Sunday, July 26, 2009

What Now?

I feel a bit like this turtle I spotted at Wat Yannowa the other day. He's going somewhere, but where is anybody's guess. Now that I've recovered from my 70th birthday passage, what do I do for an encore?

On the morning of my natal day, Nan and I went to Wat Pathum, the large temple tucked between two giant shopping malls, Central World and Siam Paragon. I'd been to several religious rituals there and liked the meditation hall and the garden at the back populated by various large Buddhist and Hindu icons. I purchased a box full of goodies, including a new robe, and presented it to the monk on duty. He duly chanted a blessing and sprinkled us with holy water. At an altar in the meditation hall, we left flowers, incense and candles, and then processed nine times around an exhibit of Buddhist relics (collections of small stones said to be manifestations of Buddhas). Having performed the necessary birthday rites, we repaired to The Orangery, an outrageously expensive restaurant on the top floor of Siam Paragon and ordered salads and champagne. Then we followed this with a screening of "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince" at the IMAX Theater. The beginning bits of the film were in 3-D and required special glasses. The movie, for me, went downhill when the glasses came off. The screen at IMAX is 10 times bigger than in a normal theater but once your eyes adjusted to the size, it seemed little different. I've never read the Potter books and only appreciate the movies as our culture's current spectacle. This film, the sixth, seemed excessively dark (plot and cinematography) and the acting by the teen leads exceptionally wooden. Given my advanced years, I should have gone to see an Our Gang comedy or the Bowery Boys.

Several of my good friends have recently turned 80, so I feel like a youngster in their company and look up to them as role models. We're living longer, and better, than our parents' generation. But this doesn't make the search for a purpose any easier. The other day during our weekly conversation at Ricky's II Café, Bill said the goal of Buddhist-inspired people is to live a life of compassion for others. He lives in Trat near the Cambodian border and teaches the neighborhood kids English. Retired after working in international schools around the world, he is now contemplating the possibility of teaching math to the monks at my university. I'm almost ashamed at how easy my life is. I live the princely life on my Social Security income, many times the average wage here in Bangkok. I have no trouble filling my days with leisurely activities and I'm never bored. There is always the pool at my residence and Starbucks up the street. I'm slowly filling my small apartment with books. And yet I fret that some unknown obligation is not being met. Are we humans driven to find a purpose in every accidental situation?

After four weeks without classes, due to various Buddhist annual and monthly holidays that unfortunately coincided with my teaching day on Wednesdays, we finally gathered together again in the 3rd floor classroom at Wat Srisudaram last week. Because of schedule changes, we are having three classes in only eight days. On the first day back, I asked them to talk about their plans for the future. Almost all want to become teachers in their home village, and I hope I'm providing them a suitable example. Yesterday I had them interview another student and give comparisons ("I'm older but he's taller...") to teach comparatives and superlatives. There was lots of laughter as some claimed "I'm more handsome" and "he's fatter than me." My students love to have fun. Marcus and Colin teach college kids, boys and girls (and not a few "ladyboys"), and spend considerable time enforcing discipline ("I'm a Nazi," claims Marcus). Along with Bill, they were shocked at my lax attitude: My monks sometimes arrive late, chat on their cellphones, and talk among themselves while I'm writing grammar rules on the white board. Still, they're more serious about education than the spoiled students I taught in California, and life's too short to worry about a little frivolity in the classroom, I think. But it's not all fun and games. Next week I will give them a midterm examination.

I have become addicted to lakorns, the Thai version of TV soap operas. My father named me for the main character of "Just Plain Bill," a radio soap in the late 1930s, and as a child I used to sit at the foot of the large Philco radio listening to "Guiding Light" and "Stella Dallas" with my mother. Maybe that's why I am unashamedly sentimental and can be easily manipulated to tears by a heart-warming plot twist. In California I used to watch Mexican telenovelas to learn Spanish, and they are remarkably similar to the shows I have seen on Thai TV. One I watched recently was "Jade Cloud" which featured several families of Thais in the gem business in Hong Kong; the photography of the city was terrific and the plot was filled with romance, murder and mayhem. My favorite lakorn, "Rainbow Moon," has just finished this past week with a reconciliation between the pop singer Tawan (played by real life pop star Bie Sukrit) and his katoey (transgender) adopted father Aruk (played by noted actor and singer Pongpat Wachirabunjong). The lakorn ("play" in Thai) has been on for weeks, with a two-hour show twice a week. In one episode Tawan crashed his car and lost his memory, which enabled his mother, a prostitute who abandoned him at birth, to take advantage of his success and turn him against his father who was suffering from a brain tumor. Many scenes took place in various hospital rooms as different characters suffered illness, accidents and injuries. Actress Aff Taksaorn played love interest Fah whose parents were dead set against her relationship with Tawan (because of an evil boyfriend in league with the evil mother). The acting and the cinematography are stylistic and melodramatic, but general themes come through: Love and forgiveness ultimately triumph and evil receives its due. High art it may not be, but the moral instruction, while a bit simplistic, is right on target. In addition to Buddhist teaching, these lakorns may be responsible for the gentleness and kindness that typify Thai culture.

While I surf the news sites each day, I haven't gotten caught up in politics lately at the local or international level. Prime Minister Abhisit, currently hosting the ASEAN conference in Phuket which has been remarkably free of protest and violence (due to thousands of troops guarding the city), continues to muddle along while his administration, divided by conflict, accomplishes little of note. Today is Thaksin Shinawatra's 60th birthday and the red shirts are planning big celebrations. Their leader has hinted at a "big surprise" during his televised address ("Black Magic Buddhist Rites," claims The Nation.) . A poster of the exiled politician, promising his return soon to Thailand, has shown up throughout my neighborhood. I watch with sadness California's economic meltdown which will result in draconian cuts to the state's budget. As usual, the poor will suffer disproportionately more than the rich. Obama, like Clinton before him, seems to have hit a wall in his attempt to insure universal medical coverage and lower health costs. America's health-for-profit medical system is the shame of the world. Jackson's will, Palin's resignation and the unjustified arrest of black scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. provide fodder for the celebrity-obsessed U.S. press which long ago gave up substatial analysis of important issues. How can Israel's prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu get away with thumbing his nose at U.S. demands (rather, timid requests) that settlement activity be stopped? The battles in Afghanistan continue to claim innocent lives with no end in sight (the final word on that quagmire is Chris Hedges' "War Without Purpose").

And how about those anniversaries? Who decides, anyway, which dates are most significant? We've just been treated to a barrage of reminicenses on the 40th anniversary of the first trip to the moon, and of Woodstock a few days later (which is more important?). But I'm particularly happy that the 50th anniversary of the court ruling that overturned America’s obscenity laws is being celebrated. For more information about Barney Rosset, the publisher of Grove Press, who sued the Post Office for confiscating copies of the uncensored version of D. H. Lawrence’s 1928 novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover, read Fred Kaplan's story on "The Day Obscenity Became Art." As soon as Lawrence's dirty book became legal I read it, although I had long possessed illegal copies of Henry Miller's two Tropics novels that a friend had smuggled into the country from Europe some years before Rosset got them cleared in the 1960s. Although Muslim jihadists may disagree, we are better off without censorship. But if anything should be censored, it should be gratuitous violence of the kind we now read about daily.

And so it goes. Each day I consecrate my life to fate (or destiny, as a Thai friend puts it romantically), and offer my body to the strange tropical bugs that seem to love farang blood. What I thought were mosquito wounds turned out to be bites from a tiny black ant. The itchy red welts last for days. I stalk the occasional cockroach with poisonous spray, but most of them which primarily inhabit the kitchen are small. Except for the giant bug that wandered in under my door and I slaughtered as soon as I saw it. The body lies somewhere behind my TV cabinet. I don't get geckos on the 10th floor like the one that scared Colin's wife Newt (some irony there) at Ricky's II the other day. Of course there is the invisible H1N1 virus that is terrifying the world. I see an increase in face masks (some people always wore them because of Bangkok's notoriously bad air) but the majority of pedestrians seems as unconcerned as I am. Life is fatal; something's going to kill you eventually (do the bugs I kill realize this?). Nan has different colored face masks to match her outfits. She sees prevention as a fashion statement.

What now? Same as before.

1 comment:

BillZ said...

Dear Will,

Shocked - hardly. You choose - your lessons.

Sadly I never had a choice. Discipline in schools is hard and conforming, pressure from admin and pressure from kids.

Do what works for you.

With compassion :)

Hope you are keeping well,

All the Best,

Bill Z