Monday, October 16, 2017
We’re about a month away from the end of the rainy season here in Thailand. Those tropical rains can really come in a rush, and flash-flooding is common around this time. After five months of frequent rain, the infrastructure to carry off the water can be temporarily over-matched. This YouTube video is a good picture of the results. Generally it all settles down within a couple of hours. It just takes the infrastructure a little time to catch up.
It’s just a case of “life in the big city.” I remember an underground comic that had a cover where two Wall Street types were coming up from the subway onto a New York intersection that was being torn apart by a tyrannosaurus rex. “Jeez,” says one guy, “if it’s not one thing, it’s another.”
Saturday, October 14, 2017
Brace for impact, ladies and gentlemen, this may be a shock. I’m giving Herr President Trump a pass on his mispronunciation of “Tanzania.”
Sure, he did say, on tape, “tan-ZANE-ia,” and that, technically, is wrong. But do we really want to add this to the daily game of “dogpile on the rabbit?” We all, from media giants to grade school wiseasses, jump on Trump’s hurricane of mistakes, gaffs, and faux pas, and we have our reasons. Not only is it right to point out that this guy has no business being our president, but it is also great fun. This Tanzania thing, however, is the bridge too far of Trump mockery.
Tanzania! Could you find it on a map? Tell the truth now. If you found the word “Tanzania” in an article would you read it as “tan-za-KNEE-ah?” Or, more appropriately, “TAN-za-KNEE-ah?” Do you know which of those last two is correct? I don’t, and it’s likely that you don’t either.
And that’s okay! Americans are famous for not caring a fig about foreign languages or geography. Most Americans only discover the location of a foreign country when we start bombing it. African geography is low on most Americans’ lists of important subjects. It’s in the news, and I’m on my guard, so today I would say, “TAN-za-KNEE-ah,” but if it snuck up on me unawares I’d probably blurt out “tan-ZANE-ia,” just like Trump did. So I’m not holding it against him, even though he really should take better briefings about those things. I would, if I were him.
I could make that mistake and not care at all. And I’ll tell you, I’ve had the advantage of knowing two fine young men from Tanzania who were neighbors of mine in a Bangkok condo building for many years. They were studying engineering at a local international university. They were very gracious. I was glad for the opportunity to get to know them a bit, and to find out a few things about their country. One thing that I can tell you: neither of them would care if you mispronounced the name of Tanzania, as long as you were speaking of it respectfully.
And it’s an interesting place! In the early post-colonial period after World War II, Tanganyika and Zanzibar were two of the newly independent countries below the horn of East Africa. (South of Kenya.) I knew from the newspapers in 1964 that they had voted to join themselves into one country called Tanzania. I knew where it was, but that was the sum of my knowledge. I’m sure that I called it “tan-ZANE-ia,” like Trump did yesterday. I’m pretty sure that that’s what everybody called it. My condo neighbors told me that the two cultures were very different, something that I had had no ideas about at all. Tanganyika was on the mainland, and Zanzibar was on a series of islands off the coast. One culture was predominantly Christian; the other predominantly Muslim. I forget right now which was which. One of the students was a Christian, and he was very active in a church in our neighborhood, probably a Korean Presbyterian church. The other fellow was a Muslim. If they are any indication, Tanzania is a hospitable country with a gracious, tolerant culture. I wish them well.
Let’s take this opportunity to forgive Trump this one minor misstep. Do it just this once. Please continue to call him on all of his more crazy or more dangerous utterances, let’s continue to do that, please. And continue to draw attention to the heinous mischief that our current ruling elite are working every day on the American way of life. Trump and his running dogs are leading us down a path that ends where the range of options only covers the space between miserable poverty and post-apocalyptic horror, so the least that we can do is offer some push-back.
Do it for the children! Like your own grandchildren, for instance. Or mine, if you are not so blessed. I’d appreciate it.
Friday, October 13, 2017
Wednesday, October 11, 2017
The time when I will no longer feel like strapping myself into a pressurized cylinder for hours at a time is at hand. I’m not there yet, but I can feel it coming. So the question becomes: are there any places that I would really like to see before, let’s say, the opportunity passes into history? How about things, are there any things that I would love to have owned but never had the chance? That would be things that I could still afford, if they were a priority. Are there any experiences that I would like to add to my resume, experiences that I might still have the strength, money and inclination to arrange? It’s worth thinking about, and now is a better time than even six months from now, owing to the uncertain nature of our mortality.
“Experiences” is an easy category to disregard. There’s no way to discuss that subject in polite company.
“Things” might be tempting. When I was a young man, for instance, I would look longingly at Rolex watches in store windows. (I’ve got a post here on this blog somewhere about Rolexes.) I am no longer such a romantic, though, and I already own a forty-five dollar watch that keeps very good time. My last cheap watch lasted me ten years, so this one might last for the rest of my life.
A car might be a possibility. There was a time when I loved cars and driving, but my last car would be hard to top. That was a 1997 Honda Prelude, and boy it was a swell car, a regular luxury hot rod. I am content with my memories of driving that, and other cars and motorcycles, way too fast. It was fun while it lasted, and I don’t regret any of it. I am grateful to God for having survived it! Now I love taxis (riding in them; I don’t want to own one).
How about “Places?” This is the richest subject for longing.
I’ve been luckier than most people when it comes to traveling. I’ve been lots of places in Europe and Asia. I spent a summer studying in Germany. I’ve been off the beaten path, too. I’ve been to Poland (Lublin and Warsaw), and Canada (Montreal, Toronto and Guelph). I’ve lived in Thailand for thirteen years now, and I’ve actually visited over thirty provinces, adding another thirty if you count riding through on the bus. I speak German and Thai, so I’ve gotten a more accurate read of those countries than typical tourists get. It’s safe to say that I have traveled enough to prevent me from longing for more, but the question remains: are there one or more places that nag at me because I’ve never seen them in person?
That’s the crux of the matter these days, the verb, “to see.” There are certainly places that I would love to see, and God knows that there are many museums that I would dearly love to explore. But these days it’s so easy to “see” just about anything on the Internet.
It would be lovely to travel to Madrid and spend time in the Prado. Ditto Florence and the Uffizi Gallery, and many others. This, for me, is the most frustrating aspect of traveling as a tourist. There isn’t enough time to really absorb the available experience of a large museum. I’ve been to Amsterdam twice, and on one occasion I did go to the Rijksmuseum, which is fabulous. It would, however, take a week to even begin to see it adequately, and my schedule was so accelerated that I couldn’t even give it a day. Here’s what I did. They had just completed a big cleaning of “The Night Watch,” by Rembrandt von Rijn, and it had come out great. So I immediately ran, ran, mind you, to the location of the Night Watch. I walked through the room describing the cleaning process, because conservatorship is an interest of mine, and then I spent about forty-five minutes staring at the painting itself. It was bright and magnificent; it was a lovely experience. A privilege! Then I went to the gift shop and bought a few things. Then we left the museum to go back to wandering around the city. You just can’t do everything you’d like to do. On that same day, we walked past the Anne Frank house, and we were very interested to see it, and its neighborhood, with its tree-lined streets and beautiful canal, but we did not wish to wait on the rather long line to enter. All touristy traveling becomes an exercise in cutting corners.
So if I wish to look at the paintings from the Prado, or the Uffizi, I look on the Internet. This shortcut would work for most cities and many natural phenomena as well. So what are the things that you must do in person?
First of all, there are the unphotographable wonders of the world. Take the Grand Canyon, for instance. You may have been a fan, you may have seen thousands of beautiful, professional photographs of the Grand Canyon, even high resolution posters, but I guarantee you that the first time you approach the rim of the canyon itself on foot you will be experiencing it in all of its majesty for the first time. The scope of it, and the colors and textures, cannot be captured in photos. This happens not only with natural places, but also with certain buildings or monuments. One example is the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumper, Malaysia. I had always admired them in photographs, finding them to be among the most beautiful sky-scrappers, architecturally speaking. The first time I laid eyes on them, however, I was stunned; I actually swayed back on my heels and caught my breath. The sun was full on them, and the effect was electric. It turns out that they are entirely clad with high-gloss, lush stainless steel! There’s no way to get the full impact of that on the Internet.
There are certainly places the seeing of which could be as exciting as the Grand Canyon or the Petronas Towers, but I’m choosing not to think about them too much. I certainly have no intention of making a list of some kind. There is, though, one category of places that tugs at my heart.
These are the experiences that transcend the mere act of looking at things. I worry that there are places in the world where it would be important and meaningful for me to simply be for a while. Just to BE in that place, to see it and smell it and hear it, to touch the trees and the grass, to eat the food. This is something that most people probably don’t think about very often, but if you think about it right now I’ll bet that you can come up with a few ideas.
I can think of a couple of such places that I have been in my life and would love to revisit. Lake George, in the Adirondack Mountains of New York State, comes to mind. Sure, the environs and the appearance of many things would have changed since my many visits long ago, but the lake itself and the forest and the mountains (hills, really) around the lake would be the same. I’m pretty sure that Rogers’ Rock looks about the same. I often have the experience in my thoughts, or in my dreams, but it would be wonderful to be there again.
Then there are the places that I have never been. I was considering the entire idea of vacations earlier today, and it was on the verge of seeming like a waste of time. I’ve been so many places already, why bother? I already live in Thailand, and even after being here for so long it’s like being on vacation all the time. Then I thought, what about Ireland? I know so much about Ireland, and five of my great-grandparents were born there. Wouldn’t it be lovely to be there? To see the green, and feel the breeze, and smell the rain? I’d be happy just to sit on a bench in a park in Dublin for a couple of days, then go down to Waterford and Cork, where my people left from, on the intercity bus, or train, or whatever they have in Ireland. Having Irish blood running through your veins can be a strange feeling. It seems to bring a set of hopes and dreams along with it, unbidden. It brings physical things as well, like the Celtic Palate, the melancholy, and the thirst. I have suffered, more or less, from these things, myself and through the actions of my mother and grandmother. (God rest their souls, and he may have. Either way, the matter is settled by now.) And yet I’ve never been to Ireland; I am a stranger to my own place. Maybe I should correct that oversight.
In the instant that it took to move to this paragraph I started to over-think such a vacation. Luckily, I caught that error immediately and have resolved to just fly to Dublin if the trip ever becomes a reality. I wonder if this is the sum of my bucket list. It might be, and it might just happen at that.
Monday, October 9, 2017
One of my Facebook friends encountered something odd the other day. Waking up that morning, as she described to us, she had discovered that someone had stolen one of her garbage pails during the night! Disturbing, certainly, but at least no burglary was involved. There was no breaking and entering the domicile while she was sleeping. And thank God it was not a robbery! No “force or fear” was involved. It may have belonged to a municipality, which could make the matter better or worse. They might take her word for it that the thing was stolen, or they may accuse her of having sold it go get money for . . . let’s say groceries, okay? But you know what they’d be thinking. It was a violation, though, hopefully it did not grow to include multiple violations. Even life’s smaller violations are annoying.
Annoying, and often somewhat perplexing. I was reminded of the smallest loss of property that I have ever suffered by theft, which coincidentally was also the most perplexing.
I was a guest of the United States Navy when it happened, a guest and a dues-paying member of the club, too. My regular quarters at the time were in the desert outside of Las Vegas, but the Navy had become suspicious of my general demeanor and sent me to a really lovely Naval facility in San Diego, California, to get to the bottom of things. They wished to discover whether my suspicious behavior was due to: 1) malingering; 2) skylarking; 3) a wish to be discharged from my responsibilities without actually having done anything wrong; 4) some kind of mental aberration; or 5) maybe I was just wound too tightly.
For this purpose, I was housed in an unlocked ward in the Babloa Naval Hospital, in the section of the hospital devoted to matters not relating to physical injury or illness. The ward was quite crowded with a diverse group of mostly young men who all fit into one of the above mentioned five categories.
The biggest group were the bad attitudes, the guys who either couldn’t stay out of trouble or who wouldn’t do anything simply because an officer had ordered them to do it. Most of them were easy to get along with. There was one guy about nineteen-years-old whose job, like mine, was to drive a panel truck around the local city accomplishing the errands of the Navy. While I merely took ordinary care not to damage my vehicle while it was in my possession, this young man had gone a bit overboard caring for his truck. He washed and polished it daily, after hours and well into the evening. He made the motor pool guys crazy, and they in turn decided that he was crazy. He was sent to Balboa so that the issue could be decided by professionals. The rest of us in the ward voted for “crazy,” since the guy wouldn’t shut up about his truck and how much he was worried about it. I suppose he could have been acting, but he didn’t seem smart enough to sustain such a perfect act. I’m sure they got rid of him.
There were a couple of guys who had been thrown into the service by their families, thrown to the lions, as it were, in a desperate hope that the service, either the Navy or the Marines, would make a man out of them whereas up to that time they had been hopeless dipshits who could never defend themselves or play games with other boys, guys who had never climbed a tree or had a fight in their lives, guys that cried if you looked at them funny. That effort never works, the military cannot assist with miracles like that. They were pathetic, and we left them as alone as possible.
The Vietnam War was in high gear at the time, and we had a couple of shell-shock victims. Marines, you know, are members of the Navy for purposes of administration and transportation. The “combat fatigue” group were over in the other end of the ward, which was just a matter of turning left instead of right when you walked in. There were a couple of mumblers who wouldn’t look you in the eye. We could kind of talk to them, and we were sure that they’d be okay before long. They walked to the galley for their meals. It’s just that not everyone is cut out for combat. All of that sleep deprivation, coupled with the explosions and the incoming gunfire, gets to many people after a while. There was one very sad case, though. He was a gunnery sergeant, that’s a big deal in the Marine Corps, about forty-years-old. He never said a word, and he never looked at anybody, and evidently, he had not done either thing since he snapped on an afternoon in the combat zone when things got a bit too exciting for him. Snap, just like that, and he stayed snapped for the entire three weeks that I was there. He woke up every morning, made his bed Marine style, showered and shaved, put on his greens (their kind of casual dress uniform), tie and all, with all of the buttons buttoned, including his impossibly shiny shoes, and then sat ramrod straight in the chair next to the bed, staring straight ahead. We gave him room to breathe. I hope that he came out of it okay.
My friend losing her garbage can caused me to recall something that happened during my San Diego vacation at the Navy’s expense, and set me thinking down these old avenues.
It was an open ward, so one’s private space extended about a foot and a half in every direction from one’s own bed, and no further. New arrivals are advised to place their wallet and wrist watch in the far end of their pillow case and sleep with their heads between the valuables and the open side of the pillow case, with at least one hand grasping the items through the closed end of the pillow case. Anything you don’t want to lose, boys, put your Zippo in there, too. I did that, and the system worked fine.
One morning, I woke up on time and performed my ablutions as usual. I made up my bed and got dressed. I sat on my chair and got my shoes from under the bed and low and behold, ONE OF THE SHOELACES WAS MISSING. Only one of the shoelaces. I think that my first words were, “who steals one fucking shoelace?”
This event was annoying, but it was also unfathomably peculiar, because there were multiple shopping opportunities close at hand, all of which sold shoelaces. I took it as a lesson that some people are just so naturally disposed to the theft of property that it would never occur to them to buy a nineteen-cent item that is readily available nearby when one of that item was even closer and could be stolen with only a slight chance of being found out. I walked slowly to breakfast, and afterwards I stopped off and bought a pair of shoelaces.
At the end of my three weeks, the Navy decided that I was just wound too tightly. They added a finding that I was not attempting to get myself discharged from the Navy, which enabled them to give me an Honorable Discharge with a clear conscience. (“Catch 22” in action.)
The odds are that I knew the guy who took the shoelace, and that we got along fine. I got along with everybody very well in that place, black, white and Hispanic. We’re all closing in on seventy-years-old about now, and wherever you guys are, I wish you all well.
No hard feelings about the shoelace.