“And thereby hangs a tale.”

The Beastly Beatitudes of the Chinese Zodiac

After over half a century of reading and collecting paper place mats from Chinese restaurants all over the world, I’ve decided to collate my collection and share the Wisdom of the East with anyone who believes that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of by western horoscopes.

As you probably know, according to legend, the twelve animals in the Chinese Zodiac are listed in the order in which they arrived for an important meeting called by the Buddha (or maybe the Jade Emperor).  Unknown to the ox, the rat had jumped upon his back.  As the ox approached the destination, the easy rider jumped off his back, and this is why the rat is the first year of the animal cycle, the ox second, etc.

It might amuse you to know that, because of their birth years, Mozart and Shakespeare are rats, Richard Nixon and Barack Obama are oxen, Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt are rabbits, Michelle Obama and Sarah Palin are dragons, and Dick Cheney is a snake.

My mother tells me I was born on the day of a year when the “sympathetic” sheep was being ushered out by the “manipulative” monkey, that I am neither one nor the other but both, inheriting and exhibiting not just the best but also the worst characteristics of these two creatures.  My mother doesn’t like people to know it, but she’s a pig.  I console her by reminding her that Alfred Hitchcock is also a pig  She loves his movies—Psycho, The Woman Who Knew Too Much, and, of course, Dial M for Mother.

What about you?  If you have the stomach for it, you might want to check out your own beastly beatitudes below, courtesy of all the paper place mats from all the Chinese restaurants through the years which have contributed to my hardened arteries.

Rat:  1900, 1912, 1924, 1936, 1948, 1960, 1972, 1984, 1996, 2008

Forthright, tenacious, systematic, meticulous, charismatic, sensitive, hardworking, industrious, charming, eloquent, sociable, artistic, shrewd.  Can be manipulative, vindictive, mendacious, venal, selfish, obstinate, critical, over-ambitious, ruthless, intolerant, scheming.

Famous Rats: Michelangelo Antonioni, James Baldwin, Charlotte Bronte, Truman Capote, Wilt Chamberlain, Prince Charles, Sasha Cohen, Eminem, Scarlett Johansson, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Plato, Robert Redford, William Shakespeare, Leo Tolstoy, George Washington.

Ox:  1901, 1913, 1925, 1937, 1949, 1961, 1973, 1985, 1997, 2009

Dependable, calm, methodical, born leader, patient, hardworking, ambitious, conventional, steady, modest, logical, resolute, tenacious.  Can be stubborn, narrow-minded, materialistic, rigid, demanding.

Famous Oxen: Pedro Almodovar, Johann Sebastian Bach, Napoleon Bonaparte, Charlie Chaplin, George Clooney, Marlene Dietrich, Walt Disney, Anton Dvorak, Jane Fonda, Clark Gable, George Frederic Handel, William Inge, Rachel Maddow, Yukio Mishima, Paul Newman, Richard Nixon, Barack Obama, Vincent Van Gogh.

Tiger:  1902, 1914, 1926, 1938, 1950, 1962, 1974, 1986, 1998, 2010

Unpredictable, rebellious, colorful, powerful, passionate, daring, impulsive, vigorous, stimulating, sincere, affectionate, humanitarian, generous.  Can be restless, reckless, impatient, quick-tempered, obstinate, selfish, aggressive, unpredictable.

Famous Tigers: Emily Bronte, Fidel Castro, Sheryl Crow, Tom Cruise, Emily Dickinson, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Lady Gage, Langston Hughes, Jay Leno, Jerry Lewis, Karl Marx, Marilyn Monroe, Marco Polo, Beatrix Potter, Queen Elizabeth II, Jean Seberg, Jon Stewart.

Rabbit:  1903, 1915, 1927, 1939, 1951, 1963, 1975, 1987, 1999, 2011

Gracious, good friend, kind, sensitive, soft-spoken, amiable, elegant, reserved, cautious, artistic, thorough, tender, self-assured, astute, compassionate, flexible.  Can be moody, detached, superficial, self-indulgent, opportunistic, stubborn.

Famous Rabbits: David Beckham, Johnny Depp, Zac Efron, Albert Einstein, Eartha Kitt, Whitney Houston, Angelina Jolie, Rush Limbaugh, Arthur Miller, Brad Pitt, Frank Sinatra, Leon Trotky, Orson Welles, Tiger Woods.

Dragon:  1904, 1916, 1928, 1940, 1952, 1964, 1976, 1988, 2000, 2012

Magnanimous, stately, vigorous, strong, self-assured, proud, noble, direct, dignified, zealous, eccentric, intellectual, fiery, passionate, decisive, pioneering, ambitious, artistic, generous, loyal.  Can be tactless, arrogant, imperious, tyrannical, demanding, intolerant, dogmatic, violent, impetuous, brash.

Famous Dragons: Edward Albee, Susan B. Anthony, Joan of Arc, Orlando Bloom, Sigmund Freud, Graham Greene, Bruce Lee, John Lennon, Florence Nightingale, Michelle Obama, Sarah Palin, Keanu Reeves, Ringo Starr, Mae West.

Snake:  1905, 1917, 1929, 1941, 1953, 1965, 1977, 1989, 2001, 2013

Deep thinker, wise, mystic, graceful, soft-spoken, sensual, creative, prudent, shrewd, ambitious, elegant, cautious, responsible, calm, strong, constant, purposeful.  Can be loner, bad communicator, possessive, hedonistic, self-doubting, distrustful, mendacious, suffocating, cold.

Famous Snakes: Ann-Margret, Joan Baez, Dick Cheney, Bob Dylan, Greta Garbo, Audrey Hepburn, James Joyce, John F. Kennedy, Imelda Marcos, Pablo Picasso, Martha Stewart, Kanye West.

Horse:  1906, 1918, 1930, 1942, 1954, 1966, 1978, 1990, 2002, 2014

Cheerful, popular, quick-witted, changeable, earthy, perceptive, talkative, agile (mentally and physically), magnetic, intelligent, astute, flexible, open-minded.  Can be fickle, arrogant, childish, anxious, rude, gullible, stubborn.

Famous Horses: Muhammad Ali, Ingmar Bergman, Jackie Chan, Davy Crockett, James Dean, Clint Eastwood, Ella Fitzgerald, Harrison Ford, Aretha Franklin, Janet Jackson, Ashton Kutcher, Ang Lee, Silvana Mangano, Paul McCartney, Sandra Day O’Connor, Teddy Roosevelt, Sonia Sotomayor, Barbra Streisand, Mike Tyson, Luchino Visconti, Oprah Winfrey, Boris Yeltsin.

Sheep:  1907, 1919, 1931, 1943, 1955, 1967, 1979, 1991, 2003, 2015

Righteous, sincere, sympathetic, mild-mannered, shy, artistic, creative, gentle, compassionate, understanding, mothering, determined, peaceful, generous, seeks security.  Can be moody, indecisive, over-passive, worrier, pessimistic, over-sensitive, complainer, weak-willed.

Famous Sheep: Jane Austen, Catherine Deneuve, Anita Ekberg, Jamie Foxx, Mel Gibson, George Harrison, Mick Jagger, Franz Liszt, Michelangelo, Sam Shepard,  Mark Twain, Rudolph Valentino, Barbara Walters, Bruce Willis, Orville Wright.

Monkey:  1908, 1920, 1932, 1944, 1956, 1968, 1980, 1992, 2004, 2016

Inventor, motivator, improviser, quick-witted, inquisitive, flexible, innovative, problem solver, self-assured, sociable, artistic, polite, dignified, competitive, objective, factual, intellectual.  Can be egotistical, vain, selfish, reckless, snobbish, deceptive, manipulative, cunning, jealous, suspicious.

Famous Monkeys: Julius Caesar, Daniel Craig, Bette Davis, Federico Fellini, Jake Gyllenhaal, Louis Malle, Eleanor Roosevelt, Diana Ross, Will Smith, Elizabeth Taylor, Harry S. Truman, Leonardo da Vinci, Alice Walker, Naomi Watts.

Rooster:  1909, 1921, 1933, 1945, 1957, 1969, 1981, 1993, 2005, 2017

Acute, neat, meticulous, organized, self-assured, decisive, conservative, critical, perfectionist, alert, zealous, practical, scientific, responsible.  Can be over zealous and critical, puritanical, egotistical, abrasive, opinionated, given to empty bravado.

Famous Roosters: Catherine the Great, Amelia Earhart, Paris Hilton, Rudyard Kipling, Groucho Marx, Britney Spears, Peter Ustinov.

Dog:  1910, 1922, 1934, 1946, 1958, 1970, 1982, 1994, 2006, 2018

Honest, intelligent, straightforward, loyal, sense of justice and fair play, attractive, amicable, unpretentious, sociable, open-minded, idealistic, moralistic, practical, affectionate, sensitive, easy going.  Can be cynical, lazy, cold, judgmental, pessimistic, worrier, stubborn, quarrelsome.

Famous Dogs: Brigitte Bardot, George W. Bush, Mariah Carey, Cher, Winston Churchill, Bill Clinton, Doris Day, Benjamin Franklin, Jean Genet, George Gershwin, Jane Goodall, Herbert Hoover, Michael Jackson, Akira Kurosawa, Sophia Loren, Madonna, Shirley McLaine, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Donald Trump.

Pig:  1911, 1923, 1935, 1947, 1959, 1971, 1983, 1995, 2007, 2019

Honest, gallant, sturdy, sociable, peace-loving, patient, loyal, hard-working, trusting, sincere, calm, understanding, thoughtful, scrupulous, passionate, intelligent.  Can be naive, over-reliant, self-indulgent, gullible, fatalistic, materialistic.

Famous Pigs: Lucille Ball, Humphrey Bogart, Hillary Clinton, Alain Delon, Thomas Jefferson, Ernest Hemingway, Alfred Hitchcock, Mahalia Jackson, Elton John, David Letterman, David Mamet, Keith Olbermann, Elvis Presley, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Tennessee Williams.

Embracing or Erasing Race?

In the bad old days, where racism is concerned, even though they frequently wore white hoods to cover up their faces, we knew exactly who our enemies were.  In public, they were unafraid to call us “Nigger” and all its equivalents–“Chink,” “Jap,” “Gook,” “Flip,” “Spic,” “Wop,” “Kike,” “Polack,” ad nauseam.  Then came the Age of Political Correctness.  The white hoods disappeared from view, and the racial slurs went into hiding.

With the election of President Obama, we briefly fooled ourselves into thinking that this was, indeed, the dawning of the Age of Aquarius.  It’s now clear, however, that we’ve been hoodwinked, and the hateful epithets and images are back, uglier than ever. In some quarters, they are even worn and displayed proudly, as badges of honor, shows of patriotism, signalling a call to action, perhaps even a licence to kill.  Aquarius never felt more like Armaggedon.

I grew up with overt racism in the Philippines.  Being Chinese, belonging to the wealthier middle class, I was taught to distrust the Filipinos, whom we all referred to as “primitive dogs.”  The Filipinos, in turn, taunted us with a sing-song chant which I can still hear inside my head, over half a century later.  Intsik beho, tulo laway! which I can only roughly translate as Chinky workhorse, saliva drooling! Odd as this may sound, I did not know the meaning of racism until I saw the movie adaptation of South Pacific in 1958. After I heard the anger, the pain and the outrage as sung by John Kerr in the song “You’ve Got To Be Taught,”  I would never be the same again. I began to dream about what life might be like in “the Land of the Free, the Home of the Brave.”  But it would take another ten years before I could finally leave for the United States.

In all honesty, I cannot say that I have ever been discriminated against, overtly, here in America, not the way I see and hear stories about how other People of Color continue to be treated in certain parts of these United States, not just by the ignorant and the ill-educated, but also by people who really ought to know better, some of them our own elected State Representatives and Members of Congress, all of whom claim to be right-thinking and right-minded Christians.  Is this why they are called The Religious Right?  What’s wrong with these people?  Have they never seen South Pacific on stage?  In the movies?  On television?

There’s discrimination, and then there’s discrimination. Some subtle, some not so subtle.  I remember Luci Tapahonso, a senior colleague of Navajo descent at the University of Kansas, telling me about salespeople following her vigilantly in department stores, suspicious that she might be a shoplifter. She also talked about a particular grocery store in town where she was frequently informed by cashiers who probably meant well, that she might want to “check out the week-old fruits and vegetables in the back of the store because they are cheaper.”

After Luci told me about these embarrassing encounters, I recalled that I too had had a peculiar experience at this same grocery store.  It had happened a while back.  As I remember it, on that particular occasion, there were a couple of people ahead of me at the checkout line.  While waiting my turn in line, I picked up a copy of TV Guide which was on display near the checkout counter. As I was leafing through the magazine, the young cashier, who looked like she might have been one of my students, suddenly yelled at me.  “Are you going to buy that magazine, or are you just going to stand there and read it for free?”  Everyone heard her, and now everyone was looking at me.  I mumbled an apology and quickly put the magazine back on the rack.  I could have abandoned the groceries in my cart but I didn’t. When my turn came, I paid my bill in silence and left the store in silence.  Driving home, and for a couple of hours afterwards, I seethed.  Why didn’t I throw the magazine in the stupid cashier’s face?  Why didn’t I demand to see the manager and insist that the employee be fired for her rudeness to a customer who had been shopping in that store for years?  And then, of course, I found myself wondering if the Caucasian cashier would have treated me the same way had I been white and comely, not yellow and cowardly.  But, the moment had passed, and now I’ll never know.

When CONPERSONAS, my first play, won the National Student Playwriting Award of the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival in 1976, the prize included representation by the William Morris Agency in New York, the best in the business.  Biff Liff, my agent, said he was happy CONPERSONAS had won the award, but that he would have a hard time marketing the play because it was much too “intellectual.”  He said I should capitalize on, and write about, my own unique Asian background.  That particular scenario, he said, he could sell.  He mentioned Frank Chin, whose plays Chickencoop Chinaman (1971) and The Year of the Dragon (1974) had been produced successfully in New York, and whose book Aiiieeeee: An Anthology of Asian American Writers (1974) had also just been published.  I told Biff Liff that I didn’t want to be pigeonholed as an “ethnic” writer, that I was already hard at work on two other plays, neither of which drew from my own unique Asian background.  He urged me no further and, shortly after that, we had a predictable parting of ways.

Although I have no regrets about the chronology or the subject matter of my plays to date, I must admit, grudgingly, that Biff Liff was a visionary of sorts.  In the same year that I rejected his offer to market my ethnicity, Maxine Hong Kingston burst onto the scene with The Woman Warrior, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction in 1976; followed by China Men, which was given the National Book Award in 1981.  Then came the plays of David Henry Hwang, among them M Butterfly in 1988; and the novels of Amy Tan, starting with The Joy Luck Club in 1989.  And, of course, the movies of Ang Lee were waiting in the wings.

What’s interesting about Ang Lee is that he made three wonderful movies about Chinese Americans—Pushing Hands (1992), The Wedding Banquet (1993) and Eat Drink Man Woman (1994)—before he broke into the mainstream with Sense and Sensibility (1995), The Ice Storm (1997), Brokeback Mountain (2005), etc.  I am a great admirer of his work, and I sometimes wonder what might have happened to my own career had I taken Biff Liff’s suggestion and written MOTHER TONGUE first, the one and only play which draws almost completely on my own unique Asian background; and which, ironically enough, is also my most-produced play to date.  Is MOTHER TONGUE really a better play than CONPERSONAS or CHAMBERS or HOMERICA or FLESH FLASH AND FRANK HARRIS?  Or are audiences more willing to embrace MOTHER TONGUE because it’s an Asian-American play by an Asian-American playwright?

Is racial profiling “bad” when the profile is meant to be complimentary and flattering?  In America, Asians are frequently referred to as “the model minority” because we are quiet, we don’t complain, we are non-threatening sexually, we are conservative and vote mostly Republican, we are studious and hard-working, we all excel in math and calculus.  After all, didn’t we invent the abacus?   I don’t mind it when people seem surprised that, at K.U., I’m teaching English literature and creative writing instead of anything dealing with numbers. Go figure.

There are in fact four other Asian-Americans at K.U. who are in the arts, not the sciences.  Unfortunately, three of them are now retired—Roger Shimomura and Norman Gee from the Visual Arts Department, and Andrew Tsubaki from the Theatre Department.  Pok-Chi Lau in the Design Department and I are the only ones left. Although the five of us look nothing alike, in town as well as on campus, we are frequently mistaken for one another.  I guess it just comes with the territory.  And so, in class, at the beginning of each semester, I always jokingly tell my students that it will take me a while to identify them all properly, because “all white people look alike to me.”

But, sometimes it’s hard to laugh things away. I remember a dinner party I gave at home some years ago, when another senior colleague from my department ooh’d and ahh’d over a dish which I had prepared.  “What is it?” she gushed between happy mouthfuls.  “Ratatouille,” I said, and offered to share my own special recipe with her.  “Ratatouille!” she shrieked merrily.  “What are you doing in French territory?  You should stick to soy sauce!”

For many years, first as a Graduate Teaching Assistant and then as a part-time Lecturer, I was allowed to teach only Freshman Composition and Intro to Drama at K.U.  Meanwhile, on my own time, I had written and published about half a dozen short stories, many of which went on to win major literary awards in the Philippines.  Also, I had now written a number of plays which were getting modest productions Off Broadway in New York.

And then it came to pass. Sometime in the mid-1980s, when the English Department decided to hire a full-time tenure-track creative-writing person, and a national search was being conducted, I asked the Chair of the Department if I should apply for the job.  He seemed surprised by my question and, after a while, he said, “Why, yes, of course, by all means, apply.  You’re about as qualified as anyone else.  Besides, it would really make Affirmative Action happy!”

I did apply, but I didn’t get the job, not once but twice.  Apparently, the pool of applicants was so impressive, the administration gave the Department permission to hire not one but two creative writers, one male and one female, both of them Caucasian.   I have no idea if my application was ever taken seriously.  I only know that my application was never formally acknowledged, and that I was never actually interviewed by the search committee.  But, I’m sure Affirmative Action was really “happy” that I too had applied for the job.

Four years later, when the Provost at K.U. was genuinely dismayed by the lack of People of Color within the faculty, and was determined to do something about it , word went out that any Person of Color who was “qualified” and who was “already around” can bypass a national search, and can be brought in as a Direct Minority Hire.  And that, to make a long story short, was how I finally came on board in 1989 as a full-time faculty member at the University of Kansas.  Shortly after that, I had a startling encounter with a junior colleague in the department, another creative writer who, like me, had been slaving away for years as a part-time lecturer; but who, unlike me, was Caucasian.  She stopped me one day in the hallway and said bitterly, “All things being equal, I may be the right gender, but the color of my skin is wrong, and the shape of my eyes is wrong.”

And now, of course, Affirmative Action is viewed with great suspicion by many in this country.  There is much talk of “reverse discrimination.” It may or may not be amusing, depending on whether you are on the inside looking out, or on the outside looking in.  Filipinos who continue to revere their colonial masters are said to be “coconuts, brown on the outside, but white inside.”  And among many Asian-Americans, those who are perceived as erasing what makes them unique while they are busy embracing the mainstream, are said to be “bananas, yellow on the outside, but white inside.”  Those apples in the Garden of Eden…the Fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil…what color were they?

Sit On Me When I Am Dead!

Although my brothers and I were born of Chinese parents in the Philippines, the three of us emigrated to the United States, separately and for totally different reasons, when we were all in our mid-twenties. It was in the United States where we all established our professional careers; where John and Peter met the wonderful women they married, had well-behaved children (two each) and saw them all graduate successfully from college; and where we will in all likelihood die and be buried—John and Vivian in New Jersey, Peter and Bing in Florida, and me in Kansas.

In life, we who teach and toil at the University of Kansas are paid only modestly, but one of our more attractive fringe benefits is that, when we finally drop dead, those of us who’ve put in time for at least fifteen years at the university, are entitled to be buried FOR FREE at Pioneer Cemetery, a grassy knoll owned and maintained by the university, situated between the five student dormitories on top of old Daisy Hill on Mount Oread, and the new development known as West Campus.  Let me tell you about the bridge which connects the two campuses.

There’s a rumor that foot traffic on the bridge is busiest at night, when students living in the five dorms find themselves sneaking over to the secluded cemetery to indulge, first in alcoholic beverages and other controlled substances, and then, if they’re not too inebriated or stoned, to dangle their participles and split their infinitives, maybe even learn new ways of conjugating not just their verbs but also their nouns.  That the life cycle gets reenacted nightly at Pioneer Cemetery, with the learned spirits of dead professors continuing to have a seminal effect on their young (dis)charges, is something which might give comfort to the aging faculty and staff at the university.  Who needs Cinemax or the Playboy Channel in the afterlife when the frisky students are providing live entertainment for free?   In truth, this is where many of my free-thinking friends and colleagues are buried—Ed Grier, Bud Hirsch—and this is where I too will be inurned, underneath a small rectangular slab of marble. In earlier, more promiscuous days, I thought my epitaph should read: “He finally sleeps alone.”  But, these days, I think the Bard will get to have the final say:  “The rest is silence.”

In the Philippines, the tradition among the Chinese is for entire generations of families to be buried together, if the clan can afford it, in elaborate mausoleums.  The ones at the old Chinese Cemetery are truly ostentatious, outdoing each other in sheer red-and-gold garishness.  The ones at the Manila Memorial Park are equally expansive and expensive, but in better taste, which means that you get more peace and tranquility by way of landscaping, and thus a lot less marble to house your loved ones. When my father died in December of 1969, eighteen months after I left Manila for the United States, my mother carefully studied the feng shui at the Manila Memorial Park before buying a double burial plot, one for my father, and the other for herself when her time comes.

I thought this was all settled until my brothers John and Peter decided otherwise. Since the three of us are now in the United States and will presumably be buried in the United States, they argued, shouldn’t our mother also be buried with us in America?  But where?  With John and Vivian in West Windsor?  With Peter and Bing in Orlando?  With me in Lawrence?  The University of Kansas extends burial privileges at Pioneer Cemetery only to its employees and their spouses, no other beloved family members, not even pets. 

Quite fortuitously, one year back in the mid-1990s, when my mother just happened to be visiting Peter and Bing in Orlando for Thanksgiving, John and Vivian and I all flew in to join them for the holiday weekend.  Peter had done his homework, but we were all a bit apprehensive about how my mother would react to yet another discussion involving her own mortality.  The Chinese are superstitious about these things.  Peter assured us he would broach the subject subtly, casually.  And so, while we were all out for a leisurely drive one afternoon, he said, “By the way, why don’t we all pop over to Woodlawn Memorial Park and Funeral Home?  I have a friend who works there whom I’d like you to meet.”

We all expected Mommie Dearest to crackle and explode, maybe even to spontaneously combust, as she is wont to do on such occasions, but she surprised us when she smiled approvingly and said to Peter, “You have a friend who works on Sunday afternoons?  What a hard-working boy!  His mother must be very proud of him.” 

Peter’s friend turned out to be a Latino who knew exactly how to flatter aging Chinese women.  YOU!  THE MOTHER OF THREE SONS?  IMPOSSIBLE!  SO YOUNG!  SO BEAUTIFUL!  SO RICH…IN BLESSINGS!  He could have sold my mother a swamp full of crocodiles but, wait a minute, only if the feng shui was right, with gentle winds blowing from here to here, and soothing waters flowing from there to there. After what seemed like hours, mother finally found a spot which met with her “good feng shui seal of approval.”  It was a corner lot on the corner of which was a scraggly weeping willow tree in desperate need of fertilizing.  But there was another, more serious problem.

This particular corner lot had room for only FOUR coffin spaces.  Mother said she would gather the bones of my father from his resting place at the Manila Memorial Park, and that these can be interred with her in one of the four spaces. My brother John and his wife Vivian said their particular branch of Protestantism forbids cremation, so they would need two of the four spaces.  My brother Peter and his wife Bing said their religion has no special burial restrictions, so the both of them can be cremated and placed within the same space, the fourth and last available space on that corner lot.

So what about me and my dogs? Where’s our resting place in this developing subplot?  The corner plot wasn’t cheap.  After adding up all the hidden costs, the three Lim brothers would be splitting the bill equally, roughly $6,000 each. So what do I get for my $6,000? Peter’s friend shook his head gravely. And then he had a voila! moment.  Sorry about mixing my metaphors, but I can’t think of what a voila! moment might sound like in Spanish.

Oye! of little faith,”  the man suddenly exclaimed. “Do you not see the beautiful weeping willow tree in the corner?  Imagine a marble bench in that corner, underneath the tree.  There can be as many as FOUR urns inside that bench!  You can have the ashes of all your dogs with you inside that bench!  Together, you will be guarding the final resting place of your loved ones! And all your friends and relatives can sit and rest on the bench as well, admiring the view, thinking only good thoughts of you and your family!”

“Gee, thanks,” I growled under my breath.  “All my life I’ve wanted people to sit on me, and now I get to have my wish when I am dead!”

“Don’t be petulant,” my mother said, although there is no such word as “petulant” in Fukienese, the Chinese dialect that we speak.  I was fighting a losing battle against her notions of feng shui. I could feel the wind blowing against my face, and it wasn’t fragrant.  I could feel the blood flowing through my veins, and it wasn’t thicker than water.  So what’s a dutiful Chinese son to do?  I acquiesced, and spent the next couple of years sending in the monthly payments for my $6,000 bench.

Ultimately, I don’t know if it really makes any difference, after I’m dead, whether I’m inurned at Pioneer Cemetery in Lawrence, or at Woodlawn Memorial Park in Orlando. In one scenario, future generations will be fucking on top of me.  In the other scenario, they will be sitting on me. In either case, purely for hygienic reasons, I hope they’re wearing clean underwear.  Ay, caramba!

Beauty and the Beast

Some friends who’ve been journeying through time with me, after looking at the many pictures of ourselves which I’ve posted chronologically on my website, seem startled and dismayed by how we’ve all aged.  “My God,” one of them exclaimed the other day, “we were all so young and…”

He paused for a long time and, as he seemed unable to continue, in my mind I went through a list of words about what we might have been like all those years ago.  Idealistic?  Romantic?  Innocent?  Naive?  Stupid?  Unreasonable?  Unrealistic?  Untainted? Unblemished?  Unbearable?

“Beautiful,” he said finally. “We were all so young and…beautiful.” 

To be honest, this took me by surprise.  I have never been vain about my looks. When I started to gain weight after I gave up smoking in 1994, and to lose my hair shortly after that, it was of no great consequence, and I didn’t stay up nights worrying about it.  But now, thanks to the ugly rhetoric which keeps coming out of the mouths of people like Carrie Prejean, the ex-Miss California USA 2009 who won’t shut up or go away, I’ve been looking again at the pictures on my website, not of me but of everyone else, trying to determine who’s beautiful and who’s not, and by what standards.  In the Philippines, for example, given the country’s white colonial masters—first the Spaniards and then the Americans, which one witty Filipino writer said was akin to living three hundred years in a convent followed by fifty years in Hollywood—fair or unfair, guess whom the mirror says is the fairest of us all?

Among the many physically “beautiful people” I’ve known in America, there’s one I’d like to tell you about.  I no longer remember his name because this was sometime ago and I knew him only briefly, met with him only twice, spoke with him on the telephone only twice, but I”ll never forget him for what he was, a beautiful young man in his early twenties, a violinist who had been highly recommended by his professors in the School of Music at the University of Kansas. 

Back in those days, at least once every summer for many years, I would give these elaborate garden parties in my backyard for seventy or eighty people.  Lots to eat, even more to drink, and underneath the tall weeping willow tree, accomplished young musicians coaxing beautiful sounds out of their favored instruments, one year a guitar, another year a cello, and on this particular year a violin.  I remember many of the guests wandering over to the beautiful young man, listening to the way he seemed to be communing privately with Bach, Beethoven, Brahms.  There’s a picture of him on the website, resplendent in the late afternoon sunlight, as he played my one request, Massenet’s Meditation from Thais, surrounded by the weeping willows.  Sadly, the tree no longer exists.  It had been dying for years, attacked by termites, and finally I had to have it cut down and destroyed.  In its place I planted a flowering Judas Tree.

But, back to my beautiful violinist.  When the garden party was over, he came into the house and, as I was writing out a check to pay him for his work, he heard the lovebirds twittering in an upstairs bedroom.  “Do you have birds in the house?” he asked, his eyes filled with wonder.

“Yes.  Do you like birds?”

“I don’t know.  I’ve never had any.  Can I see them?”

“Yes, of course.”

I led him upstairs and showed him the original pair of lovebirds which I had started out with, and their first brood of six little ones, some bluish-green, some yellowish-orange.  The young man was transfixed.  Finally, he turned to me and said, “Can I have a couple of them? You have so many.”

“Well, I don’t know.”

“I’ll be happy to buy them from you.”

“I wasn’t planning to sell them.”

“Oh please. They are so beautiful.”  Beautiful creatures are drawn to each other, I thought approvingly.  Maybe they will make beautiful music together.

“If you’ve never had birds, you’ll need a cage to begin with, and the cage must be cleaned at least once weekly.  Then you must also buy special lovebird seeds and liquid vitamins to add to their water daily.   You’ll also need another cup containing a mixture of gravel and oyster shells to help them digest their food, sand paper for the perches to help trim their nails, cuttle bones to help trim their beaks, special treats like fruits and vegetables to supplement their diet, to say nothing of bird toys to keep them amused, and…”

“I’ll use the money you’re giving me today to buy all that.”  He flashed me a beautiful smile.  How could I resist?

He returned the next day for two of the baby birds, but he didn’t have a birdcage with him.  He said the one he bought was much too big to fit in the car after he had put it all together.  Instead, he brought a big empty rectangular aquarium.  He said he could transport the birds in this old aquarium, then transfer them to the new birdcage after he got back to his apartment.  He flashed me another smile.  How can anyone have teeth so white?  I really needed to give up smoking.

A couple of days later, I got a peculiar phone call from someone who said he was the beautiful young man’s roommate.  “About those birds that you gave him…”


“Did you know that he has a pet boa constrictor which he keeps in an aquarium?”


“He came home with those birds, and when the boa couldn’t catch them, he chopped their feet off.”


“He just sat there, drinking his beer, watching those terrified birds bleeding to death as the boa started to eat them.”


“He’s going to call you tomorrow, to ask you for more birds.  He says you have four more.  Please don’t give him any more.”

And, indeed, the young man did call, the very next day, asking if he could have two more.  He said his girlfriend had come over to his apartment, had seen the birds, had fallen in love with them, and that he had no choice but to give them to her.  So could he have two more?  In my mind’s eye, I could see him flashing his beautiful smile, yet again.  And then I thought of him feeding my birds to his “girlfriend.”

“I’m sorry,” I said, wondering why I was apologizing instead of screaming at him. “The papa bird and mama bird seem unhappy about the disappearance of two of their young ones.  I can’t give away any more of their babies.”

And that was that.  I never saw or heard from the young man again.  In this story, Beauty not only falls in love with the Beast, Beauty turns into the Beast.  Even today, as I retell and relive the story, I find myself near tears.  And I am reminded of a poem written by another friend in the Philippines, someone whom all the pretty girls in our group laughed at, when we were all so young, because they said he was so ugly.  Here are the final lines of his poem:  “Why am I Melancholy/before so much Beauty?”

The poet’s name was Jun Lansang and, like the weeping willow tree in my backyard, he too is now dead and gone.  But the young Judas Tree which replaced it and which I can see from my bedroom window flowered this spring, and will continue to do so for many years yet to come.

Nice Boys Don’t Implode!

I’m directing a concert reading of THE DESIGNATED MOURNER, a dramatic discourse by Wallace Shawn, for English Alternative Theatre at the University of Kansas on Labor Day, so I’ve been thinking lately about why Shawn, who is such a fine and accomplished thinking-man’s playwright, is mostly known only for his work in the movies and on television.

First and foremost, there’s MY DINNER WITH ANDRE, the extraordinary 1981 film directed by Louis Malle, which Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory scripted together and then appeared in, as themselves, having a lesurely dinner at a fashionable restaurant near Lincoln Center, all the while conversing most engagingly and eruditely about their wondrous lives in the theatre.  It’s the sort of conversation I often imagine myself having, in my dreams, with Plato and Aristotle, and sometimes with Socrates, but I always manage to wake up just in time when the Greek waiters in the taverna start filling my cup with hemlock.

Sadly, after MY DINNER WITH ANDRE, Wallace Shawn appeared in a lot of absolutely awful movies, chief among them an execrable exercise in sheer dementia called NICE GIRLS DON’T EXPLODE. Believe it or not, I’m in this movie with him. I’m in it because it was shot in my own backyard (so to speak) in Lawrence, KS, and the local casting director was a friend who thought, back in 1987, that I might be “perfect” for one of the smaller speaking parts.

If you look up NICE GIRLS DON’T EXPLODE in The Internet Movie Database, a certain Jeremy Perkins from the UK who has actually seen this dreadful movie offers the following synopsis of the plot:  “April has a problem.  Whenever she gets anything like passionate with a guy, all sorts of things seem to spontaneously combust.  The only men she meets more than once are firefighters.  Actually, it’s Mom’s way of trying to keep her little girl to herself, but new boyfriend Andy is having none of such nonsense.  So the heat’s on.  Unfortunately, it’s Fluffy the cat who keeps getting caught in the middle.”

April is played by someone I’ve never heard of. Likewise her Boyfriend Andy. But Mom is Barbara Harris, fresh out of Robert Altman’s NASHVILLE; and Wallace Shawn is a weird guy whom Mom enlists to help her convince April that she’s a dangerous firestarter.  On IMDb, two respectable professors from the Theatre Department at the University of Kansas are also credited as having parts in the movie: William Kuhlke as “Dr. Stewart,” and Jack Wright as “Maitre’d.”

Scroll to the very bottom of the cast list and you’ll see that I too am in the movie. But the character I play has no name.  I am merely called “Chinese Dad.”  Which is better than Fluffy the Cat, I suppose, who gets billed as “Orange Cat #5,” although I did find out during the shoot that this cool cat from L.A. was actually Morris from those adorable Purina catchow TV commercials.  Correction: one of six Morrises who all look exactly alike, so they can double for each other in the commercials.  In any case, “Orange Cat #5” and “Chinese Dad” developed a special relationship during the shoot, but I’m getting ahead of the story.

Here’s how I became the most troublesome actor on the set of NICE GIRLS DON’T EXPLODE, although you would never know this from my performance if you should ever have the misfortune of seeing this abysmal movie.

To begin: Everyone in Lawrence, KS was excited about a movie (any movie) being shot in the same town where William Quantrill had shot and killed 167 men and teenage boys back in 1863. My friend, the local casting director, urged me to sign on for two short scenes, for which he said I would be paid (if I remember correctly) the princely sum of $850, not to be sneezed at even by today’s standards, 22 years later.  But it wasn’t really the money that convinced me to sign on; it was the chance to be in a movie with Wallace Shawn. Maybe Wally and I would become friends. He might write a feature-length movie for the two us to appear in, as ourselves.  It could be called MY DIM-SUM LUNCH WITH PAUL. Or, at the very least, if the movie turns out to be only a short subject, MY MERIENDA WITH PAUL.

But, back to reality: I was given a couple of pages of the script for the first of my two scenes in the movie.  In it, Boyfriend Andy, an avid pingpong player, fantasizes that he’s in China playing against the Chinese Champ in a public auditorium.  Sitting in the VIP section watching the match are Mom, April accompanied by Fluffy, and me dressed in a Mao jacket (with a spiffy red scarf around my neck) as a Chinese Dignitary. Fluffy is squatting on April’s lap on my immediate left. At one point during the game, I’m supposed to turn to the cat and say, with a thick Chinese accent, just three words, the first one of which is just a sound: “Oooooo…nice cat.”  And then the camera zooms in for a tight close-up of Fluffy, as the pingpong game continues.

The scene was shot in the gymnasium of Haskell Indian Nations University near downtown Lawrence.  I don’t know where they found all the Asians to fill that large venue, but there they were, my people, hordes of them, chattering away in all the incomprehensible dialects of our common mother tongue. Someone said that my people had been rounded up like cattle in Chinese restaurants all over Kansas and Missouri, and that they had been bussed in for the day’s coolie labor.  The whole scene took over ten hours to shoot, with a brief lunch break when we were all given small lunch boxes from Kentucky Fried Chicken to keep us calorically full and filled but not fulfilled.  So that’s how General Tso got licked by Colonel Sanders in Kansas!

Before we all left for the day, Chuck Martinez, the Hispanic-American director of the movie, said my work in the scene with Fluffy was “fine.”  They would be in touch “soon” about my second scene. The Lawrence Journal-World printed daily reports on the progress of the shoot, and I became somewhat concerned when I read in the paper that they were starting to “wrap up” the movie, and I still had not heard from them. Finally, late one afternoon, I got the telephone call. They gave me the address of an old house, again near downtown Lawrence. They told me to report for make-up and wardrobe at eight o’clock that night.

When I showed up, they introduced me to the Chinese wife and two Chinese children of a Chinese colleague at the University of Kansas.  They were supposed to be my wife and children in the scene we were shooting. There was also an ancient Chinese woman present who was supposed to be my mother or grandmother.  Where they found this old woman, I have no idea.  At wardrobe, they gave me a long Chinese gown to wear which made me look like Fu Manchu.  And then I was given the pages of the script for the second scene.

This time, there are no Caucasian actors around, just me and my traditional Chinese family, sitting eagerly around a dinner table on top of which is a burbling Mongolian hot pot.  It’s burbling because it’s filled with water, and a person in charge of props had just dropped some dry ice into it.  Again, for some reason, Fluffy is squatting on a cushion on the chair to my immediate left. And again I am supposed to turn to the cat, speaking with a heavy Chinese accent.  But this time I say more than three words.  This time I say:  “So glad you can join us for dinner, Honorable Cat.  We all love cat.” Snicker, snicker, snicker. Then I’m supposed to pick up the cat and hold it over the burbling hot pot as the camera zooms in for another tight close-up of the terrified creature.  The whole sequence, apparently, is Fluffy’s fantasy, provoked by the earlier pingpong scene, when I had leaned over in his direction and said, “Oooooo…nice cat.”

Needless to say, I was horrified for any number of reasons by this scene, so I raced out into the night in my garish Fu Manchu robes looking for Chuck Martinez, the director.

“Look,” I said, when I finally found him, “we Chinese eat a lot of things–shark’s fin, bear’s paws, monkey’s brains, snakes and puppies–but WE DO NOT EAT CATS!”


“So the scene misrepresents my people.”

“Your people?”

“Yes.  How would you like it if I were to cast you in a movie as a greasy Mexican bandido who, when he’s not robbing and killing gringos, is always found sleeping slothfully underneath a gigantic sombrero?”

“That’s beside the point.  I’m the one making the movie, not  you.  You signed the contract, you cashed the check, and now you will do the scene exactly as it is written.”

“You can have your money back.”

“A contract is a contract.  You will do the scene exactly as it is written.  We have lawyers…”

“And I have friends in the Asian-American community in New York and Los Angeles who will protest and boycott your movie when you are foolish enough to release it.”  He knew I was referring to the furor created by David Henry Hwang and other Asian-Americans over the Broadway production of MISS SAIGON.

“That’s ridiculous.  A contract is a contract.  You will do the scene exactly as it is written.  We have lawyers…”

And so I returned to the shoot and did the scene exactly as it was written.  But, when it came time for me to pick up Fluffy and hold him over the burbling Mongolian hot pot, even though the cat had been sedated for the scene, “Orange Cat #5” went totally ballistic and started clawing wildly at my hands and arms.  I was starting to bleed from all the scratches.  No matter, I said to myself, be Zen-like, stoical. NICE GIRLS DON’T EXPLODE, and NICE BOYS DON’T IMPLODE.

“Pssssst!” the animal-trainer from L.A. hissed at beast.  “Pssssst!”

They covered up my wounds with make-up, and we tried shooting the scene again.

“Pssssst! Pssssst!”

It didn’t work.  “Orange Cat #5” continued to mangle and maul my hands and arms.  More make-up to cover up the wounds. After the third try, I turned to the director and smiled benignly, “My contract says nothing about my getting injured, and getting God knows what sorts of diseases from this cat.  I have lawyers…”

“It’s a wrap!” the director yelled suddenly, and we all went home, me to further nurse my wounds with Mercurochrome and rubbing alcohol, thinking all the while that, to add insult to injury, I had never actually met Wallace Shawn the whole time he was shooting his scenes in Lawrence.

When NICE GIRLS DON’T EXPLODE was released commercially and had its big premier in Lawrence, I refused to see it, but friends who did told me I was not actually in it, even though I was listed in the end credits as “Chinese Dad.”

Curiously enough, because of that damned contract which I signed, to this day I continue to get residual payments for my “work” in the movie, even though my two scenes never made it to the final cut.  Every time they sell the movie to some unsuspecting third-world country or two-bit airline, I get a check in the mail for some astonishing amount like $1.12 or less.  I have never cashed these checks.

But when the DVD was released on June 12, 2007, I finally gave in and bought a copy, hitting the pause button frequently during that whole pingpong episode. If you don’t blink, you  will catch a glimpse of me in my Mao Jacket and my spiffy red scarf, sitting beside April with Fluffy on her lap but, Confucius be praised, I don’t appear anywhere else in the movie. There are no “special features” on the DVD, no revelation of “deleted scenes.”  Big sigh of relief.  And I’ve just learned from Amazon.com that “this item has been discontinued by the manufacturer.” Hmmmm.  I wonder why.

On its website, IMDb lists no other movie credits for me, nor for Paul Harris, the man who wrote the screenplay for NICE GIRLS DON’T EXPLODE.  But for Chuck Martinez, IMDb lists two other directorial credits, a made-for-TV movie in 1988 called SUPERBOY, and a full-length commercial release called THE EFFECTS OF MAGIC in 1998, about a magician and his talking bunny.  Nothing after that.  I ought not to be glad because I now believe, underneath it all, just like “Orange Cat #5,” he is, we are, all of us, just helpless creatures frightened of all the burbling Mongolian hot pots in our lives.

To conclude:  I wonder if Wally is on FACEBOOK.  I could “poke” him, invite him to visit Lawrence again, ask him to attend the concert reading which I’m directing of his play THE DESIGNATED MOURNER on Labor Day.  Afterwards, we can go out for a drink or two (or three), chat till the wee hours of the morning, then go have a bite somewhere.  All this time, of course, he can be taking notes for his next film and/or dramatic discourse, MY PANCAKES WITH PAUL.

The Cutting Edge in Manila

My family has known it for, like, forever, but most Americans are now just discovering that it’s a lot cheaper to go overseas for their medical procedures. Insurance companies are calling it “medical tourism.”  According to the Deloitte Center for Health Solution, 1.6 million Americans are expected to embark on trips for overseas health care in 2010, which more than doubles the 750,000 Americans who traveled abroad in 2007 for similar purposes.  Major destinations seem to be Third World countries in Asia, Central  America, the Caribbean, etc.

What “cash for clunkers”  did for the automobile industry, “medical tourism” can do for health-care reform in America.  Even better, it will put a lot of people back to work in our ailing airline industry, to say nothing of advertising agencies.  MAD MEN will truly rule!  I can relive my own salad days as a copywriter when I finally retire from academia!  Salad days.  Hmmm.  I like that.  Green is good, when even the President’s wife is growing her own lettuce and tomatoes in the White House. But I digress.  Let’s get back to the creative business of copywriting.  Here are some possible advertising slogans:

“Can’t afford new dentures in Kansas, or new bridges to nowhere in Alaska?  Yes you can…in Cancun!”

“Left your heart in San Francisco?  We’ll give you a new one…in Santo Domingo!”

“Say bye-bye to all those eye-popping MRI bills…in Mumbai!”

“No Bull!   We kid you not!   Free kidneys with your dream vacation…in Istanbul!”

“Horrified by the high cost of health care in America?   Then come to…Costa Rica!”

“In the U.S. they charge you an arm and a leg for limb surgery.   But with US, you get your pick of perky prosties even as you wait for your prosthetics!”

You get the idea.  As I said earlier, my family has known about “medical tourism” for years. Let me tell you about my youngest brother, a successful dentist in Orlando, married, with two kids.  He owns an expensive boat and goes deep-sea fishing with his buddies, spending as little time as possible in the clinic inflicting pain on his patients.  So it isn’t as though he couldn’t afford it, but in the mid-1990s, when he found out that I was planning a trip home to the Philippines to visit our mother, he asked if it would be okay if his youngest son tagged along with me. Louie was around thirteen years old at the time, too young to travel by himself on such a long journey. My brother thought it would be a good idea if the kid could explore his Chinese “roots” in Manila while I was there, so I could keep an eye on him while he did his exploring.  Besides, my brother said, for some reason, Louie  wants to be circumcised, and it’s cheaper to get the deed done in Manila. Kill two birds with one primitive stone implement, so to speak.

And so it came to pass.  The day came when I accompanied Louie to the dingy office of the doctor who had been recommended for this delicate procedure.  Louie was ushered through the limp curtain which separated “the operating room” from “the waiting room” where I waited. Where I could hear all the noises emanating from hell, the clatter of metallic objects falling on the floor, the cries and shrieks of my pubescent nephew who, in this unkindest cut of all, was in all likelihood losing his entire manhood, farewell to posterity and all that.

“Why don’t you sing a song?” I heard the doctor asking Louie.

“What song?”

“Anything at all.  Something to take your mind off what I’m doing down here.”

And then–softly, feebly, plaintively–I heard my poor nephew singing:  “Oh-oh…saaaay…can…you…seeeeeeee?”

I’ve never heard the National Anthem sung more freely, more bravely, more movingly.  And I had to fly over seven thousand miles across the Pacific Ocean, all the way to the Philippines, to hear it.  These are the ties that bind, indeed; even though, as of this writing, my youngest brother, who still lives in Orlando and who still goes deep-sea fishing with his buddies, also still has no grandchildren, at least none that we know of.  Not that there’s anything wrong with Louie, to be sure.  He emerged that day from “the operating room” a proud and erect member of The Cutting Edge. He just hasn’t found the right girl yet. Or maybe he thinks he can’t afford to get married yet.  Maybe it’s time my brother sent him back to the Philippines.

“No money, no honey?  Not when you’re…in Manila!”

Auntie Mame in Chinese Drag

Faculty members at the University of Kansas who are fortunate enough to get a Kemper Teaching Fellowship (it comes with a $5000 cash award) are asked to each give a two-minute speech about their “teaching philosophy” at a convivial convention made even more convivial by the sumptious reception which follows the brief ceremony, at which event are served unimaginable delights like baked brie and grilled lambchops, items not regularly ingested in the spartan diet of poorly paid professors in Kansas.  Hungry academia nuts on the guest list look forward to stuffing themselves like squirrels at this reception all year long, to store up some calories for the winter, so I imagine that’s why the honorees are asked to keep their speeches under two minutes. 

Today is the first day of the fall semester at K.U.  I just met the students in my Beginning Playwriting class, which is why I find myself thinking of the two-minute speech I delivered in 2002, when I was one of the fortunate recipients of a Kemper Teaching Fellowship.  Here’s the speech I delivered to the crowd gathered that afternoon in Woodruff Auditorium at the Kansas Union, before everyone headed for the baked brie and the grilled lambchops.

I was fourteen years old in the Philippines when I first saw AUNTIE MAME, a movie about a wildly eccentric woman who decides to take over the education of her young nephew.  Forty-four years later, in my mind’s eye, I can still see Rosalind Russell leading little Patrick up the grand staircase in her lavish New York apartment, her words echoing in my ears:  Child, I am going to open doors for you, doors you never even dreamed existed!  What times we are going to have!  What vistas we are going to explore together!”

When I started teaching English 101 and 102 as a Graduate Teaching Assistant in the English Department at K.U. back in 1972, I secretly thought of myself as a sort of Auntie Mame in Chinese drag, in charge of educating all my little wards straight out of their Kansas high schools. Good morning, everyone.  It is my hope that, in every class this semester, we are going to open books together, meet similes and metaphors we never even dreamed existed! What poems and short stories we are going to read! What novels and plays we are going to explore together!”

But then, in 1989, when I began to teach playwriting in the English Department, I quickly discovered the most wondrous of role reversals.  I discovered that, in creative writing, it is NOT the teacher who is Auntie Mame.  These days, in my classes, my students are the ones leading me up the grand staircase of their imagination, showing me the worlds they come from, the worlds they live in, sometimes the worlds they envision, brave new worlds I never even dreamed existed!  And I find that, at age 58, I am young again, little Patrick meeting his Auntie Mame for the first time again, and for this I am most grateful.

Given the state of the economy in 2009, with severe budget cuts at K.U., there may well be no baked brie or grilled lambchops at the end of this year’s Kemper awards ceremony.  We might have to settle for peanuts and melon balls. I can see the headlines now in The Lawrence Journal-World and The University Daily Kansan“Hungry Hordes Succumb to Kemper Distemper!”

What’s in a Name?

I was born on 5 January 1944. My father was being hunted by Japanese soldiers, and he was hiding in the hills outside Manila. My mother spoke no English or Tagalog, only Chinese, and at the hospital she did not know what name to give me when they said I had to have a name. According to my mother, it was a certain Dr. Darby, the American obstetrician who had delivered me, who suggested that I be called Paul, the name of her fiance, who had recently been tortured and killed by the Japanese.

One of my teachers at the Ateneo de Manila told me that the name Paul means “small” or “little.”  As for my family name Lim, from Chinese calligraphy I learned that it is made up of two identical parts. Each one of the parts is the word for “wood” or “tree.”  Put them side by side, two trees together, and you get Lim, the Chinese word for “forest.”  And so my name, Paul Lim, means “a small forest.”

All through my childhood, my schoolmates never called me by my given name Paul, or by my surname Lim, but always by the two names joined together. To my ears it sounded as if they were taunting me, calling me Pauline, someone less than masculine. I hated it.  And then, when I was in high school at La Salle, after my baptism into the Catholic faith, the Christian Brothers suggested that I was ready for Confirmation. They said I should pick a Confirmation name.  After some thought, I decided on the name Stephen, the first martyr.  According to the New Testament, when Saint Paul was a young man and was still known as Saul of Tarsus, he held the cloaks of the Roman soldiers as they stoned St. Stephen to death. I thought it would be appropriate to bring Paul and Stephen together, again.  What it did, too, interestingly enough, was to forever split Paul from Lim.  Finally, I was no longer Pauline, but just plain Paul.  I don’t know why, but no one ever calls me Stephen.  In my mind, Paul continues to witness the martyrdom of Stephen, even in a small Chinese forest in the plains of Kansas.

Summer of 1969

In the summer of 1969, I was taking two classes at the University of Kansas, and living “the high life” on the 8th floor of Oliver Hall.  My close buddies at the dorm were Judy, a cheerful lass with frizzy black hair from Scotland; Mike, a lanky Vietnam veteran who collected comic books; and Ted, a rich kid from North Carolina who kept mostly to himself. He rarely invited anyone into his room, perhaps because he  was obsessive about keeping his living quarters clean.  Ted would mop the floor of his room at least three times a day, and we just accepted it, mainly because he was the only one among us who had a car.

Ted drove a fancy red  Camaro Z-28 which was the envy of everyone on campus. One day he asked me if I would ride with him to Topeka.  On the way there, he told me he was an out-patient at Menninger Clinic, and that “Dr. Bob” wanted to meet me.  I don’t remember much about “Dr. Bob” except his saying that, in all the years he has been treating Ted, Ted has never mentioned having any close friends.  “Dr. Bob” said I should consider myself really special.  He took us on a tour of the grounds, pointing out a small cabin which he said had been occupied by Judy Garland when she was at the clinic.  He said the toothbrush which Judy used is still in the cabin.  I asked him what sort of success they had with their “patients,” and he confided that psychoanalysis was a long process, that they rarely think of anyone ever really getting “cured.”  I wanted to ask him what was wrong with my friend Ted, but something about his manner prevented me from asking.  Back in Lawrence, Ted continued to mop his room three times a day, and we never talked about the trip to Topeka.

About a week or so before summer classes ended, Oliver Hall invited everyone from the dorm to an evening bash being held at some farmhouse outside Lawrence.  Since Ted was the only one in our group who had a car, he generously volunteered to take us there even though he himself had not intended to go.  As it turned out, the party wasn’t much fun.  It had started to rain, and Ted was drinking gloomily in a corner all by himself.  After about an hour or so, he rounded us up, saying he was bored and that he wanted to return to the dorm.  So we squeezed back into his Camaro Z-28, and Ted sped back to Oliver Hall in the heavy downpour.  I remember Mike laughing hysterically, and Judy screaming, when the car hydroplaned, skidded off the road, and landed upside down in a muddy ditch. I remember Ted climbing out the window, disappearing into the Kansas night, leaving us to fend for ourselves.  And then the police came, with flashing red lights and ambulances. I remember salvaging the “Z-28” sign from the wrecked car as we finally left the scene of the accident.

Ted reappeared at the dorm the next day, looking as though nothing had happened.  I have no idea what he told the police, how he got out of “fleeing the scene of the accident,” to say nothing of “driving while under the influence.”  Ted pulled me into his room, shut the door, and called his father on the telephone.  He had a telephone extension, and he wanted me to listen in on the conversation.  To the best of my recollection, here’s how the conversation went.  “Dad?” “Yes, son.” “About that Z-28 which you gave me…” “Yes, son.” “I wrecked it.”  (Long silence.) “Was anyone in the car with you?” “Yes, three others.” “Are any of them hurt?” “I don’t think so.”  “I’ll fly my own personal physician out there tomorrow to examine them.  Be sure to have them sign the release forms.” “Yes, Dad.” (Another long silence.) “So how are you going to get around without a car?”  “I don’t know.” “I’ll send you the Harley-Davidson.”  “Thanks, Dad.” And that was the end of the conversation.  The physician arrived the next day, we signed the release forms, and the Harley-Davidson arrived another couple of days later.

I don’t know how it happened, but Ted had tickets for Woodstock.  He asked me if I wanted to go with him. He said Joan Baez was going to be at the festival.  He knew I was crazy about Joan Baez. He asked me to hop on his Harley-Davidson. We would visit his folks first in North Carolina, and then head for Woodstock. Just like that. I was tempted by the EASY RIDER aspect of it all, but I had already promised my brother Vic that I would visit him and his family in South Amboy, NJ, in August, as soon as classes were over.  I had already bought my Continental Trailways bus ticket. I asked Ted if he could come for me in New Jersey after he saw his folks in North Carolina, and then we would zoom off to Woodstock in his Harley.  I gave him my brother’s address and phone number.

I waited for Ted in South Amboy, but he never showed up, never even called.  And now, forty years later, as I’m watching WOODSTOCK on DVD, listening to Richie Havens singing about “Freedom,” and Joan Baez dreaming that she “saw Joe Hill last night, alive as you or me,” and Joe Cocker going through life “with a little help from my friends,” I hit the pause button and peer at the faces of all those young people, all 450,000 of them, wondering how many of them were damaged innocents, wondering if Ted ever made it there, wondering whether I might have disappointed and failed him, somehow, as a friend, all those years ago, when he invited me to hop on and join him on the open road.  “Dr. Bob” has Judy’s toothbrush. Me, I have the “Z-28” from Ted’s Camaro.  Whenever I look at it, I smile, and then I am sad.

Naked Lunch in Manila

I was 18 years old in 1962.  I had dropped out of college, and had started to work full-time as a copywriter at J. Walter Thompson Company. Being young, energetic and ambitious, I was also free-lancing in my spare time with various Manila newspapers. I frequently wrote and sold “human interest” stories, and I also had a weekly column reviewing books and movies. I had a special arrangement with a bookstore, the Philippine Education Company, to borrow any new book I wanted from the store, to read and possibly to review, but I had to return the book in pristine condition or else I had to pay for it.  That was how I happened to acquire a hardback copy of the 1962 Grove Press edition of Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs.

Back in those days, at J. Walter Thompson Company, we were paid every two weeks in cash, the money handed to us in plain brown envelopes.  The ad agency was located within the Mary Bachrach Building, behind the Manila Hotel, a short fifteen-minute walk across Luneta Park to Ermita, the heart of the tourist area, with its vast array of restaurants, bars and cocktail lounges, many of them featuring live music.  One of these places was a tiny jazz club called “The Snake Pit” on A. Mabini Street. It was where many of us frequently found ourselves, especially on paydays.

As fate would have it, on one such occasion, I was carrying with me a brand new borrowed copy of Naked Lunch.  I must have been feeling quite grand and expansive that night, because I remember buying our group endless rounds of San Miguel beer and, of course, paying for the drinks with the cash from my plain brown envelope.  When it finally came time to leave, at two or three in the morning, I stumbled out of the bar, trying to find a taxi.  Next thing I knew, three burly men were shoving me into the back of a jitney, and the vehicle was speeding away to points unknown.  The men must have been inside “The Snake Pit” earlier…must have seen me paying for all those drinks with my wads of pesos.

Inside the jitney, I held on tightly to my copy of Naked Lunch as the men took my watch, my high school ring, my wallet and, of course, the brown envelope containing what was left of my pay. They even took my clothes, stripping me down to my bare feet, leaving me only my shorts. And then one of the thugs snatched the book away from me.  It now seems ludicrous, but I cried and begged them not to take the book because it wasn’t mine, because I had to return it or else I would have to pay for it.  Either these men were not avid readers of Dadaist fiction, or else they took pity on me, but when they finally tossed me out of the jitney, somewhere near Pasay City, they also threw the book after me.

And so I walked home in my underwear, clutching my precious hardback copy of Naked Lunch.  The jacket of the book had been slightly torn, so I decided to buy the book for myself.  I don’t remember now if I actually reviewed the book or not.  Years later, when I met William Burroughs in Lawrence and told him this story, he chuckled and said that it would have been a better story if the men had taken my shorts as well.