Pick A Hero, Any Hero

Shanghai, November 2011. Perseus and I are at the batting cages. We take turns swinging at the bright green baseballs. Perseus is my good friend, a true 兄弟. We met in 1996 when I first lived in Taiwan. Every time we were together we invariably laughed our guts out and had a gas. Life was topsy-turvy in Taiwan, got downright hairy at times, and occasionally extended beyond our personal limitations when the fates inevitably soured on us. During those wild years of feral combat—usually with our own shortcomings—I could always count on Perseus. He was always there for me when I banged myself up, as I tended to do with alarming regularity (self-destructive critter that I was in those incandescent days of my early adulthood). After I left Taiwan, our friendship endured when so many other things in our lives reached an unspecified expiration date and vanished. He appreciates that I am a solid, trustworthy friend. We have history together.

In 2009, Perseus suffered a horrific car accident. I say horrific, but that is just a word on a page. He shucks his shirt and shows me the scars, but even the scars—thick and red as sea snakes twining about his right arm, neck, torso, and ankle—do not convey a real sense of the enormity of the accident. I can only gape, speechless.

Yesterday in Sichuan province, two people died and four others were critically injured when a car lost control on a mountain road to Chengdu City….

As he drily recounts the accident, I try to imagine what he felt like. That’s supposed to be my job after all, imagining things, but my brain seizes up. I feel awful. Eaten up with guilt. I should have been here for him. I should have. Let me tell you something. Everyone can find an excuse to not do something. There are always plenty of excuses on hand: just got laid off; broke up with my girlfriend; the subprime mortgage mess; motorcycle needs a major tune-up; diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder; the cat has herpes; etcetera ad nauseam. All of that is insignificant.

It has taken me so many years to learn what it means to be a hero. And if myth serves to teach us anything it’s to strive like those heroes. Whatever hero. Take your pick. It could be Heracles or Steve Jobs or Wonder Woman. Like the poster children of Nike, they just do it. They wrestle with Thanatos; they pioneer personal computing; they dismantle the Axis threat. They go to their friend, broken, bleeding, on the verge of death, and they are there to hold his hand, to reassure him that come hell or high water his best pal in the whole world will be there to make sure he gets the proper medical attention or—God forbid—the proper burial that he might need. Yeah. It was that bad. And where was I? I might have to carry out Twelve Labors to expiate my guilt.

Something clicked in my head this past year. It specifically had to do with the fact that I’ve never published anything, but on a deeper level it had to do with Perseus. “Why hadn’t I written a novel?” asked my brother, point blank, a sarcastic drawl on his lips. I deserved that shot and who else if not an older brother to give it. Because despite how much I’ve written, I’ve never committed to any of my projects. Maybe to anything. A hero commits. Heroes cash in all their chips and they shoot for the moon. They dare. They triumph. Yes, sometimes they die. The story of Jesus of Nazareth serves as illustration for that point. Jesus, in the throes of agony, did not say to Pontius Pilate , “Okay, you win. I give. You can take me down now.” I realized I could not live my life making excuses. I had to live one hundred percent all of the time. And if by God I had to live the most unconventional life in the world in order to maintain my values then I would. Obviously, I can envision a quite different life in which I could not have helped Perseus. If I had a very important job and that job kept my family afloat, then maybe I would not have been able to leave America and go to China to help him. Even then, I’m not so sure. My point is that I was able to leave. I had no family, no deep commitments. I was just weak. I was not brave enough to say “the hell with it” and get on a plane and sort out the details later. First things first. My friend’s life should have been first. I could have gone. I didn’t. I stayed asleep.

I dreamed that I had a friend and that he was hurt. I heard an alarm somewhere deep in my slumber, the klaxon rang and rang and rang, but I rolled over, thinking, feeling, my friend is dying somewhere in China. Sleep. My friend… Sleep….

Once I believed that America was my Kryptonite, that the American lifestyle sapped my strength like a soporific. Today I realize that is an unfair charge. There are indeed many—many—things wrong with the country in which I was born. One only has to look outside the window to realize the truth of that statement. But America is not to blame for my moral lethargy. Perhaps the idolatry of the individual contributes to it. Perhaps the compartmentalization of post-modern life feeds into it. Perhaps the isolation and estrangement that is endemic to our society lays down a psycho-social framework that facilitates it. Still, I have a choice. Still, I could have grown a pair of balls and decamped from my debilitating solipsism and set off for China to at least find out what the hell had happened to Perseus. That’s what Superman would have done. That’s what my father would have done.

Nothing is so important that you let a friend die.

Nothing should be able to convince you that it’s okay.

There isn’t a sliding scale when it comes to morality, I tell myself. How many Europeans put on their best poker face when they were asked if they were harboring any Jews? How many caved? Surely I would have stood up for what was right, wouldn’t I? Would I have had Schindler’s courage? The cheek I have to imagine myself as the hero in a grand historical opera when I can’t even behave more bravely and less egotistically than a George Costanza.

A cute young girl dressed in a pink jumpsuit hands Perseus a fat black bat. As part of his rehabilitation, Perseus has to exercise his right arm as much as possible. In fact, he’s a Goddamn walking contradiction of the medical community’s opinion. They predicted that the reattachment of his arm would not take. It would shrivel up like a dry leaf in a fire and become useless. The doctors refused to operate. They all wanted to amputate his arm and be done with it. Perseus’s girlfriend finally convinced (i.e. bribed) one daring doctor to try to save his arm. He was able to set the bones with metal bars, but he said that the nerve damage was too extensive and eventually he would indeed lose the use of his arm.

In Taiwan, Perseus used to own a small soymilk factory. He was a working boss, not the kind of boss that merely barked at his employees to run and fetch and do. He spent countless hours stirring the soymilk to just the right consistency and then ladling it out to get rid of any congealed elements. I remember all of this very well because I used to help him do it. He got a big kick that his American friend would deign to come to his rickety little factory to make 豆醬. To me the experience was marvelous. Yeah, it was a ratty little place set off in the small fields south of Taipei, but that only added to the charm of the whole endeavor. I was born in New York City, so anything to do with farming or the countryside holds a special allure for me. We would wind up a night of heavy drinking and then head over to his factory. The soymilk had to be produced in the early hours of the morning so as to be nice and hot and fresh for the customers at daybreak. Perseus had a couple of truck drivers who would help load and unload the various soy products that he produced. I can see him clearly in my mind using an enormous metal spoon as long as an elephant’s tusk to stir the soupy soymilk in a large black-bellied vat the size of a wild boar. I can see him stirring and stirring.

Perseus tells me that something in his past helped him save his arm, stirring soymilk, practicing karate—I cut him off and mention masturbating—and he laughs. I laugh. The red light flashes and a green-colored baseball curves towards him. Crack! He gets all the meat of the bat on that one and sends it smashing into the wire mesh at the far end of the batting cage. He’s gotten a little heavier now that he’s forty, but to see him at this moment knocking the hell out of a baseball—God in Heaven, thank you. God in Heaven, forgive me. Please.

The doctors can’t believe it. It was impossible. There was no way in hell he should have been able to recover at all, not to mention at such an incredible pace. But he did. Perseus tells me that he went to the park every day for hours and hours to exercise his arm. A Herculean effort just to lift his arm. Day by day struggling to bend his arm a few centimeters more. The miniscule space of those few centimeters. The vast span of time it occupied. The burning pain, the white-hot intensity is immeasurable. And he did it without any hope held out to him by the medical establishment. Anyone who looked at his arm told him to best just forget about it. But they were wrong. They took pictures of his arm when it healed and the story of his miraculous recovery occupies a few dozen pages in a Chinese medical journal. What healed him? The exercise? The therapy? Love from his girlfriend? His desperate belief in himself? A conjunction of all of the above? Something else?

Perseus and I talk about all of the crazy crap we did in Taiwan—the bar fights, racing around on motorcycles, drinking like soldiers about to go to war, the women who almost destroyed us and the women we almost destroyed—I say to him: 我們還活著真是個奇蹟! He barks in laughter, but the truth of it flattens out his mirth and he gathers his thoughts for a moment. “Yeah,” he repeats, “it is a miracle we’re still alive.”

I tell him I’m sorry and he asks for what. I say that I’m sorry I wasn’t here. He shrugs it off and smiles from ear to ear. “You were in America,” he says, “you were busy with your life. What were you going to do from there?” Perseus uses the distance as an excuse, but I know better. “I should have come; I should have been here,” I say. “You did help,” he says, “you helped a lot.” That’s Perseus: generous down to his metal-plated bones.

It’s my turn at bat. I haven’t hit a baseball since I was in middle school—so approximately thirty, thirty-five million years ago, give or take a few ice ages. I swing the bat trying to remember how Hank Aaron surpassed the Babe, way before they had pharmaceutical enhancements and such things. I pull up my pants, grab my crotch—that always seems to help the pro ballplayers—tap the plate, and dig into the fake grass. I squat deeply, raise my elbow, and narrow my eyes. The warning light flashes, the ball wings past, I miss, and Perseus cracks up. Very funny. The bat feels more like a samurai sword to me than a piece of sporting equipment used in America’s favorite pastime. Fine, I’ll go with that. I breathe out and focus. Focus. I crouch and exhale. And tell myself to relax. The red light flashes. Here it comes. Swing.

“Oooo. Nice one,” Perseus says in English. Yeah. Maybe.

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