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 driving on the road, reading and talking and eating healthy snacks, like roasted seaweed and cherries. We looked out of windows and took note of the changes in the landscape and compared things to other places we’d been. We pointed out interesting things to each 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 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..


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.
           There was nothing ominous about these dreams, the thing simply happens as it would in real life. It was the physicality of the event that was 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 minutes 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 decide 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 playing thumping music from tinny bluetooth boomboxes (or whatever it is people use to blast Pitbull 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 beaut, 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” call 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 makes 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 are cloaked in a delicate rosy hue, which creates such a lovely effect that they could be called beautiful instead of plains and sometimes everything is touched in blues and the land looks newly made.
          I don’t remember when I started feeling differently about the place, but I guess any place begins to feel special when enough time is spent in it, especially in 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 my own and 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 at 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?


To Cain

I still can’t quite believe that you’re gone. I’d always thought that we would meet up again some time in the future if I were ever in Vancouver, or maybe in China again, or wherever our paths might have crossed in this world in the future, as people do.

You were always kind. Always. I’ve never heard you speak uncharitably of someone. You were probably one of the sweetest people I’ve ever known. You were certainly one of the most earnest and honest – so much so that I didn’t really know what to make of you at first, and for a long time. I remember the night I first met you, you were so different, and everything that came out of your mouth was so serious and almost uncomfortably heartfelt that I didn’t know what to make of it, because most people aren’t like that. I remember you telling me that your parents had named you Cain after Cain in the bible because they thought God had been unfair to Cain, and I remember thinking that anecdote seemed to perfectly sum you up in a way I couldn’t quite explain. I still feel that.

The more I got to know you, the longer we were friends, the more I realized that you really were just one of those people who seemed incapable of being false or insincere. When you were, you seemed ill at ease, uncomfortable. You seemed to deeply mean everything you said, and the things you said were always life-affirming, thoughtful, and heartfelt. You had a way of speaking that made me feel like I was of value, that I mattered in this world, that I was a force of good. I have no doubt you also made your students feel this way, which is perhaps one of the most important things a teacher can do for a student. Almost every conversation I had with you were conducted in terms that were epic and philosophical and metaphysical that it bordered on being humorous; it was almost funny how incredibly sincere you always were, how holistic and interconnected your worldview was.

I wish I had told you more what a talented writer you were. I remember reading the beginning of your novel, and listening to all the writing pieces you’d share during our little writing group meetings. Your writing was so distinctly you, so bursting with life and intensity that it felt like you had poured absolutely everything about yourself in your writing, and I remember how I had envied your ability to be so unafraid and unfiltered on paper.

These past few days, I keep remembering things about you, conversations we had, the way you looked when you were happy or sad about something. I remember the long walk we took along the boardwalk that night in those last few days in China when almost everyone had left for the summer already. I am grateful for that memory and for all the things you shared with me about your life. If there had to be a last memory, I am glad that that was ours.

You were a good man and a good friend, probably a better friend to me than I was to you. I wish I had been a better friend. I wish what happened hadn’t happened. I wish I had made it more clear to you that you were of value, that you mattered in this world and in my life, and that you were a force of good in this world.

I don’t know if there is an afterlife, and I can’t remember if you believed in one, but it seems like something you would’ve believed in. I hope that wherever you are, you are at peace.