Thursday, August 27, 2009

GI Joe & Up: The Movies

In the last week I took in two movies: “UP” and “GI Joe, The Rise of Cobra.” I loved one and was lukewarm towards the other. You might be surprised which was which.

First: “GI Joe, The Rise of Cobra”

There’s only one sequence in GI Joe worth watching; it’s the chase scene through the city of Paris where Channing Tatum and Marlon Wayans are operating like supercharged supermen in those super cool accelerator suits. I’ve never seen anything like that before—outstanding special effects.

They should have used the suits throughout the entire movie, because everything else in it—the fight scenes, the combat sequences, the love scenes, the one plot twist; heck, the entire plot—it’s all been done before.

That accelerator suits sequence though, I gotta say, that one 15 minute thrilling pursuit scene made the entire movie worth watching. I would even subject myself to another ridiculous GI Joe sequel just in case they include more accelerator suit scenes. I don’t know why, but those suits really struck my fancy. Man, strap me into one and let me go play; I could die after that.

Other than the super suit segment however, I really don’t know what all the fuss is about. I suppose female viewers are enthralled with Mr. Tatum, but he turned me off at the very beginning of the thing when the captain character he played called his army Special Forces squad to attention. His squeakily executed delivery of the order “A-ten-tion!” elicited a massive groan from me, which started Divine to giggling in the seat next to me. I don’t think anyone else in the theater even realized why I was so disgusted.

Why oh why can they not hire some halfway decent military advisers to show these Hollywood pretty boy types how to accomplish the simple things, like barking out orders, standing at attention properly, or just delivering a passable salute? For me, as soon as I see them screw up the basics like that, I’m distracted for the rest of the movie.

But, if someone didn’t know any better about such things, or if it’s not a problem observing the violation of basic military tactics or sloppily done drill and etiquette, then watching a pseudo-military movie like GI Joe probably will be just fine. After all, GI Joe is based on a comic book, so suspending belief and going with the fantasy flow is what it’s all about—I guess. Now, those accelerator suits—yes!


I had never even heard of “Up” before we decided to see it. My girls were visiting for the day, and at the mall passing by the upstairs quadlplex, I noticed the marquis poster for “Up.” It looked cute and my girls were delighted at the offer to watch a cartoon film. So, in we went.

From the very start, this movie by Pixar charmed the pants off of everyone in the cinema. It’s rare, but at times during the showing of a really good movie there’s a feeling of camaraderie that develops among theater viewers. I actually felt that connection while watching “Up.” I kid you not, and normally, I cannot stand my fellow theatergoers.

And you KNOW it’s a good family flick when even younger children remain captivated from to start to finish. Our group included three small kids—a 5, 6 and 8-year-old—and all three watched completely entranced the entire length of the film. My two girls and I sat in one of those extra wide love seats, one on my lap and the other tucked up next to me, and they continuously asked questions and commented on what was happening on screen. Usually, during most movies we’ve gone to see, even during the supposedly kid friendly ones, they start to lose interest after 30 minutes, at which point they usually realize they need a potty break, or just get antsy and are overpowered by the “little kid urge” to explore their immediate surroundings. Remarkably, they did not do this during “Up.”

The primary protagonist throughout most of the story line was a grumpy old widower man, the type of character you wouldn’t think that most kids would empathize with. However, the makers of “Up” introduced us to this cantankerous old fellow when he was still just a shy cute little boy. Once we got to know and grow affection for him as a lad we couldn’t help but to continue liking him.

My favorite Pixar film used to be “Monsters, Inc,” but no more; it’s now been replaced by “Up.” In fact, if I had to rate it against all the movies I’ve seen over the last 2 or 3 years, believe it or not, kid’s cartoon movie or not, “Up” would be my number 1. Go watch it, no matter what age you are; unless that is, you are completely against cute, slightly sappy movie fare; otherwise, you will love this one as much as my girls and I did.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

My Chinese Bumble-bee Gave up the Ghost

My yellow and black Chinese-made “bumble bee” finally gave up the ghost. Hoping that I could squeeze another couple months out of it, for more than a week I allowed the scooter mechanic to continue to milk me for the replacement of one new part after another. My nephew would bring it home every other afternoon, I’d give it a try, it would seem to start okay, but the next morning each time it was all starter and no engine. It was maddening.

Finally, I realized that the problem was in the thrice rebuilt engine; it had no more capacity to build compression without which it would not start when cold and unprimed. I wasn’t about to drop another penny into rebuilding it a fourth time. No, I decided it was time to cut my losses and just splurge on a brand new bike; only this time I would go Japanese. No more Chinese scooters for me; no way, no how. I’ve learned my lesson.

I was thinking about railing against Chinese products but then I began to rethink it. The problem, I believe, stems probably not so much in China as it does here in the Philippines; or perhaps it’s a combination of export and import decisions made in both China and here.

I used to puzzle over why Filipinos would ask me to bring them back products from the US. I’d respond, “You DO realize that virtually all the stuff you want me to get for you are also made in China, just like the stuff you buy here?”

But then I “got it;” the real issue is quality—virtually everything sold here, although generally more costly than back home, is decidedly substandard. I’ve decided there are likely two reasons for this:

First, Americans and other types of First World consumers won’t put up with a company that attempts to foist crappy stuff on them, and equally important, Chinese companies logically do not want to risk the very real wrath of the “mighty American consumer.”

In contrast, in these parts, neither Chinese exporters nor Filipino retailers have much reason to worry about consumer backlash—it appears to be nonexistent here. As far as I can see, there is no consumer advocacy to speak of. People just put up with the junk palmed off on them in stores and simply do what folks do here—accept and suck it up. Or, they find a way to get someone to bring back “the good stuff” from someplace else. Just try and return a faulty item bought in any store over here and prepare to experience the mother of all run-arounds. It’ll boggle your mind.

Although, my theory does not hold water when it comes to Japanese products. Most Japanese brand scooters sold here are not built in Japan, but in places like Thailand or Taiwan; yet, pretty much any of those products are far superior to anything made in China. Of course you pay BIG for that quality.

I know now that I should have bought Japanese right from the start. In the long run I would have saved big time. To demonstrate my point, a buddy bought a Yamaha Nouvo about the same time I did 5 or 6 years ago. I put down about $700 for my Chinese scoot while he probably paid double that for his Japanese banger. Within 3 months though, mine began to break down; and once it started to find ways to fail it was downhill from there.

The phrase “high maintenance” definitely applied to my Chinese beater. Thing is, once you start feeding the meter you have no choice but to keep dropping in the coins; either that or park the beast and walk. At first I used to live by the adage “it’s cheaper to keep her,” but after a couple years of “her” always breaking down I began to dream of a new more reliable Japanese “mistress” and yes, thoughts of “divorce” began to intrude. Yes, I wanted to “cheat” on my yellow baby and even replace her. What can I say?

After going on 6 years of regular trips to “the shop” I can honestly say that I paid at least two or three times the original price in keeping that two wheeled piece of Chinese junk on the street. Quite the opposite, my buddy still has his Nouvo, and it still runs like a top. The only money he’s spent on maintenance is for the occasional oil change. More important, he’s had scooterized transportation all these years that never fails to start and always runs perfectly. It’s true, dependability is even MORE important than cost; THAT is the lesson here.

So, my new scooter is a Suzuki Hayate, a fairly high-end bike made in Thailand. I’ve had it for over a week now and I would LOVE to be able to start enjoying it out on the road, but that’s not how things work in this country. Nope, you buy a new vehicle and park it for about a month or more until the plates are issued. They don’t have dealer plates, or temporary issue plates, or any kind of plates that would make it legal to ride.

You will see folks from here all the time riding their new bikes on the street with “For Registration” on a card where the plate is supposed to be. Way back when, I thought that must have been what they use here for temporary plates; but no, I learned the hard way that THAT is definitely not true. If a cop pulls you over and you have no plate you will probably have to convince him to NOT confiscate your new vehicle.

That’s what happened to me when I bought the bumble-bee back in 2004. I showed the policeman my sales slip, which he dutifully read along with my driver’s license just before he informed me that he had no choice but to take my scooter into custody. Naturally, I was shocked when he did exactly that. I called my wife at the time and she came out to the station breathing flames. After dealing with her noise for a few minutes the station chief allowed me to ride it home as long as I parked it until the plates arrived.

I’ve mentioned to several locals that I have a brand new scooter and they are actually puzzled that I don’t ride it while I’m waiting for the plates. I tell them why and typically they shake their heads like I’m nuts. One said, “If you see the police ahead, just stop and turn around…”

You know, the longer I’m here the more I realize how huge the cultural shift is between foreign nationals like me and locals when it comes to attitudes toward rules and regulations.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Firing the Maid

Nearly everyone I know living here, many of them retirees like me, have at least one person employed as household help. By “help” I mean servants; people to keep house, cook, wash clothes, babysit, and to tend the yard and such.

When I mention to folks back in the states that I employ a maid, and even at times a nanny, a cook and a laundry girl, they can’t imagine such a thing. “Wow, must be nice!” is the usual response. Yet, from what I have seen in my travels, the unusual thing in most parts of the world is NOT having a maid. As an Air Force brat, both times we lived in Turkey back in the 60s we had maids; and the year I lived in Liberia in the Marine House from 77 to 78, we had 3 servants to take care of the 6 of us embassy watchstanders—a cook, a laundry boy and a houseboy. If it sounds great—having servants to help you around the house—heck yeah, it’s awesome. Guilty as charged—I love it.

At the moment, in this house, the only outside workers we currently have is one maid, but for a while we also employed a laundry woman and a nanny. Actually, it’s not unusual at all in this country for even poor families to have maids; in a place with such desperately high unemployment one can always find someone poorer than you willing to wash clothes, cook, or take care of a baby, and for almost no pay; perhaps only for a place to sleep and something to eat; especially if the person employed is family, like a young niece whose parents cannot afford to keep in school, or perhaps a cousin from the province where there are even fewer opportunities than in the towns and cities.

The problem most of us foreigners struggle with is trying to find just the right household worker bee. From my past 7 years of hiring and firing house servants, or more aptly, watching it being done first by my now ex-wife and then by my fiancée, a primary problem concerns the matter of trustworthiness; although that is not the only thorny issue that can rear up and cause consternation.

For instance, one of my buddies loves to travel and does so near and far; but one of the first things you learn here is that it is unwise to leave your home unattended. Even in a supposedly well-guarded subdivision, when the word gets out that the owner leaves for extended periods with no one left in the home, eventually, theft WILL occur. So naturally, for security purposes, my travelling friend keeps a live-in maid.

So, back to the trust thing—can you trust this person that you’ve just left alone to watch over all your stuff? After all, most break-ins here are inside jobs; as is crime of all kinds for that matter. Everyone “knows” this from experience and word of mouth. When we hear that a fellow foreigner has been killed in their home, which luckily does not happen all THAT often (but happen it does), the first thing that occurs to many of us: “Must have been the wife!” And often it’s true; and if not the wife specifically, then likely it was the wife’s boyfriend that did the foul deed. We rarely find out for certain as few crimes of this nature are ever “solved.”

Of course, we foreigners also tend to blame the victim. We’ll say things like, “Yeah, I heard that German guy was a real ass.” (Thus, he had it coming) or “What a dummy! That Dutch fellow should have known his wife had a jealous young boyfriend. He must have been the last one to know.”

We say these things to keep the uneasiness at bay; after all, we KNOW that OUR wives and OUR girlfriends could NEVER betray US in such a manner—right? Unthinkable! No way, no how! (…we tell ourselves vehemently).

You see, when it comes to being an outsider living in a foreign land, a land where things are not always as they seem, eventually, after you’ve taken every precaution you can possibly take, all you have left is trust; either that or you can let paranoia turn your life into a complete hell of “batten down the hatches” loneliness. Ultimately, to have any kind of real life at all, you have to simply decide to go with your gut; or, out of sheer expediency hope for the best, whether you completely trust the person or not (and always sleep with your bedroom door LOCKED).

Of course, a certain amount of paranoia can be a useful thing. My wayfaring friend had a buddy of his keep an eye on things while he was gone for a couple weeks to Thailand. It was this “spy” who discovered that the ostensibly trustworthy house girl was sneaking her boyfriend into the house every night; a very bad thing indeed—the perfect recipe for a future bit of insider thievery or much worse. It’s not unheard of—a lonely lady from another province, on her own working as a maid for a foreigner, finding herself under the influence of a local ne’er-do-well boyfriend—well; you can imagine the horrible possibilities. In this case, my buddy fired her; she was gone as soon as he returned from his trip.

And there are worse things than wayward maids; especially when it comes to entrusting your kids with fulltime nannies. It pains me to think of it, but for more than a year we had no idea that our two girls were being pinched and hair pulled by their pretty young nanny. She was my wife’s niece and it just never occurred to us that she was capable of such meanness. It was my youngest that finally complained with enough bitter vigor, along with the fact that their mom finally spotted the multitude of pinch marks and put two and two together. I can’t begin to define the extent of the rage and betrayal I felt the moment I realized that my girls had been going through months of torture at the hands of a resentful young relative. I was even angrier at myself, remembering the times my little ones had actually cried and wailed, especially during the nightly shower time. We hadn’t paid attention, assuming they were just whining and complaining as kids do. Lesson learned—trust no one and LISTEN to your kids! There it is again—trust.

It’s obvious why problems exist when it comes to servants—it’s usually about money. Money is NOT the root of all evil; it’s the desire for it that leads to no good. The difference in wealth levels between servant and employer—how to overcome that? You can’t. For example, my current maid is paid about a hundred dollars a month plus meals. She, her husband and their children are squatters; they live in a shack in a nearby riverbed. By American standards I live quite frugally in a modest 3 bedroom bungalow and drive a 17 year old sedan. Yet, compared to my maid I am Donald Trump. It must drive her batty seeing how much I have and knowing she never has a shot at doing even a fraction as well. Sure, it makes me feel guilty, but compared to some of her own very rich countrymen I am but a pauper. Should I pay her more? Maybe; but we pay above the norm already, so that will have to do. What she and others like her really need is whatever change is required to make this place into another Singapore, but THAT will never happen here.

Two or three maids ago, we had to let one go for a typical reason—she stole. I must say though, I wasn’t all that upset to see her go. At 50 years old she fancied herself with a sexy body, always wearing spandex shorts to show off her gams, which I’ll admit were quite athletic for a woman her age. Her face however, was just short of simian, or maybe not so short of it. Her primary job was to wash clothes and she actually did a pretty good job of it. But within a few weeks, we couldn’t figure out why we always needed to buy laundry soap. It was the maid who figured it out. One day, she called Divine out to the side yard, showing her where the laundry girl was stashing soap in a plastic bag under some stuff in the back of a storage shelf. Our simian faced laundry girl was fired that same day. It wasn’t that big a deal, but once a thief, always one. To paraphrase Bebe King, “The trust is gone baby… the trust is GONE.”

So it was ironic that last week the same maid that snitched on the laundry girl, and probably the best maid I’ve ever had work for me, came to Divine to report that the spare propane cooking tank was missing from where we stored it under the outside sink. Immediately we inventoried everything else in that area and determined that nothing else was taken. It was a mystery—who could have taken the tank and when?

Often the first person the police suspect is the person who reports the crime, and so it was with us. This became especially true after Divine told me that the maid had approached her just the week before, saying her husband wanted to borrow the spare tank, and now it was missing? It was just too much of a coincidence. The maid and her husband must have something to do with it; what else could we think? I told Divine that no matter what, we could never trust this woman again. And besides, I reasoned that she was the one ultimately responsible for ensuring that the place was secure while the rest of us were out and about. At the very least she had failed in that.

Regardless, I knew that no matter what we could never trust her again. Five days a week she stayed the night, getting up early to make breakfast for the kids before school. Now that her honesty was suspect I could no longer allow her to sleep here. What if her husband, or someone else, talked her into unlocking the door from the inside late one night while we were all sound asleep? She could very well be our Trojan horse. My mind ran wild with what could happen, all based on tales of unsuspecting foreigners found dead in their own homes, some tied up and bludgeoned, or repeatedly stabbed, or even chopped up into multiple separate body parts (I attended the funeral of a retired marine out of Subic who died like that about 4 years ago). Nope, as good as she’s been for the last year, she’s gone. I told Divine to make it happen.

So, here we are again—where to find a maid, someone we can trust? Perhaps a family member this time? Oh well, something will turn up; it always does.