Friday, April 30, 2010

Flashback Fridays: The Fall of Saigon

In today's New York Times, there's a pair of op-eds from two Vietnamese writers, one from the North and one from the South, describing their respective reactions thirty-five years ago today upon learning that Saigon had either "fallen" or "been liberated," depending on one's perspective.  They're very short, moving pieces and you should read them.

Inspired by these essays, I decided to unveil a project that I had hoped would be done in time for this infamous/auspicious anniversary.  As it turns out, I haven't gotten very far with the project, but I thought it fitting to release the first installment today. 

A few years ago, while snooping around my wife's family's house, I found a dusty old diary that turned out to be my mother-in-law's account of the family's flight from Vietnam in 1975.  My wife was two and a half years old at the time, and her little sister was an infant.  Her uncle and grandfather were also on this journey.  Unbeknown to my wife or her mom, I enlisted the help of Le Pham of Dragon Momma to translate.  I will let the results speak for themselves:


Guam, 1975

OMFG!!  I am so effing tired!  I was just on the longest, most horrendous flight of my life!  (Well, I've never actually been on a plane before LOL, but still...)  How hard would it have been to put a diaper changing table on a C-130???  WTF, PEOPLE???  And those seats are worse than the little stools at the sidewalk cafes in Saigon.  I don't see how those fat-ass Americans can even fit on them ;)  

Anyways, Toddlerette and Babygirl decided they would both fuss through the whole eight-hour flight, after they had been so good while we waited at the airbase for two days *sigh*.  Oh, and then Toddlerette decides to barf into the bag that contains all of our worldly possessions *double sigh*.  (Did I mention that I'm fleeing for my life from the only place I've ever lived and leaving behind everything and everyone I've ever known for a place where I don't speak the language and the people and culture are terrifying to me and we have no money and no idea what we will do when we get there and we have two babies and my father-in-law to take care of?)

And Dearest Hubby wasn't much help either.  He and his father and brother were talking boring politics and arguing during the whole flight:

"The Americans turned their backs on us!"
"We'll never see our homes again!"
"This will never stand...the resistance will rise up and defeat the communists!"
"What will happen when we get to America?"
"What about all our relatives who can't get out?"
"Only God can help us..."

HEY!  DO YOU THINK GOD COULD HOLD ONE OF THESE KIDS OR MAYBE CHANGE A DIAPER???  Seriously, y'all !  It was like me and the kiddos weren't even there.  At least Dearest Hubby has his relatives with him, unlike me who will probably never get to see my family again :(  The least he could do is change a freaking diaper for once.

So here we are at this God-forsaken processing station in Guam (???!!!).  All I  know is that there are a bazillion other refugees here fighting for water and C-rations that I am about to PUNCH IN THE THROAT if they don't shut up.  

Gotta go!  I just saw a shady spot on the tarmac where I might be able to curl up with the kids and get a little nap.  More later.


So far, the rest of the entries that have been translated are about zombies and how hard it is to find jeans that fit right.


But in real life, my in-laws don't talk about that trip.  I've heard Dad-in-law's stories about the lead-up to it, and I've heard countless different versions of the rags-to-comfortable-middle-class-prosperity story after they arrived in the States.  Dad-in-law says they came here on a plane; but my wife remembers a boat as well.  Maybe someday I might ferret out the details while I'm working on a home improvement project with Dad-in-law, even though I would then run the risk of setting off his standard hour-long diatribe that starts with the evils of communism and ends with the apotheosis of Ronald Reagan.  Of course, mentioning property taxes can set off the same screed.

The community my family lived in was certainly touched by the Vietnam War as well.  When my dad came back from the war, we lived on stateside army bases until 1974, when we were stationed in Germany. Some of the very few memories I have of Fort Ord, Fort Sill and Fort Leavenworth are of kids wearing bracelets with the names of POW/MIA soldiers, and yellow frowny-face buttons that said "POWs Never Have a Nice Day."  My dad had served two tours, and like my wife's parents, there were a lot of things that he didn't talk about.  By the time my wife's family arrived in the U.S., we were living in Germany where my dad and all his colleagues were studying Russian and all things Soviet as the Cold War ramped up.  I don't remember much talk about Vietnam by then.

Naturally, due to egocentrism,  I'm often struck by how my life would have been different had things worked out better for our side back in '75.  The major implications are that I wouldn't have met my wife, and the first mixed-race female twin consecutive presidents would never have been born.  (Of course, our meeting, like anyone's, could have been thwarted by the alteration of any number of serendipitous details like college class schedules or a delay in the eradication of my mullet; but it's more fun to imagine myself as a participant in world history.)  Other than that, my life would have been pretty much the same.

But my wife's life would have been completely different.  We were reminded of this when we traveled to Vietnam a few years ago and met up with some of my wife's relatives, and indeed whenever we met any women of her age there.  These women had led hard, sometimes tragic lives.

But who's to say what opportunities my wife would have had growing up in Vietnam if the forces of free-market democracy had prevailed?  I think it's a safe bet, though, that she would not have ended up as a doctor in Southern California with beautiful Wasian babies and the dashing piece of arm-candy she calls her husband.  That's why even though many Vietnamese-Americans recognize April 30th as "Deep Resentment Day," I can't bring myself to be completely resentful.

Cobra with Great-Grandfather

Butterbean with Great-Grandfather

   Grandma and Grandpa c.1972 (iPhone shot of a framed photo)

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Rhetorical Analysis: The Wheels on the Bus

The Wheels on the Bus, an iconic children's road song perhaps rivaled in popularity only by its less sober cousin, 100 Bottles of Beer on the Wall, has been immortalized in music, film, print, and the collective unconscious of English speakers everywhere.  While its provenance is unclear, we can assume that this populist hymn is as old as public transportation itself.

Paul O. Zelinsky's interpretation of the classic weaves meticulously engineered moving parts into a swirling sunset dreamscape of lush magenta, violet, ochre, and coral, producing an effect upon its youngest readers that is both stimulating and narcotic.  The child does not simply read, or listen to this book being read; she transcends her sublunary state and explores a town whose inhabitants are driven by myriad motivations even as they travel together in that most humble and universal of conveyances: the bus.

If the "bus" is the collective effort of a community to accommodate the dreams of its individual members, the "town" is the embodiment of the civilization that makes those dreams attainable.  Zelinsky lays bare both the physical and social infrastructure of urban life by juxtaposing personal vignettes that run the gamut of human emotion in a contact zone of diverse cultures and classes with the unforgiving tectonics of a city that radiates from a core of public symbolicity to an industrial hinterland of smokestacks and grey tenements.  In the end, Zelinsky extends his own central metaphor of bus as public conveyor of individual dreams by revealing that the "town" does not offer just one bus, but an entire fleet.

The cover alone sends the twins into paroxysms of glee

 The effect is...

 ...both stimulating,

and narcotic...

"Why are the only grownup male characters the bus driver and the folk singer?  Where are all the daddies?"

Butterbean's point is well-taken.  The bus is a gendered space, in which only mommies go "Shh!  Shh!  Shh!"  Perhaps the daddies all died in the war.

Zelinsky lays bare both the physical and social infrastructure of urban life

The townfolk enact their personal dramas against a backdrop glowing with evening gold, even as they are threatened by the prospect of a punishing rain--always the rain.  The bus ride is not smooth, but rather beset with violent and unpredictable bumpety-bumps.

Ultimately, the destination is the library, the cheery, safe center of civic life; and the symbol, buttressed by City Hall, of the benefits of public services.

Of course, owning an enduring work of art is never inexpensive:

 (Click on the image if you think your bleary eyes deceive you)

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Gallery: Portraits of the Twins

I have published these adorable portraits of my twin girls not only to lure potential readers to my blog and feed my pathological need for attention and validation, but also to participate in the global community of similarly afflicted bloggers by contributing to this fun activity from Sticky Fingers.



Now that you are here, why don't you visit some of my posts that are made out of words.  I recommend the following:

That was shameless, wasn't it.  Whatever.

I can't figure out how to get the special linky thing from the Sticky Fingers site.  Can anyone coming from there help a brother out?

Update:  I figured out how to get the thingy.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

RTT: What I Understand about Sports, Part I


I'm participating in "Random Tuesday Thoughts," a thing that happens on The Un Mom.  It's like a sport.  You can play too, by clicking on the graphic above and doing what Keely tells you to do.

I've been thinking about sports quite a bit lately, ever since my testosterone-fueled playdate last week.  Of course, in that post I ran with the stereotype of guys as sports-crazed knuckleheads and suggested that I was more sensitive and evolved than most dudes.  Or something like that.

But then I had this great idea for an outing for the Dad Group: disc golf!

"But," you might say, "you're a prissy bookworm who blanches at the thought of being crushed in competition by alpha males, and would prefer to go to the public library for a performance by a troupe of renaissance puppeteers."

First of all, how dare you.    

Secondly, disc golf isn't really a sport (even though my former neighbor defined himself as a professional disc golfer)--it's just walking around a nice park, usually stoned, and tossing frisbees.  So there's no real shame in losing.  You can always blame the chronic.  (In my case, it would be legitimate to blame the chronic because if I smoked any I would have a panic attack and have to go to the ER.)

Thirdly, I actually like doing sports.  It's just watching them that I find insufferable.  In fact, the sports I am (or was) pretty good at, skiing and cycling, have garnered me lots of street cred among my buddies on construction sites over the years.  NASCAR fans as a rule really appreciate the idea of dropping a couple hundred dollars a day to swoosh through the snow on thousand-dollar skis; and they love nothing more than a group of skinny guys with shaved legs* and neon spandex slowing down traffic on country roads or clogging up their ATV trails and spooking the deer they've been stalking.

I have a number of theories about why a person would waste a perfectly good day watching football (or whatever); but the one that might best explain why I never got into spectating is the idea of identifying with a group by supporting a team and demonizing its rivals.

My parents never lived anywhere close to a town with a professional sports team when they were growing up.  The only team that they cared about was the Montana Grizzlies, who represented their alma mater and who, when we lived in Europe and even in pre-satellite TV America, were strictly mythological as far as I was concerned.  I remember reading a book called Fight Like a Falcon in the third grade, which made me identify with the Atlanta Falcons for a while, even though I lived in Germany and didn't really know where Atlanta was.  I tried to like the Washington Redskins, the Bullets, and the Capitols when we lived in the D.C. area, but I would lose interest in a team as soon as they lost a game, so these guys did not make it easy for me to become a fan.  Then I moved around some more, lived in a bunch of perfectly lovely towns and cities toward which I developed great affection, but about whose sports teams I never gave a rat's ass.

The closest I came to caring about a team was when I was in college at UVA.  During my last year there, a bunch of my friends (some of whom I think actually cared about football) convinced me to start going to games with them.  This wasn't too difficult because, as is the case at many colleges I'm sure, booze was a major component of the sporting tradition.  (UVA is very wrapped up in tradition.  Here are a few of the more ridiculous ones:
  • You can't say "campus."  It's "grounds."
  • Say "Mr. Jefferson" instead of "Thomas Jefferson."  Say it a lot.
  • Don't say "frat."  If you call your fraternity a "frat," what do you call your country?  Hmmm?
  • Don't say "freshman," "sophomore," etc.  Say "first year," "second year"... )
The traditions surrounding football games dictate that you wear a blue blazer if you are male, and a Laura Ashley dress if you are female.  You should get snot-hanging, knee-walking drunk at all games regardless of your gender; but most especially on the last home game of your fourth year, during which you are obliged to drink a fifth of liquor (the "fourth year fifth") by the time the game ends.  Emergency rooms are very busy on these days. 

My friends and I were on board with the drinking part of the tradition, but not so much the other details.  Another tradition in which we took part, kind of, was the singing of "The Good Old Song" when our team scored.  It's sung to the tune of Auld Lang Syne:

"We come from old Virginia,
Where all is bright and gay [at this point the stands would resound with a gleeful "NOT GAY." Except for the section where my friends and I stood, which futilely countered, "YES GAY!]
Let's all join hands and give a yell
For good old UVA" [thereafter follows the official chorus of yelling, at which points my friends and I would scream "gaygaygaygaygaygaygay!]"

So good old UVA had a pretty good old season that year.  That might have been the year that they (I guess I'm supposed to say "we"?) were briefly ranked number one in the country.  We may have even beaten our most hated rivals, VA Tech.  I can't really remember.  But then I graduated, and even though I lived in Charlottesville for another eight years, I never went to another game.  I didn't go to school there anymore, I didn't know any of the players, and I certainly didn't want to identify with the well-dressed college kids lying in pools of their own vomit any more than I had when I was a student.

If I find it hard to identify with the athletes and fans of the school I attended, I find it much more difficult to become invested in a team of ridiculously rich, poorly-behaved numbskulls who supposedly represent the greater metro area of wherever I live.  But I know plenty of smart people who are passionate about the teams from places they live, used to live, or even seemingly picked at random.  Some of these fans are people who rail against Corporate America, poverty, income disparity, gender norms, the cult of celebrity, lack of role models for kids, waste of public monies, and so on.  I have some more theories to explain what's going on with them, but I'll save them for another Tuesday.

Random picture of the twins as snowperson and elf:

*I have not been "skinny" since the eighth grade, and I never could get up the nerve to shave my legs.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Butching It Up for the Daddy Playdate

Before reading this post, you should definitely read this one to get up to speed.  And you should probably read this one for background. You might want to read this one too, about the first playdate with the Asian Mommies. Just go ahead and read them all while you're at it.

The first t-shirt I put on looks fine.  Only...a flock of doves forming a peace sign on a sky blue background?  It's a little...hmm...soft.  So I put on the brown one with the logo from my favorite Japanese comfort food restaurant, a little anime character eating noodles from a bowl with chopsticks.  No problem.  I've worn it nine thousand times before.  But I still haven't been able to lose this baby weight; and even though the shirt doesn't really make me look fat, somehow it makes me feel fat.  What I need is a black shirt.  A loose-fitting black t-shirt makes me look tough.  And Lord knows I need to look tough for my first encounter with the stay-at-home dads group.  Unfortunately, my only clean black tee is a little snug and features the logo from Fiercetown Ace Hardware, the only place I know of where you can buy both a Skilsaw and a rainbow colored windsock.

When I first met up with the Asian Mommy group, I wore whatever gym shorts I had put on that morning.  I didn't shower.  I may or may not have brushed my teeth.  I just put on a baseball cap and headed out the door.  I wasn't trying to impress the Asian Mommies--maybe because there weren't any established expectations for a guy who joins a mommy group.  But this is different.

I've showered and put some product in my hair.  I didn't shave, but I did pluck a couple renegade strands from my eyebrows--because there's a fine line between calculatedly rumpled and completely disheveled.  And that's the line I walk.   Finally, I settle on a grey-green t-shirt with a set of headphones on it.

Due to impending rain, the playdate has been moved from the bar & grill with the outdoor play area to the group leader's house.  This distresses me a bit, because I prefer to have initial meetings on neutral territory.

I pull up to the house, an impeccable craftsman bungalow in Yuppie Hills with a baby grand piano visible through the leaded glass front door.  I put the customary dude host gift--a six-pack of decent beer--on Cobra's lap, and I haul the kids in their carseats up to the door.

The host is trim, fortyish, and immaculately coiffed.

"What a beautiful house," I say.

"Thanks.  Come in, come in."

He takes the six pack and offers to carry one of the babies, but I tell him I've got it.  The house smells vaguely of potpourri.   

I hear familiar music--"I Will Survive"-- coming pocket?

"Do you need to get that?" He says.  It's my phone.

"Oh, yeah."  I say  "No, I mean.  I don't need to get...that's's this stupid new app I downloaded for my iPhone.  It's called 'Gaydar'.  It's supposed to...I's just a stupid..."

"Huh huh huh," he laughs.  "No worries mate, no worries.  I get that all the time.  Afraid it's a false alarm though.  I suppose it's because I'm British, eh wot?"

(The thing about the phone is entirely untrue.  I don't really have an iPhone.  But I'll bet you anything there's an app called "Gaydar.")  (Yep.  Just looked it up.  Sure enough.)

Well, at least I know I'm more butch than one guy in the playgroup.

It could just be me, but I doubt it.  I'm pretty sure that most men (consciously or not) size each other up based on whatever criteria they have for manliness, and present themselves in a way that will emphasize their own masculinity.  (I would stipulate that this is less pronounced, or at least differently manifested, for gay guys; but not as much as you might think.)  Since I don't have much aptitude for making money, and I'm not interested in watching sports, I have to subtly play up the modicum of machismo I do possess.  As in this scene from yesterday's playdate.  Observe the master at his craft:

Dad 1: Yeah, I'll be going back to work once this one's in kindergarten [jerks thumb in direction of boy child].  Can't wait to start managing those hedge funds again.  Exciting's gonna be a whole new ballgame now...

Dad 2: Speaking of ball games, did you catch the game last night?  I can't believe they swept the series.  And that homer by Ramirez?  Holy crap!

Me: Did you say "hammer"?  I have five nail guns in my garage, and I have names for each of them!  You wanna see pictures? [continues doing curls with the carseats full of twins].  Twenty-eight...Twenty-nine...

Another way men display masculinity to one another is through shared disdain for their common enemy/prey, the female.  Although I have nothing but love for all my sisters, I know what I need to do to fit in with the fellas.  And sometimes that includes throwing the ladies under the bus.

Dad 1: [Swigs beer] This is great, guys.  I told the women at our sign language class that we were heading to a dads group meeting where there would beer and they were all like, *gasp* not really?! Ha ha ha...

Dad 2:  Ha ha ha....I know.  This is totally worth coming all the way down here for.  I really needed to be around some male energy.  It seems like the only person I talk to about parenting is my mother-in-law.  She's great, don't get me wrong, but...

Me: [Chugs beer, tosses bottle on floor] Word up, dawg!!  [slaps Dad 2 on back.] Pimps up, hos down, my brotha! [extends arm, awaits fistbump]  Pound it, cuz! [waits.]

Once I decisively establish dominance in the group, the tension dissolves and we commence doing what all yuppie liberal parents do: talking about cloth diapers, discussing Ominvore's Dilemma while eating meat-laden pizza, and sharing strategies for keeping our children out of public schools.  Say what you will about the patriarchy; once everyone finds their place in it, no one has to waste time wondering how to behave.

In the interest of intellectual integrity, I should point out that the transcripts I provided are not taken verbatim from the Dad Group playdate, but have been edited to support my argument, which is that stay-at-home dads are still dudes, even though they may have to braid hair and attend make-believe tea parties.  Part two of my argument is that, even though I don't embrace traditional notions of masculinity, I don't always abstain from playing the games they engender.

An "objective" observer of yesterday's meeting might say, "You've got it all wrong, dickhead.  Those were a bunch of nice guys, and all the posturing you 'observed' is completely imaginary, except perhaps in the case of yourself.  It only took you five minutes to mention that you are a licensed contractor, even though that's really just a fraction of what you used to do for a living.  And then you fault the other guys for talking about what they did before.  You don't even know what a hedge fund is, asshole!  And nobody talked about sports at all, at least not while you were within earshot.  Furthermore, you thoroughly enjoyed yourself.   It's just like that time you went on the New Year's Eve booze cruise and you were like, 'Oh great--trapped on the HMS Douche Bucket with 500 idiots and an eighties band that doesn't even realize that Brickhouse was recorded in 1977,' and then by midnight you're jumping up and down screaming the wrong lyrics to 1999 and hugging everyone in sight.  And afterward you're all, 'Phht--that was a waste of money.  I can't believe I let myself get roped into that.'  Face it--your misanthropy is entirely theoretical.  You would make friends at a Klan rally and then lie about it later."

And to that I would respond, "You were clearly at a different party than I was."

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

RTT: Asian Mommies and Slacker Dads


I'm doing the randomness thing again, and so should you. After you read this, click on that pretty picture above and then do what she tells you to do.

There's a lot of stuff on my mind right now, and most of it is kid-related, mostly. And me-related too, of course.

Lately, we've been pretty good about getting the poor little cloistered babies out of the house and letting them see that there are other people besides Mom and Dad in the world. This is, in no small part, on account of my having joined the Asian Mommies group.  Since joining about a month and a half ago, kind of on a lark, the kids and I have gone with this group to the zoo twice (tomorrow will make it a hat trick [note the butch sports metaphor]), to lunch at a Thai restaurant, to a cocktail party at a high-end baby clothes store in Fiercetown, and to dinner at a cool bar & grill in the neighborhood just south of Hipster Heights.  Dr. Mom has been able to join us for three of these events, so the other mommies have confirmation that I do in fact have a wife and that she is undeniably Asian, and my motives in joining the group probably are not licentious.

So the kids and I have been seeing members of this group far more frequently than any of our other, pre-kid friends, and only slightly less than the regulars at the dog park.  Which is, I guess, what's supposed to happen with playgroups.  But I never would have thought that people I met through the internet would come to comprise the bulk of my social life.  I suppose I should try to get the girls to interact more with our pre-kid friends--the ones who we became close to organically, through serendipity and real world connections.  But it's really difficult to get nine-month-olds to use Facebook in a meaningful way.

On the same day that I became an Asian Mommy, I joined a stay-at-home-dad group.  I actually was looking for dad groups when I found the Asian Mommies.  But as you might expect, there were maybe three results for dad groups, and about ten pages of results for mom groups.  The websites for the dad groups were coated in a thick, gummy dust and featured the most cutting edge graphics available in 1998.  There was really only one group that gave any indication of being (marginally) active, and that was the one I contacted.  Whereas the Asian Mommies responded to my initial inquiry within minutes, the Dad Group (I'll call it that because it has no name as far as I know) didn't get back to me for more than a week.  Since then, I have received an average of two email alerts per day from Asian Mommies, with ideas for future events, reminders of upcoming playdates, comments on past events, photos posted on the website, etc.  From the Dads, I've gotten one email a couple days before there was to be a get together at someone's house in East BF that I was not willing to drive to.

And then, yesterday, I got another email from the Dad Group for an event at the same cool, kid-friendly bar & grill we went to on Friday with the A-Moms.  It was a genial enough invitation, and I quickly accepted.  But there was one ominous passage in the email, warning participants that we and our kids need to be on our best behavior because the last time Dad Group met at the burger joint, the owner complained about their conduct.

Which brings me to my misgivings about joining an all-male group of any kind.  Although I was largely able to avoid playing or watching team sports growing up, having been in rock bands and worked on construction sites for a couple decades, I have spent more than my share of time hanging out with the guys.  Maybe this is why, when invited by friends who have always worked in coed environments to join them in an all-male road trip or guys' night out, I am less than enthusiastic.  I know what to expect. Regardless of the social status, salary, or level of education of the guys I have hung out with over the years, many of our conversations revolve around two themes: "You suck at the activity we are doing together and that's because you are gay," and "That's what she said."  Note that I am not positioning myself above the fray.  Just ask my wife about the time (okay, times) that my friends and I have expressed our drunken heartfelt farewells by staggering in the street, yelling, "You're like sssstuuupid, man!"  "Nuh-uh.  You're ssstttuuuupid."  It's hilarious.  Even worse is when someone breaks out of the prescribed discourse parameters and starts blubbering about how close they really feel to another guy.  It's all bad. 

So those are the things I'm thinking about right now.  They didn't turn out to be so random after all, but were in fact quite linear.  There's also some background noise going on that fits the random paradigm a little better: tomatoes, caulk, paint, lose weight, reply to emails, plant herbs, rent a bobcat...that's it really.  Life has become simpler in some ways since I have become a SAHD.

I'll let you know how Thursday with the slacker dads goes.    

Here's a random picture of my daughters dressed up for Thanksgiving.  Their outfits were made entirely of things we found around the house and taped together in fifteen minutes.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Moscow '79 Part II: Cosmos Hotel

This is kind of a continuation of this story from last week; but it's also something I'm writing for a workshop over at Sleep Is for the Weak.  The prompt I chose to address asks the writer to describe meeting someone for the first time.

Moscow, 1979

My parents don't really like Alec.  They think he's a crook or something.  It's because he accidentally stole my tennis racket a while ago.  I have this bench that's also a toy chest that sits outside of the door of our apartment, and I left my Wilson aluminum racket in there, and Alec took it home with him one day.  But I don't think he really meant to steal it.  He even gave me a brand new racket made of graphite before he took the Wilson.  His dad is some kind of Polish businessman, and he always gets free stuff that his dad brings as samples, I guess, to sell to the Russians.  He said that the graphite tennis racket is made out of the same stuff they use in Soyuz rockets.  I think maybe he thought we were trading rackets.  We're always trading stuff around here.  But my parents asked me why, if we were trading, Alec took the racket without me knowing about it.  My dad saw him leaving our complex with the racket when he was coming home from work.  I said it was just a misunderstanding because Alec and I don't really speak any of the same languages.  When I asked Alec about it, he gave me the Wilson back, and let me keep the Polish racket too.

My mom says that even though Alec seems rich, he only has rubles, and you can't get American stuff like Wilson rackets with rubles, and that everyone wants American stuff.  Like I don't know that.  I go to the military uniform store and trade them American bubble gum and Coke for belt buckles and insignia all the time.  I sold a cowboy hat to a guy on the street for two hundred rubles, which is about  three hundred and fifty dollars, and I've sold a couple pairs of Levi's for a hundred rubles each.  But the problem is, it's hard to spend that many rubles because there's not much in the stores that's worth buying.  With the money from the cowboy hat, I bought a bunch of lacquer boxes and other knick-knacks at the gift shop in the Ukraina hotel, and then I bought myself an ankle-length rabbit fur coat that I hardly ever wear.  And I still had money left over.  It's kind of risky to sell stuff on the black market too, so I don't do it all that much.  It's not like the Russian police will do anything if they catch you (they can't mess with diplomats), but if people at the U.S. embassy heard about it, then my mom and dad would hear about it, then I would hear about it.  Anyway, Alec is always stuffing rubles into my pockets when I'm not looking, so I don't even need to sell anything.  When I try to give him his money back, he just tears it up or burns it.

Alec goes to Russian school with Chincu and Suliman.  He speaks Polish, Russian, and German, but not much English.  I can speak some German and some Russian, so that's how we communicate.  Suli and Chincu speak perfect English, so they can always translate from Russian if Alec and I can't understand each other.

I started hanging around with these guys about a month ago, after my best friend Johan had to go back to Malaysia.  He and I were the coolest guys in 7th grade at the Anglo-American school.  We both had long hair and played guitars.  We ruined his dad's speakers by playing our electric guitars through his stereo system.  We made up some songs and played at the school talent show and it blew everybody's minds.  But then something weird happened with this guy who was coaching Johan at tennis--some spy stuff--and his family had to leave Moscow right away.

Also, my dog got hit by a car at about the same time Johan moved away.  Duke was okay, but he had a splint on his leg and I had to stay home and watch him all the time, and carry him outside to go to the bathroom about a million times a day.  We live on the ninth floor and the elevator is broken half the time, so it was a lot of work.

I knew this Afghan kid Suliman who lived on the third floor, and we started hanging out in the parking lot while I waited for Duke to pee.  And then Chincu started hanging out with us too.  My parents knew Chincu's parents and we had been to some parties at their apartment on the other side of Kutusovzky Prospekt.  Most of the diplomats know each other and go to the same parties.

Suli is kind of square, but he looks normal and doesn't have a goofy accent or anything.  My mom is always talking about how handsome he is.  I don't know about all that, but his sisters are both foxes.  Sheena and Shima.  They don't wear those scarves on their heads or anything, and they both have long black hair and perfect skin and white teeth.  You can't tell it when they wear their dorky Russian school uniforms, but they're both almost as good-looking as Cheryl Tiegs and Nancy Wilson, who are the sexiest women in the world as far as I'm concerned.  But they're about 17 and 18 years old, which is way too old for me.  I never talk to Suli about what's going on in Afghanistan with those asshole Russians invading, but I asked my parents what's going to happen to him and his family when they go back home.  Nobody knows.  The Russians are such hypocrites.  I listen to Radio Moscow almost every night, and they always talk about the "imperialist" Americans, but they're the ones who go around taking over countries whenever they feel like it.  I heard that they were torturing Afghans by almost drowning them in shit-filled latrines.  I believe it too.

Chincu is a total dork.  I like him, but I'm kind of embarrassed when my American friends see me hanging around with him.  He's really tall and skinny, and he always wears long-sleeved shirts tucked into his pants, which he pulls way up around his neck.  And the worst thing is his hairdo: he puts it in a little bun, sticks a handkerchief over it, and then puts a rubber band around it.  He's Indian--a Sikh--which means he's not supposed to cut his hair or shave when he gets older.  So he has to put his hair into a ridiculous little ball which is like a training-turban.  His dad is massive--about six-foot-five, and he wears bright red turbans and has a big black beard.  His dad looks really cool--like he might whip out a massive sword and start doing some Sinbad stuff at any moment.  But Chincu just looks like a spaz.  And he is a spaz, too.  One time I ran into him in the underpass that goes under Kutuzovsky and he babbled for five minutes straight without taking a breath in that dorky Indian accent about something that happened in school; and then finally he goes, "Oh, by the way, hello!"  Plus he doesn't know anything about rock music--he likes Indian pop, which is the worst music you've ever heard.  But like I said, I still like the guy.

Chincu and Suli and I would play soccer in the parking lot, sometimes with the older Pakistani guys who lived on the other side of the building; or we would read Astrix comics and listen to records at my apartment.  One time we went to a movie at the Indian embassy, but it was just awful.  It was about a little kid and an elephant, and everyone was always breaking into song and doing these dances that I was embarrassed to even watch.  All the Indian kids loved it.

A couple weeks ago, Chincu comes over all excited and talking a mile a minute, as usual.  He says his friend from school can get us in to the Cosmos hotel and do I want to come.  I say yeah, why not.  The Cosmos is this humongous hotel that they built for the Olympics that are going to be here next year.  It's a big curved building made out of shiny gold metal over by that monument to the cosmonauts with the rocket on top.  It's really cool and modern looking.  It was designed by French architects.  My parents joke about France being one of the Soviet republics.

So that was when I first met Alec.  We all got together at my apartment on a Saturday morning and then took a taxi to the Cosmos.  My parents are really cool about letting me run around the city with my friends.  Everybody knows that the KGB are watching us all the time, and if any Russian ever messed with a diplomat, they would pretty much go straight to Siberia because it would make the Soviets look bad.  So we always feel safe.  The only thing my parents worry about is if I'll do something stupid that will make Americans look bad.

We get to the hotel, and the doorman says some stuff in Russian that I don't understand.  Alec answers him, and the rest of us kind of shuffle around by the door.  Alec seems pretty cool.  He wears jeans that aren't Levi's and boots that are kind of like Moon Boots but not the real thing.  He carries a black fake-leather Adidas bag, and he's got a shaggy blond afro.  The doorman lets us in and Alec slips him some cash.  He does it real smooth, so you hardly notice what's going on, the same way my dad slips Russian guys cigarettes or dollars. 

We go inside and it's the coolest building I've ever been in!  Everything is shiny and slick, and there are planets hanging down from the ceiling, and little lights everywhere that look like stars.  Except for some of the really old buildings, everything in Moscow is gray and blocky and dingy, usually with pictures or sculptures of stern-looking super-commies harvesting crops or working in factories.  But the Cosmos is like being in a real city in the West.  It's even better than Helsinki.  I've never been to New York, but I imagine this is what it's like.

We mess around in the lobby and go up and down the elevators, looking in rooms that are open until one of the cleaning ladies runs us out.  Then we go back to the ground floor and find the bowling alley.  It must be the only one in Moscow, and we have it to ourselves.  None of us have ever even bowled before, but we have the best time.  Everywhere we go, Alec pays somebody off and we get treated like bigshots.  There's a pool in the hotel too, and we all have our swimming gear in our backpacks.  Like the bowling alley, the pool is empty.  The hotel just barely opened, and it's not like there are many tourists in Moscow anyway.  Who would want to come here?

We goof around at the pool for probably two hours, until we start getting hungry.  It's about five o'clock and it's pitch dark out.  We go up to the Cosmos restaurant and tear into the buffet, our eyes all red from the chlorine.  Alec pays for everyone, of course.  There are maybe twenty people in the whole restaurant, which has about fifty tables.  I've never had food this good at a restaurant in Moscow.  Usually there's no reason to eat at a Russian restaurant.  There's a little cafe by our apartment, and it's had the same display in the window--a plate of greenish boiled eggs--since we moved here a year and a half ago.  And you couldn't even get eggs there if you wanted because the only things they have are stale pastries and tea.  That's typical.  But the Cosmos buffet has all kinds of good stuff, most importantly Chicken Kiev.  This is the first time I've had it, and I'm surprised when hot butter squirts out of the middle of the fried chicken breast and drips down my chin.  Then I go back to the buffet twice to get more.   When I finally can't eat anymore, I just lean back in my chair, all sleepy and warm and satisfied.  Chincu is still chattering, but the rest of us are just kind of smiling and laughing a little bit at nothing in particular.

This song says everything you need to know about Russia in the seventies:




Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Random Tuesday: My Racist Theories, Food, TV

After you read this, go to The Un Mom and get random

I'm playing the Random Tuesday Thoughts game again, because, really, what's more random than a Tuesday?  Its only distinction is that it's often the night when Guero-Americanos all over the world enjoy tacos from a kit while hollering gleefully at one another, "Pass the Old El Paso!"  In my house, though, we do it a little differently.  On Tuesdays, Dr. Mom works at a clinic in a neighborhood that is predominately Mexican-American.  (When the receptionists ask her patients which doctor they have, they answer, "La Chinita"--"The Little Chinese Girl" in English.)  There's a tamale cart outside her clinic, so she usually brings a bag of them home for lunch (the clinic is three minutes from our house).  That's our twist on taco Tuesday.  But today we're having leftover rice for lunch because we went to the Vietnamese market on Saturday and got coconuts and chrysanthemum greens (I totally just spelled chrysanthemum correctly on the first try!).  We stick the coconuts (young ones that come with the hairy outer skin already removed) in the fridge and then when they are chilled pierce them with a chopstick and a hammer, stick a straw in the hole, and suck down the delicious nectar.   Dr. Mom cooked up the greens last night with some pork, chicken broth, and fish sauce to make a wonderful, simple dish that looks like it should be good for you because it's mostly green.  In Vietnamese (at least the variation my wife's family speaks at home) there's no real name for different meals--they are all just called "rice."  It just occurred to me that that might be one of the reasons that her mom is always cooking a meal at any time of day.  If they had the concept of breakfast, lunch, and dinner, maybe they would only eat 3 meals a day.  Seriously--her mom keeps cooking as long as anyone else in the house is conscious.  Also in Vietnamese, there are no verb tenses or conjugations.  I have a theory about that too.  Vietnamese people are notorious for being late: we had to send out two sets of invitations to our wedding--one set to the non-Vietnamese guests with the actual start time; and one set to the Vietnamese guests (all 350 or so) with a start time half an hour earlier.  The concept of time is not emphasized in their language, so it is similarly disregarded in their lives.  Further confirmation of this theory (completely anecdotal of course) is that Vietnamese people who grow up speaking English don't have this lateness problem, by and large.  What is emphasized in Vietnamese is personal status.  Whereas the verb system is simple, the pronouns are incredibly complicated.  It's not just a matter of "he," "she," "you," etc.  Before using a pronoun, you have to analyze your relationship to the person you are addressing or talking about and then chose the appropriate tag.  If you botch this up, you will very likely offend someone.  If I want to ask if someone drank my beer, it might literally translate to, "Uncle-who-is-older-than-my-father drink beer of me in past, no?"  And if he's younger than my father, I would have to use a different pronoun.  My simplistic (yet absolutely accurate, I'm sure) theory on this is that the linguistic focus on hierarchy encourages a tendency toward honoring and (the sometimes ugly flip side) seeking social status.  Don't even get me started on the tonal system in Vietnamese.  It's the main reason I only know how to say like ten things in the language after twenty years of being with my wife.

I started out thinking I was going to write about TV in this post.  Specifically, my wife's new interest in "Dancing with the Stars" and "The Biggest Loser."  Since we haven't had TV for ten years, every time we're exposed to it, we're like creatures from outer space trying to make sense of this fascinating artifact and what it says about the society that generated it.  So Dr. Mom has been watching these shows on the internets, and I have been looking over her shoulder.  Then we have these discussions about this crazy new thing called "reality TV."  Our big revelation last night was that the element that motivates both viewers and participants (in different ways) is humiliation.  We should be freakin' media analysts. 

Friday, April 9, 2010

What Maya Angelou Doesn't Want You to Know: Poetry Is Easy

I have taught poetry to high school and college students, and I usually toe the English teacher line.  You know, "poetry enables the writer to pack ideas, imagery, music, and emotion onto the page more densely than does prose."  Then we beat the life out of some important poems from the olden days.

But the truth is that writing poetry (the modern kind that doesn't rhyme) is super-cakey.  Anyone can do it if they just follow these rules:
  1. Figure out what you want to say
  2. Write down what you want to say.  Don't worry about how one thought connects to the next--that's the reader's job!
  3. Polish it up.  If it seems banal, remove some words so that it makes less sense--this makes it seem profound.  Replace common words with words that have some kind of sonic impact and strong connotations.   Don't worry whether they fit in with your original idea; let the thesaurus be the wind beneath your wings!  A boring poem about a "knife" can become an exotic romance about a "scimitar."  Have you used too much punctuation?  Either throw it all out, or leave just a couple marks in random places to puzzle your reader.  Make sure you don't write all the way to the right margin: break your sentences into choppy fragments so that your reader knows this is a poem!
Let's try it!

I took some pictures of stuff I found outside my house (but within range of the baby monitor) while the girls were napping, and I was going to write a clever, jokey thing about how important it is to expose your kids to nature.  Then I decided that was too much work.  So now, I am going to write poetry about these pictures of nature until I get sick of it.  Then, I'm going to ask you to write some too!


My father-in-law,
who learned English mostly through hearsay
calls them dan-DEEL-yuns

With a shift in emphasis, he transforms the ignoble weed, 
a foppish Victorian
cartoon character,
into a forgotten Roman general

A golden invader
at the vanguard of the apocalypse;
sunshafts piercing his tawny carapace

So fearsome and beautiful
he is loathed and dreaded,
most ardently by those who admire him.
Thwarted by empyrean deceit
He drinks the poison


Alley Shitter

Do you feel shame,
or fear,
squatting behind my garage?

Were you surprised
that night,
the one that followed the day
when I installed
the motion detector lights?

Would you recognize me when we pass on the sidewalk?
Are you the kid with the cane and the backpack
who always wears the Pantera t-shirt?
Are you the middle-aged man who sifts through the dumpster
Tuesdays behind the apartments
leaving with one hand steering your bike and the other holding
Santa bags of aluminum and plastic?
Or are you asleep in the park during the day?
The tarpaper I left in the alley 
the roof of your creosote den

Do you feel shame?  Or,
with your back pressed against the yielding vinyl
of my neighbor's fence,
Do you chuckle,
imagining me yelling
Leave it!
As my dog fishes
your turd
from the weeds

Our springtime skin
is silent
Cool and dry

Voices near and
rumble under us
Windblown litter brushes past
but the beguiling paralysis

We dare not move
for the least rasp of skin and scale could break the spell
and send us
from our warmth
back to shelter

Now it's your turn!

See--super easy!  Why don't you take three seconds and write some poetry inspired by the rest of these pictures, and post it in the comments.  I will email your work to Maya Angelou, my close personal friend *cough*bullshit*cough*, and see which one she likes best.  Then I will buy the winner lunch or something.  Maybe I'll give you some slightly used baby clothes.

Feel free to remix or mashup my poems, or write a better one about the pictures I already poeticized.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Moscow '79: Pets from the Past

This was supposed to be a "Flashback Friday" entry, but I couldn't get it together in time.  You will probably notice that I have taken a break from writing about the epic romance that brought about Butterbean and Cobra.  I will continue at some point.

Moscow, 1979

Kutusovsky Prospect is nine lanes wide in front of our apartment complex.  There are four lanes going in either direction, and one right down the middle.  We call the middle lane the "Zil lane" because that's the brand name of the limousines that blast down the street in 100-mile-per-hour motorcades with a siren wailing on the one out front, carrying high-ranking officials to and from the Kremlin.

Duke only made it halfway to the Zil lane before he got clipped by a yellow Zhiguli.  I don't remember how he got back to the sidewalk, but he's in my arms and my red ski coat is soaked black with his blood.  I think I ran out into the street and scooped him up.  It's nighttime but the traffic is still steady.  Moscow drivers don't turn their headlights on in the city; they just rely on the streetlamps.  The driver is long gone.  The ground under my feet is the color of diesel smoke and red Sno-Cone.

The elevator is working for once, and it squeaks and grinds up to the ninth floor.  Duke is panting even though it's cold, and I keep saying it's okay boy, don't worry, it's gonna be okay.  I manage to get my coat off and wrap it around him.  Blood has soaked through onto my flannel shirt.

I kick the door to our apartment and it rattles in its frame.  My friend from across the hall opens it, first annoyed and then freaked out when she realizes what has happened.  She's been hanging out with me at our apartment, listening to records.  Her parents are at the same party as mine.  My sisters both go to boarding school in London because there's no high school for English speakers in Moscow.  My friend and I are in seventh grade so we go to the Anglo-American School.  She's kind of my girlfriend.

Mom and Dad are at a party at Spasso House, where the American Ambassador lives.  They have to go to parties and functions practically every night.  That's a big part of what diplomats do.  Sometimes we have parties at our house too, to show diplomats from other countries what America is like.  Sometimes we'll have people over for American holidays, or we'll show cowboy movies.  They don't show any good movies in the Russian theaters, but all of us Americans have projectors in our apartments, and we can check out movies from the embassy whenever we want.  I saw "Saturday Night Fever" even though it's an "R."  When we had people over for Thanksgiving, Mom made two turkeys, but Duke dragged one of them off of the counter and ate it on the kitchen floor.  Everyone was standing around watching; but if anybody got too close, Duke would growl and snap at them.  He ate pretty much the whole turkey.

My friend calls the Spasso House to try to get in touch with my parents.  There's a lot of talking but I don't really hear much.  Duke's eyes are kind of rolling back, and his tongue is hanging out.  My friend tells me that they're going to send a car from the embassy and take us to some vet that the receptionist from Spasso House knows.  It looks like the injury is just on Duke's front leg, but he's bleeding so much that I'm afraid he'll die.  I wrap the arm of my ski coat around his leg really tight.  The embassy is pretty close to our apartment, so we have to leave before my parents have time to get home.  There are only a few American families in our building, and all the parents are at Spasso House.  All the other families in the building are from India or Pakistan or Afghanistan and we don't know them very well.

I put Duke down by the elevator, all bundled up in my coat, and put on my felt-lined boots and my Russian fur hat and one of my sisters' ski jackets; and my friend and I go out to the street to wait for the driver.  Duke is still breathing fast, and he doesn't seem like he knows what's going on.  He doesn't respond to me when I talk to him.

We got Duke at the "Ptichka Rinok."  That means "Bird Market" in Russian.  We always call it the Pet Rinok, because they sell all kinds of animals there, not just birds.  There are dogs and cats, but also weird stuff like these rats that they use to make fur hats.  It's outside in a big kind of park.  Some of the vendors have big cages where they keep the animals; but guys who sell smaller animals just fill the pockets of their overcoats with whatever critters they've got.  The Pet Rinok is one of the only places where Soviet citizens can legally sell stuff for a profit, because all the regular stores are run by the government.  There's also a farmer's market--we just call that The Rinok--where people come from other republics like Georgia, with suitcases full of fruits and vegetables, and sell them for such high prices that they can pay for their transportation and still make a few rubles.  Aside from what you can get at The Rinok, pretty much the only produce you can buy is cabbage and potatoes and beets.  Diplomats can go to special grocery stores where we pay in dollars, and there's pretty good meat and packaged food; but still there are no good vegetables or fruits.  Every couple months, one American family gets to go to Helsinki.  When it's your turn, everyone expects you to bring back a suitcase full of iceberg lettuce and bananas to share with your neighbors.

Anyway, we got Duke last spring.  I think my parents must have felt bad for me after my first winter in Moscow, and that's why they finally let me get a dog, which I had been begging for since I first started talking, or so they tell me.  We picked Duke because he was cute and white and fluffy, with a curly tail.  My dad asked what kind of dog he was, and the lady said he was a Komondor.  We didn't have any idea what that meant until we looked it up in a book about dog breeds after we had already brought Duke home.  It turns out that Komondors grow up to be more than a hundred pounds, and their coats get all matted into cords like Bob Marley's hair except that it's white and reaches all the way to the ground.  My parents almost had a cow when they realized how big and crazy looking he was going to be, but I thought it was really cool.  It turns out that lady gypped us though, because Duke is almost full grown and only weighs about 30 pounds.

After we wait at the curb for maybe five minutes, Alexei the driver pulls up in a black Volga, right at the spot where the school bus usually stops to pick us up.  Alexei is really nice.  I can tell that he's worried about getting dog blood on the seats, but he doesn't say anything

Duke is really cute and fun to play with, but we can never get him to behave.  No matter what we do, he always craps in the house and chews stuff up.  We tried to lock him in my sister's room since she's away at school, because we thought he wouldn't crap in his own little space; but he shit in the room and tore the door apart to get out.  The best we can do is block off the hallway and let him sleep in there.  I have to clean up the shit every morning.  We have a maid that comes in almost every day, but she doesn't clean up dogshit.  She calls Duke "stupid Russian dog."  We get to have a maid, and I get private guitar and painting lessons all practically for free courtesy of the Soviet government.  That's because they like to have people in our apartment snooping around and reporting on what we're up to.  Duke also has a habit of rolling in anything he can find that stinks.  And there's plenty of stinky stuff along the streets here.  He especially likes dead fish, but anything dead and rotting will do.  He gets really dirty in the winter because the snow turns all slushy and black.  I have to give him a lot of baths. 

Alexei drives really fast for about 15 minutes to a part of town I don't recognize, and pulls down an alley of old wooden buildings lined with garbage and some cars that look like they haven't run for years, and have mostly been stripped down to their frames.  He parks and we get out. He bangs on a metal door.  A fat lady dressed like a nurse lets us in.

There's hardly any light in the little clinic, just a red glow coming from somewhere.  She yells at me in Russian and I understand some of what she's saying.  She motions for me to put the dog on a wooden table and hold him down.  Duke's not really struggling because he's in shock I guess.  While I'm holding him, the lady shaves all the fur off of his leg with clippers like you would see in a barber shop.  You can see that the gash goes from just above his paw to just below his shoulder.  It's not bleeding as much anymore.  Then she gets a can from a metal cabinet and dumps a bunch of white powder in the wound.  It seems like it takes about three minutes for her to sew up his leg and then make a splint out of a piece of cardboard and some bandage wrap.  And that's it.  She sends us back out into the alley, and Alexei drives us home.  Duke is calmer, but still staring at nothing.

My parents are home when we get back, and we try to get Duke cleaned up as much as possible.  I think I'll have to get a new ski coat, but my mom says she can save it.  I make a bed for myself on the floor next to Duke and go to sleep.

Duke and me at a WWII memorial outside of Moscow.  The truck is a Katyusha rocket launcher

My family outside our prestigious diplomatic residence at Kutusovsky 14.  I'm the shortest one.

Bathing Duke in our luxurious bathroom

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Photo Essay: Large Dog Drags Babies Through Park

As you may know, our dog Stella, is a fancy dog. She is a Greater Swiss Mountain Dog, to be exact. A "Swissy" for short. When our last dog got sick, we thought we were going to have to pay several thousand dollars for surgery. Alas, we had to put her down since her condition was inoperable. We thought it would cheer us up to blow some of the money we would have spent on surgery buying the coolest kind of dog we could find.

Although Stella has many problems, which I have discussed and documented here and here, there is one thing that she's really good at--drafting. This is an activity that weird "dog people" do with their large breed dogs (Rottweilers, Swissys, Newfoundlands, St. Bernards, etc.). I am not quite weird enough to join any drafting clubs or enter Stella in competitions. I am just weird enough to walk her around the neighborhood pulling an all-terrain Li'l Red Wagon filled with groceries, water jugs, bricks, my wife, puppies, other people's kids.

Since Butterbean and Cobra are still too small to ride safely in the Li'l Red Wagon, I had to figure out a way to attach Stella's drafting rig to the Cougar II (rrraaawwr) stroller. The versatile Cougar II can be used as a stroller, jogger, bike trailer, or cross-country ski trailer. Somehow they neglected to offer a kit for hooking it up to draft animals. So I had to McGyver it.

Here's what I started with

The stroller parts and drafting rig are actually bolted together. The bungee cord is for added safety. Just in case. I'm sure the Chariot company would be fine with my modifications.

We ended up going for about a 2-mile ride. Stella is at her best when she's working. The more she works, the less anxious she is.

Regal looking beast, no?

Maybe not so much from this angle. Her urinary incontinence (a fairly common trait in her fancy breed) is almost under control thanks to hormone therapy and a drug called PPA. Still, better safe than sorry.

The czarinas slumber after a nice long carriage ride. This is why we are reluctant to put them in separate cribs.

Here's some low-quality video of the hijinx:



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