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Saturday, Nov. 6, 2010
WHEN EAST MARRIES WEST
An index finger pointing . . . where?
My wife cannot tell a story.
There. I have delivered my point in six words. And now I will explain.
"Oh, I can too tell a story," she says, pouting. "I can tell a story as well as any person alive. Except for maybe my friend Kana, who has a special gift. And yesterday she also had this stunning new dress that she bought in Ikebukuro. Personally, I never shop there because it's over-crowded, but they have snazzy restaurants too. Yet, I prefer to eat at home."
I sometimes wonder whether this domino pattern of thought is an influence of the traditional Japanese rules of rhetoric, in which the speaker presents a loosely connected series of ideas only to (hopefully) tie things together neatly at the end, or whether my wife is simply . . . lost in space.
She pouts more. I see I have opened a can of worms. The only question is which way they will wiggle.
"And I can't tell," she says, "if you're being racist, sexist or machinist!"
"Machines do not have hearts! They have push buttons. Except for the newer models which have touch screens. And online customer service."
At times I feel I have been head-butt by the old ram in Mark Twain's Jim Blaine story. Where a drunken silver miner named Jim Blaine rambles on and never gets to the point he promised to deliver — a story about his grandfather's ram.
"And now you connect me with a ram? And a grandfather? Aren't you the person who has wandered off topic? We are not talking about Mark Twain here. We are talking about my student's index finger! Right?"
This time she is on the money. My wife has a cute story to tell about her student's finger. But before she does, let me lay it out in a straight line.
This student is an elderly Japanese returnee from China. From childhood on he worked on a farm in Manchuria. He always yearned to study, but never learned to read or write in any language. Now my wife helps him practice simple sentences in hiragana. He is her 70-year-old schoolboy.
The other day he told my wife he had had callused hands all his life. "But never," he said, "have I had a callus here."
He showed her his index finger and the thickened skin formed by holding a pencil.
"And," he continued, "never have I been so proud."
Now my wife's version. Hold on.
"OK, it was a Tuesday and I got to work on the dot. Not like the week before when my train was delayed. For over an hour I had to sit there with nothing to do but peek at the book of the woman next to me.
"A vampire novel. Not my type. I prefer something with an elegant heroine, like Audrey Hepburn, who, I should note, never played a vampire. Yet even if she did, I would still like her."
"Knock, knock," I tell her. "Aren't you going astray? Just a little? Student? Finger? Callus? Remember?"
"Of course, I remember! I am providing critical background. This is not about losing my listeners. It's about pulling them into the story!"
"Alright. Go ahead."
She pauses. "Where was I?"
"You were about to connect Audrey Hepburn with a callused index finger."
She nods. "A connection that anyone who knows my student would see at once."
"They share," I offer, "a common dignity perhaps? A common grace?"
She nods again. "Well, yes, there's that. And they both have fingers."
I slap my forehead. "But everyone has fingers!"
"Perhaps in your version of the story. But remember . . ." She raises her chin. "I was there."
"Look, all you need do is state your main idea and then work straight through it, step by step."
"I did! Or I was about to, when you interrupted."
"If I hadn't interrupted, we'd probably be discussing the Napoleonic Wars. Or kitchen blenders. Or ducks."
I try to make each new illustration even more outlandish, but she smiles me down.
"Perhaps. But we would have ended up with the finger and the callus, just the same."
"When? Next week?"
"We Japanese like to make our narration long, just like our sentences. That way we can better gauge the reactions of our listeners and make proper adjustments."
"Listen . . . There are many things I can't do. I can't cook. I can't sing. I can't draw. Why can't you admit that you can't tell a story?"
"And you can't dance."
"OK, but . . ."
"Nor can you coordinate your clothing."
"OK, but . . ."
"Nor are you good with your hands."
"OK, but . . ."
"So unlike my student with the callused finger!"
She leaps up. If Mark Twain were here, she'd be trading him high fives.
"I got there! See! My way was just different, that's all!"
In her eyes is an odd, ram-like glint.
Compelling me to speak fast.
"A head butt now would be very un-Hepburn like."
She sighs. "See? You're off the topic again!"