Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Test Video: Mall Bangkapi Fish Pond

Just feeling my way into this posting videos thing.

Not So Different, Us And Them

If you ever get arrested, dear Reader, if the police ever want to charge you with a crime, well, I’m not your lawyer, but if it were me, I would say nothing at all. “You have the right to remain silent,” response: a smile. “Do you want a lawyer present?” Response: a smile. You’ll get a lawyer soon enough, if they want to charge you with something. Let them find their own evidence, if they can. If they arraign you for a crime, you may clearly say, “not guilty.” Save the rest of your story for the trial.

It’s about the same for me regarding local politics over here in Asia. Saying nothing is the best policy, whatever is happening. Who cares what I think anyway? Some stupid foreigner, virtually illiterate, who cares? Whatever terrible, pre-meditated, self-destructive thing is happening, of what possible importance could my ungelernte opinion be?

I do, however, have opinions about my own miserable country, and I am not loathe to express them, and things are not so different in America as you may suspect. America is now in the throws of it’s own unfolding drama, and it’s quite similar to, and just as dangerous as, the dramas unfolding around us in the Second and Third World backwaters that we civilized people tend to laugh at, and just as terrible, pre-meditated and self-destructive.

There are, most essentially, two basic political theories: Top Down; and Bottom Up. The basic tension in political thought is between these two preferences. One great problem is that the Top Down side cannot clearly state it’s agenda to the people to be so managed. So they dress it up with political fictions, they masquerade as Bottom Up’s. Sometimes spectacularly, such as the “Communist” Chinese, or the Soviets, who claimed that all political power came from the workers, the “bottom,” whereas any fool could see that the Communist Party higher-ups were the only ones with any power at all (and enough food, big houses, and Mercedes Benz, or any, automobiles too).

Many Democratic countries resort to Populist Politics, where the people at the top simply claim to be men of the people, and give benefits of some kind to a sufficient number of the voting population to insure that they continue to be elected. If the people at the top are clever, the benefits that are passed out are paid for by the country itself, and do not represent any out-of-pocket expense at all to the Populists. In some instances, they may pass actual currency to voters in return for a vote, often in the form of loans not intended to be repaid. The Populists, of course, go home with the real money.

In America, it’s all very sub rosa, but the effect is the same: electoral success that leads to self-enrichment. Vast amounts of money are spent in America, on both ends of the political spectrum, to affect the outcome of elections, but in America, the Top-Downers have had great success getting the people-to-be-managed to vote for them without actually giving them anything. They do this by re-framing the dialog: “Family Values;” “Law and order;” “Patriotism;” “Freedom;” and hiding their real agenda.

After they get elected, they set about to line their own pockets, like some President a’ Vie out in darkest Africa somewhere. It happens in America too. Don’t believe it? Here too, this kind of corruption is a lot more subtle in America than it is in the backwaters. Consider the money that has been added to our national deficit since the end of the Clinton presidency (during which all of those numbers tended downward). How much of that money was paid to American corporations in certain industries? War related industries? Or industries that provided support and construction services for the prosecution of wars? Wars that we now know were unnecessary and, in fact, counterproductive? Notice also that our two current wars benefit the energy industry, look it up, minerals, pipelines. Just a basic example. (And who owns the defense industries? Look up the Bush family’s connections for a starter.)

Whatever, the real problem in America, and elsewhere, is that the two sides of the political universe can no longer talk together or work with one another. The two sides have calcified into mutually exclusive camps. The political dialog, if such screaming from a distance can be so characterized, has become so hyperbolic and paranoid that the debate has assumed the form of a battle between good and evil. In America, and elsewhere, compromise, that indispensible mainstay of Democracy, has become impossible. In this paranoid* debate, any compromise is seen as a surrender to the forces of evil.

Like I said, the best course for me is to be quiet about my host country, and leave them to create the politics that best suit them. Herein I’m just talking about my own homeland, of course I am.

*See also: “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” by Richard Hofstadter, originally appearing in the November, 1964 issue of Harper’s Magazine, but still all over the web.

Monday, April 26, 2010

A Fair Minded Man Who Follows The Rules

I was out at the airport today buying some tickets. I would buy them on the internet but you need a credit-card, and for a Farang to get a credit-card in Thailand the applicant must show 80,000 Baht per month income, and I only make half of that, which is two times a pretty good salary over here. (Thai applicants only need to show 15,000 Baht.) I would buy them at travel agencies, but they charge about 100% commission, no shit, it's a racket, I got tired of that pretty quick, as soon as I found out, in fact. Luckily, the airport is close, two cab rides totaling twelve bucks, and airports are great places to have lunch.

I got on line behind another old Farang, and I asked him cheerfully, “do I need to get a number or something?” It was clearly a line, and he didn't think so. We were having a nice chat, but ten minutes later we discovered that yes, we did need to take numbers. I found the machine and took two numbers, giving John, his name was John, as in retired Major John W., the lower number. “Oh, you take it,” he said, “it was me gave you the wrong advice.” “No,” I replied with a disarming smile, “you were here before me, and if I am anything, I am fair.”

Maybe that Catholic education was worth something, I had twelve years all together. One thing about me, and it's true, if it is at all possible I will follow clearly set out rules, and I will try to play fairly with my fellow man. The Catholics were responsible, all right, but it was not the bell-like clarity of their moral construct, it was not the resonance of their theology. It was their purposeful, vengeful imposition of guilt and punishment. I learned to fear repercussions, so while I continued to run my life in a manner that suited me, carefully breaking rules when it suited me, I chose to follow rules judiciously if they did not interfere with my core happiness.

Which will get you only so far in this world, I can tell you. I made a great success of Navy boot-camp, ten weeks of non-stop singing and dancing, nothing but rules and boat-loads of chickenshit. I was a maestro, no problems throughout, unless you count the time I had to do major push-back on some guys from Philadelphia, the mis-named “City of Brotherly Love,” who got that idea, I'd love to know. Out in “the Fleet,” which for me was a base in Las Vegas, Nevada, go figure, it only took the Navy a month or two to realize that I had no military bearing, and they'd do better to look elsewhere for someone to trust with their expensive equipment. We parted friends.

I still follow rules that I learned long ago, because of my continuing fear of repercussions, and my decision long ago to follow rules if it were not otherwise contraindicated. When I cross over a wire, or cable, or water-hose on the ground, I place my right foot next to the object and cross my left foot from left to right over it, so that any sudden tension in the line that would cause it to spring upward would catch me below my crossed knees and not full in the genitals. The Navy thought that was very important; either way you get thrown in the air and come down hard, but the right way you can still have children. I also still remember how to swim in water that is coated with burning oil; if the opportunity ever presents itself, I will follow those rules while others suffer.

These days I find little reason to break rules, even small rules, and I break no laws at all, I'm much too afraid of prison for that. But still, every time I come up against a situation that was once covered by a rule from the Catholics, the Navy, any other authority figure, I recall the rule and it affects my actions. Wear a new shirt before washing it? “New gear is dirty gear.” Wash a pair of jeans? "Alles mussen zugeschlossen sein." (It's a long story.) I suppose that it has all gotten me a reputation as a generally cheerful, cooperative man, a very polite man, for all the good it will do me.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Into The Pool

I was sitting on my veranda the other day, smoking a cigarette, when something interesting happened. It was all very exciting, in its way.

There was a young Thai woman sunbathing poolside, which is in itself an occurrence as rare as teeth in hens. I'd seen her before, she's pretty, and she has a decent figure, but she's no Miss Thailand. The sunbathing thing, the only reason for that would be trying to attract a Farang boyfriend, Thai men run the other way when a woman even comes close to failing The Bag Test, which this woman does already. Whatever, she was out there on a lounge, face up, feet pointing away from me, displaying her secondary-sexual-characteristics in a pleasant manner, wearing the merest hint of a bikini.

I noticed her, but I wasn't staring, I saw her, but I wasn't really looking, more like glancing really, I caught a glimpse . . . I could go on, English has a ridiculous excess of words to express about the same thing.

There was no one else in evidence; it was the hot part of the day and usually it's only the odd Russian and maybe this sunbather who venture out in the April sun. (April is the only month that is crazy hot in Thailand. The remainder of the year is only very hot.)

Suddenly, there was a big splash in the pool. There are seventeen floors of condos looming above the pool, hard to tell from where the thing had fallen, or from what distance, but it was a goodly splash. The ring of waves from the epicenter were pretty high. Whatever it was, it landed in the water far enough from the building to establish that it was thrown, it had not just been dropped off the balcony. The sunbather just cocked her head a little bit to one side, as if to say, I thought I was alone.

When the wave action had died down, I could just make out that there was a cell phone lying on the bottom of the pool.

Now, one of my favorite things in this world of pain is trying to judge whether simultaneous events were related or coincidental.

So, did someone catch her boyfriend staring at the sunbather, grab his phone and toss it into the pool? Did she just catch her boyfriend on the phone with an ex-girlfriend, and the sunbather was just a coincidence? Maybe some guy got bad news from his bookie and took it out on the phone.

These little mysteries of life are really the salt in the stew, don't you think?

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Beautiful Blue Bug In Bangkok

Saw this one the other day on the campus of my university.

The Worst Idea In The History Of Revealed Literature

Oh! That Bible! You gotta love it. Not much on the comedy, but way up there on the drama, horror, pathos, sex, science fiction, action, and with a little poetry thrown in, for the cholesterol, as it were. My personal favorite Biblical story is the one where God sends a she-bear to kill some teenagers because they made fun of a bald holy man, that was some hipster shit right there.

Can we agree right now though, as fully grown boys and girls, that it was a supremely bad idea to include the Revelation of Saint John the Divine (aka: “of Patmos”) in the one-and-only, for-all-time, Holy-Word-Of-God Bible. All it does is muddy the waters and give weak minded people strange ideas, and these days there are television stations that will give these credulous morons cable time with big audiences.

Does this even happen in America? Where, I suppose, there is a slightly higher level of education in evidence among the viewers. Over here in South East Asia, the Junior Asia, the Developing-World-Asia, stations like “Discovery,” and “History,” love to feature quasi-scientific shows comparing geological and cosmological realities to Biblical “prophecies,” as interpreted by the afore mentioned credulous morons, many of whom have tenure at real universities, or at least the approval of large swaths of the public, guys like Jerry Jenkins of the “Left Behind” series, which may itself have overtaken the Bible in popularity before you read this.

Yesterday I watched a show, two hours no less, I have nothing better to do, called “The Seven Signs of the Apocalypse,” on our local History Channel, which featured weirdoes like Jenkins, alongside fully accredited scientists under the dreadful influence of religion, in full agreement that earthquakes and volcanoes are sure signs that “God retains power over the earth.”

Somehow it’s funny when Iranian clerics blandly proclaim that earthquakes in Iran are caused by the promiscuity of Iranian women (meaning that they wear jeans and push their head scarves back past their hairlines), but it’s deadly serious when American academics and celebrities say essentially the same thing.

Never in “The Seven Signs” was it acknowledged, or even suggested as a possibility, that this fear of natural phenomena remains today the same as it ever was, since the time before it gave rise to religion in the first place, our fear of the mystery of nature, our fear of our helplessness before the dreadful majesty of the natural world, our fear of our inevitable, natural deaths.

And facilitating this idiocy, again and as always, was Revelations, with its numerically based mumbo jumbo, its multi-headed and horned metaphoric monsters, and its veiled allusions to ancient Rome and worldly politics. Who do we have to thank for all of this? Wasn’t it the Council of Nicea? The Gospel of Saint Thomas (which is pretty good stuff) is out; Revelations is in. That was some real mischief, that.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Book Review: Why Is God Laughing? By Deepak Chopra

I don’t even have to read this one. Frankly, my mind is already polluted enough by bullshit, I don’t need to read every bullshit book that comes along, even in the service of bloggery.

But I know God, I stand at the right hand of God, and in fact, in some matters, I speak for God. And I know all I need to know about Deepak Chopra too.

One time, Deepak Chopra was taking a taxi from JFK airport to Manhattan. As they left the terminal, the taxi driver asked Mr. Chopra to put on his seat belt. “Don’t worry,” said the self-appointed great man, “I have seen the manner of my death, and I do not die in a taxi accident.”

“So,” said the driver, “have you also seen whether or not I will get a $250 ticket because you don’t have your belt on?”

And so, regarding the subject of this review, I can tell you now, with a certitude approaching totality, that God is laughing at Deepak Chopra.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Update: My Nephew

My nephew had a double-bypass the other day, and they say he's doing fine.

The Serene Beauty Of The End Of The World

I was a boy during the Fifties and Sixties, and I can tell you that we all acutely felt the presence of the threat of the end of the world in those days. Lots of people got really worked up about it and made efforts to survive it, at least for six months or so, in private “fallout shelters.” The end that we were half-expecting was, of course, a nuclear exchange between the United States and the Soviet Union.

It was a real topic of national conversation, and lots of art was devoted to it, because the possibility of it was part of reality, there really were vast arsenals of huge bombs joined to efficient delivery systems, all targeted and ready to go. It was never, perhaps, likely, but, given the contentious relationship of the superpowers and the vagueries of human nature, it was way up into the range of the possible, more than merely conceivable. Scientists invented the Doomsday Clock as a way of warning us to keep our wits about us. Hollywood gave us “Fail Safe,” and “On the Beach,” and even the black comedic masterpiece, “Dr. Strangelove (or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb).”

There was a lot of “Post-Apocalyptic” science fiction too, one that I read was called “1999: The Penultimate Truth,” which featured a much reduced human population living in a dangerous new natural world. That was small potatoes though, the real deal was the actual, certifiable End Of The World.

The fear that it engendered in the general population was real and widespread. During the Cuban Missile Crisis I was a high school sophomore, and I distinctly remember the tension among the faculty of my school. They obviously weren't worrying about some ships being sunk, or some soldiers being dispatched. They were worried about the end of the world.

Not surprisingly, given my nature, I viewed the prospect through a romantic, yet strongly cynical, lens. Imagine the thrill of participating in the single greatest event in human history! My role would have been small, no need to prepare ones self for mere vaporization. I lived in New York City, and later on in Los Angeles, and in any nuclear war worth the title both of those places would be multi-targeted and among the first to go. For me, it would probably be a simple matter of noticing the flash from indoors, and having a fraction of a second to feel the pride that comes from witnessing something truly important, however disagreeable.

The worst that I expected was to be reduced to a radiation damaged hulk, essentially disintegrating over the course of the next little while. I could imagine myself kneeling on a lawn, or the dining room floor, vomiting up the remains of my insides and watching my skin sloughing off in big chunks, which was the real life, documented experience of some unfortunate people in Asia on at least two occasions. More time to enjoy the marvelous thrill of a vast nuclear exchange, knowing that a follow up strike will soon end any misery that intruded on the wonder of it.

Honestly, though, I strongly believed that it would never happen. We would never start that war; no cost-benefit analysis, no risk analysis, no possible agenda could justify it. I was also one hundred percent sure that the Soviets would never start it. Even a “victory” would be the end of them, their Soviet style of government. They existed only by the exercise of total control, which would disappear immediately under the first mushroom clouds.

Now we find ourselves in a very different, but almost analogous situation. The Soviets are gone, the number of nuclear weapons has been much reduced (certainly below “end of the world” levels), and the weapons that remain do so in a more stable emotional environment. We live today with the present threat of a different manner of ending for our civilization.

I read a nice bit of fiction the other day, in a New Yorker magazine. “Diary of an Interesting Year,” by Helen Simpson. I say nice, it wasn't great, I was a little bit surprised that it made the cut for that august literary entity. It was a short, first-person (“Diary”), account of the experience of Brits after a sudden, disastrous rise in world temperatures.

Far be it for me to debate the politics, or even the existence of what has come to be called “Global Warming,” I think on the evidence “Global Climate Change” is a more apt title. I think that something is happening, there's plenty of evidence for that, and I think that it should be of concern to us, and I think that it should be investigated without prejudice by the best minds available, but I have no firm opinion as to what might be happening, although I have my suspicions.

Like the U.S. v. Soviets nuclear war, this threatened climate catastrophe is perhaps unlikely, but certainly way up into the range of the possible, more than merely conceivable.

Ms. Simpson's story is very downbeat, the protagonist describes a miserable existence, a slow process of starving to death in disease ridden degradation. If her description of the aftermath of sudden, irreversible climate disruption is accurate, it would be a fate terrible enough to make us long again for those halcyon days of nuclear destruction.

Take Heed, All You Mortals

The movie re-make of “Clash of the Titans” is playing now in BKK. In a fit of needing something to do for a couple of hours recently, I almost went to see it. I passed, and there were three reasons:

1. I loved the original, and this one just looked like warmed-over “Transformers” computerized over-production, in 3D no less, which makes me dizzy;

2. I think that gods and mortals should just get along; and

3. I had seen Liam Neeson deliver the line, “release the Kraken,” in the trailer, and I honestly felt that if I had to see him say it again, all of the beauty and meaning in the world would be gone for me, gone forever.

Gods aside, we mortals aren’t having too easy a time of it these days. Some new annoyances, but mostly it’s the same old stuff. Further proof this week, as though any were needed, that we live a precarious existence, at the whim of everything and anything at all.

My nephew is a fine, tall, strapping thirty-something, with no known history of particular physical problems, not known to me anyway, and I think my sister would have mentioned it. This week fate surprised him with a heart attack, that’s what I heard anyway. The doctors hadn’t opened him up yet at last report, I think the operation was scheduled for yesterday but I haven’t heard anything about results. Doctors are generally very careful about making false reports of heart attacks though. America is a very litigious country, and nobody likes to be frightened like that for no purpose.

Here’s wishing my nephew luck, he’ll need it. These days, the odds are that he will survive nicely and then suffer most of a normal lifetime under intense, continuous doctors’ care, including many subsequent operations. Only in America could I go on to say with a straight face: “luckily, he’s already thoroughly impoverished, a ward of the state, and unemployable.” At least he won’t have to worry about the bills.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Book Review: “Basic British,” by Victor Ross

A slim volume of droll comedy, first published in 1956 but still having a web presence and still available. The author was a European member of an endangered minority who made his way to England during the late 1930's in an ultimately successful effort to remain alive.

Herein he has some fun, considerable fun, with the concepts of being British, becoming British, and all things British. Mr. Ross made a great success of it, making quite a mark in British publishing circles. He never became English, becoming English is, after all, impossible, in the same way that becoming a turtle is impossible, if you are not one already. He was, however, naturalized. Becoming British seems to be easy, at least the evidence in the public record indicates that it is. Obviously, almost anyone can do it.

The numerous foibles of those natural Brits, the English, are skewered with great enthusiasm:

(On Racial Matters) “The ordinary Englishman is in any case not very race-conscious. Being surrounded by so many inferior breeds, he finds further discrimination between them barely worth while. For instance, it would be unjust to call him anti-semitic; he just does not particularly care for Jews, much as a lion is not anti-monkey, although now and then he will eat one as much from absent-mindedness as from inner conviction.”

I highly recommend this book. If you are a fan of British humor, you'll love it. If you are currently not a fan of British humor, do not be misled by any unsatisfactory interactions you may have had with English people, this stuff is funny!

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

The Continuing Miracle Of The Tip

Tonight I took a long taxi ride in my home away from home, Krungtep, Thailand, AKA Bangkok. The fare was 219 Baht, and I handed the guy 260 Baht with a broad smile and a thank you very much.

He was a nice enough guy, a quiet guy, we hadn't spoken much on the way. When he saw the bills that I'd handed him, he fanned them and turned towards me with a confused look, I get that a lot. Thai people will hand a taxi driver forty Baht on a forty-two Baht fare and just expect him to take it without complaint. I smiled at the guy and said, "samrap Khun na-krap!" ("For you!")

He broke into a huge grin, and he thanked me effusively. Now, I ask you, where else can you buy a smile like that for a dollar and twenty cents?

The miracle of the tip!

A Bad Dog’s Last Day On Earth

Alas! Dirty-Smelly, I knew ye well!

My friend up north in Phrae had a dog, and not only was he dirty and smelly enough to be named Dirty-Smelly (“MaumMem”), he was also a biter. He lived about six years, and he was famous for biting people all that time. I lived in the house for a year or so, and at first we did not get along. He tried his best to dominate me, with lots of aggression, impressive growling, baring his teeth, and snapping them too. He was a substantial dog, about forty pounds, I’d say. One day it was all too much, and I temporarily put aside my loving ways to pick up a motorcycle helmet and beat the living shit out of him. I have quite a temper on me, and sometimes it comes out. He was a lot more reasonable after that, and after I started to give him treats and chicken bones every day, and scratch his neck just the way boy dogs like to be scratched, we reached an accommodation. Everyone else was afraid to touch him. Still, I told my friend, if that was my dog, he’d have been dead long ago.

A couple of months ago he bit her grandson on the face for some minor infraction. When I heard about it, my advice was simple: put the dog down. “If you don’t want to kill him,” I explained patiently, “pay someone to take him to Chiang Rai and throw him out of the truck.” I understand that Buddhists are loathe to kill anything, except the daily killing of animals for food, or mosquitoes, and they smile and pretend that those things don’t happen either. She told me that it was actually her sister’s dog, the sister lives in an adjoining house. I told her to think about it, and keep it to herself if she took any action.

The dog bit her daughter a few days ago, and evidently that was the bridge-too-far, the last straw. She called me last night with the good news. “Today, MaumMem is dead!” She told me about the bite, and how it had suddenly made her see the light. The dog’s dénouement was very dramatic.

My friend went to the home of a neighbor, I know him, he’s a friend of mine. These days he’s a successful motorcycle mechanic, but in his youth, firearms played an important role in his employment (he was not a policeman or a soldier, you fill in the blanks). They returned to her house, where the dog was tied up outside, with a pistol. You should understand that my friend is of the hard-scrabble school of life, she was born in a hut with no walls, in the middle of a rice field, and a lifetime of hard work has given the palms of her hands the calluses of a Puerto Rican conga drummer. So I was not surprised to learn that it was her that ended the dog’s reign of terror by emptying the pistol into him, eight shots, she fired until the receiver stayed back. She understands guns, her husband, when alive, was in the same business that the neighbor had been in. No prayers, I believe, were spoken, and the neighborhood rejoiced.

I told her, “you did the right thing, I was worried about your grandson.” Next month he comes to live at her house, permanently, with his mom. She told me that she was still worried about what her sister would say. “Just smile,” I told her, “say you don’t know what happened, he must have run away.”

She was still concerned. “But Khun Fred, what about all the blood?”


I just re-read the below post, and I must say that I am really impressed.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Protestant v. Christian

The other day, after a couple of powerful vodka and sodas, my friend Khun Lo suddenly became more confident in his ability to speak English. Many questions that generally remain stored up behind his intelligent, smiling face were given voice as his natural shyness disappeared, shy about speaking English anyway. One of the questions was: “what is the difference between a Protestant and a Christian?

This is a good question, and I tried my best to clear up the confusion. “Well,” I began, “they’re all Christians. Protestants, Catholics and lots of other groups are all Christians. It’s all the same God, the same Jesus and the same Bible.” Firm ground so far, but it only generates more confusion.

The question remains: what’s the difference? “Small differences,” I struggled to go on, “most Christian churches baptize their members (brief description of that ritual), but some churches baptize babies (like I was baptized, by Catholics), and some churches wait until the member is an adult.” Another example, “all Christian churches hang a cross on the wall, but some put a body on the cross while others think that it is wrong to show the image of God.” These points of difference seem to outsiders to lack any real distinction at all. Any mention of the Trinity, salvation, the virgin birth, or Original Sin risk losing the pilgrim’s attention altogether.

My friend returned to his original point of inquiry, “so, what is a Protestant?” I resorted to a history lesson. “Five hundred years ago, almost all European Christians were Catholic.” He raised his eyes to heaven, not, I think, to pray, but rather to calculate the relative age of the Christian churches at that time. “Many national groups wanted the church to be closer to their homes, so they protested the domination of the Catholics.” I explained “protest” by comparing it to current anti-government protests in Thailand. This explanation was satisfactory, as far as it went. The question of the differences remained. His sister, a member of a Korean Presbyterian church in Bangkok, was also interested and jumped in from time to time with clarification in Thai.

It was very difficult to understand how there could be such disagreement among people who worshiped the same God, and the same Jesus, as revealed in the same Bible. It only got worse after that.

“You know,” I almost hesitated to add, “all of the Christians, and all of the Jews, and all of the Muslims in the world worship the same God, as revealed to the same man (Abraham) and honor the same Bible.” (The Old Testament anyway; explaining the various attitudes towards Jesus was beyond the scope of our conversation.) Beginning to suspect that the Non-Buddhist world was even more screwed up that he had thought, he returned to a simpler question.

“So, are you a Christian?” I’ve gotten this one before, so I had a ready answer. “I don’t believe in any of them, I believe in you and me, I just believe that people should love each other, and help each other.” Thai people seem to love this answer, it always goes over big. I’m not really a Buddhist either, but I think the statement is popular because it could be made by any good Buddhist responding to questions about God and religion. The Buddha is a goal, not a God.

The conversation left me with the familiar feeling that it could all be so simple. Are there any differences between religions that are really worth fighting about? Does it really matter if a congregation worships on Friday, Saturday, or Sunday? At what age someone is baptized? Can’t we agree that the nature of God is an impenetrable mystery? My own opinion is that it is a terrible sin to squander any energy at all on the question of God until the many immediate, pressing problems of the world have been satisfactorily addressed. Problems like: poverty; nutrition; medical care; fresh water; sanitation, and the rest. If we do all that, the God question will take care of itself.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Remembering The Dead Update: It's A Chinese Thing

CNN ran an article this morning covering yesterday's Ching Ming festival, and sure enough that's what I attended yesterday with my family of friends. Theirs is a Chinese-Thai family, both parents were born in Hong Kong. They told me yesterday that it was the "Ching Meng" festival, but I didn't put it all together at the time. I was probably thinking about the lunch that was to follow, which was superb.

Bangkok, incidentally, was a Chinese trading settlement in its early incarnation, and there's still a big Chinese cultural component. This area of the city has a large Chinese-Thai population, so this temple has lots and lots of those little "bone condos." They burn the body upon death and remove and preserve the bones afterwards, the ashes they're not concerned with. It gives the parents a chance to be demanding long beyond the period of their natural lives.

My Easter Remembering The Dead

I was lucky enough to be invited to the "remember the dead" day for a family that I know pretty well. Coincidentally it was Easter Sunday. The grave stone looking thing was described to me as the "Condo" of the deceased parents. It was all very nice. I think I was the only one who cried.

TV Review: American Idol (Expanded Format!)

I’ve enjoyed some pretty terrible TV shows in my time. Dragnet; Surfside 6; Dance Party USA. My time covers the entire history of commercial TV in the United States, every minute of it: I was born the month before the number of TV’s in private hands jumped from 23,000 to 250,000 to watch Uncle Miltie.

Now, for some strange reason, I’m investing three hours per week in the quest of a relatively untalented bunch of singers to become the next “American idol.” This terminology persists, in spite of the fact that past winners have consistently failed to set the world on fire.

The shows for the first week of April, 2010, were typical. The contestants had been pared down to the “Top 10,” and this week they’d be singing songs from the “Soul and R&B” catalog. The popular singer called Usher would be “mentoring” the young singers. The night of singing went this way:

1. Sioban: She sees herself in the Aretha Franklin mold, and she does have a big voice for a (slightly chunky) little girl. She sang “Through the Fire,” by Shaka Kahn, I’d never heard it before. I thought that it was a good choice, and that she did a great job on it. The judges were very hard on her, including their typical assessment: “not your best performance.” She took it hard, she seems to lack confidence.

2. Casey: He’s a tall, handsome blond with a decent voice and a considerable facility for playing the electric guitar. Casey illustrates some of the mysterious allure of this show, in earlier rounds he was obviously nervous and his renditions were tentative and unappealing, but as the weeks have rolled on he has found his “voice” and he’s having more fun and performing better. Tonight he sings “Hold On, I’m Coming,” by the great Sam and Dave. I thought it was a big step backwards for him, he wasn’t sure of the song, couldn’t really figure out what to do with the guitar, and held back his already limited voice, clipping the phrases in an almost annoying way. Here we could see the greatest problem with the show: the judges were effusive in their praise, even Simon loved the performance, or claimed to. There’s the rub, sometimes I’m sure that the judges comments are programmed to benefit the show somehow.

3. Big Mike: Usher gave Mike some great advice. Mike is a giant of a man but he can hold on too tightly to a song and forget to project if he’s not careful. Usher told him to sing to the back row, which is advice that is as old as the performing arts, but he added that “the back row is the camera,” which helped Big Mike to understand what he was talking about. Mike sang, “Ready for Love,” by Indra Ire, I’d never heard the song, nor had I heard of the singer. Mike accompanied himself on guitar, which was a mistake. The only benefit was that it distracted us from his awful outfit, but even that benefit was cancelled because the three-quarter sized acoustic-electric made him look even more giant. In spite of the guitar, and the outfit, he really nailed the song, a beautiful job, and the judges correctly praised it to the high heavens.

4. Di Di: This poor girl has no voice at all. Usher was polite with her, it looked like a considerable effort. Her performance of “What Becomes of the Broken Hearted?” was just a mess. Her voice was terrible; there was no sincerity; she was frozen in place with a death grip on the microphone stand. Simon said it was like “swimming in jelly,” whatever that means, all of the judges hated it, “it flat lined almost right away.” She’ll be gone very, very soon.

5. Tim: He’s a ridiculously pleasant, not unhandsome brunette with long hair cut in a style that would be most appropriate for a late Sixties English rock band, in fact his ingratiating manner most reminds me of Peter Noone of Herman’s Hermits. It’s impossible not to like him, even though, unlike Mr. Noone, Tim couldn’t find a song with a map, a GPS, and a native guide. Tonight he weirdly chose to sing “Sweet Love,” by Anita Baker. The judges said, “at least in was in tune,” even though it wasn’t. I don’t think they can tell, although they always pretentiously act like they have perfect pitch. Kara called it “uncommercial,” which was the understatement of the year. I had him on the short list to go home very soon, but I thought that his status as a fan-favorite could save him.

6. Andrew: Voting on this show is positive, you call to vote FOR somebody; if voting were negative, I’d call every week to get rid of Andrew. He’s overweight, with an ugly wardrobe that does nothing for him. He’s got this neck tattoo that he obviously thinks is very cool. He’s been getting more nervous and terrible as the weeks go on, his first audition was literally his best performance. Tonight he was ok, and the judges agreed with me that it was “better than recently.” They seemed relieved; I think he’s a favorite of the people behind the scenes.

7. Katie: I can’t believe that Katie is still here, she’s such a no-talent. Usher was kind to her, he obviously subscribes to the “no-negativity” theory of show business commentary. She sang “Chain of Fools,” the Aretha song, and it was just plain terrible. Her outfit made her look pregnant. The judges came from another planet to offer that it was “one of the best performances of the night” (Randy), that she had a “great voice,” (Ellen), and that it was “one of your best,” (Kara). Even Simon’s negativity was restrained. But it was horrible! Just horrible! From front to back, horrible! This obviously manipulated so-called judging is becoming the most interesting aspect of the show for me.

8. Lee: This guy is ok, but he’s lacked confidence and presence in prior shows. Tonight he sings “Treat Her Like a Lady,” by the Cornelius Brothers (actually “the Cornelius Brothers and Sister Rose,” poor Rose got left out in the credit). He really clicked tonight, he sang the song with a guitar, standing alone on the stage. He was way up on the beat, a great rhythm guitar performance, he nailed the vocal and really sold the song, a great job all around. The crowd loved it, and the judges went nuts too. He’ll be around at the end if he can keep this up.

9. Crystal: Of all of this years contestants, Crystal is the most poised and professional. She’s obviously had thousands of hours experience singing for the public, she’s a street-singer, a coffee shop performer, a “got my guitar and I’m ready to go” kind of girl. If she was better looking, she’d be a star already. Tonight she decided to stretch a little bit, switching from guitar to piano and dressing up from her usual busker duds. She totally nailed “Midnight Train to Georgia,” and everybody loved it, me, the crowd, and the judges. She’ll be around at the end.

10. Aaron: He’s just a kid, sixteen I think, and he’s really got nothing going for him. He sang “Ain’t No Sunshine,” the Bill Withers song, which he had no business even being in the room with. People are just being nice voting for him. The judges are vaguely positive, as usual. He could go any minute now.

The process then becomes, wait until tomorrow to find out which one of the ten will be zotzed this week, reducing the number to nine for next weeks jamboree.

The Results Show

The judges can be a little rough on the singing night, but the really brutal nature of the show becomes clear only on the night when the audience votes are tallied. The whole thing isn’t about winning, it’s about losing, who will lose tonight? Who got the fewest votes? This simple proposition is dragged out for an entire hour.

Tonight’s show opened with Ruben Stoddard singing us a song, evidently he was the American Idol for season number two. If tonight’s performance is any indication, Ruben cannot carry a tune, and he is not a particularly enthusiastic performer, although he did manage to look pretty pleased with himself. Ryan Seacrest commented that it looked like Ruben had lost weight. Well, Ruben was standing there, still morbidly obese and much, much more, so one can only imagine how big he used to be. He was wearing a very nice suit, though, sewed up for him, no doubt, by the people who create tents for the Wringling Brothers’ Circus.

Time for the cruelty to begin! Now “we will begin to build the bottom three!” Only one out of ten contestants will be sent off tonight, but all of them will be kept in as much suspense as possible, for as long as possible.

Lee and Casey are quickly rendered safe, after very little teasing. Next to squirm was Aaron, one of my danger-listed candidates. He is forced to listen to Ryan and Simon’s annoying mock-negativity, they are having some kind of manufactured feud, after which he is informed that he too is, unaccountably, safe.

Sioban and Katie are asked to stand together. Sioban is apologetic about her rather good, but seriously panned performance, but it is Katie who is told to sit in the Stools of Death.

Taking a break for entertainment, Mr. Usher sang a song, I think there was a song in there somewhere, hidden among the dancing and the back up personnel, appearing occasionally like a tiger’s eyes obscured by jungle foliage. Usher may be a good singer, it was hard to tell through the electronic processing, but he certainly is a fine dancer, and he is certainly charismatic, something like forty-million CD’s worth, actually. That’s entertainment!

Di Di, after some merciless jerking around, is sent to the Three Stools of Doom. So now she knows that she may be going home tonight, but it still might be Katie, or the third victim, so some hope remains. What a diabolical show.

Big Mike is safe, no one wants to tease him too much.

Crystal is also quickly declared safe.

Now it’s Tim and Andrew’s turn to be called up in two’s, and here lies drama, because either of these gunsels could be dismissed for cause. Tim is a genuinely friendly and cheerful lad, but Andrew is obviously thinking, boy, I hope it’s Tim that’s going home. Well, it might be, Tim is sent to the bottom three, now completely formed.

But not for long! Katie gets an “only kidding!” from the judges and goes back to the safe zone. So either Tim or Di Di is going home.

Another break for entertainment, in the form of a Hip Hop act that I did not recognize, lots of people performing some kind of boring pseudo-rap, “make some noise!” The artist was quite the little plug machine, “available now on I-tunes!” It might have been Sean Combs. Hip Hop is the Oakland of musical genres, it’s close to something cool, but in the final analysis there’s no there there.

Ooops! Di Di is the loser of the week, but the cruelty goes on as she is forced to sing for a desperate attempt at a “save” from the judges, she picks the song and if the judges really, really like it, she can stay. She sang “Rhianon,” it was awful, and the judges declined to save her, although Simon did say that it was “better than last night.” Oh, thanks for that last, gratuitous bit of cruelty.

Next week, the cruelest twist of all! Everyone must chose a song from the Lennon-McCartney songbook. I’ll bet they completely miss the three or four really great songs in that much overrated catalog. I’ll be watching though. What could be more compelling that watching a bunch of relatively untalented young ignoramuses being tortured by professional sadists?

Friday, April 2, 2010

Danger! Thai People Swimming!

Our pool is right outside my condo. I don’t actually go swimming very often, but I find the pool very beautiful. Not only the pool itself, some of the swimmers are very attractive too.

Lots of Koreans live in my building, students and business people. Most of the Korean swimmers are very technically correct, they’ve obviously taken lessons. An “Australian Crawl” is a very accurate Australian Crawl. Korea is a prosperous country, hence the lessons, and Koreans like to be “correct” in everything that they do.

Many of the Thai swimmers have obviously taken lessons, but most seem like they just watched people swim and have tried to duplicate what they have seen. This has led to basic misunderstandings of the goals of swimming. As a result, many of them swim as though they were engaged in a Thai boxing match versus the pool, kicking and striking the water with as much force as they can muster.

For the leg kick, the foreleg must exit the water and be brought down with as much ferocious resolve as possible. Bring your arm over your head and the goal seems to be to hit the water as though you were trying to knock a drunken molester unconscious. I’m sure that this is all very satisfying on some level, but it does not translate into a lot of forward motion in the water.

Some swimmers have very individualized styles. I saw a fellow last week, swimming across the pool he looked like he was trying to claw his way up a hillside, but with the additional fear of drowning.

I shouldn’t talk, my own swimming history is nothing to brag about. I never had lessons as a boy. Like most of my generation, I just made my way into the water when the opportunity presented itself. The year that I finished college I finally learned the rules, I was thirty-five years old, it’s a long story, I needed one credit to round out my requirement, and I got the bright idea to take “Intermediate Swimming.” I’d been swimming all my life, more or less, so I was too proud to take the beginners course, like any sensible person would do. This is starting to sound familiar, I think I wrote about this class last year. Suffice it to say, my own swimming, while it is enough to keep me out of danger of drowning, offers me no license to criticize the technique of others.

But laughing at the efforts of others is entertaining, I’m not above enjoying it, and my opportunities to feel superior to others have never been legion, and it’s not getting any better as I get older.