The Ongoing Struggle for My Soul…

September 4, 2013

Several weeks back, I was chatting with a facebook friend I hadn’t talked to in a while, and we burned the midnight oil catching up on what had been going on in one another’s lives in the dozen years or so since we had last seen one another in person. It was a fun conversation (from my end, at least), and I invited her to come to my place in Prince Edward Island for a visit sometime.

Now, I have to fill in a bit of back story here, to explain that sometime through the years since I last saw her, she has become quite a bit more religious than she was back in the day (as evidenced by facebook posts along that line), while I, by comparison, have become ever less so. And I was never particularly religious to begin with, so nowadays on a scale where 10 is very religious, and 1 is very irreligious, I hover somewhere around negative 3. So I said to her: “you should probably know this before you decide whether to come here or not, and if it is a problem, I will certainly understand, but (insert drum roll here…) I am pretty much an unrepentant heathen.” To my surprise, she laughed and said that perhaps she could move me from that position. I thought (and continue to think) that is highly unlikely, but hey, hit me with your best shot! So, if all goes to plan, next summer she will come up here for a visit, and we will pit the Scriptures against my dissolute existence, and see what happens. I mention this by way of introduction to these next videos, from highly controversial folksinger/raconteur Roy Zimmerman. A word of caution: I can see where someone might have his or her feathers ruffled by some of the sentiments expressed therein, so if what I have written thus far has made the little hairs on your arms stand on end, perhaps it would be best not to watch them (the videos, not the hairs).

The first is titled “Creation Science 101”, in which Zimmerman takes the point of view of a college prof steeped in the biblical version of the origins of life on Earth (“…4042 BC, on Monday, August 27, He made the earth and sky and heaven, then he punched out at 5:03!”). Then, in “Defenders of Marriage,” he takes on the thorny issue of gay marriage, this time from the viewpoint of a person whose political views lean well to the right of center: (“Every time we think about same sex marriage, it makes us sick to our guts, I mean, two people who want to commit to a stable monogamous lifelong relationship—what are they, nuts?”). So, if the spirit (or the Spirit) moves you, have a look (or Not) and please don’t
hesitate to comment…

Lost in Translation, or more appropriately, Lost in Bing Translator

August 25, 2013
A lot of my friends on facebook are from places where I cannot speak the local language, but they are kind enough (and brave enough) to speak with me in English when we are together. Their English skills vary from person to person, naturally, but the one common factor is that their English is much better than my Japanese, or Thai, or Khmer, or whatever. When they post on facebook, sometimes they post in English, but more often in their native language(s), so if I want to find out what is new with them, I have to use the translator provided by Bing. The results can be pretty amusing (I will not embarrass anyone by putting their names in here, but I promise you that these are word-for-word transcriptions of recent posts, as translated by Bing).

Here is one from a Thai friend, who shared this three-word message: “Matamha true love.” It must have resonated strongly with her friends, because it has …generated fifteen “likes” (so far) and several comments, my favorite of which read: “Remove the armpit to the government before” (I could not possibly make this stuff up…).

Another rather cryptic one read: “For more information, see how to get out of the hospital to look after the House is barely 2 percent Union!!!! This life, Mechanic tired: ching:(“. This post  generated a number of responses along the lines of: “Released by ka Several 3933 round sizes” and “Horns—5 episodes today issued the kalang WOR am horns.” I am totally clueless as to what transpired there…

Another Thai friend posted this one, which started out fairly intelligibly, but began to crumble toward the end: “She is still with me next. She would have me. She got me, we will be together no matter how long the time pass, regardless of the suffering will be happy to help each other overcome. To find a time that’s not very much embraced the neck aside, there will be no one left who has A Boonwara Ja Wanlapa > > Apichai”. This elicited several heartfelt responses, my favorite of which read: “Drama Momma decorate profoundly Beijing Lasting one!” The response came from my friend’s friend, who is not someone I know, but I know I would like her too, because how could you not like someone who starts a comment with “Drama Momma”?!!!

Here is a final one, that seems to make so much sense at the outset, and once again seems to lose the thread toward the end, at least in its English translation: “See, we closed the doors at home think that people not Hey who needs an excuse, then don’t think Hey who needs an excuse that homeowners will come back. To have come across the parking lot in front of his house. Tired of being real. Ideas thinking testers!” That one elicited a response that I found myself profoundly disinclined to agree with: “It is plain.”

Dreams of Railways

June 8, 2013

This evening I watched a Japanese movie called Railways, a warm drama about a middle-aged corporate exec who gives up his lucrative Tokyo job to become the driver of a local train along the west coast of Honshu. Driving a train had been his dream when he was a kid, and it hit him after the unexpected death of a close friend that life changes could be abrupt and permanent, and if he wanted to realize his dream, there was no time like the present to be about it. So, at age 49, he applies for the job, and against long odds, he gets it. There is no happy Hollywood happy ending here, though; there will be laughter, sadness, intimacy, poignant moments and profound changes in the courses of relationships—in short, all of the things we expect from real life, whether we are pursuing our dreams or not.

Anyway, Railways got me to thinking about the nature of childhood dreams, and the practicalities (and impracticalities) of living them out in our later lives. Obviously, if we all did this, we would be a nation of cowboys, actors, firemen, astronauts, rock stars, and football
players, so I suppose it makes sense to temper our dreams to some degree. If at least some of us didn’t, how would positions like insurance underwriter, assembly line worker, used car salesman, drive-up window attendant, trash collector, middle manager and department store clerk ever get filled? I know in my heart of hearts that there was never, anywhere, anytime, a kid who dreamed of someday becoming a middle manager or an insurance adjuster.

My mother’s take on this was that I should learn to use a typewriter early on, pointing out that if things ever got really tough, I could always eke out a living as a typist. I read in Wikipedia that Leonard Nimoy’s dad, in a similar vein, wanted his son to learn the accordion—on the theory that a good accordion player would never find himself unemployed. I think Nimoy’s father and my mother, like a lot of people who grew up in periods of wartime privation, were exceptionally concerned about having a Plan-B, a fallback position, and thus more willing to sacrifice some measure of the dream to avoid having to suffer any part of the nightmare.

From the time I was a little kid, what I wanted most was to be on the move, to travel to the places I read about in the pages of National Geographic, which I devoured immediately upon its arrival each month. Later on, I wanted to write stuff: fiction; short stories; essays; book reports; you name it. Fast forward a bunch more years, and I am still traveling incessantly and writing about it. You could make a case for this falling into the category of “living the dream”, or if you were meaner of spirit, you might call it a midlife crisis gone seriously awry, a Peter Pan story about a kid who doesn’t want to grow up. There is some measure of truth to either of these assertions, and I can live with that.

The one part of it I hadn’t counted on was that each time I leave someplace to go someplace else, there is the deep sadness that comes of parting with people I love. And because I love people in such far-flung corners of the earth as Guatemala, Thailand, Cambodia, Poland, Japan, Canada, and the US (to name but a few such places), at any given time I am in the company of a small number of the people I care about, and far apart from many more of them. Because of this I am truly grateful for facebook, Skype, and other internet resources that allow us to stay in touch until the next time we can touch in person.


An Open Letter to Soon-to-be High School Graduates

May 13, 2013

A short story about Math: a cute cartoon made its way to me via facebook this week. Depicted was a young woman in fifties’ homemaker garb with a quizzical look upon her face, accompanied by the quote: “hmmm…and yet another day has passed and I did not use algebra once…very interesting.” I tried to remember the last time I had used algebra for anything, anything at all, and the only instance I could come up with was a brain-teaser word problem: “a train leaves from Baltimore, traveling at 55mph…” I am guessing, based upon the
“55mph”, that said journey and its resulting word problem must have taken place in the 1970s (then, as now, a good time to be leaving Baltimore), well before the advent of high-speed railways. All these years later, it seems that the only reason I really needed algebra was to secure passage from Grade 9 into Grade 10, a worthy goal to be sure, but one that nonetheless begged the question: why are we learning mid-level math that we will never use again, instead
of how to grill a perfect cheese sandwich, how to stretch our income to cover our outgo, what fabrics can be put in the dryer without undue shrinkage, and myriad other life-lesson miscellany that even now seems to turn up on a daily basis. Further, I can say absolutely, without fear of contradiction: I have never, not once, used a tangent, sine, cotangent or cosine, since (barely) passing 11th grade trigonometry. Note: In a recent random and admittedly anecdotal survey of my friends and acquaintances, exactly zero percent of them admitted to having used trig even one time since high school.

This got me thinking: just what did I learn in high school that was worthy of being carried forward into real life? And how much do I remember from that time that has no bearing on real life in any form or fashion, but nonetheless sticks in my mind like a splinter, mildly irritating but impossible to dislodge?

High school history, about which I remember the following, and little else: AD 1066, Battle of Hastings (cannot remember what it was about, who was fighting whom, and therefore, by extrapolation, who won; cannot forget the date, though, it was on the test); AD
1215, signing of the Magna Carta (I seem to remember a King John in this one, but don’t quote me on that); the Dark Ages (a time when fundamentalist religion gained a stranglehold on the Known World, and which, if things continue as they are going, will one day be known as the First Dark Ages); the Crimean War (which seems likely to have had something to do with the Crimean Sea, although once again, the players and the dates elude me; this is also the case with the Boer War, the 100 Years War, the Sino- and Russo- Japanese Wars, the Peloponnesian War, and a host of other conflicts which must have seemed much more important at the time than they do through the lens of history). There were all sorts of peoples, players on the World Stage, each of whom merited a footnote in my studies: the Picts; the Saxons; the Normans; the Visigoths; the Norse. I remember little to nothing about any of them, who they fought, how they died out, what they did when they were alive. The Norsemen had those cool hats with the horns, though; I quite liked those. Conspicuously absent from the teachings were such remarkable nuggets as: a) Alexander (the Great) was apparently flamingly gay, as were Plato, Socrates, Aristotle, Michelangelo and any number of other men sporting only one name, all the way up to and including Liberace; b) the original version of the Pledge of Allegiance did not contain the phrase “under God”, skipping right from “one nation” to “indivisible”, thereby doing a rather better job of reflecting the supposed separation of Church and State than the current version; c) while Europeans were merrily beating one another to a pulp with studded clubs before returning home to their huts for their nightly gruel, civilization flourished in the FarEast: paper; the compass; the fork; arched bridges; a Great Wall; fireworks; gunpowder; playing cards; a complex written language; sweet and sour pork; the list goes on. And yet, we learned only about the achievements of the Picts and the Saxons, which were, um…?

A small digression: years afterward, I heard the quotation “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it…”, to which I would like to add: “…or, at the very least, they will have to take a remedial course in summer school, to ensure that the dates 1066 and 1215 are forever entrenched in their young minds”.

The sciences were once described to me thusly: if it is icky, it’s biology; if it smells bad, it’s chemistry; if it doesn’t work, it’s physics. I spent hours each week memorizing phylum, genus, stratus, nimbus, litmus, argon, neon, krypton (which I was very disappointed to find out had no deleterious effect whatsoever with regard to super powers), and countless other terms that had their origins in ancient Latin and Greek. This was mildly useful in later years, if only as a parlor trick: when someone mentioned, say, “hepatitis” in one of those passing conversations about hepatitis that one has from time to time, I could expound “Ah, ‘hepatitis’, from the ancient Greek ‘hepa-‘, meaning ‘liver’, and ‘-titis’, meaning ‘you die from it’. My years of
science studies may yet prove their value should I ever succeed in my quest to become a Jeopardy contestant, but my hand-to-button reflexes are not as quick as they used to be, so it might be all for naught in the event.

Foreign languages were another pet peeve. In 7th grade, we were subjected to introductions to four languages, one per quarter: French; Latin; German; and Spanish. At the onset of 8th grade, we had to choose one of the four to pursue until graduation. Because our language teachers, almost without exception, were not native speakers of whatever language they taught, our pronunciation and intonation were informed (and I use that word very loosely) by a distinct American overtone. There were twice-weekly language labs, during which we all dutifully donned the uncomfortable four-pound (1.8 kg) headphones of the day, and listened to transistor-radio quality voices lecture us on the finer points of conjugation and vocabulary: “Esto es un libro” (“This is a book”); “Esto es una ventana” (“This is a window”); “Esto es mi pluma” (“This is my pen”). In all the years since, I have hoped (strongly), just once to meet a Spanish-speaking person who did not know what a book was, so I could proudly point to the item in question and proclaim to him (or her): “Esto es un libro”. I may be waiting for some time.

Literature. Heaven knows, Mrs. Dargan tried to make a writer out of me (kudos to you, Mrs. D), or at least a reader. She was hamstrung by the curriculum, which I gather (from her eye rolls and repeated tsks of exasperation) annoyed her as much as it did me. Together (I for the first time, and she for the umpteenth) we plodded our way through Red Badge of Courage, arguably the most boring piece of fiction ever written, one which could easily put a young person off pleasure reading for a lifetime. Rounding out the year were Moby Dick, The Good Earth, and A Separate Peace, respectively the Silver, Bronze, and Tin medalists in the Narcolepsy Olympics. Each was positively bursting with themes, imagery, motifs, characterizations, and motivations, all of which we doggedly took notes upon, outlined, and discussed endlessly in class. As you might expect, there were two or three bespectacled geeks who waxed poetic about the writing, and everyone else in the class wanted to kill them. Slowly. To my knowledge, none of them went on to a career in literature, which pleases me mightily.

Independent studies. By and large, the things that interested me back then (most of which still resonate with me years later), I pursued on my own time: learning to play the guitar (rather than the oboe, the bassoon, or some other orchestra instrument I would never touch again); writing (the basics of which I gleaned in primary school and at home as a young child, later honing my skills by reading countless suspense and sci-fi novels, then later still gravitating toward non-fiction and commentary); photography, which has gotten exponentially easier to be good at, thanks to the development of tiny and fiendishly clever digital cameras; and travel, which is, in my estimation, the finest course of study in the world, an unparalleled learning experience that requires no bells to signal the changing of classes, no set curriculum, and no pesky pass/fail final. Some math is useful for the traveler (not algebra, though), as it is forever necessary to be on top of how much you are spending when the local currency is 37 kroner (or pesos, or riel, or kip) to the US dollar. A few foreign language phrases are good to have at hand for each new country you visit: hello, goodbye, how much is that, where is the bathroom, do you have a boyfriend? Inevitably you will learn more about, for instance, Thai history, by visiting Thailand than you ever learned about Thai history in high school (hell, I learned more about Thai history from The King and I than I learned in high school…). When it comes to the sciences, even the most jaded traveler will be eager to learn more, in the interest of self-preservation if nothing else, for the world is full of plants that will try to eat you, predatory insects the size of small birds, and colorful snakes and lizards that will bring about instant, and excruciatingly painful, death (and let’s not forget about ice floes waiting to collapse underfoot, boulders just dying to trigger an avalanche, random gas flames erupting from a mountainside; the list goes on and on…). Forewarned is forearmed, after all.

So, my advice: blow off university for a year after high school, maybe two years, and take a trip to some unlikely place that you know little or nothing about: the barren coastline of Tristan de Cunha; the remote Hmong villages of northern Laos; the moonscape fairyland of central Turkey’s Cappadocia. Go by yourself; it will necessitate more interaction with the locals, as you won’t have the safety and familiarity of a traveling companion to fall back on when things get weird (and things will inevitably get weird!). Take a small camera and a journal. Also, a good supply of BIC pens; they will make great gifts if you don’t use them up yourself. Write in your journal every day, and take lots of pictures. Skip the computer and iPhone; they are annoying to keep track of and easily stolen, and there are internet cafes everywhere nowadays anyway. Remember the cardinal rule of travel: lay out everything you want to take with you on your bed, and next to it, put all the money you will take. Then, get rid of half the stuff, and take twice the amount of money, and you will be good to go. University will still be there when you get back, if that is the path you choose, and you will be much better equipped to deal with it than you were a scant year or two before. Also, you will have tons of street cred with your less adventurous friends, who will ooh and aah in envy at the exotic stamps in your passport.

Oh, and don’t show this article to your parents.

Thailand Photo Dump

April 5, 2013

I'd bet good money there is no road with this name in the US...


How about some Life Saver-esque rice?


Leng's Isuzu SUV sported this curious instruction...


Leng learns that if you play in the waterfall, you're gonna get wet... does Bruce!


Only in Thailand...


Gage and Allyson model one of Kimleng's Cambodian silk scarves


Chiangmai by night


Oh dear...


Pedal ricksha in Bangkok


Kanchanaburi, near the infamous bridge over the River Kwai


Kasem Island Resort, Kanchanaburi,floating room only $30/night!


No idea...


Boy, there is a mixed message, if ever I saw one...


Seen on a t-shirt in Khao San Road, Bangkok


Anywhere, anytime? How about Chartres during the Renaissance? (Apologies to Steven Wright...)


What do you suppose this means?


Thai trains are always late; "real arrival time" is a permanent fixture on schedule board!


Leng and Gage both have good UNO hands, but... usual, Khae is the winner; note the subtle "W"!


And then there was this unusual sweatshirt...


Were was the profreader?


Alongside the Bridge on the River Kwai


The River Kwai, upstream and upscale...


Trellis bridge on River Kwai "Death Railway"


Saki, looking quite alive on the "Death Railway"


Bangkok taxis (all three vehicles!)


A bit of automotive history in historical Chiang Mai


This toothpaste used to be called "Darkie", back in the day...


Light fixtures on display at shop in Chatuchak Market, Bangkok


Michal, from Poland, channels his inner Polish ham...


"Slimming, sliming"-- so close, yet so far apart!


Why?? Because you are not allowed to bring real fruit back into the US...


What could I possibly add to this?

Kam’s Song

March 26, 2013

A week ago or a bit more, in Chiang Mai, Thailand, I met Kam. She was sitting outside the men’s dorm at the Christian university where I was staying (that’s a whole story in itself!), and chatting with my pal Guan. I noticed that Kam had a guitar on the bench next to her, and I asked if she could play it. She could, and did. And man, could that girl sing! We recorded this song, a popular Thai tune, on my little Canon pocket camera. Although the camera had limited video capabilities, and there were all the background noises one might expect outdoors on a warm Chiang Mai night, it was nonetheless magic! My friend Khae, who is less technologically challenged than I, was able to load the video onto facebook, something that for whatever reason had eluded me, but I have managed to figure out how to get it into Mysterious Orientations all by myself (cue the applause…).

The Visa Run to Kuala Lumpur

March 12, 2013

One of the small weirdnesses of traveling to Thailand is that upon arrival by air, you receive a 30-day visa, but upon arrival overland, you get only 15 days. Presumably this is to urge small-budget travelers on to their next destination in the most expeditious manner: “…lovely to have you here for a few days, please close the door behind you when you leave.”

I ran afoul of this rule by arriving back from Cambodia overland to meet Saki in Bangkok. I wanted to be in Thailand for a further 30 days, but was allotted only 15; thus, after spending a few days in the capital and a week at Colin Cotterill’s place on the Gulf of Siam, I had to make a border run to renew my visa. Up until then, I had not spent a lot of time in Malaysia, and, as we were in the south of Thailand anyway, it seemed quite logical to catch a flight from Surat Thani to Kuala Lumpur, and spend a few days there having a look around. Saki had been to Penang, in the north of Malaysia, but never to KL, so it promised to be a new experience for both of us.

I don’t know exactly what I was expecting of Kuala Lumpur, perhaps a smaller version of Bangkok: 24/7 speeding traffic, blithely ignoring traffic signals and lane indicators; lofty high-rises adjacent to open-sewer slums; throngs of scuttling tourists, locals, hawkers and beggars at every turn. The reality of KL was quite different: polite drivers moved smoothly on well-surfaced roads and highways; high-rises were on display in abundance, to be sure (including the one-time world altitude champ, Petronas Twin Towers), but the Third World slums were nowhere in sight; Gucci, Fendi, Cartier and Rolex offered their wares in a high-rent district that would have slotted in perfectly in Ginza, Manhattan or Knightsbridge; hawkers and beggars were conspicuously absent, and the tourists were a small minority, easily discernible by virtue of their remarkable lack of style compared to the locals.

Because Malaysia is a Muslim country, many of the women dress conservatively, often in baju kurung, a loose fitting full length dress, and hijab. I had thought I might find this a bit oppressive, even as a visitor, but in fact it is quite an attractive (and oh-so-colorful) style which has grown on me a lot. The covering offers protection from the sun, and it is very lightweight, wicking away perspiration and keeping the wearer relatively cool in what can be a very hot and humid country. By comparison, my sweat laden t-shirt and jeans felt like a woolen pea coat and long johns, perhaps not the optimal choice of dress a scant few degrees north of the equator.

I have long thought that architecture is one of the finest of the fine arts, with many of the best examples surviving thousands of years (the stone cliffs of Petra, the ruins of Ephesus, Macchu Picchu, etc). I gravitate more toward the modern expression of design, though: the Sydney Opera House; Gaudi’s La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona; Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater. To that august group, I would like to add a couple of Kuala Lumpur landmarks, both of which bowled me over when I saw them up close: the Petronas Twin Towers, 452 meters (that’s about 1483 feet, or more than a quarter-mile tall, for the metrically challenged) of Space Age design that requires a two-block remove to photograph in its entirety with a normal pocket camera; and the National Mosque, with its origami-inspired blue roof that has become one of the most visited sights in the city, by Muslims and infidels alike.

In a week, I feel as if I only scratched the surface of the surface of this attractive and modern city, and I am strongly looking forward to a return visit. As it happens, KL is one of the hubs for AirAsia, and a cheap layover spot en-route from Tokyo to Bangkok. So, all other things being equal, when I return to Thailand next spring, I will first fly in to Kuala Lumpur, and have a bit of a look-see at some of the parts of the city I missed this time around.

AirAsia, the Greyhound Bus of the eastern skies...


Saki takes a turn as air traffic controller...


Here's a sign you don't see every day (a durian is a really stinky fruit)


Thoroughly modern metro; clean and cheap!


Even the graffiti is/are exceptionally attractive...


The "Restaurant of Home Dining"; you gotta love that!


Petronas Twin Towers can be seen from pretty much anywhere in KL


Petronas Twin Towers, a closer look...


National Mosque