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To Build a Ship

May 26, 2011

I’m thinking about my kids. Perhaps myself. The goad versus the goal, the push versus the pull.

Quand tu veux construire un bateau, ne commence pas par rassembler du bois, couper des planches et distribuer du travail, mais reveille au sein des hommes le desir de la mer grande et large.

If you want to build a ship, don’t begin by gathering wood, cutting the boards, and dividing the work; rather awaken in the men the desire for the vast and endless sea.

—Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (attrib.)


NB: I don’t think there is an authoritative translation of this, so I found one I liked and tweaked it ever so slightly. Nothing’s perfect (XKCD).

A Tipsy Outrigger in Tahiti

March 8, 2011
Arman Manookian Men in an Outrigger Canoe Headed for Shore oil on canvas c 1929

Men in an Outrigger Canoe Headed for Shore (Arman Manookian ca 1929)

Around 1970, when I was three, my mother and I joined her parents in Tahiti. My grandfather loved Tahiti and had an intimate connection to the place. Naturally I don’t recall much of the trip besides sun, surf, and hot sand—and most of what I recall is likely memories of memories, things I have thought about periodically or been told over the years—but I do remember when my grandmother tried to kill me. Well, she always denied intending to, but that’s my version of this childhood trauma. Because the dear woman died a few years ago, the old witch will finally stop contradicting me.

My grandfather had a droll sense of humor. My mom said he used to make faces over his wife’s shoulder when she talked a bit too much at the dining room table, sticking a spoon to his face and such. He was good at making my mom laugh, and she loved to laugh. She wasn’t fond of insects and reptiles, however, and when she found a lizard in a bathroom right on the Tahitian beach, she screamed until he came running. My grandfather caught it for her, but when he lifted it up to scare her just a bit more the tail broke free and the lizard shot off to freedom. He used the tail to light his pipe, and she screamed again—somewhat good-naturedly. These were the things that she would recount in later years and which oddly enough reminded her of how much she loved him.

The briefcase pic
Me, ready for work

This picture was his idea, too, and long served as my mother’s “blackmail picture,” the one she threatened to circulate if I ever gave her too much lip. He gave me the briefcase and hat, and took the shot. (I’ll let you wonder whether I’ve censored the picture to protect my ego or yours.) I think I would have enjoyed my grandfather’s company—our politics would have been pretty much opposite but our similarly puckish humor right on the mark—and am disappointed he died not long after this trip.

But the most compelling memory from Tahiti is the very brief outrigger canoe trip with my grandparents. An outrigger is a capable craft—in the right hands (as in the fabulous closing credits of the old TV show Hawaii Five-O). As it turns out, you can lean pretty far to one side in these canoes but not much in the other. It is also just as stable upside-down as upside-right, and bloody hard to put right without anything to stand on. All three of us went right under, and these were the days before everyone and their dog wore life preservers. My iconic memory: Being surrounded by bright clear water, eyes wide open, about arm’s length from the sandy bottom specked with colored shells—then it all fell away in a blur. My grandfather had reached down into the water and plucked me out by the ankle, like a caught fish. He let me dangle a moment then placed me atop the hull of the inverted canoe. I cried furiously. As they paddled us shore, my grandmother always said she told me, “Oh hush, you have the only dry seat!”

It was a running joke between us, that she’d tried to kill me. Every family needs a few of those. She was an uncannily sarcastic, sharp-witted octagenarian. But quite in contradiction of our verbal sparring, we were each other’s favorites (and perhaps still are; she died recently at age 90). When it came to family, she was my outrigger, a source of family news and constancy. And the memories of Tahiti, albeit burnished by time and longing, stand out in my mind as a time when everyone was present and happy.

I intend to go back to Tahiti one of these days with a hat and a briefcase and little else.

A Teddy Bear with No Name

February 23, 2011

“And it is that word ‘hummy,’ my darlings, that marks the first place in The House at Pooh Corner at which Tonstant Weader fwowed up.”
—Dorothy Parker

Bel air shop easy  from just you and me kid

The Bel Air Shop Easy in Just You And Me, Kid

When I was ten, we lived across the street from the now departed Bel Air Shop Easy. It was an independent supermarket, nothing special but close by and pleasantly quirky. I spent a lot of time there killing time and knew half the employees. It figured prominently in the comedy Just You And Me, Kid, starring Brooke Shields and George Burns. (Even aged fourteen and co-starring with an octogenarian, Ms. Shields still manages to lose her clothes briefly.) The movie is fairly saccharine, not quite poisonous, but the kind of thing I avoid. On the other hand I have to disagree with Ms. Parker regarding Winnie the Pooh & Co. Perhaps it’s just my warped sense of humor, but what a wonderful den of anthropomorphized animals just aching for therapy.

At some point during the year, a Shop Easy manager decided that some of the uppermost shelves, the all but unreachable ones (from a ten-year-old’s point of view), would be a good place to sell stuffed animals. I was there one day with my mom and lingered in the aisle admiring one bear in particular until she called me away. I was too old for stuffed animals, but was still mildly fascinated with them. (Actually, I still am. When my older son was born, I brought a gigantic panda named Hugo to the hospital, large enough that the baby looks wary of it in the pictures.)

Boys are expected to grow up quickly, rejecting comfort objects like stuffed bears, yet tend to mature more slowly than girls. My mom was more or less enlightened about sexual equality for the time—it was the 70’s, but she was a child of the 50’s—yet was clear she didn’t want a sissy for a boy, either. Similarly, she thought (stereotyped effeminate) gays were cool but didn’t want me to be one. I was conscious of these mixed messages, and of being the “man of the family,” and tried to put on a brave face. The disability of her epilepsy and bipolar disorder, which at that point receded briefly, brought even more pressure on me to seem in control. Yet I was still just ten and had plenty of fears.

My mother was very bright and quite witty, yet a bit of an ingénue. I could usually read her pretty easily. However, she fooled me that time entirely. That night she gave me the bear as a surprise, with that broad brilliant smile she displayed when she knew she had really gotten me. It had been happening less and less as she got sicker and our connection weakened. We didn’t acknowledge that I was “too old” for stuffed bears, and I don’t think I ever quite named the bear—it was the giving of it that was the thing. Looking back, it also symbolized the high water mark where the tide of our parent-child relationship peaked at her end and began to reverse. After that I was really forced to pretend to be something other than a child. The tide never came back.

Yes, I wish I still had the bear.