20 February 2009

'Tis True, 'tis True 'tis pity, And pity 'tis 'tis True. Part Two

True Corp bought more bandwidth in mid 2008. I know this because a customer service rep called to tell me so. At least the 2007 visit to True Corp head office wasn't totally in vain.

The honeymoon lasted until September when my speed was back in the garbage again. I started the usual round of calling, insisting it wasn't my settings, demanding to speak to someone besides customer service. Now neither I nor my computer were getting anywhere.

For a couple of weeks in October I was too sick to use the computer. When I finally sat down to work again, every site I tried to access elicited the message"Firefox Cannot Find The Address." Reloading the page 4-20 times sometimes got me where I wanted to go. Forget about sophisticated internet maneuvers like trying to navigate from between pages or sending sensitive data like passwords. I tried calling the True "Disservice Center" and as always was fobbed off with excuses.

To reassure myself the problem didn't lie with my computer, I went to the Fujitsu service center where any customer can use their Loxinfo-powered Wi-Fi for free. My computer worked quickly and perfectly. One of the endlessly helpful Fujitsu service people suggested I address my complaints to True via their on line customer service instead of by phone. He said True take you more seriously if you post a complaint and normally call back within 24 hours.

And they did! A savvy female engineer named Nahathai rang my mobile the next morning and we talked for an hour. She wanted me to test my speeds but I'm wise to that game after playing it so often with the customer service folks. Speeds to the True office in Bangkok are always normal. Nahathai asked if I used a lot of international sites.

"What do you mean international websites?" I tried not to yell. "The internet is the internet. Who knows or cares where the host servers are located?" True does. It differentiates between customers who surf inside the country and those who go inter as they say in Thai. Inter involves using the closely guarded CAT gateway described in the previous post.

Ultimately Nahathai admitted the real problem was True's lack of bandwidth. Or rather its core marketing strategy to buy more bandwidth at the usurious Thai prices and then sell thousands of cheap packages to Thai users. Unbelievably True works on the premise that young Thais only play video games or access local chat rooms and don't clog the international lines! How can any major ISP or computer engineer believe such rubbish?

After Nahathai manipulated something on her end related to my router, speeds sped up significantly. I was so happy. She gave me her mobile number and said to call whenever I had a problem.

When I powered up the next morning, speeds had gone back to their "normal" antediluvian slowness and Firefox required 4-20 tries to access a URL. I called Nahathai. She asked if I'd turned off my router. Of course I had. Energy-conservationist me automatically turns everything off when I shut down the computer. She'd never said to leave the router on.

We were at an impasse. Nahathai said she'd forward my case on to her bosses and get back to me. When she didn't I started barraging the website again. Eventually she called back and wanted to come to my house to test the router and the routes. I thought this was unnecessary, especially since service people always have a terrible time finding my place in the bowels of Chinatown. Then again, what did I have to lose but crap internet.

Promptly at 8 a.m. a few mornings later, Nahathai and K. Poo (from the Internet section) arrived, each with their own Dell laptop. I work in a teensy space delimited by an old-fashioned wood desk with a drawer I pull out for my laptop and have never experinced so many visitors crowded into my workspace. Fortunately Nahatahai and Poo were both short and slender! I demonstrated the various problems (the "Firefox cannot find the address" message, the impossibility of streaming an NPR radio program or navigating from one page to another) and left them to it.

At 10:30 the pair were still engrossed. They'd sorted the Firefox problem which was only vaguely related to the bandwidth issue. Nahathai said she'd already sent my case along with another serial complainer, also a farang, to the head office.

"So who complains the loudest?" I asked her. "Farangs or Thais?"

Oh only the farangs complain vociferously, she told me. Great! As if the Thais don't already have a zillion reasons to marginalize us farangs as weird, demanding, loud and aggressive! Now we're internet complainers too.

"Why don't the Thais complain? Surely they must hate slow service as much as we do?" I said.

"Thais don't go inter as much you farangs," she said. "And you farangs have experience with internet in your own countries and know about fast internet." I told her I'd been in Thailand 16 years and had very little experience with the fast, well managed and affordable internet in the west so it was no good lumping me into her standard farang profile.

After the pair spent two more hours sitting cross-legged on the floor hunkered down over their computers and in endless communication with their offices, Nahathai offered to temporarily put me on a special account so I could stream video. (I quit trying to watch Rachel Maddow on MSNBC since for 2 seconds of talking I had to wait 15 seconds for buffering.) Nahathai hooked me up to a lightening fast--and expensive--account to demonstrate and for 10 glorious minutes I could watch feisty, smart and cynical Rachel spout off without a single pause.

"No," I told her. "I do not want special farang treatment. I only want my standard 850 baht/month service to return to how it was three years ago before True vastly oversold its small amount of bandwidth." I refused to give her bosses fodder for turning me into a the poster child for faster internet speeds in Thailand.

So, like Cinderella at the ball as the clock struck midnight, Nahathai returned my golden internet carriage to its pumpkin-like state as a True customer with an ordinary internet account. And apart from the night a few weeks ago when the entire international connection broke down and every internet service providor in the country lost their ability to go inter, life on the True cyber highway has been more or less normal ever since.

03 February 2009

'Tis True, 'tis True 'tis pity, And pity 'tis 'tis True. Part One

I live on the 8th floor of a ratty apartment block in Chinatown. My connection to the High Speed internet service offered by True Corporation, Thailand's biggest ISP, begins with a digital line that comes in off the street. When it enters our building it becomes an analog copper wire that disappears into a metal box located under a drippy pipe near the front office. The box belongs to the Telephone Organization of Thailand (TOT).

Emerging from the frightening spaghetti-like tangle of telephone/computer lines crammed into the box, my thin copper line then climbs up eight floors, undoubtedly losing electrical resistance en route. Thus before the ADSL line ever plugs into my computer, its speed is lower than the advertised 512/256 kpbs for which I pay 802 baht/month. (Plus an extra 107 baht/month to TOT for the privilege of poking my wire into a hole in that metal box downstairs.

When I first installed True Hi Speed internet four years ago, it seemed efficient enough. Of course anyone switching from a dial-up modem to ADSL is bound to be overjoyed at the speed difference, at least initially. Besides, nobody expects lightening fast speeds in Thailand because the international internet gateway to the world is tightly controlled by the rapacious Communication Authority of Thailand (CAT). Every ISP in Thailand pays huge fees over and under the table to CAT for the privilege of exiting the country. Which is one of several reasons for the expensive and slow Thai internet.

Anyhow, in early 2007 my ADSL connection became seriously slow. Like it took 1 or 2 minutes to download a single web page. Even my old dial-up connection was faster than this. Thus began a series of calls to True Customer Service. Ha, what a true misnomer that is. The default "help" mode adopted by this small band of excessively polite reps involves absolving True of any responsibility for any problem. The customer is always wrong.

No, I'd patiently explain to Khun Whoever, it can't be my smtp, pop, firewall, browser, cookies or any other setting. My speeds were fine before and I haven't changed a thing.

"Are you looking at websites within Thailand or abroad?" they'd ask.

"WHAT?" I'd scream. (After countless calls I'd finally lost all semblance of cool.) "It's the Internet. There's no difference between surfing within and without Thailand." (Except that within Thailand you don't need to pass the CAT gateway.) How could such archaic notions of intra- and international persist in the age of global communication. Thanks to the TOT/CAT duopoly, they still do. .

"My problem has nothing to do with me. YOU are advertising super cheap promotions and don't have enough bandwidth to service your many new customers." They sheepishly agreed with me but could do nothing. We'd come to an impasse. "Let me talk to a supervisor," I begged. When this person finally came on the phone she offered just one option: For 1,250 baht/month I could sign up for the SME package (for small and medium enterprises). Apparently SME package speeds were faster because it had fewer subscribers.

"But I'm not an SME. I'm just me," I protested. "Your solution to a True-created problem is to charge me 1250 baht/month (even more with tax) for the same level of service I once got with a 802-baht line?" I was righteously indignant. "You call this service?!?" Apparently she did because with a take-it-or-leave-it rejoinder, she hung up.

I was really upset. Customer Service refused to put me in touch with anyone in upper management so I switched tactics. Reckoning a writer with a work permit and press card had some measure of influence, I decided to visit the True Corp head office. It was a definite gamble because Thais don't take you very seriously without a referral or at least a contact name. And indeed the trio of smiling girlies guarding the downstairs reception counter at True Corp were totally flummoxed by my appearance (both literal and figurative).

After numerous frantic phone calls from reception, two young women appeared. We sat down at the True coffee shop and they listened patiently as I explained my problem in a mixture of Thai and English. They made various phone calls and eventually said a big PR boss was coming right over from her office across the street. In the interim they proffered smiles and coffee. While we waited, three more minions appeared, all wanting to hear my saga. Then two more. At which point I realized I was wasting my time repeating the same information because only the boss had the authority help me. I clammed up.

How long does it take to cross a street in Bangkok I wondered after nearly an hour had elapsed. If the street is the hyper congested 6-lane Ratchadapisek at the Rama 9 intersection and the PR boss is driving not walking--and no PR boss would dream of walking across the street--an hour is about average. Sure enough a profusely apologetic woman appeared soon afterward and in no time had bestowed a free SME package on me to solve my connection speed problems. I had my own password and the mobile phone number of a charming engineer in case of problems.

Wow! I flew like the wind with the SME package. For exactly one day. When I plugged in on the second day the login name and password didn't work. I rang the charming engineer who provided different ones. They too worked for a day. On the third day the charming engineer didn't pick up the phone. I was back to square one.

I left the country for three months and when I returned in October my True internet connection was slightly faster once again. On really bad days I go to the Fujitsu service center where Fujitsu owners can use their wi-fi for free.

23 January 2009

Hi, d'ya remember me?

Here's a blanket statement for everyone who walks up to me hoping I'll remember them from our previous meeting. Please don't take it personally, but I probably won't. Perhaps we met at some party a decade ago or in Istanbul in October 2006. Did I really edit a brochure for your husband 13 years ago? You saw me on the BTS, at the FCCT, at an art opening, walking near Siam, at a bar. Sorry, our interaction didn't imprint itself onto my consciousness. You say I was your best friend in high school and we hung out together all the time. Apart from your maiden name and luxuriant long wavy hair, I recollect nothing of our time together.

If you introduce yourself by asking where's my trademark big hat, I'm very happy to have forgotten you. The broad rimmed hat I sported sported around Bangkok from 1993 to 1997 (naturally I don't recall the dates) was fun at the time, but I've moved on. You, on the other hand apparently imagine people stay trapped in one signature fashion moment.

This habit of routinely forgetting so many folks who retain such vivid memories of me is a tad worrisome. I've considered early onset Alzheimer's except I can't remember a time when I wasn't forgetting. My mother had prodigious powers of recall and gleefully taunted me about my microscopic memory bank. "Don't tell me you've forgotten so and so," she'd chide and proceed to recount a short story's worth of anecdotes about my escapades with the person. I consoled myself thinking all she did was sit around remembering while I was running around experiencing life.

Two seconds after being introduced to someone at a social function I'll probably have forgotten their name. Usually one or two meetings is sufficient to imprint someone's identity onto my semi-consciousness. Sometimes no matter how many times I meet a person, their name continues to escape me. Just to let you know, asking, "Don't you remember my name this time?" won't make either of us feel any better when I admit to forgetting you yet again.

I used to hide my ignorance of people's identities behind mundane questions like, "So how's work these days?," or "What've you been up to lately?" Occasionally their answer jogs my dysfunctional memory bank and allows me to wriggle out of a mutually uncomfortable situation. Usually it doesn't.

It's nice when people say, "Who can forget you? You're so memorable/weird/distinctive" or whatever, but I still feel terrible about all the unexplainable blanks in my brain. On the positive side, if we ever had an argument in some distant and ended up hating each other, rest assured I've probably forgotten the genesis of the problem and so perhaps we can be friends once again.

Maybe it's all a cosmic solution to my much larger problem of letting go and being in the moment.

02 December 2008

Wrong Shoe Color and Other Political Implications

Normally yesterday would have been a yellow-shirt day because Monday is the birth day of the king and it's become common practice for many Thais to honor him by wearing his color. Lately few wear yellow because it's been coopted by those screaming PAD fanatics who've commandeered the airport and irrevocably altered life in Thailand.

I got on the MRT subway wearing black and grey accoutred with some cute secondhand Birkie sandals purchased recently for 500 baht from the fabulous secondhand boot guy at Chatuchak Weekend Market. For no particular reason I sat down next to an unsmiling older Thai-Chinese guy who was one of the very few wearing a yellow shirt. As the train pulled out he got up and moved to the next row of seats.

Was it because I'm a foreigner? Unless the trains are jam packed, the seats next to me are often empty and I've often contemplated wearing a "Farangs Don't Bite" sign around my neck. Was it because I wear strong smelling patchouli oil? Nobody's responded negatively to that exotic 1960s-era perfume since the mid 1970s when the owner (a former madame) of a funky Port Costa hotel and bar on the San Francisco Bay refused me entrance to her premises because she hated patchouli.

Or did the guy move because of my reddish shoes? That I can even contemplate such a seemingly insane reason indicates how all of us here, like it or not, are implicitly or explicitly affected by the gut level reactivity generated by the current political tensions. A few weeks ago my maid Noi, who's watered my plants and tidied my apartment thrice weekly for 12 years, complained that she just didn't own enough tops in non-political colors. She, like so many other Thais, has enough ordinary problems just getting by in life and doesn't need more externally created ones.

Yet with the airports closed, the political situation growing ever bleaker and the future growing ever more uncertain, almost nobody has the luxury of being an ostrich anymore. Over the past few days since the insane November 25 airport takeover started looking insoluble, at least in the short term, I began noticing how it affects various aspects of life here I take for granted.
  • Getting secondhand The Economist magazines at Chatuchak. Thai Airways isn't flying so the magazine guy can't buy old issues off whoever was supplying him before.
  • My New Yorker subscription won't arrive by post, nor will any other subscriber to overseas publications receive their copies.
  • Bookazine and Asia Books and other suppliers won't receive their daily newspapers, weekly magazines, or book shipments.
  • Noi said gorgeous flowers were being sold off at 1 baht per stem at the market near her house because they can't be flown out. I can't begin to imagine how many other exported items are affected.
  • Villa Market only had imported cranberry jelly when I went to buy cranberry sauce for my friend's Thanksgiving party. Villa stocks way more foreign items than even the luxury Thai supermarkets and what'll it do as this situation drags on?
  • Three good friends will probably have to cancel a one-month trip to Nepal to celebrate their 50th birthdays because they're due to leave on the 10th.They're literally a drop in the ocean of the people and goods whose movements have been impacted by the airport closure.
  • Yesterday as I waited at BNH to see a doctor, I talked to an older couple of Brazilians on a large tour. They were due to fly out on Saturday and have run out of their heart/thyroid medication.
It's hardly worth ruminating more about this. Everyone is waiting for something or someone to wave a wand and make things all better again. Perhaps nothing will change until everyone realizes things have gone too far for a simple solution and begin to take responsibility for the situation they're in. Call me negative or a doom and gloomer, but I see things getting much worse before they even start to get better.

27 November 2008

One Stop Steps Up

Rumors are flying around town about an imminent coup and everyone’s got their version of how things have come to this point, who’s behind it, what democracy means blah blah blah.

I can’t predict anything and would rather express my gratitude to the wonderful folks at the One Stop Service Centre for Visas and Work Permits. Yesterday several of them manifested the caring, helpfulness and goose bump-producing personality traits of the many ordinary Thais who don’t dress in political colors, follow rabblerousing leaders or overrun airports.

Shackled by insane regulations and archaic definitions of “work,” these low-level functionaries and bureaucrats come up with creative Thai-style solutions to seemingly intractable problems. (On Tuesday one sent me home to “reproduce” a document certifying I'd terminated with a company that technically hadn’t hired me in the first place so his paper trail would be complete and I could continue the visa process.) And one hour before closing time on Wednesday, three people conspired to jump me from 106 to 70 in a queue of applicants that shouldn’t have exceeded 100 anyhow.

I don’t know why so many women (and one awfully handsome guy) went far beyond their job descriptions to help me complete their arcane bureaucratic processes in a single day. Maybe like me, they too were worried about the rapidly deteriorating political situation at the airport and elsewhere in Bangkok. If the army had held a coup or declared martial law today, I’d have been trapped in Thailand with a visa that expired on December 2.

Perhaps it was my unusual Jennifer-esque self that provided them with comic relief from the standard business types and sycophantic agents they normally deal with. On my annual visa/work permit renewal visits I always treat staff like human beings instead of faceless minions. (After their superhuman efforts yesterday I ran around taking photos and blowing kisses!)

Maybe I should just accept my age and apply for a retirement visa. Spending one arduous day a year queuing in the Dickensian bowels of Bangkok’s main immigration office at Suan Plu sounds way easier than what I went through from Monday through yesterday to get a new journalist’s work permit and visa. (Renewing an existing work permit and visa is much easier than applying for a new one which you must do if you change your sponsor.)

But then I’d have missed another heartwarming opportunity to appreciate the innate Thai kindness that's expressed in small and meaningful gestures. Yesterday reminded me why I love it here despite the incomprehensible and terrifying machinations of political power brokers.

22 November 2008

Great Coffee Mates

I wish Doi Tung operated more cafes in central Bangkok. (The company is part of the development project started by the Princess Mother in 1988 to help hilltribe farmers in northern Thailand.) When the Doi Tung outlet at TCDC closed last year I lost the only super friendly--and super quiet--meeting place in the Sukhumvit area .

The Doi Tung cafe next to Entrance #1 at Chatuchak Weekend Market heaves with thirsty shoppers on weekends yet the staff manage to remain eternally charming. Go once or twice and they'll remember your coffee proclivities forever. An iced Americano and a chocolate cookie have become as integral to my weekly Chatuchak pilgrimages as last week's fresh-off-the-Thai-Airways-plane Economist magazine and whatever secondhand togs I can unearth.

The strong coffee makes a perfect counterpoint to the crumbly dry cookies with their subtle, barely discernible chocolate flavor. I normally avoid sweets, but these are so non-gourmet in every aspect that I cat eat one or two without feeling guilty.

I get to the market by 1 or 2 pm on Saturday and always make a beeline to Doi Tung for my coffee/cookie fix. Lately, however, the chocolate cookies have been sold out by then. The sweet smiling cashier always apologizes profusely and offers one of the many coffee-flavored cookies still available. (Clearly I'm not the only customer who prefers drinking real coffee to eating pseudo coffee biscuits.)

"If head office knows the chocolate cookies are the most popular, why don't they just stock more of them?" I frustratedly asked the cashier for a few weeks until I stopped the futile gesture. Of course she couldn't possibly be expected to know or care about her company's marketing strategy. Besides, if the Doi Tung owners didn't capitalize on the popularity of their cafes and open more branches, they were probably equally oblivious to the supply and demand issues of chocolate cookies.

The solution to eliminating my frustration at not getting a chocolate cookie was simply to stop wanting one. I lowered my expectations and deleted the item from my mental menu. End of story, thought I.

Last week I got to the market at 3 pm on Sunday instead of Saturday. As I approached the counter to order the Americano, the cashier walked off for a second. She reappeared proudly proffering the two chocolate cookies she'd put aside for me on Saturday morning! Now THAT's service! She could teach her bosses a thing or twenty about customer relations.

20 November 2008

Insight Insight, Trying, Trying

In case anybody's noticed, I haven't blogged in several months. This is due mainly to writer's block combined with the effects of a 1-week virus, a month of post nasal drip and a chronic case of Bangkok blahs.

Last Saturday (the 15th) I attended an all-day meditation lead by Jeff Oliver at the Piyadhamma Mediation Centre on Sukhumvit 81. After discovering my blog, Pandit Bhikkhu (the monk who organized the event) asked if I'd blog about my experiences. His request immediately triggered all the writing anxieties that've had me in knots since August.

I'm not sure which is harder, the thought of letting down a monk or attempting yet again to deal with my writing demons. While I'm super grateful for his nudge, I'm still trepidatious about my ability to fulfill the stringent blogging requirements I've imposed on myself. The posts should pour forth from my fingers with no hesitation or editing. They should be funny, informative and unique. Deep down I want to be a world famous blogger like Arianna Huffington with an equally huge and dedicated following in the blogosphere. Talk about daunting goals!

With all those caveats, here goes the blog entry for the 15th.......

My motivation for doing something is usually inversely proportional to the number of people saying how many benefits I'll get from doing it. For years many friends--and three psychics--have touted meditation as a way of de-stressing, feeling physically and mentally better and generally creating more balance in my daily life. Those psychics all "saw" that I'm extremely psychic myself and recommended meditating as the best way to connect with my own inner seer.

With so many documented benefits achievable from just sitting still and observing breath, thoughts, aching back or whatever, you'd think a goal-oriented over achiever like me would want to plonk herself down, cross her legs and embark on a salubrious spiritual journey. Instead, I've opted to remain in the self-destructive but comfortably familiar state of rushing around madly so I can live in every other moment except the present one.

The only serious meditating I ever did was on a 10-day Buddhist meditation retreat in 1990 at Wat Kow Tahm in Koh Phangan. Apart from the occasional private meeting with the teachers, strict silence was maintained throughout. When participants were finally allowed to talk amongst ourselves on day 10, I discovered that all the thoughts I'd secretly nurtured during the previous nine days were mental drivel created by my own hyperactive mind.The guy I just knew was secretly attracted to me wasn't; the one who didn't want to sit near me hadn't even noticed me, the woman who hated me didn't and on and on in a boring self-generated fantasy land.

Since then I've attended several short retreats in Bangkok and plenty of lectures and half-day mini meditations. None have compared in seriousness to the Wat Kow Tahm experience. Every now and then through the years I've embarked on a regimen of regular morning meditation practice, but have never maintained it for long.

From 2003 to 2007, I excused myself from even trying to meditate because both hips were arthritic and increasingly painful. Many caring friends and healers swore that meditation could significantly ease the physical discomfort, or at least my reactions to it. I skillfully managed to ignore all their well-intentioned advice throughout the pain and frustration of two botched hip replacement surgeries in Thailand (2005, 2006) and the two successful hip revisions in Belgium (2007).

During those years I did try less interactive palliatives like acupuncture and Chinese herbs. I also took private Tai Chi lessons and in typical Jennifer fashion managed to transform a potentially mind-quieting activity into a mind-consuming quest for perfection. The acupuncturist/Tai Chi teacher introduced me to Jeff in 2004 and I participated in a couple of afternoon meditations he lead at a temple in Thonburi. From the get go, I appreciated his jargon- and ritual-free approach to Vipassana.

I only heard about Jeff's one-day Saturday meditation on Friday and took it as a karmic sign that a couple of places were still available. Jeff had lived as a Buddhist monk in Burma for eight years and though he's now a layperson, he obviously knows a lot about the complex underpinnings of Vipassana (also called Insight Meditation). He travels regularly to Turkey where he holds secular meditation classes and retreats. Unlike a lot of meditation gurus, he doesn't spend time enumerating the academic aspects of Buddhist philosophy--the causes of suffering, the paths leading to cessation of suffering, defilements, etc.--which I find daunting and ultimately offputting.

Jeff transmits complicated concepts in a nonthreatening manner that encourages me into meditation once again to battle my myriad mental enemies. (Actually I do realize that Vipassana is not about conquering mental obstacles. It's about noticing them, acknowledging them, and watching them disappear in a puff of impermanence....until the next ones turn up a millisecond later.)

The schedule for Saturday posted on www.littlebang.wordpress.com promised equal amounts of theory and practice with a large chunk of time reserved for personal interviews with the participants. The day didn't turn out that way at all--call it the impermanence of schedules--but I had some great "aha" moments nonetheless. (I'm trying hard not to glom onto them because of course they're just as impermanent as everything else.)

At 9 am some 30 people, ranging from meditation newbies to old hands, sat expectantly on mats (or a few of us in chairs) in the nicely appointed and hyper airconditioned meditation hall. Jeff sat in lotus position on the bottom step of the dais and explained that keeping the hips slightly higher than the lower body helps minimize back stress and assorted meditation-related aches and pains.I knew from our previous sessions that Jeff isn't one of those no-pain-no-gain meditation instructors who believe overcoming shooting physical pains is integral to the experience. Pandit Bhikkhu was seated near him on a narrow raised platform that ran along one side of the room.

Jeff talked about focusing on one object, in this case the breath, by numbering each in and out breath from 1 to 5 and then back to 1 again. Then you stop numbering the out breaths, and finally you stop counting altogether. He lead us through a short 5- or 7-minute guided meditation to practice the technique. I know that serious meditators transcend the one-object technique, but I rarely quiet my mind enough to move beyond it.

From there, Jeff moved on to the next stage of insight meditation which involves noticing whatever sensations and thoughts come up while you're trying not to focus on anything except that particular moment. To keep things straight, it helps to label the sensation: "itching, itching, itching," or "aching, aching, aching," or "hearing, hearing, hearing." Once outed, the sensations generally dissipate. Jeff said that labeling an emotion as "frustration" when actually it's "anger" won't fool your watchful consciousness (or was it unconsciousness--I forget) into letting it go. (I thought spending so much mental energy distinguishing "anger" from "frustration" would create more of both, but was too embarrassed to pose the question.)

Next, Jeff guided us through a short meditation to put these theories into practice. I was OK with the naming sensations part, but labeling abstract mental states ("thinking, thinking, thinking," "judging, judging, judging," or "sadness, sadness, sadness,") made me totally "frenetic, frenetic, frenetic." Can an already blocked writer choose the word that best describes her emotional state while simultaneously trying to remain serene and calm?

Jeff finished off each session with a Metta meditation. Metta means sending loving thoughts first to yourself (where all thoughts originate anyhow), then to your family, your friends, enemies, and ultimately to every creature on the planet. There are many versions of Metta and this one is similar to the one he used: "May I be filled with loving-kindness, May I be well, May I be peaceful and at ease, May I be happy." I find it so much easier to think loving thoughts when someone else is reciting them for me.

As the talk-intensive morning wore on, we natives were getting restive. Pandit Bhikkhu left for lunch at 11:30 but Jeff said we'd eat at 12:30. I was looking forward to the lunch break as a relaxing social event, but instead Jeff announced we'd be observing lunch in silence. He described in detail how we'd all walk slowly and mindfully downstairs, serve ourselves small portions of food while deciding the order in which we'd eat the various items. We could start eating only after everyone was served and seated. We should also try to set down our utensils between bites, focus on the food instead of our tablemates and eat each mouthful with mindfulness.

I rarely think about the Wat Kow Tahm retreat, yet suddenly I was transported back 18 years to the island temple where our two morning meals and late afternoon snack assumed paramount importance in my daily routine. I recalled trying not look as gluttonous or excited as I felt while I filled my plate with appropriately genteel portions of the delicious Thai vegetarian fare. Eyes cast downward, I'd try to walk not run to my preferred dining spot on a big rock overlooking the sea. Raising fork to mouth, I'd begin "chewing, chewing," "tasting, tasting," "swallowing, swallowing," "enjoying, enjoying." My internal good little girl voice exerted considerable control over my actions; nonetheless I'd sometimes descend into an unmindful orgy of shoving-chewing-tasting-swallowing.

Every mid afternoon my mind would leap ahead to the copious fruit platters garnished with shredded fresh coconut meat which would be served in a couple of hours. However, on the afternoon of the 7th day, the platters held one small wholewheat bun for each participant. I was horrified and hugely disappointed ("frustration, frustration, frustration"). Of course the snack was purposely orchestrated to illustrate how a dry bun eaten mindfully and with awareness can be as delicious and satisfying as a slice of juicy mango. The bun saga encapsulates many crucial Buddhist concepts--letting go of expectations, living in the moment, acceptance, impermanence.

So here I was last Saturday, once again salivating at the platters of sauteed vegetables, raw salad greens, fresh fruit. I hoped nobody noticed how I heaped too many servings on the small plastic plate. (I learned this skill from years of eating at all-you-can-eat-on-one-plate salad bars). I obsessed about which of the three round tables to sit at and why people I vaguely knew didn't choose to sit with me. Once seated, I kept peeking surreptitiously at my tablemates and endlessly compared our eating speeds, utensil posing skills and supposed oneness with our food. Clearly, I still expend far too much time and mental energy on comparisons and fantasies. Well, at least I'm more aware of my hyperactive mental processes than I was 18 years ago, which hopefully counts as progress. I seek instant karma, whereas the quest for inner peace and serenity demands constant vigilance.

Back in the meditation hall, Jeff guided us through a lying meditation exercise which helped focus our attention on our bodies and his words instead of succumbing to the natural post-prandial desire for a little snooze. He then demonstrated the nuances of walking meditation: how to mindfully lift the foot, move it forward, place it on the ground, shift the weight to the other foot and repeat the process, all the while mentally labeling each movement. We found our various walking "paths" throughout the meditation hall and the adjoining large rooms and began.

The last time I tried walking meditation was at the Thonburi temple with Jeff in 2004. Back then I could barely focus on labeling movements because my right hip hurt so much. This time I could hardly focus on labeling movements because walking felt so fabulous and waves of happiness kept washing over me. Jeff had mentioned that if we found ourselves mechanically chanting "lifting, moving, placing" like a background mantra while a bunch of "thinking, thinking, thinking" was happening in the mental foreground, we should stop moving and refocus. I spent half of the 30 or so minutes standing in one spot and being "joyful, joyful, joyful," "grateful, grateful, grateful" and feeling an overpowering sense of openness, fearlessness and positivity.

After performing those two hip revision surgeries in 2007, the Belgian doctor assured me I could safely sit in lotus position. Nonetheless, I've continued sitting on a chair, terrified that something will screw up again. Now, glowing with positivity after the walking meditation, I returned to the main hall, built myself a raised cushion with several folded mats and followed Jeff's earlier instructions to keep the hips higher than the legs. To my immense surprise and joy, I was able to sit fairly comfortably in that position for the remainder of the afternoon.

I wish Jeff had finished off the day with more meditating and less talking but probably I was too blissed out to have devoted serious attention to either activity anyhow. Without being too "impatient, impatient," or "anticipatory, anticipatory," I await with interest whatever the meditation future holds.