One of the things that a parent’s life does, in death, is return the lives that came after it, much as an index does, and here I am thinking of my life, or one of the many versions of a childhood that an adult comes into possession of. My childhood’s childhood, the Chinese childhood encased inside a Western one, was mostly a high school affair, and it was mostly a life of the various projects my father undertook at 30 Cable Lane, in Athens, Ohio, when I was between the ages of twelve and seventeen and my sister was between ten and fifteen. Because my father was a ceramicist, most of his projects had to do with clay prepared from what I called slush or slip, which was kept in three aluminum garbage cans in the three-car garage that he had converted, with minor modification, into a studio. Many things my father made there were thrown away. What he derisively called “bad pots,” and this included even slightly off-center ones, were punched in and tossed into one of the garbage cans, where, with the help of water from a garden hose, they would dissolve into fossils of pot-like forms. Dissolving a clay form in a garbage can of slip was not fast, and my father was in no rush to hurry the process. As a result, the galvanized cans were arranged in a lazy sort of chronology along a wall, and like my father’s life and death, they suggested a clock’s hands ticking backward and in slow motion. To someone in high school, the garbage cans with pots dissolving inside them suggested that the world keeps time mainly by losing track of it.
All of the clay in the studio was thus either slip, on its way to slip, plastic-wrapped wet clay ready for kneading and throwing, or bagged, unmixed dry clay and silicate compounds. All of it was on its way to something else: principally the unfired clay forms, or “greenware,” that were stored on drying shelves in our garage, or the clay that had been glazed and fired in a kiln to become something harder, what we called “pots.” When my mother moved out of the Cable Lane house and into a retirement home in 2000, my sister and I flew to Athens to help make an accounting of the ceramics and to move what she was keeping into the much smaller new apartment. There were 1,235 pots in the house, the garage, and the yard, including 210 hidden in a small room in the basement, and 2 roof ornaments attached to the chimneys and outdoor fireplaces.
In addition to working with specific, industrially refined materials in various stages of commercial preparation, my father liked anything that acted like clay, and so the idea of clay was expansive in our household and radiated toward what was around it: the immediate yard; the wooded, largely unbuilt acreage surrounding our house; and, beyond that, the geology of southeastern Ohio, regarded as a process of categorical change. In this realm, the alternative to refined clays was a rust-colored Appalachian topsoil that my father liked to cart around in wheelbarrows and that he repurposed for use in our gardens by pouring in sand for aeration. In the porous and multilayered category of stuff that acted like clay or nature were large yellow and black bags of premixed Sakrete that lay on the garage floor and that my father would mix up when he wanted to patch the sidewalks and the concrete portions of our driveway; and stone mechanically produced by nature from what geologists refer to as red limestone and sedimentary shale, both common to the Hocking River Valley, where Athens, Ohio, is situated.
Clay and dirt for my father were different but overlapping things, and when separated they had different physical properties, and thus different usages in the social and geologic lives of a family. A family, as any anthropologist can tell you, is an activity and a condition, and in our case, “family” was an activity with clay, which is to say we hardly thought of clay on a day-to-day basis, or as a rite de passage, or as coming from some other world where nature and spirit were nondependent terms. Or to put it more technically and less religiously, our family was distinctive and conjunctive in relation to clay, a little like a toy plastic radio playing Chinese opera in an American house from the ’40s. Below is a photograph of an animal I made when I was seven. I remember my father helping me make it on a canvas- or sailcloth-lined worktable in the ceramic studios at Ohio University, and I remember it was the first grade since he and I always called this animal the First Grade Ram. We copied the sheep from a photograph, and we also made a monkey, a llama, and a family of chimps. I have been unable to find an image of any of these animals in the books taken from my father’s ceramics library, and so I have left a
blank space here, one that will hopefully be filled in by a potter who can complete a break in the textural medium that is a family and perhaps make it into something more like a rite of passage.
Clay was routine in our family, but it was not ordinary. As my father said, clay becomes something; dirt does not. We lived in an area where dirt was a resource, albeit a deflated one, but this did not matter much to my father. You can fire dirt in a kiln, but it will still be dirt when it comes out. When you fire clay in a kiln, it is transformed into something vitreous or glasslike and is called, depending on its porosity, “earthenware,” “stoneware,” or “porcelain.” Confusingly, my father often called Appalachian topsoil and the clay in his studio “kaolin,” probably because it was easier to pronounce correctly (in the Chinese way) and because it sounded more ethereal than “dirt” or what my father sometimes called “Watt clay,” a local clay that he said came from Crooksville, Ohio, in Perry County. I am not sure what we dug out of the three creek beds, but my father called it “Watt clay,” and it performed like Watt clay, though it had a strong orangey or reddish-brown hue, sometimes a sewerlike odor, and it may have been a siltstone or black oil shale, what the locals called “sunk rock” or “mudrock” and what my sister and I called “stunk rock.” Because my father spoke with an accent, Maya and I for years thought the clay in our creek bed was, to my father’s irritation, “What clay?” Most of these troublesome nouns, and this is true especially of stunk (as in, “That’s a stunk”), were synonymous in my father’s mind and in mine, and the thing that characterized all these nouns was the loading of organic materials in sedimentary formation.
The substance stuck in the creek bed was mired with creek water and decomposing leaves that turned it into an admirable blue-gray silt material, and the mixture that we dug had a miraculous, verblike, and Christian (my father, as a Buddhist, knew nothing of the teachings of Christ) plasticity, one that enabled my father and I to hand-roll it into small figurines. This mud was vague; it existed in my mind as an approximation of a color, usually blue, or of porcelain before firing. Out of this material, my father and I made a number of quasi-religious creek creatures—turtles and snakes, mainly; we called them water elves, and my father would stand them in the grass on the steep banks of the creek bed during our work sessions, not to cavort in the woods like woodland fairies, but to make sure we kept working and to entertain us while we worked. Because these creatures were earthenware and sometimes just greenware, they were porous and seasonal. They chipped easily, dissolved in summer thunderstorms, and did not generally survive the winter, when water seeped into them and they slowly cracked as the temperature dropped. And every summer, after the longish winters, we would build new ones. We never picked the broken creatures up or threw them away, or made any other calculation of them, and I presume a few generations of them are still on our property, as part of some child’s future archaeological dig. These creatures reminded me of terra-cotta, and they interacted either with us or with forms of wildlife that appeal to a child, principally pileated woodpeckers, chipmunks, box turtles, and raccoons. The various animals, and I suppose the texture of the ecosystem itself, were produced during breaks from labor in the creek, which my father, for all of his middle age, was intent on deepening and broadening.
My father believed the creek to be plagiarized clay, and because of this, the creek was an agent of plasticity, change, and irreversible irony. And yet the creek was not a joke or a man-made sarcasm; it was a thing, and by thing I mean a thing to be tended and worked and eventually accounted for, much like the night firing of a kiln. My father fired pieces made from creek clay into dirty-looking raku-style pots, where evidence of leaves burning off the surface could be seen. My father called this leaf pottery or earthenware, but more finished stuff made in the studio was also called earthenware, and even more confusingly bisqueware, or “bisquits” for short.
During the years outlined, many soil and stone transactions occurred and came due, and these mechanical gestures, exchanges, and substitutions made our family into the thing it would be for years on end, and then other transactions would occur to change the things we were into the things we would or would no longer be. I have drawn up a few maps and a timeline/list (below) to indicate some of the boundaries and rough chronological order of my father’s clay and half-clay projects. I have included the list of man-made and naturally occurring materials (they are pretty much the same) to make it easier for you to see what one childhood, in Appalachia, actually looked like at those moments when it is not reducible to anything else. Childhood is nothing but the objects that occur and change inside it. I do not think of this childhood as mine; it might have arrived a little after I had it, and one of the beauties of this or any childhood is that it doesn’t belong to any of us. Childhood belongs to the thing known as “childhood,” which it produces out of itself. Like most things, including a few unread books by Richard Brautigan and Irving Howe that were also produced and later reproduced by childhood, my sister and I were objects in our own childhood, and we were preserved in an idea that was not synonymous with nature or the outdoors or ourselves. I still don’t know what the word nature means, except to delineate something intimate or Chinese-American like a kiln or a backyard. Nature is a strange idea all on its own, and it is even stranger when contemplated apart from a child. Ten or so years have to pass before this moment or this story will become that thing known as “nature” or “Chinese.” Nature, of course, is its own index, just as a family is its own calculus.
The only things missing from this momentary index of nature, to be delayed until a later point in the telling, are other mostly American objects: muscle cars from the ’60s and ’70s, PBR beer, and the pilfering of liquor from my father’s liquor cabinet. They are a part of an incompleteness that is man-made. What is the difference between a human and an object? There is no difference at all. The most important object in family life at 30 Cable Lane was something my father, my mother, my sister, and I, along with a handful of graduate students, made from sand, a little bit of lime, and some discarded stone. This would be the summer of 1978, but it might just as easily be called a patio. And next to it sat a bed of roses and a bed of ferns.
My father from Fuzhou was not a religious person, yet he believed that all humanly made materials that did not come from Fuzhou were fabricated for a purpose other than the one they were intended for. Our aluminum-sided house was thus filled with things that reminded my sister and me of a world of muted effectiveness, fervid stamina, and beauty—which I recognize as the lump sum of those thousand things whose function was not straightforward or discernible to a child. As I learned from TV, the world is a very emotional place, but the mind that sits in it and contemplates it is much less so. This is how a particular set of Chinese-American childhood myths was born: They were hallucinated like television commercials. They were less than obvious. They were a condition. They said, “What is usefulness and what is not?” Most of my father’s lies were delivered intact. They were unknown and attractive or else they were unsatisfying. And then they became very, very beautiful.
It was not until the fifth grade that I learned that my father—in addition to being a liar, a semi-recreational drug user, an undiagnosed depressive, a lover of Pabst Blue Ribbon and sake, a Buddhist who was also a nonpracticing Episcopalian and a lover, not in any order, of: trash Ohio fish, restaurants with pictures of tractors on the walls, and oysters—our dad—was also a builder of things, a putterer, and a general contractor of the mildly impractical architecture of our lives. Over the course of my growing up he succeeded in inserting a number of special effects, junk effects, really, into the shambling, semi-mythological Ohio woods1 that extended beyond our yard and into my childhood and became in turn a kind of Nature Theater of Ohio or Oklahoma. These were mostly effects brought about by the misuse of metal objects with unambiguous purposes. These external effects gave the landscape immediately behind our house the look of a world in need of fixing. In our backyard, pizza-making bins were welded into birdseed-storage containers, tubing from discarded lawn chairs was bent into fountains for irrigating my father’s collection of imported Japanese roses, and a Sears Roebuck backboard that my father could not successfully secure to the roof of our three-car garage was stripped of its hoop and made into a barbecue-prep table with an orange rectangle in its middle. Behind the garage, which abutted 3252 acres of untouched midwestern woodlands,3 my father accumulated chipped sinks,4 concrete blocks, demolished-building parts, picture windows, used restaurant Formica, auditorium doors, large slabs of pink marble,5 small slabs of pink marble, sliding doors, manhole covers, rocks rolled out of the woods and onto our lawn, sporting equipment, railroad ties, tractor steering wheels and gear shifts, and stray parts of miscellaneous light farming devices. And these intersected with and were indistinguishable from the other things of the world that I was looking at and reading about in high school, and later in college: Adidas shoes, a creek, hydroelectric plants on the Rhine, labor unions, calligraphy, Bolshevism, relativity, the Federal Geographic Data Committee, Slovak nationalism, commercial sailboats (Sunfish), Star Wars, Hölderlin’s heartrending verse, an electric Black & Decker drill, a potter’s kick wheel, Mount Snow, Jack Kramer autographs, Las Vegas, Niagara spray starch, sheep gut, the USTA, and Jonathan Edwards’s hit “Athens County.”
Into this miscellaneous bliss, my father accumulated things that were, photographically speaking, misunderstood and blind, and this blindness reminded me not so much of objects as the ambivalence of objects, the scenery in someone else’s genealogical chart, or the tiny numerological captions (order numbers) of objects in mail-order catalogues. To my sister and me, it seemed as if we had been deposited on a cruise ship whose interior walls had been demoed by J. Crew in the ’80s and replaced with American Apparel tank tops in the 2000s. As we half-lived and -shopped in this ship for a good many years, we discovered that the cruise-ship mentality and then the voyage itself had achieved a muteness I associate with cotton-poly blends. The ship was like a description of a description on a clothing-care label, and the description allowed us to become American children in Ohio (after we had become adults), fall in love in restaurants in New York, and eventually have children of our own. In other words, this ship allowed my sister and me to grow up “on our own,” as child psychologists say. Of course, being on our own, the ship appeared life-size and didactic. For one, it was filled with sweaters that were basically all the same except for the colors. As any Marxist can tell you, you are more ignorant and important in the moments after you leave a movie theater than in the moments before you went in.
For my father, all the things that were broken in America (and all the parts of things that were broken) could talk, and what they said was “America”—not the detritus of America but an all-weather cosmos of thrift-store heirlooms, a state fair of unpedigreed objects mined out of the commonness of lives conducted in southeastern Ohio. At every turn, our seventeen-acre property verged on becoming something like a cross between a Big Lots! and a downsized national park filled with plastic carp ponds, jerry-rigged farm buildings, stone borders to nonexistent patios, and the cross sections of very large trees that my father polyurethaned into gigantic picnic tables/benches. He thought these things and the things he did to these things were, in his favorite epithet, “very American,”6 but from my point of view, things looked diffident and mostly delusional, like a watery hologram of the all-American object—in the same way that Marcel Duchamp once took a used bicycle wheel and made it into something that it wasn’t but in fact was. And in this way my father made something simultaneously out of his own difference and indifference long before the era of reality television and the HGTV network and untruthful memoirs imploded on us and eventually spoiled us with the inaccuracies that we now think make up our lives. His fountains of microdrilled steering wheels, his rock gardens reinforced with lawn chairs, his midcentury-modern suspension bridges recycled from two-by-fours, his patio quarried out of stones from a demolished nineteenth-century midwestern bank—all these items looked like the remains of some lost history that had washed up in Appalachia and was stamped MADE IN CHINA. I suppose this is why my father made everything he touched Chinese, even when he was cooking on a barbecue.
My mother also made everything she touched Chinese, and then American, even when she was cooking scrambled eggs, which were made, on school mornings, with a little green onion and Chinese rice wine thrown in. This was the time when my mother was learning to drive and to make Chinese spareribs by combining the ingredients we had: Japanese soy sauce, dark molasses, and Heinz tomato ketchup. And because of spareribs served at breakfast I have a beautiful and morose and non-violent architecture7 of what my father once explained to me was South Ohio East Chinese Cooking, which was at once a cuisine and an extension course he would occasionally teach on weekends, in a cooking class he advertised with mimeographed posters:
fine regional cuisines
speciality Fukienese dishes
Paradoxically, the more Chinese food our family cooked and ate in the privacy of our home, the more American our family became in the public (American) parts of my brain. Food cooking and shopping were inversely proportional skills that were passed down from generation to generation, but they were all part of the same system, which in this case was not really a family so much as the vaguely Asian moods a family might have in Athens, Ohio. In the discount stores, the more you saved, the more (and more) you shopped. Paradoxically, as my mother and father predicted more Chinese-style thrift, they bought many more American things, usually in multiple, of items that they might need in the future but had little need for in the present. My father, who came from Fukien, loved to shop as an adult, in Ohio! Especially in big, warehouse-style stores and for things that were on sale! And in that way he was the most American person I’ve ever known except for myself. My mother was a Shanghainese woman who loved shopping! Especially for things on sale! And in that way she was the most Chinese person I’ve ever known except for myself. A wish is a prediction about the future, and thus one’s happiness; in my parents’ case, this wish was shopping. This shopping had very mixed results for the look of our family, for nature, and for our house. During this period of life in Ohio, maybe a decade or more, I never remember our family ever once running out of toilet paper, D-size batteries, Yard Guard, spray starch, flashlights, mothballs, kerosene, ice, Miracle-Gro, or aluminum foil, and I never ever once remember visiting a neighbor to borrow sugar or butter or eggs. In our household, there was never shortage; there was always surplus and redundancy, along with a vague sense of the unnecessary. Our storage and pantries looked a little like shelves at Murphy’s Mart or Buckeye Mart, and both Maya and I had closets filled with clothes, mostly from Sears, that were one or two sizes too big and that—because fashions for adolescents change much more rapidly than adolescents can grow (both Maya and I were and remained skinny for most of our childhoods)—we never ended up wearing. And so one family, and here I mean the private, slightly embarrassed look of a family, the family that only the family knows, was produced not principally by the things we shopped for and wore but by the large number of outfits my sister and I would not be caught dead wearing. This is the part of a family that is not documented in any family photo albums. In the photographs you see here, there are no photographs whatsoever of Maya wearing one-piece corduroy jumpers, which Maya thought were totally unsuitable for anyone above the age of five, and there are no photos of me in cardigans, whose button-down look I thought appropriate only for men over the age of sixty.
In another strange but unsurprising inversion, my father loved nature and my mother did not. For my father, nature in Ohio was an extension of things that were once Chinese. For my mother, nature was an extension of things that were still American. For her, nature was a state or the distant culinary gateway to the South, which for her started in Ohio and stopped somewhere in Kentucky. It was an experiment in redundant chronology; in other words, the more narrational time we spent in Athens, where years become decades and eventually half a century, nature and our yard got planted with more and more daffodils and miniature Korean lilacs and Japanese roses so that it began to look, at least to our mother, like the continually replenished images from a magazine. Our family lived in a very poor part of Ohio, and the cooking and the nature there, like the shopping in southeastern Ohio during the ’60s and ’70s, were not that great. Or rather, nature was the more or less impoverished relay system of culture, and culture, especially nineteenth-century Appalachian coal culture, was replaced by the memorandums of auto-body shops. Just as American cuisine could be repaired to more closely resemble Chinese food, so too could American nature be jerry-rigged to look more Chinese. Here my mother and father basically agreed: The idea of nature could be improved with stuff.
Stuff was a good start because there was, on East State Street, a large chain store called Buckeye Mart, and a few years later, when it went out of business, it was replaced by a store called Murphy’s Mart, which was housed in exactly the same building with exactly the same I-beams overhead and exactly the same racks of fluorescent lighting suspended from those I-beams, and this new store sold basically the same sort of things as Buckeye Mart. It was our unchanging changing general store in a strip mall in the long and short years of its constantly going bust, and it came and went and came and went before the ecological downdraft of merchandising that made possible the reconfiguration of Kmart and finally Walmart. I would probably not even remember Murphy’s Mart as a shopping venue except that my sister, when she was young, obedient, and in high school, got a job selling polyester fabric very politely (this is hard to imagine for most people who know Maya, but for me it is easy to understand, and this I suppose is what makes a family easier to understand from the inside, where mysteries are readily explainable as a part of the family history) from industrial-style bolts on metal racks in one of the two malls that dominated the highway running through Athens, Ohio,8 and that effectively wiped out the older, downtown shopping center in Athens. These first two stores, but especially Buckeye Mart, were my father’s favorites. There was a simple geographic reason for this: Since most of the land around Athens was ex-coal land that had become poor farmland and most of Athens was suburban countryside surrounded by either farmland, pastureland, or unfarmable wooded areas, these stores basically sold farm equipment that had been modified for use in house-and-garden-type situations. In this way, these stores reminded my father of a cheaper suburban version of the local Ohio countryside, with endless garden tools outside a trailer home or two, minitractors and gas-powered hoes, domesticated versions of Ditch Witches, fluorescent chain saws, and opalescent orange weed whackers left out to rust somewhere and then be half-repaired. And of course things like off-brand shampoos and potato chips in cardboard tubes and big television dish antennas, as well as a music section where I got my first store-bought record album, Beatle Mania!, “a collection of hits recorded by the Liverpools” that I had confused with a real Beatles record in middle school. It cost eighty-seven cents. My first two actual albums, courtesy of the mail-order Columbia Record Club,9 were Hamilton, Joe Frank & Reynolds (they are wearing cowboy hats and boots on the cover) and then Steppenwolf’s Rest in Peace, with its image of a wolf that is probably a dog, a tombstone, and a bunch of pink roses whose petals have fallen onto the tombstone. With the exception of my records, which my father did not associate with Ohio, my father loved all these things in Buckeye Mart and later Murphy’s Mart without thinking, because they promised him what he really wanted from America: “a farm with cattle heads on it.”
When my father lugged a new thing home, my sister and I would try to figure out what thing it resembled and what it might be used for—and thus transformed into “the thing whose purpose we could not calculate.” And in that way, I learned something about the infrastructure of small-scale farming and desire in Appalachia, and that the former, like the latter, is pretty much indifferent to the thing (the one thing) one really desires.10 I believe this is why my mother and father were so taciturn and unhappy and difficult with each other through the long years of their marriage and why they in turn loved their children so much, too much, really, now that I think about it, and in that way they loved us way beyond anything that could have been foreseen or contemplated. And so I learned, too, that love is often a product of indifference that involves subtraction and that happiness can never be predicted but only miscalculated by those whom we love (too much) and who we think love us (too much). Of course children know many things about their parents that the parents themselves cannot know, and the most important thing they know, as my sister and I understood, is that we were loved too much, and that this love increased in relation to our parents’ marital love for each other, and that this, our family condition, arrived unequally and unexpectedly in the most uneconomical ways, often at breakfast or while we were out in the yard doing chores like raking leaves into an outdoor fire pit or gathering moss to transplant onto the aluminum siding of our house. And so, with alarming human predictability, my sister was always my father’s girl (I hardly existed for my father) and I was always my mother’s boy (my mother and my sister argued through most of my sister’s high school life) and this never changed until my father died, when the whole family changed into something again that no one, at least in our family, could have foreseen and that could not be mistaken for that thing known as either happiness or its opposite (unhappiness), which in my mind are the same, that ahistorical thing in our future that is less than a memory and less than the thing we know. Dinner was (generally) a silent affair at our house, but breakfast was a soap opera, and I believe this was because breakfast always came after dinner in our household and not the other way around. In more optimistic moments, I believe this is an equation for forever:
V.4 [ 2 ] 12 oz 67%DNR :37
Like a formula that doesn’t quite work, happiness wipes out many things in too dramatic ways, and in this sense happiness is the least ambient and least successful of the emotions. As psychiatrists have pointed out, the synaptic circuits in the brain through which desire passes are different from the channels that light up when we feel happy. To desire an object or a person is to be deeply troubled by that person or object. To be happy or unhappy is to be able to exchange something with something else. It is well known that rats, when given the choice between a willing sexual partner and a red button that will electrically stimulate the part of their brains responsible for desire, will invariably push the red button and ignore the sex-eager rat sitting three inches away. Humans are not that much different. They seek out the wrong partners, they marry the wrong people, they buy too many frivolous automobiles and halter tops, they write novels that they have no intention of ever reading, and they crave nicotine in cigarettes, even though nicotine, as a drug, generates massive craving and very little pleasure. That is why when one finally does finish a cigarette, the most logical thing to do is to smoke another, and when one finds the person of one’s dreams, the person one loves the most and can be happy with, sex with that person invariably goes away. If happiness were more than one thing (if it were three or four or more), we would have to stop desiring (after all), and that would be even more intolerable than getting the things we (really) don’t want. Happiness and unhappiness are unappeasable in the same way. And in that way, my father was a brilliant man because all the things he made out of his unhappiness were never the things he thought he ought to be making, and in the end, the unhappy things he made made us happy for the things that they were not. And yet as a child, watching all this transpire, everything was frustrating to the imaginations we were trying to attach to the things our father brought home.
“It’s from a pizza parlor.”
“What is it?”
“It’s from a pizza parlor.”
“But what is it for?”
“It’s for pizza.”
“How is it for pizza?”
“Can you bring me that?
“Your little blue shovel.”
“How is it for pizza?
“I don’t know.”
“Are we going to make pizza?”
And so my sister and I were loved, each in our own way, by one half the family unit, blind to the love of a thing that bound us to that other world of which we were never a part. I am not sure why my father was never able to answer either my or my sister’s questions. He was a taciturn and moody man every time the subject of a question even came up, and as children we asked questions endlessly, partially I think now because my father never answered them out of a chronic depression or a melancholia that resembled or resisted our sense of impatience, and that later became the edges of our own impatience. It is true that my father did not speak English at all well and that he had a pronounced Chinese accent which I could not hear but which produced endless grammatical errors that I was extremely sensitive to, especially on the infrequent afternoons when he would drive to Putnam Laboratory School in his gray Jaguar to pick my sister or me up. Although I learned from my father to be impatient around people (people make mistakes), I never once corrected my father’s English (my father’s mistakes were beyond correction). And I do not know if it was simply too difficult for my father to think in English when I asked him a question, whether he was stubborn and didn’t want us to figure out what he was thinking, or whether when confronted with the stubbornness of the things of this world he would just dig in his heels and act like nothing was happening. And that is how I thought the world operated, in such a basic manner that happiness and its opposite were a form of resistance—and this is the way the world behaved from the time I left grade school until I graduated from college. I believe this is what is called on public broadcasting channels the Immigrant Experience, which is basically when the words for the things of the world die before they get to the things they are supposed to take care of, except that the words for those things never die, they just become lies, a kind of handicapping system for the imaginary dictionaries and the crimes of the world. Happiness and its opposite are man-made. Our minds create our life experiences, and our minds either enjoy those creations or suffer because of them.
In the few cards and letters, the latter on Ohio University stationery, that I have from my father, most of which were sent when my mother had taken Maya and me to Seattle while completing her dissertation, he made exactly the same mistakes he did when speaking, so the English he spoke and the English he wrote were mostly the same, and his writing in letters, much like a phonograph record, has preserved the sound of his voice in a way that most native-born speakers’ writing cannot. And because I could not clearly distinguish between the two, the distinctions made a difference that made no difference, and both sounded Chinese. Because my father was always in a sense learning the English I already had, my father’s type of language spoken and his type of language written were mixed up with the familiar, bilingual meanings of other things, like patios and weekends and four-o’clock tea, like my sister’s and my curiosity, and like the racial discrimination that marked his and my mother’s first years in America. Or in other words, it would have been useful to have had some knowledge of familiar spoken Chinese to understand my father. From the standpoint of the bilingual, his words were overtly concise, most of the time, short, usually disconnected, and slightly frustrating. They were not quite the things that he had chosen. And because of this, there was always the sense that my father was shouting when he spoke. For most of his life, my father had difficulty saying them, despite his knowing better. Instead, he used to say things like: These oranges have spoiled, throw it away? or These shoes are all right; I’ll wear it now. It was unclear whether this was a result of the Chinese language, where most characters are written out as a one-syllable morphemes, whether it was a result of my father’s not speaking English well, or whether gestures are sometimes more translatable than words.
At any rate, my father spoke a minority language in our household, a language my sister and I did not speak and were not taught and that my mother partly understood but did not explain. My mother’s native language was Shanghainese and an Amoy dialect, whereas my father’s was Fukienese and a Peking Mandarin. At home they spoke English, but in public they often spoke to each other in Chinese, to my sister’s and my great embarassment. In this suppressed bilingual household made up of four people and a few gestures, where four does not make a family speaking, my father’s words registered as tokens of speech rather than types of speech, and thus more truly expressive of things not wanted or loved. The unspoken category or urgency of the unloved was made up, and it was made up mostly of Chinese things even if what was being said was said with English words. By unspoken I mean unspoken until written down a few minutes ago. And so, when I spoke with my father, there was the sensation, as between two Americans who speak French at a party of Parisians so as not to be impolite, that we were not talking to each other and, sometimes, that we were talking to an entirely different person. And even more oddly, in the years before I became a grown-up or “General American” speaker, up until age nine or so, I found myself astonished at thinking, on any number of occasions of speaking with my father, that I was able to understand his Chinese perfectly—even though he was clearly and plainly talking to me in English. Or to put this as an adult later would: My father was always a Chinese-speaking person in my mind, even when we were mowing the grass together and even after I graduated from high school. It was this same feeling that made it possible for me to think that I had outgrown my father sometime in high school.
Yuen Ren Chao, my mother’s teacher at Berkeley and the linguist who most influenced the preceding paragraph and from whose book Language and Symbolic Systems I have borrowed my recollection of much of my father’s speaking habits, has said that length “is usually a measure of the amount of meaning,” but in my father’s case, it was the shortness of English that meant more. And so, in English and mostly over time, the words my father spoke meant more and then much more, and by more I mean untypical and unedited by life or the habits of language. In regard to tokens, the good thing about a box of chocolates on Valentine’s Day is that the box says something you do not have to, and the good thing about a token is that buses take them. The bad thing is that a token can be wrong. Listening to my father’s words did not remind my sister and me of his language but of things that his language might not comprehend. Of course my father’s real life cannot be spoken on a bus, only spoken of, and even then only at a distance, the distance found in a novel or play. In linguistics, this is realism in reverse, and is called persistence and is not to be confused with longevity or a real-life death, which would end the existence of my father’s English. So, oddly, whereas my aunt’s was a kind of voice I heard intermittently on television, my father had the voice of a very long playing record or a Wollensak tape recorder. And so, although I have no tape recordings or videos of my aunt or my father, I have TV shows for my aunt, and a few letters of my father’s.
In spite of the permanent low fidelity of the letters, and perhaps because of them, nothing that my father said could be believed in its entirety, except when he was at his most theatrical or when he was impatient and shouted at us. Which of the following non-dichotomies involves a third person retelling things my mother and father told my sister and me?
Yet I believed what my parents told me because I believed that stories told by a family, even if they are jokes, grocery lists, tall tales, or digressions and comments to itself, are obedient and pragmatic, which meant that things, even simple, self-explanatory, “emotional” things, in a family were things that they were not—and thus could be figured out. Like everything else in the world, happiness is constructed out of the boring and the predictable and the taken-for-granted; and these things are humanly made just like the things of the world. As anyone who has had a relationship with a grown-up will tell you, no one can make anyone else happy, and this is particularly true of families and the stories they tell. The happiness inside a family is already there, and the most unhappy thing a family can do is talk about it. The same can probably be said about love, which is felt most keenly amid the banal and the given and the unspoken. Our loves are exceedingly ordinary and they live forever in ordinariness. Our families should be the same. Like love, they should not give, they should take something away we thought should be there. Mathematically speaking, a family can only predict what will not make a child as unhappy as she thought she was going to be. In this way, so many of the things in our house, like our general sense of familial relations (unhappiness and happiness), were always getting misplaced. However, it is very beautiful to misplace happiness, for that is the only way it can be recovered.11 My father could never find anything he needed, and in this way he performed a valuable act of psychotherapy every time he lost something, especially his electric Black & Decker drill and the lawn and garden implements, particularly his Wilkinson lopping shears—because only by losing something can you replace it with something you were not looking for. A family is the sum of whatever is missing in that family and the world of things is a form of unappeasable persistence. Everyone who has had a family knows a family is unappeasable just like every other family. And so I too came to desire misplaced diaries, lopping shears, and eventually children of my own, and these in turn became the knowledge that my mother and father loved each other in a way that did not seem to exist in any demonstrable manner and yet persisted for many long years. Like most children, I wondered, What is love when it does not appear where it appears to be? And now, having grown up, I wonder, When is love defined by the things it reproduces in its absence?12 When is a feeling we thought we were having not really a feeling at all but something I saw in a photograph or read in a book? When is an emotion the most generic thing imaginable? In my head there are thus always two plans, a Plan A and a Plan B, that describe a system and the unorganized traditions of a childhood, like the rhymes and fairy tales and snack foods and TV shows that service it:
Plan A goes roughly like this, and it might read as a treatise on how to look at a photograph or diagram the delivery system that is a novel:
I still have my father’s hammer and the last pair of lopping shears he used to cut down things in our garden, a pair of lopping shears made by the Wilkinson Sword Co. that has lightweight aluminum handles and that I gave to my father as a Christmas present two years before he decided to buy a house in Santa Barbara—and move away from Athens and my mother, calling out of the blue the next year and asking her to join him in California for the summers. And this my mother did till 1989, the year in which my father died of a heart attack.13
(“Plan B”) 1976
And Plan B goes something like this, which I think of as the elongated architecture of a patio at the end of the Vietnam War, where a pair of lopping shears has the color of rust.
Sherlock Holmes said, “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth,” but I don’t think he was right at all. I think the truth, our Plan A, is the thing we accidentally left out of what we were thinking about. Moreover, persistence is no guarantee of happiness or success in the world. In the end, Plan A and Plan B are probably identical.
One summer after I came back from college my father came up with a project that was, like all my father’s projects, ambient and mood-inducing in a kind of nonessential way. I was seventeen. My father was fifty-nine. The project was a patio. Like most of my father’s projects, the patio had a meaningless origin and an undetermined communications system attached to it.14 From the distance of the years, where it no longer really exists, the patio was blind and unobservable. Yet it was a part of my father’s mind, and the thinking was exquisitely useful in terms of an underlying architecture: Create something (in the universe) that was deformed by the universe in which it was found. Unhappiness can be designed, as history and many world leaders have shown; happiness cannot. That summer his project, and his projects were all multiple and overlapping, touching on materials employed for a host of projects that were abandoned and sometimes not abandoned, was how to build a patio out of any scrap pieces of rock he could locate.15 The problem was essential and difficult: Find a suitable collection of rocks measuring sixteen to twenty inches long, eight to thirteen inches wide, and eight to twelve inches thick.
Like most people from another country, my father built things that were approximate, i.e., self-consciously American and thus not American at all. He was born in Beijing in the ’20s, before being sent to Fuzhou to live with his aunt. In my eyes, after my father turned fifty, he ceased to age, and he pretty much stayed fifty for most of my middle and high school years, partly because his construction projects kept recurring and partly because he never really did seem to age very much. When he was sixty-seven he looked fifty and when he was fifty-eight he looked forty-seven or fifty and when he was seventy he looked eighty. He was a heavy smoker until my sister made him stop, a moderately light drinker of bourbon, and not in terribly good health (gout, diverticulitis, hardening of the arteries, thinning hair, varicose veins, borderline diabetes, hypochondria).16 His construction projects ran the gamut on the scale of engineering difficulty, and they occurred at different points in my middle school and high school and college and grad school years, which I here indicate in hopes of providing a kind of reverse chronology, a carbon-dating system of the affections, and especially those affections directed at a specific genre: indoor/outdoor home-improvement projects. Everything that is beautiful belongs to a genre, like kindergarten or a novel or absentmindedness.
Since I am forty-six, if you subtract the number (my age at the time) given in parentheses, you can get a pretty good idea of how long these projects have lasted inside the memories of their miscellaneous effects and remain in our yard (as a list) (or a series of footnotes):
• a potting shed that my friends in first grade thought was an outhouse (7)
• a patio (16–17) (still standing)
• a minideck painted white (11)
• (a succession of) multilevel garden fountains whose gurgled water courses resembled marble runs (4, 6, 9, 11, 12, 14)
• a pond stocked with Japanese carp (all eaten by raccoons) (8)
• a pool lined with clay impregnated with quartzlike stones and stocked with crayfish found in the creek behind our house (8) (imagined or destroyed)
• the bowl (above) that was later dug out and mounted on a long excess piece of plumbing pipe to make a birdbath (15) (removed)
• a picnic table (3) (unused)
• a redwood bird feeder (7, 10, 14) (fell apart) (can’t remember)
• various small ponds meant for raccoons (we fed them Chinese leftovers every night) fashioned out of the barrow part of rusted wheelbarrows (5, 8, 10, 15) (eroded)
• an elevated birdbath built out of an old pot and excess plumbing pipe (14)
• two dozen or so birdhouses, makeshift bird feeders made of half-gallon milk cartons and lined with foil (4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12) (discarded)
• a hammock made of grapevine (13) (?)
• a beautiful and fantastical string and wire device that ran from the woods and into the lower section of our lawn and to which he attached another pulley-and-handle device that my sister and I could ride for a full thirty-five yards. This I believe was ordered from a Miles Kimball catalogue and retrofitted with stronger rope, a tractor seat, and a better pulley by my father. (8 or 9)
It is probably useful to have a map of these things, since they are more efficient at storing up the things that stories let go of.
Up until 1976, our family never thought about patios, or happiness. Unlike my mother, my father wanted to transform our suburban property into something that looked like a miniature national recreation area, a cordoned-off Yosemite far from the streets of Athens, Ohio, and complete with hiking trails, picnic tables, stone barbecues with bulbous chimneys, weak bridges, linked dams and waterways, reflecting ponds, outdoor ceramic fountains, putting greens, ceramic tiki torches, rock gardens, gravel traps, and even a cottage made of long, slender American bamboo that my father cleared from a drainage gulley behind our garage. My mother wanted us to imagine nature; my father wanted us to remake it out of detritus.
These antipodal philosophies of nature and what was clearly not its opposite led to a lot of arguments about our grounds and the engineering projects it could sustain. The summer before the patio, my father’s project had been a series of three kilns of varying sizes, made out of three or four kinds of firebricks, supplemented with half-size concrete blocks that my father used for the foundation. The spring before that it had been an elaborate system of bridges (three) and dams (two), one made of stone and another out of twigs and stray two-by-fours. These bridges traversed three creeks that crisscrossed our property line and came together, briefly, like a travel itinerary, behind our three-car garage, where the bridges linked up with a series of pathways and cliff stairwells made from slabs of Connellsville sandstone that my father had mined from the hills along our driveway.17 The year before the bridges, my father’s project had been a long brick retaining wall that would prevent the creek from eroding the land under our freestanding garage (and house) and thus, my father reasoned, making it fall down. This creek of mostly runoff water fed directly into what was, for my sister and me, a miraculous 450-foot-long stretch of red clay pipe, about 3 feet in diameter, that ran from the middle of our property to roughly the end of it. In the ’40s, this pipe was buried, the creek bank filled in and leveled, a storm-sewer system created, and our house built on top of it. In certain months, my sister and I were thus able to run, stooped, under our house, from one end of this tunnel to the other, provided of course that there was no water running in the creek. This occurred in summer months and in winter, when the creek froze over and we could bobsled the full length of the slightly canted pipe.
The summer before the retaining wall, the project had been a set of three tiered flower terraces built into a steep hill and decorated with wrought-iron sculptural work that my father had made by welding together used industrial rods that rusted and sat or fell into the beds where they damaged the tulips and daffodils my mother had planted. The summer before that it had been a tree house surrounded by an immaculately raked fan-shaped area of dirt to which my father had made an additional contribution: a series of long benches constructed out of used two-by-fours that were nailed together and rested on top of the broken halves of concrete blocks, the latter of which my father half-buried in the ground to conceal their deformities. The summer before that it had been a holding pool, an outdoor reading room with books, a series of carp ponds, reflecting pools, fountains, and sprinkler systems, as well as an elaborate filtration system that fed runoff creek water and harvested rainwater into a series of three underground cisterns that my father tried unsuccessfully one summer to convert into an indoor/outdoor swimming pool. This pool project was the most complex of my father’s projects because it was never completed and because it relied on a series of sketches my father had made, supplemented by blueprints of the house’s cistern pipes, and the city water commissioner’s drawing of the city’s water mains’ and storm sewers’ snakelike routes under our property. The pool my father drew extended halfway out of our garage (the cistern was conveniently located half under the garage and half in the driveway, where the city’s water pipes met the house’s). One of the sections of the three-car garage could then function like a Japanese bathhouse in what amounted to a monument to Eastern bathing in a midwestern carport. For my father, there was no difference between a staircase in a house and a staircase built out of sandstone slabs squeezed into the steep side of a hill, and likewise no difference between Eastern bathhouses and Western bathrooms, or between indoor plumbing systems and a creek overflowing with rainwater. And that was probably true of the house itself, which for years had to rely on runoff water and a cistern with a filtration system. Likewise, now that a little time has passed, there is not much difference between a patio and a family, or between a plumbing system, a box of Rice-A-Roni, and a book about trout fishing. Everyone tells you that one thing is one thing and another thing is a different thing at a different time, but in the end everything is just one thing.
It was not until many years later, when my sister, mother, and I went to China, that we recognized the inspiration for this project: a wooden bathhouse that my father’s father had constructed in Fuzhou for his second wife, my father’s mother. This bathhouse, which we visited in 1983, five years before my father’s death, were made of a water-resistant wood that reminded me of graying, slightly moldy cedar. Inside were wooden ladles and buckets, as well as large soaking pools and tubs fed by a natural, highly calcified hot springs.
The interior of the house was primitive, and the house was something of a provocation; the wood was rotting and the rooms were indistinct, as if the house were having a sauna. In fact, the bathhouse resembled not so much a house as a nondescript device erected over places that warm water flowed. Unlike most houses today and, I suppose, like the house at 30 Cable Lane when it was first built, this bathhouse was a house built literally around water and not the other way around. I don’t know if the metaphoric logic of this bathing structure, like a translation, was attached to a house that was no longer available to the current landowners (half cousins of my father’s), or if what I saw was a house hidden metaphorically inside a bathhouse, as every area of the structure had a bathtub or bathing implement in it. No beds were visible, no rugs or draperies or clothing for that matter, no pillows and no sign of something that might pass for a bed or dining table, and so my sister and I naturally looked for them outside the house, where they did not exist either.
Using my father’s first professional camera, a twin-lens Rolleiflex 2.8A, my sister and I, taking turns, took ninety-six photographs of the bathhouse, some of which you can see below, and which constitute a kind of predigital portrait of a geothermal interior, using technology that was dated by the time of the shooting. My father’s Rolleiflex was purchased in the mid-’50s, in Seattle, from a photo shop that went out of business in 2005. Both my sister and I had just taken Photography 101 courses in college and we debated whether to use color or b/w film; for a reason that is unknown, I think it has to do with the shallowness of any purported historical accuracy rather than any sort of predigital nostalgia, we decided to use b/w film. I developed two of the rolls myself in a darkroom at Carleton College, and my sister developed the remaining rolls at Yale. These photos were shot with Kodak Panatomic-X 120 sheet film, at 100 ASA, and two rolls of Tri-X. The four rolls offer a joint portrait of Fuzhou at the turn of the century and of photography courses at two American universities. Photos of the patio, also shown below, shot with the same camera, but with color, high-speed (400 ASA) film, reveal the “gray, meticulous, and patiently documentary” grain common to events of the ’60s and ’90s and ’00s, like those found in commercial periodicals such as Time and Newsweek. There is nothing, in short, digital about the absence of nostalgia or the absence of our extended Chinese family at this moment in time.
Two years after the photographs had been developed, one of our (now) deceased relatives wrote to tell us that the bathhouse, situated along a canal, had been torn down to make way for a Swedish luxury hotel. The sender, who may have been one of my father’s second cousins, included a color snapshot of the hotel, and I remember wishing that we had shot at least one more roll of color film in Fuzhou, for that would have more accurately preserved not the house (nothing can save an object like that) but the surface of the house and, in particular, the encroachment of global multinational companies on the various colors and textures of a house. I believe these are the only photos of the bathhouse in existence and of my father’s extended life in Fuzhou. Although they are in black and white, my mother has told me it was unlikely that my father spent much time in this house, as his mother spent hardly any time with him. Although the photos were in black and white, some have been digitized in color. I have spent a good many hours trying to think of my father’s childhood as something more than the physical black-and-white things it was connected to, as if the surface of a childhood could be made to occur more than once and in color. This, of course, is the color of retrospect. Everything we remember has a particular color attached to it.
Pretty much all through my high school and college years, my father was continually transplanting moss, trilliums, and what I later learned was an extremely rare variety of light green Appalachian fern, Trichomanes intricatum, and moving these plants from the woods to the various borders and the fifteen or so flower and moss and fern beds, all bordered with sandstone or limestone, that my father, with my mother’s help, had either made or refurbished. He was interested in natural and suburban Ohio fern history, and he had a number of books at his disposal. At some point he told me that the Trichomanes intricatum is from the Pteridophyta, or fern, division, and that botanists regard them, having inhabited the earth for some 360 million years, as the reptiles of the plant world. Ferns are vascular plants; they do not have seeds or flowers; in fact, they preceded flowering plants by millions of years. Instead of the more vulgar flower kind of reproduction, they propagate efficiently and modestly, via a kind of cell division known as meiosis, followed by mitosis, a process wherein the plant’s genome is split into two identical daughter cells, instigating a life cycle that produces two phases of life, each marked by one of two separate and nonoverlapping forms. Thus, with a fern, half of the parent gene pool will have expired by the time the fern takes form. Such a life cycle is hard to understand in human or animal terms, where reproduction generally takes place with both parents, as well as the offspring, alive at birth.
I think my father was interested in ferns because, like ceramics, they seemed to have spent some time in Asia and because they had spent considerable time as pictures on all manner of useful objects in the late nineteenth century, where the then-gothic look of a fern could be found on wallpaper, gauze curtains, bedspreads and quilts, needlework, pottery and glass, and even wrought-iron benches. The ferns appreciated humidity and a dappled mood lighting through the trees, and our valley in southeastern Ohio provided this all summer long. Here is a photo of Trichomanes intricatum, sometimes called the Appalachian trichomanes or weft fern. This is a photograph of the flora lining the patio that our family made. The drawing is from the eFloras.org website. Trichomanes is a relatively rare fern species indigenous not to Asia but to southeastern Ohio, and my father and I transplanted it frequently from the wild woods surrounding our house to the only slightly less wild gardens and border areas around our patio. A garden is just a garden inside another kind of garden, but my father mainly got this backward.
The genealogical history of the fern was unknown to me when I was in high school and my father and I were busy transplanting it. We usually found the fern on, and sometimes around, rocks in sheltered crevices and grottoes (150–1,800 m). We would use a small wooden tool from my father’s ceramics studio to dig, with spatula motions, the ferns from the soil between rocks, and sometimes clinging to trees. These rocks were mostly Ohio sandstone and shale, and this confirms what a botanist friend of our family’s had told us: that the fern is “occasionally epiphytic.” They, along with the moss that we also liked to transplant, reminded my father and me of a blanket made by nature and came to stand in my mind for the wall-to-wall carpeting in our house, and so, in a sense, the woods for me were always carpeted just as our house was, and the life of the woods around our house was in a continual cycle of self-domestication and perpetual greening, which I associated with reading and families. Reading repaired something like nature or our house, and nature, like our family memories, was carpeted like a piece of handiwork. And of course, the fern has been published. Here is a listing in the American Fern Journal. The entry dates from 1992, when my father would not have been able to have read it, and the entry suggests how a particular specimen is local to a particular area, in this instance Hooveh Hollow in Hardin County, Illinois, but also bears a family resemblance to Andean and Ecuadorian varieties. Like everything else, a fern has a publication history, and its pictures propagate throughout the world.
Around our house, and everywhere you least expected, a summer garden in the woods or a disguised spring garden that looked like a kind of moss-lined living room was liable to pop up, much like a photograph of a lost family member, and it became, over the years, difficult to tell what was a leftover garden from the ’40s when the house was first built by a developer in Athens, what had suffered some sort of natural recidivism common to the rural suburbs, and what was plainly and eternally part of the continually shifting border between a small house and the Ohio woods that constantly seemed to be erasing or crossing into it. Although I did not realize it then, everything my father did in this period involved a seasonal camouflaging, the extension of a process I associated with painting or black-and-white photography, or the migration of one species of plant or demolished object to another place. Although this occurred, technically speaking, within the Athens city limits, and during the summer or late spring when my father was most free from his teaching duties, this vast, ongoing horticultural, academic, home-improvement, mildly photographic, heavily read and annotated engineering project is what I associate in my mind with what most people refer to as nature but what in our family was a kind of machine-made migration of the genealogy of a living room into the world at large. A living room is anything one lives in. A family is the living room one lives in for a while and then walks away from. Like the description of woods in a book, it is surrounded by marginalia. And until I witnessed my father’s building projects, which were really like books, I did not really understand that a living room or a cistern could have a genealogy or an effloresence in the same way people or a vending machine could. Or in other words, there was no distinction between a desire born indoors in people and a desire born outside in nature. But there is no such thing as desire either, as my father understood; there are only ways of making desires out of the objects they lose track of.
Like most things that we never stop thinking about, these projects were unplanned, out of my father’s desires that eventually became vestigially connected to my own. We did not need bridges to cross the creeks since we could jump them. We did not need a one-foot-deep flooded pool created on a rainy weekend by a dam. Building things, for my father, was simpler and more radical: It involved making an opportunity, like winning the lottery or appearing in the newspaper, materialize in only one place in the world. Such an opportunity, regarded as a fortuitous corruption of resources, had to be grabbed before its future vanished or, to be more precise, before it vanished and took away my father’s time with it. And herein lay my father’s political conservatism, one that resembled an undeveloped drug habit or perhaps an obituary. Because my father grew past middle age at the same historical moment when he was reading about the Cultural Revolution and the Great Leap Forward in American newspapers, most of his outdoor projects functioned as material footnotes to difficulties of the long haul, which he transplanted into the present state of history: “You only have one chance,” he was fond of telling us. Life was a series of missed opportunities waiting to expire cruelly right in front of you—and that I think is the Part II part of Historical Experience After the Great Wall.
Everyone needs a great wall, and in 1987, long before the era of photo sharing, when I was in grad school, I came up with my own idea for not finishing a dissertation that needed finishing: printing up bits of wisdom, not the fake wisdom of fortune cookies, but real wisdom, on a series of fortune-cookie fortunes, which I had written by cobbling together bits of family ingenuity and Eastern philosophy and then had printed by a fortune-cookie company on Long Island. When I told my dad about this project, and the packing drums filled with fortune cookies arrived in our driveway, he replied with the Chinese expression he and my mother used repeatedly to describe American things: ho sha ba dao. The fortune-cookie system, which was really a communications system for making feelings by hand was not, for my father, very Chinese. My father reminded me that real Chinese restaurants don’t serve fortune cookies; they serve cold mung bean or red sticky bean porridge or slices of oranges. And it’s true that, in America, Chinese restaurants that have fortune cookies call them “Authentic American Fortune Cookies.” But it didn’t really matter what they were called. No one at either the Chinese restaurants or the fake American Chinese ones I approached wanted real-life negativity or true-to-life moral tales in fortune cookies; everyone wanted fiction, epigrams, or bits of conventional wisdom, with requisite lucky numbers or Chinese phrases printed on the back. I generated ninety-nine different real fortune-cookie fortunes and had them produced, with fake fortunes on one side and reality fortunes on the other, and I called the series “99 cents grammar.”
The summer before I went off to college, the summer I started and gave up trombone lessons, the summer I started clarinet and flute and gave them up, the summer I lost a few hours between high school and the rest of my life, one afternoon my father told me as we pulled down grapevine and wisteria from the oak trees on our property that a bank in Nelsonville, a town about twenty-five minutes northwest of Athens, was being demolished and that anyone could have the stones if he or she were willing to pay the carting fees. Like most of my father’s statements, the expenditure of money for something unknown was a fait accompli. It enveloped me in unconditional actions to which I would be bound, as if in a monarchy or photograph. A lot of people in the art department at Ohio University had ordered the large Greco-Roman-style bank rocks, and they were being trucked to farms and houses to make rock gardens, terraces, garden walls, and the like. My father promptly ordered a very large load—two medium-size dump trucks of chopped limestone—and the next week two green trucks arrived to dump the limestone, with some concrete thrown in, in four large piles in our backyard. When my mother saw the two dump trucks snagging, twisting, and breaking the dogwood branches and dragging ripped wisteria vines as the trucks lumbered down our gravel driveway, she stopped with her Chinese stir fry, came out of the kitchen in her pink apron, and started to cry.
We had so much wooded land for a suburban house that I spent my childhood thinking we lived in the country—until a college friend of mine named P. J., who is an analyst studying the Japanese auto industry, came to visit and told me that we lived in the suburbs. Since Athens was not a city, and since we were not technically away from the city but inside its limits, we could not be the suburbs, I believed, but I think going back that I was probably wrong—we lived in the rural part of a town that was circumscribed by the center of the town and thus the suburbs were surrounded by the city center and not vice versa. There were probably eighty or ninety acres of woods and deep ravines and narrow-topped hills that surrounded our house and the other houses in the neighborhood. This hardwood forest was supplemented by a yearly live Christmas tree my father and I planted, and one year, I cannot remember which one, a collection of 250 white pine saplings that our entire family planted in a very early spring to create a pine grove on a single strange hillside overlooking our house, a pine grove that I think of as a very late Christmas constructed out of Christmas trees and given to the land. In the middle of summer, my father and I would climb the steep hill to the shaded pine grove, carrying a Tupperware container of Nestea iced tea with lemon and sugar that my mother had made for us, and smell what must have been a very, very early or very, very late Christmas in July with iced tea and artificial lemon, and sometimes with my own version of a cherry wino Kool-Aid that I mixed with santolina, boiled sassafras, and fresh mint from our garden. And when we looked down, we saw the vast lawn that it was my job to mow all through high school. And my father and I would laugh when we looked down at that tiny speck of a lawn.
Paradoxically, despite this mowed grassland there was no ideal rock-dumping spot and I, my sister, and my mother were plainly astonished when two men came in two dump trucks and dumped one huge pile nine feet high and nineteen feet round on the semicircular apron of lawn that was the nicest part of our backyard. The jumble of limestone and concrete extended from our backdoor garden of phlox, columbines, coral bells, tansies, woodland ferns, hostas, irises, and lily of the valley and was the primary view from out of my mother’s favorite reading room and my and my sister’s bedrooms upstairs. This man-dumped avalanche obscured multiple things; it covered the entire semicircle of back lawn and spilled out onto the cracked and wavering concrete portion of the driveway, where it crushed a group of lilacs in their beds. Looking out from my mother’s window where one could once see dogwoods, a grove of lilacs, a creek, a retaining wall, and flower beds, one could not even see our garage.
The men dropped another pile near a large gulley by some lovely crab apples that were for the most part out of sight of the house’s living-room picture windows and the slightly smaller dining-room windows. This pile was Pile Two. It was my favorite pile (and my sister’s too) because it was inconspicuously obscured—by an ancient crab apple—from the dining-room-window view and thus afforded a small fortlike haven made of rocks rather than twigs. It was as if a jungle gym, invisible to our parents, had been erected overnight. Around this natural avalanche, my sister and I could be unknown, beyond hearing, far, far away from my mother’s call for dinner, even though we could hear the rattling of pots and pans in the kitchen and bits of the evening news.
Because there was nowhere left, whatever remained of the stones, and it was a lot, was deposited in a third pile in the space where the driveway expanded into a large concrete car-park area immediately in front of our three-car garage. This was Pile Three. It was the least interesting pile because it reminded me of concrete piled on concrete.
And because even after this pile was dumped, and though there was basically no room left, there was still quite a bit more chopped-up stone, and this was unexpected and astonishing even to my father, so a fourth pile, the pile that my father promised would be used up first and right away, was deposited smack in the middle of our front yard. This is Pile Four.
Pile Four turned out, rather unexpectedly, according to my father, to be the largest pile (after the men in the dump trucks left), and it wiped out the second, more expansive portion of our lawn, what we always referred to as the front lawn. A few small, ineffectual trees, dogwoods and redbuds, had come down, run over by the dump trucks, along with a scraggly arborvitae that had been damaged on the numerous occasions when it snowed a little or rained a lot and my mother was forced to back out of the garage. There were large, wilted tire ruts running through the grass, and these soon collected rainwater. By early spring, the lawn was a semirural mess that looked like Life magazine photographs of Woodstock after the crowds had gone. The last and largest pile transformed our yard and all the grounds around into a quarry made from the remains of a defunct bank in Nelsonville. There were parts of broken pediment and parts of shattered Corinthian columns leaning against our garage. As a bonus, the truckers brought over two hundred slabs of pink marble, cut cleanly into twelve-by-fourteen-inch near squares, that were salvaged from the bank’s restrooms. These were stacked neatly right up against the house, by the garden hoses, and that is where they remained for a decade.
A few days, only a few days after that, there was a need for sand. Because the patio required a bed of it, along with a layer of medium-size gravel, for drainage, the next day brought one more dump truck, which managed to find a place between Piles One and Three for two more piles, one sand and one gravel. Both my sister and I were made happy by every pile, each of which had a specific climbing density marked by collapsibility and thus provided a varied set of dangers from squished fingers to broken arms to pinched legs. Moreover, because there was considerable sand and rubble that formed unexpectedly under each of the four rock piles, they formed a breeding ground for snakes, whose soft white eggs we often uncovered.
Some of the stones were too big and others were simply too numerous and so there were many stones that were never used to build the patio, and my father would roll them, sometimes over a period of months, toward the wooded underbrush at the edges of our lawn, where they would rest as if peering from the edges of an old half-plowed New England pasture. Over the next two decades, as first I and later my sister left home for college, my father would now and again forage in his numerous and half-hidden makeshift quarries to get a rock for some other purpose: shoring up a retaining wall, extending the wall of a flower garden, creating a series of unnecessary walkways, reinforcing the constantly eroding bank of our creek.
My mother was unhappy and cried after all this was left. Pile Three (the least interesting pile aesthetically because of its placement on the terrain but the most vexing one geographically) effectively blocked one of the garage doors, making it unusable and extremely difficult to maneuver any of the family’s four cars in and out of the driveway. At the time, my mother was a terrible driver (she still is), and by the time the last pile went down, she was distraught and angry at my father not only for how it might affect her driving but also because she thought our lawn looked like the rest of Athens County, which was then and probably still is the poorest county in southeastern Ohio.18 The county was filled with abandoned mine shafts that had not yet collapsed and that had once made the region, around the turn of the century, very wealthy. Most of the land around Athens was thus a kind of dilapidated mixed-use mining land with mobile homes and those large TV dishes that were popular in the ’80s, a place where livestock-feed farming had developed inefficiently and sporadically into a quasi industry—all because the coal veins had been mined out, the land was cheap, and trailer-home living was a viable way to have a cheap house on even cheaper land.
The construction of the patio took nearly five or six months of an entire spring plus summer, and involved my father, mother, sister, and me, in addition to two or three of my father’s ceramics graduate students, who would come to the house, usually early in the morning when it was cool or late in the day when the sun had set behind the hemlocks. Building the patio could hardly be called singular. Like an object of knowledge, the patio brought a number of people together and had something of a prelude-to-history ring about it. In this case, the prelude included quite a few things. First, there was a local newspaper, the Athens Messenger, and the classified section in which my father read an ad for remaindered stones from a defunct bank in Nelsonville. Then there would be the rerouting of the Hocking River bed, the widening of US Route 33 into a four-lane highway, and the bypassing of a few small cities such as Nelsonville, the Plains, and Logan, Ohio. During the period of the patio’s construction, most of the downtown areas of the small towns in the area began to go bust, replaced by malls with large parking lots in front of them. Even the town banks and the local branch of the DMV migrated to the shopping malls.
A few weeks after the Messenger ad, my father found a public announcement of an auction for bathroom and light fixtures from a bank building being demolished, as well as some decorative marble and granite steps from a building on the Ohio University campus, items that he would use to create a stone staircase from the patio to the sliding doors of our dining room. There was a series of carting companies that my father found in the phone book. After the stones had been dumped, most were numbered, with a grease marker, and laid out, in advance, on a yellow legal sheet, where their placement was prefigured, much like the drawing of a jigsaw puzzle. And a few days before the stones were actually put in place, this drawing, a kind of storyboard, was used to line up most of the stones in a bed of sand, and to mark, with chalk, those stones that needed further chipping in order to fit. During this process, no electric or gas-powered machines were used, only a child’s and a larger adult’s shovel, one wheelbarrow for the mixing of the mortar, a soft-headed mallet used to hammer stones into place, one trowel, two or three pairs of heavy-duty gloves that the graduate students and my father mostly ignored but that my sister, mother, and I were forced to wear, one Rocket rock-chipping hammer, and many bags of lime, which were mixed with water and sand in a wheelbarrow to make a thick, pastelike mortar. All I remember of this process was that when we added the water, the lime got warm, and my father said that we were cooking the patio. According to him, this lime was itself baked in a kiln, and had the same plastic, almost rubbery consistency of the kaolinite he mixed then cut into wedges and put on a wheel where a pot would be thrown, making me think that the patio was a kind of very slow-drying pottery made to cure on a bed of sand.
My father was either cheap and old-fashioned or just cheap. For any number of reasons, he thought premixed bags of Portland cement were crap, and so refused them, along with store-bought pigments that are added to the grayish-white mortar. Instead, we would throw in more and sometimes less dirty sand and sometimes I would add additional dirty water to make the grayish-white mortar match the color of the natural limestone rocks. Because my father worried that the lime would burn layers of skin off my hand, he and the graduate students did the lime mixing. Once mixed, the mortar behaved paradoxically; it did not seem to dry out; it would sit in the wheelbarrow, often for weeks, covered with a burlap tarp, which the grad students would park under the hemlock trees and occasionally spritz with the garden hose. When we needed mortar, I or a grad student would use a garden hoe and a hose to water it down and stir it up again.
The living mortar was then slopped on with a trowel—it was hard for a fifteen-year-old to do this wrong, and it was one of the jobs I was allowed to do without supervision. The slopping of mortar is pleasurable, and it was mainly my father and I who used the trowel to tie the perimeter edgework of stones together, with something having the consistency of heavy putty or pancake batter. The perimeter, raised three or four inches off our lawn, was constructed out of the largest, thickest, and squarest stones my father could find, and these stones, which required considerable leverage to move around, were made to rest on a foundation of half-size concrete blocks that were sunk, pointed (long-side) down, into the bed of compacted sand, and secured by mortar that was troweled in like icing. The outline of the patio itself, as if the rigging for a sailing ship, was drawn with four twigs and kite string. Other than this perimeter, nothing, no other cement, was used to hold the patio in place, which is to say that the weight and the placement of the stones on a mostly immovable bed of drainage sand and gravel kept the patio intact, a little bit like a piece of music by its score. There was very little slippage for thirty or so years after the patio was built, although we would continually pour sand between the rocks to keep the gaps between the rocks weed-free. Because this was tedious, once a summer my father would rake leaves onto the patio, sprinkle kerosene on them, and light the patio on fire, effectively killing most of the dandelions.
I remember my father saying that the mortar holding the perimeter of the patio together could breathe, that any cracks that developed in it would self-seal, and that it would take years for the patio to cure or breathe itself into a finished form, long after we stopped working on the patio on a daily basis. The patio was thus self-finishing and unfinished. Any mortar we did not use, my father threw into the transplanted fern beds on the edge of our yard, where he said it would dissolve, like lime and salt, into the plants and make the ferns greener in the spring. For some reason, we drank fresh gin and tonics whenever mortar was involved, and I think of gin and tonics when I think of mortar thrown against the ferns. Gin and tonics were the only mixed drinks my father drank, and we used three kinds of gin: Gilbey’s, Gordon’s, and occasionally Beefeater, which was given to my father by our family friends, the Kendalls. In my mind, the folklore of a patio, the ecosystem of lime in a wheelbarrow and a patio that could breathe, was no different from any living thing, and it involved a constantly moving shape that I associate with either the vagueness or triviality of time itself. And by time, I suppose I mean death. People think that time, or perhaps language, makes a patio, but it is really the other way around, and what a patio reinstates inside a life is a kind of vagueness of life itself, or perhaps its future, like a person writing him- or herself notes to be read at a later time. What you are reading is really a patio that is vaguely like me, or maybe like my death.
Every night after dinner, for an entire summer and I think part of the autumn next to it, our family project, instead of watching TV, would be to fill three aluminum tiki torches with kerosene and light them around a patio in progress, turn on a few overhead spotlights to draw away the bugs, put on work gloves, and push stones to narrow any unseemly gaps between stones that were poorly related to each other. The process, which was unending and more entertaining than TV, resembled not so much solving a jigsaw puzzle as making one from broken rocks, much like trying to unfold an origami paper crane, and so my sister and I always called this part of after-dinner “patio tangram.” And while this was happening, under an illumination partly incandescent and partly like a fire, a number of family-style debates would ensue about whether one rock looked better where it was or whether it should be moved. After these discussions, my father would throw Kingsford charcoal briquettes into a bucket and light them. My sister and I would roast marshmallows on wooden chopsticks, my father shuffled stones, and my mother lit citronella candles and sprayed Yard Guard into the hemlocks and Off! onto us.
Besides marshmallows, one other thing made the patio a patio. This other thing came from Kerr’s, the local distributing company, and what they brought was Pabst Blue Ribbon beer, which my father’s students drank in large quantities, along with my father, until the summer ended, and which my father kept iced in a large galvanized-aluminum tub. The brown beer bottles arrived in thick, dirty, beer-stained cardboard cases, and it was the first time I saw the retail end of the apparatus of a wholesale beer-delivery system. In the middle of the system were large trucks with pull-down sides, kegs, and dirty boxes of brown-glassed beer. On the other end was the company, Kerr Distributing, located on West Union Street in Athens. Kerr supplied most of the kegs to the fraternities at Ohio University. The night before my father’s grad students were to arrive, my father and I would drive, right after dinner, to the One Stop Carry Out at 48 West Stimson Avenue and buy the largest chunk of dry ice they had in their cooler. My father would drop the ice into the galvanized tin in the trunk of our station wagon, and in the morning we would drop a case of beer into the tin. When anyone asked my father who built the patio, my father always replied, “Beer.”
While the patio was being assembled, I would open the long, rectangular doorlike windows to the living room, mount speakers on the sill, and play the music of Creedence Clearwater Revival and Neil Young for the grad students who were building the patio. And thus slowly the patio took shape around wholesale beer, bank stones, lime, Kerr Distributing, the Ohio University graduate program in ceramics, a few people singing, my mother’s directions on where stones should go, and a dozen primitive tools. One morning, each tool, each having its specific and often multiple purpose, was put away, whereupon it was simply done, a thing made by hand, much as the feelings of a summer or a grove of Christmas trees are made retroactively real by the time they occur in. For years, without much thinking about it, our family had a patio constructed from a kiln bed, out of materials that existed long before the patio itself existed, with tools taken from a ceramics studio, tools that my father believed suitable to the task, tools he found on a wooden worktable in our garage and that were returned to the garage after the patio began its existence. The patio had a future, and this future, like the things we are still able to love, seems to exist even today. Or maybe a patio, like time itself, is created by its own future, a future that only a family can know.
In a sense, I learned something very important from the landscape of my childhood, which I shared with my sister and my parents and which I recently went back to Ohio to photograph so that you would have some idea of what the area around our house looks like, a landscape that my father said made living at 30 Cable Lane like living inside a natural park: The sources of one’s happiness are always unverifiable, and a story like this one, even when supplemented with a few photos of a patio, is geographically inexact and graphically general, which is to say the story, like a photograph, can only end somewhere else or in something outside itself. A patio, like the feelings inside our feelings, is mostly indeterminate in relation to our psychic life, and it never really has an ending except in the landscape around it.
Most of the land in Athens County, like that in neighboring Meigs and Vinton Counties, was unbuildable, and this uncertain geographic proposition that I associated with poverty created the sorrowful and elated effect of a medieval Appalachian wood in the middle of a midwestern town. The forest was expansive, an accumulation of second- and first-growth trees, and it made the landscape appear much larger, more environmental, and more impoverished than anything I could imagine by thinking about a tree. This geographic area, known euphemistically to the local tourist industry as the Hocking Hills, was filled with oak and beech trees and raccoons, foxes, copperheads, opossums, and deer, as well as a menagerie of animals we imagined: bears, bobcats, and rattlesnakes. We had a big lawn whose job it was mine, each week, to mow. Every weekend I would mow the lawn and wait for my father to take the mower off my hands and do the rest. We had a Sears Craftsman mower that we parked in the small utility shed in our garage and that was gray and that was impossible to start but that never broke, a little like a Swiss fairy tale that contains a cuckoo clock somewhere deep inside it. Mowing the lawn took me four hours. If my father took pity on me, which he invariably did, and chipped in, it took an hour less. I liked to mow the grass in my swim trunks. As you can see from the picture I was a very skinny boy. At one point, we had two lawnmowers, and my father and I would sometimes mow in tandem. And now that mowing seems to have taken forty years and put itself inside something else, something I think of as impertinence, which is to say it is not a patio that enters a life, it is that a life intrudes on and then drops out of a patio, much like music of Creedence Clearwater Revival that we played in the living room. As the philosopher Henri Bergson noted, “I never pretended that one can insert reality into the past and thus work backward in time.” A patio built one summer next to Pabst Blue Ribbon beer is now mainly a side effect or maybe a symbol of a feeling that is no longer expected, which the Chinese as a whole and my father in particular tried to avoid.
It is unclear how a single photograph of a patio will find itself except in a state of incompleteness or blurriness, inside a multiple of something shallow and possibly indifferent, like a structural event or a very general description of the world or my father’s depression. Now that my father has died, the patio has begun to modulate in a time that is neither recollection nor thinking but merely an approximation of itself or a few other things. Although it is made of limestone and is rectangular, something about its geometry resembles a symbol for a kindness that has come, unexpectedly, to rest in the world, something like the plastic and electric things Heidegger detested, the more or less interesting prose of Hölderlin, a script for a few anonymous readers who are actors, the books I am currently reading,*
This is a list of books read, in whole or in part, during the summer of 2011, as the text was being revised for publication. They are listed in the rough order in which they were read. As such they indicate a sometimes direct and mostly indirect relation to the trajectory of revision. Wikipedia was consulted extensively for a number of entries on everything from mortar to ferns, and the New York Times was read steadily through the period.
Marc Augé. Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Super-Modernity. Trans. John Howe. London: Verso Books, 1995.
Ron Lembo. Thinking Through Television. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.
Geoffrey C. Bowker. Memory Practices in the Sciences. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2008.
Christopher Williams. Program. For Example: Dix-Huit Leçons Sur La Société Industrielle (Revision 11). Baden-Baden: Walther Konig, 2010.
Leo Bersani and Adam Phillips. Intimacies. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008.
Daniel C. Miller and Don Slater. The Internet: An Ethnographic Approach. Oxford: Berg, 2000.
Bruce Clarke. Posthuman Metamorphosis: Narrative and Systems. New York: Fordham University Press, 2008.
Nassim Nicholas Taleb. The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable. New York: Random House, 2010.
Bruno Latour. Aramis, or the Love of Technology. Trans. Catherine Porter. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996.
Adam Phillips and Barbara Taylor. On Kindness. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2009.
Daniel Miller. Stuff. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2010.
David Silverman. Harvey Sacks: Social Science and Conversation Analysis. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.
Andrew F. Wood. City Ubiquitous: Place, Communication, and the Rise of Omnitopia. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press, 2009.
Richard H. R. Harper. Texture: Human Expression in the Age of Communications Overload. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2010.
Alexander Kluge. The Devil’s Blindspot. Trans. Martin Chalmers and Michael Hulse. New York: New Directions, 2002.
Niklas Luhmann. Love: A Sketch. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2010.
Adam Phillips. On Balance. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2010.
Alexander Halavais. Search Engine Society. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2009.
Daniel Miller. A Theory of Shopping. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1998.
Daniel Miller, ed. Materiality. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2005.
Daniel Miller, ed. Material Cultures: Why Some Things Matter. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998.
Adam Phillips. Side Effects. New York: Harper, 2006.
Milad Doueihi. Digital Cultures. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011.
Elias Aboujaoude. Virtually You: How Life Online Is Radically Changing Our Offline Personality. New York: Norton, 2011.
Rosemary Levenson, Laurence A. Schneider, and Mary R. Haas. Yuen Ren Chao: Chinese Linguist, Phonologist, Composer and Author; Oral History Transcript and Related Material, 1974–1977. Regional Oral History Office, Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley; Online Archive of California, 1977.
and reruns of TV shows like Gilligan’s Island and Star Trek and The Wild Wild West that I watch late at night on TNT or A&E and appear, on the surface of other things, to be the same as the original shows I watched every day after I got home from middle school with my sister, Maya, while eating Triscuits and Lay’s BBQ potato chips and drinking Coke.
The patio is just the outline of a patio at another time; it appears as something written out of nothing, as kindness is made to fall inside one’s childhood at a later point, or perhaps the patio simply appears to have been prepared by something else, as love often is, by reruns, product endorsements, or junk food. What is the difference between a patio and the memory of a human being? In childhood, there is no difference at all. For this reason, my father’s death does not occur in sequential order, and it is not very traumatic in the scheme of childhood gifts, as it might be, for example, in the nineteenth-century novel. His death appears in any order, and it is unexpected in the context of a few other things. It is like a series of variable objects, or the idea of modernity in a book, or a store like Buckeye Mart.
My father’s death is mild and mildly episodic, which is the way a death inside a life might be. Ordinary feelings are ordinary because “they require more materiality.” When I think of the patio I think of my father’s dying, and the many minutes of it appear like items in a search string or the stones in a patio. I have insistently supplemented this account with photographs because I think them less distracting than words. And this thing I am affixing postcards and letters and photographs to is something that will probably not produce interiority, or resemblance to life, or what the optimistic call love and the pessimistic call TV.
If memories were a little less visual, the world would be much happier, and by happier I mean a more incomplete place to live in. As any reporter can tell you, it is hard to mirror the anecdote, and the only way to correct a mistake, especially one involving a death or a photograph, is to correct it in the future. But of course the future is incapable of correction. The life of my father, like the future, has no sense of ending. That is why photos of a patio can remind me of a tourist or a girlfriend.
People don’t think nature can be impoverished, but it can be. It can be just as poor as the people who own it and do not regard it as “resource” or its despoliation as “crisis.” The language of crisis, like the language of unnecessary optimism, and sometimes of poetry, was not a part of this landscape, and if it did have a narrative or a death inside it, it was a narrative that did not believe in its own ending or thought of an ending as only a kind of impertinence. A life that repeats without much trauma or violence is a life that is not very literary. A patio should be very repetitive and non-violent in relation to the life of an anecdote or a human being. From the standpoint of an anecdote, most of our memories will not arrive. A memory is not very much about survival. And likewise, with regard to those lives, some of these photographs, which are also objects of memories I no longer have, must discover their own inertia just like the people we love.
1978, summer of (“patio”)
bank rocks, large Greco-Roman-style
beer, Pabst Blue Ribbon
Chao, Yuen Ren
childhood, landscape of
CHINA, MADE IN
climbing density, specific
coal culture, nineteenth-century Appalachian
color of retrospect
creek creatures, quasi-religious
ending, no sense of
fern, light green Appalachian
fidelity, permanent low
Fortune Cookies, Authentic American
grammar, 99 cents
Historical Experience After the Great Wall
Kool-Aid, cherry wino
lies, my father’s
life itself, vagueness of
marble slabs, two hundred pink
mine shafts, abandoned
moods, vaguely Asian
most generic thing imaginable (“an emotion”)
Nature Theater (Ohio, Oklahoma)
objects of memories I no longer have
oil shale, black
points of time,
pots (“something harder”)
projects, clay and half-clay
Ram, First Grade