Thursday, August 11, 2011

A Toss of the Dice

They're rioting in Africa 
There's strife in Iran 
What nature doesn't do to us 
Will be done by our fellow man 

"The Merry Minuet," sung by the Kingston Trio 

When all else fails, buy a lottery ticket.  We bought two from this seller outside Wat Rakhang where Nan and I went to offer gifts in a plastic bucket (the standard stuff, tooth paste, etc.) and receive a watery blessing on my 72nd birthday.  I got a ticket with a six-digit number ending in "72."  Just to be on the safe side, Nan's ticket ended in "27."  They cost 100 baht each, 80 for the lottery and 20 for the ticket seller.  Most of the vendors are aged, infirm or disabled, and you're never more than a stone's throw from one in Bangkok.  There's also an illegal underground lottery where you can bet as little as a baht.  Nan once sold tickets but quit when it felt too dangerous. The underground lottery is popular in the villages where legitimate ticket sellers are rare.  When Jerry bought his wife a truck recently, most of their relatives put money on the numbers in the new license number.  His wife once won 8,000 baht in the national lottery and I would have been happy with anything as a sign of the universe's favor.

But we didn't win.  It's not my life that needs a boost, however, but the planet earth.  London is burning, the global stock market is tanking, a Christian fascist went wacko in Norway, and earthquakes and storms are giving evidence of serious tampering with the planet's weather systems by industrial civilization.  What's not to worry about?  But the only untoward event in my life lately was forgetting my card card in the ATM machine which required having a new one shipped from the states (it's the only lifeline to my income which is fast losing value along with the deflating dollar).

It's so hard trying to find a reason for everything.  I was trained like most westerners to trace effects back to their causes.  So I scour the print and electronic media to uncover reasons for the rise of the powerful lunatic fringe in America, the deadly persistance of the U.S. war machine in the Middle East, and the puzzle of Obama's lack of passion (and a backbone).  Sometimes it just feels like I'm spinning my wheels, and that all my posts, comments, likes, tweets and links are so much dust.  Thais take a different approach to confusion and catastrophe (or just the nuttiness of life).  Nan awoke the other morning and announced she wanted to tamboon (make merit) with a monk she remembered from several years ago.  I followed along on a short bus ride, and there he was, at his station by the 7-11, accepting gifts of food (we bought some from a nearby cart) and prayers from passers by.  My knees don't allow me to kneel like Nan so a folded my palms and bowed my head while the kindly old monk chanted a Pali blessing for us.  And you know, I felt better, intellectually cleansed (for a brief moment), by the experience.

Afterward, we went for a walk in the streets behind the major thoroughfare where Nan lived when she first came to Bangkok and found a different world, almost a village within the city, where only a little traffic flowed, small shops served the community and the jungle threatened to overwhelm areas of neglect, like this lot where an old campaign poster remains for the woman who has just become Thailand's first female prime minister.  It was a beautiful morning, the air was clear and not yet hot, and strolling through the quieted streets, visiting a temple on the way and sitting in a park by a canal, gave the mind pause from its incessant need to understand and explain.

I have been absent from these pages for three weeks not because there was nothing to report but because my life of retirement now seems excessively busy.  Much of the activity revolves around my school and teaching.  I gave my two dozen students a midterm exam and followed it with a day of interviews, talking with each monk (and one laywoman) about their results, homework and progress in the class.  They've asked me to prepare questions for a big contest in two weeks with 600 students from other universities (I picture a "Slumdog Millionaire" event)  and for me to be the MC.  I've begun teaching the second half of a course on mass media for graduate students in linguistics and prepared a spiffy PowerPoint presentation with film clips from YouTube.  But it was overkill for the six students at my first lecture who are struggling with basic English.  Next week I'll try something simpler.  And I'm deep into research for a conference paper comparing Buddhist modernism in the west, with its focus on meditation and absence of ritual, with a popular religiosity in Thailand that seamlessly blends Brahmanism and animism with a royalist-influenced Theravada Buddhism.  Every day I discover new insights.

I'll have to finish writing before the October deadline because Nan and I are flying to Chiang Rai after the school term finishes for a visit  with her family in the nearby province of Phayao.  It will be my first trip to the village and I'm frankly nervous.  We'll stay in her Aunt Ban Yen's house which will be ours whenever we decide to move there permanently.  Nan must graduate with a degree and perhaps work for a couple of years before that happens, and I need to maintain my health and ability to maneuver around and enjoy the city.  Still, Nan has been eye-shopping for a flat-screen TV since the house has none, and a credenza for it to sit on.  There are lots of horror stories about farang and their encounter with village life, and I struggle to keep my expectations unblemished.  I've met her mom, brother and cousin, but not her step-father, and they're lovely people.  As big city relatives, however, we'll be expected to help out, and my lack of understanding for the enormous affection and gratitude Thai children feel toward their parents sometimes confuses and saddens Nan.

Our social calendar has been full.  We said good-bye to our good friend Janet during a lunch by the Chao Phraya River at one of our favorite spots.  Janet penned the lovely poem to her adopted city, Tone Deaf in Bangkok, and writes a provocative blog with the same name.  But she's ended her second (or third?) tour of duty here and has just returned to her American home, Seattle, where her sons live and where she spent many years as a bookseller at Elliott Bay.  She'll continue to work for ThingsAsian Press and hopes to return to Bangkok for annual visits.  We'll miss her.  On a recent Sunday, Nan and I joined Ian and Paradee at Rot Fai Park for lunch and a possible bike ride.  The entrance to the park, on land owned by the railway union is close to the Buddhadassa Indapanno Archives which I recently visited for the first time, and I took them all on a tour.  There was karaoke singing on the ground floor (I resisted but Ian was willing, though never called) and an art show upstairs near the lovely mediation hall.

One evening we joined a group of Thais and foreigners at a dinner hosted by Sean, editor of Ratchaprasong News and international press officer for the red shirts during the protests last year in Bangkok.  Speaking to us were two members of the Pheu Thai party which recently won the national election, Dr. Prasaeng and Khun Samarn.  While they assured us that the reds, who strongly contributed to the landslide victory, and the new prime minister's government would be closely allied, many of the questions asked them centered around the possibility of unsavory political compromises and the probable response of their supporters.  Yingluck's cabinet, unveiled this week, contains no one closely tied to the red shirts, and it's believed that her brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, now in exile, influenced the choices so that the elite would permit them to govern.  It remains to be seen whether there will be unrest in provincial red villages.

This week the British monk Pandit Bhikku began his fifth series of Rains Retreat dhamma talks at a dance gallery off Sukhumvit.  I arrived in Thailand precisely four years ago and I quickly set about locating a source of information in English about Thai Buddhism.  A mae chee at Mahachula University directed me to the Little Bang Sangha which had recently formed and I attended the lectures Pandit gave that year at the Baan Aree Library.  There I met many of the friends I still know in Bangkok (sadly, Holly has gone) and at the first talk this week on "The Dance of Emptiness" I saw many familiar faces.  It was Pandit who encouraged me to teach English to monks and brought me to Wat Srisudaram where I spoke to the English Club and was offered a job in 2008.

And now for something completely different.  Last year Rubby, one of my Little Bang friends, suggested I register with a modeling agency that is always looking for non-Thais to hire for commercials or movies.  A number of people I know have been extras, and a couple appeared in "Hangover 2."  Nothing happened for me until last month when I was called to appear in a session to get stock photos of elders doing yoga and exercise.  The photographer was Rob Churchill who does wonderful non-commercial stuff, and I have no idea how this session will turn out.  Photos will be offered world-wide to anyone looking for old geezers working up a sweat (it was hard work!).  The session in an empty penthouse in Silom with incredible views of the city took only three hours and I was paid about $100.  I came home to tell Nan that I might become famous.  It was a lucky toss of the dice.

My friend Jerry has complained that there is entirely too little about sex in my blog, and he offered some biographical tidbits to spice up these pages.  But I think I'll wait until he and everyone we know is  dead and gone before revealing the shocking and salacious details he provided.  I'll write it up and stick it in a bank deposit box with instructions for publishing after the smoke has cleared.  Better yet, he should write about it himself and I'll review it here.

1 comment:

Ian said...

Looking forward to comparing notes after your visit to the village.

Meanwhile, try this:

Serenity Prayer

God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
the courage to change the things I can;
and the wisdom to know the difference.

Living one day at a time;
Enjoying one moment at a time;
Accepting hardships as the pathway to peace;
Taking, as He did, this sinful world
as it is, not as I would have it;
Trusting that He will make all things right
if I surrender to His Will;
That I may be reasonably happy in this life
and supremely happy with Him
Forever in the next.

~ Reinhold Niebuhr