Wednesday May 24, 2023
I'm sorry, Tainan, I didn't do you right. When I lived in Taiwan, circa 1988-90, I never visited; and for this trip I showed up the morning after going to the Lukang ER with breathing problems, possibly bronchitis exacerbated by humidity and pollution, and as we walked around on the first afternoon, generally a fun, heady time in a new city, I could feel my chest constricting again. It was another hot, humid day, with low clouds and heavy pollution, and I was not good. When you concentrate on drawing a breath, it's hard to pay proper attention to what's going on around you.
And that was you, Tainan.
Our first stops included yet another temple (temples in Taiwan are like churches in Europe: amazing until the 15th one—unless, of course, you do a deep dive on the rituals and the deities, which I obviously have not); an arthouse theater famed for its posters, and being run, on this day, by an older woman who seemed very, very tired of foreigners, or maybe just customers, or maybe just me (she was not very helpful in telling us what movies were playing when, or even selling her wares, but we did buy a postcard depicting a 2006 film festival for Ang Lee); and Xinhua Old Street, which we never got to. Instead, on a narrow backstreet, we noticed a tiny restaurant selling rice waffles, realized we hadn't really eaten lunch, and went in for what we thought was a snack. It turned out to be dinner. The people inside were great, we talked movies, and I talked up Edward Yang. (He's less-known in Taiwan than he should be.) They were the ones who warned us away from Xinhua, saying it wasn't really happening on a late Monday afternoon. You needed the weekend for it, they said. So we opted for a postprandial visit to an old Japanese dept. store, had trouble finding it, couldn't find the “sweeping staircase” the guide book told us not to miss, but did find another temple in its backyard. Because temples are everywhere. All amid the heat and humidity and pollution.
In the middle of the night, things got worse for me. Despite the meds, my cough turned wet, and I thought, “OK, maybe the next day do nothing? Just rest? Let Patricia explore Tainan alone?” Which is what happened. I stayed inside. I figured just miss out on that 16th temple and see how my lungs took it. They took it so-so. At the end of the day I didn't feel any better, plus my self-imposed containment in the beautiful Grand Banyan Hotel made me feel a bit like the protagonist in Amor Towles' “A Gentleman in Moscow.” Sans the gentleman part.
Since that didn't work I decided fuck it, just dive in our third and final day. And you responded, Tainan! The sky was clear, the air clearer, and we took a cab to the Anping district to see three sites on Patricia's hit parade: the Kaitai Temple (my 16th, but really pretty great), the Anping old Dutch fort (rebuilt by the Japanese), and the Anping Old Street (which we had trouble finding and don't even know if we really found it). That said, I liked the ceramic lions with the knives in their mouths adorning doors to ward off evil spirits. (I could've used one.) But by late morning we felt wrung out. There's a yin-yang/answered prayers quality to Taiwan weather. When it's wet or cloudy, you're like “C'mon, how about some sun?” Then the sun appears like a hot flame and you're like “Good god, no.” So we decided to escape the heat with an early afternoon movie at a posh multiplex, “Guardians of the Galaxy, Volume 3,” and ... I was reminded again of the idiocy, or maybe the grifterism, but at least the myopia, of those who say America isn't respected abroad. I'm not even talking about the fact that I could see a dozen Hollywood movies on the other side of the world. It's what was in the many-storied lobby. It was just littered with Americana. You know what you could buy there? A drawing of Christopher Reeve as Superman saying, in English, “I'm here to fight for truth, and justice, and the American way.” That was for sale. In Tainan. I mean, maybe “respected” is the wrong word, but it really is shocking how much of us is everywhere, and how much of America doesn't seem to realize this.
We didn't really do dinners right in Tainan. The first day was the rice-waffle thing, the second—during my self-containment day—was at a way too air-conditioned second-floor cafe at the Grand Banyan, but at least on that third day I sought out, with help from a concierge, an eat-street in Tainan, and we wound up sitting on little plastic stools on the sidewalk eating great food. It was a nothing place that was everything. That was nice, Tainan. Even if I didn't you right, at least we did that.
Friday May 19, 2023
A Different Kind of Taiwan Sightseeing
For a time during this trip, I began to wonder why I'd ever left Taiwan. I never stood out anywhere but I stood out here (mostly positively). Girls I didn't know never flirted with me anywhere but they flirted with me here (always positively). Taipei is a 24/7 city with so many opportunities, and we arrived on a sky-blue day with low humidity and everyone was just so nice. Why did I ever leave?
And then I began to have trouble breathing.
It began as a dry lump in my throat in the middle of the night late last week. Every day it got worse, but every day I kept hoping it was some other thing. A temporary asthmatic reaction to the pollution and humidity? The higher altitudes at Sun Moon Lake constricting my lungs? Maybe when I got used to the air again, and/or when we came down from the mountain foothills, I'd be OK.
Last Sunday in Lukang dashed those hopes. I woke up at 11:30 PM with coughing spasms that wouldn't stop and thought, “This has to be bronchitis.” That afternoon, when we'd arrived at the Union House Hotel in Lukang, I'd mentioned at the front desk that my asthma was bothering me and did they know of any nearby pharmacies? They said, basically, sure, but pharmacies don't dispense asthma meds, which, sure, I knew, but I was hoping to roll those dice abroad. Bummer. One of the staff later told us, sotto voce, that if I went to the hospital I'd be able to get medicine there. We knew that, too, but it was nice that he mentioned it.
After I couldn't stop coughing that night, after I began to cough up stuff, we decided to take the midnight ER route.
As emergency rooms go, the Lukang Christian Hospital wasn't bad: quiet and efficient, without a trace of blood or drama. I told them my problem in my shitty Chinese, and they asked for my passport. I thought I would just get meds—prednisone is what I was hoping for—but they hooked me up to a IV for an hour or two to stabilize me. Patricia sat by my bedside. Also in the room: a quiet elderly woman with a quiet elderly man by her bedside; an unconcious kid, late teens or early 20s, with scrapes around his face like he'd been in a biking accident, being watched over by what I assumed was his father. Patricia remembered a businessman. It was a different kind of sightseeing.
After about two hours, they gave me meds. I was hoping for that prednisone six-pack but got a three-day regimen: 12 prednisone pills four times a day; nine dextromethorphan pills (cough suppressant) three times a day; and six ketoifen pills (antihistimine) two times a day. It was nice to get, and not expensive (the whole ER trip, with meds, cost about $US50), but I was dubious of the secondary meds. But I was hopeful about the prednisone.
Ironically I'd just been telling Patricia about the first time I began feeling the effects of asthma. It was spring 1988 and I'd just returned to Taipei from Thailand, one of those required six-month sojourns for foreigners who arrived on student visas, and I was finally getting around to visiting one of the great sites of the country, the National Palace Museum, with an American friend and my Chinese girlfriend Janet. As we were walking through the exhibits, I began to feel ... wrong. I was having trouble catching a breath. My chest felt tight. I didn't get it. It was hard to process. Why couldn't I ... breathe? I told the others I needed to leave. We wound up in a garden area, where I felt a little better, and we took some pictures there, clowning around, with Janet wearing my high school letterman's jacket. (I was 25, had recently graduated from college, but I still brought it with me to the other side of the world? How odd. But she loved wearing it.) Outside, I still felt off, and some part of me felt the best solution to my off-ness was to keep moving—as if the problem was surrounding me rather than me. In the fight-or-flight reaction, I guess I tend to land on the latter. (“As if you couldn't tell that by the everything about me.” — John Mulaney)
When it really got bad, later at my apartment in Tien Mu, I stumbled from my bedroom to the bathroom and started a shower. I didn't get in the shower, I just thought the moisture would help. No idea why I thought this was a good idea. Because the vaporizor that used to sit in my sister's bedroom when she was sick when she young? It's scary. It's scary not being able to breathe. And then for six months my breathing problem was misdiagnosed as bronchitis that wouldn't go away.
I told Patricia all of this while we were visiting the National Palace Museum on our first full day in Taipei. It felt like I was talking about the past but it turns out I was also talking about the future.
It's nearly a week later now and the Lukang meds only did so much; then it was back to the same bad feeling. This morning, Saturday morning, after another coughing jag, and just tired of feeling as if I was drawing each breath through a pipe cleaner, we went to the hospital nearest our hotel in central Taipei. This ER was a little dirtier, a little more chaotic. No IV this time, but a chest X-ray (negative). They still gave me that tube to inhale, with vapor coming out the other end. In Lukang I thought it was a test of some kind but it's actually supposed to stabilize my breathing. Here, maybe because the entryway was busy, I was placed outside in the driveway for the 10-15 minutes the experience lasted. Afterwards the nurse asked if I felt better, and I shrugged and waggled my hand. So I got more meds but it's basically the same shit as before—but without the prednisone. So it goes. Now I'm resigned to waiting to get back to the States before getting better.
How sad is that? The second half of my original stay in Taiwan in 1988 was restricted by my breathing problems, and now that's true for the second half of our trip 35 years later. I still don't know whether it's bronchitis or the environment—or both. I would love to come back to this lovely country when I'm healthy, but I don't even know if that's possible.
Thursday May 18, 2023
A Birthday Celebration in Lukang
Part of the 18th century Longshan Temple in Lukang.
In planning our Taiwan trip, Patricia often relied upon the website Rome2Rio to figure out which place to go when, for easiest access to the next where, but there was a bit of a glitch with our Sun Moon Lake —> Lukang leg. Turns out it would've required four different trains taking more than four hours. Or maybe we'd already decided back in February to go the way we went—a 90-minute cabride, door to door for NT$3,000, or about US$100. It was so easy and cheap that I felt guilty handing over the money, though he cabbie seemed happy enough.
I was nursing a constricted chest along the way, stifling coughs but not well, taking in the scenery, such as it was. After Puli, there wasn't much to see, and a few blocks from our hotel in Lukong, the streets looked busy and ordinary— the pell-mell of gray Taiwan traffic and faded vertical signage. I'd begun to feel off at the Grand Hotel, a kind of dry lump in my throat in the middle of the night that went away with the morning but then returned the following evening. Friday morning, on the way to Sun Moon Lake, I felt exhausted, and that night I felt tight-chested and constricted and began dry coughing, but again during the day it went away. Still not sure what it is. It's not COVID—I tested this morning in the bathroom in Ita Thao, and the C line was strong and the T line nothing. Is it simply a bad reaction to the humidity and pollution? The mountain air of Sun Moon Lake? Bronchitis? When we visited Copenhagen in 2017, I thought for a time I had bronchitis but that turned out to be a temporary reaction to diesel fumes. I'm hoping for the same here but I'm worried. My body feels like an ocean beach draining of water before the big wave hits.
Even so, our day in Lukang was great. We had three must-sees—the Longshan Temple, the Lukang Old Street, and the Mazu Temple—and each turned out to be serendipitous. Longshan was just a block from our hotel, ancient and beautiful, and everyone there lovely as they helped us make an offering to our mothers; we stumbled into the Old Street, a winding, narrow, centuries-old commercial district, without even trying, and where we bought fun stuff we didn't need; and we never made it into the Mazu Temple. That was the serendipity. We happened to arrive in Lukang on the 23rd day of the third month of the lunar new year, which is Mazu's birthday, and there was an insane celebration outside his temple involving firecrackers, a parade, hulking men with painted Mazu faces, and three scantily clad, high-heeled women on floats. Representing temptation? Who knows? The Mazu Pilgrimmage makes the top 15 sites to see in the Lonely Planet guide, and we just stumbled upon it.
Not knowing what the hell was going on, I asked some of the locals if this was an every weekend thing or something special. Shi mei yige zhoumo hishi tebiede? They told me it was tebie. “Shi tade shengri,” one man told me. “It's his birthday!”
Anyway, talk about good luck. Shame it didn't last.
Wednesday May 17, 2023
The Right Side of Sun Moon Lake
Sun Moon Lake: beautiful scenery, a scratched-out name.
When we first arrived at Ita Thao, the indigenuous village on the wrong side of Sun Moon Lake in central Taiwan, it seemed like a good place to decompress. In most places when you're on vacation, it doesn't feel like much of a vacation because you're almost breathless with a fear of missing out. You have to go here and there, and here, and quickly, because you only have so much time and when will you ever be back? Ever? Get going! You don't want to miss it! But there's not much to miss in Ita Thao. It's a little sleepy. Or at least it was on the Friday afternoon in mid-May that we arrived. It's less “What do we do next?” than “What is there to do?” Visit this temple, go on that tram, take that boatride, mai dongxi. But that feeling is kind of nice. It almost felt like a gift.
Our main activity, on our first afternoon, was turning down the countless offers of xiami jiu, alcohol fermented from millet, being proferred in little plastic cups by little old ladies from every other storefront along the main walkway. Learning what it was, I expected something like sake but it tasted very sweet. “Hen tien,” I said, to which the woman responded that yes, it was for dessert. (“Tien dien.”) Or maybe she said it was a dessert drink. Either way, she thought this a positive while I did not, though I tried to hide that thought. But it turns out xiami jiu is infused with other flavors so it can be all kinds of things. I tried some of those the next day and liked them more. They weren't bad for millet.
Since Sun Moon Lake is such a tourist destination for the Taiwanese, I expected easier access but it's a bit of a trek to get there. Well, a “trek” if you're a direct-flight guy like I am. (Yes, I'm spoiled.) It's basically Taipei —> Taichung by train (1 hour), and from the Taichung train station you pick up the bus to Sun Moon Lake (2 hours). “That was easier than I thought,” Patricia said as we bumped along in the front of the bus. “We're not there yet,” I said. And we weren't. The bus stopped at just one town around Sun Moon Lake—on the exact opposite side from where we needed to be. There was some confusion, too, about how to get us to our side, but in the end it was just a local bus. And that's how we wound up desposited near a construction site in the middle of nowhere. If it had been a movie comedy, somewhere you would've heard a cow lowing.
Since we knew our hotel room had a lake view, we started walking toward the lake. To be honest, our Apple maps told us that, but we would've figured it out eventually.
“A lake view doesn't mean it's on the lake,” Patricia warned me as we walked.
“I know,” I said.
Every hotel lodging is like a blind date. The photos look OK but then you get there and you're like “Yeah, not quite.” So Patricia was a little worried as we walked up the road and nothing looked particularly great. I think she was less worried for her than me. She's game, while I'm the worst person to travel with. I hate studying up on places, I hate having to choose this or that hotel from this or that bunch of photos four months in advance; but then when we get there I complain. I'm the person who didn't vote in the 2016 election bitching about Trump. (Note: I definitely voted in the 2016 election.)
Worse, we were coming from the Grand Hotel, and what doesn't pale in comparison? In the end, and this is kind of awful to admit, we were staying in one of the nicest rooms in Ita Thao and it was just kinda OK for me. It was quirky: long and narrow, with a papier-mache deer head mounted on the wall, a top floor balcony, and a round bed like in a romance movie. The bathtub and toilet/sink were separated by a sheet of glass, but so was the entire bathroom. The wall between the toilet and bed, in other words, was made of glass, in case your big deal was watching your loved one take a dump. But it was a desired room. The hotel had a sandwich board out front, with shots of the rooms, and ours was the big picture on top, drawing admiring looks and comments from passersby. One little girl pointed at it and said, “Hao piaoliang!” So pretty! “Yi dien dien,” I said. A little. (Yes, I'm fucking spoiled.)
Oddly, there's no swimming at Sun Moon Lake. Well, once a year, in September I think. A race. Otherwise, no. The official explantions include all the boats on the lake, the fact that the water is very silty, and that it's used for drinking. (Which doesn't explain all the boats.) On our one full day there, we took one of those boats to the other side—the place where the Taichung bus had deposited us. At first, that spot didn't seem like much, either. More shops bursting with stuff no one needs. More gray, soggy concrete. But as we walked around we saw signs for the Plum Lotus Garden, which sounded nice; then we saw a sign for Church of Christ and went there. And in this manner we kept walking part of the lake. Here another pagoda, there another huge metal book with Chinese characters chiseled in.
Back in the day, we found out, this place, this side, was the retreat for Chiang Kai-shek when he needed to rest up from the burdens of authoritarian office. That's why the Church of Christ: It was built in 1971 so he and Madame Chiang would have a place of worship in their mostly Buddhist/Taoist country. When I first came to Taiwan 35 years ago, his son, Chiang Ching-kuo, was still in power, and Chiang himself was still revered 12 years after his death, but some of the shine was beginning to come off. In the intervening years it came off. And his name began to come off of everything, including the international airport where we landed, now called Taoyuan, while his statues—which were everywhere in the late 1980s—began to come down. Not torn down, like Saddam's in Iraq or Mussolini's in Italy. Just removed. Many, I read, weren't destroyed but simply placed in a garden in Daxi, where he and his son have mausoleums, and now that garden itself is a tourist attraction with more than 200 Chiang statues standing and preening mostly for the other statues of Chiang. In some ways, it's a better fate for a dictator than mere destruction. Your pretensions wind up comic. It's like “Ozymandius” reimagined by Harold Ramis.
At the church, as diplomatically as possible, I asked our guide what the Taiwanese people thought of Chiang now, and, as diplomatically as possible, she answered. She said that before people thought of him as a god, and now they think of him as a human being. I liked that answer. It's full of the foibles of all of us. But it's not quite the answer. Seeing him as a human being would mean being able to forgive his faults as we forgive our own; but then Chiang's faults were many and long-lasting and painful for others, and so there's still anger about it all, particularly from native Taiwanese. On several of the metal plaques around the lake, for example, his name, and only his name, has been scratched off.
The second (and last) stop on the boat trip was at an old Falun Dafu/Falun Gong temple, which made a lot of sense when a lot of Mainland Chinese tourists were coming to Sun Moon Lake. They could be informed about what the CCP was doing to the movement. But few Mainland Chinese were coming now. Apparently there are restrictions. It's not encouraged. “Hen xiaode,” shopkeepers says when I ask about Mainland Chinese tourists. “Meiyo le.”
There are a lot fewer western tourists than I anticipated, too, so we stood out. We were the only westerners, for example, in both restaurants we ate at in Ita Thao. Nothing high-end, just family-run places (one Chinese, one Thao), with a mounted TV going, white fourmica tables, tissues for napkins, and good food and cold beer. Our last night there, out on the dock, a young girl played piano and sang, while scores of Chinese kids kept tossing lighted thingamajigs into the dark sky. I guess it was a toy sold at the nearby shops. You could rubber-band it or just toss it. I don't know if there was a goal involved—there seemed none—just to try and toss it as high as you could without it falling into the lake. I didn't see any fall into the lake, I just watched those lighted thingamajigs going up and down, up and down, to squeals of laughter. The air was soft, and there was an occassional drop of rain, and I felt peaceful. It was a nice moment at the tail-end of a worldwide pandemic that kept us apart for years. It was nice to be back together again.
Monday May 15, 2023
Taipei Hui Lai
The Grand Hotel lobby in Taipei: “Mad Men” on steroids.
As I was packing for our trip to Taiwan, I thought of Nathan Zuckerman, Philip Roth's alter ego in the Zuckerman trilogy. In the first novel, The Ghost Writer, which takes place when Zuckerman was a budding “short story” writer, he visits his mentor E.I. Lonoff in the goyisher New England woods, loaded down with a typewriter and enough paper to write the Great American Novel should the idea come to him on the train. After his late 1960s success with “Carnovsky” (read: “Portnoy”), and his father's death-bed curse, he travels again, in The Anatomy Lesson, this time loaded down with pills and medications for illnesses and pains that may be psychosomatic but may simply be his body wearing down.
When I first arrived in Taiwan in October 1987, I too was loaded down with writerly stuff, an electric typewriter, in case the Great American Novel should come to me during my year abroad. (Spoiler alert: didn't.) This month I returned to Taiwan for the first time in 32 years, loaded down not with the burden of dreams but the burden of age:
- two inhalers for asthma (diagnosed age 25)
- metrogel and erythromicin 2%H20 for rosacae (age 30)
- omeprazole for acid reflux (age 51)
- levothyroxin for hypothyroidism (age 52)
- Xanax (age 53)
(Yes, my early 50s were not good.)
Plus, of course, all the other accoutrements of trying to look OK and not offend the world: razor, shaving cream, lotion, shampoo, hair gel, deodorant. I was shaving the other morning, and thought of the line Brad Pitt says to a shaving (and aged) Robert Redford in “Spy Game”: “Why do you even bother?”
Plus I brought things I couldn't imagine bringing 35 years ago: COVID tests and masks for that worldwide pandemic that's still hanging around.
Since arriving in Taipei I've thought a lot about an essay I wrote for (I believe) a University of Minnesota publication. I think I'd promised the editor I'd write something about living abroad, and after a few months sent something off, and it was published, and it was full of the gripes of a privileged foreigner living in a strange land for the first time. I think it began “If you're looking for adventure abroad, try crossing the street in Taipei,” or something similar, and it got worse.
What I think about Taiwan now is how nice everyone is. Immediately.
At the airport information desk, a woman was about to go on break, putting up a sign saying the desk was temporarily closed, and I forget what I said, something cheeky in Mandarin, and the woman laughed and came around and helped, and not only pointed out where to get the MRT train to Taipei but actually walked us there. Then she waited to make sure we'd make it through the turnstiles. At the Taipei train station, Patricia paused to look at her travel papers for where we were staying, and another woman stopped to ask if she needed help. Outside, we couldn't quite fathom the cab system, so a man helped us flag one down. The whole Confucian thing, “When friends come from far away, it is indeed a pleasure,” is still strong here.
When I was young, too, I had very little money. I arrived at the wrong time, October, when teaching gigs at the bigger bushibans had already been handed out, and I scrambled as I looked for places to teach ESL and study Chinese and live. I chose everything wrong. I studied at Guo Yu Ri Bao rather than Shi Da, where most of the foreigners studied; I wound up living way north in Tien Mu rather than in a more central location; and I taught at little bushibans because they were the only ones that would take my late-arriving ass. I remember frequently riding the bus, strap-hanging mostly, back to Tien Mu at night after another few measley hours of teaching, and passing the Grand Hotel, the majestic, bright-red, pagoda-like hotel commissioned by Chiang Kai-shek so he could host world leaders who mostly never arrived.
And now we were staying there. Our first two nights in Taiwan were at the Grand Hotel.
I'll say this: “grand” doesn't quite cut it. I thought in the intervening years, with Chiang on the outs, it might have become run down, but it's the opposite. Its opulence has opulence. There seemed to be five people waiting on us at every turn, suited up, polite, white-gloved. There's an Olympic-sized, eight-lane outdoor swimming pool we were able to use, and which never didn't have a few lanes, if not most lanes, free. There were tennis courts. The hotel has four restaurants, numerous gimcrack-y shops, a barber shop, and even a little store for stamps. Yes: stamps. There's a “Prestige Lounge,” a “Business Center,” an “International Reception Hall,” and even a “Breastfeeding Room.” In the lobby, at the foot of the grand red-carpeted staircase, a roped-off 1974 BMW E9 was on display. After dinner on the second night, we descended to classical Chinese music, which turned out to be not recorded but live—two women, a violinist and pianist, playing exquisuitely. Our final morning, we ate at their buffet-style breakfast, where there must've been 100 items on offer: from three types of breakfast cereal, to croissants and scones, to different types of fruits, to eggs and pancakes, to all manner of Chinese and Japanese food. Our favorite was the black sesame baozi.
And the rooms! Good god, Huge, with polished wood floors, a desk worthy of signing an international treaty on, and a balcony that looked out over the city. Patricia felt the whole thing was like “Mad Men” on steroids. I figured we'd been placed there by error, and it would soon be corrected, and we'd be shown the door like the imposters we were. “Oh sorry, you're not supposed to be in this Grand Hotel, you're supposed to be in that one.”
And it was all so very, very quiet.
Not the lobby. The lobby was forever bustling, often with tour groups, but on our floor, the sixth, we hardly saw anyone. It felt as empty and silent as the hotel in “The Shining.” The last morning, Patricia did manage to see another person on one of the other 15 balconies near ours, but that was our one human contact on the floor we stayed on. And we were hardly paying exorbitant prices. To be honest, I don't know how they make it work. I don't know how they don't go under.
At the stamp store, I asked the attendant, as politely as possible, if people still collected stamps, and she said, “Oh yes, Chinese people, particularly Mainland Chinese people.” “Oh, so you get a lot of guests from Mainland China?” I asked. “Before,” she said, “very much. But now, very little.” I got the sense that Mainland China had cut back its flights to Taiwan? Not sure if it was a policy initated by COVID and maintained, or by Xi prior to COVID. “So the guests now are mostly Taiwese people?” I asked. She nodded. “Taiwan ren.”
Is it all a little sad? On the veranda level, next to the stamp shop, there's a wall of framed photos of visiting dignitaries and celebrities. The hotel opened in 1952 and Pres. Eisenhower visited in 1960—the first sitting U.S. president to do so. And the last. LBJ visited but in 1961 but as vice president. Bill Clinton visited but as governor of Arkansas. I saw no photos of Nixon (who went to Mainland China) or Carter (who recognized Mainland China). There were shots of visiting celebrities: Elizabeth Taylor, Chow Yun Fat, Gong Li, the cast of “Eat Drink Man Woman.” There's something about it that breaks your heart. They planned an elaborate party but few came. But they're still so polite. You, my friend, who have come from far away, yes, even you, are indeed a pleasure.
Thursday May 11, 2023
A War Memorial For a War That's Not a Memory
The Big Three (shitty version)
6-25 and 7-27 are just dates in the U.S., but in South Korea they resound with as much meaning as December 7th or November 11th. Or, yes, 9/11. They are the dates the Korean War began and ended—and ended, I should add, with an armistice that the South didn't even sign since it didn't agree with it. Both dates are all over the War Memorial of Korea, a museum in Seoul that isn't just dedicated to the Korean War but to the history of all Korean wars—to, in a way, the creation of the country through war. Befitting a country technically still at war, its tone isn't just somber but semi-martial.
The third day of our trip, Patricia and I walked there from our hotel in the north (no double meaning intended by that) and kind of came in by the back door (ditto), so we missed the grandeur of a proper entrance. We missed most of the huge armaments out front. We saw them in the end. They are stunning and sad.
Inside, even though there's an exhaustive amount of history there, for a time, we had difficulty finding that, too. (I'm beginning to think it's us.) I guess we were distracted by the tiger tanks and suspended fighter planes—as well as Syngman Rhee's Cadillac—on the basement level. But eventually we found it: on the other side, along the wings.
I have to admit: Museums can be a grind. You're walking at a slow pace, trying to absorb a wealth of information. It shouldn't be exhausting but it is. We spent a lot of time reading about the Three Kingdoms period: Silla, Goguryeo and Baekje, which, in the early part of the first Millennium, lived in peace—until they didn't. Has a movie been made about the end of this period—when Silla, backed against the wall, alllied itself with the Tang Dynasty of China, and wound up defeating the others; and then, when the Tang tried to take the peninsula, re-allied with its fallen enemies to beat back China? All of it felt very cinematic to me. Not to mention relevant. History keeps repeating itself.
Once we got all the clashes of the second Millennium, I allowed myself to slip through a bit faster. One millennium at a time, Erik.
Other thoughts as we made the rounds:
- Almost all the big moments that happened in the Korean War happened in the second half of 1950.
- Gen. Douglas Macarthur comes off better here than he tends to do in the States. Maybe my memory is faulty, but in the U.S., the late 1950 push beyond the 38th Parallel toward China is viewed as a Macarthur error that gave the Chinese an excuse to enter the war. Here, it's credited to Rhee with the additional implication that the Chinese would've entered anyway. It was necessary, the Koreans are saying, even if it didn't work.
- There's a display for the medical personnel of the Korean War but not even a glimmer of a mention of “M*A*S*H,” one of the most popular TV shows in American history, a show that lasted three times longer than the fighting itself. The ommission feels purposeful. I doubt the show was even broadcast in Korea. Much of it was Americans complaining about the futility of war, about the futility of that war (a stand-in for Vietnam in many ways), all of which would be like telling South Koreans in the 1970s that their lives don't matter.
- As Vietnam War veterans had the MIA issue, South Koreans have the kidnapping of 80k people (intellectuals, technicians, etc.) when the North occupied Seoul in the early part of the war. There are several displays about this. It's a huge emotional issue and I didn't even know it was a thing.
The rest of our day wasn't as good as the War Memorial. It's a recommended stop for anyone visiting Seoul.
We signed the armistice then forgot 7/27; they didn't and didn't.
Monday May 08, 2023
Twins Win! Twins Win! In Seoul
A burly Asian bear bats against the hairiest man in all of Korea.
“Your wife is a saint.”
That was my sister's reaction when she found out that our first full day in Seoul, South Korea, I took my wife to a KBO League baseball game at Jamsil Stadium. In my defense: Patricia was more than on board. After my initial suggestion, she kept pushing for it. And even after no one seemed able to help us get tickets online, and even though we didn't know enough about the subway system to navigate our way there, and even when the cab rider seemed totally confused about where he was taking us, and why, she was game.
So how does Korean baseball differ from American baseball?
- Teams aren't associated with cities or states—not even sure how you'd do that in a country this small—but with corporations. In the game we saw Sunday afternoon, the Doosan Bears hosted the LG Twins. I don't know Doosan or LG but they're big here. The corporations, I mean.
- Fans sit in sections associated with rooting interests—like in high school football. That's because the stadium is actually the home stadium for both teams. I guess they just take turns as to who's the home team? When we bought tickets an hour before game time, the ticket-seller told us that the only seats available were in the left- or right-field bleachers. I said that was fine—either one. She looked confused, then asked which team we liked. Being from Minnesota, I went with the Twins, which is how we wound up in the left-field bleachers. Pretty much all the left side of the field was for the “visiting” fans.
- Both teams have cheerleaders! The Bears' cheerleaders were dressed like variations of Goldilocks. Or maybe they were anime characters? Or K-Pop stars? The Twins cheerleaders were dressed like cheerleaders, though they made a costume change midway through to another variation of cheerleader: gold outfit to black outfit, I believe. They had more to cheer about, too, it turned out.
- The fans know the cheers. They sing songs for their players and their team throughout the game. I mean, every inning. Several times an inning. In unison. With hand gestures. It's amazing.
- There doesn't seem to be much disparagement of the other side, just encouragement for your side. We were sitting with a couple from Belgium, and that's what the man, Marcelo, noticed immediately. Because it was so unlike European futbol. And he's right. It was all positivity. Nary a boo. This may sound odd coming from the “Yankee suck” guy, but I really, really loved it. It also felt very Korean.
- You're kind of stuck in your section. We went into the left field gate entrance and then were pretty much blocked from going anywhere else. Which meant there was only one place to buy refreshments, and there was no place to buy memorabilia. I wanted to get a Twins jersey, maybe their No. 51, but had no opportunity to do so. For teams literally owned by corporations, they don't do a great job at maximizing profit.
Otherwise, yes, it's pretty much the same game: three up, three down, nine innings, safe/out, replay challenges. The game went longer than current MLB games are going, so maybe they're not using the pitcher/hitter timers yet. It was also a blowout: 11-1, Twins. I did notice that the Twins' leadoff hitter, No. 51 (in honor of Ichiro? Is he a thing here?), left the game midway—I assume because it was a blowout—and was replaced by a No. 52, who was batting .000 with zeroes everywhere. I assumed a rookie. I did a lot of assuming that afternoon.
The refreshments are mostly the same, though the hot dog I ordered came bunless, with only ketchup as an option, and there were packaged seaweedy things I really should've tried. I got Patricia popcorn, which turned out to be kettle corn, which she liked better than American kettle corn because it was less sweet. Too late I saw a dude eating from an amazing contraption: fries and chicken nuggets in a tray that was the lid to his beer. Everything in one place.
They do the between-inning entertainments like we do. One was a dance-off between kids who couldn't dance. That seemed ... awkward. Another was simply called “Let's Dance!” and encouraged people to do so by putting the camera on them. This when the home-team Bears were down by 9 or 10 and there was little for Bears fans to dance about. Reminded me of '90s-era “Bad Dancing” at the Kingdome. (“And now back to Bad Baseball at the Kingdome.” — Mike Busick.)
There were a lot of foreigners in our area—not just us and the Belgian couple—almost as if it was planned? No idea. But it was fun sitting with the Belgian couple. Neither had seen a baseball game, so once again I tried to explain this insane sport from the ground up. They seemed to get most of it. Even better, the woman totally helped me with my understanding of the Korean language. I assumed it was a pictoral or ideogrammatic language, like Chinese, but Koreans actually use an alphabet for their words; they simply put them in clusters according to syllables. Which is why Duolingo kept foisting the Korean alphabet upon me when mostly I wanted to know how to say 'Hello' and 'Good morning'!“ It felt like they were teaching me the Korean version of bo-po-mo-fo (not really relevant), but they were actually teaching me the ABCs (totally relevant).
All in all, a fun afternoon on our first full day in Seoul. And we navigated the subway home. That was our 11-1 triumph.
Kids still shout for players to throw them the ball; the Korean version of the ”Foam Dome": chicken, fries, and beer all in one.
Friday November 11, 2022
Well, the fucker finally got me. Two days ago, Wednesday morning, after feeling slightly off and/or really bad for 2-3 days, and after testing negative three times, I tested positive for COVID-19.
I'm writing all this from the 32nd floor of a hotel in the Financial District of New York. Trinity Church, where Alexander Hamilton is buried, is just two blocks away. The WTC Memorial site is two blocks in the other direction. If this was a basement unit, I'd feel like a Dostoevsky character. I kind of do anyway.
How long did I have it before it showed? That's what I keep worrying over. I flew into New York City Wednesday night, the day the Astros no-hit the Phillies in the World Series, and the guy sitting next to me complained of thirst and was sweating a bit, but my assumption was he and his girlfriend had just run to make the plane. That's what I gathered from their conversation. And of course I was masked for 99% of the flight. Maybe this wasn't enough. I was more lax than I had been, say, visiting my 90-year-old father in Mpls. last January. You couldn't have pried the mask off me then. Here, I drank a Diet Coke and water. I ate one of those bland, freebie biscuit-cookies. Maybe it was an expensive biscuit.
It was supposed to be half-work, half-vacation. I still had deadlines to meet, questions to ask, but we were in New York, so c'mon. My first full day, Patricia and I walked from where we were staying, our friends' place on 102nd and 5th, through Central Park to the Paley Center for Radio and Television. P spent 10 minutes there, I spent three hours. Cagney stuff. Along the way, she took a photo of me flipping off Trump tower, which is obligatory now. That night we found a nice vegie place near Lincoln Center, then saw Mike Birbligia's show “The Old Man and the Pool” at one of the Lincoln Centers. (That space is way more confusing than it needs to be.) Beforehand, in the lobby, I ordered a gin & tonic, drank some of it there, sipped some of it in the auditorium. Maybe it was the g&t that was expensive? On the other hand, I felt way sleepy during the show, closing my eyes and practically nodding off before being snapped awake. I attributed it to all the work, and lack of sleep, in preparation for the vacation, but who knows.
Because Friday, I slept in until 10 AM (7 AM, Seattle time), woke up groggy, felt off. P said jet lag. “For three hours?” I said. “West to east?” We took our first tests then—negative—and I bought a bunch more tests at the nearby rundown Duane Reade. For lunch, we went to Nick's Pizza on 94th and 2nd, and it was fantastic; then we went to the Jewish Museum, whose exhibit didn't seem particularly Jewish to me—other than caring about the arts and civil rights. I rallied for dinner with friends at Nice Matin on the Upper West Side, and some part of me was telling myself, “See? And you were thinking of canceling. You're fine. Buck up.” I rode that thought for awhile. I chastised myself for being overcautious until I chastised myself for being not cautious enough.
The next day, with Patricia busy, I walked down to Broadway to see Wendell Pierce in a matinee of “Death of a Salesman.” And sure I kept my mask on throughout. The bigger deal was I was only wearing a short-sleeved shirt. It was climate change weather outside—60s and 70s in New York in November—so when I left I told P I'd be fine. “It's 75. I don't need anything else.” I forgot about air-conditioning. By the end of the first act I was practically shivering. At intermission I kept eyeing a “Death” hoodie, and nearly went for it, but ... nah. I'd be fine, I thought.
Sunday I felt slightly off again but again we tested—negative—and in the morning took the 6 subway to the Whitney for an exhibit of one of my favorite painters, Edward Hopper. Then we walked to Gramercy Park to visit two of P's Newsweek friends. One is in her 80s and uses a cane. The other is 90 and doesn't leave his home much. Exactly. I've been thinking about them every hour since Wednesday morning.
By the time we got home I felt sluggish again, and when I went to bed I could feel mucus draining down the back of my throat. When I awoke my chest felt tight and I had trouble breathing, and at this point alarm bells should've been going off. But we tested a third time, and for a third time it was negative. Even so, I stayed in bed most of the day, then skipped dinner at Cafe Luxemborg. Tuesday I rested again, because we had tickets that evening to “Topdog/Underdog.”
By Wednesday morning I was already thinking of my flight back to Seattle the next day. To quote Kramer, tapping his noggin: “Up here, I'm already gone.” For some reason, maybe the way I sounded or looked, our host suggested another test. Sure, why not. All the tests I'd taken over the past three years, all the negative tests, peering with cheaters to see if I could pick up a residue of a pink line. And never anything. Always clean. But here it was immediate. The bad line, the T line, showed up first and stronger. I felt slightly in shock. It was not ideal. I guess it's never ideal, but if you're going to test positive you'd like to do it at home, after a week of, say, not seeing anybody; you'd rather not be across the country, staying with friends, after having been to crowded shows and museums, and seeing other friends, fit and not, young and not, in restaurants and in their homes. You'd rather not have left a trail.
And it's at this very moment, when you're sick and in shock, and not clear-headed, that you have to make a bunch of important decisions.
Some are moral, some are logistical. Or the moral ones lead to the logistical ones.
The first decision I made was to put on a mask. Then I declared to Patricia—who was taking a test of her own—that I would head back on my regular flight to Seattle no matter what. I felt like a stain, and no matter where I went I'd be a stain; so I might as well go home and hide out there with my cat, and be a stain in private.
A few minutes later, Patricia said: “I tested positive, too.”
She was on her phone now, booking a hotel on Expedia—this one in the Financial District, way on the other side of Manhattan. Not sure why she went there. Maybe, like me, she wasn't thinking clearly. No, she definitely wasn't thinking clearly, since, when I looked at her test strip, she wasn't positive at all. There wasn't a jot of a pink line. Nothing.
“You're not positive.”
“You're negative. You're fine. For now anyway.”
At this point I decided to just get outside. Our friends live a block from Central Park so that's where I walked. And the more I walked, the more I thought about that trip back to Seattle. I knew it was wrong to get on it. But I'm bad at canceling stuff, even flights. I wouldn't even know where to begin. And then what? Stay in NYC for a week? Or more? That's pricey. Queens maybe? Maybe less pricey. I sat on a park bench in the sun, near the tennis courts, and watched a group tennis lesson. I wanted to do the selfish thing but some part of me was chipping away at the thought. So I called my sister in Minneapolis. She and her husband had gotten COVID a couple of months ago, miserably. She has a bit of the scofflaw in her, too, and isn't above skirting things now and again. But she counseled the Spike Lee path. She went rhetorical: “What if you get on the flight and give it to someone else—the way someone gave it to you?”
“What if I've already given it to someone else?”
Delta, by the way, doesn't give you any dispensation for doing the right thing and canceling a flight because of COVID. Maybe they figured people would abuse the privilege. They don't give a refund, either, just an e-credit. So I have an e-credit.
Every step to the hotel seemed fraught—even with mask on. Do you tell the cab driver? Do you tell the hotel? What are the rules? Do you ride in the elevator with that maskless family of five? “No thanks, I'll take the next one.” But the hotel had 50 floors and three elevators, and solo rides were next to impossible. After 10 minutes, I took the next one, with just as many people. Sorry, just as many people. Hope everyone is OK.
I've been lucky so far. So far it's just felt like the most miserable cold in the world, just sneezing, coughing, blowing my nose, over and over again, for hours and hours. At times I was dripping mucus like I had a bloody nose, like it needed to be staunched. But I can still taste food; I can still smell odors. I'm vaxxed to the max and still upright. And so far, Patricia and our friends are OK. No one's reported anything.
I wrote my first personal COVID post back in mid-March 2020, when it was still occasionally called the “novel coronavirus” and Seattle was its U.S. epicenter. And this is where it finally got me. Fucker.
The view from my window.
Friday May 13, 2022
My Voyage to Italy: Bonnie and Clyde at the Tollbooth
The idea was to stay in an agriturismo, an old stone farmhouse converted for tourism, in a small town in Tuscany, and from there spend a week visiting the neighboring hill towns: Montepulciano, Pienza, Arezzo, Cortona. That, it was decided, would be a good European intro for the niece and her boyfriend, who'd never been off the continent.
There would be six of us, in all, and Italian cars are not that big, so we'd need two drivers. Alex, my wife's brother, would be one. Was I comfortable being the other?
Of course, I said.
That was months before we went, when it was all a vague, fun, future thing; when I knew I'd learn some Italian; when I was totally on top of things and the master of my domain.
And then I showed up at Amerigo Vespucci Airport in Florence not speaking a word of Italian, running on maybe one or two hours of fitful airplane sleep, and feeling nauseous from breathing my own masked fumes for 20 hours straight. My wife was there to greet me. She'd just spent two weeks hiking through southern France and knew the whole layout and was enthusiastic. This is where we wait for a cab, she said. So we waited. For five minutes. Until a helpful cabbie told us, no, it's around the corner.
From there we took a cab to a Hertz rental place 0.7 miles from the airport rather than the Hertz at the airport, since, I'd determined a month earlier, in my master of my domain phase, that it was much, much cheaper. Except there was no Hertz 0.7 miles from the airport; there was just an IKEA. After some backseat cursing, in defeat, we had the cabbie drive us to the Hertz at the airport, where we explained the problem.
Oh, there's a Hertz there, we were told. It's inside the IKEA.
Of course there is.
We eventually got our car, a Clio, a cute hybrid so quiet I couldn't tell when it was running, and we set off for the agriturismo in Rapale, a small village 90 minutes south of Florence. Well, “set off.” It took a bit to navigate ourselves out of the area. We went in a few circles. But eventually we got off the busy, narrow, Florentine streets and onto a highway of some kind. But what was that string of booths we just passed? Wasn't it like toll booths? Except I chose the path of least resistance and just drove through them. That wasn't a mistake, was it?
A short time later, navigating via Google Maps, we got off this highway, which, yes, turned out to be a toll road, and now we were at a booth with its arm down and we didn't know what to do. And since we spoke zero Italian, we didn't know what it was asking us for. Money, no doubt. Do we try a credit card? Patricia said she had euros. Give me five euros, I said, and fed that in. Nothing. We tried another five. Nothing. Now we're panicking. Patricia got out and asked the car behind us what we needed to do. “You need to give it the ticket,” she was told. The ticket, it turned out, was the thing I didn't stop for.
Around the same time Patricia spotted an employee at a booth several lanes over and made a beeline for him, the machine we were at suddenly spewed out a long piece of paper. For all I know it was a summons but I assumed it was a receipt of some kind. I stared it, looked at Patricia several lanes over, looked at the passenger side door, still wide open, and said to myself, “Don't take it. If you take it, the gate barrier will go up, and you'll have to drive through without Patricia. So don't take it. Wait. Don't take it. Wait.”
And then my mind wandered and I took it.
And the gate barrier went up.
Cursing, I yelled Patricia's name, and inched forward, being careful not to bang the passenger-side door against anything. I reached over to try to pull it shut but couldn't. I yelled Patricia's name again.
Finally she heard me, saw me, gushed thanks to the booth attendant that was walking over with her, jumped into the open passenger-side door. And we sped out of there, the most incompetent Bonnie and Clyde team ever.
And that was the first hour of my vacation in Italy.
Tuesday May 10, 2022
My Voyage to Italy: Risultato del test
A few days before I flew to Florence, Italy, to spend two weeks in Tuscany with my wife and her family, a Trump-appointed U.S. district judge ruled that the Covid federal mask mandate for airlines and other modes of public transportation was unconstitutional. So the voyage was slightly different from what I'd anticipated. Only about 1/3 of the people at SeaTac Airport were wearing masks. Many on the flight didn't wear them. But there were still complications. About nine hours into the 10-hour flight to Paris, a Delta attendant told us, almost apologetically, that there were certain “red countries” where you have to wear a mask before arriving, and France was one of those, so please mask up for the last 40 minutes of the flight. It was like territorial waters for Covid.
U.S. policy at the moment seems kind of nuts to me. You don't have to mask up but you do have to present a negative Covid test before entering or re-entering the U.S.—regardless of vaccine status, regardless of citizenship. It's a policy that encourages both personal irresponsibility (mask schmask) and xenophobia (the problem is out there), and does nothing to clarify whether our pandemic is now an endemic. For Europe, the policy is the opposite: Come on in, just don't be an maskhole.
That U.S.-mandated Covid test loomed large during my trip. If I failed it, I'd be gone from work for five more days. Or 10 more days? Or more? How would that work? And how does one find a Covid hotel? And are you policed or can you still visit museums? Some part of me wondered whether I should try to get Covid early in the trip so I wouldn't have the problem later; so I wouldn't spend my vacation worrying about it.
To be honest, I probably should've gone maskless more often during that first leg of the trip—Seattle to Paris to Florence. That's a long slog. Add in extra hours at SeaTac, and the trip on light rail to SeaTac, and I was probably masked for nearly 20 hours straight, and during my last hour at CDG I think my own fumes were beginning to get to me. I felt nauseous. Even the usual standby of Coca-Cola and Pringles didn't help. When I finally landed in Florence, and we exited onto the Tarmac, I ripped that sucker off and breathed in deeply.
Anyway, all that masking helped. Or didn't—who knows? The day before we came back, we walked to a pharmacy near the Uffizi, paid 22€ apiece, got tested by a cute pharmacist with stylish brown ankle boots, waited outside for 20 minutes. Patricia got a cappuccino. Back at the pharmacy, they handed each of us a piece of paper folded into a little booklet: Certificazione verde COVID-19. It took a while to find the result—halfway down the second page: Risultato del test: Negativo. We celebrated. I complimented the pharmacist on her boots.
Thursday February 17, 2022
A Non-Essential Traveler in Vancouver B.C., Two Years After the Pandemic Began
Vancouver B.C. is just two and a half hours north of Seattle, Wash., but for much of the pandemic it might as well have been on the moon. Beginning in March 2020 the U.S.-Canada border was closed to non-essential travel, and once things opened up last fall, Covid tests were still hard to get, or expensive, or both. This past week Patricia and I visited for the first time in a long time—to see family who moved there in Oct. 2019, as well as a John Mulaney standup concert at the Queen Elizabeth Theater. (The show was cancelled; more on that another day.)
Here are some non-essential observations on the city to the north:
- Bare midriffs on women are in.
- So are skinny pants and highwaters on dudes. It's Revenge of the Nerds Part XXXI.
- Vancouverites are wearing Yankee caps? What is this—Europe?
- The downtown area hardly seems to have suffered from the pandemic. Right now, parts of downtown Seattle seem like a ghost town, just you and the crazies, and the only thing missing is a tumbleweed blowing between you. Downtown Vancouver on a sunny Sunday afternoon—in the Robson Square, Canada Place, BC Place triangle where we were—was bustling with the aforementioned bare-midriff women and drainpipe dudes. Everyone was out.
- As was the smell of pot—more so than in Seattle. You win this round, Vancouver!!
- As were the mountains, which are much closer to the city than the Cascades and Olympics are to Seattle. Ditto, Vancouver!!!
- I'd guess about 75% of the people we saw walking around outside were masked.
- The anti-vax trucker protest in Ottawa was all over the news before we went, but the only such protest we saw in Vancouver was truckless, on foot, and about a dozen strong (or weak). They were marching near Robson Square, carrying the usual, sad, anti-vax and anti-science signs, and followed by a mocking crowd twice their size.
- The lines at the border were short and efficient. Our Canadian border guard was kind of like a hard-ass Kate Winslet: looked like Winslet, sounded like a drill sergeant.
- To get across the border you had to fill out an app, ArriveCAN, which gives you a QR code when you're done. You're told to show this at the border but they didn't want it. Hard-ass Kate Winslet just wanted the passports (which had been uploaded to the app), vax cards (ditto), and proof of a negative PCR test within the last 72 hours (oddly not uploadable to the app). Anyway, we were allowed in.
- Are rest areas an American thing? In the north part of I-5, there's one every 30 miles or so, but no equivalent once you hit Canada. So odd. They seem like they'd be a Canadian thing.
- From a distance, the Vancouver skyline looks ordinary to me: a lot of tall glass buildings in aqua and teal. Patricia liked it.
- They're still building a lot. We kept hearing and running into construction projects. Even when we visited the Vancouver Art Museum and were walking through the John & Yoko exhibit we'd hear the bang-bang of construction on a second-floor exhibit opening in spring.
- The John & Yoko exhibit was so-so, the third floor exhibit wasn't much, but I dug the Shakespeare folio exhibit on the fourth floor. It could've used more words, though. I would've liked comparisons. You're looking at the first folio from 1623 under glass, and turned to the first page of “Romeo & Juliet,” and a comparison to, say, the Modern Signet edition would've been nice. I misremembered the “bite my thumb” back and forth, for example, and thought it was sooner and thus missing here. But the folio did include the maidenhead joke.
- I experienced my first 4-D movie at the Vancouver Aquarium—a short film on octopi, which we attended with our nephew and his kids. The first time air blew on the back of my neck I think I jumped about a foot.
- In the end, though, I'm not a fan. With movies you want immersion, not distraction, and that fourth D is distraction—like someone poking you every other minute. I kept flashing on the 1993 movie “Matinee” starring John Goodman, which was based on the life and times of impresario/con man William Castle, who trumpeted such features as “Emergo,” “Percepto” and “Illusion-o.” This was that, but science-y.
- We ate well: from a sushi joint in Kitsilano to a ramen place in West End to a Mr. Shawarma food truck near Robson Square.
- There's a giant chandelier hanging beneath the Granville Bridge. Apparently it's an art piece.
- Atop the Burrard Street Bridge, we saw a giant bald eagle, with an insane wingspan, soaring around, followed by a half dozen cawing crows. Sure, crows.
- Overall, the city is much cleaner than Seattle, and we saw very few homeless and no homeless encampments. I was assuming the Canadian government was doing something right, but our niece says the homeless are mostly in the Downtown-East neighborhood, which we never visited.
- Even so, our niece and nephew, with their two small kids, plan to stay. Whenever our nephew hears about the active shooter drills in American elementary schools, he thinks: Why go back?
Saturday September 11, 2021
Day 15: When It Rains, Look for the Rainbow
At our gate at Dulles International Airport for the flight home, I saw a little girl wearing a T-shirt reading WHEN IT RAINS, LOOK FOR THE RAINBOW. It was like a special message for me.
I was happy to be heading home after two weeks amid the crowds in a worldwide pandemic, but I was in a piss-poor mood. My arms and ankles were covered in bug bites (my wife says I'm a cat whisperer but really I'm a mosquito whisperer, and I don't know how to turn it off); and while I'd been enjoying myself sipping a G&T and watching the Boston Red Sox slowly lose a 7-1 lead to the Tampa Bay Rays at the airport bar, the end of the bar we'd had to ourselves slowly filled with: 1) a fedora'ed dude saying a sentence every other minute to, I assume, someone at the other end of his Bluetooth; 2) a barfly who drunkenly tried to strike up a conversation about baseball but had trouble nailing the meaning of the word “pitcher”; and the final straw, 3) a hefty white dude sitting next to me, who apologized for knocking over my suitcase and immediately took off his mask before ordering anything, let alone eating/drinking anything. After that, I downed the rest of my drink and split to the gate, but it wasn't any better there. A row over, a young dude wearing sweatpants, flip-flops and a Seattle Kraken knit cap lounged unmasked with a proud, snarky look on his face—like he was stickin' it to the man. Then across from us: an older red-haired Scandinavian dude, same thing, sans the attitude.
And that's when the girl walked by with the secret message for me. I thought, “I'll try.”
So we boarded the plane and got ready to take off. And got ready. And got ready. And slowly I realized somethingn was wrong. We were all just sitting there, bunched together, breathing each other's air in the midst of a global pandemic. And eventually one of the flight attendants got on the intercom and said we were delayed. The reason? Vague. Later, when I tracked them down, the flight attendants said it wasn't just us, it was wide-ranging. Airport-wide? I asked. Beyond that, they said. All flights. All flights everywhere? I said. was envisioning a 9/11-type attack when they said they were just talking about United Airlines flights. Something about weight measurements? Basically something was off line. Here's how United described it in the texts they sent every half hour we waited:
- Flight UA326 from Washington to Seattle is delayed because we are resolving an unexpected operational issue. It now departs at 6:10pm on September 6.
- Flight UA326 from Washington to Seattle is delayed because we are resolving an unexpected operational issue. It now departs at 6:45pm on September 6.
Meanwhile, more and more people were removing their masks to eat this or drink that. I wanted to find that little girl. OK, where's the fucking rainbow?
I admit I felt old on this trip. I did the math and realized I'm older than my father was when he last went to Rehoboth Beach. I believe he last went in '87, with me, visiting Karen, who was working at Funland during her second college summer and who brought along a bunch of college friends to join her. Dad would've been 55 then; I'm 58 now. I also think of his father, Christian Hans, Bedstefar, visiting us at Rehoboth in either '70 or '73, when he would've been in his 70s. He never went down to the beach; he sat on the boardwalk benches in his suit and watched us. What's the fun in that? I thought. I was 7 or 10, loved Bedtefar, wanted him with us. But I'm getting it now.
There's a statue we saw at the Whitney that speaks to me. My interpretation is all wrong, apparently, but that seems increasingly the case. In the previous room at the Whitney, in the exhibit “Making Knowing: Craft in Art, 1950–2019,” there's an installation by Liza Lou called “Kitchen,” which is just that: an ordinary American kitchen with tiled floors, a pie in the oven, dishes in the sink, and breakfast cereal like Cap'N Crunch and Frosted Flakes next to the folded newspaper on the small breakfast table. Except it dazzles; it sparkles. The entire thing. I immediately liked the inclusion of the consumerist portion of American life in American art—that's hard to do—and my initial thought was that it was a kind of paean to that life: that the ordinary life can still dazzle. Nope. According to the nearby descriptor, “the cheerfully branded products in Lou's Kitchen expose the contradictions that run throughout the marketing of American household goods, which promises the delights of homemaking while strategically ignoring the gender inequalilty of the traditional division of labor.”
Sure. Though anyone who thinks marketing cares a whit about any kind of inequality rather than simply selling a product is probably someone who makes a living with arts grants. Plus finding what's wrong in an ordinary, modern American life isn't exactly hard; looking for what's worthwhile in that life seems the tougher, worthier task.
Anyway, while I liked Kitchen, the artwork that spoke to was in the next room: Viola Frey's “Me Man.” I got that one wrong, too, apparently. From the Whitney's website:
Frey first built the clay figure and allowed it to dry. Once hardened, she sawed it apart to produce sections that would fit in the kiln. After each piece had been glazed and fired separately, Frey reassembled and painted the whole sculpture. Her process remains legible in the material itself, with horizontal seams especially visible across Me Man's torso. As was common for Frey's sculptures of men, this one wears a blue suit and gesticulates, as though in the middle of conversation. A representation of the American businessman, Me Man likewise recalls television characters from the 1950s, and evidences Frey's interest in the satiric depiction of the totems of everyday life: in this case, middle-class respectability.
Satirizing “middle-class respectability”? Doesn't the art world know the middle class is dying?
I empathized. Maybe I identified. There was something sad about this man stuffed into a suit and stuck in a corner and trying to articulate something that fell on a deaf world. I think the way he was created exacerbates this. He was literally cut up, hardened, and stuck back together again. Everything about him feels constrained and pieced together. He's not whole. Maybe he once was. He had certainly been soft and malleable, and he might have been anything, but now he's this, and it's too late to change. To be honest, I had a bit of a Cameron and “La Grande Jatte” at the Chicago Art Institute moment. Maybe that's rainbow enough.
Wednesday September 08, 2021
Day 14: Dwarfed in D.C.
The American wing of the National Gallery begins with Gilbert Stuart's paintings of the first presidents.
Has anyone ever made a movie where an indvidual is dwarfed by the monumental buildings of Washington D.C., the way that, say, John Garfield, is dwarfed by the lower Manhattan buildings in “Force of Evil” or Raoul Walsh's heroes against mountain landscapes in “High Sierra” and “Colorado Territory”? Seems ripe for doing. Patricia and I were so dwarfed Sunday morning, walking from our hotel on K Street to the National Mall. Other than a quick business trip or two in the 1990s, she'd never been to D.C., I hadn't been in a decade or two, so it was fun walking around, seeing the lesser known buildings, reading their taglines chiseled in stone. “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty” is a good one (both foreign and domestic, yo), but seems oddly placed in front of the National Archives. “Taxes are what we pay for civilized society” is another good and obviously the IRS Building. It's from Oliver Wendell Holmes. Dems should quote it more often. Suggested alternative: “Pay your taxes, you libertarian fucks.”
Patricia wanted to go to the Natural History Museum but there were slow-moving lines snaking all around it when we showed up. Ditto the African American History and Culture Museum. Instead we walked around a bit, found our way to the National Gallery, got in. No line, no charge. Please come see art, people. We split up there and I made the mistake of beginning with the 13th-to-16th century Italian works, which I've seen everywhere. How many Madonna/childs can I take in? More than the art, I was curious how we got them all. That should be included in the plaque: year acquired, from whom, how. I do like the trajectory of who we paint (God, rich fucks, everyone else) and in what manner (formal/straight on, candid/living life). But it wasn't until I came across a discarded visitor map that I made a bee-line for the American wing, which begins with the classic Gilbert Stuart paintings of the first presidents, goes through the landscapes, and ends with American impressionism. I saw Albert Bierstadt's “The Buffalo Trail,” which so impressed me as an undergrad I bought a print for my room. After lunch, attracted by a Howard Rogers portrait of Reggie Jackson, from a 1974 Time magazine cover, we visited the National Portrait Gallery, which, in an exhibit on “Champions,” included a wing for sports stars and another for entertainment stars. I liked the former curation better. Reminded me of my youth: the big stars I watched (Reggie, Muhammad Ali), knew about (Babe Ruth, Casey Stengel), read about (Babe Didrikson Zaharias, Wilma Rudolph, Gertrude Ederle). No one in that wing seemed out of place to me. The entertainment wing seemed a bit suspect.
We ate well in D.C.: a Jose Andres tapas joint called Jaleo, which was just exquisite and required vax cards (thank you!); Doi Moi, a Vietnamese place further north, where we went with my college roommate Dean and his wife Kim; and Shouk, a mini-chain of Israeli/Middle Eastern food with amazing humus. We also got eaten well—or I did. I came home covered in bug bites from both Rehoboth and D.C. Patricia, none. I thought of this New Yorker cartoon, slide 9.
For a place where older people have monumental power, DC seems like a young city. Also good-looking. Saw a lot of tall women there, mostly blonde, to go with the monumental buildings. I assumed Dutch imports. Patricia saw a Black woman who looked to be about 6'4" with a gorgeous, flawless face. I admit, in the musuems, that's part of what I looked at: girls along with the art. D.C. also seems like a city bifurcated by wealth. It's like Seattle in this way but even more so, and along stricter racial lines.
Tuesday September 07, 2021
Day 13: A Variety of Morbid Symptoms Appear (But Not Those)
Rehoboth makes it hard to get to and it makes it even harder to leave. Even if you have a car, it's a slog down 1. And if you don't, as we didn't, well, god bless.
I figured out my exit strategy late, which, as U.S. foreign policy will tell you, is never a good idea. Last Sunday, my first full day there, I ran down the options (we were heading to D.C. for the weekend, then flying home on Labor Day):
- rent a car, drive to DC
- bus to Wilmington, Amtrak to DC
- bus to DC
I was assuming the first option but it proved to be a nonstarter, since there were none to rent—at least none that I could find. Inventory is down in the pandemic era, now people are traveling, and many don't want to do public transport, thus... The bus to Wilmington seemed a slog, and, though I like Amtrak, why bus/train when you can just bus? Anyway, that's what we went with—even though, for some insane reason, the only Rehoboth-to-DC bus left at 6:45 PM and didn't arrive in DC until 9:30ish. Which meant a day of waiting around. Was this a chamber of commerce thing? Keep the tourists in town for another day of spending? It wound up being a kind of wasted day. I think of Antonio Gramsci: the old is dying and the new cannot yet be born; in this interregnum, a variety of morbid symptoms appear.
Patricia seemed off in the morning, tense, not quite there. We both agreed that a day at the beach wasn't smart: getting lubed up, sanded and salted one more time? Why? We were lucky that my sister's family was staying with a friend, who was staying at her friend's place for the Labor Day weekend, and who let us hang for the day; but we didn't want to overimpose with showers and all that.
So what did we do during our “extra” day? Walked to a Starbucks, where the servers were masked but 95% of the patrons weren't. We walked back. Then we went to my first movie in a movie theater since the pandemic began. Not suprisingly, given Delaware's habits, few of the workers at the theater were masked, and even fewer of the customers. But thankfully the theater wasn't crowded, Patricia, Ryan and I sat in our own area, and when not snarfing movie popcorn (oh, movie popcorn, how I've missed thee) we stayed masked.
The movie, by the way, was Marvel's “Shang Chi and the Legend of the 10 Rings,” which has superlative critic and audience scores on Rotten Tomatoes (92%/98%, respectively), and was abyssmal. Sorry, everyone. The scene on the bus was great. As soon as they got into la-la land, I could barely stand it. If I could climb walls, I would have.
The bus to DC, on Best Bus, wasn't bad, to be honest. People were told to mask up, most people were responsible, the driver was good. Our intro to DC was a little off. My wife had booked us at the AC Hotel, near the Convention Center, but it turns out there are two AC Hotels in downtown DC, and she didn't have the address readily available and we were taken to the wrong one. The clerk there wrote down the proper address but without the proper east/west/north/south designation, which confused the second cabbie. But we finally arrived. And it was nice to be in a place again where people took a worldwide pandemic seriously.
Monday September 06, 2021
Days 9-12: Up Here, I'm Already Gone
Early morning, north Rehboth Beach
I'm ready to go home.
Normally in Rehoboth, I can't believe the days are dwindling down, and on the last day I try to suck every last bit out of it—one last swim, one last walk on the boardwalk, one last game of skee-ball—but now I'm like sure, end it, get it over with, done. I think of Kramer pointing at his noggin: Up here, I'm already gone.
I have to say: I'm disappointed in Rehoboth Beach specifically, and Delaware generally, for not taking a worldwide pandemic seriously. Most places we went to, few people were masked. My sister commented on the dangers of visiting NYC, with everyone piled on top of each other. But masks were worn there, indoors and often outside, vax cards were asked for. They knew the dangers. They'd been through the worst of it. Given the circumstances, they did what needed doing. In Delaware, it felt like they're not even trying. It felt like la-la land.
Monday was my busy day. I went to the beach at 10 AM (no one in our party joined me), fought the waves, read, sat, fought the waves, looked for the rest of my crew, left, had lunch, then went for a bikeride on my brother-in-law's bike. We're on Pennsylvania Avenue, first block, great place, so I rode north, away from the Boardwalk. I did the Gordon Pond Wildlife Trail, then just kept going. Could I do Lewes? Sure, why not? I bike in Seattle, where you can't help but encounter insane hills, and this was all flat, and I was flying. Once I got to the Lewes-Cape May ferry terminal, I turned around—and encountered a strong headwind. I'd had a tailwind the entire time—that's why I was flying. Not the first time that's happened to me. When I got back, I joined my family at the beach.
Tuesday, my sister and I picked up her son and my wife at the BWI airport (she'd taken Amtrack to the Baltimore terminal, then cabbed to BWI), then we argued about going to Hemingway's restaurant in Stevensville—her favorite, but her son and I were both wary. We were warier when again we saw none of the servers were masked. But we got a booth away from everyone, and everything seemed mostly OK. Still, it wasn't a meal worth risking your life over.
The rest of the week blends together. Some nice early morning walks along the beach (thinking of Aunt Karen, who used to do that when I was a kid), a thunderstrom amid the Hurricane Ida remnants that flooded New Jersey and NYC. We played games like “Chameleon” in the evenings. One night, we ate out at Dogfish Head, along the main drag, and those servers were masked. Good on them. Responsible business owners. How about that?
Friday, I got up early to watch the sun rise, but unlike my 7 AM walks along the beach, where hardly anyone else was around, this one was packed, everyone focused on the sunrise like it never happened. That day kind of sped by. Went to the beach after lunch, then a search for a long-sleeved tee for Patricia (we didn't find one), or a diet pop for my sister (ditto), then back to the beach, where I watched the next generation teaching their kids how to jump the waves. That evening, I got a final Gus & Gus four-piece chicken meal. On the way, passing one of those T-shirt (or Tea-shirt) shops, this one called Tidal Rave's 5&10, I saw a bunch of bastardizations of Marilyn Monroe: the screen goddess remade for the loutish Trumpian set. I'm not an IP attorney but I assume this is unauthorized usage. What sad fuckstick dreams up shit like this? Feels like the wrong side of the American experiment. End it, get it over with, done.
I'm not an IP attorney but I assume this is unauthorized usage.
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