Thursday, October 30, 2008

the next adventure

I've started a hitchhiking trip across the country to meet people and talk to scientists conducting cool research. The blog is called The Joy of Lex.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

last post

My adventures abroad have ended and I declare this blog CLOSED. Here's my new blog about life in the rotten apple:

Sunday, August 17, 2008

from a freedom fighter

I've talked about my friend Tenzin Choedon before. She's a nurse who graduated from college and started her new job just before the start of the March to Tibet. She only worked at this hospital for a month before the March called her to say they had no one else to watch the health of the marchers. They said they needed her. She had a hard decision. If she quit her job, they would hold her nursing certificate until she paid a penalty worth a year of pay. She decided she would rather work for her country's freedom. She left the job and spent the next three months attending the aches, blisters and general health of the marchers on the March to Tibet. After three months, the march disintegrated in the face of extreme opposition from the Indian police and Tenzin had no where to turn. After staying in Dharamsala with the Che Guerva of Tibetan freedom, Tenzin Tsundue, she finally had to return home. This is what this dedicated freedom fighter wrote recently:

Back home for now,
sleeping in my cosy bed
thick mat and warm blanket
no more hiding...
no more hungry...
i am free now,
free from the indian jail.
free from the march,
the protest.
free from my patients,
free with my family,
but really?
i am happy with my family,
but in alien land.
i get to eat well,
while my brothers die of huger.
i protest and get a night in jail.
my sisters protest and gets death.
so no more fake freedom...
no more pain and crying ....
keeping faith in 'never giving up"
i stand up for my land.
forever till my last breath.
BHOD GYA LO !!! (Victory to Tibet)

Monday, August 11, 2008

home to my books

Back in the States. I have actually gone up to my book depository and simply sat there admiring them. I missed having my books for those 8 months. This means I better jump on the bandwagon I've been seeing around the Interwebs and put up the list of the top 100 books that's been floating around.

Everybody is supposed to do post this on their blog for reasons unknown to me. I just wanted to show off that I read more than half of them. The Big Read says that US adults have only read an average of 6 books on this list.

The Legend:
Read it

Started it

1. Pride and Prejudice - Jane Austen

2. The Lord of the Rings - JRR Tolkien

3. Jane Eyre - Charlotte Bronte

4. Harry Potter series - JK Rowling

5. To Kill a Mockingbird - Harper Lee (great movie too)

6. The Bible (I don’t want to ruin the ending but the bad guys lose)

7. Wuthering Heights - Emily Bronte

8. Nineteen Eighty Four - George Orwell (see London, England)

9. His Dark Materials - Philip Pullman

10. Great Expectations - Charles Dickens

11. Little Women - Louisa M Alcott

12. Tess of the D'Urbervilles - Thomas Hardy

13. Catch 22 - Joseph Heller (the funniest book I know)

14. Complete Works of Shakespeare

15. Rebecca - Daphne Du Maurier

16. The Hobbit - JRR Tolkien

17. Birdsong - Sebastian Faulks

18. Catcher in the Rye - JD Salinger

19. The Time Traveller's Wife - Audrey Niffenegger

20. Middlemarch - George Eliot

21. Gone With The Wind - Margaret Mitchell

22. The Great Gatsby - F Scott Fitzgerald

23. Bleak House - Charles Dickens

24. War and Peace - Leo Tolstoy

25. The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy - Douglas Adams

26. Brideshead Revisited - Evelyn Waugh

27. Crime and Punishment - Fyodor Dostoyevsky

28. Grapes of Wrath - John Steinbeck

29. Alice in Wonderland - Lewis Carroll (I might have the Jabberwocky tattooed on my back)

30. The Wind in the Willows - Kenneth Grahame

31. Anna Karenina - Leo Tolstoy (my parents got all of our names from this book)

32. David Copperfield - Charles Dickens

33. Chronicles of Narnia - CS Lewis (we read these together out loud after dinner for a long time)

34. Emma - Jane Austen

35. Persuasion - Jane Austen

36. The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe - CS Lewis

37. The Kite Runner - Khaled Hosseini

38. Captain Corelli's Mandolin - Louis De Bernieres

39. Memoirs of a Geisha - Arthur Golden (I stole it from a nice little restaurant in India and got my only food poisoning of the India trip, damn karma)

40. Winnie the Pooh -

41. Animal Farm - George Orwell

42. The Da Vinci Code - Dan Brown (not only should this not be on the list, it shouldn’t be in public libraries)

43. One Hundred Years of Solitude - Gabriel Garcia Marquez (one of the best I know if you can keep the names straight, it gets tough as he travels through a few generations of a family where every male has the same name as his father and grandfather)

44. A Prayer for Owen Meaney - John Irving (I like Irving but he repeats his themes way too much, enough about wrestling, open marriages and the guy letting the animals out of the Vienna zoo in WWI only to get eaten by the lion)

45. The Woman in White - Wilkie Collins

46. Anne of Green Gables - LM Montgomery

47. Far From The Madding Crowd - Thomas Hardy (a master of characterization)

48. The Handmaid's Tale - Margaret Atwood

49. Lord of the Flies - William Golding

50. Atonement - Ian McEwan (second worst book on the list)

51. Life of Pi - Yann Martel

52. Dune - Frank Herbert

53. Cold Comfort Farm - Stella Gibbons

54. Sense and Sensibility - Jane Austen

55. A Suitable Boy - Vikram Seth

56. The Shadow of the Wind - Carlos Ruiz Zafon

57. A Tale Of Two Cities - Charles Dickens

58. Brave New World - Aldous Huxley

59. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time - Mark Haddon

60. Love In The Time Of Cholera - Gabriel Garcia Marquez

61. Of Mice and Men - John Steinbeck

62. Lolita - Vladimir Nabokov (another great movie, I love Peter Sellers)

63. The Secret History - Donna Tartt

64. The Lovely Bones - Alice Sebold

65. Count of Monte Cristo - Alexandre Dumas (with the only opium induced wet dream I have ever read, three greek godess statues coming to life sounds pretty great to me)

66. On The Road - Jack Kerouac (captured the go go go spirit of the 50’s in Neal Cassady, I liked his Dharma Bums best which captured the spirit of the 60’s in Gary Snyder)

67. Jude the Obscure - Thomas Hardy

68. Bridget Jones' Diary - Helen Fielding

69. Midnight's Children - Salman Rushdie

70. Moby Dick - Herman Melville

71. Oliver Twist - Charles Dickens

72. Dracula - Bram Stoker

73.The Secret Garden - Frances Hodgson Burnett

74. Notes From A Small Island - Bill Bryson

75. Ulysses - James Joyce

76. The Bell Jar - Sylvia Plath (for some reason we have three copies of this depressing book floating around our house, who keeps buying it?)

77. Swallows and Amazons - Arthur Ransome

78. Germinal - Emile Zola

79. Vanity Fair - William Makepeace Thackeray

80. Possession - AS Byatt

81. A Christmas Carol - Charles Dickens

82. Cloud Atlas - David Mitchell

83. The Color Purple - Alice Walker

84. The Remains of the Day - Kazuo Ishiguro

85. Madame Bovary - Gustave Flaubert

86. A Fine Balance - Rohinton Mistry (another master of characters with an amazing eye for the details of India)

87. Charlotte's Web - EB White

88. The Five People You Meet In Heaven - Mitch Albom

89. Adventures of Sherlock Holmes - Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (gets a little repetitive)

90. The Faraway Tree Collection - Enid Blyton

91. Heart of Darkness - Joseph Conrad

92. The Little Prince - Antoine De Saint-Exupery

93. The Wasp Factory - Iain Banks

94. Watership Down - Richard Adams (inspired the wonderful Redwall series)

95. A Confederacy of Dunces - John Kennedy Toole (a damn funny book published after the kid who wrote it died and his mother got lucky enough to find an editor who bothered to read the manuscript that turned out to be quite clever)

96. A Town Like Alice - Nevil Shute

97. The Three Musketeers - Alexandre Dumas

98. Hamlet - William Shakespeare

99. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory - Roald Dahl

100. Les Miserables - Victor Hugo

Saturday, August 9, 2008


I love Nevin. He's the father of my friend Kerri Koch who's engaged to my buddy Kurt. I actually asked her out first during our sophomore year of high school but it turned out that she wanted to go to prom with Kurt instead. She wanted someone clever and kind instead of annoying and wrongly convinced of his own hilarity. Go figure. I stopped by Kurt and Kerri's new house and found Nevin hard at work.

He's a great white haired guy with arms like Popeye and a knack for the Mennonite game. PA terminology corner: When playing the Mennonite game, you try to find out how everybody is related to everyone else, where they grew up, where they work, who married who and whose father used to run the general store that became a restaurant ran by the son of the guy who used to live on E Main St that ran an electrical business that shut down twenty years ago. It's complicated and you win by knowing everything. Nevin knows everything.

He has an inside track because in 1955, he began reading the water meters for our town. It meant he had to go into the basement of every single house in Lititz. Naturally with our friendly community, he talked to alot of people and obtained alot of valuable information for the Mennonite game. He also mentioned that back then, almost everybody left their door open so he could walk into the empty house to read their water meter. He said he doesn't find open doors anymore. Ah, the good old days.

He asked me about my recent travels. After the normal short synopsis, I told him, "it's time to head back to NYC because I'm flat broke but it was worth it."
"Yeah", he says, "you have to do it now while you're not tied down." Then he starts telling me about his adventure year of 1964. He went to British Columbia for a year with a buddy. By helping an old mountain man gather hay "more like swamp grass", they got a cabin 25 miles outside town. The best part: no roads. In winter, it could take two days to snowshoe into town for supplies. They didn't need much though. They spent almost all their time hunting and fishing. During the summer, he shot moose and deer, caught a lot of trout and even bagged a small bear. In winter, they trapped and shot red squirrels. If you got the sucker in the head, you could get 60 cents for the pelt. They shot 360 squirrels that winter. That's a hell of a lot of good shooting. He even once trapped a lynx that brought in twenty bucks for the coat (that's 33.3 squirrels if you're keeping score at home). It sounded like an amazing way to while away a year.

He went back with Kerri 33 years later. He found the mountain man and former professional ice hockey player who rented them the cabin. Unfortunately, he couldn't remember Nevin because he almost lost his life in a grizzly attack that apparently made him a little soft in the head. We agreed that it's hard to find tough old birds like that mountain man but fascinating once you do.

That prompted me to tell Nevin about meeting the toughest guy I know. On a trip to Arkansas to visit my buddy and teacher of all things redneck, Nat Sumers, we went for a mule ride with the a local mountain man and some of his friends. He spent his entire life with horses and mules. By trimming their hooves, shoeing them and breaking them, he makes enough to scrape out a happy little existence in a shack surrounded by his favorite quadrupeds. On the ride that day, he rode a half wild horse that he was breaking in for someone. Nat, a good horseman himself, said he wouldn't take a half wild horse on these trails. To make it more interesting, this horse whisperer hitched two completely wild horses to his saddle with lead ropes to begin the process of breaking them in. Now that's tough. A half-broken horse with two completely wild ones attached. With this impressive display of prowess we set off on our ride.

After about an hour of leisurely beer drinking, talking and riding, we stopped for our first piss break. When he got off his half wild horse, the other two started freaking out, jumping and kicking all over the place. When they settled down, he was in the middle of a tangled knot of horses. One had its legs off the ground, wrapped in a lead rope while one had its front end completely over the last horse. A sticky situation because its easy for a horse to break its leg in those positions. He calmly starts untying ropes and slowly rearranging the horses. After a minute, something spooks them again and they start going wild. Right in the middle of the bunch, he narrowly misses a kick to the head before they settle down again. Then he delivers my favorite line of the week in his Arkansas drawl, "Well, I reckon I ought to put down my beer."

I'm proud to say my story got a laugh out of Nevin with his great infectious chuckle. Because of men like him, it's fun to be home in Lititz.

I just realized I used the post title to save Asa Wilks' number. I can't think of a better tittle anyway so I'll leave it in. Call him and tell him he smells like a monkey.

fun in the townships

Her last year in college, my girlfriend ran a program called SHAWCO - !!insert name, a student run organization that sends college kids into the township (slum) schools once a week to teach a class. I went along for the first time last Friday to check out the scene. What a rush.

As both regular readers of this column know, I love kids. I like babies too but I'm not as stoked about caring for one 24/7. As my dad says, “It only really gets fun when they start talking back.” Since I spent most of last week in bed with tonsillitis taking some strange South African concoction called “Grandpas” to stave off the feverish nightmares, I had plenty of time to fantasize about my future family. I pictured a warm sunny day at Lititz Springs Park with children swarming everywhere while my five to eight rugrats wander around stirring up trouble. Then I yell “Pelger Flash” and all of my kids swing into action by jumping up, yelling at the top of their lungs and running around the park waving their hands over their head like in a Godzilla movie. After a minute of this hopefully disconcerting behavior, we all meet at a spot in the grass for a giant dog pile. Our family motto will be: making the world more surreal, one freakout at a time. I can't wait to be a father.

Anyway, the above scenario helps to illustrate why I loved this township school. As we drove up in our short bus, half a dozen kids swarmed through the gates to meet us. A few had vicious looking dogs on rope leashes. One little guy had a dog that dwarfed him. I said to him, “That dog looks like a killer. Is that dog a killer?” He just solemnly nodded his head as the dog took off running presumably to go lunch on the third grade. I turned to another kid. “Do you think you could beat that dog in a fight?” Big shake of the head no. “What if I gave you a knife?” I look at the dog again. “A really big knife.” A big smile this time but still a shake of the head no. “Yeah, I think you're right. Them's some mean looking dogs.”

I walk into the classroom with the two college girls who will run an art class here next week. Their only plan for this week: get the names of their new charges. Instead, there is chaos. Absolute and glorious chaos. A room of forty 7 to 13 year olds who seemed to only be slightly afraid of the principal who yelled at them in Afrikaans to shut up. They were not at all afraid of the two english speaking girls in the front who didn't understand Afrikaans. I heard some of the boys use some bad words in Afrikaans but I decided to feign ignorance. If my teacher didn't speak my language, could I resist insulting them? Probably not. I couldn't throw stones on that point.

Whenever the girls asked for silence, the noise would drag on as various factions tried to silence the others. The hissing and shouts of “shut up” chased each other around the world in a seemingly endless echo. Kids kept standing up to walk around. A little blonde girl repeatedly punched one of the older boys and somebody kept making fart sounds which made me hide a smile. While everyone else tried to silence each other, only the long row of older boys in the back simply would not shut up. However, once I squeezed into one of the tiny seats in the middle of their group, they went from being the loudest offenders to being the most annoying keepers of the peace. They would vehemently yell at anyone standing up or making noise. This often led to a yelling contest about who should shut up. Everybody wanted everyone else to be quiet and instead they took the roof off the old building. I giggle about it again even as I sit here and write it.

Once I got the boys on my team, they enthusiastically played Simon Says and the rainmaking game. We all especially enjoyed the part of banging on the desk to make thunder. I don't think real thunder reaches this level of cacophony. My new buddies started questioning me. “Why did you come to South Africa?” I told him, “Because of a girl, the age old reason.” I'm a big believer in speaking to kids like adults so I went on to say, “Girls are like a drug. You do things because of them even though you don't want to.” He tells me, “I know that. I have two girlfriends.” “Alright,” I said, “So you know what I'm talking about my man.”

Once the games and name gathering finished, class broke for the day. I somehow acquired two monkeys on my back before even leaving the classroom. Two cute little ones jumped on my back as I walked out. I had fun asking them if they wanted to go for a swim in the nice warm mud puddles dotting the field. Unfortunately, the little girl called my bluff because she actually did want to be thrown in the mud puddle. I had to be the weak one who backed down from carrying out the challenge. Girls always win.

In my first trip to a township school, I didn't learn anything about their needs or desires. I did see the loudest, wildest and funnest group of kids. I have a feeling that when I go back, I'm going to more of a hindrance than a help to the other teachers. I'll just want more chaos.

Friday, August 8, 2008

insights that are queer but true

What a great weekend. I explored some cool places and met interesting people with strange skills. When I say strange skills, I’m using a poorly worded phrase from my own mental dictionary. I just found a better definition of what I mean from Kurt Vonnegut. He calls them “insights that are queer but true." In his novel Cat's Cradle, Vonnegut gives the example of Claire Minton, a master indexer. Not only could she index a book perfectly, she could learn things about someone when they indexed their own book. In Cat’s Cradle, after examining someone's self-indexed book, she rightly concluded the author was gay. A fictional example but such “insights that are queer but true” abound and I love finding them.

They tend to turn up when least expected like at a crappy rock show in the back of a bar. At the show I have in mind, I left the annoying music and dead looking crowd to sit a table by myself with a beer and a notebook. Shortly, a waifish blonde sat down next to me who we will call the Analyzer because I'm a lousy journalist who rarely remembers a name. She said something in Afrikaans, the bastardized Dutch language of South Africa. Looking like the classic little Dutch boy with his finger in the dyke (Dr. SS: can we please spell it this way instead of dike to see if anyone catches on, twenty bucks says you don't hear a peep), I understand how she mistook me for a native in this white as Wonder Bread neighbourhood. She told me, “I'm waiting for your pen.” After I gave it to her, she opened up my book and wrote something that could be paraphrased for a family paper as “I wish I had huge tracts of land.” (How many Monty Python fans out there?) Then she simply smiled impishly and wandered off into the crowd without another word.

I shook my head in bemusement and amusement. Several minutes later, the Analyzer showed up again and we started talking about science. I don't remember how we started on it but I tend to bring up science fiction ideas a lot (too much?) so the topic probably branched off that. As it often happens, just when I think that this conversation will go nowhere, I get surprised. In an abrupt change of subject, she tells me that I dress funny. I'm wearing suspenders and a T-shirt so I tell her that I look normal where I come from and she would look weird in Lancaster. As the talk turned towards clothing, she gets more animated. She points at various people in the bar and tells me about them based on their clothing. I start writing down her words because I sensed I had something interesting here. During her lecture on fashion and personality, my girlfriend, Astrid, comes up with her friends. I tell them about the Analyzer's skill and she offers to tell Astrid about me. Before she pulls Astrid out of earshot to give her the Lex rundown, the Analyzer has me pull up my pants to show her my socks.

Astrid gave me the summary on the ride home and I found out that this girl picked up a lot of information from suspenders and big woollen socks. She said some general things such as me being sensitive and emotional but she found me sitting alone in a bar writing. A pretty easy guess. Then she said I had grown up in an outdoors environment and had a collection of something back home of which I was immensely proud. Sure enough, I had all of the Boy Scout camp for a backyard and I am proud of my book collection to the point of arrogance. For her most impressive point, the girl told Astrid that I wasn't well behaved up until 9th grade but then I got into trouble. She said my parents gave me a stern talk and I straightened up after that. We don't need to get into my middle school self control and kleptomania issues but I'll just say she got that one right too. Somehow, this girl talked about me for several minutes and got everything right including some fairly precise predictions. Astrid also told me that the Analyzer was an exotic dancer who married someone from Astrid's high school and now they live happily together with three kids. Things started falling into place. In her profession, she must have excelled at reading men and learning how to massage their ego, the true purpose of male entertainment bars. Interesting insights, “queer but true.”

When my friends woke me up Sunday morning, I tried to shake off a massive hangover and ready myself for a big day. A bunch of us were going to the Guguletho township (slum) for the infamous MZoli (SS: this is correct spelling and caps) restaurant. Not so much of a restaurant as some tables where beers cost a buck and $3 gets you a heaping plate of sausages and chicken. While we waited for our food, I walked around the neighbourhood with my friend Sarah.

The houses ranged from nice multi-room concrete structures to shacks made of spare wood with a corrugated tin roof. Children ran happily all over the streets while men and women sat in circles enjoying the lazy Sunday afternoon often with the help of beers and a car blasting some tunes. Whenever I caught someone's eye, I got a nod with a smile or a “howisit bra?” I found friendly people who didn't overwhelm me with questions like in India. We ended up sitting and joking around with a few guys enjoying some beer on the street corner. They knew everybody passing by and beautiful girls tended to sauntered past slowly as they exchanged flirtatious yells with our new friends. The young men wanted to hear my impressions of South Africa and seemed proud when I told them I enjoyed my experience so far.

I also learned the magic word of South Africa. In India, I would say how much I loved the Indian people for their “big heart.” I meant it every time but I also knew that phrase would always make people like me. In South Africa, I learned to tell people that you like their country for its spirit of ubuntu. Not an easy word to define but I'm starting to realize it contains the continent. Ubuntu is a spirit of unity and watching out for others. I always hear that this sense of community pervades the townships, which they are the place to be if you're down and out because people will take care of you.

Not to say the townships don't have an extremely high crime rate, massive gang infestations and entrenched drug problems. However, that happens anywhere young men cannot get work from Moscow to Paris to NYC. Would America be so orderly if a young man had a choice between letting his family go hungry or joining a gang to fight turf battles over the methamphetamine trade? I believe a creature hungry for survival lurks below the surface of most people and if you're lucky you never have to call on it. How many of us have faced a true survival situation with little chance of escape? How civilized would my reaction be against hopeless odds of survival? I (maybe) have a lot of years left on Earth and who knows what kind of trouble the human race could create in that time? So many doomsday scenarios with life becoming cheap and survival hard to imagine. Alright. Enough pessimism. I've been reading too much about the evils of the past again and that always puts me in a dark mood waiting for them to return.

Back to this township: Once we returned to the restaurant, the area had turned into a block party with dance music and people just enjoying the day. I loved the scene. Everybody out talking to their neighbours, having a great time. I love places where you know everyone and people slowly pass the time together. Hopefully, I'll get to know more about this very soon. It looks like I'll start teaching kids in the townships this week. I'm damn excited.