Friday, June 30, 2017

Grief, good and otherwise, part 1

I kept seeing her. Every time I went to put up one of my fliers, I would see the one of her. In the photo she looks like a teenager, but she’s not—she’s 26, and not an undergrad but a visiting scholar. Maybe it’s because she’s Chinese—people are always pointing out how youthful Asians look, my own mother’s family no exception (there’s a photo of my mother at 50 you wouldn’t even believe). In any case, she’s young and smart and pretty and seems like a nice person, at least from what you could imagine based on a single picture, but I have no idea because I don’t know her and because she’s missing. Her picture is everywhere in this county, even while she seems to be nowhere.

Of course a person can’t be nowhere. Lost isn’t nonexistent, but that hardly matters. Someone who used to be a part of your life but isn’t any more might as well be in an alternate universe, the one filled with the vast legions of things that, despite lacking a corporeal existence, still manage to pierce their way into this universe, sharply, and hard, and when that happens you are helpless, crying so violently you can barely see the road you’ve been driving back and forth on, looking for a sign.

This blog has become my way of trying to find the positives in life—with the emphasis on my way. In case you just tuned in, I tend to have a rather strong knee-jerk reaction against optimism. If something gives me hope, I’m automatically suspicious of it. Why should life go the way I want it just because I want it that way? Positive aphorisms fill me with contempt that frequently spills over into volcanic rage. If you want to get punched in the neck, just say everything happens for a reason. Don’t get me wrong, positive thinking can be very helpful, and it’s a hell of a lot more enjoyable than negative thinking. Believe it or not, I do not enjoy being miserable. The thing is, terrible things happen to everyone on earth, and all the positivity in the world cannot necessarily either prevent them or turn them into something beneficial. What is the benefit of a young woman being kidnapped? Perhaps there will be increased campus safety initiatives to make sure this never happens again, but the immediate situation is unchanged. She’s missing, and the people who love her are going through hell.

I never wanted to write a post about grief. Not because I was in denial about it, not because I thought I could avoid it, but because I didn’t think there was anything useful to be said. Something that was a part of your life, something you loved, is gone. What more is there to say? I have never been enthralled by the “spectacle of grief,” as media scholars might call it. I do not want to view photos of anguished faces, hands over eyes, heads bowed, bodies trembling, no matter how moving these images may be. Grief is a powerful emotion and powerful emotions are fascinating to human beings, but to what end? It troubles me to see grief manipulated into something else, like anger or hatred. Grief, I believe, is a private, personal thing.

Except that it isn’t. Nothing seems private and personal any more, in an era when if there isn’t a post or a selfie or a tweet, or if there is but nobody “likes” it, it didn’t happen. Moreover, and more importantly, grief has never really been a private concept. Every culture that has ever existed has ways of dealing with mourning, with personal loss, and they frequently involve sharing it with others. The rituals and ceremonies are meant to help ease the burden, to take a person who is rendered helpless with sorrow and give them actions to do, a direction to take. Some sorrows are so huge—that young woman is, after all, someone’s child, and probably always will be a child to them no matter her age—the mourner cannot reasonably be expected to get over them, but at least they can keep from being filled only with emptiness, with missingness, going forward.

So I ended up sort of writing about grief after all, because the fliers I was putting up were about our dog, who is missing, too. She’s a dog, not a young woman, and she’s quite old; realistically she might only have another year. The last I saw her she looked happy in the way only a dog can be, frolicking around the field, wandering after interesting smells, enjoying a lovely day. I am not comforted by this, not yet. I guess I’m still hoping I won’t need to be comforted at all.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

The man and the moon jelly

A little over a year ago I bought K a T-shirt, but not just any T-shirt. It was bright orange, it featured a detailed drawing of a phoenix, and it was the shirt he wore to our wedding. It also happened to be a technical running shirt, since after the ceremony we went for a 5-mile trail run, and if you think that’s strange, remember that we married in June. It’s hot in June, in case you hadn’t noticed, so K was easily one of the more comfortably attired June grooms. “Man, I wish I’d gotten married in a shirt like that,” one guest said admiringly. 

For our one-year anniversary, I got him another T-shirt. I realize it’s supposed to be the paper anniversary, but we didn’t have a traditional wedding in the least, so I figure I can make up my own anniversary gift list. It can’t be any more ridiculous than the original one, or the so-called “modern” version, which has clocks as the Year One gift. Clocks? Really? They do know everybody looks at their phone for that, right?

This year’s T-shirt is also not just any T-shirt. First off, the design on it, featuring luminescent jellyfish, was created by K’s oldest daughter, an artist and graphic designer. I know you’ll think I’m biased, but I’ll say it anyway: her work is gorgeous. The colors, the movement—I would describe them for you in detail except that, to paraphrase Martin Mull, writing about art is like dancing about architecture. In any case, I picked the jellyfish shirt because I like the design and because you can’t generally go wrong getting K something with animals on it. Jellyfish aren’t particular favorites of his, but there’s additional significance to these creatures.

When K and I went out to Seattle for our second marriage ceremony a few months after our first, a lot of my mother’s family showed up, so one evening we all went for Chinese food. When I say “Chinese food” I’m not talking General Tso’s Chicken and an eggroll; I mean the truly hardcore stuff, the kind of place where there’s a separate menu all in Chinese with many items that may or may not be included in the English menu (and if they are, even the most euphemistic translation can’t make them sound appealing). That said, this does not mean we were eating eyeball soup or monkey brains. This particular restaurant is extremely popular with a wide range of eaters (including General Tso aficionados), and most of what my aunts ordered offered little in the way of fear factor—with a few exceptions, the jellyfish being one of them.

That’s right, you can eat jellyfish. Who knew? Well, I did, actually, since I’ve been eating hardcore Asian food all my life. To be honest, though, I don’t like jellyfish, never have, the very few times it was ever served to me. As people say when they talk about food that makes the uninitiated recoil in revulsion, it’s a texture thing. Jellyfish has no flavor at all by itself, so it takes on the flavors of whatever sauce it’s in, which makes it the kind of ingredient Chinese cuisine very much dotes on since flavorful sauces is the name of the game. Texture-wise, it’s chewy. There’s not much more to be said than that. As bizarre foods go, this is pretty tame, but still I admit it’s daunting. K isn’t a terribly squeamish eater, but there are things he simply Will Not Touch (the only broccoli he will tolerate is the one who directed the James Bond movies), and let’s face it, we’re talking about jellyfish here, something most people only see in aquariums before moving on to something else pretty but presumably inedible.

So we’re in the restaurant around a big round table with dishes being placed one after another on the lazy Susan in the middle, and here comes the jellyfish. I don’t notice it until it’s right in front of us. Before I can tell K he doesn’t have to eat it if he doesn’t want to (and I’m pretty sure he doesn’t want to since I don’t particularly want to either), he does exactly what’s proper in this situation: puts back the spoon for the sautéed green beans, picks up the spoon for the jellyfish, and puts a small portion on his plate before returning the spoon and spinning the lazy Susan gently to the next guest. He ate everything on his plate, including the jellyfish. No wincing, no holding his breath, no drowning it in soy sauce or frantically twirling noodles around it to disguise the looks and taste. No drama. That’s K.

Popular culture thrives on depicting love as a raging, all-consuming emotion and relationships as being fraught with perilous obstacles, monumental struggles, and heroic sacrifices. Well yeah, sure, there’s that, but there are also small, quiet moments that can be deeply moving and memorable. This may seem like an insignificant incident to you—he didn’t take a bullet for me, after all—but I was impressed. He wasn’t trying to impress me, or anyone else; we were already married, and chances are we won’t see my mother’s relatives ever again since most of them I’d never seen before. That’s what impressed me. He could have taken the easy way out, spinning the lazy Susan a little more and reaching for the salt-and-pepper chicken instead. But he did the polite thing, which was to try a little of everything without complaint out of respect for my mother’s family, who were hosting this dinner to honor our marriage. That moment stuck with me.

Every generation seems required to lament that all subsequent ones are sorely lacking in politeness, seems to find it necessary to shake their heads and tsk-fully bemoan the lack of manners and common decency these days. I admit, I do this too—nothing drives me into a homicidal rage faster than people in grocery stores who race over to the just-opened checkout line even though they’re behind you and they have ten billion items and you have three bananas and some TP. You were first, go ahead—how hard is that to say, you twit? But politeness is a tricky quality. Ideally it’s borne out of a belief in making life more pleasant and enjoyable for everyone, yet often it engenders so much anxiety and even outright conflict that it becomes more trouble than it’s worth. Some of the same people who decry the lack of politeness these days may be the same ones wondering where everyone’s sense of humor went—why are people so darned thin-skinned these days? Why does everybody get offended so easily? One person’s politeness is another’s inflexible adherence to stifling social conventions—or another’s understanding that not everyone sees the world the exact same way.

Am I making a mountain out of a jellyfish here? Perhaps. Ultimately, the takeaway here is small but resoundingly positive: I remember this particular moment because one thing that drew me to my husband is his no-nonsense decency, the fact that he is a kind person who tries to do right by people. That’s an important quality. He’s a keeper.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Staycating the premises

To celebrate our upcoming first wedding anniversary, K took some time off so we could go do fun stuff. Because the amount of disposable income we have is pathetically small (and the number of items still on our fixer-upper “to do” list is frighteningly large), we decided to keep the fun stuff local—very local, on many days, to the point of staycation. I am happy with this. Even though I work mostly at home already, I have no problem with doing my relaxing here as well. I wouldn’t go so far as to say my wanderlust days are a thing of the past, but I guess I’m at the point where I realize the grass isn’t always greener in a place that requires you to bring your passport. Being able to travel places is largely a matter of privilege; being a traveler, in the sense of being open to new experiences and willing to try new things, is largely a state of mind.

What’s more, there’s little need to travel to a far-flung land when your staycation coincides with a particularly ugly heatwave and you live in a decrepit old farmhouse with no A/C.

We turned on all the ceiling fans. They listlessly churned the hot air, turning the house into a giant convection oven. We opened all the windows, then closed some of them because not all of them had screens to keep out the bugs. We got out the portable A/C from our camper and set it up in the smallest room in the house, since it wasn’t very powerful. We put the dog in that room, went out and purchased another inexpensive window A/C and put it in our macaw room. That’s right, we gave the animals the A/C. The dog is very old and, after all, has to deal with this heat wearing a fur coat, while the macaws are fairly high maintenance in general and, after all, are wearing down jackets. K and I are middle-aged, mid-to-low maintenance on most days, and could walk around wearing very little, because if you have to live in an old farmhouse with no A/C, at least it’s out in the country where nobody can see you wandering around in your underwear and a sports bra stuffed with ice cubes.

Hot weather makes you not want to do anything, so of course we did everything. Our kitchen sink needed fixing, so K removed it. Then while it was removed we decided we might as well do our countertops in the bargain. We wanted to make concrete countertops, just because it was really cheap and went with the rustic look of the place (but mostly because it was really cheap), but even the streamlined process to make them required several layers of concrete, each of which had to be applied, smoothed, dried, and sanded before adding the next, after which point there would be sealant and waxing to do, all of which meant several days without a kitchen sink or usable countertops. We piled all our small appliances on top of the microwave so they could be plugged in and we carried our dirty dishes to the bathroom to be washed. As we’ve been saying since we moved here, it’s just like camping—but weirder.
When working indoors got too unbearable, we went outside, where it was equally scorching but at least we could get the occasional breeze, along with sunburn and bug bites. We put up a large canopy for our chickens so they could get a little more shade; they clustered under it with their beaks wide open, panting just like the dog, yet still running crazily through the heat whenever they saw me at the gate in hopes that I’d come bearing dried mealworms. K mowed the lawn, never a fun thing to do when it’s hot, even with a riding mower, because the reason we have a riding mower is our “lawn” is four acres. I meanwhile picked mulberries. We have mulberry trees that are bursting with fruit, most of which end up fermenting on the ground in big tarry piles. After I picked berries, the bottoms of my shoes would be caked with mulberry muck, which I’d then have to peel off like some icky, shoe-shaped Fruit Roll-up. When you have gallons of mulberries and it’s really hot and you’re on a staycation, naturally you turn on the stove and the oven and start Googling for recipes, because if you’re going to sweat yourself to death, you might as well have pancakes with homemade syrup as your last meal.

Oh, we did get out of our own zip code a few times during the week, to run and kayak and eat lots of food. We went back to the place where we had our first date as well as the place that catered our wedding picnic. We even went to a theater to see a relatively new movie, a rare occurrence for us, and decided that two hours in a cool, dark room watching Wonder Woman kicking ass all over the screen was well worth the loan we had to take out to afford the tickets and snacks. The country folks had a big night out on the town, by golly.

Some travelers note that you never appreciate how good you have it until you go somewhere that doesn’t have the kind of luxuries you take for granted. Others will observe that you never realize how easily you can get along without these things until you’re forced to. (Still others will say screw all that, I’m staying at a luxury resort where they fold the towels into animal shapes and the only thing I have to give up is my fear of being judged for eating three desserts.) Even though we mostly stayed home this week, it did feel a bit like we had traveled—but to another time rather than another place, back to a time before climate-controlled rooms and, given the number of times we lost satellite and internet due to storms, before we stared at screens all day. I can’t quite simplistically conclude that I appreciate “modern conveniences” more now, since I never didn’t appreciate them, or that I can easily and happily do without them—oh hell no; there’s a reason A/C was invented, and I never want to hear anyone say “everything but the kitchen sink” because kitchen sinks are pretty damned important. But I also can’t say I wish we’d gone to a luxury resort, because I don’t. This was a good week, and a very good year, for better and worse, in hot rooms and in kayaks, with mulberries and mowers and macaws.