Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Transformers and Michael Jackson

Normally I refrain from commenting on pop phenomena. This week, however, my brain has reached a state of pop hypersaturation, so I'll blog in the name of self-help.

In college, a friend of a friend (and a distant friend at that...let's get this straight!) was a big Jackson fan and bought tickets for a number of his concerts on the West Coast. Los Angeles, San Francisco, etc. She reported that the show included a segment where Jackson began a song and then ordered the band to stop playing after maybe 30 seconds. You see, his emotions were bubbling over, and he absolutely needed to express them via a different tune. That's nice, but it turns out that Jackson went through this routine at every concert. Offhand, I can't think of a more extreme example of feigned spontaneity.

Some call this sort of behavior "showmanship." Mick Jagger is supposed to be a great showman. When the 40-up crowd (of which I'm a member) ventures out to see a Rolling Stones mega-concert, they inevitably return with high praise - Jagger still has "got it." Then, of course, there are the obligatory comments about Keith Richard's appearance and longevity. To me, it feels like the concert-going fogeys are simply rationalizing their existences; see, us old farts can also prance around a stage. We might just still "have it." Hell, in high school, my circle of friends felt that the Rolling Stones began a downward spiral in 1967, when Brian Jones died. In the early 90's, I was pleased to hear that a decent chunk of the younger portion of the audience walked out on the Stones after a couple tunes. Pearl Jam, it seems, was the opening act, and the contrast between Eddie Vedder's genuine spontaneity and Jagger's rehearsed "professionalism" was too much to bear.

Oliver Sacks relates an anecdote from the aphasic ward of a mental hospital. Aphasics have a difficult time formulating and understanding concepts, so Sacks initially found it odd to see a group of them laughing hysterically at President Reagan's televised speech. As Sacks says, though, "It was the grimaces, the histrionics, the false gestures and, above all, the false tones and cadences of the voice which rang false for these wordless but immensely sensitive patients." Perhaps I lean a tad toward the aphasic end of the spectrum, as Michael Jackson always seemed too cartoony to take seriously. For those who perceive him a master showman, you're entitled to your own personal mix of neurotransmitters.

Regarding pedophilia, I'll give him the benefit of the doubt. Did he fantasize about becoming white?...no, it seems like he really did have a hangup with vitiligo. I know because I've been dowsed with spam e-mails that prove the point with attached photos. What bothers me, however, is the praise he has received as some sort of music pioneer. Sly Stone and Hendrix were crushing racial boundaries when the Jackson 5 was a generic (but good) Motown act. One might argue that Jackson's transformation into whiteness, like Emperor Leto's transformation into wormness, was an act of sacrifice, designed to carry all sentient beings to a new degree of awakening. But the vitiligo spam disproves that theory.

Then there's the idea that Jackson was responsible for MTV. There may be some truth in that. In which case, the need for a successful musician to have a pretty face, dancing and acting skills, and to be on the cutting edge of fashion and personality - a 30 year trend away from actual musicianship - is Jackson's doing.


Now, let it be known that "Transformers II" is dreck. I just have few observations. In the spirit of the film, they're disjointed.

Following release of the excellent, "Elephant", Gus Van Zant predicted the demise of the "narrative format." No more linear story-telling. That's what you got in "Transformers II", which willfully discards plot and continuity. I say "willfully" because it's impossible to believe that these myriad discontinuities (a robot busts through the wall of the Smithsonian...into a remote jet airstrip) went unnoticed in production. Van Zant's vision, of course, is one intended to challenge the audience. "Transformers II" is the ugly, cynical side of the "non-narrative" format.

In fact, it feels as if recent films like "Star Trek" and "Transformers" operate on the principle that there's no limit to the degree of "suspension of disbelief" that the human brain can tolerate. "Suspension of disbelief" has now been expanded to include much more than run-of-the-mill violations of the laws of physics. We're talking about slashing through a coherent plot and timeline.

I found the first Transformers film notable for its ability to invoke a sense of wonder. That's a rare quality in a film. Somehow, you've got to mix nature, the right music, a sense of connection to the deep past, the grandness of the cosmos, paradox, and death and suffering, in just the right proportions to pull it off. This sense was totally lacking in the second film, a testament to the slipperiness of awe and wonder.

We poke fun at Bollywood productions. Singing, dancing, and fighting. There's something for every audience sector...slapstick for the kids, sex and violence for the teenage boys, true love for the chicks, and family values for mom and dad. But films like "Transformers II" run the risk of falling into the same "variety show" trap. You've got robots speaking with ghetto accents, plenty of slapstick, militarism, and the family pulling through in the end. Unnecessary skits. When Megan Fox's foxiness is the focus, the music changes suddenly, the film slows, and the camera zooms...very Bollywood!

On the positive side, I hope that this piece of garbage forces a number of critics to reassess Star Wars Episodes I-III. Lack of humanity?

Undoubtedly, the execs are rolling in the dough and lighting Gran Coronas with critics' reviews. Prediction: they'll be puzzled when "Transformers III" fails to meet box-office expectations. Hmmmmm.

Friday, June 26, 2009


Google "Pigasus" and you'll find it's a well-used pun. It's unlikely that the Thais at "Satapon Plastic" company were aware of that when they created their logo, however. One wonders what inspired them.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Western Baggage

He'd already visited me twice, but this time was special. I accepted the sacred text with both hands, briefly leafed through it, then pulled up a chair to place the text on the sahn. Looking back, Khun John began breathing faster and his eyes bulged more than usual. Young farangs are quite excitable. But he smiled and gestured to continue. The little jasmine wreaths were already fresh, so it was only necessary to light the incense and recite a quick prayer. The atmosphere in the room changed.

What did you pray about? I told him that I wanted good luck for my family, refraining from mentioning the means by which this was to be obtained (the lottery). In fact, a glance through the Bible suggested new possibilities for number-selection.

He spoke Thai. Do you believe in God? I reminded him of our English-only agreement. His tone was quite direct today, but the gift entitled him to that. I answered "yes". The flitting motions of his pupils slowed. This was the correct answer. If Tom Hanks had responded this way in "Angels and Demons", he'd have spared himself a lot of trouble.


My respect for the boy had been growing. He was not birdshit farang. His grooming was immaculate, he knew when and how to wai, and sat straight on his two-stroke motorcycle. He had taken vows of sobriety. He worked without hope for material reward in a land far from his own. Our own monks lack such conviction.

It was odd, then, to discover the weakness of his semati. As had become habit, he initiated our session with prayer. It was clear that he was speaking the language of the pra, so there was no point in trying to understand. Instead, I silently repeated a mantra. He had already finished his own incantation, but I felt compelled to continue, as stopping on the fourth recitation would be inauspicious. Khun John stood patiently, exercising the perfection of khanti. The telephone rang. With my eyes only half-shut, I could see him flinch.

What did you pray about (as always)? I really couldn't say, of course, since the syllables were in Pali. I had learned the mantra in my childhood in Isan. We'd take jam-packed song-taews to the wat on auspicious occasions, regardless of the weather. The women would gossip and sing on the way. I salivated over the kanom in their bags. The men hung off the vehicle's railing, still managing to light and maintain cigarettes. Inevitably, the ceremonies had already begun. Everything changed instantly as we shed our shoes and passed through the door. Important work was being done. Oh, I digress...

"You pray and you don't understand the meaning of your prayer?"

A difficult question. Was it a "prayer"? I tried to keep things easy: "Yes, I don't."

"Yes, you do" or "No, you don't"? He muttered something about bananas.

A discussion of English grammar ensued. We agreed that "No, I don't" was the response I had intended. It was difficult to understand the logic behind this mode of speaking, so we both agreed it would be better to memorize the structure and dispense with analysis. "Leave it", as we say.


On our next appointment, he returned to question of belief in God. This time, however, it was "God, creator of the universe." I got the feeling that he conferred with a higher pra; restating questions from previous sessions was one of his patterns. Over time, it had become apparent that believing in this and believing in that was essential to Khun John, so I answered his question as directly as possible:

"I don't know."

From the time of my youth, I had been taught that these sorts of questions were best left to science. He seemed unsatisfied with the response. In some esoteric texts, Mt. Meru is considered the center of this particular universe.

"Do you actually believe that?"


Khun John had the mind of a scientist. He concerned himself greatly with beginnings and ends, sizes and locations, logic and contradictions. He thought a lot.

He had positioned himself directly beneath the sahn. A little chunk of incense broke off and landed on his scalp. The heat was spent, but he sensed a disturbance as he spoke, attempted to remove the particles, but wound up smearing them on his nose and left cheek. For the rest of the session, it was difficult to suppress a laugh. You'd have to have been there.


"What did you pray about?"

This time, I had practiced semati, not prayer. My English was improving. "It wasn't a prayer."

"Well, what did you think about?"

"I try not to think."

"That's impossible."


As it neared time for Khun John to complete his mission, I began to understand. This was a powerful god, capable of creating universes in a fraction of a kalpa. Yet the ten rules and other scriptures showed this god to be subject to the three poisons of attachment, aversion, and ignorance. Jealousy was his strongest attribute; this explained why Khun John would never wai my spirit house, even with his impeccable good manners.

Perhaps this god was a rudra. 6,000 years offer a fraction of the lifetimes needed to reach full awakening, especially via slow paths, so one shouldn't be particularly critical. If, on the other hand, this rudra had a timeless existence (as is sometimes implied), there was really no excuse. Another possibility was simply that this being had incarnated at a high position in the sixth realm, explaining his flamboyant ego.

My English had improved, but I was sad to say goodbye to Khun John. He vanished down the soi, necktie flapping over his shoulder.

Monday, June 1, 2009

A 40+ Farang Going for a Master's

I've been enrolled at Mahidol University for more than a month now, going for a Masters (and possibly a Ph.D) in Genetic Engineering. I had assumed that the relative novelty of a 40-something farang pursuing a degree in Thailand would make for some interesting, bloggable experiences. Unfortunately for this blog, university life has proceeded with few hitches, thanks to the well-organized administration at Mahidol, as well as the mostly 22-24 year old colleagues who don't find my presence the least bit perturbing. 99% of professional travel writing revolves around the pursuit of frustrating, risky, intractable experiences, so I guess I'm a lousy travel writer.

Quitting work has meant cutting back on the luxuries I enjoyed just a couple months ago. No fancy dinners. For the most part, I take the bus or skytrain to downtown Bangkok, something I hadn't done in a decade here, opting for taxis instead. I'm now a "farang kee nok" (birdshit white guy), I guess.

In the name of frugality, I canceled cable TV today. No big deal. It's mostly Korean pop culture, Japanese folks trying to complete some bizarre challenge, Chinese historical dramas, crude CGI flicks involving giant snakes, lanky female humans walking to and fro in garments that are never seen on the street, German language news, endless analysis of soccer, Mexican soap operas, and American professional wrestling. I'll miss the MMA and K1. Boo hoo.

The new routine means a long walk to the Skytrain, dropoff at Victory Monument, and a short bus ride to Mahidol's Phayathai campus. Street vendors. Beggars...mostly blind folks singing with the aid of a cheap amplifier. One dude plays an electric guitar most impressively...I've seen him at Central Mall Lad Prao in the early afternoon many times in the last decade; our routines now intersect more than ever. Others are purely pathetic, victims of mishaps involving electricity or motorcycles. Thais usually don't protest the results of karma.

Coming home means taking the legendary #8 bus. Again, I had no idea about this facet of existence until a month ago. Like most other buses, it's public transport, but somehow this particular number has a special reputation for accidents, folks falling out the doors into busy traffic, and the like. Last month some old guy was hit and dragged under the bus for a couple kilometers before the money-collector noticed thudding noises that seemed out-of-place in the money-collecting realm.

The tour books teach of etiquette on the Thai buses. As usual, the books are nonsense. Seating is mostly first-come first-serve. Unless a patron is obviously frail, few folks will offer their seats. In fairness to the Thais, I don't think the thought process is purely selfish. It's more like this: if I get up and offer a seat, I'll be making myself conspicuous, someone might feel obliged to thank me, and I wouldn't want to trouble anyone that way.

At the Phayathai campus, perhaps 95% of the students are Thai. My first class was something of a prep class for all sorts of bioscience-related graduate programs, so I'm guessing there were 250 students in the room. Four caucasians, myself included. The others come from locations like Indonesia, Nepal, Cambodia, Burma, Iran, Iraq, Egypt, and Ethiopia. It took maybe 10 minutes after the first class session before a dude named Muhammad was offering his views on the role of women (they shouldn't travel), the stupidity of Shiites (versus Sunnis), the decadence of Buddhism, and the amazingness of the Koran. The Muslims, bless their hearts, seem determined to prove that they're reasonable folks and the terrorists are mutants. I already know that, and it's fun to chat with them, but I would also like a chance to chat with the owners of the amazing legs that are only seen at a tangent.

Sarbast, a Kurdish Iraqi, is a fun dude. He doesn't hate the American soldiers, but does find them odd. Why, he laughs, do the soldiers purchase so much Viagra from his pharmacy when prostitutes are fairly scarce (though hardly nonexistent) in the region? The massive consumption of anabolic steroids is more understandable.

I'm mostly impressed with the education I'm getting so far. The profs are Thai, but their English language skills range from adequate to flawless. Acharn Prapol speaks with a fairly strong English accent. As might be expected, there's a slightly heavier emphasis on memorization and testing than you'd probably see in the West, but it's not as if the profs don't understand the importance of communicating broad concepts.

Below...9 of my 15 compadres in this year's Genetic Engineering program, eating noodles near Victory monument.