Saturday, December 09, 2006

Salvation A La Mode And A Cup Of Tea

This afternoon, I watched the Women's World Gymnastics Championship Team Competition, which was really exciting. The event happened months ago in Denmark but I found it on CN8 today. China won by - if I understood the scoring - .67, as in less than 1 point. The commentators stuttered a bit in the back-and-forth about how the US women should have/could have, but that didn't matter. What they saw was a failure on the part of the American team. What I saw was a nail-biter of a gym meet where every twist, every balance check, every fall and every toe point mattered, and even after the last brilliant routine, nobody knew who won.

This is Zhang Nan. We in the West saw her win the bronze medal in the All-Around at the 2004 Athens Olympics, but even this is considered a mixed blessing. She fell and did not win the gold on the balance beam. I remember feeling crushed for her. Here is the routine I saw today. She's twenty now, and where Zhang seemed like a frightened child in Athens she now appears confident in the spotlight.

When I arrived at the family store just before 3, my brother-in-law Dan had the crazy eyes and couldn't finish a sentence. I was in a really good mood after having watched some truly exciting gymnastics but I frowned for about twenty minutes while piecing the squawks and odd sounds into a story. Here is a sample.

Dan: Cluck! Cluck! So busy! KA-POW!
Tata: Daniel, what the hell happened to you? Snorting light bulb fumes again?
Dan: Caw! Caw! Caw! Credit card-wielding Valkyries! Eck!
Tata: Were you - maybe - really busy today?
Dan: Thursday busiest day in cartoon history! Before lunch!
Tata: Daniel, I brought cranberry bread and clementines. When was the last time you ate something?

Dan paced in circles and bumped into a wall. There was a long-ish silence.

Dan: Nine this morning?
Tata: Right. Stop that, um, whatever it is you're doing.
Dan: What am I doing?
Tata: You're going to get a knife and a plate.
Dan: I will?
Tata: Yep. Just like the ones you're holding. See them?
Dan: Hey!
Tata: Now, while I help the customers, you're going to sit down and eat.
Dan: I am?
Tata: It's an exciting new fad. Dabbling won't make you a poser.

Despite my insistence that he sit down, Dan ate bread and oranges running up and down the stairs and bumping into boxes. Until the sun went down, we were busy but not hysterically so. There were boxes around my feet behind the counter. Boxes full of gift boxes lay everywhere and at improbable angles, evidence of an earlier avalanche. Dan assembled gift boxes in a speedy, compulsive manner that made me nervous. Now and then, I would get snippets of what'd happened before I got there but I absolutely didn't get it until he pointed at a pile of paper.

Dan: Not a single transaction has gone into the computer today.

I picked up the mess of papers, smoothed them into a cohesive pile and was shocked by its size. I held it up. I wiggled it. Each piece of paper represented a transaction. Suddenly, I understood.

Tata: Bok bok bok bok bcka!
Dan: Nnnnnbbbbbbboooooo!

I started entering the transactions into the computer system that is slow and crappy. By 4:30, it was mostly dark out, and while we still had customers and sales, the fire was out. Dan was still on his feet, though I have no idea how. I worked on the receipts while Dan ran hither and yon. Being pushy and controlling had worked before so I started applying pressure preemptively.

Tata: Dan, what's for dinner?
Dan: What's dinner?
Tata: That food-thing other people have when it gets dark out. And when are you leaving?
Dan: No provision has been made for me leaving.
Tata: Ever?
Dan: I got fired yesterday.
Tata: I'd say "Get out...!" but you might.
Dan: There was a...then big confusion...then my boss said..."Things aren't gelling"...portfolio...
Tata: Jesus Christ! The people who sought you out tossed you out? That is positively monstrous!
Dan: Bok bok bok bcka!
Tata: You got that right, sister.

Shortly after this, Anya arrived in a similar state of ambulatory shock. Anya doesn't respond as well to pushy old Me so I switched to nagging.

Tata: What's for dinner?
Anya: [Ten minutes of running around doing stuff and chattering.] What were we talking about?
Tata: What's for dinner?
Anya: [Ten minutes of running around doing stuff and chattering.] What were we talking about?
Tata: You two need vegetables and some protein stat! Greek food?
Anya: I had that last night but I could have it again.
Tata: What do you want to eat?
Anya: [Ten minutes of running around doing stuff and chattering.] What were we talking about?
Tata: What's for dinner?

We settled on Thai and I was relieved to watch them both at least avoid eating their Thai salads. Then Dan picked up a fork and ate. I tried not to move too quickly or mention it, lest he dash off and do something else. Then he went to go pick up the kids at their grandmother's house. I never actually saw Anya take a bite. By closing time, after six hours of plugging away at it between episodes of fitful gift-wrapping, I had entered all but four receipts into the system. Anya and I laughed the whole time because, let's face it, we're not just funny looking. On the other hand, I could see she was determined to deal with Dan's sudden and frightening unemployment, which is worse than it sounds because Corinne's separated from her husband and everyone depends on Dan, by focusing her already tight focus on the family business. I looked at this and thought, 'I've got to be at least 57% funnier and more engaging with the customers.' And yes, today was the busiest day in the business's business history in five businessy hours before I got there.

Zhang Nan, again. Zhang was raised in a home that was 10 square meters, her biography says. I thought we called those prison cells. The image at left comes at an instant about one-third of the way through a back handspring. Her body is stretched as long as it can, which makes her fluid and beautiful in motion. She appears to float. That is an illusion. Every day for years, Zhang has stretched and bent and run and lifted weights and fallen on her head and thrown herself into the air and eaten carefully and denied herself ordinary things for instants like this that pass so quickly they cannot actually be seen but only remembered.

Collect them like jewels.


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