Sunday, October 11, 2015

Trisdee's Subtitle Controversy

I feel impelled to comment on Trisdee na Patalung’s little subtitling fracas. This tempest in a teapot erupted this morning and is causing people all over the spectrum to make comments. I think the controversy itself is a silly one; but it illuminates a much bigger issue which I would like to address and that is the state of English language teaching and proficiency in Thailand.

History: Trisdee and his friend Tom emerged from a showing of The Martian, and were discussing how dreadful the Thai subtitles were. This discussion blew up into an internet flame war, because the translator of these subtitles turns out to have been one of the most highly respected subtitlers in the field, having done this kind of work for years and being responsible for the subtitles of many of the top Hollywood pictures shown in Thailand. Trisdee pointed out one or two egregious errors and this lady responded with an astonishing level of vehemence and self-righteousness, driving nail after nail into her own coffin and revealing over and over again the depth of her ignorance of the subtleties of the English language.

So let’s start with the basic problem: Thai subtitles, generally speaking, are abysmal. One sees elementary errors all the time. They have not improved in the many decades in which I’ve happened to watch movies in this country. The kind of errors Trisdee pointed out are commonplace.

This all goes back to the way that English is taught in Thailand, and the fact that almost all those in teaching positions are not really fluent, but can quickly rise to the level of being perceived as “experts.” Although almost everyone one runs into here has some knowledge of English, one almost never encounters a genuine command of the subtleties of idiom, let alone of nuance, implication, irony, or humor.

One of the few people I know who actually does know English in a truly native way is Trisdee. The reason that he is this way is that he grew up in my home, which is an English-speaking household. He has been exposed to colloquial English in many varieties both British and American, and has always taken the trouble to ask me to explain complexities, weird etymologies, and aspects of language not apparent on the surface. 

The examples Trisdee gave in his exegesis were all extremely obvious mistakes that any native speaker would immediately notice, yet this translator flew into an insecure rage at the notion that she might not actually be quite as knowledgable about colloquial contemporary English as she is perceived.

Even if every word in a film script were to be translated literally and correctly into Thai, the audience would miss more than half of the content of those words, because language is not a series of equivalences, but a living thing. But correct translation would be a really good start, and it’s not really happening. If, as she herself seems to maintain, this particular translator is one of the most highly-regarded in the field, one hesitates to think about what the worst examples of the genre might be.

This lady may think that because Trisdee doesn’t have a degree in English or whatever, that he is not qualified to critique her translation. But of course, his ability to make these sorts of comments is in itself prima facie evidence of his qualifications.
I, of course, do have a degree in English, and I’ve published almost sixty books in English and have received a great deal of critical praise for my use of English. But more apropos is the fact that two of my novels are cited in the Oxford Dictionary of Idiom as source texts for correct idiomatic usage and one of my books has been an A Level text in the past. Therefore, if I tell her that Trisdee’s criticisms of her incorrect translations are spot on, I really don’t think she can dismiss me in the same way.

For example, it was evident from her protestations about the word “booster” (“I’ll spell it any way I like”) that the problem is not how it is spelled in Thai but that she simply didn’t realize that it comes from the word “boost”, not the word “boots”. 

In every case, her overblown rantings seemed to be about “How dare you have the chutzpah to attack a great one such as myself” and never about, “That might have been a mistake, I’ll take another look.”

Thailand is entering a period in which the use of English is going to become a major passport to advancement on a social, cultural and business level. Thailand’s decades of insularity are ending very quickly. This means that there are going to be a lot of “Emperor has no clothes”-type revelations, and — given the near godlike status afforded to those believed to be experts — a lot of those “experts” are going to be shaken to the core, especially by young people like Trisdee who actually do know a thing or two.

I think that no matter how old or experienced you think you are, it’s never too late to go back to school. I have learned a lot from all of my students, and others my age should do the same.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

On Brundibar

Why Opera Siam is producing “Brundibar”

A few years ago, I casually mentioned the Second World War to one of my young students and I suddenly realized that he didn’t know anything about it.  He didn’t know that Thailand entered the war on the side of the Axis and certainly didn’t know of the brilliant subterfuge by which this country avoided being severely penalized at the end of the war.  He didn’t really know who Hitler was, and he had certainly never heard of the Holocaust.

From that time on, I had occasion to ask more than a couple of dozen young people what they knew about WWII, and discovered that my experience was not an aberration.  

Recently, the use of Hitler as a comedy icon by Thai students has stirred much anger in the international community, but that anger has mostly elicited bewilderment in the offenders.  They simply really don’t know about it.

This is why I realized we must produce this opera, Brundibar, composed for children by a brilliant Czech composer who was imprisoned in the Terezin “ghetto” — and performed over fifty times by the children of that camp.  An opera that was filmed by the Nazis and shown in the propaganda film The Führer grants the Jews a City, to give the world the impression that millions of Jews were not being put to death in the most monstrous machinery of genocide ever conceived.  An opera from which, after its usefulness to the Nazis had been served, the entire cast, crew, orchestra, and the composer and the director were subsequently shipped off to be gassed in Auschwitz.  

Brundibar  is a fairy tale about two children who need milk to save their sick mother.  They try to raise money by singing in the village, but their music is drowned out by the monotonous and hypnotic drone of an organ grinder, a mustachioed villain named Brundibar.

With the help of the animals and children in the village, Pepicek and Anninka manage to break the organ grinder’s spell, and their beautiful song moves the villagers who finally chip in to help their mother.

It’s a feel-good story about good and evil, but it is much more than that.  When you read the script, it is perfectly obvious that Brundibar is Hitler.  When the whole village sings in triumph about defeating the dictator and overcoming his venality, and about how love of family and country trump tyranny, we have to realize they were defying the Nazis right in front of their very noses, using the only weapons they had: words and music.

One survivor said in an interview, “We didn’t know whether it was because the Nazis couldn’t understand Czech, or whether it was simply that they knew they were going to kill us anyway, and didn’t care.”

In Munich last year, Trisdee and I met Greta Klingsberg, an 85-year-old woman who had played Anninka in Terezin, been subsequently sent to Auschwitz and managed to survive until liberation.  I asked her whether she had any message for the children in Thailand who are about to play Brundibar, and she said, “Enjoy the music!  And enjoy what you are doing.”  And later she said as well, “It is so important that Hans Krása’s music should live on.”

And this music is sheer genius: quickly reorchestrated for the available resources in a concentration camp that happened to contain some of the best musicians in the region, it is a score dripping with sweetness and irony, its melodies inspired by Czech folk music with a generous helping of Yiddishkeit.

In this production of Brundibar, I wanted to clearly show the irony that this work, so full of beauty and innocence, was being performed in the Terezin camp by those who, in the eyes of their captors, were already dead.  

This is why I’ve anchored the fable of picturesque villages and talking animals within a reality that the children who first performed this opera were about to experience.  I’ve set an iconic concentration camp gateway right in the faces of the audience, in order to set up a zone of discomfort so we are forced to think about the work in its historical context.  I’ve created a subdued, grey world in which splashes of color - like the yellow stars or Brundibar’s bright red barrel organ - are jarring and disorienting.
We are also prefacing the opera with a mini-concert of music and poetry - all composed and performed originally at the Terezin camp.  It includes poems written by the children which are almost unbearable in their intensity.  

Yesterday at one of the rehearsals I walked into the costume room where they were sewing yellow stars onto the costumes.  At that moment, though I know that theatre is “make-believe”, the past became so real that I began weeping uncontrollably.  
As long as we think that the past is something that was done by others to others, we will never really understand the present.  The past is a mirror into which we dare not look, yet only by looking can we see who we really are.

Performances of BRUNDIBAR are free to the public.  They are taking place  Jan 22, 23, and 24 at 8 pm, and Jan 24 at 4 pm at the Small Hall of the Thailand Cultural Center.  As the theatre only holds 220 seats, advance pre-registration is recommended: has a clickable form for reservations.  Otherwise, write to, or come to the door.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Somtow conducts Mahlers THE SONG OF THE EARTH

Somtow conducts Mahlers THE SONG OF THE EARTH: In Loving Memory of HRH Princess Galyani VadhanaDepartment of Cultural Promotion and Opera Siam presentThailand Cultural CenterWednesday September 10at 8 pmFor tickets see belowSomtow once promised HR

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

How to Bring Thaksin Home (and why he should return)

As I'm not a politician, my thought processes are not that subtle.  I'd like to propose a very simple solution to the huge dilemma that Thailand is in right now.   A lot of very complex solutions are being considered right now, most of which involve moving millions of people around a congested city, impeaching half the government, or shooting people.  But there are much easier ways to handle our problems.

The first problem which seems to afflict about half the country is, "How can we bring Thaksin home?"

Well, duh, he buys a plane ticket.  Huh?  I thought he was banned from the country.  No, he is not not "in exile" as the foreign press is so fond of saying, excising the word "self-imposed" in the interests of dumbing itself down for the sound-bite-conditioned audience.

You see, some key words are also missing from the question posed above.  They are the words "without going to jail."

Is jail so terrible?  Would Thaksin really spend more than a token amount of time in prison before receiving some kind of pardon?

The point is that being willing to spend even one day in jail would go a long way toward rehabilitating this man's claim to "statesmanship."

I can hear him grinding his teeth right now.  "Why should I spend a day in jail for being caught with my hand in the cookie jar?  Look at all the hands that are still reaching into that jar."

There are two answers to that.  First, just because everyone else is doing it doesn't make it right.  And second, you shouldn't have tried to take all the cookies.

Spending even a token amount of time in jail would convince many people that your party was serious about fighting corruption.  When P.M. Yingluck stated the other day that this was a primary goal of her party, it was widely seen as a joke.  Your willingness to go to jail would be an amazingly statesmanlike gesture.  It would be as if someone had opened up the dusty cave of political corruption and finally let in the first rays of sunlight.

Thaksin coming home and taking his lumps would remove all sorts of obstacles in Thailand's journey towards a better democracy.  His party would no longer need to gyrate, manipulate and deceive with bogus amnesty laws, and we can get on to real amnesty.

Real amnesty will only occur after real transparency.  Which means that there needs to be an honest, public display of mea culpa from everyone who has betrayed the trust of the Thai people for the last several years.

Which means people would have to realize that it is okay to lose face.  Indeed, if you lose a little face now, you can gain a lot more later.

It means that the people who seized the airport have to come clean and admit that they crossed the line from acceptable dissidence to hooliganism.

It means that those who shouted slogans about burning down the city will have to admit that they, too, crossed the line of civilized, democratic discourse.

It means that the military will have to admit that, well-intentioned though their takeover might have been, they completely blew the aftermath, and made things worse.

It means that those who hold a majority in parliament must admit that there are constitutional limits to their power and that a system of checks and balance is supposed to be in place.

Amnesty is forgiveness.  You can't be forgiven if you don't admit you've done anything wrong ... or worse, if you don't even think you've done anything wrong because you think that your rights are more important than everyone else's rights.

So that is my solution.  As I don't have the subtle mind of a politician, I know it won't work, but I propose it nonetheless:

Mr. Thaksin, buy a plane ticket, come back to this country from which you were never exiled, and accept the rule of law.

Once people see that even you are able to do this, things will start to fall into place.  I believe that others, too, from both sides of the divide, will start to put their country ahead of their own interests.  You won't smell like a rose right away, you understand.  I mean, there's the little matter of the extrajudicial killing of a few thousand alleged drug lords, the inhumane treatment of the Muslim community, the manipulation of legal loopholes in order to terrorize our once-free press, and what else?  Oh yeah, corruption.  But you would be surprised at how much people are willing to forgive, if you only show a little shred of remorse.

Even though I'm not getting a million bucks a month for this advice, unlike a certain PR firm in the U.S., I believe it is the best advice you will ever receive.

If you try this advice and it happens to work, of course, I'd be glad to accept the fees you're paying the other guy.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

STATUS UPDATE - Somtow Reissues


Dear friends:

It has been my plan to make sure that all 59 of the books I have written so far can easily be obtained by anyone who wants to read them.

So, I have been returning all my out of print books to print via DIPLODOCUS PRESS, the publishing company I created eight years ago.

As of November 23, today, here is the progress report:

The Inquestor Tetralogy -
all four books now in print

The Riverrun Trilogy
all three books now in print, the third volume available as an independent book for the first time

The Timmy Valentine Series
All three Vampire Junction Books back in print

Jasmine Nights
Opus 50
Dragon's Fin Soup - all back in print
The Stone Buddha's Tears (English language version by Post Books available only in Thailand) - in print in hard and soft
The Other City of Angels, back in print

Coming Soon
The Shattered Horse, should be in print within a few days
Mallworld, waiting for scanning

New Books
Bible Stories for Secular Humanists
available in both hard and soft
Sonnets about Serial Killers
available in both hard and soft
Caravaggio Times Two

and yes, here is a link....

Saturday, October 12, 2013

How Not To Run An Airline (Part Two)

It's been a few months since the last blog.  Indeed, I am not blogging very much these days.  For the last eighteen months, my entire life has been in an emotional limbo.  At some point, since these pages often have a confessional tone, I may reveal why, but I don't think I'm quite ready yet.

However, I think a report on the resolution of the Air Asia incident might prove entertaining....

You see, a week or so after the incident written about below, I received a response from the owner of Air Asia.  He apologized for the incident and said it seemed to be about the intransigence of a single employee, not Air Asia policy.  All this is true.  I wondered whether they would give me any free flights, or at the very least pay some compensation, since I had paid the premium fee in order to be able to get off the plane quickly, and Ms. Salaya had caused the entire off-loading of the passengers to be delayed by forty minutes with her eccentric accusations.

It chanced, however, that yesterday I came to fly Air Asia again, and again I was travelling with my nephew Top.  We were in Chiengmai airport and the line onto the plane wasn't moving.

"Maybe Salaya's on this flight, kicking up some other fuss," I joked.

"Ha, ha," Top said, "Let's fly the Hong Kong leg again sometime, just to visit our old friend."

And so, laughing and joking as we waiting an inordinately long time in a queue that seemed to last forever, we eventually came face to face with Ms. Salaya.  She had changed her hairstyle, and at first I didn't realize it was her ... I had to double-check with Top, who actually had to look at my blog to see if her photograph matched.  It did.

Salaya never looked at us, never made any kind of eye contact so I couldn't very well initiate a conversation.

When we sat down, Top said, "I forgot to tell you; the owner's daughter told me that Salaya was suspended for five days as a result of 'The Incident'."

I thought this was eminently fair: she should be taught a lesson, rather than actually being kicked out.  I never wanted to be responsible for the destruction of her entire career as a flight attendant.  It did occur to me that this domestic run was probably less prestigious than Hong Kong, so perhaps she had also been reassigned to a slightly less glamorous route.

In any case the staff were exceptionally polite at all times.  Except Salaya that is; she avoided any possibility of contact whatsoever, and hid in the back whenever there was a reason for the flight attendants to go up and down the aisle.

Now Top, you must understand, is not un-mischievous.  He said, "I'll find a way to talk to her, whether she wants to or not."  So shortly before landing, he went to the lavatory, which had been locked for descent, and told her he really had to go, so she had to unlock it.  When he exited, he said to her, "Why don't you check the lavatory out?  Maybe someone has activated a life vest."

"Kha, kha, kha," said Ms Salaya.  As Top returned to his seat, she then spent the next few minutes with a colleague, turning the lavatory inside out.

It was a little cruel of Top, but she did subject us to a ridiculous police investigation and hold up an entire flight on the ground....

But here's the delicious part.  Top and I were sitting somewhere in the 8th row of the plane.  After it landed, on the way out, I decided, on a whim, to look under the seats in Row 1, the row we had been sitting in when the fateful incident in Hong Kong occurred.

On that occasion, Top was in 1F, the window seat on the starboard side.  I made a joke to Top as we walked passed that row of seats on our way out.

"I bet the life jacket's missing again," I said.

We both looked over to Seat 1F.

I glanced under the seat.

Guess what?

The life jacket was missing.

Friday, May 31, 2013

How Not to Run an Airline

How Not to Run an Airline

Miss Salaya, the Grand Inquisitor of Air Asia

I would like to share with my friends a wild and hideous experience I had last week travelling on Air Asia to Hong Kong with my nephew Top, one of Thailand's outstanding young violinists.

I had paid extra money for the privilege of sitting in the front row of the plane, close to the lavatory and with the advantage of being able to be the first off the plane.  At the beginning of the flight, we enjoyed the privilege greatly; I used the loo a few times, Top did so once, we had a meal, and we both fell asleep; it looked like it would be a pleasant flight.

About 40 minutes from arrival, I was awakened by a conversation; the stewardess was interrogating Top.  She was accusing him of stealing the life jacket from underneath his seat and inflating it in the lavatory.  And she was doing so in a manner which suggested that he had murdered someone.

Top had done no such thing, of course, and dozens of people had gone to the lavatory since we had done so near the beginning of the flight.

I said to her, "I watched him go to the toilet.  To remove the live vest, you would have to get up, reach under the seat, and actually physically take it out.  This is not an act that I would fail to notice.  He did not do so."

She said, "But you are travelling with him, and therefore you are lying."

I asked Miss Salaya (I noted the name) whether the life vest was in fact now missing from under his seat.  She said it was the only one missing.  I asked how she knew.  (She had not looked under his seat, or any other seat.)  She said she just knew.  I asked whether the live vests had been properly tallied before takeoff.  She said they had been.  I said, "Do you have a checklist with everything properly checked off?"  She spluttered and fumed.  I said, "Have you questioned the dozens of people who used the toilet after Top, to determine why none of them saw an inflated life vest in the toilet, which must have filled up the space and made it impossible to use the facilities?"  She spluttered and raged some more, and kept insisting that we were lying.  I asked her whether her aggressive and inquisitorial manner might not be an attempt to cover up for the airline's own negligence in not properly checking every item before takeoff.  She insisted that all the evidence pointed to Top as the culprit, and that I simply lying, and that my point of view didn't fit the facts — however, she did not furnish any facts to contradict my point of view.

The stewardess's behaviour went far beyond an attempt to find out what had happened.  It was an attempt to bully me and Top into perjuring ourselves — presumably because if Top did not "confess", the only alternative truth would have been that the airline had not performed its pre-flight check thoroughly enough.  Which is a far more credible possibility than the theory the stewardess was trying to ram down our throats - without even bothering to look under Top's seat, or anyone else's seat, or question anyone else, and merely because Top, a seasoned air traveller with thousands upon thousands of air miles under his belt, looked young and therefore was clearly some kind of juvenile delinquent.  Her posturing and bullying were reminiscent of a bad TV courtroom drama, and had nothing to do whatsoever with establishing any facts.

Indeed, during the entire period of the stewardess's questioning, she was insisting that the life vest under Top's seat was missing, so since we were flying over water this entire time, according to her statement the airline must have been criminally liable for that entire period should any accident have occurred.  However, Miss Salaya, the stewardess, did not consider the idea of looking under the seat, checking whether their system had misregistered, or any other answer other than an assumption of Top's guilt.

After some twenty minutes of this grilling, the stewardess returned to her seat because the plane had to land.  As soon as it landed, she announced that no one was to leave the plane.

Six policemen then boarded the plane and the stewardess spoke energetically to them and pointed furiously to us.  The policemen began barking viciously in Cantonese.  I said, "I haven't a clue what you're talking about — please find an interpreter."

Salaya denouncing the passengers to the authorities.

Eventually a more senior police officer who spoke English showed him.  Once I explained the situation to him, he began to realize the absurdity of it all.  The stewardess was still standing around being accusatory, but the officer could see that they had absolutely no evidence to prove that Top was some kind of criminal.


Unfortunately, they had released all the other passengers so there was in fact no way the truth could now be arrived at, and they never performed a check on any seats to see whether any other life jackets were missing.  Since we were seated in the front row, the stewardess had simply seized on the most convenient suspects before launching into her Torquemada-like rant.

"Your uncle!!! Why??"

We were detained for some forty minutes despite the fact that I paid extra to be the first to leave the plane.  In the end the police officer said, "Of course we cannot rule out the possibility that Top did this, but I don't know them and I don't know you, and there is simply no evidence."  He then let us go.

Well, yes.  I told her so in the first place.

As we left, Top took the stewardess's photo in an attempt to have a record of the situation as we will of course complain to Mr. Bijleveld, the CEO of the company, whose daughter is Top's school friend.  She flew into a rage at that point, leading me to suspect that it was beginning to dawn on her that the airline might indeed have been negligent in the first place and that she might actually get into trouble.   Oh yes, we informed Salaya that we could get to her boss very easily.  In the last 30 seconds of our sojourn with Air Asia, Salaya suddenly became very sweet and told us how we must understand that she was only doing her duty, etc. etc.

Her duty, presumably, must have included ensuring that each seat was equipped with a life vest at all times.

It must also have included being courteous to passengers, especially those who paid a premium in order to receive special services.

It must have also included properly performing cabin checks before takeoff.

Salaya's bad hair day was a disaster for her that far exceeded the inconvenience and annoyance that it caused two of her passengers.  Her actions will undoubtedly cost her a severe reprimand if not her job, and may cause the airline to be subjected to legal action if we are feeling in a vindictive mood.

It's been a few days now and it's become more of an entertaining story than a nightmare for us, but perhaps the nightmare is only beginning for Miss Salaya....

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Another excerpt from NIRVANA EXPRESS (Day Five)

Day Five: Lucid Dreaming

The previous night, I have been attempting, once more, this reclining meditation.  Nothing seems to happen, although I do drift off into a profound sleep.  But, just before dawn, I have an astonishingly vivid dream.

I see a person I’ve never seen in one of my dreams before.  He’s the ringleader of the kids who vandalized my house in Los Angeles, several months before my coming to Bangkok to be a monk.  This is someone who was highly successful in triggering my martyrdom instinct — and who, until I learned what had been happening behind my back, was one of my most trusted people.  I will call him simply the Kid; there isn’t another in this story.

We’re standing in a museum, carrying a Persian rug between us.  And the Kid is complaining about something or other — about how Africa isn’t in the exhibition, I think.  So the museum guard says to us, well, there’s an Egyptian exhibition in the next building; it’s been there for a year and is set to remain for a total of two; and we decide to check it out, still carrying the rug.   Though I have to remind the Kid that Egypt is, in fact, in Africa; he doesn’t seem to have learned that in school.

I enter the museum; the Kid stands in the anteroom, in front of the revolving door, still holding the rug.  I go through, look in the gift shop for more rugs; I decide they’re too expensive.  I don’t remember actually looking at the exhibits; all I know is that the Kid never enters, and when I start to leave, he is gone, and instead there are two lines of graffiti on the wall, written in marker, already fading … medium fine point marker, bright red, the color of blood.

Outside, the scenery has abruptly changed.  I am in the ruins of an ancient temple.  Gray, decaying stone … it’s beautiful, like Ayuthaya used to be in my childhood, before easy-access highways and wandering tourists.  There are stupas, gorgeous statues of stone and stucco; the sky is a ruddy twilight.  I am walking through the grounds, slowly, in a meditative state … more so than I have achieved during real life walking meditation.

Suddenly, a huge gray pagoda rears up in the sunrise.  I spot two kids half-way, on a ledge, graffitiing with spray cans.  I am furious.  I run up the steps, I scream at them: “Don’t you realize this place is unimaginably ancient, it was lifted stone by stone from an archaeological site and brought here to be shared by all the world?  Thousands of years of history and you’re ruining it … there’s a place for what you’re doing, but not here!”

Chastened, they slink away.

Startled, I awaken.

I’m sure it is almost dawn, but I get up and look, in the dark, at the clock; it seems to say that it’s 11 at night.  I try to get back to sleep.  Dogs are barking … as they do in movies when a ghost or spirit passes.  My whole body is tingling … as though I have recently been possessed, and the alien presence’s breath is still exuding from me.  I can’t or won’t find the light switch; I am groping about in a strange half-dark.  This Twilight Zone-like weirdness persists for a very long time; I lie down, trying to return to sleep, vaguely aware that I’ve had a very powerful dream that is trying to teach me important lessons about my past, my future.  

I close my eyes for a moment, and then —

Jumping out of bed, I find that it’s after six!  I have to run out with my begging bowl!  Seizing my bowl and robe, I run out of the door just in time for a helpful monk to put it on for me.  
It has just been raining, and I tread along the wet street, absorbing more unfamiliar sensations — the slick cobblestones, the grit, the agglutinating particles of earth.  It is a beautiful experience sharing the love and generosity of people I have never met or known.   I wish I could walk among them all the time.  I am at the same time a stranger to these people, and the most familiar icon in their perception of the world.  

It is breakfast now, and they have decided that the four of five pieces of the Khunying’s famed chocolate should be offered to me all once.  I decide to take the entire plate to the novices’ table.  They are, after all, children, and children love chocolate cake … don’t they?  And I can have the Khunying’s cake anytime … this succulent recipe that brings in a million baht a year.
In my room, I notice, suddenly, that the clock by my bed is upside down.  That explains the confusion over time.  It was the wee hours before dawn when I woke from that peculiar dream, and that is why I seemed to have overslept.

I sit in the mother-of-pearl chair, trying to analyze the dream.  Though its basic meaning is pretty clear.  My life has become a sacred place.  Those who interfered with it in the past no longer belong.  They can be sent away.  The visit to Africa/Egypt has all sorts of mystical connotations, from the “darkest” Africa of my childhood adventure novels to the Egyptian symbology of death and resurrection.  A rug is a relationship … one that has proved, it seems, too expensive to be worth continuing.  The ancient temple dug up stone by stone and moved to the new setting … that must be the ancient wisdom that has now been transplanted into the landscape of my new consciousness.  And the kids, expelled from this new paradise … that too is obvious, indeed so fraught with symbolic logic as to seem to have been cooked up by a novelist.  Well, look who’s talking.

Using images from the unconscious mind to teach my conscious mind important lessons — is this what my attempts at the sleeping meditation are beginning to achieve?  If so, it is surely about time.  The human psyche so frequently walls off parts of itself from other parts.  Lines of communication are weak.  I’m very encouraged.  I seem to have blown open a channel and forced the people inside me to talk to each other.

I’ve blown open another kind of channel as well, this morning; something has disagreed with me, and an upset stomach keeps me from attending morning chapel.  Indeed, the Seer tells me I’d better not go to meditation class at all this morning; I wouldn’t want to have a little accident while off in an adjacent universe.

The Seer insists that I take plenty of medicine and sends word to the Guru that his recalcitrant new monk won’t show up this morning.  I do hope that the Guru won’t be annoyed.  There is, you see, a subtle tension between the two, although I have not yet learned enough of the temple’s politics to get all the nuances.

Now, all day long, people inquire about my upset stomach, even people I have never seen.  Later I am told that the Guru has announced my diarrhea to the entire throng of meditation students.  Imagine that happening at my old English boarding school!  I would be the butt of jokes for weeks.  But here, there is the greatest concern.

 One monk after another comes to my room to show sympathy.  One particular monk shows up at my door with a herbal remedy in his hand.  This monk is very youthful, pale, always staring off into the distance, and he tells me that he knows things about me that others do not know.

“For instance,” he tells me, “I know that you can see into the heart of the Guru, and that you have sensed a certain darkness there … I know because I have seen it myself … but we won’t speak of it, because it’s enough that we both know it is true.”

It is a strange thing for one man to say to another as he presents him with herbal remedies for diarrhea, but this monk is unusual.  Thais do not like to say things directly; they speak in understatement and misdirection, out of the desire to protect others from losing face, out of a fear of losing face themselves; this monk says things straight out, insightful things that perhaps one would rather not speak about.  
He sees things.  I tell him I have a friend who sees things — I’m talking about Sharon, on her mountaintop in Georgia, and the spirit Tomm who seems to speak through her.  “Yes,” he says, “I understand that completely.  And you are like that, too.”

 I don’t want to say that I’m very doubtful that I have any such abilities, so I simply smile.  I will call this monk the Psychic.  He is a new monk, but appears very otherworldly, as though he spends large chunks of his existence exploring other dimensions.  He tells me that he has a genuine relic of the Lord Buddha in his room, and invites me to go and see it one day, when I’m feeling better.
I’m deeply moved at the gentility and compassion everyone shows towards me.  There is also a certain chivalry that is rarely evident in the world outside, a certain profound respect for personhood; this is a community that lives by the principle of compassion.

During the lunch break, my parents show up; my dad will return to San Francisco tomorrow.  My mother has brought the housekeeper from home, and insists that she clean my bathroom; she’s worried because she doesn’t think I’ll succeed in doing it myself.   A professional is needed.  But there are problems, as a woman may not touch certain objects used by monks — “intimate” objects such as towels.   At first, my mother tries to put away the towels herself, but our family chauffeur, who once served time in a monastery himself as a novice, tells her that the monkly towels are out of bounds.
In the afternoon, I rush back to meditation class to discover the walking meditation in full swing.  Unable to find an unobtrusive spot to walk back and forth, I am compelled to traverse the very platform where the Guru himself is sitting, lost in some transcendental state upon his sermonizing chair.  It is very strange.  As I walk slowly back and forth, I close my eyes, trying to measure out the steps by feel alone … wondering if this is how the blind walk … trying to feel the space by some means of extrasensory perception.

But it is hard to concentrate.  I imagine that Big Brother, in the form of the Guru, is peering down at me from his High Chair.  And of course, behind him, there is also the towering golden Buddha of the beatific, enigmatic and utterly tranquil smile.  And I admit that it is a little scary, and I can’t find that tranquil spot within myself at all.  I imagine the Guru’s baleful stare and I squeeze my eyes tight shut and hope for the buzzer to go off soon … the buzzer which, like an oven timer, tells me that it will soon be time to come out of my meditative state.

Of course, the Guru probably isn’t even staring, balefully or otherwise.  But I feel it nonetheless, like an overactive superego.

Later on there is the sitting meditation, too — thirty minutes of it — but someone it doesn’t feel quite as long as before.  I must be getting used to it after all.  My body is still not entirely attuned to it all, but there has clearly been improvement.

And still later, I get myself into a deep conversation with my fellow sufferer, the Skeptic.  It turns out that he has major issues with what the Guru has been saying which go to the most basic concepts in Buddhism — the true nature of reincarnation, for instance.  I myself do not wish to argue the niceties of philosophy.  I don’t want to know how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.  I only want to know that they do in fact dance.  That, I suppose, is the major difference between us.

The time comes for the evening meditation and now I find myself standing in the outer vihara under the stars — what passes for the stars in Bangkok — and all of sudden comes a light sprinkle, which, as I begin the walking meditation, turns into a storm.  Thunder and lightning and a raging wind, yet somehow I don’t find myself running into the cloister to seek shelter.  I keep my eyes closed, I keep walking.  This time, Big Brother is not watching.  Bud-dho, Bud-dho, I repeat in my mind, the mantra for stilling the inner storm.  It doesn’t work.  I walk.  Rain flecks my face.  It is beautiful; the air is pungent with the smell crushed jasmine.  I taste it on my lips.  The wind whips against my robes.  I feel all these things and revel in them, yet I am also very far away.

It is not the word Bud-dho, buddho that keeps ringing in my ears.  Instead I hear a voice that whispers again and again a phrase from T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets :  “the still point of the turning world.”  It is this motif that helps me to locate my inner center, and not some Pali mantra.  Over and over these words sound in my inner ear, the “t”-sounds of still and point and turning punctuating the mantra much like drops of rain.

Can a poem by a Bostonian-turned-Englishman really substitute for the ineffable name of the Enlightened One as a formula for inner peace?   I do not know, but I already from my study of the Guru’s teaching that words are in themselves nothing more than the empty air.  It is not the words that precipitate the states of inner mindfulness.  The Guru has said that even simple words like “in, out” or counting from one to five would work, if only the mind is ready for them to work.  But for my over-educated cranium the Buddha comes to me in the voice of T.S. Eliot, and then, later, in words from the King James Bible — for the voice that whispers the words of Eliot seems to me to be none other than the “still, small voice” alluded to in the Old Testament.  Is it hubris to believe that such mighty powers might be speaking directly to oneself?  I do not know.   Buddhism does not, in the end, believe that such mighty forces are real; like the corporeal world itself, they too are parts of a great dream, though perhaps from a higher plane of dreaming than our concrete cosmos.

I feel myself detaching from my body.  I feel myself at the eye of the tempest.  The world rages; I am calm.  I know that I have been searching for this stillness for a long time.  But the stillness has stolen up to me, has ambushed me; I am so surprised to be holding the grail in my hands, even for a fleeting moment, that before I am aware of it, I have already let go.

When I was a child, I was in love with the wind.  I felt that the wind spoke to me.  I had a very strange adventure with the wind once; I wrote a poem about the wind when I was eleven, which poem ended up, by a strange string of coincidences, being published in the Bangkok Post.  Even more oddly, the American actress Shirley MacLaine was passing through Bangkok at that moment, and for some reason the poem seemed to make an impression on her, although she did not apparently know it was by some child.  Perhaps the very awkwardness of its expression made it look as though it were the inadequately translated work of some ancient sage.  Or perhaps, with the instinct so many artists seem to possess, she saw past the silly words straight into the soul of an alienated, anguished child.

Be that as it may, years later the poem about the wind appeared as the epigraph to Ms. MacLaine’s autobiography, Don’t Fall off the Mountain, and my childish words about the wind have sold more copies than all my “real” books put together.  

Mistaken for an ancient sage at 11, here I am now, perhaps trying to pass myself off as a sage after a few days of monkhood!  There are ironies here to be sure.   I once told this story to a reporter for a well-known psychic magazine in the States, and she said, “Well, since that Shirley MacLaine book can fairly be said to have kicked off the New Age, that makes you the godfather of the entire New Age, doesn’t it?”   Scary.

But seriously now, there are things all children know, things they forget when they pass through the flames of adolescence and enter the grownup world, where imagination must sit in the back of the bus, where the touchable is confused with the real.  These things we knew as children can be rediscovered as adults, but often only at the end of arduous voyages or after much pain.

The wind that whispered to me in my childhood and gave birth to a rather dreadful poem has spoken to me again, and this time I recognize it as a friend, and am almost ready to call it by name.

When I return to the vihara for the sitting meditation, the wind is still carrying on outside.  I decide to continue my communion with nature.  Resolutely, I pick up one of the little plastic chairs I have been using to meditate in, and place it by the window.  A gorgeous window, paneled wood, black and gold lacquerwork, covered with images of gods and demons; it is ajar, and I push it wider, thinking, here, in the safety of the vihara yet exposed to the roar of the wind, I will once more hear the voice of God.

But wind does not help me at all.  It howls, it batters my face.  I am hopelessly distracted.
Profound inner experiences, it seems, can neither be manufactured nor preordained.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Participate in Mahler 8 in Thailand this summer!

July 20-24, 2013

Dear Choirmaster, Voice Teacher or Individual Singer:

The performance of Mahler’s “Symphony of a Thousand” taking place in late July in Thailand is an incredibly historic event.  With already about ten choirs from four continents sending representatives, it is the first performance of the largest work in the standard classical repertoire in Thailand.  Singing in “Mahler Eight” is a life’s dream for many choristers around the world and it is only possible in Thailand because we are working with the Festa Musicale’s international choir festival in Pattaya, and are able to bring choirs participating in this festival into our concert.

We currently have about 250 singers, local and international, involved, with a core group of around 75 plus a large children’s choir rehearsing regularly each Thursday. But I could use about 100, or even 200 more local singers in order to make sure that we have enough to balance the 130-piece orchestra that Mahler has written for.

In view of this I am writing to heads of music departments, music schools, and choirmasters in Bangkok to invite your participation.

This concert is undoubtedly the most ambitious classical music event in Thailand’s history.  People who love to sing often dream of participating in the “Symphony of a Thousand” and this would be the first time the opportunity is ever made available in Thailand.

We would very much love to have you on board whether you are in Thailand or from abroad.  Many choirs have already joined or are sending representatives — choirs from as far away as England, Czech Republic, Indonesia, and the United States.  We’re working on trying to get singers from every continent to make this a true reaching across the globe.

If you are an international group or outside Bangkok, the idea is that you would study the work in advance and arrive in Bangkok in time for the final rehearsals.  These rehearsals will take place in the last week, from July 20th onward.  We can give you access to all sorts of aids to help you learn the work, such as learning mp3s and so on.

Because the performances of the Symphony of a Thousand are in part subsidized by the Department of Cultural Promotions of Thailand’s Ministry of Culture, we are able to offer an extremely cheap land package, based on double occupancy, at a convenient hotel in Bangkok.  The first hundred people to sign up will receive their land package gratis; for the rest we ask for a contribution of only 100 Euros, which includes your hotel, transportation to and from the rehearsals, and most meals.

If you are local to Bangkok, you will have the ability to rehearse along with the Orpheus Choir, which meets every Thursday evening in a convenient location next to the Thong Lo BTS station.  

A children’s choir is also being formed in Bangkok which will join with children of the Montfort School in Chiengmai and the Bonifantes choir from Pardubice, Czech Republic, to sing the children’s choir sections of the work, so children from age 8 or so may also join this group.

An online form is available to join up at  Or you can write directly to Athalie de Koning, the choir master of the Orpheus Choir, at  

Please join us and become part of this historic event.  We look forward to hearing from all of you!

Best wishes

Somtow Sucharitkul
General and Artistic Director
Bangkok Opera Foundation/Opera Siam


Saturday, July 20:  
    morning: arrive in Bangkok with music already rehearsed
    afternoon: free: Bangkok tour
    evening: welcome dinner and preliminary rehearsal

Sunday, July 21:
    morning: free
    afternoon: piano rehearsal, choirs and children’s choirs
    evening: rehearsal with orchestra and soloists

Monday, July 22:    
    late afternoon: rehearsal with orchestra and soloists

Tuesday, July 23:
    6 pm: sound check
    8 pm: OPEN DRESS REHEARSAL (for video)

Wednesday, July 24:
    6 pm: sound check
    10 pm: post-performance reception

July 25 onward: Festa Musicale Competition and Festival in Pattaya