Wouldn't the boat also be able to go by itself in the water?

bai-laoshiShe had just turned eighteen. It was the fall of her freshman year at that college in the mountains.

The college was famous for its language classes, and she was good at languages, so she signed up for Russian. It was the weirdest, for lack of a better word, language offered.

Then she received a letter stating that Chinese would now be offered. Chinese? she thought. Well. That certainly outdid Russian in its unusual-ness.

She signed up.

Chinese I met every morning from 8-9, and again every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon from 2-3:30. This was more than a pre-med science class, but she did not think in those terms back then. She wanted to take Chinese, and take it she would.

That first day,  8 a.m. on a Monday morning, there were 16 in the class, mostly freshmen like her. They sat quietly around a long rectangular table in a first floor classroom. In her memory she is wearing her pink skirt, but in her memory she is always wearing that pink skirt, so she doesn’t trust the pink skirt memory.

Right now,  as she types this, she’s looking at an old red spiral-bound notebook open to the first lined page.

Chinese 101. Sept. 11.

zai = to be located at.

ai = to love.

shan = mountains.

dui bu dui = correct?

dui = correct.

budui = incorrect.

Below,  on the same page, is the first character she ever attempted to write: wo,  which means “I.” Over and over and over, in what now  looks to her like a two-year-old’s attempt at Chinese, the word is printed on the page.

At least she can tell what word it is, though. The next one,  Ni,  meaning “you,” is incomprehensible. It’s obvious, looking at it, that this was her first day of Chinese.

But she gets ahead of herself. Back to the long rectangular table, and the sixteen or so of them sitting quietly around it.

The door opened then, and a tall man with a big nose strode in, barking an incomprehensible stream of Chinese at them. Pointing around the table, frowning, smiling, babbling a wild stream of words that made no sense whatsoever.

The sixteen quiet students sat frozen in their chairs. What had they gotten themselves into?

Next morning, Tuesday, at 8 a.m., there were only eight.

Which is testament to the power of the man they knew as Bai Laoshi. Because his pronunciation was perfect, hers is good. Because his command of characters was marvelous, hers at one time was not too bad. Because he expected her to, she spent her junior year in Taiwan.

He was a Teacher. He taught a language from a country,  a continent, where teaching is the most revered of professions, and he lived up to that standard.

Back to the red spiral-bound notebook. Here, on Tuesday, Nov. 14, the word STUDY appears in capital letters, surrounded with stars.

Directly below it is a word she would’ve sworn she didn’t know and never learned: bingkuai, which means ice cube.

Thursday, Nov. 30, is boxed off with an ink rectangle, followed by the word STUDY! with an ! following it.

Tuesday, Dec. 5. Why, what have we here? Could it be the word STUDY, repeated three times and surrounded with a series of faintly desperate-looking rays? Indeed it could.

Teaching, to her, can be boiled down to this one pivotal moment:

It is November, a bit over two months into her study of Chinese. The remaining students in Chinese 101 are now reading a novel, greatly simplified, but a novel nonetheless. They are going around the table according to the pointed finger of the hooknosed Bai Laoshi. Her turn is coming and she’s scared.

In memory, which she doesn’t trust, given the constancy of the pink skirt – which, she now remembers,  she didn’t even buy until two years later, when she was living in Taipei – she was pretty much always scared in Chinese class. She wanted so badly to do right, to pronounce with the correct tones, to master the characters, to see that smile spread across Bai Laoshi’s face.


There it was. That was her name in Mandarin – it still is, as a matter of fact, immortalized forever in the necklace her friend Oreo made for her and which never leaves her neck.

“Translate the next paragraph, please!”

She stares down at the black pictographs on the white page. My God, this language is hard. They are talking about a boat on this page. There  is something about air,  something about a boat, something about water. . . and then there’s a rush that makes her lightheaded, her whole self filled with power:

“If that’s the way the wind is blowing, then wouldn’t the boat also be able to go by itself in the water?”

Out it comes. She knows she’s right. She didn’t have to think it through, laboriously translate each and every word, try to remember the unfamiliar  rules of Chinese grammar.

She looks up from the  novel, and there it is.

That spark of connection between teacher and student,  the unmistakable jolt when the teacher has held his arms out and taught with all his power to the very ends of his fingertips, and the student has bent over those books every night and gone to class every morning, cramming whole new worlds into her hurting brain, and there it is, at last: the leap, the electric jolt. She had in that one moment vaulted to a new level of learning, and they both knew it.

She wanted to be a writer, but she studied Chinese, not literature. To this day she doesn’t know exactly why, but she does know that it had something to do with the fact that she knew she was in the presence of a magnificent teacher.

Now, when she’s prompted to answer security questions online, and the question is “Who was your most influential teacher?” she types in “Bai Laoshi.”

When her children talk about the one teacher at their high school who is feared and respected and adored simultaneously, the one teacher that the students give their all for, she nods knowingly and thinks, “He is their Bai Laoshi.”

His is the face that comes to mind when she thinks of the word “teacher.” His is the voice that still echoes in her ears – gen wo shuo, say it with me – when she carries on a silent conversation with herself in Chinese.

When she makes dumplings every year on Chinese New Year, she is transported back to the dumpling parties he and Alice gave every year. When she looks at her youngest child, born in China, she knows that their life as mother and daughter really began long ago, on September 11, in Chinese 101.

Jan. 30. Test!!! Study!!!

Mar. 9. Review all grammar and characters  from  semester!!


Thirty years later, the answer is yes.  Bai Laoshi, duo xie.

It Was the Spring of 1983


joy-streetShe and Ellen wandered the cobblestone streets of Boston.

They stood in sunshine that fingered its way down through the tile roofs and alleys of the old brick buildings.

They went to Man Ray on the weekends, the club across the river where they were the straight girls amid the gay men.

They danced with abandon and without worry. The music was loud and they absorbed it into their bodies and their bones. It pulsed in their blood. The watched the beautiful men dancing with each other under the flashing indoor lights.

The women’s room was in the basement. They emerged from their stalls to find tall muscled men in drag reapplying mascara.

Back across the river, on the sunlit street by DeLuca’s, they talked with their Man Ray friends, their faces shadowed with the worry that was beginning to creep through the alleys and the streets.

More than twenty years later and she’s remembering those months, those years. She’s picturing again the basement of Man Ray, where next to the women’s room was a narrow window set into a brick wall, a window that gave onto a sealed-off 1950’s living room, a perfect movie set living room, cut off from the world, a lamp burning on the coffee table.

She remembers how she and Ellen used to stand on tiptoe, peering silently into the inaccessible room  of the past. She remembers how the drag queens brushed by them, young and male  and beautiful, tan skin stretched over muscles and that invisible blood.

From a line by Maxine Kumin

And life was bleak and sweet and you

conjured yourself up inside me, a
something that began to be
and which I imagine now
still being, a grownup, much
older than I was at the time.
There you are now,
tall one, head full of curls,
turning in the doorway to smile at me.
I imagine you, all these years later,
having grown up without me
in that faraway parallel world.
This would be your birthday, and
I send my love to you
over the bridgeable divide:
You drew yourself together
from a blue wool blanket on a narrow bed,
from Neil Young on a tape player,
from a stack of books on a wooden desk,
from a red maple leaf ironed between wax paper,
from a stuffed dog worn thin with age,
secret zippered pocket in its soft belly.


Family Circus

This is how it was:

You sat on the couch
and I climbed in your lap.
You shook out the paper and
then folded it in half, and
again into quarters, and
then smoothed it straight.
I leaned back against your
giant chest and waited.
You pointed to each panel
and read the black and white
marks above the bright picture.
When you finished one quarter,
you turned the paper over and
read the next, refolding,
smoothing, and turning.
It was Sunday.
We called them the funnies.
Your voice was a bass rumble
reverberating in my ears and chest.
Sometimes, these days,
this is the kind of memory that comes
floating up from the other loud ones.
Your finger pointing at the words
rising above bright pictures,
leading me from page to page.


Kathi and April are both doing it, so why shouldn't she?

clam-man-sylvan-beach1She copies her friends and decides to write a poemish thing a day for a month. After all, if they told her to jump off a bridge, sure, she would jump off a bridge. Why not?

Good Lord,  I’ve got to write a poemish thing, she tells her daughter. They are sitting in a semi-grimy motel room on Day Four of a 1500-mile road trip. It’s check-out time.

Like right now, she says to her daughter. Quick, give me a topic.

Fruit! says the daughter.

Fruit? Too general. Too broad. Despite the fact that for some reason all she can picture is Minnie Pearl in a fruit hat with the price tag dangling off.

Give me a specific fruit, she says to her daughter.


Her daughter sounds so sprightly. Fruit! Apple! That’s what happens when you’re a child, packed and ready to go and eating a pre-packaged sweet roll of indeterminate age while watching morning television in a semi-grimy motel  room. You become sprightly.

Sprightly or not,  the daughter said apple and apple it shall be.

Apple. What can possibly be poemized about an apple that won’t make her weep with cliche?

Eve ate one and all the trouble began: the new clothes, the shame, the forcible exit from the garden. But was  it so great in that garden, really? The whole idea always strikes her as the equivalent of the white clouds and harps and halos in the New Yorker cartoon heavens, those blah middle-aged paunchy angels peering down at the lost world below.

* * *


Is it fun, with all that peace up there? Do you look down on us, you who used to be us, down here amongst the grit and the grime, you who no longer eat anything, let alone apples, peering down from your clouds on we who do, and shake your heads knowingly, glad to be done with it all and safe up on your clouds?

Or do you wish you were still here? Do you secretly wish you could trade places with, say, me, still eating apples, like this one, warm in my hand from a tree warmed by September sunshine?

I would, if I were you. Look at this apple, and look at me eating it. Look at me, with this crunch and this color and this flavor flooding my mouth.

Give me dirt. Give me tears, and a throat sore from crying. Give me laughter that makes my stomach hurt. Give me sex. Give me this wide brown churning river outside this grimy hotel window. Give me these muscles and bone and blood still dripping from this cut thumb. Give me a mountain that makes my legs ache. Give me this beating heart that hurts in a thousand ways. Give me this child, that man, this dog and the sun glinting off that hurrying river.

Give me fear,  and give me wonder.

Keep your clouds and your harps and your halos,  poor sad jealous angels peering down from your whiteness, and give me this world, this enormous world with its dirt, and its bruises, and its worms, yeah, I’ll take them too.

* * *