Monday, February 20, 2012


I have tears drying on my face right now because of this, put up by my dear friend and older brother, Will Yaryan.

Watching the high resolution sweep over different parts of a city that I've spent years learning to know made Bangkok seem so close, which it is--15 hours. I came back to the states with a firm intention to return for visits at least once a year, and I've only been back for less than seven months.

Someone who has never been to Bangkok won't be moved to tears by this panoramic view of a sprawling city. What did it for me was the blur of traffic on the expressways--going, always moving, so many lives whooshing past on those arterials, and in that weird time split that I described in my last post, I was one of those lives as well as the person who watched.

I've just finished a book that describes much of my last installment of my relationship with Bangkok and how it has changed over the past 16 years--as much as I have myself.. Anyone who is curious can read some of that history here on this blog, where I tried to be as honest as possible about my time in a place I love.

My feelings for Bangkok are no longer starry-eyed, as they were for the time I wrote about in my first book. But they are very deep and very strong and they still tie me to that place--all of it. I've lived and worked and explored in many areas that aren't glitzy--those are my favorite parts of the city. That's what came to mind as I lapsed into tears and that's where I will spend most of my time when I go back to visit.

It's an unfinished relationship that exists between Bangkok and me and I know it's never going to be over. Whether I live there or go back on visits, that city will always be partly mine.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

When I'm 64...

At 63, I feel as though I'm entering my final adolescence. What began at 3 and continued through my life at different periods, the process of entering a whole new mental and physical stage is happening again. The odd part now is, that while I used to interpret stage as being an actual external platform where I tried on different roles, now that stage is an internal one where I try different ways of writing. The gift of age for me is a more defined focus, one that mingles memory and present experience in a rich blend of time that seems more malleable than ever.

Sometimes that frightens me. I thought last night of the time I lived with a disembodied spirit in Thailand. One night it seemed to be calling and I thought it wanted me. The man who was with me when this was going on didn't hear that summons. Now he is dead, and I wonder who was wanted that night--or even worse if time had folded in on itself, as I now believe it can. Was it his spirit coming through the spiral of what we think of as linear, trying to tell both of us to hold each other tightly while we still could?

Will these thoughts become less frightening and more comprehensible as I age? Will I be able to write about them without fear as I now can write about things that used to hold stark terror but are all part of the spiral shaped story that I set into words, hoping someone may want to read them? These are the kinds of questions that make me curious about growing old.

I know of people who think of aging as an adventure. So far I think they're wrong. The process isn't, any more than the physical changes of puberty were. Aching muscles are as tedious as acne or menstrual cramps. What's an adventure is life itself--the discoveries, the experiences, the story.

The other day I was caught in a hellish rain shower and a man on a street corner sold me a hotel umbrella for 4 dollars. As I paid him from a roll of laundry quarters, he decided "You're a really nice lady. I'm going to give you something," and from a plastic supermarket bag, he pulled an opened package of large pink-frosted cookies. "Have a cookie--take two," he said.

I didn't because I don't particularly like cookies, but I'm grateful when presented with something that comes with a choice. We don't always get that and sometimes what's offered isn't so palatable. But if we're lucky, there's a good story attached, either visible within the present or folded and wrapped in a spiral of time.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Living in the Third World, USA

I don't care how many times we read it or hear it--the word bedbug immediately sets off feelings of revulsion and disgrace. So what if they've been found in NYC's Plaza Hotel? If you find them in your living space, you don't tell anyone but your closest friends, do you? And then the news is broken in hushed tones. You watch the people you trust with that knowledge flinch, you see that tiny recoil, and congratulations! You've somehow-- in the back of your own mind, at least--become a pariah.

You can tell yourself they are actually less harmful than mosquitoes. Mosquitoes can kill you, while bedbugs can only make you pray for death. An exaggeration? No. Try switching on the light and finding a bedbug plump with your blood crawling across your high-thread- count sheets and then try to sleep after you've crushed it. Enough nights like that and the most sane people in the world will start thinking about the peaceful solution of an overdose.

Luckily I've only had one of those nights so far. In response to it, I've thrown away my wooden bedframe which the sniffer dog claimed was the insects' happy hunting grounds and I've taped the zipper end of my futon shut. I've washed my bedding and dried it on the hottest setting and my apartment reeks of borax powder and lemon oil and lavender. I still feel disgusted. The second treatment with whatever toxins are allowed in this country takes place this week, with one more to polish off the vermin. We hope.

A friend in Myanmar told me about a powerful poison she uses for bedbugs--it's legal in this country but only if you pay an exterminator. It's not for household use in the U.S. Fortunately my landlord is paying for my bedbug eradication. He says they've had a 100% success rate. Hope comes into play once more.

In the years I lived in Thailand, I saw traces of bedbugs in one hotel. One. I never lived in an apartment or house that had them--cockroaches yes, bedbugs no. In the last year or so, a number of tourists died in a Chiang Mai hotel of mysterious causes. Their deaths were rumored to be caused by breathing toxins that are now banned in many countries but are still used to kill bedbugs in Thailand. But that was in only one hotel in a country that has thousands. Who knows what really killed them? I'm beginning to think one or two tourists may be a small price to pay for a nation-wide good night's sleep with no visible scars in the morning.

In the U.S. bedbugs are found on city buses, in theaters, in the bindings of library books, even in clothing purchased from department stores. In Thailand I rode the cheapest city buses at times, took long distance sleeper buses and trains, bought second-hand books that had been left behind in guesthouses by backpackers, often bought clothing and shoes in street markets, frequented movie theaters and in the decade and a half that I lived or traveled in that country, had only one fleeting encounter with bedbugs. It took a trip to high-tech Malaysia to get me up close and personal with them, and my return to a country that regards itself as the world's greatest to have them become a fact of my life.

So far I'm lucky. I have few possessions and the ones I have are vermin-free except for my bed. I hope. It would be nice to have friends come over again or to lend someone a book without fearing that it may harbor bedbugs in its binding. It would be nice to have the same comfort in America as I had in the Third World.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Dry Leaves in a Hot Wind

"The day of his death was a dark cold day."--from In Memory of W.B. Yeats by W. H. Auden

How would you respond to dreadful news if there was nobody to see your reaction? Not a voice on the other end of the phone line or hands to grab yours as you found out that a friend was dying? Without a buffer of another presence, what would you do?

Thanks to Facebook I know the answer to this, for me at least. I was alone as I read a quick message sent from Bangkok and then immediately stood up, facing the way out of my apartment, both hands clutching my midriff, doubled over as my life changed. I think I was making some kind of sound because my cat rushed over to stare at me. I had no idea of what I was doing until I felt tears on my face--no thoughts, no words, only a strong blow that carried grief.

When the words I needed to get more information came to me, I felt as though I had to chisel them from ice. They emerged one by one, slowly. There came a phone number, with the warning that tubes made it difficult for the man I love to speak. "I think he wants to hear his friends' voices," his sister wrote.

I called him.

I steeled myself to make jokes about the wrong way to stop smoking and that this was no way to take a vacation so get out of bed. There was an intake of breath at the other end of the line that stretched from Seattle to Italy. There was a whisper like dry leaves in a hot wind, "I have no idea." I never heard him speak again.

And there was nothing I could do but send every scrap of energy I had in his direction. Hope became almost a prayer with every thought I had, every waking moment. There were no other words and writing anything was like vomiting up bits of broken glass.

Miracles of remission happen, but not for Sak. He died.

When I write those words, any time I write them, my fingers go numb, my wrists slacken, and I stop.

Facebook told me he was dying, Facebook told me he was dead, and now Facebook is where his wake is taking place. It's a spot where his sister has put up youtube clips of him with his daughter, where friends post photos of him relishing his life, and there are songs he sang and photos he took. His life is there. I hope it always will be.

And he is immediately on my mind when I look at the loveliness of a world that no longer contains him. Worasak Jongthirawong, September 23, 1972-January 15, 2012. Sleep well, Sak. ("Earth, receive an honored guest.")

Homesick Restaurants, Drums, and Gongs

(Photo of Mak Fai lion by Matt Brown)

A haze of smoke covered my neighborhood last Sunday and the acrid taste of firecrackers bit at the back of my throat. It didn't matter. I still followed the lion dancers and their drums and gongs for at least an hour until the cold drove me back into my apartment.

The day before the streets had been clogged with people who are rarely seen in Chinatown/the I.D.

A dragon snaked its way down to dance at the Chinatown Gate; the street was full of onlookers that obscured the sight of its undulations. My quiet little neighborhood looked like Ratchaprasong during a Redshirt gathering---an ocean of heads.

King Street had been closed to traffic and a stage had been built near my apartment. People crowded around it to watch t'ai chi demonstrations and taiko drummers, many of them eating as they watched.

There are over seventy restaurants in my neighborhood, serving food from Hong Kong, Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, and Japan. Usually during the day they are frequented by people who miss the food of their homelands. There's a burst of office workers at lunchtime, but otherwise each spot serves people who come for a taste of home.

But last Saturday there were lines outside the places that offered $2.00 takeaway specials--lines that looked as though they were queued up for the new iPad. People roamed streets with food in their hands, smiling, many pushing baby strollers or holding a dog's leash.

The owner of Phnom Penh Noodle House hurried in his shirtsleeves to the closest grocery. "We've sold one hundred pounds of chicken wings already," he said. At that point it was around one o'clock during an event that had begun at eleven and would continue for another two and a half hours. Projected figures for the four-hour special in the dim sum joint across the street from me had been 250 customers--they had 800.

As the crowd began to thin after three o'clock, a group of young lion dancers took to the streets, followed by enough enchanted children to qualify the Mak Fai lion dancers as 21st century Pied Pipers. A little blonde friend of mine was one of them; she's the only person I've ever met who is as besotted with drums, gongs, and whirling lions as I am.

A year ago I was in Bangkok's Chinatown, wandering through a densely packed crowd on Yaowarat Road. I hadn't brought my mobile phone with me, so when a friend saw me in the midst of bodies and tried to call to let me know he was there with his family, his call went unheard. This year he is dead.

We forget our time is finite. We think "Later. We'll talk later. We'll do that next week. Or month. Or year." Another year goes by and we find ourselves watching the lions, the taiko drummers. t'ai chi practitioners, suddenly in tears as we watch the beauty of the world not only for ourselves but for eyes that are no longer able to see.