Wednesday, September 22, 2010

My Three Tailors, prt. 3

Fortunately, there’s Rosie. 

I first heard about Rosie from our friends Chris and Valerie who lived upstairs from us and who had a strange habit of saying, in the middle of, for example, an Indian dinner, “Oh, you really must go and see Rosie.” 

For the longest time I assumed Rosie was just another one of their imaginary friends (don’t ask), but eventually I clued in that Rosie was a real person who actually existed—and what’s more, that she was a tailor.

You would have thought that by May, the first time I met Rosie, I would have given up on this whole tailor thing.  Sure, I’d come to love the suit and trousers I’d bought from the Chinese tailor in central, but even so, all of it was such a hassle, so stressful, the measuring, the money, just getting from our remote corner of the New Territories to wherever the tailor was.  Easier just to go back to the States, wait for the first of our 17 weekly editions of Eddie Bauer, and pick out some boring piece of crap sown in some factory in India.

But no, I had one more thing I was questing for, and I was hoping Rosie was just the person to help out.  I have this shirt, you see, a black, short-sleeved cotton-linen number that I’d picked up at a mall years ago.  It was an amazing shirt:  light, comfortable, loose on my frame and slow to wrinkle.  Short of a Packer logo and someplace to store a Cosmopolitan, what more could I ask for? 

Well, how’s about four more like it for starters?

My plan, then, was to take this shirt up to Shenzhen, just across the border into China, and show it to Rosie, asking her if she could make more just like it for me.  And that’s just what I did.  One Sunday morning late in May, Chris and I got up early and took a taxi up to Tai Wo, the MTR station just north of where we lived.  In a matter of minutes we were at the Chinese border and through customs.  We spent a couple hours getting body, foot, and head massages, then had a good stiff lunch of turnip cakes in XO sauce (which tastes much better than it sounds—not that that would take much) before going in search of Rosie. 

I’m at a loss as to how to describe the Shenzhen mall.  Think about your local shopping center:  a Starbucks on every floor; an Ambercrombie and Fitch with its pedophilic pornography in the entryway; Bed, Bath, and Body Works leaking the scent of sarsaparilla-grapefruit toe scrub into the Insta-Sushi shop next door.   Mothers and daughters, teenage couples, and old men with walkers and fire-engine red Chuck Taylors stroll along wide well-lit walkways between shops.  Babies gurgle.  Doves coo.

Now take that picture and scribble over it with a black magic marker dipped in dog crap.  Add a dash or two of insane dystopia (think, Blade Runner on acid), throw in pickpockets, hookers, hustlers who’d sell you the shirt off their grandma’s back, mix well, and you’re about halfway to what the Lo Wu mall looks like. 

For one thing, it’s maybe six stories high, low-railed balconies circling a narrow open space.  Shenzhen has been in the Hong Kong news a lot lately, because of a spate of suicides at a Taiwanese plant that makes iPods and iPads.  Conditions there are so bad that employees—some as young as 18 or 19—have been hurling themselves out of windows, preferring death to 14-hour work days.  Standing there, at the foot of the Shenzhen mall, all I can think is . . . well, let’s just say I wished I had a hardhat.

For another thing, everywhere you go in this mall folks are trying to hustle you, calling out to you, asking if you want sun glasses, shirts, shoes, a girl, some food, “What you want?’  What you want?”  The only way to get through it without getting suckered into buying, say, a 6-trillion dollar rug, is to put your head down and plow on, avoiding eye contact, shrugging off offered hands, shoving old ladies cuddling infants out of your way. 

We go first to the third floor, where Rosie has her shop, a three-walled, white shelved space maybe 8 foot by 10.  She’s busy with another customer, so Chris leads me one floor higher, to the material center. 

Like the mall as a whole, it’s hard to describe this room.  It’s maybe 100 yards by 100 yards and packed, floor to ceiling, with bolts of every kind of material imaginable: tweeds, linens, cottons, silks, wools, stripes, checks, plaids, seersucker, mesh, 60’s psychedelia.  All of it is packed into individually-owned booths stacked 10 feet high with the stuff.  Pause for ten seconds to run your fingers over this or that fabric, and some pretty young thing will pluck your sleeve and lead you down alleyways nine inches wide, insisting you must see this linen or that wool, that it’s the best they have, that they’ll give you a good price. 

That most of the salespeople are women—and noticeably attractive at that—is more than a coincidence, I think, not unlike the conference book dealers in the US who hire mostly skinny women in their twenties to walk the floor. 

Here you find the usual wheeling and dealing you’d expect in China:  they start high (super high, if you’re a gweilo), you start low, they act offended, you refuse to budge, they cut their price in half, you come up maybe 5%, they lower their price some, you add another 5%, they refuse to go down anymore, saying, “No money, no money,” meaning, “At these prices my children will starve!”  You shrug, start to walk away, they knock another 50% off the price, and the two of you shake hands, grinning at each other, both satisfied. 

On this particular day, I find a man who sells linens almost exclusively and pick up a few that I like: one dark blue, one olive green, and one salmon-pink-orange-sherbet color that makes my eyes water just looking at it.  Chris gets a khaki and a dark blue for trousers, then finds a nice linen color he wants for a long-sleeved shirt.  I like it too, so buy a couple yards for my own shirt, which I know sounds a little creepy, I know, but the fact is I’m a foot taller than Chris and he’s got this decidedly un-midwestern Italian-Irish-Czech-Portuguese type thing going, so there’s very little chance anyone will mistake us for twins.

Then we go back downstairs to Rosie.  

It is impossible not to love Rosie.  This is not because, as you may be thinking, Rosie is a buxom larger-than-life bleach-blonde, cheery, smiley, loving woman like you’d see tending bar in some World War II-era film.  No, in many ways—indeed, in almost every way—Rosie defies her name:  she is not immensely, overwhelmingly cheerful.  She’s not particularly buxom or particularly pretty or particularly—I don’t know—rosie in anyway, shape or form.  And she’s definitely not blonde.

What she is, though, is calm.  I’ve seen snotty white women in Rosie’s shop rage away because they actually had to wait a whole seven minutes while Rosie took care of another customer, and Rosie has just nodded and looked straight at them, as if to say, “And what would you have me do?”  And I’ve seen those same women back down almost immediately.

And what Rosie is, is honest.  The first time we were there, I ordered four shirts and a sports coat.  She took my measurements, listened patiently as I explained my irrational fear of overly snug armpit seams, then set everything aside on a shelf over a sewing machine. 

I reached for my wallet.  “How much deposit?”

She waved her hand.  “No deposit.”

“Are you sure?”

She laughed.  “It’s your fabric.  You already paid for it.”

And what Rosie is, is a good tailor.  When Chris and I came back two weeks later (spending the morning, again, getting our admittedly ample bodies rubbed down tip to toe), Rosie handed me my weird salmon/pink/orange shirt to try on, smiling a little as its glow blinded three old men passing in the hall. 

I was wearing a t-shirt, so didn’t bother with the changing room, just slipping the linen over my head.

And here again I find myself at a loss for words.  Have you ever walked out of doors and felt as though the air and your body were exactly the same temperature, as though the air could pass right through your skin and into your bones, and you’d be perfectly fine?  Or have you ever risen from bed in the morning and gone downstairs to find a pot of hour-old coffee waiting for you, and taken a sip and just felt—I don’t know:  as though this cup of this coffee with this cream in it, was meant for you? 

That’s exactly how this shirt felt, slipping over my shoulders:  my arms passed through the sleeves as though they’d been there a thousand times before, my chest and pits felt nice and roomy, it hung comfortably around my waist, hugging my belly a little but not too much.

It was, in short, the perfect shirt. 

And it remains that way.  Even now, two months after our return to the States, I let out a near-silent moan of satisfaction every time I slip on this shirt—or one of its three brethren.  They are not just my favorite shirts right now, but arguably my favorite shirts ever, surpassing, even, the black shirt that they were meant to copy. 

And if this sounds over-the-top, well then, so be it.  The fact of the matter is that I love Rosie, love her deeply and truly and in a way that I’ve loved very few women in my life. 

And if that, in turn, sounds disloyal to Ellen, well then you need to know that after I returned to Tai Po with my first—note that word—completed order of custom-tailored Rosie originals, babbling incoherently about Cinderella rainbows and pink unicorns licking my earlobes, Ellen grabbed a skirt or two that she really liked and headed north for her own visit to the incomparable Rosie—and returned as smitten as me. 

Ah,  love . . . . ain't life grand?

Especially in this shirt. 

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

My Three Tailors, prt. 2

I met my second tailor on the street on day, waiting for Ellen to arrive for a doctor’s appointment on Hong Kong Island.  She had the kids with her, and I must have been poorly dressed, because a young Indian man strolled up to me.

“Need a tailor?” he said.


“A very good tailor.”

“I have one.”

This got his attention.  He grinned.  “You have one?”


“Where?” he said, still grinning.  “Where’s your tailor?”

I pointed west down Queensway Road.  “I don’t know:  79, 85, something like that.”

He obviously didn’t believe me.  “I can get you a good suit.  For 300.”

Now it was my turn to stare:  “300 dollars?”

He nodded.

“No way,” I said.  “No one can do a suit for 300 dollars.”

He gestured with a thumb.  “Come on.  I’ll show you.”

“No,” I said.  “I’m meeting my wife.”  Pause.  “And I already have a tailor.”

“Come on,” he said again.  He was a good-looking guy with that easy-going attitude of the salesman who knows he’s got you.  Walk down Nathan Road on any day, at any time, and you’ll see 50 or 60 guys just like him, all asking if you want a tailor.  According to Martin Booth in Gweilo, Chinese tailors consider this demeaning—standing on the street, hawking your wares—and look down on Indians for doing it.

“Seriously,” said the guy now.  “It’s my brother.  He’s a good tailor.”

“Seriously,” I said back at him.  “I just bought a suit.  I don’t need another one.”

“How much you pay?”

“No,” I said, looking away.  I wasn’t about to tell him $900. 

Again that grin, confident, conspiratorial:  “How much?”

“It’s okay,” I said, “thanks anyway.”  And then I walked away.


Half an hour later, having met Ellen and sent her off to her doctor’s appointment, I take the kids up the escalator of an indoor market to a free, unlocked bathroom I’d discovered there some weeks earlier.  After seeing Lucy safely into the women’s, I escort James and Willinto the men’s.  And who should we see there, standing daintily at the urinals, but our young Indian friend.

“Hello,” he said.

“Hey.”  I took care of Jamie first, then myself.  Then I went over to the sinks, where the man was washing his hands. 

“You meant US, didn’t you,” I say. 

He looked at me politely. 

“When you were talking about the suit.  You said you could do it for $300.  You meant US dollars, didn’t you.”

“Oh.”  And then he nodded.

“Because I was thinking, ‘Man, no one could make a suit for 300 Hong Kong.’”

He laughed and wiped his hands on a paper towel.  “You should check it out.”

“Tell you what:  give me a card.  I’ll stop by sometime.”

He tilted his head toward the door.  “It’s just down the hall.  Come look.”

Every once in a while it’s easier just to give in.  So after gathering the three kids, I pushed Jamie’s stroller down the hall and around the corner to a glass-fronted shop with a number of nice looking shirts in the window.  It was, I was startled to realize, a place that I’d glanced at a few times before—what’s more, I’d always admired the shelves of tightly-wound shirt material stretching floor to ceiling along one wall.  I know it sounds bizarre, but I love dress shirts and nice silk ties.  I’m a bald, middle-aged man, you have to understand.  Short of adding one of those bald-guy pony tails or getting another earring (or six), there’s very little I can do to accessorize my life and change my appearance.  I can’t even grow a beard, not so much because I’m a white guy with Norwegian ancestry, but because, man, those whiskers itch. 

Dress shirts, then—and lovely matching ties—are about as close as I can come to, well,  looking pretty.  Never mind that I never wear the ties, and only use the shirts once or twice a week during the months of December and January:  I like having a closet full of fancy button downs and brilliant, gem-like ties.  What can I say?  Everyone needs a hobby.

Or a fetish.  Whatever. 

Anyhow, I’d seen this shop before, passing by on my occasional morning outings with Jamie.  I’d even stopped and glanced in a few times, though I’d never entered.  And now, here I was, being ushered in like some kind of fat, bald, pasty-white royalty. 

And what’s more, as I maneuvered Jamie’s stroller through the door, I noticed a rectangular sign in the front window.  It read:  “Shirts:  Six for $1,500.”

For those of you a little slow with your math—or who just don’t care that the HK to US dollar conversion rate is roughly 7.8—$1,500 Hong Kong means roughly $190 US.  Divide that by 6, and you’re looking at more-or-less thirty-two bucks per shirt 

Per dress shirt.

Per custom-made dress shirt.  

Long-sleeved, no less.

I tried hard not to giggle. 

Our man from the street introduced me to another Indian fellow, this one bald-headed with a bear and sideburns—a look, I’ll admit, I’ve always found a little disconcerting, the coiffeuristic equivalent of going to work wearing a shirt and no pants. 

The second Indian man made a big deal about the kids, offering them cookies and candy and urging all of us to take a seat.

“I’m actually in a bit of a hurry,” I said.  “My wife is at the doctor’s, and we’re meeting friends soon.”

“No problem,” said the second man.  “You want a suit?”

“No.  No suit.”  I pointed to the sign in the window.  “I might be interested in some shirts, though.”

“No problem,” he said.  “We can do shirts.”

“The thing is,” I said, “I don’t know your work.  I’ve never been here before, no one has recommended the place to me.  How about I only buy three shirts for $750, and then if I like them, I’ll get three more.”

The man smiled so broadly his eyes almost disappeared.  He shook his head.

“But how do I know,” I said, “that they’ll be good shirts?  I’m not some tourist.  I live in Tai Po.  I’ve seen some bad shirts.”  It was true.  Hong Kong is well-known for its tailors, and notorious for its crappy tailors—think shirts that are single-stitched, that literally fall apart at the seams, that are so thin of thread that you can see a man’s chest-hair through the cloth. 

“I’m serious,” I said.  “If I like the first three I’ll buy more.  I’m going back to America soon.  I need lots of shirts.”

He nodded slightly, no quite committing, but not not committing either.  Leading me to the wall of narrow shelves, he chose two or three bolts of cloth he thought I might like.  We went back and forth, him choosing, me rejecting, me pointing, asking for similar fabric in different colors.  Everything I chose, I made a point of holding my hand behind the cloth and holding it up to the light.  Like most bald men, I’m annoyingly hirsute in other places—though I have managed to avoid the guerilla back thus far.  And the only thing more annoying than getting a crappily made shirt, is getting a great shirt that you can’t wear because it makes you look like you’ve pulled it over a wool sweater. 

Eventually we settled on three nice materials—one a plain gray and two white with stripes.  I was feeling pretty good about the whole thing, when a third man strolled in.  He’s older, heavier, better dressed, with a thick head of black hair.  Clearly he’s the boss. 

Introductions all around, and a word or two exchanged in a dialect I didn’t recognize regarding the particulars of my situation.  He nodded at the materials I’d picked out.  “Very nice.”  Then he gestured toward the back wall of the shop, toward set of shelves we haven’t examined.  “You might consider this,” he said, taking down two more bolts that were very nice. 

Very nice. 

Really very nice. 


So of course I ended up ordering six shirts.  He took my measurements courteously, the antithesis of my Chinese tailor.  “What kind of fit?” he asked.

“Excuse me?”

He gestured toward his young assistant, a thin, handsome man with a slightly crooked nose.  “You want close fit like him?”  Then he gestured down at his own, voluminous shirt.  “Or looser fit like me?”

“Looser,” I said.  “You and me, we can’t do what he does.”

He laughed, jotted a few notes, then strolled over to the counter where he began making up a receipt. 

“How much down?” I asked, reaching for my wallet.

“Twenty percent.”  He tapped two of the fabrics, a bluish-gray one and a white and red pattern that looked almost pink.  “These two, though, these are nicer fabrics, so it will be $1,800.”

“No,” I said.  “The sign says $1,500.”

He tapped the clothes again.  “But these two—“

“No,” I said.  Six months ago I would have caved, I’m sure, thinking I was out of my depth, that there was something going on that I didn’t understand, some nuance of culture where I was clearly in the wrong.  But multiple trips to the mainland in the last few months had toughed me up.  “First it was come in just to look around.  Then it was three for $750, then six for $1,500.  And now it’s $1,800.  You know what?  I think I’ll just skip it.”

I shoved my wallet back into my pocket, honestly determined to walk out. 

“On no,” he said, and waved his hand.  “Okay.  It’s okay.”  Then he gave me a smile like, It was worth a try, and went back to writing the bill. 


I wish the rest of this story were happier.  I was really excited about those shirts.  Pretty, you know?  Jewel like.  Bald dude accessories. 

I came back a week later.  The shirts looked fine in the package.  They even looked fine out of the wrapper.  It was only when I got into the dressing room and pulled the first one on that I began to see problems. 

For one, it was short.  Like, it came down over my waist, sure, and I could tuck it into my pants okay—after that, though, I’d need to staple the tails to my underwear to keep them from coming untucked. 

And then it was tight.  Or tightish.  I’m a big man, and not exactly what you’d call buff, so I tend to like my clothing loose, both to hide the fat and to keep the fat from getting pinched or chaffed.  This shirt wasn’t exactly lose-a-limb tight, but it was more snug than I’d hoped for, and nothing like what the owner had been wearing the week before.  It rode up into my armpits, and restricted my movements whenever I pulled—or tried to pull—an arm across my chest. 

And it was thin.  Not I-can-see-your-nipples thin, but thin enough that I spent two or three minutes standing there in the dressing room, thinking back to the week before and asking myself if I had, indeed, tested each fabric up against bright light.  I had, I was certain of it.  Staring at myself in the mirror and seeing the foreboding outline of my chest hair move like a thunderstorm beneath that white and red  pinstriped fabric, all I could conclude was that the store had two sets of material—a thicker one that they showed customers, and a thinner one that they actually used to sew the shirts.


And now, I have a confession:  I talk tough, I know, swagger a lot and act like I’m never afraid to speak my mind. 

The truth of the matter, though, is that I’m a wimp.  It’s not so much that I want people to like me—it’s that I’m terrified they won’t.  I just can’t handle the thought of looking deep into someone’s eyes and seeing nothing there but disdain—though, I’ll have to admit, I’ve seen this look more than once in my career. 

In the end, I think I’m just terrified of confrontation.  I’m no good at it, not good at having people yell at me, not good at standing my ground, firm in the knowledge that I’m right—or more right then the idiot across from me with spittle flying off his lips and a crease the size of the Mississippi flood plain in the middle of his forehead. 

All of which is a roundabout way of saying this:  I knew I was being ripped off.  I knew they were selling me shirts that were cut short, where the material probably wasn’t what I’d paid for.  I knew that chances were slim to none—barring a crash diet where I lost 30 pounds and six inches in height—that I’d ever be able to wear any of these shirts once I returned to the States. 

I knew all this, yes.  I knew it all.  And even so, I paid for those shirts and left the shop with a broken heart.  

My Three Tailors, prt. 1

Lexington, Virginia has very few faults, but one that’s glaring is the lack of places for a guy like me to buy clothes.   To be fair, I’m big, unusually big even, with both height and girth, and, well and if you must know the truth, kind of stumpy legs and a weirdly flat butt.  So it would make sense that it’s difficult to find clothes in my size.  But that’s not really the issue in Lexington.  No, in Lexington the issue is that, if you’re a man and you want to wear clothes, there’s Walmart and, well . . . not much.

And let’s be frank folks:  excepting Fruit of the Loom and sweat socks, there ain’t much I’m buying at Walmart.

So you can imagine my joy when I learned that Hong Kong is to shopping what Mecca, Heaven, and Disney World are to religious fanatics who love helium-sipping mice.  No more on-line ordering for me!  No more shoes that were half a size too small or shirts that looked great on the screen but hung like a door frame off my chest.  No more funky fabrics that tried to pass as cotton or pukey greens that make you eyes ache.  No more trips to the post office to return all of this junk to L.L. Bean and Eddie Bauer.

Eddie Bauer.  Brrrggghhh.    

No.  Now I would buy at Armani and Versace and Gucci and bunch of other really fancy places that I’m not even sure sell men’s clothes—or any clothes at all, for that matter.  But never mind:  I was going to be a clothes horse.

Except for the part where I wasn’t.  Because when I got to Hong Kong, I discovered that what they call “Large” we call “Pre-teen,” and what we call “XL” they call “tents.” 

Seriously, nothing fit me.  Even on the rare occasions I was able to track down XXL, I’d have to get someone to help pull the damn thing off after I’d gotten it stuck half-way over my nose.  So I was screwed:  pretty much a year in one of the most fashionable places on earth, and I was going to have to wear the same three pairs of khakis and four L.L. Bean polos over and over again.   

And then in January, one of the other Fulbrighters, a native Hong Konger, sent the rest of us an e-mail offering to introduce us to his tailor.   “It depends on your size,” David wrote, “but a good summer weight suit will usually run about $900, Hong Kong.”

“But you don’t wear suits,” Ellen said when I told her I was going to Central to pick out material.

“Who cares,” I said.  “That’s, like, 115 bucks, US.  For that price, I can buy it and use it for a handkerchief.”

I wasn’t really sure what to expect from a Hong Kong tailor—or any tailor, for that matter, since I’d never been to one before, unless you count the guy who tried to force me into the baby blue tuxedo before my senior prom.  I suppose I pictured a pretty civilized affair:  myself standing in the middle of a room lined with mirrors and paneled oak.  A gentile Chinese man in shirt sleeves and a vest would take down my measurements, barking out figures to a bespectacled assistant scribbling in a notebook.  Nearby, two or three other customers would be milling about, sipping tea maybe as they fingered bolts of pin-striped material.

In the end, I was at least right about one thing:  my tailor was indeed Chinese. 

Other than that, the experience was pretty much exactly what I hadn’t imagined:  taking an elevator to the fifth floor of a non-descript marble building off of Queensway Road East, I stepped across a hall that looked as though it were designed for the easy removal of bloodstains, and into a windowless room roughly the size of a fat man’s coffin.  Two of the four vinyl-paneled walls were covered with aluminum shelves bearing dusty bolts of cloth.  Above them, hanging from an exposed steam pipe, were suits and shirts and trousers waiting to be picked up.  In one corner, a customer with receding hair and glasses was trying on a suit behind a waist-high wall. 

Two harried looking Chinese men pushed their way through the 9 or 15 customers crowded into the small space.  Along the far wall was a low counter holding an ancient cash register and twelve thousand photograph-sized books full of wools and pin-stripes, linens and seer suckers.

I froze in the doorway, unsure of how to proceed.  Eventually one of the tailors—a stooped, dark-haired man with big ears—paused as he stuck pins into a spotty-faced Chinese youth, glared at me and said, “What?”

“I—um—“ I glanced around.  I could see my friend David and two or three others from the group, but all of them were busy picking out materials.

“Pick up or measure?” the tailor barked.

“Pick up,” I said, then realized what he meant.  “I mean—measure!”

He gave a grunt, rightly figuring me for some high-maintenance moron who was going to eat up his time and profits.  Gesturing with his head, he led me to the counter covered with samples books.  “Look!” he said, and walked away.

I looked. 

It was overwhelming.  I mean, there must have been 100,000 samples on that counter, organized in not ascertainable manner.  I flipped through a few of the catalogues, fingering materials, trying to find some colors that I liked.  Already I missed the simplicity of Eddie Bauer, the four predictable choices on each page, the friendly associate at the other end of the line waiting to answer all of my stupid questions.  Eventually, though, I managed to find a charcoal gray mid-weight that I sort of liked.  Holding my place with one finger, I went over to where the tailor who loved me so much was holding a yellow-tape up to a college-aged Malaysian dude with long shiny hair that he couldn’t stop touching.

“Um,” I said, holding up the book like Oliver asking for more.

Tailor man glanced at it.  “Out,” he said.  “No more.”  Then he went back to his tape measure. 

Shuffling back to the stack of samples, I turned more pages, pinched more materials.  Eventually I came up with two or three I didn’t hate completely, and waited until my man was free to measure me.  He seemed to approve of my choices—or at least not hate them completely—and demonstrated his approval by jamming his tape measure up my groin as though I were a goose being placed on a spit.

I kept my mouth shut as he measured me, afraid he knew of even more creative ways to torture me.  When he got to my shoulders, though, I managed to stutter out a request that he not make the area around the arms too tight.

He stopped what he was doing and peered at me through his glasses.  “What?” he barked.

“The-the-the shoulders,” I said.  “If they’re—I won’t—too tight and I can’t wear them . . . “

“Hmmmpf!” he said, and went back to his measuring.  Four more minutes and a few questions more—“Pleats?  Three?  Side pockets?  You sure?—and I was back on Queensway Road, blinking in the sunlight.


This is the point, of course, where more likely than not, you’re waiting for me to say something like, “It was all worth it, though, once I went back and tried on the first custom-tailored suit of my young life,” or, “I’ve never had pants that fit that well, before, or since, and I don’t expect ever to,” or at the very least, “I went back in, punched that guy in the face, and torched the place.” 

But alas, such was not the case. 

I went back a few weeks later for a fitting, leaving again slightly dazed and confused.  And when I returned finally to pick up my one suit and two pairs of pants, I just wanted to grab the clothes, pay, and flee.  He and his assistant, though, insisted that I go into the “changing room”—e.g., the cupboard in the corner—and try on my new suit.  I did, coming out in my stocking feet to stand in front of a floor-length mirror.

I looked—how can I say this?  Old. 

It wasn’t the bald head, mind you, or the increasing abundance of gray in what little hair remained.  Or even my ever-growing dim sum belly. 

No, it wasn’t any of those things.  It was the rise. 

Now for those of you who have know idea what I mean, “rise,” is the length of material between your, um, groinal region and where-ever it is you situate your belt.  Why they call it “rise” is something I’d rather not discuss at the moment, so suffice to say that on some pants—say, trendy jeans—the rise is rather short, while on other pants—say, those worn by immensely fat men whose bellies need their own seats and an extra-large popcorn at the movie theatre—the rise is roughly the size of, say, Wyoming.   

Anyhow, the pants I was wearing now, standing in front of the mirror at the tailor in Central had a rise that was, shall we say, rather nostalgic.  Think Charlie Chaplin, perhaps. Or Johnny Cash way back in the 50s, dressed smartly in black with a cowboy shirt and the top of his trousers somewhere just under his armpits.  Or any of the lead characters from Revenge of the Nerds.

I mean, these pants had Rise, with a capital “R” and italics.  I could have pulled those suckers over my head, unzipped, and eaten pizza through the crotch, that’s how much rise these bad boys had. 

My tailor stood beside me, hands on his hips.  He met my eyes.  “Okay?”

I glanced back at the mirror.  I looked like Harold Lloyd, with less hair.  Then I looked back at the short, large-eared Chinese man standing beside me.  He was small, yes, and old, yes, and kind of scary in a way that men who know what they’re doing always are.  But right now, he was also smiling a little, proud of his work.    

“Yes,” I said.  “Okay.”


Back at our flat in Tai Po, I went into the bedroom and tried the suit on again.  Strolling out into the living room, I held my arms out for Ellen to see.  “What do you think?”

She glanced up from the floor where she was playing with Jamie.  Her eyes roamed over the gray flannel, following the lines from cuff to cuff, crease to ankle.  Ellen cares deeply about many things—her kids, her family, her work, books, art, politics, even me sometimes.  But clothes, to her, are generally little more than a nuisance, something to be acquired as quickly as possible and washed as seldom as acceptable.

“That,” she said, “is a beautiful suit.”

It took me a minute to get my breath back.  “Really.”

She nodded.  “Really.”

I stepped back.  “What do you think of the pants?”

She glanced down.  “They look great.”

“You don’t think they’re old man pants?”

She looked again.  “They look comfortable.”

I did one of those dorky, lean back and suck in your gut moves, trying to get a look at my own outfit from a distant perspective.  “Huh,” I said. 

Padding back down the hall, I considered this.  Back in the room, I took off the jacket and stood before the mirror, giving the trousers another look.  Ellen was right:  they did look comfortable.  What’s more, their lines were classic, the pleats graceful, the creases sharp, the cuffs perfectly sized.  I took a few steps, back and forth, watching myself from the side.  The pants moved easily with me, nowhere too tight, nowhere catching or sagging or twisting unpredictably. 

“Huh,” I said again, still looking in the mirror. 

And then I did what any reasonable man would do:  I took those trousers off, packed them up, put on my blue jeans, and headed back down to Central to order three more pairs.  

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Things Burn Up On Entry

As the plane dips a wing over Chicago a little after 3:00, Ellen glances across the aisle at me. 

“Different landscape,” she says.

Definitely.  The view out the window shows block upon block of low, flat buildings laid out in predictable squares.  They stretch to the horizon, as does the dull beige sky.  Gone are the mountains, the blocks of Leggo skyscraper apartments, the wide blue ocean filled with cargo ships and ferries.


It’s 11:45 PM on 16 July, the day we arrived back.  Excluding the four or five hours of moderate dozing on the plane, I’ve been awake for something like 30 hours.  Ellen is in bed, the kids are asleep, and I’m on the phone to Hong Kong.  Specifically, I’m trying to explain to the clerk at the hotel we stayed at on Thursday night exactly what I mean when I say “stuffed killer whale.”

“It’s a toy,” I tell her.  “A child’s toy.  A-a-a plush toy.”

“Plastic?” she says.

“No, no.  Soft.  Like a pillow.”

“You left a pillow in you room?”

It doesn’t get any easier when I have to explain the concept of killer whale.  I’ve only been in the US for 8 hours, and already I’ve forgotten the complexities of a bilingual conversation in a region where few people are actually bilingual and almost everyone in the service industry was kicked out of high school at the age of 15. 

Finally, she gets a clear enough sense of what we’re discussing to put me on the most expensive hold of my life.  I’m sweating.  I know this is stupid, know I should go to bed, know I’ll be more clear headed after some sleep.  I’ve already gone through all ten of our suitcases twice, unzipping the compartments, digging through the dirty clothes, the souvenirs, random toys and books, the detritus of 11+ months of living abroad.  I can’t find Will’s killer whale anywhere—Will’s killer whale, his favorite stuffed animal, his constant bedtime companion, the receptor of all of his secrets, for all practical purposes his best friend, even now, on the verge of ten. 

Even worse, it was my job, that morning—if you can call something 30 hours and twelve time zones ago “that” and “morning”—it was my job to gather all of the kids’ toys and blankets and stuff them into the various small spaces remaining in our ten suitcases.  I had thought I’d placed dear old Killie in Will’s backpack so that he could have him on the 15-hour flight home, but when I’d searched there come bedtime in Wisconsin, all I’d found was a stuffed orang utan we’d bought in Borneo. Making all of this worse is the fact that Will has an earache and barely slept on the plane, is exhausted, and has seemed incredibly vulnerable as we’ve made the transition from Hong Kong back to the US. 

Eventually the clerk in Hong Kong comes back on the line and tells me they hadn’t found any killer whales in our room, but if we wanted to reclaim the mud-covered duffle and half-eaten sack of Doritos we’d left there, she’d be happy to send them to me, C.O.D.  I hang up and pace into the living room.  My mom is there, reading a book.  She’s still glowing from all the hugs and smooches and the sheer joy of having our three little rug rats back in her life. 

“You should go to bed,” she says.

“I know.”  My joints ache and I can feel a slick of sweat on my forehead.  My clothes are so saturated with body oil and dirt and airline grease that they actually stick to me when I move. 

“Get some rest.  It’ll clear your head.”

“I know,” I say.  “I just can’t stand the thought of our trip ending like this.” 


We make it all the way to 4 A.M. before Lucy comes in to the room and says, “I can’t sleep anymore.”

“I got it,” I say to Ellen, who groans something in a dialect of Portuguese I hadn’t known she knew, rolls over, and begins to snore immediately.

I take Lucy in my arms, carry her downstairs into my parents’ basement.  We click on the TV.  I curl her up on a couch, and wrap her in a blanket.

“Cartoon network,” she says.

“Fox News,” I say back.  “Close enough.”

I hope, of course, that we’ll both fall back to sleep, but neither of us does.  Eventually I go upstairs and collect one of those plastic-wrapped packets of 10 different cereals, all in little boxes, all with bright labels, all packed with sugar. 

“Take your pick,” I say to Lucy.  “Anything but—“

“Fruit Loops,” she says.

“—Fruit Loops,” I finish.  “We need to share those with Will and Jamie.”

She chooses Corn Pops and I swear under my breath—they’ve always been my favorite.  As she eats, I crawl over to the suitcases, pull the first one flat, shocked again by its weight.  Back in Hong Kong some—what?  36 hours ago?—we’d borrowed the hotel scale and weighed each of our bags:  24.6kg.  23.9 kg.  24.9 kg.  On the advice of one of the previous HK Fulbrights, we hadn’t shipped anything coming over from the States in 2009.  Instead, we’d stuffed 10 suitcases full of everything we’d need, from undershirts to kitchen knives, and lived off of that for the next 11 months. 

Unfortunately—in a “No Duh” kind of way—living in Hong Kong for a year we’d accumulated a lot of additional stuff.  Some of it we’d sent back with family who visited as they returned to the States.  Others we’d shipped in postal boxes.  The rest we’d thrown into the trash, given to friends, or stuffed into our ten bags, weighing and reweighing, making sure we were under the 25 kilogram max. 

Except that, um, when we got to the airport and I put the bag on the scale, grinning broadly as it posted 25.0, the ticket agent frowned and said, “But the maximum is 23 kilograms.”

I must have looked about to cry, because in a very un-Hong Kong moment, she waved all of our bags through—all of them, and didn’t charge us a penny. 

Now, down in my parents’ basement at 4:36 am, Ben-10 on the TV, I zip open the first of the bags, running my fingers frantically through the loose clothing, the plastic toys, the zip-loc bags of shampoo, searching for one soft, cuddly, much-loved football-sized killer whale.

It’s a nightmare, I have to admit.  Or more accurately, I’m moving in a nightmare-like daze.  I’ve had maybe 8 hours sleep since what was Friday in Hong Kong but Thursday in Wisconsin.  I’ve also had more sugar, more bad food, more caffeine, fewer showers, and less exercise in that time span than I’m used to, making me feel slimy, exhausted, mildly buzzed, and thoroughly depressed.  Making all of this worse, some stupid show about spinning tops—the kid’s toy, that kind of top—is now flashing across the TV screen.  Tops?  Are you kidding me?

And then, in the fifth bag, half-asleep, I tug on what I think is an old towel and pull out a small, black-and-white killer whale. 


Will comes down at 5.  I give him a huge hug and hand him Killie, grinning ear to ear.  He takes it from me, grins, and says to Lucy, “Is this Cartoon Network?”

The tops cartoon is over now and it’s something else, something weird with super-heroes, only they’re all really short with big faces, like they’re little kid super-heroes or something.  It’s a cartoon I recognize as something the kids watched when we were in Cambodia and Bali, and maybe as far back as Vietnam, and the thought of those places and their white beaches and the smell of lemon grass just drives my head into the ground, it’s so depressing. 

Will’s tugging on his ear. 

“Still hurt?” I say. 

He nods.  The ear in question is cherry red.


Jamie makes it to 7, wakes up his mother (who will owe me those three additional hours of sleep until the day she dies), and comes downstairs.   By this time, the grandparents are up and Lucy and Will are running around half-buzzed on sugar cereal, half-drunk on lack of sleep.  I hand Jamie his share of the Fruit Loops and leave for the bathroom.  When I return, Ellen is sorting through a pile of souvenirs I’d set aside during my search for the illusive baby whale. 

 “Some of these are gifts, right?”

“Better be,” I say.  “We don’t have room for that stuff back in Virginia.”

I go upstairs, get a glass of water, say a few things to the kids, and return to the basement.  Jamie is crying.

“What’s wrong with him?”

“Probably tired,” Ellen says.

“Jamie,” I say, “are you okay?”

He just sobs.

“What’s a matter, honey?” Ellen asks.

“Does your tummy hurt?” I say.

Jamie sobs some more, stammering out, “Y-y-yes.”  And then he opens his mouth and green vomit flies everywhere.


It’s 3:20 in the afternoon, and Ellen has come in to the room where I am stretched out on the bed.  “Paulie,” she says, “you need to get up.”

“%#$&,” I say, albeit in a very loving way. 

At 3:41 she returns.  “Paulie,” she says, “you need to get up.  You won’t be able to sleep if you don’t.”

She’s right, I know, but I don’t care.  Right now, my brain feels like someone has wrapped it in a warm wool blanket and dragged it down a very very deep hole.  I’m not so much on the bed, as of it. 

We laid down at 2, swearing we were each going to take a one hour nap—just enough to clear our heads after our pre-dawn cartoon-watching. 

Bad idea. 

Really really really bad idea. 

Fortunately, I have to go to the bathroom, so I literally must drag myself up—though, I admit, I do spend a good ten minutes of half-sleep trying to convince myself that there’s no shame in wet underwear.

Will and Lucy are still asleep as well.  “Kids,” I say, leaning in the door to their room.  “Time to get up.”

Silence.  It’s like there’s a black hole of sound in that room.

I nudge Will with my toe.  “Will,” I say, “you really have to get up.”

I expect a moan, but get nothing.  I look at the clock:  4:00.  Which means, what, 5 am in Hong Kong?  Or 3 am?  It’s an hour off, one way or the other, but my head is so stuffed with dried seaweed and turkey sausage, I can’t even do a simple calculation, much less come up with a reasonable metaphor.

“Will,” I say, and get down on my knees.  I poke his knee.  His leg shifts some, but falls back into place.  I rub his back, give his buttock a pinch.  Nothing.  I lift one ankle by the pant cuff, let it go.  It drops, limp. 

“Ellen,” I call into the living room, “they’ve gone boneless.”


It takes us 20 minutes to get them up and into the living room.  Propping them on the sofa, I run into the kitchen to get a drink of water.  When I return, they’ve slid on the floor, their eyes shut. 

“Crap,” I say.  We poke and prod, nudge and elbow, promising them ice cream if they’ll just wake up.  “Culvers,” I say.  “We can go get frozen custard.”

Finally we have them in the Volkswagon.  My head still feels like someone’s filled it with marshmallow fluff and lit it on fire, but I put the car in the gear and we lurch forward. 

When we get to Culvers, we pile out and walk across the flat, black, hot asphalt under the flat, beige, hot sky, into this non-descript blue restaurant that looks like someone took an A&W, gutted it, then installed the dullest furniture they could find.  We buy 5 ice cream cones.  We go sit in a booth.  We lick, silently.  The kids are still blurry eyed.  I still feel like my bones are made of wax that’s been sitting in the sun too long. 

“I’m not hungry,” Lucy says after about five minutes.

“Really?” I say, even though I’m not either.  “But it’s ice cream.” 

She just shakes her head.  Jamie, ever the lemming, says, “I’m not hungry either.”  Will nods. 


Will’s ear is still hurting.  Walking to the car, Ellen points to a Walmart.  It’s on the far side of a long, black parking lot the size of Conneticut.

“We should probably stop there and get some Tylenol.”

The thought of going into the big W a mere 24 hours after our return to the States depresses me almost to the point of—well, it’s hard to think of something to compare it to, because going to Walmart is in and of itself the most depressing thing in the world, but you get what I’m saying. 

But Will’s ear is hurting, so we trudge across the mega-gigantic supersized parking lot.  Inside, we’re greeted by a short woman with triceps the size and consistency of steamed buns that have been left in the rain.  Both of her ears are studded with black posts, lobe to crest.  I wonder, for a moment, why it never occurred to someone who spends that much time and money trying to look fashionable that maybe a few dips to shape the upper arms would be a useful thing.

We’re searching for three things:  Kids’ Tylenol, sandals for Will, and books on tape for our long drive up to Minnesota.  Stumbling through the aisles, we find none of them, though we do come across more of the sorts of people you only meet in America:  a bespectacled woman so large she looks like she’s pushing one tractor in front of her and pulling another behind; a teenage boy with a pencil fuzz moustache holding hands with a little girl in a pink Packers jersey; a skinny African-American girl who appears to be wearing a girdle-corset thingy outside her clothes. 

This last one particularly strikes me, and it takes a minute to figure out why.  Is it because she’s only the 5th or 6th black person I’ve seen in the last 12 months?  Is it because Manitowoc is such a whiter than white place, that she stands out?

But then it hits me:  it’s because, for the first time in almost year, we’re not the minority. 


We find no Tylenol, no sandals, no books on tape.  Crossing the parking lot again, a rusty Chrysler K cruises by us, moving the wrong way down the parking aisle.  Inside is a man in a grayed t-shirt with the sleeves cut off.  Old papers—phone books, newsprint, envelopes with plastic windows—are shoulder high in the back and passenger seats, as though he’s swimming in a sea of paper. 


 We’ve decided to drive back to Virginia together—it seems only fitting after a year away that we all pull up to our home together—so we stop at the U-Haul store to reserve a trailer. 

It’s a low, square building sided with beige tin.  A row of orange and white trucks is lined up near the back door, so that’s where I go in.  Inside, three rows of diagonal tables—the kind you find in church basements—are set up with piles of paper, bottles of glue, and scissors.  Six or seven women rest on their elbows, cutting and pasting.  It’s a scrapbook shop.

In front of me is a barrel-shaped man with close-cut gray hair.  He’s wearing a black Harley Davidson t-shirt adorned with a huge American flag.  This is an alliance, I’ll have to admit, that I’ve never really been able to figure out:  Harleys, in my mind sheltered, academic mind, are driven by gangs like the Hell’s Angels.  And Hell’s Angels, in my mind, like things that are decidedly un-American:  marijuana, gang violence, and crepes suzette, just to name a few. 

“Howdy,” the man says as I stroll in.  “What can I do you for?”

“A million dollars,” I’m tempted to say, “though that still might not be enough,” but I keep my mouth shut, except to tell him that I need a trailer.

He asks me a few questions—where, when, how far, for how long, did I have a hitch—and eventually get to the point where he starts tapping into his computer. 

We go through a few more details—do I want insurance (No), do I object to a trailer with Rush Limbaugh on the side (Yes).  He types away, clearly filling in some on-line form.  Eventually, though, he frowns and punches the return key.   The frown deepens.  He taps the key again. 

I expect him to say, “Dag nammit”—I mean, what more could I ask for on our first day back in the States?—but instead he puts on a pair of half-moon glasses, scans the clipping and pasting women, and says, “Bev?  A little help?”

A woman with short blondish gray hair comes over.  Her T-shirt is white, bearing the words “Scrapping: Girls Gone Wild.”

“What’s up?” she says. 

He points to the screen.  “I just put the number here, and then press enter, right?” 

She tilts her head back, peering through her spectacles.  Her glasses, like everything else about her, are wonderfully practical.  Over the years, I’ve known maybe a thousand women like her, aunts, and neighbors, teachers and friends—they’re a particular brand of Midwestern women, sturdy and smart and quick of wit and judgment.  They won’t hesitate to squeeze you in a bear-hug or slap your hand, depending on just how stupid you’re acting at any given moment.  Watching her, I actually find myself choking up, salt misting my eyes.

“Here,” she says, “what’s the number?”

He tells her.  She hammers a couple keys with one finger, then presses enter.  The machine beeps.

“There you are,” she says. 

“Thanks, hon.”

“No problem.”


Back in the car, we drive toward Lake Michigan, heading to Osco in search of the illusive Childrens’ Tylenol.  We drive along curving neighborhood streets, past houses I’ve known my entire life.  Even after a full year in Hong Kong, none of it feels weird—indeed, if anything is weird, it’s how absolutely normal all of this feels.  It’s like we never left. 

Along the way, Lucy notices the moon, pale in the afternoon sky.  We talk about this, how the moon and earth and sun are on a three dimensional plane, how that impacts what you can and can’t see and when.  I mention that among my hometown’s other claims to fame—a real-life WWII submarine in the harbor, a sadistic murderer featured on 20/20—there’s the story of meteorite that fell to earth right in the middle of 8th street, one sunny morning in the 1960s.

“What’s a meteorite?” says Lucy.

“It’s like a meteor,” I tell her, “only lighter.”

She doesn’t get the joke, and neither does her older brother who goes on to explain to her the difference between meteoroids, meteors, and meteorites—the first it turns, out, is just an object traveling through space, while the second is the same object entering the earth’s atmosphere.  The third is what actually hits the ground—if anything at all actually makes it through the friction of re-entry. 

By 5:00 we’re in the parking lot of the pharmacy down by Memorial Drive.  It’s not an Osco anymore, apparently having been bought out by CVS.  This is significant, because one of my most horrible moments before returning to the States involved having a sudden mental flash of myself sitting in the parking lot of the CVS in Lexington Virginia, digging desperately through my glove compartment for a gun, a knife, a tire gauge, anything I could use to end my miserable life in a miserable town in and miserable country dominated by a chain of miserable pharmacies known only for their innocuous ability to be stunningly the same no matter where you are. 

I don’t know where this sudden hatred of CVS came from:  I’d never been particularly bothered by the chain before our trip to Hong Kong.  That day, though, sitting in our flat in Tai Po, the tall green mountains outside our window, the hustle and bustle of one of the most fascinating, stimulating, constantly surprising cities in the world not 30 minutes away by train—sitting in that world and having this sudden vision of the dull, flat, predictable sameness of the CVS in Lexington, I’d felt utter despair. 

And now, barely 25 hours into our return to the States, here I am sitting in the parking lot of a CVS, the air conditioning cranked as we wait for Ellen to search yet another store for some medicine to cure my son’s ear-ache.  Stretching out in the front seat, I slide one of my favorite CDs into the player, turn the volume up just a little as Will and Lucy and Jamie chatter away in the back seat. 

I listen for a while, idly hoping Ellen will remember how much she loves me and grab a two-pound bag of Twizzlers before purchasing the medicine.  Eventually a song comes on that I like, and I sing the first few lines:

I think the kids are in trouble,

Do not know what all the troubles are for

Give them ice for their fevers

You’re the only thing I ever want anymore . . .

“Daddy,” says Lucy from the backseat, “how do you know the words to that song?”

“Because,” I say, turning so I can see her, “Daddy’s magic, remember?”

They laugh, and Will gives me what I’ll claim here is a loving tap on the back of the head with the heel of his shoe.

“Really,” she says when they’ve helped me wipe up the blood, “how do you know?”

“Because I listened to this CD every night for a month.”

“In Hong Kong?”


“Where did you get it?”

“At the HMS,” I say.  “Remember?  Down in Central?”

And then it happens:  my body is in my car in a small town in eastern Wisconsin, the flat Midwestern sky stretching out above me, but my mind is flashing suddenly on a particular corner of Queens Road Central, just outside the MTR near Peddar Street.  Two doors down from the record shop is the mosaic-tiled restaurant Ellen’s friend Michael brought us to.  West leads to my tailor, the best noodle shop in Hong Kong, Shueng Wan and the Market and Hong Kong University.  To the East lies St. John’s Cathedral, Hong Kong Park, the trams and the tastiest Macau restaurants in the world, where the pork chops are tender and the rolls have a thin crust, like the best French baguette you’ve ever had.

And then there’s another flash, and I’m back outside CVS, the Wisconsin sun beating down on the car, the parking lots stretching out for miles all around, the radio loud and trailer tractor trucks rattling by.  

And all I can think is, “Damn.  It’s gone.” 

And it is.  It’s over. 

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

How You Know It's Time to Go Home

It’s not Bali’s fault.  To be fair, it didn’t have much of a chance at success.  For one thing, even though our fancy Sanur beach resort was supposed to be our last stop before going back to the place we’ve now come to call “Tea Party Nut-Job Land,” because of a weird series of events involving Filipino pirates, orangutans, and sea shells in the shape of John the Baptist’s left buttock, we ended up spending five days in Malaysia at a fancy beach resort there.  Two weeks of crazy travel ending in a beach resort equals really cool vacation.   One week of crazy travel ending in a beach resort and then going to another beach resort equals—well—anti-climax. 

Then there’s the fact that when we first showed up in the Bali we stayed in Ubud, which is arguably the coolest town in pretty much anywhere.  Years from now when I think back to Ubud, I’ll remember circles of men at the fire dance chanting words from an ancient play, a busy street full of markets and laughing women, restaurants where they greet you with scented towels fresh out of the cooler, and waking up in the morning to find monkeys on our porch, searching for food.

Okay, so the monkeys were a little scary—I mean, they’re cute from a distance, but when they’re chasing your six-year-old daughter with bared teeth, the charm sort of wears off. 

But even so:  Ubud was awesome.  Our hotel was surrounded by rice paddies and had a little open-air swimming pool full of cold cold water.   The people were gracious and kind, there was music everywhere we went.  We loved Ubud.

So Bali—or at least our beach hotel in Sanur—didn’t have much of a chance.

Of course, they didn’t do themselves any favors. 

“We’ve given you an upgrade,” the hotel clerk said as we checked in.

“I love you,” I replied.

He looked at me, a little startled.  I smiled.  He frowned. 

“Um,” I said, “Have you met my kids?”  I gestured toward the far end of the open-air lobby where Lucy was doing cart-wheels, Jamie was head-butting Will, and Will was trying to read something involving dragons and boy geniuses. 

I expected this would ease the tension some, but his frowned deepened. 

“Um,” I said, “and my lovely wife?”

The clerk nodded at Ellen, then said something in rapid Balinese to the concierge.  The other man answered back, then rose from his desk and came over to the counter.  The two of them chatted back and forth for a minute, then the concierge gestured toward the kids. 

“These are your children?”

I nodded.  I wasn’t sure what was going on, but despite the concierge’s attempt at a warming smile, I could tell there was a problem.

“Please,” he said, and nodded toward his desk.  I followed him over.

“You have been given an upgrade,” he said.

“That’s very nice.”

“Unfortunately,” he said, “there are rules in The Club.”

“The huh?”

“The Club,” he said, and started typing at his computer. 

Turns out a lot of fancy hotels have a “club” section, an area reserved for special customers.  Sometimes this section has its own pool, sometimes it has a special bar.  Generally the rooms are substantially nicer.  What exactly makes the customers “special” varies from resort to resort, but at our Sanur hotel, that special features was—

“Excuse me?” I said to the concierge.  “I’m not sure I heard you right.”

“No kids,” he repeated.

I looked at him.  He was busily typing away, eyes intent on his screen.  He didn’t seem to be joking.  Then I turned a looked at my kids.  Lucy was still doing cartwheels, flashing her bright-pink designer bloomers (“Francie-pants”—look them up on-line), Will had given up on his book and was strolling the lobby fingering the objet-d’arts on display, each of which stood over a small cardboard sign that said, “Do Not Touch.”  Jamie was—well, I’m not sure, but it looked like he was digging through the garbage.

I turned back to the concierge.  “No kids?” I said.  “Really?”

I’ll admit he was very nice.  He explained that The Club area was set up for couples on their honeymoon, older folks looking for a quiet get-a-way, and other people who generally hated kids. 

“But didn’t you know we had kids?” I asked.

He shook his head, still typing. “Your reservation said ‘Mr. and Mrs.”

“Well, yes,” I said.  “But we also asked for two rooms.”

“But all it said was ‘Mr. and Mrs.’”

“Two rooms, for five people.  Who did you think the other three people were?”

“’Mr. and Mrs.’”

I gritted my teeth.  He kept tapping.  What was he doing, filing his tax returns?  I wondered for a minute if maybe he, too, had a blog, if maybe his was called “Why Kids Suck.blogspot.Com,” or maybe, “Stupid White Men Who Are Even Dumber Than Most of the Other Stupid White” 

In the end, he was forced to compromise.  Since no other rooms were available, we were “allowed” to stay in The Club for one night.  After that, our “up-grade” would be down-graded and we’d be thrown into some rat-hole with the rest of the breeder riff-raff.   As if that weren’t bad enough, for our one night n that Shangri-La they, we were warned to keep the kids very very quiet.

“So as not to disturb the other guests,” the concierge informed me.

“Sure,” I said.  “We wouldn’t want to annoy any guests now, would we?”

As we followed the bell-boy along a palm-lined path, I turned to Ellen.  “I knew I should’ve brought some fire-crackers.”

“The annoying thing,” she said, “is that they clearly upgraded us because they were over-booked.  It was their mistake to begin with.”

Which is true enough.  And it’s also true enough that when Ellen makes a comment like that, things are seriously out of whack.  Ellen is, after all, the kind and gracious half of our dysfunctional little marriage, and seldom has a mean word to say about anyone or anything.

The Club rooms were gorgeous, with a capital “GORG”:  tiled floors, high ceilings, plush beds, big balconies overlooking a terraced series of cool blue swimming pools (forbidden to the children of course).  In short, pretty much the nicest room we’d had during our travels in Asia. 

“Hey!” Lucy said, when she noticed the big French doors.  “Look!  A balcony!”

“Balcony!” roared Jamie.

“Noooooooooooo!!!!!!” Ellen and I hollered simultaneously, leaping across the room and slamming the doors shut just as the two of them, followed by Will, were about to head into the open air, hurling kiddy cooties and noise pollution before them like Pig-Pen at an Ozzy Osbourne concert. 

The kids just stared at us, frozen in their tracks.

“No,” I said, just to make sure they’d gotten the point. 

They continued to stare, trying to cipher why their parents were being even more bizarre than usual. 

“You can’t go out there,” Ellen said. 

“Why not?” Will asked.

“Because—“ I said, then couldn’t figure out how to explain it.  “Because you can’t.”

“Why not?”  This time it was Lucy. 

“Because,” Ellen said, “children aren’t allowed out on the balcony.”

The three of them took a moment to digest this, and then Jamie—who learns quickly, particularly when it’s something his parents would rather he didn’t—said, “Why not?”

“Because,” I told him, “this is the place that hates children.”


Okay, so that’s overstating it a little.  But just a little.  The resort—or at least The Club portion—definitely had a bit of a Vulgaria feel—the land from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang where kids are illegal—as though kids were not just forbidden, but hunted down, bagged, tagged, and fried with onions.  It wasn’t just that you couldn’t hear the sound of children, laughing, splashing, farting with their armpits.  You couldn’t hear anything.  There was no noise.  Anywhere.

“Weird,” said Ellen, coming out of one of the bathrooms. 


She held up a hairdryer.  “The instructions are in German.”


She shrugged.  “The signs in the lobby.  They were in German too.”

We looked at each other.  “Now that I think of it,” Ellen went on after a moment, “the guide book did say this side of the peninsula was sort of reserved for German and Austrian retirees.”

I frowned.  “Really?”  I’d always imagined Bali as a kind of laid-back, free swinging place, sort of an Indonesian Jamaica, minus the dreadlocks and that really bad movie about the guys with the bobsled.  After a year in Hong Kong, where every building, every bus, every public toilet almost disappears under a shingling of signs forbidding this or that behavior (Bouncing a ball is illegal?  Really?), Bali seemed like welcome relief.  Now though, I pictured a parade of sun-dried geriatric Germans parading by my chaise lounge in string bikinis and sling-shot Speedos, frowning in that Hessian way because my children were breathing too loud. 

“Maybe we should switch hotels,” I said. “What’s on the other side of the peninsula?”

“Drunken Aussie college students.”

“Then again . . .”


Dinner didn’t help.  It was already late, so instead of our usual routine of wandering the streets until we found something that looked good, cheap, or both, we decided to eat at the hotel restaurant and make an early night of it.  We knew this would cost us, but it seemed the best option at the time.  Besides, we reasoned, hotel restaurants are usually very nice.

And this one was too.  Sort of.  Right next to the beach, it featured a long tent-like structure under the swaying palms.  The only problem was that it was breezy, so they’d lowered a series of thick plastic sheets to block the wind.  Which would have been okay, had the plastic not been so sand-blasted and scarred as to be opaque, making you feel as though you were sitting in a styrofoam cup.  We could hear the surf, sure.  But see it?  No way.

The food was okay though, and not overly expensive, particularly as we made the children share a pizza.  Between the protein and the wine, we were feeling a little better, a little less cranky.  Then Ellen stopped mid-conversation and stared.  I looked at her, waiting for her to continue, but she didn’t.  Finally, I followed her gaze.

Across the sidewalk, back toward the main body of the hotel, stood two huge—I dunno—gryphon-dragon-phoenix-type thingies, their green figures shining in the glare of two ground-level spotlights.  I’d noticed them earlier, but hadn’t spent any real time thinking about them.  Now, though, Ellen couldn’t seem to take her eyes off of them.

“What?” I said. 

A rueful smile creased her face.

“What?” I said again. 

“Look,” she said.  “Look carefully.”

I did.  Two winged dragons, dark green with gold and red trim, highlighted by halogens.  I looked back at Ellen. 

“I don’t get it.”

She was still smiling, or maybe it was more of a grimace, it was hard to tell in the refracted light of our particular styrofoam cup. 

“Can’t you tell?” she said.

I looked again, more carefully this time.

“They’re facing the hotel,” she said.  Away from us.”

And then I got it.  All night I’d been looking at the dragons the wrong way, thinking they were direct toward us.  And I couldn’t understand why their faces were so peculiar, why their eyes seemed so strange, why their mouths were pursed like that.  Now that Ellen pointed it out, though, I understood that what I’d thought were their shoulders were actually their haunches, that what I’d assumed were eyes were just decorative paintings on their hind quarters.  And what I’d thought were their mouths were . . . well . . .

“Wow,” I said.  “That’s the largest sphincter I’ve ever seen.”

And detailed, too.  Elaborately so.  As we could tell, even from ten feet away, because—you know—of the two very bright spotlights shining right at them. 


This isn’t to say that Bali was bad.  It wasn’t.  Every where we went their were palm trees and rice paddies and sandy beaches.  Stormy-faced god and goddess statues stood on every corner, and the Balinese had decorated them all in white and black plaid skirts and golden sashes.  Below each---and sometimes in random trees or along fences—folks had left hand-size baskets woven of palm fronds and filled with rice, flowers, and burning incense:  offerings to the gods for good luck. 

So Bali wasn’t bad. 

But we were.  We were tired—tired of traveling, tired of hotels, tired of restaurant food.  The kids were tired of being away from their own beds, tired of not being able to play with their friends, tired of having to get breakfast at a buffet every morning.  Ellen and I were tired of them fighting over which channel to watch as we took our morning showers, and tired of walking past dusty market stalls and having folks try to sell us stuff. 

Indeed, we were sick of stuff, which is saying something.  Whereas we’d spent roughly 80% of our waking hours in China and Vietnam buying artsy little crapola for our friends and family back home, in Bali we could barely focus our eyes on any of the beautiful wood carvings, woven placemats, or shell necklaces. 

The one exception to this rule were the prominently displayed carved wooden penises that seemed to be everywhere—and I do mean everywhere:  we must have seen 10,000 of these things in 4 days.  Ranging in size from infantile to gia-normous, they were nearly as detailed as the dragon butts.  Some of them were attached to bottle openers or carved ashtrays, but most of them were just, well, standing there, if you know what I mean.

“What’s the deal?” I said.

Ellen just rolled her eyes.

“I’m serious,” I said.  “We haven’t seen anything like this anywhere.  Why Bali?”

I’m sure we could have found out easily enough—by asking someone, or even cracking open the index to our guide books and looking under, I don’t know, “weird willie obsession”—but we just couldn’t be bothered. 

None of which is to say that we didn’t have any fun.  We did.  We spent three or four hours a day in the hotel pool, frolicking with the kids and thanking god that most of the Germans were wearing one-pieces.  We wandered up the beach some, taking in the parasailors and brightly-painted fishing boats. 

We had some good food.  There was a nice English-style pub down the road from our hotel, and hotel itself had a breakfast buffet that included—I’m not making this up—chocolate-covered strawberry and banana pancakes.  

And right outside our down-graded up-graded hotel room—which was, I must say, a dump—stood a beautiful straw-roofed pagoda surrounded by a cool dark goldfish pond.  It—the pagoda—was carpeted with woven straw mats and triangular pillows that you could lean against as you read, or chatted, or napped.  I love watching goldfish, and I love the smell of straw, so this place quickly became one of my favorite spots on earth. 

So we did enjoy ourselves.  Really we did.  And eventually we even stopped referring to our hotel as “The place that hates kids.”


But . . .

I don’t know what it was.  Maybe it was just that we’d seen one crazy nice hotel, one crazy nice beach, one crazy nice country too many.

Maybe it was just that we were tired—two-and-a-half weeks on the road is a long time, especially with three kids who think that having an raspberry contest in a the middle of a fancy restaurant is an appropriate way to pass the time.

Or maybe we were just ready to get home—home home, in Virginia, not Hong Kong.  Ready to get back to our own beds, our own toys, our own friends.

Or maybe it’s not that we wanted to go, but that it was time to go, whether we wanted to or not.  Because maybe when you’re sick of these things—the hotels, the beaches, the people, the food, the countries—maybe when you have to struggle even to notice these things, to not feel blasé about them—maybe then it’s just time to get out of Dodge, whether you want to or not.

I don’t know. 

What I do know is that we’ll go back to Bali someday.  Simply put, we haven’t done this country justice:  we need a good two, three weeks to roam the entire island, get out of the tourist areas, sample more of the food, really see the people, really try and understand the place (and their weird obsession with willies).  Our last morning there, an elderly Frenchman came over and tried to play with Will and me (don’t ask).  Anyhow, once I’d determined he wasn’t a child molester, he seemed friendly enough and we got to talking about our countries and our travels.  And he told Ellen and I about this amazing place, way up in the hills of Bali, were there were no tourists, no airplanes, no jet skis and souvenir shops—“Just,” he said, and then gestured with his hands and looked up at the sky, “just—stars.”

So yeah, we’re going back there.  I know that for sure.

And then there’s this:  after our last morning at the resort, after we’d stuffed our faces with banana-chocolate-strawberry pancakes and swum in the pool one last time, after we’d packed our bags and knelt to look under the bed, after we’d paid our bill and left a nice tip for the help (including our favorite concierge), I took a minute and wandered out of the room and across the path to the big pagoda surrounded by a fish pond. 

Settling on the straw mat, I inhaled that dry-grass smell one last time, wondering if I’d ever be here again.  Below me, dozens of brightly colored fish curved and slid through the dark water.  I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this before, but one of the big surprises for me in Asia is how I’ve come to love these fish.  I love their colors, their bulk, love the way that muscularity glides through the water—so silent, so graceful.  So peaceful.  You can be anywhere in Hong Kong, in Tsim Sha Tsui on the peninsula or even in Central, at some restaurant full of noise and heat and waiters hustling by with steaming trays of dim sum—you can be at one of those restaurants and have to go to the bathroom, and follow a hall toward the back that takes you to an open-air sink and men’s on the left and women’s on the right, and there, right there in the middle of this massive city in this busy region on this gigantic continent—

--right there you’ll find a small pond with a tiny fountain in it and a dozen orange and black fish sliding back and forth in crystal water.

And you’ll breath deeper.  And longer.  And your pulse will slow—and you’ll just know that you’ve added three years to your life.

So now, sitting in Bali on that open-air pagoda, I watch these fish and breath deep and feel the anticipatory stresses of packing and travel leave my chest.  I watch as the red and blacks slip past the oranges, as the pure whites glide by the red and whites.  A giant black one slips out from the shadows and makes his way back and forth among the rest.  He’s huge, maybe five or six times the size of the rest of them, so big he takes your breath away.

 “Big dumb fish,” I say, “don’t you know you don’t belong here?”

I watch him for a while, observe the way he seems never to touch the other fish though he passes them so closely, indeed, seems to disturb their patterns, their swirls of motion. Where did he come from? I wonder.  Why is he so big?  Is he cruel?  Do the others fear him?  Might he not actually feed on them every once in a while?

These are silly questions, I know.  A friend of mine once told me that fish memories only retain information for three seconds.  “Hey look,” said my friend, imitating the large grouper we were admiring in a restaurant tank.  “A castle.”  Then—seconds later—he did it again: “Hey, look!  A castle.”

Which would be a miserable life, of course:  who wants to live with no past, no moments, only the now? 

But then again, I suppose, there are times when such an approach is good, when it’s best to live in where you are right now, not thinking about your next move or mistakes you’ve made or whether or not this hotel or that beach is as good as the last one you were at.

Maybe.  I don’t know.  But I stay there as long as I can, resting on that woven mat, shaded from the warm Bali sun by that straw roof, watching those gorgeous, muscular fish gliding back and forth, their colors flashing in the afternoon light.  And most of all, I watch that big black fish—that giant black fish, so anomalous, so unnecessary—drifting in and out, searching, restless—until he disappears into the shadows as though never there at all.