Friday, March 28, 2008

Thai Food Conspiracy: Back to Rehab… Again…

My wife Tang is in hot dog heaven. Think all Thais are ladling creamy curries over rice three times a day? Think again. You wouldn’t believe some of the s**** that passes as Thai food in country. One of them should be very familiar, though—hot dogs (that’s a Thai word btw). Hot dogs are an exotic item in Thailand, along with buttered bread and waffles (I’m serious). So to actually be in a New World country in common descent from the Northern European hot dog homes of Germany, Austria and Poland is like a culinary Mecca for her (go ahead, issue a fatwa, you humorless mullahf***ers; I could use the publicity). Normally I would protest, given the 30% fat content of your typical weiner and Tang’s ongoing middle-age battles of bulges, but given the high costs of travel and restaurants these days and the ease of nuking a unit of encased meat for lunch, I’ve signed off on this one albeit with prejudice. I’ve even got her going for the turkey wieners, since she doesn’t eat beef out of respect for Kuan Yin, and the fact that the cost of beef is prohibitive in Thailand. A good Buddhist eats pork of course, as do many Hindus. You can even find the little babis all over Bali in a predominant Muslim country, but I wouldn’t look elsewhere down there. It even seems proscribed in Malaysia, and that’s barely 50% Muslim. For Muslims in Thailand, that’s generally the threshold of the religion, little else rating a mention, even alcoholic beverages. Malaysians cross the border into Thailand regularly to do the things that are outlawed at home, even advising that “you’re wasting your money” to merely drink a beer or three since it’s not enough to get you totally plastered. Welcome to Mississippi and the universal law of Overcompensation on Prohibitions.

America is a food court, little Italy ceding to Chinatown in both New York and San Francisco, giving typical ‘American’ food like pizza and spaghetti a run for its money. Actually I can remember when pizzas were called ‘pies’ and pesto was pig Latin for someone you didn’t like but we’ve come a long way since then. In the Flagstaff Mall the no-name Chinese food easily outsells Sbarro, so that’s encouraging for us Asiaphiles who start going into withdrawal without rice. Tang’s hot-dog thing is a mutation in the culinary DNA, a nine-item deletion on chromosome 14 if I remember correctly. Hotdogs notwithstanding, broadly speaking there are basically only two kinds of Asian food, rice or noodles. Everything else are local variations on regional Asian themes, Thailand being the point where hot-wok Chinese food and slow-simmer Indian curries mix and mingle into something greater than the sum of its parts. Their transplantation to America is a boon for us frequent travelers, since you’ve got to eat a real meal once in a while; sandwiches and instant noodles only go so far. Asian food is almost the only cuisine that places any emphasis on vegetables, too, so that’s necessary to avoid blurry-eyed ‘camp-out malaise’, unless you want to pop vitamins instead of trail mix. Even in New York Chinese food is cheap as dirt, like a five-item meal going for less than five bucks at the little place where Chinatown meets Soho. I doubt you could beat that in Beijing. This is especially important in high-altitude places like Flagstaff where the high-pressure oxygen in every cell is in constant expansion against the low-pressure oxygen outside, resulting in some internal discomfort for many of us. In other words you don’t need any extra help from Mexican food. Santa Fe, though, at the same altitude is a real temptation with its creative take on variations of corn, beans, dairy, meat, and chile a la Mexicaine.

So Tang takes the new culinary realities in stride, though old habits die hard, like baby dried shrimp for use in soups and stews. Fortunately Mexicans like them also, so being in a place like Arizona helps the adjustment. The cashier almost gagged looking at them, but that’s her problem. They came from Thailand anyway, the small print reveals. Mexico certainly has plenty of chiles available for perusal, being their native place of evolution, but that’s overkill. Thais will only eat the three or four types that made it across the ocean presumably with the Portuguese or Spanish galleons a few centuries ago, though they hardly believe that story, they being so attached to spicy food nowadays that they assume they invented it. If avoidance of pork is the test of Islam, the ability to endure spicy food is the test of your ‘Thai-ness’. It’s hard to believe that they’re enjoying the flavors, so busy they are fanning their mouths and chugging water, but they swear by it, typically the first question they’ll inquire about a Farang. “Can he eat hot food?” Hey, you gotta’ have priorities. Things crossed the ocean in the other direction also, especially silk, but also the ikat weaving technique, notable in that it was picked up by the lower and indigenous classes of society, hardly the same market as for silk, though it may have indeed been copied from silk products. I have a cotton weaving from East Timor part of which is the spitting image of weavings from the town of Solola’, Guatemala, and weavings from West Timor are much more similar to those of Guatemala than they are to those of its Indonesian neighbors. I’d be hard pressed to hazard a guess as to the flow of influence, though the origins of ikat (a Malay word) in the South Pacific are well-known, and the Portuguese presence in Timor ditto.

Back when I was single, Thais used to ask me, “Which do you like, white meat or dark?” But they were talking about women, not chicken, though the word for chicken is frequently used for women in Asia, usually of the looser variety, i.e. falling off the bone. But I digress. Tang informs me that the eggs I just bought are duck eggs. That’s because in Thailand the only white eggs are from ducks. All the chicken eggs are brown. Why should the US be any different? The funny thing is that she says this with such country-girl authority, not realizing that she’s talking to a guy who had a purple ribbon winner in the laying-hen category in the Mississippi State Fair and who knows that leghorn is more than some town in Italy, however bastardized the English name, and that Rhode Island Reds are not a baseball team. They assume that the US is a nation of modern technology and that only, not realizing that agriculture is a major US export and our historical legacy. But tell that to someone from an agricultural third-world country that must borrow the English word ‘farm’ for everyday use. Old habits and notions die hard. Tang refuses to use a washing machine and can be seen in hotel bathrooms washing clothes by hand and hanging them to dry. We should charge admission to watch, extra if you want your own clothes actually washed in the process. If you want Thai food, though, go to your local eatery. Tang is no expert cook (pronounced kook, a Thai word meaning ‘a person who prepares food for eating’). But if they have hot dogs on the menu, run for your life, and don’t look back. You could get lost in there.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Overseas Siamese, not so Chinese

“Thai society is pretentious,” or so says my wife, a quote I remind her of periodically. All the little one-on-one-up-man-ships become rigidified into a vast social stratum of Creoles, half-breeds, and Interzone clones just dying to meet you, Anglicized and Westernized to order. Then there are everybody else, the regular folk that make up the vast country-side. And if citified Thais are pretentious enough in country, they take it to new extremes overseas. Unlike their Chinese and other Asian cousins overseas, they rush to assimilate at a speed that would make your head spin. But those regular folk are the Thai people that I like best, for at its best Thailand is a village, not a city. What does Bangkok really have to offer anyway? Most of the worst and little of the best that cities tend to offer in general. There’s plenty of traffic, pollution, and noise, but little of the art, science, and culture that define modern cities. It’s better than it used to be, what with the new sky train and underground train. At least now you can get around without hours in traffic, but that still begs the question, “Why?” Thai culture at the village and small town level is a thing of beauty, friendly beautiful and welcoming. Take this one step further to the tribal ‘Tai’ culture that still exists in Laos, Vietnam, Burma, and China (everywhere in SE Asia except Thailand), and the results are extraordinary. Tai ‘Dams’ (Black Tai), though maligned by their Lao cousins and exploited by their Vietnamese neighbors, are some of my favorite people in the world, a living link between modern Thailand and the tribal past that once dominated all of Southeast Asia. That tribalism is still to be found in the well-documented-and-touristed H’mongs and Yaos and Akhas and Lahus and Lisus centered on the five-country Mekong corridor where China, Vietnam, Laos, Burma, and Thailand almost meet and the lesser-known Bahnars, Gia Rais, and many other Chamic and Khmeric groups in the Annamite Highlands where Vietnam, Laos, and Kampuchea do meet. In the former the Tai Dam are radiant and even elegant in their self-styled traditional costumes, a cut above the others for whom they often mediate with the larger surrounding cultures, doing business and even governing within historical times. In them you can see direct antecedents with the culture that became modern Thailand, the Lao language being somewhat central and mutually intelligible to both.

Take that progressive tribal culture, militarily competent and in southward migration a thousand years ago away from advancing Han Chinese, mix with renegade Chinese themselves, either disaffected or Hindu/Buddhist religious or just opportunistic businessmen, put them in a cultural context dominated by the classic-era Khmers, and you have the origins of modern Siamese culture, only recently re-christened ‘Thai’ in back-formation homage to their cultural roots, both to unify a country composed of a not-so-Siamese north and northeast, and to send a clear message to the hordes of Chinese flooding into the country at the turn of last century following the Taiping and Boxer Rebellions in China. Fast-forward to the present and you’ve got a quirky modern culture, equal parts hot-and-spicy, sweet-and-sour, and pungent-curry, and that’s just the women. Overall you’ve got a vigorous hybrid of Chinese business acumen, agricultural bounty, and village friendliness, a culture with a decent standard of living not because of vast wealth but because of multiplicity of services. Every Thai has a second job and a handful of scams, however redundant and unimaginative. This keeps prices low but diversity limited. Thus Bangkok is little more than one mega-village, any culture of international note achieved largely by imitation of Western models if not by Westerners themselves. Just like the villages there is little or no centrality to the urban planning and infrastructure always comes last, in a constant struggle to keep up with development that must be retro-fitted hodge-podge. In a culture where conformity is prized above all else, this results in a city with reasonable costs, ample services, but little or no character, a city monstrous in size but a midget in culture.

Take that generic urban Thai culture and transplant it to America and you’ve got something that’s hardly recognizable as ‘Thai’, almost a perversion of the original. If chattiness is one of the most desirable of Thai qualities in-country, it suffers horribly overseas. Presumably part of a linguistic caste system of English-language ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’, Thais in America seem to make a concerted effort to avoid speaking Thai except to intimates. While this is not unusual in Thailand, especially when Farangs are involved, in America it even applies to Thais themselves. This is sad, because language is the DNA of culture. Once you’ve lost it, you’ve lost your culture. Language was always intended to be something evoking magic and power, literally casting its ‘spell’ over the psychological landscape, but it was never intended to be a weapon. Overseas Thais jockey for position in a caste system of the soul, clinging to their nuclear families while largely ignoring their culture. This is ironic because Thailand itself enforces a nationalism second to none, even refusing to register a name that’s not on the list of acceptable Thai names. Not surprisingly many Thais, and all women, have nicknames, frequently similar to those of pets, not infrequently derived from English sources. In the US they rush to ‘become American’ without realizing that to transplant their doctrine of conformity into a culture of individuality is largely contradictory and difficult to accomplish. But this is very similar to the way that Chinese immigrants ‘become Thai’ in Thailand by simply learning the language and either marrying in or buying in. By the second or third generation, they’re ‘Thai’, if they stay that long. Many use Thailand as a marshalling yard to gather themselves a grubstake to move on to America. It’s not uncommon for a nuclear Thai family in the US to consist of grandparents whose first language is Chinese, parents whose first language is Thai, and children whose first language is English.

Chinese proper in America have a totally different history, dating back to the gold rush days in California, and enduring much hardship and discrimination in the process. This must encourage solidarity, because to this day Chinese maintain their names and languages and lineages in America. Chinese still preside over chop suey kitchens dating from the old West, especially along the old highways and rail routes. This is a dying breed of restaurant, because the food sucks. But they’re still counted back in China and presumably counted on. That may sound conspiratorial and paranoid, but no, it’s just good old fashioned racism, the history of our species, getting there ‘firstest with the mostest’. I can appreciate their maintenance of traditions culturally while deploring the racist separatism psychologically. To this day there are laws on the books in Arizona outlawing parking in front of an opium den. Fortunately you can park in front of a Thai restaurant, the last line of cultural self-defense for many Thais. For a long time in Thailand I likened my experience to the peeling back of layers on an onion. Only later did I realize that I was getting no deeper, that the surface just kept refreshing its screen in a self-healing safety of face. Thailand takes superficiality to a high art. What it sacrifices culturally, it gains back in economic progress I suppose. The Interzone clones that I tend to avoid are viewed by many foreigners as the apex of Thai culture. They fall in love with the interface and hybrid vigor resumes its path of evolution by economic selection. Thailand is a woman, looking for a husband to take on his name accordingly. For that it only takes a village, not a city.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Hitched and Harnessed… Have Siamese Twin, Will Travel

I’ve done my own taxes all my life, Schedule C and SE, 1099’s and 1040 long forms, estimated tax and exempt foreign income ad infintum ad nauseam. So big deal, but I also did my own Customs brokering back in the halcyon days when business was my disease, Forms 3461 and 7501, formal entries and intensive exams, textile quotas and certificates of origin. I’ve done Customs entries in different cities on the same day, leaving Flagstaff at 3am to drive to Nogales, Mexico, picking up goods at the train station there and crossing back over the border, doing the paperwork and awaiting my release, then driving to Phoenix and getting my papers submitted there in time to clear my goods before the day’s over, then driving back to Flagstaff as the sun sets over the purple sage, all in a day’s work. It’s hard to appreciate if you haven’t been there, not to mention the anxiety of ‘crossing the border’ every couple of weeks and having to clear Customs. The point is that none of this compares to getting a visa for your foreign fiancée, all by yourself and starting from scratch. ‘Scratch’ in this case is the forms you submit to CIS (formerly INS) in the US. This includes bank statements and verifications, pictures of you and the lady taken within the last thirty days, and evidence of your relationship, all in addition to the multiple application forms and biographical information. We had a picture taken of ourselves reading the Bangkok Post with a big picture of the Korean-American mass murderer on the front just to date us and place us and send a little signal about the absurdity of their requirements. I feel sure they smiled.

If you’re lucky they’ll send you an acknowledgement of receipt. If you’re unlucky they’ll tell you some info is lacking and they’ll need more forms. All this is rather sketchy and dependent on the uncertainties of the US postal system, but fortunately you can track it somewhat on their website, assuming you know your code. When your forms are all in order within a few months they’ll kick it over to the National Visa Center where, once again if your forms are in order, they’ll kick it to the country where the visa will be issued, in this case Thailand, who will process the applications and initiate the continuing process over there. Once again this step is rather sketchy though somewhat traceable, but hopefully the mail won’t get lost. The first time we did all this five years ago, all the US paperwork went like clockwork but we never got the paperwork on the Thailand side. Presumably the mail got lost over there. For better or worse our circumstances had changed a bit over the year-long process, so after a couple of tentative phone calls with limited results, I decided to forfeit rather than pursue it at that time. This time started off even worse. I never received any acknowledge of receipt at any point. I traced it to the point that it went to the National Visa Center, but then could find no record of it. As I was waiting for their two-month deadline to expire to officially conclude the papers lost, suddenly it shows up, not there, but at my fiancée’s doorstep in Thailand, the whole package of forms from the US embassy in Bangkok shuttled down a humble middle-class alley by the Royal Thai Mail. I couldn’t believe it; still can’t.

At least at that point it’s my wife’s turn to do some work. There are medical exams to be done, by pre-approved doctors only, half a dozen in Bangkok, one or two in Chiang Mai. Fortunately Chiang Mai’s only a few hours from Chiang Rai. Unfortunately my lady’s had TB, probably had it in fact when we met, though the diagnosis came about a year later. TB is a slow burn, almost winning by robbing you of the will to fight it. I’ve often accused my wife of putting herself on the market because she thought she was going to die and wanted to suck(er) someone into taking care of her family. She denies it, but I don’t know… She thinks about death almost more than I do. Anyway after three Thai doctors fumbled the diagnosis and she had had enough Aids tests to supply Africa for a year and her father had started making little black magic shrines in auspicious corners of the property, I finally said something cursory, spent an hour on the Internet, and told her I thought she had TB. The (fourth) official diagnosis came in within a day later. Then followed six months of four different antibiotics, enough presumably so that no bacteria could outsmart them all. So it’s a big deal. The new doctor, while approving her current health, made her carry fresh X-rays around with her, just begging a challenge. In fact TB is making a big comeback on the world stage, simply because people don’t eradicate the disease completely, so it comes back. She needed a police clearance also, for which she had to make a special trip to Bangkok. You have to apply for the actual visa online, in English, and then pay for the bloody thing at the Thai post office. After researching further I Skyped her from the US and told her to pay the fee before year-end 2007, when the price was to go up. When you get the forms in order, you send a checklist telling them the forms are in order and await a date for the interview.

They finally set her date at March 10, which was good, since I could be there, too. There was only one problem. Her passport expires November 9, and you need at least eight months validity. So I Skyped her from Senegal and told her to get a new passport before the interview. For those of you who don’t know already, one of the latest nicest and most inexpensive developments for the traveler is the rise of Skype’s Internet-based telephone service. Unlike previous services like Net2Phone, etc. the lag-time between transmission and reception is down so low that unless someone is a really fast talker and the signal is good, it’s usually not much of a problem. You certainly don’t have to say “over” walkie-talkie-like after each side is finished speaking so the other party won’t overlap. Just speak at a normal unhurried rate. As they tell you repeatedly, this service is not designed for emergencies anyway. But Thailand doesn’t do passports locally anymore, so she had to make another trip to Chiang Mai. This runaround is wearing me out just thinking about it. If companies do all this work for you they charge $1000- $2000 depending on the level of service. I’d probably recommend it unless you’re a pro bono lawyer by profession.

So when the day finally came the tension was running high. Her appointment note told her to submit papers at 7:30 am, which I thought was pretty absurd, but not half as absurd as the line that was already there a full half hour before that. It looked like a security line at LAX airport. I guess they were mostly tourists, first come first serve, because we got to bypass them with our fancy little card with an actual date on it. In our category was a motley crew, including one little twenty-ish Bimbette with a sixty-ish Farang in tow and one older woman with her entire family there. They were shuffling papers and swearing oaths and moving on to other windows and suffering other ignominies that only stiffened my resolve to push this thing through, if for no other reason than to avoid ever having to go through it again. When my wife finally got her turn, they told me to please have a seat, then put her through the paces with the help of an interpreter. In fact, they dismissed her so quickly that I was sure she’d failed. But no, she was told to come pick up the passport with visa in two days. When she did, they strongly advised her to enter the US as soon as possible since her medical exam was due to expire in two months. That was the glitch we needed, since I had wanted to look for an immediate flight but her mother had forbade it due to her father’s health. Well we rushed home and Pa looked okay to us so we booked a flight the next day to leave in three. I usually eat what’s put before me, even on airplanes, but the boiled rice didn’t inspire me, and as the plane began its final descent into LAX the wife suddenly felt ill and started puking, something I’ve never seen her do before. This continued all the while the plane taxied to the terminal, an awkward start to a new country, to say the least. I think it was just nervous jitters, because from there things went smoothly, immigration, customs, rental car, etc., at least until we got to Kingman, where I-40 was closed because of a 139-car pile-up by Flagstaff, our destination. Two days later we got married, officially, only six days after receiving her visa, all in a day’s, I mean a week’s, I mean a year’s work.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Bye Bye Thai, Hello Uncle Sam

All good things have to come to an end some time, don’t they? After almost exactly ten years in Thailand, maybe it’s time for me to move on to other things, or maybe not. Since the Thai government seems to at least want to roll back the avalanche of ‘Farangs’ that have flooded into the country for the last fifteen to twenty years, maybe we should get a clue, or maybe not. Certainly if you’ve got you’re papers in order and have a good reason to be here, such as retirement, then it’s done easily enough. Considering that you only have to be at least fifty years old to retire, that’s not draconian. The $25K you have to deposit in a local account is a fairly serious means of testing your viability, but in times of low interest the actual loss of interest is not great. In times of decent interest it’s a thousand bucks a year. More than that, it’s a commitment, not so easy for someone who’s still traveling and exploring. Frankly if I didn’t have a relationship to maintain, I’d have probably been long gone before now, i.e. been here done this. Only next door Cambodia is alive and fresh and undergoing a renaissance. Their women don’t look bad either. Then there are other attractive locations around the world, both known- Peru, Dominican Republic, Spain, Morocco, and unknown- Ethiopia, Madagascar, Mozambique, Egypt, Greece, and Central Asia. But at heart I’m as much a worker as a traveler, and that defines my decisions. I have to work, and it’s nice when I can combine travel and work. The hardest part is living in two places, which is what I’ve been doing, having never cut my ties with the ‘real world.’ It’s been pretty hectic the last couple years, the back-and-forth increasing as I make motions ‘back home.’ Fortunately there’s no statute of limitations, so I can always come back, right?

I’ll miss family the most, the in-laws and my dog. My wife’s son and I have had our scrapes, but nothing that time can’t heal. Time heals all. The ma-and-pa-in-law are pretty cool, if a bit superstitious. He’s a star reader. When he read mine before his daughter and I tied knots, he told me that Thai women were not in my stars. He may have had an axe to grind. I thought his old ticker was on its last legs last week, but he’s bounced back. I didn’t know he’d been out digging pits to make charcoal. He needs to work, too. I tell them he and his daughter should do a massage-and-fortunes double act, but they won’t listen to me. They’re always skeptical of new ideas until someone does it and succeeds. Then they copy like kitty cats at a row of tits. For every individual doing someone creative in Thailand, there are ten copy cats and another ten making jokes about it. For most Thai people to copy a known formula is to succeed, like the human juke-boxes on stage. Pa’s got clients nearly every day, queuing up to see what the future holds, rather than simply going out and creating it. Mae’s okay, too, if a bit domineering. If Pa’s the one doing the lion’s share of physical work, it’s Mae calling the shots. I’m the only one who dares offer a dissenting opinion. She makes pretty good northern Thai food, too, if such is your pleasure. It’s an acquired taste, best when done with herbs from the yard, worst when over-stoking the spicy, salty, or sweet taste buds. There is no taste bud for greasy fortunately. Mae also names the cats, creative names like black one, gray one, white one, etc. They use similar names for the kids, like first one, pretty one, etc. So does everybody else.

I guess I’ll miss my dog most, man’s best friend and all that, though my laptop runs a close second. Joey’s a yellow dog, which is what all dogs would be if allowed to breed freely away from man’s artificial selection. Yellow dogs are best anyway for general all-purpose use, hybrid vigor and all that. He’d talk if he could. He tries really hard. He likes to wander up to the big road and chase big cars, better than the tame action down the soi where we live, like dullsville man. He was a temple dog, dropped off to fend for him self. That’s where we found him. He tries to imagine himself the Alpha male of the neighborhood, but the other dogs just laugh. He can hold his own, but so can they. Mae claims to hate Joey, but I notice she likes to make him omelettes and curries and such. I’m surprised dog food in Thailand doesn’t have such elaborate flavors. Many dogs fare better than the poorer classes of society. Joey’s so spoiled now that he won’t touch regular dog food unless he’s really hungry or just has a hankering for bar munchies. We used to have a cat named Bang, but he disappeared about a year ago, and it still hurts. He was a miracle cat of sorts, from the temple with Joey, but barely big enough to be viable at the time. He learned to crawl up the steps really quick to get in the bed with us where it was warm, though. That was right after the tsunami. After about a year he finally got his growth spurt and his balls, turning into the prettiest sweetest most loveable cat you’ve ever seen. He could never get rid of Mae’s rival cat, though, that tortured him constantly. One day Bang just disappeared, never to be heard from again. About half a dozen people were shell-shocked. Cats do things like that. They go off to the woods to die and such. I used to have a litter of four at my cabin in Mississippi almost thirty years ago. Then suddenly they started disappearing one by one, about a week apart, until the last one was gone. Then I left, too.

I’ll even miss the big fat multi-colored gecko that’s become an uninvited guest in our home. I have a friend in Arizona who makes ceramic psychedelic lizards that I always thought were purely works of imagination until I met these geckos in Thailand. They’re surreal, right out of a Dali painting or something, pinks and chartreuses and turquoises blended geometrically precise. They’re not bad house guests either, hanging by the lights ready to eat bugs by the billions. They can even remain unmoving for hours if threatened, like someone’s Hawaiian souvenir on the wall. I’ll even miss the silly Thais standing up at attention to pledge allegiance every day at eight in the morning and six in the evening as every bus in the terminal comes to a complete stop and even cars on the street. At first I didn’t know if they were more like Nazis or school children. Now I do. I’ll even miss the short attention span and relentless consumerism of Thai culture, always looking for the Next Big Thing while simultaneously invoking tradition and divine descent. Sensations are primary in Thailand, sight sound taste touch of course, but especially and surprisingly, the sense of smell, as if straight from an ol’ factory tradition. I’ve never seen so many inhalants in use. Of course they have different words for good smells and bad smells and the act of sniffing itself. My wife sniffed me all over before we ever touched lips, weird. Maybe we should stay. But I won’t miss the cloud of smoggy haze that hangs over northern Thailand this time of year simply because people would rather burn the wild than enjoy it, along with their morning trash. Nor will I miss the superstition and old wives’ tales that pass for health advice while people pop pills and drop like flies. Still they have life expectancies almost equal to those of Europe and America, and reasonable hospital rates to boot. So I’ll be back.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

The Incredible Sinking Dollar

Just when you think the dollar couldn’t suck any more or any worse than it already does, then it starts going down again, kind of like London Bridge, I guess. You stateside people could care less, right? I can’t blame you. Any effect there only shows up in higher prices, especially oil, whose producers are very aware of ‘real’, that is, stable Euro-based, value. Considering that the US has some of the lower free-market prices around anyway, those effects are somewhat mitigated. So what’s the cause of the once-almighty dollar’s slide into oblivion? That’s the $64K question. The simple answer is that people are buying fewer of them. So why are people buying fewer of them? There are many reasons, including lower interest rates, better options elsewhere, and the likelihood that China has bought about as many dollar-denominated securities as it can reasonably justify. Another reason is that the US is spending them like crazy, and borrowing like crazy, the other side of the flow chart. This is largely due to ‘the war’, always a pricey expenditure, hardly the economic justification of war that conspiracy people like to make it out as. Then there are the low-tax policies that are doctrine for the Bush administration in general. Unfortunately low taxes mean high borrowing. The resulting flow makes the dollar weaker and creditors richer, trickle-up economics. Republicans like to pretend they’re rewarding entrepreneurship and fiscal responsibility by keeping taxes and welfare benefits low, but there’s no shortage of welfare for the rich when Bear Stearns is about to go belly up, nor any excess responsibility when predatory lending practices create a mortgage and credit crisis that ends up affecting us all, innocent bystanders included. Fortunately talk is cheap, but knowledge short, and scuttlebutt thicker than Beijing smog when it comes to economics. How are we supposed to figure it out when the ‘experts’ are just making it up as they go along? There is no science of economics, only theory.

I think the main thrust of capitalist theory is that as long as the economy keeps growing, then any wrinkles will get smoothed out with time if not inflation. In other words, it’s a confidence game. As long as everyone keeps the faith, then the economy keeps growing. They may very well be right. I used to be very skeptical of such theory; after all how can an economy keep growing when resources are limited? I tried to imagine our culture spreading through outer space in some sort of metaphorical expanding universe, but no matter how romantic the image in its appeal to me, space travel is probably more of a drain than a boon to the economy. The advent of the Information Age has shown the limitations of my skepticism and earlier lack of vision. In the computer age knowledge truly is power and there are no limits to resources when you’re talking about intellectual property. But without Communism to keep it honest, capitalism no longer is. Europe’s even getting in on the act now, with eight-figure annual CEO disbursements, predatory lending practices, mortgage scandals, the whole schmear. Not surprisingly England is at the lead in this, but others are learning quickly. Ironically Russia, hardly the richest country in Europe, has by far the most billionaires, highlighting the inherent injustices. This makes you wonder what their Communist era was really all about, apparently little more than a police state to reign in the wildest impulses of the rich and corrupt. France and Germany both have conservative business-oriented governments anxious to dismantle suffocating welfare states that took years to build. For their part labor unions are famous for claiming their piece of the pie without ever really considering the possibility that maybe they should share a piece of the investment risk also. The labor/management dichotomy is critical to labor’s dinosaur way of thinking.

So what does all this have to do with the shrinking dollar? Maybe we should be asking why the dollar was so high in the first place. It hasn’t always been in fact. During the last war, yes the famous V-fingered war, the dollar fell as low or lower than this, and inflation rose much faster. This followed the Bretton Woods agreement of 1972 in which exchange rates were allowed to float instead of being fixed rates. This was after previous B-W agreements pegging rates to the dollar as opposed to gold, which some diehards still long for as currency as if its value were transcendent. In reality it only became useful as currency when there was plenty of it and its value well known, like silver before it, beads and shells before that, and tobacco in times of war. So dollars became world currency after WWII, but it wasn’t until the ‘Reagan Revolution’ that the dollar rose to new stellar heights. Whether the US wanted it that way is debatable I guess. Does a queen bee ask for workers to stuff her with royal jelly? It’s a privileged position, but entails loss of freedom for the royal fat-butt, not to mention the nauseating task of laying eggs for the whole world’s use. In the currency metaphor, the royal jelly is consumer goods and the eggs are dollars. To export to the US was to mine for gold. The US is the only country in the world that can’t re-value its currency, at the total mercy of the others, who need dollars to do business. Increasingly that means China, the modern world’s workhorse whose own currency is virtually useless outside its own borders. China has always demanded one-sided trade, payment in currency rather than a two-way flow of trade. This is what provoked the Opium Wars of the 1800’s, since that was the only other currency acceptable to the celestials, however illegal. I guess it made them more celestial. In all fairness opium was routinely given to British children in the early 1800’s to quiet them down. It worked like a charm. Things only came to a head when the balance of trade turned in Britain’s favor.

Now China buys T-bills and other US securities denominated in US dollars. Though much scuttlebutt has been bandied about Internet and conspiracy circles about ‘the loan’ or ‘loans’ ‘propping up’ the US economy which they can ‘call in’ anytime they want, I can’t find any of this anywhere, just one-way trade and large holdings in specie. Call it Chinese-style communism. So what’s the bottom line here at Ground Zero? Well, with China saturated with dollars and the Thai baht stable, you can bet they’re buying plenty of these now, too, strengthening the local currency. That and high oil prices are fueling inflation like I’ve never seen here, at the same time that the economy is flat from governmental neglect. Thus with the dollar weak and the Thai baht strong, a simultaneous double whammy, much of the economic advantages here have faded. Couple that with increasingly restrictive and arbitrary visa policies, and the bloom is off the rose. With the US real estate boom now faded and hotel rates moderating accordingly from their highs of a year or two ago, while prices in Thailand are inflating rapidly, a room in LA doesn’t cost much more than one in Bangkok. Food costs are less here, but so are portions. The buffet lunch in downtown Chiang Rai isn’t much cheaper than a Chinese buffet in Flagstaff, AZ, cities of similar size. Gasoline in Thailand is about four bucks a gallon, the US cheaper, depending on your location. Most traditional Third World countries have gasoline prices higher than the US, so who’s complaining? Everybody, of course. More importantly, who’s doing anything to change it? I notice a lot of new LP gas stations popping up in Thailand. I haven’t noticed them anywhere else.

So Thailand is not so cheap anymore and the US is not so expensive. The US is in fact looking better all the time. US wages are getting a boost for the first time in years and we might very well have a responsible presidency on the horizon. Interest rates are dropping drastically, so it’s a bad time for saving, but a good time for doing business. Housing prices are lower than they have been for several years. Foreclosures are rampant, bad for the original owners, but good for someone looking to pick up a bargain. A cheap dollar makes US products more attractive overseas, possibly moving it to a more favorable balance of trade. Maybe it’s time to give the US another look. Since my wife just got a K-1 visa, I think I will, for a while at least. There are still places there I haven’t been, like Puerto Rico, maybe? Hmmm…..

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Last Days- About a Boy called Kurt

It’s probably a few days too early to remember Kurt Cobain on the fourteenth anniversary of his death April 5, but it’s never too early or too late to celebrate the appearance of a half-way decent movie on TV, even cable, which seems to be a bit lamer in Asia than elsewhere. It’s even harder when you’re stealing the signal from the Philippines so have no monthly guide to what’s on that month and your remote control’s on the blink so you don’t even know what’s on that day. You have to be alert. The worst part is always catching a movie in progress and maybe seeing it several times before you finally get it all in the right order. Fortunately some movies give the title at the end also. Unfortunately some don’t. In a way it’s good since it forces you to judge a movie on its own merits and your own critical skills, rather than advance reviews and sales figs. I’ve discovered a few gems on my own that way, like ‘Crash’ before it got flick of the year and ‘Babel’ copied it stylistically, or ‘Donnie Darko’ before it became a cult classic or the director’s cut came out or Jake Gyllenhaal became a major star and frolicked with Heath Ledger in Mr. Ang’s classic Brokebutt Mountain.

So I was so desperate for some true creativity that I welcomed a strange movie that came on at ten in the evening the other night. The best ones typically came on later than that, or earlier depending on your reference point, but that only works when jet-lagged or insomniac. Still I usually crash at ten or shortly after, so need some impetus to add some wood to the fire and stay up later. That came from a strange movie that started off something like an update version of Maya Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon, though it quickly became clear that these were drug-addled meshes, of a young rocker avoiding responsibility and his friends and almost everything else but his own fantasy world. When he finally gets carried out of his house, in pieces, in the last scene, parallels with certain historical figures became obvious, and quickly confirmed when closing credits named Gus Van Sant as the director of Last Days, loosely based on Kurt Cobain’s ultimate demise.

The movie is worth seeing, if not for the biography of Cobain, which it’s not, then for the sheer artistry of Van Sant’s work. While it may seem exploitative to concentrate on an artist’s downfall rather than his highlights, it’s also enlightening. Van Sant certainly has a right, being a Pacific Northwesterner himself with subculture credentials in Drugstore Cowboy and other films, and an outspoken homosexual himself. Anybody who would put William Burroughs in cameo appearances is okay in my book. Perhaps more to the point was that Cobain himself wasn’t so enamored of his own highlights. While some critics may feel that the work was ‘oddly disjointed’, that’s probably the case with heroin addiction itself, isn’t it? If the work was not a biography, then neither was it a documentary, but rather a work of art. Is Picasso’s work not ‘oddly disjointed’? People are so accustomed to seeing film as a medium the visual equivalent of pulp fiction novels that they’re closed to other uses of the medium. The same is true of music, in particular Cobain’s music. While a simple take would consider grunge a successful blend of heavy metal and punk, Cobain himself was at heart a poet, or he wouldn’t have had fans the likes of Patti Smith, nor me for that matter. It’s no coincidence that grunge all but died with him.

While some may criticize Cobain for his failure as a role model, that’s certainly a role he never asked for, and frankly, any culture that looks for role models in rock-and-roll musicians probably deserves what it gets. To say that maybe they take themselves a bit too seriously would be an understatement. The ‘Death Cab for Cuties’ leader said a couple years ago that it was his job to interpret the world and its politics for his listeners. That’s nice work if you can get it, but the main job is to entertain, pure and simple. The fact that Cobain never aspired to be a culture hero is a credit to him. The fact that others did may have been what killed him. Looking in a mirror can be scary sometimes, especially when it’s weirdly distorted and lots of other people are looking, too. A friend of mine said school let out early that day in Japan. I became a fan from watching the ‘Live Unplugged’ gig, but mostly posthumously. If it wasn’t clear before, it certainly is clear now that many of the most famous artists and entertainers of all time got there not necessarily by skill alone, but equally by luck. My off-hand five-finger calculation is about equal parts skill, marketing, longevity, timing, and pure dumb luck. If that’s not obvious by how many underdogs rise to the top, it’s certainly obvious by how many industry darlings fall flat. Feature films may have always been and will forever be dominated by ‘the industry’, given their high production costs and massive organization required, but everything else is fair game.

Pop music, including rock, blues, jazz, hip-hop, salsa, merengue, cumbia, ranchera, mawlam, gantreum, luke toong, rai, bhangra, etc. is just that, people’s music, and left to its own devices, will likely stay that way. It was only when ‘the industry’ took over American/English pop music in the mid-70’s that the non-English-speaking world really became aware of it. Apart from the Beatles, who were marketed under a Thai name, the rest of the 60’s oeuvre was discovered in Thailand only after the mass marketing of The Eagles, John Denver, and the Bee Gees had opened doors. I assume it was similar in the rest of the world. This in turn inspired and revived a Thai music industry that thrives to this day. Still the live entertainer in Thailand is little more than a human jukebox and little more is expected or him than to faithfully reproduce a song exactly as it was recorded and played ad infinitum on the radio. Accordingly Thais clap as a song starts, at the point of recognition, not at its end as a reward for a job well done. Radio’s even more psychologically numbing, sometimes repeating a song immediately after its first play. If a song is judged by your inability to get it out of your head, this’ll put it over the top. How groups like Carabao ever did truly creative work makes their success even more amazing.

Maybe Hollywood, whether the film or the music industries, is no place for the truly creative individual, alone with his art in a sometimes hostile world. The emphasis these days is certainly more on attitude than art, more on technological posture than technical perfection. Thus technology gives and technology takes away. Accordingly I deplore the ‘dumbness’ inherent in the new mass media while admiring the democracy. But is the new Internet democracy capable of creating anything significant? Much work has been processed through the ways and means of Internet, but does anything owe its existence to it? Communism was great at distributing wealth but never created much. It would have been interesting to see where Cobain would be in his career right now if he’d survived. Most of the Grunge set have dropped from the public eye if not from life altogether, all except Chris Cornell, ex-Sound Garden. He always seemed a bit more ‘commercial’ than the rest, though I can appreciate his giving Artis the Spoonman some publicity. Kurt himself dismissed Eddie Vedder as ‘corporate’, but it’s not always easy for a poet to understand a story-teller, kind of like John and Paul. Twenty-seven seems to be the magic age for rock suicides, the age where you either straighten up or check out, doesn’t it? That’s the age I finally left Mississippi ‘for good’, so the psychological profile fits.

If Cobain were still alive I could see him singing some severe gutter blues, where his angst and anguish really lay, and a direction that fellow Grunge junkie Scott Weiland drifted toward. Maybe with time he would’ve drifted toward a more country-style blues like his hero Leadbelly, but we’ll never know, will we? With an oeuvre that consists of a scarce few works, we’ll never know how far he could have gone, but he was certainly more than a flash in the pan. I think history will see him as a latter-day Robert Johnson who sold his soul so he could play guitar, a tragic figure imbued with tragedy. Maybe one day a computer will channel his spirit and we’ll get the posthumous collection. Meanwhile see the movie. It’s got no Nirvana music, nor biographical information, but unflinchingly follows the downward slide of a US hero and heroin shooter, all without any graphic images. The movie’s been out a couple years by now, but better late than never.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Technology’s Rainbow in a Dumb-Down World

So now there’s a TV show called, “Are you smarter than a fifth-grader?” I’m glad people find our current ‘dumbing-down’ humorous. More accurately it should probably be called ‘dumbing-up’ since it doesn’t imply cultural backwardness. On the contrary technology seems to be the cause of the new ignorance. With so many machines to do so much of your thinking for you, why bother doing it yourself? Though statistics and percentages seem rather out of place when discussing degrees and states of consciousness, still it seems reasonable to see the brain as a muscle like any other, subject to atrophy with disuse. The greatest invention of the last century, the computer, has been reduced to R & R hero-worshippers getting their thrills being virtual friends with each other on MySpace, FaceBook, and others, saying brilliant things like, “Thanks for the add, man,” as though it’s only logical that someone’s sense of self-esteem would be dependent upon acceptance into a club open to anyone. Mostly it’s just harmless juvenile buddy stuff I figure, and beneficial in that some isolated alienated teenage potential artist/intellectual growing up in, oh I don’t know, say Bumfug, Mississippi, can find friends with common interests in other places that he’s having trouble finding at home. The only disturbing thing is that that kid may very well be in a highly diverse place like Berkeley, CA, with poorly developed social skills as a result of having adopted the computer as a surrogate friend and the Internet as a way of life instead of having normal relationships with normal people, real live girls in particular. As a tool the computer is incredible, as is Internet as a central database bringing together every sort of information from every conceivable source in one common space and format, available to random access in real time. It’s only as an end in itself, a way of life, that it all begins to look trivial and absurd and downright dangerous. But if it’ll make more people more content with a more compartmentalized life and save the vast Nature scenes for me, then it’ll all work out fine I guess. Don’t fence ME in.

The best part about the new social Internet is the expansion of democracy implied and intended, mostly in the fields of entertainment but also in politics. It’s certainly not inappropriate for YouTube to sponsor a presidential debate- though I’m sick and tired of seeing stupid video clips take over spaces formerly given to text- and it’s not inconceivable that ‘Internet revolution’ could at some point as easily refer to a revolution by Internet as one of Internet. Mostly though the most discernible impact is in the field of entertainment, whether good or bad it’s too early to tell. The recording industry is in a shambles. Is that bad? They’ve been in bed so long with the film industry that it’s hard to tell whether you’re watching a music video or a film trailer. That was when there were music videos, now mostly displaced by filler and fluff. So now they try to play FTSE with the fashion industry, as though we’re all just dying to see what Fergie and Will I. Am are going to be wearing at the Grammys. Three years ago Black-Eyed Peas were playing street fairs; now they’re waiting in line to host game shows, after having issued state of the union addresses from Moscow to Beijing. This is obviously the degenerate mop-up phase of urban music, long after ‘old school’, ‘new school’, and ‘classic phase’. Should I get some vicarious thrill at seeing self-proclaimed fashionistas wearing Calvin K.’s with their guys in penguin suits? These are the ‘alternative’ musicians, for God’s sake, preening and posing like Britney and Christina and Justin. I’m glad P. Diddy and Jay Z have as much money as Elton and Mick and God in less than half the time while espousing street values and ghetto revenge, but what happened to the music? That’s what you go to MySpace for. Everybody’s equal there. The Beatles stand right next to Townes Van Zandt right next to muddy Waters right next to the garage band down the street. You’re only as good as your stuff. YouTube’s doing the same with film and video. Want to finally see that Kenneth Anger film that you studied back in film school? It’s there, with Stan Brakhage, Jean Cocteau, and all the others, all for free. The written word, both literature and journalism, might be next, if anybody really cares. Neither of us, you or me, would be right here right now otherwise.

The bad thing about the continuing saga of ‘Net-head’ life is that social gaps in the world are getting wider and wider and some people, the vast numeric majority, are being left further and further behind. Less than twenty years ago I was sending and receiving telegrams, telegrams!, to and from Mexican towns that maybe had only one community phone. Wonder why cell phones have done so well in the third world? Creeping consumerism, maybe? How about no phone at all otherwise? Welcome to Cambodia. As advanced countries move into computer-based music formats such as MP3 and such, cassettes continue to sell well in Thailand, hardly the most backward country in the world, typically occupying about half the typical music store. Good luck finding a music store at all in Mali. Cassette vendors wheel their product through the streets on push-carts with the help of a car battery to blare their wares. The main division between ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ in the world is still two-dimensional- the gap between rural and urban gradually replacing the gap between rich and poor countries- but more and more the gap is becoming three-dimensionally vertical- one of access to technology and psychological conformity to the emerging international culture it promotes. This increasingly means intercommunication in fewer languages, with English far in the lead. On the other hand it also allows inter-communication among widely scattered but massively numerous communities of Spanish, French, Arabic, Chinese, Portuguese, Malay, Quechua, Turkic, Swahili, and Slavic speakers, to the extent that they wish to do so. The first five certainly have and do. Whether the less typically ‘colonial’ and more typically ‘minority’ languages will take advantage of new technology to unite and strengthen their cultures remains to be seen. It will be hard if they have little or no access to the new technology.

‘Reality TV?’ Hand me a barf bag and an old-fashioned sitcom. The only ‘Reality TV’ I’ve ever seen that I liked was in Dublin about five years ago when I wasn’t even sure what reality TV was. Baile Atha Cliath? No wonder Gaelic is a dying language, and calling it ‘Irish’ doesn’t help. On screen were on-going scenes of a family, a real family, under constant surveillance. Tired of watching the teenage daughter sleep? Wait a few hours until she wakes up. Want some company while you clean house? Wait until Dad leaves for work, all on cable TV from the privacy of my hotel room, like ‘The Truman Show’, but real and without artificial plot points imposed, Reality, slow boring and infinite. For a spicier reality, I’ll take world music? I can’t get enough. What’s the bottom line on the intellectual future of the species? There is none. My Thai in-laws can’t use an ATM, log on to the ‘Net’, or even program a digital alarm clock. My wife’s son can, but can’t multiply up to the 10’s nor score above a ‘0’ in Chinese class no matter how slanted his eyes, and cheats his homework with impunity. A downtown bar girl can communicate with smile and innuendo where she leaves off with grunts and groans, but couldn’t find the countries she’s visited with her faan on a map, nor likely even know what continent they’re part of. Words fail and concepts fall short. Theories of relativity only go so far. Some things you just can’t plot on a graph or pie-chart. Is it a brave new world or a new world order or just same ol’ same ol’. You tell me.

Monday, March 03, 2008

CR in CR- Death by Thai Food

My father-in-law is dying. I tell him he’s not, but he is. They’re killing him, not some vast faceless conspiratorial capital ‘T’ “They”, but the very faceful wife, daughter, and doctors surrounding him. I took him to Chiang Rai general hospital five days ago complaining of chest pains. They checked him over, declared him normal, invoked the diabetes clause (anything they don’t know the cause of they blame on Diabetes, a family of musicians in Mali I think), and then released him, in and out in less than two hours. How’s that for service? Would we have taken him in if he were normal? Yesterday he complained again of the same chest pains, only worse. We took him to a different private hospital, where they put him on a pacemaker after a pulse reading dipping below forty and a blood pressure reading up to a hundred-ninety-plus over a hundred. Did I mention that he’s been in the hospital at least once a month for the last six months with the same symptoms? So what does he do when he gets one of these attacks? Typically he’ll start walking down the street, clutching his chest all the while, ignoring my commands to lie down, as if he’d rather see the Homies one last time than actually try to ease the offending condition. If there’s anything worse than watching someone grow old, it’s watching someone refuse to, a warning to myself included. When someone goes into the hospital with the symptoms of old age at sixty and then gets the brilliant idea to start exercising, it’s probably better to save the brilliance for something else. It’s too late for anything but tai chi. Anything else and you could hurt yourself.

Stupidity and stubbornness are not usually listed as causes of death, but they probably should be, along with denial. That’s the longest river in the world, and seems to run through every country, drowning millions in its frothy waters. Thai food could even be considered a contributing cause of death in many cases I think. I told them all the first time that he’d have to give up salt, including fish sauce, totally- anybody knows that- and cut sugar and oil back sharply too. That means Thai food in general. For you people down south the local food up here’s a bit raunchier, hotter and nastier. Central Thai food can pass as health food in the US. Don’t try that with northern food. If you don’t believe me try some nam ngieow sometime. The doctors didn’t say anything about diet, either for his heart condition or diabetes. They never do, even though anybody who knows anything about diabetes knows that diet is the crucial factor. They gave him pills. They always do. He takes them religiously as his condition worsens. Guess what they feed him in the hospital? You guessed it, Thai food. That’ll keep ‘em coming back. Every kind of Thai food has sugar in it btw, in case you were wondering what that secret ingredient is. Variations on the combinations of sugar, salt, and red pepper pretty much define Thai food and are condiments ladled liberally on everything, even sugar in noodle soup, yes that’s right. Every one of those delicious curries has sugar in it, as does even fried rice. If it’s too hot, add sugar. If it’s too sweet, add chile or salt. It’s a vicious circle. Why not just add little or nothing and concentrate on creative combinations? After a trip to Penang, northern Malaysia, with food very similar to Thai, obviously a branch off the same culinary DNA, my wife’s only complaint was that it was too jeut, not sweet enough, salty enough, or hot enough. Guess what my complaint was? Thai food’s too much of all of those.

I told them I’d foot the bills for my father-in-law’s medical treatment if they’ll keep all the salt and sugar out of his diet, added salt and sugar, that is. It’d be almost impossible to totally remove it of course. I’ll probably keep my part of the bargain with a simple promise, but I doubt they’ll keep their end. Most Thais would probably rather die than eat ‘Farang’ food. I can understand the sentiment but it wouldn’t have to be so extreme if they could just cut back and the lower the ‘intensity’ of flavor in their food. In general they can’t. They live for that intensity, so even de-fanged Thai food won’t work. They pride themselves and compete with each other on threshold levels of intensity. They don’t eat for health; they eat for entertainment. Welcome to Italy. The idea that food has anything to do with health is totally foreign to their way of thinking. If you want to take something for health, you take pills, simple. Old men walk around villages selling out-of-date pills that they’re not even qualified to throw away, much less prescribe. Sales are brisk. Aside from that everybody’s got a favorite home remedy, ranging from the bizarre to the bazaar. In Hammurabi’s day in ancient Babylon patients had to run the gauntlet of people giving cheap advice, they say. Actually it was the other way around and the patient had to sit or lie there and endure these quasi-eulogistic epithets, whether as punishment or sincere advice would be hard to determine. I firmly believe in self diagnosis. Who knows your symptoms better than yourself, after all? But that doesn’t extend to the advice of any Barney or Betty who claims to be able to cure gout with apple cider vinegar. It’s not that easy. Self-diagnosis only goes so far also. At some point you have to surrender to the long loving arms of- not conspiracy, not science, but faith- and hope for the best.

If you go into (the) hospital in the US with kidney pains, the first thing they’ll ask is, “Do you have health insurance?” No.” “Drink lots of water.” That’s it, cold and brutal. They don’t even ask, “Visa or Mastercard?” The credit limits don’t go that high. Thais have a more unnerving way of objectifying your health conditions- you don’t exist when you’re incapacitated. When I was laid up with a cracked coccyx, the little neighborhood girls who used to play with the hairs on my chest (shut your dirty mind) wouldn’t even look at me, kind of like ex-lovers forced to share the same old friends, even when I called to them in the same room. I finally had to make jokes about the diapers I was wearing- I prefer foreign-made Pampers over the local Momy Poko’s- just to break the ice with girls I’d known for months if not years (shut it, I said). The diapers were there ‘just in case’, since I couldn’t feel anything ‘down there’ any way. I’m better now. Ever wonder what it’d be like experiencing ‘the first time’ all over again? Ever see ‘Dante’s Peak?’ Actually being laid up half conscious in a hospital in Thailand for a Thai is probably a lot like being a Farang. They like to talk about you behind your back right to your face. It’s unnerving. Hospitals in Thailand are surrounded by coffin shops. Sales are good, even though they’ll only be burnt in the fires of cremation as the corporeal body (redundancy intended to simulate three dimensions) reverts to primordial hydrogen, carbon, and oxygen- one or six or eight electrons to an Adam- in preparation for the Big Recycle/Reincarnation/Rebirth.

The Big Moment for any Thai cremation is the moment when they open the coffin right before sliding it into the fire and anybody who can, the younger the better, rushes up for one last look at the body, imitating the facial gestures and bodily contortions of that ‘mere vessel.’ The coffin’s usually been on display for a week by now btw, if the family can afford the party. Carbohydrates or hydrocarbons? Alive or dead? Consumed or consuming? On the rocks or straight up? These are the choices for organic chemistry. You draw the lines and choose sides. As I watch the lines on my pa-in-law’s bedside EKG- I’ve never seen one before btw- I explain to the village people about the pulse and pressure readings. I might as well have been pointing to ancient hieroglyphics. They’re telling him to eat hotter spicier saltier food to ensure good health. Just for fun we each try the pulse-o’-meter on our own index fingers. I’m in fine shape in the high sixties and the wife’s okay for a woman in the low eighties. Her mother tops ninety, going going going… uh oh, it’s looking like another rehab, but I say no no no... Suicidal tendencies might help cut health costs, true, but it really shouldn’t have to come to that now really, should it?

Saturday, March 01, 2008

WiFi Addicts Just Want Your Current, not Your Currency

Airports in America these days are starting to look like something out of The Matrix or Naked Lunch or something, fleshy mugwumps attached to triple-pronged sockets, sucking the black meat of power through long black cables. You can see them coming, eyes lowered to about a foot above floor level, scanning the walls back and forth looking for open sockets. They’ve got that look in their eyes, the psychological need for a plug-in. The longer they have to look, the worse it gets, eyes dilated, pulse throbbing, veins bulging with anticipation. These are about equally divided between computer laptop users and cell phone chargers. Of course laptop users are usually looking for a wi-fi signal too, and those usually aren’t free in airports, though Phoenix and Taipei are notable exceptions. JFK has free data ports, but how many people carry wires with them these days? You can cop a freebie in BKK down on the mezzanine level across from the airline offices. Don’t try this in Europe btw. Even if you can find a wi-fi signal, you’re not likely to find a socket to plug in to, even in places advertising ‘free wi-fi,’ of which there aren’t many. That’s not a bad idea actually, since many wi-fiers abuse the privilege and act like they have ancient rights. Some places limit the time allowed, but that can get messy if the user doesn’t voluntarily comply. Some have a code and use programming that counts your time down, but that requires a program. Limit the user to the charge capacity of their battery and you’ve solved most of the problem.

Of course a café doesn’t have to offer the service in the first place but it is a way to attract customers in a crowded coffee market until all your competitors do it also, and then you have to do it just to remain competitive. It’s a good deal for everyone as long as it’s not abused, because anybody who really wants a signal free can just walk or drive around until he finds one unlocked, not too hard in any country I’ve been in. ‘Wi-fi cafés’ are distinguished between those who offer the service free (w/ purchase) and those who don’t, but the former can be found in Mexico, Guatemala, Spain, Canada, and I presume many other countries in addition to the US. The latter can piss off. Why would anyone pay for two or three usages of anything that he could get at home for a month? Yeah, right, I forgot, stupid question. Europe is way behind on this, in both signals and plugs. Part of the reason is just that space is more dear in Europe, as in New York, and places frequently charge extra to sit down to drink that coffee rather than just standing at the bar. This is contrary to the spirit of wi-fi, which wants you to sit down and hang out, which in turn draws others, which in turn creates a dynamic pub-style entertainment, all in broad daylight without alcohol. The mullahs okayed coffee long ago, after much deliberation, to keep us awake during our long prayer sessions. Uh huh.

Still in New York you pay more to sit down at a table and listen to jazz than you do to sit at the bar, so prospects there are dim, though I did find it at the whole foods store down in Soho. Food was expensive; coffee was cheap. The situation with electric outlets is worse. They just don’t exist in public places in Europe, and sometimes not even in the cheapest hotel rooms. When they do, they may very well have locks on them. That’s right, locks on electrical outlets. I found one in the train station in Barcelona and guarded it with my life, not because I was afraid someone else would take it, but that someone would come charge me or tell me to de-plug. In America they’re frequently all taken even when widely available, even where the wi-fi isn’t free. When I was wi-fiing in the park in Barcelona, people seemed genuinely surprised at such a rare display, for while America was going bonkers over Internet, the rest of the world was going bonkers over cell phones. And while America is now catching up on the ultimate democracy of ‘one man one phone’ the rest of the world is still way behind on the net-head way of life. Maybe it’s better that way. Isn’t the sight of grown men and women attached by electric lines to the grid a bit of a scary sci-fi scenario anyway? It’s truly scary. I love it. It’s ironic. Not many years ago my supreme goal was to get off the grid. Now my goal is to get on.

Traveling with a laptop is a revolution and a revelation. What it adds in its own weight, it reduces in the weight of any books you might be tempted to travel with, if you’re so inclined. A 100GB hard drive can hold many books in memory, especially if you don’t need pictures. If you’ve got access to a wi-fi signal, then you’ll need even less, as you can get live up-to-date info all along, reserving rooms and flights as you go. While wi-fi cafes are certainly not universal, nor wi-fi hotels either, the signals themselves are, and many places don’t bother to lock them. Getting a cheap hotel next to a more expensive one is not a bad tactic, nor is getting upper rooms capable of receiving signals from many directions. You might find them easier at one time of day or the other. In countries where TV is scarce or negligible, this adds a whole new dimension to entertainment, also. If you’re actually going to watch DVD’s on your laptop, then a larger screen is preferable, but the novelty of that seems to be wearing off, and laptop sizes seem to be down-sizing accordingly after an earlier bump-up. I personally couldn’t imagine doing much Internet surfing from a telephone-size screen, but that’s just me. When traveling you’re carrying bags anyway, so that’s not an issue, and I personally prefer about a page-size laptop with accordingly light weight for most flexibility. This is a music machine also, but that doesn’t take much space. Of course you can burn or rip CD’s in addition to just playing them with a laptop, not to mention downloading if you’ve got a fast enough signal. In Europe many bands now have a laptop on stage, doing just what I’m not sure of, probably adding the trance-like effects so popular there.

Bottom line for me is that I write, so that’s the crucial size determinant, and a box too small is just not comfortable for that. Personally I don’t see much future for desktop computers regardless, considering their unattractiveness and the fact that those towers enclose mostly empty space. It’s just a matter of cost really. If laptop size is pretty well defined by its keyboard, then once components are small enough that that seems big by comparison, you shouldn’t have to pay a premium in cost or lack of quality any more. That day shouldn’t be far off, depending on which direction computers take in the coming era. Convergence of all media and communications- TV, radio, film, telephone-- into one Internet-accessible-and-dependent format-- is a likely guess since it’s already happening. At that point size is the only thing that matters, maybe a large box for the living room, smaller ones for remote locations and briefcase-size portability, and pocket-size one for constant access. Beyond that it’s anybody’s guess. Integration into personal adornment and even one’s body is not out of the question. At that point the Holy Grail of computerization, virtual reality, may be ready for a comeback, its previous incarnation but a wet spot on the bed of creativity and its true future only you-know-who knows how many years away. How far it will go and what it means to us as a species is another question. It sounds better than gene-splicing in any case. If we’re here for nothing more than to play with ourselves, let’s experiment with something we ourselves created, (self-) consciousness, and leave DNA alone. That’s not ours to mess with; we’re its. For now I’ll just keep slinking through the shadows of lightly-traveled streets looking for a rogue wi-fi signal so I can keep sending these messages in bottles to remote corners of scattered universes. My battery’s getting weak with age, but maybe I can find shore power somewhere. I may not be a star, but that’s not because I’m not shooting.

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