Thursday, June 28, 2012

Winter of Our Discontent




“I can’t get a date,” my single male friends often complain over dinner, staring at me mournfully, “Nobody will go out with me.”  It doesn’t take high-level interrogation skills to find out that they subscribe to the Tom Cruise Dating Eligibility Profile and that “nobody” is anybody who is twenty years younger.

Let’s leave out the fact that they’re having dinner with me, which, while not a date, is definitely spending time in female company.  We’re leaving that out because I wouldn’t date them; I know precisely how they feel.  I subscribe to the Joan Collins Dating Eligibility Profile myself, which, if my shaky math skills haven’t failed me, only places on one’s radar screen men who are thirty years younger.

It’s a difficult position to maintain if you also cling to any form of romantic illusion or a sense of the ludicrous.  It’s a cruel joke that the human species of any gender is hardwired to find attractive at sixty the same physical types who attracted us at twenty. It’s one thing to lust after your children’s friends but your grandchildren’s friends?  At a certain point, even the redoubtable Ms. Collins would have to rethink her dating strategy.

I’ve always dated younger men and have chalked it up to a deep-seated immaturity on my part.  Recently I’ve reencountered some of the men I used to know in the Biblical sense, who are all between five and ten years younger than I, and have discovered that they’re too old for me.  The fact that they seem to have made the same discovery about me fails to bring much comfort.  The difference between us is that they are quite hopeful about eventually finding someone who is young enough for them and I know all too well what happened when I did.

I’ve dated men who fit the Joan Collins Eligibility Profile and in one case it was a relationship of some duration. It was fun, the sex was great, we’re still close friends, and during our affair I never felt older in my life.

There’s an endorphin rush at the beginning of any relationship that’s as hot and as exhilarating as anything felt at eighteen.  It’s fabulous and all encompassing and it lasts for about a week, maybe two if you’re lucky.  When I stopped floating, it was still good.  Then one evening we were listening to music together and I realized with a horrible clarity that when I first heard the song that we were both hearing now, the person who was hearing it with me wasn’t even born yet.

Other things continued to sharpen my epiphany, a birthday, a casual conversation in which the age of one of my children was mentioned, and finally I couldn’t look at the man I was dating without seeing him as he must have been when he was two and I was twenty-six.  At that point there’s only one thing to do and I’m proud to say that I did it, and we still enjoy an enduring friendship.

It might have been different with a rent boy, and there are those who would be cruel enough to point out that at the heart of the matter this is exactly the solution that Joan Collins has found.  I, who was almost driven to suicide after watching The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone, doubt that gigolos are an option for me.

 Perhaps hypnosis is the answer.  Perhaps I could be made to believe that sagging jowls and flabby bellies and acres of white chest hair are sexy.  Perhaps I could get over my aversion to middle-aged male pontificating and my fear of becoming a nurse to some man in his twilight years.  Maybe…

In the meantime, I’m too busy with my job, my friends, my traveling, and my surly little cat to give the matter a huge amount of thought. Then once again an aging male friend tenderly confides his dating dilemmas and I look at him with a mixture of compassion and boredom.  “Get over it,” I’m learning to say, “and either find a girl who will make you feel very, very, old or dredge up another topic of dinner table conversation.”










































































































Tuesday, June 26, 2012

The Whole Elephant


                            “I’m so glad to see you.”  Howard’s greeting at the Chiang Mai train station was far warmer than I would ordinarily expect from someone I’d met only two days before.  “I was afraid you’d decided not to come.”
            After several hours of sleep on the night train from Bangkok, followed by three cups of wretched coffee, it was impossible for me to match his enthusiasm.  Chiang Mai was smaller, cloudier, and chillier than I’d anticipated, and it looked like the sort of city where Nescafe would be the highest form of available caffeine.  My spirits sank even lower when I was informed of the plans for our day.  “We’re getting quite the tour,” Howard announced, “the elephant camp, the snake farm, and the orchid garden.  We were going to the Palace but the weather’s too bad.”
            Suddenly the clouds cheered me, and I uttered a silent prayer for rain.  Few things, not even instant coffee, can depress me as thoroughly as a tourist attraction.  Faced with a full schedule of them, I could only wonder what atrocities I’d committed in past lives to deserve the day that lay before me.  Caffeine withdrawal and hordes of big, loud, badly dressed, pink people¾I shuddered, and hoped that any expression of misery and foreboding that might cross my face would be attributed to exhaustion.
            Howard, whose perky, Australian ebullience made Pollyanna seem like a Prozac candidate, appeared slightly strained as we sped toward the elephant camp.  “I could use a bit of brekkie,” he confessed with a tinge of mournfulness, “but I don’t suppose we’ll find anything up here.”
            He was right.  The only food in the camp that was fit for human consumption were bunches of bananas, which no human had a hope in hell of eating if an elephant was anywhere nearby.  Within milliseconds, the bananas I’d bought were vacuumed up by an enterprising elephant, and Howard found consolation with a bag of potato chips and a straw safari hat.  “Only eighty baht, quite good value, don’t you think?”
            The relationship between the elephants and their riders was obvious and genuinely moving.  Perched upon the massive shoulders, feet tucked behind those huge ears, each rider choreographed the elephant’s actions with subtle movements of his own.  Howard clambered up onto a saddled elephant, and, beaming under his new safari hat, was led about the camp.  I sat three inches away from a teenaged elephant who suffered my reverent pats with patience, making me wonder if I’d misjudged tourist traps. When we left, I approached the snake farm with less disdain--but I should have held on to that.
            An ugly display of reptile abuse and exhibitionism, the snake farm restored all of my natural cynicism and outraged Howard’s animal rights principles.  Watching the audience venture onto center stage to have their pictures taken with the giant pythons, while being urged to “kiss it, kiss it,” united Howard and me in a spurt of rebellion.  We politely but firmly refused the trip to the orchid garden and asked that we be taken to a waterfall instead.
            As we trudged beside a pastoral little stream, surrounded by trees and silence, Howard eagerly unburdened himself.  “It’s quite pretty here, and everyone is very nice, but I get frustrated.  Everything is so complicated when you don’t know the language.  And I like to eat things like bacon and Wheatybix in the morning, but I can’t get them here.”  My assurances that the exotic could become quite palatable in a matter of weeks only made him look more alarmed.  It was obvious that having rice porridge replace Wheatybix was of no comfort to Howard.
            Arriving at the beauty and isolation of our friend Lek’s house and garden quickly erased any unattractive segments of the day.  We collapsed into chairs on a riverbank, moving only to see something delightful that we had never seen before, garlic blossoms or a moonflower that would bloom that night.
            Howard set off for a stroll with a friend of Lek’s, another houseguest.  I was encouraged to stay behind, and understood that my absence would allow the two of them, both young, attractive, and gay, to become better acquainted.
            By the time that we finished supper, Howard and Neung seemed to be quite good friends, and as the evening went on, I envied their ability to fall into unselfconscious, flirtatious touch.  As I went to bed, alone, I wondered if I could ever be as easy and fearless about sex as the two of them seemed to be, and whether they were brave or incredibly foolhardy.
            The following morning was grey and wet, and Howard was as dismal as the weather.  Neung, in high spirits told him that they would explore the hills behind the house after breakfast.  Howard looked painfully hungover, and retreated to his bungalow.  Neung stared pensively out the window and sighed.  "Last night Howard was so happy but today he is sad.  I wonder why.”
            As we sat and chatted, Howard scurried furtively around the corner of the house.  When I followed him into the kitchen, he was standing in the middle of the room, looking far bleaker than a hangover would give him any right to be.
            “Come on, what’s the problem?”
            “It’s Neung.  Things went wrong last night.”
            “Oh, that happens all the time when people don’t have the same language.”
            “No, that’s not what I mean.  I went to bed late, and all I wanted was a good night’s sleep, but Neung came into my room.  I told him I was too tired, but he forced himself on me.  Now I want to leave.  I don’t want to hurt Lek’s feelings, but I’m going to fly back to Bangkok today.”
            Remembering how tenderly and thoroughly Howard had massaged Neung’s shoulders the night before, I was confused, and could clearly understand how Neung might have been as well.  It also puzzled me that someone as small as Neung could force himself upon a man much larger than he was.  I recalled times from my past when men had inexplicably withdrawn their attention, and looking at Howard’s pale and unhappy face, I had a strong urge to slap him.
            “I’m going back to Melbourne next week.  This place isn’t right for me,” he said, and went off to pack, say his farewells, and leave.
            Shortly after Howard’s departure, Neung appeared at my door, jauntily dressed in a tee shirt, shorts and white socks.  “Come.  I’ll take you to see Doi Suthep, very beautiful.”
            Doi Suthep is a temple on the top of a small mountain, or a high hill,  depending upon whether it was being regarded from a Thai or an American perspective.  In the cab of a pickup truck, we headed toward it along a steep, winding, and narrow road.  The fog shrouded the plunging cliffs that had replaced the ditches, and Neung became reflective.  “Howard is the first farang I’ve loved.  Why are foreign men so strange?” he asked.  It was a question that my female friends had frequently and unsuccessfully pondered over countless bottles of wine in the States, and I could only shake my head and shrug.
            We could dimly see a sheer drop looming mistily beside us.  “Thai girls have jumped from there, calling out the names of men they loved who didn’t love them.”  Neung observed, and then laughed, “Maybe I will do that later.  Howard, Howard.”
            I barely heard him.  The clouds completely obscured the road as we went higher, and the curves were beginning to frighten me.  Our driver turned on the headlights and looked impassive.  I sank my fingernails into my palms and tried not to whimper.  “It has to burn off soon.  It’s early morning fog,” I told myself, “It’s almost eleven o’clock.  It will clear up as soon as we go around the next bend.”  It didn’t, and the twists were even more dramatic when they were invisible.
            “I want to get out, now, “ I whispered, but nobody heard and neither Neung nor the driver had so much as a furrowed brow.  We pulled into a parking lot at the summit of what now seemed to be Mount Everest, and as my weak knees scrambled out of the truck, I had to restrain myself from falling on them and kissing the ground.
            It would have taken the Taj Mahal to make that trip worthwhile to me, and Doi Suthep, although very lovely, was an anticlimax.  Tourists with cameras swarmed over every surface, and it was very cold.  Looking over the wall at the valley below, I could see only a carpet of clouds.  Chiang Mai felt like a spacious refuge when we returned to its comfortingly low, flat surface.
            As we strolled through the city, Howard popped up beside us, grinning and cheerful once more.  “I couldn’t get a flight out until tomorrow, so I got a room at the Prince Hotel.  It’s great; it has cable TV.  But now I only have thirty baht until  I get to my money in Bangkok.”
            Thirty baht wouldn’t even get him a sneer from a Bangkok taxi driver, and Howard could barely distinguish an air-con bus from an ordinary one, much less one that would take him to his money.  I had no cash with me, but told him the restaurant where we planned to have dinner that evening, so he could join us, and I could give him cab fare home.  “Oh, I’ll find you,” he assured me, and inwardly wincing at the thought of an evening with Howard, I had no doubt that he would.
            Seeing his failed romance flash before his eyes sent Neung into a dramatic soliloquy on our ride back to Lek’s house.  “Look,” he hissed, showing me an ugly scar on his arm, “I had to go to the hospital when I did that.  Maybe tonight I’ll do it again.”
            Nothing is as disconcerting as hearing a suicide threat when you’re jammed into the back of a crowded pick-up truck, with the scar of a previous attempt inches away from your face.  Soothing rejoinders of, “Let me get you a drink of water,” or, “Excuse me.  I have to go to the toilet,” are impossible to fall back on.  Wishing I’d spent time listening to TV talk shows, I tried to imagine how Oprah would handle this situation.
            “Howard is only one man in your life.  There will be many men who will love you.  Try not to think about him.  You’ll feel better tomorrow.”  Speaking slowly, I carefully enunciated every relationship cliché that had ever been told to me.
            When we arrived at Lek’s, I fled to the comforts of a shower and a nap.  Later I emerged to find Neung regaling all within earshot with the details of his night of bliss and his broken heart, punctuated by groans of “Howard, Howard,” at regular intervals.  He had quite a comedy routine going, and after doing a quick spot-check for nearby steel blades, I began to relax.  It was generally agreed that Howard should be horsewhipped, and I was grateful that I couldn’t understand the Thai equivalent that Neung was gleefully elaborating upon to our hostess.
            “Sex for fun is not good.  People should care about each other,” Lek said, “But I am worried about Howard, if he has no money.”
            “If he doesn’t come to the restaurant, we should call Eric and ask him to meet Howard at the airport,” I suggested, knowing that our Bangkok host wouldn’t want any guest of his to hitch-hike home from the airport, even if I personally felt that was a fate that would be well-deserved.
            Howard didn’t amble through the restaurant , but he was with us in spirit, as Neung invoked his name and searched for an appropriate vein that he might  open sometime after dessert was served.  It was a relief when Lek’s mobile phone rang, and I heard Eric’s voice.
            “Howard left early,” I told him, “He needs a ride home tomorrow morning.  He has no money with him.”
            “What happened?” Eric asked.
            “He had a little trouble, a cross-cultural misunderstanding with Neung.  Apparently they became closer than Howard wanted to take responsibility for.”
            “Why, that little shit.”  Eric’s voice was grimmer than I’d ever heard it before.  His understanding and empathetic view of Thai people was so legendary that I couldn’t believe he was talking about Neung, but Howard was too tall to be “a little” expletive of any kind.
            “Eric, it takes two people to make this sort of situation,” I protested, still bristling with relationship truisms.
            “ Yes, but I’ve been on the receiving end of Neung’s attentions before myself, and it’s not something I’d wish on anyone else.  He gets really aggressive when he drinks, and it’s not particularly pleasant.  Don’t worry.  I’ll take care of Howard.”
            I hung up the phone and looked across the table at Neung, who smiled at me, took a swallow of beer, and said, “Maybe farang women are kinder than the men.  I think you are a very good person.”
            “Don’t bet on that,” I said, as I picked up my fork and tested the sharpness of the tines on my palm.  “Show me your arm again.  I think I know just the right place to put that next scar.”
            

Monday, June 25, 2012

Big American Baby

From the time we can listen to speech, we hear innumerable spiels about what is good for us. Parents, health classes in elementary school, doctors, magazines--the propaganda for a healthy diet is everywhere in America. Our current First Lady has made the eradication of childhood obesity her special cause. We know to be healthy we need to eat lots of fresh vegetables, fresh fruit, lean protein, complex carbohydrates; yet most of us are still battling weight problems.

When I came back to the states, a healthy diet wasn't at the forefront of my mind. Over the three years I'd been gone, I'd maintained my weight at a highish but acceptable level and probably would have lost pounds were it not for the joys of a cold beer in a hot climate. For the most part, what I ate was fresh and low in fat. Protein was usually chicken or fish or small amounts of pork, rarely beef. Fruit carts were everywhere and fresh papaya was one of my favorite snacks. Fruit juice came in very small bottles--maybe four ounces. Bread was an occasional treat; rice was a staple. I ate reasonable portions in foodstalls away from home and my at home food was yogurt, nuts, and bananas. My energy was high and I felt good. Then I came home.

Having an oven was a huge novelty and I roasted and broiled chicken and pork with abandon. The pork was lean, the chicken swam in fat even though I removed big yellow globs before I put the poultry in the oven. The fruit that I bought tasted like nothing at all, unless I was lucky enough to find Mexican bananas grown from Thai seed. The flavors that predominated in the food I ate were sweet and salty. When you threw winter into the mix, the result was inevitable. I gained weight--lots of it--mostly in the danger zone of my abdomen.

Then came spring and when the coat and sweaters came off, the sad truth emerged. I found a book that jumpstarted my foray into nutritious eating. I'm lucky. I live near a supermarket that prides itself on its produce section, and Seattle has a large number of farmers' markets. Locovore is the new buzzword among foodies and the hippest, most popular restaurants cater to that trend. If you read any of the city magazines, you'd be convinced this place is the ideal spot for a healthy diet. Until you find yourself out on the street, on the run, with plummeting blood sugar levels.

Walk into any supermarket and look at what's most prominently displayed. Chocolate, chips, sodas, sandwiches, ice cream--even at my neighborhood produce paradise. Yes, there's fruit--and one downtown supermarket has a sink for customers to wash off their selections for immediate gratification. But the most convenient snacks are the ones that are the ones that are "bad" for you. And much of the fruit has no flavor, because we no longer believe in waiting until something is in season.

As I walk through a city that is more politically correct on every level than most in the country, I yearn for streetside carts that sell bags of freshly cut mangos, bananas, watermelon, papaya and guava. I wonder why we can't buy--impulsively and on the go--small skewers of lean pork, or a piece of grilled chicken, or freshly squeezed orange juice, or even a green papaya salad. I don't begrudge other people their salty, sugary, fatty snacks, but I do want a choice when it comes to fast food.

We've become a country of adults who eat like disobedient children and who feed our own children on the run with "healthy" food that can be sucked from a pouch. We are the 99% and we are fat because fat is big business. Gaining and losing makes other people rich--a sugar-free, chemically-sweetened "ice tea" is marketed over the possibility of throwing a few teabags into a pitcher of water and leaving it in the refrigerator for a couple of hours. Mango ice cream is easier to find than a fresh mango. And even "free-range" chickens in this country are fatter than they used to be. When they're purchased by the pound, why not?

We're a country that's put our money where our mouth is--and it's killing us.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Sightseeing Is Not an Adventure


                 The sun was bright and scalding when I left the plane from Bangkok to walk into the sheltering bureaucracy of the Siem Reap airport and I was still limp from my earlier flight from the U.S.  Soon I was rapidly whisked into an air-conditioned car by a driver who had impressive English skills and an unswervable determination to take care of me. 
I’m not fond of being taken care of but I was in a weakened state and thoroughly disoriented.  Siem Reap appeared to be a gigantic ghetto of hotels, ranging from magnificence that rivaled their Bangkok counterparts to the humbler pastel concrete confections for the much less affluent traveler. The guesthouse I insisted to be taken to offered me a room with curtains that were as drooping and grubby as I felt when I looked at them, and a little refrigerator that contained a stunning collection of dead insects, so I submitted to the driver’s alternative.
            He had shrewdly assessed my resources on the trip from the airport.  I carried one inexpensive and very small bag, had winced visibly when he pointed out the luxury hotels that resembled palazzos, and had shown little interest in the $30 dollar (“very cheap”) substitutes.  The $15 price given at the rejected guesthouse and my $10 counter-offer had revealed me as a budgeter, or worse yet, a stingy foreigner, who would be satisfied with The Golden Temple and a room for $10 a night.
            Richard presided over The Golden Temple and his English was as rapid and efficient as it was flawed.  Within minutes, he put me in a room that was far more comfortable than any of the upcountry ones I had frequented in Thailand, with its hot water shower, gleaming Western toilet, cable TV with CNN, and air-conditioning augmented by a sizable fan.  I returned to the lobby to find him happily assuming the driver’s role as caretaker, scheduling my trip to view Angkor Wat at sunset.  We tussled over that for a while, until I pulled out my “very, very, old” excuse, which worked as well with Cambodian solicitude as it always did with Thai.  Richard soon agreed that rest was the way I should spend my afternoon, showing only a vague hint of confusion when I insisted on booking a motorcycle the next day, rather than the car and driver that he thought my decrepitude deserved.
            Siem Reap was not what I had expected.  We had passed acres and acres of tourist accommodation on our way from the airport, and a multitude of restaurants and bars and souvenir shops.  The neighborhood I was in bristled with signs proclaiming “Laundry” and three-storey concrete villas, festooned with verandahs and painted in the same candy-colored shades as Jordan almonds, that claimed to be guesthouses.  The narrow lane that I viewed from the balcony of my pale lemon yellow concrete villa was an extravaganza of traffic: white vans, double-decker tour buses, cars, and tiny canopied carts that were attached to motorcycles and carried large, well-fed pale people.
            According to all I had read, this wasn’t a large town, and could be explored easily on foot.  Somewhere near my guesthouse was a covered market that the driver had pointed out to me on our trip from the airport, and in Thailand a market meant food, fresh, good food, and a community of small businesses who were usually too busy to be caretakers. Clutching a pile of laundry as cover, I sauntered past Richard as casually as I could, but he caught up with me as I reached the end of the courtyard. “Lady, where are you going?” he asked and looked genuinely troubled when I waved an expansive hand beyond his domain and sauntered off.
            Other than leaving my dirty clothes at a Laundry sign, I had no idea of where I was going, and the sun struck me as being much hotter than in Bangkok.  A cluster of motorcycle drivers looked at me with little interest but one agreed to take me to the market, which proved to be humiliatingly close by.
            It was cavernous and dark and smelled as though it sold a huge amount of fish.  Everyone was cheerful and relentlessly attentive, in English, with ebullient greetings and voluble pleasantries, and sold me some clothing that I was fairly sure I would never wear.  Feeling weak, I tottered out in search of food stalls, where a young boy, on crutches and missing a leg, silently led me to the nearest motorcycle and glared at me as he held out his hand.
            At this point I could understand why Siem Reap meant Siam Defeated, because I was feeling pretty damned vanquished myself.  The passenger who had sat behind me and coughed his way through the entire flight from Bangkok seemed to have left his mark.  I wanted nothing more than soup, Kleenex and sleep, all of which waited for me at The Golden Temple, where Richard explained that there was no need to leave; his food was cheap and delicious and he could get me anything that I would want.  Feeling like a pampered prisoner at a maximum security prison, I retreated to my cell, swallowed aspirin, and went to sleep.
            The next morning I was hacking, snuffling and facing a small currency crisis.  My room rate and laundry charge was paid for in dollars, the restaurant charged in dollars but was incapable of giving change, the beer and bottled water that Richard sold at the front desk was priced in riel and so was the Tiger Balm and Kleenex that I’d bought from a little shop to get me through the day.  The motorcycle drivers of the day before had asked for dollars but were mollified by Thai baht.  The fee for the Angkor Pass I knew would be in dollars, and although I was sure that the temple vendors would accept dollars, it was equally clear that they would probably have no change.  I was beginning to feel like a United Nations of currencies, and I hadn’t even yet begun to carry riel.
            My bossy driver of the day before showed up with a young boy in his wake.  “My brother,” he explained, “ He will take you on his motorcycle, first to the Bayon and Preah Khan, then to Angkor Wat in the afternoon.  Here is a book for you so you can learn about Khmer history.”  He handed me a booklet with a fine display of condescension, and I politely refrained from enumerating the long bibliography of Cambodian historical volumes that I’d purchased and read over the years in preparation for my trip.
            “Why can’t we go to Angkor first?” I asked and both Richard and the older brother muttered something about the way the road went and smiled their farewells.  I looked at my new driver who beamed at me timidly.  He looked twelve, which meant he was probably twenty-two, and had a face of cherubic sweetness. I callously decided that I would pay him far better than well and make him do exactly what I wanted and that our first order of business would be finding a place to buy riel.
            Nok was a quiet lad, with a shaky command of English and a disconcerting habit of looking blank and energetically nodding, “Yes, yes.”  I had used that ploy all too often myself, with Thai speakers whom I imperfectly understood, to be taken in by it, but was heartened by the fact that that he understood the word no and, even better, responded to it.  Then we swept into another world and time and I stopped speaking because I needed every scrap of energy to look and absorb what I saw.
            The immaculate landscaping of the entrance to what is now termed the Angkor Archeological Park swiftly dissolved into a moist cool forest that bordered the road and blotted out the sky.  The damp odor was soothing as were the sounds of loud and energetic cicadas.  Emerging from that little refuge, we came to a long approach that was flanked by a long line of stone figures on both sides of the road. At the end was a tall stone gate that rose into a tower and held the giant faces that were carved into the entrance to the splendor that was Angkor Thom.  Nok stopped the motorcycle, and I stepped into a world that I had dreamed of for so long that I felt as though I must still be sleeping.
            The gate was so high and so huge that it looked as though it must have been carved from a mountain.  Stone walls stretched from each side as far as I could see, and the faces were as regal and commanding as I’d fantasized yet much, much bigger.  I imagined seeing them alone, at night, and shuddered.
            I could have stayed with those faces for the whole day, but the greed that propels explorers to push on had seized me and I climbed back on the motorcycle.  Soon we stopped again and there was a high causeway built over a wide moat and at the end was a spired, multi-leveled extravagance of stone that glinted silver as though it had been bathed in mercury.
            As I walked closer, the craggy surface of the spires slowly revealed the features of the giant faces of the Bayon, each one imposing and each marked with the smile of men who understood Shiva’s cycle of creation and destruction.  As I wandered through broken halls and climbed staircases that required all of my attention, I could see one of those faces through every doorway, watching, guarding a place that had become as removed from human engineering as a sea cliff.
            Behind the Bayon were trees and what looked as though it once was cleared land and a small temple with steep steps and the foundations of structures that had been massive.  It was a silent and lonely place that felt as though it could engulf me, turning me into the moss that clung to the rocks and tinged them with silver.
            I walked away feeling glutted with beauty.  I had once traveled for days throughout Northeastern Thailand, standing in the remnants of Khmer roadside hospitals and shrines and haphazardly restored temples and the Spartan simplicity of mysterious little Prasat Ban Pluang, and had been thrilled to see a single apsara carved into the wall of Prasat Sikkoraphum, which was quite possibly the only one in the Kingdom of Thailand that was still in place.  Here I had, in a matter of hours, seen dozens of graceful, exquisite apsaras, frozen on the walls of the Bayon.  I wasn’t used to seeing so much beauty with so little effort, and this was as dizzying as the heat that I could feel burning my skin.  And then they found me.
I was surrounded by a horde of children, all very small, all very cute and all speaking the same rapid, flat and relentless English.  “MadammadamyoubuyfrommeverycheaptwoforadollarnothreeforadollarlookmadamveryniceverycheapfourforadollarmadamwhyyounotbuyfrommewhyyoucometoCambodiaandyounotbuyfrommemadamwhylookveryniceforyouverycheapmadamwhynot?” 
And I did at last from one little boy, two for a dollar, little flutes that he had played so sweetly at the outset that I had broken stride and become prey.
            It upset me more than it probably should have, and I was shaking by the time that Nok and I found each other.  I needed time to sit and be quiet and it seemed that was only going to happen when in motion on the motorcycle so we went to Ta Prohm, the site that was allowed to remain unrestored, a crumbled city covered with the snake-like roots of the trees that grew over and above the ruins.
            It was a nice walk through what looked a lot like a jungle.  A group of musicians played traditional music on the same instruments that accompany modern-day Thai boxing.  None of them had all of their limbs and a sign in English identified them as land-mine victims.  Women sold bags of pineapple that turned out to be delectable, and one man was chasing a group of tourists with a cold Coke, lowering the price deeper and deeper with each step he took, while his pregnant wife stood guard over an ice chest filled with soda cans watching him with a look of complete exasperation.
            There was a gleeful feeling to Ta Prohm, as though the tourists were given a chance to be Indiana Jones and the vendors were going along with the gag by being present but not aggressive.  Its size was the most impressive feature, having once containing a city of thousands, now rocks and rubble and portions of rooms and tree roots writhing through what was left.
            Little boys offered to give tours of where Tomb Raider had been filmed, but nobody seemed eager to pay homage to Angelina Jolie, since we had all just briefly been stars in our own private movie.
            Everything became more manicured as we neared Angkor Wat.  A cluster of elephants and vendors waited politely at a discreet distance.  The famous five towers looked painted like a gigantic diorama in the savagely hot afternoon sun.  The enclosing walls swept farther than I could see and, apart from the long approach that was built upon well-maintained grassland, a forest obscured any view of what lay behind them.   A modern temple on one side and a cluster of ramshackle buildings that were far flung on the other gave hints of an active community that still existed behind the walls.
            Angkor Wat is perfect, and like all perfection, reveals as much and as little as you would find in a good photograph.  It commands reverence as well as admiration; walking its dark, cool hallways is an expedition into a sacred place.  The long rows of headless Buddhas embody impermanence and human suffering and the futility of trying to contain holiness in an object.  The bas relief on the gallery walls pulse with action that has been trapped in midstride, waiting for everyone to leave so the battles can resume.  The beauty of the place was more enigmatic than the faces of the Bayon and frustrating, like a gorgeous woman who is mute. 
            (Donald Gilliland, in his essay in To Asia With Love, describes the pleasure that can be found in walking the walls of Angkor Wat.  Drained by my cold and the heat and the sensory overload and my aversion to the threat of more tiny vendors, I didn’t follow his advice and wish so much that I had.)
            Back at The Golden Temple, I sat on the balcony as the light drained away, and felt the ghost of a breeze on my skin.  Workmen were pounding away on what looked as though they would be new villas, children were playing in a vacant lot, and a man led several cows down the narrow street below me, looking as though he had sprung out of a temple bas-relief.  Beneath the thick veneer of tourist conveniences and pleasures was an almost invisible core of daily life, which was as inaccessible to my curious stare as that which lay behind the walls and forests of Angkor Wat. 
            No place I had wandered through had been as impenetrable as Siem Reap.  “Sightseeing,” a Japanese friend had once told me rather severely, “is not an adventure.”  Now I was in a place I had yearned to see, in a country that I had fallen in love with almost ten years before, and I felt trapped in a cocoon of sightseeing, and miserable.
I went to bed and lay in a stupor, listening to disco thuds from nearby bars that I had no desire to visit, and accepting the fact that I was aging.  It was time to accept my limitations, I decided, and enjoy what I was given.  And that was when the cockroach ran up the length of my back.
            It was almost a relief when I turned on the light and saw it briefly before it disappeared under my bed.  It might have been a spider, or even a very small mouse, or something venomous, rather than a disgusting challenge to my newfound equanimity. Winding myself up tightly in my sheet and leaving the light on, I tried desperately to sleep.        
            “May I call you Mother?” Nok asked the next morning before we set off for Preah Khan, and I in my weakened state managed a feeble and rather lackluster nod.  Even at the best of times, maternal feelings were not a hallmark of my personality and were never bestowed on those without a physical claim to my motherhood.  “Offer it up, “ I thought grimly and tried to be amused when Nok would call “Mother” and fellow-travelers did double takes when they saw that he was addressing me.
The trip to Preah Khan took us deep into a forest and I walked under a canopy of trees that stretched behind the gated walls.  It was early morning, quiet and cool, and two little children who were playing in the dust of the narrow road ignored me as I passed by.  I entered into an endless, perfectly straight, narrow hallway, with corridors leading away from it, like arms, at the small rooms that punctuated the passage.   Window openings that stretched from the floor to the roof showed huge enclosures that were open to the sky and filled with jumbled, tilted, massive slabs of stone, as though demented giants had battled there.   I looked down one of the adjoining hallways and saw a handful of people, dressed in the corresponding colors of a tour group, scrambling over and through the broken stone obstacles, while a Cambodian man addressed them in a flowing stream of German.
            This felt like an enchanted place, like a Khmer version of a Grimm’s fairy tale.  I walked down the long corridor, feeling sure that I would find something magical when I finally reached the end.  Behind me a little voice chattered and I turned to find two little girls, grubby and eager and beaming urchin grins.  “Madame,” one of them announced, “Jannikawhat’syournamecome,” and she beckoned me down one of the adjoining hallways and into a courtyard filled with mountainous building blocks of stone.  They led me through a maze of enclosures as rapidly as little mountain goats.  “Jannikatourguide,” the larger girl told me as she stopped near a tower that rose from the rubble, with a bas relief figure carved upon it, “Mefivedollarsherfivedollars, “ and she gestured toward her silent little companion.  I gave them each a handful of riel and they scampered away, leaving me far from my beaten path and thoroughly confused.  Courtyards and hallways beckoned from every angle, like a maze whose curves had been pulled out into straight lines.  I could hear voices somewhere beyond my field of vision, and walked in that direction.  The gate that I passed through wasn’t the one that had been my entry point, and I had to retrace my steps past the gauntlet of vendors at the roadside to go back into Preah Khan and find the spot where Nok was undoubtedly sleeping.
            My cold was at what I hoped was its zenith and my energy was correspondingly low.  Clinging to the motorcycle was all I seemed capable of doing and so we headed out into the country to see the Roluous group, the sites that began the profusion of Angkor, that marked the original kingdom that began the Khmer empire.  We left the confines of the park for the open road, a highway that took us into farmland that was so hot that I could feel the heat bounce off the paved surface of the road and onto my skin.
            Lolei had once been a palace on an island in the middle of a manmade lake.  Now it was a dusty hill that held carved walls of buildings that had been there for centuries, surrounded by a modern temple and the monks who inhabited it.  What it lacked in dramatic spectacle it more than made up for by its sheer hominess, and I looked at the dogs and chickens and temple attendants with as much pleasure as I did the remnants of palatial glory.  Preah Ko was equally tranquil, small and undemanding, a sacred clearing in the middle of nowhere that was eclipsed by the immense pyramid of the Bakong.
            It rose behind its walls like the mountain that it was designed to represent, and the steps leading up to its summit were as steep as any slope of the holy Mount Meru.  I watched people scaling the narrow, almost perpendicular stairs, and knew that if I could ever make it to the top, I’d be paralyzed there forever, trembling and starving to death.
            The temple was set in a meadow that was studded with smaller structures and with a living community outside of its walls.  Beyond its back gate, people were playing music and singing, invisible in the trees.  Sitting some distance away, alone in the shelter of the walls, a man chanted in prayer-like rhythms, in words that sounded like the Pali used by monks in Thailand.  Wild flowers and grass and trees that grew unattended and unrestrained were wonderful to see after the carefully tended grounds of Angkor’s surroundings and I knew this would be a place I would return to, if only in my imagination.
            Nok was delighted that our day would end earlier than he had anticipated because one of his relatives was getting married and he urged me to go with him.  Engulfed in sneezing and nose-blowing and weird waves of chill that swept over my sunburned body, all I wanted was to fall into a bed that I didn’t have to share with a cockroach. 
A battalion of little girls had berated me earlier at Preah Koh for not buying scarves from each of their number, and one who felt particularly slighted had followed me with repeated demands of “Why you only buy sixteen scarves, Madame?  Why you not buy more?  Buy from me Madame, I saw you first, why you not buy more from me?” until I turned on her and said, “Because I am a very bad person.”  I felt assaulted, and exhausted, and as though I never wanted to buy anything, anywhere, ever again.  Caliban was who came to mind when I saw groups of children approach me, knowing they would use my language to make me feel frustrated, sad, and very annoyed.
Back at The Golden Temple, I found Richard, and asked him, “Can you speak Thai?  Do you know maleng saeb?”  I hoped he knew the Thai word for cockroach because I didn’t want to embarrass him by saying it in a language that the other guests in the lobby would be able to understand.  Apparently he did know, because he turned pale and said, “What? Here?” and rapidly helped me move my belongings into one of the more expensive rooms on another floor, which, he assured me, would be free of any wildlife.  
I woke up the next morning feeling saturated by all that I had seen.  This was not the kind of traveling that I enjoyed.  I was as much of a tourist as those people who roared past me in the comfort of airconditioned, double-decker buses, whose exhaust I breathed in spite of Nok’s anxious cries, ”Close your nose, Mother, close your nose!” 
I figured I had just enough energy and curiosity to go to Banteay Srei, the fabulously beautiful small temple that was, everyone assured me, not to be missed and to climb the tiny mountain of Kbal Spean, where the rocks of a riverbed were carved into faces.  “The river is dry now,” Richard told me, “It will not be beautiful,” but I was eager to see what I could.
I wanted to spend the following day revisiting the Bayon and then I would leave the morning after that, I decided.  This was not the trip I’d longed for, and I was eager for it to be over.  My exalted plans of taking a boat to Battambang and then exploring temples near Sisophon had melted in Siem Reap’s overwhelming heat.  I would take the backpacker bus across bone-jolting roads to the Thai border, and at least catch a glimpse of the country I’d longed to see along the way.
Richard agreed to arrange my departure and then wrote diligently on a scrap of paper.  He pushed it to me and I read, “When do you want to leave?” and “Do you have a little present for me?”
I wrote Monday morning and Probably beside his questions and then went up to the balcony to think as I waited for Nok’s arrival.  Nobody in Thailand had ever asked me for a little present, although I’d had minor extortion practiced upon me by traffic policeman a time or two.  It was also true that I tipped like a crazy person in a part of the world where it wasn’t expected and that I was overpaying Nok by what was easily triple the customary amount for a motorcycle.  Richard had helped me every time I asked him and was always pleasant when advice that he freely offered was rejected.  My time in Siem Reap would have been far more difficult without him, and he certainly deserved a little present, I realized as I left to go to Banteay Srei.
It was a long ride on wretched roads and could not have been good for Nok’s motorcycle, especially with my heft clinging to the back.  Wooden houses in traditional elevated style, shaded by trees, were fronted by an unbroken line of stalls at the roadside, selling baskets, fish traps, and other lovely wicker objects that were too large for me to take back to friends who would have been delighted to receive them.  The houses became sparser and more dilapidated, and most of them had a mound of earth in their front yard, with an opening on one side like the mouth of a cave, and a large steaming pot on the top.  On the roadside near these houses were tables holding small pale white cylinders.  “They’re making sugar,” Nok told me as we passed.
Angkor Wat is perfect; Banteay Srei is beyond any ideals that I might have held of perfection.  I knew it would be small, both in height and in area, I knew the carvings would be lovelier than any I had ever seen, I knew a large part of it would be cordoned off, and I knew it would be crowded.  What I saw was the most beautiful entity that could ever exist, lying naked and exposed under brutal sunlight, being raped by crowds far too large for its size.
I stayed as long as I could stand it, peering around photographers and the people they were photographing, trying to imagine being in this place with reverent people who had come to worship in moonlight.  But seeing it as I did, as a world-class photo opportunity, only other people’s photographs bring Banteay Srei back when I think of it, and the sadness that comes with the memory keeps me from thinking of it very often.
The road to Kbal Spean was first a washboard and then a track of ruts and sand.  We stopped at the foot of a steep and thickly wooded hill, and Nok said, “I go too, Mother.  I never go to Kbal Spean.”  I gritted my teeth and smiled as gratefully as I could, having looked forward to a private, silent walk that would help me sort out what I had seen at Banteay Srei. 
The woods on either side of the path smelled like moss and when we crossed a little bridge, the water that trickled below us was clear.  Hovering above the stream was a cloud of butterflies in assorted colors, green, orange, yellow, pink, blue, like fluttering blossoms. Some flew toward us, filling the air like an unruly rainbow, and I went back to childhood in an instant, staring and crying, “Look, oh, look” while Nok laughed at my excitement. 
The path became swallowed up in boulders and difficult for me to climb.  I slipped and grabbed at a branch for balance and felt thorns go into my palm.  As quickly as I released my grasp, Nok was holding my hand, squeezing out the thorns and forcing blood to the surface to prove that they had all come out.  It hurt, and I was humiliated, and speeded up my ascent to prove that I was indeed a tough broad.  Then my breath grew short and I slowed down, climbed a bit farther and sat on a rock.  I felt dizzy and used up and old.  “I can’t do it,” I admitted, Nok smiled and said, “Yes,” with such relief that I realized that he had anticipated having to carry my injured body, or corpse, back down the hill and I was ashamed of my selfishness.
At that point, I knew what I was meant to discover on this trip. It was the truth that made the faces on the Bayon smile as they looked upon abandoned, ruined cities that once had sheltered thousands of people, that had been stripped of everything that made them powerful and beautiful and were left to crumble, that held ghosts and memories and the knowledge that everything dies.  If I could hold those smiles in my mind, with their expressions of ironic compassion, then my failure to mold this trip into my will would no longer matter to me.  They will remain with me, my present from Cambodia, as I go beyond middle age into being truly very, very old.





Friday, June 15, 2012

The Power of Light

Nowhere I've ever lived is quite as frustrating as Seattle. There's something eerie about overcast weather here--the clouds almost touch whatever makes me feel alive. Positive ions, I've been told. Whatever--there's nothing positive about them from my perspective.

I grew up with clouds on Alaska's Kenai Peninsula but they were usually accompanied by a strong wind, which made all the difference."Wind," as Rick Bass observes, "is our first excitement." It certainly was mine, and still is. It's probably why I maintain there's no such thing as bad beach weather--where there's open salt water, there's always a wind.

But Seattle is on a sound, a very well-protected finger of water, and wind isn't always sweeping in from the Pacific. Wild storms are as rare as sunlight. What is puffed gently in from the real coast is overcast weather and cat-piss rain that can go on for weeks and interminable weeks.

Yesterday I knew I'd reached my breaking point. I watched Drive--a noir flick about L.A. and the violence paled for me when I saw sunlight. The final parking lot scene took place beneath a blue sky--what was not to love? You want noir? Film that movie in Seattle and people would be jumping off bridges after seeing it. David Lynch would have taken that same material, placed it in the Puget Sound area, and would have made it impossible for me to watch past the first five minutes.

And then, just when I'm ready to push the cat into a carrying case and throw my apartment key at my landlord, the sun bursts through. The cat finds his patch of sunlight on the carpet and I find a burst of solar energy that is almost hallucinogenic in its lack of normalcy. "Maybe," I mutter with little conviction, "today I won't need to wear my wool coat." (Please bear in mind that it is mid-June.)

The sky is cloudless; the evening will be long, with light stretching past 9 p.m. This is the pay-off for the seven months of cold darkness that passes for winter in the Pacific Northwest and when it fails to happen in a timely manner, I feel cheated and very pissed off. Yes, Bangkok has its rainy season when overcast days are the norm--but this comes accompanied by thunderstorms that jolt every cell on my body and is followed by long stretches of heat-filled sunlight. Never does anyone think the bad weather is permanent; in Seattle most of us question that there will ever be anything else.

It's dominatrix weather that we suffer through here--it feels so good when it stops. When sunlight takes over for its brief seconds, like G.K. Chesterton I decide, "I think I shall not hang myself today."


Sunday, June 10, 2012

Signs of the Season

As winter clothes come off, it's a sad fact that of life that winter weight has come on. Once upon a time that was taken care of by walking every day. Not any more...

Middle-aged spread, my grandmother called it. It hit her as she approached her sixties, I'm told, and it has me too. At first I was blithely unconcerned--no waistline? No problem. I told I myself I was too old for vanity. True as that may be, I'm in the prime age for the very real health problems that are associated with weight around the middle. Time for action, but mere activity wasn't enough.

Then I met a friend at the grocery store. He looked great--animated, energetic, and less bulky than he had been a couple of months ago. "South Beach diet," he told me, "essentially no carbs that aren't complex and no processed sugar."

I went home and investigated--it wasn't Dr. Atkins Revisited--it seemed sane. Low fat, high in vegetables and protein, low in carbohydrates. No jasmine rice, no beer (except at Oktoberfest, the doctor who developed this was German)--I sniveled a little and then went out and bought fresh produce.

The U.S. grows some really good vegetables, if you can pay for them. The fruit--not so good--which is why I stopped looking at the produce section of my neighborhood supermarket. That was a big mistake.If this new regimen teaches me nothing else, I thought as I picked up bitter melon and ripe tomatoes, it will at least have sent me back to the joy of fresh vegetables.

It's only been three days so I haven't noticed any spectacular changes--except without the sugar from beer and ice cream and egg tarts, I have fewer blood sugar crashes. Meanwhile my lower back still hurts, which I attribute to the added weight that is pulling on it. When I no longer have to take Aleve in the morning, I'll know I'm on the right track.

I don't have a scale. I don't want to become fixated on numbers. I'll know when my clothes begin to loosen that I'm losing weight. In two weeks I'll begin to add rice, pasta,beans, and perhaps an apple or two to my meals; by then I will have developed a firm and abiding passion for vegetables, which at the moment provide variety and texture to my rather boring allotment of protein. It's certainly the right time of year to rediscover vegetables; the farmers' markets beckon.

Last year when I went to Koh Samet with my family, I was stunned by how openly old European women displayed their bodies. No cover-ups for their bulges and wrinkles--I was envious of their acceptance of age. There's a balance I want in my life--that same acceptance along with a careful respect for my aging body--keeping it as healthy as I can while not forcing it into something it can no longer be. This eating change (I refuse to call it a diet) is the beginning of that balance, I hope.

A friend says aging is one of his last adventures. Martha Gellhorn said the same thing, brandishing her glass of scotch and her cigarette up until the very end. I'm greedy for all that life holds right up until the last minute--and the only way I'll enjoy that is to stay healthy. Pass the zucchini, please.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Watching a Little Girl

Yesterday, I went to lunch with my son, his girlfriend, and her  nine-year-old daughter. I watched this child gleefully devour a cinnamon roll as big as her face, a bagel with cream cheese, and then a big, puffy, glazed yeast doughnut. This little girl improbably resembles a rod of bamboo.

Then we went to the library, where she found a copy of Beezus and Ramona, a small, comfortable armchair, and settled into both, calmly inhaling pages as voraciously as she had her lunch. When we walked back down streets filled with new leaves and blossoms, this slender little person danced her way home, chattering all the way.

This is why I want gun control. Seattle's neighborhoods need to be safe, for little girls and their brothers. Our country needs to think of our children, not profits from gun sales.

Spring was tarnished dreadfully for those in our city who think and feel, but still little girls hold life in their hands, the joy of it, the discoveries. They deserve our protection, our ability to make their world a place they can walk through without fear.

Fell on Dark Days

May has been a cruel and barbaric month for Seattle and for my country. Insane atrocities that I refuse to read about have prompted the federal government to announce that there are no such things as zombies. Much closer to home, a place that my oldest son has performed in, a place that he took me to just several weeks ago, became a slaughterhouse when a madman entered it and opened fire. Talent and beauty that this city needed badly was taken away in a day that led to another killing by the same man, with him finally shooting himself on a Seattle neighborhood street in broad daylight.

Many questions arise in the sadness: Why don't we take care of our mentally ill? Why do we let them have access to firearms? Why do we cling to a constitutional amendment that was written for a country that needed guns to kill its own food and faced the possibility of being reabsorbed into the kingdom it fought to leave? Why do we allow the National Rifle Association to dominate all political discourse on this issue? Why has our small city had so many deaths from gunfire in a year that isn't even yet half over?

But then--we have no bombs or grenades going off on our streets, that hideous random violence that efficiently kills more than one or three people at a time. The country I left less than a year ago, the Land of Smiles, the world's favorite playground, has people dying from explosives every day. Because that part of the country has essentially been written off, nobody cares.

My British friends shrug; they went through this in the last century, when the IRA made the English well accustomed to explosives in their daily lives. They survived; so will others now plagued with The Troubles. But the violence of terrorism has a recognizable root and the weapons used aren't legal; guns in this country are. In the state I live in, legislators refused to ban them from public parks--it's legal to carry your firearm to your family picnic. The people killed by gunfire in Seattle died for reasons that are impossible to comprehend--a parent left a loaded gun in a place where children played alone, bullets were fired and struck the wrong person in the wrong place at the wrong time, a man entered a cafe and killed people who were enjoying their coffee.

I grew up in a "gun culture" where people lived a semi-subsistence lifestyle. A moose shot when needed meant the difference between full stomachs and hunger. By the time I was fully adult, I saw caribou being shot for their head and horns alone--Alaska was becoming a land of trophy hunters. It made me sick.

Life taking life, if there is such a thing as sin, this is it. And by making this an action that anyone can take at will, we are complicit. If there's one thing we can do in our lifetimes, can we please make this stop, as much as we possibly can? "Guns don't kill people; people kill people" is fallacious. In America, people with guns kill people. This is what the right to bear arms has led to. It's a right we no longer deserve to have.