Monday, January 15, 2018

Pauvre vs. Pobre

I may have mentioned that I was trying to brush up on my Spanish before I went to California. It’s true; I took Spanish as an undergraduate, but it was the reading approach only, and I don’t remember most of what I learned. According to an online test I took one time, my Spanish is at an intermediate level, but that’s a vastly over-generous interpretation of things. I never understood spoken Spanish well, and my reading skills have grown rusty over the years. I was hoping to attain a moderate level of speaking ability in California.

That sounds like a modest hope, and I believe it is, but the first thing I noticed was that I felt shy about trying to speak Spanish once I was actually in So Cal. I guess I knew how shaky my skills were and didn’t want to embarrass myself by acting too gung-ho. At first, the only native speaker of Spanish I came in contact with was the housekeeper at my hotel, and she spoke English, so we conducted our conversations in that language. I didn’t come across anyone in my admittedly limited social sphere who didn’t speak English until I was downtown one day. On Olvera Street, I tried to talk to a shopkeeper, and it took me a minute to realize that she only knew a few words of English. I had gone from assuming I’d have lots of chances to practice my Spanish to making the opposite error of assuming a knowledge of English where none existed.

I summoned up enough Spanish to go back and apologize to her once I realized what had happened. “Mi español es pobre” was a helpful phrase I pulled out more than once, so while I was disappointed that my Spanish skills didn’t advance much all summer, I was kind of proud of being able to make myself understood in that one instance. I only wanted to be respectful of the culture I was in and was very aware that textbook Spanish is a good start but that immersion in the language is the only way to become really fluent.

Somehow, once I came back to Kentucky and realized that a lot of the staff where I’m staying are native Spanish speakers, my shyness about speaking the language went away. I guess I just felt less pressure here to make a good showing, as Lexington isn’t quite the multicultural melting pot that Los Angeles is. I started making lists of phrases and discovered that it’s quite possible to conduct an entire conversation as long as you have recourse to Google. I told someone today that I speak “Google Spanish.” I’m never certain whether I’m pronouncing the words correctly and whether some of the phrases are idiomatically correct, but I seem to get my meaning across most of the time. I don’t feel comfortable not speaking to someone who’s doing something for me, and it’s good practice. Occasionally, someone will even tell me I’m saying something the wrong way, which is actually more of a compliment than anything. It makes me feel that my efforts are being respected and that I’m not just being humored.

Of course, you know the Wordplay mantra of “Do No Harm”: the last thing I want to do is to create any cross-cultural misunderstandings. I vividly remember the time I was in Germany and tried to ask for a carton of milk to go. I was certain I was pronouncing the phrase just the way I was supposed to according to the phonetic German phrase book only to see the server double over in an apparently difficult attempt to hold back laughter. OK, so I don’t know any German, and it was a brave attempt to break new ground. But there was also the time, on the same trip, that I asked for hot tea with milk in a Paris restaurant (a phrase I was certain I knew from my French course) only to have a very confused looking waitress produce a glass of lukewarm milk with the air that she was certain this wasn’t what I had asked for but she was darned if she knew what to do about it. And I had been brushing up on the language for weeks just prior to the trip, so I still haven’t figured out how that happened.

With Written Spanish for my undergraduate language and Written French in graduate school, I probably know just enough to confuse the heck out of people in two or three different languages. Sometimes I’ll think of a phrase and know what it means but am not sure whether it’s Spanish or French. Just yesterday, I had a simple, impromptu, “Good Day, How Are You?” conversation with someone, and was feeling kind of proud of myself until I thought about it afterwards and realized that while the other person was speaking entirely in Spanish, I had replied to her inquiry of how I was doing with a confident “Très bien!”—which isn’t even Google Spanish but undeniably nothing other than Pure French.

Oh, well, as the French would say, “C’est la vie.” It’s not as if we started a war or anything. And in case I run across any French-speaking people at this establishment, I know just the phrase to smooth over any occasion: “Mon français est pauvre.” At least, I think that’ll do it.

Monday, January 8, 2018

Wordplay’s Shopping Extravaganza

I went shopping the other day, something I hadn’t done in quite a while—shopping for clothes, I mean. It’s like this: I hadn’t planned to be back in Kentucky, but here I am, and hardly any of my winter things with me. Since my job search over the summer was so unsuccessful, and my recent trip so fruitless, I don’t know when I’ll get back to California. I was unwilling to admit it, but I’m stuck here for now, and that meant I had to get some outerwear. No more running outside sans hat and gloves for me. Once I knew I was going to have to do it, even though I couldn’t afford it, I got myself in gear and headed over to the mall.

This was one of those experiences with an unexpected upside. Retail therapy can actually work sometimes, especially when you really haven’t bought any clothes in years. I was trying to be practical and not spend more than I had to, so I looked around until I found a vest I could layer over my fleece. Hats, gloves, and scarves were all marked down, so even though I have several of each (in storage) I bit the bullet and accessorized at bargain prices. I was so exhausted by looking by that time that instead of buying pajamas, which I also needed, I grabbed a pair of leggings off a sale rack. Instead of buying the boots I first had in mind, I got a pair of water-resistant ankle boots. That was good because it turned out there were other things I had to spend money on that weren’t cheap but in my mind necessary. I didn’t ask to be put in the circumstances I’m in and can only do the best I can.

Spending beyond my means isn’t something I enjoy. I took pride in decades of frugality and was always able to make a dollar stretch pretty far, a skill I learned in my early working life when I lived paycheck to paycheck and sometimes couldn’t afford something as basic as a pair of shoes. But whereas going to the mall usually seemed like a chore when I was younger, it’s different now. Last week’s trip to the mall actually made me feel better: I enjoy looking at things even if I know I can’t buy them. The “commercialization” of the experience doesn’t bother me any more. I’ve come to understand that all those goods and services represent supply, demand, jobs, and fulfillment of people’s needs.

Once I got back to my room, I wondered if I would reconsider anything I had spent that day and decided to sleep on it. In my new leggings, I was quite a bit more comfortable than I had been and relieved to think that with my outerwear I wouldn’t have to risk frostbite when I went out the next day. I could continue walking places instead of going by car to stay warm. And when I woke up the next day, everything I had bought still seemed justified. Now in fact, I’m already concerned about running out of things like soap that I won’t have any way to get later. It’s a sad day when you’re having to plan ahead on things like soap, but that’s the way it is.

Despite the pressing need that sent me to the mall, it was still a little bit of an Aphrodite experience, in a good way, the way looking at and buying nice things for yourself always is. It was also a little bit of a Demeter experience, since it was the internal mothering voice that told me I’d better not go out any more without a hat and gloves. Athena and Apollo may have been along for the ride, too, on the strategizing end of things. And you thought going to the mall was just about frivolity.

Sunday, December 31, 2017

New Year's Greeting

Wordplay is taking time out from its extremely hectic New Year's Eve festivities (consisting of dinner and TV) to wish our readers a bright and happy New Year in 2018. I don't so much mind staying in as I mind not getting to be with people I miss. The best New Year's Eve I ever spent was with a couple of friends years ago at a low-key revel at a local bar--food, libations, light jazz, and--mostly--conversation. It was neither wild and crazy nor boring and anti-climactic but just right, proving that it's not the hype or the brand-name entertainment or the fancy dress but the people you're with that make the occasion. If you're not lucky enough to be with the people who mean the most to you, may the fates bring you together without any undue delay and may 2018 be your best year ever.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Christmas Movie Extravaganza

Over the last week, I saw several different "Top Christmas Movies" lists, all of which included some films I don't really think of as holiday movies. Most of these lists had the criterion that as long as a film had a Christmas setting, it counted, whether or not the story really had a holiday theme. Since I spent several evenings watching Christmas movies this year, I came up with my own list, which is based on nothing more solid than my liking the films. I also adhere to the standard that the film should really be about Christmas.

If a child were making this list, it would, I'm sure, be different from mine. I caught bits and pieces of several movies like The Santa Clause and Elf that I thought were fine for kids, but I was going more for an "all ages" kind of appeal. I came up with a Top Five and an honorable mention category, and in trying to understand what I liked about each of them, I realized that, besides having a strong Christmas "presence," each one of them has an additional, overarching theme that gives it a depth some of the frothier holiday movies don't have.

Here's the Wordplay list, and it actually is in no particular order.

1. It's a Wonderful Life. I missed seeing it this year, but it's hard to imagine any list that wouldn't have it. Of course, it actually encapsulates a retrospective of George Bailey's entire life, but because of its Christmas Eve setting and the central role the holiday plays in the film, it's definitely a Christmas movie. The theme of decency and integrity and the difference they make in the lives of all those who know this otherwise ordinary man makes this a film for all seasons. You could watch it any time of year without it seeming out of place, but it definitely captures the holiday spirit.

2. Miracle on 34th Street. It had been a while since I'd seen this one (I'm reviewing the 1947 version, the only one I've seen). With the plot revolving around the real identity of a Mr. Kris Kringle, drafted at the last minute to play Santa Claus in the Macy's Thanksgiving Parade, it's about as Christmasy as they come. What elevates this movie is the fact that while it's ostensibly about whether or not Santa Claus is real (and if he is real, whether or not the jolly Mr. Kringle is the Santa Claus), it's also about saying yes to a number of things--imagination, trust, and new beginnings--that take a little faith but make life infinitely richer.

3. A Christmas Story. I had been meaning to watch this film for years but somehow kept missing it until this year. It has a quirky tone that I found I had to adjust to, since the characters in Ralphie's family are all a bit eccentric, but it hits its stride when Ralphie's quest to get the Christmas present of his dreams, a Red Ryder BB gun, starts to take on the quality of a mission. I liked the way the characters became more three-dimensional as the film went on; both of Ralphie's parents have their faults, but between the two of them they manage to give Ralphie and his brother just what they need. Above and beyond the Christmas theme, this is a nascent coming-of-age story.

4. A Christmas Carol. I've seen several versions of this story on film, including a musical one, and I don't think I've seen a bad one yet. I'm not singling out a particular version, because they all have their virtues, but I think at least one of them has to be on any top Christmas movies list. Dickens's story starts at the opposite end from It's a Wonderful Life, telling the tale of a man whom scarcely anyone loves who comes to realize how different life can be if he overcomes his own disappointments and opens his heart to others. Flashbacks, ghostly visitations, astral journeys, and a Christmas goose--what more can you ask for?

5. The Polar Express. Like A Christmas Carol, this movie is a little bit spooky; like A Christmas Story, it's a coming-of-age tale; and like Miracle on 34th Street, it's a movie that asks you to take certain things on faith. It may seem strange to call this a coming-of-age story when the plot takes a boy who is almost beyond believing in Santa on a magical journey to the North Pole with the purpose of re-awakening his belief. But is that really what's going on? While the movie insists on the importance of belief, Santa Claus is really only the vehicle, the catalyst on a voyage of self-discovery. It is, as the train conductor tells the children, their "crucial year," the one in which they are simultaneously looking backward at the children they have been and forward to the adults they will become.

And finally, in the Honorable Mention category: White Christmas. I saw this movie years ago and liked it, and although it seemed cornier this time than I remembered it, it's hard to find fault with a story that includes romance, a train trip from Florida to New England, comedy, Christmas at a Vermont inn, good deeds that almost backfire, and a number of elaborate musical numbers. It's light-hearted and sentimental and incorporates all that song and dance effortlessly into the plot, as long as you don't mind the schmaltz.

So that's my Top Five, plus one. If anyone was expecting a very quirky and unconventional list, I'm sure they're disappointed, as this list strikes even me as being very traditional. But after all, that's what we like about Christmas: the traditions.

Friday, December 22, 2017

Thoroughly Modern Thor

Well, another day, another non-dollar here at Wordplay, but it's Christmas, and we don't have a tree or presents, but we have been watching holiday movies and getting a kick out of that. Most of them I have seen before, and some grow brighter with time, and some fade a little, but then, I've written many times about the phenomenon of changing perspective, and you probably don't want to hear about that again.

"Why don't you tell us something we don't know?" I can hear somebody saying. Funny, but I was about to say the same thing to you. Why don't you tell me something I don't know? I guess now we're at an impasse and will have to resort to talking about the weather in lieu of anything else. Come to think of it, they do seem awfully excited about catastrophic events over at The Weather Channel these days, so maybe they are on to something. And here was me thinking the lot of them had just fallen into the holiday punchbowl.

There was a scene in a holiday movie the other night in which two people got into a sled, and right on cue, snow began to fall on them, and them alone. It was a column of snow that moved with them, their own personal weather system. I sort of know how they feel. There have been a few times this year when I felt like there was a cloud following me around, though none of it was anything unexpected or out of the way for the time of year and the location, not like the recent freak snowstorm in the southern U.S. (which didn't reach us here).

I certainly had my share of storms, though, from the Big Wind that walloped Oklahoma when I was driving to California in June, to the Big Black Wall of rain that soaked me in Texas as I was driving to a friend's house (looking, I swear, like something out of The Day After Tomorrow--never have I seen a cloud like that outside of a special effects movie), to the big bolt of lightning that struck close by just as I stepped outside after returning to Lexington in September. Then there was the downpour that started in the early morning just as I was going out to my car recently to leave for the airport, a trip that began with pouring rain and ended in fire in California. That was a bit uncanny for a single trip.

Now, of course, I suffered no physical effects from any of these events, though I could have. It wasn't like I suffered through the hurricanes in the Caribbean or lost a home to fire like many others have--but I definitely feel I've had my share of near misses with weather. I was reading an article recently about an organization sponsored by our government that has been studying UFOs--which some officials, including former senator Harry Reid, who championed this group--apparently take very seriously. The thought crossed my mind, based on my own rash of experiences with extreme weather, that some of these unidentified objects might be aircraft carrying out some kind of high-altitude weather experiments. Of course, I'm merely being fanciful here--if someone had that type of technology, they would be using it to make rain over Southern California, not dropping thunderbolts on random citizens.

And if the U.S. government doesn't know anything about such a project, I'm sure I don't. Of course, the government is kind of a compartmentalized place, and one hand doesn't always know what the other is doing, by all accounts. Just because Harry Reid didn't know anything about making rain doesn't mean somebody else doesn't.

This seems to me the makings of a plot for a science fiction movie. Just imagine it, a world in which someone controls weather and other natural phenomena for purposes of war, lightning bolts instead of bullets, earthquakes instead of tanks, as if the old gods, Thor and Poseidon, were astride Olympus once more. And even worse than that, think of the possibility of holding a place siege by keeping the rains away, letting homesteads burn and crops wither, attempting to beat your enemies into submission by means of a merciless sky. Though I admit I have trouble thinking of that as warfare--it seems more like a criminal act. Of course, if you had the means to do things like that, it might not be something you'd want to admit. You could do a lot of sneaky mischief and no one would be the wiser.

The old science fiction movies in which the threats to civilization come from the outside represent a different paradigm than this one. Even the movies in which science unleashes unintended consequences, giant insects resulting from radiation mutations and so on, are in a different category, because what I'm envisioning is a world in which the consequences are not unintended but purposeful. This would be a Matrix-like existence indeed, one in which one is never sure of the extent to which a natural event is "natural" or manipulated--how could you tell the difference? In the old dispensation, people were generally remorseful about the havoc they unleashed (except for the guy that thinks the way to solve the problem is by using even more technology, and there's always one of those). In the new dispensation, the technology is the calculated means to an end.

I guess I'm old-fashioned, but I find all of this too scary to contemplate, even if it is just a movie I'm writing in my head. Though one can think of good uses to which weather control might be put, the bad uses are pretty alarming. So where does that leave us? Why, in a brave new world, where else?

I guess you can see why I'd rather be watching Christmas movies, and I'm sure you would be, too. It's not really the season for these apocalyptic imaginings, so I'm just going to blame it on The Weather Channel for all the shouting they're doing over there. That and the thunderbolt that almost got me.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

"This Living Hand"

A week or two ago, I was browsing in the Mystery shelves of the public library when I came across a trove of Robert B. Parker's books. At one time, I read quite a few of his Spenser novels (and was also a fan of the TV series based on the books). It had been years since I'd read any, and I don't remember why I stopped, but in any case I was pleasantly surprised to see so many titles that seemed new to me. Mr. Parker was always an entertaining writer and one that I thought I would enjoy getting reacquainted with.

The book I selected had an interesting premise involving a woman swindled out of a large sum by a romantic partner who had ties to arms dealers, espionage, and a number of other hazy entities. She hired Spenser to find him and get her money back. The story started off strongly and brought in the regular cast of characters I remembered from the earlier books, including Spenser's girlfriend, Dr. Susan Silverman, and his associate, the formidable Hawk. I really enjoyed the first couple of chapters, which I read in the library, and I was considering checking the book out when I happened to glance at the inside back cover, curious to see what Mr. Parker looks like now.

That was when I discovered what I might already have known but somehow forgot, that Mr. Parker is actually deceased. The author of the book I was holding was another writer who has been given the job, by Mr. Parker's estate, of continuing the Spenser series. I was taken aback to discover this, both saddened to understand I wasn't reading Mr. Parker's own words and put off to realize that even though his name was on the cover, someone else had taken over. Although I had already become interested in the story, I put the book back. I'm not sure I would have done the same if I had realized immediately that another author had taken over the franchise, but under the circumstances, with Mr. Parker's name on the cover, I felt kind of cheated.

This is not a commentary on the quality of the writing. It's been so long since I read anything of Mr. Parker's that I'm not sure whether or not I would have recognized anything different in the authorial voice if I had continued to read. Maybe, maybe not. The book seemed firmly in familiar territory, and the case seemed very much like one that Spenser would have taken on. I'm sure that most of Mr. Parker's fans are delighted that someone has been able to pick up the torch and keep the series alive, but I was bothered by the fact that I started the book thinking it was the genuine article only to find out by chance that it wasn't. There's a big part of me that feels that if someone dies, people are being a little greedy to want more after that. An author has a distinctive voice that should be appreciated while the person is alive and revered after he or she is gone, but the business of "cloning" bothers me. Of course, that's not how publishers sell books.

I hope that I have many years of life ahead; at the same time, I have no immediate prospects for profiting greatly from any of my writing, good, bad or indifferent. But I don't like to think that, if I were to become a famous writer, someone else would try to become me after I was gone, to try to imitate my style and to take over what I had created. This seems altogether different to me than the writers who take characters made famous by someone else and put their own spin on them, using their own names so that everyone understands what they're doing.

There are some authors, including Jane Austen and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who stand up beautifully to this type of treatment. Variations on a theme can be vastly enjoyable as long as they are labeled as such and the reader knows he is reading the work of a different mind. Paying tribute to the original author's genius with a fresh interpretation and not merely imitating his or her style falls into the category of what I would consider "dreaming the myth forward."

So consider this a pre-directive should I ever become famous: there is only one of me, and when I'm gone, there isn't any more. Appreciate me now, if you like, but don't go creating a Wordplay franchise once I'm gone. I like to think that each person is unique, meaning that each artist is, too. If people think that a mere death is no impediment to stopping the flow of creative output, then that, to me, cheapens the value of both the individual's life and work. Maybe people would value things more if they acknowledged more readily that life is temporary and that people can't be brought back once they're gone.

Oh, by the way, if someone decides to ignore me, be assured I will come back and haunt you. Not quite sure how that works, but I have a feeling I would find a way.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Where's the Fire?

Last week, I wrote about watching "The Wizard of Oz" during a windstorm (life imitating art, right?). This week, I'm writing about traveling to a job interview during a Southern California firestorm. There was a wildfire in So Cal back in the summer, but it broke out after I left, and I was glad to escape it. I'm sure everyone was hoping the wildfire danger was passing this late in the year, but obviously it wasn't.

Most of these fires broke out either the day before or the day of my scheduled interview in L.A., and there was at least one burning as my plane was approaching the airport. I saw what looked like smoke from my window and wondered if there was indeed a fire; I couldn't smell anything downtown, though, and didn't realize how bad things were until later. Even in Santa Monica, I couldn't smell smoke that evening, and I didn't make the connection between fires and the couple of people I saw wearing masks; one was a child near a hospital and the other a woman inside a business who had one around her neck. I wondered if the flu was going around.

In fact, my interview was cancelled because of the Skirball Fire, which broke out, as I understand it, early in the morning on the day of my interview. Since I had only flown in for the interview and had only two days in town, I was unable to reschedule for the next day. That fire, in Bel Air, was the closest to where I was, but I still couldn't smell any smoke and kept looking at the sky near my hotel, which remained clear, adding to the surreal nature of the entire episode. I started to worry about smoke coming in through the heating/air conditioning unit, but it never did.

People at the hotel were almost preternaturally calm, so it was little like being in a bubble, especially when I looked at what was happening elsewhere on television. When the mayor of Los Angeles told people to be prepared to move quickly, I wondered if it was possible Santa Monica would be affected and I'd have to leave my hotel. It seemed unlikely that a wildfire would make it that far, but I don't have much experience with them.

With all the suffering and harm these fires have caused, it doesn't seem right for me to focus on how seriously inconvenienced I was, financially and time-wise, by what happened, but the truth is that I was. Once it was clear that I couldn't reschedule the interview, I was told by the person who had scheduled me that she was surprised I'd been willing to fly in from out of town for an opening that only entailed a few hours a week. That was the first I'd heard of that; I couldn't believe what I was hearing, as the email I'd gotten initially suggested that multiple shifts were available, including one that was 30 hours a week.

I went back and read the email again and wondered how I could have misunderstood so badly. I blamed myself for not asking more questions, but the truth is that the email I got said nothing about offering only three to six hours (rather, it gave the opposite impression). In my experience, part-time position announcements usually make a low number of hours clear at the outset. There are many people, even if they lived in the same town, who wouldn't bother to interview for a three-hour job. I had flown two-thirds of the way across the country for one.

Although the institution I was supposed to interview with allegedly has a good reputation, I have to wonder about the quality of library service a student gets if the librarians helping them only work a few hours a week. It takes a lot of on-the-job time to become familiar with the resources a particular institution has, and this is especially true in a generalized collection such as an academic library. When I worked as a graduate assistant in my university's library, I often wondered how effective I was at helping people because the number of resources was so vast. A patron could come in at any time and need help with a database I had zero familiarity with, and this actually happened a lot.

Fifteen hours a week of on-the-job training allowed me to scratch the surface, but that was all. If you're dealing with someone who only works three hours a week, you might as well be working with a trained monkey. Literally, if they took you in off the street and asked you to be a librarian, you would probably be nearly as effective as someone working so few hours; he would have no time to become familiar with the collection and the patrons by experiencing a lot of varied requests and repetitive database searches.

So not only was I out of pocket for expenses I couldn't really afford, I was left to feel I was silly for having bothered to come out in the first place. It seemed to me, though, that the institution was remiss for not having stated the requirements more clearly (and also for being willing to hire multiple trained monkeys to attempt to serve their patrons). None of it made any sense; I almost had the impression they were being dishonest with me in some way. As I told them, it seemed bad form to complain too much in the face of the fire situation, but having been inconvenienced in a pretty major way, I felt I should point out the desirability of their being clearer in their job descriptions in the future.

So that was how I spent two days in L.A. I can tell you it's possible to get from the airport to Santa Monica via the Metro, though it's a wearying journey, and I can tell you this isn't the first time I've felt jerked around in my job search process--far from it. If I derived any other benefit from this experience, I have no idea what it is, but I do know that I deserve far better and would likely not have enjoyed the experience of working for this college even if I had gotten the job. Initial impressions can be quite revealing.