George's Rainbow by Jeff Syrop
The author is a technical writer for a company that makes robots. He spent 10 years as an English teacher, and before that he was a laborer, living all over the U.S. At age 45, he is happily married, with one child (George in “George’s Rainbow”) and another one on the way. He rides his bicycle every day and feels great about being alive.
I did an amazing experiment. Before today, I hadn’t smoked marijuana in about 3 years. For the 7 or 8 years before that, I smoked about one time a year, maybe two little hits. So when I sparked up a joint today, I was pretty much a marijuana virgin. I’m really quite terrified of marijuana. Truth in large doses can be very uncomfortable. If it weren’t for George, I probably wouldn’t have smoked again in my life.
I had been starting to realize that I wasn’t able to tune in to George’s actual personality. Perhaps my life was moving too fast, perhaps my brain could never slow down sufficiently to see subtly enough to get a glimpse of his soul. I decided that maybe I could do it via marijuana. (I happened to have some marijuana because a few months ago, I had given a copy of Alan Watts’ The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are to a teenager in the neighborhood, and he had surprised me by giving me a miniature baggie containing a nice little bud, in return.) For all the four and a half years of George’s life, Ruey and I have been on the run. For over two years, George has spent about three hours a day on the freeway to and from day-care, where he’s institutionalized 9 or 10 hours a day. When he was an infant, he had to ride in a carrier on my back while I did research at the university library for my MA degree. Now during the week, I see him only about 20 minutes a night, when Ruey and he pick me up at 10 PM from work. I felt that if I didn’t get to know him now, when?
It’s funny. Like an old grandpa, I had to put on my reading glasses to roll a joint! The marijuana was very dry and flaky, but I was able to do a halfway decent rolling job. I felt like I was some kind of criminal while I smoked two hits out on the balcony, looking down on the windows and swimming pool of the cop’s house next door. I coughed a lot while trying to hold the smoke in my lungs.
I went back into the house, where George was watching cartoons like a zombie. I’d let him stay home from daycare today. He could tell that I wanted to hang out with him, and he graciously chose me over the TV. He asked me to play with him with his little Hot Wheels police station/bank setup.
I was immediately overwhelmed by George’s real personality, because I had time to see it. I spend “quality time” with George every day, but it’s so compressed. I hold him a lot and I hug him, but this kind of love almost reduces him to the status of a little puppy with no real personality. The insight I got into his personality today was almost too much to take. During the two frantic months I’ve spent teaching at Heald College, he has become a little boy, no longer a baby. He is complicated and sensitive to a degree that I hadn’t expected.
I could feel his loneliness, how much he missed me, and the void in his life that existed because of not having a brother or sister. He really needed someone to play with. I looked at a Power Ranger brochure he’d been trying to show me for over a month, and this time, instead of looking at one of the many little pictures and saying, “That’s cool, George,” or, “Ask me how much I care, George,” I really looked. I realized that I couldn’t really look, though, because some of the pictures of the little action figures were too small. I said, “Let me get my glasses, George, so I can check this out.” He loved that. He explained complicated relationships between the various Power Rangers and the evil villains and monsters they fight, and he taught me which Zords (Power Ranger vehicles) morphed into which Megazords (giant fighting robots). He had studied that glossy brochure as carefully as I would study a new computer program.
It was an unusually sunny and warm March day, and sunlight was pouring in through the blinds. George found light in rainbow colors coming off the bottom beveled edge of the mirror on the closet door in the living room. He had to crouch down and put his head about a foot off the floor to see it. “Dad, look at this! I can see the rainbow!” Normally, I would have bent down a little, seen a slight rainbow effect, and brushed him off with, “That’s really cool, George.” Maybe I would have tried to teach him the word “prism” and explain how a prism diffracts light. Because I was high on marijuana, though, and therefore more sensitive and nice than I really am, I got all the way down on the floor and put my head at the perfect level to see what he was seeing.
Man! Light was breaking up into colors too intensely, too magically, too beautifully. When I moved my head slightly, I could see several stacks of rainbow colors-red orange yellow green blue indigo violet-one stack of color on top of another. Since the light was reflected directly from the sun, I feared eye damage, but more than that, I felt shy (or afraid) to make eye contact with God. It seemed as if there were black eye makeup between each color, as if God had a sex more female than female.
There were probably only about two minutes during the whole day (maybe the whole year!) when the sunlight would hit that mirror so, and the colors could only be seen in a miniscule area of space on our apartment floor. It’s amazing how kids can be in the right place at the right time. [I looked for days after writing this story for that phenomenon to recur, but it never even came close-the sun was always at the wrong angle.]
George showed me a bruise on his leg and cuts on his arm that he’d gotten when he fell and hurt himself on an escalator at the mall last week. I had been rushing him when he fell. I was angry at him for taking too long to eat lunch and I was impatient because he was not keeping up with me. He cried, but I ignored him and kept walking, teaching him, I suppose, to be tough, or that if he had been keeping up with me, nothing would have happened. Now, looking at his injuries, which were just about healed, I felt sad that he had never shown them to me, even though they were of great interest to him. He had known I was too busy, or perhaps he thought I didn’t care.
I said, “You’re coughing a lot, George.” He said, “I have a little cold.” I thought it was interesting that he was now diagnosing his own illnesses. In the past, it was always Ruey or I who told him that he had a cold. He was breaking my heart – I didn’t even know he was sick.
Georgie and I decided to look at the baby book my mom had made for me when I was a child. On one page was a photograph of my classmates from the first grade. George asked me their names, and I looked at the all the little kids, each a very small rectangular black-and-white picture, and said, “I don’t know. I can’t remember.” And he said, “Come on! What were their names? What were the names of your friends?” I looked again, and one by one, the names snapped into recollection. It was very fun! Once I remembered their names, the kids came alive for me, thanks to George.
(You say you don’t remember something because some impulse in your brain tells you that it’s going to take too much processing time. The pace of your life makes you so time conscious that you just instinctively start saying, “I don’t remember.”)
One problem that I have with marijuana is that it makes everything seem overwhelming. I felt flustered and confused trying to get ready for our trip to Berkeley – where’s my money, do I have my keys, is everything turned off in the house? It seemed an almost insurmountable task to get George and myself dressed, find his bicycle helmet and strap it on his head, and lift my 10-speed down from the hook on the ceiling.
And then, right when we were ready to leave, George insisted that I clean the bathroom! The sink was filthy, and I guess he didn’t want to hear Ruey yell at me later for not cleaning it. I had no choice but to find a rag and some Ajax and get to work. When I was about halfway done, George excused me and we took off on my bike for the BART station.
It was very hard managing my money for the BART ticket machines. My hands shook with tension as I dug for quarters in my backpack and fumbled with bills in my wallet. Simple, everyday tasks like buying a BART ticket can be mind-boggling for me when I’m high.
The BART ride to Berkeley seemed long and strange. As I wheeled my bike through the electric doors into the train, I felt so neurotic, so full of worry, so tense. Maybe that’s why things aren’t going well for me at Heald. Maybe it’s like Ruey said – maybe I’m mean and bitter in the classroom; maybe the trouble I have with some of my students stems from my own tension. True, working at Heald means facing serious sociological and ethical problems, but I don’t have to be so self righteous or deadly serious about it. (It’s hard for me to be complacent when my students terminate their statements in class with “ya-know-wa-sain?” (you know what I’m saying), just like the pitifully ignorant gang-banger/rappers do on MTV. The ignorance I’m seeing in students at Heald seems like a national emergency.)
George’s behavior was excellent on this special day. First we went to the Mediterraneum, where George had hot chocolate and coffee cake. Later, we had pizza at Fat Slice. We danced to the beat of the percussionists playing congas and bells in the square at the university. It was an incredibly beautiful day. It felt so fine to be riding my 25-year-old 10-speed down Telegraph Avenue with my son on the back. While riding that same bike more than two decades ago down a cane road on Maui, with an angry dog right at my heals, or through the projects in Denver to my taxi driving job, I never dreamed that there would someday be a baby seat mounted on the back of it and that I would have a bright little half-Chinese son riding in it!