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Friday, April 29, 2005

Culture Shock - or - Shocking Culture

She was taller than her classmates, a bit gangly and awkward in her movements. She seemed years older than her classmates. She was a pretty girl, the kind you see and know that in fifteen years, boys will be losing sleep over the thought of her. When she smiled she was beautiful.

She did not smile very much, though. If she had any expression at all, it was most often one of indifference or anger. I didn’t talk to her very often, but she seemed to like me. When I walked past her, she would usually smile and I grew to feel a certain fondness for her. I asked another her teacher one day why N. was always so moody.

“Have you never seen her bruises?” he asked.

I looked more closely at N. one day and I saw them. Bruises on her arms and legs. The teacher told me that when she changed her shirt you could see them on her chest and back as well. One day she showed up with one on her face. Everyone in school knew that N. was hit at home, but no one ever said anything. One day, she didn’t come to school. Her aunt or her parents had decided to transfer her to another place.

I wish I could stay N’s story only involved physical abuse. I don’t know the whole story, but I do know this much: N’s cousin was also a student at our school. N. lived with the cousin and her aunt. While the cousin was given anything she wanted, N. was not given much of anything. The abuse was mental as much as physical. She was basically, as far as we could determine, made to feel entirely unwelcome in her home.

A few weeks ago, Natalia gave me a book to read. The book is called Falling Leaves, The True Story of an Unwanted Chinese Daughter, by Adeline Yen Mah. When she suggested I read it, Natalia said

“It isn’t the greatest book, but it will give you an idea of where I come from.”

Much has been made in recent years about China’s one child policy. Daughters have been sold into slavery or marriage (the selling often comes during an auction of sorts), or they have been murdered as soon as they entered the world. China faces a growing problem because the one child policy has radically skewed the proportion of men to women, those men entering their twenties now face a daunting task in terms of finding a bride (hence the selling of daughters into marriage).

Mah’s tale takes begins well before the beginning of the one child policy. Her story begins during Shanghai’s heyday, continues through the civil war, and onto the growth of Hong Kong into the cosmopolitan city it is today. Her mother died giving birth to her. Her father then married a French-Chinese woman who gave birth to two more children. Mah’s story is one of humiliation, neglect and abuse. While one must keep in mind that the author was on the receiving end of much of the horrible behavior depicted in the tale, and thus might be a bit biased, it is impossible to think she could make this up. The worse thing about her family is that it is not just her father and step-mother that treat her poorly. It is her brothers and sisters as well, and the cruel words and betrayals continue well into adulthood.

As I read the story, I tried to imagine Natalia in such a situation. She stressed to me that her childhood was not like that depicted in the book, but that similar patterns of behavior by certain members of her family had been followed. She wrote a small essay about her childhood and shared it with me. I have never been able to picture people as children. As I read her story, though, I developed an image of a girl that I wanted to protect. I developed a picture of a girl with a short haircut framing her round face. I see a girl smiling and playing by herself, a girl anxious to help those around her, seeking words of reinforcement and love.

I don’t know the accuracy of this picture, but it affects the way I see Natalia now. When I hug Natalia, or walk with my arm around her, she feels very solid. She seems strong and confident.

The other day I was folding laundry. There were some clothes that Natalia had left here before going to Shanghai. Some underwear, some T-shirts, some pants. As I folded her clothes I realized just how tiny she is. I laid her pants down next to mine I thought back to Falling Leaves and to the essay she had written for me, and I realized how much I feel a need to envelop her. Every time I do laundry, every time I see her clothes hanging to dry, or am taking things out of the dryer I see the little girl that she was and I feel a renewed sense of purpose.

Yesterday I was talking to one of my co-workers at lunch. We were talking about a number of things, and near the end of the conversation, he mentioned how a number of people who come to Taiwan never let themselves really get into the culture, and thus never experience culture shock. The aspect of Taiwanese (or Chinese) culture that he was referring to in this case was the tendency for parents to hit their children.

While N. was the worst case I have been aware of here, she is by no means the only child I know who has suffered physical abuse. I had a boy say to me once,

“Teacher, please don’t let my mommy and daddy know I did something bad.”
“Why not?”
“Mommy will hit me.”

What do you say to something like that? What do you do when the boy saying that has a look on his face – of fear, of trust, of heartbreaking sincerity when he talks to you? What do you do when you know that the boy, despite his misbehavior, is a good boy, and that his behavior likely reflects the violence he knows at home? What do you when this is an accepted part of a culture that does not belong to you?

I have seen boys and girls being smacked in public places more times than I can count. They get smacked on the bottom, smacked on the face, or forcibly yanked by the arms. This is not to say that I never saw this in the U.S., but I can count on one hand the number of times I have seen it there, and nearly every time it happened in the U.S., people stopped and said something to the parent. Here people just go about doing what they were doing. Pretending or ignoring, it makes no difference.

The behavior is not just relegated to parents and their children. I have seen Filipino nannies with vicious black eyes. I have read many stories of other nannies being abused sexually and physically. I have students who have been smacked on the hand by Chinese teachers (these kids are five!) and I have read stories of teachers smacking their students, even of teachers who have branded their students.

A friend of mine, Linda, recently wrote about a few incidents she has witnessed while in Taiwan, and I think that what she wrote will complement this nicely. Check it out at http://fotomonkey.blogspot.com/2005/04/theres-reason-why-i-dont-have-male.html.

When I think about culture shock, I think of strange foods and language difficulties. I think of small things, like not touching someone with your left hand or remembering to bow at a certain time or being conscious of the clothes I am wearing. All of my problems with these elements disappeared a long time ago. The abuse thing, though – I don’t think I’ll ever adjust to that. I don’t want to.

Thursday, April 28, 2005

A Bathroom Reader

A grainy videotape is playing. It shows a narrow hallway branching from a wide room filled with tables. Near the entry to the hallway, just visible, is a cash register and a display case filled with various cakes and pies. A man walks by. He is walking quickly. He looks up at the camera briefly and then looks back down. His arm is pressed against his body and it seems as if he is holding something, either under the arm, or hidden beneath his shirt. He passes out of sight of the camera. Were anyone watching this videotape, they would be calling security right now.

The man on the videotape is me. I do indeed have something hidden under my arm, or perhaps beneath my shirt. The object is a book. I have not stolen the book, and I am not in the process of making a getaway. I am at the bookstore I am working at and am going to the bathroom.

I am a reader. I read whenever I can. Books have always played a central role in my life. My mom told me I would read to myself before I was in preschool, preferring to be alone with the book instead of with my parents. As I grew up there were books littered around the house, on the couch, on the coffee table, on the kitchen table, and in the study. Every Saturday after church we would go to the Cheviot Library in Cincinnati. I quickly exhausted the children’s and young adult section, and by fifth grade librarians were asking my parents

“Are you sure it’s okay for him to take this book out?” as I began a Stephen King rampage that lasted for several years.

As for many people, books were my main means of escape. When I was frustrated by the limitations I constantly discovered in myself, I would pick up a book. When I was upset at my parents or brother, I picked up a book. If I was dwelling on my shortness of stature, my round belly, and my horrible curly hair and freckles, I would escape my budding depression by picking up a book.

The problem with escaping life with a book is that, while your mind might be lost in an alternate reality, your body is still firmly rooted in the present. This means that at any moment someone or something might be ready to yank you back to whatever it is you sought to escape. You can do what you can to prevent this from happening. You can read under the covers or behind a locked bedroom door. You can go to the quiet corner of a park, or a pew in a dusty corner of a cathedral. You can find a cubby hole in a library or a curbside in a quiet alleyway. You can go to these places or any others seeking complete safety, full escape, but the risk remains. Reality is always ready to intrude.

When I was a child I learned the best place to retreat to when I wanted to read in peace was the bathroom. Going number 2 provided a wonderful opportunity to sit in peace and read. With the fan humming in the background I could drift away into whatever world was unfolding on the stage. Sure, after a half hour of being on the toilet someone might stop by and ask if I was okay, but they could be cast away with a mumbled

“Uh-huh, sure.”

The idea of going number 2 and reading became thoroughly intertwined in my mind. I looked forward to visits to the toilet. At the slightest sign of a need to go, I would pick up whatever I was reading and head to the bathroom, even if I knew that I really didn’t need to go.

This binding of bathroom and book became a problem as I grew older though. The first problem arose when I went to elementary school and junior high school. Now, it must be said that it was a rare occasion that I dare poo (I think I have been teaching pre-school too long) in school. It seemed somehow dirty to me, the toilets, the idea of poo-ing while there were people talking outside the door. Also, I could not very well walk out of class with a book in my hand after asking the teacher to go to the bathroom. It would have been social suicide. Oh wait, I wasn’t that popular anyway. Never mind.

Whether it be in school or in some other public place (or in someone’s home) where I didn’t have access to a book, the situation would overwhelm me. There I would be, in the bathroom with no book in my hand. I would get nervous and have trouble doing what I had gone to the bathroom to do. I would read over and over whatever had been written on the inside of the door and on the walls. If there was a toilet paper wrapper I would read about the toilet paper, reading it over and over until I knew exactly why I should use this brand instead of another. If there was anything possessing printed words I would pick it up and pore over it. I would learn the ingredients for soap or a particular skin care product. I would go through the words and see which letter was used most often, always rooting for the letter A, since my name has two of them. And all the while I would be thinking about whatever book I was reading at the time, imagining it to feel just as lonely as me.

As I entered my twenties, I still had trouble using the bathroom if I did not have a book. I would try to get the process over with as fast as I could so that I would not have to think about what I was missing from what I was reading. My hands would feel empty and I would not know what to do with them. If I could not finish quickly, I would hold my head in my hands and look for all the world like a man crushed by the weight of life.

It became worse when I started working at a bookstore. Now, here I was surrounded by books and magazines and newspapers. Everywhere. Fiction, history, travel, photography, art. Books. I would be reading three or four books at a time. I was constantly given new books, advanced reader copies, or books that someone thought I just had to have. I was buried under a mountain of must reads. One day when I complained to a man who was buying me many of these books (I will write about him one of these days) he said to me

“Don’t worry. Books aren’t like milk. They won’t go bad.”

It got to the point where my mom and dad told me to stop bringing books home. There was no room for them. In fact, when I talked to my mom just a few days ago she reminded me that besides the full bookshelves in my old room, there are still nine or ten boxes of books waiting to find a home (and this is not to mention the two boxes I have managed to fill while in Taipei). With so many books to be read it seemed an almost criminal act to go to the bathroom without something to read.

This is why I came to be glancing surreptitiously at video cameras, books tucked against my body, hidden from sight by my arm, or hidden under my shirt. It wasn’t so much that I was embarrassed by the fact that I was going to the bathroom with a book (I am sure most if not all of my co-workers would have done the same). More, I felt guilty because I knew that I would be in the bathroom longer than I had to be.

I suppose I did not need to feel guilty just because of the book. Even if I was unable to smuggle a book in with me, I would end up reading the events calendar that was posted inside each stall. I would read it front to back each time I went to the bathroom. As each one was posted for an entire month, I became quite adept at being able to help any customers inquiring about upcoming events. When was so and so going to be at the store? What time would the event start? Who would be playing jazz on Friday night, etc. I knew it all.

From the fall of 2001 until the spring of 2002 I worked at the administration building in downtown Cincinnati. I was doing title work and trying to save as much money as I could for the beginning of the first leg of my intended world journey. At the time I was reading more than I ever had before. I was going to the library three or four times a week, taking five or six books out at a time. I was reading all of the philosophy and literature that I should have read in college, but was too busy drinking to get around to. I found myself sneaking off to the bathroom at least once an hour or hour and a half. I would have no intention of relieving myself. I just had to get back to my books, my precious books.

I mention all of this today because of something that happened yesterday. I have about a two hour break between my morning class and the tutoring I do on Wednesday afternoons and so I usually go to a coffee shop to study Chinese and to read to pass the time. Before I left the coffee shop yesterday, I stopped to use the bathroom. The antibiotics I have been taking for me dog bite have had a rather destabilizing effect on my stomach and I wanted to make sure to clear everything out before going to teach. I didn’t have much time and I didn’t want to be in there long because the bathroom was a bit on the dirty side. However, I did have my Taipei Times with me and there were a few articles that I wanted to finish reading.

As I was sitting on the toilet someone tried to open the door. As I had locked the door, the door did not open. They tried to open it again. As I had not unlocked the door, it still did not open. Then they knocked. I said
“Just a moment (in Chinese).”

Then the guy tried to open the door again. Finally he walked away. Now, this threw my off a bit. I find it hard to go when I know someone is standing outside the door waiting, and it is nearly impossible if the person is trying to open the door. By doing so, he ensured that I would be there for at least a few more minutes.

Less than two minutes later, he was back and trying to open the door again. The door does not open. Pause. Try to open the door. The door does not open. Pause. Knock. Wait a moment. Try to open the door. The door does not open.

This has happened to me any number of times. And I have to admit, I have done the same, trying to open a locked bathroom door several times, as if magically it will unlock. Why is it that people do that? Is it that we can’t believe someone else could possibly have to relieve themselves at the same time we do? Is it a subliminal fear of going in our pants that propels us to hurry the person inside, letting them know in a not so subtle way that, hey, I’m out here and I need to go?

I suspect that this is another one of those things for which there are no easy answers. That or it is just another one of those things that nobody else would spend an hour and a half writing to ask.

After this happened the second time, I decided that I was probably finished and so I folded up my paper and wiped and washed my hands. When I walked out of the bathroom, there was no one there. That is when I got a bit angry. Why rush me like that and walk away? I didn’t even get to finish reading my paper!

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Kinmen Visuals

The following post is a verbal account of my trip to Kinmen. For those of you who prefer the more visual aspect of travel, I encourage you to go to:
http://outintheworldkinmen.blogspot.com/
Which could be considered the accompaniment to the post about Kinmen.

As a side note...I want to take a moment to mention something that happened while I was on Kinmen yesterday. While I was on the beach near Liaolo, I heard a large explosion. I stopped for a moment when I heard it, and then continued walking. I found out today that there was an accident with some explosives being used on a dam project on the island and that two people from Zimbabwe were killed. I had noticed a few black guys using the internet in my hotel on Saturday, and I wondered if they were Nigerians doing some sort of work on the island. Now I fear that perhaps they were the men killed. Not that a thought for them would do much either way, I suppose, but I still can't help but think about it.

Kinmen

An island on the front line. This would be an accurate way to describe Kinmen (pronounced Jinmen, which means Golden Gate). With China a short hop away on one side and Taipei less than an hour’s flight away on the other, Kinmen is right in the middle of one of the world’s long simmering feuds. The island has already suffered for its geographical location on more than one occasion. In 1949, China landed troops on the Northeast corner of the island, in an attempt to prevent the fleeing KMT (who had created the People’s Republic of China, or PRC) from taking control of the island. A combined 10,000-15,000 casualties later, the PRC had driven away the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), and Kinmen became Taiwan’s first line of defense against China.

On August 23, 1958, as Chinese and Soviet relations faltered, Mao Tse-Dong decided to make a statement about China’s strength as a world power. At 6:30 PM, the PLA began raining shells down on Kinmen. For 44 days, they shelled the island. Just under 600 soldiers died. People lived in tunnels. The U.S., which in 1955 had sworn itself to come to Taiwan’s defense, struggled with the prospect of being dragged into another war in East Asia (this was not long after the Korean War, after all). A cease-fire was announced in October. However, the Chinese were not done, and they continued shelling the island off and on until 1978.

As in Laos, the people of Kinmen made the most of the shelling of their land. With so much scrap metal littering their landscape, they began making and exporting knives which became known around the world. While there is no longer enough metal to make knives for export, the craftsmen are still renowned for their skill.

Technically, Kinmen is not even part of Taiwan. It is a county of Fujian Province on the mainland. This fact becomes obvious as soon as one begins walking through the villages and towns of the island. Fujianese style houses abound, some new, many old and crumbling. It was when I saw the first of these small villages that I knew I was in a good place.

It was raining when I awoke Saturday morning. After saying goodbye to Natalia, I went to the domestic airport, which is quite close to my apartment. There I was told that both airports in Matsu, my original destination, had been closed for the morning, and may not be opened for the rest of the day. Despite the hassles and worry that had accompanied my trip to Lanyu less than a month ago, I never considered the possibility that something like this might happen. The next flights were not scheduled to leave until after one. I could wait, I was told, but it looked like the weather would likely stay bad all day.

I wanted to complain to someone, but I knew that complaining would be rather pointless. As I had already arranged for two days off at school on Monday and Tuesday, I knew I had to go somewhere, but where? That was when I noticed that there was a flight leaving for Kinmen in less than a half hour. Natalia and I had talked about combining a trip to Kinmen with a trip to Penghu in a few weeks, but when I saw that this flight was not booked, I knew what I was going to do.

A roundtrip ticket to Kinmen costs about $120 US (3700 NT). I bought my ticket and headed through security. Then I talked to Natalia and tried to spin the fact that I was going to Kinmen instead of Matsu, despite our previous plans. I pointed out that it would be hard to see both Penghu and Kinmen in a long weekend and that now we might be able to combine Penghu with a trip to Kenting. She took the news well, and soon I was boarding the plan.

The largest city on Kinmen is Jincheng (gold city), and it is on the west coast of the island. It is in this city that most people stay. Jincheng is a great place to walk around. On Sunday, when I was there, I passed through several temples where people were worshipping. The market places were busy as well. Set amidst the more modern buildings I came into a maze of older Fujian-style homes, and with people out cleaning or returning home from the market, I felt as if I was already in China. In open areas were basketball hoops and lone benches. Turning a corner I might encounter a group of old men chatting or sitting in quiet, smoking cigarettes and passing time. Or I might encounter a mother and her small children who shout Hello as they walk away, and Good morning! even though it is almost afternoon.

After exiting the maze of the old neighborhood, I went to the most famous street in Jincheng, Mofan Street, which is known for its Japanese-style architecture. All of the buildings on the street are red-brick and their fronts are arched. They were built in 1925, and now most of the buildings house tourist shops and restaurants. As I walked on the street, something in the wind, something about the temperature, something about the make-up of the street transported me once again away from Taiwan, and this time away from Asia as a whole. I found myself thinking of spring days in Praguespent walking the cobblestone streets, and for a moment I suffered a wave of nostalgia that almost knocked me down. Shortly thereafter, I walked out of town and down the coast. I was listening to Abdullah Ibrahim and Ali Farka Toure on my Ipod. The feeling of being in the wrong place, of sad nostalgia had disappeared and been replaced by a combination of well-being, confidence, and happiness. As I walked on to whatever the day might bring (I didn’t yet know that would include a dog bite) I had the unshakeable feeling that the coming year is going to be everything I want it to be, that my future is bright and shimmering and waiting for me to walk into it.

I had decided against staying in Jincheng because Shanwai is more centrally located (convenient for one who fears riding scooters and instead prefers to walk or ride a bike). I found a hotel on the east side of town (Taihu Hotel) for about $20 US a night. I dropped my stuff off and headed out.
As I walked out of town, with no real direction in mind, a contradiction came into focus. On the one hand, Kinmen is far removed from Taiwan. The streets are wide, clean, and tree-lined. As I walked, I felt like I was on some small-town roads in the U.S. Also, the island is quiet. Blissfully quiet. Some highlights:
Walking through an empty main street in a small village, shops shuttered with large double wooden doors or rusted, corrugated metal. The spring couplets hung around the door to ward off evil spirits and to bring luck, slap slap flapping against the building.

In another small village, seeing a bird perched on the rusted remains of an overhang. It flies away at my approach and I hear the metal rebound under the pressure of the bird’s leap.

The wind, never overpowering but always present. Rustling through trees and plants growing in abandoned houses. Blowing loose scraps of trash and leaves across freshly bricked open squares. The wind, in small villages, giving the impression that nothing but nature is present.

Distant sounds of lawn-mowers and weed-eaters and hammering. The sporadic sputtering of an approaching motorbike, building and fading again.

The distant sound of barking dogs. At times, walking through the quiet villages, and the echoing barks carried across the air, I felt as if I was in the Mexican villages of my imagination.

My favorite. Walking through an empty market on Saturday afternoon. Above each of the stalls, meat hooks hang empty. The glow of cats’ eyes as they gaze at me, and the sound of a scurrying insect or rodent. From the market to an abandoned temple. In the temple a hole in the roof, green vines, dark and dust. From above a lone flute, a floating melody being practiced over and over again.


Despite the quiet, despite the cleanliness of the island, the way it is so well groomed, it is impossible to really forget that you are in Taiwan. The presence of the military will not let you do it. There are bunkers everywhere. Camouflaged buildings and military installations, guarded by young conscripted soldiers. In the towns and villages, though you may not see a single person, you are likely to see military uniforms hanging to dry. There are old entryways into tunnels standing near the road, or in the middle of an empty field. Many of the tourist sites are related to the military: cemeteries, museums, and tunnels. There is also an underground military hospital built into the granite rock that makes up so much of the island, as well as an underground theatre that can hold more than one thousand people.

There are soldiers everywhere on the island, most of them young conscripts. Mostly I saw them walking around, taking the bus from one place to another. One soldier started talking to me while I was eating my breakfast on Sunday morning. He asked me what I was doing and I told him I was just checking things out. I complimented him on his English and he told me that he had lived in Canada for almost seven years. He had only come back for his two years of service.

How is it? I asked.
Awful, he said. We work about eighteen hours a day, doing landscape and picking up trash. Just doing stupid things.
Do you ever train with weapons? I asked.
No.

A few hours after I had this conversation, I saw some soldiers practicing with weapons, and later I saw some practicing some sort of attack formation, so I guess that some soldiers do actually train to do military things. I have to admit, I was a bit worried for the future of Taiwan’s army if what the soldier had said was true for all soldiers. At least after talking to him I came to understand why the island was so clean.

As I went around the island over the course of the weekend, I could not help but wonder at the peaceful air that hangs over the island. How fragile it is. In various villages around the island, it is possible to see buildings scarred from shells and bullet holes. Perhaps white plaster has been chipped away to reveal the red-orange brick underneath, or gaping holes have been left in the red-tile roofs. Trees grow in wrecked, abandoned houses – in some case jungles of vines and bushes.

When I saw these buildings I could not help but think, of being in Bosnia and Croatia a few years ago, and the very fresh scars that remained from the Balkan Conflict of the early and mid-nineties. In Dubrovnik, despite the rebuilding that had already turned that city back into a tourist paradise, there still existed in the old town black-faced buildings, and when walking along the walls of the city, one could see where roofs had yet to be repaired, destroyed by shells launched from the sea.

It was Mostar, in Bosnia, that I thought of most as I walked around Kinmen. Mostar was the sight of one of the great tragedies of the Balkan War, when the centuries old Stari Most bridge was destroyed by thoughtless Croatian soldiers. Mostar was, and in many ways still is, a town divided by its ethnic heritage. Half Bosnian Muslim and half Croation Catholic, the town was literally split during the war, with people unable to cross the bridges connecting the two sides of the town. Those who attempted to faced the possibility of being gunned down by snipers.

Because of the split nature of the town, much of the fighting in Mostar was done on the streets, with automatic weapons. Along the street that became the de facto front line of the battle for the city, buildings stood riddled with so many bullets that they appeared to be melting away. Where windows once were, it appeared as if mouths were screaming. The buildings were destroyed, but still standing, and inside of their walls, plants grew, and trees grew, and the green seemed to promise a new life. One night I met some young Bosnians (students) at one of the many bars and cafés along the Neretva River. They were singing angry punk songs, and songs of pride. I told them how much I enjoyed Mostar, despite the fact that some streets away from the center of town still lay in rubble, and despite the disturbing number of children and young adults that approached me for money, making sure to demonstrate that they were missing at least one limb. It seems as if there is hope here, I said.

No, one of the students said. There is no hope. There are still two systems for everything. There is still too much hate and too much distrust. No matter how much the young of the country want to help, to make it right, we know that we can’t and so we leave. We will all leave if we can.

As he spoke his companions listened intently to what he said. His beautiful girlfriend stared at him with evident admiration. The group, a mix of Catholic and Muslim all nodded in agreement.

Someday he will be president of this country, one of the others said. And then maybe everything will be all right.

I thought of Mostar as I walked through Kinmen. I thought about the damage I could still see, from weapons used in 1949 and in 1958. Then I thought about the technology that could be brought to bear in a battle now. Suddenly the fields and the farms and the quiet villages around me, despite the strong military build-up on the island, seemed terribly transitory. As if they might be gone tomorrow. Perhaps it was with this in mind that made my enjoyment of Kinmen all the more acute.

Walking through the villages around the island was a true pleasure. I found the walls and the doors to be like canvases, beautiful geometric paintings. I took close to 200 pictures in three days, a majority of which were of homes both lived in and not. The orange-red brick used in the construction of the homes blends right into the soil from which it came. The elements, the wind and rain, the effects of time, have created beautiful combinations of colors on the faces of the walls. As the traditional Chinese style of building incorporates a great deal by way of symmetry, the effect was all the greater.

I often wondered if there was anyone in the villages I was walking through. I might see one or two people out farming, or see a single woman knitting in front of her house. I might also see some clothes hanging to dry, or washed pillows resting on a bench outside a window, but for the most part the narrow lanes and open squares that constituted each village were empty. In many travel narratives, people write of feeling as if they have stepped back in time, of being in a forgotten moment. I will invoke that now, and say that walking through the villages in the countryside made me feel as if I was walking in a ghost town, a long forgotten Chinese town

I have mentioned already walking along a main street of shuttered doors. I will add a few details to that now. A lone man working with metal. Four children standing in the middle of the emptiness waiting for me to take their picture. An open restaurant, and in the narrow darkness of the door a man eating soup. A barbershop open, with no customers and no barber, a TV the only light inside. Somehow, in my memory, these small signs of life amplify the general feeling of lifelessness even more.

The landscape around the villages is, while not as stunning as that on Lanyu or Green Island, lovely just the same. There are lots of wild flowers and open fields of grass. There are several lakes and low, bald granite mountains. Near one village, that of Liaolo on the southwest coast is a stretch of white sand beach that must run for more than a half mile, a gentle curve around the coast. The water there was calm and gray, two fishing boats anchored in the sand, bobbing gently twenty feet out in the sea. There was more life in this village, and the people I spoke to told me that in the summer time, there are people who come to the beach to swim and to play. Even here, though, on the edge of the beach is an abandoned military post and some old boats. Further back, behind a row of pine trees and forest is another military base, this one quite active.

I also saw stretched of white sand beach on the west coast, and I was told there were still more on the east coast. Near the northwest coast, by the village of Beishan, which is near to where the battle of 1949 took place is a lake and some wetlands. I saw several birdwatchers hanging out here as the sun began a slow descent, and as I walked around I saw several birds as well. Of course, I have no idea of what they were.

Finally I must talk about the people on the island. Once again I was the recipient of countless smiles and small acts of kindness. The woman who drove me in from the airport helped me to find a hotel and helped bargain the price down for me. The people at the hotel gave me the use of a bike, free of charge. A man gave me medicine and accompanied me to the hospital after being bitten by a dog (http://outintheworld.blogspot.com/2005/04/to-dogs.html).The doctor who helped me there did not charge a single NT dollar. Later, when I wanted to come back to Jincheng from Beishan, a man and his mother offered to give me a lift so that I would not have to wait for the bus.

In Liaolo, a man asked me to hold his daughter and take a picture with her. His neighbors gave me tea and asked me to come stay with them later in June when there is some festival taking place in their village. People wanted to talk to me wherever I went, curious as to why I had come to Kinmen, about where I came from, and what I did in Taipei. People were eager to help me with directions even if meant going out of their way to ask someone else. Old men with bluish cataracts milky in their eyes laughed and joked with me and with each other when I asked to take their pictures, one of them even pulling his friend out of a chair and posing him – the two acting like kids. In the memories of Kinmen that will last, I suspect that this will burn the brightest. It is always the people you remember most.
One of my favorite pictures from the weekend in Kinmen. I am working on preparing a new page to display all the pictures I took and to write a bit about it. I hope to finish today, but we shall see! Posted by Hello
A freshly painted housein Beishan, in northwest Kinmen. Posted by Hello
An old house in Jincheng, and plants being sold on a Sunday morning. Posted by Hello
Looking down on the countryside, towards the east coast from Taiwu Mountain. Posted by Hello
A nice field just off a country road, near to Taiwu Mountain. Posted by Hello
A cemetery commemorating those killed in 1958 during shelling by the mainland. Posted by Hello
Arched entryways on well-known Mofan Street in Jincheng, the largest city on Kinmen. Posted by Hello

Sunday, April 24, 2005

To The Dogs

Due to a slight change in plans (well, bad weather) I have landed on the island of Kinmen, also between the mainland and Taiwan. I am writing from an internet cafe in my hotel. More about the island soon, but for now a tale about dogs.

It was a dark night in a small town in Bali, maybe thirty or forty KM north of Kuta. That morning I had by chance met the one man in the village who could speak English. He brought me to his home to eat fried pineapple and drink black coffee. He took me to the highest hill in the area, one which provided stunning views of the surrounding jungle landscape, all the way out to the sea. He took me to see cockfights. The next day the plan was to attend a Hindi funeral, and in the evening to watch dances and plays performed in honor of the dead (the funeral would go from sunrise to sunrise). On that dark night, though, I was wondering through the village trying to find the address he had given me so that I might join his family for dinner. There were no lights on the streets and few lights coming from the houses. The street was narrow and from dark recesses I heard growling dogs. From not far enough away more dogs, barking, deep angry barks that had a very clear message: Go Away!

On a balmy evening during my freshman year in college I was told my dog had been put to sleep. He wasn't really my dog, Siggy, but I felt like he was. He was a mutt, part poodle and part a whole lot of other things. I felt like he was closer to me than anyone else in the family, despite the fact that I tried to hold onto him like a stuffed animal when I went to bed, or that once or twice I stood silently by while a neighborhood friend threw a nerf football at him. Despite the fact that his breath smelled terribly and he wasn't all that much to look at, I loved that dog. While there was occasion when I stood by and let him be hit by flying footballs, I more often came to his defense. After he had been groomed and given a haircut, I was the one who saved him his evident embarrassment by removing the pink bow tied onto his head, the one my mom would never take off.

As I grew older, and as Siggy grew older, it became harder to be with him. I had more friends and a driver's license. Siggy's breath got worse. When I pet him, his fur would feel strange in my hands, leaving them feeling dirty even if they were not. I did not try to get him to come into my room as much, and closed my door all the way when I went to sleep. Even if I hadn't, he could no longer jump onto my bed. He had cancer (I think of the mouth, though I am not sure).and my last memories are of him lying under a tree near our garage doors. I see him and he is looking up at me with sad, sleepy eyes, no longer chasing after missed basketball shots. When I pet him he looks grateful, and when I walk away, in my memory, I see that he is begging me not to, thinking each time that it will be the last.

When my mom told me that she had had him put to sleep, I was angry. I do not know if the anger was because she had put him to sleep or if it was because she had not told me. Either way, it was real. I remember I was sitting in front of the computer in my dorm room. Above me was a poster of The Brady Bunch (more on that in a future post, I'm sure) and a poster of Jim Morrison. I was still in front of the computer when my roommate came back. We had only recently begun the process of building a friendship that would leave us closer than brothers. When he walked in, he asked me what was wrong. I told him about my dog. All of the anger was gone. Instead it was sadness. Sadness and guilt. As I talked to Chad about Siggy, I could not but think of the times I had walked away. The times I had stopped petting my dog when he was so obviously begging for human contact. The next time I went home, I went to the spot where Siggy was buried and I asked his forgiveness.

Every now and then I think of Siggy. The guilt, for the most part is gone, though even now I feel a trace of it, a ghost of regret. Why do I think of him now? Was I thinking of him that dark night in Bali almost four years ago? The answer to the second quesion is no. The answer to the first I am working towards.

I think that night in Bali was the genesis, the beginning of the fear I now carry of dogs. That night I stopped in my steps countless times, unsure if I should go on, but afraid to turn back. In the end I was saved by a man who happened to be walking by. I showed him the card of the man I was trying to find, but as many men in Bali possess the same name, he was not sure who I was looking for. In the end he took me into his home and, as I drank a warm glass of Sprite, showed me picures of his graduation and of his wedding. Then he had his son drive me back to the guestroom I was staying in, an old royal home one town over.

While traveling in Europe, I was never afraid of dogs. It is only in Asia that the fear exists, no doubt because so many of the dogs are feral, street dogs wild and hungry. I am not sure if I told my brother of this fear when we were in Laos, but I know I told Natalia. She laughed.
"You can't run from them," she said. "They smell fear." I know. But if you are afraid, it is pretty hard not to want to run.

There had been more than one occasion when, alone, I changed the directiong I was walking because of a barkign dog. More than once this has happened when my intended destination was in sight. I end up lost, guessing at which street will go where, hoping that another dog will not appear to further confuse my already poor sense of navigation. Today, as I was walking around Kinmen, it occurred again.

I have spent most of the last two days walking, through small towns, along narrow roads that eventually lead to military complexes, through the countryside. Yesterday and early this morning I encountered some truly fearsome dogs, who I am convinced would have gladly torn me apart had they not been chained up. Despite the fact that they were chained, I still crossed to the opposite side of the road and quickened my pace until their screams of hatred had receded behind me. I began to contemplate this fear of dogs that I have, and made a note in my tiny notebook that this was something I should mention when I sit down to piece together the tale of this trip.

About an hour after I jotted this down, I was in a town outside of the main city of Jincheng. I had just walked by the Kaoliang Distillery (a horrible tasting alcohol the island is famous for producing), and was following a narrow path I thought would take me down to the coast. To the right was a covered stucture, in which I could make out the shape of a man working. Behind this was the read of the factory. To my left was a small pile of scrap metal, piled up almost enough to hide the two dogs who suddenly came to life upon my appoach. The dogs were German Shepherds and I immediately took notice that they were not chained. They both got up and ran around the pile of metal and onto the path behind me. I had paused for a moment when I saw them and now I started walking faster. One of the came close to me and then backed away. As I walked I noticed the man to my right had looked up. He said nothing. The other dog lunged then and sunk his front teeth into my leg, just above my ankle.

"Hey!" I yelled, swinging my bag back at the dog and walking even faster. I am sure I sounded pathetic and looked worse throughout this encounter and as I hobbled off I wondered what part me fear had to play in this drama.

My foot was numb as I speed limped up a different path, through the back grounds of the distillery (where thankfully there were no more dogs) and up to another path that eventually led me to a road. I found the bus stop and there asked a man if the bus was going to Jincheng. I also showed him the blood running down my leg and explained as best I could that I had been bit by a dog. The man took out some anti-biotic and spread some on my leg. Five or six old women looked on in curiousity.

The man stayed with me until we got to the doctor's office. As we waited for it to open, he said,
"You know, you shouldn't run away from dogs." Had he not been so kind to me I might have been angrier, more defensive when I tried to explain that I hadn't.

Once at the doctor's office, I only had to wait a few minuted to be treated. They dressed the wound, gave me a shot, and some antibiotics. The doctor and his nurses were all very nice to me. To my great surprise, they did not even charge me for any of the medicines they gave me (I don't know if the island has a different policy than Taiwan, but as they use the same health card, I doubt it). When the doctor advised me that if I was afraid of a dog, I should not run from it, I didn't even think twice. I walked back out on the street, a fresh blood-soaked gauze pad affixed to my leg, ready to walk on.

By the time I left the doctor, it was almost three, too early to return to my hotel. I decided to head to a village called Beishan in the northwest part of the island. Though a beutiful area, full of lakes and wetlands and old Fukines style Chinese houses, I could not concentrate as I had in the morning. I could not find the desire to wonder through narrow alleys. I turned away at the mere sight of a dog. And as I walked back to the bus stop a few hours later, I jumped at the sound of a man hawking up some spit as he rode by me on his bicycle. I kid you not, my heart started pounding and for several minutes I could not sit or stand still for the fear coursing through me.

I have one day left in Kinmen and tell myself that I will have no fear tomorrow. I am going to rent a bike (not a motorbike, of which I also have a terrible fear) and make the most of the day. I am not going to let any dogs stop me from seeing what I want to see, when I want to see it. I tell myself that no dogs are going to bother me when I travel alone in China and Cambodia and Burma and Laos. I am going to conquer this fear, which as I write these terribly false sentences leaves my stomach twisting.

There was another dog in our neighborhood, across the street from us. He was a German Shepherd whose bark was as fearsome as his sharp bared teeth. The neighbors kept him in a fenced in enclosure, which I was thankflu for everytime I walked or rode my bike by. Siggy was never afraid of that dog. They would carry on long-running dog arguments over who knows what, sometimes keeping us up at night. One day the dog got out of its enclosure. I will never forget the fear I felt that Siggy would be devoured whole. I remember hearing his barks and then his cries echoing across the neighborhood. I remember running to find him, and then helping him home. I remember touching the stitches bald spots surrounding the stitches that decorated his body, and applying medicine. I remember, too, how proud I was that Siggy had not only stood up to that bully of a dog but had left him with some stitches of his own.

And this is why I think of Siggy now. Once I asked him for forgiveness. Now I ask him for strength and courage.

Saturday, April 23, 2005

On to Matsu

With a mere nine weeks left in Taiwan, our coming departure becomes more real with each passing day. Natalia and I have made a small list of places we want to go and things we want to see and now the mad rush to make it happen. It started a few weekends ago with my trip to Lanyu and Green Island. Today it continues, as in an hour and a half I will fly to Beigang, one of the islands of Matsu, a chain of islands located between Taiwan and the Mainland. Meanwhile, Natalia will be off to Taichung, and then on Monday, Shanghai.

It does not seem the most auspicious day for travel. We just had a downpour and my mother stopped talking to me so that she could go watch Jane of Arcadia. A bit of a blow to the self-esteem, that. CSI, Law and Order, OK, I can imagine walking away for that, but Joan of Arcadia? Come on!

(No offense intended to die-hard Joan fans here. I have never seen the show, and I am sure it is quality entertainment)

As I will be away for a few days, this will mean silence for a few days followed by a mad outpouring of words accompanied by some quality images. Or so I hope.

Wishing a wonderful weekend to all.

Friday, April 22, 2005

On Etiquette

I am horrible with etiquette. I usually forget to send thank you cards (but do I need to send thank you cards if I have thanked the person profusely in person, really?). I surreptitiously watch others at the dinner table, waiting to see which fork they are going to use. Alternatively, I stare at my food hungrily while others wait for theirs. Finally I say to hell with it and start inhaling my meal. I do a lot of things that I shouldn’t do, and don’t do a lot more than I should. An admission: It has never really bothered me.

This is not to say that I am impolite. I am a considerate driver and I usually will leave my cherished seat on the MRT if there is someone older or a woman with a baby standing. I hold doors open for people. I let other people go first. I try to remember that in Taiwan, it is considered proper to hand something to someone else using two hands instead of one. Perhaps it is the word “etiquette” that pushes me away. When I hear that word I think of Martha Stewart and the women who shopped at the bookstore I worked at on the east side of Cincinnati. I think about the conversations I overhead, the things these women would worry about doing, just so that their similarly wealthy and bored friends would be impressed. When I hear the word etiquette, I think this: “I am doing something just so that I will look good,” whereas when I think of being polite I think: “I am doing this because I should.”

I know that this is a bit skewed, but this is what I have to work with, so please bear with me.

Part of the problem may be that I really don’t know much about etiquette. I know golf etiquette, and I know road etiquette, and I handle those things OK. The rest of it, though, I draw a blank. I am sure I could get an Idiot’s Guide to Etiquette, or Etiquette for Dummies or Martha Stewart’s Treatise on Etiquette but when there are so many books that I want to read, I rather suspect I would never make it past the preface definition of etiquette. So what am I to do? I think I will just keep winging it, no doubt offending people along the way with my thoughtlessness.

I do not wish to offend anyone, though, especially anyone who is reading this and who thinks they might want to come back, or better yet, leave a comment filled with compliments for, well, me.

I have a further confession to make. I almost never look at other blogs. It isn’t that I don’t have a desire to see what other people are seeing or doing. The problem is that I don’t have time. I spend about two hours every morning writing, and then I go to school. After teaching, I still have to worry about studying, working out, reading, and oh…spending some quality time with Natalia lest she wake up and realize that she has a terrible boyfriend.

I know that visiting other blogs is beneficial to one’s own blog. Visiting other places means leaving a trace of you behind, a link to your own page. The more links, the more points of entry. So every now and then, and with the worst of intentions, I do a bit of random surfing, stopping by a place for a minute or two before moseying on, never stopping long enough to get an get the full idea for what is there. Perhaps this is why I like photoblogs the best. I can see the pictures, admire them, and move on.

On a decent percentage of the blogs I have stopped at, I have noticed entries related to traffic. XXX number of visitors yesterday, a new one day high! Or, I don’t really care that no one is coming here. I am writing this for myself. Or, please leave comments or feedback.

I always take a peek at the comments at the end of posts. It seems the majority of them are left by acquaintances of the person making the post, and then proceed into a back and forth dialogue between the blogger and the friend/friends who commented. Sort of like how Natalia is the one who I can always count on to leave a comment here, and how half the time I write something back to her even though I know I will be seeing her in a few hours. A bit absurd that.

I don’t get all that many comments outside of Natalia on my posts, but that does not bother me all that much. (I don’t really care who comes here…this blog is apparently meant for us to get to know each other better and it is merely a bonus if others find it interesting.) Oh, but of course I care that other people come and read and look at my pictures, who am I kidding? It is a great feeling, after all, to get a nice compliment from someone you have never met, a New Zealander living in Japan, a man in Belgium, a girl in Philly, a girl in Canada, etc…(I should add here, to those of you who have emailed me with encouraging words, thanks!)

There is something that has been bothering me, though. Is there an etiquette to this? Is there a blogging etiquette? If I receive a comment am I supposed to post something back, or am I obligated in some way to make a return visit to the other’s blog and leave a comment in return? And in general, is there some sort of unspoken rule in the blogging community dictating that one spend a certain number of hours per week surfing their fellows’ pages?

These are my questions. I really do not wish to offend, so if anyone has some information as to these queries or anything related to the topic of blogging etiquette, I would be much obliged your response.

Thank you, and have a lovely day.

Thursday, April 21, 2005

Mormons, Hare Krishnas, and a Man Called Fr. Froelich

It was my junior year in college, and our assignment was to write a research paper on some topic Indian. The class was taught be a professor I was quite close to, an old, absent-minded priest who spent half of each year working in Tanzania. We would spend hours in the cafeteria talking about social justice, chatting until, with no sense of social justice, the cafeteria workers would unceremoniously boot us out so that they could get ready for dinner. When he suggested I spend part of my senior year working with him in Tanzania, I saw the whole course of my life changing before my eyes – horizons spreading with such rapidity that any previous notions of what my future might entail were flattened in seconds. Bye-bye law career. Bye-bye Midwest. Bye-bye 9-5 job, kids, and a house in the suburbs.

Sadly, I never made it to Tanzania. Fr. Froelich died after contracting malaria the summer before my senior year. I still think about him all the time. The fact that I am in Taiwan now, and that much of Asia and South America are to follow can be directly attributed to his influence. I still think about tracking down the mad mess of papers and notebooks that covered the floor of his room and collating them into a biography of his life. I think of the positive affect he had on those around him, of his selfless devotion to change and to the less fortunate and I wish he were here to guide me away from my self-absorption (can someone tell me why we don’t spell this absorbtion?) and toward a path more beneficial to man-kind.

I thought long and hard about what I wanted to write about. We were discussing India, and while I was interested in much of what we the subject matter, nothing came to mind when I thought about potential topics. Over lunch one day, I sat down with Father Froelich and asked him what I should do.

“What are you interested in?”
“Native Americans.”
“Why don’t you write about them, then.”

When Fr. Froelich was in the U.S., he was a very busy man. Besides teaching three or four classes, he spent time with abused women, wrote letters to prisoners, and worked with impoverished Native American groups. It was he who brought the topic I was interested in pursuing to my attention. When I told him what I wanted to write about, he smiled and told me to go for it.

This is how I came to write a long paper on Native American usage of hallucinogenic drugs, and how the Supreme Court of America had denied certain tribes the use of peyote for religious ceremonies. I remember this now because of a news item I saw recently. The U.S. Supreme Court is soon to rule on the use of a hallucinogenic tea originating from Brazil (the leaves contain DMT) by certain religious sects in the U.S.

Yesterday I was sitting at a police station waiting to have my papers processed so that I could renew my ARC (residency card). This was my second attempt at taking care of this. Last week I waited two hours and still my number did not come up, so as I walked in yesterday I was already in a bit of a bad mood, anticipating the long wait ahead. As I went for a seat, I passed two young Mormons who flashed welcoming smiles at me. I did not smile back. I sat, took out the book Angels and Demons by Dan Brown and began reading.

I don’t read many thrillers these days, and while I enjoyed reading The Da Vinci Code on the flight to Cambodia and on the beach in Sihanoukville, I was not blown away by it. I had little intention of reading Brown’s other books until one of my co-workers suggested I take a look at Angels and Demons since part of the plot revolves around a conclave to elect a new pope. This being a rather timely topic, and as I will be traveling this weekend and in need of a fun read, I decided to check it out.

As in The Da Vinci Code, there is much in the book that might be interpreted by some as being anti-church. I think it would be more appropriate to say that the characters look at questions of faith and science with a level of honesty one would not expect to find in a mass-market beach book. The book touches on many of the problems that I have in my own struggle to come to terms with the church I was raised in, especially now when the newly elected pope seems set to pursue a conservative path in dealing with the problems of the modern world.

In one section of the narrative, there is a discussion of the weakening influence of the Catholic Church, of falling numbers of new followers, of those going to mass, and of monetary contributions. While I don’t know the accuracy of these statements, especially as the book was written in 2000, I suspect them to be true, given the many scandals in recent years. This is not meant to be a discourse on my feelings for the Catholic Church, though, and I am going to stop myself here. I am still too confused about too many things.

While I was reading yesterday, I kept glancing over at the Mormons sitting one row of chairs over. I always see Mormons in Taipei. They are always in pairs – young, pale white men riding bikes along busy roads. They are dressed in white button down shirts, black ties and black pants. They smile at everyone and shout hello. They engage foreigners and Taiwanese alike in conversation. They seem just about the friendliest people on earth. Why is it then, that when I see some Mormons approaching on bike, or emerging from an MRT station I change my course so that I will not pass them. Barring this, I fix my gaze intently on the ground. If by chance we do make eye-contact, if their smiles come lighting up my world, at best my expression will remain frozen. At worst, I will scowl.

I have often asked myself why I do this. Is it a response borne from being in Taipei for so long that I anger at the sight of the freshness, the excitement of these seeming new-comers? Do I have an unknown dislike for Mormonism, a religion I know little about? Or perhaps, is it some sort of instinctive reaction to having others, no matter how subtly, proselytizing their religion?

Thinking about Mormons led me to think about another religious sect I have come across once or twice in my travels – the Hare Krishnas. I first came across the Hare Krishnas in Prague. Though I have seen them in other cities since, it is Prague that will always be associated with them. I always heard them before I saw them. Beating drums and cymbals clashing. Hand clapping and a catchy chant: Ha-re Ha-re Ha-re Krishna. I didn’t even know what they were saying, but it was cool. Then they appeared. A line of young people dressed in bright clothes, heads shaved with a single ponytail remaining. Trailing behind the main line of believers, a group of blissful stoners, foreigners most likely, perhaps under the influence of some gypsy hash, behaving as if they were at a Phish or a Dead show. People stopped to watch them, entranced it seemed. A small parade on an ancient cobble-stoned street. I followed them that first time, as they wound their way through alleys and onto main roads, eventually coming out to the Charles Bridge. Now this is religion, I thought.

Over time, the vibrancy of the Hare Krishnas faded as the novelty of their displays faded. Every day I would see them, and every day the moment of entrancement was shorter and shorter. By the end of my time in Prague I scoffed at the foreigners who had tagged along, wondering if they knew how silly they looked.

It has been a long time since I saw a group of Hare Krishnas. It has been a long time since I thought about them. Now that I have them in mind, I realize how nice it was to have a little color injected into religion. I think about the various colorful, rhythmic ceremonies I have seen in temples around Asia. I have a picture of Native Americans sitting in a steaming hot room, letting visions from the peyote in their bloodstreams guide them in the decisions they must make. I have a picture of southern churches in America, women and men singing with all their hearts, shaking their bodies and clapping their hands. I picture these and then I picture the Saturday afternoons of my youth. A somnolent atmosphere where words of praise drifted lifeless through the air, their progress stopped by echoing coughs, shifting bodies, and heavy sighs. Dust hanging in the air, dancing in wide blades of colored, subdued sunlight. Standing, kneeling, sitting. Repetition of words. A young boy inside on a beautiful Saturday afternoon, a captive against his will. A young boy looking around the church, dreaming of baseball, of books, of girls.

Someday I will come to terms with faith. I may not have faith in much, but I do have faith in that. The face of a wise man is fixed in my mind. His hair is white and wild, his clothes wrinkled and stained. His face is wrinkled as well and perhaps on first sight one might think him just a bit mad. Then the eyes come into focus, the twinkling kindness set deep inside.
A belief grows that there is a purpose. That the potential to do something good exists deep inside of me.

It scares me, the uncertainty of memory, the way memory fades and falls away. I have no physical picture of the face that I see, that of Fr. Froelich. A beating of drums, then, and a smile to the Mormons. A bowed head and a boy wishing it all made sense, praying that this face, this belief, this faith does not go away.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

On Snoring

I think back to a night in Vilnius in 2003. Several nights, actually. There were six of us sharing a dorm room, five men and one woman. Each night a symphony would accompany me as I drifted off to sleep, a symphony of rough hewn sounds – like ragged saws, and of soft utterances and sighs rising in silent moments. I was in a room full of snorers, and it often seemed as if they were orchestrating their snores so as to assure that I would not fall asleep. Each morning as everyone accused everyone else of snoring and waking them up, I took pride in the fact that no one came to me, that I was not considered a snorer. I was able to sit proud at the breakfast table knowing that I was the quiet one, that I was the only one in the room not guilty of tearing open the night with a cacophony of noise.

Whatever pride I took in this distinction was always short-lived. As breakfast ended and everyone else left the hostel for whatever activities would occupy their day, I shuffled back to bed, thankful for the silence in the bedroom, and thankful for the fact that their were no windows. I could sleep and snore in peace.

Yes, I am a snorer. I am not proud of this fact. I try to tell myself that it is not my fault. I have no control over it. I tell myself I should be thankful it is just snoring that I have to cope with. I don’t have to deal with sleep-walking, or some unnatural attraction that I desperately try to ignore but cannot deny. I am a snorer, like millions of other people out there. It is a natural affliction. Still, I feel shame.

Part of being a budget traveler means sleeping in whatever cheap accommodation comes your way. This often means sharing rooms with strangers. Sometimes, this can lead to uncomfortable situations that make it hard to sleep. In an earlier post I mentioned waking up to find a man’s hand down my pants, and then to lie in bed listening to the sounds of him masturbating. Usually the situations are not this bad. Perhaps there is a couple in the room trying to hide the fact that they are having sex. Perhaps there is someone who has recently had something stolen, leaving you on your guard, not quite willing to nod off. Most likely, there is someone (or more than one) snoring. It becomes a race to beat them to sleep.

I have shared rooms with some truly prolific snorers. On one occasion a man was so loud that the rest of us got out of bed, played cards, and shook our heads in near admiration at the quality and depth of sound that he produced. Most often, when faced with a champion snorer, I am left to toss and turn in bed, wishing I could sleep wishing I didn’t hate ear plugs so much. As I lie awake I think of all the things that I would like to say to the person. In the end, though, what can you say?

“Hey man, you snore really loudly.”
“Yeah, I know. Sorry about that.”

This is exactly what I have said when people have told me I snore. Yeah, I’m sorry. I am. And then I spent the rest of the morning wishing that it was not the case, that I had a bit of disposable cash to get an operation to take care of the problem. The fact is, I don’t. I snore. Do you think I’m proud of this? Do you think I like that I sound like a possessed chain-saw when I sleep?

The worst feeling comes when sharing a room with women, or with people that I know, but don’t know well. Whether it is when sharing a dorm room with women I have never met, or a bed with a woman for the first time, I am left with a terrible feeling of anticipation. I pray that I will not snore. I do everything I can think of to prevent it. I suck on some throat drops and sleep on my side. I put my head under the pillow and will my mouth to stay shut. Sometimes my preparations work. I just don’t fall asleep, and thus don’t snore. The other times, well, I thank those who are polite enough not too mention my dirty secret.

Last spring, the parents of the class that I taught decided we should have a class outing as a way to bring the kids even closer together, to give them a lasting memory of their time in pre-school. We left on a Saturday morning and came back on Sunday. The overnight stay was nerve-racking. I shared a room with two students and their moms and dads. What would they say when they heard me? I had a picture of the two girls in the room telling the other students.

“Teacher Alan makes all of these funny noises when he sleeps.”
“He is really loud. My mom threw a pillow at him and he still didn’t wake up.”

And on Monday the children would share the news with all of the other students at school and soon children would be asking me to make my funny noises for their amusement.
As it turned out, one of the kids snored and so did the two fathers in the room. Still, the following morning, one of the mothers said something to me in Chinese. I did not understand it explicitly, but I am pretty sure that it was all about snoring.

My dad is a snorer. I used to make fun of him because of it. He is a big-time snorer, though. A professional. My parents’ bedroom is at the back of the house and I have heard him all the way at the front. If their bedroom door is closed, and my bedroom door is closed, I can still hear him - a rhythmic (if colossal) rising and falling wave of noise, occasionally punctured by a strangled choking sound before starting up again. I wonder: is there where I am heading? Or worse, it this where I am already at? This massive volume of noise?

Whenever Natalia spends the night, my first question in the morning is not “How are you today?” or “How did you sleep?” It is not even “Did I snore?” No, now it has come to this “How bad was it?” The usual reply:

“I could hear you through my earplugs.”

Yikes. This is one area in which I differ with my dad. I may be following in his footsteps - on my way to becoming a force in the snoring world – but I do not deny my snoring. I’ve heard my dad deny snoring a thousand times, and perhaps all of his denial has affected the way I feel about snoring, instilled the shame I feel. But why should he deny it? Why should I deny it? Why should anyone? We can’t help it! Do you think we choose to be snorers? Do we choose to have society look down on us? Do we choose to harm the relationships we have with those closest to us? No. This is biology at work.

I have come to accept the fact that I snore. I don’t like it, mind you, but this is who I am. I have come out of the snoring closet. I dream of the day that I walk into a surgeon’s office a snorer and walk out a quiet and peaceful sleeper. The day will come. Until then, I will not keep myself awake out of fear for the coming storm of noise. I will snore loudly, offending the unplugged ears of all those around me. I will apologize for the fact, but (attempt to) feel no shame. I will be me.

Afterword:

Last night Natalia mentioned something she had read in an Argentine newspaper during the day. It was an article about snoring and sex. A study showed that snoring has a terribly adverse affect on the sex lives of those afflicted. Many couples end up sleeping in separate rooms because of the snoring, and on average, the study found, snorers only had sex once a month. When she told me about this I got to thinking about my issues with snoring and realized that perhaps I should make it a greater priority to have some surgery to get it fixed. Once a month!

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Fatherhood

“You have three seconds to sit down. Three, two, one.”
“Hee-hee.”
“You don’t want to sit down? OK. I think maybe I need to go tell your teacher about this.”
“No. No!” A boy scrambling around, not knowing if he should block my progress or sit in line and hope I change my mind. I brush by him, avoiding his tear-brimmed eyes and inform his teacher that the boy was not listening to me. Though that teacher later informed me that I was not being a tattle-tale, I was left with the uncomfortable feeling that I was being just that.

One of the aspects of teaching kids I have yet to work out is where to draw the line between what should and should not be told to the teacher. Some cases are clear cut.
“Teacher, ----- is kicking ------.” Tell me that.
“Teacher, ----- is going poo-poo!” OK, this is something I don’t need to know.

What about the in-between situations, though? Our students are not allowed to speak Chinese at school, but do I need to have kids coming to me every five minutes to inform on the student who was speaking Chinese in the bathroom? What about when kids come up to tell me another child has been running, or has not used soap to wash their hands? My strategy of late has been to tell the child thank you for the information, give a stern look to the accused child, and then hope they both forget about it.

Discipline, I should say, is not a strong point of mine. In every evaluation I have been given in relation to my teaching performance, the results have been the same. Something along the lines of, your kids really react well to your teaching, you are energetic and cover a lot of information, but I notice that your kids lack in discipline. You might want to address that.
Easy enough to say, now let’s put it into action.

One day I was teaching a class (not preschool). The children were talking amongst themselves, not raising their hands to answer questions, putting their heads on their desks, and tipping back on their chairs. The last straw came when one boy threw a pencil across the room to another boy. In the moment before I started yelling, stormed to the back of the room to turn off the lights and suggested that perhaps I should just leave class and let them wait for their parents to pick them up, I had a vision of Fast Times at Ridgemont High and other movies in which out of control classes stomped on hapless teachers. I never thought it really happened. When I asked the boy if he would like to spend the rest of the class standing out in the hallway, he smiled and said yes.

It is a helpless feeling, when a class is out of your control. When I think of the times I have whined and pleaded with children, or threatened them with punishments that I cringe at the echoes I hear in my head. I cringe at the memories of kids laughing at me while I have my “serious” face on, trying to correct their behavior. If I ever need a reminder of just how ridiculous and weak-willed I am, I can review some of the greatest hits and am shortly seeking the cover of the nearest stone.

Once upon a time there was a girl I really, really liked. This was a long time ago in a land far, far away. Namely, Indiana. Anyway, for a few blissful months during our freshman year, we were inseparable. It was only near the end of those months together that we became physically involved. Shortly after our physical involvement began, our relationship ended. She just stopped calling and avoided me whenever possible. This was made especially painful by the fact that she gave me no real reasons for her disappearance and that we lived on a campus with less than 900 people. For two or three months I was reduced to a pathetic shell, wondering what I had done wrong, wondering what I could do to bring her back. This meant writing awful poetry, calling drunk at 2:00 AM, and even a tearful confession of love next to the school’s scenic reflecting pond.

It was the summer after our freshman year that she offered some explanation. We had sent each other a few letters, and I was beginning to believe again that perhaps we had a future. This belief was further buoyed by her confession letter, a letter in which she said – and here a close paraphrase:

“You always wondered why I left you and I could never give you an answer. The truth is I was too scared. I was terrified at how perfect it was. I thought of you as a husband, and as a father to my kids and it was all too perfect. I had to run.”

After an initial burst of pride, I began further considering the words. What an awful excuse. Who runs from something that they believe will bring them such happiness? What a bunch of B.S. Does this mean we might get back together?

We never did get back together, and though we talked every now and then we drifted apart. Actually, even when she wrote that letter, she was dating the man that she eventually married. It is, I suppose, a blessing that I suffered all that agony then - that we did not end up together. Had we, I would likely be practicing law in Cincinnati, locking myself in my office at night, asking myself over two highballs of gin how I might possibly escape.

Ever since I began teaching pre-school kids, I have found myself thinking about what kind of father I would really make. A perfect father? Does such a thing exist?

Kids learn by example, which is why I worry for my students sometimes. Is it any wonder they come to me to tell me about what other kids are doing when they see me telling other teachers about what their kids are doing? Are my students going to respect their teachers at big school next year, or behave properly when they have not yet learned that misbehavior has consequence? Are they going to deal with frustration by uttering exasperated sighs and contemplating threatening to walk out of the classroom?

When I think about fatherhood it is impossible to separate images of my future self from images of my own father. When I raise my voice at kids and wonder why they will not take me seriously, I think back to when I was a child and had a hard time taking my dad seriously when he yelled at me. When kids come to me with questions and I say, “Maybe you should ask Teacher Cindy,” I ask myself “Didn’t dad do that all the time when I was a kid?” When I think about my reactions – dramatic sighs, exaggerated slumped shoulders, looks intended to extract guilt, and thus compliance, I wonder – is this mine, or is this coming from dad?

Natalia and I have discussed the idea of kids more than once. There will be a lot of serious questions to consider if we ever have children. As our family would be spread across three continents, even the most basic issue of citizenship will be something to be brought into consideration.

When we talk about how best to raise a child, I think about different families I have spent time with in the past. I think about west coast families where the kids called their parents by their first names and could talk about everything. I think about Asian families where the kids are spoiled but face the prospect of very long school days from a very early age (and in many cases, the threat of physical punishment). I think of the families I saw when growing up, where it seemed like a whole lot of topics were off limits for discussion, where generations repeated the patterns set by those before them. Will it be possible to take the best aspects of each, and to avoid the worst? Is it possible to plan what type of father you will be? Or does everything just get thrown out of the window the first time the baby starts crying and just will not stop? Given the number of times I have had to scrap a lesson plan based on some unexpected breakdown, I suspect that this is the case.

In imagining me as a father, though, here is what I see:

A son or daughter who on the surface loves dad more because he never gets angry at them (this will be Natalia’s job – I suspect they would go to her when they have a really serious problem as well). A son or daughter whose friends always want to come over because “Whoa, your dad is so cool.” A son or daughter who is well-traveled, tri-lingual, and ready to face the world with the perspective of one who has seen it.

Perhaps more likely: A son or daughter embarrassed by a father who thinks the kids think he is cool but in reality is ridiculed because of his endless, pointless stories of travels past. A son or daughter who gets tired of going from Argentina to the U.S., and to wherever else the future might take Natalia and me, and rebels by…no, I don’t want to consider any kind of rebellion just yet.

I went to the park with some of my students on Saturday and my back is still sore from them jumping on top of me and making me run around. We went to the park as a class yesterday (we do every Monday morning), and I had to tell the kids I could not play because of the pain in my back. As I told them, I again heard echoes from my own childhood. I thought about fathers and fatherhood. My father and the father I want to be. I looked at the children playing around me, coming to me for hugs. I thought about having one of my own.

I have to admit, it was a terrifying thought.

Monday, April 18, 2005

More Guilt

I had a memory last night. I was sitting on the couch, reading a book. I bit into a cracker and it broke apart, crumbs collecting on my chest, on the surface of the couch, and around my mouth. As I wiped everything onto the floor and pushed them under the couch, I was transported to a time when I was about seven years old, maybe six. At the time I really only had one good friend, a boy named Marc who lived down the street from me. I played with him just about every day. As this was shortly after I had learned about using the telephone, I did not always follow proper telephone etiquette. On this particular occasion, I called Marc at about 7:30 on a Saturday morning, eager to start playing. His mom, always polite to me, invited me to come over, and I did. When I arrived, she opened the door and invited me in. While we waited for Marc to wake up, I ate crackers. I did not just eat them, I devoured them. The crumbs ended up all over me, all over the floor, and all over the island table in the middle of their kitchen. The whole family had a chuckle over the mess I made, and even years later my cracker eating facilities were mentioned and laughed over.

Whether or not this memory is accurate is immaterial. The fact is that this is one of the few things I remember clearly from my childhood: the feeling of embarrassment that I had from their not mean-spirited laughter and a horrible feeling that arose, telling me I never should have called so early.

I have always been a bit of a basket case when it comes to being criticized by others. On the one hand, I have a great capability for pushing things out of my mind, for protecting myself from the worst of the insults by reassuring myself that a) the person uttering such nonsense is far inferior to me, b) that someday I can eviscerate them in a written piece, and c) a general idea of “One day I will show them, one day they will see…” (And yes, I know how immature this all sounds). On the other hand, small things, like a mess of cracker crumbs, or a throwaway comment made in jest have the power to cripple me. I’ll have flashbacks years later, the memories accompanied by a physical feeling of discomfort bordering on nausea.

What I have never learned how to do, and what I have been thinking about all weekend, is guilt. All weekend, I realized that the post I made on Saturday was incomplete, that too many aspects of guilt and how it relates to my life and to writing were left untouched. I suspect that I could never fully exhaust the subject, but here I am again…dwelling as I should not be doing.

Two childhood stories:
1) I go shopping with my mother. While in the store I come upon a
pack of M&M’s that I slip into my coat pocket. Mom pays for her groceries
I try to act normal and calm. We exit the store. I am away. On the
way home, we stop at a gas station. While my mom is out of the car, I open
ill-gotten pack of chocolate. Mom returns to the car moments later and asks
if I smell chocolate. No, I say. Hmm, she says. My brain goes into overdrive.
The smell of chocolate is overpowering. There is no way it can be ignored. Something must be said.

“Mom, will you be mad at me if I tell you something?”
“Not if you tell the truth.”
“I took this pack of M&M’s. I found it on a shelf and thought maybe someone had already paid for it so it would be OK to take.”

A horrible lie. Mom does not say anything, though. We return to the store (Thriftway or IGA, I forget) and I explain what had happened. The cashier laughs and mom laughs. Then she pays. When we get home, my dad laughs at the story. I go to bed embarrassed by everyone’s reaction. I am a little bit mad, too. Instead of being upset over my attempt at stealing some candy, they laugh at my ineptitude in getting caught. I feel no guilt.

2) At a soccer practice, I begin making fun of someone on our team. His name is Nathan and his dad is our head coach (my mom is an assistant). I don’t know what I say exactly, but I know it is awful. I turni around and see Nathan standing behind me. He has heard everything. I stammer over my apologies. It is easy to act cool when you think you are safe from discovery, but only the truly cool can gloss over such an uncomfortable moment. I am not cool. I don’t know if I’ve ever forgiven myself.

It is hard to tap into this emotional territory when writing because it brings back memories best left forgotten. However, the memories, these feelings of guilt and shame, of failure and ineptitude are often what create the truest bond between a reader and the writer. As imperfect humans we find a shared link in our shortcomings. How often have you read something, and thought, wow, I know how he/she feels! I remember the time when…And suddenly you don’t feel so bad about the fact that you did this or that imbecilic thing. It may be hard to write about our lowest moments, but it is also quite therapeutic.

It is one thing to write about our own shortcomings and our own dark thoughts. It is hard, to be sure, but they are our thoughts and actions. The risks are high. If we air our dirty laundry, and don’t do it well, we risk sounding whiny, pathetic, or annoying. Talent plays a critical role here. If one can voice their anger, their faults, their dreams and desires, and do it well, there is a good chance they will find success. If they do not, they will probably just sound like a jack ass and alienate the reader. Again, if the writer is just writing about oneself, he is the only one on the line, the one who judgment will ultimately fall upon.

The problem comes (as Badaunt commented on the last guilt entry) when we write about the people around us. I think it is true that a lot of people self-censor when they write about people they know – their friends, family, and co-workers. It may be easier to write about others in the sense that I am not examining our own shortcomings. It is much harder when I consider that I am putting myself on the line in the sense that I am, if not explicitly judging someone, that I am being so arrogant as to think that I understand some aspect of the person. Now not only am I offering myself up for judgment, I am offering this acquaintance (based on my interpretations of their personality), and risking our relationship.

Wouldn’t it be great if, when writing an essay or creating a character for a story, we could use complete strangers as inspiration? Maybe we hear something a stranger says in a chance, overheard moment, or we see something they do and we think, ooh, I can use that. Of course this happens, but the problem is, at least for me, that it always comes back to my life and the people around me. I take the things that a stranger says or does and put them through a filter of more “known” quantities – after all, the person is a stranger.

I called the first book I wrote Burning Bridges. I wrote it with the intention of severing myself from my Midwestern roots. I guess it was my attempt at the You Can’t Go Home Again theme. I gave it to my parents to read, and to my brother. All of them asked me questions about this or that character. Is that ---? Did you really do this? Oh my gosh! I stopped short of giving it to any of my friends from high school or college, though. I didn’t even try to sell the book. I did not have the courage. When I re-wrote the book, I watered it down, removed my anger, and was left with a shell of what I had originally intended. I was afraid.

I gave my second book to more people. I think maybe ten or fifteen people altogether (and now it is on the Internet, so maybe someone else has looked at it? I don’t know). I was more honest in this book, and held back less. I still restrained myself, though. The people reading the book all offered up positive feedback, but still questions remain. Who is this person? Did you do this? Whether the person reading was a long-term friend or someone I had met in Taipei, the questions existed. I am beginning to think that if the assumptions are already in place, that people already want to believe that everything is based on someone or occurrence in life, then I might as well write about it, consequences be damned.

I recently read David Sedaris’ latest book of essays, Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim. Sedaris has made a living off of writing about the things and the people in his life. He is one of the funniest writers around. One of the essays in this collection is entitled “Repeat After Me.” Sedaris has gone to visit his sister. He has a reading in a nearby town, and he wants to share the news that one of his books has been optioned for a movie. As many of his essays revolve around his family and their less than admirable traits, he begins thinking about how he has exposed their lives in his books, and now it is going to happen on a big screen. His sister has a parrot (hence the title of the essay) and in the last paragraph, Sedaris imagines the final scene of the movie - a man walking past his sister’s room, down into the living room where he sits in front of a parrot repeating over and over again “Forgive Me.”

When I read that, I imagined a time when I too might need to repeat those lines over and over again. For me, writing is a dangerous love, something that I fear will lead me to hurt others and to embarrass myself. I suppose, though, that if I want to be serious about it, there is not much choice but to get over my hang-ups and make the plunge. So I suppose this is a pre-emptive sort of apology for anything that may find its way out of my head in the future. Forgive me.

Sunday, April 17, 2005

Happy Sunday. Posted by Hello

Saturday, April 16, 2005

Guilt

Do you ever hear yourself saying something and realize how daft you sound? You then, through interior monologue, implore yourself to shut up before making a complete fool of yourself – only to find that it is too late? This happens to me just about every day. I will be teaching my students and hear myself start in on a lecture about this or that form of behavior and everything about what I am saying disgusts me. My tone is exasperated, pleading, faux-stern. The words are those which were directed to me and those around me countless times as a child (by parents and teachers), empty words of reason falling on disinterested ears. Even my face, I can feel it, is grotesque. I am trying to convey anger, disappointment, the importance of my words. The child is laughing.

Yesterday it happened again, although this time I was talking to a colleague. We were talking about writing. As I do whenever the opportunity arises, I brought the conversation around to my blog. I was explaining to her how I have been getting up at six every morning, trying to write a new piece to post each morning.

“It is great exercise,” I said. “A challenge. I’m forcing myself to come up with something new every day, and every day I have my own little deadline to reach. I’m starting to find a clearer vision of what I want to write about, an idea of my strengths. I feel like its really making a difference.”

Here my colleague tried to add something to the conversation and I ignored her. It was at this time that I noticed other colleagues were sitting at the desk and that I started to realize how stupid I sounded. It was too late. I was started.

“It is kind of like exercise,” I said. “You know how when you’ve been working out a lot, or running, and you start to feel the results. Like you are feeling stronger. Or maybe you’ve been dieting and you notice one morning in the mirror that you really are slimmer. That’s how I feel right now. Like each morning when I write I’m flexing my muscles a bit, getting stronger.
It’s a great feeling.” I said all of this with great animation, with the fervency of a believer. This only made the growing feeling of nausea even worse. I almost vomited on my own words.

Part of the problem with saying stupid things is that I tend to dwell on them. I will think about them for days, months, sometimes even years. Less than a week ago, as I was getting dressed, I remembered a particularly horrible day in junior high school. I was making a desperate attempt to be cool and began to make fun of one of the girls in our class because of her last name. Her name was Milkewacky or something like that and I started calling her Wacky-Milk or some similarly stupid name. Not only did every one around me find this not the least bit funny, later in the day the girl came up to me and challenged me to a fight.

“I heard you were making fun of my name.”
“No.”
“Yes, you were. And now I’m going to kick your ass. After school.”
“No. I’m sorry, I can’t. I have to take the bus home.”
“Are you afraid to fight a girl? You are, aren’t you?”
“No. No I’m not I have to take a bus.”
“What a wimp.”

And that was true, I was a wimp. I was short and chubby and had never been in a fight before (actually, to this day I have never been in a real fight). As she challenged me, I could feel my face turning a deep shade of red, and I came to a very sudden understanding of why I felt so out of place at school. It was on a Friday that she challenged me. On Monday, the incident seemed to have been forgotten by everyone but me. As you can see, I have still not forgotten it.

I began thinking about this phenomenon yesterday. Am I that sensitive about the way people view me? Why do I dwell on things so much? I realized that an answer might be found in what my co-teacher and I had been discussing before I began babbling on about my emerging brilliance as a writer.

I talked with Natalia as I do at just about every lunch break, and as usual she had some comment about my daily post.

“Who is this girl Jurga?” she said.
“No one. I only knew her for a couple of weeks. I haven’t even been in touch with her for more than two years.”
“I don’t like her.”
“That was so long ago, though.”
“You have too much of a past.”
“But it is the past. You are the one I’m with. You are the one I’m going to Argentina for.”
“You haven’t gone traveling yet.”
“It doesn’t matter.”

But of course it does. The past always does. Someone once told me that most people who travel fall into one of two categories, those who are seeking and those who are running away. I suspect most of us are a mix of the two and I wonder the percentages for me.

After talking to Natalia I began talking to my colleague.
“Great,” I said. “Now I have someone else to worry about.”
“What do you mean?”

I played a lot of basketball when I was younger. In high school I played on a church team with my closest friends. We hung out all the time together. We played cards, basketball, and golf. We made movies. We had a blast. Our basketball games were on Sundays and we had a pretty good team, one of the best in the league. I was pretty intense on the court, and tended to let my emotions get the best of me. I would shout when I blocked someone’s shot, gasp in disbelief and ask “Are you f-ing kidding me?” when a foul was called on me. I was full of obscenities. F—this and f – that. When I missed a shot (which was often) I would curse myself. “S--. You a------. How could you miss that?” When I was on the court, I forgot that my mom was in the stands watching me.

“I love watching you guys play,” she always said. “But why do you have to curse so much?”

The truth is, had I remembered that my mom was in the stands I never would have cursed. I would have been so busy thinking about not cursing that I would not have been able to concentrate on the game and thus would have been better sitting on the bench and handing out towels to everyone.

I am a guilty person. I don’t know if my guilt is Catholic guilt or Midwestern guilt, but it is guilt all the same. If I think about the things I have done in the past in a general sense, I can shuffle through everything quickly and think, OK, I’ve done some stupid things, I’ve had some fun, I’ve seen some cool places, and now I’m a pretty worldly, well-adjusted kind of guy. However, if I think about the past in relation to my parents and grandparents everything changes. I wonder: what if, when they die, they have access to my memory banks? What will they think of me then? Oh my God.

This has had a horrible effect on my writing, and this is what I tried to explain to my co-worker yesterday. As I write stories or essays I have a little self-editing button. I could call it my “WWMS” button.

A few years ago there was a big WWJD phase. Do you remember that? People everywhere were wearing bracelets that said “What Would Jesus Do?” That way, when faced with a problem, a question of how to react to a situation, they could glance down at their wrist and find the answer. Others put WWJD bumper stickers on their car to remind their fellows on the road that Jesus would probably not drive two inches away from their tail pipe or fly out of his car in a rage ready to beat some incompetent driver to a bloody pulp.

The problem with WWJD is that no one can say for sure what Jesus would do. According to some people, Jesus would handle every problem with a love thy neighbor attitude. He would embrace the situation and the person causing the problem, regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, or system of belief and everyone would go home happy. Others would say Jesus would only deal with the situation if it involved straight people, preferably white, who believe that anyone not following their path of belief is a heathen (especially if they are liberal). For those failing to meet these criteria, Jesus would utter a denouncement and return to Capitol Hill in order to further instill religion into sacred halls of American government.

Whenever I thought WWJD, I figured he would perform some sort of miracle and make the problem go away.

WWMS is not subject to such interpretation, however. Whenever I read over something I have written, I have this mantra in my mind: “What Would Mom Say?” I am always quite sure when I reach a passage that would leave mom aghast and nine times out of them I will begin the process of editing it to the point of mom-approval. This usually means deleting the section in its entirety. It does not matter if the passage in question is based on reality or if it comes from imagination. The simple fact that such a passage could come from her baby son is horror enough.

After editing the passage, another level of guilt comes into play. How can I develop into a good writer if I am self-censoring, if I am holding myself back. For it is these words exactly that my co-worker said to me yesterday:
“I have always had the impression when I read your writing that you are very cautious, that you are restraining yourself.”

I don’t know how to stop, though. How does one stop feeling guilty? How does one find the courage to say everything one needs to say, even when they know it might offend, disgust, or hurt those closest to them? I mean, heck, my dad was complaining that I use the word damn too much in my posts. You can imagine what my mom’s reaction was when she read my first attempt at a novel, a story containing a healthy amount of alcohol and drug use as well as a gratuitous sex scene. And now I have a girlfriend’s reactions to worry about as well. No wonder my hair is starting to turn white.

My parents raised me well. They raised me to understand the difference between right and wrong. They taught me to realize that choices have consequence, whether good or bad. They worked hard to give me the opportunity to do things that they never had the chance to – to expand beyond my parochial Midwestern upbringing and to see something of the world. I can never thank them enough, or properly express my gratitude. And perhaps this is the guilt that I feel when I write, that a truly grateful son would not expose his mother to such words or ideas, such tales of debauchery or anger. I am left to wonder if I will ever feel free to say all the things that I have to say.