Is a puzzlement, part 2.

Old school hardware store, Bangkok. I asked the man if I could take his picture, and before he could answer his mother came out from the back. She waved me over, took out a framed photograph of her totally prostrate daughter kissing the King's feet and proudly showed it to me, jabbering away the whole time.

The father was sitting silently on a stool in the corner and got up and came over. He ignored his wife and poo-pooed the King. He put his arm around me and looked me right in the eye. He shook his finger in my face and said: "Pele. Futbal." Big smile. "Pele."



Priorities, passions, and Pele.

 Bhumibol Adulyadej, the ninth monarch of Thailand ruled for more than 70 years - he was a man of integrity and vision and much beloved by his people. Even though he died in 2016, his birthday is still celebrated every year. 

Long may his magnanimous memory reign.

Sirikit Kitiyakara  was his Queen Consort, and is still the Queen Mother of Thailand, and the actual mother of the current King Vajiralongkorr (or Rama X). I already told you a personal story about her in the blog Amnesty! Amnesty! Amnesty! but I’ll recap it here:

“Corrections table was only part of my many punishments – I could usually be found walking the area on Saturday and Sunday – enjoying the company of other 'Century Men'. An exclusive, ignominious club, for sure. But here’s what I found out about myself during all those unhappy days and blistered miles: I’m incorrigible, and rather than learning from my ‘mistakes’ and making the appropriate corrections, I’d just be recalcitrant for the hell of it and keep paying the price, in shoe leather and hours, out of spite and a kind of double-bluff irony (since the joke ended up being on me), and then of course pitchers of booze afterwards. Remind me another time to tell the story of the ‘crucial pitcher’. It’s hilarious from one angle; hilarious from the other angle; and hilarious in hindsight all these years later if you squint.



My "tour of duty" wasn't nearly as photogenic. 

Anyway, so I’m at my usual lowly place during a typical Friday night dinner trying to not be the twerpy shirker I was and am still, when a short, sharp chant starts filling the mess hall: “Amnesty, amnesty, amnesty.” I join in, thinking that getting out of anything, for whatever reason, is a good thing and will hopefully apply to me. My back’s to the poop deck, as we called the ‘Captains Table’ so I can’t really see what’s going on, but the OC (Officer in Charge) makes the announcement that, and I’m not making this up, “The Queen of Thailand, Royal Consort to King Mumbojumbo and mother of Prince Verylongishname is dining with us tonight.” All I could think of was Yul Brenner singing straight-faced Is a puzzlement as the OC droned on, Etc. Etc. Etc.


The Queen and I (not pictured).

Come to find out there’s a little known codicil in the army rulebook (or so I’d heard – never got past the intro) that says heads of state can grant "amnesty" to anyone serving punishment tours. Long story short, it was the longest dinner of my life. Finally, finally, the Queen gets up after dessert and makes her royal way to the podium. Queen of Queens. Flowing robes and everything. She gets to the microphone and pauses. She cracks a slight smile. I’m waiting for her to come out with something jocular and inscrutable like “Goonga lagoonga”, but instead says the sweetest word I’ve ever heard. Y'up, ‘Amnesty.’

The place erupted. If you’re not in the mood for a cheap cliche ending, skip this paragraph. Seriously, there's something odd about gratitude, especially towards someone anonymous who's been unintentionally and unknowingly magnanimous. You feel like you're in debt, and the debt somehow needs to be paid back, which I realized would never happen, at least directly, so I tried to be consciously kind and generous whenever I could, or when I remembered anyway.

My MO.

I have very few notable accomplishments in my life (worth discussing in polite company, anyway), but one of them is the naming of a major worldwide brand, besides "Old's Cool", of course. In 1986 I was hired by Ted Bates Advertising to help rebrand the Mandarin Hotel in Hong Kong, which had a sister hotel in Bangkok named The Oriental. They were both world-class at the time, and there were many copycat hotels that piggybacked on their famous reputations. We came up with the idea of naming our hotels Mandarin-Oriental.

The tag line that I wrote was: "Mandarin-Oriental. We've changed our name so everyone will know who we aren't." We also introduced the now-famous fan logo.

W. Somerset Maugham wrote about his Oriental Hotel-bound malaria in A Gentleman in the Parlour:

"I lay there panting and sleepless, and shapes of monstrous pagodas and great gilded Buddhas bore down on me. Those wooden rooms with their verandas made every sound frightfully audible to my tortured ears... so I took two Smart Pills and was able to miraculously start writing again in the morning."



Real Simple success.

It’s a small world, especially when you’ve been around for a while, and around it a few times. Several years ago I got a call from an editorial assistant at Real Simple magazine, who loved One Up! and wanted to feature it in their January edition.

We sent some samples in, and sure enough it was front and center on the “Snow-Day Staples” page. I was initially disappointed  – I had asked her if she could include us in their “Christmas Gift Ideas” for the December issue, but she said that was already finalized.

Be careful what you wish for. The January issue came out… on December 8th, and we got absolutely swamped with orders. Actually, we ran out of stock within the first 2 or 3 days, and I remember frantically fulfilling a bunch of those Christmas packages in March when we finally got our new shipment of letter tiles in.

Ashley Niedringhaus was the person who had reached out and placed so much faith in One Up! way back then, and she actually featured it again a year or two later when she moved over to Redbook. Props. Come to find out, she is now a travel writer based in Bangkok, freelancing for several top-drawer publications and enjoying her carefree married life and lifestyle.

It’s was great to finally meet her in person, and to see someone who is actually living her dream, instead of just talking about it or making excuses, or being angry and resentful of those who are. Hat’s off to you, kid!



I won't go anywhere with them.

I thought it was “Beware of False Gods.” Wait, is that simple sign an unintentional profound metaphor, or irony most cruel?

There was a temple next door to our hotel – a small, simple compound of several eloquent structures, tucked-away shrines and smaller shacks and sheds, with cats lounging around looking starved. And old ladies selling incense and candles, and giving away smiles and kindness in a language I almost didn’t understand. An emaciated man was shaving in a makeshift mirror in what looked like an opiate harlequin’s pajamas. I took my shoes off and sat down before the many-armed, cubist-faced Siddhartha. It was quiet. There were paintings of this eastern Christ’s life lining the walls, an epicene, oriental art-deco reimagining of the stations of the cross. In this cramped, gilded sepulcher of sorts, the Way of Sorrows showed the path to enlightenment, and the theme of life is suffering and redemption is gained through the logos was essentially and universally the same.

I sat for a while and pondered, a bit pretentiously I have to admit, how much of the world do we really see? Really hear? Really experience? The answer is that it appears to be so close to a hushed nothing that we might as well call it nothing.

Seriously, I could hear frogs in the video above (the picture is a still from it, so you won't be able to), but I couldn’t see them. It reminded me of "The sound of frogs blating like new calves from the culvert horn of the ramp," that Janice Daugharty writes so eloquently about. The blurts are sudden, loud, constant, rhythmical and throaty, almost like a monk’s chant. I became entranced.

Which brought up a memory of Richard Feynman, the Nobel Prize winning physicist’s observation that the air between us is not full of nothing but full of everything: you just can't see the ultra-violet waves ricocheting all over the place, or the air molecules vibrating in the heat, or the sunlight, or the photosynthesis happening right before your eyes, can you? Or the other side of the temple, or the hotel next door, or Connecticut from here I chimed in on my own mind. But we’re fairly certain they still exist, and will continue to exist, even though our eyes and senses aren’t able to verify them in a mundane and practical way. And when we’re dead the same point holds true – everything and nothing now and always.

My point is, with all due respect to the Bhagavad Gita and Mahatma Gandhi, that consciousness, not truth, is God, and our awakeness to the world, even if it is an almost insignificant whack of what's really there, actually gives the slight slice meaning. No, it’s more than that – our awareness of the world perceives the world into being, as far as I can tell. So we've got to pay attention to as much of it and as closely as we can every day: open your eyes, your ears, your nose, and your childishly wild and innocent heart to the succulence and sublime wonder all around you. The world literally exists because of you.

Just think about it. And the lonely, lovely suffering reality of reality won’t go away because you want to play an infantile afraid game of hide-and-seek with it.

April 16, 2018 — Johnny Mustard