My New Year Resolution

As I was driving back home from my temporary work site at one of our offshore military bases, I passed several cyclists and joggers. One of them in particular drew my attention. She was about my height and frame, but instead of a prominent belly that I am sporting, she had this humongous butt set on a pair of impressive thunder thighs. I am not talking about what someone may call a big bum. I am not talking Rubenesque. Nor am I saying that the woman was obese. None of those terms would do her justice. She just had this enormous derriere and a lot of what I suspect is muscle around each femur bone, the poor thing. Our military recently came up with a harsh set of rules on what a person should weigh and — as we are all painfully aware –no person wants to be laid off in this economy, hence all the jogging, the calorie counting, the diets, the reduction gimmicks, all that nonsense and the suffering that comes with it.

Many folk who have the misfortune of being endowed with greater-than-life body parts spend a good part of their life unhappily trying to fit the generally (though not universally) accepted and desired fashion model mold. Good many of them succeed, if only for a while. Following a restrictive diet and breaking a sweat 5 times a week on a treadmill certainly works and the unwanted pounds do come off. Then the body decides that we are up to something and before we starve it, it starts to stash away a bit here and there, then a bit more. Next thing you know, the 20 lbs you lost with such an effort are back with a “reserve” of another 5 lbs.

The way our body looks is passed onto us from our parents, as we get ½ of our genetic makeup from each of them. If our mother wears size F bra and has a big belly and our father has a waist of 54”, most likely than not we will have a so-called weight problem as well. We can cheat nature for a while and maybe even fit into our high school skinny jeans. Then we may starve ourselves to wear a size 2 wedding dress for the special day and for those pictures we will have to look at eventually, when everything fails and we tip the scale at 200 lbs. The pregnancies will leech the calcium and other minerals out of our body, the stressful job and the menopause will mess up our metabolism, the medication for this-or-that will have weight-gaining side effects that our doctor didn’t bother warning us about. Little by little our body will look just like what it was meant to look at a certain age, given our life style and our family history.

We can of course fight it for a while: count calories, lay off wine and chocolate, or waste an hour a day every day on a StairMaster. We can climb rocks, swim laps, and mountain bike on the weekends. Then on Mondays we can lie to your colleagues about the great time we had doing all those things. Did I say “lie”? Yes, I did. If you only could hide behind a big tree and see those weekend athletes on their bikes pedaling uphill, the pain and agony on their faces giving away what it’s really like, you too would grin hearing the Monday morning fish tales of a great time had.

This New Year’s Eve, only a couple of month before I turn 65, I decided to keep my extra 50 pounds and not make myself miserable over my weight ever again. I decided to eat when and what I please while taking a generally good care of my heart, my digestive system, and my skin. I decided to never again set foot in a gym and not subject myself to anything that hurts. Instead, I will get a massage or indulge in another Epicurean extravaganza. Life is already hard enough as it is and I will not make it any harder on myself.

This is my New Year resolution. I am doing it for myself and also to honor my dearest Grandmother who had a big butt for as long as I can remember and who also had an equally big heart with which she loved me to pieces. Peace!

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Promises, promises …

“The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.“ – Robert Frost

2008 was the first year I didn’t bother voting in the presidential elections. I did listen to most of the campaign speeches and I had a feeling Obama was just another opportunist, a demagogue who would not hesitate to play into the nation’s need for a change knowing darn well that he would be neither willing nor able to deliver on most, if not all, of his campaign promises. I would much prefer to have been mistaken. Here is a short list of only the issues most dear to my heart and the dismal record of presidential failure to accomplish anything or – in most cases – even to act.

1. End income tax for seniors making less than $50,000
Have you heard of any legislation proposing this change? Neither have I. As I am about to retire in a little over a year, this promise is of utmost interest to me, as I will certainly be making less than $50,000 a year.

2. Repeal Bush tax cuts for the rich
The rich are individuals making more than $200,000 a year. I don’t even know a single person in that income bracket. Our worlds just do not seem to intersect even though we vacation not that far from each other (me in Jacksonville, FL; they on St. Barts or Necker Island). What did Obama accomplish here? Precisely nothing, as he extended Bush tax cuts for two more years, until the end of 2012, which incidentally will be the end of his one-term presidency and thus it will become someone else’s problem.

3. Do not allow companies in bankruptcy to pay hefty bonuses to their executives
As far as I can see, this issue never came before Congress and as the working class bleeds, the bloated fat cats are getting fatter on our backs. Barak Obama is a millionaire so why would he care about any of this anyway?

4. Close Guantanamo Bay detention facilities
With much fanfare, Obama signed the first executive order of his presidency mandating the closure of Gitmo detention centers on January22, 2009. The exact wording was: “The detention facilities at Guantanamo for individuals covered by this order shall be closed as soon as practicable, and no later than one year from the date of this order.” Two years and two months later, on March 7, 2011, Obama signed another order reversing the first order (the one which missed the deadline) and by now it is painfully obvious to all that the President has no intention of closing Guantanamo during the remainder of his reign.

5. Form international group to help Iraqi refugees
No such group is in the works and the number of Iraqi refuges outside Iraq as well as internally displaced ones keeps growing and only a handful of international organizations such as UNHCR, IOM and IRC keep on dealing with the overwhelming international problem that our so-called “nation building” foreign policy has contributed to create. Just like Bush Sr., Obama hang the Iraqis out to dry.

6. Recognize the Armenian genocide
Barak Obama specifically stated “as President I will recognize the Armenian genocide.” That was then. This is now. And the reality of “now” is that the word “genocide” isn’t even in our President’s vocabulary. The official party line, as clearly spelled out in March 5, 2010 resolution, is that it “recognizes the 1.5 million death that occurred between 1915 and 1923 at the hands of the Ottoman Empire.” The resolution quietly died somewhere in the hallways of the Capitol building and the Administration made sure it went nowhere, as Turkey happens to be our important ally against Iran and a silent partner in Iraq and Afghanistan, so why upset that cozy status quo by digging out almost hundred-year-old graves, right?

7. Double the Peace Corps
Obama promised to double Peace Corps to 16,000 volunteers by 2011. Now, the Administration claims it is on track to reach 11,000 in 2016. How is that “on track”? Is this the so-called New Math? A day late and a dollar short, if you ask me.

8. Introduce a comprehensive immigration bill in the first year
Not in the first year, not in the second year, not at all. No such bill exists to this day, even though Barak Obama, talking from both sides of his mouth on his campaign trail, boldly stated that not only was he promoting such bill but that he can “guarantee” it.

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Thailand: Greatly Overrated

Tample of Dawn, Bangkok

If you’re over 50, have a pot belly, not much left of your hair, ill-fitting dentures, puny fixed monthly income and you never were all that successful with the opposite sex anyway – I see how you then may find the idea of retiring in Thailand appealing. From the expats observed in two largest cities, no foreigner will find it too difficult to find a companion who will make him feel better about himself and about life in general. However, if you don’t (yet?) fall in any of the above categories, you may discover that things here aren’t quite as they were painted for you in the glossy travel brochures or on many websites.

Sukhothai

First, there is the famous Thai food. In the capital as in the northern city of Chiang Mai good eats can be found easily, not just Thai but international cuisine as well. But, try to venture into the rural areas and you will be disappointed as everything is either too spicy, too greasy, or – more often than not – both. In a large border town of Mae Sot, it is impossible to obtain good food at the largest hotel. If you cycle downtown, you’ll find 4 or 5 places to choose from, none of them all that great. Trying to order room service is a major challenge as my Thai is about as good as their English (mind, you, I don’t speak any Thai at all).

Thai food: main ingredient

Now, what about those friendly natives and their hospitality? Well, the hotel staff certainly appears tourist-friendly which is understandable as tourism is a major revenue source here. Communication is difficult but market vendors use calculators to show their asking prices, then you haggle as best you can until you pay the price you consider fair or walk away. You seldom see any old people anywhere, which makes one wonder whether the lifespan is that much lower here than in the U.S. or if old folk don’t venture outside much. Children are everywhere, some of them sent to beg on the street, others often seen working, but during the day most appear to be going to school.

Girl panhandling, Mae Sot

The sound of Thai language is something I won’t miss one bit. People here are screaming their heads off even if they are standing next to each other, especially women whose high pitched voices are thoroughly annoying. This is something that improves as people get educated and learn to control and better modulate the sounds they make, because TV anchors and interviewed college professors or business executives seem to speak just fine.
Yesterday’s incident by the pool reminded me that this still is very much a Third World, or – as politically correct people would prefer us to say – a developing country. There was this beautiful butterfly batting its wings very close to my long chair and I stayed still trying not to scare it away. A local juvenile jumped from his seat and killed it to loud applause of his friends. What kind of a degenerate kills a butterfly?! Most likely the kind that learned no respect for living things around him and who’ll graduate to kicking dogs for fun and from there it’s just a small step to beating up his sister, his wife, or his mother. Seriously, on my only outing to town, I have seen a grown man repeatedly kick a dog and laugh at its yelping. I resisted a temptation to walk over, kick his sorry ass and see just how gratifying that would be. Instead, I stopped going to town altogether.

Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep, Chiang Mai

Holed up in my hotel room, I am counting days to my flight out of Thailand. I like its tropical climate and its green scenery but other than that, this place has been greatly overrated as far as I’m concerned.

Scenic mountains between Tak and Mae Sot

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Who’s Next?

The Middle East and the North Africa are on fire. The Tunisia’s revolt was swiftly followed by the toppling of Mubarak in Egypt. Both rulers ought to count their blessings as they were just lucky to come out of it with their lives. Is Gaddafi going to be as lucky when Libyans celebrate his demise, oh, about a week from now? And what about the Asad dynasty in Syria? Jordan loves their king, but just look at what happened in Bahrain last week: the monarchy lost all the popular support they used to enjoy when they misjudged the situation and sent troops to the Pearl roundabout to shoot water canons, gas canisters, rubber bullets and live rounds into the crowds gathering there. The demonstrators were just hoping for some changes. Now, they are are calling for their royal heads.

As I write these lines I hear of a massacre taking place on the streets of Tripoli, after Benghazi was taken over by the protesters yesterday. Curly Colonel is probably busy wiring his ill-gotten fortune to Lichtenstein or the Caiman Islands, while his son Saif feebly attempts to control the damage by putting a spin on the events, lying about the casualties, and warning of the civil war looming on the horizon unless status quo is maintained. It seems that nobody can put this genie back in the box, though. There’s writing on the wall and it says: Gaddafi, enough out of you!

In Kuwait, the people are taking to the streets as well. That country’s situation seems much more complex than Egypt’s as sectarian differences lie at the heart of most issues. Even the tiny Djibouti hopes for a long overdue regime change. Yemen’s government hangs on by a thread as well.

Rallies are rocking Rabat and Marakesh in Morocco where the king was asked to control corruption more effectively and to give up some of his power, and in Algiers, the Algerian capital, the human rights groups are on the streets in full force.

The Emiratis are watching BBC, CNN, Al Jazeera, and Al Arabiya with a baited breath these days, I’m sure. And so are the Saudis. Even though there’s talk of forming a caliphate in the Middle East, it is not likely that the Wahhabi flavor of Islam will be the favored one. There are no crowds on the streets of Dubai or Riyadh yet, but as entrenched corrupt tyrants fall one by one, the rest of the sheikhs, kings, and emperors must not feel like they are sitting pretty. It may be just a matter of time for them to be looking for safe haven elsewhere on the planet.

You can piss off some of the people some of the time, but not all of the people all the time. For the Middle East turmoil is nothing new as these countries have been a powder keg since World War II, with only brief intervals of relative calm. One doesn’t need a crystal ball to see that big changes are coming to the area and that the so-called superpowers will need to come up fast with policies adjusted for the new scenarios that are evolving as we speak.

The question of the day seems to be: who’s next? If I was a gambler, I’d place my bet on Muammar Al-Gaddafi of Libya. Good riddance, too!

An update: Gaddafi was killed 8 months later, on October 20, 2011.

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Ho, Ho, Ho!!!

Today, five days before Christmas, this little “gem” of a news item caught my eye: an Abu Dhabi luxury hotel (Emirates Palace) boasts an $11 million Christmas tree adorned with gold, rubies, diamonds and other precious stones “to boost holiday spirit”, according to its manager. Are you freaking kidding me?! Just how the jewelry hanging on a dead evergreen will boost any spirit except the feeling of utter disgust at the excess of the filthy rich while most of the world is hurting trying to cope with misery and hardship of all kind?

Here in America, old Christmas tunes such as “Jingle Bells” have new lyrics telling us to buy Snuggies or to be “dancing through the malls.” Another commercial wishes us Happy Honda Days. Interviewed first-grader when asked what she wants for Christmas shamelessly responds: “Money! So I can buy lots of things.” to the delight of her approvingly grinning parents. A middle-aged woman in red sweats sprints through a Target store in a moronic stupor. All that is aimed at getting us to hit the malls and buy, buy, and buy more, more, and more Chinese-made crap that nobody wants or needs.

It was all so different for me when I was growing up, in a different land, at a different time. The Christmas tree was put up in the afternoon of December 24 and taken down before Epiphany. The special dinner took place on Christmas Eve, with 12 dishes served exclusively on that occasion. There was always a place set at the table and an empty chair reserved for a hungry person who might wonder in (although, to my disappointment, none ever did). After dinner, the lights on the tree were lit, we would sing a few Christmas carols and the presents were opened. These were few and simple but so very special. I will never forget one Christmas when I got a pair of skates, after wanting them so badly for at least a couple of years. I was ten years old.

Today, ask any child what they got for Christmas last year and you’ll find out hardly any gift is remembered, even though an average American child receives 15 presents. Nothing is special or precious anymore. The mass hysteria of shopping starts in early September with blinking lights (made in China) and ornaments (any guess where these are made?) reminding us to start our consumers’ duty earlier and earlier every year.

I think it’s time for us to stop and think what kind of upside-down stupid world have we created, what kind of cultural legacy are we passing down to the next generations, what kind of value system is it where everything is about money, money, money.

I think it is time to rebel against the craziness of digging ourselves deeper into a financial hole every December just to do what television commercials and computer spammers tell us to do. With every purchase of athletic shoes, a sofa, bathroom tiles, faux fur coat, a toaster, a dog sweater, a set of golf clubs, … just about any item, the Chinese are laughing off their asses because the way things are going, they will own us (and everything we think we own) in just a decade or two.

I also think Emirates Palace of Abu Dhabi ought to bury their $11 million bejeweled tree under the Arabian Desert sand. Or better yet: stick it where the sun don’t shine!

Happy Shoppingdays, Y’all!

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Trees Are So Cool!

When I was little, my grandmother taught me everything she knew about mushrooms and about the trees. The mushroom knowledge was wasted on me since as an adult I lost all interest in them and forgot everything grandma taught me.

Debre Damo, Ethiopia - tree-climbing goat

As for the trees: as I moved from one country to another and from one continent to another, I became somewhat frustrated that my knowledge seemed to need constant updating because the trees from my childhood remained in my past and I had to learn about the trees I never knew existed.

Maasai Mara, Kenya - acacia tree and storks

When my business takes me to remote corners of the world where everything from food to people to architecture to music is so very different from what I’m accustomed to, I like to focus on the trees the same way others like to listen to the familiar music they brought on their iPod. I find trees — with their roots firmly planted in the ground — to be sort of a constant that I can count on wherever I am, even if they are different in appearance.

Guantanamo Bay, Cuba - flame tree

Additionally, trees are easier to photograph than animals because they stay put; easier to spot than flowers; and unlike people, they don’t expect to get paid.

Axum, Ethiopia - sandbox tree

So, I take pictures of the trees. I got an araucaria photographed in Istanbul and a flamboyant in Cuba. I snapped a row of Royal Palms on the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe and cacti on Aruba. In Ethiopia, I found a sandbox tree well protected from climbers by its spiny trunk and branches as well as a tree in which a goat was grazing. In Nairobi I took a picture of a strangling fig that was busy strangling the surrounding vegetation, while in Maasai Mara there was this solitary acacia surrounded by miles and miles of grass, as elephants devour any saplings so nothing grows taller than a couple of feet. On Borneo I pointed the camera skyward and snapped a picture of an endangered camphor tree (its resin smells of camphor) that won me an honorable mention in a photo contest in a popular monthly travel magazine.

Kota Kinabalu National Park, Sabah, Malaysia - camphor tree

Hey, any fellow tree aficionados out there, I’d like to hear from you!

Dolmabahce Palace, Istanbul, Turkey - araukaria

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Oh, Sister!

The government is making noise about investigating the reality show participants to see whether they can be prosecuted for bigamy. It’s not the bigamy, stupid! Although, last time I checked, bigamy was a felony. Who cares how many obese female doormats, brainwashed, with zero self-worth, want to appear on the national TV to profess their undying devotion for the cad who shows no respect for any of them, even though he allegedly “fell in love — again, and again, and again.” Let him fall into responsibility now, fall into consequences for a change.

The issue that disturbs me is that such communes (no, they are not “families”) have no qualms about relying on government handouts. This is how it works: the first wife is the legitimate one, recognized by the American government. The others are merely “single mothers” receiving money to support their brood of bastard children. While for the benefit of a camera they will show you how much they and their children’s daddy love their common offspring, when it comes to filling their application for welfare, WIC, food stamps, etc., they will state they have no knowledge of the whereabouts of the children’s biological father(s). And that is fraud, plain and simple.

So, instead of wasting taxpayers’ money in chasing women away, jailing the men, and placing the unfortunate children in foster homes, why not cut off the gravy train. There are roughly 40,000 communes like the one on the “Sister Wives” show, in the state of Utah. You do the math. Let’s make sure the daddies or their churches shell out the money. “You play, you pay!”

One more suggestion: take that crap off the television. It’s like watching paint dry, for crying out loud. Those pathetic souls who turn on the boob tube to see “The Biggest Loser”, “Hoarders”, or “Sister Wives” – they all need to GET A LIFE!!!

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