In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • Step Up and Whistle
  • Andrew Lam (bio)

How my uncle ended up almost exactly where he was three decades ago, repeating the same gestures that turned his life upside down, would be too bizarre to imagine, let alone make up. But since “The Staircase Incident” was written up in the local papers and he was called “mentally disturbed” on the evening news, it demands explanation.

First, given his profound losses, Uncle Bay is far from being “disturbed” and is one of the most caring human beings I know. Since he is a devout Buddhist and a vegetarian who volunteers weekends to teach kids math and Vietnamese at the Vinh-Nghiem Buddhist temple in San Jose, the idea that he assaulted someone is absolutely absurd. The security guard fell off the stairs. The guard was not pushed. We have witnesses who can testify on Uncle Bay’s behalf.

Second, my wife, our daughter, and I were with him when the whole thing happened. As a matter of fact, we were witnesses and participants—especially my daughter, who, if you come down to it, was his accomplice, if not the instigator of the whole thing. It was Kim-Ninh who skipped up and down those stairs and cussed like a sailor, which caused Uncle Bay to immediately give chase. She was the main reason he’d come up to visit every six months or so, to see his “precious,” as he would often say. And going back a little bit, it was Dianne’s idea to visit the museum. She thought it would be good to show Kim-Ninh what Vietnamese went through during the war. And, without a second thought, I said, “OK, honey, why not?”

Uncle Bay didn’t know what to expect, but why should he? He was visiting us from San Jose, California. He visits because it’s us he loves, not the Midwest weather.

Third—and this is very, very important—Uncle Bay has Tourette’s Syndrome. I informed the police that he had TS when they arrested him, and, for that matter, so does my daughter, Kim-Ninh. That’s something the newspaper didn’t bother to mention, and neither did the anchor-woman on Channel Five. If his case goes to trial, and I sincerely hope it doesn’t, people need to be informed about TS. It’d help make a whole lot of sense of why he and my daughter were seemingly acting out of the norm. [End Page 136]

Here’s a definition of TS from a medical journal:

an inherited neurological disorder with onset in childhood, characterized by the presence of multiple physical (motor) tics and at least one vocal (phonic) tic; these tics characteristically wax and wane. Tourette’s was once considered a rare and bizarre syndrome, most often associated with the exclamation of obscene words or socially inappropriate and derogatory remarks (coprolalia). Tourette’s is defined as part of a spectrum of tic disorders, which includes transient and chronic tics.

Of my mother’s many siblings, he was loved the most by her. He lived with us and helped us out in America until my little brother went to college. Since our father was long dead—killed near the end of the war, in the DMZ—Uncle Bay helped my mother raise us in America. She, who regularly yelled and screamed at her two boys, would automatically soften her tone when addressing her Bay.

Yet even among folks with TS, Uncle Bay’s symptoms are considered a rarity. He indeed has a phonic tic, and it’s quite a talent. He doesn’t cuss, and there’s none of those repetitive movements like hand gestures or frequent jerks of the head to one side. Nor does he utter weird phrases or derogatory remarks. No, he whistles. His lips, when pursed, become a bona fide musical instrument. With a few bars of his clear, pitch-perfect notes, you can easily “name that tune.”

But here’s the thing: he whistles all the time and especially when it’s inappropriate, and it’s almost always something jarring and ironic. A series of loud wolf whistles, say, when someone’s kissing a baby...