Saturday, May 28, 2011

Keith and Me

I was recently given Keith Richards' Life on (numerous) CDs and have spent many evenings listening to decadent rock-and-roll anecdotes as bedtime stories. Aside from one or two crazy dreams, I came away with a realization that Keith and I have a bond between us--we both were scarred by vicious dentistry in our formative years.

If I had grown up fifty years later, my mouth wouldn't be in this condition. Now dentists don't inflict pain and in Bangkok at least they are the most soothing people I've ever encountered. I've started to approach the chair of torture without wanting to vomit and with normal blood pressure levels. I'm actually looking forward to next Sunday when my temporary crown is installed and my IQ visibly soars from 5 points to numbers that indicate that I just might know my ABCs.

Yet even without pain and with a dental bill that amounts to 130 US for this latest phase of repair, I still returned home with the sort of energy that's usually associated with Raggedy Anne. Dental drills, their noise and vibration, immediately take me back to Marathon Man; every fiber and muscle in my body clenches against them in an insane form of isometrics and I leave the office limp and exhausted and absurdly wanting to cry.

Bad teeth are the highest form of deadly sin in the Western world. They are a class indicator and a badge of low self-esteem and a symptom of sloth, all rolled into one. People who have never known sadistic dentists look at the generation that Keith Richards and I share and make some rapid snap judgments based upon the attractiveness of a smile. People without dental insurance learn how to conceal the sins within their mouths, or reveal themselves without shame.

"I smile with my mouth closed," a seventy-year-old friend told me, and I replied, "I forget." Keith Richards smiles without revealing his lower teeth, which has to be a long-standing habit because if there's anyone who could afford good dental work...

I hope to be back in Seattle before whatever fragment of summer is alloted to that part of the globe has faded away for another nine months. Some of my deadly sins will be corrected, without pain, shame, or a small fortune involved. I'm blessed that this whole divergence from my well-laid plans happened in Bangkok, where my rent is reasonable, dentistry is affordable, and pain isn't part of the package.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

My Big Fat Carbon Footprint

Yesterday I needed to buy necessities for the ill-tempered little cat who lives with me, which I can buy in my neighborhood, along with ARS mosquito repellent mats, which I can't. Because the sky was grey and swollen and ominous, I decided a magazine would be a nice touch as well, and maybe a scoop of my latest addiction, tamarind ice cream.

There's only one spot where I could get all of these items in one place, a small supermarket that specializes in imported food and sundries like nicely designed tumblers from Denmark and Japanese food storage boxes. Much of what it proudly features, like cheeses and pre-made sushi, turns my stomach, and I've never succumbed to the packaged Italian cold cuts or the German sausages or the ham that ornaments the butcher counter. Still it is easy for me to spend a lot of money on very little when I go there and I usually stick to street food and necessities on my soi.

I left the place yesterday with two bags of purchases and a sinking feeling that I had spent way too much money on things that were far from necessary. When I got home, I pulled out my receipt and examined the things I carried.

I had spent 71 dollars US. For that sum, I came home with two tubes of toothpaste (one free in a buy-one-get-one offer), eye-makeup remover, Maybelline eyeliner, a bag of catfood, a bag of cat litter, ARS mosquito mats, the International Herald Tribune, the Atlantic Monthly, a jar of green olives, a box of guava juice, a pack of smoked salmon, a demi-baguette, a box of saltines, and a very small bottle of Absolut. And a big burlap save-the-earth bag to carry most of it.

I don't do this sort of nostalgic expat shopping very often and the expense once in a while I consider therapy but when on a whim I looked at where these things had come from, my guilt began to rise. Only the juice, the bread, the toothpaste and the ARS mats came from Thailand. The catfood was from the Philippines, the crackers from Korea, the litter from Germany, the olives from Spain, the eye makeup was from China and the remover was Swiss. The salmon came from Norway and the Absolut from Sweden. The only presence in that supermarket that was predominantly Thai were the customers. At the time I was there, I was the only farang.

Sometimes I am exhausted at the thought of a fresh market or even my neighborhood street stalls. Although I usually drink fresh orange juice squeezed by someone who lives in my neighborhood or beer brewed in Bangkok or its environs, and the yogurt, nuts, and packaged Mama noodles that I eat during a heavy rainstorm are all made in Thailand, and my meals are cooked by people whose faces I see every day, there are times that I will pay for food that is familiar and to be honest not very good.

The bread I ate yesterday tasted flat, the olives flabby with a vaguely chemical taste and the salmon was dismal. I paid for the revived memory of once eating this food in a place where it tasted good, in the company of people I love. And I cringe when I think of how much fuel it took for my nostalgia to be indulged for a few minutes. As much as it takes for the jasmine rice and fish sauce to come from Thailand and feed me almost every day when I am in residence in Seattle. It's a crazy way to live, and all over the world, people who can afford it live that way.

My 2 dollar scoop of tamarind ice cream was 100% Thai, and it was the only delicious part of my shopping extravaganza.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Small World, Big Reading List

My friend Alan just sent an email to readers whom he knows, asking what their summer reading choices were going to be. I read it with my first cup of coffee and was immediately lost in longing, in memories, in the feeling of wonder that the thought of something good to read always brings to me.

The idea of summer reading is strange to me now because I live in endless summer--but in Bangkok we have the rainy season, which seems to get longer every year. Since a rainstorm hits my part of the city the minute I decide to leave my apartment, my rainy season survival kit includes a stack of books near my armchair and emergency rations in my pantry.

This year I will have both the rainy season in Bangkok and summer in Seattle--and different reading requirements for each. Then comes winter...

Summer reading lists are a very different selection of books from winter reading, or rainy season survival therapy. As I thought about books that have sparkled for me in the rare and treasured sunlight of the Pacific Northwest, I longed to browse the shelves of my favorite bookstore in the world, the Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle. With a certain degree of Luddite skepticism, I typed the store's website into my browser and went to the page for staff recommendations. There waiting for me were old friends, people I've yet to meet, and hundreds of titles chosen because someone loved each and every one of them.

And my list began:

1. The Foremost Good Fortune by Susan Conley--a memoir chosen by a woman I've known for decades, the account of an American who moves with her family to Beijing and learns to live there--and then discovers she has cancer. As Beijing becomes more familiar to her, her own body becomes unknown terrain--and I cannot wait to read her story. (Thank you, Tracy.)

2. Atlas of Unknowns by Tania James--a first novel written by a writer I do not know, recommended by a woman I've never met, the story of two sisters in Kerala who are separated when one of them goes to school in New York City. Since I am one of a tribe of sisters, am in love with both South Asia and NYC, and was separated from my family while I went to school in Manhattan, this is a book that calls to me. (Hilary, thank you for spotlighting this so I could become tempted.)

3. Japanese Hot Pots by Tadashi Ono--yes this is a summer reading list but summer in Seattle is the equivalent to the cold season in Bangkok--and the food stalls that feed me here are nowhere to be found in the Northwest. I am going to have to relearn the art of cooking what I want to eat and this book, recommended by a good friend with the taste of MFK Fisher, is exactly what I am going to need--as soon as I get a kitchen. (Come for dinner, Karen?)

4. Vietnamerica: A Family's Journey by GB Tran--graphic novels are not my reading matter of choice but this one is too tempting to pass up. It's big and fat and colorful and visually enticing and it's here. My friend Chris lent it to me, along with The Windup Girl (which kept me up long past my bedtime for two nights in a row); it will be my first book of the summer--and quite possibly my favorite book of the rainy season.

5. And now eat your heart out, Yanks. Before I leave Bangkok, on my shelves will be River of Smoke by Amitav Ghosh. Yes, the next volume in the Sea of Poppies trilogy will be out in the UK on June 6th, in India by June 17th and so it's safe to assume that it will be in Bangkok before I leave in July/August. (Tracy, Hilary, and Karen--I'll bring it with me so you can enjoy it too. It's only fair, after all...)

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Traveling with The Lone Pilgrim

There was a subversive side to Laurie Colwin. Six years after she idealized matrimony in Happy All The Time, she published a collection of short stories called The Lone Pilgrim. It's dangerous to speculate on any writer's life based upon their fictional output, but I think it's safe to say that only someone who was alive and young in the '60s could have written those stories.

These are dark little gems; they gleam; they do not sparkle. "The Achieve of, the Mastery of the Thing" is one of the funniest stories I have ever read; it's also the closest that Laurie Colwin ever came to cruelty. The page and a half that she allows for a drug dealer named Uncle Marv to deliver his speed-rap sales pitch has the poetry and idiocy that many of us remember all too well. And as the narrator ends with "Suddenly I was full of optimism and hope for the future," Altamont and Kent State and Charles Manson peer out through the sentence.

This is a writer who refuses to believe in innocence, "that witless spontaneous affection, that hungry purposeless availability." For Laurie Colwin, there are people who plunge into the world straight on and others who approach it in baby steps; some girls have "money instead of imagination and complete self-confidence" and some, even in childhood, recognize the polished and seductive charm described in "Delia's Father." "One false move and you lose everything," says the girl who, with one kiss, "crosses over to my side of the street forever." And in "A Girl Skating," a poet mercilessly deflowers the child he loves without ever needing to touch her. "I was the child he loved best. There was no escaping him," but it was "the infant seriousness" that froze the girl into place in poems. Without her intelligence, she would never have known that this attention kept her from having a life that was "entirely unremarkable and happy."

Happy is a word that Laurie Colwin uses a lot and as she shows who is truly happy in her fiction, Misty and Vincent, Holly and Guido take on a sinister luster. They are abandoned to what kind of a future when they "raised their glasses and, by the light of the candles, they drank to a truly wonderful life." The candles are beeswax, the glasses hold champagne and when it is gone, "they were suddenly sad." Thank heaven Vincent brought an extra bottle--but will there always be enough champagne?

The final story in The Lone Pilgrim, "Family Happiness" shows what happens to smart people in happy marriages. So does "A Mythological Subject" and "Intimacy" and "A Sentimental Memory." Nobody has ever written so rationally about infidelity than Laurie Colwin. Her characters, with the fine emotional geiger counters that they have within their hearts, negotiate the hazards of adultery without damage and with few tears. An affair, Laurie Colwin suggests over and over, in short stories and in novels, is the secret to a successful marriage. It is simply another kind of love. It is not "full of the misery and loneliness that romantic people suffer in love."

Well-stocked pantries, well-ordered lives, well-placed objects, well-enjoyed meals: yet at the base of this glorious celebration of domestic living is a bullet aimed straight at the heart of monogamy. While making marriage look desirable, Laurie Colwin as much as anybody and more than most transformed it into an altered state, "a dark forest" filled with "a little chapel, a stand of birches, wolves, snakes, the worst you can imagine, or the best."

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Happy All the Time

I have no idea why this book has accompanied me through my life. For over forty years, when I first read it in a novella form in Redbook magazine, then as the longer novel that emerged in 1978, I have loved Laurie Colwin's Happy All the Time with a fierce and unconditional passion. I have bought and given it away more times than I can count. When I have lived without it for a few years, I have to buy it again--most recently at the beautiful new site of Seattle's Elliott Bay Book Company. I knew it would be there, waiting for me, under a slant of sun from the store's skylight, and it was.

I've read it as a young mother in Fairbanks, Alaska, as a woman living out a long-delayed adolescence in her forties, and as a sixty-plus expat in Bangkok. It has always absorbed me and delighted me and I have never asked why--until now. I don't love romantic novels that sparkle on the surface and have very little plot. I don't usually cherish characters who speak in short, crisp, almost utilitarian sentences. And I would detest any one of the four central figures in this book should I ever meet them off the page.

Guido Morris, Vincent Cardworthy, Holly Sturgis and Misty Berkowitz are all in their own singular fashions, perfect. They are physically attractive, accomplished and they can cook. They love fine art--in fact their lives are works of fine art. Each of them could be a small jade figurine. They fall in love and they marry and they "keep the ugly, chaotic world at bay." Their Manhattan is one of charming little restaurants and dark, genteel bars and the occasional museum. Even parenthood is perfection. Why are they not absurd? Or at least very, very dull?

Perhaps because Misty and Holly are perfect but they are difficult--and proud of it. "I am the scourge of God," Misty tells Vincent. "I was made for Attila the Hun." Holly, Guido comes to understand, is "Genghis Khan in emotional matters." And so is Laurie Colwin.

This is a writer who takes as her territory an entire Great Lake of thin ice and skates on it with aplomb and complete enjoyment. Her plot is romantic, her men would like to be, her women never are. In what should be a paradise of happily ever after, her heroines are equipped with a detached and loving irony that pervades and eventually takes over the entire book.

So does a gentle and laser-beamed satire. Although never focused upon the two couples whose book this is, the peripheral figures in their lives are fleeting and unforgettable. They are skewered and examined and put aside, without cruelty or caricature. Alive and indelible, they glitter in some undiscovered universe, waiting for their own novel.

Laurie Colwin specialized in that. A short story would become two or three, all with the same characters, then a novella, then a novel. Her gift was to provide the full bodies for her characters within the first story. The details came later, and when they did, the people they embellished were remembered as old friends--"Now where did I meet you? You're the one who takes off your gloves with your teeth."

Her books sparkle and gleam and at first they seem all patina, no core. They're much like the novels of another woman who said of her own writing, "the little bit (two inches wide) of ivory." Yet hundreds of years later, Jane and Bingham, Elizabeth and Darcy, still pull readers to their pages again and again and again. So do Guido and Holly, Vincent and Misty, in a fairy tale with an edge, in a satire laced with deep and abiding love.

More Than I Can Chew

Dentistry is a huge component of Bangkok's medical tourism; there are almost as many dental establishments in this city as there are beauty shops. Yet unlike beauticians, dentists usually specialize in signs that are bilingual, making me understand that I'm not the only foreigner who has ever needed one in a hurry. But hurry has not been a hallmark of my dental adventure; gentleness has.

In the past week I spent five hours in a dentist's chair with my mouth wide open, listening without comprehension to Thai talk radio. At the end of my third visit, I was told that my root canal was completed and to return for my post and core on the 28th. That was 18 days away, which means I have 2 1/2 weeks of roaming about with a gap on the left side of my mouth.

However, that five hours of dental attention cost me 200 dollars US, including somewhere around six x-rays. And I didn't have to take so much as an aspirin for any pain later on. And the anesthetic wore off within a half-hour or so of my visit, with no fat-lip syndrome.

It's a trade-off--time versus money, efficiency versus pain. I never thought of culture influencing medical care but it does. I was visiting a friend in Bangkok's leading hospital; behind the curtain that divided the room into a two-bed unit, a pretty Thai girl disappeared and then many happy giggles and murmurs and sighs and tiny moans formed a backdrop to the conversation that my friend and I were having. Not something I'd be likely to hear in the states, but why not?

My upcoming post and core will cost me 100 US; my temporary crown will be 30 dollars. The time estimate is four to five visits, which I now know can take from an hour and a half to two hours. If I'm lucky, they will be back-to-back the way my root canal visits were, but I have no idea if I'm going to be lucky that way. However, I know I can afford the time that this will take and I'm feeling confident that it isn't going to hurt me. That alone is worth a lot.

There are dental clinics in the expat areas of town where doubtless these procedures are done in a more timely fashion, to satisfy the demanding schedules of Westerners with deeper pockets than mine. I am receiving care in the dental office of a private hospital, which has equipment of the highest standards in a setting that manages to be both professional and home-like at the same time--a Hello Kitty organizer sits on the counter beside a gleamingly sterile sink. It is far beyond the neighborhood clinic which was my first foray into Thai dental care, as doubtless Bumrungrad and the expat clinics are beyond the hospital I've chosen. We all find our comfort levels somehow.

The lessons that accompany this time of my life aren't altogether comfortable. In my impatience to be finished with this, I confront the willfulness that has governed my life. In my discomfort with the weeks of a gap in my mouth, I recognize the vanity I never thought I possessed. In my disappointment at the delay in my return to the states, I have to understand that leaving is what I have practiced all of my life. None of this is easy; all of it is probably valuable. It slowly becomes clear, under this clouded Bangkok sky.

Monday, May 2, 2011

The Party's Over, Part Three

Yesterday the news overwhelmed me. I had to leave the Internet and go out into the world and walk in it.

Not too far from where I live is a Muslim restaurant, a place that welcomed me when I was having a difficult time with cultural adjustments and that has always been an oasis of diversity and tolerance for me. As I walked, I realized that was where I wanted to be.

Abu Ibrahim is a place that is dark and cool and clean. The food is very good; there is no alcohol. The man who runs it has seen me in the neighborhood for years; he knows where I live and where I'm from and we always have brief but warm conversations.

Yesterday I sat there in the company of two elderly Chinese-Thai gentlemen enjoying a leisurely coffee together, a tableful of ebullient Thai men having a feast, a Euro boy and his Southern Thai girlfriend, a couple of Middle Eastern men waiting for their take-out, three men from the Subcontinent being convivial over food, a young Thai couple, she texting on her mobile, he immersed in a magazine, as they sipped their lassis, and a gigantic multi-generational Sino-Thai family embarking on a holiday lunch. I ate my dal and butter naan, sipped my freshly squeezed lemonade, drank the bottle of water that Abu Ibrahim gives to each table, and thanked every lucky star I've ever seen glowing in the night sky for this place of kindness and nourishment in a turbulent world.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

The Party's Over, Part Two

I really don't think it's revealing a Western bias, because the people I see in waiting rooms at Paolo Hospital are all Thai except me, but I like bright, sparkling, well-lit medical facilities--a lot. And I like doctors who are willing to be precise about time frames and costs and what needs to be done. I like the dentist who spent time with me and was patient with my questions early yesterday morning.

She and a colleague can replace my crown in less than two months, if we get started on it soon, for around the same price of the previous dentist's bridge and multiple extractions. Without the extractions.

I took 24 hours to ponder this. I walked up to a dentist's office that a good friend recommended. It was closed of course but I wanted to see the location. It's further from my apartment than Paolo. It is easily as attractive a set-up, at least as far as I could see through the windows. It may be marginally less but as far as I can tell from my internet research, every place has similar prices except for the ones that are stratospherically higher. I'm going to use Paolo.

I realized last night that going to the House of Beautiful Teeth was like stepping back in time to the dentist office I went to in the 60s in Anchorage, Alaska-- dark, utilitarian, and no nonsense. The dentist there took a global approach to my mouth rather than focusing on the one problem that was bothering me, and she did so from a position of what she felt was unassailable authority. She was the doctor; I was the patient. Recline. Rinse. Hold that mirror. What do you mean, you want an estimate of time and money? This is medical care, for heaven's sake.

The dentist at Paolo Hospital is in the provider/consumer mode. I want something done and she will do it--very, very well. Her office and equipment glisten; even the x-ray apron had a certain dash to it. I feel comfortable in that sort of place--or as comfortable as I possibly can be when faced with a root canal, a post and core, and a crown.

The typical expat mantra here is "Thai people pay less than farang," and conversely Thai people say "So expensive" when farang tell what they pay for services or goods. But the fact is "Some Thai people pay less than farang." The patients in the House of Beautiful Teeth were working class, for the most part, or very young neighborhood residents. They go there because it's convenient, because the dentist is personable and her staff is kind, because when it comes to dentistry, they are still stuck in the 1960 mindset.

I'm not and neither are the Thai people who wait with me at Paolo. If I have to eat ramen for the next two months, I'll do it in order to have my dental work done in the 21st century. And even in that setting and under those conditions, I will still have tears leaking from my tightly closed eyes.