Monday May 29, 2023
Box Office: The Post-Pandemic $100 Million Openers
This is more for me than you—unless you're curious about it like I am—but here are the movies with $100 million domestic openings since the pandemic:
|2||Spider-Man: No Way Home||$260||$804||Dec. 2021|
|11||Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness||$187||$411||May 2022|
|13||Black Panther: Wakanda Forever||$181||$453||Nov. 2022|
|30||The Super Mario Bros. Movie||$146||$552**||April 2023|
|31||Jurassic World: Dominion||$145||$376||June 2022|
|32||Thor: Love and Thunder||$144||$343||July 2022|
|38||Avatar: The Way of Water||$134||$684||Dec. 2022|
|39||The Batman||$134||$369||Mar. 2022|
|44||Top Gun: Maverick||$126||$718||May 2022|
|52||Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3||$118||$304**||May 2023|
|63||Minions: The Rise of Gru||$107||$369||July 2022|
|64||Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania||$106||$214||Feb. 2023|
* I.e., its rank among all-time openers
** And counting
Obviously none in 2020 and just one in 2021—at the tail end—but that one was a doozy. Last year, though, there were eight. Eight! That seems like a lot. Is it? Here are the number of $100 million domestic openings prior to Covid:
- 2019: 6
- 2018: 5
- 2017: 7
- 2016: 8
- 2015: 6
So, like St. George Costanza, are we back, baby? Not quite. Actually not even close. Total domestic box office eclipsed $10 billion in 2009, reached highs of $11.8 and $11.3 billion in 2018-19, then plummeted to $2.1 billion during our first, shuttered year. It's been rising slowly since: $4.4 billion in 2021, $7.3 billion in 2022 and $3.3 so far this year. Not bad, but nothing approaching 11 digits. Plus higher ticket prices means we're actually talking fewer asses in seats. Plus, based on the above, I'd wager many of those asses are the same ones over and over again. I.e., if you come out for opening weekend of “Doctor Strange” you probably do the same for “Thor” and “Black Panther” and all of it. I do worry what happens if we tire of superhero flicks the way we tired of westerns. I don't know what comes next. Superheroes are basically supercharged John Waynes, and is there anything beyond supercharged John Waynes? I don't have the imagination for that. I just have the imagination to see more theaters shuttered forever.
This weekend, Disney's live-action “Little Mermaid” nearly became the 13th post-pandemic $100 million opener but it topped out at $95 (sans Memorial Day). The second weekend of “Fast X” grossed another $23, the fourth weekend of “Guardians 3” added $19, the eighth weekend of “Super Mario” $6. Among the smaller openers, “The Machine” (topless standup Bert Kreischer) grossed $4.9, “About My Father” with Robert De Niro $4.2, “Kandahar” $2.4, and Nicole Holofcener's “You Hurt My Feelings” with Julia Louis-Dreyfus $1.3.
Sunday May 28, 2023
The Two MLB Teams With the Longest World Series Droughts Play a Rubber Match in Seattle
My sister and I at the Baseball Hall of Fame in the summer of '73. Moved by Clemente's death the previous December, I bought much Pirates merchandise. Photograph by Bob Lundegaard.
On the way to the ballpark today I wondered if these were the teams with the longest pennant droughts. The Mariners, of course, have never been to the World Series, the only franchise that hasn't, and they came into existence in 1977. The Pirates, meanwhile, haven't clinched a pennant since the feel-good Willie Stargell-led team that blared “We Are Family” in the clubhouse in the fall of 1979. Nearly 50 years ago.
That said, the Pirates own a pretty impressive World Series record: 5-2. They lost the first one in 1903, got clobbered by the great “Murderers Row” 1927 Yankees, but won every other time they've been, always in seven games, often dramatically. The Honus Wagner-led Bucs beat Ty Cobb's Tigers in 1909; they beat the then-World Champion Washington Senators in 1925; Maz lived every kid's bottom-of-the-ninth dream in 1960; Clemente was all-worldly against the O's in 1971; and Stargell and Co. battled from a 3-1 deficit to take the '79 crown, also from the O's. Not a bad legacy. But, again, that was nearly 50 years ago.
As for my question? Yes, these are the teams with the longest pennant droughts:
|1977||Toronto Blue Jays||2||2||1993|
|1969||San Diego Padres||2||0||1998|
Every other team has been to the World Series this century.
Long way of saying that while I rooted for the Mariners this afternoon, I'm not exactly not rooting for the Pirates. Would be great to see them in the Series again, but the NL path looks rougher than the AL: Goes through the Dodgers, Braves, Mets, and maybe eventually the Padres and Cardinals. Not to mention Oct. suprises.
The place was packed—Memorial Day weekend, plus a Julio Rodriguez poster giveaway—so though I arrived 10 minutes before gametime I didn't sit in my seat until 10 minutes after the game started. Not bad timing, though. Five seconds later, Julio went deep to put the M's up 1-0. I was sporting my new RODRIGUEZ 44 jersey—the first “authentic” Mariners jersey I've ever owned, bought as a 60th birthday present for myself in January—and Julio's homer was another nice present. In the 4th, Cal Raleigh also went deep. Both teams tacked on a run in the 5th (Pirates: single, single, sac fly; Mariners a two-out Kelenic double that scored J.P. from second), and it felt like it might stay that way. But in the 8th, Andrew McCutchen hit a high chopper to short, J.P. hurried the throw, and it went into the dugout. Three pitches later, OF/DH Bryan Reynolds rippped a triple past a diving Ty France, and just like that (as Dave used to say), they had the tying run on third with nobody out. M's reliever Justin Topa struck out the next batter (Connor Joe, no comma) but was himself relieved by Paul Sewald. Who not only walked the next batter, but did so on a wild pitch that tied the game.
Bucs threatened again in the 9th. A lead-off double by South Korean-born CF Ji Hwan Bae, but he was stranded; then he made a nice two-out, diving warning-track catch on a J.P Crawford shot in the bottom frame. So extras, with ghost runners on second. Theirs went single, K, K, SB, IBB, K for no runs. Ours went 4-3, K, IBB, HR, a no-doubter by Eugenio Suarez that sent the crowd home happy. Most of the crowd. I saw a few McCutch and Clemente jersey-wearers; but like us they're used to it.
Went to the game with David G., and we talked death, J. Edgar Hoover, Robert Louis Stevenson (presciently: before we learned the losing pitcher was named Robert Stephenson), and how the advent of phonograph records killed the family piano. Related: I recalled how, as a kid, everyone seemed to sing along with the National Anthem before the ballgame, and by the time I was an adult no one was singing along. A little sad. To go with our little happy for the day. The win moved the M's past the Angels for third place in the division. Plus it's nice to win a series against a team that isn't the A's.
Saturday May 27, 2023
S4.E10: 'With Open Eyes'
I wrote about John Berryman's Dream Song #29 a year and a half ago, because “All the Bells Say” was the title of the Season 3 finale of “Succession.” What I didn't know until this year? All the season finales were from Dream Song #29:
There sat down, once, a thing on Henry's heart
so heavy, if he had a hundred years
& more, & weeping, sleepless, in all them time
Henry could not make good.
Starts again always in Henry's ears
the little cough somewhere, an odour, a chime.
And there is another thing he has in mind
like a grave Sienese face a thousand years
would fail to blur the still profiled reproach of. Ghastly,
with open eyes, he attends, blind.
All the bells say: too late. This is not for tears;
But never did Henry, as he thought he did,
end anyone and hacks her body up
and hide the pieces, where they may be found.
He knows: he went over everyone, & nobody's missing.
Often he reckons, in the dawn, them up.
Nobody is ever missing.
The creators have actually gone backwards in the poem. Season 1 (“Nobody is Ever Missing”) is Kendall's Chappaquiddick moment, when his car crash causes the death of a young man during a wedding but he gets away with it because of who he is. Season 2 (“This is Not for Tears”) ends with Kendall taking on his father, despite his father blackmailing him about the Chappaquiddick moment; and season 3 (“All the Bells Say”) is the kids banding together to prevent Dad selling the company but arriving, as all the bells say, too late. BTW, that's a great fucking line in a great fucking poem: too late, too late, ding dong, too late. Brilliant. I've loved this poem since college. I think it's true for all of us, particularly that first stanza. We all have our moment when the world parts from us. The third stanza is about guilt, seemingly unjustified, but maybe not? Maybe just nobody is paying attention? That feels real, too, even if, at age 60, it feels like too many people are missing. Not because I hacks them up but because I lets them go. I stopped paying attention.
So what will the series finale (“With Open Eyes”) be? Who succeeds Lear/Logan? What makes sense for our world? What resonates? I hope they find it. Roman is out of it. Roman rose and fell. It's just Kendall and Shiv now, and maybe none of them? Maybe it winds up with the conglomerate? The line to the top is frayed, and indistinct, and no one is accountable.
“Ghastly/With open eyes, he attends, blind.” He is blind despite the open eyes. Who is he? Kendall? Shiv? Both? No matter what, it's a bad world and it's a reflection of our world. Either the Elon Musk figure takes over Fox News (Shiv triumphant) or the Donald Trump figure blocks it (Kendall triumphant). Ghastly.
Berryman, in our backyard, with open eyes. Photo by Bob Lundegaard.
Friday May 26, 2023
“DeSantis's whole deal is that he's supposed to be super-competent. 'I'm better at being a fascist fuck than Donald Trump is.' that's it, that's his whole ballgame.
”there's just one tiny problem with that: it's complete bullshit. ...
“I'll go on record right now: Ron DeSantis is never going to be president. he's awkward. he's unpleasant. he's not funny. he's not entertaining. he has negative charisma. he's clumsy. he carries himself like a lizard-creature from outer space wearing an ill-fitting human skin suit. he laughs like a braying hyena.”
-- Jeff Tiedrich, “Meatball Ron can't stop fucking the chicken,” written in the wake of DeSantis' presidential campaign launch with Elon Musk on Twitter that went horribly, beautifully, disastrously wrong. BTW: I've been saying the above for a few months now—once I saw DeSantis interact, or try to interact, with potential voters. “Negative charisma” is exactly right. I'll go further. He's not going to be the GOP nominee. It'll just have to be some other asshole. Yes, probably the same asshole.
Thursday May 25, 2023
Vida Blue (1949-2023)
Charlie Finley was an all-world huckster who had some fun ideas about shaking up the staid old game: those garish, glorious, green-and-gold A's unis; paying his players to grow long hair and facial hair during the hippy-ish early 1970s; manufacturing Old Timey nicknames. All of that was fun. He had shitty ideas, too: orange baseballs, the DH, but I think the worst of them relates to that third fun idea. He'd done well enough with Jim “Catfish” Hunter and John “Blue Moon” Odom, both great, both pure grift, but then he tried to impose the nickname “True” on one of his other young pitchers, and that pitcher balked at the idea. As he should have. Because he already had one of the most perfect names in baseball history. To be honest, I worry a little about Charlie Finley—that when presented with this almost perfect baseball name, nearly a double unique, he didn't see it. He wanted to fuck it up with a false, punny “True.” He didn't see the perfection that was already there in Vida Blue.
For the first half of 1971, when he was just 21 years old, Vida Blue was nearly perfection. He may have been the first superstar to emerge once I became a fan. Everyone else was already there when I showed up: Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Frank and Brooks Robinson, Harmon Killebrew, Tony Oliva, even the fairly youthful Johnny Bench. But Vida Blue was not there and then, in the spring and summer of 1971, he was everywhere. He was an event. He was such an event they held a Vida Blue Day for him ... in Minnesota. Twins owner Calvin Griffith was a sad, slow huckster compared to Charlie Finley, but he knew what people wanted, and he knew in the summer of 1971 they wanted Vida Blue. And so for a twi-night doubleheader, the Twins honored the opposing pitcher. In my memory, if you wore a piece of blue clothing you got in for half price, but that doesn't make much sense. Calvin wouldn't take money from Calvin's coffers. No, what you got, if you wore anything blue—and the Twins' promo ad mentioned any apparel, including “suits, dresses, hot pants...” which gives you a sense of the divide in America at the time, when men still wore suits to ballgames while women wore hot pants—what you got, from Calvin on Vida Blue Day at Met Stadium, was a commemorative button, “an attractive blue button,” the ad said, with the following verse:
Rose are red
My clothes were blue
When I was there
To see Vida Blue
Even at age 8, I was like “That's not a rhyme. Blue and blue? That's just the same word.” But we went, wore blue (without trying), got one of those buttons, and saw the Twins win both games against the eventual division winners. Actually, no, we didn't see the victories. I don't know why I still remember this but I do. We arrived late to the first game, missing out on Harmon Killebrew's pinch-hit grand slam in the Twins 9-4 victory, then we left before the end of the second game (“We gotta beat the traffic!” --Frank Costanza and my father), so missed out on George Mitterwald's walk-off homerun against Vida Blue with two outs in the bottom of the 9th as the Twins won 2-1. Two amazing games and we missed out on both big blows. This is why, for the longest time after I became an adult, I never left a game early.
In that second game, Twins pitcher Hal Haydel got the W for his 9th-inning relief work (one of six Ws in his career), while Vida got the L for the game and went a mere 23-7 on the season. He would wind up 24-8 with a 1.82 ERA, 301 strikeouts to 88 walks in 312 innings pitched, and he would win the Cy Young and the MVP as a 21/22 year old. But the real story was his first half when he went 17-3 with a 1.42 ERA, 17 complete games and six shutouts. Again, that's the first half of the season. He seemed on pace to win 30. He seemed perfection. I'm looking at his game logs for the season and he actually started out poorly, on April 5, giving up 4 runs, 1 earned, in 1 2/3 innings against the lowly Washington Senators. Then he pitched a six-inning rain-shortened shutout against the Royals, striking out 13(!); pitched a complete game shutout of the Brewers; pitched a complete game victory against the ChiSox, and kept going. By the end of May he'd won 10 games (10!), and was on the cover of Sports Illustrated. By the end of August, he was on the cover of Time magazine under the heading “New Zip in the Old Game.”
In the second half, sure, not quite perfection. His ERA rose by a run, to 2.40, and he went 7-5, but there were games that should've been wins. On July 9 against the Angels, he pitched 11 shutout innings, struck out 17 and walked nobody but got the ND. (The A's won it 1-0 in the bottom of the 20th.) Two weeks later, he again went 11, striking out 11 and walking zilch as the A's won it in the bottom of the 12th. But yes, he must've been tiring. His last shutout was August 7 against the ChiSox, his 20th win. In the second half, he was very, very good, but not the Vida Blue of the first half. He was not a comet. But he was beautiful to watch.
Same for the rest of his career. After a season for the ages, he wanted a raise, Finley was penurious, Vida held out. A deal was finally struck ($14.7k —> $63k), but late, so Vida didn't make his first start until the end of May, and though he had a not-bad 2.80 ERA he went 6-10. The next year he won 20, then 17, then 22, as the A's became the only non-Yankees team to win three World Series in a row. In '76 Vida had an ERA of 2.35 and finished sixth in the Cy Young balloting, and was traded midseason to the New York Yankees. Except, whoops, no, another white man, Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn, in perpetual battle with Finley, nullified the deal “in the best interests of baseball.” Back you go. He finally got away from Finley in '78, across the Bay to San Francisco, and became the first pitcher to start for both leagues in the All-Star Game. He lasted until the mid-1980s. Along the way there were drug problems. His career numbers are similar to Catfish Hunter's, but Catfish's rep was different, and Catfish came on the Hall of Fame ballot at the right time, so he got in. Blue, not. His rep was of not quite living up to the promise of that first half of 1971. But how could he? Comets streak across the sky, then disappear from view.
How much does Vida Blue mean to me? A kid who grew up rooting for another team in another state? One evening last November, after I'd returned home from New York City sick with COVID, I was involved in the usual late-night web searching, checking out this and that, and I wound up buying a comfort item for myself, something that just made me feel good. It was that August 1971 Time magazine with Vida Blue on the cover. It's been on my bookshelf ever since. It never doesn't make me smile.
Thursday May 25, 2023
Ray Stevenson (1964-2023)
Stevenson, left, and McKidd, as Titus Pullo and Lucius Vorenus, the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern of HBO's “Rome.”
Wasn't HBO's “Rome” built just yesterday? It feels like we were just watching new episodes. Nope, Erik, that was 20 years ago, and as of yesterday, the real yesterday, HBO is now called “Max,” just a few days after the man who played Titus Pullo, Ray Stevenson, died at the age 58.
Patricia and I had recently seen Stevenson in India's Academy Award-winning “RRR,” white-haired and white-bearded, and playing British imperial villain rather than Roman working class lovable lout, so it took me a minute. “Wait, isn't that the dude from 'Rome'?” That was a great show that never got its due; Stevenson and co-star Kevin McKidd as Lucius Vorenus had such great chemistry as two mismatched Roman soldiers wandering through history. They were basically the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern of the rise and fall of the Roman empire—if HBO had let it fall. Instead they dropped it after two seasons. Too expensive. But it had a nice run. I should rewatch it.
Titus Pollo was not a nice man—rapey, not bright—but somehow Stevenson made him lovable. He seemed the big man who would protect you—unless you were on the wrong side, then he'd crushed your skull like a grape. Stevenson had charisma and a strong physical presence, and he went on to bigger roles, like Marvel's “The Punisher,” which seemed right but not quite. That character is humorless and that wasn't Stevenson. Humor shone in his eyes. After Titus, I don't think the entertainment industry quite found the right role for him. He was better than the roles he got.
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.
Thursday May 18, 2023
Dreaming of Stopping a Crook
I was at my father's house that wasn't my father's house, doing work-work in a sideroom. But rather than work, I was doing something I shouldn't have been doing—like watching old black-and-white sitcoms at 2:00 in the afternoon, as if it were a flashback to the wasted moments of elementary school summer vacations. Then I heard someone lumbering up the stairs. Or was I imagining it? No, there was a dude standing on the landing—stouter than my father, kind of bullish, wearing an ugly suit.
“Who are you?” I said.
He said his name was Henry Hathaway. He said my father had asked him to take away some stuff.
“What kind of stuff?”
Stuff from ... the fair.
The fair? I said. The man was obviously (and ineptly) up to no good, and so I said the thing you should never say in such an instance: “I'm calling the cops.”
Then he was shooting at me. He was chasing me and shooting at me. I could see the flight paths of the bullets, like in “The Matrix,” and even though I was trying to get out of range I couldn't get out of range. I felt a slight sting at times but that was it. Was he not using bullets? Was he using some other projectile? Or did he keep missing? I made it to a secret place where I could phone the cops, but even then I couldn't remember Dad's address. Then I flashed on it. Right, of course, 5339 Emerson.
Later I was telling this story later to a group of friends and acquaintances but we kept getting sidetracked. I only ever made it to the intro of Henry Hathaway. No one ever wanted to hear beyond that point. They kept missing the whole point of the story.
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.
All previous entries
Baseball's Active Leaders, 2023
What Trump Said When About COVID
Everything Everywhere All at Once (2022)
Black Panther: Wakanda Forever (2022)
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2022)
Spider-Man: No Way Home (2021)
A Midsummer Night's Dream (1935)
Something to Sing About (1937)
Angels with Dirty Faces (1938)
A Lion Is In the Streets (1953)
Man of a Thousand Faces (1957)
Never Steal Anything Small (1959)
Shake Hands With the Devil (1959)