na foine ting

Thursday, August 19, 2004
Good hockey weekend, both teams victorious over old rivals. Blizzard suffered their first loss of the season to us. They were... well, upset. Loudly. Poor liddle fings.

I didn't do much; still hurt (pulled hip flexor) and my playing showed it.

Still, any hockey's good hockey.


I'm flattened about Vinnie, and don't want to talk about it.


High Thin Wire is updated. For those of you who don't know, Strange Horizons bought "Echo, Sonar," which is a High Thin Wire story about Vaughn that also has Ace in it.

Better still, they've asked Mats (HTW's unbelievably talented artist) to illustrate the story, which is good for everyone.

The story should be out sometime this fall; I'll keep you all posted.


More memoir soon.


Thursday, August 12, 2004

Five part harmony. Six part harmony.

We sat on the mats on the floor and I hummed and said random vowel sounds and I had been around music and musicians all my life, but these kids could sing.

At Leififi Intermediate School we wore crisp cotton uniforms: pink shirts and gray pinafores for the girls, gray shorts for the boys. Over our hearts were stitched the school crest and a ribbon which denoted our House. Blue House, Red House, Yellow House, Green House. We were divided into our Houses for doing work around the school, for academic competition and for Game Days.

I was Blue House both years. In Samoan schools palagi kids were mostly a liability to their houses. We didn't speak the language, we came from schools where corporal punishment was all but abandoned, and worse still, we couldn't weave mats.

"Stupid girl can't even open a coconut." This, from my best friend Moana. It wasn't strictly true. I could open a coconut; I'd hurl it at a cement wall and it'd crack open. Usually. I couldn't do it with a machete in one hand and the coconut in the other, tossing the coconut into the air, whacking it with the machete--whack, whack, whack--simple economic motion with a deadly weapon thath somehow resulted in a coconut with its top cut neatly off and not a drop of the juice spilled.

"Stupid Samoan," I said, which was really the only possible response.

"Stupid palagi," she said.

We would sit around in the grass at lunch picking blades and stripping them, looking for a good stem to put in our earring holes. Jewelry of any sort was not allowed, along with unbraided hair and makeup.

Moana was Moana Tamasese. The fact that her mother was a New Zealander and her father a Samoan was entirely mitigated by the royal last name. We lived in one of the Tamasese family houses when we first came to Samoa. It was a huge, dark, forbidding place on a paved road surrounded by other houses of important Samoan families. We were all much happier in the cinder block compound up in Vailima. I was and still am fairly sure the Tamasese house was haunted.

My being Moana's friend was something of a mixed blessing to her in terms of status. That I was white tended to make her look less like a half-palagi, where she looked reasonably Samoan in contrast, spoke the language and knew how to weave mats and could claim a royal lineage. On the other hand, I was American, eccentric and useless to her in terms of economic prestige. Most white kids arrived at school in nice cars. Mercedes, Peugeots. I arrived in a bright orange Renault. Moana arrived in her mother's beat-up pickup truck.

I had long ago stopped trying to fit in. Being the only American was something I was now used to. I was "Yankee" this. "Yankee" that. "Yank." By the time we lived in Samoa I was used to being the only one with an American accent, red hair, and parents who were not embassy but UN.

In other places, this sort of "separate but equal" status worked for me. In Burma I'd been "Hla Omar," "Little Princess." In Ghana I'd been tormented and teased and could withdraw and segregate myself. Wounded and righteous, the perpetual foreign victim.

But not in Samoa. One morning after assembly pretty Leilani grabbed my arm. Hard. "You weren't even singing any words," she said.

"I don't know them," I told her, and felt it was a reasonable answer.

The grip grew bruising. "That's our national anthem," she said.

You don't hide in Samoa. And by the time I'd lost the kids a few House Challenges with my non-singing, my crappy dancing and my unconventional coconut opening methods, it was made clear--very clear--to me that a certain amount of cultural education was in order.

Moana's family got involved. Because it was Samoa, and Samoa is about family, which is one of the main reasons it's impossible to hide.

I found myself taken across the island to the villages of distant relatives. Matai's houses, where the customs and taboos are many, and strictly enforced. We would spend weekends there, where no one appeared to speak any English (including Moana, who had just been speaking English to me on the way there in the car), and I had the sense that palagi or no palagi, if I screwed up I stood a good chance of getting taken out into the banana trees and getting whipped like any other little miscreant Samoan kid.

I helped cook for fiafia. I swept floors. I helped sew dresses. I was silent when I was supposed to be and started to learn things like to say "talofa lava" and "fa'afetai" and how to act and when to sit and when to stand when the matai, the chief, walks in.

I went and sat in church many Sundays, sitting on the mats, helping fan the old ladies, listening to sermon and readings in Samoan, crosslegged on the floor for four, five, six hours at a stretch. Eventually I picked up words. Eventually I started recognizing prayers, like the Lord's Prayer.

In a while I was singing along with the hymns.

And dancing; I was learning that too, because in Samoa everyone dances, and there's nothing more embarassing than having a member of your family who can't dance.

So I learned to show a sunrise with my hands, or waves and flying fish. I learned to show cutting a coconut--the right way--and how to scrape it and squeeze the milk out, all with my hands. I learned the complicated clap patterns of sasa, until we'd be out in the garden, clap-clap-clapping faster and faster and I wasn't always the one who screwed it up first.

At school, I spent less time around the white kids. More time with my other friends.

I'm not sure how it happened, but someone talked to my mother and one day a taupo arrived at our house. Serious and stern, the honored virgin whose job it is to serve ceremonial kava and dance the most important dances.

She continued to teach me dancing, until there were things I knew about Samoan siva that some of my classmates didn't know.

I sang hymns in the shower.

At assembly I still got pinched and poked for getting words wrong in the songs, but people stopped groaning when it came time for us to divide into our House groups and I showed up for challenges and games.

I still sing the hymns, and have taught them to my son, who won't hear the five and six part harmony I hear in my head when I sing them.

There is a liability in integrating.

It is the loss that happens when you leave a place. When you no longer are surrounded by people who dance those dances, who weave those mats, who can and will at the drop of a hat, break into harmony and sing.


Tuesday, August 10, 2004
So in hockey news, I quit the Hounds last night.

The team is a good team, family also in the dysfunctional sense, and I've had a great time playing with them.

But there's certain things I won't tolerate.

When the team formed up, Bec and I were both asked to join. Bec was still a beginner goalie but the Hounds captains made it clear that she was the one they wanted, and we joked at the time that I was part of a package deal.

Which isn't exactly a joke. We are, in the greater scheme of things, married. We are, in the greater scheme of things, a package deal.

This means that when a captain announces to everyone in the locker room that we have a new starting goalie and a new sub goalie, and the team's original starting goalie can come back from having our baby "and be a sub or something" I lose my temper.

To put it in perspective: imagine Nabby gets hurt. He comes back from recuperating and the club tells him "well, while you've been gone we've changed some things. We have a backup goalie and Vesa is starting now, and so we'll get you a game or two when we can but no guarantees, OK?"

You see how that's not OK, don't you?

It isn't just this incident. It's hearing in the parking lot later that this same guy has been talking around the team about how bad it is for my son not to have a father, and how he disagrees with that.

Funny how that might translate to punishing the pregnant lesbian, when you consider it.

It's the same guy who on the bench said to me sotto voce: "do you have much of a relationship with X?" Who happens to be another woman.

"Not really--I mean, I like her, but we don't really talk," I said.

"Well," he continued. "I'm just wondering if someone could talk to her a little about picking up some speed when she's skating, putting a little more effort into it."

This, on the bench. During a game.

From a captain.

You see how it is.

So I'll be looking for a new team to finish out the season with. I've been asked to play with the Ice Hawks, which is a two-division jump up and will present a nice challenge. But I like EEE too, and enjoy playing in and around the group of folks I originally learned the game with.

So if you're reading this, and you have a spot, by all means let me know.


Monday, August 09, 2004
We saw Miss Saigon, done by the spectactularly talented kids at CMT this weekend. Twice.

Bec was in the Philippines during the fall of Saigon, and my family was in Burma (now Myanmar) shortly thereafter.

It's funny how relatively unaffected you can be by the story's plot drama, things like suicides and thwarted love, and how deeply and crucially other things hit you, like refugees on a chain link fence, images of abandoned children, or the faces of dictators on banners and buildings.

I had a sense of a constant proximity to strife and suffering, growing up. Along with that, an overpowering sense of removal, where I could see, experience and be affected by it all, and also couldn't do anything about it.

In a way, this probably defines the expatriate third-world experience.

Or the human experience. I don't know.


"This is Radio Rangoon, coming to you on a beautiful--ah, no, very rainy--Tuesday morning. With me today I have as always the lovely Lauren--say hello, Lauren--"


"--and soon we will be going to--where are we going to?"

"Ice cream."

"Ice cream, but first, a lovely rendition of--of what? Speak into the microphone now:"

". . . you say."

"Daisy Bell."


In chorus: "Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer do. . ."

The wet Rangoon streets slid by around us, and jasmine dangled from the rear view mirror, mixing with the smell of cigars and Maurice's pungent cologne.

Maurice was half Burmese, half Scot. He looked like a somewhat swarthier Cary Grant, with elegant hands and a rogue's smile. Maurice worked for the KGB, which meant that the job as our driver had less to do with driving and more to do with tracking and reporting our movements around the country.

Being a secret agent apparently didn't stop one from taking little girls for ice cream. Or to the movies. Or out to the lake behind the Shwedagon Paya to ride ponies. Maurice would pay the pony ride man, and then take the lead rope himself, running along beside the pony and alternately threatening it in Burmese and encouraging me in English, mostly along the lines of phrases learned from westerns.

"Get 'em up there! Ride 'em cowboy!"

Maurice wanted to emigrate to the States and run a dude ranch. Like many men in third world countries, his impression of the US came primarily from movies that were highly censored and a decade or so out of date. To him ours was a John Wayne world; romantic, full of adventure and opportunity, and a far cry from socialist Burma under Ne Win.

He would have done well here.

Maurice knew everyone, and everything. He knew when things were going to happen, and how to get things done. In a world where he was forced to work between governments, countries and ideologies, he made his own rules and carved out a life for himself that had a surprising amount of integrity, surprisingly little compromise.

"And today?" he would ask my father as we got into the car. "In the book or not in the book?"

He'd tap the log book he kept on the dashboard with a cigarette-stained fingertip.

My father might on certain days shake his head.

"Good, fine. No book today."

It was Maurice who truly understood my fear of all things in my bedroom that went creeping and crawling. Maurice who time and again raced up the stairs at my shriek and dispatched this spider, that cockroach from the dolls' house. Or who had the brilliant suggestion of keeping my many stuffed animals hammocked in the canopy of mosquito netting over my bed.

Maurice was a servant. It's what in 1974 domestic help was still called, in a country where even police state socialism couldn't quite throw off British imperialism's effect.

There was curry luncheon every Sunday afternoon at the Rangoon club. Expatriates from all the embassies gathered around long tables laden with crystal and silver. Brown people served. White people ate.

My father and his Scottish cohort both bridled at the club tradition but like many things one finds in foreign service, weren't in a position to change much. They drank too much beer, behaved badly. On one notable occasion they paid two rickshaw drivers to lend them their rigs, and had a post-lunch rickshaw race down Rangoon Road, stripped bare to the pale waist.

Maurice came and went as he liked in our house. He didn't knock, and often used the front door. In the morning he arrived with newspaper packages full of jasmine for my mother, which hung in baskets around the house, filling it with their sweet, heavy scent.

I never again felt as safe in a third world country as I did with Maurice in Rangoon. In the market, out in the streets, out in the jungle when we drove long distances to visit his relatives on the government dime.

When we visited Burma again, I was old enough to realize when we left how we had gone without having done enough for him.

And how, with everything else, he had forgiven us for that as well.


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