Sunday, February 25, 2018

Not a Post About Death

I realize I've been writing a lot about death and dying lately.  In fact my last three posts have mentioned it.  Maybe it's because a lot of my friends and acquaintances have lost family members in these last few weeks.  Maybe it's because I myself was deathly sick these last few weeks.

But if you back up to the summer, I was writing about mosquitoes and keys and icebergs.  I want to talk about things like that again.

I want to think about things like that again.

Because I'm healthy again.  And I have friends and acquaintances who had babies in the last few weeks too.


And it was 80 degrees in Nashville yesterday.

So here we go, I promise, a post with no mention of death.

I know, dear Downtown Diner customers, I know.  Too late.  Sigh.

So, welcome to the Year of the Dog!  

That is the Chinese New Year, of course.

As is our tradition, my kids flew to China to celebrate the holiday with Buddy and his family.  The family gathered together, warm and cozy, in Buddy's Beijing apartment on New Year's Eve and ate homemade dumplings that his parents made.

In the first days of the New Year, they went out to eat, reuniting with friends and extended family and high school classmates.

There were giant, deafening fireworks, although due to new government regulations this year they were allowed only on the outskirts of the city.  Grant was very upset about this violation of his human rights. 

I was looking forward to Chinese New Year too because when the Year of the Dog starts, the Year of the Rooster ends.  And I would finally get to take off the obnoxious red thread I'd been wearing around my waist all year.

You see, the Year of the Rooster is my 本命年, or Chinese Animal Year.  There are twelve animals and twelve years in the Chinese Zodiac, so every twelve years you celebrate your Animal Year.  You can find yours here.

You would think your Animal Year would be a special and fun year, sort of like your birthday.  But in fact it's the opposite - your Animal Year is a dangerous year according to Chinese tradition.  There are three things you can do to protect yourself during your Animal Year:
  1. Wear something red against your skin all year along.  It can't be something you bought for yourself though - it must be something that a friend or loved one gives you.
  2. Wear jade all year.  
  3. Spend a lot of time facing due West, which is directly away from the God of Age, Tai Sui.
Granted, it's a tradition most modern-day Chinese don't put much stock in but I thought it would be fun to wear something red against my skin all year long.  So when Audrey and Grant went to China last year for Chinese New Year, I had them buy me a red thread to tie around my waist.  The one they bought me had bits of jade woven into it - two protective elements in one.  Clever.

And it annoyed me from Day One.

In the mornings when I showered and got dressed, that red thread felt like a damp earthworm wrapped around my waist.  Often during the day my finger would catch on the thread and I would be reminded that this year was a dangerous year for me.

While it started out as a fun thing, the red thread got into my head as the year wore on.

In the early months of the year I thought of the thread as a helpful reminder to be cautious.  This is a good year to wear my seat belt at all times and wash my hands after being in a public place.  Those are simple, common sense things that everyone should be doing every year.

But as time went by, the red thread crossed from being a friendly reminder to an ominous presence.

My thoughts progressed from

"Take good care of yourself, this could be a dangerous year" 


"Watch out, this is a dangerous year."  

Do you see the difference?  It's subtle.  But even subtle messages can leave their mark on your mind over time.  Even the lightest green snake will leave tracks in loose topsoil as it zig-zags across the garden. 

And then when I got sick in late November with strep throat and then bronchitis and then a calcified granuloma, the red thread sent me into an internal dialogue that I could not resolve.  The cycle went something like this:

"Good thing I had this red thread around my waist this year.  If not, all of this could have been a lot worse.  Maybe I would have died."


"Did I bring this on myself this year?  Did I, with constant worrying that something bad was going to happen, actually make something bad happen?"


"Maybe I just focused on the bad so much that it's all I could see.  I had a sore throat after Thanksgiving and the only reason I went to get tested was because it was a dangerous year for me.  And the strep throat diagnosis was the beginning of a long series of medications and tests and scary diagnoses.  What if I had never gotten tested for strep?"

You see how this got exhausting after a while.

And then one Saturday morning before the CT scan which was to determine if I had cancer or not, I was lying in bed wondering how to explain the red thread to the tech.  Should I offer to take it off for the scan?  It was still four weeks before I was "supposed" to take it off, and just before a CT scan seemed like the very worst time to let go of my protective talisman.

And yet, what if the thread showed up on the scan and whoever reviewed it didn't know I was wearing it and didn't know what to make of it?

What if the bits of jade embedded in the thread showed up on the scan as something that looked like a tumor?

Or even worse, what if there was a tumor hiding just behind a bit of jade and the scan didn't reveal it?

The only thing worse than a false positive is a false negative.

My thoughts circled and turned left and right, folding in on themselves like a labyrinth.  And then, just like in a labyrinth, I reached the center.  I stood up, went to my bathroom, pulled a pair of scissors out of my top drawer, and I cut the red thread off my waist.  I held it up over the trash can and let it fall in like a boa constrictor I had just beheaded.

I felt free.  I felt like I had liberated myself from a 5,000-year-old Chinese curse with the slice of one sharp blade.

Although the red thread was in a coil at the bottom of my garbage can, the tape on my internal dialogue had not run out yet.

"Do you think you'll regret this when you do your CT scan?  What if the scan says you do have cancer?  Will you wish you had kept the red thread on?  Maybe it would have helped.  Just maybe?" 

I put my hands on my now un-yoked waist, 

turned due East, 

and looked Tai Sui straight in the face.  

"Nope," I said.

Because this is not a post about death, Tai Sui.  

It is not.  

I'll deal with you again in twelve years.  


Monday, February 19, 2018

Letting go

I can pinpoint the moment when I realized I was having a truly awful year.  It was when the imaging tech asked me, "Have you had cancer before?" as she rolled me into the CT scan.

Yes, that was the exact moment when I knew the Chinese superstition had been right after all.  My 48th year had been truly abysmal.  The Chinese Zodiac says that every twelve years we celebrate our animal year and it's supposed to be a particularly dangerous year.  That might mean relationship troubles, financial problems, or health issues.

I had tied a red thread around my waist in February 2017 to ward off any bad luck that might come my way during my animal year and wrote about it here.  At the time I did it for fun but now I was beginning to wonder if there was something to the superstition.

"No," I said.  And I wanted to add, "Are you saying I have it NOW?  Because I thought I was here for a test to determine IF I have cancer?"

But since I've never had cancer, I wasn't sure how these things work.  On TV I've seen people get a cancer diagnosis.  The set-up is always the same.  They're always sitting in a doctor's office, at the doctor's desk.  They have a loved one next to them.  The doctor gives them the diagnosis.  The patient asks questions.  The doctor answers with percentages and chances and probabilities.

The doctor's desk is always a darkish red wood, probably cherry wood.  I hate that kind of dark wood.  I don't think I'm alone here, am I?  Why haven't doctor practices figured out yet how much patients hate those dark red cherry wood desks?

Maybe they keep the desks ugly so that the news we get when we sit at them seems less ugly in comparison.

That makes sense.

I need for things to make sense right now.  Because getting a cancer diagnosis from an imaging tech, who has yet to roll me into the CT scan, just doesn't make sense.

Although in a way, it does.  Techs see thousands of patients every year and although they're not trained to interpret results, I bet they have a good intuition about the people who come into their offices for scans and tests.  In his book Blink, social scientist Malcolm Gladwell calls it the power of thinking without thinking. 

Sadly, techs aren't trained to keep their intuition to themselves.  I picked up on it.  Their seemingly innocent questions were the first rumblings of thunder in the distance.

As I waited for the CT results, the days jerked by, pixelated and in shades of grey.  When I had mental energy, I wondered what kind of cancer patient I would be, if it came to that.  Would I be the kind who commits to kicking cancer's ass?  Or would I submit to whatever God's will was for me?  I didn't think I had the energy to commit to kicking cancer's ass - I hardly had energy to floss my teeth every day.  But I also didn't want to just raise the white flag and check myself straight into hospice care.

Simply pondering my options was overwhelming, and so I succumbed once again to the grainy black and white images.  My reality was film noir, spliced with X-ray images.

One frame is the front porch.  It's dark and Grant is receiving a greasy, lukewarm dinner delivery packed in styrofoam and wrapped in a plastic bag.  Again.  He tries not to leave the door open too long because it's cold outside.  A single light bulb on the porch illuminates the scene.  His dark shiny hair reflects the light like a mirror.

One frame is the decorative pillows from my bed, in a pile on the carpet.

One frame is a text from Audrey.  She's re-arranging her schedule so she can pick Grant up.

The range of my emotions is as limited at the color spectrum of my memory.  I try not to be afraid because only people who have cancer need to be afraid.  I don't want to start playing the role of a cancer patient.  I'm afraid of even looking like a good understudy.

I feel numb.  It's like my emotions, faced with the flight-or-flight conundrum, have fled.

I don't have enough information to know what to feel.  

I feign cheerfulness.  I don't want other people to worry about me.  Because only friends of cancer patients need to worry.  But as I observe the faces of the people around me, I can tell I'm not doing a good job.  They all look concerned and confused.  I'm pale and when I laugh I start coughing.  My cough is awful.  It's more like a whole-body spasm.  When it's over I'm left wheezing and gasping for air.  I'm embarrassed at how little control I have over my respiratory system.

I try not to laugh.  I try not to cough.  I work from home.  A lot.

It felt like an eternity.  And then finally, my cell phone rang.  It was my doctor's office, calling with my results.  I happened to be at my office that day.  I walked outside to take the call and found the most beautiful bench under the most beautiful tree.   My office is right next to a park so there are lots of beautiful trees and benches.  And squirrels and birds and ducks.

If the doctor was going to give me bad news, I was not going to make it easier on him.  He was going to have to do it while I sat amidst all this beauty.  In comparison to my beautiful surroundings, the news was going to look truly abysmal.  I dared him.

"Your test results are in and everything is within the normal range.  The spot on your lung is a calcified granuloma.  I know you've never been diagnosed with pneumonia but you must have had it at some point in the past and the granuloma is sort of like scar tissue from that.  It's nothing to worry about.  We don't need to do any further tests."

Which is the best possible outcome I could have hoped for.  I should be grateful, and I am.

But I still don't know what kind of cancer patient I would be, if it ever came to that. 

I still don't know why I had this health scare this year.  Was it because it's my 48th year?  Or would this have happened anyway?  Would it have been worse if I hadn't had my red thread around my waist? 

I still don't know why doctor's desks are made out of that awful cherry wood.

Let it all fade.  

Let the black and the white blend together.  

Let the resulting grey turn to ash.  

I mix it with water, dip my finger in it and taste the fear.  Then raise my finger to the sky and watermark a giant question mark between the clouds. 

Trace it again and again until I can let go.

There are so many questions that will never be answered.

All we can do is let go.

Monday, February 5, 2018

January 31, 1998

It was a Saturday.  I didn't talk to Priya that day.  I don't know how she spent the afternoon but I bet she was studying.  She was the best in our class, partly due to her immense talent and intellect, and partly due to her dedication and hard work.

She highlighted one last term, made one last note in the margins, and closed her books for the last time.

Then she and Jennifer went for a late-night walk along the waterfront on Monterey Bay.  Priya had a cigarette and an espresso in her hand.  She and Jennifer stood in front of an empty row of parking spaces on the commercial fisherman's wharf.  They were in front of a parking meter which flashed "0 minutes left."

She was running away from him when he shot at her.  I hope that means she was running towards the end of the wharf, and that the last thing she saw was the moonlight shining on the ocean.

Her favorite poem was "Der Panther" by Rainer Maria Rilke.  

Der Panther

Sein Blick ist vom Vorübergehn der Stäbe
so müd geworden, daß er nichts mehr hält.
Ihm ist, als ob es tausend Stäbe gäbe
und hinter tausend Stäben keine Welt.

Der weiche Gang geschmeidig starker Schritte,
der sich im allerkleinsten Kreise dreht,
ist wie ein Tanz von Kraft um eine Mitte,
in der betäubt ein großer Wille steht.

Nur manchmal schiebt der Vorhang der Pupille
sich lautlos auf –. Dann geht ein Bild hinein,
geht durch der Glieder angespannte Stille –
und hört im Herzen auf zu sein.

The Panther (English translation by Stephen Mitchell)
His vision, from the constantly passing bars,
has grown so weary that it cannot hold
anything else. It seems to him there are
a thousand bars; and behind the bars, no world.

As he paces in cramped circles, over and over,
the movement of his powerful soft strides
is like a ritual dance around a center
in which a mighty will stands paralyzed.

Only at times, the curtain of the pupils
lifts, quietly--. An image enters in,
rushes down through the tensed, arrested muscles,
plunges into the heart and is gone.

There is no good ending for a post like this.  You just suddenly realize that you're at the end.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

What Beijing Traffic Taught Me About Mass Shootings

I have had two trains of thought lately, their tracks criss-crossing my mind.

The first is from one of those jagged and confusing videos that people made with their cell phones as they were running from the Jason Aldean concert in Las Vegas.  A young woman is lying on the asphalt, propped up against a metal fence.  She's been shot in the leg and is bleeding badly.  Some people are tending to her as best they can.  They're crouched down around her, using a shirt to soak up the blood.

Meanwhile, bullets are cutting random and lethal paths all around them.

A police officer wearing a neon vest joins them.  He raises his voice just enough to be heard over the gunfire.  "Do you want me to stay with her?  You can go."

That's what he said.

So calmly.

And so kindly.

It sounded sort of like the way you would offer to help anyone with anything. 

Except he was offering to stay in the line of fire while they ran to safety.

And he was offering to stay with this young woman so that if she died, at least she wouldn't die alone.

There are so many scenes from that night that I've seen in videos or heard about from eyewitnesses.  And somehow that officer in the neon vest has stayed trapped in the net of my subconscious.  I can't let him go.

Kind.  Brave.  Selfless.

This is one train of thought that has careened through my mind all week long.  At some point, it is inevitably joined by another, seemingly unrelated train of thought.  But because these two trains insist on being together, I'm beginning to think they are somehow related.  When one shows up in my mind, it inevitably calls to the other.

The other train of thought is about traffic in Beijing.  When we moved there in 2005 I was amazed by the traffic.  The streets are overcrowded and the cars jockey with each other and bicycles and motorcycles and buses and pedestrians to make headway across town.  Almost no one in Beijing traffic is going to stop and give you the right of way.  Passage is something you fight for.

So the chaos amazed me in Beijing.  But what also amazed me was how few accidents there are.  Given how many vehicles are on the roads, and given how little regard they give to traffic laws, I would have expected to see at least one or two serious accidents on every drive.  But for the most part, people moved through the chaos unscathed.

I began to wonder if it's all as chaotic as it seems.  Or is there perhaps an order to it all, one that's not immediately apparent?

I spent a lot of time in taxi cabs observing the traffic around me.  And I began to see patterns.  I developed a hypothesis that there are some unspoken understandings between Beijing drivers.  They go something like this.

Rule #1: I will continue at roughly this same speed.  If I slow down or speed up, it will be gradual.  My speed will change no more than 10% in 6-8 seconds.

Rule #2: I will make no sudden turns.  I might swerve into your lane but I will do so at a gentle angle.  You will have time to make room for me.  Perhaps you will move into the lane next to you, or you will slow down just a bit to make room for me in front of you.  But everything will happen at peaceful angles.  My angles will be no sharper than 15%.

With just those two understandings - constant speed and gentle angles - Beijing drivers make their way through the web of highways and byways and almost all of them get home safely to their families in the evening. 

For all I know, there are statistics that say that Beijing roads are deadlier than others.  But still I think the two rules above make them safer than they otherwise would be.

Gentle.  Constant.  Peaceful.

Kind.  Brave.  Selfless.

These two trains of thought have swerved together in my mind all week at gentle angles, steady speed.  

I don't know what all of this means.

I do know that those bullets were moving at sharp angles and sudden bursts of speed.

I do know that kind, brave and selfless people are all around us.

I do know that we have the capacity to co-exist peacefully with each other.  Right?  

Couldn't we be constantly kind with each other for a while?  Couldn't we be peacefully selfless?  What about gently brave?

I think we can do all of those things.

And if we can't, I have another idea.

How about if we all just stop shooting each other?


Thursday, August 24, 2017

What I Learned From a Bag of Fruit and Keys

I was only laid over in Beijing for an hour and a half. It was barely enough time to get my suitcase, take it through customs and re-check it to my final destination of Dalian.

And yet, Buddy came to the airport to say hello. 

He hugged me and said, “I brought you some fruit.” We stuffed the bag of fruit into my suitcase and then re-checked it. As it went through security the inspector called us over. The X-ray was showing a bag of metal hoops and chains and he wanted to know what it was. Buddy, the inspector and I stared at it for a few minutes, and then I finally recognized it as my bag of jewelry. I opened the suitcase, took out my jewelry and showed it to the inspector. Satisfied, he let my bag go through.

As the three of us stared at the X-ray image of my suitcase we were fixated on my bag of jewelry yet we totally missed another metal object in the opposite corner, which was actually much more troubling.

Buddy and I said goodbye and I made my way to the gate for my final flight. As I waited to board, I got a text from him.

“I think I left my keys in the bag with the fruit.” 

“Oh no! What do you want to do?” I asked. We were scheduled to board in a few minutes and the fruit was in my checked baggage.

“Check when you get to Dalian and if my keys are there just send them back to me,” Buddy said.

“Does someone have an extra set?” I asked.

“My sister,” he replied.

“I’m so sorry!” I said.

“It’s not your fault,” he said. “And it’s not a big deal.”

So Buddy took a half hour cab ride to his sister’s house to get the extra set of keys, then rode back to the airport to retrieve his car and drove back home. By the time he got back to his house I was already in the northeast corner of China.

And sure enough, I had his keys in my suitcase.

This is sort of how we operated when we were married. Life with us was a constant series of surprises, goof-ups, and snafus. We had too little time and tried to do too much. But we always managed to get ourselves untangled somehow.

Some people probably looked at us and shook their heads and thought how irresponsible and careless we were.  But here’s the thing.

It’s easy to find someone who knows where their keys are.

It’s not easy to find someone who will drive out at 8:00 at night to meet you in the airport for just a few minutes to give you a hug and a bag of fresh fruit.

And if you and that person can get through a marriage and a divorce and still want to say hello to each other when you’re in the same city, then I think that’s a win.

I think that saying yes to that person on that unseasonably cool day in August of 1997 was the right thing to do.

Things tangle and they untangle. Keys are lost and they are found. We are bound together and then torn apart.

And if I had to do it all over again, I wouldn’t change a thing.

It’s easy to find someone who knows where their keys are.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Chariots of Satan

The hum of a mosquito in my ear is like an alarm for my subconscious, and it jerks me awake.  My iPhone says it’s 2:30am.  I grasp into the air above my head until I find the string that turns on the overhead light.  I turn it on to the dimmest setting and try to find the mosquito without waking Audrey and Grant, but when I clap my hands the first time in an unsuccessful attempt to kill it they wake up.

They sit up.  Audrey yawns and rubs her eyes.  Grant scratches the back of his neck and squints at me. 

“I know, they’re driving me crazy too, I couldn’t sleep,” he says. 

“It’s so freaking hot in here, why doesn’t this place have air conditioning or at least a fan?” demands Audrey.

The vacation house their dad has rented for this family reunion sits high atop the mountain and has a stunning view of the Sagami Bay and Oshima Island.  It has three bedrooms and two baths, room for the whole family.  His mom and dad, his sister and brother-in-law, their son, Buddy and our two kids.  And me.  They invited me to join them for their family vacation even though technically, I'm not family anymore.

As fabulous as this house is, it does not have air conditioning or even a fan, and the tatami room the kids and I are sleeping in has heated up as the night wore on.  The air is sticky and heavy.  I haven’t opened the windows because I don’t trust the screens to keep out the bugs but now it feels like we have no choice, and besides, the mosquitoes have found their way into the room even with the window closed.  I slide it open and a mountain breeze drifts into the room like a quiet song.

“We’ve got to find that thing and kill it,” Grant declares.

“I’m going upstairs to get us some water,” Audrey announces.

“Shhhhh!” I remind them both.  Their cousins and grandparents are sleeping one shoji-door away and although my kids and I don’t sleep well under these hot and buggy conditions everyone else in the house seems to be having no trouble at all.

Grant and I inspect the walls of the room, trying to find the mosquito or mosquitoes.  Audrey returns with a 2-liter bottle of water and two tiny porcelain teacups of ice.  “Would you believe these are the only thing I could find in the kitchen that can be used for drinking?  There are no glasses or mugs or anything up there!”

“Well these will do under the circumstances.  Just don’t break them,” I say.

Audrey pours water into the porcelain cups and the three of us sit down on Grant’s futon in the middle the tatami room.  We wait for the mosquito to appear.  “There is nothing on this earth I hate more than mosquitoes,” Grant says.  “They are pure evil.  I call them Chariots of Satan.” 

Audrey and I start laughing and I remind both of us to be quiet and not wake the rest of the family.

“This is the second worst night of sleep I’ve ever had in my life,” whispers Grant.  In a hushed voice he tells us the story of the worst, which was three years ago on a boy scout camping trip in a cave.

Audrey stands up suddenly and points across the room at a Chariot of Satan.  She approaches it with her hands held out in front of her, ready to smack it.  It continues towards the window and then vanishes.  It seems to have passed straight through the window itself.  That’s when we realize how the mosquito must have gotten into the room in the first place.  There is a small crack between the window and the screen. 

I stuff two yukatas into the crack and stand with my hands outstretched for several seconds, ready to catch them if they fall back out.  They don’t. 

With the window open and the ocean breeze floating through the room it is now cooler and we breathe easier.  The crack is plugged and the only known Chariot of Satan is gone. 

I turn out the light and we lie back down.  In the darkness the kids whisper about what a hard night this is.  They complain about the bugs and the heat and the lack of air conditioning and glasses. 

And they’re right that it is a hard night.  But it's also a night we will always remember.  People sleep through the night all the time and there is nothing at all memorable about that. 

But a night like tonight - not everyone gets a chance like this in their lifetime.

A chance to sit together on tatamis in Japan at 2:30 in the morning,
hot and itchy,
while brainstorming strategies to kill mosquitoes,
and laughing,
and shushing each other,
and drinking ice water out of

Monday, June 19, 2017

Golf With My Father Again

"Who wants to play some golf?" my dad asked, a golf club in one hand and an aluminum bucket of golf balls in the other.  The bucket was suspended from his hand by three fingers, the tips of his fingernails yellowed from the tobacco he smoked. 

"Us!  Us!" we yelled as we brushed the sand off our dresses and buckled on our Sun-Sans.

Christi was seven, I was five and Caroline was three, and we all knew how to golf.  Amanda, the baby, had to stay home with my mom.  She would learn to golf in a couple of years when she knew how to walk.  

The golf course was a wide open grass field at the Arboretum.  My dad set up the golf tee and instructed us girls to wait behind him at safe distance.  One by one he knocked 30 golf balls out into the field.  Then at last it was our turn.

"Okay, go find them!"

We scampered out into the grass field and searched for the white golf balls like they were Easter eggs.  We brought them back to my dad and he counted them as we dropped them one by one into the bucket.  I loved the hollow plunk sound each one made.  When my dad's count reached about 25 or 26, he cheered us on to go out and find the last four.  But if we couldn't find them he was never pedantic about it.

"It's okay, we'll find them on the next round," he would say, but we rarely did.  I'm sure we came back home with fewer balls than we had had when we started out but my dad didn't care.  It was not like him to insist on perfection or completion.  He wasn't the kind of dad who demanded that things be exact or precise.  I don't remember him ever pushing us to do something the "right" way.  Instead, my dad valued fun and grace and most of all, he valued the Good Enough.

We could spend a whole afternoon in this cycle.  My dad knocked 30 balls into the field, we retrieved them, he knocked them out over and over and over again. 

He told us this was golfing and we thought it was the most fun sport in the world.  It wasn't until years later that we learned that although we were playing a game involving golf clubs and tees and golf balls, we were not golfing.

When I learned the rules of real golf it occurred to me that it didn't seem very fun at all.

This is the second Father's Day since my dad died.  I wish I could call him.  I wish I could hear him say just one more time, "Well, always good talking with you!" - which meant that he was about ready to end the conversation.  That was often followed by, "Don't let me keep you" - which meant that he was actually about to hang up.

I wish we could go golfing again.  

Most of all, I wish he were here to remind me of that Good Enough really is Good Enough.  It's okay to stop sometimes.  Golf balls are cheap.  You don't have to find all 30 of them all the time.  Sometimes it's okay to deliver about 80% and trust that things are going to be okay anyway.  

I miss you, Dad.  Happy Father's Day.

Here's to the two most important dads in my life.

My dad 

And Audrey and Grant's dad

Thursday, April 27, 2017

3 Ways to Survive a Dangerous Year

Somewhere in my mid-thirties I lost track of my age.  The whole year when I was 36 I thought I was 37.  Then when I actually did turn 37, Buddy and the kids and I had to do several rounds of calculations before I would believe that I actually was just 37.  Again.

Granted, my 36th trip around the sun was a hectic one.  That was the year when we sold all our belongings in California and moved to China and started a new life there.  I was trying to settle into a new culture and learn a new language.  I had done that three times before - once in Germany in 1987, once in France in 1989 and once in Japan in 1992 - so you'd think it would be easy for me.  But this was the first time I'd done it with kids and that was a whole new ballgame.  As a mother now, my first priority was keeping Grant and Audrey's little heads above water and I used whatever energy I had left to take care of myself.  Sometimes, that was very little.

So you see how I lost track of my age.

It didn't cause any problems, really, except for the fact that according to the Chinese Zodiac it was my 本命年, my ben ming nian.  That comes around once every twelve years when it's your animal year.

Chinese astrology says that in their ben ming nian, people have offended Tai Sui, the God of Age.  They have incurred his curse and will have nothing but bad luck during their animal year.  As a result, those who follow Chinese astrology "pay special attention to their conduct every twelfth year of their lives, i.e. in their birth sign years."

Luckily I slipped by Tai Sui that year when I was 36 even though I paid no special attention to my conduct at all.

This year I'm turning 48 and it's my animal year, the Year of the Rooster, again.

Worried that Tai Sui might be holding a grudge from twelve years ago, I'm paying special attention this year.  There are three things I can do to get myself through this dangerous year:
  1. Wear something red against my skin all year along.  It can't be something I bought for myself though - it must be something that a friend or loved one gives me.
  2. Wear jade all year.  
  3. Spend a lot of time facing due West, which is directly away from Tai Sui.
The kids were in China with Buddy and his family for Chinese New Year this year and I asked them to bring me back a red thread to tie around my waist.  They brought me one that has little pieces of Jade woven into it - how efficient is that?!

I've been wearing it for four weeks now and it's making me absolutely crazy.  I keep getting my thumb caught on it when I'm getting dressed, and it takes a long time for it to dry out after I shower so for the first few hours of the morning it feels like I have a long earthworm around my waist.  

"I don't know if I'm going to be able to stand this for a whole year," I told Audrey the other day.

"Yeah, we didn't think you would last very long," she replied, nonchalantly.

Well!  That changes everything.  I'm posting this on my blog as a sign of my commitment - I will keep this red thread around my waist all year long even if it kills me.

Which would be ironic. 

I will keep you posted on how this goes.

If you find me especially frustrated this year, please know that it's not you and it's not even me.

It's Tai Sui and this damn red thread around my waist.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

On Alabama and Icebergs and Grace

"Children, you have homework tonight.  I want you to go home and ask your parents if they can donate a Christmas tree.  It would be so nice to have our own tree here in the classroom.  So ask them tonight - don't forget!"

My second grade teacher Mrs. Hellums was one of my favorite teachers ever.  She had brown curly hair and said I looked like the girl who played Laura Ingalls on TV.

On heavy hot days when our un-airconditioned classroom felt like a clay oven, Ms. Hellums would call us to the front of the room to sit in a semi-circle at her feet for story time.  We worked our way through the entire Little House on the Prairie Series, hour by hour after lunch.  When the heat became so heavy that even she couldn't stand to read anymore she would ask us all to close our eyes and imagine that we were floating on an iceberg on the South Pole.  She would ask us what it felt like ("cold!") and what we heard ("water splashing against our iceberg") and what we saw ("a polar bear swimming by").  The most important lesson we learned in her classroom was that we had the ability to imagine our way out of difficult circumstances and into a better reality.

Years later I would learn that polar bears are only found at the other end of the globe, in the Arctic Circle.  I'm glad I didn't know that at the time because it was a lot more fun with the polar bears there with our class floating on an iceberg on the South Pole.

After school I met my older sister Christi in front of the school for our 30-minute walk home.  The very best part of the walk came first and the very worst part came right after that.

The best part was the catwalk.  It was a rusty cement and steel platform encaged by chain link walls that spanned over Skyland Boulevard.  We loved to pause on the catwalk above the four lanes of traffic, cars whizzing by below us and making the catwalk tremble beneath our feet.  It was thrilling to be so close to speed and danger and yet to escape unscathed every time.  Sometimes an 18-wheeler came by and we would pump our arms into the air, and on rare occasions the driver would honk their horn just as they passed beneath us.  That was a story worth telling at the dinner table that night.

Years later I would learn that a catwalk was also a platform that models walk on at fashion shows.  I'm glad I didn't know that because I prefer to think of it as a platform that school children walk on and get 18-wheelers to honk at them.

The worst part of the walk came right after the catwalk.  The hill towered before us, daring us to try to scale its steep sidewalk.  We had to though because there was no other way home.  The only way over the hill was one exhausted breath at a time.

Two years prior, Mrs. Hellums had been Christi's second grade teacher as well so she too knew the imagination trick.

"I'm going to invent a car for us to get up this hill," Christi told me.  She didn't look at me, both of us were facing forward and keeping our eye on the sidewalk in front of us.  "It's going to fold up so I can keep it in my desk during the day at school and then when we get to the bottom of the hill we can unfold it and sit in it and ride it up the hill."

"What else ... is it going ... to have?" I asked.  Christi had a vivid way of describing things and her enthusiasm was stoked by an eager audience.  One day she would make her living off of this talent of hers and it would take her as far as the White House. 

But for now we were just two tired and sweaty little schoolgirls trying to get up a monster hill.  "And when ... can you have this thing ... ready?"

"Well, it's going to have a Coke machine in it too.  Like at McDonald's but it will be our very own Coke machine.  I mean, we can share Cokes with other kids if we want but it's going to be ours.  The Coke machine is going to be right there above the steering wheel and we can have as much Coke as we want.  And there will be a place where you can get Sprite out of it too.  And in the glove compartment there will be snacks.  Different ones every day, but always Ho Hos every day."

It was almost too much to dream about.  Although the car was never built, the possibility of it nudged Christi and me up that monster hill every day inch by steady inch until at last we crested it, right at the corner where Mrs. Hellums lived.  She let the kids chain their bicycles to the stop sign at the corner of her yard in the mornings because no one dared to ride their bike down the monster hill.  Even with brakes, that ride would kill you.

Years later I would learn that the stop sign was city property and it was against city ordinances to chain our bikes to it but I'm glad I didn't know that at the time.  It was so much nicer to think that our bikes were safe and legal in Mrs. Hellums' yard all day.

Christi never told me when the fold-up car would be ready because dreaming about something is one thing but committing to something that you know you can't deliver is quite another.  We grew up in a family where story-telling was encouraged, but once you promised something you were expected to deliver.  Besides, we didn't need the car.  We needed the dream of the car to get us up that hill every afternoon.

We were almost home when we passed Mr. Smith's house on Crestline Drive.  He was having the pine trees cut down in his yard, which was a practical and smart thing to do in Alabama in the 1970s because the pine trees were home to millions of cockroaches, who migrated from the trees to the nearby houses and back.

I burst into tears.

"Why are you crying, Mel?" Christi asked.

"Don't you think that's sad?  All those trees?  Just dying?"

We stood on the street looking at each other, each confused about why the other didn't understand.

My mother was always in the same place when we got home - standing at the formica countertop in the kitchen, in the corner next to the stove.  I told her about the trees and how sad I felt about them.  She reminded me about the cockroaches and said that was probably why Mr. Smith was having them cut down  Also, his wife had recently died and perhaps he was getting his house ready to sell.

"Maybe," I said.  "Oh, and Mrs. Hellums wants people to ask their parents if they can donate a tree for our classroom," I said.  I knew it was a stretch for my parents to have a tree for our own house, and that donating one for a classroom was impossible.  Besides, my mother was relentlessly fair so if she was going to buy a tree for my classroom, she would have to buy one for three other classrooms as well.  The math in our house was always in multiples of four, and when you multiply by four even a cheeseburger becomes too expensive.

I don't remember if it was my mother or me who put together the tragedy of Mr. Smith's pines and my classroom's need for a Christmas tree but soon my mother was on the phone with him.  The curly white phone cord stretched from the base of the phone to the pantry, where my mother was talking to Mr. Smith.  It wasn't that the conversation was private - she was just trying to hear him and let him hear her.  Although the house was fairly quiet right at that moment, you never knew when our house was going to get noisy.  Maybe a sister would sit down and start practicing the piano. Maybe a door would slam.  Maybe someone would start fighting.  Noise was like cockroaches in our house - it appeared suddenly and seemingly out of nowhere.  And so when we talked on the phone we went into the pantry.

"Mr. Smith says he'll deliver a tree to your school tomorrow," my mother said as she hung the receiver back up.

"Really?" I asked, grinning.

"That's what he said," she said as she hugged me.  "But let's wait and see what happens tomorrow."

Alabama pines did not make great Christmas trees.  They were scraggly and their needles were a dry and pale green.  If a plump Douglas fir says "all is merry and bright", a recycled Alabama pine in your living room says "this will have to do for this year."  As a young child I learned the value of tinsel, which does great things to distract from the skeletal appearance of an Alabama pine.  We knew the value of something shiny long before it was a thing.

The next morning when I got to my classroom our Christmas tree was already there.  An admiring throng of students was gathered around it.  Mrs. Hellums clapped her hands in delight when I joined them.  "Look how beautiful it is!" she said.  "Your neighbor delivered it early this morning."

It really was beautiful.  The needles were a lush, dark green.  The tree was plump and full and it chuckled "all is merry and bright."

It was not an Alabama pine from Mr. Smith's yard.  It was a Douglas fir, which he had purchased at the grocery store and delivered to our classroom.

In the second grade my teacher Mrs. Hellums taught me the power of my imagination. 

My mother taught me that tragedy and need can sometimes come together to produce something wonderful.

And Mr. Smith taught me the true meaning of grace. 

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

On Japan and Generosity and Jewelry

When I went to Japan to teach English at a middle school in 1992 I thought Japanese kids were going to love me.  Mostly because kids in the US always did.  I was a Sunday School teacher and a babysitter and a Girl Scout and a big sister, and where ever I went I found little kids and they found me.  

When I reported for the first day of school at Anesaki Chu-Gakko in Ichihara-shi, it was an oppressively hot and humid Monday morning.  A group of girls was standing in front of the school and they noticed me right away.  As a tall Westerner, I stood out.  I waved at them and waited for them to run towards me.  

Instead, they ran away screaming.  

I tried to imagine how I was going to do my job under these circumstances.  As a JET (Japanese English Teacher), the Japanese Ministry of Education was paying me to be in the school for the year to form relationships with the kids and encourage them to use the English they were learning in the classroom.  

That was going to be hard if I couldn't get the kids to stop running away from me screaming.  

As a first step, I got the kids used to being in the same room with me.  Of course I was there for their English lessons.

I also spent time with them outside of class.  At lunchtime instead of sitting in the teacher's lounge with other teachers I sat in the classrooms with the kids.  When it was time for o-soji, I cleaned the glass windows and swept the hallways, right along with the kids.  (Japanese schools typically don't pay for janitors, instead the kids spend about 15 minutes each day cleaning their own space.)  At some point the kids started coming to my house on weekends and they invited me to theirs.

Over time they warmed up to me and soon I found myself once again surrounded by children all the time.  They asked a lot of questions about what life was like for teenagers in America.  And they wanted to know what Michael Jordan and Madonna and River Phoenix were like in real life.  

To be clear, I never met any of those people.  

One day, a sweet quiet girl whose name I can't remember gave me a necklace.  Her friend had given it to her and she gave it to me.  It was a tiny coral star on a delicate gold chain.  There was a school rule that students couldn't wear any kind of jewelry other than hair ties.  As she gave it to me she said, "I can't wear this but you can."  

I thought that was the sweetest sentiment in the world.  I can't use this but it will make me happy to see it on you.  

It felt like the purest sense of generosity.  I wore that star to school a lot and it always made her happy.

Over the years I've acquired and lost a lot of jewelry.  Typically I don't buy expensive things so I don't have to be upset when I lose them.  But that coral star has somehow stayed with me.  From Japan to the Monterey Peninsula in 1996.  From Monterey to Silicon Valley in 1999.  From Silicon Valley to Beijing in 2005.  From Beijing to Nashville in 2011.  Somehow that coral star always managed to get into my bags and relocate with me.  

Coincidentally, coral has become one of my favorite colors.  Or perhaps that's not a coincidence at all, maybe it's exactly what you would expect given the way the color  came into my wardrobe via that first little star.  The other day I wore a coral sweater to work and that little star was a perfect complement.  During conference calls that day I found myself wrapping my fingers around it, the pad of each finger settling into one angle of the pentagram.  I thought about that sweet little girl and her generous spirit.

I have long since lost touch with her but where ever she is I hope she's in a place where she can wear whatever jewelry she wants.

And I hope she still has that sweet sense of generosity. 

And if by some chance she sees this post and wants her necklace back, nothing would make me happier than to give it to her.