Friday, September 19, 2008

Lunch of the Living Dead

Well, not really, but it was one of the more terrifying experiences of my life. Yesterday I was a guest speaker at the British Women's Club. It was as though I had been transported through a time warp. The sun dresses… the hats … the ambience of the Oriental Hotel … aaaaah!!!!!

One of the most interesting things to happen at this lunch, however, was that I was seated next to a Scottish lady (indeed, the entire management of the BWC seemed dominated by the Celtic Fringe in general.) One of the Oriental's epicurean delicacies was a miniature shepherd's pie-looking thingie in a cup, with chopped and spiced chicken beneath the mashed potatoes.

"I don't know what it is," said the lady, "but it tastes like haggis."

My whole life, I have been used to being proferred peculiar meats, from frogs to rattlesnakes, with the admonition to "Go ahead … don't worry … it tastes like chicken." To have someone say of chicken, that most anonymous and neutral of meats, that it "tastes like haggis" was a fascinating cultural (not to mention culinary) commentary on the entire Scottish nation.

I have always had a healthy terror of haggis — more from the legend than from the experience, since I haven't actually ever brought myself to eat it. I used haggis in my short story "Anna and the Ripper of Siam"… in it, Jack the Ripper, visiting Siam in the nineteenth century, used the "freshest ingredients" he could find to substitute for a sheep's stomach … my assumption in the story was that the very word "haggis" was enough to produce a frisson of stark terror in the average American reader of the story.

Because of this gentle lady's innocent utterance, I now know that haggis tastes like chicken. One day, I may even be brave enough to try it.

Not that I've ever eaten any of the other things that taste like chicken … iguana, cobra, et al.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Excrementum piscis

Politics as usual in Thailand today, with prime ministers slipping in and out of power, getting busted for cooking, and so on. At least they lifted the state of emergency, though it must be admitted that it wasn't much of one.

The boredom of politics was temporarily alleviated over the weekend by the biggest orgy of Cajun cooking I have ever experienced. There's this guy Doug, who owns a Cajun restaurant next to a transvestite cabaret, about a mile from my house … (yes! We're in Thailand!) and to celebrate the 22nd birthday of the restaurant Doug put on an all-you-can-eat spread with every conceivable piece of New Orleans home cooking one can possibly imagine ... for six bucks. Believe me, you cannot get this in New Orleans. Not all the etoufe, jambalaya, gumbo, prime rib, bbq, shrimp, oysters, pecan pie, etc etc etc you can eat for six bucks. The ability to eat a vast and authentic Cajun meal at this price exists only, as far as I know, in Bangkok. That's why Bangkok is the true center of the universe.

With Trisdee in Holland and missing all the fun, Jay and I spend the evening eating and watching a curious phenomenon: a shitting fish.

The tank was right by our seat and it was difficult to ignore the fact that our piscine friend was having a lot of trouble dislodging an extremely lengthy faex. Indeed, it was longer than the fish itself and it was therefore a curious irony to be stuffing our faces whilst observing the extrusion. We were taking bets on whether the fish would be able to shake it off, but it couldn't. A gaggle of shrimp were hovering nervously below, perhaps waiting to catch the morsel if it fell.

From this, I believe I have learned a valuable lesson in life. That fish, thrashing around trying to free itself from its own excrement, was in fact a trenchant and profound metaphor for the human condition. On the one hand, there I was gorging myself, stuffing goodies down my gullet … how long would it be before I was like that fish, dragged down by the weight of the shit I made for myself? Food is life ... but life eventually ends up as food.

Not only was the fish a metaphor for my personal life, but it could equally have stood as a symbol of this country's fledgling democracy. Unable to swim freely until it can squeeze out the baggage of its past, the fish was caught between past and future, between promise and fulfillment.

You see, some people look at a shitting fish and see only a shitting fish, but being the Eminence Grise that I am, I also see the birth and death of Nations, and the dark heart of the human psyche.

Tune in tomorrow for another stupid metaphor.....

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Emergency Reddux

Welcome to day 7 or 8 of the so-called "State of Emergency" which, as I understand it, is being lifted soon for the official reason that "no one seemed to notice it."

At 2 pm, I was due to appear at a press conference about something other than politics. Chulalongkorn University Radio was promoting its new CD of music commemorate our beloved Princess Galyani Vadhana. I was surprised that the press was there, because at 2 pm, the court was also due to announce its verdict on whether our prime minister should be kicked out of office for the heinous crime of — gasp — cooking on television!

It was a lovely, beautifully organized press conference. Music was played; good coffee was served; VIPs came out and spoke movingly about the princess. I got a chance to discuss the requiem I am composing with the press.

It was a few hours later, when I returned home, that I learned that, according to the Christian Science Monitor, Samak had "cooked his own goose." Ah well. In a way, being ignominiously expelled from his post for daring to host a cooking show on TV is a face-saving mechanism, since he doesn't have to play chicken with the protesters....

What a country! One day I shall have to explain it all to my American friends, but that will not be today; tomorrow I have a big recording session, and I have to deal with the fact that a hard disk crash may have lost me the files of everything I have ever written or composed in the last twenty years.


In one of those huge pendulum swings of which my life seems endlessly to consist, a few hours after I wrote those words my hard drives were saved by applying the advice of my old friend Ryan from L.A. My worries about how to pay for the recording session of Trisdee's Eternity and my Pie Jesu were averted at the eleventh hour when friends pitched in. I might survive this annus horribilis after all....

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Comedy of Errors

Well it's not really a comedy, but I seem to be down with some kind of stomach flu. The comedy is that last night I reached for what I thought was Immodium, only it wasn't. In my blurred state, I just saw the "Mo" part and took a couple of Motilium, an anti-vomiting medicine. You're supposed to take Immodium again after an "loose stools" so I dutifully did so between each sojourn in the "little chamber". By about two in the morning I was starting to worry because my symptoms were only getting worse and worse.

Today I'm absolutely groaning in horror, but I did finally realize that I was taking the wrong medicine and refrained from "One Mo Time."

And so it goes — another day in the life of your now "officially" geriatric enfant terrible.

Friday, September 5, 2008

My Canonization

Well, this morning I woke to find that the rumors of the government calling it quits were untrue, and instead they've decided to tough it out. This is getting boring, and of course, scaring the tourists even more. While I'm hardly one to advocate yet another coup, this constant bickering is getting on my nerves. Indeed, the moral status of either side is getting murkier by the minute.

Of course, the main event today was my receiving this huge national award, the Silpathorn Kittikhun Award, at a dramatic ceremony not too far from the demonstrators. The Silpathorn award is for mid-life contemporary artists who have international achievements and so on, but, since I have reached the age of what Isaac Asimov used to refer to as "slightly over thirty", my winning that award was a little bit of a problem.

The solution was quite a typical one for Thailand; the committee voted six to one for me to win the award, so I couldn't un-win it; instead, they created a "higher award" -- the "Distinguished Silpathorn" Award, and gave it to three people including yours truly. Since this award can be given to such geriatric recipients as myself, it places itself in direct competition with the National Artist Award — and indeed, the director-general of the contemporary arts department specifically stated for the press that certain major artists are too "controversial" ever to be granted that honor by the old fuddy-duddies who run the show.

Therefore, this award is sort of positioned to go "head-to-head" with the National Artists -- to be almost an "alternate" National Artist Award.

Am I a little worried about being the poster boy for a sort of "agenda" war within the ministry of culture itself? I guess so. But it's too late to worry about that now. And I can always sell the award. Unlike most awards I have received in the writing world, this award is intrinsically valuable: it contains 9 grams of 22k gold, a .15 ct emerald (maybe lab created) and .39 cts of vvs1 diamonds, E color! Plus, Princess Siriwanari, universally known as the "fashion princess", liked my tie!

The ceremony was a charming affair. It wasn't hugely high-profile, like the SEAWrite Awards, nor was it particularly tacky, and there was a huge exhibition set up of the award-winners which included excerpts from their works and so on. That was all pretty amusing. My mug shot of the day shows me in front of the Somtow exhibition.

One of the strangest things about the event though, was that there was a bizarre guy hawking Buddha amulets. He wore the elaborate uniform of a government civil servant, and he sidled up to me in the middle of the event, as I was standing in front of the Somtow exhibit, and he pressed four Buddha amulets into my hand. "Just look at these!" he said. "I want you to have them." I thought they were a gift from a fan or something (after all, this was a grand official occasion in which I was supposedly one of the guests of honour) so I thanked him, and then he asked me for 400 baht. I was so thrown by this I didn't know what to say, and I asked Trisdee if he happened to have 400 baht on him. He only had 300, but the guy said, "I'll take it" and slunk away.

He also tried to sell the Buddha images to Bird, the guitarist, who was just trying to take a leak, in the bathroom. However, Bird had a lot more presence of mind than I did.

That was, in a sense, the oddest thing about the whole ceremony....

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

From the Emergency Room.....

An interesting quote from The Nation this morning:

"As more protesters poured into Government House, where music continued to play and defiant speakers continued to address vociferous crowds, the state of emergency declared by Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej Tuesday morning seemed to have serious effects on only one person —himself."

The Bangkok Post's front page had a huge red-bordered editorial that began "We strongly disagree with the declaration of a state of emergency...."

So … the day after Samak's huge parliamentary debate on Saturday, my mother went to the Sunday market (Jatujak), where she saw Samak buying salted fish. To her amazement, she watched the fish merchant express sympathy for the embattled PM. "My blood was boiling," she told me.

This goes to show just what kind of a state of emergency we have here. The besieged head of this government seems to have no trouble picking out fresh produce in the world's largest open market. He's not exactly surrounding himself with armed guards. Meanwhile the protesters are apparently quite pleased that the military is in charge. Far from running in terror, they're all saying, "We'd rather have the army; we trust them more than the police."

And that -- for the benefit of my friends checking into this blog from foreign shores -- is the size of it. Watching paint dry is, I believe, about the level of excitement experienced by the average person in this town. Should you decide to fly into Bangkok tonight, you will find the temples, massage parlors, ripoff DVD stalls, and exotic fruit markets all thriving, and you will be hard pressed to locate the "action". Indeed, it really only centers on two buildings: a TV station and government house … quite far from the urban bustle.

In fact I spent today at a curious little music competition at ABAC (Assumption University) itself a curious (but not little) institution, a huge mini-city of monumental, slightly Spanish looking architecture, a vast chapel which is a scale model of the Basilica of St Peter in Rome (complete with copy of the Pietà of Michelangelo) and acres of gold and marble. This incredible building will hopefully be the site of the production of my new Requiem: pro Matre Musicae which I am composing for HRH Princess Galyani Vadhana.

This is really an astonishing spectacle and one which I believe will be an incredible venue for the piece I am composing which involves about 200 performers. This is the piece of which two movements magically disappeared from my hard drive and into the aether. I have never had so much technical trouble with a piece of music, and it's either God's way of telling me to stop, or one of those Job-like tests.

A new rumor: apparently, at 7:30 am, Samak will address the nation ... according to the rumor, he will resign. Another rumor says his wife is making him do it. Well, I guess we'll know in a few short hours. I am going back to composing now....

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

A Child's Eye View of the State of Emergency

Well, as I said earlier this morning, I woke up to find the city in what was dramatically described as a state of emergency. I read on the internet that schools are all closed, so I looked in on Jay, but he wasn't in his bed.

It turns out that the schools may have been closed, but nobody bothered to tell them, so all the kids were in school anyway, by which time it was too late, so they just had school anyway. "Bummer," the kid tells me when he comes home from school. Tomorrow he was skipping anyway, because he has a violin competition, which, by the way, they also forgot to cancel.

So far at least, no one much seems to be aware that some huge political drama is going on. I've received an email warning from my embassy (I mean the U.S. one) telling me to exercise caution while going to the mall, but that seems to be about the size of it.

I'm afraid that scaring away the tourists is probably not the most effective way of dealing with this country's ills.

I read in the internet that party leader Banharn offered to mediate the crisis. He and I have the same dentist.

Tomorrow I am due to receive the singular honour of being made a Silpathorn Kittikhun, that is to say a "sort of national artist but not exactly." The award is being handed to me by a royal princess, and there will definitely be more than five people present: the media for one, plus ministers and high officials, plus all sorts of celebs.

If we are arrested for having more than five people at a meeting, it will be the most celeb-infested holding cell I have ever been in. (Well, all right, I actually have never been in a holding cell. Sorry. Not even in the Sixties.)

Emergency, Schmemergency

To my surprise, I woke up to find the city under a state of emergency. No one, however, seems to have noticed. I have of course been fielding the usual worried phone calls from friends in foreign lands watching CNN, to whom I have to explain for the umpteenth time that it's really no big deal. Most people around me think the fuss has gone on too long already; after all it's been a quarter of century since the time of radical demonstrations in Thailand. Of course, there is really no limit to human idiocy, so anything could happen. My maid was surprised I knew about any of this since I don't watch television, so I had to explain that it was on the internet. I asked my secretary about whether she had been affected and she said, "Oh, that's not on my way to work."

The last time a PM declared a state of emergency in Thailand, as I recall, he was simply ignored. Indeed, I find now that my blogger is no longer blocked, and the Bangkok Post website this morning was very careful to state in its reportage that it had not been censored. Surely this state of emergency has not been declared solely in order to get my American and European friends to call me! Surely there are larger issues involved than vanity and stubbornness, but I haven't noticed them yet.

Trisdee returned from Holland yesterday and immediately said he would cook. He hates the food in Amsterdam and has taken to making Thai food himself. He has acquired a passionate interest in cuisine.

A couple of months ago, my mother and I were guests on a radio show in Bangkok, one in which the hosts often discuss herbs and spices. In the middle of the show, Samak called into the show and started discussing food and cooking with passionate enthusiasm.

When Trisdee went on and on last night about the lunch he was going to make for me today, I wondered whether the art of cooking could serve as a new kind of transdimensional gate, and whether I might wake up the next day with Trisdee as Prime Minister and Samak giving the next harpsichord recital....

Oh well. Tonight I'm taking a choir rehearsal. If more than five choristers show up, and we discuss politics by mistake, I'll be blogging from the gulag.

So is this another blockage?

It is tempting to believe that my access to my own blog is being blocked by my server as a result of the current political situation, but I am not sure about that. There's no popup saying it's blocked, just an endless rotating thingie....

Maybe everyone's just trying to blog all at once.

I for one will always tend towards the most paranoid interpretation....

an hour after I wrote this, it is still impossible to get through. Perhaps it is just an Aeschylean silence, and I will soon be faced with the wrath of Achilles.

Or not.


Ten minutes later .... almost 5 am ... blogger is back! So maybe it was just overloaded. Or maybe my server has blinked.... and the thought police are at the gates.....

By the way, the above photograph is not me. A reward to the person who guesses its identity. The nature of the reward depends on my mood.