Days, 2005

 

Andrew Lee

 

To Whom it May Concern:

 

My name is Andrew Lee.  I'm a 22-year-old Taiwanese, and I live with my parents and younger sister on the 9th floor of a building in a suburb of Taipei called Neihu.  I'm writing you because of my family.  We're not very smart.  I want you to help me get out of here.

     As a teenager I wasn't able to get dressed myself.  My mother always helped me.  My sister was never able to brush her teeth, so I had to do it for her.  My parents weren't able to use the elevator in our building.  They couldn't understand it, and the neighbors always had to help them. 

     These are just some of the things I could tell you about our situation.  There are many more.
     My life hasn't changed much since those days.  My parents won't let me leave, but I'm sick of staying here.

     We live in Neihu, outside Taipei.  Many people say it's a nice place to live, but I don't like it.  There's a constant stream of motorcycles on the road outside (it doesn't stop day or night) and ever since the last earthquake there's water dripping from two places in the ceiling.

    It's supposedly a nice building we live in, in the better part of Neihu, and we have a doorman in the building too.  This neighborhood is supposedly nice.  Still I want to tell you the truth about our neighborhood.  I think our neighborhood is bad and Canada is good.  With all our money we should be able to get to Canada.  So why don't we?

    I'm not sure where all our money came from.  I'm still confused about it.  Neither of my parents work, and for as long as I remember they never have.  The times I've asked my mother where our money came from she's always just told me it comes from Mr. Huang.  I believe her.  But when I ask either her or my father why Mr. Huang gives us so much money they can never answer.  My mother really seems not to know why, and my father maybe doesn't know why either, because whenever I ask he always starts laughing the way he does when he doesn't understand something, like when he puts his shoes on the wrong feet and can't understand why they feel uncomfortable.

     "Honey, did you run these through the dryer again?" he asks my mom.

     "No, I didn't," she says.

     "You've got them on the wrong feet!" I say.

     "Oh, so I do.  Heh heh heh heh.  Heh heh heh. . . ."

     Then he'll laugh on and off for about three minutes.  And sometimes my mother will laugh too.  This happens maybe two or three times a month.

     Since this is the same way my father laughs when I ask him why Mr. Huang gives us money, I really think it's true he doesn't know the answer.

     And Mr. Huang must give us a lot of money.  Because every week my sister has trouble with the TV or her computer, and every week she smashes one or the other in frustration.  But a few days later there's always a new TV or computer, even after the time she smashed the TV and started a fire.

     I wish I could find out the true story of my family.  I wish I knew why we're so rich when none of us ever worked.  I also wish I knew why we're stupider than most people, and if there's any reason for it.  And I wish I could get out of here and get to Canada. 

     These are the reasons I'm writing this.  I'm hoping someone can help me.

     It probably won't be easy.  Finding out the truth, I mean.  It won't be easy because I rarely go outside because when I do I usually get lost, and I don't know any relatives who could help me either because my mother says we don't have any relatives. 

     "We're lucky," she says.  "Relatives are just trouble."

     Also I can't ask the neighbors because the neighbors, who are usually friendly to us, also kind of hate us I think.  I can tell they hate us by how they look at us.  And this makes me wonder: Do they hate us because we don't have to work like they do?  Or do they hate us because they know how we got our money and the way we got our money makes them hate us?  Was my father maybe a criminal before?  If he was, the neighbors might not want to tell me, because they might be afraid to talk.

     In fact the neighbors almost never talk to us.  When we have trouble with the elevator, they always just purse their lips and help us use it, but they don't say much.

     If I could get to Canada I think my new neighbors there wouldn't know anything about my family and so maybe they wouldn't hate me. 

     So was my father a criminal then?  Actually I doubt it.  Because criminals are usually smart, or at least criminals who get a lot of money must be smart.  And my father is stupid.  And Mr. Huang, whom I saw once, doesn't seem to be a gangster either.  I can't believe my father is just pretending to be so stupid.  So how could he be such a successful criminal to buy all the things we buy?

     If my father has enough money to buy all these things, why can we never move to a better building or to Canada, where there aren't so many motorcycles on the road and where the neighbors are probably nicer?

     But there's another reason I want an answer to these questions.  It's because I feel my family is maybe--in the last few months--they are maybe becoming even stupider than before.  I suspect it.  Though I'm not sure it's true, it really might be, and if it's true I'm not sure why, and this is really annoying.  I'm a stupid young ma--that is definitely true--but at least I learned a few things growing up.  My sister's the same as me.  She eventually learned how to brush her teeth and she learned to use the air conditioners.  She's even used the Internet I think.  But recently she's started going backwards.  Last week I saw her getting really angry because the air conditioner in the living room wouldn't go on.  The reason it wouldn't go on was because she was using the television remote control to turn it on.  It's the same thing she used to do--and I used to do it sometimes too.  But my sister is 19 now, and she knows the different remote controls are different.  So why is she making the same mistake again?

     And it's not just my sister.  Recently my mother keeps putting the milk in the freezer and she can never remember that the freezer is the upper part and is to keep things frozen.  And twice recently she was brought to our door by the doorman because she was arguing with people on a different floor, saying they were not letting her into her house.  That's because she swore she lived on the 7th floor, and that those people were in our house.  But she never used to forget that we live on the 9th floor and not the 7th.  So why is she starting to forget it now?  And why is the milk always in the freezer and I have to let it sit on the table for hours to thaw and then it doesn't taste the same but it becomes milk with a big ice cube in it? 

     But the worst is what happened Friday.  I came into my parents' bathroom in the morning and my father was standing there pulling on the toothpaste tube.  He couldn't get it open because he was trying to pull the cap off without twisting it.  I remember this is what my sister used to do too.  She'd forget that things needed to be twisted off and couldn't just be lifted off like a hat off your head.  But I've never seen my father doing it.  When I saw what was happening, I showed him how to twist the cap off and he laughed really hard and said, "Boy, that was stupid of me."  And he continued laughing for awhile and I'm not sure if he ever got around to brushing his teeth.

     I really can't stand living like this any more.  It's not just the twelve-million motorbikes outside and the mean neighbors and the old men who spit on the sidewalks--no, it's because of my family and because things are obviously getting worse.  I still don't know why we're so stupid and why none of us has ever had a job.  When I once said I wanted to get a job, my father got angry and said he'd never let me do it, that getting a job was a dangerous thing and I should be grateful I live in such a happy and healthy family and shouldn't try risking my life going out and about where "anything could happen to someone."  And that was the end of it. 

     In Canada I know I could get a job.  In fact if things worked out I would have to get a job because Mr. Huang wouldn't know where I was and so he couldn't send me money.  And my parents wouldn't know where I was because I'd send letters with no return address because I'd have planned that trick ahead of time.  I'd hope I could remember the trick after I got there.

     I really don't know who to ask about all this.  I'd ask Mr. Huang but I haven't seen him in two years.  He sends the money to an account in the post office, and my father can pick the money up because he has the account number and a plastic ID card on a cord around his neck.  My father wears the cord all the time and never takes it off, not even in the shower.  "It wouldn't do to lose our lifeline, now would it?" he says.  It's probably a good thing he never takes it off, because usually he can't even remember how to get to the post office to pick the money up to begin with and usually the doorman has to lead him there and once he was hit by a motorcycle because he wasn't sure how to get back without jaywalking.

     I could maybe ask the doorman.  I think I might try.

     But I know that even if I do find out why my family isn't so smart and even if I find out about the money I probably still wouldn't be able to get to Canada just with the doorman's help.  So I'm sending this letter to some of the Yahoo group lists, because I think some of the readers in these lists must be Canadian and would know the best way for me to get to Canada.

     If you are Canadian and you are reading this, please to try to help me.  I really need to get out of here.  I've seen your country on TV and I think it would be perfect for me.  I really need to find someone who knows about Canada and who can help me make some good plan.  Once I'm there I will know what to do, but I need someone's help to get there.  Please write me or call me with your plan.

     My phone number is 2741-8723.  My current home address is:

 

Andrew Lee

9F-5, No. 63

Fushing Rd., sec. 2

Neihu

Taipei County 10468

Taiwan, R.O.C.

 

Thank You,

 

Andrew Lee

 

* * *

 

Paper Lanterns 

 

You're driving through inky darkness up a winding mountain road.  In the passenger seat beside you sits your high school social studies teacher.  He doesn't say a word, but the look on his face says he knows something you don't. 

     The road snakes upward; another oversized moth bounces off the windshield.  A few more mountain bends before you reach the village lit with paper lanterns. 

     It was good of old Gao to lend you the Benz.  Hsing-Wang will smile when he sees it.  Hsu and his boys will not.

     By the time you get there the wedding party will be in full swing.  The mayor will have given his speech, the contractors will all be drunk, and Shu-Fen will be gleaming in one of her sleeveless gowns, a glass of champagne in each hand.

     They'll make you catch up with Kaoliang shots and who knows what else.  You'll have to make toasts in your broken Chinese, and they'll laugh at you.  No matter: after the party Shu-Fen will come to your room, or you'll end up in hers.

     The dream is dissipated by a hand roughly shaking your shoulder.  They've opened the blinds, and the light makes you squint.  It's Hsu and one of his men, pointing pistols.

     "Wha--?" you begin.

     "Where did they go?" Hsu says.

     The caw of seagulls through the window, the rumble of a bulldozer.

     "You tell us where they go or you don't leave this place living," Hsu's sidekick says in his broken English.

 

* * *

 

H. in the Messianic Age

 

Dear H.:

 

It's been awhile again.  I thought of you recently, and so have decided to write.  Well, I was reminded of you actually.

 

I'm reading a massive, fascinating tome by one Howard Schwartz entitled TREE OF SOULS: THE MYTHOLOGY OF JUDAISM.  It was the introductory section on "Myths of the Messiah"--it was this that led me to think of you and what you may be missing. 

 

I'm worried about you, H.  I fear you're over there impoverishing yourself with your dogged secularism.  Yes, the way I see it, you impoverish yourself through secularism even as America impoverishes itself through a canned religiosity.  But how is this?

    

Consider some of the facts I'm getting from this Schwartz book: The coming of the Messiah will bring about a healing of both heaven and earth.  When the Messiah comes, the Temple will be supernaturally rebuilt in Jerusalem and God will finally be reunited with His Bride, the Shekhinah, who has wandered in exile since the Temple's destruction.

 

But also--and here I quote--: "In this new era, the righteous among the sons and daughters of Israel will receive a heavenly reward that includes not only studying the Torah with the Messiah, the patriarchs, and the sages, but even Torah classes taught by God."

    

I have to admit, it was reading this last sentence that made me think of you.  It's because I imagined you sitting in one of those Torah classes.  The chance to study under the Messiah, and perhaps even attend classes taught by God!  Think what a wonder and blessing that would be, H.!  I imagined you sitting there taking notes.  Was I wrong?

 

I'm guessing you won't imagine yourself sitting there.  Not even after I've described it to you.  Which is a shame.  You obstinately won't believe a bit of it and will stick instead to your dogged secularism and neo-Lucretian materialism.  And so you just throw it all away, you turn your back on the whole Messianic Age, and set yourself up for thousands of years correcting papers in the fluorescent-lighted rooms of Gehenna.  Yes, that's what you'll get for it in the end.  That or something like it.  Maybe it'll be thousands of years attending classes on Sartre's WHAT IS LITERATURE?--taught by Sartre himself of course. 

    

I read in Schwartz's book that the Jewish Hell is not actually eternal, but a period of purification.  So eventually even those who are sent to Gehenna will get out and join the others in Paradise.  Maybe even you, under these circumstances, would finally get to attend those heavenly classes.  Maybe even Sartre and myself too. 

    

But listen, H.  You're wise enough to know how things are and how things go in this world (and presumably the next one too).  Although you yourself may be of the chosen race, if you later on try to attend those Messianic Torah classes with a stint in Gehenna on your record, it's certain you won't get a decent seat but will have to sit far far away from the lectern.  As God expounds some passage in Leviticus, you'll be far down a side aisle and won't be able to hear Him clearly.  It will be like the Sermon on the Mount in LIFE OF BRIAN.  "Did he say blessed are the cheesemakers?"

    

My point here is simple: there's still time to change your ways.  And you have it in you, H.  I remember the special light in your eye when you were working on that Walter Benjamin translation for Nicholas Rand.  I remember your enthusiasm, how one spring day you and I saw Rand stroll down Bascom Hill in a shiny purple parka, his Einsteinian hair blowing in the wind, and you said: "You know, maybe Rand is the Messiah."

    

In fact Rand is probably not the Messiah.  And for this we should be thankful.  It means there's still time. 

 

As for me, the situation is quite different.  The Messiah has already come, and the Messianic Age "is spread out over the earth, though men do not see it."

 

E.

 

Howard Schwartz: TREE OF SOULS: The Mythology of Judaism

 

 

* * *

 

Following is a mathematical paradox that troubled me for a time after I first encountered it.  I give here some musings on my own initial failure to solve the paradox and why I still find it interesting.

 

The Monty Hall Problem

 

Question:

 

You are a guest on a TV game show.  Your goal is to win a new car.  The host shows you three doors and informs you that one of the doors has a new car behind it while the other two have goats.  He asks you to choose a door.  You choose a door but the door is not opened. Then the host opens one of the doors you didn't pick to reveal a goat (he knows what is behind the doors).  He then gives you one final chance to change your mind and you get either a car or a goat.  So you can stick with your original choice or switch your choice to the other unopened door.  Should you switch, should you not switch, or doesn't it matter?

 

After you've thought through your answer, you may consider the solutions offered here:

 

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monty_Hall_problem

 

Like most people, I initially insisted that sticking or switching my choice were equal.  In either case I would have a fifty percent chance of winning.  Of course this is wrong. 

 

Perhaps the best way to explain the problem so as to make it seem obvious is to imagine what will happen if two contestants play the game repeatedly, one of them always switching and the other never switching.  Let's call one Michael.  Michael always switches.  The other is Karl.  Karl never switches.

 

Now what will happen with Michael?  Let's assume Michael initially picks the right door, the door with the car.  Of course this should happen one-third of the time.  After Michael has made his choice, Monty will open one of the two wrong doors, and Michael will on principle switch his choice to the other wrong door.  Thus he will lose.  And this should happen one-third of the time.

    

Let's assume however that Michael initially picks one of the two wrong doors.  This should happen two-thirds of the time.  Monty will then reveal the other wrong door and Michael will on principle switch his choice to the right door.  Thus he will win.  And this, as stated, should happen two-thirds of the time.

    

To sum up: After playing thirty rounds Michael should have twenty cars and ten goats.  Michael, who always switches, wins two-thirds of the time.

 

What will happen with Karl?  As with Michael, the chances are one in three that Karl will initially pick the right door.  But Karl will not switch.  Which means that he will end up winning a car one-third of the time.  Likewise, the chances are two in three that Karl will initially pick a wrong door.  And he will not switch.  Which means that he will lose two-thirds of the time.

 

Thus: After playing thirty rounds, Karl should have ten cars and twenty goats.  Michael, if you remember, ends up with the opposite: he has ten goats and twenty cars.  Whereas Karl only wins one-third of the time, Michael wins two-thirds of the time.  To switch your choice doubles your chance of winning.

 

But perhaps this "explanation" doesn't really explain the problem, but only demonstrates that switching is the best option.  The interesting questions are: Why is switching the best option?  And: Why can't people see it from the outset?

 

Probably the best way to answer the first question is to slightly change the way the game is played, as follows:  Monty allows you to choose one of the three doors.  Then, without opening any of the doors, he allows you to stick with your original choice or to take instead the remaining two doors.  What would you do?  Given this presentation, most people will switch immediately.  This is because they realize they are upping their odds of winning from one-third to two-thirds.  Of course, in terms of probability, the game played this way is the same as the game played above.  But the game played above evidently includes a kind of sleight of hand that confuses most people.

 

What fascinates me about this paradox is why people, including myself, initially feel that switching would not improve their chance of winning.  Most people assume the odds of winning the car will be equal whether you stick or switch.  Why is this so?

 

The common error is apparently one of underestimating the value of Monty's move in showing you one of the wrong doors.  By opening that door, Monty doesn't exactly reveal to you whether you first picked the right door or not.  But if you picked one of the wrong doors, which is likely, he reveals which of the two remaining doors must have the car.  In other words: Provided your initial choice was wrong, which is a two-thirds probability, Monty erases the uncertainty regarding the two remaining doors.  The two-thirds probability still holds, except that it is reversed: you now, upon switching, have a two-thirds probability of winning.

 

It is obvious that according to the rules of the game Monty's hand is forced two-thirds of the time.  If you first picked the wrong door, he can only show you the other wrong door, which is the same thing as showing you the right door.

 

Why don't people see the value of the information Monty offers?  I'm still trying figure out where the blind spot lies.

 

Though I've seen a handful of explanations of the problem, I haven't yet seen anyone explain in cognitive terms why the problem has tripped up so many intelligent people--including, apparently, not a few math PhDs.

 

E.M.

 

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