After consulting his closest advisors just before sunrise each day of the harvest season, the Emperor sends down the decree. Messengers, each bearing a sealed copy, a hundred for each province, set out on foot from the imperial city. Within three months, they must visit every place where civilized men have settled.
They stand in the village centers, just before the sun goes down, when the peasants return from the fields, when the fishermen moor their boats, when mothers gather their children, and when elders wrap robes around themselves to fend off the chill of impending night. In each of these places the messengers read the emperor's words, but never in exactly the same way. In the mountains to the south, the ceiling of the earth, they chant to a beat as slow as the movement of the heavens. In the deltas they sing in the up?tipped tones of the musical dialect used by those who live along the rivers. In the west, they shout and bang their chest at the end of every three sentences. Near the capital they speak in a voice barely above a whisper: obedience is not an issue within a day's ride of the emperor. In those places where the dialects have degenerated into mutual incomprehensibility, the messenger shares the stage with a local magistrate, who translates simultaneously, while the villagers look on in wonder. For these villagers, the emperor barely exists, yet they too listen obediently. In every province, in every village, the messengers deliver the emperor’s proclamation,
"The emperor, holder of heaven's mandate, decrees that a corvee made up of one of every ten adult males in this place be sent at the height of the full moon to that part of your province that is closest to the capital. They will arrive there before the illusion moon, the fullest of full moons. Once at the border, the corvee will be met by an imperial army detachment who will make a count to ensure that you have sent the specified number of men. If you fall short, the army will execute the entire group and you will then be expected send a new corvee. If you exceed your number, the emperor will send extra supplies of grain and live fowl to more than make up for any food production lost.
Once the men are counted , the army will accompany them to make certain that they make it to the project in safety. There they are to help dig a trench, the longest and deepest trench in the history of the world. It will be so long that it will span the western border of the renegade province and it will be deep enough to pry it loose from the edge of the River Empire forever."
Each day, a thousand new men arrive at the digging project. The nomads from the western desert, men who have never before broken the ground appear at the site with waist high pointed sticks. The mean from the plains bring wagons for hauling out the displaced earth. Their digging implements are made from bronze. The delta peasants, prove to be the best, most have spent their lives building levees to control the river floods which determine the prosperity of their farms each year. Their strongest men work in tightly coordinated groups with fat iron- tipped shovels. The hardwood handles of their shovel are so worn that deep grooves in the shape of fingers have worn into them. The smaller quicker workers pass the dirt out of the trench in buckets. Each man knows his task, and they sing as they toil, the same song for hundreds of li. You can walk from one end of the line to the other then back again and hear each man joining in just at the moment when the notes peak.
The northerners are bigger and more individualistic by nature. They tie oxen to deep troughs, and pull out canyonfuls of dirt twice each day once in late morning, again just before nightfall. Each group keeps to itself, paying attention to the others only on the days when the different work crews from each of the emperor's provinces race one another. The evening before, a representative from each province runs from camp to camp placing bets on the outcome. Pottery from the north gets exchanged for a southwestern forest root that has the power to restore a man's vitality. A brace of perfect tender marsh ducklings roasted in purest wild sesame oil is bet against an entire field of silk spun into all the colors of the rainbow.
The emperor appears once a year in his red and purple sedan chair. He has three full militias of guards, forty seven concubines , and a hundred and nineteen eunuch attendants. Like most nine year olds, the emperor loves the unusual. A flock of geese flies overhead. It's a common enough sight in this part of China at this time of year, but these geese are harnessed to a kite the size of a rice field. Thirteen eunuchs hold up a canopy that covers the emperor's sedan chair to keep their master from being bombarded by the offal from the geese. Two full armies of archers patrol the edges of the ditch, one to keep the diggers at their task, and one to keep the other army of archers concentrating on theirs. At the end of each year, the emperor stands inside the trench at a pre-designated spot, kept secret from the workers. In this way, he measures their progress with their digging. Between visits, the workers pray that the emperor does not grow again this year. If the emperor shakes his head at the end of the measuring ritual, new messengers scurry across the provinces.
"More men, bigger corvees, you must send more men or face the consequences."
In the fifteenth year, the quota system begins. As long as a group of villages digs its share of the trench, they need send only as many men as it takes. The emperor's ministers base their standard on the best, the chanting southern work gangs. Some regions attempt to copy, making up their own chants, substituting baskets of dried rushes for the sturdy brown clay vats used by the southerners. Others are stubbornly keep trying to develop their own ways to make the task easier. Each year the northerners appear with a new solution, one year their hollowed redwood tree breaks in half, and it buries thirty seven men. In the twenty seventh autumn of the digging, the men from the northern coast divert a river and flood the trench to soften the dirt. Some say a hundred thousand men drown, but after that the digging does indeed go more easily, and somehow too a hundred twenty five thousand new men appear even before the next rain. Within forty years the trench spans 100 mu wide and thirty five mu deep all around the province. Still, the emperor is not pleased.
"It will never be done in my lifetime."
He closes his eyes and shakes his white haired head. He stands in the window of the tower specially constructed in the imperial city so he can everyday with the aid of a mirrored convex lens monitor the progress of the digging.
Walled cities appear next to the digging sites where mere camps once stood. In the fifty third autumn of the project, the imperial advisors establish a special academy in the northeast where students, men and women, construct models, design new tools, find new ways to organize the task. When for the fifty third time, the emperor's messengers appear in the far provinces, they need no translator. Even in those provinces beyond the western deserts, they have come to understand that they are citizens of the River Empire, the diggers of the trench. Instead of standing in bewilderment, they now approach the messenger with a thousand questions, "Was it true about the flood? What song do these southern men sing that makes them as strong as dragons? What new machines had come from the north this last digging season?"
Even after the emperor dies, his successor understands the real significance of the trench. In turn so does the successor to the successor, as do his successors, until finally, the original reasons for the digging, the reasons for the mandated exile of this one province are as forgotten as the pointed sticks once used by the nomads of the western desert. Only the project matters and only the River emperor, and the people of his River Empire, would dare to dream of reshaping the earth.
Generations pass, and the trench deepens enough to stand at least a dozen emperors on top of one another. In the middle of winter, the men at the bottom of the trench now have to dress as if they were working in the desrt sun, so different are the conditions at the bottom of the trench than the surface. Some even claim to have felt the center of the earth tremble beneath their feet. For twenty five years, a plague spreads among the diggers, hiccoughs so violent they can not work with their hands. Millions of bewildered men, walk the edges, their echoed hiccoughs mock them from the bottom of the trench. More are sent, boys whose voices squeak uncontrollably, men with white hair and curved backs, women just past childbearing, anyone who might be immune, but the hiccoughing will not stop. When one key northern province runs short of laborers, a levee system just beyond the capital fails. Floods, famines, and revolts follow.
The new emperor, watches from his high tower, the mirror lens now improved to the point where he can see to the western edge of the world where the earth seems to curve. He consults his advisors, his shamen, his own special bureau of diggers, now the most powerful ministers in his court.
He listens quietly as one by one they came to him with suggestions.
“Let us abandon the project,” insists the minister of canals. It has outlived its usefulness to the empire.
“We must refill the trench and start over again,” we must regain the spirit of the boy emperor who started this project," pleads the minister of state.
One minister claims that a woman from the southern forests has a magic potion to cure the plague of hiccoughs. Another insists that a wizard from beyond the desert must be consulted.
For a thousand mornings, the emperor hears at least a dozen new suggestions before his noon meal of sweet quail's eggs and blue emerald tea. He tries some of the suggestions. Once an entire year's crop of silk is dropped into the trench. Sheet by sheet the silk floats downwards, great subterranean butterflies. The silk is then set on fire so that the smoke will soothe the worker's throats, but their hiccoughs only smell of silk and smoke. The same year, a million chickens are drowned in enough rice whiskey to fill a lake as a sacrifice to the gods, but only the rat god listens and hordes of rodents fill the trench while the workers still hiccough from above.
For seven straight months, the emperor meditates as he searches for some means to save his empire. Then one evening just before winter, he emerges from his chambers, calls his advisors before him, and sends out new messengers dressed in robes of the Emperor's own purple cotton, the symbol of authority.
"The plague is a message from the heavens that we have dug deep enough. The time has come to pry the banished province loose."
In secret the advisors laugh at this decree. For weeks they have prepared, sending their favorite concubines, their younger sons, the best jewels off to their home provinces safe from what they are certain will be a revolt that won't be put down. They tell one another that the emperor's decree will accomplish nothing, new rebellions will break out as soon as the demand for more corvees is announced and what of the millions of hiccoughing diggers?
But the plague of hiccoughing stops as suddenly as it began. Within years, redwood trees said to be older than the oldest river dialects are floated to the edge of the trench. Crews made up of mixtures of men from every region, the best graduates of the academy, set the trees in special notches. Ropes thicker than a wealthy landlord’s waist made from strands of a rare desert hemp are tied to the trunk of each redwood. Provinces unaffected by the floods begin to share their surpluses, as the empire now feeds on possibility. Their generation will be remembered as the one that completed the task.
But the optimism is short?lived. The ropes break. The trees bend, then snap into a thousand pieces, some large enough to crush the men below, and still the banished province moves less than the width of a man's fingernail.
The emperor himself journeys into the desert. He takes just thirteen camels and seventy three attendants. During his absence, a caravan of traders starts a fire just two li from the walls of the imperial city then loots the marketplace so thoroughly that even the rats abandon it. The rumor spreads that the emperor has fled. Inside the imperial walls, the ministers begin planning their own rebellion. Everyday at noon, they meet in the emperor's own favorite afternoon courtyard to discuss and prepare. With each meeting their plans become bolder. They are arguing over their rightful shares of the remaining empire when the entire imperial city is thrown into darkness deeper than night.
"An eclipse, an eclipse!"
The imperial astrologer shouts. Reassured, most venture back into the courtyard where an old man points to the heavens with a red lit divining stick.
"It's only the moon."
Had it been only the moon, the faithless ministers would not have run the second time, and certainly none would flee benath the walls of the imperial city or take poison when they realize that it is not the moon at all, but instead a horde of dragons each as big as a cloud. When the light returns, they can see the emperor himself perched on the neck of the biggest one.
"I have made a pact with the dragons," he announces as he glides just inches from his best loved observation tower.
"They will pry the banished province loose and in exchange River men will give up hunting for their teeth and bones."
Only the magicians whose most powerful potions depend almost exclusively on ground dragon bones dare to protest.
This time, even before they can announce it in the most isolated provinces, the messengers are overwhelmed with questions about the dragons.
It takes three harvest seasons. The River men devote the first to the design and construction of dragon harnesses. Thousands of men melt copper and zinc together, tan leather with horse urine, sharpen ox bone needles with diamond-edged knives as the idle dragons wait by the trench, exterminating the rats with blasts of their fire breath. After nightfall the beasts play simple gambling games with the workers, betting gold mines against a dozen maiden daughters, spare teeth and bones for a few thousand pounds of baby flesh. Perhaps the games might have turned tragic had the men not quickly discovered that dragons can not count beyond twelve without difficulty (the dragons have just three toes and fingers on each appendage). In a week, half the dragons are toothless.
The second harvest season, the northerners divert yet another river and fill the trench with water. By then the dragons have given up gambling. Instead, they spend their mornings learning from the River men how to sing in unison. In the afternoons, the dragons teach the men, introducing them to paper, showing them how to make their own fire breath from bits of sulfur and saltpeter.
The third harvest season, the dragons harness themselves to the banished province and start to pull. The first day, just the width of a man's hand opens up. Frustrated, the dragons breathe their fire through the banished province, turning the rainforests and grasslands in its center into desert. On the fifth day, the earth shakes. The dragons strain at their harnesses. Two die from the effort, crumpling in mid?air, crashing to the ground, and crushing an entire village, but the banished province breaks loose from the River empire. A tidal wave, as high as a mountain destroys half the coast. The sky turns red and the earth cracks. Salt water fills the widening trench between the banished province and the empire. Dead fish cover the surface of the water. But within a month, only the emperor's special lens, now mounted on the edge of the shore could even see the freshly torn shoreline of the banished province. By the beginning of the harvest season, even the mackerel fishermen in their two?masted junks have lost sight of it.
Most believe that the province simply floated into the ocean off the edge of the earth. But there are rumors. Two thousand years later, a eunuch admiral, first master of the magnetic compass, sets out with a fleet of a hundred ships in search of the lost province. Even the Marinheiros the first explorers from the west, equipped with their lateen sails, and deep water keels, hear the rumors of the floating island. One chart maker even includes this El Dorado on his map, an island, a terra incognita between the great Eastern Empire and the new lands.
Inside the Empire a legend which no one doubts passes from mother to children, from children to father, and back again. A group of monks, they say once set out in small boats and found a warm water current. They landed on the lost province, made contact with its people, only to return in shock.
"They still looked like natives of the empire on the outside, but they had a kind of amnesia. They had forgotten their language, their true identities as people of the Chinese empire."
"The Lost Province Curse", they call it.
The second time the monks return, those from the first discovery party who stayed behind might as well have been natives. They could barely communicate in any dialect. The province, they reported had finally docked, pressed up against a land of which it is clearly not a part.
But the last bit, they only tell in whispers.
"Only the ground remembers," they say.
Only the ground remembers, sometimes it shakes violently with longing, struggling to break free again, to return to its true home.
Saturday, August 2, 2008
Posted by Chancelucky at 9:34 AM
Wednesday, July 30, 2008
Re: Really Confused
Yes, I was really excited after we left the Illusion Factory the other day. Even thought Peter’s demo had the virus problem, I got home and did indeed begin writing something for the subjective virtual reality program. In fact, that’s pretty much the only thing I’ve done for the two days since we last saw one another.
At the same time, I’m absolutely certain that I didn’t send any of it on to you by fax, regular mail, and definitely not e-mail Why would I suddenly start sending you something this important through a completely different e-mail address? I assume that a place like the Howard Company would have a spam filter anyway.
Now this is the really really scary part for me. You seem to be telling me that whatever you got in that e-mail was “amazing!” How can that be? I’m not aware of anyone else who would write about Paperson. Even if there were, how would such a person send it to you? Not only that, I’m not good with attachments (the computer kind, but both kinds actually). I always just paste things into the body of the e-mail.
I assume you got my voice mails. Can we talk some time very soon? I’m going a little nuts here.
Subject: Oh oh…
I’m sorry I didn’t get back to you sooner, but I’ve done something really embarrassing and I didn’t know how to tell you. I got too excited when I got that e-mail (I’m pasting it in below and attaching it since you need to get good at attachments if we’re going to make this project work). Yes, the address was different, but I had every reason to believe that it came from you.
Once you read, the e-mail from Paperghost@ col.com, you'll see what I’m talking about. You were the one who told me that your Grandfather used to insist that California was really a lost province of China. I also remember your telling me stories about dragons that had come through your family. I suppose I should have noticed that the attachment didn’t mention Paperson, but when I read it I was convinced that it could only have been written by my friend, Lucky Tang.
Okay, here’s the bad news. I was so impressed by what I thought you’d written, that I forwarded it directly to Luke. He was getting antsy about the project. I thought I'd surprise you by getting you on the project as an independent contractor, maybe even get you paid a little.
So before you read the e-mail from Paperghost (yes, I thought it was one of your jokes), I sort of have good news-bad news. The good news is that Luke loved it and he wants you to meet with us over lunch this Monday.
The bad news, of course, is that we don’t know who Paperghost is. You’re sure that it wasn’t you? I’m going to have the tech support guys check the ISP’s in the meantime. I’m going to call you in a few minutes, but first read over the attachment so we can talk about it.
It might be a year before we get another meeting with him.
“Lucky, are you okay?”
“It’s fine, just a problem with the computer.”
Marie stands outside my mostly-closed study door.
“It’s no wonder, you’ve been on that computer for almost two days in a row."
“I just need to get this done.”
“You’re not having a relationship with someone online?”
I pressed control-alt-delete on my keyboard, but the screen was frozen with Jan’s e-mail right on the screen in an oversized font.
“No, of course not.”
“Well, I saw it on Dr. Phil. Sometimes, it’s like you’re not even here when we’re together.”
I pulled the plug from the power strip and the monitor went black.
“Marie, just give me twenty minutes here….It’s a really important e-mail.”
“I thought you were turning the computer off.”
I glanced over at the cordless phone on the other side of my desk. How was I going to read this mystery e-mail in the next few minutes before Jan's call?
“Just remember the last time you said twenty minutes you came out of there after sunrise.”
I prayed that whatever e-mail that Jan had sent on to Luke wasn’t going to be more than a few pages. The operating system reloaded. I heard the whirr of the printer diagnostic as the red and green led on its front panel blinked. I was able to dial out. I got into the e-mail, started downloading the attachment then minimized the window. If only real life let you minimize windows and every now and then just let you reboot. Once the download completed, I pushed print, looked at the bottom right corner of my computer and noted happily that the entire process took just four and a half minutes. I grabbed the first page off the laser printer only to realize two things First, I’d been running out of toner for the last five weeks. The text was somewhere between light gray and unreadable. Second, I’d forgotten that the last page prints first. I started to swear again, then caught myself.
Posted by Chancelucky at 11:27 PM
Thursday, July 17, 2008
Chapter 7 Contact
I'd expected something way cooler than a card table, a small and not very detailed posterboard model of Paperson, and a roll-down screen for an lcd projector. Jan, Peter (the technical director), and I were the only three people in this cross between a room and an equipment closet. Even if Luke Howard’s Virtual Reality Project happened to be stuck in the back of the warehouse known as the Illusion Factory, this was not necessarily a sign of disrespect for the project in the odd culture of special effects wizards.
On the drive over, Jan had warned me, "At a money meeting, the man or the woman in the most expensive suit is the one you listen to. In a production meeting, you look at the sunglasses and the keychains. At the Illusion Factory, the guy with the most pizza stains on his t-shirt and the mismatched pair of running shoes is gong to be the heavy hitter. It’s almost always guys too. We’ve had a couple female technicians, but they’re still very rare. After a couple weeks here, even the women start wearing baseball caps and t-shirts after a couple weeks. It’s just the culture.”
“As in the culture of illusions?”
“Yeah, it’s one of those weird things. Years ago, Luke wanted to do away with coats and ties. He hates uniformity. He would wander around his production facilities in jeans, a Pendleton, and a pair of clean work boots just to make his point. In two years, everyone on the business and production end was dressing exactly like Luke and there was a whole status thing about the color and models of work boot and whether you ran the laces all the way to the top or not.”
There was, however, only so much that Jan could explain verbally about Luke Howard’s kingdom. I’d had the tour of the Turkey Farm, the company’s official headquarters, that included a gym, a pool, and three restaurants. The name “Turkey Farm” was a movie joke, of course, but the site had also really once been a Turkey breeding farm. When Luke bought it fifteen years ago and turned it into his alternative to a Hollywood studio, he’d insisted on keeping the name. The Turkey Farm still honored its roots in various ways. A set of pens housed a variety of domesticable livestock stayed in place behind the red brick editing building, although Luke had added llamas and peacocks to the mix. On the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, Luke’s employees would line up to drive by what had once been the barn where Luke and his assistants would personally pass out twenty pound organic turkeys for the holiday, though these were thoughtfully packed in a white cardboard box rather than dressed and hung from hooks.
Luke’s own office was in a five story Victorian at the Turkey Farm complete with glass-enclosed gazebo, hidden elevator, and theater in the basement. Luke had insisted that the structure appear period authentic which meant that all the light switches and wiring remained hidden and the door and window hardware looked retro even though they were cast from stronger more modern alloys. This might have seemed an odd choice for a man who had made his fortune popularizing images of intergalactic life in the distant future, but this kind of contradiction was, according to Jan Grady, one of the keys to dealing with Luke Howard, the man.
“Luke likes to turn expectations on their head,” Jan had told me. “It’s something you have to be ready for, but you won’t really get how it works with him until you experience it some.”
For the last decade, Luke’s real income hadn’t come from making movies. In fact, he hadn’t produced a movie of his own in seven years. “The RCA in the Parlor” had homaged radio mysteries of the thirties, but it didn’t even make it to general theatrical release. “In the Parlor’s” main virtue was that the movie had been shot entirely without sets of any kind. The actors would sit in a chair and special effects would backfill the scene with period details. Instead of making the extraordinary happen on film, this had been an attempt to use special effects to recreate the ordinary and the expected details of a movie set, items like bookshelves, upholstered sofas, floor lamps, and even wardrobe in a couple instances. Instead of noticing the clever special effects, the challenge was for viewers not to notice the presence of CGI at all. The handful of reviews that the movie did get mentioned that it looked surprisingly like a movie made in the thirties only the script and the acting both sucked.
In any case, the Howard company now made most of its money in two ways. The bulk came from licensing toys, cereal box promotions, soda cups, and what could best be described as branding cultural junk. The second more active source of Luke’s income came from doing contract special effects for other film companies. A logo saying “Special Effects by the Illusion Factory” could actually enhance a popcorn movie’s gross receipts by up to twenty million dollars. Even the digital film editing, the sound editing, and Foley effects done in the faux 19th century factory across from the Victorian accounts for nearly as much revenue as whatever comes from Luke’s movie residuals
“That’s sort of sad. Don’t you think?” I told Jan.
“Heck no. Luke loves it that way. He thinks it's a symbol of some new age in the entertainment business and he’s the guy at the head of the parade. Anyway, the Illusion Factory is now the production center for Luke’s Empire, so naturally he houses the enterprise in a dump. Anyway, welcome to the gold mine.”
At the time, we were in what appeared to be the back parking lot of Circuit City, a retail store that sold cheap electronics, but whose grand red brick facade and big display windows made it look for more upscale than the warehouse that once housed the retail clerks union before it became the Illusion Factory. If space aliens from one of Luke's movies ever landed beneath the Highway 101 overpass in search of advanced human technology, they would likely never guess that the elaborate building sold hundred dollar televisions and car stereos while the other building held multiple state of the art Silicon Graphics works stations.
After a brief tour of the blue screen where a group of workmen were spending the day cleaning a spot in one of the corners and the server room, we were in the Virtual Reality project room which Jan had told was the key to the future of the Howard Company. Even with her carefully-laid prologue about the anthropology of the action movie business, the room was a disappointment. The room wasn’t a glimpse of the future, it was a thirty year old dungeon's and dragons nerd still living in his mother's basement.
By the way he dressed, Peter, the technical team leader couldn't have been very far up the pecking order. He wore shoes made from actual leather and instead of a t-shirt he was wearing a pressed and clean Pendleton. Also, in a culture generally powered by the younger employees, Peter had to be at least forty. During the small talk, he'd even mentioned picking up his kid from soccer after our meeting. I figured that Jan was doing her best to break me in easy with Peter. Just plopping some kid in front of me who can’t make eye contact and whose idea of dress up is to put on his black Megadeath t-shirt instead of the white Alice in Chains shirt with the holes in it really might have been too much for me to comprehend. On the other hand, Peter did sport a long pony tail that fell well beneath his collar.
I had, at this point, figured out that Peter was a team leader rather than a "specialist". Jan had explained that there was potentially more money in being a "specialist", because the fledging effects union had won them the right to overtime for the ninety hour weeks just before final cut. Team leaders, as management, nominally got a percentage of the gross, but their shares were diluted to near irrelevance because they were always calculated against a percentage of screen time in the film or the DVD release. As much as people came out of the theater talking about the thrills of exploding building, tornadoes sweeping away live cows and camper shells, or talking sharks, the actual scenes were usually surprisingly short.
Peter motioned for me to take a seat on the office chair in front of the table.
"So Jan, did Lucky sign the disclosure?"
"I'm not a confidentiality problem. We're the licensor here," I did my best to sound like a lawyer.
Peter looked over at Jan and shook his head.
"It's not that kind of disclosure. This is just in case you don't return to this reality. We lost two people in France during the Hundred Years War a couple months ago. There's also that woman who had the heart attack during the alien invasion when the doctor with the tentacles put her in the stirrups."
"Uh, Jan didn't mention any of those things."
Peter then flicked his wrist as if he were doing a parry with a fencing foil, did a little hop, and gleefully shouted, "Got another one!... I thought you told me this guy was smart."
"I told you that he went to Harvard with me. That's not the same thing."
Peter then broke out laughing. Jan joined in. Eventually I did too if only not to appear to be a complete idiot. It was clear that this wasn't the first time they'd run this routine.
Peter then flipped open a panel on the arm of my chair. "Lucky, the first thing we're going to do is calibrate. We're going to show you some slides on the screen there. You're going to push the red button if it feels less familiar and the blue button if it feels more familiar. "
"Familiar compared to what?"
Jan tapped me on the shoulder, "Lucky, that's my cue to leave this demo for a bit here. Have fun with Peter. He's a very nice guy, once you get used to the sense of humor. He doesn’t bite."
“Yeah, but does he slice?”
Jan poked me on the shoulder with her finger flirtatiously then closed the door behind her and the lights in the room went out. The slide projector started and an image of a circle appeared on the screen mounted on the wall.
"So how do I know which button is red and which one is blue in the dark like this?"
Peter jumped onto a ledge just to the side of me, "Such a silly question, just feel the two buttons."
"Whoa, I get it. So which one is the smooth one and which one is the bumpy one."
"Red is smooth or less familiar."
"But I still don't get this familiar, not familiar thing. All I see on the screen is a circle."
"So impatient ! What's happening to kids today, they can't wait for anything? Reality should never be in a hurry, even when it’s virtual."
I waited and then I noticed that the circle was subtly pulsing as the edges went light then dark. After a couple minutes, it occurred to me that the circle was starting to approximate the rate at which my eyes were blinking. I felt for the rough-edged button and pushed.
"Lucky, this time can you close your left eye. "
The circle then shifted to the right side of the screen and I repeated the process for each eye.
"Peter, what happened to the helmet and the gloves."
"Man, you've been watching too many movies. Helmets are totally old school."
"What's the matter with helmets and gloves?"
"Astronauts wear helmets, pest control guys wear helmets, deep sea divers dress like that., but who dresses like that in their real life? That sort of stuff is great if you want to fake a three dimensional environment, but we're talking "reality" here not special effects. Other companies are obsessed with “objective” virtual reality. This project is a little different, we take a person's subjective experience of events and more or less try to clone it. A helmet would only get in the way of that because it feels unnatural to the subject. Unless, of course, you happen to be a deep sea diver."
This time, Peter slashed at the far wall with his imaginary sword.
I noticed that the bottom of my chair had a heating source and that when I flexed my knees that the stem of the chair rose and fell with my movement. I shifted around, then pushed with the soles of my shoes against the floor and found that the mechanism in the chair was so reactive that the pressure between my feet and the floor itself stayed exactly the same. I then tried to lift my feet up, but it was as if the floor came with me.
"In case you were wondering, you're sitting in a five million dollar chair. It's worth more than the Queen of England's throne, give or take a couple circuit boards."
“Is it true that she's actually a cyborg who died in 1987?”
“Naw, that's just one of those urban legends. We haven't gotten that far yet....Besides, if you were going to fake someone why would you replicate someone as boring as members of the British royal family? I'd do Mr. T, Jose Canseco, maybe Grace Jones....”
“How about Annie Lennox?”
“No Way....” Peter's voice turned into a chirp. “Did someone tell you?”
“Tell me what?”
“About the Eurythmics being cyborgs.”
“You remember when she blew out her voice?”
“Well, never mind.”
Peter then dropped into silence for several moments then said casually, “Did you know that your pulse rate jumps when you ‘re confused?”
“So Annie Lennox and the queen were just a way of calibrating me?”
“I’m good….I’m damn good.”
Peter held his pony tail out like a prize. I was starting to like the guy.
“For five million dollars, you'd think they would have gotten the coffee stains out of the upholstery."
"What can I tell you Lucky, the techs around here are total slobs. I spend half my time here keeping them in line."
We then went through a series of pictures of different sensory glands, nose, mouth, heart, then fingers and ears. I hadn't really noticed how much my fingers moved even when I thought I was being perfectly still, but I was nervous.
The next item on the screen was a picture of an old trailer.
“That looks familiar.”
“It should be, you saw it less than an hour ago on your way in here.”
“Why do they keep an old trailer outside the main building?”
“It's the model shop. Old school stuff. It's actually where I started.”
“Wow. History doesn't count for much here I guess.”
“Time and 27 frames per second march on. The model guys and the matte painters, the ones who did it on glass with real paint, used to be the stars of this place. CGI started taking over in the last half a dozen years or so and now they’re like carriage builders. Digital is just cheaper, but the old stuff was truly glorious. Digital’s really sort of a brute force thing, doesn’t take nearly as much imagination.”
“So you've been here a while.”
“Since the beginning. I was a high school kid with a talent for blowing things up…on a small scale of course. Luke rescued me from a life sentence of video games, red bull, and paint ball.”
The slide of the trailer then gave way to a bunch of images of classic special effects, only the shots were pulled back enough or close enough so you could see the wires, the matte screens used for land or space scapes, and the actual scale of the models.
“When we do the calibration for this stuff, I like to make sure everyone sees this. I don't know that anyone's going to remember how we used to do it. When I started, they had a guy Harry Houdini (that's what we called him) who could do in camera effects that you wouldn't believe. It took years before you could do digital slow motion to match what he could do by hand and I still say that his jump cuts are smoother and more elegant than anything you can do with an Indigo.“
“Harry Houdini, never heard of him.”
“You remember those tv shows during the black and white era where the main character always had magic powers to make things appear and disappear, walking through walls, be identical cousins,that sort of thing, Martians, witches, genies.”
“Yeah, I loved that stuff.”
“That was Harry Houdini or people who studied under the guy. We used to have film editors who would hand paint the frames just to get a color shift. They used to use like the single hair from a brush and magnifying glass. We’re talking hands like a brain surgeon’s.”
“Anyway, that was the real Illusion Factory. Luke still lets a couple of the oldtimers, who won't learn the new ways build models and stuff in that trailer. Every other movie, they get a few frames to do their thing. We can't charge what it costs in man hours of time and the film companies could give a shit, but it’s his way of honoring the past.”
“Well, thanks for the lesson.”
“Before you start on this thing, I just want you to know that your town isn't the only history that matters around here.”
I reached towards the paper model of Paperson on the table in front of me.
“I take it that this wasn't made by the old time model guys.”
Peter took an imaginary slash at the model and then quickly cut it into sixteenths.
“This one was done through some sort of computer program. It's similar to the way they make children's pop up books. No refinement. If this were a real craftsmen's work, even the shadows would be right. You'd think that you were just oversized all of a sudden not the other way around.”
My office chair suddenly was starting to feel like a dentist's chair. I could see Peter as one of the three musketeers only with a dentist’s smock replacing that Musketeeers blouson thing with the fleur de lys print.
“So, we ready to get going here?”
There was a clicking sound, the screen went dark and before I knew it Peter was stabbing at the keyboard.
“What the fuck? Must be a memory overrun.”
The next image on the screen was a picture of a man. As it slowly came into focus, it looked increasingly familiar. I pushed on the blue button repeatedly.
“That's not supposed to be up there. Lucky, do me a favor. Please don't touch anything for now. It might be some kind of virus.”
I recognized the picture immediately. It was a photo of my grandfather in a dark suit, from some time well before I was born.
“Peter, that's amazing.”
“I know that picture, where'd you guys find it.”
The next picture was a dragon. That was quickly followed by what looked to be Chinese food and some sort of gun. I pushed the blue button out of instinct despite Peter’s warning.
“This is really cool Peter.”
“It might be, but something’s not right. It's the ghost in the blue screen again.”
“You need to ask Jan about it. I'm going to have to hard boot the system here. You're going to have to come back another time.”
“Are you telling me that there's some sort of ghost wandering the Illusion Factory?”
“Let’s just say that things happen here from time to time that defy explanation.”
I followed the fog into the back room this morning and naturally, he was there. Is this what I would have looked like? Is this how I would have sounded? I hope not. It's better to be an ethereal than some middle-aged loser.
It's a pity the swordsman with the pony tail turned off the work station. We were just starting to communicate. I never learned English and this Lucky never learned on Chinese, maybe on purpose so he wouldn’t have to pay attention to me. I could feel that he was beginning to understand what I was trying to show him, maybe just a little bit, through this machine of theirs. Does that hot rodder, Luke Howard, have the faintest idea what he just made possible? I now know why I left Paperson to come to this Illusion Factory.
Posted by Chancelucky at 11:45 AM
Wednesday, July 2, 2008
Inside the Box Chapter 6 part 2
I see Don sitting alone at the kitchen table in front of multiple plates of food. In any other household, I would wonder when the other twenty people joining us for dinner will come through the door. I've come to accept the fact that my mother's sense of proportion just isn't like other people's. She can be generous to the point where it becomes so uncomfortable for new friends that they start avoiding her. She can be so wary of people especially family members that ordinary dinners or parties turn suddenly hostile because someone didn't say good bye to her loudly or individually enough. It strikes me that her inability to modulate the way she relates to others has something to do with her experiences in Paperson, but it occurs to me now that mom was already like that in many ways before we moved back to my grandfather’s house when I was a teenager.
I start to head towards Don and the table, but my mother steps between her kitchen and me, “I want to talk to you about something.”
Historically, this has meant that she wants to talk about one of two topics. Most often, she'll pull me aside to talk about money issues. My mother was a housewife. She never worked a regular job after she married my father when she was just twenty. She's very aware of money, but not very secure about her capacity to either make it on her own or manage it. She worries constantly that Don is going to leave all of his own money to his children and not make certain that she's taken care of. She also knows me too well. Despite my insistence that I'll take care of her, she never exactly trusts it.
Now and then, she'll bring out some brochure for a modest retirement home and ask me what I think. I should know that she wants me to say “No, never not for my mother!”
Instead, I tend to say “If that's what you want, Mom, but it's not the time yet to worry about things like that.”
In the meantime, she talks about wills. There's Don's will. There was my father's lack of a will after he died unexpectedly a year after I graduated college. My mother was forty eight at the time. There's her mother's very weird will that not only left everything to her brothers but literally disinherited all of her daughters except my mother who received a tiny interest in a single building. There's my will, over which she worries that I'll leave money to Marie who will in turn leave it to some non-relative. She also talks about her own will from time to time, but that’s never quite as compelling for her.
Topic number two is the fortune tellers. Whenever my mother travels, she goes to Chinese fortune tellers. She's always been quite convinced that she has psychic powers in her own right, so it started out as an exercise in reporting back that the fortune teller had confirmed the fact that she has a good heart. After my father died, her visits to the fortune tellers got darker. It didn’t matter if they were reading sand, making her drink tea, or were simply looking into her eyes. In that time, I’ve heard the fortune tellers confirm my mother’s belief that Marie doesn't really like her, how Don's children don't like her, and how my father didn’t want her to remarry and that he’s lonely and unhappy in the other world.
My mother’s reports from the fortune teller routinely include details that are simply impossible. I never hung out at a malt shop with Pops, Archie, and Veronica when I was in high school. I’ve never flown an airplane on my own. We never had a german shephard. Still, she clings to the items that might be right as if this is all the guidance she’ll ever get in this world.
When I was in my early twenties, I did on two occasions get her a session with non-Chinese psychics just because it was something she liked. In my later adult life though, I’ve tried different strategies to discourage my mother’s talk of fortune tellers. For that reason, I’ve never told her that I occasionally see things in dreams that eventually sort their way into my life. I don’t tell her, for instance, that my father’s heart attack wasn’t a surprise or that every few years I have dreams about him being still alive, alone, and wandering his empty restaurant like some prisoner out of a Christmas Carol.
Marie was the one who pointed out to me that my mother was out of balance in certain ways and I’ve since learned from her not to send my mother spinning in certain directions.
My mother says it directly enough, “Don and I talked the other day. We’ve decided that we want to be buried together.”
I’ve always had it in my head that my mother wants to be cremated. My father and I once read a book together called “The American Way of Death” and he was quite taken by the whole idea of the Neptune Society. We wound up burying him partly because there are any number of Chinese customs about the bones of dead loved ones and partly because my father at other times when he wasn’t reading Jessica Mitford had said that he’d never want to be cremated. We compromised instead by giving him the simplest funeral possible as I tried to talk to the Funeral Home salesman about Jessica Mitford.
“Mom, whatever you want to do with your body is fine with me,” I tell her.
She, however, wants to be convinced that it’s okay with me. My mother has a tendency to read facial expression and tones more than listen to what anyone says. At the level of the rational, it’s probably a big part of why she thinks she’s psychic. Most people don’t convey all of their feelings in their words alone.
“I just wanted you to know. It’s nothing about your Dad.”
“Well, you’ve been married to Don almost longer than you were married to Dad.”
“I just can’t stand the idea of being buried with the rest of the Tang family.”
My grandfather was still alive when my father died. To be accurate, my grandfather had two months left but was still very much conscious. It was enough for me to tell him that my father, his oldest son, had died. I remember not wanting to have to explain that we’d decided to bury my father didn’t want to be buried with his own family. I made a hasty decision to allow my Dad to be buried in one of the nine plots that my Grandfather had bought for himself, my grandmother, his three sons and their wives, and a mysterious individual known as “Mike Tang” whose real name was “Hagerty” more or less like the Robert Duvall character in the Godfather. Mike Tang was my Grandfather’s one true non-Chinese friend. He trusted him so much that it was “Mike” who lived in the house that fronted the road that led to Paperson from Sacramento.
They had measured the distance and time precisely. The house was as close as it could be to the gambling house in Paperson while still giving Mike enough time to make a warning call in the case of a raid.
At the time, I had simply figured that my mother whenever she died herself would want to be buried next to my father. Now instead, the family plot consists of my grandfather, my grandmother, my dad, and Mike Tang. Uncle Persy’s on his third wife. I only met the second one once. I have no idea what Uncle Leon and his wife’s plans are.
“So, where do you want to be buried with Don?”
“We haven’t worked that out yet.”
I nod again.
“I don’t have to put the directions in a will? You can remember that?”
“Of course, I’ll remember,” I tell her.
I’m aware of the fact that the tone of my voice says otherwise, but this time my mother believes me anyway.
I give my mother a hug and tell her, “Mom, I don’t think anyone would expect you to spend eternity with Dad’s family.”
Mom heads towards her kitchen. As I watch her walk away, I notice that her walk has turned ever so slightly unsteady, as if she can’t just assume that the next three steps will happen on their own. I imagine anyone who didn’t know her wouldn’t notice. It’s not a matter of her being off-balance, it’s more that she’s become just a bit more careful on the tile floor. I’d forgotten that she slipped and sprained her ankle a couple years ago. Strange how you can see time just in the way someone walks.
I make my way over to the grand piano in the living room and begin to improvise. I know it’s an odd thing to do for someone who’s been waiting for the last fifteen minutes to have lunch, but I play an a minor drone for about forty five seconds then come to the kitchen. It’s as if I need to make a few more sounds after my conversation with my mother.
I get to the table where my mother has somehow combined roast beef, with a pile of chow mein, and is that chocolate cake? A large salad adorns the side table and I think there’s a bowl of Chinese turnip soup in the mix.
“See, all the things you like,” she says.
I shake my head and want to say, “But not together…” then stop myself. It’s Marie’s influence. She’s explained to me that this is something my mother will never get and to just look at it as her way of showing love. When my mother was a small child, my grandmother needed time away because she’d had too many children in not enough years. She came from China with four children then in six years in San Francisco had four more with my mother being the last. When my mother was a year old, my grandmother had her live with another family for a few months. The woman used the money my grandmother sent to feed her own sons extra meat and milk. My mother got rickets. When she came back home, they fed her frantically. She shouldn’t remember it, yet the body remembers in ways the mind often does not.
I ask after Don’s health, his children and grandchildren. We talk about his RV. Having been interned at Tule Lake, Don likes the idea of having a motorized house. As he puts it, “I like to be able to go where I want.”
My mother is the one who interrupts, “So you were going to tell me what your Uncle Leon is up to.”
“Mom, I really don’t think it’s anything bad. Paperson’s sat there for almost twenty years. I just want the estate and trust to be done with.”
“I know you want it done with, but you have to make sure that you get your fair share,” my mother’s tone is brittle even menacing, her way of letting me know that she worries that I won’t fight hard enough.
“This is the first time the place has had a named buyer. Luke Howard isn’t a shyster. He can’t afford to be one.”
“What makes you think that? How do you know that he’s not in cahoots with your uncle?”
Certain archaic American words stuck in my parents’ vocabulary. With my father it was calling young women “Janes” and to a group of friends as a “cats”. My mother uses “cahoots”, “bigwig”, and referring to soft drinks as “pop” and alcohol as “hooch”. Sometimes they would sound bizarrely like Midwestern gangsters from the Capone era. I think it was because they learned most of their collogquial American English at Saturday double features.
“Mom at least let me tell you what’s going on before I have to stop whatever it is you think Uncle Leon’s going to do.”
“There’s nothing to talk about. He’s always up to something. He always has an angle. You’re not asking enough questions .”
“Mom, believe me, I ask questions.”
“Then you’re not asking the right questions if you think he’s on the up and up with this.”
“Luke Howard wouldn’t get involved if he thought he’d be taken advantage of.”
“Your mother’s not talking about Luke Howard getting taken advantage of. She’s talking about you,” Don pushes his plate to the side, “Lucky, there can be a lot of angles in a land deal.”
Before he met my mother, Don sold his farm to a developer. No one’s really sure how he came away with as much money as he did. All anyone knows is that he retired while most of the people who farmed near his land had to take jobs after the deal for the subdivision.
Platters of more food cover the counters. There’s a plate of melon slices, more roast beef, and another mound of chow mein sits atop a bright orange platter next to half a chocolate cake.
“You must be hungry,” she tells me.
“Not really, “ I tell her.
“You like roast beef. I know you don’t get it at home. I know you never get chow mein. I made the other batch for you to take home to Marie.”
Marie doesn’t cook well and she definitely doesn’t cook Chinese food well. After all, she’s not Chinese.
“I’m not that hungry mom.”
Even as I say it, I find myself piling food on a plate while my mother sits across from me at the table with her pre-measured meal from Weight Watchers and a cup of hot water.
“It’s good roast beef. I got it from Corti’s. You remember Corti’s.”
I roll my eyes and nod my head. At the moment, I’m facing the two ton metal dragon also salvaged from my father’s restaurant that’s mounted on the fence and whose tennis ball sized green eyes stare fixedly at our kitchen table. It was a few years before I realized that my mother did it this way so that she could feel like my Dad was with her when she ate. He was the one who loved to cook and to talk about food.
“Mom, you know who Luke Howard is?”
She looks up from her hot water and drops a sliver of chocolate cake next to the chow mein on my plate.
“Try this. It’s from a new bakery. I need to know how you like it. They said they’d give me the recipe. It’s supposed to be the best chocolate cake according to Kathy.”
“Mom, can’t I wait on the cake.”
The older my mother gets the less willing she seems to be to wait on anything.
“Just try it.”
Again, even as I argue with her, I find myself taking two bites of chocolate cake. My palate knows what my mouth and mind can not. My mother always wins these struggles.
“Why should I care who Luke Howard is? Your Uncle Leon is up to no good. Whatever he’s doing with that town, there’s something in it for him.”
“I don’t think so. Uncle Leon didn’t even know that the woman who came to represent Luke Howard went to Harvard with me.”
My mother’s face lights up.
“Someone you went to school with.”
“Yes, Jan Grady was a friend of mine.”
“But she’s so young.”
“Mom, she’s not that young and I’m not that young.”
“Well she must have done well for herself.”
It occurs to me that my mother still supposedly doesn’t know who Luke Howard is, so how can she be commenting on Jan Grady’s success simply as someone who works for him?
“I also don’t think Uncle Leon has any idea why the Howard Company is interested. He thought they wanted to buy Paperson to develop a shopping center.”
For some reason when it comes to family matters, I never manage to explain anything to my mother in logical order, but this at least gets her attention.
“You never mentioned any Jan Grady when you were in Cambridge.”
“Well Mom, you never met all of my friends and I didn’t talk about everyone I met at Dunster House or everyone I ever had a class with.”
That’s not exactly true. On their trips east, my parents insisted on meeting as many of my friends as they could, always offering to take them along to dinner, quizzing them about their lives before Harvard, their plans beyond graduation. It became a running joke whenever my parents came back there.
“You would have mentioned a girl.”
This is certainly true enough. If there had been a girl to mention or introduce I would have.
“Well, we weren’t boyfriend and girlfriend or anything.”
My mother shrugs. “I didn’t say that. I’ve just never understood why we send you to Harvard and you’ve never used any of the connections you could have made in a place like that.”
I want to tell her there’s a difference between being good at school and having actual social skills, but it’s the sort of thing we’ve never much talked about. I was so shy as a child that my mother used to insist on finding me possible friends. I just never had much to say to them nor did I like hanging out with people my age much until I was well into college and away from Paperson. Among my cousins it was worse. At family gatherings, they would cluster in small groups and I would skirt the perimeters of their conversation never able to find an angle to join in and those circles never quite opening either to let me talk about the stupid things that friends of theirs I’d never met had done or would do.
When I got to Harvard, it was hard enough for me to make friends much less girlfriends in a place where the males still significantly outnumbered the females.
My mother, Don, and I eat in silence for several minutes. I then remember Marie’s complaint that I tend to visit my mother, get frustrated with her ways, and walk away from the table leaving her to deal with my mother and stepfather.
“Jan is in “Acquisitions” for Luke Howard. Uncle Leon assumed that meant real estate because it’s what he knows. Jan doesn’t acquire land or buildings for Luke Howard, she’s buying ideas.”
“Ideas? What kind of ideas would anyone want from that old place? It’s just a bunch of old mildewy buildings and your Grandfather’s house.”
“When she brought it up, Uncle Leon was in complete shock. I don’t see how he could be working an angle if it’s something he knows nothing about. Luke Howard wants to do some sort of multi-media history thing with Paperson.”
Don and my mother look at me blankly.
“You mean like a newspaper?”
“No, that’s the media. Multi-media is where they have pictures, sounds, and other stuff.”
My mother nods then says,“You still better be careful.”
“Mom, this is Luke Howard, the most famous movie producer in the world. He makes movies about other planets and stuff.”
“I don’t see those kinds of movies.”
“Mom, Luke Howard’s worth billions. There’s nothing Uncle Leon has that he could offer him.”
“Why would someone who’s worth billions care about an old abandoned town run by a selfish old man? Something doesn’t make sense. You say your Uncle Leon found these people?”
“Mom, you don’t understand,” exasperation boils in my voice.
My mother says nothing for a few moments, then begins cleaning crumbs off the table. I struggle to stay in chair.
“Why would I, why should I? Maybe you do, but I don’t.”
“Mom, it still has history.”
“Not everything needs to be remembered.”
“Mom, I seriously don’t think Luke Howard is interested in anything that happened in the Tang family. He wants the other history.”
“There is no other history in that place. There was nothing in Paperson that ever happened that your Grandfather didn’t have something to do with.”
My mother measures out a second packet of food for herself then asks if I want a cup of hot water of my own. She believes that plain hot water has purifying properties.
She looks back at the dragon and tilts her head.
“What was her name again?”
“What was whose name?”
“Your friend who works for this Howard guy…”
“It’s Jan Grady.”
My mother shakes her head.
“I remember that name.”
“I know you never met her.”
“Maybe not, but I think you mentioned her….She was someone you liked.”
Weirdly, my mother remembers a moment that I’d buried. One evening my parents were there and I was walking down the staircase with them towards town when I stopped briefly to say “Hi” to Jan Grady on the landing where I normally had my conversations with her.
Jan said “Going somewhere with your parents?”
I shrugged, but my Dad noticed Jan Grady.
“Who was that?” he asked twice.
“It’s Jan, she’s from New York City.”
“She’s more like it.”
I exhaled loudly.
“She has a boyfriend. I’m probably not her type.”
“Don’t sell yourself short, Lucky. She smiled at you.”
“She smiles at everyone. Can we talk about something else?”
My father died before I ever had the chance to introduce any woman to my parents.
I gulp down hot water that’s a bit too hot to drink.
“Mom, if she was someone I liked, nothing ever came of it and I don’t think she ever noticed me that way.”
My mother takes an expanding breath. “It seems like she found you this time. It’s not a coincidence.”
“Mom it’s a business deal. I told you she’s doing a project for Luke Howard.”
“Is she married now?”
“I have no idea. We haven’t talked about it.”
“Have you mentioned Marie to her?”
“Of course, I have….Why wouldn’t I?” I say it as forcefully as possible, but the truth is that I don’t know the answer to my own question.
Posted by Chancelucky at 11:35 PM
Friday, March 21, 2008
So what happened? I swear that I'm going to speed this up and instead I stop for almost two months. First, I decided to work on a long short story that turned out to be emotionally exhausting. I couldn't work on the draft at the same time for some reason. The second reason is in the realm of the strange. My mother is 78 years old. For whatever reason (I can make sense of them, I just can't talk about them in a public forum), shes decided to tell me something that's pretty significant about my life that I knew nothing about. Her own memory of the events is very hazy and yeah there are bits of this story that draw on real life, though far less than most people assume or think. In any case, there's probably a psychological reason that I've been so slow with this novel - at some level there was an important part of the story missing.
Way back when, I kept running into what I thought was a huge handicap in taking on this subject matter: I simply didn't know a lot about the incidents. In particular, a lot of the people only spoke Chinese or in some cases Tagalog or Spanish. I had no idea what they were talking about and thus thought I couldn't possibly understand what they thought or felt. A haze of languages I couldn't understand or speak surrounded the core of my story. Over time, I've come to see the haze as the most interesting aspect of the story itself. Memory is never clean or perfect. Feelings are often complicated and difficult even impossible to understand. At the same time, that doesn't make them any less valuable.
The weird thing is that for the last couple weeks I've been faced with the fact that the things I thought I knew and that we're in a language I understood weren't quite as clear as I'd assumed. My Grandfather's generation was always the mystery generation for me, but the older I get and the more I find out it strikes me that my parents' generation is much more complicated than I could have imagined. No doubt, I'll learn the same thing about my own or at least my daughter might come to realize that.
My writer's group often reminds me that the “town” around which the novel revolves, Paperson, California, is based on what for most readers is an inside joke. They ask “Are you going to explain that somewhere in the book?” I haven't yet. Due to the Chinese Exclusion Act, Chinese coming into the US had to show that they were the son of a merchant, scholar, etc. After the San Francisco earthquake destroyed most of the immigration records, a sizeable business grew up in forging identities for young men who wanted to come to America. These folk were called “Papersons”. Almost all of the Chinese coming through the town were “Papersons” and they often came to the countryside to avoid immigration officials.
I've always had two models in mind for the town in the novel. One was Macondo from One Hundred Years of Solitude. The other was Sutpen's Hundred from Abaslom Absalom. Over the last week, I've been listening to Absalom via book on mp3. It's been interesting to see how much I'd misapprehended the book and how much I'd forgotten, but it's helped to go back there.
I think the hardest thing in this process has been knowing when to “push forward” and when to “sit back and consider”. So, I spent a bit longer doing the latter once again, something that I've spent far too much time doing in this process. Hopefully, it gets me closer to not further from my goal.
Posted by Chancelucky at 11:42 AM
Wednesday, March 19, 2008
For fifteen year's Sam Share's black and white photo of Paperson's 1950 fourth of July picnic hung on the walls of most Chinese American households. The picture, which appeared on Life magazine's Miscellany page, should have merited a thousand words, at least according to that tradition of Chinese proverbs that only Americans seem to quote. Instead, it got a two sentence caption.
"The town of Paperson celebrates the 4th of July and both the American revolution and the Chinese revolution of 1911. This year's picnic in America's last self-contained Chinatown raised over ten thousand dollars for the cause of democracy in China."
This is what was in the picture. A statue of Dr. Sun Yat Sen holds the center. A Chinese boy in a baseball uniform and a girl twirling a baton sit on his lap and turn Dr. Sun into a cross between a Chinese George Washington and Santa Claus. Behind Dr. Sun a group of Chinese men dressed in sportshirts and women in bermuda shorts and sundresses wave a mixture of American and Nationalist flags. In one corner a woman hands out slices of watermelon next to a table filled with bottles of soda and cups of tea. A man in an apron grills hamburgers and hot dogs while those in line carry paper plates filled with a mixture of chow mein, rice, and cole slaw. In another corner, an impromptu baseball game is being played. If you look closely, the bases are twenty pound sacks of rice. There are almost as many women as men. Young families outnumber the handful of elderly men. It must be noon because there are no shadows.
This is what isn't in the picture. Three quarters of the population of Paperson was male and over the age of fifty five. The gambling house, the heart of the town's economy, can't be seen. Several of the women in the photo were prostitutes recruited to pose for the picture for five dollars each. Most of the children came from Sacramento and Stockton. The photographer chalked an “O” on the grass where each child was to pose just to keep the spacing right. Henry Luce was angry at Madame Chiang for raising millions in the United States for Chinese relief and then finding that almost none of the money made it to China. It devastated Luce that the country he had been born in as the son of American protestant missionaries was now communist. My grandfather hired a publicist to encourage Chinese families to settle in Paperson. For three thousand dollars, the publicist got a hold of Sam Share, the man who had photographed the explosion of the Hindenburg. The editors at Life saw a way to make Luce happy about promoting democracy in China without invoking Mr. and Mrs. Chiang Kai Shek. The watermelon slices were painted wood, because they held their shape better in the heat. The photo was done night for day with bright spotlights to make for sharper outlines than natural light could provide. In actuality, it is all shadows.
This is what I learned from Sam Share's photo. This is not a picture of Paperson at all. Despite the many times he sat for pictures with various members of the family, this is the most revealing portrait ever taken of my grandfather even if he isn't actually in the photo. My grandmother refused to have anything to do with the photograph. She was angry at my grandfather for having given the ten thousand dollars to a charity that would never use the money to fight communists or help refugees. None of the old men in the photo ever returned to China. A few of the children grew up and visited after ping pong and Richard Nixon made it possible to return. One of them was astonished to find a faded copy of the photo in his cousin's old photo album. "Why did you keep this picture? When we'd never even met?" he asked. "How could you have saved this from the Red Guard? Why didn't you throw it out? You could have been killed."
"It was my dream of America. When they forced us to move to the village for reeducation, I told myself that I would survive and someday move to Paperson."
Two cardboard boxes sit on the top of the Danish modern desk-bureau set that fills the long wall of what used to be my room. A year ago, my mother gathered up the artifacts of my childhood, gave me a call, and announced, “Lucky, it’s time for you to take these, you have your own home now.”
Over time, I’ve gotten most of the items- old toys, baby blanket, Halloween costumes, school certificates, a wax-papered bag containing six pomegranate seeds, a model of a Flying Tiger airplane, a Chinese beanie and a pair of white duck pants from a Chinese Marching band, a baseball glove, and a set of elementary Latin books. For various reasons, I’ve left these last two boxes despite multiple intervening visits to Sacramento and my mother’s house.
A few weeks ago my mother caught on to my excuses and just said, “I’m going to throw them away if you don’t want them. They’re not mine. They’re yours. I don’t need them.”
She means that she doesn’t need them in her second life. Although my mother still lives in the house she bought with my father, she remarried two years after he died. It surprised me that she met someone and married so quickly because my parents were so close and so devoted to one another. It might not have been healthy, but she even used to refer to my father as “Dad”. Her own father, my grandfather, died when she was ten. I never met my other grandfather, but my mother worshipped him as the one truly kind male on her side of the family who always defended the “girls” when my grandmother wanted to give everything to their sons. A few years ago I asked my mother why my grandmother didn’t share the same high opinion of my grandfather and I was shocked to hear that my grandmother never forgave my grandfather for cheating on her back when they lived in China.
My mother was also in her late forties when my Dad had his heart attack. Don seemed like a nice enough fellow and I never imagined her growing old alone. When Don moved in, they agreed not to keep any mementoes of either my Dad or Don’s late wife around the house. It was part of their fresh start. My boxes weren’t physically in the way, but they did stand in the path of my mom putting behind the past and her difficulties with my dad’s family. It was clear to me that even the good memories for her were still painful. It was even clearer that when it came to Paperson, my grandparents’ house, and our time there, there were no good memories.
It didn’t surprise me that the Life Magazine photo of Paperson disappeared from the hallway wall soon after my dad died. It was more of a surprise that my mother had kept it at all in its black wood frame. The photo is a year older than I am and I suspect it’s held its age somewhat better. Within fifteen years, Paperson was all but a ghost town. My Grandfather’s gambling house was the town’s one real source of revenue. After they completed I80 to Reno even the farmworkers figured it made more sense to spend a couple extra hours in the car and gamble legally rather than drive the levee road to a darkened venue that always smelled of mildew from the river.
Had Jan Grady and Luke Howard known about the Life Magazine photo? It seemed likely enough. Did they know anything of the story behind the picture? It was possible, yet it still hardly seemed like a Luke Howard project even if he did grown up in Ralston just an hour east of Paperson.
I sat back on the bright red platform that used to be my bed. My parents had bought the bedroom set when I was six years old for their first home of their own in the suburbs. At the time all the white formica with the metal and dark wood accents looked a bit futuristic. I realize now that it was something of a pointed message about what they wanted for their child. Even then, they didn’t want to look back at where we came from only to wherever our family was going.
My mother has separated the contents of the two remaining boxes according to a simple organizational principle. One is filled with old baseball cards, (unfortunately she gave away all the ones that would be worth anything to some kid who came to play at the house when I was away at school some thirty years ago), ticket stubs and programs for sporting events and car shows, prizes and announcements from my regular school, and various childhood art projects that only a mother would save. The other box has the Chinese stuff, the remnants of our life in Paperson. I have no choice. I’ll have to pack them in my car. It’s just that I have no idea where to put them now or what to do with them.
I hear my mother’s voice from the kitchen, “Time to eat.”
My mother obsesses over food. If you walk through her front door, she makes it a fetish not to let you leave until you consume some bizarre variety of food at unhealthy levels. I ignore her call.
“Lucky, it’s time to eat….Don and I aren’t going to wait. He’s hungry.”
I ignore her then make my way out to the front entry way where my mother waits for me in a red apron that says “Bitch, Bitch, Bitch” in white letters.
“You know your Uncle Leon’s up to something,” she tells me, “You better watch out.”
I shrug. According to my mother, my Uncle Leon is always up to something. For my entire life my parents warned me not to trust any members of my father’s family.
I find myself standing parallel to the five foot tall statue of a sitting Buddha which once watched over the bar at my father’s downtown restaurant for twenty years. I sometimes wonder what the Buddha has seen and heard in that time. He must have witnessed any number of conversations my father had with friends, customers, his various workers. I miss my father. It seems perfectly logical to me the Buddha made the pilgrimage into our living room after the sale of the restaurant. I’m sure that like me Mom figures that one day the Buddha will just start talking and share the memories of my father neither of us had the opportunity to witness. In the meantime, Marie has reminded me that our house has no room for items as large as life-sized Buddhas regardless of sentimential value. We’ve never discussed space for talking Buddhas though.
On my right side, I am dwarfed by
a larger than lifesized painting of a seated blue-robed Mandarin who overlooks the entryway.
The Mandarin came from the period when my mother turned to Gump’s, the high society San Francisco department store, to take over the task of decorating my parents’ first house after we moved back to the suburbs from Paperson. Gump’s specialty was to sell furniture and other household decoratives to American homeowners who sought an oriental flare. My mother never picked up on the irony of hiring Caucasians to add oriental flare to her home. She mostly liked the idea that Gump’s was San Francisco old money taste instead of the sectional sofa, chrome lamp, nouveau look that was becoming increasingly common in suburban Chinese homes in the late seventies.
In most things, my mother never had the confidence to trust her own taste, so she hired Gumps to supply it. If you understand the WASP culture she was trying to emulate, this might have been the height of bad taste. I only happen to know that because I went to a boarding school in New England for my high school years to give me the kind of breeding and opportunities my father and mother also felt they couldn’t provide. Had they only known that New England boarding schools in the seventies mostly imparted the drug and music culture of the late sixties rather than the country club and debutante ball niceties that supposedly once got you to the board room and partnerships. Fortunately for my parents and unfortunately for my popularity, I stayed away from all those plastic bags filled with green buds that got consumed in the woods around the campus and even the basements of the dormitories.
I did however learn from visits to classmates’ homes that even if one paid an interior decorator, upper class mothers pretended that they just threw things together themselves and didn’t really care about which table matched the wingback chair.
When it comes to my father’s side of the family though, my mother has never had any reticence about expressing her own judgment. It’s taken me more than twenty five years but I’ve learned that it’s better to be secure in your judgment about people than furniture and window coverings.
“Your father always said that your Uncle Leon is always looking for a way to take advantage of a situation. He even told me that he doesn’t care who he takes down in the process.”
Years ago, Uncle Leon married the wrong woman, the only Chinese girl within ten miles of Paperson who was built anything like Jane Russell. My Grandparents told him the thought it was a bad idea and wanted him to wait. He ran off with her anyway and swore that he’d make it as a mechanic. Three years later, the marriage failed and my father drove out to Denver to coax his younger brother back into the family. He came back, but he wasn’t the same guy.
“Mom, you’ve told me that a few hundred times before. We still have to sell Paperson and Uncle Leon’s still the executor of the estate.”
My mother shakes her head. I look away from her and at the blue corduroy couch in the living room. I’m reminded that the painting of the Mandarin was really chosen to match the couch. I have no idea if the interior decorator from Gumps had any idea that the Mandarins in a Cantonese living room were the rough historical equivalent of holocaust survivors hanging portraits of storm troopers in their house. When my Grandfather first saw the painting in our house, he got upset until my father convinced him that we’d bought it because the guy in the picture looked so much like him. Actually, it really did look like my grandfather. Apparently, that erased whatever historical significance it had and he did not command my father to get the painting out of our house.
I let my mother go on about Uncle Leon and my father’s five other brothers and sisters for a bit more. She hasn’t seen any of them in at least fifteen years, but she still warns me about trusting any of them in any way.
Once when my father was alive, I asked what was in retrospect a sensible question. “If everyone on Dad’s side of the family is so untrustworthy, why don’t we just move away from all of them. Why do we still have so much to do with them? All you guys ever do is argue over money.”
My father thought a moment then just said, “Because Chinese families don’t do that sort of thing.”
Apparently, American families frequently committed the sin of being so fractured that first cousins sometimes had never even met simply because their parents had had some disagreement. Chinese were expected to respect familial responsibilities regardless of anything they had said or done to one another. Interestingly, both Uncle Pershing and Uncle Leon had been married and divorced, but that was somehow different. One could divorce a spouse in my father’s family, you couldn’t however divorce your blood family.
I suspect others who knew Paperson might have seen it differently. They certainly whispered that my father’s hanging in there was less driven by Confucian filial piety than the fact that he needed my Grandfather’s money. Who knows? What’s clear to most anyone who knew my dad was that the stress of Tang family inner-politics played as much of a role in his heart attack as his love of cigars and rich food. After my Grandfather and father died in the same summer, the family stopped being Chinese. For several years, I’ve only seen my father’s family either for meetings about the estate and funerals.
My mother scowls at me as I try to explain the prospects of selling what remains of Paperson. Several minutes ago she yelled to Don that he should go ahead and start eating. We decide to call it a draw and head to the kitchen table, but not before I tell her, “Mom, this time is different. Luke Howard is involved.”
She looks at me blankly.
“You know those Outer Space movies. He’s got a lot of money.”
“I don’t go to the movies. Don doesn’t like sitting in dark theaters.”
It strikes me that my mother wants to be rid of the last of the boxes that contain her last remnants of Paperson and I just want to sell what’s left of the town. Life Magazine was replaced by People. Luke Howard is threatening to replace the mere movie with something involving virtual reality and Paperson. If a picture is worth a thousand words, what’s a three dimensional experience in dolby surround worth?
Posted by Chancelucky at 6:26 PM
Tuesday, January 15, 2008
Okay, it’s clear to me that I need to speed this up a bit. Lately, I’ve been running a chapter a month instead of once every two weeks. Part of that is that my regular in person writing group hasn’t been able to meet as often. The bigger part is that I’m fighting my usual tendency to start something then veer off in multiple directions. It could be way worse, I could still be sitting around thinking about what to do with Chapter 2.
I’m okay with where things are story wise, but I’m feeling like the story is still about to happen and that’s not really a good thing. No, I’m not trying to write a thriller. It’s just that I want to stop feeling like I know where it’s going and what scenes eventually have to happen, but I’m still choosing from any number of routes for getting there without quite being there. In very loose terms, the best stories push forward and outwards all at the same time. It’s a bit like Einstein, as you approach the speed of light mass gets bigger which prevents you from ever going beyond the speed of light.
The other twist I threw myself was the bit about Absalom Absalom which I haven’t read in like thirty years. I’ve always had Absalom in mind along with One Hundred Years of Solitude, both books that are in one sense about the rise and fall of small towns in remote places. I’d mostly left it to the side (where it belongs). Now that it’s slipped in, I need to at least make sense of the saga of the Sutpen family and its impact on Quentin Compson as he tries to explain his world to northerners. So will I divert myself into studying Faulkner (an endless task) or will the wikipedia suffice?
I am pleased that two characters who I’d avoided Jan Grady and Marie are both moving forward. I’m still not sure whether I have the grooves slipped in for the more fanciful bits of the story, like the ghosts.
In the meantime, every week that passes is another crisis of confidence. Writing this has always felt uphill and I’ve imagined that there would be spots where the process would coast. I don’t think it’s straight downhill once you hit a point in a draft, but most of my own writing that I’ve liked acquired a kind of momentum of inevitability. As I’ve written sections of this I have had that, but writing a draft is like choosing a single highway and I keep wanting to go off on one of the side roads or at least see them before I step on the gas pedal.
Posted by Chancelucky at 9:58 AM