musings on music, travel, books, and life from Southeast Asia

Archive for January, 2013

Baseball, Barbecue & Yo La Tengo

Growing up in New York in the 1960s, Ira Kaplan was a Mets fan. That’s baseball, for those of you who aren’t enlightened about the world’s greatest sport and its relevance to the meaning of life. In addition to being a diehard Mets fan and a baseball nut, young Ira was also a music junkie. He bought 45 singles, he bought albums, and went to countless concerts. He couldn’t get enough of music, an affliction I can certainly relate to.

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After Ira started a rock band in the early 1980s he was looking for a catchy name, something a bit different from the rock band norm, and perhaps inspired by the sport he loved. The first choice for a band name was: A Worrying Thing. Huh? Well, believe it or not, that name DID have a baseball angle, although a murky one. During an interview with a newspaper reporter many years ago, a Cleveland Indians pitcher named Stanley Covelski was quoted as saying: “Doesn’t matter what you did yesterday. That’s history. It’s tomorrow that counts. So you worry all the time. It never ends. Lord, baseball is a worrying thing.”

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But that name, along with several other attempts, didn’t stick, so Ira Kaplan kept searching, finally settling on: Yo La Tengo. Another big “huh”, right? Well, once again, there is perfectly justifiable baseball origin to the name, although one as equally obscure as “A Worrying Thing.” The new name came from a book about baseball that Kaplan had read, Jimmy Breslin’s Can’t Anybody Here Play This Game?, an account of Ira’s beloved New York Mets during their first year in existence as an expansion team in 1962. It seems that there was a communication problem between the veteran center fielder, Richie Ashburn, and Elio Chacon, the Spanish-speaking infielder (he played both shortstop and second base). This problem was acerbated when fly balls hovered between the two players, resulting in a few too many collisions. Another teammate advised Ashburn to yell “Yo La Tengo! — Spanish for “I’ve Got It” — when fly balls came into the danger zone. Ashburn did as advised and the problem was solved. Except, that is, for another befuddled outfielder, Frank Howard, who thought his teammates were yelling “Yello Tango,” and ended up bowling over Chacon anyway. Brilliant stuff!

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While Ira Kaplan is indeed a huge fan of baseball you won’t find any baseball themed songs in the Yo La Tengo discography (unlike, for example, The Baseball Project, the band formed by Steve Wynn and R.E.M.’s Peter Buck). But throughout Yo La Tengo’s albums you will note an incredibly diverse arsenal of music, ranging from acoustic folk songs to melodic rockers and feedback-spiced electric guitar jams. Apart from their lovely Fakebook album, which remains my personal favorite, their albums don’t always follow a safe and cohesive pattern, but that’s part of the charm, making them all rewarding listens.

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I just finished reading Big Day Coming: Yo La Tengo and the Rise of Indie Rock by Jesse Jarnow, a book that was published in June last year. As expected, there are a lot of baseball references, plus details on the band’s fascination with barbecue, and their long and winding search for the perfect bass player, which happily resulted in a most successful fit. I found the book to be a fascinating read, not only because I’ve been a fan of the band since their very first album, 1986’s Ride the Tiger, but also because I was involved in the same indie music circles (as a record store owner, concert promoter, music journalist) during the 1980s and 90s. Obviously, the baseball and music references struck a chord with me, but I was also impressed with just how well written the book was. It’s one that I think will appeal to readers who don’t know much about Yo La Tengo and could care less about baseball. Jarnow’s writing style is so polished and assured that it could easily lend itself to other biographical subjects. He’s that good, and his tale of Yo La Tengo and the peripheral music scene makes for very engrossing reading.

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Jarnow’s book brought back tons of great memories as I stumbled across references to favorite albums and recording artists of the era, plus mentions of various people in the music business whom I had met during those years. I once sat next to a guy at an Orlando Twins minor league baseball game, who turned out to be Bill Million from the Feelies, one of the truly great bands of the era and one that crossed many musical paths with Yo La Tengo. In Bangkok, when I was working for Tower Records in the mid 1990s, I bumped into Steve Fallon, the owner of the legendary Maxwell’s club in Hoboken, where Yo La Tengo and many other bands (such as The Feelies) cut their musical teeth. Ira Kaplan’s brother Adam was my sales rep at Dutch East for a spell. And so on. The Hoboken scene and ones in Athens, Austin, and Minneapolis, musicians, managers, and label reps; it was all one big supportive community. And reading this book reminded me of what an amazing musical web we all weaved in those heady days before the advent of that thing called the Internet.

I also once had a short chat with Ira before Yo La Tengo took the stage for a set at a club in Orlando. The subject? Baseball, of course! More specifically, we talked about a Minnesota Twins pitching prospect named Willie Banks, a player whom Ira had seen pitch in high school. At the time of the Yo La Tengo show, Banks was pitching for the Orlando Twins, the AA minor league affiliate of the big league club. He ended up pitching in the majors for a few years but never became the top-flight pitcher he was projected to be. But unlike Willie Banks, Yo La Tengo did fulfill their promise. No, they never reached the heady heights of a band like Nirvana or R.E.M., but they did sell a lot of albums over the past two decades, consistently played packed shows in front of adoring fans, and received overwhelmingly favorable critical acclaim from the media.

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In addition to the book, Yo La Tengo just released their new studio album, Fade, earlier this month. I haven’t heard it yet, but my copy has already been ordered and hopefully making its way to me very soon. Please, Mr. Postman, make it on time! Needless to say, I’m very much looking forward to listening to this latest installment in the magical story of Yo La Tengo.

 

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21 Shots: Remembering Myanmar

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I’m thinking a lot about Myanmar lately, as I begin planning my next trip over there. As the days fly by I realize my departure date is less than two months away. Holy monhinga … time to start picking out which longyis, in my ever-growing collection, to wear. All this trip preparation reminds me that I still have a bunch of photos leftover from my last trip that I haven’t posted yet. So, on that note, here we go: 21 more reasons to remember Myanmar.

 

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Making morning treats at a small neighborhood teashop on 90th Street in Mandalay.

 

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Novice monks bring water for the primary school at Tat Ein village in Shan State.

 

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Students at a village school near Inle Lake play games during their lunch break.

 

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Early morning cyclist on a muddy street in Nyaungshwe.

 

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Tapping and blowing out a tune in Shan State!

 

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Students at Tat Ein’s primary school peek under the partition to check out what I’m teaching in the other class.

 

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Ko Maw Hsi and his daughter in Mandalay.

 

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Zin Ko shows off his tasty new key chain in Amarapura.

 

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Drying out chili peppers outside a monastery near Nyaungshwe.

 

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Even monks enjoy a game of late afternoon football!

 

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A student in a pretty hat poses in front of a pretty plant at a temple near Pindaya.

 

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Nyaungshwe traffic jam!

 

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Taking aim while playing the shoe game at a pagoda in Amarapura.

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A little afternoon street corner guitar serenade in Yangon.

 

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A monk in Mandalay during his morning meditation walk.

 

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Checking out the tunes at the teashop on 90th Street in Mandalay.

 

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Ko Maw Hsi bangs a gong in Mandalay.

 

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Novice monk with his alms bowl outside the monastery at Tat Ein village in Shan State.

 

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Dancing the day away in Amarapura.

 

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Students at a village school near Inle Lake play on the slide during their lunch break.

 

KL’s Little Burma

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There has been a lot of excitement in the past year over various reforms in Myanmar, the most dramatic changes being the release of political prisoners, democratic elections, more freedom of the press, and opening the country to foreign investment. But one thing that hasn’t changed in the country is the dire employment situation and stagnant economy. Maybe all this “investment” and “development” will equate to better employment opportunities for locals at some point, but, to quote the great song by John Hiatt: “It hasn’t happened yet.”

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Because finding a good paying job — hell, any sort of job — is so difficult, many natives of Myanmar are still seeking work in other Southeast Asian countries, particularly in Thailand and Malaysia. In Bangkok, it’s quite common to find people from Myanmar working in jobs in the construction industry, in bars and restaurants, or as maids. I’ve met two waiters just in the past month; one from Mawlamyine and the other from Chin State. When I was in Kuala Lumpur last month one of the young men working at my hotel was from Mandalay. He’s been working there for several years and I always enjoy chatting with him in Burmese when I stay there. Not far from the hotel, near KL’s Central Market, or Pasar Seni, is a street lined with several businesses either managed by people from Myanmar or catering to customers from that country. This “Little Burma” seems to get larger every time I’m in town.

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When I’m in KL, I make sure to stop at the Gantawin Restaurant a few times for hearty bowls of monhinga for breakfast, or good meal and a bottle of Myanmar Beer at night. The waitresses always look a little apprehensive when they see a western customer enter the establishment, but once I smooth talk them with a bit of Burmese, the ice is broken. One more bottle, please!

 

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Ma Thanegi’s Prison Memoir

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Just published this month by Things Asian Press is Nor Iron Bars a Cage, Ma Thanegi’s memoir of the three years that she spent in Yangon’s infamous Insein Prison, from 1989 to 1992. But don’t go expecting grim and horrific tales of prison life. Ma Thanegi and the other female prisoners created a supportive, caring community within their prison, and this surprisingly upbeat and defiant memoir is full of touching and often funny anecdotes. As one reads this fascinating account of life behind bars in Myanmar, you can’t help but admire the spirit and determination of Ma Thanegi and the other female prisoners. As Ma Thanegi writes in the book’s forward: “We were supposed to be miserable, and we were damned if we’d oblige.”

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The positive, almost light-hearted tone of this book may puzzle readers who are expecting horrific tales of torture and cruelty. and because it doesn’t paint such a grim picture of Burmese prison life, it will no doubt infuriate critics of the Myanmar government and various “Free Burma” groups, some who seem to perversely relish the aspect of hearing about more human rights violations and unjust prison sentences. But Ma Thanegi is no stranger to controversy and expects such reactions. Some critics have gone so far as to absurdly brand her a “government apologist” simply because she refused to support misguided ideas such as tourism boycotts, or justified the usage of “Myanmar” as the country’s official name. Being a staunch defender of human rights and democracy, such criticism only serves to awaken the wrath and fury of Ma Thanegi.

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In addition to this memoir, last year Things Asian Press published Defiled on the Ayeyarwaddy, Ma Thanegi’s travelogue of a trip she took on Myanmar’s most famous river. Those who enjoyed her first travel book, The Native Tourist, will find this book even more memorable. In addition to being a descriptive account of her river journey, the book offers an enlightening window into Myanmar society and culture, and it’s funny as hell. Ma Thanegi has also written books on subjects as diverse as Myanmar cuisine, the history of Shwedagon Pagoda, and Burmese Marionettes. In between a handful of other writing projects (she’s a regular contributor to many travel magazines) and recovering from a cold she caught during a weekend trip to Bagan, I pestered her with questions about her book and current life in Myanmar.

You were released from prison in 1992, and now, 21 years later, you have finally written a memoir of that experience, Nor Iron Bars a Cage. Some might ask “What took you so long?” but obviously this was a book that could not be written, or at least published, while the previous Myanmar government was still censoring publications. Have things changed enough within the country that you feel like the time is now right — and safe — for books such as yours to be published?

Actually I had been writing this book secretly off and on since 2000. I was busy with other projects so I was working on it off and on and after I finished it I must have done it over a 100 times. I told no one. I did not want the military government to find out about it. But it’s not so much the fear; it has been my policy since I was young that if something is meant to be secret I tell NO ONE. Yes, things have changed; there are other books of jail time by ex-political prisoners out in Burmese, for example by Zargana and Ma Thida. The latter is the doctor/writer I mentioned in the forward of Nor Iron Bars a Cage. Ma Thida was ill and had a really, really hard time, which she too faced with meditation and strength of character.

Many prison memoirs dwell on the negatives of the experience and the abundance of cruelty, yet you focused more on the positive aspects of the experience, along with the spirit and determination of the other prisoners. Did you approach writing this memoir as one that would have a positive tone, or did you agonize over whether to write about the bad stuff too?

This was how we lived and so how I wrote it. I had nothing to agonize over or bad stuff to write about. I left out only personal stories about some inmates, not what bad things anyone suffered. Actually, my friends in jail have young children and elderly parents in ill health to worry about, which I don’t, but they were all strong women, too. None of us, in telling other people our experiences, has ever moaned and groaned over anything AT ALL. We are all not the self pitying type. As I wrote “It is in the Myanmar nature to face all things good or bad with pride and dignity, and not to lose face by “losing it.” For us, courage is shown by facing life calmly and without any display of anger. It is a weakness to allow others to humiliate us or break our spirits. The same is true of self pity, which we think of as disgusting. So much so that when I got out, people who truly loved me, told me how bad they felt about me being in jail, I found myself lashing out at them for pitying me. Recently when a group of us co-inmates (we call ourselves the “inside” family) met and when I told them how I was lashing out like that, each and every one said they were doing the same. We Myanmar people have a lot of pride. Our pride is in our strength of character and not how much wealth we have or how high our positions. Well, of course there are those who are vain about wealth and position, but that is vanity not pride.

Your book describes a very colorful and proud group of female prisoners. I understand that you are still in contact with some of them. Do you usually meet them individually, or do you have anything like group reunions on a regular basis?

We meet individually or in group reunions, as with groups of friends or family. It’s not a strictly regulated officious thing. At reunions there is so much noise and jokes and teasing!

In addition to this memoir, you recently wrote a travel book (Defiled on the Ayeyarwaddy), will re-publish one of your Myanmar cuisine cookbooks, and have written various other books on Myanmar culture and temples. What else are you working on right now, or are planning to write?

I’m superstitious about telling people what I’m working on, sorry!

You are quite the food authority, having written or translated books and magazine articles about Myanmar Cuisine. On the subject of food, for tourists visiting your country, what are some of the “must eat” dishes that will give a visitor a true taste of the local cuisine?

The salads, and noodles, and pickled tea leaf salad. Must eats: Ohn No Kauk Swei, Shan Kauk Swei, and Monhinga (those three are noodle dishes commonly eaten for breakfast). Also, Steamed Hilsa, or Nga Tha Lauk, a fish that’s cooked until the bones are soft. This fish has a deeper taste than other fish. Alos, butterfish, a very creamy flesh and no bones at all, and village style chicken with lemongrass and gourd, and giant river prawns. Be sure to eat the tomaly in the head.

Have you read any recent novels by Myanmar writers that are so good that you think they should be translated into English and other languages?

Yep, Khin Khin Htoo’s Anyar Sway Myo Myar … vignettes of her upcountry relatives. And a short one on the feasts of rural people, Taw Ahlu, by her husband Nay Win Myint. Not recent releases, but this couple has the whole literary greatness covered! Also, a recent publication by Ma Thida about HER Insein Jail experiences titled Sanchaung, Insein, Harvard.

Along with the political changes happening in Myanmar, a deluge of developers and investors are descending on the country like locusts. Obviously, there are good and bad aspects to such “progress”. What visible changes have you seen in Yangon recently?

Too long to list. First is I think, we’re just so damn RELIEVED to be out from the military rule. When I think of people who were saying we must (must? Who the hell did they think they are?) boycott the elections of 2010, I wonder at the number of idiots out there.

Amidst all globalization and other western influences that are creeping — or perhaps stampeding — into Myanmar, are you optimistic or pessimistic that your country can retain its unique culture and traditions in the coming decades?

Progress, or anything in life for that matter, usually comes with risks to the good old things. There is nothing that I or anyone can do. ‘Educating’ people will be like trying to stem a flood … people will do what they want…. idiots will do idiotic things and smart people will do smart things. That’s their democratic right, isn’t it?

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Terry Callier

One of the many sad losses in the music world this past year was the passing of Terry Callier on October 28. Callier was a tremendously talented singer, guitarist and songwriter, one who recorded several woefully underappreciated albums in the 1970s, totally disappeared in the 80s, and then made an unexpected comeback in the 90s.

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Part of the reason for Terry Callier’s lack of success was that his sound was not so easy to categorize. He stared out as a folk singer with a heavy blues foundation, but later garnished his songs with jazz, soul, and pop flavorings. While the songs on Callier’s albums covered a variety of styles, what held it all together and elevated each tune to a higher plateau was Callier’s magnificent voice, one that ranged from achingly lonesome to soul-stirring, depending on the mood of the song. Lyrically, Callier’s songs touched on familiar themes of love and loss, but also politics, war, and racial equality. These were not your typical light, fluffy pop tunes. Phrases such as “contemplative”, “romantic” and “sophisticated” have been used to describe Callier’s music. Others have tossed around terms like “quietly soulful” and “classical folk.” See what I mean? It’s damn hard to categorize Terry Callier. Just listen to the songs and savor them.  

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His 1969 debut album for Vanguard, The New Folk Sound of Terry Callier, was a blend of acoustic blues and folk. It was a mellow, understated album, but also quite hypnotic — just Callier singing and playing acoustic guitar, accompanied by a bass player. But it impressed enough listeners that Callier made a bit of a name for himself and was later able to continue his recording career in the 70s, releasing delightful and genre-bending (if not blending) albums like What Color is Love, Fire on Ice, and Occasional Rain. That latter one was perhaps my favorite Terry Callier album, one that included the mesmerizing song “Ordinary Joe.”

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Alas, none of Callier’s albums sold very well, and by 1983 he pretty much retired from the music business and started working as a computer programmer to support his daughter. But in the early-90s he experienced an unlikely resurgence in popularity after club DJ’s in the UK starting spinning his old records again. After a few guest appearances on recordings by Massive Attack and Beth Orton, Callier was inspired to stage a comeback of his own, and in 1998 he released the critically acclaimed Timepeace album. After another album, Lifetime in 1999, he released Speak Your Peace in 2002, an album that included a thrilling duet with Paul Weller on the song “Brother to Brother.”

 Terry Callier has sadly passed away, but most of his albums are still in print, waiting to be discovered by discerning fans of quality music, whether your preference is jazz, pop, or soul.

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KL’s famous Coliseum Café

My favorite place to eat in Kuala Lumpur, hands down, is the legendary Coliseum Café. It’s legendary because it’s been in business since 1921, they serve excellent food, and a variety of famous personalities — Somerset Maugham being one — have dined there, or drank the night away in the adjoining bar.

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On the food front, the Coliseum is best known for their sizzling steaks. They also serve a variety of other Western dishes, Malay cuisine, seafood, and pasta. One of my favorite appetizers is the chunks of fried bean curd accompanied by a spicy dip. I used to always order a Tiger draught beer with my meal, but upon my last visit I was dismayed to discover they’ve changed the brand of beer on tap.

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Judging from the beer switch and other changes, it seems that the Coliseum has changed owners or is under new management this past year. The basic décor —– or lack of it, which I find comforting — has not changed at all, but now you can’t miss the tie-wearing “management types” shuffling around the premises, grim looks plastered on their faces, as if they are determined to find the slightest signs of irregularity. In addition to the stiff-looking dudes, the menus now have a much slicker look, complete with “specials” glaringly listed, and there are posted signs encouraging diners to use a certain brand of credit card. It also appears that the old crew of long-serving waiters has been culled. A few of the waiters that I’d seen working there in recent years had obviously been at the Coliseum for several decades, but I didn’t see many of those guys around this time. One sweet old fellow would always ask me, after I had finished my meal, if I “would like some pudding.” There wasn’t any “pudding” listed on the menu, but that was his charming way of referring to the dessert options. I didn’t see him anywhere in the restaurant during my two visits last month, which made me feel a bit sad. If he and the other old-timers have been sacked or have retired, that’s a damn shame. They are as much a part of the atmosphere, and the appeal, of the Coliseum as the food.

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Besides the absence of veteran waiters, the biggest shock upon my recent visit was seeing waitresses working at the Coliseum! Call the police, there are women working! I certainly have nothing against females waiting tables — in many cases, they do their job better than most guys do — but to my knowledge there were never any waitresses working at the Coliseum during the past 90 years, so this is a big, big change. It’s akin to the New York Yankees hiring a female manager. Historic. One young woman, however, who wasn’t dressed in any sort of uniform, walked around the room along with the management cretins one night and attempted to take my plate away — not once but twice — before I had even finished my meal. I was tempted to stab the oblivious hussy with my fork. If there’s food remaining on the plate, missy, I ain’t finished yet!

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The Coliseum also doubles as a hotel, boasting a few very basic fan rooms upstairs. I talked to a Belgian couple at my bookshop in a Bangkok a few months back, who had stayed there recently. In fact, they had gone there specifically because that’s where they stayed on their honeymoon … thirty years ago! They were thrilled that the Coliseum was still in business, serving tasty meals and offering affordable accommodation. I’m in full agreement that the food at the Coliseum is still quite delicious and they serve generous portions, but the recent changes, no matter how subtle, strike me as a cause for concern. I just hope they don’t tinker too much with the basics that have endeared the restaurant to so many diners over the year. If, for example, when I dine there the next time, and I see a sign trumpeting the fact that they now have wi-fi, or are offering “live entertainment” each evening, I think that will be the last straw. Bring back the pudding man!

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Dan Simmons and his ‘Flashback’ predictions

The new Dan Simmons novel Flashback, is a fascinating, wild, and disturbing tale, set in the USA — bouncing between Denver and Los Angeles — in the year 2036. As the back cover blurb states: “Terrorism and ultra-violence plague a once powerful society, whose only escape is to numb itself on flashback; a euphoric yet cripplingly addictive regression drug.”

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In this novel, set barely two decades in the future, the US is being governed by Japanese, American armed forces are fighting in China —- on the side of Japan, most sports stadiums (such as Coors Field in Denver) have been turned into federal prisons, shopping malls have become glorified housing projects, Texas has declared its independence, most commuters now ride bikes to work, and basically all hell is breaking loose around the country.  And those are only a few of the outlandish scenarios in this novel. But the more the chapters pass, you start to wonder: will any of this stuff really come true?

Toward the end of the book, on page 482, there is an out-of-the-blue reference to Thailand in one chapter. One of the characters has fallen ill and is given medical treatment by a Thai doctor living in Denver. Here’s an excerpt:

Dr. Tak’s real name was Sudaret Jatisripitak but everyone in the mall called him Dr. Tak. He’d fled from Thailand during their last “Thai Rak Thai” (Thais Love Thais) revolution that had killed a fifth of the nation’s population and found that he could make a decent living, without being medically certified in the United States, simply by giving black market medical care to the few thousand residents of the Cherry Creek Mall Condominiums.

The scary thing is that the writer’s prediction of a fifth of Thailand’s population perishing in a Thai Rak Thai battle isn’t so far-fetched. Judging from the last Red Shirt “protest” — which was more akin to a state of siege as Red Shirt hoodlums set up camps and held central Bangkok hostage for nearly three months — an even more bloody confrontation isn’t that remote a possibility. The colored-shirt political divide here in the kingdom is as entrenched as it ever was, with no signs that unity anywhere in sight.

 While Flashback is a very entertaining and thought provoking novel, there is also a disturbing right-wing slant to some parts of the book. Take this passage, where a Japanese mafia character is lecturing an American detective who he has hired to investigate the murder of his son:

“More than twenty years ago,” said Nakamura, “a group of my fellow Nipponese businessmen and myself watched as your new young president gave a speech from Cairo that flattered the Islamic world — a bloc of Islamic nations that had not yet coalesced into today’s Global Caliphate — and praised them with obvious historical distortions of their won imagined grandeur. This president began the process of totally rewriting history and contemporary reality with an eye toward praising radical Islam into loving him and your country. The name for this form of foreign policy, whenever it is used with forces of fascism, is appeasement.

This president and your country soon followed this self-mockery of a foreign policy with ever more blatant and useless appeasement, attempts at becoming a social democracy when European social democracies were beginning to collapse from debt and the burden of their entitlement programs, unilateral disarmament, withdrawal from the world stage, a betrayal of old allies, a rapid and deliberate surrendering of America’s position as a superpower, and a total retreat from international responsibilities that the United States of America had long taken seriously.”

Doesn’t sound like an Obama fan, does he? As with most right-wing arguments, they attempt to grossly simplify a complicated situation, conveniently leaving out certain facts and details. The previous tirade, for example, neglects to mention the global destruction caused by decades of American imperialism and economic blackmail (read any book by John Perkins for details on America’s alarming practices). The USA is definitely not some sort of benign, innocent party in the war on terrorism.

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On the other hand, I think Western leaders HAVE shamefully tried to appease the radical Islamic element far too much, absurdly referring to Islam as a “great religion,” for example. Does anyone seriously think that most Westerners, Christians in particular, have the slightest understanding of, or respect for Islam? Bush, Cheney, Clinton, Obama, take your pick; they all speak with forked tongues. And conversely, why should any other sane individual on the planet have any respect for the loony right-wing Christians who go around trying to force their warped “morals” and bizarre doctrine on others? It’s all wrong. I remain puzzled when politicians and “concerned citizens” make pleas for religious freedom. Why should there be such “freedom” when it’s so obvious that most devout followers of religions all over the world have an extremely radical agenda with no tolerance for those who don’t believe the same as they do, all of which contributes to further hate and bloodshed. Which leads to the question: whose intolerance is justified?

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