new year’s resolution check-in

when i posted this i was already kinda like maybe not? but here we are.

read 110 books
this is not going to happen because i was taking chinese class for 2-3 hours every morning up until last week and with that and watching a lot of tv to procrastinate on doing my chinese homework, i did not have the time to read. i lowered the goal to 90 books because being realistic feels like settling. i did read 100 last year and that was what catapulted me into feeling like a slightly less useless piece of shit and that’s where we are right now.

complete the yale lecture series on the novel from 1945-now (read the books and listen to the lectures)
i have read like half the books and listened to none of the lectures, but i feel like there’s still time. anyway shit got weird in the 50s and 60s and for my money i’d rather read hemingway than any of the beat writers. they are so fucking pompous.

complete the list of 100 things to do in zhongli and all the blog posts
you know what’s more fun than doing things in zhongli? not doing anything in zhongli. we have a lovely apartment and netflix and besides i have like 40 more books to read in the next three and a half months.

plank for two minutes every day (even if it’s not continuous)
you’d think that doing anything for two minutes a day, in 30-second or 1-minute intervals, would be completely doable, but i kept forgetting about it until it was time to go to bed and then it was like i could get on the floor and tax my core or i could get into bed with a negligible amount of self-loathing and read my books and that has won every single night except for like three.

stick with yoga 2-3x a week, or if class with Neil ends, join a yoga gym
okay but actually the thing is the yoga was killing my back, like since november, and i have only stopped feeling like your arthritic grandma within the past few weeks. that’s like nine months of back pain, nine months where i had to take a deep breath and assume a weird yoga-like pose just to wipe my own ass. and then also chinese class started and i didn’t have time for yoga in the mornings, especially if i wanted to write…

keep hula hooping, even if it’s just five minutes a day
see: yoga broke my back and hula hooping wasn’t going to make it better.

pay off all our student loan debt
see what had happened was j needed a new scooter and then he had hernia surgery and then he had a family emergency and had to go back to the u.s. when we weren’t planning for that at all and we haven’t had to go into more debt because of that but we don’t have a lot less debt either.

resume studying chinese
I DID DO THIS from the end of december 2016 until like a week ago and it was not super easy for me to go back to school with homework and tests and all, but then i realized that i didn’t like need to pass, this was all optional, so i stopped doing the homework and showing up for the tests. but anyway i learned some more chinese and made some friends with some cool kids from vietnam and indonesia and korea and a nice lady from japan. and now i don’t know what i am going to do, but i didn’t want to stick around for Teacher Zhang telling us to write multiple essays and shit. i just want to consistently understand what’s going on around me but maybe that bar is too high because i don’t consistently know what people are talking about even in english.

get back on the wahl’s protocol diet
for a few months last year i forgot that i liked cheese and beer and i lost some weight right before our holiday when i started drinking beer and eating cheese again and i have never stopped. we do however eat a metric fuckton more vietnamese food lately, so we have that going for us.

play the receipt lottery
i looked up the receipt lottery info online in january but it was too early for the receipts i’d just received, so i put them in a pile on the shelf under my coffee table. then i just started piling all my receipts there until it eventually looked like a mouse’s nest. i just threw them all out like two weeks ago.

give charitably every month
why am i such a piece of shit? i did donate $50 to my brother who is a teacher in a little developing country called the united states of america where schools are underfunded and teachers are often expected to buy supplies themselves.

re: writing–measure activity, not results
i mean i guess? this sounds like i was copping out before i even started. so i have been writing more, and i have all but given up on the big book i wanted to write about my first five years in taiwan because i finally realized i was like trying to build a house when i can’t even put up a tent by myself (and when given the opportunity, i wait until it’s dark and i’m drunk so don’t trust me). i have focused on much shorter pieces, also trying to accommodate my very brief attention span, and i’ve actually finished some stuff lately WHAT. that was not happening for a very long time. so maybe ten years from now i will submit something somewhere, and maybe something i wrote will even get published somewhere that i’m excited to be in, whatever is the opposite of the literary equivalent of strip malls.

write for myself every day
i am pretty good during the week but i make bad decisions every single fucking weekend mostly. there’s no barrier at all to me getting up and going to a coffee shop early in the morning on saturdays except that i am like fuck it i’ll make some vietnamese coffee at home…and throw in a load of laundry, take a shower, do the dishes, watch six hours of a show i just found out existed…then it’s time to get shitfaced, probably, and sunday is spent in bed not really sleeping because whenever i start to drift off i have a panic attack about how my life is going nowhere and i am going to live in a box for ten years before i die.

make writing a priority, first thing every morning
like i said, i write most every morning, anywhere from 20 minutes to two hours depending on how the coked-up ferret in my brain is feeling about sitting down and writing on a device that can also access facebook, twitter, the news, netflix, youtube, and amazon.

say yes more often
no

but i did do random awesome shit not on the list either because i am amazing or blame it on my adhd. i am adding this stuff to the list retroactively.

i now bike to work
random, right? this has been a low-key goal of mine since i started reading mr. money mustache all the way back when i lived in virginia.

i can kinda play guitar? 
in the middle of january i saw a video of channing tatum fucking up a song on the piano and i was like he has absolutely got to be busier than me sitting in starbucks watching videos of channing tatum, so i left and bought a guitar. i practice most days and now i can kinda play john legend’s all of me and old crow medicine show’s wagon wheel, which use the same four chords.

songs for driving in taiwan

Thank you for not killing me
You could have killed me so easily!
Your heart is true
You’re a good driver in Taiwan!

  • to the tune of auld lang syne

i almost died
i almost died
i almost died just now
just now i almost died just now
just now i almost died

  • to the tune of for he’s a jolly good fellow

you’re a terrible driver
you’re a terrible driver
you’re a terrible driver
which nobody can deny!

turn signals are fun
i know that you have them
so why don’t you use them
yeah turn signals

effin’ son of a gun
you’re going to kill me
why do you hate me
use turn signals

people should be seen and not heard and not seen much

my ideal coffee shop has single-person booths, like cubicles, and the baristas bring you your drink and no one is allowed to talk to each other or on their cellphones or listen to music without headphones and no children are allowed and no conversation of any kind

my ideal coffee shop is a library with a really strict librarian but also you are allowed to drink coffee

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things I hate at the coffee shop:

    • people sitting in my direct line of vision even though I sit in the corner away from the window
    • people who take my seat at the starbucks I usually go to (My seat is the one in the corner by the door because there’s only once chance for someone to sit next to me and nobody likes the lounge chairs directly in front of me so usually there isn’t anyone sitting between me and the window and when the door opens, there’s a warm breeze mixed in with the AC.)
    • when there are more than two or three people in line because the baristas here are slow and odds are one of those people is going to order six different drinks and get confused halfway through ordering them so that one of the other baristas who could be making drinks has to come over and do an interpretive dance explaining the difference between iced and hot drinks
    • people who sit next to me when there are other seats available not next to me

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    • people who peer into the windows like they are looking for someone but actually they are just looking at their reflection
    • people who stand near me when I am sitting because I can only think about their dirty buttholes or smelly crotches being near my food
    • people who fuck with their hair more seems necessary this is a coffee shop you are not beyonce this is not a music video this is my life
    • people who squirm in my peripheral vision or in front of me and even across the way because it disturbs my whole aura
    • people who sit down in the bench seat like they are trying to catch something fast-moving with their butt because it makes me bounce on the cushion
    • skinny people who think they are skinnier than they are and try to squeeze into places where they don’t fit you are skinny not elastic
    • single customers who take up two tables when there are people looking for tables
    • people who sit four or five to a two-top table (and the two-top is really a one-top)
    • people who talk on their cellphones or watch or listen to anything without headphones on
    • students who look like they are meant to be studying but keeping replying to messages on their phone and giggling and making breathing noises

    • people who come to cafes for meetings, especially sales pitches–i have watched people open up a giant bag and start pouring liquids into various vials and expound upon the cleaning power of their products in the middle of an otherwise quiet coffee shop
    • anyone who comes into a quiet coffee shop making any kind of noise
    • families with children that do an elaborate but bad job of both trying to get their kids seated and arranged and stand in line at the same time
    • people who want a private consultation before they commit to ordering bread and coffee
    • people who come to Starbucks to buy gifts, not coffee, and want to confer with the barista like they need the details on an important investment
    • people who cut in line and the stupid surprised face they make when someone points it out to them like they thought three other people were just hanging out near the cash register because the wifi is better there, or something
    • people who eat their sandwiches with a fork and a knife
    • people who slurp their coffee
    • people who grab for their coffee too frequently (counts as squirming)
    • people who sit next to me instead of the other person when there are two empty seats between us
    • slow baristas
    • the person who shows up just as the rush is over so you had to wait ten minutes for an americano but she gets her frappucino in like 3 seconds and breezes out like no big deal
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    • the starbucks manager who always acts like my ordering a drink is a hurdle to her getting her work done
    • when one barista is making the drinks and two baristas are slapping each other with towels while five customers are waiting for their coffee
    • the delivery guy who comes and flirts really loudly with the baristas and makes them shriek and squeal really loudly
    • the people who let the door slam at the Starbucks by the train station
    • the stupid tiny fucking tables at the cama coffee behind sogo
    • the fact that my favorite Louisa never opened until 9:30 a.m. and now it’s perma-closed
    • whatever the fuck this traditional italian folk music remixed with a techno beat is what
    • the entourage accompanying the one person who is actually ordering a drink, and the fact that all six of them will notice that the one guy is blocking the exit except the guy who is actually blocking the exit
    • people who take pictures of their starbucks order
    • people who take multiple selfies at starbucks
    • people who think starbucks is fancy (overpriced, yes, but its not expensive enough to keep broke college students and people with kids out)

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  • when the barista tries to fix a drink she messed up instead of remaking it because I paid US$5 for this vanilla iced cold-brew coffee and i struggle not to feel stupid about that decision but when you fuck it up and just put some more sugary syrup in it and remind me to stir it myself it’s like a bad-idea one-night stand that doesn’t even redeem itself with decent sex
  • people who bring in their US$2 breakfast to enjoy the air-conditioned Starbucks atmosphere that I paid like US$8 to be able to sit in why didn’t the rest of us think of that you’re so smart ya dickhead
  • people who can’t fucking slide a chair or table over without making a big production like they are remodeling their living space and having an enraptured audience gives them inspiration to go on
  • people who line up too close to me i will make it awkward by flipping my hair or feigning a tic that looks like the electric slide
  • strangers who want to talk about anything besides what i want to drink

things I love

  • watching people try to squeeze through the closing gap in the electric doors because they didn’t know you have to press the button
  • watching people who try to cut in line like they are princess frappuccino get told to line behind those of us who are obviously waiting
  • watching the shitty Starbucks manager tell people who rocked up with breakfast shop sandwiches that cost like US$1 that they have to order a US$5 coffee or leave and watching them leave
  • the hot guys who used to run my favorite louisa’s and sometimes were still buttoning their collared shirts when i came in as they were opening

it did not suck as bad as i thought it would have

I went to the Musee d’Orsay’s 30th Anniversary Exhibit at the National Palace Museum psyched up like a rugby player ready to give as good as she gets, but it wasn’t that bad.

As expected, people still walked right in front of me as I was looking at a picture unless I was standing right up against the low cord that kept the crowd a few feet away. And even with that cord across my shins, a few old people tried to scootch in front of me like no big deal, but I held my ground.

One dude straight up smelled like bad breath all over, but I didn’t budge cause you cannot come up on my right and try to get closer to a picture on my left just by smelling bad. I held my breathe and stood there staring at a Degas painting and wishing I could focus on it instead of how much I wished that old man would trip over the wire and end up going viral on YouTube.

At The Stock Exchange by Edgar Degas, 1879
At The Stock Exchange by Edgar Degas, 1879

But I got there early enough that the crowd wasn’t hateful, and then I went through the exhibition backwards so I managed to see about half the pictures without being annoyed at all. However, I was uncomfortable by the second little room, watching a dad explain the nudes to his little daughter. It wasn’t like the dad was being inappropriate, it was just that there was this little girl who came to this special museum for a special day with her dad, and here she is having to look at these very important paintings of lovely, young, naked women. And there was some text on the wall which didn’t say much, some generic words about Impressionism. It compared Vallotton’s Women at Their Toilet hanging right there on the wall to Degas’ nudes because of the “naturalistic style of women painting” and I was reading that and hearing this dad talk to his daughter and I was wondering if he knew to tell her Degas was a misogynist and a voyeur; that it was fucked up that Vallotton painted these young women naked and faceless; or that just in general it’s super fucked up that the canon is populated with hordes of naked young women and we all have to pretend it’s respectable and not at all pervy that male artists and art collectors want to deck the halls with female bodies.

Vallotton's Women At Their Toilet
Vallotton’s Women At Their Toilet

I wanted him to tell her that just because these paintings and artists were famous, they could be flawed and ought to be questioned, and it’s not immaterial that most nudes are women, and young, and pale and smooth and demure and feeble and soft.

Renoir, Grand Nu
Renoir, Grand Nu

Concerns about male hegemony aside, I am so grateful I got to see that exhibit. Every couple of paintings, I felt spiritually transported, no shit. I could imagine Monet standing in the grass in slacks and suspenders with his shirt loose and a little sweaty, I could see the light sparkling off the ripples of the water that he was trying to capture on his canvas, and knowing that this was a thing that happened in a time I can never travel to was so depressing and so elating. Those paintings, any paintings, any art, are an inimitable product of the era in which they were created. They’re like time capsules. And if you know a little about how Monet and Sisley and Renoir and Corot and Courbet et al were buds, and how most of them were stuck in Paris eating rats and praying for cigarettes during the Siege of Paris, and you read about their wives and mistresses and kids, then you can totally fangirl when you see their signatures at the bottom of their paintings. “omg renoir totally signed this pic of this naked chick 😍😍😍😍”

I get downright melancholy when I read about like the Belle Epoque or the Lost Generation in Paris because you can book a flight to Hoi An or Chiang Mai or make vague plans to finally go to Cairns to see Cole for the first time since she moved there in 2006, but I’ll never be able to smell the breeze coming off the Seine as it smelled to Manet or Hemingway because that whole world is gone now and 🗝️🗝️YOU CAN’T STEP IN THE SAME RIVER TWICE!! 👟👟👟 And yeah that’s a kind of indulgent, luxurious melancholy that can be completely cured by finding out there’s a new pizza place in town. And also I think the Seine super stank in Manet’s time. But anyway these paintings still exist and it’s like a totally not-scary hand reaching out from the past to connect with your own and that’s beautiful.

Alfred Roll, Manda Lamétrie, fermière, 1887
Alfred Roll, Manda Lamétrie, fermière, 1887

Look at her arms! She is gorgeous and strong and young and vital. I love her. This painting was huge, like five or six feet tall.

This

Jules Bastien-Lepage, Haymaking (Les Foins), 1877
Jules Bastien-Lepage, Haymaking (Les Foins), 1877

This is what it’s like when you came home drunk and passed out and the alarm went off and you can’t remember if you have to work today or not.

Jules Breton, Le rappel des glaneuses, 1859
Jules Breton, Le rappel des glaneuses, 1859

This was the one that might stick with me the longest in memory. I loved the women’s faces, their bare feet, and the folds on their garments. I could sense the relief that comes coordinated with the sun’s setting and that glance of the moon at the end of the work day. And there’s more to this story, because you see these younger woman and even children, working alongside the older women and you know how their lives are going to go. And I love that your eyes return the woman in the front, in the white, and her face is like “yeah this is what i do for a living but this isn’t who i am.”

Assault, 1898 - William-Adolphe Bouguereau
Assault, 1898 – William-Adolphe Bouguereau

And this one. I just had feelings about this one. Like this chick is being assaulted by naked children who look like they are about 9 years old, which is the age of my students and if they ever came at me like this I would be working at Starbucks. And yet she’s just looking like she’s not sure if she turned the stove off; she probably did, but if she didn’t, like literally her house could catch fire, but can she just leave work to go check on her stove? And I love the description of this painting/artist on the Musee d’Orsay website cause they say, “This romantically inspired theme resulted in many paintings with similar compositions, proof of Bouguereau’s keen awareness of market forces,” which I am pretty sure just means he was doing it for the money, but I guess if I could pay my bills with pictures of naked angel-kids for your living room, I just might.

Morning at the museum

Me and Monet at the Toledo Museum of Art
Me and Monet at the Toledo Museum of Art

I am planning on going to the Musee d’Orsay 30th anniversary exhibit at the National Palace Museum in Taipei and I am so excited and also totally dreading it.

On the one hand I took an AP Art History class in 1998 and since then I have read exactly two full books about the Belle Epoque so I am super pumped that some of these invaluable works that I have quite possibly heard of have basically come to my door. Also I am an ignorant girlchild when it comes to art so I am like “yay Impressionists” because their shit is pretty. All those sunrises and sunsets are like glasses of wine for your eyes.

And I don’t know exactly why but I have always kind of been a Francophile, but I am the kind of nerd who knows the word Francophile and that Guy de Maupassant ate lunch under the Eiffel Tower so he wouldn’t have to look at it, but I didn’t know that Les Mis wasn’t about the French Revolution until I googled it just now.

On the other hand, everyone else in northern Taiwan knows that it’s very important to see these very important paintings so they are all going there and bringing their whole goddamn families and letting their kids go feral while the adults take turns walking right the fuck in front of each other as they are trying to Appreciate the Art.

review of musee d'orsay exhibit 1

musee d'orsay exhibit taipei 2

review musee d'orsay exhibit in taipei 3

Yes I intentionally looked for the 1-star to 3-star reviews on Facebook because those are my people. I don’t want you guys who try to “make the best of things” lying to me about what a shit time I’m gonna have. But this is bad. When Taiwanese visitors are like “It’s too noisy” and straight up “Children under 12 should not be permitted,” then I feel like I am about to make a very bad decision for someone who will wait four hours for her husband to get home from work rather than leave to get herself banh mi.

I have to strategize:

  • I am going alone because unless some of my friends are in the closet about their love of late-nineteenth-century painters, none of them are, and I am not getting chased around the museum by someone who only came to Taipei because I promised you we would go to H&M after.
  • I am leaving Zhongli on a bus at like 6:30 in the morning, and I’m not waiting for you to take your morning shit because you thought you could be up and ready to go in 15 minutes but your colon is not cooperating.
  • I am gonna be at that ticket window when it opens at 8:20 and I hope you and your kids are still looking for the one shoe that you need to leave the house so I can get a couple rooms ahead of you before you show up.
  • I am not allowed to bring shit in with me, fine, but I am definitely renting a headset so I can tune you out. I will bring a notebook with me to record my impressions of the impressionists lol but I will look your child in the eye and make a stabbing motion with my pen if he bounces into my thighs more than once. I am literally paid not to lose my shit around kids for 30 hours a week, but I don’t work weekends.
  • I may not shower because I am not afraid to use body odor if it will get me closer to to The Gleaners.

I have also considered what kind of clothing I could wear—something with inflatable spikes? something made of actual balloons?—that would be most effective in keeping people from bumping into me like they did not see 170 pounds of me with big hair and giant tits staring at a painting and exuding a misanthropic aura. It is 2017 do we not have contact alarms for my person? Something that beeps right before you back into me would be great. I am probably just going to wear my Nolite Te Bastardes Carborundorum t-shirt that nobody ever wants to talk about and pray for the all the ungiven fucks that Offred was blessed with at the end of season 1.

Wish me luck! Any suggestions for a worthwhile solo lunch in Taipei would be welcome, otherwise I am definitely getting banh mi at my spot in Zhongli, since I’m already out.

Best Pizza in Zhongli Taiwan

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I wanted to list a few places to get pizza in Zhongli like I did for salads in Zhongli, but Wild Boar is it, hands down. Pizza Hut and Domino’s have jumped the shark and now it’s bread, cheese, and a sack of frozen imitation seafood bits that would have been better off as an ice pack. Sometimes they put cocktail wienies in the crust but that doesn’t make it better.

I mean at some point it’s not actually pizza anymore and I can’t say where that line is but I think it’s this side of topping it with peas and corn.

And most other places that have “pizza” on the menu really just serve ketchup on a slab of chalky white cardboard covered with cheese made of used birthday candles.

We went to the Pizza Factory tonight because it’s new. We had to book a table in advance because it’s so popular, but it was about on par with the meal you get at Easy Life Pizza&Cafe. The crust was a little better than I expected given the sweet corn chowder and the iceberg-lettuce salad, but it would have been a lot better if it were cooked all the way.

I feel bad being honest, though, because the manager talked to us, because we tried to go on Saturday and they didn’t have any tables, and some foreigners tried to go on Sunday and they didn’t have any tables, and then some foreigners started waving their arms and saying that the were discriminating against foreigners. So the manager apologized to me as a representative of the contingent of Zhongli foreigners past and present, I GUESS, and gave me a 90%-on coupon. He went on the record saying he really liked foreigners and it was just that some foreigners didn’t understand that there’s a 90-minute time allowance for each table and so they don’t seat people if there’s less than 90 minutes left for them to eat. It’s not our logic, but it’s logical, so okay then.

Anyway I don’t care because Wild Boar has the best pizza in Zhongli. They also have great calzones that they call “half-moon pizzas” and some cheesy bread that they call “papadams”. And it’s tiny so your chances of having kids belting around the place is reduced because even if someone makes the poor choice to bring them, there isn’t enough room for them to really pick up speed.

They also have dessert pizzas but I’m usually out of room myself by the end of the meal.

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J just came home and I remembered that he also gets pizza from the pizza truck parked near the Wenhua Elementary school on Wednesday nights and it is awesome. He usually gets the margherita pizza because it’s the cheapest. There is not anything better than mid-week surprise pizza right before bed except not eating it and waking up feeling like you are finally a grownup. A grownup who can have pizza eggs for breakfast on a weekday.

Best places to get a salad in Zhongli

When we first got here in 2004, my friend Cole and I thought we would die from scurvy because on the whole Chinese people think eating raw vegetables is dirty or boring and back in 2004 they were only eating iceberg-lettuce salads with “salad cream” and sprinkles on top so who could blame them? Now loads of places have salads on the menu or even offer a salad bar as part of the meal, but you still don’t know if it’s gonna come standard with “Thousand Island” dressing made of ketchup and the kind of mayonnaise that doesn’t need to be refrigerated or if they splurged on unwilted romaine.

I think MU Cafe over by the motor-vehicle registration building has awesome salads, but don’t let them try to tell you that the large one is too big for one person because it is not. I’ve had the mushroom salad as an entree, and I think the salmon salad, too, and they are both respectable. They also have salads with fruit in them but ew.

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The best salad in Zhongli might be at Wild Boar, which conveniently also has the best pizza in Zhongli. The only reason we don’t go here every time we eat out is that we don’t like any of our favorites dishes to think we like them less than others so we have to rotate. But Wild Boar dude tosses his salads with big biceps balsamic vinaigrette, and he also gives some like Ranch-style dip for the “papadam” (dude it’s cheesy bread) that makes everything taste better.

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Sometimes I get salads from David’s Diner on the way to work but…ugh I usually love eating there but I don’t think his salads are that great for the price, but don’t tell him that! I will definitely still go there and I will eat the Mexican pizza like groceries. And I will probably still stop by and get a chicken Caesar salad now and then anyways because this is Zhongli and my options are limited.

Anyway no one has posted a picture of their David-Diner salad on Instagram so what does that tell you? That you should order his beer-ritas instead.

There are also some small salads available at Family Mart and PX Marts all over town but generally they are still doing that sad mix of iceberg lettuce, purple cabbage shreds gone a bit soft, dehydrated carrot shreds, and canned corn and also they are about the size of one bite of regular salad. If you are actually thinking salad cause you want to make a healthy choice, just get an apple because these ones are just vehicles for dressing, and as far as vehicles go, they are like 1990-whatever tan Toyota Tercels. Just not worth it…

I would like to point out that most of the grocery stores here now have Romaine for about NT$100 a pack, some local and some imported. And if you haven’t tried this Japanese sesame dressing yet you are not on our level:

amateur vagrant best salads in zhongli japanese salad dressing

Also for the record fucking Harvest Time has salads, too, but they are literally the equivalent of emptying your sandwich into a plastic clamshell and since the worst thing about Harvest Time is that fucking smug sign about the “perfect ratio of ingredients” and not the bread, I don’t really get the point. And there is nothing perfect about a 6-inch sandwich with two fucking slices of jalapeno and two fucking slices of black olive, dickheads.

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Anyway, if y’all know of places with some good green, drop the details in the comments! Help me help you!

Writer’s Retreat on Lion’s Head Mountain

Quan Hua Temple on Lion’s Head Mountain in Miaoli is the perfect place for a solo writer’s retreat–but you won’t find peace and quiet there over a busy holiday weekend 

On Google Maps

Red temples ornate with aggressively colorful dragons, phoenixes, and other members of Chinese pantheon are as ubiquitous in Taiwan as convenience stores, but Quan Hua Temple on Lion’s Head Mountain in Miaoli County still manages to awe. It’s not just that it’s one of the biggest temples I’ve ever seen. The way that it’s nestled against the mountain’s dense green growth, a sacred human space in a natural sanctuary, makes for a breathtaking impression. The temple is not competing for attention against neon signs or tall buildings. The red roof and the rainbow parade of mythical creatures and gods dominates your visual field as well as your imagination.

 Photo by CEphoto, Uwe Aranas
Photo by CEphoto, Uwe Aranas

There’s a hotel here, a place for hikers to rest before or after a long day of hiking the local trails. It’s my favorite space, one of my favorite places in the world. The rooms are simple and comfortable, with ceramic-tiled floors, wood-paneled walls, and a balcony looking out over the forest. If you ignore the parking lot to the left, or focus on the mountains looming in shades of gray beyond it, the view is spectacular. It’s just the view to distract and inspire a writer.

I stayed at the temple hotel for the first time in 2009, during the long Dragon Boat Festival weekend in June. I spent four days reading, writing, and hiking the way I imagined a real writer would. The isolation made for quiet and early nights, and early mornings. I took it as an affirmation of my calling that I enjoyed myself so completely with only books and notebooks for company.

I finally made it back over the 2017 Tomb-Sweeping Day weekend. It’s only two hours away by scooter from where I live in Taoyuan City, via the Provincial Highway Number 1 or the Number 3. The drive itself was therapeutic, particularly the part where I missed a turn and the GPS directed me along windy country roads past the Yongheshan Reservoir and up and down the nearby mountains. There’s nothing like swooping through the forest on these roads on a scooter, your whole mind trained on taking the curves. I wish getting in the zone came that automatically to me any other time.

When I checked in this time, the manager showed me to a room that had a double bed, but was against the back wall of the hotel, the side that literally faces the foundation of the temple itself. (Because all of this is built into the side of a mountain, the top floor of the hotel extends below the first floor of the temple.) I asked to switch to a room with the beautiful view that I remembered, but was told they were all booked. It was too late to do anything about it then, so I resolved to make the best of it. A real writer doesn’t need a view!

I fell asleep early—there are no restaurants or bars here, nothing to distract you from feeling tired. But I was awakened—everybody for a mile was awakened—at five a.m. by a ten-minute long round of bell ringing. I concentrated on taking deep breaths and listening to how the reverberations of the bell differed slightly after each clang, but in other little crevices of my brain, I was wondering why we humans can’t just appreciate the sounds of birds in the morning, or the wind in the trees. After a few minutes, I felt like I was seeing sound waves. When the bell ringing stopped, my blood pressure finally dropped. Then the drums started up. By now, of course, everyone in the hotel was awake, so the hallways were alive with the sounds of stomping and screeching didis and meimeis, and parents trying to get them ready for a day of hiking or travelling after what could not have felt like enough sleep.

I couldn’t get back to sleep. At seven, the hills were alive with the sounds of angry car horns and the frantic whistles of someone trying very hard to herd traffic. I definitely picked the wrong weekend to reject civilization and look for solitude in the mountains. Children raced back and forth over a metal grate above my window, bridging the gap between the wall of the hotel and the foundation of the temple. There I was, fuming like a bridge troll.

I tried to write when I got out of bed at 9 a.m., but I was using all my energy telling myself that I should be able to concentrate anywhere. Finally, I just found the manager and asked her if I couldn’t change rooms for the next two nights. It was no problem. I got my view and a balcony. However, the new room had two twin beds instead of a double, and no bathtub–but I am willing to make sacrifices for my art.

I switched rooms just in time to hear the chanting start at the pagoda across the way. The sound traveled through the hotel, the temple and the trails throughout the mountains. It went on for about two hours while I tried to write, tried to convince myself there must be some spiritual benefit in it. The benefit only came when it stopped and I felt incredibly relieved.

Chanting in the mountains.

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Then it was time for lunch and hunger compelled me to face other humans. Goals aside, we were all united in trying to get that free lunch. I came out a winner: Unlike all the families, I had no trouble finding a place to sit at a thin table up smooshed against the wall. It was ideal for eating but not having to hazard any questions about why my husband wasn’t with me. The meal was surprisingly tasty. Of course, it was all vegetarian, which is fine by me, but if you struggle to enjoy seaweed, fried gluten, or meat-shaped chunks of vegetarian edibles, you might want to stick with the instant noodles and cereals available at the little shop on the temple grounds.

After lunch, more chanting. On a loop, I told myself it was good for me, wished it would stop soon, and berated myself for coming on a religious holiday weekend. But by the time it stopped at four o’clock, I had finished a first draft of one story. I spent the rest of the day reading and watching the parking lot clear out, drivers honking and car alarms sounding off until sunset.

As I was getting into bed around nine o’clock, I resolved to get myself upstairs when I heard the bell tolling to see if I could get any photos of the sunrise. Instead I woke up at 5:30 to the pleasant sound of chirping birds. Without the bell, getting out of bed seemed less urgent. I didn’t get upstairs until 6:15 and then I headed off to stretch my legs along the Lion’s Head Mountain Historic Trail. Before I got very far, an elderly monk wiping down a giant urn stopped me to find out where I was from. I must have been just the audience he was waiting for, because he launched into a long, fluid speech about all the foreign friends from different countries who come to visit little Taiwan, which is in fact a very wonderful place, and it’s very important for everyone in the whole world to get along. I only understood about half of what he was saying, but as long as I stood there smiling and nodding, the old monk kept talking. So I smiled and nodded and reflected on what kind of stereotype it was, talking to a monk in a temple on a mountain in Taiwan, the kind of experience that friends back home might imagine is available to me all the time. Then the monk’s phone rang very loudly, breaking the mythical spell. He pulled a slick red flip phone out of the pocket of his orange robe and I escaped up the trail.

There are loads of temples within walking distance from Quan Hua, and loads of mountain trails in this area, but I’m not an adventurer on my own. I worry too much about getting lost, getting bitten by snakes or dogs, getting assaulted, or some horrible combination of the three. So I stuck to the trails and the roads, and had a lovely walk through the still-quiet forest. I even saw four incredible Formosan blue magpies and a large hawk, none of whom would cooperate for a photo. When I got back to my room, it was just past eight o’clock. I had my coffee and a shower, and went over the draft of my story from the day before. The bells rang, briefly, and farther away, and I could hear the cars navigating the three-story parking lot, but overall, the second full day was much quieter. There was still a lot of chanting at lengthy intervals, but it stopped again after lunch and I took a nap with the door open and the room full of fresh air. The rest of the day I spent reading and writing, more motivated knowing I would leave the next day.

Even with the curtains open, I didn’t wake up until 6:30 the next morning. It was blissfully quiet outside except for bird songs. The light came in soft and quiet through the beveled glass. Taking another walk would have been healthy, but I had to check out at 11 and didn’t want to give up the last few hours of writing time. Of course, the writing was going very well, and I wanted to stay another day, but it only comes so easily when there’s a deadline coming at you with a gun to your head.

I confirmed with the woman at the front desk that it’s much quieter when it’s not a holiday weekend. I’ll come back again when everyone else is too busy, and I’ll leave my phone at home. The only thing to distract me will be the view of the trees that extend the mountains and the mountains that extend to the sky, as far as you can imagine.


Tips: If you plan on spending a chunk of time in your room, don’t bother coming unless you get one of the rooms with the balconies. The rooms on the other side of the hotel are fine and clean, but about as cheery as prison cells—not exactly an environment conducive to creativity.

If you don’t plan on eating the free vegetarian meal (served at 6:30 a.m., 12:00p.m., and 5:30 p.m.) and you don’t want to lose writing time driving around, bring your own (non-perishable) snacks and drinks. There is a small shop on the temple grounds, but the selection is very limited.

The cost of a room is NT$1000 for 1-2 people. Ask about charges for additional guests.

There is an air conditioner and a TV in each room, but you won’t need the TV because you’ll be writing.

There is a desk-like vanity in each room, with a stool, and also 1-2 beds, a nightstand, a small coffee table, and two wooden chairs. I pulled one of the chairs in front of the vanity to write, and when I got tired of sitting, I put the coffee table on the bed and wrote standing up. There is plenty of room for pacing and the balcony is an excellent place to stand and stare at the skyline.

My Tabs 3-5-17

I have been feeling guilty about not blogging, but I have three or four hobbies that require more of my attention than I am giving them any given week. I consider cutting back, but limiting myself to just one goal at a time only guarantees I will waste more time watching TV or fucking about on Facebook. At least now when I am not writing, I am reading or hula hooping or playing guitar.

A much more successful woman than me once wrote that you ought to blog consistently so that your readers can learn to depend on you; that you ought to be the kind of friend you would want to have. That was my goal for a long time, realized now and then in brief spurts at the expense of everything else I enjoy doing, until I recognized that I have never been that kind of friend to anyone, and I don’t even appreciate that kind of friend. There are very few people I want to see regularly, and even fewer people that I want to see often. And it’s been my experience that the most dependable and reliable friends are the ones who demand dependability and reliability in return, which is fair, but that yoke chafes. I’ll take my chances with the flakes and the free spirits, knowing that my husband, my mom, and my siblings are never more than a phone call away.

A friend suggested that I do a kind of link round-up with all the things I have read. I took it as a compliment, with maybe the implication that I am posting too damn much on Facebook. Fair enough! I’ve tried spreading it over Instagram, Twitter, and my Facebook pages, but the tendency only seems to increase with the number of outlets. Somebody just needs to pay me to curate content. Until then, here is my latest version of a link round-up: all the tabs that I have open on my computer and phone, and maybe a few of the best things I’ve shared on Facebook or seen elsewhere.

Beautiful Taiwan, #nofilter #taichung

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This is the first iteration, but I can’t promise it won’t be the only one. I can guarantee it won’t reappear at regular intervals.

      • I enjoy everything I read on Avidly. I just found this link to their stories about teaching. I wonder if I could submit something there? Anyone want to hear about the trials of being an introverted teacher with ADHD who is hypersensitive to noises?
      • Is everybody getting these Master Class ads all over Facebook now? I finally clicked on the one for James Patterson’s class. (This is not an affiliate link; I don’t make any money from anything on this site.)
      • Then I found this article written by writer Joyce Maynard who took Jame’s Patterson’s Master Class, James Patterson Teaches Writing. It didn’t compel me to sign up for the course, but it was a fun read.

        One woman wanted to know how she might protect herself from the danger that someone, seeing her writing on the site—including Mr. Patterson himself, perhaps—might rip it off. Having seen her work, I might have told her not to worry.    

        See how mean I can be? James Patterson would never say anything like that to one of his students, or dampen, in any way, their aspirations. To James Patterson, any one of us out there taking this class may be the next James Patterson. And if we aren’t… well, you don’t have to become Jimi Hendrix to get some joy out of fooling around on the guitar. And let’s not forget, Buddy Holly only played three chords.

         

      • I’m watching the 2014 movie Somewhere, Anywhere, Nowhere on Netflix. It’s a Taiwanese movie about two friends who spend six months traveling around the island. Here’s a review from the Taipei Times.
      • I always have a Goodreads tab open these days. I am trying to read 110 books this year. I’ve been two books behind for a couple of weeks now, but it’ll be okay.
      • Texas is often stereotyped as a bastion of the backward and conservative, a state where oppressive “family values” reign supreme, but things are starting to look left, according to this article from Harper’s.
      • Deeply disturbing: a black Muslim teen disappeared from his home in Seattle and was found a month later, hanged from a tree. With no history of mental illness or suicidal tendencies, the family is struggling to find out what happened to their beloved son. kuow.com
      • Jeff Sessions is a liar who never should have been confirmed in the first place.
      • The French are laughing at our ridiculous president. I want to join them, if they’ll even let my American ass in after all this.
      • When you see a human being like Alicia Keys doing this musical impression game not only with Jimmy Fallon but also The Roots, and they have all these gigantic arsenals of talent, knowledge, and experience, cultivated over a lifetime…I am not sure that all humans are the same species. Or some of us should really just have gone to vocational school. Maybe I should be a truck driver. Hey Mav, you know the name of that truck driving school? Truck Master I think it is. I might need that.
      • In her essay We Brown Women, Miriam Rahmani unpacks the bigotry and hypocrisy in the language of the executive order/Muslim-ban “PROTECTING THE NATION FROM FOREIGN TERRORIST ENTRY INTO THE UNITED STATES.”

Who, after all, doesn’t want to be protected?

I don’t. My sisters don’t. Not this way, not by this administration, not by the white man.

    • 8 Feminists to Watch in 2017 from Mic.com
    • I am wading through Simone de Beauvoir’s little book The Ethics of Ambiguity now, and I’ve queued up some supplementary reading for when I’m done. It’s been a damn long time since I’ve read a straight philosophy book and it is not like riding a bicycle. Having spent nearly a decade teaching ungrateful tiny people their ABCs has not been sufficient to keep my brain in peak form.
    • Knowing that Ruth Bader Ginsberg not only takes time to work out every day, but also could probably kick my butt, does not make me feel good about myself.
    • Whenever I want to start working out, this is where I have to start: 5 Simple Solutions for Anterior Knee Pain. (Apparently, I need to activate my glutes. If I am not actually a lazy ass, I do have one.)

And I’ll stop here. This list is actually only the tabs I had open on my computer, but I have about 50 open on my phone (don’t you judge me!) and this has already gone on long enough.

Last Friday night

When February second became February third, I was at River with an old friend drinking vodka tonics. We met in 2004, a couple of wild English teachers getting into boy trouble. Now we’re both married, and she has a six-year-old daughter. Her daughter is one of the coolest little people I’ve ever met, but nobody gets wilder after they have a kid.

Chinese New Year sparklers

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She claims that she lost her groove somewhere along the line, but she found it that night. “Usually I feel drunk after one or two drinks anymore, but tonight I feel great!”

“Go back towards the light!” I wanted to say. “Don’t follow me down this dark path!” But it’s always best to let friends do what they want. Don’t stop them from jumping; just tell them you’ll be there if they fall.

I’ve caught up with enough old friends now that the initial conversations have become familiar, like so many others scripts in our relationships. Remember when we used to be wilder than we are now? Remember when we never had hangovers? Remember when nothing ever hurt? When we hadn’t gained any weight? When nothing had consequences? It’s like the years want to chain you down as much as anything else. Even out here, doing our damnedest to opt out, we still feel the drag of time.

I didn’t get to sleep until 4:30 in the morning, but I didn’t have to work until 1:00, so that was fine. It wasn’t great: I didn’t read or write, I didn’t play the guitar or practice with the hula hoop. I passed out and got up with an alarm at 11:00 a.m. But I made it to work on time, with lunch, coffee, a liter of water, and loads of little snacks. Sometimes you can’t expect much more from me.

A third-grader wanted me to tell her what she had got stuck in her hair, and help her get it out. It was most definitely a booger, and it had gone all hard. Nope. Wordlessly, I handed her a tissue, and when she said she couldn’t get it out herself, I asked my pet to help her. “It’s not a booger!” I heard her say, but I pretended not to. My pet followed suit and returned to her chair, unmoved.

I take the trash out every Friday after work when the garbage truck comes round at 6:10. The new elderly neighbor woman from the third-floor accosted me: Where were we when she came to knock on our door during the vacation? She came twice! (One of those times I was home, but I had thought she was knocking on the neighbor’s door, though even when I realized she was looking for me, I remained quiet until she went away.) This is the stuff of nightmares, old ladies trying to enter my sanctuary without warning, without invitation. Worse yet, she asked us to dinner, specifically on Saturday, February 18. Now we have to move.

Only about half my friends understand why we can’t live here anymore. The other half are friendly, generous, and tolerant, which is why they have a friend like me when they could do so much better.

After work I went to dinner with old friends and new. They didn’t mix so well–was it because some of us hadn’t seen each other for so long and meeting new friends and catching up with old ones was too much for one meal? Was it because a gaggle of Western women was too much for a Western guys who are used to not having to fight for the floor? Was it too much for people facing big life transitions to chat about recent vacations and the pleasures of a drunk weekend?

Friends come in flavors and even if you like them all, they don’t always meld well together. Roasted garlic ice cream might be a lovely surprise, but chocolate-covered pickles are not.

I lost everyone I’d started off with along the way, but I made it to the bar eventually and immediately made new friends.  One was stumbling into a taxi, but invited us to any and all future barbecues he had, and for drinks the next night. We exchanged Line IDs, and then on Sunday exchanged pictures of our dinner. He grilled pork belly; J made a tray of seaweed chicken wings.

My friends and I spent the night smoking, drinking, and racing each other to the bar to pay for drinks. We were 23, 24 years old again, and we didn’t have husbands or kids, or even shitty boyfriends or Saturday classes. I told the bartender “I need four drinks” and she said, “A vodka soda, rum and coke, gin and tonic, and a Taiwan draft.” I was so impressed. You can’t just tell somebody how to be a good bartender. Some people are just smart and personable and attentive. I would be a terrible bartender.

Around 3 o’clock, we started racing across the crosswalk. You’re only allowed to touch the white stripes. I don’t remember who won, only that drunk and on a street in the dark, I felt like a kid on the playground in the spring sun.

Despite being such excellent customers, they kicked us out at 4 a.m. My friend inexplicably had a bottle of red wine in her purse, so we popped the cork and took it to the park. Her husband passed out in the grass and we listened to music on YouTube with a Canadian friend and his brother. The brother had a smile so sweet I would have liked to bottle it up and spray it on myself like perfume. When the sun came up and revealed a circle of early-morning walkers and dogs spinning around us, the guys and I watched my friend kick her husband awake on the grass. We didn’t think it would work, so when he stood up it was like seeing Lazarus come back to life. The brothers and I went to the breakfast shop. I realized I was crashing the last few hours my buddy had with his brother before the latter returned to Canada, so I took my leave and stumbled home in the soft, enthusiastic early-morning light, still listening to Justin Bieber’s Love Yourself on my phone, no headphones.

It’s still the good old days, maybe even a little better.