Monday, November 28, 2016

The Donald Trump Comedy Bonanza

Trump Evil Clown
Who would have thought that the evil clown phenomenon that took off in 2016 was really a premonition of who would be the next president of the United States? As the reality sets in that Donald Trump will soon be the most invincibly ignorant, ill-suited, temperamentally unfit person to ever hold such power in modern times, we have to look for positives.

As we stand on the edge of the abyss, as the entire world becomes The Twilight Zone before our very eyes, there are reasons to remain hopeful. Among the lies, the shamelessness, the hate, the inevitable invasions, the strife, the trampled human rights, the decades of progress burnt to the ground, the corruption that will make third-world dictators envious, there will almost certainly be moments of comedy gold. There has to be. That's the only way we'll get through the coming nightmare.

And so I present The Donald Trump Comedy Bonanza. And don't worry Trump supporters, I've done my best to ensure that your saviour is not the only one who receives a well-deserved roasting. Those nasty lefties and the horror that would have been a Hillary Clinton presidency take their share of hits too.

***

What does the "J" stand for in "Donald J. Trump"?

It doesn't stand for anything. It prostrates itself in the hopes of finagling a cushy appointment that requires little work and even fewer scruples.

***

"Hey Donald, which movie do you prefer, Apocalypse Now or From Russia with Love?"

"Neither, I don't like documentaries."

***

Donald Trump is speaking to Mike Pence in the oval office.

"Mike, we think alike. I proposed that we build a wall and make Mexico pay for it. You proposed that women who get abortions be forced to pay for funerals for the aborted fetuses."

"That's a good point m'lord. After we're finished, there'll be a lot of people paying dearly for our great ideas."

***

Donald Trump is speaking to the head of the National Security Agency.

"I gave Putin our nuclear codes. I was giving him a back rub when he told me that I have long, beautiful fingers."

"Why the hell did you do that? You may have endangered America!"

"Because he was tired after bending me over the presidential desk."

***

Donald Trump is the great uniter. Israelis and anti-semites are both excited about his rise to power. Israelis have been given the go-ahead to expand and frolic in the desert, and anti-semites have the green light to go clubbing.

***

A con artist and an illegal immigrant walk into a bar. The bartender says, "Sorry sir, but even though this is the White House lounge, we don't serve liars and cheats."

"Don't worry, her speech-writing days are over."

***

What do you get when you cross The Manchurian Candidate with The Stepford Wives?

A first lady who is cold, emotionless and does as she is told...from across the ocean.

***

How do you make Trump feel emotion?

Walk up behind him when he's using Twitter and shake his chair.

***

In his ongoing attempts to find places for his family members in his administration, Donald Trump announces at a press conference that Melania will be joining the Federal Department of Geology.

Reporters shout out questions.

"Is it because of her experience digging for gold?

"No, that's got nothing to do with it," Trump responded.

"Is it because she has spent time handling precious gems?"

"Absolutely not," Trump insisted.

"Then what," said a young cub reporter "is the reason?"

"She will help improve relations with Russia. I've indicated that Melania can be mined by the Russians for any information they deem worthy," Trump said proudly.

"Will be Putin be involved in those operations?"

"I've told him that he can perform some of the drilling personally if he in turn praises me in public. But for the most part, Russian scientist Dr. Leon Gedyorogsov will be in charge."

***

"Mr. Pence, do you still believe in conversion therapy?"

"No, I've seen the light and recognize that sexual orientation is genetic."

"How about funding for HIV prevention and AIDS treatment? In the past, you were against that."

"I now feel that we should do everything in our power to help those suffering from AIDS."

"Mr. Pence,  in light of these comments and after you were seen on your knees in front of Donald Trump the other day, is it safe to say you've come full circle on homosexuality?"

***

"Mr. Trump, your daughter Ivanka converted to Judaism, yet one of your top advisers, Steve Bannon, is accused of being an anti-semite. How do you reconcile those two facts?"

"The fact that Ivanka and her children are Jewish provides cover when I'm accused of anti-semitism while Bannon's views more truly reflect my own."

"That's a rather cynical way of looking at the situation, isn't it?"

"No, not at all. I think people should come to understand that I'm not as bad as the liberal press has led them to believe."

"Well, maybe you're right! I'll see you next week for our next interview."

"OK, great. Here, have a commemorative lamp shade."

***

After Donald Trump had been president for two years, Maria traveled from New York to Kentucky to see her parents. It was her first visit since the momentous election of 2016. She was diametrically opposed to her parents in matters of politics. She voted Democrat and her parents voted Republican. She was eager to see if they remained committed to Trump.

As she drove up the driveway of their house, she noticed the neglect and decay. The bones of a dead dog lay in the long grass of the front yard. She looked at the garage--the door was off its track and part of the roof had fallen in. Her mother's usually well-tended vegetable garden was overgrown with weeds.

As she opened the door to the house she had grown up in, she was hit with a nauseating smell. She put one hand over her nose and mouth and walked into the kitchen. Both her parents were sitting on the floor. They were unkempt and mumbling. Their faces appeared to be covered in excrement. Two plates of shit were in front of them on the floor.

"What's going on? Have you been eating shit?" she asked her parents.

Her father looked up at her with glazed eyes. "What are you talking about? This is pure, unrefined sugar!"

Sweet Jesus! Somehow they had convinced themselves that shit is sugar!

Shit-eating Trump supporter
The sound of her father's voice seemed to animate her mother. "We will never go hungry again! The Great Donald has blessed us! Our assholes will supply us with sustenance and commerce for all eternity!" her mother said.

Commerce? Sweet God almighty, thought Maria. They're not actually trying to sell their own shit are they?

She ran outside to clear her mind and escape the stench. She walked over to the neighbor's house. The Korfmans had lived next door for as long as Maria could remember. Mr. Korfman was outside watering the grass. "Well, Maria! How are you?" he said. His face dropped. "I see you've talked to your parents. Come on in."

Once they were inside Mr. Korfman's house, Maria began to sob. "I can't believe it! It seems like they're not all there! What's happened to them?"

"Nobody knows. We don't know what to do about it," Korfman said. He tried to console Maria. He brought her some coffee and cake.

She wiped her eyes and ate some of the cake. "Is it really true?" she asked, and then washed back the cake with a sip of coffee. "Are they really trying to sell their own shit?"

Something changed in Korfman's eyes. "The problem is they're not producing as much sugar as the rest of us," he said in a strange voice. "Their most recent output was last week...just enough to sweeten your cake and coffee!"

***

Donald Trump lumbers into the oval office and finds his daughter Ivanka and his son Eric on their knees cutting up pieces of carpet from the floor.

"What the hell's going on?" Trump bellowed.

"We're cutting up pieces of the oval office carpet. We're going to flog them online. We can make a small fortune out of this!" Eric said gleefully.

"I won't allow this in my White House!" Trump thundered.

"But why not?" asked Ivanka. "You said that when you were elected president you would look out for our best interests above all else! You said that this was the greatest opportunity to expand our family's wealth! You said that we would plunder the useful idiots who handed you the reins of power and we would milk the brainless suckers for all they were worth! You said they would believe anything you said! You said that if you told them shit was sugar, they would believe it!"

"Exactly!" Trump said. "Which is why I won't allow such a lame attempt to sell off the oval office carpet. The pieces are much too big. Here, let me show you. You cut them into much smaller pieces like this..."

***

What's with Donald and Melania's constant slit-eyed squinting?

They're both always straining to see something admirable in the other.

***

The first black family in the White House is to be followed by a con artist and an illegal immigrant. Proof that anyone can occupy the house formerly burnt to the ground by Canadians.

Hey, give Canadians a break! Not only are they dealing with Americans fleeing north of the border to escape the newly-elected wacko and his band of right-wing freaks, but, just like everyone else, they're bound to suffer at the hands of Trump in the coming years.

***

Well, here we are at the end of this post, and what do you know? All the jokes had a slight anti-Trump slant to them despite the fact that I said otherwise in the opening paragraph. Well, what can you do? It's a sign of things to come. For the people who voted for Trump, the joke ultimately will be on you.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Donald Trump: Anatomy of an Unhinged Lunatic's Rise to Power

mushroom cloud
With word that the USA had just elected as president a sociopath with zero minutes of experience governing at any level, China spontaneously ejaculated. Now that Americans have handed the reins of power to an unhinged, easily manipulated, 70 year-old megalomaniacal buffoon, China can see their plans for hegemonic ascendance brought forward by at least a few decades.

When you have the most powerful country economically and militarily, but you also possess a relatively dismal public school system, and a populace whose belief in fundamentalist religion rivals any third world country, the US experiment in democracy was bound to end up where it has.

Or, as Winston Churchill once said, "The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter."

A shameless racist with zero knowledge of the world or how government works is now in control of one of the world's largest nuclear stockpiles. He's the same freak who comes unhinged at mild criticism, seeks vengeance against anyone who dares to defy him, brags about sexually assaulting women and has a soft spot for dictators and despots.

That's not to say that Donald J. Trump is completely absent any intelligence whatsoever. He perfectly played 56 million-plus morons in the self-described greatest nation on earth, spinning fantasies about policies that even he isn't stupid enough to try and implement. Even if he really were as stupid as his claims and promises suggest, the US constitution and system of governance simply wouldn't allow many of his inane proposals to get off the ground.

No, his intelligence is of the base, manipulative, reptilian sort, which legitimizes the worst instincts in angry, bitter people. He convinces his followers that they can wreak vengeance by proxy as he describes everything in simplistic, black and white terms, lines up weak, marginalized targets, and assigns blame to others for a litany of problems that plague individuals and society.

Donnie, 'Little Fingers' Trump has tapped into the fascist, authoritarian streak that runs through the heart of the good ol' US of A. Anyone with a brain who doesn't gain their knowledge of the world solely through mainstream media knows that it makes good sense to distrust, if not fear, American power and influence. In many ways, Trump is a more logical representation of what the US has always stood for, but without the sheen of respectability and Hollywood horseshit.

But Trump was right about some of the things he said during the campaign. His claims that mainstream media was giving short shrift to the power of his 'movement' appear to have been completely accurate. The suggestion that some people were reluctant to share their true intentions with pollsters, or that pundits and pollsters simply didn't know what they were talking about, also seems to have merit.

Speaking of some of those media outlets: they have some explaining to do, and perhaps even share some of the blame for Trump's victory. Take for example left-wing media like Huffington Post, Politico and the New York Times. During the last stretch of the campaign, some of those organizations pegged Hillary Clinton's chances at winning at 98% or higher (though those predictions quickly disappeared from their sites when the results started rolling in on election night). It's not much of a stretch to suggest that those kinds of numbers helped to lull some voters into a false sense that Clinton would finally, in the end, cruise to victory.

No discussion of Trump's victory would be complete without comparisons to good old Shicklgrubr. Most people are familiar with the fact that Donald Trump's grandfather changed his surname from Drumpf to Trump when he arrived as an immigrant in the US in 1885. Just a few years later, the father of Adolf Hitler changed his surname from Shicklgruber to Hitler a few months before little Adolf was born in 1889. While the change to Trump was done for purposes of assimilating, the change to Hitler was because of a local law in Germany at the time which required a person who purchased land to have their father's surname (before the name change, Alois Hitler used his mother's surname, Shicklgruber). Even in German, the surname Shicklgruber sounds somewhat absurd. Would one of history's most brutal, murderous psychopaths have ever risen to power with such a name?

Aside from that little factoid, there are other similarities. Trump will never have the same raging, hypnotic, oratory skills of Hitler, but he does seem to possess some strange pull over an audience when he is speaking. Both were ridiculed as buffoons before they took power, and both had/have explosive tempers that tried/try to mask fragile, extremely narcissistic personalities. But perhaps more than anything, the societies in which they took power were both collectively angry and looking for vengeance for perceived injustice and thus ripe for someone with such a personality to take control. I've made this comparison numerous times between Germany post World War One and the USA post-9/11.

When Trump takes the oath of office and takes up residence in the White House in January, 2017 with his decades younger, eastern European, former illegal immigrant wife and their little Slavic-faced son, it will be a surreal sight indeed. The most shockingly ill-prepared, temperamentally unfit, invincibly ignorant person imaginable will occupy the most powerful position in the world. If there's anything that can provide hope to Americans with brains and the rest of the world it is this: Trump will also be the oldest first-term president in history.

At 70 years old, heavily overweight, and possessing the tendency to lose control in the face of minor annoyances, there's a very real possibility that Trump will never live to see the end of his first term. I'm calling it: Donald J. Trump will die while serving as president of the USA before 2020. In the meantime, for yanks who have stuck the fork in the light socket to see what happens, it's time to start living with the consequences.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Book Review: And the Band Played On by Randy Shilts

And the Band Played On book cover
And the Band Played On: Politics, People and the AIDS Epidemic, by Randy Shilts, details the early years of the AIDS epidemic in the US. Shilts focuses on a number of different groups and highlights their negligence in providing the funding to research the disease and their shameless indifference and lack of urgency in alerting people to the dangers of the disease. Specifically, Shilts looks at politicians, the media, the scientific community, the blood industry and the people who were affected most by AIDS (gay men, intravenous drug users, and haemophiliacs and other blood transfusion recipients).

This book is written in the reportage style (appropriate, as Shilts was a reporter) that results in, what I believe, is the type of non-fiction book that most people find the most entertaining and readable. In other words, real-life characters are developed, situations and dialogue are recreated, and tension is built up, despite the fact that the majority of readers know, in general, how things play out in the tragic saga of the AIDS epidemic. Shilts made no attempt to be objective. He editorializes heavily, or as some like to call it, offers up the "muckraking" style of reportage. His blunt assessments and judgmental asides are quite enjoyable most of the time. And the method gains credibility by the fact that he lambastes everyone with (almost) equal vigour.

Shilts was a gay man and lived and worked in San Francisco as a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle. But, in And the Band Played On, he does not hesitate to go after many in the gay community for their stubborn refusal to alter their behaviour as details of how AIDS was spread came to light. As Shilts states a number of times, many gay men literally "fucked themselves to death." He also heaps hammer-blows of well-deserved criticism on owners of gay bath houses, which Shilts refers to as "biological cesspools," and provides the kind of stomach-churning details that may be too much for some readers (think Crisco and limbs disappearing up...well, you get the picture).

As a result, Shilts was vilified by many in various gay communities throughout the US. Still, I can't help but feel that in some ways, he didn't go far enough in his criticism. For example, as the book moves into the early 1980s and the first instances of blood transfusion AIDS cases surface, Shilts rightly rips the arrogant executives of the blood industry for failing to take action to properly screen donors.

Yet, Shilts indicates that, for whatever reason, gay men donate disproportionately more blood than most other demographics in the US. They apparently continued to donate heavily as questions about blood safety were raised, and Shilts even mentions a phenomenon that he claims to have existed among some gay men: that they continued to donate blood as if the very act was a way of convincing themselves that they couldn't possibly contract AIDS.

So surely the question will rise up in the minds of many readers: does the gay community, or at the very least those infected men who donated blood, not bear some culpability in the horrible deaths of the many innocent people who died as a result of tainted blood transfusions? But Shilts never really goes near this angle and instead reserves the majority of his wrath regarding tainted blood for the money-grubbing scumbags in the blood industry who were apparently more concerned about the costs of implementing new screening procedures than the possibility of heading off the impending disaster.

Similarly, while Shilts despises the rationalizations and self-serving excuse-making of many in the gay community and other politically correct enablers in society (he calls their mealy-mouthed bullshit "AIDS-speak"), at times he seems to veer into that same territory himself.

Also, Shilts cannot resist the urge felt by so many non-fiction writers and engages in some myth-making. This is with regards to an early AIDS patient named Gaetan Dugas who was labelled "patient zero" for the apparent fact that he infected so many other men through his reckless sexual activity. This notion of a patient who caused the disease to spread faster than it otherwise would have has largely been debunked.

The storyline of Dugas features quite significantly in the early part of the book, replete with apocryphal anecdotes of Dugas happily informing other gay men that he has just infected them with AIDS. Also, Shilts builds Dugas up as being attractive in some kind of otherworldly way. But a Google image search turns up photos of a relatively average-looking dolt. I believe that Shilts knew how such a narrative would appeal to so many people's sense of the sinister and so he ran with it. However, to be fair, some researchers at the time also floated this idea of "patient zero" and gave some credence to it.

Shilts and the characters in the book rail against and righteously bash various levels of government, with the federal government under Ronald Reagan coming in for the most well-deserved and complete pasting. It's hard to believe how short-sighted and petty the Republicans were and how many lives were lost (e.g., limited funds for research and nation-wide information campaigns) due to foot-dragging and sometimes outright hostility. Reagan did not utter the word “AIDS” publicly until about 1986 or 87.

The book is prescient in many ways, especially in debunking the early propaganda that heterosexuals in North America should fear AIDS in the same way that homosexual men eventually did. And the Band Played On was first published way back in 1987 but Shilts already saw that kind of talk (i.e., that non-drug-using heterosexuals were at risk to the same degree as intravenous drug users and gay men) as fear-mongering and an attempt to get more people concerned about the disease and thus increase government funding. This was a number of years before the one-man North American heterosexual male epidemic hit in the form of Magic Johnson and before such shrill proclamations by the likes of Oprah Winfrey that heterosexuals in the US would be devastated by the disease in the same way that gay men had been. Of course, that has never happened.

Finally, I don't believe what Shilts says regarding those who died of AIDS; that they were heroic in the way they died. People beset by tragedy cope in any way they can because there is no other choice. Just as the word "hero" is tossed around casually in war, the reality is that, just as with millions who have already perished from AIDS, a much better description is “tragic waste.” However, I agree that people who had AIDS and spent their remaining days risking arrest during protests and did everything in their power to increase awareness and funding deserve a great deal of praise.

Despite some of the criticisms mentioned above, And the Band Played On is an informative and epic chronicling of the early years of the AIDS epidemic in the US and other parts of the world. While many people may have a general idea of how things transpired, they will undoubtedly learn a great deal about the disease and the numerous obstacles faced by scientists, activists and the people who were infected. Sadly, Shilts was diagnosed with AIDS and died in 1994. He leaves an impressive legacy with And the Band Played On.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

The Lasting Influence of On the Road by Jack Kerouac

On the Road by Jack Kerouac
A petrol station somewhere on the road to Zaragoza, Spain. We trudged into the shop where motorists could pay for their petrol and purchase the usual selection of packaged food and drinks. Lost in the mists of time is the "how" of ending up there. I presume someone who had given us a lift dropped us off and wished us luck. The sun was already low in the sky, and we had long figured out that hitchhiking could be difficult at the best of times, but when the sun went down it was nearly impossible. With night coming on, we shamelessly badgered people getting in or out of their cars for a ride. We had had pretty good luck getting rides in Spain up to that point: as easily as anywhere else since we had first stuck our thumbs out on the outskirts of Amsterdam. But no one was willing to give us a lift at that bleak petrol station outside of Barcelona.

We decided to walk some more. Maybe we would find a better location for begging a ride, or maybe we would stumble on a cheap hotel where we could stay for the night. As we shuffled back to the road a car came to a halt next to us in the petrol station parking lot. We leaned in the open window and told the driver we were going to Zaragoza. Or, more accurately, we just said "Zaragoza." He motioned us to get in. We did, despite the strong odour of alcohol, and within minutes, we were out on the superhighway blasting towards our destination.

But the euphoria of a free ride quickly vanished as we realized how inebriated our driver was. He hammered the gas pedal to the floor and the speedometer flew past the 200 km/hour mark. He slashed by other cars as if they were standing still. His head started nodding to one side. We jolted him back to the present with loud warnings and exhortations to slow down. He was completely uncommunicative, though even if he had been speaking, we wouldn't have understood a word he said. He seemed to feed on our obvious fear. I started mentally saying goodbye to family members. I truly believed a deadly crash was imminent. Yet despite the impending horror, neither Hank nor I made any move to wrestle the steering wheel from the driver. It likely would have been futile and may have even had the opposite effect, sending us careening off the side of the road or into another car. And yet, as the nightmare played out, we stopped momentarily at a toll gate. Both Hank and I were experiencing the same emotions, but neither of us took that opportunity to get out of the car. The ordeal continued, but somehow we survived unscathed. It was the last time we hitchhiked together.

We spent some time in Zaragoza and then continued south by bus. We landed in the seaside resort town of Alicante. In our desperate attempts to save money and extend our travels, we slept on the beach for a few nights. A week or so earlier we had visited a bookshop in Barcelona and Hank had bought On the Road by Jack Kerouac. He had finished the book and now passed it on to me. I was blown away by what I read. It was as if all our experiences, emotions and observations of the time we had been travelling had been transposed onto the pages in front of me. The incredible highs and lows, the bizarre characters, the hitchhiking, the unhinged sense of freedom to go wherever we wanted, to leave any location in the rear-view mirror when the notion struck, to be the most irresponsible, out-of-control sons-of-bitches imaginable.

But after three months of travelling together, we were beginning to grate on each other's nerves. For the past couple of weeks I had been talking about striking off on my own, but Kerouac's words really solidified my desire to carve out a new travel experience. Would we have eventually gone our separate ways if I hadn't read On the Road? No doubt, but the lift-off from that incredible book lasted for months and probably contributed to the hell-bent mentality that gripped me as I said goodbye to Hank.

More than 20 years later—most of that time spent travelling or living in foreign countries—I decided it was time to revisit Kerouac's classic to see if it has stood the test of time. Would I still see On the Road the way I had years ago? Would Kerouac's words ring as true to me as they had more than two decades earlier?

On the Road opens in 1946. The war is over and Sal Paradise (Kerouac) is itching to hit the road and explore America. Letters from friends in Denver and San Francisco paint a picture of wild times and spiritual awakenings. Or at the very least, booze and women. The lure of adventure is strong for Sal, but almost as strong a motivating factor is Dean Moriarty (Neal Cassady), a legend among Sal's friends who have met him or heard of his growing reputation. Sal first meets Dean in New York, and their friendship and Dean's manic, unrelenting approach to life comprise a big part of the rest of the book.

Moriarty had a hard-scrabble upbringing, did time in reform school and is an inveterate car thief. But he is also a budding intellectual who thrives among his better-educated middle class companions. He looks to them for advice on writing, philosophy, music and mysticism. Moriarty is alternately described as a two-bit hood who has somehow tapped into the zeitgeist and convinced many around him that he is some kind of mystic.

Moriarty's manic personality, his real-time, stream-of-consciousness observations, his lack of any regulating influences (like, say, consideration for others), his capacity for hammering booze and drugs down his throat and his desire to go, go, go, make him a perfect hero for the writers, deadbeats, and wanderers who populate On the Road. The insatiable desire to see new locations, meet new, gone characters and experience life to its fullest regardless of consequences tie in perfectly with the sense of freedom and movement that make On the Road so memorable. With the spectre of Moriarty looming large in his mind, Sal begins his journey: He hops a few buses which take him as far as Joliet, Illinois, and then he keeps moving any way he can—usually by hitchhiking.

I wondered if my memories of On the Road had been coloured by where and when I had first read it, and then polished to a nostalgic sheen in the intervening 20 years. But it wasn't long after I started re-reading the book that I realized its solid reputation is built on Kerouac's stark, evocative writing that so beautifully straddles the line between joyous freedom and profound loneliness. In this passage, Paradise is in a hotel room in Des Moine shortly after his first cross-country trip begins. It so perfectly captures the feelings that were permanently carved into my memories during all those years of travel:
I woke up as the sun was reddening; and that was the one distinct time in my life, the strangest moment of all, when I didn't know who I was—I was far away from home, haunted and tired with travel, in a cheap hotel room I'd never seen hearing the hiss of steam outside, and the creak of the old wood of the hotel, and footsteps upstairs, and all the sad sounds, and I looked at the cracked high ceiling and really didn't know who I was for about fifteen strange seconds. I wasn't scared; I was just somebody else, some stranger and my whole life was a haunted life, the life of a ghost. I was halfway across America, at the dividing line between the East of my youth and the West of my future, and maybe that's why it happened right there and then, that strange red afternoon.
Paradise's first destination is Denver, where he hooks up with numerous friends and once again seeks out the elusive and mysterious Dean Moriarty. But their time together is fleeting and Paradise continues on to California. He briefly works as a security guard in an army barracks, which, not surprisingly, doesn't turn out too well. And then Paradise is on the move again. Kerouac is often at his poetic best during arrivals and departures or when he's blazing down the road and enjoying the moment:
The sun goes down long and red. All the magic names of the valley unrolled—Manteca, Madera, all the rest. Soon it got dusk, a grapy dusk, a purple dusk over tangerine groves and long melon fields; the sun the color of pressed grapes, slashed with burgundy red, the fields the color of love and Spanish mysteries. I stuck my head out the window and took deep breaths of the fragrant air. It was the most beautiful of all moments.
He continues down into southern California where he hooks up with a young Mexican woman. More antics, adventures, the occasional bout of paranoia, all in service of new tales to tell, new experiences, new emotions. And then, as it always does in every locale, it all falls apart. Paradise takes buses and rides from strangers and heads back east to the comfort of his aunt's house in New Jersey. Together with the stretches of sweet, aching desolation distilled into its purest essence, there is also plenty of humour:
I might have gotten a ride with an affluent fatman who'd say "Let's stop at this restaurant and have some pork chops and beans." No, I had to get a ride that morning with a maniac who believed in controlled starvation for the sake of health.
A year later Moriarty hooks up with Paradise again, this time at the home of Sal's brother in Virginia. Moriarty has a car now and they head to New York, then to Chicago, down to New Orleans, where they stay with Old Bull Lee (William Burroughs), through Texas, New Mexico and Arizona and finally again to San Francisco. Inevitably, things go haywire again and Sal heads back east alone. But through it all, Sal and Dean have formed some kind of close bond, and Paradise often refers to Dean as his brother. You wouldn't have to stretch too far to infer an even more intimate relationship between the two (those inferences made much easier with the amount written by various observers and others who were part of the mix at the time).

As the novel winds down, Paradise and Moriarty reconnect a few years later and make their long-talked-about journey to a foreign country. Not to Europe as they had long planned, but south to Mexico. This final journey together has a more world-weary, slightly darker tone, although the appetite for hedonistic abandon is still there. The alcohol, drugs and prostitutes leave Sal laid out with a fever, writhing in pain, and Dean chooses that moment to say goodbye:
"All that again, good buddy. Gotta get back to my life. Wish I could stay with you. Pray I can come back." I grabbed the cramps in my belly and groaned. When I looked up again bold noble Dean was standing with his old broken trunk and looking down at me. I didn't know who he was any more, and he knew this and sympathized, and pulled the blanket over my shoulders. "Yes, yes, yes, I've got to go now.
Old fever Sal, good-by." And he was gone. Twelve hours later in my sorrowful fever I finally came to understand that he was gone. By that time he was driving back alone through those banana mountains, this time at night.
I enjoyed reading On the Road as much or more this time around. During the intervening 20 years, I spent more time travelling and living abroad. I also read other novels by Kerouac—though in my opinion, nothing else he wrote comes close to On the Road (probably a non-hipster opinion there—How could the most widely read novel of a gee-nee-us like Kerouac be his best? Say it ain't so...). However, some things jumped out at me that I didn't pay much attention to the first time.

First, the sheer number of people fucked over by the antics of Paradise, Moriarty and the other stand-up individuals who appear throughout the book. Child abandonment, thieving, the odd explosion of violence, and numerous other crimes and misdemeanors. It's basically an orgy of non-stop self-serving behaviour. Sadly, it rings true to many of my experiences while travelling. Something about knowing you are leaving a country next week spurs you on to more shameless acts of selfishness. This is not to suggest that bad behaviour is only perpetrated by feckless travellers. But there is a certain kind of glee that anything done in pursuit of the next high, natural or otherwise, trumps any kind of consideration for quaint, old-fashioned notions like common decency. The fact that Kerouac includes so many references to people cast aside in the pursuit of pleasure is one sign of authenticity, though I'm betting he was less truthful about his own bad behaviour than that of others he describes in the book.

Something else I noticed during my second reading: some of Kerouac's observations are mind-blowingly naïve. Perhaps the notion was new at the time that only the marginalized, the outcasts, or the minorities are genuine and should engender a kind of religious awe, but now it's a sad cliché. Maybe the desperate need to break away from establishment beliefs and morals was part of that kind of thinking. And maybe those first, fresh-eyed interactions with people and places that were previously off limits do result in a sort of joyous naïveté and accompanying observations. Come to think of it, I did all those things too, and had a kind of simplistic take on those experiences that to me seemed so original and daring at the time. And sweet mother of fuck, I've just talked myself out of the initial criticism. Still, anyone who has lived in a third-world country will cringe as they read some of Kerouac's musings on the poor people of Mexico. Of course, Kerouac was still very young at the time of those observations, and anyway, a more nuanced, sneering nihilism would likely have spoiled the effect.

Although On the Road may be classified as a novel, it's no secret that it's really a thinly disguised autobiography, as are most of Kerouac's books. Which means that there are not the same opportunities for presenting conflict as in purely fictional tales. But there's still plenty of conflict in On the Road. Often it comes in the form of the previously mentioned instances when people are parting company and disputes remain unresolved (or the disputes sparked the departures, cloaked in the guise of "time to move on"). Also, within Kerouac's narration, there is more than a little internal conflict. Regardless of how many new experiences you have, that kind of lifestyle over an extended period of time, together with sacrificing a more stable situation, can take its toll.

Is the lifestyle worth it? For Kerouac and other artists who lived at that time, the excesses apparently helped them achieve a state of mind that allowed them to create art. But many of them, including both Kerouac and Cassady, would pay the ultimate price. Cassady died at 41 after a lifetime of drug abuse topped off with one final epic, monumental session of ingesting all manner of substances, before striding out into the night, never to be seen alive again. It was somehow symbolic and appropriate that he was found dead next to a railroad line, on the move and seeking out new experiences until the very end. Kerouac died of health problems brought on by alcoholism at the age of 47, and by all accounts his last years were not happy ones.

I often reminisce about my own long-ago days of travel and adventure, and while I might never get the chance to relive them, they will be a life-long source of inspiration and comfort. In a similar way, On the Road will always be an important book to me—for the memory of reading it the first time and how it affected me, and for the writing itself, which so perfectly captures the emotions and mindset of that particular kind of carefree, come-what-may travel experience.

Saturday, May 7, 2016

7-Eleven Thailand: A Home Away from Home

7-Eleven
When I think of 7-Elevens in Canada, a few different images rise up in my mind. A grubby shop with over-priced chocolate bars, Wonder Bread, a large drinks cooler with glass doors, a few Slurpee machines, and a magazine rack. A decade or 15 years ago, you might have seen a few video games stuck in the corner. Funny, "video game" doesn't instantly paint the picture it used to. By video games, I mean the big stand-up ones in the cabinets that had the joysticks and buttons.

Years ago when I was about 13, a friend and I spent an afternoon hammering nickels into the approximate size of quarters. Of course, the next step was to see if the slugs worked on video games and vending machines. A 7-Eleven down the road from where I lived had a couple of those video games and we spent one afternoon feeding those bashed nickels into the coin slots while furtively looking around to make sure that no one had caught on to our little scam. They worked like a charm. When the first bashed-smooth slug dropped in with a satisfyingly appropriate sound and triggered a credit on the machine, we looked at each other with sneering pride.

Besides the most common goods on offer, most 7-Elevens in Canada at that time had a turbaned proprietor behind the counter and maybe one other employee working at any given time. Wait, that's not fair. The owner didn’t always have a turban although almost inevitably he was from the Indian subcontinent. It's impossible to make a blanket statement about the disposition of those enterprising individuals. Some of them were the nicest people you could meet while others were sullen or borderline hostile. And that's not really surprising.

Because 7-Elevens in Canada are also known for a couple of other things. First, armed hold-ups. Open 24 hours a day, with cash on the premises, few employees present, and almost always well situated for a quick getaway by car, they are obvious targets. Second, they present a perfect location for young punks to loiter and raise havoc. Many 7-Elevens in Canada are stand-alone establishments, often located in the corner of a parking lot of a shopping mall. Plenty of parking spaces, with four walls to lean against, spray graffiti onto, and generally take over as a place to meet, plan mayhem, and load up on junk food and cigarettes. So, yes, owners and employees of 7-Elevens in Canada do put up with their fair share of crap.

In short, Canadian 7-Eleven can be found in numerous locations throughout some of the country's biggest cities. It offers a convenient place to pick up overpriced junk-food, lottery tickets, and cigarettes. Walking into a 7-Eleven and conducting your transaction can often be a seedy, unpleasant experience during which you may come into contact with assorted scumbags purchasing goods or casing the joint with the intention of pulling off an armed robbery at a later time.

The 7-Eleven experience in Thailand is vastly different.

7-Elevens in Thailand are ubiquitous to the point of absurdity. Near my current home in Bangkok, there are seven 7-Elevens within walking distance. I once worked at a university in Thailand that had no fewer than 10 7-Elevens on its campus. Yes, 10. This is not an exaggeration. Ten individual 7-Eleven stores on the same university campus. There might not be that many in an entire medium-sized city in Canada.

Most 7-Elevens in Thailand are not of the stand-alone variety though there are many of those as well. Most of are located on the ground floor of large office buildings or in long one, two, or three-storey shop-houses. Many of them are tiny: one that I occasionally frequent does not have enough space for more than four people to stand inside at the same time without being cramped. Others are extremely large and have their own pharmacies and post offices and 20 or more staff working in them at a time.

Thai 7-Elevens offer many products and services. I can top up my mobile phone at any 7-Eleven. I simply tell the clerk which service I want and for what amount and then I type in my number into a small terminal, pay the fee and within seconds the transaction is complete. Similarly, I can pay all my household bills, such as internet and electricity, at any 7-Eleven. I can pay for airline tickets for one of the largest internal airline companies in Thailand. I make the booking online, take a booking number to my local 7-Eleven, and with a small fee included (about the equivalent of 80 cents), pay for the ticket. I'm then provided with a printout that suffices for checking in at the airport.

7-Eleven sign
The usual products are available: a wide range of salted snacks including many US brand potato chips, chocolate bars, cakes, bread, canned goods, milk, cold drinks, and ice cream. Unlike in Canada, where alcohol can only be bought in government-run liquor stores or authorized beer vendors, 7-Elevens in Thailand offer a wide range of alcoholic beverages: beer and alco-pops in the fridges, and hard liquor behind the cashier—Thai and imported, with Smirnoff and Baccardi the most popular foreign brands—and wine (Jacob's Creek seems quite popular). The iconic Slurpees and Big Gulps are there too.

Pre-packaged sandwiches and other 7-Eleven-brand food provide a consistent and surprisingly good-tasting choice for when you are strapped for time or don't want to risk having your guts shredded at a local restaurant. The croissant ham and cheese sandwiches are a personal favourite, and new entries in recent months have included the pizza croissant sandwich and the sausage and cheese sandwich (in reality, "hot dog" better describes what Thais consider sausages).

Speaking of hot dogs, you can get a reasonably good one at 7-Eleven, though you should take a close look at the ones on display on those heated rollers before ordering. Better to get them to nuke a fresh one and then put it in a preheated bun. Update: unfortunately, hotdog buns are no longer available at 7-Elevens in Thailand, likely due to the fact that most Thais prefer their hot dogs sliced into small pieces and placed in a bag, from which they can skewer each piece with a sharpened wooden stick. Other options in the packaged but perishable range include fried chicken, sushi and pork burgers. Many of these I don’t buy, but turnover is such that you can usually find something reasonably fresh or at least with an expiry date that is still a few days away.

A related line of food is the frozen range, again 7-Eleven brand and with many varieties. The best thing about these meals is that you know you will get the same thing every time. The taste ranges from surprisingly good to bland, with portion sizes somewhat disappointing on occasion.

Many 7-Elevens now have their own little coffee bars that provide reasonably priced, freshly brewed cups. Some of the bigger locations also have their own line of pastries (usually baked elsewhere and trucked in, though some now have their own small bakeries onsite) that are available self-serve style with a pair of tongs and a tray.

The price (often the cheapest available for numerous items), locations (i.e., everywhere), selection, relative freshness and consistency make 7-Elevens quite appealing for the expat in Thailand. They are always a good place to break a 1000-baht note as well. I often slip in and buy a 12-baht KitKat just so that I can get a fistful of hundred-baht notes. A 7-Eleven clerk will never balk at this. The entire chain probably pulls in a couple million baht a day just on the small purchases made by people who want to break 1000-baht notes.

Besides all those benefits, there are other reasons for heading down to the local 7-Eleven. It's a nice air-conditioned respite from the brutal heat of the midday sun in Bangkok. And once you are in there, you will not be slyly watched by employees. At a good-sized 7-Eleven, there could be as many as 20 employees wandering around. Add in a dozen or more security cameras, and you really are free to wander unmolested. But more than that, there is simply a pleasant disconnect that you are afforded by employees at 7-Elevens in Thailand. In fact, I often spend a good 10 or 15 minutes pacing up and down the aisles at the local branch. I may not have even purchased something. I've been a pacer for many years. It's kind of like an active form of meditation. I've never been bothered or even given a second look while doing this at a 7-Eleven in Thailand. You would be physically thrown out, or a staff member might even call the police to intervene if you tried this in Canada.

OK, to be fair, I generally engage in my pacing routine at 7-Elevens where I am already known. But I have on occasion chanced on a previously unknown 7-Eleven in Thailand and just had a good relaxing pace for 10 minutes or so before leaving. Once in a rare while I stop and start juggling three or four dry-food items for kicks.

But probably the best aspect of 7-Elevens in Thailand is the people who work there. They are extremely friendly and are perfect for practicing your Thai with. Many young female university students work part-time at 7-Eleven and they are always willing to speak Thai with a foreigner. Even after I have finished paying for my items, I will often linger around the front counter and discuss various topics with the staff.

This love letter to 7-Elevens in Thailand likely won't sit well with those wanting to go native. It just doesn't seem right to praise a western franchise in a developing country, especially one that, to date, has more than 8000 locations in Thailand, half of them in Bangkok. But after more than a decade in Thailand, I don't give a good freak-damn whether other foreigners deem my opinions on my adopted country appropriate or not. Sure, there are plenty of enjoyable, non-corporate, traditional experiences to be had, but more often than not, I'll stride by the street restaurant pitched up outside a major 7-Eleven and carry on into the air-conditioned comfort where I can have an ice-cold drink, pace the aisles for 10 minutes and then have an impromptu Thai lesson with the staff.

Friday, May 6, 2016

How to Move a Table in Microsoft Word

Tefl Spin Tutorials
This tutorial demonstrates how to move a table within a Microsoft Word 2007 document (these instructions likely work in later versions of MS Word as well).

These instructions are for computers with Windows operating systems.




To move a table in Microsoft Word:

1. Hover your cursor over the upper left corner of the table you want to move
Hover upper left corner of table

2. When the small square appears at the upper left corner of your table, move your cursor directly over the small square until a four-pointed, black symbol appears with the usual white-arrow cursor super-imposed over it
Four-pointed black cursor table
3. Click and hold your left mouse button so that the entire table is highlighted in blue

MS Word table highlighted in blue
Note: The white-arrow cursor disappears at this point
4. With the left mouse button still held down, move the table to your desired location within the document

Move table in MS Word
Note: When you are moving the table, the blue highlighting disappears and a dashed outline of the table remains attached to the four-pointed, black cursor
5. Release mouse button
Result: Your table now appears in the new location
Note: To more precisely move a table, after you begin moving the table, press and hold the Shift button on your keyboard. If you began moving your table horizontally, holding the Shift button will lock the movement to the same horizontal plane. If you began moving your table vertically, holding the Shift button will lock the movement to the same vertical plane. 

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Book Review: Travels with Charley: In Search of America by John Steinbeck

Travels with Charley
In 1960, John Steinbeck set off in his modified pickup truck with his poodle, Charley, and spent the next two and a half months travelling across America. The journey occurred in the twilight of Steinbeck's life, and appropriately, he departed just after summer had rolled away to die. His ostensible reason for making the trip was to rediscover something about America, its people, and its character. In Travels with Charley: In Search of America, Steinbeck chronicles his journey.

I've read a number of Steinbeck's classic novels over the years and felt certain that his talents as a memoirist would be just as rewarding. I wasn't disappointed. A kind of double appeal existed when picking up the book—no doubt Steinbeck's spare, concise writing style would be in evidence, but I also felt a voyeuristic attraction in reading about the exploits of one of America's most successful novelists of the 20th century as he wandered the highways and back roads searching for interesting stories to tell. But Steinbeck wisely decided to remain as anonymous as possible during his months on the road. It's impossible to avoid making any references to oneself when writing a memoir, but he at least removed an angle that could have resulted in some fawning and disingenuous interactions with people he met along the way.

When Steinbeck departed with his dog in the fall of 1960, he only had eight years left to live. Of course, he didn't know that at the time, though he did know the mortal bell was tolling not too far off in the distance. At the beginning of the book, he mentions his recent bout of ill health:
During the previous winter I had become rather seriously ill with one of those carefully named difficulties which are the whispers of approaching age. When I came out of it I received the usual lecture about slowing up, losing weight, limiting the cholesterol intake.
This marks the beginning of one of many extended passages that are interspersed throughout the book and which focus on various subjects. In this particular passage, he goes on to discuss the fact that he does not want to become dependent on others as he gets older. Like most people who have lived to a reasonable age, Steinbeck had already acquired a lifetime of wisdom when he set out on his journey. But unlike most people, he was able to distill that wisdom into engaging and entertaining prose. As with many of his musings on the world and the ways of human beings, his piece about refusing to regress into an infantile state as old age looms, had me nodding in agreement.

It would be his last lap around the country he loved so much and which provided him with the inspiration for the books he wrote. And yet, he never seems quite at ease with what he finds, and he regularly questions the direction in which he sees society heading. He is never bitter, only philosophical, and the tone often reminds me of a theme that is so common in many old western movies. Everyone reaches a stage in life when the world has moved on, and the only thing left to do is settle accounts and say goodbye. Those tales usually strike a chord with anyone who has ever yearned for something better, learned about loss, or faced down their own mortality. Like those movies, Steinbeck's words are often graceful and poetic as they simultaneously celebrate and lament the human condition.

The nostalgia that comes through in a book written more than 50 years ago is palpably different than in one whose author looks back in time and tries to recapture the past. A certain turn of phrase that no longer exists, the world frozen at that particular place and time, and the knowledge that the author too has long since passed away, all add a special kind of wistfulness to the reading experience.  Also, with the intervening years, you can judge just how prescient Steinbeck was with his analyses and predictions. Indeed, he was very accurate in much of what he wrote. Of course, it was hardly rocket science to foresee that cities would keep growing, the local flavour of many regions would start to disappear, and the reckless, predatory approach to the environment would take its toll.

Steinbeck travels through the northern states until he hits the west coast and then drives down through California, across Arizona and New Mexico and into Texas. Finally, he enters the troubled southern states on his final stretch before returning home. Along the way, he reflects on many subjects—both those specific to whichever state he is in at the time and those universal ideas that all people can relate to. And many of his observations are naturally related to travelling, and specifically travelling alone. Anyone who has done any solo travelling will understand the roller coaster of emotions, the loneliness, and the litany of serendipitous encounters that can hammer a person into a magical, otherworldly state. In this passage, Steinbeck echoes the truism that most travellers internalize after an extended and unscheduled period of wandering: no matter what you think you know beforehand, you can never start to understand what a place is about until you are there:
It is possible, even probable, to be told a truth about a place, to accept it, to know it and at the same time not know anything about it. I'd never been to Wisconsin, but all my life I had heard about it, had eaten its cheeses, some of them as good as any in the world. And I must have seen pictures.Everyone must have. Why then was I unprepared for the beauty of this region, for its variety of field and hill, forest, lake?
...I don't know how it is in other seasons, the summers may reek and rock with the heat, the winters may groan with dismal cold, but when I saw it for the first and only time in early October, the air was rich with butter-colored sunlight, not fuzzy but crisp and clear, so that every frost-gay tree was set off, the rising hills were not compounded, but alone and separate.
In a somewhat related vein, he describes the notion that dictates many people's decisions when they are travelling: the need to experience things in a scripted way that will be appreciated by friends and family back home:
I could hear them say, "You mean you were that near to Yellowstone and didn't go? You must be crazy." Again it might have been the American tendency in travel. One goes, not so much to see, but to tell afterwards.
Many of Steinbeck's observations are not specifically related to travelling, but still ring true. For example, in this section, he talks about the disappointment of trying to turn someone else on to an experience that has given you pleasure:
I felt the rage and hatred one has toward non-appreciators, toward those who through ignorance destroy a treasured plan.
Now, in the above sentence, Steinbeck is referring to his dog Charley not appreciating the majestic splendour of a redwood tree, but still, the sentiment is a good one. And speaking of Charley; as the only other main character in the book besides Steinbeck, he gets a fair amount of ink. Steinbeck clearly loves his dog and any pet lover will enjoy those comments about his furry travel companion.

As an accomplished novelist, Steinbeck understood the importance of relaying the interactions he had with people he met along the way. Those passages in which the writing shifts from narrative summary to specific scenes have a timeless immediacy and are some of the best parts of the book. In the following scene, Steinbeck describes the Badlands in North Dakota and a taciturn character he meets at the side of a road:
Presently I saw a man leaning on a two-strand barbed-wired fence, the wires fixed not to posts but to crooked tree limbs stuck in the ground. The man wore a dark hat, and jeans and long jacket washed palest blue with lighter places at knees and elbows. His pale eyes were frosted with sun glare and his lips scaly as snakeskin.
...I pulled up to speak to him, saw his eyes wash over Rocinante, sweep up the details, and then retire into their sockets. And I found I had nothing to say to him.
All books, not just novels, thrive on conflict and drama, and there are many pages that will keep readers following along in excited anticipation. The direction of Steinbeck's trip meant that he visited the South just before he returned home (or maybe he had an inkling that events in that part of the country might provide some good drama and planned his journey with that in mind). Regardless, the descriptions of racial tensions in New Orleans and other locations, and the deft character sketches of people he meets in the South provide some of the most compelling reading in the book. For the most part, Steinbeck makes the racists he encounters look like scared buffoons, though he also meets a number of people sickened by the civil rights' abuses that were going on in their midst at the time.

Travels with Charley has enjoyed a resurgence in popularity recently, somewhat in part because of questions regarding the authenticity of both the timeline involved and Steinbeck's interactions with various people along the way. This writer (a former journalist) in particular has devoted a lot of time to researching Steinbeck's book with the goal of demonstrating that things just couldn't have happened exactly the way Steinbeck claimed they did. Some of the information on his website is interesting (and he has written a book about his research), but the whole underlying premise of trying to prove that Steinbeck took liberties, created some composite characters and even cooked up some dialogue, just seems rather pointless. Although I suppose piggy-backing a book on the legacy of one of the most famous writers of the past hundred years has potential for generating publicity.

In my experience, all non-fiction writers play with the truth to varying degrees. Especially in travel writing, where an obvious narrative doesn't always present itself, I have often found myself wondering how things happened to fit so nicely in certain travel memoirs. Of course, readers expect that things happen basically how they are presented in non-fiction books. But most people would not be outraged to learn that the dialogue they read in a travelogue is not exactly how it was spoken. If writers presented conversations verbatim, they would be unreadable. The idea, repeated by the writer linked to above, as well as others, including Steinbeck's son (who is on record with a few nasty digs at his deceased father—not sure what the story is there) that because Steinbeck was a novelist, it should be expected that he created large swaths of Travels with Charley out of whole cloth. I disagree. I think the only expectation is that whatever changes another writer would have inevitably made wouldn't have resulted in a book that was as well written or entertaining as Travels with Charley. No doubt some of the claims about authenticity go beyond manufactured dialogue. But if Steinbeck put in the time on the road, visited the places he says he visited, and maintained the spirit of conversations he had with the people he met, I don't have much problem with a few embellishments.

However, after saying all that, I still feel there are some rather clichéd passages in Travels with Charley. For example, as Steinbeck sits in a hotel room vacated by another guest but not yet cleaned by hotel staff, he tries to imagine the recently departed guest based on the state of the room and some scraps of paper he left behind. It comes across as rather unbelievable. But then, life often is unbelievable. Wouldn't it be interesting if those sections of the book that seem to lack realism were in fact fully authentic, while others that attracted no scrutiny were invented? Yet, even though the hotel scene feels a bit forced, the stark loneliness of the passage combined with the prurient interest it elicits makes it effective and memorable on another level.

Travels with Charley was released in 1962 and was Steinbeck's last major, original work published while he was still alive, and fittingly, it spent some time as the New York Times number one bestseller. More than fifty years later, Steinbeck's observations, wisdom and simple eloquence make Travels with Charley a book well worth reading.