Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The Adventurers

Years ago, I was riding with my parents and brother on a train through England.  It was winter, and cold outside, and even in the carriage we were bundled up in our winter jackets.

Across the aisle from us was a young American couple.  He was bearded and bespectacled, and earnest in an English-major sort of way.  I don’t remember what she looked like, frankly, because he did most of the talking.  He was telling my dad about their semester studying in York, all the things they’d done, all the places they’d been.  The program they were on was in the school-afield system—where 20 kids from a US institution go to a foreign country and live together in a big house, taking classes from their accompanying professor and getting the occasional lectures from local faculty. 

My parents listened to all of this, nodding politely and smiling encouragement—they have a habit of doing this, I’m not sure why—while I was quietly rolling my eyes.  You see, I was living in England for a year, not some measly semester, and I was studying with real English professors and real English students, not bunking in some condo somewhere with a bunch of people from Kansas, then coming home after four months with a Yorkshire accent. 

I let hirsute boy ramble on for maybe an hour.  It was clear he thought we were just touring for a few weeks, an all-American nuclear family leaving their white-picket fenced cottage to see the sights of ye olde Englande.  I tried to keep my mouth shut, really I did, tried hard not to be a jerk.   Eventually, though, I just had to let it drop.

“So your teachers were Professors, then?”

He glanced at me jaw still open, mid-sentence.  “Excuse me?”

“Your English instructors?  They were professors?  Because most of them at Durham at lecturers.  There are some readers, too, but we don’t get many real professors.”  I went on for another three minutes, explaining as best I could the Byzantine elaborations of the British rank system. 

When I was done, he closed his mouth, glanced at his girlfriend, then looked back at me. 

“Where are you?” he asked.

“Durham,” I said, and then, just to receive full credit in the How to Be a Jerk certification process, added, “At St. Aidan’s College.”  No Kansas roommates for me. 

He looked at me again, carefully.  Then he said, “Oh,” leaned back in his seat, and didn’t say five words the rest of the trip. 


I have to admit, we were pretty impressed with ourselves when we found out we were going to Hong Kong.  How daring of us to rip up our family, travel half-way around the world, settle in a new region, a new country, a new institution!  Talk about doing some major-league carpe dieming.  And to do it with three little kids?  My, weren’t we just the most adventurous family ever!

We still feel pretty cool, frankly.  We’ve had a great year.  We’ve seen things we never thought we’d see—Ho Chin Minh’s body, up-close-and muddy pandas, floating children—eaten things we never thought we’d eat—I just had left-over pig’s knuckles for lunch, last week we had stuffed duck, and both Ellen and I can eat chicken feet, if the situation forces us too.  We’ve woken up to 30-degree temperatures inside, have strolled through Vietnamese villages by candle-light, have taken the magnetic train in Shanghai.  A month ago, I rolled into the flat at 1:30 and announced we were leaving for Chung Chau island at 2:15.  At 2:00, the kids turned off the TV, went to the bathroom, and put on their shoes.  Fifteen minutes late, we marched out the door, carrying a single suitcase and a backpack full of granola bars:  no whining, no fussing, no dawdling.  It was a powerful moment:  we’re a couple in our forties, with three kids under the age of ten.  And we can go anywhere in the world.  Anywhere. 

So yeah, we still feel kind of cocky.

But we weren’t here two weeks before we realized we were in the minor leagues.  First, there were our friends the Smiths.  They’re Canadian born, both in unrelated areas of education.  Their careers have taken them and their four kids from Canada to New Zealand, back to Canada, back to New Zealand, to Hong Kong, back to New Zealand, and now they’re in Hong Kong to stay.  And it’s not like they have to do this, like they move to find jobs:  he’s well-thought of enough in his field that he travels all over Asia speaking at conferences.  They could have stayed in Canada and been perfectly happy.  But they chose to wander.

Then there was this guy we met in Vietnam.  We were at the Citadel, meandering way back in the gardens when I came across two kids swinging from a vine loop in a tree.  They were maybe 13 and 11, a boy and a girl speaking English.  A little further along, I met their father.  We talked about the gardens some—he thought Angkor Wat was better—and then about traveling with kids.  He asked if we were in Vietnam on vacation.

“Yep,” I said, then felt that usual swelling of pride as I told him we were actually living in Hong Kong.  “For the year,” I added, just so he knew I understood the real Asia, not the six countries in two weeks version. 

“What about yourself?” I added. 

“Oh,” he said.  “I’m with the defense department.  We live in Malaysia now, but before that, it was Japan.  And before that, South Korea.”

Talk about karma.  

“Oh,” I said.  “I’m from Kansas, actually.”

Next up were the Gringortens.  We met them in Hoi An, on the beach.  They live in Suzhou, China, where they are teachers.  They used to live in Toronto, but having experienced a wonderful  pre-child stint in Korea, decided they wanted to take leave from their jobs and take their two kids, ages 7 and 10, to Asia.  So they signed on for three years at an international school just outside of Shanghai.  When we saw them again in March, they’d decided to extend their leave by another year.  Which doesn’t sound like much, until you realize it means that both of them had to resign their jobs back in Canada. 


And there are others like them:  in Yangshuo, we met a couple living in Hong Kong for three years so that he could work at the consulate; then there are our friends, the Wells, who are on a three-year stint outside Chengdu, in a place so remote their entire family is near-fluent in Mandarin after only ten months.

The clincher, though, was the family we bumped into at a Norwegian restaurant (yes, you heard me) in LiJiang.  They’d both graduated from the University of Virginia, and had had good, stable jobs in the US.  Until they decided to move to China and study Mandarin intensely for three years before going into the medical supply business.  When I asked how long they were planning on staying in China, the dad, a square-faced strawberry blonde with glasses, shook his head. 

“This is it, we figure.  We’re here for good.”

Of course, for the record, they don’t have three little kids, like us. 

They have four.


So we’re cool, yeah, but only in relative terms.  We’re adventurous, yeah, but not compared to some.  And we’re nuts, yeah, but only—well, actually, we’re still more nuts that most, but you get my point. 

Not long after we got here, colleagues from at least three different universities began to make inquiries into my long-term plans:  might I be interested in staying in Hong Kong? they asked.  Would I consider applying for a position here? 

Though this may seem impressive, it’s worth pointing out that: a) at least one of the people making an inquiry forgot my name almost the instant I walked out of the room; and b) because of the restructuring of secondary and university education in Hong Kong, 2012 will see a double-cohort of students leaving high school and beginning university.  In short, every Hong Kong university is scrambling to staff twice as many classes as usual.  In such a context, my guess is that a trained monkey with relatively good penmanship could get an offer in this city (my penmanship sucks, by the way). 

When these suggestions—I can’t really call them offers; no figures were mentioned and no contracts were set in ink—when these suggestions first came up, I protested gently, pointing out that if people knew the quality of life I had back home, they would understand how even a really good offer from Hong Kong—or anywhere else for that matter—probably wouldn’t be enough.  I very distinctly remember describing Lexington to my friend Chris:  It’s Mayberry, I told him.  The sidewalks are cobbled, they’ve maintained all the old storefronts, everyone waves at their neighbors as they drive by.  We have a beautiful old house on a half-acre of land in the middle of town.  Any given evening, we can stroll out our back door, down the hill in our yard, through one of the oldest cemeteries in the commonwealth, and be in the middle of town within five minutes.  Once there, we can get homemade ginger-lemon ice cream, or go to the chocolate shop for dark-chocolate covered orange peels.  Most summer evenings, we go to the pool, where we hang out with our friends while the kids play Marco Polo.  It’s gorgeous there, offering a 360-degree panorama of the Blue Ridge Mountains.  On the 4th of July, the whole town gathers at the Virginia Military Institute parade grounds for a fair, balloon rally, and fireworks. 

Seriously, I don’t think that anyone’s lived the way we do since 1952.   We’d be nuts to leave, I told Chris.  And I meant it.

But the more we explored Hong Kong, the more we got to know Asia, the more we thought, “Then again . . .”

Simply put, Hong Kong is an amazing place.  There’s Central, of course, with the trams and the Peak and the shopping and the tailors and the noodle shops and the temples burning so much incense you can smell it forty yards away.  There’re the Star Ferries, the junks in Victoria Harbor, the nightly light show incorporating all the skyscrapers on both sides of the water.  Kowloon-side, there’s TST and the Spring Deer, the Hong Kong History Museum, the Art Museum, the Science Museum and the Space Museum (admittedly, a bit weird, since HK isn’t really known for its rocket programs).  There’s Mong Kok and the flower and bird markets, the Spicy Crab and the night market where you can get your fortune told by a little bird who hops out of his cage and tugs your cards from a Tarot deck. 

But beyond that are all the little corners that the tourist books never tell you about:  the Chi Lin Nunnery, one of my three favorite places in the world (Eagle River, Durham, Chi Lin).  There’s the 10,000 Buddhas, of which there actually are 10,000, and there’s the amazing goldfish pond at Chinese University, and the beaches near Sai Kung.  There’s the best wet market in the world in Tai Po, and Man Mo temple, and a great temple up in Fan Ling as well.  Jamie and I just spent a day roaming Sheung Shui, nobody’s tourist hotspot, and found a wonderful little market street lined with dim sum eateries and shops selling dried shrimp out of baskets. 

In short, every time we turn a corner in Hong Kong we find something new to explore.

And that’s just Hong Kong.  Consider:  from where we are, it’s no more than a six-hour flight to Beijing, Mongolia, Katmandu, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Korea, and Japan.  Add a few more hours and you can get to India, Australia, and New Zealand.  So far?  We’ve only seen Mainland China and Vietnam.  Sure, we’ll spend a couple days each in Cambodia, Borneo, and Bali on our way out, but . . . what about all those other places?  It’s not like you’re going to sign up (and pay) for two 20-hour flights to spend a two-week vacation in Laos (though, Thailand, maybe).  So by leaving Hong Kong now, we’re basically admitting that our chances of lying on the beaches of Cebu or driving through the plains of Mongolia are pretty much nil. 

In comparison, when you’re in Hong Kong, visiting these places is cheap.  And getting to them is cheap.  We have friends who are teachers who are able to sock away 75% of their pay, visit any place in Asia they want, and stay at nothing but five-star hotels.  You know those pictures you see every once in a while of a glass-walled veranda, a woman in a white swimsuit holding an umbrella drink as she looks at the palm trees and white sand beach in front of her?  That’s what we’re talking about, here.  In Thailand, in Vietnam, in the Philippines, in Bali, in Borneo.   

It doesn’t help that three weeks ago I was lying in bed, just beginning to emerge from sleep, the early morning heat suffocating the room, when I had a sudden flash of myself pulling up in my Volkswagon Passat to the local CVS on highway 60 in Lexington, Virginia.  There was the familiar red and white building design; there was the freshly tarred parking lot, with its brightly painted yellow lines; there were the wide roads and the low buildings and that sky that seems so low and flat and broad.

There, in short, was life in suburban America.

And my heart sank. 

Because Lexington is a beautiful place, yes.  Truly beautiful, touristy “I can’t believe people get to live here,” beautiful. 

But ain’t Bali.   


On the same time, of course, Ellen and I both have very good jobs.  She’s at one of the best university presses in the country, and they like her there.  I’m at a decent small college with a great sense of community, and they, well, tolerate me there. 

That said, tenure and professorship were never meant to be a trap, never meant to keep thinkers and scholars and life-long-learners in a life of predictability.   My friend Joe makes the point that life is a series of gambles.  He doesn’t mean that this is true just for those who become life-long expatriates, however:  he means it’s true of everyone, the people who quit their jobs and move to Columbia (like my friend Brad, who just did this) and those who never leave their home towns.  Neither approach guarantees success or glory, or even basic safety.  People lose their jobs at the local factory just as often (or more) than folks who travel around the globe to take a new position; marriages end just as much when couples play it safe as when they explore the world together; children drown in the backyard pool just as often as they do in the Indian Ocean. 

Even so, Ellen and I both know that the poetry of a one-year stint might not translate into the prose of a permanent move.  The first is an adventure, occurring in a finite space of time with the knowledge that you will go back to your “real” life at the end.  As such, you cram your year with as much experience as you can:  you travel in emerging countries; you go into Mainland China not once but four times.  You play occasional hooky from work and explore obscure corners of Hong Kong Island, Kowloon, or the New Territories.  You make a point of eating bizarre foods (pig’s knuckle, anyone?)  Everything is tinged with a shimmering edge of the ephemeral:  you know you will be doing this only once, that you may never be in this restaurant or on this ferry or on this island or at this market ever again.  Experiences are richer when they are rare, and when you’re overseas for only a year, everything is rare.  

Coming back—or staying on—you risk losing that.  This becomes your job, not your adventure.  And let me tell you, if the pay in Hong Kong is outrageous (literally double my salary in the States)—so are the expectations.  For a long time, Hong Kong avoided the exponential growth of publication expectations.  When it finally hit in the early ‘90s, though, it came with a vengeance:  twice now I’ve heard of folks who’ve taken on administrative duties to help out their departments being awarded shorter contract renewals because their extra responsibilities cut into their research.  And I’ve met more than a few folks here who are blunt in their insistence that teaching is something of a bother, getting in the way of their “real” work in the library.

And then there are the hours:  in the US, graduation at my home institution is on the first weekend of May.  After that, I won’t be expected back to campus until the last week of August.  That doesn’t mean I’m not working, of course—I spend all summer writing, trying to crank out the ideas that have been storming my brain all year.  But I can work at home, in Wisconsin, or in Europe for all the difference it makes to anyone. 

Not so in Hong Kong.  In Hong Kong, faculty are allowed 21 days leave a year.  A year.  Now I’m not going to debate this issue with those of you who have “real jobs,” where four weeks is the max “vacation” you can get—your life is harder than mine, I know that, and if you don’t believe me, read the rest of this blog.  My point is that when you’re an academic from the States and you’ve spent your career with these expansive summers where you can balance the insanity of the school year with a more leisurely, contemplative pace—when you’ve spent your whole life with that schedule, being told you can’t return to the States for the summer, that you have to be in the office five days a week, even in August, really really really really really kind of sucks. 

What’s more, were I to return, I would cease to be special.  Were I to stay in Hong Kong for another year—at my institution, or any of the other schools I worked with—I would cease to be a guest (sometimes honored, sometimes not) and become simply an employee.  Twenty years ago, after what can arguably be called the best year of my life living in Durham England, I returned to the States, finished my undergraduate degree, went to Colorado for a summer to earn some money, then headed back to the UK.  That second year was great—really great, even.  But not the same.  And not as special as the first year.  I ceased to be Paul, the American dude we’re lucky enough to know for a year, becoming instead Paul, the American dude who can’t seem to go away. 

And, of course, the cohort of American students I’d been at Durham with were gone.  Similarly, were I to return to Hong Kong, it would be without Hedley, Gray, Joe, Janel, and the two Davids—people whose presence here has shaped my experience, my year, my thinking, and—undoubtedly—my life.  Taking the shuttle bus down to University station to head to Central for a meeting with the Education Board just wouldn’t feel right, knowing that Joe wouldn’t be waiting on the platform (car 6, every time) for me. 

So we’re not staying.  And though we’ll undoubtedly come back for finite periods of time and projects, we know it won’t be the same.  My guess is that those short stints will be almost painful:  no longer can we claim street cred by naming Tai Po as our “home”; instead, we’ll be living at the Hyatt, eating clams on the half-shell cooled over ice with the rest of the gweilos (not that that’s entirely bad).   Likely we’ll forget much of our hard-won guandongwa, ordering steamed welk with XO sauce and receiving goose paws in vomit instead. 


In the end, though, the reason we’re not staying goes well beyond any of these calculations.  It can be summed up in 2.5 words:  we’re wimps. 

We’re adventurous, yes, but we’re not Adventurers, with a capital "A," not the real deal, not like the Gringortens or the Smiths or that family in Lijiang.  We just don’t have it in us to sever our ties with our life in the States.  We’re cowards.  The thought of writing our bosses and giving notice, of giving up tenure (not to mention Full Professor), of selling our beautiful 100-year-old Queen Anne, of dedicating our children permanently to lives of second-language speakers, of knowing that our friends, from now on, are as likely to be Australians as Americans (not that there’s anything wrong with that, though we have Kiwi friends who might beg to differ).  All of those things?  We’re just not ready to do that.  We don’t have it in us. 

This is, of course, something of a startling realization for us.  My whole life I’ve been that kid on the other side of the train car, sitting opposite the bearded boy from York University, believing that I was, if not meant to live abroad, certainly meant to be abroad often and intensely.  I was twenty when I first left the US, and the first place I went was Tanzania, where I spent several weeks in a village, climbed Kilimanjaro, fell in love with this amazing woman from South Carolina (if any of you know someone named Sarah Sanford, tell me—but don’t mention it to Ellen), and got all sorts of food-related diseases I never could have imagined living in small-town Wisconsin.  After that I was in Durham, in a college, living with real British students, playing in a real British band, wearing Wellies and drinking cider and ripping into dear old Maggie.  And then I returned to the UK with nothing but three thousand dollars and the promise that I could sleep on my friend’s floor if I didn’t snore and promised to crash in the lobby if his girlfriend came by. 

In short, I thought I was cool, if by that term we mean someone who’s unburdened by concerns about security and future comfort and that white picket fence thing I’ve spent most of my life scoffing at.  Only it turns out the white picket fence isn’t actually a white picket fence:  it’s tenure, and promotion, and three kids who miss their friends, and a town where they can walk to school and where, when you’ll be getting back from work late, your friends will feed your kids spaghetti and make sure they get to swim team practice and finish those math problems Miss B has been nagging them about. 


So we’re going back to Virginia, yes.  We have to. Our kids are happy there.  They can’t wait to see their friends, can’t wait to have their own rooms again, can’t wait to be at that pool again and walk to school again and eat Kenney’s fried chicken again—with flash-fried biscuits, no less. 

And we want to.  I miss my friends the Chrisses and beers on the occasional Thursday night, and my body-pump class where I’m the only guy and no one is under 40.  I miss those chocolate-covered orange peels, and knowing where I can get an awesome chicken-melt followed by kick-ass carrot cake.  I don’t particularly miss mowing my half-acre of hillside, but I miss sitting out on my deck in the early evening, waiting for the pork chops to burn as the setting sun casts an orange glow over the two-hundred-year-old oaks in the cemetery.

And I’m not ready to give up my (safe) job that I like and am actually quite good at, and people at least tolerate me even if they don’t think my jokes are funny (It probably doesn’t hurt that I’m on sabbatical for all of the next year).  And Ellen isn’t ready (now, or necessarily ever) to give up her job at one of the best presses in the country, with one of the best bosses and colleagues who push her and support her and respect her. 

We have a nice life.  A very nice life.  Idyllic even.  Hong Kong is great, the adventure has been fun, but we’re just not ready to commit to a life abroad. 



Friday, June 25, 2010

Typhoon Lucy, Mauler of Pigeon Heads

Here are two stories about Lucy: 

We’re at the Hong Kong Science Museum, in the basement, playing with some funky machines that blow air and keep balls balancing over nothing and make weird sounds when you hit them with hammers.  It’s Sunday, and the museum is packed. Will has invited two friends along and the three of them pull us from one exhibit to the next at pinball speed.  Eventually, the air and light machines lose their charm.  One of the boys says, “What next?”  Another shouts:  “The electricity display!”  And off they go, Lucy in tow. 

Only when Ellen and I and our 10,000 lb three-year-old boy finally make our way up the escalator to the electricity show, Lucy isn’t there.

I search out Will by one of the circuit conductors.  “Where’s your sister?” I ask.

He looks up, looks around.  Shakes his head.

I find the other two boys.  “Where’s Lucy?” I say.

They both shrug.  They don’t know. 

I feel the momentary urge to gather all three boys together and strangle them with a long, very thorny strand of razor wire, but a mild but rising panic pushes that feeling aside.  I slide back and forth between the throngs of children, searching for my daughter.  It shouldn’t be that hard:  this is China after all, and her hair is the color of honey mixed with sunlight.  But I can feel my eyes shuttling quickly, too quickly, the same way they do when I can’t find my keys and I move from room to room, not really looking.  Where’s my daughter? 

I see Ellen and sprint/walk toward her.  “Where’s Lucy?” I say.

She frowns for an instant, but instantly figures out where this is going.  “Oh my god,” she says.

I sprint back to the escalators, head down toward the massive underground display, with it’s 15 or 16 rooms and six or seven hundred kids and parents and grandparents laughing through the house of mirrors, wondering at the display that shows how the eye works.  I’m don’t even know where to begin.

But then she’s there. 

I’m halfway down the escalator, swearing at the old lady who’s blocking the left side of the steps, when I spot Lucy strolling toward me.  Then she starts to skip.  Skip. 

What happens next, I’m not quite sure I understand.  She’s skipping across the red museum carpet, her feet both leaving the floor at the same time, her hair flying flat out behind her, arms swinging widely back and forth.  She spots me, and changes the angle of her gait, flouncing toward the escalators. 

And just when she reaches the bottom, she bursts into tears.

I’m shocked I have to say.  This is my little girl after all, the kid who likes to eat pigeon heads, pulling out the eyeballs and tearing apart the skull to get inside.  I’m sure of very few things, but I am certain that I’m the only one of my Face Book friends who’s had to tell his six-year-old daughter, “No honey:  we’re not taking the brains home, tonight.”  This is my Lucy, the little girl who likes to play rugby with the older boys, who’s never been scared by any movie she’s ever seen or any book we’ve ever read (as opposed to, um, some other kids in our family who still won’t read Harry Potter). 

But there she is, chest wracked with sobs, snot flowing from her nose, mouth a watery grimace.  I hold her, of course, and tell her it’s okay, and press her against me as hard as I can, and tell her again it’s okay as we go up the escalator.  Her mother’s there, and takes her from me (if, by “take” we mean, “rips her from my arms”), but Lucy continues to cry, huge gasping sobs that thump through my ribs just watching her. 


Back in the fall, when I first wrote about the children and their transition to Hong Kong, I talked about how Will was the one who scared me the most (“Will:  A Grandparental Update,” October).  Very soon, though, Lucy became more of an issue.  First there was the stuff at school, where she’d sit in class refusing to smile, even though she’d insist when she came home that she loved school.  Then there was the stuff later on where she’d talk about scratching herself to make herself stop feeling angry.  Needless to say, that set my little paranoid/worse-case-scenario/Norwegian-Lutheran alarm bells peeling. 

Very little has come of any of this as the year has gone along:  Lucy continues to love school, and when we look at her (brilliant) teacher’s web-site, some of the pictures actually show our little blonde-haired, blue-eyed girl smiling.   More impressive than that, though (yes, our kid can do MORE than smile!) is the smart little kid that’s started to emerge from the goofball that’s always been Lucy. 

This kid can read. 

I mean, really read. 

Will, our eldest, who spends most of his free time at home with his shoulders hunched into a book, came out of kindergarten able to read some pretty basic books (“I can’t find my kite.  Is my kite in the car?  No.  Is my kite in the yard?  No.  Is my kite in the incinerator?  Yes.  Who the &%$@ put it there?”) but not much else.  And though we tried to get him to read over the summer before starting first grade, he basically refused, preferring instead to follow the adventures of Jack and Annie leaning over his mother’s shoulder as she read. 

Lucy reached that same point about, oh, 6 days into Year 1 (the HK equivalent of US kindergarten).  By February, she was picking out words in the chapter books we were reading to her.  By April, she was reading my e-mails as I wrote them.  By May, she was using the money she’d extorted from me as a result of those e-mails to by herself French dramas from the early twentieth-century. 

Okay, so not really:  I’d never give in to extortion (and if you don’t believe me, just ask my ex-therapist—or the Chinese government). 

But seriously, Lucy’s reading random signs (in both English and Chinese), whole paragraphs out of her chapter books, and at night will often read to Jamie when we’re busy washing the dishes or sneaking bites of Toblerone in the kitchen. 

She has a good memory, too:  three weeks ago, we started picking out photos for a post on her blog about our trip to China back in April.  By the end of her first 70 pictures, she’d picked out 51 that she wanted to publish—and she had another 400 to choose from. 

Then for some reason, we didn’t get back to the project for almost a month.  When we finally did, I thought I’d be clever as I posted the photos and delete one or two (or 11) that she’d chose way back when, assuming she wouldn’t remember any of them.

She did.  My little stunt nearly cost me my father’s day gift, which would have been a pity, since it was a wonderful card shaped like a shirt with a necktie that said, “Dear dad I love you!  You are my FAORITE dad in the hol world!”

(Yes, I know:  sacchriney-cute and total brainless breeder crappola.  But given that Will’s card said, “Dear Dad, I guess you’ll do, which is good, because Mom says we’re stuck with you, at least for now,” I’ll take what I can get.   And damn it, who’s to say that hol isn’t better off spelled without the “w” and the “e”?)

So Lucy’s doing fine.  Great even.  She loves school, she’s learned to read, she’s tried a billion new things this year, above and beyond the aforementioned pigeon heads.  She bright, funny, occasionally kind, and always a hoot to be around. 


But . . .

Well . . . let’s put it this way:  Lucy has a bit of a dark side.

It’s hard to know exactly how to describe this.  “Temper” might be a good word.  But that doesn’t quite capture it.  “Fury”?  “Forcefulness”?  “Self-absorbedness”? 

Hard to say, actually.  Here’s what happens:

It’ll be Saturday morning.  The kids will be up before we are, mainly because they went to bed at 8:30, and we stayed up until 12:30 drinking red wine, eating salty buttered popcorn, and watching Kung-Fu Hustle for the 11th time (Best.  Movie.  Ever.). 

Anyhow, when we finally stumble out into the living room at the not-nearly-satisfying hour of 8:20 a.m. Lucy will be lying on the couch, still in her pajamas, looking peaked.  As quick as we can, we’ll get her a bowl of Cheerios, a cup of the really good mango-orange juice we can only buy at the grocery store by the northern train station, and urge her to eat.

Which she’ll do. 

For about 8 seconds. 

Then she’ll forget, and start bugging her older brother, who’s lying on the other couch reading something by Ayn Rand.  Or she’ll forget, and start bugging her baby brother, who’s crawled into the cupboard next to the TV console and is hollering through the crack between the doors, “Mommy!  Mommy!  Come find me!”  Lucy will creep over to the cupboard, rip open the door, and go, “Boo!”  To which Jamie will respond with a laugh.  The first seven times.  Then he’ll start to get annoyed that his game with his mother has been interrupted (even though his mother is perfectly happy to sit at the dining room table sipping tea and reading the paper) and he’ll start to say, “Lucy:  noooo!”  To which Lucy will respond by jerking the door open 15 or 20 more times, making her brother increasingly irritable, and me increasingly insane with her incessant, “Boo”s, each of which is sounding noticeably less playful than the previous one. 

About two minutes into this, both Ellen and I will start saying things like, “Lucy, that’s not a good idea,” and “Lucy, you’re bothering your brother; go find something else to do.”  Another two minutes, and we’ll be saying things like “Lucy, stop that,” and “Lucy, you’re going to be sorry.”

But she won’t stop.  And sooner or later Jamie will be furious, and then we’ll be furious, and then Lucy will throw herself on the couch and scream, “It’s not FAIR,” which it’s not, if she means us having to put up with this kind of crap every Saturday morning. 

Because, indeed, it happens every Saturday morning.  And every Sunday morning as well.  Each time, it’s as though she deliberately sets out to work herself into a frenzy.   And each time, she’s very successful at executing her plan.  After, “It’s not FAIR,” come “Uh!” which we’ll ignore, and then “UH!” which we’ll also ignore, until the fifth time, at which point she’s uttering this—what?  word?  grunt?—at the top of her lungs, emphasizing it each time by hurling her body back onto the sofa cushions. 

Brilliant parents that we are, of course, we’ll respond in a measured, thoughtful manner, generally, but not always, resorting to words like “^%&$” and “#$%@,” and its close cousin, “#$%@@.”  Usually accompanied by threats of groundings, lost allowances, a lack of bedtime stories, and 42 hours straight of listening to Rush Limbaugh pretend he’s not a hypocritical lard-head who used an ACLU lawyer to get him off a drug charge. 

Inevitably, Lucy will be sent to her room, where she’ll scream for, oh, 7 hours, pausing only to sob, loudly, that no one loves her, that she doesn’t have friends, and that, somehow in the midst of slamming a cupboard door in her brother’s face for 20 minutes, she broke her leg. 


The irony, of course, is that many of you reading this will recognize what I’m describing as, well, the way I’ve acted most of my life. 

Yes, it’s true:  I have a wee bit of a temper. 

The trick in that sentence, of course, is my use of the word “have.”  “Have” means present tense.  Which allows me to use words like “wee”:  as in, right now, these days, my temper isn’t that bad. 

Which is true.  These days.

As a kid, though, man, I was a living, breathing, tornado of fury.  Set me off about this or that thing and the top of my head would actually explode, blood and brains and that morning’s grapefruit juice flying 57 feet into the air (I once blinded a duck).  When I was in sixth grade, my classmates voted me most likely to be cast in a video for Nick Ferguson’s “Thunder Island.”

I’m not sure why I was like this.  I didn’t want to be that way.  Losing my temper actually hurt, like someone was taking the jaws of life to my rib cage and pulling me apart bone by bone, sinew by sinew.  When something got under my skin, my face would turn bright red, my lungs would tighten, sweat would pour down my the inside of my skin.  Sometimes it got so bad, I actually had to run off into the woods near our cabin, or into my room, or into the basement just to get away from the situation.  My brother called these “hyperfits,” a phrase carefully designed to extend said fits for a good thirty minutes extra.  But it was an apt term, because what I was experiencing extended beyond a normal loss of temper.

This has faded some as I’ve gotten older.  Some.  I’ve learned that exercise, for me, is a necessity, burning off stress and helping me keep perspective.  And I’ve learned that too much caffeine is a bad idea, though I tend to test the limits of that theory six or seven times a week.  And the older I get the better I am at keeping perspective.  The kids help me with that:  there’s very little that happens during the day that can’t be solved by lying on the couch and holding one or three of them very close to me for fifteen minutes.  They help me breathe better, even as they crush my lungs.

Even so, I have to admit there’s something about me that—well, that likes my temper.  Or if not likes it, at least respects it.  I don’t mean, of course, the moments that my anger is self-absorbed or self-pitying:  the New Yorker rejected my story again; the Packers lost to the Vikings again; I dropped a glass on the floor and have to clean it up when I’d rather be on the couch writing and eating Oreos—going over the top about that sort of thing is just stupid.  I mean, get over it Paul.

But there are other times when my anger is evidence that I care about something that matters, and care deeply.  When some numb-nut faculty member or administrator makes a decision that has a negative impact on students for years to come, and does it in a manner that insists on his own ignorance, I don’t have to respect that.  What’s more, I wouldn’t respect myself for respecting that.  Similarly, when a student does something in a class that undermines the efforts or thinking or learning of her classmates, that student is going to hear about it, and quickly, and in a way that leaves her nostril hairs singed.  As it should be. 

I remember years ago telling someone I respected about an ex-girlfriend from college who was killed in a car accident after a generally miserable life with an ugly family situation and struggles with eating disorder.  The person I was telling listened for a while, then shrugged and said, “These things happen.”

I wanted to throttle him.  I wanted to scream, “Yes, they do, you blurthering idiot”—(I like to use made-up words when I’m angry)—“and stupid attitudes like yours don’t help a hell of a lot, do they!”

What, exactly, I expected this dipstickdiot to do about Marsha’s parents’ divorce or her affection for starving herself to death is beyond me—but it didn’t matter:  when faced with things that are wrong, my reasoning goes, you don’t just say, “Oh well, that’s life.”  You get pissed.  And you fight.

So part of me likes that Lucy is a fighter.  Check that.  Most of me likes it.  I trust people who have emotions, even if sometimes those emotions are a little over the top.  I want my kids to have strong beliefs, I want them to know that there’s right and wrong, and I want them to do something when they see stuff that’s wrong.  Blake once wrote, “The tigers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction.” Damn right.  Don’t just stand there following the rules:  do something:  speak, raise your voice.  Be angry. 

Even so, sometimes Lucy tests my limits.  There’s self-righteous anger, after all, and then there’s self-absorbed anger.   A lot of the time, these Saturday morning fits fall under the latter category.  Or worse, really, since they seem to take my mantra—don’t just sit there, be angry—and turn it on its head.  My point is that when something’s wrong, you should respond, even if the situation is hopeless.  What Lucy seems to do on the other hand, is take a situation that’s perfectly fine and refuse to “just sit there.”  Instead, she riles herself up and everyone else around her until what used to be a quiet, calm, Sunday morning, becomes a typhoon of invectives and tears.

Confusing everything for me is that I’m not sure if this is something she got from me, something abnormal (or both), or something every six-year-old girl does.  I haven’t had any other daughters, after all, and I haven’t really hung around with girls that age for, well, let’s call it 40 years.  For that matter, I’m not even sure this isn’t normal behavior for six-year-olds period.  Sure, I had a six-year-old boy, once, but Will was always calm in a surreal The Omen kind of way.  Whatever evil he enacted was quiet, and hidden, and undoubtedly led to some sort of sacrificial burning of marshmallows. 

Then, too, there’s my stupid theory about life and control:  namely, that people need to feel that they have the ability to shape their world.  For some, this means repainting their living room every six months.  For others, it means multiple piercings, many of which are in places that make sadists say “Ouch.”   Still others write and paint and sculpt and choreograph dances. 

Assuming this theory is true, what if Lucy has on some subliminal level decided that her “art”, her reshaping of the universe, is to sour the chemistry of every room she ever enters?  I can’t remember who or when I heard this, but at some point in my life someone or some episode of Quincy, ME told me that there are kids who figure out that bad attention is better than no attention, and consequently spend the rest of their lives making sure they get as much bad attention as they can. 

And then there’s that part of me that—again—wonders if all of the shouts and tears and and huffs and puffs are just the fatigue of being six in a foreign country.  Lucy is away from her friends, away from her room, away from 2,376 of her 2,381 stuff animals.  She had no say in this particular move, was given no voice in the wheres, whens, and hows.  We couldn’t have given her less control if we’d duct-taped her to the wing of the 767 we flew over on.  In a situation like that, who wouldn’t want to assert themselves—their “self,” their presence in and ability to change the universe—every chance they got? 


As I write this, part of me is aware that this is familiar territory in my writing this year:  I’ve worried about Lucy almost since the first month, all the more so since I assumed coming over that she was the last of my kids about whom I’d have to worry.  There was the school stuff, the scratching, cutting, OCD stuff.  And now there’s the hyperfit stuff.  It all gets a little bit old.  She’s just a kid, after all, her brain only 1/1,000th developed, even if her personality is in the 99th percentile. 

In the end, maybe, it’s worth noting that I’m less worried than—well . . . just annoyed.  No one wants to have their Saturday mornings ruined.  Every week.  By loud screaming.  And “Huh”ing against the couch.  And poking her brother with a stick as she slams a cupboard door in his face.  And constant trips to the hospital to tend to those broken legs. 

And I should mention that, in the midst of all of this, Lucy never really loses her sense of humor.  Last Saturday, for instance, after the third or fourth episode before 10 a.m., I sent her to her room and told her to stay there until I got back from my swim (an hour, more or less).  When I returned, I discovered a poster on her door, two sheets of 8 ½ x 11 paper taped together end to end.  There’s a story in our family, about a time six years ago when Will got very angry at me, and drew two stick figures—one large, one small—with an X between the two.  I loved that he did that, loved that he was smart enough to know that he needed to do something with his anger. 

Standing outside Will and Lucy’s room, I saw those two sheets of paper with writing and pictures scrawled all over them, and grinned.  On the top sheet, written in red ink, were the words:  “DANGER DO NOT ENTER.”  A large X was scrawled through the lower page, with images in each of the triangles of space created by the lines.  The top triangle showed a hand, held up to stop a person in their tracks.  The space on the right showed a fat exclamation point.  The bottom area had an upside-down stick figure with x’s where the eyes should be.  And the left-hand triangle . . .

Well, the left-hand triangle showed two round globes connected at the middle.  A stick leg and foot came off of the bottom of each of the globes.  And an arm and hand extended from the side of each globe.  No head was visible, as though the pair of buttocks portrayed belonged to a person who was, well, bent over double. 

And right in the middle of the butt, drawn in bright red ink? 

A handprint. 

Got to love that girl.


But now the second story, the last you’ll get of Lucy in Hong Kong: 

It’s Thursday night.  Ellen and Lucy have been down to the pool, and as they’re coming back, Lucy reaches up and grabs a berry from one of the odd-palmy-looking trees we have right beside the stairs of our building.  I’m not sure why she does this, or what she’s thinking, because I’m not there with her.  What I am sure about is that I can her screams from two stories up, half-way down the hall, in our flat, with the air conditioning running.

Apparently she popped the berry.  And apparently the berry contains some sort of juice or resin that stings and itches, instant poison-ivy in a can, with added heat. 

Into the flat the two of them tumble, Lucy roaring:  “Ooowwwww!!!  It hurts!!!!!  It hurts!!!!!  Owwwww!!!!!!!!”

The resin has gotten all over both of her arms, her legs, and parts of her neck.  Nothing we say, nothing we do, helps.  Hell, nothing we say or do can get her to shut up, to calm down, to come down from whatever mountain or acid trip or hallucination of damnation she’s on.  She’s screaming, and ranting, and kicking her arms and legs and crying and screaming and pulling at her skin.  Ellen tries to wash her down with a cold washcloth, but it doesn’t seem to help.  So Ellen turns on the tub, and begins filling it with water. 

“Owww!!”  Lucy screams.  “It huuuuuuuurrrrrrrrtttttts!!!  Owwww!!!  Owwww!!!!!!”  It’s a horrible, bellowing, bullying howl she’s got going, and Ellen and I aren’t sure whether to hug her or get out the duct tape just to get her to shut up. 

The water doesn’t help, or the soap that Ellen employs.  Eventually, some emergency in the living room forces Ellen to head there, leaving me alone with Lucy in a tile bathroom that works to turning piercing whines into sonic screams that threaten to pop my eardrums.  I stick several dozen rolls of toilet paper in my ears, and kneel by the edge of the tub. 

“It still hurts?” I ask.


“Are you sure?”


I reach into the tub, searching for the washcloth.  The water is freezing cold. 


“Ellen?” I holler down the hall.


“Ellen?” I holler louder


“Screw it,” I say, and go back to the tub.  I reach in.  Pull out the plug.  The water starts to drain.


“Breathe,” I say.


“Breathe,” I say again.

She stops.  Looks at me. 

“You need to breathe,” I say.  “With your lungs.  Remember?”

She nods, inhales, and then goes, “OOOOOOOWWWWWW—”

I put the plug back in, turn on the hot water. 


As the water rises, the screaming increases in volume.  The hot water makes it worse, she says, the itching is becoming itchier, the burning is becoming burnier. 

“This will help,” I say. 

“No it won’t!”

“Yes it will.  The hot water will cut through the resin.”

She stops.  “The huh?”

“The resin.  Those seeds or whatever you popped were filled with oils that irritate your skin.  Once we get rid of the oil, you won’t hurt anymore.”

She looks at her leg.  “I don’t see any oil.”

“It’s invisible.”

She looks more closely, unconvinced.  “Really?”

“You need hot water to cut through the oil.  It dissolves it, and then we can scrub it off with soap, and you won’t hurt anymore.”

“Why does it dissolve it?”

I’m not a chemist, but I had a crush on one in college, so I give it a shot:  “Hot water inhibits the ability of oil particles to bond.  And when the particles are split up, it’s easier to scrub them away with detergents.  Plus,” I add, just to make sure she doesn’t end up one of those serious scientificky girls who breaks the art of boy English majors, “everyone knows oil fairies hate hot water fairies, and will run away if they see more than one, especially if they’re eating ice-cream.”

She gives me a look, then says, “How do you know?”

“I used to get poison ivy all the time.  Hot water and soap was the only thing that helped.”

“Mommy used cold water.”

“Mommy didn’t use to get poison ivy all the time.”

She watches as I scrub one leg, then the other.


She nods.  She holds out her arms.  I scrub them, too.  Then she pulls her blonde mane to one side and leans her head away from me, stretching her neck like a swan.  This is a motion I’ve seen Lucy make a thousand times before:  at the pool in Lexington with her friends, sitting on her grandma’s lap listening to a story, stepping out of the tub and drying herself off in a thick towel.  It’s an indescribably beautiful gesture:  her hair is mouse brown at the base, but honey highlighted everywhere else. Her neck is narrow and graceful, the line of her jaw cutting at just the right angle.  

Yes, it’s been a year—a hell of a year, both good and bad—full of storms and tantrums and screaming fits and thrown toys.  

But this is the Lucy I know.  

Monday, June 21, 2010

An Obnoxiously Schmaltzy Last Post on Jamie

It’s a Friday in February, and I’m standing in Kowloon Park off of Nathan Road, watching Jamie running from play set to play set, whizzing down slides, swinging from swings, twisting dials and knobs and over-sized tic-tac-toe Xs and Os.  No one, when they found out we had three kids, said to us, “Oh, you have to go to Kowloon Park!  It’s a great park!”  This is surprising because Kowloon Park is, indeed, a great park:  set smack dab in the middle of the busiest part of the peninsula, it’s a world unto itself.  You can see the skyscrapers, sure, but they might as well be a thousand miles away for all they impose their presence amidst the tall green trees, the cobbled walkways bordered with flowers, the mazes, the sculpture gardens, the pond full of flamingoes.  There’s an aviary there, with parrots the size of chickens and these crazy double-beaked birds—the second beak inverted on the first—that simultaneously fascinate and horrify me. 

And there’s a huge playground.  Which Jamie is now making the most of, trying out every climbing wall there is, straddling the bouncy animals and cars set up on over-sized springs.  Every 10 minutes or so he’ll circle back to where I am, trying to see if I’ll give him more candy.  It’s the week before the Chinese New Year, you see, and every third stall at the market overflows with bins of candy wrapped in red, yellow, and green foil.  Before leaving Tai Po that morning, Jamie and I had stopped at our favorite dried fruits stall and bought a pound of mixed.  Now we’re working our way through the bag, trying to remember which ones are fruit-flavored, which are salty, which can hardly be called “candy” they’re so much like dried pork. 

I hate playgrounds.  This is one of my many weird, childhood associated quirks:  I hate playgrounds, I hate circuses, and anything vaguely resembling a day camp sends me searching for a noose.  I’m not sure why this is, but I suspect I was the sort of child that didn’t respond well to being pressured.  And playgrounds, with their bright colors and faux castle mini-architecture, seem to scream:  “This is fun!  Have fun!  If you can’t have fun here, you might as well hire a lawyer now, because sooner or later you’re taking a high-powered rifle to work!”  I just can’t take it. 

Today, though, I’m perfectly happy to be at the playground with Jamie.  Earlier that morning, we’d gone to the Hong Kong History Museum and learned about the opium wars and the Japanese occupation.  Now, we’re at the park, ignoring the winter gray sky by pretending we’re pirates or airplane pilots, or gorillas, or whatever image it is racing through Jamie’s head.  In another few hours, we’ll stroll north along Nathan road, into the Jordan area, which will be an absolute blast.   Eventually Jamie will fall asleep in the stroller, and I’ll push him along the moist sidewalks, beneath neon signs fighting the gloam to announce “Man Paradise:  Enjoy Yourself,” and “Cyber-Sauna.”  For the life of me, I have no idea what this last one means, but it sounds like a great way to get electrocuted. 

I will buy some T-shirts, stroll through an old-fashioned Chinese department store searching for a chess set with real stone pieces (no luck; nothing but plastic).  I will buy some pastries for an afternoon snack, and get one of those tea/fruit drinks with the little black jell-O things in the bottom (just as confusing as the cyber-sauna, though hopefully less deadly).  Eventually, the sky will begin to darken and the streets will fill with people hurrying from work to the nearest MTR station.  And Jamie and I will head for home, satisfied with our day.


When my host institution asked me to take on some additional duties, I agreed to do so under three circumstances:  I would be appropriately compensated, I would have enough staff, and I could maintain a flexible schedule.   I didn’t need this work, after all:  I already had a job.  And I would be an idiot to pull my family up, drag them half-way around the world, and spend all my time in an office, leaving 10 months later having seen only a tiny bit of Hong Kong.  I had no doubt I could complete my work:  I’m an efficient worker—OCD can be useful that way.  And as long as all my work got done, I saw no reason why I shouldn’t spend some time exploring this particular corner of the world. 

So once or twice a month, Ellen would go off to swim and Jamie and I would head out into the city, armed with a red stroller, a bunch of granola bars, and at least one peanutbutter and jelly sandwich with the crusts cut off. 

We visited Tai Wai and the Hong Kong heritage museum, where we learned about Cantonese opera; we went to Chi Lin Nunnery not once, but twice, drawn by the amazing architecture, the lush green ponds, the low chanting; on the Island, we spent a morning in the Tea Museum, then spent the afternoon in Hong Kong park, where we saw pelicans the size of ponies with flexible beaks that they could turn inside-out over their own heads—a skill, I realized watching them, that I’ve always wanted for myself. 

We spent one very rainy Monday riding the trolley cars as far east as we could before lunch, then as far west as possible in the afternoon.  This last one had long been a fantasy of mine—I love the double-decker trolleys, with their veneered wooden trim, their narrow staircases, their single-paned windows that keep out the cool breeze but not the rain.  And it was fun, though I have to admit that after a while the hard plastic seats got a little old. 


That this year has been a real gift is obvious.  That one of the most important ways it’s been a gift was by giving us another son perhaps requires a bit more elaboration. 

Part of what I’m talking about is simply age related.  Jamie was 32-months-old when we arrived in Hong Kong.  He would walk, talk, and—well, that was pretty much it.  Personality wise, he was cute and funny, but essentially an animated loaf of bread.  During our time here, he passed from baby to toddler, shifting from object to subject:  there was a real human being in there, and watching him emerge was a blast. 

So that’s part of what I mean when I say that being in Hong Kong gave us another son.  But there’s this other part, too:

I was 41 when Jamie was born.  Ellen was nearly 40.  In educational terms, he was what could be referred to as an “unintended outcome,” which is to say that he happened, yes, even if we hadn’t necessarily, um, planned for him to happen. 

This is not to say that his outcoming, so to speak, was necessarily a bad thing—on the contrary, unintended outcomes are often the things that instructors most enjoy about their classes.  This is just to point out that we’re neither Catholic nor gluttons for punishment, nor getting any younger or more energetic.    We are, on the contrary, incredibly lazy and incredibly practical when it comes to things like, oh, being able to sleep at night, not having more kids than we can afford to feed, and not attending high school graduations at an age when, as you’re heading out of the house, your wife turns to you and says, “Did you bring the extra batteries for your hearing aid?”

But these things happen.  And of course, within a year or two of Jamie’s being born, we decided we might as well give up pretending he didn’t exist and actually love him. 

Joke.  Seriously.  Sorry, grandma. 

In actuality, of course, we were smitten the minute he emerged from the womb, pink and gooey and looking vaguely miffed.  Nonetheless, it’s worth pointing out that, for some large portion of his first few years, we occasionally forgot he existed.  This isn’t to say we were horrible parents:  we never left him in the car at the end of a long day of running errands; we fed and clothed him, cuddled with him before putting him to bed; he’s the only of our three children to whom we sang lullabies every nights, something for which he will likely never forgive us. 

But the reality of our lives was that we already had two children.  And they kept us very busy.  Particularly as one of them was a Lucy. 

You heard me:  when faced with Will’s math homework, Jamie’s fascination with the bubbles coming out of his nose, and Lucy’s crawling onto the kitchen counter to get the butcher knife so that she could use the handle to knock the matches off the top of the refrigerator, and, it’s not hard to imagine where we put most of our attention. 

As it turns out, ignoring Jamie seems to have been a pretty good parenting technique.  The fact is, he the most independent of our kids, insisting at the age of three that he can brush his own teeth, that he can make his own PBJ sandwiches.  He already knows how to turn on the VCR, where to find the spring water in the refrigerator, and how to make a nice roux for the Thanksgiving gravy.  The day he disassembled our malfunctioning vacuum cleaner and reassembled it perfectly, Ellen and I looked at each other, wondering why we hadn’t been smart enough to ignore the rest of our kids as well. 


So beyond getting to know the little human Jamie is becoming, we’re getting to know the little human we’ve been ignoring.  This was particularly true for Ellen, of course, who spent roughly 167.5 out of 168 hours a week in Jamie’s presence:  he came with her to the bus stop with Lucy and Will, to the grocery store to get mango juice, to the temple to, well, see a temple, to the malls in Sha Tin and Kowloon Tong to pick up clothes, or good bread, or cheese.  They went to the playground together almost daily, ate lunch together always, cuddled at night before he went to sleep. 

I, meanwhile, got whole days trolling around Hong Kong, chatting to the little blonde head in the stroller below me, listening to his questions:  “Can we take a taxi, can we?”  “Why can’t we take a taxi, why?”  “Can I have a snack, can I?”  That I never had this kind of opportunity with the other two kids goes without saying:  when I’m in the States, I occasionally avoid my 1-hour commute by working at home, but then I’m forced by a tight teaching schedule to actually work, rather than searching for the best dumpling shop in Lexington Virginia (a search that would, trust me, take a very long time).  The result of all of this was that I got to watch as my little loaf of bread developed a personality.   

And what a personality.  If Will is the kid most likely to marry a fundamentalist Christian who won’t let us see our grandchildren, and Lucy is most likely to get a tattoo before the age of 10, Jamie is most likely to become a professional surfer who accidently invents something that makes him a trillion dollars, which he then blows throwing a big party for all of his friends.   Jamie goes with the flow.  Sure, on occasion he gets a little huffy with his sister (like, for instance, after she pokes him six times with a sharp stick), but even on the rare occasion where his eyes become rimmed with red and he unbuckles those huge lungs of his and bellows until the mortar falls from the bricks, within a minute or two he’s over it and has moved on to the next thing. 

And he’s funny.  On father’s day, I went to the pool with the kids, then worked out for an hour, trying to shake off some of the stuffed duck we’d had for dinner the night before.  Back at the flat, I stretched out on the couch and closed my eyes.  Will curled up by my legs, book in hand, so quiet the only time I knew he was there was when he turned a page.  I was just drifting off, when I felt someone climb onto the couch alongside my torso.  I kept my eyes shut, hoping whoever or whatever it was would go away and let me sink into oblivion.  No such luck, though; whatever presence this was remained beside me. 

I opened my eyes. 

A pair of gigantic blue pupils hovered inches from my face. 

“Heh!” laughed Jamie.  He was grinning. “Heh heh!”

Jamie still doesn’t talk much.  When he does, he’s still a little hard to understand.  And he has this weird linguistic hitch, which sounds vaguely French if you ask me, of repeating his question words.  Most of the time, truth be told, he communicates through clicks and giggles, like an insane R2-D2. 

“Hi,” I say to the gigantic blue pupils.

“Heh!” he says again.  The skin around his eyes is crinkled.

“I’m trying to sleep,” I say. 

“Hee, hee!” he says. 

“You’re cute,” I say. 

“Huh, huh, huh.” 

“But I’m tired.”

A huge, bemused grin.  He’s staring into my eyes intently, as though watching his reflection in my corneas. 

“So maybe you could go away?”

He flat out laughs. 

Other times, he’s funny without even trying.  There was the rainy Monday morning in January, for instance, when he and I took Will and Lucy to school.  Just before leaving, I checked my computer and discovered that the Packers were losing to the Cardinals in the playoffs by something like 27 points at half-time. 

It was not a fun morning.

It got even worse when Jamie and I returned to the flat to discover that Ellen was still swimming and I didn’t have my keys.  It was pouring rain, maybe 40 degrees out, and we had a good 45 minutes to wait. 

Later, Jamie said to Ellen, “Why did Daddy say ‘God damn it,’ why?”

And just last week, he asked her, “Why did Daddy break the umbrella?  Why?”

Then there was the time, maybe a month ago, when Jamie discovered Lucy in the bathroom, attending to private business.  He was, himself, in the midst of a good streak with potty behavior (don’t ask), and had just that day received a lot of praise and a handful of M&Ms and Tic Tacs, in the vain hope that these would induce him toward a repeat performance for the next—well, for the rest of his life.

Discovering Lucy on the toilet, the door opened, he shouted down the hall, “Lucy’s pooing!” 

He glanced at her, making sure he had his facts straight before delivering another update:  “It’s really amazing!”


And he’s smart, our little guy.  The other day he and Ellen were on a double-decker bus, riding down to Central.  Halfway there, he turned to his mother and said, “Is this the 307?”

Ellen nodded, impressed.  They’d only been on the bus once before, as opposed to the 26 and the 275, which we take roughly 6,211 times a week. 

Jamie thought for a minute, then said, “Is it yellow?”

Ellen had to pause.  She couldn’t remember.  “We’ll have to wait until we get off,” she said.  “Then we can see.”

They rode for another 20 minutes or so, passing cranes near the harbor and brightly painted apartments and office complexes.  Eventually they came to the eastern tunnel and went under, then rode along the north edge of the island to Wan Chai.  Reaching their stop, they descended the stairs and climbed out into the humid, June air. 

Ellen paused, taking a moment to get her bearings.  But Jamie stepped further along the curb, leaning forward to see the front of the bus. 

“It is yellow,” he said.  “And it’s the 307.”

As good as his memory is, he’s soon to be in for a bit of a shock:  in slightly more than a month, we’ll pull into the driveway of our blue house on Houston St. in Lexington Virginia.  Unlocking the door, we’ll step into a living room hasn’t registered on his 44-month-old brain.  He won’t, to put it another way, remember his own home, his own room, the bathroom where we hang his monkey towel. 

He knows it, too.  We were on a bus the other day, heading down to University Station to catch a train that would take us to another train that would take us to—I don’t even remember where. 

But there we were on the shuttle bus, and Jamie was quizzing Lucy about this fictional “house” thing he’d been hearing so much about lately:

“Do we have horses,” he’d say, “do we?”

“No,” Lucy would say.

“Do we have kitties, do we?”


“Do we have birdies, do we?”

“Outside we do.  But not inside.”

“Do we have tape?”

“Yes, we have tape.”

“Do we have scissors there, do we?”


So he’s unfolding.  Sometimes his tone of voice is surprisingly grown-up, not unusual for third children, I assume.  The other week Lucy did something that mildly annoyed him, and he marched around for half-an-hour, saying, “Lucy:  I am very angry.  Lucy:  I am very angry with you.”  

A lot of this is just imitation, of course:  these are words his mother would say (as opposed to his dad who, well, you know . . . ).  And a lot of what he does these days is imitation.  He has learned from his brother and sister, for instance, the fine art of bug spotting:  walking down the hill to catch the 26 every morning, he’ll sit in his stroller, pointing to this butterfly or that spider or that creeping, crawling snail. 

He especially loves the snails, especially the tiny ones, loves to hold them on his finger and let them crawl towards his palm.  One day, we walked all the way down the hill, got on the bus, rode it to old Tai Po, got off, strolled to the meeting place for the shuttle bus, waved off Lucy and Will, then turned around, strolling up Kwong Fuk Road to our favorite newsvendor, where we picked up a copy of the South China Morning Post. 

After that, we trundled across the intersection, ducking up the pedestrian walkway to Jamie’s favorite little playground.  I grabbed a custard bao along the way, and stopped at 7-11 to fill up my Octopus card.  Then I came pushed Jamie’s stroller up the ramp to the playground, and urged him out.

He didn’t move.

I waited a moment, wiping the sweat off my brow, and looking around.  As usual, the benches around the play area were filled with old men chatting in the shade.  Two or three of them had their socks off, their feet up by their haunches.

“Jamie,” I said, “time to go play.”

Again, he didn’t move.

“Jamie,” I said—and then stopped.  Leaning over, I tried to get a better angle on his right hand. 

“What is that?”

He gave me a sidelong glance, not guilty, more concerned with not moving too much.  “A nail.”

And sure enough, perched on his finger, was a tiny snail, the size of a bug. 

“Where did you get that?” I said.

Again, that sidelong glance.   And then he turned back to his treasure, gave one of those clicking giggles.  “It’s mine,” he said.  “Mine.”