November 28, 2011

Rules or Some Such

Every place has its rules, whether you’re in America or elsewhere. Break the rules, and the penalties can vary. Fines. Judgmental stares from others. Maybe you don't even know you are living by a set of rules. “I live by my own rules,” you say. Wrong. You are a textbook nonconformist. Take a hike.

An Example:
I’m from The Crystal Coast, North Carolina, and we like our barbeque. It's got to be made with spicy vinegar. That's the rule. But see what happens when you go to South Carolina and try the barbecue. They like it with mustard. Maybe you don’t like it. Heaven forbid--maybe you do. What next? The rule says you move the family to South Carolina. Change your facebook status to “Barbecue Treason.” So long. Enjoy the fireworks. Don’t forget to send your mother a birthday card.

As you may know I am Caucasian. On time I asked an African-American woman how she was doing and she says “I’m blessed.” I made the mistake of interpreting this as a competition, and proceeded to seethe in anger."I'm blessed too, damnit!" Her answer had a strange affect on me. I'd never heard it before. Maybe this particular woman grew up saying this her whole life.Imagine that.
    My new rule is to think twice before jumping into a blind rage. Now I'm blessed, too.
 
  • I live in Dusseldorf. I play by German rules, without full knowledge of societal rules. But I'm learning. Here are some mental notes:
When you go out to eat with a German, they tend to keep both hands above the table. Keep one hand below the table, and they will be suspicious as to what you are doing with that hand.

Don’t look around like a stargazer when you’re walking down the sidewalk. People have made a point of knocking me with their shoulder, as if to say “stay focused, pinhead. The answers are not in the stone garlands and naked nymphs peering down at you from the buildings.”

If you’re an old man, wear brown shoes and walk with your hands behind your back. If you’re an old lady, buy a dog that looks like you, then dye your hair to match.
  • I used to live in China. I don’t know if I lived by their rules or not. As a white man, people stared at me. Basically my very existence was a spectacle. That's an exaggeration. Here is another.



Don't set the place on fire. Don't urinate on it to put it out. Fine. But who visited this scenic spot that made the sign necessary? Never mind. I know these people. Maybe this list started with 3, and gradually grew to 7. The problem, I believe, is that these restrictions are too specific. 

I'm going to put a sign on my bathroom door. These rules have not been violated. They are purely for my entertainment. Here's what it will say:


Three seems to be enough, although I could narrow this down to one:

Be respectful to the surroundings and try real hard to keep your pants on in public.

October 5, 2011

If you've ever wondered...

"how does a journalist remain fair and balanced?"

...then my new story in Matador Network is probably too hip for you.


"I’d dream of performing to sold-out crowds. Because I was what music moguls called a “specialty singer,” my plan was to start small, singing backup for artists like Björk or Meredith Monk until being discovered."

September 8, 2011

Duck Hunting in America

If you haven't read it already, hurry over to Matador Sports and check out my latest story  

How to Shoot a Duck : ...Finding the juxtaposition between shotguns, camouflage, Larry the Cable Guy, and history....

"I didn’t notice the kick of the gun so much as the water rise up around him. When it settled, the duck was half submerged, floating like a ruined toupee."


     Thank you for reading, and big ups to David Miller for another fantastic layout...

August 29, 2011

NEW!! Published in Matador Network

 This is my new story published in Matador Nights

    You can read it right here How to Feed Your Lover in Spain

Big ups to David Miller for another great editing job, and thank you, dear reader, for the great comments.


August 24, 2011

Notes From My Travel Diary: Going Topless

On a summer afternoon in Düsseldorf, I went to the park and sat beside a willow tree with a steak sandwich and bottle of beer. An emerald lawn, a crushed brick walkway, hedges like walls -- no ultimate Frisbee tournaments happening here. After finishing my sandwich, I wanted to get some sun but was concerned about taking my shirt off. If there’s one thing I’ve learned after two years, it’s that Germans take their park-going very seriously.



There were an awful lot of stuffy pant / jacket combos and stern expressions. I could understand it if we were in a cemetery or locked in a conference room together, but this was a park. Who were these people? One woman was wearing black polyester pants and a quilted Chinese jacket. It looked like the sort of outfit Lady Mao might have worn while she typed up “The Little Red Book.” Which was worse -- enduring the critical stares from (mostly senior) passers-by or the shame of living with a farmer’s tan?


   
Fortunately the man sitting on a bench by the fountain made this decision easier. He was tanning, shirtless, but his belly spilled over his shorts in a way that made him look both naked and pregnant. A kinky tableau. As with most unfair comparisons, he made me feel better, not just about taking off my shirt, but basically about my existence. The sun felt good, and after taking off my shirt I decided to hike up my pants legs to my knees. But why stop there? Rest the beer bottle on your stomach, I thought. It’ll feel good.
   
And it did. Throw in a kitty pool, and you’d have a scene straight out the trailer park.

**

July 7, 2011

Notes From My Travel Diary: Kebab Allah

Suzhou, China: Every Friday I’d pay the equivalent of thirty cents and ride the bus to Shi Quan Jie. This was a street in the old district, where the walls where whitewashed, and the roofs had sweeping slopes, upturned eaves, and ceramic tiles. Few of the buildings reached over three stories high. Large birch trees lined the two lane road, flanked on either side by bubble tea stands, black market DVD shops, and boutiques showcasing China’s puzzling take on high fashion.


On my way to find a wok, I stopped at a Chinese Muslim restaurant where everyone, including the child waiters, wore tight knitted caps. The menu was in Chinese, with English translations beneath it.

Some dishes sounded peaceful: “The hashed meat meditates.”
Some sounded dangerous: “The palace explodes the diced chicken rice.”
And others were downright spooky: “Digs up the beef red.”




The sun was shining. I walked to the take-out shack attached to the restaurant. The griller was just standing around with a blue filter cigarette in his lips when I arrived. I told him how many curried lamb kebabs I wanted in Mandarin. “Sanga.” I then held up three fingers.


He screwed up his face at me. Then he held up his hand, outstretched his fingers and said “Wooga.” Five.

Was this his way of telling me that I was too skinny? Perhaps, but something told me this offer was non-negotiable. I waited for my five kebabs at an outside table. The legs might have been rat-gnawed. It stood on an open area of hardened clay between the sidewalk and a canal.


For the first two minutes, the kebab griller tapped the skewered sticks of meat above the coals. Then he stepped away from the embers to catcall a girl clicking down the sidewalk in high heels. It wasn’t subtle, whatever he said, but she turned up her nose and kept walking. Real cool. He leered at her and then turned to me, thumbing in her direction as if to say Women, go figure.


The griller brought over my kebabs and a flatbread in a plastic sleeve that read “crusty pancake.” He went back to the grill station, picked up an old copper kettle and came back to sit across from me. I’d watched his assistant – the boy baking crusty pancakes – use that same kettle to brew a cup of tea just moments earlier. Steam was still rising from the spout.



I tore off a piece of crusty pancake, and when I looked up, the griller was sucking on the spout. He was really gulping it down, and, just when I thought steam might billow out his ears, he set down the kettle and belched.

After lunch, I pulled out my notebook to make a few notes, referring to him not as “the kebab griller” but as “Kebab Allah.”


Kebab Allah burned his sleeve on a coal.


Kebab Allah threatened his assistant with a bamboo skewer again.


I’m not saying the man walked on water; however, in its own special way, watching him work did have a purifying effect on me. And he made a pretty mean kebab.

May 26, 2011

How I Came Up With My Blog Title


It wasn’t something we’d planned on, but after two years in China, my wife and I picked up and moved to Düsseldorf, Germany. It wasn’t the last place we thought we’d end up: Neither of us had ever heard of it. We arrived in Germany two months before our shipment. A microwave cooked our pizzas. Suitcases doubled as tables. At night we’d lie on the floor of our empty apartment, staring at the ceiling and wondering if the Universe had sent us here for a reason. Things could have been worse, but still, I was hoping for some sort of explanation.
A few months after settling in, Takayo and I attended a dinner party thrown by one of her colleagues. I sat across the table from Hans, a tightly-wound life coach from Berlin. He had arrived late, dressed from head to toe in Eddie Bauer, with a pair of Ray Bands dangling from his neck by a rubber tube. His gray moustache screamed 60, but he checked his phone with the enthusiasm of a teenage girl. We talked between incoming texts.

"Zo," he said, "do you have a favorite German dish?"

I told him “schweinshaxe,” or pork knuckle, cooked till crispy on a wall of fire. He seemed impressed, so I told him about Dan’s Old Farmhouse, a German restaurant in China, adorned with wagon wheels and thick-ankled waitresses.

            “It got out of control,” I continued. “Everything was ‘pork knuckle' this and ‘pork knuckle' that. I saw pork knuckles in my dreams.

            He found this amusing. “You see what happened, don’t you?  It was NLP: Neuro-Linguistic Programming. You thought about the pork knuckle again and again until—well, here you are.”

Hans sat back in his chair, seeming very pleased with his elucidation. I liked how simple he made it sound, but as it stood, this whole “flying pork knuckle” theory was a bit airy-fairy.
“So,” I said, “are you telling me that pork knuckles caused the school to lay off my wife so we could end up in Germany?”
“You would be surprised at what powers the mind is capable of.”

There was a watercolor hanging on the wall above Hans, a splashy bouquet of flowers bursting from a melted vase. As he spoke, I pictured it falling down and smashing over his head. The sound of breaking glass fills the room, and everyone looks over and sees Hans’ head bursting through the frame like a daffodil. Again and again I imagined this until—of course nothing happened.

“I ate a Hawaiian pizza last Christmas,” I said. “Now, where’s my trip to Honolulu?”
He had to laugh like hell at that, but the conversation was shot.

Usually, I make a point of giving people the benefit of the doubt. Ask the right questions, and folks will generally surprise you. Hans, however, struck me as the type who read medical journals, then, whenever someone sneezed, mindlessly named off some corresponding disease. You might think now here’s a guy that loves to hear the sound of his own voice. And he might be. The problem is—in the back of your mind—you know there’s a slim chance that he might be right.
And, oh, did I hate him for that.

So, what if I was wrong? Perhaps what we think about most does help guide, in unforeseeable ways, our direction in life. We internalize food. But does it also internalize us?
At the time, my wife and I weren't ready to leave China. There was, we felt, still more to accomplish. The pork knuckle, however, had other ideas.
Anyway, life is good. But still, I wonder what would have happened if we'd obsessed over an Ethiopian or Siberian restaurant. I’m sure they’re nice-enough places, but let’s be honest: things could have turned a lot out worse.

April 16, 2011

Bedtime for Democracy


So Sarah Palin, the President of the United States, which was subject to repossession by China, enacted the “Word Tax” to keep the White House from going into foreclosure. Citizens living inside all city limits were taxed for both spoken and written word. This was tracked by a “Freedom Chip” which was implanted in the back of the neck. The procedure was mandatory and often performed at veterinary clinics. Only politicians and pornographers could afford to be treated by human doctors. Folks didn’t appreciate being treated like animals, but under the “New Patriot Act,” complaining was deemed a commodity, and thus taxable. Someone suffering a broken arm or stroke had to wait while, say, a guinea pig had a marble surgically removed from its anus.
The only folks that survived in the real world were the Field Dwellers. A Field Dweller was someone who lived in the country. Everyone was required to receive a Freedom Chip, but it wasn’t directly enforced. Those without Freedom Chips were considered “Persons with Non-Competencies.” The tax man could shut off your phone, internet, lights, whatever, but they didn’t come looking for you. Like most people, they were scared of the real world. Aside from bullying folks on social media, digital bank accounts or email, they were as harmless as housecats.

Technology helped us think beyond our brains, but the information slowly dried up. “Selectively cleansed,” claimed the government, but that didn’t keep folks from depending on it.

My days, I decided, were numbered. After receiving the letter from Brigadoon Animal Hospital informing me of my Freedom Chip appointment, I left town. After packing a suitcase, I drove South using back-country roads and spent the night in my car. The next morning, I remembered something from my childhood: a trailer colony in the middle of a dirt farm. Growing up, our family used to pass it when we took the short cut to Raleigh. I’d look out the window of our Chevy Blazer, surrounded by soy bean and cotton fields, before coming to the cross roads. For someone who grew up on the beach, out there seemed like the most remote place in the world. The stop sign was peppered with bullets. My dad didn’t even brake—he just raised his arms and yelled “rolling stop” as we blew right through it.

There were, I remember, four to six trailers at this intersection. They encircled a large, steel-beam radio tower that you could see for miles. Aside from the laundry drying outside, the trailers looked abandoned. I wondered why anyone would live there, and so close to a radio tower. It had been an obsession growing up, these freakish people committing horrible atrocities inside. But why that? Why not thoughts of more? More money; a bigger promotion? I thought of that as I drove toward the tower. The tenacious strive toward success. It was always just out of reach. I killed the engine before the stop sign. The fields were barren now, and stretched into the distance in each direction.

I was in insurance when the government began scaling back the economy. A few folks saw it coming. Our company sold all the ergonomically designed chairs and installed coin operated locks on the bathroom stalls. They traded my BMW company car for a Chinese sedan. They did, however, let me keep my company girlfriend, who was specifically designed to “enhance” my lifestyle: She was prone to debt, prescription drug-induced crying jags, and had breasts engineered to near perfection.
Thus did consumerism and procreation go hand in hand.

Field dwellers didn’t have breast implants or bald pubic regions. These things had nothing to do with survival. Daily life revolved around the radio tower, or rather, what the tower provided. Grandma had an aluminum hip that intercepted phone calls late at night. Like I said, politicians and pornographers could afford to speak in whole sentences, and did so in great detail about anything they pleased. Overhearing an educated conversation like that would have cost five thousand dollars. That’s how much it cost to ‘unlock’ this particular radio channel. Even the rich weren’t granted total privacy. When the signal wasn’t great, we’d stick our ear directly against Grandma’s hip. This minimized the "tinny" sound so we could hear more clearly.

A low, steady hum was always present around the tower. The trailers would sometimes vibrate, but it didn’t vibrate people so much as it permeated them. We all sat in plastic lawn chairs in the back yard. Every meal was barbequed on an open pit, and little Joey would run barefoot from one trailer to the next.

“Momma says ‘the hummin’ is God talking to Himself while he’s doing his work.”
“Great Joey,” I’d say. “Now run over and fetch me a jar of moonshine.” 

It was still strange to me, hearing folks talk about God. Aside from OMG, which was changed from Oh My God to Oh My Gosh, talking about God beyond the context of Freedom was forbidden and taxable. The pornographers discussed ways to implement God into film plots, but this was done subtly, usually by symbolism, since no one understood big words anymore. For most folks, acronyms were cheaper and conveyed most thoughts.

“God microwaves our home with his love and hummin’ powers.”
“Did your momma tell you that, Joey?”
When asked a question, Joey would sometimes gaze up to the red blinking light. I had no idea he was looking up there for guidance.
“I think about hummin’ and how come other places don’t hum.”
“How do you know other places don’t hum?” I said.
“Well…look at you. I beg your pardon, but you’re dumber than a stump.”

It was true. Aside from my 30 years of life experience, I was no smarter than this child. At ten years old, he rebuilt the carburetor in my Chinese sedan. He could kill, pluck and gut a chicken in 4 minutes flat. He even knew how to brew moonshine using an old copper milk can. He’d mix in the corn and water and whatever else, pausing every so often to gaze up at the tower.
**

April 6, 2011

Two if by Sea

It was a late, sunny morning in October, and I was heading back into Düsseldorf from a doctor visit. On the train home, while making a list of chores, I missed my stop and ended up at the altstadt, the old quarter, where I found myself in a kiosk buying two large bottles of beer. Funny how that happens.

I wandered for a bit and wound up at this inlet canal about 100 yards from the Rhine. There were oversized stairs for sitting and watching folks pass by the boardwalk. The water wasn’t much to look at: Dark green with floating trash. Perhaps as a distraction, the city marooned an old ship right out in the middle. With bulging sides and a tall, wooden mast, it didn’t float so much as it slowly disintegrated.

Despite the nice weather, there weren’t a lot of folks out. There was a guy sitting 30 feet away from me, wearing a black jacket and sunglasses, the big kind that wrap around your eyes like a windshield. To passersby, we were just two Germans. “Slackers,” they might have whispered, “Couldn’t even wait till noon to crack a beer.” Of course, I never had that sort of problem when I lived in China. During my two years there, I didn’t need a tattoo across my forehead saying “Outsider.” What for?

Germany was different, though. I had the same pea coat and pale complexion as everyone else. “You blend in,” my wife said. And folks naturally thought I was German. That is, until I opened my mouth. How frustrating it must be to speak to someone, to reach out to a stranger, only to have them reply with “Uh…was?” The German word for what is our word for was, so basically I was asking them to repeat themselves, only louder. To save my hearing, my next bright idea was to inform people mid-sentence.

“—Let me stop you right there,” I’d say. I honestly thought they’d thank me with the breath they saved. Of course they usually just said “sorry” and walked away.

Two men appeared from behind the ship, navigating the harbor in a tiny row boat. They were wearing orange suits with electric blue strips along the shoulder. The rower sat in back as another man crouched at the bow, scouring the water with a ten-foot net. Their vessel meandered along, scooping up bottles and potato chip bags as they went, leaving a small wake in their trail. 



Like many city workers, these men were large; not fat exactly, but big boned. I suppose a lifetime of beer and bratwurst lunches will do that, but, like the great manatee, there was a grace to their glide -- something almost…romantic.

I wanted to ask them if they signed up for this duty, or if the job was assigned on a rotating basis. Did they get to choose partners, and if so, how do they determine who rows and who scoops? Basically, what I wanted to know was: How do people wind up doing what they’re doing?

At the time these questions seemed relevant, but it was only because I couldn’t actually ask them. Even if I had spoken German, I probably would have talked myself out of it. Oh, don’t bother them. It’s basic psychology: We want what we can’t have. For most people, sunning by the water with a beer isn’t a bad way to spend a weekday. And, oh, I am one of those people. I was lucky to be out there; however, I’d be lying if I said that, in the back of my mind, there wasn’t a small part of me that wanted to trade in my beer for a pair of oars.


March 28, 2011

Party of One... Booze frenzy at the homestead

Cape Carteret, NC

When I was thirteen, after much convincing, my parents left me home alone one Friday night. They and my sister went to Jacksonville to go thrift store shopping. After that, they’d get pizza at Tony’s and walk around the mall. I knew that’s what they’d do because that’s what we always did on Friday night. But now that I was a teenager, I had other plans: I would listen to 96.3, the Hot FM, and call a girl in Newport that I had a crush on. Also, I would make my first cocktail.
            
            As soon as they pulled out of the driveway, I used a chair to reach the bottles in the cupboard: Goldschlager, Two Fingers tequila, Gordon’s gin, Myer’s rum (dark) and a bottle of something called port. I poured a shot of each into a clear plastic cup decorated with pink fish. The drink seemed kind of weak, so I topped it off with the port. That’s when it turned black. The gold flakes from the Goldschlager suggested wealth and sophistication, but overall, the drink came up a tad short: It looked like something that seeped out of a landfill. It was, I imagined, how the breath of a sleeping bum might smell.



But I’d gone too far to turn back.

I decided to step out onto the back steps. The sun was setting through the pine trees, and the bricks were warm under my feet. I pinched my nose, held my breath and began chugging.

I got one gulp down, then two…that’s when gag reflexes refilled my cup. Now the mixture was both black and bubbly. Getting it down became more of an exercise in determination rather than pleasure. I…will…drink this.

On the second try it stayed down, but my mouth was watering pretty bad. Had I burped now, it would have been all over. I went inside to search for a stick of Big Red, refill the liquor bottles with water and put them back in the cabinet.

Upstairs, I turned on the radio and lied against my pillow, watching the walls spin in a good way. Salt-n-Pepa’s “Shoop” came on, and then something else. I went downstairs and looked at topless women in my dad’s Easyriders magazine. Next I microwaved a Stouffer’s lasagna and fed our German shepherd, Zan. As the TV dinner cooled, I took the .22 rifle from the closet and shot it into the air in the front yard like Yosemite Sam. This scared Zan, so I took my lasagna from the microwave and ate it on the floor beside her.





I’d once heard that if you’re pulled over by the police while drinking, you should keep your answers short so they don’t smell your breath. “Yep,” for instance, would be ideal. That was the mindset I employed when my family returned from Jacksonville. 

"Did you have a good time?" 
"Yep."
"Did you feed the dog?" 
"Yep." 
"Did anyone call for us?" 
"Nope." 

Someone had called, but of course that answer would have required an incriminating response. More gum was chewed and breath was held during hugs. I don’t recall what I said before slinking back to my room; however, during the course of my furious one-man party, I never did call Andrea, the girl I had a crush on. 



March 13, 2011

Carnival Beerdrinking in Germany

My latest published story, Carnival Beerdrinking in Germany, at Matador Network is now online...


Click here to read it.

The events in the story happened last year, but I wrote it this year while celebrating Carnival at home here in Dusseldorf. Immersing myself in the festivities rubbed off on the story in a good way. The story is broken up into scenes, which is, after all, how we remember particular events.

The story itself was written under duress, finished at 4am on the eve of leaving for Paris, after having gone out drinking for Carnival. To be honest, I'm sort of amazed this thing took off at all, and yet, somehow it did. Big ups to David Miller for doing another great editing job. Enjoy!



March 7, 2011

Notes From My Travel Diary: Emerald Isle, NC


I grew up in this little beach town. When you think of North Carolina, most people don’t think about islands, but that that’s where we lived -- Emerald Isle, North Carolina. Tourist flocked there every summer. The locals were mostly fishermen or cashiers or waitresses at all-you-can-eat buffets. But my father was a potter. He didn’t leave the trailer most days. He didn’t have to. The UPS man dropped off boxes of clay. My dad threw this clay in the work studio. Of course he didn’t really throw the clay, but that’s how he said he made the cups and bowls.

There was two sheds in the yard. One for tools, the other for the kiln. The kiln looked like a brick igloo with afterburners. They fired the clay so folks at craft shows could buy it. Dad kept throwing pottery until it filled the studio. A big show made the house go buzzz. You know the feeling you get the closer to Christmas? Anyway, he’d pace around before a firing, filling the kiln with all the uncooked pottery. One time the kiln blew up, but it didn’t really blow up like you think. The pottery just looked retarded. Mom talked about the poorhouse.

The kiln rumbled low and steady in the night. Outside, the shed is a big jack-o-lantern, glowing tangerine between the planks. Inside, my father was a maestro, tuning pyrotechnic gauges, stoking the dials of that thousand-degree symphony. His face look orange like an Oompa Loompa, except he got a moustache that curls up. My dad is five foot nine, weighs a hundred and forty pounds. But his tan Woolrich vest makes him look heavier.

One time a police come by, asked if dad was hiding a side entrance to Hell in there. Our across-the-street neighbors, a family of fat morticians, never batted an eyelash, but a mainlander renting a trailer up the road expressed his concerns.
            
 “That thing runs on gas? If that thing explodes…” the man trailed off, his eyes fixed toward the kiln. 
 “Well,” said my dad. “It hasn’t happened yet.”
 “The whole goddamn neighborhood would BLOW!” 
 Blow?” my dad echoed, as if that was the last thing a gas-fueled contraption would do. “That’s not gonna happen.” 
              
The man didn‘t argue. The struggle in his face said it all: 
Gas oven + Hippie Potter = Boom. 

The man reminded me of a house cat. Maybe he paced all night, downing wine coolers with a shaky hand, peering through the blinds every five minutes to the glowing shack that, given half a chance, would level the entire neighborhood. Inland folks had apocalyptic scenarios: Shark attacks, hurricanes, exploding kilns. I could jump off the roof with an umbrella, or lean too far back in my chair if I wanted to. 

Dad said “just don’t do it at your grandmother’s.”
*

February 16, 2011

The Great China Hell-Freeze

We lost reception at noon. Our pirate satellite was hooked up to the neighbor’s, our landlord, a stringy, ratfaced man with a bad stomach. Perhaps he was a drunk. Those violent, gurgling echoes from the toilet penetrated our walls each morning. The TV was out, but, fortunately for us, so was the landlord. Aside from my wife and me, nearly everyone in our building was traveling home for Chinese New Year.



The storm became serious. Peasant workers throughout Suzhou (having never seen snow before) set down their brooms and hosed the roads off with warm water. Predictably, their efforts resulted in the largest patch of black ice motorists ever encountered. Across China, thousands were stranded in train stations and airports. A rice barge navigating the Yangtze reportedly sunk after hitting an iceberg. It was a tragedy, but the details, like most second-hand information in China, were open to interpretation.

I hit the store before they closed, gathering the makings of a Survival Kit. The essentials: A bottle of Malibu, a bottle of Bacardi, and orange juice to ward off scurvy… also a case of Tsing Tao beer, Kahlua, and two fingers of powdered milk for bone health.

In what seemed like a good idea at the time—what seemed like a terrible idea in hindsight—my wife’s employers insisted on carrying out the New Year’s feast. We were bused outside Suzhou with scores of other foreigners to a plush, remote compound surrounded by whitened mud bogs. The staff offered us a steady supply of booze and food, in that order. In the Great Room, the evening air was filled with pidgin English speeches from The Board, slender girls swaying the centuries-old dance of Rainbow Skirts, and waiters trying to make sense of our mangled Mandarin requests. 



There were drawings. I won a slow cooker. By the end of the night, the snow was falling harder than before. Or was it? Perhaps I hadn’t even won the slow cooker. For all I knew, I’d removed it from the kitchen. The only certainty, which was evident to everyone onboard, was the busses scattered along the road like tombstones. One bus had its ass in the ditch, the front tires clinging to the road like a beast pulling itself out a pit. Others had dug great moats while power-sliding into the bogs.

Our driver could have taken this as a warning, but that isn’t the Chinese way. I don’t claim to be an expert, but, from what I observed, in China it’s considered a weakness to adjust one’s driving to weather and road conditions. So instead of slowing down, our driver sped up, weaving between those frozen monuments with a disregard for safety that dazzled everyone onboard. It was fantastic.

To many this may sound reckless, but it’s important to understand that in China, this all-or-nothing mentality is engrained on every social level. Holding back is not in the playbook, so to speak. One commits to a particular character, and tries to steal the show for that brief moment when the spotlight is upon them. 



February 4, 2011

This Is What I Do When You Post Pictures of Your Baby

The weather here in Germany can be lousy.  Thankfully, I have facebook, which allows me to keep in touch with friends back home.  

A lot of folks are having babies now it seems.  Some use photos of their baby as a profile picture.  Which is fine, I suppose, but yesterday I caught myself doing something while looking at a baby’s picture.  Perhaps everyone does this, but I always count the baby’s fingers and toes.  

              1, 2, 3, 4, 5. 
                                                       1, 2, 3, 4, 5. 

I’m not saying I want your baby to have a hand or foot with six digits...  But if it’s going to happen anyway, I don’t want to miss it. 

January 27, 2011

You Getting a Hair Cut

 Düsseldorf, Germany
 
 What color is it going to be this time? Orange? Red again, or perhaps green?

            No.
You walk into the UniSex hair salon and see purple-haired Kevin sitting on the bench smoking a cigarette. You walk inside, and the glass door slams against the saloon-style ash bin propping it open. Ignore it. The door doesn’t belong to you anyway.

Kevin’s purple hair is standing straight up, and you can’t look at it without thinking of a troll doll. He says “Hallo,” and you say the same thing, staring too long at his plastic, spray-tanned face. Don’t worry. Anyone that has Sponge Bob Square Pants tattooed on his forearm is used to it. Thank God for people like this. You check out his left arm and see all three Power Puff Girls surrounded by stars. The details are dazzling.

He stubs out his cigarette and says “please sit anywhere.” It’s 10AM and every seat is open. The salon is 10 feet across and goes back like a bowling alley. Techno music is blaring, and there are wall-mounted flat screens between each chair. You sit down in the back, close to the hair washing station.

Kevin comes over and asks “Would you like a drink? Coffee?”
His English is terrible. Your German is worse.
“Nein, danke,” you say. “Wasser, bitte.”

Kevin calls out to the blonde with the fat ass. She stashes the broom and walks behind a curtain. There is an awkward silence. Kevin urges you over to one of the flat screens. He shows you pictures of men’s heads and says “What you like?” Except for the Turkish heads, the faces all look like you and Kevin: Skinny white boys. There’s a head that looks like it hasn’t been cut. The caption says ‘Surfer.’ You point to it, even though you don’t like to surf. Forget it. The blonde’s back with your water. You look her in the eyes and say “danke.”

Kevin wears plastic gloves that crinkle as he washes your hair. You didn’t shower before leaving the house today. Never mind. You’re going to shower when you get home anyway. Occupy yourself by looking at Kevin’s facial piercings. The ring on his lip seems like it would be annoying. Again, you’re grateful that not everyone is as boring as you.



You sit there facing the mirror. Fangs of moisture drip onto the nylon cape. Kevin slips into his rhinestone-studded holster. It is packed with razors, shears, combs, and scissors. He seems taller, moves faster. Kevin removes the scissors and spins them around his index finger like a gunslinger. You feel your body tensing up beneath the cape. Relax. You look over to a flat screen. A corpse is getting her hair cut before a live audience. The assistants had already pulled some paper mache guts from her belly. After each snip, the mad scientist pulls the scissors back and twirls them like a gunslinger. The crowd is going wild.

You look to Kevin's hand. He holsters the scissors, pulls out a straight razor. Your head leans as he pulls your bangs forward. His other hand is spinning the razor blade like a sideways helicopter. Bits of your bangs fall on your lap. Take a chance. You open your eyes just a crack, enough to see the letters tattooed across the back of each finger...




January 19, 2011

Ice Cream Boy

Istanbul, Turkey

The boy was standing under an awning just off the sidewalk, which sloped uphill toward the Blue Mosque. Short, and looking neither old nor young, the boy was holding an aluminum utensil that looked like a crowbar. Although it was December, the weather was sunny and mild and Takayo and I had talked about getting some ice cream earlier. As we approached the boy, he immediately began stirring one of the three holes in the big, metal box.

"Where you from?" he said. 

Since arriving in Istanbul three days earlier, I’d been asked that question at least 50 times. It was mostly slick-haired vendors waiting outside rug shops or restaurants. As a conversation starter, it has a singular knack for stating the obvious. Yes, we may be strangers on the street. But before I try to separate you from your money, let’s discuss race, shall we.

“I’m from the States," I said.  “Do you have chocolate?” 
“You from England?"
"No,” I said, “the States. Chocolate?”
“Australia?”

I’m pretty sure I would have kept walking if he hadn’t looked so peculiar. I mean, nobody has ever stopped me in the street in, say, Frankfurt because they were dying to know where I was from. Then again, so long as I don’t open my mouth, I’m pasty enough to pass as German.

“No,” I said. “Not Australia.” I should have just lied and said yes, but instead, I uttered the one word I was trying to avoid:  “America." 



I don’t remember when it started, probably after moving to Suzhou, China, but if a salesperson asks where I’m from I’ll say “the States” instead of “America.” It’s not that I’m ashamed to be an American – far from it. I prefer saying America, but the fact is I’m tired of getting stuck with the America price.

In Istanbul, much like China, unless there’s a barcode, price is negotiable. A pair of underwear might cost as much as a tee shirt. And, depending on the mood of the shop keep, a tee shirt might cost the equivalent of a week’s worth of groceries. I don’t know why, but saying “the States” is anticlimactic. It just doesn’t have the same ring to it as “America.” Coincidently, it’s the same sound a cash register makes.

The boy’s eyes lit up as soon as I said it. "Ohhh,” he said. “Ameeeerica.”
“That’s right,” I said.
“Obaaamaaa."

Because there’s no single person to blame, I blame television. After all, TV shows are dubbed into every language. It seems silly to think that all Americans live like they do in sitcoms, but, when we hold up the mirror, is it much different than the belief that all Asians know karate? I’ve seen street fights that would have made Bruce Lee turn in his grave, but I haven’t stepped foot on American soil since Obama’s been president. Nothing against him or his politics; it’s more a matter of logistics.

            “Yes,” I said to the ice cream boy. “Obama.”
“Obaaaamaaaa,” he repeated, reverently. 
“Yes, Obama. Now make me a Chocolate cone.”

He used the crowbar and began dipping the ice cream onto the cones. He handed Takayo hers first, and then held out mine. When I reached for it, as a joke he pretended to drop it. The boy had a singular talent for making me feel uncomfortable. I stared at his hand. He had dirt under his fingernails. 



Next, he stuck the ice cream in my face like a microphone and said “here, taste it.” Perhaps this was some kind of ancient Turkish custom. Here, my brother. Let us lick each other’s ice cream.

In spite of tradition, I took my cone and paid him the equivalent of seven dollars. As we walked away, above the sound of passing cars and his crowbar clanging inside of the ice chest, I heard the boy softly chanting "Obama...Obama…Obama."

**