Mind Games

The Asian media is still completely saturated with coverage of Michael Jackson, more than a week after his somewhat unexpected demise from a cardiac arrest. The pundits, former friends and employees, doctors, nurses, people who took his garbage away… they’re all queuing up to place their tuppence worth into the media frenzy surrounding the death of a very strange and singular person. The truth is that nobody really does know the truth, and the only person who could give the answers to the complexities of that particular screwed-up life has passed on to whatever (if anything) lies beyond.

From despair to where… the performing arts, and in particular the field of music, seem to have more than their fair share of troubled geniuses… the Syd Barrett’s, Richie Edwards’ of this world whose thoughts are simply too big for their minds to cope with and end up either shutting that part of their life out completely or ending that life to silence the demons within… perhaps as public figures they feel extra stresses and strains that so-called ‘normal’ people are not subject to. Having said that, let me qualify – I really don’t believe Michael Jackson was remotely a genius – he was a professional entertainer, but as a human being he was not conforming to anything like the parameters set down for normalcy… and in his quest to remake and remodel himself, he clearly exhibited symptoms of mental distress.

Mental illness is a funny thing. I mean it’s not usually a ‘funny’ thing in the hahaha sense of the word (although it does have its moments…), but in the sense of ‘funny’ as peculiar. Of course it’s a huge spectrum of syndromes and symptoms to delineate all too simply with the catch-all term ‘mental illness’, but the general description is of a ‘disease of the mind’ – the DSM-IV (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), the American Psychiatric Association’s standard reference for psychiatry, includes over 400 different definitions of mental disorders. Wow! That hurts the brain….

What is definitely not funny in any sense is the very real mental torment being exhibited by the survivors of S-21, Toul Sleng prison in Phnom Penh, who are currently giving evidence in the case against the former head of the prison, Duch. Three survivors have been testifying this week, all have broken down during their testimony and all have admitted to suffering mental illness as a result of their brutal treatment at the hands of the Khmer Rouge. I receive trial transcripts at work, and one of the most astonishing things is the complete lack of sympathy or understanding exhibited by the Cambodian judiciary toward the witnesses and civil parties – their illness is very obviously seen as a weakness that lessens them as human beings in this society. Perhaps that goes some way toward explaining how people can live with the legacy of genocide… anguish becomes internalized, seething away inside but never allowed to break through the tolerant smiles given to the questioning foreigner…

What follows will of course have little bearing on the tormented souls reliving their own hells in the chambers of the ECCC, or for the tens of thousands others in this country living and struggling with the things they have seen or done, but for the privileged foreigner who has ready access to help if they want it these words of advice may give some comfort or a spur to make some change. Having some experience of mental illness is a bit of a double edged sword. On the one hand, one just wants to sweep the dust back under the carpet, put the files back in the cabinet and lock the drawer and throw the key away when one has come through a particularly dark period. Particularly true when, as I do, you come from a community where usually the kindest word you hear about sufferers is ‘nutter’. On the other hand, discussing it openly may help others who are feeling unable to cope with their own situation. However, when I am feeling good the last thing I want to do is talk about ‘my problem’, indeed often I refuse to acknowledge the fact that there was (and is) a problem, because the demons (shall we call them that – small red creatures with horns and tridents… mean, mean reds…) never really disappear, they hang around nipping at my ankles until they think the way is clear for them to clamber up and nest once more inside my head. I don’t really know how long they’ve been there either… the turn of the last century saw their worst manifestation, when I seriously lost the plot for a good while.

However I’m still around, and back on track now, so I guess what I’m trying to say here is do not go it alone – acknowledge, if the signs are there (and if you can’t see them, then often those you love and who love you can), admit you need help and do something about it. I absolutely loathe and detest taking medication, but it clearly helps me, so I do it. Talk to someone, preferably a professional who doesn’t carry the emotional connection that a friend or family member might, and that too will help. Always try and look outside of yourself – many sufferers pour everything inwards until they explode, often again at the expense of their loved ones who are around when the eruption takes place. Equally, don’t become numb, don’t shut down or shut yourself off from life. If you have something that gives you a release and a relief from the internal struggle, do it! Write a book, learn to fly, sing a song, paint a picture, go cloudgazing … all positive therapies…

We have such a limited time on this amazing planet that it’s such a waste to spend it all in the dark alleyways of the sidestreets. We can help ourselves into the light of day, and we can share with others, who may also be suffering, ways to beat their demons. There is an amazing Kurosawa film in which a dying civil servant, who has spent his entire life shuffling paper around, struggles to do something meaningful before he dies.

The film is called ‘Ikuru’

The word means “to live.”

Stop shuffling that paper now…!

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I Travel

It’s been quite a week in the world, one way or another. Colleagues of mine have lost close friends, former colleagues have lost family members in tragic circumstances, others have been caught up in political turmoil in Honduras, the death of Michael Jackson continues to dominate the Asian media, swine flu has struck Cambodia with a vengeance and news has just broken of a huge explosion in the Prime Minister’s private compound.

I shouldn’t, therefore, have been unduly surprised to come home from work last Friday, settle down outside in the orange glow of impending sunset with my book and then gradually realize after a few minutes that what was tickling my exposed big toe was not, as I had thought, a wind-blown dry leaf but the front claw of a scorpion.

Oh dear.

These creatures I have only encountered previously a) in movies, b) behind glass in a zoo or c) pinned to a wall display in Kuala Lumpur and no longer animate, but now a rather large black version of the species possessing what could be clearly seen as a particularly vicious looking stinger was showing what to me was an inordinate amount of interest in my big toe…

I remained still. Absolutely still. As did the scorpion. I’ve no idea exactly how long we faced off (or should that be ‘footed’ off?), but it felt like a very long time indeed. Eventually it turned away from my foot. I inched my foot slowly out of my sandal and tucked it underneath me in the chair. The scorpion was in no hurry… minutes more passed and then eventually it ambled off in the fading light into the undergrowth and disappeared.

I have no idea just how toxic my little chum was… I’m sure at the very least he could have inflicted a very painful sting upon yours truly. I guess we never know what surprises, pleasant or unpleasant await us, so the trick is to enjoy as much of life as you can before you get surprised by it. The book I was reading at the time (or re-reading, to tell the truth) was ‘The Art of Travel’, by Alain de Botton, a philosophical treatise on… surprise, surprise, travel! I had been using an old boarding pass as a bookmark, one from a trip to Bologna to attend a film festival some years ago, and the combination of this well-used souvenir, the content of the book and the scorpion incident conspired to set the old grey matter swirling and eddying, and the wheels within wheels to be set in motion. Bologna is just one of the amazing places I have been fortunate to visit and experience over the last few years. My horizons have broadened so much in that time, and entirely thanks to one person who set the wheels of travel in motion for me and who has been my long suffering companion on many of those journeys, my dear wife.

She has had to endure my rampant serial killer paranoia in Venice (what normal person is wandering around the streets inviting backpacking strangers into his house at two in the morning, I ask you?), my deaths door dysentery melodramas in Cuba (crawling on hands and knees into the clinic for a vitamin shot), my horror of undercooked pork in Paris…actually undercooked everything in Paris… yes, the griping list is endless, but although her experience of me as a travelling companion is coloured by my far from endearing grumpy old man-ness, the experiences I have had, the people I have met, the places I have seen, they are etched indelibly and wondrously on my soul and entirely thanks to her. So many unforgettable moments… drinks at sunset on the terrace of the Galle Face hotel in Colombo, Sri Lanka, a crowded train journey in the company of merry pilgrims in India, residing in the very same hotel room as the Beatles did in Barcelona, drenched to the skin in the new year celebrations in Yangon, upgraded to jet set class in Taormina, Sicily, fireworks around the Eiffel Tower to herald a new year in Paris, the overwhelming emotion of coming face to face with a favourite Magritte painting in Peggy Guggenheims house in Venice, a birthday waltz around the Palazzo Bonaparte in San Miniato, Tuscany… and more, so many, many more…magical experiences all, these simply cherry-picked from a tree full of such experiences, and more to come which we can now share with our wonderful little boy. Thank you, A.

In his book, de Botton dissects the whole modern concept of travel, of setting oneself off onto adventures where one might experience the new, the exotic, the different, yet also acknowledges that sometimes we don’t realize that those very things we seek through travel can also be around us in our everyday lives. Take time to look… the travel we generally do in those everyday lives of ours becomes a chore, a necessary way of getting from A to B, from home to work, home to shop, work to home…. either on foot or trapped inside a moving metal box with other necessary travelers… if we start to see it differently, look at the detail in the world going on around us, ponder thoughtfully on the actions of those we watch,notice the un-noticed, pick up on the detail, analyse the surrounding architecture and the space it occupies then another whole world of wonder can leap out to enrich our daily lives. Carpe Diem, indeed. Make every minute count of this wonderful life, savour every single moment you are a living, breathing person…

As that other great philosopher (!), Ian Fleming once wrote, paraphrasing a wise man from the past

‘It is better to travel hopefully than to arrive…’

A further note on the explosion mentioned in paragraph one above – it appears to have been a truck full of rockets bound for the Thai-Cambodian temple stand-off in Preah Vihear. It was being refueled in the Prime Ministers private compound (?). One of the drivers wanted to do a visual check on how much fuel was in the tank, and as it was getting dark and difficult for him to see, he bent down over the gas tank and flipped open his lighter….

…not recommended….

Going to a Go-Go

Have you ever hankered after tinkling the ivories but were stymied by a complete lack of length in your fat little digits? Ever been the disappointed one turned away in the queue for hand cream models because your stubby fingers were too Shrek-like to pass the grade? Were you forced down the career path of butchery because, lets face it, those pork sausages you had sprouting from your palms were not really suited to the fine motor skills required of a brain surgeon?

Despair no more, for help is at hand (groan!)…

Just around the corner from our humble abode in Phnom Penh city is a beauty shop. Ah, but clearly not only a beauty shop, also a place where dreams come true in a magical scented haze of all-round wonderfulness, for not only will they ‘iron the hair to make it straight’ and ‘make the face to white’ (is Michael Jackson their best customer, I wonder?) but they also promise, for the princely sum of only $10.00, to, wait for it…

‘perfume the fingers to be slim…’

Yippee! A new career awaits me…
‘Oh, I just loved his Bach variations, so fluid, so emotive the way his beautiful, long fingers glided so effortlessly over the keys…’
‘Yes! Yes! And his hands smell so nice…’

I bet Rick Wakeman goes there too.

I’m pretty sure he doesn’t go to the one I spotted some months back close to BKK market, where a somewhat graphic piece of naïve art accompanies the assertion that not only can this establishment provide all the usual skin-whitening processes, but can also ‘cover all kind of bruises’ that a woman may be forced to endure in her daily routine. A sad reminder that this is still a male-dominated society, and that too often that domination is reinforced by the application of a fist…

I’m still as bemused and confused and amused by everyday life in the Cambodian capital as I was when I began writing this blog. Every day continues to bring new things to wonder at. Why is a gigantic office block being built near us opposite the site of a smaller office block that was forced to close earlier this month because… well, because no-one can afford to rent offices… ? Why do so many vehicles have no number plates, tinted glass and mini televisions showing Tom and Jerry cartoons smack in the middle of the dashboard? How many Hummers is it possible to fit on the sidewalk outside Malis’s restaurant? (Arlo Guthrie, there’s a song in there for you somewhere…) Why have Lucky Market suddenly stopped selling mayonnaise (until last week there were three shelves full of variations on the stuff, now they lie empty and forlorn – it’s either a melamine-type scare that we don’t know about yet, panic buying by foreigners (?), or it just simply has ceased to exist, like sun-dried tomatoes. We used to buy some lovely sun-dried tomatoes from the small deli counter in Lucky’s until the day they were no longer there, and the staff conspiratorially informed me that sorry sir, sun-dried tomatoes no longer existed, had vanished off the face of the earth forever, had ‘done a dodo’, etc etc. I simply haven’t had the heart to tell them about deli Le Duo’s range of sun-dried t…………….

Of course, if I get bored at being stuck in morning rush hour traffic with only the sight of two senior policemen driving at high speed in their very large SUV down what most people actually do now realise is the wrong side of Norodom Boulevard whilst simultaneously guzzling from cans of ABC beer (8.00am… isn’t that a little early, gentlemen?), then I can always drift off into a gentle reverie about little O. One morning this week, he finally completed his metamorphosis into a petulant teenager. I came into his room to give him his morning greeting at around 6.00am, and there he was, lying on his back across his bed, hands clasped behind his neck, knees up, gazing at the ceiling fan with a look of utter boredom on his face.

‘Hello! How are you today, O?’ Daddy enquires.

‘Go away!’ says O.

All well and good, but he’s TWO, forgoodnessake! TWO!

And…

He can climb the stairs approximately 2.8 times faster than I can (and in all probability descend faster, but thank the good lord I have not yet witnessed that particular heart-stopping exercise – our stairs are like the Odessa steps with a bend in the middle).
He can completely (and silently) disappear, and then reappear in a completely different place less than 5 milliseconds later.
He can store an entire packet of Chocolate Buttons in one cheek, some cheese and ham in the other and still manage to chew and swallow eggy toast soldiers at the same time.
He can lower his trousers/pants/nappy and pee at will, and in any situation, providing it causes the maximum annoyance/embarrassment to his parents.
He can open locked doors in the blink of an eye, and can lock doors that have no key finally and irrevocably.
He can programme an I-Pod and change DVDs with incredible speed and dexterity, and he employs his own form of censorship upon the adults in the house by switching off any television programme that does not meet with his approval…
He covertly works for a secret organisation whose mission is to rid the world of all remote control devices, but particularly those for TVs and DVDs.
Or perhaps he covertly works for the woman in the market who sells remote controls – we are undoubtedly her best customers, and come to think of it she does seem to have some unspoken dialogue between O and her when we make our almost weekly pilgrimage to replace them…

And…

Awww…he’s truly, truly wonderful. Our lives are just so much better for him being around, and each day brings new surprises and moments to melt the hardest of hearts (mine particularly). I’ve never wanted to be one of those ‘my kid is wonderful, blah blah blah’, parents, but it’s my blog and I’ll blag if I want to… so there!

Let’s talk about music again. You have to admit that going for about seven paragraphs hardly mentioning any music is pretty good, isn’t it? I quite often ponder in an ‘out-of-the-body-experience’ manner at the stylistic leaps I take in my listening habits. Last few weeks it’s been mainly the bleak English folktronica of July Skies emanating from my trusty and battered I-Pod and speaker pillow (remind me to elucidate at a later date on that particular wonder…), this week it’s Motown. I’m actually ‘listening’ to those songs that soundtracked a great deal of my adolescence, as opposed to living with them , and I am marvelling in a frankly gobsmacked manner at just how amazing the production was on the classic Motown tracks, and how vital and alive everything sounded (and still sounds today.) Every note in the right place, every component of the mix exactly where it should be in the sonic palette. Wow. Far out. Although the early 1970s was largely the domain of progressive rock in the circles I moved in, nearly every party came to the point where the only thing to do was to haul ‘L.A. Woman’ off the turntable and replace it with the silver Motown Chartbusters Volume 3 album, which would inevitably, as Pink might say, really ‘get the party started’. There were other volumes (one, volume 6 I believe, even had a Roger Dean sleeve! How that confused the progressive fraternity!), but 3 was the tried and trusted partystarter in our remote neck of the woods. The moment ‘Í heard it through the grapevine’ kicked in, all manner of solitary dizzy hippy hopping gave way to Soul Train-esque funky choreography, or so we thought in our naïve northern Scottish way… I’m sure Rufus Thomas must have taken inspiration from the ineptness of some of us ‘funky chickens’ gyrating drunkenly in the tiny wee kitchen of a tiny wee hoose in a tiny wee toon, with elbows akimbo, emerging like a hairier and scarier Pan’s People through a fog of strangely sweet-smelling smoke, Newcastle Brown and vodka-and-orange-wi’-a-wee-drappie-o’-water fumes…

The latter drink was the closest at that point that I had come to a cocktail. I still recall the burning chemical aftertaste of the potent mix of Smirnoff and diluting orange (Oh boy, was it ORANGE. Colourings and preservatives were essential parts of the deadly mix!), with the edge just slightly dulled by the brackish warm water…such sophistication! I truly did not become a fully paid up member of the suave and urbane world of the real cocktail drinker until one memorable afternoon in Edinburgh in the early 1980s, in Refreshers Cocktail Bar, when Donald McIntosh and I decided we would drink our way through the card…. but that’s another story for another time….

Oh well, that’s enough reminiscing for now. I wonder (if I can stop A from laughing too much) if I can teach little O the moves for ‘Going to a go-go’ ….

(cue funky guitar and rolling piano lick)

‘Watch me now!!!’