I’m No. 1. It Says So Right There

At Least in Cafe Bicycle …

… for a few minutes, until I get my sandwich, cappuccino and soda water. Ah well. I’ll always have this one brief but sweet moment when I was no. 1. No one else. Just me.

Bangkok's Cafe Bicycle declared me, Jeff Chappell, no. 1 today.

Of course maybe they just decided I was no. 1 because I dropped a whopping 270 baht on lunch. Actually in the central business district of downtown Bangkok, that’s not that bad, especially considering I got a large sandwich, a kick-ass cappuccino (made with local Thai beans) and a soda water.

I actually like this place a lot; it’s right next to my language school in Phloen Chit so I eat there a couple times a week usually.

Puzzlement Abroad: the Mysteries of Expat Life, Like Garbage and Monkeys

Garbage piled in the middle of the street in Bien Hoa, Viet Nam.One of the interesting and fun things about traveling abroad or living as an expat is that one sees things for which one has no cultural context; things that are mystifying and therefore fascinating. Beyond the initial shock, it is always an interesting puzzle to figure out the local context in which the seeming anomalies should be placed – the so-called “ah ha!” moment.

It’s gratifying and enlightening when one solves the puzzle. It opens up new perspectives – new ways of looking at the world, and consequently a better understanding of the culture  you find yourself in.

But it can be frustrating when you can’t find the missing puzzle pieces, particularly when what mystifies you is a frequent occurrence; it adds to one’s sense of alienation. I think I’ve become inured to those sorts of things though; it’s best to just accept it and accept the fact that you don’t understand it, and be content with that, as many others before me have said.

Nevertheless, even after a year of living in Thailand and Viet Nam, I sometimes still see things that cause my jaw to drop, sometimes literally. Take for instance, the picture above, taken with my craptacular phone camera (in the dark, with no flash, in the rain: it’s a miracle there is an image at all, praise be to the levels adjustment in Photoshop).

Nancy Drew and the Case of the Garbage in the Street

Here in Biên Hòa, Saigon and I assume every city in Viet Nam big enough to have municipal garbage collection, people place their garbage in the street, next to the curb. That makes sense the world around, I think.

But then the other evening I was walking home from the coffee shop, and I see all of this garbage piled in the middle of the road – literally, smack-dab in the middle. As you can see judging by the size of the bicycle and the man scavenging said pile, it was of considerable size; certainly a traffic hazard in the dark, to be sure.

And it wasn’t scattered haphazardly, as if it fell off a truck or something. It was stacked up with neat precision. Some one piled it there deliberately.

Why? Why would you do this?

I’m not passing judgment and I’m not putting down my neighbors; I’m sure in their cultural context there is a rational justification for this. I just can’t figure out what that is (but then there are things about my own culture I’ve never been able to fathom adequately).

One could argue that they didn’t want to block the drainage culvert on the corner curb, which you can (barely) make out in the right of the photo; just prior to this it had been raining rather heavily. But then there is a sidewalk area at least 10-feet wide here – wide enough to park motorbikes two deep and then some. So why not pile it on the sidewalk if you don’t want to block the drain? Why pile it in the middle of the street?

I’ve been here long enough that not much catches me by surprise anymore, but this was one of those times. Right after I took the picture some kid came cruising along on his moto with his poncho draped over his headlight; he swerved at the last second to avoid it, wobbled on the wet pavement, and regained his balance at the last moment.

You might chalk this up to the fact that people tend, as a culture, to live in the moment here – at least much more than we do in the West. It’s a Buddhist influence, I suppose. It’s one of the things that many foreigners, myself included, find attractive about the cultures of Southeast Asia. But it also has it’s downside, I’ve noticed: people tend not to think about potential consequences of actions as much as they could and perhaps should.

Again, I’m not trying to judge – simply trying to understand why someone would pile a mound of garbage in the street.

Granted, I’ve been here two months now in this particular neighborhood, and this was the first time I’d seen such a thing. Perhaps there was some sort of extenuating circumstance that I’m not privy too that would explain why someone’s garbage was piled in the middle of the street.

Loudspeakers and Monkeys and a Bear, Oh My!

Loudspeakers and Monkeys and a Bear Oh My! Bien Hoa, Viet Nam street scene.Then there are times when you see things that don’t necessarily mystify you from a cultural anthropology standpoint but are nevertheless stunning because it’s something you just wouldn’t see back home. Case in point are these pickup trucks bearing loudspeakers, monkeys and a bear.

I was sitting at the aforementioned coffee shop working one afternoon when I started hearing a loudspeaker above the usual traffic din; someone was doing their best carny tout routine in Vietnamese. It got louder and louder until the trucks you see here stopped and parked across the street while the loudspeaker guy – by this time it was nearly deafening – continued to prattle on. He seemed to go on for 15 minutes, but I’m sure that is only my perception; in reality it was probably more like five.

This kind of loudspeaker-atop-a-vehicle advertising is not uncommon here, though. What was amazing was the small captive bear and the captive monkeys.

Why are there monkeys held captive with ankle chains in the back of this pickup? Why is there a small, tired looking bear being agitated by a teenage boy? Is the circus in town? A traveling miniature menagerie? And what is this guy prattling on about, seemingly forever?

I’m sure if I could speak Vietnamese beyond being able to order food and tell a cab driver which way to go, I would know and it would all make sense. I tried to ask the girl who works at the coffee shop, but she speaks no English at all.

Thus, it remains a mystery.

… all you hopeless wannabes

Dear wannabe-punk kid:

First of all, if you’re gonna try and pass yourself off as [tag]punk[/tag], a [tag]mohawk[/tag] actually involves shaving the sides of one’s head. Anything less is a [tag]fauxhawk[/tag], which deserves unbridled derision. I’m usually a live and let live kinda guy, and god knows I was completely clueless (and probably still am, by most people’s standards). But fauxhawks … that’s serious weaksauce, champ. Sporting a fauxhawk is more Ellsworth Toohey than Johnny Rotten.

Second of all, sticking it to the man doesn’t mean you have to freaking stink. I don’t care if reaking of body odor is punk; so is me going upside your head because you do. Not that I would, of course; I’m more buddhist than punk, these days. But seriously, take a bath. I can smell you from two tables away.

And while you’re at it, shave the sides of your head.

Democracy In-action

Sitting here in the coffee shop on Halloween cleaning out my work e-mail inbox – I have real work to do, but I’ve barely been staying ahead of the dreaded Outlook “Your Inbox Has Reached Its Limit!” notices the past two weeks, and finally decided to take drastic action.

Anyway, this dude comes in as part of the local Trick or Vote campaign. All the tables in Sitwells, he goes up, talks to the cute Asian women sitting behind me, and don’t bother to canvass anyone else in the place. Nice, dude – it never occurred to me that this would be a good way to meet girls. You’ve got a free pass to walk up to all manner of women under the get-out-the-vote excuse.

But some get-out-the-voters are truly dedicated; my friend Io – whom you may spy in the photo feed to your right – came in later, and canvassed the whole place, including me. I shocked her by declaring my decision to vote green. And she had a lobster on her head. Those two facts are unrelated, by the way.

Happy Halloween

P.S. Before I forget: David Sedaris, please consume feces and parish. How can anyone possibly be undecided? Maybe because both mainstream candidates voted to abidge our civil rights by voting for the FISA bill – you are familiar with the FISA bill passed this summer, yes? And the fact that they both supported the federal bailout of the financial industry? Let me guess; you thought this was a good idea, perhaps? Like domestic spying on U.S. citizens with no judicial oversight? Not to mention the flip floppery of both candidates, including your precious chosen one, who broke his campaign promises before he even got the nomination?

The only clear decision is that you can bite me, along with Obama, McRage and their respective ilks. I still think your sister is awesome, though, if it’s any consolation.

Chicago Style and Big Red

Two completely unrelated things.

One: Welcome back, Big Red. Haven’t seen heard you in awhile.  Still not clear on the indoor voice concept, I see hear. Someday you’ll get the attention you need, I hope, for all our ears’ sakes. And as for your choice of Halloween garb, God, it literally killed me to keep my mouth shut. But I’m pretty sure I don’t want to ever register on your radar screen as anything more than background clutter.

<vent>

Two. *In best gravelly Charleton-Heston-Planet-of-the-Apes voice* Damn you [tag]Chicago Style Manual[/tag]! Damn you all to Hell!

*resuming normal voice* Actually I have nothing against the Chicago Style; style is often nothing but a matter of arbitrary choice, but a necessary one for the sake of consistency across a publication. It is just that every pub I’ve ever wrote and/or edited for, until now, used AP Style. Damn, it sure is hard to get used to after two decades of AP Style … [tag]serial commas[/tag] … argh.

</vent>

P.S. Not sure why I bothered to Technorati tag serial commas. Surely no one would ever blog abut serial commas but journalism nerds, and we’re a fairly rare breed, in these Internet End Times.

Post P.S. How cool is WordPress that it knows the < in the above text is supposed to be just that, and not a code tag? I thought I was going to have to code that by hand, but I previewed it and viola! I should have upgraded a long time ago.

Opening up a Can of Worms … or is that Stop Bath?

It sucks! It sucks!
It sucks! It sucks!

So my first showing of my [tag]photography[/tag] started off a little bumpy. To whit: it took me much, much longer to mat 30 some photos – I was still matting two hours before I was supposed to be at Sitwell’s at 7 a.m. on Tuesday to hang them. Plus, I learned that cutting mat board to custom-sized prints – hell, cutting and matting at all – sucks. There’s no other way to say it. It sucks. And I suck at it. I sucked at crafts as a kid in school, and I suck at crafts as an adult.

To add insult to injury, I decided at the last minute that I should frame all these photos. Might as well go all out, I figured. Ever try and buy 30 11 x 14 frames at one shot? It’s not easy, nor inexpensive. So I ordered them online, thinking at worst, it would take a week – specially since I ordered them from a local place. Nope.

So I get to Sitwells, haggard and crabby, only to have the matting starting to fall apart after only a few hours because the AC is busted and it’s hotter than $2 pistol inside, as my father would say. The archival matting tape was no match for 90 degrees and 60 percent humidity. So, at this point, I’m disgusted, tired, and telling myself that this experience has robbed me of all the joy I took in creating these images, and that I’ll never do anything like this again. But I have to admit, even though I know my images are amateur – maybe advanced amateur, perhaps, but I can’t claim that they are ready for [tag]fine art[/tag] giclée print treatment – there is something about seeing your work hanging in public. I hung out at Sitwell’s most of the day today, working, and caught more than one person perusing my prints; even overheard some positive comments. And I’ve even sold a print. The very first print sold that wasn’t part of a specific shoot for a friend/client. Hot damn. That’s it, below:

Sisters in Black & WhiteSo now all of a sudden I’m looking at online photo [tag]printing services[/tag], and services for [tag]photographers[/tag], and services that provide fine art prints, and reading all about the benefits of offering prints in standard vs. non-standard aspect ratios, framing and matting, and looking at the advanced amateur and pro groups on [tag]Flickr[/tag], and looking at those photos that are out of my league (for now), and alternating between being depressed and excited. Depressed in that I still have a lot to learn, and that the business end of it completely turns me off; in fact I’ve decided that I’m not going to let photography become a job for me, like writing. I’ll save journalism vs. creative writing for another time, but let it suffice to say that after a day of writing and editing copy, I don’t often find myself wanting to jockey a keyboard in my spare time, even if it’s something I want to write – one of the reasons I don’t blog much, I suppose. I want to make photographs and images that appeal to me; I want to follow my muse and everything else be damned. But if I can sell some along the way, cool. If it could even pay for itself, even better.

Anyway, I am excited about the possibilities, however. I think perhaps I’ve opened the proverbial can of worms by agreeing to display my work at the coffee shop. …

Brain dump vol. 372:

There really is something rotten in [tag]Denmark[/tag]: www.somethingrotten.dk. This makes me enormously happy, knowing that some English bloke (if her were a Yank, I would have said dude, I suppose) keeps a blog about his new (apprently he’s been there for a couple of years now) life in [tag]Copenhagen[/tag], the world capital of [tag]bike commuting[/tag]. And he calls it Something Rotten, heh.

Yet another cool blog that I discovered via Dave Moulton’s blog, [tag]Dave Moulton[/tag] being a frame maker of some repute, not to mention a musician and author (I don’t think you could come up with a much cooler combination, really). I suppose it’s only natural that as I sit in the coffee shop post Saturday morning/afternoon ride, drinking espresso and getting caught up on my blog reading (i.e., goofing off, when I should be doing my taxes), that I would be turning to bike blogs. I must say, the weather cooperated—to a degree (a somewhat chilly one, heh); at least it wasn’t pissing down the entire time. But of course after returning to Cincy to warm, April 70-degree weather, it was a crisp 40 degrees Fahrenheit when I rolled onto the Little Miami bikepath around 11-ish. For the record, I got up at 8:37 a.m., but by the time I got all ready and drove (I know, I know) to Loveland, it was almost 11.

… I never got around to posting this last week, as there was no place to plug into at the coffee shop—all the tables that have access to an outlet were taken; the weekend scenesters and suburbanites up for some shopping and a dose of urban coolness were out in force, in spite of the weather. When I got home I got distracted; I don’t remember by what. My ride was probably ill considered in retrospect. The cold I had been flirting with since the day after my return from La La Land (SoCal), finally became intimate with me early this week, and pretty much kicked me in the ass, hard. The too-long [tag]bike[/tag] ride probably didn’t help, I imagine, nor did going to to the gym Monday night and doing walk/run intervals on the [tag]treadmill[/tag]. By early Tuesday morning I had turned into a green fountain of phlegm.

But I seem to have recovered; I even went to the gym Thursday night. [tag]Gym workouts[/tag] kind of suck, but are made bearable with books on tape—er, MP3, that is. I downloaded some works by the late, great Arthur C. Clarke recently, in the wake of his death, and they provide a good distraction form the monotony of a [tag]stationary bike[/tag]/treadmill workout. And for someone carrying 30 percent body fat, treadmills are a blessing; there is no way on I could jog on pavement or perhaps even dirt without pounding the piss out of my knees and ankles. In fact, my knees so far haven’t troubled me at all. The only really sore bits are those little stabilizer muscles along the front and anteriors of my shin bones and the soleus muscle in my calves—my left leg in particular is the big slacker. Even as I write this, it is still stiff Considering nearly all of my aerobic exercise in the past decade has come from [tag]cycling[/tag], with the exception of the odd backpacking trip here and there (in which these same muscles would invariable be hurtin’ bad during the first couple of days), this isn’t surprising.

But If I’m ever to get back to the point that I can run outside for any length of time without thrashing my creaky ole leg joints, treadmill ftw! But enough free-associating about me. Let’s talk about me and the federal government.

***WARNING: PRETENTIOUS, CYNICAL RANT ENSUES***

<rant>

Where the hell are the [tag]tax breaks[/tag] I’ve been hearing about for, oh, the last eight years? Having spent most of last year as a freelance writer, I made less money than I have in any year since 2000; as a freelancer I also—in theory, anyway—had many more deductions I could take. And yet somehow I ended up owing MORE. More than in previous years. Maybe I wouldn’t feel like complaining so much if a)I felt my money were being spent wisely and b)I haven’t heard time and again over the past decade how Dubya’s administration will/has been giving us tax breaks. WTF? Where are MY tax breaks? How is it that I make LESS money and yet pay MORE [tag]taxes[/tag] in 2007?

And while we’re talking about Dubya, I just have to get this off my chest. I’m doing my best to completely ignore the [tag]presidential race[/tag], as I’m way to cynical at this point in my life to believe that my vote matters a tinkers damn. But lately, it’s just gotten to absurd—French existentialism absurd. It’s like god(s) is (are) on vacation and Jean Paul Sartre’s spirit is running things in his/her/its (their) place.

[tag]McCain[/tag]? Elitist. [tag]Obama[/tag]? Elitist. [tag]Clinton[/tag]? Elitist. One can make a logical case that we live in an oligarchy, as opposed to a true democracy, and oligarchs don’t come from the ranks of the common. McCain and Clinton saying Obama doesn’t understand the common man? No, he doesn’t. Neither do they. How could any of them? And the thing is though, as elitist as Obama is—this column by Maureen Dowd puts it brilliantly—there is a kernel of truth to what he said about people in the [tag]Midwest[/tag]. I know this because that’s where I’m from, and that’s where I’ve moved back to, to be closer to family—many of whom feel just like what Obama described. For Clinton and McCain to deny what Obama said about [tag]Middle America[/tag] just shows how ignorant and out of touch they are when it comes to the middle class. The irony being that McCain frequently taps into the very phenomena that Obama cited. The level of discourse in the presidential race has become absurdly retarded. I’ve become so disgusted by the whole thing that I can’t even bear to hear anything about the presidential election, and it’s only April. The hypocrisy of all three candidates and both parties has just gotten astoundingly ridiculous. Furthermore, the media, on the left and right, I’m ashamed to say, only seems to manage to fan the flames of idiocy.

After all the stupid bullshit of the past eight years, this is the best we could come up with, McCain, Obama and Clinton? I realize one of the core values of the American political system is compromise, but jeez, voting for candidates running for federal political office has become like trying to decide if I’d rather drown or be burned to death. I’d really rather do neither. I’m tired of having to base my vote on the lesser evil–the one who sucks less, and who I think will screw up the country less. Makes one want to reconsider benevolent despotism. Or move to Denmark. At least the elitist politicians there will spend my tax dollars on [tag]bike lanes[/tag].

</rant>

Wow, just read this over. Maybe it’s time to go work off said anger and frustration on the bike or the treadmill. …

Brotherhood and Unity … and crackers

So I’m sitting here coding my little heart out the other day and drinking espresso when I overhear a verbal altercation between a server and someone who popped in to help himself to handfuls of Sitwells’ crackers—you know, the kind you get in restaurants that come two to a pack. He helped himself to about 20 or 30 packs. He claimed, upon being told that [tag]crackers[/tag] weren’t free, at least for people that just walk in off the street, use the bathroom, and walk out, that he had been told the opposite by another server who, conveniently, wasn’t present.

Upon being informed that they were 15 cents per pack, a la carte, he protested. “What is this [tag]communist[/tag] [tag]Russia[/tag]? What do you mean, you gotta charge me for crackers? This ain’t no communist [tag]China[/tag], man.” The verbal tirade continued, and in the end he relinquished a sum total of one pack of crackers before walking out.

I worked too long in the [tag]service industry[/tag] to be phased by this. Plus I think this sort of thing happens in [tag]Sitwells[/tag] about 20 times a day. But the server in question in question is a friend of mine, so I guess I paid more attention than I might have otherwise. And I couldn’t help but laugh, in a sad, ironic sort of way, at the logic: this is not a communist nation so I should get something for free. Um, gee dude, last time I checked, America was founded by advocates of a free market, and our economy is free-market based—sometimes more, sometimes less, but relatively free, nonetheless.

And free market doesn’t mean your crackers are free—it just means I’m free to make crackers and sell them for whatever price people, i.e., the market, are willing to pay, without the gubmint poking its nose into the process.

Communism, on the other hand, dictated—heh, that was unintentional—that crackers should indeed be free. To wit: from each according to his ability, to each, according to his need—on paper, at least (like capitalism, communism works better on paper, as human nature doesn’t enter into the equation). So, ostensibly, in the Soviet Union, or China under Mao (not quite so much now, trust me), you could indeed get crackers for free. You might have to wait in the cracker line all day (or pay 8 bejillion rubles for the crackers if there happened to be any, depending on what era of the Soviet Union we’re talking about). Or there might not be any because Dear Leader Mao ordered all the farming implements melted down to make inferior steel in the cracker-producing commune’s kitchen. But if you could find them, they, the crackers, would indeed be free.

Apparently our cracker consumer didn’t pay attention in history class. From now on, whenever I get crackers in a restaurant, particularly if I ask for them, I’m going to think of this incident.

P.S.

Hi Johnny O

Youth is so cute

Dear 26-year-old-girl-who-must-think-everyone-around-her-is-deaf:

First off, they are not. I’m sitting at the next table, and I can hear every word you say, even though I’m sitting at the table in the corner directly underneath the speaker. It’s time to use your [tag]indoor voice[/tag]. I’d prefer not to hear about your rather mundane adventures in drug use, your critical estimate of Eurythmics and your sexual proclivities.

I am impressed that you were able to get your friend’s laptop connected to a local wireless network. Nevertheless, I repeat: indoor voice.

Second: shouldn’t you, at age 26, have begun to realize that you don’t know everything, and your generation wasn’t the first to think of everything? I would expect this at 18, maybe even into 21 or 22. But by 26, perhaps it should begin to sink in. Particularly if you still live at home. Or maybe that’s part of the problem.

In any event, there were those of us that thought of using glue to spike our multi-colored hair when you were still a blastocyst. Elmers School Glue was my preference. We had raves in abandoned warehouses too—and word got around without e-mail and Myspace, even. I know it must be hard to believe, but there were bi-sexual women before you decided you wanted to switch hit.

I didn’t really need to know this about you, by the way, but since you brought it up …

What’s more, I’m sure someone spiked their hair with Elmer’s glue long before we thought of it. I’m also sure that at the time, however, we thought we were so cool because we surely must have been the first. Although I’m also sure that we realized that we weren’t the first by the time we were 26. We were probably still arrogant bastards at 26, but at least we were starting to get a clue.

And really, if you are so smart, shouldn’t you have been able to intuit that if you got off a bus headed in one direction, and you wanted to catch the same bus to get back to your embarkation point, back in the opposite direction, that you’d catch the bus on the side opposite from which you got off? Seriously? Even I could figure this out at 26, and I grew up in the suburbs. It’s the Metro, not rocket science.

I wish you luck with getting a clue, and working on what I’m guessing are some major-league [tag]self-esteem[/tag] issues. Maybe moving out of your parents house would be a start.

And using your indoor voice, too. In fact, I don’t bedgrude you your youthful ignorance and hubris–it’s easy to condemn you from the vantage point of 39 years. Just use your indoor voice. Please.

Signed,

Older, Quieter and Off-the-Air