On a family mythology

[A response to Brad Frederiksen]

What I wanted to say here, and did in fact begin to shape into words, I realised maybe shouldn’t be said – not yet (or, at least, not through this medium) – and so deleted it, thus diminishing the quality of this post. Because of my upbringing (certain specifics of which I was going to write about here but have decided not to) I have a habit of stalling whenever I approach the indecent, as if I have inside me some sort of indecency filter, which comes from what I’m not going to write about and ultimately has the effect of, in real life, getting me in knots, and is probably not an indecency filter or related to decency at all. [What I mean by decency is very specific rules related to, for example, what should be said in certain social situations or in what state of dress one should leave the house – is this even decency or are these just weird, ritualistic, socio-religious-influenced “laws” drummed into you, or, more correctly, me, as a kid?] {And the reason I’m not writing here what I was going to write – and did in fact want to write – is that something I wrote some time ago about what I’m not going to write about here today was mentioned to me by somebody related to what I wrote about then but not today, not in a mean way, and not to chastise me – it was, in retrospect, done really quite decently – but in a way that I interpreted as their way of letting me know that they’d read it, and so I probably wrongly think it would be indecent of me to again tell a story here from that particular grouping of stories.}

But then there is also a strong desire to say it all anyway – because the rules are illogical. Because I can say what I want. Because fuck off. So what happens is that not saying what I want to here itself begins to assume an ironic lean.

I think what I’m trying to say here, and what I will say here, is that I liked, in your post, Brad, that you continued on this theme that may be a subconscious continuation of my response to your post, or may have been a logical extension of that original post, which is, after re-reading it now, quite possible, the theme being the mythologies upheld and championed by families – which I already said, anyway, in the title of this post. And not as some sort of badge of honour, or not necessarily, not at its heart, because most families aren’t mob gangs or members of a dictatorial dynasty, but simply as part of a real or imagined history that is passed down from generation to generation because these are the stories we tell ourselves and each other – sometimes on blogs and sometimes, I suppose, for reasons of decency, not.

On the first day of spring

[A response to Brad Frederiksen]

I have deeply wrinkled palms. Have been told at various points in my life that this is a signifier of being “an old soul”. Don’t believe in souls and so had strong feelings this was bullshit. Then read a short story (can’t remember by who, which kind of diminishes this post – have a feeling it was in translation and by an East Asian author) in which it’s mentioned that a pregnant woman shouldn’t worry lest her stresses be passed on to the baby in her womb, making him squeeze his fists shut, giving him deeply wrinkled palms…

On a separate matter

I’ve written before about my time working in pubs but I wanted to share another story from those days that has been on my mind lately.

One of the pub’s regulars was a short, hollow-cheeked man of middle-age who always wore a zip-up vest and a military cap. I’ll refer to him here as X. X drank, always, and only, schooners of light beer in the way that others only drank schooners of VB or Resch’s, or refused a beer without the perfect head, or refused to drink at all, only bet – such were the habits and rituals of the regulars. One night near closing, X was, despite drinking only light beer, getting very drunk, drunker than I’d seen him before. At one point, he came to the bar and asked for “one for the road”. As I poured it, we agreed that after this beer he’d go home. Soon, he came back to the bar, put his empty on the drip tray and asked for another. This time I refused and said he’d had enough. He tried arguing and I walked away. For some time he stubbornly stayed at the bar, leaning on it, watching glumly as I served others. Eventually I reasoned with him. I gave him a glass of water and told him to drink it and if he did I’d give him another beer. This episode seemed to change our relationship. Either because I gave him what he wanted, or because I resisted, X became much friendlier with me after that night, as if a barely remembered conflict had made me less of a stranger. X wasn’t a bad guy. He was polite, laid back, quick to laugh – different to a lot of the others. Regulars were people who either couldn’t find a way of escaping that lifestyle, or lost souls. Maybe one was the result of the other – anyway, it was clear to me that X was the latter. One day, he told me what I understood was, as he saw it, his story. He told me that his father was an American, a G.I. who had been out here during the war. While in Australia, he’d been in a relationship with X’s mother, with X himself the only proof that it ever was. X’s father shipped out, and X never met him. That’s why he looked how he looked, and why he felt like he didn’t fit, he said. X took his hat off to both scratch his head and show me his face in full. His background was mixed up, so he was too.

On Raymond Carver

I finished Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, finished the titular story and the collection, as we finally left behind a sprawling, half dry salt lake in the middle of Turkey, and shortly after we, from a roadside seller (who, before he saw us pulling in, was reclining in the drivers’ side of his van), bought bags of pistachios and almonds that I liked to think of having been taken from the country’s heart.

Roadside nut stop

*

The plains around the lake and the salt lake are incredibly flat, the flattest land I’ve seen in my life. For a long time it looked like the milky lake and sky met and the lake opened into the sea. But as we followed the lake’s curve, the land on the other side became clear, putting a dark line between water and sky.

The land appears as if it has been ground down, polished smooth. Not from rain and wind but worn smooth by time, maybe, the lake buffed to a metallic sheen.

Around the salt lake are tufts of thin, sharp grass. Roaming the tree-less plains, much of it divided into patches, are herds of black and brown cattle. Some of the houses on the plains look as if they, too, are being eroded, slowly dismantled, turned into unnatural structures before they fall apart and are forgotten.

lake-tuz

*

My grandfather’s name was Raymond; I like the name and think it sounds noble. Maybe one day I’ll tell his story, or what I know of it. And as I read ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Love’ I thought I could sense the beginnings of other, more recent US writers, something in the vernacular, in Carver and I wonder how right or wrong this is.

*

A second lake appears. It runs along the side of the road for a long time before turning sharply and disappearing into the horizon. Ahead, a snow-capped mountain with a cloud draped across its top levitates above the earth.

Nuts

On three things on the walls of my grandmother’s house

1. A photo of my grandfather. His smiling face, gold tooth and bare forehead, in a small wooden frame. This photo and a recording of his voice (in which the timbre of his voice falls somewhere between my father’s and my uncle’s) and apocryphal stories of his life, and death, is all I remember of him. My grandmother used to have a photo that she carried in her purse of me and my grandfather eating ice creams we’d bought from a Mr Whippy truck. I am tiny, we both wear shorts; my grandmother liked to compare our legs. I remember this too, but this photo is gone.

2. A print of the Sacred Heart. Jesus dwells in my grandmother’s bedroom. He is pained, haloed, a pierced hand raised, a ruby heart at his chest. He has been turned sepia by the sun. As a child, I was careful to avoid his melancholy eyes, peering from above my grandmother’s bed, afraid he knew my secret thoughts.

3. A painting by my maternal grandmother. Thin paperbark trees clustered around a small lake done in the style of the Impressionists. The story goes that her painting teacher would help her; I wonder if she ever went to the locations that were her subject, or if she painted from the pictures in calendars. These landscapes are passed around in the family, ownerless. It is not amateurish, but I thought it was better than it is. There is a fine balance of colour, of the blues of the distant mountain range, but it displays an impatience, lacks fullness. I wish it was more complete.

Untitled [On connecting the dots]

When I was a small child the mysteries and potentialities of a dot to dot picture would fill my stomach with what I understood were butterflies. I favoured blue-ink pens for the task of doing a dot to dot, colouring the finished picture in with textas or pencils later maybe but treating the dots and blue ink and paper as the the raw, picture-making material. I made my lines from dot to dot as straight and direct as possible, taking my time, delaying the moment that the image hidden in the dots would be revealed.

The best dot to dots were those that were unrecognisable in pure dot form.

I wonder now what dot to dots actually taught me. If they conditioned me to follow a guide and find safety and pleasure in this rather than to do things my way.

I even wonder if I was indeed attracted to the mystery and idea that the picture was waiting to be revealed and that revealing it was in my power, or if it was in fact that if I didn’t get the line from one dot to dot perfectly straight, there was always another opportunity to get it right between the next dots. Or was my attraction simply to the sound of the name dot to dot, the rhythm of it like the rattle of trains along a railway line?

*

City; corporate lunchbreak. I was walking back to the office. As I passed the QVB, I saw a solitary old man crumpled against the building’s wall. People waited for buses and hurried with shopping bags and dined at the cafe on the corner. I eventually turned back. The old man wore pressed trousers and a vest over a button up shirt and was sitting uncomfortably on the footpath, propping himself up on his elbows. The legs of his trousers were hitched up so I could see thin calves and that he had on matching blue socks which, in that moment, was something I interpreted as being uncompromising symbols of sanity and dignity. I walked back to him – his white hair was carefully combed – and I asked if he was OK, called him mate. He looked at me then averted his eyes, unsurprised and unembarrassed but bewildered maybe, like I hadn’t spoken a language he understood. I called him mate again and asked if everything was OK. He looked at himself. He had vomitted down his chest and onto his pants. I waited for some words from him, or an expression that I could interpret, but none came. I went inside the QVB and told the concierge – fringe, eye shadow – that there was an older gentleman outside who was in bad shape. To be clear, I said that he didn’t look like a bum. She sprang into action, literally popping out of her chair, said she would get security. She thanked me but I thought her thanks were misplaced because I was relieved this old man was now her problem.

I thought about him for the rest of the day. And now. My heart is still broken.

Some travel notes

  • “$22, one carton.” Cigarettes for sale on the plane. Lights are dimmed and switched off – peach sunset.
  • Time to KL: 6:26
    Distance to KL: 5,426 km
    Outside air temp: -18 C
    Altitude: 10364 m
  • Old Indian man stares ahead at the blank screen as if there is something showing, sips wine from a plastic wine glass, pinkie finger erect.
  • Chased by the night, the horizon red as blood in a protracted sunset.
  • Adverse weather conditions over the Arafura sea and I realise completely that I don’t like flying anymore.
  • … but there is the mother across from me, veiled and wearing spectacles. For hours she has stayed awake while her children sleep, one across her lap, the smallest. A tiny brown foot pokes out from under the blanket.
  • The hustle for the inauthentic. Livelihoods depend on fake versions of luxury goods. Fakes.
  • Day two in Beijing; the sun is bright at 6:12 am. I realise I am on a part of the planet I haven’t been before.
  • As if the city was built on the edge of an angry desert, everything exposed to the day has an coating of fine brown dust.
  • You pity someone when you think the world is too big for them; Jiang doesn’t even live in Beijing – he commutes here and stands outside the Forbidden City, asking Westerners if they want a tour guide. He refuses the offer of an ice-cream but is eager to talk philosophy. I forget to look at his shoes.
  • In the early hours of the morning, I dreamt of what I understood was my wedding. It was a long and detailed dream, as long as a wedding.
  • At the Great Wall, thinking of walls.
  • In front of the hotel, two men take apart the front section of their jeep. Other men come and stand by to watch while the paths of cyclists deviate around them. Cyclists with cigarettes hanging from their lips.
  • 6RMB = 1AUD
    2RMB = 500 ml bottle of water
    3.50RMB = Vienetta ice-cream on a stick
    28RMB = Average paperback
    300RMB = 1/2 Peking duck, rice, other dishes
  • The golden flashes of an electrical storm somewhere in the clouds below; in the sky, I miss home.
  • Last night: An at-times violently turbulent flight with a near-full moon over the left wing, technical problems at the baggage carousel, haggling over taxi prices, a highspeed Hyundai Excel ride over bridges and into town, forms in the lightless city alleys, greeted at the hotel with jokes and watermelon at midnight. Now: Not sure of the time, date, place, but also not sure that it matters.
  • It’s been a few days since I’ve written to you. It isn’t that there’s nothing to say, just that I can’t gather my thoughts in tight enough. I’m not able to pull them in to something less abstract. I blame Hanoi, or maybe I am tired; Hanoi is chaotic, tense, electric. As I write, the sounds of scooter horns stretch by on the street outside, winding into the city’s unlit alleyways, where people sit on tiny seats, in the same spot they were fourteen hours ago, drinking tea from hard plastic cups and gossiping, watching the street, pulling a bald child in closer, or flicking a thin cigarette between fingers.
  • A cluster of headstones in the open plains of the rice paddies. Often, hunched and straw-hatted rice farmers are also in view, creating the impression that they never leave this, knee-deep in the fields in life and in death.
  • White ducks, heaps of marble and brick, solitary and opulent terraces in wide spaces, four or five and even six tiers and faded Viet flags hanging at their fronts, brown cows on the side of the road or lounging in a rice paddy, structure after structure – houses, roads, bridges, storeyards – that are either under construction or or abandoned half-built or incomplete but good enough, leaving me thinking of completeness.
  • “The reason for printing this picture is not to put down G.I.’s but to illustrate the fact that the army can really fuck over your mind if you let it.” Caption from a photo of G.I.s with beheaded Vietnamese patriots.
  • Despair and sadness and nausea at the war museum.
  • Went to a GP. There was a lizard on the wall.
  • Doosan Bears vs. Nexen Heroes: Doosan wins.
  • I’m thinking about three things tonight: how I only get homesick on the plane, the cross P & I bought M at Notre Dame – red and gold and how she doesn’t take it off now unless she has to – and the head of Alexandros the great, or, more specifically, the clean slice across the top of the sculpture.
  • One of the most memorable things in Seoul will be something I can’t exactly remember.