Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Story Corner: The Parable of the Unveiled

'Universal Edge/Majestic city of Taldria' by Art-Calevera.

There is a story, about a land. A land that may or may not have ever existed depending on who you ask.
            Yet the story is real. It is here, it has been here and it will be here for as long as people are willing to read it. And it goes like this.
            There was a land, a land of great beauty. And in this land, there was a city as majestic looking as nature's greatest masterpieces. Yet though the metropolis appeared beautiful to all outsiders, it was in fact an enormous fantasy as empty as the air coming out of your nostrils. For you see, most of the people who lived here were great conjurers and illusionists. With their minds they could create images of majestic towers and clean cobblestone streets, or markets overflowing with food and precious jewels. With this power they could make themselves and their homes appear far grander then they actually were. The greatest makers of these illusions ruled the city and established a council that worked day and night to maintain the fantastic and shimmering appearance of their beloved city.
            For centuries the illusionists maintained the fantasy, drawing the envy of many outsiders who were often unable to see the people for who they really were. The people of the city themselves put just as much effort into  embellishing their own looks as they did their city. Anyone could make himself taller, darker, lighter, prettier and muscular and soon the people of the city were as glamorous and perfect in appearance as their homes and streets.
            But though the visions of high shimmering walls and gorgeous people fooled many on the outside, deep down the people of the city always knew that their illusions could crumble if someone was skeptical enough to see through them. Thus, the people of the city were trained from a very young age to maintain their illusions, to maintain a perfect and idealized appearance and to adore the illustrious visions of their ancestors. All they valued was the surface, for the surface was all that made them unique.
            Yet there were always a few who did not conjure. These people were known as the Unveiled. Some were skeptics and cynics who could not stomach the idea that their entire world was a fantasy. Others, were dreamers whose dreams were not limited to perfect strait hair, perfect bodies and perfectly grand castles and walls their society valued. Still a few others were so innocent that they could not stand to take part in the grand deception. These people could not or would not change their appearance or build the perfect marble palaces that their peers and society treasured. A few of these lonely souls, could sometimes be seen wandering the streets of their city with their wounds and blemishes exposed, their hair unkempt, their skin cracked and dried by the sun. Not all were ugly sometimes they were attractive but always they were themselves, openly, unabashedly themselves, and for this they were shunned and ridiculed by the illusionists.
            Because of their low stature in society, the Unveiled were often given the menial jobs of farming, milling, hunting and gathering. For you see, the illusion of a bountiful field is not the same as a bountiful field. A vision cannot be eaten no matter how lovely. The illusionists, who could make the world look so gorgeous, could not make their illusions consumable. Nor could their perfect walls stop the storms or winds.
            It was the Unveiled and their practical efforts which allowed the illusionists to build their fantasies. For though the illusionists would spend all day in their fantastical kingdom, they were in fact in, in hovels and simple stone huts pieces together by the Unveiled. Once inside they would conjure up images of great and cushioned chambers to make their environment more comfortable.
            The Unveiled themselves would stay in a stone fortress a good distance from the city. There they would sleep, eat drink sing and dance in their own company, content with their ordinariness. They would listen to raw, unfiltered stories and legends from their storytellers. Every night the Unveiled would do this, and every morning they would make the long walk to the fantasy city prepared to be mocked and scorned by their perfect looking superiors in their perfect homes.
            Thus, the city existed. Thus, the Unveiled and the Illusionists lived for many, many generations.
            Then one day, a clear and bright day, a marauding army from a distant place arrived at the city's gates. Enticed by the many, many tales of great wealth and prosperity that the illusionists had spun, the soldiers were embittered and disillusioned by years and years of plundering, killing and raping. Immediately, they saw through the illusionists fantasy with their cynical eyes.
            The city walls, which would have appeared to the less bitter to be as tall as mountains and decorated in gorgeous frescoes, were simply stacks of unadorned stone, merely a knee high. The golden many halled palaces with illustrious gardens, were nothing more than simple wooden huts with small vegetable patches. And the people? They were, truly as ordinary and as ugly as the soldiers themselves.
            Unswayed by the illusionists' conjuring, the rampaging army felt cheated and in rage ransacked the community of hovels and put their illusionists to the sword. The best illusionists conjured up as many terrible visions as they could to scare away the army but the soldiers saw straight through them and slew all the great fantasy makers.
            Only the Unveiled, who escaped behind the sturdy walls of their well built castle survived. Though the army tried time and again to assault their walls and break down their doors, their fortress was built strong and sturdy and in the end the hoard moved onto other lands leaving the illusionists and their illusions exposed on a burning plain. No city, before or since, has ever rivaled the physical beauty that the Illusionists created. For in the end, the illusion and the fantasy of grandeur was all the people of that poor city ever had.   

Thursday, May 22, 2014

A Night Under Curfew in Thailand

It's 8:21pm: I'm alone in my apartment. I've just gotten back from eating dinner. I've seen the empty spaces around Tha Pae gate in the center of Chiang Mai. Something in my gut tells me these empty spaces are different from previous ones I've seen on other nights. Perhaps, the statement of martial law I heard announced on Tuesday is in the back of my mind. Yet I dismiss this feeling from my mind. I can't tell, as I'm writing this, if there was anything special about those moments or not.

It's now 8:24pm: I've typed the first paragraph of these reflections. Now, I turn towards the moment when I switched on my TV and heard Al Jazeera report on the news that the Thai army has assumed full control of the government and arrested rival political leaders at a gathering. I saw this report at a little past 7pm. I keep the TV on for an hour, flipping between International News networks, to see if anyone has new information. I make a call or two. I send a text message. I'm not sure if I'm fueling panic or not by writing these to post on my blog tomorrow.

At a little before 8:20pm: An AJE reporter on my box says that International Networks are being disconnected and local stations have already been taken off the air. Within less then a minute, the signal for AJE cuts out along with all other signals. By this point, I've tried several times to get online. My apartment's internet is out. It's a poor quality and often cuts out. I begin to wonder. Was the signal overloaded as it often is? Or was it disconnected by the powers that be.

It's now 8:32pm: and I've finished recounting everything that led me up to this sentence.

I pause, wondering what to write next, wondering why I started writing these thoughts down in the first place?

First, it's to calm my nerves. Coups, I suddenly realize, are a sign of incredible uncertainty. There has been incredible uncertainty in Thailand's political system for a long time.

Second, I've lived through one very intense period of political upheaval before. I saw the rise of the Arab Spring in Cairo Egypt in 2010. I also saw the trial, violence and painful change it caused for real Egyptians, real people, not images on TV sets or internet lives streams.

I fear seeing this pain again. I fear it.

Yet, Egypt is not Thailand. Thailand is not Egypt. I have no way of knowing of whether the army coup will turn out as it did in Egypt in 2010 or how it has now in 2014. 

I check my internet connection again. It's still not working. I check the time. It's 8:42pm. There's less than two hours until the army's 10:00pm curfew goes into affect.

 I think back to uncertainty.

 Silence and quiet: They are pervasive now in my apartment, in my building in the world outside. The loudest noises I hear are Geckos chirping, going about their lives on the walls and in the bush. I don't hear the sound of anyone talking. I don't hear my neighbors' doors slamming as they go out or come back from eating.

 Only Geckos, my fan, bugs buzzing. These are the sounds I hear.

The lack of noise, is the most disturbing thing about this night. More emptiness and unknown. That's what I think I will remember the  most about this coup I think.

 I realize how silly a fear this is. Human existence has always been subject to unknowns. A coup or an event such as this, simply throws this more into perspective.

 Our lives, are rather ordinary and routine lives, can be suddenly put on hold by forces we don't understand or comprehend, not truly. Sometimes it's a human force like an army, sometimes its nature.

 There's not much we can truly do about it.

 I suddenly get up and switch my TV on again to check if I can get new info from there.

 It's 8:53pm: The signals are all still out. My internet won't come back.

I debate about going out before curfew: I would like water, maybe I could find an internet cafe airport at 3am in Cairo during a curfew and still managed to get a taxi to take me through the deserted streets of a city of 20 million people without hassle.net cafe, maybe buy a few beers. I realize though I don't really need any of that, not now. Except, for the internet cafe but I know the one closest to me is closed and I doubt I could reach any-others before curfew and get back in time.

 I decide to stay, after debating with myself about whether to go or not. I wonder if my friends and family will worry. Some will more than others, I'm sure. But when the curfew ends tomorrow at 5:am, i'll be able to go out.
 I remember how some of the curfews in Egypt were only loosely enforced. I remember how I arrived at t 

 I remind myself, how Thailand isn't Egypt. I decided again to stay in my apartment.

 I start thinking of myself and others again.

 I wonder if people I know in Chiang Mai are more aware of what's going on than I am. I wonder if everyone has news about the curfew and if they're sitting in their homes as I am right now.

 I think of my students. I think both of the ones I've taught and those I'm teaching now. I think of the small seven and six year old faces I've seen today, today which was a normal day of school.

 I wonder if they are aware of anything that's going on in their country. I wonder if they are asleep now, dreaming. I wonder if they are playing. I wonder if they've seen or heard something from the world around them that makes them feel unsafe on this night. I sincerely hope they do not.  I deeply, lovingly hope they have not.

 I find myself wishing them and everyone they know a great night of rest.

 I wonder if I will have school tomorrow. I highly doubt it.

It's 9:09pm: The world is still very quiet, apart from Nature's children. I decide to try and watch a movie and give my fingers a rest.

It's 10:03pm: Curfew has been in affect for three minutes. I might go to sleep now. I found out I won't have school tomorrow because of events in Bangkok. I find myself surprised by how relieved I am that I won't have to wake up at 6:50am tomorrow. It's a comfort. I'm also surprised my school was efficient enough to send out an SMS to us so that we knew about the country wide school-closures.

 I've tried watching a movie but unfortunately I wasn't in a mood to see any of the films I have on my computer. TV still out, as is the net.

 I wish I could update myself on what's going on tonight. I have a feeling most of my friends and family outside of Thailand will know more than I do about this night than I will.

I'm struck by how ordinary a night this has been. It's really not been very different from previous nights. I went to school, worked for over eight hours and then went home at 4:00. I ate a meal at a local restaurant, I bought some water, went home and crashed on my bed.

 This is something I do all so often...only now it's being imposed on me. It's an odd kind of normalcy. So much of what happens during times of crises like this is mundane, I've found. It never grabs attention in the media.

 I imagine most people in this country are going to wake up like me tomorrow and wonder how mundane their Friday will be. Yet most will doubt awake, we will breathe we will blink we will feel the heat touch our skin and we will stick our heads out the door to see what awaits us.

 So, with that, I end my thoughts.

 It is now 10:21pm

Thursday, May 1, 2014

An American Olympus- Gettysburg, the Civil War and National Mythology


"Myths are stories of our search through the ages for truth, for meaning, for significance. We all need to tell our story and to understand our story. We all need to understand death and to cope with death, and we all need help in our passages from birth to life and then to death. We need for life to signify, to touch the eternal to understand the mysterious, to find out who we are." -Joseph Campbell

Gettysburg is a name that most Americans and, some non-Americans, recognize. It's a name associated with booming cannons, charging rows of people in blue and grey coats and other men in black and white photos with rather absurd looking facial air. 

Today, Gettysburg's cannons are silent. The men who fell there no longer litter the empty fields and gaps between rocky hillsides. They lie underneath white headstones; some in the national cemetery, others in graveyards in the American South. The men who led them to their death, men with names like Lincoln, Lee, Meade, Sickles and Pickett are also gone, living only as words and pictures in books and documentaries. 

Today, the small, rural Pennsylvania town is different from what it was in 1863, along with everything else. Yet the past ripples through here. It reverberates and resonates, it calls and knocks at the doors of many minds and many hearts. Time doesn't necessarily heal all wounds, but it can leave beautiful scars, scars that remind us of how much we humans can endure, scars that remind us that the rain comes and leaves as often as the sun.  

When I arrived in the small Pennsylvania town a few days ago, it was raining. It would remain cloudy and wet the whole time I was there. The lousy weather created the perfect mix of somber and melancholy needed to tour a battlefield where over a hundred thousand men stabbed, shot and bombarded each other over three days in July some 150 years ago. 

One of the first things that stood out to me was the historical nature of the town itself. Architecturally Gettysburg's streets remind me of 19th century London. The brick walls of buildings and roundabout in Lincoln square could easily convince someone who teleported there that they had landed in Europe. 

Yet this is not the Gettysburg of 1863. The neat sidewalks, paved roads and cozy boutiques are stark contrast to the large black and white photo of the town that greets you when you head past the ticket counter at the museum and visitor center. This Gettysburg is small, wooden with one church steeple poking out from it's center. 

The museum is informative, detailed yet succinct. The war is explained, the background of the war is revealed. Slavery, free-labor, Bleeding Kansas. 

The what and the how of soldiering life in Union and Confederate forces is covered in great detail here. I learned a lot about the time. 

But what about the why? Why did 600,000 men and several hundred thousand civilians die in five years of fighting between 1861 and 1865? Why did neighbors and families become divided? Why were hundreds of towns and cities destroyed across the South? Why did so many men feel compelled to die? Why was so much blood spilled?

The why is often the hardest question for we humans to answer when discussing wars of this scale or any tragic event in history where human kind eagerly, ravenously sheds the blood of others in numbers that we find excruciating to visualize.

The why is addressed at today's Gettysburg, alluded to at the museum, hinted at in pamphlets, implied in a section dedicated to Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg address. All the facts remain, to the museum's credit, yet their meaning is given by the powers that be. And in giving us this meaning some facts become obscured or overshadowed by others deemed more noble and exalting.

'A new birth of freedom' a government 'by the people, of the people for the people' that 'wouldn't perish from the earth.' An end of slavery and mistreatment for those in bondage. A country divided, united. A land where everyone should be equal, a land for everyone to be included.

It's a story we Americans have been told many times. In elementary school, (in the Northern schools I attended anyway) the civil war was often summed up with the phrase 'Lincoln freed the slaves'. 'the war was about freedom.'

Yet this line is more than a story. It's part of what I call National Mythology.

I don't mean mythology in the sense of fable or fiction as it is so often utilized today. I mean myth as a foundational tale meant to explain the universe we live in and our place in it.

Like every country around the world today, we in the United States have a mythology. We are taught nationalism (aka patriotism) through these tales. George Washington is our Zeus. Thomas Jefferson, our Prometheus. Names such as these and the names of those such as Lee and Grant become demigods in their own right. We in the present infer meanings into their lives and into the lives of hundreds of thousands of other men and women we know so little. 

The myth that the war was abut freedom -of slaves- is taught and passed on and we believe it. It is passed on not because it is 100% factual as we would like it to be but because it is what we in the decades and century since would like to build off of.

Like early man watching the sun set and rise we humans need to assign purpose to what happens and has happened in our world. We want to give over a half a million erased lives meaning. We want to believe it was worth something. And often, when people are confronted with the vast, convoluted complicated grey nature of actual events, they prefer the myth.

I am not an expert on the history of the American Civil War. Like most Americans, I studied it briefly in school. Unlike many Americans I read books and watched many documentaries about the time period. As an avid student of history though, I know that the simple narratives and myths given by governments and society often don't truly capture the real story.


As someone who's historically minded, I have a strong distrust of nationalism and the national mythology I've started.

Yet as I've stated before the myth that Gettysburg represents is not a fable. There is something truly remarkable about the nature of America's Civil War. It may have only evolved into a war about freeing slaves and empowering black people. Union soldiers may have been more motivated by a day of food and more worried about losing their jobs to free black men and women than simple textbooks would let us believe. Reconstruction may have failed and brought about another 100 years of discrimination prejudice and bigotry that we are still trying to do away with.

And yet and yet, I can and was moved. After leaving the museum I drove around the battlefield, several miles of rolling hills interspersed with idyllic barns, chapels, forests and fences. Even a short jaunt around the area allows you to see a small selection of the 1,300 memorial statues scattered around the American Olympus of Gettysburg. Most of these statues are dedicated to specific army regiments that fought in the battle. Charges, counter charges and other essential events of the three day battle are marked by them.

There is a Greco-Roman style to these memorials, like many monuments in Washington DC. Stone men, some mounted, some standing, some charging, some aiming, Union and Confederate stand eternal drenched in icy Pennsylvania April rain. 

Seeing this moved me. It still moves me and reminds me.

It reminds me that in all the years since Confederate general Pickett sent 12,000 men across an empty field to certain death, since the Confederacy's demise, since the Emancipation Proclamation and the Thirteenth Amendment, there has not been a second American Civil War. A two century old, highly unjust and highly profitable institution, slavery, never reared its head again. Crops ravaged by Union soldiers in Georgia were replanted, cities rebuilt. The deaths of hundreds of thousands did not become a cry for victor's vengeance in the North nor a cry for a resurrection of the Confederacy in the South. 

This is truly remarkable. Remarkable and commendable and perhaps it makes the myth of Gettysburg one worth swallowing with a mouthful of cautionary, salty history.