Trying to deal with a foreign language

When we have foreign guests staying with us, I have to watch is the need to speak slower and more distinctly. (Well, that’s obviously on hold during the Covid outbreak, though we have heard from one back in China assuring us she’s fine.) The exchanges can start to sound comical, even before I face the difficult challenge of using smaller words. Me? Smaller words? Look, we have more than 200,000 in the English language for a reason!

You can imagine our situation when they’re Chinese students here for a month or so as they volunteer at ono-profits internships. Somehow, shorter visits just don’t seem to rise to the more complex communications.

~*~

My daily Spanish lessons raise the translation issues from an opposite direction, but I think I’ve crossed an important threshold there, one that goes beyond vocabulary.

Have you noticed how a spoken language becomes a musical line rather than individual words? My wife remembers her shock learning that “come on” was two words, not one, as in “cumon.”

When the Duolingo voice tells me, “Type what you hear,” I know to write what I’m supposed to hear rather than what I actually encounter at fast speed.

You could say that in common usage our sentences lose all of the spaces between words. In Spanish I sometimes notice this more as a rhythm across where a word should be between two other words rather than hearing that word or even a letter itself.

Somethinglikethispoorexample.

Rather. Than. Some. Thing. Like. This.

I’m also noticing that the endings of some words are vanishing, as they do in so much French, especially a final “s.”

Must happen in English, too, ‘cept we just take it for granted and naturally fill in the meaning.

Now, as for all of those hearing-aid solicitations I keep getting in the mail? I doubt they’d help my Spanish any.

What do you have to say here? (Please type slowly and distinctly.)

As one friend said

It’s like we’re living with no destination. We can go out for a walk but can’t stop casually at the store or the library or café. Maybe wave to neighbors through a window.

To call what we’re doing “monastic” misses the mark. After all, monks live in communities, working and praying together. And being single, as he is, still doesn’t mean monkish.

We can’t hug or even touch anybody outside of our household, not if we’re maintaining quarantine.

Humans are social animals, after all.

At the moment, the one thing that makes sense doing is prayer.

Don’t call me ‘Sir’

OK, we had an international student living with us and I understood that Jnana might be a difficult way to address me.

But being called “Sir” always came as a jolt.

It had me thinking of the cartoon strip – wait, you mean there’s a REAL Breathitt County in Kentucky? – where? Oh, it’s Bloom County! Who was that girl, anyway, the militant one?

Or was it Doonesbury?

Reminded me of the time at the library when I helped a high school student find the right LP of the “1812 Overture” and she called me “Sir” by way of thanking me. Made me feel old, indeed. And that must have been nearly 30 years ago.

At least she learned the piece in a performance with cannons. Hope it impressed the rest of her music appreciation class.

Well, let’s get back on focus.

Isn’t “Sir” what some men are called by their mistress? Or would want to be? Frankly, I find even that somewhat creepy.

Or the way soldiers address their officers? Still creepy.

The other day, though, someone was in the situation of trying to address me by something other than my name, and it rang right.

“Dude,” he said.

Yeah, I’ll puff up my chest at that and put a little gusto in my stride. Even at my age. Besides, it brings out the hippie in me, all these years later.

Even makes me start singing that Beatles tune. Wait, it’s not “Hey, Dude”? It’s “Hey, Jude”?

It doesn’t have cannons, does it? No siree bob!

Reading a dear friend’s memoir

A while back, she asked if I’d read the draft of her memoir. I felt honored. Besides, this is someone who had given a close critique of one of my novels-in-progress decades ago, and I had done the same for a collection of her essays that came a hairline away from book publication.

She had pointed me to a few published volumes I still find myself quoting frequently.

That was back before we could easily exchange things like manuscripts in emails. Had to make printouts and haul off to the post office or drive five hours, things like that.

This time, the copy came as a PDF. I put it aside until I could give it full attention. It was worth it.

As a fact of life, we had largely lost touch. We had never been neighbors. The closest they had lived to me was still an hour away, and then for 19 years they lived five hours off in rural Maine. When her career picked up and I became more enmeshed in my new family and other responsibilities, we had less time to visit, even before she and her husband relocated across the continent a few years ago. We wound up keeping in touch mostly through their daughter, who’s also my goddaughter.

So the memoir was a welcome opportunity to reconnect.

Let me say it’s a remarkable document, wonderfully written, and candid to the point of painfulness. This version is not for public circulation. Parts of it should be, but others are there as evidence of personal work ahead. Well, she has filled the role of a spiritual elder for me through some difficult stretches, and I’ll always be grateful.

I knew bits of the history, but the details deepened my understanding, reconstructed the chronology, and corrected some impressions I had wrong.

I certainly know her – and her husband – much better now.

Over the years, I’ve found that with some friends, when we get together after long stretches apart, we don’t need much time before we’re feeling no gap in our rapport.

This is certainly one of them.

That feeling when she realizes the scope of her project

In my novel What’s Left, Cassia practically moves into her father’s studio during her teenage years. Her goal is to discover just who he really was before he vanished in that avalanche. More critically, she hopes to see just how important she was in his eyes and his heart.

~*~

Here’s a moment that was cut out of the finished novel. It’s more succinctly presented in the published version:

There, I’ve said it. My Baba, the missing piece of the puzzle I’ve been constructing. Or missing pieces, more accurately, is at once revealed by everything he touches – and everything that touches him. What I’ve been pursing as a negative shape on a visual field instantly turns positive before my eyes. So amid all of our outward chaos, what he more and more perceived in our family was this potential in all of its give-and-take connectivity – and that hopeful impression was his reason for whole-heartedly leaping in with us. Maybe we’re all icons – mandalas and tankas, too – in that holy mountain, which in our small way we rebuild in something we’ve called Olympus.

If this is, as I now presume, the direction to a breakthrough where all of his life’s work is about to converge and proclaim, I’ll need to reassemble the parts I’ve already collected. Reevaluate all of the memories, bits of writing (probably leaving the published volumes for other scholars). The photos, especially – the world seen through his more than his eyes alone.

On the material plane, Baba was never facilely sociable … not like Dimitri, for sure … but he managed.

~*~

I can think of a few daughters who are their talented fathers’ best champions. Cassia would be among them.

Maybe because I’ve done extensive genealogy research, I see some of these influences going much further back than a single generation. Until his youngest sister told me, for example, that my father had once dreamed of being a sportswriter had I connected his father’s collecting all the local newspapers during World War II (“They’ll be important someday”) with Dad’s grandmother’s detailed reading of the daily papers and then linking it to my own career as a daily newspaper editor. Not that anybody ever said a word to me that they were proud of what I’d chosen to do.

I can look to many other similar streams of unseen, even unknown, influence.

If you had a chance to meet one of your ancestors – a little bit of time travel – which one would it be? What would you want to ask? Or would you rather want to tell them off?

 

Ten favorite gifts

Reflecting on gift-giving has me thinking of some great hits over the past few years.

Here are ten.

  1. The squirrel-proof bird feeder. We all enjoy watching the birds and their drama, but watching an unsuspecting squirrel be shut down is especially comical.
  2. Annual pass to the indoor swimming pool. It was a gentle nudge to get me exercising again and drew on one activity I had enjoyed as a child.
  3. Fire digital tablet. I have a lot to learn yet, but it’s been great for streaming music – radio stations whose FM signals don’t reach here, especially.
  4. External speaker for my computer. A big help with my daily Spanish lessons.
  5. Olympus digital camera. You see the improvement here at the blog.
  6. Wool socks and other clothing. Staying comfortably warm is a big deal where we live.
  7. Leather-covered journals from Venice. Souvenirs from a daughter’s two trips to Italy. I’ve saved those two volumes for special times in my own life.
  8. Books and recordings. Especially when they show that someone’s been listening to my rambling.
  9. Martini glasses from yard sales. Look, some of them are likely to get broken during the year, but they’re usually fun to use up till then – and knowing they didn’t cost an arm and a leg, I don’t feel bad in bidding that one farewell and moving on to another.
  10. Prime rib dinner. Homemade, with a chewy red wine. For us, it’s an annual splurge on my birthday.

What are favorites you’ve received?

 

Rolling out the Streetcar

In my novel What’s Left, the family’s signature dish is a sandwich sliced down the top, rather than along the side. Maybe with two slices, rather than one.

It started out as a Cubano but took off on its own. As I recalled, the name was suggested in jest by a comment on the Red Barn way back when, but I’m unable to trace it now. Let me say, if I’m overlooking an inspiration, I’ll be happy to give credit where it’s due.

In the novel at least, it’s a collaborative effort.

Cassia’s uncle Dimitri, with his MBA, is big on marketing and creating a niche appeal. So that’s where we start.

Add his grandmother Maria, from Cuba. Along with his brother, Barney, the master chef. And everyone else in the family, plus a few others.

Can this actually work? How would I know? Maybe if Harry Potter waved a magic wand and uttered some incomprehensible syllables?

But whatever they create sounds heavenly. Wouldn’t you agree?

~*~

The flavor was off in this round:

Few customers would realize we really offer five or six different Streetcars, depending on the season or our supplies. They’re all scrumptious, so nobody as far as I know complains.

~*~

That possibility, by the way, stems from an interview I once read for the chief taster for Chock Full o’Nuts coffee, who had to keep blending whatever beans were available into a consistent taste of java. Why not extend it into a sandwich?

Still, I love the image of creating something distinctive for a rural college town.

Look closely and you’ll see different parts of the country do have unique dishes. It’s not just baked beans in Boston, either. (Anyone else enjoy Indian pudding?) Or special spices, like Old Bay in Baltimore.

Think of seafood, if you live near a coast. Or wild game, if you can. Or even variations on pizza.

What’s a distinctive food where you live?