Posts Tagged ‘why’

Silent Service

28 November 2010

Dear J-

My parents are gone and leave in their wake a bewildering array of leftover foods in the fridge. Sure, there’s the American Thanksgiving holiday to blame for some of that (along with the truly heroic twenty-three pound bird my sister-in-law made up) but a lot of it has to do with the way I remember us all eating as a family. If it wasn’t two starving teenage boys at the table, it was starving college students, on and off, for years and years: I remember they used to host all of the Chinese-speaking students at the college my dad taught for Thanksgiving dinners; the spread would be so immense and the preparations so exacting that we’d be ushered out of the kitchen for the day and given a free pass at TV while my mom labored to fill the ping-pong table downstairs with all kinds of food, from the traditional stuffing and turkey to various fishes and noodle dishes.

They’ve taken a break from that but even now one of their favorite greetings and questions is whether we’ve had enough to eat or not. My other sister-in-law was taken under their wing while she was studying in Cheney and my folks proceeded to stuff her with food every chance they got. Over the years I’ve learned to accept the edible offerings with glee; there is a certain art to ordering off a Chinese restaurant’s menu, and if you don’t balance your starches and your meats they’ll look at you askance and suggest something else (I suppose part of the reason that all these restaurants get bad marks for service is because the servers know more about the food than the patrons, but in most places they’ve subscribed to customer-as-king and don’t bother to question the selections to your face). It’s now hardwired to expect that we’ll get something completely extravagant and unprecedented to eat that we wouldn’t buy for ourselves — I remember the winter my mom pressed a Costco-sized tin (which could have served as a fortress in the backyard, by the way) of shortbread on us; when pressed, she said that they weren’t cookies, they’re bread.

I’m reminded of that tonight in the epic struggle between mom and daughter over the marble. We give figgy a few trinkets now and then and one of the latest came from the storage room, as we ran across an old marble hiding out from years ago (pretty nondescript — glass with a little red swirl of paint inside) so we gave it to her and every night since she’s stuck it in her mouth at least once which leads to no end of cajoling and trying to get it back out before she swallows it and/or chokes. Finally theVet gave up and just took it away, flat-out stuck it on a high shelf of no return saying all the while that she’d had chances, she was told not to put it in her mouth and in the guileful charm of a three-year-old, she kept re-producing it at the tip of her tongue with a secret smile: see, here it is, what can you do about it? Mom knows best, even if it’s impossible to reason with figgy at this point, she does understand the punishment and deprivation and let us know — loudly — all she wanted tonight. So yes, as you suspected growing up, sometimes part of parenting is growing deaf.




25 September 2010

Dear J-

They say that you can’t count on people to share your politics or your religion (and I would extend that to include music too) but bear with me as I digress for a minute here. Although we were not a regular churchgoing family (my parents’ preferred church* was twenty miles away), I have developed a sort of religion — not a capital R organized sort of Religion**, but more of a personal stance on the everyday miracles that make me think there’s something intelligent up there pulling strings and putting things straight.

There is of course the miracle of you: of the billions of people in the world, it boils down to two people and of those, there’s any one of hundreds of eggs and millions of spermatozoa that could have combined. The astronomical odds boggle the mind. Might a guiding hand have some invisible influence in the process? I suppose this is how it all starts: people start thinking how and why and before you know it there’s an explanation, a creation story that encompasses what we know and how we count it.

The strange ideas I come up with to explain the world in terms I understand don’t bear much mention except to think of the invisible hand as a sort of cosmic accountant: for something here, we need to take away from something there. In all the wish tales I’ve read, the literal meaning of the wish is fulfilled without regard to the intent, so a birth comes from a soul freed by death, riches taken from something else you wanted; a never-ending cycle of O. Henry’s Gift of the Magi. I wonder at our good fortune, worrying about what it must mean for someone else.


* I think they chose the church they did primarily for social reasons: it was the only Chinese congregation at the time, sermons were delivered bilingually, and the last Sunday night of the month was a potluck where we were regular attendees. The church shared space with the Grace Baptist Church, though we were generally shunted into a small basement room while services were held in the gracious upstairs space. It used to inspire a kind of strange gnawing envy: why didn’t we get the chance to head upstairs?

** My main objection to such Religion are the acts committed in the name of Religion from Crusades to jihad, Prohibition, and everything in between.

Questionable Quests

1 June 2010

Dear J-

One of theVet’s friends (a medical doctor, freshman roommate at Cal, recently married and featured in Turkish Cosmo, to boot) is half-Egyptian and half-Turkish, her parents both coming over to the States in order to study engineering. I like the story of their first moments immigrating: while her mom scrimped and made do without a lot of things in order to stretch money, her dad blew nearly his entire stipend on the plane flight over, buying a slide rule (“And what a slide rule!”) that no doubt was needed, but might have waited otherwise. I already know the feeling: there’s a hot deal that’s hard to pass up (if they don’t recognize what a stupendous bargain is, then it’s up to me to step up and take advantage of it), and you’ll never hear the end of it, internally.

To this day I recognize the sick feeling inside when I remember finding a Neo-Geo memory card and random boxed game at the just-in bin at Goodwill: it meant that I had, by barest moments, missed out on an amazing find. It doesn’t matter that weeks later I’d luck into an original Odyssey for ten bucks; in my mind the hunt for modern treasure is measured only by what got away, never mind what I’d actually do with it (this is how the spare room has come to be filled with electronics and TDA1541-based CD players). The simple fix is to stop looking, of course, but things are never that simple.

I used to walk to school throughout childhood and college, and given the way I am, I usually walked alone (my brother, several years ahead would be in a different school and different direction) — it gives you time to be inside your head and you become very comfortable with your thoughts. I recognize that the thrill of personal victory is defined not by any objective measure, but instead by having the stories to tell later: “Let me tell you about the time I found this beauty …” Sick, I know. In the barren land between my ears, knowledge is currency, and being rich means recognizing a deal before the next guy. But did I tell you about this lens I was checking on … ?


First Post

28 October 2006

Dear J-

I guess I should explain, maybe, who ‘J-‘ is — or maybe not, for now. It’s not about being freakishly secretive; anyone who’s read my old pages off the mit website should know that I enjoy baring my soul on a detailed level beyond that required by normal folks. Nope. ‘Dear J-‘ from one of my favorite childhood books, Dear Mr. Henshaw, and J- primarily because I’ve known so many folks in my life with J- names. So J- is, ostensibly, a generic everyone; to be honest, there’s a few folks I have directly in mind, but I’ll leave it at that for now for fear of future embarrassment.

It’s been nearly over eight years since I published anything substantive in my life. I’d send you over to my old site if I thought there was anything worth mentioning over there, but those are old stories, which maybe would be worth grabbing over to this side in the future, just so that other folks can laugh and point.   It’s almost as if time stood still for me, and I kept being able to be a kid until this year.  Many things happened — my grampa died of lung cancer, I started a new job, my parents moved out of the house I grew up in (and thought they’d stay in forever — it’s hard to put my mind around living in the same state again; I may just have to go back East), and my wife is pregnant for the first time.

Maybe I should have seen it coming once grampa (three wives — twice widowed, “your manhood fell off in the garden”) was gone.  This was going to be a different sort of year.  What sort of games did I get to play with a retired security guard from Tsingtao?  I’m still envious of my Chinese cousins for having known him better than me; I was too young to appreciate him, and too foreign to understand.  He was slow getting out of the car, so I’d sometimes help him along with a well-placed foot.  Kids at school would call him fat, so I begged my parents not to have him walk me to school any more.  His English was limited to ‘Hello’ and ‘Thank you,’ so I refused to learn more Chinese than ‘Happy New Year.’  J-, if I had a time machine, I think I wouldn’t waste any time getting back to being six and whack the sass out of me.  There were still so many things I wanted to ask him.  Here’s a man who has lived the history you learned in school; there he goes, living in a treaty port, adjusting to life under Mao, now ending up alone in an apartment just five hundred miles away — can’t you call him, can’t you see him, can’t you hold him?  Ah, one last time, please.

If you’ve still got a million things left to do, get one done today.  Why not?   Someone will appreciate it.