Sunday, May 31, 2009

It's Grace Kelly, you dolt!

Correction: It's Grace Kelly not Ingrid Bergman. Grace Kelly is much better looking, I don't know how I got that one mixed up. I know, I'm an idiot. Thanks, Debbe.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Asian Men Are Cowboys

The man hanging 60 feet off the scaffolding is fully engulfed in flames. Yellow and red cracking sparks popping out his ears and shirt sleeves. He is barefoot, having just kicked off his flip-flops a moment ago to climb higher. The concert is tomorrow and the crew will be working through the night. I will hear their chatter and the clanking of hammers on rebar and in the morning the grass will be littered with bottles and paper lunch boxes and wooden planks, but there will be no trace of the man except for a circular pyre of ashen soot.
The man smoking a Marlboro on a scooter at a red traffic light is free falling from the sky. He hits his shirt pockets like a parachutist searching for the rip cord but nothing happens. Trousers. Socks. Under his hat. All are empty. His face is beaten and blown withered by wind. His voice is howling but lost in the vacuum. Turning, he bums a match off a buddy just as the light turns green and he slams to the ground. Impact.
The store owner who caught a rat in his bare hands is being buried alive. Brown soil showers down on his head as he crushes the vermin’s skull in his thick palm then holds up the lifeless carcass by the tail as the dirt reaches his shoulders. He is laughing as he goes under. A pink gummy smile, his teeth have all rotted away.
The man who falls asleep drunk on the park bench is encased in metal. Arm rails and seat slats slowly trickle around his legs and torso, wrapping his body in a cocoon as he scratches his toes and yawns. It is 6 o’clock in the morning and his belt is undone, necktie rolled up in his jacket pocket, a folded up newspaper serves as pillow. His pager goes off and from deep inside this metal bed it sounds like a muffled scream.
The hawker in the market who cuts the heads off live chickens has been turned into a tree. His cleaver a branch with blossoms, his hip-waders a mighty stump. There are knotholes bored from his eye sockets and leaves sprouting where once sat the smattering of blood. He smells of solid oak while the headless bird runs in circles around him until she trips on an exposed root and falls dead against the hard bark sinking into the ground.
The delivery truck driver is drowning in water. He makes stops along his route, but he is treading in rough seas. Pouring streams run from his nose. He is gasping and gulping and clearing his throat, coughing up puddles of liquidy blue. He is spinning in a whirlpool of salty surf down the drain. Stop after stop, honking in congested traffic, he makes a move cutting off a taxi and narrowly misses a city bus. Wiping sweat from his neck he mumbles, “Next time I might not be so lucky,” then checks the clipboard, flipping invoices as he is flushed out to sea.
I’ve always read where Asian men must adhere to so many societal rules of honor in their language and conduct. They must become master of their emotions because for all the hardships and trials of life, they are expected to act collectively but face the elements alone. This is true. I have witnessed this and seen it first hand. Over the years I have seen them. The old man sweeping leaves beside the temple with the straw broom. The drunken grandfather pissing alongside the parked car. The young boy flying down the highway on a motorcycle, his feet propped up on the steering wheel. The father stretching in the park, doing windmills and jumping jacks and crouching into a stance he holds forever.
If you speak to them they will listen. They will bow and move directly and with purpose. But when alone, they answer to no one but themselves.
Asian men are cowboys. But don’t tell them because they’ll resist the urge to shoot.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Chateau Resort: Kenting Beach

Buffet trays heated by candles overlooked the ocean and there was round the clock maid and room service, recreation rooms with miniature pool tables for little children with cues like Pinocchio noses long from telling fibs, little leaves hanging from the sides, and the man at the desk came to my room the first morning and connected my internet as I stood in flip flops with a fussy and shy Lauren Kinu clutching my shoulder. In the evening a lounge singer in surfer shorts hit the keys of his electric piano and sang George Michael’s Careless Whispers then threw pucca shells into the crowd. A man with brown, sun caked skin caught them in a water glass full of foamy beer.
There were children everywhere, like stepping into a swarm of bees. One fell from his chair while straining for a second slice of French toast and his mother, who wore a t-shirt with a giant pink heart above a caption reading: “My heart. My family. My dreams come true,” reached down and scooped up the screaming boy and rocked him in her lap for twenty minutes while her husband shoveled sword fish marinated in pineapple sauce into his dripping mouth with a machine gun fork. To my left another boy in a sailor’s outfit was falling asleep, his head bobbing up and down drowsily over a plate of coconut-fettuccini, and to my right a mother banging a stroller lodged in traffic, while her contented infant sucked the juice from a mango and squealed.
I squealed too. We were all squealing for something more.
Resort living is an acquired taste. We had stayed two nights and three days at the Chateau Hotel along gorgeous Kenting Beach on the southern most tip of Taiwan, and by our last night I was repeating the phrase over and over to myself while watching a group of young boys play virtual tennis on a Wii: we came, we saw, we were pampered.
The End!
We had arrived under a cloak of darkness, to my right the blood wine sea, to my left distant mountains and abyss. Yet by the light of day the landscaped changed drastically. Dirty palm trees and overgrown burial mounds of sharp grass, roadside vendors in surgical masks waving us toward his parked van and stacks of onions sealed in plastic bags. So many onions, who could buy them all? Then the stretches of nothing but dilapidated buildings of failed hotels and fountains and restaurants littering the highway and left to rust.
Only the Chateau seemed to thrive, while the others, the smaller villas and family owned motels were belly up and beached like reeking fish left to rot on that icky part of the stretch of sand that nobody wants to walk.
I’ve always been such a sucker for these places, these areas that slip through the grasp of the world. The corner where the trash is stacked. The off beaten path that leads to the cliff too dangerous to build a franchise cafĂ©. That’s where I’ve always chosen to be, to rest, to find myself. So when I arrive at these resorts, these posh fun spots of the not so rich and famous middle class, I just don’t know what to do. My girls bury me in sand up to my neck. I flip magazines while lounging on an adirondack. I blow up the inflatable seahorse and sit in the kiddie pool making sure no one drowns. Making sure that the smiles of my daughter’s are sufficiently wrapped wide and wild across their faces. These memories are for them, I know. But I have my fun too. I sink to the bottom of the shallow pool and swim silently around their pink legs with the theme song from JAWS da-da-ing in my head. I reach out and nibble them under the water and hear them howl and shriek from above as they try to run away. It’s muffled, but I know it’s a combination of terror and joy and silly fun. Daddy is a shark. Daddy is going to eat us. But then I rise up and sit with my legs crossed upon the bottom of the tiled floor. There is an announcement from the bikini clad director of activities. They are forming an adult limbo contest with one free cocktail to the right, to the left the children are assembling for the water polo, basketball shoot, obstacle course. All kids are winners, she says into a megaphone as the boys and girls line-up. Every single one of them is wearing goggles and a swim cap, smiling and standing perfectly in line, ready to take the plunge. All kids participating get free seashell necklaces, the woman says into the microphone, and I slowly drop down under the water, sinking until I am only a shadow. Then I kick against the wall and surge forward. My mouth is open, my teeth are barred. I am aiming for her legs. She does not see me coming.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Some Say The World Will End In Fire

I used to think air was free. As a country boy I would go for runs down the gravel road from the Colton house past the Madison ranch and Smith’s tree farm down to highway 211 where the logging trucks rumbled by and Milk Creek ran smooth against the rocks that snaked all the way to Estacada. Then back up Unger Road, sucking in evergreens and pine cones, a distant skunk or deer leaping into the brush, I would stop and catch my breath in the middle of the mountain road, just me and the yellow pencil shots of asphalt and look out at the horizon and snowy Mt. Hood and think, I’ve got to get out of this place, so far away that I almost forget it was once home. Air was not free then, the price I paid for breathing was the hurt I left behind.
I used to think that love was fair. This is because I took and gave it away so easily. The batting of eye lashes and sweet whispers in the dark, the exchange of hearts aflame, I thought that made us even, but I found out the cost. Nights alone. Hurting. Wondering why young promises could crush so cruel. Love was not fair because I fell harder than most.
I used to think that thoughts were finite. Roaming library stacks and squatting in aisles for hours, pondering and postulating and drawing conclusions. I knew that Truth was Beauty and Beauty was Truth and only the wise man knows he knows nothing for sure. Thoughts gave me fits because they were supposed to answer questions, but they only led to more. Thinking cost me my joy.
I used to think that afternoons were for fun. Swinging vines and ropes tires over creeks, shagging flies hit right off the tee, flying kites and sitting with my back up against hard bark sketching and reading and napping in the shade. Then I got old and numb and one day I became like the father who scoffs and throws the beans on the floor because he sent the boy off with the only cow and he returned with magic he refused to remember was real.
I used to think the future was my faith. I was a star gazer, a church pew kneeler, a palm reader. I looked to the signs with a watchful eye. Then I felt real betrayal and was reduced to ash. How do you recover from that? How do you breathe and love and think and smile and believe again when the world ends.
Well, silly, you don't.
But I never really wanted an ordinary life either. Did you?
So as for that fire and ice thing, both will suffice, and I'll be back when the world comes around again, and I won't be alone.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Enterovirus

The enterovirus hits Merryland Pre-School causing Xi'an's classes to be cancelled for a week. Similarly, the Moon Basin Apartment complex where we live issues a warning of infected residents to be wary of one another. Lauren Kinu comes down with strep throat and Rebekah bronchitis. What next? Locusts and famine? We decide to get out of the city, driving south four hours to Kenting Beach to lay out in the sun. Stay Tuned...

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

I Hear America Singing

“So it’s home again, and home again, America for me!
My heart is turning home again, and there I long to be,
In the land of youth and freedom beyond the ocean bars,
Where the air is full of sunlight and the flag is full of stars.”
-America for Me by Henry Van Dyke

I got an email this week about homesickness, and sure, I get it too. Moments of desperation where I just miss America STUFF. Voodoo Doughnuts down on Burnside, reading the Willamette Weekly over someone’s shoulder on the Max, garbage disposals, Netflix, eavesdropping on idle chatter in dark movie theaters, dill pickles, buttered popcorn, pick-up basketball games at the Bo Jackson Gym, coffee after art films at Cinema 21, my junk mail shredder, drive through pharmacies, and the smallness of Portland, bumping into acquaintances at the airport or Multnomah Falls or along the promenade at Canon Beach and the quaintness of our northwest American corner making us all feel like old friends.
In fact, that’s what I miss the most. The people. How do you replace loved ones when you’re far away? You don’t. You can’t.
I remember when I was young and in love for the first time, before the internet or instant messaging, living on my parent’s farm out in Colton when even telephoning town was a long distance call. Instead, I relied on letter writing, waiting days, even weeks some times to receive a reply from some wayward girl that had no idea how much she was torturing me. Those were the times I found writers so helpful, especially American writers. I would sit in the hayloft of the barn flipping through anthologies of Dickinson describing the Amherst Train and Holmes Old Ironsides. This is where I first read Sandburg’s Jazz Fantasia, and Hughes The Negro Speaks of Rivers, e.e. cummings Portrait VIII of Buffalo Bill and Thayer’s Casey at the Bat. But mostly, this is where I found Walt Whitman. Down the long winding gravel road through the Christmas Tree farms stretching from our house on the flat green grass and straw fields to the mail box along Unger Road, I would stroll and read. Finally I would cross the highway to sit beside a wooden fenced gate to pour through Leaves of Grass.
One of my favorite Whitman poems then was I Hear America Singing. His carols of the different personalities of our country forever changed how I saw the world: the mechanic, carpenter, mason, boatman, shoemaker, wood-cutter… “Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else…” It’s a moving portrait of what makes America great.
I was reminded of this on Mother’s Day when I couldn’t be with family and instead needed to get out of the house so I didn’t go bezerk. We took the girls by taxi to the ‘Building Country Market' across town. At least that’s how its name is translated in Chinese. It is a three to four square block area inside a run down and depleted building with vendors and shops encircling the outer rims. Here anything can be found. Fish hawkers shouting prices of fresh shark, swordfish, octopus, and live seahorse. Buddhist monks beating wooden drums and begging for change. The vegetable sellers, with their head scarves sitting beside plywood tables full of brilliant colored leaves, dirty carrots, and thirty different kinds of mushrooms. The meat packers, standing amid racks of hanging raw flesh beneath naked bulbs, or the poultry man in rubber boots spraying down his cutting area with a hose, smiling at me to take his picture, showing me he uses every part of the bird, nothing goes to waste.
There’s more, electric in smell and vibration. Vintage clothing shops, hand-made suits, cramped restaurants with old men slurping noodles and smiling children handling money in their parent’s massage parlor. I hold Xi’an and Rebekah tightly as we pass each store front.
“This is how they live. Look.” I would whisper. My girls are full of questions.
“Are we going to live this way too?”
“No, we’re just passing through.”
“Why?”
My answers never suffice. What I want to say is because we are Americans. Because we were born blessed and rich and that means my daughters will not have to work seventeen hour days slaving like their parents in sweatshops without the chance to go to school and try a different trade. Yet even writing that now sounds trite and erudite and makes me wince at myself. So I just hug them instead. Tell them Daddy would never let that happen.
Leaving I ask for clarification from SungJoo and she explains ‘Building Country Market’ means a kind of independence. This market has existed long before the city of Taichung came into being. It was on the backs of these people the city was formed.
We pile into the taxi and instantly hit the rush of traffic and the sweltering heat of asphalt and exhaust. The girls start coughing, they’ve been sick off and on since arriving in Taiwan. We think it’s the smoggy air. I hold Lauren Kinu in the backseat and start thinking again of Whitman and the different carols. All those faces in the market, I’m sure he would have seen them before.

“Oh, it’s home again, and home again, America for me!
I want a ship that’s westward bound to plough the rolling sea,
To the blessed Land of Room Enough beyond the ocean bars,
Where the air is full of sunlight and the flag is full of stars.”

Friday, May 8, 2009

Xi'an Turns Five!

So sure, your Daddy shows up and plays animal charades and makes your entire class pretend to be kangaroos and jumping frogs, but when was the last time you saw a goat in a cage? (See flickr pics toolbar to the left) Yes, Xi'an had her fifth birthday party at Merryland today complete with Hello Kitty candy bags and little rainbow heart necklaces for her best friends. Then we hit the Feng Chia University district for McDonald's French Fries where we came upon yet another goat. Xi'an said, "That's pretty amazing, huh Daddy?" As I passed her the camera. You too, kid.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

8 Bucks and the Streets of Taichung

There’s this line from Hitchcock’s Rear Window. Jimmy Stewart is all banged up and in a cast and wheelchair and he’s talking about his life and he sums it up so succinctly, “I’m this guy, unshaven with two week’s salary in the bank.” Now, I’m like twelve or thirteen the first time I saw that movie on a rainy Saturday afternoon on channel 12, one of many long Saturdays with the SORRY and MONOPOLY board laying on the floor and a half eaten grilled cheese on a plastic plate, snug in an afghan on the living room couch thinking, old Jimmy Stewart with his hew’s and haw’s has got it made, man. He takes pictures of race cars and charging rhinos and he’s got Grace Kelly coming to his apartment with picnic baskets and silken overnight garments and that’s the life, isn’t it? Well, I was twelve, what did I really know?
But that line has always stuck with me, “Unshaven with two week’s salary in the bank.” Man, I used to think that was cool.
So today I hit it. I pounded the pavement, out in the dry heat and the racing traffic with eight bucks in my pocket. Today I helped a woman pushing a stroller up on the curb and wrote a letter at the post office while standing in line. I crossed the grass to stand in the sun and watched two guys play catch with gloves, when the ball got past I struck out the one in a trucker hat after his buddy caught the foul tip on the first pitch. I bought a bag of three Fuji apples in the market, a ream of paper to finish printing all 341 pages, then returned back to the apartment where both my eldest girls have bronchitis. We play this adventure game where My Little Pony has been kidnapped from the Fisher Price Summer House and the two Barbies are called in to solve the case. Sure they have minor eating disorders and are not in the most giving relationships, but they’re cool under pressure, and carry wardrobe changes. My girls like that. We climb under the bed and in and out of the walk-in closet to ask the panda backpack advice and he sends us to the stuffed Barney that if you push his paw sings nursery rhymes, and… well, we get distracted here. Somehow we end up coloring a treasure map to find a bottle cap I buried in the park two weeks before with an acorn, and then it’s tickle ants on the bed, dinner, bath, story time and night night.
Then the house is quiet for the first time since 5 a.m., and I start thinking about Jimmy Stewart, and then, well ah shucks, I guess I can never be twelve years old again, huh?

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Happy Endings

I don’t know what’s weird anymore. My instincts are all shot to pieces. Sometimes I think it's all just one long bedtime story. I remember once about ten years ago while teaching in Korea, it was the last Sunday of summer break and the new semester at Dong-Eui University started the next day. I’d been growing my hair long, down to my shoulders and with the coming of the first day of school, I needed a cut badly. So I went to see my buddy Rolf Potts. He’d had long hair before and I figured knew what he was doing. Well, Rolf took out a pair of garden scissors and just sheared off my back bangs and in an instant I went from cool Kurt Cobain to dorky Little Dutch Boy.
“What the heck?”
“Sorry.”
“Urrr.”
So we went looking for professional help and the only place open that afternoon was this little underground shop with red, white, and blue spinning barbershop pole. Looked okay. They had a lobby inside, reclining leather chairs, big mirrors. Legit right? How was I to know it was a secret brothel? I mean, really?
A woman appeared from behind a curtain, middle aged, wild Eartha Kitt purring voice. She looked like a bronzed lioness with penciled in eye brows and a skirt that opened all the way up to her waist.
“Can you fix this, please.” I innocently plopped down in the chair and pointed at the uneven line of hair on the back of my head like Charlie Brown’s sweater.
“That’s all you want?” Her voice was like a breathy prank call in the middle of the night.
“Yes, thank you.” I’m very polite, and because I looked like a disheveled Little Lord Fauntleroy, she probably took pity on me and cut right to the chase.
“You… no want… happy ending?” She opened up her skirt to reveal a long thin leg and pair of banana yellow granny panties.
Now, I’ve been to a lot of places. I’m no prude, but prostitutes have always given me the instant heebie jeebies. “Urrr, a Happy what?” I said, shrinking into the chair like a frightened turtle.
Instantly the woman became irate. Hands on hips, ravenous scowl plastered on her face as she snapped shut her skirt. “What, you… cop?”
I looked behind me in the same way I instinctively do when people address me as ‘sir’ thinking I must be standing next to my Dad. I tried to explain, “No, seriously, look at me. I’m a teacher I need a haircut.” But the next thing I know the woman is hitting me with a broom and telling me to get out. I make it as far as the lobby where Rolf is getting the same treatment.
“No, I’m just waiting for my friend,” he tells a young girl in plunging neckline. “I don’t want to buy you a whiskey juice juice.”
“These two … cops,” one prostitute yells to the other. Suddenly, out of nowhere, an enormous dude in gold chains is standing in the doorway. He has fists the size of kimchi pots, and a neck and head that sat on his shoulders like a perfect square bolder. Now, forget the fact that it was absurd to think of Rolf, a lanky professor’s kid from Kansas and me, a skinny track runner with a hundred dollars in late fines still on his Clackamas County library card, could be undercover narcs in the Republic of South Korea. I mean, just suspend that logic for a second, because we were suddenly on the wrong end of an immediate Korean pimp beat down.
Instantly we start explaining.
Our mouths are flying. We’re laughing, yucking it up like a bad Abbot and Costello imitation. Miming out how Rolf sliced up the back of my head and oh…. You know, wacky Americans. They bought it, luckily. But Odd Job with the kimchi pot fists stood in the doorway while Eartha Kitt angrily fixed the back of my head. Then they booted us out, quick, and closed shop. Rolf and I standing on the street corner afterward looking at one another like we’d just been abducted by space aliens and returned battered and bruised to tell the tale.
The next day I let my students have it.
“You mean I’ve lived here five years and nobody even bothered to tell me these little ‘places’ existed?”
Oh, Teacher Brian,” my students laughed and laughed. “You so funny. Everybody knows what that spinning pole means.”
“No. No we didn’t. But I do now.”
So, fast forward to modern day, and I’m living in Taiwan and getting a bit bushy on top and needing yet another cut. There is a high priced salon next to our apartment with big open windows and I see people in there all the time getting legitimate haircuts. So I make an appointment for Saturday night at seven.
I show up. They escort me to a chair. I think, okay. My Chinese is really rough, but I can mime this one out. It’s just a haircut, right? How difficult could it be? Then they drop the book in my lap. You know the one, with the pictures of all the young and hip hairstyles. Suddenly I’m in free fall. Here are my options: I’ve got my assortment of anime styles: Dragonball Z, Akira, and Spike Spiegel. I’ve got my Japanese Rockers with the wavy 80’s Flock of Seagulls bangs, and of course there’s the Zack Ephron collection, which yeah, I can pull that one off. I close the book and put it on the table. A crowd has gathered around me. Five young girls in aprons with cupped hands around their lips giggling. They push this boy forward.
Effeminate with eye liner and black colored nails, doffing a cut off Madonna ‘Like a Virgin’ t-shirt, he wears pink lip gloss and has a voice like a young Michael Jackson on estrogen. “Ah… excuse me, may I give you a shampoo?”
Decision time, people. Yes, shampoo, I mean, a rinse, I guess… I’m stammering. Too late. Next thing I know the young boy takes me by the hand and leads me back behind the curtain to the showering area. I think, did he misunderstand me? Who gets a shampoo before the cut? Oh, here we go again. I sit in a chair and he leans me back over the sink and whispers in my ear. “It’s okay. I take good care of you.”
“Urrr.”
I’m biting a hole in my lip. My whole body is tense. I know nothing is going to happen, but then I feel hands on my temples, rubbing, then pulsating fingers across my cheeks and neck. I almost sit straight up. This is not a shampoo, this is a message. Oh no. What have I gotten myself into? I’m alone in this secluded room and strapped into a chair, with a scented cloth over my face. The next thing I feel is warm water being sprayed all across my hair and shampoo being applied, and then the gentle rubbing of my head. It’s okay. It’s just a shampoo, I tell myself, trying to relax. This will be a good story someday. You know, the kind that start off disastrously but turn out fine in the end. Everyone has a laugh, but you end up with scars that prove your guts.
The funny thing is I love haircuts because they put me to sleep. The clipping scissors, the electric razor buzz. It’s soothing. It’s like Eliot’s Prufrock, “Let us go then, you and I, when the evening is spread out against the sky. Like a patient etherized upon a table…”. A haircut can just knock me out.
It didn’t use to be this way.
As a boy I hated getting my hair cut. In my parent’s kitchen with the bright 1970’s yellow and orange wallpaper, Mom used to sit me on the big metal chair with two telephone books and literally bowl cut me into submission. I would throw a fit, naturally. Then she would tell me about the Indian Braves. The young boys who were sent out into the desert and tied to ant hills for days in the hot sun. How they weren’t allowed to squirm or cry out. How if they screamed or relented they weren’t accepted into the tribe.
“You don’t want to be an outcast, do you?” Mom would whisper in my ear. “You want to be a tough Indian Brave, right?”
What could I do, with that old school bowl cut and the little shavings of hair itching down my neck, I just had to endure it. I had to, or else.
The massage lasts almost twenty minutes. I check my watch after the second coating of conditioner just to be sure. After I’m finally rinsed, the boy tries toweling me off.
“No, it’s okay. I got it.” I grab the cloth from his hands and finish the job.
“Ooh!” He giggles softly. “Thank you, this way.” He takes my hand and leads me back to the hair cutting chair where the group of giggling girls is waiting. Scissors, blow dryer, brush, comb, clippers, the works. Now we’re talking. I slide gingerly into the chair and I am swiveled around to face the mirror. There are bright light bulbs in front of me, and two old women in curlers gossiping beneath dryer lamps. There is a window with the view of the park where I fly the panda kite with my daughters and snap pictures of old men playing chess. The street lamps suddenly flicker and turn on as if by magic with the coming of dusk. I am okay. I am smiling and passing dizzyingly off to sleep. Yawn. I’m ready for whatever comes next. Yawn. Oh, here come the clip, clip, clippers, and the buzz, buzz, buzzers.
“Now ladies,” I watch the giggling girls descend upon me like slow moving vultures through half open eyes, “Make me gorgeous, huh?”