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” naiveté, 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,