Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Tales from the Tube: the Spanish Inquisition

I “interviewed” at several schools in Phrae along the way, one of them was a Catholic school. I put old grudges aside and figured, these days the Catholic schools are just interested in tuition, no more of that old imperative: turn out as many terrified, obedient Catholics as possible. I went in to see the director, who was supposedly expecting me.

The gatekeeper was a sullen looking Thai man about forty years old. I explained to him the nature of my mission, and that I had an appointment. I did it in Thai, which of course my Thai is not the best but although it is still pretty snake-snake-fish-fish people understand me pretty well. He gave me a look, I mean a look, like Brother Thomas Burns at Holy Cross, my Holy Cross to bear long ago, had caught some poor student with a Playboy magazine in his locker. Like Torquemada gave the heretics. A look, and he said, sarcastically yet, “do you speak English?” I told him again of my mission, and he set me straight right away. “You can’t expect to walk in here and talk to the director,” he, what, spit out the words? Sneered? Whatever it was it was rude beyond belief. He must have thought that I was lying about the appointment. He gave me an application and I left. Of course the director calls several people later in the afternoon: where is the Farang? I went back the next day.

The director was a nun who supposedly spoke English but you couldn’t tell by me because she only spoke rapid-fire Thai to me. She asked me what religion I was and I told her I was Catholic. I found out later that the next thing she asked me was, so, if you’re Catholic and you lived in Phrae for two years, why did I never see you in Church? She lost me; the interview didn’t last long.

At first I thought she was just displeased with the state of my Catholicism, god knows she had a right to be. But actually I believe that she thought that I was lying about being Catholic. Trying to curry favor to get a job at her sh*t school. Can you imagine? Me, who has received five of the sacraments by now, Baptism, First Communion, Penance, Confirmation and Marriage, I think that’s five out of seven. Unless becoming a nun is “Ordination,” which I doubt, I’m one up on Sister So-and-So.

I realized that I offered no middle name, no “Confirmation name,” further proof that I was lying. Never try to fool the geniuses of the world; you can’t get over on them. With their superior intellects and mysterious powers of deduction they will catch you in any lie.

And so what if I were a Protestant, even a Unitarian, or, even worse, a Jew, or some kind of Buddhist-Farang hybrid, or if I worshiped an airplane carcass in some cargo-cult, or so what if I worshiped Satan himself? Twenty people right here in Phrae can tell the woman that they have known me for years and that I am a good man and a good teacher. Two years in the Peace Corps is a nice introduction too.

She still has my bowels in an uproar. Who is she to judge me? Get a clue woman: when god sends you a nice gift, don’t criticize the wrapping paper.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Guest Blogger: Peg Leg Lee

Now I no pirate, long time, I business man now, I’m sure. I sell Honda motorcy, good wood from Burma, I make much money, sell many thing. I have restaurant, many restaurant. Is easy for me, money talk, bullsh*t walk. I sell many thing, I know many police, very easy for me.

Tales from the Tube: My New Motorcycle

Life can be so simple, but on my planet we prefer to complicate matters. For instance: I needed to buy a motorcycle for transportation, so did I buy a nice, sedate Honda Wave like everyone else in Thailand? Did I buy an even more sedate Honda Dream like many people of my advanced age seem to prefer? Those bikes, kick them once and they settle immediately into a nice, quiet idle; nice little mudguards to protect your pants; semi-automatic transmission, real easy . . . so did I get one? No.

No, not at all. I opted instead for a used Honda Dash. Idle? Not hardly, it won’t idle at all. If you let go of the throttle it stalls immediately. Start on the first kick? Maybe, but sometimes you need to jiggle the key around until the proper electrical connection is made. Shifting? Actually, it shifts quite well. But if you can find neutral inside of about thirty seconds I’ll give you a dollar.

My rational for buying this machine went like this: I have had motorcycles for thirty-five years. They have all had a clutch. They have all had flat bars and rear-set foot pegs so you had to lean forward a little bit. They have all been fast and not particularly comfortable. A Honda Wave meets none of those criteria. A Honda Dash meets them all.

The Dash has a 2-stroke, 100cc, water cooled engine that sounds like all Hell breaking loose. It sounds like a drunken steel band celebrating the explosion of a small fireworks factory. The Dash has a six speed, close ratio gear box that will move it along very quickly indeed to the top of its range. Where is that? I don’t know, the speedo is broken, but it’ll keep up with the cars on the “superhighway,” a two lane blacktop with a good surface. I’ve had bikes that would embarrass the Dash in an acceleration contest from 60 to 90 miles per hour. The Dash won’t even do ninety, probably. But under 60 mph the Dash will keep up with almost anything. It’ll pick up the front wheel in first, second and third gear, and it easily does those wild burn outs like the mutants in “Road Warrior.”

It’s a looker too. It’s got lots of extra chrome; an aftermarket double-caliper disk brake in the front; the stock disk brake on the mono-shock rear end. Under the skin I’m sure it’s a little tired, the engine is still real strong but I expect it to give up the ghost at some point. It’s got 60,000 kilometers on it, and it’s a tiny, way over-tuned 2-stroke. I don’t know how old it is but the license plate looks older than me. But it only cost Bhat 13,000, about $350. So f*ck it, if the motor breaks I’ll get a new one put in.

I’m glad it’s loud: it helps the opposition to avoid hitting me, you know it’s coming, that’s for sure. I’m glad it’s fast too: I’m not reckless but I really like to go fast. I love the Dash. It’s my middle-age-crisis-red-Corvette but I got it for literally one half of one percent of the price of a Corvette, do the math, and under 60 mph it’d probably stay close to the ‘vette. Wish me luck, I’m going to need it.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Thailight Zone: the VISA

I am reminded of a t-shirt that I saw one time: "No Passport; No VISA; No money; but Funny," except that I have a passport and money. I know that I'm funny, doctors have made that face and told me I was a little funny, but a VISA? I landed in Bangkok on April 18th and I assumed that they stamped me in for 90 days, which is what they cheerfully did in Thailand for years. But no, I assumed, and I thereby made an "ass" out of "u" and "me." Even though you weren't even here. They stamped me in for 60 days, and I ran out about one week ago.

No, in Thailand they can change the rules, or the interpretation of the rules, or the enforcement of the rules, for bad reasons, or the wrong reasons, or for no reasons at all. It's like Bizaro Germany: we need tourism to survive! let's make it hard to get a VISA!

I'm not too worried because after all I am free, white and twenty-one, and I have the wherewithall to pay fines. I'm sure that it'll all work out. Pretty sure anyway. I'll let you know.

Guest Blogger: Peg Leg Lee

Many country have army, I can kill them all, no problem. They hire pirate to be general, better for them. I can introduce. Many pirate now in Straights of (redacted) very smart, very tough, bad man. I know, better for many country, make them bad, I’m sure. Just ask Lee. I help. You pay Lee.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Tales from the Tube: Suddenly!

In one of my classes I asked the students a series of questions and had them write down their answers. One of the questions was, “please tell me three things that you did this morning before you came to school.” I really leaned on the “did,” and the, “came (to school).” I was looking for answers in the past tense. One answer in particular made me laugh so hard that I almost swallowed my gum.

It was a good answer, given in the simple past. That put him leagues ahead of most of them, but I thought that he included a word that he did not adequately understand. “This morning,” he wrote, “I got up, ate breakfast, suddenly I read a book, next time, I went to school.” I read this sentence as an example to my M.6 classes (high school seniors). I jumped dramatically into the “suddenly!” part with a look of panic on my face. “Be careful with your new words,” I told them, “you cannot suddenly read a book.” An elephant can suddenly crash into your house, but you cannot suddenly read a book.

The whole thing got me thinking though. Thailand can be a funny place that way, many things come at you from odd angles, suddenly, when you don’t expect anything of the kind. One night my friend and I were about to eat our dinner, ready-to-eat stuff from the local night market, when the phone rang. It was actually a little late for a Thai dinner hour. On the phone was my friend’s niece, who I’m told has a very good job in Vientiane, the capitol of nearby Lao. (These days, in case you haven’t heard, calling the place “Laos” marks you as a running dog of the cultural imperialists.) A good job, I thought, in Lao? If it were true she would probably have the only good job for a South East Asian girl in the whole city. Vientiane makes due with about forty-five old Peugeots and a couple of hundred ancient motorcycles; they’re still satisfied using the buildings that the French built long ago.

“I want to take you to a restaurant!” she enthused, “Ban Fai restaurant!” That’s one of the best restaurants in town, pretty expensive, I’d have to guess. I really don’t know because although I have eaten there many times I have never paid, never even seen a bill, or a menu for that matter. For most of my time here I was a Peace Corps volunteer and no one had the nerve to ask me to chip in for anything. I’m happy to go, I thought, but it’s awfully short notice. Maybe she’s in town for a short visit and “suddenly” remembered that she’d like to see her aunt. We said great and she said, “I’ll pick you up.”

Five minutes later she was in our driveway honking her horn. At the restaurant we were met by a management woman who seemed very glad to see us. She ushered us to one of the large, private Karaoke rooms, where we were greeted by my friend’s entire family: three younger sisters, a couple of husbands, some adult children with friends in tow, and me, the Farang friend. I am a long time friend of the entire family; I am officially “uncle” Fred. I was very glad that I was kind of dressed up because everyone else was kind of dressed up, but then again I like to be kind of dressed up even to go outside to get the paper in the morning, so I cannot chalk it up to foresight.

Thais have a certain disinclination to plan ahead and many things go from conception to execution with great speed. So maybe the kid did suddenly read a book, as in, “I was about to have a simple dinner at home when suddenly! I was invited to a fancy dinner party at an upscale restaurant.”

The dinner was delicious and we all had a great time. I increased my streak of eating at Ban Fai without paying. I sang a few songs that I really hate, songs that Thais for some reason love, songs which often are the only songs in English on the Karaoke machine, songs like “Sealed With a Kiss,” “Puff, the Magic Dragon,” and of course, the dreaded, “Country Road.” I no longer gag when I sing these songs; I put my heart into them in spite of myself. Then it was time to go home and salvage what was left of a good night’s sleep. “Suddenly! my alarm went off.”

Friday, June 22, 2007

Fever Dream

Mr. Hitler, no friend of mine, made his greatest sense when he said, “never write anything down,” and I’d add especially anything true but how can I not when they’re writing songs of love but not for me, even though my lucky star’s intact at least for now and love still leads the way to sky’s of grey and remember what I heard, you’ve got to meet me half-way baby if this house is where you wanna stay, get up! don’t fight it ‘cause you’ve got to feel it, well somebody’s feeling it now and somebody’s been feeling it for a long time too but this is the hour, time for a shower, and if I don’t miss my guess there’s a thin line between love and hate, what do they throw instead of boiling grits on your planet, and who wrote that book of love anyway, not that it matters because we know already it couldn’t have been a man because it’s more than two pages long and men are simple creatures who think directionally while the distaff side lie in wait for the unsuspecting amongst us and men just try to keep on the straight line between their two favorite points, country roads take me home to the place I belong, not Virginia, pretty momma but please take me home, take me to the river, take me in your arms, all eight of them, red hourglass figure, take me in your arms and love me, love me a little while, oh! darling because I’m too fast to live and old enough to die and I’m a little scared so be gentle, this is my first time on this train and there are more things in heaven and on earth than are dreamed of in my philosophy.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Tales from the Tube

One of the best real life shoot-em-up combat memoirs is by Eugene "Sledgehammer" Sledge, "With the Old Breed on Pelelui and Okinawa." He talks about one time talking with some fellow jar-heads when it was quiet and hearing a voice say, "you will survive." No one else heard it, and he let it pass. Well, something like that happened to me.

When I was serving my supremely unsuccessful time in the United States Navy, from which I am supremely proud to have received an Honorable Discharge, something like that happened to me. I had two roommates: one happy-go-lucky know-it-all from Ohio or something, and one hopeless dipsh*t from god knows where. Well, one night I was trying to go to sleep, something about military life prevented me from sleeping like a normal person, maybe it was smoking too much, the cigarettes were two dollars a carton, well, one dollar and ninety cents actually, and the dipsh*t came "home" hopelessly drunk. I'm not sure he'd ever been drunk before, but he was sure drunk that night. It was late, like one a.m. He was a garrulous drunk, and felt like lecturing me about what was obviously a resentment that had been building for some time. It wasn't like he didn't like me; he resented me. I was a big-city-know-it-all who had a pretty girl friend and still had the nerve to complain all the time. In the middle of a semi-incomprehensible rant he suddenly sat up straight and spoke clearly: "you will always be alright, but you will never be happy." It was like I'd been struck by lightning; obviously the sentiment was beyond this un-gelernte hayseed. Something had put the sentiment into his unworthy head, and communicated it to me through him.

Time has proven him, or the host spirit, to be correct. I have always been OK, but happy? well, cheerful at best. I sure don't even come close to remembering his name, but I can still see his face. In the dark, right under my Jimi Hendrix poster.

I'm not complaining now. Ok is good, considering.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Guest Blogger: Peg Leg Lee

I tell people was shark, but not shark. I shoot self in leg, accident. Not tell anyone. After while, I think, Lee, you die soon. Doctor say, mai dai, cut off part of leg. I tell people shark take leg, people think, Lee, he is tough cookie.

Thailight Zone: Hell

In my little provincial capitol in Northern Thailand, where, as they say on television, most people live on $4 per day, there is a golf course, and let me tell you, it sure looks like Hell.
I don’t mean that in any idiomatic sense, like you might say something “looks like sh*t,” no linguistic shenanigans, no “in a manner of speaking.” I mean it actually looks like Hell. If Satan played golf, this is what the course would look like. If god permitted those poor souls who are consigned to perdition to play golf, this is the course he would give them. Maybe lose a ball or two, you say? You could lose a small child right on the fairway, no problem. The fairways are not like any poorly maintained lawn; they are more like overgrown backyards. There’s no real rough; it’s all rough. Actually, out of bounds looks a little bit better, because there’s less shrubbery, it’s more like hard pack. The fairways also feature rolling hills of such frequency and intensity that if you wished to drive on the course you had better bring the Land Rover.
I don’t even want to think about the greens, I’m trying my best to forget them before the nightmares start. A bowling ball wouldn’t roll over those accursed places, not straight or otherwise.
I have on occasion seen people standing still on the course, but I have yet to see anyone take a swing. I think any actual playing is accomplished in the early morning. Certainly my recommendation would be to start a first light and stop at about 7:30 wherever you happened to be, you know, before the heat stroke killed you. I don’t know what they charge, but I would hope that some situational health insurance was included.
I have always found golf to be frustrating enough on the playable courses, to be honest I’m frustrated plenty on the easiest course you could imagine. I can’t even imagine what this place would be like. Maybe I’ll ask Satan next time I see him.