Where Meaning Lives

Disregard the drooling mouths, the incoherent babbles, the lack of fine motor skills: babies are geniuses. At birth, babies can discern every speech sound found in every language. They may not produce much more than dirty diapers, but they absorb the sound profiles of languages like sommeliers sampling pinot grigios. Send a Japanese baby to Britain, and she’ll distinguish red from led. Drop a Brazilian baby in southern Africa with the Ju|’hoansi, and he’ll crack the code of their consonantal clicks. An American baby can decipher that meaning lives in the tones of Thai. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for American men, and when I decided to move to Thailand in 2011, I soon realized that my linguistic genius had been discharged decades ago alongside a spate of soiled diapers.

Even beyond my non-baby status, I was hesitant to uproot my life in Atlanta. Moving abroad, I left behind family, friends, and my first full-time job to join Andrea, my fiancée, now wife. She had accepted a Fulbright scholarship to teach English at a rural secondary school near Ubon Ratchathani, a city close to the Thai borders with Laos and Cambodia. I’d traveled to Thailand once before, in 2009, then too because Andrea—more adventurous and ambitious than I am—had made plans to go. She’d been volunteering at an elder home in the countryside for six weeks before I arrived, at which point we began a two-week tour of the kingdom. For me, the highlights of that trip were overshadowed by my first night, the worst of my life.

When we stopped for dinner that night at the only street cart in sight, I should have followed Andrea’s lead and scooted a couple cubes of what looked like maroon tofu to the edge of my plate where they could only spectate as I shoveled the lukewarm green curry into my mouth. But I wanted to say yes to everything. Meanwhile, having spent the previous weeks living with a host family who spoke as little English as she spoke Thai, Andrea was hungry to share her experience, and she wanted me to dive into the culture mouth first. So, along with the maroon tofu—which we learned years later was congealed pig’s blood—that day, at Andrea’s behest, I also tried durian. A spiky rugby ball of a fruit, the durian’s doughy inner flesh smelled, felt, and tasted to me like a two-month-old mango left to spoil in a dumpster full of skunks. To Andrea, it was delicious. Love at first bite.

We made it back to our hotel before this conglomeration of partially digested, foreign food tethered me to the bathroom inside our room. Over the next eight hours, my digestive tract revealed the contents of its character like clowns spilling out of a clown car—front and back seats simultaneously. The food poisoning stopped me from stomaching sips of water, much less the antibiotic antidote. The blessing in all this was how Thai bathrooms are designed. The showerhead hides behind neither glass nor curtain; enter a Thai bathroom and you’ve essentially stepped into an oversized shower with a toilet in one corner and a sink in the other, the entire floor slanted toward a drain (the entire floor—thank you sweet Jesus—designed to get wet).

A sleepless night behind us, we left early for the nearest hospital, hopping on the back of an enclosed pick-up truck—a common form of public transport called a สองแถว (translation: “two row,” on account of the bench seats facing each other inside). Andrea wisely brought her Thai phrasebook along. (In a month and a half of language immersion, her mastery of the language had yet to include vocabulary for “vomiting” or “diarrhea” or “nonstop all night.”) En route to the hospital, as Andrea flipped through the book’s pages, one phrase stood out: “Is the needle clean?” She planned to ask—interjecting before any injecting. But it was while staff pulled her away to complete paperwork that my nurse pulled out a needle. The mystery injection spurred my recovery. And, two years later, the memory of that hospital visit spurred something else: if we were going to spend a year abroad, we were going to learn the language.


Within a baby’s first year, her perceptive superpowers fade. A twelve-month-old raised in Tokyo won’t hear any difference between red and led. A one-year-old raised in Rio has closed the door on the Ju|’hoansi’s clicks. That’s not to say these abilities disappear completely, but they have to be relearned. A 2018 study of more than half a million people indicates that kids as old as ten can start learning English as a second language, master it throughout their late teens, and speak without an accent. Still, much as my exposure to Thai came far too late for its tones to come naturally, I created my first Thai alphabet flashcards at twenty-three—thirteen years late to the speak-without-an-accent party.

With its forty-four consonants and fifteen vowels, the Thai alphabet is long but phonetic. Unlike in English, where we can spell the vowel that sounds like the letter “E” at least ten different ways (be, bee, bean, fiend, quay, people, amoeba, receive, lovely, alley), in Thai, if you know how a word is spelled, you can probably pronounce it. They also don’t put spaces between their words, a feature that reflects the way humans speak: Abarrageofwordsblurringtogetherwithoutpause.

In the weeks before my departure, my best friend stopped by and flipped through the flashcards stacked on the kitchen table. He balked at how similar some of the letters looked, pointing out one pair: ม and น, the Thai equivalents of m and n. On a piece of scrap paper, I scribbled the letters h and n, spotlighting the subtle difference between the two. Learning Thai, like learning any language, was all about training your eyes and ears to notice the differences that matter, the ones that hold meaning.

Imagine a language’s bank of speech sounds as a palette of colors. Perhaps the k sound—known linguistically as the voiceless velar stop—is a cool cerulean. Let’s say the ow vowel sound (as in “Ow, I stubbed my toe”) is hot pink. Throw the colors of the English palette onto a canvas in the right sequence and you can sound out Shakespeare in abstract art. A brushstroke of cerulean on the left, one of hot pink to the right and you’ve composed a cow.

The palettes of English and Thai aren’t that different. Just swap out a few consonantal colors and throw in an extra vowel. But Thais don’t rely on colors alone to paint their world with meaning. There are, of course, the tones—five of them: low, mid, high, rising, and falling. And vowel length can further change the meaning of a word. Thais can take that abstract portrayal of cow and turn down the contrast, emphasizing the low tones and voilà: เขา, a gender-neutral pronoun translating to both “he” and “she.” They can tweak the contrast again to produce เข้า, meaning “to enter.” Next, they might add another dab of hot pink, lengthening the ow stroke to capture one of their most beloved words, ข้าว, meaning “rice.” One last tonal change gets them ขาว, “white,” and they’ve finally exhausted the possibilities for interpreting what in English still looks like the same abstract cow. No flashcards could train me to perceive such subtleties. I needed to be there.

I found an English teaching gig like Andrea’s, before catching my trans-Pacific flight. While she lived on site at her school about seven miles south of Ubon, I volunteered at an elementary school about thirty miles north, leading English lessons alongside Thai teachers. I was the pronunciation expert and brought an element of immersion to each classroom, while the Thai teachers served as interpreters and legitimate figures of authority. The school’s classrooms resembled those of my childhood in Atlanta with three exceptions: no carpeting, no air-conditioning, no shoes inside—teachers included. Outside each room, a bevy of amber and suede Chuck Taylor knockoffs indicated class was in session. Depending on the students, the shoes would lie in a neat row or a chaotic cluster. Andrea recalls that the same pattern held at her school, and the younger classes full of boys tended to leave “more wild piles.” 

After two months on the job, Christmas was rolling around and became the subject of a lesson I won’t forget. Though murals of Kris Kringle himself adorned several of the white cinderblock walls along the Foreign Language Department hallway, my students only understood his character on a cursory level—as I understood Thai. On this particular day, I can’t recall whether a tidy ribbon of shoes or a jumbled heap lined the wall outside the doorway—a class of mostly girls or boys. Given what transpired, I don’t know that I would have preferred one over the other. The Thai teacher and I encouraged the students to share what they knew about Christmas, Santa Claus, and the winter season. And so, in fits and starts, a room full of about twenty Buddhist middle school students whispered the words that popped into their heads. Everything was going as planned, predictably and without note, until from the back left of the room, one student mumbled หิมะ, the Thai word for “snow.” I recognized the word from my vocabulary book but had never heard it spoken. Excited, I repeated it at a much higher volume for the whole class to hear. Or at least I thought I did. The Thai teacher went wide-eyed; the classroom fell silent. The picture I had drawn with my words wasn’t an abstract expression evoking a wintery scene with thick banks of fresh powder. I’d used the right colors but the wrong tones. And I’d stretched the vowels out too long, turning the word “snow” into two different words. The second: the verb “to come.” The first: a slang term for “vagina.”


Between Christmas of 2011 and Christmas 2012, Andrea and I made fewer gaffes and more connections within our communities, and after a visit home for the holiday, we opted to return to Thailand for six more months. We spent this time working for a nonprofit in a different part of the country. And while we’d both resigned from our posts as teachers back in Ubon, we remained students of the language: our vocabularies swelled to more than a thousand words. When traveling through Bangkok, where the locals spoke more English and the foreigners less Thai, we would compete to see who could more frequently convince shop owners and food vendors to utter the phrase พูดไทยชัด: “You speak Thai clearly.” Andrea would win.

Looking back, one of the greatest joys of learning Thai came through exposure to foreign compound words, which offered new ways of seeing the objects and actions of life. The image of any simple word is arbitrary, an abstraction of color cast in shadows and highlights. But more intentional meaning lives in the compounds, those pairs of words juxtaposed, colliding in collage. Translated into Thai compound words, some simple English takes a literal turn. “Sock,” for example, becomes “foot bag.” “Fridge” becomes “cold cabinet.” But other words win their beauty not through playful precision but through rich metaphor. “Excited” becomes “to get up and dance.” “To understand” becomes “to enter the heart.”

Studying Thai was like discovering Cubism after spending decades as students of the Impressionists. Like mimes in their invisible boxes, we felt out the boundaries that enclose Thai civility and fence out taboo. We learned that if the subject of an expression is implied, it’s omitted—left to live in the negative space. And, in the common phrases and idioms spoken all around us, we caught authentic glimpses of Thai culture. But perhaps most importantly, familiarity with this new form yielded familiarity with those who produce it: Thais both young and old—these artists who fluently flick their paint onto canvas, wielding foreign tongues, vocal cords, and breath. By playing around with the Thai palette, we met them halfway. We swam in the sounds that color their kingdom. We perceived how light filters through their linguistic lens. Mutual respect blossomed between teacher and student.

After we moved back to Atlanta for good, Andrea and I located a Buddhist temple that offered Sunday morning Thai lessons. Outside of a small, wood-paneled room, an assortment of shoes indicated class was in session. We’d set up a folding table and two folding chairs and join our classmates—among them, a Laotian-American mother and son, a couple hexagenerians with plans to live out their retirement sipping coconuts on Thai beaches, and a half-Thai preschooler accompanied by her American father. Hoping to retain what we’d learned of the language, Andrea and I attended these classes for more than a year. And for the hour we spent there each week, our patient Thai teacher transported us right back to her home country, and the language’s familiar sounds rekindled the fresh perspectives we’d gained. From the start, we were too old for her language to come naturally, too entrenched in our own style of speech. But our age allowed us to delight in the differences in a way babies and teenagers cannot.

On any given Saturday, we may have woken up excited for the weekend’s events. Put on some socks. Grabbed breakfast from the fridge. But on Sundays, we got up and danced. Donned pairs of foot bags. And rummaged through the cold cabinet. A year and a half was too short to achieve fluency—I was conversational at best, with a thick American accent. But I believe I came to understand Thai. The language had entered my heart.


Why I Write

In 11th grade creative writing, my poetry dissolved. The overwhelming crush of criticism and the realization that I had no talent stole my brain. When I tried to compose poetry, I threw up my hands with esoteric senseless gibberish. My first husband-partner-lover Scott was a poet. His poetry collection of Apricot was astonishingly clear. He filled each word with a fragrance. It was published in 1973. When he read in public, I knew I could never compete. He was the writer in the family. I was the accountant money-man. I let it go. I descended into the closet about writing.

When Scott died in 1989 after our 16-year tumultuous era together, my voice continued to be silenced. I could cry but I couldn’t express vocabulary. My growth emerged when I wrote my first going-away speech for coworkers. I followed with a birthday chant for my beloved work-friend Tessie. At Florence’s Chinese funeral, I did the eulogy. I loved the acclaim.  But I remained inadequate. My soul still felt vanquished with no voice. I refused to write about being gay. I couldn’t face being a sissy.

When I was hit with spirituality at my gay temple, I flashed upon doing a sermon. I spoke about Intimacy, Unconditional Love, Spirituality, and Do You Believe in God? I strutted across the bimah. I gripped the attention of the congregants. I waved away the boring aspects of ritualized religion. For the first time, I was able to integrate my gayness through writing.

When my friend Charlie insisted I go to a poetry workshop, I couldn’t even remember why I would be scared. Instead of crumbling, I horned in on the darkest holes. The shame I felt when I put my Scott into a hospice weeks before he died ripped the page. I was flabbergasted when I read this poem out loud. I shivered.


I believed in fidelity
My lover Scott didn’t
Together 15 years, like a married
Couple in our East Hollywood bungalow
We were the perfect couple
Except he slept with others.
Our friends and family never knew
Until Scott received the news in 1986.
Diagnosed with AIDS
Ashamed to admit to anyone
That he cheated on me
I never told anyone at work
I didn’t think they’d
Understand why I didn’t leave him
Or worry that I was sick
He was going to die and
I took care of him but I
Never told my boss
Never took a leave of absence
To spend the last few months with him
Remained in the closet about AIDS
During the last few weeks of his life
I didn’t take care of him
My therapist said
I couldn’t “handle” him dying in our condo.
Scott went to a hospice and two weeks later he died
I was left alone
Ashamed that I wasn’t with him until the end.

I was drawn to writing. I fretted about always searching for the worst. The blockage didn’t stop me from writing. It just scared me about being a monster.

I welcomed retirement without any preconceived bucket list. When I entered the “What is Your Life Story?” class at the Village, I was transformed into a writing machine. I took my life into a memoir. I exploded with “showing” and not telling in my prose. I had withdrawal when I didn’t write.  I exposed my secret sexual fetish. I shared my father’s hounding me about “walking straight.” I took my relationships under a blunt knife. I found pride in being a Sissy. I came out as a writer.     


Image at the top of the page: Iris 04″by jolynne_martinez is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Something There Is That Does So Love a Cocklebur


You’d think ‘bur’ would have two r’s, the hooks on the letter resembling those on the prickles. Our dogs do not love the cocklebur’s almond-sized fruit, especially Fern, whose fur is the consistency of bad wig hair. The burs cling to Fern like Velcro, using her beard, her tail, her fuzzy pantaloons to disperse to new locations, determined to survive. A member of the daisy family, the cocklebur grows in waste places, places to which its prickly seeds can be blown or washed in, places like the lakebed trails where my husband Marc and I walk our dogs several times a week. As the Kern River and Lake Isabella’s waters recede with the Sierra’s diminishing snowmelt, bottles and driftwood and sunglass frames deposit themselves on the freshly formed beaches. Cocklebur plants, too.

And shoes. Hundreds of them. Once, when we were hiking with the dogs, we happened upon a pile of 50 or so mismatched sandals at the high-water mark. Yet the pile in front of us was not the shoes’ natural rest stop. Someone had curated this collection, matching like sandal to sandal, neoprene moccasin to neoprene moccasin, flip-flop to flip-flop. In bringing them together in a space the length and width of a swimming pool, rather than leaving them scattered and stranded, this curator had created art, both beautiful and horrible. And as with any piece of art, this heap of summer footwear incited questions. What happened to the people on whose feet these sandals belonged? Were the sandal-bearers pulled from the overflowing river by their loved ones, only to realize they’d lost a shoe? Better to sacrifice a shoe to the frigid floodwaters than a person. My photo series of the high-water shoe-pile: I call it “The saga of flip-flops.” Imagine if, like cockleburs, the shoes took root and flourished.

Any farmer with burs in his pasture will tell you, though the seedlings are tenacious, the roots are not difficult to pull. Get them when they’re young.

Twenty years ago, Marc and I rendezvoused in campgrounds on this river. I’d coast in from L.A., where I worked in a magazine office, while he meandered south from the Eastern Sierra, where he worked as a backcountry guide. We’d cook one-pot noodle dinners over a Primus camp stove, share a bottle of wine, and recount our Saturday whitewater kayaking the Kern’s rapids. An hour after the sunset, the campground boulders still retained their heat. Cloaked by darkness, we’d shed every stitch of clothing. Lolling in the rock’s ambient heat, each on our own individual boulder, we’d talk about everything, and nothing. Then one warmed body would cross over to share the other’s boulder, and conversation hushed. Back then, I was in over my head when it came to whitewater rapids. Time after time, I would emerge for air after flipping, failing to Eskimo roll, and slithering out of my boat. I’m swimming again, damn it, I thought, while water flowed literally over my head. I worried I might be in over my head with Marc, that we were just playing at romance, enchanted by the river’s rapids and pools, by the mountains’ granite, and by the impossible array of stars above us, but I was wrong about that. Despite our youth, the seedlings of our relationship weren’t drowned. All these years later, here we are. We’ve traded tents and camp stoves for a house and a five-burner range. We floated in and we’ve taken root.

Strolling in the sandy soil of the lakebed, we spot all manner of tracks—from pickup trucks, birds, boots, tennis shoes, dogs. Eventually we’ll even recognize our own footprints. “Huh,” we’ll say. “So those are the patterns we make.”

On one particular hike, a blur of corgi-terrier sprays my ankles with sand. I follow Keji through a screen of willowy shrubs to the river, where something unnaturally white contrasts with the dark blue meandering water. An ancient washing machine’s four rusting claw feet dig into the bank. The washtub is white—super white—thanks to the sun. It’s a top-loading machine, lid long-gone. The wash basin has a flat bottom, maybe a 2-foot radius. A finned pillar rises from smack-center of the basin—the agitator. Later I will look this word up and I will confirm that an agitator is a device to stir or shake things up. People can be agitators, as can geological faults. This will strike me as a funny coincidence since the 65-year-old earthen Isabella dams—known as Main Dam and Auxiliary Dam—are in the process of being rebuilt. The active Kern Canyon fault beneath the dams threatens to agitate the earthen structures to the point of catastrophic failure.

Meanwhile, beneath the sun-bleached washbasin, a brown, cloth-wrapped electrical cord snakes around its rusty feet, which support a corroded base in which a motor once rumbled. I imagine the machine once rumbled on someone’s back porch, under an eave. Or perhaps in a corner of a ranch house kitchen. But why is it here, a half mile or more through sand and shrub from town? Why isn’t this aged contraption convalescing with other rusting, rustic devices in one of the many local antique shops? I imagine the claw-footed old-timer sandwiched between record player console and telephone table, a quiver of catgut tennis rackets propped in a corner, near a pair of wooden skis partnered with poles, their snowflake-shaped baskets big as diner pancakes. Nostalgia is one of the Kern River Valley’s most lucrative industries.

More likely, the elderly beast drowned, bound by sand for decades. This section of riverbank is normally submerged by the dammed waters. Isabella’s earthworks were under construction from 1950 to 1953, while the washing machine itself was manufactured in the 40s. This was right around the time the federal government condemned Old Kernville and the town of Isabella in order to build the dam and reservoir. But the local townsfolk didn’t quietly away. Instead, they moved 120 of the old houses and buildings to new sites, such as the vacant land that would become today’s Kernville. What they couldn’t move, they dynamited. Foundations, ruins, and oddities such as this flood-battered washing machine become exposed and then vanish at the whim of the lake level.

Marc and I live on a lot where an Old Kernville house had been relocated. Around 2001, the relocated building was razed but for one wall, the wall containing the fireplace. Over that hearth, on the rebricked mantel, we’ve lined up framed photos. In them, we’re hiking, we’re camping, we’re canoeing. It’s funny, but all the photos cut us off at the feet. You can’t see whether we’re shod or barefoot or wearing mismatched flip-flops. You can see that we’re happy, though, that we’re flourishing in this place. Years before we bought the property, I remember walking past it on the way to the Kernville Post Office. The old green shanty with its screened-in porch listed slightly, weighed askew by time and gravity. The new house—our salmon-hued stucco job—will someday do the same. And a river shall take it, not unlike a cocklebur.


Image at the top of the page: “Cockleburs” by CAJC: in the PNW is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.