Sunday, September 22, 2013

Conversations with Strangers. PART IV.

Boise is a place where strangers do not talk in bars, and they hardly engage in grocery store banter. Boiseans talk to each other in circumstances that would make people in other, larger cities cringe. In Boise, the bus has become a great forum for conversation. Add to this, downtown – especially The Grove and 8th street – and public parks. I would not be surprised if parking garages could be added to the list. All of these locations are places in which city dwellers around the world put on their “do not talk to me face” and stick in their ear buds, stare vacantly, or talk on the phone to avoid the crazy person attempting to make conversation, attempting to make them vulnerable. In Moscow, people who tried to talk to strangers on public transit – more than just asking for directions – were shunned. In Boise these conversational locations are somehow encouraged, and the longer I stay here, the more I become used to talking to strangers in previously avoided situations. I do not really want to come across as rude, you know. Boise is a place where you can be walking down the street, in typical city body language for “do not even think about it,” and you may be stopped by a random stranger.

Case in point. Date: Saturday, September 21, 2013 Time: around 4:00 p.m. Location: 8th Street near Jamba Juice and the construction of the new Mormon Temple, sorry, Zion’s Bank.

I was walking at a fairly decent pace down the street toward the Grove. Both of my ear buds were in, and I was listening to Elliott Smith. I was not making eye contact with anyone but looking straight ahead. I hardly noticed the group of kids hanging out by the “rat race” escalator below Shige’s and near Jamba Juice. They are always there. I did not even look over at the new construction, since I see it every day. I did not glance toward the mounds of people I was coming upon. I kept my pace.

Suddenly there was a guy in “punk rock” garb walking alongside me, saying something. I have no idea what he was saying, I was in what they used to call iPod oblivion, which now sounds ridiculous and archaic. When I noticed him, I looked over, kept walking, and raised an eyebrow – as much as possible with my bangs. I took my ear buds out and said in an unwelcoming tone, “What? (as in huh? I did not catch what you were saying because I was listening to music, jack ass.)”

This is my typical tone when someone decides to interrupt my commute. In most circumstances, my hostility turns to friendliness because the person is merely asking for directions to a place that is usually directly in front of them. These circumstances have happened more than once, and the response to my “What?” is usually an “Oh” because for some ridiculous reason, the person did not notice the bright pink things in my ears. And then what follows (if the person is trying to strike up conversation) is an oblivious repeating of whatever they think is so important that they must keep talking, despite my tone.


“Hi. My name is _____.”

I honestly do not remember the kid’s name because I did not care to meet him. I was on a mission – to get to the hair salon. I had not washed my hair in two days and did not particularly feel like talking to strangers, but Boise has worn on me. So, while I kept walking, I did give this kid the time of day but not without taking in his appearance. With a start of a mohawk, a clean, studded camo vest with patches, and no particular odor, this kid quite obviously was not a “real” punk rocker, of the genre that live on the street or ten to an apartment that is supposed to live two. This kid probably lived with his parents or went to Boise State and lived in the dorms. I chuckled to myself. If he only knew the bad asses I hung out with as a teenager.

 “Hi. I’m Kim.”

Without missing a beat the kid said, “You are looking good today, Kim.”

Laughing to myself because of how gross I felt with unwashed hair, wearing jeans and a sweater, I said, “Thanks.” I have to admit this kid had some cojones.

“Can I get your number?” The kid asked.

Continuing to laugh to myself, all the while continuing to walk, I replied, “I don’t even have my phone with me.”

A bit sarcastically this kid said, “Well, do you know your number?”

“Yes, I know my number. What are you going to do with it?”

At that point, I had to stop walking due to the traffic light. There was a small, Boise-sized crowd of people waiting at the light with us.

“I’m going to call you, of course. Well, not today because I don’t have a phone but tomorrow. I will definitely call you tomorrow.”

“Right. So, what are you going to do, memorize my number?” I replied, humored by his ridiculous attempt to seem genuine.

At this point he promptly pulled out the newest little spiral notebook from his breast pocket (another clue that this kid was neither a punk rocker nor a writer). “I’m going to write it in here.”

To humor him, and because he made me laugh, I gave him my number and then said, “How many numbers do you need to win the bet?”

He looked confused, and I had to repeat myself which of course took away from the humor of the situation. But hell, if you are going to ask for a girl’s number in that way, you should expect to be made fun of. As I walked across Main Street and away from this clean cut “punk rocker,” I overheard a couple ladies, from the crowd of people that witnessed most of this situation, asking each other, “What if he asked for your number?” Oh Boise. 

Saturday, September 14, 2013

When I was a child, I spoke as a child ...

As a child, I always worried about consequences. I never took the risks that most children did. Consequently, I always felt like I was not having as much fun as my peers, and I probably was not. I did not want to draw attention to myself, get hurt, or get in trouble. I preferred to spend my time observing the world. Watching other children do daring things, and taking note of the incredible lives of ants that hung out in my back yard. I had a hard time doing things like jumping out of a swing or jumping off the high dive. Eventually I convinced myself to do simple things like that. Logically it was safe. But I never jumped off a rope swing into the river, and I never did anything too daring. In my mind, daring things always involved heights or fear of death (usually only perceived, not actual). Childhood was a serious time for me. A time full of consequences. When I got older, I started caring a bit less, but there are still times with those feelings and worry of getting into trouble come back. As an adult, I am expected to act like an adult, be responsible, and not encourage delinquency. I am not supposed to mess around and try to make up for all the fun I did not have as a child.
But sometimes I meet someone else who did the same thing in childhood, maybe in a different way, but someone who took life too seriously and now is trying to make up for lost time and fit in all in before life gets too serious. 
One of these experiences was with a friend who currently is training to be a Navy SEAL. I do not know if there is anything more serious in life than that. When he came to visit before he started training, we explored the Capitol building, and for some reason, we both started feeling a bit like kids. Well, I felt like a kid, he might always feel this way. It might have been the atmosphere. It might have been that in our wandering we somehow felt like we were secretly exploring places that we should not be able to access. Perhaps it was pure mischievousness of the mind, active imaginations, and ideas of the things we could be doing or discussions of what it would have been like to be in these areas with the legislative body in session. Perhaps it was finding an unlocked window that would have allowed us to go onto the roof if we were not observant enough to realize that there were guards down below. It might have been that I have always wanted to go up in the dome of the Capitol – or at least figure out how to access the stairs that lead to the top. Whatever it was, a mischievous child-like quality took over. Fortunately or unfortunately, it was not all encompassing. Consequences remained foremost in my mind …
So, I did not get on my friend’s shoulders and open a window. We did not climb out on the roof of the Capitol. And in the midst of a great game of lava, we stopped running around the Capitol building because I saw a guard.  We most definitely did not play mission impossible and jump from the first floor down to the bottom floor. But I am happy to know my imagination is still intact. I can goof around like a child, even though I am adult.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Conversations with Strangers. PART III.

Arrive at park.

Notice a guy folding up an orange blanket and looking like he is going to leave.

Walk to my usual spot, on the hill, underneath the tree, just far enough away from the bench. Set my bag down and take out my maroon, plaid blanket.

Guy wanders aimlessly away from me through the park. I try to ignore him.

Call my mom. Chat about the difficulty of meeting new people.

Guy comes back around and passes me while I talk to my mom. He takes a seat on the bench. Pretends to read. How do I know he is pretending? Too much page flipping and nervous energy emanating off of him. I end the call with my mom and decide to draw.

Draw the swing set. Modify it because I don’t want four swings, just two. It’s an ok sketch, but not wonderful.

Pull out my journal of short stories and start reading the next story – it’s about a soldier.

Think I hear a cicada and remember that I had the same thought when I entered the park. Just one cicada. And then it is gone. Probably not a cicada. Regardless the noise makes me miss Korea. Weird to miss Korea because of an imaginary cicada.

Distracted from the story about the soldier, I start trying to draw a cicada. I only saw one up close once. It was so LOUD. Deafening. Weird ancient looking creature. What did it look like? How big were its wings? I attempt to sketch one.

It looks like a fly.

Try again.

Give up. The google will help me when I get home.

Start writing another letter to my friend in Navy Basic. The story about the soldier made me think of him.

I was lying on my stomach, but now I am sitting. Criss-cross apple sauce, as my students like to say.


I had forgotten about the guy. He is obviously yelling his question to me, but I can be cold at first. I roll my eyes. He can’t see my face. I ignore him.

He comes over. Starts a conversation.

“What are you writing?”

“A letter – archaic form of communication, I know.”

Fuck. That was pretentious. I am pretentious for the rest of the conversation.

He offers me a spritzer – I am unclear what that even means. I like sparkling water and assume it is similar.

“It’s sparking water and juice.”

“Seems French.” 

I continue to be pretentious – I don’t even know why at this point. He is from Seattle. He is not wearing shoes. His Ray-Bans shield his eyes from my pretentiousness. The things I talk about are ridiculous for a conversation with a stranger. Somehow I am talking about refugees and Boise’s public transit and geography. I mention Russia and Korea.

I am an ass.

He is polite – talks about the Payette, his love of Idaho, asks me about my plans for the weekend. I look at my phone, vaguely talk of movie plans.

He tells me to enjoy the movie and makes his move to leave.

It is a bit of an awkward parting.

“Take care!”

He grabs his orange blanket and book from the bench. Walks past me through the park.

Monday, February 4, 2013

How not to stay at a hostel: Winning

She pushes the buzzer hard. The host unlocks the gate. She pushes the buzzer again, holding it longer.

“It’s open!”

She opens the security gate/front door to the hostel with a bit of grumbling. Yes, it is not the best set up, having to pull the gate toward you and step backwards down a couple stairs, but it is what it is. A blond girl attempts to saunter up the stairs with her chauffeur and hundred pound suitcase lumbering after her. Immediately she begins to complain and act righteous.

“I have a reservation here for two weeks.”

“Well, you aren't in our system …”

Now, there is no reason, other than the fact that the host could tell this girl was going to be difficult, that he hesitated. There was plenty of room at the hostel.

Mid-conversation, the girl turns to her chauffeur, “Where’s my scarf? I had a scarf in the car.”

“There’s no scarf in the car. These are all your things.”

“I lost my scarf. I know I had one in the car.”

Somehow, despite all of this and not having Mexican Pesos, the girl successfully checks in. She then makes the chauffeur take her luggage into the dormitory, bangs her bag around a bit, abandons all her possessions in the middle of the room, and leaves with her chauffeur.

The girl disappears until 4 a.m. She fumbles to get the key in the lock. Then, the girl pushes and pulls at the door that will not unlock. Frustrated with the tricky lock, the girl did not try it sober, so drunk, there is no chance. She turns the key continuously in the wrong direction. She locks the door. It cannot be opened from the inside. The girl swears. Finally, she is rescued by the host, who has stumbled out of his room.  She bursts into the dormitory, shushing herself. She has no sheets and has not set up a bed, so she crawls under a mattress protector and passes out. Moments later her phone rings, but she does not answer. Her first night in Puerto Vallarta, she passes out without sheets, too drunk to care.  

In the morning, she has a hard time remembering. What she does remember is partying with her chauffeur.  At the end of the night, she shelled out cash to cover all of his expenses. Outraged, she did not understand. She was under the impression that the chauffeur really wanted to take her out. It turns out, she had hired a date or a tour guide of Vallartan night life without knowing it.

She sounds young, naive. Maybe this is the first time she has traveled alone. But she is 36. She has been travelling around the world, surviving on the goodhearted dime of Christian missions. I do not know how she is alive. 

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

A productive layover in San Francisco: Finding Rothko at SFMOMA

When I arrived at SFMOMA, I had no idea where to start. With five floors and only an hour and a half before closing, I had to choose. I picked up the map with exhibition summaries. Then I saw it, a tiny thumbnail. It was a Rothko.

Mark Rothko, No. 14, 1960

Suddenly I had a mission. Find the Rothko. Ever since I first saw an image of Mark Rothko’s work in an art history book, I wanted to see his work in person. Now I had a chance. I walked briskly up the stairs, found the exhibition, and began wandering through. Surprised by the breadth of SFMOMA’s permanent collection, I saw many things I knew from art history surveys. Henri Matisse’s La Femme au Chapeau greeted visitors to the exhibition. Moholy-Nagy’s artwork hung in the next room. Then, I headed into another era of modern art which included work by Picasso.

As I entered the abstracts, something nagged at the periphery of my vision. I turned to my left, and I saw it. The Rothko. It took up an entire wall, and its allure drew me through a gallery, or two, full of work by Dali, Magritte, and Duchamp. Aware of how ridiculous it all seemed, I felt drawn by the painting. If I tried to ignore it, my curiosity would nag. I would not be able to enjoy anything until I had seen the Rothko.

As the Rothko began to envelop me, I stopped, just outside its grasp, behind the bench and a little off center. Another visitor sat on the bench in front of the painting. Despite surroundings that would normally serve as distractions, the indigo and orange vibrated off the eggplant background. The other visitor became part of the experience. I stepped closer to the painting, observing the feel of the oil paint on canvas. The sheen had been mostly absorbed by the canvas. I felt welcomed and surrounded by the painting. I felt like crying for joy. The painting not only drew me nearer, it pulled emotions out. Afraid that I would interrupt someone else’s experience, I stepped over to the didactic wall panel. The wall panel explained that the painting usually evoked a highly emotional response and even though many people wanted to step back from the painting, it was meant to encompass the viewer. I moved further away and closer to the painting. Observing details. Having a dialogue with the artwork. Wondering at the power of such a seemingly simple idea. In awe of Rothko’s ability to choose colors which resonated so well. I stayed near the painting for nearly ten minutes before I realized that other works of art were on the walls near the Rothko.

Then, the question hit me. As a curator, what would you place next to a painting with such presence? What could possibly let the Rothko speak and at the same time not be completely covered by the Rothko’s voice? To the left of the painting was a Motherwell entitled Elegy to the Spanish Republic. While Rothko's work demanded attention, Motherwell’s painting held its own. Its lack of color sharply contrasted the Rothko, and its size competed well.  To fully observe the it, I had to turn my back on the Rothko, and this served Elegy well. Yet, to the right of Rothko's painting, another painting with abstract shapes and various colors utterly failed at capturing my attention.

Robert Motherwell, Elegy to the Spanish Republic, No. 57, 1957-1960.

After I had taken in the entire gallery installation, I stepped back and began watching others. Statistically museum visitors spend less than 3 seconds per work of art, but this Rothko must have a higher average. The bench placed in front of it signaled that or, perhaps, it encouraged visitors to linger. Whatever the case, the bench enabled me to observe people as they interacted with the artwork. It was amusing. Some were like me and could not pull themselves away. Very few passed up the Rothko. And unlike many works of art where I want to have the whole piece to myself, step into the painting, and not be disturbed, Rothko’s work had such influence over others that watching them encounter the painting became as much a part of the experience as the painting itself.

Mark Rothko, No. 14, 1960 at SFMOMA 

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Beware of buses with plain interiors in Guadalajara

Bus drivers in Guadalajara generally take great pride in suiting up their buses. Fuzzy frames surround the mirrors, black lights, tinted windows, rosaries, and icons of the Virgin Mary or Jesus adorn the bus. While I was surprised at the level of care taken on many buses, I did not think that a bus without such adornments meant anything different until I boarded such a bus.

Image of a typical bus in Guadalajara (borrowed from
As I stepped on, the bus seemed older and the seats were closer together, but the lack of signage and decor did not faze me. The bus flew down the road. Traffic jams abounded, and the driver alternated between slamming on the brake and stomping on the gas. My mind drifted to Ulsan, South Korea, where daily bus rides felt this way, and I thought I would fly through the front window with each stop. Passengers on this bus in Guadalajara made comments. Those seated braced themselves for the jolts using their legs and hands, trying not to crash into the seat or person in front of them. Despite my attempts to brace myself, with every sudden stop, I slid further down the seat and the lack of legroom became painfully clear as my knees hit the seat in front of me. With each jerk, a new series of cries from passengers would arise. The passenger behind me darkly joked that we would all lose our teeth. Some people rubbed their necks. While the bus was initially crowded, it gradually emptied with passengers finding their stops or bailing to find another, hopefully more careful, driver.

As the bus began to empty, and the jolting and traffic jams worsened, a passenger walked up to the front of the bus and shoved his smart phone in front of the driver’s face. This lead to an intense showdown. The driver stopped the bus, threw off his seat belt, jumped up, and yelled at the passenger. He asked for a fight gesturing for the passenger to take his place. From my perspective, without knowing Spanish, I assumed the passenger was drunk and doing something obscene like trying to show the driver a video from YouTube (perhaps of a better driver). While I thought jumping up and screaming was a bit of an extreme reaction, I understood the stress of driving in backed up traffic, and the driver did not having a barrier to protect him from unpredictable passengers as he attempted to maneuver through traffic.  Because of my experiences in Moscow and elsewhere, I had given the driver the benefit of the doubt and assumed that the passenger was in the wrong. Yet, with the help of a friend to translate the sequence of events, I understood the error of my interpretation.

Buses in Mexico generally have a posted phone number to call and let the bus company know how the driver is doing. The driver’s license number is posted as well, so the company can easily identify the driver. This bus not only lacked adornment. Its walls were completely bare. No signage existed. So, one disgruntled, ballsy passenger walked up to the front of the bus and asked the driver if he could take a picture of his license because he could not find the number anywhere. The driver refused to let the passenger get his license number. So the passenger became more insistent and let the driver know that he wanted to place a complaint. The ride was atrocious. At that point the driver blew up. He went into a rage, jumped up, threw off his seat belt  and yelled at the passenger. With body language, he challenged the passenger a fight. He had had a long day with no lunch break and how would the passenger like to be the driver?! “Take a seat! Drive! See if you can do better!” In resolution, the passenger was kicked off the bus. While I was a bit astounded at the occurrence, I am certain this driver was at the cusp of losing his job before this occurrence. Why else would there be no signage posted in the bus? Why else would he explode so easily?

Now, not all disgruntled bus drivers behave in such a manner. In fact, the next day, I commented on how lighthearted our driver was. He was younger and probably newer at the job. He joked with another driver that was driving a bus alongside ours, and while my friend told me he had been complaining to the other driver about how much he hated driving a bus, he did not do a bad job. Yet in the rallying with the other driver, a strange thing happened. At a stoplight, our driver signaled to the other to open his door, and he made another signal for a lighter. Suddenly our driver was smoking. I turned to my friend and asked if that was normal. She shook her head. As we looked around the bus, sure enough, there was a no smoking sign. I just shook my head and laughed. I am certain bus drivers break small rules everywhere, not just in Mexico.

So, should you be afraid of riding a bus in Guadalajara? No. Just be ready for an adventure. According to my friends neither of these experiences were typical for Guadalajara, but if you are searching for adventure, look for a plain bus, not one decked out with fuzzy mirrors and playboy bunny stickers.