Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Dear Blog, It's Me, Paisley.

I know what you're thinking: AGAIN?

Anyway, this past week I've been in Seattle for a big family reunion, and then traveling madly around San Francisco, Carmel and Sonoma with my poet friend, Susan, who--having booked us to stay for a night at the Sonoma Mission Inn--has introduced me to the one thing I secretly never thought I'd like:

The spa experience.

This experience involves no touching by strangers, thank God, but instead various steaming cauldrons of bubbling mineral water in which you soak, eating freshly cut slices of orange in tiny napkins. It involves invigorating cold showers in marvelously tiled stalls mosaiced with little dolphins. It involves refreshing plunges into outdoor pools. It involves dry saunas and even a eucalyptus-scented steam room from which you emerge loose-limbed and woozy-headed as a stoned koala. Native American pan pipes are involved, as are certain whale calls. At the end, a high-interest credit card will need to be presented.

But, by God, that interest is WORTH IT. So thank you, Susan, for wrecking my upcoming year of sleeping in youth hostels. I know now that a better world of overnight accommodation exists, and that I will be--thanks to the crashing global markets and hari-kari-committing dollar--totally incapable of paying for it. I'll have you to blame for the Martin-Sheen-sized breakdown caused by spa flashbacks I'll be experiencing on the Mekong.

The other thing I've been doing is trying to wrap my head around this blog itself. It seems my baby-dog post was timely not just for one set of friends, but TWO. Within days of that post, I received emails from two different friends about their expanding families. Congratulatory shout-outs go to E and M on their forthcoming child (I think there's a better phrase for this, but I'm so steeped in publishing lingo right now, it's the only one I can come up with. Oh, wait, I got it: PREGNANCY) and to my ex-husband and his new wife for their just-published child. Yay, fecund you! I'm so happy that smart and fun people who like cocktails are reproducing. Hopefully, one of these children will come to own a bar.

All this good news made me also wonder whether I should start writing about money, in the hopes that one of my friends would now win the lottery or get promoted, if this is in fact how e-mysticism works. But mostly I've been wondering about the strangely mediated ways we're all communicating our lives. Between the blog and email and Facebook (and now Google+, which I refuse to join: even I have to set limits) I had hoped I would be able to keep in touch with friends. As, in fact, I am. And yet all these different networking sites continually--and naturally--fall short. I hate not hearing these things in person. And as for this blog, I feel like I'm giving both too much and too little actual communication. And yet, I'm addicted to the forms of intimacy each new social networking site promises. I like the performative aspects of Facebook posts, and I like the essayistic mode of the blog, which sometimes tricks me into writing things I most likely shouldn't considering anyone could read this and "recommend" it on, while I maintain just enough writerly self-awareness about the media form for me not to get honestly personal enough. Which, in that sense, defeats the purpose of a personal blog.

Even email continually surprises me, as more and more people communicate--for necessity and convenience--some pretty private things over it. And while I am very happy for my ex-husband (who is, most likely, going to be reading this, as he called this afternoon to congratulate me on my marriage to Sean, a fact which he could only have learned through this blog) I have to admit it's still startling to receive an email communication about the birth of his child. I don't know what the right word is for the emotion that so tightly binds together joy, surprise, pride, technological befuddlement and, yes, let's be honest here, a splash of consternation and even envy at such an announcement. The Germans, naturally, would have a word for it (farfuggednewbirthen, perhaps) but I've just learned to call it "adulthood," as in "Spending the morning taking care of my adorable stepson while my husband catches up with his ex-wife is making me feel very adulthood right now," or "I am so adulthood about this new job promotion that better allows me to pay for my ballooning second mortgage!"

Perhaps I wouldn't be feeling so very adulthood about all this if I had not also just written an email to the ex I'd thought would be permanently out of my life. This ex is Norwegian and works in downtown Oslo; he has children about the age of those teenagers on the island who got gunned down. The chances of him or any member of his family actually being in that particular line of fire was, of course, improbable, but considering the strangeness and magnitude of the event, the hideousness of the crimes and their incongruousness in Norwegian history, not sending a quick note would be a bit like not contacting someone you knew in New York after 9/11.

When I first heard about the shootings, I was in Port Townsend, eating breakfast. After reading about the attacks on Yahoo news and the NYTimes online (oh, the technology, the internet of it all!) over the coming days, I found myself asking one of the other faculty members if she thought it would be a good idea to contact the Norwegian, just to check in. "Not," I insisted, "to get back into Crazy's life, you understand. Just to be polite and, in some tiny but extremely distant way, supportive."

"Of course," she said.

"OK," I said. "So how do you go about composing an email to a man you never want to see or speak to again but whose children you hope haven't been gunned down by a Christian fundamentalist?"

The writer, who is a memoirist, didn't miss a beat. "I'd start with something vague," she said. "Something like, 'Hope you're having a nice day!'"

Which is, as it turns out, a pretty good opening.

Interestingly, one of the reasons this ex was cut out of my life to begin with was also due to email. Because we lived in two different countries, the main way we would communicate was through the computer, which meant that we each had to overlook each other's terrible writing tics on a daily basis. The Norwegian, for instance, had to suffer through my phrasebook Norwegian ("Jeg elsker deg, bestamor,' was one such ill-conceived message) and I, in turn, had to gag down lines like, 'I want to shear my mind with you,' or 'I'm over the moon with rainbows and kids for you.' It also meant that, regardless of the frequency of these messages, we never really learned that much about each other. The Norwegian--not entirely unbeknownst to me-- had other women in his life; I just had no idea how many, and how few medications they were collectively on. One of these women hacked his email account and began sending me cheerful messages about how much she wished that I would die. "Hello!" she'd write. "I hope you are having a Beautiful Day! Please know that You are Too Good for this man that We love and now he must let you Go! Forever! I plan this! Do you know where he is? He will not call Me! Please tell Him to call Me!"

Every day I would turn on my computer to find these chipper and badly capitalized little missives that somehow reminded me of an over-caffeinated Katy Couric. They would pop up over the day, becoming stranger and sadder, so that by late evening I was torn between wanting to pat this woman on the back and fantasizing about smacking her head off.

"Hello!" my computer would bleep. "I am very lonely here! I think, perhaps, you are like me!"

When the Norwegian called to tell me he'd finally gotten it all under control, I told him not to bother. "Tell her we're broken up," I said. "It won't be a lie. Because guess what? WE ARE BREAKING UP."

"She is very insane," the Norwegian soothed. "She is very not in control of herself."

"I think I know how she got that way," I replied.

"Yes," he said. "She is still upset about my wife."

"Your WIFE?" I shouted. "Oh my god. How many... Forget it. Look, you Norwegians have WAY too much fucking free time over there."

"Yes," he said miserably. "I think maybe you are right."

And that was pretty much our last conversation. For the record, if any Scandinavian ever says something to you like, "You Americans always feel so guilty. We took slaves, too. We went to all these countries and took women and trees and livestock, we took money and castles and anything else we wanted and we are PROUD of all of it, and we are STILL proud of it!" run for your fucking life.

Still, if Christian fundamentalists with automatic weaponry get into the picture, good internet manners require at least a nod toward civility. We are all too connected now NOT to make this gesture. And yes, the Norwegian's family is fine. And no, after he asked--also cursorily--about my life, he did not try and contact me again either.

So. This is our tiny, hyper-mediated life.

The one thing I miss about the Norwegian, oddly, is how much his emails made clear that he wanted me to be Norwegian. After a lifetime of being asked, implicitly and sometimes explicitly, to define and defend what makes me half Chinese, to be labeled--enthusiastically, even!--Norwegian was refreshing. The Norwegian loved to point to my interest in cross-country skiing and cravings for pickled herring as evidence of my Nordic blood. He would rhapsodize over the Norwegian sweaters I knitted and the Norwegian poets I mentioned that I kept--sadly unread--on my shelves. My height was Norwegian, my last name was Norwegian, the facts that I loved Scotch and had a dark sense of humor were Norwegian. "Norwegians don't understand this need to make life all about being happy," he would say. "You are like that too. You are just like me," a line which made me cringe later, seeing it written again in sadder form in the email from his stalker girlfriend. Now there was a woman who was deeply unhappy, I knew, and yet toward the end of my email relationship with the Norwegian--toward the end of my email relationship with them both--I began to see myself as becoming like her, a woman disconsolately pacing the rooms of her house, almost empty but for the new computer, waiting for someone to read her messages, waiting for someone to answer.

In the end, the Norwegian's attempts to make me like himself weren't much different from other people's attempts to make me Chinese, I knew. It was the same cycle of mutual exoticization that couldn't mask our underlying cravings to establish a kind of authenticity between us. The Norwegian wanted me to be like him so that he could say that he knew me, and that by knowing me, he could believe he loved me. And I wanted, for the moment at least, to stop thinking about what it meant to be half Chinese. In that, I too wanted to be just like him.

I still think about his stalker girlfriend, what she's doing now, whether she's hacking the Norwegian's account, searching for another way to get closer to him. Perhaps she has a blog now. Perhaps she, too, is writing essays about him.

And perhaps she is still thinking of me as well, drafting messages she doesn't send about what she didn't get to say to me. "Hello!" she might be writing now. "For you, I am feeling very adulthood!"

In the meantime, here's my too much and too little. I hope you are all having a very good day.