Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Poker in the Rear, Part 1

The small cubicle in the back of the Thai restaurant started filling with smoke quickly. I wiped my eyes and fumbled with my chips in mock desperation. “Um, fine, I call. Ten dollars.” I said, feigning an air of discontent.

“It’s a big pot gentlemen, flip them cards over.” Big Bob said, bristling his hand through his long, graying beard.

The skinny man in the corner with the thick angular glasses and thin yellowing teeth flipped his two cards.

The ten and the queen in his hand matched the ten and queen on the table.

“Two pair. Not fucking bad. Can you beat that John?” Bob said, announcing the end results of the poker hand like Bob Costas might wrap up a baseball game.

Without talking, I rolled my two cards over one at a time. To increase drama and tension, I slowly flipped the first queen.

“Uh, now a pair already,” Bob said, his red face like frozen ground under his snowy beard. His wife owned the place, and he was drinking the house tequila with sustained vigor.

I flipped over the second queen in my hand. I smiled politely.

“Shit, I fucking knew it. You can stop doing that now, John. You can stop winning!” Skinny Doug said, playfully at the end, but rooted in the discontent of just losing $50.

It was getting harder to play poker with people.

It all started in Tinian.

Picture an island, emaciated and green- population 2,500. Picture endless fields of sword grass and randomly plotted coconut and betel palms, leaning into the wind that blows from the Southeast. Picture farmsteads, one gas station, and no stoplights.

Now picture a 50 million dollar casino plunked right on its shoulders.

Welcome to Tinian. Welcome to the Dynasty Hotel and Casino.

The ferry docked after a painful hour of rocking, turning, and rolling. Thank the flying spaghetti monster it was free- I seldom found the desire to pay for something as disturbing as the Saipan-Tinian vomit comet. The ship’s design left little to my imagination what bacon and eggs looked like in the bottom of a plastic ‘courtesy bag.’

Jenn, spending most of her life in Florida on the water, scoffed at my queasy landlubbering. She pushed me up the walkway once the large modern looking ferry was moored. The whole dock complex was the size of a parking lot in front of a fast food restaurant, and the security barrier separating it from the rest of the island consisted of strewn debris and spent metal storage containers. I would imagine that anyone looking to break into the meager dock, for whatever reason, would have to contend with tetanus as the primary security measure.

“I thought Saipan was small,” Jenn said, pulling a gold and black damask bag behind her head. She had on oversized sunglasses that made her look like Elton John in drag. Her pulled back red hair shimmered in the morning’s strong sun.

“How do we get to the casino,” I said, looking forward at the nothingness and jungle that flanked the dock. Beyond the asphalt-flatness lied little else.

“Probably that tour bus sitting at the end of the parking lot that says ‘Dynasty’ on the side,” She said sardonically, pulling her shades away to get a better look.

“Ass-hole,” I said in my most irritating way. Pulling her by the arm, we walked towards the bus.

We fought our way past a tide of Japanese tourists who were just coming off the upper deck of the ferry. The upstairs, I knew from anecdotes, was far less perturbing to the stomach, as ferry rides go.

The bus’s engine revved in the hot parking lot. It was only 10am but already the sun made the asphalt blister with iridescent waves of heat. We jumped on, and fought our way through Japanese tourists determined to find seats. The bus was fancy and chartered, but was aging, and stunk of smoke. It was freezing in there, just coming off the tepid-temperatured ferry, and ferociously warm dock, we welcomed the cold.

We weaved our way down a single lane road, narrowly avoiding catastrophe from oncoming, slow moving pick up trucks. The road winded along the beachfront, giving us a glimpse of Goat Island to the east. The island-which is actually named Aguiguan- is called Goat Island because Magellan peppered it with goats when he ‘found’ these islands hundreds of years ago. As the anecdote went, explorers then would leave animals to graze on small islands, so if they were to return, they’d have something to eat.

Magellan put pigs and goats on Saipan and Tinian too, but they always ended missing when they got back. In fact, the sailors lost everything they put on the island to the local inhabitants, and often, would even lose whatever wasn’t nailed down to the boats. They ended up naming these islands Islas de ladrones, or isle of thieves. I found this ironic, given the money the Dynasty planned on taking from these Chinese tourists, with all the house odds games, like blackjack, horseracing, and Roulette.

I just came for the poker.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Bali Update

The first thing you notice when you wake up in Bali is the incense. No matter how inundated with the smell you become, no matter how omnipresent the slow burning sticks are, it is always the first thing you smell.

Walking into markets, in hotels, restaurants and bars- all have Hindu offerings that unclude burning insence.

In fact, walking off the plane and entering the Nghurai Airport, in Denpasar, Bali, the smell hits you with the voracity of a jet engine.

An ubiquitouse symbol of the Hindu culture pervading Bali, one can't help but be enamoured with the peacefullness of the Hindu tradition.

Traveling north from the busy tourist district of Kuta to the countryside of Ubud, I watched the small fragrant flowers and little rice crackers bounce in the palm-frond casing of the offering. The rain that started on the first day hadn't subsided much- the small concrete channels on the side of the narrow road swelled with brown muddy rainwater.

I stared at that offering and I thought about what it meant. I thought about how the island of Bali, which was predominantly Hindu, had been affected drastically by a in small contingency of Malaysian Islamic Extremist who continued to wage a campaign of terror in Bali. How in October, 27 people were killed by a suicide bomber. How days earlier in Java, the larger Indonesian island to the west, another suicide bomber ripped through a Christian market killing many more.

Yet, the women here still walk, baskets of vegetables and snacks for sale balance precariously on their heads; the motor bikes still roar by, constantly narrowly avoiding catastrophe; the venders still hock their goods on an ever decreasing stream of tourists, still haggling expertly for their handicrafts. Life goes on, but ask any cabby how business is, and you will inevitably hear, "vert slow."

Friday, December 16, 2005

Bali or Bust

Growing up in New York most of my life, I was severely affected by the terrorist bombing of the World Trade Center, both in 1991 when it first occurred, and again in 2001- the latter's fruition obliterating both towers into smoldering rubble.

But I've resisted the urge to dwell on how "9/11 affected me." I find it solipsistic and rather aggravating when people drone on about how they "knew someone who knew someone," or the fact that everyone, regardless of their involvement in the incident, wants to capitalize on the grief and pity involved. The poet Ai captured the essence of this malign spirit of needing to be a part of the grief for selfish reasons. Her poem about 9/11 dealt with a women who lost her brother years ago, but fell in with a crowd of mourners who had all lost loved one's in the devastation. This woman, for whatever psychologically self-serving purposes, attached her brother's death with the 9/11 incident, and found support amongst the myriad mourners.

This is to simply illustrate the self-aggrandizing people indulge in when it comes to horrific events, such as 9/11, or wars, natural disasters and the like.

Living in Saipan, deep in the Pacific Ocean for the last three years, I find little to complain about; especially in regards to personal safety against atrocity or natural disaster. My first brush with disaster came last Christmas holiday, when my girlfriend Jennifer and I planned a trip to Bali, Indonesia as a chance to explore more of Asia and to break the monotony that comes with small island living.

We flew out on a relatively uneventful flight, with little complication or intrigue. Landing in Denpasar, Bali, we quietly found a cab and sacked out in our small hotel in the heart of Bali's tourist and commerce district, Kuta.

Evidently missing the memo telling us not to eat ice or fruit juices, we were in the throws of 'Bali Belly' or in medical terms, Shigella, by 8am the next morning. Spending little time outside the toilet, we largely missed the ubiquitous news and media coverage of the largest natural disaster in terms of loss of lives in the past 100 years. Not hours after we touched down in Indonesia, the infamous tsunami struck just 500 miles west of us in the Aceh province, on Sumatra.

Little did we know, our families and friends were having minor conniptions trying to get in touch with us. Memory being vague, our families didn't remember just where in Indonesia we were traveling to, so the fear of our untimely death to a tsunami was foremost in their mind.

Luckily the next day in an Internet cafe, we were able to assuage their fears and check in, letting them know we were hundreds of miles from the affected area.

Though, this event actually threw me. We were not very far away from where 35,000 to 70,000 people were feared dead. My thoughts and feelings of 9/11 paled in comparison to this canastrophic loss of life.

While the news of more and more dead in Aceh flooded the Indonesian news on Bali, we somehow managed to enjoy ourselves, spending time hiking, swimming, and observing the almost spiritual aura that rests like a cloud over all of Bali's on goings. The synergy between people of all races and national origins seemed magical. The interaction between everyone was respectful and inspiring.

Fast forward to this Christmas Holiday. We plan another trip to Bali, this time longer and flush with antibiotics to quell any nasty bugs that my try to ruin our trip. There are no known reports of natural disasters going to rip through the region. Seismologists are monitoring the whole of the Indian ocean for the least blip of an earthquake. I have no fears in the world something natural, but after October's renewed bombings, Bali's Zen-like atmosphere is now one of tension and dismay.

Compare the two events: the 2004 tsunami killed upwards of 60,000 people in less than one day. This past bombing killed 25. Yet the fear created by the latter is enough to drive thousands of tourists from traveling to the region. This is unfortunate when the local economy depends heavily and in some cases exclusively on foreign tourism.

Immediately following the October bombing, Australia-the largest single contingency of tourists to Bali-issued a warning against traveling to the region. The U.S. State department announced that further bombings on the predominantly Hindu island are imminent, and terrorists will be looking for 'American targets."

Keeping all this in mind, I boldly and possibly foolishly go through with our plans to travel to the island again. I cannot imagine completely changing my plan for a vague threat of a repeat performance by terrorists linked to Asia's Jemaah Islamiyah. On an island just over 3 million inhabitants, I am reluctant to think I am a target. Furthermore, the sheer odds of being involved in another bombing plot seem preposterously low.

Yet, I have my doubts. The insidious effect of terrorism is to instill the feeling that the New York Lottery wants you to feel also: "It could happen to you." While unrealistic, the seed of fear is planted in your psyche, to grow into a fecund plant, growing quickly and voraciously.

It is ironic to think that an event like this past bombing, which in terms of human loss is insignificant when compared to the previous year's tsunami, could still cause this much fear in travelers. What this very succinctly does, is illustrate the effectiveness terrorism has on creating fear, xenophobia, and mistrust of others.

Like the many people who write about their trauma in 9/11, whether significant or insignificant, I must agree with a very basic principal: to not let my life be changed because of fear of terrorism. It is with a very self-conscious mind that I say I will continue my trip, so I do not let terrorists dictate what I can and cannot do. And while that may sound frivolous, self-aggrandizing, or even insipid, I must say it because I have found, after all these challenges to our world and our life, that this may be the only way to live.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Is Dance Music going back to the Underground?

A recent article in Urb Magazine quoted North American House DJ Kaskade as saying "It seems everything related with dance music is becoming not cool. Let it go underground again. That's fine, that's why we got into it in the first place."

It is sad to think with unbelievable proliferation of dance and electronic music on the Internet and large cities that the music form is going back underground. But in a way, it could be a blessing for the music format that once fueled a generation of youth looking for a counterculture other than punk.

Logging onto the Internet, music is now an on-demand business. Everyone from Yahoo! to Apple offer a plethora of cheap music for download or for Internet radio listening. Can it be that with a world glutted with too much music, that somewhere the essence of dance music is being lost to corporate cut rate music hocking?

Dvorak once said in an interview that he wants people to listen to less music. Music, he thought, became paltry and meaningless when people gorged themselves on it. He would gasp to think the absolute flood of music that constantly bombards our ears in contemporary society. From malls to cars, cell phone ring tones to MP3 players touting thousand-song capacity. There is no time when we can escape the cacophony of sound that plagues us.

So fine I say. If dance music wants to tuck itself back into a world of back-alley warehouse raves and grassroots DJ's, I welcome it also. There was a period where one could not escape dance music in commercials for cell phones, beer, and clothing. Now the time of dance-music related exploitation is subsiding. Kylie Manogue is busy recovering from cancer. Moby's hasn't licensed every single track from his new album to advertisers, yet.

The question is what form will dance and electronic music evolve into if it recoils from the trend-consuming voraciousness of mainstream music? Will it further develop as a form of urban expression, the way hip-hop used to before they became as mainstream as McDonald's? Will the music form flourish in an inter-continental sense- given its world-wide appeal, and barrier breaking beats and melodies? Will it return to its origins of raves, psychedelics and social rebellion?

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Insight, Foresight, more site, the clock on the wall reads a quarter past midnight

We have found the following wrong with your logic:

Lack of evidence,

Precipitation in your evaporator,

Pennies melted to your Medulla Oblongata,

The smell of daffodils in your hallway,

The percussion of rocks falling from your ears,

The memory of celery sticks, died blue in that twelve-year-old-you kitchen.

Memory is a scantily clad Elm tree:

I smell bacon on the breath of mourners.

Dogs in the alleys and valleys of always and Elysium. Smile, cause you’re alive this fine time of mine is, so let’s dine on wine and fricasseed porcupine.

Because beauty is beautiful. The time is fast and the molasses is slow.

My world’s a sneeze with open eyes.

I smell the numbers on a grill, deep in a money pit. Friday putting the thoughts away until seasoned in brewed hops and barley.

Tiny worlds of Tuesday lodged in memory banks like loose change. Forever in a box of puffed wheat; the time you loved the sky and bragged about it.

Licking the sunset on a coin, and only tasting metal.

We were white windowless warriors wearing whatever we wanted. Saipan is your dreaming suntan bottle, the time in actual moments. The inevitable silence following a dying typhoon's ebullient rustling.

I love in thick white packets of paint, covering dust on the settled metal. The blue manatees, settling for nothing on that cool pale Friday Florida inlet. The jet propulsion of tangerines, the urgency of orange.

Life is floating in the air, getting ionized by white noise fans for fun. Letting out belches from the earth, flying tubas to the moon. Sitting gauntlets in the snow. Dining tigers writing pulp fiction on a rainy summer’s day. The window to your soul is being covered with a canister of fake Christmas snow.

Monday, September 26, 2005

Return of Midnight

I originally set this blog up on the advent of my trip to Tokyo, and back home to New York, where I hoped to find some sort of, I don't know, Zen enlightenment. I was going to attain this through traveling by myself, on an exodus from my imprisonment on the Island of Saipan. I was going to find something-I told myself-that would fill in missing gaps of my existence. It was going to be exciting, and adventurous, and I was going to meet interesting people and so forth.

Well, not two days into the trip I found a loneliness that I couldn't shake. Tokyo is good at doing one thing: making one feel alone. Especially a Gaijin, who cannot make meaningful conversation with 90% of the people in Japan, strictly because of the language barrier.

I enjoyed myself for a day, but then I felt an inextricable longing for my life I left behind temporarily, for my girlfriend and dog, and for my little island. All the things I felt were in some way holding me back from something better, or greater, were in fact propping me up.

In some way, I believe my point is that I strove to find out what I would find once alone in the world, and I found loneliness. The equation seems simple, but it is far from logical. We spend our entire lives trying to break free of some codependent dynamic. At least I did. It was always family or relationships that kept me-I thought-hindered in some way. Some way that left me without a prolific sense of self.

But as soon as you are truly out alone, you remember all the times you were alone before. The times in between the times where you were being smothered by people who loved you. You remember the times you forgot about because you were too busy being persecuted by those who show you too much affection.

I realize now, like the ebb and flow of daylight and moonlight, one should find company and solace at different points. Striking a balance between gregariousness and solitude is important. I'm not telling anyone this because I believe they don't already know it- I am saying it because now I know it.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

A Literary Map of Manhattan

NY Times Literary Map

"Hey Horwitz," I said. "You ever pass by the lagoon in Central Park?"
-The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger

As if I couldn't already conceal my elation for heading back home to New York, the New York Times yesterday released a 'Literary Map' of Manhattan. The interactive flash map allows you to pinpoint locations in Gotham where fictional New Yorkers from famous novels frolicked, or as the
Times so aptly put it, "played, drank, walked, and looked at ducks."

The map is impressive to say the least, and begs at least a cursory glance. It includes characters from author's Saul Bellows and J.D. Salinger to the more esoteric Thomas Pynchon and William Burroughs.