coalIn poetry class, you are writing odes, odes to soap, music, somebody’s distant cousin–even the sound S makes as you assemble an alliterative sentence. You are crafting tributes to colors and memories and all of the things you love in the world.

You are in front of the classroom describing how the gray blue tile you hold between your fingertips, a color you have named dad’s truck blue, a sort of primer blue hue, reminds you of dad’s old Chevy Apache. And, you explain how when you initially see this shade it reminds you of your first sleeping bag, but it is, in fact, more the shade of the vehicle that was dramatically flattened under a ginormous tamarisk in the late 70s. Decades later, this  tint can still evoke the explosive sound of the tree untethering from the earth just outside the chickens’ coop.

You read recently about Polish idioms, that Polish people don’t daydream. Instead, they think of blue almonds. They don’t speak bluntly. Rather, they tell it straight from the bridge. They don’t beat around the bush; they wrap the truth in cotton. And, you think this is the poet’s work; you spend entire days thinking of blue almonds, lecturing from bridges, and softening the truth.

You think about all of the odes there are left to write: salutes to Warsaw traffic, praise for pickled eggs and beets and herring, testimony for trust and faith and lust, homages to the lost, to the sky streaked with coal, to drunk people falling softly in snow, to every gilded representation of Jesus, to meeting your husband’s relatives who don’t speak your language–still they look into your face and love, love, love you anyway.

Necesito Correr


Hale Kai Restaurant, Fairmont Orchid, Big Island, Hawaii  

I regularly start stories with the same first line: “A funny thing happened at Home Depot the other day.” For those of you who don’t know, I learn Spanish (and teach English) in the Home Depot parking lot one day a week throughout the semester.

Thus, a funny thing happened at Home Depot the other day. It was nearly 2:30PM, and we were about to wrap up our hour-long language exchange. We were shaking hands around the circle and offering, “Mucho gusto” and “Nice to know you” in our most practiced accents.

Typically, after this cordial ritual, if I do not have a meeting or another class, I send my college students off and linger a little to chat about gardening (how Lalo’s avocado tree is so much taller, how I plan to plant before the next rains) or when my plans are for traveling to Mexico next (mid-June, I promise).

Then, I regularly say, “Necesito correr” (I need to run) and often posture slo-mo running as I head off to my car. It is my way of sharing an English expression that seems silly in Spanish. (It’s pretty much as close as I get to being able to tell jokes in Spanish.)

The guys who regularly participate in our exchange know this is just my way of essentially saying “the end,” and I follow it with: “See you next week; hasta la proxima.”

However, Alejandro, a man unknown to me before Monday, offered graciously to meet me in a park ay 6PM to run laps and help me get in a mile (five laps) as he understood me clearly state that I need to run.

I tried to explain that it is an idiomatic expression, that I didn’t really need to run, that I knew what I was saying, but I was playing with the words, and that I was grateful for his offer, but that last bit made him think I wanted to meet him at 6PM. And, he offered additional advice for a pleasant, evening run.

By this time, the other guys were beyond giggling; one even held on to a tree as he was guffawing. I felt bad; Alejandro was being friendly and generous. The least I could do was explain what an idiom is. But I had to run.

This experience made me think of a piece I read on the Poetry Foundation’s website:

Language Lesson 1976

by Heather McHugh

from: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/245900


When Americans say a man

takes liberties, they mean


he’s gone too far. In Philadelphia today I saw

a kid on a leash look mom-ward


and announce his fondest wish: one

bicentennial burger, hold


the relish. Hold is forget,

in American.


On the courts of Philadelphia

the rich prepare


to serve, to fault. The language is a game as well,

in which love can mean nothing,


doubletalk mean lie. I’m saying

doubletalk with me. I’m saying


go so far the customs are untold.

Make nothing without words,


and let me be

the one you never hold.


*Write about a misunderstanding due to language or cultural barrier. If you don’t have one off the top of your head, thefreedictionary.com (http://idioms.thefreedictionary.com/) has an idiom of the day.

** Talk to random people in parking lots to see what misunderstandings unfold.


mero mero

The homework in Spanish class was to use el mero mero, essentially the best of the best. I decided to try to make my demonstration of its use (in singular, plural, masculine, feminine, and as a specific place) rhyme (harder than I imagined) and use some of the vocabulary/idioms I have acquired.

I definitely think the pieces I have written first in Spanish should stay in Spanish, but following is the translation anyway.


Él es a la izquierda de cero.

No es mi mero mero.

Ella es una amiga no muy sincera.

No es mi mera mera.

Aquellas estudiantes no me saludan ni siquiera.

No son mis meras meras.

Pero my hombre fuerte and fiero.

Mi essposo genroso es mi mero mero.

Él vive mero en mi corazón entero.


Precisely Here

He is less than zero.

He is not the best of the best.

She is friend who is not sincere.

She is not the best of the best.

These students rarely greet me.

They are not the best of the best.

But my strong and fierce man,

my generous husband, is the best of the best.

He lives precisely here in my whole heart.



In one Spanish class, I am writing poems. In the other I am asking questions and carrying on a conversation about politics, culture, and history. 

My most recent round of questions had to do with what I call gasoline for my motorcycle: idiomatic expressions.

We started with four I had overheard in the Home Depot parking lot. The first is: Nací en el año del caldo. It means: I am old. I was born in the year soup was.

The second: Me importa un pepino (un comino, o un rabano). In other words, I could not care less (it is as important as a cucumber, or cumin, or a radish).

The third has to do with the men calling eggs “Blanquillos” instead of “huevos.” I couldn’t understand why they would associate eggs with white, blanco (instead of the delicious brown ones), my teacher reminded me that huevos are associated with testicles and that they needed to find a way to refer to eggs politely; blanquillos is the solution.

Finally, the last one caused the most confusion in the parking lot: Me cayó el payaso. Literally this means a clown fell on me. However, it is a way to describe that work didn’t get done. I and my english speaking students thought this might be equivalent to “clowning around.” A man from Guatemala, where they have many different idioms, said it just didn’t make sense.

My teacher said another almost equivalent to the clown one is: “Me atraparon con mis manos en la masa.” (You have caught me with my hands in the masa.) This is our equivalent of fingers in the cookie jar.

“Cada dos por tres” is two out of three times or: frequently.

“Cortor por lo sano” is to cut off something for my (physical or mental) health.

While something might cost an arm and a leg in English, it costs “an eye from the face,” (un ojo de la cara) or the pearls of the virgin (las perlas de la virgen).

There are also high prices to pay for some solutions. For example, “Me salío más caro el caro que las albóndigas” (literally translated: the broth is more expensive than the meatballs).

I think“”echarle mucha crema a los tacos” (to throw a lot of cream on the tacos) is a cosmetic response much like putting lipstick on a pig.

“Dar en el clavo” is similar to our hit the nail on the head, but there is no hitting or head. Our version seems a more violent way to refer to precision. We also both dot our I’s, but in Spanish, it is “poner los puntos sobre las íes.”

We rest on our laurels, Oaxacans sleep: “Dormirse en los laureles.” 

We are between a rock and a hard place or our back is against a wall. In Oaxaca, they “estar entre la espalda y la pared” which is to be between the back and the wall.

A good insult for someone you despise might be that she is a zero to the left, in other words less than zero, a negative number: “ser un cero a la izquierda.” 

There are many sayings for one who is crazy. Several involve marbles and screws as do some of ours. “Le falta un tornillo” is to be missing a screw. Se botó la canica is to have a screw thhrown out. And the list continues. You can also lose your stirrups (footing or balance): “Perder los estribos.” This suggests an uncontrollable madness.

“Hacerse de la vista gorda” is a way to have seen something (perhaps a married friend with her lover), but to pretend not to see it. This is often related to people who permit/tolerate/ignore political corruption. By contrast, you might put your finger in a bedsore: “poner el dedo en la llaga.” This is a postive when someone is willing to say what is right although it causes pain. It is precise and painful for listeners. We also talked about opening “la caja de Pandora,” Pandora’s Box.

“No te andas por las ramas” (Don’t walk through the branches) means to focus on the important things, not the superficial ones. Speaking of trees, you should avoid asking for pears from an apple tree, asking for the impossible, “pedirle peras al olmo.”

When hit in the head, Oaxacans, like Californians, see stars (“ver estrellas”). However, while we might have the bull by the horns, they take the pan by the handle (“tener el sarten por el mango”); this does seem more of a display of control.

When you are done with something (including an action), you let it flow (like water flows). The whole phrase is: “Agua que no has de beber, déjala de correr” or (water that you do not have to drink, let it run).

A reminder to be humble and avoid exaggeration: “Ni tanto que queme el santo ni tanto que no lo alumbre” (A saint will neither burn nor shine).

And a phrase that seems to speak to Murphy’s Law (La Ley de Murphy) as much as the presence of evil in the world: “El hombre pone. Dios dispone. Llega el diablo y todo discompone.” Man puts things here. God disposes of them. The devil arrives and everything decomposes.

In the end, I shared the dog ate my homework, the cat got my tongue, and butterflies in my stomach. Apparently, love is the main reason one would have “mariposas” butterflies in her stomach in Oaxaca.