Sunday, February 22, 2009

Harlan's Haircut
Harlan cuts his hair 13 times per year. Each time he brings his greying beard or goatee (however it may be manifested) down to a (#1) greying stubble. He attaches combs measured to the millimeter to his electric trimmer and systematically sweeps through his hair, filling a dust-pane nicely in less than 5 minutes. Relative to most men, Harlan is highly efficient and self-sufficient. Give him some well made tools and some hard wood and he will make you something with dove tails and tongues and groves all held together by polished wooden pins or something. Or give him some average looking tiles and he will turn them into odd assymetrical forms set in carefully balanced patterns. As we can see in this picture though, Harlan will not be satisfied with his succinct haircut without Marilyn’s help. None of us would be satisfied without help from others. When we reach the limits of self-sufficiency (which is often) our helplessness and frustration drive us to seek satisfaction from others. All of us, even Harlan - the classic independent man, need help. It seems as though we can either be intrigued with or resent life for doing this to us. In the end, we can become more or less competent, but not less helpless.
Last weekend we flew into New York on a Jet Blue airplane, we slept in late on an air mattress enjoying the natural gloom of a subterranean apartment, we played helplessly with Eve and Eden, practiced our Spanish with them and let them satisfy our desire to laugh and cling to instinctual words and actions. We crammed into the Barnharts’ ageing teal Honda hatchback and laughed at each other, talked about what we thought, what we saw or didn’t see, and why we imagine we do what we do. We didn’t need to wish for the desirable to happen we just had to wait for it to occur.
We have friends who fill out certain needs in our lives that are hard to define but easy to feel. Traveling and observing the world, living a well-balanced life alone in the sunshine is very fulfilling in ways – but it remains incomplete at least for now. We still need friends with which we share funny stories and quirky dreams and who call us uncle and aunt when they talk about us to their children.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Like Babushkas

Since we moved to California a month or so ago Jennifer and I have started sleeping on the same schedule up in our loft on a mattress which we removed from our sofa in sleeping bags made for camping in sub-zero weather. Sometimes though when I get enthralled with the last bits of Top Chef (which I watch while Jennifer takes her shower) she manages to get up there ahead of me. She falls asleep fast these days slipping towards dreams about handing out ice cream or maybe drugs like Nurse Ratched in her nursing home.

The rituals of falling asleep are largely a part of our bodily unconscious. We brush our teeth, shower or not, floss or not, put on comfortable clothes or take them off and gradually reverse the process of awakening without structure or plan (this is sort of the whole point of falling asleep). The owl of Minerva takes flight at dusk, or so Hegel said; we think a bit about our day and worry about the next. And sink under consciousness into an ocean of sleep where the light sources grow dim and fractured. Now that Jennifer is entering into her 29th year I’ve started to inter-view her during these risky liminal moments between consciousness and sleep when the night is lit with fireflies or stars from the day just past.

When I rustle into my sleeping bag beside her she murmurs a contented sigh and flops out her arm without fail: whacking me in the head because I’m trying to pull up the stuck zipper. I usually ask her what she is thinking about and she says something about the nursing home or one of her friends: Bethanie, Olivia or Marilyn. Sometimes I ask her to tell me a joke. And she tries, really hard, mumbling something unintelligible. I tell her I didn’t understand her and she tries again, making me laugh harder, which makes her realize that she is the joke and then she whacks me again, this time on purpose, and turns over burrowing into her bed looking for the clock which beeps that horrible sound at 6:30.

Our physical experience of the world affects in a direct way the way we live and are in the world. For instance as M. Taussig has recently pointed out, though all of us know the earth spins we also all know in our bones that the sun rises and sets and that those times are special times for spinning out metaphors, drinking away our sorrows, and lying in bed with those we love. I like Jennifer a lot right then, more than ever really. It’s sort of like what Urie Sharp used to call “muscle memory” when we were singing in the choir, we realize what we naturally love and should do as we drift off to sleep, not thinking, not planning, not trying to remember the right words; like Balanchine we “hear the dance and see the music” and know somehow that right then we are living in the best of all possible worlds.

Monday, February 09, 2009


In the Sun Like a Seal

I’m sitting on our magical Guatemalan blanket the color of Peruvian gold on a beach of small shells and miniscule stones listening to the on-going thudding roar of most of the earth. Jennifer is lying on her stomach beside me in red and purple plaid reading an old issue of the New Yorker and poking at small hopping insects the color of the ocean of sand around us. In front of us is California’s largest coral reef which offers silent rippling pools for hermit crabs, sea urchins, and deathly still jelly fish. A little nut is rolling across the sand toward us pushed by the wind from China.

I’m taking a little break from reading Julia Kristeva’s journal About Chinese Women circa 1974. We brought with us as we usually do on weekend excursions into California’s flora and fauna a crusty loaf of San Francisco Sour Dough, some cheese from Monterey and bright green apples. Other than the occasional shriek of sea gulls and surprised children, the ocean is the only sound. We’ll lay here for the afternoon and be glad that Olivia is coming to see us in a few weeks giving us an excuse to come back.

On page 12 Julia Kristeva offers me the term jouissance as a word for which there is no suitable English equivalent. Instead there is a definition which announces the simultaneity of organic and symbolic, material and ideal, pleasure of the speaking human subject. For a slightly confused Marxian Anarchist (not to mention Mennonite Humanist) such a term makes me wish I was French. But I’m not, I’m an American man sitting with my legs crossed on a beach watching the world roar and spin around. “Do you wish you were a sea lion or a seal and could live here forever?” Jennifer asks. “Yeah.”

Monday, February 02, 2009

Stress Time
I just sat through an hour-long dictation from my purple-haired Chinese pedagogue. I sharpened 5 pencils just in case. Hours and hours of memorization and hand-numbing finger cramping were also involved. My Cantonese and Fujanese speaking classmates didn’t seem too excited about the test. They had been writing these characters since they were 5 year-olds after all. Only the three white people, as they call us, seemed tense.
Chun Laoshi was nice today. She wasn’t too insulted by our ignorance or overly shrill. She waited for me if I gave her a panicked look, and repeated what she just said with only a slightly abrasive scolding.
My characters might be a little rushed and sloppy, but I think I got them right otherwise (dui rather than bu dui like usual). I’ll find out tomorrow, when the grapes of wrath will be flung at all of us I’m sure. It made me feel a little better when my Cantonese speaking classmate who sits next to me muttered, “I did terrible on that!” and showed me his half blank paper.
So I know I wasn’t the worst in the class, and that makes this white boy smile a little.