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A Final Adventure

In the process of going home, I decided to jettison all but the most essential possessions.  Airlines are given to charging ridiculous fees for slight excesses in weight, so I was thorough.  Among the things left behind was a collection of short stories.  But I decided to “dispose” of it in a more ceremonious fashion because not many people in Jaén had use for a book of short stories in English.  So I wrote a note in the book, and snuck it into Corte Inglés where I put it among the few English books for sale.

Sneaking.

New friends.

Waiting for the unsuspecting short fiction enthusiast.

Here’s what I wrote in the book:

 

Dear Reader,

I read through this collection of short stories in the fall of 2010 as I was here in Jaen, serving as an auxiliary of conversation with the Government of Andalucia.  It was a great way to pass the time as I took the bus from the center of the city out to the outskirt pueblo, Las Infantas.  I leave this book behind in much the same way that someone throws a message in a bottle into the ocean not waiting for rescue, but for the adventure of unconventional communication.  If I had myself a carrier pigeon strong enough to carry a book this size, rest assured, I would have sent it to you that way instead.

Here in Jaén there are, of course, neither oceans to carry a bottle, nor bottles capable of easily accommodating an anthology of short stories.  But this collection and this letter are both in English, and casting any English afloat in a land and people of Spanish isn’t so dissimilar to marooning a bottle in the waves.

The two best stories in this collection are, “Cathedral” by Raymond Carver, and “The Testimony of Pilot” by Barry Hannah.  One story was so awful I tore it out, and have obliterated the title and author from the title page.  Not awful in that the sense of prose—the author was perfectly capable of constructing a decent sentence and managed to convey setting sufficiently.  No, what is worse, the story itself was heinous and ugly in a moral sense; grossly exhibitionist.

There is, among certain writers, a tendency to take the crudest parts of their lives or imaginations and put them to some narrative, and call it “art.”  And because they’re so “honest, abrasive, or candid” they should be celebrated or recognized.  That is what Tobias Wolff might have you believe, at least formally speaking.  His is a political position, even as an editor of an anthology, so perhaps there was pressure from without for him to make some inclusions of dubious stories for even more dubious reasons.  I shall be charitable and assume some stories are here because he felt obligated to make a collection that was “well-rounded” in terms of representing a mix of various writers, if not “well-rounded” by the inclusion of worthy stories.

This collection would have been much improved for the inclusion of stories by Joe Aguilar and Nell McCabe, though I imagine they were both in their early teens at the time Wolff put this together.  When they are, hopefully, anthologized, you will do yourself a favor seeking out their titles.

Though editors like Wolff may be called upon to select the stories and offer some introduction, I have elected to amend his introduction, if only to say this is an anthology incomplete.  There’s more to American life—and American short story—than lives or characters effectively defined by violence, vice, addiction, and dysfunction.  I will be largely deaf to complaints that these are stories about “life” in the same way that I would be deaf to the suggestion that blizzards depict the spectrum of weather.  These stories are a bit short on spring and summer, but moments can be found.  If you find yourself in a story-telling position, take Vivaldi’s advice, and make sure all seasons have their say.

 

Good journey,

Phillip Aijian, February 2011

Death by Drama

My roommate, J, had “a thing” with our neighbor a few months back.  The neighbor who, until quite recently, let us pay her a few euro a month to use her internet.  J now has “a thing” with this new girl.  The sound of their “affections” fills the building.  It is, as I’ve said, built like an echo chamber.  Also, certain parties were a bit tardy in paying the internet-holding neighbor her six euro.  The long and short of it is, J broke her heart, so she broke our internet, and left for Madrid.

P, the landlord, doesn’t want to buy more internet for the apartment because he doesn’t use it that much.  He’s only there three days a week.  So I’ve been something of an internet gypsy, going from McDonald’s (which occasionally has WiFi) to Corte Ingles where I use the display models until salespeople persist in trying to get me to buy something.  I clandestinely check my e-mails at work (gasp), and now I’m here at a Catholic school, using the WiFi in a teacher’s lounge.  I’ve met an Indian man who works here, and I’m helping him write a play for his English class.  They’re getting ready for the Cambridge exams.

This is so 90’s.

In other news, I’m coming home!  More on that later.  If I can find another moment to blog, in another rarefied moment of internet access that lasts a bit longer than 30 minutes.

Related to Monotony

Finger exercises.  Every musician’s life begins with scales and finger exercises the way athletes’ lives begin with push-ups and running laps.  They’re generally not held in high esteem.  Billy Collins puts it just right in his poem, “Piano Lessons”

1.
My teacher lies on the floor with a bad back
off to the side of the piano.
I sit up straight on the stool.
He begins by telling me that every key
is like a different room
and I am a blind man who must learn
to walk through all twelve of them
without hitting the furniture.
I feel myself reach for the first doorknob.

2.
He tells me that every scale has a shape
and I have to learn how to hold
each one in my hands.
At home I practice with my eyes closed.
C is an open book.
D is a vase with two handles.
G flat is a black boot.
E has the legs of a bird.

3.
He says the scale is the mother of the chords.
I can see her pacing the bedroom floor
waiting for her children to come home.
They are out at nightclubs shading and lighting
all the songs while couples dance slowly
or stare at one another across tables.
This is the way it must be. After all,
just the right chord can bring you to tears
but no one listens to the scales,
no one listens to their mother.

I’ve gone well down the road of scales and finger exercises.  Dexterity and theory combine to give a musical vocabulary.  But it seldom becomes impressive until after you start actually playing melodies.  Many would be musicians quit early (and their parents let them) because they’re in love with songs, not theory, and they don’t have the patience to believe that D minor scales will help impress pretty girls one day (they do).

I’ve been taking flamenco lessons and not once has my teacher asked me about songs that I want to learn.  We had a mutual and happy agreement that I should start from the ground up.  He keeps getting on my case for the way the corner of my thumb plucks the strings. Talk about fastidious.  But the thing is, I love it.  I love taking the time to do this right, however many lessons I get here.

An additional benefit is that flamenco finger exercises simply sound exquisite.  It may be because they’re “exotic” to my training, but the chord changes are all so moody and minor and jazzed up.  I’m learning the kind of musical vocabulary that will help me know how to play a song like this:

Cherish and honor the opportunity to establish good foundations while you can, in whatever discipline or good you pursue.  Who knows who might go weak in the knees?

Monotony

CNN recently reported that fewer than 30% of Americans hold passports—a figure that’s gone down in recent years.  The author, a Ms. Natalie Avon, suggests a few obvious reasons slimming interest in international travels.  Topping the list are things like are the cost of travel, ethnocentrism, and  difficult work schedules.  In addition, Avon astutely points out that Americans enjoy the benefit of an incredible diverse country in which to enjoy recreation.  California alone has every geographical diversity between deserts and snow-capped mountains, while Los Angeles county alone boasts a mosaic of cultures and languages that some whole countries cannot match.

But there’s one culprit Avon neglected to mention—impatience.  My arrival in Spain and participation in the Cultural Ambassadors program was precipitated by a withering amount of paperwork and hoop-jumping.  My threshold for such drudgery exists perhaps above the average level of my fellow Americans because I spend so much time reading and writing in all kinds of contexts—recreational and work-related.  After digesting 20 hastily written papers covering the Vietnam protest culture and researching the Shakespearean conscience, writing 500 words about why I wanted to come to Spain and teach English came as easily as texting does to tweens.  I hasten to add, however, that I used full sentences and proper punctuation.

The sense I get from many of my peers and students is that they avoid opportunity or adventure not because they are afraid or lack the financial resources, but because they’re impatient.  Paperwork is boring.  Corresponding with government agencies who are open three days of the week is tedious ( the music they play while you’re on hold should constitute an act of terrorism.)  I committed myself to an application process that stretched out over 9 months of 2010.  Lots of phone calls, e-mails, faxes, and fines.  A fine here, a fine there

I can understand the suspicion that the investment of time, energy, intellect, and money may go amiss.  I feel this way every time I visit the DMV.  I stand in line for nearly an hour just to give them a tidbit of information.  But this is no reason to avoid such investments altogether. My dealings with the American government and the Spanish government I undertook not for what I imagined they would give me, but for what their leave would allow.  The investment of my time has been worth it, and shall continue to prove so in ways I cannot foresee.  Who knows what fortune or blessing awaits me because of my Iberian adventure?

Nevermind facing your fears.  Have the courage to face the humdrum.  I promise it’s only the beginning of your journey.

 

Pwned.  By one heck of a determined thief.

The thrill of writing and receiving letters operates, in part, on that notion of delayed gratification (another ethos inherited, in part, from my father).  You never know quite when your letter will arrive, and though the advent of the internet has allowed parcel tracking, the exact time of arrival is always up in the air.  UPS and FedEx dudes seem to have a sixth sense about when you’re home—they come when you’re not.

Delayed gratification soars to “new heights” when you mail internationally.  The government of the country where you send your letter/package may enjoy rattling its saber by treating said package as a  terrorist threat or, equally disappointing, as so trivial in import their corporate indolence condemns it to drift for weeks or months in a limbo of buildings and bins of more lost mail.  And, as it happens, all the socks that vanish from your washing machines.  I know, I’ve been wondering where they went, too.  Such is the duty and purview of the United States Department of Customs and Border Protection.  They’re the ones taking naps on piles of our letters, but as it happens, they won’t take any calls regarding mail.  Hoping to get in touch with them, I wrote this letter which I printed and affixed to the outside of an envelope I’m sending Janelle.

Dear Department of Customs and Border Protection,

In the human body, no organ is larger and, indeed, perhaps most essential to the maintenance of health than the skin.  Permeable and flexible, it nonetheless serves as a shield, screening pathogens and germs with names too long for me to spell correctly.  I can appreciate you are tasked with this job—serving as America’s “skin.”  Yours the job of screening all manner of offenders ranging from weapons to agriculture—even small exotic birds.

You’ve been so vigilant—even, I might humbly submit, a little too vigilant.  I sent a package not unlike this one back in the middle of November, from Spain to California, and it didn’t arrive until January.  Week after week passed by, and I was sure it had been lost.  I despaired.  Neither the Spanish nor American postal service could tell me anything.  I sent my parents some wine for Christmas, thinking two weeks in advance would be sufficient.  It didn’t arrive until the end of January.  I grant that you perhaps prioritize mail as “suspicious” depending on its country of origin, but surely an entire month isn’t necessary to confirm that wine is just wine.  That a letter is just a letter.  And I assure you, this is just a letter on its way to California, where I was born and raised.

I tried calling your “office” but was informed that you’re not in the habit of answering questions about incoming mail.  One of your colleagues informed me that if I really wanted answers, I would need to begin an investigation here in Spain with their postal service, which would then conduct an inquiry.  But I know that such a request is so trivial in the grand scheme of government work I probably couldn’t expect to receive any information or answer for at least six months, and by that time I’ll be back in California.  Naturally, you prioritize duties that are actually important—and this isn’t, really.  I know that.  You know that.

Thus, in accordance with the non-importance of this package, please don’t hang on to it any longer than you actually must.

Sincerely,

Phillip Aijian

Thanks, Dad

Alternate titles for this post also include:

“Phillip Aijian: Cultural Ambassador Electrician” as well as “Putting My Pockets to Good Use.”

I come from a proud line of Do-It-Yourselfers (DIYers), who happen to be closely related to the Make Your Kid Do Iters (MYKDIers).  Saturdays in particular were hallowed unto yard work and other home renovations.  These skills came in handy when I went to Biola and acted as set director or co-director for around six different theater productions requiring props built from scratch.  I was surprised to discover how many of my fellow students were uncomfortable with skil saws and other power tools.  It was only then that I began to realize that part of my upbringing was, perhaps, a little unusual.

The DIY attitude is, on one level, a practical and economic choice.  Why pay someone else to do work if you have the skills, time, and tools?  Or, at least, if you’re willing to suffer through mistakes to gain the skills.  What’s more, it’s an opportunity to “play” Robinson Crusoe or Swiss Family Robinson—just without an island or pirates.  Part of the appeal with stories like these is observing the products of necessity and curiosity—two fundamental elements of the DIY ethos.  Why not try fixing it yourself?  Why not experiment a little bit?  My dad and I are big fans of the “Why not” attitude.

Yes, it has been with the power of “Why not…” that my dad and I have, for example

-Designed a steel plate, 3-D Christmas tree candle holder with dimensions I calculated using the quadratic formula.

-Used an industrial forklift to tow conduit

-Paved and tiled driveways

-Cut lots of firewood

-Repaired extension cords, wired sockets, adjusted trailer signal lights

So when Antonio asked me last week if I knew how to do any electrical work, I gave a hesitating “Yes?”  My school in Las Infantas is held inside a rather large two-story house which is perpetually cold.  It’s all concrete and stone, and a fleet of space heaters are deployed throughout the rooms we use to try keeping us warm.  Two of these had fallen into disrepair because the plugs had melted or burned out, and needed to be replaced.

Replacing the plug on the end of an extension cord isn’t a particularly complicated affair, but Antonio seemed nervous at the idea of trying to do it himself.  It’s been years since I replaced a plug, but I remembered all those Saturdays of work and agreed to give it a go.  Like my dad  does, I got a pen and paper, drew the schematic for the wire connections, and got to work.  I fixed them using only my Leatherman Micra, which is always in my pocket.  I highly recommend them.

It was fun.  A nice break from the monotony of pushing buttons on the photocopier.  I think it puts me somewhere between MacGyver and MacGruber.  MacGryber?

Which three delights come with the noodles remained uncertain.  I didn’t order it myself, but I was hoping that if I did, it would come with rapper’s delight, turkish delight, and, um, maybe the original garden of earthly delights.

I almost ordered 41 on the off-chance the other half was supernatural.  But then I considered that it could also be unnatural, and I’ve read too much Shakespeare to take that danger lightly.

Neither breakfast nor dinner are “meals” here.  They’re snacks that hold you over until lunch.  It is because of lunch the siesta was “created” long ago.  Due to the wild, mid-day gluttony, whole cities lapsed into food comas from two in the afternoon until seven in the evening.

Ham holds a prodigious position in Spain’s culinary history.  Here at this Ham Museum in Madrid, you can see the 20th piece of bacon ever created in Spain (the first 19 were consumed, legend holds, in a space of two minutes, whereupon the creator had a coronary).  You can also see the 6th slab of chorizo, and the 52nd cured hog leg.

Ham Paradise.  Where pigs go after they die, and where many Spaniards go, unwittingly, and shortly after enter paradise themselves.

A local photography business offers personalized movie posters for those above merely taking their own pictures and putting them in frames.  This one in particular, riffing on “Titanic,” caught my eye.  Translated as “You and Me,” the tagline reads “nothing in the world could separate them.”  I’m not sure what I’m supposed to think about the fate of the couple pictured, but I know that this thing will sell like hot cakes in weeks approaching Valentine’s Day.  Nothing says “I love you” like a picture that implies “Let’s make the most of the time we have now because we’re doomed.”