Wednesday, September 10, 2014

inorganic lemonade

Been a while. Hope you've been doing great. Here are two things I've been working on, both attempts to teach myself music production through trial and error.

The first is an unfinished synth etude with only two chords (E minor and D major7).  Not a complete song, just futzing around for a few hours. 

Lesson learned: a little sound can go so far in electronic music. The formula:
  • simple sine wave repeating theme (the octave leaping clear tone)
  • staccato saw wave synth playing ornamentation (high "tip tip tip" sound, just improvising on the chord notes)
  • slow tremolo strings with long attack and decay playing four-note chords
  • synth acoustic bass sound
  • synth drumset (only the kick drum and closed high hat strike sound, playing simple rock beat)
  • synth brass harmonizing the vocal track
  • nonsense vocals + nonsense vocal harmony

If you isolate each element you need no more than basic skills on the keyboard to play each one. 

The second is a song for M's sister's daughters, on the occasion of the birth of the younger.  She's the blurry blob in the extreme foreground.

I recorded this about six months ago. Things I'm happy with: use of brass sounds and transition to ska section; catchiness and age appropriateness.  (I recently sang the song with the older girl! She sang along with all the repeating parts!) Things I'm dissatisfied with: my inability to find the pitch with my voice, poor mixing, overlay on certain frequencies muddying the sound. 

Friday, January 04, 2013

two short stories

While churning my legs on the spin bike tonight, I read two short stories recently recommended to me by friends. I'm recommending both to you.

Both are science fictiony because they describe events that can't actually happen. But neither fit the genre perfectly.

The first is George Saunder's "The Semplica-Girls Diaries," published in the New Yorker a few months ago. It's a Keeping up with the Joneses story told from the perspective of an untrustworthy narrator (a father in a suburban family) with a voice is so dumb and excitable that you don't notice when the twist sneaks up on you. Here's an excerpt - the story is too long to post in entirety:
Very depressing birthday party today at home of Lilly’s friend Leslie Torrini. 
House is mansion where Lafayette once stayed. Torrinis showed us Lafayette’s room: now their “Fun Den.” Plasma TV, pinball game, foot massager. Thirty acres, six garages (they call them “outbuildings”): one for Ferraris (three), one for Porsches (two, plus one he is rebuilding), one for historical merry-go-round they are restoring as family (!). Across trout-stocked stream, red Oriental bridge flown in from China. Showed us hoofmark from some dynasty. In front room, near Steinway, plaster cast of hoofmark from even earlier dynasty, in wood of different bridge. Picasso autograph, Disney autograph, dress Greta Garbo once wore, all displayed in massive mahogany cabinet. 
Vegetable garden tended by guy named Karl. 
Lilly: Wow, this garden is like ten times bigger than our whole yard. 
Flower garden tended by separate guy, weirdly also named Karl. 
Lilly: Wouldn’t you love to live here? 
Me: Lilly, ha-ha, don’t ah . . . 
Pam (my wife, very sweet, love of life!): What, what is she saying wrong? Wouldn’t you? Wouldn’t you love to live here? I know I would. 
In front of house, on sweeping lawn, largest SG arrangement ever seen, all in white, white smocks blowing in breeze, and Lilly says, Can we go closer?
The other story is Ken Liu's "Paper Menagerie," which apparently is the first work of fiction to win all three of science fiction's major awards. It is nominally about origami animals that come to life, but the treatment of the fantastical is matter-of-fact, and the real story is about the consequences of a hapa boy growing up in a place where he feels unwilling to express the Chinese part of his identity. Beware emotional tumult: it was an interesting experience to be huffing and puffing and sweating and crying on the spin bike.

"Paper Menagerie"

by Ken Liu
One of my earliest memories starts with me sobbing. I refused to be soothed no matter what Mom and Dad tried.
Dad gave up and left the bedroom, but Mom took me into the kitchen and sat me down at the breakfast table.
"Kan, kan," she said, as she pulled a sheet of wrapping paper from on top of the fridge. For years, Mom carefully sliced open the wrappings around Christmas gifts and saved them on top of the fridge in a thick stack.
She set the paper down, plain side facing up, and began to fold it. I stopped crying and watched her, curious.
She turned the paper over and folded it again. She pleated, packed, tucked, rolled, and twisted until the paper disappeared between her cupped hands. Then she lifted the folded-up paper packet to her mouth and blew into it, like a balloon.
"Kan," she said. "Laohu." She put her hands down on the table and let go.
A little paper tiger stood on the table, the size of two fists placed together. The skin of the tiger was the pattern on the wrapping paper, white background with red candy canes and green Christmas trees.
I reached out to Mom's creation. Its tail twitched, and it pounced playfully at my finger. "Rawrr-sa," it growled, the sound somewhere between a cat and rustling newspapers.
I laughed, startled, and stroked its back with an index finger. The paper tiger vibrated under my finger, purring.
"Zhe jiao zhezhi," Mom said. This is called origami.
I didn't know this at the time, but Mom's kind was special. She breathed into them so that they shared her breath, and thus moved with her life. This was her magic.
Dad had picked Mom out of a catalog.
One time, when I was in high school, I asked Dad about the details. He was trying to get me to speak to Mom again.
He had signed up for the introduction service back in the spring of 1973. Flipping through the pages steadily, he had spent no more than a few seconds on each page until he saw the picture of Mom.
I've never seen this picture. Dad described it: Mom was sitting in a chair, her side to the camera, wearing a tight green silk cheongsam. Her head was turned to the camera so that her long black hair was draped artfully over her chest and shoulder. She looked out at him with the eyes of a calm child.
"That was the last page of the catalog I saw," he said.
The catalog said she was eighteen, loved to dance, and spoke good English because she was from Hong Kong. None of these facts turned out to be true.
He wrote to her, and the company passed their messages back and forth. Finally, he flew to Hong Kong to meet her.
"The people at the company had been writing her responses. She didn't know any English other than 'hello' and 'goodbye.'"
What kind of woman puts herself into a catalog so that she can be bought? The high school me thought I knew so much about everything. Contempt felt good, like wine.
Instead of storming into the office to demand his money back, he paid a waitress at the hotel restaurant to translate for them.
"She would look at me, her eyes halfway between scared and hopeful, while I spoke. And when the girl began translating what I said, she'd start to smile slowly."
He flew back to Connecticut and began to apply for the papers for her to come to him. I was born a year later, in the Year of the Tiger.
At my request, Mom also made a goat, a deer, and a water buffalo out of wrapping paper. They would run around the living room while Laohu chased after them, growling. When he caught them he would press down until the air went out of them and they became just flat, folded-up pieces of paper. I would then have to blow into them to re-inflate them so they could run around some more.
Sometimes, the animals got into trouble. Once, the water buffalo jumped into a dish of soy sauce on the table at dinner. (He wanted to wallow, like a real water buffalo.) I picked him out quickly but the capillary action had already pulled the dark liquid high up into his legs. The sauce-softened legs would not hold him up, and he collapsed onto the table. I dried him out in the sun, but his legs became crooked after that, and he ran around with a limp. Mom eventually wrapped his legs in saran wrap so that he could wallow to his heart's content (just not in soy sauce).
Also, Laohu liked to pounce at sparrows when he and I played in the backyard. But one time, a cornered bird struck back in desperation and tore his ear. He whimpered and winced as I held him and Mom patched his ear together with tape. He avoided birds after that.
And then one day, I saw a TV documentary about sharks and asked Mom for one of my own. She made the shark, but he flapped about on the table unhappily. I filled the sink with water, and put him in. He swam around and around happily. However, after a while he became soggy and translucent, and slowly sank to the bottom, the folds coming undone. I reached in to rescue him, and all I ended up with was a wet piece of paper.
Laohu put his front paws together at the edge of the sink and rested his head on them. Ears drooping, he made a low growl in his throat that made me feel guilty.
Mom made a new shark for me, this time out of tin foil. The shark lived happily in a large goldfish bowl. Laohu and I liked to sit next to the bowl to watch the tin foil shark chasing the goldfish, Laohu sticking his face up against the bowl on the other side so that I saw his eyes, magnified to the size of coffee cups, staring at me from across the bowl.
When I was ten, we moved to a new house across town. Two of the women neighbors came by to welcome us. Dad served them drinks and then apologized for having to run off to the utility company to straighten out the prior owner's bills. "Make yourselves at home. My wife doesn't speak much English, so don't think she's being rude for not talking to you."
While I read in the dining room, Mom unpacked in the kitchen. The neighbors conversed in the living room, not trying to be particularly quiet.
"He seems like a normal enough man. Why did he do that?"
"Something about the mixing never seems right. The child looks unfinished. Slanty eyes, white face. A little monster."
"Do you think he can speak English?"
The women hushed. After a while they came into the dining room.
"Hello there! What's your name?"
"Jack," I said.
"That doesn't sound very Chinesey."
Mom came into the dining room then. She smiled at the women. The three of them stood in a triangle around me, smiling and nodding at each other, with nothing to say, until Dad came back.
Mark, one of the neighborhood boys, came over with his Star Wars action figures. Obi-Wan Kenobi's lightsaber lit up and he could swing his arms and say, in a tinny voice, "Use the Force!" I didn't think the figure looked much like the real Obi-Wan at all.
Together, we watched him repeat this performance five times on the coffee table. "Can he do anything else?" I asked.
Mark was annoyed by my question. "Look at all the details," he said.
I looked at the details. I wasn't sure what I was supposed to say.
Mark was disappointed by my response. "Show me your toys."
I didn't have any toys except my paper menagerie. I brought Laohu out from my bedroom. By then he was very worn, patched all over with tape and glue, evidence of the years of repairs Mom and I had done on him. He was no longer as nimble and sure-footed as before. I sat him down on the coffee table. I could hear the skittering steps of the other animals behind in the hallway, timidly peeking into the living room.
"Xiao laohu," I said, and stopped. I switched to English. "This is Tiger." Cautiously, Laohu strode up and purred at Mark, sniffing his hands.
Mark examined the Christmas-wrap pattern of Laohu's skin. "That doesn't look like a tiger at all. Your Mom makes toys for you from trash?"
I had never thought of Laohu as trash. But looking at him now, he was really just a piece of wrapping paper.
Mark pushed Obi-Wan's head again. The lightsaber flashed; he moved his arms up and down. "Use the Force!"
Laohu turned and pounced, knocking the plastic figure off the table. It hit the floor and broke, and Obi-Wan's head rolled under the couch. "Rawwww," Laohu laughed. I joined him.
Mark punched me, hard. "This was very expensive! You can't even find it in the stores now. It probably cost more than what your dad paid for your mom!"
I stumbled and fell to the floor. Laohu growled and leapt at Mark's face.
Mark screamed, more out of fear and surprise than pain. Laohu was only made of paper, after all.
Mark grabbed Laohu and his snarl was choked off as Mark crumpled him in his hand and tore him in half. He balled up the two pieces of paper and threw them at me. "Here's your stupid cheap Chinese garbage."
After Mark left, I spent a long time trying, without success, to tape together the pieces, smooth out the paper, and follow the creases to refold Laohu. Slowly, the other animals came into the living room and gathered around us, me and the torn wrapping paper that used to be Laohu.
My fight with Mark didn't end there. Mark was popular at school. I never want to think again about the two weeks that followed.
I came home that Friday at the end of the two weeks. "Xuexiao hao ma?" Mom asked. I said nothing and went to the bathroom. I looked into the mirror. I look nothing like her, nothing.
At dinner I asked Dad, "Do I have a chink face?"
Dad put down his chopsticks. Even though I had never told him what happened in school, he seemed to understand. He closed his eyes and rubbed the bridge of his nose. "No, you don't."
Mom looked at Dad, not understanding. She looked back at me. "Sha jiao chink?"
"English," I said. "Speak English."
She tried. "What happen?"
I pushed the chopsticks and the bowl before me away: stir-fried green peppers with five-spice beef. "We should eat American food."
Dad tried to reason. "A lot of families cook Chinese sometimes."
"We are not other families." I looked at him. Other families don't have moms who don't belong.
He looked away. And then he put a hand on Mom's shoulder. "I'll get you a cookbook."
Mom turned to me. "Bu haochi?"
"English," I said, raising my voice. "Speak English."
Mom reached out to touch my forehead, feeling for my temperature. "Fashao la?"
I brushed her hand away. "I'm fine. Speak English!" I was shouting.
"Speak English to him," Dad said to Mom. "You knew this was going to happen some day. What did you expect?"
Mom dropped her hands to her side. She sat, looking from Dad to me, and back to Dad again. She tried to speak, stopped, and tried again, and stopped again.
"You have to," Dad said. "I've been too easy on you. Jack needs to fit in."
Mom looked at him. "If I say 'love,' I feel here." She pointed to her lips. "If I say 'ai,' I feel here." She put her hand over her heart.
Dad shook his head. "You are in America."
Mom hunched down in her seat, looking like the water buffalo when Laohu used to pounce on him and squeeze the air of life out of him.
"And I want some real toys."
Dad bought me a full set of Star Wars action figures. I gave the Obi-Wan Kenobi to Mark.
I packed the paper menagerie in a large shoebox and put it under the bed.
The next morning, the animals had escaped and took over their old favorite spots in my room. I caught them all and put them back into the shoebox, taping the lid shut. But the animals made so much noise in the box that I finally shoved it into the corner of the attic as far away from my room as possible.
If Mom spoke to me in Chinese, I refused to answer her. After a while, she tried to use more English. But her accent and broken sentences embarrassed me. I tried to correct her. Eventually, she stopped speaking altogether if I were around.
Mom began to mime things if she needed to let me know something. She tried to hug me the way she saw American mothers did on TV. I thought her movements exaggerated, uncertain, ridiculous, graceless. She saw that I was annoyed, and stopped.
"You shouldn't treat your mother that way," Dad said. But he couldn't look me in the eyes as he said it. Deep in his heart, he must have realized that it was a mistake to have tried to take a Chinese peasant girl and expect her to fit in the suburbs of Connecticut.
Mom learned to cook American style. I played video games and studied French.
Every once in a while, I would see her at the kitchen table studying the plain side of a sheet of wrapping paper. Later a new paper animal would appear on my nightstand and try to cuddle up to me. I caught them, squeezed them until the air went out of them, and then stuffed them away in the box in the attic.
Mom finally stopped making the animals when I was in high school. By then her English was much better, but I was already at that age when I wasn't interested in what she had to say whatever language she used.
Sometimes, when I came home and saw her tiny body busily moving about in the kitchen, singing a song in Chinese to herself, it was hard for me to believe that she gave birth to me. We had nothing in common. She might as well be from the moon. I would hurry on to my room, where I could continue my all-American pursuit of happiness.
Dad and I stood, one on each side of Mom, lying on the hospital bed. She was not yet even forty, but she looked much older.
For years she had refused to go to the doctor for the pain inside her that she said was no big deal. By the time an ambulance finally carried her in, the cancer had spread far beyond the limits of surgery.
My mind was not in the room. It was the middle of the on-campus recruiting season, and I was focused on resumes, transcripts, and strategically constructed interview schedules. I schemed about how to lie to the corporate recruiters most effectively so that they'll offer to buy me. I understood intellectually that it was terrible to think about this while your mother lay dying. But that understanding didn't mean I could change how I felt.
She was conscious. Dad held her left hand with both of his own. He leaned down to kiss her forehead. He seemed weak and old in a way that startled me. I realized that I knew almost as little about Dad as I did about Mom.
Mom smiled at him. "I'm fine."
She turned to me, still smiling. "I know you have to go back to school." Her voice was very weak and it was difficult to hear her over the hum of the machines hooked up to her. "Go. Don't worry about me. This is not a big deal. Just do well in school."
I reached out to touch her hand, because I thought that was what I was supposed to do. I was relieved. I was already thinking about the flight back, and the bright California sunshine.
She whispered something to Dad. He nodded and left the room.
"Jack, if — " she was caught up in a fit of coughing, and could not speak for some time. "If I don't make it, don't be too sad and hurt your health. Focus on your life. Just keep that box you have in the attic with you, and every year, at Qingming, just take it out and think about me. I'll be with you always."
Qingming was the Chinese Festival for the Dead. When I was very young, Mom used to write a letter on Qingming to her dead parents back in China, telling them the good news about the past year of her life in America. She would read the letter out loud to me, and if I made a comment about something, she would write it down in the letter too. Then she would fold the letter into a paper crane, and release it, facing west. We would then watch, as the crane flapped its crisp wings on its long journey west, towards the Pacific, towards China, towards the graves of Mom's family.
It had been many years since I last did that with her.
"I don't know anything about the Chinese calendar," I said. "Just rest, Mom. "
"Just keep the box with you and open it once in a while. Just open — " she began to cough again.
"It's okay, Mom." I stroked her arm awkwardly.
"Haizi, mama ai ni — " Her cough took over again. An image from years ago flashed into my memory: Mom saying ai and then putting her hand over her heart.
"Alright, Mom. Stop talking."
Dad came back, and I said that I needed to get to the airport early because I didn't want to miss my flight.
She died when my plane was somewhere over Nevada.
Dad aged rapidly after Mom died. The house was too big for him and had to be sold. My girlfriend Susan and I went to help him pack and clean the place.
Susan found the shoebox in the attic. The paper menagerie, hidden in the uninsulated darkness of the attic for so long, had become brittle and the bright wrapping paper patterns had faded.
"I've never seen origami like this," Susan said. "Your Mom was an amazing artist."
The paper animals did not move. Perhaps whatever magic had animated them stopped when Mom died. Or perhaps I had only imagined that these paper constructions were once alive. The memory of children could not be trusted.
It was the first weekend in April, two years after Mom's death. Susan was out of town on one of her endless trips as a management consultant and I was home, lazily flipping through the TV channels.
I paused at a documentary about sharks. Suddenly I saw, in my mind, Mom's hands, as they folded and refolded tin foil to make a shark for me, while Laohu and I watched.
A rustle. I looked up and saw that a ball of wrapping paper and torn tape was on the floor next to the bookshelf. I walked over to pick it up for the trash.
The ball of paper shifted, unfurled itself, and I saw that it was Laohu, who I hadn't thought about in a very long time. "Rawrr-sa." Mom must have put him back together after I had given up.
He was smaller than I remembered. Or maybe it was just that back then my fists were smaller.
Susan had put the paper animals around our apartment as decoration. She probably left Laohu in a pretty hidden corner because he looked so shabby.
I sat down on the floor, and reached out a finger. Laohu's tail twitched, and he pounced playfully. I laughed, stroking his back. Laohu purred under my hand.
"How've you been, old buddy?"
Laohu stopped playing. He got up, jumped with feline grace into my lap, and proceeded to unfold himself.
In my lap was a square of creased wrapping paper, the plain side up. It was filled with dense Chinese characters. I had never learned to read Chinese, but I knew the characters for son, and they were at the top, where you'd expect them in a letter addressed to you, written in Mom's awkward, childish handwriting.
I went to the computer to check the Internet. Today was Qingming.
I took the letter with me downtown, where I knew the Chinese tour buses stopped. I stopped every tourist, asking, "Nin hui du zhongwen ma?Can you read Chinese? I hadn't spoken Chinese in so long that I wasn't sure if they understood.
A young woman agreed to help. We sat down on a bench together, and she read the letter to me aloud. The language that I had tried to forget for years came back, and I felt the words sinking into me, through my skin, through my bones, until they squeezed tight around my heart.
We haven't talked in a long time. You are so angry when I try to touch you that I'm afraid. And I think maybe this pain I feel all the time now is something serious.
So I decided to write to you. I'm going to write in the paper animals I made for you that you used to like so much.
The animals will stop moving when I stop breathing. But if I write to you with all my heart, I'll leave a little of myself behind on this paper, in these words. Then, if you think of me onQingming, when the spirits of the departed are allowed to visit their families, you'll make the parts of myself I leave behind come alive too. The creatures I made for you will again leap and run and pounce, and maybe you'll get to see these words then.
Because I have to write with all my heart, I need to write to you in Chinese.
All this time I still haven't told you the story of my life. When you were little, I always thought I'd tell you the story when you were older, so you could understand. But somehow that chance never came up.
I was born in 1957, in Sigulu Village, Hebei Province. Your grandparents were both from very poor peasant families with few relatives. Only a few years after I was born, the Great Famines struck China, during which thirty million people died. The first memory I have was waking up to see my mother eating dirt so that she could fill her belly and leave the last bit of flour for me.
Things got better after that. Sigulu is famous for its zhezhi papercraft, and my mother taught me how to make paper animals and give them life. This was practical magic in the life of the village. We made paper birds to chase grasshoppers away from the fields, and paper tigers to keep away the mice. For Chinese New Year my friends and I made red paper dragons. I'll never forget the sight of all those little dragons zooming across the sky overhead, holding up strings of exploding firecrackers to scare away all the bad memories of the past year. You would have loved it.
Then came the Cultural Revolution in 1966. Neighbor turned on neighbor, and brother against brother. Someone remembered that my mother's brother, my uncle, had left for Hong Kong back in 1946, and became a merchant there. Having a relative in Hong Kong meant we were spies and enemies of the people, and we had to be struggled against in every way. Your poor grandmother — she couldn't take the abuse and threw herself down a well. Then some boys with hunting muskets dragged your grandfather away one day into the woods, and he never came back.
There I was, a ten-year-old orphan. The only relative I had in the world was my uncle in Hong Kong. I snuck away one night and climbed onto a freight train going south.
Down in Guangdong Province a few days later, some men caught me stealing food from a field. When they heard that I was trying to get to Hong Kong, they laughed. "It's your lucky day. Our trade is to bring girls to Hong Kong."
They hid me in the bottom of a truck along with other girls, and smuggled us across the border.
We were taken to a basement and told to stand up and look healthy and intelligent for the buyers. Families paid the warehouse a fee and came by to look us over and select one of us to "adopt."
The Chin family picked me to take care of their two boys. I got up every morning at four to prepare breakfast. I fed and bathed the boys. I shopped for food. I did the laundry and swept the floors. I followed the boys around and did their bidding. At night I was locked into a cupboard in the kitchen to sleep. If I was slow or did anything wrong I was beaten. If the boys did anything wrong I was beaten. If I was caught trying to learn English I was beaten.
"Why do you want to learn English?" Mr. Chin asked. "You want to go to the police? We'll tell the police that you are a mainlander illegally in Hong Kong. They'd love to have you in their prison."
Six years I lived like this. One day, an old woman who sold fish to me in the morning market pulled me aside.
"I know girls like you. How old are you now, sixteen? One day, the man who owns you will get drunk, and he'll look at you and pull you to him and you can't stop him. The wife will find out, and then you will think you really have gone to hell. You have to get out of this life. I know someone who can help."
She told me about American men who wanted Asian wives. If I can cook, clean, and take care of my American husband, he'll give me a good life. It was the only hope I had. And that was how I got into the catalog with all those lies and met your father. It is not a very romantic story, but it is my story.
In the suburbs of Connecticut, I was lonely. Your father was kind and gentle with me, and I was very grateful to him. But no one understood me, and I understood nothing.
But then you were born! I was so happy when I looked into your face and saw shades of my mother, my father, and myself. I had lost my entire family, all of Sigulu, everything I ever knew and loved. But there you were, and your face was proof that they were real. I hadn't made them up.
Now I had someone to talk to. I would teach you my language, and we could together remake a small piece of everything that I loved and lost. When you said your first words to me, in Chinese that had the same accent as my mother and me, I cried for hours. When I made the first zhezhi animals for you, and you laughed, I felt there were no worries in the world.
You grew up a little, and now you could even help your father and I talk to each other. I was really at home now. I finally found a good life. I wished my parents could be here, so that I could cook for them, and give them a good life too. But my parents were no longer around. You know what the Chinese think is the saddest feeling in the world? It's for a child to finally grow the desire to take care of his parents, only to realize that they were long gone.
Son, I know that you do not like your Chinese eyes, which are my eyes. I know that you do not like your Chinese hair, which is my hair. But can you understand how much joy your very existence brought to me? And can you understand how it felt when you stopped talking to me and won't let me talk to you in Chinese? I felt I was losing everything all over again.
Why won't you talk to me, son? The pain makes it hard to write.
The young woman handed the paper back to me. I could not bear to look into her face.
Without looking up, I asked for her help in tracing out the character for ai on the paper below Mom's letter. I wrote the character again and again on the paper, intertwining my pen strokes with her words.
The young woman reached out and put a hand on my shoulder. Then she got up and left, leaving me alone with my mother.
Following the creases, I refolded the paper back into Laohu. I cradled him in the crook of my arm, and as he purred, we began the walk home.
Copyright (c) 2011 Ken Liu, first published in THE MAGAZINE OF FANTASY & SCIENCE FICTION, Mar/Apr. 2011.

Thursday, November 15, 2012


Now it is my habit to drive to Palo Alto from San Francisco every Saturday to visit Nai Nai. I usually give her a massage. Only recently did  I realize that loving touch might be something she hasn't experienced in decades, my grandfather having died thirty years ago and having been who he was for the forty years before that, and the rest of my family being very loving but not physically demonstrative with her, and that the experience of it might bring her happiness and comfort.

So I start by opening her waist brace and putting my hands on her lower back. Then her hip flexors and IT bands, her knees, and the rest of her lower body. More often than not when I get to her feet, she giggles and says, "I'm ticklish!" or "Your hands are cold!" and I tug on her toes until both my hands and her toes have warmed. I'm always surprised at how little muscle tone she has and how the skin on her body is still mostly smooth and elastic, though she is 90. Then it's onto the rest of her back, her arms, her neck, and finally her head and face. I get in there: scalp, ears, forehead, eyebrows, maxilla, sinuses, jaw. We end with me cradling her face in both hands and rolling circles into her cheeks with my thumbs.

Each time my hands touch her flesh I imagine our skin glowing orange as if illuminated from within. I may not say the word "reiki" even in my mind but what I envision are billions of neurotransmitters called love jumping the gap between my body and hers and transforming into white blood cells that attack the sources of her pain with bayonets and bludgeons.

It has not been a good few months. Desire alone makes the hands of the clock turn no slower. Days go, and bodies age. And they get dizzy up top and frail and pained everywhere else. There was talk of moving Nai Nai to an old folks home so that she could have access to 24-hour care, but the logistics were difficult. "Will we move my hot water kettle?" I heard her ask my uncle. I stopped listening after this question because the details bothered me so much.

Once after the massage I lay down in bed next to her because my back hurt from being bent over for an hour. We stared up at the ceiling and played with our hands. I showed her the trick where you pretend to disconnect your finger. She couldn't do it herself, but she was totally delighted to watch me do it.

I fell asleep and woke up half an hour later to find her sitting in a folding chair next to the bed, nodding off.

I saw the word "awesome" written in English on an envelope in her kitchen, along with some other English words. From the context, I gathered that she had been reading an article and had written down unfamiliar English words. She'd written translations in Chinese alongside the English, but even without recognizing the Chinese words next to "awesome," I assumed the translation was wrong. So I took a minute to explain it to her. The moment at 1:07, when she realizes what "awesome" means, then points at me and says, in English, "Hey! YOU are awesome" is one of my happiest. I'm so glad I was recording on my phone:

I write this as a reminder to myself and to anyone who knows any part of me based on what they have seen on this blog: this is what matters to me.

Apropos of everything else, C. said to me tonight, "Congratulations on getting the most American prize: freedom."

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

this is the closest i will get to writing literally about sex

I prefer writing about sex in metaphor, especially without signaling at all to the reader that any comparison is meant to be drawn. For example:
  • Beat two eggs in a bowl with a fork.
  • Pour the eggs into a pan over medium heat.
  • With a spatula, stir the eggs until they solidify.
  • Add salt and pepper to taste.
What at first glance appears to be a recipe for scrambled eggs is actually a delivery boy-housewife fantasy involving floaties* in the backyard pool. Betcha couldn't tell! (*First incarnation of this word: "floaters." TOTALLY DIFFERENT MEANING!!!)

I attribute this inclination to general prudishness. 

I believe the circumlocution makes for poetry and one day I hope to write a book of cunnilingus tips, once I have developed the expertise, all in metaphor. 

So in keeping with my recent habit of publishing portraits of people a few years after they are most likely to be discovered, here's one that displays the closest I will come to writing literally about sex:
Here is what I know about X: he is a tall, heterosexual white man with broad shoulders, symmetrical features and a square jaw. He went to [fratty Ivy school] and played lacrosse and football. His law degree is from [urban Ivy school]. He is considered one of the best ultimate frisbee players of all times - on message boards, people still talk about the frisbee giants of the 1980s, the great X, sundry others. His name suggests royal lineage and has three plosive sounds in two syllables. He drives a luxury sedan. He lives in an expensive small city in the hills in an expensive house. He is a partner in one of the largest, richest, and best known law firms in the country. He has a wife and two children. Once I saw him in the fitness room; he trained on the elliptical machine in front of a television documentary about Bob Marley's death, but pushed himself like no other fifty year-old I've seen on an elliptical. His legs spun violently and he wrenched the hand grips and grunted. He saturated himself and his machine in his sweat. Before the left the room, he turned to me (I was trotting on the treadmill as fast as I could, to impress him) with the remote control and said, "Should I leave this on?" I said, "Why not! I didn't know that's how Bob Marley died." He said, "Do you like reggae?" I scoffed and said, "Sure I do; who doesn't? But dub is more my speed." Then I mispronounced the name "Jimmy Cliff."

X arrived late to the law, returning to school in his early thirties after a first career, a creative one. I don't know exactly what he did, but between college and law school wrote an off-Broadway country music musical, published a children's book, and wrote an episode of He-Man.

A few months ago, when we were talking about music, I asked him why he didn't stick with his creative aspirations. "Well, it became time to start a family," he said. This was sufficient explanation, I guess, for why one becomes a lawyer. "Look, this is how the music industry works," he said. He pointed to his index finger. "Seventy-five percent of people are talented - talent has nothing to do with this - but they can't hack it at all in the industry. They're great musicians, perfect rhythm, perfect playing, but they can't find a way to turn that into money. They don't even try." He moved onto the next finger. "The next fifteen percent try to make it, but they're barely making ends meet, touring all the time. It's unsustainable. It's a struggle just to pay rent and eat; the starving artist thing. Most of these people will drop out pretty quick." The ring finger now. "Of the remaining ten percent, most will find a comfortable way to live. It won't be a lot of money, but maybe they can be session musicians, maybe they can sell music here or there, maybe they have a second stream of income in the house. It's not riches, but it can be a career." Finally, the pinky. "At the very, very top, there is maybe a fraction of one percent of musicians who become wildly successful in the way that you hear about. Fame, fortune, fans, tours. The chances of this are so slim, but the rest just hold out for the possibility."  That's just how X said this. There was no final sentence to this paragraph connecting the state of the music business to his own aspirations, so I was left to infer that X fell into the top 24% of his hierarchy.

But X was not interested in being a 99th percentile person. So he became a lawyer. He became a handsomely-paid, well-known commercial litigator for a big, rich law firm. Corporations entrust bet-the-company lawsuits to this type of firm; the stakes can be in the billions. He is invited to speak at conferences in Europe, to which he flies perfectly supine in his first class foldabed. I know nothing about his family other than what one can glean online of his wife (who has kept her last name) and their joint charitable donations, except once he told me that his children are soon to go off to college, and after they left his dream was to build up a music studio in his house and invite friends to come over and play.

When X approaches, my body reacts. I can't tell if it's fear or lust -- they have the same physiological symptoms for me, and probably the same psychological trigger too. Who doesn't want to be fucked by something terrifying? He has only seen me red in the face, because there is no other face I have around him. I sweat profusely when he is in sight. The closer to smelling distance he gets the more flooded the center strip of my underwear becomes. If we are in even a large room with many people, I know exactly where he is at all times, and I stumble and twitch because I am convinced that he is watching, even though he is most likely not. 

But I am not unbold around him. I am scared, but not unbold. Especially on paper, I can be brash. He entered my office once, very shyly - the only time I have seen him even slightly hesitant or vulnerable - and asked me some preliminary questions about my musical interests before blurting out, "I recorded a couple of songs." I said, "Oh, can I have a listen?" He said, "Actually, I have them here" - and reached down to the odd square bulge in his back pocket and pulled out a CD of his songs - "and I wanted to know if you could give me some feedback on these. You know, as a composer?" I wrote back an email full of language like "I want more of you" (I meant I wanted to hear more of his voice on a particular song; at least that is one of the things I meant) and muddier blandishments like "You're sweet and dark in the high registers." I described his sound as "gentle and perfect." I thanked him in German for his edits on a paper I am writing for him for a conference in Germany. "Mit tiefer Dankbarkeit," I said. "Jawohl," he returned. He said he liked an image I chose for the PowerPoint I put together; I replied "Don't we all." I slipped the German language lyrics to "99 Luftballons" into the hard copy of the presentation. He said, "Do you have a cold? Your voice sounds like maybe . . . ?" and I grinned and said, "This is just my natural speaking voice."

I want to please him and I am dismayed when I fail. I mistakenly cited to a case without noting that it was the dissenting opinion, and I hated myself when he told me the error was significant. How many times have I rehearsed this dialogue in my head?:

Me: Do your children obey you?
Him: What?
Me: Your children must be very obedient. You have a personality that encourages obedience.
Him: What?
Us: [tender embraces] ["How Sweet It Is To Be Loved By You," in duet]

Just kidding. In my imagination we sing, "Closer," by Nine Inch Nails.

There are two strands to my imagination here. The first is very standard. The first imagines that he is exactly who he appears to be, the phenotype, the mesomorph of the mind, the success, the society, the Man. These imaginations are quite boring and can be found by the billion on cut-rate porn sites. "Get on your knees," and other commands, control in the bedroom as in the boardroom, etc. No need to belabor this here.

The second imagines that when he peels back his sweaty athletic socks, the toenails will be painted a soft vermillion hue and the corns will have been professionally scrubbed. Under his button-down shirt is a grey t-shirt with a cartoonish face drawn in the center. (Actually this is not an imagination: he took a redeye this Tuesday, and he arrived at work wearing sweatpants, sneakers, and this cartoonish t-shirt.) He lifts it to reveal a chest that shows signs of age, e.g. a topiary of chest hair still luxuriant but now gray, skin that slackens slightly above the muscle tissue, chapped nipples, navel piercing. He says, "Are you ready?" For what? I am confused . . . I am not driving this car, I am a passenger, I am a traveling canine companion who pants out the side window . . . but then he hands me a hard plastic cornichon and tells me he is ready too. "What is this for?" I ask. He turns over, slowly, sweating, and waits for my move.

Well! That is not how I envisioned this writing exercise to end!
I have embarrassed all of you and shamed my ancestors and now it is way past my bedtime. You're welcome.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

seven years

Some new music. I fiddled this with for a few days and heaped on some layers (drum, bass, and harmonium) and finally trimmed all the frills back and now it's just guitar and voice(s). Amazing how a swing on the ride cymbal can turn a glum song into a jazz tune - but you don't get to hear that version yet.

Keywords: idle time, wandering memory, divorce.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012


I'm pretty excited that my new roommate communicates via Bananagrams.

She made soup. I wrote a post-it telling her I ate four bowls between midnight and 2 a.m., but there seemed to be just as much soup as before, so the only conclusion I could draw was that she was Jesus, feeding the multitudes. Her response:

I went to Costco and bought some food to share (and then rearranged the fridge):

A few hours later, this message appeared:

My response:

My morning message to her, and her afternoon reply on the bottom line:

So far this roommateship is going AWESOME.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

unlearning shyness

When I introduced myself to the high school mock trial students whom I would be coaching, I said, "I am interested in being a coach because people once thought I was shy, but I knew that I wasn't.  Now I am here to help you unlearn shyness."

As I said this, I tried to control the shaking in my voice, because the fear was still there. Never mind the message. No matter the audience, the fear is still there.

Rewind and let me set the scene.

It was early September. We were going to meet the students for the first time this season. The head coach and a few other coaches and I left work early to drive through slow game day traffic around the ballpark to the foggy canyon edge where the school sits.

In the main atrium were young ones, some being slouchy, inappropriately attired old-person's-stereotypes-of-teenagers, with skateboards, who stared at us. There were eucalyptus leaves underfoot. Girls whose hair fell into the faces chased each other up a ramp. A trio sat on their instrument cases and looked about to break into a jazz odyssey.

"We are going to tear your limbs off," say their contraposso stances.
I couldn't remember the last time I had gone onto a high school campus when students were around. Maybe June 2004, my last day as a social studies teacher? I had to take calming breaths before going through the doors.

The moment the head coach entered the classroom, he was mobbed - mobbed - by mock trialers, who surrounded him and shrieked his name. They squeezed in for a peristaltic mass hug, then peppered him with questions about how his summer had been. With each returning coach, this same loving rigmarole. More mobbing, shouting, interrogation, and then more shouting. That they could keep this level of chaotic enthusiasm up for so long defied my understanding of physics. One girl had made glittery "Mock Trial Princess" sashes and distributed them to other girls on the team. Eventually they returned to their desks, which they sat in or on top of, and then shouted at each other and the coaches from across the room.

The room belonged to Ms. C., an English teacher, who had covered the walls with artifacts from foreign cultures and bumper stickers that read, "Television Is Drugs," "Feminism Is The Radical Notion That Women Are People," "Don't Postpone Joy," and "I love my country...but I think we should start seeing other people."

This was when I said to myself, Yesssssssssss.

Re-post from below. I loved teachers like this in high school.
There was the meet and greet. When asked to speak individually, the kids showed off different levels of confidence, the earlier clamor notwithstanding. Some upperclassmen boys knew how to grip and return a handshake; others were clearly mortified at the thought of introducing themselves to strange adults and ducked eye contact; the most nervous fiddled incessantly with the ends of their hair or tugged at the bottom hem of their t-shirts. We asked each to stand and deliver the most basic of introductions (name, class year, other extracurriculars) and some students defused their nerves by forgetting, or pretending to forget, what facts about themselves they were supposed to state, because nobody had taught them the skills embodied in maxims like Fake It 'Til You Make It and Go Big or Go Home and it was still easier aim for dopey likability with, "Hi, my name is X, and...umm, what was I supposed to say again??" than to risk failed sincerity, to stand straight-backed and say, "My name is X and I am a freshman in band." I saw glimpses of the gulf between who a kid wanted to be and who she felt comfortable being, and then I saw how a teacher could bridge the distance.

Rewind further back to a few scenes of my own shyness.

Two involve not being able to speak up on public buses when I should have.

Scene one: M10 bus, 2002. The bus barrels past my stop on 8th Avenue because the driver has missed it and I am too shy to cut through the loud Manhattan chatter to shout "Stop!" Instead I tug the cable for the next stop and walk the extra few blocks, loathing myself.

How did I end up in Washington Heights??? 
Scene two: Chinatown bus, 2001. I'm seated next to a quiet man until we reach the McDonald's rest stop. We pee, then get back on the bus after the break. The quiet man is not sitting next to me. The bus starts pulling away. I see we are getting near the on-ramp. I know we have left the quiet man behind. I start looking wildly at my neighbors, but none of them notice. I raise my hand halfway as if to call someone's attention, and make some guttural suggestions, but ultimately fail to speak. Half an hour later, the agitated instructions coming through the radio system confirm that some 20 year-old fool paralyzed by shame could have prevented the situation just by opening her damn mouth.

Another scene involves Palo Alto calling Northfield, Massachusetts, 1999. My girlfriend and I were both home for the summer. Her dad answered. We had met several times. "Is M. there?" I asked. "Yes, hold on a minute. Is this [Bananarchist]?" said her dad. I froze. Would I have to make small talk? Would have I have to explain why I was calling his (closeted) daughter so many times? Would I have to use words that white adults use, such as "how odd"? So I said, "Nope! This is not [Bananarchist]." But my voice has a pretty distinctive timbre because of the enormous sarcastic-looking mouth God has given me. Her dad paused. "Are you sure this isn't [Bananarchist]?" he said. I had no choice but to stick to my guns. "Nope!!" I try not to imagine what kind of pathological liar he thought I was.

Add to these all the times my face has reddened when I know that officemates can hear my phone calls, when I've read book spines at parties in order to seem preoccupied, the two years of college I spent without talking in section. My reaction to being cold-called for the first time in law school, during the Carbolic Smoke Ball contracts class, was to tug my sweatshirt off and get the thing stuck on my head (I continued answering the question despite the muffling); five minutes after the questioning ended I got a spontaneous nosebleed and ran out of the room clutching my face. In the final ten minutes of a middle school volleyball game I asked my coach to take me out because I thought I wouldn't be clutch enough to handle the intensity.

Of a volleyball game. In the seventh grade. For the B-team. Against Burlingame.
This ball represents failure.
I am still not as bold as I would like to be, but good God nor am I longer the drooping houseplant I once was.

So when I saw the mock trialers struggling with their introductions, my mind conjured a half dozen shyness unlearning techniques unprompted. I have a mental archive of them - for my own benefit, as exercises in case I want to do boldness calisthenics, and also because I feel a Promethean urge, probably based also in some self-aggrandizing, let's just be honest, to teach other people the things that have helped me. They range from the basics (like classic icebreakers, e.g. filling out bingo sheets with information about other students in the room or everyone answering an amusing check-in question, or simple unstructured socializing time) to the pedestrian (like shouting when a bus driver misses your stop) (reread for the pun, reader) to the experiential, off-color, wacky, and bold.

I want to arrange these techniques into a curriculum of progressively more difficult unlearning shyness assignments:

  • Visualize yourself owning everything you see, and approach the thing accordingly. 
  • Record yourself reading "The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere" with different accents. 
  • Moot a TV debate with a fellow student on a ridiculous topic (e.g. "What is better, pie or cake?")
  • Give a stranger a compliment.
  • Organize a party. Send a mass email inviting both friends and acquaintances (a.k.a. people you don't often casually reach out to) to it. Follow up with phone calls.
  • Wear something outrageous and don't explain anything when you get quizzical or hostile looks. 
  • Sing instead of speaking for the length of a conversation. 
  • Give a two minute speech without planning on the first quote you open to in a book of quotations. 
  • Phone bank. 
  • Do contact improv dance (with animal noises) for an audience.  
  • Canvass a farmer's market for donations to a campaign. 
  • Busk. 
  • Perform on a karaoke stage. 
  • Give a toast at a wedding. 
  • Gibbous peach to a friend, a classroom, a boardroom, a school gathering, a plenary audience, Star Search, etc.
And so on. The outcome of this curriculum is to become that person who feels comfortable exclaiming to the dentist's receptionist: "A cat calendar!"

There are similarities between these exercises and pickup artist, drag, and improv etudes. Advanced confidence has emotional valence - e.g. when you truly esteem your blotchy, flatulent self, you'll feel comfortable lifting your arms overhead while dancing - and insincere confidence smacks of sleaze, but for the sake of the uncomfortably shy person who wants to make the first step, let's say that confidence is mostly about the successful performance of confidence.

Om calls the goal shamelessness, which is the poet's way of wrapping confidence, comfort, self-awareness, self-love, and poise into a nice word with lots of pleasing hissing sounds.

I talk a lot with Om about this because at her current job she has built a team from nothing (literally, nobody) to a critical mass of hard-working, spirited goofballs, many of them in high school or college. Some were probably as shy as my shyest mock trialers when they joined her team, but they've all seemed to become people who can call strangers and have twenty phone conversations a night on the topic of same-sex marriage. The office is like an atom buzzing with electrons, which makes possible the random, momentary collisions that build special intimacy, stuff like eye contact with a raised eyebrow, questions shouted from one room to the next, ten minute couch naps in other people's offices, sidling past someone in a narrow hallway, joining conversations just to make one clever comment and then walking away. One of Om's staffers said the moment she realized she loved the work was when she was carrying telephones from one room to another. She accidentally dropped one on the ground, and before the clatter ended she could hear Om's voice from an office thirty feet away saying, "You're fired." Everyone seemed to be having fun doing the exhausting work of an electoral campaign. Both times I visited her office, her staff lingered late into the night, long after work hours, just to be in this circusy atmosphere.

It makes me think about how the unlearning shyness curriculum alone is not enough. You also need reciprocal support from people around you. There should be minimal judgment and maximum positivity, reinforced over time through multiple unscripted interactions. This is not a new concept. This is a team.

During the mock trial introductions, many of the kids used the word "family" to describe why they wanted to participate. They said that being on the mock trial team made them feel like they were part of a family. I noticed how the returning students roped in the new kids, who at first sat at the fringe desks but by the end of class had relocated closer to the core. It didn't take much to bring the new kids in, just smiles, nods, and other expressions of attention and affirmation from the returning kids.

Of course, Manny being Manny, I don't experience pleasure without an accompanying dose of caution.

Most of us (those socialized as women, at least) have experienced the difference between team and clique. I think it will take some coaching to keep the mock trial team from turning the support of the former into the crutch of the latter.

Your hair emboldens mine.
Recently I wrote Om after watching a different campaign-related presentation by a team-turned-clique:
I felt slightly disappointed with the in-group attitude. I felt like I was at a fraternity beauty contest where the message, in the form of inside jokes addressed to the other frat brothers, was that XYZ was cooler than Sigma Chi. I think some of the younger folks in the audience - the potential-frat demographic - might have been dazzled by the coolness, but to me it felt like a missed opportunity to build community, to include. Like, y'all think you overcame your shyness because your team had your back, but you're still shy if you're only bold when you address each other. Why didn't anyone teach you to mingle with the other regional field directors, hmmm? (Am I a turd for saying this about kids? I don't blame them; I blame the frat they pledged.) 
Om's response described how leadership could guide the culture of the team:
i love this statement: "Like, y'all think you overcame your shyness because your team had your back, but you're still shy if you're only bold when you address each other." (capitalization intact to preserve your business casual (how does one phonetically represent what happens when one tries to shorten "casual"? i need a linguist)). this is why i want to work with young people. i don't blame young folks for the lack of inclusivity, but i blame adults for fostering environments that replicate/emulate the same dumb dynamics that most of us have felt terrorized by. we should all know better. but a part of me also feels compassion--we all have things to unlearn. at work we talk a lot about radical welcome. i think you asked me what it was and i gave you a lukewarm, possibly sassy, totally unsubstantial answer, but this is what it really is: to radically welcome someone means to do everything you can to make someone feel at home in the space. it means conveying to someone that even if it's your first time in the space or your 100th time, you have a place here and i am excited to have you do this work with me. and it is radical because it doesn't happen often enough! all of our experiences out in the world tell us that we need to work our asses off to be accepted and included, or we have to have a certain kind of look, or charm, or intelligence. fuck that. of course you can sit at my table.
The brains! The heart! Swoon!

A few weeks back, the mock trialers went to a pizza party for all high school kids in San Francisco participating in a mock trial program. Recall memories of middle school dances and you'll have a sense of how awkwardly segregated the atmosphere was, this time by school instead of by gender. I burst with pride when one of the kids on my team went up to a table of kids from another school and extended a hand, saying, "Hi! I'm C! I'm from Q High School!" I wasn't the only person who noticed this. Pretty soon the rest of the kids from Q High School were prying conversation loose from the students from other schools. I deserve no pride because I have nothing to do with C's instincts. I approached her afterward and thanked her for modeling fearlessness for her teammates.

Monday will be the first time that I meet with my small group and start practicing in earnest. I get six hours per week for the next five months with the same few kids. I have Googled "how to help students get over stage fright" and bought a book of theater techniques by the improv guru Viola Spolin. I have begun drafting the questionnaire I plan to distribute to my kids on the first day (a mix of personality test and OkCupid questions, mad libs, and creative writing exercises). I am really, really excited to start eradicating unwanted shyness from the world!

Imagine crosshairs.