Sunday, June 30, 2013

Thai Hooker

3:00 A.M.
In the lobby of the hotel
In Bangkok,
(Where, they say
What happens there must stay)
Stood a bone skinny woman in an ugly purple dress
With no back and hardly any skirt.
Dressed to flirt
Hair a mess,
Tangled, matted, she talked hurriedly,
Chattered worriedly,
Seeking reassurance from a cell phone,
A cell phone half hidden from view by tangled hair.
Tangled hair that also hid as it tumbled down,
Her skinny, angular cheek bone, no longer brown
But as purple as her dress from its encounter with the fist
Of the man with the upper body
Sculpted like an African god.
The drunk man who looks like a god
The sullen man who wonders why we’re making such a fuss
Too drunk even to see the necessity of paying her off
With 5,000 baht.
She was never
That hot.
A bundle of bones in a purple bag
And an ugly temper.

From a well-used position of vulnerability
Reaching out for the only strength available to her,
The strength of the cell-phone,
The strength of wheels and deals made with cops and pimps
And aggrieved solidarity from other working girls
She limps
Through the dark narrow streets of Bangkok.
Limping from one man to another,
One wallet after the other,
As they fly in and out,
In and out,
On business trips,
And pleasure trips.
Lying, standing, kneeling
No longer feeling
Their gnawing lips,
On her face,
Her neck,
Her bone skinny breasts,
And their hands only when they are fists.
Even the body sculpted like an African god turns her on
No more or less than the dirty old European retirees
With their saggy speedos on the beach.
What difference does that make to the whores?
Their money is as good as yours
And they can’t hit as hard.

And I, looking into her lean, angular face
As cunning and furtive as a fox
As she stands
In the lobby and demands
5,000 Baht,
I realize I have nothing to say.
We just need to get this taken care of and catch our flight.
I am coherent because I slept that night
A couple of hours anyway.
And I am sober. I could go get 5,000 Baht
From an ATM but I will not
Insult her like that by trying to pay
For her flesh, now purple, or covering up
For the man who should have been a god;
Who looks like an archangel and sullenly counts her price in slips of paper.
The injury is not bad
The bruise will fade
And after all she has made
A life (as much of a life as can be had)
From selling her flesh to men with the bodies of gods
And men with the bodies of slugs.
Men kind and men savage,
Drunk and sober,
Long or short
Large or small.
Purple flesh just costs more. That’s all.
She is already pained
There is nothing to be gained
In beating senseless the man sculpted like a god
For that will not
Better her life,
Erase the bruise
Or pay his dues,
Or make amends to his wife
Pregnant with their first child and home alone
Who will never know or understand
What stayed in Thailand
And what perhaps came home.

Far away
In America the next day,
In the heart of a woman who knows what love is
I tell the hooker’s story
And offer up my prayers
And tears
For they are all I have to give
And no one else lives
Who will give
Even that.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Deep Roots

"As to this salvation, the prophets who prophesied of the grace that would come to you made careful searches and inquiries, seeking to know what person or time the Spirit of Christ within them was indicating as He predicted the sufferings of Christ and the glories to follow. It was revealed to them that they were not serving themselves, but you, in these things which now have been announced to you." 1 Peter 1:10-12a

"Truly I say to you, among those born of women there has not arisen anyone greater than John the Baptist! Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he." Matthew 11:11

"Ryan, you do realize that you can't impress God, right?" Fr. Matthew Pawlikowski, LTC(Ch) U. S. Army 

Ever since I was a kid I dreamed of doing great things. My head was filled with stories of knights in armor, kings, saints, explorers, sages, writers. I have always dreamed of leaving my mark on the world, hopefully for the better. I did not want to be average. I wanted my name to be known and to influence the lives of hundreds of people, or thousands. These dreams have taken a multitude of shapes and have led me to do extraordinary things. They led me to sacrifice a decade of my life to the military with ruthless single-mindedness. The caused me to spend my life trying to build myself up into a warrior and a scholar, in the hopes that when the opportunity came, I would be ready to step up to the plate. 

These dreams all have one thing in common. None of them have come true. I find myself in the odd position of having spent my life thus far chasing the means, and being (it seems) no closer to the ends than I ever was. The means fail to satisfy, as they inevitably must, and I, like everyone from time to time, am left with a feeling that I am wasting my life and my gifts. 

At times like this, you need someone who loves you, because she (assuming that it is in fact a she, although a he could do it in a pinch, though not in the same way) will see you more clearly than you can see yourself. If she is close to God, she will be able to give you just a tiny glimpse of how God sees you also, which is the only point of view that really matters in the end.

She will point out that no life is wasted that is lived with love; that ultimately it is up to God to put a value on your life, not you; and that simply because you cannot see the fruit of your actions, that does not mean that they are not or will not bear fruit. 

She will remind you of the great cathedrals, like Notre Dame, which took ninety years to build from 1160-1250, and even when the main construction was finished in 1250, remodeling and other building processes on smaller elements continued for almost another hundred years. The men who broke their backs and spent the the strength of their youth laying the foundations of this magnificent act of worship, never saw its completion. They were long since dead, having left behind a solid base to build upon and strong sons to build upon it. They left millions of tons of rock in the ground, and the Rock of faith in the hearts of the next generation. Even that generation would not live long to enjoy the completed cathedral. Ninety years is a long time. Three generations of men could put in thirty good years of labor on that one building before any of them would see it completed. Did the old gaffer who spent his entire life putting tons of anonymous gravel into an oddly shaped pit by hand, waste that life?

I took a trip to about a year ago to give a talk at John Paul the Great Academy in Lafeyette, LA. The school is housed in an old monastery that the school purchased in a miracle $10,000,000.00 fund raising campaign last summer. The grounds and building are beautiful, old, immaculately kept by volunteers without pay, the perfect venue for a classical Catholic education. The school was established by local Catholic families who simply wanted an alternative to the larger and more expensive parochial schools, or the public schools. They put a lot of time and effort into making this school a thriving organization. It is not an exaggeration to say that they offered up their "lives, fortunes and sacred honor," to providing a worthy education for their children.

One of the things that most struck me about the school grounds, one of its most amazing features, are the trees. (Just so you know, I love trees!) The grounds of JPG Academy are full of gorgeous old oak trees, all well over a hundred years old.
This one was my favorite!

The trees are a great metaphor for the school itself, especially the trees that line the front drive. They were originally planted back at the turn of the century, and then ten or twelve years later dug up and moved again to make the lane wider to accommodate automobiles. Now, over a hundred years later, they shade the drive up from the road to the school building. The contrast is unreal. You turn off of a fairly busy country highway, which was baking in the August Louisiana sunshine when I was there, and find yourself in a long, quiet, cool, peaceful tunnel. The tunnel leads you gently away from the noise of traffic and the heat of the exposed highway into the school grounds, and the great old stone building, and the shade of ancient trees, and the sounds of children's laughter. 

Some man saw all of that, or perhaps only part of it (he probably did not foresee it being a school) and he designed and commissioned the driveway. He chose trees of good stock and set their roots in good soil. His successors tended those trees, as just one of their many responsibilities, keeping the Spanish moth and diseases in check, weeding around them, keeping the lawns, maintaining the pavement, cutting back the ivy when it showed up. They did not see the drive as I saw it.

And I did not see it as God sees it. But God does, and that is all that matters.

Greatness is worth striving for, as is renown and influence and changing the world. All of these are good to aspire to, mostly so that you will learn faster that they are illusions, and the only greatness that matters is the greatness of doing God's will, doing the work that He gives you to do, and doing it well, forgetting about yourself and your own glory and simply looking at Him.

He is all that matters.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Princess Fairy Tale Shoutout

Hey all,

My cousins over at trucksandteacups have begun writing a fairy tale, starring their three kids, and especially starring my god-daughter Mimi (as Princess Mimi the Cute.) If you've got a minute and need a dose of cuteness and daring-do in your life, go on over and check out the first installment.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

The Thangka School

In lieu of writing something new (Internet is intermittent around here) I am borrowing something I wrote in an email to my Uncle. Since it seemed like a good story I thought I would share it on the blog as well.

Uncle Chris,

I was visiting an ancient Hindu temple complex in Bhaktapur last week and let me tell you, it was well worth seeing. One of the temples was the temple of Shiva dedicated to the Kama Sutra, complete with xxx rated sculptures in bas-relief all over it. Unbelievably ugly and comically awkward at the same time.

Of much more interest, there is a school there where they teach Thangka painting, which is an ancient Buddhist method of instruction and worship, originating in monastaries in Tibet. I did not see any of the students painting because it was a holy day (saturday is the Hindu holy day) and also Buddhas birthday.
Why would a school of Buddhist art be housed in Hindu temple you ask? Well, from what I have seen in my travels and in reading, comparing the pure Buddhism of, say the Dalai Lama or other high level writers, to the popular Buddhism of Tibet, Nepal, India etc. I would have to say that pure Buddhism is extremely rare. One of the proprieters of the school was there explaining the history of Thangka painting and the meanings of it and we had quite a long talk about Buddhism and Hinduism. He was a little irate about it. He quite emphatically insisted that the Buddha never spoke about god or gods or any other independently existing spiritual entity. However, the vast majority of people cannot seem to handle a religion without gods, so wherever Buddhism went people simply grafted in the gods that they had always worshipped. So all the literally thousands of Hindu gods are no subjects of Buddhist philosophies and Buddha is one more god.

You wonder why the Catholic missionaries often freaked out about that sort of thing. "Oh, so you're bringing in another god? Whats his name? Jesus? Sure, bring him on! The more the merrier. He'll be in good company. So what is he the god of again?" I can see how that might be a bit disconcerting to someone who set out to convert the benighted pagans.

The painting, however, was amazing. Highly ornate, very stylized, and incredibly detailed. The proprieter explained that some of the paintings were for philosophical education, some were to tell stories, such as the life of the Buddha, some were mandalas, symbolic representations of temples with complex interpretations, and some were for medical purposes. It was a fascinating lecture. At the end of it he made sure to let us know that the paintings were for sale. There was a very large one, about 3' × 4', painted by one of the masters of the school, one of the lamas. It was unbelievable. The sheer detail was incredible. Some of the details had been painted in using a brush with only one hair, they were so tiny, and some of the paint was made with real gold. It took the lama four months to paint it. The price? 80,000 rupees.

That's about $940.00 U.S.

One of the guys was there with me and he said I should haggle about it if I was going to buy it. In all the markets in Thamel (the touristy strip in Kathmandu) haggling is the name of the game. I am terrible at it, by the way, and always end up paying twice or three times as much as the next guy. He thought 900 bucks for a painting was a ripoff, especially since he could go to Thamel and buy a copy of that exact paint for maybe 5,000 rupees.

I more or less ignored him and continued talking with the proprieter. He explained that this school was struggling to keep the heritage of painting alive and that the proceeds from the sales went to buy paints and pay for room and board for the students during their 10 year (!!!!!) stay at the school. He explained that selling the paintings was done in a co-op like that because most people, after spending every waking moment for four months working on that painting are going to have trouble parting with it or setting a reasonable price. I agreed.

I am beginning to realize that the habit of courtesy that my parents inculcated into me from an early age is far more than simply a grasp of a particular culture's ettiquette. In fact, that courtesy has stood me in good stead in every country I have visited to the extent that I often find myself getting along better with the natives than I do with the Americans. It is, primarily, a concern for the other person's comfort and sensibilities, and as such manifests itself in a willingness to listen to the other person. If you practice listening long enough you get used to it, and you develop the ability to see things from the other persons perspective, which in turn makes them more willing to try to see things from your perspective. There was a good deal of respect between that little proprieter and myself. I listened and I understood where he was coming from. I explained that I agreed that it was a fair price, but that I had a responsibility to use my money for other things. He offered to call the artist and see if he would lower the price, but I said no, I did not want him to. That price was more than fair and I did not want him to sell it short. I left a donation in the box, we bowed and shook hands and parted with, I think, a great deal of mutual respect.

Once outside I somewhat took my buddy to task over the whole thing. I recognize a true believer when I see one, and I respect that. The lama who painted that thangka and the man who was explaining and selling them had both dedicated their lives to that art. That painting had taken four months of a man's life to create, and more than that, was the product of an entire lifetime of study, practice and sacrifice to deepen and perfect his art. Whether or not I completely agree with the faith that inspired that art, I cannot help but respect the good that that faith does in the lives of its practitioners, and certainly I have to respect the sacrifice of an entire life to the pursuit of that faith and its art.

There is a story told of Picasso, to the effect that one day as he was walking down the street, an art aficionado came up to him and asked if he would sketch his portrait. Picasso obliged and in about thirty seconds sketched up an amazing likeness on a sheet of notebook paper. He offered it back to the man saying, "That will be $5,000 dollars."

The man was flabbergasted and said, "But it took you less than a minute to draw that. Surely your time is not that valuable."

The artist replied, "Sir, you are wrong. It has taken me my entire life to draw that."

While there is an element of arrogance to that, there is also an element of truth, in that the work of a human life is quite literally priceless. Where Picasso went wrong was in assuming that his life's work was any more valuable than, say, a ditch digger's life's work, done with the same level of dedication.

Whether my buddy was impressed with this argument or not I cannot say, but I followed it up by breaking down "four months" into familiar terms. Say our artist monk worked from 9-5 every day. That is an eight hour day, times the typical Nepali 6-day work week, times 16 weeks, for a grand total of approximately 768 man hours. When you factor in the price of materials and a commission for the seller (who, small as he is, also needs to eat), that monk is not even making a dollar an hour. No worker in America, not even a burger flipper at McDonalds, puts in 768 man hours and only makes $940. You yourself would certainly not paint a portrait for four months straight and sell it for less than $1000.

(My uncle is a professional artist and graphic designer. I remember him saying once, "Customers always want fast, cheap, and good quality. I tell them pick two. You can't have all three.)

That argument impressed my buddy enough that he acknowledged that it "definitely was not a racket."

I meant also to cover some thoughts in this email about that evangelization of manhood idea, as I have had some new thoughts (bringing in Brad Miner's Compleat Gentleman) but this email has become much longer than I thought it would so that will have to wait. As a matter of fact, I might recycle this email as a blogpost, if you do not mind. It would save me some time.
Hope you are well.