I woke up in a strange place

By Marc Heiden, since 1997.
See also: a novel about a monkey.

August 30, 2010

Things are lost, but the space remains.

If you are like me, you are often barely paying attention to the world around you, but you snap to attention whenever there is a monkey. For much of the summer, these commercials were running on television, and I could not figure out what they were for, because I was never paying attention for the first twenty seconds. I would usually become aware as this chimp in a white sequined Evel Knievel jumpsuit strode into the upper left-hand corner of the frame, which was otherwise filled by parked cars. The announcer would say, "Oh, wait...there's a monkey." The chimp would press down the switch on one of those boxes commonly associated with dynamite, and glitter would rain down on the cars. Possibly the last couple of seconds would explain what the commercial was for, but I was always agog, and never able to capture that information.

It was very confusing. (It has been a confusing summer. I have a beard?) I kept searching Google for things like "ape with explosive device" and "chimpanzee glitter bomb anarchy" and found nothing useful at all.

Then it got fucking weird because the chimp became invisible. The same commercial was running, but now the announcer would say "Oh, wait...there's an invisible monkey." And the jumpsuit would come striding out there, but there was nobody in it.

It was around this time that I sent out all those inquiries about where NASA is with regard to a moon base, because I have had it with life on Earth if chimpanzee glitter bomb anarchy has gone into stealth mode. (If you are reading this from NASA, fuck you for not returning my emails. See if I write back next time you're losing sleep over whether some asteroid really does look like Sean Connery.)

Well, anyway, good news, sort of, because the chimp did not disappear on its own — it was disappeared by PETA.

(LA Times) On Dodge's website they explained how after just two e-mails alerting them about the mistreatment that animals often suffer in order to make commercials, they decided to change their spot. They wrote how they were unaware about the bad practices that some animals endure to be trained for ads. "We were saddened to learn this, and in the spirit of Dodge we wanted to take action. We decided to take the spot off the air, and we stopped a full-page newspaper spread from running. Dodge is firmly committed to never using great apes in our advertisements again. We released a new commercial. The footage is identical, only this time you won't see Suzie."

PETA let us know that they were happy with the "invisible monkey."

That link has video of both versions of the commercial, which as it turns out is for some trucks.

I understand PETA's reasoning — abusive training practices, social isolation, and all that. Bad stuff. Lord knows I don't enjoy being in show business, shame to subject chimps to this nonsense. Keeping apes out of advertising is good for chimps in general, but a bit rough for Suzie in specific, as she is now unemployed and will have to find some other line of work. (Perhaps in an office.) You can prevent other chimps from being trained, but you can't prevent Suzie from having been trained.

What fills the space? What do you see when you see an invisible monkey?

The monkey's viewpoint?

If you are like me, you often wonder what monkeys would do in various situations, but you also wonder what specific monkeys are up to these days, ones you haven't seen or heard about in a while. I had some inkling that the chimp from MVP: Most Valuable Primate and MVP 2: Most Vertical Primate had a new series coming out on HBO, but it turns out that's actually Steve Buscemi, so I was pleased to learn that, instead, the chimp has a cushy retirement ahead of him.

(Oakland Tribune) Before they started swinging from ropes and munching on popcorn and raisins at the Oakland Zoo, Bernie and Eddie had careers in television and movies.

They are still stars at the zoo, but now they are starting to mingle with five new chimps, playing hide-and-seek inside their leafy, expansive glass-enclosed home and entertaining thousands of zoo visitors each week.

Steve Ross, chairman of the Chimpanzee Species Survival Plan and director of Project ChimpCARE, which helped direct the move to the zoo, said brothers Bernie and Eddie were owned by Greg and Carol Lille, who live near Sacramento and trained chimpanzees for films, advertisements and print media, such as greeting cards, for more than 30 years.

"The Lilles worked cooperatively with all the zoos to place the chimps and were instrumental in ensuring these chimps were provided the opportunity to live out their lives in long-term sustainable housing such as at the Oakland Zoo," Ross said.

Greg Lille said he was under contract not to talk about the chimpanzee's past work history and declined to comment Wednesday. According to published reports, Bernie was the star of a hockey team in the 2000 movie "MVP: Most Valuable Primate," and its 2001 sequel "MVP2: Most Vertical Primate," where he plays hockey and rides skateboards.

Bernie, 16, and Eddie, 20, have over the past few months been integrated with Oakland's one male and four females. Eddie has become the peacekeeper in the group; Bernie had a little trouble with the lone male, Moses, at the beginning; the two now seem to be warming up to each other, zoo officials said.

It sounds like there might have been a fabricated biting incident, but it's all sorted out now.

(Obviously, we don't talk about MXP: Most Xtreme Primate on this website. It is non-canonical. Don't even bring it up.)

So here's hoping Suzie has a pension plan, and has not borrowed against her pension for more glitter bombs. I know how tempting that is.

August 29, 2010

Look! It's the news, or what passes for it:

(AP) North Korea appears to have added Facebook to the social networking sites it recently joined to ramp up its propaganda war against South Korea and the U.S.

The account opened late Thursday under the Korean username "uriminzokkiri," meaning "on our own as a nation," an official at South Korea's Communications Standards Commission said Friday.

The Facebook account, which describes itself as male, says it is interested in men and is looking for networking. The account had 50 friends as of Friday.

Its profile picture is of the Three Charters for National Reunification Memorial Tower, a 100-foot (30-meter) monument in Pyongyang that "reflects the strong will of the 70 million Korean people to achieve the reunification of the country with their concerted effort," according to the official Korean Central News Agency.

I assume this is the account in question, but it's a fan page, not a profile, suggesting that the poor bastard in charge of North Korea's social media presence wised up and converted the profile into a fan page, possibly in response to his entire family being sent to labor camps. Of course, if you look at the fan page, said poor bastard is probably at a labor camp too, as the wall has been overrun with photos like this.

He was probably pretty happy to get transferred from the Department of Agriculture, which is widely known as the worst job in North Korea because if Kim Jong Il's fatherly love is not fertilizing the crops then it is your fault. But, as it turns out, running social media for the Hermit Kingdom is a mook's game, too.

(Like soccer. Bad scene, everybody's fault.)

August 23, 2010

More letters home. These are from Vietnam, following on from this and this.

Saigon traffic (5)

I'm in Saigon (or Ho Chi Minh City, as it's now officially named). The trip from Cambodia was easy and about four hours less than I was expecting. Usually, these bus companies make up for the low ticket price by getting a commission from unnecessary stops at restaurants along the way (and a hotel at the end), but that didn't happen with this one. And there was virtually no line at the border.

The main Thailand / Cambodia border crossing is a widely-renowned shithole, but the Cambodia / Vietnam border was easy. Immigration at land crossings are interesting, compared to airports. There's usually just one guy, and he is the king of that little kingdom. There are no laws except those which he chooses to recognize. The guy at the Vietnam crossing, for example, was standing next to the 'No Smoking' sign with a cigarette. (At an airport, if some immigration official went off the rails, you could take a step back and appeal to someone in another line, and there's probably a manager on the premises as well.)

At the border between Cambodia and Vietnam

It costs $20 to get a visa into Cambodia. The federal government posted a sign with the cost at the border office, which frustrates the border officials, because in the past, they could charge whatever they wanted, and it's not like you had somewhere else you could go. Now, they try to get you to pay in Thai money instead - 1000 baht, which works out to close to $30 - and then they can keep the extra $10. I met a couple of indie kids from Omaha, so we did that leg of the trip together, and we all insisted on paying the proper $20, so the immigrations guy stewed and told us "it's longtime three hours", even though there was nobody else there, although he hinted we could expedite the whole thing with an extra 100 baht apiece. The weather wasn't bad, so we just sat and waited, and reveled as more travelers arrived and refused to pay the extra fee. (Only two people folded - they got theirs in three minutes.) Finally, after two hours or so, somebody brought the immigration guy's lunch, so he handed out our visas so he could eat in peace.

Vietnam was different - the visa was paid for before we hit the border, so it was just a process of checking them in and then getting bags x-rayed (although not pockets or body, leading me to wonder what the point was) and then heading onward. The Cambodian and Vietnamese visas are both full-page stickers (with stamps on the preceding page). I only have three blank pairs of pages left. I've been living well!

Communist paradise

I'm happy here so far. The internet connection is all right, and cheap; food was fine, and cheap as well. The hotel room is probably the nicest I've had thus far, and my first since Bangkok to have hot water (although no pool, which the Bangkok one did have). It costs $10 or 160,000 dong a night. I have five currencies in my wallet right now. Again, I must be living well. (You would not believe how old and scummy the Cambodian paper bills are. It's awesome.) The best thing about Vietnam is that the words for "thank you" are pronounced "come on". I really enjoy that.

Going to the Cu Chi tunnels tomorrow. They are meant for people much shorter than me.

Shooting machine guns again

I fired an AK-47 today. I'd been satisfied after the M-16 episode in Cambodia, but there was this clearing near the tunnels where they were selling bullets for about $1.30 apiece (minimum purchase five), and I suddenly felt two things:

1. Gratitude, because I'd been going through these jungles where actual combat took place, and the sound of those machine guns in the distance had added a big chunk of verisimilitude to the whole experience;
2. Scholarly duty, because during the war, Americans used M-16s, and the Vietcong used AK-47s, so I thought this would help me see both sides. (They both made my shoulder hurt.)

So I bought five bullets and put them to use. As it turns out, firing the AK-47 was very loud (no headphones provided), kicked pretty hard against my shoulder (same as the M-16), and jammed up every couple of shots (unlike the M-16). I didn't get a target sheet, so I don't know how my accuracy compared.

All in all, I understand G.I. Joe and Cobra a little better now.

That's my tank

American M41 Tank Was Destroyed By Landmine In 1970

Anyway, I'm done with guns now, unless someone offers me a rocket launcher for, say, under $10 a pop. (I may go as high as $15, but you have to start these negotiations low.) A few years ago, when Cambodia was way, way out of control, you could get a combo deal on a cow and a shell for a rocket launcher - you blow up the cow, the locals get to keep the meat. Now, Cambodia is only way out of control, so there is no blowing up of cows, as far as I could tell. (Not that I would have!)

It's funny to read you saying that there are "rumors floating around". I'm sure none of them involve me in the Vietnam jungle firing off Soviet assault rifles. It is a fine thing when the truth of one's life is stranger than the fiction by such a margin.

My legs are in trouble, sad to say. Those tunnels were not meant for me. (That was the whole point of why they built them that way, actually.) The long bus rides haven't been doing them any favors either, I guess. But we're invincible until we're 30, right? I thought that was the biological deal. I'm assuming I'll be better when I wake up. Tomorrow I'm going to try to tackle Saigon itself, and then the day after that, I'm off to the Mekong Delta (big river) and probably out of contact for a couple of days.

Tour Guide: A Very Small Man

I haven't written much about my own reaction to all of this for two reasons. One is training as a writer - when doing sociological field research, we were always supposed to take tons of notes, ideally, immediately thereafter - professors had wild statistics like that you lose 65% of the detail of an experience by the next day. I think that's true, actually, although maybe not to that extent - but once you form your emotional reaction to an experience, you do start discarding the things that don't contribute directly to the narrative of that reaction. So if you want a rich story, get all of the details down first, and figure out what you think about them later - there's always time for that. Admittedly, while I know that's a good idea, I'm totally undisciplined about taking proper notes. I wish I would. But, yeah, the first time you hear about something from me, you just hear the details. I am the invisible voyager in the things I do.

Also, when you're alone for this long, a silence does come over you, and you get used to observing things and storing them away for later instead of reacting to them right there and then. I like stumbling across my own reaction to places I've been, sometimes a few months later - it comes as a surprise, but that's one of the things I like about travel, discovering the shape the experience has taken in my memory.

So there's that.

Pantheon of Cao Dai

The morning trip was to the head temple of Cao Dai, a religion (12 million followers, mostly Vietnamese) which is a mish-mash of Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism, but also has a strong Catholic influence (Jesus was floating above the altar, a notch below Buddha, right next to Confucius), floating eyeballs (like on the back of the dollar bill), and holds Victor Hugo (French author of Les Miserables) as one of its Three Major Saints, with Thomas Jefferson as one of the minor saints.

Sun Yat Sen, Victor Hugo, and Another Fellow sign a pact with God

The temple was totally surreal. I got to see about twenty minutes of their mass, which was mostly just chanting and bowing. Unfortunately, nobody was really on hand to explain any of it. It's a serious religion, but I don't think I've ever been in a stranger building. It was a brief but exhilarating experience. I have high hopes for those photos.

White dresses by the eye

Blue surrounded

The afternoon was the tunnels. I was disappointed there, overall. The place was definitely for real - the Vietnamese army still trains around there - but as a visitor, there was way too much being led around (above-ground) and being shown cheap models and mannequins, and not enough independent wandering. (Although, as I said, 100 meters in those pitch-black tunnels had my legs fucked.)

In the Cu Chi Tunnels

We had to sit through a video beforehand that would have been hysterically funny if a friend were along - think those clumsy, heavily-narrated black-and-white WWII newsreel clips about heroic GIs smashing Nazi Germany, but swap Vietnamese villagers for the GIs and "Americans" for Nazi Germany. "American Killer Hero!" chirped the Vietnamese Troy McClure over an image of a short, smiling woman in one of those pointy hats. "She is three times American Killer Hero." The woman smiles and waves.

If you're alone, that's just funny (and vaguely offensive), but if you have a friend to award "American Killer Hero!" for the rest of the day, it becomes a great day.

Careful! Bad Vietcong art. (5)

Let's see. About helmets on motorbikes - my hired driver for Angkor Wat had a helmet for me, although he wasn't wearing one himself. Otherwise, no, for those cross-town taxi-moto rides, nobody involved had a helmet on. I don't think anyone can really afford them, to be honest. It is interesting how much of the traffic in all three countries has been motorbikes, though. Bangkok is rich enough to have a fair number of cars, but everywhere else has been almost exclusively motorbikes. One of the moto drivers in Phnom Penh nearly shit himself when he heard that I used to have a car. (They also had a really out-sized understanding of how much money a teacher makes, but then, so did the Japanese.)

The driver, by the way, immediately started laying out a payment plan whereby, that very day, I would buy him one of those cycles with the carts attached to the back (doubles the fares you can charge) and he would have my investment paid off within ten months. He'd gone through the month-by-month returns for the whole ten months before I could stop him.

Crouched in a temple courtyard

I've been in cities, mostly, I guess - although there's a vast difference between the wealth of a city in Thailand and one in Cambodia. (I'm hesitant to bring Vietnam into the comparison, because I haven't been around enough yet.) Even Phnom Penh, the capitol of Cambodia, was fairly beat up - like the ghetto of a rust-belt town like Detroit or Cleveland. Staying overnight in the Thai border town was pretty interesting - very, very dusty, small lizards wandering in and out of the hotel room - and I did get to some small villages in Cambodia, because my driver was keen to take me around. They've had internet cafes everywhere because it's a way to make money. You can have ox-carts and cracked pavement outside, but tourists have money and tourists want internet, so you get the internet before you upgrade from ox-cart to pick-up truck.

Crazy man

I had a really ugly experience with a cyclo driver in Saigon. When we met, he broke out a big notebook full of positive comments from people who'd taken tours with him in the past - it should have raised a red flag that none of the comments were from later than spring '03, but I went ahead with it anyway, because I didn't know where the hell I was going, and he seemed friendly. (And I'd had such a great time with my driver in Angkor.)

He drove for a way, long enough to get me out of familiar territory and to a deserted side street, and then pulled over and asked for payment (plus tip plus "extra help") up front because he'd borrowed some money and he needed to pay it back right then or something bad would happen. He was getting freaked out and on the verge of panic and violence. I kept my cool, stayed firm and defused the situation, but it was nasty.

Careful! Vietcong Folding Chair Trap.

I should go. Here's hoping my legs allow me to stand up from this chair.

August 18, 2010

I enjoyed this article about the twilight world of the celebrity autograph convention circuit. When the guy who played Peter on "The Brady Bunch" says things like "I still believe in the mystery of celebrity", then you pretty much just have to nod and keep your stupid comments in your pocket.

(I'm aware that the nature of the event changed years ago, but there's a part of me that's still 14 and cannot fathom why the Soup Nazi from "Seinfeld" is at ComiCon.)

Here is a letter I have never received:

Dear clever man on the Internet,

I am directing a production of Hamlet, and I need to come up with a daring new interpretation of the play. I do not have time to alter the text, so I need something that uses all of the original words, but is still daring and new. The Shakespeare in the Park guys are doing a production of Othello that's either set in the water reclamation district or a gourmet kitchen (they haven't decided which), so they have reserved all of the modern dress in town, and the other theater is doing Macbeth set in a salsa dancing class, so there is no modern dress for me to use. As you can see, then, my options are quite limited. (Obviously, doing the play as it was written is not an option, as the other directors will laugh at me.) Please give me a daring new interpretation of Hamlet that nobody has ever done before. I will do nothing whatsoever for you in return.

A famous cutting-edge director

I am happy to oblige. Here are the five words you need:

"Hamlet is cool with it."

In this daring new interpretation, Hamlet has always liked Claudius, and is happy to see his mother get together with him. Shame about Dad, of course, but what are you going to do? The appearance of the ghost serves to reinforce the point that nothing can bring Hamlet down. Everyone enjoys his incessant gibberish; it is a nice pick-me-up, what with all of the death lately. Various of Hamlet's college friends — Horatio, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern — are summoned to the palace to enjoy Hamlet's goofy antics. (During the "to be or not to be" speech, he is making a silly monkey face and trying to decide whether his monkey impression is ready to go, or whether he should practice it some more.)

The text will support you in all of this. Actors may have to say certain lines in a sarcastic tone of voice, or wink as they speak. But people do that sort of thing.

The Murder of Gonzago is enacted in order to let Claudius know that even if he had killed the king, which everyone knows he'd never actually do, it would be fine, because Hamlet likes him that much. Hamlet is giving Claudius a thumbs up throughout all of this.

Ophelia is a cat. She is in heat and goes a bit weird as a result. Polonius is also a cat. Hamlet inadvertently knocks the window open by recklessly stabbing through the curtain, and Polonius escapes through the window. Everyone is sad about that. Ophelia gets neutered and will not stop messing around with her stitches. She must be put to sleep, and everyone is sad about that as well. But Hamlet and Laertes hold a terrifically exciting fencing exhibition, and everyone is roused from their lethargy. They share a drink.

Cat amidst the wreckage.

Fortinbras is carrying Polonius as he arrives. (Polonius was up in a tree.) The entire court is pretending to be dead in order to surprise Fortinbras, little suspecting that he has a surprise for them.

August 17, 2010

I think if there is one thing I am going to have to explain to my grandchildren, it is why I did not start or at least invest in an interplanetary mining concern. The descendants of the iPhone and other devices will be made with metals that are rare or non-existent on Earth; they will be omnipresent, and they will run very well, and a few people will become extraordinarily rich from supplying them, but I will not be among those people, and my grandchildren will ask why.


(I will not have to explain why we allowed the climate on Earth to get all fucked up; that will be a topic for our children, mainly, the generation for whom there is not yet a sufficient body of cartoons in which this weather and its consequences are commonplace. Our grandchildren will find talk of old weather patterns odd and mildly interesting, like our own grandparents and milkmen and ice deliveries and nickelodeons, as long as we do not go on too long about it.)

No, it is my grandchildren to whom I will have to justify our family's failure to own any portion of an interplanetary mining concern. (Possibly some portion of what remains of my 401(k) will be invested in one, several layers of involvement away from my awareness, just as today.) My grandchildren will wonder how this boundless source of wealth could not have been obvious to me. They'll know that the first space mining flight was followed by others almost immediately, and from there it never stopped — the oil and gold rushes will provide some basis of comparison, in the sense that nobody will remember how many people struck out or died in accidents, only that it resulted in the likes of John D. Rockefeller.

(But it will be a rush without violence; we will be too fragile in outer space to attack each other, and by the time we have grown secure enough for that sort of thing, we will have learned to be civilized about it.)

My grandchildren will say that we could have been rich; they will not be angry about it (they will be, after all, good kids and fond of me, as I am well-suited to grandfatherhood), just puzzled that I had what will appear to them a clear and simple choice when I was a young man: to mine in outer space and become rich, or to not mine in outer space and keep fucking around in offices — and my decision was apparently to keep fucking around in offices.

The author, reflected in a space helmet

I will sigh and tell my grandchildren that someone had to stay behind and fight off all the polar bears; those things were mean.

August 10, 2010

The back wheel of my bicycle has been damaged by what is either normal wear-and-tear (I ride to work most days) or a shocking act of violence that was extremely limited in scope, being directed exclusively at bicycle spokes. Until some sort of final determination can be made, let us assume there is a madman out there targeting bicycle spokes, and proceed accordingly.

This article is worth reading, printing, laminating, and possibly tattooing, listing as it does the locations of all Mold-A-Rama machines in the Chicago area — either your eyes just closed and you were overcome with the glorious smell of hot plastic, or you have no idea what I am talking about — but you should go further, to Mold-A-Rama.com, where (under 'What's New') you can actually see a picture of the green gorilla in question. It's phenomenal. You can also apply for a part-time job servicing the Mold-A-Rama machines at the Oklahoma City Zoo, and you should, because it's a good opportunity and you don't have much else going on right now, as evidenced by the fact that you just spent the better part of an afternoon thinking about a green gorilla.

August 9, 2010

I had a strangely intense conversation today when I called to cancel the Citibank Identity Monitoring service — initially enrolled by accident, but then continued out of curiosity to see if I would experience any semblance of the satisfied, contemplative feeling the stock photo people always seem to have. I signed up last Thursday, but could not cancel until today, because I was told that I had to wait 72 hours after registering to un-register; their system supposedly does not have new registrants' information for that long, until some old fellow named Milt brings it around (probably because if they use the Internet instead then corporate will force Milt to retire, and nobody wants to see him go, especially since it sounds like his daughter never visits and work is about all he has going for him. Wait, where the fuck is this story going? It has been hijacked by Milt's troubles, this poignant saga which I only invented for sarcastic purposes.)

(Right. Well, I brought Milt into this world, and I can take him out again if he's distracting you. Now Milt has gone to live with a nice farm family, where he plays in the field all day long, but it is too far away for you to visit.)

Happy logs.

Now you are only concerned with me, and not Milt.

I want to get back to the story of this intense phone call. You could tell this was serious business, because only one button separated you from speaking to an operator, and there was no hold time. A middle-aged lady answered, sounding very much like a woman who worked in the principal's office at school, and, somewhat brightly at first with an undertone of disappointment, asked why I wanted to cancel. I expected a few sales pitches and offers to stay on at a reduced rate, much like I received when I signed up for freecreditreport.com for the sole purpose of blaming my cancellation on that fucking band, but she went a different way.

"You realize you're giving up instant credit alerts," she said, proceeding to rattle off a long list of other features, in ascending order of intensity and critical importance to my well-being.

"Yes, I do," I said.

There was a long pause, and then she said, "Good luck to you," in a tone of disgust and unambiguous forecast of my imminent demise; the moment at which the woman in the principal's office, who has known you since you were a little one, long before you began smoking crack at recess, has finally given up on you.

"Uh, thanks," I said, a bit too surprised to hang up. There was an even longer pause, during which I wondered if the phone call was over. Finally, she spoke.

"Is there anything else?" she said, still disgusted. (I've soiled myself, she implies.)

"No," I said. "So I'm cancelled, then."

"Yes," she said, and hung up.

I was bewildered, and then went on with my day.

We are renewing efforts to fix the comments — or, more accurately, I am renewing my sweet-talk toward Kurt, and Kurt is renewing his efforts to fix them. Thank you, Kurt.

I woke up in a strange place is the work of Marc Heiden, born in 1978, author of two books (Chicago, Hiroshima) and some plays, and an occasional photographer.

Often discussed:

Antarctica, Beelzetron, Books, Chicago, College, Communism, Food, Internet, Japan, Manute Bol, Monkeys and Apes, North Korea, Oregon Trail, Outer Space, Panda Porn, Politics, RabbiTech, Shakespeare, Sports, Texas.


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Written by Marc Heiden, 1997-2011.