Friday, July 08, 2011

Waking, and Staying Awake

My habit has been to wake each day just as the sky begins to turn. Our bed is level with the window and I have only to open my eyes to see the skyline of Bangkok and occasionally, high above, the morning star. This is the monsoon season in Southeast Asia and the sky is a spectacular canvas for all manner of clouds. Our apartment looks southeast and the sunrises are awe inspiring. I keep my camera by the bed and snap photos of the sky at all times of the day and night. In the last 14 months, I've logged over 200, some even worth posting on Facebook to the invariable oohs and aahs of friends.

Dawn is when I get up and stay up but it's not the first time I've gotten out of bed. There is nothing like an old man's prostate to interrupt sleep. Bangkok never rests and with the window open I can always hear traffic nine floors below over the sound of the fan (which never sleeps). All my life I've been able to fall asleep easily, but after a trip to the toilet in the middle of the night, returning to sleep sometimes remains an illusive goal This is the time for an unwanted check-in with my conscience. Why did I say that? How did that happen? It wasn't my fault! Guilt and regret come swiftly in the darkest hours of the night.

If I believed in karma, I would have to conclude that I must have mismanaged finances terribly in a previous lifetime and am paying for these misdeeds now. Last year a major snafu interrupted my retirement income, and I was forced to rely on part-time teaching, a dwindling savings account, and credit cards to survive before returning to the U.S. where the problem was corrected. Last weekend in Pattaya the hotel politely informed me that my Citibank card had been declined: do you have another? Fortunately, I did. Back home, I soon learned that the rather large line of credit on the card had been completely erased because of a "delinquent" payment on a credit report. Online, I paid Experian $1 for a "free" copy of that report (and had to sign up for a membership that would be billed in 9 days) and learned that I owned a total of $23,425 with payments 60 days past due.

( Pause for stress reduction exercise to avoid heart attack.)

Before moving to Thailand in 2007, I co-signed my daughter's student loan application. We've had a rocky relationship over the years and I wanted her to know I loved and supported her (and what better way to show it than financially?). She didn't provide much information and I didn't ask any questions. Turns out the loan was for $20,000 to attend an alternative healing school. But she didn't complete the course and instead used the loan money for living expenses. My daughter is a dancer and singer and has never had a "normal" job other than waitressing. Believing that loving fathers should respect and affirm their children's decisions, I didn't say anything -- aside from "I assume you're taking care of this" -- and neither did she.

A warning letter from the bank was forwarded to me a month ago and I emailed her a strong request that she take care of the late payments. What I didn't know, apparently, is that the loan had already been labeled "delinquent" and reported to the credit agency which, in turn, informed Citibank who took quick action in squashing my account. I had a long talk with a nice customer service lady in the Citibank "Credit Early Warning" department and learned that it takes a year to clear a delinquency label, even if the loan is being paid, before a credit limit can be restored. I saw on the Experian report that my other credit card companies had automatically received the bad news and fear now that all are in jeopardy.

Credit cards are my life raft in case of disaster. They served me well last year. I pay the minimum monthly balance religiously and have never been late. Although I have Blue Cross/Anthem health insurance which I can use in Thailand (Medicare is denied me overseas), the mostly likely emergency at my age would require medical assistance and I would need a credit card to pay the bill until reimbursed. So the possible loss of credit is daunting, and last week interrupted my sleep patterns. For once I couldn't fall asleep and tossed and turned much of the night (teaching class the next day was a challenge). To her credit, my daughter is trying to correct the mistake and is on the telephone with the loan company and Experian in an attempt to erase the "delinquent" label so that I can beg Citibank to overlook this one lapse. But I fear it will be difficult, and I also worry about the loan monkey on my daughter's back. She's trying to start a clothing business, and the bloomers she designed and had made in Bali are apparently selling like hotcakes. Bad credit and crushing loan payments will make life difficult for her. And there is nothing I can do to help.

Until my credit dries up, I continue to live as if there is no tomorrow. "Be here now" was always good advice. Last Wednesday I discussed the election in Thailand with my students and discovered that all of the Thai monks, if they were allowed to vote (and monks are not), would have cast their ballots for the winners, Pheu Thai and Yingluck Shinawatra. I suspected as much since they all come from poor families outside Bangkok, the ground of support for the Shinawatra family. We talked about the American custom of barbecue, burgers, beer and fireworks on July 4th two days before, and then I played them Tracy Chapman's scathing indictment of the culture of conquest in her song "America." Last week I received an email from a former student who studied with me in my first English class in 2008. After graduation he disrobed and is now an English teacher and translator for the Red Cross in Cambodia. Staying in touch with my students gives me hope.

In August and September I will teach the second half of a course in mass media for graduate students in the linguistics program at MCU, sharing the small class with Dr. Veerakarn. My job is to get them to talk in English for which they already have some proficiency. I've been researching syllabi in mass media and media studies courses to test the waters and to see what academics are now saying about the media. I've grown up with major changes in technology. Back in 1964 when Marshall McLuhan wrote "the medium is the message" in his pathfinding Understanding Media, mass communications were much simpler: newspapers/magazines and the radio were dominant, no mobile phones, no internet, TV still in its infancy (and black & white). Today the global audience is digitally plugged in; even the poor have mobiles and TV dish antennas. When I was a reporter in the 1960's, our paper set in hot type and printed on a huge rotary press in the basement. We wrote stories on manual typewriters. It was the dark ages of communication. A couple of the Thai students in our class appear to be close to my age so they'll understand. But I have much research to do before the class begins.

Be here now. Breathe deeply. Remember that you're retired.

With much fear and trepidation, last week I proposed a paper for a conference on "Buddhist Philosophy and Praxis" at my university in December. It's for a section on "Unifying Buddhist Philosophical Views," and I titled it: "Big Tent" Buddhism: Searching for Common Ground Among Western and Asian "buddhisms." Last year I gathered a pile of material on American Buddhism because what I thought was Buddhism in California seems so different now from the devotional Buddhism followed by most Thais and I wanted to compare and contrast. But in a fit of housekeeping before my trip to the U.S., I threw it all out (along with several thousand old photos I mistakenly deleted from my computer). Just as "Christianity" feels like a false reification of the diversity of "christianities," according to some theologians, I proposed that finding unity in "Buddhism" is illusive, and that some cultural versions differ so greatly from others than they cannot fit into the same tent.

What I quickly learned after a few days online research is that the term "western Buddhism" is in error. What many are calling "Protestant Buddhism," "Modern Buddhism," "Buddhist modernism," "consensus Buddhism," "secular (even atheist) Buddhism," "pragmatic (formerly "hardcore") Buddhism, etc., is NOT solely a western creation. It was co-created for two centuries with Asians who wanted to used Buddhism as a weapon to resist colonization and Christian missionaries. In Thailand and other nearby countries, Buddhism is a key element in nationalism, and is used to affirm the state as well as individual identity. Buddhism as practiced primarily in the west, with its focus on meditation and an absence of ritual, has a very distinct history going back to Sri Lanka at the end of the 19th century, and it continues to be affirmed today by such prominent Asians as the Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hahn, and the late Buddhadasa Bhikku in Thailand (here among the deceased I would also include the influential D.T. Suzuki).

Despite my inability to accept such Buddhist true verities as karma and rebirth, and my attraction to Stephen Batchelor's "Buddhism without beliefs," I find it impossible to ignore the very different Buddhism practiced by my wife and her family as well as millions of other Thais. This devotional Buddhism is a religion more than a philosophy or psychology and it combines elements of local animism and Brahamanism from India along with Jitaka fairy tale stories, Abhidhamma metaphysics and teachings from the Pali canon of scripture. These Buddhists regularly, even daily, visit the thousands of temples in every area of the country, offer food, gifts, flowers, candles and incense to monks and icons to gain merit, receive a blessing, sprinkled water, and a strip white string tied around the wrist. They wear sacred amulets, get holy tattoos and bow in respect to every spirit house, altar and ribbon-wrapped Bo tree. Few of them meditate. But by rejecting ritual and culture "superstitions," do modern Buddhists throw out the baby with the bathwater?

So my task, my desire, is to reconcile, in a "big tent," the everyday full-bodied devotional Buddhism of Thailand with the mental attitudes and practices of Buddhists in the west. No small feat. And I'm not even certain that my paper proposal will be accepted. I should learn later this month and the finished paper is due in October.

Add to the above "to do" list a study of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's book, The Little Prince, which is the topic of discussion at the next BuddhistPsyhos meeting a week from tomorrow. This is one of those "little" books I've had around for ever, always meaning to read but never following through. I finally finished a digital version of it last week. It's been called a Christian allegory so I'm not sure how it speaks to Buddhists. What I learned from online research this week is there are literally hundreds of sites ready to help students write papers about it. They make plagiarism so much more possible. I'm not unhappy to be no longer teaching writing to bored California undergrads.

All this is what I contemplate when I wake up at 3:30 am to pee. When the sun finally joins me I'm very happy.


Janet Brown said...

How did I miss this essay? Viva your insomnia, William. Long may it plague you, so long as it is the impetus for this sort of writing.

Sam said...

At the end of the day ask yourself: "Did I do anything wrong, or was it just foolish?" If it wasn't wrong but only foolish you are entitled to a good night's sleep.