One Fortnight in China


You’re probably sick to bloody death of reading about China, with the Olympics coverage, and all. But, many of you guys have asked to see photos. Polite fools you.

For you guys, click on the individual cities listed here for the smoggy photos: Beijing, [tag]Xian[/tag], [tag]Suzhou[/tag], [tag]Hangzhou[/tag], Shanghai & cute English language signs.

If you’re still reading, I’ll try to document some stuff you mightn’t have already heard:

There’s not a lot of smoking in China, as you’d expect.
But there’s lots of hawking and yes, very productive spitting.
There’s no graffiti anywhere in any city.

Hotels are more luxurious than you might imagine. Showerheads rain water impressively from the ceiling. There are oversized pillows and silk comforters. There are hung flat-panel TV screens. There are do-not-disturb-light switches. Doorbells even.

Cars flaunt “Baby on Board” signs while the baby sits casually on the lap of unbuckled parent.
Baby bottoms and toddler tushes grin from deeply slitted pants—the better to go potty whenever, wherever.

The days are so hot, so humid, so white, even the aspen leaves refuse to tremble.
A fan is a necessary accessory for men and women. Boys!

Sun is the devil. It is the villain that makes perfectly normal women on scooters wear hand-made doilies for their arms and shoulders. Younger, hipper folks wear, simply, long-sleeved shirts backwards. White cotton gloves are de rigueur. So are big-brimmed hats. And, on the fashionable, iridescent sun visors that cover the entire face, like welding masks. The unfashionable swath their faces swathed in some unidentifiable garment. Umbrellas are ubiquitous. Saw more than one grafted on to a bicycle.

Construction is a 7-day, 12-hour-a-week proposition. With the workers so ready for work, they squat in makeshift housing beside the job site.
Almost all working folks tote Neoprene bottles of homemade tea.
There are people broom-sweeping the highway.
There’s plenty of WPA kind of make-work: plenty of dusting, plenty of rail polishing, plenty of weed pulling.

Cops salute drivers before demanding that they move along.
There are no road rules.

Neon races, drips, pulses on buildings in [tag]Shanghai[/tag], [tag]Nanjing[/tag] and [tag]Beijing[/tag] as it does in Times Square.
Out of the cities, cicadas seethe in the trees.
Some middle-aged men wear their pajamas on the streets.

You can push through the hordes to boost your ldl levels at KFC, Starbucks, Dairy Queen, Häagen-Dazs, and, of course, Mickey Dees. Where they will look at you in amazement when you bus your own table.

According to our guide in Nanking, you can really impress your date by taking her to Pizza Hut. Would I lie to you?

And, of course, as I’ve already chronicled on Facebook, I sweated the gasps, the gapes, the gawps, gawks, the titters, twitters and slack stares as I walked the streets. Not that I wasn’t expecting it—we’ve been to Hong Kong. But. Lord. Have. His. Mercy! Zoological. I will absolutely have to write a long piece about the nudging and the pointing.

Don’t Have to Do Nothin’ No More, No More

Easy StreetAfter two years and six months, the revised novel is finally out the door. In the damn mail, dude.

You’d think I feel an enormous sense of relief.

You’d be so wrong.

I’m still waiting for the elation. I’m not even close to feeling it. Maybe I haven’t internalized that the enforced morning march to the computer is over?

Although. . . It was kind of delicious to kick back in the reclining Queen Anne and, without a speck of guilt, read the bitch of a Sunday paper. In one sitting—comics and all. Did a crossword puzzle, even. On a Sunday. How remarkable is that!

Even more remarkable is that now I have anxieties out the wazoo:

  • ♦The nice women at the agency won’t like the revisions.
  • ♦The book opens too leisurely.
  • ♦Coming in at 417 pages is just not a good thing. Too many goddamn pages.
  • ♦They may want me to delete a minor character. A character who gives me a chance to show culture differences. And to make the husband jealous. And to show my main girl how different (dull) her life could’ve been.
  • ♦There’s too much sex—even if it’s a novel about sex.
  • ♦I might’ve pulled a boner with the chronology and logic and haven’t yet realized it.
  • ♦Nobody will get that the house, light, blood, breath, seasons, are characters.
  • ♦My writing style be too lush.
  • ♦The foreshadowing isn’t subtle enough.
  • ♦No publishing house will want the cussed thing.
  • Thank the good sweet stars we’re off to China. Plenty of ancient and beautiful things to distract me. New folks to meet. And, now, I can shift my worries to 14-hour flights, summer heat, squat toilets, soup for breakfast, and, the ever popular: children pointing at me. Okay, then. Ni hao. Coming at you. To relax, hear?

    Wearing the White Carnation

    Been thinking a lot about China lately. The earthquake, most particularly.

    But, my friendship with my Shanghaiese neighbor and cardio-walking partner—heightened now that she’s on the brink of moving to the South Bay—has also pulled China into a unique kind of focus. At the end of our morning walk, Fei-Fei and I stop in a eucalyptus grove in Golden Gate Park where, laughing, she teaches me to count in Mandarin while we see-saw our arms and rotate our necks and fight dizziness and talk and talk about Chinese culture, mores, norms.

    Been also going to the Chinese Consulate and waiting on block-long lines (about 20 percent of San Francisco’s population is Chinese), because of our impending trip to Beijing, Xian, Nanjing, Suzhou, Hangzhou, Shanghai.

    So, you know. Took three visits.

    One visit to take a number and wait, only to discover from an lcd monitor that new requirements in this Year of the Olympics oblige every visitor to present firm documentation of all hotel bookings and plane tickets.

    Second visit to turn in said documentation with the applications. And also to be questioned nicely but firmly about the “Writer” designation I’d filled in under “Occupation.” Uh-oh. (At least I hadn’t checked the “Journalist” box, buddy. Bugs in my green tea?)

    Third visit to wait again in a ragged line, monitored as usual by two tall, firm-faced Russian private security guys. I turned over the $300. And, Je-sus, finally had the two visa-stamped passports hot in my hands.

    Less than a week later, I found myself back at the Consulate. This time waiting on a solemn line to pay respects to the more than 60,000 people dead in Sichuan province. The Chinese Consulate-General bowed as attendants handed me a white paper carnation to signify death and mourning. I am the only non-Chinese person. My first reaction is to balk, wait outside. But my friend gently pulled me in.

    As we shuffled on line, she whispered to me that I am going to be on the Chinese news channels. Indeed I can already see the photographers eyeing me. I could not feel any more Black. The attendants broke out a fresh condolence book because, I suspect, I’d be writing in English. They bowed and handed me a votive candle, the little light like a gem. My friend and I clasped it in our prayerful hands, bowed three times to the altar. Emotions rush me so hard I am only vaguely aware of the camera flashes, the video recorders. I set the candle down to join the hundreds of votives already set out. I bow, bow, bow again, my legs tea.

    Naked in Public

    mkf009.jpgWow, you guys. Thanks for all your very flattering emails about my piece “[tag]Blue Black Berry[/tag],” newly published in [tag]Fringe Magazine[/tag].

    Isn’t it supremely paradoxical that a piece so flagrantly autobiographical—vintage photos and all—should butt right up against my blogged denial that my current novel is sheer fiction? “Blue Black Berry” is all me. Fiction only lightly filigrees this willfully-blurred, kind of meta piece.

    I hope to God I’m done writing about the event that has so colored my life. (Accidental pun acknowledged and unedited.) For this is the third time I’ve written about a subject that is deeply personal. It’s a low and steady thrum in my life. It is raw and honest, and will probably make some of the people in my family uncomfortable.

    But writing about it is my way of exorcising, I’ve come to see. For I’ve rid myself of The Nasties before by setting them down:

    One late January morning in 1988, I went with my brother, my sister, to fulfill the Jamaican requirement that bodies be officially identified before they are released for burial. The image of my dead mother being sat up to be dressed by the mortuary’s two wizened women attendants was a short and ugly loop of film that disturbed me and iced my gut for a very long time.

    The moment I wrote about it in my abbreviated memoir, “Horse Dead, Cow Fat,” I was free. (Until I called it up just now, of course.)

    Perhaps I need to write down something else that has been haunting me since Christmas. On the plane to Rio de Janeiro, I woke up to find my husband gone from the seat beside me. In my fog, I looked around and saw him a couple of rows back in the darkened cabin, intently reading in an aisle seat’s small round of light. I get up, find my shoes, and go to say hey, hi, to him on my way to the loo. In passing, I tenderly rub my knuckles on his overnight bristles. He looks up at me, polite and stricken.

    Awk. Wasn’t him. I’d caressed the face of complete stranger, his wife beside him giving me the same half-fearful look you give crazy folks. In the heat of my profuse apologies, she slightly rolled her eyes as she almost wagged her head. Her man, embarrassed for me, ever so mildly smiled.

    Crap, crap, crap, crap, cringe!

    Okay, I’ve set it down here. We’ll see how well my theory of demon-beating holds.

    [Tag]Jennifer Coke[/tag]

    No, Really. It’s Not Meeee!

    Tell the truth. When you read a novel, is the protagonist the author on the back cover?

    I’m asking, because more than three times already, someone has slipped and called me by the name of the main character in my new piece, “Grace Notes.” Oops.

    Okay, she’s a Jamaican woman who lives in Park Slope, Brooklyn. These are my unescapables. I’m protesting into the wind, I know., but she is so not me. In a way she’s almost a stranger. Odd to say, clearly. Yet she’s a woman I’ve seen on the streets. I’ve watched her on a plane. I’ve watched her buy magazines. She’s this tall and too-lean, brown woman, younger than me (naturally), prissy, who never swears. She seldom says what she’s thinking; she forgets to breathe.

    …I believe in my heart
    that I would
    if the character were me…

    It’s a little off-putting only because of the events that happen in the story. Grace Notes is a kind of domestic, literary novel about sex (there’s a fair amount of it), and the fallout of one brief sexual encounter. Sometimes when I’ve come together with folks for a critical reading, there’s an exaggerated dancing of eyebrows at the naughty bits. Which has prompted me, embarrassed, to remind folks, Hey, now, guys, this ain’t me. I just know, though, that everybody’s picturing me there in that bed. Or wherever.

    I feel sorrier for my poor husband. People ask me about the book at parties. I give a thumbnail of the plot line. And without fail—without fail—someone will turn to my husband and say, Uh-oh, what do you think about this, then? My Beloved, smiling very broadly, gives them his standard line: I’ve already told her if the guy in her book has anything resembling me, I’m calling the lawyer. I’m so glad his eyes twinkle as he says it.

    He needn’t worry. I don’t think. The husband in the book is a PR guy, a big ole sports-obsessed, Midwestern Italian man, impulsive as all hell. Not even close, dude.

    You know, I believe in my heart that I would acknowledge if the character were me, or if the circumstances were particular to me. Fact is, this novel spored while I was a juror in a murder trial. I wondered about the wife of one of the witnesses, the conversations they would have to have. It never crossed my mind that people would assume it’s my own damn life.

    Perhaps it’s an inevitability that people will assume your fiction is autobiographical. Here’s a quote from the San Francisco Chronicle’s David Wiegand in his review of “Miss Austen Regrets” on PBS’ “Masterpiece:”

    What we know for sure about [Jane] Austen’s 41 years on the planet comes from the few letters her sister failed to burn after the author’s death and from a memoir written by Austen’s nephew many years later. With such a dearth of facts, it has been left to her readers to fill in the blanks with whatever clues they believe they find in her six novels.

    Jesus. Thank God he goes on to say, though, “In the end, however, they always have to wonder if their construct is true or not.”

    Then just yesterday, tooling around, I stumbled across this article by Sue Miller, Virtual Reality: The Perils of Seeking a Novelist’s Facts in Her Fiction. She opens her essay with:

    Before my last book tour, I made myself memorize a quotation from an interview with John Cheever that began, “It seems to me that any confusion between autobiography and fiction debases fiction.” Thus girded, armored, I hoped to silence forever the questioner who sits there in the third row waiting to ask, “How much of your work is autobiographical?”

    Maybe I’ll just shut up now. And eat it.

    [tags] David Wiegand, Jane Austen, Grace Notes, Sue Miller, John Cheever [/tags]

    Beggars Would Ride

    I, of course, should be slashing and tightening and tweaking the 420 pages of the novel. But, what am I doing?

    Squandering an hour or more making an avatar of myself. As we say in Jamaica, cu ya (look at this):


    It made my husband laugh–he thought it was cute. I only WISH I looked as good as this chickie! And, wasn’t it genius that one of my choices for a background was SF’s own fabulous Palace of Fine Arts?

    Hey, go to and give it a try. Will you be like me and try to put together someone that kinda looks like you? Or would you go for your alternate deep, cool and damn goofier self? I want to see it!

    Rainin’ in Rio!

    Rio de Janeiro feels more familiar to a babe like me who knows from tropical Christmases. Heat, sweat at the hairline, linen clothes, palm trees, coconut water. And at breakfast papayas, pineapples, oranges, mangoes, guavas fruits, full-flavored bananas and jack fruit. Yes, yes, yes. Adding to my throb of nostalgia is that the street trees are spreaded tropical almond trees with their lush oval crowns, the occasional dying leaf a vivid bull-fighter red.

    Many of the beautiful baroque buildings in Rio have a faded kind of gentility. The long stretches of beautiful, well-used beaches? Clean and wide and inviting. Because it rained every day of our visit, the ocean reflected the pale, disappointing gray sky instead of the rich indigo and marine green I’d anticipated. But it won’t be easy to think about Copacabana without remembering the brown, athletic men playing soccer volleyball in black, tight Speedos. Maybe what I meant to say was I won’t soon forget the undulating black and white mosaic sidewalks of Copacabana and Ipanema.

    A party lies just beneath the skin of most everyone here, I’m sure of it. More than three times at the first sound of samba drums, Cariocas spontaneously stood up, hooted, danced. Even our very professorial-looking guide with his thick lenses. It’s not hard to catch a glimpse of how outrageous the pre-Lent Carnivale must be. Of course, for a small fee you too can have the opportunity of trying on some of the actual costumes deep in the gift shop of the Sambrodromo, the long parade strip with its luxury boxes and spectator stands.

    I’d be so lying if I said I got a true sense of Rio de Janeiro. There never was an overt sense of menace, ever. But it was strongly “not recommended” to walk after dark—even with the heavy presence of tourist cops. Neither was it “recommended” to take the local bus three or so miles in a straight line to Ipanema Beach. The metal detectors at the entrance to the bank and the ATM machines were also just a little intimidating. So was ostentatiously-armed guard watching every twitch. We’d planned on taking an escorted tour of a favela, a shanty town high on the hill with a million dollar view. Lost our appetite for adventure, have to say.

    Yet, you know, I’m looking forward to going back in a couple of years. Locals report the threat of crime has already eased significantly. Rio may not be ready for prime time without escorted day trips. But I’m confident things will change eventually. Besides, in Rio, nobody stole my new camera.

    It was also interesting to me that I have all along had a Brazilian in my novel. Now that I’ve been there, I think my character’s looks wrong. I also must remember to try and use the two little Portuguese words I learned—Oi. A casual word for “hello.” obrigato: thanks. And, of course, Ciao!

    Some photos:

    Toggle F11 for a bigger screen and captions.

    Wild Waters of Iguassu

    No, I’d never heard of the Iguassu Falls before this trip either. It’s the Eighth Wonder of the World, don’t you know. Impressive and thunderous, it straddles both Argentina and Brazil. These falls come in only second to Africa’s Victoria Falls. With more than 200 separate cascades, it’s taller than Niagara Falls by far. In fact, the tremendous amount of rushing water plunges from a height of a 24-story building. Try and stand before Devil’s Throat, and not feel its thunder to the core.

    Add to that the green smell of the rainforest which teems with wild bromeliads, and Tarzan’s rainforest vines, ferns, delicately trembling orchids, and full-throated cicadas. Vividly-colored butterflies perch and preen, short mud-colored alligators try to hide, raccoons try to shepherd their young, lizards work their throats, iguanas stare, a rainbow peacocks over everything. Look for birds, birds, birds. Wheeling vultures. A silly flock of giggling green parrots. Toucans!

    Toggle F11 for a bigger screen and captions.

    Hi, Hola, Oi!

    La Recoleta Cemetery; Iguazú/Iguaçu Falls; Christ the Redeemer Statue

    [Click photos to Enlarge]

    It wouldn’t be Christmas without me and the Sweetie chasing down summer, right? This year, Argentina and Brazil—and the stunning Iguazú or Iguaçu Falls, depending on which side of the border you happen to find your feet. (For more photos, click on the name of the country.)

    We had to look hard to find Christmas, boy. In Catholic countries yet. Buenos Aires, for example, had slim, slim festive pickings. There was an almost total absence of Christmas decorations—lights even—along showpiece boulevards or stores or parks. So, true, we did find Father Christmas in a mall, and a lone extravagant Christmas tree. But we saw not a single Santa line. Heard not one note of Christmas music. Saw not one red Salvation Army kettle in all the time we were in Argentina.

    Christmas did pop up momentarily in Rio de Janeiro, though. Coca Cola sponsored an hour’s worth of a spectacular Feliz Natal Parade, which obliged that there was a lead pack of Coke trucks outlined in white lights. Like this:Coke in Lights

    Human Christmas Tree

    It’s Copacabana, and Cariocas have been to samba school for their Carnival—they’ve had years of practice putting on a scene. This time mostly for kids? Hundreds of folks paraded as characters from cartoons and children’s books dancing PG-sedately and synchronized to music from “My Fair Lady.”

    It rained like the dickens, and the parade started three hours later than advertised. Nobody grumbled. Except for, well, maybe a few North American tourists. Wussies, we watched high and dry from the tenth floor.

    Little Guy Dropping Off His Listsanta-at-the-crystal-palace.JPG

    So, all right, to be fair, we also did glimpse Christmas at the Crystal Palace in rural Petropolis, a two-hour, gorgeous drive from Rio through mountains and valleys and lush forest vegetation. Again, no long lines for Santa. Only a handful of kids smiling for a parent’s camera, the kids getting one piece of candy from Papai Noel and a chance to deposit their little lists in a box. Pretty cool, pretty low-key.

    Toy Soldier (Deceased)deceased-toy-soldier.JPG

    Still. Here I am again, looking for the Christmas of my fantasies. Of course, it ain’t anywhere. It’s never going to be anywhere.

    And, yet, something absolutely special happened. We got to spend some time with my eldest brother and his family in South Beach, FL, and got a glimpse of how incredible it would be if we knew them better. And we surely did nyam up the groan of great Jamaican food they laid out for us. First taste of ackee, mashed green bananas, bammie—any Jamaican food for that matter—for Mr. Sweetie. Oink. Oink. Snort!


    Cry For Me, Buenos Aires

    Buenos Aires, as you might imagine, is a smart, cosmopolitan city. Walking about, there’s a nagging feeling of familiarity. Even mildly jetlagged, it’s easy to forget where in hell you are. For it looks like any European city—Paris, Milan, Madrid. New York, even. Except there are purple-flowering jacaranda trees, Banyan trees with their elephant-foot roots, and healthy, towering ficus. The same temperamental ficus benjamina that right now might well be shedding curled leaves in your very own living room.

    We dodge homicidal Porteños drivers. Jesus, if you think crossing the streets in Athens and Rome is bad. It just sheer madness here. And don’t even think it’s possible to cross Avenida 9 de Julio(allegedly the widest avenue in the world at 400 feet wide and six lanes one way) in a single traffic light cycle. Look out or get squashed. No pedestrian right of way regulations here, dude.

    Most striking to me, and not hard to miss, are the very passionate lovers. They kiss and kiss in the streets, in parks, in porticos; they give slow caresses to faces and hair, to backs; their eyes tango. Something else that’s immediately apparent is that there’s no cleaning up after any dog. And it’s hard to ignore the young mothers with filthy babies and small children begging at the entrance to subway. No exaggeration—only the women’s teats are clean from breast-feeding. Also, on two separate occasions, beautifully-dressed women have sidled up to me and told me not to wear “that watch” in Buenos Aires. They tell me about the thieves on motorcycles. My watch is a mongrel Seiko.

    Instead they should’ve reminded me that you don’t wear your camera bandoleroed across your chest in the damn subway. I used to have a lovely Canon Sureshot until some fleet-fingered ládron picked it clean from the closed case. Ai. Lástima. Undeterred, we continue with the tourist things, although it took me a day or more to let go of that angry, ripped-off feeling. (All my photos! Gone.)

    If you go, do not miss a trip to the ritzy La Recoleta Cemetery to visit the iconic Evita Peron’s grave. Follow up with trip to The Museo Eva Perón. Buy a snack at the small restaurant run by Madres de Plaza de Mayo and feel like you’ve contributed a little bit to support human rights. Kick back at an outdoor cafe and watch sidewalk tango dancers perform and sell sidewalk photo-ops to onlookers. Reach for your camera, if you’ve GOT one.

    Here are a handful of photos I scavenged from my husband’s portfolio:

    Toggle F11 for a bigger screen and captions.

    Two Asses. Photo, Too

    So, yah, I know. I haven’t written here since last Christmas. Thanks for wanting to know what’s up with me.

    I’ve been writing, basically. Pulling prose and chaffering with myself. And avoiding the pull of writing here—which is infinitely easier. And a bleeding thief of time. But, look. It’s September, and after 130 new pages, here I am butt-deep in the final scenes of “Grace Notes.”

    Don’t clap yet. I still have to start from the top, do continuity stuff, cut stuff, spackle stuff, love stuff and hate lots and lots of stuff.

    Yah, but, sure, but yah, but what else have I been doing?

    The NIH decided to discontinue funding my sweet little job helping to monitor research protocols for safety. I got shunted to an execrable job with two factional bosses of the same Christian first name. I’m still having horrific dreams about that job, boy. Got some character studies out of my time there, though, and I’ve soooo used them in the novel. Like this. Tee hee. Can you see the writer’s revenge dripping from my mouth?

    The awful truth is that much of the writing I’d done during those double-stressed months had to be thrown out.

    Fuh. Good to be gone from that. Good not to have to rush home and square myself in front of the blinking computer. Good to have time to fight snails and other leaf-cutting bugs in our little garden. Good to walk uphill to get dim sum. Good to have time to go dream by a cold ocean.

    We also went to Greece and Istanbul for three weeks. The photos, of course, are languishing on my desktop. Another casualty of the book. But, c’mon, at least I’ve downloaded them from the camera? Here’s a tease:

    [Click to Enlarge]

    Riding in Santorini

    Also, in the months I haven’t written here, wonderful Grace Paley has died. She was 84. I studied briefly with her, and I’m so very grateful her life brushed mine. See my old comments about her here in the New York Times, if you’d like.


    I never read the guidebooks before we travel. To me it’s like opening presents early. Plus I feel I don’t really need to know too much beforehand—the beloved drools over the planning, the books, the maps. All I need do is show up and make sure I don’t have a derisive amount of stuff packed.

    So, I was taken by surprise by Athens. The traffic in particular. Had I known that the city is three times the size of New York City, I might’ve had a clue.

    Go ahead: try to cross any street. Crosswalks are few and far between. And when you do find one, the red traffic halt light obliges you only time enough to get to the median strip. Wait again, suckers!

    The bus stop is mobbed at 11 a.m. The clean, sparking and delightful subway system is rush-hour full to the rafters at 2 pm. People confidently flag taxis with passengers already inside. Double-passengered motorcycles, motorbikes, scooters, hum like giant flies.

    After cool and foggy SF, the dry heat momentarily robs me of breath. I sweat rivers. My hair has styled itself, too, a delightful combination of bed head and sculpted hair. Of course, my curling iron does not work—even with our fancy new converter. I do my trick of heating scrunched hair with the hot hair dryer. Which means, no, there will be no pictures of this girl anywhere on this trip. Okay, perhaps under a baseball hat.

    Some impressions: The street signage are almost universally bilingual. Sometimes, to hometown chagrin, the billboards are uniquely in English. The street trees are unharvested, rough-skinned Seville orange trees, as well as Mulberries with leaves that are significantly larger than those we have in the US. The food is good and fresh and could feed a family of sixteen.

    I have the usual feeling of not being able to internalize that I’m actually walking around at the Acropolis, or that I’m actually looking at the Parthenon. Must be the heat. Can you say, 105 degrees?

    Here are photos:

    Navigating this photo gallery may be confusing. See “Help,” if you need it, at the bottom right hand corner. Toggle F11 for a bigger screen.

    12 Christmas Things

    No exotic travel photos to post here this year this Christmas. We stayed home for a change, hung out with great friends, saw the high-brow Smuin Christmas Ballet, the low-brow “Oy Vay in a Manger.” And listened to this Sarah McLachlan cut more times than I care to admit.

    But, hey, you interested in a dozen things I remember about [tag]Christmas in Jamaica[/tag]?

  • ♦Wearing a light sweater as the sweet Christmas breeze fluttered my hair, lifted my summer dress high over my head.
  • ♦An extravaganza of nodding Poinsettias in the front yard, every plant bent over over from its floral burden.
  • ♦A spindly Christmas pine, its crooks stuffed with cotton snow, branches badly garlanded with cheap, fat, garish, ugly, gold tinsel.
  • ♦A parade of [tag]Jonkunnus[/tag] dancing and prancing around on stilts, every mother’s child scared and hiding behind a grown-up.
  • [tag]Fee-Fees[/tag], a short length of bamboo attached to a balloon and a dyed, down feather; the pretty balloon whistles as it inflates/deflates. [tag]Squibs[/tag], the Jamaican name for firecrackers. [tag]Starlights[/tag], which are sparklers.
  • ♦Sharing the luxurious treat of polished “American” Red Delicious apples with skins that had an exquisite, vaguely nail-polishy aroma.
  • ♦Ruby-stained fingertips sore from picking prickly [tag]Sorrel[/tag] petals for the traditional Christmas drink.
  • ♦The tradition of braided rolls and cream of pumpkin soup my mother started when our family dwindled to five people.
  • ♦Rum-soaked [tag]Christmas Pudding[/tag] served on fancy, cut-glass side plates.
  • ♦Being all teary because Santa had forgotten to bring the presents I’d seen unwrapped in my parents’ bedroom.
  • ♦A molded plastic dolly I named Dennis. The smell of his adorable little slip-off plastic shoes.
  • ♦A taxi stops at our gate, a foot keeps the car door open for the time it takes to pay the fare, and out comes unexpectedly–my big brother who lives in Paris!
  • ____________________________________________

    The Sum of It

    upon this link
    was like being
    kissed hard…

    This week I was doing research for my novel, and all of a sudden I had tears on my face.

    One of my fictional guys is Terrence Yee Fat. He’s a biracial, bisexual Jamaican man mostly because I need him to represent the kind of duality, the straddle, immigrants sometimes feel, do. I’m in the middle of a scene where he’s cooking, and I wanted him to have a slight [tag]word-retrieval problem[/tag]. Why? No good reason—other than when I’m the least bit distracted, my brain will perversely not fetch the word I need.

    I love to blame this occasional tip-of-my-tongue problem on the code-switching I’ve had to do since, oh, when I was pre-verbal, probably. Jamaican toddlers learn a patois dialect in tandem with English. In our house, as in many households, the parents disapproved of the patois and corrected hell out of our grammar, pronunciation, accent.

    So, I move to these United States and what happens? Language gets even more complicated. I need to remember to pronounce words differently. Sometimes my mouth still says, “ceme-tree,” instead of “ceme-tery.” Sometimes it says “lef-tenant,” instead of “loo-tenant.” And, of course, vocabulary changes on me. I remember bitching, in one of my first letters home, that in America a roll is a bun, a bun is roll, and a biscuit is a cookie. Also, what would be the American word for the patois, cotch, which means, like, to share a small space with someone?

    See what I mean?

    Factor in, now, that my people habitually say the generic “ting deh” (“that thing”) as a kind of placeholder for something whose name is not known, or has been forgotten, or stays undelineated out of laziness. It’s like the American, y’know, “whachmacallit.”

    Okay. So, in researching this word-retrieval ting deh, I discover that there’s an official name for this problem. It’s a learning disability of sorts: [tag]Dysnomia[/tag].

    Can I tell you? Stumbling across this link was like being kissed hard, sweet, long. For also here, was a list of other learning disabilities.

    And, finally. Finally, I found….myself.

    My whole life I’ve wanted to know EXACTLY why math is Sanskrit to me. Why I consistently misdial telephone numbers. Why I cannot read a simple compass to save my stupid life.

    Think not being able to do basic math was fun? My father, God rest his soul, used my younger sister’s math skill to shame me into applying myself harder to my sums. An older sibling asked me why I was so dumb; I was already twelve years old and could not read a damn clock. A very reasonable man I was dating yelled harsh and very ugly because I couldn’t tell from the map what the next Interstate exit would be.

    I’m over here playing my little violin while I give you a minute to feel bad for me.


    We all have things we can’t do. I know that. But I had a moment of absolute, shoulder-lowering relief I felt when I found that I suffer from [tag]Dyscalculia[/tag] (“dis-cal-cew-lee-ah.”) [tag]The Nalanda Institute[/tag], I thank you. Thank you, BBC. Thank you, [tag]Wikipedia[/tag]. Thank you, [tag]LDA of America[/tag]. Thank you, Dr Bjorn Adler[/tag].

    Difficulty giving and receiving change? Yes!
    Easily disoriented (including left/right orientation) Yup.
    Hard time learning musical concepts? Yeah.
    Following directions in sports? Please. You don’t know.
    Keeping track of scores and players during games such as cards and board games? Help me, Rhonda.

    Oh, God. Diagnosis and validation. A dunce mi nuh dunce after all.


    [tags] Jamaican patois, Ting Deh, cotch, Rasta/Patois Jamaica Dictionary

    On Fall

    [Click on all photos to enlarge; toggle F11 for full screen]

    Fog Breath
    The morning fog smelled of pine trees today—green and almost vanilla sweet. (Doesn’t always, of course. Sometimes it stinks of beached and rotting seaweed.) I’m not a true fan of fog. In fact, in polite company I refer to it as the fogging fog.

    We’re new enough to San Francisco, though, that I can still wonder at the warp and wisp of the different kinds of fog: The tuck of fog low over the bay. The high fog I can see a block away, but is invisible where I’m standing. The skim-blue fog that races east on streets, that smokes trees, that ticks from eaves and awnings. Heavy fog that jewels the dense canopies of cypress trees and falls like a sudden splatter of rain.

    If only fog didn’t so gray the day. Or noir the night. Or give a false sense of an impending cloudburst.

    It’s the end of September. Fall is here. And so—still—is the “summer” fog. I know it’s fall because TV folks on the East Coast are wearing serious, autumn-colored clothes. In SF, this city of long-sleeves and sweater sets, we’re still wearing pastel. Under fleece, sometimes, but still. It has to be fall? There’s no morning sun streaming through our skylight at 6:30 am. People are back to school. There’s NFL football.

    It’s not that I don’t remember the turn, turn of seasons. I do. I may be a one-season kind of tropical woman, but, I’m not that much of a dolt that I don’t love the ripeness of autumn leaves. Even if my dread of winter’s deep-freeze used to limn the beauty. Fall in the City by the Bay means that you might stumble upon a sweet gum tree with its starred leaves dying red. And it means any day now I’ll notice that the fog has burned away for the rest of the year.

    I’m impatient now, man. Because I’m just beginning to get a preview of the absolute best part of living in the West. We live not a mile from the Pacific Ocean. Where the fog forms, certainly. But also where the sun will set with exaggeration as often as the winter rainy season allows. Here’s the evening view from the Room of My Own where I sit and try to pull fresh prose from my, uh, um, person:

    Sky Flambé
    Oh, Drama

    And here’s Friday, December 08, 2006, 7:07:10 AM. Good Morning, Everyone!

    [tag] San Francisco, fog, sunset[/tag]