Thursday, December 30, 2004

A Blanket to Reckon With

I came home to a muffled cry coming from S's room. S is a university student who rents an extra room in my apartment, and is normally no trouble at all. His cry sounded like a distressed voice trying to talk through a mattress. I opened the door, and indeed it was as it sounded. He was laying face-down on his bed, apparently unable to move his head. Coupled with his useless effort to talk, it looked very unnatural.

"What is it?" I asked, alarmed. All I could make out was a muffled phrase of distress. So I tried my question in Thai: "Arai Na?!" Same unintelligible response.

I stooped down close to his head, and decided to pull it up from the bed--apparently something he seemed unable to do by himself. To my surprise, the whole bedspread came up with his head. Did he try to swallow the bedspread? A strange suicide attempt? Did his face get smeared with super-glue, then he fell asleep on the bed?

His face turned from distress to impatient irritation. "Get this brlllllghghghkt off my brdhglsdfcs!"

"What?" I yelled in his ear.

"Get this brlllgghghhkt off my braydghffflces!!!".

I started pulling on the blanket, but in pain he stumbled after it, with his face firmly attached to the bedspread. OK be gentle. The guy is in obvious pain and distress.

I finally wedged a couple fingers between his face and the blanket, enough to look in more closely. Yes, the blanket was somehow attached at his mouth. A slight twist, and the light revealed the source of the blanket's imprisonment: S's new braces. Something the dentist never warned him about ("stay clear of chewing gum, corn on the cob, and those clinging blankets!").



I thought we'd never untwine some of the loose threads of the blanket from his braces. Many minutes of untwining, punctuated with muffled "Oy!'s" made slow progress of separating the prey from captor (and which was which?).

When we finally freed up his sore and tired mouth, the story spilled out. While laying on his tummy on the bed, he had momentarily put his face down to the blanket and yawned. That's all it took. Baited and hooked. That's about the time I came home.

Then the funny side of it hit. We both laughed until the tears came. We imagined what it'd be like taking him to the dentist with a full bedspread attached to his face. First there'd be the nighttime 9-kilometer motorcycle trip with the blanket wildly flying around his head in the wind. It'd look like a ghost or banshee flying down the highway, and the Thai are terrified of both. Then the long wait in the waiting room and the quizzical stares from the 50 other waiting patients. What's this? The grown-up Thai version of Linus with his blanky? Then tucking him into the dentist's chair, blanket and all. I'm sure it would have made dental history, for at least that office.


The offending blanket,
in its more benign days.


I told him that if he insisted on catching blankets with his braces, he'd have to eventually get some kind of hunting or fishing license--and that he'd have to gut it and clean it all by himself. No more help from me!

2004 is almost gone. But among many more important and profound events of the year, we'll always smile about "The Day of the Blanket Attack". In light of the things that others are going through, may all our new problems be so small and solvable in 2005. Yours, too.

Happy New Year

Saturday, December 25, 2004

A Memorable Very Cool Christmas

CHRISTMAS DAY 2004
I expected a rather bland Christmas Day as I've been nursing a severe cold for just over a week. I looked at it as one more blessed day alternately in and out of bed to get my strength back. However, when I opened my eyes this morning, the 8-day-old raw ache in the throat was gone. "Nice way to start Christmas," crossed my mind.
However, my warm pillow thoughts were rudely interrupted by a loud yell outside the front door: "Whee-pooh! Whee-pooh!". For some reason, Thai-Isan visitors never knock on the door, they just stand outside it and yell their lungs out. And what in the world is "Whee-pooh?" I figured, "Oh no, another utility collection. Don't they know it's Christmas?" Here in Isan, you don't get a utility bill. For water, electricity, and telephone services, someone just rides up to your door on a motorcycle, yells until you open the door, and puts their hand out. No itemization, no receipt, just an empty hand and a smile. Cash only, please. The person is never the same individual. For all I know, some farmer could pull a scam and collect water charges from everyone else in the neighboring village. It hasn't happened yet, but my suspicious Western mentality waits for the day.
I'm sure I was a sight: unshaven, tousled hair, boxer shorts. The Thais are always shocked any time when a "farang" (white guy) opens the door, but a disheveled farang really gives them their money's worth. Two service-uniformed men in red stood outside my door, like a couple of Santa's helpers, smiled, and in unison beamed "Whee-pooh!"
I stammered in Thai, "I'm sorry, I don't understand."
"Whee-pooh! Whee-pooh!" they repeated, thinking that the repetition would somehow break through my dense demeanor. One of the guys pointed down my hall and made a shape with his hands like a tall box. No, I don't have a cash safe you can steal. Besides it's Christmas, the giving season. He jabbed his finger again toward the hall. "Whee-pooh!" The fridge could be dimly seen in the kitchen at the hall's end.
Oh, they want to see my refrigerator? That useless hunk of junk taking up space in my crowded kitchen? I bought it new the first month I came to Thailand, and it hadn't worked since the third month of use. I thought I'd stick with a tried-and-true American brand, but alas, in Thailand, the customer is not king--even if the king has an American appliance. Yeah, your warranty says "5 years", but it doesn't say how long they'll take to fix it after it breaks. They did make 6 trips over 15 months and no one could fix it. After two such visits, it ran for 10 minutes after the technicians left, and then stopped dead. I then had to make one of those "Guess what happened?" visits to the store. At times, the manager would just look at my feet, sadly shaking his head. No words. Just big, sad eyes. I know he thinks I sabotaged the thing after his boys left.
At one point, they replaced my blue door with a black one. Now I have a two-tone blue/black refrigerator. My fridge looks like an old car with a mis-matched front fender from the junk yard. Don't ask me what a new door has to do with getting the thing running, but it made someone feel good.
For over a year, I made countless trips to the appliance store, ineffectually venting my frustrations in baby-talk Thai, until both they and I got sick of seeing each other. "Why don't you just replace the WHOLE THING with a new one?" I begged. Response? Stares like I had just stepped off an alien spaceship. I gave up about 6 months ago. I'm sure they were delighted to be rid of my "Me fridge no worky!" routine.
Enter, Christmas Day...

Finally giving up on my comprehension of "Whee-pooh", the men in red brushed past me down the hall to my fridge. When I flipped on the kitchen light, I had my own little private Christmas epiphany. Of course. "Whee-pooh" was the Thai's desecration of "Whirlpool." Duh.
Over the next hour and a half, they took the motor in and out at least four times. Of course, the door also came on and off a few times (what is it with the DOOR???). A lot of hmm-ing and haww-ing (in Thai, they say "Oy!" loosely translated, "Which end is up?"). I watched with a slight smirk--what do these Santa's elves know that the previous six pairs of technicians didn't attempt? Suddenly, one of them stood up resolutely while the other packed their tools away. He proudly pointed at the contraption: "Whee-pooh dai!" ("Whirlpool works!")
Oh yeah? This jingle bell didn't fall off the sleigh just yesterday. I know better.
Well, here I am 12 hours into Christmas. It's been 4-1/2 hours since they left. The little box is humming away like a little angel with a festive carol stuffed in her halo. The freezer shelf is turning frosty just like a white Christmas I once remember. So far "The Box" has passed all other on-off records. Could this be a dream come true--on Christmas yet? In a couple months, the hot summer season starts creeping up on us, and a cold glass of water would taste so-o-o-o delightful coming out of that little ole' ice box...
Ah, a student just showed up with a couple of ice cream bars to celebrate the day with me. I know I won't eat mine quite yet. My frozen treat will go directly onto the freezer shelf, where I will retrieve it at my LEISURE later this afternoon when the temperatures hit the mid-80's. At that time, I will luxuriously thrust my sweaty hand into the man-made arctic air of my modern appliance and leave it there just long enough for a souvenir freezer-burn before extracting my frozen delight.
I can't resist a wide-eyed wonderment in the spirit of Dickens' Tiny Tim: "God bless us, every one!" followed by a slightly impish grin: "...and Merry Christmas to me!"

September 2009 note:
The little Whee-pooh continues to hum right along.
(The pristine days before mis-matched fender.)

 March 2017 note:
Sadness is parting with my little WheePooh.  Someone needed it more than I.  
Happiness is knowing it's still running, 13 years on.