Saturday, November 21, 2015

No news

After the massacres in Paris and Mali, the downing of a Russian passenger jet, the first months of the 2016 presidential race, and various dust-ups on American college campuses, I am taking a break from the news. I feel like I have heard it all -- every angle that can possibly be expressed on every topic, repeated in a thousand variations, every day -- and I have had enough.

Until November 30, I will not so much as swipe a fingertip across my phone to read the news. Unless a town crier from a Renaissance Faire wanders by screaming the headlines into a bullhorn, I will know nothing about anything happening anywhere, all week.

(My six-year-old just came in and informed me, in detail, how she washed her hair in the sink, sprayed detangler on it, and combed it. Here was a bulletin from my world. Editorial spin: Great job!)

* * * * 

Back when I was riding the bus into San Francisco, I sometimes read from a tiny book called The Pocket Thomas Merton.  An idiosyncratic monk who died in 1968, Merton was an endearing figure: At some point, the hustle and bustle of a Trappist monastery became too much for him, and he retreated to a tool shed on the monastery grounds to think and write in PEACE AND QUIET.

Having lived a normal life as a college student in New York City, he had a great many acerbic observations about normal life. In a chapter called "Events and Pseudo-Events," Merton had this to say:

 Nine-tenths of the news, as printed in the papers, is pseudo-news, manufactured events. Some days ten-tenths. The ritual morning trance, in which one scans columns of newsprint, creates a peculiar form of generalized pseudo-attention to a pseudo-reality. This experience is taken seriously. . . . 

My own experience has been that renunciation of this self-hypnosis, of this participation in the unquiet universal trance, is no sacrifice of reality at all. To 'fall behind' in this sense is to get out of the big cloud of dust that everybody is kicking up, to breathe and to see a little more clearly.

In "Events and Pseudo-Events," Merton was distinguishing, as usual, between the real and unreal. What made a person or event "more real"? What existed but was "not real"? For Merton, these were not matters of opinion. They were matters of fact.

My own life existed all right, but very little of it seemed "real." Merton's confident parsing of lived experience -- real/unreal, real/unreal, real/unreal -- was fascinating, like a coin trick. How did he do it? Based on what?

Between long moments looking out the window -- sailboats on the Bay! -- I tried to figure out the trick.

* * * * 

This morning, after three hours of not-looking-at-the-news, I felt good. It was 10 a.m. on a Saturday.  The world could be in flames for all I knew.

I was sitting in a Vietnamese nail salon, awaiting my turn and not reading the magazines.

With nothing to think about, I gazed at the shelves of nail polish on the opposite wall. There was a painted mural of a tropical scene with a parrot in it. The bottles of polish -- pinks, reds, and purples -- shone in the sunlight from the shop window. Jewel tones.

A red goldfish swam in a nearby tank. Asian music -- a bow sawed moodily across a two-stringed instrument  -- played on the stereo.

On my occasional trips to this nail salon, the waits annoy me. After about ten minutes, the place feels like purgatory. Enough with the music already! Is it my turn yet? Aren't there any better magazines?

Today I felt at peace. Alive! How lucky I was to be at a nail salon!

Later this afternoon, I went to the kids' room to fold laundry. Normally I would put off this task by scrolling through the latest updates on my phone, but today -- again, with nothing to think about -- I simply lay down and dozed off.

For fifteen minutes, I took -- literally -- a cat nap, as like a cat I had been staring at a spot of sunlight on the wall. It seemed interesting for ninety seconds, before I succumbed to oblivion.

Then I woke up, and the rest of the day was awesome.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Operation China

At the risk of offending several billion human beings: I have never had much interest in China, or (except for a few pockets of relatives) the Eastern Hemisphere.

My idea is of a nice vacation is eating chocolate in a lace-curtained chalet, followed by a cheese plate, followed by a walk down cobbled streets to an immaculate 18th-century church, followed by probably a nap at that point. I would like to visit India -- to be overwhelmed by the scale of human suffering and attempt to reach my dad's hometown via a hideous train trip -- but am fine giving every other country in that neck of the woods a pass.

In an unforeseen twist, however, my son is obsessed with China. And Japan. And "Korea." Drawn by the martial arts and a high-minded, vaguely Asiatic approach to life (comprised of honor, ritual, and every maxim ever uttered by The Karate Kid's Mr. Miyagi), he often announces his plan to "move to China" as soon as he reaches legal age.

In near-total ignorance of what I am talking about, I either (1) tepidly support this idea, or (2) try to suggest, gently, that living in China isn't "that great."

"Is it like here?" he'll ask.

"No. It is not like here. The government is very different. You don't have the same kind of freedom you do here. But I'm sure the culture and people are very nice!"

"Okay, then. I'll move to Japan. Is that like here?"

"No. I don't think so. It's a small island, and it's crowded."

"What about if I move to Korea?"

"Well, you should know there's a Good Korea and a Bad Korea. The Bad Korea is very bad. Just . . . incredibly bad. The Good Korea is okay, I guess."

"Is it like here?"

"No. No place is like here."

"But in Korea they have a special 'birth ceremony' -- "

"Okay, but why do you have to move to Korea and all these places? Can't you just visit them?"

"It's my life, Mom!"

Looking back, there is some family precedent for this sort of thing.  My dad wrote his Ph.D. thesis on Sino-Indian relations (executive summary: not good), and my son's dad researched Chinese history when co-writing a book about a suspected Chinese-American spy who was eventually set free.

As someone who has practically worn a "China: Who Cares?" t-shirt all my life, I am beginning to think I should acquaint myself with this vast, ancient land and its people, or by the time he's ten years old, my son will realize I have nothing of value to say about, oh, half the world.

(And no, recounting the plot of The Painted Veil, in which a British socialite is hauled off to China by her husband as punishment for adultery and comes to like it there, in a way, after taking up with a coterie of French nuns, probably won't cut it. Was my B.A. in English literature good for anything?)

When I lived in Oakland, a Chinese-American writer just up the way in the Oakland Hills won a MacArthur genius grant for her novel, The Vagrants, which "depicts life in a provincial Chinese town during the turbulent years following Mao’s death in the late 1970s. The novel opens on the day a young woman is to be executed as a counter-revolutionary and proceeds to trace the intersecting fates of a wide-ranging cast of townspeople. In these and other works, Li crafts deeply moving fiction that offers Western readers a window into unfamiliar worlds as well as insights into human nature that transcend ethnicity and place."

Even back in Oakland -- with two kids under three, a demanding job, and an all-consuming preoccupation with my own problems -- that sounded like a terrific book, not that I'd ever have time to read it.

Now, since my son's thinking about moving to China, I think that time has come.

(Image: Chinese sugar painting by Anna Frodesiak (own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons)

Friday, November 6, 2015

The afterlife

My dad died twenty-two years ago this week, in Lubbock, Texas. Growing up, I associated Lubbock with trips to mall, family restaurants, and a small airport, but for the past two decades, it's also made me think of hospitals and dying.

Lubbock is one of those places people hear bad things about and have no desire to visit. But it is not so bad if accepted on its own terms.

Born many years later, my kids sometimes speak of their "granddad" who cannot visit them in person. They know that he (1) came to America from India, making them one-quarter Indian, (2) was a teacher at a college, and (3) was my dad when I was a kid with parents and a brother and sister, long ago, in New Mexico.

On questions of the afterlife, I have been vague. My style, on this topic, is to take the children to the cemetery and engage in open-ended dialogue: "Some say . . ." And: "No one really knows, but . . . "

Unsatisfied with this mealy-mouthed approach, they have developed their own ideas. Let us call these The Terrible Joke and The Morbid Preoccupation.

1. The Terrible Joke

How does one discuss the Hindu religious practice of open-air cremation with a small American boy without the conversation going off the rails? I don't know.

All I remember is that one day, when my son was about six, I found myself matter-of-factly describing the ritual of putting a loved one's corpse on a barge, setting it on fire, and sending it down the Ganges River, vividly aflame, until nothing of it remained. It was called "cremation," and it was more or less what they did to my dad, per his wishes of course, and his dad before him.

Stupefied, my son took this in.

Cut to a few months later, as we walked out of the local donut shop one Saturday morning.  My son lingered by a trash can with some cigarette butts in the top.

"Stop playing in the ashes!" I said. "Don't put your hand in there. It's filthy. Come on."

As we neared the car, he lifted up a sooty index finger, E.T.-style, and said in a gnarled voice: "I'm Grandpa!"

This time, I was speechless.

"Don't tell me what to do, Daughter! I'm your dad! I'm gonna get my gun!"  The ashy finger waggled imperiously at me. "Yeah, that's right. My gun!"

"Stop doing that," I managed to say in a scandalized whisper. "That's just . . . You can't . . . "

His sister was catching on now. "Is that supposed to be Grandpa?"

"Yes, I'm your Grandpa, little girl! Bring me a cookie!"

Having lost the capacity for speech, I drove the children to their dad's. From the backseat, "Grandpa" continued to provoke and threaten us with wicked glee: a tiny patriarch back from the shadowlands to show us who was boss.

"What?" said the kids' dad, surveying the three of us.

"You won't believe what he just said." I described it. My son held up his sooty finger.

"Oh my god. What the . . . ?"

The zany genius of this joke began, finally, to sink in. To date, I think it is the most our post-divorce family has ever laughed.

2. The Morbid Preoccupation

For months now, every mention of death has made my daughter sad. She is six. 

"Don't talk about it!" she'll scream at us, as my son and I innocently discuss ghosts or heaven or a lost pet.  "It reminds of me of . . . you know." 

"What?" I'll say.

"We were just saying that, if it ends up at the pound and no one claims it, they may have to --" my son will reasonably begin.


"It reminds you of what?" I'll say again.

And she will whisper forlornly in my ear: "My granddad. You know? Who . . . before I was born . . ."

That is a very sad moment. "Oh, right. We're sorry."

Sometimes she will start crying. "I never even got to meet him!"

"I wish he could have met you," I say helplessly. "I know he would be so proud of you. Maybe, in some way, . . ."

3. The Tooth Fairy

My mom sent my daughter a skeleton dog for Halloween. His name was Bones.

Despite the ghoulish associations, my daughter was delighted with this dog.

One day, my son saw that Bones was sleeping on one of his shirts. As he tried to take the shirt back, his sister grabbed and held it with her teeth. My son yanked on the shirt, and as he ripped it out of her mouth, her two front teeth (which had been slightly loose) came with it. There was some blood. The babysitter sent me a text . . .

So: Two teeth lost unexpectedly, in dramatic fashion. This was a job for the Tooth Fairy!

Except I didn't have any cash. 

After she fell asleep, I remembered that I did have two $10 bills up in a closet. I had been saving them so long, I barely remembered where they came from. Did my dad send them to me in my 21st birthday card? I think he did.

I found the box and fished one out. It was printed in 1988. 

The Tooth Fairy put it under my daughter's pillow.

Days later, as we decorated for Halloween, my daughter somehow got the idea that my dad had sent her Bones. She had been talking to Bones and learned that he had known my dad in heaven. And my dad sent him down to her, to be her friend! Wasn't that great?

She wrote my dad a thank-you note and tucked it into the suit of a Frankenstein hanging in our yard, confident that he would receive it.

It said "To Granddad" and showed him, her, and the dog, standing together, smiling.