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.

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