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.