Sunday, December 20, 2009

Comforts of Home

Dear Monisha,

When I was nervous about moving to New York, here is what you said to me: “Everyone always complains about how New York is too crowded and too expensive and smells like urine.  And that’s all true.  And you’ll love it.”

You were right, of course, and perhaps about more than just the city.  In Cambodia, it was the same trick of reverse psychology—it was the difficult, uncomfortable things that I came to hold most tightly.  Cambodia from the back of a wheezing moto, with dust in my teeth and amoebae turning my stomach, this weird, lawless, striving land.  Why are my eyes tearing up when I think of the mud and poverty, things I hated for fifteen months?  It might be simple masochism.  Or it might be that we have to love a place after we have spent so much time overcoming its difficulties, the same way we love cantankerous cars and naughty children.  But I think that the truth may be something stranger yet, and more universal—that the borders between comfort and discomfort are thin and constantly in flux.

Nowhere is this more apparent than where I am sitting right now, perched at the end of a week-long visit to India, which has been sandwiched between leaving Cambodia and returning to the U.S.  I flew into Calcutta, a city you have been to, a city you have roots in, to visit one of the sweetest, most level-headed people I knew in graduate school.  Saloni is now living in her family home in nearby Jamshedpur.  How do I describe the feeling of being there after Cambodia except to say that it was comfortable, almost overwhelmingly so?  India is a country easily accessible to Americans like me through its books, its movies, its dance clubs, its dairy products—all of the things Cambodia lacks.  We were nowhere near a tourist town like Siem Reap, but hospitality toward strangers was the norm nevertheless.  Not just Saloni but dozens of relatives whom I’d never met went out of their way to welcome me, entertain me, feed me endless quantities of rich food.  It was so over-the–top, this treatment, that I think most people would have felt a little awkward, but whenever I said so, Saloni shrugged and said, “This is just the way it is here.”  Land of a lot, we began calling it. 

On the day before I left, we went to the Hindu temple in Calcutta dedicated to the goddess Kali.  Here was the India that people and warned would overwhelm me, a Bruegel painting of countless dirty children and beggars and rough-looking dogs, all the things I’d felt myself reflexively looking for since I left Siem Reap.  Saloni snapped her fingers in front of a child whose supposed mother was asking us for money and I knew that she was checking to see if the baby had been rented and drugged, the same way they are rumored to be in Cambodia.  We walked in bare feet through the street and into the temple where frenzied masses of people were pushing, crying out, falling over each other as they moved in a human cascade past the alter.  Men with sticks pushed back the chaos of flesh for a split second so that paying tourists like us could get a glimpse of the goddess’s three eyes, narrowed with wrath, before we were whisked out to a sunken square where goats are sacrificed in the mornings.  Our guide, who seemed equal parts priest and con man, told us to touch the alter because it is “anti-danger.”  Why goat sacrifice in a mostly vegetarian religion?  Why anti-danger, when the mysterious sludge gumming my feet to the ground seems like perhaps most dangerous thing I have seen in India?  We pushed our way back out, zigzagging through the ferocious crowd, everything a dizzy crying spin. Was it desperation or religious ecstasy that was pressing in on us?  This is life lived close to the surface, and if the temple is not built upon the limits of sense, as it feels to me, it is at least at the limits of comfort.

Back in the car, Saloni was a little horrified at taking us to the Kali temple.  “I was born in a crazy country,” she says.  The car driver said that not many tourists come there anymore.  I ask why, and his smile says, “Isn’t it obvious?”  How do we reconcile these two intertwined worlds, the generosity of Saloni’s family and the meanness of the world outside the temple?  And yet, it makes some sort of sense to me—comfort and discomfort are all part of the same country, the same experience.  There is bound to be some sort of discomfort wrapped up in “a lot,” whether it is my own shrinking in front of the unknown or Saloni’s frustrated exhaustion at the constant thread of obligations to the same family members who adore her.

And now I am high above the ground, flying back to a country that is easiest and most comfortable, that is home.  Is ease what I want, though?  I am nervous, soaring above the darkened clouds and arctic waters.  Being in Cambodia has blurred all the lines between what I want and what I need, between what is comfortable and what is not.  I am no martyr, certainly, since that would mean taking on discomfort for a greater good.  I have done so at times out of circumstance and at times to fulfill some sense of pleasure or expectation that I do not fully understand.  You are the same, I think—I can call up so distinctly your almost frighteningly iron work ethic buried beneath the thinnest layer of warm blankets and a stuffed Snoopy.  I send this wishing only comfort for you while knowing that we, and maybe everyone, will always find new ways of standing in the spaces between, for no other reason than it is what we do.

With love,


Saturday, December 12, 2009

Re: Cambodia's Norman Rockwells

To: Norman Rockwell’s Ghost
From: Jason Leahey / Bed of Room 1A / Golden Land Hotel / Battambang, Cambodia

Dear Norman,

I’m sitting here in the Golden Land Hotel in Battambang, Cambodia. Battambang translates to “ Big Stick.” Once upon a time, way, way back so that people know none of the names, a man lost a stick here. There’s a big statue of the guy, a Khmer Everyman kneeling and holding the stick in both upturned palms. This must have been some sort of fantastic, boom-stick wand, the loss of which caused such a ruckus that people named a city after that ruckus.

The Golden Land is charging me ten dollars for one night, a double bed, air-con, hot water, cleanliness with decent and crisp sheets. My girlfriend turned on the TV, only to fall right off into sleep, leaving Psycho on the television. This is appropriate. I decided to write you earlier this afternoon because walking around this town got me thinking of your primo, Once-Upon-a-Time Americana, and this movie could be labeled the same. With Psycho, you have a supremely post-war, bad wallpaper, sexually dysfunctional America. It seems to me a tight rendering of a national schizophrenic psyche, the country that nuked the Japanese, encoded maneuvers in Navaho whispers, and cooked up the Marshal Plan.

And with you, Norman, well, you’re propaganda. I don’t mean this is a mean way; I’m becoming of the opinion that everything is propaganda of some sort, that it’s simply the opposing team that gets tagged with the label. But you’re at the other end of the post-war spectrum from Hitchcock. With the exception of your finest—and truly fine—works Freedom of Religion and The Problem We All Live With, most everything is lily white. You sold a charmed idea of our national self, a freckle-faced America that surely had some basis in reality, but was ultimately dream of a country both simpler than the one surviving the war and more individual. The soldier returning home gets fanfare from neighbors who all know him by name, the boy next door sliding down the drain pipe. The two youngsters flirt in formalize fashion at the soda counter, the cop on the seat to them actually a friendly face. There is not a fast food franchise nor Coke Zero can to be found. Your characters undoubtedly would speak with different accents, language yet to head toward homogenization by the great, LCD equalizer that is television.

Walking around a city like Battambang, which has few tourists and little of the gobbling foreign investment that is paving Phnom Penh, I was struck by the multitude of hand painted signs adorning the businesses. I thought of you because though your work is a representation of an American community more personalized that we have today, these paintings in Cambodia are that personalization. They’re not meant for a mass audience or to build consensus. They are the front doors to the lives and work inside, faces of Cambodia’s own post-war landscape, and they are absolutely beautiful.

Take this sign, for instance. I love this. You can get your fan fixed in Cambodia. Have you ever tried to get a fan fixed in the United States over the unity past ten years? Okay, you wouldn’t have because you’re dead, but let me tell you, it’s nearly impossible to do so. For the cost of fixing one, you could buy two new Chinese imports on the shelves at Target and dump the old one in the garbage. Planned obsolescence, Norman, it’s the zeitgeist.

And then there are the signs for laundry...



moto maintenance...

and the humble key.

They show you who in the community would be interested in these services. Cannon cameras that still use 35 millimeter are best used for you couples getting married.

Printing services are ideal for ceremonial invites.

Seeing these makes me lament the passing of a more idiosyncratic America, the kind of rosy ideals depicted in your paintings but which have basis in fact all the same, the world witnessed through the windows of my family’s dark blue Chevy station wagon, locally owned department stores, hardware shops named after the family clan, radio spots for the local bicycle shop, their song, “Feeling good, gettin’ in shape, Nowww, you’re feelin’ great. Agee’s Bicycle, we bring out the best in yooouu!” playing on the Saturday morning drive to pick up tools and honey-do list supplies.

Beehives, tasty food, the promise of quality services and products for the kind of person you want to be. That’s the basis of all advertising, and I love that here the idea of what to be is given one-of-a-kind shape by a hand and brush rather than a banner printed up by the thousands and shipped out en masse across the planet.

Look at this: this woman is connected to the Great Modern Telecommunications Network.

These two are practicing and preserving an ancient form of Khmer martial arts.

This guy is James Bond and this other fellow is a modern Khmer striver and achiever.

Someone chose to paint as cell phone wallpaper a landscape of decimated, lonesome swamp. Who in the hell came up with that? It’s fantastic. Something like this would never make it in the States unless the testing audience was some kind of Mississippi nihilists clique.

Copyright and intellectual property laws are ignored here, these dwarfs, preserved by the Grimm’s and impounded by Disney, a case in point.

And here’s a transsexual Bugs Bunny proving the competency of this business’ pumps, a Winnie the Pooh who let his honey turn to mead.

Many of the products sold in Cambodia are sold world-wide or elsewhere in the region (though I have only seen the corn-flavored pop sickles in one store near our house), but the services on hand in places like Battambang and Kampot have not turned into products yet. The people who perform the services haven’t either.
Condom campaigns in Vietnam are modern enterprises with glossy posters and billboards. In Cambodia, the painted condom tells you what’s up.

Down the road, this billboard tells you not to drop found artillery into the fire.

These are all this moment in time’s documentation of what is valued, what is needed, what is wanted. Real day-to-day needs, rather than the duplicitous psychoanalysis of market research, determines these signs. Cambodian children need to understand that you can’t play with unexploded American ordnance and their parents should know where to get a fashionable hairdo. Just as American children needed to see your painting of the little girl integrating New Orleans public schools.

And it heartens me to see the hand of man, rather than machine, in this documentation.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Learning to Fly

Dear Dad,

Perhaps you have wondered why it is that I have not addressed a letter to you sooner.  But actually, I have been writing this one in my head for many months now, maybe for years, even, and waiting to commit it to the page until it was finally the truth.  I rode a bicycle yesterday.

You should not feel concerned or guilty that it took me this long.  I offer this reassurance only because when you found out that I could not ride a bicycle about a year ago, you looked a little horrified, as though you had forgotten something important, and responded by gamely running down the sidewalk and holding up the back of a bike as your twenty-seven-year-old daughter wobbled ineptly through the streets of Westerville and demonstrated little to no signs of improvement.  Most people master this skill before they have lost all their baby teeth, but then, if anyone understands that I am not like most people, it is you, who have borne my eccentricities and stubbornness for many years now.  For one, let us not forget that I was far from an athletic child, finding solace only in books, and you responded by trying to be as excited about Academic Challenge meets as you would naturally have been about basketball games.  Also, I was not always receptive to help, as witnessed by my disturbing meltdown in the parking lot of the school when you tried to teach me to parallel park a car.  Anyway, it was in no way your fault that you did not personally usher me over this particular milestone.

I will admit, however, that it might have been a less humbling experience if I had learned when I was six like everyone else.  There were many aborted attempts.  There was the time I went with my friend Kent (another non-biker) to practice in a park in Brooklyn, but we could not figure out how to adjust the seat, so we gave up and drank margaritas instead.  There was the time you tried to help me in Ohio, and though I think all those avid cycling enthusiasts in spandex shorts were trying to be encouraging by giving me waves and thumbs-up as they whizzed past, it was a little humiliating.  And then, of course, there was Cambodia, where not only are biking conditions far from optimal, but also where advanced knowledge of two-wheel vehicles is taken to be much more of a given than most of my skills.  One evening, soon after we moved to Siem Reap, I was practicing in a hotel parking lot, providing the local tuk-tuk drivers with some novel entertainment, and one of them walked over to where Jason was watching.  “No,” he said, pointing to me and sadly shaking his head.  “Cannot.  Is impossible.”  Later I would recognize that that is a favorite English phrase around here, but at the time, it felt like a good summation of my public shame.  I should admit that I did not handle these failures with very much grace or patience.

Given these setbacks, it was a revelation to finally feel my feet pedaling steadily under the blue fluorescent lights of the Royal Empire Hotel last night, weaving around parked tour buses, waving at the baffled-looking drivers.  There was no reason that this attempt was any different than the rest, except that this time, for some reason, it worked.  Bah! Bah!” the tuk-tuk drivers yelled, finally.  “Yes!”  I felt victorious, much as when, right before I moved to New York, you looked at me proudly.  “If living in Chicago has taught you anything,” you said, (what would follow?  A reference to my college GPA? The degree you shelled out thousands for? My first real job? None of the above…) “it’s how to parallel park.”

Maybe it would be an exaggeration to say that the most important thing I have learned in Cambodia is how to ride a bike, but then again, maybe not.  After all, is it not the small obstacles that surprise us, that cause us to stumble, that embarrass us, and consequently, that teach us the most about ourselves?  Yes, I learned something about my shortcomings—it reinforced that my poor motor skills are not going to carry me to a victory in the Tour de France.  But there was something else there, too, something about perseverance and propensity for change, something that reminded me of you. 

Keep the bicycle chains oiled for me.  We will go on a ride together, even if it is frozen and icy by the time I make it back to Ohio.

With love,


Tuesday, November 10, 2009


Dear Adam,

One thing that I admire about you is your tendency to become tremendously excited over psychological research that most people will never read or even hear about.  It is a sign, I think, that some people find their ideal career path, you among them.  I can remember an almost ecstatic glint to your eye when you told me about how monkeys instinctively compare rewards they receive with those of their peers, that they can sense fairness and unfairness and behave accordingly.  You described with glee the video you had seen of pissed-off monkeys flinging cucumber pieces at the researchers when their cagemates received more-greatly-coveted grapes for performing the same task.

It is normal, I suppose, that comparing one’s own situation and background to the surrounding landscape can radically shape one’s view of both.  Take Ye for instance.  Or at least, take what you can of her—I’m afraid to say too much about her, like her real name or the name of her business, for fear that it will get her into trouble with the Burmese government.  It will have to suffice to say that she is a sweet, middle-aged, soft-spoken woman who provided me with a truly kick-ass vegetarian meal while I interviewed her, but that this gentle exterior belies a backbone of pure steel.  Because she was an educated woman when the junta took over in 1988, she had to leave.  But she still knows very well what is happening there—she has family  members there, her eldest brother died after being kept as a political prisoner, she was there on a visit during the monk protests of 2007, she went back with an NGO after the 2008 flood to help with relief efforts.

And though it was interesting to hear stories about her native country, it was also intriguing to hear her talk about Cambodia, which has been her home for the past thirteen years. The model in her head that she uses as a point of comparison is Burma, and mine is the West.  While I can be griping and cynical about shortcomings in both Cambodia and America, she knows how bad things can actually be and views things as constantly improving here.  Where I see people being strong-armed into paying lip service to Hun Sen, she sees a steady, gradual gain in personal freedoms.  Where I see people burning plastic on the street, she sees school children in Phnom Penh beginning to pick up litter as community service, something she remembers doing as a little girl in Burma.  Ye and I cannot help but compare Cambodia to what we have learned to expect—it is simply what humans (and monkeys) do.  Yet that inevitably distorts things, sometimes doing the objects of our gaze a disservice.

Perhaps it is just some form of preemptive nostalgia as my days in Cambodia continue to dwindle, but I think that sometimes I speak too harshly of it.  Yes, the corruption and abuses of power can be sickening, and there are inconveniences everywhere (may God strike me down if I ever again complain about the pace of road construction in America).  But many people here have managed to pull together happy, ambitious lives out of absolute nothingness in less than a generation.  In light of that, there is reason to be optimistic that the details will improve with time, and how far Cambodia has come deserves to be applauded sometimes, at least as much as we point out how far it has yet to go.

Last week was Bon Om Tuk, one of the biggest Khmer holidays of the year.  I sometimes think of it as being a little like Thanksgiving, since there is a harvest-festival element to it.  But the central entertainment is the boat races down the river which signify ancient Khmer naval victories, and during the evening awards ceremony, dozens of boats lined up under a shower of fireworks.  “Kampuchea, Kampuchea, Kampuchea!” the announcer shouted, and everyone raised their oars in the air and began to dance on the boats.  It seemed more heartfelt than any Fourth of July festival I’ve ever attended.  Jason and I wandered up the street and released a pra-tip, a floating lantern, for luck, and we stood there for a long time watching the hundreds of lights bob past, the wishes of a nation drifting down the river.

How can I ever understand Cambodia on its own terms without comparing it to bigger, more powerful countries?  I don’t think I can.  But Cambodia is bound to shape my perspective, too.  I think sometimes about another strand of your research, about creativity and living abroad, about how living in a different place actually changes the neural pathways in one’s brain. Can you design a new experiment?  I wonder if you can promise me that expat life not only makes you better at solving problems, but also more forgiving of them.

Warm regards,


Sunday, October 25, 2009

Re: Alleys and Passages

To: A.C. Evans / Brooklyn, NY / USA
From: Jason Leahey / stoop-side bar / Siem Reap, Cambodia

Dear T,

There are real alleys, real passageways in Siem Reap, and now also The Alley and The Passage. The people walking back and forth are not all white, but they are all dressed the same. You grow up with history books, old photos, and the world seemed then like an endless assemblage of hats, mustaches, shirts and smocks and skin from leather to tracing paper. Faces like dry sink holes and faces like cool water still in its bowl.

The probability of barbarity, caught in a black and white photo and held at bay by expanses of ocean and endless streams of bills, that stirs you. You think, “The world is endless, the people infinite.” Boredom was inconceivable so long as you had the gumption to leap out there, believed that no leap was too far.

I’m sitting here at what is called The Alley. Or maybe this is The Passage. Initially in the creation of Pub Street, of the Siem Reap that feeds and whets the tourists, this was called one of the other, Alley or Passage. There are restaurants here, bars, slate cemented in place when the rest of the sidewalks in town, what sidewalks there are, are tiles hammered into the sand. The Alley, The Passage, think gentrification, think 4th Avenue counted as Park Slope...

Oh, man, remember when we were walking home along there back in 2001, somewhere close to dawn, and we passed that apartment door opened to the street and just the end of two legs and a pair of sneakers jutting out over the lip of the stoop, the fucking Wicked Witch of the East, body swallowed in the dark of the hallway and you laughing that crazy hee-hee that you do, over to snap a photo? Your compass on the world is like twenty-six degrees northwest, man, or maybe really southwest, and whenever I think of that fact I like to make it Due North for a bit because yours is a good gauge to follow when turned around.

...So The Alley, The Passage, you get this nice string of restaurants and a gallery or two, shops selling T-shirts with Tin-tin in Cambodge on them, that sort of thing, and then about a year and a half ago another Alley or Passage, this one with more artistic retail, opens one street over.

And then Lonely Planet comes through and they pull the mix-up, call the Passage the Alley, or vice versa, and when the thing comes out all the businesses have to change their business cards because what’s in Lonely Planet, that’s reality, Due Polaris, and you pretend otherwise at your own financial peril.

So I’m sitting here in The Alley Passage because they have fifty-cent drafts and I need to be away from the house for a bit, read and write, save dinner money by going to town on this bar’s peanuts and popcorn...

A Scout is trustworthy (!), loyal (!), helpful (I hope), friendly (try to be), courteous (when it’s warranted), kind (!), obedient (never), cheerful (on good days), thrifty!!
...and everybody walkin past is dressed more or less the same. And it’s a superficial thing, silly, but it dissapoints me. Like I’ll have to leap out of a plane onto the Mongolian Steppes to find a person I can set eyes on and think, “Now what the hell is going on there.” An American doctor who lives here, a guy named Varoon, wearing khakis, just walked by and when I presented this quandry to him, he said I best leap out of a plane into a place with no people if I want the exotic, and I guess that’s most likely true.

And I guess that’s okay, too. People are people are people and if there’s one great truth that travel instills in a person, it is that. And so maybe I shouldn’t expect anything new and wonderous from my fellow humans. Lord knows, exotic smocks from the Ottoman era or wince-worthy head piercings from the (then)-soon-to-be-ravaged Tropics or whatever else can’t be guides to it. And Lord knows, too, I haven’t rambled far enough anyway, but...

But there’s a little loss in me that even in Cambodian jungles people know that Micheal Jackson died, that everything from Nordic He-men to scuttling sea crabs have heard of Coca-Cola, etc., etc., ad nauseum. And I really like Michael Jackson and can roll with Coke, more or less. It’s just that sometimes if feels like my exploring has been done for me. The arm of the American (half-)Century is long. That’s the other awareness travel instills. So the exploration will have to be of the self, for you of the twenty-six degree Southwest, mine the twenty-six degree Mountain Atlantic, whichever Due Polaris, and still everything hurdles out from the high-pressure center faster and faster, until all of this collapses on itself, to be blown out again.

Keep the faith.


Thursday, October 15, 2009

Original Facebook Sin

Dear Krista,

I wish I did not know how many sex offenders lived in your county. I also wish that I did not know what level of Mafia Wars that Jackie has completed, nor what color Erin decided to paint her dining room, nor how long it has been since Rayna’s two sons had haircuts. But it took me a long time to figure out why knowing any of these things bothers me.

First, let it be known that I harbor no real ill will toward you. This is in spite of the fact that my most vivid memory of you was when you wouldn’t let me read your transcription of the lyrics to “Ice Ice Baby,” when we were ten years old because you decided I wasn’t cool enough to learn them. I swear that I’ve recovered from the slight, and I’ve heard from reliable sources that you turned out to be a very friendly person and that you married David, who I always found pleasant albeit a bit maudlin. To say that we have ever been friends, though, either back in the days when you would scorn me on the school bus or nowadays when I haven’t seen you in the flesh for something like ten years, would be a gross exaggeration. That’s why it came as a surprise when, after I finally caved to sustained peer pressure and joined Facebook, I received a notification mere hours later that said, “Krista Knox added you as a friend.”

Technologically savvy people tell me that I could have clicked “Ignore,” and we probably would neither have been the worse for it, and yet I can’t bring myself to do that, either out of politeness or dark curiosity, for anyone with whom I can recall having a single conversation. The altercation about Vanilla Ice alone put you in that category. And so I clicked “Confirm” when faced with your request and many others.

And, oh my, what a deluge of information followed. I now know that my friend’s mom hosts a cooking show on the local cable channel and that my college roommate’s brother has a second child and that my boyfriend’s sister-in-law’s eye hurts today. But the vast majority of revelations come from people like you, people I went to elementary and high school with, which I suppose is only natural since we spent a lot of time squeezed into the same small town and then mostly went our separate ways. Without Facebook, I probably would have gone years, maybe a lifetime, without remembering some of these people, but now that I know where they are, it all makes perfect sense. Of course Elisa is in pharmaceutical sales, of course Tricia is a nurse practitioner in Pittsburgh, of course Sarah is a history teacher at our old junior high. And I should think, “Good for them!” and close my browser, but human feelings are rarely that simple.

There are times when I wish I could erase some of what I’ve seen in this strange digital landscape. Surfing Facebook fills me with the same dread, depression, and insatiable yen for more that an alcoholic must feel when entering a bar. This is not easy to admit, but usually the first feeling that washes over me when I look at the profile of a former Lexingtonian is cruel scorn. The things that people post often seem self-involved and petty and bizarre to me. I like to blame this on being so far away from our hometown, and I think that it does have something to do with seeing others through a lens that has become shaped by Cambodia. How can I care if Mike is hitting the gym to lose weight when I live in a country where most people survive on rice alone? How can I not roll my eyes at Brittany’s Week 23 Mommy-to-Be musings when five Khmer women die in childbirth every day? Jason says that this kind of superiority complex is useless, and he’s right, of course. It’s no better than the childish disdain you held for me and my “Ice Ice Baby” naivet├ę, and I’m frankly ashamed of it.

What’s worse is that it’s always mixed with a kind of acid jealousy. I envy the security and ease and distractions and blithe obliviousness that show in some of these profiles. “Is this all you want?” my scornful side says, while secretly wanting at least some of the same things myself. It’s not that I mean to devalue what many of them have—the marriage and the kids and the steady job—but it’s impossible to imagine myself arriving there by the same path that they did. That’s what’s at the heart of it, I think, the fact that writers cannot use the blueprint that seems to have delivered happiness to lots of the people I grew up with.

Then again, it’s only Facebook and who knows how faithful a copy of real life it is. I know how little of me is on my profile—a few links to articles, a silly photo of me in sunglasses. Could anyone we knew in high school find out anything about me from this? But I’m sure they make assumptions, just as I do. Do they think I am a fool when they read that I am living in Cambodia and that I’m a writer, or are they a little envious, or is it the same complicated blend of emotions that swamp me when I look at a few spare facts about them?

Maybe you are asking yourself why I don’t just delete my account or at least stop checking it, and that’s probably a wise suggestion, Krista. But I can’t—there is some part of me that is tainted by tasting the fruit of Facebook and cannot go back. I need to see Brittany’s baby photos, I need to know how Renee’s honeymoon went, I even need to know the results of whatever weird quiz you’ve taken most recently. And I need to know that maybe you’re curious about me, too.

With nostalgia and everything else,


Friday, October 9, 2009

My Bipolar Flood Response

Dear Llalan,

On Monday morning, my editor at the newspaper called and asked me to churn out a funny little column about the flood that had wreaked havoc across Cambodia a few days previously, and so I did.  I made light of the smelly pestilential water that is still thigh-high on our street and my wacky antics with a bug-zapper as thousands of mosquitoes zeroed in on my arteries.  I think it turned out okay, actually, hopefully even kind of funny.  You can read it, if you want, since it’s probably more amusing than this letter.

But was there any truth to that article?  I’m not sure.  The rain has seriously dampened my mood.  I would like to believe that this is some kind of sympathetic response to all the damage that’s been done to Cambodia by forces outside of its control—all the people who are still out of their homes, all the people whose businesses have been damaged, all the people in the countryside who are bound to come down with positively medieval diseases like cholera and dysentery in the days to come.

But my dourness is probably due to more selfish emotional triggers.  My work schedule is destroyed.  No one wants to be interviewed while they’re trying to deal with their own flooding issues.  Most days, the water outside our house (one of the few areas in town still flooded, by the way) is too deep to take our motorbike out, meaning I have to trudge for ten minutes through nasty shit-water, my plastic-wrapped laptop pathetically clasped to my chest.  I spend most of this walk imagining that if this was happening somewhere in America, there would probably be some hunky National Guardsman to carry me to safety, where friendly relief workers would feed me cookies, and by the time I have finished these fantasies, my desire to spend the next six hours writing has significantly diminished.

Ah, but then I just feel like a spoiled First-Worlder.  As I wade out of the muck, feeling sorry for myself and wearing an expression like a wet housecat, all my Khmer neighbors smile sunnily at me, laughing at their predicament and hoisting their infants out of the floodwater.  But then I think: what the hell is wrong with these people?  Isn’t there something terrible about a society that has completely given up on the idea of the government or anyone else in power helping them at all, even in times of crisis?  Sometimes, this washes over me even during easier days—sudden flashes of anger that nothing is getting better for ninety-five percent of the people here, and that most Khmer are too sucked in by the leaders’ lame promises or too afraid of the alternative to complain above a whisper.  Look, I know that in America people disagree, sometimes in a violent, ugly, ineffectual way, about what will make the country better.  But at least there is a sense that people care about making the country better, rather than just beating the odds in some idiotic Darwinian system.  What is wrong with the leadership of this country?  They are living parasitically off the misery of their own people.

So which is more true, my lighthearted column or this pointless rant?  Both.  Neither.  I was certainly happier while I was writing my column, not because of any situational difference, but because the act of writing forced me to find humor in it.  So should I then limit myself to writing mildly funny but disposable material, or send my blood pressure through the roof by writing angry blog posts?  I think that most of the time writers want to believe that they are writing to inform or entertain or change the opinions of others, but maybe it is only a way of reassuring or convincing ourselves of what we are feeling at any given moment.

Grumpy, yet still full of fondness for you,


Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Feline Certainty

Dear Prof. Bouldrey,

I took your Fundamentals of Prose class the first semester that you taught at Northwestern, and the first assignment, if I remember correctly, was to write a five-page essay about cats.  I think the purpose of the exercise was to prove that a writer can find meaning even in an arbitrarily chosen subject, and a seminar room full of writers can therefore find twelve different meanings.  I can’t remember exactly what I wrote about, something about the grace of cats.  I know that the grade you gave it was probably overly generous.  And I know that if I were rewriting it today (and perhaps this was your point all along), it would be a very different essay.

I’ve decided that my best shot, if the Buddhist worldview turns out to be true, if we really are stuck in a cycle of death and rebirth, is to hope that I come back as a cat next time around.  I decided this when our friend Savuth came to our house for lunch last weekend and told us that most monks want to be reborn as monks, since they will never reach enlightenment in this lifetime and their best chance is to keep getting closer, life after life.  Being impatient, I found the idea of hundreds of future lives as a monk sort of a downer.   There are other options.  You can be reborn in paradise, but I think too many nasty things about people for that to happen, or you can be reborn in hell, though since I don’t make a habit of killing people or stealing things, I might be able to avoid that one.  Or you can be reborn as an animal, which I have heard is mostly reserved for humans who are lazy in this life.  (Am I lazy?  Possibly.  Even though my brain is wrung thoroughly dry at the end of every day from working on a book about Cambodia, even though I have not been this mentally tired since the days when I was in your class and stayed up late writing papers about renaissance drama and 20th Century British cinema, I still feel vaguely guilty about the fact that I sit around for long periods of time, thinking and staring into space and calling it work.  I even found a name for this phenomenon in a Paul Theroux book—K├╝nstlerschuld, or artist’s guilt.)  At any rate, I am angling for what is supposedly the most fortunate of animal births, that of the housecat.

For anyone who has ever had a housecat, it will not be hard to imagine why Buddhists consider them lucky.  Even in Cambodia, where animals usually lead a fairly dismal existence, our two cats, Bissou and Soma, have managed to hit pay dirt.  When their original barang owner couldn’t keep them anymore because of the landlord’s dogs, she convinced us to take them in for the duration of our stay.  They are scrappy and lovable.  They hide dead lizards under our rugs and piss on our pillows if we’re away too long, and we still find them entirely adorable.  I find myself watching their movements, mesmerized, for long periods of time, a phenomenon my friend Narisa calls Cat TV.

I envy their lifestyle, one of rest and close observation.  I envy their purring, which they do loudly and often.  When they squeeze their eyes shut and purr, it looks as though their entire beings, both body and mind, have been given over to concentrating fully on the pleasure of the present moment, something I have always had trouble doing.  Some experts have speculated that purring is like meditation or prayer, since even the act of purring seems to soothe sick or stressed cats. 

I envy most, though, how snug an evolutionary niche they have found.   When they open their mouths, gaping pink yaws of toothy weaponry, it is easy to imagine that they are only a few genes away from panther.  They are tiny killing machines—all fangs and claws and stringy muscles—and they exercise this predisposition by terrorizing the insects, spiders, rodents, lizards and birds of our yard.  The other day, I wandered onto the porch and witnessed Soma staring down a coiled snake.  Worried it was poisonous, I tried in vain to call her away from it, until she threw me a look as though I was insane, slit its throat with her claws and began to pulverize its skull with her teeth like some sort of feline Rikki-Tikki-Tavi.  And yet, despite this inborn stealth and brutality, cats have managed to appear as something wholly different to a specific species of mammal, ingratiating themselves to the humans who can make their lives easier.  Soma and Bissou can widen their teddy-bear eyes and curl up like little furry doughnuts in my armpit in the middle of the night, and I feel as though they are tiny, vulnerable creatures, reliant on my petting and kibble, even though they have already proven otherwise.  It is nothing short of genius.

What of my own evolutionary niche as a writer?  I am a nervous journalist, an immature novelist.  Sometimes I think that my niche is the bizarre life I have right now, living in a place long enough to love it and hate it in equal measure and trying to capture the whys and wherefores of that duality on the page.  I wonder, though, if that will even turn out to be a niche at all.  And if it is, do I (and Jason, too, especially with me in tow) have the fortitude to do this all over again?  Reading Paul Theroux or Jonathon Raban or Robert Kaplan, I have a hard time imagining myself at fifty-something traveling the Mediterranean and beyond by myself.  When that fantasy fails, I find myself worrying that I have missed my niche altogether—maybe I would have been an excellent carpenter or dental hygienist and I have gone to all this trouble for nothing.  The only comfort is that I might still have some time in this life to figure it out, and that next time, in feline form, I might be better equipped to find a secure place in the world.

With fondness,

Shannon Dunlap, School of Communication ‘03

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Re: the Swiss Family Robinson

To: Martha Bowen / the Fruitful Present

From: Jason Leahey / the Green Crown of the World

Dear Marf,

It’s sometime in the first week of September and I’m naked in a hammock in a treehouse in the top of the jungle canopy somewhere in the middle of nowhere in Bokeo Nature Preserve in the northwest corner of Laos. I can walk all 360 degrees of this little deck, with its mattress and its oiled canvas mosquito net, its mosquito coils and stacks of thin white candles, and see nothing but mountain after mountain off into the horizon and the sun setting pink in the clouds.

The air is wet and cool and the sound of thousands of humming, cricket-ed, barked, buzzing songs. The original world’s or, rather, our original world’s, white noise. And that puts me to wondering if it is also the beeps and thrumming and rocketing, ratcheting code of some other thing’s assembled digital playground. If I could play in our digital universe and give something as wondrous as this singing, peaceful dusk to some other conscious life form, I would happily leap into the Twenty-first Century and all of our keystrokes and double-clicks and ergonomic chairs.


Tuesday, September 15, 2009


Dear Zachary,

Even when you were barely two years old, you had a gift for the mechanics of getting from here to there.  When we were snoozing in the early morning while your parents were at the hospital with the very newly born Ally, you woke in time to drag me to the window for an event that was essential to your happiness.  “Trash truck,” you told me authoritatively as said vehicle made its anticipated appearance.  And I think that I have never impressed you so much as when, several years after the trash truck ceased to enthrall you, I told you that in New York I took a train to work every day in an underwater tunnel.

And so it is you that I think of whenever I find something better or more unusual than that NJ PATH train—Vietnamese sleeper buses, Asian tuk-tuks, even our own wheezing but intrepid motorbike in Siem Reap.  How marvelous it was to board a night train in Bangkok for the exotic mystery of Chiang Mai, knowing how much you would love the waffle stands, the rainy train station, the attendants in smart uniforms helping us to find the correct car.

What is it about train travel that so captures the imagination?  I find particularly wonderful the sleeper trains that keep doggedly chugging ahead while I am off in some dreamworld.  Even the process of changing my rather ordinary seat into a curtained little bed, complete with reading light, was somehow magical when performed in under sixty seconds by an erstwhile servant of the Thai railway system.

And then, after nodding off in the rhythmic darkness, there is the wonder of awakening in a different landscape altogether.  First the foggy softness of dawn, and then the lush green tunnel of vegetation through which you stumble to the end of the car to brush your teeth and then, just as you begin to feel claustrophobic, the jungle subsides enough to show you that you are in the mountains.  The blurred tree trunks outside the window are actually only the canopy, the height of them falling far below down the steep sides of misty mountains that will never seem anything but unfathomable to someone born in the comforting open flatness of the American Midwest.  I think, perhaps, you would even have been fascinated with the baby cockroach that I discovered flirting with the cuff of my pants, and with that in mind, I tried to approach him with the same adventurous spirit.

Onward, onward, we pressed through the early morning, through small towns just waking up, entire lives unfolding before my eyes in the instant the train rushed past them—market sellers setting up their stalls, siblings struggling into their rain ponchos, the sleeves of a moto driver flapping with his gaining speed.  Do people glimpse me like this sometimes, catching me in some ordinary moment that gives them an intrinsic understanding of the shape and rhythm of my life?  Do the people outside the window ever glance up and see my pale face pressed against the glass, caught in a supremely unordinary moment?

That, perhaps, is why train travel is so special, the way it so defies the mundane.  Unlike car travel which can be lengthened or shortened, sped up or slowed down at our will, trains are only ours for the time it takes to get from here to there, and no matter how much a part of me wanted to stay on the rails, another part itched for an endpoint, a destination, a disembarkation.  A final stop always marks the beginning of something new, whether I am climbing the platform stairs into Manhattan or stumbling into the bright warmth of the Chiang Mai train station.  Endpoints are what assure us that we are moving forward.  What All aboards and Last stops—milestones, celebrations, commencements, deaths—await both of us are beyond my speculation.  I only know that even now, there are real and metaphorical trains ahead, some of them already pulling into the station.

With love,

Aunt Shannon

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

From SR to NYC

To: August 24, 2009
From: May 23, 2009 / Marble Composition Notebook No. ? / NYC

It’s May 23rd and I’m back in NYC. Nine months gone and it’s still home, still very much the same, and yet not so as well. Washington Square Park has been rebuilt and unveiled and it still has as much open space, as much potential as a meeting ground for hundreds, and so I know now that what I’d heard, what I’d feared, has not come to pass, either because the threats of monitoring, of rearrangement of boundaries and parts to keep the people corralled, was untrue or—what I hope, or, more likely—the threat of constraint drove the neighborhood, the New Yorkers, my New Yorkers, to put heads together and throw a fit until they made themselves not just heard, not just known, but a force that promised to be a mule-stubborn and a permanent, itchy thorn. God bless the thorns in sides.

And so now I’m here on this concrete wall, back against the light post, Northeast corner of things, first place I talked enough to Abby Durden to freak her out, listening to this woman in a black dress—Summertime! Summertime!—play guitar, sing her and others’ songs, and the light is through the leaves and I am walking through a dream, woke up in Siem Reap 30-odd hours ago, the world mine and also off, also alien, behind gauze, and I love it here. It is what I know, the drunks on the bench in front of this gal, singing along to Floyd, lost souls swimming in a fish bowl, this everything bagel well-toasted with olive cream cheese, strong iced coffee, just a dash of milk, no sugar, these folks playing chess, the taxis and it’s greener too, artful bike racks around St. Mark’s cube, quieter traffic, or am I just clouded behind that gauze, behind last night’s blunt, jet lag and dregs of airplane sake still in me?

You get in between worlds and you get that new vantage, get clear of the personal plagues that are site-specific, and with that distance see how quickly the fabric is rewoven, always decomposing and re-growing, always torn down, always rebuilt. And of course things aren’t always rebuilt, but here, man, here where I live, where I learned how to live with myself, how to be an adult, this Rome keeps breathing, rebuilding, and I like to think We the People are the red blood cells, the antioxidants, my people, and I miss this all because I see now how it changed without me and, though this is irrational and silly, my feelings are hurt a little.

And I guess that’s how I know I can never fully leave here. A growing, glowing understanding, even with all this gauze in between, that I am of this place, that Asia will be a way of experience, a particular lens or specimen for a set amount of time, but I am very much and forever American, forever a New Yorker and a Southern boy too, and that growing glowing, that is a knowledge of just how lucky that makes me, and all of the responsibility that comes with that, I know it and accept it and love it too because it’s a gift to be chosen by Fate to have the time and the means of gestating this kind of consciousness. We get to carry each other—indeed, Mr. Hewson. And, man, the guitar gal has just started up ‘High and Dry’ and I’ll go back to Brooklyn and hit the pavement with Tony, and this is the United States of America, with all its crippled government and culture of consumption, but so much more too, so much of the twenty different cultures embodied in these strangers collected around me on this Washington Square concrete, listening to this melody beneath these trees, in this lick of breeze, so much fallible potential.

You leave to look back and see. The world of the last generation mutating profoundly, this generation’s lives the axle upon which this Past will turn under to drive up this new and coming Present.

So much in such little time. The gauze will be cut away at some point. What kind of new sight will I be blessed with?

Monday, August 10, 2009

This Old House

The House

2635 Bella Vista Ave.

Lexington, Ohio 44904

Dear House,

Do you remember the fit that my siblings and I threw when we were told that we were going to move out of you?  You would have thought that my parents were torturing us by daring to build a newer, bigger house about five miles away.  I remember sitting in my brother’s room for a miniature protest meeting and resolving together that we simply wouldn’t do it, wouldn’t leave.

But we did, of course, just as I’ve moved away from a whole string of places since—the beige carpets and cozy basement of junior high and high school, my claustrophobic college dorm rooms, that first strange attic apartment that I shared with three other girls, the honey-colored floorboards of the little Chicago studio on the lake, the exposed brick and low ceilings in Jersey City.  Leaving a place behind always fills me with the sad slippery feeling of time getting away from me, but each move, truth be told, has been easier than the last, and when I move out of my current Cambodian abode, it may be the easiest one yet.

I do not mean to imply that it is not a nice house.  It is large (enormous to my eyes that had become calibrated to New York apartment sizes) and far more comfortable than what I had envisioned before I left the U.S.  And yet, there is something weirdly forbidding about the place, something elusively Cambodian.  Maybe it is the small windows or swollen intractable doors or the way the stuffy rooms hold heat.  Maybe it is the glue-sniffing teenagers who occasionally jump our fences and pilfer things out of our windows.  Maybe it is the memories of the time that all the cheap plastic plumbing fixtures broke at once and flooded the place in the middle of the night.  Whatever it is, the house has always seemed to give us more of a polite handshake instead of a warm embrace.

Occasionally, expat friends in Siem Reap will ask us to housesit, and we usually jump at the chance, not because they are nicer, more luxurious houses (though that is certainly the case) but because they feel so much more lived-in than our own house.  During housesitting stints, I go around absentmindedly touching things—children’s toys, expired medications, family snapshots, the worn corners of books.  These are families who have decided to stay in Siem Reap for much longer than I will, and the spaces where they live have a warmth and permanence that I sometimes forget can exist.

Now, our lease almost up, we are looking for a new place of our own, though it is still uncertain if we will be able to find anything better than our current rental.  Cambodian houses, at least the ones that Khmer build to rent out to Westerners, are weird.  They are candy-colored concrete monstrosities with cavernous tiled rooms and no closets and kitchens without stoves.  It is as though one person made a sketchy blueprint of what he thought a Westerner would want and hundreds of Khmer landlords have been blindly following suit ever since.  What’s strange is that most of them wouldn’t think of living in a place like that themselves.  Many of the houses that we looked at had tiny wooden shacks in the back or side yards where the landlord lived with his or her family.  Sometimes we would gaze wistfully out of a back window in some bubble-gum pink rental to these little houses with dogs and cooking fires and laundry drying on the line—they looked so real compared to the buildings we were standing in.

Maybe it is because they were built by and for the people who inhabit them.  There is a photo I think of sometimes (either real or somehow created in my mind from stories my parents told me) of my mother smiling in front of you, a half-finished house, holding Dawn’s hand and carrying Ryan around like a little bundled papoose.  My father, a junior high guidance counselor at the time, did the electrical work and put up drywall in the evenings to save money.  Though none of us could remember them, perhaps it was those evenings that made you feel so much like ours that, seventeen years later, my siblings and I couldn’t bear the thought of leaving.  It has been years since I have thought much about you, old house, or taken the time to miss you, but now, on an orange tiled porch thousands of miles away, I remember you and remember what it feels like to be home.



Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Re: Kentucky Fried Cambodia

Hi Dad,

Thanks for faxing that stuff to Sallie Mae.  That’ll keep them away from the door for a bit.  In getting all the papers in order, the Ts crossed, etc., I called their main number and got caught in the endless automated voices and choices.  So I went for my standard technique, which is to press ‘0’ many, many times very, very rapidly.  But they’re slick.  Whereas that will usually get you a long pause of dull air, followed by a fembot saying, “Please wait, while I transfer you to the next available representative,” Sallie only gives you, “That is not a valid choice.” 

Eventually, after choosing many numbers that transferred me to other numbers to be chosen that transferred me to still other numbers to be chosen, I ended up with an Indian guy who said his name was Max.  Max was on top of it.  He gave me everything I needed to know in about a fifth of the time it took me to get to him in the first place.  One of my intentions in this rigmarole was to consolidate my loans, since interest is now just above 2%.  Sweet.  But Max told me that Sallie Mae doesn’t  consolidate anything anymore.  They just don’t do it, period.  I’ll be at 2% until they decide or are allowed to jack it to 7% or 8% and that will be that.

So this torques me off severely because, in the most immediate sense, it goes against my best interests.  Not that Sallie Mae has any reason to have my best interests at heart; it’s just not what they exist for.  But it speaks to a broader symptom of rot in America that turns my frustration into hatred.  What is the rationale for inserting a private middleman (woman) in between students and the public money the feds provide as school loans?  There’s no benefit to the students, to the feds, or to that larger aim of creating and supporting an educated populace.  Sallie and Freddie and their siblings and cousins exist solely to take a cut of the funds that the populace themselves contributed in the first place.  Sallie and Freddie don’t really do anything, at least not anything of value.

And that brings me to the hatred and, further down the Stream of Consciousness from that port, to Cambodia.  Sallie and her ilk treat us as nothing more than tiny pocketbooks from which to squeeze profit.  They obviously lunch with health insurance companies.  And then I read how Goldman-Sachs' CEO takes in another monstrous bonus and I think, “These people are pigs.”  They use our money to buy influence in order to take more of our money.  There is something inverted in these relationships.  So now, Cambodia:

One of the chapters in the book Shannon and I are working on concerns Cambodia’s changing relationship to its food.  This was inspired by the opening of a KFC in Siem Reap.  KFC is the only foreign fast food company in the country and Shannon thought it’d be cool to investigate Khmer thoughts on this, the attitudes of Yum! Foods (KFC’s owner), and what it’s like to have your Extra Crispy chicken come with soup and rice rather than a biscuit (oh, but for a even a single biscuit!) and potato wedges. 

So we took Savuth to lunch yesterday and asked him his thoughts.  It was all too charming in its picture-perfect way.  Vuth can’t ride on a moto with a woman because he’s a monk, so I dropped Shannon off and picked Vuth up and rode through the morning sunshine and over the river with his orange robe flapping behind us and in my side view mirror.  We bought him the Snack Pack, which included an Original Recipe drumstick, a Spicy wing, a white bread roll, a dollop of mashed potatoes with gravy, and a thimble-sized lump of coleslaw, as well as a Pepsi, though he’s a Coke man himself. 

This was Savuth’s first time in what he called, “a modern restaurant.” The first time was a buffet in a hotel he was staying in while attending an ecumenical conference in Phnom Penh.  That food did a number on his stomach (the nature of which we were left to determine by the way he smiled shyly and looked at the floor), but he liked KFC.  He had actually seen a news broadcast on the restaurant while at that conference and told us that, at the time, he’d imagined himself one day with lots of money, free of the robes, and giving Colonel Harland Sanders’ secret recipe a try.  KFC is expensive by Cambodian standards, though Savuth’s meal cost just shy of three bucks, and young people consider it a sign of status to dine there.  When we asked Savuth what he thought of the restaurant itself, he said it was pretty.  When we asked him in what ways, he said, “I think it is clean.”

After taking him back to the wat so he could host his daily radio show, I though about a Taco Bell across from the Sixth Avenue ball courts in Greenwich Village, how it was permanently shuttered after hidden cameras taped and broadcast video of a battalion of rats crawling over every flat surface night after night.  A week or two after the ignominious closing, someone Sharpie-d “Rats all, folks!,” on the lowered security gate.  And sitting here now I think of the time you said it was a testament to the hardy American constitution that though we all eat out all the time and secretly know that so many of our restaurants are unsanitary, so few of us get sick from them.  (We get heart disease and long-term, debilitating illnesses, but these are from the composition of our food, not from the filth in their preparation.)  

Cambodians are used to their foods prepared without refrigeration, of flies and bugs crawling over their ingredients, of only unclean water used to wash hands.  We interviewed many Khmer diners in KFC and they echoed Savuth’s feeling that the food prepared out of sight in an airy, white-walled, and air conditioned space was the cleanest option available.  Cambodia’s experience of our fast food is the opposite of ours.  What we think of as cheap and rather lowly, they think of as expensive and a sign of affluence.  What we assume is relatively unsanitary, they believe is optimally clean.  And what about physical health, if KFC and the local Pizza Hut knock-off are actually nutritious?  Savuth didn’t understand the question.  Food is food; nutrition extends to simply getting something to eat.

So I think of the perversion of America’s Greed Pigs, how they contribute to making a Democracy of the People an oligarchy with compelling window dressing.  And then I think of the fact that Cambodia is so happy to get food they associate with us and with the pinnacle of lush modern living.  So I should be happy that we have at least the level of control over our government that we do.  And the Khmer should examine very closely the new options open to them.