Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

In August 1964, my family took a four-day vacation to San Diego.  I remember not wanting to get out of the motel swimming pool, being overwhelmed at the enormity of the San Diego Zoo, and treasuring the pearl necklace which was my birthday souvenir from Sea World.  I also remember my dad looking at the sailboats out on Mission Bay, saying, “That looks like fun.  Come on, kids, let’s go sailing.” 

So with the four of us in tow, he walked up to the boat rental stand.  Asked if he knew how to sail, he nodded yes, and the young man staffing the boat rentals handed him a pencil and pushed a sailing test towards him.  He looked at my dad’s answers, and then walked down the ramp to usher us into one of the boats.  We piled in, and pushed off.

We meandered along and it was fun enough.  But pretty soon it seemed we were at a standstill, in what sailors call “irons.”  My dad started trying all kinds of maneuvers, getting visibly frustrated.  At one point, he actually said he didn’t know what to do next.

“Uh, Daddy,” I said, “I thought you knew how to sail.”  “I’ve never been sailing before,” he said amid swinging the boom around.   Even at 8 years old, I knew better than to pursue this line of conversation at that moment.

Eventually we picked up enough air to limp our way back to the dock.  Like I said, the outing had been fun enough, and yet I was glad enough for it to be over.  I probably wouldn’t have remembered any of this but for two reasons.  The first is this photo which my dad took of us in that sailboat, which he really liked.  Bob, on the left, was a few months shy of 7, Alan on the other side of me was 4 and John on the far right had turned 2 that June.  What curled Bing’s hair about this photo is that none of us were wearing life jackets.  Bob and I could swim pretty decently at this point, but Alan was just learning.  My mom didn’t let John in the motel pool but here he is in the boat.  Cars also didn’t have seat belts then; it was a different time.

The second reason was the conversation I had with my dad later on the trip.  In as casual a way I could manage, I asked him, “So if you didn’t know how to sail, how did you pass that test?”  I have never forgotten his answer.  He said, “It was just physics.  If you think about it, you can figure out anything.” 

If you think about it, you can figure out anything.  I suppose this might sound as if it smacks of arrogance, but I took it then, and take it now, more as the mantra of the problem-solving mind.  He who blew through crossword puzzles, Sudoku, and Rubric’s cubes for fun, figured out engineering and science problems at work.  With everything, he did what Richard Bushman calls “laying your mind” on an issue to untangle it. 

Knowing what I now know about sailing, it was a good thing nothing went wrong, though, that still summer day.  About 40 years later, I was in the vicinity, Coronado Bay, in a boat again, this time on a chase boat watching Akemi practice with the Alamitos Bay Yacht Club junior racing team before the start of Sabot Nationals.  It was wonderful to watch the concentration on the faces of the sabot sailors as they tacked on the whistle like corps de ballet dancers, their sails snapping and then catching the wind with full sail.  Now they knew what they were doing.  Sailing is three-dimensional chess with the elements, a thinking man’s sport.

Thanks to some generous hospitality this past Saturday, Akemi and I got in one sailing day for the summer.  Our skipper described the wind as too light for any challenge, but the weather otherwise couldn’t have been more pleasant.  First mate Akemi had the chance to brush up some sailing technique, while my job mostly was to help with innocuous tasks, stay out of the way during the real action, and relax in the sea breeze in the security of highly competent hands.  And admire the inspiration and example of problem-solving minds, while I laid my mind on a few issues of my own. 

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Saturday, August 25, 2012

On the nights I taught at USC or was away on business trips, Bing’s repertoire of daddy-daughter activities included feeding Akemi tomato beef chow fun at Golden China, letting her pick out videos at Blockbusters, and making the rounds of the local German car dealerships.   That he would tell her “Shh! Don’t tell Mommy we went out looking at cars!” made it all the more fun for her.  She thought she was confessing a deep dark secret a couple of summers ago when she told me they test-drove a lot of cars together.  Silly-nilly, I replied, Daddy left those Mercedes brochures in our bedroom and how else would she know so much about BMW models?

It was a guy thing, I figured, and a Leung thing, especially – Bing had a rusting 2002 when I met him and I’m counting up at least 4 other BMWs in the extended Leung family over the years.  But for those years during which we ran our Mazda 626 into the ground, we really did need to decide on the next car, and I was willing to leave that decision up to Bing. 

I was on my way home from a week in Chicago at the October 2000 ULI Fall Meeting, calling to let them know I was on the LAX shuttle to Lot C, when Bing said, “I found our next car!  Are you too tired to drive out to Palm Springs?  The dealership has been holding the car for me until you got home.”  Bing had hunted out a 1999 Audi A6 Avant Quattro station wagon which had been driven around modestly by the dealership owner, which the dealership was offering with new car warranties at a nicely depreciated used car price.  I had never heard of this car before, but I came to quickly learn that Bing (and Akemi) had thoroughly scoped it out.  Among its most important salient features was that it was just long enough to be able to fit Akemi’s Sabot mast and boom inside, with a rack to car-top the boat itself. 

Akemi could not believe that we were driving home a car from Palm Springs late that night with Bing having sprung the whole idea on me just hours before, but I was fine with it.  I ended up being the one to drive it the most since I was doing the heavy-duty freeway driving, but it really was the car that made Bing happy.  Akemi and I have called it our “happy memories” car – the car which took us endlessly to Colburn, ABYC sailing every summer, regattas, road trips to Palo Alto, school field trips.  Then I held onto it so that Akemi had wheels once she got her drivers license.  Even though the clear coat was starting to flake by that point, she was just happy to have a car to call her own, and it was an Audi, besides.  She did not mind it was an aging one among the new model cars some of her high school classmates sported about in.

With every expensive repair, though, I started to mind.  With about 10 days to go before Akemi returns to Boston, the Audi convulsed on her, fortunately in a residential area within walking distance of home.  When I got the repair estimate, the death knell sounded.  I had recognized I had kept it longer than reason would have dictated.  It may have been just a car, but it was the last daily representation of Bing in our lives. 

So at the end of the most hectic week of the year in the life of a university administrator (meaning I really didn't have time to deal with this, but okay), we sang a requiem to the Audi yesterday, celebrating the happy times in it, having a hard time biding it farewell.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Monday, August 20, 2012

As the construction of our Peralta Hills home was winding up, my dad stood in its living room.  This must have been in the spring or early summer of 1968. The farm boy who grew up with plywood for shelter and without any culture decided that he wanted original artwork on that large, blank wall in his spacious new home.  “Let’s go to Laguna,” he said to my mom, intent on finding an oil painting. 

We trooped in and out of the galleries on Pacific Coast Highway as he narrowed the considerations down to two galleries.  We walked back and forth between those two galleries until he decided on one of them.  Then he deliberated between a few options painted by that artist.  My mom remembers that this deliberation took all day as he weighed what he liked aesthetically with the price tags.  I remember the day was hot, the studios lacked chairs, and us kids were bored silly.

We came home with this painting of a pond in a forest, misty and mysterious.  And my dad hung it on that large wall over where my spinet piano went when we moved in.  For years as I practiced, I’d stare right at this painting.  As I memorized my music, I came to memorize every brushstroke.  Later when the Steinway replaced the Wurlitzer spinet, my orientation to it changed – the painting was now on my left instead of straight ahead – but it was still my companion during all of the hours of practicing. 

I concocted great questions in my head about this painting’s unknown narrative.  What was the artist trying to depict with the cluster of bright blue and magenta Seurat-like dots?  What was in the clearing, beyond the fog?  Was the thick pile of paint in the front a beaver dam?  Where was this wooded secret place?  Beethoven, Chopin, Debussy, Bach, Brahms, and other composers took me there. 

As I was making wedding plans, my dad said I could take the Steinway to my Pasadena condo, and with that move, the piano left the painting behind.  When Akemi was first studying the violin and took her violin to practice during stays in Peralta Hills, she didn’t understand at the time why my parents were so insistent that she practice in the living room, standing in the empty spot in front of the painting.  “That’s where your mom practiced,” they both told her.  So she also stared at this painting during hours of practicing.

Once I asked my dad why he bought this painting.  He simply said, because he liked it.  At one point, I told my mother that I felt I really knew this painting from staring at it during all my practice time; I wasn’t angling for it.  But within the past year or so, every time I’d be at the house, she’d tell me to take the painting home with me to Pasadena.  “No one goes in the living room anymore,” she’d say.  “Don’t you like that painting?”  But it was always too high and large for me to get down without help, and I was reluctant to see her dismantling the house.  “Let’s worry about it another time,” I’d say.  But she’s been sending other things home with my brothers, too; my dad’s Hiroshige print is now with my brother in Singapore, for example.  As her health has declined, I’ve taken it as a sign that she really does know, deep down inside, that her days in that house are numbered, despite her adamancy to the contrary. 

Last weekend two of my brothers and I had to convince her that the time has come when she could no longer drive, which has kicked in the sad reality for all of us that the time will come when she no longer lives in that house.  She insisted that with my brother Alan there, he could take the painting down and put it in the car for me.  The jig was up in more ways than one that day.

Akemi and I both had the same reaction upon seeing that painting in my little house as compared to my parents’ huge house: “Gee, this painting is bigger than we thought.”  First we tried it over the mantle, moving our family portrait to the spot to the left of the piano.  Then Akemi said, “I think it’ll fit next to the piano, and don’t you think it belongs there?”  Strangely enough, it did fit there, and I felt strangely happy to see it again while looking over my left shoulder seated at the piano.

So the painting and piano have been reunited, which I now think must be making my dad happy, too. In the past few days, she and I have talked about the painting’s blues and purples, chartreuse greens and grays, its open questions, and unknown answers.  Does Akemi realize it will be incumbent upon her to have a place to hang this painting next to the piano when all this is hers? 

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

When Janice, Mimi, and I first became friends, we discovered that we had a string of birthdays: me in August, Janice in September, Mimi in October.  As newlyweds on limited budgets, we decided to jointly celebrate by going out for dessert in Old Pasadena, just us girls.  We closed down a new place called Mi Piace and then sat in Mimi’s car in our driveway, talking away.  In the days before cell phones, Mike called our house to see if Bing knew anything about our whereabouts.  Bing suspected accurately and came ambling out to see if maybe we wouldn’t be more comfortable inside – and Mimi, call Mike.

And so began a fine tradition of picking an evening towards the end of every summer before school started when we could leave the husbands, and later, the kids, at home, and talk the night away.  It wasn’t as if we didn’t otherwise talk with one another – we were constantly together – but we always looked forward to our birthday night out.  Along the way, we racked up some funny escapades, tried out new restaurants (growing up at some point to afford dinner, and not just dessert), and enlarged the group with other girlfriends.  Along the way, we commiserated through pregnancies and births, infertility and adoption, kids starting school, kids in school, and all too soon, cancer.

The birthday group morphed into an even larger chemo support group for Janice, and then for Bing.  Janice would survive Bing by nine months in 2003, our annus horribilus.  Throughout it all, our birthday group exploded into almost-endless world filled with other incredible friends.   

I love this photo as a remembrance of our birthday group.  Although it is not dated, I know it was taken in August 2000.  Janice had had her first surgery at the end of July and this was when she was feeling up to going out.  We’re at Saladang Song, a favorite Thai restaurant here in Pasadena.  And I know it wasn’t any later than August because she still has her beautiful curly hair, before she started chemo.  Carol is standing on the left, Elizabeth standing on the right, Janice in the middle, and Mimi on the right.   

Mimi has now driven me to the hospital, staying with me on my own chemo days.  Two of us have had daughters marry; Mimi is welcoming a son home from a mission, as we speak.  We are long past the point of wanting to be reminded about getting another year older, but we still convene our birthday group as an excuse for getting together.  In fact, the group has gotten so large, it’s splintered into at least two clusters. 

Since I’m feeling so much better at the time of this birthday than I did at the time of last year’s birthday, I was more in the mood to celebrate this year.  Thank you to all of you who sent such warm wishes from Boston, Washington, D.C., Klamath Falls, Provo and Salt Lake City, Rockingham, Merritt Island, Pacific Palisades, Palo Alto, and other places near and far.  The birthday group returned to Saladang Song this year, with dessert at my house.  I think we would all agree that while it is not the same without Janice, we’re sure she is with us every year in spirit.  

I’m told that birthdays are celebrated in heaven.  Will there be pad see iew and chocolate cake there? If that’s where I end up, I certainly hope so. 

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Watching the JPL crew wait anxiously tonight for the time when the Curiosity is scheduled to land on Mars reminds me of watching the Gemini and Apollo lift-offs and splash-downs as a kid.

My dad, the thermodynamic expert, was part of the Saturn V rocket booster team with North American Aviation (before it became Rockwell and then Boeing).  My brothers and I shared in his excitement and nervousness over each mission.  We got to see many of the charred capsules once they returned to earth. 

Now, instead of a watching black-and-white images on a little TV screen in our Downey living room, Akemi has a live feed up on her laptop in our kitchen, taking a break from practicing, while I stir a summer batch of chutney with my garden tomatoes.

Time to hold some breaths with our JPL friends. . . .