Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The Clothes from Nowhere (from the diary of Meth Palin)

(from the secret internet diary of Meth Palin)

It happened again with the magic clothes. Wouldn’t you know? I tried to warn mom and dad that it might be witchcraft, but ever since mom made that speech in St. Paul she’s been saying she’s not really a member of our church. Anyway, we came back to our suite at the Motel 6 (Mom says that even if the sign outside says Hyatt or Hilton, it’s a Motel 6. Good ordinary Alaskans like us don’t stay in fancy hotels. I didn’t know that Motel 6’s had thirty two stories though. Things are really different in the lower 48). It was right after breakfast where mom made another one of those boring speeches about good Americans and bad Americans and how Barack blows up buildings with his neighbors and his Muslim minister. I wasn’t listening that carefully, just like most of the crowd (I understand. It's really hard for them to eat, breathe through their mouths and listen at the same time). Besides they had my favorite there, American toast. You take a piece of bread and dip it in egg then you cook it and put maple syrup on it, yum…

Anyways, you betcha, it happened again. We open the door and there’s a pair of red heels with matching jacket from mom’s thrift shop, just sitting there on the bed. Mom says, “Ooh Todd, isn’t that great more magic clothes. I guess I won’t have to take Trig down to the thrift shop with me again.”

Dad wasn’t paying much attention. He was looking over a big stack of personnel files from the State of Alaska. It’s part of his job as first dude to make sure the confidential state matters stay in the family between snowmobile races. Mom, though, really wants to get Dad’s attention. She winks at him like three times. Bristol’s looking out the window. She really misses being able to look out her bedroom window and being able to see Vladimir Putin’s giant head. Bristol’s not throwing up as much as she was a week ago. I think she’s either getting used to being pregnant or Levi’s actually started returning her text messages. Mom keeps talking though.

“Todd, did you see that Ted Stevens is saying that jury completely cleared him? Can you imagine the nerve of those Republican old boys who I took on?”

“You’re such a maverick dear.” Dad’s not been very nice to her ever since that National Enquirer thing about mom having the affair with the snowmobile salesman. He’s been threatening to start going to Alaska Independent Party meetings again.

“Mom, what’s so odd about that. Didn’t the Alaska State Legislature clear you too?”
At first, I’m sure that Willow’s going to get in trouble for mentioning that report, but mom and dad don’t seem to mind this morning. Mom still thinks she can appoint herself to the senate on November 5th, no one’s told her that they changed the rules after Frank Murkowski appointed his own daughter to his own senate seat. It probably doesn’t matter what Willow asks. No one in this family ever answers questions directly. Mom and dad say it’s better that way. It’s part of learning to be accountable.

“Sarah, did you look at the paper this morning?”

“Of course Dear, I read all of them everyday.”

“Then you saw the article about the magic clothes?”

“Todd, you know we don’t believe in magic. We only believe in God.”

“It says they spent a hundred and fifty thousand dollars in two months on clothes and makeup for you, me, the kids, and even Levi.”


“That boy who came to the convention with us.”

“Todd, can’t you see that I’m writing a speech. I’m going to accuse Obama and Bill Ayers of killing three members of Jennifer Hudson’s family?”
“Mom, that’s ridiculous.”

“How’s it ridiculous. Jennifer Hudson was on American Idol and Bill Ayers hates anything American and so does Obama. Obama worked many years on Chicago’s southside as a community organizer. You know that’s all but the same thing as being a serial killer.”

“Obama was in Hawaii visiting his very ill grandmother over the weekend.”
“I’m not saying that he’s the one who pulled the trigger. It was probably that Muslim Reverend of his who planned it in their church. How can America trust anyone who goes to a church with beliefs that are that extreme?”

“Mom, about those magic clothes that keep appearing in our room. How come they’re always exactly in our sizes? And even I notice that they have designer labels on the inside and come in garment bags from Nieman Marcus and places like that?”

“Meth, I’m so proud of you for being observant. Isn’t home schooling just the greatest education?”

“Meth, you know your mother has never shopped in places like that. She even drove to Anchorage to go to Costco to meet Ivana Trump once. Does that sound like someone who shops at Nieman Marcus? Anyway, I know personally that she used to go to Alaska Indpendent Party meetings with me just wearing a sheet over her head and it wasn’t even a designer sheet.”

“Children, as you all know I had no idea about any of this. It’s the McCain campaign that’s trying to set me up. You know they won’t even let me write my own speeches or talk to reporters on my own. No wonder America doesn’t know about the Obama connection to the Hudson murders yet. I’m just going to have to set America right, by telling them that I’m going to put all the clothes on E-Bay after the election and that I never went to any of those stores personally and I had a wardrobe assistant doing all that instead just like any regular hockey mom I just never thought to ask her where the stuff was coming from or how much it cost. See what all these years of executive experience have taught me .”

“Mom, is it true that you could have saved two or three real hockey moms from foreclosure with the hundred and fifty thousand dollars?”

“Willow, as nice as it sounds, we couldn’t do something like that. That would be socialism. Just because I only make a hundred and thirty thousand dollars a year doesn’t mean that I can’t spend a hundred and fifty thousand dollars on clothes in two months. Democrats wear designer clothes too.”

“But, it doesn’t show up in their campaign expense reports.”

“And just why do you think that is. It’s the sexist media.”

“Or maybe they pay for that stuff on their own instead of having their publicly financed campaign do it?”

“I just love my family to pieces, you betcha…”

Mom then picked up a rifle, opened the window, and started shooting at wolves on the streets of Arlington. Apparently, the liberal media covered up that story too. Anyway, I’m sure the magic clothes were the product of witchcraft. If mom loses her election, I know that’ll be the reason. After all, she was sent by God to save this country and everyone knows that the Virgin Mary had no clue that the three wise men had bought those gifts from Sax Fifth Avenue when they came riding in on dinosaurs.

I gotta go. Mom's making me make another fifty thousand robocalls tonight.

You Betcha,
Meth Palin

Meth Palin twenty two, is the secret child of Sarah and Todd Palin, though her father sometimes says he’s not so sure about the latter part. Her parents love her every bit as much as their five other children, but as advocates of abstinence they haven’t wanted to set a bad example by acknowledging publicly that they had a child out of wedlock before Track was conceived seven months before their wedding. In the meantime, Meth stays invisible except for her secret internet diary which is reproduced exclusively on this website.


Read more!

Monday, October 20, 2008

My Mother and Obama

I went to see my mother and stepfather the other day. For the last eight months, my mother has been rooting for a Barack Obama presidency. My stepfather is a lifelong Republican who still gets calls from the McCain campaign. If my mother gets to the phone first, she tells them that my stepfather has decided to vote Obama-Biden. While she was always reasonably tolerant, my mother grew up with a certain level of discomfort about black people. My parents believed in and supported Martin Luther King. They thought my mother’s brother Nelson, the family beatnik, was out of bounds in talking up Malcolm X, but they saw the Civil Rights movement in practical terms. It meant that Asians would benefit as well. They, however, drew the line at the dating and marriage thing. One time when I was about fifteen, before I dated anyone, I mentioned the possibility that I wouldn’t eliminate marrying someone just because she was black. My parents yelled at me for three hours and accused me of having someone in mind. Not that long ago, our older daughter brought home an African-American boyfriend and my mother kept questioning me about it. “Is she sure she wants to do this, it makes life harder? People don’t say this stuff to your face you know.”

In that context, my mother’s fervent support of Barack is pretty remarkable. In fact, the only other politicians she ever got excited about were John and Robert Kennedy. It seems to matter to her that Obama talks about the future. When I ask her what it is about the guy, she always says it’s his speeches. She longs for someone who can inspire the country.

My mother recently found out that I’d been going to Japanese restaurants and ordering Oyako Donburi. , a traditional dish of chicken, eggs, and onions served over rice. She then taught herself to make the dish for my next visit home. My stepfather’s Japanese so he’s rather liked this. He talks about his mother made it many years ago. I never met my stepfather’s mother, but I always think of the elderly woman with the severely bent back who used to come to family gatherings as his mother (she was actually his former mother in law). In the meantime, my wife (who isn’t Asian) and I seem to have settled on making Indian food our home cuisine on those rare occasions when we cook together. Last week, it was okrah with chopped tomatoes, eggplant with coriander, and aloo gobi.

I wound up sitting at dinner with my mother suddenly turned Japanese talking about how hard it actually is to make Donburi properly. For an everyday dish, it sure looked it. My stepfather talked about how they used to have a simplified version for breakfast and every now and then my mother would insist on breaking off bits of dried seaweed on top of our bowls and offering us some sort of fish sauce that seemed to be part of her version of the dish as the rice started to outlast whatever mixture went on top. In between, I looked at all the realtors signs piled up in her backyard. Mom has a thing about realtors using her corner for their open house signs. If they don’t ask permission, she grabs the sign and sticks it in her yard. While I kind of agree with her, I do worry that if we ever have to sell her house that all the local real estate agents will boycott open houses.

Whenever the conversation would stop, I realized that I could always bring up Obama and get my mother talking. To be accurate, I’m the one who doesn’t talk much. Mom’s current fear is her version of the Bradley effect. She insists that some people tell her that they just won’t vote for a black man for president. I just respond, “Well, it’s looking pretty good so far, but you never know.”

Just after dinner, CNN broadcasted the Al Smith Dinner speeches the day after the debate. Mom and my stepdad headed out the their 42” plasma television and watched as John McCain made funny. Mom’s first comment was, “Wow, this was a John McCain, I could have voted for.” She went on to mention that he seemed genuinely humble, generous in his praise of Obama, and suddenly a lot less mean than he’d been in the debate on Wednesday night. Bill Maher was doing commentary for Larry King, so I had to explain who Bill Maher was a couple times. Obama was equally funny and it struck me that instead of doing three straight debates where the two candidates repeat the same talking points, maybe they should do at least one that just happens to be a “roast”. In a saner place, it would make sense to make sure that we have leaders with some kind of perspective. The only awkward moment seemed to be when John McCain suggested that Hillary Clinton was secretly rooting for him. The camera cut to Hillary and she was laughing, but it felt like one of those reminders that Senator McCain really doesn’t realize how far “right” he’s swung his campaign and what’s that meant for the people who once actually liked the guy, ( that’s the people who didn’t read that article in the Rolling Stone).

My mom was born in 1930 and she’s now 78 years old. I often forget that she grew up in a pretty bleak time (FDR fireside chats) both nationally and for San Francisco Chinatown( where her family lived) . These are better times than that, but every day the news lately has had all these reminders that we might be headed back there. As I grew up, I was lucky to have parents who insisted that I get the best possible opportunities. Part of that was that I went to private schools and went away for high school so that I’d get chances I wouldn’t have had just staying in Sacramento. Where Obama went to Punahou, Occidental, Columbia, and Harvard Law School, my own education consisted of different schools but a remarkably similar trajectory. We even both spent some time doing community work. In fact, I had a tie to the Annenberg initiative as a foot soldier. It was part of a family belief that you got these opportunities to help not just yourself but those around you. We’ve never talked about it, but my mom probably sees Obama’s family as having imbued him with the same respect for education and community service that she encouraged in her own family (my mom had 2 years of college herself and is generous on a personal level, but not in any organized form). The “race” thing has stopped mattering for her. I think she likes to think the best thing about her country is that lives like Obama’s are possible and even preferable to the generational privilege of McCain-Bush and that we have a chance to affirm that in November.


Read more!

Monday, October 13, 2008

The Mysteries of Soda Machines

I was at lunch at Quizno’s the other day and asked for water. The lady behind the counter handed me a Styrofoam cup and directed me to the self-serve soda machine. If you’re not American, that’s a three-foot wide selection of either Coca-Cola or Pepsi products from a machine that mixes syrup with carbonated water from different brightly-colored taps. Customers are on the honor system. Even if they sell you your self-serve drink in regular, large, extra large increments, it’s up to you to let them know that you decided to hit the machine for a refill. Most places don’t care, some occasionally post a “refill-charge”, and others just let you know that it’s all you can slurp.

While the stuff that comes out of the spouts emerges in different colors, I’m not convinced that the flavors are actually different. Would a blind taste test find Coca-Cola to be all that different from Root-beer, Sprite, or Orange Soda. It’s all cold, it’s carbonated, it’s really really sweet. The machines also have a habit of running out of syrup before they run out of carbonated water. Oh and there’s this weird business with the ice. I’m convinced those machines have settings where you either get a miniscule amount of ice or so much that you could personally end any concerns about global warming. In the end, you get something that resembles say Pepsi from a bottle or Pepsi from a can (I’m convinced that Pepsi in a bottle still tastes much better than the canned variety while Coke in a bottle doesn’t taste that different from Coke in a can) , but it’s not nearly as satisfying. After years of this, I’ve gotten to a point where I look at the color of the mixture coming out of the spout and usually have a pretty good idea of how far off the mix of syrup and carbonated will be from the bottled version.

So, I’m waiting to get water from the machine. I don’t much like doing this. They usually have a little button for water set in the lower corner of whatever the non-carbonated beverage (as in who would drink water when they can fill their intestines with sugary syrup?) happens to be, say pink lemonade or fruit punch. Most of the time there’s syrup residue in the mix line so you get something that vaguely pink instead of clear and you also pick up a hint of lemonade smell, not necessarily a bad thing if you like fake lemonade. Sometimes though, it smells and looks like very diluted cough medicine.

The woman in front of me was the width of the machine. The top of her head came up to the labels identifying the different concoctions on the soda machine. She fiddled with the Dr. Pepper dispenser (Pepsi products here) and it started spitting some sort of bubbly white fluid into her extra large Quizno’s cup.

Was this one of those people who puts the ice in first or does she wait until after she’s gotten her fluid of choice? I couldn’t tell, to be honest. This was, however, one of those people who sees someone waiting patiently at the soda machine and doesn’t care if you’re waiting- she wanted her god damned Doctor Pepper even if whatever was coming out of that spout was more like essence of Doctor Pepper. So I waited for her to fill a 36 ounce cup with intermittent splashes of tan bubbles. For those of you from other planets, Dr. Pepper is a dark caramel on the prune-juice side of cola-colored. This process took maybe a quarter of my allotted lunch break. I stood there all too patient, unwilling to say “What are you stupid, Lady? Taste the sludge at the bottom of your cup…it’s not going to taste like Dr. Pepper. It’s not even fake Mr. Pibb….It’s lightly colored syrup free carbonated water. It’s not going to get any better just because you fill up that giant cup of unneeded calories. I stood there and was getting angrier and angrier at this complete stranger, well we were about to share fluids of some sort but not in the sense the Center for Disease Control talks about it.

Finally, she took a taste….made a face, then slowly poured it out through the center grate of the machine which has a hole big enough for the ice cubes to fall through. Next, to my complete horror, she started the process over again…Surely the state of California must permit killing people for soda machine idiocy? Thankfully, she didn’t fill this cup to the top, but takes a taste at about a quarter of the way full, dumps, that out, then poured herself the slowest draught of Pepsi I’d ever seen. Who the hell takes five minutes to fill a cup from a soda machine? But…but, we still weren’t done. She then decided she needed a lid and a straw which were kept right next to the soda machine. How do you take thirty seconds to decide between a pile of identical paper-wrapped straws from Quizno’s.

I‘m pretty sure she saw me waiting and decided to make me suffer. She gave me this sidelong glance as she finall got out of the way. I must have some sort of “tell” like in poker only in this case it was with Dr. Pepper.

I came home and told Mrs. Chancelucky my story and she asked “Why didn’t you just ask her if you could quickly get your water? You didn’t have to yell at her or get mad? There’s more than two choices you know.”

I couldn’t answer her question. I was way too busy having this fantasy about “Soda” rage, second cousin of road rage. My pouring out like 48 ounces of orange soda over the unsuspecting woman’s head while she sat over her bag of chips, the large sub for just five dollars, and her carefully drawn draught of Pepsi. The only thing stopping me was my whispering top myself “What would Jared do?”

Just because the stock market lost 15 trillion dollars or whatever....I don't have to turn it into a demonstration of "trickle down" economics.


Read more!

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

What No One Says in the Debates

For the last couple weeks, I've been wondering what actual straight talk would look like. Here's a handful of items that no one will say in a national debate.

If you add up the cost of the bank bail out, 700 billion dollars (it's really closer to a trillion. It's more than that if you throw in things like AIG, Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, etc. that everyone seems to forget we already did), the cost of the war, this whole notion that we're going to add forces in Afghanistan and maybe Pakistan...On top of that we're going to spend the funds to stop Russia from taking Georgia, the Ukraine, etc. I'm sorry, I just don't see how any sane person can suggest that all these things are possible and still promise to reduce everyone's taxes.

If nine people are coming at you and your gun has six bullets in it, you're not going to stop them all. So gosh, you betcha, would somebody please do the math? Anyone who's ever been moose hunting would know that. If we're running a deficit this big and we supposedly can't afford to provide health insurance for every child in America (not all that expensive actually), then we can't pay for the bailout, stay in Iraq, and reduce taxes and government revenues at the same time. Smile at camera, wink, How's that for talking about the future.

Okay, somebody needs to mention that Israel has nuclear weapons of its own. You want disarmament in the Middle East, it might start with having the Israelis give up theirs and maybe some of their neighbors won't want them so badly. Why do they always make Israel sound so helpless? I’ve never really gotten that impression. I’m all for preventing a second holocaust as well, but I’d like to hear someone say in a national debate, “In this particular instance, Israel is wrong and holding back the peace process.”

This year’s addition to the things you can’t say is this bit about Russia attacking Georgia. Actually, the whole thing is complicated but every source I’ve seen says that the most recent war started when Georgia attacked South Ossetya. In fact, that’s part of what makes the whole thing complicated. This seems to be the 2008 version of Saddam was involved in 9/11.

Would someone please let Sarah Palin know that the only war that John McCain participated in, we actually lost. In fact, Senator McCain spent most of his duty time as a prisoner of war in that conflict. I admire the fact that he survived his captivity, but it’s not proof that the guy knows how to win a war.

It’s also more than okay with me for someone to mention that the surge in Iraq isn’t working. Yes, the level of violence in Iraq dropped, but here are some facts. Several months after the surge was supposed to have done its job, the US still has more troops in Iraq than it did prior to the surge. In fact, the Pentagon’s most recent recommendation for a draw down of troops after the election is so modest that if you looked at pre-surge promises and that relatively modest draw down, you’d have to come to the conclusion that it didn’t work.

There’s also the matter of cause and effect. According to Bob Woodward, it wasn’t the surge that reduced the violence it was a black ops style tactic of assassinating insurgent leaders. If that sounds vaguely like terrorism, it is. Since World War 2, the US has a rather long history of trying to assassinate foreign leaders and other individuals considered roadblocks to democracy. It’s actually surprisingly well documented. Look up Lumumba, Diem, or Castro (those attempts didn’t work). Second, a fair amount of ethnic cleansing had already taken place so there were fewer folk living in mixed neighborhoods who could kill one another. Third, someone needs to mention that we started paying the insurgents. I know we’re not supposed to pay off terrorists, just like you never trade arms for hostages, but that’s part of the picture.

Here’s the big one. If you go back to the policy discussion prior to the surge, it wasn’t conceived as a purely military exercise. The idea was to use the extra troops to create enough stability for the various factions in Iraq to work out the agreements necessary to make an effective coalition government possible. You may note that every time they talk about those key agreements that should already have happened, they’re still just about to happen. We were supposed to say, “Get this done or we pull out by date X.”

In the meantime, you’ll see references to all this political progress on the horizon but one reason they don’t want to draw down to pre-surge levels yet….The surge can’t be said to have worked unless the political end of the proposition happens. The level of violence could have dropped to zero (it hasn’t) and the surge will be a failure if the Iraqis don’t make the necessary political accommodations.

I know that non one’s ever going to say this, but Bill Ayers is not a bad guy. I can’t say that I knew him, other than to maybe shake hands once, but I had some involvement with the Annenberg Education Initiative (went to at least 2 meetings) and there was no discussion of politics at the meetings. The one meeting I remember well was post –Obama’s involvement. No, I don’t agree with the weather underground’s tactics either, but it was also almost forty years ago. For at least the last twenty years, Bill Ayers was constructively engaged in public school reform in and around Chicago. I think it’s admirable and I’d certainly shake hands with the guy and thank him for his efforts in that area.

For some odd reason, no one’s going to mention “conservation” in the form of Americans changing their lifestyles and the way we plan our cities as a significant route to energy independence. Just do the math for a working couple who both live 15 miles from work or try to talk about making downtowns an automobile free zone or keeping houses at 76 degrees or higher in summer or 67 degrees or lower in winter. At the same time, little is said about how far off some alternative energy solutions are right now. Methanol, fuel cells, solar, wind, electric cars are all terrific ideas, but ask someone some time how many charge cycles you can get out of a nickel metal hybride battery or how batteries perform in a very cold winter or a very hot summer or talk about transmission losses for a solar collector in a desert a hundred miles from a major city. There’s a bunch of work to be done and the US is behind the rest of the industrialized world. While you’re at it, ask how many people in Korea have broadband and how fast their internet connections are compared to the US?

Here’s another one for you…All this talk about dwindling resources in the world and the possible effect of human activity on global warming….Why can’t anyone say birth control and family planning?

I should probably end with a bit of good news that no one’s talking about. You remember all those worries about illegal immigration? Apparently, illegal immigration has dropped off dramatically in the last two years. It turns out that the ultimate way to control the border is a technique called foreclosure and bankruptcy. We often forget that illegal immigration is a good problem to have in its way. It means more people want to be here than there are people looking to leave.

There’s a part of me that certainly understand the politics of some of these debate taboos, but how can we seriously face some of this stuff if we don’t talk about them with some semblance of honesty?

Nice NY Times article on the origin of Maverick


Read more!

Thursday, October 02, 2008

The Amnesia Academy (fiction)

I wait for the bus at the outfield fringe of my two man baseball field, also known as the corner in front of my house. On weekends, I play here until sundown with my best friend Jeff from my day school, a private school on the other side of Sacramento. The neighbor kids come up and ask, “Lucky, where are you going? Why do you get on a Greyhound bus every evening we see you here? What’s inside that box? “
I have a cigar box pressed between my arm and my side. "Nothing I tell them, nothing's inside. I'm not going anywhere." Am I talking about the box or something else?

After kindergarten I started going to the private school twelve miles on the other side of town, so each year the neighbors know less and less about me.
"Where are you going?” they ask their question again.
"School" I whisper.
"At night?"
"Private school."
I imply that it's the same school that I go to during the day, the one with all the doctors' children who belong to the golf club with the guard at the front gate. They hang out there on Wednesday afternoons as their fathers make deals to re-develop Sacramento while choosing between the three wood and the two iron and their mothers plan charity events between hands of bridge. The truth is that no one at my daytime school, even Jeff Feinstein, knows that I go to this second school.
"Boy, I'd never go to school at night,” says Gary Allen, the last neighbor who still plays with me.
“It’s a really hard school, like three years ahead. We do algebra in fifth grade and learn Latin.”
“Just show them what’s in the box and they’ll leave you alone,” Gary whispers.
I figure this is about as good a deal as I’m going to get.
“Cigars,” I tell them, “What else would anyone keep in a cigar box?”
My box is covered in shiny paper with gold edging. My dad kept these cigars for four years. The right top has a picture of Trujillo, the president of the Dominican, the country that makes the best cigars still available in the United States now that Cuba has fallen off the map. My father explained the difference to me once: Castro is a dictator and Trujillo was a president for life. The middle is a picture of a woman who is alleged to be the mother of all Dominicans. I heard my father once explain to someone at the restaurant that she’s one of Trujillo’s mistresses. “Her father was foolish enough to let his daughter represent the Dominican Republic in the Miss Universe pageant.”

I find this very exciting so I remember it.
“They let us have them since we have to go to school at night.”
"Can I have one?"
"Not this time."
"You don't really have cigars in there."
The neighbor kids get on their bikes to play some sort of racing game. They have baseball cards pressed against the spokes with clothespins. If you listen a certain way, it makes your bike sound like a motorcycle.
I reach inside without completely opening the cigar box and pull out an empty tube, “See.”
"Let’s see you smoke it?"
"Well I don't really smoke myself. I just bring them to trade for stuff."
"What stuff?"
I close up my box, clutch it even tighter to my side. These are the items in my cigar box they must not see- comic-book style primers from the Chinese Nationalist press with their Koumintang party seal, the Chinese calligraphy books, the party youth membership card they gave us, the jar of black ink, and the bamboo brushes. Any one of these items will give away the fact that my night school isn’t just some regular private school. We are expected to bring each of these items every night we go to school or we get in trouble.

Dad gets me the cigar boxes from Grandfather's last liquor store. He gives me the boxes and tubes after he finishes smoking the cigars. The best ones are glass and look like test tubes, but I don’t take those to Chinese School. I keep my brushes in a cedar-lined aluminum tube that I’ve painted to look like a fifty caliber machine gun bullet.
“Stuff". The air pushes through my teeth as I say it.
I welcome the rumble of the bus. I won't have to tell any more about my night school at least not for another week when if I am lucky I will find a way to get out of having to do this. Even if I hadn't had to give up two months of little league to do so, I would do absolutely anything to get out of going to Chinese school in Paperson. As the folding door at the front of the bus whooshes open, I know that the neighbor kids will see nothing through its dark-glazed windows. The Chinese school bus isn’t yellow. Actually, they don't use school busses at all. The school hires moonlighting Greyhound drivers and mechanics. They have a deal where the drivers sneak the landcruisers out of the yard and say they were just testing the vehicles for mechanical problems. The money they get paid for these excursions comes right back to my grandfather anyway. My grandfather’s gambling house is the only business open in Paperson on weeknights. There’s a diner out front where the bus driver first gets a free meal then notices that customers keep going to the bathroom without ever coming back into the dining room.

Once inside the Greyhound landcruiser, I leave the neighbor kids behind to further wonder about the mystery of my destination. It's like getting into a spaceship. I look for an empty row near the middle. If someone sits next to me I do my best not to talk to him. Girls never sit with boys unless the driver makes them. My stop's one of the first, because we live the furthest from Paperson. There are only three or four other kids, dressed like me, jeans, sneakers, colored t-shirts, the girls wear pants or short dresses. By the middle of the ride the clothes change, there are more kids in the public apartments at the edge of what’s left of Sacramento Chinatown. Near the end, the kids who get on the bus have noticeable Chinese accents. I’m not sure why they have to go to Chinese school, shouldn’t they be learning English instead? Apparently, they go there to work on something called “Citizenship” instead of language, though most of them don’t know any more written Chinese than we do.

The Fresh off the Boats are the toughest. These boys crowd together in the back and sneak cigarettes and talk about fast cars in Chinese interspersed with English words like hemi, four-barrel, and “gottamatch” (which they say as if were a single word). They comb their hair straight back, wear cotton pants, and rolled up t-shirts. I only went back there a couple times.
Once, I was reading the latest car magazine, all color photographs and graphs of road tests. One of the FOB boys, one I hadn't seen before, sat down next to me. I had watched them pass old dated copies of the same magazines, though these looked like they'd come from barber shops or the offices of gas stations. He pulled out his own copy, thumb prints all over the front page, pages ripped out, mustaches drawn on the models in the advertisements. After a few minutes, I noticed that he kept eyeing my magazine.
"You want to take a look?"
He grabbed it from me then pointed to a dragster engine, all chrome, and huge manifolds and pipes.
"Wow" he kept saying “That’s cool.” For some reason he could say that one phrase just like Ed Kookie Burns from 77 Sunset Strip.
I preferred the fancy sports cars, the ones with Italian names and impossibly high price list prices.
"Pretty fast” he whispered while I wondered if he was reading the numbers printed in the road tests or the swirling dust airbrushed into the photo.
Moments later, he offered me a copy of one of his magazines. I flipped through it as quickly as possible while through the corner of my eye I saw the lazy pleasure he took from the glossiness of the pages of mine and I felt jealous and disdainful all at once. A few minutes from Paperson he started to return my copy of Car and Driver.
"Keep it" I whispered.
He shook his head.
"No really," I said, "I've already read it."
He smiled, nodded his head.
"Here, you take mine..." he offered "trade."
I looked at the dog eared faded magazine rolled in his hands.
"No, thanks."
"We trade," he repeated.
"No, no, you can have it."
Something in our brief exchange had turned the wrong way. He made a spitting sound through his teeth, stuck his own magazine in his back pocket, and pushed my own back at me. When the bus stopped, he got out without looking at me. I left my issue of Car and Driver with the Maserati Ghibli cover on the seat next to me. I found his on top of a garbage can just in front of the steps to the school.

After that, I read other sorts of things on the bus, sports biographies, stories about hard work and determination as told to the same three men. All had names that sounded nothing like sports hero names, Shapiro, Hano, Stambler. Sometimes, the other American-born kids would bring comic books, and we'd trade. That's what ruined it. One of the Chinese School teachers declared that the Chinese school was the place to learn and speak Chinese- no American reading allowed, even on the school bus. I even tried to bring my homework from regular school. I actually liked doing homework on the bus and at recess, it made me feel safe. If I kept repeating algebra problems to myself, I wouldn't grow a Chinese accent. I wouldn't start rolling up my t-shirts, slicking back my hair, and I wouldn’t start trying to say “Cool” just like some guy on a TV show that no one else watched anymore.
My parents want me to make friends at school. "Don't worry about learning Chinese there. Do your schoolwork, what they tell you, but the important thing is for you to make some Chinese friends, be with your own people."
I get home and they ask me if I played with anyone. I shake my head. How do I explain that the older kids hog all the good walls to throw balls against and jam the basketball courts? Most of the time, I stand in the schoolyard and watch, keeping score of the other kids’ games in my head, wondering how Arnold Hano would describe it, "He started pitching at the Chinese school in the evenings, striking out fifteen hitters in six innings. Even there they could see that he was destined for bigger things."
Once in a while someone comes up to me and asks, "Where you go to school?"
I tell them the name of my private school and they scrunch up their faces and walk away. They've never heard of it. They tell me where they go. All the public schools in Sacramento are named for people like Sam Brannan and John Fremont, white people who claim to have discovered the state or the “Americans” who profiteered during the gold rush.
They say the names quickly. I know the next step. You are supposed to ask who they know that you know, only I don't know anybody they know. I say the names of the kids I play little league with. But the Chinese school kids only seem to know other Chinese kids. “ Where is this school you go?”
“ It's a private school.”
"You must be rich."
"No, we're not, really."
"Then where do you get the money to go private school."
"Well they have scholarships sometimes." I suggest that I have one.
"Then, you must be smart."
Somehow, I never think to lie about private school. I want them to know that I'm different and that I don't belong inside the cinderblock walls of the Chinese School.
When I first found out that I had to go to the Chinese School, I insisted that my parents give me one good reason why.
"Because..." they told me.
"Because of what?"
"Because it's part of who you are."
Every evening that I am here, I look around and ask myself the question, "How is this me?"
In class we recite from textbooks printed on paper that looks like comic books. Memory is everything here, understanding nothing. The seal of the Chinese Nationalist press is stamped on the back. On the front, pictures of modern office buildings and automobiles compete with smile faced children. Underneath the picture, the Chinese characters say “nation of the future”, at least that's what they tell us. Inside, the children in the pictures wear suspenders, shorts, and white pressed shirts with buttons and collars. The girls wear plaid skirts and sweaters. Fathers and older brothers carry briefcases to match their blue business suits and mothers always seem to wear aprons. There are no pictures of peasants in coolie hats or scholars wearing black cloth derbies. Instead, farmers drive shiny tractors and scientists wear lab smocks. China, this China, is or at least it will be a modern country, every bit as rich as America, though they never make that comparison directly.

We also spend part of each day reading from a book about Sun Yat Sen, how the Chinese revolution of 1911 was like the American revolution, and about how the Chinese communists are vicious bandits. If you say Mao’s name, you get in trouble immediately.

The rest of the school time we recite words from the text. We learn the different words for members of the family, the words for study, brushing teeth, washing your face. There are two different words for grandfather, one for your father’s father and one for your mother’s mother. There are separate words for older and younger brother. It was confusing that for two weeks I thought chat-chat (brushing teeth) and sai-sai (washing face) were yet more members of the family who only live in the bathroom.

There is no word for play at least no single word. They had to come up with an ideogram which meant something like "not-studying". We are supposed to recite the words in unison, as we recite the teacher walks around the room, making sure that we are saying them and not just moving our lips along with everyone else.

The first few weeks, my mother tried to help with my recitation as I struggled with the tones. I had no ear for my own language. One day she got frustrated and asked, "Your memory in your other school is so good. Why do you have so much trouble with this?"
“I don’t want you to help me anymore, “ I told her.
In my regular school, the parents sometimes whisper about the kids with the learning disabilities who clog up the public schools and keep the smart ones from making the kind of progress they should. In American school, I’m clearly not one of those kids. In Chinese school, I’m not so sure. Everyone else seems to recite much better than I do. Everyone else keeps their brush marks inside the lines when they write their names or the characters for Dr. Sun’s three people’s principles.
“Lucky, it’s okay. We just want you to try. It might not come easily for you at first.”
Now, sometimes I know the words, other times I mumble them. You don't want to be caught by the teacher, he pulls you aside and makes you say the phrase three times perfectly in front of everyone else. If you start giggling from nervousness, he hits the tips of your fingers with a ruler. I know that it is just a matter of time before I get caught forgetting. If it doesn't happen when my turn comes in recital, I know it is unavoidable in calligraphy. Even when we just trace, the lines of the Chinese characters tumble around for me. Once caught, everyone is treated exactly the same. "You are an embarrassment," he announces to the class then he makes you face your desk backwards. For some odd reason, this hasn’t happened to me. My turn somehow never comes.
A few months into Chinese School, I asked my parents for a better reason why I had to go.
"Your Grandfather built the school. He raised the funds," they told me.
"So, how would it look if his own grandson didn't go there? You can't look at everything just your own way. You have to think about others sometimes. Think about your grandparents."
"But Yeh-Yeh never went to school, he says so himself."
"You get to go to two schools. Isn’t that great? Your grandfather wanted to make sure you and all the other Chinese children here not only get the chance he didn’t get, but twice what American kids get."
"But it's so boring. Sometimes it’s scary," I felt the tips of my fingers burn as I said it.
"Some things..." my father said, "You just have to do."
I wonder what my Grandfather will think when he finds out that his grandson is retarded in Chinese.
Then one day it all changes when a blue chalk drawing of the Chinese Communist flag, a star flanked by a sickle of four smaller stars, appears on the blackboard after a rainy day recess. Some of the class giggles. Others click their tongues.

When the teacher comes in, we turn silent as we wait for him to notice. It’s clear that no one’s going to tell him. For a few moments Sin San teaches the class the words for brushing teeth, washing your face, then on to the different members of the family. We’ve reviewed this same lesson for four weeks now.
He stops. He wants us to be louder, less tentative. He turns away from us and towards the board to show his disappointment. Sin San take the big eraser and takes a violent swipe at the flag drawing. Someone giggles nervously. Then just as suddenly he turns, What's wrong with you children?"
Only he says it in Chinese and it just happens to be one of the few phrases I do know. He reverts to his thickly-accented English, "This very bad…I want who did this come forward. The rest of you I want to put their heads on the desk."
No one confesses. He begins to walk down the aisle stopping at each desk "Did you do this?"
Each time he asks the question, he watches everyone else’s reactions. He comes to my desk, "Did you do it?"
I don’t dare look at him out of fear that he’ll see the wrong thing in my face. I rub my fingertips with my thumbs. Before I get a chance to answer, he sends me outside.
“But!” I mutter. I am trembling as I fight to hold back tears.
"Go in hallway now."
His hands crack together as he moves to the next row. I first make sure that I grab my cigar box before I go to slump against the cold blue cinderblocks of the hallway. What has Sin San figured out already? I would normally never touch the linoleum floors with my hands- the FOBS spit in the hallways sometimes. I slip my fingers beneath my thighs to keep them still. Will the principal come for me? Will they send the police?

But just before I break down, a girl joins me in the hall, second later it’s another girl whose clothes come from Macy’s, a boy smaller even more timid than I follows, until at least a third of the class lines up in the hallway. If Sin San is sorting suspects from non-suspects, I’m with the safe group.

We don’t speak to one other at first, until the boy turns to me, "What's going on?"
"I don't think we're in trouble,” someone whispers back.
We can already hear Sin San yelling at the FOB kids.
"Why's he so upset?"
"It's the Communist flag. Don’t you know anything?"
“But it’s just a flag.”
The boy next to me, Jerry Jang, continues, "So it's a Communist flag. You think they’re really any worse?”
No one answers. Uncle Nelson, my mother’s beatnik brother who makes me call him by his first name, says that sort of thing from time to time, but never in front of people he doesn’t know. Over the summer, there was a Taiwanese student who worked as a bus boy at my Dad’s restaurant, he said things like that every now and then. He disappeared one Friday and never picked up his paycheck. They sent it to his mother’s address in Taipei and it came back. The kids in the hallway stare at Jerry.

Eventually one of the Chinese born boys comes out into the hallway and motions us back in. Sin San stands next to his desk. Two of the FOBs rub the board with a felt eraser that’s longer than their forearms. An old woman who apparently entered through the room’s other door (it’s next to the blackboard and Sin San has the only key though once I saw him hit the door latch a certain way one time when he locked himself out at recess) lectures the class about her life, "Mao killed my family, slit their throats, then hung their headless bodies from a tree. The heads they fed to the pigs. Until I escaped three years later they made me feed and clean after those same pigs."

Another man comes in minutes laters, "The communists they keep everything for themselves, they say it's all going to be equal, but you see they get rich. There's no such thing as everything shared."
Where did these people come from on such short notice? Is there some sort of anti-communist SWAT team in Paperson?

We listen in silence. When the two finish, it’s not clear to us if we’re supposed to applaud or just sit there. When the next recess bell rings, no one dares to rush the door the way we normally do. Behind the speakers, the Communist flag, erased thirty times over, refuses to fade off the board. First, the teacher tries paper towels, a wet sponge, heavier erasers. All night they scrub, cover it over with chalk, scrub again. Still
the outline of the communist flag defies the resources of Paperson’s Chinese School. During the day, weeks later, the school even hires a chemist to analyze the offending chalk marks. After the first week, a Nationalist flag hangs over that section of the chalkboard, but somehow, we can still see the communist stars. When the light is just right, it penetrates the single white star of the Nationalist flag. At the end of the next month, they replace the entire chalk board and fix the lock to the second door.

At recess one day, I see one of the girls head up to the third floor towards the principal’s office. I see the principal walking into the gym with the girl, she points at Jerry Jang. After recess Jerry disappears. He must have left in a hurry. His textbooks stay stacked in a neat pile on top of his cigar box. Sin San says nothing about why Jerry’s desk sits empty.

The next week I overhear a group of girls whisper, "His family supports the Communists. They even get the People’s Daily, a big picture of Mao every week right in the mail."
The others know this is something bad, but it’s not completely clear why. "They might even be arrested…..or deported.”
The second word is far scarier.
For some odd reason I interrupt, "You can't get arrested for that here. We have free speech."
"How do you know?"
“They tell us so in American school, at least at my American school.”
"You can be deported for being a communist. My ma told me so. It’s not just just the Americans, it’s the law in Taiwan too."
I lean against the rough cinderblock wall. Boys don't normally talk to girls at the Chinese school just like the American school. I don’t really want to talk to them about the Bill of Rights, I want to tell them that Jerry Jang is innocent whether or not his parents are communist sympathizers. I want to tell someone that I know who drew the flag.
After Jerry’s expulsion from the Chinese school, a strange thing happens. Parents who know the Jangs start telling one another that the Paperson Chinese school is too political. “Learning Chinese is good, but all this indoctrination is too much for young kids. American kids say things sometimes, they just don’t know better.”
Fewer American-born kids get on the bus each week. One day at the zoo, I see Jerry Jang with a cub scout pack. He has lots of friends. He never talked much at Chinese school, here he’s one of the loudest. He looks right at me at one point, but we don’t acknowledge one another.

Weeks later, I tell my parents I’m worried about my classes in regular school. I don’t have time for both. How can I go to Princeton if I can’t concentrate more on my grades at the school they’ll care about there?
My parents look at one another. “Lucky, you tried to make friends at the Chinese school?”
I lie and say “Of course.”
Two weeks in a row, I pretend to have a fever or insist that I have a term paper for regular school.
"What are we going to tell your yeah-yeah?" My mother asks.
"Tell him that I'm afraid that I can't devote the time to do well enough there to make him proud. I don't want to embarrass him further," I reply.
“Can you tell him that yourself.” I shake my head and begin crying.
My parents are touched because I’m so afraid to hurt my grandfather’s feelings.
"Say it again," Dad says. "So I can tell him. We can think about it over the summer.”

By the next school year, before my parents could talk me into going back, the Chinese School in Paperson closed for a lack of students. I remember none of the words I recited all those nights at the amnesia academy, the place that tried to make me remember all the time. I lost the brush and ink, the comic book paper texts from the Nationalist Children’s Press. For years, I couldn't even remember the face, the voice, of the boy next to me, just the empty desk, the sound of screaming at recess, Sin San’s blue suit with its Koumintang party pin, and the blackboard drawing of the communist flag. I have no idea why, but I still had the chalk inside one of my aluminum cigar tubes. I still felt the blackboard rub against my knuckles as the chalk pressed like a nail into the flesh of my palm.

Read more!