A Literary Feast

The River Squid

Posted on July 14th, 2014

You’ll start with a terrific love,

and later replace it with a merely serviceable love,

but cheaper.

There was no plesiosaur

but there was a kronosaur.

 

When you swim the central channel

your stellate ganglion remembers its jaws

and the alarm shocks down the mantle.

Now you know what it’s like to be prey.

 

Up ashore there are rote chants

on oak pews.

Teach us, good Lord, to serve thee as thou deservest

To give and not to count the cost

To fight and not to heed the wounds

To toil and not to seek for rest

To labor and not to ask for any reward

save that in knowing that we do thy will

 

Tough syntax for a cephalopod.

You can’t stop seeking rest

or leave off worrying the ragged margin.

 

The wounds of their teeth

the teeth in the jaw

the jaw in the glass case in the dead zoo.

 

If I serve thee as thou deservest—

But I have only and ever served thee as thou deservest.

 

You see,

our margin is excellent

and your compliance is not, in any case,

required.

 

Spell

Posted on July 14th, 2014

a hot afternoon reading

Henri Cole whose

1978 photograph is something

i’m sighing over no matter

that he has no

interest in my

underpinnings

 

it’s a season of

push and want and

limbs falling

through the dead

streets

i wrote once some

letter to a

fiction, saying

oh your

white soft

tshirt, your

careless hair let’s

eat plums or

get drunk and

let the quiet

build up some

force between

us–

 

i call my own

name in bed

at night, drive

with the windows

down, eating

strawberries

 

the way back to

a lost town is

non-fiction

only.

Lyrids

Posted on July 14th, 2014

I like to get unhinged in early spring:

Hung over from dark, I want to spark a light

that should be left out in the cold. I’ve caught

magnesium flare of slow-streak meteors, twice.

The first, in Boston, walking home too late:

I saw it bright above the bridge. You blinked.

Then later, soft warm night in Monterey,

A sizzle by the bay, grand fireball

shed pieces of itself as it went out.

That one burned close enough to remark upon.

Burned close enough to catch a sudden scrap

of what you will; enough to draw a breath,

lie still ’til March, when sun comes back to us

and cold ground splits from burgeoning new words.

Orthogonal to what we say, the heat

of saying it at all. Don’t leave us out

here in the cold. Ten years of other flames

burned out; I found a nickel-iron core,

accretions on impact. The spring’s ahead.

Put down your torch. The ground’s already singed.

A Box Opens

Posted on July 14th, 2014

What is the what of talking or

not talking or the yard on

the right side about to become

peonies peonies peonies

their chickens down at the

asphalt edge, fat

forgetfulness, bronze

shuffling food purpose–

 

a box opens and the past

falls out, mountains and

longing and that time we

stopped writing

letters, started

the truth instead

 

plants in the ground are

you, and so is the

turn in the bed, my ankle

hooked around a blanket

the coffee bag, the dirty

spoon, an ocean

 

it says one name

i swallow

it with eggs.

 

Apache Chief and Little Bighorn

Posted on July 14th, 2014

They call me Little Bighorn because I’m little but my horn is big. Go figure. They call Apache Chief Apache Chief because Little Bighorn sounds like an Indian name and since we’re always together people figured he ought to have an Indian sounding name too.  I tried to tell them that Apache Chief wasn’t the chief of nothing but by making such a fuss about it I probably just helped the name stick since nobody has called either one of us anything else for a long time now.  We were out past the park again near the place we call Shouter’s Spot because it’s the place where we see the guy who shouts about the prisons to anyone who happens to be nearby.  We were going down to the part of town where Ray lives to ask him if he wanted to come with us to get some ice-creams.  Dotty had given us a couple of dollars and she said that we could spend them on anything we wanted to except to use them for gambling, so we decided that we would go to get some ice-cream and we figured we had enough dollars for Ray to come too.  It was hot outside and we thought ice-creams sounded nice.  The way to get to where Ray lives is you go out the door and down the steps and down the street and past the park and past Shouter’s Spot and then you get to the river, and when you get to the river you turn left and you go past three stopsigns and then Ray lives in the blue house with the Braves towel hanging in the window next to the front door. We were near Shouter’s Spot, and from Shouter’s Spot you can start to see the river pretty well and also the concrete slopes that run along either side of the river and the street that’s on the other side of the river.  The Shouter wasn’t there today.  Apache Chief said one time that he saw the Shouter talking with Umbrella Man up past our house going the other way a bit and he wasn’t shouting or talking about the prisons or nothing, and it seemed like maybe he and Umbrella Man might know each other.  I don’t know if that story is true since I don’t know when Apache Chief would have been up past our house going the other way a bit at the same time that I wasn’t up past our house going the other way a bit, since Dotty really only likes when we leave the house if we’re together, but he says it and I gotta at least trust Apache Chief because if I can’t trust him then I can’t trust nobody.  I think that the day that the Shouter was talking with Umbrella Man must have been a confusing day for him, but I like to think that he maybe felt good at the end of it for having done a new thing.  He has big eyes and his face looks like a baseball glove and his hands are always dirty.  Anyway from where we were standing near Shouter’s Spot we could see the banks of the river pretty well and on the banks of the river we could see an old woman who had a bunch of clothes with her and she was dunking all the clothes right into the river.  Dotty told us that we shouldn’t ever swim in the river or eat anything that came out of the river because it was a city river and city rivers are dirty, so in light of that I thought it was strange that the old woman would be dunking her clothes in the river and I told Apache Chief that I thought it was strange and he agreed that it was strange.  Umbrella Man is called Umbrella Man because he always has an umbrella with him no matter if it’s raining or if it’s been sunny all day and all yesterday too.  He’s very nice to us and he calls us “ladykillers” (like he’ll say “ah, here come my two favorite ladykillers, dressed for success as always!” or “alright now, you two ladykillers be careful out there”), which Dotty rolls her eyes at but says that he means it in a nice way, and sometimes he gives us dollars and so I think he must be rich if he has dollars all the time to be just giving away for nothing, and Apache Chief thinks that might be true as well.  Anyway we stood for a little while at the railing looking down at the concrete slope along the river where the old lady was dunking her clothes, and when she had finished dunking all the clothes she pulled up her baggy old skirt and pulled her underwear down to her knees and peed right into the river.  I thought that Dotty probably knew that people did that and that’s why she told us to never swim in the river or eat anything out of it.  I felt bad about what I had seen and like I should tell the old lady and say sorry, although she didn’t give us warning or nothing so I had no way to know to look away and give her some privacy.  I told Apache Chief that I felt bad about it and he said that he felt bad about it too, but that he thought that maybe she knew that we were there and she had wanted us to see her do that.  I thought about it and the idea that someone would want strangers to see them pee seemed like it might be a true idea but I didn’t think I would want that.  Apache Chief said he agreed with me.  We took the left turn I was talking about before that is the next part of the way to get to where Ray lives.  There were some people that were walking with a basketball but as far as I know there aren’t any basketball hoops near there.  One time the Shouter shouted to us that at any given time one percent of American adults were in prison, and Apache Chief and I talked about it for a long time that night and we agreed that that was probably a lot of people.  We wondered if one percent of the people we knew had been to prison or if statistics maybe did not work that way.  To get to Ray’s house you don’t just have to walk past three stopsigns, you also have to cross the street three times.  Apache Chief and I like to work together when we cross the street so I look to the left and he looks to the right and we say “all clear” if there are not any cars coming, and so far that system has worked very well for us.  After we had done that three times we could see Ray’s house, which was still blue and still had the Braves towel in the window next to the front door.  We walked up to the door and knocked on it, and then we waited for a few minutes and then we knocked again.  Ray didn’t answer the door so we figured that he must not be home, or else he did not want to come and get ice-creams with us.  Apache Chief suggested that maybe we use the dollars that would have gone towards Ray’s ice-cream and instead use it to get a bar of chocolate for Dotty, and I considered it and then I agreed with him that that was a good idea.  The store where you can buy ice-creams and also chocolate bars is near Ray’s house, which is why we had the idea in the first place to ask him if he wanted to come with us, and to get there from his house you don’t even need to cross the street again because it is on the opposite side of the same block.  We walked around the corner and then around the other corner.  I wonder sometimes about what the Shouter and Umbrella Man might have been talking about that time that Apache Chief saw them talking when the Shouter was not shouting.  At first I thought it must have been very important, but then I thought about how it seems like the Shouter thinks prisons are important and he always shouts about those so maybe it was actually not important at all.  When we were around both corners we walked up to the store that sells ice-creams and also candy bars and then we walked inside.  The man who works there has dark skin and white hair and often he wears orange shirts with short sleeves and collars and usually he has some white hairs coming out of his nose but sometimes he does not.  Today he did.  Dotty says that he is from Pakistan.  We walked into the store and we said “hello” to him and we both smiled.  He did not say hello to us and he did not smile but he did nod at us.  We put our dollars on the counter and we told him that we would like two ice-creams, please, and also one chocolate bar for our friend Dotty.  The man who works at the store got the chocolate bar from the stack of them behind him and then he asked us what kind of ice-creams we wanted.  I told him that I wanted the kind that tasted like oranges and you got to push up from the bottom through a plastic tube and he got one of those for me.  Then Apache Chief told him that he would like one of the ones that looks like a taco but instead of beef and lettuce it has ice-cream and chocolate inside. The man who works at the store went back to the refrigerator that has the ice-creams in it (which is laying down on the floor instead of standing up like the one in our house is, and also it has clear doors so you can see what’s inside without opening that doors, which seems like a good thing to have) and then he turned around and he said to Apache Chief that they were all out of that kind. When Apache Chief heard him say that he stood really still for a minute except for his eyes got really big and his face started to turn red. Sometimes that happens to Apache Chief, and when the Umbrella Man comes to our house to talk to Dotty about us Dotty calls it an “episode”. After he was quiet and still and his eyes got real big and his face got real red he started to yell. He yelled really loud while looking right at the man who works at the store, who looked really surprised, and the more Apache Chief yelled the redder his face got and also he started to shake. He made his hands into fists and he was shaking and yelling. He wasn’t yelling any words, he was just going “AHHHHH”. The man that works at the store started yelling too, and he was yelling words and pointing at the door but I could not hear the words he was yelling because he was not yelling louder than Apache Chief. I do not know why the Shouter feels like he has to shout just so that he can tell people about the prisons, Shouter’s Spot is not so far from the road that people would not be able to hear him if he just talked normal. I do not know why Apache Chief felt like he had to yell at the man who works at the store either, but Dotty says that Apache Chief’s “episodes” aren’t things that are meant to make sense to me or to her. It seems to me that the idea that some things are not supposed to make sense to me is probably a true idea. I think the man who works at the store felt like he needed to yell because Apache Chief was being very loud and was probably scaring him a little. Apache Chief yelled and yelled and he turned very red, like the color red that is also the color of the apples that Umbrella Man brings us sometimes in the fall that come in a plastic bag with little plastic handles and a picture of some apples on one side, which I think is a little bit silly since you can see the apples right in the bag and you don’t really need any clues that it is a bag of apples, but Dotty says that it is just a little decoration and I think that is probably nice and not silly. When Apache Chief got as red as he could get and yelled as much as he could yell he fell down on the ground and he started breathing really hard and sweating. I always think it is a little  scary when this happens to Apache Chief and I think Dotty does too even though she tells me it is okay. The man who works at the store was still yelling and pointing at the door but the more upset he got the harder it was to understand him because of his accent. I think after a little while he figured out that I couldn’t understand him because he stopped yelling and pointing at the door and looking at us and instead he got out his cell phone and made a phone call. He said an address into the phone while Apache Chief was still breathing really hard and except for the breathing and his eyes being open it was a little like he was sleeping right there on the floor of the store that sells ice-creams and also chocolate bars. I bent down next to him and I took of my one of my shoes and then I took off one of my socks and I used my sock to wipe some of the sweat from his forehead and also some of the blood from where he had bumped his head on the floor. After a while a two policemen came into the store and the man who works at the store yelled at them and was very upset, and Dotty told us once that you shouldn’t ever yell at a policeman but that you should tell them the truth and you should say “yes sir” and “no sir” and do what they tell you to do. One of the policemen started telling the man that works at the store that he that he needed to calm down while the other one came over to where I was wiping the sweat and blood off Apache Chief and asked me what was wrong with him. I told him that Apache Chief had had an “episode” like he has sometimes and that I knew it was a little bit scary but Dotty said we didn’t need to be scared about it. He looked at me after I said that and he looked like he was confused, but then he didn’t ask me to explain it better and instead he made a phone call with his cell phone and he said an address into the phone and then he told me to sit tight. The other policeman was still telling the man who works at the store that he needed to calm down a few minutes later when an ambulance came, and the man who was in the ambulance and the police officer who had been talking to me put Apache Chief in it, and then the police officer put me in his police car and drove me here. And then he told me to talk to you, sir, which is what I am doing now, and also I am waiting for Dotty to come and get me to bring me home, sir, since I do not know how to get home from here and I do not know where Apache Chief is, and when I see her, sir, I will have to apologize because I do not have any chocolate bars or ice creams but I also do not have her dollars, and that is a no good position to be in, sir.

The Ancient Egyptians

Posted on May 14th, 2014

 

 

To the Ancient Egyptians,

onions symbolized eternity

since the concentric rings

resembled the nested layers

of the Earth and the Heavens.

Don’t read too much into it though,

to the Ancient Egyptians, everything

symbolized everything else.

Cats symbolized royalty.

Peanuts symbolized democracy.

The rippling banks of the Nile

symbolized both death and the harvest.

A rat with a locust riding on its back

symbolized the 1972 Atlanta Braves.

Seven white carnations being urinated on

by an emu symbolized the sanctity of marriage.

Norman Bates symbolized Gary Cooper.

A hollow gourd inverted over a well

symbolized traditional American values,

which in turn symbolized me

drinking an icy light beer and listening to

ghosts singing through the floorboards.

To them, even all of eternity

only symbolized an onion,

since they thoughts the nested levels

of Earth and the Heavens resembled

the onion’s concentric layers.

A Vision of Saint Anthony

Posted on May 14th, 2014

 

 

One morning I saw Saint Anthony of the Desert

dancing like a hangman above a field of wild garlic.

He said to me

My Son, you are one of my children,

and like all my children you are the roadkill

on the highway of this world.

You are the fruit that rots on the counter

and is thrown away.

His bronze undulations were

a warm blanket on my shoulders,

and in that moment I knew I was

a burlap sack filled with dizzy moths.

When he split me open at the seams

it felt like breathing air for the first time.

The Good Part

Posted on May 14th, 2014

The lack of surprise on Reg’s son’s face when the door to room number forty-three had swung inward allowing a slice of the blank heat outside to penetrate the dark in an elongated white pyramid should’ve told him something.  What registered there was disappointment.  He might’ve missed if it hadn’t been for the light, the angle of the bedspread, his last minute decision to look in immediately instead of down at his shoes and then up as he’d contemplated in the truck.

 

Happiness, he’d said out loud on the drive over, is as ordinary as a sandwich.  He wasn’t sure what he meant by that but liked the sound of it leaving his mouth.  There was a notebook in the glove compartment that held some of these things written hastily at stop lights, because Reg had at one point written fiction and suffered the notion that he might at any time take it up again.  Last week at the corner of Durrega and Roseland it had been “Never and always are the countries of the young”.  He’d rolled that around his tongue for a while, testing the heft of it against his molars.  Something in it made his prick lift and he’d written it down at the intersection, the woman in the minivan behind him blurring her hands into a white fan after the light had turned and his truck had remained inert.

 

What he’d meant by that, he thought at the dinner table watching Ethan saw into the grilled pork chop and his wife’s face turn towards the window, was that the young have many rules for things they don’t know a lot about.  Love will wear these pants, have this record collection, those glasses, when it shows up.  You’ll never find it in this list of locations or with these outlawed types of people.  For all their recklessness, what they do, these young people, is insulate themselves against loss.  Experience seems like a thing you can buy.  Bodies are objects that you do things to as opposed to things you’ve come to terms with, live in, dwindle down into.  He thought of his own body, if he thought of it as all, companionably.  A faithful hound.  ‘Always’ was a privilege lent to those with a limited willingness or capacity to be surprised, which everyone seemed to think was a state reserved for the aging on account of their having seen enough to be dulled into complacency.  What they don’t tell you, Reg had written in that first email, is that the actual aggregate of experience is being able to see that you’re never going to know or predict with any degree of certainty what something, anything, will be like.  You shed ‘never’ and ‘always’ across the lost days, and work harder to see what just is, instead.

 

The first email was, he told himself later, almost an accident.  A literary exercise.  During the still hours of the night, restless for some semblance of his bachelor apartment in Martindale and the purposeful tick of his sleepless ambitions, he began to browse the website.  In the long scroll of women, lists of books, wants, weights (lies), heights (accurate), there were alternate histories of the world.  Some kid had called this the ‘information superhighway’ and Reg saw it, some ganglion of branching backroads and byways that ghosted in the profiles, offering him alternatives to the carefully regulated track he’d found himself on.  The imagined multiplicity of the untried paths was as heady as the parting of so many pairs of hallucinatory legs.  It was inevitable, it was gravity, that by the time he reached the shimmering delta of Amelia he was going to send this one lone epistolary boat upstream as an experiment.  As an assertion of his willingness to be surprised.

 

He hadn’t thought, strictly, to woo her.   That first letter didn’t even reply, in any real way, to the direct content of her profile, which was a list of musical groups he didn’t recognize, a handful of novels he’d scorned for being overly complicated and self-referential, and photographs clearly designed to make the viewer imagine this woman as a good fit for that spot in your living room labeled ‘Girlfriend’.  She was someone who was used to Seeming Interesting, that much was clear.  But she wasn’t, he mused, someone who was likely to receive a letter informing her that she seemed bereft, and that would then go on to describe the migrating paths of hawks and foxes west of the river, comparing the white tender unguarded throat of a wild animal to the hidden quiver of the upper thigh in a winter bed.  No.  He wrote it for himself.  To see that he could.  He told her the truth about never and always, and crawled into bed at around three, where the steady slope of his wife’s shoulders began the broad statement that ended in the flat punctuation of her buttocks.  He slept, soundly, dreaming nothing.

 

He hadn’t expected a reply.

 

But, two days later, there it was, blinking away at him.  ‘So,’ it began, ‘you’re a nearly-fifty-year-old man who believes in faithfully chronicling detail and that I’m suffering from a secret sadness and that I have too many rules based on too little information.  Fuck off.

 

p.s.  here’s a picture of my thigh.’

 

And there it was.  Close to the unlit heart of her, the white biteable business of it, but, disembodied, so that it might have been anything.  A brightness in a dark room.  A fox in a field.  She wanted him to say something.  It was positioned as a refusal, he knew, but, it was really a question.

 

So, there at his desk at the back of Hurley’s TrueValue Hardware, he’d written a reply.  “I’m going to tell you, and you’re going to listen, about the fine hairs on the legs of the large moth that was resting on the screen door of the back porch this morning.  This is a photograph of my ankle.”

 

The following days were the steady accumulation of minute things.  A pale elbow, balanced against the new leaves.  The small cushion of an earlobe, and the life cycle of the caddisfly.  The sudden startle of her pink nipple, and his rushing paragraph that outlined the cellular experience of one long leaf of tobacco, drying in a hot swath of sunlight.  When he lay down at night, he found that the world had contracted into single utterances that seemed to exist solely for this one electronic record:  an untrimmed nail strafing the bedsheets.  The dim music of his blood.  The note of grass that crept through the crack in the window, and made the darkness green.

 

At the end of the fourth week, she suggested that they meet.  This had been accompanied by a photograph of her mouth.  He had gone out to refill the nails.  With each bin that he topped off, he thought ‘no’.  What he wrote, when he sat down again, was, of course, ‘yes’.  He sent her a photograph of his palms, silvered with the particulate of a thousand sharp objects.

“I don’t get it.”

 

Is what Ethan is saying.  It is Ethan in the hotel room, and not Amelia, and Reg is beginning to suspect that there never was an Amelia, that it was always going to be this way and the weight of the weeks of detail is a brick that is sitting on his chest.

 

But he hears himself, blandly, mildly, say, “Get what, son?”

 

Ethan is holding something out, a piece of paper, an envelope.

 

“Mom.  She said to give you this.”

 

The back isn’t sealed, just tucked into itself.  He watches his finger slide the paper out.  It is taped, at one corner, to a photograph.  A hand.  The palm stares up at him.

“This”, the paper reads, “is the good part.”

Parts of (Chinese) Speech

Posted on May 14th, 2014

One thing’s for sure: learning Mandarin is like cracking your head over a hot jagged stone. Again and again. Hard. It just kills you. Four tones, thousands of characters, stroke after stroke, all ordered correctly, the works. After a full day of studying you take yourself out for a beer or a plate of chicken, thinking you’ve finally come to understand something of this language and how it works, but when the waiter in his thickly wonderful Guizhouian drawl simply asks if you’d like anything else you just stare at him blankly—what the hell did this guy just say?

The words shift not only region to region but family to family. People’s everyday use of Mandarin sneaks up on you, borne along the waves of social exchange by a stranger’s unfamiliar reference, his unknown history, and thus his unbelievable usages. The discrepancies appear most clearly in the details. In my inability to anticipate, to grasp that someone would speak in this way or that, I have floundered with what were otherwise simple constructions, easy phrases:

A man in Jiangxi asks, “That pen, which country’s is it? Like you, is it also America’s?”

In Hunan I hear, “You are so thin and white. Is it because you have seen a ghost?”

In Yunnan, a boy wonders, “For how many days did you sit on the plane before arriving in our China?”

A national pen? Seeing ghosts? Days on a plane?

Maybe this confusion is because I’m a white girl with no special affinity for languages, no multilingual background to compare. I was raised in a California household by parents who openly pined for childhood trips to Hershey Park, who eat their radishes with butter “in the French way”, and who lament a time when you could basically call up the University of Chicago and not apply so much as tell them you’re coming, scoring not only an acceptance on the spot but lunch with the head of your chosen department. Would it have been so easy if you had been a person of color, I recently asked my dad. “It would have been easier!” he exclaimed. “A person of color in 1960s Chicago with my credentials would have been even more extraordinary!”

White privilege is not especially delicious—it’s full of white bread tuna sandwiches and an abiding commitment to the congealing wonders of mayonnaise. It will concede a night of Chinese food made up of comfortably mispronounced, totally American mains: General Tso’s Chicken, Schezwan style moo shoo pork. But in the late 1990s when I told my parents over one such dinner that I planned to study Mandarin, they were aghast. “That is way too hard,” they protested. “You’ll burn out.” “It’ll take forever to learn.” “Are you sure?”

Through middle school and high school, I hid in the back of Spanish classes, hoping the teacher would never call on me, quietly bombing exams and even following my text book’s guidelines for whipping up a tall glass of licuado de banana, convinced its healing freshness would be just the key to—if not the way out of—memorizing verb conjugations. My parents were a blank as far as their own language backgrounds went: my mother recalled a similar wrestling match with French and my father, raised in a predominantly Spanish speaking area of Colorado, chose to study German.

So in China, newly motivated to crack the language of a country already deemed “important” and “game changing”, I found everything thrilling, everything new, and exoticized much of what I came across. The Chinese word for “computer” is literally “electric brain” you say? Fascinating. A Chinese greeting card company mixed up the word “kitty” with “titty”? Unstoppable laughter.

My Beijing language class spent a whole week on the ins and outs of fishing—something I’d never done and had no plans to take up—but I memorized the vocabulary all the same. Then, newly armed with my fishing conversation, I stumbled through an exchange with a taxi driver who seemed to have some especially mournful and plaintive insights as we crawled past Tiananmen Square in evening traffic. Was he pissed about the jam and eager to get home to his family? Or was he lamenting the fate of the students that spring in 1989? I tended to decide it was the latter and, with my rickety, fish-flavored Chinese, probed him for more, took notes and sold a story to a British magazine always eager for the mournful, plaintive individual story within the emerging superpower. Was I seeing the so-called “real China”, was I seeing the China I wanted to see, or was I seeing some weird third China, a convoluted mix of adrenalin and random vocab, of grinding poverty vs. the sudden rise, of foreigners gleaning stories from taxi drivers?

I negotiated a working truce with Mandarin, sliding into a way station of managed use and understanding. But no exchange was flawless and I was often my own biggest obstacle. It was my inability to anticipate the way some questions or statements would be posed that presented my real problem. So I resolved to keep a small notebook with me for language questions, new words and gaffes. I began filling up the notebooks with words and phrases, memorizing one slew and then growing frustrated when a conversation on the same topic with a different person would yield an entirely new set of words. It was like sunbathing on the beach of a vast, endlessly deep ocean. And I was getting burned to a crisp.

Sometimes the words came at the least predictable times. Never when I was reading a newspaper or writing characters out on a note to my downstairs neighbor. Instead, they came while I boiled water for lunchtime dumplings. I would be watching the water rise, creamy foam spreading over the top, and suddenly think to myself, “langfei.” This familiar Chinese term came into my head, but what did it mean?

Langfei, langfei” I repeated over and over, stirring the pot to keep the water down. The wheaty bubbles dissipated with each turn of the wooden spoon but the meaning just wouldn’t come. I had heard the phrase, perhaps recently, and it made sense at the time.

But now, in the new context of lunch boiling in the pot, I couldn’t place it.

Then, just as unexpectedly, another one:

Zhijue.”

This one was trickier. It seemed to me that most Chinese, to my feeble ears, sounded like either zhi or jue, all the time. I had to listen to it again in my head, try to find the tones, the context.

I poured the dumplings through a colander and transferred the off-white mass of steaming lumps to my plate. I had already mixed a little bowl of hot sauce and vinegar together with a dribble of soy and a few Sichuanese peppercorns. Langfei and zhijue, two Chinese words that came from nowhere. I walked over to my desk, set the meal down and started looking up the words.

Immediately I hit upon langfei, which read “wasteful, lavish.” Then I flipped to the z’s. After some careful combing through a few possible candidates, up popped zhijue: consciousness.

Lavish consciousness.

After a few years of study and life in China, was I any closer to understanding something deeper of the language? Sort of. But just when progress seemed most plausible, an episode like this would unfold. Vocabulary, sometimes sophisticated vocabulary, jostled around inside me. Words started to crowd each other, and came forward while forgetting to bring their meanings. They were like travelers laden down with enormous, empty suitcases.

To be standing at your stove in China, boiling dumplings on a Tuesday afternoon, and suddenly think to yourself, “lavish consciousness” with no idea why. It is a web so tangled as to approach strangulation.

On the cusp of the 25th anniversary of Tiananmen Square, a new slew of books are coming out that tout China’s colossal stature, its remarkable rise, its catastrophic environment, its crippling political system, its unbelievable entrepreneurial spirit. Everything about China, at least under the western pen, tends to be more, better, greater, tougher, faster, scarier, saucier, just bigger all around.

Even the Chinese waistline has become a story. Which has me going back to my notes, my files, my dusty old ruminations on a nation I once thought knew but realize, with every passing year, that I hardly even know my own city block in New York City these days, much less the fate and direction of the Chinese people. Yet I was also reminded, as I grazed through the old notes, of the original turns of phrase that once hooked me, so long ago:

“The fate of Beijingers is intertwined with cabbage,” a 1997 edition of the Beijing Evening News intoned in an investigative piece soberly entitled Chinese Cabbage— An In-Depth Look. “Because when cabbage hits the market, the people have the Six Urgents.”

“The first Urgent are the government leaders: Fearing that people would be unable to buy cabbage, the Autumn Vegetable Headquarters was set up. The second are the farmers: The farmers are busy harvesting so as to collect all the cabbage before the first frost. The third is the Transport Bureau: Over a hundred million kilograms of cabbage must be transported to market. The fourth Urgent are the wholesale vegetable stations: Selling cabbage to the people is a big job. The fifth Urgent is the people themselves: After you buy your cabbage you must stack it up at home. The last Urgent is the Sanitation Department: All those dead leaves left on the ground, somebody has to pick them up.”

To understand this article is to be able to equate urgency with cabbage, to understand that it is within living memory that a lot of people’s lives did depend on the cheap, accessible vegetable. A lot has changed in the nearly 20 years since this article was written. Maybe if I had come from a more diverse background, I would have better related to the piece, better understood that cabbage is, indeed, just the mayo of China. But the misperceptions about China, the facile reporting and slips of language, persist. How else to explain a recent article in the Huffington Post about a group of young Beijingers seen walking cabbages on leashes that was eventually paired with this tidy correction?:

A previous version of this article suggested that teens walking cabbages on leashes to cope with loneliness was a widespread trend in China. The teens pictured walking cabbages on leashes were taking part in a performance art piece.