blow his heart out, from a Bach visitation to wild new stuff to the beautiful encore of Lonely Woman!

Anyway, the past is always with us, late and soon, getting and spending, sometimes allowing us to lay waste to our very future, whether personal or species wide. And here's one view of what's past...

In His Dream

He is me, yet he can watch me act.

Things move backward, but matter-of-fact:
Older, then younger, he un-ages;

His marriage removes its bandages,
Revealing faces lovelier once.

He gives away accumulations;
The less he has, the more he is him-

Self, the man he dreams I was in time.
He turns the book’s pages left to right,

But this gift, reversed, of second sight
Leads him briefly into misery,

Discovering his story, when re-
Viewed, as choices made in ignorance,

Lived on the pulses, lacking science.
Yet he is happier, freed of “I,”

All that case-hardened identity—
Circumscribed possibilities reeled

Back up the line, present loss re-called.
Younger than this now, he lives his days

Forgetting who he finally is.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Garuda Birds and Flowing Fire (2)

((Back to Bali and 1986.))

May 18

Night. Rick and I have just returned from a long, hot, and harrowing day spent driving much of the island with three young women, our neighbors from across the garden. (Pleasant enough, I suppose, but truly spoiled daughters of the upper middle-class: too much money, leisure, and "social" drugs.) We repeated whole chunks of the Besakih tour, but this time the mountain was enveloped in clouds: peak hidden, views conscribed, the experience less magical.

But I did get to watch old women and tiny girls piling heavy rocks atop their heads and then balancing these up the slopes for repairs to a part of the temple. And I spent a good half hour talking with some gamelan players and temple guards; though the complex stays empty, the area around it serves as a kind of community-hall gathering place for area villagers.

Later we prowled among ornery bearded monkeys worshipped in a nutmeg forest: tumbledown ruins, creeper vines, nutmeg seeds scattered. Rick and one of the women got nipped trying to cuddle up with the little beggars; I used a stick and kept them honest. Had more trouble, in fact, with a persistent guy at the parking area who wanted my shirt in exchange for a keris knife with a carved-wood handle.

Then we drove back down to the southern coast, to a much-favored temple beside the sea, to watch the Bali sunset come on; scores of curious schoolchildren and older believers were in attendance too, but the clouds never parted.

(Earlier on, we had passed a village where a Hindu cremation ceremony was about to begin. We saw the flower-bedecked procession route, the waiting platform, and the happy family and friends, but didn't stay for the burning--which I think we'd have been welcome to attend. Worth observing someday, I guess, but a bit ghoulish just to sit there as curiosity seekers. At any rate, Bali is still buzzing with talk of the festive cremation day a few weeks back: some regional prince, a venerated, almost holy ruler, died at last, and 500 of his followers, people already dead and buried, that is, were dug up and burned along with the prince. There were flowers and funeral pyres, parades and pyromaniacs, all over the island!)

The "harrowing" part of the trip came after dark, driving back to Kuta. It was my shift in the four-wheel-drive rental, and I quickly discovered that the headlamps didn't work at all! So there we were with no car lights, no streetlights along the way, the moon obscured by clouds, and 45 kilometers of pitted road to navigate. With five pairs of eyes staring and five different voices shouting warnings, I sped along, weaving in and out among the nearly invisible pedestrians and bicyclists, pounding on the horn--which beeped only intermittently--perspiring frantically, riding the brakes but also trying to keep our speed at about 35 m.p.h. so we could get the car back before the agency's closing time and thus avoid paying a whole second-day's rental fee.

I hit branches, spun the tires in rocks off the side of the road, and drove down a one-way street the wrong way at the end, but we made it. Drenched, gibbering like one of those damned monkeys, I got the car part-way into a cramped slot and then the engine killed. "Fuck it," I said, and walked away.

I haven't spoken to any of the others since. Whatever else happened, I've just been finishing my South of Bali poem, riding on the adrenalin, burning out...

Sunset at Kuta Beach

The sky breathes red and gold, a Balinese dragon
consuming the dregs of the sun.
To the west, Java seethes with volcanic change;
each night, chaos remains.
But at Kuta, the last Australian surfer drags
his board past the beach flags,
the multitudinous native masseuses and stubborn
sun-worshippers who yearn
for a few more hours of fragrant oil. Baked
bodies are rewrapped, naked
caramel breasts tucked reluctantly in sarongs.
The South of Bali belongs
these days to tourists and jet-setters, a president
whose posh, rent-out residence
goes for more per night than one Indonesian
can make in four seasons
of farming, and locals who've become most adept
at chivvying rupiahs kept
loose in these travellers' well-padded pockets.
Kuta's sky late at sunset
cools into shapes of garuda birds and flowing fire,
as sun-drugged desire
reawakens to evenings of more fleshly pleasures,
and lager-Fostering tours
of the flash, Aussie-catering watering holes.
The sky's glowing coals
are scattered thin, dyeing through twilight's batik
into indigo and black.
The evening kecak dance, staged for paying
customers only, rings
out in percussive rhythm and chanted monkey cries.
That trance may be a lie,
but part-way up Mt. Agung, where lava still rumbles,
above the Mother Temple--
the island's beating heart--a scimitar of moon
has hung by a thread since noon.
And now it falls. But no one bothers to notice,
neither hedonist nor Balinese.

((It occurs to me now that my chastising and moralizing tone, and the imagery chosen, isn't all that far removed from the words of our terrorist enemies today... But it's only a poem, folks, really.))

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Back to Bali (1)

((Lately at times I've been transcribing sections from my 1986 around-the-world travel journal. Today some impressions and experiences from Bali, Indonesia's beautiful Hindu island, sadly the site of terrorist bombings, the last few years, in places I visited safely and happily back then.))

May 15

Clusters of swaying palmtrees, bush-covered volcanic hills, step-terrace rice paddies rising up and up, as many as 30 levels. Hindu temples by the thousands, in every village and field, one of them standing beside a power pole in a shimmering paddy. Surfers at Kuta Beach vainly flailing at low waves. Beach bungalows ranged around lush tropical gardens. Balinese vendors swarming like sandflies, clinging tenaciously to the near-naked sun-worshippers; thus my first Balinese words: Tarima kasih--approximately, "Buzz off, I don't need anything!"

Woke to the cheering sound of roosters and dawn birds, tea and toast on the porch of the small bungalow Rick ((Swiss traveler I had met on the long busride from Jakarta)) and I are sharing for about $3.50 each per night. His German guide to Indonesia recommended this place among the hundreds along this southern wedge of the island; and the room is adequate, with ceiling fan and flush toilet, on a nice garden near the white-sand beach.

Which is where I am now, fighting off the vendors, watching the surfers, trying not to stare at the bare-breasted non-natives. At least I feel clean and relaxed again. Nothing like the ocean to rinse away your cares and woes...

May 16

Sunshine flickering among the hibiscus flowers, booming surf and rhythmic gamelan music pulsing in the distance. It was beach bum-around time, though I did wander the Kuta-Legian commercial strip, miles long, boutiques and bars, cafes and cassette shops, where I suppressed my gadget-dislike long enough to spend $35 on a paperback-sized deck and a stack of tapes, pirated duplicates of Springsteen, Dire Straits, Tina Turner, and others selling for about a dollar.

More impressions: tiny shrines can be found outside each home or store; these are filled each day with floral bouquets and little leaf-boxes of food bits--gifts to the gods. And the little boxes show up on sidewalks and tidelands too, wherever the Balinese congregate. Also, a silly example of hedonism at the beach: most women, and some men as well, pay to lie on their towels or mats and be massaged, fed food or drink, even have their hair braided and beaded. This looks like a scene from some Roman Empire decadence flick like Caligula or Fellini's Satyricon. Harmless diversion, or insult to Balinese pride? Anything to make a few rupiahs, i guess.

Tomorrow I take a grand tour up to Bali's most holy temple, Besakih...

May 18

The journey proved too tiring to transcribe any notes last night, but here's the jist of the day:

Heading out on the small bus-van, we could immediately see the contrast between Kuta's crap-consumer congestion (it's Australia's equivalent of Hawaii, after all) and the palm-drenched plush spaciousness of expensive hotels and their park-like surroundings, in the area called Samur. There we picked up so many wealthier tourists that the van skipped a promised barong dance exhibition in order to fritter away two hours in craft-specialty villages, where we could learn about, and buy samples of: silver-smithing in Celuk, waist-sash weaving (for temple wear) in Batuan, and cloth weaving in Gianyar. The pressure to buy irritated me, but the Gianyar factory with its hundred-some women spinning wheels and old wooden looms was quite a sight.

Next came Klungkung where a no-longer-used royal enclosure and hall of justice offered fantastical ceiling paintings depicting both marital bliss and evildoers scourged by demons! (The souvenir sellers tugging at us so tenaciously seemed the demons secular cousins.) And the horror motif continued at the next stop, a reeking, truly disgusting, sacred cave of bats, with a filth-encrusted temple in the foreyard. Mondo Cane stuff.

After a tourist-ripoff lunch that cost me a whole day's meal money, we drove on into hills and then up a winding mountain road to reach Besakih, Bali's "Mother Temple," used only once a year, in April, for a full day of processions and ceremonies. Although only Hindus were allowed inside into the separate areas for Siva, Vishnu, and Brahma worship, we pagans could circle the walls, climbing higher and higher, viewing gold decorations, stone stupas (sort of free-standing steeples), wooden platforms awaiting cremations, and Besakih's extraordinary setting. Halfway up the island's most imposing volcano, Mt. Agung--which last erupted in 1963 on the actual ceremony day, killing thousands but doing no damage to the temple!--Besakih looks straight up to to the top of the mountain, to the full moon lingering above it today. One turns back to discover a vista of most of south Bali--hills, paddies, and fields stretching all the way to the beaches and the sea.

I was haunted by the experience all the way back to Kuta and during the night. It's clearly what triggered the poem I'm working on today...

((More from exotic Bali, and the completed poem, next chapter.))

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Grad School Days (2)

((I turned 65 yesterday, which is the main reason I've been thinking so much about the old days of school and otherwise. So please forgive the ego stuff--I'll be better soon, honest!))

The first thing a newly graduated male, 18 or older, had to think about in 1964 was military service. Vietnam was starting to heat up, bodies were being called up... There really was a draft back then, and within a couple of years, as some may remember, it became a huge issue--vocal resistance, draftcard burnings, young men fleeing to Canada or using their parents' clout to get exempted somehow (hmmm, sounds like a President or two I've heard about).

I didn't have much to worry about, actually. I had gotten married as a Senior, and my then-wife was pregnant, so I had that solid bit of protection. And if I moved straight on into grad school, that too would serve as a shield of sorts. I had already signed up to continue on at the UW and had proved myself sufficiently as a serious Senior that I received another scholarship and a part-time Teaching Assistant job. (I worked at Safeway stores too. Yeah, those were the days: a 32-hours-a-week job as grocery clerk, a teaching schedule to fulfill, graduate English classes to wrestle into submission, creative writing that drove me to pen and paper, and a fledgling marriage and pregnant wife to worry about.)

What I really hadn't settled for sure, and this drifted in and out of our lives for a few years, was what career I wanted. Working on a Master's Degree, I was in line to become a college professor and publishing poet, but I quickly learned that academia was--sadly? luckily?--not for me. I disliked the over-zealous, competitive grad students, I found many professors arrogant and mean-spirited and boring, I still got A's but foolishly resented the drudgery of lengthy footnoted papers and such. But, really, it was down to me. Back at Northwestern, I had joined and then quickly dropped out of ROTC; and the same stubborn resistance to order-taking I'd felt then seemed to influence my attitude toward academia. I could do the work and often beat out other grads for honors, but I didn't want the results, or the pressure, or... I don't know.

So I was casting about for what to do next. Safeway store clerk didn't seem the answer. A side note for a moment. One of the customers where I worked as stocker and cashier was an ex-wife of country singer Tex Ritter; she would come in from time to time with their preteen daughter. She looked at me one evening and said, deadpan, "There is no safe way," then walked out. (I've split the store name in her sentence, because I believe that's how she meant the layered pun, with which I belatedly agreed.)

Here's where one's snap, or even considered, decisions can affect a lifetime... I'd have a Master's in Lit by summer 1966, trained to do only one sort of thing, teach Lit or write. So I applied for various teaching jobs, and was offered positions at regional community colleges, even at Pacific Lutheran University (where I would be a sort of guest poet teaching creative writing), but turned them all down--in the case of PLU because I didn't want any religious stuff hanging over my head. (Would I have found things that onerous, really? I was desperate for excuses.)

I applied to New York University's famous film school (one of very few existing back in those distant days) and was offered a slot but no scholarship money. Then-wife and I had already agreed that she would be an at-home Mom, so I would have had to work full-time in NYC as well as go to school. (I was too unsure of costs and my stamina and resolve--basically chicken. Another opportunity wasted.)

I applied to a university in the Sussex area of England where I would supposedly continue on towards a Doctorate in English Lit, imagining that the slightly exotic locale might inspire me onwards--was welcomed too, but passed on the opportunity again, still convinced that the money problems couldn't be overcome. (No Thomas Hardy or Jane Austen environments on our horizon.)

Clearly, I just wasn't brave enough to tackle the challenges each opportunity offered.

Finally, lazily, desultorily, I settled for becoming a writer-editor for the University Relations Office at the UW, initially preparing press releases and alumni news for the campus Alumnus Magazine. And I did all right at the small stuff, and soon was writing full-length magazine pieces, and then I moved on to Seattle Magazine, where... but I've already covered that experience in an earlier posting. (See chapter titled A Whale of a Tale, from May 27 last year.)

The point is this: I finally, for better or worse, was off on a full-time writing career--which would carry me into film work, and then advertising and production, in and out of poetry and plays, and eventually around the world and back again, to become a semi-retired bookseller.

But I coulda been a contender. I had my chance at academia, and campus literary lion, and New York magazine stardom, and successful Hollywood screenwriter on strike, and who-knows-what-all might have been... but passed on them all.

Rightly or wrongly, here I sit, blogging. School days do part-shape one's life.