Thursday, May 16, 2019

Collective Biking

I stood waiting on a train platform a few years ago when another man walked up pushing a bike that he parked next to mine. I glanced at his Frankenstein of a bike, which was pieced together from many others. Nothing matched on it, the department store components showed their age, the tires had little tread, and the seat was split. I thought it would fall apart any moment.

My commuter bike, on the other hand, was less than a year old. I’d purchased it overseas and imported it myself. It wasn’t a high-end bike, but had decent components and a nice front suspension, hydraulic brakes, aluminum frame, and a good luggage rack. It worked great for my all-season commuting needs and I really liked it. I sort of wanted to scoot it away from this other low-life bike—like the rust spots might be contagious.

The bike’s owner wore shabby clothes, he had long hair and an unshaven face. And of course, he immediately started talking with me.

“Check out this new bike I just got.”

That raised my eyebrows a bit. I wondered where he’d stolen it from.

He continued. “I went over to the Fourth Street Clinic. They got doctors that volunteer there and one looked at my sore back. He said it’s not bad, I just need to do some exercises. Then when I told him I couldn’t find a job because I got no transportation, he wrote me a prescription for a new bike. Man, I didn’t even know they could do that.”

I hadn’t heard of that either.

“So I went down to the Bicycle Collective and they gave me this—for free! Can you believe that? They put these bikes together to help out people like me. Now I can get to the train easier and ride my bike to job interviews. Man, this whole day changed my life!”

I suddenly had a different appreciation for my new cycling buddy and his great bike. Rust spots, worn tires, a torn seat—none of that mattered. He now had a way to pick himself up, get to job sites, and turn his life around. And that was pretty cool.

I talked with him about the fun of riding around the city and how biking can keep you in shape. When the train arrived, we both moved to get our bikes onto the train car. As soon as I picked mine up, the back wheel fell off—apparently I’d forgotten to tighten the quick-release lever. And who knows how long it had been that way!

“Man, that’s dangerous,” the new cyclist told me. “You should take it down to the Collective and get it fixed.”

In reality, it was my own attitude that needed adjustment.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Don't Be A Hairist

The other day, my daughter Miara happily talked about how she wanted a new hairstyle and the various colors she might dye it. With my own hair quickly disappearing, I accused her of being a hairist and showing callous indifference to my condition. Hair-enabled people need to have a little more sensitivity for the follicle-challenged among us.

The subject of -ists, however, reminded me of an experience with her from many years earlier, where she taught me a little about diversity consciousness. When she was about four years old, we lived in a fairly multicultural neighborhood—at least by majority-white Utah standards. One child had a Latina mom and Caucasian dad. Another family had Polynesian and white parents. And of course my wife is Asian and I’m white. One neighbor, whose husband came from Fiji, called our group the “half-and-halves.”

One day Miara and her younger brother came home from playing with a group of these colorful kids, one of whom was African American. She started telling me about something silly this child did. I knew who she meant, but pretended I didn’t, to see how she’d describe him. I asked what he looked like, and she gave clever descriptions of his short hair, his height, his clothes, and where he lived. But as much as I pressed her, she never once said anything about his skin tone or described him as black. I envied her childlike colorblindness.

A couple years later, after we’d moved to a neighborhood with much less diversity and Miara had started first grade, she came home from school and related another cute experience. But this time, she described the boy in her story as “this black kid.” She obviously didn’t mean anything negative about it at all, but I realized she’d lost her colorblind innocence.

I’m not trying to put any kind of spin on this, or accuse our society of horrid atrocities. I just think it’s interesting how children can see other people as just people. But as we grow and find ourselves part of a bigger society, we start to see all the differences within that society.

By the way, Miara chose purple.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Anthropomorphizing Wonder Bread

When I was in third grade, our teachers planned a field trip to the Wonder Bread factory in Salt Lake City. The whole class looked forward to the wonder of this trip. (Sorry.) But more importantly, we also heard that at the end of the tour, we’d get a free mini-loaf of Wonder Bread. So we piled into old school buses and bounced our way downtown.

At the factory, the tour guide took us through the exciting world of bread-making. We watched flour and ingredients poured into giant kneading vats that, looking back, I now realize were just like the acid vat that the Joker fell into. Then we stood fascinated as the powerful kneading bars did their thing. Machines cut the finished dough into big blobs and plopped them into pans. We hurried to the end of the assembly line where loaves had already risen into plump bread-like shapes.

Then the conveyor belt widened and the pans spread out to begin their trip through the huge gas-fired oven. The bread cooked as it passed flaming burners along the sides, top, and bottom of the scorching oven.

And this is where I panicked.

See, the week before, we’d watched a documentary about the Holocaust, and learned about the gas chambers and saw photos of the crematoriums where so many people mercilessly met their end. I certainly don’t want to diminish in any way all the horrors of that period, but I was only seven years old when I saw that film. So when I witnessed the bread going into what—to me, anyway—seemed like a combination gas chamber/crematorium, I suddenly realized what we as a society were doing to innocent loaves. How could we let that happen?

I don’t recall much of the rest of the tour, but I do remember when they handed me my mini-loaf of Wonder, I cradled it carefully and refused to eat it. Even later, when my mom assured me that the loaves don’t feel anything when they’re cooked, it still didn’t seem right to me.

I guess I eventually got over it because now we make our own bread at home in a bread machine—electric, not gas.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Saving an Orphan

A few years ago, I went out to run errands on a cold, dreary Valentine’s day. It had snowed during the night, but not pretty, fluffy mid-winter snow. February snow is always wet and slushy. The clouds hanging low over the city still tried to drop more snow, but the air had warmed just enough to turn it all into sticky sleet that splattered on my window, and piles of dirty slush on the ground turned the world into grey boredom.

I stopped at a small intersection to wait for the light to change, and noticed the only item of color in the whole town—a red, mylar balloon that escaped from someone’s bouquet. It had once been shaped like a heart, but the cold had shrunk the helium and turned it into a shriveled, dying lump of coal. It floated just above the road, where it trudged sadly across the slush. I watched it struggle through the intersection until a tall black truck came by and drenched it with salty sludge.

The balloon sunk down onto the road, buried and defeated. But it refused to give up. It rose back out of the sloppy snow and continued trying to float until it stopped next to my car. This balloon had spunk. It wouldn't let the dirty world crush its spirit.

So I opened my door, stepped out into the drippy weather and saved the balloon from further humiliation. I took it home, washed off the salt and black water, and waited. As the helium warmed, the wilted balloon expanded back into a full heart, and rose off the bathroom counter up to the ceiling. It had resurrected! I felt so proud of that balloon.

Then I remembered it was Valentine’s day and I still hadn’t found a gift for my wife. So I went into our room and presented Stephanie with the greatest gift ever—a Rescue Balloon. I told her its story and she accepted it gratefully, mostly because I hadn’t wasted any money on a fancy purebred from the designer balloon store.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Artists of the World, Unite!

I wanted to create a photo essay of our trip in Taiwan, but who wants to see a bunch of pictures of me? So I decided to walk around the streets of Taipei, looking for average people doing their jobs.

When we think of the people in the world who have the most influence and power, we normally think of political leaders, business tycoons, and pop culture icons. But where would any of them be without people like you and me who staff their factories, construct their buildings, grow their food, and, of course, provide their entertainment? In fact, where would any of us be without the workers of the world, who take pride in their craft and create the products we use, the houses we live in, and help bring a little pleasure to our lives.

So I hope you enjoy . . .

The Artists of Taipei

A performance artist doing his best to earn tips. He's actually a world-renouned yoyo artist who's traveled the world performing.

The dumpling artists work late in the evening while a line of hungry students wait outside the door.
A very important artist—the surgical oncologist. He spent eight hours in the operating room with this special patient—my nephew.

The Red-Nosed Acrobatic Artists, providing some hair-raising entertainment.

A humanitarian artist wants to find homes for abandoned animals.

The biscuit artist is trying to convince us how fresh the biscuits are.

All the artwork in this shop was made by this porcelain artist.

A food artist, chopping chicken for a hungry customer.

A quartet of construction artists.

Tearing down a building for a new tenant requires the hard work of a deconstruction artist.

A washing artist might not think of her work as art, but would you want to eat on dirty dishes?

This man's family makes artful dried fruit and vegetables, which he sells in the traditional market.

The garbage artist? Sure, unless you want garbage everywhere.

This artist created a yummy blueberry yogurt work of art that gave me a mild brain freeze, but tasted great!

Art on a keychain. This one is a Totoro.

Making art out of magnolia flowers, which he sells in front of the Buddhist temple.

Pork artist. This man told me he'll lose his livelihood next year when open markets like this are no longer allowed. The young whippersnappers all like to shop in supermarkets these days.

Creating and selling artistic pork song—a type of dried, feathery jerky—is tiring. 

The recycling artist works for the city to collect plastic. He doesn't sell this—his job is to keep the streets clean for the rest of us to enjoy.

The restaurant hostess skillfully finds any remaining seats at the Evergreen Vegetarian restaurant. They claim the food is very healthy, which I think is true because I saw a lady at one table who looked at least 130 years old.

Mechanical artist taking care of a Yamaha. This was taken late in the evening and he still had several more scooters to finish.

A window washing artist keeps the front of the department store shiny and clean.

This spray paint artist creates works of art in ten minutes that he sells for about US$6.

This artist keeps the street in front of his house clean.

And this artist works in the park to wash the amphitheater where performers come on weekends.

Two window dressing artists preparing a new restaurant.

An artist that takes colored wire and wraps it into all sorts of beautiful creations.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Food Court City

Our family recently went looking for a well-known taco cart in Salt Lake City. Apparently the taco guy took a personal day, so we ended up at a food court downtown. It happened to be in a mall that's seen better days and is hard at work on its renaissance—but it's not quite there yet.

I've never really enjoyed American food court food, though an occasional gem can be found if one looks hard. And this particular food court is pretty bad. There are few food choices, the acoustics make it horribly noisy, and much of what we finally ordered that day turned out sub-par—except McDonald's and Subway, which basically tastes the same anywhere you go. I think the shrimp in my crispy sushi rolls were dredged out of the Great Salt Lake. The taste was reminiscent of the way our car smelled one time after we accidentally left a raw pot roast in it when parked in hundred-degree heat—for three days.

The day after our food court experience, Stephanie and I flew to Taiwan, though it wasn't because of the food court—or the recent election results. It was actually a planned trip to visit family. So here we are in Taipei, surrounded by wonderful-smelling food everywhere we go. It's like the entire city is a food court. Except this food is mostly good.

Fruits, vegetables, breads, treats, sweets, and meats surround us everywhere we turn.

We ran into a problem on our first day here, though, because we couldn't eat any of it—and it was by choice. We had a particular need to skip a few meals that day, and we soon discovered that you should NEVER walk around Taipei while fasting. The temptations are just too great. We basically lost all willpower. I'm happy (I guess) to say that we made it—we didn't eat until we got home that evening and had yummy homemade mother-in-law food.

I'm an inconsistent vegetarian and prefer spicy ethnic cuisine, or basically not the American food I grew up with. Stephanie is an omnivore that prefers the tastes of her East Asian homeland. So when in Utah, we often drive all over looking for something we both want to eat, then end up just going home and heating up leftovers. But here in cosmopolitan Taipei, we can both find anything we want.

It was worth skipping a couple meals—and flying thousands of miles—to get all of this.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

9/11 – Stuff We Should Always Remember

Fifteen years ago today, on September 11, 2001, I was on my way to my office when NPR reported that a small plane may have hit one of the World Trade Center towers. That struck my interest, but it was just one piece of news among many, so I didn’t give it too much thought. By the time I arrived at my office, however, the reports made it clear that something big had happened.

I spent the rest of the day with my coworkers, searching for websites and broadcasts to get accurate information about what really happened. Apparently, the rest of the world had the same idea, and the entire Internet came to a standstill. It was the day that broke the Internet.

I could see the Salt Lake City International Airport from my office window, and watched as plane after plane landed, with none taking off. All flights in the entire U.S. were grounded, and the tarmac quickly filled with parked planes.

We watched online—via a foreign website that still worked—as the twin towers and surrounding buildings collapsed, and another plane crashed into the Pentagon, then a fourth plane crashed in a field in Pennsylvania. The events of that day are hard to forget, and it changed the world in big ways.

After listening to radio reports and attempting to watch online the whole day—and not getting any work done—I drove home thinking about what happened. At the time, my children were 10, 8, and 2-years old, and the youngest was only six months old. The older two were in school and had talked about what happened, but didn’t understand it. The younger two of course were too young to pay much attention. At dinner, I told my family what I knew about the events, then told them to always remember that day, because it would definitely signify a huge change in world affairs.

I explained to my family that nobody could predict the future, but that things would be very different from that time going forward. I thought we’d probably be going to war, and that our society would need to start getting used to constant surveillance and security checks. I thought there’d be a backlash against Muslims and encouraged my family to not give in to the hate we’d probably see others express. I went to bed that night, worried about the future my children would experience.

Several days later, after scenes of backlash against Muslims and others had already begun playing out nationwide, I had a sense of sadness for everything going on. I saw the hatred beginning to build and wondered why humans are so prone to lash out at an entire culture, based on the actions of a few. I even sent out a somewhat-self-righteous email to friends and family, reminding them of our commitment to not judge and condemn others. The initial terror attacks were nothing short of inexcusable evil, but what worried me most was the backlash we saw here in our own country. Otherwise reasonable people had become filled with loathing and hatred.

I was junior high age when the Iran Hostage Crisis played out, where Americans were taken hostage in Tehran by people supporting the Iranian Revolution. I was too young to understand the events, and I certainly didn’t know the history of America’s involvement in that part of the world. But I saw the hatred many in our country expressed toward the Iranians, such as teeshirts proclaiming “The Ayatollah in an a**ahollah.”

I’ve studied with interest the detainment of Japanese Americans during World War II. One of those internment camps—Topaz—is in western Utah and the scenes of American citizens locked up for no reason other than their ancestry has often haunted me.

During my college years, I occasionally volunteered to assist Amerasian refugees from Vietnam get settled in the U.S. These were children of American soldiers, fathered during the war and left in Vietnam after our country pulled out. Most of the children were post-high-school age by that time, but had little education or adequate heath care while growing up. They were forced into a marginalized existence in their own country, simply because of their heritage.

I’m not writing this to try and justify the horrific events of 9/11, or any terrorist activities before or since—and I should point out that I didn't lose any close loved ones during those events. Plus, I’m certainly not immune from the very things I’m writing about. Perhaps I’m just writing this to assuage my own societal guilt. In any case, having watched hatred play out in the wider world, and right in my own backyard, I guess I’m just worried that our future is even more tenuous when I see the same hate-filled rhetoric—from all sides—filling our screens with more of the same.

9/11 was supposed to be the day “we’d never forget.” But perhaps there are other things in the past and present that we should keep in mind as well.