Saturday, August 23, 2008

The Narrow Gate

Two steps forward, one step back. I picked up my work permit from the Ministry of Labor last Monday. After over a month of gathering the correct documents, my application was finally approved. But only until Sept. 11th when my visa expires. There was a bit of last minute bother about the job description, but apparently it was amended to everyone's satisfaction. I have been hired as a "special" teacher, whatever that means, which I'm told makes it easier to slip in as an exception (I'm past retirement age and I'm only working part time) to the general rules. I immediately took a taxi to the Immigration office where I expected to easily extend my "non-immigration B" visa for a year. Dr. Subodh from India had told me he got it quickly. After a long wait in the crowded office, I was told the letter of employment I presented was addressed to the Labor office and not Immigration. So the next morning I persuaded Dr. Chatchai, my contact at Mahachula University's administrative office, to write a new letter. With the this in hand, I returned to Immigration to endure a three-hour wait (the office closes for the noon lunch hour). When I finally took my turn at the window, I was told that the letter must be signed not by Dr. Chatchai but by the president of the university. Argh. So on Thursday I begged the chairman of the English language department at Wat Srisudaram for help. He doesn't speak very good English so I wasn't certain he understood my request. After all, the employer is supposed to secure the work permit, not the employee. But Dr. Suriya went into high gear and quickly put the necessary document together. Phra Tintawong, the secretary, took it over to the head office at Wat Mahathat to be signed. I should get it on Monday and will gird my loins for another encounter at Immigration next week. Once the visa is extended, I must return to the Labor office to extend my work permit in concert with the visa. Neither office is easily accessible, so I must take taxis. My taxi bill this past week was enormous. Nothing is easy in the bureaucratic boogie here in Bangkok.

I also got paid after kicking up a bit of a fuss. I've been teaching for three months and a couple of weeks ago was told a check was forthcoming. But it didn't. Finally I learned that as a part timer I get paid in cash, and someone had to go over to Mahathat to fetch my money. I was handed an envelope with 9,600 baht in it, my fee for teaching four 6-hour days in June at 400 baht ($12) an hour. I'd expected 500 ($15) from the contract they had give me which specified 12,000 baht a month. But I learned that the contract was for show, since it was necessary to earn that much as a minimum to get a work permit. And 400 baht is the "farang rate"; Thais earn less. So I went home relatively happy with my earnings. I'm not teaching for the money, anyway, and what I get is icing on the cake. I'm not sure why they didn't pay me as well for July, since August is already half over, but it's a start.

The expensive Elle watch I bought at Pata Department Store for Pim's birthday stopped working a week later. I took it back and the salesgirl had a new battery installed. But it still didn't work and she told me it must be sent to be repaired,"one month." I was disturbed by this news. In the West you get an exchange or a refund for a new purchase that fails to please. I was fairly certain that I could get Visa to cancel the payment. I called Pim and asked her to translate. As we were talking, the clerk knocked the watch a few times and it started running again. So I took it home. A day later it was dead once again. Pim decided to let it be repaired, and told me "jai yen yen yen" (cool your jets).

Yesterday at Central Pinklao, all selling stopped while Thai flyweight boxer Somjit Jongjohor battled Vicenzo Picardi of Italy to a 7-1 decision in his favor. Crowds gathered around every TV set in the supermall. This evening Somjit takes on Cuba's Andris Laffita Hernandez for the gold medal. Another boxer, lightwelterweight Manus Boonjumnong is also going for a gold this evening against Felix Diaz of the Dominican Republic. Thailand has only won two medals so far, a gold for weightlifting and a silver for taekwando, both to women. So it's safe to say that the entire country will be glued to their TV screens tonight. I've enjoyed the Olympics but what I've seen is all by accident. There is no TV schedule for the events in English. Synchronized swimming was hoot, and badminton was unexpectedly exciting. I missed the women's gymnastics floor final, but did get to see the Jamaican coast to a new record in the 100 meter dash. I'll watch the closing ceremony if I can since I so enjoyed the spectacular opening. And maybe in four years I can find my way to London.

Since writing about Jerry Wexler last week, my son Chris has been encouraging me to assemble my memoirs, even though I tell him that most of my stories about working in the music business are boring (or subject to censorship). Still, I began making lists of all the recording artists I'd worked with, met or simply heard in concert or, like in Austin, at Jerry Jeff Walker's house. I've been checking my memories with a few old friends from the business with whom I am still in touch. Maybe I can put together something for my children and have it privately printed. The older ones didn't see much of me and need to know why. The younger two think I never worked since I spent so much time at home when they were small, and they need to know that I once had a career.

My good friend Gerry, who introduced me to the pessimistic blatherings of Schopenhauer back at Pasadena City College fifty years ago, reminds me that "the thing about one's seventies (speaking for myself), is that the rate of overall deterioration picks up. Happy trails." Thank you for that, I think.

Pim is in the process of writing a new script for our relationship. She has been unable to tell her school friends in Kalasin about me for fear of losing face. The age range is just too great (and perhaps my retirement income is too small). One of them, Nui, recently moved to Belgium with her new husband, and now they talk and email incessantly. But Nui thinks Pim still lives alone in a dormitory and does not have a boyfriend. I'm not sure why she found it easier to tell some of her co-workers, as well as her mom and sisters. But the secrecy and her constantly lying is worrying. If she lies to her friends, will she tell me the truth? The other night she admitted to one of her friends that she'd met an "old farang" online and that he wanted to pay her to take care of him. While not getting much approval, that was a relationship which Thais could understand, tit for tat, an economic negotiation. I've decided that I can accept that story. I do need care (and will need more as my body deteriorates), and I can reward her for it. They don't need to know, yet, that we are sleeping together. Pim wants to tell the truth in small increments. Now I need to decide if the relationship is a fair exchange. After a nice start, Pim has stopped cooking for me, though she did iron my tee shirts the other day.

More troublesome is her social schedule which seems to be expanding. I plan my time around her time off only to discover that she has made other plans. Do we need to be together all the time? I feel like a high school lover, jealous that his girl wants to hang out with friends instead of him. Certainly they offer her something I can't provide, fun with contemporaries. So I find myself reacting by become aggressively independent. Pim, on the other hand, doesn't seem to mind when we spend time apart. When she hesitated this morning about telling me whether she was coming home after work, I took the initiative and told her I'd go to hear music with Jerry this evening. Then she told me that she'd run out of money for the month, despite my sizable donation. What did you spend it on? I asked. Her English ability vanished. So this weekend has begun with a fizzle.

Thursday I left school a half hour early and took at taxi to Wat Yannowa for the first of Pandit Bhikku's series of talks on "Live Dhamma: The Peaceful Teaching." He'd written an article that appeared on the front page of the education section of the Bangkok Post two days before and the room on the upper floor of the main temple building was filled to overflowing with English-speaking tourists and members of the expat community. Several monks from the temple joined him on the platform in front of the Buddha icons while several fans stirred the turbid air. Pandit cited one of the suttas, "The Elephant's Footprint," to introduce the Theravadan path toward's enlightenment. His clear and often humorous and self-depricating commentary presented Buddhism to a lay audience of people not likely to put on robes in the hopes that it would make the path easier. Many of the faces were new, but the faithful members of Little Bang Sangha were their to support their leader's continuing attempts to translate the Dhamma for Bangkok's English speakers.

Last night, Little Bangers Lee, Arthur, Jan and I met David Holmes for dinner in the upper room of a restaurant next to the Ari BTS station. Lee is an American who has lived in Asia for many years. He has a weekly show on radio where he plays mostly jazz but also George Carlin and Burt Bacharach. Jan from Switzerland and Arthur from England are both older retirees with Thai families. Lee's son with his ex-Thai wife is an art student at university. David is a Canadian who has taught in Germany and translated Pali scriptures into English in Sri Lanka. Now he lives in retirement on the River Kwai. I've never met anyone who lives the Dhamma more naturally, a storyteller who can discuss precepts or jazz, depending on the context. Our conversation with David ranged over a variety of topics, from the body, mind, consciousness and the illusory self to science, music, macaroni and skate keys. Next month David will give a talk to The Siam Society on Buddhism and the caste system. Not long ago we had a weekend retreat at the resort where he lives, and hopefully some of us will go up to visit him again soon.

It's back to basics for me after kicking loose the traces of my Christian faith. The core doctrine of Buddhism is there is no self. David can talk about that with a sly grin on his face, as if to say "now you see it, now you don't." We're socialized from infancy to believe in our self, the name we're given, the experiences we accumulate. How can the self not be real, something that might even persist after death (what else can be reincarnated for Christ's sake?). But the Buddha says no, the self is not real. The problem is we cling to the attributes of self, my identity, my money, my friends, and suffer greatly when nothing lasts (all is impermanent, is another essential component of Buddhist faith). Pandit cannot understand why I am attempting a new romantic relationship at this late date in my life when I should be preparing to die. It mystifies me as well. Can it just be the body heat we generate when we embrace? Buddhism can be every bit as abstract and otherworldly as Christianity, and I want to "save the appearances" (as Owen Barfield argued) by keeping body and mind together. I argued last night for the value of popular piety, the inbred spirituality that I've observed among people in India and Thailand. There is a sense in which rituals and icons sum up our encounter with the divine. There is nothing left over. But of course they also become the tattered tools of superstition. Buddhadasa Bhikku,one of my new heroes, wanted to purge Thai Buddhism of its dependence of spirit houses, protective string, magic and hungry ghosts. The icon in most spirit houses is Brahma, not Buddha. But you cannot have a this-worldly religion without honoring the beliefs of the people. There are too many priests.

Perhaps my resistance to Buddhist teaching, as well as Christian theology, has to do with my inability at present to put together a practice, either of meditation or devotion. My God has become the scenes on the street, from the raggedy soi dogs to the beggars, school kids and food carts. I want to find an embodied spirituality that I can embrace which gives me the warmth and security I have found in the arms of Pim.

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