Thursday, October 16, 2014

Watching the River Flow

People disagreeing on all just about everything, yeah
Makes you stop and all wonder why
Why only yesterday I saw somebody on the street
Who just couldn’t help but cry
Oh, this ol’ river keeps on rollin’, though
No matter what gets in the way and which way the wind does blow
And as long as it does I’ll just sit here
And watch the river flow

Bob Dylan, "Watching the River Flow"

One of the advantages of turning 75 is that you're free from all the pressures of making long-term plans. Today I saw a map of the Bangkok transit system in 2029 when most of the current BTS and BMT construction projects should be completed.  I realized that at 90 I'd probably be not be able to maneuver the escalators in my wheel chair.  That is, if I were still around.  As a septuagenarian, it's much easier to live in the present, to live each day as if it might be my last, because there's a very real chance that this could come true.
All things end in the Tao
As rivers flow into the sea
Tao Te Ching (Stephen Mitchell, trans.)

Rama VIII Bridge can be seen from my window
Despite feeling more content about my life now than at any other time in the past, ruminations about mortality come unbidden and often.  And what better place to ponder the inscrutable mysteries of life than on the banks of the Chao Phraya River which cuts through Bangkok and empties into the Gulf of Thailand. It was originally called Me Nam, or Mother Water, until a European engineer working in Siam in the 1890s gave it its present name, something like "grand duke," which confers royalty on what has also been called the "River of Kings."  I live two long city blocks from the west bank of the river and can see over it but not into it from my 9th floor window.

Wat Arun
Traveling on the river is more peaceful (and often quicker) than by bus.  I catch the boat at the Pinklao pier and travel a half hour downstream to the Saphan Taksin Bridge pier where I can board the Skytrain for Siam or Sukhumvit.  Along the way I could disembark at stops for the Grand Palace, Wat Pho, the Flower Market, Chinatown and the Oriental Hotel.  Ferries cross the river at every point, the best way for example to get to Wat Arun.  I've been on the river boat in a storm when winds actually pushed us backwards, and I've traveled at every hour of the day (they stop at dusk), carefully finding a seat in the shade when possible. They're noisy and crowded and the water sometimes splashed in the face of passengers is not exactly pure, but flowing upstream or down is always a joy.

Wheel at Asiatique
Life IS like a river and the banks of my river, after many twists and turns, are now settled.  The stream is navigable and the destination certain.  In the short term, however, the changes and surprises of life are a delight and show no sign of ceasing. Thailand's military dictatorship is now into its fifth month and provides a constant source of fascination for the social network crowd. The general, now a suited PM, cannot stop talking to the media and there is no lack of suggestions about where he's put his foot.  It is true, however, that despite the significant downturn in tourism and the ridicule of the foreign press, Thailand is more peaceful than its been in years.  Discontent may bubble under the surface in the Land of Smiles but for now it's out of sight.

Looking down on Saphan Taksin
Each day I arise before dawn and if the sunrise is unusually spectacular I take a photo for my "Out the Window" collection. The day begins with juice and drip-brewed espresso to accompany the checking of email, Facebook posts, and the latest items from my Feedly collection and Google News. Then it's onward to Twitter to get the most recent tweets from (this week) Hong Kong's street protests.  Since Nan's a night person and rarely gets home from work before 11, our schedules are out of sync.  For as long as I recall, it's been impossible for me to sleep in (naps are another matter). When she does awake, the proper day begins and she usually cooks me breakfast.  Her latest triumph is hash brown potatoes, but her salmon congee is a culinary delight.  Most days we shower together; she goes off to work and I repair to the pool for my strenuous 10 laps and an hour of poolside reading on my iPad.

With Ajahn Golf and our graduate students
Besides domestic bliss, the great pleasure of my life these days is teaching English to monks.  The year's first term has just ended and I've completed the grade report for my 4th year students studying "Listening & Speaking." I'm awaiting final reports from the graduate students who I've been teaching how to teach English before determining their marks. Teaching myself how to teach has been a fascinating process over the last six years.  I trained to be a historian but my Ph.D. opened up new doors here in Thailand.  My students, who include a few lay people, come from poor backgrounds all over Southeast Asia and for many of them this is their only opportunity to get a degree (it's cheaper than the established universities). Some go only through the motions, their eyes on the prized diploma, but a few each year are outstanding and amaze me with their enthusiasm and brilliance.  I'm putting together a writing class now for the graduate students working on an MA in English and it will begin in a couple of weeks. My fire is burning bright and I've been downloading papers on the "lexical approach" to teaching English, which privileges chunks of speech over memorized grammar. And I'm also taken with the communicative theory of teaching English which aims for mutual understanding more than perfect fluency.  If only I were just beginning at this!  I coulda been a contender!

Rama VIII Park
Habits are the brain's way of conserving energy, and I've got them in spades.  When not teaching at my university's main campus near Ayutthaya or at the graduate classroom next to Wat Srisudaram not far from my home in Pinklao, I spend much of my time at home these days.  Occasionally I travel to the main shopping area of Siam Square to look for books, or to Sukhumvit to visit friends or attend a gathering of my expat Buddhist group.  Other than Jerry, who is responsible for introducing me to Thailand in more ways than I can count, I have few close friends here other than Nan.  Most of my community now is online.  I read now only ebooks and am slowly going through Karl Ove Knausgaard's trilology.  In my iBooks library I've got recent releases by Naomi Klein, Thomas Piketty, Max Blumenthal, Sam Harris and Haruki Murakami as well as Inside the Dream Palace about the Chelsea Hotel.  Rather than read, however, I mostly watch imported TV shows like the excellent new programs "Manhattan" and "The Knick," as well as "Downton Abbey," "Homeland" and the recently completed "Masters of Sex" and "Ray Donovan."  I also watch movies on my small laptop screen and recently enjoyed "The Edge of Heaven," "Chef," "Obvious Child," "Le Weekend" and "The Homesman." I don't lack for diversion.

Pinklao "Bride"
Of course, nothing's perfect.  Besides being overweight (it couldn't be the ice cream, could it), I'm plagued with a variety of probably age related problems.  I still manage to walk up the street after my nap to sip a cappuccino at my favorite watering hole, "I Drink Coffee," with the loud sounds of the latest floor show for slimming treatments going on down below in the Central Pinklao mall.  Like Kant's daily walks, my neighbors in Pinklao can probably tell time by the regularity of my late afternoon stroll.  On the way home I buy flowers for our icons and fresh pineapple and watermelon slices to make a fruit shake in the morning.  I pass the three-legged dogs who are caged during the day and let out at night by the sidewalk vendor who takes care of them.  Three new restaurants have opened near my condo, Lumpini Place, as well as a coffee shop that plays Frank Sinatra tunes on a phonograph.  I was recently asked how "exotic" it was to live in Thailand.  The truth is that every day is both strange and familiar.  I've lived in this neighborhood longer than anywhere else during my long life, and feel as if I know every inch of the road from my place to the mall.  Not the people though. The wall of language and culture will forever keep me on the outside looking in.  All I can do is lay back and watch the river of life flow!

And there's this magnificent song about the flowing of the river.