The Disco Next Door

In the more than five years that we have lived in our medium-sized condo, we have seen the 1950s house next door transition from being an Indian restaurant to K-Pop nightclub. Now it is set to make its next metamorphosis and become a community mall.

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The house, as you can see in this borrowed picture above, was a beautiful “tropical modern” style, very common in this neighborhood which was, in the 1950s, a fashionable place for well-off families to build their weekend “country” home. Of course, back then this area of Bangkok was truly on the outskirts of town. When we arrived a half-decade ago, it was a contemporary Indian restaurant that didn’t ever seem busy but did do a good job preserving the architecture of the building.

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Then about a year ago, we were informed it was going to become a “the world’s first K-Pop pub”. Much to the consternation of our residents, a new tenant built an exterior shell around the house and turned it into this gaudy sight. Our condo’s management, along with other nearby residents, used all available legal channels to block their operation and ultimately, they opened only a handful of nights before shutting down. Part of me wonders whether it was ever actually meant to be a legitimate business, as the idea of putting a pub in the midst of a residential area was ill-conceived from the start.

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Recently, construction has started again. The exterior of the pub has been pulled down and you can see that the old house remains. After a week or two of initial curiosity, we were finally informed what will be built there.

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The new space will be a “community mall” – the term used locally to describe these smaller-scale open air shopping centers that may have at most one or two dozen shops, a limited amount of parking, and restaurants and light retail.

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Quite a number exist within a five- to ten-minute walk from our condo, so I’m not sure what the need is, but I suppose it is a better use of the space than a K-Pop nightclub. According to the plans, the original house will still be incorporated in some way, although from these two elevations, I don’t see where.

Anyhow, that’s what’s happening next door. How are things where you are?

 

 

Searching to Silence a Squeaky Bed

The bedroom, according to Thai culture, is a private place.  It is a place into which you do not normally invite others, whether they be strangers or even friends.  But I am going against convention and inviting you into my bedroom because I have a story to tell about my quest to silence a squeaky bed.

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A local metal worker made the bed frame we have used since moving into this condo more than three years ago.  It has all the stylings of an expensive Martha Stewart Living frame (upon which the design was loosely based) at a fraction of the cost.  But in the past year or so, the bed frame has started to make noise.

Cue the obvious jokes and smart-alec comments.

Somewhat ironically, it doesn’t make any noise from those sorts of activities.  In fact, it only makes noise when you turn over and, even then, only intermittently.  The noise isn’t the full-throated “squeak, squeak” of mattress springs.  Instead, it is a subtle but high-pitch chirp that echoes through the frame and is at just the right volume and frequency to momentarily wake you up, producing something like an auditory sleep apnea.

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We tried many things to troubleshoot the problem.  For example we cut up an old yoga mat and used it to cushion every point at which the frame came into contact with anything else.  We tightened all the screws and connections.  Initially, we didn’t realize that the frame was held together with hex key screws and were just tightening the decorative knobs.  When that didn’t work, Tawn had the makers of the bed frame come out and they revealed the hidden screws, tightening all of them.  That lessened, but did not eliminate, the chirp.

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Notice the little bits of pink yoga mat cushioning the frame.

Working our way through the problem solving process, we turned our attention to the board under the mattress.  Ever since moving out of my parents’ home decades ago, I’ve never had box springs, not seeing the point of them.  But I started to rethink the wisdom of living without box springs because every twist and turn of our bodies was being transferred to the frame, which would in turn protest with that shrill, sleep-interrupting chirp.

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The next-to-final solution was to purchase two box springs to replace the boards and transfer the full weight of the mattress to the floor rather than to the bed frame.  Workers from the department store came and measured to ensure the box springs would fit inside the frame.  We placed an order and last night, some six hours after the scheduled appointment, the delivery men arrived and installed the box springs.

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The fit is good and the box springs are only about an inch higher than the boards on which the mattress previously sat.  Tossing and turning to test them, we could not induce a single chirp from the bed frame.

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Waking up the following morning, I’m glad to report that there were no interruptions to our good night’s sleep.  The weight of the mattress now bypasses the frame and with two box springs, one person’s turn causes less disturbance to the other sleeper.  There appear to be only three resulting problems:

The first problem is that the frame, which no longer has any lateral support, shifts easily.  This means you cannot sit up in bed, resting against the headboard to read a book.  The second problem is that there is no longer any under-bed storage now that there are two box springs taking up what was once free space.

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The final problem is trying to figure out what to do with the two large plywood boards.  Any takers?

 

Cooking for 80 – the Results

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Whew!  The big day has come and gone: cooking for a group of up to 80 for a community event called the River Space Dinner Party and Talk.  Reservations for the event were coming in faster and earlier than ever before in their several-month history and the day before, Yvan, one of the organizers, suggested I prepare for as many as 90 diners.  Thanks to a little rain, we ended up with about 70 people, still more than any previous dinner.

Much like I imagine one feels after running a marathon, I’m very glad I had the opportunity to tackle this challenge.  Now I know I can do it.  But it was exhausting and took a lot of hard work, not to mention the support of several friends who pitched in, so I’m probably not going to volunteer to cook for such a large group again anytime in the near future!

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The preparation was spread over three days leading up to Tuesday’s dinner.  Most of the prep work involved careful planning – extrapolating my recipes into larger batches, creating shopping lists, and checking prices to ensure I would stay within my budget of 80 baht (US$ 2.63) per head.  When it came time to do most of the shopping on Tuesday morning, I had to go to three stores, managing to clean out two stores of their supplies of cilantro, radishes, and cherry tomatoes.

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Tuesday morning I also baked more than 80 buttermilk shortcakes, which would be part of the dessert.

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The grains for the mixed grain salad were cooked in batches and then sealed in bags.  Note the carefully-written labels.  Four parts (each serving about 20-24 people) with bags A, B, and C providing the different mixtures of grains.  Bag A contains brown rice, GABA rice, and Job’s tears.  Bag B contains brown rice, black beans, and small red beans.  Bag C contains pearl barley and corn.

I used large plastic storage containers to divide the ingredients by dish.  Some dishes took several containers, which completely filled our car.

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The River Space is located on the second floor of a building in a local market on the banks of the Chao Phraya River, next to the Millennium Hilton hotel.  Since the street is some distance away from the building entrance, we temporarily parked (during rush hour!) and Tawn hired a porter from the market to help us move everything into the space.  That cost 200 baht (less than $7) and was the best 200 baht I’ve ever spent.

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While I thought I had prepared a pretty simple recipe, one that required only one dish to actually be cooked on-site, there was still a lot of peeling, slicing, chopping, and dicing that needed to be done.  Thankfully, a half-dozen friends came early and rolled up their sleeves.  Little did they realize they would spend the next four hours in the kitchen!  From left to right, Bee, Ken, me, Sophie, and Linda.

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At moments like this, I imagine that a Cuisinart food processor might be a worthwhile investment!  Except they would have decimated the tomatoes.

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Very organized, I had instructions for pulling together each dish, including plating diagrams, prepared and taped to the kitchen walls.  These aren’t exactly a recipe, but helped everyone keep track of what steps we needed to complete and what the finished items were to look like.  This is for the dessert, a buttermilk shortcake topped with macerated mango and ginger whipped cream.

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We had two burners to work with, although a second-hand stove was recently acquired that has three burners, significantly expanding the capacity.  Here, I start frying batches of the green curry marinated chicken while organizer Yvan prepares his signature garlic bread recipe.

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Done with the mixed grain salad, my volunteers (now joined by Tammy and Tawn) slice mangoes for dessert while Doug, the friend who roped me into this event, supervises.

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Doug also wandered around with my camera, documenting the action.

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By 8:30 the crowd was ravenous, the best way to have them!  People started pouring into the kitchen and my friends expertly plated the meal, controlling portion size and garnishing with chopped cilantro and sliced almonds.  Unfortunately, in the chaos, nobody snapped a picture of the finished product!

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After everyone ate, the guest speaker took the microphone for about 20 minutes.  Since this is an art space, they try to have someone at each dinner who can talk about a project they have worked on, usually with some relevance to Thailand or the local scene. 

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In this case, it was Thai photographer Aroon Thaewchatturat and German writer Tom Vater, the photographer and author, respectively, of Sacred Skin, a book about the history and contemporary practice of Sak Yant, Thailand’s spirit tattoos.

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These tattoos, written in ancient Khmer, are said to provide powers of protection from accidents, misfortune, and crime.  You see these tattoos peeking out from under monks’ robes, the shirt collars of young men, and even on Angelina Jolie.

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The crowd seemed very interested in what Tom and Aroon had to say and enlargements of Aroon’s photos had been placed on the wall, startling images that sparked many discussions throughout the night.

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As the talk concluded, we served our dessert, complete with a mint garnish.  Again, in the rush we managed to not get a picture of the finished product!  Next time, I need to bring my own media people, right?

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We received a lot of compliments and had no troubles convincing people to take zip-loc bags of the extra mixed grains salad home, which is perhaps the best compliment of all.  We ended up with about 70 people and a final cost of 7,400 baht.  Based on the 90 people we prepared for, this was just ever-so-slightly over budget, coming in at 82.2 baht per person, or US$2.70.

To say I was exhausted when we returned home at about 11:00 is an understatement.  I’ve rarely been so tired, ever.  Working in a space that is not well-equiped for group cooking, I gained a new appreciation for the work of caterers and restaurateurs.  Thanks again to all my friends (and my husband) for helping me pull it off!

 

Preparing to Cook for 80

This weekend I’ve been scrambling to prepare for a dinner on Tuesday night, at which I will cook for up to 80 people.  This will be the largest group I’ve ever cooked for by a factor of three, and I’m excited to take on the challenge.  Oh, and an added challenge: I’m working on a budget of 80 baht (US$2.63) per head.  How did I get roped into this?

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Two months ago, my friend Doug, an expat American to whom I was introduced by a friend from the San Francisco Int’l Asian American Film Festival, invited me to an event called the “River Space Dinner Party and Talk”.

The dinners are inspired by Jim Haynes and his famous Paris dinners which have lasted for more than 30 years. Jim’s son, Jesper, helped launch the Bangkok dinners at the River Space a few months ago.  Jim described his dinners during a piece on NPR’s All Things Considered:

Every week for the past 30 years, I’ve hosted a Sunday dinner in my home in Paris. People, including total strangers, call or e-mail to book a spot. I hold the salon in my atelier, which used to be a sculpture studio. The first 50 or 60 people who call may come, and twice that many when the weather is nice and we can overflow into the garden.

Every Sunday a different friend prepares a feast. Last week it was a philosophy student from Lisbon, and next week a dear friend from London will cook.

People from all corners of the world come to break bread together, to meet, to talk, connect and often become friends. All ages, nationalities, races, professions gather here, and since there is no organized seating, the opportunity for mingling couldn’t be better. I love the randomness.

I believe in introducing people to people.

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Here in Bangkok, the dinners are held twice a month in a second floor flat on the banks of the Chao Phraya River, immediately next to the Millenium Hilton hotel.  The space is used for various arts events and is mostly just a large, open space.

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The space is spectacularly situated, though, just above a small market and adjacent to the local ferry pier.  The reflection of the setting sun bathes the banks of the river in shades of purple and pink as residents who live on the west side of the river commute home.

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The dinners are cooked by volunteers in a kitchen that is, to be generous, under-equipped.  But there are plenty of hands willing to pitch in, which is the important thing.  As I’m preparing to cook on Tuesday, most of my thoughts are about the strategy of how I’m going to do this in the most organized manner.  What tools will I need, what equipment, what supplies?

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The meal served when I attended in April.  Potato salad, green salad, quiches (made at home by the head chef), and a wonderful strawberry triffle.  One of the things I’ve realized is that to cook effectively in this space requires a lot of advance cooking at home.

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When I say “under-equipped”, you get the idea when you watch Doug contorting himself as he tries to make garlic bread for what was about 50 people using only a tiny toaster oven.  Needless to say, I was dragooned into the kitchen, willingly, and helped prepare the garlic bread.

So that’s the challenge I’m facing.  Having given a lot of thought to the meal, I’ve adapted, updated, and revised my proposed menu several times.  Finally, Friday night I cooked a “proof of concept” meal, to make sure the recipes worked (at a small scale) and would be on-budget.

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The menu as it stands today: Mixed grains and vegetable salad with a sherry vinaigrette; stir-fried chicken marinated in green curry; and a yogurt relish with cucumbers and tomatoes.  The homemade bread and hummus will not make the cut.  Instead, the garlic bread and a green salad will be provided by another person.  And for dessert?  Saturday night I did another “proof of concept” and served homemade buttermilk shortcake with mangoes and ginger whipped cream. 

Stay tuned to heard how it all turns out!

 

Vacation in a Beach House

For our vacation with my sister, brother-in-law, and nieces, we opted to rent a three-bedroom house in Hermosa Beach, just two blocks from the Pacific Ocean.  Not only did this work out quite reasonably financially – roughly $400 a night – but it gave us a lot more room than a hotel would have, plus the ability to easily cook our own food and do our own laundry.

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Tawn leads a junior yoga class, which was surprisingly effective at helping the girls calm down, focus, and not get into squabbles with each other.  Maybe we should sign them up for daily classes?

Actually, we didn’t rent one house, but two.  The initial house was booked for our final three nights but the property manager had another similar house just three blocks away, so we moved into that one.  I have to really credit this lady, she was super friendly and very helpful.  If you are ever looking to rent a vacation home in Los Angeles, I’d be happy to recommend either of her two properties.  (This is the first house, a 3br/3 ba and this is the second house, a 3 br/1ba.)

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We did a little less cooking at home than I had anticipated, but we did eat at least breakfast at home each day, allowing for some cost savings.  As soon as we moved in I made a big (2 pound) batch of pizza dough and kept it in the refrigerator for use in a couple of meals.  Who doesn’t like pizza?  Here’s the girls shape their own pizzas.

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And there’s the finished but not-yet-cooked product, ready to go into the oven.  Their dough ended up kind of triangle shaped, huh?

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And of course there was room for everybody to pitch in with cleaning up and loading the dishwasher.

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Once you do that, we can bundle up (it was chilly by the beach in the evenings) and head to Pinkberry for some dessert.

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The second house we were in had TVs in each room, something I wouldn’t approve of at home but certainly fine for a vacation home.  That provided everyone with the opportunity to lounge in bed in the morning and watch cartoons.  As you can tell from this picture, we had already gone to Disneyland and everybody (including Tawn) had their stuffed animal.

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A view of Tawn walking along the Strand, the 22-mile class 1 paved pedestrian/skater/bicycle path that stretches along pretty much all of Los Angeles County’s western coast from Pacific Palisades to Torrance.  This grey overcast was a fixture of our vacation, at least when we were near the beach.

 

Goddess Tubtim Shrine

Tucked behind the Nai Lert Hotel, alongside the San Saeb canal and underneath an ancient ficus tree, lies a shrine dedicated to the goddess Tubtim.  Originally a spirit house, the place where the spirit of the land (who was disrupted by your building on it) would reside, the shrine evolved over time into an unintentional fertility shrine as more and more worshipers brought offerings of phalluses.  Ranging from the symbolic to the highly realistic, the collection fills the area around the shrine.

While my friend David and Chor Pharn were visiting from Singapore, we stopped by for a look.  Here’s a short video to give you a sense of the setting.

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A healthy selection of phallus-shaped offerings left around the largest ficus tree at the shrine.  The irony is, sex toys are illegal in Thailand so if you were to try to bring a legitimate dildo into the country, you would be stopped.  By highly realistic phalluses for the purpose of spirit worship?  That’s okay.

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Some of these phalluses are quite detailed.  And at least one has studs in it, perhaps representing the Folsom Street Fair community?

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Normally, spirit houses have some small sculptural figures meant to represent both the spirits as well as those who are there to entertain and serve them.  So many figures have been added that they are arranged on two adjacent shelves.  You can see the San Saeb canal in the background.

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The figures include representation of parents as well as a host of animals.

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Also, there are more than 100 traditional Thai dancers to keep the spirits entertained.

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And, inexplicably, a pair of male dolls.  Barbie’s gay brother Eric and his lover Stephen?  The women on the upper shelf are all ladies in waiting.

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Who’s living in the spirit house?  I spy a kitten!

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This one seems to have a fungal infection.  Experiencing any itching or burning sensation?

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On a tangential note, I thought I’d share this picture of the jasmine garlands that are sold by local flower vendors.  These are the types of garlands that Tawn and Chor Pharn were trying to make in this entry.

 

Another Inside Job

pile-of-money Last week I finally made the time to watch Inside Job, the Academy Award winning 2010 documentary about the recent financial crisis.  The film does an effective job of clearly explaining the complex series of factors that led up to the crisis, including a headlong rush into deregulation of the financial services industry as well as the creation of ever more complex and risky financial tools.  The root of the problem, though, was the revolving door between government and business and the corrupting influence of money on both.

Needless to say, my blood was boiling after watching the film.  You can imagine the effect, then, when I learned that on Wednesday, the House Financial Services Committee passed three bills that will cripple the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, one of the most important innovations in the 2010 Dodd-Frank financial reform law that was a response to the conditions exposed in Inside Job.

(Details on the three bills are here, if you’d like to read them: HR 1121, HR 1667, HR 1315 on OpenCongress.org – a great non-partisan resource to keep tabs on what your Congress is up to.)

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has a simple and reasonable purpose: to shield consumers from unfair, misleading, and deceptive lending.  While we can rail on and on about people getting themselves into bigger loans than they could afford, a large share of the blame (if not the majority of it) belongs to lending companies that made loans they knew the borrowers couldn’t afford.  If you’ve ever looked at the fine print of a lending contract, a credit card agreement, or any other consumer financial services legal document, you know that it is unclear and opaque even for the most educated of consumers.

The purpose of the Republican bills is to deprive the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau of the power to fulfill its mission.  Oh, and the fact that they stand to attract a lot of campaign money from financial firms by indicating their willingness to gut laws that protect consumers?  Well, that’s probably a motivating factor, too.

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As much as I love the idea of free markets and unfettered capitalism, I think there is a place for regulation: when an industry’s actions causes harm to the larger society.  Especially in regards to the financial industry, we’ve seen over the last thirty to forty years that as it becomes less regulated, it takes greater and more irresponsible risks.  Ultimately, it is the taxpayers of this nation who end up bailing out the shareholders of these companies.

I don’t know if this is an issue that bothers you.  I try to keep this blog apolitical, but sometimes I think something of concern is worth sharing.  If you’re so motivated, perhaps a quick email to your Representative and Senators to let them know your thoughts about gutting the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau would help ensure that the voice of the citizenry gets heard over the sound of all that money.

Here’s the email I sent to Kevin Yoder, my Representative:

Dear Sir:

This week, the House Financial Services Committee voted to approve three measures that would considerably weaken the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.  I want you to know that as your constituent, I would like you to VOTE NO on these measures, if and when they reach the floor of the House.

It seems that our politicians have forgotten how we got into the financial mess of 2008.  As much as I like free markets, the financial services industry is incapable of policing itself and needs stronger, not weaker, regulation.  This is particularly true of consumer finance, where every effort is made by financial institutions to be as opaque as possible in an effort to entrap consumers in a web of bad decisions.

Again, I’d like you to vote in favor of consumers rather than in favor of the financial industry and monied interests.  VOTE NO on any reforms or weakening of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

Regards,

Chris