Monday, December 31, 2007

This Year, Gimme a Reason

So it was our final day of quote unquote work, the day when students' grades are posted and we're supposed to make an appearance in our offices in case a student wants to track us down to do a bit of haggling, some responsibility evading and blame shifting. I sat at my desk making unnecessary busy work look like work. I was deleting a semesters' worth of Emails from Outlook one-by-one.

A colleague whose office is next door strolled past talking to someone, both of them engaged in current events dribble drabble when I heard her say something along the lines of ". . .that Sarkozy, just who does he think he is?"

Without looking up I quipped, "He's Ahmedinejad with a French accent!" I quip a lot, usually more miss than hit, but this one got a laugh and a "Yes, you're absolutely right," as she "got it"; it being that I see Sarkozy as a political feather weight trying to shoe horn himself into a heavier class by raking small piles of muck here and there in lieu of generating any ideas of substance.

I was about to get back to my non-work when all a'sudden Super Muslim, a Pakistani teacher colleague with a UK passport, a thick fundo-Mooslem beard and an affected posh British accent overheard my quip and took this politically tainted one liner as an opportunity to invite himself into my office to sucker me into listening to yet another one of his "America the Great Satan" diatribes.

Usually I allow my mind to wander to other more pleasant and happier worlds while I mouth "yes, uh-huh, hmm, I see, right, you got a point, etc" in order to side step coming down against anti-American vitriol, which is rampant 'round here and maybe justifiably so--but speaking out against anti-American vitriol in this region might get you labeled a Zionist and you don't want that. It is not just Dubya who's got the "you are either fer us" or "ag'in us" world view.

I also usually disengage because I'm too lazy to engage the rhetorically challenged--unless I'm getting paid to do so. In that case, I will take a red pen to a freshman comp essay where I will I draw arrows that lead off to a margin that has comments from me like "hasty generalization" or "false analogy" or "quote source" It's hard to do that sort of thing while listening to some asshole rant about what a shitty world this is because of America.

But I'd had a couple of bad days. I was in a bitchy mood. There'd been all this cooking for the holidays. My Ipod had just been run through the washing machine and its carcass is now decomposing on some landfill. A new printer we'd bought two weeks ago was misfeeding A4 paper and when we took it back to get a replacement, the shop where we'd bought it told us that it had to go to the dealer for repairs, come back in two weeks. Shit like that just piling up and putting me on edge.

So this time when the bearded one started quoting some Time Magazine statistics about how functioning illiterate Americans are supposed to be, citing some test where high school students were asked to point out countries on a map and couldn't, and that this illiteracy is why Americans are now in Iraq and Afghanistan murdering innocent Muslim babies, I dropped my guard and responded.

"Oh as if that's any worse, " I said, "than 95% of the Arab world believing that the Washington Post reported how on the night before September 11, 3,000 Jews who worked at the World Trade Center were telephoned and told to skip work the next day."

My comment gave the bearded one pause, an uncomfortable pause because of course he is in that 95% and I had just called him a moron.

Later that day, I was riding round town half listening to the BBC when whatever story I wasn't listening to was interrupted by a grave announcer who said that Bhutto had just been assassinated.

Oh bloody hell.

Bhutto was a crook and a despot within her own political party--she even initially approved of the Taleban government allowing them to set up an embassy in Pakistan while she was in power. I don't think that if she had been elected to take charge in Pakistan, that Al Qaeda's days would have been numbered and that suicide bombings would have suddenly lost their appeal.

But for better or worse, she was a choice, and a reasonable one at that in her country's upcoming election. And having a reasonable choice is the thing. It's really all we've got to defend ourselves against conspiracy theory assholes whose words, when put into action, convince young men that strapping TNT to their bodies and blowing themselves and a bunch of other people into kingdom come is a viable career move.

My hope for the new year is that her murder will create a backlash, that throughout Pakistan reasonable, progressive secularists will now be mad as hell and will refuse to take it anymore, that they will choose a reasonable leader who will resolve to bring unreasonable Jihadis to their knees, and that this reasonable movement will grow legs and spread into Iraq where a people's power movement will unite one and all and that reasonable choices other than blowing yourself up will win the day. Then the US Army can go home and Blackwater and Triple Canopy can go bankrupt.

Then maybe asshole conspiracy theorists will no longer waste my time at work because I'm perfectly capable of finding ways to waste my own office hours.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Handel It Ain't

The holiday season in the Gulf Arab community of ex-pats has once again been tolerated with weeks of preparation, a significant chunk of change, a close network of friends and colleagues with whom we could commiserate, some generic Valium left over from my last trip to Cambodia and a few low-spectrum seasonal disorder mood swings.

Christmas in the Gulf often seems like a somewhat peculiar affair, as with most everything in the Arabian Gulf, especially the UAE and Dubai in particular. First off, one would think the opposite what with the "And it came to pass" landscape with its "Lo!" date palms and "Behold!" desert scrub; not to mention its flocks of goats and sheep grazing just beyond the always-under-construction retro future skyline or the back roads peppered with camel shit. Then there are the locals whose dress year round is along the lines of adoring Magi and other curious Baby Jesus onlookers. Wouldn't all of this "Gospel According To" ambience seem more applicable to the whole living nativity scene thing? You would think.

But then this being a Muslim country, the Christmas holiday--like all forbidden fruits from the land of the infidels, like, say, alcohol, Marshall amplifiers, and, because they contain some kind of pork by-product, marshmellows--has to be surreptitiously imported and discretely distributed.

We found solace with a team made up of half-dozen Brits, a German couple from one of my old stomping grounds, Mannheim, and an Iraqi who's chain guzzling Heinekens to cope with his exile.

We'd made reservations for a pig out brunch at the Ajman Kempinsky Hotel, then scheduled a Christmas evening booze fest with "nibbles" and punch.

St Nicholas showed up at the Kempinsky. He had almond eyes and his "Ho Ho Ho" had a high pitched Filipino accent. As he awkwardly made his way from table to table, he doled out Kempinsky key chains with miniature flash lights. I'm pretty sure he endured the humiliation sober, so, he's more of a mensch than I--and I salute him.

Later, in someone's living room, a clatter of folk joined our gang, and we all sat around sopping up cheap Freixenet Champagne/B and R rasberry sherbet punch.

At some point, someone or other hectored me to go home and fetch my guitar. Now, I don't know any Christmas songs save for one--that John Lennon "War Is Over" song which I played, and since they were all pretty pie-eyed and sloshed, I forged ahead and faked a few others.

I played Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" which is a typical Leonard Cohen song about coping with suicidal muses and manic depression, but it does have a chorus with a whole lot of Hallelujahs in it, so I thunk. . .what the hell, I played it and got away with it. Even the tots joined in on the Hallelujah chorus, their parents none the wiser to the song's suggestions of stalking, voyeurism and masturbation.

I also know the chord progression to "Greensleeves" because Jeff Beck played it on his first solo album. So long ago when I worshipped the ground Jeff Beck raced his 1932 roadsters on, I picked it out and I still remember it. As you might know, it's the same tune for "What Child is This?" That worked. Then someone asked for the inevitable "Jingle Bells" and, well, that's sort of the same 2/4 beat and two chord song as Hank Williams' "Jambalaya", so while I strummed the Hank Williams song, people sang Jingle Bells, and it all came together.

I did not want desperately to impress anyone, and that's one of the keys to successfully accompanying people on a holiday evening sing-along when reluctantly pressed into service.

Just for the record--not too many tears. Some laughter. Happiness was thought of and produced in generous amounts or so it seems.

Sunday, December 16, 2007


Guitar play dates are a lot like blind dates in that they are always similarly arranged by helpful friends who have this wonderful idea and feel obliged to act as go-betweens, setting you, Party A up with Party B. Similar to blind dates, both parties on a guitar play date will survive the summit meeting if they go into it ala Palestinians and Israelis, i.e. with low expectations and if they keep reminding themselves that no matter how many awkward moments of inability to connect there are, if they just keep smiling, soon enough, the wine bottles will all be emptied, same with the dessert plates and before you can say, "Thank you! Goodnight!" both parties will part ways, making it home in time for Letterman.

I think I'm a fairly flexible guitarist. I think.

Growing up, I was the slide guitar king in my neighborhood garage bands. Later, in college, I used to do a party favorite, my Reggae version of "Stairway to Heaven" which I called "Stairway to Mount Zion" and was much funnier, if I do say so myself, than the Dread Zepellin version. (How could they have missed out on the rhyme "she's buyin'. . .a Stairway. . .to Mt. Zion"?)

Later in life, I once hit the road with a Zydeco band and that experience led me back to teaching in the Arabian Gulf when I realized that eating at Stuckey's and sleeping on couches did not add up to enough money to pay Char back the 20 I owed her nor did it even pay off with sex because as any Off-Ramp Inn musician will testify, most of one's time is spent either rehearsing or playing or packing and unpacking equipment, and when one has to be on the road by 6 AM to get to Atlanta before 2, who has time for poon?

I've backed up Jazz singers like
Lisa Palumbo.

Once, I was the only feller in an otherwise all Lesbian Lilith-type band--Lesbian lead guitar players, you see, are the world over in short supply as they all live in L.A. and she's usually booked backing-up Jeff Beck.

And along the way, I've even earned, oh, maybe a couple hundred bucks at it.

But I've learned a lot about playing guitar on the fly.

This flexibility and my willingness to give most guitar play dates a whirl, maybe has never paid the bills, but it has in the past paid off in some incredibly memorable experiences and made for me some great friends (even though I might still owe them 20 bucks).

For example. Seven years ago, an Irish colleague in Saudi Arabia invited me to a regular Wednesday night Irish jam, and though the extent of my Gaelic repertoire didn't go much beyond Thin Lizzie's cover of "Whiskey in the Jar", chords are chords and white people music time signatures are extremely limited to about three, so I connected with this massive group--two violins, three penny whistles, a couple of guys beating on bodhrans, a bass player, a chubby nurse who was a master of the concertina and two-row button accordion. We ended up performing regular non-paying gigs at the Aramco compound country club, and later on one summer, I met some of these people in Galway for an afternoon of busking by the Old Long Walk.

Then there was the time I spent a year in Lafayette, Louisiana, and again, a colleague had heard I played guitar, and her group, a Cajun dan
ce troupe called Renaissance Cadienne , needed a guitar player. So, I tried out and got the gig, and this experience not only led to my first time sitting in a real recording studio and playing on their second CD, but also playing around the state in various Cajun dance halls, restaurants and heritage villages, a slot at the New Orleans Jazz Festival (playing there was on my "Things to do Before I Die List so 'Done and Done') and best of all, during the summer of 2001, we went on this Codofil all-expenses paid two-week tour of France playing three gigs in Paris then about 10 gigs going from one small town and village to another where we were wined and dined 24 hours a day by real, that is non-Parisian, French people. (In this photo, I'm in the lower right wearing an authentic fake 19th century Cajun shirt that sort of looks like the pirate shirt from "Seinfeld")

There have also been times when I've had these magical moments and made instant connections, when I've sat across from another player for the first time, and one of us got things going by strumming what I consider to be living room, party favorite standards like Little Feats' "Willin'" or Townes van Zandt's "Pancho and Lefty" or the Kink's "Lola" or Jeff Beck's "Hi Ho Silver Lining", and at times like these, I'll get down on my little old knees and say "Thank you Lord," when my play date can join right in either because he knows the songs or at the very least he knows that there are really only about 5 chord progressions in all white people pop/rock/folk musicdom, so following along is just a matter of being in tune and knowing the key.

Like an aspiring porn actress who will do anything and anyone as long as it's not Ron Jeremy, I too have my Ron Jeremies when it comes to playing in living rooms. I will not do "Stairway to Heaven", "Hotel California", "Freebird", "Sweet Home Alabama", "Knockin' on Heaven's Door" or "Sultans of Swing". These songs, among others, I call "Revolution Niners"--you know, like the fourth side of the White Album's Revolution 9?--like leukemia or nuclear fission, or Nazis, or Esperanto, something which would have made this a better world had they never existed.

When I hear my play date launch into a Revolution Niner--and it happens a lot--a whole lot, then I immediately start to wonder about Dave and Paul and whether or not I still have time to catch the Top Ten List while I drift off and begin tossing in some insipid Claptonesque leads riffs.

Last week, a Greek colleague and her husband had a pre-Christmas cocktail party--complete with Ouzo and Mousaká and Souvláki , and they have a friend, a Greek-American, who plays and sings so wouldn't it be great if you both got together?

Right off the bat, when I saw him carry in an amplifier, I let out under my breath, oh fuck! We're in a fucking living room, not Shea Stadium A-hole. I thought.Then he hooks up a nylon string guitar to his cheap-ass-can-be Korean amp and first on the list, wouldn't yknow--"Stairway to Heaven."

To be fair, I am sure he thought what-the-fuck when I tried a couple of living room crowd sing-along on the chorus songs like "The Mighty Quinn" and "Across the Universe"--he not only didn't know the songs, but he wasn't very good at recognizing chords in reverse when I played so he couldn't join in..

Anyway. After about an hour of neither of us connecting, he politely hinted that maybe we were both from different planets (musically), and he asked if I would mind if he played some Greek stuff. I do recognize chords in reverse and can usually follow along, so I said, sure, go for it, and he did.

It was a blast!

I added some minor scale riffing, double strumming single strings waaaaay up on the neck to add mandolin-like fills, and that sounded. . .OK.

All a sudden, the bottle of Ouzo appears, shots of milky white Greek firewater are downed and before you can say "pU Ine i stAsi leophorIon gh'a tin athIna", half a dozen people were on their feet, shaking their oomphy rounded, child bearing Grecian hips, twirling hankies and shouting, "Opa! Opa!"

Now, I'm thinking, (besides 'what a living room guitar playing snob I can be'), I want to learn to play this Greek stuff. How did I miss out on this wonderful music? I want a bouzooki! I want to learn the Santouri--which is also an Iranian hammer dulcimer, so that's going to work with in-laws too.

But more than all of this, what I took away from that night was: I have decided I want to visit Greece. The real Greece. Just like I once saw the real France, the one of hills and flowers and the one Van Gough saw and painted. I do not want to see the Shirley Valentine Greece--it exists and it'll cost you. But I want to see the hills and flowers and goats and fat old men getting blasted on Ouza in sidewalk tavernas before noon.

Yeah, yeah, I've been to Cyprus, but, c'mon. . .Cyprus? You might as well save your money and visit Tarpon Springs, Florida.

And you know, I also remembered this about me. Maybe I should also lighten up a little (like I haven't heard that one before as she slammed down the phone, changed the locks on her door then sought a restraining order).

Some people, some good people who would never hurt a kitten, who always call their mothers on their mother's birthdays and who donate money to charities anonymously also like singing along to "Hotel California" and "Sweet Home Alabama".

Ok. Maybe it's me. Most likely it's me. Definitely it's me.

Pierce Brosnan as Julian Noble in "The Matador": I want to retire to a beautiful little Greek island, filled with beautiful little Greeks.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Come the Revolution

D'Rose's Uncle Muhammad carries three passports--one from Iran, his place of birth, one from Germany, his place of exile and one from Brazil, his wife's home country.

He is semi-retired. Semi-retired means he hangs out and travels a lot, shakes a lot of hands, exchanges his business cards with a lot of people. He's a professional hanger-outer, a full-time business card exchanger, a human currency converter, instant time zone calculator, a healthy combination of dreamer, idealist, swindler, bullshit artist. He wears his exile like a pair of silk pajamas.

Uncle Muhammed, or Max as he is known in Bangkok, has come to pay us a visit as he wings his way from Bejing to Hong Kong to Bangkok. After staying with us, it's on to Tehran before he heads back to Germany to say hello then goodbye to his wife and daughter. Then he'll head back to Bangkok, then on to Hong Kong, Bejing . . .

"Before revolution, during Shah days," Uncle Max says, "one dollar, 70 tuman. Now, one dollar, 1,000 tuman."
This report on the devaluation of the tuman should not be read as downbeat. One would think that he is, like many Iranians I've met, saddened by the dismal reality of present-day Iran or that he longs for the days when Christmas time in Tehran meant that the cabarets were jumping and when it was mostly Muslims who came to taste the wine and to blow their horns.

But no. As much as he or any Iranian who isn't a bag-o-hammers half wit might pine for the days when the Shah sold his oil and his soul to the west, when Iranians could travel abroad with a wallet full of platinum cards and a closet full of Italian suits, this isn't the case, because some of those trodden upon worms have most definitely turned.

I hear D'Rose begin many sentences with, "In those days. . ." or "Before revolution. . .", but mostly these phrases introduce romantic, reflective, melancholy reminiscences.

"Before revolution, boyfriends and girlfriends could walk in beautiful parks holding hands."
"In those days, we had villa on Caspian Sea."
"Before revolution Iranian wine was better quality even than French wine."
"In those days, we could go to Italy, get visa at airport then exchange Iranian tuman for lira. . .in Rome."

Those days were the days. These days, why, things have gotten so medieval, a pre-pubescent girl can get arrested and sentenced to forty lashes with a bamboo cane for eating an ice cream cone in public! By law, after the age of nine, a girl in Tehran has to spoon her ice cream! I'm lying if I'm dying.

But the passing of the days when a Persian enchantress could dab her seductive tongue at a double scoop of Rocky Road shouldn't necesarily spell woe for D'Rose. Nostalgia is a moveable feast. The only thing necessary, it seems, for the triumph of profit margins over the way things are is for good men to do nothing and for good women to quit hungering for the good old days.

Now, desperate for Yankee dollars, Iranian government banks offer its prosperous, prodigal children 17% interest payable in monthly annuities--provided they make their deposits in real money, that is to say dollars.

You can now return home, they seem to be saying, but be sure to bring some of that folding money from the land of the Great Satan. We'll even send a taxi to pick you up at the airport, give you a discount at the Esteghlal Grand Hotel, and just to sweeten the deal, we promise we won't shoot you.

I want to open one of those double-digit annuity accounts. I want to become a full-time business card exchanger. I want to be like Uncle Max or more to the point, I want to do more hanging out, a lot more hanging out.

If I can stand before my students day in/day out and make believe with a straight face that their futures depend upon understanding that there is a difference between the Present Perfect (I have been to Mecca) and the Simple Past (I went to Mecca) when in fact, there really is, all nitpicking, grammar Nazi arguments aside, no appreciable difference at all, then I'm pretty sure I can bullshit with the best of them and do what Uncle Max does.

I too can breeze into some dung hole Northern Chinese factory town with a sample case of designer jeans, take meetings over steamy soup tureens, oozles of noodles and a case of local beer; "You make same/same!", order a boat load of knock-offs for pennies on the dollar, then retire to my hotel room where I shall acquiesce my shaky morals to that Far Asian deal sealer, that juicy, inevitable knock on the door bearing perfumed lagniappe in high heels.

The time has come for change. But to become a professional hanger outer/bullshit artist etc I would first have to have a reliable, steady cash flow. That's where the Iranian savings account comes into play. The only catch is, if I want to open one of those accounts in Tehran, I have to have an Iranian passport.

I don't, of course. But I know someone who does.

Now, I'm thinking, maybe we should hold off on getting her that blue passport or. . .axis of evil schmevil. . . perhaps I should see what needs to be done to get me one of those purplish passports from the Islamic Republic of. . . .

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Monday, December 03, 2007

Dem Bones

My bones are receding. As they shrink, pieces of me which depend upon these bones for bedrock are loosening, and as these pieces wobble, here and there, bits have begun to fall away like withered leaves trickling off a dying oak tree. Essentially, I am beginning to rot.

Last year, I lost a tooth, one of the back teeth, an upper left molar (the second in a row of three). It isn't immediately apparent that there is a gap back there in my mouth, but the voice of my inner-Narcissus, one of several non-stop chattering voices that not even booze has been able to silence, forewarns me that unless I do something about this empty gorge in the back of my mouth, a day of remorse and regret lies ahead.

It might go down like this:

I'll chance upon an ephemeral moment of bliss posing as a nymphet, some "light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. . ." and all that jazz. My vainglory voice conjures up a scene on a midnight train from Budapest to Bucharest.

My Dolores will chat me up on this train in this distant locale, the scene of what could be the perfect zipless encounter, and it just might be my lucky night except that I will forget my maxillofacial infirmity and laugh at her fractured-English smiles and jokes. My mouth will widen, and in that instant, my Romanian forest sprite will take a closer look in the dim light of second class intimacy. She will inspect me as one might when they are about to purchase a work horse. She will see then and there in the back of my mouth an empty grave into an oblivion that if she were to enter, would offer her no return.

So the obvious solution is: I need a new tooth. The problem is the bonal area, the thinning white line of periodontal substructure outlining my shit-eating X-rayed grin is becoming shallower and shallower year after year; it's the narrowing of the marrow. In the back of my upper jaw, there is now not enough bone to hold a post that will support a shiny new crown. This bone loss is why the damn tooth God gave me plopped out in the first place. So unless I have osteo-inductive surgery sooner than later, in the next few years, more molars and their incisor, cuspid and bicuspid cousins will also start to drop, one by one.

This need for bone augmentation has decided where I will holiday in January. I am going to Bangkok. Cosmetic surgery tourism flourishes in BKK. I can have the procedure done there for half of what I would have to pay for it here and that includes airfare, food, hotel and a variety of recreational opiates that I will, on this trip, actually need.

So, Kevin and all my venerable, august brothers who are, like me, just beyond the Labor days of our lives, and who will reach within the next too few, too short years that bad ass, ballsy milestone birthday, that one within arm's reach of the finish line, where we will be introduced to a decade of rapid decline and possible body parts replacement surgeries, I am off to Bangkok in January to have a little piece of me scraped from here to be transplanted to another place there. I'm going to Thailand, a place that western running lackey dogs of Arab oil money often frequent for a little comfort, tea and sympathy, but this time, the bone implantation is not the one we generally think of, hope for and dream about.