Category: 2014: Jan—Feb

Sports Academy: Under New Management

As noted last month, the Sports Academy Pool Hall has become my favorite evening outing. I especially enjoy the girls there who with their pool skills and enthusiasm are wonderful to play with. If available, I like to gather up three of them to make competing teams for Eight Ball. I choose one to be on my side (Team America!) while the other duo represents the home country. The contests are both competitive and lively, especially after I spring for a couple rounds of tequilas. Surveying the table after the break, working out the next shot with a cute Thai leaning against me, is my version of nirvana. 

They say nothing good lasts forever and in the case of Sports Academy, my winter of contentment has come to an unexpected end due to the new boss. First of all, one of the tables has now been set aside as a Challenge Table. It’s the same concept as King of the Hill with the numero uno having to fend off any and all comers. The winner stays in; the loser retreats to the bar after shelling out twenty baht ($.66). 

There has also been a change in the specials being offered. Where before there was free pool from 4:00 to 6:00 p.m., now it costs two hundred baht ($7), though you can play an hour longer and enjoy cheaper beer. I suspect this was done to discourage the late afternoon Japanese players, who rarely drank anything other than water and promptly cleared out when the clock struck six — as if they feared turning into pumpkins six hours early. Hard to make much money from customers like that.

These two “improvements” have made it more difficult for me to get a table when I arrive around 6:30 after finishing dinner in a nearby shopping mall. The Challenge Table is not available for extended play without special permission, and the others may all be in use by players wanting to get their full two hundred baht worth of enjoyment and subsequently not clearing out until seven.

Still, these are inconveniences that a fuddy duddy like myself can eventually adapt to given enough time (maybe two years). But what has truly saddened me is that one of the girls, Newt, has quit, apparently unhappy with the new manager’s style. This is a real loss. In the past few months her pool playing had become superb. It had gotten to the point where she was a threat to run the table at any time, or come tantalizingly close. Always on the opposing team, I knew I would have to bring my ‘A’ game to have any kind of chance against her. Rarely did I emerge victorious. She would mercilessly mop up on me and my partner for the evening while making it look so easy, taunting me with a little dance after making yet another game-winning shot. At the same time, she was always helpful  to any of the new girls who happened to be playing, giving them advice on where to leave the cue ball and how to hit banks. Although I would chafe at the punishment she happily dished out, I developed a real respect and affection for her — something I am only now beginning to realize.

I suppose I will continue to visit Sports Academy (assuming I can get a table), but the allure is greatly diminished. Being repeatedly thrashed by Newt forced me to improve my own play; I came to love the challenge. Finding a replacement — a pretty Thai girl who can play a spirited, tough game of Eight Ball — will be a daunting task.

Newt, I already miss you…

My nemesis on the far left and me, in happier times.

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My New Year’s Eve

Honest Working Women

Dawn in the topics is an ellusive, transient affair, more a dividing line than an interval of time. On one side are the ladies of the night, trying to hail a cab home after servicing their final customer. (A real challenge as the cabbies are far more interested in picking up a drunken tourist too woozy to realize he’s being fleeced.) On the other side are the day workers, just beginning to stir in the brief coolness of the early morning. With the protesters continuing to block off major intersections in the city, they will be facing an even more crowded, miserable commute than usual.

Despite these disruptions, the maids who work in my apartment complex always arrive by eight, exchanging lively greetings with the pair of security guards wrapping up their night shifts. I have always been slightly bewildered by this routine. Back when I was holding down a job, I never felt like talking to anyone until maybe lunchtime, and that was on a good day. There’s a reason they call it the rat race; for me most mornings were a grind.

Lek & PongI can always pick out the cheerful, sharp voice of Lek (the one on the left) amongst the animated conversations that drift up through my balcony door, occasionally disrupting my morning sleep-in. She’s one of those amiable people I at times envy. Whenever she greets me — in Thai, of course — she always asks simple questions and is invariably patient in waiting for my stumbling responses. Fond of me as well: upon hearing last year that I was leaving for my two month U.S. vacation, she broke into tears.

Lek works in the main building of the apartment complex that serves as a kind of hotel, with tourists tourists checking in and out every few days. Being a month-by-month tenant, I also reside there. Every Monday afternoon, she along with another woman or two clean my room, which is how I have gotten to know her and the crew. This cannot be rewarding work, changing sweaty sheets, scouring grimy shower stalls and scrubbing out toilets. To make their jobs less onerous, I try to have everything picked up and out of the way before they arrive, sometimes leaving a trio of cold fruit juice packets — exotic tropical flavors of course — on top of the refrigerator. A welcome refreshment when one has to spent most of the day laboring in hot, cluttered confines. And of course I always leave a tip: two hundred baht ($6) each on regular days, or five hundred ($17) around a major holiday such as New Years.

And what better way to lift their spirits than a glass or two of red wine? Well, maybe that’s being a bit too kind-hearted, although I love teasing them about it, sometimes asking them to stop by my now sparkling-clean room for an after-hours nightcap. (They decline, but are always amused by the invitation.) 

These women are deserving of any and all generosities. Their work is not well-paying and certainly not glamorous, yet they go about it each day with a pleasant attitude and a kind of dignity not easily found on Soi 4.

Pick Your Poison
Juice Selection

And the Winner Is:
Pong Chooses Wine

Seattle Seahawks: NFL Champions

For some reason, the long-anticipated nationwide vote that took place in Thailand early last week was not postponed so everyone could watch the Super Bowl. One has to question a country’s priorities when a the American sporting event is not given the attention it deserves. How can the Thais ever expect to fully embrace democracy if they cannot be treated to the sight of huge American football players — some as large as the obese tourists wandering about on Sukhumvit Road — smashing into each other with spinal-injury force?

It is of course a special source of pride for me, a former Seattleite, to see the Seahawks triumph over the Broncos, and in such convincing fashion. With my self-esteem so closely tied to the team’s success, I now have a convincing reason to feel better about myself. The street walkers and bar girls I’ve met since that marvelous victory have encountered a new me, someone no longer so shy and who can effortlessly engage them in rabid speculation regarding the development of the Seahawks’ quarterback and whether the team’s defense can continue their domination next season. But these exchanges have not gotten off the ground. When I introduce myself as being from Seattle, Washington, they first look bewildered, then say oh, Washington D.C. Mistaking the Emerald City, the jewel of the Pacific Northwest, with the nation’s capital. Again, these people need to learn what’s important.

Being confused with “that other Washington” and the lack of significance that implies has always been a concern to the denizens of my hometown, who for many years have been infected with a desperate need to be considered “major league” in the eyes of the world. Apparently the formula to attain this ill-defined label involves building monster sports stadiums, which the civic leaders duly began in the late 1990s. And while the two grandiose structures have not exactly been overflowing with championship banners, they do make a head-turning sight south of the downtown, large enough to be visible from the surface of the moon. The one for the Seahawks was partially paid for by Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft and someone who doesn’t need to collect grocery coupons. Since he was down to his last thirty billion dollars at the time, the taxpayers generously picked up the rest of the bill. I doubt if many of them this week are regretting that sacrifice with people everywhere (or at least outside of Nana Plaza) learning how to say “Se-a-ttle”.

The win is also a vindication for the leaders of the local S.O.S (Save Our Seahawks) organization. Back when the team was making noises about relocating without a new stadium, it was these people who stepped up and helped persuade Mr. Allen to open his checkbook. Too bad the group did not build on that success and tackle other, equally important, civic concerns such as the shortage of accommodations in Seattle for displaced youths and abused women. Something like Save Our Shelters, perhaps. Would not even have needed to change their acronym. 

But mostly this victory belongs to the loyal fans. In particular those who continued to purchase tickets year in and year out back when the team managed to go almost two decades without winning even a single playoff game. (Most of those years the season was pretty much over by the middle of October.) Theirs is a heartwarming testimony to the endurance of hope from which we can all draw inspiration as we wish for better understanding and a more peaceful world in 2014. Or, failing that, at least a speedy, head-cracking defense.

SEA Celebrate 2
Major League At Last!

A New Camera

I’ve never been much of a photographer. While some people have a talent for producing breathtaking shots, I invariably screw up the lighting or have the scene off-center. The arrival of the digital age, however, has given me hope that there might now be cameras with the smarts to overcome my blunderings. I therefore set out last week to find and purchase one. Given Bangkok’s sterling reputation for consumer electronics, I figured it would take but a single afternoon of casual browsing at a few stores. I’d select a model that looked easy to use, mumble a few halfway intelligent questions (“So, how do I turn this on?”), then make the purchase and go home a happy man. Or something like that. 

My first stop was the Terminal 21 Mall located near Asoke and Sukhumvit Roads. Though the protesters have shut the intersection down, it does not seem to have hurt business. The camera store on the basement level had been featuring an inexpensive Olympus that I’d had my eye on. (I did not want to shell out extra money on something with all kinds of fancy features I’d only become exasperated with trying to figure out.) Alas, now that I was finally serious, the Olympus was gone. Equally frustrating, a couple other models which looked like they might do the job did not carry price tags. This was puzzling since most of the other displays had one. Not really comfortable with asking the fellow in charge what the prices were — and having him set the amounts — I moved on.

Siam Paragon is perhaps the king of the Bangkok malls. Certainly it is the ritziest I have been in (the ground floor food court, for example, bills itself as a “Gourmet Paradise”). As I journeyed through the main hall, lined with glittering jewelry stores and showcasing the latest Toyota Lexus models  — which by the way did have stickers — I felt very much out of place and feared anything I might find would be far beyond my price range. This turned out to be true when I stepped into the Sony store and saw no camera marked for less than 15,000 baht ($500). I quickly retreated, taking deep breaths to calm myself.

My luck soon changed for the better. Up on the second floor of the mall I finally found, much like Goldilocks, a small, cozy shop that was “just right”. In the display window was a lightweight Canon Powershot A2500 (the name is almost longer than the camera) that was priced well within my budget. Equally important, one of the employees was willing to sit down and walk me through many of its features, showing admirable patience with my ignorance, which I made no attempt to conceal. When I did not understand what was being demonstrated, I had him go through it a second time, though there was really no question I was going to buy the camera.

Once I got home, I wasted little time getting the A2500 unwrapped and the battery charged. I then sat down and began pushing buttons, clumsily navigating through the many functions and settings. But one thing puzzled me: how to download the photos into my MacBook Air laptop? The Canon did not seem to have come with anything that would do this. To try and better understand how the process worked, I opened up the iPhoto application on my laptop (where I would be processing the photos) and read in the help window that the camera should have some kind of cable to download the pictures. So where was it? Perhaps it had dropped out of the box while the Canon was being demoed to me.

Returning to the store at Siam Paragon the following day, I anticipated an easy resolution to my problem. But the original fellow was not there and when I told another sales person that I required a cable for my Canon, he replied there wasn’t one. This left me standing there dumbfounded — how was I supposed to get the photos into my Mac? I also was angry. I’d specifically mentioned what kind of laptop I had when I made the purchase and was assured there would be no problem. Now here was this guy apparently telling me the Canon could not connect to it. I wanted to grab him by the shoulders and say look here, I have a Macbook Air and it (meaning Steve Jobs) says your camera should have a f*cking cable for downloading.

Of course as any photographer, and probably most techno-savvy elementary students know, I had to get a special gadget that would both read the camera’s memory card and attach to one of my laptop’s USB ports. The sales fellow, noticing that I was not going to leave without some kind of explanation, showed me the one they use in the store, but unfortunately do not sell. This did not improve my mood one bit. As I saw it, all this should have been covered before I bought the damn camera. Biting my tongue, I spat out a grudging thank you and walked out as the sales people burst into laughter, probably a release from the tension I’d created.

It took over a half hour to cool down. Getting what’s called a Memory Card Reader was just one more gadget I’d have to fiddle with and a part of me wanted to go back to the store, toss the Canon onto the counter and storm out. But once the frustration dissipated, I decided to go shopping for the mysterious device. Since I was returning home on the Skytrain, I stayed on for one station to pay another visit to that camera shop in Terminal 21 and see if maybe they could help me. Unfortunately, the fellow at the counter — Mr. No-Price-Tag Pete — answered my inquiry with a gruff “No have” and went back to whatever he was doing. (Now there’s a guy whom I’ll certainly be taking my camera needs to.) His assistant took pity on me however and provided directions to a tech store in the mall where I easily found what I needed.

Everything turned out fine in the end, though my opinion of Thai customer service has reached a new low. The initial pictures I took downloaded through the Card Reader and into iPhoto with no trouble whatsoever. All that remains now is to determine if the Canon has some function that removes obstructing fingers…

My Final Thai Girlfriend

Writing about a former one and only, even from the vantage point of over a year, is a bit like trying to digest a meal that didn’t quite agree with me. Though I have touted in my postings some of the benefits of East-West relationships, the cultural differences can work both ways and many a couple have parted from an inability to comprehend the other’s perspective. Such was the case here.

For the first month and a half we were together (in late 2012), I had thought I had a winner in Suntaya. When I met her, I was impressed with her sophistication. Instead of proposing the usual tryst back at my place, she suggested we go for coffee. We ended up having a long talk and subsequently made a dinner date. This also went very well, especially when I discovered she was reading a book about Adolf Hitler, which dovetailed nicely with my interest in history. And it turned out we loved the same kind of Thai dish: chicken in green curry sauce.

Suntaya in Park v1Because the chemistry was there and this seemed to be a woman with some smarts, I decided to employ Suntaya as combination girlfriend and tour guide. Every week or so she would come over to the apartment for a few days of fun. We’d visit bookstores, share exotic lunches, play pool, and shop for our dinners. Then at least once during each stay she’d take me to a museum or park — someplace I’d never been before. In return I paid her a monthly “salary”. A bit on the pricey side, but considering all I was getting in return, worth it. 

This turned out to be arguably the most fun I’ve had with an Asian woman. Returning to my place following an eventful day, we’d take a sunset swim in the apartment pool where at her request, I taught Suntaya how to do the backstroke. Evenings were usually wine and cheese affairs as we listened to Western pop music (oldies), or maybe watched some Nazi-themed DVD she had picked out. I truly felt I’d uncovered a gem.

Then came Christmas Eve of 2012 when things went awry. After we’d consumed a couple glasses of wine to celebrate, I discovered Suntaya had issues with the way I was using my new MacBook Air laptop. Huh? As a former IT professional, I found her opinions silly and perplexing. Why should she be critical of, or even care, about the Food Group spreadsheet I’d proudly created to track my eating? Maybe there was an element of jealousy involved. Or perhaps it had to do with her only achieving a grade school education and having limited interest in new things.

It got worse. My idea for us to fly down to Koa Samui Island in late January to take in the full moon was casually dismissed in favor of Valentine’s Day (“More expensive, but more romantic”). End of discussion. And at bedtime Suntaya insisted on lowering the air conditioner setting to 21 degrees Celsius, transforming (for me at least) what should have been an intimate snuggle into a polar camp out. The next morning, after chipping the ice off the door knob, I sent her home while trying to conceal my sense of relief. Later that afternoon I broke up via email, despite a bag of goodies she had left on my doorknob as an apology. (A gesture that might have worked had there been but a single disagreement.) 

Even now, a year later, I am still unable to make much sense of the “new” Suntaya that was unveiled that Christmas Eve: bossy and with a vague disdain for my way of doing things. Not a recommended way to behave in a cross-cultural relationship and in that respect I’m very fortunate she showed her true colors early on, before things became serious. I do not miss her, and since the breakup have had no desire for another Thai girlfriend. The differences are too great.

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Me & My Mac

The Protests: A Brief Overview

As everyone living in Bangkok now knows (or should know), the Yellow Shirts have carried through with their threat of blocking off major intersections of the city with the intent of forcing the prime minister to step down. Given the hideous traffic jams that Bangkok normally experiences, it’s difficult to see how anyone could further mess things up, but it is not for me to question the motivations of people yearning for honest democracy.

Well, maybe not democracy per se. You see, the party representing the Yellows has not won a general election in over two decades. Having their butts handed to them time and again has not gone over particularly well with the upper middle class and elites who comprise much of the party’s faithful, making them eager to seize power by any means should the opportunity ever present itself. The recent ham-handed attempt by the prime minister and her minions to pass a law that would, amongst other things, allow her controversial brother (and former prime minister) to return to the country without facing criminal charges has opened the gates. From the perspective of Thailand’s well-off, this simply confirms their view of a government corrupted by a family dynasty. One that stays in power only through costly agricultural programs designed to benefit — and secure the loyalties of — the people from the poor, rural areas of the North and Northeast (Red Shirt country).

Because there is no chance of overcoming the widespread Red support of the party in power before the February 2 election, which is shaping up to be yet another pasting should they decide to participate, the Yellows have borrowed a page from the American Republican Party and are attempting to shut down much of the Thai government, along with targeted Bangkok thoroughfares. Their demands are every bit as realistic as Republicans’ assaults on ObamaCare: dismantle Thailand’s parliament and replace it with an unelected, Chinese-sounding “People’s Council”. It has not yet been announced if the head of this committee will assume the title of “Chairman” and wear an army beret adorned with a cute red star. Perhaps all the members will don badly tailored, green peasant’s garbs to demonstrate their solidarity with “the people”. Of course it will be necessary to expand the trouser pockets so their wallets can fit.

All this should be kept in mind as images of flag-waving, self-righteous Thais continue to flood the media outlets in the following days. For regardless of whatever patriotism they may appear to be exhibiting, there is no accompanying respect for their country’s political process, and precious little concern for the rural folk scratching out a living in muddy rice paddies.

My New Year’s Eve

Thanks to my new iPod, I’ve now attained the semblance of a social life by becoming a regular at the Sports Academy Pool Hall down on Sukhumvit Road. Whereas in the past I had limited my visits because of its often blaring hip hop, my special Christmas present to myself (a brand new iPod Shuffle) lets me now block out crude black singers — shouting about their huge penises and the women they are going to abuse — with good old Mick Jagger. Defiantly submerged in the driving fury of Gimme Shelter, I sometimes have to resist the urge to raise my middle finger up at the speakers.

Sports Academy opens at four in the afternoon and pool is free the first two hours. To be sure of getting a table, it’s a good idea to show up ten to fifteen minutes early to beat the half dozen or so Japanese who establish their own little private enclave while talking amongst themselves in their staccato language. Not a very gregarious people. When 6:00 p.m. arrives, signaling the end of the free pool, they soon scatter to avoid paying even a few baht. I like to make my appearance soon after this exodus, which gives me my choice of tables and female playing partners.

For New Year’s Eve, I delayed my usual arrival a few hours in order to be around to usher in 2014 with the staff, who became increasingly tipsy as the evening wore on. I contributed to the revelry by punctually buying my two lady pool partners (Newt and Fone) drinks every half hour. This allowed me to play my special prank on Fone. It’s called “watered down tequila” and works like this: after her drink has arrived, when her attention is temporarily diverted, I pour the alcohol out and refill it with water. The three of us then exchange the obligatory “good luck” before taking a gulp of our refreshments. Fone reclines her head, tosses back the water, then grimaces in anticipation of the booze’s sharp assault. After a couple seconds, the tightness on her face is replaced with puzzled look. One can almost hear her asking herself if the problem is weak tequila or her level of inebriation. Newt and I, who are almost biting through our lips trying not to laugh, then confess to the crime. Or rather I confess, and quickly refresh Fone’s shot glass with the real stuff.

Such mischief is especially appropriate on an evening like this, which almost demands heavy drinking. Trying to be a good sport, I did my best to match the girls’ frenetic pace with glasses of red wine, though the effects on me were far less dramatic. I am a reserved person and when playing pool remain serious regardless of how many cue balls I’m seeing through my blurred vision. It made for an interesting contrast. At one point, I was grimly focused on a touchy little cut into a side pocket (which seemed to waver) beyond which my two opponents were dancing. It was about this time we began having trouble recalling whose turn it was. A half hour beyond that, we no longer cared. Reclining on a cushioned seat with Fone draped over me, I was perfectly content to let Newt have as many tries as she liked. When she (eventually) pulled off the winning shot, she raised her hand to her lips and taunted me with a kiss-off gesture. I retaliated by buying her another beer.

Finally, the anointed hour was at hand! The large screen, which usually is featuring some stupid football match, was tuned to a Thai channel that provided the dramatic countdown. Most people were already whooping and hollering, so when the count reached zero there was only a token increase in the volume level. Many stepped out onto the terrace to take in the fireworks. I remained inside to do a special toast with my two grinning companions as we shared our wishes for the new year. Newt wants a boyfriend; Fone stronger tequilas. For me, I hope I can continue learning how to have fun.

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I goin’ to kick your ass!