Amanda Kovattana

Middle-aged musings in interesting times

Friday, August 14, 2020

Normally I Woudn't Be Here

In which I question call out culture, extremist activism, LGBTQ splintering and perspectives in an opinion centered culture vs a non-confrontational collectivist one.

I would normally right now be overseas in Thailand enjoying being pampered by my cook and traveling to my farm with Clasina. Or alternately traveling to my other home of origin the UK. My devising to be overseas every six months began in earnest during the Trump era. This has proven to be an excellent strategy for saving my mental health. 

Thai culture being a collectivist culture doesn't burden the individual with the need to move daily through a barrage of opinions. I once joked to a Thai friend that for every American who believes they can change the world this instant by delivering an opinion there needs to be at least a hundred Thais in agreement just to begin a discussion on a topic. This expressed equally our frustration with both Thai and American culture.


While in Thailand any actual requirement of me to express myself is so reduced that my stress level comes down to a soothing slowness that gives me a sense of timelessness and spaciousness. It also gave me the clarity of mind to look back at American culture through Facebook and sharply see the biases at play there. 


When people ask me how I stay so thin I tell them it is because my brain uses up so much fuel just trying to deconstruct my life given all I have to process making sense of it as an American of multiple perspectives.



Lockdown Retreat


Luckily I had the best of all possible lockdowns mostly alone which gave me a lot of space in isolation in my tiny house with lots to do putting in a garden and adding new dimensions to my off grid life. I kept expecting long tracts of boredom which never appeared. I was kept so busy reading the news. And I had two classes to attend on Zoom for which I installed a hanging chair. One class is called The Fool’s Journey, a year long exploration into the Western mystery school tradition using the Tarot deck designed by my teacher Pamela Eakins. I spent a lot of my shamanic journeys for the class hugging my two spirit guides and holding hands with them to fill the void left by all the social distancing. This  felt so real to me I could feel my heart opening to receive their love.


The second class was also taught by Pamela and that was a women’s writing class. We had been meeting for several years at her comfortable home on the coast and now on Zoom in the strange prison of our individual cells we spent that first meeting voicing our fears and wondering if anything we had been writing had any relevancy at all. Pamela with her usual stroke of inspiration had us sit down and write whatever we had to say about the pandemic. The pieces were so full of energy she decided we were to do a book and invited more women writers on her list to contribute. The poems and essays came in so fast that Pamela was soon able to produce our finished book. Called  Pandemic Carona: Poems of Shock, Fear, Realization and Metamorphis by the Sisters of the Holy Pen which you can now order on Amazon.


This project saved our sanity and gave us purpose. And most important it kept us writing and I was able to regain my sense of relevance. The book itself is a diverse collection of voices some intentionally ordinary and full of love, some brilliant at times profound. It is a capture of the arc of this pandemic and its impact on us collectively. We did a book reading this week on zoom for 29 of the writers hosted by Bookwoman an independent bookstore in Austin Texas attended by some 70 people. The reading a performance that was part ceremonial, part intimate revelation. It was recorded so you can soon enjoy it at your leisure. 


Nevertheless as we approached June I had been alone so long I started to feel the edges of the abyss, the sense that if I didn’t work at holding it altogether I would unravel into some sort of crazy fractured despair. I was no longer as captivated by the discoveries of the evolving virus and the shenanigans of the current administration threatening to collapse our country. I kept in mind an astrological interpretation of 2020 which described a year of turmoil as long held assumptions and structures were challenged, but clarity would come sometime in December it promised. As I wondered how this turmoil would manifest George Floyd was killed and society broke open with rallies led by Black Lives Matter. 


I breathed a sigh of relief. If this was the turmoil we needed to process (yet again) we could do this. Race was something every American had to address in some fashion and had a handle on though likely not the same handle, but at least a perspective from which to begin. In short order just about all the books on the New York Times bestseller list was about race. I was touched by the interest my white women colleagues showed in rolling up their sleeves to get a grip on white fragility and structural racism so that a solution might be found and applied. I also came to understand through Black activist contacts that white women were far from considered trustworthy (largely because of their role in lynching history and now as Karens) and had to work super hard to offset this distrust. I came to the conclusion that only with a Black woman in leadership would we regain any sort of feminist credibility. (Go Kamala Harris.)


I listened to podcast discussions of American History including the 1619 project and a much more comprehensive series of podcasts called “Seeing White” and “The Land That Never Has Been Yet”. This last title a quote from Langston Hughes. 


Seeing American history through the eyes of slavery and the cruel brand of capitalism that evolved from it along with the associated societal disdain for the poor was a perspective that actually made me feel better about the current administration. When Trump was first elected I felt that the GOP had pulled off a coup which was an alarming concept even for a Thai. But from this historical perspective I saw that the U.S. had all along contained this element of bias for wealthy white men and Darwinistic cruelty for those who couldn’t cut it in this supposed land of opportunity. This made me feel that the core of this country was still stable in nature; it had just been backsliding rather terrifyingly.


It allowed me to see that those who managed to succeed at all in such a country were heroic. This was a helpful concept. It reminded me of the Buddhist teaching that all life is suffering. So we were doing well if we managed not to suffer. 



Out Onto The Streets



I attended the Black Lives Matter rally in Redwood City which happened early on while we were still in quarantine and was well attended. I was pleased to see the large presence of white people and subsequent rallies through the largely white towns of Woodside, Half Moon Bay, Palo Alto and Menlo Park. In Menlo Park I attended the LGBTQ+Black Lives Matter rally held on the anniversary of Stonewall. I pulled out my vintage “Queer N’Asian” t-shirt and made myself a little Black Lives Matter sign. The t-shirt gave me claim to being a part of queer history. I hadn’t felt such a sense of belonging in a long time especially as a woman of color and now as an elder asking the young women if I could photograph them.


Having given my time to Black Lives Matter I reserved a little space to present my own cause by presenting myself as a butch lesbian in a post on Facebook. Most Americans don’t read me as butch because I am Asian and have kept my hair long. And Asian women are so highly fetishized as sexual creatures that they are seen as a dish for men (and thus assumed to be straight and femme). So in order to counter act these assumptions I posted a picture of myself wearing my Fruit of the Loom tighty whities. This classic garment being the only male garment not appropriated by women so could still truly be said to be cross dressing. I paired it with a wife beater tank top and photographed myself from overhead while lounging on my bed in classic pseudo pin-up fashion. It got my point across. See it here


I wouldn’t have to do this in Thailand where I am read as a Tom the slang term for masculine presenting women. Tom is short for tomboy and also means lesbian. I was assured of this presentation by my housekeeper when I mentioned to her that I was going to lunch with my Tom friend. 


“Are you a Tom too,” she asked.


 “A little bit,” I said. 


“More than a little bit,” she responded. I smiled broadly pleased at this reading. That was another perk ofbeing in Thailand. I am seen for who I am. And the visibility of other butch lesbians in Bangkok is prevalent. 


I was making myself visible to my Western audience in order to maintain this aspect of lesbian culture especially in these times of makeover by the transgender movement. 


Thai people already understand what a transgender person is. There is the term katoey used to identify those (mostly men) who are cross dressing and presenting as women. They do not hold the same status as women, but they have a place in society that goes back through history. Most Asian societies have this category in their lexicon. Similar to Native American society under the name Two Spirit.


It was because of the term katoey that I knew I would have a place in Thai society. The explanation for this transgender presentation is explained as most things in Thailand are by the concept of karma and reincarnation. I was told that I still carried the spirit of a boy implying that I had been a man in my last life. The idea that transgender people are persons who are trapped in the wrong body would seem beside the point to a Thai. The whole point of incarnating is to work through your stuff where you now find yourself which is as a man or a woman. Though Thailand being the sex change capital of the world is eager to accommodate those who wish sex reassignment surgery. Because if you can have it why not? The Thais are as much about acquisition as any consumer society.


Given this reincarnation karma story you would likely call this a religious ideology and I’m fine with that. But by the same token I can also claim that the idea of a person being trapped in the wrong body is an ideology. One that is being enabled by the “new” science of gender. Such science has proven that those who are transgender have the brain of the sex they identify with. Society needs science to prove such things because of the logic of American civil rights. For in order to legislate protection for those who face prejudice from others who would enact violence or bias against us it is best that such characteristics be determined to be immutable. 


In other words it’s not a choice or a psychological aberration. Because after all we are a self flagellating moral society and if it were a choice or a psychological aberration we would be obliged to fix it to conform to societal mores. And if science says you were born in the wrong body then by all means let us alleviate the stress of this suffering preferably wth medical intervention as we do every other condition in this over-medicalized society so we can make some money off it and contribute to the GNP.


The ideology of karma makes for better stories about past lives which includes historical circumstances and some artistic nuances in the telling. A psychic is the professional you would call to help you see into this past. But mostly we just shrug and leave it to the mystery of not knowing. Remember mystery? That element of awe and how to live with what you cannot know with a hope for the poetic justice of karma in the end.



Cancel Me This


An opinion in Thailand does not require a response. To object to it would be to seek conflict which would cause suffering and that would just not be a good practice of Buddhism—to intentionally cause more suffering. But here in the West we have elevated an opinion to such a point that people are publicly reviled, lose their jobs and their reputations while attempts are made to prevent them from speaking further. 


I read a few analysis to understand this phenomena. Call-out culture I learned was largely due to Twitter empowering those who usually don’t have a podium. From the perspective of the status quo it was mob rule. And this technology had empowered young people, African Americans and Trans Activists one article stated. I remember being young and gay recklessly making declarations and refusing to trust anyone over 30. The second category wasn’t surprising given the history of this country. But this final category; how did this tiny .01% minority become so virulent?


The best way to explain this last category is through the shallow lens of American pop culture. You will no doubt remember that five years ago Bruce Jenner became Caitlin Jenner in a manner so public it put the whole trans story into the public eye and explained the idea of a man trapped in a women’s body. And because Jenner had access to not only the finest plastic surgery that money can buy but the glamour arm of Hollywood the results were absolutely spectacular. Americans love a story of transformation and glamour and ate it up. The story might have ended there, but for the political aspects of the trans movement and the ongoing violence enacted on transgender people. This violence targeted at any gender nonconforming, cross dressing individual, but because of the popularity of the transgender story it became mainly about transgender individuals. And how to protect those individuals.


Both the United States and the UK took steps to protect transgender people basically by inserting the word gender into all the discrimination clauses where the word sex had originally been inserted to legislate equality between the sexes i.e. men and women. This change had an impact on the protected class of women. But before we could even get a grip on what this might mean cancel culture determined that anything that was not pro trans was bad whether it had an impact on natal born women or not. And that’s how J.K. Rowling became the poster child of transphobia. And by trouncing the writer of this most popular children’s book series of all times every liberal straight person could now virtue signal their support for the T in the LGBTQ alphabet without even fully understanding what any of it meant. And trans activist could use the headlines trouncing the author for being a transphobe to further present all the pro trans ideology as established fact (to fill the vacuum of this absence of understanding). 


When I read these articles I was struck by the calm matter of fact language used to establish an authority that was not to be denied with links thrown in liberally to “prove” that these facts were not to be contested. And when I followed the links  I found more of the same style of language interpreting science based research that basically came down to opinions rooted in an authority that was backed up by nothing more than the lived experience of a trans woman. 


This illusion of authority was so complete that it took me a few minutes to realize that we were allowing a person who transitioned as an adult and had no actual lived experience as a girl to comment on both the lives of young girls and how their social lives operated. And that I in fact had more authority having come out much earlier than my peers in the context of an all girls school. A school that came to be known in the psychiatric community as the hotbed of eating disorders and other self harming practices due largely to the incredibly high expectations placed on girls being groomed to leadership as stated by the school mantra or at the very least the trophy wives of the rich given the demographic.


It is in the arena of high school that trans ideology is having its biggest impact and had come to the attention of research scientists given that the number of teenage girls seeking sex reassignment surgery had shot up by 4,400%. Seventy times what it had been before which was so negligible that it couldn’t even really be counted. Before 2016 the number of gender dysphoric kids had been predominantly pre-school age boys. 


The moment the first research study was published it was debunked and cancel cultured into disgrace by trans activists. But the researcher prevailed, apologized for any offense taken and successfully republished the paper with just a few clarifications on methodology. But further research has been stymied and gone underground. Nobody wants death threats just for doing their job. But a brave journalist did publish a book on the phenomena of this trans contagion among girls which I have duly read and reviewed here. It’s a compelling read of sociological significance.


Meanwhile almost no girls seemed to be identifying as lesbians anymore. Lots of lesbians in my age group wanted to be boys as children including me (and we are all glad we remained women). So what was going on during an era that is supposedly so gay positive. Or was it?



Gay Liberation No More


When I came into the movement post Stonewall it was determined that to be accepted by the public we needed to present ourselves as ordinary people. Ordinary in the sense of being just like anybody else, wanting to live quietly with our chosen partners, get married and have a family. This line of thinking required the right optics i.e. that we also look and act like straight people and basically keep our fabulousness off the streets and safely cordoned off to the night club act and movies as entertainment for y’all. In the process of this assimilationist strategy we threw all the gender non-conforming and poly pansexuals and what all under the bus. And that naked man with the boa constrictor who appeared in all the San Francisco Pride parades at the time.


Liberals embraced gay marriage as their virtue signaling token issue and haters targeted gay youth and gender non-conforming individuals. To assuage this wrong and the accompanying guilt of the assimilationist strategy the movement now feels that the time has come for the T in LGBTQ to be the focus of the times. And that California schools are to be apprised of all the various flavors of our rainbow down to our many sexual preferences and gender non-confirming presentations including the whole brain in wrong body thing to prevent further bullying of our people. As a result or maybe as a clever workaround to the ordinary vanilla male and female stereotypes being described in the process the number of those identifying as non-binary entering college has shot up along with the incidences of transitioning. While the number of out gay youth seem to be disappearing per the observations of my peers. Homophobia was clearly still at large.


Last year to get a feel for this transgender era I took myself to the Trans March the weekend of Pride. I immediately noticed all the Toms—the Asian girls presenting as butch, arm in arm with their femme counterparts. And I was delighted to see Latina Toms too. I also photographed the proud shirtless transman showing off his bare flat chests for us. There were what I used to think of as drag queens—gay men with more style than could be contained in one gender to paraphrase a drag queen movie of the ‘90s. One in a wonder woman outfit. And lots with a more vintage slightly dowdy style I used to recognize as transvestites—straight men who like to dress as women (and were observed by gender scientists to be sexually aroused by this, but this autogynephelia is now considered a transphobic concept). There were also young children identifying as trans accompanied by their entire family. And a dour androgynous woman holding a flag I didn’t recognize striped in olive white and violet. It was the “gender queer” flag I was told upon inquiry with some annoyance. My favorite flag was a transgender flag with the words Trans Queer Witches Against Fascism scribed across it with a drawn glyph of pagan and gender symbols. Standing next to the flag was what I used to recognize as a lesbian with the fade haircut now popular with butch lesbians. On their shirt a button proclaiming the pronoun “he”. My photographs organized for you here


The takeaway of my foray into this brave new queer world was that it was so splintered into factions that nobody would look anyone in the eye let alone smile. So much depended now on defending one’s identity. Because apparently it wouldn’t be apparent otherwise. The chalked messages on the sidewalk gave me a clue of the underlying pain. “I Am Trans Enough” and “Let People Be Themselves”. I realized that this movement both included me as an Asian Tom and rejected me as an American lesbian. It also empowered me to defend myself.


The very definition of lesbian being oriented around being a woman and being attracted to women seems to defy the very existence of trans women whose vocal activists have mounted such an aggressive public attack on women who don’t want to sleep with persons who have penises that they sound exactly like men who tell lesbians they haven’t met the right man yet. (Not all trans people have genital surgery so they are stuck with the equipment they were born with as it shrinks or enlarges in response to the hormones they are taking.) No comparable attack seems to be aimed at straight women. Maybe their appetite for penises is too intimidating. heh. Plenty divorced their husbands who wanted them to be lesbians to support their late blooming transgender lives.


Meanwhile online lesbian-only space has been completely excommunicated from social media platforms. Even the ever tolerant kink community can no longer allow their members to express their particular preferences if it involves only natal born women. I have though found an online group that regularly shows me photos of cross dressing lesbians hosted by a clothing company offering clothes for women affecting masculine style. This fashion group called Butch Fashion, Style & Care was the perfect cover for natal born women only. Fashion serving as a cover for a persecuted minority. I was able to post my lesbian stories and photos there and occasionally others would discuss the pros and cons of taking T (male hormones) or the best brand of binders to compress their chests into a male appearance. All closely moderated to stop any fights.


The trans identity has benefited the community greatly to be sure; it created a political category for gender non-conforming people and thanks to recent Supreme Court ruling this category is now to be protected from job discrimination. This was huge in my mind because it finally allowed all cross dressing persons to have a place in American society. 


I do not however think it a good thing that people are being punished and prevented from simply stating a preference for natal born women. Being able to state our sexual preferences was the main point of the gay movement. Not to allow this is homophobic. But now the bigger activist epithet is that I am being transphobic. Well have at it then. I’ve devoted my entire life to being free to express myself without fear of reprisal either from losing my job or by besmirching my reputation only now to have my voice canceled by my own tribe. 


A society that cancels what people can say so punishingly is practicing a self imposed totalitarianism. It is a mob rule that is stoked for revolution, but has no skill set for the long slow work of diplomacy and coalition building. It is adolescent and punch drunk from unaccustomed power. Reminding me of revolutions that having thrown over a society devolve into corrupt governments with little vision.


I have a long memory going back to a time that strived for freedom of expression and a live and let live openness to differences. One that allowed a certain curiosity to ask questions and a diplomacy in answering those questions. My values didn’t change; the world around me changed and my language dates me. I now regard anyone under 35 with suspicion. I feel like an old crank spouting insults.


American culture as many have pointed out denigrates and mothballs their elders. Another perk of going to Thailand was that my status as an elder gave me a reverence that was palpable in the sky train station as I pulled out my senior card. It made me feel seen and respected.


Now I am trapped here in this ridiculously shallow, polarized society that has so politicized everything that even wearing a mask in a health crisis is a political statement. But with little to lose I realized that I could afford to speak for the unfavorable positions as I saw them.


I have long been of crone age, but maybe curmudgeon would be a better fit. heh.

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Sunday, June 21, 2020

Trans In Amandaland

This is as trans as it gets in Amandaland. This would usually be the opening weekend of Frameline, the LGBTQ film festival. So here’s a homemade queer image. It is a recreation of a scene from “Bound” which I saw at Frameline in 1996 with a sold out house. I also created it to hold down the space for a particular niche—that of the masculine woman. It is a niche I’ve been enjoying as a member of an FB group where proud butches come to show off their suits and their haircuts hosted by the Black lesbian owner of the clothing design company Haute Butch.
A niche that was nearly disappeared by the ultra femme representation in The L Word (which we consumed voraciously for its very hot depiction of glamorized lesbians in L.A played by straight women particularly Jennifer Beals). The reboot even more over the top femme glamorous even with addition of a trans man and soft butch wearing Tomboy X boy briefs. I have a stack of those briefs too, but they are not as real as my Fruit of the Loom traditional tightie whities. Real in the sense of honest to god cross dressing. Because there is power in that realness.
I also hold down this space because in a heteronormative, binary world the category has been eclipsed by the trans movement coming into its own and the pressure on non-binary youth to go the trans route especially girls. Thank-you youtube. Because being neither here nor there is too ambiguous for a culture that demands hard line categorical definitions full of color coded pink and blue children’s toys. A culture that demands that either you’re a man or you’re a woman. Gender identity is a spectrum in my mind, not a box to check. And my belief in reincarnation allows for all kinds of overlap in personal gender issues as you go from one sex to another from life to life. That is the underlying explanation for my state of mind on the masculine nature of my self identification. And I wish to hold this ambiguous gender presentation as an option for queer youth.
Thailand which has become the sex change capital of the world has recently forbidden minors to undergo sex changes because too often the minors in question changed their minds. Hint hint. Minors are defined as age 21 if male and 18 if female.
In Asia the cross dressing person has long had a social position and a label. A category that is also represented in the Native American Two Spirit culture. And I would not be surprised if indigenous Africa also had such a category. This is the information I learned at probably six years old which informed me growing up, gave me a space to occupy and giving me maybe a 10-15 year head start in coming out over my American peers.
Western culture has always had non-binary queer folk as well as oppressed gays and lesbian, but as the largely white gay community became more straight presenting assimilationist and more accepted by society, the rest of the community was pushed aside. Some reinvented themselves as trans with their own story of origin of being persons trapped in the wrong body. I’ve gotten into heaps of trouble with my own community in trying to make my case so this is completely my take. But over time the trans position itself became more receptive of gender as a spectrum of presentations (or maybe they were always that way). So I decided to stake my position within the trans community just to hold down my niche which has its own history and cultural representation even in the West. The butch lesbian manager in The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel comes to mind here. As does a character in Orange Is The New Black.
And having created this political trans position as the T in the LGBT alphabet and having that category so recently legally recognized by the Supreme Court decision last week we gender queer people are now all protected ironically enough no matter where on the spectrum we fall or whom we love. We shall see anyway. Happy Pride.
(Backdated to reflect date first posted to Facebook.)

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Tuesday, June 02, 2020

Black Lives Matter — Redwood City Courthouse

Following the death of George Floyd at the hands of a police officer in Minneapolis on May 25th the citizens sprang into action with a march the following day. I saw that a close friend (a white woman and a community leader) who lived in Minneapolis had attended it. A week later rallies had erupted all over town and when I saw a man I knew from my karate class (a Black musician and teacher) posting about one that was happening that day in Redwood City I decided to go even though I still considered myself to be in quarantine. I just made sure to wear a mask. I didn't make a sign and it was too hot to wear black, but I took my camera and was ready to capture what signs I saw.

The crowd was overwhelmingly white, all in masks and keeping a comfortable distance from each other. I was pleased that there was such a nice turnout by white citizens of all ages and quite a number of young people.
 The speakers who were Black were up on the courthouse steps obscured by the crowd. My karate friend was one of them, but I couldn't see anyone from where I stood. And it was hard to make out what was being said unless they shouted as they did during the kneeling and chanting of George Floyd's name.

 I walked towards the sounds of a drum. I had also heard from my drumming group that there was a rally and thought they might be the source of the drumming, but it turned out to be a Native man in full regalia striking his drum when applause broke out.















At the back of the crowd I found a non-white contingent and was touched at their expressions of solidarity in their signs.











And I was especially pleased to see that an Asian man had given a lot of thought to his sign. "To my fellow Asian Americans" it said and then a quote from Desomond Tutu, "If you are neutral in situations of injustice you have chosen the side of the oppressor". In his basket he had bottled water to give out to people. I was glad to see where I could fit in in this new-to-me terrain of protest.

There was a police presence, but not a hostile one. All the windows of businesses were boarded up because apparently from a statement on the flyer requesting that attendees not take out their anger on small businesses it was assumed that they would take out their anger by trashing large businesses.




On my way out I got a second alert on my phone that there was going to be a curfew for two days presumably to make sure that things didn't get out of control. It seemed like a good time to leave.

This post is backdated to reflect my post to Facebook.

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Sunday, April 05, 2020

Is This The Apocalypse I’ve Been Waiting For?


I am used to writing from my own bubble attempting to entertain with my slightly absurd minimalist approach to life, but it’s hard to write anything now without a coronavirus context. We are all in this together and I am even more aware of how my writings might fit into the temperature of the times. I want to tell you about the organic farming workshop I went to in Thailand, but I’m compelled to insert my report between stories of the coronavirus like the sandwich of the day. But maybe my off continent, off kilter perspective has something useful to offer. Or at least entertain. I hope you are all well and coping optimally.
Is This The Apocalypse I’ve Been Waiting For?

We’ve never experienced anything quite like this in the U.S. So you too might have asked yourself some of the questions that crossed my mind as we went into this pandemic. Ok maybe not in such depth. You have probably not waited quite so eagerly as I have for the collapse of American civilization. (My obsession due largely to my disgust at our consumer excess and as a psychological gambit that allowed me to maintain my sanity while living in such a complex society.) As a long time collapsnik I’ve been reading and entertaining myself with various scenarios of societal and systems collapse. 

My tiny house design incorporating much of what I learned. Electric grid gone down? Solar on board with battery bank. Earthquake ready? Of course I’m a Californian. Contamination of our water supply—field grade Berkey water filter already long in use. Interruption of water supply? 330 gallon water catchment system installed. Air quality at unhealthy 2.5 PPM due to fires? Got my RZ N99 reusable mask in fetching fashion print. (All sold out now.) Economic collapse? Expenses minimized and rent reduced to $500 and a work/trade agreement. Also debt free. Very important. Go bag? Stocked. Nuclear attack? Saw the movie. Not worth prepping for. Unless to take the cyanide route. Pandemic? Hmmm. Too big to scale. Definitely not my apocalypse.

I sat back and watched feeling I had little to offer other than a sense of expectation born of all my study. But then came the Toilet Paper Apocalypse. No toilet paper to be had in seven counties. All hoarded away by the early rush. I did not care about toilet paper any more than my countrymen in Thailand who were not hoarding anything least of all toilet paper. So why this sudden need to stash away a year’s worth of this mundane commodity? 

Psychologists speculated. Toilet paper is a low risk buy when people want a sense of control. You know you’ll always need it so why not have more on hand? It’s less of an investment than 50 cans of tuna fish that you might end up throwing out. Then others see the empty shelves and jump in too thinking if everyone’s doing it it must be the right thing to do. Add to this a sense of consumer competition to spur on the hunt. Also the packages are big and give a sense of having come away with a big haul. Yes makes sense. But the explanation I liked best was offered by a shamanic counselor who explained that the instinctive center is located at the base of the spine very near the anus. When people are frightened their instinctive center opens up. And having to poop when you’re out and having to look for a bathroom causes anxiety. But once a bathroom is found that anxiety is relieved and prompts a victorious sense of accomplishment. Everything is under control and all potential mess properly wiped away. Toilet paper thus became the iconic purchase of uncertain times—the means by which people could gain control of the situation.

I started to tease people online about their tree consuming ways. Long time readers of my essays may remember that I had learned to dispense with toilet paper for pee by employing a squeezable plastic water bottle with a sport top to squirt water at my nether regions and drip drying afterwards. Any drips absorbed by my thick cotton underwear. I did not mind admitting this personal habit even though I did not seem to persuade anyone else to follow suit.

As the Toilet Paper Apocalypse continued with more and more posts on the topic I became bolder and offered my experience with the ubiquitous bum gun installed all over Thailand and fitted next to the toilet. Basically a hand held trigger nozzle connected to the toilet water supply faucet and used to wash your bum. Called a shower bidet if you were to order one. The Thai ones look like the trigger spray attachment on a sink. 

A colleague posted a picture of a makeshift one made from a garden hose trigger nozzle as a joke. When another colleague commented that such a device would be a disaster spraying pathogens everywhere I pulled up a link to a traveler’s guide on how to finesse  the use of a bum gun while in Thailand. Toilet paper in Thailand was largely used for drying off. The real action lay in actually washing with water. The Thais do not feel clean unless they can use water. Why push poop around with paper like polish on a piece of furniture. I mean really? Such an unhygienic habit.

Paper had only become a commodity under the influence of Westerners and global trade. In a land of hardwood teak and mahogany paper had long been a precious commodity. As a child I would see paper bags made from the pages of Western magazines. And it is still wise when going out, especially outside of Bangkok, to carry toilet paper with you or buy it from a vendor. From my readings on the history of toilets I had learned that toilet paper was not a commodity used by most of the world and felt justified.  

“Two thirds of the world don’t use toilet paper you tree consuming Western colonial imperialists,” I admonished in a comment. My educated friends thought this accusation of imperialism by toilet paper was hilarious. Nobody would take me seriously because American fecophobia was such an assumed premise thought to be shared the world over. 

“Don’t Americans know how to wash their bums?” I asked. Still no answer. Look I’m really not a backward third world person I wanted to say. I’m British and if you were confronted with mid-century British toilet paper as a child you would have a highly perverted view of toilet paper too I countered. As late as the ‘70s the British stocked their public toilets with single sheets of slick glassine paper that worked only to provide a barrier from moisture, was full of sharp edges and scraped away poo like a spatula. 

In a week Americans began to consider toilet paper alternatives. The bidet toilet add-on was selling out fast on Amazon and a former Peace Corps volunteer friend offered his experience being taught to use water in Africa by a fellow American accustomed to America’s cultural disgust to help them get over the hump of washing poop from their bums with bare hands. My friend showed a bottle top device that would convert a plastic water bottle into a squeezable bidet. This too had to be mail ordered. “A bowl of water will do,” I commented remembering the ornately worked silver bowls sitting next to the large earthenware pots of water in the bathrooms of my childhood.

In 2001 when I learned about our sewer system in my construction technology class I was horrified that a first world system would actually allow poop to overflow their massive tanks given a good rainstorm. These liberated turds would then sail away into the bay. Why did anyone think it was a good idea to use good drinking water to give a turd a ride to a centralized plant anyway? Humanure was an organic and useful material in its proper context. With a centralized water treatment system chemicals have to be used to render the water safe for flushing out to the nearest water source. Such a river or lake was the same water source that would be siphoned up again for human use. And the sludge at the bottom of the tank that remained to be disposed of was toxic waste not because of the poop, but because it was now all mixed up wth industrial waste full of heavy metals and chemicals that companies are allowed to send down the same sewer system.

I was sure there would come a time when such a system would be severely compromised while environmentally such a centralized non-organic method was just wrong. So I devoted my life to the pursuit of a home with a composting toilet. My fascination blossoming at a recent workshop on effective microorganisms which included alternative technologies for poop disposal.


Effective Microorganisms

For my trip to Thailand in February my farm partner Clasina suggested we go to an organic farming workshop on effective microorganism technology. I was excited to attend this workshop because converting my composting toilet to an EM set-up had been a game changer for me. I also wanted to share my personal experience of the method and offered to give a powerpoint presentation to this august body.

Upon arrival at the International Kyusei Nature Farming Center in Saraburi just an hour and a half from Bangkok we were duly impressed by this university level facility with its modern buildings and extensive campus. Clasina was particularly impressed by the sparkling clean bathrooms. The program was created in collaboration with the Japanese EM industry (so they would not be teaching us how to make EM ourselves, just how to use it as much as possible so they could sell product). Indeed the Japanese EM technology was being quietly introduced to all of Asia through such outreach while being offered to the public through spas, hotels and wellness centers with EM fertilized organic food, lush gardens and EM disinfectants and cleaners. It was through such a wellness center in Hawaii that a friend had heard about it. The same friend who insisted that I trade out my traditional composting toilet method for this superior (and faster) EM technology. Instead of waiting a year to season a humanure composting pile, the EM process only took 2 to 3 weeks to reach a pathogen free state.

EM was a disinfectant we learned. It was spritzed into the air daily to fell harmful bacteria. It was made into non-toxic household cleaners and hand sanitizers. From the first day we were given our choice to use EM hand sanitizer or the usual alcohol based ones to fend off the virus.

The center was part of the Asia Pacific Natural Agricultural Network and our workshop was attended by a huge group from Malaysia, but also Myanmar and Japan along with one other woman from South Africa and me the lone representative of the U.S. Lectures were given in English with detailed powerpoint presentations in the air conditioned fully technical lecture hall. In the afternoons we boarded a people carrier much like a an amusement park train to tour the working farm. Students showed us how mushrooms were cultivated and served vegetable roll snacks. We saw how biochar was infused with EM to make a more potent fertilizer. We toured the lush fields of vegetables and the chicken and pig houses. I was bowled over by the use of EM technology in animal husbandry. There was no odor at all not even in the pig pens. 

EM was also added to the animal feed as a probiotic supplement. The EM infused feed kept them healthier and they grew bigger than with conventional methods. Every time their pens were sluiced down the pigs came running to slurp up the EM infused waster. Their waste was washed away into large concrete pits where the mixture became fertilizer (just as my own poop did inside my three gallon bucket). What a game changer alternative. Imagine such a solution putting an end to those problematic lagoons of manure that stink for miles and sometimes blow up like a geyser or overflow into waterways choking fish with algae blooms. EM worked in the same way I understood my composting toilet to work. The effective microorganisms ate all the harmful bacteria and were then eaten themselves in a probiotic fermenting process that ate up all the pathogens. This process was given the Japanese word bokashi. “Bokashi!” we shouted in every group photo.

We also saw how food scraps were treated with EM in 50 gallon drums from which the liquid was collected for use as a plant feed. This you can do at home too in smaller buckets. Hands-on demonstrations had us shoveling and mixing together ingredients so the EM infused bran could ferment the compost. The following day we returned to find that the piles were so hot they would turn our hands red and I wondered aloud if I could heat my tiny house with such piles or at least heat water. For fisheries EM could be made into softball size balls and thrown into the ponds to keep them clean. We had great fun seeing how far we could throw when we were all offered a turn. The EM balls reduced sludge at the bottom and had other applications including the clean up of latrines. In shrimp farming the shrimp poop is food for the microorganisms so EM made the water clear and cut down the stench. The meat of cows raised with EM technology was lower in fat and higher in vitamins.

We concluded our workshop with a visit to a recycling plant in Bangkok. Here the use of EM cut down on the biggest neighborhood complaint—the smell. Plus they were able to make toilet cleaner and dishwashing products from fermented rice water and other captured waste products. No harsh chemicals were used at all in this recycling and green waste processing. EM technology had also been introduced to the Thai military and was adopted as a method for large scale clean-ups. In the city it was offered as a drain cleaner in one of my friends apartment building. All of these projects had support from the Thai government which gave grants for outreach into the community to teach people how to make organic fertilizer from their kitchen waste. And because the late King Bhumipol had long been an advocate of a self sufficient economy and had been voicing his concerns about global warming since 1989, the reduction of carbon in the air through the use of EM technology and the concept of zero waste was considered a project of the King. This had enormous appeal for the Thais giving them not only a shared mission, but a way to further implement the King’s legacy for the good of the country.

In the evenings of our 4 day workshop participants representing EM companies made their presentations touting the benefits of their product while farmers showed their agricultural projects. I gave my tiny house presentation on the second night. I had rehearsed all my jokes and had enough pictures to show the whole tiny house trend to an audience unfamiliar with this American phenomena and its California origin. They loved it. Having sufficiently explained why such a house needed to process their own waste, they had no questions about my EM methods so I was clearly doing it right. But the look of incredulity on the face of a Japanese woman who represented a health supplement company told me how out there I was. None of these professional EM distributors had thought of such an application. They did not know about the pet waste disposal system I was able to purchase in the States and asked how much I had paid for the kit. ($100). Like any other first world society it had never occurred to them to dispense with the flush toilet. Nor were they about to. Some teased me about it later, but I was happy that I had earned my place in the EM technological revolution. Pictures of the workshop on my flickr site

It was in this context that I realized my aversion to toilet paper. As a connoisseur of composting toilets I was a compost purist. I did not like seeing toilet paper in my compost plus it would fill up the bucket faster though it was perfectly ok to add toilet paper to the mix. It would compost just as well. But why buy this chemically produced tree product at all given the Thai option of washing my bum while squatting over my poo bucket and gently pouring water from a bowl with my right hand. Getting poo on my hand (the left one as is traditional in bum washing countries) was not inherently dangerous. Or we wouldn’t allow babies to sit in soiled diapers. People do wash baby’s bums don’t they? How much had we just been taught that it was abhorrent to have contact with one’s own poo? And by whom? TP makers? Why would frugal Americans give up the pages of the Sears catalog for such a wasteful product? There was no real reason I concluded. Just an industrialized country’s status marker. I just wash my hands super well afterwards. More than I had ever bothered to before. More than most toilet paper using Americans given the reports of fecal matter on touch screens everywhere. heh. 


Lockdown

Returning to the states the virus was just making its appearance. On the day of the Bay Area lockdown I saw on TV at Catherine’s house the local mayors and health officers each taking their turn to voice their support of the decision. I was heartened by their concern for the people, for us. They were actually going to do this unprecedented move to protect us from the overwhelm the Italians were experiencing with their health care system. It was rare to experience such concern from local government. This was the town where the rich had their way and tech companies called the shots. The housing crisis and mobile homelessness in the RV population bearing witness to the priority to keep expanding jobs, but not housing.

The Friday before the lockdown Catherine and I had gone out to dinner to celebrate her getting a job with a tech company in San Francisco. And now she was crazy busy on boarding on line with everyone else who was able to work from home. Such fortuitous timing to at least have a job during this time. While I kept one shut-in weekly client. My mother and her partner Bill and my immediate circle were all ok too, but for those colleagues who faced economic devastation their stories foreshadow a vaster crisis that may very well not garner the same sympathy. As a nation we would far rather root for life over death than for equity for the poor. My thoughts went to every small businesses I relied on from acupuncture to karate that were now closed

Some with the most to lose financially were posting that the death statistics of COVID-19 were wrong, that the virus was overhyped and there was no reason for a shutdown of the economy. Just look at Sweden. Well we shall see if their argument holds. The virus was bringing forth everyone’s belief system like nothing else had. Low grade conspiracy theories (as opposed to those with a kernel of truth) were popping up all over. Humans live on stories. And would die by them too I could see. Witness misguided vigilante types buying out the supply of guns and ammo to protect themselves from the supposed government plot to control their freedoms. I made it my coronavirus job to challenge such stories as they crossed my feed and comforted myself with the relative calm of Asia handling the virus with a more prepared system of  tracking and isolation that didn’t require a lock down. Plus public education and free masks. The economic price of our lockdown would, however, have serious consequences. One that did not bode well and concerned me more than the virus.

Having seen Thailand process through the currency collapse and economic fallout when the Asian Tiger countries went down in 1998 I am hopeful. I saw the seeds of self-sufficiency blossom during that time and can now participate in the positive movement towards a more sustainable and self-sufficient Thailand. And still more heartening I have seen people of my own wealth class change for the better. It was not the easiest of transitions given the contentious political unrest that happened along the way, but the lessons were learned. The vulnerable in society can no longer be ignored.

I returned to my tiny house for the duration of the lock down and felt blessed by the beauty of my location and the hiking trails that would take me high into the hills so I could clear my head. My studies of the collapse of society had prepared me for societal failure. Useful for witnessing Trump express the full GOP agenda of minimizing aid from the federal government and telling the states they were on their own. I was reminded of the balkanization of the Soviet Union into separate states that took place prior to the collapse of the USSR. What kind of a United States will we become after this crisis? That Asia could take this pandemic in stride made the virus here look like a mosquito felling a giant. I highly recommend the daily newsletter of Heather Cox Richardson an American history professor deconstructing the news from a historical long view saving me much time and reassuring me with historical moments when the U.S. overcame similar crisis. 

 I’m just glad I’m in California especially in the Bay Area where intellect is the dominant influence. Given the political leadership initiating the nation’s first lockdown, I can now envision our wealthy Bay Area community turning an eye towards the self sufficiency of our state for the safety of its people possibly even allowing taxes to be raised. Tech based companies are already moving towards securing their supply lines in the event of global hotspots, with more technological eyes on those sources and more labor at home to manage home grown supplies. What technology that has come out of Silicon Valley of late has been all over the map in terms of having good and bad affects on society worldwide, exploiting addictive behavior and fanning consumer appetite. Perhaps we just needed a life threatening crisis to remind us to lean more towards security for all and be less about individual wealth accumulation. Just as the virus had given us a knife to cut away all the non-essentials we thought were so necessary to our lives so may it give us a mission. One closer to home. May it be so.

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