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Thursday, June 30, 2005

Imitating Fiction, Opened Eyes, and Other Things That May Come Up

I had a friend once, a guy named Will who didn't really know what was going on in his life. He knew two things, he liked to travel and he liked to take pictures. In fact, a lot of people said he was a lot like me - except that at the time I knew him, I had yet to gain an interest in photography. One of the things that Will liked to do most when he was in Cincinnati was to go downtown to the area around the courthouse (and on Main St and Over-the-Rhine) and take pictures of the people and the things that he saw. He especially liked going into alleys because he never knew quite what to expect. I haven't heard from Will in quite awhile, and I don't really know what he's up to these days. Of course, part of the reason might be that he is an invented person, a character in a book I wrote a few years ago (and what the hell, I may as well plug it here - http://theworldattheirfeet.blogspot.com/2005/03/part-1.html).

I went downtown with Natalia yesterday. We walked from Fountain Square up to the court house (she wanted to see a few places mentioned in said book) and then back down towards the river. We ended up at the Underground Railroad Museum, something that was talked about, but had not yet been started last time I was home. As we walked, I felt a bit like a tourist and I think I ended up taking 30 pictures in the two hours we were actually outside (too bloody hot to be out longer than that in the middle of the afternoon). A few of the pictures were taken around the courthouse area, in some of the alleys I had in mind when writing about Will. Then we went to a cafe that Will used to hang out in (he met and had a bit of a fling with a girl there).

As were sitting there, Natalia and I, the inverse nature of the day seemed a bit strange to me, the way in which the fiction had happened first, and then the reality. When I was writing that book, Will and his friends were a very real presence in my life - they picked and chose different paths for themselves in the context of the plot. Their emotions and problems could affect my feelings on any given day. The uncertainties they had about their futures, while being an echo of my own, became something tangible, and added to the uncertainties that I felt. To be taking pictures like Will, in a place that he was five or six years ago took me back to the things I was feeling at the time that I wrote the book (as well as the things I was seeing and doing in Eastern Europe) and it returned me to the times and places that Will's life borrowed from my own.
Those two strands tied themselves up and met at the present, in a coffee shop with Natalia sitting across from me, a new novel forming in my head, and a long trip coming. It got me wondering - if Will was based on me, how much has changed for me since I wrote that book? In the book Will and his two best friends have met for a homecoming reunion. It is a year after September 11. The three characters all harbor a belief that their lives should be something far different and far greater than what they are. The expected changes that 9/11 would bring have not come (in the sense of life having more meaning, more value, of the need to place a greater emphasis on personal relationships and the value of the moment). One of them is off to New York to pursue a writing career. One is in Cincinnati facing the prospect of a divorce. And Will is off to South Korea to find the girl who used to work in the coffee shop. While Will is not me, I have to wonder, less than a week after coming back from Taiwan, why, if I have the girl now, I must go off again, on one last solitary journey across a large expanse of the globe? To be honest, the way that fiction and reality are meeting, tied to a point and with two long dangling strings reaching to and dragging across the floor is a bit of a mindf$*k.

Changing focus a bit now. I met with a group of friends the other night. One of them was asking a number of questions about Taipei and about Cambodia and so on and so forth. He has read a lot of things on this page, and he was recounting some of his favorite bits, like us getting stuck on a boat in Cambodia. Then he brought up the idea of me getting kidnapped in Argentina. "It was funny," he said. "One day you said that Americans are always like 'How can you go to this or that place because its so dangerous, even when its not', and then the next day you are talking about getting kidnapped in Argentina. I was thinking come on Al, a bit of a disconnect here." (And please note use of Al - after writing a post some time ago about finding out I was an Al instead of an Alan, and how I really can't stand that name, it was decided by my friends here that it did not matter. I can't be anything but Al...As long as it is only here, I don't mind...)

Back to the subject at hand. The conversation about safety abroad came on the heels of me asking about safety in Cincinnati. Since I have been home there have already been about 5 shootings, and my parents and their friends have talked about a whole lot more that have occurred since the beginning of the year. Most of them are limited to one or two parts of town, though - and not in any of the main downtown districts or in our immediate suburban neighborhoods. What was remarked upon, though, was how - while I am dispelling notions of dangers abroad to US citizens, they are dispelling notions of danger in my hometown. It was, the insinuation was, a bit presumptuous of me to think that it was dangerous to be downtown (unless I was in aforementioned neighborhoods). Well, I agree. Kevin, thanks for pointing that out to me. To tack on a bit of conversation last night:

"Well, please be very careful in Malaysia. Any Muslim country you go to (mom)."
"I'm more worried about China. I've heard awful things about there. I keep asking him to be so careful there, because I know he likes to wonder into some strange places (Natalia)."
"You should stay out of Burma. That's just a place you do not want to be going (dad)."
"Well hell, you better be careful while you are in Cincinnati. You never know when a stray bullet might go flying by if you're in the wrong place (parent's friend Pete)."
"I guess it doesn't matter where you are, does it (Pete's wife Mary)."

No it doesn't. So, am I nervous at all about my coming trip. I suspect I will be as soon as I have things a bit more in order, yes. But with all the environmental problems, gangs, The Terrorists (The Terrorists, ah!), the cancer causing agents in food and drinks and etc etc etc and more, what the heck. Here, there, any which where is pretty much the same, don't you think?

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Dinner Time Conversation

Sometimes a person gets to a certain point, usually when they are pushing 85 or 90, after they've suffered a few major illnesses, have grown weak and diminished and are noticeably, in appearance and in conversation, not quite the same person that you once knew, where you begin to think maybe it would not be such a bad thing if the person fell asleep and their heart just stopped beating. These thoughts may hang around the edges of your mind as you look upon a loved one fading away, and perhaps you look around other loved ones standing with you, wondering if they are thinking the same thing. As you look around at them, you wait for someone to say something, to ease the guilt you might be feeling, thinking such a thought - a thought which, in effect, is a wish for someone's death. After awhile, someone may say something and with a relief (though probably not seeming too eager) you agree, with hushed tones and soft sighs that, yes, it would be for the best because, after all, at a certain point life just might not be quite worth living.

With internet telephony and email and cheap long-distance rates available, it is not so hard to keep in touch with people these days. While living in Taipei, I spoke with my folks just about every Sunday night via Skype, occasionally messaged with my mom in the mornings as I typed blog entries, and emailed with some sporadic constistency. I knew that my grandpa's health was not the best. I knew that he was getting frail and that he was staying in a home after his last trip to the hospital. And from the way he sounded when I spoke to him, from the tenuous strength of his voice, the breaking and teary sounding excitement about my impending return, I had a hint that even he might be thinking the worst thoughts about his future.

Despite this sort of communication, though, being on the other side of the world makes it really difficult to be in the loop on things. By being so far away you can not see the looks that pass between people when they are thinking thoughts that they do not want to voice, that can only be expressed with looks. You can not see the way situations impede upon daily lives or the true effect they have your family or friends.

I bring this up after two consecutive nights of dinner with my grandma and parents. Each night we were sitting out on the deck, waiting for breezes to bring life to the still hot air, eating homecooked meals, conversing as we never did over dinners when I was a child. Each night there was plenty to be happy about, plenty of positive conversations to have. A child/grandchild come home after a year and a half away on Sunday night, and on Monday his girlfriend arrived and beginning to meet what may someday become her second family. Yes, there was plenty to feel good about.

Five places around the table instead of six, though. This is the first sign that something is not quite right, that somebody is missing. Then there is the way that conversations just keep returning to that absence. Questions to Natalia about her family circle back to grandpa. Talks about my students somehow return to grandpa. Discussions of health drinks and pills (a very favorite topic of my father's these days) come back to grandpa. Everything stops there. And then moves again, down steadily darker roads, full of doubt and worry, at times resignation.

What kind of savings are there in the bank? What are the options here, because the place he is in now is just not doing the job. They don't even let him get up and walk around with us unless a nurse is present. He needs to be walking. He needs to be moving. He needs to be pushed or he will just lie there or sit there, accumulating sores and sorrows and letting what little confidence he seems to have in himself drain away.

So can we get him to this or that home? What can insurance cover? We have a conference on Wednesday (remember that son, because someone needs to be there to help me, to say what is really on our minds, to be strong, to tell these people that we do not believe in what they are doing, and if this is the best they can do then at the very least he can come home and we will figure out the times of day when it is most important to have someone around to watch dad because goodness knows I can not do it by myself). (And as an extra paranthetical notation here, because there is just so much to say, what is this doing to me? I've lost weight and he depends on me so much, but I can't sell the condo now to get extra money because I need that for my own insurance down the road and it just was so much easier 60 years ago when you had one doctor who really cared about you and talked to you and treated you and not a symptom. I know that everyone in the family is supporting me right now but at 10:30 the lights go out and all the strength I have goes away but I can't sleep like you think I could because the hamsters in my brain decide to start exercising and the wheel just keeps turning and turning and there is no one to listen to breathing next to me, or to wish would stop snoring. No, there are just bad radio call ins with crazy callers that usually put me to sleep but now just spit their white noise at me and make me wonder where this is all going).

From discussion of savings and treatments and living arrangements comes a list of previous ailments. Prostate cancer that went into the bones, and 18 years living with that and still going is pretty amazing. Melanoma. Strokes. Falls. I really thought the last time he was in the hospital was it. I thought he was going to go, and I thought it was time and I was ready, but God was not and we are thankful for that.

But you have to deal with so much now, and he suffers so much. There does come a time when you think...

And the unspoken is spoken. The veil is lifted and that thought, a late night heart attack, a mercy, a blessing for everyone. Before others health is robbed by worry and stress. Before memories are destroyed and savaged, replaced by a visions of a shell lying in bed, mumbling and repeating and forgetting, a broken mind in a decaying body. Before savings are eaten away.

A breeze begins blowing. It is amazing how much life is around us, and how I notice it like I have never before. Is it because of being in the city for so long, or because Natalia is here and I am looking at my home town and my home and my youth through her eyes now? Is it because of this cloud of sickness and death hanging over our conversation? Birds are sitting on the railing. There is a cardinal sitting at the top of the apple tree, and then it is flying away. One of the cats is poking its head near a bird nest, and the birds fly around his head. Ants crawl below us, one over my ankle.

The breeze feels incredible. My girlfriend is sitting next to me, and though it has only been two days she looks more beautiful than I remember her, and we both think it is just a little bit strange that we are together here, that our life in Taipei is gone and that now we are here of all places and this is my family and, well it's just weird. Talk stops and now there is quiet. And then talk again, now of small things. It is time for Grandma to leave and we kiss and hug. She hugs Natalia and I can see how everyone in my family wants her to be a part, considers her already as one of us (poor girl).

But why is she here now? She will meet my grandpa today, and though I have already seen him twice since Saturday, yesterday he asked if I had made it home yet. His birthday is almost here. Natalia is here. There is so much to celebrate, but she is not meeting the man that I have known all my life. Sometimes he is close and sometimes not. There is so much to celebrate and I know that, but it feels hard now, to celebrate. Celebrate life and what remains, right? Wouldn't it be nice if it was that easy?

Monday, June 27, 2005

Back Home

Flying over Greenland, I was looking out the window at a three hour sunrise, a line of red separating deep, dark blue and white cloud. Below were mountains and deep piles of snow. Frozen rivers were etched into the landscape like surgical scars. It was about halfway into my flight home and after a few hours of sleep, I suspected that I would be awake for the remainder of the journey home (and I pretty much was). As I was looking out the window, I wanted so badly to have some great insight into the meaning of the last two years teaching kindergarten kids. I wanted to understand the importance of what the children have meant to me. I wanted a wave of sadness to wash over me, a delayed reaction to all of the good-byes of the last week. I wanted a slow piano solo or haunting violin to begin a quiet buildup to a moment of soaring emotion with horns and strings that would lift me right out of my seat and right out of my numbness. I wanted that crescendo to fall back into a steady and upbeat rhythm that would finish with a flurry as I finally found my parents at the airport in Cincinnati.

None of it happened.

My brain was too sluggish to make much out of the fact that I really am moving on from Taipei, or that for the next half a year I am going to be in a bubble world - not here or there but just wherever I am on that given day or night. It could not process the tears that were cried over my departure, or the children who wanted one last hug over and over again - the ones who made me realize that, no matter what I do from here, I have done at least one thing good in my life...I have affected a group of kids, meant something to them, taught them...and that feels pretty good.

Later, we crossed over Lake Michigan (or one of the Great Lakes at any rate). The we were overland, and as we crossed over Michigan, I looked down at the subdivisions dotting, and then dominating the landscape, and I saw in them Chinese characters, the kind you would see on a chop, or on stamps for businesses or the government.

Next to me a boy slept. He was with his mom, an American woman from Minnesota (they were on there way to see Grandma and Grandpa). His father is Japanese, and the boy is adorable. He was very talkative, and throughout the flight we chatted about this or that. He made up little stories and offered opinions about this or that thing. As he talked I wondered if maybe he wasn't the perfect person to be sitting next to me on this flight. A young boy, a year younger than my students, living abroad for most of his life. Perhaps a link between the last two years of teaching and what the future may hold for Natalia and me (a mixed baby or two [and learning multiple languages], living abroad {one of us will be no matter what}, and suffering, I suspect (I certainly wonder if Daniel, the little boy on the plane did) a sense of displacement, of mixed identity.

I think about that a lot these days, identity and displacement. Take Natalia for example. She grew up in Argentina, and while she says there is some Chinese/Taiwanese community there, it is not so large, and there is not nearly as much ethnic diversity as there is in the US. Then she goes to Taiwan and people stare at her in restaurants or give her rude looks when she tells them she can not read Chinese. Add this to the looks that we drew being together as a mixed race couple (which is not altogether uncommon in Taipei, but still - and this is not to mention the smaller towns and islands we visited, or Cambodia), and I wonder what it must like to be in her shoes.

And even for myself, after being abroad for the better part of the last four years, and not being in the US for a year and a half. I don't feel altogether at ease with the thought of settling in the US, and I say that just a day into my stay home. This is not to say that I am not happy to be here - I am, and I am thrilled. This is also not to say that won't settle here someday. It is a definite option. It is just that at this moment, and in many moments while being away, I have a general feeling of being out of contact, out of touch with everything here.

I have written before on here about my love-hate relationship with my hometown of Cincinnati. I feel that in the last few years I have come to peace with that though, and I made a conscious decision before returning, and reminded myself of it while on the plane, that I am going to do my best to enjoy every minute home. I am not going to dwell on how different I feel, or on the inanity of the news shows and newsapers, or the this's and that's that drove me away in the first place.

And yet, while sitting in the lounge in Detroit, waiting for my flight, this awful feeling began to sneak up on me. Perhaps it was because so many people around me, and walking past were overweight or worse. There was something American about that, about the fat. There was also something American about the facial hair on the men - the goatees and sideburns and (oh, how could people still be wearing them?) moustaches. And somehow that Americanness, the particular feeling this aroused in me sent me spinning back to 2000 when I felt like I had to escape.

The moment passed, however, and I hope that it has been buried away not to be noticed again while home.

Last night and this morning I enjoyed meals on our deck. The temperature has been hitting about 34, which is about the same as Taipei, but it has felt nice. To sit outside last night and feel that heat, the late afternoon, early evening heat, and to listen to the night animals coming out was a perfect cap to a day spent on airplanes and in airports.

To feel heat in the air, but not radiating up from pavement was wonderful.

At breakfast this morning, there was a blue jay making some very strange noise. A squirrel rushed up a tree and made a racket. A group of birds sang and planes passing overhead disrupted a conversation I was having with my dad. We turned our attention to the Sunday paper. What kills me is that living in the city takes you away from the simple pleasures of being in the suburbs, or in the country. But being in the burbs or out in the country takes you away from so much in the city.

Where are my 7-11's and traffic and people? Where are my fruit stands and street vendors? And for God's sake, where are my mango smoothies!?

We played golf today and I kept having visions of high-rises sprouting from the fairways and apartment blocks rising to steal away the sky.

I have one foot in Asia and one foot in the US and a future in South America. Jet lag is nothing compared to this kind of confusion.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Neighborhoods

I'm sitting in an internet cafe for the first time in ages. It is the same internet cafe I came to before I got ADSL in the same neighborhood I lived in for my first eight months in Taipei - an area called Shida because of its proximity to ShiDa University and perhaps because the street is called ShiDa as well.

I was reading the paper today and there was a story about a car bomb in Beirut, one that killed another anti-Syrian politician. The man was killed in the ------ neighborhood of Beirut (I don't have the paper with me to tell you the actual name). Reading about that reminded me of the near daily news reports of car bombings and suicide attacks in various neighborhoods around Baghdad and in Iraq.

"A huge car bomb detonated in the ------- neighborhood today, killing --- and wounding ---," the story usually goes.

What kind of neighborhoods are these, I wonder? Can't they be called areas instead of neighborhoods? I mean, neighborhoods are supposed to be nice places with trees and gardens and yards separating houses. Neighborhoods are supposed to be the first place kids play baseball or basketball or soccer with kids that are their first friends thanks to the proximity of their houses.

Anytime I see the word neighborhood in a newspaper, I think of picnics and fireworks on July 4th and Christmas lights dotting the near distance in winter. I think of the two private drives and 10 or fifteen other houses that comprised my neighborhood when I was young (now a whole lot bigger with two new subdivisions, or maybe more now - who knows what has been built in the last year and a half). I do not think of concrete and apartment buildings and traffic, and I certainly do not think of car bombs and suicide attacks. The again, I am a kid from the suburbs so what do I know?

Really, though...even when I came to Taiwan and people referred to ShiDa as a neighborhood, I had real difficulty accepting that terminology. ShiDa is a busy night market area and there are probably several thousand people living in the square kilometer around my first apartment here. That is not a neighborhood. It is an area, a section of a part of town. Even though I saw several people on a near daily basis as I made my way around the restaurants and to the MRT, I could not consider it a neighborhood - except perhaps for the fruit lady who sold me fruit for exceptional prices.

Things have changed though in the time I've been here, now that I think about it. My last apartment was in a part of town that had no real name, at least none that I knew of. When people asked me where I lived I just told them the nearest major intersection. Despite this, though, I found myself calling it my neighborhood when talking to people - saying things like "There is this one restaurant in my neighborhood that has great dumplings," or "There's a few guys in my neighborhood who wave to me every morning and say hello as I walk to the bus."
So I guess my concept of neighborhoods has changed a bit, enough anyway to accept concrete and high rises
and highway overpasses and 24 hour traffic.

I'm thinking about neighborhoods as my time here winds down (less than two days and a half days to go!). What will it like to be in a neighborhood full of yards and space and trees? What will it be like to hear grasshoppers and crickets at night? What will it be like to hear only sporadic traffic at night - sporadic enough to make me wonder who would be out driving a car at three in the morning (although here my memories are more of being a young kid - with all the new subdivisions traffic has increased quite a bit 'round our little neighborhood)?

This strange thing is happening right now. The closer Saturday comes, the farther away it seems. Today I just about hit the exhaustion point sometime around 5:30. Perhaps this is why Saturday morning feels like it will never arrive. I think about the errands and packing that remain tomorrow and I think "Man, I don't want to do that, really." But, it must be done, and who am I to complain when I'm not going to be working for the next half year?

Anyway, maybe I will write again before I leave. Then again, maybe I won't. I keep meaning to write something about Taiwan - something that will somehow capture the import of my time here, something that will bring a sense of closure to this particular experience. I cannot though, not yet. Maybe that is what the flight home is for. To bring together everything, or to let it settle and start to make sense. Or maybe that particular essay is not meant to be written. Maybe it is meant to stay inside of me, to be for me. Maybe, maybe, maybe...maybe this is a problem of mine, the reliance on this word maybe.

But then, how does one who believes in possibility, in opportunity, in chance strip away that word maybe? When the options seem endless and non-existent at the same moment, what is there beyond maybe?

Monday, June 20, 2005

Echoing Echoes

I was at the bookstore today, looking for a book or two to take with me on the airplane Saturday. I settled on Nick Hornby's 31 Songs and Dave Eggers's You Shall Know Us By the Speed of Our Velocity. Why these two? As with any airplane book (especially when the flight is going to be close to seventeen hours when adding all the layovers and such together), I wanted something that I will not want to put down. I was also looking for something that would give me a little bit something more - a push, a nudge into a proper mindset to write. There is also the fact that I have been meaning to read the Eggers book for ages and just needed a special occasion (like an Asia to America flight) to prompt me to buy it.

I bought the books on my lunch break today. Just about 8 hours later, I find myself already half way through the Hornby book. It is a short book of essays written about songs that have meant a great deal to him. It is a short book, and I knew that if I started it, I would be done well before I flew home. And yet, I had time on the MRT and no newspaper to read. I just couldn't resist. (Guess I'll have to get another book later in the week).

In the second essay, (or sort of the first I suppose, after something of an introduction that accompanied thoughts on the first song), Hornby writes about Bruce Springsteen's Thunder Road. I'm not much of a Springsteen fan, I admit, and I am not about to offer a discourse about the song. However, the essay itself has hit me like the pop songs he is writing about - something that, though it may not be great literature, or timeless music, strikes into your core, that captures you in the moment you are in and brings clarity or seems so clear and so appropriate to your life that you want to listen to it again and again (or in this case, read it again).

In the essay, Hornby mentions reading Anne Tyler's Dinner At the Homesick Restaurant in his student days and realizing as he read it that the book had somehow been written for him. That he had nothing in common with the narrator, the characters or the author was unimportant. What was of importance was the fact that as he read the book, he knew that this was the kind of book he wanted to write, that this was the kind of author he was meant to be.

The essay works its way then into the lyrics of Thunder Road, a song, according to Hornby, that is about a man who knows success is on its way. Again, it did not matter that Hornby is neither American, nor a car lover, etc...what mattered is the way the song spoke to his life. A man who wanted to be a writer, who, at least in his mind, left behind cities and places that could hold him back, who waited to declare to those who doubted him that he had succeeded, that he had done what they could not do. Thunder Road became a song he could listen to when it seemed maybe he would not pull away and do the things he dreamed of doing.

This is but a very general overview of the essay, and touches only on the points that I feel most in tune with at this particular moment. What is it then, that I find in this little essay, this discourse by one man on a song that means nothing to me? To be blunt, a lot.

I read Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant in school as well, and quite enjoyed it. Nothing like Fitzgerald, though, or Kerouac. I didn't even like it as much as Wuthering Heights (and yes, I admit it, I like that book). From about third grade I have wanted to be a writer, you see, or been writing at any rate. In college, I wanted to be one of the big guns. I harbored dreams of writing a combination of The Great Gatsby and On the Road that would change the way a whole generation of youths saw the world.

Alas, that has not come to pass.

Maybe two or three years after graduation, my cousin suggested I read Fever Pitch. When I went to Prague, I bought the book and proceeded to read it three or four times in a span of about as many months. I don't know why I was so taken by it. I was not yet a big football fan, and I've never been an Arsenal supporter at any rate. It certainly is not a great piece of literature in the traditional sense. And yet, I kept going back to it. I thought, while I could not write this exact book, this is the kind of guy I am. I've felt the same way reading other Hornby books, and after reading each, I feel a great need to write.

Of course, anyone dreaming of writing an earth-shattering book, or at least one that would make it onto reading lists and be recommended to anyone of a certain age by someone who has already passed that age (and the recommendation accompanied by the words "I think you should read this. When I was your age, this really changed my life, and I think it will do the same for you," or some such thing, also dreams of a certain amount of fame. I did, and I guess I was afflicted by a bit of those feelings of needing to leave the place I was from, a place that would never allow me to succeed or to achieve what was rightfully mine.

Now, at the ripe old age of twenty-nine, I find myself at a bit of a - place. I can't say crossroads, because the roads ahead of me are too many, and leading in too many directions to be as simple as a crossroads. What this place is, though, is a place where doubt flourishes, and where self-imposed pressure, if allowed to fester, might do one in.

To explain: anyone who has come to this page and read even a small amount knows I am about to embark on a journey of decent length, across most of China and a fair bit of Southeast Asia to boot. What may not be as obvious is the true intent of this trip. Sure I want to see a lot of new places and eat some funky foods and drink some freaky liquors and not work for half a year - I mean, who would complain about that? But in the end, this trip is about writing.

I can tell you I have written two novels. I can tell you I have written a whole bunch of short stories and some essays. I can tell you that people tell me I can write pretty well and that I should be a writer and that a few people have even said, damn, that really stuck with me about something I wrote, or that my they think my books are better than a lot of things they have seen published. I could tell you that, but what does it mean? Nothing, really. Sure, I'm glad I've written stories I set out to write, but they weren't really good enought to be published, and even if they were, they aren't.

So here I am, 29 years old. Am I starting to believe that this dream of writing (in the context of being paid to do it, to achieve some name recognition) is not going to come to fruition? I would be lying if I said no. Am I starting to doubt my talents? Maybe, just a bit. Am I starting to doubt that I have the drive to make it happen? You better believe it.

And that is the thing. I write things, and then they gather dust. I don't shop them, I am not aggressive in promoting myself. I just sort of assume that things will take care of themselves. That a magic door will open and in I will walk, claiming all the things that I rightfully deserve. Not the best attiture, I know.

Perhaps part of the problem as well is that I can't really picture myself as being a big name author. It isn't that I don't have confidence in my writing ability; I don't have confidence in my credentials. No big name college degree, no short stories that promise great things. I have read plenty of big name authors, both dead and alive, literary and not so literary, and I just can't picture myself being asked to speak about them. I can't imaging being asked to offer my thoughts or opinions of this or that author whose work is echoed in mine, because to be honest, I usually forget most of what I read after I am finished (save for the general feeling that I've just read something extremely good or extremely bad). I can't quote stories, and I often can't even name characters after I've finished. How can someone like that break into the ranks of respected (and hopefully) best-selling author?

I know that this is not my last chance, this trip, and the time in Argentina that will follow (a time, I hope, when my girlfriend will badger me and force me to shop the books that I haven't written yet). It feels like it though. And that is why reading this essay today meant so much. It kicked me, told me that, hey, it isn't over yet.

I was left with the feeling, too, after I was done, and while talking to Natalia over dinner, that even if all my dreams of literary fame don't pan out - well, maybe it won't be so bad.

On that note, it is time to walk away from all of these thoughts that I only started thinking today. I've moved out of my apartment and don't have interent anymore (why posts will be sporadic for the next several days). I have four days of teaching left and then I'm out of Taipei. It hasn't even occured to me yet to think about the fact that when I step on the plane on Saturday, I'm not coming back here, at least not for several years. It hasn't occured to me that the trip I have been thinking about for so long is about to be reality (and the whole thing about writing that did just occur to me to think about, but damn, its really hard to keep track of everything right now). Maybe it will all come to me on the plane, and I'll just be overwhelmed. The stewardesses will come up and ask "Is everything all right sir?" And I'll just say, "I think so, but maybe you should bring several of those bottles of red, thanks." And then I'll bury me head in my books and think about the day when some twenty-something year old kid is about to go abroad for the first time and he's all nervous and excited and after filling a glass of wine, says thanks to the stewardess and turns his attention to his book and my name is on the cover.

Friday, June 17, 2005

Taxes (and Other Stuff)

Lunch breaks running all over town, collecting tax money, cancelling residency cards, buying things, etc. etc. Sounds like fun, doesn't it. That's what I get to start doing today. Of course, today's trip is all about the tax money, so I'm not going to complain to much about that.

While I'm thinking about that - for anyone coming here from Footprints web page because you are interested in teaching in Taiwan, a bit of advice: Unless you are going to get here before July 1, wait until next year to come (or come in November or December when there is not so much of the year left). In order to get your full tax money back the following year, you must work at least 183 days (or something like that) of one calendar year. If you get here after the summer starts, you won't get tax money back for all the work done between the day you arrive and Dec. 31 (or something like that). This really sucks because, as far as I know, for the first six months you are here, 20 percent of your pay is withheld. You only pay about 6 percent in tax, which means most people get back about $2000US after one year of working here. If you come after July, though, you lose the 20% and your refund will go down quite a bit.

Did that make any sense at all? I hope so. If not, and you are curious about what I am trying to say, just email me and I will try to make clearer.

Today I go file a fast tax return form (or something like that). Basically, I fill out a form saying I've worked this much this year, have it stamped by my company and by a Taiwanese friend who can vouch for me, and then next week I will be able to go and collect my money. How nice. Hope it works out that smoothly. I've found that the tax process has been quite painless each time I've done it before, so I have high hopes (even as I start knocking on my wood chair).

I'm leaving here in less than eight days now. It does not seem real.

Something else that does not seem real, but I'm really hoping I can find a way to make it real:

One of my former students is going with his mom to the US in July (a few days after I go). When they get back, they will go to the mainland to meet up with his dad. Then they are going to rent a van and drive through the kekexili region of Tibet - a place I have wanted to go to since watching a movie about the place earlier this year (I wrote a bit about it shortly after seeing the movie: http://outintheworld.blogspot.com/2005/03/blog-post.html). Anyway they will keep driving right on to Lhasa before flying back to GuangDong (or wherever the dad has his factory - it is in one of the eastern cities). I would either fly from Lhasa to Urumqi, or take a bus out. The problem is, I just don't know if I will be allowed to do this. I know westerners have to get a permit to go into Tibet, and then more special permits to travel outside of Lhasa. On top of that, most of those coming in must either fly in or join tour groups. On top of that, I would be coming in with some Taiwanese citizens. Anyway, I think the boy's mom is looking into the possiblity for me. I am praying that it will somehow work out.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Getting Away From Sex

I quite often listen to NPR - that being National Public Radio - on-line. I listen to Morning Edition in the mornings, though I am listening to it 12 hours behind, and I like to listen to All Things Considered in the evening, though, again, I am 12 hours behind.

As I was cleaning the apartment yesterday, I was listening to a live-streaming of morning edition from WNKU from Northern Kentucky University. Usually while listening to M.E., I listen to the show in its entirety, without the breaks for local news, weather, and traffic. It was a bit disconcerting, then, to hear weather reports for the greater Cincinnati area, and reports on morning rush hour (esp. given that it was 6 PM here and I was just trying to finish cleaning my floors before I succumbed to the fumes and so that I could go eat hot pot in celebration of finishing). There were also reports on city councils and on various local stories that meant nothing to me. I wonder if those stories meant so little when I was living in Cincy? I don't think so though. I think that part of the reason I had to move was what I considered to be the mindlessness of the local news. I hated it so much that I began to wonder how I could possibly come from a place where there so little of importance seemed so important to so many.

I've come to realize a few things in the years past since I moved away for the first time, though.
I've come to realize that the things I think are important are usually not so important to others, and vice versa (this was esp true a few years ago). I've also come to realize that most local news is as mindless as that in Cincinnati. I think it is the first exposure to something that affects you the most.

Anyway, I'm going to be there in 9 days which is a bit of a mind-bender. My place is all cleaned up now - or almost. I've started to pack in anticipation of moving out this weekend, and I am hoping to get a bit of rest now for what will no doubt be one of the more exhausting 24 hour stretches of my life this coming weekend (a class lunch Sat afternoon with this year's kids running around and screaming, a going away party at night, no doubt involving a few drinks, a bit of a dance, and a late night bed time, and then a 10:30 meeting time Sun morning for a day with last year's class and more running and screaming children. It will be great to see those kids as they finish their first grade year Sandwiched into all of this, moving my stuff down to Natalia's place). After this weekend, it will just be school and dealing with the emotional part of moving on after such a wicked experience.

I think I'm going to need to sleep for the first two days I'm at home, but I suspect I will not have that luxury.


And more on the radio: I am listening to All Things Considered right now as there is an interview with Nick Hornby whose books I really enjoy. He had a new book out, or coming out (I'm not sure) about four people who go up to the top of a high rise on New Year's night with the intent of jumping off. I have heard the book is quite good, with its dark humor and its examination of what things take these people to the top of the building.

Hornby has a certain affect on me - one which I can say is both positive and negative. The positive is that I always feel like writing after I read him. The bad is that - well, until I have books being sold and turned into movies I just feel really horribly inadequate.

So the first part of the interview contains a discussion about suicide. They are discussing why Hornby chose jumping as the method. As a lead in, the interviewer talks about her ideas on suicide. To paraphrase: I always thought gas would be the way to go. Not painless, time to back out if you change your mind. If not gas, maybe pills or a gun - those are the ways I would think about going. But jumping. You would have that time leading to the point of impact wondering if maybe this wasn't the best thing to be doing. Its not like you can turn back from that. And then the impact itself. That really can't be pleasant.

I pretty much agree with what she was saying, but I was kind of struck by the thought that this might not be the best thing to be listening to first thing in the morning. I also had to question her choice of gun on the best ways to off self selection. In high school, my chemistry teacher's husband was a surgeon and she brought in a series of pictures of a guy who had tried to blow his brains out. His aim was off and he just put a hole through his head instead. I just remember that in the first of the series, his face looked like a pizza, and in the last he had a hole in his face - I mean, you could see straight through his head.

And then the father of an ex-girlfriend was also a surgeon, out in Santa Barbara. A great guy. Very intelligent, kind, and obviously affected by his job. He showed me a short story that appeared in a collection of medical short stories (no lightweight collection, either - there were some very impressive writers in there). His story was based on his emotional conflict when one night a man came into the emergency room. Where his face should have been was a puddle of red - blood and exposed muscle - and bone. The man had tried to shoot himself and his aim was off. So here is the doctor, knowing this man does not want to live and with the job of saving his life. On top of that, he knows that the man will live and that he will be horribly disfigured - and if the guy wanted to die before, what is he going to want to do now? As the story goes on, he describes the medical processes as he describes his mental processes, and the combination is quite powerful.

I have to admit - I've thought about suicide more times that I can count, more times than I would care to admit to. Not so much in the sense of doing it, but in the sense of its existence as an option, and perhaps in that romantic pull of self-destruction. I can't really imagine doing it with a gun, though. I wouldn't trust my aim.


And finally: One of the characters is a woman who has had sex with one man, and only one time. That one time produced a severely disabled baby. Hornby read a bit from this passage, the woman contemplating that this happened to maybe 1 in 10 million women, which would mean (and despite the sound of the odds) that quite a few women around the world had been impregnated the first time they had sex. This brought to mind the story of a girl I met one time. She had not even had sex and had been impregnated. She was in her teens and fooling around with a guy. They were thinking maybe they would go ahead and do it, and somewhere in the process of deciding, the guy made the decision himself by ejaculating. He was not inside of her, but some of his semen trickled in...and nine months later, a baby.

What are the odds of that, I wonder? And how do you explain that to your parents?

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Should I Talk About Sex?

I haven't really been posting many interesting things here lately. Not coincidentally, fewer and fewer people come by every day (at least according to my web counter). Though I put on a brave face and say it doesn't really bother me, this blatant disinterest in me is really beginning to get me down, adding an unnecessary stress as I juggle dinner dates, lunch dates, work, and packing things up in preparation of leaving. It is becoming a real distraction. Maybe I will be talking with the kids about how we use water, or teaching them that igh makes a long i sound. Maybe I will be trying to hold a conversation in Chinese with some of the students' parents, or figuring out which clothes I just really don't need anymore. And then they come - insidious thoughts of how to attract more readers creeping back into my head.

Some ideas: Grovelling. Begging. Threatening self-injury if nobody comes. Holding a contest of sorts. Email me to tell me you've been to the site or post a comment and automatically be entered into a monthly raffle to win something. None of these seem to be really practical, though.

The Sunday Taipei Times gave me the best idea for building a readership. Sex. Tales of orgasm, of orgies, and unexpected sexual trysts. Lesbianism. Etc. Etc.

The article was not a long one, just one of the little blurbs papers put off on the side of a page. It was about a girl in Singapore who has been posting some nude pictures of herself on her blog page, and who talks about various sexual exploits. She now has more than 3000 hits per day (and I'm sure it is even more now - hell, I admit it, I went to the site).

On a post she put up this week, the girl talks about the publicity she has been getting lately, and she pretty much rips it apart. She pinpoints it to the fact that in one of the pictures she shows her nipples.

I got to thinking about this. I realized rather quickly that not many people are going to want to come back to my page to see my nipples, or any other naughty bits of my body, so posting nude pics of myself is not that great of an idea. I thought maybe I could try to persuade Natalia to let me take some of her, but I don't think that would go over all that well, either.

I thought, well, maybe I could just start writing about sex. Pretend I was a swinging kind of guy with a life full of flings and hook-ups. Whose typical night involves a group of people taking off their clothes and doing naughty things to each other and/or an early evening encounter in some random public location followed by a long night of bedroom antics.

There are three problems with this appoach, though. 1) My parents read this, and they would probably have a heart attack. 2) People would think me pathetic, as no one would believe me. (unless they did, in which case my girlfriend would either kill me or chop of my...I don't want to complete that thought). 3) People want to hear this stuff coming from a woman's mouth.

This left me back where I started. Sex isn't going to help this site all that much. So what to do? Perhaps, I realized, the answer lies not in building a readership on this site, but on another site. An incognito site that no one would know about. It would be my little secret. And on that site I would be a young, lusty female. I would write about all my conquests, my dreams, my secret desires, etc etc. I would pay a girl a bit of cash to take some naked pictures of her that I could then post and claim to be me. I would watch me readership soar. And then one day, I would ruin all the guy's mastubatory fantasies by posting a picture of me and an explanation of the site.

Or I wouldn't do that last bit. I would just put a link to this page and my fake woman could claim me as a conquest. She could write a post about how she tried to get me to do something or other, and I was too prudish to do it and she could go on bad-mouthing my sexual hang-ups or lack of skill. Guys would be anxious to read about this guy who is so pathetic - thinking he can surely boost their own sexual egos.

OK, I think I'm getting a bit carried away here. Sorry, sometimes when my imagination starts running, it goes to rather strange places.

But really, I think there is some validity to this idea. Not so much as a way to get people to come here. While I do care about gaining some readership in the sense that it would be nice to have a base of people who think I'm a pretty good writer or photographer for when I get around to trying to shop one of the books gathering dust on my shelf or banging around in my head waiting to be written this fall when I'm traveling, I don't care all that much. As an experiment in getting a little glimpse at people's desire to live vicariously through the sexual exploits of others, especially women, I think that it would be quite interesting. I think it would be interesting to see how long it takes to get people coming (should I end the sentence here and make an awful pun? No) to the web site.

A memory that has just returned: I was a freshman in college and my roomate, a female friend of his, and I were sitting in our dorm room. We decided to go into a chat room (is that the right word here?). We went into a chat room and decided that we would be horny Swedish twins. We soon found a guy who was interested in - well - chat sexing us. We went into a private room and began using our imaginations to make things as interesting as possible. We took whatever he said and amplified it by 10, pushing him as far as he would go.

The next day, my roomate and I were in another dorm waiting for some friends so we could go play basketball. A guy on living on their floor came into the room.

"You guys will never believe what happened to me last night!" he said. "I met these two Swedish girls on the internet. Twins. You can not believe the things they said to me! Jeeee-suuuus Christ!"

"He's been talking about that all day," our friend said.

Meanwhile my roommate and I could not stop laughing. We never told the guy that he had online sex with us - he just seemed so proud of it.

Looking at the clock, I realize I have to wrap this up. Time to go to work. So listen, if anybody is interested in doing a little social experiment, let me know.

Oh, and one more thing. I wasn't going to put this up, thinking that she doesn't need any links to her site, but I don't want to seem so caddy. Here is the link to the girl in Singapore who is creating such a stir: http://sarongpartygirl.blogspot.com/.

Monday, June 13, 2005

Busy Weekend

That we would make it back from Kenting yesterday was in doubt for awhile. First, the man driving us through typhoon like rain and wind insisted on ignoring the fact that the side lane was meant for breakdowns and emergency vehicles. While this made for a much faster journey through the traffic backed up for miles (the other main route from Kenting to Kaoshiung had been flooded and closed), it also made for a bit of stress and a suspicion that one car pulling over at the wrong time, or one too large puddle of water might do some serious damage to my long term health. Planes were flying on schedule, though, and, after making it to the airport in one piece, we took our 7:00 flight back. A bit of turbulence about halfway through again called into question my all my plans for the future, but that passed and we landed in Taipei just after 8.

Shortly thereafter, I checked my email and discovered that 1)my grandfather has been put into the hospital after what seemed like a stroke (but apparently was not). Whatever it was has left him without the use of his right hand, though, and it makes me all the more eager for the next 12 days to pass. And 2)Gabriel Joseph Loftus was born to my friends Matt and Karen back in Cincinnnati. Congrats, guys!

Friday night's graduation show went off without a hitch. The girls were beautiful, the boys were handsome, and the children put on a great show. My coteacher had some teary moments on stage and the parents were all in great spirits and obviously proud of their kids. The day was exahusting, though, especially the two times during the show that we had to change all of the kids from one outfit to another. Getting 16 kids from dresses, or shirts and ties, into a three piece outfit of black pants, white shirt and gold vest, and then back is not great fun, to be honest.

Following are some pictures from Kenting, and after that just two from graduation night. I didn't have a chance to take many pics on Friday, but my co-teacher's boyfriend did, and hopefully I will get some of those to put up here soon.

The Kenting pics seem heavy on the sunsets and skies, so I am letting out of a bit of a secret here. If I ever had to sign up for a singles service and posted some sort of brief description of myself, I would be the guy who says "Enjoys sunsets and long, hand-in-hand walks on the beach. Could you be the one for me?"

When I have a bit more time I am going to write a stinging criticism of some aspects of the service industry in Kenting. If I don't get around to doing that, I'm just going to say it now...some of the restaurants really suck when it comes to service.

Now off to my second to last Monday in Taiwan.
The street behind our homestay. Posted by Hello
This is known as Sail Rock. It is also called Nixon's Head Rock (or something like that) due to an uncanny resemblance to Tricky DIck. Posted by Hello
Seems like a tropical paradise, doesn't it? Posted by Hello
In three hours on the beach Saturday morning, we were roasting under blue and white sky, with temps around 34. Dark clouds and rain came in the afternoon. Posted by Hello
The Richard Nixon rock on the right, the town on the left, and one very large wall of cloud above. Posted by Hello
It rained off and on Saturday, and here the black clouds are being blown away.  Posted by Hello
Very peaceful. Posted by Hello
You can see the back edge of the front that came over land and the remains of a blue sky behind it. Posted by Hello
Colors. Posted by Hello
Just as we were leaving to put the camera away and leave for dinner, the sky turned pink and I had to take one last picture. Posted by Hello
It wasn't raining, but the mist coming off the ocean made it seem like it was. Saturday was windy, but Sunday morning brought typhoon like winds and large waves crashing into the rocky shore.  Posted by Hello
Trees growing up from and out of the side of a large boulder. Posted by Hello
The sky was not very helpful for taking pictures yesterday. Where the land ends, though, is the southern tip of Taiwan. Posted by Hello
Sunday brought a lot of clouds over Kenting. The rain did not start until after we were on the road, but it came hard when it did start.  Posted by Hello
A close-up of a wooden post. Posted by Hello
Looking down on southern Taiwan. This forest stretched in all directions, although to the south it ended in a plain that led down to the ocean and the southern tip of the island. Posted by Hello
As we drove from Kenting to Kaoshiung, we passed flooded fields and rivers, and even some flooded roads that reduced traffic to one lane. Similar to a typhoon, N. and I were worried we may not get to fly back. We did, but the flight was a bumpy one. I would have preferred to take some pics of the flooded areas, but no chance. Posted by Hello
A photo from the airplane. Posted by Hello
Taken from the plane after we had cleared the lowest cloud levels, and just before the stewardess told me to turn off the camera. Shortly thereafter we began encountering turbulence, which would make the flight less than pleasant. Posted by Hello
Nobel and Kevin Lee - the two boys, and best friends. The girl in the middle is a very bright girl named Laura.  Posted by Hello
Some of my girls as we waited for Friday's graduation show to start. I have 16 students, 12 of them girls. Cute, huh? Posted by Hello

Friday, June 10, 2005

Momentum

Have you ever had the feeling that if you stop moving, that if you allow yourself a single moment to breathe and turn off, you will not be able to move again.

I have that right now. I am waking up at five in the morning (not by choice) and not falling asleep until near midnight. School is one flurry of activity and leaving school means one more dinner, one more occasion, one more night of cleaning the apartment.

Today is the day that our students have their graduation ceremony (even though they still have more than two weeks of school left). Yesterday, while rehearsing, we were up to five girls crying. It was sweet to watch, and, (whether from exhaustion or sentiment I'm not sure) I started to tear up as well.

Today is going to be a long day. A long, long day. A normal morning. At 3 we will be at the graduation hall. The show doesn't even start until seven, and won't be done until near nine. Then follows a half hour - hour of head-spinning, psychedelic, kaleidoscopic graciousness. Sixteen sets of parents simultaneously descending on the stage, wanting to photograph, congratulate, thank, etc. At least this year they have changed the flower policy. Last year I left with two trash bags full of flowers. The problem was, I was getting all of them while on stage and I had no where to put them. At one point I was holding four bouquets and could not see a thing. This year, I think there will just be one bouquet, or none at all.

None at all would be preferable as immediately following the show I must hustle my way to Taipei Main Station. Natalia and I will take an overnight train to the city of Kaoshiung, and then take an early morning bus to the beach town of Kenting. It is Dragon Boat Festival Weekend, which means that we met each other one year ago this weekend. We have both been so busy, I don't think either of us has stopped to consider all the changes and good things the last year have brought into our lives (well, I speak for myself here...she may be cursing the day she met me, I don't know!)

We will spend Saturday, and then Sunday afternoon in Kenting before returning to Kaoshiung and flying back to Taipei. Then the final two weeks of work begin...and speaking of, it is actually Natalia's last day today. Lucky thing. And next week, she flies to Bangkok and then Singapore.

It occurred to me the other day to wonder how my parents must view my life...I say that in this sense: I was talking to them on Skype the other night and I mentioned that Natalia will be going away to Bangkok and Singapore. This doesn't seem like all that big a deal here. Those places are not all that far away, and it is pretty cheap to fly. Considering though, that if I had heard those names five or six years ago. If I heard those names from the viewpoint of never having been to Asia and from the other side of the world. Images of jet-set life and mystery and an alien place.

Anyway, I have to go to school now. I guess I won't be posting anything for the next two or three days. Hopefully I will be a bit more relaxed upon coming back from the beach, but I have a feeling that this drive, this pace, this forward momentum that has grabbed my life and is dragging it towards a June 25th flight home will not abate until I am sitting on that plane.

Thursday, June 09, 2005

A Tale of Two Tales

I guess you would call them tales of paradox, or paradoxical tales, these two stories that entered my life yesterday. Each, in their way, illustrated the potential absurdity of our emotions. I am sure you have encountered this before - things that warm your heart, moments of true happiness that make you cry, and then things that are just awful, horrible, but make you want to laugh.

The first occurred at school. Wednesday is show and tell day. The kids bring in toys and tell us who gave them the toy, when and why, and about how it works. Yesterday, though, and because of a sweet idea from my co-teacher, the children came in prepared to say something about the school year. They could talk about things they liked to do, kids they liked to play with, or they could say thank you to anyone they wanted.

The first girl to go is one of the quietest girls in class, and I was surprised to see her hand go up. She went to her school bag and took out a piece of paper that she had written a small speech on. She came up and read it, saying thank you to my co-teacher for teaching her the last two years. Then one of the most confident girls went. Dear Class, she began, Thank you T. Cindy, thank you Teacher Alan, and thank you classmates. Thank you for teaching me English and thank you for playing with me every day. I will always remember you and love you, Laura. She had actually writted all of the out (and spelled everything right - remember, this girl is 6). As she read this, and looked around at everyone, I started to get a bit moist-eyed.

Next was a boy who never stops surprising me with the way his mind works. When other kids say they want to go to Disney, he says he wants to go to South Korea and France. Yesterday, we talked about where we find water in the house. Other kids were drawing pictures of the refrigerator and kitchen and bathtub. He drew a picture of himself shooting a water gun at his brother who was sitting on the toilet and taking a dump. Anyway, he took out his piece of paper and began to read. Last year, I was in the Giraffe Class. When we went to the park, I always held T. Cindy's hand. Now I hold my friend's hands. Last year, I could not write. Now I can write really good, and T.Cindy and T. Alan are very happy. Thank you. He didn't spell all the words right, but who cares. What amazed me was that he recognized in himself the jump in maturity, the progress he has made from last year to this, and he framed it in the context of being ready to move on to bigger things.

Other kids came up. Some could not read because they were trying to hold back tears. One cried. Others didn't know what to say, so they mentioned someone they liked to play with. Some just said thank you. The little girl I mentioned in yesterday's post, the one who has a it of a crush on me, came to school in a lovely white dress. When we asked her why, she said, because I don't want to go bye-bye. I don't want T. Alan to go bye-bye. I want to come to school here every day next year and next year and next year...

And I realized as this was going on that these kids - most of them really do have an amazing level of awareness, a true realization that their lives are about to change. They don't want to let go.

Before our show and tell time yesterday, I had a little discussion with one of my co-teachers - the same one who mentioned I've been slacking on my blog. We were talking about some of the things that I wrote about yesterday.

You know, he said, we are maybe the biggest male influence on their lives, outside their father.

Its scary, isn't it? A huge responsibility.

At least you see it as a responsibility, he said (and I should mention he really does as well - we have some great teachers at me school, considering that most of us have no training).

While we were talking, four of my girls were holding on to my legs, and another was hugging my left arm. The other teacher laughed.

They don't want to let go, I said. Meaning both in an immediate sense and in terms of leaving preschool.

Why would they, he asked. They are going to be numbers next year. They will never again get this much attention in school.

Perhaps this conversation was with me as the children stood in front of our class attempting to express things in English that would be hard to express even in their native Chinese. Listening to them, and as I was filled with pride and happiness, tears sprung to my eyes.


Now for the other story, recounted over dinner with one of Natalia's friends from Argentina (also Taiwanese, working as a doctor in Taipei).

The last time the doctor came back from Argentina (a few months ago) he brought his Scottish Terrier with him. The dog is ten years old, and the doctor missed the dog enough that he went through the process of having him checked and quarantined and brought overseas. Shortly thereafter, the dog was lost.

The doctor sent emails to everyone he knew, and asked the recipients to forward the mails to anyone they knew. He posted pictures at gas stations and on telephone polls, but he received no response.

A good deal of time went by, and the doctor had just about given up hope. This is not a good place to lose a dog. One day, though, he answered the phone and a woman said she thought she had his dog. She had found it on the street and taken it into her home. Upon seeing a flyer at the gas station she gave him a call and returned the dog.

Sadly, this is not the end of the story. Have you seen the movie A Series of Unfortunate Events (or is it An Unfortunate Series of Events?) Whatever it is...right now I would say, I wish I could stop writing now. I wish I could tell you that doctor and dog are living happily together, playing in the park, revelling in their reunion. But, facts will not allow for that. Facts make me keep writing, propel me to go deeper into the story.

As we were eating dinner last night, the doctor answered his phone. He spoke for awhile with his dad. It was after this call that he began talking about his dog, and it is here that I will continue the story.

About a week ago, the dog was out on the balcony of the doctor's family's second floor apartment. This is where he usually stays during the day. On the balcony, the doctor, said, is a small open space, a square about this big (here he help up his hands and showed us). The dog is bigger than that square, he said. We never thought he would be able to squeeze through it.

But it did. And it fell.

Is it OK? I asked. Did he break a leg?

Worse, the doctor said. It did something to its spine. It can't move its back legs now. It is a parapalegic dog. The first few days he could not urinate or defecate on its own, so it had a catheter. We took it out so it would not get a urinary tract infection. That's what my dad just called about.

Does it have to wear a halo around its neck? I asked.

No, it has a lumbar brace, though.

So what does it do?

It moves its front paws. It can eat and bark, but it can't run or wag its tail.

As he was going on about this, Natalia began laughing. It was the helpless sort of laughter that comes when you hear a tale of such absurdity, a tale that paints such unexpected images, that no matter how sad it is, no matter how much it emotionally affects the teller of the tale, you just have to laugh. I was doing my best to stifle my own.

As Natalia was laughing, the doctor's phone rang again. He spoke briefly and then hung up the phone. That was my sister, he said. She wanted to tell me about the catheter, too.

Natalia started laughing again. I did, too.

Why do you think it jumped off the balcony? she asked. Maybe it was better treated at the other house?

That is not possible, the doctor said. Though I had been thinking the same thing, I realized that was probably not the best suggestion to make to a caring and loving pet owner.

I am sorry, doctor friend, about your dog's terrible misfortune, and the great pain it has caused you, really! I am sorry, too, that I will no doubt recount this tale again, framing it in a tragic light solely for the purpose of getting a laugh.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Diminished Output

A few days ago, a co-teacher was walking by.

"You've been slacking on your blog."

Yesterday Natalia and I were eating dinner.

"Your post today was pretty bad."

Thanks, dear. But yes, it wasn't all that great. And I realize I have not been writing much lately. By way of explanation, my days at work are spent doing graduation things. After work, I come home and clean floors and furniture. I go through my things and decide what to keep and what not to keep. I think about when I have to go do this or that thing before I leave, wondering which important thing I will forget to do. In other words, I've been thinking too much about other things to let thoughts work themselves out in my head. Because thoughts aren't being developed in my head, I don't have things to write about.

So, if you are coming to this page for the first time, check out the archives and stop back every now and then for whatever I do come up with. If you come here more often, be patient. I will tell you what I tell myself (andI think I'm putting this down now more as a comfort to myself than to anyone else). I will be leaving Taiwan soon, and by the end of July I should be in China, with pleny of time to think and plenty of things to write about.

Aren't Kids Cute

"Did you hug your girlfriend?"
"Yes."
"Did you kiss your girlfriend?"
"Yes."
"Where did you kiss her, on the cheek or on the mouth?"
"On the cheek and on the mouth."
"Did you take your girlfriend's shirt off?"

What? You are not supposed to be asking a question like that! You are six years old!

Every Monday afternoon (and Tuesday morning if we don't finish Monday), the students have a chance to talk about their weekends. This has evolved this year in ways that I did not expect. Each child has a turn at the front of the classroom, and as the year has gone on, the activity has become a favorite. The kids ask each other question after question, and it is obvious that they have a real interest in what their friends are doing outside of school.

After all the students have a turn, they ask my co-teacher what she did. Then they ask me. Every week I get questions about hugging and kissing my girlfriend. Yesterday, I was asked about taking her shirt off. I brushed off the question in a way that I hope will not encourage the children to ask other such questions. I guess I should be glad the year is almost over - before too long maybe they'd be asking if I put my thingy in her down there. I don't think I could handle that.


Yesterday we practiced our graduation show one more time. This time we practice the whole ceremony, from beginning to end. The ceremony begins with the graduation children coming onto the stage and welcoming their parents with a song. They receive a flower from the children who are in level two classes, and then they leave the stage. Each class then has a turn to give a performance. After the performances, the graduates return to the stage to receive their "diplomas." Following this, the teachers say a good bye. This is where things got fun yesterday.

My co-teacher started crying two sentences into her speech. It took her awhile to regain some composure. Behind us, one of the little girls in our class - the same one who asked me about taking off my girlfriend's shirt - began crying. She was hiding her face behind the book she was holding, but her tears were evident in her jerking shoulders.

The foreign teacher of the other graduating class began to cry during her speech as well, and about this time I looked back to see two other girls in my class crying. So I had three girls in my class crying, and those standing around them trying to offer comfort. During this time on stage, the kids are supposed to be standing still and quiet, so I had to turn around and try to get them back where they were supposed to be standing.

By the time we got back to our classroom, the three crying girls had, instead of stopping, only become worse. Their sobs filled our room with a high enough level of noise that the other children were covering their ears. They alternated between going to comfort the girls and laughing because they did not know what else to do. I did the same thing. Kids from other classes were sticking their heads into our door to see what was going on. Other teachers as well.

As I left school yesterday, two of the girls had mostly come under control. The other, the first to cry, was still at it. I reflected on those tears, and I realized that they were not the tears of young children being sad. Those were the tears of kids growing up, understanding that their lives are changing. I saw a great maturity in those tears, in these children understanding that the happy, easy days of preschool are coming to an end, and that they may never be in such a giving and caring environment again.

I hugged each of the girls and tried to comfort them. I told them that we still have three weeks before we say good-bye. I told them that this was a happy time, that change and growth is exciting. Finally, I just hugged them.

I feel a little bit bad about my laughter, and that of the other teachers. It was not a mean laughter. It was more of a chuckling accompanied by phrases like "Poor girl," and "How sweet." There are times, though, when it feels impossible to bridge the gap between child and adult. This was one. I know why they are sad, and I know why they are scared. I know, too, that they have good reason to be. What I don't know, is what I can say to make them feel better. Is there anything to say? Should I tell them that life in their new school will be wonderful and easy, when for some I know it very well might not be? Should I tell them that their new teachers will care for them as much as we have, when I know that that might not be true, too? Or should I just tell them the truth, like I have taught them that they should do. Should I tell them that they should be scared? That this is what life is about - about change and the unknown. Should I explain to them that this is why we have talked about things like bravery and cooperation - that these are the things that will keep us going when we don't want to get out of bed?

On Thursday, we have one more rehearsal, and then on Friday we have our graduation. After that, two more weeks of class and then I go home. They have four more days after that. A big part of me just wants to ignore the facts of the changes that are coming for all of us, that when we say good-bye, a wonderful chapter is closing on all of our lives. I know I can't do that, though. I'm supposed to be the teacher here. I know I have a responsibility to deal with the emotions the kids are feeling, to address them and to help them understand what is happening. I guess I better go back to that book on bravery and take some of the lessons for myself.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Scattered

or My Weekend and My Life in 45 Minutes (which is when I have to leave to go to work)

I love when kids make leaps of reasoning or understanding to the extent that they leave you speechless, and, in some cases, with egg on your face. Yesterday I was watching the ball pool area at our school. Two of my students, both little girls, wanted to play with me instead and were draping themselves across my legs. As a way to entertain myself and them, I began tickling their sides, causing them to utter barking laughs and to twist and turn in my arms like eels trying to get away from me. They tried to tickle me, then, around my neck. This is something I don't allow, first because sometimes it tickles, and second because when it does not tickle it hurts (as they jab their fingers into my neck or scratch me, not having yet learned to completely control their motions).

Since the beginning of the year, I have stressed to the students the Golden Rule of "treat other people how you want to be treated." This rule has been at the heart of our classroom, and it is a centerpiece of our graduation show.

Yesterday, as I was telling the girls that they could not tickle me, one of them started quoting that, using the same tone that I use to insinuate the great importance of following that in life. The other girl picked up on it as well, and for the next five minutes, each time I tried to tell them not to tickle me, they started in on that.
I tried to explain that if I was a kid and sat on someone's legs I would want to be tickled, but they didn't buy it. Finally I had to agree not to tickle them again or let them do it to me, too.

More with kids:

On Saturday, my co-teacher and I were invited to lunch by the parents of one of our students (I also taught the girl's sister last year). Both my girlfriend and my co-teacher's boyfriend came as well.

The two girls are quite different from each other, one looking more like 12 than 7, and the other about half her sister's size. The one thing that is very obvious that they share is - for lack of better word here - their adoration of me. As we were eating, the older sister sat next to me and played with different things, using her English as we ate. Whenever Natalia and I went to get more food, she came with us, holding my hands as we walked around the restaurant even though she did not want any food.

The sister, the girl I teach now, stared across at me over the table and giggled. Then she looked at my girlfriend and frowned. She asked to sit next to me, and my co-teacher began explaining to Natalia how the girl often runs her hands over my arms or around my face and kisses me on the cheek at the end of each day.

"The other kids always say she wants to marry Alan," she said. "A lot of the other girls want to as well, I think. Of course, one of the boys says he want to marry Alan, too. He's really popular."

A few thoughts on this: 1)it only took 28 years to get to be popular!
2)it figures - I finally have a group of female admirers - figures they are all under 7 years old.
3) The boy who said he wants to marry me: One day while he was
brushing his teeth says "Take your girlfriend and throw her
down the drain!" He's said a few other nuggets as well, but I thought
that was the best.

And back to Saturday. We wanted to take a picture- the two girls and me. After we took one, my co-teacher suggested Natalia join the picture. The younger sister did not like this at all. I did not know jealousy existed at such a young age!

A Few Sensory Moments:

Saturday night, at a bar called Roxy 99. We thought there was going to be a going away party for a Brazilian girl that night, but it had actually been the previous night. So there we were, my girlfriend, co-teacher, and her friend, waiting to see if people would dance. And they did. They got drunk and they danced.
The smoke was overwhelming, though. My eyes were stinging, my throat started hurting, and by the time we left, my clothes were reeking. I only had one beer, but I watched as people around us poured shot after shot of tequila down their gullets. I watched guys watch my girlfriend and co-teacher. I watched unattractive foreign guys stare at Taiwanese girls and hit on them with an air of assumption. A guy flew into the bathroom as I was walking out, vomit trickling from between the fingers he held over his mouth. Another guy threw up outside.
The last time I was at this bar was almost two years ago, and then there was a big fight outside as well (at least none of that this time).
I left feeling much as I did at the bar I was at last weekend. If I was single and 24, it would have been a whole lot more fun. I'm feeling that way more and more when I go out to bars.

Sunday, walking across Da-an park to the library. People taking pictures of flowers and an old man taking a picture of his daughter. Drum music (something I have always loved listening to at Da-an on Sundays). As I approached the edge of the park, where I would exit and return to street, an ominous creaking sound. Looking up I saw a long bamboo trunk jutting out from a thick patch of bamboo, hanging over my head. The patch of bamboo was not moving much in the breeze, but the sound, as if something was about to snap, and combined with the sound of wind in leaves and something akin to the sound of wooden cowbells in an Indonesian rice field (one of the most wonderful sounds in the world) made me stop and stare at the bamboo, for perhaps two or three minutes. I began to wonder if perhaps life in Asia hasn't gotten even deeper into my soul than I thought.

Monday, June 06, 2005

101

Another weekend down, three weeks to go. Coming trip to Asia becoming more and more real by the day - not sure how I am going to route a few parts of this, and my parents are starting to give me a guilt trip about the possibility that I won't be home for Christmas. It can only mean traveling time is coming.

Yesterday we went out to the 101, planning to see some exhibition of sorts. Instead, thanks to the clear blue skies over Taipei, we decided to take the elevator up to the 89th floor observation deck of the tallest office building in the world.

The building boasts the fastest elevator in the world, climbing from the 5th floor to the 89th floor in 45 seconds. My ears popped several times going up and down, but the ride is very quiet and smooth. Once up, the views make one realize just how tall the building is, as everything in the city seems tiny, even the other skyscrapers.

Is the trip up worth the 350 NT ticket cost (10.50US, give or take)? You can look at the following pictures and decide for yourself. I will say, it might have been nicer to go up later in the afternoon to see the sunset.
I took this from Da-an MRT station, about two miles away from the 101 building, just before getting on the MRT to head out there. Posted by Hello
A broad look at some of the buildings in the financial district. Posted by Hello
This is from the middle of the street as we approached the building. Posted by Hello
The 101 in late afternoon, from a few blocks away. I actually took this after we left the building, while revelling in the rare fresh air and clear skies and lack of humidity. Posted by Hello