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December 23, 2005

Amber

Four older women around the table yell at one another, happily, in Cantonese. One of them holds her hands up in front of her. Her wrists are entirely obscured by beads.

In 16 years I have grown used to being the sole mute person at the table. The role holds an odd, serene comfort.

Becky's father Bill leans over to me, translates. "She says the amber gives her energy. It gives her energy for housework." He laughs a little at his sister. He is an engineer and a skeptic, but he appreciates a bit of folklore.

I once suggested to Becky that I learn Cantonese. "Why bother?" she asked. "Just to talk to my family? They speak English." "Well, " I replied, "I could eavesdrop on conversations on the 30 Stockton bus." But probably not. Cantonese is an outsider's name, one word applied to probably two dozen mutually unintelligible dialects. If my seatmate's parents grew up twenty miles from Bill's home town, her language would be as far from his as Scanian is from mine.

Bill's sister Marian takes off one of her bracelets, places it on the table. "The energy goes around," she says in English. She gestures in a circle, traces the circumference of the bracelet.

Becky speaks up. "Mom, show Chris your bracelet." Joan brightens and hands it to me. The bracelet is fine, with three colors of amber, from pale to dark brown like grades of maple syrup. Amber is the only gemstone that is always warm to the touch. "You can see the leaves in there," says Joan. I hold the bracelet up to the light. Flecks of bark and leaf and random Cenozoic dirt sparkle there. It is beautiful.

Twenty years ago Elissa idly wished to own an amber necklace someday. A week later I wandered into the anthropology museum at UC Berkeley: there, in the gift shop, was a string of Baltic amber beads. At a hundred bucks, it cost a week's pay. I intended it as a Christmas gift but couldn't stand to wait, and gave it to her in November. She spent some minutes struck speechless.

Marian is animated. "When I wear these, I can vacuum all day." Across the room a man chases fish in the big tank. They are a foot long and silver-gray. They do their best to elude the cook, slipping around behind the net and flattening themselves against the tank wall. One fails and goes limply off to the cutting board.

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Comments

So lovely!!

Posted by: Artichoke Heart at December 23, 2005 08:39 AM
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It wouldn't help to learn Cantonese. When I get together with my sisters- and mother-in-law, and they all start chatting away at once, I can't understand a word they say...and they're talking in English.

Posted by: PZ Myers at December 23, 2005 09:28 AM
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hey! PZ! quit that! it's not just girl-talk!

but on the other hand, i guess you are partly right. i have no brothers, but 3 sisters, and on reflection, i guess nobody understands our code, really -- although we try to explain to those who pass the test, such as spouses. get us in a room, and the room is crowded with memories and laughter and teasing and inside jokes.

there are guys i know well, and we have some code, too -- but it might only go back 10 or 30 years, and may be off and on -- nothing like the shared experiences of family one has known forever, and will know forever.

chris, what a lovely post.

Posted by: kathy a at December 23, 2005 09:59 AM
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Amber is my favorite stone for jewelry. I have two massive amber rings that I wear every day, and a number of large amber pendants I go between. I buy them from a shop downtown that carries only artisan pieces made by the last members of Midwestern Native-American tribes. Amber is supposed to give you greater energy, but only if you wash it in rainwater.

Posted by: Lauren at December 23, 2005 10:53 AM
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I've got to get me some amber. I want that housework energy to flood my system.

Posted by: eRobin at December 23, 2005 02:38 PM
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Becky said last night she's gonna get me an amber hat.

Posted by: Chris Clarke at December 23, 2005 02:47 PM
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I suggest you do what Zeke's doing in that great photo! But we're trying to be polite, aren't we.
I remember my mother-in-law and her brother getting together on holidays. They both seemed to know every bad or dirty joke ever told and would just get in stitches with nothing but punch-lines; not the jokes, just the punch-lines. Sometimes they'd try to explain through the tears, but could never get through the whole story without cracking up again.

Posted by: OGeorge at December 23, 2005 04:09 PM
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amber is also wonderful, for its warmth, and because it captures just a bit of time in the past. [sometimes my first responses are just too literal, but i really do like the poetry, history, and science woven into your stories...]

i don't actually believe amber will give me housework energy, but maybe someone around here should try wearing some to see. :) ya never know. i have one nice amber necklace, and i wore it the last time i was really energetic -- but i thought the energy was from seeing people i don't see often, for a good cause, and trying to keep the food flowing.

Posted by: kathy a at December 23, 2005 05:19 PM
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I've got a great Baltic amber egg I picked up in Prague. But I wouldn't dream of misusing it in pursuit of energy for housework—it's too happy just being an old blob of resin shaped into an egg. (Just as I am happy being an old blob of not-doing-housework shaped into a blogger.)

Posted by: Orange at December 28, 2005 08:16 PM
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