This, That, and the Other

By Harley Spiller

I. The (usually) Pigmented Threadlike Outgrowth of the Epidermis of Mammals
II. White Plastic Sporks
III. Who’d Keep a Cookie for 30 Years?
IV. Tea for Whom?
V. Haiku Harley
VI. The Little Mermaid, Otherized
VII. The Most Other

I. The (usually) Pigmented Threadlike Outgrowth of the Epidermis of Mammals

Human hair grows about an inch a month.  Most people have 100,000 to 150,000 hairs on their head, and lose between 50 and 100 hairs a day.

A couple hundred years ago, well before the advent of hairspray, people used fat and flour to stiffen hair that could be piled 2 feet high on the head. They needed scratchers!

Some First Nations believe hairs have power and burn the ones that get stuck in combs.

Himbou women add locks of their brothers’ and husbands’ hair to their own.

My sister calls me “Dairy Queen Swirltop” because of the corkscrew curl I had as a toddler. That mind-of-it’s own forelock hadn’t been seen in years when, unbeknownst to me, it sprung out on my wedding day.

Round pores make for straight hair…
Oval pores yield wavy locks…
The more rectangular the pore, the curlier the hair.

“You mess with the ‘fro, you got to go!”  Undercover Brother, 2002

Born a slave, Madam C.J. Walker became the first woman to earn 1 million U.S. dollars – with a line of hair care products.

Detroit plays host to the annual “Hair Wars,” an extravagant black hair beauty contest.

Tonsure or “Chinee Bumps”?

Albino hair has no pigment and cannot lock-in hair dye.

Trichotillomania is the irresistible urge to twist and pull your own hair – out!

Three generations of The Ayalas, a Mexican family circus troupe, have performed an act called the Hair Hang – their weight doubles from the force created when they spin on cables suspended from the top of the big top (they say at first it hurts as much as being splashed with boiling water, but you get used to it).

My mother told us any hairstyle is ok, as long as it’s kept neat and clean.

Africans say “your hair is your crown.”

The hair on my forearms stands up when I read Sandra Cisneros on family hair in The House on Mango Street.  Mom’s is “like little candy circles all curly and pretty” – words as lovely as hair itself.

II. White Plastic Sporks

We’re certainly not “others.”  We’re in the caddy with a zillion just like us.  We all have round bowls and rectangular handles; bastards begat when the spoon ran away with the fork.  Our compromised bowls drip soup, our tines are too short to spear.  We’re all stamped ®, but who would really protect us in a court of law? Our life is in service of the 2/3 of humanity that doesn’t eat with the hand alone.  People slurp and chomp and nuzzle us with nary a concern about our origin or destiny.  For 10 minutes or so, our handles warm to the human touch, but that’s in temperature only; heat without heart.  We end up comprising a great portion of the day’s trash; recyclable but rarely recycled.

I heard a human once gripped one of our sisters by the bowl and used her as a knife.  That’d be a welcome change of pace, or would it?  We sit here, not for sale, white as light, wondering if our black KFC doppelgangers are wondering in diametric opposition?

III. Who’d Keep a Cookie for 30 Years?

In August 1978 I was selected as Chief of a color war team at Camp Idylwold for Boys. It was an honor for a boy who, in 11 summers on Schroon Lake in the Adirondack Mountains, had matured from whining camper to Waterfront Director.  The camp chef for all those summers was John Pin (born Yeh, Gum Pei).  Lots of camp meals were mediocre but when John cooked from scratch, the food was marvelous.  His pot roast and BBQ chicken recipes are the stuff of legend.  “Pincakes” were an awfully-heavy breakfast, but his French toast wasn’t too bad. John relished holding up a leftover piece for the camp dog, who’d get visibly excited.  “Ahh Duke, he ah-ruvva my Flench toast.”

John’s accent was thick.  Once he told me “I aska you for da fugkin’ mussid and you giva me da godamma catsup.”  When I foolishly wore a tattered t-shirt into his kitchen, John slashed off the shredded edges with his cleaver.   Years after befriending his son Michael, I heard about the time a dentist gave John a high quote for tooth removal.  John went home and did it himself, tying a string from his molar to the door, and slamming it shut.

When asked about his stint as a chef in the Chinese navy, John said he cooked whatever was netted.  I asked “How did you know which kind of crab you had?” and he replied, “A clab is a clab.”  When Chef heard I was Chief, he called me into the kitchen. I got nervous. After all, this was the guy who harangued me incessantly for behaviors like eating 10 homemade meatballs and not touching the packaged spaghetti.

My fears were for naught, for this time John had a gift and some kind words.  He handed me a cookie, into which he’d inserted a message, explaining that in the olden days Chinese warriors hid secret messages inside baked goods.  This practice may have been the inspiration for the fortune cookie, created centuries later in California.

John passed away in the late 1990’s. Michael and I visited John’s wife Rose a month or so later.  She was an even better cook than her husband, but the first thing she served was the very last dish John had made; ha cha – salty preserved crab claws with hot chile.  A dab over rice makes a fabulous meal!

I have an Oreo that is probably the only remaining food that was prepared by John Pin.  When I took it out of its reliquary to show to Micki, my Ehime-born wife, she informed me the writing on the “fortune” was Japanese.

Harley Oreo

IV. Tea for Whom?

Setting: Honeymoon trip, June 2007 – Yoshiumi-cho, Oshima, Ehime-Ken, Shikoku, a rural island village in the inland Seto Sea, Japan

It was more casual than I’d anticipated.  The immediate family gathered in this private chamber, and waited for a tall and tonsured monk, with elongated ear lobes, to enter and make solemn greetings in Japanese.  I don’t speak Japanese so my eyes took over for my ears and I watched the room eagerly, searching for body language or any form of physical communication. A temple assistant drew my attention with a tray of sweets and a crackled teapot.  The monk led the way, pouring tea and chatting with the family he’d known since childhood.  I’ve visited my share of houses of worship, from St. Peter’s in Rome to a Hare Krishna temple in suburban Buffalo, but always as a tourist.  This time my purpose was more real; to mourn the passing of Aunt Masako, a member of my extended family I had never met.

I awoke on the morning of the service, feeling like more of an outsider than usual.  The loud flopping of my 13 quadruple-E shoes announced my presence as I entered.  My Russian-Polish-Viennese Jewish lineage had precious little to contribute here.  A queasy feeling welled up – like the time when as a child I slept one night in Montreal with a bloody Jesus hanging over my bed.

Rising from the futon, I unpacked my starched shirt and strapped on a necktie.  En route to the outhouse I passed my mother-in-law, dressed in her everyday clothing, and caused her to burst out laughing, “What are you doing with all that?”

Of her five sisters and one brother, Aunt Masako had drawn the short straw and was under a doctor’s care all her life.  She heard the happy news of her niece’s engagement, but passed away shortly thereafter, freeing up enough family money for her sisters to fly to NYC for our wedding.  One of my new aunts had never been on an airplane before.  The inheritance also helped with their purchase of our wedding gift – a month-long springtime honeymoon throughout Japan!

Back at the private room, after a few more minutes of conversation in Japanese, it dawned on me that the “gaijin” (me) had become the topic of conversation. The monk gestured somehow and put me at ease by sparking a friendly and articulate chat, in Japanese.  He asked where I was from and said he had a niece who lived in the U.S., a graphic designer for Starbucks.  He left the room and returned a moment later to show his fancifully-decorated Starbucks mug.

Next thing I know we were off to the temple for the ceremony. It was mesmerizing.  I burnt incense like the others.  Aunt Masako’s passing was sad but not unexpected.  Tears flowed but good memories out-coursed them.  My mundane curiosity in the old bronze teapot was forgotten in the wake of my new family’s admirable stoicism.

V. Haiku Harley

Born, made or self imposed, otherness is a mental and physical state.  In Japanese supermarkets the children run freely in the candy aisle while moms shop for boring necessities.  My wife and I were checking out the local chocolate bars but that was nowhere near as titillating as when a pair of little boys darted round the corner, sugar clearly in their sights.  One of them nearly bumped into my leg; skidding his cartoon-laden sneakers to a stop. He looked up. His eyes popped. He screeched, “A GIANT!”

I read a study that says Japanese people faced with a fish-tank first see the gravel or seaweed while people from the U.S. first see the largest fish.  I was going to try to fit in, to learn some culture, to be a little Japanese, and I hoped haiku was my ticket.  I didn’t listen carefully when it was explained to me, focusing instead on remembering the 5-7-5 syllable pattern. Here are some of my efforts:

Oki o-sumo (big Sumo wrestler)
Yokozuna Hakuho (Grand Champion Mr. Hakuho)
Steki so des yo (“cool, eh?” in Japanese for females)

The Mongolian Sumo wrestler Hakuho earned grand champion status during our honeymoon but this poetry was rebuked for I’d forgotten that haiku must relate to the seasons so I came back with:

Sumo in summer
Ku ku ku kusai desyo? (ss-ss-ss-sstinky, isn’t it)
Wash the mawashi (Sumo loincloth)

But this too failed to muster any enthusiasm from my family, so I went for what I knew:

Haiku Harley-san
New York karakimashita (New York is where I’m from)
O tabemono (eating things)

You guessed it.  Not haiku.  Next I tried flattery:

Tsugie mama san

My mother-in-law Tsugie is a nurse-anesthetist – in no way shape or form does this conform to what she knows as haiku.  “Harleyku ha ha” she snarked.  Plus, Tsugie’s too modest to admit to being kimaegaii (generous).  OK, so how’s this:

Okinawa June
Invading hordes die for drink
shekwasa seltzer

Millennia ago tropical Okinawa was overrun by barbarians. Presumably they squashed and guzzled loads of the local sweet-sour citrus called shekwasa. This time my haiku engendered no comment.  Encouraged at last, I adopted the slightly stuffy side of Micki’s familial clan:

Soramame Roquefort pan

A slight downward look from Micki’s Uncle Tamaki from the Lake Placid-like town of Karuizawa made it clear that Auntie’s toast with baked favas and Roquefort was not a suitable subject for haiku.  This was fun, so I kept at it when we traveled further north:

Snow falling melting
Tzuchizawa late winter
New road wrecks our house

This last one actually got a nod of approval from our hostess, a native Tzuchizawan.  A new highway barged right over their family’s 180 year-old home a month after it was written.  I’m starting to flex now:

In the tight pink hole
Springtime with the raw chickens
I love Merkie

One of our hotels was a traditional Kyoto hotel with odd coverlets hand-sewn over padded blankets, creating a large pink oval in the middle of our honeymoon bed.  Staying at such an inn includes a 9-course Hamo dinner cooked in our room.  One course of this unpalatable “snakefish” was nigh on insurmountable, let alone nine, so when the obsequious waitress finally left for good, we ran to a local Yakitori-style restaurant for a second and utterly satisfying dinner comprised of beer and skewered snacks, including a local specialty, Yukke (raw chicken).  It was nowhere near as “other” as snakefish.  For pictures and details of edible raw chicken please visit the inspectorcollector

Uncle Mitsuru
Up to the top mountain view
Bad boy ice cold pond

Uncle Mitsuru is the only one who couldn’t make it to NYC for our wedding, but he made up for it on his home turf.  He drove us everywhere, even to the pond on the hillside above their property.  Tsugie helped translate her brother’s story of how their father had once dunked him in the icy pond as punishment.  Knowing that I had older sisters as well, he made sure we knew his sister, Aunt Toshiko, had framed him all those years ago.  Me and Uncle Mitzie are cool.

VI. The Little Mermaid, Otherized

Opera director Francesca Zambello was profiled in The New Yorker’s “Talk of the Town” by Rebecca Mead on November 26, 2007 (pp. 64-66).  Asked if it was possible to find gay themes in her new Broadway version of The Little Mermaid, Zambello said it hadn’t been part of her concept, “but show me anybody in the world who hasn’t wanted to be someone else.  That’s a universal theme.”

“The reality is there are two minorities on the planet that are born into families: disabled people and gay people.” said Thomas Schumacher of Disney Theatricals, adding “Every other minority is born of a family.  The idea of being an outsider within the walls of your own house is a unique thing, and that really is inside this play.  That Ariel is an outsider in her own family connects with lots of places.”

“Everybody sees themselves as an outsider,” Zambello said.  “Though I will say that mermaids have no genitalia.  That’s something you don’t really think about until you work on mermaids, and then you think about it a lot.”

VII. The Most Other

Tobaron Waxman, the Franklin Furnace alumn who entered a Yeshiva passing as a man, is making some of the most important art today.  It is dangerous and groundbreaking and difficult to describe, let alone to work with.  I can’t convey the guts of his work any better than his brand-new website:

Ain’t that THE living END?!


Harley is an MA student in Liberal Studies. He blogs at