Archive for Perspective

Multi-Grains of Truth

My hotel in Beijing is located in what seems to be a shopping district, just a few-minute stroll from the intersection of two wide avenues lined with high-end shops offering mostly Western luxury brands. From my window, I can only see a couple: Chanel and something called BlancPain, which is French for WhiteBread. Little wonder the latter hasn’t caught on in the States, nor that it has in China, where even the most generic cultural detritus of “Western individualism” is processed, packaged, commoditized and sold at low margins to a huge-and-getting-huger middle class starved for identity.

My combined travel time today was over 20 hours, of which I slept only two, but I decided to venture out into the city for dinner, anyway. A few blocks down the road, I stumbled into the Dong’anmen Night Food Market, where for a small handful of yuan one can feast on such delicacies as fried scorpion, silkworm cocoons and sheep’s penis. Having sampled a variety of insects and animal parts on my last trip to China (and having lived to regret it), I kept moving until I found essentially the opposite end of the gustatory spectrum: a vegetarian restaurant.

Fuhuiciyuan is tucked away inside a deceptively large, multipurpose Buddhist compound, which itself is hidden down the sort of dark alley where the red lights above its door might be mistaken for something more salacious. Virtually no English is spoken, and while the menu — which gives off the impression of a catalog — is printed in both Mandarin and English, the descriptions largely eschew ingredients in favor of dubiously specific health benefits. I ordered the hypertension relief.

To be more honest, I have no idea what I ordered. I merely pointed to a nice looking picture and then the nice girl who had waited patiently next to my table while I thumbed through the entire 30-or-so-page menu smiled and typed something into a weird, yellow device that looked exactly like how you’d imagine a PlaySkool cell phone. Not half a minute later, another nice girl brought the menu back and handed it to me again.

Had they run out of the thing in the picture I’d pointed at? There seemed to be no way to know. “Order again?” I tried. She made a hand gesture that I can only assume was intended to be helpful. After a moment, she said, “You … noodles?”

Me … noodles. Hmm.

“Yes?” I answered.

And five minutes later I had noodles — a whole mess of them, Sichuan-style in a spicy pepper sauce that made my nose run and still makes my mouth water thinking about it now. But that’s not all. I also had the first dish I’d pointed to, a colorful medley of … well, of largely unidentifiable vegetables. I spotted some lotus root in there, and surely one of those other things was a mushroom. To be sure, they were all delicious, but they were no match for the noodles.

Me noodles. Me definitely noodles.

After I paid (47 RMB, or roughly $8 for two large servings of delicious and probably healthy if not hypertension-fighting food) and got one of the nice girls to show me how to operate the exit (‘twas neither push nor pull), I headed back for the hotel, still tired from the day’s travel and now from the full belly.

Making my way past Dong’anmen, I was stopped by a homeless woman, probably a migrant farmer from the country living illegally in the city, one of millions willing to give up PRC government entitlements for a chance at Western-style free-market opportunity — which probably tells us as much about communism as it does about the human spirit.

“I’m very hungry,” she said in surprisingly good English. But it was too late. Before I’d even processed the words that came out of her mouth, I’d responded purely out of habit (“Sorry”) and continued pushing through the crowd. See, I come from San Francisco, where dodging the homeless is practically a sport. But in retrospect, I’m honestly not sure which is more shocking: the fact that a woman begged me to buy her a sheep’s penis, or the fact that I turned her down.

I yawned, stuffed my hands in my pockets and charged across the street before the light changed, hurrying past WhiteBread on the way back to my room.

Nothing just happened

Those moments. The ones when you brush ever so lightly against your own mortality. The close calls. When everything slows down like “The Matrix” and the sum total of your life hangs in the balance so clearly that you can pick it up and run your fingers over its craggy surface or roll it around in your hands like some dog’s toy. It’s so small, you think. So … insignificant. But it’s all there: the pitiful little triumphs wadded together among the immense mistakes, or if you’re lucky, vice versa. But if you’re human, chances are you scan the ledger of your life and feel the weight of the bottom line in your gut: You’re operating at a deficit. Suddenly you find yourself bargaining with higher powers — forces you don’t even believe in. Making promises to yourself. Commitments to be a better person. To live well, to love well, to always do the right thing. You awe at the immensity of everything, at the indescribable beauty of the grand illusion, and you thank the universe for giving you whatever tiny role you play in this incomprehensible, maddening, twisted, ridiculous, excruciating and oh-my-god-so-unbelievably-precious continuum called life.

And then the moment passes. Neurotransmitter hits receptor and your heart drums on. And so you move forward, continuing to do all the same stupid shit you did before, just like nothing ever happened.

Because, as far as anyone can tell, nothing ever did.

Double-decker slices of life


“Mommy, I went boom in my pants.”

In 1978, my mother retired her well-worn copy of Fleetwood Mac’s “Rumors” and re-married, giving her hand to a professional wrestler who was also a high school football coach and whose mission in life seemed to be to confirm every stereotype anyone had ever heard about New York Italians. Flaws aside, he had an Erik Estrada smile, and so mere months after we’d run into him at a matinee of “Darby O’Gill and the Little People,” they said their vows in a small backyard ceremony and moved us to the only neighborhood where they could afford a four-bedroom house.

It was a cookie-cutter subdivision aptly and depressingly named Four Winds. Even at a young age, I always imagined it signified that by moving there, your hopes and dreams for the future were officially scattered to the four winds. Our new house was located in  Brandon, Fla., a shitty little cowtown that was a suburb of Tampa, and it was in Brandon that I went on to spend many of what they call your “formative years.” I say this because when I finally left there 10 years later, I felt completely unformed as a human being.

Like many small towns across the country — perhaps the world — it was devoid of culture. We had a two-screen movie theater and a dilapidated bowling alley, but otherwise the landscape was an endless grid of cow pastures and churches and identical housing subdivisions (three of my best friends during this time lived in the exact same house a few blocks from each other). Essentially, it was “Pleasant Valley Sunday” only without the killer guitar riff and sweet vocal harmonies. Driving through Brandon in 1978 felt eerily like watching Fred Flintstone run through his house, as the exact same background passed by again and again and again.

Aside from a single McDonald’s and one of the last remaining Burger Chefs (look it up), there was just one restaurant in town. Recently opened, Babe’s was a no-frills pizza parlor with a super-creepy logo featuring a hollow-eyed toddler in a diaper tossing a pizza. Defying decades of marketing wisdom, it quickly became the de facto post-game destination for Little League teams.

For years, every Saturday after soccer, my parents and I — and occasionally my sister — would crowd into black vinyl booths alongside teammates and other parents to munch on Babe’s signature Double-Decker pizza while the kids marveled at the model train cars chugging around the ceiling and the adults held trial for whoever hadn’t mowed their lawn in more than a week.

That was some 25 to 30 years ago.

Tonight, for the first time in ages, I went to Babe’s. I have no idea why. As I was leaving the parking garage at work, I decided I would eat out and Babe’s,  inexplicably, was the first place that popped into my head.

So I drove, roughly 15 miles — past the tuxedo shop I managed in high school, past the strip mall where I got arrested for shoplifting, past the apartment complex where I first kissed a girl, through the intersection where I had my first car accident — and parked in the back, just like we always did back when I was a passenger and the idea of driving a car still seemed like the most glorious freedom in the world. (It is, you guys. It is.)

The twentysomething waitress pointed me to a table in the corner and asked if I’d ever been there before. I smiled, maybe just to myself, and said, “Yes, thanks.” I ordered a medium double-decker with pepperoni, green pepper and black olives, which I’m pretty sure is the only thing I’ve ever ordered at Babe’s in 32 years.

When I was a kid, my stepdad and I would split a double-decker. Four slices each. He usually couldn’t finish his half, but I always did. It was a point of pride for me. I couldn’t outdo him at much of anything, but when it came to eating, I was the king of the castle.

After two slices tonight, I was stuffed. That’s when I posted this:

Twenty-two years ago, I scored 780 out of 800 on the math section of the SAT.

Tonight, I couldn’t figure out why I was so full after just two slices of double-decker pizza.

Moments later, a friend who’d seen the post texted me — coincidentally, she’d gotten the exact same math score. We started discussing SAT performance and I admitted to her that my score on the reading and writing portions (back then, they were called “Verbal”) was embarrassingly low.

Mainly I confessed this because I thought I’d already mentioned it to her before. (Apparently not.) It’s always a difficult thing to explain.

I’m an editor. I’m a writer. I got a liberal arts degree. I chose this path, despite — and probably in spite of — the fact that it led me away from my natural gifts.

“You love a stuggle,” my friend texted. “Correction,” I replied. “I *used* to love a struggle.”

In 10th grade Geometry class, my teacher wrote out an “extra credit” problem on the board — I’m pretty sure it was something about defining the curvature of a projection using a Lie bracket, but it’s hard to remember exactly — and told us that anyone who could come up with the solution would get an A for the semester. I spent the rest of the period scribbling in my notebook and, just before the bell rang, raised my hand with the answer.

When the teacher responded with nothing but a wide-eyed look of shock, a classmate named Scott — the biggest bully at my school, a guy who wasn’t friendly to anyone, a guy who I’d watched break the nose of the second-biggest bully at my school in 6th grade, resulting in a geyser of blood that covered the lunch room floor — turned to me and shouted, “Man! I wish I had your brain!”

These days when the subject of intellect comes up, I often tell people, “I’ve never been smart; I’ve just always worn glasses.” I started saying it to be humble, but over the years I’ve come to believe it.

But you know what? I think I was probably pretty damn smart at one point.

And maybe that’s why it killed me to discover, via the SAT, that I was a profoundly mediocre English student. Maybe that’s why I chose to turn my back on math, which came naturally to me, in favor of language, which seemed to elude me entirely.

Or maybe I just wanted to piss off my dad, the accountant.

Either way, here I am. Forty years old, stuffed full of pizza and working as a mid-level editor at a fading publication in a dying industry. It would be extremely convenient if I still loved a struggle.

When you’re young, running around soccer fields and scarfing down pizza with your family, you just assume that as you get older you’ll also get better.

And once you finally get older, you realize you don’t even know what “better” means.

I’m kinder at 40 than I was at 15. I’m more generous. I’m more autonomous, certainly. More open-minded. More compassionate. Honest. Forgiving. Patient. Sincere. Appreciative.

Does that make me better?

I have no idea. I do know this: I’m nowhere near as smart as I used to be. I’m not as friendly or funny, either. I’m way more tired, and slower of mind and body. I’m almost devoid of energy or enthusiasm. And, also (this is a big one), hope.

Also, I can’t eat nearly as much pizza.

Does that make me worse?

Again, no idea.

Maybe it does. Maybe I peaked at 15. Maybe that was the best I’ll ever be, and the 25 years since have been nothing but a long, slow decline.

But at least I can drive now. And the pizza was fucking phenomenal.

Hey, everybody, it’s a bag of poo

Her Grayness

Cats: They don’t like you, either. I respect that.

This is a cat. You probably recognized that. They’re very common house pets. This one is named Millie, but she also answers to the following nicknames: Mill, Millip, Millicent, Millejandro and Her Grayness.

Millie is 11 years old. She enjoys playing fetch with wadded up ATM receipts, chasing flashlights projected onto the floor and sucking her thumb. Like me, she doesn’t care for most people. Unlike me, she positively abhors cheese.

She belongs to my ex. When we were together, I lived with Millie for about six years. She was slow to warm up to me, but finally gave in. To this day, I’m the only person other than my ex who can touch — or even approach — Millie without her growling, hissing and/or swatting. Sometimes when the vet tries to handle her, she gets so angry she literally poops.

She’s just not a people cat. I can respect that.

Which is why, when my ex received a two-month fellowship overseas, she asked if I’d be willing to let Millie move in for a while.

So here she is, stretching out on my couch, sleeping in my sock drawer and throwing up under my bed, just like old times. It’s been a lot like reconnecting with an old friend. The first couple of days we were both tentative, and then pretty soon it was like we’d never been apart. Me and Millie. Millie and me.

But we have been apart — for nearly three years. And certain things are different now.

Back then she had a “brother” and a “sister.” Buddy and Beeble were the two cats I brought to the relationship. About four years ago, Buddy suffered renal failure and I had to put him to sleep. Beeble is an outdoor cat now, living at a friend’s house, where she frolics in the garden.

Millie hated sharing space with the other cats — she isn’t a cat cat, either — but eventually learned to tolerate their existence and mostly just ignored them.

When it comes to humans, though, Millie never ignores. While she hates to have her personal space invaded, she always wants to be around people. It’s like she doesn’t trust them and wants to keep an eye on them. She’ll follow you around the house for hours, watching as you wash the dishes or do the laundry or play a video game — you know, just in case. But as soon as you look at her, she tenses up. And if you make a move in her direction, she’s gone.

Back when we lived together, I used to play guitar, a behavior which Millie found exceedingly suspicious. I’d sit on the couch and strum along while Millie would perch herself on an armrest and watch, wide-eyed, trying to get her head around what exactly I was trying to accomplish with that noisy contraption.

Once we’d established this routine, I started singing songs to her. Her theme song, a simple but soulful number that my ex made up, consisted almost entirely of an awkward but catchy chorus that went, “Millie … she does ne’er like cheese.”

My specialty, though, was changing the lyrics of popular songs so that they told stories about the cat and her unique personality. The only one I remember at the moment was a reworking of “Candy Says” by The Velvet Underground that went like this:

Millie says,
“I’ve come to hate most cheeses.”
“And I don’t think that baby Jesus …”
“… would disagreeeee.”

These are the kinds of stupid things you do with your pets when nobody is watching. At least subconsciously, you figure, “It’s only a cat. It won’t judge me.” But with Millie, it’s different. You always get the sense she’s looking at you like you’re completely ridiculous.

I was reminded of that look this morning when I went to clean out Millie’s litter box. Back when we lived together, the litter box was one of my daily chores, and I crawled out of bed every morning to take care of it without even opening my eyes. One morning, though, I woke up with a tune in my head, some stray melody left over from a dream that I somehow managed to bring back into the waking world with me.

As I stood there scooping shit into a plastic grocery bag, I saw Millie sitting on the washing machine, watching me intently with a look that said, “Whatever you do, human, don’t engage in any nonsense. Because I loathe nonsense.”

And so my hand was forced. I started singing aloud to the tune in my head, a sort of country-ish jig that, in retrospect, is nearly identical to the melody from “Particle Man” by They Might Be Giants. The words that came out of my barely awake brain were as follows:

Bag of poo. Bag of poo.
Hey, everybody, it’s a bag of poo.
Buddy’s poo, and Beeble’s poo, and Millie’s poo, too.
Hey, everybody, it’s a bag of poo.

Brilliant, no? I never bothered to add a second verse, because why mess with perfection, right?

Anyway, after that, I sang that song every morning for at least a year before I went my way while my ex took Millie and went hers.

I sang it again today, for the first time since around May of 2007, and I suppose I’ll be singing it every morning through the end of July when Millie goes home. It’s no longer technically accurate, of course — today’s grocery bag contained the poo of only a single feline.

But that’s when two things occurred to me. First, that while I really miss Buddy, I don’t miss his poo one bit. And second … I feel pretty much the exact same way about my marriage.

“Things That Weren’t Built In A Day” for $200, Alex

The Great Wall

I am sooooo high.

I was hunkering down in the first-class lounge at the Beijing airport with my laptop and a bottle of Johnnie Walker while I waited to catch a plane back to the States when it occurred to me. “The fact that I talked my way in here tells me either Eastern cultures find social ineptitude irresistibly charming or my charisma is temporarily bolstered by an absolutely insatiable need for social contact.”

Indeed, you can’t fully grasp the meaning of the word “alienated” until you’ve gone two weeks without any significant human interaction beyond drawing stick figures on cocktail napkins or smiling and nodding while pointing at menu items. Decades of take-out fried rice orders had led me to believe communication with the people of China would be a lot more conveniently numbered than it turned out to be.

Innocent attempts to further bridge this cultural chasm could lead to results as mildly inconvenient as turning down the wrong street or as embarrassing and unfortunate as inadvertently propositioning a hooker. (Yes, really.)

After two weeks of awkwardly navigating the social byways of foreign tourism everywhere from the bustling streets of Hong Kong to the hillside cave-slums of Xi’an, I concluded my journey with a visit to the Great Wall of China.

They say the Great Wall is the only man-made object you can see from outer space (mercifully, they specify “man-made,” thereby disqualifying my forehead), which gives you a pretty good idea that this is one heck of a long wall. In fact, it stretches on for about 5,500 miles — almost twice the width of the entire United States.

What they don’t tell you is how high it goes. On my last full day in China, I visited a well-preserved, 300-plus-year-old section of the wall in Mutianyu (about 40 miles outside Beijing) that winds up, down and around the area’s mountainous landscape. I had to take a skyride just to get to the base of the wall, and once I got to that point, both directions offered a daunting uphill climb.

But, hey, I’m pretty fit for a chain-smoking alcoholic, so what the hell?

To reach the wall’s highest point, I trudged up steep inclines and haphazard steps for nearly 45 minutes without taking a break. By the time I reached the top watchtower, my clothes were soaked through with sweat, my face and arms were covered with dead bugs, and my legs and lungs were burning with the fire of conviction. I slumped down on the stone and the sun beat down, basking me in its triumphant glow. Moments later, a couple of other tourists climbed wearily over the threshold, and we exchanged tired glances and mustered half-smiles that said, “We made it!”

It was glorious.

Five days later I’m sitting at a desk in a long row of similar desks, quietly filling out time sheets and approving expense reports. It probably goes without saying that this sort of juxtaposition affords one a fair amount of what people like to call “perspective.”