Tuesday, September 25

What keeps me up at night

Reading David Foster Wallace’s biography recently,  I was--surprised? disappointed?--to learn that his parents apparently didn’t notice anything amiss in his psyche when he was younger, even though there were multiple days DFW had to stay home from school just because he was “too nervous” to go.  I mean, he was David Foster Wallace--how could you listen to one sentence he said and not be worried for his sanity? Even when he was essentially sent home from college with a sign on his forehead saying “needs help!” they didn’t do much but feed him and let him figure it out. 

Or so says his biographer.  One wonders if his parents might have a different memory or, if the account is accurate, what exactly they ought to have added, what more they could have done to help.  Maybe  DFW’s parents realized, long before high school, that he, like all of us, was on his own, that much as they might have liked to, they couldn’t add much beyond food, shelter, and a working knowledge of syntax.

Before you have kids, unless you’re world-famous, no one pays you much mind.  And then you have kids and it takes a while to get used to them: to their dependence on you, to their insatiable desire for your presence, to your celebrity status in their world.  Then, the second you start to get cozy in your new role, they rip that carpet right out from under you and take off, without you, for parts unknown.

It’s bad enough if you start out thinking you understand them.  The Princess, who I still feel like I pretty much get, is already headed where I can’t follow:  Even if everything she read was in English and I could stomach screening it (an impossibility: my last attempt at a spot-check found me wading through a tale narrated by a dog whose owner’s wife died shortly after having their baby, struck down by a brain cancer the dog had sniffed out early in its course, but couldn’t alert them to because, despite his having learned English by watching TV while his master was out zipping around the track in his career as a racecar driver, the poor pup was unable to train his floppy tongue and dog-lips to form the life-saving words), her world-view would still be shaped by the social pressures and distorted reality of the playground and the classroom, less accessible to me here--if that’s possible--than in the US.

And then there are the random strands of culture that snag on the matrix.  Today, the girls recounted for me a long story that Wang Laoshi told them about how the world was once an egg, and inside it was a god who decided to increase the distance between heaven and earth, and “all the blue things went up and turned into the sky, and all the gray things came down and turned into the ground, and his eyes became the moon and the sun, and his hair turned into all the stars.  And his blood became water.”

Unable to gracefully handle this sudden elegy for an unknown deity, I asked, “Then why isn’t water red?”

The Princess looked at me and said, without missing a beat, “Maybe his blood was clear!” 

Maybe.  And, with logic like that, it seems she’s unlikely to take this tale--which Google tells me is that of the god Pangu, aka Pan Ku, still worshipped in many Taoist temples--at face value.  Which it certainly wasn’t meant to be.  But I don’t know how it was meant, not in the way I would know what to make of the myths and legends (Athena springing from Zeus’ head, Washington and his cherry tree, benevolent white folks sharing a happy Thanksgiving meal with the Native Americans) she might hear at school in the U.S.  So the Princess is on her own, and I can’t help but wonder where it will go, how this story will fit with all the others and inform her world-view--when we go swimming in the Apple River, will she forever after, however briefly, imagine bathing in the blood of a man whose hair floats above us at night?  And if so, will she find joy in the image, or will it curdle around her?

But at least with the Princess I feel like she’s got her feet on the same ground I do, her path traceable on a map I can read.  The Rooster, on the other hand--she’s already riding that carpet through the air, soaring and plummeting and looping the loopy loop and who knows what else--she’s untraceable.  If I ever know what she will do, how she will react to a new situation, it’s not because I can follow her logic, but because I have observed her in prior situations.  I’m like the folks trying to make sense of the world by taking things cosmic and eternal--earth and stars--and rendering them in terms of the tangible world of hairy men and eggs.  I have no unified theory of the Rooster. 

For instance, one might have thought that the girl who, at three years old, adamantly refuted the existence of Santa Claus--Starting by noting the many physical and biological laws that would have to be suspended for a man in a reindeer-powered air-sleigh to travel through space and, necessarily, time, guzzling milk by the barrel and cookies by the ton; she would finish triumphantly by pointing out our house’s lack of a chimney--would not believe in the tooth fairy.  And you’d be right.  Sort of. 

When the Princess lost her first tooth, the Rooster was skeptical.  When money and a small stuffed toy appeared under the Princess’ pillow the next morning, you could see the gears whirring, the Rooster trying to make sense of this new bit of data, but not ready to take it at face value.  Her doubtful stance was bolstered by the tooth fairy’s spotty performance on subsequent lost teeth:  After several “late arrivals” of the tooth fairy (who managed to flit in and out sight unseen while the girls were in the bathroom after waking up and discovering the disappointment of a still-present tooth) and a crucial discovery by one of the girls of a suspiciously familiar tooth in a box on Mommy’s dresser, I actually ‘fessed up, afraid they were just going to think I was a liar--and a bad one, at that. 

This admission seemed to clear things up for the Rooster--“Oh,” she said, with relief, “You have wings!”

I kind of thought we were done after that debacle--teeth continued to be placed under pillows and money continued to, usually, appear.   The Princess acted--in her Princess-y way--like she’d forgotten the whole incident. She enjoys the fantasy, and she wasn’t going to let my spilling the beans get in the way of either the magic or the money.  My main concern was to keep the Rooster from using her grasp (skewed thought it might be) of reality to puncture the Princess’ bubble every time she lost a tooth, which she tends to do precipitously and bloodily, usually involving a collision with someone, a ruined shirt, and plenty of attention. 

The Rooster, though, is different.  One night, we were at dinner at a restaurant, and we noticed the Rooster was only using one hand to eat.  It turned out she had her tooth in the other hand.  It had fallen out during dinner, and she didn’t want to tell us.  It was the first tooth she’d lost, ever. 

Since then, she has never told us the moment when a tooth came out--but we were lucky, because usually the Princess would rat her out.  But then the Rooster pushed her resistance farther down the timeline: the last time the tooth fairy left money for her (actually remembering on time!), the Rooster left the money under the pillow, refusing to take it out or do anything with it, until finally the ayi confronted me with it and I snuck it into the Rooster’s money-box. 

And then came last Saturday, when, on the way to dance class from Tae Kwon Do, I marveled that the Rooster’s tooth--which I knew was loose--hadn’t come out in Tae Kwon Do, which was particularly vigorous that morning.  Something in the Rooster’s face made me stop in the middle of the sidewalk.  “Is it already out?” I asked her. 

Her face immediately crumpled, and she began to wail, inconsolably.  I thought she was upset that she’d lost the tooth, and asked if she wanted us to go back to search.  Nope, that wasn’t it.  I thought maybe she’d swallowed it, and was terrified it would make her sick.  Nope again.  Flushed it down the toilet?  Nope.  Given it to someone?  Nope.

It turned out that the Rooster had actually lost the tooth at school the day before, and not told anyone, not even the Princess.  She had carefully wrapped it in paper, put it in her backpack, brought it home, and, unbeknownst to any of us, put it under her pillow the night before.

“Is it still there?”  I asked her. 

“Probably,” she answered, with a scientist’s precision.  I never was able to get her to tell me if she’d done it to prove once and for all that there was no tooth fairy, or with the belief that I, since I am winged, am also omniscient. 

Later that week she lost another tooth (they are falling like rain in our house at the moment), which my mom again discovered when she noted the Rooster had been clutching something in her fist the whole evening.  The Rooster wept again when my mom called her out on it, and has absolutely refused to say what it is that upsets her so much about the whole process: Sorrow over the tooth fairy’s nonexistence?  Fear that she does exist and is creepily messing around children’s sleeping bodies?  Fear that her parents are going crazy, since we keep acting like the TF exists even when We All Know she doesn’t?  A natural fear for her bodily integrity when it turns out that some bits can just fall off?  The more we ask her about it, the more she weeps, and the more I am convinced that somewhere, somehow, I have done something terribly wrong, there’s been a terrible misunderstanding.  But I can’t fix it if I can’t find it, and I manifestly can’t find it.  She’s all alone with whatever the problem is, and all I can do is feed her--nothing too chewy--and let her figure it out.