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It's a fine line between living for the moment and being a sociopath.

Patricia B McConnell: For The Love Of A Dog.

Pema Chodron: The Places That Scare You

Daniel Wallace: Mr Sebastian & the Negro Magician

All paths lead to the same goal: to convey to others what we are. --Pablo Neruda

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Wednesday, August 15, 2001

Shang High Life, #5

Shang High Life, #5
August 15, 2001

The Father of All e-Mails

For those of you who know my dad, you might send him a “Hoy!” He recently went from being an unlivable, cantankerous bastard to officially being an unlivable, cantankerous OLD bastard. On July 15 he turned 70.

For reasons I can’t explain, the things that have been touching me most in the last few months have had to do with family. A long, important walk with my Mom just before I left California. A visit with my nephews that left me wondering who I’ll be to them as they grow up. Watching my dad turn 70 from a vantage point far too far away.

Having never before read any book that claimed to be a family history, I have read two in the last six months. What’s more, I added them to my favorites list. I wonder why family has come to the fore in my emotions. The significance these events have taken on, and the increasing number of references to “middle-aged men” in my writing, make me wonder if it’s just the stealthy approach of mid life.

But mid life seems as far away from me in time as my family is in miles. So maybe it’s just that distance makes the heart grow fonder. But living in Sydney for ten years---just as far from them all---didn’t have this same effect. Perhaps finding love with a woman I’ve known for so long has brought more intense feelings about family to the fore. But Geri and I are still in mushy-gushy mode, thinking of little else and, besides, all this emotional family stuff started before she and I got together.

So, I don’t know what has been causing it. Don’t much care. Whatever it is, I am relishing this new-found appreciation of my family.

You may not want to read the following. It’s very personal, and it’s not important to anyone other than me and my dad. It’s a little strange to put it here, but I do so because of a lesson I learned from my friend David White, recently. David, who *is* approaching middle age rather rapidly, took the last year off: a sabbatical with his wife and three kids. His e-mails have become increasingly personal. In the last one, he spent a few pages meditating on his realizations about how much he loves his wife. He wrote it down for his own benefit, and for hers. We were let in on it only because David is generous.

I felt like I’d received a gift. I know David better because of it, and I’m glad, but he gave me more than that. His words made me reflect on how I love: the vicissitudes and flaws, the giddiness, the yearning, the peace and the aspiration to unending generosity. I had thoughts I wouldn’t have had if David hadn’t shared his with me. Rather than write something trite or inadequate, here, about what I think I learned about the impact of exposing one’s love to the world, I thought I’d just go ahead and expose mine.

What’s below is just as personal as David’s reflections about his wife. It doesn’t use the phrase “sex kitten”, and it’s clumsy, but I’m just a student.

I wrote this to my Dad, then videotaped it so I could “be there” for his birthday.

* * *

Hi, Dad….

I don’t know whether Myrna is going to give this to you before your actual birthday, on the day, or after. Regardless, I hope it finds you celebrating, and I wish I could be there throughout. So, since I can’t be, I thought this would be the next best thing.

Up until a couple of months ago, I was planning on flying in for this one. Seventy is an occasion definitely worthy of a hop on a plane. Sending you this tape is a distant second-best to being there in person, and I will always miss having been there on the day you officially became an old guy.

As a result, I thought it would be appropriate if I based all that I want to say on my feelings about why I’m here, and not there, and the role you’ve played in that.

A few months ago, I gave you a book, A Mass for the Dead, as a way of letting you know how fortunate I felt not to be in the author’s shoes. He was stuck, only having realized the great gift of his father’s character after his father had died. As much as the book was a celebration of his parents’ lives, it was soaked in his remorse about not having expressed—about not having even realized—his appreciation for his parents’ stewardship of his life, nor their legacy to him: the legacy of his own character, molded, despite himself, by their life-long example, and by their love.

Giving you that book, and the letter enclosed with it, was one of the best things I’d done in a long time, even if I knew you wouldn’t like the book much. I can’t account for your taste in literature, but I can sure as hell determine whether or not you know what your son thinks of you.

As good as I felt about sending the book and the letter, there was still a great deal left unsaid. So, even though there’s a chance it’s the most selfish birthday gift I could send you, I thought I’d take this opportunity to finish the job. I know it’s not much of a gift, by some standards. I wish there were something grand, and showy and surprising that you’d really value, and that I could have delivered to your door in the biggest truck UPS has got. But I can’t think of it. So, think of this as the gift you get when you’re a pain in the ass to shop for.

Having made a big deal about the fact that this four dollar and 95-cent videotape is your present, I actually have a hard time naming what it is I want to put on it. In a way, it’s a tribute. It’s also thanks. But I hope that I get at a bunch of other stuff I can’t articulate, too.

I’m a little nervous, I’ve gotta tell you, that this is going to end up sounding like a eulogy. If it does, however, maybe that’s because people save their nicest things to say about you until you’re dead. And, mostly, so far as I can tell, they mourn the loss of the opportunity to tell the dead guy how much they loved him. I won’t make that mistake. I’d rather say it now, trading on the excuse of your 70th birthday, when you look like you’ve got about another 70 years in you.

The evidence of the success of those first 70 years is all around you. The material success is obvious, though in my life I can’t remember you emphasizing it all that much. Sandy’s boys, as your grandchildren—showing so many of your physical and temperamental characteristics already—are, in a way, a testament to you as a patriarch. Your marriage to Myrna is a vibrant monument to you as a lover and husband. Your golf handicap isn’t really much of a towering achievement….but it’s a work in progress.

One of the things I don’t really know about you is how reflective you are, as a man. I don’t know if you ever sit back and wonder whether you were a good father….or whether you assume, to quote one of the philosophies with which you raised me, that you did the best you could at the time and that’s all anyone can ever ask.

To toss my two cents at that question---of the quality of your fatherhood---and to assuage my sadness at not being there in person, I thought I’d play on the irony that I reckon I’m in Shanghai right now, making this videotape, because of what an extraordinary father you are.

There are things I like about myself and things I don’t, but so many of my strengths are reflections of you.

Most of the teaching I remember you doing, as I was growing up, you did by example, rather than by lecture. If boys learn how to be men from the way their fathers are men, then here’s some of what I learned from you.

I learned that experiences are more important than things.

I learned that the night sky is worth noticing….worth lying on your back at midnight in the summertime, and drinking in with your eyes.

I learned that home is where you make it with people you love.

I learned that integrity and justice matter….and that even if they are rarely achieved as absolutes, they’re always worth pursuing.

I learned that you should always be careful with sharp objects.

I learned that the purest way to love someone is to do all you can to lift them up as they strive, so they might become more than they otherwise would.

I learned that fear is okay….but never to let it keep you from an experience that would help you grow.

I learned to love words, and I learned to love ideas even more, and I learned to love principles even more, still.

I learned that dedication matters.

And I learned that the only way the people you love are really going to know it is if you tell them and show them all the time.

When I’ve failed to follow those lessons---some of them embarrassingly often--- I’ve almost always suffered. I’ve also gotten myself in trouble living up to some of them. But whenever I have, I have known I was in trouble for the right reasons.

More importantly, the things I consider my successes have grown out of these and other principles I watch you live.

This adventure I’m on now, in Shanghai, would seem crazy to most other men’s sons. To me, on some level, it seems like an extension of my father’s desire to show me new places, new things…whether it was a cross-country camping trip for which he pulled me out of school early, or a trip to Europe, or a move to a country that, at the time, seemed as foreign as China, even if it was only Canada.

If your dad were alive, I think he might have a hard time believing his grandson is living in China. It’s a long way from the tobacco farm and the hand-built house in Greensboro. But I didn’t create that leap. You did. I don’t think you know that the part of my family history that I recount with greatest pride is of the hillbillies who never made it past grade school, and then of the one who did. Without knowing it, I internalized the example of your self-determination to create a life that would be all you wanted.

I can only remember three fights we ever had. One of them was about me being a self-absorbed dickhead. Both of the other two were about my education. ….about you caring that I keep open all the kinds of options you had created in your life. ….because you knew what it was like to have to fight for them.

It is because, under your implicit tutelage, I’ve grasped every wild-ass great opportunity I’ve had, that I’m in China right now.

Regardless of the reason, however, I’m still profoundly sad I can’t make it to be with you this weekend: to this celebration of the first seventy years of your life. But I hope you’ll take as a consolation this one thought: to me, every day is a small celebration of your life, because I’m grateful for who you have been, and who you are, that has made so many of the good bits of who I am.

I’ve always wanted to give you gifts that you’d love, and that had something of me in them. So, with the assertion that 70th birthdays are a good time to get philosophical, I’ll posit that our lives and what we do with them are, in the end, all that we have to offer the people we love. Nothing else matters much, not even a really big Lexus. So, I hope you’ll accept, on your 70th birthday, my life---hopefully well-lived, but certainly *gratefully* lived---as my gift to you.

….and not just because you’re a pain in the ass to shop for.

I love you very much. Happy Birthday.

Sunday, August 05, 2001

Shang High Life, #4

Shang High Life, #4
August 5, 2001

Al Dente? Or Off The Shoulder?

It’s summer in China. July and August are hot. Read, “hot”. Shanghai summer temperatures are regularly 100 degrees Fahrenheit, approaching 40 degrees Celsius. Humidity hovering around a bazillion. It is inspiration to wear as little clothing as possible.

Yet, stripping off like a Swede in spring is hardly acceptable here. As in most places, one’s physical comfort takes a back seat to prevailing social norms, adherence to which is a serious matter and seen to be very much in the public interest. It is, therefore, of concern to The Party.

Which is why the central government has taken a recent heat wave as opportunity to release official state policy on spaghetti straps. They published in the People’s Daily. Allow me to boil the esoteric communist ideology on the spaghetti strap issue down to the basics: THEY DON’T LIKE THEM.

What I don’t think The Party realizes is that, ironically, even as it attempts to clamp down on the western-inspired decadence of the spaghetti strap, this policy will have an impact economic reformists have only been able to fantasize about….until now. It will launch the majority of Shanghai women straight up to parity with their western capitalist counterparts, as they will now be forced to stare into their closets and complain that they have absolutely nothing to wear.

An anti-spaghetti-strap policy is impractical in this heat, sure. But, more than that, it also seems a little ironic. This is, after all, the land from which Marco Polo appropriated pasta. Rather than banning the damn things, one might have thought the government would celebrate spaghetti straps as a cultural export. They could even *mandate* that clothing supports, ties and fasteners of all kinds be made and named in the image of noodles.

But banning them? Coming out against spaghetti straps isn’t quite as bad as Nero fiddling while Rome burns. (The cliché is historically impossible, anyway, given Nero’s death predated the fiddle’s invention by a few centuries.) But whatever happened to tackling the big issues first? So, like, knock yourselves out trying to force The People’s dress code into something you consider less prurient. But, while you’re at it, could we please do something about the guys who sleep on the sidewalks in their underwear?

No, I am not kidding. And the guys aren’t homeless. It’s just cooler outside than in many of the communist-era concrete ovens known as apartment buildings. Unfortunately, these sidewalk sleepers seem, without exception, to be unattractive middle-aged men. The only thing in the plus column is that this has allowed me to make one of my first important observations of comparative cultural anthropology. Middle-aged men the world over, regardless of race, creed or cultural heritage, have equally bad taste in underwear, not to mention lax underwear-maintenance practices.

Imagine how different a country China would be if its young *women* slept on the sidewalks in their underwear. Rather more salubrious, I venture. And I’m not sure anyone would have gotten so riled up about a cultural revolution, either.

But if Marco Polo brought pasta from China to Italy only to have it take over the country’s entire culinary identity, Europe did indeed return the favor---although I shudder to call it that. Call it a cultural exchange, if you must. Call it the worst plague to be visited on some of the most beautiful women in the world, if you desire a reputation for sympathetic hyperbole. But whatever you call it, mourn the loss of a distinctive part of China’s ethos. For, just as the Chinese noodle enslaved the palates of Italy, so the brassiere has enslaved the breasts of China.

While this may not be THE stupidest thing man has foisted on God’s creation, can we take a moment to appreciate the obvious here? Think Chinese women for a second. Even if your experience of them is tiny, I can assure you that they are, too. These are the last women on the planet that need titular support. I don’t know who the bastard French salesman was that made an early trip to China and had a sly idea, but he totally ruined a paradise for men who appreciate small-breasted women. You would see more braless women in a German convent than you see in Shanghai on a 100-degree day.

Chinese women even learned from westerners that nasty habit of wearing floral-embroidered bras under thin silk chemises, creating that oh-so-attractive nobbly effect. What a horrible way to ruin three of the nicest things China had to offer the world….silk being the third.