The Squeaky Robot

A Meddling Robot in a Human's World

Posts from the “Story time!!” Category

Sweet Waan

Posted on January 27, 2015

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In the ancient capital of Siam, Ayutthaya, crumbling ruins, palaces and monasteries decorate the earth. Decadently-carved prangs, a Khmer-type tower common in Buddhist architecture, protrude over tree tops and buildings. Their deadness suits this sleepy river town, and their lofty presence coexists in modern life with impressive nonchalance.

One of the most grandiose sites to see is Wat Chaiwatthanaram, built to commemorate King Prasatthong’s victory over Cambodia. It was once the King’s home and later a royal cremation tower. Royal people would go there to become royal ash, like Prince Thammathibet who was beaten to death in 1746 because he indulged in scandal with one of his father’s concubines.

Inside such a weighty and resplendent monastery, the hallowed grounds of venerated kings where powerful people lived and burned, sat two tiny people eating tiny bananas: yours truly and a seventy-year-old named Waan. She sat in the cool shade of one the prangs, only in the company of a giant stone Buddha adorned with flower offerings and ceiling murals of wood and black lacquer. She was selling these bright yellow flower necklaces to the tourists who would sporadically file in, for the place was mostly deserted save the 120 gilt lacquered maravijaya Buddhas that lined the square periphery (maravijaya, my one-dollar guide book tells me, is a pose that Buddha adopts immediately following the triumph over death and evil).

She called out to me, pointing to her flowers. She told me in rough English that they’d give me luck if I gave them to the deity who sat cross-legged over her shoulder. This seemed like a good deal to me, so I bought one and dressed the Buddha.

I couldn’t think of anything else to do in that specific moment, so I sat down and started talking to Waan. She was an enthusiastic conversation partner, asking about my age and origins, career and travel plans. “How many children do you have?” I inquired. “8,000,” she said smiling, showing off the gaps in her teeth. We continued to talk at each other for a while in a playful way, when she hurriedly began opening her bag of mini chartreuse bananas. She gave me one and she gave herself one, and we ate them together like feasting kings in a happy, thick silence that couldn’t be described, only felt.

Fifteen Hours

Posted on March 17, 2014

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It was the shock of waking up one day and realizing I had to fill the next fifteen hours with something of substance.

To fill my fifteen hours, I would go places and watch Hanoi in action. Stepping outside meant to step into a sparkling cloud of warm mist. There was seldom a sun. Just mist and smog and drags of smoke from people lighting fires in the streets as a slew of motorbikes sailed by, jerking smoke around like silk laundry in wind. Maybe for warmth or to dry socks, I figured. No, just to watch papers burn.

To fill my fifteen hours, I signed on for kickboxing. My performance in the first class was pitiful, like a T-Rex trying to punch a floor pillow. But then my brain said, Aha! Your greatest asset has always been that you’re a quick learner. And by now, dear reader, I could probably knock you out.

To fill my fifteen hours, I began meeting my friend Phuong to work. We were translating a long script for the Tuong Theatre. It was hour after hour of sitting, talking, negotiating, sometimes fighting a tug-o-war of words, each of us defending our linguistic prowess. Translating first from old-timey Vietnamese, then the more modern stuff. Phuong would explain the idea, what’s important in this sentence? In this stanza? I need more context! I’d then make it into something, powder to pills, and clean it up, tie it up into crisp clean copy.


To fill my fifteen hours, I was hired by the same theatre as somewhat of a publicist. Tuong shows are about Vietnamese folklore, history, culture, stories passed down by old men with long gray beards to those with eager young ears while incense burns nearby. The costumes of the actors are embellished to a degree that can’t be communicated here; the paint on their faces is rich and thick, so opaque with confident demarcations of the blackest of blacks, and same for reds and blues and whites, you’d think it were a wooden mask waiting to dry. As far as the Western world is concerned, the one that travels to Vietnam and Hanoi for vacation, Tuong Theatre doesn’t exist. This is where me and my fifteen hours come in.

And so something of substance fell from a hazy sunless sky, as it often does.

On an Edge with a Fire Behind You

Posted on February 27, 2013

In Russian, voicing the word “Murmansk” properly would mean to voice it intensely, with the accent on the “u” and a pitch that naturally deepens. The tongue should roll with the “r”, and it should conclude definitively with a crisp “k” click, allowing the word’s powerful phonetics to ring in pulsating waves emanating from the speaker’s vibrating throat. The name Murmansk was born from the local Sami word murman, meaning “the edge of the earth”. My friends and I stepped out of the train station into a thick fog produced by our own heavy breaths. The immediate city was gray and coated with a crust of dirt, apart from the sea foam green façade of the station, a circular building with a garish obelisk…

A Single Story of Soviet Russia

Posted on December 3, 2012

“I don’t know what hunger is,” said Mikhail: teacher, father, product of the Soviet Union. It was strange hearing that from him, even more so with a bright smile in his eyes and overall jovial demeanor, as if he were discussing a recent hockey victory and not a supposedly sore subject. Rather, as an American it was strange hearing that. I think of the USSR, and I think of tanks, grayness, secrecy, scary and impenetrable Cyrillic lettering, looming misery, and long bread lines in inclement weather; the depressing and immoral yield of a communist machine; the enemy of capitalism and, consequently, freedom. So how could Mikhail even utter the words: “I was a teenager. I didn’t have problems”? Of course you had problems! The…

Theory of Omission

Posted on October 10, 2012

This story has three players: Ernest Hemingway, St. Petersburg, and an American in Russia for the first time. We’ll call him Chad. This story doesn’t end well for Chad. Hemingway Bar is located on Ulitsa Lomonsova, a dark and eerily silent street in the lively city center. The bar in question is surrounded by abandoned buildings and telling foreclosures slapped with bulletins in intimidating Cyrillic lettering. But the place lights up at night. It lights up and its emanating glow attracts all those moths looking for a drink. Sadly, it’s not quite the place Hemingway would frequent; the neon lights and bad music tell me so. My favorite bars are the ones where I can picture the man himself in the corner enveloped by…

A Weekday in the Life

Posted on October 8, 2012

I wake up at 4:30 am, stumble around the room looking for my phone, realize it’s 4:30 am, and curl up into a tiny ball under the covers so that the bed looks like it’s housing a strange yet sizeable lump, and not a human being with irregular sleep patterns. I wake up again at 8:45 and this time I need to get up fo’ realsies. But it’s impossible. My eyes hurt when I open them. I’m sheltered by a cocoon of warmth. At the exact moment I realize and appreciate my comfort level, Gemma the Weiner Dog bursts through the door, bouncing up and down like a fucking jackhammer. She jumps on me, slides under the covers, and licks me incessantly. Her stupid…

Matysowka

Posted on August 31, 2012

As tiny children, my cousins and I would play jump rope in their empty schoolyard. It was always great fun, mostly because we played helicopter-style, the only style I could ever manage without skinning my knees on rough asphalt. Little did we know, the metal gate we walked by everyday as children would be destroyed by their friends one night far into the future. The gate would be smashed by a Skoda after their one friend consumed too many beers. Little did we jump-roping children could know, the driver would walk away fine, but the gate that I saw everyday would be severely dented. Confused neighbors and passers-by would see the gate and wonder: “When did this happen?” It would be a fleeting thought as…

Soviet Secrets are Forever

Posted on August 20, 2012

May, 1991: Antoliy Dyatlov Kills Himself by Way of Rope. This isn’t true, of course. Dyatlov died in 1995 of heart failure. * * * There was a cartoon published in the New Yorker shortly after the incident. Two dogs are having a conversation. One dog says: “They attributed it to human error”, and the other replies: “But everything in the world is due to human error.” * * * “The one common thread through all of these accidents is the complete failure of the Soviet system to manage modern technology in a safe manner. This failure is due in large part to the secrecy that was endemic in Soviet society and to a lesser extent in twist Russian society before it. Society existed in compartments,…

The Parts of the Line

Posted on August 7, 2012

I often speak ad nauseum about the journey vis-a-vis the destination – how the line connecting point A and point B is often more memorable, more educational, more action-packed, more tale-worthy than the points themselves. This particular line has four parts: Part One: The Place that Doesn’t Exist Eastern Hungary smells like smoke and sunflowers. I’m currently at a tiny train station in Lőkösháza, so I would know. Rather, I’m sitting on the concrete platform watching local men and women socialize. They appear to be railway employees but they’re not doing anything official, just the occasional joke and smoke. It’s dusk already. A light flickers on overhead; a line of lights soon follow suit, flickering on in a systematic fashion down the line. I have…