Friday, October 11, 2013

Saving Time: Momo by Michael Ende

Owl is at journalism school.

J-school is hard.

There are days when Owl rolls out of bed at 8:00, appears at class from 9:00 until noon conducts an interview during lunch hour, sits through lecture until 6:00 pm, conducts another interview, types everything up and submits before midnight. She eats breakfast on the elevator, lunch on the train, and dinner at her desk. 

Actually this is most days.

J-school is challenging

The work is a delightful. It is a privilege to be out on the street collecting stories, and writing them up, but the work rolls on and on. If an assignment is finished, it could be done better, if it is done better, then there are hundreds of extra gold stars to work on collecting for the resume, because journalism, ah, me, my, it doesn’t have many jobs. But does it have a job for Owl?

What if she works very very hard?

One of Owl’s college friends got engaged and it was a solid week before Owl was able to call her in congratulations. Even then, Owl had to cut the call short so she could attend lecture. Afterwards Owl wondered how she could justify the hour spent on the phone call to her professor or her resume. Improved communication skills? Networking? 

Owl’s parents came to visit one weekend and were startled by the transformation.

Let’s go eat things, her mother suggested.

Owl snapped that she didn’t have the time.

What would you like to do? her father asked.

Work, Owl muttered and went on a tirade about how everyone wanted something from her and there weren’t enough hours in a day. 

Then she burst into tears, and wondered why no one understood why working was more important than eating things.

Daily Owl struggles. She asks herself who she wants to be. The person who calls her friends or the person who has a job? Can one ever justify writing off work to call a friend? Can one ever justify writing off friends to work? What is the proper balance? How do you attain it?

Sometimes the struggle boils down to a different question, one Owl has no answer for: who am I becoming?

Today, Owl behaved disgracefully.

She slept in.

She did laundry.

She ate lunch.

And as she ate, she read Momo, a children’s book by Michael Ende.

In Momo, Ende winds the clock back to childhood, back to a world where the protagonist, Momo, lives in a ruined amphitheater and spends her days listening to her friends tell stories.

And then the Men in Gray arrive. They carry suitcases and puff cigars and convince everyone to save time.  What, they ask, is the point of sitting around doing nothing? Why waste time talking with your friends? Spend your time making money, or don’t spend it at all. 

Listen to their siren song:

The first question to consider, pursued the man in gray, “is how much your friends really gain from the fact of your existence. Are you any practical use to them? No. Do you help them to get on in the world, make more money, make something of their lives? No again….You may not realize it Momo, but you harm your friends by simply being here. …Is that what you call love?

And like that, Momo’s world falls apart, replaced by a new reality where people run around wearing suits, making money, talking far too fast, and children play with expensive toys wondering if their parents have stopped loving them because they no longer play with them.

Michael Ende writes fantasy. Glorious fantasy where children are heroes and heroes go on quests to save the world, and in the end all is well in the world.

So Ende, because he can, trots in a magic tortoise with answers written on her shell, and the tortoise's help Momo restores the world back to its proper order. She (spoilers, sorry) destroys the Men in Grey and all is well again. The world is restored to a place where time is an endless fountain to be spent on the people you love best in the world. 

(Ende, very conveniently, doesn’t talk too much about what Momo eats.)

But Owl? 

Owl set down the book, utterly charmed, determined to carve out a new reality for herself, and found eight hours of homework, a stack of internship and job application, and a pile of unanswered emails and phone calls from her friends waiting for her.

What do I do? she wailed to Ende (because talking to writers is this totally normal actvity Owl engages in).
Destroy the men in grey, he said. Destroy the system.

How? she asked.

She's still waiting for an answer.

Or a magic tortoise.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

We Are All Naked Before Poetry

Owl wrote this last April for National Poetry Month. And then decided to put it on the back burner. And then revised it in October but had the irking feeling that poetry was not appropriate for the month of ghosts and candy so she decided to bin the entire thing. Only, well, it's National Poetry Month again and Owl has the strange yen to talk poetry.

(And to post partial nudie pictures of herself. Poetry does that.)

It’s National Poetry month, the month where people pretend they care about poetry. They dust off the same fifty or sixty shopworn poems by the same thirty or forty poets. Then, come May they trot the poems back up to the attic where they belong. For heaven’s sake, the last time Owl went to a bookstore, she saw that the poetry shelf had been downsized to make room for paranormal romance. 

Owl is cranky. Poetry makes Owl cranky.

Every so often a well-intentioned soul will ask Owl if she writes poetry. Owl will inflate, insulted, and huff, Absolutely not. When pressed, Owl admits she may have written one or two poems but that is entirely not her fault, they were homework assignments.

When people tell her they are poets, she edges away because it might be catching. She both loves and loathes the person who can stand up and say in all seriousness, I am a poet.

Mario Vargas Llosa describes fiction as a reverse strip tease where the writer “goes through the motions of getting dressed, hiding the nudity in which he began under heavy, multicolored articles of clothing conjured up out of his imagination.”

Poetry is just a strip tease. It’s all about the truth, and like strip teases there are two options. Either the audience is completely enchanted and there is no need to say anything more, or the audience is…not enchanted. The less said here the better because everyone’s trying to self-oblivate. The intimacy of poetry makes it vulnerable to such failure.

Owl is not a risk taker. Owl prefers the safer middle ground of fiction, where you can write everything off as an untruth or harmless entertainment. But poetry? Poetry has to be about the truth, raw, naked, glistening. Owl does not have the guts for this.

This is completely at odds with the fact that one of Owl’s all time favorite college professors is a poet. There was a time when Owl read his poem The Sublime before breakfast to give her courage to plough through the day. When the daily rituals of her life seemed ridiculous, getting up, pretending to be a working adult, laughing at jokes she did not understand, she clung to the lines of his poetry. If there was no truth in her life, at least she could borrow truth, borrow it in the way that made her throat go dry, made her eyes wet and made her feel, still, that there was some point to carrying on with the brave day.

But still, to admit to liking his poems, to share them with any stranger on the street, or to casually say to an acquaintance, oh yes, I've been reading poetry—Owl could not do it. It seemed to smack of some internal weakness on her part. Possibly a liver ailment.

“But what was it like growing up and loving poetry?” Owl asked her professor once, because he ran wild in the woods of West Virginia, and if Owl did not have the courage to owe up to needing poetry in a city full of yuppies and intellectuals, she could not imagine how he survived, a poet boy among woodsmen. 

“Oh, sometimes, well, people talked crap and you had to thump them,” he replied.

Owl was maybe too interested in the thumping—thump them how? with sticks? spoons?—because her professor patted her on the shoulder and told her to focus on loving language more, and finding herself, and Owl wanted to explain, no, that's precisely the problem.

It is far easier to be violent, to veer off into the comfortable land of satire and half humor, than to peer at yourself in the mirror, to see how weekly your pulse throbs in your throat, how limply your smile curls across your face, and how behind it all, there is deep seated hunger for everything that is raw and living, blood, tears,  twisted love—in short, everything that is poetry.

This is Owl's pick for National Poetry Month. (Kind of maybe sort of stolen from Patrick at Beyond Easy.)

EMBARRASSING, Czeslaw Milosz

Poetry is an embarrassing affair; it is born too near the functions we call intimate.
Poetry cannot be separated from awareness of our own body. It soars above it, immaterial and at the same time captive, and is a reason for our uneasiness, for it pretends to belong to a separate zone, of spirit.
I was ashamed of my being a poet, as if, undressed, I would display in public my physical defects. I envied people who did not write poems and whom for that reason I ranged among the normal. And in this I was wrong: few of them deserve to be called that.

Not gutsy enough to be fully naked

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Shores of Malaysia

For the New Year Owl washed up on the shores of Malaysia. More specifically, she arrived in a five star hotel in downtown Kuala Lumpur to begin Orientation for her Fulbright grant to teach English. At first she did not know what to do with herself. She had sailed through the month of December in a delicious haze of sleep and books, and she was not prepared for the dazzle of Kuala Lumpur, the chatter of her fellow grantees.

Actually it is a wonderful thing to have the run of a five star hotel in the middle of downtown Kuala Lumpur with forty nine other like minded people. Kuala Lumpur is a city of glass buildings and towers squashed between extravagant shopping malls built of marble and light. Here, the days stretch into the nights, and the nights into day. Everyone is bright with laughter and fellowship. The party is all the more hectic because everyone knows the time is short. Orientation is three weeks long, then the party is over, everyone disperses to a remote town.

People are easing into Malaysia, some sinking comfortably into its softness, others landing awkwardly and bruising. It is not easy. Malaysia is different, roughly 70% Malay, 20% Chinese, 10% Indian; three cultures folded into one, and so mixed that their edges blur and it is difficult to distinguish one from the other.

The breakfast buffet has Chinese porridge, Malaysian nasi lemak, Indian dosas and while most of Owl’s cohort marvels (or despairs) over the food, Owl is jaded. Owl has seen it before. This is exactly what Owl grew up eating, it is a combination Owl never expected to see outside of her house.

And this is where Owl struggles.

Malaysia is more home like than home.

Owl is the product of an Indian father and a Chinese mother who was born and brought up in Indonesia. Owl grew up in the flatlands of the Midwest where non-Caucasian people were a rarity and anything like her combination was unheard of. Owl grew used to explaining her heritage constantly, almost hopelessly in an attempt to explain who she was and what she knew, because still, no matter what she said people would say, oh you are Asian! Oh you are Indian! And the combination of all three was always lost.

It is too complicated, a professor told Owl once when she tried to write a story about her heritage. You must choose one culture to write about.

He did not understand, poor man, that he was saying, pick your mother or pick your father.

At some level Owl grew to accept that she would never fully be understood, and conversely that she would never fully understand a culture and for this reason alone she would always be somewhat of an observer.

Occasionally to fit in with her cohort—Owl has learned by now that it is on her to fit in, not for the world to fit around her—she feigns surprise over whatever it is that is being presented. Oh my. A dosa. Now what is that again? A paper crepe stuffed with potatoes and onions and, good lord what are those black balls? (Mustard seed.) How strange. But oddly delicious. A little bit of condescension is the hallmark of fitting in, Owl has discovered.

And sometimes Owl does this so she doesn’t come off as a complete asshole, because, because my God, Owl walks down the street and it’s an explosion of Bahasa. Owl with the proprietary ignorance that comes from growing up as a minor minority, considers Bahasa to be her private language, something to use in public. Woven into the Bahasa are bits of Chinese, lumps of Hindi, everything sprinkled over with English, and this is Owl’s language, this is the language she grew up hearing and never, never expected to hear anywhere outside the walls of her house. In her mother’s family it was always Bahasa-Chinese, in her father’s family, Hindi. Never, all three together.

And Owl’s Bahasa, broken, inarticulate, bubbles out of her, Owl is stuffing her face with her mother’s food, her father’s food, her food, and Owl is spinning around and around looking at the streets, the stalls, trying take it all in, cram it into her soul, because this belonging, this strange strange familiarity is utterly foreign.  

Chinatown, Kuala Lumpur

And in the midst of all of this, Owl discovered something else.

Owl has a passing knowledge with food and gestures of her heritage, enough to make polite conversation about eating and the weather, but beyond that her cultural and literal vocabulary is limited, anything more complicated than “I am fine, a little tired,” or eating bread with her hands, is utterly beyond her. Morals, values, ways of thinking? Owl is utterly American in her thoughts, and her philosophy.

It’s not easy to identify what it means to think like an American, it is one of those things you discover during a conversation with someone else in another culture. The conversation goes, it goes, and then it hits a wall and the two people are left staring at each other bewildered. But why do you do things like that? It is wrong. It is unthinkable, one will not say. And of course the only, also silent, reply is, What do you mean? You’re the crazy one, not me.

People can gloss over food and handshakes, but try sex, gender roles, religion, race and politics and things start to go pear shaped.

So far, for Owl, American means a certain amount of confidence, a firm handshake, a fierce desire for equality and attention; a belief that she deserves to get whatever she wants, and that she’s going to get it.

In Malaysia the handshakes are limp, and actually you aren’t supposed to shake hands with the opposite gender. Everything is divided alphabetically by gender. The boys are slathered with attention. They are served first, they get the best, and the most. There is a certain amount of racial profiling, people fall neatly into categories that define who they are, and the more Owl interacts with Malaysians the more she understands that this is just the tip of the iceberg.

It is not that much of a task to change your handshake, but to live in a different belief system, to take a back seat to boys when you have never had to do that before, all of that is a shock.

Owl’s familiarity with Malaysia is surface, as surface as the earth’s crust.

Owl isn’t home. Not really.

Malaysians on the street go up to Owl, they see her brown skin, black hair, and if she keeps her mouth shut, and all of them, the Indian-Malaysians, Chinese-Malaysians, and Malay-Malaysians, and they speak to her in Bahasa, they say oh, you are one of us. There is nothing in Owl’s appearance to warn them otherwise.

And Owl, Owl who has been told she looks like and Indian except there’s something terribly off about her, Owl who is never identified as Chinese, and Owl who always wants to fit in, who has never been claimed as the child of one country or another, Owl clenches her fists because a slow desperate scream is rising inside of her that grows louder each day:

I am an American. An American.

Owl is oh-so American

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Memoria de mis labores tristes

On the flight home from China Owl sat next to a man reading the newspaper in Spanish. Owl read over his shoulder for a few minutes (she has no shame) and then gave up because he was going way too fast. After the flight took off, the man popped open his laptop and pulled out a hefty dissertation in English. When his battery died, he whipped out a book in Italian. At this point Owl could no longer read over his shoulder and she fell asleep. When she woke up, he was reading poetry in French.

Owl nearly spontaneously combusted from jealousy.

The flight attendant spent a lot of time smiling at the man and slipping him extra peanuts. Owl was convinced it was because he was a polyglot and not because he was tall and distinguished looking.

Jet-lagged out of her mind, hurtling through thin air wrapped in metal and clouds, Owl decided she too would become a polyglot. Because polyglots are made, not born, verdad?

So the thing is, Owl spent nine years in school studying Spanish. All of it is a blur except for her last year. This was the class roster:

--girl who went to a Spanish immersion elementary school
--girl fluent in Italian
--girl fluent in French
--girl dating a Mexican student she met while teaching ESL classes
--linguistic genius #1 (aced all sorts of spelling bees)
--linguistic genius #2 (absorbed Spanish at her nanny's bosom and went on to become a beast at Chinese)
--resident school genius


Owl, um, kinda bribed her way into the class because she was flunking Economics and this was her only other option. It was the year of shame and stealth. By stealth, Owl means googling English translations of the assigned reading and praying to five gazillion deities before each exam.

To this day Owl associates studying foreign languages with  trauma and despair. 

Owl's dream of becoming a polyglot died a quick death the moment she got over her jet-lag.

But a few weeks later Owl picked up Rimbaud's poems at the library. Owl has been enchanted by Rimbaud ever since she read this review in the Economist.

Owl prepared to be dazzled.

…Yeah no.

Owl can not believe that Rimbaud, the gorgeous golden boy known for his filthy filthy mouth filled his poems with rhymes like stream with dream and fair with air. Maybe these rhymes aren't a linguistic crime in French. Maybe he was just having a bad day. Or maybe Owl got a really shitty translation.

Owl's going with that.

But she’s not sure if that’s true. Maybe golden boys with filthy mouths really like puerile rhymes. Maybe that's irony! Or something. Owl has no idea because the frustration of being unable to parse out the translation from the writing is messing with her thinking process. In school, on the rare occasion that Owl understood a piece in Spanish, she compared it to various English translation. And the gap between the two was always disturbing. 

Some translators focus on word-for-word translations, sacrificing elegance for accuracy. Others craft an elegant piece, and end up with well, an elegant piece, that's more like a second cousin than a twin of the original. Translators fight a good fight, but they always leave their mark.

Owl is not going to learn French. Not unless she gets run over by a train, and gets reincarnated as a polyglot. Or a French speaker. Owl loves Japanese writers and Chinese folktales and Hindi verses, and there is no way she's going to pick up all three of the languages for her reading pleasure.

But Owl's already devoted nine (mostly fruitless) years of her life to Spanish.

Accordingly Owl went back to the library. She poked around the Spanish section of the library, got frightened off by hefty nonfiction tomes, nixed translations of famous English novels (somehow seems counterproductive) and finally found a slim volume by Gabriel García Márquez.

Márquez! How can you go wrong with Márquez? And short Márquez too, because slogging through the verbal diarrhea that’s Love in the Time of Cholera in English gave Owl feverish hallucinatory dreams.

Owl flipped through the summary and picked up something about an old journalist, something about Márquez's first novel in ten years and she was happy.  Márquez reminiscing on his beginnings as a writer. Adorable.

Later that night Owl picked up her book and began reading. She started with the title. Because titles are good places to start:

Memoria de mis putas tristes

Memory of my sad whores.

How the hell did Owl miss that?

First line:

“El año de mis noventa años quise regalarme una noche de amor loco con una adolescente virgen.”

For a very happy moment, Owl thought "regalarme" meant to remember—an old man remembering his first night of 'amor loco' with an adolescent virgin. Then she checked. And found no, nope. "Regalarme" means "give myself." In other words:

"In the year of my ninetieth year, I wanted to give myself a night of crazy love with an adolescent virgin."

Owl has been reading steadily, book in one hand, laptop open to google translate in her lap. So far she has learned many words for brothel and many ways to request the services of a prostitute and this is not what Owl was expecting, this is not what Owl had in mind, and…

Owl wonders: will any of this get extra peanuts the next time she flies?

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Lost Horizon

The last of Owl's China entries. She's got another one written at the height of a bakery  & Georgette Heyer addiction stashed away. Literally, think Owl doped up to the eyeballs on sugar and white flour, and flying high on regency romance with pistols. Um. Yeah. Owl's decided the internet doesn't need to read it. Anyway. Instead, Owl is offering up a slice of Tibet and Paradise--really, Paradise--with some OH, BUT, NO, thrown in for added zing.


How do you feel about going to Shangri-La this weekend? Owl's Swiss-Tibetan friend asked her during a marathon study session.

Owl put down her Chinese textbooks. Owl pinched herself hard. Owl hyperventilated.  But it's paradise. But it's mythical. But how do you travel to a mythical paradise—in the shadow of angel wings? And then her brain stopped working and she just went yes, oh yes, please, yes, yes, yes!

And her friend looked at her sort of funny, and explained slowly and patiently that there are these things called airplanes and Shangri-La is about twenty minutes away by plane.

Owl sank back into her chair and was useless for the entire evening because Shangri-La! Paradise on earth! Owl was going to paradise! For the weekend. Just. Like. That.

This is what happens when you up and quit your job to study Chinese.

[Okay, another part of this reality is Owl has exactly $11.50 in her bank account after purchasing plane tickets because getting to paradise is expensive. But. Paradise! You don't need money in paradise!]

Then Owl realized she didn't actually know much about Shangri-La. She'd heard the term bandied about as a synonym for paradise, there's a super fancy hotel chain where they place fruit baskets and teapots in tea cozies in your room, and one of her high school friends fancied it as a nickname for Owl, only he shortened it to "Shangi."

Hell-bent on doing her research, Owl got a copy of James Hilton's 1933 bestseller Lost Horizon prontisimo. Lost Horizon is about four Westerners who survive a plane crash and find themselves in a fictional Tibetan valley of unsurpassed beauty where the citizens have unlimited wealth and live unbelievably long lives in perfect tranquility. Hilton named the valley Shangri-La.  

Lost Horizon dominated the bestseller charts for years and spawned a legend, a city, and a five star hotel chain all dubbed Shangri-La.

Lost Horizon has two realities. The first is that it's a beautiful novel. Hilton's prose has a liquid grace, his descriptions are piercing. Read, and the snow capped mountains solidify in front of you, the green terraces and lotus ponds of Shangri-La unfold before your feet.  

Perhaps, because Hilton was writing in the aftermath of WWI and in the looming shadow of WWII, Lost Horizon is tinted with a wistfulness for quietude and time. Time enough to sit still, time enough to think, and these leaks off of the pages as soothing as a narcotic.

The second reality is Lost Horizon is an Englishman's fantasy of the Orient. Hilton does a fairly good job with race relations considering that he was writing in 1933. There are no racial slurs, his protagonist is free from bigotry or so Hilton proclaims, but his novel has a Western-orientation. Although the valley is in Tibet, the majority of high ranking citizens in Shangri-La are Westerners and the citizens discuss Mozart and Chopin.

The single non-white female in Lost Horizon is referred to as "The Little Manchu," although, she is far older than the men who love her. She does not speak. She is given no dialog. The reader has no insight into her thoughts. She is lovely and that is all the reader learns about her.

"She stood for him as a symbol of all that was delicate and fragile; her stylized courtesies and the touch of her fingers on the keyboard yielded a completely satisfying intimacy. Sometimes he would address her in a way that might, if she cared, have led to less formal conversation; but her replies never broke through the exquisite privacy of her thoughts, and in a sense he did not wish them to."

She's a symbol, not a person, as are the rest of the Oriental characters in Lost Horizon. Few have speaking lines. Those who do, exist as vehicles to communicate information. They have no feelings, flaws, or identifiable personality traits besides tranquility. This, very subtly, weaves a message into the Western cultural narrative—Orientals are not real people with thoughts and feelings. More troubling, this is done so subtly, so unconsciously, it is easy to skim over as a reader. Owl would wager many people would say she's being oversensitive and should shut up and just enjoy the book. Owl herself wonders.   

Lost Horizon is the stuff of high fantasy, and fantasy can be just as dehumanizing as racism. Hilton offers up the Orient as a panacea for all the ills of the West, rather than taking the Orient seriously as a place inhabited by people who have more in common, rather than less, with their Western counterparts—the fact of being human.

Lost Horizon is all the more dangerous because it's compelling fantasy. Such compelling high fantasy, that Shangri-La hotels are the byword for excellent hospitality in Southeast Asia, cities from China to Nepal have fought over the honor of calling themselves Shangri-La, and, Owl?

Owl emptied her bank account to visit paradise this weekend.