Bad Company

April 5th, 2008

Phnom Penh: For the past three or four weeks, writing this book has been like giving birth to a broken window. It arrived in small pieces, and they hurt. And the difficult delivery was accompanied by a dawning realization that I probably have way too much story for 100,000 words. FINALLY, three days ago, the process took off. The book’s world – dialogue, action, characters, plotting, even climate – began streaming through me. I did 3500 words three days ago, 2900 the next, 3100 the next. I could barely keep up with it.

Then, naturally, my computer broke. So I’m becalmed at the moment, unable to write until a new power brick arrives from Toshiba and once again allows me to charge the batteries. Or, if it doesn’t arrive within 3-4 days, I’ll just buy a new computer.

That means that I have a lot of free time. And when I have free time in Phnom Penh, I often find myself thrown into the company of some of the most boring people on the face of the earth, male Southeast Asian expats.  I know it’s not fair to call them (or anyone) boring. They probably started out interesting.  But these guys have spent years and years, most of them, living in a very small world where there’s not much to talk about, so a new set of conversational rules has come into being. Rule Number One is that it’s okay to say the same thing many, many times.

Last night one of them, a guy I’ll call Al, who can actually stop time with his conversation, leaned across a table toward me and said, with the gravity of someone who is expressing a thought that humanity has long struggled to put into words, “You know, it’s not the heat . . . ” He took a long, significant pause, and I mean a pause long enough for me to decide to change the brand of paper towels I prefer, and delivered the payoff: “. . . It’s the humidity.” That was the most entertaining thing he said all evening. And he talked a lot.

There are people here who tell jokes. There are people here who tell jokes that are longer than the Koran, the kind of jokes in which exactly the same thing happens eight or nine times, forcing me to use up my entire repertoire of interested nods and encouraging grins and start them over again, and then the tenth iteration has a punch line so obvious that Ray Charles could have seen it coming from across the street.

And I even hate short jokes. I can nod off during a knock-knock.

I know, I know, a lot of people probably find me boring. But at least I try. When I talk, I do a little work. I’m aware (usually) of the moment when people start hiding yawns, or when someone goes to the bathroom for the third time in five minutes because anything would be more interesting than what I’m talking about. So I change the subject or yield to someone who may have more to contribute than I do. Not these guys. They’re impervious to yawns, fidgets, glazed eyes, and even less subtle feedback, such as the listener opening a book or actually starting a conversation with someone else. Al, for one, will keep right on talking while his target reads a book by James Michener, and I mean all of a book by James Michener, and James Michener wrote seriously long books.

Halfway through writing this, I asked myself what would happen if the people I’m describing should read it. And the worse thing I could think of was, they’d stop talking to me. It’s a win-win situation.

13 Responses to “Bad Company”

  1. Lisa Kenney Says:

    You’re too funny! I don’t know what the deal is with laptop power supplies, but mine died recently too and I ended up getting two to replace it, so I’d have a spare for next time.

    I’m glad to know that I’m not the only one who gets suicidal when subjected to small talk. I’m sure I’m a big snore to plenty of people too, but man there are some seriously boring people who just love to chew your ear. My biggest peeve: the sports holes. What is it about me that signals to middle aged men that I am even remotely interested in discussing professional sports — ever? I’ve found that whenever somebody brings the Broncos, Rockies, Avs or Nuggets up to me, my canned response of “oh, I don’t follow the soccer” seems to shut them down. 🙂

    Hope you’re back in business soon!

  2. Greg Smith Says:

    Hi Tim:

    I loved your opening simile. But ouch!
    How sweet when the shattered glass transmogrified into silicon chips and flowed out at over 3000 words a day.
    How long were those days, anyway?
    Godspeed getting your computer situation straightened out.
    Thanks for the thoughts and pithy observations. The expats sound delightful.

  3. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Lisa — Who ever thinks of buying an extra power supply? I’ve got batteries coming out of my ears but only one power supply. Now, of course, I’ll buy an extra whenever I buy another computer which will, in turn, guarantee that I never have another problem with a power supply. I share your lack of patience with people who have a dominant Sports Gene. Here, it really is about soccer — it’s the only thing anybody follows. When people try to talk to me about it, I share with them my conviction that only one actual game of soccer has ever been played anywhere, and they just show it over and over again from different camera angles.

    Hey, Greg — Those were 5 and 6-hour days, with one suicidal 7. And I’d be happy to save you a seat at my table if you’d like to meet these guys face to face. In fact, maybe I should just save all the seats at my table.

  4. Steve Wylder Says:

    Tim, I got squeamish reading your simile and I don’t even have the necessary equipment to give birth. But I’m happy to read that you’ve been able to get the book on track.

    You’ve probably read Gelett Burgess’s “Are You a Bromide? or The Sulphitic Theory.” I suspect Burgess was subjected to people a lot like your expats. One of the lines Burgess attributes to bromides is Al’s profound remark.

    The characters in my Dickens Challenge novel keep adding new twists. Helena, after saying she had no special powers, is about to alter the memory of a Chicago cop, and then deny she did.

    Dickens couldn’t have done it, but I’ll certainly need to revise some of the earlier chapters. Now that I think about it Dickens did change the ending of Great Expectations, but I don’t know whether that was serialized.

    Best wishes for your works in progress.

  5. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Actually, Steve, I haven’t read the Burgess book, but it sounds as though I’d identify with its author. I’d love to see a list of the books you read in any given month — say, March of this year. Reading your work makes me think we have many of the same interests but perhaps read completely different writers.

    My problem with the DC is that I’m not giving the book enough time. I have something I have to write (and want to write), which is the third Bangkok thriller, and that means I get to COUNTERCLOCKWISE only during the in-betweens, when I’m not working on MISDIRECTION, which is the BKK book. And I really need to go back to page one of CCWISE and read every word, make about 8,000 notes, and pick up every thread I laid down.

    And I will, but not until I have the new power brick for my computer.

  6. Usman Says:

    Soccer, speak soccer… when we have cricket to talk about. A match takes five days and then ends in a draw. Tim, start talking cricket; you’ll have happy days of conversation ahead of you.

  7. Jack Says:

    The Crashing Bores of Southeast Asia…

    Perhaps it’s to be expected when expats float too long in a bubble of content-free conversations. Who knows. That said, every Southeast Asia-based expat I’ve known with significant intellectual capacity spends at least part of their time immersed in something culturally challenging. A book, for example.

    The ones that preserve their tissues with ethanol and disdain the local populace seem to wither and sour at a relatively rapid rate. Outcomes can range from flight (likely the best option) to depression/despair/rage (saddening or frightening) or a stolid descent into some Cro-Magnon state of idiocy potentiated by latent or erupting narcissistic neurosis. To wit:

    “It’s not the heat…”
    (Stentorian pause. 1812 Overture. Der Ring die Niebelungen.)
    “It’s…the HUMIDITY.”

    Wurrrgh. Like having your lungs fill up with mineral oil.

    I remember hearing some guy talk on a boat in Southern Thailand, sometime in the early 90s: “I go Burma. Not have anything to buy, I not spend money, only buy water.”

    This might not have been so unusual had he not been speaking directly to me. I said something like: “Dude, I’m a native English speaker. You don’t have to drop your articles and mangle your grammar to communicate, I can understand you if you speak normally.”

    He gave me a strange look. I don’t think he realized that he’d lost (or abandoned) the ability to speak naturally.

    The phrase “gone native” comes to mind, but I prefer its more colorful Aussie variant: “gone troppo.” Much Aus slang drops the end of a word in favor of an “o” and sometimes doubles the middle consonant. “Going tropical” suits the situation and the Aussie slang-spice punches it up. Your neighbors have gone troppo, Tim. You could put ice-bags on their heads, I suppose, but maybe better to just nod/smile and then split the scene at first opportunity.

    Better than splitting their skulls like coconuts. As tempting as that might be.

  8. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Usman — I don’t know how anyone can converse about cricket since no one on earth actually understands the rules. At least when I’m listening to sports over here I can understand what they say about soccer — it doesn’t require a stretch to follow “Manchester beat Twickenham 2 to naught.” But with cricket, you get a completely abstract and apparently logic-free language that might have been invented by Lewis Carroll: “Pakistan were fourteen for 231 with three wickets and a googly.” Might as well be an excerpt from “‘Twas Brillig and the slithy toves . . .”

    And Jack, I’ve seen you deal with these same walking vacancy signs. You’re not much more accommodating than I am. The nodding and smiling does occasionally slip, revealing the skull-splitter beneath.

    I’ve had the same experience you had, by the way, with some troppo burnout talking to me in pidgin. I finally said to the guy (in a bar we both know), “Sorry, I no speak English.” He stood there for a moment and then wandered slowly away, although it may have felt to him like he was moving fast.

    And we also know guys who get, um peculiar in addition to getting boring. They develop obsessions such as getting the locals’ teeth fixed or sampling every beer brewed within a 300-mile radius. It doesn’t make them more interesting to talk to, but it makes them a little more interesting to talk about.

  9. Larissa Says:

    The expats sound like my mom. Every conversation is required to contain some anecdote about the weather and a comment about her notion of the big bad wolf-known to you and me as normal people-ok, so I’m being harsh but I know how you feel. Perhaps I could put her in touch with them and they could have a grand time. I’m kidding. But yes, good luck getting everything sailing and, depending on if you do things the old fashioned way, watch out for the pieces of paper containing your notes. They’ve been known to bite.

  10. Cynthia Mueller Says:

    Hi Tim,
    I think I work with Al’s twin brother. He went to the Ansel Adams exhibition last year and the next morning, he started his conversation with a neck scratch and a . . . “Whelp . . . ” Then there’s another neck scratch… (BTW, every conversation with Al’s brother starts with a neck scratch, a ‘whelp’ and another neck scratch.) “I went to see the exhibit yesterday.”

    I answered, reluctantly, “What exhibit?”

    Long pause where I calculated the effect of global warming…

    “The Ansel Adams Exhibit.”

    Long pause where I translate the Bible into Greek, then into Hebrew, then back to English. I realize no further data is forthcoming. “Really? And what did you think about it?”

    Long pause . . .

    More neck scratching. More “Whelp… – ing” He answers, “I was somewhat disappointed.”


    “Really?” I inquire, stupidly.

    Al’s twin heaves himself up out of his chair and makes his way into my office. “Yep.”

    He settles his bulk into my visitor’s chair.

    “Yep.” He repeats.

    I refuse to look up from my keyboard. I refuse to ask. I refus… “What? You were disappointed? In Ansel Adams?” I fail. I know it.


    I wait.

    Neck scratching.

    “Whelp…I thought they’d be . . . bigger.”

    “WTF? Bigger? Do you realize the man printed these manually? In a dark room? No Photoshop or digital printers involved? Using chemistry and a superior knowledge of all things photographic?”

    No answer.

    I ask, “What do you mean, bigger?”

    “I don’t know. I just was, you know, disappointed.”

    I excused myself and went to the bathroom.

    Sounds like Al’s brother to me!

  11. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Whelp, very funny, Cynthia, as long as I didn’t actually have to be there. These guys are amusing at a remove, but in the flesh it’s as exciting as tooth decay, but slower.

    Could be Al’s brother. It’s a big, big family.

  12. Andrea Mitchell Says:

    Thank you for this post! I am at the broken window stage at the moment … bits and pieces of scenes are coming out slowly with lots of ‘ouch’s and wincing … and it’s good to know (in a sadistic way) that someone else has been through it too.

    I grew up in Zimbabwe and attended an international school for a while. It was full of American expats and children of American expats. They liked to talk about the kind of food you can’t get in Zim. “Man, I miss Oreos.” “You can’t get a decent burger here.” Blaargh! I just wanted to beat them over the head with a box of Twizzlers.

  13. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Hi, Andrea — It’s always nice when a new sadist joins the company. So many writers are masochistic (why else would we put ourselves through all this?) and it’s good to balance things out.

    Yes, Food You Can’t Get Here is always a fruitful topic. And Oreos seem to top the list here, too. Except among the English, who seem to want things I wouldn’t eat if they were mixed in with the manna from heaven and landed in my front yard. Bubble and squeak? It’s always sounded to me like a champagne cocktail with a mouse in it.

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