Where I'm Coming From

My Photo
Location: California

I love paper. Books printed on acid-free paper and bound in cloth turn me on. I'm crazy about bookmarks, and I buy too many stickers. I could spend hours in the build-your-own-greeting card section of my neighborhood craft store. My favorite thing to eat is bread, and my second favorite is fruit. (Mm, pineapple.) I read too much and too fast, and I watch too many food shows (two ways of looking at gluttony). Gloomy, rainy weather calms me and so I can't wait to move out of California, which will happen, sadly, too many years from now to count. I'm vegan, though I haven't managed to eliminate honey from my diet yet. I practice yoga; it's the only way I can keep fit. I have a better life than I ever imagined I would (or deserve to) have, but I do my best to enjoy it rather than feel guilty about it. That's my daily struggle -- and also to be thoughtful and observant and honest with myself.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Cold in a Love Climate

My uncle left his marriage of thirty-five years and his life in the United States to live in Romania with a woman young enough to be his daughter. He is reluctant to walk down the street arm in arm with his lover because of what people might say. His wife and his daughters don't speak to him.

His marriage was miserable from the beginning, and his relationships with his daughters tenuous at best. I caught of glimpse of both during the six months my mother and I lived with them during our first trip to California. My uncle is unashamedly obsessed with money, mathematics, chess and good health. He always seemed to me an eminently selfish man. He says things about his daughters and his wife that make my blood run cold.

His affair with this young woman shocks me, but not for the reasons I expected. It's adulterous; my aunt won't give him a divorce. It smacks of a mid-life crisis that has gone on for too long. But that's not what discomfits me. Rather, it's my uncle's happiness. He seems aware that his situation is morally problematic, and yet he confesses that he hasn't gotten along with anyone in his life as well as with this young woman. I can't imagine how she can love him -- I would give an arm and a leg to talk to her, or at least to observe her -- but the fact that she makes him happy is astounding and makes me think that she's not faking it. Perhaps she's after his money, though he doesn't have that much, and perhaps in the back of his mind he's aware of that. But then there's the happiness, and people are willing to give up a lot for happiness, even their dignity, social acceptance, morality.

My mother is convinced that my uncle has lost a marble to be playing house with this young woman. She keeps poking and prodding at him to move back to California, where he owns a house that's now rented out, or to Michigan where his wife takes care of their only granddaughter. He visited my parents last week, and my mother said to him, "Just stay in California, don't go back next week." (This speaks volumes about my mother.)I blurted out that he can't not go back; his lady friend (I used exactly these words, which speaks volumes about me) is waiting for him in Romania. In what is the only gesture of affection I have ever seen from my uncle in my entire life, he came up to me and shook my hand and gave me a stiff hug. "Thank you," he said, "thank you."

I was mortified. I don't agree with what he's doing, but I don't think there's any good in pestering him to change course. He's happy, and that counts for something. But I'm of two minds about his situation, and I was uneasy about giving him and my parents the impression that I wasn't. I didn't want to suggest that happiness is worth any sacrifices of moral principle. But I didn't qualify what I had said. The conversation turned to other things.

It was only while I was driving back home that the meaning of my words started to rankle me. I come back again and again to the problem of expressing myself, to how good my words are at articulating thought and feeling. I come back again and again to this suspicion that they are much more slippery than they seem at first, much more powerful sometimes than the mind and the mouth that uses them. I felt that words betrayed me in the exchange with my uncle and my mother. I felt that I betrayed them, too.

I'm waxing pretentious and grandiose here, but I'm not as sorry as I should be. Maybe I'm like my uncle in this. My obsession with words pushes me, every once in a while, into giving up modesty and restraint. It's not safe to play around with words, as it isn't to play around with love. It can make you to lose your head, at worst, and at best your respectability; it can leave you out in the cold and in doubt of whether you deserve to be anywhere else.

Monday, October 23, 2006

The Dentist Who Couldn't Spell

In the front window of a new dental office, under the doctor's name, was written: General Dentistry and Oral Sergery. I stared at the word sergery for a while, uncomfortable laughter tickling my throat. I wondered how much business that dentist was going to lose because of the misspelling on his front window.

Most people, however, don't take (mis)spelling as seriously as I do. A shrug, a "So what?" and they turn the joke against me, laugh at my obsession with grammar and call me a vocabulary snob. I can't say I don't entirely deserve it. I'm overly sensitive about being a non-native English speaker and my snobbishness is a side-effect of this sensitivity. I feel guilty if I don't look up words I don't understand in the dictionary, and will get out of bed at night, after we've turned off the lights and settled for sleep, in order to check if the explanation for insalubrious that I gave Husband ten minutes before is the correct one. I regularly write drafts of notes to Husband or to my family that, after being read once, are unceremoniously crumpled and flung into the garbage. I don't think there's anything -- not my face, not my clothes, sometimes not even my behavior -- that reflects more strongly on me than the words I use. Carelessness about language seems to me not an amusing quirk (and I'm not talking here about dialect, which is in a category all of its own), not a trivial thing like walking into a room with dirty shoes, but a serious character flaw. If you're sloppy with language, you're sloppy with thinking -- that's how my reasoning goes.

Needless to say, there's a lot of heartache and agony that comes with this reasoning, some of it not entirely worthwhile. After all, there are more important things to worry about than bad grammar; how about global warming and world hunger and the AIDS epidemic? On the other hand, I'm glad that the people who worked on the Oxford English Dictionary didn't think that way and spent lifetimes gathering up and putting down all that is known about the lives of words. Running my hands and my eyes over the pages of the OED I'm tempted to think about language as a kind of food, a kind of medicine for the body and the soul. It has to be handled with care.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Homo Politicus

I watched Barack Obama on Charlie Rose. Obama wore a grey suit with a white shirt and pale blue tie; I mention this because I hate, I despise, I can't stand -- all right, all right, you made your point -- the red-white-and-blue color scheme most politicians fall back on. His eyelids had a childish sheen and his smile was broad, too broad it seemed at times, but completely sincere. He moved his hands a lot as he spoke, in a calm, measured way. And his sentences -- I was mesmerized by his sentences and his vocabulary. He didn't seem afraid of articulating complicated ideas; and all his careful phrasing struck me as wise rather than evasive, a kind of diplomacy that searches for common ground and rational solutions to problems, and is not a mask for lack of commitment. He talked about the name-calling that seems to have become the only political strategy anybody cares to employ these days in this country, and about the necessity to stand for something not merely against something.

Politics disgusts me. But Barack Obama has shocked me out of my cynicism. I keep trying to find evidence that I've been duped: I want to read the books he's written and search for holes in his arguments, for disingenuousness, for obsequiousness. How can I honestly believe a senator when he says that what drives his political career is the desire to be useful and then quotes Benjamin Franklin, who happened to have the same desire and wrote about it in a letter to his mother? How does he pull off sounding intelligent and confident but not arrogant, modest but not coy, tender -- when he talks about his mother or his children and wife -- but not saccharine? How does he manage to be down-to-earth yet idealistic?

No, what I'm trying to say is not that he is perfect but that he seems reasonable. He talked about the vital place reason has to have in politics, and I listened with my jaw on the floor because it sounded like a revolutionary idea to me, but in this man's mouth it sounded like the most basic common sense. Too many solutions to the country's problems are proposed in either-or language, he said, and what we need is to have conversations with each other and find what can be done that's not at either extreme. He made a comment that soured me a little bit: he can go into any room that contains any mixture of race, religion and socio-economic classes and convince the people to vote for him.

As he explained himself I was compelled to believe him -- for a whole of five minutes. What he means by that boast is that his approach to politics is one of having serious discussions about what needs to be done, and he believes that people respond positively to that and harness themselves cheerfully to the machine of social progress. Ah, there's the rub. This faith that people are going to act according to reason, that they will take the logical course of action when it's shown to them, is a beautiful thing. But I think most often than not that faith leads to ostracism not to being elected in a political office. Think of Socrates. Sure, he had no diplomacy skills; he insisted on being a gadfly. And yet... And yet...

I want rather desperately for Obama to run for president and win. My desperation is a indication, I think, of how unlikely it is for him to be elected, at least in the world that I find myself -- with a mixture of shame and awe -- to be living in. But it is possible that Obama will be able to do amazing things for this country even if he doesn't become president. Perhaps even because he doesn't become president. There's too much symbolic weight attached to that office, too much noise and bright lights. Good work, spectacularly good work, can be done more quietly, in positions more lowly. I believe that strongly. Perhaps that's the belief that's going to sink me one fine day.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Shrink Wrap

My mail has been flooded with political advertisements in the past few weeks. I have to confess I look at them rather carefully, especially the ones that try to persuade me to vote for one candidate or another (as opposed to one proposion or another). I'm interested in their stories, fascinated -- it's a fascination I'm slightly embarrassed about -- by the way the campaign packages the candidates' lives for my consumption. I lingered more than usual over a glossy postcard about John Duong, who's running for mayor of Irvine. There was a photograph of his family on the postcard: he with his wife and two children against a background suffused with golden afternoon light. The children, a boy, Ethan, and a girl, Lizzie, wore white; Duong wore a red polo shirt and his wife, Vicki, a blue blouse. Perfect color scheme, perfect smiles, perfect hairstyles, perfect American first names. I stared and stared, and a feeling of nausea filled my stomach, as if I'd eaten too many pieces of bad birthday cake.

I read the story of John Duong's life, bracing myself for cliche, and it was all there, in rather beautiful prose: the escape from Vietnam, the long-suffering of the parents for the good of the child, the graduate business degree, the executive position at an investment firm. "A product of the American dream" is what the campaign calls John Duong. I picture some volunteer for the campaign, an English major with a future in advertising, writing up John Duong's biographical sketch, patting herself on the back for coming up with this perfectly obsequious phrase. It tells this consummerist society exactly what it wants to hear. It tells people to stop thinking of John Duong as a person. That's too hard, too disturbing; we love here in America to watch how the mighty fall, and for our enjoyment to be complete we have to persuade ouselves that the mighty are angels of light before their descent into hell.

Running for political office turns you from a person into a thing, immigrant or not. But I'm more interested in how simply being an immigrant, with no political ambitions, with not even a desire to be part of the political process by voting, makes you vulnerable to being turned into a product. There's great rigidity in the conventional understanding of the American dream: you make lots of money, become famous, or, ideally, both. I've seen one family after another, from the group of my parents' acquaintances, fall for this narrow dream. They've become doctors and lawyers, bought houses on hills and started elderly care and office cleaning businesses, married and had two or three children, gone back to church for the sake of the children despite doubts and youthful rebellions; they work fifty and sixty hours a week and say even after they've had too much beer at Fourth of July barbeques: This is what we've come to America for. Truly this is a country of infinite possibilities.

It takes all I've got to resist being packaged into something that's acceptable and familiar, making my life an advertisement for the American dream.Iit's so hard because an ordered universe in which everything is categorized and pigeonholed is immensely comforting. I have fantasies about being a lawyer, about the intellectual stimulation and the high salary, the respect I would get from my parents and my parents' friends. It seems sometimes that if I become a lawyer (or a doctor, or a business owner) I will have no existential doubts, no fear of tomorrow. It's so tempting to believe the picture suffused with golden afternoon light. It's so hard to teach your heart not to be a spoiled child's heart but to go for the difficult pleasures, for the unbeaten path.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Sun and Moon

Last night there was a huge gibbous moon in the sky, as yellow as cheddar cheese. I sped towards it on Bonita Canyon Road, orange and white construction signs blinking every few yards in the headlights. Not long ago I bought binoculars and when I got home I peered at the moon and made a mental list of all the names it has been given, all the things it has been compared to. A wheel of cheese, a bowl of milk, a jewel in the sky -- all these cliches that I cringe at writing down but that my gut still responds to in an inexplicably powerful way. I had a sudden moment of panic about what it means to live in the twenty-first century, after so many words have been already spoken: how do you have a new experience in this much lived-in world, how do you find new ways to talk about this experience?

How do you find new ways to talk about looking at the sky that has been there for thousands of years, the same sky glittering with the same planets and the same stars? I happened to be near the beach yesterday when the sun set and I watched its disc sink into the ocean. It's such a loaded experience, watching the sunset, and there's such pressure to be exultant when you talk about it -- the explosion of color, the movement of the sun below the horizon -- to have a very specific experience of the sublime. I didn't have it. There was no explosion of color yesterday evening; I stood in a parking lot just off the Pacific Coast Highway, surrounded by the buzz and hum of the traffic, the smell of hot tarmac and salt stinging my nostrils, and watched an orange sun dip into a steel-grey ocean. It seemed very simple, very ordinary. I thought about the fact that it wasn't the sun that was moving but the earth I was standing on, that this planet I live on spins in space suspended from nothing, held up by immense forces I read about in physics books but didn't really grasp in a visceral way. I kept thinking, for the ten minutes that it took the sun to fall all the way below the horizon, I am moving, I am moving.

For sure, there's a lesson in all this. An important metaphor to dig up, that will put my life in a context I haven't seen before. But somehow I'm not interested in a lesson, in a satisfying conclusion about the meaning of my experience. I'm happy just having had the experience. Here I come again to words, to the question of what words do to an experience: do they diminish it or do they complete it? I don't know. Probably I never will. Why doesn't that stop me from writing? A hummingbird just flashed across my window. Maybe she's going to linger in the pommegranate tree in the neighbor's yard and I'll be able to watch her for a while.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

It's Not Easy Being Grey

In my last year of college -- a long time ago in a galaxy far far away -- I was part of a Bible study group. It was made up of four people: a priest who taught Christian Orthodox theology at the Claremont Graduate School, two students who were converts to Orthodoxy from one Protestant religion or another, and me. I was there to put my religion on trial, and every night we met I forced myself to ask the questions I wanted to ask, that I had been mulling about by myself for years. Once I asked about homosexuality, and the priest said, kindly, I remember, with infinite patience towards me and my chomping at the bit, that the church made a distinction between sin and sinner, and that it was possible to hate the sin while loving the sinner. My best friend at the time was gay, and I asked him what he thought about this distinction; did it make sense to him? No, he said, gay was something he was not something he did. It was identity not merely behavior.

It's a question that rankles me to this day: is the self the sum of the acts the self performs, or something more than just a conglomeration of doing and not doing? It came up in a conversation with my father, who believes, like the priest, that you can think that something a person did is wrong and but not think that the person who did is a bad person. Love is possible in the absence of like-mindedness, my father says; we don't all have to agree in order to get along. I wonder if that's true, or if it's just a way to put a pretty face on the bad things we really think of each other. Tolerance sometimes seems to me a dirty word. It seems so to my sister whom I've heard say more than once that this "agree to disagree" stuff is bullshit. Let's have it out, she says; let's really try to change each other's minds; let's not shrink from the fight, from getting at each other a little, from being passionate about what we believe in, from persuasion.

I'm a pacifist, though I have to agree that in my sister's version of the world conversations would be more fun and honest, if a little bloody and chaotic. But I'm a pacifist because I am always unsure of my position, I always doubt myself and think that the piece of the truth that I possess at any given time is a very tiny piece and probably, if placed in a different context, not even as true as it seemed at first. I'm painfully aware of how many things I don't know about the world and other people. That sounds very nice, very Socratic and everything, but it leaves me no ground to stand on and feels mighty uncomfortable. Does anyone know if there is, in fact, a good ground to stand on? Or are we doomed to grounlessness, to the center not holding, giving away any time we reach for it? Is the answer to that question about the self -- am I what I do, or am I what I am? -- both?

And if it is -- aha! -- then the trick is to figure out exactly when one definition applies versus the other! It's like learning when you have to use the Phillips and when the flathead screwdriver to do the job. Sometimes the criminal and the crime are one and the same thing, and sometimes they aren't. Sometimes a masterpiece and its creator are one and the same thing, sometimes they aren't. There are times when what's on trial is a small piece of you, and times when your whole self, the entirety of your moral identity is.

Flexibility of mind -- now that's an idea. At least now I have my work cut out for me, enough to last me a few more lifetimes than I can afford.