Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Crackdown "Fun" on Fields Avenue

Every so often I like to write about the bar scene here in “Sin City,” and from what I’m seeing and hearing, that bar scene might be on its last legs, at least in it’s present form.

I haven’t been much of a bar hopper myself since my best friend was most assuredly run down like a dog coming out of Doctor Holmes, a bar on Perimeter Road, at 2 a.m. about six months ago. He's still in the middle of a long hard recovery. Just the same, its still fun to hear about and report on all the latest chitchat about Fields Avenue and Perimeter Road.

If you’ve ever been to or lived in Angeles City, all those above place names make perfect sense, so I won’t go into specifics on what is where. Anyway, none of that is really important for this post, which is all about the latest gossip.

The big news hitting the streets about two weeks ago is that a crack down on the bars is going on. Six bars on Fields were all hit the same night, and a few more over the next few days. The word is that a law, or more likely an edict, was just passed by some local authority stating that the concept of the “bar fine” was at that moment considered to be illegal.

Anyone paying a barfine or something that resembles a barfine, any girl accepting money called a barfine, and any bar involved with the transaction of said barfines, it’s all considered a jailable offense. Of course, we all know around here that what that really means is a big fine will have to be paid to get out of jail.

Talking to other fellows who have been here even longer than my five years, one old hand said that he remembered the exact same thing has happened once or twice before. He said it was just the local powers deciding it was time to shake the "bar scene tree" for a while and see what kind of money fell out. He claims that eventually, it always blows over.

Another fellow “in the know” said that officially, the term barfine hasn’t even been in use for years due to these past shakedowns. The term has been “early work release” or EWR for quite some time.

Now, due to this latest decree, even EWRs are considered illegal. In fact, supposedly any currency paid by a patron to or for a girl in a bar that results in her leaving the bar with that paying customer is basically considered sex for money or prostitution. Of course, that is a bit of a stretch since theoretically the girl is not obliged to go to the patron’s room. She doesn’t even have to go with him at all, if she doesn’t want to. That’s the premise anyway.

A lot of expats and tourists out on the streets are just plain confused. A buddy told me that a lot of bar owners, mama-sans and managers are defecating bricks. No one really knows where any of this is going, and some of the bar owners have a lot of money tied up in those establishments.

I’ve even heard that the pressure to “clean up” Fields Avenue and even the Perimeter Road bars is coming down from GMA herself. One of my gym pals said that the president is on record as being “embarrassed” by what’s going on down there; and now that it looks like The Clark Airport will soon explode with more overseas air traffic, the word is that the powers that be want more of “the appearance” of a family spot. What that means is that this place is in for some transition as far as the barhopping scene goes.

People have scorned the very idea that the end of “the bars” could be in store for Fields Avenue and company. I say they should remember what happened about 20 years ago in Manila when the mayor shut down the bars in Mabini. No one believed it could happen there either, and it darn well did. Of course, they just shifted the bars and the girls out to Pasay; but the point is they closed Mabini—the so called “impossible” did indeed happen.

Lots of folks have plaintively said the following: “But, what about all the big hotels going up all over the place around here? Why would they invest millions only to let it all go to waste? It just doesn’t make any sense. The only reason all these tourists really come here anyway is to meet girls. Angeles City is in the middle of no where. Why else would people come here?”

All of the above are lucid points, but I’ve also heard this intriguing rebuttal: “Those hotels are being built not so much for European, American and Australian tourists, but for Chinese, and other “big pocket” Asians, hopefully coming here in droves from places like Hong Kong, China, Korea, Japan and Taiwan. These new gigantic hotels are also casinos, and everyone knows from being around them that the Chinese LOVE to gamble. And let’s not forget that there are a lot of Chinese these days with a WHOLE lot of money."

The “explanation” continues: "The girls will still be available for these big spender gamblers, but not in the way they are now. In effect, Caucasian tourists will become the minority here, while the big spending Chinese will be the real targeted customers."

As for me, I knew the handwriting was on the wall when the Clark Development Corporation (CDC) upgraded and developed the park area in front of the Main Gate area. I just couldn’t see why they would build a children’s playground and amusement center right next to a bunch of bars. Now, from what I’m hearing and seeing, I think the old ways from the old days are numbered.

This is a very conflicted society anyway—a very religious place that is at the same time very corrupt. There are people highly placed in government that are under a lot of pressure from very religious relatives that WANT very badly the closure of all the bars. At the same time, a lot of money is paid in fines and taxes to certain government officials. It’s a bit of a “push me pull you” situation.

So, currently, the bars are open and there are still customers in them, but no one is allowed to pay to have a girl leave with them—right? Wrong! Where there is a will, there’s a way. I’m hearing now that once a customer buys at least ten drinks for a lady working in the bar that she is then allowed to leave. Does that mean then that she leaves with the guy that happens to buy those ten drinks? Don’t ask me. How would I know for sure? I don’t know.

Now here’s an interesting bit of rumor. I heard that there are four or five foreigners working with the cops, their task being to barhop and entrap a girl and the bar she works out of into a situation that is illegal. Namely, to con one of these unsophisticated ladies into admitting that her job is to go with them for the purpose of having sex based on the money paid in the bar for the transaction.

With that in mind, the word is that many of the bars will not even allow their girls to leave the bar after the ten drinks are paid for if it’s felt that the customer might not be above-board. What a mess. The bar owners and managers know that they are trying to walk the chalk and if they get caught, it’s in the klink for them and a hefty amount of money will then have to be forked over to get out. All I can say is there must be a whole lot of profit considering the risk involved. Not me boyo! That’s a headache I want NO part of.

Then again, maybe all this is just a momentary bump in the road. Why? Well, another recent buzz is that the new head of city hall—or perhaps it’s just a highly placed policeman—wants a bigger cut of those big EWR profits. I couldn’t tell you what the current “cut” is, but one bit of gossip called out 300 pesos from each EWR as the demanded “new cut.” Someone told me that a EWR these days is around 1300 pesos. Speculation is that this new “tax” will probably drive “barfines” up to at least 1500 pesos and higher.

Just yesterday the latest hearsay from one of my chatty sources is that the whole thing is about to end, because the cop running the show on this latest shakedown was just fired or moved to another position somewhere else. So you can see that no one truly knows anything.

If you plan on coming to Angeles City to barhop and barfine the lovelies working in the various 100 or so establishments here, my advice to you is not to come here until all this works itself out. A lot of emphasis these days is coming down from organizations like the UN for nations like the Philippines and Thailand to clamp down on human trafficking, in other words, the sex industry. It could very well be that what is happening now is ONLY the beginning.

My personal preference is that the bars be shut down. I have to believe that their presence has encouraged the present high new levels of criminality and thuggery, while also inspiring even more corruption in the police who just cannot seem to resist the temptation to cull the tourist herd.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Movie Review: National Treasure (sequel)

Wait for cable to see it, and ONLY if you must.

At last! A movie that I DIDN’T like. National Treasure Jr. is anything but. I watched it last week and was most definitely UNDER whelmed. It must be difficult to take a pretty good flick like the first National Treasure and then try to successfully duplicate it in a sequel. It turns out they shouldn’t have tried.

Even though the first one was absurdly unrealistic, still, I enjoyed its thrilling story. I can suspend disbelief for a couple hours as long as the plot is interesting, and even more importantly, so long as the characters are believable. Therein lies the problem with the sequel. Most of the original characters are still there, but they added a new one, the bad guy played by Ed Harris, to replace the original bad guy. Harris, and the implausible character he plays, absolutely ruins the entire film.

For me to watch a movie and truly enjoy it, I’ve found that I have to respect the actors first. If I develop an aversion for some reason to the performers portraying the characters, I won’t like their acting. For instance, I can’t stand to see Winona Ryder in anything after she got busted for shoplifting. Worse than her even, I can’t stomach watching big mouths like Danny Glover, Sean Penn, Tim Robbins, Susan Sarandon, and now, after catching some of the vacuous drivel from the talking head of Ed Harris, I find anything he does on screen now lacks credibility as well.

To be totally fair, even I didn’t dislike Ed Harris so much, I still would have been disdainful of the part he plays in NT2, which is the obligatory bad guy. As I said, he does a rotten job of it, but primarily the blame has to fall on the shoulders of the screen writers. By comparison, the nasty antagonist in the first NT makes perfect sense. He’s driven by greed and he stays that way to the end.

On the other hand, Ed Harris’ bad guy is confusing. From the first he establishes himself as the prototypical nasty character. He and his band of evil doers shoot up Nick Cage’s car during a violent albeit exciting getaway chase scene. One of Ed’s henchmen even hits Jon Voight’s likeable character on the back of the head, knocking him unconscious. All these actions could result in death; therefore, no matter what Ed’s bad guy character does throughout the rest of the movie, there’s no way he should be able to redeem himself. At least you’d think so, right?

If you plan on seeing NT2 then stop reading here.

NT2 is not as direct as NT1. Nick Cage’s character, Ben Franklin Gates, once again claims he’s NOT all about the money. Once again, he is out to exonerate his family name. The first time it was by proving that his father and father’s fathers were not a bunch of treasure hunting wackos. To do that all he had to do was find the treasure.

This time, Ed Harris seems to have proof that one of Nick’s great grandfathers was complicit in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. It’s a partial page from John Wilkes Booth’s diary. It’s the first clue in a stream of clues that eventually leads to the legendary city of gold called Cibola. Without getting into the details, by finding this new treasure Nick Cage once again clears his family’s name.

So, by the end of the flick it turns out that Ed Harris is not really such a bad guy after all. He explains to Nick that he only wanted to follow Nick to the gold, and he knew the only way to motivate him was to impugn the Gate’s family name, and zoom, right to the gold old Benjamin would go. Suddenly, this monster turns out to be a pretty good fellow. He even gives up his own life to save Ben and Ben’s mom and dad, plus Ben’s girlfriend and Ben’s best friend. The Harris character goes from a willingness to commit murder and mayhem to being a paragon of courageous selflessness. I'm sorry, but I insist on consistency in MY bad guys. For me, evil is not a relative abstract, thus, I wanted Ed Harris to die ironically and horribly. At the very least he should have gone to jail. Come on!

This movie CAN be fun at times, but mostly, it just does not work as well as the first go around. Back to the drawing board boys and girls. The one thing I’m thankful for is that they killed off Ed Harris’ character. If they are smart, they’ll bring the British guy back as Ben’s adversary. Have him escape from prison or something.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

PP Movie Review: The Heartbreak Kid

Go See it!

I just came in from seeing Ben Stiller’s Heartbreak Kid. I know now that I could never be an actual film critic, because obviously, I’m just too easy to please. The derivation of the word critic is to criticize—to be the opponent of, to condemn, disparage and disapprove.

Thinking that surely this movie would get some critical acclaim, I got my bubble rudely burst just now when I went online to see how well the movie did with the “real” critics; and well, most of them lived up to their name—they didn’t like it.

Well screw ‘em, coz I LOVED this movie. I laughed, chuckled and giggled from the moment it started and was laughing on the way out. My movie mate loved it as well, but listening around the rest of the theater I did notice that not many other people were enjoying it nearly as much as I did. I shrugged it off as a cultural thing, thinking that maybe Filipino funny bones don’t have the same harmonics as American ones. Then again, there were only about a dozen other folks watching the movie besides us.

Ben Stiller cracks me up anyway. There’s something about his deadpan face and average schmoe reactions that make me identify with the guy. He’s short, not all that great looking and comes across as a bit of a loser—no wonder he reminds me of me!

Ben’s dad is in the movie too, playing his dad. Jerry Stiller is a hoot. I love his in-your-face New York Jew-guy attitude. He always plays the same character. For years on TV he's played it in shows like the King of Queens and Seinfeld. Has he ever played anything else? You know exactly what you’re going to get with him; and what Jerry Stiller gives, I get, and I never get enough. He’s loveably crude and rude—he’s New York!

Getting back to the film critic subject... a guy I’ve known here for years, an American writer named Steve, had been watching the movie too. I saw him on the way out and greeted him with a hello and a laughing declaration of my continued admiration of Ben Stiller movies. I was hoping for a fellow fan, but it turns out he is not nearly as enamored as I am. Well, THAT put a wet blanket all over my enthusiasm.

He didn’t even want to discuss the movie we’d just seen and instead asked if I’d seen the original Charles Grodin/Cybil Shephard version which he thought far superior. Then, come to think of it, I realized that I hadn’t heard him laugh or titter even once during the entire thing, so I began to have misgivings that Steve even HAD a sense of humor. But then, it occurred to me that he had watched the movie solo, and everyone knows that a comedy MUST be watched with a friend. Otherwise, even the funniest bits don’t seem quite so humorous. So, I decided to cut him some slack on the “not having a sense of humor” possibility.

Ever Hopeful, I threw out one more line to him, asking if he’d had the chance to see Sweeney Todd, a film that I think, as of now, to be Tim Burton’s pièce de résistance. Steve had indeed seen it, but again, wasn’t all that excited. He started babbling on about weaknesses with the music and storyline, and blah blah blah, and right about then I’d just about had enough of old Steve. I mentally tuned him out thinking: ‘Ehhh! This guy doesn’t like anything. Time to say goodnight.’

Did anyone else like this hilarious comedy? I had to know. I was beginning to have my doubts. Maybe I’m just weird. (Okay, I already KNOW the answer to that!)

Well, check this out: according to Wikipedia, as of November 27, 2007 The Heartbreak Kid has grossed $100,000,000! Ha! Up YOURS critics! So yes, a WHOLE lot of other folks liked it too. Put THAT in your pipe and smoke it Stevey Boy!

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

PP Movie Review: Sweeney Todd

PP Rating: See it, by all means!

It’s been a few days since I “experienced” Sweeney Todd. Now THAT is one flick that stays with you. It’s been almost a week and I’m still thinking about it. And I’m not talking in a bad way either, like indigestion; but in a hauntingly good way, like when you’ve witnessed something special. In fact, if Sweeney Todd is not in the top three for best picture this year, and if Johnny Depp isn’t seriously considered for best actor, I’ll be disappointed.

Sweeney Todd is definitely a typical Tim Burton movie. So much so, that within five minutes, if I hadn’t been paying attention to the opening credits I would have said, “This thing has Tim Burton written all over it.” There’s something about the way he uses lighting, color and makeup that makes a movie uniquely his. Personally, whatever it is that he does, I’m a fan. Burton has made a lot of good movies over the years, but for me, this is his BEST yet, and it’s a musical no less.

I’m not normally a musical aficionado, but I loved this one. I looked it up and originally Stephen Sondheim wrote the lyrics and music for the play. That probably won't mean much to the folks who might read this, but I know what I like, and I LIKED all the vocals and tunes.

Casting did a great job finding folks who could handle the somewhat strange melodies of Sweeney Todd. The notes don’t always go in the direction I expected them to. I’m not a music expert, but it seems like there are lots of sharps and flats where you wouldn’t predict them. I loved that unpredictability, and it wasn’t just the musical score that was unconventional.

The story line itself, although it’s from an old English legend, takes some pretty unexpected twists as well. Now I REALLY loved that, since it’s not often I can be surprised anymore while watching a movie. And yes, it really happened—I was deliciously shocked by the ending.

Stop reading here if you haven’t seen the movie and plan to.

Sweeney Todd is dark, and in every way—emotionally, literally, physically—its very humor is dark. It takes place more than 200 years ago in the tight twisting streets of London. I was last there in 1987 and that city can seem quite gloomy indeed; I remember well its overcast skies and lots of chilly rainy days.

This is a tale of bloody revenge. The opening scene introduces us to Sweeney Todd just off a ship on the London docks. Preoccupied with other thoughts, he is saying so long to Anthony, the sailor who spotted him adrift at sea. Depp as Todd looks like he did as Edward Scissor Hands, the part he played in his first Tim Burton movie. Only instead of playing the innocent sad eyed youth with too much eyeshadow, he takes up the mantle of a bitterly angry middle-aged man whose youth and happiness has been wrongly stolen from him, again with too much eyeshadow. Looking at his pinched pale face, I could feel Sweeney’s intense need to find and kill the men who had wronged him all those 15 years before.

The flashback device shows us what happened back then. He had been a happily practicing barber on Fleet Street with a pretty blond wife and baby girl named Johanna. A corrupt judge named Turpin spotted the barber's pretty wife and lusted after her. To get her, the judge uses his power to have Todd falsely accused and found guilty of murder for which he is sent half the world away to the Australian penal colonies. For 15 years Todd never knew what happened to his family.

Those years were not kind to Sweeney. No longer young and handsome, his simmering rage has soured him beyond recognition; but upon his return to Fleet Street, being unrecognizable is exactly what he desires. He wants payback; not just against the judge and his henchman, but against everyone on Fleet Street. For none of them had come to his aid when he needed them, not to mention the part they’d played in the ruination of his once innocent wife; but he has yet to find out about that.

Todd finds that his old barber shop and home on Fleet Street is now a meat pie shop owned and operated by the widow Lovett, played wonderfully by Helena Bonham Carter. Mrs. Lovett’s shop is wretchedly infested by huge skittering roaches. Todd hesitantly enters her shop and she happily assaults him, proclaiming that he’s her first customer in weeks. No wonder! She bids him sit and then sings happily while rolling dough, all while continuously mashing into it pesky juicy roaches with her rolling pin. Yuck! I hate roaches!

She soon figures out who he is and takes him upstairs to where he once happily lived with his little family. Under a floor board he retrieves his set of shaving razors. Breaking into song he lovingly admires his “old friends.” I knew it was only a matter of time before those razors would taste blood. By this time I could hardly wait myself.

The widow had some awful information for Sweeney. He’d been hoping that perhaps he could reunite with his wife and daughter, but Mrs. Lovett told him that his wife had committed suicide by taking poison. Lovett’s story: the judge had taken his naive young wife to drunken orgies where she was liquored up, drugged and subjected to unthinkable humiliations. Upon his wife’s death the judge had then taken his daughter in as his own; only now that she was coming of age the old lecher was pressuring her into accepting him as her husband.

Movies are all about the suspension of disbelief, that even the most unlikely coincidence is possible. In Sweeney Todd, this happens when the young sailor, Anthony, while looking for his friend on Fleet Street, hears Todd’s daughter singing while locked within her bedroom by the lecherous judge. Anthony asks an old beggar woman lurking nearby who the beautiful girl is and the crazy old crone gives him the low down before scurrying away. Then, after one look at the pretty girl three floors up, he falls head over heals for her. The protective suspicious judge spies the lovesick young fool, invites him in, beats him up, and threatens death and worse, before having his henchman toss him out on his ear. Anthony is undeterred. He goes right back to staring at her below her window.

Strangely enough, Sweeney takes his first life almost reluctantly and not until almost 50 minutes into the film. The unlucky first victim is a fiend of a man named Pirelli played by Sacha Baron Cohen. Pirelli is a sleazy snake oil selling conman with a thickly false Italian accent out to make some quick blackmail money. He’s recognized Sweeney and wants a cut of all his barber profits or he’ll expose his true identity. Pirelli is in self-satisfied mid-sentence when Todd suddenly erupts while seeming to calmly boil water for tea. With surprising ferocity he takes the whistling teapot and beats the conman down almost to death. In the nick of time, he hides the unconscious man in a steamer trunk.

The conman’s assistant, a young boy named Tobias, comes very near to being killed as well. Unaware that his master is now a bloody mess stuffed in a trunk, the boy returns and insists on waiting for his cruel master. Behind the boy we see Cohen’s hand sticking out from under the trunk lid, his fingers lightly fluttering. Sweeney manages to maneuver the boy back out the door with the promise of a meat pie from Mrs. Lovett. As soon as the boy excitedly goes to claim his pie, Sweeney crudely finishes off Cohen with a succession of bloody stabs and slices.

In the aftermath of this initial murder, Sweeney and the widow discuss what to do with the body and the boy. At first, Sweeney suggests they bury Pirelli in some hidden spot, but then they both decide that grinding him up into her meat pies made more sense, both financially and to reduce the odds of getting caught. And for Sweeney, it was another way to punish the hated denizens of Fleet Street by feeding them human flesh and making them like it. As far as Tobias, the boy becomes part of Lovett’s and Todd’s new bizarre “family.”

Two things happen next. First, the human meat pies turn out to be a big hit. The other is that Todd modifies his barber chair so that the push of a single foot lever simultaneously causes the chair to flip straight back while a trap door in the floor opens up behind it. In the blink of an eye a body in the chair slides headfirst through the trapdoor and down a chute to the deep basement far below. It’s ingenious.

For both Lovett’s meat pie shop, soon more upscale restaurant than shop, and Sweeney’s barber shop, business is booming. It’s not explained how he manages to get away with it, but Sweeney begins his sanguinary march of reprisal as we see him kill his Fleet Street victims one after another. Once settled in the barber chair—eyes comfortably closed, hands trustingly crossed under the sheet, and necks willingly exposed—that’s when “the demon barber” strikes.

Sometimes Todd cuts deep; for other victims he slices deftly, almost as a bored afterthought. My personal favorite is when he starts the razor high above his head where he holds it for a moment before sweeping it down in a lightening arc through the windpipe and jugular. Todd wields his razor like a conductor beginning a score; or as Death himself, wielding his lethal scythe.

Burton has fun showing the numerous ways blood can spurt and hiss from various slicing throat and neck wounds. I glanced around me to see the reactions of my fellow theater goers to the sight of bloody throat slittings. At first, most flinched and cringed, some moving their hands defensively while shifting uncomfortably in their seats. After the second or third throat cutting however, no one much reacted any longer. People quickly become inured to even the most sickening of violence, especially when it’s done with Burton’s cinematic elegance.

So that’s how it goes—one body after another falls far below with a final meaty thud to the dank basement floor stones. From there, butchery and baking ensues as the human “harvest” finds its way eventually to the meat pie shop and into satisfied customers’ bellies.

The story makes a point to show several times the crazy old crone that we first meet talking to the sailor, Anthony, outside the judge’s house. She acts deranged, always pointing accusingly at the Fleet Street Meat Pie and Barber Shop establishment with the shouted words, “Mischief!” The Widow Lovett seems obsessed with the crazy old bird, always sending Tobias out to shew her away.

There is a moment when the judge comes at last to see Sweeney for a shave. He does so after being told by his henchman that maybe Johanna will relent and accept him after he gets a close shave. And EVERYONE on Fleet Street knows the closest shaves are at Sweeney Todd’s shop. Just as Sweeney is about to kill the hated judge, Anthony bursts in, begging for help in rescuing Joanna from the judge. Turpin jumps from the chair. He’s outraged to find that Anthony and Sweeney are associates. Knowing he’s missed his chance, Todd screams at Anthony to go.

The judge gives Johanna one last chance to accept him. When she says no, he commits her to an insane asylum. Anthony cooks up a plan to spring her. He poses as a wig maker’s apprentice willing to pay top pound for a certain color blond hair. A greedy asylum keeper leads Anthony into a ward full of blond crazy women. Once he finds Johanna, Anthony grabs her and forces the keeper back and away from the door at the point of a gun. The two make their escape, but first, Anthony locks the door on the keeper. We see him disappear as the insane women go after him, presumably tearing him to pieces.

I knew the movie must be approaching the finale since the next showing was fast approaching. Things needed to happen fast to bring the story to a successful gory crescendo. This was accomplished by bringing all the characters together in quick succession at the Meat Pie and Barber Shop. Anthony drops Johanna off there while he arranges a getaway. The judge goes there looking for her. Even the old crone shows up.

By film’s end Sweeney has killed all his enemies and then some. The judge lies in a bloody heap on the basement floor. Lying next to him, even the crone ends up dead. Sweeney slit her throat almost reflexively after she surprises him just before he kills the judge. A strange twist, the importance of which we catch only later, is that Johanna witnesses her father slaying both the crazy crone and the judge from within the same trunk that had once contained Pirelli’s body. She had hidden in there when she heard the approach of Sweeney.

But later, down in the basement, with the old beggar crone’s face fully exposed in the light of the leaping flames from the massive cooking oven, Sweeney sees that she is none other than his beloved wife whom he was led to believe long dead by Mrs. Lovett. Stricken with grief all over again he confronts Mrs. Lovett. “Why did you lie?” He doesn’t even listen to her explanation and begins to dance an insane waltz with her, pretending that all is well. She is delighted until with one final swing across the floor he tosses her bodily into the searing flames of the huge oven. He slams the heavy iron door to drown out her dying screams.

Tobias sees her die, having just shown up from hiding deep within the maze of the London sewers. After doing away with the widow, Sweeney has already returned to his murdered wife. Mournfully, he holds her body in his arms and stares at her, his face inches from hers. The boy leisurely approaches, picks up the cast off razor and casually flicks it through Sweeney’s throat. Tobias has gone insane as well. He drops the instrument and wanders away back into the darkness of the sewers.

Sweeney Todd doesn’t even flinch as the razor bites. He no longer cares about anything, certainly not about living. The movie ends with him crouched on the floor in a pool of blood, still tenderly holding the only woman he’s ever loved, a woman he’s killed. The final scene is an extreme close-up of his bloody face hovering over his wife’s equally bloody face, red droplets slowly dripping from his face to hers as he waits to join her in death.

Now THAT’S entertainment!

Monday, January 21, 2008

New Home

You might have picked up in my last post that I am going through transition. It’s personal and I won’t go into detail, but at least I am taking some pleasure getting my new place livable. No use moaning and groaning.

A few months ago, when I realized I was going to have to find a new place I wrote about how some here were suffering from sticker shock. Well, that included me. Aside from the dollar's crash the costs of housing in Angeles City have skyrocketed, so it’s a double whammy. Much of the increase I believe is speculation based on high hopes that the opening up of the international airport at Clark, combined with the soon to be completed highway to the sea at Subic, will cause this place to explode with new industry and people looking to live here near the airport. Primarily, I think it’s the influx of Koreans. They’ve decided to move here en masse and housing costs reflect that.

When expense is foremost, finding a house to live in can be tricky. You don’t really have a system of realtors here, so it’s just a matter of staying out there and knocking on doors. Truthfully, when you’re a white guy in the Phils it’s not so useful for you to do the knocking. Find a local person you can trust to do it and stay in the shadows. Anyway, it worked for me. After a week of searching, "I" found this little house with its “big yard.” The yard was important for my girls to have a place to kick up their heels, and by local standards of size it’s not bad; although in the US some might call it a postage stamp.

No offense to my Filipino friends, but some locals had been living here and from the look of it, keeping it up was not one of their priorities. Frankly, they “lived” it into the ground. What a wreck! But, there IS a plus side to that since the landlady was delighted at the prospect that an American would move in. I’ll explain. We tend to make improvements to rental properties while locals don’t. It’s as simple as that.

Chris, a young Filipino kid, and his wife lived here. My “agent” had stopped by here everyday for two days and at all the other homes around here and nothing—he was never home. Then, on the third day, just like in the New Testament, my agent had a hunch and stopped by one more time. Now, the news was that he had a short notice job offer in Australia and needed to move out quick. They were paying P9K a month and the word was that the rent would now bump up to P10K. I took one look at the place and even though it was a dingy dirty mess I snapped it up. Immediately, I forked over the down payment, about $300, to make sure it was mine. Done!

Here’s what I saw when I first looked the house over. It’s tiny. The master bedroom and bath is small and unfortunately it's in the front near the street just on the other side of my short front wall. There’s a small covered carport out front, just big enough for my small Japanese sedan.

The other bedroom is just across from a small dividing portico. By the way, this small bedroom is where I happened to look into on New Year’s Eve only to see a hand poking in through the freshly torn window screen in the dark. I made a dash back to my room looking for my bolo meaning to get me a severed hand souvenier for the New Year, but by the time I scrambled back the probing pawing hand and forearm was gone. I ran outside hoping to trap me a "varmint," but he must have heard me, dang it. But I was not to forget. I made a mental note to do something about securing that side of my new house first thing possible.

The dining room and living room are one in the same and take up the largest space, basically a big rectangle. The windows on that side look out over the rectangular yard. The house itself is a rectangle. Hmmm.

It took more than a week to paint every wall and cieling and to scour clean every dingy surface. If I wasn’t renting I’d simply change out all the tiles in both bathrooms. I still need a simple surefire way to turn grey grout back to white. Its clean now, but I don’t think they ever scrubbed their bathroom floors even once. It shows.

The first thing I did was to install a high-powered exhaust fan in each of the two baths and one in the kitchen. I don’t know how anyone can have a bathroom without fans, if you know what I mean. I put the kitchen fan right next to the stove—common sense right?

Out the back door is a cement walk breezeway separating a very large added on utility room from the rest of the house. My first thought was that this back room would make the perfect new master bedroom after a few key modifications. To the left, the breezeway runs into the side alley between the house and the neighbor’s 9-foot cement block wall. That’s where the thief had stood on New Years. There is already a gate blocking the alley access to the front, but it was wide open the other way.

Out the back door to the right was a step down to a grassless area where a concrete square and water spigot was used to handwash laundry. Right next to the side of the utility hut was a large decrepit swing. I won’t describe it; see it in the photo.

What most delighted me were the three large shade trees, two mangos and a jack fruit, also located just outside the back door to the right. The branches had never been trimmed and the relief from the sun was fantastic. But, I made the classic error that many foreigners make here. I left instructions on how I wanted them trimmed and left. The lesson: Never EVER leave!

I came back a few hours later and felt a mix of two conflicting emotions—extreme sorrow and absolute consuming rage. Higgedly-piggedly, they had hacked off every limb they could reach and then climbed higher and hacked off more. It was the most wretched example of tree pruning I had ever seen. My trees were butchered almost beyond repair. I kept my anger to myself and filed the experience away under “never again.”

I found the perfect contractor to do all the cement and iron work that I knew I wanted done as part of my “plan.” At first, my electrician brought over a couple of guys from the hotel where he works and after about an hour of conversation I dismissed them. They said it would take three weeks and they wanted WAY too much. The perfect guy turns out to be the brother-in-law of a friend and he’s a keeper. I’ll be using him for everything I need done except electrical work.

The day after I shook hands with this wonderful fellow he showed up with his 4-man crew. I was still languishing in bed at 7 am when I heard them outside digging and quietly chatting. I was delighted.

First step, move a water line to the side alley and have a large cement slab put down for the laundry and washing machine area. They had all that done the first day.

Next, I wanted a back porch made of a secure “iron cage” and screened from top to bottom to keep the flies and mosquitoes out. One of the largest trees is right next to the back utility room. I wasn't about to cut it down, so at first I figured we’d have to keep the back side of the porch just to the front side of that tree. Then my contractor suggested that I let him build the porch around it. I loved it!

“Yeah! Do that!” I told him.

No wonder I love this guy,’ I thought. ‘He knows exactly what I want BEFORE I even tell him.’

“Keep reading my mind,” I said enthusiastically.

I began taking lots of photos with my new Sony Cybershot. I wanted to be able to keep for posterity the progression of improvements. I took hundreds of shots. Then, disaster. I ended up with lots of pictures of the before, and of the after, but I lost hundreds of the “in betweens.” I’m still sick about it. I don’t know if it was the memory stick or the camera, but suddenly hundreds of shots were just gone. I couldn’t believe it. I spent hours trying to “find” them on the stick, but they just weren’t there. Nothing online helped me either. The lesson: “Do NOT wait to download. Get them in the computer every night, if not sooner.” Dammit!

The ongoing iron work efforts were a wonder to behold. The guys brought in hundreds of pounds of long pieces of steel rods, aluminum tube and beam-making material; in days they turned it into a work of artisanship. I never once heard a power tool. All cutting was done by hand with a hacksaw. To join all the pieces together they used a small electric arc welder. They did all this onsite, either on the ground, balancing on a ladder, or squatting precariously on a beam they had just welded up into place.

At first, I was a bit reluctant to watch them work, feeling kind of self conscious that they might resent it. I always feel guilty about watching other people work. It just doesn’t feel right. But the contractor said he preferred my presence. He wanted me there for every step of fabrication and building, because he said he didn’t want to have to guess what my preferences are.

Soon, I really got into it. It’s amazing how ideas sprang into my head as I saw the work advance. Initially, I made hesitant suggestions to him. But after he reacted positively to every idea and incorporated everything I wanted, soon, I found myself approaching him every 15 minutes with new design possibilities. He would just nod his head, tell me how much more it would cost, and then I’d give him the “never mind” or the “go ahead.” It was cool.

We were done with this, the “first phase,” in a just over a week. Now, the back utility room is completely incorporated into the main house by a system of "iron works" gates and walls; the gates are all lockable and the whole “cage” is protected from flying insects with screening. The indoor trunk of the mango tree is a super neat touch. I’m going to train vines around it and I think I’ll get some small birds to live and fly around the inside of the screen porch area to add the aviary touch.

I’ve still got lots to do, but it all takes time and money. “Patience, one thing at a time” is my motto. The cement block yard walls are ugly so I plan on putting up a bamboo wall to cover it. The utility room is now safe and secure as is the entire side of the house where the thief tried to snatch what he could that night. To secure it I put a 9-foot high iron works gate topped with super sharp spikes between the porch and the back wall. That prevents all access to the side alley. Nothing can make one perfectly safe here, but it keeps the casual thieves at bay. The only way to really keep your things from being stolen is to have a trustworthy person in the house at all times. It’s the ONLY way to roll here.

A future phase is to put a little bathroom into the utility room, change the windows to louvers and move my bed back there. The plan is to incorporate the porch and back bedroom into a single living space. It’s going to be great getting away from the street side of the house and to be able to get up in the morning and in a moment find myself drinking coffee in my screenen-in aviary porch with my future little bird friends
trying to dive bomb my coffee. Someday…

To see all the home improvement photos go to my Flickr site of the same name. I suggest the slide show feature.

Movie Review: I AM LEGEND

Standing in the backyard of my new place looking over my back wall past the tops of other homes beyond, I can see in the distance the very top of the rear of the nearby mall where I now go two or three times a week to see almost first run movies at it’s third floor quadplex. Ten minutes from the time I back the car out of my gate I’m munching popcorn and looking up at one of the wide silver screens.

Movies, after all, are still the best place to go to forget what troubles you for a couple hours; and even with the miserable performance of the dollar against the peso it costs just $2.20 to see a flick here in Angeles City. Theater popcorn and drinks are even less compared to the US. A large popcorn costs just under a buck and the same for a large drink. So even though the list is smaller than it once was, there are still some things that remain cheaper compared to the good ‘ol US of A where a large buttered popcorn and a drink costs a small fortune in most theater complexes.

Okay, so that’s a warning. Movies are about to be my thing, and indeed, because I practically live on top of the theater, they already are. Ready or not, I’m going to talk about one now. But here’s another warning if you haven’t seen the flick yet, for I will give away the plot; so, at the beginning of each review I will provide a “safe” PP rating (PhilippinesPhil rating), before following it up with a more in-depth review:

I Am Legend

“I Am Legend” is a fun ride. Go see it. I’ve loved the science fiction end-of-the-world genre since I was a kid and that’s what this is. Will Smith must be a fan of science fantasy as well, considering all the movies of that type he’s been in such as “The Men In Black” series, “I Am Robot,” “Independence Day,” and now, “I Am Legend.”

From the moment it started I was into the story. Will Smith has grown into his looks over the years and in this movie he credibly portrays a Lt. Colonel U.S. Army medical doctor in his mid 40s and with him now pushing 40 for real, he easily pulls it off.

To be truly appreciated for the thriller it is, I Am Legend must be seen in a theatre with a good sound system, or at home with the surround sound turned up full blast. The monster mutant humans are THE most convincingly frightening I’ve ever seen and the terrifying noises they make won’t come off nearly as scary on regular TV speakers.

Stop here if you haven’t seen “I Am Legend” yet and plan to.
Lately, I’ve noticed that I tend to see the world in shades of conservative versus progressive. For instance, coming out of Hollywood I’m always surprised when a movie comes out with a premise that seems to back a traditionally conservative viewpoint, such as being careful about genetic tampering. In this film, geneticists in the not too distant future come up with a cure for cancer that involves meddling with human DNA. It all goes haywire and the cure turns into a viral curse. Something like 75% of the world’s population dies outright. A few are completely immune while the rest survive as these horrible daylight-intolerant barely-human mutants. These monsters are mindlessly enraged creatures that seek to feed on the few people not affected by the man-made virus.

Will Smith’s character, Colonel Robert Neville, is the only normal human survivor in all of New York City where he was stationed with the army as a viral research scientist before the whole world genetically imploded. When the movie starts we find him driving a sports car crazily through the overgrown deserted streets of Manhattan while trying to run down and shoot a buck in a herd of deer, all of which are desperately evading his best pursuit efforts. A German Shepherd rides shotgun and accompanies Will everywhere he goes. From the beginning I knew that dog was doomed and I was right.

Through flashbacks we learn how it all went wrong with the virus, as well as how he loses his wife and little girl at the onset of the crisis. The colonel just happens to be in medical research, specializing in virology no less, and also happens to be immune to THE virus. Because of who he is, he gets a heads up call from an army pal that all of NYC is about to be locked down in a desperate attempt to isolate the sickness. It gets crazy and everyone tries to leave at once. Will, Robert Neville, uses his rank and authority to get his wife and girl on a helicopter heading out of town. He tells her he must stay behind and intends to “fix it,” and tearfully kisses them goodbye. As they take off, fighter planes unexpectedly begin destroying the bridges. In the confusion of the explosions he watches horrified as the helo containing his family crashes into another helicopter.

I was struck by Neville’s devotion to duty. Even after losing his family he doesn’t stop trying to accomplish his mission. It’s no wonder to me that the screen writers made him a military man; otherwise, the average non-veteran civilian moviegoer would probably just consider him an obsessed crackpot. In reality, the colonel’s selflessness is exactly how I would expect a “true believer” in uniform to feel and act. Putting mission ahead of family and self is the norm for the U.S. military and this movie exactly depicts how it works for us. It’s what makes us different, superior even.

The genetically damaged human monsters are amazingly scary. To give you an idea on how they operate, Smith’s character refers to a group of them as a hive. Their ugly hairless heads are elongated to make the jaws open wider, and boy oh boy, when they open, all you see are these big sharp gnarly teeth. Unable to tolerate any sunlight they come out only at night. They are all muscled up and naked, their skin a mottled white and gray.

Doctor Neville has figured out an ingenious Rube Goldberg method to capture these monstrosities so he can experiment on them. Once caught, he uses his own immune blood on them and in countless experiments over the years has tried to infuse it into the mutated monsters to effect a cure, but they always die.

Everyday at high noon the good doctor waits at a pier for anyone not mutated to meet him there. He uses a shortwave radio to broadcast that he will be there at the pier daily. Few things in a movie are put in without reason, so I made a mental note.

There is a flaw in the story, and it concerns these mutated humans. These things appear to be madly intent on killing, yet one of these mad-crazy creatures figures out a way to set a trap to ensnare Smith exactly as he has done to them in the past. It just doesn’t seem likely. The viewer is led to believe that this one extra intelligent male mutant is the mate of a female captured earlier by Dr. Neville. This female lies strapped to a table in his lab as he seeks to treat and cure her. Keep this in mind.

Neville is barely able to free himself from the snare set by the mutants and is painfully wounded in the leg during the hours long escape. He gets away just as the last of the sun’s rays are about to wink out. As they do, mutant dogs attack him and that’s when his German Shephard sacrifices herself to save him. He kills all the monster canines, but his brave dog is mangled. Smith gets her back to his lab and hopefully injects her with his best immunity serum, but lying in his lap on the floor she begins to snarl and snap in the manner of the mutant. The camera pans up to Smith’s grim face as he chokes to death with his bare hands his beloved pet, the last vestige of his earlier life.

Neville is heartbroken at her loss. He’s finally giving up on continuing his bleak lonely existence. He goes on a nighttime suicidal rampage in an SUV screaming and yelling as he mows down attacking shrieking mutants by the dozen with his madly careening vehicle. Finally, the “smart mutant” crashes a light pole down into his truck which turns upside down. All appears hopeless as the bald nasty leader mutant makes that eerie shriek just inches from Robert’s face. The creature seems about to bite when a bright light flashes hot and the scene ends in darkness.

It’s the next day. He wakes up in his own bed to find that his leg, wounded two days earlier, is now professionally sutured and bandaged. He hops on it painfully and finds a woman and a boy in his kitchen. It freaks him out. He no longer knows how to act around normal people. She speaks with a French accent telling him that they and two or three others had arrived on a hospital ship, but only she and the boy survived the journey. She tells him she heard his broadcast and had waited at the pier for him. Somehow this one small woman was able to use high powered lights to scare off the mutants long enough to rescue him in the nick of time. Yeah right! No wonder they didn’t show the actual rescue. how could they?

She goes on to expalin that her plan is to take the boy to a safe village that’s rumored to exist someplace in Connecticut. Neville overreacts. He throws his food off the table and yells that there is no village. "Everyone is dead!" he screams at his stunned visitors.
It gets dark, always a forbidding time in this movie. In the distance a mutant shrieks, then another, and then a lot of them, and they appear to be getting closer. Unknowingly, she hadn’t rescued him at all, but had unwittingly led the creatures right to his laboratory and home fortress. Here we go again with the unlikelihood of it all. The mutants don’t seem to display even a trace of intelligence, yet they appear to have purposely let Neville and company escape the night before so as to lead the way back to the captured female mutant? Oh well, I suppose that’s why they call it fiction.

But that’s okay, because then comes a really cool part—Neville knows that once these uni-track minded creatures want inside, they will keep coming till they get in, even though he lives in a veritable fortress. Long prepared for the possibility of being discovered, he tells the woman and boy to take cover before setting off a massive ring of hidden explosives outside his building. Hundreds of the things are destroyed in the awesome Hollywood detonation, but again, not the smart one. How did it know to wait? After the explosion, hundreds more of the monsters arrive and batter their way unstoppably into the building.

Robert, the woman and the boy make a final retreat down into his fortified lab. Even behind huge plates of bullet proof acrylic glass he soon realizes that it won’t long hold up against the crazily attacking mutant leader. The lovesick fiend continually throws itself bodily against the thick supposedly impenetrable glass, especially once spotting his mutant woman lying strapped inside to a table.

Then, Neville notices that the mutant female is no longer looking so mutated. She’s still bald, but her skin and her breathing have normalized. It’s a miracle, she’s cured! Robert tries to yell some reason at the enraged male still crazily battering full-bodied against the thick glass panels, but it’s no use. The acrylic starts to crack. Time is short.

Robert grabs a vial of the serum that had cured the female and hands it to the French chick. He puts her and the kid into a large safe, telling her to take the precious serum to the mythical camp of normal humans that she is so convinced actually exists. Then, saying goodbye, he closes the heavy metal doors on them.

Turning away he grabs a hand grenade stashed in the back of a drawer and waits for the glass to finally give way. As it shatters he charges the furious mutant and the scene ends in another explosion.

The movie ends with the boy and the woman arriving at the gates of the safe compound out in the middle of Connecticut or New Hampshire somewhere. She hands the all important vial over and the movie fades to black with a pull away shot of the village folk coming out to see the new arrivals.

It’s a good story and a well shot film; although when I mentioned in an email to my son in Arkansas that I had seen it and liked it, he agreed that it wa watchable. His only complaint: the ending seems rushed. He’s right. It’s as if the editor realized the film was getting close to the 90 minute mark and said, “Uh oh, we got to wrap this thing up!”

As for me, I definitely got my $2 worth. In fact I would easily pay 10 bucks to see it...

Friday, January 18, 2008

"Star Wars Bar Scene People"

Usually around these parts, upon meeting someone and getting to know them on a casual basis, you just never know who they “really” are; you know, like what they’ve done in life and where they’ve been in this big ‘ol world. And when I've tried to guess, I almost never come close to getting it right. I’ve found that especially true in areas where third country nationals, folks also referred to as expats, tend to congregate, like right here in Angeles City.

The people I run into in these parts remind me a bit of the type of “unusual” folk I used to meet in Africa, when I was stationed in Liberia back in the 70s. Stephen Spielberg captured the feel of what I’m getting at it in his Star Wars bar scenes, where he shows all the alien creatures indulging in libation and uneasy comradeship. Well, for the most part, the comradeship in Monrovia was not usually uneasy, but it always seemed that folks would feel each other out first before disclosing much about themselves.

So how is that any different than in the US; say for instance, in Saginaw or Birch Run, back where I did my high school time in Michigan, and where many in my family reside still? Well, back there, when you meet a person, they tend to be, let’s say—ordinary. By that I mean they might work for the cable company, or as a salesman, or maybe in the medical industry, or perhaps in a factory, and well, you get the gist.

Back there, people who wander the furthest off the beaten track and perhaps approach the closest to the spirit of my “Star Wars people” analogy are some of my brother’s musician pals. Aside from them though, most folks back home support themselves and live in ways most would consider common place, and don't get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s just that to find someone who has done things truly out of the ordinary you have to search a little harder and ask a few more questions. Granted, they ARE out there, just ask my brother. But here, and in places like Monrovia, they are everyone and they are everywhere.

In Liberia, I rubbed shoulders and partied with diamond smugglers and ship’s captains, missionaries and mercenaries, secret agents and Peace Corps workers, diplomats and Lebanese merchants, airline pilots and stewardesses, and military personnel from a dozen nations; to name a few.

A neat thing about being a young marine embassy guard in a tiny third world country is that we marines tended to be the “party coordinators” for much of the local diplomatic and international community, especially for our fellow Americans, of which there were scores of them living there or passing through for all sorts of reasons. Also, many of the other embassies were located near ours on embassy row, so we all knew each other and attended each other’s functions; and NO one threw more “functions” than we marines did. We gloried in our reputation, loving it that almost all of the other foreigners in Monrovia considered us to be part of the “in crowd.” It was heady stuff for a previously nerdy 20-year-old to suddenly have such marvelous popularity status.

In fact, the Marine House, the sprawling two-story building where we six marine watchstanders lived, was fitted with a fully-stocked bar and a large dance floor up on the second floor, to include the obligatory disco ball of the 70’s complete with its now passé spinning light show. Every Friday and Saturday night the “Marine House Bar & Club” was “the place to go,” for at least one drink, or two, or three.

Even the ambassador was known to show up and play cards during our well-attended monthly poker nights. Sometimes the last of the die hard poker players would keep a game going for two or three days, until the last two players had cleaned the other out. Those were exciting times, especially seeing the “mix” of players at the half-dozen or so tables. At one table I remember seeing the chargé d’affaires playing cards and kabitzing with a diamond smuggler, a Lebanese storeowner, and a 22-year-old marine sergeant. Where else could that happen but in a backwater like Monrovia? Believe me, a marine guard and the embassy chargé would NEVER be seen together in a personal social situation at one of the larger embassy settings, such as at London or Paris. It couldn’t happen. Protocol would forbid such a mixing of “ranks.”

Not long after arriving here in Angeles, a place similar in many aspects to what I describe above in Liberia, I began to feel a little déjà vu when I realized that I was once again surrounded by a host of interesting “characters.” At first, I was under the mistaken impression that most of the other foreigners residing hereabouts and passing through were US military retirees like me. But soon, I was surprised to learn that most of my fellow ex-pats here have never affiliated with the U.S. military, or anyone’s military for that matter.

I’ve written about one of these characters in other posts, since I see him at the gym almost everyday. His name is Roland, and at 79, soon to be 80, he’s almost exactly the same age as my dad. Roland is definitely a character; I figured that out almost immediately. In a word, he’s gregarious; in two words, he’s a wise ass. Even with his talkative nature however, it’s still taken me a year to learn the few notable things I know about him. I CAN tell you this, the more I know, the more I like and respect the skinny old fellow.

He is ¼ Irish, with his mom providing his "white side" with her half-Irish genetics. She appears to have been the primary influence of his early life, insisting that he learn and speak her American English in their home in Beijing where he was born; but it was Mandarin for him everywhere else. He said other Chinese were well aware of his mixed ancestry, although for the life of me I don’t see how by the looks of him. If he hadn’t told me, by looking at his facial features I’d never guess we both come from Irish stock, unless his hair in his younger days had a brownish tinge. He loves his “Mick” heritage though, and plays it up for all it's worth. And like the Irish, he definitely has “the gift of gab.” He tells me you aren’t likely to find an average Chinese fellow with a similar talkative proclivity.

A funny thing to me is that he is not very fond of the Chinese, so I get the impression that he was not treated so well by them. In fact, he went back to Beijing in the 90's after the Reds made it possible to visit his old stomping grounds once more, and he says after that trip, "never again." Evidently, its very difficult to "go home " once a Chinese becomes "something else;" especially in his case where that "something" is about as American as one can get.

Eventually I got around to asking him about where he was during “The War.” I knew he would probably know exactly what “war” I was talking about since the Chinese suffered greatly during the Japanese occupation. I was right. He knew right away that I was referring to The Second World War. Most folks to whom I make such general references don’t have a clue; but not so with Roland, whenever I use "obscure references" he’s always way ahead of me. On that alone I find him fascinating simply because he seems to be totally “up” on history, including contemporary stuff, what I like to call “history in the making.” I mean, how many 80 year olds know about Britney Spears’ problems and who the latest American Idol is? Roland does.

His mom was an American and while he was still fairly young they had moved back to the US to the San Francisco area. I don’t know how they managed to make such a bad move, but sometime before before 1940 when the Japanese invaded the eastern bulge of China, Roland and his parents went back to Beijing. I calculated that he was just reaching his teen years when all this nasty occupation business was going on, and I asked him if he took part in any of the messy wartime “activities” thereabouts. Sure enough, he had, and in “the resistance” of all things.

Wow! I was immediately impressed that a young teenager would dare do such a thing, especially considering how murderously brutal the Japanese Imperial Army was to anyone who dared oppose them and got caught doing it. He assured me that he did nothing spectacular, but was part of a multitude of other involved youths. At night they went out and placed little flashlights on a line in the countryside for American pilots flying bombers to follow to key targets such as munitions factories. Roland said the Japanese soon caught on to them and in effort to force them to stop helping the Americans they forced the Chinese plant workers to remain within the factory all night. According to Roland, none of that made a difference; they continued their work even with the knowledge that it meant American bombs might well kill members of their own families. He just laughs with that “black humor” of his, jokingly saying, “Well, you know how we Chinese are—kill a few thousand of us and we just make a few thousand more.” I shouldn’t laugh, it only encourages him; but I do every time.

After the war he finally made it back to the states. College wasn’t immediately in the works until he could “get caught up” on his studies after having gotten a couple years behind. By 1952 he achieved an engineering degree and for the rest of his adult life worked in industry always working “out of the box” as he delights in claiming.

He quit smoking, a bad habit that everyone did back "in the day" he says, but stopped too late to save a lung to cancer. He looks to weigh about 130 pounds, if that, and even with his single lung he seems to be doing pretty well. He spends about an hour and a half “working out,” but most of that is taken up in wandering around the gym floor from one conversation to the next. He’s always got something to say, usually with a bit of a smirk; not something you’d expect from an octogenarian. I’ve never seen him serious for more than a sentence or two.

Normally, when we talk, it’s about the things of today. I love it that his views of the world almost directly mirror mine. He’s a staunch conservative, a perspective born of what he’s been through in the world. For instance, there isn’t a democratic presidential candidate that he doesn’t despise and his reasons for hating them are always well explained, but each time with a joke to end every tirade. He equates the thinking of liberals, socialists and other progressive types with the moronic views he encountered in Chinese communists as a lad. He completely supports “the war” and all its “fronts,” knowing that people who mindlessly preach "peace at all costs" are doing nothing but handing over the keys to their hearth and homes. "You either fight for the continuation of your society or die," this from a man who never served a minute in uniform; yet, he “gets it” based on what he’s seen and been through. For him it’s instinctive, intuitive—insights based on experience.

Roland kind of reminds me of another old African dude I knew in Liberia all those many years ago--over 30 now. He was our cook, Mr. William. Now that guy had some STORIES! Maybe I’ll talk about him some other time…

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Bicycle Memories, Part 10; Yanking and Banking

For a time, my bike trail just about became my entire life (a bug's life?). If I had a spare couple of hours I was out on it, either extending the course or just riding on it. My obsession was to finish it and make it perfect, and by the end of April ‘92, as far as I was concerned, it very nearly was.

One of the most interesting terrain features that made my single-track trail near “perfect” lay behind the base lake shoppette area. That was where a stream wound its way toward its drainage point into the base lake. This was the same water course that originated several hundred meters back into the woods at the artesian well part of the farmstead ruins I describe in Part 8.

Putting to good use that stream bed and its steep 4 to 5 foot high clay banks, I designed the track to follow the creek and crisscross it at six points. In some places the banks were almost sheer, forcing a rider to be absolutely committed in order to negotiate a successful traverse. A half-hearted attempt normally resulted in wet feet or a thorough soaking when bike and rider rolled back or crashed down into the water.

During the creek bed build I still wasn’t entirely sure what a mountain bike could do in terms of riding potential. I sort of learned about mechanical capability, and more importantly, my own abilities as a rider, as I went along. It was trial by fire. Still, I didn’t want to install a technical area that was virtually impossible to navigate, but at several of the crossings and jumps I went ahead and set up what I at first considered near unfeasible situations just the same. I don’t know what got into me, but I figured too easy was too lame.

The funny thing is, no matter how difficult each creek crossing seemed at first, within a few attempts I’d figure it out. All I needed was just one success, even if I managed it by accident, or should I say, over the course of several accidents; but once I did it once, I had it figured from there. Usually it was a question of more speed, or just a matter of pulling up on the handlebars and shifting my weight, or all of the above. Every specific challenge area required a different sequence of riding events; some happening so quickly that they were more simultaneous than sequential.

Two of the stream crossings are better described as jumps. As I approached the bank of each I stood up to speed up and mentally screamed, “Charge!” There were various sized rocks down in the water and they shifted to new positions every time I rolled across and over them. Charging off the 4-foot stream bank I pulled the front wheel up and shifted all my weight over the back wheel. In my mind I visualized the front wheel as weightless, for even a moment’s lack of concentration could cause it to catch a rock or refuse to properly bounce up and over a hidden obstacle. If the front wheel stopped that meant going over the handlebars—not a good thing since it almost always hurt to do that. From experience, it wasn’t the flight that hurt, it was the landing. And yes, I managed to do that more than a few times.

Surviving the excitement of launching off a muddy bank and a splash landing into the middle of a foot-deep stream was only half the battle. After the rolling splashdown into the water it was crucial that all speed be maintained, not only to keep the bicycle rolling over the rocks and through the muck, but momentum was absolutely necessary to pop back up the opposite bank. Getting up the far bank was actually the hardest part of a crossing; it wouldn’t normally cause injury to screw it up, but that’s usually where failure lurked. And for me, success vs. failure meant keeping both feet in the pedal stirrups and off the ground, as even a momentary ground touch was forbidden. The way I saw it, if one foot touched the ground—failure! Besides, a foot off a pedal meant there was no pedaling going on, and that meant there was no steam to crank the back wheel up and over the far bank.

Here’s a test for folks who have never tried to ride a single-track off-road trail on a mountain bike. Take a guess as to which part of the body is under the most strain while riding a mountain bike on a rough-and-wild single-track trail. So, what’s your guess—the legs right? Well they ARE probably the first thing that comes to mind to someone not familiar with the sport. Of course, the legs are certainly very involved, notably the fore thighs and calf muscles, but on my puny body, it was the hands and forearms that took the brunt of such rides.

Compared to riding MBs, street riding requires very little hand and forearm power; I mean, you can even let them dangle over the handlebars on long smooth stretches of asphalt. Not so with technical off-road riding where hands, wrists and forearms never stop squeezing and yanking metal. On a steep rocky downhill stretch the hands are kept in a virtual death grip or risk having the handlebars wrench free, the result being a messy pileup. Uphills are just as exacting on the hands, requiring their extreme use as the rider pulls roughly against the handlebars while seeking leverage for each pumping thigh. And finally, on a single-track like mine, where trees, limbs, and boulders passed just scant inches on either side of the handgrips, the hands and forearms never stopped violently yanking and banking, all while smacking gear levers and squeezing brake handles.

There were evenings after long rides where overused muscles in my forearms would for hours involuntarily spasm, flutter and jerk. And once my course was finished and I rode it almost everyday for hours at a time the muscle shudders and contractions became permanent. I suffered with them even years after I stopped the exertion of single-track riding. Strange to think that it is the hands and forearms that suffer the most while doing such a thing that would cause most to think of the legs first. Then again, maybe I should qualify that assertion, as perhaps applying only to wimpy old me. I say that because I am not the typical athletic type—never have been, since I wasn’t lucky enough to be born with a robust frame or good strength.

The weird thing about me is that I was an athlete with the bone structure of a slight teenage girl. With thin ankles and wrists, I learned that no amount of strength training can do much about that deficiency. I did as much as I could to strengthen tendons and muscles, but there’s only so much one can do. In fact, all my successes in athletics, and I’ve had quite a few over the years, were more due to heart and will than to physiology. Well, to God's credit I was also blessed with a fair amount of natural timing and good hand eye coordination. I also had good muscle memory capacity. All of which proves I suppose that the race is not always won by those with size and power.

Just the same, I always thought if I just worked harder than everyone else that I could overcome my body’s genetic shortcomings. I would do stupid things (in retrospect) like run 10 miles up and down hills with 50 pounds of weight on my back, pump out hundreds of chin-ups, and lift weights until my hands lost their grip. The idea was that by doing such things to physiological failure that I would build strength and endurance, and that’s exactly what happened for a few years anyway. Unfortunately, it only worked for the relative short-term. Alas, once I hit my 40’s, instead of making my tendons and ligaments strong I developed tendonitis in several key leg, arm and shoulder areas, along with bad systemic osteoarthritis in every weight bearing joint in my body. But that’s the misery of 2008; let’s get back to the joy of 1992.

By the time I finished the trail, its full circuitous measurement was just over three miles. I used a bicycle odometer to exactly gauge the distance. My fastest time to successful completion was just under 20 minutes, success defined as riding start to start without once having to touch a foot on the ground. Without worrying about that I could hammer through it in just over 16 minutes, which sounds slow until you figure that almost half of the trail ran straight up and down some very steep hills.

Ah heck, this is getting too long again…. Stand by for part 11 of my Bicycle Memories.