My Father Among The Chinese



The Chinese children watched the funny fat American in the ridiculous sport coat try to blow up the balloons.

He was a tourist in his late 60s, wearing a gray floppy hat. His face was a fleshy sagging caricature of itself, accented by an unkempt bushy salt-and-pepper mustache intended to disguise the steady loss of masculinity from his features.

Someone back home had told him that Chinese children love balloons. But what really caught the attention of the children was the exuberant vaudeville of this short-winded man in the funny clothing who was having a terribly difficult time inflating the balloons which were too small and thin for such an amateur. Each balloon he attempted to inflate flew from his lips into the air with the sound of a small fart, prompting laughter and applause from the children gathered around him.

My father, a man who once made deals with some of the most influential businessmen in America, had successfully transformed himself into an amusing street monkey.

Later that day he would show a group of Chinese university students how to peel an orange.








~ Story and artwork by Russ Allison Loar
© All Rights Reserved

Complete Honesty





I was an honest man when my father-in-law began to die.

It took me the first twenty-seven years of my life to become a consistently honest man, a scrupulously honest man. I was not a habitual liar, but I grew up wanting to stay out of trouble with my parents who were not of a forgiving nature, and so I lied. During my teenage years the fabrications multiplied as I tried my best to live free of parental rules and regulations. I didn’t lie to get anything in particular, I lied to stay out of trouble.

Do you realize what time it is young man?
I ran out of gas.

I started lying for personal gain during the early years of my marriage when money was hard to come by and even harder to hold on to. I would tell any number of tall tales about automobile repairs and broken-down refrigerators to convince my wealthy yet retentive parents that their money, so painful for them to part with, was at least going to some practical use.

I need $150.
What? More money? Again? We just gave you $400 to fix your car!
The refrigerator stopped. The repair guy is here right now. I’ve got to get it fixed so the food won’t spoil.

Then, one day, the lies stopped.

I was no less impecunious, but something happened that changed my perspective. I became a father. I began to question just what kind of father I would be in the eyes of my son. I knew what kind of father I wanted to be, and so I set out to become that idealized person. I had many weaknesses to address and redress, but the first, most important task was to become a completely honest man. Honest in all things, at all times. I knew the foundation of morality, character and wisdom had to be honesty. Without honesty life is a house of cards, susceptible to the slightest breeze of truth.

I began to test myself. If a waiter forgot to charge me for some item of food, I insisted that it be added to my bill. If a cashier gave me too much change at a store, I returned it. In fact, I paid particular attention to the most trivial transactions and interactions. I had much to atone for. And I was tested. An inordinate number of people dropped money from pockets and purses whenever I was around.

Clerical errors in my favor abounded. The kind of happenstance I constantly wished for during my most poverty-stricken years now occurred with peculiar regularity. I still do not know if this was an odd coincidence, a divine test, or just the sort of thing that happens all the time, a normal state of affairs which I became acutely aware of only because of my near obsessive desire to make amends for a lifetime of ethical lapses.

You only charged me for three of these cookies, but I’ve got four.

That’s OK. We’ll catch you next time.
No, please, let me pay you for this other cookie.
Don’t worry about it. It’s OK.
I cannot leave here without paying you for this cookie.

By the time I was forty-two, my honesty was habitual. A reflex. It must also be said that no being of human dimensions can achieve perfection, but I tried. I became prideful of the opportunity to display my honesty at every turn. In my professional life as a newspaper reporter, a career begun after my first son was born, I sought out dishonesty with a missionary zeal. I would recount the lies of various miscreants, their attempts to cover up their lies, their false claims of being misunderstood and quoted “out of context,” and finally their apologies. I was instrumental in destroying their reputations and shaming their families. They were ultimately responsible for their own behavior, but I was merciless. There’s no more fierce advocate for the truth than a reformed liar.

Former school superintendent Peter Snyder, convicted last year of embezzling $2.7 million from the Valley Unified School District, was stabbed to death in a San Diego County prison yesterday. “He was a good man who made a bad mistake,” said ex-wife Theresa Snyder who divorced her husband two months after his conviction.

~~~

Does honesty have limits? Should an honest person lie to avoid hurting the feelings of friends and family? Does honesty require you to tell your mother her new outfit is forty years out of date and her hairdo makes her look like Bozo the Clown? Surely we are not required to voice every subjective opinion in order to fulfill the requirements of honesty. A reluctance to express opinions and preferences, after all, is not a masking of truth, it is a refusal to engage in momentary, subjective assessment.

You’ve changed your hair.
How do you like it?
I think it brings out the real you.

And yet when it came to my personal beliefs, I never put the slightest tarnish on the truth. My late father-in-law, a physician, was a deeply religious man. Soon after I began dating his only daughter, I felt no reluctance in telling him just how medieval I thought his particular religion was.

How can you actually believe your religion is the only true religion?

We trust in the teachings of our church.

Did it ever occur to you that your self-serving religious leaders just might be wrong?

We have no reason to doubt them.

My wife and I were subsequently married without her parents’ blessings, and only over the course of years did my relationship with the two godly souls that were her parents, soften. Most of the softening came with the birth of my first son, their first grandchild. And so were we all changed by the miracle that is a newborn child. I learned to hold my tongue while simultaneously developing a genuine interest in the weather as a topic of conversation.

I returned to college and majored in journalism, a profession which is supposed to be about the truth. My father-in-law admired my determination to finish college while working odd jobs to support my family. He had entered medical school late in life after serving in the Army and knew only too well how hard it was to attend classes, study, be an attentive father and still earn some kind of living. My second son was born three years later, between semesters, and the bond between our families grew stronger. Religion was not a subject for conversation, but in all other matters, our relations became cordial.

About five years later, Grandpa Doc, as my father-in-law became known to our sons, retired from medical practice. He was a kind man who left many brokenhearted patients behind when he moved to the small Northern California town of Paradise. Yes, it’s actually named Paradise. Moving was his wife’s idea, for she was the font of all religious discipline in the family and believed the big cities would soon fall into chaos, what with the Second Coming nearly here. The small town of Paradise was indeed a beautiful, if not remote, place to live, but it left him bereft of friends and familiar landmarks. It was a cold turkey retirement. And a few years later, his isolation grew as his mental faculties failed.

And so Grandpa Doc traveled between comprehension and confusion, never fully surrendering to confusion, always fighting his way back for a while. I watched his struggle, and it was during our last visit when he asked me The Question. He was in the hospital and we were alone together. His wife had left the small, sterile room to get a drink of water and my wife went with her. He was lying flat on his back with only a small pillow under his head, confused, but not scared. He looked at me and smiled with the same unassuming manner that had always been his way with patients, especially when broaching the subject of bad news.

How does it look? Do you think I’m going to pull through?

He was counting on my honesty, asking me to confide in him. As a physician, he was only too aware of the fiction of reassuring words from friends, family and medical professionals who have decided the patient is no longer in a sufficient state of mind to process factual information. But this was one of Grandpa Doc’s clear moments and he wanted to know the truth. He figured I was the most likely person to give it to him—straight.

And what was the truth? Could I really predict the future? Was I medically qualified to give any kind of diagnosis, much less prognosis, to this man so cruelly cast adrift by old age? Of course, we all knew that his condition was not reversible. But how could I tell this religious man there would be no miracle for him?

Torn between the obvious and the miraculous, given this grave honor of rendering some kind of truthful information to a man momentarily clear enough to want to know what was really happening, I put my hand on his shoulder, smiled, and summoned my best imitation of the offhand remark, my best imitation of his own reassuring beside manner.

You’re doing OK. You’ll pull out of this. You’ll be going home soon.

He looked into my eyes and at least for a moment, he knew the truth.




~ by Russ Allison Loar
© All Rights Reserved

Fever




I was about 12 years old and my fever kept rising.

I suppose it was a bad case of the flu. I can’t remember precisely. It may have been mononucleosis. As my temperature rose unchecked, I slipped into a place between life and death, a hallucinatory place. There before me was an immense stone floating impossibly in the air.

After all these years I still have a precise memory of that vision. It was a message that took me many years to understand, something hard to put into words, something about faith, something about a spiritual place, an eternal place where the normal laws of physics do not apply.


A few years ago I put my vision into a poem.


There is wildness here,
Raw and raging
Beneath this exterior,
Pulsing.

There are visions here
Of soaring over lifetimes of leaf-filled trees
And rust-colored hills,
Over yellow fields,
Over oceans.

There is forgetting here
Of the small things people say,
The small things people do.

There is a last angry echo
Of the unheard voice,
The deeper self,
The truer self,
The wilder self
That wearies of all man-made things.

There is a silence here
That grows and infuses,
Like the melancholy tint
Of an old photograph,
An old photograph you walk around in,
Examining with wonder the frozen, yet flowing
Moments of a life.

There is a wildness here
That rises like an immense stone,
Floating impossibly
In the pure blue sky
Of a secret spring.


~ by Russ Allison Loar
~ Castle in the Pyrenees by René Magritte
© All Rights Reserved

You Are Here



You are here.

I am here.

I am writing this for you to read. How do you like it so far? Not too interesting, eh? Well, you see, there’s a very important theory behind this rather unorthodox way of beginning a . . . of beginning a . . . of beginning this.

You see, blah, blah, blah, and et cetera ad infinitum. (Imagine a long-winded, deeply serious lecture, punctuated with those very special words that immediately give you the impression that the speaker is indeed much more learned and insightful than you, the humble reader, could ever be.)

Excuse me for a minute, I have to go get something.

[Time passes.]

Back again.

Thanks for waiting.

I had to go look for this book on various schools of literary criticism, because I was going to look up a suitable word to use as an example of the kind of word that would be used repeatedly in the abovementioned discussion on the theory of just what in the hell it is I’m doing here. But it seems I’ve brought down the wrong book. You see, I keep all my books on literary criticism packed in boxes up in my attic. I find it more relaxing that way.

Anyway, the word I was looking for was mimetic — an all-time favorite with those who would rather discuss reading than read — but I’ve got the wrong book. Please excuse me for another moment because I must take this book back to the attic, for in browsing through the index, I stumbled upon the entry: “Neo-Platonism, in Plotinus,” and it’s making me queasy. I’ll be right back.

[More time passes.]

Back again.

Sorry I took so long, but I couldn’t find what I was looking for, and because I am a bit obsessive-compulsive, I nearly got sucked into cleaning my carpets, because the steam cleaner is also in the attic, near my box of books on literary theory.

I do get distracted by the ephemera of everyday life.

In fact, I’ve spent the last five years on preparations alone, laying the groundwork for some really serious and incredibly important writing. First, I had to buy a new computer, because the primordial computer I purchased shortly after the dawn of time simply would not do. Then there was the moving. I had to move to a more literary city. And you know what a time-consuming task moving can be. It was. Only last week did I finally finish decorating my den slash office. Then, there were those photo albums I’d always meant to reorganize. And so forth.

You get the idea.

So anyway, I was about to explain that this rather freeform manner in which I am writing is actually based on my experiences in graduate school, which taught me that you can invent a plausible literary theory for anything. For example, Hamlet is really a dog who is afraid to bite his master. Bad Hamlet! Bad, bad Hamlet!

It’s not that I believe that storytelling is really that passé. I love a good story, especially when it has the word “that” in it a lot. I have many ideas for stories, like the one about how Mozart is reincarnated into the 1970s as a slovenly piano player in a suburban steak house. He can play pretty well, but this time around, he attracts more flies than attention.

But the minute you (I) start writing a story like that, you’re just (I’m just) chained into this traditional structure of character and plot development and so on and so forth, until you just think (I just think), “Why bother?” Because in the end, it’s just another gimmicky story of the type that one sells to the movies (make me an offer). And where’s the fun in that?

Huh?

[Insert interjection here.]

So if one (don’t worry, I’m not going to do this anymore, after this one last time) does not engage in storytelling, then what is the point? And there (here) we have arrived at the crux of the issue (sorry, I could not resist one last parenthetical aside).

Was it not some philosopher employed by Hallmark Greeting Cards who once wrote, “It’s not the destination, it’s the journey”? Or is this just my way of employing the use of punctuation outside quotation marks, since the question mark in question would alter the original intention of the quoted material if placed within the close-quotation marks?

Which reminds me of a story:

Once upon a time, there was a little brown mouse with tiny black eyes who was very, very hungry. He was searching for something to eat in old Mr. Shimelplatzer’s house when he happened upon a bottle of Minoxidil. Old Mr. Shimelplatzer was trying to grow some new hair. The little brown mouse with the tiny black eyes pushed the plastic bottle off the bathroom counter falling to the floor cap flying contents oozing puddle.

The little brown mouse with the tiny black eyes scampered over to the towel rack, lowered himself paw-over-paw down the bath towel and tiptoed across the throw rug, leaping over the bathroom scale to inspect the strange-smelling pool of liquid. After the little brown mouse with the tiny black eyes licked it all up, he awakened the next morning to find himself transformed into a super-steroid, red-eyed, 23-foot monster mouse. He subsequently killed a lot of slow-moving senior citizens before being blown up with microwave radiation by the National Guard.

Excuse me for just a moment.

[A brief interlude, passes.]

I had to open the door of my den slash office for Inky, my swaybellied black cat who spends many long hours in the faded adobe-colored recliner where I once spent many long hours writing something I called poetry. Inky will not stop meowing at my door until I let her in, then she meows at me for a minute or two before settling in on the seat of the well-worn recliner, where I once spent many long hours writing something I called poetry.

Ah yes, sigh, those heady, ennui-filled days of youth. Now, I sit wearily on this adjustable office chair and type assorted letters into this computer that appear before me on this screen where they line up to become words and sentences, where they all gather together to do this funny little dance called, “Pretending To Matter.”





~ Text and artwork by Russ Allison Loar
© All Rights Reserved