Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Why I'll Always be a Villager at Heart

Click here for full article on Guardian US.
Guardian US published my essay about communal parenting; why it's important to know your neighbors and their children. I'm still a little scared by how this situation could have ended. And do know that by now, I've already to talked to both mothers and one of the boys. I still have an earful for Eddie.

On the first day of winter’s thaw, I saw two teenage boys on the roof next door holding guns. I don’t know much about guns, except that they kill and that young black men holding them are likely to be killed. I called my husband, trying to keep panic out of my voice so as not alarm my own children. He looked out the window. “Jesus. Call the police.”

After Michael Brown, John Crawford, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice—especially  after Tamir—calling  the police didn’t seem like the solution here.

“Don’t you see who it is?” I told him. “Eddie and Aaron.”

The boys’ lower-income apartments squat dwarfed by the shadow of our larger middle-income building. An invisible red line and a bright blue spiked fence separate us. Any of our fourth floor neighbors could see them as well we could. I’ve known both since they were small children, but I could see them through the eyes of a stranger, or through my husband’s first glance: two young African American men, in hoodies, armed.


Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Well, the Irish became white...

Click here for the full article on NBC News
I'm pleased to share my most recent essay published on nbcnews.com. I discuss the sometimes fraught relationship between Caribbean immigrants and African Americans. 

I listened with fascination as my Jamaican immigrant student enumerated the ways West Indians were superior to African Americans. Children from the Caribbean went to better primary schools, didn't skip classes, had parents who taught them manners, and had more respect for authority and their elders. West Indians, she said, were willing to work hard and African Americans were lazy; more than anything, she couldn't stand being mistaken for a black American.

While the majority of my immigrant students could weigh in on why they considered African Americans less successful, Caribbean immigrants in particular were at pains to define themselves as separate from native born African Americans.

I let her have her litany, a part of me horrified to realize that at an earlier point in my immigrant journey I had shared some of her frustrations of belonging to an invisible minority. This was over a decade ago not long after I'd begun teaching at LaGuardia Community College, a CUNY campus nicknamed "The World's Community College" for its hyper-diverse student population.

Curious, I asked what else about dark skin might suggest someone was African American? Responses ranged from wearing low-slung jeans and baseball caps, to dropping out of high school, and hanging out on the corner.


Saturday, January 17, 2015

Tell Them What?

On her third birthday I told my daughter the story of her birth: how my water breaking echoed in my head like a popped juicebox; how people outside the hospital had given dad and me thumbs up; how I’d barely had to push before she slid right out.

She looked up from her breakfast cake. “What, Mom?”

Dang. I thought I’d told her that part already. I am trying to raise my children between the zero awareness of my own West Indian childhood and the over-parented Brooklyn model. I grew up in a house of euphemisms; the childhood word I recall for penis is so ridiculous (surely it wasn’t kilily?) I recently called my older sister to fact-check its truth (it was). At my daughter’s three-year check-up I asked her pediatrician if I’d spoiled her innocence. “Not at all,” he assured. “Children need appropriate vocabulary. No ridiculous code words like cabinet or flower. You gave her little information. When she gets older, give her a little more.”

Thursday, September 11, 2014

In Tobago

We had many adventures in Tobago this summer, including a trip to the ER on our very first night. If you're my Facebook friend, you'll already have read about the visit but I thought I'd post the experience here as well. And, my son is fine. That first evening was the low point and we went on to have five weeks of beach and sun. We are all already dreaming of next summer.

What I recall of last night's trip to the Tobago ER (as it comes to me):

1. ER receptionists across the globe have no personality.

2. I was asked M's religion.

3. The triage nurse used an underarm, mercury thermometer to take his temperature.

4. Elephantiasis is real disease here. Man with terrifying, tree-trunk limbs (not sapling) peeking out from custom-made pants. I'll never forget that lone toe. I gently avert H's head.


5. My daughter is a saint walking the earth.

6. Everyone here is black: doctors, nurses, staff, patients. Wish we hadn't gone to the ER, but this is also partly why I bring the kids to the Caribbean.

7. Long one: I can say with certainty that I've learned to ignore the critical West Indian stare. Two hours into this odyssey, after I'd given M an antihistamine to try and calm the fast-rising hives and he is fried having almost itched out his eyes, he loses it. His screams of "I want to go home" get louder and louder. He won't let me touch him or comfort him. He's not really present, just a screaming hologram of my son. He gives me fair warning he is going to kick me, and does. I hear the sharp collective intake of breath and don't even bother to turn around. He threatens to bite me, and voice behind me says no. He bites me anyway. I didn't think they could, but his screams intensify when he sees the nurse and doctor approach. I do say to the doctor that he's beyond exhausted, and she shrugs and says don't worry. I'm not, but I'm glad she gets it. Of course he won't drink the steroid and antihistamine from cups. I get the nurse to put them in syringes and tell him we can leave immediately if he'll drink them in the car. The ER crowd shake their heads. We leave. In the car he sucks down one syringe after the other and falls asleep like a ferret.

8. In addition to tomatoes, sesame, and bell peppers, M is allergic to an ingredient in pesto (pine nuts?).

9. I can drive like a mutha on the left side of the road.

10. Still waiting for vacation mode to start.

11. I can still count on the kindness of strangers. I banged on the neighboring villa's door. She let us in, called the doctor next door and led us high speed through the night to the Tobago hospital.

12. Hell yeah they got pancakes with syrup, whipped cream and chocolate chips for breakfast.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Of Rice and Words

Rice, rice, rice
Rice tastes nice


The silly ex-tempo refrain to an _ice-rhyming song I sing with my children. But, the truth is I have a long relationship with rice. I tell my students that as a child I felt sorry for the grain. I grew up in Trinidad and almost everyday I ate rice and something: rice and peas, rice and baigan, rice and cabbage, rice and pumpkin, rice and fish, rice and lentils, rice and baghi, and rarely, rice and chicken. My mother could bend any side to go with a mound of gleaming steamed white rice. I was a picky eater who refused most of what she cooked, but I always felt sorry for the rice. Either I'd eat a poor dinner and leave almost everything on my plate, which was ok because the rice had company, or I had to eat every single grain of rice including any that might have fallen off my plate. I couldn’t stand the thought of a lone grain of rice lost without its rice brothers and sisters wondering where they'd all gone. Undiagnosed OCD, I know, but look at me now. The winding parallel for my students, which upon unpacking probably doesn't hold, is to not waste their words. Whenever they do an in-class writing activity and I ask for volunteers, the poor-lost-rice-story is guaranteed to coax a few of the reticent to share. Come on, I say, if you don't read that paragraph, that sentence, those words are going to die forever. Don't let your good writing be wasted rice. 
So, for the sake of keeping rice together, here's an essay I wrote a few years ago to coincide with the publication of my first novel. I only submitted to one publication and they rejected it and it's been sitting like left rice on my hard drive for almost four years. Brother, go find your brothers. It's long, but now at least it's seen the light of day:

A Member of the Family
From the beginning Liz, my son’s babysitter, tidied my apartment each morning before she took him out on their daylong excursions. She straightened shoes, washed the breakfast dishes, and made the bed. Part of me (a big part) liked this extra help, but my conscience was appalled. I asked her to stop. She shrugged over the sink. “Is not a problem at all, Miss Gracy. You do for me; I do for you.” I’d also been trying to stop her calling me “Miss Gracy.” Liz, of course, had no way to know how the sight of someone performing unpaid domestic work in my own house whooshed me back twenty years to what was hands down the most demeaning job I have ever had.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Surprise-days

Here’s the necessary back-story: On Ash Wednesday my son awakened in my bed, inches from my own face and said mom, I don’t feel so good. A minute later he vomited. As I shifted my cupped hands to catch the vomit —picture interpreting a Ouija board in an alphabet you don’t quite understand—I took full stock of the morning: 6:45 am, my son is vomiting, I have to teach in two hours and fifteen minutes. The APB for emergency sitters comes up nil—I get two numbers to add to the roster, but they come too  late. It is not an option for my husband to stay home. He’s hired as a freelancer to support production staff during closing time. It’s closing time. (Echoing my student who in early December explained that she couldn’t accept an opportunity to retake her high stakes CUNY placement test for free because the time conflicted with her hours as a seasonal worker at Saks). When I come out of the shower, Mase has thrown up again. He’s not going to school and I’m not going to work. End of story...

Friday, February 28, 2014

Off-days

My children’s winter break was a bust. The dates overlapped with my teaching schedule and I didn’t bother with even a short trip because I’m saving all my pennies for summer vacation. They got Dad on Monday, a sitter on Tuesday, but by Wednesday there is no avoiding me. They pout; Dad is currently in parental ascendancy. I stick my tongue out. Guess what, guys? I’d rather be on the beach with my book. So there. By afternoon I relent and propose the outing requiring the least active supervision: The Brooklyn Children’s Museum, again. None of us really want to go, but I don’t give them a choice.

Upstairs, at the museum's least inspiring special exhibition yet, an unsupervised girl seems to think permission to play comes only by her grace. About nine, she is much too old for the natural narcissism of a younger child. She refuses my four-year-old leave to build with the pipes and tools. I tell her she has to share. She glares and with much flouncing of imaginary skirts and dramatic huffing retreats into her tent. My son is bored in three minutes and I cede his pipes to another child who decides they make a fine pair of stilts. Missy, who must have been spying from her shelter, emerges to demand he use them properly or return them at once since she has prior claim. In the midst of her tirade (and, yes, this post is a flurry of clich├ęs) her den collapses. She whirls to face a hoard of preschoolers descending on her pile of poles and rags. I try not to laugh as she shoos them away until she threatens to bring a pipe down onto the head of one. “Hey sweetie,” I don't really want to get up, “that’s not funny, even as a joke, ok.”

She shifts her eyes to mine, attack stance maintained. “I am not joking,” she says. “I am going to crack his skull.”

Monday, February 17, 2014

Cooking Comment(ary)

A reader posted the following response to Cooking Curry in Brooklyn:

"I came to this blog having just had the best chicken roti in the world, at Pebbles beach, Barbados. [...]
I wondered, as I read your blog, Victoria, and your admission of not being able to cook West Indian - or as i prefer, Caribbean - food - did this lack ever evoke a sense of shame? I remember my own sense of shame when at the age of 19 I cooked chicken for a potential partner and he was really dismayed, to say the least, to discover that it wasn't, as he had expected, Caribbean. I wasn't raised in a caribbean household and so didn't grow up being shown and taught how to cook, and this became a source of geat shame to me, unless I mistressed the skills. 
Cessj."

I understand where she's coming from. I haven't felt ashamed of my limited Caribbean cooking skills, but that isn't to say that my cooking hasn't been judged. I left home at sixteen and the only thing I could cook was an omelette made with fresh laid eggs and pimento peppers I stole off my neighbor's plant. I fed my father a forkful once, and he asked me to make him one exactly the same.

In America I learned to cook by trial and unrecognized error; eventually, the food I made tasted better. When Grey and I started living together he usually wanted rice for dinner. Rice and what, I'd ask? And he'd just say rice.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Cooking Curry in Brooklyn

Not my Curry Chicken
My mother cooked dinner every single day while I was growing up. Think about that. I didn't always eat what she cooked, and there is anecdotal evidence to support that I was in fact a Very Fussy Eater (also, there were no restaurants in the village), but that's some real commitment to taking care of your children, no? We took so much for granted.

I try to cook as often as I can for Hel and Mase. In the beginning, especially when I only had Hel, I found myself feeding her what I call plastic food, usually some pasta,veg, and chicken combination heaped in isolated constellations on her plate. Nothing too heavily seasoned. Instead of eating with her I sat and watched her eat. By the time Mase transitioned to solid food, and maybe this is just another way second babies get short shrift, he ate whatever Hel or anyone else was eating.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Color Therapy

For runners a 40-degree February day during a snowy winter is gift from Hermes. But my appreciation, even post polar vortex, is false. For the length of this and every winter run I never so much warm up as harden. I know, rationally, I’m not that cold but my stride is all huddle and pump; no openness, no fluidity, no grace. A runner passes me. I am in no hurry but I watch her bouncy tread and think how decisively I could outpace her if only it were April.

The park’s landscape in early February is winter’s core. I find no beauty in the leafless trees overlapping thickly into the distance or in the scattered snow patched against the low brown hills. The meadow vista brings me to Highland Park, the New Jersey suburb where I was marooned after I left Trinidad in 1989. During the day the lovely family I work for is gone. The shocking quiet after a rambunctious morning is amplified by the isolation of the house. There are no neighbors I can see. That was twenty-four years ago and still now, in Brooklyn, with my own children and the security of time and things winter’s desolation makes me feel vulnerable and alone. I will my mind to overlap the barren parkland with the forsythias I know will bloom with spring. I want birds and bees.

Monday, January 27, 2014

It's only hair...


It started out on Sunday afternoon when Mason said, mama do my hair too.

Then he said, I know, lets cut-it-all-off!

Nice job, mom. Cut mooooore. 

Sunday, January 26, 2014

And the winner is...

Happy days are here again
I learned absolutely nothing from my January alcohol fast. In fact I’m not even sure now why I decided to stop drinking for the entire month. It wasn’t exactly a resolution; that, ahem, is to do with writing more (the second novel, the blog, ideas I’ve been mulling on for years). I hadn’t been drinking too much in the months prior (bar the last two weeks of December but it was the holidays). Neither did stopping have anything to do with my jacked up GI tract (more about that to come, I promise, unfortunately). January rolled around and I thought to impose personal austerity measures. 
Abstinence turned out to be fairly easy, which was a relief. Evenings I just didn’t have a glass of wine or a gin and tonic. For the first few days I concocted club soda mock-tails, but I found that the sheer emptiness of those, the absolute lack of follow through after the cranberry or pomegranate flavor had faded was so disappointing it was better to have a tall glass of expectation-free ice water. I didn’t lose a pound, which wasn't a goal but admittedly would have been a nice side effect. And, my GI tract was having one of its worst ever episodes. When the semester began I thought I might need more than ice water to reconstitute at the end of the day, but I teach for only two hours on three days in the winter session. So I could stay on the wagon, but more and more I was asking why again am I doing this? I have good skin I’m not overweight I don’t drink too much I awaken without an alarm at 6:30 every morning…the only conclusion I could come to was spite. My husband calls this the Ule Brown Syndrome, after my mother, the greatest living example of self-abnegation practicing today. Every once in a while, everyday, a new proof that I am becoming my mother manifests. I don’t deny the transformation. By day eighteen the battle wasn’t to have or not to have a drink, that hadn’t been the battle on day one, the battle was can I play this mind-game against myself and win. Ridiculous, yes, but I was winning. And then we had guests for dinner and really you can’t have a big pot of spicy West Indian oxtails without a G&T starter and goodly amount of Cotes du Rhone. Plus, how childish to refrain from imbibing with your guests for the sake of winning a game you’re only playing against yourself anyway. Even Ule Brown will have a drink with company. And, and, January. How many days are there in January anyhow? Jeez.