Milwaukie Drake

24 November 2019, 16:10

Is it smog or fog? I can’t really tell. Though the weather app on my phone places the AQI at 75, or “Moderate.”

When I was younger, tiny water droplets and ice crystals suspended in the air just above the surface of fields, roads, and hills were emblematic of winter in Helvetia, Oregon. Fog that didn’t exist on the Sunset Highway appeared as soon as you took exit 61 and drove a few miles north towards my home. Helvetia Road – especially the three-quarter-mile stretch with Elmer Grossen’s land on the west and the intersection of Phillips Road heading east – could be spooky. Low-lying clouds which blocked the infiltration of high beams burned off by noon and were back by dark.

Then I moved to China, where some days you couldn’t see farther than 15 meters because of the smog. GROUND-LEVEL OZONE, PARTICLE POLLUTION, CARBON MONOXIDE, SULFUR DIOXIDE, and NITROGEN DIOXIDE. (Thanks, EPA.) Some of my students wore surgical masks, though often as a fashion statement, first, and a shield, second. And when I showed them a picture I took of the obscured apartments across the way, they laughed. “Oh, the Chinese government can control the weather. No big deal.”

It’s not funny. I was serious, and I think they got the point.

What’s my point?

I’m worried that what used to be fog is now smog. That the air I breathed as a child is becoming less breathable. That Oregon, known for her Pacific Beauty, will turn invisible. I USED TO BE ABLE TO SEE THE MOUNTAINS. Now, they are a hazy outline in the distance.

I’m worried that I don’t quite cut it as a middle school teacher. The irony of my position is fragrant. For a year, I volunteered with WyldLife in Corvallis and found myself struggling to keep up. The other leaders were way too cool for me. The kids were way too cool for me. In the end, I concluded that I just wasn’t enough fun for them. Now, it’s my job, and I have to unravel all the conclusions I had about middle schoolers and rewrite the code of my brain. What do they think of me? Do I care what they think of me? If I don’t, should I care what they think of me?

It was a rough week. They opened my eyes to the delicate nature of INTERACTIONS. Watch what you do, what you say. Be cautious, always. Of course, I understand why. And I agree, mostly, with their reasoning. But I have questions. I have counterpoints. I have my thoughts. Most of all, what is the RULE OF LAW, and WHERE IS IT WRITTEN? I’m sure I’m merely uninformed. And I know it’s not an excuse, but nobody told me, explicitly, what could and couldn’t be done. It’s a steep learning curve I’m on. I’m not sure I belong. I doubt myself often. I fear the results of failure.

On top of all this, I was sick. Couldn’t hardly breathe out of my nose, and my throat was a fountain of phlegm for three days.

It was a rough week. But grace abounds, and God is good. When I’m weak, he is strong.

Milwaukie Waterfront

The Place Where He Belongs

May 29, 2019, 20:08

He’s 5,784 miles away from home. He has $8,792 to his name (and a little more on the way). He does have a shirt on his back. He’s not taking a train home—he can’t. There’s an ocean between him and home. He’s taking a plane. Delta, niner, niner: he’s coming home. Four days. Three. Two. One. He leaves on Sunday in the afternoon, and he arrives on Sunday in the afternoon. The flights and layover almost perfectly make up for the 15-hour time difference.

It is humid, and he has mosquito bites on his scalp. It’s about the only place they could land last night, as his arms and ankles were under the covers. He woke, sweaty, twice. He did not sleep well. It was hot, and the unit in his bedroom pushes around stale air and not much else. It is old and out-of-date. And his mind was moving. Fast. Tick. Fast. Tock. Breathe. Tick. Slow. Tock. Empty yourself. Think of nothing. Sleep. No, I cannot. Sorry. Peace, Montag, peace. Take your troubles outside. Burn them and repent. Turn away from the books and the work and the pleasure—better yet, lay them on me. Give me your thoughts and desires and strivings. Lay them on me, and I will make your burden light. Sleep. Peace, Montag, peace.

He is grateful for a bed in a too-hot room. He is grateful for monthly wages even if those wages make him poor. He is grateful for the Bible app on his tablet that reads the gospel to him in the mornings while he eats breakfast and makes notes. He is grateful for a gym where he can exercise and stay healthy. He is grateful for the beauty of humans. For their grace. For their passion. For self-control. He wonders, though, to what end does he sacrifice the many hours of weight-training? Is it to improve the look of his body? Is it for the endorphins? His sanity? Is it to attract a girl with similar dedication? And what would happen if he gave it all up? He would undoubtedly have more time for other things. He could read more. He could write more. He could play more music and compose more poetry. Instead, he fills his ears with podcasts and strains his muscles in front of mirrors and other men.

Beyond the Finish Line

May 17, 2019, 20:45

Be a little careless. I’m done, almost. I taught my last class for Shanghai Normal University Tianhua College today. I don’t know how it went. My eyes are closed. I am typing. I think it went well. They gave me applause when it was all over. I collected their final essays on the similarities and differences between China and America. Then, they evaluated me via QR code and cellular device. Thanks, Huawei, for letting the Party plant their tendrils into your tech company and for staying out of America. Even though your phones are less expensive and better than the alternatives, we’d rather you didn’t do business in the land of the free and home of the brave. We don’t like Big Brother. We’d just as soon snuff out his lies and oversight and central planning and inner party.

I don’t know how it went. I don’t know if they’ll ever do anything about the things I said. Do you care? I asked. No, they answered. And that’s what I expected. Most of them won’t care. They’ll enjoy the comfort and the full stomachs and the education and the healthcare, but they’ll turn a blind eye to the past and present evils of their government. Evils? Tiananmen, Taiwan, Tibet: The Three T’s that you’re not supposed to talk about. When I did, Selina, a student, pointed at the cameras in the classroom to remind me that everything I say and do is recorded and watched, maybe. I know, I said. I don’t like it. The cameras are not there for safety, for accountability. The cameras are there so you stay in line. So you don’t cross the Party. So you don’t say anything that could even be remotely construed as “anti-China.” But go ahead, say all the anti-American things you want. We don’t mind. There are microphones, too, somewhere. At least, that’s what I’m told. I don’t know that I’ve seen them. But they are there?

This is The Information Age. Data, Data, Data. Digital everything. We’ve got stuff flying at our eyeballs constantly. If we are to be critical thinkers who engage society and culture in a meaningful way, we need to learn how to parse that information for ourselves. We need to learn to separate appearance from reality by relying on authentic evidence from trustworthy sources.

Who can we trust?

People are dishonest. They tell lies to protect themselves. This happens at a small, personal level AND at a big, societal level. Here are some historical lies: Hitler and the Jews, Nixon and Watergate, Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky. We know that people in power are prone to making big mistakes. We know that people in power sometimes hide the truth or just plain lie to cover up their mistakes. How should we respond?

Do you care?

Are you moved?

To what extent?

Will you think?

Will you talk?

Will you act?

So say the students: No, we do not care. Most of us, anyway. We are not moved. To be moved is a risk to one’s safety. I’d rather stay ignorant. I’d rather not care. It’s safer; it’s more comfortable. Some of us—say, two or three in a class of thirty—are moved. We will remember the things you’ve said. We will not forget how you made us feel. We will miss you. We love you. I love you too, I guess. Though, I pity you. I pity myself. I am small and insignificant. What can I say? What can I do? I’ve enjoyed teaching and learning from all of you. You are bright, young students and you can do great things. I hope something stirred in you this semester. I hope you found something I said to be uncomfortable.

Big Ideas:

  1. Carpe Diem! But be smart about it. (Dead Poets Society)
  2. Am I in a cave? I don’t know. (“The Allegory of the Cave”)
  3. Be careful who you trust. (Research & Final Essay)

That’s all folks!

Until next time, Mr. Rogers. Adios. Zàijiàn.

Careless

March 8, 2019, 13:15

Soothe your mind with beautiful piano and ambient tones, let go of all your cares and trouble. Just type. Don’t stop. Don’t try to think. Be a little careless. Sink into the nostalgia, and all of a sudden, miss the times you spent in the campus living room, the room with a piano and couches for dozing and tables for writing essays. Miss it like you’ve never missed it before. Wish you could go back, then know you cannot. Know that where you are is where you are, and where you’re going is a great mystery. Could it be that you’ll decide to stay? Or will you go home to your family? Soon you’ll have to make up your mind. Another year will pass. They do that. Sometimes slower than you’d like. I want somebody who makes me want to stop time. To be with them and never grow old like the girls in my class who, upon hearing of the day, say: We are not women! We are young forever. But they are 18 and in college; they may act like girls, but they will become women. Sooner than they’d like, they’ll have degrees and jobs and pets and maybe even children of their own. Many of them will teach. I want someone who makes it all stop for even a moment, and I can look into her eyes, and she can look into mine, and we can be silent, still, knowing each other amid our broken skin and graying hair. Stress relief, hear the damper and the resonance of Goldmund. Compose your own threnody to the dead, a wake for the very first time. Improper pronouns making noises. Of course, you end up becoming yourself, the person you didn’t know you’d be. Of course, it’s really all things that make you that person. Take me. Take on me. Take me to the city of green and gold or the cabin by the river where does drink their fill. Stand me up in their midst, a stag. A patronous made to fend off the darkness between moments. I want to protect you. I need to be protected, myself. If I stumble into the darkness, I am naked, dumb, and blind. But if you are with me, I have no fear or shame. I am comforted, even when my skin breaks and my hair recedes and vanishes. I recede. I draw back from the honor and thanks given to me for my excellent teaching and organizational skills from September 2018 to January 2019. Thank you, Mr. Ye and Ms. Hu, for your honor and thanks and the cash bonus. All I did was keep my desk clean and do as I was told. I didn’t argue as much as I could have. I didn’t die on that hill. Instead, I died on my way to the gym. I drank too much bad air and fell flat on my face. But my legs kept going, stepping on the cracks. Running past the restaurants, the hotel, the park, and into the nest of eagles. They bore me away to the land of Rohan. There, I took from the Riders their finest and most regal of horses. He, in turn, bore me through the Lilly pads and to the Mirrormere. Dismounting, I walked up to its banks. They showed me a pale reflection of myself. They, being the banks. I asked for a withdrawal, but they said they had no money. So I dove into their vault, only to find the edges of creation and a stream of never-ending consciousness. O! How insecure he was! So dependent on the approval of others. A leaf falls on him, and he shrivels. Fragile boy! You’ve made it in the nick of time. Climb out of the box for a time. See what there is to see. Soothe your mind with beautiful piano and ambient tones, let go of all your cares and trouble. Just type. Don’t stop. Don’t try to think. Be a little careless.

DOWNTOWN!

February 26, 2019, 20:47

Deep breath as you figure out what to say before you say it. Dang, sorry Mr. Elbow, I forgot. That’s not the point of this exercise. I’m in Exodus. Moses, speak up. I can’t, Lord, my lips are uncircumcised. What?

Beautiful day today by Shanghai standards. A nice walk to work with Phil Wickham in the ears. Phil is my friend (we’re on a first name basis—he said as much at his concert last summer).

The Great Road separating The Great Cities.
The north gate of TianHua.
Looking down.

My first class slept through my first class. They were told it started five weeks from now. They were told wrong. I’ll have the communication breakdown, please.

My second class has one boy, and his name is Matthew. He’s losing his hair, and his mom is a Kindergarten teacher, like the rest of the students will be, assuming they stay put long enough to graduate. They should, being nice and well behaved.

I like early education students: they are kind and listen well. Not that they have a say in the matter of their chosen discipline—likely it was chosen for them. It is difficult to know who actually signed on for the task out of intrinsic interest and not extrinsic pressure to conform.

Welcome to China.

After work, the Tianhuogs went DOWNTOWN! on EIGHT-HUNDRED CASH, THAT’S A HELL OF A DEAL. We PULLED UP, MOPED TO THE VALET and went to the top floor of Robinson Mall for MY SEAT IS LEATHER and hot pot. Then, WITH A BALANCE THAT WILL KEEP HER SAFE, we paid eight yuan for ten minutes in a massage chair. After that, GET OFF MY MULLET and a chocolate Blizzard from DQ. Finally, MOPED LIKE A BULLET in the dark and in the rain back to our apartment. DOPE, I said, GOING 38 km/hr while trying to RUN THE STREETS, BOY.

Leg Day

February 20, 2019, 17:45

What do I say about fitness?

I’ve been moving since before first grade

Never have and never will get paid

But I reap my returns

Exercise is health insurance

The chemical ignitions

Firing like pistons

Is all the motivation I need

Though I ain’t some kind of breed

Or a workout fiend

I just like looking lean

So I get to the gym on the daily

Discipline my body

And make it my slave

All I’ll take to the grave

Though I do value modesty

I’m an image-bearer of majesty

I thank God for my genes

And keep a steady routine.

Porsches & Pigs

February 19, 2019, 21:52

Now that I’m done adding the old stuff, let’s get on to the new stuff. I started this blog several days ago and have been busy posting and backdating a bunch of writing from the past five months, starting with my arrival in Shanghai.

It’s odd that I haven’t really explored this place. I spent much of my first semester here developing and holding to a routine. Wake up, shower, eat, read, journal. Go to work, teach, eat, teach, grade, plan. Come home, get changed, jog to the gym, lift weights, jog back. Shower, change, make dinner, eat. Watch something, play a game, read, or write. Sleep. Do it again.

All this order made it difficult to get out and do things. I’m not complaining; I like order. It’s comfortable, safe, quiet. Then I went home for Christmas and saw my family. Highlight of my year. And in January, I left, alone, for southeast Asia: Ho Chi Minh, Phnom Penh, Siem Reap, Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Kunming, Wuhan, Shanghai. January 18 to February 16, almost a month on the road. I did not enjoy every minute, and I didn’t expect to. But the minutes of grandeur, of sublimity, of reflection, of elevation — those are what made it all.

Walking a busy city with a pretty German girl. Bicycling around Angkor from sunrise to sunset. Jon Lott telling of hitchhiking and Forrest Fenn. Rousing at the butt crack of dawn to watch Super Bowl LIII at a pizza joint with my roommate. Pondering oaths cross-legged near a Buddhist temple. Getting a Thai massage. Eating 竹筒饭. Spending time with Emily in Wuhan; going with her to the cinema for The Wandering Earth. Missing my train and then finally unlocking the door to my apartment in Shanghai.

Now that it’s done, and I can get into currency, I think I’d like to show you where I live. Outside my front door, and before you get in the elevator, there’s a nice northwestern view of a waterway, a vegetable patch, and the ever-hazy suburbs of Jiading.

Going down, to the left, and out to the front entrance, you’ll pass by a number of luxury vehicles. (In Shanghai, if you own a car, you have money; and because of the importance of giving and saving 面子—miànzi or “face”—many of the cars are new and quite spendy.)

Today is the Lantern Festival, which marks the final day of Chinese Lunar New Year. In case you were wondering, it’s the Year of the Pig.

I went to my gym today, which is on the third floor of a hotel in the Jiading Industrial Center (don’t know if that’s the proper name for this set of buildings). Typically, it’s about a ten-minute jog from door to door.

After my workout, some folks were setting up for an event that night, which would start in an hour. I jogged back to my apartment, showered, and boiled some 元宵—yuanxiao, a stuffed, glutinous rice dumpling which had been recommended to me earlier by Jessie, my boss. Being stuffed with peanuts, I mixed them with peanut butter for added protein and flavor. Then I walked back to the event, camera in hand. As expected, lanterns and more food.

I’m Back

February 16, 2019, 22:20

He drew a deep breath. ‘Well, I’m back,’ he said.

(Tolkien, The Return of the King)

Except my Rose is just an apartment I’ve not seen in two months, and my Frodo isn’t sailing away to the land of eternal living. Nor was my journey quite as long, and I did not carry a ring. Nor was their fellowship, only loneliness, and breakfasts in hostels. There was danger, but not the kind to worry about—petty theft, which I was fortunate enough to avoid. Though I’ve had enough of people staring at me and saying things about me in a language I do not understand. Shanghai is different from Kunming and Wuhan in that regard.

Big Bells

February 13, 2019, 21:59

Went to the Hubei Provincial Museum of Wuhan today. Saw some porcelain, some old stuff, some sweet-looking bells, a bunch of ax-knives, pictures of revolutionaries, and some ancient skulls. And there was a board that caught my attention: “Sages and philosophers around the fifth century BC.”

Shang Gao (Western Zhou Dynasty, 1046-771 BC), mathematician

Guan Zhong (645 BC), statesman

Sakyamuni (586-485), founder of Buddhism

Pythagoras (580-497 BC), mathematician and philosopher

Confucius (551-479 BC), philosopher of Confucianism

Lao Tsu (6th century BC), philosopher of Taoism

Chen Zi (5th century BC or earlier), astronomer and mathematician

Zeno of Elea (490-430 BC), ancient Greek philosopher, mathematician and casuist

Mo Di (480-390 BC), philosopher of the Monist school

Socrates (478-399 BC), philosopher

Plato (427-347 BC), philosopher

Aristotle (384-322 BC), philosopher

Hui Shi (380-305 BC), philosopher and logician

Meng Ke (372-286 BC), philosopher of Confucianism

Zhuang Zhou (369-286 BC), philosopher of Taoism

Haven’t heard of half of these names because half of them are Eastern and I’m not Eastern. I’m Western. Would like to know more about Eastern philosophy, especially regarding the works and ideas of Confucius. Also, I want to know if these names, dates, and titles are accurate.

Sixty-seven bi (jade in round shape with a hole in the middle) were unearthed. The bi, the most important of the six kinds of auspicious jade ornaments of the Zhou Dynasty, was used at rituals to worship Heaven. In the rules on rites at that time, the big bi measuring one chi two cun in diameter was to be used by the king or presented to the king by a feudal lord. The bi can be used for decoration or worn as an ornament.

I didn’t buy any souvenirs. Should’ve bought coffee from the belt of the world. I’ll keep my eye out for a nice, jade bi I can wear around my neck.

Cigarettes & Sashes

February 11, 2019, 13:13

I’ve got nothing

To do

But explore

(Oh Lord)

And I don’t want

Nothing more

Gonna see some green wetlands

Besides that

I’ve got no plan

Strolling through a Chinese city

Humming a little ditty

I think the wetlands are closed

Weren’t no open entrance

I could find

Instead, I pay three for Yuyuan

Another park full of elders

And gulls, girls, & boys

They cast their lines into the bay

Or turn their fingers on instruments

And cigarettes

I watch & listen as they march

Something like a melody

Slow, desperate, & dysfunctional

But artful & beautiful still

Today is my last day

To enjoy the sun

In this Land of Eternal Spring

Now I perch

Taking in a 胡琴 (húqin)

All two strings of female vocality

A stone table & four seats

Nine ladies & two gentlemen

Swing their red sashes

Tied at the waist.