August 31, 2010

On A Couch In Spain

We arrived to Cala Major at 11 PM.  Our agent drove us to the apartment and set our suitcases on the sidewalk.  The smell of frying beef hung in the air. 

    “Listen to the forks hitting the dinner plates,” I said to my wife. 

Our apartment was decorated by a soul tangled up in flamenco.  The walls were sponge-painted pastel yellow, green, and orange.  A small arched doorway opened to the living room, which overlooked the Mediterranean Sea.  In the right frame of mind, it was like vacationing in rainbow sherbet. 

We loved the place, but it was an ergonomic nightmare.  The bedroom pillows were flatter than Western omelets, and piebald with fluids from the dreamers before us.  A couch cushion deflated minutes after sitting down, and the stools in the kitchen were taped and missing foot bars.  It was thrilling in the Russian roulette when-you-gonna-break-your-coccyx spirit, but that only lasts so long. 

It took two weeks – our necks were stiff, our skeletal structures out of whack.  We moved like bats on the floor of a cave.  Of course, that’s an exaggeration.  Since I don’t live in abject poverty, I tend to complain about minor inconveniences:  Cheap couches, gnats, smelly feet.  Thankfully, small annoyances are all I have.  Perhaps you’re the same way.  Because you’re capable of reading these words, you’ll probably never starve to death.  In that sense, you’re privileged.  In fact, folks like us are more likely to die from suicide.  Isn’t that funny?  I’m not saying that suicide is funny.  I’m just saying, if you did off yourself, you probably wouldn’t have to do it on an empty stomach. 

Last year we stayed in a hostel one block away from this apartment.  The room was slightly bigger than the box spring.  My wife was taking college courses, same as this year.  I hung out on the bed, reading essays by Emerson until the afternoon heat compelled me to the topless beach at the bottom of the hill.  With my toes in the sand, I would read or take notes on human activity.  One day I was sitting on my towel with a can of San Miguel.  A seaside cafĂ© was blaring obscure 80’s music.  A small, nude child was digging a hole in front of me.  I was wearing tortoise-shell shades, feeling nostalgic. 

This year, one of my back-home friends died, probably while I was sitting on that same topless beach, feeling, amongst other things, nostalgic.  His name was Michael, but I called him Bach.  I met Bach in a cinderblock bungalow in Atlantic Beach, about 8 years ago.  Time flew by and over the years our lives became intertwined.  It did not require a compelling dose of courage for me to pick up the phone and call him.  I’ll never forget where I was when I heard the news.  It’s incorporated in the title of the story. 

Naturally, our first instinct is to reject bad news.  Disbelief stands up in our defense, but it too slinks away.  With acceptance comes the need to notify others.  It’s strange, but I’ve always found a sort of dark pleasure in this.  Perhaps I should have been an anchorman.  I tried to make some phone calls over the computer, but I was borrowing wi-fi from a neighboring apartment, and the connection was lousy. 

So I had pictures and memories.  Of course, memories are not static.  We give them life through imagination.  They change over time, become larger.  The dual mind remembers more than the single mind.  The two synergize, relying upon each other to fill in the blanks.  With our dual mind shut down, the issue became this:  detangling the overall experience of “knowing him” – to pull out and examine specific memories, strand by strand. 

So I stretched out on the couch and remembered…

    I didn’t remember much from our first meeting.  I wasn’t good at documenting my thoughts and actions back then.  Fast-forward a few years.  What stands out was riding the Jaguar.  It was parked in his garage.  Bach’s parents were out of town, and the car was parked in such a way that if it was moved, his father would know.  We preferred that he not find out. 

There were four of us, and each was responsible for marking the coordinates of one tire.  I had the back left.  Bach drove, and even with Three-6-Mafia in the stereo, we could hear the roar of that engine as we set out in search of, what else, The American Dream.  The windows were down and the AC was up.  Girls stared.  Almost everyone did.  They couldn’t help but eyeball that 80 mph blur barreling down Millionaires Lane, its tires all screeching rubber and smoke.  Good clean fun.  We returned the Jaguar, gassed and in pristine condition, to its rightful spot in the garage.  

Some may remember Bach’s apartment in Raleigh.  He was enrolled in school, pretending to be a student.  I was in town for a job interview and ended up crashing for five days.  There was a massive novelty check nailed to the wall in the amount of one million-some-odd dollars, courtesy of a fishing tournament.  When I woke up on the couch, it was the first thing I saw.  My interview was on a Wednesday, but I would never get the job.  Of course, neither of us knew that.  Bach surrendered his bed the night before my interview. 

“Get some sleep,” he said, “I’ll take the couch.” 

It was 3am when a terrible clatter awoke me.  Creeping down the stairs, I half expected to see burglars ransacking the place.  Instead, I saw Bach fussing over a stove full of sizzling pots and pans.  The kitchen and living room were shrouded in smoke.  The stereo was on, as was every other light in the house. 

I was going to sneak down and scare him, but something stopped me.  Peering through the haze, what struck me was the calmness in Bach’s face.  The punk music had no effect on him.  Curiously, I kept watching.  Cooking is a sort of ritual, requiring some internal dialogue, but he did not talk to himself; at least not verbally.  His movements were deliberate, almost to the point of seeming childlike.  I sat quietly and observed a moment in time:  one man cooking a pre-dawn feast, as his unemployed guest looks on, secretly.

     These two experiences were shared by a few and one, respectively.  Even before he died, I thought about these times more than others.  What did it mean?  I wondered. 

The answer my brain gave me was this: 
I would no longer see or talk to my friend, either face-to-face or over satellite transmissions/fiber optics. 

For reasons that I cannot explain, that was the answer.  True as it was, this response clearly lacked any emotional wallop.  Am I in shock, or am I disconnected? 

This was an interesting question.  Shock is temporary.  I knew that much.  However, can you plug a disconnected feeling back in?  Perhaps “plugging in,” in the emotional sense, meant communicating with the universe through your soul.  Here is one such effort…

Because death (more specifically, relating death to a loved one) is a touchy subject, I’ll use the term “wormhole” hereafter, instead of “death.”  Both are heavily theorized, but more importantly, most folks aren’t that passionate about what may -- or may not -- be on the other side of a wormhole. 

So, if Bach were here now, this is what I would say: 

A wormhole is the urethra of God.  As you travel through it, secrets of the universe appear in the form of rubble -- go forth and fertilize the unknown.   
     Perhaps the living will find this more insightful: 

People keep giving even after they enter the wormhole.  We share stories to rejoice the times we had, and to help keep the memory alive.   

Dedicated to the memory of Michael Register Bach.

August 18, 2010

The New Trend: Man as Trailing Spouse - Part 3

I can’t speak for all stay at home spouses, but it wasn’t a matter of not wanting to work; it kind of just turned out that way.  Four months after moving to Suzhou, I applied for a job teaching hotel employees business English.  It seemed like a great opportunity for both sides:  They wanted someone with a business degree, and my schedule was wide open. 

The hotel was still under construction when I arrived for the interview.  The staff was working in an underground bunker until the 700-room mega hotel was complete.  A girl named Nina, a Suzhou native, lead the interview.  She was professional, but hip, dropping some slang on me as I followed her down the hallway.  “So, you enjoy golf, huh?  That’s cool.” 

We came to a steel door.  When she opened it, there were twenty future housekeepers sitting quietly, all of them donning identical mint jumpsuits.  “You have twenty minutes to teach the class,” Nina said, and took a seat at the back of the class. 

“Nee how,” I said.  This was answered with blank stares.  “Can anyone say ‘hello?’”  Nothing.  Their shyness was astounding.  When a young man coughed, I turned to him abruptly.  “Can you count to three in English?”  That wild look in his eye said it all:  Had there been a window in the room, I’m sure he would have dove through it to escape.  His classmates stared at the floor.  It went on like this until I counted in Mandarin. 

“Yi, er, san.  One, two, three.” 

Slowly, they started to answer when I called on them. 

As it turned out, they could count to infinity in English.  “And what is this,” I asked, pointing to yet another number on the whiteboard. 

     “Five hundred eighty-seven thousand, six hundred twenty-nine,” they mumbled in unison. 

Convinced that they knew more than they were leading on, I spent the remainder of class preaching to them like an alien, divulging secrets of the future. 

     “When the people call, they will demand extra towels.” 

Nina called me the next day.  She fed me a line that I’d heard from disgruntled girlfriends, but not interviewers.  “Can we still be friends?”  Of course, this soft rejection was her way of ‘saving face.’  They say the Chinese strive for harmony similar to the way Americans idealize freedom.  It didn’t seem like a win-win situation at the time, but then again, it never does when you’re the one being dumped. 

Poker Night

The expat circle in Suzhou was tight.  Although many of my wife’s coworkers had my email address, they insisted on relaying messages through her. 

“Travis walked past my classroom today,” she’d say. 
“What did he have to say,” I’d ask. 

She’d throw back her shoulders and mimic their husky instructions.  “‘Tell your husband:  Poker, Thursday night.  Peace out.’”  After a long day alone, it was strangely refreshing to see a small Asian girl imitating a 200 pound rugby coach. 

Guys Night took place in the dining room of a pizzeria on Shin Do Street, a popular foreigner district.  The owners didn’t mind us gambling, so long as we kept buying half-liter bottles of Tiger beer.  The majority of us were from the US, with the others hailing from Canada, England, New Zealand, and Australia.  Conversations were centered on disputes in game rules, work complaints, and drunken hedonism. 

One guy, lets call him Richard, used to embark on epic, one-man benders, disappearing for days at a time.  He would invite us to join him, but we weren’t that stupid.  No one could keep up with him.  The police once found him passing out somewhere – a park, perhaps.  Not even Richard knew.  Apparently they searched his pockets and found only a business card.  When he finally came to, Richard was in the middle of the school courtyard, wondering, most likely, if he had a class to teach.  Of course, it was Sunday, so he probably just stumbled into the nearest bar.  

It was the juxtaposition that intrigued me.  Outside of work, their lifestyle wasn’t much different than, say, your average touring funk band.  Someone was always on the verge of a divorce, recovering from a motorcycle crash, or coaxing some fatally attracted ex off their balcony.  I knew the characters, followed their stories, and rooted for them when they were down.  Their stories never ceased to amaze me, but I couldn’t help but wonder if their lives were this hectic back home.

Travelers tend to be open minded when it comes to natives, but when we see “our kind” maneuvering outside the norm, lets face it – house rules are in effect.  I’m not saying that everyone was a train wreck.  Those just happened to be the stories I remember best.  Most of the people I met were decent and hard-working; but drama observers, nevertheless.  

My wife’s coworkers eventually started emailing me about Guys Night.  We became friends, and I enjoyed their company.  When it was time to cash in my chips, however, that unspoken fact still remained.  I wasn’t one of them. 

When I held up the mirror, that reflection – that reversal – was my everyday situation.  White people were the minority.  A woman worked while the man stayed at home cooking and cleaning.  It was Bizzaro World with chopsticks - and I liked it.  So what if somebody thought of me as a trailing spouse. 

     So, there’s that word again.  Trailing.  But I've decided not to attach feelings of resentment or inadequacy to it.  I don’t focus on the adjective.  I’m busy living the verb. 

The sunny side of trailing my wife is the memories we make together all over the world.  It means tropical breezes in Bali, sweating over a bowl of Tom Yum in Thailand, getting lost in the hutongs of Beijing, and having someone to confide in when no one answers the phone back home.  The roles are many, and I couldn’t be happier with what I do.  It takes courage to follow your compass, especially when it’s pointing in an ambiguous direction. 

Society accepts the stay at home wife/mother as an institution, but man as “housewife” seems to be a burden that many women aren’t ready to take on.  Male pride perpetuates, and often achieves, this illusion of “man as provider.”  Women deserve equality, but once they have it, where does it end? 

In their great, determined push toward equality, suppose the scale tips too far to the other side, beyond equality.  A society run completely by women would be a very different place.  Government would change.  They have that supporting, nurturing sense of control people always seek when they screw up.  Even war might become a thing of the past. 

I’m not saying that everything would be perfect.  Finding a decent plumber would be a nightmare.  But what the hell?  You can’t win them all. 

So, perhaps it’s time to slide over and let someone else take the wheel.  We’ve had a decent run, guys, and there’s nothing wrong with being domestic.  Just think of it as being a kid again.  As long as you finish your chores, you can go bowling, play golf, or start that novel you’ve been meaning to get around to. 

In fact, that’s what I’m going to do now…right after I clean the bathroom.

August 16, 2010

The New Trend: Man as Trailing Spouse - Part 2

I covered the walls of my cubicle with pictures.  Throughout the day, I’d stare at the beach or a desert, subliminally talking my brain into a traveler state of mind - at least, that’s how it seems now, through the benefit of hindsight.

I didn’t know the universe was going to drop some serendipitous solution down the pipeline.

I was on my way to becoming a company man.   However, both of my parents worked from home growing up.  Perhaps this shaped my perception in some way.  Wasn’t I rebelling by holding down a job that required punching a timecard?  Nice try, but my parents didn’t try to live vicariously through me.  They didn’t urge me into the arts.  Life was my call.  The cubical, and my skewed perception of it, was my own creation. 

That’s where I was when my wife was offered the China job.  The timing seemed perfect, but the voice of my Conscious wasn’t so sure.  “Let’s weigh our options,” he said.  

I weighed my options, and then there was the voice of my big hairy Ego.  A character in his own right, he planted himself in the back seat of my mind.  Loath to back down from a challenge, he had his own brand of logic, turning ideas of reality upside down, coaxing me away from the comforts of the crowd.  What are you going to do, circle the Taco Bell drive-thru for the rest of your life? 

The thought of getting married, quitting my job, and moving overseas was terrifying.  But it was also exciting.  Wasn’t that a strange thing?  Though I didn’t realize it at first, climbing this terror barrier would lead to the death of my Ego.  The epitaph on his tombstone reads: 


It didn’t take long to adjust to my new role in China.  My mother taught me to cook from an early age, and thanks to that summer job at the Piggly Wiggly, I knew my way around a grocery store.  As for chores, my mother retired herself from laundry duty when I began to smell like teen spirit.  My sister and I had to clean our own bedrooms and bathrooms growing up, as well as wash the dishes and the family car.  A lot of my friends didn’t do that, but hey, it was the only way my parents would fork over the allowance. 

These habits made my transition to housewife somewhat familiar.  I was back in a chores-for-allowance system in our two bedroom apartment in Suzhou.  I remember my first pilgrimage to the neighborhood wet market.  There were fresh fruit and veggie stalls, eggs and tofu. 

I was doing alright until I needed meat.  The options were a tad unnerving.  Aside from live chickens, there were shallow aquariums packed with turtles, toads, and mysterious ribbon-shaped creatures.  Folks pointed to the animals in this doomed pet shop, and walked away with plastic bags that quivered from within.  And how could I forget the disemboweled pigs hanging from meat hooks, and my friendly neighborhood butcher, swathed elbow deep in blood, smiling back at me?  Good times. 

            I eventually got used to the smell of blood in the air.  With my chores squared away and my wife at work, I strode through the streets of Suzhou with an enthusiasm not unlike Alice on a mushroom binge in Wonderland.  The bus rides were packed, the sidewalks were pebbled, and all of the storefronts and pagodas were powdered with dust.  Everything looked so different, but apparently, so did I.  Folks stared at me all the time, and from behind my tortoise shell shades, I secretly admired the attention. 

This went on until the cold of winter forced me back inside.  Like so many housewives, I struggled to find creative ways to pass the time.  I revisited the classics I neglected to read in high school, wrote long emails to friends back home and attempted new recipes.  This got me through the winter, but I was still wrestling with this new identity, trying to figure out who I was, and what I should do.

Return of the Ego:  It’s baaaack…

The idea came to me one morning while I was watching CNN.  “I’ve got it!  I’ll write a novel.”  Of course, it seemed logical.  Just look at where I was.  Surely people wanted to hear my story.  I just had to write it down and WHAM bestseller.  After all, I was a risk taker.  I was frigging Hemingway! 
You, dear reader, can see where this is going. 

            In my defense, I was spending a lot of time alone in a strange place.  After two weeks, it dawned on me that I was in way over my head.  My ‘life story,’ if you could call it that, was a disturbing 50 page screed.  Was everyone’s life as awesome as mine?  Hell no.  I was going to tell all; from childhood fetishes to erratic college benders. 

The problem, aside from delusions of grandeur, was that my words weren’t so compelling the next day, after my “genius high” wore off.  All I wanted to do was write the literary interpretation of a shotgun blast through the pants of the American Dream.  Was that so complicated?

            Apparently so.  Before long, the thought of writing made me want to do anything else.  A routine trip to the bathroom could turn into a six-hour cleaning jag.  In these states, I’d tackle one room after the next, deriving a twisted sense of self-worth through a deliriously sparkling toilet bowl.  When I was finished, I’d stand in the doorway and take a deep breath, admiring perfection in a moment in time.  Unlike my static written persona, the real me was acting crazy.  Those oddly-labeled chemicals probably had something to do with it, but as long as I accomplished something, I didn't care.

As it turned out, neither did my wife.  “Ooh, clean,” was all she said. Then she’d close the door and flush a day’s worth of work down the drain. 

August 12, 2010

The New Trend: Man as Trailing Spouse - Part 1

“So, what do you do?”   

When asked this, most people talk about their job – how they spend their waking hours.   It’s a straightforward question, unless you delve to deep.  What does anyone really do?  Often it’s just small talk, but no one wants to get into a metaphysical probe at a clambake.  So I play along. 

“I am a trailing spouse.”

It’s something you don’t often hear a man say, but it’s catching on.  So what is a trailing spouse?  Basically, my wife took a job and I followed her.  She’s the bread winner, and I’m all right with that.  It’s the title that’s never agreed with me.  Trailing.   The adjective makes me think of a short-legged dog, struggling to keep up with its master.  It's the same mental image. And this invariably spawns the next question. 

“So what do you do?” 
Our situation is like a NASCAR team.  While my wife’s out there burning up the tracks, I' behind the scenes, keeping parts stocked and the engine running.  And like a pit crew, the roles are countless:  Husband, chef, maid, butler, travel companion, bug squasher, barista, grocery runner, repair man, listener of grievances…just to name a few.  

Of course, I don’t go through the entire list.  I’m usually interrupted by a sigh, or, if the listener has a decent poker face, a tight-lipped nod.  Man should work; man earns money, I hear telepathically.  But I reject that, at least for right now. 
"This opportunity is too good to pass up.  I’ll quit my job and follow you."

That’s how it began.  The words came easy at the time, as if I were merely stepping out to the corner market.  I’ll pick up a carton of milk…and while I’m at it, I’ll quit my job and move to China with you.  And then reality sunk in.  The decision would rake up every illusion of manliness I had.  Take a look around:  This wasn't in harmony with the concept of “Man as Provider.”  Thinking about it made my stomach knot, but it was exciting.  I wasn't just giving up a job; I was diving into the shallow end of a new life. 

Of course, my wife never asked me to do this, nor did she expect me to.  It’s just one of those things: you fall in love with a person, and the next thing you know, you’re having a Vegas wedding and moving half-way around the world to a communist country.  

There’s no question that I love my wife, but there were other factors at play.  I enjoyed my job as a medical claims adjuster, for instance, and it’s not a bad way to earn a living, but spending nine hours a day in a cubicle just wasn’t my passion.  Oddly enough, I believed in what my wife was doing more.  As a special needs teacher, she seemed to exude purpose, and there is a certain allure to being around someone that knows what they want out of life.  

I’ve didn’t have a clear vision concerning my career, and maybe that’s why I was so willing to abandon ship.  I used to get this restless feeling at work.  “There’s got to be more than this,” I used to say, and when it became too much, I’d sink a bag of weed to the bottom of a shampoo bottle and fly out to Utah, say, and to spend a week wandering the desert alone.  Back then I called it a "Vision Quest," but a more accurate description might be "intellectual restlessness."

In those profound moments under the sun, I saw clearly.  What felt like a hectic work schedule was merely dazzling my brain – like junk food – providing it with no lasting nourishment.  My brain was hungry.  I was grateful for the money, but that underlying sense of tension, like a steadily rising hunger, did not mesh with the nine-to-five frame of mind.  I wanted to – no, I needed to – get away from Big Brother (as my manager called it) if I was going learn more about myself.  

 I’m not saying that the lone desert approach was particularly intelligent, or even original, but experimenting with my surroundings just happened to be my style of approach. I just listened for the call, and when it came, I went to where it needed me to go.