For the past few days, I’ve vacillated between panic, helplessness, and feeling like a prophetic, burning witch. I spent the first two months of this year watching the pandemic take hold of China—from the arrest of Dr. Li WenLiang for spreading “false rumors,” to Wuhan and the whole country going into lockdown, to my friends mailing masks back home to their families in China—sitting in my NYC apartment as the virus swept across Korea, Iran, Italy, making its way across the globe towards me.
Hebe Uhart’s “A Trip to La Paz” is delightfully misleading in that we never arrive at our destination; we never see the city that touches the clouds. This essay is concerned with a different kind of beauty—the getting there, the buzzing potential of travel. It encapsulates why we embark on grueling car rides, on flights, on long train journeys, in the first place.
Without italics, you might be tempted to think that’s a typo or just bad copyediting; that I mean to say she “is married to a douglas.” But, on the off chance you are of West Indian heritage, you know exactly what I mean. You know dougla is a real word and you know it means the new Vice President of the United States of America is half-Indian and half-black.
Sulfur: odor of rotten eggs, matchhead, volcanoes, gunpowder, and Lucifer down there in Hell’s fire and brimstone.
Also the smell that pervades thermal spas. Along with minerals such as sodium chloride, iodine, and calcium, sulfur is a key component of manytherapeutic waters. Linked as it is with fire and corrosion, sulfur also has a storied association with the healing of numerous ailments, particularly respiratory and skin-related ones.
GOD Almightie first Planted a Garden. And indeed, it is the Purest of Humane pleasures. It is the Greatest Refreshment to the Spirits of Man; Without which, Buildings and Pallaces are but Grosse Handy-works.
—Francis Bacon, from his 1625 essay, “Of Gardens”
I open the garden on the morning of November 4, after sixteen hours of poll work the day before, sure Trump will be re-elected. The lawn is scattered with red and yellow leaves. The late roses are wan and bedraggled as chiffon ballgowns after a hard night of dancing. Shocking purple aconitum are the finale—their hood-shaped blossoms (hence their popular name, monk’s hood) visible from fifty feet away. The twisted apricot tree is filled with warblers; this English garden in Brooklyn makes a classy pit stop on their way to Guatemala.
It was mid August when my mom and I made the trek into South Central Houston to visit Sidney. We wound through the dense medical district towards the massive complex of 5 buildings making up MD Anderson Cancer Center where Sidney, my mom’s former student, was being treated. As we made our way out of the parking garage, groping toward centralized air conditioning, I marveled at the sheer number of cars from all over the country occupying what was only a single corner of MD Anderson’s campus. I shouldn’t have been surprised. After dethroning Memorial Sloan Kettering as the U.S. News & World Report‘s best hospital in cancer care in 2015, MD Anderson boasted around 140,000 patients a year and rising.
“It’s Borges, the other one, that things happen to,” wrote Borges. This is a statement that makes me think of my other self, the other Laughlin who lived in another world, another time, as another self in another country—as we’re always another when we live outside our native land.
Lusophones love to tout the uniqueness of their (our) language, and in even the most roundabout of metalinguistic conversations, all roads eventually lead to saudade. But aside from a vague quasi-mysticism about loss that surrounds the word, the meaning is straightforward—saudades tuas, I miss you. Saudades de Portugal. I miss Portugal. Loss, longing. We have tools in English that serve to get the point across quite easily.
The Alentejo is the landscape of heartbreak. Or at least it was to me. Even its trees are clearly loners, set apart from each other at distant intervals across miles of sere brown fields. The Alentejo is all about waiting, from its numbered cork trees, with their skinned underbellies between harvest years, to the fabled, and perhaps fictional, nun Mariana, writing from Beja to a lover who will never come back. The Letters of a Portuguese Nun have been awaiting an author, an answer, for three and a half centuries now. Once celebrated for sparking a revolution in the European epistolary novel, now considered out of fashion even in Portugal, they remain a literary enigma, the country’s Mona Lisa.
In 1969, my grandfather gave the keynote address to the Master Brewers Association of America. He was not a brewer himself, but he had worked thirty years as a consultant to the industry, and by this time he had provided advice to breweries in every state of America and seventy countries.
The title of his speech was “How to Make Beer That Sells—with What You’ve Got!” He focused first on the importance of quality and outlined the industry standards: 1) Beer must be “clean and pleasing in flavor” as well as 2) “pleasing in appearance”; and 3) “it should not vary in flavor or appearance from day to day.” While beer drinkers today, myself included, wouldn’t agree with his definition of “pleasing” as “a complete absence of distinctive flavor components,” I suppose he can be forgiven for being at the mercy of the era’s bland American palate. As an industrial engineer, his main focus was on cleanliness, efficiency, and reproducibility; he did not seek to be a tastemaker, nor did he encourage this in his clients.