Thursday, October 30, 2008

Native Tongue


Dear Mme. Dahlberg,

I do not want to you to feel wholly responsible for the fact that I am miserably monolingual. After all, it could not have been easy to be the sole high school French teacher in Lexington, Ohio, the only local expert in a language not your own, the lone Francophile amidst the fields of corn. But I do not think I am being conceited when I say that I was one of your most promising and attentive students for the four years that I sat in your classroom, nor am I being modest when I say that I came out of those four years lacking the ability to speak any French. Half of the expats in Siem Reap are French, but I would rather feign mental retardation when I meet one of them than try to strike up a conversation in my pidgin français. And if I can’t speak even a fairly common Romance language with any fluency, how will I ever be able to tackle Khmer?

Mind you, learning Khmer is hardly a prerequisite for living in Cambodia. Everyone here, from the tuk-tuk drivers to the wealthy businessmen, can speak English, and one’s fluency is usually a good indication of one’s affluence. ESL textbooks and workbooks are everywhere (though I’ve yet to find similar ones that teach Khmer). Children and young adults love to test out their English skills on us with stilted but spirited conversations. We have been told that American accents are especially respected, and when I see Obama and McCain orating from every television screen, I understand why. Unwittingly, and through pure luck and happenstance, I have been fluent in the language of influence and power for over twenty years. For a monolinguist, it is the most fortuitous possible position, and I can’t help but feel some guilt for stumbling into it.

Maybe because of this guilt, it is important to me to be able to speak at least some semblance of the local language. I refuse to look like a tourist for the next ten months, unable to pronounce even the blandest pleasantries correctly. Let the record show that I tried, in advance, to prevent this from happening, by purchasing “Talk Khmer Now!” for my computer, which features two decidedly Anglo-looking people whose lip movements do not match the words they are supposedly saying. But a single CD-ROM gave me little insight into a language so complex that it’s difficult to pronounce even the name of the language correctly (despite being spelled “Khmer,” it’s pronounced, inexplicably, more like “k’mai”), and while the software was marginally successful in teaching me a few single words, I am still incapable of stringing them into sentences (“Rice yes meat no please thanks big-big!”)

Since the intricacies of Khmer grammar seem to be something only a real teacher can convey, Jason and I went in search of one at the local monastery, Wat Bo. A monk named Savuth was convinced to take us on as students, though he usually teaches English and seemed a little nervous about the prospect of teaching Khmer. Nonetheless, he told us we could come as often as we want, and when we mentioned the subject of formal payment, he looked embarrassed and said something supremely monkish, such as, “If you will learn to speak the Khmer language, this will make me happy.” Savuth’s request seems like an exceedingly modest one, but I worry that making him happy will be a little harder than scoring an A in French IV.

Apparently, the sight of crazy white people wandering around the monastery is not an everyday occurrence, and two other monks showed up at our first lesson, counting on the potential entertainment value of the event. Savuth got right down to business, trying to teach us how to say I. This sounds simple enough, but the way you say I varies widely depending upon whether you’re talking to your grandmother or to a monk or to the King of Cambodia. A simple k’nyom will do if I’m talking to Jason, for instance, but for the king it’s knyom prea-ang meh cha, and God only knows what would happen if I had to speak to both of them at once. If I wanted to say something to Savuth, like “I think I might feel faint if I have to look at any more of the absurdly complicated Khmer alphabet,” I would have to say, “K’nyom prea-cah ro nah…” or something of the sort, just to express that initial pronoun, at which point I would have forgotten the rest of the sentence.

After an exhausting assortment of Is, we moved on to learning how to tell someone your name. “Listen,” Savuth said. “Cheameuooioereh,” or some other combination of vowels I have never heard before. “K’nyom cheameuooioereh Savuth.”

“Chamore?” I said hopefully.

“Cheameuooioereh,” Savuth said, moving his mouth in a way that I cannot hope to replicate.

“Shamoo?” I said, feeling smaller and smaller. This went back and forth for a while, until Savuth settled back to drink some Coca-cola and compose himself and I slumped dejectedly while one of the monk audience members told me, “Clever student! Clever student!” in a way that I found extremely kind but unduly optimistic.

The lesson ended with Savuth trying valiantly to teach us how to say, “See you Monday!” and then waving goodbye as we sputtered gibberish back at him.

Mme. Dahlberg, where did we go wrong? Am I really such a dullard that acquisition of a foreign language is beyond my reach? Or did all that time in the middle of an enormous and powerful country muffle all the other voices of the world? Keep fighting the good fight, Mme. Dahlberg—we need people who can talk to each other, and Savuth and the rest of the international community deserve better than a one-trick pony like me.

Best wishes,
Shannon Dunlap

Friday, October 24, 2008

Re: Angkor Lite FM

From: writersblok@hotmail.com
To: rmarx@XXX.com

Dear Richard Marx,

I am writing to let you know that you are absolutely huge in the nation of Cambodia. I mean you’re a veritable titan. This is no small feat; though one would expect various trappings of Western culture to be embraced by Southeast Asia, Western music has yet to deeply penetrate the Khmer market. Though I find the music echoing from the local wats alluring and the traditional instruments played in the streets lovely, popular music here is, by and large, comprised of Khmer-language ballads with melodies as soft as wet bread and beats as compelling as a fork. Though one time I heard English-language hip-hop from a passing SUV and once even saw videos from Mary J. Blige and Lupe Fiasco, the limp native tunes seem to be the most ubiquitous music across the widest measure of society. They are the bread and butter of the thriving karaoke-cum-brothel scene. Their videos are played loudly and incessantly on every bus line for hour after hour after hour. Ninety-eight percent of them involve:

  1. a boy standing in a beautiful river and mourning a lost girl
  2. a girl standing in a beautiful river and mourning a lost boy
  3. a boy standing in a beautiful river and sticking it to the lost girl who is trying to make amends
  4. a girl standing in a beautiful river and sticking it to the lost boy who is trying to make amends.
Khmer young and old, hip and bumpkin, lean forward, elbows on knees, and watch intently as the Khmer words pass across the bottom of the screen. Occasionally someone sings along. But nary a word of English is to be heard.

Except your words, Richard. In the six weeks I have been here, I have heard Right Here Waiting multiple times, in multiple social situations, and in multiple forms. You might be saying, “Well, that’s my biggest hit; it’s no surprise it finds a home in the international market alongside Soft Rock Classics like (Love Lifts Us Up) Where We Belong.” You might be saying, “Right Here Waiting is in every mid-level piano practice book printed since 1989, it was only a matter of time.” You’d be right, Richard, but your ignorance and humility is leading you to sell yourself short. Though your song is inevitably a potent part of the Soft Rock Classics mix that I occasionally hear in tourist establishments, it is also the sole English-language song that I have found treated as equal to the Khmer pop videos. It is the only song I know of to not just cross the cultural divide, but to bridge it. Lest you think that the art of letter writing leads me to embellish facts, let me state here and now that all of what follows is one-hundred-percent truth:

The morning my lady and I left Phnom Penh for Siem Reap, I woke up with Shoulda Known Better flexing itself in my brain. There was no reason for it - my cassette of your debut is in a box in The States - and yet there I was, snarling to Shannon in the shower, “Shoulda known bettah…then to fall in love with yo-ou…now love is just-a faded memory.” Then, just because the spirit moved us, we traded verses of Right Here Waiting. Two hours pass, we’re on our way north, and what comes onto the bus television after one of those limpid Khmer ballads? A fan-fucking-tastic cover of Right Here Waiting sung in English and Khmer, that’s what. The video is an American Bandstand-type set up, a round-faced and sincere man singing from a small center stage, Khmer couples in prom attire turning across the floor, arms rigid, partners held a basketball’s width apart and smiles unflinching. “Whatever it take,” sings the man in time with the karaoke prompt. “Oh! How my heart breaks?” Then, only one day later, Shannon and I are sitting in an outdoor café that doubles as a butterfly sanctuary and, after a delicious Celine Dion cover (that number where she bellows, “I’m your LAY-DAAEEH!”), Right Here Waiting comes on again, this time a full-English cover sung bravely by a Khmer. Another week and a half passes and, lo and behold, we’re having a drink when at the next table over a Belgian woman starts in with her own rendition. The best part? When we laughed and tried to engage in a tête-à-tête with her table over the long reach of your staff-writing arm, that other table was confused. They’d just arrived in town. They were just singing your song because it popped into their heads apropos of nothing. And do you know what just came over the café speakers when I was writing the sentence before last? A pretty solid rendition of Now and Forever, a twinge of Khmer accent whispering above the clatter, “Until the day the ocean doesn’t touch the sand, now and forever, I will be your man.” All of this is the gospel truth.

I don’t know just what it is about the Khmer experience that makes you so relatable. I’ve dwelled on it and there’s precious little similarity between Cambodia today and the United States at the end of the 1980s. It’s true that Khmers seem to be suckers for a good ballad of lost love but I don’t think that alone is enough of an explanation. I wonder if it is the combination of loss and patient waiting that is the key. If, in a country where every family includes the memory of a loved one stolen away by war and torture, there is deep resonance in the declaration, “Whatever it takes, or how my heart breaks, I will be right here waiting for you.”

The point is this, Rick: you’re in the bloodstream here, part of the cultural compote of the moment. Your song is not merely enjoyed by people in a distant land; it inspires them to make it their own. I’d put a lot of money on the bet that few people here know your name. I’m sure they haven’t seen your videos, not even the super sweet one in which you morph into a Major League slugger and take a fastball from Dennis Eckersley. I bet you the engineer and producer who set up those local recording sessions of Soft Rock Top Tens don’t even know who you are. And that’s okay. You’re as ubiquitous in Cambodia as 7-11 is at home. Americans don’t need to know the ingredients of a Coca-Cola Slurpee; that doesn’t keep them from needing one every now and again. Cambodians count on you being there and trust that you will be. That’s a trick, Richard, and I suspect you know that. It’s one thing to be a fancy face that keeps tabloids in gossip. It’s a whole other planet to craft a song that survives without you.

Warm regards,

Jason Leahey

Monday, October 20, 2008

The Loneliest Martini in Cambodia


Dear Llalan,

Thanks once again for your efforts to shower me with your superior knowledge of beer the last time we saw each other in Boston. Your lesson has been on my mind more than once in Cambodia since bars are many and varied here and not an uncommon destination for an expat writer prone to periodic attacks of displacement anxiety. I will freely admit that I was a terrible student—terms like lager, ale, stout, porter, and pilsner have become impossibly muddled in my mind. And though I may have pretended that I understood the difference between hoppiness and yeastiness that night in Cambridge, I will take this opportunity to admit that I still have no idea what you were talking about. But while I am certainly not the best judge of beer quality, I thought that as one of your oldest friends I owed you a considered and well-researched survey of the region’s brews.

Beer is very cheap here. Seventy-five-cent happy hour specials are easy to find, and if you go into any bar at any hour and are still sober five dollars later, something has gone horribly awry. In most cases you get what you pay for. That is, cheap Asian beer tastes much like cheap American beer—not very good. Jason has flashbacks of the beer truck at the St. Mary’s Social Union Annual Picnic whenever he tastes Anchor; I am curiously transported to sweaty frat parties of my past whenever I make the poor decision to drink Chang. I have already heard expat urban legends about formaldehyde lurking in the kegs of Angkor beer. Worst of all is Bayon, which advertises itself as “The Beer of Cambodia,” but which has an oddly chemical odor and a dishwater aftertaste. But even a beer novice like myself can tell that when it comes to the pours of Southeast Asia, there is a clear standout. During your time in Thailand, did you have the pleasure of drinking Beerlao? I say with confidence that it is the most perfect $1 beer you will ever find. One sip would convince you. Complex and layered, yet still refreshing in the heat, it is a giant among its puny peers. Even in one’s darker, more brooding moments, the golden sheen of an ice-cold Beerlao can has the power to calm and cheer.

And yet, I am no beer connoisseur and find myself turning to other potables as the need arises. But what to choose? Ordering wine is never a good idea. Even the nicer restaurants have offerings that would make any oenophile blanche with fear. I bought a bottle of palm wine at the grocery store thinking it would be the Cambodian version of table wine, but found that it was instead a kind of syrupy liqueur which smelled a little like paint thinner. Down the street from our house is a shack with a large sign that says “Dara Local Wine,” but I think it specializes in the rice-based moonshine that I have not yet had the courage to try.

Cambodians do, however, seem to be fond of their mixed drinks, producing endless lists of strange concoctions. At one dark restaurant at the edge of Phnom Penh, I unexpectedly found the Bee’s Knees, that old flapper favorite that I thought everyone had abandoned except for me. While I have to question some of the combinations (the Picador, made by mixing only tequila and Kahlua, seemed particularly ill-advised), I do appreciate the potential for creative names—the Blue Dragon, the Amnesia, the Journalist, the Japanese Slipper, the Gin and Sin (which I like mostly because it implies that gin is the virtuous component of the drink).

Jason is fond of Cambodia’s zealous mixology because it frequently involves the fresh fruit juices that he so adores. But this often means that a waiter will bring over a tremendously effeminate pink or peach or creamy yellow number with umbrellas and cherries and curly straws, set it down in front of me, and giggle helplessly while Jason tries to slide it over to his side of the table with his masculinity intact.

As for me, I am not a fruity drink kind of girl, preferring my booze to taste like booze. This philosophy fits poorly within a society that prefers all of its beverages tooth-achingly sweet. Order an iced coffee with milk and forget to say the word “fresh” and you’re likely to end up with half a can of sweetened condensed milk in the bottom of your glass. My desire for a non-sweet cocktail inspired a safari for what seems to be the most elusive quarry in all of Cambodia—the perfect gin martini. Mind you, the words “dry martini” appear on almost all drink menus, but what you get if you order it varies widely. The one thing that all versions have in common is that they do not resemble martinis. One consisted almost entirely of sweet vermouth. Another involved pineapple juice. The most peculiar incident was when I was brought a shot of brandy. Say the word “dirty” and you will ignite a storm of confusion and apologies amongst the bewildered bar staff.

And then, just as I was beginning to think that it didn’t exist, my hunt ended on a quiet rooftop bar in Siem Reap. A cool and delicate glass already beading with perspiration, the sharp, clean scent of juniper wafting toward me, the single green olive bobbing in time with the rustling banana trees below. It may have been the only one of its kind in this lonely country, and I like to think that we soothed each other in equal measure.

Oh, Big Lla, I do miss you. What good is a frosty glass without a friend beside you? Please know that I think of you often and also know that, while I am loath to ruin any potential Christmas surprises, the Beerlao logo does look particularly fetching when emblazoned on a t-shirt.

Bottoms up,
S

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Cricket Canapés and Arachnid Amuse-Bouches


The Food Network
75 Ninth Avenue
New York, NY 10011

Dear Executive Producers:

We’d like to call your attention to a new programming opportunity that we have been developing. Specially designed to capture the sector of the market interested in adventurous eating and culinary bravery, we feel it fills a gap in your current schedule.

As we become ever more aware of our global community and our impact upon it, the interests of the discerning gourmand are broadening accordingly. Though every serious foodie knows the environmental toll of the West’s industrial cattle production, how many know that many of the under-developed cultures of the East find protein in animals and animal parts most Westerners have never even considered as food? In a shrinking world, dishes and ingredients once considered exotic are available as never before, and the cosmopolitan eater expects the food media to keep him on the cutting edge of gastronomic opportunities such as these.

Accordingly, please find enclosed the transcript and a short sample of the pilot episode of “From Crepes to Chitin.” We look forward to hearing from you.

Sincerely,
Shannon Dunlap and Jason Leahey


Transcript from 10/10/08

S: We’re in Cambodia this week, outside of Phnom Penh and cruising by bus up National Road 6 on our way to the small town of Skun. I’m here with Jason Leahey, renowned food critic, and I think I’ll let him describe what exactly we’ll be doing there.

J: Arriving drunk and eating bugs.

S: Yes, Skun does have a singular distinction, in that it is the French-fried spider capital of the world. Many Cambodians travel to the town for a taste of the region’s specialty. A little research into tourism in Skun reveals few attractions save for its trademark delicacy.
Jason, can you give me an approximation of how many people in the United States you expressed excitement to about eating bugs? Just an estimate.

J: It’s true that in my zeal for travel, I told many people—dozens? A score, maybe?—that I was jazzed to eat bugs.

S: How many bugs have you eaten since arriving a month ago?

J: You are tricking me and backing me into a corner. (Sigh.) I have eaten no bugs.

S: What makes you most nervous about eating the bugs?

J: I think it’s that they’re fucking bugs, man. We saw some at a roadside stand, and they had crickets, which I’m sure taste like the crunchy stuff at the bottom of a French fry basket, but they still look like crickets, which is a bit of a hurdle. And the tarantulas, they make daddy long-legs look like tiny little punks.

S: Are you more nervous about the cricket or the tarantula? Because you will try both today. Am I correct in thinking that?

J: Yes, I have committed myself to trying both. It’s the tarantula that makes me nervous. Maybe we should have done this afterwards. I’m starting to get jittery. Yeah, I guess it’s mostly about size with the spider. But there’s also that big ol’ abdomen. What’s that going to taste like? Like the inside of a fire-roasted marshmallow? Will there be a texture issue? That’s my main concern.

S: In case you’re feeling too sorry for Jason right now, we have come up with a plan to make him slightly less nervous. Would you like to tell our viewers what time it is?

J: Almost ten in the morning.

S: And how many beers have you consumed?

J: Approximately two and a half in the past forty minutes.

S: Would you like to describe for us how you’re feeling?

J: Mostly sleepy. It’s been a while since I’ve gotten drunk in the morning. Though there is a measure of collegiate nostalgia to it. Mostly I’m just focusing on what I need to do.

S: Do you know anything about the nutritional value of bugs?

J: I imagine there’s protein. Some salt and serious fat, too.

S: There is protein, in fact. I read that spiders and crickets have more protein by weight than beef, chicken, pork or lamb. And the cooking kills the venom, so you don’t have to worry about that.
I know you’re just doing a straight sampling today, but can you give us an idea of what might go well with the bugs? Condiments? Wine pairings?

J: Wine would definitely be something red. A little spicy. A shiraz, perhaps. And they’d probably go well with other Cambodian delicacies that we’ve seen, like barbequed entrails and pork faces and deep-fried chickadees.

S: Is there anyone to whom you’d like to feed a bug?

J: Hmm. I hesitate to answer that since I don’t know what it will be like. If it’s exciting and new then it will inspire me to feed it to someone different than if it’s vile and revolting. So given that, it could be anyone on the spectrum from my brother Andrew to Rupert Murdoch.

S: How are you doing on your third beer?

J: You know, it’s Anchor Smooth, man. Goes down easy.

ROLL FOOTAGE OF BUG CONSUMPTION >>>




S: Alright, we are back with Jason Leahey, on the other side of the spider, as it were. Can you describe what you’re doing right now?

J: Smelling my fingers. What do they smell like to you?

S: Familiar, actually. Like salad dressing, maybe?

J: I would not have said salad dressing.

S: Can you tell us how you’re feeling right now?

J: I’m feeling pretty good. I feel like I climbed a mountain. I don’t know if I’ll be going back to that mountain, but still.

S: So you won’t be eating bugs again any time soon?

J: No. And I’m a little disappointed in myself. There’s a part of me that was hoping that I would love it—that I’d just be walking down the street tossing crickets into my open mouth on the way to the malt shop to have a shake with my baby in between cricket munchings. But that’s not how it was.

S: Can you give us a rundown on the differences between cricket and spider?

J: Cricket—you had to pull off just one leg because it had like, little harpoons on it.

S: I think those are the legs that they make the singing noises with.

J: So I just ate a musician? Bummer.

S: Go on.

J: The crickets, you just put them in head-eye-goobery-antenna-end first. And there wasn’t a lot there. They tasted vaguely fishy. And greasy, very greasy. But that tarantula, you bite into one of those legs, and you’re just chewing, chewing, chewing. Not really breaking it down, but just beating it into tiny pieces. But the abdomen—that was pretty fucking gross. It looked a little like the inside of a moldy old samosa. It was just mushy and mealy and fishy-tasting.

S: It looked like the inside of a fig to me. It didn’t taste like a fig?

J: Not remotely. It was just gross. The Spider King will hate me. Forgive me, Spider Father, for my trespasses.

S: Okay, I think that’s enough for today. Thank you, Jason, for taking us on this culinary ride to Skun. Today’s episode has been brought to you by Anchor Beer.

J: Goes down smooth.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Insect Consulting, Inc.

TO: American mosquitoes
RE: Poor job performance

I regret being the bearer of bad news, but I feel you have a major problem to confront. It has come to my attention that the American mosquito industry has approached a point of crisis.

During the years of my childhood, you seemed to be enjoying a period of great prosperity. Your superior organizational skills and efficiency were the stuff of neighborhood lore, and I fastidiously avoided any area of stagnant water that might serve as your headquarters. But let us face the facts: in recent years your performance has been slipping. Yes, there was a brief surge of business during the West Nile scare, but even during those heady days, people were more grossed out by the dead birds everywhere than they were frightened of you, and it did nothing to add to that year’s bottom line.

If the situation does not improve immediately, you risk a massive and hostile takeover by foreign competitors. I have recently been touring the Cambodian mosquito industry, for instance, and I feel that they are poised for dominance of the market. Every aspect of their infrastructure is superior: biologic construction, breeding grounds, stealth tactics, etc. They seem to be drawing more liters of blood per capita than ever before.

Their brand image is superb. Humans, particularly the non-native ones, fear the trademark welts, notable for their size, duration, and peculiar bruising factor. The mortal fear of malaria and the unpreventable dengue fever only serves to add to brand recognition and visibility. There are observable results in the wild swatting behavior of tourists and expats, their carrying of smoking mosquito coils from room to room like sacred talismans, their sudden fits of tearing at their own flesh in the middle of the night. It is rare that the number of bites on my legs at any given time dips below fifteen. When it comes to Cambodian mosquitoes, we are simply talking about a better, more advanced product.

And they are achieving this level of production in a market saturated with obstacles. When was the last time American mosquitoes had to deal with mosquito nets? We’re talking about thirty-five, forty, even fifty percent DEET repellents flying off the shelves, here, all of which does little to affect Cambodian mosquito morale or effectiveness. And you guys are being taken down by citronella candles and a product named Skin So Soft? Please.

So it should come as no surprise that layoffs are imminent. If you don’t want to see American mosquito jobs being lost to foreigners, drastic measures must be taken quickly. It may be time to invest extensively in new egg production or training facilities or at least to move into the Lyme disease sector long dominated by the ticks. The ball is in your court, and the Cambodian mosquitoes are waiting for your next move.

Sincerely,
Shannon Dunlap

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Re: American Meltdown


From: writersblok@hotmail.com
To: BigDaddyWeeze@XXXXX.com

Brother Reece,

Your summation of the American Meltdown was the most succinct, clear, and blackly poetic explanation of the thing I’ve heard or read. I don’t really understand the default swaps you described even though I read that part three times, but I’ve saved the email for further study. Study of this con is good because to dwell on it with any part of my body other than the head is just too much. Shannon and I went to a chat with three Buddhist monks this evening (the county is almost entirely Theraveda Buddhist). On one end was a dude about my age who spoke excellent English and had a lot of carefully considered things to say, and on the other end was a teenager in glasses who was was so enthusiastic he just couldn’t stop himself from talking, even when the performance troupe of landmine victims was ready to begin in the garden downstairs. (That reads like a joke but it’s not; people here are all sorts of mangled and some of them are now musicians or other sorts of performer.) In the middle was a guy approaching forty-something who at one point pulled a cellphone from beneath his robe to check a text message. The super sharp guy told us how the Latin roots of ‘philosophy’ mean ‘love’ and ‘wisdom.’ The eager beaver told us that the Latin root of ‘religion’ means “reverence for or pondering of God.” The somewhat bored middleman talked about the relationship between intention and action.

And that put some sort of understanding and cohesion to the words I was laying down to you earlier in the day. We were in this terrible Western café for their wireless access and they were playing the Beatles’ collection of number one songs. ‘Let It Be’ came on at about the time I realized there was a muted TV on the wall above us. Along with OJ’s conviction and the sale of $6 billion in weapons to Taiwan, I learned that the New & Improved Bailout Plan has passed both chambers. It made me want to heave or break something or maybe curl up and pretend to snooze. I was having a hard time loving because I was finding it a bit too much to forgive lack of wisdom.

But what are we to do? I love ‘Let It Be’ for its remarkable ability to give me hope and a modicum of peace that, if I can keep on top of things, can last long after its three minutes have passed. Simplicity, brevity, and the brilliance to acknowledge and build upon the forms and sentiments that have worked for centuries. And though it did give me a moment of peace this morning, I can’t feel it as a lesson to live by at the moment. Part of me wants to take those bankers and traders and idiot homebuyers and all the deregulation Republicans and flog them in the street. We have to raise a ruckus until America’s backs – so broad and multitudinous, as you said – are respected and treated as more than frames from which we hang our bellies and our grabbing, snatching, buying eating directionless aimless arms. Remind me later to bitch to you about the peculiar indecencies of Boomer-specific self-centeredness and apathy. The Tyranny of the Foolish. The Reign of the Overgrown Children. I am livid and impotent. Surely the monks would wag their fingers at my lack of Peace of Mind.

And yet McCartney’s melody and repetition and Harrison’s clean and honest guitar, a choir chained down on Earth. Striking that balance between being a reed bending in the wind and throwing down a little regulation and a slap or two to those who need it, that’s a hard trick. Maybe it is Life Skills 101. For five or six years no I’ve been promising to run to Martinsburg when the system collapses, and now that it’s come I find myself having fled even further than West Virginia. I’m 10,000 miles from you and now scared to be so far from Home.

The papers and tube talk about the greed of a few in Wall Street and Washington but we know that it’s more than a few. When you and I were kids, parents bought school clothes at the thrift store because they knew we’d outgrown them in six months. People ate dinner at home and saved long and thought hard before buying a (single) TV. Sometime in the past fifteen years or so most everybody started buying whatever the hell they wanted and charging it to plastic. Shopping for its own self is a pastime? Please. Those bankers and traders and bureaucrats are still villains, but they’re villains of our particular time and moral compass. We have abandoned any respect for philosophy, for the cultivation of love and wisdom. And we have certainly replaced any real respect for any idea of God or gods with a faith in the Might Makes Right of the Market. Our intentions? Uhhh, just floatin along and blinkin at the sun, man; got myself a sweet new ride and two weeks this summer in the Caribbean. Shannon and I are in Siem Reap at the moment, Cambodia’s boom town as the ancient temples of Angkor are hacked out of the jungle and the Tourism Money Train picks up ever more speed. People have flocked in from the provinces to make better lives for themselves. They want what we have and can use what we have to get it. Or so they think. There are blocks and blocks of hotels under construction. Nobody’s told these guys that the world owed more money than it has…

Did you know that every country has a code for the phone? France is 33, Cambodia is 085, etc. Know America’s code? One. That’s it. We are not just omnipresent culturally, we are woven through the hardware of World Society. We invented the phone, the airplane, the pre-packed sub division, the pre-packaged tour to the Third World. There’s a responsibility in that.

The Cellphone Monk said something else: that Cambodia has people who are Buddhist by tradition and those who are Buddhist by understanding. Those rooted in tradition, the familiar rituals of family life, bring lotus flowers to the statues of Buddha and ask for winning lottery numbers. Those who work to understand work toward bringing themselves (and others, by default) a bit of peace and dignity. We need to understand our power and responsibility and I’m tired of feeling like I’m condescending when I think that way. America turning back to a time when it thought before it bought isn’t a bad thing. I love America, but like Leonard Cohen (also a Buddhist, now that I think about it) said, “Love is not a victory march.”

Don’t start building your house until I’m home, okay? I’ll work for you for peanuts if you’ll teach me those skills. After ‘Let It Be’ the café played ‘Help’ and ‘Yesterday,’ in that order. Life makes its own Art. On the other side of the glass, Siem Reap kept hustling, oblivious of the tidal wave, working for that American tourist dollar.

Give my best to Emily and a kiss on the head to the boys.

Much love,
Jay