Thursday, January 29, 2009



Our Saturdays now largely belong to lessons.

Though The Boy is only 5, we've been resisting organized lessons/activities for some time now. Our kids' friends and acquaintances from the building and the neighborhood have been in music and tumbling and ballet and pottery and Taekwondo for years now, but my wife and I have kept Q & The Boy mainly to the loose activities that we can think up. We've got lots of reasons for that, I suppose. My wife and I are both a little stubborn (wonder where Q gets it?), and so we're constitutionally primed to resist the New York City Parent Pressure to turn our kids into highlighted calendars. We're also both not that loose with the buck, and classes can really set you back in the City: taking Taekwondo in our neighborhood costs around $700 a month. You can go as much as you want, they say, but come on. Add to all this the simple difficulty of signing up for something. With all the kids and all the money around here (at least until the recent Wall Street implosion), most slots for most things get filled six months out.

Besides, it's not as if Q and The Boy have been totally free range. Both of them joined in the excellent free summer soccer program sponsored by the Parks Department. At age 3, The Boy enjoyed his music class, and we kept him in it until he went off to Montessori. (Q not so much; she only made it through two music sessions until none of us could put up with the pain of it all.) We've also encouraged both of them to like some sport or other and not tried to foist our own likes upon them.

But The Boy has changed, and we want to endorse it. Not that long ago we struggled with getting him to try new things, primarily because of a chronic perfectionism (again, thanks mom and dad!) that pretty much choked anything new he went into. He's worked through a lot of that somehow since starting Kindergarten.

Perhaps it has something to do with his body finally catching up a fair amount with his mind. Philosophers of mind often talk about "direction of fit" when it comes to beliefs and desires. We (usually) aim to have our beliefs "fit" the world as it is — be accurate or true, in other words. Desires, though, are the other way around — they represent the way we want the world to be at some future time. (Hopes lie somewhere in between, I'd say.) Desires are usually the things that make us get off the couch or off jelly doughnuts (or onto either, for that matter). Perfectionists, though, run into problems because they want perfection, which doesn't come easy or at all. Sometimes this amounts to expecting to produce or do something beyond what's possible right now, and I think that was The Boy's problem.

Nowadays, The Boy seems fine with meeting his mind halfway a lot of the time. For example, we make a lot of paper airplanes these days, and he can fold just about any shape on his own after just one or two tries. Then he designs his own, working through different combinations of creases, launching them from the table and noting their distance and grace. Most don't make it that far and look pretty ugly coming down. A year ago he probably would have dissolved into sobs, but now he just asks for more paper.


So our Saturdays now belong to lessons, and The Boy loves it. When he finishes tennis in the morning, he wants to keep hitting. After an hour of intense swim class, he still wants to jump into the 12-foot end of the pool and swim on his own to the side. Now Q talks about which lessons she wants (ballet, predictably), and we're looking into something for her. We do, after all, have an hour or two free on the weekend.

I suppose this is the part of the post where I talk about lessons I've learned from all this. There are some to report, of course. That stuff about perfectionism above counts, I think. And I continue to be surprised and amazed by how growing older simply changes the landscape of possibility, slowly and imperceptibly like some ancient glacier. Which I suppose it is.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Happy Tet (New Year) — Year of the Ox/Water Buffalo Edition

After incense

Today is Lunar New Year,* celebrated across Asia and across Asians. We, too, note the day (as we have before), by eating our weight in pho and by giving Q & The Boy little red envelopes filled with lucky money. We also asked them to each put on their áo dài for some pictures, and we lit incense for Ba Ngoai and for others who won't see the year of the Ox (or the year of the water buffalo, according to the Vietnamese zodiac).

What's in store for this year? Well, according to the Great Wikipedia, the year of the water buffalo:
The BUFFALO symbolizes industriousness and patience. The year is one of slow, steady progress and patient strength; traits suitable for a scientist. He is the traditional symbol of spring and agriculture because of his association with the plow and his pleasure in wallowing in mud. People of that year are thought to possess the characteristics of that animal: steady, placid, but stubborn when crossed. The buffalo hours are from 1am-3am when buffalo are feeding and the day's farm work begins.
I suppose this symbol fits the tough times ahead that we'll need to plow through, but I'm not sure about this 1-3 a.m. business. Can't we make slow, steady progress during the day?

Most (if not all?) American holidays don't have much edge to them, particularly when compared with Eastern traditions. Our New Year provides a clean slate, a chance to rededicate oneself to messy closets and exercise. Lunar New Year has its negatives as well as positives, as indicated by the entry on the Year of the Ox:
Positive traits: Responsible, dependable, honest, caring, honorable, intelligent, artistic, industrious, practical.

Negative traits: Petty, inflexible, possessive, dogmatic, gullible, stubborn, critical, intolerant, materialistic.
In any event, chúc mừng năm mới, or Happy New Year! to you and yours. Eat too much, light a candle or incense in memory. Enjoy.

*Note: It is not simply "Chinese New Year." Sure, the Chinese celebrate New Year today, but they're not the only ones.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

It really is a new day

Wordle: call to service

Congratulations to Barack Hussein Obama, our 44th president. Finally, time to be responsible.

The picture above is a wordle of Obama's inaugural address made by, well, me. The larger the word, the more often it appears in the speech. How telling, in these troubled times, that 'Less' is bigger than 'freedom'.

(For fun and comparison, I've also created ones for George W. Bush's first and second inaugural. Enjoy.)

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Bye 2008, finally

And but so as I mentioned in the first part of the Leaving 2008 post, we went out to celebrate the holidays with Ong Ngoai and to put 2008 to rest. We also went to help put Ba Ngoai to rest.

Buddhist tradition (or at least its Vietnamese inflection, as far as I know) requires that a deceased person's ashes stay in temple for 49 days. After that time, family and friends pay final respects in a ceremony at the temple, and then the ashes can be released from there and wherever.

Ba Ngoai's 49th-day service was at a lovely temple a little over an hour away from the house she shared with Ong Ngoai. Much like the other services, there was a lavish altar with her picture (from her daughter's recent wedding) ringed with fruit and flowers that Ong Ngoai bought in the dark hours of that morning. The altar sat at the end of a long red carpet hemmed in gold, and visitors, after leaving their shoes at the door, could take up a chair on either side of it or kneel on it directly. Nearly all the big family had been out for the funeral, but not everyone could make it this time.  Ba Ngoai's son was home waiting with his wife and kids for his new daughter to arrive — a girl who'll likely carry Ba Ngoai's name.  This time Ong Ngoai, one of Ba Ngoai's sisters (and her two daughters), my wife and her sisters, and Q and The Boy knelt close.  Three enormous Buddhas contemplated everything with closed eyes, the center one a luminous gold.

Monks in gold and maroon sang into microphones and softly rung bowls with wooden mallets. Despite the Southern California sun, it was cold.

Q and The Boy were outstanding — Q even managed to sit for the entire service, and The Boy nearly so. And when the time came for each member of the family to light incense and pour tea, the kids joined my wife in the ritual. As they waited for the fire to catch, a stitch of sun angled down out of the window and sewed them to the moment.

After the ceremony and the songs and the pictures and the bathroom, we left the temple for a nearby beach. We went there in part because of a joke. When talk of what to do with your body was only hypothetical, Ba Ngoai said she'd like to be cremated and her ashes dropped into the Pacific Ocean so that she could swim back to Vietnam. "You can't swim," Ong Ngoai reminded her at the time. Everyone laughed.

The Pacific coast lacks the angle and anger of the Atlantic. West Coast beaches tend to be gentle and long, the waves cresting far out and then unfurling lazily on the land. There was a stripe of sand made into a mirror by the wet, and Q and The Boy immediately rolled up their pants and walked out onto their reflections. They can't pass up an ocean.

It was my wife's idea to use one of Ba Ngoai's handbags with a hole in it for the release, and my wife's younger sister carried it down the steps from the parked cars.

"Hold this," my sister-in-law said. I obliged. It was heavier than I expected. She removed her boots and tights.

"I can carry this, if you like," I said.

"That's okay, I'll do it."

"It's up to you; it's your mom."

"That's not mom," she said with a warm smile. And it wasn't.

The hole in the bag worked for a while, but there was a surprising amount of ash, so the three sisters started to let go handfuls until their hands were black. It was finer than the sand. But even in handfuls it wasn't enough, and my sister-in-law took the bag into waves nearly to her waist. After a quick glance around the nearly vacant beach, she let loose the rest. She came hopping out of the surf, the late-afternoon sky over the water bluer than anyone's idea of it. My wife and The Boy then drifted further down the beach together and looked out past everything.

Like I said around this time last year, I've abandoned New Year's resolutions and the bullying of the calendar. I have many things that I yet want to do and be, of course, and people I want to see flourish. But I've come to relish much more the moments that select themselves. Like when my sister-in-law walked out of the ocean and back up to us, and Q was there to greet her. They looked to each other and then took hands.

That was the end of 2008 for me.

Happy 2009, everyone. Now on with living.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Hey, 2008, don't let the door hit you in the...

Warm California Reindeer

This past pair of holidays, we broke with tradition and traveled. Our families live far away, but since having children we've favored off-peak visits when the weather is better and the airport lines are shorter. This Christmas was different, of course.

Ong Ngoai was there, alone, to pick us up at the San Diego airport. The air was summer-evening cool, and our East Coast clothes felt thick. I then drove us all the hour more to the smaller town and bigger house.

The house was really too big for the two of them, and seems cavernous now. Ong Ngoai has only recently gone back to staying here after weeks of sleeping on friends' couches. He had been packing, though. He'd neatly sorted Ba Ngoai's clothes and bags and shoes into clear bins that had been labeled and inventoried. She was a hair stylist for many years, and she had accumulated shears and rollers and chemicals in industrial strengths and sizes. Much of it needed to be gone through and carried, which was mainly why we were there.

Ong Ngoai now lives in a part of the first floor — a small bedroom just off the kitchen, and a bathroom just off of that. He only goes upstairs to bring food to his wife on the altar of family who have passed on, as tradition requires. (Throughout the visit, we could hear him talking sweetly to Ba Ngoai as he brought a small meal upstairs for her.) The three second-floor bedrooms had mostly been cleared out and left to themselves. We spread out into the two smaller ones, my wife sleeping with Q for the week, and I in the other one with The Boy.

We first noticed the new silence, especially since we brought Q and The Boy in from the car dreaming. Ong Ngoai was excited to have the kids come, and he had set up and decorated the Christmas tree, complete with a ring of presents for them. It looked small in the empty room. Ong Ngoai then went to bed, too, and my wife and I sat very still on the couch with our hearts in our throats. We weren't as still as the house; the quiet was so thorough. I've never heard anything like it in my 17 years of visits.

We used the week to try to help Ong Ngoai prepare for what's next, though none of us are sure what that is. He wants to move, and he should; there's no longer anything for him here. He has many friends and places to go in a Vietnamese community a little over an hour away, and he soon wants to spend a month or so in Vietnam, particularly since his sister is rather ill. 2008, as he himself said, has been a terrible year.

You wouldn't know it from the weather. It grew warmer each day until Q and The Boy were getting overheated riding their bike and scooter along the sidewalks or playing restaurant on the patio out back. We went to Sea World for most of one day, and spent a good part of another outside at a family fun park riding boats and gokarts. At night we all piled in the car and toured the neighborhood light displays, which, to Q's bottomless delight, were reliably garish. (Some store must have had a compelling sale on motorized reindeer.) Throughout the entire trip, the kids slept and ate so well and were so joyous and loving with Ong Ngoai that they deserve their own heaven.

We are generally not religious, but in these last few months we've again become puzzled. Ba Ngoai was so alive, so here, just two months ago. It's tempting to believe that if she's not here, she must be somewhere. But reasoning this way leads to more puzzles — is she scared where she is? Does she know that we think of her and miss her? That first night in California, my wife wondered when she dies, will she be with her mother? These answers are unknown and unknowable.

[to be continued]

Monday, January 05, 2009

Meanings in the meantime

I'm still coming back from California and 2008, but in the meantime, you might enjoy re-learning some definitions via the photographic dictionary.

You know, something like this would make a good project for us, what with my lovely wife's photog skills. For example:


future | fu ● ture [fyoo ch ər]
1. the time or a period of time following the moment of speaking or writing; time regarded as still to come.
1. at a later time; going or likely to happen or exist.

Bridge Home

resolute | res ● o ● lute [rez ə loot]
1. admirably purposeful, determined, unwavering: she was resolute and unswerving.

Feel free to suggest your own contributions from your own libraries.