Friday, December 31, 2010

Breakfast in Taipei

After another long flight into the night, we arrived in Taipei and crashed at a downtown hotel, awaking to chilled wind and the 101 Building out the window.
The girls got a quick soak and a scrub... and Dad brewed some hot chocolate, then we headed out for some grub. Nothing says morning like hot skin and winter weather.
Taipei is cool. Modern and run down, electric buzz and secret alleyway. There is always something to catch your eye.
I don't really know what Taiwan food is... I know many people say Taiwan is famous for food, but I have a completely different opinion. Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, Chinese, Thai... now these countries make great food, but Taiwan...? I've never tasted anything that is authentic. It's sort of a disappointment, but one thing that isn't... Dimsum!
Always yummy in the tummy, huh Bekah?
Steamed right before your eyes and brought to the table piping hot! It was the perfect dish to get us ready for another night of travel....
And where are we headed... you ask? Well, west of course.

Dinner in Tokyo

Arrived in Narita with time to spare. Slurped some noodles, snapped secret photos of awesome Japanese fashion, kneeled over some very low lying bathroom sinks, had a relay race in an abandoned wing, played UNO with a cosmetics lady, order two plates of dumplings, and almost fell asleep in a theraputic massage chair.
The flight was a breeze, kids slept most of the way. I try to explain to my daughters just how fortunate they are, that we are leading this amazing life. Jet travel, cool locations, collecting stamps in passports, sitting next to the translator from Narobi chatting about zebras or the Italian nun who is reading a book on Copernicus . What a life.
Of course, my daughters are so cool. We spend so much time just giggling. On the flight, I battled Xian in Super Mario on her new Nintendo DS. It's the first time I've played any kind of video game in years.
But sleeping on an airplane is not easy, and we all awoke many times dehydrated, freezing, with sore aching limbs of legs fallen asleep and arms numb or tingling.
But that's all part of the show, and as we exit the plane, my girls grab their backpacks and head through the exit. Watching them walk, I just feel so silly and proud.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The Dead Cow Caper at Lisa's Farm

Here are the facts: Big Sis Lisa was watching my kids as I ran over to the storage unit to go though all my junk, and while they were there, one of the cows, couldn't rightly tell if it was T-Bone or Rib-Eye, (yep... that's them cow's names...) but one of them fell over in the lean-to and couldn't get up.
The Vet was called, an older gentlemen out of Woodburn. He came right over and knew exactly what to do. Rolled the calf around in straw, gave it water in a pan, and wrapped an old blue tarp over to keep it warm. He said it was the chickens that hurt the cow worst. Spiteful creatures. They saw an imperfection on his hoof and constantly pecked away at it until it drew blood and then an infection, brough the cow to it's knees. Then they began pecking at his eyes. People do that too, don't they. Kick somebody when they're down. Chickens and humans, some horror show, huh?
When I got back Jeff was headed over to the feed store and Lisa was on and off the phone and nobody wants that little calf to die. Nobody... but it just life on a farm, some would say. You get into this same conversation with people a lot in life, mostly with those who grew up out in the country, who have this profound sense of the fragile balance of life and death. City folk don't get it. Hardly even consider when biting into their chicken cordon bleu or steak marinade, that this was somebody's pet, that this animal was cared for and loved. In this case, my nephew Nate, who sat worried gazing out the window as the logging trucks rolled by... well, he did for a moment, then he went back to playing with his dinosaurs. It was the day after Christmas mind you.
You know, while I have been sitting in Taiwan for the past two years looking at American as if it were a shaken-up snow globe, loving this country and defending it to people who say we're dried up, past our prime, on the downward slide, just a bunch of dead weight... reading stories about families living in their parent's garage celebrating Christmas ... differently... this year, foreclosures, lay-offs, inflation, bailouts to rich corporation, back door politics, and the jobless rate, oh dear God, can't we find jobs for people...?
Well, I was sort of nervous to return.
I remember coming home from the road abroad back in the Clinton years. I was a young kid then, a passport full of stamps, Chinese Great Wall dust on my boots, and treasures stretching from Spain to Japan in my pack ready to be unwrapped and given to those I love. When I had left America just after the first Gulf War, my hometown of Colton Oregon had seen some hard times. Houses looked beat down, farms were in decline, uncertainty was everywhere, but for some reason, coming home a couple of years later, there was an optimism that was as palpable as the loving smell of fresh cut grass or bucked hay. There were new cars and boats in people's front yards. Fences were painted, and later that year Christmas lights shone like beacons on old country roads.
But not now.
People are barely getting by. People are scraping. People are living with cupboards bare. It humbles you. Gets you low. Makes you want to work even harder. There ain't no give up, in us Americans. Just, well, more of a profound sense of 'get it done.'
So as I watched my sister Lisa, who I love and admire, and her husband Jeff and kids go about their life, and later that day hanging with Grant and Christi and the boys, I just am reminded again, that the greatest asset this country has is not the companies or banks or corporations or government. It's not the laws or founding fathers or the little brief history we have as a nation we hold so dear.
It's the people.
People are what make America great.
And we may be down, sure. It's a tough time. But I have such faith in the American people I know and love. I just do. I believe in us. That will never change. So thank you, America. It was a fun trip home. You reminded me again what it means to be one of you. To never give up. To make your mistakes and take your lumps. To forgive. To let go. To rise up and bring others with you. To love. To cherish. To help those who are less fortunate. To be true to yourself. To make others feel the same.
I'll carry that back with me over the sea. That message to people. I promise. I might be an American living abroad, but I'm just the same as you, and I won't let you down.

A Quiet Little Corner Booth in Back of the Virginia Cafe

Caught up with old friend Steve Fuller last night and sat in the back of the Virginia Cafe in downtown Portland and got to the bottom of things. It's good when you've know someone for over twenty years and even though you haven't seen them in a while you can sit right down and pick up the conversation where ya left off. Friendship over time, there's nothing like it.
And Steve's still got it, that's for sure. We laughed, of course, about our kids and our jobs and the strange places we find ourselves in at middle age, but also, a new profound sense of what it will mean to move into the next stage of life.
Portland was beautiful that night. Quiet and still. Lights in the shadows. Chilled air. Nobody around. Everything you'd ever want a hometown city to be. Thanks for a great trip home, everyone. Peace.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Snow Angels and Hot Chocolate at Mt. Hood

Mom's peach cobbler, crisp diner bacon, white t-shirts right out of the dryer, ordering the perfect pizza, Sports Center and American cable with a remote, driver's that obey traffic rules, Scrabble wtih strangers in cafes, snow tubes...
Horse drawn carriages with jingle bells, folks stopping to chat at crosswalks, guy using the paint cans as a drum set, jack rabbits bouncing around in Christmas Tree farms, goosedown pillows, camping out in sleeping bags on living room floors, watching my daughter's eyes light up when the kid gets his tongue stuck on the cold flag pole in A Christmas Story...
Lisa's cinnamon rolls, sitting on my bedroom floor going through old boxes and laughing, vanilla flavored soy milk, popcorn out of Grant's old popper, pine needles crunching under tires, the taste of snow, wet pant legs warmed by fires...
Joe's Doughnuts in Sandy, the RC cafe in Estacada, walking along Milk Creek, stopping as a racoon family waddles across a gravel road, jogging over the Hawthorne bridge at dawn on a Friday morning, Christmas shopping at the Woodburn Outlet Mall and not freaking out...
Cracking jokes with short order cooks, extra whipped topping dripping off hot chocolate mugs, washing and drying dishes with my Mom, standing in the corner with my brother Grant talking about the solstice, breaking ornanments off the tree while showing my nephews light saber moves, making a Huck Finn blood pact never to tell a soul...
Chopping wood outside the barn, rummaging for snow chains and finding the old lantern, turning the snow globes over in Mom's pantry, listening to Xian read Matthew chapter 2 while sitting on my lap, driving country roads in silence, the girls asleep in the back, tumbled upon one another, heading out into the snow.

A Merry Little American Christmas

The day after Rock N Roll Romeo and Juliet, took the girls back to Portland for a little Christmas at Grammy's House in Colton. Stayed the first night just across from Pioneer Square in downtown. Feels nice to be home.
Nothing much changes... people are always the same. You can find my Dad out in the garage tinkering and my Mom in the kitchen making pies. Lisa and Jeff arrive early with homemade bread. Gillian is a teenager now... so you have to send a text to get her attention.
As always, Grammy goes all out with the gifts, and the grandchildren went nuts for Boba Fete helmets, awesome storybooks, and all kinds of little whirling and blipping gadgets.
And as always I can't sleep, choosing to wait until all the dishes are washed and the wrapping paper wadded up and tossed, and all the goodbyes and goodnights are kissed and hugged away, to wander out into the forest, to walk the property line right before sun-up, then watch the sunrise atop the roof.
We are here for just a couple of days, then back to Japan and Thailand, where we will do some beach combing, then return to Taiwan to finish the semester and another Shakespeare Performance. I know that for many of you, seeing these pictures only makes me seem farther away, and not closer, and for that please know that I carry you in my heart.
Love you all. Merry Christmas.
God Bless.

Friday, December 24, 2010

A Hard Day's Night

Ladies and Gentlemen, well… our play went off with only one minor glitch… the temple roof fell in during the Capulet Party… I know, what are you going to do. We’re still laughing about it. But I was so proud, the students didn’t miss a beat. Bad things happen in life, but you just have to keep going. Here Mark opens the play before the prologue.
“A Dog of the house of Capulet, moves me!” Yes, that is little Gilbert and Eric in my Vietnam hats… I have already started thinking about next year. I’ve never done Julius Caesar, maybe set in Saturday School… I could call it, the “Julius Caesar Club.”
The Capulet Girls dresses were donated by the head of the Parent Teacher Association, and I would like to take this time to thank her for all her hard work on building sets and arranging costumes. Well Done!
The Montague Family and Capulet Family get together to sing, "Saw Her Standing There."
Then later the Montague Boys sing, "She Loves You, Ya! Ya! Ya!
Romeo, played so brilliantly by William, and Juliet, inspired by Angela, meet and do the Holy Palmer's Kiss in Ancient Chinese verse at the Capulet Party.
We went round and round about this, Angela wanted to do it in English, but I felt this would be something that grounded us in our pursuit for beautiful language, and I am so happy it went off wonderfully.
Juliet takes a beating... and comes back.
The Capulets make their move... and leave their daughter alone in the world.
The Capulets sing Let It Be... more to follow in the coming days. Thank you so much to all who helped. Thank you so much and we will see you again for our second performance Jan 13.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Meat is Murder

(The following photos taken over two days of White Elephant Gift Exchanges)

Story out of Japan this week about an unemployed man who killed fourteen on the street with a sword, just a mind unraveled in debt and dread and wanted to take as many with him as he could. Another out of Taipei about a man who filled his car with gasoline canisters and committed suicide by driving into his child’s school. Then Sophia told me when I got to work this morning that last night she was awoken by a domestic dispute, a Taiwanese woman actually screaming the English words, “S.O.S.” out the window while her husband poured gasoline over his body and ran out into the street to light a match.
Good Lord.
Oh, my Good Lord.
This morning I was standing in the hallway with this boy named Marshall. He was frothing. Just seething and spitting with anger. Eyes rolled back into his head. Screaming at me, “You give me back my ping pong paddle or else…” and I recoiled. He was exactly like Gomer Pile from Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece, Full Metal Jacket, “This is my rifle. There are many like it but this one is mine.” I mean, it’s a moment of sheer intensity, and it’s just me and this kid standing in the hallway with a blinking Christmas tree between his shrieking rage and my absolute devotion to standing my ground.
Our eyes bulge.
Our fingers lock in fists.
Marshall is about to snap.
I’ve learned that so much of life is what you have absolutely no control over.
The job interview you pin your hopes to, but which has already been decided upon and meeting you is a mere formality.
The fault line hundreds of feet below your apartment that’s been spewing and gurgling for a thousand years and one day decided to crack and drop you into the abyss while you’re tossing an omelet in the air.
The strikingly beautiful woman you meet by chance in the coffee shop and have the conversation of your life with who promises to meet you again and while you are making reservations for a romantic dinner she is walking away texting ten different guys she’s banging about how they wouldn’t believe the dork she just escaped from by lying.
It’s the stuff you least expect.
The back channel deals. The behind closed door secrets.
It’s no wonder we snap.
No wonder we burn.
Marshall ain’t got nobody.
9th grader, just turned 15.
I’ve had hundreds of these kids and yet this one is different.
He is always in the mix, always stirring it up, sits in class and screams out profanities for fun. Tell him to stop he kicks over his desk. Tell him to sit back down he flips you off. Make a move toward him, he storms out into the hallways to cry. There’s no breaking a kid already broke.
He’s stunted and studdery, weepy eyed and weak as brittle grass.
The abuse this kid has suffered is mind numbing, and that is just from word of mouth among the staff members. There’s no file on this student. No collection of writings and solutions from past teachers to seek. I know his mom is a professor, divorced, but the Chinese teachers here just shake their heads, “Oh, it’s such a pity! Single parent child. Oh, the waste. He is a special case.”
“No,” I add. “He’s not. There are thousands of kids that come from divorced families that can thrive. They learn responsibility, courage, toughness. We don’t need to coddle this kid, and we have to stop making allowances for him. We have to hold him accountable.”
“Yes. Yes. Yes. We know you are right. But it’s such a pity.”
So nothing happens.
I know they are overwhelmed.
We all are.
There are so many Chinese parents that just refuse to face reality when there is obvious mental or psychological problems with their child. They just beat the kid instead. They avoid. The lock the disorder in a room and walk away.
And that is what happened to Marshall.
I’ve tried things. Things that don’t make sense. Stuff you’d never read in text books or manuals. Like the time I sat down and played him AC/DC and Black Sabbath and told him, “This is what you do when you’re angry. You listen to this.” Or the time I took him outside to shoot baskets and he talked my ear off about professional wrestlers. Or the time he was crying in the office because another boy clipped his eyebrow with a ping pong ball, yes, a ping pong ball, and he wanted a bandage.
He was being coddled. Cradled. And so I just got between him and the female teachers and started doing push-ups. Just a quick fifty, then stood up and said, “Sweat your tears.”
But nothing.
Just nothing.
So yesterday I’ve got him in the hall. I caught him bolting out the classroom door kicking other kids and screaming obscenities so that he could be the first to the basement to play ping pong during the break. I confiscated his paddle. (Wait… Dear Reader, would you please just pause here for a second to read that again… Yes, this is a fifteen year old kid who has just had his ping pong paddle confiscated… I know you think I am joking… I know many of you had social security cards at that age, a job, and a learner’s permit… I know.)
So now Marshall is shaking. Seething. Spitting. I mean his eyes have rolled back into his head and he is screaming at me, “You give me back my ping pong paddle…”
And all I can think about is how I am the only hope this kid has got, and neither of us ever stood a chance.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Tooth Fairies, Tom Sawyer, and Santas from Around the World

As the saying goes, “All I want for Christmas is…” which reminds me of some of the great Christmas karaoke lines of all time. Anybody remember the names of the eight reindeer? How about the horse’s name in Jingle Bells? What about this line, “Little tin horns, little toy drums, rooty toot toot and rummy tum tums” ? or this one, “A pair of hop along boots and a pistol that shoots is a wish for Barney and Ben...” ?
Well, if you don’t know, no shame, check the answers at the bottom. Tuck those beneath your pillow and see what dreams may come.
The following is an excerpt from a 9th Grade Persuasive Essay Unit. Huck Finn is a little much, and besides, I just love Tom Sawyer.

Students will watch the Mark Twain story: Tom Sawyer, about a young mythic boy whose parents have died and he goes to live with his aunt in a little town along the Mississippi. Tom is always in trouble, yet his struggles mirror the growing pains of America itself. What is the value of truth? Of morality? Of responsibility? Of doing the right thing? Why are we punished for following vain pursuits but rewarded for things that have little personal enjoyment? Students will identify subjects and themes from the story, research a modern context from these, and construct a persuasive essay arguing both sides of a thesis.

From random lecture notes in the margins of my journal: In China he is called "Shengdan Laoren," which is translated to 'Christmas Old Man.' In Italy he is "Babbo Natale," and children put out their shoes by the door to be fillwed with candy. In Russia he is known as "Grandfather Frost," and he is accompanied by "Snegurochka," his granddaughter. The two visit children and ask them to sing songs and recite poetry...
(Answers... a.) Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donder Blitzen. b.)Bob. c.) Santa Claus is Coming to Town. d.) It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas.)