The Best Part of Migraines

My family has suffered from migraines for three generations.  The best part of this affliction is my own home remedy: a good 200-300ml of vodka.

Added benefit: melancholy lonliness of drinking in solitude!

It has been a hard week; I cure a migraine and drown my angst in one fell swoop.

I’ll go sleep some of this off so that I can be productive for another few hours after midnight.

I love my job.

The Satanic Excerpts

"…in an ancient land like England there was no room for new stories, every blade of turf had already been walked over a hundred thousand times."

"’In the Himalayas it is often the case that climbers find themselves beng accompanied by the ghosts of those who failed in the attempt, or the sadder, but also prouder, ghosts of those who succeeded in reaching the summit, only to perish on the way down."

"I believed it all: that the universe has a sound, that you can lift a veil and see the face of God, everything.  I saw the Himalayas stretching below me and that was God’s face too…I recall sort of floating over the last overhang and up to the top, and then we were there, with the ground faling away on every side.  Such light; the universe purified into light."

"In exile, all attmpts to put down roots look like treason: they are admissions of defeat."

"…now every clock in the capital city of Desh begins to chime, and goes on unceasingly, beyond twelve, beyond twenty-four, beyond one thousand and one, announcing the end of Time, the hour that is beyond measuring,the hour of the exile’s return, of the victory of water over wine, of the commencement of the Untime of the Imam."

"’Another girl,’ she gasped in disgust.  ‘Well, considering who made the baby, I should think myself lucky it’s not a cockroach or a mouse.’"

After an incident in which a man rents a limo and buys a $40,000 coat with a check and then goes next door to sell it for $30,000 in cash whereupon he is immediately arrested under suspicion of check forgery, is cleared when they find that the check was good after all, and then settes out of court for $250,000: "’The boy’s a genius.  I mean, this was class.’"

"’Everest silences you…What shuts you up is, I think, the sight you’ve had of perfection: why speak if you can’t manage perfect thoughts, perfect sentences?  It feels like a betrayal of what you’ve been through."

"An iceberg is water striving to be land; a mountain, especially a Himalaya, especially Everest, is land’s attempt to metamorphose into sky…"

"Can one drown in one’s element…if fish can drown in water,can human beings suffocate in air?"

"’Writers and whores.  I see no difference here."

"What happens when you win?  When your enemies are at your mercy: how will you act then?  Compromise is the temptation of the weak; this is the test for the strong."

"When they saw the host of chameleon butterflies and the way they both clothed the girl Ayesha and provided her with her only solid food, these visitors were amazed, and retreated with a hole in their pictures of the word that they could not paper over."

"…how beautifully everyone behaved in the presence of the dying man: the young spoke to him intimately about their lives, as if reassuring him that life itself was invincable, offering him the rich consolation of being a member of the great procession of the human race, – while the old evoked the past, so that he knew nothing was forgotten, nothing lost…Death brought out the best in people…"

"He is teaching me how to die…He does not avert his eyes, but looks deathe right in the face…The last thing he had seen in his father’s face…was the dawning of a terror so profound that it chilled Salahuddin to the bone.  What was it that waited for him, for all of us, that brought such fea to a brave man’s eyes? – Now, when it was over, he returned to Changez’s bedside; and saw his mouth curved upwards, in a smile.  He caressed those sweet cheeks.  I didn’t shave him today.  He died with stubble on his chin."

"I must think of myself, frm now on, as living perpetually in he first instant of the future...But a history is not so easily shaken off; he was also living, after all, in the present moment of the past…"

We Keep Moving Forward

  1. Never ask for anything.
  2. Know when to be ignorant.
  3. Smile, make friends, learn the language.
  4. Guide, but don’t instruct.
  5. Set your price and stick to it.
  6. Determine the client’s definition of "impossible" and achieve it ahead of schedule and underbudget (but not too much so).
  7. Promise less than you can actually deliver.
  8. Remain calm, confident, and cooperative.
  9. Respect the local culture and customs, but do not presume to understand them by following blindly where you may not be welcome.
  10. Never leave an introductory meeting without a new contact; never leave a contract without scheduling the next; never talk when you can be silent.

The Satanic Verses: Home Edition

The Political Scientist gave me The Satanic Verses as a Christmas present.

I first saw the book in the seventh grade just after the fatwa was issued on Rushdie – one of my classmates at the American School in Japan was reading it on his own in between our assigned readings from Johnny Tremaine.

An international death sentence.  The murder of the book’s Japanese translator just two years later.  By 2007, the book had sprouted into a sort of mythology for me that was as much a product of my ill-informed seventh-grade understanding of the world as it was a product of my ill-informed 29-year-old understanding of the world.  I have read a fair amount of Rushdie’s essays and never really enjoyed them, and I saw his apparent limitation to the Indian diaspora experience as chronic navel-gazing (although, truth be told, my December in India was evidence that this is a topic of great interest to the Indian upper- and upper-middle classes as well.  If it is navel-gazing, at least it is navel-gazing that appeals to the richest of 20% of the world’s population).

But here was the book, paperback edition, in my hands just a week before I returned to Thailand – a part of the world that still enforces strict bans on the novel.  Illogical and stupid images of seizure at the airport or of angry Thai Muslims apprehending me on a Bangkok riverboat flashed through my mind.  Could possibly finish the novel on the plane to avoid having to submissively wai before the Thai king to excuse the importation of divisive literature into his realm?

Well, I couldn’t.

I figured that I was being stupid – that it had been a long time since anyone really cared about this novel (other than Rushdie, certainly) and that the national banning of The Satanic Verses was probably akin to something like a Southern US school district banning To Kill a Mockingbird.  I searched online for cases of tourists being attacked or deported for trying reading it on the beach or in seedy massage parlors, but found none.  But on my first day in Thailand, one of my students saw it poking out of my bag and said “Oh!  That book is forbidden.”

For the rest of my stay, I read the book in secret.  At first, only in my bedroom, being careful to store it out of sight in case the cleaner stopped by, but eventually I ventured out into public.  I read it on the dock and on the riverboats, while waiting in lines, and was always careful to open the book wide enough such that both covers where facing the ground.

I finished the book this week in Taiwan where I carried it around with impunity.  The first 3/4 of the novel’s spine is distressed and broken, whereas the binding of the last 100 pages is still crisp and intact.

Was I being too careful?  Could someone have been offended?  Could I have been fined?  I really don’t know.  I am not sure if the Thai ban is good for the nation or not.  Is freedom of the press worth a silly, mediocre, book potentially facilitating the spread of a violent conflict spreading to other regions of the country?  Was I irresponsible in my cavalier attitude towards the issue?

It did, however, make me think about the American “freedom of the press.”  There is freedom of the press everywhere you go.  Just because something is banned doesn’t mean that the ideas are inaccessible or even popular.  I wonder about the power of subversion and how the level playing field of a free press can spread subversive ideas too thin.  It was not so long ago or so far away that pockets of forbidden thought fermented and exploded, resulting in the fall of a fifty-year-old world order.  Is revolutionary thought an anaerobic process inhibited by the fresh air that free press provides?

As for The Satanic Verses, I found it a subpar and borderline derivative work of magical realism with moments of brilliance which usually last no longer than a sentence.  I also realized how little I knew about the mythology/tenets of Islam – so much so that I could not even identify specifically which aspects of the work so infuriated parts of the muslim world.  I’m am not blind to the irreverent tone and the veiled references to the Quran, but I just don’t feel the bite of his words.  It’s a shame that Mr Rushdie, almost 20 years later, still does.

Back in the ROC

Back in Taiwan suffering through what is fast-becoming a travelling ritual: the immediate collapse upon arrival into illness and fatigue.

This episode: cramping, vomiting, and diarrhea!

It was nice to leave Thailand.  A job well done, and a good time to leave.  The business model, grossly simplified, is to do a good job, ask for nothing, and move on.  The theory is that a satisfied client will eventually ask you back and so far, we are batting 100.

The next step is to whip things into shape here in the teardrop-shaped semi-tropical isle of Taiwan.  Political sand shift so quickly here I feel like I’m surfing when I’m standing still.

An exciting place to be – I sense the beginnings of a massive braindrain back into mainland China; irony has no memory and history is fortune’s fool.

Me Brilliant Friends

Ah, my genius friends.

The Author, French social critic, globetroter, and writer will soon publish his first book.  In anticipation, I went back into my files to re-read his essay “L’Imperatif Cosmopolite.”  I rembered it as a strong piece when I first read it in Japan, but this time I was hit by a wave of nostalgia as well.

In Japan, I was surrounded by individuals who had decided to step outside of the stream of the quotidienne to cut new paths for their lives.  We easily took for granted that this philosophy was overarching and widespread.  Now that I am travelling in more and more rooted populations of people in Taiwan and Thailand, I realize that this “Cosmopolitan Imperative” is by no means universal – not even common.

Here is an excerpt from The Author’s fine denoument of “L’Imperatif Cosmopolite,” translated from the French:

But finally, the secret and marvelous side of globalization, encouraging and underground – this strange class of men and women too restrained by a single nationality, who live abroad or who travel every year thanks to their studies or their profession, accumulating miles and finding each other through a common language like English, French, or Spanish, in the same places around the world, independent of their origins.

It could be in a globalization “McDo” – forcing myself to face once again my own misdeeds – but it could also be people who meet in an airplane and exchange the address of a jazz cafe in New York, the title of a book about Indian civilization, or a great place to visit in the South of France, thus deepening their understanding of the world.  It is a Frenchman and a Spaniard who discus the opportunity to study in London over dinner in Tokyo.  These are not the acts of uncultivated humans who have poorly digested globalization, quite the contrary, they are the children of the ipod generation who, admittedly, use a container/product manufactured  thanks to economic globalization – designed by Apple and built in a Chinese factory – to exchange cultural content (Romanian songs, the soundtrack of a Brazilian film, or Shanghai jazz).  This class of men and women, still a minority in the world, are true cosmopolitans for whom national borders represent no more than a bit more paperwork to fill out.  Arts, cultures, national dress, and languages stew together, mix, and disappear.  Despite having totally different backgrounds that might make it difficult to find a common language, they find themselves lifted to another elegant stage of simple, joyous, humanity.

I go back and forth on my feelings on what exactly I’m doing.  Sometimes I feel like a glorified backpacker.  A hippie with a haircut.  But then I get that email from London, Vilnius, or Shanghai that opens new doors and I am pulled further down that road.  The Author is right – we are still a minority in the world.  I was lucky to live in Tokyo, a magnet city for these “global cosmopolitans.”  We gathered in cafes and bars and clubs, in parks and karaoke boxes and in clandestine meetings criticizing the social and governmental systems across Asia and the rest of the world.  We exchanged novels, essays, business cards, chatted about our dreams, frustrations, and the realities of life abroad.

Each and everyone of us had an elite CV such that there was no need to impress each other or play the ego game despite being natural overachievers with deeply competitive instincts.  We met backstage, after the game, on our days off.

I still write The Author and our compatriot-in-arms The Politician intermittently.  Last I heard they had met up on the other side of the globe in Washington DC.  The Author is looking to relocate to the USA for the first time to round out his CV and live in a country that, for him, represents  new frontier of the unknown.

We’ll be meeting up again, the three of us, san-nin no masukettiasu, in the South of France for a marathon session of coffees, cigars, and wines, talking about women and culture and politics and art while each plotting our eventual rises to power and world dominion.

Cheers, mates.

More interesting globalization information here.

In Your Pocket: Part III

…it looked like a bunch of aliens from the planet ribble had parked their wobbly blobship on top of the Cathedral.  But, alas, no.  What actually happened was that a bunch of aliens from Nottingham appeared in September and inflated this, erm, thing.  They call themselves the Architechts of Air, and they call the thing a luminarium.  It’s a sophisticated bouncy castle, but instead of removing your shoes to bounce on top of it, you remove your shoes and go inside it.  And it’s bizzare, like being in a modern art student’s brain.  Light is filtered through translucent "walls" to create an atmosphere that is like nothing you haven’t experienced before, and the rooms and avenues were as "chilled" as they were inflated.  Most amazing, however, was the queue.  People were standing for four hours, sometimes in the rain, to get into a blow-up toy.  Clearly they hadn’t heard that in July this year a similar inflatable folly (made by a different company) parted company with the ground in England and sprinkled its inhabitants over a field.  Happily, no such excitement occured in Vilnius…

…once you’ve been released into the arrivals hall, turn hard-right to find an ATM which will happily issue Lithuanian litas in inconveniently large denominations…

…with so much going for it, the city could be run by a damp cardboard box full of petulant monkeys and still prosper…

…there are also numerous other locations around Lithuania which claim to be the burial place of Gediminas, so unless he was hacked to pieces and scattered about the nation, we think it is unlikely that this place has any significance at all.

Where To Stay > Private accommodation > Regina House

A range of flats in excellent Old Town locations, one with a huge balcony overlooking a church which, according to their website, is nice in "worm season," and another with a lovely fireplace.

Restaurants > Middle Eastern > Orient X-Press

Upstairs it looks like someone who was eating a mirror has sneezed onto the blue painted walls, while downstairs there’s a tunnel-like dining room.  It’s all a bit strange, and the menu follows suit with Uzbek, Portugese, Georgian, Karaite kibinai, and a hot dog.

Cafes > Starz

A sign on the door says "hot beer, lousy food, bad service," so you think to yourself: "this must be a fun place," but no!  It’s not an unfunny joke.  It’s a statement of fact.  The service really is bad.  We waited an hour without being allowed to sample the hot beer or lousy food.  But we could see into the kitchen where a man with tampant girly tresses and no hat dished up the food – so somebody’s going to get a hair in their food.

Cafes > SMC (Contemporary Art Centre)

It’s a dark, grismal box full of hirsute hi-jinks in the cooler months – the sort of place where games of chess are happening in which nobody knows whose move it is, and there always seems to be some kind of furniture Tetris happening that ensures you will meet people who you’d probably rather not.  It’s casual, cruisy, can be a bit crazy and is always unpretentious and good fun.

Bars > Absento Fejos (Absinthe Fairies)

If Johnny Depp and Milla Jovovich go together and did something that enabled them to give birth to a cocktail bar, this would be it.

Clubs > Absinth Code

We thought there were four people in here, but then we realised that the two corner walls behind the dance floor are mirrors, and all four people were the same person.  Then we drank lost of absinthe and found out that all twelve of the four people were also the same person as well.  Most of them were enjoying the turn of the century time-warp decoration, musical all-sorts, and the layout with a good mix of spaces for sitting, dancing, and bar-perching.

Nightlife > Gravity

The novelty of burrowing through the long concrete tunnel to this former Soviet bomb shelter hasn’t worn off, but once inside, the once-stylish decor is getting dated, run-down, and grotty.  It certainly bombs out in comparison to the newer clubs.  As one clubber put it: "It’s like being on drugs but without the drugs."

Nightlife > Metro

A waste of a hole in the ground.  This basement venue was almost empty when we checked it out and it didn’t take long before the few staff and bewildered patrons all tacitly agreed that it would be best to give up, lock up, and leave.  The half-hearted pocket-money  setup – orange walls, black vinyl seats, tiled floor, no idea – won’t please anyone and it probably won’t be long before the premisis is restored to its rightful low-rent purpose of selling used prosthetic limbs or vacuum cleaner parts.  It sucks.

Medieval Vilnius Tour

One of the new tourist adventures available in Vilnius is a walk along the old city wall.  Now a tour of a wall might sound about as interesting as, say, an exploration of a doorknob, but what makes the old Vilnius city wall interesting is that it doesn’t exist anymore.

Activities and Sports > The Flying Basket Case (Hot Air Ballooning)

Flights must end before sunset, when your pilot will park your basket on someone’s picnic, or in the middle of a paddock containing a bewildered cow (Best not to wear your finest shoes).

Activities and Sports > Snow and Ice > Ice Palace (Ledo Rumai)

…you can also go to watch the fights and see a hockey game break out.

Don’t think that the "In Your Pocket" guides are just pith and irony.  They do a very good job of getting to the point when discussing attractions with great historical or cultural signifigance:

What to See > Orthodox Churches > Orthodox Church of the Holy Spirit (Staciatikiu Sv. Dvasios Cerkve)

See the well-preserved bodies of the martyred Saints Anthony, Ivan, and Eustachius, who are clothed in white during the Christmas period, black during Lent, and red on all other occasions bar each June 26, when they are displayed naked.  It is reported that on this day at this place a huge healing presence is felt.

…in Lithuania and Eastern Europe, it is widely believed and aknowledged that when people die, their souls lake leave someplace far away but return on All Saint’s Eve to visit their loved ones…For All Saint’s Day, people try to communicate with the spirits by leaving food on their tables and lighting candles so they can find their way home.  If you would like to experience the beauty of All Saint’s Day, it is best witnessed from the sky as candles are strewn about every cemetery as sad relatives parade on through…

Saltoniskiu Cemetery (Saltoniskiu kapines)

By Soviet order, all Jewish graves were moved to this contemporary cemetery.  Among them the grave of Gaon of Vilna, commemorated by a massive monument.  Instead of being transferred, many graves were plundered for use in masonry throughout the city.  Before 1991, the steps leading to the Trade Union Hall at Mykolaicio-Putino 5 were made from Jewish gravestones.