Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Chinese in the car

It took a trip to Ohio to remind me how much I love Chinese – what we call Zhongwen. The expansive miles of mega-churches and fields laced with high fructose corn syrup flew by as the brush in my friend Chad’s hand began to talk of the interweaving threads of silk which form a social system in the Chinese ideogramology, the complexity of the self or wo as the competing forces of the “I” and the “me” are combined into a single subject, and the simple potentiality of the radical for wood – a substance defined by its potential for being of use.

The practice of Chinese puts me in a mood of fascination with the twisting complexity of human thought over multiple millennia. The ultra-stability and inscrutability of the Asian mind is revealed as deeply patterned, a logic of tea ceremonies and compartmentalized bitter-sweet aesthetics. This language has so much to offer in terms of ethics, morality and beauty – a way of being in the world that is perhaps incommensurate with English but yet at the same time on a micro level, knowable, as an ocean of currents and plankton stretching toward an infinite inevitable horizon under the glassy eye of the zealous student. There is so much nuance, so much dynamism – this is the language of a settled, civil society bounded by the logic of poetics and nature.

Chinese seems like an enormous project. I strain to hear what the xiaojie(s) from Shanghai across the way are casually flipping back and forth. There is so much to learn and know – so many new and different ways of thinking in concepts and abstractions. But if I can remember to love the language, like my friend Chad, that is a start – a vocation worthy of a following, ha, or a journey without end – a Kierkegaardian leap perhaps. An overturning of the self, a constant unknowing and a passionate way of passing the time in a trance-like flipping of pages and stroking of ideas.
The character for the self, wo, is made of two hands clutching lances in opposition to each other, the dialectic of the I and the me.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Singing Along

Last night I had the strangest dream
I’d ever dreamed before
I dreamed the world had all agreed
To put an end to war

Last night Pete Seeger told that story with so much exuberance that I almost believed the war that was weighing so heavily on his mind when he first sang this song was the war without end our government is currently fighting. But Pete is 88 (he said his voice isn’t what it used to be); the war that inspired this song took place almost 40 years ago, back when Pete was plucking his banjo with relentless fury. Yet his smile, the way he lifts his head high when he belts out his now old-timey tunes, the way he waves his hand in deference when I nervously tell him I’ve find his music inspiring and I just wanted to say “Hi, Pete,” all that remains unchanged; that’s timeless and tireless Pete Seeger.

The old men behind us who have been listening to Pete all there lives still sing along earnestly. We all did, under the shadow of the United Nations Building in Dag Hammarskjöld’s Plaza. For a moment, for an evening, we were all true believers. If we could all live 88 years in the same way as Pete has, we would see the end of war.

Jennifer says social change takes time and struggle. 88 years ago who would have thought that the little black man I escorted around the museum tonight would make $34 per hour more than me cleaning up sheetrock that falls to the floor when they put in pipes; and 88 years before that everyone in America thought slavery would last forever. Maybe war is more of a game of egoism than a necessity for human survival. Maybe someday we won’t have to study war no more even here if we make a new sort of kingdom come. Maybe someday the money we spend on weapons of destruction will be spent on building civil society. Pete Seeger believes and I want to too.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Smiling Under Ohio’s Lights

I spent this past weekend with Shannon, Sonya, Dustan, Dorvan, Sheri, Sheila, Donavan and Sophia – my brothers and sisters – as well as my assorted in-laws, niece and nephews, wife, and mother and father. It was nice to all be home – filling out the old brick and peeling-siding house at 16455 Dover Rd.

Jennifer said she felt like being pregnant after watching Shannon and Sonya pad about hands on hips, their toddlers filling their pants, enjoying the open spaces Ohio has to offer outdoors – trying for the creek whenever their mother’s backs were turned. I played basketball with Dustan and Dorvan who are decidedly more athletic, taller, but less “muscular.” If I planted myself in the lane, refused to call the fouls I committed and traveled just enough to get around people but not to be noticed, it seemed as though I was holding my own. Although even when I got an open shot, I couldn’t make it, even with our ultra-forgiving rim.

My mom’s gardens looked like the gardens of Eden according to Jennifer – all green and flowering. We brought some of her tomatoes home with us (along with enough strawberries and corn to fill our freezer) and they are good. Like the food my mom fed us – rich and fresh, home-made, inspiring, tempting restraint.

My Dad was happy to tell us about his recent adventures in Central Europe, collecting artifacts from heavily-bearded, religious men, touring medieval cities.

The ususal tales were told of my slovenly past – my lack of assistance in changing Dustan’s diapers and yet claiming $2-per-hour babysitting wages. I enjoy these depreciating remarks; like my Shannon’s appraisal of my newly established quasi-comb-over. I may not see my family much, but when we do see each other it quickly becomes apparent that we are family. No honesty or emotive ability is spared as the characteristics of the lives we live are parsed and harangued. We love each other and it shows in the amount of time in which we linger about the dinner table – making each other squirm from the scrutiny, laugh at our failings, and dream about a world in which our politics match and our world views coincide. We are a family when we come home to the big house and the time “out-there” where we live stops as much as the Freightliners keep rolling by on Route 250 and Uri (P.) Gingerich’s corn grows up again in the same what that Mahlin, Uri’s father, is always made to say in heavily accented English: “Darren, You lay-zee boy . . . ”