What’s Your Marlin?

 

My 9th grade language learners started reading Ernest Hemingway’s, “The Old Man and The Sea” for one simple reason: I found a free downloadable bilingual copy online, thanks to China not really caring about America’s copyright rule.

Actually, I’m intrigued by Hemingway as many Michiganders are, as he hung out where I do in the summers, near Charlevoix. Plus, Hemingway has a writing style that, according to Faulkner, “Has never been known to use a word that might send a reader to the dictionary.” AKA: easy for language learners.

And finally– as if writing this blog post was in the style of a three point essay–I wanted to read the short story because of my personal affinity with the long snouted fish: I was bequeathed a seven foot marlin caught by my aunt who was barely five feet tall.

If you haven’t read the classic, let me condense it into a tweet: an old man  is obsessed with catching a huge marlin after going 84 days without getting a nibble.

If you haven’t read about my marlin, click here.

When I told my students that I had a marlin, they put down their cell phones.

“Really?”

“Yes.”

“Did you bring it to China?”

“No. It didn’t have a Visa.”

“Did you eat it?”

“No.”

“Where is it?”

“Hanging on the wall of a Mexican restaurant in Northern Wisconsin.” I didn’t go into the details on how it migrated north of Chicago because of a divorce that’s getting as ridiculous as the final season of LOST. Their questions continued:

“Is there meat in it?”

“No. the meat is gone.”

“Did you catch it?”

“No,” I paused, savoring the teaching moment, “It was caught by a woman about the size of a fourth grader but almost my age.”

After I stopped blubbering, I asked my students about what was their marlin, in other words, what was the big fish or problem they were trying to overcome. Students wrote:

“Biology is the fish I am trying to tackle.”

“Speech class isn’t a marlin, it’s a whale!”

“Pressure from my parents.”

As we started talking about dreams and perseverance, I realized the story wasn’t just for my students, it was for me.

As I’ve been forced to reinvent myself at midlife with not much more than a wok and Chinese translator, I wonder if some of my dreams have past their expiration date. Publish that manuscript? Go back to school? Find the “other fish in the sea” that my dad promised was out there in the part of the world where Westerners flock for young Asian wives?

Yeah, right. And while you’re at it Ginger, reel in world peace and clean Chinese public johns.

Then I thought of the seven foot marlin that my four foot aunt reeled in.

Or the old ladies carrying washers on their backs.

Nothing is impossible unless of course, you don’t try.

A fellow teacher knows a lady in a village outside of Kunming with breast cancer, The cancer spread throughout her body. This poor woman couldn’t afford a doctor and hospitals don’t have palliative care. After her brittle arm turned sour with gangrene, the woman amputated her own arm.

OK. I understand if this brave woman just wants to go for a boat ride for the rest of her days. But the rest of us? We should give it our all just because we can.

Keep on casting out that line.

Matthew 19:26

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Etch-a-Sketch

 

I did that time warp thing over the weekend otherwise known as a high school class reunion.

For some reason, I thought the class of 1979 would class preserved in time like a loaf of Velveeta.

Well, surprise, surprise, surprise.

My life took a left turn from what I had planned, my 401 K downsized to a 4, my future erased with an Etch-a-Sketch thanks to a divorce that spanned two continents, thirteen time zones and three credit cards.

And thanks to  a midlife senior moment, I forgot to pack something to wear.

Really?

I raided my storage unit in Chicago for something to squeeze into. I had two choices: my dad’s golf sweat shirt paired with pajama bottoms or my wedding dress. I went for the latter. It wasn’t a full blown gown but a short peachy number with spaghetti straps. The dress fit—well sort of—I couldn’t zip it all the way that is, if I wanted to breathe, which is why I wore the matching sweater the entire time.

No ballet flats or pump, just fuzzy slippers I picked up at a consignment shop.

I entered the banquet hall, the mid-life time traveler ex-former hell-raiser whose living in China but is still an American (which I had to explain a million times). Yes, I love our country, especially toilets with seats and the cereal aisle. And oh yes, that whole freedom of speech thing really rocks.

My eyes pop out when look around. Who are all these old people? What happened to the jocks with David Cassidy haircuts and six packs?  I eyed a former crush who no longer crushed me and blinked a few times at a guy who was the spittin’ image of his dad. There were a few others I didn’t recognize at all, including a person reaching for a breadstick in the buffet line. Come to find out, it was the kid whose locker was next to mine.

Classmates shared pictures of their second homes and grandkids. Those who never made the honor roll now had ostrich sized nest eggs (You know your life sucks when the class stoner has a better retirement plan than you do). I thought of my 4 by 8 storage unit. My apartment in China that I shared with my naked acupuncture man. The detours my life took. The dead ends. The rest stops. It’s time to do a U-turn. My stomach churned thinking of how long I’ll have to work just to eat cat food, a generic brand.

If only I could shake up my past and have a clean slate.

We talked about the teachers who molded us. Friends who upheld us. Police who kept their spotlights on us. I chatted with a several friends who married their high school sweethearts, now pillars of a strong community.

Thank goodness for these pillars.

A few classmates still have teens in an era where heroin is the new pot and kids cruise the dark web instead of Main Street. I think of the police who made us dump our beer and escorted us home. If only you could control the knobs of a kid’s life.

As if our parents could control ours.

Then, there were the empty chairs. We all had the same question that no one dared to ask: who will win the Grim Reaper’s raffle ticket for our next reunion?

As a kid, I busted my butt to get in college so I could leave that small town. Now all I want is to get back in. But I can’t travel back in time. My fuzzy slippers won’t bring me there. Can’t erase my mistakes, but I can reimagine my future.  I smile for the class photo and hold my breath. I’ll never squeeze back into this dress again.


The Divorce That Wrapped Around the World

 

 

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Life Before Instant Messaging

I’m sick of it all. I’m so sick of it, I don’t want to write about it. We live in a thumb happy society, where thumbs need muzzles before they tweet to the masses, before students text their English teachers with happy faces instead of words.

Really students? If you want me to help you with your grammar, start writing me messages in English instead of eggplants. If you think I’d enjoy a meme of a dancing baby wearing a loaded diaper, it’s time to unfriend me. If you bomb my inbox with links to fat people at Walmart, unsubscribe me.

As if you didn’t hear it before, this world is filled with thumb clutter.

I’m as guilty as everyone else. Living in China, facebook is my rabbit hole to America and my thumbs are my garden spades. I can see what you ordered at Olive Garden. I can see the selfie of the abscess on your arm–even if I don’t want to. And thanks to facebo-ituary, I can see if anyone died. 

Facebo-ituary is an oxymoron.  It’s good grief. I mean, do you click LIKE on the post when someone dies? Does that mean you are glad they are dead?  I’m sorry but an angel emoji will never replace a hand written note. I still remember who sent cards when each of my parents died–as well as who did not. The Hallmark logo, the glitter, the embossed basket of flowers and fancy fonts of the message, and the cursive signatures.  I still attempt to send a snail mail card with my condolences –yes, from China– but it  won’t show up until a month after the last carnations have wilted. 

But I’m not tweeting today. And no one posted a picture of ingrown toenail. I’m in Chicago digging through my storage for memorabilia for an upcoming class reunion. I unearthed a motherlode of notes. Mother of all motherlodes. This is BIM stuff–Before Instant Messaging. I have notes passed in chemistry class,  letters pecked out on IBM Selectrics during typing practice, including this one that says: THROW OUT AFTER READING, which I didn’t. 

But the notes are full of damning evidence that would be catastrophic if posted. We drank, we smoked, we toilet-papered houses, we skipped band practice and sat on outhouses dreaming about our future. We spiked the prom punch. We tipped over sleeping cows. We collected the eyeballs from dissected frogs in biology class and threw them during geometry. We made memories and friends without the help of Mark Zuckerberg. We didn’t use our thumbs much…and after I read the notes, we didn’t use our brains, either.

Recently left a reply on friend’s page, What Would Jesus Tweet? I don’t think Captain Salvation be using his thumbs. I think he’d using a different finger—and not a good one. 

I don’t think he’d unfriend  someone for having different political views. I don’t even think he’d unfriend Judas even after that cross business. And I don’t think he’d cast me into hell for posting notes I passed in high school. He’d probably start a flash mob to help him feed the five thousand homeless in San Francisco or something.

But today’s world does get upset over things you post or tweet. We offend, defriend instead of forgive and mend. 

If only we could burn posts, tweets and photos on social media like we could notes and photos from the past (Yeah, that’s me with the hair cut courtesy of a kitchen bowl). Let’s get social again on social media.

 

Order my book!

 

 

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Filling a Father’s Shoes

It was a few days after the Oklahoma City bombings. I was behind a two way mirror in Florida eating handfuls of m&ms while listening to women discuss fiber infused yogurt when I got the call from my oldest sister.

“Ginger, you better come home.”

By the time American Airlines got me booked on a flight to Grand Rapids, my father had passed away. I could tell you the moment that he strolled into heaven wearing his loud golf pants. I wasn’t holding his hand while he took his last breath, I was  thumbing through a sky-mall magazine when I got tingles over my body followed by a feeling of peace followed by a six hour delay.

Funny how you never forget these things.

While my Dad had passed on, my Uncle Charles took on my dad’s duties but not his golf pants. Uncle Chuck was a tail gunner in WWII. His plane was shot down by the Germans during the bombing of Dresden. He bailed out of an airplane and  landed in a tree. It was my uncle’s faith that saved him.

As a kid, I would laugh as he told the story of landing in a tree in a tangled parachute. Farmers rushed to the tree with pitchforks. His back was injured, he was terrified. Before long, German soldiers were surrounding the tree as well.

My uncle, nineteen at the time, was certain he would be shot. When the soldiers asked him his name and he replied, “Krieger,” they put down their guns.

Saved by his German name.

Uncle Charles walked one hundred miles to a POW camp where he ate grass soup until the war ended, about six weeks later. He lost a good portion of his body weight but not his faith. Before he bailed from the airplane, my uncle had the time to grab one of two things: his revolver or a small bible that his sister gave him. Uncle Charles opted for his bible.

As a kid, the story made me laugh. As an adult, his story makes me shiver.

Until the day he died, Uncle Charles would have devotions out of that very same Bible, the pages worn over the years. And every spare moment he had, Uncle Charles would be “that crazy guy on the street corner” giving away free bibles.

You never really know what people have gone through, why someone leaves you a small green bible instead of a hefty tip or why someone dies while you are on a runway looking at a memory foam mattress for pets or why someone would pay $199 for such a thing.

But I do know my uncle’s story has impacted mine.

You can read it below.

 

 

 

 

 

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The Rice Pilaf is always Fluffier

If somebody asked, “Ginger, what did you do on Sunday?” it wouldn’t have been watch the Cubs game.

I was in Bangkok and met a friend for lunch at Yemeni restaurant in the Nana district. As a young girl in a colorful hijab brought a mountain of aromatic rice and roasted meats, my eyes drifted to a wall of hookah pipes–or actually, what was behind it. The twisty pipes concealed a dining area for males only, where a group of men devoured an Anthony Bourdain sized platter of lamb and rice pilaf. I prayed they used hand sanitizer as their fingers were their eating utensils.

Bangkok. Yemini food. Colorful hijabs. Mysterious men and hookah pipes. Sounds as exciting as a James Bond movie. But don’t let your imagination run away.

My friend and I weren’t conspiring with Agent 007 on how to rig a Roulette wheel in Monaco. We were griping about the increased deductibles of our health insurance policies.

As for the men swooping piles of lamb into their pie holes in the special room behind the hookahs? Most likely, they were in Bangkok cheating on their wives.

Exciting? Yeah, right.

Sorry. Life overseas isn’t the exotic adventure you imagine. It’s not that much different than yours.

It’s easy to imagine glamourous lives for every person you pass on the streets in Bangkok. The Japanese fashionista teetering on stilettos. The backpacker with dusty dreadlocks and Birkenstocks. The German in cool eye frames and Gustav Klimt t-shirt. What are they doing here? What stamps fill their passports? Are they selling government secrets or heading to Starbucks to grumble about their insurance premiums?

Everyone else’s lives can seem  more interesting than one’s own, especially in a world obsessed with posting retouched selfies on facebook. Single folk wish they were married. Married folk wish they were still single. Kids wish they were grown-ups. Old folks with for their youth. Those kvetching in Asia wish they were watching baseball in America. And so on.

But other than the never-ending variety of smells, AND the meat section at Walmart, AND motorcycles driving on sidewalks, AND the fake Arc de Triomphe  outside my bedroom window, living in China has become as routine as living anywhere else.

For starters, the reason I am in Bangkok? I’m getting my semi-annual boob squeeze at Bumrungrad Hospital. Hospitals in China do not have  JCI  accreditation (an acronym I didn’t even knew existed until I moved to the flipside). This assures you that the hospital has a stamp of approval before a polyp removal. That’s why expats in China routinely go to Bangkok for a poke, scrape and probe.

Food choices in China-even in my quaint village of six million–are expanding. You no longer have to smuggle cheese in your suitcase when returning from the States. Good Mexican food is rare, but in Shang Hai, Taco Bell does deliver. Gatorade periodically appears on the shelves of Carrefour. Molasses is still as hard to find as a size 8 women’s shoe.

In a few days, I’ll return to the USA for a month and will be overwhelmed by things you do not notice. Things you think are boring but I will find exciting. They include new samples at Costco, a new haircut for the Channel 5 weatherman, another variation of orange juice beyond pulp-free-calcium-fortified-low-acid. Toilets with seats. Signs in English. Ketchup that tastes like ketchup.

As I give up my seat to a monk on a city bus in Bangkok and you give up yours to an elderly person wherever you are, we can only hope that somewhere in the world, life is as exciting as it looks in travel brochures.

But everywhere else?  The rice pilaf is always fluffier, the pad thai is always paddier, and the grass is always greener in Vietnam (that’s only because of residual Agent Orange).

It’s just the same-same but different.

Cubs baseball at a sports bar in Bangkok, the Nana District

 

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