Monday, April 03, 2017

Won't you spare me over ‘til another year?

"I grow old ... I grow old ...
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled."
T.S. Eliot, "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

I began writing this blog when I was 65. Nearly two years ago I stopped posting here, as I felt that I had no longer much to say beyond the short bits I put on my Facebook and Twitter sites. Photos, taken and found, had become more interesting to me than words. And after eight years as an expat in Bangkok, it seemed as if I'd seen and photographed everything. The last few posts in 2015 were a kind of summing up of my life.

But I'm not dead yet. Life goes on and my mind spews forth a litany of thoughts, views and opinions on a daily basis, too much for the social media outlets to which I subscribe. Who wants to read about death anyway? Often I feel like the last elderly man standing, and social media is a game for the young. One lovely lady I knew in junior high school is here, but the rest of my early school cohort are either lost to Alzheimer's or using their tablets as chopping boards. They know what aging is about but the others don't care.

Aging is not for sissies, Bette Davis supposedly said, and Tolstoy spoke of old age as life's biggest surprise.  I've seen it coming for a long time and it doesn't take much work.  I'm 77 now and I've enjoyed those numbers since I always thought 7 was a lucky one and it's doubled.  In a few months I'll turn 78 and see nothing auspicious about that.  It's too close to 80.

When I started this blog several years after my second marriage ended and I'd retired to travel the world to collect adventures, I chose a name to mark out my domain of controversy.  "We don't talk about those topics, dear," my mother would say to me when I asked uncomfortable questions.  No one ever talked about the sexual orientation of my father's twin brother until long after he was gone.  As for politics, my family was solidly middle class and Nixon supporters.  An aunt warned me that communists were teaching Shakespeare in Berkeley where I was going to study.  My own post-marriage sexuality a few years after a diagnosis of prostate cancer was an open question.  Religion was the easy one.  I was an enthusiastic participant in the Catholic mass and a meditator in a couple of Western Buddhist traditions.  In short, my thoughts on religion, politics and sex were homegrown and developing. The trick was to articulate them in ways that would help me understand myself.

Like most of the elderly, I read the obituaries, thrilling when the dead are older than me and cringing when they are not.  The words "after a long illness" are especially troubling.  My closest friend in Bangkok has been in the process of dying for the last year after he turned 80 with a big party in a ladyboy bar.  The heart is his Achilles Heel as it was his father's.  He's had open heart surgery and a pacemaker installed, and now it's the ebb and flow of edema and lung congestion.  Muscle tissue wastes away.  But as long as he can find someone to push his wheel chair up the street, he's happy.

My father had two heart attacks when he was my age.  During the last years of his life he lived in close proximity to an oxygen tank to assist his breathing.  When young my father abhorred doctors and refused to ever admit he was sick.  At the end he was often in and out of the hospital and took his many medications faithfully as if they were sacraments.

I can still walk and breathe almost like a young man.  But my body is infused with arthritis as was my mother's.  She taught me that sitting can cause more pain than walking.  Recently I came down with bronchitis, and when a pesky cough refused to go away I was given a dose of prednisolone.  Years ago I took this drug and it cured a terrible asthma attack in hours.  But it's a steroid and carries risks. A friend died of a fungus infection that was connected with too much prednisone.  So I was cautious but hopeful.  My cure wasn't dramatic and the cough lingered before going away.  The surprise was the effect the drug had on my body.  Almost all the arthritis pain disappeared and I was able to sprint out of my chair after sitting.  When I stopped taking it, the old familiar aches and paints of aging returned.  

I told my son recently that my death of choice would be to keel over while teaching English to a roomful of monks at the university where I've worked for nearly ten years.  They would be shocked and sad, but understanding, for death is a part of life to those growing up in the farming regions of Southeast Asia.  As monks they believe that one's life is only in transition between one rebirth and another. I long ago lost my faith in metaphors and consoling stories, and although I'm certain my future is only ashes I would avoid encouraging any believers to share my unbelief.

As someone who lives each day with one foot planted in real life and the other in the grave (I didn't really mean that above about metaphors), the main difference I see between the me who started to write this blog in 2006 and the me who may or may not continue writing it in 2017 is that I no longer make plans.  By that I mean long-term plans, like finally writing that novel I was always meant to write. Short-term plans, sure. My friend and I make an appointment for lunch next week. I write in my calendar the dates for Songkran and our trip to Nan's village in Phayao. Since I have to renew my work permit and visa every May 31, that is a date I don't forget. Or the day of my 90-days report to the Immigration Office which happens to be tomorrow.

What I mean is I make no plans for 2018. I watch the slow construction of the overhead rail system that I can see from my window. There is construction for the transit system going on all over Bangkok which has one of the worst current public transportation systems in Asia. Some day it will be easy to get around the city by the BTS or MRT, but I don't expect it will be by me. Completion is too far in the future.

I don't exercise, beyond a few laps in the pool every few days because I like it, and I don't think much about what I eat, the excessive intake of ice cream and Oreos, because this body I've carried around for 77 years is not going to improve. Improvement involves thought for the future and the uncertainty that tomorrow brings. My days are directed mostly by habit, since habitual behavior is known to save on brain energy which I need to understand the threats and crises faced by the planet these days. Going to the pool at 10 and up the street for cappuccino at 5 leaves my brain free to keep track of the Apocalypse.

Yes, I could die tomorrow and the odds are in favor of it. But today, right now, I'm alive and the fan across the room dries my sweat. Outside the sun is shining through the morning mist over Bangkok. The traffic on the highway has passed its morning peak. And I have things to do, thoughts to think, and even places to go.  I might even write another blog post, or two.