Wednesday, May 6, 2015

The Joys Of Air Travel

(From notes made on April 23, 2015.) 

Which turned out to be a Thursday.  I had confused myself mightily about the day that I was taking off to return to Thailand.  My flight left at half-past midnight, but was I going to the airport on Wednesday evening or Thursday evening?  I had been in the U.S. for four weeks, and I was in quite a state by the last few days.

This was the hardest trip that I’ve ever taken.  But at least I was at the gate waiting for the plane to go home to my adopted country.  The easiest part would be sitting through the eighteen hours of air time, in two legs, before I got there.

I do not recommend traveling with guitars.  They look all light and airy watching a YouTube video or something, but once you put them in hard cases and carry them by the handles they get awfully heavy very bloody quickly.  On this trip I was traveling with one suitcase as big as Dallas; one canvas attaché case that felt like I was smuggling Glocks; and two guitars.  I was thinking, hoping, that both of the guitars would to in the checked baggage.  But no, when the dimensional computations had been completed, one went to “oversize,” delivered by me, and the other went to “gate use,” hand carried to the gate by me.  I was afraid that I’d have to carry it around the stopover airport too, but happily it went straight through to “oversize baggage” in Bangkok. 

None of this, not the bags, not the guitars, not the eighteen flight hours, will even approach the top of the “bloody awful” list for this trip.  But those are stories for another day, at least until after the nightmares stop.

Having spoken with my cousin, whom I call “Mr. Up-In-The-Air,” with untold millions of miles to his credit, I tried a new trick at check-in.  “Are there any upgrades available?”  Indeed, there were.  I was offered an upgrade to premium economy for a mere $750.  I declined.  Those seats are only slightly more spacious, and they are laid out in a 2-4-2 configuration.  I much prefer the 3-3-3 of regular economy, and I had the “G” seat, which I think is perfect.  That’s on the right isle, the starboard isle, of the middle three.  In a “G” seat, I’ve never had anyone climb over me to get out, not once.  Often the middle seat is empty, those are the last ones to go, and often the people in the “E” and the “F” seats are traveling together.  If the “F” wants to get out, he’ll climb over his friend.   So no, I’ll stick with my “G” seat. The middle seat was, indeed, empty.  

I did mention business class upgrades.  I had been prepared to pay up to $1000 for the privilege.  “Yes, sir,” said the lovely Chinese Tiffany, “$3000.”  I declined as politely as I could manage, which only included one brief chocked scream. 

In case anyone needs a lesson, and provided strictly as a public service, here’s what you do on a commercial flight:

You sit the fuck down and shut the fuck up.

You sit down and you come to rest.

You leave the seat back upright and the tray table up.

You shut your phone off, preferably before they ask you to turn it off.

And please know that there is a particularly disagreeable circle of Hell prepared for people who grab and twist the seat back in front of them willy-nilly. 

And no flipping around like a sturgeon in the bottom of a boat either.  There’ll be plenty of time for calisthenics when you get where you’re going.

And no disturbing the peace of the seat back in front of you, keep your knees off of it as well as your hands.  (Unless you’re over 6’2”, in which case you can’t help it and you have my sympathy.  But even then, please keep it to a minimum. )

Issue of first impression!!!  I’ve been traveling by plane for over sixty years now, and this had never happened before.  We were at altitude with the cabin lights out and suddenly there’s an urgent announcement and the lights come on.  “Would all doctors or other medical personnel please step forward immediately.”  The entire cabin crew started running up and down the isles frantically asking us individually if we were doctors.  I was afraid that we’d have to make an emergency landing in the Aleutians or something, but the subject never came up.  We never heard what had happened.

I’ve never been so glad to be home.  When our wheels touched the ground in Bangkok I smiled ear to ear for five minutes.  I even brought the good weather!  April is the hottest month in Thailand, by far, and the typical three week hot streak broke the day that I arrived.  Then it started raining, and temperatures moderated even further.   Further proof that I am a lucky man, as if more proof were needed.    

Sunday, April 26, 2015

So Yes, I'm Back

I'm back from my trip to the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave.  Back in the country that actually calls itself "The Land of the Free," right in the country's name (Thailand).  I'm very happy to be here, to be home.

The less said about the trip the better, although I'm sure that it will come up.  After the nightmares stop, maybe.

Google, and Hotmail too for that matter, decided to protect me from myself for the entire trip.  On this trip, and for the first time, after ten years of traveling around and signing in from everywhere, they decided that I was a security risk to myself because I was not at my customary IPO.  There was nothing that I could do to convince them that it was me, either.  Believe me, I tried.  I was provided with codes that somehow never "matched the code in our files."  Even after I got back it took me a half hour to convince them that it was me now and it had been me in Los Angeles too.  I'm sure they'll apologize.

Nice to be back.  Sorry for the forced absence.

Not A Movie Review: Godzilla Raids Again

This is the rare one.  The first sequel, released in Japan in 1955.  It's been hard to see for all of this time.  I've seen all of the other Godzilla movies multiple times, but I had never seen this one until I got hold of a very nice DVD recently.  Full length, in Japanese, with English subtitles (or in a dubbed version, both are on the DVD).

I always say, "not a movie review," because my concerns are not academic at all.  For instance, I'm overly fascinated with the devices and the vehicles.

And the suits are a fascinating subject too.  The suit in "Raids Again" was a good one, certainly much better than the movies that followed in the 1960's.  Godzilla usually appears at night in this movie, with great use of fire as a prop.  The high contrast scenes enhance the effectiveness of the G suit.

There's always a lot of discussion in the Godzilla community about the quality of the monster fights.  The fights in this movie were spectacular, better than anything that followed until 2001's Godzilla, Mothra, King Gidorah:  Giant Monsters All Out Attack.  The opponent in this movie is called Anguilas.  The climactic fight ends in a spectacular, bloody kill with a neck-breaking bite followed by a blast of Atomic Breath.

That's the leading man on the left, Hiroshi Koizumi.  He had made twelve movies already, and went on to clock ninety-four all together, including Mothra and five other Godzilla movies.  The actors in these movies were real pros, they could be believable in any type of role.

The fellow on the right is the best friend, Minoru Chiaki.  You may remember him from Seven Samurai (1954?), where he played the likeable but very strong, heavy set samurai who was an old comrade of Takashi Shimura's.  (Takashi's in this movie too, same professor as in the original Godzilla).  He was in a lot of really high quality movies, starting out with Stray Dog in 1949.  Always the best friend.  He died in Seven Samurai, and he dies in this movie too.  The curse of the best man.

The leading lady, Setsuko Wakayama.  This was her only Godzilla movie.  She does a good job of it.

I include this picture for my Thai friends.  This is a party to celebrate (prematurely) the end of this Godzilla crisis, and the party is being held in the Yayoi Restaurant!  Just like the Yayoi in every mall in Bangkok!

There's a long interlude of peaceful human interaction after Godzilla kills Anguilas, but off course the G-Man returns.  They "kill" him by causing avalanches that buries him in snow and ice.

Very good music in this movie, too.  It echos the themes of the original, but is simultaneously more martial and less strident.

It's a good movie.  I have no idea why it's been kept so under wraps all of these years.  It's certainly better on all counts than some of the '60's movies.  Better human characters, better story, better acting, better monster fights.  I'm glad that it's out there to see at this point.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Air Travel, The New Thrill Ride

My first airplane flight was in 1952.  Washington D.C. to La Guardia on an American Airlines Lockheed Constellation.  I was four.  Since then I've taken hundreds of trips by plane, flying in everything from the relatively safe Boeings to the dreaded Lockheed Electra.  For most of my life I just enjoyed the excitement of it, without worrying about the possibilities of trouble.  More recently, I must admit, the thrill has become a little darker.

No surprise.  These days I even get a little bit scared on the upper floors of high buildings. 

I'll be leaving for the airport in a couple of hours.  This trip is one of those twenty-four-hour marathons from South East Asia to California.  As a cheerful sendoff, a GermanWings Airbus A-320 crashed into the French mountains this morning. 

Honestly, I still understand that there are a huge number of successful take-offs and landings around the world every day, virtually all of which are trouble free.  But the last year or so has not been without signs of trouble in the air travel business.  Pilot errors, total mysteries, and the growing suspicion that modern planes are so automated that pilots are forgetting how to fly, quite a litany of crashes. 

Still, the odds are with me.  I won't be getting any travel insurance.  I'll be fine.  I'm sure!  Probably.

Monday, March 23, 2015

The Acommodation Of Impending Death

I just read about an established poet who was finding some kind of new success in his exploitation of his impending death.  From what, I didn't bother reading.  Dude might be crying about it, or he might just be trying to help the rest of us understand the process, I don't care.  We all die of something, and I'm not detail oriented.

I snorted a derisive laugh and said, to no one in particular, impending death?  shit, that's where we all live.  Maybe we should all cash in on that ticket.  We're all going there, why not all cash in?  Some of us will be gone in a heartbeat; some in an eye blink; some will last what seems like forever.  We're all going though, and it all works out to "soon" in the scheme of things.  

Am I dying?  Sure.  That's the only condition available to the living.  What, you think it happens all at once?  One day you will go to sleep comfortably alive and then, somehow, without warning, you will be dead the next day?  As Howard Stern's father used to say:  don't be stupid, you moron.

Upon reflection, it does happen.  It happens to people who die in unfortunate accidents in the prime of life, or even before.  I'll always remember Nancy Rennart, my little sister's friend, who died of misadventure on a bicycle at the age of about seven.  I remember my own friends Hilary and Flip, who died shortly after high school of car accident and fire, respectively.  For some, the end comes almost immediately.  There's a grave right across the isle from my grandparents that is a particular cautionary tale for me.  Little Joey Tanaka, Joseph, born the same August as me in 1948 and dead before his first September. 

For the rest of us, it goes a little like this:  at twenty-five, you're hardly dead at all; at thirty-five, you might start to see it on the horizon; at forty-five, you've begun to notice little hints that the party will end some day; at fifty-five, you're probably starting to panic; at sixty-five, you accept that it will happen, and you understand that it is happening slowly right fucking now; if you're lucky enough to be alive at seventy-five, you probably feel three-fourths dead already.  After that, every day is a miracle.

I don't think that it is cool when some among us discover that they are dying and thereupon become so interested in the process that they must devote themselves to writing about it, or, more likely, discover that they have just had a wonderful new meal-ticket handed to them, and if they should only share their suffering with sufficient elan it will ease their last days, financially, or at least find them a wider readership, finally.

Oh, I'm just being a bitch.  Such people are just trying to be helpful, in the manner of writers, trying to clarify our common experiences.  Aren't they?  Sure!  Believe it!   

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Magic Sam - Roll Your Moneymaker

You know that I love these underrated performers from days gone by.  I have a hunch that the best time around, back in old time Chicago, was Magic Sam up in some club somewhere.  The man's whole style spells FUN. 

From what I read, Sam wasn't particular about his equipment.  Maybe he'd show up with a guitar, or maybe he'd just play what was laying around, and for amps he'd always play the house set up.  I don't think that the man was particularly adept with money, relationships, or impulse control.  But he sure could play.  Maybe not a solid tone-Meister like some of the other guys, with the heavy fingers and all, but he could sure keep the musical idea coming on strong, and he could keep the guitar ringing, "like a bell," as they say.  He's a good singer too.  And as a performer, doesn't he sound like a real charmer?  A great little entertainer? 

I find everything about Magic Sam endearing.  That's the word.  His style; his smile; his flaws; everything.   Largely forgotten, and it's a shame.  I hope that he doesn't get lost in the shuffle along the line.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Yet More Adventures In Asian Cable TV

Yes, another teaching trip to another rural provincial capital.  And another clean but unexciting little hotel, The Diamond Park Inn in Chiang Rai, 600 Baht (about seventeen dollars), special price for the itinerant professor. 

The image on the cable TV was nice and sharp, and there were lots of channels.  All but four channels were in Thai.  The four foreign channels were:  RT (Russia Today!  All in English); Deutsche Welle (a presentation of the German government, also all in English); TV5 Monde (all in French, but almost always with English subtitles); and an uninteresting Chinese station, not CCTV. 

RT has changed over the years.  In the past I have remarked that RT was light on the politics and long on the fair-minded entertainment and news.  Well those days have gone.  The present incarnation of RT is a wholly owned propaganda subsidiary of Vlad “The Impaler” Putin, Incorporated.  Ably assisted by a whole slew of American on air personalities.  Including Larry King!  Imagine! 

I’m sure that you were all wondering, as I was, what Larry King was up to, and if, indeed, he was still answering role call.  His RT show is called “PoliticKing.”  He’s still a good soldier.  I saw him do a station promo in which he delivered RT’s tag line, “question more.”  I actually saw an installment of the show.  They’re about twenty minutes long.  Larry “interviewed” Robert Reich.  I say interviewed with a sense of humor.  Larry was trying hard to stay awake while reading unconnected questions off of a handy list.  It’s a job, I guess.

There were quite a few opinion shows that were vaguely focused on politics or the news.  The wildest one that I saw was “The Keiser Report,” featuring Max Keiser.  Max is American, as are most of the on-air personalities.  He reminds one of Louis Black in many ways, the wild eyes, the skewed tie, his general appearance.  The tone of the show was typical for RT:  critical of the American government but sympathetic to the American people. 

After a day and a half I was wondering why there had been no mention of Mr. Putin.  Finally there was a snarky piece about his recent disappearance.  He’d been off the radar for two weeks at that point, unbeknownst to me.  They commented on the silliness of Western news speculating that Putin had been ousted, or was sick, or having a breakdown or something.  “He’s a busy man,” the reporter said cheerfully, “he’s always off doing something and he doesn’t have to check in with Western media.”  And that was that.  Thanks for letting us know who the boss is over there at RT. 

Deutsche Welle and TV5 Monde are heavy on the cultural programming, so I saw quite a few European music acts.  These always fascinate me.  In general, people in Europe do not seem to understand that in order to be considered a very entertaining music act you should be either a great singer, or a great musician, or very good looking, or very charismatic.  Some combination of these things is ideal.  Noto Bene, my European friends, the complete absence of all of the above qualifications should be a fatal shortcoming in the music business. 

Having said that, most of the musical acts on these European shows are just dead dull.  Including, but not limited to, the French.  I rather like the French, at least until they get sucked up into that tornado of self-importance that is where they live.  I watched a show called “La Fete de la Chanson,” not without being somewhat entertained.  (What is that?  The holiday of the singing women or something.)  At least the French seem to understand that being attractive, for a woman at least, is an advantage in the music business.  Amazingly, being positively unattractive seems to be a requirement for male singers.  Sad, awkward non-singing is well tolerated among the men.  As for the distaff side, the more attractive the women are, the worse they sing.  The songs are musically uninteresting in general. 

I’ll allow that it may all be more substantive if one understands French, which I do not.  But what must they think of us?  And are we any better?  Is American music so great these days?  Regarding the popular stuff, I’d hate to have that end of the debate.  There was a time, but I often wonder if that time has passed. 

The challenge to credulity presented by the Deutsche Welle is wondering how the Germans have gotten so dull all of a sudden.  Only kidding!  No, really!  It’s the Deutsche Welle that is dull, not the Germans.  I wouldn’t want all Americans to be judged by CSPAN. 

It was nice to get back to my (rented) condo and see some REAL cable TV.  (That’s a joke, son.)