A False Accountingby Tan Lin
My father died of a heart attack in Santa Barbara, California, on the morning of August 4, 1988. He had been living in Santa Barbara for four years, and my mother, an English professor at Ohio University, in Athens, Ohio, joined him, as I did, for the summers. After my father died, my mother, sister and I spent three weeks in Santa Barbara, and together we packed up the apartment, and put it up for sale. My father’s papers and books were sorted, roughly by year, into fifteen banker’s boxes. In mid-August, movers packed up the contents of the house—furniture, household items, and a car—and transported the items back to Athens, Ohio, where my parents had spent most of their lives, beginning in 1959 when my father was hired to set up a ceramics program at Ohio University. When my mother moved into a retirement home in Pennsylvania in 2000, the banker’s boxes went with her, and when my mother passed away in August 2013, the boxes were moved to a storage unit in New York where my sister Maya and I live.
Maya was intent on not leaving a lot of stuff for her children to deal with, and I was hoping to find things that might interest my ten-year old daughter Ahn, who had been asking about her grandfather. Between the present desire to dispose of the past and an imagined future desire to have saved some of it, Maya and I began sorting through the material. In October and November of 2014, Maya and I would meet at the storage unit, downtown, close to Maya’s studio and a quick subway ride on the C or E train for me. The room measured nearly 700 square feet, and Maya had installed my mother’s desk, an air conditioner, our parents’ Danish modern couch, and a large wall mounted liquor cabinet from Athens. The storage unit had a window, and the overall effect was of the various rooms our family had lived in, convened in a downtown apartment in the midst of being moved into or vacated.
On Sundays we’d brew a pot of tea and sort through the stuff. This archive was mostly unconscious and activated by various departures, and I was looking for specific documents in Chinese with which I could secure two lives: my parents’ Chinese passports, their diplomas from St. John’s and Fukien Christian University respectively, and their first American driver’s licenses. And because both parents were gone, I wanted birth certificates, which would pinpoint a place where all of this started. Of these eight items, I found three in the coming weeks, confirming a belief that if the past isn’t totally evanescent, it isn’t enduringly present either.
On one of the first weekends, Maya and I found the bankers boxes, stacked five wide and three high against the back wall of the unit. In the intervening years, someone had tossed a tarp over them. The boxes contained what Maya and I thought would be the earliest family documents. The boxes looked pristine, and when we pulled the tarp off, I feared they might be empty. Sometime in the mid-80’s, my father had announced to my mother that he was buying a house in Santa Barbara and moving there. When she asked him for how long, he replied that he didn’t know. Maya and I were no longer living at home, and I believe my mother told me this over the phone. I do not remember if my mother cried when she told me this but I think she probably did.
After his death, the gap between my father’s life and his stuff had widened, as did the sense of a single family’s fragility. For my sister and me, who were born in the United States, and who were children who had reached adulthood, the boxes reminded us of an earlier era in China (1915-1949) that we had no boxes for. Seeing the boxes returned my father’s life in Santa Barbara, and something of his reticence. The boxes suggested that my father had possessed three, possibly four, earlier lives, and, with them, a few delayed or posthumous deaths. My father’s first home had been in Beijing, but he had spent his childhood in Fuzhou. I do not remember my father talking about being a child or the house he grew up in. My mother told us that my father’s mother, as was typical of families of some wealth, had sent him from Beijing to Fuzhou where he was raised by an aunt. She told us that my father had not spent much time with his mother and that his childhood had been unhappy.
Over the course of two months, as we unpacked the boxes on weekends, a sense of chronology began to emerge, and within it, a blankness, that nagging sense that my father’s unhappiness and anger could not be traced back to anything we would find in a box. It was October. My father had been dead twenty-six years, my mother for a little over one. Two incompatible periods of grief were coming together, taking the shape of that thing I think of as adulthood. I had aged. Adulthood was no longer a milestone that marked the past; it’s a moving target that closes in on the time you have left. When I was younger I thought adulthood was something more or less singular or accountable, an event that arrived with a kind of false solemnity in the middle of life when you settle down and raise children; now, I realized that it arrives much later in life than you expected, and that it keeps on arriving through the death of your parents.
In the boxes, Maya and I discovered my father’s real estate deeds, car titles, teaching notes, glaze tables, clay formulations, a memorial plaque commemorating twenty years of service to Ohio University, as well as his graduate school textbooks and photographic equipment manuals. Almost everything in the boxes contained a date of some sort. Over the course of eight weeks, a collective adulthood, not unlike a collective childhood, began to emerge, and like adulthood itself, it seemed to be imprinting itself over time and over some version of childhood.
The eighth box, opened in November, contained camera equipment: a Nikon F2, a 150 mm zoom lens and a Rolleiflex. We opened the box around the time of my father’s birthday; had he been alive it would have been his 99th. Apart from this, there was a grey Samsonite briefcase that my mother had packed. In it, Maya and I found most of my father’s important papers, his Chinese passport, a c.v. and the first job letters that my mother had written for my father because his English was not good.
Most of the text books and photography material dated from the time when he was studying for a Masters of Education at the University of Washington (1949-54), and the bulk of the remaining items from a later period (1955-1984), when my father and mother lived in Madison, Wisconsin, and then Athens, Ohio. Included in the latter group were his English books on roses. A few materials, including newspaper clippings about Ronald Reagan’s presidency, come from the period after my father had moved out of the Athens house and into a second home in Santa Barbara (1984-1988).
The boxes had been shipped across the country and moved on three occasions, each tied to a death. Each box resolved particular years of my father’s and our family’s life; like the remembered past, each box exhibited signs of abridgement and amendment. Taken as a whole, the boxes resembled a filing system of the ways a family connects one part of its past, the Chinese part in our family’s case, to another part, which was almost wholly American. I now realize that the things that were Chinese in our family mostly stayed Chinese. And the American things, they began to appear, like all the other things, to be partly Chinese, and this I think, too, is a sign of adulthood where certain things drop away and others become more prominent. Adulthood isn’t a period of time, it’s a rehearsal for an abridgement or a departure. Or to put the matter more simply, my parents became more fully Chinese upon their deaths, and my mother’s death made my father’s more Chinese in turn. As for me, after leaving Santa Barbara, I had thought about my father’s death many times but I had forgotten the boxes.
It is late in November, in 2014. Maya and I are in box fifteen. It is the next to last weekend of sorting. We are drinking English Breakfast tea and eating Pepperidge Farm cookies. A part of us is in Athens, Ohio and a part of us is in New York City.
“Oooh,” my sister says. “An album.”
“Where?” I ask.
“Under the glaze manuals.”
Maya hands me the book. “Do you think we’re in here?”
The album is five inches high and seven inches long. On every other page, there is a photograph of a car. Most of the cars Maya and I recognize:
“They are all the cars dad owned,” Maya announces. “I found yours.”
“Your Buick! The one you drove into a telephone pole.”
“I drove the Mercedes into a telephone pole.”
“Because you were talking to me,” I remind her.
Maya nods approvingly.
I had wrecked the Mercedes, badly, one afternoon when we were driving home from the tennis courts or the grocery store. The Mercedes was the only car I ever held a legal title to. All the others were family cars.
A photograph of a grey Jaguar Mk II four-door sedan with an XK twin cam six glued to the cover. Inside, images and text alternate in a relation that calls to mind a family album with most of the things, like birthdays and anniversaries, left out. Under the photo of the Mk II, carefully inked with a blue fountain pen, in a style not in keeping with the photograph’s informality, is a label: CAR WRESTLING and RONALD REAGAN.
It is hard to tell whether this is a title to something that is not a book, a little bit of reality fiction camouflaged as a family, a caption to a stock photo, or a little bit of all of these things. Two months have passed since Maya and I set foot in the storage unit, and I think the gradual un-sorting of a family’s life corresponds to the disappointments inherent in photography. Or, in other words, a family is chronologically weak and so are its photographs.
“Each automobile gets its own photo,” Maya says.
“Not in order,” I tell Maya.
I page through the album and try to piece together a sense of passing time. Time passing is mostly about things on the inside and most of these things are photographs taken outside, on our driveway. My father purchased only used cars, often years after they were made.
Except for the cover photo, the album is arranged not by year of acquisition but by model year, ending in 1978 with a brown Mercedes 280 SE, the last car my father bought and the Mercedes that I took to the University of Virginia when I went there to teach in 1993. The ’47 Buick was the first car I owned, and it is the first car in the book, but it was not the first car I had driven. When I was eleven or twelve, my father had let me take any number of our family’s cars up and down our long and winding gravel driveway that was hidden from street view, and thus from any cops. I had driven the Jag Mark II and the Olds Toronado as early as the fifth grade. In my senior year of high school, I drove the ’69 Pontiac Firebird nearly every day from home to school, and then from school to the university where I took courses in the afternoon.
The only thing missing from this book is a timeline of the life of the person who assembled it. Of course, the response to one timeline is another timeline just as a solution to a family’s memory problems, at least in our case, is a trip to a used car lot. The photos are four inch square. On the album’s inside cover, there is a photo of my sister and me laughing, hanging our heads out of the front seat window of a 1977 Cadillac Sedan de Ville. There are no other pictures of family members in the album. There is a picture of my mother’s blue Nissan Sentra but she is not in the car. The photos were taken with my mother’s Kodak Instamatic rather than my father’s Nikon F2 or his Rolleiflex 2.8 FX.
Maya picks up Chinese Stoneware Glazes—Ancient Glazes Re-Created for Today’s Potter (1975) by Joseph Grebanier from another box, and I work through the album. Opposite each car photo is a description, in my father’s handwriting, of the car’s basic features: colors, interior finishes, price paid, price sold, or the thing he bartered it away for. Beneath the car’s essential details, a distinguishing characteristic is often penned in, much in the manner that a parent might list the traits of a child. Under the Toronado, my father has written “Turbo-Hydramatic;” under the Mk II, “Indonesia.” Under the Buick, “driveway lamps.” My father liked to trade cars, photographic equipment and ceramics equipment, more or less continually, usually for other cars or photographic equipment, and sometimes for labor. Like most things we fall in love with gradually, this album of photos takes out a little bit more reality from the world than it puts back in.
My father, when he gave presents, tended to give them whenever he felt like it, so I was probably slightly younger or older than sixteen when I got it. My father handed me the keys to the Buick one morning and simply said, “Go outside.” In our family, the giving of a used car, or any gift for that matter, was dependent more on the classified ads or inventory sheet for a used car lot than the date on which a family member’s birthday actually fell. The Buick had Fluid Drive, a three-speed manual transmission that required a clutch to get it into drive, whereupon it became an automatic. “Automatic” is not the right word to describe the car because it “did not change gears automatically.” Rather, as the operating manual indicates, it could be “held stationary in any gear without disengaging the clutch.” The car’s immense weight, coupled with an automatic transmission that was not automatic, made the car hard to start and harder to turn from a standing stop. Suddenly, in Athens, there were now a number of problematic stop signs, at relatively busy intersections, where rapid acceleration was desired but impossible to obtain. This fact suggests that the anxiety inherent in driving a car does not develop gradually over time but is basically present from car one. “Third gear starts were painfully slow,” and I avoided them. The Buick was my first car, and the single photo suggests, in addition to anxiety, fairy tales, magical outcomes, and under-the-hood operations that are designed to save grace on the driver’s part.
“I didn’t know how to drive a stick.”
“That’s for sure,” Maya adds. I put the album down, on top of Oriental Glazes: Their Chemistry, origins and re-creation, by Nigel Wood
Opposite the ‘47 Buick, my father has written: “Paid $400, June 1973. Athens Messenger. Owner: old lady, school teacher. Orig. Owner. Traded: July 1977 for driveway lamps and electrical work.”
I do not believe my father showed the album to our mother, who was not interested in cars even though this album included numerous cars she drove to school in: a Saab 199, a 1968 light green Pontiac Firebird convertible with a 350 engine and a hood mounted tachometer, a Mercury Cougar, and eventually a light blue Nissan Sentra, which was my mother’s favorite car because it was small, non-sporty, easy to drive, and because my mother chose it herself. Most of the cars that my father bought for my mother, without consulting her, with the lone exception of the Nissan, were sports cars, muscle cars or sport sedans, and they were inappropriate for my mother’s level of driving skill and her automotive interests, which were not directed to the automobiles themselves but to where they could take her. For my mother, who never learned to drive well and never associated cars with romance, driving was a footnote to grocery shopping or her reserved parking spot near her office in Ellis Hall. For my mother, the only thing less romantic than not getting a car on Valentine’s Day would be getting a car on Valentine’s Day. The Nissan was the only car that we bought new.
In addition to these cars, the album contains photos of a ’72 Jag XKE, a 1977 Mercedes 350SE, a white Mercury station wagon whose make and year my father did not indicate but which we used to travel across country to Yellowstone Park one year, two Lincoln Mark IVs (which we vacationed with in the four or five consecutive summers that we went to the Cape), five Cadillacs, a mustard yellow Mercury Cougar with hide-away headlamps, a red Dodge Charger convertible, and a dark blue Olds Toronado with flip up headlamps, whose engine my father burned out in Yosemite one summer. The only cars my father wanted but was not able to buy in the years we spent in Athens, Ohio were a Porsche 911 and Winnebago trailer, because they never surfaced on one of Athens’ five or six used car lots, and he was often rueful when speaking about these two elusive non-purchases, which I have now added to his album, as an appendix of unspent and vagrant cars. Because my father purchased cars in no particular order, because he was fond of the cars he bought, and because he held onto cars after buying a new one, there were frequently four or five and never less than three cars parked in our driveway, in our three-car garage, or, during the early 80’s, inside the Hut, a Quonset hut the size of a small airplane hangar that my father had purchased to use as a ceramics studio.
Since my father bought only used cars from local dealers and watched wrestling on local cable TV, it is hard to establish an exact chronology to the album’s construction, to the order in which his car collection grew, or to his love for Ronald Reagan, except to say that pro wrestling and muscle cars were shallow accidents that somehow happened to each other and to Ronald Reagan, and thus to my father. Of course a family is a kind of accident in time. The front cover of the hand-made book is what I consider a masterpiece of family automotive literature, by which I mean the people who circulate in and through a family’s automobiles. Every family that has ridden in automobiles has a family automobile life composed of photographs of automobiles. It is hard to look at this album and not be mistaken about a few things: that it was not my sister and me who grew up but the cars, and moreover, that some of these cars were subjected to acts of favoritism that children elicit. In any decent family, it’s impossible for a child to know exactly why she is loved in the way that she is. Ditto with cars.
In our family’s case, my father’s favorite was a Jaguar Mark II, probably because it was more comfortable than the XKE (I think my father acquired the XKE a little too late in life, when he was in his 50s), because my mother could get in and out of it with ease, because it was an automatic, because it had a piece of sculpture as its hood ornament, but mostly because it had a distinctive odor that, like all things our family loved, combined things we didn’t think about as belonging together.
In this case, the Jag let loose vague, diffuse and accidental odors, which I associated with a room in a British museum, philatelic collections, the rubbed dashboard smell of a wood that my father said was from Indonesia, the smell of camellia, a whiff of leather, my father’s bottles of Johnnie Walker Black, and a faint odor of vanilla ice cream mixed with premium motor oil. The car smelled fantastic. Our whole family was aware of its olfactory effect. If memory on the brain had a nose (and it does; it’s called forgetfulness) or if the car had been big enough, our entire family would probably have moved into it. My father said the car smelled as good as food in China, and even my mother, who had no interest whatsoever in British Saloon Cars, thought the car smelled like newly ironed silk. The two back seats were combination sport buckets and La-Z-Boy—in pancake-soft leather. Befitting a pedigree of drinking while someone else was driving, each bucket had two pull down drink tables, illumined by reading lamps mounted in the head lining fabrics over the rear windows. The wood, combined with the smell of carpeting and the interior fabrics, exuded an odor of camphor, libraries, rose bushes, Islay scotch, and Vap-O-Rub, and my sister and I thought of camping when we were inside it. A velvety fabric reminiscent of Christmas ribbons or wrapping material lined those parts of the car not finished in leather or wood, and this fabric united with the plump upholstery buttons and the wrap-around cabin glass to give the impression of a mid-sized sailing boat with wall-to-wall carpeting. This effect led us to beg our father to allow us to sleep in the car in the summers, my sister in the reclining bucket in the front, and me splayed out in the back, reading the Hardy Boys. Over the course of our adolescence, Maya and I never camped outdoors in a tent, but a good number of the twenty-seven cars in my father’s album served this purpose. Since we lived in a semi-rural area surrounded by acres of untouched woodlands, there was little point in getting to know what is called “outside” or more elegiacally, “nature.” Our family entertained itself with another idea: make “outside” more “inside.” My father allowed me to keep a library of Hardy Boys mysteries permanently installed in the back seat and my sister stocked the Jag with a menagerie of stuffed animals and a deep plastic dish with a pet turtle. Of the twenty-seven cars catalogued in the album, the Jag was the one that smelled most like a family, and it was regularly parked on an elevated part of the driveway, beneath a Chinese elm, where it could be seen from nearly every window in our house. The car was not really a car, it was a family member reconvened as automobile philosophy, and we loved it so much we invariably drove it to Kentucky Fried Chicken, whereupon the entire family would consume a bucket of chicken and drink Cokes while parked in the lot. From very early on, my sister and I were thus resolved: why eat fast food in a restaurant when you can eat it in a Jag? I am probably wrong about this, but I think the car had built-in ice buckets and a magazine rack for each of the back seat passengers. One lovely summer evening, my father gave me a haircut in that car.
Every summer, after dinner, my father frequently drove us to the Dairy Queen, and on the way back we would stop by the various car dealerships and used car lots on East State Street in Athens where Maya and I would finish our ice cream and my father would look at cars and my mother would feign impatience, then enthusiasm. The doors to the cars were, like doors to houses back then, unlocked, and my sister and I could scramble into the back seats. In the photo below, my father is standing in the Jones Buick Oldsmobile Cadillac used parking lot in Athens, Ohio, outside the main showroom and next to an early 70’s double finned Cadillac Sedan de Ville. This is a car my father would later buy for $1700, in July 1977, and that would remind me of every couch we acquired for the next twenty years.
Aside from this photo, I have no memory of this living room ornament. For me, a used car lot or a late 70’s Cadillac is just another way of inducing a series of unforgiveable likenesses, which like most kinds of incandescence in the brain are camouflaged by the unrecognizable shapes and moods that a family album produces. Most family albums resemble un-written novels. The past comes back in bits and pieces or it doesn’t come back at all and that is why life is like a photo album and not vice versa. And so the vulgar and theatrical, what we call love, is born in between the incongruous and nonsensical things of this book, where it returns with regularity, each season. Everything in this album has its own idea of what love can do with itself, and everything you are now reading has its season and each season pours through the things in this book as if they were people. But of course the book, like a family, is merely an invention, or an intervention in things that cannot be seen clearly anymore, and everything that is vulgar in a life waits to be completely forgotten by what is not. But maybe I am wrong about these feelings. They may not even be mine at all. Maybe love is just the sound of a clock ticking in a used car lot.
Sometimes instead of cars, and sometimes opposite the photos of cars, my father pasted in a photograph of Ronald Reagan, or occasionally (I think when my father lacked a photo he wanted), a professional wrestler from the Wide World of Wrestling, a show he watched incessantly. Opposite the Olds Toronado, there is a photo of Hulk Hogan, and opposite the Chevy convertible, there is a photo of the notorious Undertaker, wearing a black rubber face-mask. There is no discernible reason why cars are substituted for Reagan or professional wrestlers. People think that collections have a real-life logic of their own, but they almost never do.
Despite my sister’s and my protests, my father insisted on watching wrestling on a regular basis. He insisted that it was a real, unrigged sport despite what seemed, to my sister and me, its “noticeably unreal and obviously fake” tag team scenarios, with men who had names like Undertaker, Great Kabuki, Sandman, Abdullah the Butcher, and the Iron Sheik, or else real life names like Eddie Guerrero or Eddie Gilbert that did not seem to correspond at all to what a person with that particular name would do in real life. It did not help that these men had moves they had invented and trademarked, names like the Muta Lock, Bite of the Dragon, Gogoplata, Haas of Pain, Mongolian Drop, Facewash, Cactus Clothesline and Texas Throwdown.
Wrestling on TV was loud. Fireworks preceded the bell. The more flamboyant and foul wrestlers drove motorcycles, ATV’s and even riding lawn mowers into the ring, throwing beer bottles and breaking metal folding chairs on the heads of heckling audience members. These vehicles were rigged to produce excessive amounts of exhaust and noise, and we clearly saw people, including screaming children, in the ringside seats gagging from the fumes. In these matches, men, and sometimes women, competed for and won gigantic title belts. These belts all looked the same, and were circulated endlessly between the various players from match to match. Most notably, the belts and their awarding did not signal an end to the matches. They were usually used as a weapon, and smashed over the head of an already defeated opponent.
To my father, wrestling was real. To my sister and me, in the 70’s, when we were both in our teens, the line between fact and fiction, between adolescence and adulthood, or between the real lives of the wrestlers in the ring and the law of kayfabe, which is the theatrical portrayal of things in the ring as “real” i.e. not of a “worked” nature, was similar to the line between a Chinese family in America that watched fake wrestling and a Chinese-American family that did not. In other words, the line between faked American wrestling and being Chinese in America was ambiguous, just as real adult life was delayed by something faked, which in the case of my sister and me was the large, mostly forgotten expanses of a quasi-Chinese childhood, most of which did not end till after our parents’ deaths. In other words, Maya and I had American childhoods that were mostly made up, with the help of various documents and photo albums, some of which were also made up. I do not mean made up in a novelistic sense. As any practicing psychiatrist or adult who has passed through childhood can tell you, nearly all of anyone’s childhood is, by definition, non-descript and forgotten. No one “remembers” childhood until childhood is long gone. The same is basically true of death and ethnicity, and the professional wrestling that my sister and I hated watching but watched anyway. Just as an American childhood is an interiorized invention, a small room in the house of a Chinese adulthood, so is a Chinese adulthood an invention of something that is long gone, or merely theatrical, if it ever existed at all. Everyone’s ethnicity is always dying a little ahead of time, especially in Athens, Ohio where there were hardly any Chinese families at all. Both my mother and father died Chinese deaths no matter what the paperwork says.
The world of professional wrestling that my father immersed me in was comprised of what were called “angles”—fictional storylines that intersected with fairy tale narratives known and loved by children, and these angles derived mainly from the American carny and circus scene, and from the worlds of British Catch and Cumberland wrestling, which were in turn derived from the ingenious constructs of the Brothers Grimm. In this world, the players, and here they were like recently grown-up children, were never to acknowledge to the audience (in tag team wrestling, the audience functions as parent) that they were “working” it, with scripts and title belts handed down by “bookers.” Or in other words, it was so real it had to be fake. Bookers, managers and wrestlers alike were all compelled, under the rules of kayfabe, to publically proclaim that whatever the wrestlers did—despite protestations from the skeptical bystanders, police officers, “insiders” who broke kayfabe for cash, and paramedics who tried to put an end to the proceedings—was “real.” In other words, being a child in a family is real only to the parents of that child. To the child, being a child is just the way things are. But this is just another way of saying that my father, my mother, my sister and I participated fully, much like reality TV actors, in the reality of what was going on and in a childhood, even when a particular move was botched or where there was too much unnecessary or accidental blood, what my father simply called “color” or “contrast,” and which could be adjusted with the advent of color TV. In our childhood, there was no color at all. All the color, too much color really, was added later, and this is known as remembering or, as fans of wrestling freely acknowledge, cheap heat. Memory is basically cheap heat applied to the unaccountable documents of a life.
The WWF and Wrestling Mania programs that my father and I watched accrued, by the early 80’s, a considerable amount of in-references, jargon, and a long-standing history, embodied in the blood feuds and grudge matches between the “babyfaces” or “blue-eyes” and the baddies, who my father called “heels.” This was the world of reality TV before reality TV, and it was, like life, beautiful and brutal and filled with the heat of remembrance, not so much in its pre-mediated outcomes (they were in black and white) but in its real-time meddling of the fake and real and the language used to describe numerous choke and submission holds—Sleeper holds, Kimura locks, Standing Scissors. My father’s favorite moves included the Anaconda Vice, any sort of neck cranks, Brazillian Jiu-Jitsu, Judo compression chokes, as well as the more obvious forms of “juicing” (using a blade to cut open an opponent’s forehead), and of course, the career-ending Backbreaker.
My father watched and worshipped this world as much as any other sport, with the possible exception of football and golf. He liked moves large on a Muta scale (i.e. the blood scale); he admired rope tricks, especially rope cornering and turnbuckle jumping; he enjoyed wrestlers like the Hulk who worked their gimmicks hard, and he subscribed to a number of cheap dirt sheets that arrived every other week and chronicled the ongoing feuds and often re-wrote history to white out recent events such as the real-life arrest of a wrestler or a missed spot that resulted in a wrestler undergoing surgery. Each week there was a lot of work, which was the rewriting of heat from the prior week. This continually mutating and fluid set of storylines, which constituted a blurry, systemic retroactive reconfiguration of the past, convinced Maya and me that the whole thing was spectacle not sport. But it was this paradoxical back writing that confirmed in my father’s mind that truth, like the feelings that surround it, was elusive, manipulated, and violent. In other words, professional wrestling allowed him to re-imagine life in the present as if it had arrived from the future and not the past, and this I now realize is one of the definitions of adulthood. Only a past that arrives from the future can be re-written and in the world of professional wrestling; the past and the future are more or less simultaneous.
These are things one doesn’t want to remember but one does anyway. On the fifth page of my father’s scrapbook, which has now been misplaced by my sister or me, there is a black and white photo of the most infamous technique in professional wrestling. In this photo, the Undertaker is working something on Shazarian, who may or may not be “participating” in the move. This move in question is the Pile Driver, and in this case it may be “goofed,” which happens when one of the parties is an un-consenting partner to the move and then fights it, resulting in a botch, which is kayfabe for severe injury. The Pile Driver is simple and devastating in light of botched logic: it involves grabbing an opponent, turning him upside down and then falling backwards into a sitting position, allowing an opponent’s head to hit the mat straight on like a pile driver. My father called this move “the Texas Electric Chair,” because it resulted in permanent paralysis and spinal injury. Whenever the move was about to be performed, usually upon a dazed and already incapacitated opponent, the referee would run to prevent it. At this point, the perpetrator would drop the body he was holding and punch the referee out. Then he would pick up his opponent and start over. This move was so dangerous that it was banned kayfabe, or fictively, within the spectacle apparatus, and stretchers and ringside doctors with neck braces came on after it was administered to save the life or clear the breathing passage of the person who had been pile driven. Most of the memories I have of this move are shoots; they are uncontrolled, nonsensical and non-compliant. At some later point in the show, a doctor would be brought in to relate the gravity of the wrestler’s condition, and after the doctor, there was often a bereaved wife or in some cases a recent widow. People died in these scenarios. There was sometimes incredible wailing in the booth, a wailing that my entire family found almost unbearable to witness. The things in the gut that are wrenched were “worked” over for a long period of time inside a larger construction or culture that my father regarded as non-fictional and that Maya and I understood to be a family. To add to my sister’s and my confusion about family, and to the general blurring of reality around the Pile Driver and the havoc it wreaked, this move was actually and legitimately banned in real life by the WWF because, if done incorrectly, it actually did break necks and end careers. On more than one occasion, the stretchers and ambulance personnel that picked up a body that had been pile driven were actually real. Even the WWE banned it in 2000, unless the wrestler had special permission to use the move.
Is a family a shoot or a work, a botch or a worked botch? Sometimes it’s hard to tell. My father kept all the images of wrestling and pile driving to himself during his lifetime, and very few people beside my sister and I knew about them. As I noted earlier, since my father bought only used cars and watched only wrestling on the cable channels and eventually on PPV, it is hard to establish an exact chronology of his car collection and his more or less shallow love for Ronald Reagan except to say that the second golden age of American pro wrestling and the first generation of American muscle cars were accidents that somehow happened to each other and to a family. The album of my father’s is thus not technically a history of anything, but it is not exactly a fiction either. It is hard to know in what year he became enamored of Reagan or an Olds Toronado or when he suddenly decided to acquire foreign cars or leave my mother and move to Santa Barbara.
Despite being chronologically inaccurate, the album, and here I mean the myriad details of the album’s construction, are impeccable, and the things I think about when I see it are a few memories that do not occur in the order that I’d like them to. The book is incoherent while being unleavened by humor. It has an ambiguous love for things that are not related. It is unpaged, like a family that does not really exist, and it lacks nostalgia of any sort. A family is a piece of technical writing, applied to a project, which in this case is a family. It is a study, albeit an informal one, of the relations between things and people and people and things as if there were no real distinction between them or as if a family is a thing that makes no distinctions possible between what is real and what has been faked, between a gift and a gift not given, between the fictional lines between things that are non-fictional. And vice versa. The photos, which feel characterless or generic in the way strangers or objects do, have been affixed with small black corner mounts. And yet or because of this attention to detail, the album is an exercise in precision and plotlessness and manners and Japanese roses, and wrestling and mourning and mostly non-mourning for wrestling, a precision that I associate with British motor vehicles of a certain era. All the photos are in color, except for seven or eight of them. And all of them suggest the nonsense of a memory before it becomes a memory. Such memories are the technicalities of history that remain undeveloped. Or to be a bit clearer, a family is what a family does to entertain itself. This is because in a family, members have creative control over the scenarios they take a part in and thus what they remember, and this remembering is really just a kind of non-remembering because it transpires over vast stretches of a family’s time. And when this non-time starts to run out, when a second parent dies, when an archive achieves a bit of consciousness, something happens with time again, and then it happens again, and again.
After my mother’s death, my family’s life has become less theatrical; apart from this misplaced album, and a few obituaries, it belongs to something fuzzy, inexact and inescapable, like a newspaper obituary on the Internet or indoor-outdoor carpeting in a house at 30 Cable Lane. And so a family’s life comes apart, or maybe it comes down to carpet, the look of an evergreen, or possibly the smell of a vacuum cleaner. There was a time when I thought that a newspaper, any newspaper, even one that contained an obituary of my father or mother, could indicate the general prevalence or scarcity of happiness in the world. This was before I realized that happiness, like love, is not an emotion but an object like a refrigerator or a Jag Mark II or a photo album about cars and the WWF, which is to say happiness, anyone’s happiness really, is an anonymous, mostly made up system of arranging the things that no longer exist in the universe. And without this species of anonymous happiness, the happiness studied by sociologists and regarded as a species of practical decay that is applied to the things of the world, no objects, which are mostly printed and stored online today, could be said to still exist. The death of a parent makes the happiness of childhood what it is.
The four photos below offer a brief lesson in abridgment in a memory system, a time-lapse or speeded up chronological accounting of a family. I have tried to keep this set of photos apart from my father’s album; this latter set of photos tells a story of domestic life: this would be a family in Seattle, a family in Ohio on Mound Street, a family at 30 Cable Lane, and a family in Santa Barbara. The photos hold nothing to account, just as the family that they bracket. A fifth photo, which is the first one in this sequence, shows my father in China. In this photo, which I know to be the last one, I must confess that I do not know the people surrounding my father. I believe this photo was sent to my mother before my father’s death, but I do not know who sent it or whether it dates from the time when my father was living or from a time that is much, much later, and still arriving.
TAN LIN is the author of over twelve books, most recently, of Heath Course Pak, Insomnia and the Aunt, and 7 Controlled Vocabularies and Obituary 2004 The Joy of Cooking. His non-fiction writing has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, Art in America, Artforum, Purple, Cabinet, and Triple Canopy. He is the recipient of a 2012 Foundation for Contemporary Arts Grant, a Getty Distinguished Scholar Grant, and a Warhol Foundation/Creative Capital Arts Writing Grant. His art and video works have been screened at numerous museums, including MoMA/PS 1, Yale Art Museum, New Museum, and the Drawing Center. 7 Controlled Vocabularies received the Association for Asian American Studies Award for Poetry/Literature. He is currently working on a novel, Our Feelings Were Made By Hand.