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!


Janis said...

Happy Birthday, Willie! The photograph you included at the end is perfect. Yesterday, Father Mike said the 5pm Mass and he talked about "loving the dandelions." We've all got them in our gardens of spirit. Some of us dismiss them as weeds and some of us learn to see what they add to the whole. I think you were talking about the same thing today.

Anonymous said...

Happy Birthday Will! Happy Birthday!

Roxanne said...

A Very Happy Birthday to you.