Amanda Kovattana

Middle-aged musings in interesting times

Sunday, February 02, 2020

Dear Thailand

I am very sorry I cannot bring you any masks ka. We are all sold out due to Pandemic Panic Syndrome. Our local area has one case. He is now resting quietly at home in Santa Clara after recent visit to Wuhan. It is reported that he is not very sick so likely won't die. His chances of dying are only 2% with this virus. Compare to Bird flu 39.90% and SARS 9.6%. 

Please note masks are not effective protection. Not even the prestigious 3M brand respirator (made in China). Masks work best when worn by sick people to prevent fluids spraying onto others. Best protection is to wash your hands. 

I can also recommend a pair of gloves for the germs you might accidentally touch on the BTS, on public stairway banisters and doorknobs everywhere. I can get you two pair per box for only $6.49. 

And to prevent putting your hands to your mouth may I recommend this high fashion cone. Medium size will fit most humans. $19.29, but very satisfying and will increase your personal space to large American size. 

For prevention of the human spit to landing on face I recommend 100% polycarbonate face shield with flip up visor for only $3.99. 

I can also provide full coverage Tyvek suit with hood. Please place your orders by midnight Sunday 2/2/2020 San Francisco time ka.  3 p.m. Monday 3/2/2563 Bangkok time. 

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Wednesday, November 06, 2019

Tiny House On The Move

Early in the summer my landlady Marianna told me about her idea to move across the bay to a condo. A condo would be more manageable than the upkeep of a house and yard full of fruit trees. She wanted to rent out the house if the bank would give her another loan to buy the condo. That didn’t work out. I had wanted to buy her house myself. Not so much for the house which was just a two bedroom, but for the yard which was large and wonderfully wild. If I owned the house it would insure that I would always have a place to park the tiny house with an income to offset my costs. So was my reasoning.

I was grateful to Marianna for taking me in those first three years in such a prime location for it had given me time to figure out how to live in my house while allowing me to be close to clients and have the support of Catherine’s house nearby. She had also provided WiFi, water and power. 

The Search

While I was in Thailand she sold the house. She had gotten overwhelmed by the condition of it and wanted a quick out, selling the house for cash to investors. We would have the end of the year to move. She delivered the news with a plate of brownies I could not think of eating as I fought off waves of panic. She listened sympathetically to me vent. 

Just then my friend Karla called me to invite me on a museum date. When I told her of my news she suggested I contact her daughter who lived on a big property in Petaluma. Why not I thought and felt better. At least I had one offer. It was two and a half hours away, but the immediate Bay Area had not become any more tiny-house friendly in the three years I had been living in my tiny. In fact because there were now 300 RVs parked on the streets all over Mountain View and Palo Alto, residents had become even more resistant to any live aboard house on wheels. The long resistance to increased density in these suburbs had now bloomed into the most obscene housing crisis in the nation even as the cities allowed Google and Facebook to add hundreds of thousands of jobs. We would never catch up.

I drove to Petaluma and persuaded Catherine to consider it too, but she wasn’t ready and I couldn’t do it alone. I perused craigslist and drove across the bay to Castro Valley to see a backyard. The town was still legitimately in the Bay Area and the space offered was a big grassy back yard, but the commute traffic over the bridges was sure to be punishing and he wanted $1000 in rent plus utilities. Closer to home the offers were $1000 for ugly concrete yards. One offer was a dilapidated abandoned house renting the driveway for that amount. This so disgusted me I didn’t even contact the owner though the site was only a mile from Catherine’s. It was on the busy Edgewood road approach to 280 and didn’t even have a lockable gate. A week later the price dropped to $750 and a small newish RV trailer was soon parked there.

I put an add on craigslist myself which drew two offers one in Moss Beach and one in Half Moon Bay. The man in Moss Beach was put off by my composting toilet possibly offending his renters since I would be burying the contents or seasoning it in a bin on site depending on my method. The Half Moon Bay property was a commercial yard zoned for agricultural use supporting gardeners and nursery operations. My status would be as a caretaker assisting the man already there. I was quite excited about this possibility as it had an amazing open space behind it overlooking the ocean, but the owner got cold feet about allowing someone else to live there. The county watched commercial properties very closely and he was already housing people in RVs on a property hidden inland that was a commercial landfill. 

My Appearance On TV

Ironically during my state of near homelessness my blog was discovered by organizers of The Tiny Living Festival and I was asked to speak at their California venue as a bonafide tiny house dweller. Capitalizing on my expertise as a professional organizer my topic was ostensibly about how to downsize your stuff to fit into a tiny house. But I made it more a message about how tiny houses are an adjustment to the extravagance of the MacMansion era. A project worth doing to live a simpler life so we're not hogging so much energy and resources. 

In conjunction with my involvement with the festival I was also interviewed for an appearance on the 11 o'clock news for their program Project Home which addresses the housing crisis on a weekly basis. The show gave a brief tour of how I lived in the tiny house and allowed me to stealthily impart a message of eco living while asking my opinion about tiny houses as a solution for the homeless. No the tiny house is not a way to appease our guilt by putting societies most destitute in substandard housing (but by all means allow it and do it right in community with social services). It’s heaps better than nothing of course. People are going to live in this area whether there is housing or not. Many in their cars. I managed to impart an answer without proselytizing and was pleased with how well I came across. You can see for yourself on the programs website.

 A New Town To Consider

Another friend suggested I try to stay on the property I was on so I approached the real estate agent about having me be there to keep an eye out while the property was remodeled. It was not ideal, but I was at the end of my rope and posted my plight to Facebook showing myself gardening the median strip which had won me the approval of the neighborhood. I was staying positive by positioning myself as an asset to override the downer energy of the current housing crisis. I mean why should I be given space when so many were in need? It was a struggle to see myself as uniquely worthy and wanted. I needed to find my own Brigadoon I told my writing group.

My plight prompted two friends in a mountain town on the ocean side of the Santa Cruz mountains to post my add request to their internal neighborhood lists. The town was 35 minutes drive from everything, but it was beautiful and the drive did not involve bridge traffic or much traffic at all. I got two responses immediately. The first response was from a family 10 minutes further down the road in farm country. A bit too far and too remote, but I entertained the idea until the second offer which was right down the street from my friends’ house. The homeowner left such a nice message that I warmed to him immediately and went to meet him. 

Bob greeted me from his woodpile where he cut downed trees to heat his house. He was so chatty he made me feel at home right away. I took in his stylish slightly punk, silver grey haircut and tie died t-shirt. He needed help stacking wood now that his son was gone to college. And he had plenty of other unfinished projects too. His one and a half acre property was so big he had three different places where I could park. Across the street the resident lama and goat looked at us waiting for a treat of yard trimmings. I was warming to this rural town with its junked cars and casual live and let live combination of liberal mores and DIY rural sensibilities. It was horse country without the pretentiousness. 

I showed him my photo album of my tiny house and disclosed how my composting toilet worked. He did not seem put off by it since I wouldn’t be close enough to impact his garden. He asked $500 in rent with a work trade of 8 to 10 hours a month. I took a day to think about it because of the remote location and brought Catherine up to meet him. He showed us where the Mountain lion lived and where the vultures perched waiting for a carcass and the pile of rocks that was home to snakes. The mountain lion scared Catherine, but she could see that he was a generous and helpful man and I was going to say yes anyway. They still had the same ordinance as other towns that forbid people from living in RVs, but Bob had hosted people living in RVs before and he was willing to do the same for me on the condition that if there were any complaints I would move on. 

He had lived here for 28 years clearing away junk discarded on the land by the previous owner whose son was in construction. There was still construction junk on the land which he had made into sculptures using a bathtub and toilet to fashion into the body of a bi-plane poised to take off into the hills. There was a drag racer made from corrugated tin and discarded truck tires. He also had a couple of rusted tin dinosaurs he was known to arrange in seasonal tableaux. He made metalwork sculptures that adorned his house. This artistic bent endeared me to him. His day job was as a physical therapist at the Palo Alto Medical Foundation where I had once worked myself and met four of my most pivotal friends. I counted the coincidence as a good sign.

I chose the upper pasture for my spot, paid my first and last and began work to level it and prepare it. I brought in a truck load of broken concrete I got free from a homeowner in Fremont who was busy jack hammering up the concrete that covered so much of his yard. I hired my handy friend Tim and it took us three work days and two truck loads of gravel plus more broken concrete to fashion my landing pad firmly enough so the gophers wouldn’t break through it.

Going Solar

During this time the first mandatory blackout by PG & E occurred as fire season got underway. This prompted me to think of launching into solar especially since Bob’s property would require 250 feet of extension cords. The longest cord I could get was 100ft. Even I didn’t like the idea of joining up so many cords. As it turned out there was a man on craigslist selling a complete solar set-up that was just about the right size for a tiny house probably used for a grow house. I had experimented with a cheap system myself, enough to be familiar with the components and his were all very high grade. He was offering a battery pack too. All for $1400. It was a risk to buy used equipment just as it was to buy the tiny house off craigslist, but I was being pulled by the serendipity of it all. Bob approved my idea and showed me the south facing hillside where I could put solar panels right below the parking pad. It couldn’t be more ready for solar.

I had just exactly the right amount of cash on hand to finalize this deal on a bank holiday weekend. I drove all the way up to Richmond to get it. Having measured it out I knew I could just fit the solar panels in my Prius. Mike, the seller told me that two years ago he had used the system very briefly for a grow project involving hydroponics, but then had to move closer to the job market. I had guessed as much. Marijuana having not turned out to be so profitable once complete legalization increased the competition. He showed me how the components worked and how to hook them up. 

He was a serious man also living tiny in a backyard shed finished with sheet rock and furnished as a bedroom. After the transaction was complete I mentioned that my father had been an engineer and had taught me some things. He said his father had been in Vietnam in communications and had taught him a lot about components.

“If you father was in Vietnam he must have spent some time in Thailand,” I said. 

“Yes,” he said, “I am half Thai.” 

“So am I,” I said in surprise. I was so bowled over by this serendipitous revelation I took this whole transaction as a blessing possibly arranged by my father himself from his heavenly perch. Mike smiled for the first time and gave me the traditional greeting of a wai with the words Sawadii Kup. I returned the greeting overcome by my good luck and drove away with my new solar system tickled at how I was going to subvert the power company with all I needed fitting into a Prius.

Several you-tube tutorials later I was confident I could put the system together. I just needed a battery box. I dragged an old metal bathtub up to the site. It had been Bob’s before he remodeled. It was just big enough to hold all four of the golf cart batteries. And the hole where the stopper control was installed was perfect for the extension cords and the cable wires from the panels to enter into my ad hoc battery shed. I put it all together and had power. Such a quantum leap in off-grid living yet so simple.

Moving Day

The day came to move. If my house was any larger I would have thought longer and harder about the actual moving of it. But I just strapped all the books down along with my desk and computer monitor, rented a truck and trusted that Tim who had moved it before would finesse it again. After working out all the details to get it pulled out, pull it out we did and safely towed it all the way to the coast of Half Moon Bay then south to approach my destination via a route less encumbered by low hanging branches and tight turns on narrow winding roads. All went well until we got to Bob’s property and the actual backing in of the house. 

After an agonizing two hour attempt with the truck wheels spinning dry gopher chewed dirt I wanted to run around in circles shouting “Mayday Mayday”. Instead I sent a text to my now down-the-street long time friend Martine asking her to bring me a snack. Her appearance walking up the street offered me emotional support along with sustenance. Bob showed up and started giving directions to no avail. The truck simply wasn’t up to it. So he fired up his 4 wheel drive which he had just to tow his tiny Airstream trailer. Meanwhile Tim pulled the tiny house out into the street again. By this time people were coming home from work at this busy intersection and some heavy equipment needed to get by so it was quite the scene before Bob was able to finally and expertly back the house onto its parking pad. I was so relieved even though inside it looked like an earthquake had hit.

Everything I had left to chance had slid off the counters onto the floor and one framed artwork had disassembled itself and broken the glass. Why hadn’t I been more diligent? I asked myself. Who knows? Sometimes you need things to fall apart completely just to show how near the edge your life has been teetering. The following two days I got the house level and stabilized with all four jacks firmly on the ground and set about organizing my outdoor space. 

The New Homestead

Ironically the house felt smaller in this big space, but once I had cooked a meal in it it was the same house it had always been only it wasn’t at all the same experience. It was so quiet and the light coming through the windows was different, sunnier and vacation like. The energy of this town was completely different from the traffic and freight train noise of my previous packed in neighborhood. It was a retreat place just as Bob said and most remained retreated in their houses. People who were drawn here had a sensibility different from the amenities-driven, competitive population in town. They were really nice Bob assured me. I was already seeing evidence of this. His local friends wanted to meet me the day of the move admiring the cleverness of the tiny house and welcoming me right away. 

My view took my eyes clear over the mountain ridge where I watched the sun set. This town was different too focusing more on the running of the town than any possible revenue. It had its own water from reservoirs up in the hills above. There were also lots of self organized town events involving food. I felt I had found a place that shared my values. 

After my first weekend sleeping in the tiny house in my new mountain home it felt dreamlike driving the beautiful road back into town. And once in the busy-ness of the town I felt different as if my identity had changed. I was now a country person. But there was another feeling too. I felt like I belonged somewhere, to a community and a geography that had embraced me and made me feel like family just for settling there. I felt blessed and lucky and hoped I’d be here awhile.

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Friday, August 02, 2019

A Lease of Affection

Further adventures with a tiny farm in Northern Thailand.

A Pond To Begin With

In May Clasina and her husband Panya planned a three day weekend to Mae Taeng to oversee the work of a bulldozer man. With this act she had begun to realize our dream of a farmhouse, a pond and a food forest. She had researched extensively on youtube how to make a pond that would best support aquaculture providing shelter at the edges on narrow ledges (about 2 feet wide) for spawning fish, eels and frogs. All food sources of local people in the area. When I asked my cook in Bangkok if she had ever tried the regional frog dish, she said yes, but she really preferred chicken. Heh. The pond was the same size as the footprint of the house so was quite large and deep. I was overwhelmed by the size of it when I first saw it, but realized that once it was full of water it would be just right.

The digging of the pond also provided earth to level the slope to make a flat spot upon which we would build the house. Seeing that she would be short of soil she had even enlarged a pond on the next door neighbor’s land so as to be able to use that soil too. Clasina then invited our potential building teacher Maggie to visit the land. We had already interested many of our mud hut sisters in coming to help build it as soon as this coming winter, but Maggie pointed out that the land needed to settle for at least a season in order to create a firm base upon which to build. This I felt gave us a little breathing room, though Clasina had been eager to start. 

The farm project was a respite for me from American politics (as well as Brexit) and the precarious feeling of the social contract threatening to tear apart at the seams world wide. The Thai news cycle no longer covered such overseas drama. So as not to give the populace any ideas most likely. Thailand was not, however, going to escape the impact of climate change. Though I arrived in what should be the middle of monsoon season, the rains had been scarce this year. A true monsoon season would offer rain every day, but not a drop had I seen. 

Thus having a pond was a good idea to lessen the impact of these periods of drought. It had been foremost on Clasina’s mind. Both ponds were filled by the aqueduct that ran between our lands bringing water direct from the reservoir upstream though government whimsy might close off the aqueduct for maintenance with little notice. The pond would build in resilience to our farm project.

These government built aqueducts fed much of the plots in the region. When the damn—the Mae Ngat dam— was built 30 years ago the displaced farmers were offered plots of land on the periphery of the Sri Lanna National Park. Our farm was one of these plots one kilometer away from the reservoir which was now also a vacation destination complete with floating bungalows. I felt privileged to have land on the edge of a national park. This as Clasina had pointed out would ensure there would be trees bordering our food forest to support our stewardship of the land.

The Lease of Affection

As before our first stop was at the land office for one final formality which was to sign a lease. A lease is what gave Clasina legitimacy on the land—the right to work on it and live on it. A lease also protected me, as my friends and relatives immediately wanted to warn me. By Thai law a squatter who had managed to live on your land for ten years without a lease had earned the right to take possession of it. 

“But I want to leave it to her when I die,” I said. 

“Well don’t tell them that or you will end up dead,” they told me. 

“Too late,” I said wondering what kind of narrative my Thai peers were living in that made them so distrustful. 

The government also wanted to get involved when a lease was signed for if there were payments to be made they wanted their cut. A lease of 30 years or more required government oversight. I preferred that the government not be involved so thought a 15 year lease would be adequate. Thirty years was, after all, the rest of my life. What if Clasina wasn’t able to develop the land as she hoped? Surely we needed to specify for such contingencies, but contingencies tended to spawn more contingencies. How complex would this lease need to be? All I wanted was to be included in the development decisions. I also did not want to be accountable for any business liabilities Clasina might create. I felt overwhelmed by such complexities.

The lease also had to be in Thai so we could not write our own; we would have to find one or hire a lawyer at some expense. My boy cousin had a banana farm that he leased out to tenant farmers so I asked for a copy of his lease. When Clasina got it translated she was taken aback. The lease gave the owner the power to evict the tenants with very little notice for almost no reason plus even the slightest improvements to the land had to be closely approved by the owner. That sounded like the feudal lord that my cousin would make himself out to be. It was how those of my class status operated. I agreed that it was too draconian for our purposes. 

So Clasina asked a business man she knew for advice and he offered a lease that was much more fair to both parties. It was a 30 year lease. A longer lease made her feel better about all the time she was going to be investing she told me. There had been cases of farmers putting in all the work to develop the property only to have the owner come in and say they were going to be evicted because the owner’s family now wanted to live on the land and were going to take it from there as far as farming it. It wasn’t me she was worried about, she told me, it was my relatives should I die and they came to claim my property. I could well see her point. This was exactly what happened to gay couples before marriage equality.

I agreed to the 30 year lease if she would figure out how to do all the paperwork to keep the government happy regarding taxes on payments that I was not even going to collect. What would such paperwork even look like? 
Clasina decided to ask the land office for help with these questions. So on our last trip to Mae Taeng we were relieved to learn that the land office itself had a variety of leases we could use and she had taken them home to study in the interim. 

We also learned that the government did not require that payments be made for a lease to be viable. Such a lease was called a “lease of affection”. “Affection” being the closest word for translation that Clasina could come up with. I was comforted that such a patronage relationship was common in Thailand. That it was common for an owner to want a tenant to be able to make a living from the land while keeping it from being reclaimed by the jungle. This lease did indeed express the relationship I had in mind. I wanted no false intentions to stand in the way of the universe helping us with our farm project. 

I also worried about making a Thai will which would would require a lawyer to navigate. Could we just add a clause to the lease that would leave the land to her upon my passing? 

We told our story to a clerk and were handed up the chain of command until we got to the man who could answer this question. I had met him before when I came to buy the land. He pointed out that even if the land was left to Clasina she wouldn’t be able to take possession of it because she didn’t have a Thai I.D. card. This was a bureaucratic technicality that continued to frustrate Clasina since she had long ago had the right to one with her marriage to a Thai and was still waiting for her application to be processed. The man then suggested that we sign a lease that would give her the right to the land for her entire lifetime. We had now gone from a lease of affection to until death do us part. I was liking this. It was very Gay.

“What are you two to each other,” the man asked us. 

“We are friends together,” I replied in Thai. This was indeed unusual I could see. Family being the usual basis of such patronage. He then asked me if I was single and if I had any children. Perhaps to make sure I had no one else who might object to me entering into such an agreement. Yes I was an unencumbered free agent creating a relationship not often seen outside of family. Not an unusual idea in my life thus far.

It did not take long for the lease to be prepared nor did it cost very much. Before I signed it he asked me to tell him what was now growing on the land just to confirm that I actually knew the land in question. Then he repeated the terms of the lease to make sure I knew what I was signing since it was clear I couldn’t read the document. And he explained that if we want to dissolve the lease we both had to come to this office to do so. Good enough. We signed all the signatures needed. As we walked out the door I told Clasina I felt like we should open a bottle of champagne. 

We went to use the bathroom around the corner of the building. When Clasina came out  of the stall she wanted to give me a hug. 

“I just wanted to acknowledge what a great opportunity this is,” she said hugging me warmly.

“I’m glad you’re up to it,” I said. For I did indeed feel fortunate to have found such a farm partner who was already putting heart and soul into this project while I did nothing more than watch (and give moral support). This entire process having firmed up our trust in each other.

Farm Chores

My role as watcher and not yet a doer would be further enforced the next day when I twisted my ankle walking down the embankment of our new pond in my new rocker sole shoes prescribed by a doctor to cure my toe joint pain. A humiliating event in itself for a shoe maker. A pair of slip on shoes that I had made and worn all winter was I believe the cause of it. They were too loose around the ankle causing my toe to flex with every step to hold the shoe on. This leading to degeneration of the cartilage around the joint from the overwork. (Or it could just be aging, but I was loath to accept such a thing.) At any rate the doc had promised that if I kept the toe from flexing by wearing stiff soled lace up shoes it would heal so I had bought myself the recommended shoes and was dutifully wearing them when I decided to walk down the back of the embankment of our new pond. Which was steep and the ground did not give though it looked soft. And the shoes ran away with me and I tried to outrun them, but my left foot rolled outward. As I felt the pain of my ankle rolling over I fell to the other knee to save it and safely rolled onto my back.

By the time Clasina and the three men with us turned around to see what happened I was on my back like a bug with my feet waving in the air. 

“Well that’s quite a pose,” she said wising to save my pride. I lay there assessing the damage until one of the men came down to give me a hand and I gingerly stood up and determined that I had not broken my ankle and could walk. 

The reason for the three men was that one of them was a farm consultant for the making of Swales. Swales are a classic permaculture technique to direct water through the land by means of curved ditches. The man had come recommended by our friends at Pun Pun (center for self reliance) and another man had driven him to our farm by motorbike. The third man was the caretaker from the farm next door who was interested in all that was going on at ours and would also help out if paid. So all of us were standing on the embankment listening to the consultant talk about water moving through the pond into the field below via a pipe that Clasina had installed through the wall of the pond. After listening long enough to get the gist of it, I decided to walk down into the field below rather than make my way past everyone standing on the embankment. (Would that I had just been a little more patient or assertive, but such was my character.) By the end of the consultation Clasina had learned enough to confirm that her plans were sound and the consultant refused to take any money. He just wanted to know the outcome. Then off he went with his driver while Clasina went to get ice from the village restaurant to ice my now swollen ankle. (The ice helped considerably and I would recover in time to travel home a week later.)

On the final day of our stay Clasina wanted to plant three coconut trees on the banks of the pond. (She and Panya had already planted several banana trees below the embankment of the pond.) She put on her farmers overalls which she had had custom tailored as there were none to be found to fit her. I was impressed by this sartorial commitment and had made note of them when I first worked with her at the adobe building workshop. She completed the outfit with a pair of blue boots and an elegant straw hat with black hatband she had bought at the train station. While she was off buying the plants and a piece of pipe to extend the pond outlet, I finished a drawing of the proposed house which she had urged me to do so I could draw my own room on our floor plan and add my ideas for the kitchen. Then she came back to get me so I could document her planting of the trees. Once at the farm I grabbed a bamboo pole to help me walk. (I used this pole all the way to Bangkok noting that it seemed to stigmatize me as an upcountry peasant, but I was not one to care.)

I made my way to the shade of the remaining Longan fruit tree on the bank of the pond. After planting the trees Clasina then went to the water’s edge halfway inside the pond’s cavity to fetch some water. As I watched her attempt to fill a plastic bag with water and turn around to leave she fell upon her hands for her feet wouldn’t move. She was firmly stuck in the mud and laughing at her predicament. The only way she could free herself was by leaving the boots in the mud which she did. I made my way down to look and it was clear that the boots were indeed stuck. The two boot tops looking like the nostrils of a pig emerging from the mud. 

The next attempt to install a pipe to extend the pond outlet to the surface (so we could fill the pond) didn’t go much better and the pipe slipped into the depths of the pond. 

“Well at least no one will attempt to steal it,” Clasina said and we called it a day leaving pipe and boots where the pond had claimed them. Nothing could be done until a future trip.

A Name For The Farm

A few days later back in Bangkok Clasina came to visit me resting my ankle up on a pillow. She wanted to settle on the name for our farm. We had been searching for one since the day we bought the farm and though several sounded feasible they didn’t really stick or some like “Food Forest Farm”  and nearly everything else so obvious was taken. Clasina suggested Green Joy Farms and I offered Wild Sprout Farms and those both sounded good at first, but didn’t past muster with others and didn’t translate well to Thai. 

“Maybe we should have a competition to name the farm,” Clasina suggested.

“Then people will just want to call it the Amanda and Clasina farm,” I said which made me think of our recent adventures and an idea struck me. 

“I know, we can call it Lost Boots Farm.” We both burst out laughing. Certainly no one would have that name already. Plus it was an intriguing name that promised a story behind it. Objects were popular and boots were an easy concept to grasp. We decided to try it out. A notable graphic designer on my FB feed gave it a heart. It was also the first name that Panya responded favorably to she reported. The word for boots was the same in Thai and this somehow incorporated a Thai English sensibility. Thai people like being able to recognize English words. I could see it had a lot of energy behind it which was important for further inspiration. Clasina asked if I was ok with it. Of course I was ok with it. I had thought of it after all. I also liked my other suggestions, but it didn’t really matter as long as the name had staying power. Soon Clasina had a subtitle “Feel the earth under your feet”. “That’s especially for you,” she said. Now we had a message too. 

The night before I left a storm with thunder and lightening brought rain and filled the air with freshness. Rain in Thai culture is considered a blessing and I did indeed feel blessed. 

(Pictures of our adventures on the farm posted at

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Friday, May 17, 2019

International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia


This portrait from the early ‘90s is a rare capture of my butch lesbian persona. Thank-you Warren Hukill. I would show this side of me more often, but the butch lesbian isn’t given a rightful place in Western (European) society; too challenging to the status quo of male power with such a solid example of female autonomy. It is a persona I mute here in the American suburbs because I can. I am privileged with such flexibility. I mute it so people can better relate to me and offer me a friendly reception that doesn’t have to focus on what they perceive to be my sexual orientation. (Instead they focus on how to handle my racial presentation.)

I also mute it to keep the discomfort of straight and straight passing women in my company to a minimum. And I play with the edge of this acceptance constantly. I believe I have these borders dialed in so I can gauge exactly where they are. You likely do too, but not so consciously. I know this because in the past when I asked the question “How do you feel when you are mistaken for a lesbian?” I got the most revealing responses from an adamant “I’m never mistaken for a lesbian” (from a woman with dyke haircut #1) to “I would be less suspected if you hadn’t just come out in the local newspaper. I am after all the one in this office with short hair who plays sports.”

What to me is annoying homophobia (as opposed to dangerous) is the fear of guilt by association. The internalized homophobia of those who fear being seen with me. That to be seen with a butch lesbian is to cast doubt on one’s own status as straight. I am pleased (no utterly delighted) to report though that I have more recently met straight woman who were proud to be mistaken for lesbians whether in my company or not. Because after all what could be cooler than the autonomy, strength and beauty of two women together?

This entry was greatly informed by my reading of the book Transgender Warriors: Making History From Joan of Arc to Ru Paul by Leslie Feinberg which I review on my flickr book review platform here.

After posting my butch picture and the above short entry to FB, Warren tagged me in another image from that era that I'd never seen before or even have any memory of making. Warren preferred his female nudes to display breasts so that's what he printed, but I had chosen to suppress mine with a clasped hands pose that reflects my boy spirit.

The most striking feature about the photo though is that face and those eyes— the beauty of that face cannot be denied. I recognized this beauty at the time to be a gift especially of my Thai heritage. I had in my '20s played it butch with short haircuts but because I lived in the States it just wasn't butch enough in the sense it would have been recognized in Thailand in the Tom world. In the States it just read as American lesbian which was a ghetto that couldn't accommodate my multi-ethnicity at the time so in order to claim the Thai part of me I grew my hair long and lived with a femme presentation.

And attracted bi identified women who were attracted to exotic beauty (as opposed to lesbians searching for someone they could relate to inside the lesbian culture.) I could relate to being bisexual because it shared similar border crossing territory of being bicultural so I could make it work.

But now I am single and intending to remain so which opens up more territory to explore as a person with a visual message to impart rather than as a woman wishing to attract another. I do not have to stay within the boundaries demarcated by someone else's idea of attractive. My territory has become more geographically determined by the local on-the-street vibe and global on social media with our image making tools.

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Monday, May 13, 2019

Celebrating This Body Of 61 Years

I posted this story to FaceBook earlier this month and it received more attention than almost any other post to date. Women rarely celebrate their body in quite this way. At least not very often given women's battle with body image. It was my version of Gloria Steinem's "this is what 50 looks like". (Gloria who is now 85. Long may she reign.) I also wanted people to know that I did not come by this body without attention to its maintenance and a fitness regime. My friends often assume I have an Asian genetic advantage for thinness and natural fitness. This has not proven to be true among my own Asian family members. I also hoped that my story would inspire others to take care of their "earth suit" as one of my mud hut sisters put it as well as staking out ground for a non-medicalized body as much as I can which is to say free from pharmaceuticals. And finally it is a post to celebrate a butch presentation and a female persona that does not connect with the male gaze or any other gaze as I look heavenward for my inspiration. A tripod self portrait.
On my birthday I did this photo shoot to celebrate this amazing body of 61 years. I'd show more, but my channel is PG. heh.
Here's my story: When I was in my '20s I hadn't taken up any form of exercise or sport. I was a proud slacker and only cared about getting to the movies on time. When I was late to a movie and had to run for it I would end up in my seat breathing hard and sometimes coughing. I thought I must be seriously out of shape. So me and my movie buddy took up running the Parcourse which was a new thing then. An outdoor running circuit with stations for doing push-ups et al. They were installed in communities all over. We picked the one that went around Lake Lagunita at Stanford. This improved my stamina and I was proud to increase my reps of push-ups and pull-ups.
A few years in I attended a celebration at the International House at Stanford where it was Asian night and the entertainment was a man and woman from China in silk costume doing martial arts. I fell in love and that's when I started looking for a kung fu class. Once there the movements were so similar to Thai dance that I felt at home, plus it brought back all those kung fu movies I had watched as a child and yes the TV series Kung Fu. The horse stance fixed my bum knee that still bothered me from a ski incident and the exercise improved my lung power further.
Fast forward a few decades later and I am late for a train. Now I have the power to run for it, but I still landed in my seat breathing so hard I was coughing for a good few minutes so I asked my family doctor what I should do. She had me breath a full lung full of air into a measuring device and said I only had a third of my lung capacity, did my parents smoke when I was a kid? Yes my father did from the time he was 12 to the time I was 12. Well there you go, she said, that's why I tell parents not to smoke around their kids. I was so mad at my father.
"I could have been a contender," I said. Then I thought what am I complaining about? I'm already up for my black belt. And I am injury free because I couldn't quite push myself hard enough to seriously compete because I'd end up coughing. The doc told me I had exercise induced asthma and gave me an inhaler to use before exercising. Well that's not going to help if I'm late for the train I thought. I tried it a couple of times and refused to use it. What was the point? Why become dependent on this device and whatever chemicals was in it when I already had what lung power I needed? The doc agreed that exercise itself had helped. Ok then. I don't need to go further than what my lungs are capable of. And it is still my lungs that are happiest when out on the mat being stretched to their capacity. I was now too old to be a contender, but I am still kicking.

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Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Of Visionary Women

My report of the next leg of my farm making adventure in Northern Thailand as it unfolded with all its gifts and surprises during my recent trip earlier this year.

Mae Taeng Province

The district of Mae Taeng is still largely undiscovered being but a stop between Chiang Mai (the Northern capital of Thailand) and the mountains of great beauty at Chiang Dao. Getting off on the side of the road here feels like the middle of nowhere. That’s what I like about it. The existential-ness of it. You have to have a reason to stop here. Nobody is going to crowd you with a ready made program of must see attractions. So our first questions to each other was how to get there—rent a car, rely on public transport, ride motorcycles or start building a network based on our needs. The train station in Chiang Man took care of our immediate needs to get breakfast and buy clothing for the cooler weather which Clasina set about to do at the shop adjoining the restaurant. And soon I too found items to round out my wardrobe—a jacket, pants with cargo pockets, a shirt to shield from the suns rays. Then we looked around for a taxi truck willing to drive us out to Mae Taeng for not too much money which we soon found.

And as there wasn’t really a town center or landmark destination we just got off at the one place we already knew—the government land transfer office. Clasina and I were on our next leg of our farm adventure together—the matter of a lease that would allow Clasina the legal right to develop the land while maintaining my legal right to own it. So we stopped in at the land transfer office to see if they could help us pick such a lease. The woman at the desk who was very helpful and had various leases we could use remembered my name from seeing it on the documents I had signed last time I was there. She had wondered if it was the name of a flower. It means to be loved I told her and then I thought to ask Clasina what her name meant. “The shining one,” she said, “one who would be a leader.” That was very promising for our joint adventure I thought.

Now that I had more time to get to know her I asked Clasina how she came to be in Thailand. It wasn’t exactly a plan she revealed. After Apartheid ended in South Africa the laws were changed to favor the hiring of black South Africans to government positions in all but 5% of jobs and virtually all other industries followed suit. Only family run businesses held any future for young people who were not Black. Clasina explored a number of overseas options including living in a kibbutz in Israel and going to England for training in food services. While in England she tired of the winter climate and asked a travel agent where she could go that was warm. Two options were suggested—Mexico or Thailand and it cost less money to get to Thailand so there she went. 

Before this trip I had listened to Trevor Noah read his book Born A Crime which told me everything I needed to know about Apartheid plus had a lot to offer me in terms of cross cultural navigation. Apartheid wasn’t exactly a history one could be proud of as a white South African and what came after sank into corruption and mismanagement. Clasina hadn’t wanted to stay, she said, because it was too sad. Her parents though remained in South Africa. 

The Thai government isn’t exactly pro welcoming either; they sometimes harass her to test if her marriage to a Thai was bonafide. They found it suspect that she and her husband Ya hadn’t wanted to have any children. She is still awaiting the Thai I.D. card that would grant her land owning rights. I had the necessary Thai I.D. card for land owning while Clasina had fifteen years of experience living in Bangkok and navigating life in Thailand that I was missing not to mention that she was so outgoing she would talk to anybody. She knew how to talk to people here in the North I realized. My high society manners and formality did not play well here. People addressed each other with homey familiarity using terms to designate family. 

“Hey uncle” or “hey mother” Clasina would call out in Thai if she needed directions or information while I was left to wonder how to determine who to call what being so old as I was. The farm family we had bought the land from saw me as aloof and snobbish I felt as I waited an introduction or some clue to gather my words together. No introductions were made as everyone already knew each other. I would have to create a more outgoing persona to navigate this I concluded.

Clasina had already booked our accommodations for the night at a guest house quite close to our farm and made friends with the Thai lady who had created the pleasant compound of guest houses. Clasina also had the phone number of a man with a motorcycle with side car to take us there. We had a hot drink while waiting and a local woman dressed for work in Western clothes asked to take our picture. The sight of a blond caucasian woman was still quite rare here. Soon our uncle with the motorcycle side car was there to take us to the guest house where we got comfortable at our little house on the corner of a rice field. Someone loaned us a motorcycle and so it began this building of a network. We were soon at our farm snacking on string beans from last year’s crop.

An English Woman’s Vision

“You must meet Maggie,” Clasina told me and rang her to ask when we could come. Maggie turned out to be an energetic English woman who had settled in Chiang Dao where she had built herself a charming cluster of guest houses with her own hands. She came to pick us up at the bus station in Chiang Dao an hour an a half by pick up truck from Mae Taeng. Maggie had lived in Thailand for 40 years and now at 73 was looking to sell her Chiang Dao guest house which had taken her 7 years to build. She didn’t have quite the energy for the work of a B & B now she said and would go on to build her final home down the road a piece as a co housing endeavor with friends. She was asking 8 million baht for this property—$250,000. That didn’t seem like much compared to California prices. What a gem of a property just to have as a home base. Perhaps money would fall in my lap I joked to Clasina.

The hand made buildings were round and as soon as I looked at the original one that had not been plastered over I recognized the technique from one developed at the Cal Earth Institute in Southern California which I had opportunity to visit when I managed rental property in San Bernardino. And indeed Maggie had hired a teacher who had studied at that institute to come to Thailand to show her how it was done. 

Built with sand bags filled with earth this technique didn’t quite breath well enough in the tropics so Maggie had devised a method of her own filling the sandbags with rice chafe and tying them to a metal structure made from rebar bent into a dome shape. The entire structure was then plastered with mud. This seemed to suffice until over the years the dome roofs started to crack in the monsoon season so she was in the process of putting roofs of thatched coconut fronds on all the buildings as if to give them hats. She now had a charming group of round thatched roof huts scattered up the hillside facing a spectacular view of Chiang Dao. During the high season a steady traffic of travelers seeking a unique experience kept her fully booked.

I liked Maggie immediately. She had missionary parents and had grown up in India. When she told me she had come to Bangkok in the ‘60s I realized we wouldn’t have to dig far to find a connection as that was the decade of my childhood in Thailand. She said she had come at the invitation of her aunt to help out with a school for the children of expats and that the aunt who had helped start this kindergarten had gone on to open a school for older children called Mrs. Clayton’s school.

“I went there,” I nearly shouted. All sorts of memories flooded my brain as I told her how Mrs. Clayton’s school was my first introduction to the West via British culture. I was struck by the serendipitous coincidence of this connection and saw also a kindred spirit. She reminded me of another English woman who had long been a model for me.

“Have you ever been to Cornwall?” I asked her. She had. “Did you visit the Minack Theater,” I asked. She had. The Minack Theater was built by a single woman with a wheel barrow and the help of her gardener as she toiled up the side of the cliff with bags of cement. She had built it for her grandchildren to stage plays during their summer holidays. The result was an outdoor theater with a spectacular backdrop of the open ocean. I took in this site when I was 18 and the story of this one woman vision stayed with me for life. It is still in use as a theater today and is a much loved local feature. Maggie said she had been much influenced by this visionary woman just as I had been. She was such a model of what could be done with simple hand tools, some day to day determination and a vision. I recognized in Maggie’s round houses a similar visionary spirit.

As we were talking a Japanese man and his wife came down the path in full admiration of what she had created here. He said he lived in Portland, Oregon and was himself a designer of gardens for he had designed the Japanese garden in Portland. Indeed I had visited this very Japanese gardens on several occasions. That park was no small feat, covering many acres and was striking in attention to detail. How strange to now meet the designer in Thailand. That he was now admiring the efforts of my new best friend spoke volumes. It reminded me that places like people can be a magnet for like minded spirits as though we were connected by Ley lines to the high energy spots around the globe. 

Clasina was meanwhile taking in our shared conversation and would later ask me what I thought about building our first structure in the style of Maggie’s round house and asking her to be our teacher for the build. Why not? Clasina had been sending me drawings of what she wanted in a farmhouse and they had all included a round tower as an anchor. She had also taken a workshop from Maggie already. Maggie said yes.

The guest house we stayed in was spacious with its high dome ceiling. The round building had character and a great deal of charm. Maggie had also designed wonderful outdoor bathrooms for each one. Her own bathroom had a mosaic tiled bathtub and a squat toilet—a white porcelain one set into the earthen red floor. Clasina tried out the tub laying in it and posing for a picture while I remarked on the toilet style being my favorite. Maggie proclaimed the virtue of the squat toilet for digestive health. She then demonstrated squatting over it and popped up and down with such ease that it was clear that this activity had also kept her spry. Clearly a woman after my own heart. We in the West now know how this position aids in elimination due to the cleverly marketed Squatty Potty, but this work-around would never come close to the benefit of so much squatting.

I told Maggie I would help her get the word out about her property, yet I could see it would call for a very unique and specialized buyer. If I were to devote myself to just one location this one would certainly be spectacular. To see more of my pictures of the Chiang Dao mountain and round houses click here and continue to the right.

The Mud Hut Sisterhood 

While we were in Chiang Dao we only had to go down the road a bit to visit the women’s build in progress that week. The same event where Clasina and I had met last year, but at another location where I had built a house the year before. I had timed our visit to Mae Taeng to coincide with the build so we could visit with our mud hut teachers and a couple of friends I had made at previous builds. 

“Melissa” I called out as soon as I spotted my friend from Portland. She looked up ready to take orders, then saw it was me and gave me a mud specked hug. She was already acquainted with Clasina from my FB posts. As I told her of our plans to build a house she was all in and said she had a list of friends who wanted to come to Thailand specifically to take part in a build. Another woman, Robyn, who had been there last year with us had come again and brought a friend to this build too. She also said she had people she could bring. 

This was all unfolding so easily I wondered if we could pull it together by next January to accommodate such a team. We would need bricks to be made, a place to house people with a dining area and kitchen. The building site would have to be prepared and a cement foundation poured to ward against termites. Clasina certainly seemed eager to begin. When we got back to Mae Taeng we talked to our new friend at the guest house near our farm to see how many people she could accommodate. Sixteen she said if we bunked 3 to a house. Ten more beds would be good for a full team. But she did have a lovely dining pavilion and had once been a cook. So far so good. We had our network. It was almost as if everything we had done on this trip was designed to set in motion the building of our house.

We finished off our trip with another reunion with three mud hut sisters who were attending a four day music festival where they had helped prepare the site by building bamboo structures and sculptures. Attended by young people from all over the world it was a celebration of community that is now a global phenomenon. This built environment providing space for workshops, yoga, natural healing, Thai massage and numerous food booths of international variety while the river running through the park offered a refreshing place to hang out. We slept in rented tents and wandered from booth to booth. At a Ayurveda healing booth a young Indian woman offered to read my fortune with a set of cards each with a photo of an object. I wasn’t sure I needed a reading from such a loosely structured deck, but I consented and drew five cards. One was of a teddy bear, one of a child holding the hand of an adult. I forget what the others were. 

“These three cards indicate that you are entering a time that will fulfill a childhood dream,” she said. That might well be true I thought and nodded in agreement. “You won’t have to do anything. Just let it come,” she concluded. This was even better. “You have something to teach,” she continued. Yes I was all about teaching stuff. My head was a fact collecting synthesizing machine. “Something from your own life experience; about relationships,” she finished. What? What did I know about relationships? She looked up at me as if she herself would like to learn from me. 

“I am writing a book,” I offered “about living sustainably.” She smiled encouragingly. “I can make shoes,” I said showing her my Celtic sandals laced up my calf. She was duly impressed and asked me to come by again, then gave me a hug. 

This easy connection with so many women builders and visionaries was exactly what I was hoping for when I opened the door to this farming adventure with Clasina. I had led a life of long projects considering it had taken ten years to write my first book. I knew well that the journey had to be the fun of it, had to sustain you and teach you your craft. But now I had a partnership and a community. This was new. I felt lucky. I wouldn’t have to do it all. 

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Friday, January 25, 2019

Flashback Friday

While in Thailand I felt compelled to post this picture to remind me of the lineage that is lodged in the memory of this land that I called home. The photo was taken in the garden during a visit I made back in 1977. My boy cousin Thop sitting between my grandmother and his mother (my Aunty Ah Pahdt). Thop still lives here with his family as does Aun daughter of Prayoon the little girl in the lower left hand corner who is now the family cook. She was at the time of this picture the playmate of my girl cousin Pong on the right. Pong lives nearby at her in-laws household.

My grandmother bought this property in the 1930s and built her house here which still stands. She was born into the social class of Bangkok now known as Hi-So short for the English phrase ‘high society’. She spent her life working in jobs befitting her station. At one time for the prime minister in the capacity of receiving and taking care of foreign visitors i.e. Ladybird Johnson and the President. Also Queen Elizabeth and later Neil Armstrong.

She was a devout Buddhist and a philanthropist. She passed along to me her frugal values of living simply. Her original house was never remodeled, just added onto. She had only one child, a son she sent to college in England where he earned a Ph.D in engineering. She raised and educated Ah Pahdt (my father's half sister of another mother) who at the time of this picture was managing director of the alumium blind company started by my grandmother's second husband. It's complex this family you don't need to tell me. heh.

My grandmother's baby sister my Aunty Lily who also lived here was once the managing director of the Bangkok franchise of Polish Ocean Lines which was her husband’s business passed to her at his death. Aunty Lily had her own stylish 60s era house on their parent’s original land (now sold to Bayer Aspirin for its Bangkok headquarters). Aunty Lily lost her wealth to an embezzling manager in the company. Thus my grandmother invited her to come and live on our compound along with her loyal maid Weil and her family.

My grandmother housed the staff, invited them to bring their boyfriends/husbands and sometimes their elderly mothers to live here and helped educate their children. Prayoon's sister Saiyud also lived here while attending college and did my grandmother's bookkeeping.

My grandmother was a great lady in everyone's eyes and her memory remains vivid in all our minds. Late in life she received the title of Khun Ying from the late King Bhumibol.

I am the offspring of a college romance and shotgun marriage to an English lass majoring in psychology. I am called a Look Klueng, a child who is half—half Thai. I was brought back to this household when I was three until my mother migrated us to California when I was ten. My father would further complicate this family by marrying twice more.

At the time of this picture I am still in college and had the choice as I always had of where I would make my home. I was my grandmother’s only grandchild and she loved me to death. A bit too much for my independent spirit and I squirmed away for many years.

I would spend my queer life wandering around explaining myself to everyone who asked because in the West people did ask incessantly until I finally published my memoir “Diamonds In My Pocket”. The book also served to explain myself to myself and make me into a whole person.

I took this photo with my father's vintage Leica on a tripod using a long squeeze bulb gripped in my left hand. This technology already trailing edge as is my habit. We are assembled here on the wall bordering the patio of my grandmother's house.

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