Saturday, December 15, 2007

Here Comes Santa Claus

I finished my last paper of the semester mid-afternoon on Saturday, bringing my grand total of pages written over the course of this semester close to 160, single spaced of course, meaning that if all those pages had been on the same topic, I basically just wrote a book in four months. I mean, granted, it's a book no one wants to read--heck, I don't even want to read it--but, still, pondering that number of pages makes me feel just the tiniest bit proud. If only quantity and quality were the same thing.

Having emailed my paper to my professor, I gathered my books and left the public library, where I had been sitting on the floor for the last hour or so, having decided that shivering on a cold tile floor was, for some strange reason, more comfortable than sitting at a desk. As I walked towards the library door, I began to think about what I would do with my newfound Christmas break freedom: bake Christmas cookies! Decorate a Christmas tree! Shop for Christmas presents! Dress up like a Christmas gypsy! With schoolwork out of the way, I could finally think about the season.

The first thing I saw when I opened the library door was a guy dressed as Santa Claus. And behind him, a girl dressed as Santa Claus. And behind her, a whole group of people dressed as Santa Claus. As I rounded the corner into downtown, I realized everyone was dressed like Santa Claus: milling around on the main drag of downtown were about, oh, five hundred people dressed as Santa, pouring out of the metro station, flitting in and out of bars, and standing in the middle of the road. It was a Santa invasion, and it felt like the universe had conspired to show me not just a good time, but a wonderful time: the most wonderful time of the year.

I walked up to one of those imitation Santas and asked him what was going on; "SantaCon!" he said, slightly drunkenly and with his mouth full of pizza. I wish I could say that that explained everything for me, as that would imply I'm somewhat hip to counterculture--or pop culture, or flash mob culture, or maybe just culture, period--but of course I had to ask some more questions, learning that this was a group of people, dressed in cheap Santa costumes--including a Hanukkah Santa (all in blue and stars of David and carrying a Menorah), a bikini Santa, and a Santa Claus that was definitely not just kissing Mommy--that was moving across the East Bay, basically getting progressively noisier and drunker. There may have been some lists, and some double-checking of said lists, but I doubt it; this group was mostly into drunken singing, or, at the very least, drunken shouting "Santa loves you!"

I love Santa too, and that was pretty much the best welcome to the Christmas holiday ever, even if I did have to wonder whether the bikini Santa was a man or a woman. (Man. Mostly.) I must have been nice to deserve this sight, and, trust me, there won't be any crying or pouting this year, not from me.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Grad Students Who Know

with apologies to Julie B. Beck

Grad Students Who Know Write Papers

Grad students who know write papers. While there are those in the world who decry the old values of "publish or perish," in the culture of graduate school good students still believe in writing papers, preferably as many as possible. The wisest advisers teach that first year graduate students should not postpone writing papers, and that the requirement for righteous graduate students to multiply and replenish the library remains in force. There is academic power and influence in writing.

Grad Students Who Know Honor Academic Obligations and Commitments

Grad students who know honor their academic obligations and commitments. I have visited some of the most prestigious universities on earth, where grad students fulfill all their responsibilities, despite walking for miles or using sketchy public transportation. They drag themselves onto campus no matter how little sleep they got the night before or how unfinished their course projects are. These grad students know they are going to classes and seminars, where free food might be offered. They know if they are not going to class, they are not impressing their professorial colleagues, and, also, they might go hungry.

Grad Students Who Know are Studiers

Grad students who know are studiers. This is their special assignment and role within the plan of a university. To study means to observe, analyze, contemplate, or learn about. Another word for studying is procrastinating. Procrastinating includes blogging, talking to friends, and, sometimes, in times of greatest stress, washing clothes and dishes, scrubbing floors and toilets, and keeping an orderly apartment. Studying grad students are knowledgeable, but all their education will avail them nothing if they do not have the skills to procrastinate. Grad students should be the best procrastinators in the world.

Grad Students Who Know Do Less

Grad students who know do less. During the last few weeks of the semester, they permit less of what will not bear good fruit academically. They allow less media in their homes, less distraction, less social activity, less leisure reading, and less time devoted to the basics of hygiene, nutrition, and exercise. Grad students who know are willing to live on less so they can spend more time with their homework: more time thinking, more time reading, more time writing, more time talking to their adviser. These grad students choose carefully, and do not try to choose having a life outside of academia. Their goal is to get their PhDs, so one day they can prepare a rising generation of grad students who will take their pet theories into the entire field. That is influence; that is power.

It is my sincere hope that we all, in these last days of the semester, can strive to become graduate students who know, and I testify that the dean will reward us for doing so.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

In the Bleak Midwinter

I dashed around the corner to my local grocery store for some sustenance items, which here means "hot chocolate and cookies to keep me awake and happy during an all-night paper-writing spree." While paying, I briefly chatted with the man behind the counter, who commented on how delicious hot chocolate is, especially on a cold December night. I agreed with him, and noticed that the door to his store, which is usually wide open and welcoming, was closed tonight, presumably to keep out the cold, right? We complained about the weather for a few minutes together, discussing how much we were looking forward to curling up with a warm blanket and, in my case at least, cup of hot chocolate. I handed over my cash, saying "stay warm!" in lieu of "goodbye," and headed home, shivering the whole way.

The problem? It's 55 degrees out. We are so spoiled.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Fork It Over

As I was walking home from school yesterday evening, I thought I heard a homeless man ask for a spare.

I turned, and, taking out the headphones which were blasting an audiobook of "The Portrait of a Lady," asked, "A spare what?" I had just been to the laundromat for quarters, so I actually had change to give, but what if he wanted, I don't know, a spare tire? A spare cigarette? A spare bedroom?

He shook his head. "Not a spare, a spoon. Do you have a spoon?"

Who carries a spoon around with them? I thought to myself. "No, sorry, I don't," I said. "But I do have a fork."

He considered for a moment and said, "Okay, that will do. Can I have your fork?"

I pulled it out of my backpack, handed it to him, and turned to go.

"Wait!" he said. "This is a nice metal fork. I can't take this."

I told him it was no problem, but he insisted. "I live in a hospital, and if I come home with this they'll think I've stolen it."

Oh. So I stopped and waited while he ate the last few ice cream bites of his root beer float and told me all about how the neighborhood has really gone downhill. When he was done he thanked me nicely, handed back the fork, and ambled off to who-knows-where.

And that, friends, is why I like living in a city.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Let One Interpret

I never know how I get involved in these things. One minute I'm sitting in Indonesian class, nodding yes, yes, yes, Ibu Professor, I am listening, and I do understand you, and the next minute I'm doing simultaneous interpretation of a traditional Javanese shadow puppet show (or wayang) for an audience of about 500 people.

I think I should be more careful when I nod.

This wayang show was mostly a performance of the university's gamelan group, but, to make gamelan music sound ever so slightly less intolerable to a Western audience, they had invited a dalang to put on a wayang show. (The translation for dalang that Indonesians tend to prefer is "shadow master"; that sounds more like a badly-translated Japanese video game villain than a mild-mannered Javanese artist, so we'll stick with the Javanese word, okay?) That way, the show would not simply be two hours of random banging. It would be two hours of random banging AND PUPPETS!!! That distinction is key.

(I should note, here, that gamelan is an intricate and ancient art form that is certainly not just random banging. Even if it does sound like it.)

In any case, those running the event realized that wayang isn't any fun to watch if you don't understand it, so they called up my professor to ask if she would translate. She agreed, and then instantly assigned three of her students, myself included, to do it instead. Because, really, what are grad students for, if not doing the unpleasant parts of a professor's job?

I've done simultaneous interpretation before, but never quite like this. The dalang and his shadow screen were up on stage, along with the gamelan players, while I and my classmates knelt at the side of the stage, with a laptop, typing, in English, what the dalang was saying, as he was saying it. The laptop was then connected to a projector, and everything we typed was displayed on a screen hanging on the back of the wall. Yes, that's right--everything. I've never seen my typos so, um, huge before.

The dalang was kind enough to give us a script in advance, so we had a rough idea of what was going on, but, of course, true to both Indonesia and the art of wayang, he started deviating from the script about five minutes into the performance and never went back. Also true to Indonesia, he refused to stick to only Indonesian; even though he knew none of his translators spoke Javanese, every. single. conversation started in Javanese, at least for the first two sentences. That means at the beginning of every. single. conversation the translators looked like idiots and the audience was confused. And every time he did it, at least when I was translating, he looked over at me, made eye contact, smiled, and started in on (to me) gibberish.

I forgive him his little bilingual jokes, though, because he put on such a good performance. I've seen plenty of wayang, and, frankly, once I get over the initial "hey, this is cool and foreign!" factor, I get bored. That happens, of course, when you don't understand what's going on. With this wayang being in Indonesian, though, I actually understood not only the plot, but also the jokes. And, it turns out, wayang can be funny. Maybe I was just punchy from the stress of simultaneous interpretation, but at one point I laughed so hard I cried. (Okay, fine, at several points. I just don't want to have to admit to laughing at the fart jokes. Though, come on, farting puppets? Hilarious!) The performance was made even better, if I may say so myself, by the interaction between the translators and the dalang--whenever he spoke English, we typed commentary on what he was saying. As one character recounted what you'd need to get to America, my classmate typed a bullet point outline on the projector screen. "First, you need to get a passport." ($$) "And be sure to apply six months in advance, since getting a passport takes time." (Time=$$) "Then, you need a visa." ($$) "Then you'll need a plane ticket." ($$) During another segment, a long fight scene, I "translated" the dalang's fighting noises: Bam! Pow! Biff! Ka-zow! Holy fighting puppets, Harjuna Sasrabahu!

Now, of course, we weren't perfect; I did need the occasional whispered vocabulary item from my professor, and at one point I missed the line in which a character said the name of the gamelan song that was about to happen, and was then highly confused as to why all the musicians on stage were suddenly hissing "Golden Rain! Golden Rain!" at me. I think, though, that I have a decent excuse for the occasional mistake: three and a half hours of kneeling on a hardwood floor concentrating with all your might is no cakewalk, people. The performance was supposed to be two hours, closer to the attention span of an American audience, but, again, true to the Indonesian idea of time ("jam karet"), the dalang had other ideas; a real Javanese wayang performance begins around sundown and runs until sunrise the next morning, so, frankly, we were lucky to leave before midnight. In fact, I feel lucky in general: lucky to have seen such a performance, lucky to have translated it, lucky, even, to speak Indonesian.

But I'm still going to be more careful about nodding in class.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

The Mormon Boys

An updated folk song*

Come girls, come, and listen to my noise,
Don't you marry the Mormon boys.
For if you do, your fortune it will be
Jello molds and babies are all you'll see.

When they come a-courting, this is what they'll wear:
A white shirt and tie and side-parted hair.
And when they come a courtin', I'll tell you what they'll say:
"Come on, Sister, we can't go out until we pray."

They will lead you out of the singles ward,
And marry you in the eyes of the Lord.
And before that wedding you can only embrace,
For that's the way of the Mormon race.

Your reception'll be in the cultural hall,
And temple pictures will hang on your wall.
You'll put Enrichment-made crafts on your door,
And worry all day 'bout the cleanness of your floor.

Root beer is root beer any way you mix it,
A Mormon's a Mormon any way you fix it.
When other good folks have all gone to bed,
The Mormon's awake reading scriptures instead!

*This parody is loosely based on the versions found here, here, here, and here.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Fascinating Bloggerhood

Thanks to the magic of Big Brother-like spy technology--or, okay, maybe just the magic of the internet--I can tell how people get to my blog. Most of you come redirected from the sites of my friends, and a few of you, most likely my lovely mother or her sisters, the auntourage, either type in the web address directly or simply Google key words like purple petra indonesia islands sea some untidy spot my daughter please someone help me find her blog until the site you want appears.

(You may think I'm exaggerating, but you haven't seen the site records.)

In the spirit of the same good fun that causes me to tease my own female relatives--who, by the way, should know that I love them and that they're encouraged to read, anytime, no matter how they get here--let's take a look at some of the other Google searches that have gotten people here.

First, there are the pronunciation requests:

pronunciation oregano
pronounce hover

People: if you had read the post, you would know that I am not the one to ask. Go find someone who doesn't have intuitions like mine.

Then, there are the creeps:

mom sex
lyndonville teacher nude photos
naked middle schoolers picture
indonesian porn

I have got to stop making suggestive jokes on the internet. I know these people are going to be disappointed when they get to my site, and, frankly, I'm glad. Anyone looking for those things deserves to be disappointed.

(With the possible exception of the first item of the list, but then only if you are a mom looking for sex, hopefully with your lawfully wedded husband; all others, get thee to a nunnery, or possibly just ancient Greece--the point is, anywhere but here.)

The third group are the people I really worry for:

stalking with a baseball bat
he was persistent so I gave him my phone numebr
what if stalker ignores the police
my stalker knows everything about me
songs to make your stalker leave you alone

I looked up the source locations of these Google hits, and they're not all from the same person, which means I have to give five different people the advice people gave me: ask for help, not just from Google, and from the police if necessary. Especially you asking about the baseball bat. Unless, of course, you were asking for instructions, in which case, don't mind me, I'll just be off in the next room dialing 911.

Those are the main groups. Then there are the random hits:

thomas barrett forever and ever again
I'm still proud to recommend my cousin, by the way.

did the egyptians really set booby traps?

In my case, yes, but I'd rather not be reminded of the number of times I got felt up by strangers in Egypt.

jakarta's prettiest blogger
Um, I'm flattered and all, but that search leading to my site is bad news for Jakarta's bloggers, as I fit only one of those categories.

flight to singapore overweight
I don't think my constant access to peanut butter M&Ms has affected me that much yet.

picture of an untidy person

Boy, Google is all about defamation of character, it seems. Though, unfortunately, I have to concede that this one is absolutely true. Even though I just tidied my room--or, rather, "spot"--on Saturday, the piles of books and papers have surreptitiously multiplied in my sleep. I can't think of any other explanation for the random pile of syntax books by my bed. Mea maxima culpa.

site: gay
This one shocked me when I first saw it: What?! I thought. I may have short hair, but, really people, how many times must we have this...and then I remembered that that hit was me, checking to see if I had told a certain joke before. Oops. Nevermind.

And, finally:
happy birthday petra
I don't care if my birthday was three and a half months ago: thanks!

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Laid For Your Faith

My ward recently, as all good singles wards must, held a chastity lesson. This was no ordinary chastity lesson, either--it was a special two-hour, everybody-all-together, question-and-answer chastity extravaganza.

(I told my dad this and he laughed out loud. "I hope they make a big deal out of it," he said, "as that's the closest you're going to get." I'd like to think that was a plural you.)

The lesson, in contrast to many of my more awkward chastity lectures at BYU (I remember, as a freshman, leaning over to my friends sitting next to me and wondering what on earth "Levi loving" was, and why my bishop was so against it), was intelligent, articulate, and refreshingly specific, though, frankly, I could have used a little less repetition of the word "probe" in close proximity to the word "genitals." But, you know, maybe that's just me.

As we were setting up the chairs for the lesson, the first counselor in the bishopric told us to pass out hymnbooks for our opening hymn. "Will we sing a special chastity song?" my friend joked.

The counselor considered for a moment: "If you can write a chastity hymn before the meeting starts, we'll sing it."

My mind instantly started racing with possibilities, but, unfortunately, the chairs were set up and the meeting began before I could figure out how to force lines like "As I have loved you, love one another, but try to avoid probing one another's genitals," and "God is love, but we mean agape and not eros, so, please, keep your hands off each other" into the tunes they were meant for.

Had I been given another ten minutes, though, we could have begun our chastity lesson appropriately:

Onward single Mormons,
Chaste and true and pure.
Bear the cross of virtue;
Abstinence endure.
Sex oral and otherwise,
Petting heavy and light
All these things we do without
In our celibate plight.

Onward single Mormons,
Chaste and true and pure.
Bear the cross of virtue;
Abstinence endure.

It's probably just as well, though, as I already had my hands full during the meeting trying to explain the proceedings to the Indonesian investigator I've been translating/explicating for; justifying an entire church meeting dedicated to the details of celibacy was so hard--"Um, you know we don't usually talk about "passionate kissing" in church, right?"--that I can't imagine what I would have done with an entire hymn dedicated to those same details.

Oh, and our real opening hymn? "How Firm a Foundation." I'm a terrible person, I know, but I snickered.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Not Living, Just Killing Time

Got too much time on your hands?

So do these people. But it makes for good listening.

You could visit my favorite corner of the Bloggernacle.

I haven't ever fully understood an article by Chomsky either. But this is a good way to waste 30 seconds.

One of my favorite writers has a blog. I'm trying hard not to hyperventilate.

Read a book by email. I'm still not sure how I feel about this one.

Find out why I've been crying constantly since early last week.

No, no, wait, I'm not crying. It's just been raining on my face.

Or, of course, we could all get back to work.

Poor Performance or Plain Incompetence?

These are some actual sentences I produced yesterday.

First, the first thing out of my mouth when my friend picked up the phone:

I should take which direction to the airport?

That shouldn't be a wh-in situ question if I'm not echoing something previously said, and how can I be echoing something previously said if the conversation is just starting? I broke pragmatics with this one.

Second, referring to my worry about going up a hill in the wrong direction:

I'm just scared I'll drive it up the wrong way.

Um, that's a verb plus a prepositional phrase, not a verb-particle. I broke syntax with this one.

Third, and this one is so shockingly against all the rules of English grammar that it needs no context:

What should I drive past a?

A hideous, and egregiously wrong, blend of "What should I drive past?" and "I should drive past a what?" I think I just broke the English language with this one.

Monday, October 29, 2007

A Night At the Opera

One of the more obvious advantages to being a grad student, apart from the poverty-level income and institutionalized servitude, is the flexible schedule; working yourself into a blurry, caffeine-fueled, jargon-filled haze can be done at any time of the day or night. (Who am I kidding? Night. Night before it's due.) This means that when a friend emails mid-afternoon and says something along the lines of, hey, I'm free tonight, let's go to the opera, you can think, well, I was going to sit here in this chair all day transcribing, sure, why don't I go into the city and buy some opera tickets? And then, in the space of an hour, you can throw on a fancy dress, pack up your laptop, hop on the train, and move the whole analyzing-Sundanese-front-vowels operation to another chair, this one in the San Francisco Public Library, to wait for the opera to start.

My friend Steve is the opera fanatic; I'm the one with a student ID card. Last Thursday, it was a match made in heaven: I wandered into the San Francisco opera house shortly after he emailed and wandered out with two tickets to that night's performance of Mozart's Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute), in the 9th row of the orchestra section, for $25 each, thus saving us--well, him--$125 a ticket.

I was quite excited about the evening, partially because I got to wear my fancy black cleavage-baring dress, partially because I do love me a Stevening, and partially because I have always wanted to go to the opera. And, really, if you have to start someplace with opera, where better than Die Zauberflöte? This was especially true for me, since I spent a large portion of my childhood falling asleep to "Mozart's Magic Fantasy," a version of The Magic Flute adapted for children, which means that I entered the opera house with a knowledge of the plot, a love for the music, and a strange subconscious expectation that all the songs would be in English. (Childhood habits die hard, apparently.)

Not, of course, that a cursory knowledge of the plot helped me anyway--I spent about the first half of the opera thinking, huh? before I realized that it wasn't my fault: The Magic Flute is, as far as I can tell from reading about it later, trippy. Maybe it was partially the fault of the performance, which emphasized the bright and happy fairy tale aspects to the piece, at the expense of the moralistic good-and-evil tone that it acquires in the second half; while Papageno's comedy bits were spot on, by which I mean brilliant, and had the audience--at an opera!--laughing out loud--at an opera!--this tendency to laughter whenever Papageno was on stage made the meaning behind the tragic arias of the young lovers, and Sarastro's preachy bass solos slightly, well, risible.

This may be a pity, perhaps, if you go to the opera for your moral education. For the rest of us, though, and you may decide I'm a total Philistine for saying this, the entertainment and musical value of such a piece matters far more. The tragic arias, particularly Pamina's solo "Ach, ich fühl's, es ist verschwunden," were beautiful, and Sarastro's bass rumbled appropriately in songs like "O Isis und Osiris," accompanied by a chorus dressed in shiny golden robes and purple plastic wigs, like ancient Egypt as envisioned by the costume director for Star Trek. That may sound strange, and I know it does, but it was strangely beautiful, all that gold and purplish-blue floating about on stage. Also strangely beautiful were the gilded boat floating high above the stage and carrying the three young boys whose light young voices acted as a sort of chorus ex machina, preventing characters from suicide and despair; the enormous pyramid in the center of the stage, whose between-scene transformations set the stage, quite literally, for varying aspects of the plot and music; and the host of enchanted hybrid animals who appeared as Tamino played his magic flute, the crocoguin, and the giraffestich, and the whole pride of upright lions, prancing and swaying their way across the stage to the rhythm of the music. Strange, yes, but it was beautiful, all of it, and magical indeed.

And not strange at all, of course, was the beauty of the Queen of the Night's famous aria "Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen." I know my love for this song probably marks me as shallow and inexperienced, but I will freely admit to being the sort of opera neophyte that is utterly blown away by a human voice singing notes that high. If the stage design was the magic, this aria is the flute; even while watching Erika Miklosa's diaphragm move during the coloratura passage, I could hardly believe it was her singing that. And during every single one of the many minutes since Thursday I've devoted to watching YouTube videos of the piece, I've thought the same thing: incredible. Simply incredible. I get chills every time.

Whatever else I could say about the performance--the acting was good, the pace maybe could have used a little work, the singer playing Pamina was upstaged in nearly every scene--let me end with this: I sat through the entire three hours without once being bored. Sure, the little grad student voice inside my head was whispering the whole time, "Sundanese! Sundanese! Why aren't you transcribing?" and the little Bruce Willis fan voice inside my head was whispering, "Why isn't she blue, à la The Fifth Element?" and the little linguistics grad student voice inside my head was whispering, most insistently of all, "Listen to those people mangle their palatal fricatives! Palatal, people, palatal! Not post-alveolar! Aaaargh!" but, really, what are a Protestant work ethic, a love for action movies, and a trained ear for fricatives when compared to Mozart? Nothing. The performance may not have been perfect in every way, but the opera is, and, in the end, my evening was. Thank goodness for a flexible schedule.

Monday, October 22, 2007

It Just Never Got Old!

There's one major aspect of Vietnam I didn't mention--its currency, which is colorful, inflated, covered in pictures of Ho Chi Minh, and, in an endless source of amusement to English speakers, called the dong. Yes, that's right: it's basically the world's greatest innuen-dough.

Ah, dong jokes. Who can resist? The Duke and I certainly couldn't. And so, I present a list to satisfy the giggling pre-teen in all of us:

Actual Phrases Innocently Uttered By Petra or The Duke While In Vietnam

And now all I've got is a handful of wet dong.
These Vietnamese only like me for my dong.
Well, I wanted to, but I only had a little dong.
I can get so much dong in Vietnam!
I need to pull my dong out of the slot.
Do you think they exchange dong here?
My dong is prettier than yours.
Try slipping him some dong.
Can you see my dong hanging out of my pocket?
I wonder if they'll give me dong if I give them dollars.
And then they'll be all like, "Welcome to Vietnam, may I take your dong?"
I just can't seem to hold on to my dong!
Man, I can't believe how inflated the dong is.
Can I have some dong?
I wonder if they'll take my dong.
Well, don't just stand there with your dong in your hands!
Wanna see my dong?

A Cu Chi Tunnel Flip Book

The Duke tries out a Viet Cong tunnel:



As our bus reached the outskirts of Ho Chi Minh City, the once and sometimes-present Saigon, the first thing I noticed as I pulled my eyes away from the novel I was reading was a lingerie shop. And then another. And then another. And then another. The entire street was lingerie shops, window after window of colorful silk negliges. And then the bus rounded a corner and we drove down an entire street of shoe shops, and then a street of pho joints. As the bus passed a major intersection, I glanced around and saw, in the window of a bookstore, Bill Clinton’s My Life prominently displayed, and, next door to that shop, a giant red-and-white life-size cutout of Colonel Sanders in front a store labeled Ga Ran Kentucky. Now, I’m sorry, maybe I’m unclear on the concept, but this is the communism we feared so much? We fought a war to prevent the spread of this? This is no bear in the woods; it’s a bear selling goods.

To find a hotel, The Duke and I wound through narrow back alleys full of women cooking, children watching TV, and dogs scratching themselves, feeling completely lost and overwhelmed, and surprised at every turn by a building where we least expected it—there is no sense to a map of HCMC; it’s just roads from here to there and back again, tangled and tossed in a 20-year development frenzy. We landed on the doorstop of the small $5/night hotel room that Lonely Planet had recommended, an establishment run by a shirtless old man, certainly old enough to have fought in the war, who, upon seeing our U.S. passports, grinned, gave us the thumbs up, and said, “U.S. OK!” We smiled back and told him Vietnam was pretty OK too.

Then, after dropping off our backpacks in our tiny un-air-conditioned room, The Duke and I decided to visit Dam Sen Park, an amusement park on the edge of the city. (I only wish there were a precedent for filling my resume with things like “Can arrive in a foreign city, without any ability in the local language, and right away not only find a hotel but also, relying only on a three-year-old photocopied guidebook and incomprehensible signs, find the right bus to take to get to a park 45 minutes outside of town.” Because, really, I’m far prouder of that than of most of my other resume-worthy accomplishments.) We thought, from the guidebook’s description, that Dam Sen was going to be a Central Park type of thing, but no—turns out it’s the Vietnamese Six Flags, complete with a Ferris wheel, roller coaster, and blaring pop music. So we spent our first evening in Vietnam crawling through ice igloos, palaces, and life-size houses in the ice exhibition and looking at giant dragons and peacocks made out of hedges, China dishes, CDs, and vials of oil. Asia is so gloriously weird sometimes.

In a way, though, this evening was a good introduction to modern Vietnam: capitalism wins. Marx and Lenin and Mao and Uncle Ho can spout all the theory they want, but if Dam Sen Park, or indeed all of HCMC, teaches us anything, it’s that everyone really just wants to ride bumper cars and listen to Britney Spears.

Which is not to say, of course, that communism has no presence in Vietnam. At our visit to the Reunification Palace, The Duke and I were treated to a documentary of the American war in which, while displaying photographs of the North Vietnamese army, healthy and smiling, the narrator intoned things like, “To the American President: Sir, were you ever aware that when America wasn’t even on the map, Vietnam had over 1000 years of gloriously resisting imperialist invaders?” And, of course, much of our tourist activity was centered around the war fought over communism. We visited the War Remnants Museum, a very well-maintained museum with a well-maintained collection of, well, war remnants, where we posed awkwardly with partially exploded American bombs, American helicopters, and American B-52s (really awkwardly—I mean, do you point and grin, standing next to a machine that used to bomb the countryside?) and cried in front of the walls and walls and walls of photographs of American atrocities in Vietnam, from My Lai to Agent Orange (I use “we” loosely here—The Duke was a bit more stoic than I).

The highlight of the trip was also a war site: Cu Chi tunnels, a network of underground tunnels used by guerilla fighters during the war. Our tour guide took us down into the tunnels, and it took only a few seconds for me to want out: they’re about three feet tall and two feet wide, poorly ventilated, and totally dark. I couldn’t believe anyone actually lived down there, but they did, in hideaways connected by these tunnels that allowed them to set booby traps for the American soldiers patrolling the jungle. “And speaking of American soldiers,” our tour guide said cheerfully, after parading us past a set of murals showing GIs mangled by booby traps, “up ahead is the shooting range!”

The Duke and I looked at each other: a shooting range? At a major war site? We couldn’t resist, though, and I coughed up the money—a good $20, no less—for The Duke to shoot an M16 at a former Viet Cong guerilla hideout. Plenty of American 18-year-olds have done that, sure, but most of them didn’t pay for the experience.

And, speaking of which, I’ve never been to a place where I’ve felt so awkward about being American. Plenty of people hate us, but I can usually dismiss, or least downplay, those sentiments as semi-irrational: “No, Ahmed the Egyptian, the Jews are not a majority in America. No, Coca Cola spelled backwards does not say “No Mohammed No Mecca.” Yes, September 11 really did happen.” But in Vietnam, if people hate Americans, they have reason: thirty-odd years ago, we were at war. Thirty-odd years ago, The Duke wouldn’t have been the only American youth walking down the streets of Saigon in camo pants (an awkward choice, I know, but he had no other pants), and he wouldn’t have just been looking for a motorbike taxi. Thirty-odd years ago, the amputated, disfigured, and mentally retarded beggars we saw on the streets might have had their limbs and faculties intact. Thirty-odd years ago, Vietnam might have found peace.

All this makes it very strange that I didn’t sense any anti-American sentiment in the city. Everyone I talked to about the war—and I talked to everyone about the war—said they had put it behind them, that the country was pushing forward. When I asked if they hated Americans and thought the war was our fault, the answer was consistent: the government may have been evil and war-mongering, but that doesn’t mean the people were. Suspicious that people were giving me positive answers because I was so obviously a dollar-holding tourist, I asked a friend who lived in Vietnam whether had encountered anti-American feeling. The Vietnamese, he told me, have been well educated as to the protests happening in the States during the war, and most seem to have a firm grasp on the distinction between a people and its government—meaning, Lyndon Johnson probably shouldn’t a plan, but Petra and The Duke? Come on in! I had expected our trip to be, basically, the Tragedy Tour 2007, and finding such optimism amazed me.

And that’s partially why I capital-letters LOVED Vietnam. Or, to be specific, Ho Chi Minh City. Everything else I saw was cool--miles and miles and miles of rice paddies, enough to feed all of China if allowed; a floating market in the Mekong Delta; the tranquility of the Mekong, from a boat poled by a woman in a conical hat—but I’m an urban girl at heart, and maybe that’s why Saigon could steal it. Most cities I know only glow one color—the golden yellow of street lamps, or the white of houses—but Ho Chi Minh City sparkles in Technicolor, its maze of roads illuminated by signs in green, blue, purple, hot pink, any color you can think of. It feels young and energetic and bustling with activities and possibilities, and everywhere you look there are people buying, selling, talking, shouting, walking riding, standing, sitting, playing badminton, playing dominoes, avoiding the giant bundles of power cords hanging off each building and low over the street. It was hard for me to sleep during our few days there; I was on a HCMC high and I wanted, instead, to stand out on the balcony of my hotel room and watch and listen to the city all night, seeing the sparkle of neon signs and hearing the dull roar of the city’s crazy motorbike traffic—HCMC has, it is claimed, nearly one motorbike for every two of its 7 million or so residents, and at every intersection, you’d think that ratio is 1:1.

Cambodia was cool, and I’d like to go back some day, but Vietnam? I’d live there. In fact, if this whole grad school thing doesn’t work out, I’m planning on it. After all, I’d never lack for KFC.

Saturday, October 20, 2007


Writing about travel is always fraught with difficulties: listing sights seen and people visited without simply writing a mind-numbing catalogue of been-there-done-that; describing the charms, or lack thereof, of a foreign city without sounding like a all-hopped-up-on-backpacking Lonely Planet writer; summing up an entire neighborhood/city/region/country/what-have-you accurately and succinctly; conveying the mind-expanding, psyche-influencing, life-changing aspects of travel and pretending you know something about the place you traveled to without, in the process, sounding like a pretentious git. Though, seeing as how I started the previous sentence by using the phrase “fraught with difficulties,” I probably shouldn’t even worry about that last objective.

Lonely Planet told us that, to find transportation from Siem Reap’s airport into the town itself, we’d have to find the motorcycle stand and pay about a dollar. I assumed, conditioned by Indonesia, that this would be a casual affair, a group of otherwise-unemployed men with motorbikes milling around and competing for my attention and dollar. Not so in hypertouristed Siem Reap: there was a booth, and a sign, and a queue, a strictly regimented system designed, apparently, to get me and my backpack perched on the back of a motorbike, without a helmet, breaking the speed limit. This wasn’t just lawlessness: it was official lawlessness.

That wasn’t the end of our transportation joys. After Indonesia, packages balanced on motorbikes rarely surprise me, but I must admit that the sight of a full-grown hog strapped across the back did take me aback for a second, as did the sight of an oxcart competing with cars for space in the downtown streets of Phnom Penh, an illustration of the clash between tradition and modernity as neat as anything postcolonial literature has produced.

I was a tiny bit worried about how The Duke and I would like the Angkor temples; since I had just spent a year in Indonesia, and he had just spent three years in India, we were both feeling a tiny bit templed-out; generally, there’s only so many wall carvings of Shiva you can see before you getting the urge to do some Destroying of your own. Plus, it was the beginning of June, so you—or, at least I—could barely walk three steps without suddenly looking like I had gone for a swim, and one of my eyes was swollen shut, which is not exactly an ideal condition for viewing ruins.

But I shouldn’t have worried. The Duke and I spent two full days in the complex, being shuttled from temple to temple by motorbike, and still didn’t see one-third of what we could have. We loved what we saw, though: Angkor Thom, the erstwhile capital city whose walls cars and motorbikes must still pass through; Neak Pean, a temple in the middle of a lake; Bayon, where huge slightly-smiling stone faces watch tourists examine intricate wall carvings; Ta Prohm, the prototypical jungle-overgrown ancient temple, whose air of ruined majesty had me muttering, under my breath, “Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!”; and, of course, Angkor Wat itself, the temple which was, more than all the others, intricately structured, beautifully styled, and practically perfect in every way—except, of course, the way that had steps so steep I was forced to crawl. All in all, definitely worth the trip, no matter how many temples you’ve seen before.

And then it was on to Phnom Penh, on a rickety, smoke-belching bus, though green rice paddies and flat, flat land. The Duke and I bought and read books about the Khmer Rouge to prepare for the next phase of our trip, but nothing can really prepare you. We visited the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, a high school turned prison/concentration camp turned museum, where we walked into cramped, tiny cells, past cruel torture devices, and through room after room of photographs of the 17,000 prisoners kept there in the four years of its operation. (You want to know how brutal the Khmer Rouge was? Four prisoners survived.) From there, we went to the infamous Killing Fields, which were, well, just what they sound like—a place for killing. Nothing I can write can really express the horror of such a place—the unexcavated human bones in the dirt, the central monument made of a pile of human skulls 17 stories tall, the sign posted on a tree informing us that babies were once beat against it, and all of this in a tranquil grove—and my eyes were and are filled with tears thinking about it—yet another time I couldn’t see properly in Cambodia—so we’ll move on.

And that moving on, indeed, is partially what Cambodia felt like: it’s a land of contrasts, traditional and modern, horrifying and awe-inspiring, and the speed at which one is forced to move from one to the other should give one whiplash. Phnom Penh, especially, feels like that—once “The Pearl of Asia,” it still retains a slight cosmopolitan European feel, the sort of place where one can stop into the Foreign Correspondents Club, order a lime rickey, and sit on the terrace overlooking the Mekong feeling like a character in a Graham Greene novel, and yet it’s also covered in a thick overlay of Southeast Asia—motorbikes everywhere, people squatted on the side of the road eating noodles, and a layer of dust and grime on the now-ramshackle Parisian-style buildings. And as the mind is catapulted from the roaring colonial 20s to the busy, noisy 21st century, one must pass through the dark ages of 1975-1979, in which Phnom Penh was totally evacuated--2-3 million people forced into work camps in the countryside--and roughly 2 out of every 7 Cambodians either died of malnutrition and overwork or were killed by the Khmer Rouge. I don’t know how a people can recover from such a tragedy, but Cambodians are doing it gracefully, with kind smiles on their faces. Life, I suppose, must go on.

And so it does. On our last day in Cambodia, while touring the Royal Palace, The Duke and I were approached by a group of Buddhist monks, dressed in the traditional orange robes. They hung around us for a moment or two, gathering up their nerve to speak with us, and when we smiled one of them broke the silence. “Excuse me,” he said, “can you help us?” And he held out a sheet of paper covered in statistics problems, his homework from the local university. And so we sat down with them, right there on the steps of the Silver Pagoda, puzzling over the difference between mean, mode, and median. When we were done, we bought them a Coca-Cola and got a blessing in return. And, as we rode the bus out Phnom Penh the next morning, The Duke and I were both thinking about Cambodia. How could we make sense of this place, of the simultaneous nobility and degradation of the human condition on view on every block, of the mind-boggling, sense-whirling contradictions? What could we think about it? What could we say about it? Had we seen Birth or Death?

I don’t know. And, after all this time, I still don’t know. And I’m certainly no expert, so how should I presume? But The Duke summed it up best: at the Vietnamese border, he turned to me and said, “Cambodia is a country you just want to hug.” On that point, at least, I couldn’t agree more.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Kuala Lumpur

Before beginning our epic Southeast Asia trek, The Duke and I passed through Malaysia (Kuala Lumpur, to be precise). To anyone with a firm grasp on Southeast Asian geography, this may not make sense, as Kuala Lumpur is not significantly closer to Cambodia than Singapore is. To anyone with a firm grasp on Southeast Asian discount airlines, though, this detour is self-evident: Kuala Lumpur is the hub for Air Asia, home of the famed $30 international plane tickets. To me, at least, those plane tickets were worth the 7-or-so hour bus trip from downtown Singapore to downtown Kuala Lumpur. (Besides, KL gave me one last hurrah of speaking Indonesian, in a place where people didn't laugh at my American accent. They laughed at my Indonesian accent instead.)

So then, after supplementing our airplane-night’s-sleep on the bus, we had an evening to kill in KL. Though we didn’t find much to do—we mostly wandered around, looking at mosques, markets, and Malaysians—my overall impressions of the city were positive. As Steve has pointed out, it was refreshing to see a large city without the unemployed, chain-smoking squatters—quite literally—that grace Jakarta’s streets. The diversity was refreshing, with the population mixed between ethnic Malay, Chinese, and Indian, and even the street and shop signs were written in Malaysian, Chinese, Tamil, and English. Oh, and the food! The food! Malay food? Check. Chinese food? Check. Indian food? Check. Roti canai? Check. A full, and happy, stomach? Check plus.

What struck me most, though, was the architecture. I don’t typically notice the shape or design of a building, unless of course there’s a novel written on it or something, so this was very unusual for me. Yet something about the style of the city stood out to me: it was a tasteful and, more impressively still, natural blend of high-tech modern architecture with traditional Islamic elements. The shape of the Petronas Towers, is reminiscent of Islam’s eight-sided star. (Oh, and, in case you were wondering, they’re tall.) The train station is fully arched and minareted. (Credit to Steve for the picture, which is far better than any of mine.) And, best of all, Arabian nights-style domes and towers interrupt the city landscape. All this, too, without seeming contrived.

I wish I had had more time to explore, but based on the impressions of an evening, two thumbs up to Kuala Lumpur. I don't know if I'd call Malaysia Truly Asia, but I guess "Malaysia: Worth an Evening in Transit to Cambodia" isn't as catchy a tourism slogan.

Ceci n'est pas un post

Reading my cousin's blog has reminded me that I never got around to writing about my Southeast Asia trip at the beginning of June, besides, of course, from noting my eye infection and the crazy food I ate. Better late than never, I think, especially since long picture-filled posts about Southeast Asia will help me win my blog-off (Blogoff? Blog-off? I'm not sure, but now I'll show in Google searches for both!) against Guber. (We get .0175 points per word and 1.25 points per link or picture, plus an automatic 10 points for posting. This is all weighted and calculated in a shared online spreadsheet. And now anyone who knows anything about that side of the family is laughing their head off.)

Anyway, all this was to say, oops, sorry I didn't blog about this stuff back when it was relevant, but since I still want to show off my pictures, vacation slideshow, here we come!

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Subterranean Grad School Blues

I spend my days feeling dumb
As the baby of the class.
I don't want to get glum,
But my classmates are kicking my ass.

Oh, I've got the 1st year of grad school blues,
I wish I could work 9-to-5.
I can't even drown my sorrows in booze
I don't know how I'll survive.

My schoolwork is syn-taxing
And I live hand-to-mouth;
I've got no time for relaxing
And my social life's headed south.


So much work to do, Lordy,
I'm stressed out, cranky, and tired.
I know I'll be at this 'til forty
And when I'm done I'll never get hired!


Ohhhh, grad school,
Why you gotta be so cruel?
Ohhhh, grad school,
Why was I such a fool?

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

In Rainbows

Slightly over four years ago, while I was in throes of a major Radiohead obsession, Margaret and I stood in line outside a record store in Boston, waiting for the midnight release of Hail to the Thief. Later that same summer, I saw Radiohead in concert twice, once in Boston and once in Salt Lake City; when my car broke down on the highway on the way to the Boston concert, I called a tow truck and then a cab, choosing to abandon my car at a gas station in Hopkinton for the evening rather than miss seeing Thom Yorke dance around the stage singing "rats and children follow me around." I have never regretted it.

Had last Wednesday been four years ago, I would have been nearly hyperventilating with excitement. Wednesday marked the release of the newest Radiohead album, In Rainbows, a welcome gift to fans who have waited four years, amidst rumors of the band breaking up, the album coming out in 2006, and the band changing their tune, again and again. And, as if that weren't exciting enough, the band only announced the album ten days before its release, and, and, and announced a new marketing strategy: the album would, at first, be distributed online, with customers paying whatever they wanted. Yes, that's right: whatever they wanted. On the official site, the "price" line was kept blank, with a small hyperlinked question mark next to it; when clicked, a small window popped up that said "It's Up To You." When clicked again, another small window popped up: "No, Really, It's Up To You."

My corners of the internet have been abuzz since then. Pitchfork, the usually staid bastion of indie hipper-than-thou superiority, announced the new album with the headline "NEW RADIOHEAD ALBUM AAAAAAAHHH!!!!" Before the album's release, economics blogs discussed the price discrimation model, Pitchfork gave a song-by-song breakdown of the history of the new album, several friends emailed me to chat about the news, and a Google blogsearch brought up roughly 14,000 hits for "In Rainbows" between October 1 and October 9. After the album's release, "how much did you pay" polls abounded, several friends geeked out about the music, and the internet hype machine went crazy.

At the moment of the album's release--and remember this was all done online, so I can pinpoint a moment; I got my download code at 11.50 PM on October 9--I was still awake, finishing--okay, fine, starting--some homework. When I saw the email come into my inbox, I forgot all about the structure of wh-word questions in English and got downloading. A few minutes later, I was listening to the new album and reading reviews of it online. These weren't professional reviews: all over the internet, people were live-blogging their first listen, or sometimes their second, telling us where and when they first listened: in the middle of the night, after waiting up for it; early in the morning, while getting ready for work; on their lunch break. When I learned the new album would be a download, I lamented, a little bit, for the loss of the zealous-fan camaraderie I experienced at that record store four years ago, but I realized, while trying to load a message board for a Radiohead fan site, that digital media don't destroy community, they create it. It just happens to be virtual, and far-flung. Listening to Thom Yorke wail "It is the 21st century," I reveled in the fact that, in this hyper-accelerated modern world, a band can build hype, release an album, and get reviewed by thousands of loyal/ardent/obsessive fans, all within the space of ten days and twenty minutes. Thank you, Al Gore.

Abler minds than mine have weighed in on the implications of the new marketing model--some say it marks a death knell for the record industry, others point out that just because Radiohead can get away with this doesn't mean it's the wave of the future; Radiohead, despite being, by some definitions, an indie band, consistently tops the charts, and even 2000's Kid A, which was widely (and illegally) leaked on the internet before its release, went to #1 in the U.S. on the week of its release, even though the band didn't release any singles. I will say, though, that whatever you think about the future of this model, it has succeeded for the present: as of today, the day after its release, Radiohead have sold 1.2 million copies of In Rainbows. Kid A, by comparison, sold 1.3 million copies in the first three years after its release. Now, that "sold" should probably have quotation marks on it, as many people were paying only the 90-cent transaction fee, but still, I'd say the band's probably doing pretty well, financially speaking--especially when you consider that they're taking most of the profits themselves, having cut out the record-company middlemen.

(Oh, and if you want to know, I paid about $7.)

I hesitate to turn this into a full-blown album review, partly because it usually takes me longer than a day to really make up my mind about an album, partly because, though my obsession has abated since four years ago, the very mention of the name Radiohead still makes me a bit dizzy, so you know I'll be biased, and partly because, well, there's only so many synonyms for "depressed" one can find in a thesaurus before one needs to take Prozac and a break. I'm not sure if I agree with the "best album yet" judgment--it's pretty hard to compete against what is widely acknowledged to be one of the greatest albums of all time, and don't even get me started on Kid A--but, so far, I think it's the best album I've heard all year, and definitely better than Amnesiac or Hail to the Thief. (Not that I'm saying they're bad, Oxford forbid!) The album as a whole is muted and mournful, with Yorke's trademark voice used as an instrument every bit as much as the piano or drums or guitar. (Fans will be delighted to note that there are guitars in this album.) I can't name just a single highlight; "House of Cards" caught my attention right away, for its opening line "I don't want to be your friend/I just want to be your lover," because in most Radiohead songs romantic themes are usually suppressed, subverted and carefully covered in symbol and metaphor; I love the transformation of "Reckoner" into a quiet, drum-driven piece rather than its original incarnation as a crunchy guitar anthem, just like "Electioneering," only bad; I shrieked with excitement to realize that "Nude" was just "Big Ideas (Don't Get Any)," which has long been one of my favorite unreleased live tracks; and the understated "Videotape" easily rivals any of Radiohead's other piano ballads for beauty, as Thom, playing the piano and accompanied by stuttering percussion, croons "When I'm at the Pearly Gates/This will be on the videotape, the videotape." I'm trying not to gush, but I can't help myself: when I'm at the Pearly Gates, this will be on the soundtrack.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Hannah de Bergerac

While I'm reminiscing about incidents in Indonesia, I can finally tell this story. In the opening issue of the school's newsletter last year, which was sent out to all students, parents, and alumni on a quarterly basis, I was asked to write a short column introducing myself and my goals for the classroom, a simple "Hello From Miss Hannah." The teacher in charge of the newsletter wanted to include a picture of me, so we spent an afternoon taking portraits with her digital camera.

A week later, she came back to me and said that the printing quality of the newsletter wasn't good enough to include a photograph, and would I mind if they included a drawing instead? I said no, not at all, and the portraits taken earlier were duly dispatched to the school's drawing teacher, to be copied and included in the newsletter.

So this is how the school community, parents and all, were introduced to the foreigner in their midst:

Now, I know my nose isn't exactly small and dainty, but this? Really? Nobody else seemed to think this caricature should inspire doubt about the drawing abilities of the school's art teacher, so I can't help but think that's how they really saw me. With that in mind, it's no wonder that Indonesians were constantly commenting on my tall nose: I was practically Pinocchio, in their eyes. On the plus side, now paintings like this one of Commodore Perry make a lot more sense.

(PS: The typos in the newsletter are their fault, not mine. But that's okay; they're just following Rule #2.)

Monday, October 08, 2007

Hey Kids!

At one point last year, there was a minor scandal at SMA The School Where I Taught. A picture was floating around the gossip channels--and handphones--of Semarang, a picture of naked middle schoolers, rumored to be students at my school. I heard this rumor from three or four different people--including a student's mother, who lived in a town about two hours outside of Semarang--before the principal decided to put these reputation-damaging rumors to rest, once and for all.

So, during the lunch break, he marched into the teacher's room, sat down at the computer, and pulled up the picture. "Everyone come here," he said, "and look at this picture. Look closely. See if you recognize any of the students."

So all the teachers, male and female, gathered around the computer and scrutinized the lineup of naked middle school girls. "That one looks a little like So-and-So," said the history teacher, but the geography teacher disagreed: "No, she's too fat." The math teacher observed that the one in the middle looked a bit like a student he had seen around school, but a chorus of female teachers shot him down right away, claiming that her hair was longer, her breasts were bigger, and her face was different. After ten minutes or so observing the picture, all the teachers agreed that those were not, in facts, students at SMA The School Where I Taught, and promised they would help squelch the rumor whenever they could.

Putting aside the weirdness of this scene for a moment--and it was weird, trust me--the principal was justly worried about an incident like this; such pictures not only represent a tragic loss of innocence but also a grand liability in an adolescent's life. Those who are positively identified in photos, or even falsely accused of being in photos of this sort, like this girl*, are ostracized by their friends, punished by their families, and expelled by their schools.

Nonetheless, the number of Indonesian amateur porn videos and naked pictures is increasing; one site claims that 500 videos, mostly made on handphones, are in circulation, with about two new videos being made per day. While that's no billion-dollar adult entertainment industry**, it's also not a point of pride for the country with (probably) the world's largest Muslim population. Now while Indonesia's brand of Islam is fairly liberal, relative to, say, Saudi Arabia, it's still a conservative society, with, on the whole, conservative sexual mores. Basically, shemale beauty contests aside, it's no Thailand.

Luckily, then, there are new agencies*** stepping up to combat this moral decline, people dedicated to eradicating this evil, professionals who will use all the resources at their disposal to speak to the youth, to discourage this sort of behavior in language they will understand, to create a cultural meme that will reinforce the message--something memorable, something new, something along the lines of "Just Say No!" or "This Is Your Brain On Drugs" or "Not Even Once."

Or hey, wait, I've got it! What about "Youth of Indonesia...Don't Get Naked In Front of A Camera!" Perfect!

That'll teach those young whippersnappers, with their fancy handphones and video cameras. Memorable sloganeering is for the weak: there's nothing like a direct order, after all, to encourage youth compliance. Imagine all the social evils we could solve this way: all we need is an advertising campaign saying, "Hey Kids! Don't Do Drugs Or Drink Or Have Sex Or Disobey Your Elders In Any Way!" That'll teach 'em.

*Yes, I know this link isn't in English. I just wanted to cite my sources.
**I really don't want to know what sort of hits I'm going to get on my blog after this.
***This isn't in English either. I'm not sorry. Must it all be about you, English speakers?

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Dancing in the Dark

This past Monday, I spent some quality time with my visiting teacher, who we'll call Q, for reasons that will remain obscure. Now, Q is not your typical nice little Mormon girl: she's a vegan, she sews her own very unique clothes, she laughs at my jokes about the Folsom Street Fair, and every Monday night, after FHE, she goes dancing at a goth/industrial club in San Francisco--a fact she mentioned over the pulpit in sacrament meeting. Plus, she didn't bat an eyelash when I said I wanted to come with her. In case you couldn't guess from all the above, I think she is the coolest. visiting teacher. ever.

While getting ready, I rifled through my closet, looking for black, and finally had to admit to myself that nothing in my grad-student wardrobe of button-up shirts, cardigans, jeans, and sneakers could even approximate a goth/industrial look. Besides, even if I could magically produce a corset or fishnets, what are the chances that a blue-eyed blonde who doesn't own black eyeliner, or indeed any makeup at all, could avoid looking like a total fool wearing them? Yeah. I thought so. So I went in the jeans, pink shirt, and white lacy undershirt I had been wearing to school that day. Yes, I wore pink to a place called Death Guild. I'm like that.

We showed up at the club a little too early to be cool--who starts dancing at 10 pm? Puh-leeze!--but that gave me plenty of time to explore the club, raid the pretzels at the bar, and get hit on by an 18-year-old. I may be a bitter, dried-up old maid in the Mormon world, but the San Francisco goth scene, apparently, I've still got least, to college freshmen. I'm crediting the fact that I was the only person in the club wearing a color.

I was, to be honest, slightly apprehensive about the dancing part. I have a tiny confession to those who have ever seen me dance: I wasn't joking. I typically put on a goofy grin and pretend I'm being ironic, but my dancing style really is that combination of weird white-girl Bollywood and Elaine Benes--yes, with the thumbs. So, understandably, though I love to dance, I don't usually do so in public, unless it's really dark.

I was, therefore, surprised and pleased to realize that, at this goth club, I needn't worry about my basic inability to follow a rhythm, even with the lights on: no one else could either. Looking around the room, seeing from the man in tights jumping from side to side, to the overweight woman swaying to no discernible tune, to the girl in a corset and bustle kicking up her heels, to the shirtless man humping a wall (I didn't want the mental image either, trust me), I quickly lost all traces of self-consciousness about my dancing.

I had nowhere near the stamina of even the corseted girls, though, embarrassingly enough, and by around 1 AM, I was feeling that, since the Spirit had clearly gone to bed, I should too. (Knowing that my grandma sometimes reads this blog, I won't elaborate on that whole Spirit thing, but let's just say that around midnight, Q leaned over to me and whispered, in heavily accented tones, "De-bau-che-ry!") Q still had the energy to dance, and so, reluctant to drag her away from her favorite hobby, I simply wandered upstairs, found a couch, and fell asleep, with Nine Inch Nails blaring. When security woke me up half an hour later--"No sleeping here, missy! Move along!"--I was groggy and confused, and so simply moved to a different couch and fell asleep again, sitting up this time. I'm pretty sure the security guard, after waking me again, didn't believe my protests that "it's just way past my bedtime!" He was quite obviously relieved to see that Q would be driving me home.

On that drive home, I told Q that if she gave me a spiritual thought, we could count this for visiting teaching in October. She thought for a minute, and then said, "Judge not, that ye be not judged." Amen, Q. A lot about that club, and that lifestyle, leaves a nasty taste in my mouth, but what I really want to take away is this: I have never felt so free and unjudged on a dance floor, or indeed anywhere, in my life. I clearly and obviously didn't fit in, and yet nobody, the whole night, looked askance at my pink shirt, or my obviously un-goth appearance, or my dry-heave-set-to-music dancing. I can't express how fun and free that feeling was--a little slice of heaven, in a highly unexpected place. Thanks, Q. Let's go again sometime.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Sunday, Sunday, So Good To Me

I'm with Lynnette: I always love testimony meetings in which people stand up and tell stories, rather than those in which people simply recite a number of propositional statements about their beliefs: I know the Church is true. I know Jesus is the Son of God. I know Joseph Smith was a prophet. I know the latter is what we are encouraged to do, but those meetings often seem dry to me, lacking anything I couldn't get from, say, reading the Articles of Faith, or even the Nicene Creed.

(I went to Catholic mass this morning before church, so it was on my mind.)

Really, what sets our testimony meetings apart from a recitation of doctrine is the opportunity to glimpse the human who believes those doctrines, the stories that human tells about those doctrines, and the way those doctrines affect the life and mind of that human. I love hearing personal testimonies, even the kooky ones that I laugh about later.

All this means that today was the sort of testimony meeting that I love. The relatively new convert sitting behind me whispered to the guy next to him, "What should I say?" and then ascended to the pulpit to tell us of his pre-conversion days of wine, women, and song; my visiting teachee, after slamming the Boston-area wards she had just visited, told us that "hurry up" was the worst thing you could possibly say to a person; and a quirky mid-thirties Tongan (I think) fellow apologized for not making it to church the past few weeks--there were some rock concerts he just had to go to--rambled for a few minutes about who knows what, and told us that without reading the Book of Mormon, you can't be a Mormon.

Fun as it might be to mock this last one, and I suspect many people were, especially given that last month he stood up and bore an equally eccentric testimony, these glimpses into his life and personality increased, for me, the value of the statements he made, those doctrinal pronouncements we are supposed to limit ourselves to. I could see that he wasn't just reciting, that he honestly meant them, and it was, for lack of a better word, touching.

Add all that to the fact that Catholic mass was pleasant, Lynnette taught Sunday school, and I persuaded my visiting teacher to skip the last hour of church and come with me to the "How Berkeley Can You Be?" parade (counting it, of course, as her visiting teaching for September), and I'd say that I had a pretty good Sunday.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

A Roommateimony

I came home from an exhausting Wednesday a few weeks ago, and, while talking to Roommate about something or another, turned on a Talking Heads song. Suddenly, we were dancing around the apartment singing along, at the top of our lungs, to "fa fa fa fa fa fa fa fa fa far better," and then experimenting with the best lighting to get only a silhouette of a dancing figure visible through the curtains between the living room and kitchen that are my fourth wall. (For the record: no lights in the living room, overhead lights in the kitchen.) The pictures we took didn't nearly do it justice, so you'll just have to trust me when I say that it was like an iPod commercial in my apartment.

My roommate has gone out of town, which means that for the next week I have our apartment to myself, leaving me free to play music loudly, dance around the apartment, and...well, actually, not that much will change. It blows my mind that I fell into a situation with a roommate as cool as mine, one who can not only dance to the Talking Heads with me, but then retreat quietly into her bedroom when we're done, as I retreat into mine--one who, basically, is smart and funny and kind and all that, but also, like me, an introvert. I'll miss her this week: silhouette dancing isn't nearly as fun with just one.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Good Will Toward Goodwill

I decided this morning that my room lacked something important. Well, something important besides a fourth wall, or a door: a chair. I have a chair at my computer desk, so there's a place to write, and I have my bed, so there's a place to sleep. Missing, though, is a place to read, which means that I've done the vast majority of my reading over past few weeks while walking to and from school. While that's all well and good, sometimes I like to read without having to worry about oncoming traffic. I needed a chair.

So I headed over to my local Goodwill, which is roughly a block away from me, and which I love: they're huge, well-stocked, and willing to bargain. (A few weeks ago, completely on accident, I bargained a pair of shoes down to $5.99 from $8.99; while that did save money, I do, believe it or not, have a few shards of dignity left, so I won't be repeating the experience.)

It only took me a few minutes in the store to find the perfect comfy chair, reasonably priced at $7.99. It took me a few minutes longer to try picking up the chair, realize it was too heavy, try pulling the chair, realize I couldn't grip it right, try pushing the chair, and realize that, without wheels, it wouldn't glide so smoothly on the sidewalk outside. Luckily for me, an aging black man in an employee vest walked past me just as I was standing next to the now-out-of-place armchair, considering how to get it home. He asked if I needed help, and, hearing my predicament, offered to lend me one of the store's dollies--"but only if you promise to bring it back," he said. I swore up and down that I would, and thus we had a deal.

He got the chair onto the dolly for me, and then I pushed it up to the register, practicing for my walk home. As I did, he walked behind me, announcing, loudly, "Look, everyone! She's pushing it herself! Isn't she just adorable?" Apparently there's something to be said for that helplessness thing after all--if, that is, you want men the age of your grandfather treating you like their granddaughter.

After I paid for the chair and started pushing it out, another employee came rushing after me to help me. It seemed like she was going to push the dolly the entire block back to my apartment, so I assured her I was fine on my own and that I would bring the dolly back.

"Scout's honor?" she asked. "Er, Girl Scout's honor?" I hesitated at that, and she began to laugh. "You were never a Girl Scout, were you? I'm taking that dolly back!"

"I was a Brownie!" I said. "And I swear I didn't leave for honor-related reasons! Cross my heart and hope to die!"

Laughing again, she let me go, and I pushed the dolly and chair up the hill to my apartment, singing as I walked, and walked, and walked. When, ten minutes later, I returned to Goodwill, dolly in tow, the store employee looked up from the register and grinned. "Hey everyone," she said, "check it out! It's Brownie girl! With the dolly! Looks like even Girl Scout dropouts can have honor."

So now I have a chair on my balcony (the only place it fits), and a nickname at Goodwill. What--besides, of course, a girlfriend with bows in her hair--could be better than that?