Saturday, March 30, 2013

After the Earthquake! Silence. Sleep.

Hey Friends... thanks for all your kind emails about the earthquake... Yeah, I'll be honest, it was really scary.  I won't lie.  But everyone is okay.  The girls are okay.  Some of my friends had damage to their apartments including pretty serious tears in their walls and everybody lost a favorite coffee mug or two... but we've had worse.  Hopefully, not too much worse.
So... just wanted you to know I'm sleeping safe and sound... a big Easter Weekend approaches.  There's always a million reasons to keep smiling.  Love you all.  -B

White Rolls Royce on the Streets of Taichung

  Back in Taichung.  Back to the mosquitoes and the grime and smog and filth and confusion and apathy of Chinese thinking.  Back to this city that no one has ever heard of past an Ang Lee Oscar Speech.  Back to give it another go.  A new university job... new interests and loves... and then the walls almost came crashing down.
  Not that anyone really noticed, but the earthquake three days ago lasted a full minute of glass shattering terror.  About an hour afterward when my hands stopped shaking, I attempted to go outside for a run and that’s when things got even weirder.
  I put my key in the lock and it wouldn’t come out.  The key to the gaudy golden door with the locks from Germany mailed especially for the apartment owner with only one set. (Only in Asia would an apartment owner be vain enough to spend a thousand US dollars on a front door lock that if slightly broken would cause unbelievable hardship for his renter… all because he liked telling people how expensive his doorknob was…)
So for about fifteen minutes I twisted, jiggled, turned, pushed, and prayed… but the key wouldn’t come out.
  So I went back inside the apartment and threw my shoes against the wall for a good couple of minutes and tried again…no luck.  Key still stuck.  So I went back into the apartment and ripped off my shirt, (yes, like the Hulk) because by now even my sweat was angry (you won’t like my sweat when it is angry), wadded my shirt into a tiny little ball of aggravation, and threw that against the floor a couple hundred times until my arm was sore.  Then I tried the key again… still no luck.  So I went back inside and filled a tall glass of water and sat down and thought about it and came back and sprayed the lock with half a bottle of WD-40 and tried it again… yep, no luck. 
  This time I went back inside and sat on the floor and sulked for about ten minutes scratching the living daylights out of all the mosquito bites on my ankles and forearms and neck until I’d had enough.  This was life in Taichung.  I knew it.  I knew it.   What could I do?  So I just left the key in the lock and wet for a run.
  Now I’m out on the streets. Running past cars that purposefully swerve at me.  Dodging motorcycles barreling down sidewalks.  Jumping over old drunk men snoring on benches.  Sprinting past lines of little children in uniforms that scream at me and point…  “Bai pee-fu!  Bai pee-fu!”  and I don’t care because I’ve seen it all before.  Running is the greatest gift of my life.  To be able to still motor, at my age, when all the other people I know are cracked and broken down… to still be able to fly with my legs and arms and chest…  and then wham!  I step off a curb and run right in front of a speeding car.
  Not just any car.  A chariot!  A pristine, enormous white Rolls Royce.  Yes.  A Rolls Royce, complete with the Double RR hood ornament.  It might as well had a Richie Rich Dollar Sign painted on the front.  What in the world is this car doing on the dirty, filthy streets of Taichung.  It was like seeing a unicorn.  The driver, a woman in Gucci sunglasses barely able to see over the wheel, slammed on her brakes came within inches of crushing me, and I just laid there in the middle of the street, staring up at her, gasping for air. 
  Then she cursed me, ripped me up and down with every fowl Chinese word I’ve ever heard, and slowly, as if this sort of thing happened to her every day,  puttered away in first gear as I rose to my feet and stared in complete bewilderment.  
And I just continued on my jog as if nothing had happened. 

Sometimes I think,  it isn’t so much that “All Life is Suffering.”  Those Buddhists are kind of wimpy in their analysis.  I believe it’s more fatal, more like… every action or deed a person does or doesn’t do… causes irreparable damage and suffering to someone they least expect.  Someone they have no idea they are hurting by their action or non-action.  We are all just earthquakes in each other’s lives.  Raging in full blown terror or simmering set to explode, it’s no matter.  We just keep moving, leaving the people behind in our wake.

Oh… when I got back home, the key came out on the first turn.  Somebody up there must be laughing hysterically. 

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The Longitude Prize and The Man Who Made Time Travel

  Hoi An, Veitnam. Jan 10, 2013:
This morning we caught a flight out of Da Nang to Hanoi and then back to Taiwan. There's a new job waiting and a new life. The girls had such fun in Vietnam. I have to say, it was a gas!
One last Vietnam memory:  While riding bicycles through rice fields and chasing my girls through traditional markets, I came upon this little history paperback I rolled up and stuck in my back pocket and at night I would sit on the balcony overlooking the South China Sea and read by candle light.  The subject concerned the various mathematical geniuses all vying to claim the Longitude Prize of 1714.
You see, about three hundred years ago, almost everyone was a sailor or impacted mightily by the sea.  Ships crashed.  Men were lost.  Good and merchandise sunk to the bottom of the ocean.  All because men had no accurate way of measuring a ship’s true location.  Latitude was easy.  One could measure the height of the sun at noon or the height of the North Star above the horizon at night.  This showed how far north or south of the equator a ship was.  But longitude needed time.  Each day, as the earth rotates, it spins eastward 360 degrees or 15 degrees per hour.  At noon, if one had a fixed location, a home port, the distance east or west could be calculated.
But how could time be bottled?  And what was this fixed port?  There were no clocks stout enough to handle the rigors of a sea voyage  and certainly no clock accurate enough.  Thus, the British Parliament passed The Longitude Act, promising to pay 20,000 pounds of sterling (roughly 12 million dollars) to anyone who could create a “useful and practical method of measuring longitude.” 

Let the games begin…
The wackos came out of the woodwork.  Most these boys were sailors who claimed they’d seen mermaids so… One method was called the God Clock, which detailed measuring the moons orbit past certain stars.  Astronomers believed the sky a heavenly clock and the moon it’s minute hand. This later became known as the Lunar Distance Method.
Another was the TipToe Method created by a clergyman who plotted an imaginary set of lines in the sky stars would pass through each night, but since they moved so fast, one had to quickly move to your tippytoes to catch them.
Another was the Barking Dog Method.  In this, a sailor believed a dog had super powers and would know the exact moment his wounds were healed.  So a dog was cut and bled and taken on board a ship, and at certain times of the day, powder would be poured on the bloody bandages left behind.  Then the dog, far away on the ship, would bark, signaling the time. 
Yeah… these were great ideas for sure!
But it took a young boy named John Harrison to set everyone straight.  Harrison was a church bell ringer and carpenter who studied Newton in his evenings and put many of his ideas to test.  Over the course of his full life, he began to develop numerous clocks that could be taken to sea.  Of course, rivals disputed him, but he never gave up.  Until finally, as an old man, his own son took a clock 147 days all the way to Jamaica, swaddling the glass clock in a blanket like a child.  When the ship finally returned, it was only a minute and 54 seconds in error.  This should have been enough to win the Longitude Prize, but further rivals stepped in and claimed the clock was a fake.
Eventually as an old man, Harrison presents a final version of his clock, a small time piece in a sturdy box, to King George III in 1772, and is granted the remainder of the prize, which he shared with others.
I’m not sure why this book captured my attention so much.  I guess it’s because, I don’t ever want to give up.  Time won’t beat you if you never let it catch you.  Here’s to safe seas.  Keep sailing people and looking at stars!

Monday, March 25, 2013

Fifteen Rules For My Grown Up Daughters

  #15.  Ten Percent is Yours to Keep
This is about the truest advice anyone ever gave me.  Take your monthly salary, cut 10% off the top, and never spend it.  Ever.  Not to pay the electricity bill.  Not to get your car out of impound.  Not to bail your best friend out of jail.  Never touch it.  Ever.  You’ll thank me.
#14.  Never Slice a Bagel in Anger
I've got the scars to prove it.  Everybody does. 
#13.  If a boy can’t tie a tie, show him once.  After that, if he asks, find another boy.
This is the first dating advice I will give you.  Second is, nothing beats Monopoly on a Saturday night, but you already know that one. 
  #12.  Your Mom is Always Right

The answer will always be, “Yes, mom.”

#11.  Never Shake Hands with a Man while Sitting Down

I recently interviewed with a kid who didn’t tuck in his dress shirt.  It was appalling.  This rule is right up there with, “You can never be overdressed for an occasion,” and “Always say ‘Congratulations’ to the father of the bride.” 

#10.  Feed the Eagles, Stave the Turkeys

Priorities.  Always priorities.
  #9.  Never Cut Your Sisters Down in Public.  Ever.

We say it every day before I drop you at school:  Put love in your heart.  Always do what is right.  Never give up.  Be brave.  Having a sister means you’ll never be alone.

#8.  Diamonds, Credit Scores, and STDs are Forever

I’m just saying.  Don’t test me.

#7.  Beer is For Horses and Pissers

There’s a thousand ways to hold onto a night, but only one sure fire way to lose it. 
  #6.  The Best Breakfast Cereal is Hot Vegetable Soup

Preferably Vietnamese pho noodle soup.  It’s got everything: protein, veggies, vitamins, and it warms your body and the back of your throat.  Think differently.  Remember I brought you down these streets for a reason.

#5.  If You Tell a Boy You Won’t Kiss on the First Date, He’ll Expect You to Sleep with Him on the Second. 

Take this to the bank.  Boys are wolves.  Every last one.  Don’t give him a reason to think you’re a lamb.

#4.  Take a Flashlight to Bed.  The Best Childhood Memories are What You Do After Lights Out.

The world exists under your covers.
#3.  Memorize Broadway Show Tunes.  The Best Romances Will Always Be With Yourself.

Belt ‘em out with pride, girls!  Be a lover of lyrics and your heart won’t need to wander far.

#2.  If a Boy Tells You He Loves YOU, Punch Him in the Face.  What He Does in the Next Ten Seconds Will Be the Most Completely Honest He’ll Ever Be With YOU.

You’ll only need to ever do it once.

#1.  Your Father Always Knows Best

That goes without saying.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Just Like Little Dogs, Dylan Thomas Along the River Hoi An, Vietnam

 "We watched the boys returning from the oily sea; they shouted under the echoing arch, then their voices faded.  Soon there was not a couple in sight; the lovers had disappeared among the sandhills and were lying down there with broken tins and bottles of the summer past..."  -Thomas, Just Like Little Dogs

Jan 6, 2013:  Hoi An Vietnam, along the river.
All I can do is leave little traces at times.  Bread crumbs to be followed.  Little clues of a life being lived very well.
 "The two young men were statues smoking, tough-capped and collarless watchers and witnesses carved out of the stone of the blowing room where they stood at my side with nowhere to go, nothing to do, and all the raining, almost winter, night before them."  -Thomas, Just Like Little Dogs

Not that it matters, I know.  Except to serve my own vanity, that I'm being of use somehow to another.  That I serve some purpose for them.
 "I was twenty-six years old and I'd never been in love, and there I was, gawking at Norma in the middle of Tawe sands, too frightened to put my finger on her gloves."  -Thomas, Just Like Little Dogs

That in those moments, surrounded by such ecstasy and wonder, in elation of the senses, in spheres no one could ever comprehend, or in the oftentimes banal and mundane, when boredom is tyrannical, or even in the softest of sweet instances when the rush of ink and hands scatter thoughts... that's when I hope these traces are found. 
 "And I never felt more a part of the remote and overpressing world, or more full of love and arrogance and pity and humility..."  -Thomas, Just Like Little Dogs

Because in those moments, I am here.  I have always been here.
 "I don't want to be home, I don't want to sit by the fire.  I've got nothing to do when I'm in and I don't want to go to bed.  I like standing about like this with nothing to do, in the dark all by myself..."  -Thomas, Just Like Little Dogs

Today I sat by this little muddy river in the mystical village of Hoi An and listened to the rain beat down upon the archways and over the stone bridges and against the mustard stone walls the French left here centuries ago.  Rusted bicycle propped beneath a tree.  Ancient shutters tied with coiled string.  Canoes calm upon the river surface, their riders tucked neatly inside earthen caps. 
"All at once I remembered how cold it was.  I rubbed my numb hands together. Fancy standing all night in the cold.  Fancy listening.  I thought, to a long, unsatisfactory story in the frostbite night in a polar arch.  What happened then?  I asked."  -Thomas, Just Like Little Dogs

I pulled out a little Dylan Thomas then.  This old book I have in my memory banks.  I wonder if the Welshman left these stories just for me.  Little bread crumbs to follow and know that someone else understood, and that I wasn't alone in my love for this world.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Paul Simon Concert Taipei Taiwan 2013

"Home, where my thoughts escaping.  Home, where my musics playing.  Home, where my love lies waiting silently for me."  -Paul Simon, Homeward Bound

 It was just magic!  He started with "50 Ways to Leave Your Lover" and "Still Crazy," moving on to "Kodachrome" and "Hearts and Bones." 
"Take my arms that I might reach you... but my words, like silent raindrops fell..."  Paul Simon, The Sounds of Silence

This little man with a little voice who knows how to use it... Paul Simon is 73 years old, and he can still blow you away.
"The arc of a love affair, waiting to be restored..."  -Paul Simon, Hearts and Bones

Backed by this amazing multi-talented eight man band... all of whom played four to five instruments each during the near two hour set.  They were crazy!  Rolling through Elvis Presely and Chet Atkins covers, as well as a truly intimate George Harrison piece.  There was African chanting and zydeco and Southern Gospel... and of course... the songs I grew up on.
"He's a poor boy, empty as a pocket with nothing to lose."  -Paul Simon, Diamonds on the Soles of her Shoes

He played "Cecila" and "Diamonds on the Soles of her Shoes," and "Late in the Evening" and "Me and Julio," and "Mother and Child Reunion," and I couldn't help but to stand and cheer and sing a long too.
"First thing I remember when you came into my life I said I wanna get that girl no matter what I do..."  Paul Simon, Late in the Evening

 The concert was to promote his new album, "So Beautiful.  So What" which is lyrical and smooth and nostalgic ... but we came for the old stuff... as Simon called it, "The Old S&G."  And he didn't disappoint with "Homeward Bound," and especially my favorite song, "The Boxer," which has always meant so much to me.
"And he carries the reminders, of every glove that layed him down or cut him till he cried out in his anger and his shame, 'I am leaving.  I am leaving...'"  -Paul Simon, The Boxer

After about the third encore, my friend Paul and I rushed the stage with a couple of other goofy foreigners and before you knew it... everyone was dancing and screaming... He played, "Call me Al."  It was just hilarious.  I'm still buzzing about it hours later.  I laughed the whole night.  Bittersweet.  Thoughtful.  Nostalgic.  Heartbreaking.  Lyrical.  A soundtrack for your life.  What a sweet, sweet night of music.  Thank you, Paul Simon. 

They Signed Me In As "Mom"

 Kinu was all smiles!  I took the morning off and drove Kinu in to her pre-school open house.  It amazes me to think that next year she will be in kindergarten.  Despite dropping her off and picking her up from this school hundreds of times... the woman at the reception desk still made me sign the guest ledger... When I dropped off my badge, I saw that she had labeled me as Kinu's "Mom."  Here's some other weird and funny things from raising your kids in Asia.
 This is the Ba Pa Ma Fa Chinese Alphabet.  Of course, nobody uses this alphabet outside of classrooms, you never see it on signs or in any real life situation... still, the Taiwanese insist on children learning it if they want to speak Chinese... Of course, I always refuse.
 Yep, it's the Year of the Snake!  Here are some funny kid name banners.  Those are some creepy crawlers.

 And of course, here are some awesome other 'Moms' looking in through the window.  I try not to stay long, when I stand in the window the other children start screaming and poking fingers... calling me 'The Whitie.'  (Also... I'm terribly underdressed, don't you think?)
Yes, that's a loft overhead for nap time and a sweet yellow firemen slide heading down.  Pretty fun, if you ask me.  Have a Great Day, Kinu!

Monday, March 18, 2013

J-Swizz Eats a Cheeto Off the Dirt

It's not easy being a soccer coach to a bunch of hooligan first graders. I've got one kid who rolls on the grass talking to caterpillars and another who gets so upset when the other team scores he beats himself in the head with a cleat. Then of course, I've got J-Swizz.
J-Swizz is the kid the P.E. coach puts on your team and winces.  Put mildly, he’s a hot mess disaster.  A whirling dervish of combustible energy. Spinning, kicking, punching, spitting, and insulting everything around him. J-Swizz likes to sneak up behind me during drills and punch me in the nuts. He picks his nose and wipes it on teammates. He hangs from the goalpost and is pinned in the net when it falls. He purposefully scores goals for the other team then runs wildly in circles screaming like Maradona. He's prone to fits of uncontrollable dance moves like riding a pretend horse and shouting "Opa Gangnam Style" while the other team races past him to score. And once, while laying down on the pitch in an apparent mud bath, the ball actually rolled over the top of his chest. He didn't even notice.
J-Swizz is Taiwanese which means despite it being a balmy 82F, his mother follows the Lunar Calendar and dresses him in three sweatshirts and long sleeved underwear until the first official day of spring in mid April.  The kid sweats like a whore in church.  He’s constantly running off for water breaks without telling anyone.  Once he never came back from the fountain, and I found him later under the monkey bars picking his nose.
          “J-Swizz, where were you buddy?”
          He jumped to his feet and said, “Baby!  Baby! Baby! Ahhh!”  Then punched me hard in the nuts.
The final straw was today, last week some kid dropped a bag of Cheetos in the mud and it had rained and they were covered in black dirt and ants.  During the middle of the game, I looked over and J-Swizz was sitting cross legged on the ground picking them up and licking them with his tongue. 
It was like… nirvana.  Two more games left.  Yes, I will miss it.

Ode to Soccer Dads

  We take this break in the Vietnam Journals to give a special shout out to Soccer Dads Everywhere!  I know, this mantle is usually reserved for the Soccer Moms.  Those Super Human Valkyrie Suburban Vixen who balance checkbooks and make countless Costco runs and bake Snickerdoodles and organize fundraisers for children in Darfur… but not this time.
 This is for the Dads!
  Let me tell you… I know a lot of fathers out there who are killing it!
  Fathers who work all day and still find the time to pick their kids up from school and do bike rides and solve homework equations and create Science Fair exhibits and tuck their tykes into bed each night with stories.
  Dads who are on a first name basis with the school librarian, who teach Sunday School or volunteer as a Scout leader.  Dads who wouldn’t pick up a pair of golf clubs on the weekend if you paid them.  Dads with gift cards in their wallets to the Arts and Crafts Barn.  Yeah… those guys.  The ones holding it all together.
Look, Soccer Moms, we love you.  You’re great!  But there’s also another group out there too.  Unsung and unheralded, asking for nothing but one more day to do it all over again with their kids.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Pope Yakety Sax, Death Star Cardinals, and Michelangelo’s The Last Judgment

  (Stopping by rice field on a winter's morning to ponder.  On the road to Hoi An, Vietnam)

Was it just me or did anybody else hear the Death Star theme music when all the cardinals were marching in procession through the Vatican this week?  The best thing about the new Pope being elected, other than him being a retired literature teacher, is the hysteria around him. 
 (Hanging lanterns in Hoi An.  Light bulbs not included)

Couples running up to have the Pontiff touch a pregnant women’s belly bump or old ladies in black shawls weeping and whole congregations falling prostate on the floor cheering and tearing their clothes.  The frenzy of victory.  It was like a Mitt Romney consolation prize.
(Porcelain statues, junk shop in Hoi An) 

Sure, I get it.  He's a humble guy, carries his own bags... the first to come from Latin America, people believe he carries their hopes and dreams, that he is their conduit to speak directly with God. 
The second best thing about the new Pope is finally getting to see the Sistine Chapel with the lights on.  See… it is possible, you Shush Nazis!  I love how even the cardinals had to talk in whispers and weren’t allowed cell phones inside either. 
 (Chinese Temple Doors in Hoi An, Vietnam)

With the lights on one can see the massive canonical fresco painted above the entrance walls, Michelangelo’s The Last Judgment.  A grotesque and morbid, fascinating and brilliant early renaissance take on the Second Coming of Christ.  There is ripped flesh and ominous demons and fiery pits and angels setting pillars in the clouds.   It’s just cool.
 (Pausing on bicycles to drink hot tea and nibble sandwiches outside Hoi An)

The work was so controversial at the time.  Counter-Reformists accused Michelangelo of being insensitive to proper religious manner.  Critics said he flaunted personal style over appropriate depiction of content.  At the Council of Trent, the Pope’s own Master of Ceremonies, a man named Cesena,  said the painting was disgraceful.  Hilariously, Michelangelo later worked Cesena’s  face onto the likeness of Minos, the guardian of the Underworld… complete with donkey ears!
Take that Kanye West and Justin Timberlake.
 (Women leave the bamboo bowls for breakfast unattended, Hoi An)

I have a humongous poster of The Last Judgment, I carried it through the Mediterranean two years ago.  It hangs in my apartment.  I would have put it in the classroom but I didn’t want some knucklehead kid defacing it, drawing a phallus coming out of St. Bartholomew’s  ear or something. 
(More lovely junk.  Yes, those are Ho Chi Minh postershighing behind the paper lanterns)

But maybe that irreverence has always been what the church needed.  A little punk art to go with all that pomp and circumstance.  Maybe next time they elect a Pope, when the white smoke appears, loud speakers could play Yakety Sax... at least that would be original.