Celebrating my ordinary self

I’ve had an interesting time looking at myself these past few months. While I was unemployed I swam almost every day. The upside was that I felt great; the downside was that I got skin cancer in the middle of my darned face. A few dermatologist visits later, I am the proud owner of a one-inch scar on my cheek, hiding in the crease of my smile.

Age never stops, does it? Between one weekend and the next time wears away, and suddenly I’m much older.

All of the humans in my family are attractive. The Thai side goes without saying, but the caucasian side is pretty shy about their beauty. I have a few pictures that float through my memory every now and again of various aunts of mine, modeling for me how gracefully women can age. I think one day I’ll look like them, when my hair gets a little whiter. The only part of me that’s different is height. I might seem short compared to Dave, but I’m always a giant around my family.

 

Here’s half a year of selfies, photos taken in the bathroom mirror at work. Why? There are too few representations of normal humans, especially older ones, and it’s good to get accurate representations of humans out there.

 

Prompt 7: Write a fan letter to someone

One day, out of the blue, a friend mentioned that she’d just written a letter to Richard Armitage. Slightly later that day, another friend told me that she had a class assignment to write a fan letter to the author Sharon Creech. Both of these fan letters were about how the artists’ works impacted my pals in a deep and heart-felt way.

It was an interesting exercise to read the letter to Richard Armitage. The letter was soul-baring and honest, and discussed moments from my friend’s life that were especially resonant with Armitage’s work. The fan letter to Sharon Creech hasn’t been written yet, but while discussing it with me, my pal mentioned that her personality is probably modeled after Creech’s protagonists. “How do I tell her that and not feel weird?” she wondered.

In short, I think the universe is telling me to write a fan letter. I’ve rarely been moved to write fan letters, but I have written one before: it was to the author of the book Alba, to tell him that I named my child after the protagonist of his book. So, I think I’ll take a deep breath, hold my imaginary cajones, and dive right into this one… Maybe saying it to the internet will make it less difficult than saying it more privately.

Dad hiking

Dear Daddy,

I remember leaving you to catch my flight from Honolulu back to Los Angeles. You were in the not-quite-ICU ward of the hospital, and what was foremost on my mind was the worry that you’d be ignored by the nurses. It was early in the morning, but you were sitting up with a calm expression on your face.

“I’ll be okay,” you said. “This is my life now, and I’ve got to get used to it.”

I was struck pretty deeply by these words, and by the strength (mental, physical) of the person who said it. No matter what other qualms you might’ve had about what landed you in that place at that time, you were resolved to accept and work with what you were given. I think that this moment stuck with me because it was a point beyond panic or self-pity or anything negative. It turned your situation into something that simply required work, and thought, and effort, to abide with it.

You were probably putting on a bit of a front for your daughter, and I suspect this because I did it too when I had to tell Alba that I had cancer.

Still, your words and attitude stuck with me, and helped shape my own attitude toward ability and how to handle it. I began to see people in wheelchairs as the first in a pretty revolutionary wave of human cyborgs — humans who were using awesome technology to overcome the limitations of ridiculously weak flesh. But what’s important is that I stopped feeling fear or sorrow or anything negative about people who need additional technology to live. I just see them as human, creative humans, like you, me, everyone.

Anyway, this is my fan letter to you, Daddy. I have other heroes, obviously, and one is definitely Debbie, who is a strong part of helping to solve this complex puzzle of how to exist in a world when the usual functions of a body need to be enhanced and mitigated by science. But I will save those heroes for letters of their own. So thank you, for always being the person who has led me in my philosophical approach to life and adversity, and for striving to live with (rather than despite) this bunch of life lessons.

Love and respect,

Your kid.

Walking machine

Prompt 6: Do you have a Plan? Do you need a Plan?

I am very anti-whining in journal writing. I live in the first world and have enough to eat, a house that I’m working on owning, and a family that isn’t dead from disease or war. I’ve had enough medicine to treat my diseases, a hospital to tend to me during childbirth, an infrastructure that’s invested in making sure my child learns things, and all sorts of stuff that money can buy (books, a car, pretty clothing, complicated telephones). This is my biggest and best caveat for what I have to say in this blog. Don’t think for a moment that I don’t appreciate what I have!

That being said, I must admit that my childhood is probably responsible for my perspective on making plans for the future. Growing up, my family moved every few years, and this constant, restless motion kind of curtailed my ability to think farther than two or three years down the road.

One summer I was parked at my grandmother’s house in upstate New York while my parents were trying to figure out whether or not to get divorced. I believe I was in fourth grade, about to go into fifth.

“Can I join the school choir?” I asked Grandma Stone hopefully.

“No, because you’ll probably be back in Hawaii soon.”

My parents stayed together for a year or two after that, but on different islands.

“Can I have a cat?” I asked my dad.

“No, because I’m not sure we’ll still be on this island next year,” my dad replied.

We spent a lot of time living in limbo because the future was uncertain, and my parents did the very best that they could with this uncertainty.

~

The more I live, the more I comprehend how realistic it is to live in this kind of limbo, and how smart it was for my parents to curtail any kind of investment in thinking about the future, by pointing out that we had no idea what would happen the very next year.

Does anyone, really?

That’s why, when I hear about people making one, three, and five-year plans for the future, I feel astounded. How do they know that a tsunami won’t roll in and flatten their town, or that their field of work won’t suffer a sudden, astronomical decline (like, what if you’re one of the guys that wrangles mules for the mule-pulled riverboats, and steamboats just got invented?), or that they’ll get hit with a disease?

When I got to college, I realized that the people around me were planning for their futures by going into medicine or law or journalism, while I decided to dive straight into what I enjoyed the most. After all — I could die, or maybe the earth could be flattened by a stray chunk of meteor, or the university could come crashing down around us. Why not study what I loved?

One of my majors was English, the other was something I invented myself — Jungian studies, basically. I studied the very useless field of psychology and myth, happily playing around with the idea that psychology invents itself perfect stories called “religion” to help humans feel more at peace with the catastrophic nature of all the unknowns in the world.

While pursuing this topic, I found the best possible religion for myself — Taoism. I bought myself a pocket-sized edition of Stephen Mitchell’s Tao one day, and I’ve carried the poor battered thing around me ever since. (Wait, I lied. I gave away the first one that I owned to someone that I thought would resonate with it, and bought myself a new one.)

The Tao fit into my mind and heart well, because it bowed immediately to the mutability of all existence. It did the opposite of requiring a plan — in fact, it advocated for giving up on all plans, because they’re all futile in the face of so much ungovernable reality:

If you want to be a great leader,
you must learn to follow the Tao.
Stop trying to control.
Let go of fixed plans and concepts,
and the world will govern itself.

I don’t have a plan, and I don’t think I’ll ever have a plan. Plans get in the way of adapting to reality. When I get to the end of life and look back and scratch my head at how utterly random my life has been, I think I’ll shrug my shoulders and laugh like a Chinese master. I didn’t live life so much as let life live me.

The mark of a moderate man
is freedom from his own ideas.
Tolerant like the sky,
all-pervading like sunlight,
firm like a mountain,
supple like a tree in the wind,
he has no destination in view
and makes use of anything
life happens to bring his way.

Nothing is impossible for him.
Because he has let go.

Today’s prompt feels kind of roughly written and dubious in emotional resolution, but that’s life.

Prompt 5: My kid’s school essay assignment

Today my kid had a writing prompt. The prompt was to compare the climaxes of two different stories about hiking. I told her I’d write an essay about it too, to better feel her pain. I admit that I am not entirely feeling her pain because the poor kid has to write long-hand on special essay paper, whereas I get to type. This means that I can go back and revise much more easily. (I think schools should teach kids to type and write simultaneously — isn’t typing a more necessary skill than writing, nowadays?)

One of the stories was about a little boy who decided to hike through his small town to explore a bee farm; the other was about a little girl who went on a hike with her big brother. The one about the little boy was clearly about urban exploration. It was the type of adventuring that happens when you invade private property in a city, with all the usual details including encountering trash and concrete barriers, a bit of parkour, entering someone else’s property illegally, and meeting something scary that turns out to be an interesting twist on the mundane.

The story about the little girl was…ok, honestly, it was boring. The little girl went hiking but got tired, and due to the support and encouragement of the man in her life (her big brother) (who also kind of insulted her for being “little” when he reminded her that she was already ten), she was able to move on and overcome her fatigue.

I grew up either outside or in a book. When I was outside, I was down a literal hole (or over hot lava), and when I was inside, I was in another land. Later, I evolved from a rural adventurer into an urban adventurer, so I admit that I resonated more with the story about the boy.

I guess because I grew up outside, I immediately found holes in the little girl’s story. First, the little girl put on her hiking boots at home before she went on the two-hour car ride to the hike. In real life, you wear your clean rubber sandals in the car (well, in Hawaii), and stick your dirty hiking boots in the trunk. The first thing you do when you reach the trail is put on your socks and boots. Second, the little girl is only able to push through her trail fatigue after words from her brother, who says, “You’re ten, you can do it.” The story also says that the little girl believed him, because her brother “never lied.” Hmmmm. I admit to being skeptical about the limited perception of the narrator. In fact, the ten-year-old girl was written as much younger than my own ten-year-old girl tends to be. Was she infantilized? Am I just used to stronger heroines?

The little boy, on the other hand, only screamed “a little” when he saw the beekeeper in the bee suit. After his understanding shifted and the alien turned out to be a human in a bee suit, he allowed this person to teach him about bees. Interesting side point — my daughter also felt more affinity for this story, because once upon a time she got to visit her aunt’s bee farm and wear the bee suit (there she is, above).

Dave, who also wrote with us, said that he was pretty insulted by the difference in agency between the two protagonists. I can see his point. The boy was definitely the ruler of his own fate, despite his fear. The girl needed assistance from a man to push through her own internal battle. I’d love to see these stories genderswapped to figure out where the actual fault might lie. Oh, the story about the little boy was much longer and more detailed than the one about the little girl. That bothered me too.

In the concluding words encouraged by Monkey’s teacher: SO THERE YOU HAVE IT. My essay about an essay about essays.

Prompt 4: A high-heeled shoe, a rubber dog bone, a burned out pot, a piece of jewelry, an old pair of pants

Last night, my daughter left a dripping-wet trail from the shower to my room, calling my name. “Come here, mama,” she said mysteriously. “Come look in the bathroom.”

“…Did something break?” I asked.

“No, just come here!”

My daughter is a master of piquing my curiosity, so I went, fearing that I’d find a swamp or maybe a shower curtain tugged down around the ceramic of the tub.

Instead, I found a neat row of nail polish on the bathroom counter, sorted carefully into a rainbow, next to a green index card reading “HINT HINT.”

My child grinned at me. “I want one color on each nail, please! Tonight!”

“How about this weekend, when the light is good?” I replied, sighing.

“Okay, I guess. But you can’t forget,” Monkey said. “And you have to wear some too.”

That’s my kid, dragging me reluctant and kicking into the ancient rituals of self-adornment. She also really loves to accessorize and wear fancy footwear, and has been trying to break me of the habit of thinking comfort-first when putting on clothes. (In retrospect, maybe I should’ve read her fewer Fancy Nancy books when she was little.)

I spent a lot of formative years with my dad, and during the years when most teenagers begin to play with clothing and makeup, I owned two different pairs of jeans: one for wearing to school, and the other (the older pair) ripped enough for hiking and caving. My t-shirts were of the geek variety, and very often had pictures of insects, or things like “National Speleological Society” written on them. Makeup was unnecessary for beauty, in my dad’s books, and I believed him.

This is probably why it’s taken me a long time to value traditionally feminine approaches to self-adornment. At some point in my twenties I realized that I looked nice in dresses, and it’s taken me until my 40s to realize that a bit of makeup isn’t always a bad thing, and apparently helps people look more professional, as counter-intuitive as that might seem. I’ve admired women who understand how to put themselves together, hair and makeup and clothing. I’ve suspected that women who have to learn to present themselves continue to look nicely put together as they age, perhaps because they’re always used to spending some time on their appearance.

It’s been a shock to my system to have a daughter that is both tomboyish and extremely girly all at once. There’s a vast spectrum of feminist responses to “girliness,” but maybe the most important one is the easy affinity that my daughter has to the idea of it. She doesn’t consider it anti-anything to put on a dress and beg for some lipstick, she just thinks she looks nice, and why not look exactly the way she wants?

I’m glad I have someone teaching me how to inhabit my body with as much joy and unselfconsciousness (well, that part takes work) as my kid inhabits hers.

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