Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Laff of the Day #3

It was 4:35pm and my officemates were giggling about a question on a CDC survey.

"How many times per week do you check you feet for sores?" the Eternal Paid Volunteer Temp read from his screen. "A. daily, B. 3-5 times, C. 1-2 times, D. less than once a week, or E. no feet."

Giggle giggle giggle.

"No feet? Why would that be a choice?" said Cindy with an S.

"Maybe it's a survey for diabetes," I said.

"Ohhh. Maybe."

"My mom and I carried my grandfather's leg home from the hospital," said the Epidemiologist.


"He had diabetes and they amputated his leg below the knee," she explained. "In Taiwan we believe that the whole body must be present at the time of cremation. So we put it in a jar and took it home."

At that point it was open season for dumb questions from dumb Americans.

"Did you put it in the freezer?" I asked.

"Did you wrap it in something first?" Cindy with an S asked.

"What? Whaat?? Whaaaattt??" the Eternal Paid Volunteer Temp kept saying.

"Did your grandfather know you brought it home?" I asked.

"It was big. Not in the freezer. It still had some flesh on it. We had to use something to preserve it. In a jar. I don't know if he knew we had it. It was a year before he passed away. This was all in Taiwan."

"If it's a Taiwanese custom then the hospital is probably used to getting requests like that."

"Well if it's part of his body they can't refuse to let him have it, right?"

"I bet in the US they have all sorts of restrictions on that." (Turns out, not as many as you'd think.)

Super V wandered in to molest the espresso machine. "Hello, everyone. What's so funny?"

"The Epidemiologist says she and her mom put her grandfather's amputated leg in a jar and took it home from the hospital."

"Interesting. Did you put it in the freezer?" Super V asked.

In Thailand my Thai co-workers loved to crack one particular joke that was only funny if you had learned English with a Thai accent.

"You want some fruit?" Ahn the driver would ask me, holding out a large cluster of fresh long kong.

"Thank you," I'd say.

"Hahahaha! You want some fruit?" Ahn would say again, pointing to his foot. "You want eat my foot? You say you like eat foot! Hahaha!"

It took me a long time to get that one.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Year of the Tiger

It’s the eve of the lunar new year. The older I get the more I appreciate rituals marking the passing of time. Out with the old, in with the new.

Out – Bad karma. In – Good karma.

Out – Delayed gratification. In – Living every moment with passion, joy, gratitude and peace.

Out – Selfish, lying, insecure, emotionally stunted, vapid, FUBAR, sleepwalking coward. In – Witty, smart, creative, inspiring, funny, sexy love interest.

There are a lot of different old history/New Year, letting go/starting over, fuck off/come hither, cleaning out/moving up rituals that I’ve only discovered as an adult. There are two in particular - the traditions surrounding Lunar New Year and the rituals of Loy Krathong observed in Thailand - that are much more meaningful to me than the lobotomizing pressure to find an out-of-control party and the Times Square ball drop countdown that we're told are the proper ways to ring in a new year.

Y2K - the new year, the new decade, the new millenium - was so depressingly underwhelming not because of what I did, where I was and who I was with, but because of the expectations that pointed out how those things weren't crazy drunken fun enough.

My parents never really observed Chinese New Year when we were growing up except for the red envelope which, although it was the only custom we practiced, was personally well-loved because parents and older adult relatives gave us kids money in a red envelope for good luck. Beyond that, I was never exposed to the colorful traditions and deep superstitions that underlie a lot of Chinese New Year customs. Instead I've learned them over the years from friends, and Amy Tan novels.

It turns out my roommate, "D," grew up with very superstitious Taiwanese parents, so with her help and that of Wikipedia, I may have increased my Lunar New Year knowledge by 50 percent this year. She and I are both tigers, and 2010 is the year of the tiger. The prediction is that it will be a difficult Year of the Tiger for tigers, though it is said that most animals in the zodiac have difficult years during the year of their sign. Follow?

Anyway, this morning D reminded me that to ward off the year's difficulties I needed to put on a red string before midnight, and wear it every day in the new lunar year. After racking my brain for where I might find a red string in my apartment, I thought of my sewing kit. I also threaded on a few beads for fun.

Then another friend posted on Facebook that tigers are supposed to wear red underwear every day beginning tomorrow. My one red pair is at the bottom of my laundry basket, and I'm not sure what to do about the next 360ish days (lunar calendars are unpredictable that way). But at least I have the string.

I do remember the last Year of the Tiger, 1998, being the most difficult I'd had up to that point. But I was much younger, and compared to the years I've had since, it wasn't really that bad. I don't even know enough about Taiwanese culture to be superstitious, but I figured that I can use all the help I can get, short of 21 new pairs of red underwear.

Chinese New Year is about being with family and friends. It's about performing scores of rituals to appease the gods and ensure all sorts of auspicious things for approaching times. In fact, the list of things you're supposed to do and say, and not do and say, is so long that you're probably guaranteed even more disappointment than when you're trying to find the most annoying party possible on Dec 31.

I made a respectable effort for the Year of the Tiger. I have oranges. I have sweets in red wrappers. I have noodles for longevity. I cleaned my room. I have three types of sticky rice cakes in the house.

D said that an old Chinese woman told her that to keep the Tiger Year's difficulties at bay, my roommate should take an old pair of slippers, stand in front of our building, and bang the slippers left and right at the doorstep while chanting in Chinese, "Old spirits go away, good spirits come and stay."

THEN, after our neighbors have completely flipped out, she should wrap the slippers in paper and burn them, along with paper money and other offerings to the spirits.

If we lived in Chinatown, we'd be doing this along with our neighbors. West Indians are not so understanding.

I didn't find Chinatown much more chaotic today than any other Saturday afternoon. There were still too many people on Canal Street and too many tourists staring and taking pictures at the fish markets. Lines were long. The New Year's parade is not until next weekend. The difference was that oranges, and flowers, and of course all the gaudy red envelopes, red wall hangings, red lanterns and red characters were doing brisk business. I couldn't find many places that had live fish, and I'm not sure if it's because of winter or because everyone wanted their whole fish for prosperity and fortune.

This white dude at the grocery store asked me how to prepare some packaged Chinese buns.

"Do you steam these?"

"I guess so," I said, looking at the package. What, I'm supposed to know because I look Chinese? "But don't take my word for it."

He walked away annoyed and disappointed that he didn't get a good answer. I should have messed with him so we both could have gone home happy.

"Marinate them in soy sauce, put coins inside for good luck and microwave for 20 minutes."

Loy Krathong, a fall lantern festival celebrated in Thailand, has a wonderfully cathartic ritual of setting afloat banana leaf rafts on a current to send away the year's bad karma while carrying coins as offerings to the River Goddess.

To Thai people who do this every year it probably seems commercialized and over-hyped, the way I hate the lameness of the American new year, but around Loy Krathong this past year - almost my first anniversary of no longer living in Thailand - I realized that I knew of no reasonable place to launch a raft loaded with my heavy burdens into a body of water. There are lots of places along the Hudson where you can toss a raft in from high above the water line, and I imagine you just have to hope it lands right side up so your bad karma and good offerings don't sink to the bottom and get stuck in Hudson River muck.

Upon further thought, though, I remembered that closer to the George Washington Bridge you can launch a raft right at the river's edge, with water lapping at your feet, as if you were Huck Finn.

We said there warn't no home like a raft, after all. Other places do seem so cramped up and smothery, but a raft don't. You feel mighty free and easy and comfortable on a raft.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Snow Day!!

But first, the Laff of the Day, from my therapist:

"He is a man with something seriously wrong with his personality."

She said this in earnest, but it made me laugh. Sometimes the truth stripped nekkid and lobbed back at you is hilarious.

And yes, I have managed to take another reluctant step towards becoming a New Yorker: I am now spending money I don't have for someone to listen to me talk about how a man with something seriously wrong with his personality did something seriously wrong to me.

I think the Laff of the Day is going to become a permanent fixture. Humor cures all sorts of things for me. That's why I still have a playlist on my iPod called "Comedy" that I made in Kenya, and I can quote Margaret Cho like a whiz. Yesterday I laughed for hours with a friend. And after that he paid for dinner. I haven't laughed that much since 2008. I know because I marked it in my calendar.

New York is being snowed in as I speak. I left work early, and lots of people didn't even bother to come in, including Super V. (For Visor). Snow muffles New York - and New Yorkers - until the whole city is soft and peaceful and empty. Like a zen monk.

I have snow pictures on my phone but my computer seems to have deleted the USB drivers so the photos are trapped for now.
Last Monday's Laff of the Day: Doctors standing outside the hospital smoking. But maybe that's called "irony." Or "depressing."

Monday, February 8, 2010

Bikes and Boobs

I get a pretty decent benefits package through my employer. That is one of the advantages of working for a mammoth institution, in addition to watching every agonizing detail of a grinding bureaucracy in motion.

One of the benefits I was most looking forward to while I was job hunting was an employer-sponsored health plan. The other, which I was looking forward to even more than health insurance, was a discounted gym membership.

Our corporate discount is not that much - about $13 dollars a month less than what the masses pay. As cheap as I am, and as wheezy-out-of-breathy as I am after coming up a flight of subway stairs, the discount wasn't a particularly inspiring reason to start working out again. But, the idea of resuming my arm-sculpting project was.

They're not much for a normal person. I have such skinny arms that when I was a kid my mom used to tell me they looked like they were about to fall off, and she'd get nervous if my uncles or cousins grabbed me by the wrists and swung me in circles, in case the centrifugal force snapped me apart at the shoulders and sent me flying, unarmed, into the bushes or something.

Only a few months ago, my brother kindly observed, "My God, your arms are so skinny."

Well, it turns out that skinny arms are partly the result of my body being kind enough not to store my fat in them. That honor is reserved for the Big Tummy. So, with no layer of fat to dilute the visual outcome of my efforts, I almost had no excuse not to develop a rock climbing obsession and pump free weights at the gym.

A few years later, permanently good lookin' arms. Except that they require maintenance.

I tried while I was unemployed and unbenefitted. It's hard to grow bigger, more sculpted muscles without weights. Pushups only gave me elbow problems. There is just no substitute for the variety and endless body-building possibilities of gym equipment. Also, there is something about standing in front of mirrors watching my veins pop out while I do bicep curls in that is not just encouraging, but encouraging of narcissism.

Reason #148 that New York is directly responsible for my limited happiness: It's very difficult to climb rocks, swim, or ride a bike 1. safely, 2. without stopping at every intersection, and 3. through beautiful terrain.

The gym doesn't solve the rock climbing or swimming problems, but I recently discovered that some of the locations I go to (because my membership allows me to go to any of their ridiculous scores of gyms around the five boroughs) have these stationary bike machines that are similar to video games. The screen simulates an outdoor bike ride - or race, if you choose - with different environments to choose from. I'm convinced that some of those routes are from Marin County, where I put hundreds on miles on my bike, back in the San Francisco glory days. Which is redundant, by the way. San Francisco = glory days.

Anyway, each bike machine has handlebars that move so you don't ride off the "road" and into the surrounding rolling hills and coastal cliffs. The screen shows other bikers (usually passing me) and you can catch up and pass them, or set a pacer. It's pretty realistic, except for the part when I tried to run over the biker in front of me. On screen, that person just disappears. In real life, that person jumps off his bike and beats you with his bike helmet.

The first time I used the machine, I got sucked into the landscape and completely forgot that I was in crappy depressing vapid New York City instead of coasting through the Marin Headlands, overtaking a really fit dude wearing a red and blue bike jersey. It was pretty crushing when I looked up and realized I was still surrounded by annoying urban drones clomping away on their cardio machines. The second time I used the machine, I actually got disoriented while I was being convinced that I was "flying down a hill," and had to look away from the screen to avoid falling off my bike. The downhills are the least realistic part of the whole virtual simulation, since it's hard to replicate the laws of gravity, but of course, downhills are the best part of biking.

Well, life's not perfect, and neither is cool gym equipment. But thanks to stationary bikes that act like video games, I can now suspend my intelligence long enough to pretend that Marin County biking has arrived on the east coast. I am in love.

And then, for the big question that has been plaguing me for weeks: Is there some sort of locker room etiquette about keeping your boobs covered that I've been unaware of for 35 years, or is there some weird New York "modesty" going on here? Isn't the locker room a place where women can freely change into and out of whatever articles of clothing or undergarments they need to?

I have seen this happen to the exclusion of nearly any other method of bra removal: A woman puts on her sports bra or tank top OVER her bra, then removes her bra without exposing her breasts. Or, after a shower, she clutches a towel over her breasts and slips her bra on under the towel, so as not to offend us with an accidental glimpse of her boobs.

Are we not all women here?? Is this some sort of ridiculous "courtesy" that only New York women observe, or have I not been paying attention to this boob etiquette all my life? I would love for someone to elucidate this for me. I seem to be the only person, besides the middle-aged obese woman who stopped caring about her saggers 20 years ago, who thinks it's okay to let other women see your boobs in the locker room.

Well, whatever the answer, the women at my gym are going to have to keep putting up with seeing my boobies. Suck it up, bitches.