Saturday, May 12, 2007

Bad Days

What do you do with bad days?  Bad days come and go.  These are days when cell phones are lost.  Medicine is forgotten.  A pub is wanted, but ended up in a club.  Not expecting a club, you’re dressed all wrong.  The flies, the gnats, the mosquitoes, the beggars wont leave you alone.  A favourite t-shirt gets a rip in it. You are overcharged, you overpay and are short-changed and you realized it only when it’s too late.  There’s a big pimple on your nose.  The cramps are so bad only pain and Advil exist.  On these days, people are yelled at, they taken advantage of, they are abused.  It seems like everyone is against you, despises you, thinks you a fool.  The prospect of romance no longer exists.  Too tired to think or eat or sleep, the bed is uncomfortable, it’s hot and it’s humid and there is no fan and sleep doesn’t come.  When sleep finally comes, the rooster starts his day.  You are the only one who believes in something.  You loose your job, your lover, your friends, your pet, your favourite something or other.  You can’t find a parking spot. You wet your pants.  You crap your pants.  You arrive at your front door hoping the neighbors don’t notice the funny way of walking.  Birthdays and anniversaries get forgotten.  Cakes burn.  A gypsy pickpockets a wallet.  Passwords are lost.  There is too much hair in the shower drain – it’s grey too young.  The boss is overly demanding and unsympathetic.  The computer runs too slow.  The computer stops working.  The computer can not be fixed.  The photographer is late.  Everyone notices the sweat-stained armpits during a presentation.  You find out what everyone knew, but no one told you until too late.  You are too young and can not wait to be older.  You are too old and wish you had not squandered your youth.  Batteries are dead.  A bad driver cuts slams into a new car.  You are assigned the middle seat between two oversized people on a very long flight.  The baby is colicky.  The kitten wants to play with your pantyhose.  The dog pooped on the rug.  You punish the dog and the cat and the kids and someone punishes you for being too harsh.  No one gives you a break.

What do you do with bad days?

It’s not easy when life seems to want only for you to have a bad day. The feeling of curling up and hiding overwhelms.  But curling up and hiding doesn’t work.  Lashing out at those around you only exasperates the badness you already feel.   Live easy and live fully. The life you are given is precious, do not waste in by not trying to prevail in one way or another.

How?  I call it emotional self-reliance.  It is a way to feel the sadness, the hurt, the desperation and to know that this too shall pass.  When we give up, when we abandon emotional self-reliance, nothing is changed.  The world will continue to do these things whether we hold on tight or we let go.  Have confidence that another good moment, another good day, another bad day, life, death and another cell phone to be lost will come your way – this is emotional self-reliance. 

Sorry, Mom, I lost my cell phone yesterday so I can not call you for Mother’s Day.  I love you even when I can not tell you - even when everyone is having a bad day.

Friday, May 11, 2007


It’s a slightly rainy morning in Vientiane, Laos. I love the rain. Rainy days are good for contemplating deeper thoughts. I think it is part our biological makeup. It was not that long ago in human history that a rainy day meant we could not work; we were forced into our homes to wait for milder weather. Before the modern standard took over, a rainy day was a contemplation day. It was forced leisure time for deeper thoughts.

Rainy days also make me think of the Cat in the Hat. Cat in the Hat is a children’s story first brought to the animated screen during my youth. The story is of 2 children stuck at home on a rainy day who are visited by a mischievous cat. I can’t remember what they are looking for in the story (I think it was ‘something to do’), but the phrase “The way to find a missing something is to find out where it's not.” has always stuck with me. Throughout my life, the Cat in the Hat technique has made finding missing car keys, glasses, books and so on much more fun.

Today, on this slightly rainy morning, I want to mix my yearning for deeper thoughts with the Cat in the Hat technique in order to discuss a little bit more about detachment. Let’s talk about what detachment is not.

Detachment is not numbness. It is not a matter of tying a tourniquet around all feeling. Detachment is not making one blind; averting your eyes from the love and hate and smiles and tears around you. Detachment is not plugging your ears, deafening the world around you. Detachment is not a state of delusion where we create our own palatable reality and deny our perceptions. Detachment is not a number of things. Detachment is about opening your eyes seeing. It is about opening your ears and listening. It is about opening your heart and feeling. It is about perceiving a situation and accepting it for what it is.

I spoke about detachment briefly in the Insight post. In that post, I said detachment is the “practice of removing our own emotional agenda from a situation”. Reading this statement, a person might think the “situation” is about someone else. Often the “situation” is about our self. The situation may be your own internal dialog, your own thoughts, your own ambitions. When practicing detachment, you must learn to listen and see and feel without running the input through your emotional filter – the filter that impregnates our impressions with prejudice, favoritism, fear, desire, expectations.

It will take many more rainy days to fully cover the subject of detachment. It takes years – sometimes lifetimes – to actually practice detachment. For now, the two first steps should be enough to get started.

- Dismiss your emotional agenda from the situation
- Experience life without flavoring it with your own preconceptions

And don't forget to enjoy the rain! Today I will be going to a rocket festival, where the Laos people shoot off rockets to beckon rain to quench their crops.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Pushing Buttons

Internet access, especially wireless access, in Laos can be the equivalent of getting a doctorate degree in patience.  I use free wireless at a place called Vista WiFi Café, so it is a little out of line to complain about the speed.  The arrangement works out well. During a leisurely breakfast (3 hours sometimes) and slowly check email, read blogs and catch up on the news.  When I have something large to upload or download, I head over to Joma Bakery on Settathirat and pay for a more acceptable speed.  If I am looking for true high-speed internet, I head for a regular internet café to catch up on beachwalks or zefrank or maybe a quick look at the best of utube.

There is one problem with the Joma Bakery segment of my connection technique.  It’s not really a problem, but yesterday it pushed the limits.  There is a man, named Akiki, who sits out front and plays his flute – he knows three notes.  Akiki is a very kind man who is afflicted with Downs Syndrome.  I’ve had experience with people with this syndrome before so, to me, Akiki is not the intrusion that others see him as.  He likes to play with my camera – some of his photos are not bad.  He also loves to play with my micro-recorder.  When I get home, I just delete the 40 minutes of him yelling hello and other incomprehensible things into the microphone.  It doesn’t really bother me.  Yesterday, we took it a bit too far.

I was trying to save some writing I had been doing and, wanting to participate in the fun, Akiki decided to “help” with my typing.  On the right hand side of my Toshiba Satellite laptop (purposefully inexpensive in case of theft), there are some buttons.  One of the buttons is the illuminated power button.  Do I need to specify which button was most attractive to Akiki?

As I mentioned, internet access in Laos comes at a premium.  Often, when I have a fast connection, I will load up a dozen or two web pages to read offline.  I had queued up about 20 pages from the US Department of State, United Nations, BBC, and other sites over the past few days.  I had also 3 scraps of writing – about 10 pages – open in MSWord.  Usually, my laptop is rather slow, but when the power button is pushed, it functions with terrific expediency.

I wanted to get mad.  I wanted to get very mad.  I had lost hours of work.  Akiki doesn’t speak a single word of English.  What could I do?  I used what Lao language I had mastered – which was a very short rant.  “Baw!!!  Sua!!!” – which means, I hope, “No!!!  Bad!!!”

This morning in the shower (I do a lot of thinking in the shower to forget about the cold water), I thought about the buttons on my laptop.  I think of them as a tool.  They are a vehicle which helps me to express my thoughts to others, to keep in touch, and to continue expanding my knowledge.  They are something that I take seriously… well, for the most part. For someone else, Akiki for example, the buttons are simply things to be pushed.  The result doesn’t seem to be as much fun as the pushing.  I tried to come to terms with this as I rinsed off the soap.  I felt I had cleared the issue.

After showering, I headed off to Vista WiFi to check my email.  When I opened my laptop, the machine was frozen, document recovery wasn’t working, and the internet access was abysmally slow.  My frustration with the cold shutdown yesterday returned.  Then I looked at my inbox.  An email from a good friend was waiting for me.  I knew from the subject line the content of the email.  The subject simply read “Brucey”.

I knew what the email would say.  Bruce has been fighting brain cancer for the past few years.  In fact, he discovered his illness only a week or two after I had met him.  Bruce passed away on April 29, 2007.  Bruce Banks was one of the nicest people you would every want to meet.  Bruce’s courage was remarkable.  His handling of his situation was, and still is, an inspiration to me.  The world is lucky to have met him.

Sitting at my laptop, no longer in any hurry to open my emails, eventually, the internet got a little quicker.  I opened the email, I read the obituary, I made a little prayer of thanks for the time I had to get to know him a little bit.  No longer did Akiki’s fun, at the expense of my time, seem important at all. 

Don’t worry if someone pushes your buttons.  There are worse things that can happen.  As I finish writing this, the pleasant couple next to me (they noticed I was crying), got up to leave.  The man said to me “have a nice day”.  I plan to do just that.

It is better
to say goodbye than to have never said hello.

Complete and Together


Abimael Guzman, founder of the Peruvian Shining Path rebel group quoted Karl Marx in his marriage proposal to Elena Iparraguirre this week, saying: "The relationship between a man and a woman is natural, discreet and necessary." Personally, I find the statement rather obvious, but this very deadly couple may be on to something. How do we justify the union between two people?

Many people when they are young seek marriage as a cure-all for their life’s ambition. They race into this union – or even the union of boyfriend/girlfriend – very quickly. They glance at appearance, a common network of friends and interests and before they know it, they’re “together”. It’s great, but there is something to be said for taking your time.

I had a lovely afternoon with two Laos girls this afternoon at Kung’s Lao Café in Vientiane. One runs a restaurant and is opening a cooking school, the other works as a Laos-English translator at one of the government offices. Naturally, we talked about relationships.

One of the girls had been with her boyfriend for a long time, but the relationship ended. He was young and could not stay true to his girlfriend. Eventually, the lack of trust drove them apart and she was heartbroken. She spent 3 months crying and drinking and missing the one she loved. How could it be that she could love someone and at the same time not want to be with him? Lack of trust will create a very strong impasse in any relationship.

She went on to say that since the breakup four years ago, she has not had a boyfriend, has not wanted a boyfriend. Instead, she is spending time getting to know herself. She is spending time with her mother. She is spending time getting to know many boys. By asking herself, what do I like about this person, what do I not like about that person, she is learning about herself – she is completing her self awareness.

Although her English is good, I thought it better to write my thought for her. This is what I wrote:

½ x ½ = ¼

If you are not complete, if you are half a person, and you are with another incomplete person, you will both be less by the union,’ I explained. Then I wrote again on the paper another formula:

1 x 1 = 1

I pointed to the second equation and said, ‘If you are a complete person, if you are one, and you are with another complete one, then together, you can be one.

This is good advice which too many people do not heed. Yet, there is one danger in following this advice. Being a complete person does not mean you are completed – it does not mean you have completed all growth, goals, perfections that lie before you. Being complete means that you can accept yourself fully which includes all your imperfections. Being complete means that you acknowledge you are a work in progress. Being complete means that you are strong enough to be happy on your own and strong enough to be happy with another work in progress.

I wish Presidente Gonzolo and Elena the best of luck. I can’t help but wonder what they will do during their 6 conjugal visits each year. I’m sure, whatever it is, it will be natural, discrete and necessary. I would like to think, as evil as they are, they have come to terms with themselves as complete people and they will embrace unity for all the joy it can bring.


Tuesday, May 08, 2007


I took a very long walk yesterday. I went out for a short walk which turned into an extremely long walk because I got very lost and it was very hot but I eventually found what I was looking for. How many times does that happen to you? How often do you want to do something, set out to do it, and it seems that everything in the universe is trying to stop you from achieving that goal? Sometimes, I think that when monumental obstacles confront you, it’s a good indicator that what you are seeking is worthwhile.

I used to regularly attend lectures from a very advanced teacher on the subject of mediation, Buddhism, siddhas and so forth. On a frequent basis we would attend lectures which would sometimes last until very late in the night. These lectures were some of the most shaping experiences of my life. I was not inclined to miss a single one, no matter how difficult it would be to attend.

On one particular evening, an evening which promised a very important lecture on a very important subject, I learned a lesson about perseverance. I had cleared my schedule for the event. I had rented a car to drive to the lecture. I had pressed my favourite shirt and put on my best suit, just to bring my best to this very important lecture. As we began driving to the lecture, it started to rain. I turned on the wipers.

The wipers on the rental car did not work. Human emotions didn’t respond well. We fought so dirty and nasty I have a mental block on the details of what happened. I do remember one detail, though. I remember my companion, completely enraged, saying these words: “If you want something bad enough, you can overcome any obstacle.” We got to the lecture; we were very late; the teacher was even later.

When we’re out there, in the world, doing our thing, striving for our goals, it’s very easy to become fatigued, irritable, demoralized, cortisol-infused disappointments to ourselves We see the obstacles as failures, we perceive the non-instant gratification as falling short of our goals. Our obstacles become annoyances instead of adventures.

If you want something, and it is truly worth pursuing, you can overcome any obstacle. If you can remember that, then all obstacles become goals on your way instead of annoyances in your way.

Monday, May 07, 2007


One thing I like about Southeast Asia is the ladyboy situation. No! Now, let’s not jump to conclusions here, folks. I’m not interested in ladyboys. Men who dress as women just don’t turn me on. I am also not interested in dressing in women’s clothing (although, one time a girlfriend had me put on her panties in bed and that was sort of nice, but I think it was because they were hers and I really liked that girl). Back to the story, what I like about the lady-boy situation here in Southeast Asia is the acceptance of it.

I don’t have any illusions that being a gay man who dresses like a woman is an easy task anywhere. It takes balls to do what they do. In a “mass hypnotic” setting, like a masquerade party or S&M dungeon, it’s probably kinky and fun and relieving and not all that threatening. But just out there with everyone else everyday, doing what you do, letting others do whatever they do, that must be hard.

Imagine yourself in your local pub, restaurant, or Starbucks pocket-emptying-facility. If a man in drag – and I mean a convincing man in drag, not a frat boy prank – if he walked into this place you’re imagining, do you think a single person would refrain from staring and commenting? Unless your local pub is a transvestite-friendly establishment, or frequented by tv-adjusted people, probably nearly every person would have something to say. I’m just imagining here.

Now switch to Southeast Asia. Sure, some people make comments about the ladyboys here, mostly foreigners. But, no one freaks out. No one concocts endless innuendo. No one seems to forget that they have their own issues to deal with first. (Maybe it’s not all as rosy as I paint it; I am still an outsider). It seems that people around here have clued in on the fact that life can be a pretty crappy experience if you adhere to everyone else’s rules and if you have found something to offset that crappiness, like dressing up in skirts, all the power to you.

So continuing with the thought of acceptance and ladyboys, here’s something that happened over the last few days. It has a few points on the subject, but it’s really just something to tickle your stream of consciousness.

My temporary “local” here in Vientiane is a bit of a brothel. It’s a fully legit bar catering to expat football fans, expat chronic drinkers, just visiting chronic drinkers and the occasional lost backpackers looking for a more dodgy experience. It has a lot of regulars. And it caters to the local prostitutes.

The other night, there was a falang, a foreigner, in drag. He was tall with long blond hair. He wore his hair down and stringy. He wore an un-padded black corset, a grey ankle-length skirt and silver flats. He had applied makeup like a child playing in her mother’s makeup closet. He was completely unconvincing in all manner. I understood what his deal was; I’ve seen it frequently in the western world. But it’s surprising to report, the locals were aghast!

One local I spoke to, claimed she had never seen a falang in drag before – they all agreed. She whispered very confidentially that she found him quite ugly. He also danced for a while and while not a bad dancer, he was a terrible ladyboy dancer. He danced like he had a … you know. My confidant, the Laos patrons, the expats, the staff, all stared wide-eyed and astonished. Eventually, she suggested we drop the subject, for fear that feelings might be hurt. How accepting is that!? That was a few nights ago, before the mud incident I’m trying to forget about.

Well, tonight at dinner, wouldn’t you know it, as I sipped a highly indulgent glass of red wine, she, as a he, passed by. She, the unconvincing cross-dresser from the other night. I was happy to see that he donned more appealing attire, t-shirt and jeans. Then, I noticed something queer. The girl walking along side of him (I had noticed her just yesterday in a café), was clearly his girlfriend. So far, nothing is strange. But upon a more detailed examination of this girl's features, I noticed she looks like a boy! She is small, has a masculine jaw line, cropped hair, is flat-chested, hip-less, and overall, she is attractive. She also dresses like a man. Imagine that.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Free from Perfection - at last!!!

I am so very happy to say there is not an 11th Buddhist Perfection!  Well, sort of… 

Here in Laos, they claim to have 30.  There is a stupa in Vientiane called Pha That Luang.  That Luang (tat loo-awng) is a very important icon in Laos and highly revered by the Laos people.  It is the symbol for Laos National Unity and Laos Buddhism.  In many sources, it is described as having 30 spires on the second tier representing the 30 Buddhist Perfections

Wait a minute!  Does that mean I am going to dribble on with twenty more perfection entries?  Fortunately, not.  Despite a multitude of sources claiming 30 perfections beginning with generosity and ending in equanimity, I have yet to find single source explaining what those extra 20 paramis might be.  So, I’m going to choose my battles.  I’m going to let the mystery of the twenty extra paramis at Pha That Luang remain unsolved. 

My personal theory is there are only 10 paramis but the stupa represents them three times.  Each set of ten has a different orientation - one set is for the body, another for the mind and the third group for the heart.  This is only my theory based entirely on a vivid imagination and my discomfort with loose ends.

During the course of the past ten days, I learned quite a few things by going through the paramis.  First, I was reminded of how I both love and detest structure.  Being told what I had to discuss each day brought out the rebellious teenager in me.  It also prevented me from claiming “writer’s block” aka laziness.  Having some form of structure, overall, helped motivate me and keep me on track.

A second thing I noticed during the ten days was my absolute fear of spiritual self-righteousness.  It is something I am quite adverse to in others and I keep a diligent watch on myself for this.  Going through each paramis, mulling it over in my head, wondering how I would write about it without sounding pompous or self-righteous had a way of grounding me, keeping me humble. 

The third piece relates to a popular Zen saying:

Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. 

After enlightenment, chop wood carry water.


Over the past ten days, I have thought of this saying several times.  To me, it means that no matter how beginner, intermediate or advanced I may be (or think I am), it is important to always remember the basics.  The paramis are something I knew about and studied years ago, but I have never sat down and written about them for ten days straight.  I think it was very good exercise for me; it encouraged me to chop wood and carry water.

Lastly, was something that came to me last night.  After dinner, my friend and I were walking down the road.  I was walking beside her.  She was riding her bicycle, her purse casually dropped in the basket on the handle bars.  Out of no where, some kids on a motorbike rode up along side, and snatched her purse.  Once I realized these were real thieves and not some friends kidding around, I took off after them.  I came close, within a few centimeters.  My outstretched hand, just barely within reach, I lunged after them when I heard the engine rev.  The motorbike was gone, the purse was gone, and I was face down in a vast ocean of mud.

From head to toe, I was covered in the red clay of Setthathirat road.  I must have been quite a sight – as muddy as this country is, it is not often someone takes a face plant in the stuff.  Naturally, we drew a crowd.  The police were there.  The shopkeepers were there.  The local residents were there.  The tuk tuk drivers were there.  Everyone was there, except the little snots that took a poor girl’s purse.

What does this have to do with the paramis?  Well, it means that some people are paying attention, and other people are not.  The two kids on the motorbike, they have foregone the principles in exchange of thrill and greed.  Had I got my hands around his neck, I wonder, would I have abandoned my own principles and beat him to a bloody pulp?  I probably would have – although I am a relatively peaceful person, when I am crossed I tend to break many bones very quickly before I come to my senses.  (the last time was in the 1980’s)

I think it was good that I did not catch them.  The boy would have been in serious pain.  I would have felt terrible for extracting that pain on him.  I also would have had to spend a good deal of time in the police station, covered in mud.  Instead, the purse is gone.  The paramis need to be studied more.  There are some very upset ancestors looking down at their kids and fuming at their improper conduct.  In the end, with some more iodine and bandages my physical wounds will heal.  My acceptance of the circumstance needs no bandage, only a smile.