Friday, June 20, 2008

The Malaysia Diaries: Following Buddha

Even my mother was asking when I was going to post another Malaysia Diary, so I know I've been slacking for too long. Hopefully, you guys are still interested in this stuff. ("What? When did you go to Malaysia? That was weeks ago.") This isn't the entry I originally planned to post, but I'm in kind of a contemplative mood today. On our second day in Malaysia, my uncle Alex took us sight-seeing, and kept mentioning "Sleeping Buddha, Sitting Buddha, and Standing Buddha." I figured we'd just be going to one altar with three statues lined up next to one another. As usual, I had it wrong.

Each temple was its own separate spectacle located around Kota Bharu. Besides the extravagant statues and altars, each complex still had a residence for monks and a proper place for worship. I was worried we might be interfering with something, but as you can see, these temples are set up for visitation and tourism. This is one of the largest sleeping (or reclining) Buddha statues in southeast Asia. When I heard that, my first thought was "one of... ?" I mean, there can't be a bigger one, right?

Compared to the other Buddha statues and temples we visited afterwards, Sleeping Buddha seemed more like a tourist attraction, with wide corridors and concourses created for onlookers and photo opportunities. Yet because of all the open space, and because the five of us were the only ones on site at the time (besides the monks, I'm assuming, and the stray dogs that were dragging around), it was probably the most peaceful and serene of the settings despite the showy surroundings.

It didn't occur to me when I took this picture, but it kind of looks like the smaller Buddha is tickling those giant feet. Cootchie, cootchie, coo! If those feet were within reach, I probably would've tried for a tickle myself. And I probably would've felt like a desecrating jerkface afterwards. There were far more statues than I'm showing here (and I hope to put everything up on Flickr this weekend), and to throw a little bit of geek on it, the setting reminded me of the cave with the seven statues from the Shazam! comic books.

The Sitting Buddha was probably the most elegant and beautiful of the temples we visited. Where the Sleeping Buddha appeared sort of molded and plastic, his sitting counterpart looked as if some serious work with hammer and chisel had been done. The craftsmanship - not just on the statue itself, but the entire complex - was amazing. One big difference is that there wasn't much shelter from the sun, however, and like every other day in Malaysia, it was hot. But I suppose that added to the surreality of the setting. Looking up into the sun at Buddha, with heat bouncing off the concrete and sweat pouring down the face, frequently felt like an invitation to enlightenment.

I can't believe one of these monkey wasn't wiping the sweat off their brow. Of course, they were probably used to the heat. Everyone seemed to be, except the fat gringo from the States. Oh, did those bandanas come in handy. (And that will most certainly be a future diary entry. The heat, that is, not the bandanas.) I also think the monkeys move and go for the papayas growing nearby, either when no one's looking or when it's dark.

Maybe I was more conscious of it as we hopped from Buddha to Buddha, but driving around Malaysia, you get an idea of how diverse the religious beliefs are among the people there. It's largely a Muslim country, so many women are dressed in robes, veils, and head scarves. Enormous mosques dominate the streetscape every few miles or so. Buddhist temples and monasteries can also be seen, though they tend to be overshadowed (with the exception of the elaborate shrines we visited) by the hulking mosques and surrounding traffic. And if you look hard enough, you can also find some Christian churches.

My mother's family is an interesting reflection of that complexity. Most of her relatives are Buddhist, and some converted to Islam in marriage, but she went to Catholic school as a teenager, and ended up influencing her siblings upon her return. They're most certainly a religious minority in their country (9.1% of the population, according to the 2000 census), and even within their own households. I'm sure there's a story behind that, which I'll have to hear someday.

Standing Buddha was the final leg of our tour, and it seems appropriate that he was at the top of a long stairway. If you want enlightenment, shouldn't you have to work a little bit for it? And to add to the experience, shed your sandals at the top of the stairs and let the marble that's been baking under the sun all day scald your soles. (Or should that be "souls"?) Of course, there always has to be some joker who sees those stairs and has to imitate Rocky Balboa.

Some of you might think I'm raising my arms in triumph after scaling those stairs. Actually, I'm screaming in my pain from the soft, supple flesh of my feet burning against white-hot marble. Or maybe I stepped in some of the doggie-doo that was lurking around. ("Where's a hose??") Actually, I managed to step around it without even looking, which might be an indication that I'm on the right path.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Stay Strong, Iowa

I haven't been back to Iowa City since leaving three years ago, and if anyone I knew is still living there, we haven't kept in touch, other than adding each other on Facebook. My time in Iowa gets smaller in my rear-view mirror each day, but whether I ever visit again or not, that town and the University of Iowa will always be important to me. I realize this sounds entirely melodramatic, but I feel like that place and the people I met saved my life.

So when I see what Iowa City (and the greater Eastern Iowa region) are going through right now, my heart breaks. I can't even imagine that most of the roads and sidewalks I navigated are under water right now. The photos from the Iowa City Press-Citizen and The Daily Iowan are jolting.

This photo was taken just a couple of blocks from my old apartment (which was evacuated at the end of last week), and I believe the flood waters got even higher over the past couple of days. Fortunately, the Coralville Reservoir finally crested over the weekend, water levels are (slowly) receding, and water can start getting pumped out of campus buildings and residences. Though it could be a while before any of those places are deemed safe.

Somehow, I managed to avoid severe weather emergencies, such as these floods and tornadoes during my two years in Iowa. I remember my father telling me I needed to become familiar with shelter or evacuation proceedings during tornado season whenever he heard about things getting nasty in that part of the country. I shrugged it off back then, thinking nothing was going to happen. I had no idea how lucky I really was.

One thing I do know is that Iowans will do everything to help each other get through this. Those are some of the friendliest people I've ever met in my life, and they care deeply about their neighbors and their community. No one will have to suffer through this alone. It's just not how they do things in Hawkeye Country.

If you'd like to help, you can make a contribution to the UI Flood Relief Fund.

Monday, June 16, 2008

A 5'4" Inner Beast of Unstoppable Rage

This scene must have been cut out of my screening of The Incredible Hulk this weekend. Thankfully, there's YouTube to keep me constantly giggling.

"You hurt my belly!" Hilarious! And it's nice to see Edward Norton not always take himself so seriously.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

A Bittersweet Sunday

It seems remarkably cruel that Tim Russert died (so suddenly, so shockingly) just two days before Father's Day. As known as he was for hosting Meet the Press, I think so many more people felt as if they knew him because of his willingness to share his memories and feelings about his family in books like Big Russ and Me and Wisdom of Our Fathers. Watching the tributes that have been composed for him all over television, not just on NBC and MSNBC, it's clear how important family was to Russert (as a son, as a father), how much his friends meant to him. But you also see a man who really, really loved his job, and loved what his life had become. And more than anything else, that's what I find myself admiring about him. How many of us get to say that?

Sunday mornings were often a source of tension between my father and me, though less so as the years progressed. I know he wished I'd go to church with him, and we never had the discussion we should've had about why I felt so conflicted about our church, and religion in general. But as Dad began to accept that it was something I just didn't want to do, we found other common ground on Sunday mornings, and that was Meet the Press. I don't think anyone was more gratified that MSNBC began replaying the show at 6 p.m., because he'd usually forget to tape the show, or we'd forget to do it for him.

Two people really got me interested in politics: Aaron Sorkin and Tim Russert. And I'm grateful for that, since it gave my father and I so much to talk about during what turned out to be the last years of his life.

Happy Father's Day, Dad.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Hulking Out Over the Darnedest Things

With The Incredible Hulk coming out on Friday (and me spending far too much time online watching clips and reading interviews last night), I wanted to post these videos that should help us all remember why this is a character that continues to resonate in our pop culture.

Will the new movie have scenes anywhere near as compelling as these? First, here's David Banner trapped in New York City traffic.

"I've got to be there by five!"

Man, Ferrigno's wig is terrible in that one. Did his head get bigger or something?

Here's a situation we can all surely relate to (though not in a phone booth these days). Oh, those annoying operators with their falsely calm condescension!

"I don't have 25 cents!"

Better wig, though. Maybe Edward Norton's cell phone will cut out in this new movie. "Only one bar? Rrrarrhhh!"

Finally, the music in the trailer emulates the "Lonely Man" theme that played at the end of every TV episode. But wouldn't it be cool if they were somehow able to incorporate this old cartoon theme?

"Dr. Banner, belted by Gamma rays... Turned into the Hulk... Ain't he un-glamor-ays?"

Wretched. The movie has to be better than this junk.

Monday, June 09, 2008

And How Did You Spend Your Monday Morning... ?

This was the scene outside the Borders in downtown Ann Arbor this morning, with people lined up to get wristbands for David Sedaris's reading and signing this evening. Wristbands only came with a purchase of his new book, of course, and were passed out beginning at 9 a.m. I got there at 8:45, though I intended to arrive a bit earlier and the queue was already stretched from Borders' front door to the corner of Liberty and State. I'm not sure when people began to gather.

Even had I not gotten a wristband (I think they were capped at 400), I would've been happy to buy a book. But since I did nab a wristband, I guess I now have plans for the evening besides watching baseball. Will I have the patience to wait in line for a signature? Not if everyone in attendance gets in line. Life is getting shorter by the day, thinks the man who turned (gasp!) 35 yesterday.

Friday, June 06, 2008

The Malaysia Diaries: Beginning at the End

I'm not exactly sure where to start with these diaries, so I guess I'll begin with the end. Or at least an overview. Visiting Malaysia with my mother (and for part of the trip, my sister and her husband) was an amazing experience, if for no other reason than I'd never been outside of the United States before. (As a teen or adult, that is; my mother brought me to Malaysia when I was 15 months old.)

But there was so much more to the trip than that. Seeing where my mother grew up, watching her get excited about food she can't eat anywhere else, meeting her brother and sister, her many cousins, and of course, her mother all helped me understand my mother more deeply than I had before. And I thought I already knew the woman quite well. Subsequently, being introduced to this other side of my family that I'd never met before also helped me understand myself better. I'll write more about that in a post to come.

Something I'd like to write about in this first entry is the flight to Malaysia, however, because it seemed to come up any time I talked about the trip with someone. "Oh man - how long of a flight is that? I don't think I could do it. I'd go crazy." We're talking almost 24 hours spent on an airplane. It's roughly four-and-a-half hours from Detroit to Los Angeles. Unfortunately, I flew Northwest Airlines for that, after I said I'd never fly with them again after the way they treated me in New York, back in March. But I didn't book this flight. You can still go fuck yourself, Northwest.

On the bright side, Lou Ferrigno was one of my fellow passengers to L.A. I noticed him waiting in a restaurant near the gate, but wasn't entirely sure it was him until I caught a glimpse of his arms. I excitedly told my mother that the Hulk was going to be flying with us, and she encouraged me to go over and say something to him, but I didn't. For one thing, I didn't want to bother him and draw attention. And I never know what to say in those situations.

"Hey, you scared the shit out of me when I was four years old. Must've been that green wig. But I stopped being a sissy and got over that. By the way, I don't know if you remember but you totally cut in front of me in the hot dog line at the San Diego Comicon eight years ago."

Mom said I should tell him he was one of my heroes, but I think that's pushing it a little bit. Plus, I'm not sure that would've rang true with a fat guy professing such admiration to a former bodybuilder. "Hero? Then why didn't you pick up a dumbbell instead of a pizza slice, Tiny?" Ah, I should've at least snapped a picture. But I digress...

From L.A., it was another 12-13 hours to Taiwan, where we stopped to refuel. And that was capped off with another five hours from Taipei to Kuala Lumpur. How did I feel after finally getting off the plane? Well...

Ye gahds. That's the biggest picture of myself that I think I've ever posted here. And it's not very flattering. My apologies.

Anyway, I tried my best to sleep through as much of the flight as I could, and did a pretty good job of it. (My sister's husband told me he hardly slept at all; he must've been going nuts.) Each time I'd wake up, I'd hope I burned off four hours or so, only to be told by the screen in front of me that only one or two hours elapsed and there were eight more to go. But even if you nap for four hours, you wake up and still have a hell of a lot of flying left.

Could I have made it easier on myself by turning the screen off or switching to the in-flight programming? Maybe. But the maps and graphics were kind of hypnotic. And watching a movie titled "Jumper" didn't sound like a great idea on an airplane (though I do want to see it when it's released on DVD next week). So my iPod (with the full season of Mad Men on it, along with all of the podcasts and music I loaded on it before leaving) and several issues of The New Yorker kept me sane in between succumbing to sleep's sweet seduction.

It didn't quite feel like it at the time, but one fringe benefit of being stuck on a plane that long and warping through the 12-hour time difference was that I kicked my caffeine addiction. I managed to sleep through most of the withdrawal, but there was a period when I woke up feeling nauseous and in a cold sweat. At one point, I thought I might have to reach for the bag. I suppose I could've asked for a coffee or Diet Pepsi if I really wanted one, but I told myself this was a good thing. Being afraid of the headaches that would ensue without having some coffee each morning kept me from trying to wean myself off before.

I also tried to view my withdrawal symptoms from a somewhat spiritual perspective. I've been an angry person recently, irritated with several different aspects of my life and annoyed with many people I deal with. It's not healthy, and I really felt like it was eating away at my soul a bit, affecting how I act toward the world around me. Getting away from those situations was really important to me.

And though my body was literally dealing with its lack of a caffeine fix, I'd also like to think I was detoxifying all of the negativity, all of the bile I'd been carrying around, out of my system. I'll let you know if that worked next time I'm behind someone who's been in line at the coffee shop for 10 minutes, yet still insists on looking up at the menu and trying to figure out to order once he or she gets to the register. Serenity now! Of course, now that I'm no longer under caffeine's high-heeled foot, maybe I won't be sitting in those lines as much.

There's one photo I wanted to include in this post, of the local flight we took from Kuala Lumpur to Kota Bharu on AirAsia airlines, because the scenario was bizarrely hilarious. The planes were comfortable and looked nice with their leather seating and flight attendants in rather tight red uniforms. But most importantly, they were cool. Besides the air conditioning, it looked like some kind of cool mist vaporizer was being used to keep the temperature in the cabin down before take-off. But when we got onto the plane, all of the mist made it look like there was a fire. Maybe someone was trying to transfer something spicy back from Kuala Lumpur.

So I figure I have anywhere between six to 10 posts in me about Malaysia, judging from the notes I jotted down in my handy, dandy Moleskine. At least two posts will be devoted to the food I ate, though I should probably tell you right now I didn't eat anything too weird. Sorry, no bull penis or any sort of animal testicles. I guess I can't sit at the table with Bourdain and Zimmern just yet. But almost all of it was good, and I'll probably try in vain to re-create some of it here at home. Other topics should include my family, the language barrier between us, the sweat-pouring heat, the rather exotic animals that lurked nearby, and my unhappiness with the bathroom situation in that country. We'll see where it goes in the next couple of weeks.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Welcome Back to Hockeytown

Before finally updating The Malaysia Diaries (which I've slacked on due to a jet-lagged sleep schedule, compounded by late nights watching baseball and hockey), I wanted to post a brief note about the Detroit Red Wings, who won their 11th Stanley Cup championship in team history last night. It's also their fourth cup in the past 11 years, which is quite a run of prosperity after a 42-year drought leading up to the Wings' championship in 1997. (And that might have been my favorite memory as a Detroit sports fan.

I'm not nearly the hockey fan I used to be, which I think reflects the lesser appetite in the metro Detroit for the sport. The NHL lost me when it shut down in 2005, and I've been slow to come back. Not because I don't enjoy the sport, but once something goes away, and you find something else to replace it or realize you don't quite miss it, it's easy to forget. But this is a team that Detroit should embrace, because it was built the right way - with young talent developed within the organization (pronounced organ-EYE-zation for our Canadian friends), and filling in holes with role-playing veterans, instead of just buying the best available superstar players.

Following the Detroit Tigers as closely as I do, and trying to choke down the daily disappointment that their season has been thus far, it's sometimes become difficult to remember just why I love sports. But this Red Wings team has reminded me of that, of how fun it is when one of your local teams finishes as the best, and how that can draw a community together.

I was worried that the Stanley Cup Finals might be completed before I returned from Malaysia, and I'd miss the Wings playing for - and hopefully winning - another championship. I'm glad I returned in time to see the last three games of the series. And I'm really glad I got to see the guys in the red-and-white shirts, with the winged wheel on front, hoist that magnificent trophy over their heads one more time. It's the best celebration to watch in sports, and it's even better when it's your team doing the celebrating.

Enjoy this one, Hockeytown. And please appreciate this team.