Gee needed to have things resolved. He was just not sure what those things were. One thing, above all, was that Gee would no longer need to cover up Al’s string of botched suicides. There would be no more efforts to deny there had been a noose in the bathroom when Al slipped and broke his arm, and then a month later to insist how poison was not the reason Al was on life support for these last ten days. Suicide is so implicating, imputing shame and suspicion. In and out of a coma, Al gave Gee time to inform his Facebook friends how hopeful and prayerful he was, and how a little money would come in handy with these mounting medical expenses.
Al had graciously endured long enough for “respiratory arrest” to appear on his death certificate. Gee was relieved by this, since it would not stand in the way of the life insurance he had taken out on him as “suicide” would have done.
For a few days Gee had fretted about the events of the past and wanted it to all be behind him. Al had gotten what he wanted. They both had, hadn’t they, escaped to freedom?
The funeral was designed to gloss over Algernon’s flaws as everybody knew them. Funerals do that. The priests had chanted away demons and enticed whatever angels could be called upon. An obscure comfort drifted around the departing mourners leaving the cemetery, having done their duty.
Gee turned his back on the smoking crematorium as if he were eluding a conflict. Old Algernon, after all, was the dead one of the two of them, even if he was not the only one being consumed by the events that were culminating in the transformative inferno.
A fleck of soot settled on Gee’s shoulder.
As Thailand gets wrapped in the euphoria of its popular holiday, Loy Kratong, the Thai Constitutional Supreme court hit us with a couple of vicious punches.
The first was a decision a few days ago that effectively elevated any public discussion of Thai royalty reform to the level of a criminal attempt to destroy the country. The second decision, handed down Thursday, declared that article 1448 of the current constitution is valid when it limits marriage to one male and one female. This delegitimizes any other forms of marriage and refuses to recognize sexual and gender diverse relationships. That brings to an end the efforts of LGBTIQA+ and human-rights groups to have article 1448 declared inconsistent with other articles which affirm equal rights to “everyone.”
“We are staggered but not knocked out,” was the reaction of activists and the alert part of the younger generation (below the age of 40, when they can begin to be taken seriously). It means that the Constitutional Supreme Court still steadfastly defends the elite and the status quo the royalist-military has set up.
So, with regard to marriage equality, efforts now turn to getting article 1448 changed. It’s not far-fetched. Key people in the government have promised to do that. It will depend on getting them back working on it and recruiting advocates who can neutralize enough of the opposition. It’s doable. Just remove the words “between a man and a woman.” It was always the strongest option.
Meanwhile, Loy Kratong is upon us. Fire crackers and hot air balloons take all our attention even if big parades and mass events have been cancelled by COVID.
Earth is our Father and rivers are our Mother. It turns out that most religions agree to some such concepts. The language may differ but the meaning is transferable. It happens that this Friday Thai people will pay homage to the Mother of Waters in the year’s biggest celebration, Loy Kratong. People will flock to rivers and estuaries to float mini-offerings in appreciation for the life-support that Mother/Rivers (and streams) provide. It is the season to remember our relationship with nature.
We live, as one Islamic spokesman reminded us, dependent on earth, as we are composed of it, live upon it in utter dependence, and return to it before long. A Hindu spokeswoman filled in the blank that it is trees that are the connecting link between heaven above from whence water comes, and earth below whereupon we exist as on an island. A Buddhist scripture reminded us that trees are shelters for birds, and a source of food for us.
The occasion in which we reminded ourselves of this unity we have with nature was an “Interreligious Tree Planting” event conducted November 15 by the Institute of Religion, Culture, and Peace of Payap University, Chiang Mai, Thailand. About 40 participants came to plant two trees: a fruit tree symbolic of the sustenance trees provide, and a shade tree that provides comfort and protection. Short scriptures and comments were made by representatives of Baha’i, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Sikhism, Christianity and members of the university’s student body and faculty.
Pictures accompanying this blog are from that event.
This is the 20th anniversary of the November 4, 2001 release of the film “Harry Potter and the Philosophers Stone.” That movie launched the fan-avalanche that just kept growing and growing for ten big years and eight blockbuster movies. At the same time, of course, the books were topping bestseller lists and making book history after the launch in 1997.
It looked like the phenomenon was unstoppable, somewhat like the La Palma volcano in the Spanish Canary Islands that just keeps gushing and overwhelming everything in its path.
One thing led to another for the Harry Potter franchise: books led to films which led to theme parks and on to “The Cursed Child” in London and on Broadway and then to a prequel movie series (maybe). It made people rich and got a generation of young readers hooked on books. It opened up fantasy children’s literature again, and broke the ice for scores of fantasy/sci-fi books and (if the books were successful enough) movies. The NY Times even had to subdivide its bestseller lists to include children and young adult fiction in a separate category because Harry dominated the lists so much of the decade.
As the anniversary parties are winding down there seems to be agreement that the furor is decidedly cooling from the 2011 peak. The list of signs and reasons for this are being talked about. They include:
· Nothing after Harry Potter vanquished Voldemort has caught the same level of attention.
· Theater productions and theme parks are expensive and attendance is limited, so they are not going to perpetuate the fan-base.
· The Fantastic Beasts / Grindelwald movies 1 and 2 were disappointing.
· J.K. Rowling’s subsequent writing has “filled in” the time between Harry and now, but fans have either moved on to other interests or stayed resolutely stuck with Harry. We’ve lost hope that Rowling can do it again for us.
· A lot of us don’t care if she tries or not because we don’t care for her after her diatribe about Trans-women, and her refusal to admit she cares what damage she’s inflicting. Even if she wrote something better than Hamlet we’d ignore it.
So, how’s Harry doing?
The books are still selling and the movies are generating viewers as they become available this way and that. Harry is fine. Harry’s a survivor – but we knew that.
Will the Harry Potter books become classics? The best definition of a classic book, as Charles Van Doren put it, is “one that stays in print.” On that score, so far – so good.
We Live Inside Our Stories
We exist in stories. We are storied. There is not a moment in our life that we do not have a story going in our heads. Stories are how we process what’s going on in our brains. These are exclusively inside each of us; it’s where they exist and nowhere else.
We learn to share stories. They are blended and overlap. Some of them are remembered, but others are imagined or are projections. This is how we live together, through agreements about our stories.
We are vulnerable in our story-telling and in the way we store our stories.
Stories are so much a part of what is going on in our life that we may not realize or believe how inclusive our narrative life is. “For humans, story is like gravity: an inescapable field of force that influences everything…” is how Jonathan Gottschall put it in “Creatures of Story” Psychology Today, posted May 9, 2012. Gottschall lists 10 ways stories saturate our lives:
1. Neverland. Children play at story by instinct.
2. Dreams. Dreams are “an innate form of storytelling.” Dreams are defined as “intense sensorimotor hallucinations with a narrative structure.”
3. Fantasies. Daydreaming is the waking mind’s default state.
4. Religion. Religions are made out of stories. “Sacred fiction has dominated our lives like nothing else.”
5. Song. “The most popular music tells stories about protagonists struggling to get what they want.”
6. Video games. “…may become the 21st Century’s dominant form of storytelling.”
7. TV commercials.
8. Conspiracy theories.
9. Non-Fiction. “…now most long form journalistic efforts strive for suspenseful, character-driven narratives.”
10. Life stories. “A life story is a ‘personal myth’ about who we are deep down – where we come from and how we got this way.” But our memories are constantly being distorted by our hopes and dreams. “…our life stories are always changing, evolving, being edited, rewritten, and embellished by an unreliable narrator.”
Stories are pervasive. We are constantly immersed in the unfolding narrative of our living. It is therefore unavoidable that almost all of our stories are fragments, and this is what may deceive us into believing we are not conjuring up images in sequence that are invested with uninvestigated meaning. We think a story must have a beginning, content, and an end. But some of our going-on is interrupted and thoughts are random. Continuity is rare.
Pareidolia is “the imagined perception of a pattern or meaning where it does not actually exist.” It is what happens when we see a shape in the clouds or create narratives out of inkblots. Shane Jones says that our brains “crave” a storytelling formula. I am convinced Jones is right when he says, “Storytelling is a community act that involves sharing knowledge and values. It’s one of the most unifying elements of mankind, central to human existence, taking place in every known culture in the world.” [Shane Jones, “The Psychology of Stories: The Storytelling Formula Our Brains Crave”]
Although I am sure we never have a thought, prayer, urge, feeling, or plan that is not an element of a story, and I believe that story-telling is our primary human activity, it makes us vulnerable. When we are toddlers carrying on a conversation with our kitty-cat or our imaginary friend (mine was “Mrs. Brown”), the story-making has a different quality than when we are several decades older and projecting emotions and relationships onto our cat. I cringe when I see a social media clip in which a doting mother coos that her dog and her new baby are “brothers”. “Wendy (born yesterday) just loves the blanket Grandma knitted.” Those cringe-worthy stories are innocent enough, and every cute-baby story has a host of people who swear appreciation. But there are limits to our story-sharing beyond which we should not go because they lead to destructive consequences.
As a community of human beings, beneficiaries and victims to factors that intrude into our storylines (things like COVID or ice and snow, for example), we not only internalize stories, we externalize them. We vocalize them, which creates a response, which coalesces an ethos that affects the shared story, which leads to action, which would be some form of “fight or flight” if the perceived future is a threat. On the other hand, if the shared story projects a future in which there is no threat, when danger is real, “scoffing and inaction” might be destructive. Critical thinking is the skill that helps us sort story elements into their proper categories.
This is where it could be helpful to remember that story-generation and story-telling is what we are doing. This is why I am writing this essay to narrate how I am thinking.
Jesus told the rich man to sell everything, give the proceeds to the poor, and become a follower of Jesus. That’s part of a collection of Christian stories, as I trust you all know. Is the story a recalling of a conversation between Jesus and that man, or is it actually just how a subsequent narrator told the story? Careful study might help us conclude how it matters whether it’s one or the other. What analytical or theological tools can help us, 2000 years later, to include the story in our own stories? Shall we call the story “law” and say it applies to us because we too are relatively wealthy, or is the story a metaphor with a spiritual meaning? I suggest that if we realize the same words never mean the same thing to any two people, or even to our self at any two times, we can find common sense that encourages us to ask of one another, “What does that story mean to you?” There’s hope for a community that asks that sincerely.
We are never as curious about anything as we are about each other’s stories.
Halloween is how “All Hallows Eve” is now pronounced. And, as with the term, the meaning and narrative for the day (and especially the night) have evolved. October 31 began to be Halloween in Europe when the Church imposed All Saints Day (November 1) and All Souls Day (November 2) on pagan days that were concerned with annual migrations of ghosts and demons, about which Europe was fixated. The Middle Ages specialized in fantasy narratives that coalesced their fear of death. Defeating the Devil and his evil minions was a theme in a wide variety of religious rituals and less-religious popular arts and entertainments. Major Christian festivals are preceded with a day or a season of preparation, hence, the evening before All Hallows (Saints). But the people could not be prevented from remembering what it had all once been about: witches and worse flying to cavort with Satan and his henchmen.
Halloween has now been domesticated for the most part. The Church did not come out right away to actively suppress the lighting of bonfires to divert the evil migration or the other attempts to placate the ghosts of largely anonymous ancestors. That came later. But it was a combination of the Enlightenment and natural psychological forces that transformed the year’s most frightful night into one of the most playful. People usually do away with that which terrifies them by laughing it away, as soon as they can. [I posted a more thorough blog about this in 2014: http://www.kendobson.asia/blog/ghosts ]
In Alton, Illinois (the last town in the USA in which I resided (1987-94) before returning to Thailand) the Halloween Parade was one of the town’s largest community events. It was all about dressing up, showing off, being proud, having fun, collecting memories, and all the things that community parades do. It was big. This year will be the 104th Halloween Parade in Alton, although the excitement is fading anyway as the town slowly declines. We’ll see what happens as America pretends COVID is over.
Ironically, it was another epidemic, the Black Plague that energized All Hallows Eve. Something had to be behind those repeated waves of death. They had to be personified in order to be handled. The persons who were targeted were witches and wizards. They were rounded up and killed by the thousands. The attempt was to wipe them out. It was ethnic cleansing, except that it lacked clear definitions of terms and was hysterically indiscriminate.
The difference between those times and now is obvious. COVID is no longer blamed on witches, but there is a prolonged effort to blame somebody. It depends on which conspiracy theory you buy. Witches, of course, are off the hook, for the most part. Witches are now in a safe section of our cultural literature, safe even for children, safe for theme parks. Witches are safe for Halloween trick-or-treating except you need to plan and regulate that now because, well, there are still “bad people out there”.
What did he say?!
“Soldiers [i.e. the military] cannot be under the control of a civilian government that has been elected by the people because we are soldiers of the King [of Thailand].” This quote was attributed to General Apirach Kojsompong during a special presentation entitled “Our Lucky Country during an Era of Security.”
What we are missing is a date for this comment, his audience (and therefore the context for his argument), and his duties at the time.
Taken at face value, however, the implications are that the General is rejecting any line of authority for the military that derives from an elected government rather than the hereditary monarch. No matter what the Thai Constitution says, the three branches of tahan (Army, Navy, Air Force, and probably the Police, which is also “military” in Thailand but tamruat rather than tahan) will not take orders from Parliament or …. Or even the Ministry of Defense? That would render the action of 1932 meaningless when a revolution led by the military replaced the Absolute Monarchy with a Constitutional Monarchy. It would limit the authority of the courts and the government, it would set the military over-against the people, and make the palace and military accountable to no one.
The General’s comments, however, were abbreviated in the meme that appeared a couple of days ago. It is agreed, in fact, that “according to the constitution, the king is head of the armed forces.” [source: Wikipedia, “Government of Thailand”] The model for this is the Westminster [UK] system. In that system the monarch is the titular head of everything, the authority to run the government rests with elected representatives with an advisory upper house of government and with the Prime Minister and cabinet ministers carrying out the government’s policy decisions.
The late King Bumibol Adulyadej repeatedly asserted that the monarch is “under the law” and “reigns at the will of the people.” His son, the present King, has succeeded in reasserting several royal controls. It appears that General Apirach takes the position that things have changed.
There are lots of possible ways to interpret the General’s statement. What is most obvious is that the General is saying that the military is a force for stability that helps offset the instability that comes to Thailand every time the armed forces back off from being in control.
Historically and presently, no matter what the General intended, the military has clung to power not only to defend the country but also to run the country. No matter who manages to slide into public view as the face of the government, the military is never far away. At this time Thailand has no foreign threats. Even the Islamic ongoing “insurrection” in the three southern provinces is a domestic matter. There is no need for a large standing army equipped with the most advanced and expensive airplanes and submarines. The armed forces are on hand to protect the elite from the people. But these purchases must serve another purpose. Protecting that unmentionable purpose is what the military is concerned about.
What if we just refuse to debate our gender on scientific terms? What if we just quit arguing about whether boys are boys and girls are girls? What if we say, “That is not the point. It’s irrelevant.”
In almost every other ordinary area of life we say, “You can be what you want to be.”
You want to be a senator or MP? Go for it.
You want to be an Australian? Emigrate and apply.
You want to be a humanitarian? Good for you!
So why are one’s gender presentation, sexual expression, and self-identity not a matter of choice if the technology is available and the need is sufficient? As to “need,” why does anything matter more than a person’s own self-understanding and integrity, if no one else is harmed, disadvantaged, or impacted in any real way? Integrity, by the way, is best defined as “consistency between feeling and action,” which is (thanks to Shakespeare) “a consummation devoutly to be sought.”
Think about it for a moment. All it would take for this whole nasty debate and this aspect of the culture war to go away is for us all to agree that you get to decide what clothes you wear, what cosmetics you use, what friends you love, and what surgery to undertake.
Oh, wait! You are already free to make those choices! (Unless you defy your assigned gender in doing so.)
Why is gender an issue? Is it important for the survival of the human species to have boys and men perform their biological function and girls and women to do likewise?
Congratulations! That has worked so well that population is booming. The fact that some have opted out and others have been prevented from contributing to species survival seems not to be one of the factors currently threatening humankind.
So if the human race is not at stake, the threat must be about something else … the social order.
That is surely closer to the heart of the matter about why boys must be boys and girls, girls. The idea is to make it clear who is what so that roles are not confused. We need protectors and nurturers or society is threatened. The trouble is that we have not ever, in all of human history, actually confined those two functions to specific specific sexes. We have undertaken them jointly. Sometimes, as it happens, we have inflated the roles. We have thought of protectors as military, and military as men (certain Amazon exceptions notwithstanding). Actually, that has gotten humanity into trouble when we over-extended, as when we moved from protection to aggression. As for nurturers, they are not only mothers, teachers and nurses. It is ludicrous to limit the nurturing role to women and to humiliate men who also nurture.
In no way is the stability of society threatened by people changing their function. Soldiers change back into civilians; it is built into the system. Civic magnates not only change the course of nations they sometimes change diapers when the need arises. Anybody can cook if they know how.
Almost never does gender actually matter to social stability.
The social ORDER, as it turns out, is more fragile.
Social order and how it is interpreted is a social construct. In order to be orderly, the idea is to keep things as they are. This serves those who benefit from the existing order. Ironically, it is impossible. Social order is an illusion, sustained because social change is gradual, most of the time. It is a description, at best, of a consensus that the way things are is fine. (Here’s where the irony shines most clearly) – Any effort to impose social order accelerates the move toward increasingly inflexible hierarchy which then becomes unsustainable and crumbles. Radical conservatism is self-contradictory.
There is a cycle between anarchy and tyranny, with prosperity being both the aspiration as well as the undoing of social order, which happens as prosperity gravitates into the control of fewer and fewer tyrants. Then the many revolt against the tyrants and the cycle passes through extreme disorder on the way back through a time of happy order on to tyranny.
The problem with gender fluidity is that it confronts those who have a vested interest in keeping things frozen as they are. They come face to face with the reality that nothing can be static that way. Reality is evolving.
The percentage of people in any generation who discover their transgender identities is small, far less than 10%. They do not threaten the social order, but they undermine the IDEA that the social order is impervious to change. Queer people disprove the idea that the social order is synonymous with the natural order. That is a notion that those at the social pinnacle do not want to admit.
Those whose elite social status and privileges are threatened by constant social change are also small in number, far less than 10%. Unlike the marginalized people on whom they actually depend, however, the elite are protected in their elevated bastions. They are not being victimized, as they claim. Being challenged and being victimized are not the same thing. The right of people to choose their private behavior and public appearance does not impact the elite in any conceivable way. Their adamant defense of binary sexuality is scapegoating a vulnerable social minority group. It is fallacious.
We can refuse to play their game if we want to.
It would be better to quit looking for some logical, scientific way to explain how we are gay in order to refute the argument that we cannot legitimately be so. We can make more progress by advocating our freedom to dress and think as we choose. We have the right to make the same sartorial, cosmetic, and surgical choices as others have. We want to have the same legal rights as others have, too. We can call efforts to stop us what they are: harassment, usurpation of our human rights, bullying, and disrespect – to begin with.
Learning to Live with It
It seems to me, from my armchair in this nook in the valley, that “we are learning to live with it.” “It” being states of affairs and being that we never hoped for. Here are a few of them that we are learning to live with:
· The COVID-19 pandemic cannot be defeated back to zero infections.
· Violent nationalism shows no signs of disappearing.
· China’s intrusions into the South China Sea will continue.
· Battles against gender diversity in Eastern Europe will ratchet up.
· Facebook (and others) will never relinquish profits over people.
· Post-modern ego-centeredness will ultimately take a revolution to eliminate.
· Carbon poisoning of the atmosphere cannot be stopped “in time.”
· International conglomerates are beyond control by anyone.
· Artificial Intelligence will achieve the ability to innovate.
· Our present extinction event is now irreversible.
Each of those states is a sub-topic. For example, we could substitute the word “viruses” for “COVID-19 pandemic” as we become aware of our impotence against the threat of them. Viruses are more adaptable than we are. With regard to the environmental crisis, we are becoming aware that it is within the power of nature to continue beyond the extinction of any or almost all of the larger species, and nature is working toward eliminating the threat we humans pose. It may take time but nature will eradicate us.
On the personal level, each of us is learning to live with our individual configurations of circumstances we never hoped for. COVID has confronted us with requirements to which we need to adjust. Information technology has changed the way we think, whether we think so or not. Products we need to sustain life are all dependent on outside sources. We are enslaved to a survival-system from which death is our only escape.
But we have one set of choices left.
Our attitude is still moderately free. We can pick and choose what to worry about, and what to do about some of our circumstances. We can plan for tomorrow.
There are limits to that freedom, of course. Our health, for instance, may now include allergies that did not exist before bio-chemical pollution was imposed on world agriculture. Some emotional conditions (clinical depression, for one) are not matters of free choice and may not be completely cured medically. Being born feminine in a misogynistic culture puts one at an incredible disadvantage. Discovering one’s self to be gay is no “picnic” and may even be tragic.
But we can choose to sink into despair or to move on. Sometimes that to which we are able to move might be as utterly trivial as deciding to move from one chair to another. A thousand times that move would amount to almost nothing, but once in a thousand times it might give one a glimpse at something that “makes all the difference.” Almost none of the junctures that changed our life direction were anticipated or even realized as important at the moment.
Moving on takes willpower, but only a little at first.
First we do something “first”. We make a phone call, or go out for pizza, or take a nap. But that leads to a new thing to be done. After a while we realize that in some tiny way we are on the way toward moving things around (within our corner of the world) to make something better. Movement toward hope then takes on increasing scale.
If we are a national leader we might announce, at the end of a longish string of movement, “It’s no longer feasible to strive for zero infections now that the Delta-strain of COVID has changed the conditions.” As the leader in New Zealand has decided a day or so ago, it’s time to do something differently.
Here where I am, vaccinations are again normal, the opposition has resigned, and we have moved on to wonder how many shots and what vaccines; that’s our purview. So we go for the jab. We’re out of our chair and moving on. But we do not know what the results are going to be.
Moving on is never into certainty.
It looks like progress is being made in Thailand against COVID-19 any way you figure it.
As of Sunday, September 26, there are 122,463 patients receiving treatment. The average per day for the first 5 days of the month was 159,528, and the average per day for September 22-26 was 126,367. That means that there are 33,161 fewer patients being treated than at the beginning of the month.
New cases are down from 15,161 per day September 1-5 compared to 12,307 lately, a reduction of 2854 new cases per day.
Vaccination surely is having an effect. As of Sunday 50,101,055 vaccinations have been administered. The Prime Minister’s office reports that 44.45% of the population has had first shots, 23.9% have had two shots, and booster shots are beginning. School-age children will begin receiving vaccinations very soon (maybe this coming week).
Friday, September 24 was Prince Mahidol Day, a national holiday in Thailand. The Prince was the father of the late King Bumiphol, and the grandfather of the present King. Prince Mahidol is heralded as “The Father of Modern Medicine and Public Health.” To mark the holiday a mass COVID vaccination campaign was held with a goal of 1 million doses. That target was exceeded. 1.44 million doses were dispensed. That number included 947,290 first doses, 320,864 second doses, and around 172 thousand booster (3rd) doses – Pramote was one who got a 3rd jab on that day (picture attached).
Despite some stumbles along the way, the Prime Minister says it looks like the country will be able to achieve its target of having 50 million (70+%) of the population (or of “targeted groups”) fully vaccinated by the end of the year. The government has “procured” 125 million doses to accomplish that. That has naturally encouraged talk of re-opening the borders to tourists and retirees. Grand plans are being announced in these regards.
Meanwhile, the vaccination rate in 5 tourist-target provinces, including Chiang Mai, has not been sufficient to permit open-doors to tourists on October 1. The new opening date is now November. Since the beginning of this major outbreak announcements of plans for getting businesses back to work have been followed by decisions to postpone whatever was planned. In a few cases the plans went forward and results were unfortunate.
Aside from the government, reports on how things have been going have come from two types of sources. Both have built-in biases. Commercial sources paint rosy pictures of excellent business opportunities and reports of promised start-ups. Individual articles about things like a new up-scale restaurant inside the re-purposed hull of an airplane tend to hide the fact that there are still no customers. The other source tries to sustain the view that the country is teetering on the brink of political chaos caused by the government’s failure to respond in any way to the pandemic – no help of consequence has come for countless survivors whose financial providers have died, vaccine is being shunted toward the affluent, and so forth.
It is undeniable that there is hardly any cushion if something goes wrong between now and New Year’s Day. The economy must begin to take off. People need jobs. Children need to get back into classrooms. The Prime Minister needs to be right.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.