Tawn’s Kitten Eaten By Snake

File this story under “Urban Jungle” as at first, in a city of six or seven million inhabitants, it sounds improbable.  Tawn’s mother sent a text message to him breaking the news that one of the cats they take care of was killed and eaten by a python.  Tawn called back and spoke to his father for the rest of the details.

Tawn’s parents have a bit of a menagerie with seven small dogs, three cats and several more strays that his mother puts food out for.  The cat in question was a copper-colored kitten that had shown up a few months ago and was actually given his own cage in the house.

Friday morning, as was its habit, the kitten was out playing and exploring the yard as the maid did chores in the area.  The maid left the yard for a few minutes and when she came back, she saw a two-meter long python wrapped around the kitten, suffocating it.

Alerted by the maid’s screams, Tawn’s father came out of the house to catch the snake with the kitten halfway in its mouth, trying to swallow it.  He grabbed a stick and hit the snake, which then spit the kitten out and slithered away through a gap beneath the wall.

Sadly, the rescue came too late as the kitten was already dead.  He was buried that afternoon in a corner of the property that has come to be their pet cemetery.

There’s an interesting back-story to this, though:

The neighborhood where Tawn’s parents live is fairly developed, but here in Thailand even developed areas have lush tropical foliage.  The jungle is never that far away.

In September 2000, when Tawn and I had been dating for a half-year or so, I came back to Krungthep to visit him for his 25th birthday.  Arriving late at night, I stayed at his parents’ house as they were out of town.  In those days, there was a vacant property behind his house, an empty, overgrown field that Tawn’s father has since purchased and annexed.

Shortly after I fell asleep at about 2:00 am, there was a commotion outside.  A large snake was found resting on the top of the wall between his parents’ house and the vacant land.  Tawn summoned the police, who stood around talking about what lucky lottery numbers the arrival of this snake might symbolize, unsure of what else to do.

Eventually, one of the Chinese mutual aid societies, rescue squads of young men who volunteer to attend to accidents and who monitor police radio frequencies so as to rush to collect the bodies of the dead and injured, showed up to help.  Two truckloads of young men, in fact.  Eventually, someone got the idea to prod the snake with a stick and it slithered away.  One young man helpfully suggested that if the snake returned, Tawn should call the zoo.

I slept through the whole ruckus but Tawn related the story to me the next morning, explaining that the arrival of the snake was seen as a good omen, because of the Thai belief that when smaller animals seek shelter at our home it is because we are seen as kind and generous to them.  I assume this does not apply for mice, rats and cockroaches.

 

Our Children Left Behind

What do children really need to get a good start in life?  If what I’ve read from many sources is correct, there are three key factors that set a child on a path of future success, both in terms of being employable as well as in terms of having a generally healthy life:

♦ Prenatal and early childhood healthcare.

♦ Proper nutrition, eating and exercise habits starting from infancy.

♦ High-quality early education, including preschool and primary school.

All three of these should be the case regardless of the neighborhood, city, state or country in which you live.  That’s an awful lot to bite off and chew, I know. 

Recently, though, I’ve been thinking about the education aspect of how we raise our children.  (While broadly applicable to all nations, part of my following comments are based on my perspective as an American.  My apologies and I hope the rest of the entry will be thought-provoking for non-American readers, too.)

American children are well behind their international counterparts in reading, writing, maths and science.  They go to school for fewer hours a day and fewer days a year than their peers in the academically leading countries.  The quality of schools and the availability of texts, equipment and teachers varies widely even within a single metropolitan region or state.

alphabet This leads me to wonder whether we are doing enough to prepare our children for future success, considering that future employment success relies increasingly in knowledge economies, a market which America no longer has cornered.  There are many definitions of success, but surely one of them is being equipped to earn a meaningful living.

At the same time, America has the highest incarceration rate in the world and states with tough but senseless sentencing mandates like California’s “Three Strikes” law see ever-increasing prison populations (and an ever-increasing average age of prisoners), adding unbearable costs to a bankrupt budget. 

Could it be that there is any correlation between these two?  Could our lack of a quality education, especially in demographic areas that are traditionally challenged in an socioeconomic sense, be the cause (or, at least, cause) of the crime?

This is one of those issues that, when I think about it, the answers seem really obvious.  The connection between the ills that we do not want plaguing our society and the things we do (or fail to do) that would help, stare me in the face.  Maybe I’m the only one who sees this and what I’m seeing is incorrect?

Doesn’t it make sense that we as members of society would benefit greatly if the quality and quantity of education received by our children was increased?  Here are some things, in no particular order, that might contribute to a solution.  Let me know your thoughts.

Year-round school.  Right now, American students get a summer break of about three months.  This was useful in agricultural times when the students were needed at their parents’ farm to help with the crops, but in this day and age, it seems unnecessary.  The average student loses about one month’s worth of learning during the long summer break.  Let’s follow the lead of many other nations (and even some school districts within the US) and move to a more year-round schedule.

More days in the school year.  American students spend about 180 days in school each year, about 15 less than the average in other developed countries.  Some countries, notably those in East Asia, have students in school more than 200 days a year.  Over the course of 12 years, that is the equivalent of an entire year’s worth of lost education.  (Data from an article in the Economist.)

Longer school hours.  American children spend less time in school than their peers and have less homework.  More hours doesn’t necessarily equal a better education, but considering that after school most students are going home and turning on the television or playing video games, I suspect we could do something more beneficial with that time.  Maybe that’s where the following idea comes in:

Restore arts, music and the social sciences (including civics) to the curriculum.  In the past decades, we’ve seen an increasing emphasis on “teaching to the test”.  Largely, though, this hasn’t resulted in improved performance of American students.  Instead, their knowledge is more and more lopsided, focusing only on the silos of information in which they will be tested.  Other subjects such as the arts and music tie into success in maths, sciences, reading and writing.  Social sciences also work to produce educated, engaged citizens.  Ones who know how many states there are and how laws are enacted, for example.

Guaranteed equality in resources.  Schools within a given state should all meet a certain minimum standard of resources, including teaching materials and teachers.  It doesn’t make sense that because of accident of birth, a child growing up in a wealthy suburban neighborhood will get a better public education than a child born in a poverty-stricken urban or rural area.  If we are going to tackle larger societal issues such as public health and crime reduction, those children growing up amidst poverty are the most in need of educational resource minimums.

More parent and community involvement.  Parents seem less involved in their children’s education than they used to be.  Teachers report a lack of discipline and reinforcement in the homes, making their teaching jobs more about policing behavior than about educating.  On the flip side, though, security and liability fears make it so difficult for adults (parents, let alone other members of the community) to get involved in their local schools.  Once-a-year safety classes, registration and background check requirements, etc. make it extraordinarily difficult for people such as retirees, who might have the time and inclination to volunteer, to get involved.

More compensation for teachers but also an expectation of higher performance.  A lot of these proposals will mean more work for teachers, a professional group who Americans pay little respect and little salary.  From my time spent in Asia, I’ve observed that teachers here are respected second only to parents and clergy.  If we want our teachers to work harder, we need to start compensating them for the important role they play: shaping the future of our citizenry.  At the same time, there are teachers out there who don’t love what they do and aren’t very good at it.  Just as with any other profession, there need to be performance standards that are rewarded and those who don’t achieve the standards should not be in the profession.

These are just some ideas and aren’t going to change the world, I know.  But it seems that these types of ongoing, intractable problems have some pretty pragmatic solutions.  Why is it so hard to put them into place?

 

Annexation

Two years and three days ago, we purchased our condo.  It is 68 square meters (roughly 730 square feet) and “kind of” two bedrooms in that a portion of the main living space is partitioned off by a pair of pocket doors to create a separate salon in the fashion of the old San Francisco Victorian houses.  But even then we realized that 68 square meters isn’t a lot of space for two people, especially when one of them works from home.

While we were in the process of purchasing our condo, we engaged in some wishful thinking: wouldn’t it be nice if one of these days we had the opportunity to purchase the studio adjacent to our unit?  On some of the other floors in the building, owners had joined the corner and studio units to create very nice 100 square meter (1,076 square feet) proper two bedrooms with a larger living area.

In fact, just about three weeks ago we had once again said how nice it would be to have a little more space, after Tawn expressed his frustration upon getting home from a long day of work how we were tripping over each other as I continued with some calls to the US from my “office” – the small second bedroom that also serves as our TV room.  “I need space to just be,” he said.

It was an interesting coincidence, then, when a week later I was approached by the owner of the small convenience store downstairs who serves as rental manager for about 40 of the 200 or so units.  The tenant of the studio, a famous supermodel, had moved out and the owner was open to selling, provided it could be done quick and easy.

Yesterday, two weeks after the initial conversation with the rental manager, we were at the Land Department registering the sale.  We were able to agree to a price that was 10% lower than what we paid per square meter on our first condo, and I think the larger space will allow us to command a premium if we should choose to sell it in the future.

Home Expansion

The question, of course, is what to do with it.  After the horrendous six-month remodel we went through with the original space, I really don’t want to get into that again.  Tawn and I have agreed to a two-year moratorium on any significant changes to the new space.  We’ll freshen up the bathroom, where the vanity is badly water damaged, and put some new paint on the walls, but for now that is all.

We will also keep it as a separate unit for the time being, which will give us greater flexibility over the next few years until we have a clear sense that the timing is right to incorporate it into the original unit.  Then, we’ll install a wood floor to match, remodel the bathroom, build a door into the wall between the units and brick over the existing outside door of the new unit.

In the meantime, my office armoire, the TV and sofa are all moving into the new space.  It will truly become my office, leaving the original unit for living, cooking, sleeping and entertaining.

With this annexation, I hope the owner of the next unit over won’t get nervous.  Truly, no need to worry – this is enough!

 

Almond Tuiles

Last month Sheldon broke in his new kitchen with a batch of almond tuiles, a crisp, wafer-like cookie made with almond flour.  They looked beautiful and since I had some extra almond flour left over from the macarons, this seemed like a good opportunity to use it.

The tuiles (pronounced “tweel” – I had to double-check this as my French has all but been replaced by Thai) are basically a mixture of almond flour, all-purpose flour, sugar and salt, moistened with egg whites and melted butter.  They are spread very thin on parchment paper and then baked.

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The name “tuiles” comes from the French word for “tile”, so these cookies are means to be shaped similarly to the terra cotta tiles you might find on the roof of a home in the French countryside.

To do this, you have to slide them off the baking sheet while piping hot and, working quickly, drape them over a curved object like a rolling pin.  Even with only six on a tray, by the time you are pulling the third one off it is already beginning to cool and stiffen.

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Frankly, I’m inclined to follow Sheldon’s lead and not curl them as they taste just as lovely flat and they store better.

One challenge I encountered with the recipe was that it calls for 1/2 cup of almonds, ground.  This is not, I imagine, the same as 1/2 cup of ground almonds.  Since my almond flour is already ground, measuring 1/2 cup of it may have been too much.  But I didn’t want to tamper with the recipe until I had tried it once. 

The cookies turned out a little chewier and “cakier” than I think they are supposed to be, which leads me to suspect that “1/2 cup of almonds, ground” must measure out to less than 1/2 cup of ground almonds.

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I still have plenty of almond flour, though, and these were pretty easy to make.  I do need to get a metal spatula, though, as the plastic one seems to be an attractive surface for macarons and tuiles to stick to as I try to remove them from the tray.

 

Top Secret Mission to KL

I’ve been away for two days and apologize for not writing.  Would you believe I left town for the weekend and didn’t bring my computer with me?  To top it off, I couldn’t tell you where we were going beforehand because someone whose surprise 40th birthday party was in Kuala Lumpur this weekend, reads this blog.

Tawn and I arrived at the Grand Millennium Hotel on Jalan Bukit Bintang just before 1:00 am Saturday.  This old hotel was bought and remodeled just a few years ago and is very centrally located to much of the action in downtown KL.  Here’s the view from our room the following morning, looking down at the year-old Pavilion Mall.

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We enjoyed some relaxing time in the afternoon after sleeping in late, spending a few hours by the pool on a relatively cool tropical afternoon.  After confirming details with the party’s host, one of the older sisters of the birthday girl, we walked to Le Bouchon, a French restaurant just a few minutes from the hotel.

Our party was held in a small back room, more like a cellar, that was a really nice setting.  Stephanie, who was my colleague when I worked in Hong Kong and then was later our roommate in San Francisco for the better part of a year, was shocked that we were there.  She was expecting just her family members.

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Above: Tawn, Stephanie and Chris at Le Bouchon.

We were there from 6:30 until about 11:30, a proper Parisian-length meal!  The food was very tasty.  The owner and head chef is French and stopped in to see us.  Entrees were as follows:

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Mixed seafood salad

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Escargots (snails)

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Foie Gras (goose liver)

These were fantastic, especially the foie gras.  Not to get animal rights activists riled up but I firmly believe that government regulation against the production of foie gras is foolhardy.  If you don’t like it, don’t eat it.  If you like, get the word out to as many people as you can about how it is produced, and then let us decide of our own conscience whether or not to eat it.

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We enjoyed a pair of soups, a wild mushroom and a prawn bisque.  These were good, although nothing particularly unique about them.

Everyone was able to choose a main course from the menu, which gave us a lot of variety. 

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I enjoyed a rack of lamb ribs with a mustard and bread crumb crust.  Very tasty although maybe just a little too much mustard.

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A very nice sea bass and linguini.

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Venison stew.  Didn’t have a chance to try this.

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Duck confit with more foie gras on top.  This was lovely.  Confit is such a nice food.

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For dessert, we had a bee cake that was surprisingly moist.  Drinks included several bottles of champagne including a Moet et Chandon I picked up at the airport duty free.  I probably had a bit too much to drink… becoming such a moderate drinker in my advanced age.

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The whole evening was like a Chinese Malaysian version of My Big Fat Greek Wedding, a very warm and boisterous group.  We really enjoyed being a part of it and were glad we could be there to help Stephanie, in pink on the left above, celebrate this milestone.  Here’s to many more years of good health and great happiness!

Shopping for Coffee on Ratanakosin Island

After the last entry about the shooting in Cole Camp, I’ve been surprised by the number of people who were directed to my blog from a variety of sources including the Sedalia (Missouri) Democrat’s website, a local newspaper.  Along the way, I’ve received messages from several people who lived in and around the town and who knew (to one degree or another) the victims.  Many thanks to all who have visited and those who have left words of support.

Part of me feels like writing another entry, particularly one just about everyday life, is a bit trivial.  But life does go on and it is for the living, so I’ll pull another entry together and, with it, try to celebrate and honor the memories of all victims of violence.

Last weekend Tawn and I headed down to the “old city” – defined as Ratanakosin Island, the heart of the original city of Krungthep – to search out some coffee. 

Last October while we had a guest in town, I had about two hours to kill while the guest was conducting an audio walking tour of the old city.  Taking a break in a small family-run coffee shop called Mari Green Coffee, I got into a conversation with the proprietor and discovered someone who takes his coffee even more seriously than I do.

He chooses only Arabica beans grown in northern Thailand and is very picky, explaining to me in detail about the noticeable difference and quality and taste from one mountain ridge to the next.  He then roasts these beans himself in small batches about once a week.  Needless to say, the coffee there was great.

Months later, having finished up a supply of beans from the US – previously I was buying these wonderful fair trade organic beans from a co-op based in Chiapas, Mexico, organized and sold by Cafe Mam – I decided on a return visit to Mari Green Coffee and support the local coffee industry.  Plus, I’m starting to realize that I need to be more selective when deciding what to bring back from the US.  Five pounds of coffee takes up a lot of space in the suitcase.

For fun, we invited our friend Bob along, since he was also in the market for some more coffee beans.  Ironically, I didn’t get a single shot of the coffee shop itself.  Will have to do that next time.  While we were waiting for the owner to prepare the coffee order, we enjoyed some banh xiao – Vietnamese rice crepes – and explored the surrounding area.

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The coffee shop is a few doors down from an old fashioned ice factory, where they take big blocks of ice, chip them, then deliver them around the city.  Tawn was a little chilly standing by the delivery truck.

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A block over we found an intense bit of graffiti, something we don’t see a lot of here in Krungthep and never so elaborate.

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Down the street across from the Tiger Temple was a tea shop (Mari Green Coffee’s competitor, I guess!) that had a huge white rabbit outside.  Tawn was born in the year of the rabbit, so a picture was inevitable.

We picked up our coffee, thanked the proprietor, and headed on with our day followed by the heady aroma of dark-roasted coffee beans.

Small Town Triple Homicide

Small Town Triple Homicide” scream the headlines, a momentary blip lost amidst the noise of 500 channels of infotainment, a blip likely erased by the next news cycle, eclipsed by another equally shocking story.  The blip takes on greater significance when you know the victims, though.

My paternal grandparents were born and raised in Cole Camp, Missouri, a town with a steady population of about 1,000 located some two hours southeast of Kansas City.  A small, rural town, Cole Camp had its moment of fame as the site of a small skirmish during the Civil War. 

Cole Camp was also where I would go visit my great-grandmothers when I was very young.  After they passed away, we would still go down and spend a week or so there every summer in one of their houses which my grandparents had kept. 

Great-grandma Tess’ house was the oldest house in town (picture about half way down this web page), the only house on a city block’s worth of property that would have been large enough for another half-dozen houses, except for one other house.  The other house belonged to Donnie and Sharon Luetjen, a couple about the age of my parents who had a son and a daughter, Terry a little older than me and Debbie about my age.

During my primary school years, during every visit my sister and I would spend hours playing with the Luetjen kids, especially Debbie.  We’d play at the nearby park, sit on the porch playing Clue and other board games, and go explore the tall grasses out behind the house.  One of our favorite games was a version of volleyball using an inflatable beachball and an old smokehouse for the net.

Debbie and I exchanged letters from time to time, drifting apart as my visits to Cole Camp became less frequent.  Eventually, I heard she graduated from school the same year as me and then not too much later had married.  Her older brother got married, too.

When Terry’s first born was just a month old, she was orphaned when her father was killed.  Debbie and Terry’s parents took custody of their granddaughter, raising her as their own.  They were good people, hard working and always looked out for my grandparents and their property, especially after my grandfather passed away in 1986 and my grandmother didn’t go down to Cole Camp nearly as often.

A few years ago, after my grandmother passed away, my family sold the entire property to Donnie and Sharon.  Donnie, a collector and local history buffs, had long expressed interest in it, talking about turning the badly aging house into a museum of local history.  As they had been so kind to my grandparents and so helpful over the years, selling the property to them felt like the right thing to do.

Over the years, I’ve heard about them on rare occasion, seeing Donnie once a few years ago on a day trip down to see the house. 

Yesterday my mother sent an email to me and my sister: my uncle had heard on the news about a triple homicide in Cole Camp.  Donnie and Sharon and their 15-year old granddaughter were reportedly stabbed to death.  Police believe it was a robbery (Donnie’s collection of antique Indian arrowheads and other items was well-known about town) gone bad, as all of the artifacts and Donnie’s collection of guns were gone.

So now Debbie is the last member of the family.  I don’t know how to get in touch with her, but would like her to know that my thoughts and prayers are with her.  It is so sad that her family, kind and thoughtful people who never hesitated to lend a helping hand, would meet such a violent and untimely end.

I know that all the leaves fall from the tree, a few when they are still young and green and most when their color has faded to shades of rust and sunlight and dirt.  But it seems like people who live their lives so generously deserve to die peacefully. 

May they rest in peace.