Thanks for the Memories

It took a few flights and spending time in three airports. (Flights I don’t mind, but airports I abhor.)  I got to schmooze with Taiwanese people, speaking Taiwanese, for several hours. I was in Manhattan, and in New Jersey.  These are things I enjoy.

As I’ve related the story to folks back in Michigan, one or two of the “characters” who I met have featured in the stories. They were pleasant, though it’s more fun to relate where they approached being as annoying or ridiculous as myself. But all is forgiven, because today I received a couple photos from the event, one of which is here.

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Thank you, annoying person, for your kindness.

David Alexander resides in Holland, MI after 39 years in Taiwan.

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In Other Words

Among the many things that helped me, a child of Southern California and “mature” man of Taiwan, to choose Holland, MI as a retirement spot, is a group of men who have been meeting once a week to cook and share breakfast at Hope Church for over 60 years. Recently the last charter member, who is now 97, retired from the group. He had already been exempted from any responsibility on the cooking rota, but found himself no longer up to the early rising time on Wednesdays, nor to the joyful conversations around the table.

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Each Wednesday, 2 of the guys cook and set the table for everyone else. There are between 15 and 20 in the group. Food has to be on the table promptly at 6:15 or the razzing starts. Then, after a short (the shorter the better) prayer of thanks, we dig in, eating and shooting the bull for about 20 minutes. The plates are removed, and coffee cups are refilled, after which a few pages of whatever book we’re working through are read. That takes up about 5 minutes, after which discussion of those pages commences. Sometimes the talk stays “on topic”, sometimes it wanders. 

I wandered into this group one Wednesday morning in 1990. I was a stranger, and they took me in. Participants at that time included a retired accountant, a retired dentist, a semi-retired physician, a truck driver, a retired English professor, and a bunch of other “old guys”. I was nearing 40 years of age. The next youngest guys, a pair around my age, related that their spouses had opined they were too “young” for the group.  Six months and several breakfasts later, I returned to Taiwan. But every time I came back to town I’d show up on Wednesday morning and eventually be back on the cooking rota for so many months as I was around. Through the “book” part of breakfast I was introduced to authors like Frederick Buechner, Anne LaMotte, N. T. Wright and Marcus Borg. When arriving here in 2018 I was dropped into Speaking Christian by Marcus Borg.  We’re nearing the end of that book, a chapter on “The Lord’s Prayer”. One of the guys is a little touchy on that topic, because he wants the prayer said by everyone, everywhere, in the words as he learned them when a child. In his estimation, there’s no equivalency between “save us from the time of trial” and “lead us not into temptation”. 

The discussion sent me to my files, where I discovered 38 “rewordings” of the Lord’s prayer that I’ve penned since 2001. I can vaguely recall even more, but they’re lost somewhere in cyberspace or locked in defunct hard-drives. I put together a document, mostly with my breakfast buddy in mind, and I share one with you. It can be sung, by the way, to the tune of the Mexican Hat Dance.

Loving Father eternal you own us. That your name’s holy is quite a bonus.

May your kingdom be coming among us. Do your will both in heaven and earth.

Give us daily the things that we’re needin’, and forgive all our sinnin’, we’re pleadin’.

As we likewise are others forgivin’. Keep temptation away, evil end!

All the kingdom and power and glory that have always been part of your story,

these are yours since creation, eternal. Then and now and forever AMEN

 

Tune: Mexican Hat Dance https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_g8CEOpVSZU

 

David Alexander resides in Holland, MI after 39 years in Taiwan

Purple Martins

Sometime last month, using a panel of a yellow door I’d cut up, a pencil I’d gotten as swag from a display at a meeting, and some blue paint from a can I’d originally purchased to touch up some walls where I’d patched the plaster, I created an imitation Agnes Martin painting. It wasn’t very well thought out; neither was it very good. I took a picture of it, then leaned it against the garage wall where it gathered dust for a while.

A couple weeks back I picked up the board and used a miter saw to cut it into four smaller “paintings” which I framed and hung in a group as “A Flock of Martins”, but it bothered me. Where martins live, they consume mosquitoes in large quantities. There’s a public park in Paullina, Iowa that is surrounded by the particular kinds of nesting boxes that martins like. But martins are not yellow and blue. They are purple.

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Today, with nothing better to do, and not wanting to get into any more trouble than I’m already in, I decided to do some purple Martins (which are different from purple martins). This time they’ll be on paper. I’ve painted one piece of cardboard white, and tinted another purple. The white one was dry first, so I proceeded with my free swag pencil to draw a grid on it, mix up some purple oil paint, and put a mark in each box. The paint left over was thinned to a wash and poured over the other piece of paper. When it dries (probably tomorrow), I’m planning to draw a grid with that same pencil and use white paint to make marks in the grid there. Purple on white, white on purple. When I eventually cut these to size for framing, I’ll have hang them as “Flocks of Purple Martins.” Now the only challenge is to find a wall upon which to display them.

David Alexander resides in Holland, MI after 39 yars in Taiwan

 

 

A Pontifical Refrigerator

Pope John XX (sometimes XXI because the numbering gets confused), a Portuguese scholar trained in France who taught Medicine in Italy before becoming the pontiff during a time of political crisis in the church, found peace in intellectual pursuits. After being enthroned in 1276 he ordered the construction of a private study at the papal palace in Viterbo for study and scholarly work. You might say that he had a man cave added on. But he didn’t enjoy it for long. In 1277 the plaster ceiling collapsed with him under it. He died from injuries on May 20 that year. 

Every apartment or house in which we dwelt during our decades in Taiwan had cracks in the walls. Construction there is done with brick, concrete and steel. Buildings are somewhat flexible, partly to cope with the shaky region of the earth’s crust upon which Taiwan sits. Taiwan’s people don’t feel more than a few earthquakes a year, seismometers all over the nation pick up more than 20 temblors every month. When felt, they become “news”. When someone gets hurt, they become headlines. 

April Earthquake

Illustration from newspaper report of earthquake on June 4, 2019

Returning to Pope John and why he matters in the here and now.  There’s been a lot of construction on the street near our retirement home in Holland, MI. Underground water, sewer and storm drain infrastructure has been replaced. The sidewalks and curbs and street pavement disappeared in May. Now if you walk, you traverse neighbors’ lawns. If you drive, it’s in over sand which has been ground to dust. Some processes of doing the work while homeowners and renters get into and out of driveways have occasionally involved use of vibrating compactors. Our whole house has been shaken again and again.  That didn’t sit well with the plaster ceiling in the kitchen, which first cracked, then began to come loose from the lath above it. 

As I write there are chunks missing. Peering up through the holes makes it apparent that lath has come loose from rafters. This might be the result of past water damage from bathroom overflows upstairs. Or, it could be that the nails put there in 1925 to hold things up have, like me, retired.

Unlike Pope John XX, I’m not a scholar. That kitchen is neither my study nor my man cave. But getting a beer from the fridge has begun to feel pontifical.

David Alexander resides in Holland, MI after 39 years in Taiwan   

 

Imagine: no right to sing

When I first took up residence in Taiwan, in 1976, the USA was celebrating the Bicentennial. At that time Taiwan was listed as one of the “not free” nations of the world. There were freedoms to believe and practice any religion that one wanted, but under a martial law dictatorship that didn’t begin to bend until late in the 80s, there was no freedom of assembly, press or speech. One of the joys of living in Taiwan until I retired to Holland, MI a year ago was seeing it become one of the freest nations on earth today. As previously, people are free to believe and practice any religion they want (or no religion at all if they don’t want to), but people in Taiwan, including immigrants and non-citizens, are also free to join in groups, to publish newspapers, and to say or sing, anything they want without restriction.

Holland, MI is not such a place, at least not when it comes to singing.

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Imagine this, a Christian youth musical group from out of town puts on an inspiring program at a local church. Afterward, several local youth, filled with the Holy Spirit, walk home singing songs they’ve just heard in church.  They’d better look over their shoulders for the police as they walk, though, because they will be breaking Holland’s Ordinances against religious songs being sung on Holland’s streets without permission from City Hall.

Or imagine that Holland’s fine American Legion Band presents a program of patriotic music in a venue like the Civic Center. Following the concert, many US Military Veterans decide to have an after-party at one of Holland’s brew pubs. As they walk along 8th Street to the party, they sing something like “This is My Country”. But if they do so, this group of veterans will have broken the city’s regulations against patriotic songs being sung on the street without permission from City Hall.. 

Or imagine a popular Hispanic musical group offering a concert. Too many people arrive for the place to hold, so the organizers, obeying the fire codes, don’t admit any more than are allowed. But it’s too hot inside anyway, so windows are thrown open to the wonderful breezes off of Lake Macatawa.  Concertgoers who could not get inside begin to sing along with the music that is coming from the open windows. Blue and red lights begin to flash, because a violation of Holland’s ordinances against ethnic music being sung on Holland’s streets without permission from City Hall has occurred.

Or imagine a Vietnamese opera troupe putting on a program of nostalgic songs. Elderly Southeast Asians residing locally are transported back to their youth. Leaving the event with tears streaming down their cheeks, they stop in a municipal park as melodies long suppressed burst from places deep in their hearts. The years fall off their faces just as the police show up with the handcuffs, because this group of people who left their homes across an ocean and settled here in Holland, enriching the cultural life of this town, will have fallen afoul of municipal ordinances prohibiting ethnic music being sung on Holland’s streets without permission from City Hall.

Imagine these things, and how strange they seem to a person who has recently relocated here from Taiwan.

David Alexander resides in Holland, MI after 39 years in Taiwan

 

Sometimes, Guys, Size Matters

About half a year ago my son, Grant, and I installed new flooring in one room. To do so we purchased a power saw that is variously known as “radial arm”, “miter” or “cut off”. The materials we used are known as “laminate” flooring, which just sort of snaps together and lays there looking good. The planks were about 11 inches wide.

As winter turned into spring, the time for opening the windows on this old house began. I discovered a few things: 1) the windows in every house where we lived in Taiwan opened sideways, and that was true whether the frames were wood or aluminum; 2) the windows in this old house open vertically, and most of them been painted shut over the years; 3) the cotton ropes connecting the sashes over pulleys to counterweights had mostly rotted away; and 4) without counterweights, open windows could and did close themselves with a loud slam. I needed either to replace ropes or find some sticks. Leftover flooring planks met my fancy power saw, and soon every window that could be opened sported an 11 inch stick at its side. “Lift with the right hand, place stick with the left hand”, and ventilation resulted.

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July has brought summer temperatures. The bigger windows open as much as 24 inches, the smaller ones up to 18. It was time for a trip back to the woodpile. This time flooring planks wouldn’t do. Enough longer sticks were found and trimmed to length. The drill is still the same, “lift window with the right, stick with the left”. The open area now available for air passage is now about double the previous condition. It feels downright breezy in here.

Taiwan was so safe, our windows upstairs and down were only closed during storms or when we turned on an air conditioner. One morning going downstairs I even discovered that we had forgotten to close the front door the previous evening. Our security had been a plastic screen. Alas, we are not there any longer. At night here, the reverse window drill will be in order: “hold window with right, remove stick with left, slowly lower.” That, and make sure the doors are locked, too.

David Alexander resides in Holland, MI after 39 years in Taiwan.

Bit by Bit 

Across our many years in Taiwan we watched newspapers change, a LOT. Freedom of the press did not exist when we first set foot there in the 1970s. All papers had to pass censorship reviews, and none were more than 12 pages long. Newspapers owned by the ruling Nationalist Party or by media companies friendly to that party were most common.  As Taiwan transitioned to democracy in the 90s, the 12 page restriction was dropped. They got livelier, fatter and more colorful. The party owned papers, like the Central Daily News and the Youth Daily News, withered. In 1999 the large Liberty Times, an opposition paper, began publishing an English language edition to compete with the Nationalist Party’s China Post and the independent Taiwan News.  Around 2010, facing competition from internet news providers and advertising vehicles, all of Taiwan’s  newspapers began to shrink, and many disappeared or went to “electronic only” editions. 

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Relocating to Holland, MI last year, one of the first things we did was to take a subscription to the local paper, which publishes 6 days a week (no Monday edition). It typically has 12 to 16 broadsheet pages per day with lots of color and a focus on high school sports in this and nearby cities. The sports editor likes doing profiles of female athletes, accompanied by at least one posed cheesecake photo (sometimes two). Front page headlines deal with things like city council meetings and upcoming cultural events. Sometimes there’s news of things elsewhere in Michigan on page 3, and an occasional article about President Trump on page 5. The editorial page is lively and not at all what I’d expected. Left and right battle it out on alternating weekdays. Saturday’s paper is full of religion. 

Last week’s paper looked different. The print was smaller and the lines were farther apart. The margens, were wider. I wondered what was up.  This week, the other shoe dropped. Tuesday’s paper was a size smaller. No longer a broadsheet, but not yet a tabloid. Line spacing and margins feel like they used to. The amount of content hasn’t changed, just how it all sits on the now shrunken pages.

Life feels like that, too, now that I’m retired. I’m afraid of what might shrink next. 

 

David Alexander resides in Holland, MI after 39 years in Taiwan

President Ahoy!

Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-wen,  is coming to the United States! It’s neither a state nor an official visit. Taiwan is certainly a customer of US weapons manufacturers and has loaned a lot of money to the US Treasury, but this visit is merely for “rest and comfort” on her way to and from official visits to two nations in the Caribbean. Heading TO those visits, she’ll stop in New York City for a couple of nights and a day. Heading FROM those visits she’ll be in Denver overnight. 

Hearing the news of the trip, I wondered how I might get an invitation to any events connected to it. So, in a way similar to how I nominated myself for a veterans’ award in the local newspaper, I wrote to Taiwan’s consular office in New York City and volunteered to attend. It didn’t hurt that a YouTube video of a short news spot about me on a Taiwan TV network in 2018 is still around.  I got a courteous reply from ot one, but TWO people in New York City and a formal invite. 

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Having succeeded at that (success is so rare these days), I prodded my daughter, who was born and grew up in Taiwan, to ask a similar favor of the consular office in Denver, where she lives. Now she’s invited, too.  After the events, we’ll share notes. If nothing else, these will provide opportunities to speak languages other than English for an evening.

David Alexander resides in Holland, MI after 39 years in Taiwan

Missing the Mark

Stage actors and opera singers must do more than deliver their lines convincingly and artfully. They must deliver them from the right places on the stage. Otherwise they might as well just be on the radio!  To have stood in the wrong spot or faced the wrong direction when acting (or “singing while acting” as is done in the opera) is to “miss the mark”. 

Across my several decades I’ve been comforted by preachers who have reminded me that I haven’t done something terrible when I’ve sinned, I’ve merely failed to hit the bull’s eye on the target. But then, from the other side, I’ve been terrorized by preachers who have held up the ‘bull’s eye’ metaphor and have insisted that I hit that mark on every try, and that doing anything less is SIN! (and damnable sin at that).

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When translating it into Chinese centuries ago, the word chosen to express the Biblical concept of sin, unfortunately, was the same one used in Chinese to denote crime punishable by law.  Once in 1978 a young man asked me about some enthusiastic Christians he saw at a bus station handing out tracts. They wore vests upon which it was written, “I used to be a sinner, but Jesus has washed me clean,” (or something to that effect). As he had not yet been convicted of any crime or imprisoned, he wondered why he should accept any tract they were passing or follow in any way they would want him to go.

Having missed the mark so regularly in life, and all too often when delivering what I thought was a sermon, I’ve little leg upon which to stand when critiquing another person or preacher. But I was at an event last week when what I and others mostly needed was comfort, and we got an artful discourse about salvation instead. We were instructed, invited, entertained, educated and informed. Facts, metaphors and structures were laid before us. The style of the orator was spot-on. But the mark was missed. 

I’m sure I’ve done worse. And that, in itself, is little comfort. 

David Alexander resides in Holland, MI after 39 years in Taiwan.

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