Monday, February 25, 2008

The Monkey King

In every really loving relationship there is always that moment when you realize you like each other very much. For me it came scrunched onto a small couch with three or so other people (maybe?) one of whose pulse I could feel against my arm every time her heart beat. It was the middle of summer at a conference in the mountains of Pennsylvania, no air-conditioning and very hot and sweaty – particularly right then. Smashed up against her I knew right then that she liked me and I thought I liked her very much.

She was smart, brilliant really; and mystifying in the way she left herself so unexplainable. When giving a speech on my travels to China in front of several hundred people , I thought about not being nervous because I knew she liked me and she was more impressive than anyone else in the room. Why worry about what anyone else thinks when you have her right beside you with her arm right there against yours. I still feel that way. No matter who I fail to convince I know she still thinks I’m alright to sit beside.

It is nice to impress other people though particularly when you are surrounded by brilliant people so much of the time like I am in my graduate courses where people publish academic articles in five languages and I’m still struggling to do it in one. I may impress a professor or two with some small bit of diligence but they'll never like me for-real like my little Nvwa does. So when I give Jennifer a snide response to her advice to stop drinking coffee if I want to sleep a few hours later, or tell her to do whatever she wants (i.e. I don’t care. Stop babbling. You don’t really matter) when she comments on the durability, but aesthetic failure, of some small article of her clothing when we are folding laundry, I’m really asking for a big disaster. I still need Jennifer squashed up on my side telling me I’m ok, because I’ve never loved anyone so much.

Monday, February 18, 2008


It’s a rainy morning with a solid gray and warm sky. Jennifer just woke up, twenty-eight years old and bleary eyed. I’m listening to Sting sing the grey English poems of John Dowland and trying to think of pithy things to write, biding my time for the opening of H&R Block so that our married and filing jointly tax break might be had and not worried about. This past weekend has been a fun one. We went to Angelica Kitchen and had the best vegetarian birthday party for Jennifer ever – that’s what she kept repeating. (I made her say it.) The basic vegetables doused in subtle sauces after some deeply flavored kimchi gave us both nice warm full feelings. And we watched Michael Moore's not that new but very nicely flavored ideas on health care: I'm glad he does what he does and hope he can soon move on to another less obvious battle.

The other day on my way home from my Chinese class at the China Institute at 65th Street and Lex I saw and heard a Spaniard playing really beautiful flamenco on a nylon-strung guitar in the train station and I thought I would miss this when I leave New York and go to China or Alaska or wherever. Actually the latest possibility at some point is Seattle since they have the best doctoral program in China-centric Anthropology. We’re going to check it out in May when we go on an expedition up the northwest of North America from Washington to Anchorage maybe.

Things are steadily getting back to normal after our Asiatic breakout. Work. Sleep. School. Being Married. The time goes by and we smile most of the time. Our home is as clean as it has ever been in the past year or so – nothing like a visit from relatives to help get things into shape. I like that, the idea of putting things away when you don’t need to use them and otherwise eradicating the things which are not useful at all. I hope this is the new normal.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Bylers in New York

"They say Jamaicans can’t play Hava Nagila but that’s not true,” the man said, spitting out the words in the rolling staccato of a man from the island. My uncle leaned over and whispered a request for a gospel hymn. And the Rastafarian began beating out “How Great Thou Art” on his double-tenor steelpans making the whole subway station ring like a church bell turned inside out. A middle-aged cultural tourist began squeezing off a few potshots at my seven cousins from Northern Minnesota in their homemade dresses and big family ways.

As the next verse began, my uncle Dawson, following the spirit of his father, Smiley Byler, strode up to the musician and with his arm raised in operatic gesture let loose the words all of us old Mennonites have stuffed away in our brains: hymns of love and hope written by men and women who lived through Great Revivals and personal trials. It was good to have Dawson here, to show him where his brother lived and died, where I work and live, and the people I know and love. It was fun to have a whole family of curious people around to soak up anything new and to give you spontaneous hugs when they are ready to leave. It’s good to know that still have family out there even if I don’t see them too much and they love me and what I am.

I like herding a group of little girls and boys onto a train, into a Bangladeshi restaurant, through an art museum, and into a one-bedroom apartment. I didn’t hear one person complain about the strange food or hard floors – though I don’t think Terrill is nuts over Indian spices. I would be crazy not to be proud to call these slightly chilled-rens my cousins and I hope they come back here and take my place when I’m gone. We could use more sincere, good-hearted people around here to show us how to take care of the little ones and smile at us harder ones. And besides, I like little Bylers.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Hydrocephalitic Newsomness

I surprised Jennifer and she liked it. Jennifer does not like surprises. But yesterday when the doorman said “This way for Joanna Newsom” when we stepped into the white marble of the Brooklyn Academy of Music Jennifer was happy. Of course, I know Jennifer would be happy because she thinks listening to Joanna Newsom sing is “so decadent,” almost too great, because she likes her so much. I like her too, so I was happy to plunk down the money for the tickets (claiming them as birthday presents) and brave the sold-out crowd of hipsters swilling bourbon out of stowed away flasks.

The concert was good. Joanna played her harp and sang like a Nevada City whippoorwill nibbling at exotic mushrooms. And I miss hearing her right now real hard. She reminded everyone listening that Barack Obama is running for president this next Tuesday and that a banjo, harp, and violin sound nice together when only one woman sings. She sang with grace and discipline, flying fingers, and that transcendent symphony of solid sounds plunking on top of each other like linkin’ logs fitting just right. It’s the kind of enchantment that can make time cease to matter and energy flow in particles and waves. It’s nice to link up with that sort of train of laments and exclamations for a while and cut through the ice and snow like a desperate locomotive in Jiangsu Province and lean into the person next to you and away from the hormonally disturbed man on the other side of you and be content to be 26 or 28 and no where near your illusory destination.

The most important thing is to not mind being tired; or, another way, trying not to be grumpy. Grumpiness is what makes people mad and no fun. So just be tired and sad and hopeful and try to practice Chinese when you can. It’s the best thing for it other than going to bed.

If you would like to see the official Chinese Communist Party perspective on the place Jennifer and I were just living in click here.