Sunday, April 19, 2009

Chasing Windmills

We plunge onward in the minivan toward the hidden beaches of Mialoi along the South China Sea. Along the expressway that winds through lush rolling hills with belching factory chimney stacks and radio towers like blocks of castles popping their blinking heads through the trees, there are temple rooftops behind rice fields and stone bridges that skim upon the water’s edge. We seem to fly over them all, gaining speed.
It had been a disastrous morning.
Tantrums and knocked over bowls of cheerios and oatmeal thrown against the tv. There were wet diapers and pee stains on the floor and somebody left an ink pen in the washing machine, and I always thought, you never know how important something is until you reach the point of giving up. I remember that from my days of running cross country at George Fox. Miles away from home, legs pounding against pavement, stopping outside a farmhouse with nothing in the distance just the throbbing, panting breath in my chest thinking, “What am I doing to myself? Why am I trying so hard? Give up. It’s easier.”
That’s when you always know what you’re made of.
We fly past villages and industrial areas. Longshong. Houlong. Dali. The children in the back sing and clap and cry and scream as if they are on fire and SungJoo is groaning, “Why did we come here again? What was the reason for this?” It is as if we are moving toward the end of something. A dangerous edge we will not stop for and just hurl ourselves over into the nothingness below.
At the Daya Interchange we pause. There is an abandoned temple gate covered in weeds and we turn in to let the girls pee in the tall clover patches beside the road. A farmer with oxen stops to watch. The engine is running. I am too late and Rebekah wets herself and is screaming. Xi’an is standing over pointing a finger in my face, “Daddy, I told you so,” and baby Lauren begins what will become a weeklong bout of diarrhea. I walk out toward the farmer who lights a cigarette from his shirt pocket and offers me one.
“No thanks,” I wave, and ask him how far to the ocean.
Ciding Beach?”
He mumbles something in Chinese and laughs. Backing away, I watch him return to his ox.
“What did he say?” I ask SungJoo.
“Nothing, he’s drunk or crazy.”
“No, tell me. What?”
“He said follow the monsters. The water is below their feet.”
Back in the minivan I wrap Rebekah in a towel and produce chocolate from my pocket which suffices for a spell. Here the road narrows to two lanes. All the road signs are in Chinese with strange exit markings we dart past, and SungJoo and I bicker in the way that only married couples can. At each other’s throats in milliseconds over the slightest infraction as if either one of us is to blame for our inability to find joy in these moments. The girls become restless again. They want out of their seats. They want to climb over the head rests and make tunnels beneath our feet. They hit one another and recoil in shrieking wails. I remember reading Sartre’s No Exit in high school and the line, “Hell is other people” comes to mind, but I refuse it. I am a blind man. I am dementia explored. I am senility by self-prescription. I will not turn the minivan around. I am an American father driving his family on a road trip through Taiwan. This air-conditioned nightmare will not defeat me.
It is then I see them.
Appearing on the blue horizon like Titans. Legs rumbling. Arms reaching forward. They are racing along the coast line and fill up our sight. There is no escape. Monsters, and we are headed right for them.
I have always loved stories of Giants. Jack and the Beanstalk, Prometheus Bound, David and Goliath, most recently Dahl’s The BFG, which I have been reading to my girls before bed, asking them on a scale of 1 to 5 how scary they would like my voice. They usually settle on 3. Anything higher and I end up falling asleep on the floor holding their hands. Giants grind bones to make their bread. Giants smell the blood of Englishmen. Fee Fi Foe Fum! Giants are what’s not right about the landscape. Clumsy and unorthodox, they suffer terribly from culture shock, and stick out like gargantuan sore thumbs.
Believe me, I sympathize.
Yet my favorite Giant story has got to be La Man of La Mancha. Don Quixote chasing windmills across the Spanish countryside believing they are monsters. He plunges forward into madness, into a past he can no longer understand, into a future that looks on him and laughs.
These were the monsters along the coast line the farmer was speaking about. Giant wind carbine pinwheels of green energy, spinning slowly over and over and rising out of the sand. They marked our way, leading us to the water. Down a secret gravel path bisecting rice farms, we park the minivan next to a water god shrine. There is an old man burning incense and praying. Through the trees then, the blistering sun on our necks. The sand full of garbage, broken bottles, lighters, cigarette butts, and trash, and I carry both girls on my back so their bare feet won’t cut. Yet as we approach the wet sand the water is clean, and the girls and I strip to our underwear and just walk in to the waves which wash over us, knocking Rebekah down. She pops up with a glowing smile. It’s the ocean. We made it. This is not hell. We are swimming in the East China Sea.
We play for hours, darting in and out of the water. There appears to be no edge, just vast open spaces of cool tide. The girls explode with laughter. It was worth it. I know now. It was all worth it.
“Daddy, look, giants,” Xi’an points to the wild windmills above our heads just as the sun goes down. Ominous. Robotic. They rise into the sky as we drift down the surf. “Don’t worry, I’ll protect you,” she grabs a stick and begins charging toward them. Farther and farther down the sandy beach she roars. I trot along after with Rebekah on my back. They seem to be moving away in the fading sun. As if we are the ones they fear.

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