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.

IMG_20160608_1408562_rewind

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.

2014-06-26 19.04.21

Only One Way to Go: Down

I was driving a van up a one-way, steep mountain incline. Four of us were on our way to a mountaintop retreat with a van packed with luggage and accessories. I whipped around one steep turn and gunned it in first as I plodded up the hill when a horribly sick sinking feeling struck me: this van was not going to make it. It bogged down and nearly stalled. The power had dissipated. The only thing which was still going higher was the engine temperature. A driving predicament presented itself in vivid tropical terms: to the left was a steep cliff down to a quick death, to the right was walled cliff straight up, to the front was the steep grade my van couldn’t conquer, so only one option remained. Down.

As I looked in my rear view mirror, I didn’t like this option any better than the other three. Well, okay, it was better than the cliff to my left. The mirror revealed a narrow steep path I would have to back down. At the bottom of the grade was a hairpin turn that I would have to make in reverse with a van full of people. If I missed the turn, we would scoot into a large gully. I didn’t like our chances. I wanted better odds, but if I couldn’t get better odds, at least I hoped I had good brakes. I didn’t want to back this down, but there was no other choice. We couldn’t very well stay stuck on the steep grade for eternity.

So with the clutch pushed in, I started backing down, now hoping, trusting, and wishing on the brakes.

Life, from time to time, gives us little moments to increase our awareness of our own humanity. One slight misdirect and it all goes crashing over the cliff. The heart rate increases, the tense eyes are brought tenser by the dour movement of the eyebrows, muscles contract, the voice is slightly raised and urgent, sights and sounds are zoomed into a narrow focus — keep it tight, keep it real, stay focused, a lot rides on this — and you give it all you have to make it right, even if it doesn’t feel right in your gut.

When was the last time you felt like this? When was the last time that circumstances gave you a lesson in humanity, its frailness, its fickleness, its fleet-footed-ness?

In this particular case, I backed the van down to the lip of the curve, and as providence would have it, a van-sized pull-off was on the right. All I had to do was pull up the hill a smidgen, back carefully into the pull-off without my front tire falling off the cliff on the right, and I was on flat ground in the middle of mountain. I could breathe again.

Whatever cliff you are next to, keep the focus, look for the nearest pull-off and remind yourself that it’s a good day to be alive.

The Reason is Now Clear

In this article “Mom is Shamed for Cake Slice in Kid’s Lunch,” I have begun to understand why the heavens didn’t want me to raise my kids in the United States. It would not have been pretty.

And unfortunately, this article isn’t an outlier. There are (regrettably) way too many instances of schools telling parents what they can and can’t do that I’m sure I know the reason why I needed to be overseas.

You want other examples?  How about the mother who was chastised for sending her daughter to school with a lunch consisting over a turkey sandwich, chips, a banana, and juice. She was promptly told that her lunch wasn’t healthy enough and was given chicken nuggets to supplement. I wish I was making this up, but I’m not.

Then there was the school which prohibited all students from walking to school, regardless of how close they lived to the school. All students had to be dropped off in a car–even those who lived next door.

And don’t get me started on the “sexual surveys” given out to children as young as six years old in a Los Angeles school district.

It’s articles like these that reinforces why it was I was meant to raise my kids overseas. Because I wouldn’t have been able to take it. I’m a mild-mannered kind of guy, but these …  these are my pet peeves. These I would make a stand against. These I would gladly fight, and like I said, it wouldn’t have been pretty.

I would have sent my kids to school with nothing but chocolate cake for an entire week.

I would have walked my kid to school everyday to force a showdown with the principal.

I  would have left out the banana and sent two bags of chips.

Yes, it’s a good thing for everyone involved that I raised my kids overseas. You know why? Because I got to raise them the way that I saw fit. I got to give them treats when I wanted to. I was able to give them permission to leave the house on their own. Shocking!  Actually, when in Vietnam, our kids used to wake up before us, unlock the front door, and walk down to a little street stall to order breakfast by themselves while their derelict parents slept. It was awesome!  They loved it too. (as did our neighbors)

I  wonder what the school food police would have said about my lunches back in the day. I had two standards: bologna and ketchup on white bread or peanut butter and jelly. My friend brought a PBJ, pringles, and a Twinkie every  day! Every day! I was beyond jealous. He had such good parents.

Maybe I’m old fashioned, but in my mind, parenting belongs in the realm of parents. Let schools actually try to teach them about random things like math, English, history, and science.

I’ve never been threatened with arrest, and it’s probably because I raised my kids overseas. The heavens knew what they were doing.

What’s the Future of Complication Like?

I’ve been thinking about my recent blog post The Good Old Less Complicated Days and started wondering about my kids: will they look back upon the 2010s as the “Good Old Less Complicated Days?”

The premise of my post was this: our modern world has become so complicated that I sometimes wonder if life before gadgets and computers was actually better. At the very least, I wish we could visit the past every once in a while, but honestly, I’m too addicted to my technology. Grrrr. At least I admit it.

What prompted such nostalgia was a weekend of doing taxes, college admission documents, Obamacare health issues, and documents for my new job. It was all overwhelmingly complicated and I started to think if this is the kind of society we really wanted to create.

But what really got my noggin exploding was the possible thought that my kids, some thirty years in the future, might look back at the 2010s and wish for “The Good Old Less Complicated Days?”

Will they wish for the tax code of 2017?  Will they long for the student loan and FAFSA processes of today?  Will they wax fondling about Obamacare’s easy navigation compared to what President 2047 institutes?  Will they harbor longings of love and fond feelings for the bureaucratic red tape of the Obama and Trump years?

Seriously. Computers and gadgets are supposed to make our lives easier, but I’m not sure it’s working out so well.

My solace is that my kids have actually experienced simple life at its finest. They all grew up for a good part of their childhood in Vietnam.  This is the Vietnam before shopping malls and cell phones and Internet. My kids road bikes, played rubber band games with their neighbor friends, played Vietnamese hopscotch, and walked out into the evening street to eat snails with their classmates. They didn’t once post a snail picture for Instagram. The Vietnam they grew up in the 1990s and early 2000s was indeed analogous to my own childhood. Not that anything between the two were remotely alike, but they were simple. And my kids are better for it. I’m sure of it.

But one day I might have grand kids. Oh my, those poor people.

I’ll leave you with a couple photos of my kids in Vietnam. And yes, I get the irony of this post.

neighborhood-kids

My kids with their adorable friends. Life was simpler then.

our-street-with-cows

Need further proof? Our street had water buffalo!  Yes, actual water buffalo! Life was simple. (That was our house on the left.)

The Good Old Less Complicated Days

My brain feels like it just experienced a two hour session as a tackle dummy, and no, it has nothing to do with having just watched the Oscars or network TV. It has to do with modern life. Silly old modern life. The kind of lives we lead in this day and age are insane, are they not? Life continually piles on us a minutia of important “necessities” which eventually buries you in a blanket of wet snow. You don’t even know you have a foot of cold stuff on your shoulders until its too late. Wouldn’t it be nice to go back to the good old less complicated days?

What have I been doing to that makes me scoff at our modern life?  Taxes.

Yes, I just completed my taxes. I even used an online service which charges way too much, but the ease of use makes it too tempting to complete it any other way. And even with the aid of the Internet and an online service that knows all the ins and outs, I still walk away with a brain full of mush. (I realize some of it might have been there before the taxes, but still …)

We all know how complicated the wizards of Washington have made tax filing,  but if that was the extent of the mind-boggling complications of the modern world, then maybe I could accept it. But it’s not even close.

I’m also working with my son this weekend to complete college documents. We’ve already sunk enough time into the FAFSA. Now we have to do something called verification. I guess we seem shady for some reason. Okay, let’s verify these documents. Hmmm, in order to do this, it reverts back to taxes. What do you know?  I need my 2015 tax returns. Okay, they’re on some digital storage that I have. Here they are. Wait. What’s the password?  Oh, if I forget the password, I can make a new one. Delightful. Let’s login to email.

As if taxes and colleges weren’t enough this weekend, I’ll be moving to my new job in 5.5 months, so it’s time to get cracking. Employment documents. Transcripts. Passport numbers. Addresses and phone numbers of every place I’ll be over the next 5 months.

We modern travelers are surrounded by documents, numbers, and complicated tasks, made easier, yet actually more complicated by our computers. They are amazing at complicating simplification.

So on days like this, I long for the good old uncomplicated days. Example: I remember as a boy, putting on my blue jeans and a t-shirt and going over to our friend’s farm. I would run ahead of the wagon and tractor, gathering into stacks newly formed hay balls, and then throwing them on the wagon and stacking them in unique and creative ways. We’d unload them in the barn, and then the farmer’s mother would call us in for a huge spread of meat, potatoes, bread, home-made root beer, and a variety of pies and cakes. Not one of us checked our cell phones all day. Not one of us worried about tax forms or documents or numbers, except for how many slices of pie we would eat.

I sometimes miss the simplicity of old-fashioned hard work out in the sun. You do your job, then it’s done. There aren’t twenty emails to answer when I got home.

Life back then wasn’t perfect. But it was simpler. I think all of us modern folks could use a little simplification in our lives.