Saturday, January 3, 2009

Fifty Above

The phone rang at 1am. It was Alex. I had been sound asleep and thought at first she was calling from Seattle -- Alex is oblivious to time zones -- but then I remembered she was already here for Christmas. She had run out of gas outside the Open Eye Cafe in Carrboro. I got dressed and drove over there with a five-gallon can. The streets were deserted. She was with an old friend who is in the process of reinventing himself as an itinerant singer-songwriter, lately of Santa Cruz where he’s hoping to get a band going, or possibly go to massage school in Colorado. Hi Mister Swanson. What’s up Keith. I was about to thank him for staying with Alex out there in the middle of the night, but then I realized she was his only means of transportation; he was stranded too. We chatted for awhile. He said he had recently hitchhiked to California by way of Iowa, on a pilgrimage to see the original manuscript scroll of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road; it was the fiftieth anniversary. I recounted my own West Coast hitchhiking odyssey at age eighteen. He listened with the kind of respect bordering on reverence that I always imagine Chinese children have for their grandparents. A couple of nights later I went with Alex to hear Keith play Radio Head songs for a bunch of screaming high school kids at Cat’s Cradle. He was pretty good. They all seemed to love him. Boy, am I getting old.

Then Alex’s new boyfriend arrived with his sidekick on New Year’s Eve, bearing thoughtful gifts for the entire family including the dog. The lads were on their way back to Seattle from a holiday in Aruba and decided to swing by Chapel Hill, North Carolina. (If you study a map of the Western hemisphere and try to think like a twenty-something male, the logic will leap out at you.)

My gift was something called “The Writer’s Toolbox,” a set of games and creative exercises designed to help aspiring fiction authors think up more interesting plot material and improve their narrative arc. (Alex had foisted
BlindingInsights on Michael; he knew I could use some technical assistance.)

The “tools” comprise a set of laminated paper wheels with little revolving word windows -- one each for
Protagonists, Goals, Actions, and Obstacles; three sets of color-coded popsicle sticks with first-sentence ideas and fragments of snappy dialogue; and a stack of what are called “sixth sense cards” containing odd non-sequiturs and evocative oxymorons. Then there’s an hourglass timer.

Using this unique system, any hack novelist wannabe can easily compose something like the following, in less than two minutes:

Bill the paleoclimatologist had planned to quit drinking and save Mother, but he had recently taken up dancing and the Cat Lady was wearing a disguise.
It’s magical. If only Alex had mentioned to Michael that I'd wanted to play golf, I would now be serenely smiting the ball like Tiger Woods.

Iris the psychoanalyst didn’t give a damn about the sound of Henry’s crying. She was sick of it all -- the feel of spandex, that old letter from Amsterdam, the crooked umbrella. Who cared? Iris was going to lose weight, overcome her fear of heights, and become a stalker.
See what I mean? (Thanks, Michael!)

Still, there was something surreal here. Could I truly be the father of this poised and diffident young woman being visited by an earnest Rutgers graduate? My mind wandered to Christmas (
Wasn’t it just last week?) and I could still feel the sting of watching a five year-old’s pure joy dissolve in tears, as she discovered her new Bike Barbie® could not, in reality, cruise independently around the house on that miniature pink bicycle as shown on TV. (Barbie couldn’t stand up on her own two feet, for that matter -- proportioned as she was -- so I’m not sure why she should have been expected to ride a bike, but Christmas is the time for miracles.)

We’d gone to Asheville that year -- 1993 -- and were ensconced in her grandparents’ house made of logs. The early forecast had called for freezing rain, but a Nor’easter had taken shape overnight, then shifted course inland to collide with a mass of visiting Canadian air. Unexpectedly, this giant snowmaking machine stalled over North Carolina. By late Christmas Eve, untold inches of powder had piled up and the Southern drivers were playing bumper-cars on the Interstate, careening into the ditch.

A white Christmas is a rare thing down where we live. It’s not totally unheard of, but you’d have to be an extreme optimist to expect it -- like ordering Oysters Rockefeller in a restaurant and hoping to pick up a pearl. That being said, in the South, any snowfall at all is considered a municipal disaster; any discernable dusting will close all the schools and exhaust the local retail stock of batteries, bottled water, portable generators, and toilet paper. So it’s more apropos to put this in terms of pessimism and unwarranted fear: like ordering those oysters and being worried you’ll crack your molar on a pearl and choke. (It could happen. . .)

As for me, Christmas in the South always brings a vague sense of arctic yearning. Growing up in Ecuador, we saw snow only on the distant peaks of the Andean volcanoes. My dad spoke of endless hockey games on the frozen lakes of Minnesota. Grandmother Dillon came to stay with us and told me a story about driving a horsedrawn farm wagon into a snowdrift higher than the horse, whose name was Dick. I could only imagine these things, until we went there, and then I saw that it was all true.

Oliver swore on his mother’s grave, but then he swore on just about everything. Meanwhile, the woman in 3B stared out the window, alone with a half-eaten box of Fig Newtons. . .

I learned from my cousins that temperature should always be reported with the preposition
above or below -- the implied reference point being zero (degrees Fahrenheit). So even on a balmy spring day, my people in Minnesota will note, rather mournfully, that “it’s fifty above” -- thus not to confuse the ambient temperature with fifty below, a condition more common in Minnesota than finding anything untoward in your appetizer at Rusty Scuppers.

“There is no bad weather -- only bad clothes,” they say. To which I would add one exception: for them, anything higher than “thirty-one above” within two months of the winter solstice qualifies as “bad weather.” (Al Gore should add some PowerPoints® on the cultural fallout of global warming; it's going to depress the heck out of the Minnesota Swedes and, believe me, depression is not something they need any more of.)

But on that marvelous, unheralded snowy Christmas in 1993, I took Alex sledding. She forgot all about Barbie and her little inert plastic bike. She sat on my lap and we sailed down the silent hill through the pine trees for hours. That was a long time ago. She’ll be twenty-one in April . . . and I can see fifty (above) in the rearview mirror. Now she lives in Seattle. She’s majoring in Asian Studies and Korean language. She teaches yoga and plays heartbreakingly beautiful flute solos.

I was injured in a car crash a few years ago and a pastor came to see me in the hospital. I was alone and we talked for awhile. That evening the pastor called the house to reach out to my family; he got Alex on the phone. The pastor said, “You know, your dad really loves you all. He told me the accident is helping him reorder his priorities. He can see now what’s most important in life. Going forward, he’s going to spend a lot less time at work and more time with the family. Maybe he’ll do volunteer work for charity and write a children's book.” Alex said to the pastor, “That must have been the morphine talking.”

On a rainy night in Seoul, a man with cerebral palsy lay prostrate on a plywood skateboard. He held a cup and inched his way along the sidewalk. A careless passerby kicked the cup into the street. A girl from America saw the wheelboard man and thought of her disabled sister. She was moved with compassion and started to approach the man. Her Korean friends pulled her back; they said it was improper. She came home and wrote a story that made her father cry. Then she moved three thousand miles away.