Friday, October 31, 2014

All Hallowed

Masks, costumes, parties, small children receiving candy--it's Halloween and Facebook is laden with pictures of friends and their offspring transformed. Everybody's happy.

I began to listen to music this morning, which I rarely do now. Silence is where words form for me, but for some reason I went to Pandora--and then to my music on the ipad.

And there was an album that I had to buy when I found it on Itunes. It's Thai from 1985, Rewat Buddhinan, Ter. Today is only the second time I've ever played it.

I was reading when a song slapped me into attention, and just as it had the first time, I was pulled back in time, then back to now. But when I returned, I wasn't alone in my living room; someone I will always love was there with me.

Over the past few days, my mother has been on my mind. Today it was someone much younger who is with her in my thoughts. And then I remembered that beneath Halloween, today is All Hallows Eve.

Thank you for coming back, invisible but completely palpable, conjured up through the power of music and memory.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Things that Don't Go Bump in the Night

For the past four days, it’s been hard for me to breathe. I moved through nausea and dizziness; my neck hurt so much that my sleep was broken. I ate ice cream, which is my own private heroin. This morning I stood in the middle of my apartment, looking at what I had found to make my life comfortable: bright, cheap Ikea furniture, Thai fabric, a small collection of books, and a shelf of DVDs and some music. Not much, but I like it that way.

Right now I’m panting a little and my muscles feel slack after days of being clenched and knotted. My life as I live it feels like a gift, one that I won’t lose immediately. A dog spent two minutes or less sniffing my belongings and decided I don’t have bedbugs.

If you have never had them, you don’t know how this feels, but from the moment I saw the notice on my door saying that there would be a building-wide inspection for bedbugs, I felt frightened. No matter that I didn’t have the bites or the tell-tale flecks on my white sheets and pillowcases, my fear was deep, irrational, and overwhelming. It was not, as a gruff friend once said, a matter of “mai pen fucking-rai” or a big tempest in a coffee mug. It is quite simply “the horror.”

My introduction to bedbugs wasn’t a gradual one. I turned on the light in a Malaysian hotel room and found them all over my bed and on the floor. They had been on my body; that’s what made me turn on the light. The bites came later, popping out the next night, after I’d moved out of that room. There were over a hundred of them, and the itching was almost more than I could stand. The marks of the bites stayed with me, leaving dark freckles that still haven’t all faded away, four years afterward.

When I moved back to Seattle, I found the city was in the throes of a bedbug invasion. My landlord gave me a handout on what to do if I discovered I had them, but because they came to me, not in a horde but in a slow increase of population, I was in denial for four months.

During that time, I turned to the internet, read dreadful stories that I assured myself were not what was happening to me, bought lavender oil, peppermint oil, and Boraxo. Still the bites kept coming. When I showed my landlord my left arm, covered in bites, he said, “We’ll get the dog to come in.”

A month later, the bedbugs were gone. So was my bed and all of my bedding; I never felt comfortable in that apartment again. Three months later I moved to the place where I live now. The first thing I did was sprinkle my bedroom floor and my bed with generous helpings of diatomaceous earth. I would have used garlic and crucifixes if I had thought that would keep my home bedbug-free.

I used to buy clothing from Value Village, delighted with the cashmere sweaters I brought home for ten dollars—not anymore. Even from high-end thrift shops, anything I buy goes straight into a dryer on high heat for half an hour. Library books and used books go into my tiny freezer for three days before I read them. When I go to a hotel, the first thing I do is peel away the bedding and look for dark spots on the mattress. And I would never ever buy anything from Craigslist or a rummage sale. When I ride a bus or when I board a plane, I come very close to praying.

Bedbugs come with connotations of filth and negligence, which is one reason we don’t talk about them. A deeper reason is a lack of understanding; people who haven’t had them in their midst have no idea of the pervasive misery they bring. Anyone who has had them never again feels an unexpected touch without alarm as they begin to fall asleep. A whisper of hair, a random brush against a sheet when you don’t expect to feel one, even a twitch of a muscle carries fear. 

Imagine a roomful of mosquitoes that you can’t see and that come to bite you as you sleep, every hour of the night. Eventually you won’t be able to fall asleep. Exhaustion mixed with paranoia is not a state anybody wants to be in, but that’s where bedbugs take you.

In extreme cases, they take your belongings. I’ve read about people who have had to throw away treasured books and expensive electronic equipment. Bedbugs like the dark warmth of computers and television sets. 

As far as beds go, perhaps it’s possible to steam-kill any lurking vermin and bedding can be dried at high heat but I guarantee that bed, that comforter will never allow you a trouble-free sleep again.

And then there’s the mad variety of fear. Bedbugs are the closest we modern folk will ever come to Dracula. They feed on our blood when we’re peacefully unconscious. They come to us in the dark. They have a dreadful power; they can live for months without eating, and few things can kill them. Think about that as part of your life, every night.

Bedbugs carry no disease and only 30% of those people bitten by them have symptoms. The bites are an allergic reaction to the anesthetic saliva that bedbugs release so their victims won’t feel them at work. One man told me that he had no idea he had them until one night he saw one on his bed. I don’t know about you but for me that is undistilled horror.

I’m lucky to live in a place where inspections come annually and in response to cases that crop up during the year. Even more am I lucky that the dog found nothing that will make my life hell. Those of you who have gone through this will know what I mean. The rest of you, count your blessings and be careful.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Sunlight on Saltwater

As if in answer to my writing yesterday, a woman of 66 wrote in yesterday’s NYT that she saw her life as one that was fulfilled. Do I feel that way?

Fulfilled to me sounds completed and I don’t believe mine is. There’s always more that I want to do. But when I look back at what I have done, it’s not so trifling a life. Two children who are good adults, three books, time spent in four other countries, friends whom I value, and a prevailing love of my work—that’s a good span. If I died this minute, I’d be happy with that.

And still I always want more, the book that will gain a wide readership and recognition, the spot near the ocean that I’ve always longed for, seeing and tasting and hearing experiences I’ve never heard before. I want to learn what I can of other languages and to feel sunlight and snowfall and the mist that hits when I’m on a ferry. I’d love to go to Asia on a container vessel. I want to visit Serbia and Mexico and ride through Mongolia on horseback.

And then comes the impossible desire—I want to talk to my mother.

Ever since she died, I have known that my life is unbuffered. She stood between me and my mortality. Now that she’s gone, I’m the oldest in my family. I’m next.

Our relationship was flawed, critical and often withholding. We were more sisters than we were mother and daughter. Yet she was there, at the other end of a phone line, willing to hear a story or to give feedback, or to chat. When we were together in a room, we often found that we were engrossed in each other’s company. “From the way you were talking, I thought you were with a friend, not your mother,” a woman who saw us in a restaurant once told me.

We always wanted the other’s attention. And in my case at least, I almost always received it.

At first after her death, my mother’s favorite color stabbed me every time I saw clothing that was orange, and passing a shop that sold tea was always a jolt. Now, facing cataract surgery, I want her reassurance and her scoffs at my fear. I want her still to be alive for the most selfish of reasons—as long as she is on the earth, it’s not my turn yet.

And that, more than anything is probably the function of a mother as she and her children grow older. Her presence is a reassurance that they are still protected, in an intangible and completely unrealistic way, but that which is intangible and unreal is magic. When our mothers die, we lose that magic.

Fulfilled still sounds like an epitaph to me; I’m not yet ready for it. But when I apply that word to my mother, I think she would have said yes to it. Even in her dying, she shaped that state to her own code of behavior. Surrounded by books, she chose when to stop eating, drinking, and breathing. Certainly that’s a fulfilled end of life.

When I went to high school briefly in Puerto Rico, an assignment was to memorize one hundred lines of Julius Caesar. Of all those words, only tag ends stay with me, and most resonant is “Seeing that death, a necessary end, will come when it will come.” And when it does, I hope I can be like my mother, gracious, loving, and accepting.

Until then, I want my life, as much of it as I can hold, never completely fulfilled, always hoping for a little bit more.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

What Are You Looking At?

When I sit at my computer and cover my left eye, I can only dimly see the large print on my screen. The title of this post looks like the footprints of baby mice. When I cover my right eye, I can read everything that's written in front of me, including the very small print of the formatting options. I know I lean far to the left but this is ridiculous.

I look back at different rites of passage that marked stages of my life: my first cup of coffee, my first legal drink, my first baby. I've always been eager for that next stage--but not this one. My first cataract.

I know the surgery is blithely routine. I know many people who have had it done, and I know it's become much less irksome over the years. I make jokes about getting a bionic eye, but the truth is I am frightened.

It's not the surgery so much, although I don't have much faith in hospitals or the people who work in them. It's the beginning of physical deterioration that has me feeling scared. I love my life as it is; watching it shrink its borders isn't fun at all.

Although I know rationally that this surgery will expand my world, not contract it, there's a visceral reaction to my cataract that I'm having difficulty with. I can ignore my approaching birthday with its 66th year, but I can't ignore my failing vision and its cause. It's a physical change that is as portentous as losing my first tooth or getting my first bra. But this change is a different kind of growth, through loss; it's making me think of death.

I tell myself I'm not afraid of death, but I sure as hell am afraid of dying. I just read Atul Gawande's book, Being Mortal, and I know I need a lot more courage than I seem to have right now.

An essay in the Atlantic proclaimed a doctor's determination to begin dying at the age of 75, to refuse all medicines and procedures that prolong life when he reached that age. My mother maintained that her life was the way she liked it until she reached 80. One of my uncles said on his 30th birthday that now he was old, and he meant it.

I've already reached an age that many people whom I love didn't achieve. When I was 20, 60 was ancient. It's all relative until physical changes make us realize that no, 70 is not the new 50.

As I find that my body fails, what I ask for is grace, if not courage, to face fear with dignity. And perhaps the ability to be happy standing in place, since I've learned that yes I can run but I sure as hell cannot hide.

And I can look for signposts. Work is where I have gone in the past to make sense of difficult places, and when I think of what I'm working on now, I come up with a woman who slaps me upside the head. She was run over by an 18-wheel truck (or its Thai equivalent) when she was in her mid-30s; her pelvis was crushed and she lost a leg. She lived to be 62 and in those years she wrote scholarly books, got her PhD, raised a child, founded a museum, and went on archaeological expeditions. Oh--and she still rode a motorcycle. When I look at her, I know I'm whining. Thank goodness I'll have many opportunities to look at her and I know I'm lucky.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Losing the Light

As the days shorten here in Seattle, my relocation gene flares into full-blown life again. Light is a minimum daily requirement for me and without it, I begin to wither inside.

I've been looking online at rentals in Tucson, which is appealing not only because of its unflagging daylight, but because it's close to the border. I do love my border escapes and fantasies of going to Mexico through a drug tunnel kept me amused for quite a while.

Then a friend went to San Diego and posted a photo of the ocean there. When I went to Craigslist, the most enticing options were in Playas de Tijuana.

Apparently there is a trolley that runs between Tijuana and San Diego. People commute to work that way. I could use it for book shopping.

Why not bypass that border town option on the US side and head straight for the country that appeals to me?

It's memories of my move to Penang that is making me research this very, very diligently. I began to suffocate in a place that had been so visually appealing to me--even though there was light, heat, salt water, newsprint, and good food. Even though the Thai border was nearby, I felt as though I had to become comfortable in Penang before I left it. That never happened for me. I've never been quite so unhappy.

So I'm looking into this very slowly, deliberately, and carefully. If I do it, I need to get a functional grasp on Spanish. I need to think about personal safety. And I have to realize that although the Craigslist ads are appealing, I'm the kind of woman who's happier living in a local neighborhood near a wet market than in an expat enclave next to a beach.

However as the days grow darker and colder here, it's nice to have a daydream--and I know from experience that those fantasies can come true.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

The Two-faced Nature of Tourism and its Consequences

Anyone who grew up in Alaska is well aware of the antipathy felt by locals toward tourists--they come with their stupid questions and their condescending attitudes. They clog the highways and drive up prices for the summer. They bring their money and their complaints and their disregard for the year-round lives of the residents. Their sense of entitlement is damned near unbearable, as is the knowledge that their dollars give them an experience that few who live in the area will ever be able to afford. When they all leave as winter approaches, it feels as though a very tight girdle has been removed and everybody takes a deep breath.

But what happens in a country where tourists arrive 365 days a year, with the onslaught separated only by high season and low? Where the host culture and those of the visitors clash so severely that the country tries hard to give visitors a watered-down, pre-packaged contact point? Where etiquette is so much a part of tradition that tourists appear barbaric to local eyes?

In Thailand, sometimes the tourists are murdered. Or death comes under clouded circumstances.

This wouldn't be noteworthy if Thailand weren't so insistent that deaths in their country were nobody's business but theirs. And the first order of business is to cover the whole thing up so thoroughly that nobody will think twice about the death. The foreigner who leaps to his death from a top floor in Pattaya is such a timeworn cliche that it's become a bitter little joke. Less amusing and more obfuscated were the deaths of Chiang Mai tourists in one of that city's hotels. There were a number of them in 2010, all at different times and all of them with the same symptoms. Authorities claimed the deaths were from heart disease until two healthy young women died. Then the reasons for their inexplicable and fatal illness ranged from the misuse of recreational drugs to the consumption of bad Japanese seaweed. Foreign medical examiners determined that probable cause of death was from improper use of high-powered insect repellents, intended to kill bedbugs. Thai authorities ignored that implication of manslaughter--tourists don't like to think that death might lurk in their bedroom. And tourism, as ugly as it can be, keeps Thailand afloat.

Social media,as ugly as it can be, is breaking down the institution of cover-ups, as has been evidenced in the murder of two British tourists on the island of Koh Tao. Every facet of the police investigation has been revealed on twitter and facebook, and shown to be inept to the point of being a tragic farce. No arrests were made until most of the foreign journalists had left the island, but amateur whistleblowers were on the scene when two Burmese migrant workers confessed to the crime after five hours of interrogation by the local police.

The attention to this case has been humiliating to the Thai powers that be; even the Prime Minister has rallied to the defense of a dubious end to a bungled investigation. The burden of his remarks is that foreigners just can't understand the intricacies of Thailand. In other words, mind your own business and keep your noses where they belong.

Meanwhile the country's leading forensic expert has decried the methods used in the Koh Tao investigation and the 300-plus- page police report has been rejected by the local court system as being unclear. The two suspects have claimed their confessions were made under torture and human rights lawyers have come to their defense. This case is not a nine-days-wonder, thanks to the attention drawn to it by social media.

In 1998, pre-facebook and twitter, a Canadian girl was raped and murdered on the island of Koh Samet. A laborer working on the island was arrested immediately and was executed for the crime within a week or two of the death. Much was made of the fact that the dead girl had been drinking in the resort bar with friends and before bedtime had gone alone to the bathhouse to take a shower, clad only in a large towel. A charming little warning was handed to female incoming tourists at Don Muang Airport (yes this was the Dark Ages) saying that they had to dress appropriately while in Thailand or bad things would happen to them. The implication of course was those bad things would be their fault, much like the PM's pronouncement in this century that women in Thailand were only safe in bikinis if they were not beautiful.

Except for people who read the English-language Thai newspapers, and the people related to the dead Canadian, this crime went unnoticed. Even in the 20th century, that rush to execution was extraordinary. Now with what has come to light through social media, it seems suspicious--and very pragmatic. A life or two is easily sacrificed to sustain the economic necessity of Thai tourism.

Death to travelers happens in every corner of the world and so do cover-ups of the crimes. It's the blatant nature of cover-ups in Thailand and the lack of accountability that pervades the institutions of authority that is so incredibly horrible. The deaths of the two British travelers may change this state of affairs, just so long as social media keeps its gaze focused on the official proceedings.

Don't stop looking.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Pretty Plastic

When I first went to Bangkok, I was a leather snob—no petroleum byproducts for this American woman. I always brought at least two pairs of Easy Spirit heels with me along with sturdy Rockport sandals. My bag was from Coach. I looked at the array of plastic on the feet and over the shoulders of Thai women and felt pity for them. Frank Zappa's immortal lines, "Plastic shoes, plastic hat and you think you know where it's at," invariably came to mind. Then the rains came.

There’s something about wading down a flooded soi barefoot, shoes in hand, and watching dye leach from a handbag in a heavy downpour that would change anybody’s mind about plastic. When I found out that my feet fit into Thai shoes it was the end of leather for me in the Kingdom.

I once lived with a Thai man who was involved in the fashion business. When he was home, he could always be found in front of the TV, eyes on the Fashion Channel and hand rapidly sketching what was coming down the catwalk. As I watched with him, I began to learn that what was in Milan or Paris one week would appear in the cheap sidewalk markets of Bangkok in the next. My mode of shopping flipped—now I bought plastic in Bangkok to wear in the States.

Without exception, my Bangkok purchases were always ahead of the U.S. curve—thanks to those annoying intellectual property laws. One of my treasured memories was visiting a sweet little Seattle boutique where a man from Vietnam retooled vintage clothing for trendy tastes. I was there with a woman whose handbag was leather and expensive while I carried a small piece of plastic purchased for five dollars at a stall from Victory Monument.

Both my friend and I were surprised when the boutique owner demanded “Is your bag sharkskin? Where did you get it?” and he was looking at me. That’s what happens when you carry Bangkok plastic. It never fails.

I’m getting older and I’ve begun to think of having one or two things that I won’t have to replace every fifteen minutes. So on my latest trips to Thailand, I purchased two small, well-made, classic leather bags that will probably outlive me.

When I carry them, nobody notices them. They look like any department store purchase in this part of the world. But when I go out with my large mustard-colored plastic tote, or my little red envelope bag, or my big squishy turquoise hobo, people ask about them—and will right up to the day that they fall to bits.

Thai Plastic—long may it reign.