Sunday, April 24, 2022

Not Even Not Zen 252: Biomythography - Note 27.2, Hesitation and Fear

Biomythography - Note 27.2
Hesitation and Fear of Rejection

Two:

During a month of talking with a girl at school, I developed a crush. It was a heavy, serious thing. She became the best part of my day. We could talk about anything and everything. We often did. Her mind was quick. Her smile flashed. She hugged her textbooks in front of her when she laughed.

I longed to make her smile, to keep her entertained, thoughtful, and happy. Her opinion mattered. Every time I saw her in the hall or outside my classroom, my soul eased. When she glanced my way and smiled, it raised my pulse.

I wanted to express how I felt. My problem was that she hung out with a group of us, talking, flashing those smiles, and growing on all of us as the best part of our school lives. She was Chinese-American but then a couple of my friends were, too, so it didn't seem weird - not that any ethnic differences would have occurred to me. (Maybe they should have but I was fourteen. A lot of aspects of life hadn't come into my limited field of view including large social barriers that no one would think I could miss.)

There seemed to be a distinct likelihood to me, however, that this girl didn’t like me so much as she enjoyed our group of friends.

To make the prospect of revealing my crush more intimidating, sometimes she hung out with other girls who were also well dressed and smart. She stood off to the side often, holding a book and making witty comments. Then I would get cut off from her for half a day. I would muse about my unhappy life and write bad poetry. Later, I would see her through the door to my history class and she would notice me and turn with a grin.

And I grinned back and thought cheerful thoughts about her for an hour. Fuck the middle ages. I had that smile to think about.

One afternoon, a group of us sat talking between classes. A couple of the well-dressed young women came over to sit down with us. It wasn't so unusual that anyone raised an eyebrow. But I did get a sense that something was different.

"Have you thought about prom?" one of the well-dressed girls asked. She turned to me, scanned the group of us, and finished by looking at me.

"Not really." It was a thirty-five mile commute to school. And the prom was at school. There was nothing appealing about that.

"Well, maybe you should." She nodded to me. Apparently I looked slow on the uptake. "You really should."

My immune system was hyperactive as a teen and it made me impervious to some things that others could catch, like hints. But even I got the essential idea from the conversation. It did occur to me, at last, that there would be one thing appealing about the prom. And I knew who it was.

There was only one problem: she was going to reveal her disdain for me because my friends were better. Or my friends would hate me for daring to ask her. In fact, maybe there was a more pressing problem: me. I could imagine a lot of things going wrong. I could barely imagine anything going right.

Fortunately, two days later someone said something casually mean to me. It wasn't anything too bad, but it was meant to be an insult. To my surprise, she wheeled on our mutual friend and defended me. For the rest of the day, I replayed the event in my head. My mouth kept falling open. She had spoken up for me, had actually said good things about me right in front of other people.

Really, I knew I should admit to her how much I liked her.

This was different from kissing the girl across the street in elementary school or flirting and splashing with girls in the neighborhood pool or holding hands with my crush in sixth grade. All of that had taken place a long, long time before. Or so it seemed. For sure, it was before I entered this school of impressive kids from impressive families.

I knew. But I spent a week anyway, agonizing over how asking her would ruin my life. Finding out she didn't like me would do that. I had to resign myself to having my life ruined. What was so good about it anyway? Trash it. I could always jump off the bridge over the creek at home and die. But asking her wasn't as simple as falling from a bridge. I spent days trying to get her alone for thirty seconds. That was a challenge. Every time I started, our friends would see us and run up.

Finally, on a nice day, our teachers decided to take their classes outside. I saw my crush heading down the stairs early. I trailed her like the most incompetent spy ever. Out of breath, I caught up to her when she was sitting on the concrete rise that held up a garden bed.

She seemed a little more distant today, more hidden behind the books in her arms. But I had grown determined.

"I've been thinking," I started.

"Really?" She could be sarcastic like all of us in the school. 

"I'd like to take you to the prom."

"Oh. That." She looked down at the sidewalk for a moment. When she looked up, she glared. "You know, I wish you had asked two weeks ago."

"Why?"

"Because I wanted to go to the prom with you." She was angry. I was crushed to feel it. "Now someone else has asked."

"Oh. So you're going with him?" Oddly, I wasn't as hurt by this idea. At least she'd be happy.

"No." She chose her words carefully. "I said I wouldn't go and that I didn't want to go."

What did that mean? Was she free to go out with me or not? I waited to hear the answer. After a few seconds, though, I realized nothing more was coming. 
 
"So you don't want to go?" That seemed the most likely answer given the expression on her face. 

"If I go with you, he'll know I lied."

"Yeah." I knew the mutual friend of our she was talking about. He probably already understood that she had lied to let him down easy. But if he had proof, he'd never let it go. He would never stop reminding her that she'd lied.

For a minute, I tried to coax her into following her heart and bluffing through our social circle bullshit. But hardly any words came out of my mouth, in fact. I had no social bluff of my own. Anyway, it was hard to look at her being unhappy and know that it was largely my fault.
 
She was adamant about honesty, too. She had always been strict with herself and her friends about it, too. Everybody. No lying. 

"We have to go to class," she told me.

"Yeah." I was late already. My class had gathered underneath a tree. No need to make her late, too. I wandered off in the direction of the crowd. It took me a few seconds on the edge of the group before I could make myself ready to enter the circle of other students, though.
 
This was the second time as a teenager I'd gotten a lesson about social timing, And maybe about honesty. But that wasn't enough for me to learn. 

Sunday, April 17, 2022

Not Even Not Zen 251: Biomythography - Note 27.1, Hesitation and Fear

Biomythography - Note 27
Hesitation and Fear of Rejection


For two years, I had gotten so self-conscious about my failures and rejections that I couldn't act on anything. It took three teenage crushes and a few flirting affairs for me recognize the pattern for what it was and that I couldn't excuse myself for it. I had to fix it.

One:

I burrowed into a pile of leaves. The scent of them, damp from a fresh rain, smelled like every other fun evening to me, clear and quiet. There weren't many kids in my rural neighborhood. When we could meet up on any summer day, we played hide and seek games in the woods.

"Hi," my neighbor, Jeannie, wriggled down on the ground next to me. She wore her denim jacket.

"Hi." She smelled clean and human, a little like flowers but also a little like her home and her family dog, who she loved and took with her on walks. She had to shut the dog in her house in order to play games like this.

We were both thirteen.

For a minute, we lay next to each other in the dark. The moon shone through the tree boughs. My eyes had adjusted to the night, so I could see Jeannie as clearly as in the day. There were a couple leaf fragments in her curly hair. Her blue eyes blinked up at me, wide.

“Is this it?” she whispered. “Did I walk right by you while you were lying here and I didn't see you?”

“Right.” I smiled. “It’s the flashlight. When you point it at the tree, it casts a deep shadow.”

“And you’re in it.”

“Yeah.”

Jeannie gave me the biggest smile. She leaned close and murmured more to me about her school. She had too many acquaintances for me to remember. Her experiences sounded great in a way. She knew the other students well. But her time between classes sounded kind of frantic. Something about other girls made her tense. While she was telling me more about them, the kid who was 'it' came up to us with a flashlight. We fell silent. The boy pointed the light at the tree. We moved closer together, shoulder to shoulder in the leaves at the base of the tree.

The other kid gave an exasperated sigh and trudged onward, pointing the flashlight at the trees and hedges.

"You’re pretty good looking," she said out of nowhere. "Are you popular at school?"

"No." I grunted with exasperation. She was being way too nice to me. I knew I wasn’t good-looking.

"Do you have friends there?" she asked.

"Oh, yeah. There are some good ones. I really like them." My heart went out to my closest companions. They were scruffy, sort of, although when I thought about it I knew they were not as bad as I was. Maybe I was the only one so disheveled. Christ, and I hung around them about every second that I could. "They’re good.”

My friends were better than I was but I didn’t know how to say that. It sounded dumb. I always sounded dumb. Just thinking about the stupid things I'd said that day or that week sent me into prolonged fits of paralysis. As we waited in the leaves and grass, I folded my arms.

"Do you like me?" Jeannie asked.

"Are you kidding? You're fantastic.”

It didn't take any thought for me to reply. But as soon as I did, I started second-guessing my words. She was going to crush my heart.

Even as I write about this moment forty years later, I find myself turning away from trying to describe how much she meant. The intensity is embarrassing. On some basic level, seeing her presence on the horizon thrilled me. I was super-conscious of the way she moved, breathed, and leaned in to talk even when I wasn't facing in her direction. Part of me, however, was intensely self-conscious of every awkward and dumb thing I said or did, which in my opinion was every time I did more than breathe. Actually, I couldn't get the breathing right. I was an asthmatic for half of the year.

I wished I were cooler. Taller. More handsome. Then Jeannie could admire me.

"Do you ..." she hesitated. "Do you have a girlfriend at school?"

I had a girl who I liked at school. And although she was thirty miles away and beyond me in all other ways, she seemed to like me. At least, she didn’t sneer at me as much as some others. She didn’t laugh at my JCPenny clothes. I was so terribly class conscious of the richer kids at my school and how much lower on the social ladder I was when compared with them.

I so wanted to be cool enough. Enough for what, I wasn't sure.

“Sure,” I said. Even as I said it, I knew it was wrong. I wanted to be cool, not a liar. Besides, I was replaying Jeannie's question in my head. Something was different about it than I'd thought.

"Oh." Her face turned sad. It was too much to look at. For a moment, I turned away.

I'd done something awful. Again. I could feel Jeannie throwing up a barrier between us. She had been relaxing with me and now she was frightened. She was fragile somehow and I didn't understand how. But right then I understood that I needed to watch myself. I had to look out for Jeannie. I had to care for her no matter what she thought of me and no matter how many stupid things I said or did.

Our shoulders had been touching. Jeannie scooted away.

She started talking about school again. But I could barely hear her words. She had grown quieter and anyway, I wasn't quite listening to what she was saying. It was the change in how she said it. She was on her guard with me like she was with other kids. There was a distance between us that hadn't been there a moment ago. And I couldn't just rush in to close the distance. I was pretty sure that wouldn't work. I had to figure out what was going on. I had to understand how to make us close again.

In retrospect, I should have let Jeannie break my heart. And also in retrospect, it happened anyway and it always would in any circumstance.

Sunday, April 10, 2022

Not Even Not Zen 250: Biomythography - Note 26, A Different Bigotry

Biomythography - Note 26
A Different Bigotry


For most of a year, I was the assistant manager and bartender at a Chinese restaurant in Springfield, Massachusetts. The owners had bought a standalone building and renovated it into an upscale structure with white composite sides and pink trim. I started out in their service bar but, within a couple months, I was opening and closing the restaurant with the help of the cooks, who never left.

Like in most Chinese restaurants, the owners were Chinese-American. Unlike with most, the restaurant was not a whole-family operation. Everyone working on the restaurant floor was a local college student or dropout, usually not Asian-American of any sort. That was because the family had a problem with its sons. The boys had been each given a restaurant. But the businesses were gifts the boys didn’t want. They couldn’t make themselves do the work. These young, thirty-something men had been raised as princes. The family money was surrounding them, sitting everywhere they looked - like it always had. Yet they were expected to work like ordinary mortals. They died inside every morning when they arrived at the front doors.

The restaurants did well enough but that wasn't the point. They were created to give the boys something useful to do and they couldn't care about it. Most of the work fell to people like me.

"You again?" the head cook said as I walked through his kitchen. Ten minutes earlier, I had arrived to get the restaurant ready for brunch.

"Yeah." There was a stack of tablecloths waiting for the buffet table. I grabbed it and turned to face the cook. "The older son should be here soon."

"You want breakfast?"

"Heck yeah, if you're making it." What he served each morning might as well have been a bowl of monosodium glutamate and random meat, but I was young and poor. I always ate what he cooked. Also, I was conscious of how I was one of three or four anglos he bothered with.

"Eggs and squid," he replied.

"A bowl for me, please."

The Chinese-American cooks were such recent immigrants that most of them could not express themselves in English. This guy spoke some but with great effort. He had to plan his words. A middle-aged fellow, he had started paying attention to me for some reason - in two weeks I was going to get promoted to assistant manager, so that could have been the reason - and he clued me in on how things really worked.

He loved the restaurant's ruling family. He wasn't faking that. Maybe some of the younger men didn't care but this guy loved the wealth of the Sze clan. The Sze's had old money, probably as much as they could get out with them when they fled the Communists rising to power on the mainland. They were the right kind of people, according to the head cook.

Like the other cooks, he lived in a suite of tiny rooms above the restaurant.

"Our families, they live in Connecticut," he had told me the day before.

"Do you get to see them?" I asked. The kitchen staff worked thirteen days during each two week pay period. Their shifts were twelve hours long each day. It was not grueling work but still, it was work for a long day during an even longer pay period.

"Sometimes," he said with a nod. He didn't complain and he didn't let his countrymen complain, either. Every now and then, one cook at a time would get dispensation to go for a visit. Those were arrangements that us anglos didn't hear about. The kitchen staff handled them directly with the Sze family. All we knew about it is that sometimes a prep cook would be gone.

The weeks went by, spring into summer, and after I became an assistant manager I had to work longer hours. The head cook brought me into his confidence more often. We would set up the restaurant together, him in the back, me out front, and he would make me breakfast and sit with me as I ate.

Early that summer, I got a job application from a young, black man. He was well dressed, well spoken, and seemed generally to be a class act. He had already worked as a waiter. I wanted to hire him immediately. Since I was the bottom level manager, I didn't have enough influence to make it happen. The owner happened to witness part of the interview, though, and sided with me against the inclination of his sons.

"You and Mr. Sze, you like the black fellow," the cook said one morning. "Why?"

"He's slick. He's classy. He looks like he'll be a good waiter." I knew from the cook's face and tone that he disapproved. It was sort of astonishing since he never said anything against Mr. Sze and never ventured an opinion that differed with his boss until now. "Why don't you want us to hire him?"

"He is black. Black! They are no good people! They cause very many problems for the Chinese!" he yelled. "Mr. Sze should know better. You know better. Why you think they okay? Where you from?"

The last question seemed like a genuine plea. Slowly, I described my experiences with black people, mostly in Maryland. He stayed patient and listened carefully.

"You from DC?" It penetrated with him that Maryland was part of DC in its way. "You know PG County?"

"Yeah, I grew up there. Well, for a lot of my life."

"Blacks okay there." He sighed. For a moment, he relaxed. "A month I lived in PG county. Little, just a very little while. Blacks not so mean to Chinese there. Not thugs. Okay people. But PG County is very different. Not like here."

Now it was my turn to breathe easier. This man had a lot of pull in the business. He realized it, too. It was a relief to see that he didn't have a comically exaggerated view of black people. His hatred of them in general, wherever it came from, could come down to a single incident. I thought I could work with it. We didn't shake hands but we came to an agreement of sorts. He dropped his objection and supported Mr. Sze over his eldest son.

For a while, our restaurant had a black waiter.

But in less than two weeks, that waiter quit. He handed in his resignation to the eldest Sze son. As I tried to find out why, I heard from some other staff that it was because of the cooks. They had gotten his orders wrong, probably deliberately, and had given him the sort of hard time they reserved for staff they didn't like. (They behaved that way for all staff who they considered rude. Some waiters had to piece together their own side salads, trudge down to the supply rooms when they were missing things, and run the dishwasher to get clean glasses. But the cooks acted like our only black waiter had been rude from the start and I was sure he'd been nice.)

One by one, I let the cooks know that I disapproved. To my surprise, they seemed ashamed of their behavior.

"He was okay," he head cook admitted. "My staff, they not helpful. I thought maybe this could happen. But we can do better next time."

Some of the ethnic hatred from the cooks didn't seem to be based on anything. They just as blatantly loved upper class whites in a way I had trouble comprehending. Their opinions on race seemed to come down to their perceptions of social status. After I individually berated them for treating the waiter badly, they didn't retaliate against me. If anything, they were nicer.

My main problem in the next couple of months was that I liked the cooks. That meant I treated them well - probably too well in their view, which lowered their estimations of me. I didn't demand enough from them.

In late summer, the eldest son hired a Chinese-American waiter. He soon promoted the young waiter to assistant manager, like me. This time, he did it over the objections of the cooks.

I'm not sure what was going on aside from racial preferences. The oldest son acted like he had something to prove. He demanded that his commands must be as respected as his father's (although they clearly weren't). He wanted the restaurant to have a Chinese-American assistant manager. But the cooks hated this new guy. Eventually, I understood why. He was the wrong kind of Chinese.

This poor guy was tall and good-looking. He wasn't particularly competent as a waiter or as a manager but he would have learned in time. He was smart. But the cooks hounded him. Apparently, they were all from Sichuan province. The new assistant manager wasn't aware what province his family had come from. He was American. He didn't speak a word of Chinese. That didn't matter. In fact, his ignorance made his presence in management even more intolerable. The Sichuan cooks had recognized his origins an instant. This guy was racially Gansu. They despised the Gansu.

Once again, I found myself sitting down in the mornings with the head cook.

"He is not a good Chinese!" the cook shouted with venom.

"He's American."

"Don't care! We. Don't. Care." He pounded the table. "The eldest son, he is spoiled. He doesn't do his job. He thinks we respect him? Hah! I will talk with his father."

The son who managed the restaurant was thirty-five. I was twenty-three. To the cook, we both looked like children but I understood why he thought the playboy, princeling son was not a good person - and was beyond hope of becoming one, maybe. The cook was probably right.

But his attitude about lower-class Chinese-Americans reminded me of my childhood and all of the old European hatreds crammed together in my suburban American neighborhood. Clearly, it wasn't only the Europeans who hated each other. It wasn't only the slavic people hating other slavs, Turks hating Armenians, Tutsis hating Hutus, Hindis hating Tamils, and so on and on and on but apparently also in China there were ethnic groups who hated one another. It was everybody, everywhere. Every group hated some other group.

People learn to hate others. Sometimes it makes no sense and otherwise decent people, while admitting it makes no sense, still act with hate.

Sunday, April 3, 2022

Not Even Not Zen 249: Biomythography - Note 25, Bigotry, in General and Particular

Biomythography - Note 25
Bigotry, in General and Particular


The air smelled fresh because it was the middle of March before the pollen had arrived. One of my friends was driving me toward Philadelphia. He had gushed about the city and its outliers, then he'd driven us past some of the landmarks: a Quaker market, a historic mill park, a synagogue, and miles of rusted pipes and towers at Bethlehem Steel.

"It's like Disneyland," he murmured as we surveyed the derelict steel plant. That seemed like hyperbole but I knew what he meant. The place had the sort of faded glory that's more beautiful in its decline than in its gaudy youth.

A few minutes after we passed the closed steel plant, he turned his car off the main road from Bethlehem toward Philadelphia. He swerved again onto a smaller, two-lane street also headed into the city.

"This is my chance to show you what I mean." He gestured with his hands to indicate a place vaguely ahead of us. "I told you that Hispanics are better than Blacks. Now, shut up for a second. I know you think everyone is equal. But that's only true with individuals. That's just not how it is with groups. It's not."

"Groups are made of individuals."

"Right. I know you think that. But it's not even the point. I can't explain what I mean. So I'll show you."

It didn't take him long to drive there. I leaned back in my seat, arms folded as I watched the vacant lots turn into a warehouse district, then single family houses, an impound center behind barbed fences, homes again, and rowhomes.

After a few blocks, the rowhomes changed color. They looked newer, built of amber bricks. Somehow they looked cheaper, too. They were not as run down by age as the earlier, turn-of-the-century rowhomes but they had weathered the years unevenly. The row looked broken in places, pristine in others.

"These are the projects," my friend murmured. "Just wait until we get to the black neighborhood."

As soon as he turned east, I could see his argument coming. The street got shabbier. It wasn't a problem with the asphalt. But it looked like someone had taken a pistol and shot chips out of a high curb and part of a wooden fence. Someone else had smashed a chain link fence off of half a front yard. Everything had been trashed. It had taken years to hurt the housing project by this much.

"Look at the weeds," he said as he leaned closer to me. "See how these people live. They let everything go to shit."

The gate on the next yard had been kicked in. By police? Doubtful, although they might be responsible for a busted door or two around here. By a random teenager? Possible. But the fence on either side of the gate was a brick one, half-height and mostly ornamental and that made the sabotage worse. You could see how nice these homes had been once and how much potential they still had. Wasted.

"They never repair anything," he said. He pointed to a cracked window pane next to a broken wooden garden step that any child with a hammer and nails could have fixed.

"They don't own it," I pointed out. "Some of this, the landlords should repair the things."

"To have the tenants deliberately break them again?" This, from a young man who had never owned anything, not even the car he was driving. But I understood his practical point. The ultimate landlord was probably the city and even their professional crews hadn't kept up.

That started our old argument up again. He drove around, pointing out details during three blocks of awfulness, and then he turned another two corners so that we were back in the same neighborhood but on a different street. This one held a row of project housing, townhouses built of bricks the same color as before, perhaps more weathered and aged. But the neighborhood looked better. The fences had been repaired and painted. I noticed that someone had decided to paint a chain link fence, which was surely an odd decision, but they had done it in a festive pink/purple color. It made me laugh.

A few houses down, someone without flowers had painted them onto his wooden fence. Most of these homes, though, had flowers and flower pots sitting out in their yards. Mostly, they weren't in bloom yet but the difference caused by the presence of those pots felt startling. Nothing that fragile had survived on the other streets.

"Look, no weeds. Everything is trimmed." He pointed to a line of laundry hanging out to dry. "They don't have dryers but they keep their clothes clean. Everything is neat. It's all fucking pretty. Because it's hispanics like me. See?"

"It's very nice." It was better than many more expensive neighborhoods.

He didn't change my mind about trying to care for the children growing up in the black neighborhood. But I didn't change my friend's mind about his superior ethnic culture, either.

A couple of months later, we met in a different state. He and other friends swung by my house and asked me to go smoke with them. I didn't care about partying but it was nice to be invited, so I hopped in for the ride. At a mutual friend's house, we met our semi-usual assortment of party-goers. Among them were a few black folks we had hung out with for the past year on the regular. We sat next to them for a while, smoking and drinking and laughing.

My friend coughed out a praise or two for Philadelphia before he picked up his beer. It made me think of the detour he'd driven to show me the difference between cultures. I poked him with my elbow and gestured to our black friends.

"What about them?" I asked. "Are you culturally superior?"

"Psssh! I didn't mean them." He laughed.

"But ..."

"They don't live like that. They're good guys."

After thinking for a while, I felt that this particular friend might be the opposite of some others. I had college friends who were integrationists in theory. They used all of the correct terms. They donated to good causes. But they had no friends who weren't from precisely the same background they had. What did that mean about them? It was hard to tell.

And was my friend sitting next to me really the opposite of them, pretending to be bigoted and using all the wrong terms but actually having a pretty wide selection of friends? No. During the drinking, smoking, and bullshitting about politics and music, I had time to think about his attitudes. My old friend was close to the opposite but I knew he really was prejudiced. He wasn't overplaying it when he used biased terms. He simply had a special exclusion zone for people he met and liked. When it came to the specifics, he had friends from the groups he hated.

It was a long night. Other friends and friends-of-friends drifted in and out of the party. I kept coming back to the concept of who among them, really, were our true amigos. And what that meant. There was no hiding the good nature of some people, I guessed, not even from those who claimed to hate their religion or race. But we were all pretty well defined, too, by the differences between our speech and our actions, between our bigotries in general and in particular.