Sunday, April 29, 2012

The Way We Were

The beautiful little girl up there, whose Easter hat touches me in some deep way, grew up to be my amazing wife, Munyin.  At the time this picture was taken, she and her brother, whose left ear you can just see, were living behind their parents' store in Harlem, several years after their arrival from Hong Kong. Munyin, who was learning English on the fly, was an object of a certain amount of unwelcome interest from the African-American kids in the neighborhood, where her most frequent nickname was "Ching-Chong."

But she could still summon up this smile.  It was expected of her, and she did it, no matter how bewildered she may have been by the world she found herself in.  Her brother's expression is much more equivocal; he's not sure he likes any of it, and it shows.

Here you have my brothers and me with our mother, whose expression suggests that she's been sitting there about as long as she's willing to.  I'm on the right, delighted to see a camera.  For many, many years, I could have sensed a camera in pitch darkness, a mile and a half underground.  My brothers are less enthralled than I was.

As I grow older, I find myself in the interesting position of knowing adults whom I first met as children.  It brings home the same point these pictures make (to me, anyway), which is that we are, at the age of four or five, pretty much who we're always going to be.

In the past few years I've been writing about children quite a bit -- in fact, they seem to pop up in every book I write.  The fictional child about whom I've written most is Miaow, the onetime street urchin whom Poke and Rose adopt in my Bangkok books.  I started writing her when she was eight or nine (no one knew for sure) and now she's twelve or thirteen, and her life has changed radically, but as she grows up she seems to remain much the same person she was when I first met her: strong-willed, cautious, brave, and vulnerable at the same time.

And lately, as I think more and more about children -- the children Munyin and I once were, the children my brothers once were, the children some of my adult friends were -- it seems to me that the process of growing up isn't quite as profound a transformation as I once thought it was.  I'm beginning to think that our core remains pretty much unchanged.  What changes are the things we wrap around it, the ways we present it.

If this is true, the challenge I face in writing Miaow or any of my "kids" at fifteen, eighteen, twenty, whatever, will be different from the one I originally envisioned.   In retrospect, it seems so obvious that it's hard for me to believe that I've only recently realized it: we are who we are, all our lives through.  We have our gifts and our weaknesses, our pluses and our minuses, pretty much from the beginning.  The chord, whether it's major or minor, that sounds in our personalities remains the same.

I know there's an ongoing argument over nature vs. nurture, but my point is that these factors have expressed themselves--in whatever balance has been established for that particular person--pretty early in life.  The person I was at, say, six is who I am now.  The person my adult friends were at six are the people they are now.   My wife, God bless her, is still that little girl who put on that hat and smiled for the camera because it would make her mother happy, and her mother's mother in Hong Kong, for whom the photo was intended.

It may even be possible that tragedy and/or great good fortune don't change who we actually are as as much as they change how we express who we are.  Maybe that's going to be the challenge in writing these children as they grow: understanding their lives well enough to determine how what happens to them will change the way they express who they are at their core.

Anyway, something for me to think about.

Tim -- Sunday


  1. My wonderful grandmother and I were sitting on a bench alongside my parents' home watching my four- and two-year-old play in the backyard. The younger sister was having her way with her brother--is it ever any other way--and I said to my grandmother, "I wonder what they will be like as adults."

    She patted my hand and said, "Don't worry, they're sweet, wonderful children and will grow up to be just the same as adults. It's the nasty, mean little ones you have to worry about."

    I never forgot that. And not because I thought her final comment may have been directed at my own formative years:).

  2. I agree Tim, but you will see when your child characters reach adolescence that they will go through a period of insanity. Fortunately for many people it is a temporary condition. My take is that people are born with characteristics that manifest themselves in a positive or negative ways depending on the circumstances: persistent or stubborn, brave or foolhardy, strong or intransigent. It all depends on the circumstances and the nurturing. And of course the observer's point of view. I look forward to hearing Miaow talk back to her mother when she goes through puberty, and to seeing how it affects the story. That stuff can be explosive!

  3. Agreed, Tim. The core personality is there from the start. Nuture can push it one way and another, but the core stays the same. You might become a depressed person as you get older, but you'll be the SAME depressed person. You may become giddy with optimism and unrealistically happy as you get older (I'm doing my best...), but you're still the same core person. I can remember myself back to 4 or 5 years old, with shadow memories even earlier, and "I'm still me" after all these years. More confident, yes. Wiser, yes. More handsome, of course. :-) But the core is still the same little boy, holding his mother's hand, looking up at her and asking, "Who was THAT?" as my uncle's murderer walked away...

  4. I can only agree to a point, Tim. With you and with the Jesuits (Give me a child until he's seven and I will show you the man.) After that point there are events so shocking and violent they can twist a character forever out of shape. The man with PTSD is not the child at seven.

  5. I think this is a powerful insight, one I share. Terrible events will shape our behavior and our feelings, but the core, as you say, remains the same. The idea is find that core again when life has been overwhelming.
    Munyin was adorable, and certainly looks that way now. And you and your brothers are cherubs. Can you guys look cherubic today?

  6. Hi, all --

    I no longer get email notice when people respond to my posts, which is why I've been a bit tardy lately.

    Lil, thank you so much. I'm more in agreement with you about the persistence of the core personality than I am with Shaved Monkey. I think that many people with PTSD and other experience-caused disorders are the same people, but with an altered nervous system and and different interpretive software. I do except from my sweeping generalization people who have suffered actual organic damage to the neural system.

    In fact, of course, this wasn't offered as a medical insight or a univeral key to human behavior but as a general rule that seems to hold true in the vast majority of cases -- and I was also considering it from a writer's viewpoint.

    Everett, you do have a gift for casually slipping a hand grenade into a carton of tangerines. Your uncle's murderer? And I would argue that while that event probably shaped you, the "you" it shaped remained largely unchanged, even while the way you present that person changed.

    Annamaria, Miaow is already undergoing the sea change of adolescence, in which anyone -- literally anyone -- is preferable to one's parents. And, of course, she's falling in love with the boy who played Trinculo in "The Tempest" back in QUEEN and who plays a somewhat mopey role, missing her in that ineffectual way males have, while she's out of Bangkok.

    Jeffrey, knowing you, my question is not so much who that little boy was as how he became a lawyer, although not why he left that behind and turned to writing really fine books.

    1. Re: uncle's murderer... yes, one of my dad's brothers was shot when I was just a couple of years old, and I vividly remember 'encountering' him while walking around a corner in our little town just 2-3 years later, and the look on his face (cat eating grin as he said, "Hello, Mrs. Kaser," the baffling (to me at the time) 'pinched' look on her face as she grabbed my hand and pulled me on down the sidewalk. Long, complex (and actually QUITE facinating story about the murder and the killer's eventual acquittal. The police reports (I acquired a copy) are fascinating. But FAR too long of a story and too inappropriate to go into here (even given the title of this blog :-).

      But no, that event and many later far-more-traumatic events in my life did little to change who I am and who I've always been, in my core being.

  7. And there's Defending Jacob by Landay, to send everyone to hide under the covers:

    But, then I re-read The Hiding Place by Corrie ten Boom:

  8. I refer all of you to Morris Massey:

    Dr. Massey recognized all of this a long time ago.

    And, for those of you who have never seen the videos of his presentations, I highly recommend them to you.