Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Dead Goat Caper

It’s amazing the stuff we fall into.
My sister Lisa has dead goats. Three of them to be exact, mysteriously picked off one by one this last week like flies. She and husband Jeff scratch their chins in the gravel driveway as my Dad in workgloves tosses the carcass of yet another lifeless Billie from the red wheelbarrow onto the flat bed of the truck and slams the gate. Then everyone looks at me as I stand there nodding my head innocently.
“First goat kicked the bucket the day you came back from Taiwan. Coincidence?”
My family is full of amateur detectives, German problem solving combined with Swedish mistrust. Everything’s a step that must leads to something deeper, bigger, a larger truth.
“This must be a sign.”
Now I’m standing there even more lost. I’d come back to the U.S. for just a week to tie down some loose ends still left flapping in the wind from December when the snow shut the city down and I had to get on a plane. What to do with the house? The car? The taxes? Yet after being gone three months, I’ve arrived as the chief suspect in the unsettling death of three of these horned rascals. I must be a bad omen. I’m suspicious, sure. I reek of foreign street market food, (fried pig’s blood, barbequed baby duck) I use a bearded passport as I.D., and constantly lapse into cheeky stories, mostly unbelievable, where my audience has no context as to what I’m describing.
“You mean you’re making your daughter’s speak Commie?”
“No, Dad, Chinese. They’re studying Chinese.”
“Safe diff.”
How do I get myself involved in these things?
And there you have it, once again I’ve fallen into a scene of complicated yet recreational hijinks, what might actually be called a ‘caper’. Yes, that’s exactly it. My return to the Oregon countryside has triggered the Dead Goat Caper, and there’s no telling where it will lead.
But isn’t that always the way?
Now goats can die for almost as many reasons as you can think of. I mean, they can eat a tin can for crying out loud. They have horns which slam and bang and pound against anything in their path: bathtub water troughs, wood fence posts, the shrieking legs of my nephews and nieces as they flee in terror, but chiefly the horns of other goats. It’s crazy to watch, and let’s face it, you kind of root for the butting of two goat heads, but agonize in the aftermath as the animals stumble around with their eyes rolling in their sockets, ready and set again like Rock ‘em Sock ‘em Robots for another chance to beat each other’s brains in.
Truly barbarian, and as a foreign tourist, I take out my camera to capture the scene.
“What you taking a picture for, you grew up on a farm, didn’t you? You’re no stranger to animals dying?” This is the voice of my Dad, mind you, a man no stranger to being quoted in many of my stories.
That’s when it hits me. I am no stranger here at all.
For the next week I would be sleeping in my old high school bed, rummaging through drawers full of baseball cards and worn out Star Wars action figures. I would be coming down the stairs to see my mother standing in the kitchen making meatloaf and baking potatoes, and taking walks in the middle of the night along the Christmas tree line following the howls of coyotes with a flashlight under a full moon. I would be plunging back deep into the memory and lives of my family and friends. This was Colton after all. This was my American home, and I could no longer fake it. Life was not about standing on the periphery and observing, like so much of my time spent overseas. Here I am no expatriate. I am immersed in everything. There is no place to hide, standing there being scolded by my Dad in the middle of my sister’s farm field. I couldn’t escape if I tried. This was America, nobody gets out alive.
Case in point, selling the minivan.
I seek out my lender who sends me to the DMV who has me fill out a power of attorney transfer which leads me to my brother Grant who will be the contact person on my Craigslist add which I will have to create before I leave on Sunday. In the meantime, I drive to the auto-detailer for a vacuum and shampoo who says he’ll have the car ready by 2 or 3 but that he’ll be there till 6:00. I look at my watch, it’s 8 in the morning. So I start walking. You know, walking the streets of Beaverton, which if you’re on a dirt road in Calcutta it’s pretty amazing, but passing the Olive Garden and TJ Max on Canyon Blvd is kind of soul crushing. So I cut behind Star Sushi and head for the Transit Center when I see a familiar face: a panhandler woman with pockmarked, recovering meth addict cheeks.
“Hey, I know you.”
We both stop in our tracks.
“Oh yeah?” The woman clutches her purse. I’ve never seen her with a purse, usually she is holding a cardboard sign that reads: Any Coin Will Help!
“Yeah, I’ve given you money before. You’re always sitting atop the exit at Walker on ramp.”
“That’s my stoop, thanks,” the woman backs away as she speaks.
“So, where are you coming from?”
“Look, I don’t want any trouble.”
Trouble, from me? I couldn’t give trouble to a fly.
“It’s just business, all right!” The woman’s face is now like a hurt animal. She begins explaining her life story. How she was raped by a stepfather at age ten, how she’s been living on the streets since thirteen, how she’s on methadone, more information that I ever wanted, her whole life story from top to bottom in ten seconds flat, a rehearsed tale of tragedy all chapter and verse ready at a moment’s notice to spit in someone’s eye who looks at her funny. I’m standing ten feet from her on the little wooden bridge above the nutria pond. I’m just trying to kill time before all the cheerios and goldfish are swept out from the seat cushions. I don’t want to know her. I should have kept my mouth shut.
So we back away without another word said. Yet I’m deep into her life now, deep inside, and I can’t pull away. I spend the rest of the afternoon wandering around downtown thinking about her. She is everywhere I look, the joggers along the Waterfront, the spines of books at Powell’s, the couples in matching hats on the MAX. I can’t shake her. I’ve already seen too much.
That night I met my old friend Steve for St. Patrick ’s Day. He is dressed in English driver’s hat with a Frisbee sized pin latched to the top that reads: Honorary Irishman. It’s his usual March 17th uniform. We talk. It’s so good to sit across a table from him and eat tater tots I can’t help but grin. He’s full of plans for his business, he’s doing very well. He tells me about his daughter and wife and how he plans to visit a cabin at the base of Mt. Rainer next weekend with a buddy from high school who once sucker punched him in the 8th grade after basketball practice. Steve’s always got an eye for this kind of detail in a story. This is the same guy who graduated and entered the marines, then law enforcement, and is now a federal agent with the DEA. The cabin is his, he tells Steve, “Eat a big breakfast and bring a shovel. We’ll have to dig our way in through the snow.”
It captures my imagination. If I had still been living here this is the kind of trip he would invite me on. I would be stuck out in the snow with a shovel and a pack and grunting under the weight. I would get lost following rabbit tracks or spend all day building an igloo. There would be an adventure, but now it’s just an idea that is lost, put on the shelf for another day like so many others and I miss him even before we say goodbye. Steve is a friend who’s gotten me into more trouble than anyone I’ve ever met, and I miss it because it’s gone.
The next morning I go back and visit with Lisa. This time she tells me about her dogs. About six months ago they bought yellow and chocolate brown Lab pups for their two kids. But it was too cold so they made a pen in the kitchen, but the dogs tore that up. Then the weather turned and she let them run outside, but they destroyed the swimming pool. So she didn’t know what to do and had to install a wrought iron fence for them to run around in, and the other day while Lisa and the kids were out, the dogs gnawed through the screen and somehow opened the back door and got into the house and demolished everything inside. They tore apart the comforter and knocked over all the lamps and tromped muddy paws across the new carpet and ate ten year old Gillian’s art supplies and demolished her doll’s house and spilled everything from the refrigerator and Lisa returned and sat in the middle of her house in tears for an hour just flabbergasted.
“Dead goats… now this?”
She wanted to sell the dogs off but her little seven-year-old started to sob, sob, sob, and my sister Lisa is good and wise and loving in ways reserved only for saints, and so now she’s stuck.
“What can I do?” She shrugs. “I’ll just have to make do.”
We’re sitting in her living room looking out the plate glass window, my sister in her cozy bathrobe.
“You know Brian, nobody ever tells you that life is going to be so complicated,” she says. “You just keep living and going about your life until you find you’re in too deep to get out.” We watch her kids being chased past the window by a runaway goat. “Then one day you wind up dead and tossed into the back of a truck and hauled away.”
I look at my sister’s face. “That’s pretty bleak, Lisa.”
“Yeah, well, that’s what they forget to tell you in school, huh?”
“What? We’re all just dead goats?”
I know she doesn’t mean it, and we laugh at how silly it sounds.
That night I head out to Vancouver, “The Couve” with one of my teacher buddies. I needed to get away and we drive by The Academy and marvel at how much this once trading outpost has changed over the years, the storefronts, the brick buildings, the new infrastructure, all the investment of time and money into this place. We stroll through Elsie Sturh Park and walk down under the Interstate Bridge to listen to the roar of the cars and look out over the dark and ominous Columbia River and talk about our lives. It’s good, better than good, yet when I return home I call SungJoo and find out my kids have bronchitis and I feel terrible for being away from them. That even a night away from mangy dogs, and soul crushing landscapes, and recovering meth addicts, and tax forms, and all the weight that American life pounds into you, a night in which my mind was supposed to be free and loose, it still turns back into the daily grind of one thing leads to another without me having any control.
I leave two days later. My minivan sold, my taxes complete, my house soon to be rented. A job well done. A success.
The flight back to Taiwan was arduous. I was stuck between a boisterous gaggle of high schoolers from Redland, an orchestra of witty bantering kids touring Tokyo for a concert. I’ve always been very comfortable with this age group, but was somewhat turned off by their rambling antics. My movie player didn’t work and the turbulence was rough, so instead I made conversation across the aisle with a Navy Medical Pilot named Hastings who dazzled me with stories of being stationed in Kuwait and Afghanistan. He had pictures of helicopters and rifles and barren deserts on his laptop and we talked almost the entire flight about his life, how he was from the small town of Brookings, how his sister was getting married, how he’d worked eight months straight, seven days a week without a break and how he needed time away to think about his experiences.
“Twenty three days of leave is a lifetime,” he said. “Sometimes you need time away to gain perspective on what’s important.”
I agreed completely.
I felt like after a nine hour flight I knew that man inside and out. I heard about his high school girlfriend who broke his heart, his father’s medical condition, even drunken stories about his buddies in the pictures posing with their shirts off playing football in the sun and sand. It made me think of the periphery again. How we can fall so deep into the minutia of life, get so distracted by family and friends and circumstance that sometimes it’s best to just stand on the sidelines and watch and think.
Like my sister Lisa’s goats.
I drive out with my Dad to the place at the edge of the Colton field where he dumps the bodies. Here the coyotes can find them and drag them off into the dense trees, and I stand here looking out with the mountains and forest at my back, looking out toward my parents home and the long road that has taken me here. Lisa says her reason for buying the goats in the first place started simply with a field of grass too big to cut. She didn’t want to ask my Dad to come down the hill with his little truck and big tractor so she bought the goats to do the job instead. But the field was too big and they frolicked too much and had to be castrated, which due to the grass diet caused enormous gall stones they couldn’t pass due to the castration which led to aneurisms, and so now she has the problem of dead goats. And what do you do with a dead goat anyway? Well, you ask your Dad to come down the hill to haul it away in his little truck, that’s what you do.
Full circle, I think, chasing our tails once again, and sometimes I wish I could just erase this logic of the world from my mind, just erase everything I have ever seen or learned, just start over completely. Is there truth in that? Standing there at the edge of the field as my Dad tosses their lifeless bodies against a stump.
“Come on,” he says, “Let’s go eat some pancakes. My treat.”
“Yeah, pancakes.” I agree. “That sounds about right.”

Monday, March 9, 2009

Click

What is it about visiting historic places that just bring out the amateur filmmaker in all of us? Grinning boys on Great Hall steps giving the thumbs up in front of Dad’s crouching with their Minoltas barking orders to stand still. Couples in matching sweatshirts throwing peace signs in front of flashing tripods. It seems everywhere I go these days, somebody is taking a picture. Last week I even saw one man filming about five minutes of the Taiwanese National flag flapping in the wind about fifty meters up in the sky.
How do I know it was five minutes?
Because I took his picture.
You see, lately I’ve become fascinated with snapping photos of people who are in famous places taking pictures of what they believe to be memorable. I love watching their victims pose. Everyone does it, but just slightly different. Some are naturals, dropping it like it’s hot into some sexy smile, others are shy, just wanting the picture to be over so they can blend back into the scenery. Most people will willingly pose in groups of other like-minded people shoulder to shoulder if you just ask them to, “Scrunch together,” and almost anyone will take your picture if you just hand them a camera and smile. Yet the granddaddy of them all is the ‘Famous Landmark.’ There is rarely a person in the world who doesn’t like having their picture taken in front of the Acropolis, or St. Basil’s Cathedral, or the Eiffel Tower, just to say, “Yep, been there done that.”
It instills great individual pride and sense of accomplishment. We may not have built the place, had anything to do with the design, scrounged up funds to have it constructed, or even been the guy on the plaque which sits on the bench dedicated to just sitting and watching the famous place. But we had our picture taken there.
I understand. I’ve been that guy most my life, but not anymore. I’m striking back.
I had this thought last weekend while visiting the Chaing Kai Shek Memorial Park in downtown Taipei. You see, I’d been there before, and I don’t remember a thing, and it got me wondering why?
Three days after graduating high school in 1988, I traveled to Asia on a touring basketball team. We made stops in Japan, Hong Kong, the Philippines, Taiwan, and the gem of the trip, the People’s Republic of China. This was a year before the Tiananmen Massacre, when every aspect of our itinerary was written on a special visa card inserted into our passports. Our hotel name, which university or club we were playing, what restaurants we’d be eating at, all recorded prior to our visit. Very official, the kind of things one would need to remember and keep in perfect order.
The gymnasiums in China were extraordinarily, more like barns with cement walls for sidelines. Our white legs and blond hair created quite a stir, and crowds gathered five to ten people deep in all spots, standing three feet onto the actual court. You would reach for a loose ball going out of bounds and come up with a spectator’s leg, or worse, a kick to the face. Really.
In one particular game the floor was a parquet surface of tiles, like the old Boston Garden, with potholes in it. You’d be dribbling and Whoop! The ball would sink into this divot and you’d be running the other way. What?
We won every game but one, all of them blowouts.
The one we lost was in Taiwan, our first game. We played a National Youth Team in this splendid sports center high up on a hill overlooking the city. They had the first 7-footer I’d ever played against, and we ran with them for a while, but jet lag took its toll and we lost by a couple of points. The defeat is insignificant now because the experience was just so incredible, trading t-shirts at mid court afterward with smiles and handshakes. It was a great memory.
There were other aspects I’ll never forget too.
How the Chinese soaked their food in water which gave us all terrible stomach cramps, or how one night the power was cut in the city of Guangzhou and didn’t come on until the morning. How I survived that week in China on a jar of Jiffy peanut butter I bought in Hong Kong, and how on our last night we visited ‘Snake Alley’ and watched a mongoose in a cage fight a cobra and win. Afterward a man exanguinated the snake and auctioned off the blood to this old man who drank it out of a bowl.
It was intense, and for an eighteen year old, I mean, how do you forget that, right?
Yet when I returned home and developed my film, my mother told me to write the names of all the players on the back of my photographs else one day I would forget them.
“Ah Mom, how could I not remember my teammate’s names? We just went through this life changing event together?
But sure enough it happened. Now almost twenty years later, of the twenty five boys and girls on that trip, I can only remember a few first names. Funny how that happens.
One place I took pictures of was our first big tourist stop in Taipei, The Chaing Kai Shek Memorial Park. I remember we had been wearing U.S.A. team apparel for a while, but here we got to wear our own clothes. We toured the grounds, snapping pictures of massive pavilions and long gardens. It was a bright day, sunglasses and wind. I remember thinking, I’ll probably never come back here. Why would I? This is a once in a lifetime trip? The memory stops there.
Well, last weekend I returned, and it was amazing how much I still couldn’t recall. It was a National Holiday, and a huge stage was arranged with singers of all kinds and crowds standing and crossing their chests and sitting down and waving flags. It was quite a sight. Yet as I closed my eyes and thought back, it was a complete blank. I couldn’t remember how many assists I had in that first game, what was the name of that girl I had a crush on, or even what I said to anyone while walking those amazing grounds. Why is that? How is it that I can remember certain things and not others?
I can remember with exact detail the excruciating moments of Xi’an’s cesarean birth, yet of the twenty-four hours of labor before, I recall only tidbits. Equally, I can recount the memory of crashing my first car just five days after my Dad turned over the keys. Yet that icy night, hanging out in Kara Ward’s living room watching movies, I couldn’t for the life of me describe. So why is it that only the life threatening, life impacting, the life altering moments are burned deep in our memory banks and not a running tally of the mundane. Ninety-nine percent of my life is spent making grilled cheese sandwiches, and looking out bookstore windows watching leaves fall, and catching my daughters as they dive off the side of the pool, and nothing and everything else. These are no great memories, are they? In time will I forget they ever existed? Will they just blend into one memory of raising my daughters or standing in a foreign kitchen or rolling a car on black ice? I don’t know.
That’s why I’ve been taking pictures of people taking pictures of the mundane and thinking it is somehow profound, that it matters, that they will remember, that it will be everlasting. Maybe that’s the trick, just live like you are in a pose and someone is pointing a camera at you. Just click! Now you see me, now you don’t. Click. Our memories are what define us. Click. There is meaning in this simple act. Click. Take a picture of me, I’ll want to remember this someday. Click.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Taipei 101 Building

Lately a battle of wits has been brewing between me and my eldest daughter who turns five in May. Xi’an naturally considers herself an adult, but I still think of her as my little princess in diapers. Time for Daddy to wake up and smell the Hannah Montana, right? Xi’an can cut pictures out of magazines with scissors and tape them to her wall, warm up her soy milk in the microwave, and make DVDs with running commentary, most notably this last weekend on a three day trip north to Taiwan’s capital city of Taipei. She packed her bag full of skirts and jewelry and a kimono she insists on wearing each night to bed. It reminds me of when I first knew I was in trouble raising girls. This was very early on in parenthood, Xi’an was about a year and a half, and I was trying to put her in jeans and a t-shirt.
“I want the pink one.”
“But the green one looks good too.”
“I SAID THE PINK ONE!”
Her voice peeled off my eyebrows.
“That’s good Daddy.” She patted me on the head as I handed them to her. “That’s good.”
So this weekend was no different. We took the HSR to Taipei. At 238 kph it was an incredibly smooth ride. Xi’an insisted on a window seat to make movies, turning the camera on herself. “This is the Bullet Train, we’re going quick as snot.” (I swear I didn’t teach her that)
Arriving in Taipei, we taxied to our hotel, the United, with its zebra skinned hallways and marble interior, a strange choice for a family vacation. Taipei was stunning though, a thoroughly modern city with subways, high rises, and a cool feel to the people. I was not stared at or beckoned to act like an American. Rather, I blended in, a good sign for a thriving metropolis.
Of course, Xi’an immediately started exercising her new independence, wanting to take NASA capsule rides in the elevator.
“Daddy, you stay here in the lobby. I’m going up to see Halmoni and Haraboji (Korean grandfather and grandmother).
“Ah, no elevator by yourself.”
“I’m a big girl. Don’t worry about me.”
“I know, but I’m worried about all the crazy people. You’re delicious looking and they may want to eat you up.”
Xi’an blew a raspberry. “Daddy, if they catch me I’ll scream.” And she let out a piercing bestial wail, like the world’s loudest air raid siren scratching on a dry chalk board with rusty fingernails. Even the cab drivers on the street smoking cigarettes cringed.
“Fine,” I said, when my hearing returned. “But I’ll go with you.”
“Okay.”
As the doors closed and the elevator went up , I watched my daughter hit the buttons, stopping on the wrong floor and popping her head out, “That’s not it, huh?” before making it to the correct destination. I kept thinking -look at my little girl growing up. She’s five going on twenty-five. She won’t be my little girl much longer.
That afternoon we hit Taipei 101, currently the world’s tallest building. From the ground looking up we crane our necks into the sky.
“We’re going all the way up there, kids.”
“We’re going to need parachutes.”
“No, nobody will jump.”
“That’s okay Daddy, don’t be scared,” Xi’an smiles. “I’ll take your hand.”
And that’s good, because of all the things to freak me out, snakes, rats, sharks, cock roaches, creepy basements, and thunder booms on stormy nights, the only thing that really wobbles my legs are heights. That’s when I need somebody’s hand most, to steady me when I look down.
Luckily when the doors opened on the 89th floor and we stepped out into the round observatory deck, the pinnacle was covered in fog. It was like looking out the sliding glass window in an Oregon early spring. Can’t even see the end of the porch.
Yet to my dismay Xi’an was an immediate torrent. Running to the ledge and hopping up against the gray view. Pushing her face on the window and making enormous “blowfish” faces. A security guard shouted. Tourists gasped. Embarrassed and suddenly in the spotlight, I called out to her, but she only smiled back at me and continued banging with her fists on the glass. I imagined her cracking the pane, her falling into the clouds, and me being frozen stiff, stuck in the elevator, my shoes stuck in cement. I had to move. I had to get her down, yet why was I so afraid? My legs shaking as I broke out into a cold sweat.
That morning over breakfast we’d been arguing over the buffet.
“Xi’an, nobody puts pepper on their toast.”
My little daughter scowls and curls up her lip.
“And nobody puts salt in their orange juice.”
Again a little growl as she puts the condiments down. We stare into one another’s eyes and she picks up an ear of corn. (Yes, this is China, they have ears of corn for breakfast. I know, Asia… amazing, right?) She starts gobbling like a lawn mower, little yellow nuggets sparking off like metal grinding on metal. She puts the first one down, long as her arm, in record time, then grabs another.
“Xi’an honey, how about giving Daddy a bite?”
Glaring lids peer over fresh garden produce. “I suppose, but only a small one.”
I take the ear from her and nibble a small, mouse sized bite. This elates her to no end. She is smiling magnanimously. Then I go in for the kill, opening my mouth in a wide fake bite. Xi’an lets out a howling cry. Storming from the table to stomp all the way across to the other side of the restaurant where she plops down with her back to me, arms crossed. Ordinarily, this would elicit an immediate, “Go directly to jail” card, but it was just so silly I couldn’t help but laugh. Xi’an saw her opening and struck back, walking all the way back to the table and picking up the fresh ear of corn, laying it on the floor, and jumping on it.
“Put that back on the table.”
“No.”
Me: Silently pointing with a big, ugly stern face.
“No.”
“If you think I’m afraid of giving you a spanking in front of the hundred or so people in this room, think again.”
That did it, but what if she had called my bluff?
It was only later when I sat her in my lap, when I used the whisper voice, that special Daddy voice, that I was able to make it better. Yet that was after she and I had both calmed down, and I’d read her a copy of Silverstein’s ‘If the World Were Crazy’ and about ‘little Peggy Ann McKay’. Such work. Isn’t it? Between zipping up her own jacket and getting towels to wipe up split juice to ballet class pirouettes and tripping over imaginary lines on the floor, I am raising these daughters for better or worse. Yet I never knew how isolating the experience of parenthood could actually be. There are just so many moments of individual frustration and self-perseverance. Am I doing this right? What is the right balance between fostering self-discipline and rule following? When should I step in and when should I allow them the autonomy to work out problems on their own? Ultimately, I’ve learned parenthood is a search into the deep questions of belief and the unresolved issues of your past. What demons do you carry from your own childhood? What insecurities and feelings did you never overcome, because most certainly they come out when forced, literally force to parent, nurture, love, discipline, scold, and raise a child.
These real fears never stay locked up long, they open wide and stare you in the face. For me, my biggest is not this fear of heights. I was able to make it to the ledge, posed for pictures, and even sent a postcard or two. The real fear is watching my little girls grow up, quick as an elevator door opening and closing, in a blink of an eye, they won’t be mine anymore, and that thought scares me to death. And you know, at some point, these tall buildings are all the same: Empire State, Space Needle, Kuala Lumpur Twin Towers, once you stand at a certain height, everything down below looks lost in the fog. Cars are ants, the hotel a blip, the stadium a round dime, the memorial hall you’ll visit the next day just spoonful of sand, even the mountains in the distance, you gain perspective on everything. Looking down on people is different because they’re ever changing, growing, and no one’s future is ever set. Just as there is a tallest one today, later there will be another. That’s why people climbing is always more fun. That’s what parenting is really, climbing up and down inside others, inside yourself, crawling around, getting back on top and enjoying the view.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Hartenstein Luck

My first thought today when the car hit me was, “Yep. I just broke my arm. I wonder how I’m supposed to say that in Chinese?” I was about two miles from the apartment, jogging on my usual route past the Fine Arts Museum and the Indian restaurant with the geckos that remind me of Singapore, when I turned a corner, darted between two parked cars, and was sideswiped by an oncoming vehicle.
It was a good run. I’d had one of those great days where everything was rolling my way. I’d finished yet another chapter in my book, had a great conversation with a friend from home, and had been to the post office where I’d mailed off two letters. SungJoo had the girls, they were checking out a new ballet studio, and so I thought I’d get my run in early. It was a perfect plan to end a perfect day. Funny random detail, at the moment of impact I had the Beastie Boys in my iPod and the line, “I got a girl in the castle and one in the pagoda, I got more rhymes than Abe Vigoda.” Then BAM! Swept off my feet, I was slammed forearm first into the windshield and bounced back onto the asphalt into a barrel roll which scraped my legs up into hamburger.
Don’t worry. It wasn’t as bad as it sounds. Just threw the fear of God into me a little.
The driver was in worse shape than me. Panting and sweating and clutching his chest, I thought he was going to have a heart attack. I imagine it’s one thing to hit a Taiwanese national, but another entirely to plow into a half naked American tourist who seemed to fall out of the sky. He was very apologetic, dusting me off and offering me a cigarette to calm us both down.
I declined, but lit his as he was shaking too violently to hold the lighter straight.
It was then I wished there was some ancient customary law, like if someone almost killed you but failed, they had to be your slave for a year (or at least your Taiwanese butler). Oh the things I would have made that guy do. Watch my kids on a Sunday afternoon so I could catch a matinee, hang out in the kitchen at night and heat up one-year-old Lauren’s nightly 3 a.m. bottle of milk, drive the minivan into all parking garages from now on while I stand on the curb drinking coffee and directing traffic. But alas, no such luck. I rubbed some dirt on my shins and pumped my fist a couple of times to see if my arm needed amputation. Nope. Perfect health. Lucky once again. The driver and I shook hands and parted, him to smoke another cigarette and me continuing to jog on down the sidewalk. When I got back to the apartment my Korean in-laws were livid. Why didn’t you get the license number? You could call the police? Collect a big payment? But that’s not really American style is it? But then, what is?
My American style can be summed up in two words: Hartenstein Luck.
Anybody who knows me knows there is this cosmic force in control of all Hartensteins at all times. It’s a term coined by my brother Grant, a guy no stranger to monumental triumphs and subsequent disasters. Nothing normal ever really seems to happen to us. It’s always one end of the spectrum or another, either incredibly good or extremely bad. Examples? Sure: An Official track lane screw up costs me a Medal my junior year, but I come back and win State the next. Travel by train through Russia, I get stranded in Siberia. The birth of my first child resulted with an emergency caesarian that saves Xi’an’s life. Even the best teaching day of my life, the night my sophomores performed our Shakespeare One Acts, ended with me being rushed to the Emergency Room with Labyrinthitis of the inner ear.
I guess it’s just something I’ve come to expect. My friends call it “un-luck,” you know, “The opposite of good fortune.” But I’ll never admit to this. (Psst… I don’t want to piss off the cosmic forces)
Later that night, when the day was over and the girls were in bed and the lights in the apartment were off and I finally laid down to rest, I started thinking about all the plans I have left for my life, how I’ve only begun to see the world, only begun to live my life. How I made it yet again by the skin of my teeth, and that thought fills me over and over with joy. Then the real truth hits me, harder than any screeching car slamming my body against the windshield. I made it to live another day. Yet again I made it. Who needs good luck or bad luck or crazy cosmic forces? I have something better. Tomorrow. That’s all I need. Tomorrow, I'll take my chances with that.