I haven't finished my next page yet. I'm just going to put up some pictures of Alaskan log cabins because I've had a really bad week and Alaskan log cabins make me happy. This is where I want to live some day.
This is where I want to go... my son and I. I could just live out there with a little computer and a satellite dish and bookcases full of books. Definitely I would have a little wood stove and lots of drawing pens and graphic novel materials. I'd also have a nice little pick-up truck so I could drive into Fairbanks and check out the Barnes and Noble there. Also, I'd have won the lottery so I wouldn't have any stupid job except writing my blog and putting up my artwork on my website.
I uploaded a new page for my graphic novel version of the Bethlehem, Palestine story from Max Brooks' World War Z book. Not gonna lie... I really, really like how this turned out. I got the Israeli AK-47s rendered fairly accurately (for me) and I was pleasantly surprised at how panel 3 turned out. It's supposed to be a wide-shot of the Israeli soldiers and Orthodox Jewish settlers shooting it out in the ruined street at night... and it turned out pretty well. I also am glad at how the soldiers turned out as they stood in front of the underside of the bus in panel 5. Probably my best page yet!
If I had to quibble, it's that I am POSITIVE that the Hebrew I have the soldiers yelling at each other is dead-wrong. I know no Hebrew (I'm such a bad Jew) so I had to turn to Babelfish translate phrases like "He's behind the lamp post!" and "Katz! Behind you!" The latter exclamation is what the soldier in panel 5 is yelling... but it probably came out like "Cats! Your behind is ass!" or something. God, I hate internet translation engines!
"World War Z" the movie has just gotten a surprisingly positive review by David Denby in the New Yorker. Other reviews of the movie have been mediocre so... eh. I don't know. I'm genuinely torn about whether I want to see it or not.
In other depressing news my seedlings have not so much as poked a leaf above the soil. Argh! What am I doing wrong? I was hoping to cultivate a little window box vegetable garden like the one below!
Unfortunately, after a week, all I have are buckets of dirt with little white crumbs of plant-enhancing nitrogen supplements (I assume). Sigh.
I have always been a fan of the National Geographic show Doomsday Preppers and I love the idea of being totally self-sufficient in terms of food, shelter, and just hacking it day by day in a beautiful, bucolic landscape.
Unfortunately I can't even grow peas in a "Home Depot" flower pot on my parents' porch. This makes me so depressed.... :-(
In between working, washing chocolate milk off of my son, and contemplating Phoebe Cates' breasts... I managed to finish my grandfather's birthday present. Peter Gay is 90-years-old this week and my mother is visiting him in New York. I decided to draw a scene from the excellent book Paris Changing where the scenes of Eugene Atget's beautiful 1896 Parisian photographs are revisited a hundred years and re-photographed with all their changes. Wonderful book.
Gotta go to work now. Cheerio!
A few days ago I was working at the home of an elderly client. She was getting a "Life Alert" system installed.... a sort of button coupled with an ultra-sensitive microphone where she could make an emergency alert if she ever fell down while alone.
The "Life Alert" technician installing the system was very friendly. He was a guy whom I judged to be maybe five to seven years older than me. He was maybe thirty-eight at the oldest. Still, when my client listed my name as an emergency contact, the technician suddenly became very interested.
"'Phoebe?'" he asked, "Your name is 'Phoebe?'"
"Yeah," I said.
"Oh, like Phoebe Cates."
"Yeah," I said. I knew about Phoebe Cates. She was the wife of Kevin Kline. She was in "Princess Caraboo," which I saw with my mother long, long ago while we were having a ladies' day out in Cambridge, Massachusetts. "She's the wife of Kevin Kline now, I think."
"Oh really?" the technician said, "I didn't know that."
"She was in 'Princess Caraboo' and this kinda stupid movie called 'Drop Dead Fred...'"
"I never saw those...."
Huh? For a guy who seemed very interested in Phoebe Cates, he didn't appear to know a lot about her.
"I mostly just remember her from 'Fast Times at Ridgemont High,'" the technician continued, "Have you seen that movie?"
Aaaaahhhh.... it all became clear now. "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" is a cult film made in 1982 starring Sean Penn. Every boy who was a teenager during the early eighties remembers "Fast Times" for an iconic scene where the 19-year-old Phoebe Cates stepped out of a pool in a red bikini, unclipped her top and revealed to the camera "two of the most perfect breasts ever to be created," to quote one writer of "Maxim" magazine, "God damn you Phoebe Cates for ruining every other woman for us."
Just to clarify, I happen to know that above quote because I was flipping through "Maxim" magazine one evening while in my college bookstore. I was just curious because "Maxim" was having one of its usual "100 Hottest Women of All Time" articles and I was flipping past the endless pictures of bikini babes, wondering who on Earth could be so amazingly beautiful, so utterly captivating in the mind of the late-twentieth century straight male as to surpass all these other hotties and capture the number-1 spot? "Probably gonna be Pamela Anderson," I thought.
Actually, I was wrong. Anderson was #2. Phoebe Cates was #1. I was shocked, mostly because I had had no idea that Cates had been such an icon of lust for a whole generation of men. I only remember her from that twee, period romantic comedy in 1991: "Princess Caraboo." Also I felt stupidly flattered that I shared a name with a supreme sex goddess. "Phoebe" is an unusual name and I have remembered every Phoebe I have come across in my life. Phoebe Snow, a tan, blond, popular girl in middle school named Phoebe Eustis, Phoebe Cates, an extremely accomplished geoscientist named "Phoebe Cohen," and also a small baby I met at the Science Museum in Washington D.C. named "Phoebe" who's probably in her early twenties now. Plus there's the main character of that Natalie Babbit children's book "Phoebe's Revolt."
"Oh, yeah.... I know about 'Fast Times at Ridgemont High,'" I told the technician. "She wore a red bikini in that film, right? And undid the top?"
"Nah, nah, it's before your time," he replied. He looked suddenly embarrassed.
"Not exactly," I said, "I was around in 1981!" Technically true, though I definitely did not have Phoebe Cates' amazing physique at the time.
"Really?" the technician asked, "Wait, how old are you?"
"Oh, that explains it," he said, "I was already living independently in 1982."
So he'd had to have been at least 18 years old. In other words, he was now fifty, or damn close to fifty. In other words..... the same age that Phoebe Cates is now (if her wikipedia birthdate is to be trusted).
As Seth MacFarlane's song "We Saw Your Boobs" which he sang at the 2012 Oscar's revealed... how DOES it feel to know that uncounted millions know exactly what your breasts look like? How about male actors who go full-frontal, as the hilarious response to Macfarlane's song (called "We Saw Your Junk") revealed? What is it like to know that so many people are aware of what your naked body looks like?
Well, I'm too shy to ever know... but if I were Phoebe Cates I would be damned proud. Cates (again, I am going off her wikipedia biography here) is now fifty with two children and- like the best of us and the rest of us- has probably aged a bit. I'm sure she is absolutely proud that her 18-year-old breasts have been preserved in history as well as the loving imaginations of middle-aged men everywhere. And I mean that in the best possible sense.
Okay, I gotta say.... this may be the best-drawn page I've done yet! This happens whenever I start drawing a long graphic novel story. You can see my artwork improve almost page by page. This is so much better than the junk at the beginning of the story.
I mean, check out that splash panel! Look at the detail on those trees as they are lit by the explosion! Look at the explosion itself! Look at the city itself (a mash-up of Syrian and Bangladeshi architecture) doused in deep shadow and bright, sudden light! Look at those buses, lit up through the windows while the bodies are in sharp relief! Look at those long shadows, pointing in exactly the right direction from the explosion! I am gonna give myself a big pat on the back here :-)
If I want to quibble, it would be that the rather well-drawn bus in the third and fourth panels doesn't match the badly-drawn bus in the page beforehand. No matter though.... I'm just gonna say that they switched buses at the border of Bir Shiba.
Aaaaaa.... so nice to see work well done!
J. Maartan Troost, in his excellent-but-not-as-excellent-as-"The-Sex-Lives-of-Cannibals" book "Lost on Planet China," describes having a lunch at a restaurant in Shanghai where his experience was disrupted by the annoying nattering of another Western man. This man, whom Troost overhears, had been trying to impress a Chinese woman sitting at his table with a list of extremely uninteresting facts.
As I waited, I noticed an Englishman sitting with an attractive Chinese woman at a nearby table.
'Would you like a drink?' he asked her. 'Rum and Coke? Do you know where rum comes from? The West Indies. Scotch? Scotland. Vodka comes from Russia...'
And on and on he went,
'... in France, people drink wine. Wine also comes from Italy. Slivovice comes from Serbia....'
What a dork. Here he was in a restaurant in China with an actual Chinese person who could speak English- though this might have been a fanciful presumption; she hadn't uttered a word- but still, presumably, a person who could unlock the mysteries of the Middle Kingdom, and he'd decided to educate her about Europe[.]
Troost describes himself inwardly seething with extreme annoyance towards this Western man, this monolingual moron still trying to prove his superiority- or even relevancy- while navigating China. The annoyance Troost describes was very familier to me. It was the sort of annoyance that one foreignor often feels towards another while traveling in Asia. "Oh for God's sake, is that how I'm coming off?" we tend to think when running into a compatriate. We suddenly feel shame by association. Automatically, we find ourselves directing a great deal of mental wrath towards the other foreignor. "Wear something better than ragged cargo shorts," We think, "Stop talking so loudly and would it kill you to hit the gym? I know our star is waning but do you have to be so obvious about it?"
There was also an exhibition detailing Buddhist influence in China, and as I peered at the display, I listened to an American man explain its contents to the Chinese woman beside him.
'And what is this? This is the bodhisattva. He received enlightenment under a tree. I have a leaf from the actual tree. It's in Sri Lanka. Remember? I showed it to you. And now,' he said, pointing to a statue. 'You know what this is? Yes? We've discussed this before.'
Troost's description of The Mating Dance of the North American Buffoon rang particularly true to me. Though I do not personally lurk from cafe to cafe with my ears flapping (or at least I forgive myself on the occasions that I do) my attention is sometimes irresistably drawn to whatever conversation is occuring whenever I hear a flat American twang rise up among the murmer of conversation. Based on these sporadic observations I have to say that the flirtation game of your average American male in Asia always seems to involve a lot of fact-recitation. I can understand how dating can be daunting for American men while they are in China or Korea. Socialization in a foreign country is basically a string of exhausting exercises in culture clash. Going out into Beijing, Shanghai or Seoul at night involves massive sensory overload as you try to navigate passageways between utterly enormous, flashing neon sky-scrapers that (I do not exaggerate) make Times Square look quaint and Las Vegas merely tired. Most importantly, the women are intimidatingly beautiful with clothes, poise and bodies that make them look like they could get modeling jobs in any fashion magazine.... and they are often multi-lingual. Most American men (though not all, I grant you) find it basically impossible to build a relationship with a foreign woman unless she speaks English well.. and yet if your girlfriend is able to speak English as well as her own first language then you cannot help but be uncomfortably aware that her intellectual gifts are far higher than yours.
What is it about Shanghai that elicits this need in the Western male to inform, to enlighten, the locals?
So imagine now that you are an American man sitting at a coffeeshop with a woman who is more beautiful than even the bitchiest queen bee in the US. Moreover this woman is now tapping out texts on a smart phone that has more memory and a better internet connection than your college computer. She is talking to you in very serviceable English while you yourself are wincingly aware that you could barely order your cappucino earlier without her help. You are aware that by any scale or measure she is waaaay out of your league... and is probably only deigning to have a coffee with you because being an American man still has some (rapidly dwindling) cachet in China. Nevertheless coffee is the only thing that you're going to have with her unless you find some way to prove your worth so she can forget that you are basically an unskilled ESL teacher in cargo shorts who hasn't hit the gym in a while.
And in panic, you start to spew out facts. "Look! I'm smart too!" you deperately plead as your mouth flaps idiotically with such pearls of knowledge as "Armani is Italian and so are Ferrari cars. Bratwurst comes from Germany..." etc. etc.
'... Italy is known for art. Germany for music. England for literature...'
Truly, a nitwit. I paid the bill, and as I walked past them, I noticed that he'd become a little more expansive in his sharing of knowledge.
'... Suits are single-breasted or double-breasted....'
And this was interesting how?
'... there are two countries famous for silk, Thailand and China....'
And you don't think she knows that, Romeo?
I thought about Troost's encounter with the conversationally clumsy Englishman while in a coffee shop- "French Cafe"- in Ulaanbaatar a few months ago. This coffee shop is a beautiful place founded by a French expatriate where you could get the best chocolatines in Mongolia. Even better, as is the case with most expatriate cafes in Ulaanbaatar, you get the pleasure of reading back issues of the New Yorker. The pleasure is not entirely unalloyed since the New Yorker often sandwiches bits of unneccessary pretension between essays of genuine interest. Should you really lament the decline of "alternative opera" in New York in the same issue that has a ten-page examination of South African poverty?
Still, in my opinion, The New Yorker continues to provide some of the best writing to be found in the US today. As I sank into a literary and chocolate-mocha haze I noticed an American man sitting across from me. He was deep in conversation with a polite and attractive Mongolian woman. To be fair, this fellow was not as bad as the Romeos Troost describes in his book- the American man appeared to know at least a fair amount of Mongolian and was conversational in the language- but there were definitely some parallels. The man spoke with a sort of arrogance that was probably unconscious on his part but nevertheless noticeable by others. Also, perhaps worst, was the fact that his fact-recitation-based flirtation involved "facts" that were patently not true. Unlike "Thailand and China are famous for silk," which is true enough in a generalized sort of way, this young man spoke about how maps in China "show Mongolia to be another part of China."
"Really?" His date asked.
No, not really. Any image search for "world map" on Baidu.com (the currently most popular search engine in China) shows Outer Mongolia to be clearly outlined and labeled as its own independent nation. Possibly the young man was confusing Outer Mongolia (of which Ulaanbaatar is the capital) and Inner Mongolia (which is indeed a province of Northern China... as any map in any part of the world will show ) .. but nevertheless the speaking of this dubious fact was rewarded with a wide-eyed "Really?" from the girl sitting across from him (though I rather got the impression that she didn't really believe her male companion... as a university-educated woman living Ulaanbaatar she had probably been to Beijing several times already, knew a fair bit of Mandarin Chinese and most likely knew more about Chinese culture than he did) and a sense of gratification from reciting a fact that - while not true- was still undeniably juicy.
Of course any person who has ever observed some form of heterosexual flirtation with a shade of accuracy knows that sex and all its various attending behaviors have their basis in power relations. In fact the well-known sex advice columnist Dan Savage goes further, saying that ALL sexual relations have power play at their roots.With only some very specific exceptions heterosexual men overwhelmingly prefer relationships with women where they hold the upper hand in the most important capacities. Because the current cultural measure of success around the globe necessitates that men have large brains instead of large muscles, dating a girl who is intellectually superior can be daunting. If the girl holds the upper hand in brain power then there is an emasculating reversal of roles.
But then again I am perhaps over-simplifying gender relations. After all, humankind has been trying to de-mystify the flirtation game for millenia. Also, concentrating on the neuroticisms of the men here is ignoring the other side of the conversation: what the women want. Often women want the same thing men want and thus play along. We respond to such clunky assertions like "China thinks Mongolia is still a part of China" with wide-eyed "Really?"s instead of more honest "That's bullshit"s. We vigorously agree that Terry Goodkind is the best author ever and that watching basketball has its charms. We nod with attentive interest during conversations where we learn that vodka comes from Russia, that Sarah Palin is hot even if she is kinda dumb and that people in Asia can be totally, totally racist sometimes, y'know? "Oh, yeah, totally," we reply, knowing that a more well-informed answer can kill our chances of getting this guy into bed (or, more precisely, cultivating the guy's desire to get us into bed.)
Troost in Lost on Planet China does not mention seeing the Chinese women with the Englishman again. We do not know if she decided to stick with this nervously-nattering man or instead go to dinner with a guy she was more impressed with.. or at least could speak more comfortably with. What was her threshold for flustered idiocy? Perhaps the Western man had not even touched it let alone breached it. Or perhaps he had breached it to the point that she resolved to never allow a foreignor to buy her a glass of wine again. After all, according to the conversation that Troost observed, the woman never had a chance to answer the only question her date had asked her: "Would you like a drink?"
She wanted that drink man, she really, really did.
About four years ago, while enjoying one of those lovely respites during my Peace Corps experience where I was able to leave the desert for six days or so and rest in the modern city of Ulaanbaatar, I decided to watch the Russell Crow movie "Master and Commander." The Peace Corps office, I should mention was a wonderful place full of bookshelves and televisions where desperate volunteers would plunder the remains of departed PCVs (mostly old books, cast-off clothes, and scratched DVDs that other volunteers couldn't take back home due to a lack of suitcase space or interest) for anything that might help them pass the time during the monotony of their countryside volunteer experiences. Those volunteers who were lucky enough to have a bit of shore leave before sailing back towards the tiring dusty seas of the steppes would often spend the entire time at the Peace Corps office, watching DVDs in the volunteer lounge with blissful expressions. Videos are sheer decadence if you have gone months without them and viewing "Master and Commander" in the lounge that sunny afternoon was quite pleasurable for me despite my having already watched the film several times. I reveled in the fine production values, the naturalistic acting and the English English ENGLISH dialogue that washed around my poor, Mongolian-soaked brain like warm bathwater.
I was deeply engrossed, watching two Napoleonic-era battleships splinter the hell out of each other in the sea fog at the beginning of the film, when my friend Jordan (nothisrealname, of course) walked into the lounge.
"What are you watching?" he asked.
"'Master and Commander,'" I replied, "It's a movie based on those nineteenth century naval warfare novels by Patrick O'Brian.
Jordan looked at the screen. Russell Crow, as a very stoic Jack Aubrey, commanded "Get down!" and a cannonball crashed through the ship's rigging. "Are you at the end?" Jordan asked me.
"No, the beginning," I said, "You can watch if you want."
"Whoa, it's the beginning of the story and they're already in a fight?" Jordan asked, "I guess the movie's not like the book."
"Have you read the book?" I asked.
"Oh, ... well, yeah, I tried," Jordan said, "I tried but the story just wouldn't start! It was all full of 'First they shivered their timbers and then they did this and this and...' well, nothing was happening and I just couldn't get through it."
I should pause the recollection right here to mention that Jordan was not some dim jock or dense halfwit who could not get through a novel unless it had the title "Sports Illustrated" across the top. He had graduated from the University of Pennsylvania before joining Peace Corps and after his service was over he managed to obtain a full ride to the prestigious IU graduate business program at the Kelley school. He has recently returned to Mongolia to found a real estate brokerage... Mongolian property having suddenly become red-hot (well, orange-hot) with the recent Chinese economic boom. In short, Jordan was not the sort of person to throw aside a book just because it had big words in it. Even now, as he confessed his lack of patience with Patrick O'Brian's prose, I could see that Jordan had just grabbed (to my annoyance since I had wanted to borrow it) a paperback copy of Mark Twain's "Life on the Mississippi" from the informal Peace Corps lending library. When Jordan grabbed paperbacks they tended to never be seen again... not because he was dishonest but because even by the standards of Peace Corps Mongolia Jordan had been assigned to a very remote area. Stationed at Uliastai, a mountainous region that regularly saw temperatures of forty degrees below zero during the winter, Jordan and his fellow site PCVs tended to collect books assiduously during the cold times. Thick tomes would be read, reread and reread again and finally burnt for fuel when every last drop of interest had been squeezed from them.
Jordan's unapologetic lack of patience with Patrick O'Brian's prose in the novel "Master and Commander" took me back to the time when I first tried to read the book. After having heard from all sides that O'Brian was a literary revelation I had finally cracked open the first book of the famed "Aubrey/Maturin" series and, after a beautifully engrossing first chapter, was dismayed to find myself drowning in a sea of farcically indecipherable Napoleonic technobabble. My mother said my mind would adapt quickly to the massive amounts of verbal cordage and man-o-war shipping jargon that O'Brian regularly threw at his readers. This is a sentiment echoed by most of O'Brian's fans and is even listed on the wikipedia entry for "Aubrey/Maturin"
"In addition to the period language, O'Brian is adept at using naval jargon with little or no translation for the 'lubberly' reader. The combination of the historical-voice narration and naval terms may seem daunting at first to some readers, but most note that after a short while a 'total immersion' effect results."
This is a complete and utter delusion on the part of Patrick O'Brian fans. The reader does not "adapt" to the prose in the Aubrey-Maturin series but rather the reverse. Mr. O'Brian, by the time he has started on his second volume "Post-Captain," has cut down the jargon to a more easily-digestable amount. The frustratingly inscrutable sailing hooey no longer lasts for pages but instead is restrained to a paragraph or two as an realistic embellishment to the excellent narrative. Don't believe me? I challenge any and all Aubrey/Maturin fans whose brains have been lulled by such wonderful installments like "HMS Surprise," "Desolation Island" or "The Far Side of the World" to return to "Master and Commander." Try to chew through chapters two through five and try-TRY- to argue that the writing on display is comparable in quality to O'Brian's later works! Try! Unless you are truly masochistic you will not be able to do it.
Patrick O'Brian's prose is extraordinarily realistic when it comes to truly recreating the atmosphere of multiple societies during the early nineteenth century. He was once quoted as saying "Obviously, I have lived very much out of the world: I know little of present-day Dublin or London or Paris, even less of post-modernity, post-structuralism, hard rock or rap, and I cannot write with much conviction about the contemporary scene." This I can well believe. I was well on my way into the second when I started encountering massively rough descriptive breakers such as:
"And then these futtock-plates at the rim here hold the dead-eyes for the topmast shrouds- the top gives a wide base so that the shrouds have a purchase: the top is a little over ten foot wide."
Patrick O'Brian has page after page of such descriptions and he writes with the lightness of a philatelist with Asperger's syndrome.... nattering on about the differences between gravure and off-set lithography while unaware that his dinner companions' interest wandered off fifteen minutes ago. The second chapter of "Master and Commander" is particularly shameless in its descriptive self-indulgence. Witness this paragraph:
"'Hitch on the runners,' said Jack. 'No, farther out. Half way to the second quarter. Surge the hawser and lower away.' The yard came down on deck and the carpenter hurried off for his tools. 'Mr. Watt,' said Jack to the bosun. 'Just rig me the brace-pendants, will you?' The bosun opened his mouth, shut it again and bent slowly to his work: anywhere outside of Bedlam brace-pendants were rigged after the horses, after the stirrups, after the yard-tackle pendants (or a thimble for a tackle-hook, if preferred): and none of them, ever, until the stop-cleat, the narrow part for them all to rest upon, had been worked on the sawn-off end and provided with a collar to prevent them from drawing in towards the middle."
BWAHAHAHAHAHA! Oh, that wacky Jack Aubrey, asking his ship's carpenter to rig the brace-pendants without taking the other necessary precautions to make sure his horses, stirrups, yard-tackle pendants and stop-cleats are all in position! He's not even bothering to spare a thimble for his tackle-hook.... though in this context I'm pretty sure that a "thimble" refers to something else besides the finger-cap used during embroidery. Also I am eighty percent sure that there are no actual horses suspended in the rigging, neighing piteously as their hooves swing forty feet above deck while sailors clamber up the masts around the animals.... no, that would be too interesting.
The fun doesn't stop there! No wait, keep reading and watch for the delightful comedy of Dr. Maturin clinging desperately to the ship's rigging while listening to a good, hard seaman (*snicker, snicker*... but alas that joke starts to lose its glitter after the eighth or eight-times-ten-to-the-eighth time Patrick O'Brian uses it in an entirely innocent manner) natter on about all the points of sailing, masts, ropes, trestletrees, etc. At first it appears that Mr. O'Brian is cutting the lubberly reader a break, allowing the mild comedy of Maturin's height sickness to act as a mental lubricant to the dry description, but after an obscenely long description concerning mast dimension....
"'Ten-inch, sir,' said Mowett proudly. 'And the preventer-stay is seven. Then comes the forecourse yard, but perhaps I had best finish the masts before I go on to the yards. You see the foretop, the same kind of thing as we are on now? It lies on the trestletrees and crosstrees about five parts of the way up the foremast: and so the remaining length of lower mast runs double with the topmast, just as these two do here. The topmast, do you see, is that second length going upwards, the thinner piece that rises above the top. We sway it up from below and fix it to the lower mast, rather like a marine clapping a bayonet on to his musket: it comes up through the trestletrees, and when it is high enough, so that the hole in the bottom of it is clear, we ram a fid through, banging it home with top-maul, which is this hammer you were asking about, and we sing out "Launch ho!" and....' the explanation ran eagerly on."
.... the reader realizes that he's being suckered. Any able-bodied writer could tell you that that last bit of sentence, "the explanation ran eagerly on," could have very easily been transplanted to the beginning of the paragraph, allowing the scene to run more efficiently. Instead O'Brian uses Maturin's polite questions as weak excuses to throw more entirely unnecessary jargon at our heads. Maturin's meek, height-disoriented reception of these utterly tedious words is very weak tea indeed if we lubbers are expected to use its tepid comedy to wash down the rest of the verbal spaghetti tangled up on the page. In other words, Maturin's reactions are like the authorial equivalent of an off-shore tax shelter ("Y'see, it LOOKS like I'm making an obscene amount of money and refusing to pay taxes on it, but actually my bank account is technically not in the US so y'all have no right to lob 'pay-what's-due-like-a-good-citizen' bombs at me" "Y'see, it LOOKS like I'm flinging an obscene amount of boring, unnecessary words at the reader in a self-indulgent way so that my insatiable lust for Napoleonic-era naval warfare trivia can be temporarily (but not permanently-oh no, never permanently) satisfied but actually I've thrown you poor sods a few sentences of something that could be construed as mildly amusing so y'all have no right to lob 'this-slows-down-the-story-and-is-entirely-unnecessary' bombs at me,") and the neophyte reader (and even the seasoned-but-has-not-reread-"Master and Commander"-recently reader) is left to twist in the wind.
I could site further examples but I'll stop here for several reasons: I've made my point, I run the risk of boring the readers of this blog by continually talking about how boring another writer and furthermore Patrick O'Brian is (especially in later installments) such a masterful writer that I cannot really justifiably flog him anymore for his few literary missteps that were made at the very beginning of the "Aubrey/Maturin" series. Of course it wasn't like Mr. O'Brian was young and green when he started the "Aubrey/Maturin" series (he was fifty-four when the first book was published) so I will allow myself to make just one condescending comparison between him and someone else before ending this blog entry.
About eighteen years ago or so my little sister became very enamored with horses. She took horseback riding lessons religiously and decorated her room with posters, statues and books featuring horse imagery. This phase lasted a surprisingly long time and even now I'd bet money that- as a UC Berkeley PhD candidate in linguistics- my sister still secretly stashes a few copies of "Saddle Club" in her room for when she occasionally tires of more high-minded pursuits. At the age of eight, however, my sister was even more enthusiastic. She wrote stories too, stories which would always feature a young adolescent protagonist with a horse. The stories would inevitably get bogged down two pages in with hilariously uninteresting descriptions of how said protagonist would train the horse, get the horse comfortable with saddles, bridles, stirrups, etc. .... things that only an eight-year-old girl who loves horses would love. Of course this entire scenario loses its adorability once you replace my sister with a middle-aged British man with more than a passing hatred for all things modern and a disturbingly thorough knowledge for early nineteenth-century ocean-going warfare. So I will now close this blog entry with a thank you to Mr. Patrick O'Brian for quickly outgrowing the early, annoying stages of his "Master and Commander" literary style and moving on to regularly writing beautiful passages like this:
"'The carrier has brought you an ape.'
'What sort of an ape?' asked Stephen.
'A damned ill-conditioned sort of an ape. It had a can of ale at every pot-house on the road, and is reeling drunk. It has been offering itself to Babbington.'"
Now, that is genuinely funny! But if you are of a more delicate type of temperament then I will simply offer this paragraph as a small taste of what you find in 95% of all of Patrick O'Brian's novels.
"An hour later they were in the narrows, with the town and its evil smells sunk in the haze behind them and the brilliant open water out in front. The Sophie's bowsprit was pointing almost exactly at the white blaze in the horizon that showed the coming of the sun, and the breeze was turning northerly, freshening as it veered."
Aaah. But that sort of heady stuff only really starts after page 200 or so in "Master and Commander"... when Patrick O'Brian (and NOT the reader) adapted his prose to the needs of good authorship and cut the rest of us a break. So please, Patrick O'Brian fans, the next time a befuddled newcomer to the Aubrey/Maturin series comes up to you with a wrinkled brow and says "I heard these books were awesome but I just can't get through all this damned jargon," do not wave aside his objections with an airy, patronizing "Oh, you'll get used to it".... as if all the new reader has to look forward to is sixteen more volumes of "'More like a cro'jack than a mainyard,'" and should just shut up and pretend that reading such passages is the height of literary pleasure. Instead, say "Yeah, the first half of the first book has a lot of crap but I assure you that the rest of the books are GREAT!"
Because that is the truth.
Do you know what I wanted to call this blog entry? I wanted it to call it "Gauls and Ghouls." Isn't that a great title for a blog entry? Oh I was so tempted, .... but unfortunately it did not fit because not a single Gaul appeared last night while Kim watched his ordinary diet of terrible movies at 1 am and I floated somewhere around the regions of consciousness.
The first movie that Kim wanted to watch was a film named "Centurion." Historical epics aren't really my thing.... especially historical epics involving Romans. You see, it sometimes appears to my eyes that modern-day directors, eager to separate their epics from the rather genteel toga films of the sixties, have decided to inject AS MUCH SEXY SEX AND BLOODY BLOOD VIOLENCE INTO THEIR MOVIES AS POSSIBLE. Of course I realize that the Romans were not pictures of restraint 2,000 years ago (they were rather famous for the opposite) but really.... if you are to go by the dialogue of HBO series like "Rome" or movies like "Centurion" as something resembling historical accuracy one wonders how the gits managed to ever find the time to pull their heads out from between their legs and conquer the entirety of continental Europe. And Britain.
"Well, that that is why the empire fell eventually..." Some scholars may respond, "Everybody became so debauched that nobody wanted to check on the bearded savages in provinces... and thus fell Caesar and his successors."
Nevertheless sometimes the endless stream of sexual whoopsy coming from the characters of 21st century Roman dramas seems a bit forced... as if producers are banking on the fact that western viewers often equate frank sexual talk in historical dramas with some sort of gritty realism. It's like hiding mediocre meat under a massive amount of tangy sauce. Subjecting viewers to yet more rough, gruff, graphic sex talk among the soldiers will hide the historical gaps and chinks whistling between the words. I mean, seriously... the fact that most actors in "Rome" were forced to wear merkins (pubic wigs... I had to google that) to hide their Brazilian waxes can't help but leave one a bit suspicious about the wealth of salacious visual details on display. "Yeah, we have Scippio Africanus whistling a Beatles tune in this scene but look! More sex!"
Actually I am being needlessly nasty with that last snark. The series "Rome" is accurate enough in terms of historical veracity once the characters stop referring to sex every five minutes in a jarringly 21st century manner. It is, however, hard to get past that second part at times. Perhaps the most ridiculous and anachronistic sexually-themed conversation was one that took place between two soldiers: a mid-level officer who is trying to win back the affections of his emotionally distant wife and a lowly foot soldier who is far more experienced (apparently) than his military superior when it comes to matters of the .... heart, I suppose. He enlightens his lovesick companion by revealing the secret of the clitoris. "She will come back to you," the foot soldier says, "Remember, when making love, that there is a little button right at the top of her cunny. Attend to this and she will open up like a flower." Excuse me? I don't think even 21st century soldiers are fond of discussing among themselves about the right and gentlemanly way to pleasure their ladies. I am sure that not one infantryman of Caesar had such a conversation two thousand years ago. Roman officers more likely regarded their wives as little more than possessions... just a notch above their slaves. "Attend to what? Why? Fuck that whore if she chooses to act cold. Perhaps she should be thrown to the Picts if she thinks her situation here is so bad." That sounds a bit more accurate.... and yes, Roman soldiers may very well have used the word "fuck." Obscenities have a surprisingly long lineage.
Kim and I watched "Rome" to the point where a lost patrol of soldiers, seperated from their regiment and arguing about the safest way to return to Rome (and even if Rome is a safe place at the moment), happen across another party of soldiers.
"What regiment are you?" asks the party to the lost patrol.
The patrol hesitates. There is currently a civil war going on in Rome. The patrol is part of a regiment that is allied with Sulla who is currently fighting Julius Caesar. If the party is from a Caesarian regiment then the patrol will be slaughtered immediately (they are outnumbered) but the patrol are obliged to answer anyway. "We are from the 14th regiment of optimates general Sulla"
"Is that so?" asks the party leader, "Well, Fortune spreads her legs for you my friend. Sulla has just taken Rome."
To think that of all the metaphors available for saying "You're in luck" the only one the screenplay chose to give the decanus was the most sexually graphic expression possible rather made me roll my eyes. It was as if the scriptwriters were saying "Please don't pay attention to how drastically we've condensed the timeline here or how badly we've garbled the political motivations of the optimates or how we are not really quite sure who the optimates were exactly.... look! Sex! Gritty sex... so you know this really warts-n-all accurate."
Anyway this is why I was not so thrilled when Kim brought home a movie called "Centurion." Oh joy, more togas and pubic hair. Fortune had certainly crossed her legs for me. Once Kim started the movie however, I agreed to give it a chance. It helped that the opening credits opened onto an absolutely beautiful landscape of harsh, snow-clad mountains and austere ice fields... an amazing, frightening realm upon which nothing would ever grow. It was fantastic, like maybe what Northern Alaska or 90 percent of Iceland looks like. Plus "Centurion" stars an actor named "Fassbender" and frankly "Fassbender" is such an awesome name that I'll watch anything with the name "Fassbender" on the cast list.
"Centurion" did indeed manage to tone down the raunchiness to a realistic level. The featured Roman regiment in the moment- desperate soldiers fighting raids from the Angles while sheltering in relatively primitive garrisons along the Empire's border- does indeed involve some rough sex talk ("She must be a good scout to find your cock Quintus!") but it's nothing that you wouldn't hear among any group of men isolated from women for a long period of time. It's realistic. The producers of "Centurion," however, are obviously champing at the bit to not have their historical epic be identified in any way that is "dusty" or "prim" or "Merchant and Ivory-esque." This is an understandable wish. One of the most amusing movie reviews I have ever read was of the film: "Jefferson in Paris." The reviewer started out (and I paraphrase) with this: "It would be hard to make a story that is rife with forbidden love and political intrigue boring! In 'Jefferson in Paris' Thomas Jefferson grapples with his lust for the slave Sally Hemmings whilst seeking to fuel the nascent American revolution with European funds. To make this juicy historical tidbit dull would be a practically miraculous feat of movie-making... and yet Merchant and Ivory pulls it off!" That, my friends, is fantastic writing. I remember it to this day so I can understand the occasional overindulgence in sex and violence by today's historical epic film makers as they seek to dodge the stigma of being dull.
If one wishes for a counter-argument against the complaint that modern historical dramas have too much sex in them nowadays one need only watch the stodgy Korean historical dramas that often gum up the KBS channel's programming. An hour of that can make a person become quite wistful for over-sexed American historical dramas. Korean historical dramas (generally) are restrained to the point of unintentional hilarity when it comes to matters of sex. What makes this all the more amusing is the fact that most of these dramas' plots center around marriages between kingdoms, the birth of sons, the dangers of infertility, the greater dangers of ignoring bastards to the throne etc. etc..... all issues that have their roots in the sexual act. Let's take, for example, the many interweaving plots of the Korean historical drama "Iron Queen,".... a soap concerning the multiple conspiracies to seize ruling power in Korea during the Goryeo Dynasty (The Goryeo dynasty, by the way, was the ruling family in Korea about 800 years ago and it's how we Westerners got the word "Korea." Koreans call their own country "Hanguk.")The Empress Dowager of the Goryeo dynasty is fed-up with her son- the current Emperor- and his seeming inability to even impregnate his wife let alone produce a male heir to the thrown. The Empress Dowager decides to sleep with the Lord Chamberlain (who is secretly working against her) and becomes pregnant with a second royal heir. The Emperor, humiliated by his own mother over his inability to bring forth a child, retreats deeper into depression and drink while the Empress stares off into the distance like Elizabeth Taylor in "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof." Meanwhile the chief courtesan of the Emperor (a tool for a counter-conspiracy working against both the Goryeo family and the Lord Chamberlain) grows similarly dis-satisfied with the Emperor's low sexual appetites and bribes a co-conspirator to pose as her brother and thus gain access to her private chambers. The child of an Emperor and his chief courtesan has the same legitimacy to the throne as a child between an Emperor and an Empress. When the chief courtesan becomes pregnant she claims the fetus is the Emperor's but her plot is sniffed out and she is executed. The leaders of the counter-conspiracy thrash about at lose ends and, in a desperate last bid to gain control of the Emperor, gambles that his low sexual interest stems from hidden homosexual urges. The conspiracy leaders place a beautiful young man as a courtier in the Emperor's court and order the ethereal Ganymede to seduce the tormented young regent. To their surprise the plot is a roaring success and the Emperor and courtier begin a torrid affair that almost brings down the entire dynasty until the Empress Dowager, a day after giving birth to a healthy son, dons her armor and rides out to meet the twin armies of the Lord Chamberlain and the Mongol-allied counter-conspirators where.... well, I stopped watching after that but take it from me that between the affairs, pseudo-incest, forbidden gay sex and general bad behavior it's all very juicy. Rather, it WOULD be very juicy if we got to see any of these shenanigans. Instead, hilariously, all this sex is only mentioned through very delicate and polite dialogue. All sexual behavior takes place off-screen while on-screen the ladies don't show so much as a collarbone under their lavish, tent-like hanbok robes and the men convey their lust by merely staring incessantly without laying so much as a finger on their objects of desire. Even the discovery of the affair between the Emperor and courtier is done in an astonishingly innocent way with both men being caught in bed... sleeping... about five yards apart.... with only their faces peaking above the richly decorated bedspread. Hardly "Brokeback Mountain" at all.
Kim is fond of these turgid historical dramas despite the fact that I continually make fun of them. When a counter-conspirator tries to hamstring the Lord Chamberlain's ambitions by secretly slipping the Empress Dowager an "aborticent" ... only to have the medicine in question exchanged with poison by a second counter-conspirator there is much hand-wringing. "The medicine was just supposed to cause a miscarriage, not a murder! Now the Empress Dowager's taster is dead! How could you?!"
I scratched my head. "Was 13th century Goryeo health care so good that there was an active difference between miscarriage-causing drugs and straightforward poisons?" I asked Kim, "I mean, surely health care back then was just: 'Take this. If it doesn't kill you then it'll probably cause a miscarriage.' I mean, why is the poor potion-peddler getting a verbal hiding here?"
"Shh, quiet," Kim said, "Watching movie."
I was quiet for a little while but then I asked: "Why does everybody look so beautiful here? I mean, all the ladies' make-up is extraordinary, everybody has all their teeth and the silk costumes are in such vivid neon colors that it boggles the mind. Was silk-dying technology so advanced back in the Goryeo dynasty?"
"Shh..." Kim said.
Again I tried to watch, and again I had more questions. "Why does simply seeing two men sleeping together automatically suggest homosexuality here? I mean, homosexuality was so little known back then that people of the same gender slept together platonically all the time for companionship. They still do that here in the Mongolian countryside. I mean, seeing the Emperor so chastely asleep with his courtier would have drawn no attention back then... just 'I suppose the Emperor spent the night chatting with So-Hung again.'"
"Shh..." Kim said again.
Again I tried to watch, I really did. I said nothing for thirty minutes. Finally, I asked: "Why does the Lord Chamberlain look like Captain Jack Sparrow?"
We never finished watching "Iron Queen," but I began to see the charms of vulgarity when it came to historical movie dramas.
"Centurion" does deserve credit for keeping the sex to a relatively low level but that is not saying much since, as the film continues, it becomes clear that the producers have sublimated their sex-lust for blood lust. The violence of "Centurion" is lavish and ridiculous. We're talking pre-Spiderman Sam Raimi ridiculous. As I watched the movie with Kim I realized that the film makers had decided that the human body was not a complex machine of muscle, bone and sinew but instead a mobile sack of sloshy, splashy blood held together by a thin skin of boiled albumin.
Every scene in "Centurion" seemed to involve somebody swinging a sword and somebody else's arm/head/half of a head/leg/spleen dropping off with a fountain of purplish blood and the unfortunate crumpling to the ground dead. I couldn't help but think that- if this movie is accurate- the smithery of the Romans is indeed a lost art since I don't believe our own blades or even surgical instruments today can inflict such one-swipe-you're-dead blows. Maybe an industrial sandblaster can... but I'm not sure. I should think that the fragile, flaw-riddled swords of the Romans would have acted more like sharpish metal sticks than the ginsu cutlery of "Centurion." They'd have been capable of killing people, sure, but it would have taken a lot of blows and the person on the losing end would more likely have died from internal trauma with minimal bleeding than a gush of purplish blood.
Unfortunately from then on, despite the awesome icy landscapes and the delicious knowledge that there was a "Fassbender" in the cast, "Centurion" continued to irk me. Maybe it was the way that the eyeliner-wearing Pictish scout judged the direction the Roman patrols needed to go by blowing sand into the wind (believable enough) and then slitting open her palm and watching the ways the blood droplets fell (what?? There was no neosporin in those days! People avoided deliberately inflicting open wounds on themselves for all the normal reasons plus the fact that large cuts= infections and lost limbs in those days. No exotic lass from a foreign tribe would deliberately cut herself for such a stupid reason no matter how cool it looked!)
But the final blow, as it were, came when the Picts (who look for all the world like Klingons in "Centurion" with their long beards and high foreheads with viciously-pointed hairlines) attacked a Roman camp. One Pict, while still riding his horse, grabbed a Roman soldier who was on foot. The Pict urged his horse into a full gallop and rammed the poor soldier into a tree. The soldier, ridiculously, explodes in a splash of grape juice and ground beef. A horse in prime condition can hit speeds of 45 mph (like with "merkin" that is another fact I had to Google) and while I do not doubt that a human being can die if rammed into a tree at that speed the death would most likely be from internal injury and not from some ecstatic explosion of gore.
The fact of the matter is that anybody who has actually seen a herder saw through the stiff trachea of a goat and then sweat for over an hour as he goes through the genuinely hard work of adequately gutting the beast knows that we mammals are tougher to chop to bits than people suppose. There is a lot of hard sinew, muscle, bone and general gristle to get through before a human is adequately dismembered. You may kill us, kill our freedom, kill our spirit, kill our faith, kill our hope.... but actually sawing through us may take an hour or two. Not very inspiring, I know, but it's nice to believe that nature hasn't made it THAT easy for our enemies to carve us up into a roast.
At this point in the film I drifted off to sleep while Kim continued to watch. I would occasionally hear the miked spurts of blood, the screams of agony, the hysterical yells of "Go! Go! Go!" and the urgent revving of the car engine as people escaped from invading forces. At this point I realized that, unless "Centurion" had shed all points of historical accuracy in a way that would have made Monty Python blush, Kim had switched films. I woke up enough to ask what we were watching. "'Barrow,'" Kim replied, "Alaska, zombie film."
Intrigued, I woke up enough to catch the ending portion of the film. Kim was technically wrong about the species of monster employed in "30 Days of Night." In the small, beleaguered hamlet of Barrow, Alaska a group of desperate, parka-wearing residents were sheltering from vampires, not zombies, while waiting for the sun to return. Still it was easy to see why Kim had been mistaken... the vampires in "30DON" looked very much like zombies. They screeched in inhuman ways and looked like rotten, bloody corpses who could (and often did) transmit their zombie/vampire virus instantly through their bites. But they also were fairly intelligent and could speak to each other... and here I believe the movie makers may have short-circuited themselves in making the movie monsters genuinely scary. It is a generally accepted fact among horror enthusiasts that vampires succeed because they exploit our subconscious fear of sex while zombies succeed because they exploit our not-so-subconscious fear of death. Vampires, while technically dead, are very much alive when it comes to their methods of seduction. Almost all vampire attacks in literature feature male predatory figures preying on female figures.... and the female figures usually only give a token resistance at best. Female vampires are rare and usually under the sway of male vampire figures (Dracula's brides) or in control of women in a clearly sapphic way ("Camilla"). Vampires were repulsed by Christian religious imagery since religious and sexual fear have been entwined in the Western mind since time immemorial. As a society, however, our fear of sex disappeared with opera capes. Vampires (creatures of the night!!!!) consequently have lost almost all of their horror. After Anne Rice and Stephanie Meyer these creatures- even more hyper-sexualized than ever- only retain enough their edge to shock Mom when we bring them home for dinner.
It's easy to see why death is scary, far easier to see than to see why sex is scary. Personally I believe that the subconscious fear of sex may be linked to the fear of death since only until the last century childbirth was the leading cause of death for women and birth control almost unheard of in legitimate society. Consequently every woman instinctively knew that every sexual encounter she had was one which could very well lead to her painful death in eight-to-nine months time.... and every man knew that there was a good chance he could indirectly kill a woman through a sexual encounter.
But to go on, it is easy to see why zombies are scary. Zombies are scary because they are dead.... not vampire dead but actually dead. Zombies are ambulatory and hungry but they are merely the shuffling shells of the former living. They have no souls, no minds, no internal mental spark that could identify them as anything more than the diseased flesh of what was once those whom we knew and loved... and if they bite us we too will disappear. It is genuinely horrifying because it is sad and- as J.R.R. Tolkien would put it- subtle enough to be more applicable than directly analogous to what happens in real life.
But, as with "30 Days of Night," the zombie-ish creatures possess enough presence of mind to actually talk and plan together then all bets are off. You don't have scary zombies in that situation but a bunch of less-scary boogeymen. These vampire-zombies look like rotting corpses so they can't really exploit our fear of sexuality (if we have any left) and they talk so they're not really dead... so they can't really exploit our fear of death.
Finally, after the exhausting work of hearing me nitpick zombie and vampire movies, Kim went on a Jack-a-thon by watching all 8 seasons of "24." I watched them on-and-off with him. Kim quite enjoyed "24," as did I though I did have some small problems. "I know nobody sleeps during these 24-hour periods which is realistic enough during crisis situations but how come nobody eats either? I mean, does anybody send out a CTU intern for pizza? Does Jack Bauer ever swing by a McDonalds on the way to interrogate a suspect? I mean, how can someone maintain such high-energy activities without having a meal or even scarfing an Energy Bar within the last 24 hours? It's not realistic."
"Shut up," Kim said.
I've taken the Trans-Siberian. Twice.
The first day was good. I climbed onto the train at precisely 1:20 pm or so, the platform crowded with rather scruffy-looking white folk who had the unbathed adventuriousness of your average backpacker. It made me a little nostalgic for my time back in 2007 when, finally freed from my Peace Corps responsibilities, I rode the rails from Ulaanbaatar to Bangkok. It was a happy time, but I tempered my memories with the fact that I was very much exhausted, exasperated and sometimes even scared during these journeys. I was 26 at the time and still quite youthful but the more adult yearning for settling down in an apartment with a steady job and a daily schedule that had a satisfying sameness to it was beginning to itch at my soul.
Of course after almost a year of this satisfyingly unadventurous life I began to have another (metaphorical) itch to travel once again. Many of my acquaintances thought it strange that a woman who lives in Mongolia (MONG-GO-LIA!!!!) would be somehow unsatisfied with the mundanity of her life. "You live in friggin' Mongolia, for God's sakes!" When it comes to living and working in Ulaanbaatar, however, the exotic ring of "Mongolia" turns out to be all hat and no cattle. The occasional drunken brawl, pick-pocketing or comically-misguided neo-nazi march aside, Ulaanbaatar is a fantastically comfortable and friendly city. It can, however, become very boring after a few months for someone who is in a committed relationship and has dreams about furthering her education. Outside of the city one can get more than a belly-full of of the adventurous life. The countryside of Mongolia still has a wondrously wild side to it that the sprawl of the city has not yet been able to touch. Still, there is a rather humerous dichotomy to the actual boredom of UB city life and the wide-eyed fascination the name "Mongolia" still evokes from friends who live across the ocean... or even as close by as Korea.
As I sat by the train that early afternoon, I recalled a Blackadder joke.
"Prince George (after having accidently slept with the Duke of Wellington's younger sister and consequently fearing the other man's wrath): I shall flee. How's your French Blackadder?
Blackadder: Parfait monsieur. But I fear that France will not be far enough.
Prince George: Well, how's your Mongolian?
Blackadder: (speaking something vaguely Chinese-y that is clearly not Mongolian). But I fear Wellington is a close personal friend of the chief Mongol. They were at Eton together.
Watching this episode in college during my clique's brief, powerful Blackadder phase I thought nothing much of this joke. Watching this episode again on a downloaded copy on a friend's computer in Ulaanbaatar we all crowed over the fact that the producers of "Blackadder" clearly did not know or even have the vaguest idea of what Mongolian sounded like and were betting that their audience didn't either. Also, to paraphrase J.Jaques - the writer of the webcomic "Questionable Content"- the word "Mongol" is intrinsically funny (to Western ears). So really the Blackadder script's use of the word "Mongolian" was just a ploy to squeeze a bit of extra zing out of a laugh. I do indeed get a giggle out of the idea of an 18th century Mongolian tribal chief playing wickets at Eton.
My friend Andrew (nothisrealname... you know the drill), a fellow Peace Corps Volunteer who was watching the episode with me at the time, defended the historical merits of the dialogue by saying that the vaguely Chinese-sounding dialect that Rowan Atkinson implied was Mongolian in the episode may not have been entirely inaccurate. "Mongolia was ruled by the Manchus, the northern Chinese tribes, during the 1700s," he said, "Any Mongolian tribal leader would have had to have been able to speak the Manchurian dialect of Chinese (which is tonal and thus at least vaguely similar to Blackadder's 'Mongolian' sounds) in order to communicate with the district warlord. Any European traveling in the region would have been well served in communicating with the Mongolian population if he had spoken Manchurian."
I stroked my chin. "You're right. The 'Blackadder' producers must have been well aware of this when they penned the joke. Rowan Atkinson is clearly speaking a form of archaic Manchurian Chinese in that episode. I apologize for the quickness of my mockery." Or maybe I said "Whatever." I'm not good at memorizing past conversations.
But to return to my main point, Mongolia is sometimes not as exotic as the name suggests. It was time to take a break and travel, something that I hadn't done since a wonderful trip to Alaska back in July 2009. When I boarded the train at the correct time, figured out which bunk was mine and made my peace with the fact that two of the three compartment-mates with whom I would be traveling in a confined space for the period of the next five days clearly had not bathed since they had entered the region of Mongolia two months earlier... I settled down with a copy of Paul Theroux's "The Great Railway Bazaar" and prepared for a reasonably pleasant journey.
At the beginning of "The Great Railway Bazaar" Paul Theroux wrote a most picturesque chapter on what it was like to travel by train across Yugoslavia in 1975. I have never been to Yugoslavia nor the year 1975 but Mr. Theroux was so thorough in terms of description and overall conveyance of atmosphere that I believed I knew exactly what he meant.
Red peppers, as crimson and pointed as clusters of poinsettias, dried in the sun outside farm cottages in districts where farming consisted of men stumbling after oxen dragging wooden plows and harrows, or occasionally wobbling on bicycles loaded with hay bales. Herdsmen were not simply herdsmen; they were sentries guarding little stocks from marauders: four cows watched by a woman, three gray pigs driven by a man with a truncheon, scrawny chickens watched by scrawny children.... There was a woman in a field pausing to tip a water bottle to her mouth; she swallowed and bent from the waist to continue tying up cornstalks. Large ochre squashes sat plumply in fields or withering on vines; people priming pumps and swinging buckets out of wells on long poles; tall narrow haystacks and pepper fields in so many stages of ripeness I first took them for flower gardens. It is a feeling of utter quietness, deep rural isolation the train briefly penetrates.
The train I was traveling on was not going through such scenes of picturesque poverty... or rather the poverty it was traveling through was certainly picturesque but not in such an old world style.
Paul Theroux got on the Trans-Siberian in Nakhodka. Technically Mr. Theroux got on a connecting train going from Nakhodka to Khabarovosk. When he boarded the train it was the dead of winter... a far cry from the June day in Ulaanbaatar when I set off for Moscow. About 4,000 kilometers lie between the capital of Mongolia and Moscow yet for some reason I've always imagined Moscow and Beijing to be at equidistant lengths from UB. There is the UB-Beijing train and, of course, the UB-Moscow train. The UB train to Beijing is just a two-day journey. During the trip you get all the landscapes you can realistically cram into a two-day period (deserts, mountains, lush farms, booming cities) and are able to pop off the train just with it starts to get boring. Unfortunately it's 5 days from Ulaanbaatar to Moscow. The Trans-Siberian shows no such mercy.
My train compartment was certainly prerevolution. The car itself had the look of a narrow lounge in a posh London pub. The passage floor was carpeted; there were mirrors everywhere; the polished brass fittings were reflected in varnished wood; poppies were etched on the glass globes of the pairs of lamps beside the mirrors, lighting the tasseled curtains of red velvet and the roman numerals on the compartment doors.Mine was VII. I had an easy chair on which crocheted antimacassars had been neatly pinned, a thick rug on the floor and another one in the toilet (blogger's note: Mr. Theroux, in this context, is probably using the European definition of toilet, which is to say the entire room encompassing the sink, shower, toilet, mirror, etc. Theroux, while American by birth, usually employs British turns of phrase in his writing and perhaps in his speaking as well though this blogger has not had the privilege of hearing him. Be that as it may, the reader of this blog may rest assured that Mr. Theroux's toilet bowl in and of itself was most likely NOT carpeted) I punched my pillow. It was full of warm goose feathers. (blogger's note: As was mine too, to my surprise. My train pillow on the Transsiberian was acres better than any pillow I have at home) And I was done. I walked up and down the room, rubbing my hands, then set out pipes and tobacco, slippers, my new Japanese bathrobe, and poured myself a large vodka. I threw myself on the bed, congratulating myself that 6,000 miles lay between Natchodkha and Moscow, the longest train journey in the world.
Oooh..... how that Belgian fellow needs a good scrubbing! His outward hygiene obviously worked in inverse proportion to the purity of his soul for this man (Verne was not his name) was an extraordinarily good-natured and kind-hearted person. There is a certain species of backpacker- almost always European in origin and usually dreadlocked- that radiates a benignant kindness whenever you first meet them. It may be the way that they manage to be Buddhist without being arrogant about it (a trick most white American Buddhists have yet to master in my experience), it may be the fact that their faces tend to have weather lines but no lines from negative emotions.... the faces of people who have been to the poorest places on Earth and know that only a peaceful, pragmatically kind personality can help them survive. The sort of people with whom you desperately want to be best friends despite the protests from your olfactory organs... which you learn to ignore after an hour anyway.
The train jerked into movement. We slowly moved away from the UB international train station and on towards Russia. We passed the unlovely-even-by-UB-standards region around the railway station. We chugged by the Moscva hotel that was located two kilometers from the station ("Oh look," said Verne's traveling companion, a handsome British man who was not named John, "There's Moscow. We're there already!" "Oh, that's it?" I asked in mock disappointment, "I paid two hundred dollars just to get there?" "Yeah," John replied, "I guess you should have read the fine print on your ticket a bit more carefully") and moved forward towards the North.... though I could not help but notice that the train apparently took the same way out of the station that the UB-Beijing train did. Would we be turning at any point so as to not end up in China? Or was it the China-bound train that ended up turning at some point? I did not know.
This entry will be completed later.
Last year in UB I was walking home from the grocery store when I saw a group of teenage boys walking ahead of me. They were about 13-14 years old and they were extremely boisterous. They yelled and hooted, shoving each other and generally jumping about in that way male teenagers do when they have energy to burn. They were like a group of baseball-hatted puppies, their cheerful vulgarities and whooping comments echoing off the walls around them. And yet, amid all that ruckus, the boys did not emit a single sound.
It was very striking. The impression was not like someone had pressed the "mute" button on the boys' conversation. When you press the "mute" button on the TV you still see actors with their lips moving, behaving like people whose lives are governed by sound and heard conversation. When someone presses the "mute" button you are aware that a vital component of the scene has been removed. But nothing vital, indeed nothing at all, had been removed from these boys' conversations. Though they made no sound every aspect of their energetic interactions reached me as I walked about five meters behind them.
The boys were deaf, of course. They signed to talk to each other when they spoke, but more strikingly they also were apparently used to winding up their facial expressions and body language to 150% percent when speaking. It wasn't like with babies where self-censorship concerning facial expression is unlearned and thus every emotion is registered on a baby's face. No, to these boys it was more that their faces were equally important in terms of communication as their hands. They spoke with their faces as well as their hands. When one of the boys accidentally barreled into me while in mid-bounce he immediately shrank away, his face a picture of apologetic shame. He said nothing, of course, but at the same time he was saying "Sorry ma'am" so clearly that I could hear it. I had already been watching the boys for about five minutes and their antics were so comical and charming to me that I couldn't help but smile broadly when one of them looked back at me. Seeing me smile, the boy smiled back, a smile of such great, expressive happiness that it was extraordinarily striking. It occurred to me then that perhaps no hearing person would be able to muster such an expressive grin. Two people smiling at each other in the hearing world is a form of communication, of course, but two deaf people smiling at each other are actually talking. Expressions are words, and like words they have a myriad of different meanings.
I was thinking about the expressiveness of deaf people. I knew about one deaf actor, Marlee Matlin, and while I found her to be a very good actor I didn't think of her as being particularly expressive.... no more so than hearing actors, I should say. But then I remembered another much less well-known deaf actor that I had seen on an episode of "Scrubs." His name was Troy Kotsur and he played a deaf father on the episode "My Words of Wisdom." When I watched the episode at the time I had no idea that Kotsur himself was deaf. Kotsur did not speak during the entire episode but he was so extraordinarily good in his minor guest-star role, his facial expressions so beautifully revealing, that I immediately went onto imdb.com to see what other movies he had done. To my disappointment Mr. Kotsur appears to be mostly a stage actor, his cinematic roles limited to very small parts on TV shows. I also found out on imdb.com that Kotsur was deaf in real life as well, though I don't know if he speaks. Two years later, as I walked home after my encounter with the teenagers, I thought about this. Could the ability to speak rob us of our expressiveness?
I thought about this a few months later when I was in an internet cafe. I was going through my online Korean language lessons when I noticed that the lady sitting next to me was having a bilingual conversation of her own. She appeared to be on a Korean language site though she herself looked Mongolian. Perhaps she was Korean but I didn't get that vibe from her. Anyway, through her Korean language Skype set-up she was having a conversation with an elderly gentleman at the other end (who did indeed look Korean) using her hands entirely. She was using the webcam so that her hands were in view during the entire conversation.
The lady had a certain lack of expression in her facial features while she was signing that made me assume that she was not deaf. The man she was speaking to, however, certainly was. His expressions, even with the fuzzy digital Skype camera images, were very pronounced. Of course, even if her father had been a hearing man his expressions would have been pronounced given the news that (I guessed) she was giving him.
She pointed at her stomach and then raised her hands, showing two fingers.
I heard no sound from the computer but her father's expression was clearly saying "WHAAAAAT?!"
Again the lady sitting beside me pointed at her stomach and raised two fingers.
Her father pointed to his stomach and raised two fingers with a questioning expression. "Are you sure??"
The lady nodded, again pointed to her stomach and again raised two fingers to confirm her point.
This action went on for about ten minutes, as if the lady's father could not quite digest the information. I assumed the lady was telling her dad that she was expecting twins. Or had two abdominal tumors, but I doubt that second interpretation... especially when the lady then took out two bottles of prenatal vitamins and held them up to the webcam for her father to analyze.
But never, really, have I actually communicated face-to-face with someone who was deaf .... or at least not since 2007. In 2007, when I was finishing up my last year in Peace Corps, I went to the Black Market with a couple of friends of mine. The Black Market in Ulan Baatar, I should hasten to amend, is not actually an illegal market. According to a friend of mine it USED to be illegal when Mongolia was ruled by a communist government and all goods bought and sold in a capitalist way were confiscated. People bought extra goods clandestinely through the Black Market... though now under Mongolia's liberal democratic government the "Black Market" is simply called "Naraan Tuul" and is the largest open-air place of business in the entire country. It's great fun to walk around and do a bit of shopping.
I and two other girls were doing exactly that back in 2007. One of the girls (I'll call her "Helen") was shopping for a pair of sneakers and she was taking quite a long time. Occasionally my services were requested since I spoke the most decent Mongolian of the three of us and my duties as translator left me puffed up to the gills in pride at first. Unfortunately, hour after wearysome hour later as Helen refused to make a decision about what pair of shoes to buy, I was looking at the rows of shoe stalls and thinking that if I never saw a cheap pair of Chinese-made Nike rip-offs again in my life that alone would stand as proof that God was merciful.
A bored Mongolian man and his Russian wife browsed for back-to-school shoes with their cheerful adolescent children. A stall-lady seated next to a rack of beautiful, shiny, knee-high leather boots that would never fit my feet in a million years laughed at something the stall-lady situated across from her said. A child sitting next to a table of neatly-twinned men's loafers dug into a styrofoam container of take-out fried noodles and oh God was it lunch already? When oh when would Helen pick out her fucking shoes?
Three rows into the shoe section at Naraan Tuul and feeling very out of sorts I sauntered back to the table where Helen was perusing a pair of black canvas sneakers. "How much?" she asked the salesman behind the counter. Without responding he picked up a calculater and typed in the price in turgrugs. It was a little high. "How about making it cheaper?" I asked, "They're just sneakers." The man did not respond but instead typed a price into his computer that was lower by a miniscule amount. At this point I was feeling very irritated. I would bargain, the man would hassle, Helen would dither, we would wait in the hot sun and finally Helen would just wander off to the next stall to browse the shoes there while I and Helen's friend saw our weekend get eaten up hour by hour in this blazingly hot, noisy, crowded, dangerous (Naruun Tuul is infamous for its pickpockets) open-air market. Plus the salesman was, for some reason, really irritating me. Surely basic politeness requires that you respond verbally to any inquiry directed towards you! Just typing numbers into a calculator without speaking was really rude. It was as if - despite the fact that both Helen and I had just demonstrated that we spoke Mongolian well enough to conduct a transaction- the man considered us foreignors to not be worth the effort of speaking.
Hot and angry at both Helen for taking so long to pick shoes and the salesman for clearly not even bothering to speak to me like a human being I snapped, "No, cheaper! That price isn't going to work." The salesman looked a bit taken aback. He then waved another shoe salesman, an older, larger man, over to his booth and they both started signing rapidly to each other. Realizing that both salesmen were deaf I felt a bit abashed. My bad mood evaporated a good deal. Both men signed a bit more as they discussed the deal, looked over at me, smiled a little and then signed a little more before turning back to the booth. At this point the younger shoe salesman touched my arm, lowered his head, clasped his hands and wrung them in a rather poignant manner. He was clearly saying, "I'm truly, deeply sorry." He then held out his calculator and punched in a much-reduced price. "Oh okay," I said, smiling and giving a thumbs-up, "Hey Helen, what do you think of this price?"
"Weeeeell... I dunno.. I mean, we haven't seen all the shoes stall yet."
For God's sake!
I looked at the salesman with what I hoped was an apologetic expression. He touched my arm again and typed in an even lower price on his calculator. He then smiled and then lifted his left hand. He brought the tips of his fingers towards his thumb, forming what looked like a tiny hand-puppet. He then made another hand-puppet with his right hand. He brought the "mouths" of his hand-puppets together so that it looked like they were kissing. He smiled at me again.
I stared, smiling a little. A mis-translation here could be fatal.
"I think he wants you to kiss him," Helen's friend said, verifying my suspicions.
"In exchange for a lower price for the shoes?" I asked. The salesman was actually rather adorable but I had been dealing with enough language barriers in Mongolia without being forced to learn MSL in the process. I wanted to politely refuse the man without insulting him and I had no idea how to do this. The older man behind the salesman also tried some signs, one of which involved holding his arms out in front of him and crooking them so that his left forearm rested on his right forearm. It looked rather like the stereotypical positions Native American chieftons assumed in Disney cartoons in the fifties. The older man then lifted up his left forearm so that it was at a 45 degree angle from his right forearm. Then the older man carefully placed his left forearm back on his right. This sign was a little more difficult to interpret than the kissing hand-puppets. Was he imitating the motion of a plane taking off and consequently asking me where I was from? Was he asking me when I would be leaving Mongolia, presumably by plane? Or was he, with his forearms, imitating the motion of a body lying down in bed and thus propositioning me? Was there any hearing Mongolian salesperson who knew MSL and could translate for me? I looked up and down the rows of stalls, of salespeople haggling with customers and talking to each other and I realized that this entire row of shoe salesmen were ALL deaf! Clearly this market had a special area for deaf shoe peddlers.
In the end I think I simply blushed and threw the younger shoe salesman a kiss, hoping that he would be satisfied with that. I was simply flattered that he had asked me to kiss him. Unfortunately for him the shoes went unbought because at this point I and Helen's friend were simply too sick of the heat-exhaustion and noise to put up with Helen's indecision any longer. We told her we were leaving and she reluctantly followed us. We then had the taxi driver drop her off at a department store to continue her shopping alone while Helen's friend and I went to indulge in a late lunch. We were absolutely exhausted, voiceless but no longer so vivacious.
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