Thursday, July 21, 2011

"Saint Peter don't you call me..."

You load sixteen tons, what do you get
Another day older and deeper in debt
Saint Peter don't you call me 'cause I can't go
I owe my soul to the company store
"16 Tons," Tennessee Ernie Ford

The lead up to my 72nd birthday this week was not pretty. A credit firm reported that my total indebtedness, if you count the student loan I co-signed for my daughter some years ago, was close to $40,000. For a mostly retired English teacher with no fixed assets, that's a bundle. One false step, like the payments my daughter missed recently, and your credit is wiped out. Next, an acquaintance of a half dozen years took exception to my political views on Facebook and dissolved our friendship in an email using the most vile terms possible. In addition, the flotilla to support Gaza was blocked, the Borders chain is going belly up leaving 11,000 booksellers out of a job, and Obama appears willing to sacrifice my Social Security in order to get a deal with the crazy Republicans who are hell bound to destroy government as we know it.

The news is not all bad. It's the rainy season in Thailand and Bangkok gets a daily deluge that cools and cleans the air and flushes the urban grime away. I love it. My weekly job teaching English to monks is a delight. Yesterday they sang me a raggedy version of "Happy Birthday" and I showed them the video of Michael Jackson's "Black or White" which contains a shot of some Thai traditional dancers as MJ travels the world promoting racial equality. A crew from the school's Language Institute dropped by the classroom to film the ajahn in action for a promotional video and I was in top form. My son Nicky the drummer continues on a world tour with his partner in music, Hanni El Khateb, and they are currently in Alaska after their second trip to Europe this year. Thailand's first woman prime minister is about to take office, and the International Court of Justice has ordered Thailand and Cambodia to pull back their sabber-rattling armies from around the ancient temple they both claim on the border. My proposal to write a paper on "Big Tent Buddhism" for a conference at my university in December was accepted and I'm finding that research on the differences between Thai and Western Buddhism is a joyful pursuit.

Last weekend was a four-day holiday celebrating Asalha Bucha, which commemorates the Buddha's first sermon, and Khao Phansa, the beginning of the annual three-month "Rains Retreat" which has been described as the Buddhist Lent. Nan and I took our plastic candle holders and joined a few friends at Wat Pathum Wanaram, the large temple between two luxury malls, Siam Paragon and Central World, where with thousands of devotees we walked three times around the complex holding our candles, incense and flowers.

Sasana Buddha, the teachings of the Buddha, pervade everyday life in Thailand. As I've written before, in practice Thai people combine Buddhism (or at least what westerners think it is) with Brahmanism from India and indigenous animism. I still have a string around my wrist tied by a monk at the Big Buddha temple in Pattaya several weeks ago after he'd chanted and sprinkled water on me. So far as I know, the Buddha didn't mention sacred string or baptism. Here you can see the culmination of a ceremony last week in the new restaurant in our building with the monk writing sacred symbols on the wall for good luck below a picture of King Chulalongkorn, Rama V, who is venerated by Thais as a saint (the current monarch is often described by outsiders as "quasi-divine"). These practices, so strange to my Christian Protestant upbringing, fascinate me. Many commentators write them off as superstitions, but I'd prefer to give them the respect that popular piety deserves.

Unlike my friend Dr. Sman, who celebrated his 6th cycle (of 12 years) birthday by renting a room in a restaurant for several hundred guests, I preferred a quieter affair. Nan and I reserved a table by the window at Stella Palace on the 79th floor of Baiyoke Tower, Bangkok's tallest building, and dined on Chinese cuisine at the Caravan Buffet. The rain held off to permit us some awesome views of the city at night far below. My wife gave me a lovely new tie which I sported the next day for the video cameras at school, and at home later she spelled out "72" in candles on the cake we'd picked out earlier in the day at S&P (she had "Happy Birthday Dr. Will" written on the top). It was a lovely day, and the cloud that had preceded it lifted.

Nan's brother Nok came to visit over the holiday from Chiang Rai where he's going to school. I was surprised that he didn't bring his guitar which has always been with him before, until I learned he was on a mission to buy a ukelele. That seemed odd to me, even though I'd witnessed a ukelele competition on the outdoor stage at Siam Paragon six months ago. What would Thais want with Hawaii's iconic instrument? There were none on sale at the two guitar stores in Central Pinklao near where we live. But a friend told Nan she saw some at the new Digital Gateway in Siam, and in the first store we came to Nok found a white one he liked for 23oo baht (about $75, and we paid half). As we walked around the mall afterward, we saw ukes of all sizes and prices on sale at three more stores. Apparently there is a craze for ukeleles in Bangkok at the moment. Who knew?

A couple of weeks ago Nan was called to Lopburi for the funeral of the father of a friend from the office where she used to work. I had dinner that night with Carlos, a journalist from Spain here to cover the election, and arrived home near midnight, about the same time as Nan returned. She and her friend Koi had decided on the way back that they wanted to hear some music, and with a little arm-twisting convinced me to take them to the nightclub near our house where we heard Sek Loso perform a year ago. Inside the club the noise was deafening. There had to be at least 1000 people there, drinking whisky and beer and standing in the aisles dancing. There was no cover charge and I remember the musicians as the house band that went on before Sek Loso. They played a medley of Thai hits and the audience sang along. At some point a comedian told jokes which I could not understand. A fight was broken up near the bathroom. We ordered a tower of beer and Nan and Koi ate a variety of Thai dishes and I nibbled popcorn. We were unusually inactive the next day.

On the eve of Nok's visit, I made my periodic pilgrimage to the Immigration office in the cavernous government building at Chiang Wattana. Expats must report their presence every 90 days and while some complain I've never minded. It's a long journey but there's a cheap van that leaves from my neighborhood, and I take a combination of taxi, Skytrain and bus to come back home. On the day I was there, I came upon this strange scene, a field of people on tables being examined by nurses. I suppose it was a free checkup for government employes. It gives you a concrete perspective on the size of that place.

On the way home I stopped to visit the new Buddhadhasa Indapanno Archives at the north end of Chatuchak Park. It was supposed to be a short walk but I got lost and had to exchange SMS messages with Pandit Bhikku who told me how to ask directions. Two people led by astray and I only stumbled upon the place by accident. But it was worth the digression. Buddhadhasa Bhikku was a reformist monk whose monastery is in Suan Mokh in the south. He wrote extensively and his output is being transferred to the newly constructed archive (which looked very empty when I peeked in the door). He decried superstitious practices and believed that all faiths were one, and he is very popular with educated Buddhists if not the masses. The Archives includes several places to meditate like this one overlooking a lake with pillows that resemble soft stones, both an inside and an outside garden, and there is a large bookstore with a few English translations of his books (the self-service pay system is curious but effective).

A huge weekend market takes place at the south end of Chatuchak Park next to the Mo Chit BTS station. Between the market and the Archives is a wide swath of nature, far bigger than Lumpini Park in the center of the city. The bike paths were filled with cyclists, most of them school kids, and I passed a large enclosed arboretum for butterflies. Since it was a workday, there were not many enjoying the grassy areas beside the large lake, other than a few couples and some artists. It was a rare oasis of silence in the middle of one of the world's noisiest cities.

I can't say I love the idea of aging another year. Only yesterday it seems I celebrated my 70th with Nan, sipping champagne over lunch at a Siam bistro, our future ahead of us. For my 60th birthday, while my former wife went to a nearby dance camp, I traveled up to Glacier Point in Yosemite and had my photo taken with Half Dome in the background. It was used in a book I wrote on the redwoods, The Sempervirens Story, that was published the following year. On my 50th birthday, I had a big party in the backyard of our house in Brookdale with all my Santa Cruz friends. Aging is relentless. How will I celebrate my 75th, or, perish the thought, my 80th? While I don't think there is an actual Saint Peter waiting to call me to the only-poetic pearly gates, I do believe I'm ready to go when the time comes, despite the fact that my life now with Nan is paradise. I'm strangely comforted by the fact that when I'm gone my debt will disappear.


Sam said...

For what it's worth, my 40th birthday was my most miserable and they've been getting better ever since.

If you were where the butterflies are you were in Rot Fai Park - bicycle hire is at the other end.

Paradee is a fan of Buddhadhasa Bhikku so you must tell me how to get to the archives you mention.

Sam said...

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry is a fascinating guy. I recommend another small book Wind, Sand and Stars, his account of his actual plane crash.

From it I recall Perfection is not when nothing more can be added, it's when nothing more can be taken away.

Ed Ward said...

Yeah, I don't get the ukulele craze, either, but all the hipsters are onto it. Given the extremely small number of quality instruments and the multi-year waiting list for them, most of the ones out there these days must be crap. Ukes, pugs, and pork-pie hats. Sheesh.