Monday, August 31, 2009

Reason #6 for Taking a Fulbright in Hong Kong: Blowing the Little Kiddies' Minds

            It’s not that our kids have particularly sheltered lives:  sure, we live in a town of 7,000 in a county where there are more tractors than people.  Sure, we walk to school everyday and wave howdy at our neighbors, even the ones we don’t like.  Sure, we don’t lock our doors.  And yes, our sheriff is named Andy.  But even so, we’re a sophisticated bunch, you know?  Many of us have Ph.D.s.  And we do yoga.  And we like Thai food, except for the stuff with funny names that gives us ouchies on our tongues. 

What it is, though, is that my wife spent 9 of her first 15 years overseas, speaking German before she spoke English, and recognizing before almost any American kid her own age that Ronald Reagan was an ass.  And me, I lived in England for two years, one as a student, the other working in a university bookstore shuttling yogurts from the cooler to the display case.  I was cultured.  (Get it? Yogurt?  Cultured?) 

But seriously, I’d been abroad for about a week when I realized a few simple truths:

1)   The word is a very big place full of really cool places.

2)   Visiting these places is just not that hard.  I mean, I was twenty, for god’s sake, had barely left my home state, and there I was traveling the world.  (Okay, so I spent one night on a jailhouse floor and a couple others locked out of my hostel, but I mostly avoided heroin and face tattoos). 

There are lot of clichĂ©s to describe what Ellen and I were after when we decided to rip our kids away from the only friends they’d known (since birth), pull them out of really really good schools, tear from their clutching hands 9/10ths of the stuffed animals they just couldn’t sleep without (sorry Squiddy; you too, Baby Squirrel.  Maybe next time if you try harder you’ll make the cut), and drag them to a place where everyone—and I do mean everyone—would unabashedly stare at them. 

Basically, though, what it comes down to is that we wanted to give our kids a greater sense of the possible.  I’m not even sure what this means, though I am sure that when my wife and I talked about it in broad terms while I was writing my application, we had visions of our kids making friends with kids from all over the world, of them learning not one but two new languages (Cantonese, the local language, and Putonghau, the Beijing dialect of Mandarin), of them carrying forever in their heads a images of Hong Kong as a magical place they once lived in and might someday return to with a good friend, a spouse or lover, or an IRS agent in close pursuit. 

Whatever.  Here’s what’s actually happening: 

The third day we are here, we’re at one of the markets in Tai Po.  It’s everything we’d hoped for:  full of color, with bright red awnings over the stands, exotic yellow fruits we’ve never seen before, literally a hundred shades of green, from baby bok choy to cucumbers as wide around as a basketball.  There’s noise, people talking, shouting, laughing everywhere.  The air is filled with the smell of soya chicken, a sharp, slightly rank scent to anyone who’s not used to it.  Our kids could not care less about the vegetables or the fruit or the chicken:  what they’re caught by are all the critters for sale:  shiny silver fish with bright yellow bellies, eels longer than your leg.  There are leather-backed turtles with long, pig-nosed snouts.  And frogs.  Dang.  There are frogs everywhere, piled up in wire cages.  Big, fat, brown frogs, with swollen bellies and gulping throats.  Their eyes bulge and they scramble over one another, struggling to stay on top of their slimy pile of . . . well, “humanity” would make too explicit the clever metaphor I was working with, but you get the point.  They’re slimey, they’re struggling to stay on top—yeah, yeah, Brittney Spears, blah blah blah. 

Anyhow, my kids are enamored with the frogs.  They’ve never seen so many frogs.  And such big frogs!

“What do you think they’re for?” my daughter asks.  She’s got her camera out, snapping pictures of the poor creatures, practically giving them names. 

“Well—“ I begin, and then the Chinese merchant whose stand we’re at opens the door of the cage, grabs four of the fattest frogs by the legs, and pulls them out.  Without ceremony, he steps back three paces and puts them down on a wet brown cross-section of wood that is his chopping block.  We don’t even see him pick up the cleaver, but when it comes down it’s heavy and clumsy.  It takes two or three whacks for him to hack—not chop, hack—the heads off these frogs.  And even then, one of them, head still partially attached, manages to escape, flopping on the floor with his loose skull flapping like some sort of water-weighted bloody balloon.  Smack! he goes on the concrete, and then the fishmonger has him up again and back on the block next to the neck bones of his now-deceased best friends.  Smack! goes the cleaver again, and then the man starts expertly to strip the frogs of all skin and guts until there’s nothing left but bright pink legs with their sadly human-looking musculature. 

I look at the man.  I look at the frogs.  I look at my daughter.  It’s hard to describe the look on her face:  it isn't really horror, and it isn't really shock.  Surprise might be an appropriate term.  Yeah, she's definitely surprised.

Anything is possible.  That doesn’t mean it’s good.  Or that we want to eat it. 


Were I a better story teller, that’d be the end.  But I’m not, so here goes:  the fascinating thing about my kids is how much they love the wet markets—that is, those markets where meat in all it’s wonderful and various forms is sold.  It’s called a “wet” market because, in the fish section at least, there’s often a lot of water on the floor.  Certainly, my kids most love this area simply because of all the amazing things they see—besides the 1000 or so different kinds of fish, there are snails as big as softballs and squids and octopuses, most of them kept alive in shallow tanks of water. 

In the meat section, though, they’re less interested in the varieties of animals available, then in the—in the—well, in the anatomy . . . 

“What’s that?” Lucy will say, and I'll lean in for a closer look. 

“I don’t know.  Some kind of organ?”

And then Ellen will glance over and say, “It’s a heart.   See, you can see the valves.”

“Wi-ill!” Lucy will shout, turning it into a two-syllable word.  “It’s a heart!  Come see!” 

And Will will come hustling over the muck-slickened floors, camera ready.  And they’ll both lean in and say, “Cool.”

And hearts are the least of it.  Yesterday we were at the market in old Tai Po when we came across a pair of lungs.  They were huge, the length of a pair of goose-down pillows, meaty looking, and bright bright pink (some comfort, I suppose, to know that Hong Kong pigs aren’t heavy smokers).  The butcher who was trimming the pig had them in a tub of water and was running a hose into them.  Don’t ask me why.  We just stood there , watching as these giant pink pillows slowly inflated.  I suppose we were waiting for them to pop.  They never did, which I’m guessing is a good thing.

Never mind.  “Cool!” my kids said again, snapping pics with their little digital cameras.  What exactly they were going to do with those pictures when they returned to the States was beyond me—“Here’s a pony that used to play in the meadow across from our flat.  Here’s a Chinese dragon from the New Year parade.  And here’s some lower intestines from a—I can’t remember:  a goat or something.  Oh, and here’s my teacher, Miss Kee:  she used to give us cupcakes . . .” 

Oh well.  I still have hopes they’ll learn to speak Mandarin, or at least get to know some kids from a country other than Canada.  But if not, I guess they’ll have learned that it’s in the realm of the possible for them to give up the advantages of an upper-middle-class upbringing, drop out of high school, leave behind the 529 plan their parents have been working on for 15 years, and go off to butcher college. 



Please note:  This is a personal blog, full of personal things that you shouldn’t even be reading, much less reading and fussing about and blaming on the Fulbright organization, whose views this blog do not represent.  So there.  And your mom thinks so too. 


Friday, August 28, 2009


           Ellen, my wife, had been gone for five days attending her father’s funeral.  The kids were going nuts in the flat, even though it’s 37 times bigger than our house in Virginia and 2,811 times bigger than the living quarters of the average Hong Konger (no kidding:  that’s what they’re called).  Brilliant man that I am, I decided the best remedy would be to take the kids to see central Kowloon, the mainland portion of urban Hong Kong. 

“Where?” my eight-year old son asked. 

“Kowloon,” I told him. 

“Geshundeit,” said my daughter.

Hong Kong, of course, is a very popular tourist destination.  As a result, there are dozens of pamphlets and hundreds of websites dedicated to its charms, articulating what they are exactly, and how to use Hong Kong’s fantastic bus and train system to find them.   I have inherited many of these pamphlets from a friend who was here last year, and I’m fairly adroit at using the internet.

But what fun would that be?  

Instead, I toss a couple granola bars in a backpack, toss in a rail map, throw my youngest into an umbrella stroller and get on a train heading south. 

 “Why this way?” my son asked.

“Because,” I replied. 

“But what are we going to do?”  Poor kid takes life very seriously.  The sort of person who can’t enjoy watermelon because he’s so busy picking out the seeds. 


“Explore what?”

“Why the ancient Hong Kongers used to sell their eight-year-olds into slavery.”

That got me a look, and then he rose from his seat and moved further down the train, settling in next to a nice-looking woman in a red sweatshirt who, I’m sure, he was hoping would take him home and adopt him.

My plan wasn’t very complicated:  we came to Hong Kong to be in a big city, surrounded by people and traffic and tall buildings.  Never mind that by some twist of fate we ended up living at the most rural campus in Hong Kong, a site that made our hometown in a Virginia county of 33,000 look downright cosmopolitan.  Now we were in Hong Kong.  We were going to see tall buildings.

The funny thing about the MTR, the Hong Kong train system, though, is that their maps don’t really clarify where all the action is.  Never-you-mind:  I had good instincts; I would use them, just like my hero George W. Bush. 

“Why are we getting off here?” my son asked when we followed the crowds off the train.   I noticed that he and the woman in the red sweatshirt had parted rather slowly.

“Because this is Kowloon Station,” I said.  “Kowloon is where all the tall buildings are.”

“I don’t see any tall buildings,” said my daughter, who clearly needs to learn more respect for her elders.

And indeed, as I looked at the parts of Kowloon revealing itself to the open-air station, there were no particularly tall buildings. 

“We need to get back on the train,” I said.

The next time we got messed up wasn’t really my fault.  They’d changed the line routing in the year since my map had been made, and what used to be the end of one line was now part of another line entirely.   What a person was supposed to do was get off the old line, step across the platform, and step onto a train shuttling to the new line.  I know this, because when we stepped off the first train, everybody moved en masse across the platform and onto another train.  Plus, there was a young woman standing there holding over her head a 3 x 4 foot purple sign that read:  “Passengers for the East Tsim Sha Tsui embark here.” 

I froze.  I stared at the map in my hand.  I stared at the map on the wall of the station.  I stared at the woman holding the sign, at the sign itself, and at the train car full of Chinese people watching this tall, bald man with three very blonde children, wondering if he was insane or just simple. 

Finally, a chime sounded, the doors of the car closed, and the train pulled away. 

“That was our train, wasn’t it.”  It was less a question than a statement.  Who would have thought an eight-year-old could sound so mournful?

“Yes,” I said, “but don’t worry:  there’ll be another one in—“ I glanced up at the digital arrival board “—37 minutes.” 

Okay, so it wasn’t that bad.  Only 12 minutes actually, which was still 6 times longer than any other train we’d ever waited for.  Making it worse was the fact that it was now nearly noon, a dangerous time for a family full of hypoglycemic children.  Just to make sure—and since we had the time anyway—we went up the escalator and asked a man in a uniform where to get off to see tall buildings.

“Where you want to go?” he asked. 

Nowhere, I told him.  Anywhere.  Just some place with tall buildings. 

He looked at me carefully, then down at the children, obviously checking for signs of abuse.  Then he named a station, one down line, where, he said, there would be tall buildings. 

Finally off the train, we were faced with nine different possible exits from the underground.  Tired, hungry, sweaty, and worried that my two-year-old’s bladder was being tested to the limit, I chose an exit at random.  I can’t say I was surprised when we emerged to a mostly empty street with no tall buildings, no restaurants, and concrete barriers ensuring the only way to cross the street was to go back down the stairs we’d just come up and take an underground sidewalk.  Which we did. 

It was raining when we emerged, only lightly, but raining nonetheless.  The kids were quiet now, their cheeks red from the heat, their foreheads pale with hunger.  We stumbled along for maybe half a block, at which point we looked down a side-road and saw a classic Hong Kong vista:   a narrow street shadowed by tall buildings, neon signs glistening over double-decker buses, bamboo scaffolding, and crowds of people.  There it was: Eldorado.

We couldn’t go there, of course, because of the concrete barriers.  And of course we would’ve been there already if, upon emerging from the MTR, we’d simply turned right instead of left.  Feeling a bit like George Constanza, who eventually figures out that the only way to succeed is to ignore his every natural impulse, I looked down at the kids.  They were all weeping silently.  Or maybe it was just the rain.  We moved on.

Eventually we saw water.  “Hey!” I said.  “Look!  Water!”

“Dad,” said my daughter, who’d begun to gnaw her thumb.  “We’re hungry.”

“What do you say, Will,” I asked my oldest, “want to see the harbor, or go get something to eat?”

He just glared at me. 

So we trudged on.  Eventually we were able to actually cross the street, and wandered through throngs of Hong Kongers who’d obviously just dined on succulent steaks and chocolate flambĂ© dribbled with raspberry sauce.  We reached a corner.  I stopped.  It was now 12:43.  I was sticky with sweat, my head light from lack of food.  All pretense of being a super dad, much less a passable dad, is gone.  I dropped a few choice words that my kids had heard more and more since their grandpa died, and turned to my eldest:  “Straight, or to the right?”

He looked at me.  “Huh?”

“Straight or to the right.  Where do you think we’ll find food?”

He looked at me again.  Then he considered the options.  His sister, who had begun to chew her baby brother’s juicy fat hand, watched him carefully. 

“Straight,” he said.

“Straight it is.”  And on we went.

Now I know what you’re thinking:  what a brilliant father.  What a profound man.  Have we discovered the next Buddha?  What better way to raise children, to expand their horizons, develop their sense of self and their place in the universe, by allowing them to make decisions, to shape their interactions with the world. 

Well, okay.   But what I was actually thinking was: “You think you’re so smart, you little bugger, why don’t you make a few decisions and see what it’s like to fail?”

And for a while we did fail:  we stopped at two restaurants, one crowded and filled with Chinese people eating things we couldn’t recognize, the other an overcrowded Japanese place where a bottle of water cost roughly 1/3 of my grant.  Finally we ended up under an overpass of sorts, and I’d just decided that now is the proper time to teach my children dumpster diving, when my daughter said, “What about in there?”

She was pointing to a mall, a huge squat building with a glass front.  We enter, and even from the street level we can see the food court on the third floor.  I look at the kids.  “What do you think?”

They nod, glassy-eyed and salivating. 

We take the escalator up and stop at the first place on the edge of the food court.  It’s Thai and looks relatively normal, by western standards.  I order Thai Chicken with rice for the kids, and a beef noodle bowl for myself.  The chicken ends up being on the bone, sliced with a huge cleaver so that the morrow is exposed, but by then it’s too late and I just grab the two trays and follow my kids as they push the stroller through the food court looking for a table.  We finally find a two-top in a corner, and huddle around it.  My daughter, who’s almost six and slightly more adventurous than her older brother, takes her chopsticks and pulls off a piece of the chicken, which—I now realize—is cold and looks almost raw.  She pops it in her mouth and chews. 

“Delicious,” she says. 

“What’s this?” my eight-year-old says, pointing with a spoon at something on their tray.


“Yeah, but what’s in it?”

I lean over the toddler, who’s on my lap pulling noodles from my steaming bowl with his bare hands and stuffing them in his face.  I can’t tell what’s in the kids’ bowl.  It looks like chicken broth, but what are those two square things at the bottom?  

“I don’t know.  Celery?”

“It looks too big for celery.”

“You got me.”

Then, my son who would eat nothing but bologna and cheese sandwiches every meal for the rest of his life if you gave him the chance, took a sip of the soup.  “It’s good,” he says. 

Mine isn’t really, but I don’t care.  It has protein and after a couple spoonfuls we all feel better.  Afterwards, we hit the bathrooms and have a pee and don’t even get upset when the man tending the stalls yells at Lucy for some reason we can’t understand, but that obviously has to do with the solid platinum tiles surrounding the sink or Elvis having shaved there once. 

We’re just heading back to the way out, when my daughter points up a pair of small escalators.  “I want to go up there.”

I stop.  “Why?”

“Just because.”

I hesitate.  I don’t see the point, myself—who wants to spend all day in a mall?—but then, it worked to follow Will’s directions for finding a place to eat, so what the hell. 

“Okay,” I say. 

We go up.  It’s a hotel lobby.  The kids are on their way back down in an instant and I’m about to join them when I glance out the door and notice a few small tables with umbrellas on a brick terrace.  I call the kids back up (they nearly crush an old lady with a wide black hat as they run up the down escalator) and the four of us step back into the August heat.

And it’s amazing.  We’re up maybe five stories over the water.  Below us are ferries and waves and boats of all sizes.  And across from us—holy crap, across from us is one of the most amazing sights I’ve ever seen in my life:  Hong Kong island rises up out the water, tall brown mountains with silver skyscrapers in front of them.  Back in March I was watching some program that named the top ten skylines in the world, and Hong Kong’s was number one.  And now I see why.  There’s steel and glass and neon and water and rock and sky.  And all around on both sides, stretching off into the distance are big rounded mountains sticking up out of the South China Sea.  It was so beautiful—so shocking, so different from southwestern Virginia—that it makes me laugh. 

“Look!” my daughter says. 

“I know,” I grin, feeling like the best dad in the world.  “Isn’t it amazing?”

“A pigeon!” she says.  And then both she and Will crowd around some poor gray bird nearly dead from heat stroke, and take 58 pictures of it with their digital cameras. 

But never mind.  It's awesome.  It's cool.  It takes the air out of my lungs, I'm smiling so hard. 


Wednesday, August 26, 2009


And then Ellen’s dad died. 

It happened while we were in flight.  Apparently he was sitting in his armchair around 8:00 on Tuesday night, when he decided he’d like a snack.  He rose, fell, and never got up again.  He was dead by 8:30. 

We found out about it the next morning when our new neighbor, Colin, a Singaporean whose wife was the head of the General Education program and my new boss, came by with an Ethernet cable for my computer.  Anita, his wife, was already at our flat with a couple of the housing folks, going over some last minute repairs.  Ellen was talking to Anita and keeping an eye on the kids, who’d been up since 3, 5, and 6 a.m., respectively.  Once I’d plugged in the computer, Colin stepped out into the hall to give me a little privacy.  I clicked onto my e-mail, intending to drop a note to the grandparents, letting them know we were fine.  Halfway down the page, a note from Ellen’s brother entitled “Fwd:  Dad,” caught my eye.  Uh-oh, I thought.  Ellen’s dad had been ill for sometime, fighting Parkinson’s and a nasty staph infection that deteriorated his spinal column.  Twice, he’d been pretty much declared a lost cause, Ellen’s mom in the room saying goodbye while Ellen and her brother were out in the lobby phoning funeral homes.  Both times, though, he’d come back, and we pretty much assumed he’d outlive all of us. 

Figuring it was another close call, I clicked on the e-mail.  Immediately, the words, “Airline” and “died” caught my eye.  As in, “I don’t know if the airline was able to get a hold of you, but Dad died last night.”

I turned my head and stared out into the hall.  Colin looked at me.  “What’s wrong?” he said.  I just stared, my mouth open.  “What’s wrong?” he said again, half-smiling, uncomfortable.  I stood, walked to the hall, and called for Ellen.  She was busy telling the kids not to stab each other with steak knives they’d found in a drawer, and didn’t hear me. I called again.  This time she came and I hugged her. 

I’d like to tell you it was a warm hug, and reassuring hug, a good hug, but it wasn’t.  We’re not a couple prone to public displays of affection, and when I put my arms around her in front of people we’d just met and tried to get her to look at me, she squirmed and pushed away.  I said something, vague and apologetic and mournful, and she looked at me, and then looked at me again.  And then she got it. 

She pulled away, went to the computer, clawed at the keyboard, trying to deactivate the screensaver.  I turned to Colin, about to explain, and then I heard her laugh. 

“Oh Jesus,” she said, her voice rising. “He was getting up to get ice cream.”


We’re not stupid.  We know that travel is hard, that there will be fatigue and arguments and petty bickering over where to eat and what to eat and whose turn it is to stay with the napping toddler instead of wandering through some old village filled with antique shops and bakeries with custard-stuffed pastries.  Nonetheless, when we think about travel, when we spend thousands of dollars getting ready for it, what we picture in our heads are the warm moments, the beautiful sights, the quirky little souvenirs, the surprising little interactions with locals that make us feel like we—and only we—are getting the real Hong Kong experience or French experience or Mogadishu experience or whatever. 

Then something comes along that kicks us in the head and reminds us that what we’re doing is taking a fairy tale skip-a-thon is someone else’s cold, hard, reality.

Twenty years ago when I was in Africa, my first time out of the country, one of the women I was with got her passport and wallet stolen.  We were in a remote village on the border of Tanzania and Malawi:  no phones, no consulate, and a police force that, when we approached them, looked at us like “What did you expect?  You’re white folk with bucket-loads of money.  Of course you got robbed.” 

In the end we wandered the village until we tracked down an Indian man we’d met on the train into town.  He’d been to the US and liked us (or at least the women I was with) and when we knocked on his door and told him our problem, he said he’d do what he could. 

Two hours later, a policeman flagged us down in the street and escorted us to the constabulary.  Inside seated again the wall were 7 young men, all in the worn-out rags we’d come to associate with the Tanzanian working class.  They did not look happy.  In fact, truth be told, they looked scared as hell.  Next to them stood a half-dozen police in light olive fatigues.  Two of them were holding wooden nightsticks.   At least one of them tapped an iron bar against his palm.

As we walked home, my friend’s passport in hand, we tried to act jubilant, buoyant, victorious.  But we all felt a little sick to our stomachs.  The truth of the matter was, we were a bunch of spoiled Yankee kids on a tour through one of the most impoverished countries in the world, for no other reason than that we had nothing better to do.  And here was life, kicking us in the head. 


There’s a scene in Six Degrees of Separation where Stockard Channing, the film’s narrator, turns to her dinner guests, having just told them an elaborate story that seems to have ended in tragedy, and insists pathetically, “I don’t want this to be just another anecdote.”

The problem with being a writer and traveling is that everything is just another story—everything is fodder for a novel or a poem or a radio essay.  In one way, this is just dandy:  one point of writing it to bring readers into worlds they might not otherwise encounter.  But it can be problematic, too:  when we look at the world as “material” instead of “life,” we distance ourselves from what’s going on around us.  And consequently, it takes on less relevance. 

This is particularly true, I think, of my current situation.  One of the real charms of my position at my school in Hong Kong is that at the end of the year I can walk away from it.  Curricular revision is touchy stuff.  It involves telling faculty what they should or shouldn’t do in the classroom, what practices do or don’t work, what course goals matter and which ones don’t.  I don’t know if there’s ever been a study done, but my guess is if you asked most professors why they joined the academy, independence from oversight will probably be in the top five for most.  Professors like being their own bosses; we like being in the classroom and getting to decide what matters and what doesn’t, what’s right and what’s not. 

Curricular revision, in contrast, involves the college as a whole making some pretty far-reaching decisions about who “we” are, about what “we” think matters, about how best to approach these subjects in the classroom. 

Consequently, leading a curricular revision can be pretty intense experience.  It’s not unusual, once a general education revision has passed (or failed so soundly that the process is over) for the acting gen ed director to virtually disappear from campus life.  During my term as director, there were a number of periods (of weeks or months) where I would wake up at 5 A.M. with acid in my stomach and my mind churning.  Almost instantly I’d start arguing in my head with this dean or that department chair about some finer point of the proposed curriculum—how the math requirement should be configured, for instance, or what brand of chalk we should purchase for the student union (that last one’s a joke, but only barely).  As a result, once I retired from my post as general education director, I basically buried my head in my own work and became invisible.  I stopped attending faculty meetings.  I quit going to the dining hall.  Whenever I could I worked out of my home.  I’d just spent five years getting too personal with my institution. I was worn out, needed to find out again who I was and what I valued. 

This opportunity in Hong Kong is different, though.  Here, I’m the consultant.  I come in, I give my two cents, I walk away.  At the end of the year, I pack up my stuff and leave.  Don’t like what I have to say?  No biggie:  take it or leave it, it doesn’t affect me any.   Don’t like me?  What do I care?  I’m just here for the dim sum, the amazing history, and the overwhelming heat and humidity (well, okay, two out of three). 

Such an approach is, of course, appealing.  Almost everyone I talked to who was familiar with my work on my own campus pointed out that one benefit of the sort of Fulbright I had was being able to walk away at the end of the day.  And it’s a tempting approach to take.  Already, some of the advice I’ve offered via e-mail and in quick chats has been dismissed almost out of hand (“Here,” they say, “it’s different.  What you’re suggesting won’t work.”).  Yeah, okay.  Take it or leave it.  No skin of my pointy little bald head. 

But geeze, I don’t know.  Who wants that?  In other contexts, isn’t that sort emotional and psychological distance a form of mental illness? 


All of which has what to do with my father-in-law? 

Two things.

One:  he and I were not particularly close.  This is largely my fault.  Particularly in recent years I kept my distance from him.  It’s hard to say why this was, but in large part, I think, it was because I often saw in him parts of myself that made me uncomfortable.  Both of us were deeply passionate about things we cared about, to the point of sometimes assuming we were always right.  Both of us, though articulate, could sometimes be socially awkward.  Both of us thought there’s only one way to load the dishwasher, and that we were the only person on the planet who knew the secret.

Since Merlyn’s death, though, I’m realizing I missed something.  My wife tells the story of the time she and her father went in to London to sell a gold filling at a back-alley shop.  Afterwards, they took the money and went to see “The Mousetrap.”  Half-way through, her Lutheran-minister father leaned over and said, “Smell that?  That’s marijuana.”  Then he leaned back in his seat and went on with watching the play.  My wife was struck by that:  he didn’t preach, he didn’t demonize, he just pointed it out and went on. 

Two:   Right now I’m sitting in a 9/10ths empty flat in the New Territories of Hong Kong.  The air conditioning is blasting, because even though it’s after ten, it’s over 30 degrees Celsius with humidity in the high 80s.  I just spent the day exploring Kowloon with the kids.  We saw the Star Ferries and Hong Kong Island and a bunch of surrounding islands.  We ate at a food court where we were the only white folk, and the chickens on display at the stands all had their heads on.  I know that I’m in absolutely one of the most amazing cities in the world, and that I’m just starting to discover what it has to offer. 

Meanwhile, in less than an hour and half-way around the world, my wife will be standing in an old Lutheran church in St. Paul, next to a wooden casket holding the body of the only father she ever had.  My guess is she’ll cry at some point during the service—probably more than once—and this is good, because a person should cry when someone they love and who loved them will never hold their hand again, or say hello, or pass them the salt. 

But I’m not really worried about my wife.  She’s stronger and smarter than I’ll ever be.  She’ll survive this just as well without me there as she would were I there (now the kids are another matter, but let’s not go there).  Even so, though, it makes me angry that I’m not standing beside her.  She and I have never been the most lovey-dovey couple (my friend Gordon once referred to our marriage as a “dark horse”).  But I like her and I want to be there for her, yes—but more, just with her.  Because you should be with the person you’re married to when she’s burying her father, not half-way around the world strolling the streets of Kowloon and collecting stories to fill your blog. 

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

I Love My Children, Butt . . .

I know this sounds stupid, but at first glance there’s something vaguely romantic in the thought of flying 20 hours with your wife and three little ones to start a new life in new country.   I mean think about it:  it’s just the five of you, on a big plane, being serviced and pampered by the good people of Continental Airlines.  Yes, it’s a long time, but your kids are good sleepers and it’ll be nice to cuddle up with them under one of those flimsy little airline blankets.  And geeze, you know, these days with those seat-back entertainment centers, you can catch up on all the movies you haven’t seen while the little ones go glassy-eyed watching The Incredibles  72 times.

Well, exactly 6671 miles into the trip, with exactly 1114 more miles to go, I can tell you all of that is a load of hooey. 

I’m not even going to blame the usual suspects:  tiny seats that force your knees up around your ears, lousy meals that offer you a choice between salmon a la  goat hide or steak served in nasal sauce.  Nor will I mention flight attendants that obviously dropped out of charm school before joining the SS.  No, instead, I’m simply going to point out that, frankly, sitting for 20 hours is a pain in the butt.

Let me make sure that I’m being clear here:  right now, as I’m sitting on this flight, with 6717 miles behind me and 1070 miles to go, my butt cheeks really really really hurt. 

I think I was doing okay until last night around 9 o’clock when Ellen gave up on getting our littlest one to sleep.  The peculiar thing about my wife and me and our kids is that my only real parenting talent is escorting the little runts into la-la land.  This is peculiar, because in general my presence is about as calming as a hurricane in wind-chime factory.  Whatever:  it’s my super power and I use it for good. 

Anyhow, after Jamie’s head as bobbed up over the seatback in front of me for the 47th time, Ellen finally gave up and handed him off.  This is just fine with me, because I have a plan:  instead of giving Jamie his own seat, I’ll lie diagonally over his seat and mine with him on top of me.  That way, we’ll both get a great night’s sleep:  me, because I’ve got more room to stretch my legs and can lean my head against the window; and him because he’s got my big fat futon of a body to stretch out on. 

And indeed, this is a great plan:  almost instantly, I’ve got a two-and-a-half year old unconscious in my lap.  What could be better? 

A lot, actually.  Within twenty minutes, I’m beginning to suspect my plan may have a few flaws. For one thing, Jamie is big for a thirty-month-old toddler:  imagine an eight-year-old who pumps iron, and you’re pretty much there.  Sure, it’s cute having him asleep on my torso, but dang, it’d be nice to breathe, too.

Second is the fact that whatever genius designed the Boeing 777 neglected to include those little air-blasters that mess up your hair.  I know this for a fact, because for the longest time I was under the impression that the overhead lights were actually the vents.  That is to say, when it got a little hot 30 minutes after leaving Newark, I reached up and twisted the fixture, round and round and round.  When no air came, I kept twisting.  And twisting.  And twisting.  Until eventually the thing came off in my hand.

Just then, Attila, our flight attendant, showed up. 

“That’s not the air vent,” she said.

“I work for NASA,” I told her.  “I’m just checking the filaments.”

“There are no vents on this plane,” she said.

“NASA,” I repeated  “Your tax money at work.”

So now, 6,800 miles later, when Jamie’s asleep on my lap and our two bodies start to heat up, there’s nothing I can do but swear quietly and sweat.   I do both profusely.

All of this though—the sweat, the swearing, the sheer mass of a boy made of bricks crushing down on my innards—pales in comparison to what’s happening the lower half of my body.

Actually, that’s not true:  it doesn’t pale in comparison because the fact of the matter is I have no idea what’s happening to the lower half of my body, because frankly, I have no sense of anything below my waist.  My legs and butt have been stuck in the same position for so long that I’m numb.

But I feel pain.  How can that be?  How can I simultaneously be without feeling, and yet know for a fact that a miniature version of the violin section of the Philadelphia Philharmonic Orchestra has set up camp under my butt and is now warming up for Beethoven’s 9th?  Logically, it makes no sense, I know, but there you have it.  I can even feel the little bastards rosining up their bows.

But never mind, I’m a survivor.  If I can sit through 5 mediocre Harry Potter movies, I can handle this.  So what I do is very very very gently lift my son two inches into the air, just enough to shift my lower body slightly to the right, stretching my legs and easing my weight slightly more to my left buttock.  Then, very very very gently, I lower my still-sleeping concrete garden boy back onto my lap, lean my head back, and go to sleep.

For another twenty minutes.  At which time I wake up with the PSO in full flight, Ode to Joying my rear end like there’s no tomorrow when the cows come home to an empty cupboard.  (I have no idea what that means, but at this point I’ve been awake now for the better part of 24 hours, so suck it up). 

I do the lift and shift again:  very very gently, lead boy going up up up, very very gently, the legs going slightly further to the right, becoming slightly more bent, buttocks shifting, lead boy sinking very very slowly. 

This time I don’t so much sleep as doze.  The pain has subsided, but it isn’t entirely gone, and I’m already anticipating an encore from the cellos.  And indeed, within 10 minutes I’m so sore I can’t think straight. My legs throb so much I actually feel ill.  Fortunately, I’ve stashed a two-pound bag of Twizzlers in my backpack, within easy reach.  In my sleep-deprived state, I somehow convince myself licorice will help me.  I eat the whole bag. 

Now my butt really hurts.  I mean, the orchestra, the indigestion, the knowledge that all of this might well go on for another five or six hours.  There’s no twenty-minute stretch at this point in the trip:  it’s five minutes in one position, lift, shift, five minutes in another, lift, shift, and so on. 

Inevitably, of course, the inevitable happens (hence the name):  my son wakes up.  And not just wakes up, but howls.  Howls.  Keep in mind, this is a boy who’s cries can be heard through two closed oak doors.  This is a boy who can yell so loud it makes your stomach hurt.  This is a boy with lungs so big, even at two he could lie on his back in the water and float without moving a muscle.  And now he’s howling.  In the middle of a night, on a jumbo jet full of sleeping people.

I, of course, do everything I can within a two-foot by three-foot space.  I hug him.  I kiss him.  I rock him.  I even sing to him, thinking that even if it doesn’t help with the crying, at least it’ll win me points with the irate passengers around me (“See, he’s not such a bad man; he’s singing Tom Waits to his two-year-old.”).  No such luck.  I’m getting glares all around, even from the sleeping beauty next to me, a twenty-four-year-old English teacher who climbed into his seat at the start of the flight, introduced himself, and promptly went to sleep—and stayed that way.  Until now.  Now, he’s looking at me like I’m the biggest butt-wipe this side of Butt-Wipe Indiana (a real town, by the way).  Meanwhile, nothing I can do with my so seems to help (I’ve shifted now from “All I Want” to an improvised version of Brahms’ Lullaby that includes the phrase “Shut the hell up or I’ll strangle your puny little neck.”)

Eventually, he wears himself out and falls back asleep.  Only this time, he’s on his back, legs splayed, arms akimbo, head thrown back in a dramatic fashion.  I swear for all the world that we look like Michelangelo’s Pieta, arguably one of the most beautiful sculptures ever, and one that, from now on whenever I look at it, I’ll probably think, “Man, I’ll bet Mary’s ass hurts.” 

Please note:  this is a personal blog, so don't go writing them Fulbright folks complaining I use the word "Butt."   


Friday, August 14, 2009

Reason # 7 for Taking a Fulbright in Hong Kong

It’s October, 1986, and I’m sitting in the dining room at St. Aidan’s College in Durham England.  The room is huge, with floor to ceiling glass windows on one side and a vaulted wooden roof.  I’m surrounded by 400 English students—real English students, the kind that talk funny.  We’re all wearing black gowns, because it’s formal night. Formal night also means lots of wine and beer, and the food staff serving us at our tables, restaurant style.  The room is roaring, with people laughing and shouting, singing even. 

Me?  I’m sitting there, red to the roots of my hair.  I’ve waited my whole life to be abroad, waited my whole life to be surrounded by people with different accents and different histories, and now I’m so embarrassed, I can’t talk.  Why?  Because I just, for maybe the tenth or twentieth time that evening, had to say, “Excuse me, what was that?”  

It’s their friggin’ accents.  I can mostly understand them fine when we’re in our rooms or in the hall or in our classes.  But in this dining room, with two glasses of wine in me and the roar of conversation all around me, I can’t understand a thing.  Finally I give up, convinced that my classmates are now certain that when I was little and just learning to talk, my mom dropped a fruit bowl on my head.

That was the first time in my life when I was on the down-side of language.  You have to understand that, growing up, I was always the talker, always the one who could get out of trouble by opening his mouth.  I wrote my first story when I was in second grade, my first novel when I was thirteen (“Only the Good Die Young,” about a pair of teenaged dare-devils.  The movie options, believe it or not, are still available).  I worked in radio, I acted in plays, I was vice-president of the student council.  I was the son of a preacher man (never got me laid, though), so I knew how to tell a story and construct an argument and time a joke.  On the football team, I used to get beat up by the older players because I always had a smart-ass comeback that was funnier than theirs.  I read My Name is Asher Lev when I was in junior high, just to show off—which probably explains my dearth of friends.  What can I say?  I use words like “dearth.”

But there I was in that dining room at St. Aidan’s, shut out.  No pleasant small talk, no witty repartee, no thoughtful questions designed to demonstrate both my sensitivity and brains, no brilliant pick-up lines (“I’ve got an American flag-pole in my room.  Waddaya say we try out your Union Jack-off?”  Well, it might've worked . . . ).  There I sat, face burning, silent.

What I didn’t know back then was that I would eventually write a dissertation inspired by Obediah Slope, the former scholarship-boy who for a time practically runs a cathedral town full of rich and articulate clergy—someone who shouldn’t have discourse power, but does.  Or that I would write a half-dozen articles about small schools and their exclusion from academic discourse.  Or that I would come to love teaching writing to first-year students who can crack up the class with a joke, can talk up a storm with their parents, and text their high school friends 6,811 times an hour, but who came into my office convinced they can’t write (“I dunno, I’m not good with words.”  Um, really?). 

In other words, everything—everything—I’ve come to care about professionally rises from that one embarrassing moment—that one moment that, in the course of an amazing year where I studied at one of the best universities in the world, travelled the continent, stared in awe at Michelangelo’s David, drank my first port, vomited my first Ouzo and fell in love with, like, 20 English damsels and their lacy English underwear—everything that I’ve come to concerned myself with professionally comes from that one minor moment in the course of a single evening in the dining hall at St. Aidan’s college. 

So why am I uprooting my family and my life and going to Hong Kong for a year? 

Because you just never know. 


How to Bleed Money Out the Wazoo: Prt. I

  1. Decide that the people who are going to rent your house for ten months should have a better house than the one you’ve lived in for the last seven years.
  2. Choose a number of random improvements that have nothing to do with anything and probably won’t make a difference for someone who’s never seen the place before—e.g., powerwash the deck; re-enamel the downstairs sink, replace the hidden gutters, replace random fabric blinds throughout the house with expensive, custom-cut wooden ones.
  3. Wait until three weeks before you leave, for no other reason than that you’re lazy, stupid, and busy with your friggin’ blog.
  4. Frantically call painters, re-enamelers (that’s a real word), gutterers (ditto), and blinderer makerers (don’t even ask). 
  5. Get estimates from the three people who actually return your calls.  I don’t mean the three people for each job, I mean the three people total.  And yes, this means you effectively get an estimate for custom blinds from a guy who has spent his life laying tin roofs and gutters.  (“No problem!  Coupla itty-bitty bits a wood, some string—a two-year-old could do it.”)
  6. Choose the best price for each job, even if the bidder is missing seven (visible) teeth and insists on calling you Chuck.
  7. Sign a contract with said gap-toothed enameler etc., even if every particle of commonsense in your body is screaming “NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!”
  8. Pay half down. 
  9. Go back to your house and drink heavily.
  10. Wait two weeks, wondering why some guy with no teeth, half your money, and a “Party Like She’s Seventeen!” bumper sticker on his pick up is a no show.
  11. Call said enamalerer/painterer/whateverer.
  12. Call again.
  13. Call the police when, at 3 am the night before you leave, you and the rest of the neighborhood awaken to the sounds of breaking glass, stamping on the roof, and Van Halen’s “Running with the Devil.”
  14. Scream “What the f***?” at the roofer and his crew as they pound away at your gutters under the glare of Klieg lights being run off a throbbing gas-operated generator.
  15. Try and ignore the glare of your neighbors and the two or three policemen who have shown up, you now realize, simply to enjoy the show, as your roofer grins down at you and hollers “Git ‘er done!”
  16. Remind yourself that you’re doing all of this—letting people you’ve never met live in your house for half your mortgage, paying thousands of dollars to touch up paint that will be ruined before you return, taking unpaid leave from your job, tearing your family away from their friends and taking them to the opposite side of the planet, exposing all your foibles and eccentricities to people who already think Americans are jerks—you’re doing all of this for the sole purpose of never again hearing the phrase “Git ‘er done!”

How to Bleed Money Out the Wazoo: Prt. II

Okay, so it’s not that bad.  But we do seem to be bleeding cash.  And it’s not just because everyone and their mother assumes that because you’ve got a Fulbright and you’re going to Hong Kong you must be loaded:  half the time it’s because you’re just so distracted. 

Case in point:  most of the blinds in our house are nice wooden, two-inch Venetians.  A few, however, were little plastic cheapy things we bought from Wal-mart, and two blinds, in the kitchen, were JC Penney honeycombed clothe drapes that had spent the last 7 years soaking up every bit of grease in our unventilated kitchen.  Once we’d rented the house, we decided we’d better take care of  anything that would make a renter go “Ewww.”  The blinds, especially the kitchen ones, qualified.

So I get out a ruler and my little notebook and stroll from room to room, taking measurements of all the window dressings that need to be replaced, seven total.  Then I get on the phone and call some company down in Atlanta that custom measures these wooden blinds we, in our Yuppie-scum way, like so much.  I pay approximately 10 thousand dollars for these blinds. 

Three weeks later, the blinds arrive—all five of them.  Of course, I don’t realize that two are missing until I’ve already taken down the old blinds in the kitchen, driven over them seven or eight times with my car in disgust, and hung up the new hardware.  Only then does it occur to me that I don’t actually have blinds that fit my kitchen windows. 

So I get on the phone with Mr. Millionaire the blind cutter down in Atlanta.  “You left out two blinds,” I say. 

“No I didn’t,” he responds.  He has a deep, confident voice, the kind of voice that says he has practical skills that someone with a PhD in Victorian literature will never have, and that he never makes mistakes.  I can almost feel his strong, calloused hands caressing my body as I—oh wait, that’s another entry. 

Anyhow, he sounds smart, and experienced, and like he knows what he’s doing not just in the blind business, but in life in general.  So of course, I challenge him.  “Where’d you learn your math,” I say, “at blind-makers school?”

“Brown,” he says.  “Double major in physics and philosophy.”

“What’s the matter,” I retort, “Ohio State wouldn’t take you?”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Oh, you know what it means.”

“No,” he says.  “It makes entirely no sense at all.  Oh.  Wait a minute, let me guess:  Ohio State is where you went?”

“You forgot my kitchen blinds,” I squeak.

“No I didn’t.”

“Did so.”

“Did not.”  And then he reads, measure by measure, every blind I’ve ever ordered from him in the last twenty years, punctuating each measurement by telling me exactly which window each blind fits, in which room of my house. 

“See,” he says, wrapping it up.  “Nothing for the kitchen.”

I don’t say anything. 

“You still there?”

“The sun hurts my eyes,” I whimper, “when I’m eating my Cocoa-Puffs.”

“No problem,” he says calmly, like the kindly grandfather I never had.  “Give me your measurements.”

So I do.  And the blinds come in two weeks.  And I hang them.  And they look beautiful.  Even if they did cost me two million dollars. 

Then, six days after we vacate our home and head up to the Midwest for a pre-Hong Kong vacation, my wife gets an e-mail from the renters:  “The new blinds came,” they write, “from JC Penney.  What should we do with them?”

My wife looks at me, something like despair mixed with loathing in her eyes.  I try and meet her stare, but finally half to lower my gaze to the floor.  Half to myself, half to her, wholly to the man in Atlanta who will never hear me, I mutter:  “Told you I ordered shades for the kitchen.”