Wednesday, December 31, 2014

It's Been a Very Good Life

But now the days are short, 
I'm in the autumn of my years 
And I think of my life as vintage wine 
From fine old kegs 
From the brim to the dregs 
It poured sweet and clear 
It was a very good year 

No, I'm not signing out, yet.  But it's New Year's Eve, that time of the year when people take stock of the past and add up its pluses and minuses.  The media has been printing lists of the best and the worst of 2014.  I know it's artificial and a space filler, but there's nothing wrong with looking back so long as it isn't to scratch scabs and stoke the fires of guilt.

This has been the year that I turned 75.  I'm in the "autumn of my years," and when I reminisce it's not just about the last 12 months.  The knowledge that I could keel over at any moment prompts almost a daily summing up.  Did I do OK?

Building houses in Guatemala
This blog surfaced more than six years ago when I still lived in a converted garage in California and was coming to terms with my life as a non-working, single man after two long marriages and several careers.  Income from Social Security and my share from the sale of my mother's house, as well as a buyout from my ex-wife, brought economic freedom and an abundance of choices. I'd begun to travel a year or so before, to Central and South America, Europe and Asia, and I'd retired as a late-blooming teacher from the University of California at Santa Cruz.  The email letters I'd written to friends about my travels gradually morphed into this blog.

I gave the blog a title with the most inflammatory topics I could think of, and for the most part I think I've written about all three with enough honesty and pizazz to disturb a few sensibilities here and there.  My most popular post has been about sexpats in Pattaya and number two was about the death of President Kennedy, the first reality TV show. A post on the debate between religious and secular Buddhists comes in third and, surprisingly, the fourth most popular post was about my gay Uncle Ted.  At number 5 is a sympathetic post on the ethics of internet piracy.  For the most part I'm proud of my 559 posts (this being the 560th).  Sometimes I think about collecting the best bits for publication in a digital or paper book, but the challenge at this late stage feels overwhelming.  I suppose the posts will remain until the electrical power fails in some future climatological catastrophe.

Lately I've been less inspired to get on my soapbox about anything and so the posts per month have been dwindling.  (There is nothing more boring than a blog post about how I haven't written much lately!) Among other reasons for writing on this New Year's Eve, this post is a way to put at least something into December.  I don't think much about readers and only know who a few of them are. Blogger gives me lots of stats to inform me that my most popular post has been seen by 2,599 (probably all looking for what to expect in Pattaya), and that of the Kennedy assassination has had a little over 1,000 viewers.  I had 3,000 page views last month, but a typical post gets no more than a couple of hundred looks (who knows if they read it?).  Each year since 2007, when I penned 134, I've written fewer post; this year it's been a total of 23.  Perhaps I've said all I need to say?

The general thrust of most of my blog posts since moving permanently to Thailand has been: I'm happy.  After my first year in Bangkok a friend dubbed me "Expat Rookie of the Year."  That made me exceptionally proud! Little about my new life has disappointed me.  I wrote once that my biggest upset was caused by the typically slow stroll of Thais on the sidewalk.  Not in a straight line either! But such frustrations aside, leaving the U.S. and coming to this tropical land was the perfect solution to the slow death by boredom I was experiencing after divorce and retirement.  For most of my life I've felt there must be more to it than I was experiencing. But it was only after I came here, began teaching English to monks and met my lovely Nan, that I have felt that, finally, there is enough.

My academic career has been erratic.  I dropped out of UC Berkeley not once but twice.  My original major had been English, and the second time it was journalism.  I left to be a reporter rather than just study about it.  In mid-life I took a few night classes from time to time, in philosophy and math, and then some extension courses in quantum physics and new age thinking.  Finally, at 46, I enrolled again, finished a philosophy BA and kept going in a European history graduate program.  After a few bumps in the road, I graduated with a Ph.D. in U.S. environmental history.  Teaching was frustrating, however, because most of my students were more interested in smoking dope than in reading books. So I quit and went on the road.  In Thailand I was challenged to teach English to monks at the Buddhist university and I began my classes with some trepidation.  Six years later it's become the most rewarding career of my life.

For most of the time I've been teaching a basic listening and speaking class to 3rd and 4th year students majoring in English.  There are a few laypeople, more each year, but most are young Buddhist monks (and at least two non-Thai nuns). In the beginning they were largely from Thailand with some from Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar (Shan state in particular). Now, though, I've got students also from Bangladesh, Vietnam, Taiwan, Nepal, and southern China.  After a few years I was asked to teach linguistics in a weekend graduate program.  When an MA program in English began, most of my students transferred into it.  Last term I moved over and taught students how to teach English.  This term I'm teaching a writing class; I've got my students writing on Facebook and Twitter!  As a relatively new teacher, each class taught for the first time requires extensive preparation, and I love it! And I've become fascinated by the academic field of English for non-native speakers itself with its different acronyms -- ESL, EFL, ELL, etc.  Most English speakers today are non-natives and preparing students for communicating with other non-natives will necessitate a looser reliance on grammar and spelling.  I'd like to live long enough to write a book on "good enough English," and to teach strategies for dialogues between speakers of imperfect English -- "What did you say?", "Do you mean ...", and so on.  In addition to teaching classes, I'm now an adviser for students who are preparing a thesis topic.  Five of them are sending me work in progress.

Faithful readers (are there any still around?) know that I sampled the sexpat scene during my first trips to Thailand and found it ultimately unsatisfying.  Even before I moved, I was an engaged patron of a large online dating site where mostly Thai women looked for mostly farang boyfriends and husbands.  My first dates in Bangkok were with a number of patrons of that site.  Several I took on travels to Phuket and Luang Prabang.  My first girlfriend worked for Thai Post and asked me online to help her with English.  We lived together for nearly a year.  And then, in May of 2009, I met Nan for coffee.  She had posted another girl's photo on her profile so I didn't recognize her at first.  She wanted to eat farang food so I took her to Sizzler's.  It didn't take long for us to fall in love.  She moved in with me at the end of the summer and we were married a year later at the Bang Rak (rak is Thai for love) city hall..

I was a twice-married, overweight elderly American, and she was a young girl from a village in the northern province of Phayao who had come to Bangkok a few years before to find a better life. When we met she had an office job for a company that manufactured foam packaging and lived in a tiny room (office jobs don't pay very much).  Unlike others I'd met, she wasn't ashamed of the differences in our background and age and soon introduced me proudly to her relatives.  Now I feel like a member of the family.  I asked her what she wanted out of life and she said it was to finish university. So she became a student and graduated, as Thais do, in a colorful ceremony where she received a diploma from the crown prince.  Then she got certified as a physical therapist and for the past two years she has been working at a health spa in an upscale Bangkok hotel.  Next year she's thinking of exploring new options, and I support her in preparing for a future in which I will probably be absent.

Nan and I have a good life together.  Last April we vacationed in Kyoto, Japan, and our past holiday itineraries have included Hong Kong, Singapore and Seoul.  In Thailand we've visited the nearby island Koh Samed many times as well as Koh Chang, Koh Samui and Ao Nang.  I've been to her small village three times.  Next year we're talking about Shanghai.  In addition to working full time, Nan cooks most of my meals and keeps the house and our clothes clean.  On her days off we inevitably find a nice restaurant for lunch or dinner, our culinary ritual.  When not together, we keep in touch almost hourly on Line, the popular Asian social media app.  Her English has improved considerably over the nearly six years we've been together.  Sad to say, my Thai remains at a more primitive level.  Occasionally I irritate her by learning impolite Thai words all on my own.  Next month she celebrates her 30th birthday and we're planning a grand celebration. I can say without qualification that Nan (Thai name Siriporn) is my best wife ever!

It's here that this past year and my long life come together.  Both are "very good." Aside from my life with Nan, my teaching monks, and the Epicurean pleasures of daily life in the tropics, even the current political situation in Thailand is a plus.  No reality TV show could be more exciting.  The military coup of last May and its ramifications, the daily headlines hinting at mysteries and improbabilities beyond the ken of mere mortals, and the undoubtably exciting prospects for momentous change in that not too distant future make for a delectable social media stew. I put in a good three hours on the computer every morning keeping track of it all. I really hope I don't keel over tomorrow. Life now is just too much fun!