Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Curiosity has its own Reason for Existing

Einstein said that.  He also said, "For me, curiosity has always been the drug of choice."  Without it I may have settled down into a successful career.  Like my friend Paul.  We met when we were 14 and he sang in a boys' choir.  Years later he toured the world with the Roger Wager Chorale.  Now in his late 70s, he continues to teach and conduct choral music.  Paul has had a great career down a single track.  Curiosity may not have killed the cat but it gives birth to distractions that get in the way of sucess, fame and financial gain.
I used to wear an Einstein mask every Halloween.  It was a rubber mask that cover my head and made it difficult to breathe.  Most of the kids had no idea who I was supposed to be, and were not a little frightened.  I also had some iconic posters of the scientist on my wall.  I looked up to him because he defied expectations and not because I wanted to follow in his path.  I was a dunce at math.

In my life I have followed the path of passionate curiosity, poking my nose in odd corners that attracted my attention.  Sometimes the interest was sustained, but usually it lasted only a season, to be replaced in time by another.  From the outside this appears to be the way of the dilettante, the nomad, the butterfly who never alights long enough to get the juice.  My father used to complain that my habit of switching jobs was a recipe for disaster.  He was driven by memories of the Depression to provide for his family at whatever the cost.  I was driven by a thirst for novelty and adventure.

When I was a young boy I wanted to become a movie actor.  My uncle had a modest success acting on Broadway, and his advice to my father about me was: "Drown him!"  When I was 10 I was impressed by a neighbor's clarinet and took up the instrument, later adding the alto sax and performing as a teenager in several dance bands. My dream then was to join Stan Kenton's orchestra.  But when it dawned on me that my musical talent was limited, I decided to write about it instead, reviewing records in a local paper and later interviewing rock stars. This led to a brief career as an entertainment press agent.

Reading has always been a passion.  In the second grade I read biographies of famous people borrowed from the Sunday School library. In Atlanta at 12 I lay in a hammock behind our house and read science fiction, the novels of Isaac Asimov and Ray Bradbury in particular.  While recovering from a car accident after high school I read best selling fiction, and was particularly fond of the novels of Ayn Rand and Frank Yerby.  A girlfriend traveling in Europe smuggled copies of Henry Miller's banned Tropics for me, and an older mentor gave me Kerouac's On the Road to read. I would never be able to read pop fiction again.

But my first specific passion was religion.  While my broken femur healed, a friend brought me books about world religions that I found fascinating.  Another brought me books about flying saucers and he suggested that the Star of David was probably a UFO, an idea I found oddly appealing.  Paul (the singer in the first paragraph) had met Peter at our community college and Peter's mother received messages from the space aliens.  She was a successful interior decorator in Beverly Hills but had also founded a group to study New Age thought.  I sat at her feet and soaked up her wisdom and read the books she loaned me by saucer contactees who wrote about their encounters with otherworldly visitors.  One of them, Orfeo Angelucci visited our group to tell of his experiences but the fact that he was not exactly sober made it difficult to understand him.  Eventually the group's consensus that whiteness was a sign of spiritual advancement (it was the era of civil rights) made it impossible to remain.

New Age thought, however, continued to attract.  One Easter Week, when college students flocked to the beach towns to drink and celebrate, I left my friends at our hotel to attend a meeting of Theosophy, a religious movement started by the inimitable Madame Blavatsky.  I listened to Alan Watts' radio shows and once stood at the back of a church to hear him speak though I could only see heads in front of me.  At Berkeley, foreign films became my passion after seeing "The Seventh Seal" and "La Strada."  I got involved in campus politics and fell behind in my classes, lying in bed to read science fiction. After Christmas I dropped out and visited my uncle in Cuernavaca, Mexico, for several months. After an interlude of hepatitis, I journeyed to Manhattan where I slept in an Italian lady's room in the village and commuted to my job with United Press International in Newark, New Jersey.
"Who am I?" "What am I to do?" These were the two important questions I asked in my twenties.  It also seemed important to know whether or not there was a god (who could perhaps tell me the answers).  Aside from a brief moment while attending a Christian youth camp for a week during high school, I rarely came close to believing in the standard Protestant truths.  I drank immoderately, smoked two packs a day, and if I couldn't find any worlds to conquer I looked for women.  In rare moments of reflection, I attempted to make some sense out of my experience.  But I resisted dogmatic and easy answers.
S.I. Hayakawa
After returning to California, my next passion was general semantics.  I was impressed by S.I. Hayakawa's book, Language in Thought and Action, some years before he angered students on strike at San Francisco State College, a stand that got him elected to the U.S. Senate.  He was also the editor of ETC, a journal to which I subscribed, hoping to better understand how language might be understood and used. Finally a friend introduced me to Alfred Korzybski, the self-taught scholar who had influenced Hayakawa, and I carried around a copy of his Science and Sanity for years.  "The map is not the territory," is one of his famous utterances, meaning there is a gap between reality and its representation in language (later Richard Rorty's Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature would reinforce that idea). 
In 1964 I moved with my wife to London where I worked as a writer for a TV program journal. The High Holborn library was next door to our offices and I spent much time in the stacks. I went through the collected works of Agatha Christie as well as anything I could find about the war in Vietnam then underway. The Theosophy Bookstore across from the British Museum was a few blocks away and I spent many breaks from work pouring over their selections. My uncle had suggested I read Gurdjieff and Ouspensky, two Russian New Age prophets, and they led me to a biography by the Englishman John G. Bennett, a disciple of Gurdjieff who had converted to Subud, a spiritual discipline that originated in Indonesia (later he moved on to Sufism).  By chance I met an American who practiced the latihan, the name for Subud's form of prayer, and my wife and I tried it out for a couple of months.  I also continued to read fiction and when Marianne Faithfull, a young pop singer with an intellectual bent, mentioned in an interview she loved Lawrence Durell's Alexandria Quartet, I read it with gusto.

Gary Snyder
Returning to California with my wife and infant son, I became an entertainment publicist in Hollywood with little time for intellectual passion.  But I did find time for classes at Los Angeles State in symbolic logic and philosophy.  I'd flunked algebra but was surprised to find symbolic logic was algebra by another name, simple and fascinating.  When I went to work for a record company in Berkeley I met a worker in the warehouse who showed me the poems he'd published in the Paris Review.  Much impressed, I asked him to teach me about poetry.  I'd read the San Francisco poets Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen and Lew Welch, and he recommended the New York poets, like Frank O'Hara, and the French modernists such as Pierre Reverdy (a French Canadian, he'd translated Reverdy and others for a major anthology.  Under his influence, we started a poetry magazine.  Such mimeographed poetry zines were all the rage and ours was called "The End."  I typed up the issues on the same Gestetner printing machine I used for press releases and even contributed a few haiku.

Back in Hollywood, I showed the magazine to an editor and a poet and the three of us founded the Sunset Palms Hotel.  It was much more professionally done then the mimeod zine and the poet found excellent contributions from Bukowski among others.  I encouraged Tom Waits, whose debut bio I'd written, to give us some of his song lyrics. Besides poetry, my other passion remained religion. When I learned my secretary was a trainer for Transcendental Meditation, I urged her to initiate me.  The fact that I had slept with both her and her sister apparently did not count against my spiritual advancement.  I went to a few TM meetings in Westwood but I never advanced further than feeling a bit of bless right before falling asleep.

Nick Herbert
After five years working in the music business in Hollywood, the writing on the wall said "leave before you die!"  I left drugs behind when I moved to the Santa Cruz Mountains and reinvented my life as an occasional poet on unemployment reading in clubs and a paste-up artist for a local paper. In time I went to work as art director for a music magazine over the hill near San Jose.  Right after my daughter was born, I enrolled in an extension class at the university called "The Conscious Atom" taught by physicist and magician Fred Alan Wolf. Quantum physics and the philosophical implications of it because my new passion.  Fortunately, a neighbor, Nick Herbert, had written several books about it and introduced me to his good friends Heinz Pagels, also an author on the topic, and his wife Elaine Pagels who had written on Christian mysticism and theology.  Both religion and physics (the little I understood) obsessed me for a few years. During this time I attended a weekend seminar at Esalen and sat at the feet of the marvelous Gregory Bateson.

Thomas Merton
We moved to Connecticut to be near my wife's family and I used my publishing skills in New York City.  A friend introduced me to Thomas Merton's writings and I think I discovered Simone Weil on my own, as well as Nicolas Berdyaev.  All three expanded my understand of what Christianity could be and I began to sit in churches at lunch time waiting for a sign.  I visited a Catholic church in a barn upstate where I met Brother David Steindl-Rast, the prophet of gratefulness, and learned about Buddhist meditation at the New York Zen Center.  And I spent a weekend at the Catholic monastery St. Joseph's Abbey in Massachusetts where I listened to a monk, Father Theophane, advise us to write our own Bible. (His book, Tales of a Magic Monastery, is delightful).

With a new zafu purchased from the Integral Yoga Society in lower Manhattan, I took up meditation, using an egg timer to tell me when three minutes had passed, and a small book by Baba Ram Dass as my guide. Our son was born one rainy morning at New Haven Hospital and we left Connecticut to return to California where I would sit in silence in front of a wood stove until he crawled out of bed and into my lap in the morning.  I continued to read about religion and physics.  Merton wrote against the Vietnam war and in favor of other religions like Buddhism and Hinduism.  He resurrected a mysticism that had been suppressed by the institutional church, and he was my main man. Years later when I visited the Buddhist ruins at Polonnaruwa on Sri Lanka I would recall the influence it had on him which he described in The Asia Journal.  And in Bangkok I visited the spot where he died, electrocuted by an ungrounded fan. I also collected the works of Ludwig Wittgenstein because I sensed there was something important in his philosophy but I was not ready to understand them.

My next job was doing data entry for the Alumni Association in Santa Cruz, and not long after I learned I could apply to reenter the University of California with an essay on my life experiences (books read, etc.) which could erase the Fs I received when I dropped out of Berkeley.  I started slowly with one class in Indian philosophy from an Oxford-trained Indian professor who announced "we will light no candles in this class!"  The next few years were among the best of my life.  For a BA I studied philosophy with a concentration in religious thought, and my thesis on Wittgenstein (who I finally was able to read) and the will earned me a nomination to Phi Beta Kappa.

It wasn't easy going and I stopped and started my resurrected academic career a number of times.  I tried to get into the graduate program in History of Consciousness (Huey P. Newton got in, but not me).  At the time I was studying to convert to Catholicism under the influence of Weil, Merton, and liberation theology in Latin American which was combatting the oligarchs with life lessons from scripture.  I ended up in history with a plan to study the influence of politics and socialism on religion in Europe. I took a number of courses in intellectual history in the 19th century, focusing on France because my dissertation topic was, Felicité Lamennais, a French priest who progressed from conservative views to radical political ones. I also did work on Poland for the MA, Peru, Morocco, and contemporary historiography which had been influenced by postmodernism.  It was a fascinating time, but because of my obsession with ideas and history I was too preoccupied to be a very good husband and father.

There wasn't much support in academia at that time for a white male in his mid-60s.  I needed to dig into the French archives for my dissertation research but found no grants available that would help me provide for my work and my family.  So I took another year off, and audited a course an environmental history taught by Carolyn Merchant from Berkeley, author of The Death of Nature, who because a mentor and friend. Another helpful influence at this time was sociologist James O'Connor who was researching local history. I switched my field from European to U.S. history and began a dissertation on the middle-class social movement that saved the redwoods in Big Basin, not far from where I lived, for the state's first public park.  My new passion then was environmentalism which include such topics as eco-theology and Deep Ecology (a class full of Marxist students thrashed me over that New Age subject).  I wrote the text for a coffee table book on the Sempervirens Fund which continued to support Big Basin land purchases.

When I became officially Dr. Will, my interest in environmentalism as an intellectual idea was as almost exhausted.  The Ph.D. dissertation turned out ok but it broke no new theoretical grounds and I had little interest in turning it into a book as Dr. Merchant suggested.  By the time I collected by certificate at the graduation ceremony from Angela Davis, there seemed no new ground to explore.

Bede Griffiths
While I was becoming a Catholic, I spent time at the Hermitage, a monastery in the Camaldolese order, in the Big Sur hills. I had long known of Bede Griffiths, the British priest who took over Shantivanam in India from the French monks who had started it in the 1950s.  Although Griffiths had died in 1993, Shantivanam remained a place of pilgrimage.  I learned of an annual tour there from Matthew Fox's Wisdom University led by a disciple of Griffiths, and I joined it in January of 2004. Before then I'd never had any desire to visit India or even Asia and was not a little nervous about the trip.  It was an eye-popper.  The tour leader got us into temples past the signs banning non-Hindus, and I loved the peace of Shantivanam near the banks of the Cauvery River in Tamal Nadu (but not the squat toilets). I returned three more times, and co-founded Sangha Shantivan with a group of mostly Catholics. One year later I led a tour group to Shantivanam.  Another time I played Santa Claus for the kids.  It's been ten years now since my last visit and I miss it, especially the cricket-playing boys on the river beach.

When I became an expat in Thailand the natural passion was the social history and politics of the region.  I read a number of books on the subject as well as many on Theravada Buddhism, the form practiced in Thailand.  I joined a group of expats and residents in a Buddhist sangha for English speakers, became a volunteer of the National Museum, and attended talks at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand.  Along with other members of the NMV we began a separate group to discuss the more sensitive subject of Thai politics with guests who offered their perspectives for us to chew over.  While I don't know if I'm exactly a Buddhist, I buy flowers ever Monk's Day for our condo shrine, and continue to form and spread my opinions through social media.  Since politics is an even more dangerous subject in contemporary Thailand, I will say that this forbidden subject is a definite passion but one I cannot discuss.

Sometimes I think I'd like to go back to school.  Taking classes, reading books, and talking about their ideas was the ideal life for me and I miss it.  I'm more of a materialist than i used to be, and can no longer follow a religious path without nit-picking it to death.  Religion remains the major over-arching passion of my life.  My theory is that religious language is meaningful but not in any literal sense.  It binds like-minded people together through stories like it did for my Catholic friends in California. Today I'm fascinated by the new cognitive study of religion which is developing theories about why humans anticipate an after life and engage in rituals with purposes sometimes hard to fathom.  Consciousness -- what is it? -- is also a central interest.  In a sense consciousness, our own consciousness of something like a self, is the only thing.  But some think it's just an illusion. Buddhism has some interesting teachings on the subject but they're difficult to unpack.  I'm working on it.

If I have a major passion these days other than the above it would be pedagogy.  I've been teaching English for ten years to Buddhist monks and a few lay students but I really have no idea if I've accomplished anything.  At the end of most of my 16-week classes, the students with a good facility continue while those who have difficulty saying anything in English remain mute.  I've tried a variety of methods and techniques, have learned how to design a PowerPoint presentation that will hold their attention (usually), and I've collected a wide range of videos that help to teach the grammar lessons I want them to learn.  But the biggest problem, pronunciation, remains because the university's Sound Lab is unusable.  With only two and a half hours a week, my students really do not have enough time to practice conversation.  The only permanent way they can learn is to use English like a tool, like a hammer, to achieve communication with other English users.  It's been my most rewarding career but I'm not sure if I've been up to the task.

Now, as I await my 78 birthday, I look back on my life as a dilettante, one in which I changed jobs and passions as one discards old clothes.  I was always either inspired or distracted by my curiosity. Which? And why?  For all my efforts I've written no novels, no philosophical words of wisdom, no works of research to advance the boundaries of knowledge.  I've traveled a bit, met some interesting people and kept a few as good friends. I've loved and been loved in return. It's been a good life.  I don't regret most of it.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Expat or Immigrant?

Thai officials detain Burmese migrants and Rohingya Muslims in Nakhon Si Thammarat province.

Next month, if all my documents are in order (never a certainty!), I'll renew my "non-immigrant" visa and work permit for the 10th time. I call myself an expat, but this label has become controversial. An expatriate is someone who no longer lives in the country of their birth. An immigrant is someone who comes to live permanently in a foreign country. If permanency is the issue, I never plan to leave Thailand. But why can I call myself an expat while the dejected men in the above photo are referred to as migrants? Is it because I'm a white westerner and financially self-supporting? Has expat become a racist term to distinguish between haves and have-nots?

Conflicts in the Middle East and Africa have produced a flood of immigrants seeking refuge elsewhere, particularly Europe, the U.S. and Canada. Many are fleeing to save their lives and hoping for a new life in another country, preferably one with opportunities for work.  But no one describes the Muslim migrant in Indiana or Stockholm as an expat. Objections to the influx of immigrants and rising Islamophobia have resulted in conservative political movements that call for closed borders. But while I face irritating bureaucratic hurdles each year, no one in Thailand is calling for a ban on expats.

There are a variety of expats in Bangkok where I live. Some come for sex in the "entertainment" zones of the city, many for medical treatment in the upscale hospitals, and most have probably been transferred here by their companies or embassies. No one seems to know how many non-Thai resident expats are here on a long-term basis but I've seen the figure of 85,000 for Bangkok alone. Then there are the semi-expats, more than tourists, who come to Thailand every year for a month or two on a temporary visa. Expats have "Hi-So" status in Thai culture which may be one of the attractions. They feel at home in the high-rise condominiums and super-malls.

There may be several hundred thousand immigrants in Thailand, legal and illegal, mostly from Myanmar and Cambodia.  You can see them on construction sites and in the nearby shanty towns built for temporary labor.   Many beg on the streets.  Migrants have little status and are tolerated more than accepted. There is clearly a class difference between expats and immigrants.

I've reflected on these distinctions here before. There are many labels for the traveler who leaves home and goes to another place elsewhere. Some seek adventure and others leave because they have no choice. Their home has been destroyed and their neighbors are being killed. My reasons pale by comparison. California simply became too expensive on my retirement income. I received a small pension from the University of California along with health insurance (the minimum is $1,000 now which makes it only useful for catastrophic care), and a decent sum from Social Security because of a few high-salary years in the music business.  In California, I could afford a garage studio apartment and not much else.  In Thailand it is a princely sum.

I had a choice.  I came by plane and not in a leaky boat or after a trek through the jungle.  I didn't need to work but found a job by accident as an English teacher at a university for Buddhist monks. Though only part-time, it's become a calling, a vocation, and has brought me more satisfaction than any of the career paths I followed back in the U.S.

Still, I imagine my homebound friends asking, why become an expat? Why leave your friends and family and everything that is familiar and move permanently to a strange place where people look odd,  think differently and speak a language you cannot understand?  In retrospect, I believe that I was raised to be an expat.

Toledo, Ohio, was my birth home.  I remember little about it except for the Art Museum where I watched cartoons on Saturday and the girl next door who let me play doctor behind the tree in full view of my mother's kitchen window.  After the war when I was six, we moved to Greensboro, North Carolina, where my dad got a job selling plastics.  I remember vacations on the beach at Nags Head and in Florida where my father grew up.  After a couple of years we moved to Lenoir in the western part of the state where my dad sold glue for plywood to make furniture.  Moving so often meant it was difficult to find and keep close friends.  A year or so later we moved again to Atlanta where my father managed a lumber warehouse for a year.  Our final move as a family in 1953 was to the foothills of Southern California.  I couldn't have been happier to start my teenage years not far from Hollywood where I hoped to work someday as an actor (I know, some kids want to be firemen, but I was different).

For the next few years my only trips were up north to San Francisco where my aunt and uncle lived in Tiburon with a view of the Golden Gate Bridge, and to see an elderly cousin in Berkeley who lived in a lovely old turn-of-the-century house. I preferred the green of the Bay Area to the bone dry landscape in the south. A few years later, despite my poor high school grades (I flunked band!), I managed to transfer from junior college to the Berkeley campus of the University of California. Majoring first in English and later in journalism, I found student life difficult.  In the run-up to Christmas vacation, I lay in bed reading science fiction rather than attend class.  I wrote of my unhappiness to my father's gay twin-brother and he invited me to stay with him in Cuernavaca, Mexico, where he lived in the winter months after working the summer as a maître d' at a hotel on Cape Cod.

It was my first trip out of the country and the Tres Estrellas d'Oro bus took me from Tijuana to Mexico City where Ted met me. Mexico was surprising, scary and wonderful to this first-timer. Ted had a tiny apartment on a dirt alley and friends all over the city that included Helen Hayes and Barbara Hutton, as well as with numerous "remittance men" sent south by their wealthy families to avoid scandal. When his friend Alicia arrived from New York, we traveled south to the peninsula by bus and around to Veracruz and back again.  He had a writing table made for my Smith-Corona and I pounded out bad poetry under the jacaranda tree in his patio.

My next trip was to New York City the following fall, arriving by train not long before the Cuban Missile Crisis. First I slept on a mattress in Alicia's nephew's apartment. Then I moved to the basement room of an Italian lady's house on Leroy Street in Greenwich Village and got a job with United Press International in Newark, New Jersey, that required an extended commute. Back in California, I met the first love of my life at a party and we moved to Berkeley where I went to work as a summer replacement reporter on the San Francisco Chronicle. At the end of the summer we got married and took a train to the east coast, but were delayed by a train wreck on the Texas-Louisiana border.  In North Carolina, where my parents lived once again, we all watched the events surrounding Kennedy's assassination on TV before the two of us continued up to Manhattan.

After a short period of poverty, my wife and I found subsistence jobs and enjoyed life in the big city. But wanderlust called again, and I set my sights on Europe. At the end of the summer in 1964 we flew via Icelandic Airlines, then the cheapest fare, to Glasgow, Scotland, where I had a pen pal from high school who promised to put us up. The day we arrived his wife went into labor with her baby and we had their house in Ayr to ourselves for a week. Down in London we shared a flat at first with a friend from New York and I talked myself into a work permit so I could get a job with a London publishing firm, writing about American TV shows for the television program journal in the Midlands. Our son was born the following year and we made plans to return to the U.S. where it seemed more normal to raise a family.

And that was it for overseas travel for the next 40 years. My wife and I had two sons we raised in Southern California.  After that marriage ended, I met my second wife in Northern California and we had two children, a daughter and a son who was born in Connecticut where were lived for a couple of years when I worked in magazine publishing in Manhattan.  We traveled several times to Florida to visit both sets of grandparents, and we also went to Hawaii to stay in a rain forest with an old friend. The tropical climate was wonderful and we considered moving there, but the living was too expensive.

Living outside the country as an expat was unthinkable during these middle years when the children were growing up. I worked for a music magazine, and later decided to return to university study. Through fits and starts, I completed a BA in philosophy with a concentration in religious thought, and began graduate study in history. My first interest was 19th century intellectual history in France.  But when it became difficult to find research money for the Ph.D. I switched to U.S. environmental study and wrote a dissertation about a social movement that saved redwood trees in the first California state park in the early 20th century.

My second marriage ended as I finished writing the doctorate and I taught a few courses in California history and environmental history. Going through another divorce turned my world upside down.  I slept in borrowed rooms and tried to reinvent myself as a single man in his mid-60s. The prospects did not seem great.  First my mother died in Florida, and then my ex-wife bought out my share of our house. I sold my mother's house, split the proceeds with my brother, and suddenly I had traveling money. I had been teaching a few classes but the students were more interested in partying than in reading books and I was fast losing any desire to help them. The road beckoned.

Without a wife and with children old enough to take care of themselves, there was nothing to hold me in California. I had been living in the same area for 20 years and it felt almost too comfortable. Friends were active in Habitat for Humanity, and my first trip on my own was to Guatemala to build houses. Next I decided to work on my Spanish and went with a group from the local community college to Oaxaca in Mexico where we studied for a month and lived with local families.  It had been over 20 years since my visit with Uncle Ted in Cuernavaca. My language skills improved a little, and so my next trip was with the same college program to Buenos Aires in Argentina for another month of lessons and delicious steaks at midnight (Argentines eat late). We took a couple of trips outside the city, one to visit poet Pablo Neruda's grave in Isla Negra on the coast of Chile.

Religion determined the next trajectory. Influenced by the writings of Thomas Merton and Simone Weil, I'd converted to Catholicism in the 1980s. But I also retained an interest in Buddhism going back to high school. I began meditating in Connecticut and continued with a local sangha in California, a mixing and matching that I felt Merton would approve. I spent time at a monastery in Big Sur and read about an ashram in India founded by Catholic monks from Brittany and continued by a British priest. I learned of an annual tour to Shantivanam in Tamil Nadu, India, and joined them in January of 2004. It was an eye-opening experience and I returned several more times over the next three years, sometimes in a group and sometimes by myself.

By 2005 I was actively looking for someplace to live other than the U.S. Mexico and Chile seemed possibilities.  The sights, sounds and smells of India were exciting but the crowds and trash put me off. That year I took several tours, one to England to visit cathedrals, and another to Vietnam with a group of priests to celebrate the feast day of the 117 Vietnamese martyrs. Later, I went with one of the priests to Angkor Wat for three days of walking around temples with the help of a car, driver and guide. After the cathedral tour I flew to the island of Menorca to stay with a friend I'd met in Mexico, and I took a boat to Barcelona especially to see the amazing architecture of Antonio Gaudi. From Barcelona I flew to Rome, walked around the city, and rented a car to sample the country, ending up in the mountains at the headquarters of the Camaldolese order, mother house for the monasteries in Big Sur and Tamil Nadu.

Finally Thailand, where ten yes ago I became either an expat or an immigrant, depending on your point of view.  My daughter had been an exchange student in Chiang Mai in 1992, bypassing Bangkok by changing planes at the international airport.  There had been demonstrations in the capital and people had been shot by soldiers. The north, we were told, was peaceful. She brought back a collection of straw hats and funny shaped Thai pillows that her Thai family had given her. I flew to Bangkok from Chennai after my first trip to India in 2004 and was met at the airport by an old friend from the music business days and his Thai wife.  From the taxi I could see huge photos of the king on the side of numerous tall buildings.

I stayed at a small guest house near my friend's apartment in the Sukhumvit area of Bangkok.  The city is huge and spread out with no clear center other than the shopping district of Siam, to which Sukhumvit led, and the backpacker headquarters around Khao San Road across the city near the Chao Phraya River. I was enchanted by the bird songs and the sweet smell of flowers, as well as the heat and the manic bustle of the city around me.  That first visit was followed by a few days in the country at my friend's farm in Surin.  Then I took the train farther east to Ubon Ratchatoni and spent 10 days at a Buddhist monastery, Wat Pah Nonachant, where I got to shave my head, long a bucket list plan, and wear all white clothes. What I learned most there was that becoming a monk was not in my future.

I returned to Thailand two more times after trips to the ashram in India.  Each journey was planned to see more of the country.  On the second visit I traveled by train and bus up to the north, stopping at Ayutthaya, the monkey city of Lopburi, Sukhothai and Chiang Mai with a side trip to the valley of Pai near the Myanmar border, a backpacker outpost.  For the third trip, I landed on the island of Koh Samui where I spent a week on and off the beach with a lady of the night.  It's amazing how much you can say without a language in common. That week I decided that Thailand was where I wanted to stay for the foreseeable future. I would return to California, dispose of my possessions and return for good within six months.

And that's what I did, arriving as a permanent resident in August 2007 and finding a furnished studio apartment not far from my Sukhumvit friend.  I stocked up on new and used books at Kinokuniya and Dasa Books on the history and politics of Thailand and Southeast Asia, and on how to learn Thai (a losing proposition it seems).  I set out to walk over as much of the city as I could, and learned the Skytrain, bus and river taxi routes for what I couldn't reach otherwise.  Bangkok, from the tiny alley sois to the penthouse of skyscrapers was my oyster and I wanted to learn all about it. I bought a yellow shirt (the color of the King's birth day) which impressed the women who did my laundry, and under my friend's tutelage I explored the underside of the city: Nana, Soi Cowboy, and Patpong.

Coming next:  Why was I voted Expat Rookie of the Year for 2008 by my Bangkok friends? Why would a farang want to live in Thailand the rest of his life? What's to like and what's not to like about Bangkok life?

Monday, April 03, 2017

Won't you spare me over ‘til another year?

"I grow old ... I grow old ...
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled."
T.S. Eliot, "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

I began writing this blog when I was 65. Nearly two years ago I stopped posting here, as I felt that I had no longer much to say beyond the short bits I put on my Facebook and Twitter sites. Photos, taken and found, had become more interesting to me than words. And after eight years as an expat in Bangkok, it seemed as if I'd seen and photographed everything. The last few posts in 2015 were a kind of summing up of my life.

But I'm not dead yet. Life goes on and my mind spews forth a litany of thoughts, views and opinions on a daily basis, too much for the social media outlets to which I subscribe. Who wants to read about death anyway? Often I feel like the last elderly man standing, and social media is a game for the young. One lovely lady I knew in junior high school is here, but the rest of my early school cohort are either lost to Alzheimer's or using their tablets as chopping boards. They know what aging is about but the others don't care.

Aging is not for sissies, Bette Davis supposedly said, and Tolstoy spoke of old age as life's biggest surprise.  I've seen it coming for a long time and it doesn't take much work.  I'm 77 now and I've enjoyed those numbers since I always thought 7 was a lucky one and it's doubled.  In a few months I'll turn 78 and see nothing auspicious about that.  It's too close to 80.

When I started this blog several years after my second marriage ended and I'd retired to travel the world to collect adventures, I chose a name to mark out my domain of controversy.  "We don't talk about those topics, dear," my mother would say to me when I asked uncomfortable questions.  No one ever talked about the sexual orientation of my father's twin brother until long after he was gone.  As for politics, my family was solidly middle class and Nixon supporters.  An aunt warned me that communists were teaching Shakespeare in Berkeley where I was going to study.  My own post-marriage sexuality a few years after a diagnosis of prostate cancer was an open question.  Religion was the easy one.  I was an enthusiastic participant in the Catholic mass and a meditator in a couple of Western Buddhist traditions.  In short, my thoughts on religion, politics and sex were homegrown and developing. The trick was to articulate them in ways that would help me understand myself.

Like most of the elderly, I read the obituaries, thrilling when the dead are older than me and cringing when they are not.  The words "after a long illness" are especially troubling.  My closest friend in Bangkok has been in the process of dying for the last year after he turned 80 with a big party in a ladyboy bar.  The heart is his Achilles Heel as it was his father's.  He's had open heart surgery and a pacemaker installed, and now it's the ebb and flow of edema and lung congestion.  Muscle tissue wastes away.  But as long as he can find someone to push his wheel chair up the street, he's happy.

My father had two heart attacks when he was my age.  During the last years of his life he lived in close proximity to an oxygen tank to assist his breathing.  When young my father abhorred doctors and refused to ever admit he was sick.  At the end he was often in and out of the hospital and took his many medications faithfully as if they were sacraments.

I can still walk and breathe almost like a young man.  But my body is infused with arthritis as was my mother's.  She taught me that sitting can cause more pain than walking.  Recently I came down with bronchitis, and when a pesky cough refused to go away I was given a dose of prednisolone.  Years ago I took this drug and it cured a terrible asthma attack in hours.  But it's a steroid and carries risks. A friend died of a fungus infection that was connected with too much prednisone.  So I was cautious but hopeful.  My cure wasn't dramatic and the cough lingered before going away.  The surprise was the effect the drug had on my body.  Almost all the arthritis pain disappeared and I was able to sprint out of my chair after sitting.  When I stopped taking it, the old familiar aches and paints of aging returned.  

I told my son recently that my death of choice would be to keel over while teaching English to a roomful of monks at the university where I've worked for nearly ten years.  They would be shocked and sad, but understanding, for death is a part of life to those growing up in the farming regions of Southeast Asia.  As monks they believe that one's life is only in transition between one rebirth and another. I long ago lost my faith in metaphors and consoling stories, and although I'm certain my future is only ashes I would avoid encouraging any believers to share my unbelief.

As someone who lives each day with one foot planted in real life and the other in the grave (I didn't really mean that above about metaphors), the main difference I see between the me who started to write this blog in 2006 and the me who may or may not continue writing it in 2017 is that I no longer make plans.  By that I mean long-term plans, like finally writing that novel I was always meant to write. Short-term plans, sure. My friend and I make an appointment for lunch next week. I write in my calendar the dates for Songkran and our trip to Nan's village in Phayao. Since I have to renew my work permit and visa every May 31, that is a date I don't forget. Or the day of my 90-days report to the Immigration Office which happens to be tomorrow.

What I mean is I make no plans for 2018. I watch the slow construction of the overhead rail system that I can see from my window. There is construction for the transit system going on all over Bangkok which has one of the worst current public transportation systems in Asia. Some day it will be easy to get around the city by the BTS or MRT, but I don't expect it will be by me. Completion is too far in the future.

I don't exercise, beyond a few laps in the pool every few days because I like it, and I don't think much about what I eat, the excessive intake of ice cream and Oreos, because this body I've carried around for 77 years is not going to improve. Improvement involves thought for the future and the uncertainty that tomorrow brings. My days are directed mostly by habit, since habitual behavior is known to save on brain energy which I need to understand the threats and crises faced by the planet these days. Going to the pool at 10 and up the street for cappuccino at 5 leaves my brain free to keep track of the Apocalypse.

Yes, I could die tomorrow and the odds are in favor of it. But today, right now, I'm alive and the fan across the room dries my sweat. Outside the sun is shining through the morning mist over Bangkok. The traffic on the highway has passed its morning peak. And I have things to do, thoughts to think, and even places to go.  I might even write another blog post, or two.