Readers' Submissions

Thai Thoughts and Anecdotes Part 275

  • Written by Dana
  • February 5th, 2011
  • 6 min read

Black Pagoda Patpong Bangkok


A friend of mine was a lifetime birder. A person who likes to look at birds. An obsessional wall that nothing could penetrate. Birds. Bird calls. Bird watching. Bird lists. Women? Marriage? Children? Career? Forget about it. Birds.

As he grew older and more financially able he started taking African bird photo safaris. One day a fellow birder alerted him to a telephoto lens drama. A cheetah was stalking a Thompson's gazelle. With the pre-ordained action narrative of unfair evolution cards being dealt; the cheetah was able to accelerate to unbeatable speed, reach out, trip the gazelle, and . . . lunch.

Watching the telephoto lens drama was an epiphany for my friend. The cheetah's athleticism had penetrated my friend's obsessional bird wall. He was taken out of himself. That night he replayed the incident over and over in his mind as if rewinding and rewatching a peep show movie in a porno store. Why? Excellence. The excellence of the cheetah's athleticism and time on Earth was something pure and beyond debate. It was also beyond my friend's ability to fully cognify. But knowing that made the pleasure of the experience even more delicious. Sometimes confronting something beyond ourselves is a good thing. The differential is so great that we are not ego challenged and we can just surrender to the experience and the display. The athletic, evolutionary, and focused purity of unpolluted excellence. Something that draws attention to itself without comparison, or referential, or anecdotally addenda definitions. Excellence that thrills and sets a standard to be admired without loss of ego.

Societies and cultures and countries and tribes with God(s) as part of their belief tapestries know this. Worshipping God, something you can never be, does not demean you by comparison; it gives you a spiritual touchstone that gives your life meaning. Worshipping excellence is a good thing. A human thing. Knowing you can never be a God, or a cheetah, or a Shakespeare is just part of the definition of your self. To thine own self be true, and be happy about it.

A nice presentation could show that potential energy equals kinetic energy but you can't convince lay people. Kinetic energy gets things done and looks sexy. My birder friend realized laying in the tent trying to ignore the grunts and barks of the lions on the other side of the tent wall that his bird hobby had been mostly potential energy. Looking at birds mostly sitting and standing. Looking at pictures of birds in books or magazines. Digital collections of birds on the computer. Holding binoculars. Writing things down. Suddenly it wasn't enough. He wanted more in his life. He wanted some kinetic action before he went up to Saint Peter with his bird list in one hand and his pathetic resume in his other hand. He wanted some cheetah action in his life and he wanted to never forget that being confronted by something beyond ourselves is a good thing. Even when excellence can not be attained, it can always be appreciated. Yes, that's it: he wanted to pick a woman up and throw her down on the bed. Things were changing for my birder friend. He temporarily forgot the lions' barks on the other side of the tent wall.

An example of appreciating excellence for me is a book titled The Irresponsible Self: On Laughter and the Novel by James Wood. Mr. Wood is a literary critic and he performs that function twenty-two times in as many chapters. Chapters with titles like:

Hysterical Realism
Dostoyevsky's God
How Shakespeare's "Irresponsibility" Saved Coleridge
Saltykov-Shecdrui's Subversion of Hypocrsy

You get the idea. This guy Wood is really smart. Really really smart. God, this guy is so so smart. This guy James Wood is the cheetah to my gazelle in the brains department.

Reading the book did not effect my ego in a negative way because the differential between his academic literary criticism knowledge and my knowledge is so large that it actually trivializes the measure. I am not equal to Mr. Wood but reading this book was fun. I had no idea what he was talking about most of the time but he wrote so engagingly that I kept turning the pages and mainlining his superiority and total dominance over my inferior brain.

He wrote things like:

"It needs to be said again and again, since Rushdie's style of exuberance has been so influential, that such vividness is not vivacious, that in fact it encodes a fear of true vivacity, a kind of awkwardness or embarrassment in the face of the lifelike."

Well, of course–I think. There are 312 pages of this and eventually I just ended up smiling and sometimes laughing. I wonder if the Thompson's gazelle was smiling or laughing just before the cheetah reached out and tripped him. Probably not but it does make me wonder if there is an ice cold beer in the fridge. Drinking and reading this book would go well together. Anyway, I sometimes wonder if learning the Thai language is a little like this. Let's imagine that I emigrated to the Kingdom at age 25 and by age 35 I could read and write and speak Thai. In theory I would now have the tools necessary to penetrate the wall of Thai culture and sample the wonders of a people that process incoming data, emotions, and social situations differently than I do.

This sounds great but remember the intellectual differential between me and the literary critic James Wood? Tools are never enough–you also need high intelligence. If I was able to read and write and speak Thai fluently would I be any more intelligent? Would I be able to see behind the Kingdom curtain and happily splash around in the different culture water? I doubt it. I know my limits and reading books like The Irresponsible Self: On Laughter and the Novel reminds me of those limits.

I have a Thai friend who is about my age (60). She came to the United States forty years ago on academic scholarship and then proceeded (in English) to get two Masters degrees, have a thirty year career in the Boston Public Library, and marry an American. She never returned to Thailand except for vacations. And yet, in spite of all of this, she struggles often with English comprehension when you speak to her. Particularly and obviously if you ask her a question. The question format in the English language just temporarily freezes her brain. Technically, in terms of tools, this should not be so. But there it is–she struggles. She has limits and those limits make it impossible for her to jump the gap easily even after forty intense other culture–other language years. The first hardwiring of the brain always predominates.

If I was fluent in Thai as a speaker, reader, and writer would I be able to penetrate the Thai culture curtain and sample knowledgeably the mysterious delights of Thai differentness? Would I be able to jump the gap dragging my tiny brain behind me? I do not think so. I have limits. I'm no cheetah.

Stickman's thoughts: