The only pets I’ve ever had were hamsters. My friend Adam was the first to get them, a pair of fluffy teddy bears who did adorable things like stuff their cheeks full of food, run around in plastic orange balls, and sit calmly in Adam’s fist as he stroked their heads.

One day over the summer, as my daughters and I were passing through my parents’ apartment on our way to the back yard, we noticed, through the windows, that the next-door neighbors were pulling up all the grass from their yard and putting in Astroturf. My father, who lives downstairs from us and whose kitchen we always have to walk through if we want to enter or exit by our back door, was sitting in his usual chair in a V-necked T-shirt stained with spaghetti sauce and a pair of boxer shorts, reading Star magazine. He was, at that time, eighty-seven years old. He ignored us as we passed behind him on the stairs. He was reading aloud to himself about Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton.

Though I should have known better, for some strange reason I said, “Look, Dad. The Victorines are putting fake grass in their yard.”

My father looked up abruptly. He had not realized we were there, and seemed surprised to see us. His eyes followed my pointing finger and he saw the neighbors laying their Astroturf. “What the hell are they doing out there?” he asked.

“Putting in fake grass,” I repeated. I had already been speaking loudly, but now I raised my voice loud enough that the neighbors themselves probably could hear the conversation. Bartender ear, my mother called this back in the days when my father’s not seeming to hear anything we said was elective on his part. He had listened to drunks repetitive ramblings for so many years that he learned simply to tune voices out. He lived to a private Stan Getz riff in his head.

Now he looked at me accusingly. “Fake rats?” he shouted. “What do you mean, fake rats?”

My daughters started laughing. “Fake grass!” they shouted in unison. “Fake grass, Papa! Grass.”

“Grass,” I explained, over them. “You know, green stuff that grows on the ground.”

But my father wasn’t looking at us, which may have meant that, since he couldn’t see our lips moving, he didn’t even know we were speaking to him. Some days, his ears work better than others, but those days are fewer and farther between.

“Fake rats!” he cried indignantly. “What do they want to do something like that for?”

“Dad,” I began. My daughters and I were all, I confess, basically guffawing into our hands by then. “Dad, not rats! Nobody wants fake rats on their lawn. We’re talking about grass. G-R-A-S-S!”

“Jesus Christ,” my father said, turning back to Lohan and Hilton in Star. He was finished with us and was muttering to himself under his breath. “Fake rats,” he hissed, shaking his head while his eyes perused the pictures of twentysomething celebrities. “I never heard of such a thing.”

***

My father was not always like this. He used to wear a Brooks Brothers raincoat. He used to have a penchant for tea and marmalade—while other Italian men in our blue collar neighborhood wanted to be Brando, or just Joey Iupa, my father the Anglophile aspired to Cary Grant. Though he went bald in his early twenties, he never had that greasy look some men get. He always smelled good, of Polo cologne. I suspect that, to ward off any appearance of shine, he used to use Old Spice powder on his head.

***

About ten years ago, my mother began speaking to me in a conspiratorial tone. She began opening conversations with lines like, “Your father has bought this cookie jar in the shape of a suckling pig and is keeping it on his dresser. It has no cookies in it—he just thinks it’s a nice decoration.”

A product of the Great Depression, my father began to hoard cans of ravioli under his bed.

His hearing failed, but he insisted my mother and I merely mumbled. When we insisted this was not the case he said, “Oh Jesus Christ, you two never say anything interesting anyway.”

Apropos of nothing, he would sometimes rail about things like why pregnant women wear skimpy tops.  “See, here’s Gwenyth Paltrow from a magazine and even she looks like shit, women shouldn’t do that!–don’t they know how bad it looks?”  His face would grow red with frustration when in thirty-five years of knowing him I had never before heard him voice an opinion on maternity fashion, or anything to do with pregnancy, or really even raise his voice except when driving.

One day five years ago, he couldn’t move his foot–which was already riddled by peripheral neuropathy so that he experiences his feet as “round,” without the feeling of his toes or heels—off the gas pedal and had to drive his car into a sign post to avoid harming anyone on the road. After that he didn’t drive anymore, and my mother, in her seventies, got her driver’s license for the first time, and something irrevocable shifted between them.

He needed a cane to walk, but was too proud to use one, so instead he began to fall down a lot. Then he used the cane, but soon needed a walker. The week of his 85th birthday he fell on the way to the toilet and fractured his pelvis. He contracted pneumonia in the hospital and hallucinated being in the apartment of one of his many long-dead friends, Tommy Catalano, and kept saying, “What the hell did Tommy do to these walls?” He didn’t recognize my infant son and called him a “big headed little German who’d turn you in on a dime.” The doctors essentially wrote him off for dead—an eighty-five-year-old man with a broken hip and pneumonia is practically a cliché for which they offer you a special funeral rate—but against all odds he was home within the week, albeit unable to move and wearing a diaper. Then he was stricken with some of the nastier side effects of massive doses of antibiotics; we spent Christmas 2006 changing his diaper almost on the hour while he screamed at the ceiling, begging for the Death he had cheated once again.

He never walked again without a walker. Sometimes, even with the walker, he still falls. As winter snow and ice hit Chicago early this year, he announced he would just not be “going out” anymore.

When my parents were first dating, my father would do things like drive my mother to New York so she could taste the cheesecake. They would drive all night, and once they got there and downed a slice, my father would want to go out to the jazz clubs, and then he would drive home all night into the next day to make it home to work at his bar by evening.

Now, my husband, kids and I spend a great deal of time on a 160 acre farm only a few hours away in Wisconsin. It has a dilapidated old red barn my father would love—he used to stop at roadsides and take photos of barns just like that when I was a kid. But he has never been to the farm—he has never seen “our” red barn. Long car rides hurt his back too much now, and he has difficulty controlling his bladder and can have accidents if cooped up too long. We try to convince him that we’ll pull into every rest stop we see—every twenty minutes if he likes—but he is unconvinced. “Oh honey,” he says. “What am I going to do when I get there anyway? I don’t want to go anywhere anymore. I can’t even walk.”

When someone says something like this to you, you want to turn into a cheerleader. You want to protest that just sitting on the wide front porch and watching the children play in the overgrown grass, that surveying the poetic barn, would somehow be enough. But who are you to say what is enough? My father has already hit the point of “enough,” but then it left without him, and he is still here.

When I was young, my father loved to make fun of old people, to my mother’s horror and my amusement. He would shuffle around like Tim Conway and make puttering noises and twitch his hands theatrically when drinking his tea if there were gray-hairs nearby. The ironic truth is, even his most dire imitations of the elderly did not do justice to what it is like right now just trying to watch my father make it from his bedroom to the kitchen table in the morning: a ritual involving a walker, an entire pill case of tablets to lessen the pain from his osteoarthritis, his spinal stenosis, his temporal arteritis, and his peripheral neuropathy. His journey some twenty feet involves a string of repeated expletives (Oh boy oh boy oh Jesus Christ this fucking body boy oh boy oh boy), and an obsessive compulsive need for a milkshake involving ice cream, milk and bananas.  To be clear: the shake has absolutely no relationship to his medical requirements, yet he will not take his pills without this shake, so that if it is midnight and there are no bananas in the house, my husband and I will get a call to go and fetch some or otherwise the routine cannot be followed come morning. If there are no bananas; if my parents are out of milk, hysteria ensues.

***

The first half an hour of my father’s day goes something like this: He sits in his kitchen chair reading a gossip magazine, maybe Star or People or something of that ilk—something he never would have bought or even perused as a younger man, when he read Royko religiously but otherwise was not much of a reader; when he was into Lenny Bruce and foreign films and smoky jazz and All in the Family and Carson. Now, my father could tell you the latest weight gain of some obscure starlet I wouldn’t even recognize if she fell on me in the street. He reads these magazines because they are “easy,” and nothing else in his life is easy anymore. Early mornings, when he first begins to read, he does so silently like a normal person. If he can read “in his head” and actually comprehend what he is reading, then he knows better than to stand up and try to walk yet, because the pain in his body will still be too intense. But as half an hour goes by and my father’s regimen of pain pills begin to kick in, the words he reads become blurry to his eyes and his mind, and he begins to speak them aloud to keep track. “Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton are fighting again,” he might read. (They know each other, right? Or is that Nicole Ritchie? My father would know the answer to this.) Still, he dares not get out of the chair. Finally, reading aloud doesn’t really work either. His brain has become so fuzzy that the sentence sounds more like this: “Lindsay Lindsay Lindsay Lohan and Paris Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton and Paris Hilton Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton are fighting are fighting are fighting again.”

The pills have done their job. Now he can stand up and make it to the shower. Now, his daughter–can you believe she’s forty!–and his almost-teenage granddaughters can traipse downstairs on their good legs and talk to him about fake rats in the neighbor’s yard, and who knows why people do the things they do, and who cares anymore anyway? But where is the baby—why doesn’t his daughter have the baby with her; the little boy they named after him, with his ringlets and his big eyes, who looks so much like his daughter at that age, back when he called her Little Flower—where is the baby, when the only reason he can bear to sit here at this table and get through another day is for a glimpse of him. Why doesn’t his daughter have the baby with her—she leaves the baby too much, she works too much, runs around too much, the baby will grow up so fast, she’ll see, then it’s over, then the kids are all gone, even if they live right above you, still, they are gone.

Another day begins.

I’m writing this in rural western New York, where out my workroom window I’ve seen deer, woodchucks, hawks and, once, a weasel. Last week a fox I hadn’t seen before came to check things out. I let these animals alone though I admit to throwing sticks at the woodchucks, who eat my phlox, and I warned my chicken-raising neighbor about the weasel. The plants and animals I look at seem to belong here, but most of them, even the birds at my feeder, have their origins somewhere else. I don’t think of them as invasive, but they are.

I grew up in Hilo, a town on the Big Island of Hawai’i, and I go back there every year, to live for a while in the house I grew up in. In Hilo you can’t help being aware of the tension between invasive and endemic species, and I don’t mean as metaphor for tourists and locals. Ordinary folk talk about it and some of them take action. Most don’t. Some don’t see a problem. Some argue that in Hawai’i everything is invasive, because the islands aren’t very old, and each group of immigrants, starting with the Hawaiians, has brought in plants and animals and turned them loose. In this view you end up trying to decide how long a species has to be resident before it should be let alone, or even protected. And that’s not easy. As you can imagine, the issue carries a giant freighter-load of political-economic-philosophical-religious-scientific baggage, and if you think that I’m going to unpack that mess in my first TNB piece, you’re wrong. I like vexing questions, but there’s a limit.

As a boy, I spent a lot of happy time at the town dump. My mom would drive my gang down there to play, which meant shooting mongoose with .22 rifles, or, in my case, a little single-shot .410 shotgun. Shooting mongoose! WTF? Hang on. You have to understand that mongoose (like deer – same word, singular or plural) are officially vermin in Hawai’i, so snuffing them is encouraged.

Give me a chance here. If you’re remembering how the term vermin was used not long ago in the American West, you’re already pissed. You’re remembering when Western ranchers set out sodium fluoroacetate, also known as 1080, to carpet-bomb endemic predators like coyotes, puma, and wolves. They claimed their livestock (which we’d surely tag with the invasive label if they weren’t domesticated and edible) needed protection from vermin, and so they poisoned, shot, and trapped as they pleased. Shooting wolves from aircraft is bad enough, but the toll from wholesale poisoning in the West was orders of magnitude greater. 1080 doesn’t discriminate, so there was a lot of collateral damage.

Don’t be pissed at me. The Hawai’i mongoose-as-vermin thing is different.

Maybe you’re thinking yeah, Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, mongoose hero, saves the white family, all that Kipling crap. But I’m not talking about endemic Indian mongoose. I’m talking about the seventy-two mongoose that idiot fat-cat sugar planters brought to Hawai’i in 1883, from India by way of Jamaica, to get rid of the rats who ate the cane. Fewer rats, higher profits. Simple.

The Jamaican sugar planter morons had had their mongoose for about ten years, but didn’t seem to have noticed anything about their habits, or else the Hawaiian sugar planter idiots didn’t ask. Nobody knew, or nobody revealed, that mongoose are diurnal (active in the daytime, in case you don’t know that term) whereas rats are nocturnal. So they don’t meet up except by accident.

When they do meet up the mongoose does its duty and kills the rat and eats it, but they don’t meet up very often unless both forget and start being crepuscular, having not tracked gathering or diminishing light carefully enough. (Crepuscular describes animals active during low light levels, typically dawn or dusk but also during solar eclipses or heavy ash falls from a volcano or burning sugar cane fields.) So if the mongoose gets up early, and the rat’s been out late partying, it’s bad for the rat but it’s all good for the sugar planters, or at least it would have been had it happened very often. But it didn’t. And now that the sugar industry’s gone it’s not good for anybody except the mongoose.

What the sugar planters unleashed on Hawai’i were dusty-colored short-legged long-tailed bird killing machines. Whatever native species the rats hadn’t taken out (the big bad-ass Norway rats arrived on sailing ships with the Europeans; the Polynesian rat hadn’t been much of a problem) the mongoose set to work finishing off. When it became clear there was no upside to mongoose, they were classified as vermin and kids with guns and traps were encouraged to kill them.

Adults who wanted to help used different methods. When I’m driving on back roads I have to be mindful of who I’ve got in the car with me. I was taught to step on the gas when a mongoose starts across the road, the better to run over it and kill it. But if I have mainland visitors with me, I don’t – at least not until I’ve explained. It doesn’t always work because some of them seem to have had the Kipling Mongoose Myth burned into their brains. That mongoose could save us from Nag and Nagaina, the deadly cobras!

But there are no snakes in Hawai’i, except for the ones that modern-day morons have smuggled in, or careless cargo packers haven’t noticed. Like the Brown Tree Snake, out of Melanesia by way of Guam, where it pretty much finished off all the bird species there. What’s left of the Hawaiian endemic fauna, and there’s not much, is going to be taken out by the Brown Tree Snake, if it ever gets a foothold, speaking metaphorically of course.

So wait! Maybe the mongoose isn’t so bad, and I should let up on the accelerator or even brake for them. Nope. Not gonna do it. The Brown Tree Snake is nocturnal.


One thing that makes me sad about the prospect of one day not  living in China: nothing will ever seem weird again. I’ve spent so many of my favorite Sundays walking about, having dispensed to me, by my companions of necessity, such Midwestern subsidized corn kernels of observation as “holy shit-troopers!” upon the sight of a Chinese abortion ad that describes the process as, ‘seven minutes in a dream,’ or the strange pronunciation of, “Look at them’ens!” when the rare and lone Shantou punk rocker presents himself, or even just hearing it stated plainly, “That’s weird, like R. Simmons weird!” when the old man makes the finger of one hand in the hole of the other gesture everytime we pass. I’m not sure who he’s trying to sell us, though I’m hopeful it is not himself.

I am all but certain that China has been the apex of my favorite pastime: walking around and listening to the loosely tethered ramblings of the hungover and displaced that spring up in the tired and unguarded mind of the expat suffering from his or her own self-inflicted wounds. One day I will miss my Sundays in Shantou.

The veneer of caution, regulation, accuracy and concern for health and safety, that covers up the utter disreguard for the individual in the face of profit, makes the United States not only a hypocritical country, but more importantly, a decidedly less exciting place to take a foggy Sunday stroll. The raw honesty of Shantou, a city with little veneer, sets an apt stage for the wonderings of a mind stripped to its most basic function: noticing stuff.

For instance, to find Nazi themed porn in America, one may have to do an internet search, or go to a specialty store, where one would suffer embarrassment upon making such a request. And seeing as one’s desire for such a product (if such a desire exists) is mostly based on the shock arising from the arbitrary discovery that such a medium exists, seeking it out would diminish the thrill. In China, these things find you.

I didn’t even know Grand Theft Auto 12 existed, or Rambo 5 starring Kevin Kostner, and though I saw them both on my Sunday stroll, I’m still almost 100 % certain that they do not exist. China poses these sorts of challenges to phenomenolgy on a daily basis. Does the experience of a thing make it real? If so, Kevin Kostner is owed some serious royalties, and our current generation of delinquents should be about 7 editions better educated in car thievery.

In the US, no one ever insists upon making me a suit, especially not one with my name sewed neatly on the breast pocket combining jet set style with just a touch of grease monkey down-to-earthiness, and even if they did I wouldn’t be able to afford it. No such problems in these parts. I have two such suits and I didn’t even skip a meal.

In the US, no one ever asks me if I can use a fork, especially not while I’m using one. And if they did ask, they wouldn’t laugh hysterically for a minimum of twenty uninterrupted seconds upon hearing the answer, yes. Yet, in China, on a weekly basis I am confronted with the Chopstick conundrum: You are in front of me and eating with chopsticks, yet you’re white so that fact is impossible. These are the sources of the tares in the space time continuum Doc Brown warned us about.

Creative evasion of copyright infringement that may or may not just be bad translating provides a constant source of amusement. Watch the digression of this Chinese wine brand into the lesser form of its imitators: Great Wall, Grape Wall, Great Will, Greet well, Greek Welts, Grit Wilp… all fine products might I add.

Or the wonderful tobacco shop across the street: Pipesmoker.

Or the Jazz Classical Steak Museum, which is of course, a sushi restaurant.

Or the regular sight of a family of five, from infant daughter to grandpa, travelling on one motor-scooter.

There’s the constant joy of poor translation, but I don’t want to sink into that territory in written form. I do chuckle, but I feel guilty about it, plus there are whole websites dedicated to the perils of Chinglish, so I’ll leave you to seek elsewhere.

I’m talking about the mind boggling visions that you bring home from walking about the streets, and I’ll leave you with two that I saw today.

First, I saw a man trying to push a wheel barrow brimming with bricks onto the back of a semi, using a 2X4 as a ramp. He took a running start. There was a crowd of onlookers including myself, but nobody said, “Excuse me, sir, have you taken the laws of physics, or even those of Murphey, into consideration during the planning phase of this operation?” The result was as expected, but it was followed with laughter and a defeated cigarette break rather than anything somber or angry.

Second, a man in a business suit (without embroidered name) but no shoes, was holding three strings in his hand. Naturally, my eyes followed the strings to their ends, where they were tied to the fangs of three rats in such a way that forced them to appear as though they were smiling like fat little kites that would never become airborne.

I asked if I could take his picture, but was heartily denied.

All of this can be taken to signify the craziness of China, but I rather take it to signify the caution gone awry of the US. Who’s afraid of a little competition? Why not let MecDoneld’s enter the market? Or Nake? Or Adedas? Or Koppa? Why not save a little money on these fancy ramps, seat belts, accurate translations? Why not let Kevin Kostner be Rambo for a change? All this brand loyalty and perceived caution is allowing us to live in a fantasy, while in reality we are being recklessly hurled towards a cliff by the profiteers of our loyalty and the writers of the tenants of our false caution (a hardy yarl for all the pirates about us).

Ultimately, and most importantly, China is just way more fun to walk around on a Sunday afternoon. Who wants to live in a land where everything is spelled right, and people wouldn’t dream of tying strings to the teeth of a rat? On the off chance rats do well on leashes, who will find out first, the person who tied the string to his fangs, or the person who shut down the best burrito restaurant in the neighborhood because one was spotted?