If you walk down the quiet dusty narrow street you will find her house. The way is shadowed by grey painted brick walls like bookends that press back the light of the sky and underfoot it is uneven and crumbling.  Three well-worn stone steps lead you to the large red door upon which shreds of old propaganda posters cover layers of peeling paint.  The doorway is crowned by a header carved into delicate flowing branches of leaves; but it too is suffering from years of neglect.

IMG_0859Her father was given this courtyard house by someone in Mao’s inner circle. Perhaps it was Mao himself, but she is not sure.  As a young man her father was educated in Europe before returning to serve his country. During the Sino-Japanese War he led the Chinese forces against the Japanese in the southwest and accepted their surrender in Vietnam.  He knew Ho Chi Min well. He had been the head of munitions for Chiang Kai Shek before the Nationalists were defeated by the Communists and fled to Taiwan.  Her father was not a Communist though. But her uncle was.  He was the first communist mayor of Shanghai so she believes that may be one reason why her family got special treatment.  Even so, she says they lived in fear during the years of the Cultural Revolution that the Red Guard would break through the doorway of this house to the outer and inner courtyards and find something that would incriminate them.

These days someone she doesn’t know lives in the outer courtyard of their house. They just showed up one day and never left.

You pick your way past their dirty buckets, rags and hanging laundry to get to the second door, the entrance to the inner courtyard, the part of the house that is still her family’s.

The door to this is locked, but she has the key. With a rattle and a shake the large panels squeak open.  You step over the raised doorframe and stand under the red and green carved portico so you can survey the inner sanctum. Three facades of glass paned doors open onto a paved square patio.  The wood of these doors is rotting, the paint has faded and the traditional curved terra cotta roof above is cracked and crumbling.  In the open space of the courtyard carefully crafted but now dried out flower beds hint that a gardener once took great care here.  A rusted old bike leans against a broken screen, its seat covered in a dirty plastic bag.  Behind the glass paned doors are the interior rooms of the house. Each has its own access to the courtyard and is also adjoined to the next by inside doorways. In the summer months the outside space becomes as the main hallway of the house. In the bitter cold northern winters however you have to walk from one room to the next to get to where you are going.  Privacy has a different meaning here than what you are used to.

You are only blocks from the outer wall of the Forbidden City now and yet you feel as if you are in the country, far away from the politics, the tourists and the traffic of Beijing. The leaves on the trees inside the courtyard and the overhanging branches from outside the walls shade this tranquil scene and evoke images of a scholar’s life of quiet contemplation in the time of mandarins and concubines.  A time long lost.

When her father died after 101 years, her mother moved from here to the comfort of an apartment on the other side of the Imperial Palace. But the family treasures remain. It is only a matter of time she tells you before the child of a senior party member will claim this place for his own and convert it to a high priced restaurant or boutique hotel.

She leads you to the biggest room of the house which is filled with books, photographs, trinkets and old newspapers. She hands you a large volume bound in red leather embossed with gold Chinese characters which you cannot read.  Inside are the photographs and names of the all that were present at the first meeting of the communist leadership in 1949 when Mao declared the founding of the modern People’s Republic.  Her uncle and father were there.

You lightly touch the piles of photographs carelessly scattered on a large polished wood desk. It is as if someone had been interrupted as they were arranging them and never came back to finish.  In the faded black and white collage, you recognize faces from history books you have read about China’s leadership during that time.  All of them have come and gone.

Nothing is left now but dust and stories retold by people who were never there.

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Yellow is the New Black

IMG_2053I was thirty six when I bought my first car. It was a bright yellow Audi S4 station wagon.  I chose the color because I didn’t want a grey or black car like everyone else had, and red seemed as if I was trying to prove something.  There was a nice blue option with grey seats, but I thought that might make me feel too much like an established, conservative older woman.  I wasn’t that person yet.

The car came with a black leather interior and a V6 engine. It could accelerate to 60 miles per hour in 5.8 seconds – just like a Porsche 911. When I test drove it, I felt as if I was in a sports car even though to everyone else I probably looked like someone’s mom going through a mid-life crisis.  Perhaps I was.

The open trunk was big enough to fit a bicycle and luggage when the back seats were down, and when they were up there was a trap door in the back seat bench through which one could slide a pair of skis. The polished chrome roof rails could handle a rack and a cargo box for a long road trip to any active outdoor adventure of my choosing.  I imagined using all these features as I drove around in my high heels and business suit, my well-worn brief case lying next to me on the passenger seat and my sons’ sticky car seats strapped in back.  I was a long way from pursuing outdoor adventures back then, but the yellow car enabled my dreaming.

Four years into ownership, when my sons were in grade school they gave my yellow car a name. Every first and third grade boy called it the “Banana Car” and wanted to ride in it.  But unlike the pervasive minivan my car could only fit three lucky passengers.  My boys’ friends waved at the car as it drove by as if it had a personality of its own.  Encased in my black leather interior, I often forgot how the exterior presented itself until one day a small child, too young for school, stopped playing in his front yard, pointed his pudgy finger at me and stared.  Then a grin spread across his face in recognition of what must have looked to him like a giant Hot Wheels.  When my yellow car made people smile I was reminded of what it felt like to be a kid again.  It was the bright and happy float in the parade of grey and black SUV’s that inched its way through our small downtown every morning.

Though the color seemed frivolous, the car itself was very practical. It could carry a weeks’ worth of groceries, a three dimensional science project and two full school bags all at the same time in is trunk. It had heated seats in winter and a sun roof for the summer. When my sons’ hockey games required me to drive across the greater Chicago area in the middle of snow storms, I was grateful for the all-wheel-driving and the halogen lights.  (Though it took a good five years until on-coming drivers realized these were standard head lights and stopped flashing me to turn off my high beams.)

People saw the yellow car long before I saw them. In a few instances I was grateful for that.  I almost killed a client once when I pulled up to the curb side to drop him off at the airport.  I missed a car in my blind spot that was accelerating out. Had he not seen the bright yellow flash in the corner of his eye I’m pretty sure he would have pinned my passenger side.  People waved at me from passing cars.  But without exception I had no idea who they were in their grey, black or white vehicles with tinted windshields.  Who knows how many friends I offended by not waving back. Then there was the time I waved back and smiled at a silver BMW only to realize that it wasn’t a wave but a third finger being held up for my benefit.

For the most part the response out there to my choice of color was positive. But after my husband borrowed it while his car was in the shop he returned it saying he would never drive it again.  He had more people honk and shout at him during that week than in all the other weeks of his life combined.  There must be something about a middle aged man driving a yellow station wagon that brings out the worst in his alpha counterparts.

I know I sacrificed a little privacy over the years by owning a yellow car. There were many times I’d get a phone call or a text message asking me what color nail polish I had chosen when my car was parked in front of the salon.  Or as I was working frantically for a deadline I’d be interrupted at the office when someone saw my yellow car parked in front of the building and knew I was there.  It was a beacon in the otherwise grey concrete landscape of my life during those years.  But its homing device quality served me well when upon returning from numerous overseas business trips, too exhausted and jet lagged to remember where I had parked my car I had only to look out the tram window as it pulled into the long term parking lot to spot my yellow wagon happily waiting to welcome me back.

When my boys grew old enough to drive themselves they grudgingly asked to borrow the yellow car. The Banana Car wasn’t cool anymore even if it did drive like a race car with its V6 engine.  I think its one attraction was that the girls thought it was cute.  As they took the keys from me I reminded them that the only car the police will pull over more than a red one on a highway is a yellow one with a teenage boy driving.  It was enough to keep them in line on the weekends.

When one of the boys’ coaches needed a ride to a hockey tournament on an icy February weekend he accepted a spot in the yellow wagon. Impressed with the car’s handling in the snow and its cheery color, he christened it “Old Yeller”. The new name stuck.

With the impending departure of my boys for college, I have adopted a new puppy. These days a large green plaid blanket covers the back seat of my car. It didn’t take long for Old Yeller to win over my furry companion who will sit for hours surveying the world of squirrels and canines from behind a nose print smudged pane of glass. I’ve also taken up bike racing and given my new bike a prominent position on the roof rack. Last winter I fit a set of cross country skis nicely into the trunk when I set off for an all-day adventure in the snow.

Given the miles it has carried me my yellow wagon is in surprisingly good shape. But every once in a while something big has to be repaired like the brakes, the heating system or the axle bearings.  Each time I call the garage I have only to describe the car and they know who I am without even checking their records.  I’m not sure they ever remember my name, but they certainly know Old Yeller.

I am now the age when I would certainly look better driving a blue sedan with a grey interior. But I continue to discourage suggestions that it might be time for a trade in.

Buying my yellow wagon was the best decision I ever made. Fourteen years and half a generation later I’m still dreaming and it’s still driving me around.

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The Brahmaputra River is like a liquid opal winding its way through the faded sand colored landscape. It is the artery of life in this part of the world. To get to the Samye Monastery one must cross it on a flat bottom barge squeezed in next to claret colored robed monks wearing knock off ray bans and North Face jackets. Once on the other side there is the choice to either walk to the monastery along a rough and dusty road or take a bus that has neither shock absorbers nor enough seats.

There is no warning before you come upon the oldest monastery in Tibet. It just appears from the sandy bottom of a plateau surrounded by beige graveled mountains with snow caps.  It is so dry here that licking your lips does nothing but to make them more chapped.

The monastery is laid out like a giant Mandala, a metaphor for the Buddhist universe with a temple in the middle representing Mount Meru, its mythical center. It is to the top of that temple that I have been told to go.

Tibet 2004 (4)Inside, the dark corridors are illuminated by rows of golden prayer wheels. They look like upright barrels atop wood fence posts. If you touch one, it will keep spinning long after you walk on, its embossed Sanskrit letters catching the dim light. The reflected Buddhist text reads: Om mani pad me hum.  It is the sacred mantra whose meaning I am still trying to grasp.  Translated in English as six words: generosity, ethics, patience, diligence, renunciation and wisdom but said together it means none of this and also much more.  The purpose of reciting it is to help purify the speaker of ego, jealousy, desire, prejudice, possessiveness and hatred and as one says it one should consider how to live out this wisdom while all the while becoming less fixated on oneself. I am not sure how to do that.

There is a second floor that wraps around an inner courtyard overlooking the temple. The walls are white washed up to bands of burnt umber that dye into golden eves of intricately carved overhanging roofs. Along the mezzanine that makes up the second floor are the monks’ rooms.  Their privacy provided by a cloth of blue and white draped across a doorway.  The walls of the corridors are painted in vibrant hues of yellow, blue, red and green.

Tibet 2004 (259)Inside the temple the light is dim and the air is filled with the smell of yak butter candles, like rancid milk mixed with sweet wax. I pass the barrels of little lights, the prayer benches, the draped prayer flags, some fashioned into origami like cascades hanging from the ceiling. There is the golden Buddha and a row of bodhisattvas. Everything is covered in a thin film of dust.  The space around me is cloudy and oily.

I climb up through the temple then, one step at a time on ornately painted orange stairs. Inside the room on the third floor I am the only one except for a monk who quietly shuffles away when I arrive. Another Buddha sits here as if waiting for those who choose to make the journey from the opulence below to seek him out in this simple and quiet space.  He surveys the room and me with it.

I put my palms together and close my eyes. I make the sound, the first vibration.  I feel it deep within my abdomen where it rests upon my pelvis, then in my chest surrounding my heart, over my shoulders and down my arms and then onto my lips.

I wait.

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Finding my Outside Edge

030310_2226_FindingmyOu1.jpgI am a hockey player!

When I say that out loud, it makes me feel significant. I’m not a professional or semi professional player. I didn’t play hockey in college or even in high school. In fact I learned to play only six years ago when I turned forty.

I grew up in a family that played hockey, or at least the males did. I spent my youth at the rink watching them play. I like hockey rinks. Every time I walk into one I feel adrenaline seeping into my veins. I count the seconds until the cold still air fills my lungs and envelops my body. I listen for the familiar sound of people’s voices reverberating off the arena walls, the shouting of coaches from the bench, the flapping of sticks on the ice and the tremendous boom when a puck hits the boards.

I used to wonder why I loved a sport I did not play. There were no girl’s hockey teams when I was a child. Girls were figure skaters.

When I put hockey skates on for the first time, after accepting an invitation to join a group of women I had seen learning how to play at a local rink, my life on the ice as I knew it changed forever. My feet flew out in front of me and I landed on my seat. Very few figure skaters know that wearing hockey skates is like strapping cellophane to the bottom of your stocking feet and walking across a rink. Hockey blades curve up in the front and back into a hint of a half moon, unlike flat stable figure skates. There is nothing on a hockey blade that will save you once your body weight shifts past your center.

The women around me on the benches in the locker room laugh when they remember their first time on hockey skates. The humiliation of it is part of our rite of passage.

Our locker room is a sacred place. When we walk in, we leave our mundane lives at the door. While we dress to play, our obligations stay crouched outside waiting anxiously for us to go back to them. In here and out on the rink, we are not wives, mothers, bosses, sisters; we are hockey players.

The first time I came to hockey practice I was nervous. I lumbered in with an old duffle bag that I had found it in our luggage closet. It was filled with my husband’s smelly equipment. I bought my own gloves, helmet and skates but the shoulder pads, pants, shin guards and elbow pads were all his. I was not sure which order to put them on even though I had watched my brother do it for years. Inevitably I put the skates on before the pants and then I could not pull the skates through the pant legs. When I was finally dressed my outfit floated around my 5 foot, 4 inch frame, making me look like a pubescent male going through a growth spurt. The pants we so big I looked as if I had put on 100 lbs. I glanced around at the other women in the locker room. They too were struggling with the gear, some more than others. We all looked ridiculous.

Years of nurturing young children had just about taken the competition out of me, but once I started to play hockey it came back with a vengeance. We don’t check in women’s hockey, nor would we want to, though sometimes we unintentionally collide. I like being part of a team pushing the puck up the ice to the goal, shouting out encouragement to the others. When the coach described new plays, it took me awhile to figure out how to make my body do what my head understood. But the anxiety was good as it fed my resolve to get better.

The hardest part of learning to play hockey was overcoming the fear of falling. For 40 year old women who are just discovering that their bodies are not impervious, the fear of falling becomes a huge liability to improving.

There was a drill I hated. It involved doing turns on our outside edges. It looks easy enough as you leaned sideways, balancing on your right skate, with your left skate lifted behind you. The purpose of the drill was to learn how to use the power of your outside edge to propel you forward. I, however, was terrified that if I leaned too much into my outside edge, my skate would slip out from under me, sending me careening across the ice on my shoulder. Day after day, night after night I worked on it. I would laughingly say to my coaches that I was sure I bought skates that did not have outside edges because I could not do the drill, so would they mind excusing me from it. They were not amused.

But I knew that if I did fall on my shoulder, I had a shoulder pad to protect me. If I fell on my hip, I had those big pants to cushion my fall. So what was I really afraid of?

It took me until my third season to answer that. One day during practice, Coach noted my hesitation on the outside edges and stopped me.

“Come here,” he said. “This is what I want you to do now.”

He demonstrated a cross over start from a sideways position. Then to get himself facing straight down the ice he crossed his back foot over the front foot and pushed off with the outside edge of what became his back foot. Once on his way he took two strides, a sharp cut turn and repeated the same exercise coming back using the other outside edge.

“Now, you do it. Keep going until I blow the whistle for you to stop.”

Never, I thought to myself. I’ll fall. I’ll die.

I’ll die? What was I saying?

I looked at Coach. There was no leniency in his stare, no way out. There was no doubt in his eyes either.

So I got ready, skates parallel, took a breath and lifted the back skate to cross over the front one. Nothing happened. I went nowhere. The skate just came down pathetically on the ice.

“You didn’t push off with the outside edge,” said Coach. “Do it again.”

Of course I had not pushed off with my outside edge. I had no intention of using my outside edge. Didn’t he know that my skates didn’t have outside edges?

“Again!” he ordered.

I set up, bent my knees and lifted my skate. This time I tried a little. It was scary, a bit wiggly, but something definitely happened.

For thirty minutes he did not let up and each time I tried I got bolder. I practiced the step all week and when I returned to morning practice seven days later I was ready for the wrath of Coach. He was ready too.

If I tell experienced hockey players that it took me a season of hard work to gain my outside edge they would laugh, so I don’t. What I really gained though was not my edges, but courage. The hardest thing to overcome was not learning how to use that outside edge, Coach knew that, it was overcoming my fear of failing. Fear of failing had stopped me from trying.

Despite my love for hockey arenas, I know that the best place to play the game is outdoors. When the sunlight filters through the lead colored branches of the hibernating trees and casts a lavender glow on the snow, I pick up my duffle bag and head out to the neighborhood rink. It sits quietly nestled in between a primary school and a lonely frozen baseball diamond. Low in the sky the winter sun glistens off the ice and warms my back with a light touch as I lace up my skates.

I often come here to practice on my own. It’s a never ending quest to get better even though for a 46 year old mother there is no recognized end game. There are no Olympics and no National Hockey League to qualify for, no trophies or awards in sight.

I’m not so afraid of falling anymore. If I land on the ice it is because I am working hard at something. I am, after all, a hockey player.

A shortened version of this essay aired on Chicago Public Radio on February 22, 2010. To listen click here:

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Eight Forty-Eight – For the Love of Hockey

Posted on WBEZ, Chicago Public Radio, on February 22, 2010. 

Last night USA’s hockey team posted a huge five-to-three win against the Canadians in Vancouver. Back home in Chicago, local writer and hockey player Nan Doyal also won a big battle recently against her own fears. Nan Doyal is a freelance writer, who plays right wing for the Glencoe Mother Puckers.

Music Button: Pat Benatar, “Hit Me With Your Best Shot”, from the CD Pat Benatar’s Greatest Hits, (Capitol)

Listen to podcast:   Eight Forty-Eight – For the Love of Hockey.

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A Barefoot Profile: Bambi Freeman

“A meat chicken has a short life,” said Bambi Freeman. “It only lives about six weeks before it gets too fat and falls over.” The chickens in the large pens were busy devouring the bugs and grubs that hid in the greens beneath their tubby white bodies. It had been an unseasonably cool summer in Vermont. But the grass was still growing and the sheep and the chickens were happily putting on weight. The old world guardian dog who kept an eye on the flock was content. No heavy hot weather, laden with humidity and bothersome flies. The weeks had been filled with cool days which rolled into even cooler evenings, punctuated once in awhile by a spray of warm sunshine that lit the verdant hills and illuminated a brief but transparent blue sky overhead.

Bambi raises egg chickens as well as meat chickens. In fact every Thursday I make sure to stop by and pick up a dozen fresh eggs from her. She saves them for me and refills the same cardboard carton that I bring back week after week. The egg chickens have a slightly better existence than the meat chickens. For starters, they live longer than six weeks. They are also less constrained as they cluck and fuss and run freely around the barnyard and the vegetable gardens. Bambi leaves the radio on in the barn all day. She says it keeps the hens company. She claims that they are particularly enthusiastic about the Boston Red Sox. I can imagine a row of fecund hens gathering around the transistor listening intently to the games broadcasted from Fenway Park, their heads bobbing up and down and then cocking from side to side as their favorite players run the bases.

Bambi Freeman is a farmer and has been for more than half of her life. Originally from New Jersey, she found her way up north in the 1950’s to ski. She met her husband here, settled down, had children and started a farm. At 70 years old, she now lives on her own in the loving company of four dogs, two cats and a myriad of farm animals. Twenty years ago, Bambi’s husband suddenly left her after learning that she had an aggressive form of Multiple Sclerosis. Despite no previous symptoms, she woke one morning in the mid 1980’s unable to move. Rendered virtually paralyzed she could not continue to work her farm. Without her husband to help she was unable to sustain it and had to sell her animals. Her husband had taken the farm equipment, but left her the land. What followed, she told me, were years of hard work to get her body back. Despite expectations that she would never work again, Bambi persevered through rehabilitation and learned to move her limbs by looking at them and willing them to function.

Gradually she rebuilt her farm, buying an old tractor, a relic of sorts, from a fellow guest at a friendly dinner party. Then she brought back her animals and bred them. Today she is best known for her lamb, but her organic, free range chickens are pretty spectacular too. She also mentors other women farmers, many of whom are struggling as single mothers, just as she did at one time. She helps them learn how to grow food and raise animals. Working the land to feed one’s family is a very empowering experience, she has said. Particularly for people who feel helpless. It is the ultimate in self sufficiency. No one can take that feeling away from you.

The first time I met Bambi Freeman was in the dentist’s office a number of years ago. She works there during the wintertime when her farm activities slow down. The job provides her health benefits, a necessity in her condition. Several Christmas seasons ago, I ran into her behind the cash register at a local ski lodge. She sold me a pair of cross country ski boots. But this summer, when I saw her at a local farmers market I learned about her real vocation: farming.

Late one afternoon in August, just as the sky was once again filling up with turbulent thunder clouds, I pulled into Bambi’s farm in a friend’s truck to get a load of sheep manure for my own garden.

Bambi came out to greet us from the front door of her crooked little house. She offered to show us around before we had to take our truck around the back entrance to get closer to the manure pile. As we carefully followed her strong limping frame I noticed we were caringly being herded by an Australian shepherd named Roy.

Up on a distant hill her herd of 100 or more sheep grazed under the watchful eye of her youngest guardian dog. She explained how that dog’s sole purpose was to care for the sheep and that he would live his whole life up there on that hill with them.

“Have you ever lost a sheep to coyotes”, I asked, knowing that there were packs marauding the area.

“Not a one,” she said confidently. In addition to the guardian dog, she had also designed and installed an electric fence with precise distances between the horizontal wiring to keep the furry hunters out and the little lambs in.

We drove our truck around to the back entrance of the farm as Bambi had instructed, making sure to lock the gate behind us so the animals would not get out. Next to the old barn was a pile of manure which stretched out about ten yards. It was mostly sheep manure, Bambi told us, but there were also other things thrown in like an old chicken carcass. She was quite sure though that the chicken bones had already been licked clean by one of the dogs.

The scene behind the barn belied an ecosystem until itself. Two of her old retired farm dogs regarded us curiously while standing at a distance. There were sheep here too, grazing on the blades of grass that had sprouted everywhere. They took no notice of us as we pulled up in our truck. The backside of the barn was open and the scent of wet hay and mud with a hint of sweet manure wafted towards us. I could hear the muffled radio music in the distance. The cool evening air carried the prelude to the storm.

Bambi crawled up onto an old red tractor, started it up and thrust it into gear. As it lumbered forward into the manure pile she released the bucket on the front end and it plummeted into the black morass. With the dexterity of a surgeon she filled the large claw and lifted it up overhead. Delicately so as not to lose a drop, she drove the tractor to the back of the pickup and released the contents of the bucket into the trunk. With a big grin she looked over at me and ordered “Go into the barn and get a pitchfork.”

I nodded and turned towards the barn. From the back side it was much bigger than I had originally thought. Where was I to find the pitchfork? My friend followed me and we explored inside while Bambi continued her work in the dirt. Finally we found a wall of pitchforks near the blaring transistor radio. Which one to use? They all seemed to be covered in cobwebs. We grabbed two and went back out to the truck.

I was not sure what I was supposed to do with the pitchfork, but decided to climb up over the back of the truck into the bed of manure. My hiking boots sunk in the gooey black mass and as I looked down to find a clean spot I noted that I was surrounded by living moving bodies: worms. Bambi was just returning with another load and I shouted out, “Bambi, there are millions of worms in this manure,” She chuckled “Yup. But I won’t charge you extra for those.”

I waited until she had turned away again before I drove the pitch fork into the manure, trying to even it out in the back of the truck, but to no-avail. My inexperience gave me away. The clumps slipped through the fork prongs, my brow and neck broke out in a sweat and the final humiliation was when the fork fell off the long handle. My friend, who raises horse, looked on and laughed. She jumped onto the truck just as Bambi returned with another load. I managed to stick the fork back onto the handle in time and we both set about pulling the sticky manure out of the bucket into the truck bed. Bambi just smiled and nodded but said nothing.

With gusto she made several returns to the pile and with our help she worked more quickly. Finally I told her I thought we had enough. She nodded and shut off the tractor engine, gingerly dismounting from the tiny red metal seat on which she had been perched and limping over to where we stood. She looked back at her tractor once more before turning to face us.

“They want me to install a safety bar around the top of this old thing in case it rolls,” she laughed. “This old thing is never going to roll. They just don’t make tractors like that anymore. You know I can drive this one on the open road and it gets going as fast as a car.” I thought that sounded rather treacherous: Bambi on a tractor on the open highway.

Over the years Bambi has learned to live and adjust to the disease that plagues her. She says that warm humid weather is particularly tough and makes it hard for her to move. But she is certain that it is all the hard work that has kept her alive and healthy. She could not have done it alone though. Recently a local Rotary Club in partnership with a local Church raised money to build a stairway with railings inside Bambi’s barn so that she could more safely access her hayloft. Other volunteers in the community solved a serious water drainage problem which was causing ice build up at the entrance to her home and her barn. She says that the help from her community have ensured that she can continue to farm longer now.

Bambi makes her living selling her chickens, eggs and every part of her lambs. Her vegetable gardens yield a harvest that is converted into preserves and jellies. In the spring she sheers her Shetland sheep and prepares the wool for sale. She has cooperated with other sheep farmers and when they could not get enough money for their wool created an effort to ship it to Canada to have blankets made on the Hudson Bay looms. They were shipped back to Vermont and sold.

Bambi used to sell exclusively from her farm. Customers would come to see her to buy her meat and eggs. But now she travels all over the area to a selection of weekly farmers markets where she meets her regular customers while at the same time attracting new ones. She says that it makes much more sense, “After all, if you can’t bring Mohammed to the mountain, you have to bring the mountain to Mohammed,” she added. The result is that Bambi is ruthless with her time, between chores on the farm, cultivating and harvesting, sheering, slaughtering and getting to market there is very little time for anything else during the year. But she is never shy to make a sale. She was ready to bring me a mountain too if I wanted it. When she heard I would be travelling back to the Midwest in a few weeks, she said she’d put together a cooler filled with lamb and chicken for me to take with me. She’d take cash or a check. I said I would consider it.

As we talked the thunder was beginning to grow in the distance and roll towards us. It was gaining momentum as it only does in the mountains. My friend and I decided it was probably best we get going and seek shelter. Bambi nodded and smiled at us as she stood in the middle of her open field unfazed by the impending onslaught. Another threatening storm was hardly worth an acknowledgement in her world. There would be many more to follow.

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Journal Entry: May 18, 2009 – Buriram Province, Thailand

A Day with Mechai Viravaidya, at the Opening of the Lamplaimat Pattana Middle School

It was well over 100 degrees in the shade and the sun was brutally beating up my white skin. But Mechai Viravaidya looked as cool as if he had just walked out of air-conditioning. The trim, pressed, 67 year old man with a thinning head of hair greeted the children of the Lamplaimat Pattana School with a grin and a twinkle in his eye that he had reserved only for them.

Mechai Viravaidya with students of Lamplaimat Pattana School

Mechai Viravaidya with students of Lamplaimat Pattana School

The evening before he was not interested in carrying on a conversation with me or anyone on his team for that matter. He did not smile and he was consumed by secret thoughts. He did not even engage in polite small talk. At a certain point I wondered if he was mildly deaf as he had that look on his face that people sometimes get in large groups when they are hard of hearing.

But this morning he was another man. After thirty years devoted to eradicating poverty in Thailand Mechai Viravaidya was launching his most ambitious project yet. He was going to make sure that what he had started so long ago would be sustained for generations to come.

 If any of us doubted his ability to deliver, we did not even whisper it. For we all knew better. Mechai had already accomplished the impossible.

Mechai was born in Bangkok to a Thai father and a Scottish mother. He had always been regarded by some in traditional circles as an odd character, a bit of an outsider. Even his Thai half was infused with Chinese ancestry. So as someone who did not quite fit the idea of Thai society, it should have been no surprise that for most of his life Mechai pursued solutions to problems which were unconventional and often even scandalous among Thailand’s prudish elite. His parents had both been doctors and his mother, with whom he had been extremely close, had infused him with her belief that those who were fortunate enough to have more had an obligation to help those with less. Mechai had taken these lessons to heart.

Today he is known throughout the world for curbing the population explosion in Thailand which in the 1970’s was one of the greatest obstacles to successful economic development. As a young employee of the National Economic Development Board, Mechai began introducing the birth control pill into villages and rural communities. For practical purposes, he renamed it the family welfare vitamin as it sounded much less onerous and it also disassociated it with intimate physical matters. Against great objection he managed to have the pills distributed at the community level instead of through the traditional bottlenecks of doctors and clinics. This enabled more people to access birth control and it reached into the far corners of rural Thailand. Within a few decades the population growth in Thailand had dropped from 3.3% to 0.5% (the average family went from 7 children to 1.5 children).

 In time, because of his familiarity with the reproducing behaviors of individuals, Mechai became acutely aware of the threat of AIDS to the Thai population in the 1980’s, particularly among the poor rural girls who were often sold or sent to the cities to work in the sex trade. While members of the government discouraged publicity about the disease, as many of them were part owners of brothels themselves, Mechai managed through resourceful and belligerent means to launch a massive education campaign about the disease and set about distributing hundreds of millions of condoms to the Thai population. By 2003 Thailand experienced a 90% decline in new infections and the World Bank attributed Mechai’s work to the prevention of 7.7 million new cases of HIV/AIDS in Thailand.


Mechai has always rooted his work in his life’s mission of eradicating poverty. Once HIV/AIDS was under control he set about building micro financing programs to encourage the development of small enterprises in Thailand’s rural regions. In the neighboring villages around the Lamplaimat Pattana School owners of small silk weaving, dried fruit, organic fertilizer and animal feed enterprises now could afford to educate their children where before they had had no hope of doing so.

Mechai believed that education was the antibiotic for poverty. He also knew that the first thing a villager did when he had enough money to spend beyond subsistence level, was to send his child to school. On paper, the Thai government was supposed to provide education to all children, but in reality this was not the case.

With money he made from selling the family property which had been left to him by his parents, Mechai invested in the building of a new school in one of the remotest, most desperate provinces in northeast Thailand. It would be a test case for a new education model for Thailand’s poorest. Mechai provided the capital investment, but the school sustained itself annually through small businesses that it had started and were run by teachers and students.

On the day of my visit, Mechai wanted to show me one of the classrooms where a self directed curriculum development was taking place. He led me to a room filled with about 20 students sitting on the floor.  Mechai’s animated face which until now had been reserved for the children was suddenly turned on me as he translated what the students were saying. He had to raise his voice to be heard above the chatter but he was insistent that I understood what was taking place before us. His cool brow beaded suddenly with a sprits of perspiration. The teachers looked on smiling. Most of the class was good naturely shouting out instructions and ideas to the two students who controlled a white board and everything that was written on it.


In the hallway outside the classroom, Mechai wanted to show me the work that was being done on computers. There were no text books in this school. Text books were expensive and only taught subjects in one way. But more importantly, textbooks did not allow for self directed learning. Mechai wanted the students at this school used the internet to learn in a more opportunistic and engaging way than a book could ever offer. Through the internet they would also learn from the rest of the world and since most of them were now learning English, even more of the world was open to them.

Students learning with computers

Students learning with computers

 When we had finished touring the classrooms, Mechai charged ahead to a common room where there were several things on display. I assumed I was expected to follow, so I hurried after him. He motioned for me to join him and we both surveyed an exhibit of the school uniform. The students had designed the uniforms themselves he said. He also quite proudly pointed to a bottle of biofuel. The students had pressed the seeds of a plant whose name I did not recognize and created oil which was used to run the tractors that belonged to the school.


When I later asked a couple of parents what their hope was for their child who was attending the school. They said to me that it was their wish that they would grow up to be good people, who helped their communities and families. It was strange that none of them said they wanted to their children to be rich and successful. I wondered if secretly they did and were not telling me.

But then again, Mechai’s intent with this school was not to teach individual achievement at the expense of all else. He was trying to cultivate a new morality, one based on economic independence, but also social co-dependence.

In appreciation for all that was being given to them, the students of Lamplaimat Pattana School devoted hours of their days to serving the elderly in their community, helping them with chores, cooking for them, fetching necessities. They would be dispatched to work on community projects and perform community services in their villages and others. They would also devote time to caring for orphans, those children who were even less fortunate than they were because they had been left without families. They understood that others had given so that they may have this opportunity and that as part of a greater society, they were in turn were to give to others.

Mechai saw the future of philanthropy being reformed first through children, through teaching at a very young age the importance of human interdependence for survival and for elevating each other out of poverty and destitution. In a sense it was a school where the concept of paying forward was at the very essence of its purpose. Over time as children grew up and then re-enforced this with their children, a new approach to serving humanity would emerge. This was Mechai’s dream. He did not believe that writing a check to a charity was good enough; it perpetuated the dehumanization of poverty and suffering. It created a distance between people; it abdicated responsibility for altruism to someone else. Of course, for those who had never written a check before or made any kind of donation, he said this could be a first step. But eventually he wanted to see more and more people reach out a hand and give of themselves not just of their possessions.IMG_1831

As I sat for a minute’s rest, the sweat pouring down my back in rivulets, I watched Mechai rush off to meet the builders who were responsible for completing a new recreation center for the school. They already were behind schedule. Mechai made his way deliberately, but also pausing gently to greet the many children, parents and teachers who were wandering from building to building at the Lamplaimat Pattana School. They were all admiring the new structures that had just been completed.

Today Mechai was celebrating. It was the opening day of the new middle school and 30 children who had completed six years in the primarly school were about to begin a new school year in 7th grade. We were there to send the students off with our good wishes. We were also there to celebrate Mechai’s dream of sustainability. Only now it was no longer just his dream. Today he had entrusted it to the next generation.

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