Arizona tripping

          My dad decided last minute that the Grand Canyon would be a good place to celebrate my mom’s birthday, so he took a week off from work, rented a car, and the three of us set off for Arizona on the first family trip we’ve taken together in a decade.
          We spent the first few days on the road, driving and reading and talking and eating healthy snacks, like roasted seaweed and cherries. We looked out windows and took note of big and small changes in the landscape and compared them to other places we’d been. We pointed out interesting things to one another, like fields of giant wind turbines, or groves of fat, oddly-shaped cacti. Lunch and dinner were quick unfussy affairs, taken near highway exits close to highway onramps, each one of our American diner-booth meals feeling like an unceremonious celebration of the distance we’d traveled and a reminder of the miles left to go. We drove hours through desert on a slim road that distended before us like a long black string rolled out indefinitely, a sliver of black afloat the dry, empty red land that seemed to stretch beyond and on in all directions of us for as far as the eye could see. Endless, is how everything in the desert feels.  >> Continue reading..


China problems

          Open Source recently aired an episode on China, entitled, “Can China Lead?” discussing the politics of China’s new president, Xi Jin Ping, and various other social and economic issues Westerners always talk about when they talk about China. Curiously, they did not talk about the environment, but I suppose there’s only so many things you can cover in 50 minutes.
          One of the most interesting points Lydon brings up in the program is the disparity between the amount of hard power China holds in the world, and the amount of soft power. To elaborate, Lydon airs an excerpt of an interview conducted last summer in Beijing with Chinese-American writer and heavy-metal musician, Kaiser Kuo, who describes China’s relationship to the rest of world with an analogy that works so perfectly on so many levels that I laughed out loud when I heard it, then ran home and looked him up to read more of his brilliance. This is what Kuo says in the interview:
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Dreams of teeth and feet

           Lately I’ve been having strange and vivid dreams about various parts of my body, each part in isolation. I rarely ever have body dreams except for ones about my teeth falling out, which recur every few months. The variations on these are endless. Sometimes I notice that my teeth are decaying at an astonishing rate, each tooth growing wobblier by the half hour, their roots visibly festering in a dark mess. Once I dreamed that my jaw had shifted somehow so that every time I closed my mouth, my teeth ground against each other in a way that was shaking them loose, and in the dream I spent three days trying keeping my mouth open for fear of aggravating the situation. But it never mattered in the end how much effort I made, or how distraught I was, because all my teeth would fall out anyway, one by one, until none were left.
           They aren’t nightmares exactly, because there was nothing ominous about these dreams. The thing simply happens as it would in real life – it is the physicality of the event that is the sole fixation of my attention. Every twinge of pain, every physical sensation would be so keenly felt, so viscerally affecting that I remember waking up one morning and touching all of my teeth in turn with my fingers while examining each one in the mirror; I wanted to make sure they were in fact all intact.
           Someone told me long ago that dreaming about teeth meant I was anxious about something, which makes sense. These days, my subconscious has set teeth aside and moved on to hands, feet, bellybuttons. A few days ago, I dreamed that my hair was somehow typing itself into tight little knots all over until every strand on my head was bent at odd angles, and there was nothing I could do to unknot them, I couldn’t even run a comb through.
           Last night, I dreamed that a spongy off-white substance began emerging from of the soles of my feet the way mold sprouts from bread. It looked and felt just like the white pith around an orange. I was worried that the spongy white substance was growing, so I began checking the bottoms of my feet every 10 minutes, and every time I looked, the white substance would appear thicker. I stopped looking after a while, and then I tried to forget it altogether until finally, after some undefined period of time that could’ve been a few hours or a few months, I looked down and saw that both of my feet were now completely covered in the soft white mold.


Morning rituals

          I can’t settle on whether to call them mountains or hills, but I live about 5 minutes away from the in-between clusters that make up the Mission Peak Regional Preserve. The elevation of the peaks reaches roughly 2100 feet, or 640 meters, and on a day as open and blue as today’s, you can see clear to San Francisco from the summit.
           The most popular trail in the park is the Stanford, which has become uncomfortably congested over the years with hikers blasting thumping music from tinny bluetooth boomboxes (or whatever it is people use to create a house party wherever they go). I always take the Ohlone trail, though even that one seems to be growing in visitors by the month; I used to meet no one in the mornings and now I see a few on my way up and even more on my way down.
           I’d always thought the park was rather ugly, and declared once to a friend years ago that the only reason anyone climbs Mission Peak at all must be for the physical challenge, because there was nothing else to recommend it. The whole park is plain and austere in that way: aside from one briefly wooded area on the Ohlone trail that ends far too quickly, there are few distractions of beauty, or even shade along the entire course. The Stanford side is even more barren, its trail ascending steadily at an unremitting incline with nothing but hard dirt and boomboxing hikers for company, endlessly rising upward in the middle of what feels like nothing and nowhere. Most of the year, the mountains (or hills) aren’t even green because the whole area is so bare and exposed that the sun turns all the crackled green grass yellow by March or April, matching the clouds of dust kicked up by sweaty hikers with reddening necks.
          But it is good exercise, and since I hate basically all other forms of exercise, I decided about half a year ago to start getting up early every morning to go hiking there. It would still be dark as I ate breakfast standing by the kitchen counter, and then I would drive the 5 minutes to the trail and step out into the empty world, still warm from sleep. It would be so quiet up there in the mornings, the air crisp and fresh. Sometimes I listened to music or podcasts, and sometimes I walked in silence. I always felt happy to be there.
          The reason I vacillate between “hills” and “mountains” is because “mountains” beckon forth images of formidable monoliths made from rock and stone, and these mountainous hills, or hillous mountains feel soft and mild to me, their golden green grass winking in the sunlight, smooth and rolling as a marble, and it is only until you reach near the top that the terrain turns jagged with rocks and edges.
           I began noticing after about a week (or was it a month?) that the hills take on all different kinds of shades and moods depending on light and atmosphere, which made me think of Monet’s paintings of the Rouen Cathedral in all the varying tones and hues of morning, night, and the hours in between. Sometimes, the hills would be cloaked in a delicate rosy hue, which has such a lovely effect that they could almost be called beautiful instead of plain, and sometimes everything would be touched in blues and the day would feel newly made.
           I don’t remember when I started feeling differently about the place, but I suppose anywhere begins to feel special when enough time is spent in it – and this is especially true when the time spent is during those very early or late hours of the day that hold its dwellers within a glow of intimacy. I know that at some point those mountains began to feel like they were mine, and that at another point, the trail and the surrounding hills were as familiar to me as a friend you look at one day and wonder how there could’ve been a time that you’d looked upon them with indifference.
           There are some mornings when the sky would be overcast, and a thick blanket of fog would spread, covering the mountains, wrapping around the trees, and the path before me would disappear like an evaporating dream. Condensation would cling to strands of my hair, making them wet to the touch, which always surprised me, because the mist would always appear like some translucent ghost, solid and whole in its formation.
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A hypothetical

          Years of trial and error and error and error have finally taught A how to be kind, but nothing else matters to A except B. A takes great pains when speaking to B these days, reform present in every look and breath. B can feel the effort, but bristles at any small lapses of judgment, and ends up screaming at A for minor offenses. A is quiet during these wrathful tirades, but never angry. There is only forbearance now, but that only seems to make B angrier.

          Yet still, A only speaks to B in tones soft and eager. Yet still, A is patient. So quick to smile now, always generous in mood. Every day, A offers jokes with tired beseeching eyes to B who does not smile back.

          There was a time when forgiveness had been as freely granted from B as it was forgotten by A until finally the sensation had lost its meaning and disillusionment came in its stead. A is no exception to any rule. Neither is B, but that is another story.


The Juniper Tree

Illustration of The Juniper Tree, by Maurice Sendak

          I’ve been reading Philip Pullman’s translation of Grimm’s fairy tales, which includes one of my favorites, The Juniper Tree. I remember reading the story when I was very young, and finding it so grotesque and disturbing that I read it again and again, entranced by its violent savagery. Then I forgot about it, the way people do with things they read when they’re little.
          It wasn’t until about a year ago that I rediscovered the story in a book of folk tales sitting dusty on the shelves of a high school library in China. The strange dark twists of the plot were as primal and mysterious as I remembered, and the whole story was like some deliciously dreadful nightmare you thought you’d forgotten but had been crouching in the corner of your mind all along. There were new and surprising things in it as well – tones and details that I hadn’t noticed as a child, like how elegiac the story is in its grief. One passage in particular, at the very beginning of the story, is especially poetic, where the progress of the mother’s pregnancy is entwined with the passing of the seasons. It is so beautifully done that I stopped to reread it several more times before moving on. Before I left China for good, I went back to the library with my computer and typed out the passage so I would always have it.
          I thought of that document again when I read Pullman’s version. I like Pullman very much, and he seemed particularly well-suited to the task of revising sinister fairy tales. I was especially eager to see what he would do with The Juniper Tree after reading his notes on the story, because he had singled out that same passage that had struck me, describing it as “wonderful,” and one of the few tasks of translation where there was “little any teller of this tale can do to improve [the original.]” Perhaps it was that reverence that made his translation feel so plain in the end, but I found it disappointingly lacking. It made me go to my computer to dig up that old document. The edition I’d found in the library had been very old, and I have no idea who did the translations; I was curious to see if I’d simply remembered incorrectly, and that maybe I wouldn’t feel anything after reading the words this time. But I had not remembered wrong, and I was still moved.

Here is the passage in its entirety, as once transcribed at a high school library, by yours truly:
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Practice and promise

           For awhile in February, I wrote something every day about some part of the day. Amusing or dull, careful or glib, brief or lengthy – anything was fine as long as it was something. A few days of the exercise were enough to produce a feeling of accomplishment that follows any good effort that is daily, and this one was especially satisfying, not only for the tidy collection of memories I would’ve otherwise forgotten had I not written them down, but also for the simple practice of writing every day in some fixed manner.
           Naturally, the experiment came to an unceremonious end after two-ish weeks, which is about the average lifespan of all my attempts at being consistent with anything edifying in this fool life of mine. Such is the price of being a chronically unfocused and graciously self-forgiving person.
           A month has passed since, and as situation and luck would have it, I find myself with the luxury of time in these coming months to do what I please. I would like to spend the time writing more and regularly, and one outlet for the practice will be this dusty blog. The open and public nature of a blog will help keep me honest in matters of promise-keeping and more accountable in terms of discipline. That’s the theory of the arrangement, anyway.
           And so, I declare my resolution: I will write something (relatively) substantial in this blog 2-3 times a week. (I just realized with some embarrassment that I would be doubling the total number of posts that currently exist on this blog that I’ve had for 3 years in about a month.) I will designate the days to be every Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday. Or maybe just Tuesday and Friday. Okay, Tuesdays and Fridays for sure, and Wednesdays when I can, which hopefully will be every time, but who knows.
           There. I have it down now in letters, which makes the wish as good as any binding contractual agreement between me and myself. This, admittedly, would be worth very little indeed if history is to be any kind of judge in life, but luckily history plays no judge in my life, and so here we all are – brand new people in this freshly minted world. Promises abound.

Till tomorrow! (Or maybe Friday).

P.S. I’ve been reading a lot of Jane Austen lately, can you tell?