Raging Bull

 

October 31, 2017

Chiang Mai, Thailand

 

I have never been a violent person. At least not as a rule. Sure, when I was a kid, I used to get into angry fights with my brothers, and some punches and kicks were thrown, but mainly I was in defensive mode, waiting for them to foolishly try a karate-style kick to my face. That’s when I’d grab the swinging foot and dump the kicker unceremoniously on his ass. I didn’t follow up by punching them when they were down. There was the time when I was four (and I really don’t have a recollection of this story) that I evidently got so pissed at my babysitter that I threw a “D”-cell battery at her and knocked out a tooth.

Otherwise, I was afraid to get into fights. My parents strongly encouraged us to “turn the other cheek” and walk away when threatened or bullied by others. My fear was not so much of getting beat up as it was of getting in trouble at school and then subsequently at home. The two times that I recall fighting back ended with the other party complaining about a busted jaw or broken nose. Either way, blood was spilled with my single punch to the face. I was horrified by it. In my dreams, when I get into a physical altercation, my instinct is to fight to the death. In my dream-state, I am filled with so much rage and fear that I continue to pummel the other person until they are pretty much raw meat. I wake up in a sweat, with my heart pounding. Fighting is not something that I enjoy.

Violence in movies does not necessarily turn me off. I am not in love with it, but I’d prefer to see realistic portrayals of what happens when someone is shot, punched, hit by a train, etc., as long as it fits the storyline and is not gratuitous. But I have never enjoyed watching boxing matches, or the currently popular UFC-style fighting. The ancient Romans were entertained by such blood sport, and I had mistakenly thought that we had evolved past that. The sight of two men (or women) beating the shit out of each other for others’ amusement is not my choice of entertainment.

So, you would think that the sight of the Muay Thai ring commanding the center of the Reggae Bar in Koh Phi Phi, Thailand would hold zero interest for me. But the opposite was true. I was drawn to it. There was a large sign inside the bar stating that anyone volunteering to fight another patron for three, one-minute bouts would receive a free bucket of whiskey and mixer after the fight. The whiskey didn’t tempt me. But the thought of testing my fighting ability against another man somehow did. I can’t explain it. I wanted to get in that ring. I watched other contestants sparring, and it looked to me that they weren’t really taking it too seriously, just having a bit of fun clowning around. Even the Thais who got in to fight without the protective gloves and pads were hamming it up for the crowd of drinkers. I decided that I was going to sign up for this before I left the island.

The fighting ring at Reggae Bar on Koh Phi Phi

The next day, I got up early and went on a planned scuba diving adventure. It was a lovely day and the dives went beautifully. Unfortunately, I got seasick (for the first time in my life) both times I returned to the boat, and ended up feeding the fish for a while. I rested for the better part of the late afternoon, even taking a nap that evening until about 9:30. Then I got up and headed over to the Reggae Bar to fulfill my promise to myself. I told one of the staff that I was interested in getting in the ring. So they had me crawl between the ropes and stand there while they asked who wanted to challenge me. A guy from Argentina, Luciano, about half my age and in good shape, stood up and volunteered. Great.

Luciano and me, before the bout

They gave us both a pair of boxing shorts (smelly, sweaty from other use), his red, mine blue. We stood around waiting for a bit for the other bouts to finish. As I drank the single beer that I had ordered, I chatted with him and we both reassured each other that we were only into it for the fun, that we weren’t REALLY going to be fighting hard. At least that was my impression. I had time to ask another patron to take pictures with my phone, and then it was time.

The referee explained the rules to us. No elbows, no knees. We could hit with our thick, boxing gloves and kick with our padded shins and feet. No hitting from behind, no kicks to the groin. That settled, we touched gloves, and the bell rang. The agreement that I had come to with Luciano didn’t seem to be understood exactly the same by both sides. He came at me and landed a heavy right cross to the left side of my face. My head snapped back a bit to the right, and my thought was, “what the hell??” He got one more good punch in before I realized that HIS idea of fun was different than mine.

 I got my gloves up and blocked his next few attempts. I saw that he was leaving his face exposed, and I took advantage of the opportunity to poke him right in the nose with a left jab. I was still pulling my punches however, because I somehow still believed that we were supposed to be fooling around. And that’s when he started kicking. His right leg shot out and around and connected with the side of my left thigh. It hurt like hell. This dude obviously had gone through a bit of training for this. Unfortunately for me, I kept letting him do it. Had I used my head a bit, I would have pivoted the other way, not exposing that side to his devastating kicks. But my (stupid) reaction was to drop my gloves and ask him, “didn’t we agree…?”… and immediately put them back up to block an oncoming blow.

Mercifully, the bell rang, and we both retired to our corners. I took a small sip of water supplied by one of the attendants, and tried to stand straight with my left leg on fire. I looked around the crowd, and everyone seemed to be having a great time. I told myself that I could make it through another minute, then rest again. The bell rang again, and we were back at it. I ducked quite a few punches, and got in a couple of good ones myself. At one point, Luciano reeled backward and stumbled, but didn’t fall. I should have pressed my attack, but didn’t. He got in two more crushing kicks, then came at me. I ducked under a roundhouse right, popped him once. He then connected while I was heading away, and the punch took me off balance. I was headed to the mat. I got up right away, and looked for my opponent, but the ref was quickly in my face and removing my headgear. I asked him what was going on, and he said, “Stop fight. Over.”

“What? Why”, I bellowed. I was ok. My leg hurt like hell, but I wasn’t dazed. There wasn’t a count while I was down, it was less than a second.

“Safety”, came the reply. I was about to argue the point, and then I realized that my leg was done for. I couldn’t keep taking that punishment.

Both winners?

“Fine,” I acquiesced. I let them remove my gloves and footpads, then went over to the Argentinian and gave him a sweaty, congratulatory hug. The ref took us both by the hand, and raised Luciano’s high in the air. The crowd cheered, we both got medals and buckets of liquor. I limped over and removed the fighting shorts and put back on my own clothing. There were high fives and hugs and mentions of “great fight”, “that was awesome”, and “you’re brave” for both the winner and the loser.

My reward
My real reward

Yeah, so I didn’t win. But I didn’t feel like a loser, either. It was a cool experience, and probably something I would try again. But next time….fuck Mr. Nice Guy.

8-Ball

September 5, 2017

Chiang Mai, Thailand

 

I stared at the small mirror on which the little glassine bag and his casino rewards card rested. “Come on”, he said. “You know what to do.” And I suppose I did know what to do, but I was definitely not ready for this.

It was mid-September, 2016, and I was hosting a guy from Texas. Gaco had requested a stay on short notice as he was coming to Chicago. I was still recovering from a trip to New England for Labor Day weekend, had just finished hosting some people and events during the Chicago Couch Crash*, and also just got a new roommate.  I could have easily said “no”, because of everything else going on, but something about Gaco’s profile information and his nice request told me that it would be worth hosting him. I made arrangements to pick him up at a train station outside of the downtown area, and afterwards we met up with some new Filipina friends at the grand opening of a huge Filipino superstore that everyone had been going on about. The ladies had ordered food from inside, and we all sat out on the sidewalk eating interesting dishes and having a really fun conversation. Gaco didn’t know anybody there, and I only knew one of them briefly, but he made himself at home with the group.

The Filipinas were all tired from fighting the crowds at the store, and so they decided that they were going to check out early and go home instead of staying out to go dancing or karaoke. So Gaco and I headed back toward my place on the south side of Chicago. Before we got all the way to my home, however, I decided that we really owed it to ourselves to have a couple more beers. Reggie’s Music Joint and Rock Club on the corner of State and E. 21st had always been one of my favorite places to hang out and bring my couchsurfing guests. It was within walking distance to my apartment, which was convenient if heavy drinking was planned. Reggie’s boasted a very cool downstairs bar with live music, another soundstage for ticketed events, an amazing record store on the second level, and one of the coolest rooftop bars in the city. This place catered to everyone’s taste. Some nights there would be folks all dressed up in leather and chains for a heavy metal concert, other times it was hip/hop. The music joint bar bands ranged from country to 80’s, jazz to current pop. Everyone felt welcome at Reggie’s. It was probably the most integrated bar I ever saw in Chicago.

It can be difficult to find parking near Reggie’s on a summer weekend. I felt lucky to grab a spot on 21st across from the Chase Bank branch. It was just after 10pm, so I didn’t have to pay the meter, which was nice. After showing our ID’s at the door, we walked up to the rooftop bar and ordered a couple of beers. It was pretty crowded, and seating was scarce. I noticed a couple of vacant spots at one of the octagonal picnic-style tables that was otherwise occupied by a group of women and one guy. I sauntered over and asked if we might grab a seat, and they graciously welcomed us to join them. They turned out to be a group from a couple of local radio stations, including a couple of on-air dj’s who had been at the RiotFest concerts earlier in the day. Some of them were more drunk than the others, including the guy dj, who was making a total ass of himself. I trolled him for a bit until it got boring. Gaco headed back to the bar counter to get us a couple more beers, and I saw him over there talking to some old guy sitting on the barstool.

Since the radio personalities were pretty much finished with their night, they got up to go, leaving me there by myself. Gaco was still engaged in conversation with the dude, so I wandered over. This guy was tanked. His name was Jeff, and he was spouting some weird shit over and over, and the only reason it was funny to me was because he looked like what Jason Statham will be when he gets old and goes to pot. There was a girl sitting on the barstool next to us, and she was laughing at Jeff’s stupidity. As long as we were drinking, I didn’t care. It was a good time. The young lady’s name was Char – short for Charlene, and at some point she started to tell me about some personal stuff that was bothering her. I could see that she just needed to talk, so I guided her over to one of the covered picnic tables, as it had begun to sprinkle rain. She vented for a bit while Jeff continued to hold court at the bar. A few minutes later, Gaco walked over to us, looked at me and asked, “Do you want to go hang out on a boat?”

Now, you would think that someone with a bit of maturity and savvy would maybe ask a couple of questions at this point. Like perhaps, “Who’s boat?”, or “Isn’t it a bit late (midnight) to be going out on a boat?”

The mature and savvy me had taken the night off, evidently, so my immediate response was more like, “HELL YEAH!”

It turned out to be old, fat, loud Jason Statham’s boat. I looked at Char and asked her if she was willing to join us. She hesitated a bit, perhaps due to maturity and savvy, and said that she lived in Humboldt Park, and would need to make sure she got home safely. Gallant that I am, I told her that I would keep her safe and promised to make sure she made it back.  So we were four.

Gaco, Char, Me, and Jeff at Reggie’s. (Come on..he kind of looks like a grumpy, old Jason Statham, right?)

The first order of business was to make sure that we continued to be well-lubricated. Reggie’s didn’t do carry-out beer, so we jumped into a cab that Jeff had hailed without our knowing, and headed off. Up State Street and around a corner was an establishment that would cater to our needs. I was volunteered to go in and pick up the beer. As I was waiting for the guy at the register to acknowledge my presence, I saw and smelled the food being prepared, and I just had to order some deep-fried onions, which made the rest of the cab ride to the marina very smelly. Jeff alluded to having party favors, which I understood to mean that he was in possession of some weed.

Jeff’s boat turned out to be a 45-foot sailcraft instead of the powerboat that I had imagined. The moon was very close to full, and because the sailboat was taking up the slip at the far end of the pier, we got to see an unobstructed view of the beautiful reflection on the calm waters of Lake Michigan. It was a soundless night, unsullied until all four of us decided that we needed to take a piss. The boat didn’t have a proper head, just a bucket, so the three boys stood at the end of the stern and whizzed into the lake, while Char squatted down on the edge of the pier next to the bow. Not a creature was stirring in any of the surrounding watercraft.

Down in the cabin, it was a bit cramped quarters. There wasn’t a lot of headroom, but as we sat down on the sleeping berths, it didn’t really seem to matter. The beer continued to flow, Jeff continued to be loud and boisterous, and Gaco continued to laugh at his antics. Old, fat Statham decided that I reminded him of Jeff Lynne from Electric Light Orchestra, and kept badgering me to sing, except he was asking for songs by other bands instead. I did my best to make him happy, but he’d usually interrupt me before I even got to the chorus lines.

About the time that I started wondering how my night ended up like this, Jeff half-stood up and said that it was time to get the party started. I was confused. Weren’t we already…? He reached into his pocket and pulled out a small envelope, then began bellowing for his mirror. I had no idea what he was talking about, until he grabbed a very small mirror – about four inches square -, plopped a little baggie and what looked like a credit card on top of the looking glass, and shoved it at me. “Here,” he brayed, “you cut it.” I just sat there and stared. “Come on,” he said. “You know what to do.”

Yeah, I’ve seen enough movies and television that I knew what was supposed to be done. But as most of you are already aware, I grew up rather sheltered. I didn’t have close friends in my childhood who used drugs of any kind. If asked, I couldn’t have told you which of my classmates sold or even used marijuana. I heard the terms “dime bag” and “roach” bandied about when I was in high school, but didn’t have a clue what they really were. That sheltered life continued into adulthood, as my family’s religion kept us separated from most other people on a social level. So I never was exposed to drugs or paraphernalia. I was 40 years old before I was even approached on the street with an offer to buy weed. It was only earlier in the summer of 2016 that I actually tried marijuana for the first time (I found that smoking it has little and less effect on me…edibles are a completely different story).

I continued to stare at the mirror, plastic card, and bag of cocaine for another couple of seconds, then just said, “I’d rather not.” Flabby, elderly Transporter-with-a-beard had this incredulous look on his face until all of a sudden, Gaco piped up. “I’ll do it!” he said. I watched as the mirror was passed to my right, and my couchsurfing guest began to empty the white powder onto the glass. He held the mirror with his left hand as he began to use the credit card (which turned out to be a rewards card from Horseshoe Casino in nearby Hammond, Indiana) to divide the pile of coke into four caterpillar-shaped lines  I didn’t even have to do the math. Four people, four servings.  Oh, shit.

“Uh, yeah,” I said. “None for me tonight.” Gaco looked up at me in a mixture of balefulness and amusement. Now he had to start over. Which was probably not a bad idea, because his squiggly lines didn’t look like the expertly cut ones I’d seen Denzel snort up in “Flight.” Old man Statham shook his head. Char didn’t say a word. She just stared greedily at the little piles of powder. ‘Who ARE these people?’ I wondered, ‘and how did I end up on some strange guy’s sailboat at 1am watching a scene from “Blow”?’

As Gaco finished putting the final touches on the three more generous lines of nose candy, Jeff pulled out a for-real $100 bill, just like in the movies. He rolled it up tight, grabbed the mirror, and snorted up the first little seam of chalky-looking powder. He handed it over to Char, who with no hesitation, sucked the second line up into her right nostril. She wiped her nose with one hand, and gave the mirror to Gaco with the other. I watched in detached fascination as this guy I agreed to let sleep in my home hunched himself over the mirror, with the cylindrical Benjamin Franklin shoved up his sniffer. Holding the reflecting glass in his right hand, he guided the money straw with his left over the last line of cocaine as it disappeared.

Now what? It occurred to me that Jeff had probably been a combination of drunk and high the entire evening. But what effect was the narcotic going to have on Char and Gaco? I had promised the Texan that he could sleep on my couch for a couple of nights while he was in town. I had also guaranteed Char that I would make sure she got home safely. Was I the only responsible party here?

The party continued, with more clinking of beer cans, and Jeff’s boisterous antics, with Gaco egging him on. Char got a little more quiet. She had been asking if the group could go back up topside for some air. The sailboat captain had no intention of leaving his cabin, so I gently guided the girl up the steps to the stern deck. The stars were brilliant in the sky, and the lake serene. We sat there as she talked about her family and the business she worked for. She wanted to join a walk for suicide prevention, as it had struck close to home in the past. I wanted to know how she was so expert at snorting coke. She gave me a wan smile and said that she had been doing drugs since she was 13. I didn’t know what to say to that. She continued about some of the problems that she had experienced and I began to see a woman who was fighting a lot of demons. She moved closer to me, then eventually into my lap. There was a spider on the stern rail, right next to where her finger rested. I pointed it out, lest she be startled by it. Rather than pull her hand away, she pushed it closer to the spider, and allowed it to walk up her finger. I told her that I could never do that, as I suffer from arachnophobia, and she told me also feared spiders. The only reason she felt like she could do it was because she was high from the coke, and felt a bit euphoric. Meanwhile, Gaco and Jeff’s conversation had muted, and we discovered that they had passed out and gone to sleep. Jeff had crawled up into the forward compartment, and Gaco was on one of the sleeping berths on the starboard side aft.

Char and I talked and sat for a while longer, then dawn began to break. I knew that I should get some sleep, and she said that she was exhausted as well. We made our way down into the cabin, and took up sleeping positions on opposite sides of the sailboat. I set my alarm for 7, because I remembered that I had left my car in a paid parking zone that would start up at 8am. Chicago is notorious for handing out expensive parking tickets, and I had no desire to get hit with another. I was able to get a good hour of rest before my phone began to chime. I woke Gaco up and told him we had to go. I gently shook Char until she opened her eyes. I reminded her of my promise to get her home, but she just looked at me and said that she was going to stay. I asked if she was sure. None of us really knew anything about Jeff except what he had told us about having been a stockbroker whose wife had divorced him and blamed him for the death of their daughter. He had bought the boat with what remained of his share of the sale of their house during the divorce. Char nodded and said she’d be fine. Well, she was an adult, so I told her goodbye and left with Gaco in tow.

He and I walked back towards Grant Park in the downtown area so it would be easier to catch a cab back to Reggie’s and my car. He was in good spirits, and we were both hungry. I told him there was a very good soul food restaurant in my neighborhood, and we decided breakfast would be an excellent idea. As we drove down Martin Luther King Jr. Drive towards Peach’s cafe, I admitted to him that I had never been in the presence of people using cocaine before.  He said it was his first time too. I looked at him in disbelief. “Dude!” I said. “You snorted down that line like you were a pro!”

“No, I actually didn’t,” he replied.

“But I saw you! You moved the rolled-up bill over the coke and it was gone!”

“That’s what you saw,” Gaco said as he smiled. “I actually tilted the mirror a bit and pushed the cocaine onto the floor of the cabin as I went over it. It was dark in the cabin, and nobody noticed.”

“If you didn’t want to do the coke, why didn’t you just say so? I did.”

“Well, Jeff seemed so intent on sharing with us, and I didn’t want to be a dick and disappoint him,” he said with a wink.

As I thought about the expensive little pile of powder hitting the grubby floor of Jeff’s sailboat, and how crazy the night had been, I started laughing out loud. Gaco joined in, and we were soon both in tears.  I parked the car on 47th and King Drive. “Let’s go get some shrimp and grits!”

 

*Couch Crash:  Within the global couchsurfing community, there are members who set up special events in their respective cities and towns. Usually occurring over a weekend, these events are open by invitation to couchsurfing members across the globe. It’s a nice way to showcase your city and bring a bunch of cool people from around the world together for some food, drink, activities, and fellowship.

 

 

Don’t Move

September 4, 2017

Chiang Mai, Thailand

 

Sitting completely still is not as much of a difficulty as I had imagined. If you told my mother that I said that, she would not believe a word. According to her, I was a very fidgety child, and neither of my brothers or I could be counted on to stay in place for more than a few seconds. “Rambunctious” was the term she applied to us, which was a nicer way of saying “unruly” or “very naughty”. At any rate, sitting quietly was apparently beyond my abilities when I was a child.

In my quest to experience life to the fullest, I look for new challenges wherever they appear. Obviously, some of them are more scary than others, and I’m not always ready to accept them. My fears of heights, spiders, and looking stupid continue to confront me at times. I have overcome them somewhat, however. I have stood in the glass boxes hanging out over the sidewalk along Wacker Drive from the 103rd floor of the Willis (Sears) Tower in Chicago. It only took me three attempts on different visits to the observation deck to actually make that step. I allow some small spiders to inhabit my shower here in Thailand. I made an agreement with them that if they stay put, don’t invade my space or start crawling around while I bathe, I’ll let them have their homes and their lives. The large Huntsman spiders have not signed an agreement, however, and they continue to die as soon as I see them. As far as my self-consciousness goes, I no longer have to be drunk to get up and sing karaoke. I will dance in public. I’m hoping to get an opportunity for open mic night or some improv classes.

As I’ve said before, when presented an opportunity to try something new, I will say “yes” unless there is a good reason to say “no”. (Morbid fear still is a good reason sometimes.) Last week, there was an invitation on a local Facebook page looking for a nude model for a drawing/painting class here in the area. More specifically, they were looking for a “fat, nude model”. I was a little torn. I have always been on the heavy side for my entire adult life. And I’ve always been self-conscious about that fact. I seldom like my photographs, as they remind me that I’m not the muscular, trim, Fabio as I imagine myself. But I was intrigued by the challenge of being completely vulnerable in front of a group of strangers, so I didn’t allow myself to ponder over the “fat” part of the request, and I made the decision to reply to the message right away. Within a few hours I received a message from the woman who ran the studio. She told me that they were excited to be able to work with a live model (apparently, it’s a bit difficult to find people here who are willing to pose sans clothing), and that she would call me on Thursday to confirm. They were looking for someone who was heavy – at least 80kg (I’m a bit over 100kg) – and could spend the day Saturday sitting in one position for periods of time while the artists sketched, or used watercolors and oil paint to render a copy of a less-than-perfect figure.

I spent the next two days wondering if she was going to call me and tell me that I was chosen, or was going to let me off the hook. Part of me was kind of hoping for the latter, but honestly, I really wanted to have the experience. I visited the studio’s Facebook page, where they were inviting artists to join them for the event with the “fat, nude model”. The photographs of the paintings they used to advertise this made me wonder if I was actually what they were looking for. The models in these paintings were morbidly obese. I now found myself wondering if they would be disappointed in me.  Maybe they would feel cheated that I wasn’t as big as they had hoped for.  I had to laugh at the irony of worrying about being fat enough for the artists. On Thursday, I got the call from Pui, the woman who ran the studio. She told me that she would pick me up at 8:30 near the North Gate in Chiang Mai, and take me to the studio 20km away from the city. I would be paid a minimum of 700baht (a little over $20US), provided with lunch and snacks, and given stretch breaks throughout the day. The modeling would begin about 10am, and finish at 4:30, after which I would be taken back to the city.

Saturday morning came early as I was out late the previous night. I got up and showered, dressed, and packed my bag. As I rode into town, I began to wonder why exactly I had agreed to do this. I pushed the negative thoughts out of my mind and just focused on money (which made me wonder if that’s what prostitutes do) and the fact that I would hopefully have a cool story to write. After eating a quick breakfast of khao man gai (chicken with rice), I walked to the meeting spot at the North Gate. Pui was there waiting for me, along with another woman who was one of the artists. She then said that the rest of the group was joining us, and sure enough, four more people walked up. Pui was driving her pickup truck, which meant that we had four in the cab, and three others reclining in the bed with the art supplies and groceries. As I greeted each one in turn, I tried to not think about the fact that these people were paying to have me strip off my clothes and let them render my figure to paper/canvas. It was a little bit weird for me. But everyone was nice, and they didn’t seem to treat me as the object that I felt like.

There were two guys in the group. Lorenzo, from Italy, was a tall, thin, young man with long hair and a beard. Gio, shorter and stockier, was very dark-skinned, and I thought he might have been from India, but his accent said different, and he told me that he was Australian (although his heritage is Indian). One young woman from the UK had brought along her mother. Mia, and her mom (whose name escapes me) are both involved in NGO work to help developing countries. Hannah, the remaining girl grew up in Chiang Mai. She said that she was half native, which explained her fluent Thai speech. It was an amiable group, and I found myself relaxed in their presence, pushing to the back of my mind the reason why I was there with them. As we drove further away from the city, and into the wilderness, I realized that there was no turning back at this point. I was committed.

Pui’s place was a family farm, with groves of mango, papaya, and banana trees growing on the foothills of the mountain.  Pretty remote, and very beautiful. As we were driving up the rutted little dirt lane, I started thinking that this would be a good place to hide bodies. She and her parents had a homestay (guesthouse) on the premises and she had also built an open-air art studio out of mud and timbers, all by herself. After some light refreshments, we trekked out over a couple of hills to the studio.

Ten o’clock came, and the group had their easels all set up and their pencils/brushes/palettes all arranged. Hannah was on the couch (cut out of an old bathtub) where I would be sitting, trying out different poses that would suit the artists and be comfortable for me. I settled on one that looked like I could easily maintain for a length of time, and then it was the big moment. I took a deep breath and walked around the corner to undress. Thankfully, Pui had provided me a towel in which to wrap myself while I was naked, but not yet posing. Ready-or-not, here I come. I stepped out into the main room, dropped my towel, and sat down in the pose.  Six people were looking at me intently, sizing me up, checking from different angles. Lorenzo asked if I would take off my glasses, which actually helped, because with my near-sightedness, I couldn’t really see their eyes. I picked a spot on the wall across from the couch on which to focus my attention. Hannah set a timer for 20 minutes, and then the work began.

As I sat there without a stitch on in front of these people, I began to take stock of my life thus far.  I watched the blurry shapes in my peripheral vision move slightly – looking at me, looking at the easel, back to me, back to the easel-, heard the strokes of the pencils against paper, brushes on canvas, and I thought of all of the other crazy things I’ve done in my 49 years. When I was four, I ran ahead of my father on the pier, began climbing the lighthouse structure, and promptly lost my grip and fell onto the rocks, garnering a nice concussion (and probably my acrophobia) in the process. As teenagers, my friends and I used to regularly take inner tubes down the Chipola River in Florida, floating past snakes and alligators sunning themselves on the riverbanks. I’ve given speeches and presentations in front of crowds of hundreds or thousands. I quit my steady job with a good income and sold everything to move across the world to a place unfamiliar to me in both customs and language. Right before I made that plunge, I visited BDSM dungeons, went to a party as an enslaved man, rode through the streets of Chicago naked with a bunch of other bare-assed people. I tried illicit substances for the first time in my life. I often buy airline tickets on a whim to destinations without having any plans. But posing in the nude was one of the nuttiest things I ever did. I tried to imagine what my former coworkers would think if they knew.

The chime on Hannah’s phone caught me by surprise.  Twenty minutes had gone by very quickly, and she asked if I needed a break. I told the group that I was good for another five minutes if they wanted. My ankle had started to ache from the position, but it wasn’t so bad that I couldn’t tough it out for a bit longer. After the five minutes was up, I sat motionless while Hannah used strips of masking tape to mark the positions of my feet, body, and arm. I then grabbed a small piece of tape and placed it on my focus spot on the wall. I wrapped myself in the towel to walk around, as I felt it uncomfortable to be standing around talking while I was exposed. It was at this point, when I glanced at the sketches and rough outlines that the artists were doing, that I realized my mistake in choosing the pose in which I ended up. The pictures of me -relaxed on the couch, one foot in front of the other, one arm draped over the back, the other resting on my belly/leg with my hand over my thigh- looked like a pervert Netflix-and-chilling all by his lonesome. I couldn’t help but think, “Oh my God! That guy is sitting there pleasuring himself, and he’s ME!” Way too late to change the pose now.  (Fortunately, Hannah didn’t really like it either, so she took a creative liberty and moved my hand to my side instead of in my crotch area.) After about a five-minute break, I went back and sat down, posing for another 25 minutes.

We stopped for lunch at noon, and took a 90-minute break. Pui made some delicious pad thai, and I enjoyed a couple of helpings. I had put my clothes back on for this, of course, because eating naked is just too weird. After we returned to the studio, Mia began to play some 70’s music from her Spotify account. At first, it was amusing, because trying to be completely motionless while you are listening to “Stayin’ Alive”, “Play That Funky Music”, or anything by James Brown, is almost impossible. There was also an uncomfortable minute or two when some French musical duet came on. I couldn’t understand the words, but I definitely knew that the guy was trying to seduce the girl – and winning at it, too -because the moaning, heavy breathing, and grunting that was going on as well as the singing made it perfectly clear what was happening. I never stared at a point on a wall with more earnest focus in my life. I can’t help but wonder if she didn’t play that on purpose. Bitch. (Kidding!) But as much as I enjoyed the other tunes, they were problematic for me, because they gave me a sense of time. Now, sitting for 20 minutes was four songs, or maybe five. Or perhaps a sixth would begin, because we started in the middle of another. And because my back and my butt were really beginning to feel the strain of sitting (it wasn’t a cushy recliner, after all), I started to count songs and the time became my focus. Fortunately, Mia finished up her painting early, and decided she was too hot sitting in the studio. She packed up her materials and took her Blue-tooth speaker with her to the main house.

When 4:30 came, I was more than ready to quit. I put my shorts and t-shirt back on, grabbed the blanket and cushions, and headed back to the house with the remaining artists. We all enjoyed some more food and drinks. They had already asked me if this was my first time posing as a model. Lorenzo mentioned that many models have a very difficult time being completely still, and they were very impressed that I sat like a statue.  Pui asked if I would be interested in sitting for other studios in the future, because of the shortage of people willing to pose in the nude.  She also handed me an envelope containing 1,000baht, which was considerably more than I was promised. Additionally, they gave me one of the drawings. A very nice gesture, but I promise you, it’s not going up on my wall.

 

Would I pose in the nude again for the sake of art? I thought about it while I was sitting there, and the conclusion I came to was probably not. Being stationary in the same pose for that long got to be tiring. I wasn’t doing it because I needed the money. I wasn’t doing it because I knew that the artists needed me. The main reason I did it was because it was a new experience. Something that wasn’t necessarily on my bucket list, but came up and I was able to add it and cross it off. It was an interesting thing to do, and challenged my sensibilities. And it also provided me with something to write about.

Tied Up

July 24, 2017

Chiang Mai, Thailand

Sitting there on the base of the throne chair, holding her clothing and jewelry, I felt self-conscious. I didn’t know exactly what my role was. The large room was dimly lit, and there were perhaps a dozen others there to witness what was taking place.  About ten feet in front of me, she spun, suspended from the ring in the ceiling and completely trussed up with rope. She cried out in a mixture of pleasure and pain every time he smacked her, hit her with the end of another braided strand, or viciously twisted one of her exposed nipples. Her eyes remained closed, except occasionally when – and I don’t know how she knew- she was facing me… she would open them and look right at me to see if I was still watching.

I had met Dana just that day, when I cut short a holiday weekend trip to Milwaukee. She had sent me a request to stay at my place through Couchsurfing, but because of my planned travel, I was not going to be in town when she wanted to come. I asked one of my friends if he was available, and he agreed to host her. I returned to Chicago the day after she arrived, and I joined her and Ted for an afternoon walking around the city. I found Dana to be outgoing and fun to be around.  We walked along the lake shore and shared stories of travel experiences. I don’t remember why it came up, but I told a story of the time I had been blindfolded, bound, and handcuffed in a woman’s apartment while on vacation to another city. It had been a truly amazing and beautiful experience, as I found myself completely helpless and under the woman’s control. As erotic as the situation was, it did not culminate in sex. I left the encounter with a new found interest in BDSM, but had never attempted to pursue it further.

We also talked about why Dana was traveling with so much luggage. I couldn’t understand why a woman needed that many bags. She said she had to bring many pairs of shoes, because sometimes she wanted to dress up, sometimes to dance, and other reasons. I remember rolling my eyes at that. Such a diva, this one.  Perhaps that was why Ted had privately asked me if I could take over hosting responsibilities when I got back. I agreed, and we eventually made our way back to his condo to collect her bags. It was at this point that Dana told us that she had made a reservation to go try something…different, and wanted to know if we would be interested. She had found a kink dungeon in Chicago online and wanted to check it out. I glanced over at Ted, who looked more than a little doubtful about it. But I have developed a habit of saying yes to new opportunities when there is not a good reason for me to say no.  So I turned to Dana and said, “Absolutely!”

Dana informed me that we would have to use fake names, because she heard that nobody at these places uses their real ones. So she had decided to go as “Akiko”. I played along and said I would introduce myself as “Bill”, and then we could go as a married couple who were very curious about learning the ins and outs of BDSM. Dana laughed at this and we had a good time fabricating our story. Ted just rolled his eyes and shook his head. Then the three of us went to dinner.

After dropping Ted back off at his place, Dana turned to me in the car and said, “I need to be honest with you. This is not my first time going to one of these things.”

“I thought it might not be,” I replied. “It’s okay. I don’t mind going with someone who knows what’s going on.”

“No,” she insisted. “You need to understand. I do this often. Professionally.”

I raised my eyebrows. “You’re telling me that you are a..”

“Yes,” she interjected. “I’m an expert dominatrix. That’s what I’m doing here in Chicago. I’ve been in hotels for the past two weeks. I’m staying with you because I wanted a break to visit the city without seeing clients.”

I still had not pulled the car from the curb at this point. I just looked at her. And then it dawned on me. “That’s not shoes in your luggage, is it?”

“No,” she giggled a little. “Those are filled with my tools and costumes. I didn’t know how to tell you earlier, because I didn’t know how you would take it. I only invited you tonight because I thought you would be okay with it after hearing your story about the woman who handcuffed you and how you liked that experience.”

“Then lucky for me that I told you about it,” I replied. “Because I’m really curious now.”

And then I drove us to an unmarked location on the north side of Chicago, where we parked and got out. Dana, now Akiko, told me on the way that she was going to this party to meet a guy who was an expert in kinbaku, Japanese rope bondage. She wanted to be tied up.  Oooookaaayy, then.

In the dark, we walked up to a nondescript building where a few people were standing around outside.  “Hi,” an older man greeted us. “My name is Bill.”

Well, there went MY name for the evening. Thinking quickly, I introduced myself as Rob. Akiko said hello, then walked straight up to a guy who looked like one of the bad guys from a Mad Max movie. He was well over six feet tall, wore leather everything, including fingerless gloves, and sported a bright blue mohawk on his otherwise shaved head. This dude looked fucking scary. And to put the cherry on top, his nom de guerre was “Death Rattle”. Fuck. Me.

However intimidating Death Rattle looked, he was actually a very personable guy. He was the kinbaku master that Akiko was there to meet. “Bill” bid us all go inside, where he said there was plenty of food and drink. And he wasn’t lying. Spread around the basement of this warehouse-type building was a buffet of roast meat, vegetable dishes, and desserts. There were coolers full of beer and liquor at the bar. There were a couple of couches to sit on, and a few chairs. Beyond that, the room really did fit the description of a dungeon. Wood walls instead of stone, perhaps, and no actual burning torches, but the lack of illumination gave the place an ominous atmosphere. There were interesting and curious-looking contraptions placed around. Akiko walked with me around the room pointing out the furnishings and instruments, while instructing me as to their use. Some of the items were obvious, such as the cross in the corner with the eyelets for securing the participants with rope or chain. The ring in the middle of the ceiling was of interest. It was anchored to a set of heavy crossbeams, and Akiko told me that was to allow it to support a great deal of weight. “For when I get suspended,” she said rather cheerfully. She then began to talk to Death Rattle some more about what they were going to do. I felt like an interloper at that point, so I took my bottle of Corona and wandered around the room. We had gotten there late, I think, because the other attendees seemed to have finished with whatever kinky things they had been doing, and were chilling out on the sofas with drinks. I didn’t really feel like approaching any of them. I began to wonder what I was getting myself into.

After conferring with Death Rattle for about five minutes, Akiko walked over to me, grabbed me by the arm, and led me back to the bar. “I need to drink before this happens,” she declared. So I grabbed a bottle of Don Julio and poured shots for the both of us. And then two more. And a third round. “I’m ready now,” she said, and waltzed over to the waiting henchman to be tied up. I followed, not sure what was expected of me.  I quickly found out as she rather nonchalantly lifted off the blue cotton dress she was wearing and handed it to me. She was wearing nothing else but a skimpy, lacy pair of black panties. There was a tall-backed armchair atop a pedestal facing the center of the room. I sat on the base of it, not knowing if it was proper for me to sit in the actual chair. A few other people walked over to observe. Death Rattle began to wrap rope around her torso and quickly fashioned a harness. She looked a little nervous. He then looped another rope up through the ring and began to attach it to the one that was tightly bound around her body. All of a sudden, Akiko called out to me to come over. Before she was hoisted up off the ground, she used her still-free hands to take off her necklace and earrings. “Keep my jewelry for me,” she pleaded. I walked back to the throne base and sat, dutifully holding her possessions.

I was not sure what I was supposed to be feeling. We came to this together, and the other participants at this kink party assumed that we were a couple. I did find myself attracted to her, but I had also just met her not twelve hours before. Should I be jealous that she was allowing another man to handle her body, smacking her naked butt with his hands or with the rope whip he held? When he grabbed her tit and pinched while he twisted, which made her shriek, did I have the right to covet his position? I watched him for a few seconds as she spun, dangling five feet off the ground. He didn’t show any expression of enjoyment. He didn’t look turned on. He looked like he was doing a job. As if this was just another day at work doing carpentry or laying bricks. Somehow, this was comforting. I returned my gaze to Akiko. Her eyes remained closed as she rotated, a grimace on her mouth as the ropes must have been cutting into her. But there was also a hint of a smile, and I could tell from that and the sounds she was making that she was enjoying the experience. The others standing around me were quietly observing as if this was a ritual.

When Death Rattle finally lowered Akiko to the floor and unbound her from the ropes, she walked over to me and smiled as she took her dress and jewelry. She didn’t put any of it on. She simply said, “I’m hungry, and I need to sit down.” I led her over to one of the couches where she fell into the cushions. I went over to fix her a plate – lamb chops and steak with some potatoes. She was unable to hold the plate and utensils herself, so like a parent with a child, I cut her meat and delivered it to her mouth on a fork. She was so exhausted that she nearly fell asleep chewing. Some of the others around us began to comment on how beautiful the scene had been, and to ask questions about how long we had been together, because we seemed like such a close couple. Akiko was in no shape to answer, so I fielded the questions as best I could, making up ambiguous lies and being as enigmatic as I knew how. (I’m actually not too bad at it) When she was finished eating, Akiko stood and dressed, and told me she was ready to go. It was after 1am when we left the dungeon that was hidden in plain sight on a Chicago street. I drove Dana home in silence and put her to bed.

For those of you who may be wondering, no, I did not sleep with Dana. There were many reasons why, and those reasons were both hers and mine. She had introduced me further to a world that I knew existed, but had very little practical education and I thanked her for it. She told me later that there was another fetish club in the city that was going to have an open house the following Sunday, and that I should attend with a date.  I did, and I was accompanied by a lovely young Russian woman, who surprised me when she agreed to go without me actually asking directly.

Perhaps I’ll write the details of that experience and others at a later date. But those who are into the fetish lifestyle walk among the rest of us, and you may never know who they are. I believe that many of us are more curious and open to it than we wish to admit. The trilogy, 50 Shades of Grey, however awful the prose, has brought the conversation more out into the open, so perhaps that is beginning to change. Like it or not, sexuality is an important part of our existence, and definitely worth exploring.

Severance

June 21, 2017

Chiang Mai, Thailand

I said goodbye to my brother yesterday. Not in the morbidly permanent fashion that it sounds like, exactly. Nobody has died yet. But it was possibly the last time.

My youngest brother contacted me for the first time in over two years on a messaging app. I woke up to the missive asking if I was alive, how I was doing, did I need anything. After telling me that he would be going to Japan for several months after summer ended, he mentioned that he had just attended the annual convention held by the church in which we both grew up and that I left over three years ago. He then stated that “we are getting very close”, meaning that the end is near. Maybe it is. Looking around at the state of the world, who knows? But for over 40 years of my life, every little upheaval in world politics, turmoil of other religious institutions, or literal earthquake have indicated that the end was near.  My parents thought that the end would come before I started attending school. But it didn’t. And we were sure it would end before I started puberty, began driving, graduated high school, became a card-carrying adult, got married, etc. But it didn’t. And it didn’t end before my own kids went to school and grew up. No matter how dire the predictions have been over the last century, no matter how certain the church leadership was, the end didn’t come.

As humans, our religious beliefs have a profound effect on our lives. They may influence what we select to wear, what we choose to eat, or what we decorate our homes with. Some religions dictate harsh rules, some very strongly encourage certain behaviors, and some pretty much let you do what you want but please toss some money into the coffers, won’t you? In my case, we were forbidden sex before marriage, smoking, use of drugs without a doctor’s prescription. We were “strongly encouraged” to dress in modest fashion, to not attend university, to refrain from seeing movies with certain ratings. There wasn’t a whole lot of “do as you please”. The leadership would find ways to use verses from the Bible to control us as to how much alcohol we could drink, what types of haircuts were acceptable, and even the language we would use to describe things. It really was all about control. Sometimes, the explanations they gave for their directives didn’t really make sense to me. Other times, their interpretations seemed contradictory, or even defied logic. Eventually, I began to question my beliefs. When basic questions about the teachings went unanswered to my satisfaction, I became disillusioned.

I remained pretty quiet about my misgivings, however. In the broader picture, life wasn’t bad for us. I could trust my fellow believers not to steal from me. I was fairly confident that my family would stay intact, as divorce is only allowed in extreme circumstances, one being adultery, which was relatively rare. My friends didn’t smoke or use illicit drugs. I didn’t know anyone in prison. And because research was encouraged, I was pretty confident that other Christian religions were not teaching or adhering to the Bible, which they claimed to follow. I know, for example, and can show proof that Christmas, Easter, and other important “holy days” are steeped in paganism and have zero to do with Christianity. As far as following Jesus’ teachings of being nice, honest, and generally decent to others, our religion was pretty good about it.

The organization behind the teachings was also pretty good about having us be judgmental about others. I was taught to see “worldly” people, or those outside of our church as “bad associations”. I was led to believe that those not of our religion really didn’t have true love for others. They only showed love when they felt they would get something in return. They didn’t love on principle. And that if I spent more time with them than I had to either at school or at work, then I would become infected with their way of thinking and acting. Those in our church who chose to have association with “worldly” people may not be called out on it officially, but we definitely looked down on them as “weak” Christians. I was definitely guilty of arrogance myself, as I stayed close to what I was told to do.

Even as a young person, I rose in the ranks of the organization, obtaining privileges (which were NOT glory, even if they really were) of service. I was recognized as a full-time minister at age sixteen, was selected to go work at the headquarters of the organization as a volunteer (a very prestigious honor) at twenty. Later, after I married, I was given other prominent positions in the church, eventually becoming one of the leaders in the local congregations. I regularly taught from the podium in front of dozens or even hundreds of people. I was responsible for helping to maintain the spirituality of smaller groups within the congregation. I sometimes even sat in judgment of wrongdoers, with the hope of helping to retain them in the church through repentance, but expelling them if necessary. That was definitely not my favorite part of the assignment.

Expulsion from the church is like death, and often considered worse. If you are no longer part of the congregation, you are treated as a leper. Your family (unless immediate family that you still lived with) and friends has no contact with you, if they keep to the faith. The idea is that the sudden loss of all communication with those you know and love will shock you into repentance. And it also serves to keep the congregation from being infected by your willful wrongdoing and attitude. It makes perfect sense. Or at least it did to me. I personally experienced having to stop communication with some of my friends, and even my own brother (yes, my youngest one) for a time while he was expelled. It was difficult for me, and I was very happy when he was returned to the flock. Later, because of a pretty serious wrong that I committed, I was expelled myself. It took a long 2 1/2 years for me to get back into the church. In the meantime, I didn’t speak with my parents or my brothers, or anyone else in the church. My wife and children who still lived with me continued our daily lives together, but it was a strain at times, as I no longer could attend gatherings with other friends with them, or entertain at our home. So, yes, there was definitely a reason for me to work hard to return.

However, I never really returned in spirit. I attempted to, yet I found the proper assistance by the leadership in the local congregation to be lacking, even though they promised it. I was in a different city and they were new to me, which should have been a good thing, as it was a fresh start for me. But I felt abandoned and ignored much of the time. I found myself simply going through the motions to keep the status quo.  Making friends was always easy for me, though, and soon I was a pretty popular member of the group. I often set up gatherings at our house and entertained as much as possible. I looked for ways to help others when I could. But I never really felt at home anymore. I still couldn’t square the teachings with my own hidden personal beliefs. I had started to hone my critical thinking skills and my bullshit meter was constantly going off. It always had been, actually, but I chose to mute it in my head.

My marriage had never been a satisfying and happy one.  I often felt trapped, but kept silent about it. The statement I made before about how I didn’t fear my parents divorcing now has the caveat of knowing that many of the marriages are unhappy and soul-sucking relationships, and that the outward bliss shown is many times a facade. When I returned to the congregation after my expulsion, I was honest with one of the local leaders. I told him that living forever in paradise (the Bible doesn’t really offer Heaven or Hell, but that’s a whole different topic) was not appealing to me if I had to stay with a woman that I despised. He didn’t know how to respond to that, so he just laughed it off like I was telling a joke. But I found myself living the same lie as before. And I started being more bold about stating my feelings.

The turning point for me came when I began to see a therapist. In the bad old days of the religion, seeing a professional psychologist was considered taboo. The church elders were supposed to be able to help with any problem you may have, because mental illnesses were simply spiritual failings. Eventually, the organization leadership recognized that they were woefully inept at helping people and it became okay to seek professional assistance. I know now why they were afraid of it. My therapist actually just listened to me. She never told me what I should do. She simply let me talk. After a while, I began to trust her enough to tell her about my true feelings and what I was going through. It was difficult to talk about the misery of my marriage or the misgivings I had about my beliefs. I felt like I was being unfaithful to my entire life. But eventually, I heard my own voice. And instead of her saying anything about how I should handle it, I knew for myself what I had to do. After steeling myself for the impact of the fallout, I finally left my wife.

I moved to the city and began to attend a different congregation of the church. I wasn’t ready to walk completely away from everything. I hoped that the change of scenery in my personal life would help me to be happy in the religion. The local elders actually did make a real attempt to welcome me and give me a home there, but I found my bullshit meter going off every time we discussed the teachings from the church literature. It became unbearable, so I stopped going. I eventually told my parents that I no longer was going to attend, because I no longer believed.  After a year apart, I asked my wife for a divorce, and told her that she was free to remarry, because by that time I had already been sexually involved with someone else. This was the death-knell to my relationship with my family. I knew that it would be, and I accepted it. I could have been untruthful to my wife and said that I hadn’t slept with anyone else, but I was tired of living one lie, and didn’t want to live a different one. I have resolved to try to be honest about who I am. It makes me feel much better.

I have very little to no contact with my parents. Once in a while, I send them a message to let them know that I’m still okay and that I still love them. My mother sends a short reply of thanks and returns the love. My son follows the standard and is out of touch. My daughter has recently begun to ignore the rules and now has conversations with me online, but I know she feels guilty about it. I tread carefully, and know that at any time, she may stop communicating with me again. I lost contact with all of my friends from my previous life. Everyone I count as a friend currently is from 2013 onward, with only a couple of exceptions at this time. But I am happier now than I ever was when I lived a lie.

My brother reached out to me to try to get me to come back. It probably broke his heart when it was clear that I have no intentions of returning. He responded that his way of life was what was best for him, and that he wished me well. Then simply, “bye.”

Pick a Topic, Any Topic

June 10, 2017

Chiang Mai, Thailand

I have so many things that I want to write about right now. So, I’m going to just throw some scattershot thoughts out there for a bit.

If you have ever wondered what became of all of the old Singer sewing machine frames and treadles, rest-assured. They are not occupying landfill space. They are all in southeast Asia, repurposed as table legs. Many of the treadles still work, so it’s kind of fun to rock them with your feet as you sit down eating your food or enjoying an iced coffee.

Speaking of food, I went to the market in my little village this morning. There is a large, open-air space that is covered with a tin roof on one edge of town. Each morning, vendors can be found selling fresh vegetables, herbs, and meat. The meat is about as fresh as you could hope for, the animals most likely having been slaughtered the night before. Next to the different cuts of meat that are still being butchered, there rests the head of the unfortunate pig. The chickens are either sold whole, or in pieces. Beef, fish, other fowl such as ducks are also available. I wandered through the stalls marveling at the abundance of fresh produce. Last week, I purchased a toaster oven, an electric pan, and a rice cooker, all second-hand. I then went to a small general store and bought other supplies for my “kitchen”, such as a knife, cutting boards, bowls, and spatulas. I realized that I have not cooked anything (hot water over instant ramen does NOT count) since early December of last year, and I really miss it. So, even though it will probably be more expensive for me to do so, I want to prepare some of my own food. But, walking through the market today, I didn’t buy anything. I realized that I am intimidated. While I recognize many of the ingredients available, I am stopped because I don’t have little jars of spices with names in English at home. I don’t know how to ask for anything without pointing. I don’t know what herb that is they are selling. And I just know that if I do buy meat and vegetables to make a dish, I’m likely to forget something and it’s not going to come out right, and then there’s the storage issues and I’m going to have to clean up without a proper sink and all kinds of other excuses… Basically, I’m being a coward.

On the bright side, I discovered a small café/food stall that offers khao kha moo, which is stewed pork leg over rice. It’s one of my favorite dishes over here in Thailand. It’s served with chopped, pickled cabbage and sliced boiled eggs. On the side you’ll find a savory and spicy red sauce to add. It’s absolutely delicious. I have had it in the city of Chiang Mai several times at the stall operated by a lady in a white cowboy hat who was featured on Anthony Bourdain’s show. But I didn’t know where to find it in the village of San Kamphaeng, where I currently work and live. So, it was a nice find. I’m building a small collection of favorite places to eat khao soi, pad kapow, khao man gai tod, and pad thai.  I’m now almost confident enough to order these things without having to consult my pronunciation list, although I still screw up from time to time.

If I wish to become fluent in the Thai language, I’m going to have to dedicate time for lessons. I’m also going to have to lose my ego and just go ahead and start asking for help. I’m going to have to let myself make mistakes and have people helpfully correct me. In one way, it really helps me to be patient with my students, knowing how difficult it is to remember the words. These past couple of weeks I have been drilling my second-grade students in names of family relationships. “Father, mother, sister, brother”, etc. They have gotten those down pretty well, but are having more difficulty with “parents” and “children”. It’s repetition that is key, and the fact that I oftentimes cannot remember the Thai word for some object or food really helps me to empathize with my students. I’m possibly going to make flash cards for myself to practice remembering the words and proper pronunciation.

The ride into Chiang Mai from San Kamphaeng was beautiful. I am still in awe of Doi Suthep, the mountain on the west side of the city. The way that the clouds come rolling over the top of the peaks, shrouding them from view is still mesmerizing. I grew up and lived most of my life in flat parts of the country. While I did live for a year in the Mohonk mountain area of New York state, and then a few years in northern Virginia close to the Shenandoahs, I’m still taken aback when I see the majesty of the large, looming outcroppings. Chiang Mai area is surrounded by mountains, and the topography creates some interesting weather patterns. I hope that the weather isn’t the rainy variety when I get ready to ride back home later.

I’m sitting in a coffee shop in the Nimman Road area of Chiang Mai while I’m writing this. I rode into town to meet someone that I connected with on a certain dating website. She’s also American, a few (okay, several) years younger than me, and it’s simply a friendly meeting. I’m cool with that. From our online conversations, she seems to have a great sense of humor and is wickedly sarcastic. She just sent me a message to let me know she’s walking this way. (For the record, Danielle, if you get to read this, I checked my phone, not to see if you responded to my message, but to remind myself of your name.)

That’s all the time I have for this post. Still have lots more to talk about. If you have anything in particular you would like me to write about, let me know. I’ll try to work it into an upcoming story.

Gladiator

May 29, 2017

Chiang Mai, Thailand

I’m in a love-hate relationship. Not with an individual, but with a group. Actually nine groups. Nine groups of 32 – 35 little individuals that are in my charge for one hour each twice a week. I’m supposed to be teaching them how to speak, read, and write English, but at least half of those hours are spent being a cop, judge, and prison warden. It’s exhausting.

My job as a teacher at the local government school started on May 16. That was the day that approximately 1500 students, ranging from Kindergarten to 6th grade, began walking onto the school grounds through the front gate at 7:15am. Each day, they queue up single file into small groups of perhaps 10 or 12 before the Thai teacher who has gate duty stops the line. They are then directed to wai* in the direction of the teacher as they greet her (usually a her) with the standard “sawaddee ka/krub”, then turn around and repeat the formal gesture in the direction of the small Buddha altar at the entrance of the school. After that, they are free to walk to the commissary/cafeteria for breakfast or to play on the soccer field or in the outdoor gymnasium until time for morning ceremony. Every other week, I am the foreign teacher scheduled to be there to greet the students with “good morning!”, or “hello!” so they remember that English is an important part of their curriculum.

The morning ceremony begins at 8am with all of the classes lined up around the soccer field with their respective teachers and assistant teachers. That is unless it is currently raining or the field is still soaked from a previous downpour. The ceremony consists of the Thai national anthem, played by the school band while two students raise the Thai flag up the pole. The goal is to have the flag hit the top of the pole at the exact moment the anthem finishes. But this rarely happens. Usually, the white, blue, and red striped standard rises in a jerky slow motion until about two meters from the terminus, then when the music ends, it is hoisted up at a frantic clip to an abrupt stop. After that, some Buddhist prayers are recited, a full minute of silence is (mostly) observed, and then the King’s anthem is played. If there are no speeches or awards to be given, the ceremony is over in about ten minutes. If there are speeches, then it can drag on for twenty. Bureaucrats everywhere love to listen to themselves drone on, and Thailand is no different. Even if nobody is paying attention. By 8am, the sun is powerfully making its presence felt, and it can be stifling unless there is a breeze. I’ve witnessed kids passing out in the heat as the school director bloviates about mostly meaningless and inconsequential items. Well, I’ve been told that it’s mostly unimportant stuff. I don’t understand any of it yet.

After filing back to their classrooms in rigid lines, the kids are all given a milk in individual plastic bags accompanied by straws with which to drink it, Capri Sun-style. I retreat to the little office that I share with Hans, another English teacher from Holland. It’s not air-conditioned, but is somewhat open-air with vented block masonry. The openings on the lower portion of the wall are covered with tape in an effort to keep rats or other animals from intruding. I doubt that it really works, because the other day my black dress shoes, which I leave at the school, smelled like a cat had peed in them. I stay in the office until first period ends at 9:30, as I have no teaching assignments during that slot. I’m pretty happy with that. I sometimes work on creating flash cards or other learning materials, but most of the time I’m busy on Facebook. The plastic resin chair that I sit on is uncomfortable for long periods, so I’m going to try to find a nice, cushy, second-hand office chair that reclines. Because I can spend up to three hours a day in the “teachers’ lounge” if I choose not to go out for coffee during my breaks, or back to my apartment which is only a short distance from the school.

As I head to the classrooms to begin the instruction, I feel both anticipation and dread. Anticipation because I enjoy interacting with 1st and 2nd grade kids who are brimming with eagerness to learn English. Dread, because there aren’t any of those. The Thai government has seen fit to require one hour of English instruction each day for all classes from 1st grade on. And that’s great, because Thailand lags far behind most other ASEAN countries in English fluency and understanding. But as we all know, mandating something does not automatically make it work. There is very little support for the teachers who must now add this to their repertoire of lesson planning. I’m lucky enough to be a native speaker of English, but the Thai faculty assigned to this don’t always speak the language well themselves. I had to ask repeatedly for a copy of the schoolbooks that the students are using. And I have yet to be introduced to the Thai teachers who are assigned to the classes on the alternating days that I’m not giving instruction to a particular classroom. It makes it impossible to coordinate a comprehensive lesson planning strategy. It feels like the school is not really taking the teaching of English to their students seriously. So how can I expect the kids to take it any differently?

“Hello, class!” I call out as I enter the front of the classroom. “Hello, class!” has been the standard reply from most of them up until now. I strain to listen for and recognize the small voice giving the correct response, “Hello, Teacher Bob!” From this point on, it’s usually all on me to maintain order and discipline to the class of almost three dozen children. The form (or homeroom) teacher usually quickly heads out of the room to escape for the next hour. I can’t say that I blame them.  Depending on which grade I am teaching, I alternating my lessons. Each class gets a little bit of introduction training. We work on “My name is..” and “what is your name?” Some kids get it. Some still don’t. I drill them on the phrasing as a class, and also individually. I will walk between the cramped rows of desks and stop in front of a random student, crouch down to their level, and say, “My name is Teacher Bob. What is YOUR name?” Much of the time, I get a blank stare as they try to comprehend what I am saying to them. I find that this is equally true for both 1st and 2nd graders. Sometimes, I am gratified to hear them reply, “My name is POOM” or “My name is MIMI.” I will say that it’s much easier for me if they have chosen a nickname from the English language. Although, it does lead to some weirdness. “My name is Apple/Cherry/Beer/PingPong/Icy/Mean/Earth.” Beer? I’ve met three Beers since I’ve gotten here. And they were all female. I swear I’m not making this up when I tell you that I saw a post in the one of the local Chiang Mai Facebook groups by a woman named Doughnut.

Honestly, the Thai kids are beautiful. They are generally very nice and polite. And they really do look up to their teachers, especially the foreign ones. The desire to please is definitely there. If I give an assignment to write their names, fill in blanks, or draw a picture, they are constantly walking up to me with the book or paper to show me what they have done to see if I approve. I am mobbed from the time I walk into the general population before and after classes. They shout greetings in English to me, run up for high fives and hugs. It feels so weird still to be hugging or even touching a stranger’s kid. I know I’ll get used to it, but I still find myself suppressing the urge to look over my shoulder for the disapproving parent. I sometimes also will be greeted after school or on the weekend when I’m in one of the local shops or cafes. Here’s my problem: I don’t know the kid’s name. I cannot remember if they are even in one of my classes. The truth is, I have a very difficult time telling the children apart. I know this will possibly sound cliché or racist, but they kind of all look the same to me right now. Obviously, there are some who are smaller, taller, rounder, skinnier, or with different teeth, but it seems like there are the same 10 kids with their clones running around the school. It doesn’t help that they wear uniforms. Most every boy has the same haircut. Pretty much all of the girls have their long, black hair parted in the middle and braided pigtails with blue ribbons on either side.

On the flip side, the kids can also be monsters. Some days, half of my time is spent putting kids back in their seats, confiscating rulers or other objects being used as swords or alternative distractions, slapping a metal ruler on one of the old, wooden desks to recapture the attention of students who continually turn around to talk to their neighbor. (I got myself the metal ruler after shattering one of the plastic rulers that I took away from someone. I felt pretty bad about that.)  I’ve had to put repeat offenders in time-out in the corner. Truthfully, I understand why a teacher might be tempted to tie or duct tape a kid to their seat. I’ve seen the Thai teachers smack the kids with their hands or with a bamboo rod when they misbehave. I grew up in a time when corporal punishment was acceptable in the classroom, and we NEVER showed disrespect. I am not going to go down that road, however. I am attempting other means to control the classes. I’ve proposed the idea of having my own classroom, an English lab, where the kids would have to come to MY turf, where I am in control of the surroundings. If I can control the environment, I will have a much easier time with classroom management. So far, the assistant director of the school is amenable to the idea, but also non-committal, as he needs to ask the school director and probably go through some labyrinthine Thai bureaucratic quagmire to get it done. I’m going to be patiently optimistic for now. Meanwhile, I’m fighting the battle for supremacy in the coliseum.

I cannot really be angry at the kids. It’s hot in the rooms. The building where my classes are has no air conditioning, and the outside temperatures can easily reach over 100 degrees Fahrenheit. There are fans, but they only do so much. The classroom doors stay open, as do the shutters on the other side, but in addition to allowing a slight breeze to flow through, the openings also allow for distractions. Another problem that I have discovered is that the kids may be under the influence of sugar. The commissary, in addition to providing a hot meal, also sells snacks. I’ve seen kids eating popsicles, cookies, and candy for breakfast. I’m pretty sure that is not conducive for a proper physical and mental state that is needed for learning. And I’m also pretty sure that the school makes a profit on the sale of these stimulants, so complaining about it will fall on deaf ears. But it can make my job hell.

So I look forward to my alone time in the small, fan-only lounge with the uncomfortable plastic chair, where I can take a respite from my gladiatorial battles with the army of Lilliputians. Speaking of which, it is time for me to take up arms and go forth to the arena.

*wai:

The Thai greeting referred to as the wai (Thaiไหว้pronounced [wâi]) consists of a slight bow, with the palms pressed together in a prayer-like fashion.   (wikipedia)

They Still Call Me Porny (Part Two)

May 27, 2017

Chiang Mai, Thailand

As I mentioned previously, I have an addictive personality. Unfortunately, I’m not as addicted to writing as I am to other things that are less rewarding. It’s taken me a long time to force myself to sit down and tell more of this story.

Looking back, I sincerely regret the times that I sat in front of my desktop computer in the home office making conversations with people who weren’t actually in front of me while my kids asked me to come outside and play with them. That is time that I can never ever get back. That’s a very heavy realization. But those conversations were becoming my life, what I existed for.

The prevailing view of online dialogue has long been one of suspicion. The image of a sweaty, fat, bald guy wearing a grubby white wife-beater pretending to be a cute 15-year-old high school sophomore to gain the trust of other cute 15-year-old girls has always been the poster for “don’t talk to strangers on the Internet!” And to be fair, that has sometimes been exactly the truth. But my experience with chatrooms was not so much dealing with people who were posing, or pretending. The anonymity of the internet actually helps to create the opposite effect, in my opinion. Sure, people may lie about their age, their body shape, their occupations, but if you pay attention, the real them is what they are exposing. You see, when we are face to face with the “real” people in our lives, our parents, our spouses, co-workers, bosses, fellow worshippers, etc., we many times put on a mask or a facade. There are expectations of these other people that we must live up to. We often don’t really let those people see who we really are inside, because we fear the judgement that will follow. “What? You hate the sweater I bought for you?/ You don’t find me as attractive as that woman who is behind the counter?/ You think my idea for the office is stupid and you really don’t work as hard as you pretend to?/ You don’t really BELIEVE IN GOD???”

We constantly lie to those close to us with our actions and our dispositions. And we lie to ourselves in doing so. But, when in front of the computer screen where nobody really knows who we are, we are free to express our reality, our actual feelings and opinions. Because nobody there can hurt us with their judgement. If you don’t think this is true, try looking at online comments about race, politics, or other social issues, and tell me that those people who voice (text) some of the worst vitriolic statements would EVER say that out loud in front of real people who expect a certain standard of behavior and modicum. So real self-expression is buried deep until an opportunity for “masquerade” presents itself.

I was never able to talk freely about my thoughts and feelings to those around me. I had doubts about the religion that I was raised in and that all of my family and friends belonged to, but those had to be suppressed. I couldn’t speak out loud about how I was unhappy in my marriage, about my crush on a supervisor at work, or how much I liked Barry Manilow’s music. But when I was in the chat rooms, I could. I found people there who listened, and commented. Sometimes, the comments were not necessarily what I wanted to read, but I didn’t feel like I couldn’t express my feelings. And as usual, I also became a good listener to those who were trying to get things off their own chest in the chat room. Sure, sometimes I mocked them, but I would always do it gently, and usually make them laugh at their own fears. People in that room became my confidants, my sounding boards, my crying towels. One of them, who called herself Maggie_May (because she loved that Rod Stewart song), was a few years my senior, lived in western Canada, and was in a loveless marriage herself, became one of my best friends. I could tell Cindy (her real name, as she disclosed to me after a long time) just about anything that was on my mind. And she felt free to do the same. Sometimes we had private conversations outside of the room, but usually we just added our own honest comments to the running dialogue that was scrolling up our screens.

We all acknowledged what being in the chat room meant to us. Those friendships became real. I remember an occasion when one of the regulars disappeared from the room. Louise was an elderly grandmother with a very sharp sense of humor and one of the favorite personalities in CE1, the chat room that I frequented. After a few days, someone who was pretty close to Louise told us the sad news that the spritely older woman had died. One of her children had reached out to this person and told the complete stranger that his mother had passed, and that for some weird reason, Louise had wanted this group of anonymous people to know. We were able to get the email address that connected us to the family, and many of us wrote lengthy letters of condolence to them, telling them how much their mother/grandmother/auntie had meant to us. We told stories of how funny and caring she was, and how she had touched our lives. Those family members may have never known the awesome person that Louise revealed to us, but I’m certain that they were taken aback by the outpouring of support from this digital community.

The ability to express oneself freely and without fear of judgement by loved ones or peers can become addiction. We recognized that ourselves. There was a term that someone in the room coined for people who were in our “real” lives. We called them “shadowcasters”. Shadowcasters didn’t really understand us, not the real us. They only saw the person that we showed them. And because of that, we longed to retreat into the safety of CE1, where we were among friends.  One occurrence that I’ll never forget was when the husband of one of the chat room members entered CE1. His wife, who was a regular, had confessed to us that she had cheated on her husband with a man she met online in another chat room. And that she felt horrible about it. She either got caught, or admitted it to her husband, and he got very upset and tossed his wedding band down into the toilet and flushed it. She was destroyed by the thought of her marriage falling apart because of what she had done. So, after a couple of days of her absence from the room, her husband came in and identified himself. He wanted to know why. Why was his wife spending so much time in this ethereal place with people she didn’t really know? What was the attraction?

Many in the room were sympathetic towards the man. They tried to tell him how much his wife loved him and that she was terribly sorry about her actions. A few were hostile, blaming the guy for not paying attention to her so that she had do find solace elsewhere. I chose a different path. I reached out to the guy in a private message. My first goal was to try to distinguish if he was really who he said he was, and not just a troll (yes, they do exist). I paid close attention to his responses and I really got the feeling that he was torn up by what had happened. I could sense the anger and sadness and confusion pouring out of him. So for the next half-hour or so, I calmly had a discussion with him about the addiction that his wife was experiencing. I told him that it was none of my business whether he stayed with her or got a divorce, but that if he chose to stay, then he needed to understand just what kind of hold that chat rooms had over his wife. I explained about the acceptance, and the freedom to be, that the room offered. I spoke of my own struggles, how I often neglected my own family because I could not break free. I told him that he would have to be a support to his wife if she were to overcome this addiction, that he would have to be there for her, just like if she was recovering from enslavement to heroin, because the pull to come back would be there. This had become home for her. And she was going to miss it terribly. He was going to have to work hard to become her home again. After I finished, he didn’t tell me what he was going to do. I don’t think he had decided. But he thanked me for the insight into what I call “chat addiction”, and said he had no idea that it could be that powerful.

It wasn’t all somber and melancholy, of course. Much of the time we had great fun in CE1. We made jokes, satirized events and each other. One of the funniest games we played was “Buffalo Chat”.  Or maybe I just remember it fondly because I helped to invent it. I don’t remember the context, but someone made an offhand comment about “buffalo gals”, which was a line or name from some silly song that came from my dad’s era, I think. Someone else picked it up and turned it into “buffalo cops” or something. I tossed “buffalo” into another phrase, and then with some encouragement, all kinds of hell broke loose. There was “Ally McBuffalo”, “Little Buffalo on the Prairie”, “The Tale of Two Buffalo”, and just about anything else that someone’s imagination came up with. The scroll upwards on the screen was almost too fast to keep up reading, and I know that I was not the only one in literal tears of laughter as I read what my compatriots were inventing. Yes, looking at it in this paragraph, it looks stupid as hell. And it was. But it was very funny at the time, and every so often, if discussions in the room got too heated or funereal, I would drag someone into playing. Yes, there were always a few groans from some corners, but most people got into it and unleashed their creativity with “buffalo” for the next fifteen minutes or so until we ran out of ideas or just got tired of it.

I truly believe that part of my addiction was that I felt like a fixture in the room. As I said before, the fact that I was greeted by genuine “shouts” of joy when I would enter CE1, watching “Porny!!” scroll up the screen about 20 times in different fonts and colors was gratifying. I was important. I mattered. People cared about my presence.

Psychology Today defines addiction as follows:

Addiction is a condition that results when a person ingests a substance (e.g., alcohol, cocainenicotine) or engages in an activity (e.g., gambling, sex, shopping) that can be pleasurable but the continuation of which becomes compulsive and interferes with ordinary responsibilities and concerns, such as work, relationships, or health. People who have developed an addiction may not be aware that their behavior is out of control and causing problems for themselves and others.

Next time, I’ll talk about how I broke free.

Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head

May 27, 2017

Chiang Mai, Thailand

Rain hurts. Butterflies hurt. Pretty much any normally harmless small object hurts when it hits your face at 50kph. The motorcycle helmet that I have been using does not have a face visor. Most times, that is preferable to me, as I enjoy feeling the wind cooling my face (and the rest of me) as I ride along on the far left side of the roadway. Sometimes, if I’m not going on the big highway, and there are unlikely to be police checkpoints out, I don’t even wear a helmet. Foolish? Yes, of course. My mother would tell you that even sitting on a motorcycle itself is foolish. But that’s how most people in southeast Asia get from place to place. And sometimes it’s the entire family on one motorbike. Smallest child in front, standing on the footpads, father or mother operating the bike, and the next child and/or spouse sitting behind. And most of the time, none is wearing a helmet. It’s a way of life here.

Of course, I don’t have to follow suit. Just because the Thai people choose not to wear a brain-saving device on their noggins doesn’t mean that I must join the crowd. But I have discovered how much I absolutely love the feeling of the wind rushing through my hair as I ride the rural roads, passing fields of rice, cows, the ubiquitous roadside food or coffee stands. It is definitely a risk, but it’s one of those risks in life that I believe is worth it sometimes. Don’t tell my mom.

But back to the rain. It is now that season in Thailand, when the rain pours out of the sky on a regular basis. When I first moved here, I experienced about four months of almost complete dry weather. I believe that it might have rained one time in January, and then not again until Songkran, the Thai New Year celebration that happens in April. I’ve been told that it ALWAYS rains during Songkran, due to the fact that it is a three-day nationwide water fight, and that all of that water being thrown around evaporates, condenses, and then falls back to earth. I guess it make sense. Mid-May is when the “monsoon” season seems to begin. It has been raining most days since I returned from Laos. Last Friday, I arrived at the school to begin teaching English to the first and second grade classes that have been assigned to me, only to find out that school was cancelled for the day because of the flooding caused by the torrential downpours the previous night. Ironically, from that point on, through the rest of my unexpected three-day weekend, it didn’t rain a drop. It seemed to be saving up for Tuesday. Because on Tuesday after school, I had to ride about 15km from the little village where I am living outside of Chiang Mai all the way to the opposite side of the city. It was time to renew the rental agreement on the motorcycle, and payment over the internet or phone isn’t something that they are set up for.

The rain was constant. Drenching. I had put on a flimsy, disposable plastic rain cover that someone nicely gave me, but it only did so much for only so long. As I mentioned at the outset, I was being pelted by raindrops on my face. After colliding with my forehead, these little bits of wet were pulled by gravity down into my eyes, threatening to blind me. As I was unable to dodge every puddle, my feet were soaked, my legs were soaked, and if it had not been for the plastic pouch that I had saved from my Songkran adventures, my passport, wallet, and phone would have been soaked as well. I arrived at the rental shop looking pretty much like an otter that had been playing in the river all day. I asked the owner for a different helmet, one with a visor, so that my face would be spared some pain at least. On the long return trip, I discovered that I really didn’t like the visor that much, either, because it felt too enclosed, and the rain dripping down on it was a distraction. But it did provide some protection. I stopped at a small cafe and ordered food, which was accompanied by a lovely bowl of hot, steaming broth, serving as a much-welcomed warm-up.

It rained again last night, and my friend and I got a little bit wet as we walked to the music venue that was playing some pretty good jazz next to the north gate of the old city. This morning, the clouds are out, but the sun is currently shining, and I’m taking advantage of it to sit by the pool with my laptop and do some writing that has been seriously neglected as of late. The French girl who also stays here just walked out to her motor scooter and is heading away, possibly to her Muay Thai fighting lesson. And I am beginning to hear raindrops hitting the umbrella I’ve been using for shade…gotta run!

Cold Showers

May 14, 2017

Chiang Mai, Thailand

(Some of this post was already written to my Facebook page.  I had to cut some parts for length, and for information that I didn’t want to post to the general public. I’ve thought long and hard about whether to post this type of content about myself. I hope it’s the right decision.  I’ll try to write more about my Laos trip later. And finish my social media story)

Finally on my way back home. And by “home”, I mean Chiang Mai, Thailand. It’s funny how I now think of it that way. It’s not the new apartment into where I moved my belongings on May 1, right before I started this 11-day trip to Laos. I haven’t even slept there yet. But I can’t wait to get back and throw myself across the bed and just bask in the beauty of contentment of not living out of a backpack.

Don’t get me wrong, I thoroughly enjoy living out of my backpack when I’m traveling. It’s a good backpack. A great one. The best backpack. Right now, it’s a wet backpack. I left my hostel this morning in the middle of a thunderstorm. Very heavy rain coming down from the sky that was just turning to a lighter shade of grey due to the sunrise. The type of rain that we in the southeastern US used to call a “gullywasher”. I really regret accidentally leaving my rain jacket in Luang Prabang. I was lucky enough to catch a tuktuk to the airport while standing under an awning near the hostel. I was unlucky enough to get hit by a rogue wave created by a pickup truck passing through a monster puddle in the other direction. The tuktuk driver was drenched, and I believe that his cigarette was extinguished by the splash. I felt bad for him, and I paid him extra when we reached the airport. He gave me a grateful smile as I turned to walk into the terminal. I hope that when I land in Chiang Mai, it’s dry. Otherwise that is going to be a long motorcycle ride.

My last day in Laos was a mixture of relaxation and anticipation. Part of the reason I extended my trip was to meet up with a dear friend and former couchsurfing guest from Indonesia. Marsella and I have kept in touch since meeting two years ago in Chicago. So it was really nice to see her again and catch up, even though it was only briefly. She and two friends were catching the sleeping bus to Luang Prabang that evening. Later, I enjoyed a nice dinner with a couple of locals and a French guy. Something called lam bo, which contained beef, onions, and peppers, and was definitely up there on the spicy level.

Back in Udon Thani last evening, I was greeted by a stray cat. I was enjoying a 10baht ice cream cone from McDonald’s and I shared the last bit with her. She seemed to be really hungry, so I went back inside and ordered her a Happy Meal ™ with chicken nuggets. She devoured the meat after I pulled off the breading and broke it up so it would cool more quickly. I ate the apple slices. I ordered the meal with milk, but kitty wasn’t interested. She didn’t seem to be impressed with the Super Mario toy either.

On the walk back to the hostel, I stopped at a bar called “Rock House”, which promised live music every night. I stepped inside and saw no band and zero customers. Disappointed, I was about to walk away, but the small outdoor bar in front seemed inviting and there was good music playing from the stereo. The beer special was for three large bottles of Chang, and on a hot, muggy evening, cold beer was just too tempting. I wasn’t really about to walk away. I had arrangements to meet someone here at the bar, and I was waiting for her.

When she arrived, I was two beers in, and I shared the last one with her. She was very pretty, and her English was good. We talked and laughed and flirted, as two people might do at a bar. We ended up ordering two more beers before we decided to leave. I was staying just around the corner at a hostel. Now, normally, a hostel is not a good place to bring a romantic interest, because of the whole dormitory setting. But I was certain that I was the only person checked in to the room where I was staying, so I decided to risk it. The night custodian unlocked the gate for us, and didn’t even blink an eye at the fact that I was no longer just one person. We walked up the narrow stairway to the third floor, and I opened the door that bore a picture of Paul McCartney. To the left was a drawing of John Lennon. I’m not sure where George and Ringo were.

Her reaction to seeing three sets of bunkbeds was the expected one. I had explained to her that I travel using hostels and don’t normally stay in a hotel, but she was still a bit shocked. However, it only took a few seconds to see that there were no other beds occupied at 12am, and that we were the only ones there. What happened next was both surprising and disappointing, though really, it should have been neither. She made it clear to me that she wanted to be paid.

When you find out that someone really is not interested in you as a person, maybe not even attracted to you, and that the reason that they have been pretending that they are in order to get something from you, it really kind of hits you. I felt stupid. I felt embarrassed. And I felt a little bit angry. Angry at myself for getting caught in this situation. And angry at her for not being upfront about it when we first talked. Of course I wasn’t about to pay her. She complained about having paid cab fare to come see me, and that she would have to pay for it to go back. I gladly would have paid her cab fare, as I had for the drinks, had the context been different. But now things were changed. I told her no. And she got up and walked downstairs and out the gate. I just shook my head and went to bed, because I had to be up in less than five hours to go to the airport.

I don’t hold any moral judgements about women (or men) who provide for themselves and their families by selling their affections. Sometimes that is really the only real opportunity that they might have. I have had good, meaningful conversations with “bar girls”, and I could even maintain a friendship with them. But I don’t really want to support the institution. For much the same reason, I will not go to an elephant camp where they offer rides, because the very cruel way that the elephants are broken to be trained. I refuse to have my picture taken with or to pet a tiger at the places that offer the chance, because the tigers are heavily drugged in order for them to be safe enough to be around tourists. I may not share the same morality about sexual relations that you have for yourself, but I certainly don’t want mine to be monetarily transactional. In retrospect, I had a better time with the cat at McDonald’s.

There may be some who will point out that maybe I am being transactional about it, because I pay for the drinks, or dinner, or movie, or whatever other expenditures that a date entails. If you feel that way, then you do not know me like you think you do. I pay for those things (when I can) because I still believe in chivalry. I never once have expected anything in return as far as bedroom favors. If both parties are desiring that, then okay, that’s great. But that is the exception to the rule. Usually, the evening ends when both of us say we had a nice time, maybe a kiss goodbye and then we part ways. I don’t believe that my dates owe me anything except for kindness and conversation.

The single life that I have chosen for now is not always easy. I have many female friends, and I find myself attracted to several of them. However, I must be careful of romantic entanglements with them, because I have decided that I will be better off not being in a relationship for the time being, and I do not want to risk a good friendship for the pleasure (and possible ensuing drama) that a sexual encounter may bring. Sometimes I find myself lonely. I question my choice from time to time. But knowing that I’m not in a position or willing to give the type of effort and attention that a successful relationship requires, I think that it’s the right choice. It’s difficult navigating these waters, and I’ve made mistakes that I regret. Hurting someone else because of my selfishness is something that I dwell on for a long time.

I had a nice flight home to Chiang Mai, where the sun was shining. The motorcycle ride back home was refreshing. I took a nice shower to wash away the sweat from my traveling and then I enjoyed just chilling out in front of the new fan that I purchased. I dozed off listening to my Spotify account and some kids splashing happily in the pool outside my window.