Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Yet Another Day in Paradise

The sirens and fire engines woke me around 4:15 this morning and I looked out my seventh floor balcony to see the street below filled with vehicles and flashing red lights. Any action, however, was out of sight around the corner. I watched through bleary eyes for about ten minutes, but it soon became apparent that it was a false alarm. I hope Siam Court might get that total response if smoke were spotted. So I climbed back in bed for another hour and a half of sleep, the fan keeping me cool.

When I got up again, I checked Google News to learn that Heath Ledger had died of a probable drug overdose at the age 0f 28. Already he is being compared to James Dean who crashed his Porsche at the young age of 24 fifty years ago after an even shorter career. Ledger clinched his reputation with the role as a gay lover in "Brokeback Mountain," but I also liked him as the swashbuckling "Casanova" and in the gritty film about heroin addiction, "Candy." He'd just finished playing the evil Joker in a new Batman movie, another part that clashed with his pretty boy image. R.I.P., Heath.

Talking about movies signals a return to normalcy and even domesticity after a month at an ashram in India and a week upcountry in rural Surin for a wedding. This potent image, of recruits carrying a statue of liberty across a miniaturized Vietnam, comes from Julie Taymor's fantastical new film, "Across the Universe." She borrows songs from the Beatles to tell a fairy tale about the 1960's ("I Want You" is used for a recruitment scene and "She's So Heavy" for the weighty trek across Vietnam.). The actors, whose characters are named Jude, Lucy, Sadie, Maxwell, JoJo and Prudence, all sing songs but they are assisted by Joe Cocker ("Come Together"), Bono ("I Am the Walrus") and Eddie Izzard ("Mr. Kite"). Sadie reminds one of Janis and JoJo of Jimi. Jude comes from Liverpool to draw cartoons for a underground paper in New York and Lucy, from upper-class stock, volunteers for an SDS-type revolutionary group. In lesser hands (Taymor directed "Frida," and, on Broadway, "The Lion King"), this blend of music with a simple story of love and revolution might have been sappy and trite. But through image and song, she seems to have captured the critical yet hopeful optimism that created both the hippie movement and a transformation in popular music. The Beatles were unique and their songs, set in the context of the 1960s, brought tears again to my eyes. Imagine "Strawberry Fields" as a lament for the blood shed in Vietnam, and "Let it Be," as a requiem for Martin Luther King's murder and the street violence that followed. And also imagine that all Jude needs is love and he finds it with Lucy.

I went to see "Across the Universe" with Pim, who only knew of the Beatles music as "old," and George, who was celebrating his 60th birthday. Jerry would have joined us but he was suffering from food poisoning (from a bad fish at an upscale restaurant on his soi). Pim came away from the film singing "All My Loving" (which she recognized), and we took George to dinner of sushi at Fuji's in the MBK shopping center. Still recovering from his separation from Cambodia and the stressful but rewarding job as a lawyer he held there for nine years, he looked tired. The movie, he said, reminded him of all the reasons he set out to work with the poor for social and environmental justice. But the work took its toll, and now he looks forward to rest and recuperation with his lady on a beach in Vietnam, an ironic twist on the forms R&R took in the 1960's and early 1970's. After Taymor's introduction to the music of the Beatles, now I want to show Pim the Beatles' two films, "Hard Day's Night" and "Help."

When the Academy Award nominations were announced yesterday, "Juno" was among the choices listed for best film and it's star, Ellen Page, for best actress. Thanks to the internet (we miss a lot of good films here in Bangkok), I saw it last night and was totally charmed by the story of a 16-year-old who gets pregnant on her first try and decides to have the baby. "Some people fall in love and reproduce," the smart-talking teen says at the end of the movie, when she sits down to sing a song ("Anyone Else but You" by the Moldy Peaches; anti-folk singer Kimya Dawson did the film's music) with the baby's father, played by the gawky and lovable Michael Cera from "Superbad." "We did it the other way." All of the characters, from Juno's wise-talking father (you can see where she gets her genes) and dog-loving step-mother, to her best high school friend and the yuppie couple who want to adopt her baby, are complex and mostly likable. And the dialog by debuting writer Diablo Cody is both funny and deep. This is a movie about people who love and support one another. Perhaps the ethic of the 1960's lives on in middle-class Minnesota where the film is set.

Yesterday I finished reading Richard Mason's classic novel of Asian life, The World of Suzie Wong. Jerry has a collection of Asia-themed novels in Surin and while there I read John Ralston Saul's thriller set in Thailand, The Paradise Eater, and began the story about Suzie, the prostitute in Hong Kong with a heart of gold. Published in 1957, the story has been made into a play, a hit film (which I hope to see soon, thanks to the internet) and even a ballet. It's the story of a poor artist who accidentally finds a room in a hotel used by girls from the bar on the first floor. He befriends them, paints them, and meets the beguiling Suzie. The book is significant in that it does not moralize, but rather describes the protagonist's struggle with his middle-class English value system. I loved it, and found myself barely able to read the last chapter through the tears. Does senility make you even more sentimental?

Now I'm settling in for the long haul. I bought an iron and a portable clothes-drying rack, and cleaning supplies for the bathroom which was looking pretty gross. On Friday I will have my teeth cleaned again, and I need to schedule a dermatology exam and see about getting a new prescription for asthma meds. Yesterday was shopping day and I discovered that Thais are not so in love with wall calendars as Americans where the stores are filled with theme calendars (Garfield, dogs and cats, nature scenes) around New Year's. So I bought a 2008 diary with the months and days in Thai and English, along with a pocket magnifying glass to help me see the increasingly tiny Thai letters. This month, for example, is ma-ga-raa (I have not yet been able to mix Thai and English characters here), and today, Wednesday, is wan put. I also bought a poster showing all the Thai consonants together with the picture symbols children use to remember them and put it on my door to help me learn the alphabet.

When I entered the country on January 9th, I used the last of my two-month visas which I'd purchased last summer from a consulate in Portland. It expires on March 6th. I'm supposed to get three one-month extensions for the original visas but I don't yet know if I can do that in Bangkok or whether I have to leave the country. Jerry has given me the name of a visa consultant whom I will see soon. After a conversation with Pandit when I got back from India, I have been thinking seriously about looking for work as an English teacher, preferably part time, with a university or school that could provide me with a work permit and, hence, an employment visa (multiple entry, renewable yearly). Dr. Holly and I talked about possible opportunities at Assumption University where she teaches in the graduate department of psychology. I scanned the course offerings from the religion and philosophy graduate department on the ABAC web site and was first intrigued and then excited about the possibilities. Most terms start in May which gives me time to find something and do the paperwork. I sent an email to the dean of philosophy and religion, an acquaintance of Holly's who studied in California. I've even begun shopping for a new wardrobe. Thais like their ajahns (teacher) to dress up. Shorts, tee shirts and flip-flops won't do.

And I am beginning to plan for the future. Wit, whom I met at the wedding and who works for a noodle shop in Silom, celebrates his birthday with a big party on February 2 and Lamyai will be coming from Surin to attend. Chinese New Year is February 7 and apparently the festivities in Chinatown are not to be missed. I'm looking forward to Songkran, the Thai New Year, which will be celebrated April 13-15 by the joyous (Jerry would say manic) throwing of water. Everyone gets wet, in Bangkok and upcountry. Next to Loy Krathong, it is Thailand's biggest holiday (but, as Pim says, Thais love to celebrate everyone's holiday, and Valentine's Day is also coming next month). Ajahn Brahm, the British monk who is now abbot of a monastery in western Australia, is coming to speak on several nights in Bangkok and soon the Little Bang Sangha will begin scheduling more events. I canceled my plans to go to Italy next June for the retreat with Cyprian in Assisi, and I've decided not to go to north India with Meath Conlan at the end of February. I want to stay here, with maybe weekend trips to Hua Hin or Krabi, and I want to stay for a long, long time.

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