Thursday, March 10, 2011



I’m a hoarder of sorts, always have been, which means my coats end up being seasonal time capsules.  When the weather shifts, I finally go through the pockets.  I’m sure to find at least two grocery lists that will get me to thinking about the meals those ingredients became, and the lists themselves will likely be on the backs or folded sides of kid drawings depicting stick me doing wondrous things with my stick son and stick daughter.  Usually I'll turn up a wrapper from a piece of Chinatown candy, something delicious with an unknown fruit printed on the foil, and maybe a back up train ticket for a commute I no longer make.  Twice I came across kazoos.

Most of my pocket loot comes from my daughter Q.  She finds beauty and meaning everywhere and then asks me to hold it for her.  Walking in the park, she’ll spot a stick shaped just like a ‘Y’ and want to make a gift of it for her mother.  Or there will be a chunk of asphalt, pleasingly shaped and flecked with some mysterious crystal (in all likelihood broken glass), that I will end up carrying around for a couple of days, me handling it like a totem in my pocketed fist until we both have forgotten enough about it.  I hold on to this stuff longer than I need to, I suppose, because it’s a way of holding on to Q’s way of thinking about the world, her way of appreciating things.  Simply putting my hand in a pocket takes me back to times spent with her at moments of discovery and the making of thoughts.

No one really knows how thinking about something actually succeeds — how a thought gets a hold of what that thought is about.  It seems rather important to know how this works, since it’s the getting hold of things that makes for true and false beliefs and makes knowledge at all possible.  It’s also what makes my thoughts about Q different from my thoughts about stones or justice or ‘Y’-shaped sticks.

For the curious and the philosophically inclined, the first part above has to do with the puzzle of representation and the other is about content.  People have been thinking about these puzzles for a while now, though not as long as one might think.  There are all sorts of theories, of course — some rather compelling ones — but they all have their flaws and disappointments.  Some believe words get to be about things as a function of use (use a word enough for a job and its job becomes the use). Others contend that some words, names in particular, get tied to their bearers through a chain of users and uses that extends back to the birth of the name, a baptismal aboutness relation born and raised like (and usually with) a child.  One view holds that the two are born together — that language is a knife that sculpts the world out of the coarse block of experience. A few believe that this is just a thing that minds do, that brains are made such that they just can have states about other things, and all other bits of aboutness — words, maps, paintings, the gestures made in complicated traffic — are merely inherited from brains.  I used to cheer for the view that aboutness was a matter of resemblance, that language does its job by picturing what it’s about, but I grew to believe that this approach just replaces one mystery with another.  In virtue of what, after all, does one thing resemble another? 

Much of the mystery comes from the fact that to think about something, we must have a particular way of thinking about that thing, one way among many, but the world by itself does not suggest who is thinking about it and how.  The Greeks’ Hesperus (the morning star) and Phosphorus (the evening star) turned out to be a single planet, Venus, but ask and they’d deny that Hesperus is the same as Phosphorus.  The stars are what they are, but our thinking about them makes for its own universe.  We can usually get from ways of thinking to the things themselves, but not from things to the way we think about them.

Rummaging around recently, I came across (among the tissues and wheat pennies) a collection of small shells, about five of them.  Each a perfect, polished scoop of rainbow, I can see why Q had them end up where they are.  They come from the beach in California where my wife and her sisters released their mother’s ashes into the ocean.

We went there in part because of a joke. Once when talk of what to do with your body was only hypothetical, Ba Ngoai said she would like to be cremated and her ashes mixed 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. I remember that 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.

It was my wife's idea to cut a hole in one of Ba Ngoai's handbags 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 she was right.

The hole in the bag worked for a while, but there was a surprising amount of ash, and the three sisters took turns scooping out what they could until their hands were black. The substance was finer than the sand. But even their handfuls weren't enough, which I found fitting given the size of Ba Ngoai’s life. My sister-in-law went into the cold waves nearly to her waist, and, after a quick glance up and down the nearly vacant beach, she upended the bag and let loose the rest. She then hopped her way out of the surf, the late-afternoon sky over the water bluer than anyone's idea of it, and Q was there to greet her. They looked to each other and then took hands. Q, thankfully unfamiliar with grief, skipped every now and then on their way back to the car, pausing to give me a few small shells to keep. My wife and The Boy together drifted further down the beach and looked out past everything for a long time.

As you read this now, you somehow reach out and grasp them, and only them, even those who now lie beyond our hands. No one really knows how this works.  But it does.

This is what I have found, what I ask you to hold for me.

I put the shells back into my pocket.

Friday, March 04, 2011

In between

Note:  This post is part of a larger writing project, "Dad Stuff," about, as you might imagine, dad stuff.  To read more posts related to this project, see posts with the "dad stuff" tag.

We spend this Thanksgiving as we traditionally have — that is to say with each other at our own table and with way too much food. Since it’s just the four of us, we really don’t need to cook the full-on meal, but we’ve ingested enough tradition over the years that we find ourselves making lists and standing with over-full baskets in long lines. Besides, Thanksgiving has grown into an all-family thing in our house. We now trust The Boy with a real knife, and as a result, he has become the emperor of stuffing. He’ll cube as many loaves as you put in front of him until all the bread in the house mounds in the silver bowl next to his cutting board. Q loves to do just about anything in the kitchen, loves the mysterious alchemy of cooking, particularly now that she nearly doesn’t need the step stool to reach the stand mixer. She and I make the machine make the pumpkin pie; she and my lovely wife whip the cream for the top. All of us eat it after we've eaten too much already.

For much of my childhood, tradition required that we spend Thanksgiving in Southeast Kansas* with my father’s side of the family. The five-hour-plus drive from our house in southwest Kansas** always seemed covered-wagon long, mainly because my brother and I disputed property lines in the Buick back seat the entire way. All of us we were happy, then, to see the end of the trip and everyone who inhabited it. And there were lots of inhabitants to see. My father and his brother were essentially raised by their grandparents, brought up working the farm alongside their own children (my father’s aunts and uncles, my great aunts and uncles), nine of them counting my father’s mother, as brothers and sisters. It’s as confusing as it sounds, made more so by my father’s referring to his grandfather, Luther, and grandmother, Lucy, as “dad” and “mom,” and to his own mother as “mother.” (My father almost never called his father anything — at least in front of me. Pretty much everything I think and know of my paternal grandfather I’ve pulled from and put into two unbendable black-and-white photographs: a handsome man in a hat relaxed against a boxy car; an older but still handsome man in a high-backed chair with kids just off the arms.)

The aunts and uncles who were brothers and sisters to my father made for a colorful collection of people. I knew them at these Thanksgivings more or less like I know them now, which is to say by their nicknames and natures. The youngest, Larry, was just a eight months older than my father and was called “Lute” by everyone. He flew huge C-5 cargo planes for the military, the biggest they have, so I suppose it was fitting that he piloted those big meals. Thanksgiving was usually held at his family’s grand, historically registered house, the one with the built-in intercom system that it actually needed. (My same-age cousin Joe and I would be up in his room on the fourth floor, building or breaking something, until we were conscripted into chores through the intercom; that thing always seemed to be for receiving orders, and we were forever being called to the front.) Peg, whose real name, Margaret, I didn’t learn until well into high school, ran a company in Hutchinson for years that ran power lines up and down the state. Tom was usually there, moving smoothly about like someone in the FBI, which he pretty much was. He favored mirror aviator sunglasses, which I suppose he should given his line of work. I later discovered that he was a Cold War style expert in Russian. Tom’s nickname was “Black” because of his complexion, but I don’t remember anyone actually calling him that. I do remember everyone calling Alice “Ree Ree,” including me, because of trouble my brother and I had pronouncing her name years before when we were new to talking.*** Growing up, her brothers and sisters called her “Injun,” again due to appearances. She had and has a huge laugh, a powerful lever able to lift anyone who hears it. Donald — Doc, Docky — had a similar-sized laugh and spirit as Ree Ree, but everything about him was shot through with craziness. He dusted crops in his plane and drank fairly heavily, and more than once at the same time. He would brag to us about all varieties of strange meats he was busy curing in his home-built smokehouse, and though now I’m as likely to concoct stories for kids’ delectation as much as anyone, I still believe that Doc may have been telling something like the truth. There was Jerry, whom my father called “Cruit,” as in “recruit,” the word clipped as short as Jerry’s hair. Jerry still lived and worked the farm where they all grew up — he and his wife Beverly, herself an official Master Gardener, who could grow anything. I remember Grandma Jane, my father’s mother, was there for many years with her cigarettes and lovely mysteriousness, then she was someone we missed. And there were all sorts of affiliated husbands and wives and cousins filling out the various geometries of the house. My father had been the anchor of the group in many ways and for many years, and it was a marvel to see why it was needed, to glimpse how they could drift when left to themselves.

Tradition had it that after everyone was too full, the women gathered in one part of the house, cleaning up and talking to each other in ways they would recount bitterly for years. The men, left to themselves, played cards. Eventually being invited into these yearly games meant a great deal to me. The money exchanged in these events stayed exchanged, which meant they were for real, adult. The pots often became sizable, certainly more money than I’d ever seen, and this was when money was a thing you could see often enough. Dad was a good poker player, and he could and would usually disabuse players of whatever they brought to the table, including my brother and me. And dad never returned our kid-sized stake with some parental lesson about fools and their money. Nope — the lesson was in the losing and the staying lost.

We played dealer’s choice, and along with the studs and the draw pokers we would play “in between.” It was a simple game, but one high in drama and stakes. After everyone anted up, the dealer would take turns giving each player a run at the pot by dealing him two cards. The player then decided how much to bet that the next card dealt would fall in between his first two. If the card was between, the player took the amount bet from the pot; otherwise the pot grew. The round ended when someone bet the pot and won. Every now and then, a player would be dealt a pair, which meant doubled chances for luck and loss. Often enough (particularly several Schlitz into the evening) someone would feel like gambling and bet the pot on a tight spread — an 8 and a Queen, say — and the whole table would tighten and lean in, anxious for luck in one valence or another, then snap back into laughs when the dealer turned over a deuce. I loved that I could participate in that kind of adult attention, even direct it somewhat when the deck came around to me.

The food we make for ourselves is good. As we eat, the four of us take turns saying what we’re thankful for. It turns out that we’re thankful for family, for each other, for books, and for LEGOs.

After we package leftovers, we go for a walk to give ourselves a reason for pie. November evening in New York still counts as fall, even this late into it, and it’s cold but not unpleasantly so. Though older now, the kids still marvel at the park at night when the familiar edges to everything get redrawn by the dark. My wife and I wish that we could make Thanksgiving back into a day with family, and it’s time that Q and The Boy learned how to properly shuffle a deck. But work and school and distance make quick trips tough, at least for now. In the meantime, we play what we’re dealt, in between traditions.

*Yes, Southeast Kansas, capital letters and all. It's its own place, one where tradition requires that you curse as you cross the Bourbon County line. And, yes, Bourbon County.
**A place undeserving of special caps.
***Don't ask me how "Alice" could be ever be pronounced "Ree Ree."