Saturday, July 19, 2014

75 Years Down the Road

My happy parents, Homer and Peggy, perhaps on the night I was conceived.
I heard the koel bird this morning down in the clump of trees below my building. It's been absent for a couple of months and I missed it in the mornings.  I don't know the migration pattern of this common Asia bird but it was always around during my first visits to Thailand and the sound of its call makes me feel at home.  That and the heat, and now the cloudy skies and monsoon rains.

Time passes so quickly.  I first encountered the koel in India during my initial voyage to this part of the planet ten years ago.  Another pilgrim at the ashram where I was staying called it the "orgasm bird" because of its cry which rises and intensifies a couple of times.  When I heard it again from the window of the P.S. Guest House on Sukhumvit Soi 8, it was a fitting symbol for my initiation into Bangkok where an obliging friend introduced me to the notorious Nana bar scene.

Newly born
My life has been a series of comings and goings.  Quick movements, like slight of hand; now you see me, now you don't.  Yet each move seemed destined to last a lifetime.  Only one move lasted for very long, though, and that was to the left coast city by the bay under the redwoods, long enough to raise two kids and a passel of friends.  The pattern for other transitions was set by my father, a traveling salesman, who took his family from the north to the south and to the west.  The uprootings and resettlings were never easy when I was a child, and yet I've replicated them in my own way.

It's my 75th birthday today and I barely know how I got here.  My father once said to me, "The older I get, the less I know."  At the time I was a young man with a discontented wife and two small boys and I thought it an odd thing for him to say.  Now, with my dad gone over 30 years, I know its truth.  It's not a matter of forgetting, or early onset of dementia.  The young require certainties to survive the slings and arrows of chance. Without them they would never have left the cave.

The Naval reservist and gramps
Ageing is alien territory.  While the elderly may often send out messages to their inheritors, these observations and warnings are rarely heard or understood by the young.  My mother's father lived with us when I was a teenager and I found him to be extremely annoying (he thought the same of me).  My father, however, played cribbage nightly with his father-in-law, tolerated his pipe smoking and his Canadian witticisms, while I hated him for forcing me to share a bedroom with my younger brother.  My grandfather grew increasingly crotchety and was shuffled off to an old folks home when he started shitting on the floor.  I rejoiced in my new bedroom (after the floor was cleaned) and forgot about him.

Now I'm older than my grandfather when he died and regret that I refused him the time of day. Here in Thailand the aged are treated with the utmost respect.  I've even been given a seat on the bus and Skytrain by younger riders who perhaps think grey hair a sign of wisdom.  The respect is often not merited as I well know.  Older expats, quite popular with the younger Thai ladies looking for a lift out of poverty, sometimes make me ashamed of my tribe.  They can be loud and obnoxious in public and unfairly critical of Thais on internet web sites.

With younger brother
Tourists who come to Thailand despite the ongoing political troubles can be roughly divided into two groups: the young looking for a beach or a beer on Khao San Road, and the old looking for bargains at the markets and interesting sites to check off on their bucket list.  I belong to neither tribe.  My people were seduced by something in Thailand -- the weather, the food, the women, or? -- and found a way to stay, sometimes for an annual extended visit and sometimes, like me, forever. I have met a considerable number of these intrepid adventurers, most of them men, and we share a curiosity and even passion about our adopted home, it's history, cultural and turbulent politics.

Many of them, like me, are happily married to Thais.  I swore off marriage after my second unhappy divorce.  Dating here was a different story.  One of the reasons I refused an operation for prostate cancer was the risk of neutering at a time when companionship had become very important.  But serial romance in the bars was unappealing to me.  Many expats become addicted to easy sex and fuel the bar scene for which Thailand has become infamous. Fortunately after two years I met the woman who has become my wife.  In two months we'll celebrate our 4th wedding anniversary.  Despite vast differences in age, language and culture, our relationship has grown into a deep and abiding love beyond what I ever would have dreamed.

Sometimes I try to imagine what it would be like if I'd remained in the California beach town where my life had been fairly content for nearly thirty years.  After my divorce I lived in a converted garage and walked or biked to the bookstores and coffee houses downtown.  I had plenty of friends, most of them my age or older, and occasionally I'd hear from one of my grown children.  I've never lacked for interests to engage my intellectual passions, and I've no doubt I would have been fairly satisfied as senility slowly set in.  One friend now is in an assisted living facility, and not a few have already died.

Me, Mom and her brother
Coming to Asia was a challenge.  It followed after several years of wandering to Europe, Central and South America. French and Spanish were a breeze compared to Thai which continues to resist all my attempts to understand and speak it. While superficially Bangkok appears to be a modern metropolis, there are layers upon layers to be found going back to antiquity. Urban and rural snuggle together in copacetic comfort on the city's streets and alleyways below skyscrapers and temple towers. I constantly find myself slightly off balance trying to reconcile what I see with the limited knowledge I possess. Whenever Thailand begins to seem as familiar as an old shoe, I open my eyes a bit wider because I know there is something I've missed. The surprises are exciting and invariably jolt me out of my septuagenarian slumber.

My fellow teachers and students at the Buddhist university where I teach English several days a week like to tell me, "You look so strong, ajahn!"  Most of them have rural roots and Thais who work on the farm age rapidly.  They're not used to seeing someone of my advanced years walking upright, and even, in the classroom, strutting and pontificating in an animated fashion.  I don't speak to them about my failing eyesight and faulty hearing, my tricky knee or arthritic fingers.  At the end of six hours of teaching, my feet ache and I'm utterly exhausted, and I usually fall asleep on the computer bus back to Bangkok.

In sum, a mysterious environment, a job where I play the standup comic to amused monks, and a loving young wife all keep me invigorated and -- dare I say it? -- youthful, more so than had I remained in a comfortable place back in the U.S.  It's not necessarily a prescription for avoiding the inevitable breakdown of the body.  But it will certainly refresh and rejuvenate the mind.  The down side to this expat's success story is the enmity of two of my three surviving children who are unhappy that their step-mother is younger than them, and the absence of so many friends apparently unable to use social media to maintain long-distance relationships.  I miss my old family and old friends. But I rejoice in my new life!


Global Change Musings said...

Thanks for posting, very interesting.

Anonymous said...

Happy 75th Birthday, Dr. Will!
I look forward to reading your pearls of wisdom for many years to come. Great stuff!