Thursday, July 19, 2012

When I Grow Up (yeah, right)

Until I was in my 40s, I didn't feel like a grown up. It didn't last long. Now that I'm in my second childhood (don't call it senility), I'm much happier.

Today I turn 73, and I still want what everyone else wants when they grow up: love and sex without complications and wisdom and enlightenment without renunciation. One out of two isn't so bad.

I've taken hundreds of pictures out my window where I watch the sun rise daily.  My apartment is on the 9th floor of a condo with a spectacular view of Bangkok.  Now it's the monsoon season and I can watch the storms as they move across the city, dense black clouds split by lightning and thunder that rattles the windows.  Down below, the deluge barely disturbs the shirtless workers at the glass factory playing soccer.  This is my life.

A friend writes on Facebook: "Picking and choosing is the mind's disease," and I get it.  Writing a blog is an exercise in pathology. Posting and linking on the internet is evidence of the last stages of a terminal illness.  "We will all go together when we go," sings Tom Lehr.  But expounding and bloviating is a habit difficult to pacify.

Another bad habit of mine has been the urge to change, but I think I'm about over it.  Much of my life I've wanted to be different, someone better, more appealing.  I've tried most of the legal self-help techniques, like dieting and exercise, making bread, meditation and yoga, reading science fiction, recreational sex, jogging, raising a pet, reading books, and travel to foreign lands.  These days, besides the exercise of walking down the street, the only vestige of the urge to change is an almost daily swim in my building's pool.  After 10 laps, I dry off while reading. But little Billy remains, albeit a bit older.

A while back, I resolved to give up making plans (except for our upcoming excursion to Korea in December).  I try to say yes to the past, present and future.  Often this gets me in trouble.  Asked to speak to a group of graduate students in a "Communicative English" (is there any other?) program, I accepted, and then struggled mightily for a week to craft an humorous and inspiring speech.  Now they want me to teach a class next semester and I agreed.  In a few months time I will agonize over the syllabus and lesson plans, as I do now for the graduate linguistics class I am currently teaching.  Am I qualified for this? Retirement does not seem to be an option for the ever optimistic.

On the mornings when I commute to the campus in Wangnoi near Ayutthaya, I am the only farang on the bus which carries mostly kids in their two-tone uniforms to school.  Traffic is backed up at 7 AM and the sidewalks are packed with pedestrians.   It's a joy to be up that early and surrounded by the smells and hubbub of the city: street peddlers selling limes, newspapers roasted fish, rice in bamboo, lottery tickets, crispy chicken feet, sandwiches, not to mention the many beggars missing limbs and suckling babies.  Each big intersection has a troop of traffic cops wearing face masks and holding walkie talkies.  I stroll by them in my shirt and tie carrying a heavy pack past the KFC to the big pink university bus in the Makro parking lot that will carry me to school.  On the bus I listen to podcasts of Democracy Now and The Partially Examined Life, and when we arrive I eat breakfast in the dining hall with the other teachers and lay students (the monks dine upstairs).  I teach only one day a week at the big suburban campus but it's always an adventure.

When I was growing up, I wanted to be a white hat in the black-and-white cowboy movies starring Roy Rogers and Hopalong Cassidy.  In these western morality plays the good guys always won.  But I was also attracted to righteous outlaws like Jesse James and the Lone Ranger.  As the optimistic 50s turned into the rebellious 60s, my role models darkened.  The war heroes and sheriffs were replaced by loners and inarticulate losers who battled the System: Marlon in "The Wild One" and James Dean in "Rebel Without a Cause."  Most of all, I wanted to be Sal Paradise, the alter ego of Jack Kerouac, traveling on that road, listening to jazz, and having lots of free sex (actually I think it was his talkative pal Dean Moriarty that got the women).  I wanted to be an outlaw because, as Lee Clayton sang, "Ladies love outlaws like babies love stray dogs."  It was obvious that outlaws -- the beatniks and the hippies, the yippies and today's occupiers -- got all the interesting women.  And something to write about.

Today it's hard to tell the white hats from the black hats, the good ones from the bad.  After five years of living as an expat half the globe away from the U.S., I still manage to get incensed about the political and cultural nonsense "back home."  The right wing lunacy, Obama's sellout to the bankers, the obsession with celebrity gossip and fake "reality," not to mention the tug of war between "terrorists" and the Empire which only produces more of the former, all continue to make my blood boil.  I spend uncounted hours surfing the web news sites and posting links to those stories that strike my fancy and comments to show my revolutionary outlaw credentials.  I'm beginning to see that this is yet another bad habit, like picking one's nose.  More evidence of the mind's disease.

And yet...(did you know that yet is the Thai word for fucking?)...all this blathering just shows that I'm still trying to change, trying to grow up.  This realization, when it comes, is humbling.  At the last meeting of the BuddhistPsychos we talked about the unequal relationship between master and disciple, and I confessed that I've never been able to accept the authority of anyone pretending to be a guru (for I feel that we're all in this mess together and spiritual evolution is largely an illusion).  The nasty truth, however, is that I've always wanted to be a guru with wisdom to share (and perhaps to sell in books), but I've never even come close.  Perhaps now that I'm a teacher of English, and can strut with a microphone in front of a class of Asians eager to learn what I know and speak like I speak, this is something akin to it.

One of the benefits of aging is that it effectively dissolves ambition.  I'll never play sax in Stan Kenton's  orchestra, write for the New York Times, date a movie star, or publish a book hailed either as "the great American novel" or recipient of the Pulitzer prize.  So it no longer makes sense to wish for these things, or to despair over missing the brass ring.  Becoming a teacher this late in life, one whose students seem to benefit, is a terrific consolation prize in the race of life.  And finding a wonderful woman to love who returns my affection is a blessing I never deserved.  Whatever the future may bring, I am content right now.


Stephen Cysewski said...

I grew up in Seattle. I remember wearing a cowboy hat,chaps, and stirrups and telling people that I wanted to go out west when I grow up. For some reason my parents thought that was funny.

Ian H said...

Talking of spectacular sunsets, do you know anyone who took pictures of the truly awesome sky to the West early evening Thursday 12 July? There were scudding clouds in the foreground, another layer in middle distance and a vast grey blanket as background. Never seen anything to match it.

As to "whatever else comes, for now I am content" I feel I have reached a pinnacle here in Thailand and I am fully reconciled to the fact that any change in circumstance will be an anti- climax which I am hopefully prepared to live out during the rest of my days.