Thursday, July 24, 2008

Reprise


We didn't separate, at least not yet at any rate. Last night we were as close as ever. Tonight we're going bowling, and a week from Sunday we'll have a birthday party for Pim here in our apartment. Boy has promised to cook. So we've returned to our previous theme of love and domesticity.

It may just be an interlude between the storms. This is the monsoon season, after all, when Bangkok, ever sinking, is threatened by inundation. Can a relationship drown from an excess of love? Certainly the whining and grasping of one partner can be a sure sign of disaster. Pim is delaying the inevitable decision; she is torn by morality and desire, between saving face and financial security with a dubious choice.

Today I am wondering about the cultural differences of romance. In America we bring flowers, write poems of love, hold doors open and buy gifts like jewelry or furs. But these are only tokens of romance. Romance encompasses all the different forms that care for the beloved can take. I have been trained to recognize certain signs as expressions of love: a smile, a touch, a sigh, the catch of a breath. I know how to give them, and I expect similar coin in exchange. Our body language is a rich resource for romantic communication.

But what if the signals vary from culture to culture, as I think they do? Thais are very romantic. Their popular music is lush with lyrics about love, and dramatic plots on TV and in films highlight the dance between the sexes. Romantic comedies and chick flicks are the favored imports from Hollywood. But Thais are also restricted by a severe public morality. Kissing on the streets is forbidden (although the rules are broken more often in Bangkok than in the hinterland). Even holding hands can be suspect. Sex before marriage is still unacceptable in polite company (urbanization and globalization is fast breaking down those walls).

What this has to do with the signals I receive (or don't) from Pim is hard to explain. When we met, she was recovering from a broken heart caused by an American IBM salesman who jilted her. Her profile at the time on an internet site carried the headline "Love is Suffering." She loves American pop and knows the words to many romantic songs. But often she is strangely cool when I expect a warm response to something loving I have done or said. Gifts more often produce not gratitude but a quiet acceptance. Then she will surprise me, and deliver a "sniff kiss" on the cheek, or a passionate hug, when I least expect it. Our day to day existence in the apartment is very prosaic; this morning she spent over an hour washing dress pants for work and a dozen pairs of tiny undergarments. Sometimes she ignores the obvious (flowers in a vase, my upset) only to impress me a minute later with an acute sensitivity to cues I didn't know I'd given. Some of our differences can be attributed to age, but I think most are the results of different acculturation.

To add insult to injury, the five pepper plants that Pim rescued from the aloe vera plant that Jerry had given me have all died. I resist finding any significance in that.

Today, while the threatened separation with Pim has been postponed, I am at loose ends. Classes have once again been canceled. I received a call from one of my students last night to tell me this, but it took additional calls and text messages to determine why. Apparently the vice president of the university has died and his funeral will be held today at Wat Mahathat. But it is also the occasion of a sangha ceremony to honor, and pay respects to, older monks. All students from Wat Si will attend. Ordinarily, my Thursday classes would be moved to Saturday, except that tomorrow is Wan Phra which means that Friday classes get moved and mine get canceled. I miss interacting with my students. Many are sending me their writing assignments by email so I have work to do making corrections. The term is already half over by my reckoning (although I do not know the exact end date) and some students are woefully behind. I must readjust my expectations. But I do not plan to fail anyone.

I'll resume my attempts to get a work permit next Monday. Dr. Subodh, whose visa expired today, managed to complete his paperwork yesterday and he was awarded a year's work permit and his visa was extended accordingly. I should be so lucky. At least I have his example to follow. He did have a Thai friend accompany him to the Labor Ministry on numerous visits and I have yet to find a translator from the school to go with me (nor have I made my first visit to the office). In order to avoid a fine, he told the officer that he hadn't begun teaching yet and I shall have to do the same. But since my visit does not expire until September 11, I do not yet feel a sense of urgency. I still have not been paid yet for my services and sometimes fear they thing this farang is a volunteer rather than a paid employee.

Yesterday I learned that Delta Airlines will not refund the unused portion of my ticket from San Francisco to Bangkok. I paid $1100 back in May for a round-trip journey, and in November I paid an addition $500 to extend the return for a year. Now the ticket expires on August 6th and if I decide to ever return it will be at additional expense. The "customer service" agent I phoned in the U.S. only said it was a "non-refundable ticket," and could not explain further. As far as I know I paid the going rate and nothing was said about refunds. Certainly the additional premium I paid should be refundable. But with airlines we are up against City Hall. Because of the rising price of oil, they are going broke. American and perhaps others now charge for baggage. Meals have been reduced to cardboard snacks for $5. I suspected I would have trouble, and save for an angry email to "customer service," I will let the money go. As we say here, "mai pen rai" (translation: fuck it).

The political scene here is crazy. Troops are gathering on both sides of the Thai-Cambodian border while angry citizens egg them on to defend national sovreignty. I've written about the dispute over Preah Vihear, an ancient Khmer temple that was ruled by the International Court of Justice in 1962 to be in Cambodia (based on a perhaps faulty French map from 1907), but which Thais still believe is on their territory. Camodia recently successfully applied to have the temple listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. But pro and anti government forces in both countries are using the issue as a stick with which to beat their opponents. ASEAN officials meeting last week avoided any discussion of the problem which has now been sent to the UN Security Council.

The other political storm in Thailand is even more difficult to understand, or even to report. This issue is lèse majesté, the crime of offending the diginity of the monarchy. It is prosecuted almost nowhere else except in Thailand these days, and it too is now being used as a stick with which to thrash one's political oppontents. Not only has a member of a pro-government group, United Front of Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD), been jailed on a charge of lèse majesté for remarks she made at a rally, but a member of the anti-government group, People's Aliance for Democracy ( PAD), has been charged as well for simply quoting her speech. I've read translations of her talk and I can't figure out what is offensive. Perhaps just mentioning HRH The King is a no-no. Even discussing the issue can be dangerous. Any comment about the monarchy or its members is off limits. Which means everyone is suspected. In the past the King has usually pardoned anyone convicted of lèse majesté, but little has been heard from the 80-year-old monarch lately (except that at a ceremony in Hua Hin last weekend he maybe gave his backing to Samak's government; interpreters disagree). It's a very Orwellian world these days.

With a bit of time on my hands, I've begun reading books again. Dr. Holly gave me Mark Haddon's wonderful novel about a dysfunctional British family, a spot of bother. It's easily up there with Jonathan Herzen's The Corrections, an American version of the same endlessly fascinating theme. After finishing bother, I immediately bought a copy of Haddon's more celebrated work, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, a totally different find of novel with events seen from the point of view of an autistic protagonist. Haddon cut his teeth on children's literature and his entrance into adult fiction is to be celebrated. I'll watch out for his next book. Holly also gave me Mark Salzman's The Laughing Sutra with high praise for it. I've been wanting to read Salzman's Lying Awake about a nun with visions that are traced to epilepsy, calling into question the validity of mystical experience. And Jerry has loaned me The Bangkok Secret by Anthony Grey which attempts to give a fictional answer to the mysterious and unsolved death by gunshot wound of King Rama VIII in 1947. The book was published in 1990 and the author would certainly be accused of lèse majesté were he to release it today (can I be accused for simply reading it?).

The most interesting addition to my growing book collection came in the form of a birthday gift which arrived this week from my friend Shirlee in Santa Cruz. Her sister in Hollywood is a close friend of the woman once known as Georgina Spelvin, star of the porn classic "The Devil in Miss Jones." Calling herself an "erotic icon of the Seventies," Georgina has just published her memoir The Devil Made Me Do It. And I have an autographed copy. Knowing the book was coming, I downloaded from the internet the 70s classic film which was one of a camp trilogy of trendy porn hits including "Deep Throat," "Behind the Green Door" and "Debbie Does Dallas." What Georgina lacks in beauty (she's no Marilyn Chambers), she more than makes up for with enthusiasm. Her scene with the snake is, well, unforgettable. And her book is well-written and even funny.



Pinklao, my new neighborhood, is quite a bit different from Sukhumvit but it contains much to see and interpret. Like the tatooed man who begs daily on the pedestrian overpass to Tesco Lotus, or the jazzercizers (99 per cent women) who work up a sweat outside the store every evening. In the food courts at Central and Tesco Lotus I buy tasty lunches for $1-3, and a decent cappuccino is available at any one of a half-dozen coffee stands. The other morning I watched three monks being led into a massage parlor down a soi not far from here. They were carrying the ceremonial leaf behind which a monk will expound the Dhamma, so I'm sure the visit was purely ritual. There are fewer fruit carts and many more selling different kinds of meat, or fried bananas, on a stick. Fish or pork balls are very popular here, but I don't recall ever seeing them on the menu of a Thai restaurant in the west. Spicey Isan food is also underrepresented (or missing) from the cuisine celebrated in American restaurants. I learned from Pim the other day that the word in Thai for asparagus means "farang bamboo," which I found amusing. And finally, the halls of Central Pinklao, the neighborhood supermall, are lined with game machines, their bells and whistles adding to the noisy din typical for the Thai shopping experience (loud speakers from numerous locations jockey for dominance). In the food courts at Central at Tesco Lotus I buy tasty lunches for $1-3.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Love Lies Bleeding

What we don't understand, we explain, probably because words help to distract us from the pain of a raw encounter with the "blooming buzzing confusion," William James's description of the world. Sometimes I reach for song lyrics to help me find my way. From the dustbin of my mind comes Bernie Taupin's lyrics to an Elton John tune, a cry of despair over lost love.
The roses in the window box
Have tilted to one side
Everything about this house
Was born to grow and die...
And love lies bleeding in my hand
Even more to the point is Nashville writer Boudleux Bryant's classic poem of pain, "Love Hurts," where he cries that "love is just a lie made to make you blue." It's been recorded by everyone from the Everly Brothers, Gram Parsons and Emmylous Harris, Roy Orbison, and Jennifer Warnes, to the rock group Nazareth.
Love hurts, love scars,
Love wounds, and mars any heart
Not tough or strong enough
To take a lot of pain, take a lot of pain
Love is like a cloud, holds a lot of rain
Love hurts......ooh, ooh love hurts
When Pim returned from Kalasin after the holiday weekend, I sensed that something was wrong. Early in the morning, after I'd gotten angry at her withdrawn silence, it came out in a rush of tears: "Willie, I have something to tell you. We must separate. It's too hard. I lie every day. You want to know why I pray? So I can stop. But I pray and lie, lie and pray. I haven't been able to sleep for the last three nights." I've written before about the shame she feels that her lover is an old man, and her fear of losing face if her friends find out about me. She has introduced me to two of her coworkers at the P.O. But although I've met her sister, and her mother and I have greeted each other by web cam, she feels she cannot say anything to the rest of her relatives and her friends here in Bangkok and back home.

I was crushed, but I understood. Face (reputation, esteem) is very important in Thai culure, and who am I to say that truth should trump? Unlike the bar girl I romanced a year and a half ago on Koh Samui, Pim has never asked me to marry her, although I've let her know I want to do whatever it takes to spend the rest of my life (which will be considerably shorter than hers) with her. A few months ago I noticed a subtle shift; she started suggesting that I marry her mother (who'd just divorced Pim's step-father)! It would only be a cover, she indicated, but I found the idea appalling.

But all of these words cannot convey the chaos into which I fell when confronted with the possibility of separation. My resistance to falling seriously in love with a girl younger than my daughter ended after returning from India in January. We have been building a life together while sharing an apartment for the past six months . After Pim left for work, I spent hours staring out of the window at the clouds while trying to imagine how to create an alternative future. Should I return to the U.S. (my return flight ticket is good for two more weeks) or retreat to a beach on an island in the south seas? Suddenly the new apartment in Pinklao and the job teaching monks English were unimportant.

So, as is usual in these cases, I got stupid. I left the house in the afternoon before Pim came home from work, hoping to hurt her with my absence. I ate a late lunch at the Central food court where a bird had flown inside and was frantically pecking at the wall of windows hoping to get out. I felt a sympathetic connection. Then I went to see the new Batman film (Heath is a scary villain but the plot had way too many implausibles for me to follow easily). When I got out of the theater, there was no message from Pim on my phone asking where I was. At home I discovered she had come and gone, leaving alot of washing to dry on the balcony. So I drank two gin and tonics and fell asleep. At 1 in the morning I awoke to find her still missing. She failed to return my upset text message. For several agitated hours, I tried unsuccessfully to sleep. At 4 I sent another text and she answered. I was angry, she was somewhat repentant. She finally returned at 9 am looking as awful as I felt. When I hadn't come home the evening before, she went out to see a friend, had too many drinks, and stayed at her place. She did not think I wanted to see her, she explained.

Pim stayed home from work yesterday and we talked and slept, slept and talked. She told me her mother wanted her to get married, but avoided my question about whether her mother had told her to leave me. We talked about her desire for a child, and I reminded her that I could not help, nor would her mother get a grandchildren if I stayed in the picture. When she asked if I believed she loved me, and I said no, tears came again. If she loved me, I asked, why could she not tell everyone? Their criticism is their problem, not ours (going against the cultural grain, however, is not a winning proposition). In the evening she invited Boy and Na from the PO to join us at MK for a sukiyaki (DIY soup) dinner. She held my hand on the street, and she said later that after our talk she was not ashamed to be seen in public with me.

The storm has passed but clouds remain on the horizon. Jerry listened to my pain and confusion on the phone and told me it had always been a long shot. A friend in California advised me to hold onto the good and not try to make it last forever. It seems to me that Pim has a choice between two alternatives: tell the world about us and marry me, or separate. She asked for a week to make a decision. If I were stronger I would make it for her and ask her to leave so she could find a younger man who would give her children. But I'm leaving it up to her.

There is no owner's manual for this life, and certainly one would probably not include what an elderly expat should do when falling in love with a young native girl. At least Gauguin had his paints. Song lyrics can only go so far in explaining what it's all about (Alfie). There is no substitute for endurance.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

"Like a patient etherised upon a table"

Today is the first day of my 70th year.

I did not anticipate this when I was drinking beer and wrecking cars in the 1950s. My only model for aging back then was a maternal grandfather who smoked a pipe, played cribbage with his son-in-law, and did not hide his disdain for unruly teenagers. He lost his memory, shat on the floor, and was put in a "home" where he died in silence under a white sheet. I associated aging with senility and found it depressing.
I grow old … I grow old …
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.
T.S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock"

Pim woke me at 6 this morning and sang "Happy Birthday" over the phone. My joy knew no bounds. She is spending the Buddhist holiday weekend with her mother and sister in Kalasin, a province 10 hours away by bus in the northeast. Tagged and Virtual Tourist sent me birthday email greetings and I expect the other social networks that I have joined and given my birth date will soon follow suit. It's still the day before in the U.S., but my son Luke writes from Boston: "As far as I know this is number 69." (His mother, my first ex-wife, gave the game away).
In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.
As teenagers, we used to find the idea of turning 69 a big joke. It was the far side of the moon to us, and who knew then that the moon too was conquerable? Recently, Suze Rotolo, who appeared famously on the cover of boyfriend Bob Dylan's "Freewheelin'" album in 1963, published her memoirs. Reviewers included a current photo of Rotolo and she looked OLD. Back then, I had a crush on her, as well as Joan Baez (who is now a spy 67). Pete Seeger, followed by Peter, Paul and Mary, sang:
Where have all the young girls gone, long time passing?
Where have all the young girls gone, long time ago?
Oh, when will they ever learn? Oh, when will they ever learn?
Yesterday I bought myself a birthday present, a pair of binoculars to survey the terrain from my 10th floor window. This morning I spotted the building in which I teach at Wat Si, and there is a giant tree on the horizon that looks curious. In the middle of the parking area for the hotel next door is a large rectangle of jungle. I suspect the owner refused to sell. I want to explore this oasis with my eyes from above to see what lies within (and I'm not speaking metaphorically). The binoculars are good ones, Nikon's Sportstar model with 8x25 DCF, whatever that means. And they're water resistant, which is handy in case I fall off the balcony into a monsoon-filled puddle in the parking lot below. The last pair of binoculars I owned, given me by my second ex-wife, were stolen from my car a number of years ago along with the radio. These will never leave my room.

Falling from tall buildings is a new fear, occasioned by seeing "Let's Get Lost," the documentary film about Chet Baker who died at the age of 58 when he fell from a hotel room window in Amsterdam, high on heroin and cocaine. For years I've been hoping to find this film by fashion photographer Bruce Weber and it finally turned up on the internet. Weber, who was responsible for the homoerotic advertising of Calvin Klein and others, was obsessed with the jazz trumpeter and singer. He filmed his subject in black and white the year before his death in 1988, and it capture's Baker's charisma and his manipulation of those who loved him. I recall meeting a man in London in the 1960s who expressed his hate for Baker because the musician hooked his girlfriend on drugs. I first heard Baker's music with the Gerry Mulligan Quartet and I have a wide selection of his playing on singing on my iPod. Losing his teeth in a drug deal gone bad, Baker relearned to play with dentures. Ravaged by years of excess, he looks twice his age in Weber's film. Did Baker wear his trouser's rolled?

While my own youthful drug use was modest by Baker's standards, like him I have attempted to manipulate others so that I might be seen as I wanted to be seen and not how I feared I really was. There seem to be no new lessons at this late date in my life. I continue to try to repair or replace the failed interpersonal strategies of the past. My impatience has become a painful thorn. I watch how I struggle against the slow flow of Bangkok traffic. Waiting for the bus that never seems to come is a lesson in letting go. At home I am an obsessive compulsive, picking up wisps of dust from the floor, tidying the book shelves and straightening the towels. With Pim, I observe feelings of jealousy and thoughts of revenge when she goes out to dinner with friends. I express my displeasure with passive aggression, then gnaw on the bone of regret. Too often I have been in my lover's eyes an "upset man." How can I be so petty at a time when I'm supposed to be wise? Growing old disgracefully is a constant lesson in humility. "I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker/And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker." But what of the promise of enlightenment?
And indeed there will be time
To wonder, “Do I dare?” and, “Do I dare?”
...
Do I dare
Disturb the universe?
Eliot's poem sums up the despair and promise of age for me. I find the poet's first major work more hopeful than most of his interpreters. My friend Gerry, a witty cynic, used to recite it from memory. While Prufrock measures out his life "with coffee spoons," he has also worn white flannel trousers, and walked upon the beach where he "heard the mermaids singing, each to each." Despite being an ambitious young man, Eliot has his hero recognize that fame only comes to a few:
No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;
Am an attendant lord, one that will do
To swell a progress, start a scene or two,
Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,
Deferential, glad to be of use,
Politic, cautious, and meticulous;
Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;
At times, indeed, almost ridiculous—
Almost, at times, the Fool.
I think Eliot's "patient etherised upon a table" is everyman faced with the shock of reality, realizing through introspection that life is fine just as it is. In one marvelous aside, Prufrock obsrves: "I should have been a pair of ragged claws/Scuttling across the floors of silent seas." This is an acceptance of our animal nature, the interbeing of creation. The crab does not long to be a famous poet.

And now that I am on the eve of three score years and ten, the dreams of my youth seem silly. Did I really want to be an actor, a saxaphone player in Stan Kenton's band, a macho novelist like Hemmingway or Norman Mailer? Now I am -- I won't say "content" -- reasonably satisfied to be myself, an elderly expatriate in Bangkok in love with a considerably younger woman who shares his bed, a teacher of English to eager monks who want themselves to teach English in village schools across southeastern Asia. I am the father of four, a friend to a few and a correspondent with many, some whom I've known for over fifty years.

The other day I watched "Buddha's Lost Children," a wonderful documentary by Dutch director Mark Verkerk. My new hero is Khru Bah Neua Chai Kositto, the abbot of White Horse Monastery in the Golden Triangle of Thailand, a former muay thai boxer who rescues horses and neglected children and oversees a string of temples along the Thai-Burmese border. Covered with tattoos and assisted by a young Buddhist nun, Khru Bah delivers tough love with compassion to his novices whom he teaches to box, ride horses, chant and brush their teeth. The fact that he and they are Buddhists seems almost incidental. In this life we are meant to be kind to each other (and to the animate and inanimate universe). Nothing else matters.

Nelson Mandela was 90 the day before my birthday and look what he's accomplished!

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Sunday in Bangkok

I remember Sundays in Greenwich Village in the mid-1960s when we would wake up late in our top-floor garret apartment on Christopher Street and then stroll down to the corner newsstand on 6th Avenue to pick up copies of the Sunday Times and Herald-Tribune, weighing in at several pounds each, before going to the neighborhood bakery for a selection of cheese Danish. The rest of the day was spent reading the newspapers, listening to Bob Dylan's latest, drinking coffee and stuffing our faces with sugary snacks. If it was a nice day outside, we might take a walk later to Washington Square several blocks away where we would listen to the itinerant folk singers by the fountain while (if it was summer) the kids were cooling off in the water.

Here in Bangkok my apartment is even smaller and the two English newspapers are nowhere near as heavy. But today I will go downstairs after 10:30 when the Central Pinklao mall opens up the street and track down Sunday papers in one of the several bookstores where farang customers are expected. I can get a free copy of the Nation's Daily XPress insert at the McDonald's across the street. In afternoon, after finishing this blog, I may take the 79 bus to Siam Square and see a film, perhaps "Get Smart" (not for the TV memories but only for the performance of that droll clown, Steve Carell). Or maybe I'll listen to music at one of the mini-Woodstocks which seem to take place every weekend in the large plazas outside the Central World and Siam Paragon supermalls.

My English class for the monks was held yesterday because Thursday fell this week on Wan Phra, the Buddhist sabbath which corresponds to the four phases of the moon. Here, Phra Nandawan from Shan State, Myanmar, and Phra Chheang from Cambodia, talk about the first exam that I had given them the previous week. Both did very well. This week I taught the use of "can" and "could" by encouraging them to talk about their abilities to ride a motorbike or speak another language. All can speak at least two (their native tongue and now English) but a number could also speak Lao, Khmer, Burmese, Cambodian, and even French and Japanese, not to mention Pali, the holy language for Buddhists. All are majoring in English with one more term before graduation. My writing assignment this week was for them to write a formal letter applying for a job as either a tour guide or an English teacher. Last week they wrote a description of the place where they lived before becoming a monk, the house and village. It's a wonderful way for me to learn about Southeast Asian life.

Next week my students are on holiday once again. Thursday is Asalha Bucha, the beginning of Vassa, or Buddhist Lent, the three-month rains retreat. The holiday is celebrated on the fifteenth day of the waxing moon of the eighth lunar month, and it commemorates the Buddha’s first sermon in the Deer Park in Benares and the founding of the Buddhist sangha. Vassa dates from a suggestion by the Buddha to observe a pre-existing practice when monks avoided traveling for a period during the rainy season to avoid damaging crops, and remained in their monasteries or temples. Primarily practiced now in the Theravadan Buddhist tradition, it is a time to renew one's vows and meditation practice. Many laymen will become temporary monks. (From the top of my apartment building I can see the back of this large statue of a Buddhist monk on the grounds of Wat Sri Sudaram next to my school.)

I barely took notice of the 4th of July last week except for this Uncle Sam blowing balloons for children in the Big C mall. I was occupied in getting all the necessary documents for my work permit application. Following the lead of Dr. Subodh from India, another teacher at Mahachula in need of working papers, I asked Dr. Chatchai, an administrator for laymen at the university's head office at Wat Mahathat, to help, and he graciously agreed. To get the required medical certificate, I walked from my apartment to the nearby Chao Phraya Hospital and, after having my blood pressure and weight checked, I told the doctor I did not have diabetes or any other dangerous condition (conveniently forgetting about the cancer). I was given a clean bill of health, for 100 baht ($3). Now it's all over but for a few signatures and the trip to the Labour Department with a Thai speaker to translate. Of course it's never that easy in Thailand and so I'm prepared to encounter a few more roadblocks on the way.

A friend writes from California that he is "slowing down," and he mentions a mutual friend who is likewise experiencing the inertial effects of aging. The expression amuses me. Yesterday I saw a mother with her infant son who had obviously just taken his first steps. He walked with a delighted swagger, tethered to stability by his mother's hand but obviously eager to get out on his own. It's not that the young are fast and the elderly slow. It's more about the delight we take with each step, fast or slow. I've seen too many aged who have obviously been crushed by the weight of years. Even the youth sometimes walk under bent backs, afraid to cut loose and prosper. I, too, like my friends, am slower now that I once was. Waking up, it takes time to get the arthritic kinks out of my bones. My balance is a bit off and I walk carefully in order to avoid falling (which I've done a few times in public, once at the feet of a prostitute outside Nana; she was very kind and helped me up). Yesterday, I ran to catch a bus and it took all of my energy. I can swim five laps in the pool but no more. But my delight in life is undiminished. In a week I will turn 69. That's the year we used to giggle about when we were teenagers. It wasn't a label I wanted to wear. Dr. Chatchai looked surprised as he fill out my forms and learned my age. "You look younger," he said kindly. I don't want to hide behind a youthful appearance. My years are not a weight but an attribute. I accept them proudly. (Turning 70, however, will require a whole new set of considerations.)

Chris, my oldest son, turned 43 on Friday in Sonoma where he lives with his wife Sandy, two dogs and a cat. He was born in London not long after his mother and I left our Greenwich Village apartment and went in search of European adventures. His British birth certificate was confiscated at the American embassy, but I got him a duplicate. And whenever he wants he can claim British citizenship. As I watch BBC (True came yesterday and adjusted the dish so we can now get English news), that seems like a pretty good idea to me. But they have a comfortable home and he has an absorbing (if occasionally debilitating) job running the computer sales side of Pottery Barn. Chris was an early pioneer of computers for advertising graphics and helped turn Gap online into their number one sales outlet. I like to think that some of his music and film obsessions come from my genes, but he has vastly exceeded my grasp of technology. Both he and Nick, my youngest son, have tried to explain, with little success the digital mysteries to their dad (who remains mostly stuck in the analog era). Recently my two older sons, Chris and Luke, who live on separate coasts, have connected on Facebook, and, along with their half-sister Emma, they have included me in the loop of their viritual family. This is the modern way, I know, but I miss the hugs. Happy Birthday, Christopher Edward Yaryan.

I went looking for some underwear at Tesco Lotus the other day and discovered I had to buy the XXL size. What an embarrassment! But Thai men are smaller and a size large for them fits a 32-inch waist. Pim and I regularly weigh ourselves and I haven't gained any weight. The flab remains, however, and I contemplate visiting the exercise room next to the sauna and the pool on the 6th floor of Lumpini Place. Contemplation is alot like meditation. It requires almost no physical effort. So instead of exercising, I surf the web and lust over the new 3G iPhone which is not yet on sale in Thailand. While the TV cable is now fixed, I'm still unable to see any YouTube videos, and there is little information on the web about YouTube's capitulation to Thai censorship. It may just be the TOT internet connections. If I can figure out how to get a proxy ISP, I may get around it (but that requires more technological know-how than I currently possess). The political scene has cooled off somewhat with the anti-government demonstration that had blocked streets for several weeks ordered to disband by a high court ruling. The courts have also intervened in several political disputes, to the point where one scholar has called it a "judicial revolution." Thaksin's fate may be settled by the court when he appears to face long-standing corruption charges this month. The economy is in shambles and the Samak government is poised to fall any day now. But it's a beautiful day.

This final photo is a view of the Pinklao bridge from the terrace outside the coffee shop at Thammasat University in Bangkok. I think (but am not sure) that I can see Lumpini Place in the distance.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

The View from Lumpini Place

Yesterday, at the end of our first week in Lumpini Place, we took the elevator up to the 22nd floor and walked up a flight of stairs to the roof. This was what we saw, looking to the southeast, past the Chao Phraya River (you can seen the golden spire of the Rama VIII bridge) and across to the skyline of Bangkok.

This is the view to the northwest from the top of Lumpini. It's also what we see from our bedroom and balcony windows. Across the expressway over Borommaratchachonnani (I can almost say it now -- it's also spelled "Boromarajajonani") Road and on the other side, you can see, first, the new Tesco Lotus (mostly the parking garage), and beyond it the round spire of Central Pinklao, the megamall consumer's paradise (where half the stores sell mobile phones) that anchors this neighborhood. On the other side of the street is another, smaller mall with a McDonald's and KFC on the ground floor and a bowling alley, karaoke rooms and cineplex on the top. There is also a Sizzler's where I ate an expensive steak Friday night. To the southeast, across the busy Charan Sanitwong Road intersection, is yet another mall, Pata, with cheaper stuff. Yesterday we shopped there, and at the Tesco Lotus supermarket in the basement, and after eating lunch in the food court we walked across the overpass above the traffic-jammed street to buy a small bookcase and a cabinet for shoes at a furniture shop. Two men carried our purchases back to Lumpini on their backs for 100 baht.

The views on the other sides are not particularly inspiring. The horizon is flat in all directions, broken by tall office skyscrapers, apartment buildings or condos like this one. I spotted the peaked roofs and red and gold colors of Buddhist temples, about a half dozen of them within easy walking distance. To the west I could just make out the tall gold statue of a prominent monk that sits of the property of Wat Sri Sudaram, across Khlong Bangkoknoi, where I teach. It's not far by bus, so my commute on Thursdays to the MCU undergraduate campus there is quick and easy. That is, if I don't get killed getting on or off a bus. I missed one the other day because it stopped a half block away (I should have run for it), and they frequently require you to board and disembark while the vehicle is still moving. Sometimes they refuse to stop if no one is getting off. Then there are the taxis that monopolize curb space, which means you have to dodge cars as well as motorbikes to reach the bus doors half way across the street. Still, it's a big improvement over the commute from Sukhumvit, although today I'm going back by bus to attend the World Buddhist University monthly forum.

After five weeks of teaching, I began to wonder about my paycheck. I learned that I must have a bank account first, since, unlike the many firms (Pim's Post Office for example) that pay with cash, MCU wants to deliver my salary by bank transfer. The first bank I tried, Siam Commercial, wanted me to have a work permit (Roger the landlord had thought that a non-immigration visa was sufficient). So I walked a few doors away to the Khrong Thai Bank (KTB) and, with Pim's help, managed to open an account with 1000 baht. Now I'm almost legit. Friday I learned that Dr. Subodh from India, who teaches in the psychology department, was well along in the process to apply for a work permit. Since his visa expires in two weeks, Dr. Subodh's many trips to the Labour Department have a sense of urgency. His experience and copies of application forms are a godsend for me. I will simply follow his lead, and I have nearly two months.

We are delighting in our new mini-kitchen. On our first night here, Pim made me sukiyaki (more of a Thai stew than the Japanese version) from prepared ingredients. Last night she put together a sumptuous meal of kung som tum (shrimp soup), broccoli and other veggies stir-fried in oyster sauce, fried mu (pork) and brown rice made in her cooker. I was under the impression she didn't know how to cook, but was happily surprised. She wouldn't even let me clean up (my liberated stance is slipping away). We listened to Thai pop songs on her radio while we organize the space and put everything in its proper place. She told me she'd never had a stuffed animal as a child, and so I bought her a stuffed Doremon, the popular Japanese cartoon character, for our bed. She spent much of her day off yesterday washing clothes which hung to dry on the balcony. Down below the tour buses parked in a large lot, making it difficult for the soccer boys, who usually gather, to play. Early one morning I saw a man down below doing tai chi. Last night we snuggled on the couch eating ice cream and watched "Academy Fantasia 5."

Although there have been a few bumps on the domestic road, all is bliss now. After the emotional moving day, detailed in the previous blog, Pim one night invited over two of her colleagues at the PO, her best friend Boy and their friend Na who had recently learned about me. We had a lovely time. I learned that her sister Song has decided to finish her college year in Bangkok and it's possible we may have her for a guest soon. Yesterday we bought a curtain for the bedroom doorway, although I've agreed to sleep on the couch were her sister or mother to come for a visit. And I've promised to wear a shirt when I'm at home.

As usual, the biggest aggravation has been caused by our electronic toys. After almost a week of constant use from the internet wireless router, I got that message that TOT had blocked our access because of an incorrect account name and password. After much assistance from my computer guru, Pandit Bhikku, I learned how to give the router our new TOT password and now all is fine Accept that for some mysterious reason, all YouTube videos, including the ones I've put up, are inaccessible and give me the same message: "We're sorry, this video is no longer available." The authorities have blocked YouTube before when someone has put up something insulting to His Majesty the King, but I can find no information about that. Another problem is the True TV cable service. Everything is fine except for the four English news channels. For several days the image from each was scrambled. Now I just get the message "no signal." Duh. A reporter from the BBC has been accused of lese majesté for insulting the King, but why should that trouble CNN. (As I was writing this, CNN suddenly returned for the first time since the cable was connected. Why am I always so impatient? A day later the channels were out again.)

In class last Thursday I had my students interview each other about the objects in their rooms. All the monk students live at different Buddhist temples around Bangkok, some fairly far out. The theme of the class was "Place," and the object of the lesson was to use "there is/are" and "some/any" in their descriptions of a room. After much chattering, each described their partner's room to the class. All but a couple of the 50 students had computers (some had two), television sets and DVD players. A few admitted to posters of sports stars on their walls. And of course they had numerous Buddha icons and religious books. Many are from poor families and I wonder where they get the money for computers and TV. The temples possess vast wealth, but in some cases the students, particularly if they were from outside Thailand, had to beg their way in. The only way they can earn money is take take part in chanting for a ceremony, and the temple's long-term monks usually snap up these jobs. As the term continues, I am learning more and more about my students and their lives, like the Cambodian who wrote how he grew up with the sound of gunfire and saw his friends lose limbs in landmine explosions. They are very serious about learning English but most of my lessons are absorbed in a spirit of sanuk, fun.

The other night as I walked down the lane from the school toward my bus home, I marveled at my good fortune. Rather than sitting at home in the US in a rocking chair reflecting on past mistakes, here I am in a strange and fascinating foreign land, embarking on a new experiment in love and domesticity, with a job that is challenging and rewarding. Could there be anyone more fortunate!?!