Great Hanoi (& Haiphong) Rat Massacre

I ran across this fascinating article a while back which I wanted to share. It’s about the great Hanoi rat massacre during the time of French colonialism. I don’t want to spoil the entire article because it’s a great read, but the crux of it gets to the amazing entrepreneurial spirit of the Vietnamese people. The French colonial administration wanted to address the growing rat population within the underground sewer systems of Hanoi. The modern sewer system was meant to civilize things in the capital of Tonkin, their crown jewel of a colony. But the idea of increasing sanitation backfired when the rats soon discovered that the drains and sewers were perfect places to live, thrive, and have baby rats. The rat infestation became unbearable until the French administration came up with a brilliant idea: pay Hanoi residents for dead rats. This sent a rash of rat hunters into the sewers in search of the critters. They only had to turn in the rat tails. The French had no desire to have to deal with actual rat bodies. So each tail turned in would yield a monetary reward. But the clever Vietnamese saw an opportunity. Killing the rats would actually diminish their ability to make money off of killing rats. So what was the solution? Simple and brilliant. Cut off the tails, turn them in, but don’t kill the rats. Soon the city was infested with tail-less rats who could still reproduce to have more rats. This was French planning at its worse. Read the entire article at the link:

Great Hanoi Rat Massacre

I can’t think about rats in Vietnam without remembering what our team-teaching colleague did for us during our third year teaching in Haiphong in 1997. My second daughter was just born in a hospital in Thailand. We spent six weeks there preparing for the baby’s arrival. We lived in a small shared apartment at the Maritime University with our teammate, Joe. The living quarters were Spartan, to say the least. Actually, they were not very nice in accordance with western standards, but we did our best to make it a home for us. Joe also had been in Thailand for a conference, and he headed home first before our return with our newborn child. When he arrived and entered the kitchen, it was as if a war zone had manifested itself in our living space. Trash and chewed-up food stuff was scattered all over. Tupperware and storage containers had been chewed through. Rat poop was all over the place. The citadel had fallen. The rats had taken over.

But Joe, being the incredible guy that he was, wasn’t going to allow the place to be infested with rodents with our newborn baby on the way. He got to work. He set traps. He laid down poison. He physically beat rats, chasing them with a stick. All in all, he killed nine of them in our kitchen, if my memory serves me correctly. He threw out all infested items and bleached and cleaned the dingy tile until it was about as clean as it was ever going to get. We arrived home to a spic-n-span apartment. A sterile and safe place for our child. When he told the tale of what had happened, we knew that the great rat massacre of 1997 had occurred, and we were blessed to have such a caring teammate to live with.

Thank you, Joe. And thanks also for not saving the tails for me.

America in Decline? I Don’t See It.

I’ve been blessed with two months of blissful rest this summer. It’s been wonderful to reconnect with many family members I don’t have the opportunity to visit often. I’ve had the chance to eat some (too much, actually) some culinary delights which I didn’t get often in Asia. And I’ve had ample chances already, with still six weeks ahead of me, to enjoy the wonderful outdoors of an American northeastern summer. The weather has been cooler and wetter than usual, and that has led to week after week of wonderful brisk evening air, vivid green rolling hillsides, and enough fresh produce to make anyone smile. I grew up in America, yet I’m always amazed at what a unique and amazing place it really is. The talk of American decline doesn’t include the green countryside. I swear, there couldn’t be any more trees anywhere in the world than the country realms of Pennsylvania and New York. Endless, for hundreds of miles. Tremendous. No decline there.

The real people in America aren’t caught up in the nasty politics of the day. The banker I met today who helped my son open his first bank account didn’t care a lick about political persuasions or across the aisle name calling. The woman who duplicated two keys for me in her small locksmith shop didn’t bicker about Washington gridlock. We chatted, like human beings, acknowledging the strange indentations on my key. We thanked each other and parted. No decline there.

Streets are lined with businesses and opportunities that pop up over night. I passed a country farm house way in the New York farmlands where one person plopped a food trailer in front of his house, as isolated from humanity as it was, and plastered it with every fast food advertisement you could think of. You could get grilled sandwiches, burgers, dogs, drinks, ice cream, and many other kinds of typical American fare. He didn’t care about the outside world. He sought the passerbyers. It looks like he succeeded.

In my parents country neighborhood, gas company XTO has already drilled 5000 feet into the earth, creating horizontal drills at that depth for miles as they begin the many years process of fracturing the compressed shale and pump out the natural gas which is going to power America into the future. The company is buying up rights, paying out royalties, and is creating a buzz in the neighborhood that hasn’t been there since Western PA’s big oil push way back in the 1870-1890s. This tiny village hasn’t changed in 50 years, yet no signs of decline here.

Industries come and go. Stores close while others open. Kids grow up. Schools expand and then contract. Churches lose influence and shutter their doors, while new congregations rent mall space or other creative setting to nurture their fledgling congregation. Families enlarge. People move away. Some people find success while other soldier on through hard times. Students struggle between work and school. Some lose hope while others fight on to fulfill their dreams. Many will reach it. Others will settle into something rather unexpected and learn to like it.

Weekends will come and go. Elderly couples will kayak on the lake. Lines of cars will snap up the soft serve. Millions will go to ballgames, from Little League to wacky minor league fields to the majors. They’ll eat hotdogs, yell at the umpires, and chew the fat with their neighbors. Lawns will be mowed, home repairs started, and families will gather in reunions.

All of this happens without the media, without Congress, without the President, without any regard to any Supreme Court ruling, or without any concern about terrorism or foreign battle fields.  This all happens without racist overtones, identity politics, or rioting and looting outside the G20 meetings.

There may be real problems which need to be solved as this country moves into the future, but America is not in decline. It’s as vibrant, resilient, cocky yet tentative as always. It lives and dies with the cycle of life inhabited by its people during their daily routines. I’ve been watching these routines, and they are as hopeful as ever. The American dream is not dead because I’ve seen it alive again and again during these past two weeks. It’s as real as its always been, no thanks to any political parties in Washington.

 

 

 

 

Visuals are Overrated

Visuals are Overrated

I grew up listening to baseball on the radio. I first discovered it as a nine year old in 1976 when I stumbled upon KDKA carrying the rhythmic, ritualistic broadcasts of the Pittsburgh Pirates.  When I started playing baseball in the spring of 1977, I became completely hooked on the calls of Milo Hamilton and the young Lanny Frattare. Radio is, admittedly, my third choice for following a baseball game. Attending the game is first, no doubt, followed by watching it on TV. Radio brings up the rear.

And yet, as I am currently sitting in the evening breeze of the western NY countryside, sitting by a mellow fire, listening the delightful verbal jaunts of Greg Brown and Bob Walk while I write this blog post, I cannot imagine that I would rather be watching it on TV or even in person.

Tonight I don’t have a choice. Radio is my only option, and boy am I glad.

The visual compels us. The imagination takes us away.

Baseball already has a slow, deliberate pace—perfect for gabbing, laughing, eating, and drinking. Baseball allows one to breathe, using boredom as an art form to build tension and unsurpassed drama when the game is on the line. Baseball eschews time, allows fate to be fulfilled no matter how preposterous.  Radio heightens all of this.

Baseball on radio allows you to paint your own picture while working on something else. Baseball on radio is a story, many stories, highlighted by announcers who can fill in the dead air with anecdotes, silliness, and in-depth analysis. It’s a series of crescendos—nine of them actually. Voices are magnified, great plays become improbable plays in your mind, homeruns are always Ruthian, and hard hit balls have a beautiful crack of the bat—a literal crack, that historically relevant sound of wound wool and leather on ash. Each pitch is measured, each move accounted for, each run emphasized by the natural excitement of the announcer.

I love baseball on the radio. I miss it.

Why don’t I always listen?

Because, when the visuals are available, I will always choose them. Always.

I just wish they weren’t available so often.

So thank you, stupid MLB blackout rules.

A Railroad Trail

Three hundred yards behind the house where I grew up was a railroad track. Now its a beautiful bike trail.

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The railroad tracks provided an important hub of activity of my childhood. It was a small, rather insignificant line which traveled from Butler PA to Freeport and beyond, but as a young boy, it was as if Commodore Vanderbilt himself had named this line the most important one in the world. The rambunctious young country kids would hang out at the tracks, putting our ear on the steel rails as we tried to listen for the vibration from an oncoming locomotive. I always felt like a Cheerokee warrior when I did that, trying to hear the rumbling of the cowboy posse coming my way. When it did arrive, we would stand on the side banks signaling for the engine to blow its whistle and throwing stones at the freight cars. The best part, however, was when the caboose arrived, we would yell and scream and, invariably, an engineer would poke his head out of the back and throw us candy. Yeah, it was the greatest thing in the world. And it kept getting better.

One summer we heard that Conrail had purchased our tracks. I had no idea what that meant only that Conrail was, at the time, the largest railroad company in the world. That proved the importance of my little track. The largest company in the world ran freight behind my house. I spent hours there. Picking berries along the route. Putting pennies on the track to be amazed at how the train flattened them into smooth oval metal charms. I would use the rails as balancing beams and see how far I could walk on them without touching down. There were certain parts of the tracks which entered the “cliff” sections. We always joshed with each other about how not to get caught in these sections when the train approached or we would have to cling on the rocks hoping the train wouldn’t ever suck us under its weight. It was a real fear of mine. Of course, nothing so dramatic ever happened, but the perceived danger heightened the wonderfulness of it all. Here’s one of those “cliffs”. Yeah, I’m pretty sure I could have figured something out.

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After I went off to college, the line eventually shut down. Years later the tracks were removed and the community was in an uproar as to what would happen to the railroad land. Of course land owners who buttressed up against the tracks wanted it to revert to them. But the community leaders had different plans and they went about creating a bicycling trail. There were lawsuits and many obstacles along the way, but what they have created is a beautiful long bike trail through the charming and beautiful Pennsylvania countryside. Someone got this one right. Now this narrow strip of land is creating new memories for families and kids which will last for another generation.

There’s nothing quite as awesome as a railroad. But a bike trail isn’t a far off second.

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The trees in the background hide the elevated railroad tracks/trail which were built to cut the valley in two.

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A view from the trail. That’s my childhood house nestled between the branches.

 

 

 

 

Sally, Where are you?

I’ve been rummaging through boxes of old mementos, and I came across a letter from a former student of mine. Here name was Sally. That’s not her real name. She’s Chinese from Dalian where I spent the summer of 1993. I remember her well. She taught me to play Chinese chess, which I have since forgotten. She had a bubbly personality and was a pleasure to chat with. When I left China, we exchanged a few letters and as time would have it, the summer of 1993 faded from our memories. The letters stopped as our lives continued in new directions. But I still remember Sally. Here’s the short letter she wrote to me that I found today:

“Mark, how are you? I’m eagerly to hear from you. I’m too busy to write to you. I have a lot word to talk with you, about my new work. So I write another letter to you. Post a book you’d like to read. ‘Selected Stories of Lu Hsun” and a very traditional Chinese disc. I hope you like it. Ok. God with you!”

Sally  93.02.09

Thank you, Sally. I wish I remembered your Chinese name and knew how to find you, but I don’t. I wonder where you are now. I wonder where your English language skills have taken you. You must be forty years old now with a family. Do you encourage your kids to learn English? Did you stay in Dalian? Have you had a happy life?

People come and go in one’s life. Sally is one who has gone. But I still remember her and I wish that the years have treated her well and that the brief moment I was her teacher in the summer of 1993 played a small role in her being able to accomplish her dreams.

God with you, Sally.

 

40 Years Ago – Star Wars at Penn Theater

Recently, Star Wars celebrated its 40th year anniversary of its original theatrical release in 1977. I remember it well.

I was nine years old and had seen an extremely low number of movies in my lifetime up to that point. Maybe two. One for sure. My family didn’t go to movies. We were not the entertainment type. We were the sit on the front porch and watch the neighbors type. I do remember seeing The Hiding Place in 1976, which we undoubtedly saw because of its Christian foundation. I enjoyed that movie tremendously, and re-watched it two years ago before visiting the Corrie Ten Boon house in Haarlem, Netherlands. Star Wars, however, was different.

My sister, Melanie, who was seven years older than me with a drivers license, had bought into the media hype surrounding the big release and wanted to take me and my brother, who was 15. Of course the movie had never before seen special effects! It was all as mesmerizing as it could have been by word of mouth or by a small black and white ad on the next to  the last page of the daily Butler Eagle. Melanie arranged a time when the car would be available and we went, most assuredly, on a Saturday afternoon of early May 1977.

I remember three things about that day. The first was my brother’s doubts about the film. He downplayed its potential because “he didn’t like science fiction” films. He was such the skeptic that I wondered why he went, but I didn’t care. We were standing in line at the Penn Theater in downtown Butler with my brother’s doom and doubt sitting on our shoulders, and it was wonderful. There was excitement in the air–an opportunity to go out on the town, six miles from home without any parents, an amazingly rare treat for us back then. It turned out that Star Wars was just the beginning of an unforgettable year for me.  Just one month after the opening of Star Wars, our family would have our yearly end-of-school celebration where we would go to Winky’s and eat a hamburger. That was our yearly ration of restaurant fare. Later that summer, I would attend my very first Pirates game. I still remember that they lost 4-1 with Dave Parker scoring the only run, to which I commented “Of course, he’s the only one who ever does anything.” I wouldn’t mind having that lineup back.

1977 sat large on my mind that day and would forevermore since it would also be the last year we would have with our sister Melanie, as she passed on in February of the following year.

So that line, on that day, in my memory today, holds a special moment. A frozen link to my childhood that I’ll never forget. We went in and watched the film. The second thing I remember is how I was mesmerized from start to finish. It must have felt like a second in a wonderland, a million miles away from the slow-paced country life I was used to. A dreamworld where anything could come true and a small boy of nine could realize his potential in profound and unforgettable ways.

The third memory is when my brother ate crow. His face shone wide-eyed and his expressions exaggerated as he blurted out the most contrarian line he could think of as we emerged onto Main Street: “That was the best movie I’ve ever seen!”

Yes, it was. And it’s still one of my best memories.

 

 

Intersection of Meaning

I snapped this in Georgetown, Penang a while back. I suppose I was just be nostalgic. But what a meeting of forces.

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Kapitan is on Pitt Street.

Two of the best. One one street. Amazing.

Okay, explanation needed. Pitt – as in William Pitt – as in Pittsburgh, the city near and dear to me, a mere 25 miles from where I grew up. I have been a Pirates fan since 1976 when I discovered them on the radio at the age of 9. I’ve never looked back since. Modern Pittsburgh has grown into a wonderful city. I love going to PNC park in the summers whenever I get a chance.

So to find Pitt Street as the location of the famed Kapitan, wow! The stars have aligned. Kapitan is regarded as one of the best, if not best, Indian restaurant in Penang – and Penang has many wonderful Indian restaurants. Crispy chewy naan bread (mine with butter and garlic) to dip in chicken tikka butter masala. Or hey, why not some briyani rice. You can’t go wrong and you’ll walk away with a tone of flavorful overtones which will last a long time.

Two important impressions in my life – one on the palate – one on my memory and heart. And here they are together in the place where I’ve lived for eleven years.

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