Thursday, September 26, 2013

Remembering and Forgetfulness

Nancy was an old horse destined for the glue factory until my father won her in a card game. At least that's what he told us. My father was a traveling salesman in western North Carolina and sold glue for plywood to furniture manufacturers.

Our house on the outskirts of a small town backed up to a pasture where an old mule lived. It was love at first sight for that mule when he saw Nancy and he followed her everywhere. When I rode Nancy around the pasture he was right behind us, both of them galloping as we neared the barn.

I remember Nancy, how it felt to sit on her and ride, and the feel of her skin when I brushed her after. It isn't just the photo that reminds me of her. The memory resides somewhere in my permanent hardware. I was 11, an asthmatic kid who couldn't play sports. Nancy allowed me to live out my cowboy dreams.

Our cocker spaniel Rusty would follow us around the pasture, sometimes stopping to sniff for wildlife. I remember with the clarity of an eternal playback loop the day I heard a screech of brakes and turned to see Rusty hit by a car on the highway. I saw him get up to snarl at the beast that struck him. But by the time I jumped off Nancy and ran into the road to rescue him, he'd died. Not long after our family moved to Atlanta and Nancy finally met her fate at the glue factory,

This story came to life in my mind as I was contemplating my forgetfulness. Last week I left my iPad Mini in the pocket in front of my seat on the commuter bus to school. With the help of a student and the secretary monk in my faculty, we called the driver who found and returned it. That same day I left my keys in the drawer of my desk. Fortunately my wife was home to let me in, but I had to have a spare made the next day since I wasn't exactly sure where I'd left them until returning to school two days later.

This is the time in my life when the specter of Alzheimer's rears it's ugly head. Several of my close friends have long worried about their poor memory. One forwarded my mail from the U.S. for awhile, until he accidentally threw away my renewed credit card and sent me his bills instead of mine. The other stopped driving long distances for fear he'd get lost.

My senior moments may be occurring more frequently. Usually it's the name of a friend or public personality that disappears. Occasionally it's the word for something I know well, like the local fruit mangosteen. Often I can remember the first letter which seems to survive at the retention center. Google has proven to be an invaluable resource for rediscovering the missing words.

My mother, who died shortly after her 90th birthday, wrote down things she didn't want to forget on post-it notes. They covered her kitchen. At the time I found it humorous, but now I admire her ingenuity.

Gene and Mary were already pushing 80 when I met them. They had spent a lifetime as good Catholics, raising a half dozen children and feeding priests supper in their home. But each had turned away from the institution. Gene and I were in a men's group where we spoke of religion in our lives, the good and the bad. Mary was diagnosed with Alzeimer's and for awhile was a care-free gray-haired hippie, picking flowers from private gardens and refusing to attend mass. Gene shared with our group the pain of watching the woman he loved slowly disintegrate. When I last saw her in 2010, the Mary I remembered was gone. Both she and Gene died not long after.

The films taking the ravages of Alzheimer's at their center are heartbreaking and uplifting. I've just watched "Stll Mine," with the ever gorgeous Genevieve Bujold as the 80-something wife losing her grip on reality while James Cromwell plays the stoic but loving husband by her side. It ends on a somewhat positive note. You can't say the same for Michael Haneke's award-winning "Amour" or Sarah Polley's "Away From Her," both magnificent films, yet sad.

As for me, so far, so good. I can usually find my phone (though the other day Nan had to ring it for me to see where it was hiding) and my glasses. They say an active mind helps, and mine is so busy that I'm going on a 3-day meditation retreat next month to slow down. I suspect the young mostly watch others and outside events, while we geriatrics watch our minds for signs of the Apocalypse. But it's all clear on my neural front for now.


Sunday, September 22, 2013

My Carpe Diem Moment

Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old time is still a-flying;
And this same flower that smiles today
Tomorrow will be dying.

I never planned to become a teacher.  It was thrust upon me when I found myself in Bangkok with nothing much to do.  A British monk suggested I speak to monks who were studying English at a temple across the river.  That visit led to an offer to teach a course in "Listening and Speaking English" (an ungrammatical title I've struggled with) and I continue to do so six years later.

In the 1989 film "Dead Poet's Society,"  an English teacher at a private school, played by Robin Williams, quotes from Robert Herrick's 16th century poem "To the Virgins, To Make Much of Time," and tells his students that the first line should be translated by the Latin expression carpe diem, "seize the day." The reason, he says, is that one day they will be dead and fertilizing daffodils like everyone that came before them. Live to the full now, he urges his students, and "make your lives extraordinary."

I had no clue how to teach young Thai monks anything, much less English.  But I'd been impressed by the attempt of that cinematic teacher to inspire his students to learn.  It's certainly impossible to open up a student's head and pour knowledge inside.   My own long academic career taught me the importance of going out and seizing it.  I treated the university as a candy store and spent nearly 20 years sampling and nibbling all the goodies.  In Thailand, I'd been told, the educational system is hierarchical with teachers, treated with the utmost respect, dictating what their students must learn (in most cases, memorize).  Critical thinking and curiosity were in short supply.

Armed with a textbook from Oxford for a model, I designed lessons that tried to strike a happy balance between studying and practicing English grammar. All of my students were raised in small villages where sending a son to the temple sometimes was the only way to feed him. They came from every Southeast Asian country and becoming a monk was probably the only way for them to get a university degree.  Though an Australian had taught at the school the year before me, I was usually the first native speaker my students, all majoring in English, had ever met.

Since I spoke almost no Thai, and, as I soon discovered, the English my students had so-far learned was very basic, communication in the beginning was not easy.  Added to this was the limited English of the faculty members who were teaching it.   Thai was used to teach the English majors, even the students from Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar who had to learn Thai first in order to study English.  Consequently, their pronunciation was primitive.  There was a sound lab for practice, but it had been "broken" for years (I later was told the same about the brand new lab at the Ayutthaya campus where classes were moved in my third year). Countering these difficulties was the enthusiasm for English expressed by my students. One reason was their passion for English football and pop singers like Michael Jackson.  Some would probably disrobe after graduation to become guides or open a business while many others told me they wanted to teach English at the temple near their home village.

My first classroom had fans but no air conditioning. And it had a microphone.  Besides enabling me to better hear my shy students speak, it encouraged me to become a standup comic.  I turned the chairs in a circle seminar style and prowled the room with the mic looking for ways to make them talk and laugh.  The latter wasn't difficult because Thais love to turn anything into sanuk, "fun." My lectures were usually punctuated with laughter, even on exam day when I wrote rules on the board which included "no electronic devices, no peeking, no dancing & no singing."

Speaking before the class was a different matter.  My students lacked confidence in their English proficiency and were hesitant to do anything that might result in a mistake, a consequence of their rigid training.  I told them making mistakes was the only way they could learn; if they didn't, there was nothing I could teach them.  Asking for volunteers to speak was a non-starter, so I learned to pick the first speaker and go around the room.  Each term there was usually one student who couldn't stop.  "Thank you for the microphone," they would say and would be off and running.  My job then was to give them the hook amid much laughter.

"What's good for the goose is good for the gander," goes an old expression (my students love learning English idioms and maxims).  Teaching these Thai monks has been my carpe diem moment.  I tried teaching in California after getting my Ph.d. in environmental history, but I found most of my students more interested in partying after class than doing their homework than exhibiting even an iota of intellectual curiosity.  I quit in order to travel instead of pursuing what as a less than promising academic future, never imagining I would find myself in front of a classroom again.  But it's become the most satisfying work of my life in a varied and spotty job resume.

In addition to teaching 3rd and 4th year students, I have also lectured in a graduate linguistics program and taught a few basic English classes to students in MA programs of education and public administration. For several years I've presided over competitions organized by students in the English Club with other schools. And I've given a talk on the importance of English as the working language of ASEAN, and assisted at a weekend English camp at another school in Bangkok where learning games were played by giggling undergraduates.  While coming as a surprise late in my career, I've done my best to seize the day with gusto.

This past week, however, I met my Waterloo.  I had been asked nearly two months ago to teach a 10-week, 40-hour class for university staff members during lunchtime.  Though I was not given much time to prepare, it seemed like a wonderful challenge.  I designed a series of lectures around the basics, from parts of speech to sentences, clauses and building a vocabulary.  My iPod Mini has the capability of showing YouTube videos and PowerPoint presentations and I gathered a cornucopia of slides and clips to enliven the two-hour proceedings.

Some twenty students, monks and laypeople who worked at the school, were expected and most came to the first meeting.  I was at my best, strutting around the room with the mic and exhorting my students to think, speak and laugh about the language they all knew a bit about (it was an "intermediate" class).  My timing was precise, knowing they all had jobs to do and were sacrificing their lunchtime to learn, and I ended each class with a music video and an exercise in which they filled in the blanks in a lyric sheet of words they heard sung. Everyone seemed pleased.

Attendance began dropping about week three.  Last week at the halfway point in the series, the class on Monday had only two students, one of them arriving an hour late.  Nobody came to last Friday's class, except for a couple of staff members from the Language Institute who had proposed the class in the first place and who now felt sorry for me.  Afterwards I went to see one of the missing students, a librarian, and he was most apologetic but said he needed to remain at work. The cause of the failure seemed simple enough: either these staff members decided they could not take time away from duties to brush up on their English, or my teaching was not appealing to them.  My wife suggested that since the course was free and voluntary, there was nothing to keep them coming. Paid class for credit have more incentives to continue.  Thais would never criticize my teaching for fear of causing me to lose face; all, therefore, had other things to do.

After Friday, I cancelled the remaining classes.  Even if a few attended, the continuity of my review of English grammar was broken (later topics depended on a familiarity with earlier ones). And it's much harder teach two students than it is a full classroom where I can interacts with a couple of rows of them.  

Part of me is happy that I no longer need to complete the lessons for classes 12-20.  I've had little free time for the last month because of the work load and the deadlines I imposed on myself. Now I can swim, read novels, and surf the web to my heart's delight.  But I already miss those moments when I stood before a roomful of students holding the mic and doing my English rap. I'm not sorry I seized those days, but I just want there to be more before I'm fertilizing daffodils.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Freezing in the Tropics

In the days when I echoed the wisdom of environmental philosophers, I hated air conditioning. It was dangerous, releasing chemicals into the atmosphere that tore holes in the ozone layer and threatened the future of the planet. The A/C in my Toyota truck remained off. Of course, living on the fog-shrouded central California coast required heat more than additional cooling.

Air conditioning spread like wildfire in the years after WWII when the portable unit was invented. If the desert heat was good enough for Lawrence of Arabia, what need did the wimpy residents of Los Angeles or Morocco have for a modern technology that poisoned the earth and destroyed the ability of humans to adapt to climate change?

And then I expatriated to Thailand where A/C units grow like mushrooms on every building no matter how humble. The three seasons here are hot, hotter and hottest, and humidity creates the atmosphere at street level of a sauna.

These days I try to avoid using the air conditioning in my apartment only because it's an electricity drain and raises my monthly bill dramatically rather than for its contribution to global warming (the air released from the device on my balcony while on is quite warm). I have 2 fans which are almost always on. When I'm working at my desk, though, they tend to blow papers around the room, so I activate the A/C as a way to keep order.

Thais, at least in the big cities, are used to extreme changes in temperature. I learned quickly that cinemas are all cooled to icy temperatures after freezing through several films in my tee shirt and shorts. Now I take a blanket with me. Most taxis, the Skytrain, and the more modern buses are cooled to an extreme degree, as if moderation is an unknown Buddhist precept. My wife always takes a shawl or a long-sleeved sweater with her on cross-town trips. Being old, I usually forget.

My image of the tropics was forged during films by Somerset Maugham when you saw white-suited colonialists sitting under slow moving overhead fans while drinking something refreshing and alcoholic. Sidney Greenstreet would never have plopped down in front if a hulking A/C machine. Wimps.

I got a taste of winter last December in Seoul and I don't miss it. The ache that sub-freezing temperatures bring is not pleasant. Walking into any upscale mall in Bangkok will bring that memory back. But the real pleasure comes when walking out into the heat of the noonday sun outside the air-conditioned pleasure palaces. Schizophrenic? You betcha!

Do you think Nora is too young for Willie?

Monday, September 16, 2013

She Came in Through the Bathroom Window

Though the hose should eliminate the use of toilet paper, it's not all that efficient. But because most toilets outside the West discourage disposal of paper, etc., in the toilet, because of insufficient plumbing, there's the ubiquitous bucket at the side. I've learned to observe excessive use and careless tossing of toilet paper as a moral failure.

Squat toilets still abide in older buildings or where patrons demand them out of a love of tradition. But they scare me. I first encountered one in India and found my legs could not assume the position. So I sat atop it in a humiliating and not entirely sanitary compromise. Asians learn to squat about the time they learn to walk which is why they can do it, as well as sit on their ankles, and those inculturated with chairs cannot.

My wife does not understand why I use the hose from behind. She does double duty from the front. I have to demonstrate that my parts get in the way. And when I stand to pee I don't need to hose off. But she says I should.

There is no window to the outside in my toilet (or hong nam, water room, as the Thais logically call it), but only a small window high up over the tub-shower overlooking the sink in our small kitchen. When Edward comes to visit he always slides it shut, fearful that some stranger might see his pre-pubescent body. At least no burglars can crawl into the shower. They'll have to get to our 9th floor balcony first.

The upscale malls in Bangkok, like Terminal 21, have super modern toilets that feature warm seats and water from several directions. They're made in Japan or Korea and threaten the fading tradition of squat toilets. I go out of my way to make use of them.

Something should be done about toilet paper. I believe it still owes its existence to trees, an endangered life form. Perhaps the Japanese or Koreans will figure a way to make it out of reusable plastic, but I expect to be flushed away long before then (my ashes at least).

A note about my throne shown above: I still like to read there but now it's with my iPad. The plunger is a recent addition and has come in handy several times. I don't know why so much hair accumulates in the pipes below the sink and shower. It can't be from my thinning head of grey hair.

Sunday, September 08, 2013

Ecstasy, or the Laundry?

Jack Kornfield assumed in his book, After the Ecstasy, The Laundry, that ecstasy came first. But what if it never comes? What if there's only the laundry, nothing more.

For me, ecstasy these days comes with the dawn that I greet on this balcony nine floors up on the west side of the Chao Phraya River in Bangkok. Even without the stupendous sunrise shows, the view is awesome. In my five years of looking, it never ceases to please me.

You'll notice the ancient washing machine and the laundry drying on the rack. Maybe the rich have automatic dryers, but everyone else in this city hangs their wet clothes out to dry in the sultry air. It's so hot that they'll dry despite the frequent squalls during this monsoon season.

Washing the clothes had been my wife's job. But now that she's working six days a week, I've had to learn how to handle the temperamental machine. It's been repaired twice and is on its last legs. The only road block is my distracted mind which tends to forget simple instructions. There's no hot water in our apartment other than the on demand heater in the shower so water temperature is no problem. Remembering where to turn the dial is. But I think I've mastered it now.

I used to think another kind of ecstasy besides the morning show was possible. I read books, sat on the cushion, attended retreats and lectures. I could almost construct a moment of bliss from the various instructions. Visions of leading seminars and writing self help books danced in my head. For what is one to do once one has experienced such thusness?

But awakening has not come and now that I've exceeded my sell by date I doubt that I'll have that experience before shuffling off this mortal coil. I'll leave it to others with the time, expertise and, dare I say it, the luck, to report back on their moments of ecstasy.

For me, then, there's only the laundry, and the myriad of other duties that are difficult only if you fail to give them your undivided and undistracted attention. Yes, the shit work that must be done by those with no time or talent for enlightenment. I suspect that's most of us.



Monday, September 02, 2013

My Breakfast

Drop your shrink, and stop your drinkin'
Crunchy granola's neat
"Crunchy Granola Suite," Neil Diamond

I've been eating this breakfast for several years, the same breakfast most mornings: granola (purists may describe it as muesli) from Tesco Lotus, blueberry yogurt, and a cut-up Fuji apple drowned in milk (usually low fat), accompanied by a cup of drip coffee (Tesco's Arabica Royal). An hour earlier, I greet the dawn with a glass of orange juice.

Some mornings my lovely wife makes me American Breakfast No. 1, a cheese omelet with toast (occasionally French toast). My American Breakfast No. 2 which I make consists of 2 soft boiled eggs mixed with pieces of buttered (fake) toast.

For any searchers who stumble across this blog, these are my new minimal life posts. Hopefully they will deepen as I become accustomed to blogging on an iPad Mini.

But maybe not.

Sunday, September 01, 2013

Bus Stop

We have a refurbished bus stop by our condo. One morning the old one had been brutally demolished. A couple of mornings later this new one with comfortable seats (the old version had benches) took its place. Bangkok must have roving teams for this kind if work. The bus stop up the street was also renewed and one across the highway got a face lift two weeks ago.

While chaotic and overblown, Bangkok takes care of its people, even when floods, like the one two years ago, make life difficult for many. A few months ago new trash cans sprouted like mushrooms all over the city. At night piles of trash accumulate that miraculously disappear. I hesitate to imagine where it all goes.

Very few western expats or tourists take the bus. Learning the routes of buses with few signs in English takes hard work. Some of the older vehicles are pretty well trashed and traffic is unpredictable and time consuming. Most foreigners stick to the flashy Skytrain and the neighborhoods it serves.

I love traveling by bus even when delays are frustrating. People watching is fascinating and I learn more about Thai ways and customs from watching the passengers act and react than I would reading books or strolling through super malls.