She held tight to the slowly rising rope. When it had hoisted her far enough, she bent her knees to lift herself off the ground. Everyone – family and servants – took a turn. Holding up the rope, and below it, the round scale, was the family cook, and the strongest man in the compound, Shi Fa. Everyone was getting weighed.
In her St. Louis kitchen, 8,000 miles and fifty years from where she grew up in Shanghai’s French Concession, my mom recounted this annual occurrence. On the first day of the sixth lunar month, she said, everyone was weighed. Mom seemed to think that this was a national ritual, but I’ve been unable to Google confirmation of this.
Why? I asked Mom. Why a public weigh-in? I can’t picture my dignified grandfather hanging off a rope!
To find out your weight FOR THE YEAR, she replied. Her tone implied, Why else?
I have a more intimate relationship with my scale. My scale and I converse EVERY SINGLE DAY. Most of the time, I’m relieved to be in an acceptable weight range. Sometimes, I gasp at an unacceptably high number. (First thought – water weight!) Once, I dropped five pounds overnight. I thought I had cancer. I weigh often because I feel more in control if I’m not blind-sided by some huge variance.
I’m not alone in equating more data with better outcomes, more control and, dare I say, progress. Hence, scales that read out to one-tenth of a pound and Apple watches that track your heart rate and rhythm. It is a human tendency. Lulu Miller, a science reporter and host with National Public Radio, has written a memoir that showcases this tendency to extraordinary ends.
Miller seems young to be writing a memoir. In her photos – dark shoulder-length hair, dark eyes, wide grin – she may be pushing thirty. She tells her story in Why Fish Don’t Exist: A Story of Loss, Love and the Hidden Order of Life.
As a child, she was chilled by her Darwin-influenced father’s pronouncement that everyone was equally insignificant from a cosmic point of view. (Her father found freedom in this schema; Miller found futility, which she calls Chaos.) Her mood worsened when a relationship went sour after college.
She set out to find the meaning of life, or at least her life. What was the point of living? She decided to study the life of someone who seemed to have succeeded, or at least never lost faith, in his own ability to tame the Chaos, to organize the natural world.
David Starr Jordan, she tells us, was obsessed with catching and classifying fish. Every fish he hauled in and named was an addition to science, a lessening of Chaos: Progress with a capital P. His obsession and expertise brought him stellar rewards, such as the presidency of Stanford University. It also led him to make assumptions that might be called wacky had the social consequences not been so dire.
Miller is also obsessed – with David Starr Jordan. You wonder why she didn’t give up when it became clear that he was an unsuitable role model. But NO! She follows his career twists, his marriages, his travels, his disastrous advocacy of eugenics. She researches rumors of Starr being involved in a murder. She reads his scientific treatises, his children’s books, his philosophical tracts. She interviews experts on Jordan and ordinary people affected by his actions.
Miller is a lively narrator. It’s fun to follow her down the rickety lanes of her research into herself, into Jordan, into scientific theories. You are pulling for her. You want to believe that all those pieces of information she has gathered will click into place. That there is order in the universe. That our individual lives have meaning.
The answer is right around the corner. She just needs more data.
I share Miller’s existential angst. My place in history is embedded in preserving my family story. I am the tenuous connection between China and America, the mixture of two languages, two cultures, two customs. As a child in St. Louis, I ate lunch with chopsticks and then went to the park to play softball. My mom spoke to me in Shanghai Chinese. I replied in English.
My vision of Chaos is that, once I am gone, the connections between the faces in my parents’ and my own photos, slides, cassettes, and 8 mm tapes will disappear into the void. Stories like the one about the yearly weigh-in will be dust scattered into the Universe, unrecoverable.
Both my parents come from large families. To identify my relatives in photos, to connect them to their Chinese names, and to sort out their exact relationship to me and to each other are formidable challenges. I remember one man as a relative my mother called “Loh Su.” I thought that was his name. From the Chinese, written on the back of one photo, I realized that all this time, she was calling him, “Sixth Uncle.”
When I’m on the outside looking in, David Starr Jordan and even Lulu Miller’s quests seem quixotic, even delusional. They each built a theoretical structure of how the world works, and then assembled huge amounts of data to support it. Jordan used his data to bolster a flawed view of evolution. Miller kept studying Jordan in hopes that she could capture his drive and optimism – not his views! – for herself.
I want some of Jordan’s and Miller’s obsessiveness to keep me on track with my family-tracking task. Yet, a part of me wonders if my need to preserve the stories and photos of my family’s past is as insubstantial a belief as Jordan’s and Miller’s theories.
I got a glimpse of an alternate approach to this need to order the Universe when talking with a new friend a couple of years ago. He was 94 years old and had embarked on a torrid love affair with a friend of mine. He had stories about fighting in WWII. I said, oh, you must write this down. He replied, I’m not interested in the past. I think about the future.
Miller came to a grudging compromise that, even though our individual existence may not be important from a cosmic perspective, our lives are meaningful through our connections with the people around us. And maybe, that’s enough. Or, as my mom was wont to answer when anyone served her food, “More than enough.”
Tell me: How do you feel about preserving family records?