Somebody Give Me the Words

I like to think of myself as a writer. Words have always come easily. Often, it seems I couldn’t stop them even if I wanted to.

But today I have no words. Today, I must ask if someone, anyone, can give me the words. Help me.

How do I find the words?

How do I find the words to comfort the next parent of a child they sent off to school and had to pick up at the Medical Examiner’s office?

How do I find the words to comfort a seventeen-year-old girl whose biggest concern one moment was the color of her shirt and the next moment seeing her best friend’s blood staining the once perfect color?

How do I explain to a group of high-school seniors that their most memorable moment in school will be their terror at the sound of weapons firing, people screaming, and the coppery smell of blood and death?

How do I find the words to explain to the world how great America is when we let our children die for a concept no longer grounded in reality?

How do I find the words to make people understand our unwillingness to seek a solution to the violence that plagues this nation?

How do I find the words?

The truth is there are no words, no prayers, no political slogans, no constitutional arguments that will do this.

So, we have a choice.

We can either find the will to seek a solution or accept the reality it will happen, again and again and again, until we become so numb to the horror we no longer notice.

Then our lack of words, like our inertia in finding a solution, will say it all.

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Proms, Prayers, and Prey: The Lion and the Antelope

A photograph of a group of high school students praying before their prom dinner sparked an angry debate on social media. The image was posted by Oakland journalist Frank Somerville after one of the youngsters’ mothers sent it to him as a counterpoint to all the tide pod eating, condom snorting stories about today’s youth.

He shared it in good humor and said it was ‘really nice’ to see young people behaving that way in public.

‘It says a lot about young people these days,’ he wrote.

prayAnd the politically correct wolves of Facebook pounced. Taking issue with such an image of prayer.

“Saying grace over your food says nothing of your moral compass, integrity or character … Behaving well at a restaurant while in your late teens, and being considerate to people, should not be Facebook praise worthy.”

“I see well behaved people doing terrible things, misbehaved people who just take care of someone in need. Being a Christian doesn’t mean they are well behaved.”

“My guess is their opinions on gay marriage, interracial families, equal rights, and other things we hold dear might not thrill you.”

*(note I did not adjust the grammar of the quotes, just left them as is)

Who knew that appearances on Facebook are praise-worthy?

Where to begin?

First, let it be clear I am the last person in the world to defend the efficacy of prayer. But the tone of the criticism says more about the fundamentally disingenuous nature of the critics than about what the photograph represents.

Every generation has its Tide pod eaters. There were fads for eating live goldfish (PETA members will faint at the thought), stuffing people into phone booths (a what?), Panty raids (can you imagine?), and myriad other juvenile idiocies concocted by young minds. The difference is they were not live-cast for all the world.

The fads of the “good ‘ole days” were not all so much better, they just had less publicity.

Those who take issue with an opinion contrary to their own without respecting the other’s rights to their own beliefs demonstrate themselves to be self-contradicting fools.

Many religious organizations, Christian, Islam, and others, doctrinally oppose gay marriage. Some probably cringe at “mixed” marriages (Catholics and Protestants, Jews and Gentiles, Red Sox and Yankee fans.)

Some offer compassionate tolerance, others outright hostility. So what? They can hold any belief they like. They can insist on it within the tenets of their faith. They can lobby against it in the public forum as an exercise of their first amendment. They just cannot impose it on others.

Those who take issue with the nature of this photograph as not representing the youth of today show their bigotry and intolerance. It’s a simple image of a moment in time, not a declaration of generational superiority.

Let me be clear about one thing, I see no efficacy or value in prayer other than as a means of aiding contemplation. I do not think it harmful unless it is the sole choice of actions to deal with a problem, then it can be downright deadly. Nobody prays for God’s protection, then drives through a red light.

At least not more than once.

Here is how I think of prayer.

In the savannahs of Africa, a giant herd of antelope gathers at a watering hole. The elder antelope leads the group in a prayer before drinking the water. “Oh, Father Antelope. Protect us from the lion and those who would harm us.”

Meanwhile, on a hill overlooking the watering hole, Simba leads a pride of lions in prayer. “Oh Father Lion, let us be swift in the chase to catch the antelope and feed us all.”

Simba then sends the female lions off to the hunt. Hey, this is nature, not political correctness.

The lions pounce on the herd, chasing several down and killing them. They return to the lion den, let Simba eat his fill, divide the leftovers, and life is good.

Meanwhile, the surviving antelope look to the elder. “Why did God not answer our prayer?”

“It’s the mystery of faith. Now thank God he protected you.”

Next day, the same scenario. The lions pounce on the herd, but all the antelope escape. The female lions return to the den.

“Simba, why did God not answer our prayer?”

“It’s the mystery of faith. Now be quiet so I can sleep and rest for tomorrow’s prayer.”

Prayer, the self-fulfilling prophecy whenever it works.

As to the kids in the picture, they all seem like sweet kids. Perhaps they will never make the news for eating tide pods or snorting condoms. Perhaps they will grow into productive adults. Perhaps one got knocked up that night. Perhaps one will turn out to be a serial killer.

Who knows?

Let us pray.

 

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Southeast Asia Thoughts: Saigon, Cu Chi Tunnels, and the Reminders of War

Saigon, Vietnam, 2018

Since 1975 and the reunification of the country, the official name of Saigon is Ho Chi Minh city. For the locals, they use this as a way of separating the natives from those who came later.

If you refer to the city as Ho Chi Minh city, you are not native. As one travels through the country, the distinct cultural differences from the Mekong Delta to Hoi An to Hue and north are subtle but evident. The majority of the Vietnamese still have an intimate connection to the land and a self-sustaining lifestyle. From the fish traps on the Mekong to the rice paddies, much of their food is grown or caught.

What they don’t use, they sell. Every city, town, or small village has a night market. There are few grocery type stores, their food is bought daily if they cannot grow or catch what they need.

One has to stand in the middle of night market to appreciate it. The ones in the bigger cities are a spectacle. Try to imagine an open-air market, in some cases several city blocks wide, with every manner of familiar and unfamiliar vegetable, live and soon-not-to-be-live fowl, flopping fish, flying fish scales, rising and falling meat cleavers, displaced pig’s snouts, or feet, or some once functioning organ, roiling pots of soup, set to the soundtrack of animated negotiations over price and quality. All permeated with an aroma of coppery blood saturated with garlic and fish sauce, orchids and jasmine, sweat and motorcycle exhaust.  The walkways are slick with a mixture of melted ice, blood, oil, and who knows what else that makes dodging the motorbikes, who cruise through like an armored version of a pedestrian, a challenge.

And that’s just the food area. There are vendors selling everything. All of it genuine fakes with the occasional real thing that “fell off the truck.”

In the bigger cities, a more cosmopolitan world is taking hold. Foreign investment–Chinese, Japanese and South Korean-is altering Vietnamese society with fewer and fewer of the next generation following in their ancestors’ footsteps into the fields.

There is a price to pay for this capitalism within a Socialist government. Those who benefit most from the economic boom are the police, military, and government officials.; their hands out in exchange for favorable access to land, security, and business development.

The local traffic cops stake out prime areas for enforcing traffic using the “pay-on-the-spot” fine collection method. I use the term “traffic enforcement” as a joke, no one follows traffic laws so if you are stopped they consider it a nuisance road toll, pay the fine, and speed off. Usually the wrong way at a rotary.

The more “successful” cops are rewarded with prime posts to enhance their ability to “pay-it-forward” to the commanders.

Socialism indeed.

Corruption is rampant. As we drive by the more ostentatious houses, we are cautiously told the official positions of the owners. The socialist government imposes effective, albeit subtle, control over the general population. Much of their life, from required registration of cell phones with the owner’s picture on file to blocked sites on the internet, is controlled by the government.

The Vietnamese are circumspect in their criticism of officials, but they get the point across. Those in the south, below the old demilitarized zone (DMZ) have more experience with a free capitalist economy, and many openly express their wish that the Americans had never left.

For most, they are free to live their lives as they like while toeing the official line in the public view.

One of the most profoundly striking aspects of Viet Nam (despite our penchant for writing Vietnam, Viet Nam is the proper name) is the attitude toward the “American War.” Now I am not talking about the official government position but that of the everyday Vietnamese.

They take great pride in the reunification of the country. The Vietnamese see Ho Chi Minh as a national hero is the same light as we view Washington, Franklin, and Jefferson. The declaration of independence made by Ho Chi Minh on September 2, 1945, is modeled on our own of 1776.

Yet they harbor no ill-feelings over our time there. There are differences, of course, between the north and south. In the south, they would have preferred us to stick to the original commitment made after World War II and let the Vietnamese determine their own course. In the north, they are a bit less embracing of the newly evolved capitalism driven by tourism and outside investment but see their victory in the south as their manifest destiny.

To the Vietnamese, we are their British.

We tried to prevent self-determination, and they fought to win it. But in this predominantly Buddhist country, the people do not cling to the past. The war is over, and now we can live and let live.

There is another difference between the north, near Hanoi, and the south, near Saigon, that underscores the benefit of an “open” society.

In Hanoi, the streets are dark and dank. People gather in sidewalks, alleyways, and various other locations to cook and eat meals. We think it is a combination of limited space and the heat inside their apartments.  The long-term effect of communism in the north contrasts dramatically with the more vibrant Saigon and the south.

Cu Chi tunnels and the American War

We had the opportunity to tour the Cu Chi tunnels. To say it was troubling is an understatement.

We were warned that the story is told from the perspective of the Viet Cong and their victory over the South. During our visit, a busload of former Viet Cong and NVA military veterans visited the area. A Vietnamese version of the honor flight.

It was difficult to hear the recounting of valor in battle where the soldiers were awarded medals called American Killer Heroes. But such is the fact that victors write history. While the point is often made that the North Vietnamese Army or the Viet Cong never defeated American forces on the battlefield, as a North Vietnamese army officer once said, “that is true and it is also irrelevant.”

Displayed was the shell of a US Army M-48 tank. All of the salvageable pieces were stripped away. Some of the tourists chose to climb on for a picture op. I declined. While I can understand the point of view of those Vietnamese who fought here and destroyed that tank, I chose to honor the memory of the young Americans who likely died there.

It is this failure to recall the horrors and cost of war that drives us to repeat this mistake over and over.

For many Americans, the mention of Vietnam invokes memories of war and the protests against it. Body bags, casualty lists, draft dodgers, and war heroes. The loyalties of the shattered bodies in a body bag or on a battlefield are as irrelevant as who won. 

The dead neither celebrate victory nor rest in defeat. Often the worst casualties of war are those who survive.

War is always the consequences of human frailties. No matter how we justify the need to end it with force, the start of it is always a failure of reason.

There is little nobility on a casualty-strewn battlefield. Severed limbs and shortened lives are not the best of humanity.

One cannot measure past decisions with the standards of the present, but you can use them to illustrate why we failed. And, more importantly, how we need learn from it.

The way to convince young men and women to kill the enemy-often other young men and women themselves-is to dehumanize them.

Turn them into demons and devils beneath human considerations.

To name them gooks, slopes, and chinks.

These are the faces of a gook

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An 88-year-old woman, once the secretary to a military commander during the war, she rides her bike a mile each day to care for a centuries-old temple

 

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Combat is a mutual experience where each side demonizes the enemy and tries to kill them. Ideologies are irrelevant to bullets and bombs, and heroes are defined by the victors. It’s easy to kill an epithet, hard to kill a smiling boy named Nguyen, or John, or Le, or Joe.

What I have taken away from all these travels in Southeast Asia is that our misplaced focus on surface differences deters us from seeking commonality. Sitting in a restaurant in Saigon, Bangkok, Siem Reap, Hue, or Hanoi, looking out at the street, it appeared like many of the cities and towns of America as long as you focused on the shared human activity; taking kids to school, carrying home groceries, sipping beer with friends, kids playing in a park. If all you see are differences, you’ve missed the opportunity to see yourself in those very same people.

We are shaped by the geography of our birth yet still share the commonality of our humanity.

Our time in Viet Nam was a lost opportunity. Not caused by those who fought there, but by intolerance, hatred, and insensitivity of those there and in the US whose actions sent us on a collision course.

If anything, we should learn we don’t need to send B-52s or machine guns to free a people. Send tourists with fistfuls of dollars. Let countries and people make their own choices, then wave the flag of the entrepreneur.

Victory is certain.

Until you stand in the Viet Nam of  2018 you can never see how deep the tragedy of the Viet Nam of 1964-1975 really was.

Go there, you will not regret it.

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Southeast Asia Thoughts: Laos

Flying from Chiang Mai, Thailand to Luang Prabang, Laos on a ATR-72 (70 passenger plane) is a bit different than the typical American domestic flight.While the aircraft was modern and airworthy, trying to understand the announcements (even the English version) was a challenge.  

On a positive note, the unidentifiable baloney-like sandwich with mayo (I think) was delicious.  At least I thought so.

Driving from the airport, built by the Chinese to accommodate their workers building a railway bridge over the Mekong river,  one is thrust into a different albeit similar culture to Thailand.  Laos is less developed, having suffered greatly during the American War in Vietnam, not to mention previous and subsequent wars with neighboring countries. The primary source of income is agriculture, rice and corn, and fishing the Mekong for the giant catfish (200 kilos.)

The resort we stayed at was lovely.  Laos has not yet fully embraced tourism, but the signs are there. Our resort was a pleasant change from the crowds and noise of Chiang Mai. One of the highlights for me was the scalding cold shower. After spending sufficient time, you leaned the rhythm to the water temperature. Pleasantly warm, scalding, freezing, scalding, and back to pleasant, repeated at various intervals.  I pictured two frazzled Lao workers on the roof fervently pouring alternating barrels of hot and cold water into pipe as someone called up the number of people taking showers.

But if that is the worst of what we dealt with in Laos, it is better than what most Lao people bear in their life.

Laos is a communist country, now officially known as LPDR the Lao Peoples Democratic Republic, run by an “elected” government from the single party, coincidently known as the LPDR. Formerly a monarchy, the Lao heir to the throne of the disposed King disappeared into one of the Communist re-education camps along the Mekong, known as the Lao Hanoi Hilton after the infamous original in Hanoi during the war. Until not that long ago, it still was a camp. Now it is a sign of better things to come as it serves as a tourist attraction.

The locals, while acknowledging the official name of the country and ruling party, say it stands for  Lao People Don’t Rush. 

And indeed they do not. Not only do they not rush, they seem oblivious to things like oncoming traffic or pedestrians. 

The roads are crowded with scooters and motorcycles often ridden by two, three, or more people. It is not uncommon to see what is likely an entire family, including infants, riding a single 50 cc scooter.  They dodge in and out of traffic, mostly ignored by the car and truck drivers.   

One of the highlights was a side trip we organized to Kuang Si Park.  In the park there is the most beautiful waterfall and a sanctuary center for the moon bear; an endangered species hunted and imprisoned for of all things, bear bile. One consistent thing among endangered species is they are usually endangered to satisfy the self-centered aphrodisiac fantasies and failings of the human male.  For this I wish to offer my apologies on behalf of the rational males of my species.

Like the Thai, the Lao are a friendly, smiling people. Curious but polite, their Buddhist heritage ingrained in their deference to others. 

Without further adieu, I give you Laos.

Lao Mountains

 

Snake whiskey still

 

Water buffalo on the Mekong

 

Notice the contrast of old and new. A Chanting Buddhist Monk next to a scannable code for information

 

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Southeast Asia Thoughts: Thailand

Ten days in and our stay in Thailand comes to an end.  From Bangkok we traveled north through Ayutthaya, Sukhothai, Chiang Rai, and Chiang Mai.   Each of these cities contain the rich, Buddhist dominated, history that was once the Kingdom of Siam. It is not the country of Anna and the King of Siam.  While based on a true story, the Hollywood version, like most movies, is far from the truth.

That is not to say Hollywood hasn’t had any influence here.  The movie, Bridge on the River Kwai, actually caused the change of the pronounciation of the river.  Known locally as river Kwai, pronounced KWAY, they changed the name to accommodate the tourist influx after the movie release, since everyone wanted to see the River Kwai.  It is indeed a small world.

One of the most interesting parts was our crossing the border into Myanmar, aka Burma. Once you cross the border under the watchful, but unobtrusive , local Myanmar authorities you are in a vastly poorer country than one can imagine. And yet, the people smiled, waved, tried to be circumspect in not staring at for what many of them was their first view of the strange westerners. Visiting such a place where, for less than the price of a cup of coffee from Starbucks, one could sustain a family for a day puts the fortunes of being born in America in perspective.

Living in a country where the borders are there to control entry is an entirely different life than living a country where the government works to keep the people in. The Myanmar government even set the local time to 1/2 hour earlier than the time in Thailand, just to make a point of who runs the show. The people of Myanmar, when they can, cross into Thailand to get basics for survival. It is an eye-opening experience.

Now we are on our last night in Chiang Mai. We are here in the midst of the old Thai New Year and the Water Festival. The streets are lined with both Thai and tourists, armed with the world’s largest collection of squirt guns (or buckets if needed), dousing everyone with water as a symbol of good luck. Tourists are their favorite target, all in the spirits of fun.

Even the cops wear body length rain covers; no one is exempt.

If I had to sum up the country of Thailand in one word, relax. The Thai, while going about the daily business of life, have learned to relax and enjoy their life.

We could learn something from that.

Here are some images of Thailand, I won’t bore you with descriptions of each one since they speak for themselves.

Suwadee khrap (Hello/Goodbye/How are you. You hear this, and they all bow with the hands pressed together, all day everywhere.)

 

On to Laos

 

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Southeast Asia Thoughts: Bangkok, Thailand

Bangkok, the capital, is known by the locals as Krungthep. They claim it translates to City of Angels, I think it translates into “permanent traffic jam.” A 5 mile ride takes an hour, mostly jammed in with other cars intermixed with occasional short bursts of reckless speed. 

If driving were an Olympic sport, drivers from Bangkok would be banned for life. Motorbike drivers would be considered assassins. They make Boston rush hour drivers look like a 3 year-old on their first tricycle. Every road has six lanes, some marked, some just assumed by the driver’s mood at that moment.  

They may run all in the same direction, sometimes divided with little logic into opposite directions, or used as one sees an opportunity to gain ground toward their destination. Motorbikes do not follow rules. They seek their own path, weaving in and out of traffic, sometimes alongside of you , sometimes on either side in both directions. Sometimes using sidewalks and marketplaces as shortcuts.

Pedestrians are legal targets. Not only do they not have the right of way, they’re considered a nuisance, like a pothole, avoided if possible, run over when necessary.  Yielding to anything-oncoming traffic, ambulances, cops, or red lights-is a sign of weakness.

Bangkok is a huge city, 10 million people. They all seem to go to work at the same time. Our first day we wandered around on the sky train and subway (at rush hour which is an experience in itself) ending up a a huge open air market. Everything from vegetables, to freshly cut meat, to live fish and chickens waiting to die (which they do right in front of you assisted by cleaver-wielding Thai market vendors.) 

It was so interesting we went back for more pictures.

All in all an interesting experience.

Now on to Ayutthaya, the old Thai (Siam) capital and world heritage site 90 kilometers north on our Thailand tour.Next.jpg

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The Simultaneity of Now

I’ve always been struck by the fact that every moment of every day the sun is both rising and setting simultaneously. Every moment is a beginning and an ending. An Alpha and Omega of the simultaneity of time. Traveling skews our perception of the absolute nature of time, making it relative.

Einstein said “the difference between the past, present, and future is a persistently stubborn illusion.”  It is not easy to wrap our linear brain around it.

In the world of intercontinental travel and time zones, we departed later than planned for the trip to Southeast Asia. Such are the pleasures of travel.

Sitting here in a pressurized metal tube at 33000 feet over the earth while traveling 500 miles per hour, the simultaneous nature of life is even more evident. We’ve flown almost due north out of Boston, crossing over Canada, the Arctic Ocean, Greenland, and grazed the edges of the Polar Ice Cap. Since I’ve never seen it from this perspective it’s hard to say if it is shrinking, but it is magnificent, blindingly white.

We got on a plane in Boston on Tuesday, April 3rd at 8:00 a.m., traveled for 22 hours and will arrive in Bangkok (have arrived hopefully when you read this since I can’t post from up here at the moment) at 4:10 p.m. on April 4th. In those same hours, it will be 5:10 a.m on April 4th for you there on the east coast of the United States.  Somewhere along the way we will have gained 11 hours time difference or lost 11 hours depending on your point of view.

We will be 11 hours in your future. 

So with time on my hands to think, my mind, always a mix of random thoughts ricocheting from the sublime to the outrageous, compels me toward contemplating what now means.

On this planet, at this very moment, right now…

The sun is both rising and setting

It is both day and night

A life is beginning and ending

Now is yesterday’s future and tomorrow’s past

When I am standing in the lobby of the hotel in Bangkok most of you will still be asleep (although some of my highschool friends may be on one of their nightly trips to the bathroom, old kidneys and prostrate problems trouble the old bastards.) Yet we will all be in the same moment, now. The clock on the wall will be different for each of us, yet we share now.

Now is a more difficult concept than you might think.   

So for now I think I will look out the window at a part of the world I’ve never seen, yet have always suspected existed, and enjoy the moment.

P.S. To borrow and twist a line from Bill Bryson’s book about Australia, A Sunburned Country.  Bangkok is a supremely satisfying word to say. 

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