Friday, October 31, 2008


Even Google can't tell me this morning who penned the ancient proverb, "You can't teach an old dog new tricks." I did learn that it appeared in a book on husbandry in 1530 in a different form as: "the dogge must lerne it when he is a whelpe, or els it wyl not be; for it is harde to make an olde dogge to stoupe." But this was probably a truism even back then. (Here President Lyndon Johnson lifts his beagle "Him" by the ears, creating a storm of controversy. "He enjoys it," Lydon proclaimed. "My mother used to pull my ears, and it never got that much attention.")

My life now is a race against the clock. The sclerosis of age threatens on every side. Coming to Bangkok was a thumb in the eye to the Grim Reaper. I am forced to adapt daily to changing conditions, and it is my theory that this will keep me if not young then at least flexible. Isn't Googling a new trick?

Take my teaching. Proceeding under the assumption that I would have the same group of 4th-year English majors for another term, I had prepared a course of lessons using an advanced text. I was handed a roster with their student numbers (everything else was in Thai). But last week I learned the roster was given to me in error. I would, in fact, be teaching a new batch of 3rd-year students whose English was at a more elementary stage. I had only a few days to rethink the course.

My two classes in Listening & Speaking English II are on Wednesday afternoon, but the first meeting last week fell on Wan Phra, the Buddhist holy day corresponding to one of the four phases of the moon. So it was moved to Saturday. Only two students (out of 44 registered) showed up, both young monks from Shan State in Myanmar. I talked to them with Dr. Abby, the Thai woman who teaches Analytical Reading to the same two groups of students in the classroom next door. Winging it, I described a course similar to what I taught last term: grammar lessons, partner or small-group discussions followed by individual oral presentations, songs in English with an exercise to identify missing words in the lyrics, weekly writing assignments on a variety of topics, and practice with new vocabulary by writing a sentence a day. I've already received my first papers back by email.

Timeliness is not much of a virtue in Thailand; the school term always starts slowly. This week over half of my first class was absent, but only three were missing from the second class. My old students were in rooms down the hall and their teachers never arrived. Mai pen rai (don't sweat it). I was surprised to find no students from Laos in my new group, but over half were from Cambodia and Shan State (who outnumber the others), and their journey to university in Thailand cannot have been easy. I had them each interview and introduce another student and was impressed with their English abilities. Several who took my assessment quiz proved themselves the equal of my best 4th-year students. I struggled to link names with faces. It is certainly true that it is harder for a caucasian to descern differences between Asia faces (and the reverse, too, I'm sure). And I was once again awed by their seriousness and their quick-to-ignite sense of humor. Adapting here is simple; they are teaching me how to teach English. Each class ends with a Buddhist chant.

The rainy season is due to end soon, but until the monsoon passes there is a daily downpour often with thunder and lightning. I love to watch the sound and light show from my 10th floor window. The storms are rarely cold and depressing, as in Santa Cruz, but more like the warm summer rains I remember from growing up in North Carolina and Georgia. I stroll through the puddles in my shorts and flip flops, the fancy umbrella I bought at REI in Larkspur keeping my head and shoulder bag dry. Traffic always seems to slow even more when it rains, and traveling by bus can be challenging. After class this week I waited 45 minutes for the number 79 bus (I could have walked the distance in 20) before giving up and taking a taxi. When the taxi entered what looked like gridlock around the corner, I got out and walked for another 10 minutes to my building. But the gridlock quickly broke and I watched my taxi breeze past. To get to school, I usually take the green number 40 bus. Tiny and battered, most Thais are horrified when they hear I risk using this line, considered dangerously reckless even by natives. It's a short commute. I can leave my apartment 15 minutes before class starts and arrive on time.

Marcus is back. We met at Pandit Bhikku's talks last year and immediately got on each other's wave lengths. I was sad when he left to teach English in Seoul, Korea, but was able to keep up with his thinking by reading his excellent Journal with its reflections on moldy apartments, deadening split shifts at school, and a Buddhist practice inspired by the Korean perspective. After an abortive trip home to England, he chose to return to a good teaching job in Bangkok, and found an apartment in my neighborhood. A serious Buddhist and a vegetarian, Marcus challenges my assumptions and conclusions and our conversation forces me to sift through half-considered opinions. I hope I can do the same for him. Tomorrow we will meet at the Starbucks in Central Pinklao where I will introduce him to Tony Macgregor, a Canadian studying in the master's program in Buddhist Studies at Mahachula. Tony, who has a room not far from Marcus, was a journalist until recently in Korea and I'm sure they will find many friends in common.

The political situation in Bangkok seems more dire daily. This morning's headline in the online edition of Bangkok Nation is: "Violence Grows as Confrontation Looms." Bombs have been thrown, people killed, different factions, in red shirts and yellow shirts respectively, threatening mayhem against the other. Yet everyday life in Bangkok away from trouble zone is unaffected. That Thailand's seat of government has been occupied by a mob since August is a scandal. Both sides claim to protest in the name of democracy, nation and monarchy, but their constituencies are narrow. The police are impotent, after a crack-down went awry when tear gas cannisters proved deadly, and the military remains above it all...for now. The Queen has shown support to the anti-government demonstrators, a powerful gesture in this country. It's not dissimilar from traveling with The Who in 1973, waiting for their celebrated madness to erupt (it did, in Montreal, and we all went to jail). At the very least, traffic will undoubtedly get worse as tuk tuks and buses compete for road space with tanks.

George is recuperating in the hospital from an operation to give him a new knee, but his stay is lengthening as he struggles to get the pain under control and learn to walk again. We exchange encouraging mobile messages. Jerry learned that circulatory blockages are the cause of leg pain when he walks and will get an MRI next week to diagnose the problem. We are all dealing with the ravages of age. I woke up with new tooth pain in an area of the jaw where I still have teeth.

There is little new that I can say about the global economic meltdown and the presidential election. Naomi Klein in The Nation calls the bailout "Bush's Final Pilage," and compares it with the looting by European colonialists of African wealth when independence was declared. The Republicans are rushing to loot the Treasury on behalf of the banks before Obama takes over. I downloaded Barack's expensive infomercial and will watch it later today. The BBC showed clips of his appearance with Clinton in Florida. David Sirota warns in that an Obama presidency could become a Clinton third term if the hacks waiting in the wings resume their place and the administration recapitulates its pro-corporate positions. "Clinton officials had a hand in the key deregulatory policies that led to the financial meltdown, and the key free-market fundamentalist policies (rigged trade deals, corporate tax loopholes, etc.) that are hollowing out the economy," Sirota writes. I watch for information about a new stimulus package to help middle Americans. The last one helped me. The $300 check deposited in my U.S. bank almost covered my rent here in Bangkok.

Pim came to see me on Tuesday. She had left a few things behind in my apartment and said it was because she hoped she could return someday to cook and clean for me. While I thought this made little sense, given her decision to separate, I let her know that my room was dirty and I was eating frozen food from 7-11. When we met at Tesco Lotus to get supplies, seeing each other for the first time in three weeks, she broke into tears. I could not figure out why, but I held her hand. Back home, she cooked shrimp in oyster sauce with rice, broccoli and carrots. While the rice was steaming, she cried some more, and I held her. But I also felt that there was a new barrier between us. After dinner, she went back to her room, returning the next morning to make breakfast for me. After I left to teach, she cleaned the apartment and washed a half dozen tee shirts. When I got home she was gone and other than a brief SMS reply to my thank you message, I haven't heard from her for two days.

The end of our romance has required infinite adaptability from me. Our differences in age, language and culture, have made it impossible for me to "figure it out." Little makes sense, either her attraction to me in the first place, or her current intention to care for me on a limited basis. She told me once again that she cannot live with me, be my girlfriend or marry me, because I am too old. Now I think she wants to be my friend and even, perhaps, to see me in the role of a father (hers died when she was 12). In Thai culture, you show love by taking care of the other. For men, this means financial support. For women, it means cooking, cleaning and washing. The other night Pim even clipped my raggedy nose hairs. Platonic or paternal love in Thailand is very intimate!

She told me that she is reading this blog. I asked if it was all right with her that I wrote about us and even included photos, and she said yes. I'm not sure how much of my English she understands (even my children complain about my inflated vocabulary), but she did indicate that she read I'd brought Nat home for one night. So she probably also read about my date with Yim (which never happened; Yim has only kept two of our eight appointments). I am not sure what my seeing others had to do with the invisible wall I felt between us. She is unwilling or unable to explain to me what she wants (and does not want) from our relationship. The tears have me befuddled. She can't very well be jealous, given her decision to separate. So I have to adapt. At first I resolved to end it, unwilling to evolve from lover into friend. But now I think it better to accept whatever happens between us, the pain and the pleasure, and go with it. Given her subsequent silence, I must also move on. Tomorrow I'll meet my new friend Tik at the Siam Paragon film festival to see the Thai romance, "A Moment in June."

Adaptation! (as sung to the tune of "Tradition" from "Fiddler on the Roof").

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