In our house I don’t need a calendar to chart the passage of time. I can plot the years by my husband’s passions. Last year was The Year of the China Obsession.
Marc decided he wanted to read ancient Chinese classics, and any old translations wouldn’t do. He cruised the Internet, compiling a master reading list from the web sites of the major universities offering courses in Chinese studies—Harvard, Princeton, the University of Chicago—wrote himself a syllabus and tracked down the books through Amazon. Now more than 30 books are piled on his bedside table, his own personal Great Wall of China: such classics as The Three Kingdoms; the six-volume The Dream of the Red Chamber; the Analects of Confucius; the I Ching; assorted myths and legends and, my personal favorite: China’s Examination Hell: Civil Service Exams of Imperialist China. The more arcane, the better.
“This stuff reads like a Chinese Peyton Place!” he says, eyes alight, as he plows through The Plum in the Golden Vase. He particularly savors the footnotes. “Do you want to know about the system of keeping concubines?” he’ll ask. “And did you know they use the patronymic as a first name?” My eyes glaze over.
Marc talks about teaching himself to read Chinese: a character a day. “In ten years I’d know almost 4,000 characters,” he says.
And I may not be one of them, I think, but smile instead. The smile gets a little forced, though, when he starts downloading Chinese fonts for his computer, or does a Google search on tea, where he learns how to prepare it in the traditional Chinese way, and when the tea catalogs arrive, orders $100 worth of loose tea leaves, as well as a traditional covered Chinese tea cup from which to drink it. In self-defense, I flee the house for a cappuccino at Starbucks, only to turn on the CD player in his car and be assaulted by the sound of Chinese Pipa music. Whenever there is a lull in our conversation, he reverts to the subject of his passion. And so it goes: The winter of his Chinese content.
It’s not the interest I mind; it’s the total immersion, the depth, the breadth, the sheer one-track mindedness of it all. He’ll get that far-away look, an air of distraction, but at least I never have to worry he’s thinking of another woman. More likely, he’s pondering the genealogy of the M’ing Dynasty. “What are you thinking about?” I’ll say, and sheepishly, he’ll answer, “You don’t really want to know.”
I never laugh. Oh, I may roll my eyes once in a while, but a wife’s got to have a little room to react. Besides, I know that we won’t be in China forever, because we just got back from another trip. One year we went to outer space. The Cosmos. The Final Frontier. That was The Year of the Telescope.
Astronomy was the reigning passion. Not just a subscription to Sky & Telescope, mind you. A full-blown love affair with the stars. He downloaded star maps from NASA. He trudged the whole family across a frozen field in the dead of winter to watch a comet we could easily see from our own backyard. He drove to the mountains of rural Pennsylvania to track down one of the country’s experts on configuring telescopes, boned up on all the optics involved, determined which scope he could couple with a camera in order to do some astral photography and finally, after endless one-sided discussion, ordered a telescope. His only regret: that we had neither space nor money for the 12-incher he really wanted. Then we needed a vehicle to transport this thing, so we traded in our car (luckily the lease was up) for a station wagon, not because I’m a June Cleaver wannabe, but because as Marc happily pointed out, we could take the telescope on family vacations, like some bulky third child.
And the passion before that? I like to think of that as the Year of the Rowing Machine, when every night I would listen to him recount how many meters he’d rowed, watch him faithfully record them on the spreadsheet he’d set up on the computer and hear again and again how close he was to the 10 million meter mark. Every night at 10:30, you’d find him in the basement, lashed to the machine like Ben-Hur, the TV turned up way too loud so he could hear it over the rhythmic sound of a machine that breathed like bellows, a metallic lung whirring shuuuush, shuuuush.
Instead of anniversaries, this is how I chart the passage of our lives together: the Year of Arctic Exploration. Arthurian Romance. Glacial Geology. Fractals. Chaos Theory. And then there was Kafka. It began innocently, with our hand-in-hand stroll through an exhibit of Kafka photos and memorabilia at the Jewish Museum, and then progressed to full-blown purchasing madness. Every book Kafka ever penned. All the Kafka biographies. Photo essays on Prague. Kafka’s letters. Kafka’s friends’ letters. You get the idea.
What will this year bring, I wonder. Ancient Sumerian texts? Thermal oceanography? Conversational Urdu? The Monkey chants of New Guinea? Marc offers a clue. “When I’m done with China, maybe I’ll do India,” he says. Uh oh. Time for chicken vindaloo. Break out the Ravi Shankar records.
He brings this passion to everything: me, our marriage, our children, his work. This was the intensity that first drew me in. So what do you do if the flavor of the month, the passion of the moment, leaves you cold? You listen. Because you know that were it reversed, he would listen to you. And you realize that he doesn’t drink, gamble, smoke or womanize, and that you always know exactly where he is. Because he’s your best friend, lover and companion, the guy who in the aftershock of an early morning earthquake, could still turn to you in bed and ask, “Did the earth move for you too?”
Bring on the garam masala, the Bhagavad Gita, and to India I will go. Because you know what? I wouldn’t miss it. Not for all the tea in China.
This post was originally published in Skirt! www.skirt.com