12. Gordon and Pu
Jem and I came to know Gordon and his wife Supaporn
(hereafter called Pu, her childhood nickname) a few
I’d sent an email to an old friend, Jim S., who knew Jem
and I before we married. The email was about one of the
things I like most about Jem, her lack of pretension.
She’ll proudly show her friends at the temple the new
ten dollar handbag she bought at Wal-Mart, marveling how
much junk can be stuffed in it. She’ll be wearing a
sweatshirt and jeans and no makeup, comfortable,
self-contained and self-confident.
Until a show-off at the temple gets under her skin.
Then she’ll come to the temple wearing three of her
largest gold chains. We’re talking 22 karat gold, how
Thais used to (still do, actually) save their extra cash
before reliable banking became common. Each of her chains will
approach $10,000 in cost. On this day Jem is wearing
them outside her shirt. She says they’re so heavy, her
neck actually feels sore afterwards. Three chains are a
ridiculous fashion statement but a powerful message: "I
could buy your stupid car and your stupid watch and your
stupid diamond ring if I wanted to, so shut up already."
And Jem says she’ll sit right next to the show-off,
making sure all those chains register.
Then, with the universe again in equilibrium, she’ll
come home, put away her chains, and for a few more months will wear
sweatshirts and jeans. And look terrific in them, too.
Jem knows exactly who she is. She's first to admit her
faults, but doesn't dwell on them. In fact, jokes about
them, as when she'll refer to herself as "Fat Person."
I'm blessed to have a wife with a sense of perspective
and a sense of humor, who I can
respect and love deeply.
Anyway, Jim sent my email to Gordon and Pu, thinking
they might enjoy it. They did, got in touch with us,
visited us on one of their trips to the states, and
we’ve been in email contact since.
At the risk of embarrassing him, I’ll say Gordon is a
guy. If Homo Sapiens were in imminent danger of blowing
up our planet, with the best of humanity launched on a spaceship
to start anew on a distant world, he’d be on it. Not
much room, of course, making for a limited passenger
list, but he'd be on it.
His wit is kind, his belly flat, his heart full,
his mind alive. He speaks fluent Thai, the result of
years spent in Thailand with the Rockefeller Foundation.
He’s been a college professor of biology and a US
Navy Reserve pilot. His beloved first wife died after
more than 30 years of marriage and three children. Now
he lives in Bangkok, married to another college
professor, a beautiful woman, as quiet and sweet as my Jemjahn is loud and spicy, and in her own way I'm sure
Corresponding frequently via email (what a wonderful
invention), we’d made plans to get together on this
One of my interests is architecture. It combines for me
the highest qualities of craftsmanship and art to
produce a basic human need, shelter. While public
architecture - the Taj Mahal, Notre Dame, the Guggenheim
Museum, etc - is of course magnificent, my favorite
architecture is smaller in scale: the building of homes.
Gordon is creating, as I write this, what I myself have
dreamed and planned for years but will probably never
do. At the age of 70, when most his age are challenged
to walk the dog around the block, he and Pu have
designed and are building their own house.
And what a house. Though not yet finished, it is clear
already how unusual, how wonderful it will be. A 30-foot
tree trunk, bark and branches stripped but its shape
apparent, rises out of the center of the house up to the
ceiling. The trunk anchors the expansive room, leading
the eye up to a ceiling of wood and bamboo. Plentiful
large windows allow light and breeze to enter the house.
One day, bare feet will enjoy the planks of sanded and
varnished native dark wood.
Unlike our typical American houses, full of wall-to-wall
carpet and sheetrock, overstuffed sofas and gewgaws,
Gordon’s house is simple. He jokes that he’s becoming a
minimalist. I think his house is, to use the word
His house is improved by its location, sitting on a hill
near Thailand’s largest natural preserve, without a
neighbor for miles. The nearby trees and views to
distant hills are balm to the soul. Jem, ever the
extrovert, says she couldn’t live so far away from
people. I, the lighthouse keeper, wouldn’t want to live
Yet more amazing: in order to give them a place to live
during construction, Gordon and Pu built what they call
a cottage nearby. (Pictured below.) A smaller structure, again
built mostly of natural materials like stone, concrete
and wood, it’s cozy and clean, maybe even easier to
live in than the main home. Again, the ceiling is tall,
the windows many, the view terrific. This cottage would
be my own crowning achievement. For Gordon and Pu, it
was just something they “threw together” so they'd have
something to live in
while building their dream house.
Gordon and Pu came to the village to spend a day with
us. I had warned them they’d be sleeping on the
floor and taking cold showers, but they’re not
the kind who need 4-poster beds and maid service to be
comfortable. We enjoyed our meals, walks, and
conversation and, speaking again of houses, a visit to a
most unusual one in the next village, and described in
the next chapter.
(Photos of Gordon and Pu's houses by