China Bans Halloween and Steals My Ties

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blog china bans halloweenIt’s been a hectic week here at Topiclessbar, as the Chinese government has stepped in twice recently, prohibiting me from taking public transport in a Halloween costume and from wearing a nice stylish tie. That’s how China rolls sometimes. While other, more intelligent writers can document the massive, sweeping oppressions of the Chinese government over its people, I shall instead document two instances of relatively minor oppression that are more odd than infuriating.

Let’s start with the ties.

When shopping for ties in Beijing, one basically has two options. Either you can pay a ridiculously high price at a department store, or you can go to a black market and haggle. Now, personally, I absolutely hate haggling, so that’s out of the question. I’m just very uncomfortable with it. Even when I do successfully get the price I want, I still somehow feel as though I’ve been ripped off. Anyways, I needed ties and the two methods I just mentioned seemed unappealing. So I ordered ties online, which I thought would be an easy alternative.

Yeah, not so much.

Thanks to UPS tracking, I’ve learned that my shipment of five ties and two pocket squares has been detained at customs. Why? Well, perhaps China has something against pocket squares that aren’t pre-sewn into the suit. Or, more likely, they just want to milk more money out of me and my imported ties, as there’s a message on the UPS thing about how I need to pay some sort of fee to get my ties out of detention. My ties have been held hostage in a warehouse for almost two weeks now. Whether or not I ever set them free is anyone’s guess. In the meantime, I’ll stick to sweaters.

Now on to Halloween.

For years, the Beijing expat community has famously held its “Halloween Subway Party” on Line 2 of the Beijing subway. The idea is fun and simple: people dress in costumes and meet up on one particular subway platform, and then they sort of take over the subway car and have a costume party while riding the public transportation system. Line 2 is a loop, and eventually everyone gets off and the party continues. This has become something of its own tradition and there have never been any incidents of lawbreaking or disorderly conduct. But Halloween costumes are frightening, and so obviously the government had to step in and put the kibosh on the whole thing.

Here is the (somewhat confusing) statement that was released Friday prior to the subway party:

“Beijing transit police crew, tonight is Halloween to western traditional festivals. In order to avoid panic caused by subway, Beijing Subway will ban the costume or terrorist makeup in the passenger station. {People who} refuse to correct and thereby causing serious consequence may be detained.”

The news of the Halloween costume ban spread quickly. I’m not sure if anyone tried to get on the subway anyways, but I decided to stay away, as going to jail for dressing like Luigi from Mario Bros wasn’t how I wanted to spend my Friday night. I didn’t hear any stories of mass arrests the next day, although I did find this amusing photograph posted on We Chat. It’s a guy in a panda outfit getting taken away by a police man.

blog panda

Why ban Halloween costumes, you ask? Who knows? Because they have the power to, I guess. And, you know, who wants any kind of chaos on the Beijing subway? Cause usually it’s pretty low key and orderly.

blog chaos on subway

Okay, that’s all for now. The two lessons to take away from this blog post are as follows:

  1. It’s hard to buy ties in China, so just wear your D.A.R.E. or your Coed Naked Golf t-shirt to work.
  1. Halloween costumes (especially pandas) are scary and synonymous with terrorist activities. Be on the lookout for Isis members at your local costume or party store.

Hope everybody had a great holiday! See ya!

(Credit to Beijing comic Frank Monday for making the panda meme)

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30 Seconds at Stonehenge

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blog stonehengeOur bus was stuck well outside of London. An hour earlier, I’d been standing at the foot of the Roman Baths, looking down into the murky green water and seeing my silhouette floating on the surface like it was a rubber duck. That was neat, but now I was sitting in the window seat of a bus, right next to an older man from the States, a vet from the Korean War who had a camera dangling around his neck the same way rappers used to wear gold chains. I’d use the word “trapped” to describe what it was like being on that bus, only I actually liked the war vet sitting next to me and so I refrain from using such rhetoric, as to not offend him should he ever read this. Our conversation was pleasant, his stories interesting, and so, instead of saying “trapped,” I’ll instead use the phrase “charmingly immobilized.”

I looked at his camera and thought about how it, in its small digital cartridge, held exactly the same images that I did in my memory. The halls of Windsor Castle, with their grand excess. The city of Bath and its lovely medieval charm. But what we were waiting for, all three of us – me, the vet, and his camera – was the last stop on our guided bus tour, the mysterious monument known as Stonehenge.

stonehenge spinal tapIn truth, I’d wanted to see Stonehenge mostly because I’m a big fan of the movie This is Spinal Tap and any mentioning of Stonehenge makes me giggle. This was my motivation. Not to see an ancient monument shrouded in mystery, but instead to see the thing Nigel Tufnel drew too small on a napkin and some midgets almost knocked over. While we sat motionless in traffic, I kept myself excited by repeating the lyrics to the song in my head.

“Stonehenge/Where a man is a man/And the children dance to the pipes of Pan.”

The man running our tour was a handsome English chap around the age of sixty named Owen. He wore a bowler hat and made clever jokes, which is exactly how I assumed the British people would act. Thirty minutes into the Bath traffic jam, Owen got on the bus’ PA.

“Yes, it seems we’re a bit stuck at the moment,” he said, “but rest assured, we will be arriving at the great enigma that is Stonehenge within the next hour or so.”

Then, two hours later, he was back on the PA. “Ladies and gentlemen, I am relieved to inform you that we’ll be arriving at Stonehenge shortly. Regrettably, we’ll be arriving approximately fifteen minutes before the park closes. So please, be quick, enjoy the monument, take your pictures, and move swiftly towards the exit.”

Soon the bus pulled up at the entrance to Stonehenge and Owen rushed us off. People were literally running from the bus door to the entrance gate, the staff at Stonehenge looking woefully displeased at our arrival.

“We close in ten minutes,” one of them shouted. “Take one picture and go!”

And so this would be my experience at Stonehenge. I walked rapidly down the roped path, stopping now and then to snap photographs of the tall grey stones. My mind raced through thoughts of druids and sun dials and Michael McKean in a blonde wig. The sun was setting and the Stonehenge staff ushered our tour group in a large circle around the monument. I thought of rituals, ancient ones, the druids gathering around Stonehenge and doing whatever the heck they did, and then I thought about how lame our rituals have gotten, going from spiritual and mystical to just plain reasonable and economical, the ritual of clearing out the last tour group from the Stonehenge site so that the workers can go home without having to get paid overtime.

blog stonehenge vacationBack on the bus, I looked through my photographs. There it was, Stonehenge, locked in my camera, only a hundred or so pictures after a shirtless selfie I took of myself in the hotel. I’d only spent about seven minutes at Stonehenge, and while I felt as though the place required more time…maybe it didn’t. I mean, what else was there to do? What would I have done there with, say, an hour? Try to climb the rocks? Stare at them more? Knock them over in dominos fashion like Clark Griswold?

Perhaps, despite the weight of the place’s name and reputation, a few minutes was all one really needed to grasp the complexity of Stonehenge. Maybe this place – while iconic and world famous – required less time to take in than an episode of Saved by the Bell.

Stonehenge was a quickie. A satisfying quickie. I thought of other things, tried to make a quick list of everything that takes longer to enjoy than Stonehenge. A Starbucks coffee. A hot shower. Listening to one Grateful Dead song or three songs by the Ramones. Scratching an itch that’s been driving you crazy, located somewhere in the middle of your back.

I thought about how people say life is short and, as I did, Owen got back on the PA and apologized, saying he wished we had had more time.

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The Chopstick Delusion

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blog chopsticks miageLiving in China, there are certain things one hears over and over again. A short list of commonly accepted phrases would include:

“Do you like Chinese food?” – this is usually asked by someone when you are enjoying a large plate of Chinese food, or if you’re speaking to a Chinese person and neither of you has anything interesting to say.

“Wow! You look just like _____” – insert actor or actress you look nothing like.

“Oh, you are very good with chopsticks!” – a compliment every foreigner receives at some point and, in a way, a right of passage.

Yes, today’s topic is that common compliment, the one about chopsticks, and what it means. On the surface, it’s sort of goofy and perplexing. I mean, chopsticks really aren’t that hard to use. Why wouldn’t I be good with chopsticks? What kind of god-awful motor skills do you think I have? Like, because I’m American, I’m only capable of stabbing things with a fork?

It’s also a bit awkward because it draws a clear distinction between whoever says it and the foreigner receiving the compliment. It would be sort of like if I walked into a McDonald’s in America and saw an Asian guy eating a hamburger and totally freaked out about it.

blog hamburger head“Holy crap! Do you see what’s happening here? He’s Asian and he’s eating a hamburger! A hamburger! I thought he’d be eating rice or something, but nope! It’s a Big Mac! This guy is wild!”

Perhaps a little overboard, but the chopsticks compliment is in essence divisive. Trust me, I’m aware that I’m very other. We don’t need to point it out yet again. It’s only slightly better than when I say some basic thing in broken Mandarin and am given the thumbs up for it.

blog chopsticksBut all that is minor. The truth is, the annoying aspects of the chopstick compliment are nothing when compared to the importance of it. It’s an acknowledgement, a sign of approval. I believe it signals that I have arrived. That despite my awful Mandarin and the fact that none of the shirts here fit me, I have mastered something that helps me fit in here in China at least a little bit. Chopsticks. I may never be fully accepted as a part of this society, but at least I can pick up a noodle.

Chopsticks have been on my mind a lot lately, ever since the new semester at my school began. See, in the past, the school cafeteria only had chopsticks, and every teacher used them whether they were adept at it or not. This year, however, a tray of forks and spoons suddenly appeared. I was aghast. It was a kind gesture, I suppose, to supply the new foreign teachers with the cutlery of their homeland. Yet, at the same time, it saddened me, especially when I noticed the new teachers were largely opting for the fork and spoon instead of the chopsticks.

blog chopsticks with fork“I can’t use chopsticks,” some of them would say. And that made sense. If you can’t use chopsticks, that could lead to a messy lunch. Although at one point in time I was new, and I sort of got initiated into chopsticks by fire, and I guess I think everyone should kind of do that. In my mind, I tried to imagine being a foreigner living in Asia and never getting the chopstick compliment. It would be like, I suppose, moving to America and living there for decades without ever getting the finger.

You just really couldn’t call it home, I don’t think.

Which brings us to The Chopstick Delusion. This is the idea that forms in the mind of a western person living in Asia that, due to competence in a few areas of daily life, they have been assimilated into the culture that surrounds them to at least some degree. I can use chopsticks. I can order food in a restaurant. I am able to read some signs. I know how to count. Therefore I am not an outsider but someone that belongs here. I can one day feel at home in this country.

And that might be true – if the person continues to work at it. To learn the language, understand the customs, count past ten. But what I see a lot – especially with myself – is that once those basic things are conquered, The Chopstick Delusion sets in and you think you’ve got it made. Why am I judgmental against the new teachers who insist on sticking with the fork? Because I feel they won’t be deserving of their delusion, I think. By giving up the fork, I’ve made a choice to go with the flow, to do like the Romans. And it annoys me to think that the fork people will eventually have Chopstick Delusions of their own without ever having mastered chopsticks. The same way, I guess, people who have learned to speak Mandarin view me.

Because that’s probably how it works. The hierarchy of expat adaptation. For every foreigner who can’t speak the language, I’m sure there’s some other foreign shaking his head, just like the chopstick crowd scoffs at the fork people, and I suppose the fork people, eating their rice and their kung pao chicken, might feel a tad superior to the foreigners sitting in KFC eating fried chicken with their fingers.

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Is This Thing On? – Inside My Abysmal Stand-Up Comedy Debut

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blog krusty stand upMy entire life, I’ve always loved stand-up comedy. Seinfeld, Carlin, Chris Rock, Mitch Hedberg, Louis CK…I love all these people. They’ve made me laugh and helped me stay sane. And I’ve always thought, “Hmm, maybe one day I’d like to try that.I think I could be good at it.”

So this past week I did. I got up on a stage during an open mic night held by Comedy Club China. And it did not go well.

Let’s back up for a second. This whole disaster began one night about a month ago when – surprise surprise – I’d been doing some drinking. In a moment of delusion, I started talking to my friend Katrina about my inevitable stardom as a stand-up comedian.

“I’m a funny guy,” I said. “You know how we went to those comedy shows in Beijing last year? Well, I think I could do that. I’m at least as funny as those comedians we saw.”

This moronic bragging over the abstract possibility that I might be funnier than some comics we saw a year ago slowly transformed into a plan. During our one-week holiday, Katrina and I would go to the open mic night and I would make my debut. I spent days writing a million stand-up comedy bits, and in the end I chose two that I thought were good. On a Sunday night, I met up with Katrina at the club…

…and basically had an anxiety attack.

“I can’t do it,” I told her. “I feel sick. I think I’m going to throw up.”

“Man up!” Katrina said. “You’re not backing out of this!”

blog better standup microphoneBut man up I could not, and I backed out. We decided to stay and watched as several men did four minute sets in front of a lot of empty seats. Most did not fare well, and this unfortunately gave me false hope. By the end of the night, I’d talked to the host and had gotten myself signed up to go on stage the upcoming Wednesday.

That would be the high point of the entire venture. Katrina accidentally left her iphone in the bar that night and it just sort of disappeared. She believed the bartender stole it. And in her anger at the bar, she decided she would not be going back there again…which meant I’d have to go back Wednesday by myself. This was not good. I took the train alone and got to the bar about an hour early. No one was there. I read over my jokes and drank two beers.

“Oh my God,” I thought. “None of this is funny. It’s not funny at all. In the clarity of this moment, I realize I’ve written total crap! I need to back out!”

I went up to the host and introduced myself. He was pleasant and I felt too bad to back out. Instead, I went and used the bathroom for the fifth time in a thirty minute timespan.

“This is going to be good for you,” I said to myself. “Just getting up there. You’re always so nervous…you’ll be facing your fears. And who knows? Maybe the jokes are funnier than you think.”

blog comedy crowdBy the time 9:30 rolled around, I was in a state of panic. The place had really filled up and there were a lot of people in the audience. I was slated to go on second. The guy before me had just headlined the last comedy show and is one of Beijing’s top comics. Again, I saw disaster looming.

“What if I can’t get the mic off the stand?” I worried. “What if I can’t make words? What if I go up there and urinate myself?”

The crowd was in good spirits as the first comic finished. It was my time to go on. I wandered to the side of the stage with the same level of lethargic commitment that people in movies have when they’re put under a trance and sent to kill somebody.

“I don’t know much about this next comedian,” the host said, “but I know his name is Bill Panara and I like his chain of bread restaurants.”

With that, I was on. I looked out into the crowd and saw nothing – the lights were blinding. A sinking feeling set into my stomach as I started my set. I was obviously nervous. The first joke landed with a thud. The next punchline pronounced nothing but silence and one loud groan.

“I’m bombing,” I acknowledged internally.

Still, I went on. Each part of my routine stunk the place up worse than the last bit had. Eventually I began commenting on how terrible I was and the crowd seemed to enjoy that a little bit, although it did not cause them to forget the trainwreck they were witnessing.

“And Princess Elsa is a whore!” I proclaimed, the final line of my godawful set. “Thank you!”

I practically ran off stage. The host was really nice and sort of hugged me, said something quick about the first time being difficult. Other comics – real comics – gave me high fives in support (or pity).

“You have to be exaggerating,” Katrina said the next day. “You couldn’t have bombed that badly.”

“It was horrendous,” I said. “You could’ve gone up there and talked about your breakfast and it would’ve gotten more laughs.”

“Did anything go right?”

“Well, the microphone worked nicely. And the blinding lights made me less nervous.”

“So the things the bar controlled…those were good.”

“Exactly. And everything I controlled paled in comparison.”

Perhaps in time I shall grace the comedy stage again. Yes, my debut was tragic, but that’s okay because comedy and tragedy are often linked. As Mel Brooks once said, “Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.”

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Four Days in the Unfortunate Universe of Having a Job

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blog jason vorheesDay One

Time: late August

Weather: hot

Physical Appearance: wearing blue suit, hair looks good, small pimple on chin

The beginning of a new school year is a lot like the first twenty minutes of a slasher movie.

You meet new people. Everyone is happy and the sky is generally bright and sunny. There are parties. People hook up. Clichés are muttered, like this is going to be a great school year, just as someone in a slasher movie might say this is going to be a great vacation out here in the wilderness. But meanwhile, despite all the pleasantness, there are undertones. Dark undertones. Hints of evil lurking in the near future. On occasion, ominous music plays (like the school chimes). Eventually you begin to wonder which of your teacher friends will be the first to go, and what back story will justify the actions of your psychotic students (overbearing mothers, traumas from the past, they witnessed poor classroom management as young children, etc.).

Keeping this in mind, I have my goal set for the year. Survival. I want nothing more than to make it to the end alive. Because the school year will soon disintegrate into Wolf Creek, and once that happens, I’d like to make sure the engine of my car is checked before all the crazy people start pulling on the door handles.

blog teacher dudeDay Two

Time: early September

Weather: slightly less hot than day one

Physical Appearance: wearing shirt and tie, unshaven, pimple on neck thankfully hidden by collar

It’s a curse to be blessed with talents in an area not of your choosing.

At the risk of sounding like an egomaniac, I’m a pretty darn good teacher. Damn good, even. I can run a class smoothly, limit behavior problems, and get the kids working. They have fun in my class and they cooperate. At times, I feel like this might be my calling. The kids are learning, everything is awesome, and, as much as I hate to admit, I’m sort of enjoying myself.

But, you see, all that is really bad. It’s devastating, actually. Because I never wanted to be a teacher. No, I’ve always wanted to be a writer. I mean, who really aspires to be a teacher? No one. People aspire to be writers and end up as teachers. I spend my nights after school writing, slaving away at projects that never seem to get any closer to completion. That’s because, if I’m being honest with myself, my writing isn’t all that great. Sometimes things come out pretty decent and I’m satisfied, but it takes a lot of work and it never comes easy.

So this is my big problem. The torture of being good at something you didn’t ask to be good at. At work, on days where I have one excellent class after the next, I’m just more painfully aware that I’m a way better teacher than I am a writer. That this is my job, my profession, and the thing that I have all that passion for, well, that’s my hobby.

And then I start letting the writing slide, and spend my nights looking over lesson plans like a true loser.

'You're wasting your time. I like my job, but I'll never love it.'Day Three

Time: mid September

Weather: warm, nice pollution fog

Physical Appearance: checkered shirt and tie although I’m not sure they go together and feel somewhat self-conscious

Work can make a person’s dreams fade away.

This is what I’ve learned. Against my better judgment, I fear that I’ve become one of those people. You know the type. I spend hours of my free time doing things that relate to my job. When out with people, I talk about my job. When thinking, I think about my job. When dreaming, I dream about marshmallow people, but that’s only because I have no control over what I dream. Otherwise it would be my job. My job has become the one dominant focal point in my life, and I’m so ashamed of myself.

The real problem is that I’m happy. Yes, I know, it’s a catastrophe. Even though I complain a lot, I’m beginning to realize that I might (sigh) really like my line of work. I might even…dare I say…love it. Oh my God, how did this happen?  I’m like the person that gets kidnapped and then falls in love with their captor. I’m like Patty Hearst. At first I was kicking and screaming, and now I never want to be rescued.

My writing has completely stopped. I tell myself it was only a hobby anyways. I was born to be a teacher, and my lack of writing isn’t laziness…it’s destiny.

blog kids middle fingerDay Four

Time: late September

Weather: chilly, nipples slightly erect

Physical Appearance: wearing long grey trench coat, tell myself I look like Don Draper but think I look more like a flasher

A great thing happened today!

My class was terrible!

Absolutely terrible. The children were out of control, nobody learned anything, kids were giving each other the middle finger, and nobody did any work at all. I think these days are blessings. Granted, this is mostly because they’re few and far between, but when Wolf Creek happens, it’s kind of nice. It makes one pause and take a step back, look at the big picture for a moment.

This is my job. Not my life. I guess I need bad days to remind me of this. There are things that need to be written, projects that need to be completed, dreams that need to be chased. Without all that…I’d only have this job, this thing that pays me and takes up most of my time and occasionally involves children making lewd gestures at each other. And if that’s all I have…I’ll probably go crazy and end up in a looney bin trying to teach grammar in a straight jacket.

I sit in my room and smoke a cigarette. Then I open up my novel, which I haven’t looked at in almost a month. It sits on the same screen where my lesson plans have been a permanent fixture for the last five weeks.

Tomorrow the kids will probably be good again, and I’ll probably feel cocky about triumphantly completing my lesson on the future continuous tense. But for now I’ll write. I’ll take a few hours to dream. Because work is over and, technically, I’m not a teacher again until eight o’clock tomorrow morning.

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Like Watching Turtles Choose Shells

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blog faceless mannequinIt’s a Saturday afternoon and I need a shirt. Really, I need much more than a shirt – a whole new wardrobe would be better, and maybe a stylist, and maybe an endless supply of socks – but whatever, on this day I’ll settle for a mere shirt. I take the 52 Bus to one of the many malls in Beijing, where I stumble upon a store called ‘Jack Jones.’ The place is darkly lit and features faceless mannequins with shiny non-faces that are better dressed that I’ve ever been in my life. They’re also much more muscle toned, and I debate whether or not I’d sacrifice having a face in exchange for better clothes and abs. Really, if someone looked like one of these Jack Jones mannequins, I’d be willing to bet that he’d score more dates than 2/3 of men with faces.

Anyways, I’ve noticed that there’s a Jack Jones in basically every Chinese mall I’ve stepped foot in. All of them, as though the malls of China are like those faceless mannequins, the exact same replicated mirror image being constructed over and over again. Go into a Beijing mall and you’ll be sure to find a KFC, the Japanese fast food joint Yoshinoya, a Jack Jones, a few clean bathrooms, a few nightmarishly unclean ones, and a strange emptiness that pervades the place and invokes sadness the same way your house might the day you move out of it.

blog waldo mallFor a country with 20% of the world’s population, the malls in China are surprisingly vacant and ghostly. Floor after floor, all connected by inconsistently functioning escalators, you’ll find clean and open space, territory unclaimed, stores sitting idle and bored. At an H & M in Dongzhimen, I explored the racks of clothes completely alone while the salespeople stocked the already overstocked shelves. Or, wandering aimlessly around the mall in Xizhimen, I passed by the same t-shirt shop probably a dozen times, never seeing anyone, consumer or employee, inhabiting it. Then there’s the strange mall around Lishuiqiao station, which requires a short pilgrimage from the subway, a ten minute walk down a desolate road where hopeful shoppers slowly move in droves, staggering in the direction of the mall with the enthusiasm and countenance of someone forced down the Trail of Tears in 1831. 

That’s what I’m thinking as I step into Jack Jones. Immediately, only seconds after I enter, a young Chinese woman in her work uniform approaches me.

“Ni hao!” she smiles. “JACK JONES!”

She nearly screams it, as though she’s shouting out his name in orgasm.

“Yes,” I say, unsure of how to respond. She smiles and walks away, only to be replaced by another shop girl, this one also flashing an oddly frightening smile.

“Hello!” she says in English.

“Hi.”

“Jack Jones!”

“You’ve got that right,” I say.

blog men explore outfitsShe doesn’t say anything else, but parks herself directly next to me. This makes me feel incredibly uncomfortable, awkward, having this salesgirl shadowing me, and I walk towards the back of the store hoping that she won’t follow. My plan doesn’t work. Keeping a safe distance of a few feet, she glides to the back of the store after me, like I’m the sound and she’s the echo. I try and try but I can’t lose her. All these shirts and sweater vests, I can’t even think, all I’m aware of is this stupid salesgirl three feet to my right. She recommends a green flannel shirt and I run. I dart through two full racks of clothes, a tight squeeze, praying that she’ll get stuck between them, but she doesn’t, and moments later she’s practically on my back, the closest I’ll come all day to wearing anything from the store.

I know, I know. This is good customer service, right? I tell myself that. This girl has devoted so much attention to me, it’s amazing, the polar opposite of the neglectful clerks working back home at JC Penny or TJ Maxx. Still, I hate it. I just want to be left alone, by myself, so I can pick something that I personally think is hip, even if it makes me look like I belong in a New Kids on the Block video. It would probably be difficult for her to understand any of this. I don’t really want to be helped. I’d prefer the freedom to fashionably sink or swim on my own.

Without saying anything, I quickly make my way out of the store. I don’t look back to see if she’s tried to follow me. I can still hear that name in my head, over and over, the way they kept saying it.

Jack Jones.

Jack Jones.

Jack Jones.

It’s almost like a siren call, pulling me back. I mean, maybe I should go back, I have no new shirt, and I’m not sure where else to go. But none of that matters, because I’ve returned to the embrace of this empty shopping mall and I’m sure I can find some store, somewhere in the deserted landscape, where the only thing that will tell me I don’t look good in a pink cashmere sweater is the mirror.

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Sunday Thoughts on Books and Flies

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blog fliesIt’s Sunday afternoon in China and I feel a strange sense of optimism today. Happiness. I think I generally feel this way when my apartment is clean. That’s sort of the key to happiness, I think. Being able to keep your place in a condition that most human beings would want to live in. There have been times in the past when I’ve allowed my apartment to turn monstrous, clothes all over the floor and rotting vegetables on the counter. It’s hard to be happy when that’s what you’ve got. Show me an upbeat individual that’s always smiling, and I’ll show you a person that knows when to throw away lettuce.

Last night it really poured here. Torrential downpour. I sat on my bed and tried to write a blog about people falling in love in Taco Bell, but I just couldn’t concentrate because there was a stupid fly and it kept landing on me. This may sound like an excuse, but it’s really what happened. I literally couldn’t write because this fly kept landing on my knees. And it’s presence wasn’t even logical, because my apartment is finally clean for once and I thought that would mean the flies would go away or something.

So I ended up chasing the fly around my apartment, trying to kill it with a paperback copy of Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist. The fly kept landing in various locations and I would slam the book down only to realize that the fly had dodged the blow, flown off split-seconds before the words “65 Million Copies Sold” came crashing down on its face. It reminded me of action movies, where the villain fires like 80 bullets at the hero and they all miss. That’s how I felt trying to kill the fly. It was frustrating and it made me wonder if I’m a villainous person, because if I was the good guy, I would probably be able to kill an entire army of flies by myself without much trouble.

Eventually I gave up and decided I’d just have to accept that the fly was going to land on me every few minutes. It was a really smart fly, actually – I mean, landing exclusively on the person trying to kill you is probably the best way to avoid death. Not like I was going to slam The Alchemist into my own head or anything. But then I started thinking about books, and I realized something I hadn’t thought of before.

blog bookI’m not the type to get all romantic about real, actual books versus electronic books. I don’t care about the feel of a book in my hands or any of the stuff I’ve heard friends say. But there is something neat about how a book can become something else in one’s day to day life. I thought about how much goofy nonsense I use books for. I use books as paperweights; I use books as decorations; I’ve used a book as a fan on a hot day; I sometimes use books to put on top of chairs to reach things; I’ve used a book as a pillow before; I use books to kill flies. And that’s what I would love to someday accomplish myself. To write something that becomes old and battered, that a person might scribble something on the inside cover of or put under a wobbly chair leg. Because that’s when your book has really become a part of somebody’s life. When it’s not just about words and themes and all that literary stuff, but is the difference between sitting comfortable and falling over.

These are the things I’m contemplating this Sunday afternoon. The fly seems to have somehow left the apartment, which makes me nervous because I don’t know how it did that and now I believe there must be some hidden entrance/escape route somewhere. Whatever. I’m glad that it’s finally gone. I imagine that it’s in someone else’s apartment, and I wonder what bestseller that person is using to smash the damn thing into oblivion.