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

Archive for April, 2013

Gay in the NBA: Play It, Don’t Pray It

The big news in the world of sports today was the coming out announcement by professional basketball player Jason Collins. He is the first “active” male player (as opposed to someone that retired and later announced that they were gay) in US professional sports to proclaim their homosexuality.

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Collins should be congratulated for taking this bold step. I hope this is only the beginning and it will embolden many other gay athletes to make similar announcements. Actually, real progress will be made when such proclamations aren’t even necessary, and cause nothing more than a shrug of the shoulders. Of course, a lot of the value of having announced that he’s gay will be negated if Collins never plays in an NBA game again. At the age of 34, Collins is a veteran backup, a role player who plays less than 10 minutes per game, nearing the end of his playing career. He’s not a star, he’s not even a starter. With his current contract having expired, he is a free agent (after playing for both Boston and Washington this year) and there are no guarantees that he’ll be signed by a team for next season. But by all accounts he is a valuable “big man”, a Center with defensive prowess, as opposed to one that can score lots of points, and he still has some value as a player, so hopefully we’ll see him on the court later this year.

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Collins’ surprising statement drew positive reaction and support from current NBA players such as Kobe Bryant, Baron Davis, Bradley Beal, Emeka Okafor, Kenneth Faried (current owner of the NBA’s best hairstyle!), Steve Nash, Tony Parker, Chauncey Billups, and even Metta World Peace (the controversial player formerly known as Ron Artest). There were also supportive statements from non-athletes such as Bill Clinton and Michelle Obama.  But you can bet that there are many people in the NBA and professional sports who are uncomfortable with, if not angered by, Jason Collins’ announcement. Most of the homophobes will be reticent to voice opinions at this time, but I did notice a few negative comments about Collins, not surprisingly made by the masters of intolerance, those of the Christian faith. Mark Jackson, an ex-player and current coach of the Golden State Warriors said: “As a Christian man, I have beliefs of what’s right and what’s wrong. That being said, I know Jason Collins, I know his family and I’m certainly praying for them at this time.”

He’ll pray for them? How loony is that? And he makes the typical and ludicrous Christian judgment of equating homosexuality with sin. Hey Mark Jackson; you are a moron! And yet another idiot, this one an ESPN NBA writer named Chris Broussard, said: “Personally, I don’t believe that you can live an openly homosexual lifestyle or an openly premarital sex between heterosexuals, if you’re openly living that type of lifestyle, then the Bible says you know them by their fruits, it says that’s a sin. If you’re openly living in unrepentant sin, whatever it may be, not just homosexuality, adultery, fornication, premarital sex between heterosexuals, whatever it may be, I believe that’s walking in open rebellion to God and to Jesus Christ. I would not characterize that person as a Christian because I do not think the Bible would characterize them as a Christian.”

And people like this are given voices in the mass media? Are these people scary or what? Can you say: Cro-mag? Their faith dictates that they must believe this way? Sorry, but that’s just nothing but ignorance in my opinion. Comments like those only reinforce my long-standing belief that most Christians — along with any other religious zealots, whether they are Muslims, Hindus, or Jews — are clueless, dangerous characters that need to carted off and dumped on a remote island somewhere, far away from the rest of intelligent civilization.

Seriously, why is it that so many of us continue to tolerate the religious extremists in our midst, especially their absurd dangerous, fairy tale beliefs?  We can roll our eyes and call these people nutcases, but when they continue to be given a voice in the media and are able influence politicians and lawmakers, and as a result affect our lives, it’s time we woke up and took some action.

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A group of sports writers on one website were discussing Collins’s coming out and the impact it will have on his career. One writer wondered if Collins would have difficulty with his teammates. Some thought that it won’t be a big issue, but others suspect there will indeed be some players who are either uncomfortable with being in the locker room with a gay player or who will remain outwardly hostile to homosexuals. Part of that hate, hostility and violence is ingrained in American culture and its warped “Christian values”. Here in Southeast Asia, where the tolerant tenets of Buddhism (more of a philosophy than a religion, some would say) affect the behavior of the people, being gay is not much of an issue at all. In public schools, for example, if a student is gay or lesbian, they might — at the very worst — be playfully teased by their classmates, but without any nastiness vindictiveness. Mai Pen Rai, they would say here in Thailand. But at a school in the United States you can bet that there would be a definite element of cruelty at play, if not something much worse. Remind me again of the suicide statistics for gay youth in the USA? And you can thank those “gentle” God-fearing Christians for the continuing existence of such hate and cruelty.

Thinking about the Jason Collins story and the nasty cloud of religion that hovers over so many issues, I thought of the possible repercussions from an even bigger news event. What if a major candidate for political office in the USA declared: “I am not a Christian, nor do I have religious beliefs of any kind. I remain an atheist.” Now THAT would truly rock some boats. But just like Jason Collins’ announcement, it’s time for someone to step forward and shout it out!

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Hot Weather & Cool Music

It’s April, one of the hottest months of the year here in Thailand, or anywhere in Southeast Asia for that matter. For the past month, I’m witness to an almost daily occurrence; customers walking into my bookshop, either sweating profusely or complaining about the heat. Yes, it’s very hot out there, but it occurs to me that some of these folks wouldn’t sweat as much if they weren’t wearing all black or heavy fabrics that don’t breathe in this tropical climate. It’s Thailand, not Northern England, so dress appropriately!

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To comfort all those heat-stricken souls I run the air conditioner continuously at my shop, but when I’m at home alone I opt not to turn on the AC. Hey, I’m from Florida; hot and humid feels natural to me! But it’s not like I prefer to sit and sweat the whole time. At home, I turn on the ceiling fans and open the windows to let a nice breeze flow through my ninth floor corner apartment. And that’s enough to keep me cool. Of course it also helps that I walk around the room wearing nothing but a loincloth. But whether I’m at home or work, music is always playing; yet another way to keep cool, at least emotionally. Here is this month’s list of CDs playing in heavy rotation at my place:

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Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell – Old Yellow Moon

Dawes – Stories Don’t End

James Iha – Look To the Sky

Neil Young – Sugar Mountain: Live at Canterbury House 1968

Eddi Reader – Candyfloss and Medicine

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Various Artists – Eccentric Soul: Nickel and Penny Labels

Grant Green – Latin Bit

R. Dean Taylor – Essential Collection  

Joe Henderson – Page One

Tift Merritt – Traveling Alone

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Trombone Shorty – For True

Velvet Crush – Free Expression

The Scene is Now – Total Jive

Bill Fay – Bill Fay

Mary Chapin Carpenter – Ashes and Roses

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Ray Stinnett – A Fire Somewhere

Kool and The Gang – Live at P.J.’s

Camper Van Beethoven – La Costa Perdida

Graham Gouldman – Love and Work

Bob Mould – Poison Years

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Paul Kossoff – Backstreet Crawler (Deluxe Edition)

Lou Bond – Lou Bond

TV on the Radio – Return to Cookie Mountain

Various Artists – Miami Sound: Rare Funk & Soul

Larry Young – Unity

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Leon Thomas – The Creator: 1969-73

Yo La Tengo – Fade

Sugarman Three – Pure Cane Sugar

UB40 – Present Arms

Colin Blunstone – I Don’t Believe I Miracles

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Clarence Carter – The Fame Singles Volume 1 1966-70

The Lumineers – The Lumineers

Charles & Eddie – Duophonic

Menahan Street Band – Make the Road by Walking

Kenny Burrell – Midnight Blue

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Greg Kihn Band – Best of Beserkley ’75-‘84

The Waterboys – A Pagan Place

The Sneetches – 1985-1991

The Explorers Club – Freedom Wind

Cass McCombs – Wit’s End

 

Off to the Volcano: 90th Street on the Road (Pt. 1)

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It’s become a tradition for me to take a group of children from the 90th Street neighborhood in Mandalay on a day trip of some sort when I’m town. We’ve been to a variety of places in the area over the past five years. The time was no different, or actually it was; instead of a single day excursion, we spent three full days on the road exploring historic sites much further away from Mandalay.  In the case of one remote place, it would qualify as “out in the boondocks.”

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Our destination the first day was Mt. Popa, one of the most sacred sites in Myanmar. Mt. Popa is located near Bagan, so our plan was to arrive there in the morning and end up at Bagan in the afternoon, where we would spend the first night. Mt. Popa is an extinct volcano, but it was last seen spewing lava about 250,000 years ago, so nowadays the only thing to fear on the mountain is the hordes of monkeys scampering all over the place, begging for food and trying to snatch the hats or sunglasses from the heads of unsuspecting tourists. The big attraction of Mt. Popa, however, and what makes it sacred for the locals, are all the nat shrines located there. A nat is spirit, and most people in Myanmar have a belief in them to some degree. In addition to the various nat shrines, there are some more traditional shrines to Buddha at Mt. Popa too.

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And all those monkeys! Really, they are more than a bit of a nuisance the way they run around and create havoc; it’s as if they owned the place! Well, maybe they do; they’ve probably been in residence there longer than any humans have. Of one thing there is no doubt; the monkeys have turned into an attraction themselves. Vendors stroll up and down the stairways selling monkey food as well as flowers for the shrines. I used all the pocket change (small banknotes, actually, since there are no coins in Myanmar) that I had to buy monkey food and flowers for the kids to distribute.

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I’ve been to Mt. Popa three times already, so the excursion wasn’t that special for me. But then again, I got a kick out seeing how excited everyone else was about being there. For Maw Hsi and the kids it was definitely a big deal. They can now boast to their friends and family; “I’ve been to Mt. Popa.” And most of them bought souvenir t-shirts as proof!

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Where Tourists Never Wander: the Other Side of Mandalay

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This is the side of Mandalay that tourists never see. It’s not an especially pretty area and doesn’t offer amazing photo opportunities, and there isn’t anything of historical importance to see, but visiting this part of town has given me an immensely eye-opening perspective on the local way of life and the chance to know some truly wonderful people.

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I found 90th Street quite by accident one day a few years ago, cycling around the south side of Mandalay on my rented bike, no destination in mind, just wandering around and exploring new neighborhoods. This stretch of 90th Street is not much more than a bumpy dirt road, bordered by ramshackle houses and tiny shops. Children play in the street, motorcycles whizz by, chickens and pigs wander into the road, and monks stroll by holding umbrellas to shade themselves from the blistering sun. This street doesn’t look or feel like the rest of the bustling Mandalay, exuding more of a laidback rural vibe.

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There’s this little teashop on 90th Street, run by a nice man named U Tin Chit. The teashop is called Nwe Oo Aung Teashop, but I can never ever remember that name, so I just call it U Tin Chit’s Teashop.  The teashop has no windows or doors; open air, baby! It’s open round the clock; just like a 7-Eleven branch, they never close. As you might surmise, it’s not a fancy place. You can sit on plastic stools or wooden benches. Sit on the floor if you want, I don’t think anyone will mind. Have some tea, a bean-filled pastry or a tasty greasy snack. Stay as long as you like. Chat with the local men or the kids that pass in and out of the place, often stopping to stare at what’s on the TV in the corner. Maybe you can’t get anything you want, like at Alice’s Restaurant, but it’s a very relaxed place with friendly locals.

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I’ve been going to this teashop for several years, and each time I visit, the kids or my friend Ko Maw Hsi will take me on short excursions in the surrounding area; to a monastery or temple, a school, a jade workshop, a swimming hole, a little shoe shop, someone’s home. These are fun little tours and I’m discovering more of the area each time I visit, plus getting to know these people and their families a little more as well. I’m very fond of these folks. Even though they are quite poor, the hospitality they offer each time is beyond generous. At this point I think I can say we’re all good friends; Ko Maw Hsi, U Tin Chit, U Nyunt Tun and his sweet daughter Khin Nwe Lwin (who recently graduated from university), Moe Htet Aung, Khang Khant Kyaw, Zin Ko, Baw Ga, Yu Naing Soe, and the rest of the neighborhood crew.

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During this trip, Moe Htet Aung invited me to visit his home for the first time. I’d met his mother before, but I had no idea if there was a father living at home, or even if he had any brothers or sisters. From what I gather, it’s just him and his mom and a younger sister living in this house. It’s a fairly basic wooden house, at least one that blends in with the rest of the neighborhood. Like the others, there doesn’t appear to be any running water inside the home; families must bathe and use facilities outdoors. No real surprise there, but the real shock for me was the walk to the house. After turning down a series of narrow dirt lanes, surprised vendors greeting me with big smiles, we had to navigate a huge field of garbage to reach his house. That’s right, garbage. Trash, rubbish, scraps; an entire field filled with this junk. And I followed the kids as they nonchalantly traipsed through it all.

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Once we were at the house, I was offered hot tea, as is standard practice at most homes in Myanmar. They also brought out a chilled can of Red Bull, a beverage that I absolutely will not touch. I thanked them, but told them I was full and could not drink it. They told me to put it in my bag and drink it back at my hotel. That ended up being a good diplomatic compromise; I put the can in my bag and gave it away to a street kid an hour later.

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Someone noticed that my left arm was sporting red splotches; the result of bites from some sort of insect in my hotel room. The kids looked real concerned at my “injury”, and Moe Htet Aung’s mother announced that she had the perfect remedy; thanaka! You might not have heard of thanaka but you’ve seen it; it’s that yellowish paste that many people in Myanmar wear on their faces. It acts as a sunscreen, but many women also liken it to a beauty cosmetic and you’ll often see locals wearing thanaka in all sorts of pretty, creative patterns on their face. In any case, Moe Htet Aung’s mother told me that the thanaka will also soothe the skin and reduce the itching from the insect bites. She had me sold on the idea; let’s do it. And they did. And it did.

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After the doctoring was done, I realized that it was getting late, at least closer to the time when I needed to head back to my hotel to clean up before a dinner appointment, so I told them I needed to leave. I followed the crew of kids, which had someone grown in number during the time I was at the house, and we walked back across the field of debris, down the quaint little lanes and back to the teashop where my bike was parked. I waved goodbye to Maw Hsi and the other men sitting at the teashop. “I’ll see you tomorrow,” I said as I hopped on my bike (making sure my longyi stayed tied!). And I was looking forward to it; another day of new experiences with my friends on 90th Street.

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Finding good new authors

Anyone who reads a lot of books, particularly novels that feature a series with the same characters, runs into the problem of running out of new authors to read. You find an author you like and end up reading every book they’ve written, becoming attached to the characters and their lives. But after you’ve finished the entire series, then what? You find another author that writes equally gripping tales and read all of those books, and then try to find other authors in a similar vein. For whatever reasons, some click and some don’t. I’ve read a lot of books in the past few years, but sometimes I can’t make it past the 50-page mark without becoming either bored or annoyed. Those are the books I don’t finish.

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In the past six months or so I’ve devoured the latest novels from favorite authors such as John Sandford, Robert Crais, Dennis Lehane, Jonathan Kellerman, Michael Connelly, and Lee Child. Loved them all. I’ve recently started reading Daniel Silva’s series of novels featuring the Gabriel Allon character, and find those to be top-shelf fare too. Allon is certainly one of the more unusual and multi-dimensional characters in crime/espionage fiction these days. He’s an artist who works as an art restorer in various locations around Europe. But he’s also an Israeli citizen who is employed by that government in various spy-related activities, including the assassinations of “bad guys.” An intellectual hit-man with artistic skills.  Not your normal plot premise, but seriously addictive stuff.

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Among the new authors that I’ve discovered — and liked— this year are Jess Walter and Greg Hurwitz. I’d actually read one Jess Walter novel, Over Tumbled Graves, about a year ago and enjoyed it. It was more of a standard crime fiction story, but two others that I’ve read since then are even better and have more depth than the usual mystery. One novel, The Zero, is set in New York City, shortly after the Twin Towers disaster of 9/11. The main character is a police officer who was hailed as a hero after 9/11 and becomes a minor celebrity around town. But depression soon takes its toll and the man wakes up one day to discover that he had shot himself in the head the night before during a drinking binge. The wound wasn’t fatal, of course, but he can’t remember exactly what happened that night, and in the days and months afterwards he continues to have memory lapses, at times not even sure why he is at a certain location or what he is supposed to be doing, or who he is talking with. Walter’s skillful prose takes the reader inside the mind of this troubled man as he deals with his frustrating issues. Some passages are moving, others totally hilarious, and some quite frightening. Altogether, a very powerful and moving novel.  

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I read a third Walter novel earlier this month, Citizen Vince, that I also thought was superlative. In this novel the main character, Vince, is a career criminal who somehow gets involved in a mafia scheme. He ends up testifying against the mob and enters a witness protection program, given a new identity, and relocated to Spokane, Washington. Vince trains to be a baker and ends up working at a donut shop, a job he actually enjoys very much. But to supplement his income he also starts dealing in forged credit cards again. This novel is set in the fall of 1980, in the days before the US Presidential election between Carter and Reagan. The idea of voting in the election becomes an exciting prospect for Vince; due to his previous convictions he has never been able to vote in previous elections. Adding to the election fervor, a person from his criminal past discovers Vince living in Spokane. Lots of intrigue, a few laughs, and more great writing from Jess Walter. He has written several other books too, so I’m excited that there are more waiting to discover.

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As for Greg Hurwitz, he’s one of those names I’ve seen on the shelf for years but I’d never read anything until I started a novel called The Crime Writer last month. The basic plot is a twist on the typical whodunit: a fellow who writes crime fiction novels is charged with murdering his girlfriend. The evidence at the scene of the crime suggests that this is a no-brainer: this guy definitely did it. But due to a brain tumor he had at the time, the man really can’t remember if he had done it or not. Some things about the crime don’t add up in his mind, so he ends up investigating his own case, turning up some baffling and disturbing facts. In addition to the clever plot, the novel is populated by some very interesting characters (ones that are so engaging that you hope Hurwitz does a sequel), and some seriously funny dialogue. On top of that, Hurwitz is one of those crime fiction authors — like Jess Walter — who also a very good writer; a definite step above the rest of the mystery pack. I just started a new novel by Hurwitz, Trouble Shooter, more of a traditional cops and robbers tale, but still very well written and absorbing. He’s also written more than a handful of books, so I look forward to reading those also.

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Mandalay Football Fun

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I’m still in the process of learning, or trying to become more proficient in the Burmese language, or Myanmar zaga as it’s called over here, so sometimes I don’t fully understand what people are saying during conversations. So, when I was hanging out on 90th Street in Mandalay recently, and the kids mentioned something about football, I thought they were talking about going to watch a football match. But what they meant was PLAYING some football, and that ended up being a little football match between them — Moe Htet Aung, Baw Ga, Pya Thein, Zin Ko, and Ye Thu Lwin —and another group of kids that I didn’t know from the neighborhood.

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They played on the grounds of a nearby monastery, using makeshift goals and roughly designated out-of-bounds markers. It didn’t matter that a pile of leaves was in the middle of the field … they’d just play around it. Occasionally, there would be a bit of shouting or heated discussion about some alleged infraction, but for the most part it was fun, friendly match. Unlike some of the real matches you see on TV. Little Zin Ko was the smallest player on the field and every time he’d kick a ball, he did it with such intensity that he ended up falling down. Each and every time. It was a bit comical … and nobody laughed harder than Zin Ko himself. A good sport!

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Sanda Tika: Novice Monk Photographer

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My guest photographer today is Sanda Tika, a 12-year-old novice monk from the monastery in Shan State’s Tat Ein village. His self portrait photo is posted above. I don’t think I’ve ever seen this kid without a huge grin on his face. He’s just one of those playful, perpetually happy kids who seem unfazed but the occasional chaos surrounding them.

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It seemed like wherever I wandered around the village and the monastery (and at the primary school, although Sanda Tika doesn’t attend classes there; he studies separately at the monastery) this time — and especially on our road trip to Taunggyi and Kakku, Sanda Tika was always there, shadowing me every step of the way. Okay, there were times that I saw him studying with the other novices, but it SEEMED like he was always around. Because of his almost constant presence, I asked him his name (he gave me his “monastery name” — his birth name is different) one day, and promptly appointed him to be my assistant photographer for the rest of my stay. After a quick crash course in the basics, he was more than ready to use the camera. The photos you see today are all ones that he took.  

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At the park in Taunggyi, they have a bizarre new addition: huge plaster replicas of the characters from The Flintstones! Yes, there were Fred and Wilma, along Barney and Betty (alas, Bam Bam was nowhere to be found), ready and waiting to pose for photos. And the students and teachers got really excited about doing just that, running up and hugging the goofy characters. I don’t think any of these kids have ever seen a Flintstones cartoon in their lives, but they just couldn’t resist the silliness of the idea. And neither could Sanda Tika!

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