Taiwan Journal: Taipei Dog and Fountain Girl

July 19, 1989 – Taipei, Taiwan, ROC

Today, I witnessed two events of the first importance. Both were viewed from public buses. The first was religious in nature, the second more artistic.

Sometime after noon, I was riding in the left rearmost seat of the 0-East. After crossing the Fudan Bridge, I noticed a medium-sized, white Taipei dog in the middle of Dunhua South Road, stealthily negotiating its way across the street by edging up on left-turning traffic. It seemed to advance with the same stamina and alertness as most human pedestrians, but alas it ignored the possibility (as we all do) of an unexpected minor pulse in the metallic river of traffic. A taxicab swung out to the left a little bit farther than the other cars. It sideswiped the dog, which shrieked as though it were going to be for the last time.

Actually, I cannot say for certain, but it seemed as though the scream of despair, coming so suddenly and unexpectedly during the course of the dog’s intrepid crossing, filled the entire amphitheater of the intersection, echoing off the steel walls of the surrounding office buildings, penetrating to me in my mobile box seat. As I remember it now, I sensed a death cry but did not necessarily hear the dog itself; either the dog cried loud enough for everyone in the intersection to hear, or everyone in the intersection cried loud enough for me to feel.

At any rate, the dog was brushed aside from its destiny by the hubcaps and body of the taxicab. So with the scream still hanging in the air, the cab had passed; the dog regained its footing and went on about its business as though absolutely nothing had happened.

 

July 20, 1989 – Neil Armstrong

Later in the day, I found myself looking out the window of the 15 as it crawled eastbound on Heping Rd. I glanced up to see a 10 year old girl throwing up in the shade of the Science Exhibition Building. A fine, consistent arc of liquid, yellow as desert sand, took an astonishingly long amount of time to span its way to the ground. The flow remained constant for at least five seconds. It was like a fountain: the stream of vomitus, if stretched into a straight line, would have been taller than the girl.

She was standing, as I said, under the eaves of the Science Exhibition Building, throwing up on the marble tile that covers that part of the ground. She might just as easily have stepped one yard out and onto the common red square brick of the Taipei sidewalk (but then again, that option might have inconvenienced pedestrian movement). Her younger brother, standing beside her, seemed indifferent to the display. He absently looked toward the entrance of the building, apparently seeking for someone (perhaps the individual charged with cleaning the abovementioned and well-chosen tile) to arrive on the scene and assume responsibility.

A few fellow spectators on the bus appeared also to be silently appreciating the vignette. They watched with a certain detachment , the realization that they weren’t embarrassed yielding a type of childlike wonder, a relief that such marvels still exist to chase away the tedium of a long day.

On the Difficulties of Translating Chinese Poetry

I once gave a talk as part of a ‘Lost in Translation’ series on rendering Chinese poems into English. I presented my translation of the Tao Yuanming poem ‘Drinking #5’ (which I posted here last week), and, although I claimed nothing for its style, related with pride how I had expanded upon Tao’s original meaning (or gone beyond earlier translations), to make it seem that he was imagining and not really observing the chrysanthemums and mountains and other phenomena described in the poem. I thought this expansive (and almost certainly incorrect) rendering would reinforce what I believe he was saying about the process of escaping bleak reality via the power of imagination.

As usual, I wasn’t sure the audience were following my abstruse argument. Some Chinese people were present, and they said nothing.

Days later, a Chinese student who had been at the talk approached me at a study abroad fair and informed me, now that it was just between us, that she didn’t like my translation at all. It was too cerebral, in her view, totally lacking the emotive element that suffused the original.

Digesting her criticism, I realized that the emotive element of Chinese poetry accounts for the bulk of its power, that this emotive aspect is the hardest quality to translate, and that the failure to capture the emotive connotation of Chinese poetry in translation was chiefly responsible for the seeming pointlessness of Chinese poetry to foreigners.

For instance: Do you know the sound of children’s swings, clanging against each other, in a deserted playground? Well, that is a Chinese poem. It’s not that non-Chinese people are insensible of the emotive potential of such a thing, but it’s doubtful that a Westerner, especially, would use poetry to convey it. He would be likelier to use more modern media. There is, of course, the sound of clanging swings in the middle of the second side of Abbey Road (before ‘Sun King,’ I think); and a similar sound and image, from a deserted playground, begins the film Midnight Cowboy. In both cases, the emotive effect is very strong.

But if you try to put it in a poem –

                The swings clang —

                ching! ching!

                Who was just playing here?

– you can’t pull it off.

I’ll speak for myself: I can’t pull it off.

25 Random Things About Me

I know this is scraping the bottom of the barrel and probably a faux pas, but I need to use every tool in the box to keep my blog going; so here is my version of the dreaded list that was going around Facebook several years ago. The final few questions in the preceding Writer’s Interview have made me think of it, and I remember my friends liking it. I hope you do too.

1. I’ve never worn braces or had any cavities.

2. I have fat and crooked fingers.

3. I once swam the length of Highland Lake, in Maine, four miles, in four hours.

7. I once drove from New Haven to Baltimore in four hours and five minutes, and the five minutes was for gas.

5. I’ve lived in Baltimore, Middletown (CT), Beijing, Nanjing, Taipei, New York, New Haven, Hakodate, Colorado Springs, and Mobile.

6. My favorite urban nightscape is Baltimore, viewed from Federal Hill (‘Who thought they were only mad when Baltimore gleamed in supernatural ecstasy’ — Allen Ginsberg, who was writing about seeing it in the daytime). Runner up: Hong Kong, viewed from the New World Plaza. Second runner up: Hakodate, from Mt. Hakodate.

4. My first dance was with ___________. The Place: Girard’s. The song: ‘Double Vision,’ by Foreigner. Whose Bar Mitzvah was it? I don’t remember.

8. I get my 4s and 7s mixed up.

9. I have a recurring dream about the decay of my body, usually involving my teeth falling out.

10. The coolest establishment I ever frequented was the Sometime Cafe, in Hualian, Taiwan. It was very dark; the music was so alternative, I’d never heard anything like it in the US; and there was a free movie around 8 PM.

11. I don’t use deodorant.

12. The biggest tragedy of my life has been the overproduced quality of Cowboy Junkies records, after ‘Lay It Down.’ In other words: I’m lucky.

13. The weirdest thing I’ve ever done for money was to read the poetry of Mao Zedong, in English, into a tape recorder, for a Taiwanese man.

14. I’m ambivalent about writing these kinds of notes for Facebook. I’m both reluctant and compelled to share them. They seem more appropriate for a diary, but a diary is like a tree falling in the forest with no one listening, and at the end of the day, I don’t want my life to be like that.

15. The most famous people I’ve ever shaken hands with are Dizzy Gillespie and Frank Zappa.

16. I’ve skinnydipped on Mt. Tai and in the Peach Blossom Spring, in China. On both occasions, I was inspired by the beauty of the natural surroundings, succumbed to the inspiration in public and in broad daylight, and somehow managed to escape deportation (as well as any real expression of disapproval). Lucky again.

17. I prefer cats to dogs and Dvorak to Brahms.

18. The weirdest thing I’ve ever eaten is lamb fries (breaded, fried sheep testicles), in Oklahoma City. Gene and I were tricked into eating them by our host, who had been going on at length about how much he enjoyed them, but actually, he’d never eaten them. After we began munching on the things, he turned around, grinned, and said, ‘You guys are sick.’ Of course, they tasted like chicken.

19. I always cry when the Blue Meanies take over Pepperland.

20. The funniest book I’ve ever read is The Sot Weed Factor, by John Barth, although the funniest passage I’ve ever read is Mark Twain’s description of a Turkish bath, in The Innocents Abroad.

21. I don’t do drugs but enjoy hallucinating while listening to music half asleep. Once I was dozing in a Freedom Services car before a pickup, and I had some kind of Bach thing for two violins going in the player. The music faded into a vision of two guys loading a truck. The films 32 Short Films about Glenn Gould and Dead Man work too.

22. I have an overactive gag reflex and a morbid fear of vomiting. As a result, it is impossible for anyone to get my throat culture without a fistfight, and I tend to postpone the inevitable, in case of a stomach bug.

23. Actually, there was this one night, I had to unload a Mexican dinner, heavy on the salsa. I was a little off target, coming to the toilet, and the remains of my meal ran in crimson rivulets down the outside of the bowl, like the ‘legs’ in a glass of fine wine. For some reason, I was naked (probably either because I’d thrown up on my clothes or because I’d removed them so as not to throw up on them). It was kind of erotic, writhing nude under the covers, discharging this blood-red liquid all night. In the morning, I felt very spiritually enriched.

24. Oh yeah, there was this other time, much earlier, in Taiwan. I was in Sun Yat-sen Memorial Park, breaking up with my girlfriend for the twelfth time. She used the expression pei he du (配合度), which I figured out meant ‘compatibility,’ and I turned it effectively against her: ‘We have no pei he du,’ I asserted. After it was over, I found myself wanting a snack, so I strode into the Burger King across Guangfu Street, for a chicken burger. That night, around two, I felt the telltale, metallic, queasiness in the pit of my stomach, a little minty, growing mintier still with all the Gelusel I popped, in the aforesaid effort to postpone the inevitable. It was no good: an hour later, I was throwing up out of my nose (a phenomenon I describe as vomiting while in the process of vomiting), leaving a moustache of spinach on my upper lip. I was at it all night. In the morning, I wasn’t able to go to work. My landlady went out and bought me some shu pao, a tasteless electrolyte replenisher for athletes, but it wasn’t an appropriate treatment, for I was still purging. I ended up cabbing it to the Taiwan Adventist Hospital, where they administered a saline IV. The Adventists give you a saline IV for almost everything, as their chief concern is to prevent dehydration. As it turned out, either because of the dehydration or the drugs I was also taking, I became unbelievably restless, to the point of being unable to stop moving. When seated, I rocked incessantly; when standing, I paced. I suffered under these conditions for two or three days, visiting the hospital repeatedly. Receiving IVs while being unable to still myself was a species of torture. I watched the solution drip, drip, drip, with excruciating slowness, wide eyed and grinding my teeth in suspense. I invited myself to my American friend’s apartment, because he had air conditioning and cable TV. One night I paced around his living room, watching Rebel Without a Cause, until I exhausted myself and fell asleep. Also, like an idiot, I called my not-quite-ex-girlfriend, thinking that I was dying and not wanting to die alone. Finally recovering my health after a few days, I took the bus into work. As the bus passed the Burger King, I saw that it was closed, sealed shut, with newspapers covering all the doors and windows.

25. I have green eyes.

Writer’s Interview

Having recently infiltrated the Mobile (Alabama) Writers Guild, I was asked to complete the following interview form. The result is somewhat arch; so I’ve decided to post it here. 

Name: Harry Miller

Facebook/Twitter/Social Media:

yellowcraneintherain.blog

(I’m also on Facebook)

Anything published?

State versus Gentry in Late Ming Dynasty China, 1572-1644

State versus Gentry in Early Qing Dynasty China, 1644-1699

The Gongyang Commentary on the Spring and Autumn Annals (A Full Translation)

When did you start writing?

When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer?

Why did you start writing?, etc.

I began writing in middle school, because it was required of me by my teachers. The latter praised what I had written, and I accepted their praise, proud to be considered a good writer. Apparently, the quest for external validation has always been my chief motivation as a scribbler.

At any rate, with my pretentions thus encouraged, my literary endeavors soon went beyond class assignments. I kept a diary in the tenth grade and have occasionally revisited journal-writing since graduating from college, especially during discrete life experiences such as periods of overseas adventure, including a stint in Taiwan from 1988 to 1992. I also wrote many letters, in the last decade or so before letter-writing became obsolete.

Though I gave no thought to the process of choosing a profession before turning twenty six, I always wanted to be a writer of some kind, even if only as an amateur. I was particularly inspired by historians such as C.V. Wedgwood and Francis Parkman, and I dreamed of creating monumental works like theirs. In my late twenties, finding amateurism, too, to be a thing of the past and sensing that it was time to put up or shut up, as far as my dreams were concerned, I committed myself to the academic career path, reasoning that it would offer the most practical chance of realizing them. Putting my college major and post-graduate experience (and language ability) to use, I selected Chinese history as my area of expertise.

After twenty years of credentialing myself academically and establishing myself professionally, during which time I also started a family, I have accomplished my ambition by authoring three historical epics (listed above), which are very well thought of by the twenty or so people who have read them.

In search of a larger audience, I have turned to historical fiction. My first historical novel, Southern Rain, tells the story of an ordinary young man and an extraordinary young woman in seventeenth-century China, who struggle to get and stay together in the face of cultural and political obstacles. It explores the relationships between men and women and freedom and power, against the backdrop of dynastic upheaval. I have tried to make it not only historically realistic but also accessible and engaging to the general reader. The book has been accepted for publication by Earnshaw Books, and I’m quite happy that it’ll be out there soon – in paperback, no less!

Beyond Southern Rain, I’ve got a few more ideas in me. For example, I’d like to translate an account of a creepy family from seventeenth-century China into English and then transplant it to Renaissance Italy. There’re also several straight translations from Chinese and Japanese that I wish to undertake.

How long does it take you to write a book?

About two years.

What is your work schedule like when you’re writing?

I work in the mornings, on days when I am not teaching.

Do you ever experience writer’s block?

If something is giving me trouble, it may bother me for a day and a night, but the “bother” is usually just my mind solving the problem. In Southern Rain, for example, I didn’t want the heroine, Ouyang Daosheng, to have bound feet. After obsessing over the matter for a while (and consulting a few other historians), I determined that an upbringing in a nunnery would probably have spared her the agony.

How do books get published?

I don’t know how other authors’ books get published. Mine get published by the grace of God.

Where do you get your information or ideas for your books?

From Chinese history. The climatic episode of Southern Rain is a historical event from 1645, of which I learned while researching my second book.

Do you work with an outline, or just write?

I just write. The outline takes shape in my head.

When did you write your first book and how old were you?

State versus Gentry in the Late Ming came out in 2009. I was 43.

What do you like the most about writing?

Getting it right. It’s torture until then, euphoria afterward.

What do you like to do when you’re not writing?

Canoeing, reading, music, movies, and sleeping.

What does your family think of your writing?

My mom and brother seem to like Southern Rain.

What do your friends think of your writing?

My friends love my writing (letters, etc.), but none has read any of my books, no doubt because they are put off by the supposedly alien nature of the subject matter (China).

What has been the toughest criticism given to you as an author? What has been the best compliment?

The worst criticism a reader can give is that he doesn’t understand what I’ve written, which means that I’ve failed as a writer. The best compliment is “You’re a great writer.”

Is anything in your work based on real life experiences or purely all imagination?

Some of the settings in Southern Rain are based on places I’ve visited. The protagonist’s house in Nanjing, for example, is based on a place where I used to eat (which was someone’s house). I’ve traveled on the Grand Canal in China, which helped me visualize my characters’ travels by the same method in my book.

As for the characters of Southern Rain, the male protagonist, Ouyang Nanyu, I suppose may be based on me; and Ouyang Daosheng may be a composite of every woman I’ve known – for all I know.

Do you plan on making a career out of writing?

Since I obtained tenure by publishing, I’m happy to say that I already have.

What is your favorite type of book to read?

I like to read histories, novels, historical novels, and books on contemporary issues (such as law), in turn.

What was the last book you read?

Pride and Prejudice

What is currently on your to read list?

The Pendragon Legend, by Antal Szerb

What do you listen to when you write?

Nothing.

What is your favorite music?

The Beatles (though they’ve been going in and out of style, with me)

What is your favorite quote?

“As I hung upon the rail I occasionally turned to watch the captain and the mates who were motioning and swearing in all directions until no one knew his own business.”

— Stephen Crane, “Dan Emmonds”

What is your favorite candy?

A Japanese white chocolate wafer called Shiroi Koibito – “The White Lover”

What would I find in your refrigerator right now?

Acai juice

Have you ever played patty cake?

I play it all the time, with the gentleman who mows my lawn.

Have you ever gone out in public with your shirt on backwards, or your slippers on, and when realizing it, just said screw it?

Shirt on backwards and slippers on is overdressed for me.

Do you go out of your way to kill bugs? Are there any that make you screech and hide?

I don’t kill bugs, except, occasionally, for cockroaches. In Taiwan, where cockroaches are the size of lobsters, the only way to kill them is by pounding them with your fist, upon detection. If you run to get a newspaper or something, he’ll be gone by the time you return. I got pretty good at it.

Is there anything unique about you that you’d like for us to know?

I am the only person in the world with no unique qualities.

Is there anything that you would like to say to your readers and fans?

Where are you?

Why introverts like the rain

Here is a piece from the P&Q Discovery blog, which supplements my Meditations on the Rain.

P&Q Discovery

We like the rain because of the white noise.

The sound of a trillion tiny drops per second creating a continuous hiss that overpowers every other sound in the world.  The smooth unchanging rhythm of this loud outdoor spray caresses the mind.  It’s a break from chaos; a steady dose of consistent and predictable stimulation for our senses, which is a rare gift  for reality to grant.   Sometimes there is a melody that breaks the monotony –a splash, a hidden leak that creates a hollow tune, or the percussive beat of a heavy beads pattering against metal and glass.  But the background stays the same: always hissing.

We like the rain because it forces people to walk around with barriers.

They are obligated to raise shields made of hoods and umbrellas.  Raincoats and boots.  No exposed skin, no vulnerability.  A cocoon of layers that creates a sense of isolation and…

View original post 231 more words

My Millionth Meditation on the Rain, Part III: Shared Experience and Stimuli

The rain does more than simply to eliminate glare, blare, and the stress that comes with them. It also adds something: a feeling of community that comes from the knowledge that everyone is under the same umbrella. When the rain comes, everyone stops doing his own thing and begins doing the same thing, dealing with the weather. Although I think of myself as an individualist, I must admit to taking comfort in the conforming, equalizing potential of a good shower.

One of my favorite activities is watching an approaching storm on the radar.

Advancing Front

What a cure for loneliness! The front isn’t just advancing on me; it’s advancing on us. So there is an us, after all.

Of course, let’s hope none of us gets hurt or flooded out of his house; but, barring true disaster, it’s always fun to face inclement weather together. A lot of these feelings of excitement hark back to grade school “snow days” back home (in Baltimore, not Mobile), which involved such a consistent set of rituals – listening to the list of school closings on AM radio; jumping for joy when our school was announced; trying unsuccessfully to go back to sleep; marveling at the bluish-white hue of the daylight; rushing outside to play, build snowmen, and shovel the walk; soaking our gloves and socks – that they were virtually group activities, even though classmates rarely got together. Even without the snow, and well past childhood, the anticipation and experience of even a modest rainfall seems to invoke a sociable giddiness. “Well, here we go, dashing to our cars.” And then, off we go, dashing to our cars, separately yet similarly.

The limiting of experience to that which is predictably communal is an effect that can have many causes, not just the rain. National holidays serve the same purpose, especially Thanksgiving. We can assume that a great many people will be traveling on Wednesday (and I really like that everyone reading this sentence knows that “Wednesday” means “the day before Thanksgiving”), cooking and eating on Thursday, and (nowadays) maybe even going shopping on Friday. We’ve all done these things ourselves; so we know what people are going through. We can even call our friends to ask what time Grandma is coming and to check on the turkey.

Like the limiting of experience, the limiting of stimuli often produces communalizing effects; although rain might not necessarily be a factor, darkness, which accompanies rain, would seem to be essential. Sometimes, the exposure of different individuals to similar stimuli yields surprisingly resemblant reactions. One evening, for example, I was driving back home with my brother, after we’d both seen a movie together. A drizzle was falling, leaving little to see, aside from streetlights and traffic signals. Suddenly and simultaneously, we both blurted, “Bay-ah-beeee SNAAAYakes,” the first line of the Frank Zappa song “Baby Snakes.” Fairly freaked out, I broke off and started howling at the coincidence.

My brother, however, was quite nonchalant about it. “It’s not that extraordinary,” he said. “We’ve got similar brains, we just saw the same movie, we both like Zappa, and we’re looking at the same stuff. Naturally, we would respond to the environment in the same way.”

“With ‘Baby Snakes’?”

“Evidently.”

In fact, nighttime drives and daytime rains are interchangeable for purposes of this discussion, in that they work equally well to limit environmental stimuli and thus encourage shared reactions and a sense of togetherness. Nothing brings two minds closer together than the luminousness of the car dashboard at night. During a transcontinental drive, my friend Gene and I supped at a diner in Flagstaff and then drove off into the desert, en route to the Grand Canyon. It was pitch black – we might as well have been in outer space – save only for the dash. The audible world was likewise monopolized by the radio: A local station was broadcasting an old dramatization of the impeachment of Andrew Johnson (?), which, in the absence of anything else to listen to, was very absorbing; and Gene and I reacted to it with near uniformity (although we didn’t quite reach “Baby Snakes” territory). Between the glow of the dashboard and the roll call of votes to impeach (and, necessarily, nothing else), Gene and I must have been nearly of the same mind.

I am aware of the availability of sensory deprivation capsules and might like to try spending some time in one. However, two considerations dissuade me. First, it would feel too much like lying down in a coffin, and I’m not into that. Second, I would prefer some company in the capsule, or perhaps in a separate capsule, with identical simple images, like the moon or a car dashboard, projected inside, and the same Dvorak quartet or antique radio drama coming over the speakers.

Or I’ll just wait for the next rainy day.

A Lesson from the Annals of Personal Hygiene, Illustrating the Virtue of Perseverance

Bothered of late by hardened bits of mucus in my nasal passages, I resolved to irrigate the latter with my trusty Ocean Spray saline solution, which I purchased from Rite Aid in Middletown, Connecticut, in 1984. Locating the familiar orange and white plastic bottle after a brief search of my cluttered bathroom closet, I inserted it into my left nostril (I’m left handed) and squeezed. A thin jet of solution erupted from some unseen puncture in the bottle and shot directly into my left eye. Somewhat jarred, I let loose the usual exclamations and maledictions, to register my shock and discomfort.

Now, I am a man not easily dissuaded from my course, once I have chosen it. Furthermore, I have found that the lowering of expectations, and of standards, is the key to fulfillment and happiness, in the full range of human endeavor. In this particular adventure, saline solution did in fact reach the intended target (my left nostril), and so as far as I was concerned, the operation was a success. Getting shot in the eye, while a misfortune, was simply one of those things I have learned to tolerate, certainly no occasion for despair – or for reevaluating the situation. Nothing was really wrong, in other words.

Accordingly, I transferred the apparatus to my right nostril, to complete my project. At the first application of pressure, the entire bottom half of the bottle exploded, launching a massive payload of spilth into my gaping, protesting mouth. The viscous liquid had a dreadful, musty taste, which seemed to convey to every corner of my being all the wintry malaise accumulated in that bottle since the Reagan administration, when it was first used. It also rained downward onto my clavicle and shoulder, soaking my woolen turtleneck sweater and feeling very clammy and nasty.

My howling could be heard at the Rite Aid in Middletown, Connecticut.