Thursday, July 17, 2008

Ants Now Die


Khuk Khak, Thailand – That trip to northern Lao pushed us far beyond the trip wire perimeter of our comfort zones. It’s there (outside the comfort zone, not up north), I think, that new learning takes place, like today’s new price for a barrel of oil and the mother of invention. Seemed like everything was fine before the war.

Except for the Cole, those embassies, Beruit, 911, and that kid down the street who went into the Guard. The KIA, MIA and DFS (dead for sure), and then there’s Darfur, the cyclone in Myanmar, an earthquake in China, and the tsunami just down the beach. Somebody’s UXO. Somebody’s IED. In ‘real time’, maybe everything wasn’t so fine before the war.

What war?

What comfort zone? For Stan, my first new neighbor, it’s a good exchange rate on the dollar. But where can you go to escape the tyrants? Where IN the real, 3-D world can you escape the omniscient predators where hellfire spews from the heavens?

Here, people and animals find refuge in the temple. Can they or the Aztec and Desert Camel God’s myths and tales withstand rational scrutiny in the 21st Century? See for yourself. UP2U*. With enough faith we can, yes, pick UP the reptile. Handle the serpent. Sit in a cave. Hang from the tree. Rip out a heart, cut off a head, strap on a dynamite vest, or maybe just say, ‘I believe.’

Never mind the upgrade. When the entire universe lies within the comfort zone of a hard-wired, pre-programmed, off-the-shelf pre-packaged double helix, all a person IN the world has to do is pick it up and make the requisite sacrifice or offerings to the appertaining presiding gods. And what if you don’t? What if you pass by all those doors and windows, fly straight, feed the animals and raise no karmic dust?

Even Mother Theresa couldn’t get a hello, and if anyone ever had an inside track, she sure did, so they say, if love, devotion and service are parameters. As communicators, we’re blessed to possess both sophisticated transmitting and receiving capabilities, as opposed to, say, pond scum. Verbally.

Father Paul, a sun dance brother priest, said, ‘God speaks to us in the silence.’ Maybe the channel was off. Maybe we was praying to us. Maybe we was praying too much.

Across the lake at the local wat, the monks have settled in for the night. Even in absolute stillness, in the absolute early morning quiet, I can still hear them crickets in my head. And that hum. Know what I mean?

Now, my grammar check nailed ‘them’ crickets, and I know better, but we’re gonna leave it stand.


Carpenter ants. Or termites. Swarms of them, by the thousands the other night, making their move before the rainy season. In the morning, they lay dead in a thick carpet of discarded wings below the fluorescent lights. My other new neighbor, Clay, was sweeping them up.

“What do you do?” asked Clay, the thin, serious, slightly patronizing, accomplished jazz lounge musician with a computerized, synthesized keyboard that could almost mimic an entire band or orchestra. Clay has a good voice and likes to wear a Sinatra hat while performing.

Maybe you’ve seen him, or someone like him, in a hotel lobby somewhere, innocuous, low key at the piano, almost invisible, playing quiet renditions of familiar ballads and love songs we know most all the words to.

My good friend, Manas, only wanted to rent to ‘farang’ (foreigner), because the ‘contractors will rent an apartment, and the next thing you know, there’s twelve Myanmar in the place.’ So, all three of the other people in the ten-apartment complex speak English; one Brit down on the end, and two Californians in the back. There’s about five farang in this small fishing village, and three of us are all in one spot.

Clay had come south after a year in the hippie backpacker haven of Pai (‘Pie’), north of Chiang Mai, up by the northern Myanmar border, because of some kind of sticky business, and moved into one of the rear apartments, where he had a recording studio, and a little breakfast setup, hot water, and Birdie instant coffee outside on the veranda with plastic table and chairs. He’d been doing a few gigs at the local resorts, and had his notes strewn out on the table.

“I leave the florescent lights off at night.”

“No,” he said. “I mean, what do you do, here in Thailand?”

I got the sense, a sixth sense, that he was the type of guy who liked to impress people, the onstage guy, the backbone of the band, the keyboardist, the lyricist, the singer, the guy who collects the royalties, and by the hat, the guy who gets the girls, an Alpha Dog. He’d been around. So, I was going to try to out-impress him.

“I do a lot of stuff. I’ve been every where, and done every thing,” I told him, using a line of a retired lifer navy man who was working maintenance at a midwestern university in the States, speaking to a young, raw freshman student. I added, “It takes a lot to impress me, but loud explosions usually get my attention.”

He disregarded my wise guy comment, but looked up and asked, “Were you in Vietnam?”

“Yeah,” I replied dryly. “I helped them get that thing turned around. Those were the good ole days, huh?”

Stan, a former Haight Ashbury hippie ex-patriot Vietnam vet biker bar musician from California, and by coincidence**, a bassist, which made for an instant rapport** *with Clay, who could use a real human being over his synthesized electronic bass, overheard us and emerged from his room with a gigantic coffee cup, laughing and saying, “He’s an English teacher. Here, you guys are going to have to pitch in and help me smoke this. Wake and bake.”

Stan and Clay are interruptive and tend to talk loud and at the same time. “Comes with playing in bars,” says Stan. He takes a dim view of Thai women, and makes gross generalizations like, “They’re all a bunch of conniving whores,” but then, the only women he sees are bargirls between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m. “Comes with playing in bars,” I told him.

Clay was full of questions. Whowhatwhenwherewhy. How. Howmuch. I was trying to avoid the pigeonhole he was trying to put me in, and when I saw the ‘W’ forming on his lips, I spoke quickly, “I’m not an English teacher. I have an interest in a restaurant and ice cream shop. And I run an emergency roadside out-patient medical service. And stand-up comedy…full time……and I look for isotopes.”

A person doesn’t really need all the questions. All you need is a little silence, and most people will tell you their story (like Stan, who said he didn’t like to talk about Vietnam, then got high and proceeded to give me a full account of his tour). In fact, most people, perfect strangers, Forest Gump at the bus stop, are dying to tell you their story, the ego-shell version, discarding unpleasant memories and associations, painting their tale in broad strokes of omission and self-deluding perfection. We’re all Rembrandts. The most honest are convicted felons.

A puzzled expression formed on Stan’s face. “Isotopes? I thought you said you were an English…”

I laughed in his face and dismissively waved him off. Clay was frowning and working to assimilate another question.

“You have a restaurant?” he asked.

“Well, I don’t actually have it. It’s just…part time, y’know. Low season right now…six months on, six off. Right now, I’m trying to unload a shower caddy recall and turn over an aircraft operation to a Myanmar tag team.**** Or China.”

“I’ve got one of the shower caddies,” beamed Stan. “Got one of the airplanes, too.”

“Yeah. The local market is saturated with the caddies, and I’ve got to find a way to dispose of a shitload of inventory.”

Where is the restaurant?” asked Clay. “What’s on the menu?”

“Out at the TVC. Thai food. French fries. Only place on the strip with lime ice cream.”

“Liiiiiime?” asked Stan in disbelief.

“W…w…waitaminute,” said Clay. The TVC…what’s that?”

“The tsunami volunteer center, out on top of the mountain south of Khao Lak, just up from the temple and the cop shop.”

“You sell aircraft to the Chinese?” he asked.

“No. Won’t need to. We’ll probably have the Myanmar do the assembly,” I said, looking over at Stan. “With cheap, local labor, I should see a HUGE profit margin. I mean, what do you have to sell them for when you’ve got people working for three dollars a day?”

“I could take the caddies down to Phuket,” Stan offered.

“We’ve already been to Phuket,” I said. “But thanks.”

Clay asked, “Shower caddies?”

“You know, for shampoo…soap. Bamboo, coconut, and wire. Copper now. The other stuff…the first edition, rusted. I’ll have to show you one.”

Clay narrowed his eyes and pursed his lips as he took a sip of coffee. I wanted him to ask me if I was a doctor.

Thai showers and toilets are all the same tiled box affair where everything is open with a simple gravity drain. Sometimes there’s a tiled wall between the shower and the toilet, if there’s a European-style toilet. If it’s a Thai squat-over-a-porcelain hole toilet, everything’s open. There’s no soap dish.

They sell soap and shampoo, but I think it’s mostly for tourists. Thai people buy skin-whitening products. The shelves are packed with them, with pretty, white-skinned girls and boys with raven-black hair on the label. They like white skin.

They haven’t got any curse words, so the worst thing you can call someone is a ‘Black Monkey’. Or a ‘buffalo’, like they called my friend, Bill. They think the water buffalo is a slow, dim-witted animal, but a black monkey, ooooooh, that’s like the Myanmar, who are darker than the Thai, and whom they don’t like because of a big fight in1750 that left Ayutthaya in ruins.

It’s not that they don’t use soap; the Thai are very clean, generally, although you often see a dog, cat, or chicken in a restaurant. But when you live in the tropics and shower three, four, five times a day, who needs soap?

Anyway, the caddies went like hotcakes. EVVVerybody needed one. At the expo, Thai people looked at the simple bamboo & coconut caddies like they’d never seen a coconut in their lives, remarking, “GOOD IDEA!” I think I already told you about the public response.

I found it incredible. You open a coconut, and you’ve got an ashtray, right? You split a fat piece of bamboo, and what have you got?

“I thought you told me you were an English teacher out in Thung MaPhrao,” said Stan.

“I am,” I replied. “Four classes. Seventy-five kids.”

Clay chortled. “What else do you do?” he asked.

I was waiting for this. “I do some writing,” I said. “I see things coming and I tell people about them…and I invent euphemisms, metaphors, and figures of speech.”

Stan laughed out loud. “I’m enjoying this,” he said, leaning back on the back legs of his chair.

“…and I came up with the correlative economic factors for the misery index,” I added.
“See things coming?” asked Clay. “Like what?”

“Well, like…sixth sense…like back in the 70s when I said triple-digit gas pumps were on the way, and gas was 65 cents a gallon, people thought I was crazy,” I said. “I predicted wi-fi and laptops back when they first made Brainiac, Univac, remember Univac with all those vacuum tubes? the size of your garage? I anticipated the rise of comedy, robots to Mars, a Texas cowboy oilman taking us into an oil war, omni-present predators, and in a blog post in 1985, I said, “Watch China. It’s like a sleeping giant.”

Clay began, “1985? They didn’t have blogs in…”

Stan laughed and said, “You didn’t come up with that. That was Yamamoto or whatever, that Japanese admiral who launched Pearl Harbor, talking about the United States in World War Two.”

“Right on,” I replied. “He coined the term, but I said it about China, when all their shit was sub-ferior and all manufacturing jobs were still in the U.S., and everybody thought the Chinese were six billion lame coolies.”

Clay began, “Six billion? I thought Ch…”

“They run allll the businesses over here,” said Stan, interrupting. “Here, and throughout Southeast Asia. The Thai have the noodle shops, but the Chinese are running everything else.”

Clay asked, “What euphemisms have you invented?”

Turning to Clay, I said, “Not technically a euphemism, but an expression, I came up with, ‘OWN damn,’ as in, ‘We’re gonna get our OWN damn nukes,’ or, ‘Miss Charlotte had her OWN damn money,’ spoken in the manner of the great, great, six-times-removed housenigga grandmother in the family tree nobody wants to claim, as opposed to the Cherokee Princess, whom all white Americans proudly proclaim as an ancestor. Vernacular at the time, I actually didn’t invent it. I resurrected it and made it popular.”

“What about metaphors?” asked Clay, on the fringe of getting bored with my bullshit, like he had other things to do, and I could see I was losing both my audience and effectiveness. I needed to wrap up the act.

“Maybe you’ve heard the phrase, ‘What goes around, comes around’?”

Stan burst out laughing, slapping his knee. “Man, that’s as old as the hills.”

“That’s another one,” I said.

Clay, realizing it was one half truth, one half bullshit, and half spoof, said, “I saw you in town last week and you looked like a French colonial diplomat, or a plantation owner or something, right down to the white hat and shoes. Where were you going?”

“Ahhh…yeah...that wasn’t me. Man, you’re full of questions. That wasn’t me. That was a guy who looks like me, Your Honor. Sometime he uses my name and I.D. Sometimes he goes around and starts shit I later have to explain and clean up. Sometimes he gets me into a lot of trouble. Blue motorbike, right?”

*copyright 2006 ‘Up To You’

**also rides a loud, big-ass motorcycle, same same Stan. They ask me if the music practice bothers me. I tell them no, it’s their bikes at 3 a.m.

*** In the pauses between their songs during their practice sessions, I yell out my audience request from two apartments away. “PROUD MARY! NO. GUITAR-ZAN! GUITAR-ZAN!

****tag team – that’s Thai-speak for an indefinite number of two or more workers; six, a dozen, twenty, a hundred.