Taoist mythology, Lanna history, mythology, the nature of time and other considered ramblings

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Location: Chiangrai, Chiangrai, Thailand

Author of many self-published books, including several about Thailand and Chiang Rai, Joel Barlow lived in Bangkok 1964-65, attending 6th grade with the International School of Bangkok's only Thai teacher. He first visited ChiangRai in 1988, and moved there in 1998.

Saturday, December 20, 2008


There’s a kind of behavior, and a kind of power, where to behave honorably is to conform to certain rules of cunning, courage and ferocity. Where honorable denotes, simply, the possession of superior strength and willingness to use force. Where to be 'honorable' is to be 'exceptional', 'worth your salt', and especially, 'overbearing'. Here, an honorable act is little more than a successful act of aggression - either in response to some perceived insult or to real provocation.
A high degree of heroism and virtue can be seen as embodied in a superior elite, or, to any brave man proud of valor, scorned danger, in people of no scruples, ready for anything. The key is ability to be a ‘real man,’ to follow a double moral system, with one set of norms applying among members of an ‘in’ group, and another, opposing set for relations with those outside it. In relations with fellow ‘real men’, tact and fine manners' are required, to be used with kinds of erudition, courtesy, kindness and verbal persuasion without compulsion. But in dealings with ‘lesser’ people and enemies, an opposite principle, of false kindness, false condescension and false courtesy applies: snares concealing death to unsuspecting trouble-makers, to the wicked or to the contemptible.
Despite formal hostility from most official authorities, these characters – be they criminals, politicians or entertainers – often enjoy popular esteem, even veneration. The courage needed to make these qualities count, and to not just defend one’s self and group against several (or even more) antagonists, but to take the offensive and put enemies to the slaughter, remains too often seen as admirable.
Power is often expressed in the respect and esteem in which certain people are held, and linked to the possession of particular qualities, and to the accomplishment of particular feats, deeds and actions. This is often, ’though hardly always, part of a cultural pattern whose central themes of self-assertion and honor attained through violence, is taken to be of paramount importance.
A brave man, someone who will put up with no provocation, can be seen as what every man needs to be, indeed must be to survive. Individual force and strength is the one and only means of settling conflict; any clash of interests or ideas presents a kind of quandary, a suggestion of attack, wherein-which it is found impossible to tolerate the superiority or (worse still) dominance of others.
Where this attitude dominates, competitions, challenges and fights are a fundamental means by which people are socialized. The distribution of power and prestige, even within a family, isn’t preordained, or patriarchal type, but established through conflict and testing. Relations within a family obey the rule, not of intimacy or solidarity, but of subordination, involving physically asserted superiority, obligations and values emphasizing prerogatives attached to each position within the hierarchy. Rule is seen as a chore that allows tending to no others.
The father-son relationship, for instance, isn’t based on an established, stable hierarchy derived from the parent's capacity, age and experience, but on ability to emerge victorious - through physical strength and/or cunning - in any competition. What matters most in the establishment of hierarchy is the predominance of the strongest. The strongest member of the domestic group might also be the oldest, or might be the most aggressive or wiliest. Family roles are thus fluid and temporary, subject to considerable tensions and reversals. In time, a son or even wife might grow sufficiently bold to challenge the father's primacy, struggle against it, and dethrone it. Competitive success is an end in itself, independent of the material advantages victory might bring, or even decision-making prerogatives.
It is, indeed, fine – and empowering - to conquer fear and overcome intimidation. It’s good to be strong, and capable; also to be rational, and truly self-controlled. It’s also healthy, and wise, to believe in something beyond he (very limited) self, and to accept life’s limitations. For in being civilized, there can be flowerings much grander than arrogance can supply. And to influence can be much better than to assert.


Monday, December 15, 2008

Ohh what a relief it is!

Bad behavior may or may not go unrewarded: with personal satisfaction, punishment, spiritual advancement through learning or maybe just gains or losses in esteem, but we certainly see a lot of it, and a lot of people condoning it in some places while quite ignoring the same thing in other places – often places closer to home.
Power has its corrupting influences, as does the anticipation of being able to get away with something, and life always has its tribulations.
George W. Bush, and his father too, will always act like they’ve done no wrong, can be touched by nothing, and were maybe even a God-send to civilization (or something), but I find it easy to believe that the Bush soon to lave office knows he is despised, and doesn’t like it. But that’s just tables turned: it’s been part of his character to enjoy belittling others, acting the irresponsible big-shot and daring consequences to follow. After all, that’s not just only the American way, but the way of nobility. Funny word, that – nobility, but maybe I’d best just let more comment on that slide.
Today the evil results of one man’s lying greed have been so severely curtailed that I must suspect he may soon be inclined to suicide. Taksin Chinnawat (Shinawatra – even the spelling of the name is misleading… ‘though, so also is that of Sade, the singer) has just had his influence in Thailand severely curtailed. Finally and for good, I suspect. He made a fortune using inside contacts to sell marked-up inferior merchandise to the police force he was an officer of – or so I’ve been led to believe; I certainly couldn’t prove it. But I clearly remember his promise to fix Bangkok’s traffic congestion (within 6 months, even) – and that he didn’t even lobby for a bridge over the Makassan train yards, to connect the busy southeast part of town to the airport highway. Nobody else did either, recognizing the awful bureaucratic roadblock which the State Railway Department has always been in Thailand, with no concern for anything beyond itself and the ease of its higher echelons. But when I mentioned the idea to a Japanese expert, hired to address some of the problems and help get the elevated mass transit and subway systems going, he quite agreed with me what a good thing that would be, and how impossible (though for no good reason).

The other big news of the day has been about articles in The Economist magazine disparaging to this country’s king – articles which resulted in that magazine being banned here, again. I was allowed to read the articles, and was shocked. Shocked! That old double standard was again so much in play. Doesn’t matter, that Western imperialism made for certain exigencies in Southeast Asia, or that not only has power-wielding always been imperfect, or that the monarch here has admitted to imperfections, and tried to do better, and actually done so, to the vast majority of the country’s populace’s satisfaction… but monarchy must be made to look obsolete if not vulgar – by people who support the tyranny of corporatocracy! Which most certainly is extremely vulgar.
Too often people need leaders and protectors – be they thugs or solons (another problematic term, for Solon was doubtless imperfect too). People way too often want their leaders to admit to no imperfections. Of late, “leaders” (or owners, as they may be) have made concerted study of how to manipulate and deceive more successfully. And thus gotten away with a whole lot. But, I must submit, it is the responsibility of the individual to become informed, to take care of personal matters of morals as of hygiene, and here, we the people have failed. But maybe good governance is making a return – now, if we can only achieve some corporate accountability… maybe then even Burma would be willing to interact more with the rest of the world.

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Saturday, December 13, 2008

Selfishness, self-protection and germs

Ever wonder at so many people declaiming, now that we have the internet, and so few really paying attention? Maybe it has to do with a clean slate to mess up.
At 55, for the first time, I am dealing with issues most people deal with most of their lives. But hey, I only noticed that maybe I was becoming an adult at 36 (I wasn’t really, not quite yet), but now I’m head of a family of 5, with a baby boy. And I’ve problems with my brothers over inheritance and family issues. Plus a couple guests at home, one of whom I don’t want.
My wife, a tribal person from a border area un-demarcated when she was young (and then controlled by opium warlords), didn’t know what a country was when we met. I thought that fantastic. And yes, she is fantastic – today she got great praise for her from the sister of my business partner when I had a beautiful store. The sister worked there for a while, and we became close. Went through a lot together, due to my house blowing up from a gas leak…
Well, I’d asked my friend Elizabeth to recommend a lawyer, as my older brother, executor of our mother’s estate, hasn’t communicated with me for most of the half year since her death, and not only demanded that I not communicate with him, but that I take all my things out of the house I’m one third owner of. But, as I wrote to Elizabeth today, I learned a lot about things when I lost so many from my house blowing up and burning down, and I’d changed my mind about a lawyer when my wife explained that I’d be ruining something potentially important for her and our son by bringing suit.
Now, I quite hardily believe that she could easily become more important to my brother than my brother to her, and quite soon, what with potential for rising seas, dramatically curtailed food supply, increased human angst and anger, and other problems we’re all reminded of occasionally. She can provide for herself – from nature.
And we’re practicing doing just that – raising food. Her mother has always kept chickens, and now we have over 60 here. There are raptor predator birds about, and many of the chickens prefer to sleep close to our house, by the front door, on the cement landing. They leave shit there (not to be crude – it’s what it is!).
And little Eugene sometimes tries to put that stuff in his mouth.
So, just now I was cleaning it up, scraping, sweeping, mopping… and thinking of a matter that’s been on my mind for days.
Bird flu, germs, and nature. When the shit’s on the cement, it seems more virulent than after I sweep it off onto dirt with plants. I’m confident that not only does it break down more quickly, but that the microbes, in competition with more of other life forms, cannot multiply as quickly or dangerously.
An interesting aside to this is that I usually keep a compost pile, and now that we have chickens, don’t really have one. The chickens eat it all!

Now, back to my wife, who has never read a book on her own (when I met her, she was illiterate, though able to talk in her native tongue, Chinese and the Thai we use together). As I comment in the “Community as Wealth” section of the “Rare Treasures” thing I posted (next one), her people “help each other, and are seldom desperate, nor in need of charity – from folk they don’t know, anyway (and from ones they do know, it’s another kind of thing entirely: more a kind of investment).”
Well, her best friend from childhood, heavily pregnant but husbandless, has been staying with us, and I don’t mind (‘though things got a bit exasperating when I used half an onion and tossed the chopped other half into a stew she was making – a devotee of Goddess of Mercy “Jao Mae” Kuan Im, she’s vegetarian and eats neither onions nor garlic, something I somehow fail to understand). And now a desperate friend of my teenage sister-in-law, who lives here with her 6-year old brother in a room now housing four, has come to stay a second time, and I just don’t want her here.
Not only is the house already crowded, but I don’t know her, don’t trust her, and don’t like her. This makes me feel small, petty like the way I see my older brother. I don’t want to be that way! But what my older brother says about me (that I do nothing for him – something I take exception to and would dispute if it were worth the bother) is how I feel about my new guest, and this really gives me reason to pause.
I remember when I was a teenager, feeling I had no place to go, with needs that could not be met, depressed because I simply didn’t know what to do. What I ended up doing was going to college – which this girl has no choice about.
I tell myself: I simply can’t help all who need help. I’ve already taken in three people I have no real responsibility for. But that’s not right. My brother-in-law (hard to think of the little boy as that, but it is so) wouldn’t be alive if it weren’t for me. He was born 3 months premature, and if I hadn’t decided to pay for his care, he would certainly have quickly died. Because I love my wife, and understand what’s important for her, I did what I felt right, and accepted some responsibility. Taking in her childhood friend is similar.
But then there’s self-protection. My baby son can’t take care of himself – when I’m done here I’ve got to clean up another mess he’s made. And I can only do so much, tolerate so much disruption to our lives, contribute so much to others. We must recognize our limitations.
Which, in my opinion, Americans no longer do, and germs on the cement-perched chicken-shit, too. Some germs, and viruses, kill their “hosts”! Not a great survival strategy, and maybe what people are doing to planet Earth (please forgive my harping). Sometimes we’re in competition, and recognize and deal with that, other times we assume too much, take too much, and end up getting brushed away.
Which is what I felt I had to say today.

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