Sunday, July 26, 2009

The Birth of Cool

My kid brother Grant has always been my hero. Strange that I would look up to someone younger than me but that’s always been the case. Grant never got in trouble. Never induced a behind closed door, two hour lecture from my mother because he forgot to carry water for the horses or snuck the car out on a Saturday night without asking to cruise 82nd with girls. Grant’s grades never dipped below red warning lines, he had solid and dependable friends, and was quick with a hammer or shovel or pitchfork or whatever the job needed, and he did it with a smile. As a boy he was neither spanked with a hand or lashed by a belt, and learned from an early age to keep his mouth shut. Talking back landed you in hot water in our house. Grant knew better to remain silent and appear a fool than to open his mouth and remove all doubt.
I was just the opposite. Yet standing on the side now watching him all my life, I’ve studied my younger brother closer than any other human being I’ve ever met.
Grant was a basketball prodigy: a State Champion, KATU Athlete of the Month, Oregon Single A Player of the Year. I remember watching him as a 3rd grader in his first eligible year of pee-wee league. His games were always on Saturday mornings in the Estacada gym and mom would drive us to in the family station wagon for moral support. Four eight minute running quarters, no pressing in the backcourt, Grant would come out with his bright red moppy hair and little white chicken legs popping out of those 80’s short-shorts and just bring down the house, dribbling behind his back, through his legs, hanging in the air through the lane, causing a gasp in the crowd. Most of the other boys in the league just wanted to make sure their shoe laces were tied or their jerseys not on backward, but Grant was scoring 20 a game. Afterward we would drive home along the forest lined highway and no one would say anything to me. I was stuck playing behind a coach’s kid whose dad made sure his son played every minute and took all the big shots. Compared to my younger brother, I seemed like a dud, one of those ACME bombs in Road Runner cartoons that falls hard to the ground but wouldn’t go off. It was my mom who detonated it though, asking with baited breath, “Grant, how does it feel out there on the court, running past all those other boys as if that ball were on a string connected to your hand. You must feel like the king of the world?”
But Grant remained silent, unaffected by the praise. Week after week my mother would ask him again and again, finally once saying, “But aren’t you afraid of those giant boys, swatting at you like branches of a tree as you fly to the basket?”
Grant only spoke once. I remember it clear as day from the backseat.
“No, mom,” he grinned coolly, “Those big guys are afraid of me.”
Grant’s basketball prowess made me work harder than anything I’d ever tried. Ball handling drills on the cement basement floor. Summer Hoops Camps. Monday night open gyms. Year after year. Drill after drill. So by the time I dressed down for varsity as a sophomore, I felt my first taste of sibling vindication. But it was always based on fear. I knew that whatever I did, it would never compare to my younger brother. He was the one with real talent, the one people would drive miles just to watch play. It burned inside me, living in his shadow, not because I was jealous, or thought I wouldn’t become something more than Grant Hartenstein’s brother. In fact, it was the opposite. It was a fear I would never become anything at all. That I would grow up and live forever in that small town, living my small life, living forever with the hope that someday I would get out and start my real life, that I would see the world, afraid it would never come true.
Growing up in the 80’s in rural Colton or “Cow-Town” as we called it then, was at times akin to growing up stuck in the hairiest armpit of the dark side of the moon. Culturally, it was a wasteland: Boys strutted in their acid washed Levis with back pocket chew rings and faded lettermen jackets, driving souped-up Mustangs and Cameros or their dad’s trucks with the gun racks and 8-tracks, sipping Big Gulps and hanging out blasting Billy’s Idol and Squire at the Y-Drive in neighboring town Molalla with its Buckaroo Rodeo and White Stallion Tavern. They shotgunned Bud in a can and took dips of Copenhagen and Skoal they’d drip-spit slowly into Coca-Cola bottles while trying to make wrestling weight in the back row of Mr. Sullivan’s typing class as he droned on and on about tracking Bigfoot or just to piss off health teacher Ms. Vuckavitch, who creeped out the girls with the way she would stare at them breathing slightly through her mouth. Young girls wore riding boots, “crap-kickers,” they’d call them proudly, with their boyfriend’s green and gold football jersey tucked neatly into their skin tight Jordace jeans. They proudly wore scrunchies, banana clips, and colorful feathered earrings dangling down while shaking their butts around in an aerosol mist of big bangs and hairspray you didn’t want to get close to with a Bic lighter. Mullets were popping up: short on top, party out the back. Muscle shirts and Guns N Roses. Jocks in neon spandex shorts and dweebs taking apart Rubic’s Cubes next to floppy disks and paddles for Pong and Atari. Fluorescent Miami Vice T-shirts beneath suit coats and Top Gun bomber jackets with the patches of faraway airports stitched to the sleeves. Everyone thinking they were the coolest person in the room, trying to fast dance to Foreigner’s Juke Box Hero and Kenny Loggin’s Danger Zone after the Homecoming game against the Scio Loggers and waiting for Lionel Richie’s Say you, Say me or Phil Collin’s Against All Odds to end the night slow dancing, moving our feet in a circle six inches away from partners we hoped would let us drive up Goat Mountain and park beneath the Douglas Firs to see and feel and know what second and third base was really like.
Into this vortex my Cow-town classmates were all thrown kicking and screaming.
“When I get outta here I’m going to buy a Kawasaki 800."
“When I get outta here I’m going to paint the town red. You know they’ve got line dancing in Oregon City on Friday nights.”
“Me? I’m never getting outta here. I’m going to settle right behind my parent’s house. You too Brian, our kids will play little league together and we’ll raise horses and fish on the Clackamas. What do you think?”
“Yeah, man. The 90’s are going to rock!”
These were the words of classmates and old girlfriends and boys I knew since the first day I walked into school.
Some tried to be different, tried to find an identity that was not crushed in the mills pulling green chain or punching a card at the cannery sorting yellow zucchini and green beans.
These were the oddballs, the misfits, the scourers of thrift stores for trench coats and mismatched socks, broken jewelry and knock-off polyester. The small minority of classmates who abhorred phrases like “Gag me with a spoon” and “Don’t have a cow, man” and instead opted for the ache of Morrisey lyrics and the melancholy wailings of Echo and the Bunnyman and Orchestral Movements in the Dark.
Oh, believe me, it was dark alright, and like the Apostle Paul laments, I was the chiefest among sinners.
It was about this time I began listening to jazz. It started as a way to combat the creepy balance of hearing Girlfriend in a coma in one ear and Like a Virgin in the other. I didn’t know anything about the genre at first. I had played clarinet in middle school, a hand-me-down from my woodwind defeated stage bound sister Lisa, and knew vaguely of Bennie Goodman’s existence, but that was it. So when I found The Birth of Cool by Miles Davis in a Value Village cassette bin and popped it into my tape deck, I didn’t know what to expect. I remember putting on oversized headphones and closing my eyes and having my world redefined. Sonorous off beat notes. Baffling riffs. Long sustained tremors of unnatural sound. I was keenly aware that this music was not written just for me, that it was not meant to save me or redefine my life, but that I had stumbled upon it, and now there was no turning back. It changed me. It made me believe that no matter what happened, good or bad, that there was another plateau that existed one could obtain and reach. From Miles Davis I reached out and found Count Basie’s Jumpin’ At The Woodside and Lester Leaps In which lead me to Big Bands like Artie Shaw’s Begin the Beguine and Glen Miller’s In The Mood which pushed me to more experimental sounds like Thelonious Monk’s Straight, No Chaser and Epistrophy and other artists like Django Reinhart and Charlie Christian, Charles Mingus and Sonny Rollins, Charlie Parker and my absolute favorite John Coltrane, whose Spirituality off Giant Steps still to this day rattles around in my head on a loop.
But it was Miles Davis who was first.
For the next few years of high school, as Grant and I battled under the backyard hoop, throwing elbows and body checking each other in games of one-on-one, The Birth of Cool was always playing. I would be upstairs in my room with eyes closed humming along and suddenly hear the ball slamming against the backboard attached to the garage. Grant was in the driveway shooting three pointers, and I would grab my shoes and before I knew it we’d be halfway into a game battling for brotherly supremacy.
The bruises and bloody lips and knee burns paid off.
The summer before my senior year I was selected to play on an East/West All-Star Team that would travel to Asia to play basketball the following year after I graduated. I was full of excitement. I entered my senior year full of anticipation. Grant, as a freshman, played alongside me on varsity. The year went well, we made the play-offs, but were crushed in our final game, my worst outing of the season. I remember standing in the locker room after the defeat, my high school career over, a pitiful performance that felt like someone had ripped open my heart. Grant was standing next to me and I whispered that I felt like I was going to cry.
It was something I would never say to another human being, something only one brother could whisper to another.
Grant, the ninth grader, took me hard by the arm and squeezed. “Don’t!” he said sternly under his breath. “If you cry, I’ll kick your butt.”
That was all it took. The whole ride back on the team bus from Philomath I listened to Davis on my walkman and stared out the window into the dark wheat fields that passed by. This wouldn’t be my last game after all. I was going to Asia. I would play in the Philippines and Taiwan, Hong Kong and China. There was another plain of existence. I was alright. I would survive.
Miles Davis was also playing three years later when Grant won the State Championship. The Colton Boys Team traveled to Pendleton and their games were played on the radio. I listened in my little college apartment each night on a small transistor plugged into the wall, pacing the room, punching pillows, kicking the walls and screaming with each missed shot or triumphant assist. After each game I would play another Davis soundtrack to calm myself down. By then I had moved on to Kind of Blue, Bitches Brew, and Sketches of Spain, amazing soundtracks of depth and intelligence. On the night of the championship game, Colton was down by one point when Grant was fouled with no time left on the clock. He calmly went to the line and sank two free-throws to win the game. Cool under pressure. The crowd erupted. Just like that little Estacada gym. As for me, I ran out across the dark George Fox campus screaming too, punching trees, waking up neighbors, honking my car horn, going crazy. Grant had done what I couldn’t. Yet there was no animosity. It was one of the happiest nights of my life.
The next night was Sunday and I drove back to Colton to see him. Mom was in the kitchen wearily washing dishes. We talked a spell. She looked exhausted from the ups and downs of three straight games, but her eyes were elated. Full of joy. I could almost feel the pride oozing out of her. I found Grant upstairs.
I knocked. I had never really knocked on Grant’s bedroom door before, but this time I did. I found him at his desk, sitting very quietly under a small reading lamp doing math homework. I wanted to pick him up off the ground. I wanted to cheer and scream for him, but instead found myself only in whispers. Grant said he couldn’t believe how quiet the Colton farm was. That he’d never really heard the stillness before. Three days of radio and newspaper interviews, cheerleaders and fans, faces howling in victory, and now this, the absolute vacuous silence of the Colton night. Where did it go? It was all over, wasn't it?
We sat there together and wondered what would happen when we got out of Colton and the future became real.
Years later Grant would talk to me about how deeply he was praying that night he won a State Championship. How only his relationship with God allowed him to have success as an athlete. In fact, over the years I’ve heard him say that many times and believe it completely. It’s funny now, almost twenty years later standing in the backyard of his Newberg house, tossing a football back and forth and wrestling with his boys while a couple of steaks slowly sizzle on the grill, that I still look at my younger brother as my hero. It was me that had the bigger life, for sure. I’ve slept on the Great Wall of China. I’ve crossed Russia by train and been stranded in Siberia. I’ve island hoped through the Pacific and jumped freight trains like a hobo through Oregon and Washington. I even represented our country on a basketball team throughout Asia. I’ll stack my adventures and life up against anybody. Yet, it’s still my kid brother I go to for advice, still think of him as the wise one, the best man I know.
I watch him from the rock wall beside the swingset in the corner of his backyard. Shaved head bald, the pounds starting to pack on a little, he closes the grill and smiles, waves at me to go deep, hitting me with a perfect nerfball spiral as he plops down in an easy chair by his wife Christi.
I smile too. It's a good view from this plateau. I'm Grant Hartenstein’s big brother. How cool is that.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Turning Japanese? I really think so!

People lately have been asking me what’s the deal with my girls flashing the peace sign in every picture and so I thought I’d give a quick answer. It snuck up on me too, quite subtly. The first time I saw it was on a field trip to the miniature Taiwan World with its model 101 Tower, Chaing Kai Shek Memorial Plaza and Martyr’s Shrine. Xi’an and Rebekah were standing in a group of other students in their blue and yellow school uniforms posing. You know the Asian tourist scene: Parents flashing hundreds of pictures noisily. Dads setting up tripods. Moms barking to squeeze in tighter in shrill Chinese. All the kids robotically shifting back and forth trancelike in front of some Disneyesque landmark with their two fingers propped beside painted smiles. It’s weird. You know it. I know it.
Yet that day both my girls were raising their two fingers in unisome with the others, smiling wide for the camera, looking for acceptance, fitting in, running to me afterwards and riding away on my back.
The whole time I was thinking. Whoa now, cool kids don’t flash V signs in photos. Oh no! Will raising my daughters in Asia make them cultural dorks later in America?
Not if you remember the source.
In the 1972 Winter Olympics in Sapporo, American skater Janet Lynn slipped and fell during her free style and landed hard on the ice. Spinning on her butt in embarrassment, she continued to smile, raising the two fingered V (victory) sign for the cameras before getting up and finishing her routine, placing 3rd. The Japanese, acknowledging her humiliation and admiring her spirit, quickly adopted the style. Afterwards, Lynn, a social activist, was repeatedly photographed flashing the sign for world peace, which spread wildly across Asia even to this day.
How cool is that?
So flash on V sign. Viva la V! And here’s to us dorks sliding on the ice.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The Jew-Mon Onion

I guess it’s no secret. I’m back in America now taking my summer break solo before the Taiwanese fall semester starts way too early in the middle of August. I made a list of things to accomplish while back in the States though: Sell my house, find a publisher for my book, visit family and friends, but of course I’ve become sidetracked, distracted by whimsy, befuddled by flights of fancy. Since being back I memorized the Edna (her friends drop the St. Vinnie) Millay poem “Recuerdo” and the Tom Wait’s song “Old Shoes.” I’ve re-upped my Multnomah Library card subscription and that to Blockbuster where I rented but did not watch, Wag the Dog. I drank coffee with Erika Nielsen, caught Carly Kavanaugh at Stumptown, saw The Hangover and Brother’s Bloom while trying to skype my daughters everyday at 3:30 p.m. before they head off to school and I run back and forth between the dunes at Pacific City, the wheat fields of Sauvie Island, and hiking trails around Mt. Hood.
My first stop was of course out to Colton to see my family. The air through the open window smelled so clean and they are all so worried about me. What am I doing here alone? Where are my girls? What is going on? They are so suspicious. I tell them bits and pieces, nothing they can’t figure out for themselves. Taiwan was meant to save things. Now they walk on egg shells around me. They try to keep it light. Me too. No need worrying people unnecessarily. We trade stories about things that happened in the past, the regurgitation of inside jokes that keep relationships alive: The time Dad fell off the roof of the gazebo and nearly sliced open his neck; magic shows I used to perform as a kid with cape and wand; how my nephew Trent is obsessed with Star Wars. You know, the ups and downs of American family mythology.
My brother and sister sense I have lost something and are quick to tell me their own stories of despair, things in the past that haunt them still. Forbidden actions. Costly mistakes. The under fabric of lives that pretty pieces of cloth so richly try to conceal by color and design above. The patchwork triage of interconnected stories we hold onto as if legends of creation and afterlife. It’s amazing the family secrets we keep in this life, that we bury inside ourselves, especially those we keep for the sake of others.
I’ve been keeping secrets for years. Yet those close to me would say I’m the one to tell when you want everyone to know, that Brian tells everyone everything, but that’s only half true. I’m also the one to tell when you want the legend to live.
Case in point: the Jew-Mon Onion.
It was an inside job all along. It started with a fellow English teacher across the hall named Shuttleworth. A kindred spirit, actually, Derek used to teach Of Mice and Men through recollections of sailing with his dad. He spoke of Dead Reckoning and Celestial Navigation and how George and Lennie were each other’s polar axis and all the while telling stories of his father at sea. I loved him. We all did. He’d been hired the year before me and he was as fine a teacher as you’d ever hope to meet.
So of course we pranked him.
I had mostly freshmen then. A motley crew of boys that would stand around my desk every morning climbing over one another to be heard. There was Geoffrey Nudelman with his jokes about Cortez and speculations on the Blazers, Shawn Arnt sticking playing cards in the ceiling like throwing stars, Jeremy Hillyer nibbling bland rice cakes and sprouting creepy facial hair, Andrew McCullum looking mournfully at the floor and mumbling World War II trivia, Patrick Harris screaming along to Def Leopard on his iPod, Alex Dubov fiddling with the school’s remote control and giving me the latest on Manny and the Sox, and then Simon Simoncini would arrive flopping his hair off his shoulders and break down the Middle East peace talk in terms of Harry Potter characters and that’s about the time I would step into the hall for a breath of fresh air.
This is also the year I had Max Werner and Chris Tillett in class. Two boys I could never, and will never, forget. Chris was a white Mormon kid going for his Eagle Scout and Black Belt. Max, a brown skinned Jewish boy slash closet writer, who loved wrestling and had no ambition in life except he didn’t want to sell bagels. They’d known each other all their lives. Been on camping trips together, shared the same Tae Kwon Do instructors, loved dressing up in black face paint and terrorizing neighbor kids on Halloween together, basically blood brothers who could finish each other’s sentences. It was a Bromance plain and simple. They even had a nickname: the Jew-Mon Onion. Self-ascribed after an evening of epiphany and entrées at Outback Steak House in which, in their words, “We realized our friendship was layered over and over again with adventures and stories and inside jokes, but at the center were our underlying differences.” Max was a Jew and Chris was a Mormon. Hence, with Australian cuisine to guide them, an unbreakable alliance was formed.
It was Max who missed out on the Shuttleworth prank.
His replacement was Simon Simoncini, a worthy adversary, no doubt, but as you will see, Max Werner did get the final laugh.
The Shuttleworth prank played out like this: One day Chris and Simon dressed up like ninjas in all black. Hoods. Sleeves. Pants. Socks. Only their eyes could be seen. Their mission was to leave my class during all-school advisory, sneak undetected into Shuttleworth’s class full of students, and steal a Hamlet skull off his desk, unnoticed.
Was it a suicidal kamikaze mission?
I don’t know.
Should I have just allowed them to commit ritualistic seppuku instead?
We’re these two young men, these budding warriors, up for this impossible task?
Probably not.
But was it necessary to try?
Since Derek Shuttleworth was a kindred spirit, and since Columbine still played heavily on all of our minds, I tipped him off. Calling his class just as the boys slipped out my window and made their way shimming against the outer wall toward his room dressed in sneaky 13th century Japanese assassin garb, alerting him that indeed, he was about to be attacked by two 9th grade ninjas.
He acted accordingly, meeting the boys at the door with an All League wrestler who just happened to be there that day. A row ensued, and my ninjas put up one heck of a fight. But in the end, Tillett scampered out the window unscathed, while Simoncini played sacrificial lamb, being dragged down the hall by his hide and dumped back in my class. It was amazing hijinks really. Taxpayers always complain that teachers get their summers off, that the only reason they go into this profession is for the long break, you know, the whole, “Those that can’t do anything else… teach” malarkey. But the truth is, that the best of us, the ones that really understand the job, we know to treat school like summer vacation every day. And so when my ninjas returned, battered, beaten, bruised, with carpet burned hands and paper cut lips, unfurling the Hamlet skull from beneath busted ribs, all I could say was, “Well done, lads.”
Their response?
“When can we do it again?”
Of course, what happened next is part of Sunset legend.
Shuttleworth, realizing his highly prized Hamlet skull was missing, planned a counter attack, waiting two weeks later until my advisory was playing kickball against the notorious Kristen Carter’s equally motley 9th grade advisory out on the softball field. He entered my class and systematically stacked every desk, chair, stool, bookshelf, and table, into a massive bonfire type pile in the middle of my room stacked all the way floor to ceiling. We returned hooting and hollering, victorious on the pitch, to absolute shock and chagrin. Our classroom, our den, our home had been hit. It was utter chaos.
What could be done?
Should we retaliate immediately or wait patiently for our revenge?
Should we plot out a course of action or as Hamlet says, “Take arms against a sea of trouble…?” Well, we acted of course.
I chose a skeleton crew. Nimble and spry 9th grade boys with names like Emch and Dolejs, Dubov and Ballard, Fey and Dingler to run to my car in the senior student section. Oh, they broke school rules that day, and it was a dark afternoon indeed, but the Hartenstein reputation was at stake. I gave them my car keys and they scooted past security on their golf carts sipping Starbuck’s lattes to take the jack and tire iron from my trunk. Then they proceeded to Shuttleworth’s Honda Element parked neatly in the faculty area in front of the school.
It was stealth.
It was an amazing feat of ninja prowess.
It required me writing fake late passes and bribing staff members who shall remain nameless.
They hoisted up that Element, ripped off the back tire, rolled it all the way across the campus to hide it in my trunk, and left Shuttleworth’s Honda hiked up and jacked like a stripped down Buick on cinder blocks chopped up and sold for parts.
It was beautiful.
It was the kind of day that every high school kid dreams of having.
A once in a lifetime school day where anything is possible. Better than a snow cancelation, more relaxing than an afternoon assembly, more powerful than a guest lecturer. It was a day in which they won, for doing nothing more than exercising their right as a juvenile to mess with authority and for once, just for once, come out on top.
Thank God for that day, as it was my best day as a teacher ever.
The following morning we were still basking in the glow. Word had passed through the school via MySpace that we were not to be trifled with. It was glorious. Radiant smiles. Boisterous voices. Yet there was one student who seemed out of sorts.
Max Werner should have been there.
He had done nothing wrong. In fact, he’d been exemplary. He had just missed that day, the best day, the one day to dress up as a ninja and take on the world. He would have been perfect for it, but it wasn’t meant to be.
Did he blame me? No. But he took out a revenge nonetheless, pouring orange Fanta into my coffee pot before school and waiting to watch me take that first sip. All the boys knew. They had seen him. Only I was now on the outside, and I was glad, spewing bitter black Joe and sweet orange soda all over the desk.
My classroom full of young 9th grade pirates and scalawags erupted in nervous laughter. These young lost boys, clamoring over one another to get to me, to be seen by me, to have me ask them a question and listen intently, to have someone reach out to them and know them as people, as individuals, to talk to them by name and remember everything they said and wrote and joked about, to reference it for years and keep our conversations and friendships and relationships alive because I would never forget who they were or what they did or what thoughts they had. We had something. We still do. We are forever linked through this time. It was important. It was our secret yes, hidden beneath layers and layers of other stories and events. Yet it was written. It was decided long before any of us knew it would matter. Written longer before we would meet years later and laugh because so much had happened since then and we would forget and have to replay for memories sake. We were on to bigger and better things now. Now, all these years later I need their stories more than ever to keep me going. Chris leaving for his Mormon Mission in Utah. Max returning from a year in Israel to begin pre-med studies at Portland State. Lives of profound truth, humor, and ultimate destruction were now stripped away and clear in our sights.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Winner's Circle

The two boys crouching in front of me are identically dressed. Baggy nylon shorts cut just at the knees. One in Carolina blue. The other in Celtic green. Both in oversized t-shirts hiked up and tucked down elastic waistbands in the back. Both with headlines, one reading: “NIKE, Kiss my Airs,” and the other simply “LBJ MVP.” They are wearing headbands, their chests heaving in anticipation, tiny beads of sweat forming on their foreheads. They lower into defense stances and check the ball in.
I am in flip-flops and khaki cotton shorts, shirtless and drenched in a lathered wetness in the blistering Taiwanese afternoon heat. It is typhoon season and the humidity is thick as a steaming bowl of wonton. A crowd has gathered around the little public court next to a Taoist temple tucked neatly behind a high rise tenement and rows of shops. Faces stare. Fingers point. Camera phones flash. Young boys sit on one another’s laps and quickly text into cell keypads. Bicycles propped against the stone gate glisten in the sun. Old men fan themselves with newspapers in the shade. A lazy dog beside a dripping faucet yawns.
I slap the ball at the top of the key, a make-shift oval above the wide trapezoid international lane. This American hasn’t lost in over an hour. Just holding court and taking all comers. I started with two college kids in a game of twenty-one: two point baskets, one point free throws, land on thirteen go back to zero, then a father and son in matching glasses, then five on five with a group of middle schoolers, then one-on-one with every high school kid who’d ever seen an AND 1 mixed tape, trying to cross me up and break my ankles but nothing, absolutely nothing doing.
Now finally the ringers have been called in.
They arrived on the backs of motor scooters, already in their high tops, lobbing alley-oops off the backboard and throwing them down, then lapsing into elaborate handshakes and high-fives. “First you roll it, then you smoke it, then you fist bump, then you blow it up, come on, blow it up.” They chest bump and strut around the court like young demigods.
I pay them no mind, walk over and check on Lauren Kinu asleep soundly in the shade. Her face is peaceful, nibbling on her blanket safe in the stroller. She is becoming a toddler and barely fits in the carriage anymore. I touch her check when I hear I am being called.
“Hey… American, you play?”
I turn to the two boys at center court and I walk over and take the ball, kicking a pebble lodged deep between my thonged toes. They don’t know it yet. It will take the first three games to twenty-one before they show any real fear. But I own these guys.
After the game we shake hands like gentlemen and I pose for pictures.
I can tell it is a crushing defeat. They didn’t count on my physicality. I just know how to use my hips to push off or place an elbow to the back just so to make a rebound fall in my hands. They only looked at my face, the lines around my eyes and the lack of hair on my head and thought, this old guy’s got no game. That’s when I knew they were mine. I gave them the drop step, the fade away, the pull up in the lane, and the reverse. I caught them in the air with head fakes and leaners and lobs to myself off the glass. I even saved a cross-over for the final game point, dropping one kid to the asphalt, looking back at him before sinking the winning layup.
It was a clinic.
Just in time too. Kinu was up and looking around. I wished the boys well, said I’d be around another time for a re-match, and headed the back way home, laughing to myself that I’ve still got it, and maybe, just maybe, it never left.
It’s the American in me, I can’t help it. That brash, bragging, in your face, international tool that every country loves to hate but secretly hopes to someday join. The one that says our players are the best on the planet. The one that is disappointed when we don’t bring home the gold. The one that says soccer is not real football, and that our sports winners are world champs.
That’s life in the winner’s circle, and nothing will ever change that.
It doesn’t always translate though, like some switch I can turn on and off, and most of the time it backfires in my face. Take for example my learning Chinese. After six months I have given up. I am an awful student, just atrocious. I try to say, “Please give me bread” but say, “Please lick the toilet” instead. I can’t figure out the Taiwanese alphabet. My pronunciation sounds like my mouth is full of rocks. And the one phrase I can count on “I don’t have,” (May-yo) gets me in more trouble than it’s worth.
“Do you have any children?” Uh cornstalks…? May-yo?
So I’ve thrown in the white flag. I surrender. Yet is this part of the American spirit? What happened to my “can-do” attitude? What would I say to a student who wanted to give up? Would I say, yeah, Chinese grammar, are you kidding me, I quit too?
No. But it reminds me how leveled the playing field really is. That I can’t just force my way to fluency. It takes time, years even, to develop a skill. I remember teaching at Dong-Eui University in Korea and my students, very sharp, very adept, would often ask me how their English compared to native speakers. I would look at them honestly, assessing flaws but with compassion.
“You’re about at the same level as my niece, who is five years old.”
Their faces would fall to the floor. I never meant to hurt anyone’s feelings. It was intended as encouragement, but I also wanted them to know whose language was number one. Now the sneaker is on the other foot, and for the first time in my American life, I am seeing the importance of interacting with Chinese as not just a location to visit, to marvel at the Sichuan valley or camp atop the Great Wall, but to speak this native tongue, to learn their tricks, to hedge, to give full court presses to verb conjugation and box-out vocabulary terms, to get through this rookie year and survive.
It’s not as easy as it sounds. I’m constantly on the losing end. Standing in the café pointing at menu pictures, counting out coins aloud in the post office while the other patrons roll their eyes, repeating myself over and over in taxi cabs then finally handing the driver a piece of paper with the directions inscribed. My butt has been kicked thoroughly by Chinese language. Yet still I come back for more. The American in me cannot be completely knocked out. Knocked down, yes, but never out.
Case in point: Chinese Names for NBA Teams! (I know, I’m on a bit of a basketball kick lately)
Recently it was American play-off basketball which meant I got to watch a couple of middle of the night games on the ESPN Taiwan. At first I tried translating the names of teams for fun, but I was very quickly corrected of my errored ways.
So here goes. (Literal translations of Chinese NBA teams in italics)
This year in the NBA play offs Western Conference you had the Los Angeles Lakers (People Living in the Lake) against the Utah Jazz (Earth Music). This was followed by the Portland Trailblazers (the First Openers of Business in Barren Land) against the Houston Rockets (the Flaming Arrows). The next match up was the San Antonio Spurs (Poking Horse) taking on the Dallas Mavericks (Small Cows), completed by the Denver Nuggets (the Gold Chunks) fighting hard against the New Orleans Hornets (the Yellow Bees).
That’s nice, don’t you think?
The Eastern Conference also had their share of difficult translations. The Cleveland Cavaliers (the Night Riders) took on the Detroit Pistons (the Life Cloggers). This was also followed by the Atlanta Hawks (the Old Birds of Prey) against the Miami Heat (the Hot Fire). The next match up was the Orlando Magic (the Magic Dogs) taking on the Philadelphia 76ers (the 76 People), concluded by the Boston Celtics (the People born in the Celtic Region) and the Chicago Bulls (the Office Cows or also know as, the Publically Traded Cows, depending on who you ask).
You can see how my head was spinning. This was only made worse by my Chinese friends inability to grasp why I thought these names were funny. They would shake their heads, point to the paper and consult others in a group who would scratch their chins and grimace. They would say, “This symbol means Los Angeles Lakers.”
“Yes, but translated literally doesn’t it also means ‘People living in the Lake’”?
They would consult one another again and answer yes. “But that is not how we say it.”
“But this way it is funny.”
They shake their heads no. “It is not funny. Why?”
I felt like those boys in the park showing up in NBA gear and getting beat by an old man twice their age in flip-flops because he knew the game in ways they could not. That his wisdom just exceeded theirs. This is part of the life though, isn’t it? If I am going to make my life here I must accept it, don’t I? I suppose that’s wisdom as well. But believe me, getting their butts beat was the best thing that could happen to those boys. They went back to the courts to practice. They stayed humble. Hungry. They’d be back on top again. With their mix-matched LeBron James shoes and Tar Heel Jerseys, texting Chinese into their Nokia phones and snapping pictures of us posing arm in arm after the game. A little bit of East and West. Staying true to ourselves. Learning to thrive. Winning by whatever means necessary.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Happy 4th of July

Sparklers and picnic spreads, hometown parades and fireworks over the lake, red fire trucks and backyard grass, warm summer breezes and corn right off the cob, curling up in blankets in the back of the truck and sipping lemonade, waiting for it to get dark. I miss you.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Asian Pastoral

“Perhaps by definition a neighborhood is the place to which a child spontaneously gives undivided attention; that’s the unfiltered way meaning comes to children, just flowing off the surface of things…About one another, we knew who had what kind of lunch in the bag in his locker and who ordered what on his hot dog at Syd’s; we knew one another’s every physical attribute- who walked pigeon-toed and who had breasts, who smelled of hair oil and who oversalivated when he spoke; we knew who among us was belligerent and who was friendly, who was smart and who was dumb; we knew whose mother had the accent and whose father was dead; somehow we even dimly grasped how every family’s different set of circumstances set each family a distinctive difficult human problem.” - Philip Roth, American Pastoral

Growing up on my parent’s farm in Colton I learned the things of boys. How to make bows and arrows from broken fishing poles and split cedar siding, how to stack hay on a trailer bed ten bales high, where to stand when my father burned the fields with gas and torch, and how to split wood with a hammer and wedge, what poison oak did to skin, how to tie barbed wire around a post made of steel, how to tell time by looking at shadows on the ground, and what to do when a pup falls in the well. These were the ways of Colton boys. Tractors on highways, poking cow pies with sticks, crouching over coyote tracks in the soft pasture grass and following them through hollowed out trails in the brush without fear, with nothing but bare hands reaching out in the darkness to guide me.
There was no neighborhood of my youth, only stretches of mountain roads beside farmsteads separated by distant fence lines and the blurry periphery of evergreens. I’m asked often where I grew up. What’s the name of my hometown? The faces looking back at me without pity or curiosity, only hoping it is something like Chicago or Seattle or Boston or some city to which there is a legacy famous enough to stretch across the ocean. When I describe Colton Oregon, the village of Colton, with its white steepled churches and local owned market and little telephone company building and grange, the faces do not blink. I describe the new post office and how the middle school burned down and the one red blinking traffic light where the two logging roads come together, but the listening faces do not change. In Korea, they called me “country boy” and that I am “solitude.” In Taiwan they ask if I am afraid of silence and wonder what it is like to dig hands in earth that is my own.
I show them. I hold up my hands. I am not afraid to be touched by strangers. I say, “This is what I know.”
It is more than I ever learned in school. Colton elementary with its red bricks and wide fields opened my first year of kindergarten. My grade was the last in the one room school house along Dooghie Road. At this new building there was dedicated staff, and multi-purpose rooms between classrooms assembled by grade. In the library a geranium sat with turtles and cornsnakes and birds whose wings had been clipped. There was a backyard playground with tetherball and monkey bars and two sets of semi-truck tires buried halfway in the barkchips, big enough to kiss in after a game of Truth or Dare. We were drilled cursive in Mrs. Puttnam’s 3rd grade class and buried time capsules in Bert St. Clair’s 5th. There were fire drills and dodge ball games and a rope hanging from the gym ceiling we climbed all the way to the rafters without a spotter.
And there were boys. Always in Colton, wherever you went, there were boys.
Playground bullies and Indian burns, atomic wedgies and two for flinching. I remember Mr. Saul kept a long wooden paddle hanging by his classroom door. He let his victims sign it at the end of the year. These were hard boys, with names like Bo Shaiffer and Jimbo Small . Boys that would never be broken, boys with bad cut into them so deep it could never be driven out. Boys destined to spend their lives behind bars. We could see it. We all could. It was in the way Miss Kramer threw up her hands and ordered all of us to put our heads on the desks for the rest of the day after Archie Williams threw paint at the wall, or when substitute teacher Ms. Leonard sent us to recess then buried her face in the top drawer to drown out her moaning tears after Jody Dixon called her a whore. We knew it then. We all saw it then. This was our upbringing, our education, our indoctrination into the world.
We knew one another so well. Despite those little farm houses sitting so lonely and far apart, in the classrooms at school, in the very rows of desks sitting with our yellow pencils and pink erasers in boxes and our gym shoes tucked neatly into cubbies, it was then we discovered one another, even at that early age. We saw each other for what we truly were. We were marked by Colton, by this place, and it has forever stayed with us.
I remember in vain trying to find the lives of my classmates in the textbooks we read in school, but they were never there. Instead we poured over stories of Jewish children lighting menorahs in Brooklyn and black boys growing up in Harlem without parks and trees, and little Asian girls befriending their grandmothers in San Francisco and finding a culture in black and white photos hidden in boxes. Stories of urban jungles and running in gangs and what it was like to come to this country and not speak a word of English. Yet not one story was about the boys or girls I knew. Not one story was about the hard boys I grew up around that broke my heart and made me want to run away forever from that place. To not become like them, to open my hands to the world instead of closing my fingers tightly in fists of rage.
Now, all these years later, I think about my little daughters growing up here in Taiwan, fully immersed in the Chinese educational system: Uniforms with insignias, neatly stacked shoes by the classroom door, washing their rice dishes and chopsticks after lunch in the little sink, and kowtowing as the teacher enters the room. Rebekah has begun to memorize a 13th century poem in Mandarian, and Xi’an has already given a speech to parents in a rote memorized pigeon English taught by her diminutive teacher. They exercise in circled unisome with paper fans and bow their heads slightly when saying they are sorry for bumping another child on the jungle gym. Was uprooting and bringing them here a mistake? What neighborhood have my children entered? What will they remember and idealize from this time? Will they find a place to call their own? Can Taiwan ever be a home?
I think back to what I learned on the farm, the angst of those slow summer days. Why look back now? I can never go back, just as the boys of my childhood are but a memory too. Yet I long for them. In the same ways I would watch clouds roll by in the blue sky and call out shapes, tracing the outlines with my fingers. There's a ship with sails. There's a dragon breathing fire. My children will know this when they are older. When their lives begin to take shape. When they look at their hands, and see what they have learned.