Monthly Archives: July 2017

The Heart Goes Last – Margaret Atwood

When everything goes to hell, sex and booze is all we want.

I came to this conclusion after reading “The Heart Goes Last” in which Atwood describes a dystopian world quite close to reality. Charmaine and Stan are a young married couple trying to make ends meet after a big financial crash left them with no jobs and living in their car. Charmaine found work in a bar (because, after all, when everything goes to hell, sex and booze is all we want) and Stan’s main occupation is to make sure nobody steals their car. It’s a derelict existence. It’s survival. It’s not much of a life. That is until Charmaine sees an ad on TV in the bar where she works. There is a city named Consilience/Positron and anybody can apply to live there. There are jobs to be had, a free house, food and clothes, everything that was taken away by the crash. A clean bed with ironed sheets! Heck, a bed! Even that seems like a dream. The catch: once you’re in, you can’t get out. But Charmaine is a “glass full” kind of person and she wants in. Why wouldn’t she, when every night she sleeps in fear of her life as the violence has escalated and she’s always afraid of being beaten or raped or God knows what. So she convinces Stan and they get in.
For Charmaine, it’s a perfect place. She finds comfort in routine, in the cleanliness of the house, in cooking meals, in doing her job. It’s a routine, yes but this is so much better than their other life. So, so much better. Until it isn’t.

There is so much going on but things really start to get weird in the second half of the book. It’s like this book has double personality – half grim, half really funny. It was really depressing to read the first half and I seriously considered giving up but then I hoped things would pick up later. No city is perfect, especially one that’s so perfect on the outside. I imagined the place looked like in the video for “Chained to the Rhythm” by Katy Perry. Even the lyrics match. I wanted to quote them here but I’m not sure it’s allowed.

My patience was rewarded. The gloomy Orwellian atmosphere was dispelled. There were prostibots, Marilyns and Elvises, vampire references, a prison, and teddy bears. The blue, knitted ones, the kind you’d give a child. But oh, how Atwood twisted that into something disturbing and hilarious. It’s very likely next time I’ll see one in real life I’ll burst out laughing.

I enjoyed following Stan’s thought process as he was faced with some hard decisions. Charmaine was tough but in a superficial way – she seemed like a no-nonsense woman when it came to making sacrifices and it was entertaining and at times scary to watch how far she would go and the lies she would tell herself so she could keep what she had. There’s some trauma in her past but it’s only hinted at, a possible explanation to why she seemed so willing to accept anything to stay in Consilience/Positron.

I found interesting the duality of things – the city for a start, Consilience/Positron has a double name because everybody lives a dual life: for one month they live in their beautiful houses, then other month in prison. The irony does not escape me.
Life in prison is seen more like a succession of chores: there’s a laundry section, a knitting circle (for knitting blue teddy bears), even exercise classes. The city is soon to be franchised, there’s big money to be made and possibilities are endless. Just like possibilibots, life-like sex robots that are being made in the city. Because when the world goes to hell, yes, sex and booze is all we want. And maybe headless chickens, just because it’s better if we don’t have to decapitate them in order to eat them. More humane.

It’s interesting that Atwood sees only two possibilities: either a harsh life where everything is volatile, your job, your money, your transport, but you at least have your freedom, or a secure, sedate, domesticated version of a life where you get what you want but you’ll have to follow the rules. However, the human race being what it is, unpredictable, rules are broken and things really go to hell. There is no middle ground, unless you’re willing to compromise because every bit of comfort and happiness has a price. And you pay and pay and pay until there’s nothing left of you to pay with, no dignity, and no personal freedom.
Some of the things I saw coming but they were still entertaining to read and they had a satisfying twist. There are endless topics for discussion but that would mean giving away more of the plot and I’d rather not do that. I recommend it if you like dystopian fiction with a lot of swear words thrown in.

My rating: 4/5 stars
Read in June, 2017






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The 10-day silent meditation retreat at Wat Suan Mokkh – Things to consider and practical advice

I wrote about my experience at Wat Suan Mokkh in 3 previous posts. You can find them here: Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3. This is the final post with practical advice and things I wish I knew before going there.

The hot spring. Bliss for my aching back.

Bring comfortable, loose fitting clothes. You can also buy clothes and toiletries at the meditation place. You can also wash your clothes there, in the dorm.
Bathroom conditions are a bit unusual. Women have to wear a sarong while bathing (a piece of cloth wrapped around the body – you can buy that at the retreat) and men have to wear shorts. There are no showers, but a big water basin and plastic bowls. It’s not comfortable but it’s doable and after a couple of showers you get used to it. Cold water only, but Thailand is a hot place anyway and after a day spent outside, cold water can be quite refreshing. Women and men have separate bathrooms.
Try the hot springs. There are two separate hot springs, one for women and the other for men. Women have to wear a sarong, same as when taking a shower. The place looks like a cross between a swimming pool, with steps leading to the water, and a spring. The water is hot, about 40 degrees Celsius and might be a bit of a shock at first but it helps a lot with the aches and pains, especially after sitting meditation. I went there twice a day and every time I felt like a new person.
Follow the schedule. Every day the schedule is posted in the dining hall and in the dorms. You don’t need to have a copy with you, just follow the others and you’ll be fine.
Free drinking water is provided and even a plastic bottle if you don’t have one. The water is filtered – you can’t buy bottled water or food so make sure you’re ok with that.
No food in the dorms. Not unless you want a whole colony of ants to come for a visit. And since you can’t use any kind of insecticide (remember loving kindness), you’d better not risk it. One guy found an entire army of ants in his backpack. I don’t know if it was because of food, but he had to change the room.
Bring a flashlight. You have one of those old fashioned lanterns in your room, complete with candle and matches but if you’re lucky like I was, you’ll break the candle and your matches won’t light because of the damp.
Bring slippers/flip flops and a bath towel.
Get lots of mosquito repellent. You can buy this at the retreat.
Bring a yoga mat. Unless you really want to have the full experience – that means the concrete bed and wooden pillow – make sure you get an extra thick yoga mat. Also an inflatable pillow. You can use the mat for the yoga sessions in the morning.
Don’t use makeup, perfume, body spray or any other beauty products. You’re supposed to give these up for the duration of the retreat. Besides, you’ll be spending all day outside and it’s too hot for makeup anyway. I did use deodorant because I don’t consider this a beauty product but a necessity. It’s not fun walking around smelling of sweat.
Don’t worry about having only two meals a day. You don’t need a lot of food because you don’t do any physical effort. The most strenuous thing you’ll do is your daily chore – either sweeping, mopping, washing toilets or wiping the tables in the dining hall.
Arrive one day early if you can. The retreat starts on the 1st of every month, but the registration takes place one day earlier. It’s nice to get to know some people before you stop talking for 10 days.
Don’t be afraid of the creatures. During the retreat I saw frogs, spiders, big geckos, centipedes, a snake, a monitor lizard and a tiny dead scorpion. In the event that you get bitten or stung, the people who are in charge of the retreat will help you. When I was there they said last time a guy was stung by a scorpion was 3 years ago. He spent the day in the infirmary and was in a lot of pain but he survived. They claim to have a cure for a scorpion sting so you should be fine.
Accept the fact that it’s going to be challenging. I don’t want to say difficult because it’s not the same for everybody, but it’s definitely going to be different to what you’re used to, especially if this is your first time doing this kind of retreat.
Don’t give yourself a hard time if you can’t meditate for more than two minutes. 🙂 I know I didn’t. I wanted to go to this place to relax. Everything else was just a bonus.
Ask questions. The organizers of the retreat and the monks in charge will be happy to talk to you, whether it’s a question about meditation or life in the monastery. Don’t expect an hour-long conversation but more like a quick chat.
Be respectful and helpful. That means follow the rules, no smoking or drinking and absolutely no drugs or sex. Also, no chatting with the other participants at the retreat. If you break these rules you might be asked to leave.
Take plenty of pictures before you hand in your camera. I only took a few and on the last day it rained, so that was it. No more pictures.
Remember this is only 10 days of your life. You may go through a whole range of emotions before the end but this is normal. This is a time of introspection, of spending time with yourself. It could be uncomfortable but it can be done.
One of the girls had a really hard time at the retreat. She would walk around in her own world of sadness. The organizers tried to help her, to convince her to stay on. She left on the seventh day. Many people will leave. It’s a fact. You’ll see the empty seats in the meditation hall and you’ll wonder where they are. Before I left I asked one of the organizers how many people were at the retreat. I was told 120. By the end there were about 93 left. You can leave at any time but I really encourage you to stay.

Thai monk in the library.

I really enjoyed my time at the retreat and would recommend this to anyone. The hardest part was dealing with the sleeping arrangement but after the third day I got used to that to some degree. However, I was never able to let go of a tiny fear of waking up in the middle of the night with a centipede or scorpion crawling inside the mosquito net. There was no insect screen at the window and I had to leave it open to get fresh air during the night.

Touring the monastery grounds. There’s a forest going up a hill at the back of the monastery. There’s also a pond with steps leading out to water. Very quiet and peaceful.

On the last day (day 11), I went on a tour at the main monastery. The purpose of the tour was to find out more about Ajarn Buddhadasa, the founder of the retreat. “Ajarn” is a term of respect and it means “teacher” in Thai, but not only in the strict school way. It’s also used when addressing someone who’s an expert in their field, or someone who has spent years studying and teaching a particular thing.
After becoming a Buddhist monk at the age of 20, Ajarn Buddhadasa wanted to build a retreat where international visitors could come and find out more about Buddhism, a place where people could go back to nature and simplicity, living a life based on a few basic principles.
We saw where he lived, the place where he was cremated, a library of sorts (it looked a bit like a church, with painted walls and pillars), but I didn’t see any books; a monk was there, available for questions. I didn’t ask any, my mind felt blank and relaxed and I just walked around looking at the inscriptions on the walls.
Coming back to Bangkok felt like slowly re-entering another world. I was not used to speaking loudly and the noise felt abrasive to my ears. For a few weeks afterwards I felt calm and relaxed, even though I didn’t practice meditating on my own, and even now, some of that calmness has stayed with me. I know I’ve said this before but I am very grateful to have participated in this retreat. I do believe I came out of it a better person.

Translated text of Ajarn Buddhadasa’s talks on Buddhism.

These are some of the books I got after the retreat, one of them “Life Should Be Harnessed By Two Bufflaoes” – I love that title.

This is the official page of the retreat Wat Suan Mokkh






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