Saturday, September 29, 2007

People in the streets

“Small robbers are put in prison; a great robber becomes a feudal lord” -Man Guo De

Yesterday the golden spire of Shwedegon Pagoda was shrouded in tear gas. Mothers woke to the news that their sons had disappeared before dawn. The streets of Yangon were silent under the crush of the State Peace and Development Council’s heavy boot, clubs ready to bash a monk over the back or make a student scream in terror as she ran against the constraint of her mandatory ankle-length skirt.

A few years ago I stayed for a few days within a few steps of Sule Pagoda talking late into the night with an old Burmese sailor who told stories of Malacca and Abu Dhabi. I ate fish paste smeared rice and glanced through the latest news from America: Reader’s Digests from 1974. The cars on the streets were from the 1950’s, before trade with the West was frozen, the buses even older – artifacts from the day’s when George Orwell was a cop in Mandalay. I chewed beetle nut until I was dizzy and tried to understand what it was like to live in forced isolation from the rest of the world, under the watchful eye of plain-skirted police officers who made sure your education was limited to Than Shwe’s version of reality. People lived hand to mouth and often that hand was empty.

It’s hard to know what to feel when we read of tens of thousands of people marching like “’religious storm troopers” according to the New York Times. The soldiers of Myanmar have little to gain from direct democratic action – they will not concede without bullets and death. As one of the world’s leading exporters of opium and sex slaves, Myanmar is impervious to President Bush’s new and improved trade embargos, the market is too strong, and China’s desire for human dignity too weak. Than Shwe’s daughter will keep wearing so many diamonds she has to struggle to hold her head up straight, as if she is a Padong woman without her rings. The protests seem to be an effort in futility, like a fish flailing around desperate for air. It seems like the people of Burma don’t have a prayer.

Or do they? I know they have mine.

Click here for a video of Than Shwe's daughter

Monday, September 24, 2007


Last Wednesday I paddled a canoe with my father-in-law Merle and brother-in-law Dallas past
silvery waxpaper lichen covered rocks of granite and poplar trees dressed in bark as thin as newsprint and as white as dirty snow, their leaves turned a bright yellow against the steady de-saturated greens of the conifers and requisite mosses of Northwestern Ontario, on a steel-grey windy day. We were attempting to lure fresh-water fish into our boat and into a small six-inch cast-iron frying pan heated over a fire kindled by freshly chopped up deceased Jack Pine on a small island in the center of the lake. We ended up with one slender Northern Pike or what Canadians like my wife call Jack fish which tasted mighty fine wedged into some seven-grain bread and toped with salt and pepper. The fishing got better later on after the sun came out, but that wasn’t really the point. Carrying an aluminum canoe down to a glass-surfaced lake off a moose-dropping-strewn logging trail in an utterly silent early autumn, seeing no signs of other human life besides that of a aging bearded trapper in forest green work pants who dropped in on his float plane and claimed to have known every inch of this country for 37 years and the wolves who live here, and sensing the inevitability of life deep below the surface of the dense water beneath us and the thin cutting ecosystem around us, this was therapeutic.

Our little re-treat to the Northlands was a step slower then we were used to, everything there moves at a friendly, self-determined pace. We spent the week with Jennifer’s family sleeping in a small toilet-free cabin surrounded by clumps of mushrooms and a small dead rabbit dropped by a startled fox. We played intensely competitive table games, ate wonderful meals from my mother-in-law’s garden and freezer; I brushed up on my carpentry skills such as they are and Jennifer slept all ten hours of every night. We gradually slowed down, and slowly the stress in our maintenance-starved bodies ebbed away.

When the time came to visit my grandma, grandpa and 96-year-old great grandma in Northern Minnesota we were already adjusted to life in the slow lane. It didn’t seem weird when their neighbor Sue stopped by just to chew the flab like neighbors are supposed to. Our great-grandmother’s circular story-telling was a wonderful re-collection of memory and nostalgia of a time when out-milking your dad was a source of great pride, when books and school lessons were scarce pleasures for a girl who had to “work-out” as a hired girl, and when collecting maple syrup on the family farm was an all night job beside a flickering lantern. We were regaled with tales of loss and woe, hardship and friendship; getting old is hard work. We were reminded to get our blood-work done and work hard so that when we are old we will be old like my great grandma: tired but pain-free. When we stopped in at my Uncle Dawson’s farm for a hayride and pumpkin pie we were amazed at the energy of my little cousins who swarm the place on bicycles, tractors and legs that don’t seem to stop moving. I wonder if we would have that much explosive energy if we lived like they did – probably. If we ate three meals a day and slept 8 hours every night and worked on a farm in between we would be pretty healthy.

But for now we are back in the city, back among men with rippling muscles from lifting iron bars over and over again in a gym but with no real ability to fend for themselves – like genetically engineered cows with fat between their ears unable to survive anywhere but a feed lot. Back to the women who measure their self-worth by how much they can tempt their bodies to bulge out of their clothes at weird angles rather than how much produce they got out of their gardens this year or how many cans they recycled. Back to people with jobs like us who are tempted to complain when the bus driver skips our stops and makes us walk a few extra blocks and waste a few more minutes of our scarce leisure time. Right now we still think positive, we’re back in the grasp of life, every moment a chance to make a difference in the world around us. I hope that when this optimism fades we will still be able to remember those therapeutic instances we’ve had over the past week and remember what its like to live as though every event has a purpose, every season has meaning, and every history has a present.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Rainbow Fondue

I spent this last weekend with 300 women at a retreat in Northern Minnesota. I found out later that the weekend was rainbow themed. Not that there was much diversity – they were all pretty much white Mennonites from both sides of the border; but I guess it was a time of thinking like Noah that God’s promises are true. The theme song was “Mine, Mine, Mine, Jesus is Mine” and the entrance was decorated with a small fountain, a garden-variety trellis, and a variety of potted plants. The basketball hoops in the church gymnasium had been shunted to the side and during the tea time were replaced by cascading chocolate fondu pots which bubbled continuously like a springs at Yellowstone National Park without the smell of sulfur. My job was to serve the “ladies” (as Mennonite women are called) Rainbow Amaretto Tea during the tea time which in terms of aesthetics and ritual was the unquestioned climax of the weekend.

My favorite part was the sale counter at the front of the gym/rainbow park fantasia. Rows of pristine tea sets straight from the set of an eighties version of Pride and Prejudice or Love Came Softly were flanked by startling hand-molded baby-dolls which were nested neatly in delicate tea cups (two essential symbols of Mennonite female identity combined!). Resting on the wings were copies of the Eldredges’ 2005 (?) female explainer Captivating and other handicrafts and embroidery. Co-incidentally copies of a second edition of Dorcus Smucker’s book Ordinary Days were also available for sale.

Dorcus was the keynote speaker at this ladies retreat (I wonder if she knew about the rainbow theme and what she said about it? They turned off the intercom so we couldn’t hear what was going on). She reads this blog sometimes she says so maybe she will let us know. Dorcus likes to act like Margaret Mead at events like this (not in a pubescent Samoan fashion I’m sure but in the general “Mother of Anthropology” sort of way); I wonder what she thought? With a bunch of relatives and pseudo-relatives at this one it was hard for me to really put on my inner Franz Boas or Clifford Geertz (and being excluded from the workshops and lecture sessions as a bearded male “server” did not help give balance to my critique). Yet the ritual and material culture of the place does seem to suggest a few things. I should have taken better notes in order to be more exacting, but my over-all impression is that the Ann of Green Gables-style princess in pure white with golden hair piled high on a sun drenched stroll under an Asiatic parasol still ranks as the leading archetype of Mennonite feminine romanticism. While serving what I was made to understand to be “Kievian” Chicken, I was struck by the shear thrall of the ritualized events as they were unfurled in undulating waves of (what to me seemed) kitsch and cliché, the anticipation was thick: What would happen next?, Who should receive the next round of applause? One black-haired, doe-eyed, 15-year-old girl put it this way, “This is just so intense! It all happens so fast! Like I know I heard everything people said, but I don’t know if I can remember it well enough to apply it to my life. There is just so much to digest.” Things happened fast here. In this chocolate heaven-rainbow dream/gymnasium it became clear how easily the males in the room could be regarded as secondary humans, there to serve the needs of the ladies, and how easily Mennonite ladies can do what they want when they set their minds toward a certain image of possible roles in a world where they make the rules for the weekend.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Sleep Fishing

I used to think insomnia would be an interesting thing to experience. Books make it sound that way. Insomniacs are those intense weirdos who stare knowingly at every detail, muttering, scribbling elaborate semi-coherent proofs on old receipts. Its not that fun. Lying awake for hours trying to shut down the pictures in your brain, the endless memory trails, is one of the most frustrating things you can imagine. It happens to me a lot lately. I wake up after 3 hours of sleep and 4 hours of trying angry at the world.

Of course the first person I see at work is Stewick a 38 year-old trainwreck/standup-comedian who is a believer in positive psychology right now. We are assigned to escort the museum bathroom cleaners for the night – not the most fun job. Stewick immediately demands that I raise my hands with him and petition the universe for a change of assignment. His prayer went like this: “Dear Universe, Please make the Paris Maintenance guys not show up so Byler and I can get sweet posts.” I told him the Universe was set against us because I had already seen one of the maintenance guys. He scoffed “You have to believe.” I didn’t believe, I liked being grumpy, and my negativity caused us to spend outside various toilets.

But really it was ok. I drank a lot of coffee, gulped a Tylenol 4, and read Chinese history and as much as I grated against Stewick’s blind positive psychological bologna, it was true: I have a horrible sleep schedule, stomach ulcers, loud neighbors, and the occasional tyranny of toilet guarding; but otherwise my life is perfect. Like Zhuangzi wrote 2300 years ago: “My back sticks up like a hunchback and my vital organs are on top of me. My chin is hidden in my navel, my shoulders are up above my head and my pigtail points at the sky.” Yet despite these afflictions he lived his life with joy. And sagely wondered what would happen next. Perhaps his left arm would turn into a rooster. If so, he would “herald the dawn.” Or maybe his buttocks would turn into the wheels of a cart, “then, with my spirit for a horse I’ll climb up and go for a ride.” Why not? Living life properly is like “a cook boiling a small fish.” I don’t know what that means but it sounds like fun.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Teal like bad jazz

I wonder if I liked jazz when I was 16? Probably not so much. I think at that point I was still in the thrall of what my mom called “jazzy” music – which was not jazz at all, but the Christian version of rock-n-roll. This “beat-y” music was censured, black-marketed, not so skillfully mimicked on my Epiphone, and sometimes not to carefully hidden in our Preacher’s household. As I grew older though the shock value of rebellion receded and my tastes mellowed to the sophisticated rhythms and contradictory melody lines of jazz by the masters. I spent one of my first evenings with Jennifer at a jazz concert on the steps of Grant’s Tomb arguing the merits of Miles Davis against those of Duke Ellington (an ignorant argument). Since that hot summer when I was flying high between Kansas City and New York, I’ve moved on to Minimalism, the Baroque, the soaring lines of Shostikovich, and returned to the unrestrained honesty of folk music, but jazz, in the small ensemble, still moves me.

Last weekend I took my teenage brothers, one of whom is 16, and their friend Nick down to Harlem to hear musicians who had played with Charlie Parker. I like the crowd of folks at these things, old men in fedoras, women in Senegalese head wraps beat bopping along to the intricate rhythms of 85-year-olds. But my brothers and their friend were bored. Granted it was hot in Marcus Garvey Park, but that doesn’t seem to justify the endless text messaging to their respective honeys in lieu of head nodding soulful listening. We left before the headliner (the ex-wife of the Bird’s drummer) took the stage.

I was a little disappointed that they could disrespect the history and atmosphere of the place so easily – this was Harlem after all: the deepest heart of so much of the American vernacular. Then I remembered what I spent my time doing when I was 16: sneaking out to hear Petra or some other awful band, writhing in mosh pits, riding a snowboard so I could try to crack my head open like the always popular "wild-at-heart" boy, watching terrible bloody movies and thinking this was Real life on a transcendent scale. At least they liked the food at my favorite restaurants around town – and when I talked them through the Abstract Expressionists at the Museum of Modern Art, Dustan – the 18-year-old, started taking pictures (I think for a few moments they forgot they had cell phones!). Who knows, by the time they are the always-adult age of 25 they’ll be in raptures over the emotive effects of 15th century madrigals sung under vaulted ceilings, or the quiet profundity of some foreign language film. I guess we all thought “action” movies were “sweet,” branding our appearance with mass-manufactured eccentricities was the only way of projecting the “authentic” me, and prattling on and on to carefully veiled and suntanned 16-year-old beauties was an endless “party,” – or at least any quasi-normal Mennonite boy from Holmes County does. Let’s just hope they don’t stay normal.