Matt's Myth

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Tuesday, February 17, 2009

This is The End.

I always did like the way Nicki made such a ... succinct (shall we say) exit. And here I am, dragging out my goodbyes and my final tenuous tethers to China, to my time there and this long discursive digest of what it meant and continues to mean. It's time to put this chapter behind me for good; if not China entirely, then China circa 2006-2008. This isn't so much closing the book as it is more like shuttering this volume, placing it back on the shelf, and reaching for a new one. One that I am writing now, one that may or may not be accompanied by a self-obsessed blog.

So: Nicki left before me, just days before in fact; I left Jilin with James and Jim similarly eager to leave, while Kevin remains there, at least until summer; and Aaron is in Zhanjiang, preparing to assume a bigger role in Maryknoll. Congratulations are in order, because I can't think of a better person for that job, other than the man currently doing it.

Today, and I hope until the day I die, memories from China and my travels in Asia randomly bubble up to the surface, a smile blooming on my face as they break through the surface of my conscious mind, like spotting an elusive whale or a rare fish brilliantly leaping out of the murky calm, dazzling you with profound happiness and awe. I can hardly believe all that I saw and did and experienced during those two years, the stories I have to share and the memories I will forever treasure, and I am grateful to so many people that helped me along the way. And I've gotta say that I'm really grateful that I had the foresight and stubbornness and sheer will to take that first step and get on the plane. It was a move that felt half brilliant and half insane, and it's up to you to decide which.

I would like to thank you, reader, and readers past and present, for taking the time to humor me by reading these posts that I spent far too much time polishing. This blog was never more than a butcher shop of vanity, but while keeping the folks at home informed about what was happening to me on the other side of the planet, I hope I was able to offer some insight, however brief, of worlds some may never see.

In a final self-referential nod, I really do think I said it best when I first left Zhanjiang, when I first tried to put this past into words: you too, dear reader, can do this. You can teach, you can travel, you can make your life the meaningful and fulfilling adventure you always hoped it would be. And you should do it, too; you should kick your own ass to do it.

Well ... I'm back. That's it! Thanks for reading! And who knows what will come next? It's a magical world, Hobbes 'ol buddy ... let's go exploring!

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Cool Things Happen (and Matt is Very Late)

2009 is damn near a month old and I haven't even talked about one of the coolest things to happen in 2008: Jim Hartzel and Cecilia Baldino went to Marriage Camp, and came back Jim and Cecilia Hartzel.

The event was December 20, and in the words of many, "it was awesome." An unexpected delay in Jim's friends from Minnesota resulted in me being able to actually join them all down in Atlantic City for Jim's pseudo-bachelor party. With the term at Del Tech over and a little scheduling kung fu, I found myself scrambling to put Jim and C’s gift together and get on the road before I missed the debauchery.

Of course, I use debauchery loosely and "pseudo" freely, because Jim’s too much of a good guy to do that tragically generic bachelor-party-and-strippers thing. Not that there weren’t strippers—on the contrary, there were, Atlantic City’s finest and/or most conveniently located—just that Jim was off losing money in the casino, being what I’ve heard people say is a “good person.” It was his drunken celebratory-cigar-chomping friends, humble narrator included, that did the mental jujitsu of justifying the obligatory bachelor party trip to the strip club, sans bachelor.

But before the casino and before dinner at Hooters and before the gambling and the late-night decadence, we met in our hotel rooms, sipping Fitz’s Homemade Margaritas. You can make them at home, too: all you need is green Hawaiian Punch, whatever alcohol is handy, and a very loose definition of the word “margarita.”

Fitz and Billy get the night started right.

The secret ingredient is alcohol.

Good to not-be-in-China for this!

Barkeep! Give me your finest in ghetto margaritas!

Fitz pours a classy beer.

This is as bad as it got. Honestly.

Oh yes.

I found myself stumbling into my hotel room and collapsing in a bed, I think it was mine, around five in the morning; and through some power that I'm almost (but not quite) ready to attribute to some supremely powerful deity, I woke up to my 8:30 wake-up call and got Twan, Minnesota Buddy #1 (Bubba, he said was his name, but you and I know that that’s a lie), and myself off on the road before nine. Twan had to get up to the hotel in King of Prussia, PA early; he had to get there in time to meet up with Jim, go back to Jersey to get Assorted Wedding Stuff (AWS); and I was just the man to get him there. I was really into Wilco at the time and remember playing the hell out of I Am Trying to Break Your Heart. Twan did not care for it.

So it was a slow night of talking and reminiscing, sipping slow drinks in the lobby bar while spending some good quality time with my old college buddies. It sounds weird and something a guy in his forties would say, but I hadn’t much of these guys since college, what with China and all, and it was good to reconnect. The next morning, the weather frozen and bleakly cold, we made our way over to Villanova for the wedding.

Fitz and his girlfriend Sara Beth. She takes good care of him, and you can barely notice the Downs.

My pictures from the ceremony are crap. This'll have to do. Can't say I've seen too many brides in my day, but damn if Cecilia didn't look absolutely stunning.

At the reception ... something tells me we're going to, yes, here it comes, wedding montage, GO!

What lovely ladies you have there Jim!

Look who kinda cleans up nice!

Don't know why, it was a total accident ... but I love this shot.

Mac and Steph, me and Keiff ... practically a double date.


So ... so not suave.

Ladies and gentlemen, the class of 2006.

Ladies and gentlemen, a bunch of bums from Minnesota or Montana or something.

More dancin'!

Mr. and Mrs. Hartzel, newly minted and gettin' down.

The wedding, in short, was great. Awesome. Amazing. All those words that you hear used to describe things like nachos or a movie you liked a lot, but their true meaning is really reserved for moments like this: when friends come together, strike up old conversations, hang out for the first time in months or years and act and feel like they never missed a beat, all in the name of seeing two friends come together in this marriage that just felt so right, so predetermined, a story ending the only way it could. It was great to see my old friends, great to laugh with them and talk with them, and it was great to see Jim and Cecilia become Mr. and Mrs. Hartzel surrounded by them. I felt the ripples of this wedding begin all the way in China, from when Jim and I drove up to Boston on a rainy summer weekend in '07 and he told me he was buying the ring and planning the question ... and to see it done at last ...

... the end.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The End of the Year

2008 has been a long year. I suspect I won't be the only one happy to see it go, and yet, 2008 has help some wonderful memories.

This year began for me ... well, let's see. My earliest memories of this year are of Harbin, China, and its Tiger Park and Ice Festival. I remember bundling up in every piece of clothing I had, in our Soviet-era hotel which felt like there was a blast furnace in every room, and stepping outside into the coldest weather I had ever experienced. An entire city made of ice, and not a single drop of melt from those sculptures.

And then ... whew. Too many places to count. Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Laos, southern Yunan province, traveling with Sarah and meeting up with Jim and Kat in Ayuthya and James and Caroline in Luang Prabang ... wonderful memories of those first months of 2008.

And then came my return to Jilin: teaching again, Chinese lessons and tutors, dinner with friends, reading The Baroque Cycle and writing lessons and watching downloaded episodes of The Wire and trying to figure out some kind of plan for life after China. Those months from March to June are a freakish ball of memories, a rolling katamari of moments and people and smells and meals. In the end, I left Jilin with little in the way of a clear plan, but taking my leave of China was welcome. And sometimes I miss it so much.

Of course, summer in Europe. This post would be far too long if I dwelt on that here. But seeing Europe with fresh, world-weary eyes made it all the more spectacular.

It's amazing how many times I've tried to take mental snapshots, moments where I've said to myself, stern and with force, "remember this!" Memories of importance, of trivialities, of times good and bad and scary, and each time I steel myself to take something in, capture it forever in my head, and yet here I sit, ready and willing to bring back a handful of awesome memories, most but a whisper in my mind, a suggestion of what was and what I wanted to keep. So it goes, I suppose. There's a certain sadness to it, that when all else fades--the photos, the souvenirs, the novelty t-shirts--all you're left with is memories. And when those are lost ...

And the final months of this year have been spent here, back in America, back home, working some strange hours at strange jobs, a soft-peddled struggle for some kind of next step. Christmas has been a kind of mental endzone for me for a while, a moment to look forward to, and now its come and gone, and I realize ... well, it's just a day. It's a special day, sure, but not that special, and whatever it meant to me to be here at home for that day, well, its time to find something else to live for, man. Time to find something more fulfilling and challenging and worthy to live for.

I asked a guy I work with what his New Years resolution was going to be, if any. He said he doesn't do resolutions, but each year, he dedicates himself to living for something. Last year, he said, he dedicated his life to living for laughter; it work? I asked, and he said with a smile, Yeah. I laughed a lot.

In 2009, I want to live for improvement. I want to improve my health, and hopefully, improve that waistline as well. I want to improve my Chinese. I want to improve my creativity. I want to improve my cooking. And I want to improve my future. Too many things to name, and I prefer the holistic, everything-is-connected approach anyway.

So here's to improvement. May 2009 be the most improved year ever!

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Thanksgiving is Awesome

Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

Today my family hosted the "Smith" side of the Smith-Curran marriage which has spawned me and my kin. We had a large group of sixteen, and I eagerly helped prepare the meal.

First off, the turkey:

From Thanksgiving

Oh yes. Brined for about an hour per pound, in this case, sixteen hours the night before. The brine was 3/4 cup of salt and 1/2 cup of sugar for every gallon of water. After the brine I rinsed the turkey thoroughly and applied the rub: 1/3 cup fresh-ground peppercorns, 1/3 cup salt/seasoned salt, and about 1/6 cup garlic salt/powder. I rubbed the mix all over (hence the name), and brought it over here ...

From Thanksgiving

... to the steaming vat of waiting peanut oil. You can see the thermometer telling us the oil was far too hot to cook with, almost 500 degrees (Fahrenheit, my international friends; about 260C). We cooled it off to about 400F, and when we put the turkey in it dropped within the range of 300-350F (165C).

From Thanksgiving

Let's go to work.

From Thanksgiving

This ridiculously elaborate way of getting the turkey into the boiling-hot oil was all in the name of safety. I think next time I can just slowly drop it in there on my own.

The trick is to drop it in slowly, because the 350F oil does not take kindly to a 42F turkey intruder. It was a slow dip in, out, in, out, in-out-in-out-in, like some kind of deadly hot fondue.

Almost there ...

Ooh, that oil is angry.

OK, it's in. About three minutes of cooktime per pound, we've got about sixteen pounds, so I'll check back in fifty minutes, give or take. In the meantime, let's check out the spread ...

Very nice.

My brother is weird.

Joy! Is the turkey ready?

How's it look, dad? Almost there.

Ah, siblings. It's good to be home for Thanksgiving. Good to be not-in-China.

Obligatory artsy cranberries and coke shot.

Looks like it's ready.

Wow. That is one delicious-looking turkey. Just seeing that makes me want to fry another one.


And Duke gives his cautious approval.

In addition to the turkey, I made some damn good cornbread, and a giant bowl of wild-mushroom stuffing made with an olive oil and rosemary loaf. It was a great spread, and everyone loved the turkey: the skin was so crispy and delicious, and the meat stayed so moist and flavorful, the way I had always dreamed a turkey would taste. In case of a frying mishap, we prepared another turkey in the oven (well, hey, sixteen people, one turkey wasn't gonna cut it anyway ...), and it couldn't hold a candle to the fryer: it was dry, less flavorful, just kind of a dumbed-down turkey. I don't know if it was the brine, the fry, or a combination of the two, but I will never roast a turkey again.

Despite all I've bitched about being back in Delaware, it was good to be home for Thanksgiving, and not do it over Skype. Peering into that vat of oil today, checking the temperature and adjusting the turkey as it fried, I got (yet another) flashback of China, of my first dim sum in Hong Kong and Macau's meat markets, of rooftop hangouts in Zhanjiang and dumplings in Jilin. And as awesome as those moments were, as impossible as they seem now sitting here, a lifetime away, and as much as I may miss them or even be happy they're behind me, it's good to be here at home, having lived a bit, now cooling my heels, and waiting to live some more.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Building the World

I saw Charlie Kaufman's new film Synecdoche, New York the other day, at the Ritz East in Philly. I had some company, too.

The film was a hilariously funny, wildly comedic soiree, all wrapped around a story tinged with a profound melancholy. These feelings, I felt, alternated between the genuine and the overblown. You may have seen this neurotic, gloomy, hypochondrial protagonist before; he's in Kaufman's other films, he's a favorite of Alexander Payne, Wes Anderson, and assorted others working in New Wave Quirk: a decidedly unlikeable, alienated (and alienating) lead character writ large for the sake of comedy. What "Synecdoche" does well is mix this impossibly self-absorbed and sad man with a surreal universe that seems to confirm every dreary thought and anxiety he's ever had, and delights in kicking him when he's already way, way down. If you're not laughing well before our main character is so sick he has to lube up his eyes to cry, this movie probably isn't for you.

I find the comedy--the dark, bizarre, surreal, uncomfortable, wry, ironic, and various-other-adjectives comedy--to be the real reason to see the film. But that overdone melancholy I was speaking of before is, well, overdone, and while taking something real and blowing it up to huge proportions to convey it in a film you can actually sit through is probably a necessary conceit for cinema (but I digress ...), every moment of poignancy the film conjures is overshadowed by the inevitable joke that follows. Hilarious jokes, mind you, but jokes that completely undercut the drama. It's hard to take any dramatic turn the films makes too seriously when it undermines itself with more comedy; how can the death of these characters you've never vested in register if you're laughing at the absurdity of their death on screen? Kaufman has juggled these ideas well enough in the past: his films have always been funny, but they also told a story with humanity and genuine connection that elevated the movie beyond simple comedy, that worked in concert with the laughs to create true poignancy for characters we cared for. But despite Phillip Seymour Hoffman's performance, despite a great cast that effortlessly tackles some truly odd acting duties, and despite a story that is only half-told (and then only mostly-well), the film ultimately just can't figure out how to say whatever it is it wants to say. The story rapidly unravels in a messy and noticeably serious final twenty minutes that simply can't prop up the weight of the world that the film has made.

But that world that the film has constructed was a hell of a lot of fun to visit. Despite its flaws, and despite a story that doesn't make it to the finish line, it's definitely worth seeing. I saw it with an audience that had everyone laughing at different moments, which is a pretty interesting thing to experience; there were a few times when I was laughing entirely on my own.

Building the world is something I've been thinking a lot about recently. What kind of world we build for ourselves. Jim and Cecilia are getting married next month, for god's sake, and Matt and T are not too long after that: the whole world of jobs, careers, eventual families, back to school, progress from all directions. The future is bearing down, my friends, and it has appallingly bad breath. I saw Synecdoche with some friends, but also someone new. I had a good time, I enjoyed talking with her, it seemed to be all laughs and smiles making our way around the block for a drink and a snack before going into the theater. She had wonderful eyes, I remember that, a clear marble blue that never seemed to blink, never looked away, ravenous beautiful eyes that took everything in. The film ended, and in the lobby we decided what to do next ... and she had things to do. Generic, exculpable things. And it was in that moment, when those words hit my ears, I felt the weight of exhaustion that coffee and excitement and optimism had only barely held at bay. Because I knew exactly what those things were, those things that have been there these long 24 years, and my voice quivered for just a second (no one noticed, I think), my eyes closing too long in a protracted blink, a slight sorrowful nod as I instantly knew, yet again: this is how my world is made. Slow polite banter as we walked down the street, my car right, her place left, brief and noncommittal goodbyes, and I walked to my car alone.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Zhanjiang Propaganda

It's very bizarre to see a place where I lived and worked for a year propagandized, but I'd be lying if I said these videos didn't make me a little nostalgic for good 'ol Zhanjiang.

Here's one video for Zhanjiang. And here's another for the college where I worked.

Both those videos are brought to you by YouKu, the Chinese answer to YouTube. (And that's YouKu, pronounced, "yo coo," yo as in yo-yo and coo as in the sound a pigeon makes. Or, in the parlance of our times, "You were in China? Yo, that's coo'!) YouKu's great because the Chinese, in their effortless disregard for intellectual property rights, allow all sorts of things on there: full movies, entire seasons of popular TV shows, and all sorts of other copyrighted goodies that will get you punted off the YouTubes. So visit YouKu and have a look around ... don't worry if you can't understand a damn thing, just type English into the search box, assume roughly the same methods that are at work on YouTube, and go to town.

Well, as I was confident would happen, we now have a President Obama, and I am pleased. All I can say now, is: Mr. Obama, do not fuck this up. Too many people have put too much faith in you and your promises to be let down by politics as usual. Now get to work, and let me know when the first subpoenas are filed against Cheney and company.

I realize I've missed a lot of things that have gone on in my life since I've returned home, and I hope in November I can blog a little more regularly, or find a nice pasture to take this blog out to before I shoot it in the head and put it down for good. I don't have any pictures of lobster with James and Sarah and Mike "Maryland" Khan, and I don't have much else to say that I'd want to write in a little snippet here. So for now here are a few pictures of us at Lawler's place a few weeks back, the first time in a long time I'd seen some of these jokers.