Sunday, September 30, 2012


It was November of freshman year when I was struck with the second attack of esophagitis. Like striking teachers, my stomach acids grew discontent with their position and sought a higher calling. Unfortunately for me, that higher calling was my esophagus. The muscles there, sensing the presence of lower class body functions, first tightened and then inflamed. The system was broken and it left me unable to eat, drink or even swallow without excruciating pain. Of course, providence is unkind to those already down on their luck; three days into my esophagitis my body spiked a fever. And the single remaining memory, the recollection of me sitting naked in the dorm showers, vomiting tears and bile onto the drain, has become holy to me, my own personal Gethsemane. But at the time it was not nearly so redemptive. After seven harrowing days, an ungodly amount of time for a six-foot-four-one-hundred-and-forty-five-pound boy to go without food, my body healed. On the first day of my resurrection, I marched into Wendys and ordered two baked potatoes. To this day I’ve yet to taste anything nearly as delicious.
            I tell you about that experience not to gain sympathy, but to give you a point of reference. It is to help you understand the once most painful illness of my life has been replaced, not by cancer or Lupus or African sleeping sickness or any of the rare diseases I learn from House, but by something far more common. I call it Sansgrandparentitus. In layman’s term: I have no more grandparents.
            For a myriad of reasons, outliving your grandparents is a thing most terrible to experience. You see, my grandparents were the buffer between my parents and death. And now that they are gone, my parents are taking their place in the eternal line. On the subway I watch the stops pass and realize that the greater part of their life has gone by. And as happy as I am when they come to visit, I am sadder when they leave. It’s not just the usual sorrow of a goodbye, but the recognition that the once limitless time with my parents has been reduced to a finite account from which I’ve just withdrawn. Though I try to resist, their transformation occurs right in front of me every time my sisters and I refer to them as grandma and grandpa. As much as I disapprove of my parents’ new title, it won’t go away.
I could live with Sansgrandparentitus if this were the only symptom. But it’s not. You see, my grandparents were the buffer between me and growing up. I find myself pained with jealousy as I watch my parents spoil my nephews with dollar store toys and McDonald’s happy meals. It makes me want Sunday morning walks to Smitty’s for breakfast with Grandpa or the words of approval from Grandma. Where have the phone calls gone? And the suspenders? The turquoise necklace? The homemade bread? The knuggies? Those small, immeasurably important interactions have been reduced to memories.  My grandparents made me perfect, innocent, precious, and important. Now that they are gone, I am no longer immortal. The eyes in which I could do no wrong have closed and made me aware of my fallibility.
Mortality is a painful condition. But for those stubborn souls who refuse to grant weight to this issue, I invite you to think about the suffering of all humanity. Without grandparents, we are collectively robbed of wisdom. An entire generation of experiences has slipped by unharvested from society’s pool of knowledge. Without those roots, we are like trees waiting for that final strong wind.
I realize that for a great many this condition is regarded as incurable. Lives come and go as they have for millennia, leaving only the worn footprints in the carbon sands of time. I can’t empirically argue against their overwhelming evidence, I can only offer a simple belief: that a reunion lays in some far distant time for me, my parents, and my grandparents, that will outshine any Wendy’s baked potato. 

Friday, September 28, 2012

Chapter 1: A History of the Ozark Mountains and the Principle Parties Involved

There is a magic in old places, a feeling that betrays their age. We feel it in the air’s scent and the water’s touch, whispers of influence that can penetrate wood, rock, air and mind. It is the magic that makes us uneasy, as if our simple instincts grasp at the inherent danger found in ancient places. And yet what fools we are, ignoring reason and seeking to conquer what is best left alone.
            There were fools in the Ozarks long ago. They rode their canoes into the heart of darkness from open plains. In its mountains they found a home full of water, trees, fruits, and beasts. And as they hunted the forests and built their homes, they ignored the shamans who railed against the land. They spoke of the mountains’ unnatural creation. These were not familiar rock giants that grew from the ground in frightening, violent bursts, but strange tombs of the ocean’s displaced inhabitants. They were nothing but sand and time and memories, full of the hate and anger of the forgotten. But in their garden, the early fools disregarded the shamans and gorged themselves off the land. In time they disappeared, a mystery to those unfamiliar with the curse of the ancient. Later Indians grew weary of the place, sticking to its dense edges, peering into the heart of the Ozarks over thick walls of vegetation.  
            Centuries passed away until the arrival of the white man. They came from the distant sister of the Ozarks, the Appalachians, and so were accustomed to the danger of ancientness. They were brave and arrogant settlers, thinking themselves impervious to the land’s curse as they hobbled over the tortuous landscape on crafted wagons. They would explore on the rivers, marveling at the face-like rock cliffs strewn across the water’s edge like wary sentinels. On the flatter regions of the river banks, they chopped and cleared dark-soiled land to build their farms. It was a man’s work, cutting into the thick trees and pawing at the stubborn undergrowth with worn hands. Even the earth itself was reluctant to let them settle, blocking the hoes and shovels with rocks entrenched in the dirt. After clearing, the settlers’ heavy labor generated little rewards. It was not because the plants wouldn’t grow, but because they grew too well, grew wild even. Instead of producing fruit, the leaves and branches and shoots swelled. Corn stalks grew to unusual heights, tomato trees spread like ivy, and squash vines overran their boundaries. It was after several years of these farming failures that the settlers finally surmised that it was for beasts, not men, that the Ozarks had been created.
 Yet the settlers’ pride, mixed with a lust for supremacy, demanded they remain. Instead of cultivating the land, they warred against it. First to suffer were the tall, sturdy trees of oak, pine and cedar that towered over the hills in thick clumps like conspiring giants. They were hacked down by violent strokes of the axe and their mangled and butchered corpses sold to the plains. Next, with shovels, picks and dynamite, the early colonists clawed at the hills’ crust, prying out great heaps of metal. In the earliest days, it was these two industries that ruled the region, but there were few lured in by its lucre. The reason was simple: no man was ever made rich from his labors in the old hills. Outside, the trees sold for a good price, but the Ozarks’ precarious, forested hills prevented the type of easy exporting that fashioned wealth. And as for mining, there was no gold, no silver, no bronze; none of the metals to feed a speculative mind and make a man rich. The Ozarks was more deliberate with its treasures, choosing to store the cruder, wilder and most dangerous metals within its vaults. Some have argued that the lack of gold in the old hills is somewhat of an anomaly considering the nature of the curse of the ancient. They argue that gold, after all, is the center of all conflict. Gold causes men to aspire for wealth, which feeds their greed and turns them desperate and savage until they are drawn into violence. But such circuitous schemes were never in the nature of the Ozarks. Instead, the hills offered more direct metals; iron to make the barrel and lead to fashion the bullet.  And these two metals, though valuable for bloodshed, were common enough to the outside world to keep the settlers poor.
            Among the first of these stubborn men was one named Jacob Mooney. In 1809, he left the mountains of Kentucky and travelled to what was becoming known as Northern Arkansas. He was spurred on by tales of adventure spread by explorers who had both the perception to recognize the land’s magic and the wisdom to resist settling.  In Kentucky, Mooney was a carpenter. His work was excellent, his work ethic less so. Like any true bachelor, he refused to work more than necessary. He was a notorious free sleeper, some nights snuggling up to empty bottles in the dirt and others to unfamiliar breasts in houses of ill-repute. Those days would have lasted forever for Mooney had God in his providence not given him one night with May Phelps. She was 17 at the time, a homely girl of good Christian values who had spent that night with Jacob for reasons unfathomable. Two month later, she stood outside the saloon, waiting nervously to confront her baby’s father. When Mooney stumbled out of the doors, May burst into tears. Staring at this inconsolable girl, Jacob Mooney sobered and made the first of many noble decisions in his life. He married May, quit drinking and determined that he would make a good life for his progeny. His son Aaron was born in Kentucky and before he could walk his father loaded them into a wagon and left for Arkansas.
            Jacob made good on his promise to provide for his family. He carved out a piece of land along the White River and in a month’s time had built a one-room log cabin. Those first years on the river banks were years of plenty and of sorrow. Like the other settler’s, Mooney quickly learned that the rocky land was no good for farming. But Jacob was a resourceful man and refused to let the Ozarks force him out. Hearing the tales of the land’s wild nature, he decided to try his hand at wild stock. In Northern Texas he bought a dozen head of cattle and drove them to his land in the mountains. On his farm, the cows wandered contently and grew fat off the thriving grasses. Seeing Mooney’s success emboldened the more rationale settlers to turn from the axe to the ranch. And so a new industry was born, and for the first time in the mountains of the Ozarks there grew success.  
As Mooney’s ranch propagated, he sought to increase his progeny.  But what the land had given Mooney in wealth it made him pay for in blood. The Mooney’s second child, William, passed away a month after birth. The third child lasted only a few days. During her fourth and final birth, May hemorrhaged. Jesse Mooney’s birth through pools of blood was the prophecy of his life. He would grow strong and wise and respected, he would be his father’s pride, a man dedicated to blood relations. All of Northern Arkansas would know his name, and in the end, Jesse would leave this world the same way he entered it.
Years after May’s death, travelers began to pour through the region. To accommodate the traffic, Jacob built a ferry. It was a profitable business and Mooney and his two boys ran it respectably. They were God-fearing people, and no pilgrims were turned away for want. Jacob Mooney gained a reputation as a Christian man, a wise man, and most importantly, a family man. He was dedicated to his boys, as if their success would compensate for the sins of his youth. While running the ferry, he taught them everything a man should know: how to be honest, how to judge a man, how to hold your ground. But despite the bond, Aaron Mooney ran away at the tender age of 15. Where he went and what kind of man he became, no one knows. Neither Jacob nor Jesse ever spoke of him again. 
By 1828, the word had spread of the beauty of the Ozarks and the success of the land’s ranchers. Settlers began to pour into the mountains and the town of Yellville was established, fifteen miles west of the ferry. Other towns began spring into existence and in 1836 Arkansas became a state. That same year the Tutts and Everetts moved to the newly formed Marion County in northern Arkansas. These two families, whose names would become famous across the Ozarks, shared only three commonalities: they were from Virginia, desired power, and had immense potential for violence. The commonalities aside, the two were completely different breeds.
The Tutt clan originated from the mountains of Virginia. Their forefathers, ignoring warnings of Indian dangers, had charged into the wilderness and thrived. But the mountains worked upon them and they became men of the land, self-sufficient, strong, and wild. Yet the Tutt’s were also strangely charismatic. As strangers moved into the now settled region, they were drawn to the Tutt family both by their everyman appearance and their unexplainable sagacity. The Tutt’s were just as approachable as the Lord himself, but seemed to offer more practical advice. With their beards and jokes and homespun knowledge, they seemed sure disciples of “King-Mob,” yet ironically they never accepted Jackson’s party. The Tutt’s saw in Jackson a little of themselves, that old hickory toughness, and the self-portrait must not have been to their liking.
            Out of the numerous Tutt families dotting the Virginia Hills, it was only Hansford or “Hamp” Tutt and his four sons, Richard, John, Henry and George that migrated to Arkansas. Rumors were that it was family scandal and contention that prompted the move, but knowing Hamp’s character those rumors must be false. It is not that Hamp was above a fight or ill-reputed behavior. While generally pleasant, he was apt to drink, and the strange effects of alcohol have been documented throughout history. But the rumors must be discounted because Hamp Tutt was a finisher and never left business unsettled. Contention would be fought or else resolved and scandals would be disproved or else atoned. In a way it was one of his most admirable qualities. The real answer as to what drove him and his family from the ancestral hills was something far simpler: wanderlust. In Virginia, Hamp had begun to feel that nostalgic yearning for the days of his forefathers, who had marched undaunted into strange mountains and come off conqueror. Hamp desired his own wilderness, a ground of rebirth to test his mettle and prove worthy of the Tutt heritage. When the Tutts arrived in the Ozarks, they settled a plot of land on the edge of Yellville, just beyond Crooked Creek. The plot was named Tutt Hill and Hamp set out to make himself king of the mountains.
The Everetts came from the city of Fredericksburg, located in Virginia’s Northern regions. They were a gentleman family, at least by American standards. The first Everetts had settled the region by selling tobacco and other crops. But despite their remarkable farming skill, they never made much money in agriculture. They were adamantly opposed to slavery and so never had the man-power to compete with plantations. But God graces his favorites with many gifts, and the Everett’s were religious church-goers. As a reward, they excelled in business, law, politics and just about any field they tried their hand at. It was said in Fredericksburg that if an Everett decided to try his hand at selling horse shit he would still manage to make more money than the Governor. With their religious piety, their abundant wealth, and political power, the Everetts were the center of the town.
The family had plans to bring their money making touch to Fredericksburg by establishing the town as a center for trade. They commissioned the construction of canals, roads, and turnpikes to spur economic growth. Then, in 1832, their ambition heightened as they used political influence to connect Fredericksburg to Richmond by railway. But the railroad push became their downfall. In 1834, the bank war between Jackson and Biddle caused a brief recession that was just long enough to bankrupt the city. The railway expenses became the rallying cry for the Everetts’ opposition and after the 1835 election there was none of the family left in office. Despite the shift in power, many of the Everett clan stayed put, patiently waiting for the wheel to turn. However Bart and his brothers Jesse and Sim were less patient. In 1836 they left to find a home in newly formed Arkansas, certain they could gain influence in the fledgling state.
It was these two families who would center in the coming violence. The feud, which in later years would become known as the Tutt-Everett war, would consume the Ozarks. The cause of the feud has often been debated. There are many who claim it was politics, a battle between Whigs or Democrats for control of the region. Others claim the cause was more akin to classical Greek tales of man’s desire for forbidden women. Both of these factors did exist, but they were only symptoms, not causes. In truth, the violence was a result of the ground, the water, the air and the age of the Ozarks, enacting the same ancient curse it dealt to all foolish trespassers.

Thursday, September 20, 2012


            I believe myself an aspiring writer; and yet, my time facing this screen is sadly limited. I am drawn by the greater vices: politics, law cases and e-sports. They pull me from my good intentions and trap me in the realm of the trivial. But on rare instances, I am sadly drawn back to this processor of words and I begin an essay such as this. Today’s thesis is the highest of all such sad theses; it is a musing on that great leap, the infamous exit, the slow bow. I speak on death.
            I received word today of another death and it stuck to me. I tried all the tricks to keep it at bay: compartmentalizing, blocking, filtering, ignoring, flooding. And yet the word latched onto my retina, impairing my vision of the stories and articles and opinions I was attempting to drown it out with. It was so powerful that I marched into the kitchen and picked up the little box trap of peanut-butter-smelling-sticky-yellow-glue substance meant to rid the house of that little devilishly-sly mouse and threw it straight away. I knew that if somehow the trap had worked I would have to cover the rodent in oil and pry him loose with my hands because with the word now firmly entrenched in my retina I lacked the ability to follow through with my original plan of throwing him and the box from my 6th story apartment (which seems to me to be the only plausible solution to getting rid of a mouse stuck in such a trap). Death has a power to change our plans.
Death Incarnate

            You might think me strange to be so effected by such a common, cliché word. Death is for melodramatic romances and movies with option-less directors. In the city I live the thing that the word death represents must be common as the homeless people ravaging the subway trains with their stories of unfair unemployment and unpaid medical bills. God bless them. But I still feel it; I feel it more acutely. Watching the Sunday afternoon fitness enthusiasts riding their bikes down Lexington I can’t help but think of how he found death. Strangely there were no cars involved. “We always thought it would involve a car,” the organizer told the local newspaper. He sounded confused, hurt almost. It was like the Jews with Jesus; he had been waiting for so long only to have it show up in some unforeseen circumstance. “We always thought it would involve a car.”
            It didn’t involve a car. But it did involve a wife and three kids. They had to fly up on a charter flight to Jackson Hole Wyoming and drive by that arch of deer antlers that must have seemed so absurdly gruesome to tend to the body of the man who would be turning 43 this week. As if that weren’t tragic enough, the oldest son and only daughter both have birthdays this week as well. In the seriousness of the circumstances, it seems almost trivial to fixate on birthdays. But I do. It’s that last little push that tips the Jengo tower. It warps an already tragic situation into something unrecognizable. It keeps me up at nights. We shouldn’t pray to death, but if I did I’d ask it to take me any month but February.
            And then there is the wife and the kids. They’ll be with me forever now, just like Suzi Everton. Suzi’s husband died when I was only 12. He was the kind of man who could forget he had an M.D. and was 40 years my senior. He was the kind of man who would look you eye to eye and offer what you knew to be heartfelt counsel. He was the kind of man that when he got angry, we all knew something was wrong. Something was wrong, it was a brain tumor. He died about a year and a half later. Amidst the grief I still feel for his passing there lingers a wisp of inspiration. I marvel at how a man could live his life in such a way that the tell-tale sign of his end was that he simply raised his voice. If we in this city of petroleum-pushed taxis and ambition-driven suits were held to the same standard, the waiting line for the MRI would eclipse Splash Mountain. That is my silver-lining, no doubt another technique to stave off the gloom of a beloved man’s death.
The Mystical Horse
But as a 12 year old, I didn’t face death the way I run from it now.  It consumed me. We would drive by his corner office on Stapley and Brown with the dirty-white, other-worldly horse statue and I would feel his death consume me. I knew there would be no more picture scavenger hunts with churchmates draped around the mystic horse, no more delivering French baguettes with bacon-cream dip, no more sweaty backyard basketball games overlooking his little stable. I knew he was gone and I knew Suzi was left behind. I was surprisingly pragmatic as a 12 year old; I was concerned over her bills. How would she keep the house? Would Suzi have to leave the neighborhood? I drew up the plan not to let that happen. I would create a card game, the cards would sell for four dollars a pack and all the proceeds would go straight to Suzi. My business failed and Suzy moved out of the neighborhood. I never forgot her. Out of sight out of mind is simply not true.  
              In recent years there have been new additions to my halls of worry. Angelina, Pam, Wang Mama and yesterday, when the bike went over the guard rail and into the Snake River, Bridget joined that list. I hope the words halls and list don’t seem demeaning. You should understand that just like Suzi, I find myself desperately concerned for these women. I think on their loneliness, on their loss, and wish I could find some way to make it go away. I want to give Pam someone to talk to, let Wang Mama know that she is loved and watch over Bridget’s kids like they were my own. But I don’t. I’m plagued by the human condition of good intentions. But they will always stay on my list. I think lists are a powerful thing. They are concise and accurate, they let you know which assignments are due when and make sure you don’t forget that Greek yogurt that your wife loves so much. But the list these women are on is more powerful still. It’s a type of prayer-list. Though I don’t daily mention their names aloud in my hurried prayers, I know God see’s the list and takes due notice. 
Of course, I didn’t mention Angelina in my good-intentions. You see, Angelina is my hope.  Her husband had fathered me in a far-away land. He taught me how to work, and how to pray. Most importantly, he taught me how to eat. The man never spent less than 10 dollars on any meal and it caught up to him in a swimming pool in Hawaii. He left behind the happiest woman I have ever known. For months after his death I couldn’t bring myself to call her. I was afraid that maybe she wouldn’t laugh anymore. I couldn’t bear to think of a conversation without her laugh. But in one of the remarkable, rare instances of courage in my life, I called her. I haven’t stopped calling her since. We talk weekly and she thanks me for every phone call. Yet each time I insist it should be me thanking her. She doesn’t know that she is my relief from death. Each conversation makes me feel like I am somehow serving Suzi and Pam and Wang MaMa and Bridget.
Now is that long overdue moment when I consider what this essay has become (I know you were thinking the same thing). Is this the heavy-handed treatise on mortal frailness that the introduction promised? Yes and no. You see, I always try to be honest, and because of that honesty I just can’t bring myself to hand over a gut-wrenching, tear-jerking essay on this subject. I have a propensity to try and skirt death which prevents the shock and sobbing and depression. But death still has its influence. It comes like a cloaked dagger rather than the ostentatious swing of the sword. It creates an awareness of my limitations and a guilt for my inability to be Christ. It forms the fissures of conscience into which I thrust good intentions. Of course, the tradeoff is that of renewed priorities, wider perspective, increased concern and greater gratitude for God. Death isn’t simple, why should its consequences be so? And sitting here, writing this essay I now realize that this swirl of death’s foaming impacts is actually a primordial soup.  It is the building blocks of compassion, which if acted upon evolves into love.  

Thursday, September 13, 2012

The Cane

In the corner of my office sits a cane—a dark, knobby stick, with bright splotches where the outer varnish has been rubbed raw. Crowning the cane is a carved dragon head, with eyes and teeth that grin at me as I write this essay. And in its mouth a red ball, the Chinese sign of luck and celebration. But for me this cane is no cause for celebration. The cane troubles me. It nags at my conscience, a glaring testament to my failure. You see, I obsessed over it for years before I could claim it as my own. From my first sight of the cane as a young missionary in the mountains of Taiwan, I tried to imbue it with symbolic meaning. It was supposed to fill a hole, it was supposed to be significant, a family heirloom that I would share with my wife and pass down to my children, a tribute of the divine nature of relationships and the bonds of love. But now it sits in the corner of my office, neglected, watching me with dark eyes.
To understand the meaning of this cane, you must know that I am blue, or so I was told by one of those personality tests that boil down infinitely complex human characteristics into four simple colors. Being blue means I love people and relationships. Despite my incredulity for the test, I agree with that summation. I do love people. One morning, as a missionary in the mountains of Qishan, Taiwan, I took a notepad and tried to list every person I had ever met. It was a humbling task, made all the more daunting by the fact that I was a missionary, talking to hundreds of strangers daily. Ghosts from the past reappeared on that pad of paper. There were names: Tyler Rush, Jesse Hudson, Cathy King. There were memories: Pokemon card kid, scout camp kid, basketball team girl. And then there were the forgotten, the countless names and faces omitted from the notepad all together. In an hour’s time, I had completed up to ninth grade. The exercise drove me to a crisis. I felt responsible for these people, as if only my memories of them could prevent their slip into nonexistence. I envied God and his perfect knowledge.
As for the cane in the corner of my office, it once belonged to 98 year old Uncle Wang, or Wang Beibei as I called him. Standing at 6’3, a giant among the Chinese, he was a soldier, a mainlander, fluent in Japanese, Mandarin, Hawkanese and Taiwanese, who’d come to Taiwan after wars with the Rising Sun and the Reds. In the wars he’d been shot 8 times. But what the Japanese, the Commies, and the rest of the world failed to understand is that Wang Beibei was meant to live forever. When I met him, so many years after the war, he was still alive, sitting on a bed in the corner of the house, watching those awful Taiwanese soap operas with the elaborate costumes and angry women. His tall frame was hunched and filled with a gut. In his hand was the dragon cane, a physical reminder of his homeland. At 98 he was smoking a pack a day, causing me to question my conviction of the harmfulness of cigarettes that had been instilled by Dare officers and cartoon dogs.
We came to his house to meet his granddaughter, Wang TingTing, a nine year old, who only a year earlier joined our church.  But while I came to meet his granddaughter, it was Wang Beibei who kept me coming back. In terms of missionary prospects, he wasn’t the best of finds. He had a strange relationship with Jesus that reminded me of women and hormones. One day he would confide in us that he’d already been saved by grace, the next day he wasn’t sure if his calling and election had been made sure, and the day after that Jesus was one of the Gods that floated around at Buddha’s heaven party. Each day he was of a different faith and ironically he never seemed to be of mine. Despite the exasperation caused by his manic religious views, I think I was secretly fine with not baptizing him. I held, and still hold the belief that old people, like children, are unaccountable for sins. I believe in a loving God, and I like to think that by the time one of his children has lived long years in this world of trials and pain that He views them with the  same type of respect we pay to old veterans. He watches over them daily, excited for that soon-to-come time when he can take them in his arms and welcome them home. Old people are God’s favorites; I have no doubt about it. Besides, I was scared of baptizing the old man. I was sure he’d drown and I didn’t want to be responsible for killing the man meant to live forever. 
After the maddening failure of trying to confine all my friends and acquaintances onto a concise list, I decided to create broader categories. There were friends of youth, indestructible bonds. There were friends out of youth, a connection dependent on progressing interaction. There were associates, lasting their proper season. There were connecting strangers, the bus drivers and store owners. There were strangers, the petals on a wet black bough. And there was family eternal. Classifying was easy; establishing admittance requirements was not. Does a friend have to have been a friend from childhood to be a friend of youth? Why do some strangers disappear and others stick in memories? What draws us to people, establishes their role in our lives, the connection we share, the strength of our bond? In the end, I scrapped my categories for the same reason I discount the color test. Relationships, like people, are too complex to be grouped.
Other than the religious differences, Wang Beibei and I got along splendidly. We played Chinese Chess, ate Wang Mama’s delicious dumplings and went for walks. Well, I walked, he rolled. Wang Beibei’s feet had been eaten away by years of untreated diabetes that somehow failed to kill him. So to get the old man out of the house and into the semi-fresh Taiwanese air, I would push him and his cane in a wheelchair through the town. On our walks he would tell me stories about his life in China, point out pretty girls, and laugh. I loved his laugh. Wang Beibei had one of those infectious, deep, booming laughs. I say infectious because every laugh was accompanied by a voluminous, bronchial coughing spasm. When the coughing stopped, and I was sure he was still breathing, I couldn’t help but laugh myself. Yet to be honest, he was no idyllic, pleasant old person. Before me, Wang Beibei had been adamant that no missionaries enter his home. He would yell and curse and fume at the sight of their white shirts and ties. And it wasn’t just the missionaries. On his many cranky days, the old man would viciously insult Wang Mama, Wang Tingting and any pedestrians who happened to walk by the house. It was his temper that made me love him most. It linked him to my own grandpa, who in his spirited moments often favored me with creative titles like “chicken shit” and “horse’s ass.”  On those few days when Wang Beibei took the opportunity to swear at me in three different languages, I didn’t mind. As he was yelling, I’d give solemn nods, but then out would come the pictures from my pre-missionary life and I’d show him American girls that were dying to meet him. Pretty girls make beasts of young men, and tame the beast in old men. After a few girlfriend jokes, he’d be back to his infectious laughing.  
What draws us to people? The answer means everything. If it is a likeness of personality, similarity of experience or parallel interests, then I could rest at ease. It would signify that relationships, like all else in life, are only selfish. So why feel guilty for the loss of selfish interests? But I suspect the answer is something more divine, something akin to providence. That would signify that relationships, like all else in life, are given of God. And as the scriptures say we have a responsibility to cherish the gifts of God. But then there is the cane, reminding me daily of a gift that I once prized, but have long since laid aside.  
I did my best to take care of the old man. My missionary friend and I took mattresses from our apartment to give Wang Beibei something more comfortable to sit on than his wood boarded bed. We loaded them onto the handlebars of our bikes, accomplishing a balancing act that would have impressed circus clowns. Our mattresses were the first he’d ever owned.  I also tried to get him to quit smoking. You might think it silly or perhaps futile to ask a 98 year old man to give up a habit he had cherished for more than 50 years, and it’s true, I never expected him to really quit. But I liked to challenge him. Boredom is the leading cause of death among old people, and challenges are the cure for boredom. After a few weeks of relentless preaching, Wang Beibei was down to smoking just five cigarettes a day. I took his last pack, holding the cold turkey card in front of his eyes. The next day, as dusk was approaching, I stopped by his house to check on the challenge. Just as I was stepping off my bike and unstrapping my helmet, I saw Wang Beibei ride up to the front door on a motor scooter. It was a frightening sight, his bent and decrepit body powering that machine. He alighted the scooter, ignoring my gaping mouth, and hobbled with his cane back to bed. When I asked, he shamelessly admitted he’d gone too long without a smoke and had to buy himself a pack. I ended the smoking challenge with a promise that as long as he agreed to stay off the scooter, I would be happy to buy him a pack whenever he needed.   
On his bad days (which due his age and various afflictions were many), Wang Mama would call and ask for a visit. In his pain, he liked to talk and to pray. They were simple prayers, full of gratitude and blessings and sincerity. I knew Wang Beibei would never join our church, but in those pure moments we would be joined in our faith in the miraculous nature of prayer. After lifting our heads and opening our eyes, there was a certain peaceful stillness that even he couldn’t deny. When I wasn’t praying with him, I prayed for him. Praying for world peace is admirable, but there was tangible power in those intimate prayers for a friend. I knew his loneliness, his pain, and his fear, and in my nightly prayers I pleaded for him to have the simple promise of comfort.
I still pray for him now. What is this essay if not a prayer for the old man? But my petitions on his behalf are different than those in Taiwan. The intimacy has vanished. These prayers, this essay, are accompanied with a sense of guilt, conjured by those I have left behind. They haunt me. And as the faces appear at night with their accusing eyes, I can’t help but envy sociopaths. I am cursed to care. I make phone calls, write letters, schedule lunches and yet people still slip by. The lost ones depress me, they are my greatest failure. Technology only exacerbates the guilt. Now, relationships can be maintained by a few moments at the keyboard and a simple mouse click, but still they slip by. And then there is the cane, sitting in the corner of my office. It belonged to my Chinese grandpa, the man I loved, who I cried with at his hospital bedside. Why don’t I write him any more letters?  
Missionaries live transient lives, and after six months in Qishan I was called to move away. We wrote to each other the remainder of my time in Taiwan with my letters in sloppy, painstaking Chinese chicken-scratch and his in elegant calligraphy. A few months after the move, my grandpa passed away. To cure my grandfatherless condition, I wrote Wang Beibei, promoting him from friend to Chinese grandfather.  Before going home to America, I promised to return. It took me a year, and in the time between he had a stroke. But what the stroke failed to realize is that Wang Beibei was the man who was meant to live forever. He had his 100th birthday, lying paralyzed in the hospital. The stroke took his speech and his booming laugh, it left him hollow except for some tiny whisper of cognition.
 I visited his hospital side. At 100 years, he no longer had a gut, his figure had thinned from disease and his only movement was the frail swelling of the chest every time his lungs gave off a rattled breath. I hated that visit, seeing him confined in a motionless body in a motionless bed. I grabbed his moist hand and looked into his eyes; the man I knew was gone. His wife whispered in his ear. The words were simple: Elder Lei is here. There was no initial reaction, but soon his eyes began to move. He looked at me and I knew he saw me. I tried to smile and tell him some old joke. Instead, we both cried. I don’t know how to describe the sight of a 100 year old man sobbing. He cried without noise, just an open mouth and glistening eyes. And I wanted to run. Instead, I kept holding his hand. Before I left, his wife gave me his cane, the cane that the old man used for 50 years. When I look at the carved dragon head and I can see the room. The creaky wire bed, the ash tray, a mouth propped open by gusts of sad air, those last moments joined together in a type of prayer.
Wang Beibei was a gift of God. How else could a 98 year old Chinese man and a 19 year old American boy becoming the best of friends? But what troubles me when looking at the cane is that I don’t know whether to refer to him in past or present tense. After the hospital, Wang Beibei became one of the forgotten. Now, nearly three years from our last meeting, I don’t know if he’s alive. I have my excuses: he lives 6,345 miles away, his family doesn’t have internet, he can’t talk on the phone. But with all the memories, with the strength of our bond, how can I justify not even knowing if he is still alive? Occasionally I talk to Wang Mama; neither of us talk about the old man. I want to ask, but I’m afraid she’ll tell me about the death of the man meant to live forever. Yet my neglect has already killed him, it has erased him from my life. The cane is his ghost; it is my failure. It is a tangible reminder that I can still neglect the things I believe most important.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

One Night in Beijing

I am a boy: young, vibrant, adventurous. No, a man: responsible, ambitious, proud. Boy or man, man or boy? It makes no difference. The point is that I have testosterone. In fact, I was raised by testosterone. No, literally. It stretched me out and made me 6 foot 4, it gave me a beard that only grows on the neck, and it gave me a voice to sing Slave Spirituals. But gifts, such beautiful gifts come at a cost, the dreadful cost of arming the awful organ that had lain dormant since the blissful days of childhood. And so began the days of my tribulation. I know it’s unfair to blame all of the hardships in life on a hormone, but it’s easy, and true. And if I am to pass one thing on to my posterity, one eternal idea that they can always use to remember their dad, grandpa, great-grandpa (if the world lasts that long), it is that Sex is a terrible thing.
How so? That is what my story is for, to show you, in the brutal honesty of a translucent confession, my bitter, persistent struggles against Sex. You see, I was first infected at Stapley Junior High, during my 8th grade year on October 15th. Sometime during the night of the 15th, I was invaded, evidenced by the horrible symptom known as puberty. And so, in just one night, I morphed from a quiet, mild-mannered and obedient child into a monster. But every villain has his hero, every Hyde a Jeckyll. For my testosterone there was religion, pure, holy and stalwart; the story couldn’t be complete without it. To understand my tribulation you must understand that I have experienced the war of these two forces. The battle-field? My torn body. Casualties? My divided mind. Faith vs. Natural Man. Passion vs. Conscience.  But this wasn’t Harb ’67, no six day war. No, the Israelis had God on their side; I was at the mercy of lesser forms. When I sat down at that dinner table the war had already been fought for 10 years. But I get ahead of myself. Let me bring you to the table of my affliction.  
Seeking experience, résumé fodder and growth, I sacrificed the road trips, hammock reading, and, more importantly, the companionship of my girlfriend to take an internship in Beijing. I had, before I set out, a sort of blind enthusiasm for my trip. I knew nothing of the company, the work, the coworkers, where I would live, what I would eat, and what to expect. But I boarded the plane with nervous excitement, hoping that the name I’d been emailing would be at the airport to pick me up when I arrived. Luckily, things went according to plan, and I met my summer boss for the first time amidst the hustle of the Beijing airport. After picking me up, he took me out to eat, where, jet-lagged and worn, I had only enough appetite to sit and watch him alternate between dumplings and cigarettes. That first night was a clue to his character. You see, my boss, like any good Chinese businessman, was a habitual smoker. I suppose it is the natural product of living in Beijing, a city that itself seems to smoke, blowing large plumes of toxic, polluted air past the tall, chimney sky-scrapers. On my third day in Beijing he asked me to visit the store below our office and buy him a pack of 泰山[1] cigarettes, “the ones with the gold top.” It was my first time buying cigarettes. My second week I confused his water bottle for mine and took a gulp, then gagged at the small swig of cigarette water. In his office, I liked to watch the smoke while he asked me about America. Like any good Chinese businessman, he favored the Heat over the Mavericks and Kobe over Durant. His greatest passion, other than work, was Ferraris and Lamborghinis. The smoke would make blurry zig-zags as he tried to explain to me that just because I had an American girlfriend didn’t mean I couldn’t have a Chinese one too. I tried explaining that since my girl was half Chinese, normal rules didn’t apply, but he didn’t get it. It was that conversation, repeated several times in various forms throughout the summer, each ending with my boss giving a sigh and letting out that blurry zig-zag smoke, that led him to call me up for dinner and brought me to a Malaysian restaurant in the Soho shopping mall. True to form, when we entered the restaurant, he walked right by the no smoking sign and up the back stairway with his shining roll of tobacco. I trailed in the smoke.
Red was the sultry color that glowed at that dinner table at the top of the stairs. My boss had said we were going to meet one of his old coworkers who would make a good contact for me. I quickly assessed that he had other contacts in mind. And there she sat, loosely bathed in sensual folds of red.  She smiled at me and I felt the familiar drums of battle sounding in my chest. We sat down. There were other girls present too, dressed in nondescript whites. I’d try to remember their names, but I never knew them. And why should I? They were nothing but contrasts; girls with some beautiful features and other modest flaws, simple imperfections that were illuminated in the glow of their red companion. My boss spread his legs and let out a stream of smoke.
            “Christian, this is my friend Hano.” He motioned to a man in his mid-forties sitting at the table. “And more importantly, here are beautiful women.  Does America have girls this pretty?” Surprised as I was by the presence of three 20 something women with these mid-forties men, I was familiar with this tactic. I tried for the diplomatic answer.
“Well, both countries have very beautiful women, boss.” The two girls in white giggled when they heard me speak Chinese.
            “He speaks very well!” One of them said. My boss wouldn’t be distracted. He didn’t want peace, he wanted me to war.
            “No, no. Have you seen Anita? You need to meet Anita.”
            He motioned to the girl in red who once again flashed me a natural smile. Following the gestures of my boss’s hands, I took her in. Her hair was done up in one of those ways guys always notice but can never describe. Her red dress was low cut, pointing to breasts that stood out like a mountain in the plains when compared to other Chinese girls. She had a thin, taut waist. She was made-up, perfumed, and brimming with pheromones my body ached to discover. But war can’t be fought without two sides, and while my body committed to its prey, my mind was on red alert. In desperation it threw out its defense against the subtle flirting: forward unavailability.
          “Oh, she is very beautiful. But I did show you the pictures of my girlfriend, didn’t I? It’s just hard to compare.”  To my surprise, the blow didn’t land. There were more giggles.
            “Very good! He speaks better Chinese than you do Hano!” Once again my boss set in, speaking with a determined grin.
            “Trust me, you spend some time with Anita and you’ll forget all about those American girls. Isn’t that right Anita?”
            She simply stared at me, her dark eyes reading mine. At that moment, I knew she could see the struggle. She’d probably seen it before. She could see the testosterone working in my veins, but she saw deeper. She skirted around the conflict, feigning indifference, knowing only an indirect approach could circumvent a religious boy’s main defenses.
不一定[2]. American girls are real pretty.”  Still staring at me, she reached into her purse and pulled out a cigarette. My conscience trembled at her counter. In such few words, Anita revealed that in addition to her tangible sexuality, she had a style. She was a modern day flapper, one of those bored and beautiful sex idols fresh out of Gatsby’s parties. Cigarette in hand, her gaze lingered on me for a moment longer before she turned away.
            “Hano, could you give me a light? And why haven’t we ordered yet? I’m starving.”  She let off a puff of smoke and shouted for the waitress.  
            The waitress came as requested. She was a young girl, no older than 18, with a short, plump build and weak presence. She seemed as disturbed by the three girls as I did, yet pointing to another “No smoking” sign that had been placed at the front of the second floor, she asked Anita and the boss to put out their cigarettes. Anita flashed a little smile.
            “Sweetheart, just take our orders. Let us enjoy the evening.” Anita sized up her challenger, detecting her insecurities the same way she had rooted out my weakness.
            The waitress stood awkwardly, but somehow gathered enough courage to make another stand. Anita ignored her censure and played to her femininity.
            “That is the cutest skirt you are wearing. I really like it on you. You are such a cute little thing. Just take our order, I’m too hungry to stop smoking now. Hano, hurry and order.”
            The waitress gave up the fight and took down the order.
            As soon as she left the three girls loudly joked amongst themselves, laughing over the waitress’s fat thighs and pudgy face. Hano ordered a feast to fill the table. It was a masterful display of Chinese taste; each dish standing with its assigned counterpart. Braised pork next to sautéed shrimp, peppered chicken with fried eggplant, lemon-grass fish and grilled zucchini. The diners were equally divided up into their pairs, boss with his white, Hano with his white, me and the red. I tried for polite conversation.
            “So, are you in school right now?” I offered in between bites.
            “No.” She scooped another helping of the pepper chicken. I was surprised by her appetite.
            “You’re working then?”
            “No, not really.”
            “So… what do you do?”
            “What do you mean?”
“If don’t go to school and don’t work, what do you do?”
“I sleep in late, go shopping, put on make-up and look pretty for nights like tonight. Then I start over.”
            “That’s it?”
            “Do you have a better suggestion?”
            “No, it just seems a little boring to me.”
            “Well, hun, in China that’s a better life than most. Women in this part of the world have to take what they get or they’ll end up like those beggars on the streets. Heaven help ugly women, I don’t know how they get by.”
There was a brief pause. She continued.
“Besides, what’s wrong with my life? I like the nightlife. I like going out to eat, and the parties and the fun afterwards. I get to play all day thanks to generous men like Hano here.” She flashed him a smile.
            “She’s a special one, that girl.” Hano said to me. “She’s not like other girls; she has a different air than most.”
            Anita gave a little smile. “Hano, Jean told me you say the exact same thing to her. Don’t tell me you mean it with me?” She paused for a half-second and surveyed the dinner table. “I’m full, isn’t it time for a drink? Waitress?”
            The girl returned and everyone at the table ordered 青岛[3] beer; I got a sprite. The waitress returned with our drinks and 3 cups with dice. We were to play a drinking game. Anita tried explaining the rules to me, but they got tangled in the language barrier. The best I could make out was that we were playing some kind of bluffing game, and that if I threw out random number I might occasionally win a round. Of course, those occasional wins were few and far between. Anita seemed annoyed by my lack of wins; she wanted to drink and my game play was keeping both her and me sober.
            “It’s not fair to play this when you are drinking Sprite. Let me order you a real drink.” But as much as my body wanted to take her to bed, both my mind and body agreed that drinking wasn’t an option. Religion had won that battle long ago.
            “No thanks, I don’t drink.”   
“How can a man not drink? How can you go through this world without drinking?”
            “How does alcohol help you get through this world?”
            “It just makes things—fun. Life is dull without alcohol.”
            “I don’t think so.”
            Exasperated, she gave up her push and went back to her bread and butter of forward sexuality. She pulled her chair closer to mine, teasing my inability to play the game. After she had finished her drink, she leaned her head against my shoulder and pulled my hand until it was laying flat on the table. There was no more conversation, only the electric sensation of Anita’s fingernails scratching down my forearm and over the back of my hand. 
In my young years, religion had sanctified the dinner table as a fort of defense. Into its four legs it breathed the virtues of love, honor, honesty and obedience, all topped with a sturdy rectangle of unity. You might think this personification eccentric, but religious boys know that the dinner table stands for family. At my family dinner table, Dad always sat at the head, his chair turned to face the open kitchen. Mom sat on the other end, constantly correcting my posture and growling because my dirty elbows were desecrating her table. Imagine how she would have erupted as the symbol of family slowly burned under the soft scratches of hands to forearms. Imagine how she would have felt? But my mother wasn’t there. Neither was my father, my girlfriend, or my friends. Even God himself seemed to missing from that communist country. Have you ever been completely free from social restraints? I was in that moment. Testosterone gained the upper ground, flashing images in my mind of the fun evening ahead. I wouldn’t be caught. One innocent night of fun, indulging in the soft skin and forbidden touch of a woman who would know how to please a man. But why stop at one? I could have her whenever I wanted. No more jealousy at seeing the skinny, feminine Chinese men kissing their girlfriends, no more angst poetry written to ward away lonely nights. And when the summer was over, I would go home, forgetting my trespasses in a self-imposed amnesia and then happily slide back into the circle of friends and family who would accept me back into their lives without the slightest suspicion.
We paid the check and walked downstairs to catch some cabs. My boss and his friend got in the first taxi and disappeared into the night. Hano and his friend went next. It was just me and Anita. The final cab pulled up. I was alone in Beijing, but tonight I would not be lonely.
            It is strange how in moments of extreme moral decisions the littlest events carry the heaviest significance.  Moving towards the cab, Anita leaned onto my arm and her touch reminded me of the girl who I really wanted at my side. My mind played out a montage of the past and future. There was our first kiss at Utah Lake and the pain pouring out in a hug before leaving to the airport and Beijing. I imagined our engagement and how beautiful she would look in the wedding dress. There would be children, bringing with them the hectic Saturdays, scrambling to ball games and dance recitals. I saw romantic evenings and nights sleeping alone on the couch. There wouldn’t be the excitement of the dirty, forbidden passion that Anita represented, but what I saw was whole[4].
            Anita was already in the cab. Her skirt had been pulled up to show off her perfectly toned legs. She looked at me with tired eyes and her vulnerable body. I pulled out a 20 rmb note from my pocket and handed it to her. She looked at the bill, then back at me.
            “What’s this for?”
            “Your cab ride home. It’d be rude of a gentleman to make the lady pay.”
            She stared at me and I knew that for the first time in a long time, she was uncertain of what to say.
            “Why don’t you come along? A real gentleman would make sure the lady made it home safe, especially at this late hour.” She bit her bottom lip and then added softly “I want to show you my place.”
            Her forward push was too late. The battle was over.
“Sorry. I need to get home.” I pushed the 20 at her one more time. She took it. I will never forget that look in her eye as I shut the cab door. It was a mixture of disappointment and contempt, the consequence of injuring a pride that had grown accustomed to invulnerability. Her car drove off. I walked off in the direction of my distant home. The street was quieter that late at night, the only traffic on the road was taxi’s whisking away their passengers to pubs and clubs and late night rendezvous. But me, I walked on to an empty apartment where I would open up a computer and make a phone call to tell a girl 6,612 miles away that I loved her.      

Our Engagement Picture

[1]  泰山: pronounced Tai-Shan. The name of one of the five sacred mountains. It is associated with sunrise, birth, and renewal. A fitting name for a brand of cigarettes. 

[2] 不一定: pronounced Bu-Yi-Ding. A common Chinese phrase that lacks a direct English translation. It expresses doubt and uncertainty.
[3] 青岛 pronounced Qing-Dao. Chinese second largest brewery. Originally founded by Germans in 1903. The beer is named after Qing-Dao city in the Shandong province of China.
[4] Whole: An English word derived from the old English word “Hal.” In adjective form it means “in an unbroken or undamaged” and as a noun “a thing that is complete in itself.” A fitting word for the end of a 10 year war.