I spoke Spanish when I was a very little kid. We spent time in Mexico where my dad was working and our babysitter was Mexican. My mom was horrified when she spoke to me, and I answered in Spanish. But… In sixth grade I started Spanish in school. It was really, really, really boring and, strangely, I mixed up Spanish and Italian. Yeah, that’s it. My babysitter in Denver when I was very little was our Italian next-door neighbor.

Unfortunately, all the way through school, the highest level of language offered was intermediate, so I’m a master of intermediate Spanish. But it’s OK. I learned way back then that there’s a difference between studying a language and learning it. Anyway, I speak Spanish happily if not perfectly. I miss having the opportunity here in the back-of-beyond.

Freshman year in college — with a dream of going to Morocco — I started French. My teacher was a harridan from Geneva. Really a fascist. Anyway, French with its completely illogical spelling (English is a lot less illogical) and it’s romance roots (Spanish’ cousin) made it a different kind of challenge. When we had our first dictation I wrote everything the teacher said — in Spanish. She was furious. She thought I’d done this on purpose to ridicule her, to ridicule French. I didn’t even know I’d done that! I just never went back and got an F. In grad school, I took French at night school and found it to be pretty easy and fun, except for pronunciation. French spelling adds gratuitous letters; French pronunciation leaves them out. Mon dieu!

I finally made friends with French through le cinéma.

My sophomore year in college, I began to study Homeric Greek. My professor had learned it in school — all the way through school, Jesuit school — and he had his book photocopied (a HUGE deal back in 1973) and my classmate and I read The Odyssey. Every night we had five lines to struggle with as homework, every morning at 8 am (my professor’s way of blackmailing me into better sleep habits) we appeared in his office with our translations. Then we read EVERYTHING we’d translated. Since Homeric Greek isn’t exactly a living language, we were not obliged to endless pronunciation practice. All we had to do was read. I loved it. And, because of it, I was able to join what Mr. Preston called, “A brotherhood across time.”

It was a THRILL to study the language that way and influenced me forever as a teacher of language (English as a Second Language) and language learner. I’m all “bring it on, give me the real stuff!” It works much better for me than does the endless repetition of grammar drills. I think the normal way of teaching language teaches people to hate studying languages. The willingness to make mistakes is important. Native speakers don’t wait until they speak perfectly before opening their mouths to communicate with others. Why should non-native speakers? Those mistakes can be great ice-breakers.

Then came China and for two years before I even got a job, I studied Chinese. That was the most FUN language to study because writing it makes sense and there are NO verb tenses. Learning to write was meditative and aesthetic, plus Chinese characters have a different kind of logic than our semi-phonetic alphabets.

About ten years ago I decided to study German because, you know, Goethe. I got Rossetta Stone (it’s good, by the way) and began studying German every night before going to bed. Little by little I was learning German, though it frustrated me in a way because the vocabulary was so easy. It’s English, essentially, if the student has a little imagination and language background.

When I finally did go to a German speaking country (Switzerland, Zürich) I was able to understand most of the things I heard in high German. So far there’s no Rossetta Stone for Schwitzer Deutsch but if there were, I’d buy it today. While I was there last, in 2016, I was having dinner with a Swiss friend and his German girlfriend. Between them, they usually speak (spoke? She might have learned Swiss German by now) high German. At one point, I joined the conversation without even realizing I was speaking German. They didn’t notice, either. It was strange and magical until I realized what I was doing. Then I got worried about making mistakes.

So now, to make meaningful use of time when I’m finding it difficult to concentrate on any creative work, I’ve gone back to studying Italian using Rossetta Stone. My problem is double letters. It’s a problem in English; it’s worse in Italian. I’m having a hard time getting past the writing tests. 😦

And why am I reading this, Martha?

So…I don’t know if anyone else has noticed how bizarre the news reporting in this country is. For a long time I’ve been aware of the absence of real international news. This is especially in my house where the only paper I get is the Monte Vista Journal which I usually throw out almost immediately. I read it, but I subscribe in case I need a clipping of myself. 🙂

Last night a friend sent me a link to a Swiss paper, the Tages-Anzeiger, which publishes a lot of international news, not just Swiss but in remote places all over the world. The reportage in Switzerland is different from that in the US. I would say it’s more honest, more complete, less politicized, more informative. The headline to this article was “In the night, come the coffins.” Yes, that’s pretty melodramatic, but this is real life. The lead photo shows a long line of army trucks ostensibly (I’m deeply skeptical, sorry) carrying coffins to the crematorium. The article was about the situation in Bergamo, Italy.

He sent me the paper to prove that the situation in Switzerland is dire. Like a lot of people, he had only read the headlines. As he made his argument I kind of tuned him out and kept reading. Then I corrected him. “It’s Italy. Not Switzerland. This article is about the deaths in Bergamo.” My friend is Swiss. His first language is German. His second is Italian. He was stunned and had to say those words that come so reluctantly from his mouth, “You’re right.” I was really proud of myself for having been able to correct him in his native language.

The point here (beyond bragging of my linguistic prowess which is really not that great. I’m a solid intermediate in many languages) is that the truth is out there.

This Post Will Not Go Viral

Considering two objective truths of life, that we don’t know what’s going to happen next and death lurks around every corner, it’s funny how we freak out.

I remember during the AIDS crisis (which isn’t actually over, BTW) teaching Poe’s “The Mask of the Red Death.” My students thought (they were international students) it was a story about AIDs. It was the 80s and my students blamed my generation (free love, disco, all that) for the whole thing. “Strangers in the night, AIDS in the morning,” they said.

It was a heated discussion.

Nobody wants to die until they’re ready to die and then? Our society doesn’t make it easy. Still, fear of death isn’t the number 1 fear; apparently people are more afraid of loneliness than death. After death comes the fear of public speaking.

So here we have a new virus. While I think Offal is an idiot, and not handling it well, there’s something to the idea that most people who contract it won’t know it. Like any other virus it will do its thing, run its course, and move on. If it were otherwise, there would have been a different kind of panic in the PRC.

The last one of these things I remember was the very virulent flu in, what, 2009? The H1N1 which came sweeping through the world and the flu shot for that season hadn’t planned on it. I caught it from a student who refused to follow the instructions in my syllabus and stay home when she was sick. It led to two weeks of hell for me and 30% absenteeism in my class. I had a hard time grading her objectively.

Graphic from the CDC showing deaths from H1N!

SO… as far as I can see the best we can do is practice good hygiene, avoid close quarters, stay home if we’re sick and wait it out, hoping for the best which is, I think, about all we can ever do. I don’t think freaking out or panicking is ever useful.

Quotidian Update 43.19.6d

Next week I go see my orthopedic surgeon I think for the last time (I hope?). I guess it’s for my 3 month check but it will have almost 5 months. I may call and ask if I really have to go.  It’s a 3 hour drive and I have to board the dogs… $$$

My novel — The Schneebelis Go to America — is in the hands of my editor. I miss it. As much as I disliked it for so long, it made my summer really pretty good. I’m only worried that my defective brain led to defective writing. But who knows? It could go the other way. I will be very happy to have it back. I’ve built a little spreadsheet of possible agents and their requirements.

I got a small bottle of pepper spray to take on walks to the slough. I have not been there since the uncomfortable encounter with Grizzly Man — except with my friends when they came for the Potato Festival. I got the hot pink bottle so that it would be very visible to anyone approaching me. It’s crazy that I lived in a high crime city in a high crime neighborhood, hiked alone (with dogs) for years, walked around the hood with and without my dogs, and never before felt afraid. But the creepy guy has made me a lot less interested in hiking at the slough and along the river. I’m not sure the dogs miss it at all. Bear likes meandering strolls that focus on all the smells in the neighborhood and Dusty, at 13 yrs 7 mos isn’t the athlete he once was. That’s very old for such a big dog — and he’s doing great for his age. Anyway, soon the golf course will be closed to golfers and open to us. 🙂

Props to everyone who’s still posting daily prompts. I’ve returned to following along with one of them. I still miss that one cryptic word that used to show up every morning, sometimes inspiring a story to write, sometimes summoning Lamont and Dude (where are those guys?) during the blissful moments when I have a full, hot cup of coffee. Maybe I’m just out of shape.

To Teachers on the First Full Day of School

Watching the news and stuff… I see all these young people in Anti-fa outfits, old people marching with signs that hearken back to the last time they carried signs, I see a post on FB by a kid who doesn’t know what happened in the 60s re: race and thinks that the counter-protestors are no better than the White Supremacists. I try to explain history to him, and, to his credit, he Googles Birmingham and comes up with a church bombing.

It’s something. He realizes that he’s in the lurch; he has now looked into Fibber MacGee’s closet and doesn’t want to do the work. It’s a whole lot easier to say, “Violence is bad and the White Supremacists were planning a peaceful demonstration. Do you really think it’s all-right for the anti-fas to use violence? Anti-fa is fascist!”

He’s found a soapbox from which he believes someone of my generation will be cowed. But, no. I was never a “Peacenik” or whatever. I envy the Anti-fa outfit. It’s black. It’s scary. It says “Anarchy!” How to fight evil? Give it no quarter. I have learned that the hard way.

“Fascist, my child, is a particular thing,” I tell him. “Anti-fa may or may not be thugs, I do not know, but they are not fascist.” I see the whole thing sinking even lower into semantics. I end the conversation and ask my friend who this kid is.

“He’s an OK kid. Just got married. The nephew of my son’s ex. Rescued a husky last year.”

Rescued a husky? He’s OK in my book whatever his politics. Well, almost. I don’t think a Nazi husky rescuer would be OK. I’m going to have to take this on a case-by-case basis. I see that now. This kid hasn’t gone that far. And he’s curious. Curiosity means a lot. And he rescued a husky.



All you teachers out there, past, present and future, heading to school today, you have your work cut out for you. I’m glad it’s not me any more. I honor your effort, I respect your challenge, I love the work you do. Please help this kid out in whatever shape or form he arrives in your classroom. Our world depends on you. Seriously. I’m weeping as I write this.

I’m sorry. I’m sorry you don’t have a better salary. I’m sorry the gubmint doesn’t recognize the vital work you do. I’m sorry for acting out in 9th grade (3rd grade, 10th grade, 11th grade). And thank you for everything. ❤

“I Heard the News Today…” So What?

I generally find the news uninteresting. That it is often sensational doesn’t make it interesting. This began for me as a high school junior when I met Henry David Thoreau. We (of course) read “Civil Disobedience” which I found ho-hum, but Walden was magical. In Walden, Thoreau writes:

“And I am sure that I never read any memorable news in a newspaper. If we read of one man robbed, or murdered, or killed by accident, or one house burned, or one vessel wrecked, or one steamboat blown up, or one cow run over on the Western Railroad, or one mad dog killed, or one lot of grasshoppers in the winter, – we need never read of another. One is enough. If you are acquainted with the principle, what do you care for a myriad instances and applications?”

My household (meaning my mom) was an avid news watcher/reader. She believed it was important to “be informed.” She read the paper from cover to cover; we subscribed to news magazines (anyone under 30 in this country has not seen Time Magazine when it was mostly words) and watched the news twice each day — that was as often as it could be watched in the 60s, by the way. The radio was on most of the time with hourly news reports.

“Watch the news,” she said. “You need to know what’s going on. It’s going to be your turn to take over the world soon.” With teenage cockiness I simply replied that I would be the news. 🙂 But just as she had little life of her own, she knew little about mine. Instead of knowing about me, she knew what the news said about “teenagers today.”

These were pretty wild days in the news. The goal of the news at that time really was to tell and show. The US government had not yet discovered the result of broadcasting facts — real facts — and the Viet Nam War in all it’s gory glory was on television as were street riots over race, the draft and the right for young people to vote. The result of those years on broadcast media is that the Gulf War was more like a TV show than a war, complete with a theme song and opening graphics. It’s even worse now… The effect of the news on many people is to render them impotent to act in their own lives. “What’s the point of voting?” for example. Well, if they knew that the news is an illusion and nothing but marketing and propaganda, they might realize that their vote IS the one thing that they can do that does matter (unless it’s GWB and it’s Florida or Ohio).

So, at seventeen, I put a permanent boycott on the news, a boycott I have seldom suspended. I decided that only the news that has direct bearing on  my life is important because it affects what I may or may not be able to change. Other news? Such as the idiocy that comes out of the mouths of Presidential candidates or the relentless business of war in this country? I can’t change it. In the first case, the best I can do is vote, and in the second, the best I could do was help returning soldiers, with their fractured brains and broken hearts, find a way into life here.

The news in the United States is mostly ‘bad’ news — this point was brought home to me by my students in China. China Daily and other Chinese papers print mostly GOOD news. As my students’ English was good enough to read American newspapers — and they did — they went at our news with the bias that ALL newspapers print only the good news. If the stories in American papers were the good news from America, what a horrible place the United States must be! “Aren’t you afraid to go outside your house, teacher? You can be murdered or raped!” True. They believed this. Our way of reporting news fed right into China’s anti-American propaganda machine.

Thoreau has something to say about the ‘bad news’ obsession, too. He views news as gossip and gossip likes the juicy tid-bits of human pain and failure. In Life Without Principle Thoreau uses the example of two men sharing the news of the day, moaning about the state of affairs, leaving each other feeling a strange sense of hopelessness and triumph (which we feel when we are let off the hook yet know that should not be the case). Neither man has spoken of the “real” news of his life and what has happened between them is flat, empty and unsatisfying. Thoreau writes:

We may well be ashamed to tell what things we have read or heard in our day. I did not know why my news should be so trivial, — considering what one’s dreams and expectations are, why the developments should be so paltry. The news we hear, for the most part, is not news to our genius. It is the stalest repetition.

The real news is not in the paper, but in our lives, thoughts, experiences and the newspaper is a distraction from both our true outer life and the even more true (to Thoreau) inner life.

I do not know but it is too much to read one newspaper a week. I have tried it recently, and for so long it seems to me that I have not dwelt in my native region. The sun, the clouds, the snow, the trees say not so much to me. You cannot serve two masters. It requires more than a day’s devotion to know and to possess the wealth of a day.

Iggy Pop says it well, too. 🙂