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Next week, I’m set to help the locals dig up an ancient Chinese cemetery.  Or something along those lines.  I know there will be digging and clearing and probably some metaphysical protocols observed, at least beforehand.  I know there will be graveyard nightmares to follow.  Hopefully, the cool horror-movie kind.  I know there will be good food and an entire community coming together to do this work for free, just because it needs to be done.  I know I’ll discover the rest when I get there.  For most people, an adventure like this would fall on the peculiar side of disturbing.  For Hakalau, it’s just a day in the life.

Two days after the election, I arrived in the dark.  A deserted local airport after a layover in Honolulu, the only souls around dressed all in white to administer my second Covid test of the journey, the new welcome ritual.  They drifted through the enormous empty terminal meant to hold multiple tour groups and one of them stuck a six-inch Q-tip up my nose.  30 minutes later, I was pronounced negative.  I could have told them that ahead of time and saved them the trouble.  I’m usually pretty negative.  Then: straight down a long, lonely highway and into the forest.

I’ve been staying in the village for a week and a half.  I feel like I’ve fallen off the world and landed someplace better, but not someplace normal—if by “normal” you mean the venomous meltdown of 2020 election America.  And thank goodness for that.  This village is old.  It’s in a jungle.  But that doesn’t quite describe it.  It doesn’t feel like America.  The houses are aged but well cared for with creaky floors and screened-in windows that haven’t been closed in 50 years.  Bright green geckos abound.  Beetles crawl the ceilings in the middle of the night.  Spiders bigger than your thumb.  Chirping coal-gray coqui frogs until dawn. 

During the day, you’ll catch the scent of jasmine and you’ll decide to quit buying so much food.  It’s too humid to overeat and oranges, papaya, limes, and breadfruit dip down over the paths like a constant parade of gifts.  You’ll immediately realize that all you’re missing is tea.  And there happens to be a lot of that around as well.  Now and then, you might make an extraordinary effort to get some rice.

Tea and incense.  Rice and ulu.  At 3:00 AM, I wake in order to write fiction at a rickety wooden table in the corner of my enormous empty living room.  Enormous for me.  Perhaps less so for the wealthy tourists who sometimes rent the place to get away from it all—not realizing that you can’t just stay in Hakalau for a week and say you’ve been there.  It’s like learning “French for travelers.”  All you remember a month after your visit to Paris is oui and Où sont les serviettes?  There’s an ageless feeling here, some kind of eddy in time, and it defies easy answers.

How I came to this place and where I’m going next, whether it’s back to Kyoto or Northern Thailand, has to do with my other life as a writing instructor and communications specialist.  And I’m still a fiction writer.  I look in the mirror and still see my tired fiction-writing face, the writerly gray coming in over my ears, but now there’s something else.  I spend time looking at the old hand-carved statue of a Buddhist monk by the door.  He’s holding a begging bowl.  His eyes are half-closed and he’s smiling gently, aware that everything is in its proper place.  Maybe that’s it.

At ten-after-five, I walk across the road in the dark to practice an hour of Rinzai zazen in the village zendo.  Later, I’ll walk down a series of abandoned flower-strewn trails and condemned bridges to an inlet of broken rocks and stare at the ocean.  And I always have the same thought: if this is all I do between now and the day I die, which could be in the next ten minutes or in the next 30 years, I’ll go with a smile.  I don’t need to get into paradise.  Just let me stay in Hakalau.

impressions

A travel-blog post on my first impressions of Wales.  Read it here: https://bkk-writing.blogspot.com/2019/08/impressions-of-wales.html

Read it here: https://www.splicetoday.com/writing/attacked-on-the-street

PDX in the afternoon and everyone is miserable. Suitcase slightly too heavy equals the most exorbitant bag fee I’ve ever paid in a fever of desperation. I could have bought a second suitcase, should have. In the security line, a teen starts shouting that he’s not going to remove his shoes and is detained while 200 people watch. 45 minutes later, the scanner finds a sword-shaped metal object hidden down the back of my shirt. There is nothing down the back of my shirt. I am patted down.

“What’s back there?” asks a bullet-headed TSA officer with a nervous tick in his left eye.

“Nothing.”

“Are you sure about that?” He looks me over, twitches, does the hand-held metal detector. It beeps when he passes it over my back. I can still hear the boy shouting in some far-off security area.

I am asked to step behind a partition. I remove my button-down. I am patted down a second time. My T-shirt is tested for explosive residue. My shoulder bag is tested for explosive residue. My shoes are examined with a TSA dentist’s mirror-flashlight, then tested for explosive residue. I am asked multiple times where I am going and my answers are checked against passport, boarding card, secret TSA spreadsheets. This is not the first time this has happened.

I tell him I think there’s probably someone with my name and physical details on some kind of list.

“Oh really?” He taps that into his tablet PC and gives me a long sour look. “You’re free to go.”

 

Layover at SFO. 45-minute security theater, but I have time. It passes smoothly, no screaming, no detentions, no squeaks from the machinery. I deposit my last freelancing check at an ATM, change the money into Euros, hating myself for doing it like that but feeling like I should have some cash in my pocket. Then I look at my boarding pass. It says, “THIS IS NOT A BOARDING PASS.” I go to the gate, but there’s no one at the gate. At information, I’m told that this particular airline won’t issue a boarding pass at the gate for this flight and that I have to go back to passenger check-in to talk to a representative. I’ve never heard of this, but things are always changing when it comes to air travel. So I consider my options.

Since my 20s, I’ve had a knee problem that can act up in a very painful way. Today, I’m walking with a limp and every step is agony. But I’m a veteran traveler and I’m not going to call for the senior citizen golf cart. Plus, time is now getting short. A crowd of anxious Irish have already started queuing up for the flight to Dublin. So fuck it. Perfer et obdura, dolor hic tibi proderit olim. Back to check-in I go.

By the time I get there, I am perspiring heavily. The pain in my knee feels hot, dull, and serrated all at once. The girl in the green polyester blazer gives me, then my passport, the same level stare. “It’s a good thing you came up here,” she says. “Your bag might have not gone through.”

My bag? What did my bag have to do with it? Ah, I think, it must be because I’m flying with two different airlines, United and then Aer Fuckery. The latter must not like the former. Airlines are like angry steroidal pumas that need to be constantly stroked and placated or your valise winds up in Somalia.

I smile. But because no one smiled at her since she was a child, just developing her deep hatred for all life, she is immune to smiles.

“I have a knee problem and I’m wondering if there’s any way, since we’re doing this, you can put me on the aisle. It’s a 10 hour-flight.”

She gives me the stare again, hands me the boarding passes, then unleashes the puma: “You were already on the aisle. But I wouldn’t have changed your seat. We never change seats. You couldn’t have gotten a seat change from me. Oh no. We don’t do that. So you shouldn’t ask that at check-in.”

“Really? Never?” I think Aer Fuckery must fly in a different universe than the rest of us.

“Never. And I’d advise you to get to security if you want to make your flight.” She said all of it with maximum leaden distaste: look at this bum asking for a better seat.

Back to security theater, the line is three times longer than before and people seem three times as anxious. When I get through, I have to run-limp back to the gate. The extras from Titanic have already started boarding, replete with bowler hats, a miasma of farts and liquor, and multiple jokes being told at all times in multiple directions. I love the Irish. And Irish air travelers love a gimp willing to run through an airport. A few people cheer for me when I show up coughing and sweating.

“You did the foot race.” The enormous red-faced man in front of me in line smiles, sways, and extends his hand. We shake. Yeah. The foot race. Grand.

There are no more problems getting going. And, though I now stink and have started wincing with every step, I’m ready to settle in with Excedrin, my book, and a good 10 hours of intercontinental semi-consciousness and dread. I actually love the physical sensation of takeoff and landing, and I’m not afraid to fly. But put me in any poorly lit area for that long and I start thinking about my life, which is never ever advisable. As soon as the harsh self-critical life performance review begins, I usually start the in-flight movie fest. Pull blanket up to chin. Shut off brain. Sweet novocaine for the soul. Unfortunately, I’ve been flying so much this year that the only films available I haven’t seen are Marley & Me, The Boss Baby, and The Fast and the Furious.

I wonder whether I should just drink my way across the Atlantic. But Aer Fuckery charges for their alcohol and the stubborn angry Welsh hillbilly in me feels that the booze should at least be cheaper and more abundant if not better. Moreover, I will not give AF any more of my money after all the fun I had back in SFO. This is the dark side of assimilation, kids. I noticed the Americans on the flight had already opened their wallets and fired up the Vin Diesel. I’ve lived in the UK too long to appreciate an $8 can of Budweiser.

Could it get worse? Well, the plane didn’t crash. No one freaked out. And I had space. So I can’t complain about the basics. I did have some issues with the complimentary key lime pie (fellow travelers allergic to the chemicals used in UK and Irish dairy products take note) and spent a good part of the night in line for the toilet reminding myself that at least there was a toilet. Think about it. Small graces. Simple truths. Yes, indeed.

The connecting flight from Dublin to Paris was also uneventful and sedate. Of course, AF lost my suitcase (“Your bag might have not gone through.” Uh huh). And then, on the delirious train ride in, some girl wanted to talk to me about Donald Trump. Really, universe? After all this, you offer me a Trump conversation before I even get to Denfert Rochereau?

Well, so be it. I’m here. I’m back. I have new income possibilities. I can eat the cheese. I feel a certain rationality returning that was conspicuously absent during my recent visit to the States. I feel a new chapter of my story beginning. Meanwhile, my suitcase is either winging its way to me over the dark waters or is destined to be a gift for someone in Mogadishu. But words are still here and my knee is already on the mend. Who knows what’s next? Only time, as they say, will tell.

Bangkok

Bangkok as seen from the Siam BTS platform.

Moving to Bangkok has been very formative thus far. Among other things, this city has challenged me to enter states of discomfort linguistically, energetically, intestinally, sometimes interpersonally. But this has not been a bad thing. I think it has been the kind of discomfort necessary for growth. As I approach six months in Thailand, I can say without a doubt that I have evolved. My sense of who I am as a social being has changed; the way I envision my future has changed; and the way I contextualize experience has changed radically.

In fact, I’ve been spending so much time absorbing this culture, trying to grasp its surfaces and my relation to them as an outsider, I haven’t had much time or space to work on anything beyond the most essential concerns: my teaching, my fiction writing, my day-to-day wellness. Everything may be constantly changing, constantly in flux no matter where we are, but the speed of change in Bangkok, the sheer pace of life, could be legitimately described as overwhelming.

I’ve had to allow for a certain adjustment period. And I’m lucky in that I work with a fascinating group of English teachers who seem to include a high degree of cultural adaptability as part of their professional skill set. So I’m in good company. I live in a very friendly hybridized intellectual space, which has helped.

But still, the sense of space in Bangkok, its division and reunification, the way it gets compartmentalized (and sometimes abruptly disrecognized) remains mysterious. Human space, psychological space, seems pressurized here in ways I never experienced in the West. The psychogeography of the city—the points where concepts and bodies overtly intersect—is always a matter of relativity, of negotiation, sometimes of extreme tension.

So I don’t have the civic narrative down yet. I’m still learning how this place is unfolding. Every city is a story being told from multiple points of view at once. And this one—the concrete, frenetic, crowded, brilliant, astonishing Bangkok in which I live—remains enigmatic, at least for me.

English: A view over Yosemite off California S...

Sitting in a big empty house in the foothills of Yosemite has certain advantages, not the least of which is the profoundly encompassing silence.  Here you can think of, speak, or listen to anything and it will fill up the room like a new reality.  Sure, during the day, I can sometimes hear a donkey braying in the distance.  But he shuts up at night.  Smart donkey.  The coyotes are always lurking.

After a writing gig in East Africa; wandering around the lake district of Brussels in a bacterial stupor; teaching English in a graduate school for interpreters; publishing two more stories; teaching multiple writing workshops online; acting in an Estonian commercial; finishing my second book; and spending a fascinating, intense week in England, I’m back in California to regroup.  I’m assessing the state of my union while getting the next set of trips, projects, and writings lined up.  In terms of fiction, I’m working almost exclusively on the novel.

Yes, that novel, the novel that’s too mean to die.  I’m determined to get this one finished and in the mail before this time next year.  And NanoWriMo has nothing to do with it.

Where will I go next?  There are a number of possibilities—back to Europe, out to Asia, even to various locations in the States.  Maybe all of the above.  The good news—at least for me (maybe for you, too?)—is that I will be getting back to regular blogging here.  I also hope to add video to these posts as soon as my Handycam replacement cables come in the mail.  So get ready.

In the near future, I will be writing about the horror that obtains at a regional writer’s conference and The Human Simulacra Project.  I’ll also be talking, at some point. about the 3-student intensive writing workshops I’ve been teaching for the past two years since I plan to start offering these through this blog.

More to come.

Michael

Welcome . . .

I write fiction and nonfiction for magazines, work as a freelance writer / editor / journalist, and teach composition and fiction writing.

This blog is mostly dedicated to writing about politics and media, travel essays, creative non-fiction, discussions about books, the MFA experience, publishing, and work I’ve already placed in magazines. But I might write anything.

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To educate is to seek meaning in everything. It is to teach others to seek the meaning of things. This means mixing the dreams of children and young people with the experience of adults and the elderly. This exchange must always take place, or else there can be no humanity because there would be no roots, no history, no promise, no growth, and no prophecy.

— Pope Francis, 5 June 20

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— Vladimir Bukovsky

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If you’re going to try, go all the way. Otherwise, don’t even start. This could mean losing girlfriends, wives, relatives and maybe even your mind. It could mean not eating for three or four days. It could mean freezing on a park bench. It could mean jail. It could mean derision. It could mean mockery—isolation. Isolation is the gift. All the others are a test of your endurance, of how much you really want to do it. And, you’ll do it, despite rejection and the worst odds. And it will be better than anything else you can imagine. If you’re going to try, go all the way. There is no other feeling like that. You will be alone with the gods, and the nights will flame with fire. You will ride life straight to perfect laughter. It’s the only good fight there is.

― Charles Bukowski, Factotum

La lecture est un acte d’identification, les sentiments exprimés sont déjà en nous. Autrement, le livre nous tombe des mains.

— Madeleine Chapsal