May 26, 2011

How I Came Up With My Blog Title

It wasn’t something we’d planned on, but after two years in China, my wife and I picked up and moved to Düsseldorf, Germany. It wasn’t the last place we thought we’d end up: Neither of us had ever heard of it. We arrived in Germany two months before our shipment. A microwave cooked our pizzas. Suitcases doubled as tables. At night we’d lie on the floor of our empty apartment, staring at the ceiling and wondering if the Universe had sent us here for a reason. Things could have been worse, but still, I was hoping for some sort of explanation.
A few months after settling in, Takayo and I attended a dinner party thrown by one of her colleagues. I sat across the table from Hans, a tightly-wound life coach from Berlin. He had arrived late, dressed from head to toe in Eddie Bauer, with a pair of Ray Bands dangling from his neck by a rubber tube. His gray moustache screamed 60, but he checked his phone with the enthusiasm of a teenage girl. We talked between incoming texts.

"Zo," he said, "do you have a favorite German dish?"

I told him “schweinshaxe,” or pork knuckle, cooked till crispy on a wall of fire. He seemed impressed, so I told him about Dan’s Old Farmhouse, a German restaurant in China, adorned with wagon wheels and thick-ankled waitresses.

            “It got out of control,” I continued. “Everything was ‘pork knuckle' this and ‘pork knuckle' that. I saw pork knuckles in my dreams.

            He found this amusing. “You see what happened, don’t you?  It was NLP: Neuro-Linguistic Programming. You thought about the pork knuckle again and again until—well, here you are.”

Hans sat back in his chair, seeming very pleased with his elucidation. I liked how simple he made it sound, but as it stood, this whole “flying pork knuckle” theory was a bit airy-fairy.
“So,” I said, “are you telling me that pork knuckles caused the school to lay off my wife so we could end up in Germany?”
“You would be surprised at what powers the mind is capable of.”

There was a watercolor hanging on the wall above Hans, a splashy bouquet of flowers bursting from a melted vase. As he spoke, I pictured it falling down and smashing over his head. The sound of breaking glass fills the room, and everyone looks over and sees Hans’ head bursting through the frame like a daffodil. Again and again I imagined this until—of course nothing happened.

“I ate a Hawaiian pizza last Christmas,” I said. “Now, where’s my trip to Honolulu?”
He had to laugh like hell at that, but the conversation was shot.

Usually, I make a point of giving people the benefit of the doubt. Ask the right questions, and folks will generally surprise you. Hans, however, struck me as the type who read medical journals, then, whenever someone sneezed, mindlessly named off some corresponding disease. You might think now here’s a guy that loves to hear the sound of his own voice. And he might be. The problem is—in the back of your mind—you know there’s a slim chance that he might be right.
And, oh, did I hate him for that.

So, what if I was wrong? Perhaps what we think about most does help guide, in unforeseeable ways, our direction in life. We internalize food. But does it also internalize us?
At the time, my wife and I weren't ready to leave China. There was, we felt, still more to accomplish. The pork knuckle, however, had other ideas.
Anyway, life is good. But still, I wonder what would have happened if we'd obsessed over an Ethiopian or Siberian restaurant. I’m sure they’re nice-enough places, but let’s be honest: things could have turned a lot out worse.