Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Both Tragedy and Sputnik Have Struck

I am standing in the kitchen cooking lunch absolutely dying inside right now because the President of the United States of America is sitting in a cafe a few blocks away eating his lunch. The Secret Service have blocked off the roads he'll be travelling on. I rue the fact that my three babies are fighting off bronchitis; I would be standing out there holding a sign. I have no idea what that sign would say.
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My grandma Lola once kissed President Bush. She was sitting in her wheel chair in her bright red coat with the hood. She extended her hand and smiled. He noticed her and walked over to greet her. She grabbed his hand, yanked him down, and planted an enormous red-lipstick kiss. She was always surprisingly strong. Men in suits rushed towards her. She said "No gun" (which I didn't know she knew in English.) Hearing her thick accent, he said "Tenemos que ganar." She raised pounded her fist in the air as I've only seen her do during the World Cup. "VAMOS A GANAR!" she shouted back.
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Obama stood in a factory a few miles from here and spoke about how a piece of Sputnik once dropped in this town and that once again, we'd be at the fore-front of the new global race.
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My President made a casual Sputnik mention and I wasn't there. I honestly feel a little sick.
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It is a tragic near-miss. An epic fail. Like the President is about to fist-bump you but you just stand there with your hand outstretched. Mr. Obama, a few miles west: I would have made you a hot cup of borscht. I would have fed you arugula. It could have been great.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Unbearable Lightness of Being

I read parts of that novel over my friend's shoulder while stuck three to a benchseat on a 28 hour drive. Very impolite of me. It was published in 1984, which I do not think is right. That was a year of hairspray and neon and solos played on flying V guitars. I wonder who liked it then: was it just professor-types with tweed and cigarettes or did girls in red plastic earrings sit around and talk about it while listening to tapes of Duran Duran?
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And shouldn't everyone have been reading 1984 in 1984? If there was a book written 30-some years ago titled 2011 I guarantee you I would be reading it. There would be a centaur on the cover, a centaur who can teleport. He'd have a teased perm and too much chest hair.
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People say that living in The Future isn't what they told us it'd be, but they only point out the fact that they don't own a hovercraft. Somehow everything so incredibly more futuristic is entirely overlooked. I haven't even seen it as a coverspread: there's a machine that can print out 3D human tissue. In fifty years, they say they'll be printing out hearts. The hoverboard can be made from a standard shop vac: the organ printer is made from a converted ink-jet printer. (Maybe replacing the paper feed with a petri dish was one man's desperate attempt to finally solve the paper jam.)
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This year also saw the invention of spray-on clothing. Like cheese whiz, yes. It comes out liquid and then dries into a synthetic, which you can stretch and shape to taste, sew a zipper or a button onto, take off, and hang up in your closet.
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I learned just a week or two ago how a battery works. Some years back I read a memoir written by a man in prison in Cuba who made homemade batteries to power his homemade radio and I actually cried, thinking about the fact that if I'm imprisoned, I won't be able to make a battery. I was waitressing when I read that book; I walked from table to table in a fog, carrying trays of sushi, giving vacant half-nods, my heart pounding like mad. When does my break come? What will happen to Vallardes? I am so far behind. I only barely understand capacitors.
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Vallardes eventually moved to Miami. I lived about an hour north of there, but I was too nervous to try and look him up. I'm not so good with Cuban accents.
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Octavius is five months old. He has shiney eyes. He cocks his head to the side when you talk to him and raises a single eyebrow. He looks like the sort of fellow who could stroll down Little Havana wearing a spray-on suit with a copy of 2011 under his arm. I cannot begin to picture the world he'll live in but my boy, I hope it's everything it should be.

Monday, January 17, 2011

This red coat came with a beret.

The Flaco, coming inside one day and discovering the beret laying there on the floor, asked if he could wear it. I said Flaco, if you grow up to be a revolutionary, you can wear a beret. He said he would consider this.
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He used to ask for lullabies about Che Guevara*. I made up songs, about how El Che thought that he was doing good things, but he wasn't. He wasn't even Cuban and they called him the Butcher of Havana, sung with excessive amounts of tremelo. It didn't rhyme well but it had a decent melody. Half asleep, he would mumble, "Now sing to me about Stalin."
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He fights off sleep. I sing and sing. It's awkward.
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It's amazing how many there are. People, that is, who have convinced not only themselves but the masses that some things are worth anything. The line between good and evil is blurred beyond distinction. People will die for the chance to kill.
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My friend tells me it's a war. It's not wrong to kill when in war, she says. Sipping cups of tea, eating cookies. She tells me she's supposed to kill me. I think of Achmed and try not to laugh. I say please don't. She says no, I think I won't.
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She pauses for a while, then says "Well you want to kill me too." No I don't, I say. I don't at all. She doesn't believe me. I try to explain to her what Jesus taught. She says it's pretty words but that it's impractical.
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I wish we had another Martin Luther King, Jr.
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Crooked looks level until you see a plumb line. He walked so straight. Right was right, wrong was wrong. Simple, like you're told it's supposed to be. He said that the means we use must be as pure as the ends we seek. He said that darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.
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I visited my sister once when she taught in south Florida. It was carpet time; she was reading them a book about Martin Luther King, Jr. She read the first line: he was a preacher. HE WAS A PREACHER one of the boys hollered. CAN I GET AN AMEN!? Amen some of the kids called out. She turned the page, read that he saw the discrimination taking place. HE LOOKED AND HE SAW, CAN I GET A HALLELUJAH? the kid yelled. Hallelujah. I SAID CAN I GET A HALLELUJAH? Hallelujah amen.
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I think of that boy the third Monday of every January. I think of the man in the book, who didn't think he was smarter than God. The man who not only thought he was doing good things, but was. He said that the arc of history is long, but it bends towards justice.
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I think that's only true when there are people like him around.



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*When he was about a year and eight months, he made his first toast. He raised his glass suddenly, a little plastic cup of milk, and shouted "Que viva la gente!" and then drank. Long live the people. Who is he? Seriously.

Friday, January 07, 2011

They say you need your tongue to be able to smell.

My son was napping upstairs one afternoon while Matthew and I made cookies for him to take to work. His door was shut; so was the stairway door. I grated an orange peel, maybe about a teaspoon's worth, and suddenly we heard little feet racing down the stairs. He threw the door open, eyes lit up. "I smelled an orange!" he said.
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And then yesterday, he was playing in the living room. I was coming and going, five minutes into making lunch. The water had boiled and I added the rice. I was reading him a book and he looked at me, cocked his head to the side as though smelling like a dog listens, and announced "I smell that there is rice and it just started to cook!"
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All of which makes me suddenly very aware of what my house smells like. I remember going to a Bangladeshi friend's house one day in high school and being overwhelmed by the scent of food in her house. No one was cooking, but it was everywhere. In retrospect, I don't know what I expected. She smelled like food; her skin, when she'd walk by; her hair, when she adjusted her hijab. Her clothes, her notebooks. You breathed in cumin and culantro.
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There was a girl in college who had the most fantastic smelling hair. Lilac and strawberries. I used to rush to stand behind her in line at the cafeteria because it was always the dead of winter, and she smelled like the month of July.
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I smell like cheap detergent. My house smells like green peppers and olive oil. My husband smells like aftershave, the one that comes in the green bottle.
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I remember reading an essay by a middle-eastern immigrant, talking about the startingly sanitary smell of American houses. Lemon cleanser everywhere: dish soap, sprays, air-fresheners. A Saudi friend once told me that Americans are very messy. I said no, you just think that because you only ever come to my house. She laughed and said maybe.
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I wonder why God likes the smell of insence so much. It makes me think of record stores with posters of The Grateful Dead in the window. I wonder why the fact that he likes incense is so intuitive that Jews and Buddhists and Muslims and Christians all agree about it. Surely there's got to be a joke in there somewhere.
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It says in Revelations that prayer is like incense to God. I wonder how often my house smells good to him. I wonder about my other words too: how often I complain; if I'm harsh or sour or sarcastic. I am sometimes, I know that. But how much? Would I be surprised to hear it played as a recording?
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I suppose that most of the track would be me reading The Jungle Book. Over and over and over, until I finally put in Felix el Gato. It would be Flaco asking me to talk like Loli's stuffed cat Francine; me saying oui for a while and then practicing my Arabic in a Francine voice. Which is very hard to do with a French accent. I wish I had told him she was from Syria.
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I wonder how many times a day I laugh, how many times I say I love you, how many times I say not now.
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I could spend a lifetime taming my tongue.
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I love the untamed beasts written about in Job; I like how God describes the leviathon and then says that you can't put it on a string and take it home for your girls. My tongue, it is a bit wild. But I want to put it on a string. I want its words to be a present I bring home for my girl, for my boys.
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A new year, a new reason for resolve.

Thursday, January 06, 2011

Nothing at all.

I have two strapping sons, who I call the boys. A lot of times when I say that, the song starts up in my head (which is a shame because I only know two words of it anyway); that song from Romeo + Juliet. Which, for the record, I haven't seen in a good fifteen years. I picture John Leguizamo crushing a match under his steel boot. Do you remember that song? Back when smoking was glam and not equated with yellow teeth and jittery hands. Romeo smoked throughout that entire movie.
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And when I think of Romeo, I think of Matt singing along to Lou Reed. "Juliet! The dice was loaded from the start, and I bet..."-- bet? forget? I don't know what it says from there. But he does. He sweeps me away from the pan on the stove and spins me around. I am for once not too distracted to kiss him.
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And when I think of that pan on the stove, I think of the day I came home to find he had made me a rack to hang them on. He made it out of thin pieces of bamboo, brass chains affixing it to the ceiling. I was so glad I had bought the red pots and pans instead of the black ones; they were only five or ten dollars more. They made me want to do my dishes instead of letting them sit in the sink; wash them up so I could look at them, all shiney and pretty.
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And when I think of shiney things of course I think of Where the Red Fern Grows, how he trapped those coons before he had --who were they? Big Dan and Little Ann? I read that book and all I wanted was to be him. And then to drink a swig of soda.
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And when I think of soda, I think of Inca Kola; straight out of a glass bottle, preferably warm. Tastes like who knows what.
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And when I think of the Incas, I think of walking along the equator, high up in the mountains. I bought a shrunken head. I remember the guy who sold it to me telling me that only five years ago, they sold real ones. He had a long black braid, yellowed teeth. Looked like a smoker.

Monday, January 03, 2011

So good and loud

The first time I went to Ecuador, they served shrimp on the plane. Ceviche for everyone, and glasses of champagne. I thought that flying was the most glamorous thing in the entire world. The stewardesses wore lipstick and tall heels and kept patting me on the head, saying things in rapidfire Spanish. The plane swung to the right and I saw my first glimpse of Guayaquil: the streets were on fire. I heard gunfire and bombs. No one seemed fazed.
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I got out of the plane and the hot muggy air wrapped us up like a blanket. We got into a car and drove through the city, so fast, so fast, fires in every intersection. I hadn't seen enough action movies to worry that the car might explode, but I should have. We eventually got to my aunt's house, where all the relatives and neighbors waited. My mom nodded at me to start the proper greetings. Kisses on the right cheek, mucho gusto, mucho gusto. They slapped me on the butt and told me how cute I was; they grabbed my chin and pulled my face back and forth, trying out different angles, telling me how much I looked like my mom. Pero ve eso.
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The fires died down. Everyone was dancing, stepping and swishing to rhythms that Free Methodists can't even clap to. I'm sure we went to bed but I don't remember that at all.
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I found out a few weeks later that it wasn't a war zone we had flown into but a celebration. Everyone was burning effigies of the old year; stuffed dummies loaded full of firecrackers, then stacked in heaps and lit on fire. A triumphant goodbye: see you never, pass around the whiskey.
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That was twenty years ago. Frigid hands holding sparklers, feet running through the snow, lighting the old man with a bottle rocket after the ball dropped on TV. We put in funk and danced in the living room; not the same but not half bad.
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Twenty times that I can remember looking at the new year as if it were a promise. Resolutions made, broken, made again. Time chopped up neatly to look back on, to look forward to. So nice and tidy. One single moment where we vow that this year, we'll ride life like a bull, not run from its stampede.
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Raise a glass, light a match. This will be a good year, I can tell.