Monday, September 28, 2009

The Ongoing Torture Annoyance

I keep reading about all of this torture business, and I find many aspects of it totally annoying.

For one thing, it all seems so half-hearted. Confining someone in a box with lots of insects? Come on, they do that on “I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here!” The viewing public seems to find it entertaining, and the celebrities find it merely annoying.

Water-boarding, wall-slamming, forced nudity, stress postures, sleep deprivation, let’s face it, theatricality aside, this stuff won’t get you very far. Those were the authorized tortures.

Then there’s the unauthorized stuff, the “improvised, inhumane and undocumented” stuff, like threatening with a gun, or a power drill, mock executions, and unverified threats against the subject’s family. What a failure of imagination! Anybody that stuff would work on is probably too stupid to know anything anyway.

The perpetrators of these annoyances watch too much TV, too many awful movies staring Steven Seagal or Jean Claude Van Damme. They suffer from a common Twenty-First Century delusion: the inability to separate fantasy from reality.

The worst part, definitely, is the very poor likelihood of success, being defined as actually getting good cooperation from someone who actually knows something. They’ll get a gunsel to tell you where the car is parked pretty damn quick, but a motivated, sophisticated opponent holding important information could play those games forever.

You may be surprised to discover my position vis-à-vis torture. I’m not 100% against it 100% of the time. I can’t think of any likely scenarios right now, but I’m sure it happens that a low-functioning subject may possess some knowledge that you absolutely need to know right this second, for reasons greater than convenience. In that case, let him have it, and both barrels too, none of this namby-pamby stuff. Make the sign of the cross and give him the full treatment, quickly and quietly (or more accurately, ‘soundproofedly’). Just don’t get caught. Make sure that no one knows that you have them, and that when you’re done he or she disappears more thoroughly than Judge Crater or Jimmy Hoffa.

Most of the time, the subject has or may have information that you want, sooner better than later. So why alienate the subject with macho theatrics that just confirm his bad impression of you? You can catch more flies with honey than you can with vinegar. And perhaps, as is usually the case, the Romans had it right, a big carrot, big stick approach works very well. The Romans offered people a clear choice: choose either number one, we leave you in charge, make you rich, make your entire land prosperous, and provide luxury for your families and a Roman education for your aristocratic children, or number two, we torture and kill all of the men and some of the boys in your land, make slaves out of all of your women and the rest of the children, destroy all of the buildings in your land and every manifestation of your culture, and give the remaining farmland to one of our allies or to our retiring soldiers. That’s a quick pick right there, number one every time, every single fucking time.

Some of our own interrogators know this as well as I do. They have achieved good results by getting to know their subjects, finding out what is important to them, and then offering it to them, and, if accepted, delivering it. Subjects respond to this kind of treatment readily, as long as the benefits are concrete and visible, verifiable and desirable. I have a hunch that the water-boarding lunatics think that these “nice guys” are weak sisters, punks at best and sympathizers at worst. They’re on the beam though. That’s the way to get somewhere in the applying-pressure business.

(Facts and some quotes from “The Torture Memos: The Case Against the Lawyers.” New York Review of Books, Vol. 56, Number 15, October 8, 2009, available at their web site free!)

The Power Of Water

I was just singing the praises of water, the power of naked water to accomplish cleansing, it’s a couple of posts down. I’m not just relieving myself into the wind here.

I have lived for weeks in houses where dishes were washed by the agency of mere water, and non-potable water at that, and neither I nor anyone else in the house got sick. The water was applied conscientiously, and the job was accomplished satisfactorily.

Beyond this underestimated, innate faculty of water, there is a greater truth: it is possible to be “too clean.” Ever take a course or two of powerful antibiotics? Killing off all of the body’s bacteria wreaks its own kind of havoc. Ever see an electron microscope photograph of a fingertip? It’s all “Starship Troopers” in super-miniature. We are filthy creatures, naturally and necessarily.

It is no kindness to isolate children comprehensively from the generally filthy world in which we live. There are benefits to be had, for instance, from the intimate manipulation of mud by a child. Besides being great fun, and encouraging creativity, playing with mud builds strength in the immune system.

On the flip side, maintaining a child in an artificially sanitary environment may actually harm the child, not only by stunting the development of the child’s immune system, but also by exposing the child to a universe of harmful chemicals, known as “cleaning products.” Asthma, or worse, may result.

The problem, I believe, is in misinterpreting progress and modernity. We may rightly embrace higher standards of hygiene, but we cannot completely leave behind our origins as beasts of the earth.

The Tip Of The Fed-Killing Iceberg

This story is out there, but it’s not easy to find. Out in the Heartland of America, the Faith-Based heart of Middle-America, the Values America, the devoutly Christian, non-Socialist America, killing “Fed’s” has become a status crime, a hate crime.

Did I say killing? More like brutal, intensely violent torturing and murdering. Stripped naked, bound and blinded with duct-tape, and hung from a tree. Compared to that, mere killing, like one or two caps in the back of the head, is filial devotion.

Isolated incident, you say? There’s usually no such thing. The Collyer brothers were an isolated incident, two crazy brothers collecting their stool in labeled boxes. This is no such thing. It’s happened before, recently, arising from the same insane reasoning, and it’s obvious that the whole giant iceberg is floating along there under the visible tip.

A hate crime, as in, it’s not personal, he was a Fed! From all indications, the victim was a nice guy, low key, not ambitious, not a big shot, a single dad raising a small son. The killers would probably have liked the guy, if only he hadn’t been a stinking Fed.

This crime is horrifying and dangerous, this was an incendiary act with huge implications for American politics and culture. Want proof? It’s being covered way on the down low, kid-gloves and all. It’s being treated as “The Mysterious Death Of Bill Sparkman,” like we don’t know yet what really happened. The first day it was literally: maybe he killed himself? Even now it’s, “State Trooper Don Trosper said it was clear this wasn't a natural death but said all other possibilities were being considered.
"This case has many facets," he said. "To investigate cases, you have to rule out different scenarios. We are not able to rule out many scenarios at this time, and that's what makes this a difficult case."
It’s a difficult case alright, but the difficulty is not in figuring out what happened. No, some brave patriots, low-functioning I’ll bet, drunk probably, got their hands on a Fed and struck a tremendous blow for freedom! Passions inflamed, the odds are, by someone outside their own moronic heads.

It’s not over. As my beloved cousin H. told me when he was teaching me to parallel park a car: “what man has done, man can do.” This has been made into a war by some people, and it’s just getting hot.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

The Other Cheney Redux

The following re-blogged almost ancient post has generated a huge number of comments, over the course of historically significant time, all appearing on my screen as a series of otherwise featureless rectangles. Some of these mysterious comments are available for viewing at the original post, which can be accessed at the word search feature. (Enter, "the other cheney.")

Here's the post. Help me out here . . . who is commenting? why? why are the comments so suspiciously encrypted? who is this Lynn Cheney anyway?

Ancient Post:

I saw, you know, Liz Cheney on the Larry King Show and, you know, she was a public official in the Bush Administration and, you know, she’s pretty good at remembering the daily talking points, but I’m wondering, you know, who cares what she thinks? At the end of the day, you know, who is she?

Has the Republican party really come to this? Sarah Palin, Rush Limbo, Mark Sanford, “Bobby” Jindal, Liz Cheney, Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, and, dare I say it, Jeb Bush?

I have to look up Liz Cheney’s education, I want to know what institutions she’s embarrassing, you know, by saying “you know” every four or five words. Her content is nothing to write home about either, merely running together an endless parade of boilerplate talking points. Her debating style is interruptionist in the extreme, she is just boiling to deliver the next point on her list, no matter who happens to have the mike at the moment. No one will remember what you said, because, you know, I was talking over you all the time.

Maybe I should be happy. My family, my friends, and all of my regular readers know full well that I feel about the Republican Party like other birds feel about crows; like Carpathian villagers feel about the vampire in the castle; like Jews feel about Hitler. But I’m not happy at all, in fact, to see them implode, because whether I like it or not we have a two party system, and it’s bad for that system if one party just flies off the rails and loses its ability to debate the issues honestly.

And let’s face it: this Liz Cheney style debate wrecking is not honest debate. It’s obscurantism, plain and simple, and it’s stupid and destructive.

That two party system. Feeling that America is a giant economy that needs careful tending is a legitimate point of view; feeling that America is a great culture made up of individuals and sub-groups that need careful tending is a legitimate point of view. Within the tension of a reasoned debate there is the possibility of compromise that nurses the whole thing forward, whatever it is. That’s where I stand. I’m no revolutionary, I don’t want to live through any Great Leaps Forward (although I wouldn’t mind a Second New Deal).

I’m just an everyday secular humanist shithead, Liberal definitely, progressive maybe, libertarian? not in this lifetime.

So . . . Liz who? Oh, yeah, soon-to-be-attempted-Senator Liz. What a nightmare.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Incredible! Amazing! Travel Slogans

Asian cable TV is full of glossy ads run by the national tourist offices of various countries, some in the neighborhood and some pretty far a field. Throw in lots of ads for first class air travel and you have a picture of a perfect world, a non-stop, five star bonanza of gourmet food, perfect white sand beaches, beautiful serving girls, and uninhibited luxury.

“Malaysia, truly Asia!” If there’s one thing that Malaysia truly is not, it’s truly Asia, not even truly South-East-Asia. Oh, it’s a nice place, and the people seem friendly enough, but believe me, a little bit goes a long way.

“Amazing Thailand!” This one is much more on the mark. Thailand is pretty amazing, in good ways, ways that will surprise and delight you. If there’s one place that’s worth going half way around the world for, Thailand is probably it. After five years, I still find it endlessly fascinating and comfortable, and I feel quite safe here, in spite of what you may be reading about the local politics.

“Incredible India!” This slogan is also precisely descriptive, although not in the way in which it was intended by the tourist board. India is incredible, unbelievable, as in, “can you believe that smell?” Or, “who would believe that there could be so many beggars in the world?” Or, "I can't believe I have to throw up again!"

The real punch-line here is Angola. Way out in South-West Africa, it’s a little strange that they would advertise in Asia looking for tourist business. For most of my life, Angola was a lawless place, a still-born state torn by revolutionary struggle, overrun by various armed factions, South African armed forces, and bandits. For some reason known only to God, they decided to go with the slogan: “Reach for the Sky!”

My Favorite Lecture Of All Time

It was at the Santa Monica Hospital, a good place that saved my life one time. The lecture was in about the year 1982. They had a clinic of family medicine that served as my de facto health insurance policy at the time. Maybe the lecture was just a clinic service, but I seem to remember that it had something to do with the local day care community. It was a lecture about hand washing, the importance of it and the proper technique, with a healthy dose of myth dispelling thrown in by a conscientious doctor-speaker.

I recalled a conversation that I’d had with my mother when I was a small boy. She’d seen my wash my hands and noticed that I didn’t use soap. She counseled me that I must use soap, because soap killed the germs. My hands hadn’t been very dirty to begin with, and I’d washed them very thoroughly under the running water, and frankly they looked and felt very clean to me, and I told her so. I gave her my opinion: the water had killed the germs just fine. No drama ensued, that was about it really, but for some reason the entire little conversation stuck with me over the years. I can still see and hear it. Memory is a funny thing.

So I was very interested in attending the hand washing lecture. I tend to believe that I am right most of the time, and I was probably looking for validation for my previous endorsement of water-only hand washing for hands that weren’t really dirty.

Well, I got it, kind of. The lecture was fascinating. The doctor spoke to us like we were adults, unlike most doctors who treat anyone who doesn’t have an MD as though they were children, or even retarded children. Killing germs, he explained, was not the goal, forget killing germs. Soap will not kill germs. Hot water will kill them, but the water needs to be something like one hundred and seventy five degrees Fahrenheit, which of course would scald the skin right off your hands. It’s the mechanical action of the water that cleans your hands. Warm water and soap are recommended, they enhance the mechanical action of the water by reducing its surface tension, which has the effect of making your hands get wetter, getting a deeper rinse-off of the whatever it is that makes them “dirty.”

Not exactly a validation of my boyish practicing of science without a license, but it was nice to recall a relatively calm conversation with my mother long ago, and it still is. My memories of her happily smiling are shamefully few.

Monday, September 21, 2009

L’Espoir Du Succes

I cannot say exactly why, but I still enjoy reading about the challenges facing constitutional governance in America. What profit could there be in becoming more informed about the vast, negative changes that have taken place since World War II? Better by far to simply keep one’s head in the sand, and wave the flag like most Americans while the original dreams of the Constitution fade into darkness.

What, in any case, could one man do?

Maybe it’s encouraging to read well considered articles written by very smart people who are willing to study these problems. One such article, very brief and to-the-point, is:

Entangled Giant
By Garry Wills
New York Review of Books
Vol. 56, Number 15, October 8, 2009

Mr. Wills is very concerned about the growth of executive power in America, especially the huge security apparatus that has grown up around it. We should all be concerned about it. This has been accomplished under the guise of the “theory of the unified executive,” and no recent Supreme Court has had the talent or the inclination to do anything about it.

Even Mr. Wills is very dubious of the chances of limiting this concentration of power in the office of the presidency, much less of unwinding the damage that has been done already. After all, this is permanent war! World War II; the Cold War; the War on Terror; whatever comes next. Perhaps, he wonders, the Constitution has become as “quaint” and “obsolete” as the Geneva Conventions as described and (not) observed by the Bush II administration and, unfortunately, the Obama administration as well. (Quoth, David Addington, and signed off on by Alberto Gonzalez.)

Mr. Wills and I agree, however, that efforts should be made to return to the rule of the Constitution as it existed for 150 years, a sweet dream that should not so lightly be given up. We love our Constitution, we Americans, that’s what I teach my law students here in the developing-world. It’s a sacred thing, I believe, and worth fighting for.

Winning the battle? Mr. Wills finishes the article on a distinctly pessimistic note, quoting Cyrano: “one doesn’t fight in the hope of winning.” (mais on ne se bat pas dans l’espoir du succes).

Thursday, September 17, 2009

The Benefits Of The Tonight Show With David Letterman

Letterman was recently added to my extravagant cable TV package. It’s on everyday, Monday to Friday at ten o’clock and weekends at six p.m., repeats from the weekday shows. Many of the shows are brand new, showed within a few days of their original airing. Sometimes they drop in one from six months ago, or repeat a show within a couple of days. Maybe Asia just demands more Byonce, I don’t know.

I think the show is generally pretty funny and that Letterman has become more likeable in his old age. Way out of proportion to the intrinsic merit of the show, I am enjoying it as a connection to American culture. One can begin to feel remote over here, and CNN Asia and reruns of old TV sitcoms only go so far. There’s something reassuring for the expat about Matt Damon boosting his new movie, or Billy Crystal displaying the profound lack of humor that makes him so mysterious.

I love the jokes about philandering politicians, the economy, Sara Palin, the Swine Flu, country folk, and the awful New York weather, but more interesting to me are the jokes about torture, Dick Cheney, Tea Partiers and Birthers, and the shenanigans of hyper-cons like Joe “You Lie!” Wilson. Most Americans do not agree in any way, shape or form with these racist, anti-American, crypto-nazi corporate stooges.

It’s nice that people laugh at those things at the expense of some people who are really, really bad individuals. The jokes are funny, after all. I laugh too, even though I’m pretty sure that water boarding is not actually funny.

I’m afraid, though, that while we are laughing at the Glenn Becks and Joe Wilsons of the world, they are actually winning the war that was started in the late Seventies by them and the dream boyfriend of their latent homosexuality, Ronald Reagan.

In this post-modern, post-ironic, post-give-a-shit world, the Reactionaries have a real advantage over us. Their old-fashioned ideas include a lot of old-fashioned dirty tactics that still work.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The Beatles Reissue Reminds Me Of Something

Lots of flak about the Beatles these days, mostly so that the suits can cash in before the copyright runs out. Look it up if you don’t believe me. But why listen to what the suits tell you to? The whole chaserei got me thinking about the great bands from that time that were NOT wildly over hyped.

What my friends and I had in common in that halcyon time was that we may have listened to the suit music, but we kept an ear out for everything else too.

So check out some of the (randomly chosen)also-rans:

“Making Time” was the only cut by the Creation that made it to America, as an import single I might add. I had read about it in Melody Maker and snapped one up when I came across it. It made my friends think that I might be slightly less of a numb-nuts than they had thought:

“Making Time” by the Creation

“Painter Man” by the Creation

The Move gave the world Roy Wood and the guy who started the Electric Light Orchestra, unless that was also Roy Wood. They were way on the fun program:

“Night of Fear” by the Move

“I Can Hear the Grass Grow” by the Move

These next guys were a pop act with Bizaro overtones:

“Hold Tight” by Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick and Tich

(Remember that one from “Death Proof,” which no one but me seems to think was a great movie?)

“Bend It” By DD, D, B, M and T

Think the Beatles had a lock on genius? Check out this mature cut by the Kinks:

“Waterloo Sunset” by the Kinks

Those were the days, my friends, we knew they had to end, so we laughed and carried on like there was no tomorrow, and sometimes I think that we were right.

Giving Things Up

A good friend of mine one time, some time ago, gave up drinking, smoking and coffee at the same time. They all went together, as far as he was concerned, and they were kind of killing him. He was a binge drinker, a couple of times a week he’d go on a jag that left him too sick to drink for a day or two. He’d drink coffee all the while, exotic grinds from all over the world, real, strong coffee, black, with this special, really expensive sugar that he liked that came from Jamaica, West Indies, the same sugar they used to make the premium rum. He always had lots of kinds of cigarettes on hand, Shermans, Galoise, Pell Mells, Kools, all kinds of stuff. He loved it all, but it was killing him. So he pulled the plug. He said that the cigarettes was the only hard one to give up. From the alcohol, all he noticed was that he had a lot more time on his hands, time to fill with something else. The coffee, he just tapered off to avoid the headaches and that was that. But the cigarettes, missing those was a pain in his heart for a long, long time.

I had an idea yesterday, one of those things that suddenly comes to you. Epiphany, satori, they all come suddenly. It occurred to me that when I was in the late-grade-school era, and high school, I was a full year or more younger than most of my classmates. I was sixteen when I graduated from high school. So it occurred to me, for the first time, that maybe I liked smoking because I was subconsciously trying to look more mature, as mature as the other boys in my class. Honestly it never occurred to me that I was younger than them, I never realized it. I had known them all forever. I can tell you that the girls that I knew were also aware of it. But not me. So maybe I was off in my dream world trying to look like the Marlboro man in the hopes that I could make up for my oddly out of place youth.

These things come to us slowly, and are only partially understood. Maybe it does us some good to consider them. I hope so.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

These Foolish Things

"Man siehet die im Lichte was im Dunkle sieht man nicht. "

I have tried in my life, as I have identified them, to give up foolish things. My trouble is primarily in identifying them, and then there’s the secondary problem of giving them up. Some patently foolish things are enjoyable.

Sometimes the whole thing is as easy as rolling off a log. Calling Microsoft “Customer Service” for instance. There’s a misnomer for you. A little bit of listening to Radio Microsoft while wasting precious time on hold goes a long way. Then, after an hour or so, you get cut off, or someone comes on the line, listens to you for ten seconds, and says, “I’ll connect you,” you guessed it, connect you back to Radio Microsoft. Red faced and feeling foolish, that’s a call you won’t make again soon.

One problem is that there is no objective delineation for “foolish.” I’m pretty sure that bungee jumping is foolish, but lots of people seem not to think so at all. Same goes for parachute jumping, foolish, unless the plane is in the act of crashing.

“Foolish is as foolish does” may be true, but it just brings us back to the subjective nature of foolishness. One man’s foolishness is another man’s compelling hobby, collecting almost anything for example. I’m on a fence about the guys that spend thousands of hours machining parts and assembling miniature automobile engines that actually run. I do enjoy the results, but I’m pretty sure it’s a foolish enterprise to begin with. I don’t think there’s any money in it. I guess it’s distracting.

Foolishness is also situational. Drinking too much is a foolish lifestyle that puts your health at risk, but if all-day drinking allows someone to make it through the day when all they really want to do is wrap a dry-cleaning bag around their heads without leaving a note, well then it doesn’t sound so foolish after all, now does it? Not a personal example by the way, I’m just thinking out loud here. And what’s too much? I know the answer to that one: drinking an ounce more than you do is too much. Foolish logic, that.

I know lots of people who smoked and drank their ways through long, apparently satisfying lives. Would it have been foolish to give anything up? And wouldn’t they feel foolish if they’d stopped smoking and drinking early in life, for the benefits of it, and then died in car accidents? I know I would. Call it Andy-Kaufman-Syndrome, a non-smoking, health food fanatic teetotaler, killed by irony at 38.

Can we hold this thing up to the light? Most of us do something that another among us considers foolish. Just go out somewhere and take a look around. I’d give examples but just thinking about it was bordering on cruelty. I may be foolish, but I’d rather be foolish than mean-spirited, self-righteous, judgmental or downright cruel.

Me, I take a drink sometimes, my time is usually around five o’clock. If I still have work to do, a class to teach, I wait until it’s done and then return leisurely to my home for dinner and a cocktail. Let anyone who is without sin throw the first stone. You want to call me foolish? Let’s see what you got.

We alcoholics have a saying, but it can’t be printed here, this is a family oriented blog. Think what you will, and tell me if you want to, but I know that I am generally a foolish man and your censorship will not be news to me. Why should my behavior regarding intoxication be an exception to the rule? That would be foolish.

(609 words, three times the recommended maximum for a blog! Foolish! Thanks for your patience. Extra points for getting the source of the German quote. It's from a pretty famous song.)

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Hat Yai, Continued

I was only there for a day, but I saw virtually no Farang. No Farang tourists, and only a couple of guys who looked like they were in residence. Lots of tourists, mind you, but they all seemed like Malaysian men. They have it tough back home, you know, with the lashes and everything, so they go to Thailand to cool out once in a while. I understand.

I was warned to be careful because of the “Muslim” terrorism in the neighboring provinces of Thailand, I say “Muslim” because it’s not really religion-based, the angry people are ethnic Malays who ended up in Thailand after a border reshuffle about a hundred years ago. I protested, I feel completely safe, I have no dog in that hunt, they’re not the Al Quida types, they’re fight is much more local and White foreigners have nothing to do with it. “No,” my friend explained, “not because you are Farang, because you are a government official.” Oh, yeah, I thought, recalling that they kill teachers down there willy-nilly.

I passed a few hours in a downtown mall, lunch, etc. There were lots of little locally owned clothing stores, and I must say that the selection looked very stylish and hip. (It that the same thing?) There was a nice little store that sold mostly high end kettles and cutlery, which unaccountably had a big counter full of nice brass bongs and glass pipes. After I got back I read that while I was there the police did a huge multiple-location raid and busted a big drug gang.

The food outlets included:

1. McDonald’s
2. Sizzler
3. Hachiban 8 (a nice Japanese owned ramen chain)
4. Pizza Hut
5. Fuji (another Japanese outfit, delicious, moderately priced)
6. Swenson’s
7. Chester’s Grill (as in “CP,” a big Thai chicken products outfit)

There were also lots of tattoo parlors. This was true all over town. Maybe that’s illegal in Malaysia too.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

The Power Of Signage In Thailand

Thinking about the “No Grilled Cuttlefish” sign, below, reminded me of a bus ride I took a few years ago. I was coming back from somewhere way out in the woods. Clearly visible in the front of the bus was a sign that said:

No Durian
No Gai Yang
No Luk Chin

The sign was in Thai, remember, this was out in the woods. Gai Yang is grilled chicken; luk chin are little pork meatballs. Grilled chicken is pretty innocuous, but the luk chin come drenched in chilli sauce and can get pretty messy and smelly.

Punch line: the bus hostess, that’s what I call them, they take the tickets and answer questions and so forth, she’s sitting right under the sign with a huge bag of luk chin, casually munching away.

The Luckiest Taxi In Bangkok

Lots of people hedge their bets when it comes to religion, offering a nod to every God they can think of in the hopes that one of them might come in handy someday. The entire religion of Hinduism is based on this concept: if one God is good, ten thousand are better, and yours are welcome in our house. The owner-driver of a cab that I rode in today was a devotee of this logic.

Along the dashboard of the oldish Toyota Corolla I noticed:

1. Several Confucian deities;
2. A set of three bobble-headed, arm-waving Chinese “Good Luck In Business” cats;
3. Numerous anime figurines and stickers;
4. Ganesh, the elephant-headed Hindu God;
5. A beautifully painted cast iron figure of a man sitting in a stick chair with his legs crossed, wearing a baby blue sports coat, brown pants, and a white shirt and tie (the height of the man standing would be about five inches). I don’t know the iconography of this one.
6. A Royal Thai Dragon Boat;
7. A large, plush black widow spider;
8. Multiple Buddha images in various poses;
9. An enamel pin of the emblem of His Royal Highness, the King;
10. A stylized bronze tiger;
11. An action figure of a video game avatar wearing bright gold armor;
12. A cameo of King Chulalongkorn, Rama V;
13. A stone lingus (the phallic symbol that was revered in India before Rama and Buddha).

On the visor above the driver’s face was a portrait of Vishnu, looking particularly benevolent.

The ceiling of the cab was covered in the various blessings that you can get from monks for a modest offering over at your neighborhood temple, being a combination of short prayers in Thai, spells written in the previous local alphabet, and patterns of dots made by fingertips dipped in a paste made from water and talcum powder.

Stapled over these incantations was a large, red cloth bearing another image of Ganesh.

Thailand is a crossroads culture, and the entire panoply of history is being played out in this guy’s cab. People have been passing through Thailand to get somewhere for eons. Lots of them left some aspect of language or religion behind, and lots of them met nice Thai women and stuck around. It’s a fascinating place, that’s for sure.

Monday, September 7, 2009

This Is The City Of Hat Yai, Thailand

Trip details below.

Strange Signs In Thailand

Often the signage in Asia contains comically erroneous English, and that’s a fact, Jack. Sometimes, though, the English is fine but the sign is challenging or odd in other ways.

Take, for example, this sign inside the doorway of the Bangkok Airways lounge in the domestic area of Suvarnabumi Airport:

No Sleeping
No Food
No Drink
No Shoes
Only Children
Under Six Year

I know what they mean about the shoes, but what rule can be inferred from the proscription regarding children? Under six not allowed? Between six and eighteen not allowed?

In Southeast Asian hotels you will often see a sign that forbids the fruit called durian. It is considered a delicacy, but it has such a strong smell that most people find offensive. It can really fill a space, and the smell can endure long after the fruit has been carried off. “No Durian or Dogs” is a common variation. My hotel in Hat Yai this weekend had the following sign next to the elevator doors:

No Durian
No Grilled Cuttlefish
No Deep Fried Chicken

Maybe housekeeping complained about the grease stains from the fried chicken, but grilled cuttlefish seems harmless enough. Eating outside food in the rooms was not generally discouraged.

Nicotine And Alcohol

The great man said:

“I don’t sleep well, I’m absent minded,
In fact I hardly sleep at all,
My past has put me on a habit,
Of nicotine and al-kee-hol.”*

I don’t remember exactly the first cigarette that I ever smoked. It may have been the summer that I turned twelve years old, as I was entering the Eighth Grade. I was hanging out with Jackie M. at the time, he lived in one of the old mansions in College Point that had been converted to apartments. His mom smoked king-sized, filterless Chesterfields, and we regularly stole a few and went to the park to smoke them. I distinctly remember thinking, wow, no wonder the adults smoke these things, they’re great, as we smoked them hiding in the bushes, watching the planes at La Guardia.

Within a short time my little friends and I were pooling our nickels and splitting packs when the adults weren’t looking. Sometimes we’d sneak in the back door of the bowling alley and get a pack from the machine. There were plenty of places that would sell them to us, but not everywhere. I recall a nice outing to the Whitestone Pool, enjoying a shared pack of Newports. Smoking in the locker room, my so-called friend Willie S. scolded me, stop exhaling through your nose, we know you inhale. I’d never thought about it.

Later on, I discovered something else to smoke. I liked that too, and smoked my share, and several other people’s shares too, for more than thirty years. Cigars, let’s say, to protect the innocent.

Exposed to drinking, I slid into that vice as easily as I had fallen into smoking. The drinking age was eighteen then in New York, and even before that we all knew older boys, someone’s big brother or our neighbors, who would buy it for us. We’d hang out in front of a deli and wait for someone, ask him nicely, and give him our money to pick us up some beer. It never took long. Then we’d usually stash it in the bushes until the house lights went out, then retrieve it and get a little drunk while the town was sleeping. Lots of guys did worse, with cough syrup mostly, but I was never that daring. They often collapsed in a doorway, or just where they stood, and were left by their friends to be discovered the next morning by adults. I mean, they were alive, but the point is that they got in trouble. I was much too careful for that.

I honestly think that I never did anything just to be cool, and I certainly never needed any prodding from peer pressure. I just liked it, the smoking and drinking, like some laboratory animal in a science experiment somewhere. The monkey’s not trying to be cool, or doing it because the other monkeys are doing it, he’ll just take another Marlboro as soon as you’ll give it to him, and in the cocaine experiments they’ll famously hit the button as fast as they can until they die.

Me and the monkeys, simple creatures enjoying life’s simple pleasures.

I have some measure of self control, so I have a moderate history with all of these things. There were many long periods during which I didn’t smoke cigarettes, same for drinking. When my children were younger I tried to set a good example. In general, I have a good, built-in “Danger! Slow Down!” mechanism. There were very few things that made me say, oh no, I’ll never do that again, but there were lots of things that made me think, ok, but not more than once a week, or once a month. It’s good to keep one’s perspective intact as a family oriented working man. Some things are too expensive, or take up too much time. But I’ll admit that I was always loathe to say flat-out NO to things that I found enjoyable.

So now I still find time for cigarettes. My only goal it to keep it to three or four a day, although I have been failing that for the last few months, by a factor of two. And I still find time to drink refreshing alcoholic beverages, usually in the privacy of my own home, or rented condo as it may be. I almost never start before five o’clock, and I don’t like to go to bed drunk (or late, the most important sleep takes place before midnight, and sober), I endeavor never to even get actually drunk, and I absolutely hate to be hung over, even a little, so the built in danger recognition mechanisms are still functioning. But I drink, and smoke, and I’ll admit it to any doctor who asks me nicely.

My check ups are all fine, and my blood work has always come back “A-Ok.” This may have changed, I’ll be getting the results of this year’s tests later this week, but there’s nothing to indicate to the layman that anything is wrong. No doctor has ever responded to my truthful answers about drinking with the somber condemnation: you are an alcoholic. AA would think so, don’t they say that anybody who takes a drink every day is an alky? They’re just looking for new members, trying to sell some books. My own father, a wildly successful organism at eighty-eight years old, still takes two drinks every day, three if there’s a good football game on, measured carefully as one ounce of bourbon each, over ice, and no one would ever say that he was an alcoholic. There are others in my family who condemn me as such, and it makes problems. More than the drinking, if you ask me. It’s one of the reasons that I’m in Asia.

My favorite joke, from the movie, “The Long Kiss Goodnight,” staring the great Geena Davis:

“I’d like to propose a toast to myself, because after all, I am a really good man. I don’t smoke, I don’t drink, and I don’t curse. (Brief pause.) “Oh! Shit! I do smoke and drink!”

*Percy Mayfield, the Poet of the Blues, “Serves Me Right To Suffer.”

I Survived King Power!

We had an interesting scandal at the airport recently. The big concessionaire out there is King Power. They run duty-free shops, souvenir places and magazine/book stands. Many foreigners, White foreigners, were arrested upon leaving King Power premises for “shoplifting.” Little things like one extra pack of cigarettes mysteriously showed up in their bag along with the stuff that they’d just paid for. I say arrested, they weren’t really arrested, they were bundled by police off to some cheap hotel for a couple of days until they could arrange to pay the “fees” that would get the “charges” dropped, usually somewhere in the neighborhood of eight or ten thousand dollars, which was then split up between the police and the King Power people.

This kind of thing is an exception to the rule in Thailand, which is generally speaking a very, very safe place to travel. AND LET ME SAY, FOR THE BENEFIT OF MY VISA, THAT I LOVE THAILAND AND HAVE ABSOLUTELY NOTHING BAD TO SAY ABOUT THIS, THE MOST BLESSED AND WONDERFUL KINGDOM ON GOD’S GREEN EARTH.

Since I read about this scam I’ve been avoiding King Power like the Titanic should have avoided the iceberg, actually I’ve been tracing wide circles around airport vendors in general. The other day, though, I really wanted a book, so I broke down and went in.

Leaving with my purchase, I got fifty feet before realizing that they hadn’t given me a receipt. I looked over my shoulder, expecting the worst. Oh, shit, I thought, I’d hate to get busted for buying a copy of “The Tiger Warrior” by David Gibbins. Now that would be embarrassing.

Thai Airways Boeing 737

I was flying to Hat Yai the other day, and when I checked in I was assigned seat number “46H.” I was a little surprised, thinking that’s a bigger plane that I expected. I was a little worried when they called for boarding and I noticed that it was a 737. If there’s 46 rows on this thing, we’ll all be climbing over the seats and sitting cross-legged on the cushions.

It turned out that the first row was number 11; there were four rows of Business Class. Between Business and Economy the numbers jumped from 14 to 31. So there were the expected twenty-something rows. File under, things that make you go, mmmmmm.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

The Regency Hotel In Hat Yai

. . . is missing not one, but two floors. There’s no Thirteenth Floor, which is not unusual around here. It’s not an Asian superstition, but Asians are so superstitious that they cheerfully adopt supernatural aversions from other cultures. My own apartment building has a floor called “12A” between the twelfth and the fourteenth floor.

The innovation at the Regency Hotel in Hat Yai is that there is no Seventh Floor either. I’ve never seen that one before. It’s not the swimming pool floor or anything, it’s just not there, the place goes from the sixth directly to the eighth floors.

The Regency is a nice place, by the way, and other than the occasional bomb blast Hat Yai is a pretty safe place. I’ve never seen so many police and armed soldiers on the street. They’re a pretty cheerful bunch, so it’s not an odious presence. The world economy, and the aforementioned periodic pyrotechnics, have slowed the tourist trade down a little, but the streets are still full of almost entirely male tourists from Malaysia, because the nightlife here is lively, lively, lively, and even Muslims can legally drink whiskey in Thailand.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Mr. Fred's Wiki Moment

Your homework for today is to fact-check the piece below about Hunt and Tony Sales. I'm leaving it the way it is as one man's vague understanding of reality, which is often what you get on the internet, call it Wikipedia Syndrome.

There are mistakes, though. Happy hunting!

Unsung Heroes Of Rock And Roll: Hunt And Tony Sales

Let’s hear it for the Sales brothers, Hunt and Tony, one of the best rhythm sections in the history of rock.

Who doesn’t remember Iggy Pop’s original version of “Lust for Life,” from his album of the same name. That was Hunt and Tony on bass and drums, I forget which was which. I’m pretty sure that they were in Tin Machine with David Bowie too. Maybe I should look this stuff up before I write about it.

I do know that they are the sons of the one, the only, the supremely talented comedian, Soupy Sales. They grew up out the island, which is what you called Long Island if you were from New York City. After they started making money as session musicians they were well known for driving their black Ferraris around out there.

Hunt and Tony Sales . . . if they’re not in the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame, we should just burn it down and start over again.

Welcome To Rwanda!

CNN runs this thing called “Inside Africa,” and this week it’s all about Rwanda. You may recall that Rwanda is a tiny, insignificant country in central Africa that is famous mostly for gorillas and for a sudden, almost record breaking outbreak of mass murder that killed 800,000 people in a couple of months, some ridiculously high percentage of the country’s population. That was some time ago. Now they want you to concentrate on the gorillas.

Remember “Gorillas in the Mist?” I’m pretty sure that took place in Rwanda, before the other unpleasantness. Anybody else remember that “gorillas in the mist” was L.A.P.D. slang in the Seventies for Black guys hanging out on the corner? Rwanda’s still got the gorillas, and the army does a pretty good job of schlepping eco-tourists up and down the mountain to look at them for like a grand a pop.

The unpleasantness, that was a tough one for some of us to understand. It’s hard to be reminded that the old tribal hatreds that ruled humanity for eons are still in place in much of the world, nation states be damned. Evidently, in Rwanda there were two main tribes, the Hutus, who were the majority, and the Tutsis, who where numerically inferior but well established as the political and commercial powers that (then) be. The Hutus got tired of it, big time, and did their damnedest to wipe out the Tutsis, along with any insufficiently Hutu Hutus they could get their hands on, mostly with blade weapons or fire. What a mess.

They say that all is forgiven now, and they’re all friends now. I won’t share my evaluation of that contention here at this time.

The magical part of the CNN show was the repeating commercial for tourism in Kenya, with a web site called You may recall that Kenya had their own little tribal kill-fest about a year ago. It was covered as post-election violence. I don’t remember the names of the tribes involved, but evidently the Kenyans do, and they’re still ready to fight about it.

As the great man said, why can’t we all just get along?

Fred’s Twenty Greatest Hits

That are on my computer, right now, in a popular vein. This is the list from a CD that I made for a couple of Thai friends. I kept it pretty middle-of-the-road, nothing to raw or aggressive. They're all great tunes, you can look them up.

In no particular order:

“Looking for a Love;” The Valentinos

The popular music group including the three Womack brothers, all talented left-handed singing guitarists who worked with Sam Cooke on his SAR label.

“Beginning to See the Light;” The Velvet Underground

A unique, very influential rock band from late-Sixties New York City.

“American Girl;” Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers

Just a good radio hit from the late-Seventies.

“Looking for the Heart of Saturday Night;” Tom Waits

Singer-songwriter with a working class point of view.

“Can I Change My Mind;” Tyrone Davis

Chicago Soul at its finest.

“Sunday, Bloody Sunday;” U2

An early-Eighties hit from the biggest stars in rock. Very political, with a sincere cry-out for people to just get along.

“Sick and Tired;” Chris Kenner

A Sixties hit from New Orleans. Listen for the typical New Orleans band sound and rhythm. This is my favorite song.

“I Want More;” Can

A German Progressive-Rock outfit from the Seventies.

“Take Me to the River;” Al Green

It’s hard to pick just one Al Green song. From Hi Records in Memphis, Tennessee, early-Seventies, featuring the great Al Jackson on drums.

“Tomorrow Night;” Lonnie Johnson

A timeless artist. This song was recorded about 1950. Lonnie is a great guitar player, and this is his greatest hit.

“It’s Alright;” Major Lance

On the surface, just another great late-Sixties Soul song, but Major Lance was a very special artist. Most of his songs were happy, or even a little silly, but there was always a great sadness in his voice. This is a cover version of a song by Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions.

“Some Day, Some Way;” Marshall Crenshaw

An Eighties pop tune from Marshall Crenshaw, who came from Lubbock, Texas, home of Buddy Holly. He never made it big, but he should have.

Ain’t Got No;” Nina Simone

This song started out as a silly part of the Sixties musical “Hair,” but Nina Simone re-wrote the song in the Seventies and pumped it up into a great political statement about poverty and discrimination in America.

“These Days;” Nico

The song is written by the great Jackson Browne. This version, sung by Nico, was recorded for some movie. English is not Nico’s first language, and this fact gave her a great, flat delivery that really emphasizes the emotional impact of the song.

“Rock and Roll Lullaby;” The Belmonts

As in “Dion and the Belmonts,” the Fifties Doo-Wop group. This is from an early-Seventies album by the guys without Dion. The group was named after Belmont Avenue, in the Bronx, New York.

Wouldn’t It Be Nice;” The Beach Boys

The famous Surf Music group that went on to greatness. Written by the great Brian Wilson, and recorded in the late Sixties. This is such a sweet song. There were three brothers in the group: Brian, Dennis and Carl. Dennis died young in a swimming accident, and Carl died recently of cancer. Brian is still working.

“Stone Soul Picnic;” Laura Nyro

Laura Nyro was a great songwriter in the Seventies who made several great albums on her own.

“When Will I Be Loved;” The Everly Brothers

These guys started in show business on their parents Country Music TV show about 1948, and had lots of hits throughout the Fifties. They wrote this one themselves in the early-Sixties.

“She Put the Hurt on Me;” Prince La La

Another 1960’s New Orleans artist. He only released two singles in his short life, and both were two-sided hits (the radio played both sides). He was shot dead, which led to someone else’s song, “Who Shot the La La?”

“Feel the Need;” The Detroit Emeralds

Just a fabulous song from the early-Seventies.