Sunday, July 21, 2013

Grandpa and Ginger

At first blush, I tend to remember childhood in blacks and whites.

Take my Chinese grandparents’ dogs.

There was Ling-Ling. Friendly. Liked to be petted. Might bark when there was some sort of commotion, but never in a mean-spirited way. I spent my youth devoid of pets. Spending time with my grandparents’ dogs three times a year, for long weekend trips, Ling-Ling more or less shaped my perception of what a dog was supposed to be.

And then there was Ginger.

Ginger was a Doberman Pinscher, a breed traditionally used for guard dogs and police dogs. My uncle bought her, but my grandparents ended up taking care of her while my uncle worked long hours at his pharmacy, and my grandfather eventually became her de facto master; most certainly her best friend.

I think my grandfather was the only one who ever liked Ginger.

Whereas Ling-Ling was gentle and affable, Ginger barked at everyone and everything. Deep-throated growls that promised she would rip your throat out if given the chance. For my lifetime, my grandparents slept in separate bedrooms. Ginger stayed with Grandpa, and when we came to visit was, for the most part, restrained behind a plastic barrier that hardly seemed like a restraint enough to keep her from hurdling it and devouring everyone.

Years passed. Ling-Ling passed away. Ginger mellowed. While I never quite trusted the dog, she barked and growled far less, and even wandered the house without any clear signs of malice.

Most of all, I remember that, from her meaner youth, to her more subdued old age, Ginger shared a bed with my grandfather. I’ve long theorized that once Grandpa had brought Grandma to the US, and once they’d had their children, the two of them were much more companions than spouses. More friends than lovers.

I don’t mean to imply anything inappropriate when I say that Grandpa was probably more intimate with his dog than his wife in his final years. More so, I’d suggest that this speaks to who my grandfather was. He immigrated from China to a country where he never really spoke the language. He wasn’t a scholar or an artist. He earned an honest living doing laundry, and in doing so, supported a family, ultimately raising three boys who went on to finish college and do a little better for themselves.

And he loved that dog.

You take the meanest, vilest animal on the planet and put it under the care of a man like that. The beast mellows. If you want to get romantic about it, maybe she even learns to love.

My grandmother reported that Grandpa cried when they put Ginger to sleep. I don’t doubt that a part of him died with that dog. The last creature he fed, that he tamed, that he took care of.

A few years later, my grandfather passed away, too. I like to think that caring for Ginger was the last of his many steps in making the world a little kinder place.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

I Feel Home

Though I spent most of my childhood in Utica, New York, there’s a part of me that will always feel I grew up in Saratoga Springs--more specifically, at Skidmore College.

When I was twelve, thirteen, and fourteen years old, I stayed overnight at Skidmore for three week periods in the summer to study at the Center for Talented Youth (CTY) (for the uninitiated, a sleepaway camp for smart kids). While there, I made some tremendously impactful friendships, studied writing and philosophy, and, I like to think, began to find myself as a person.

Even at the age of 14, I had ambitions of returning to Skidmore years later to work as an RA. But I couldn’t have imagined the degree to which I would continue to grow in that same location, through my college years and beyond.

Nor could I imagine how much the place, or my use of it, would change.

As a kid I remember seeing Scribner Village, a collection of student apartments, set apart from campus amidst a small forest of trees. We drove through the development when I was 12 and made a wrong turn on move-in day, en route to the dorms, and I remember thinking how different the space was from what I expected at a college campus, and imagined living within all that greenery, a more rustic experience than I had anticipated.

As a college kid, Scribner became a hang out spot after hours, where we would play cards and listen to music. Moreover, the space outside one of those apartment buildings was spot where I had a first kiss that would springboard the four-year relationship to follow.

And then there was the quad. The space where we had played long distance games of catch with Frisbees. We called the set up “suicide” because we would have as many as five or six discs going at once, and it was only a matter of time before someone or other got clocked in the head with one of them. We played across the space from the dining hall to the walkway leading to the academic buildings.

By the time I returned to work at CTY as a college kid, the quad had been redefined, most prominently by a brick stage outside the dining hall. As a staff member, I was responsible for keeping the Frisbee game contained--far enough from the stage so no one hurt themselves running into it, and away from “no fly zones” for students who preferred to sit and talk or read or play guitar without the imminent threat of getting hit with a flying disc. Moreover, though, I remember sitting up on that stage on a sunny Saturday afternoon, playing DJ for a makeshift carnival event as I looked out on all these children, all of these staff members I considered some of my best friends. I played a song called “I Feel Home” by OAR, and thought that that place at that moment may have been the truest home I’d ever known.

And then, perhaps best of all, I remember the duckpond. I couldn’t have visited the space more than a dozen times as a kid--a handful of afternoon activities, a class session where we discussed Hamlet and I struggled to make myself heard over running water. Just the same, the place seemed almost heavenly. And as a staff member, I remember late nights when I felt tired and overworked, and started to question if the administrative jobs I had taken on were worth all of this summer stress. I walked by the duckpond and watched the dark water ripple beneath the fountains. Heard that constant trickling sound, and remembered why it was all worthwhile.

I spent three summers at Skidmore as a student and five summers there as a staff member, then five summers away, ironically, to work for CTY in other locations, first as a summer dean, then as a full-time staff member. Last year, I returned as the program manager--the full-timer responsible for ensuring all of the proper practices and procedures were in place.

And the space had changed again.

Scribner Village was in a stage of renovation that looked more like demolition. Roofs torn asunder, walkways closed to all but construction vehicles.

The stage was gone, deconstructed during the development of the new dining hall.

And the duckpond--though little changed in any clearly defined, practical, tangible way--was nonetheless different. I didn’t linger there. On the contrary, I scurried past it with an old friend, walking back from getting Italian sodas in town, on the brink of a thunderstorm, rushing because the wind was blowing hard enough the spew the filthy pond water from the surface onto us as we moved past.

Everything, it seemed, had changed again.

And yet, when the time for morning hand off came--when the kids evacuated the dining hall and dorms to head to class, I saw these teenagers tossing Frisbees, talking as easily about principles of game theory, logical fallacies, and the objective correlative as about chasing girls and anime. And I saw a handful of familiar faces, still teaching these children, by then, for over a decade.

And I thought that for all of these changes, home is still home. I felt blessed to see a new generation find theirs in what was left of mine.