Friday, January 25, 2008

Birthday Flowers

These flowers are over one week old. Like the first flowers I ever received (at a swim meet from a boy whom I had met at an academic awards ceremony), I did not expect to receive these (at Hillside café, when I turned around from pushing a cart of bottled water, napkins, and yogurt cups across the floor). I am not sure I necessarily wanted either bouquet.

I received this bouquet last Thursday; I changed the water twice; I never added the plant food. Yet, the blossoms still smile sunnily out of their clear plastic cup on our common room end table. Meanwhile, I seem to pick more dead leaves off the hanging plant I bought for my room every day. Why is it that the things I attempt to cultivate and nurture always wither and die, while those I tend to ignore flourish and persist?

The God of Irony is laughing.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

What we don't talk about

I would never claim that I don’t “see” race. I most certainly saw it when I stepped off of the NYC metro at the 125th Street stop, ascended cigarette butt-littered concrete stairs, and arrived face-to-face with a bright red awning reading “West Harlem Fried Chicken.” I turned and started down the sidewalk, dragging my luggage past a man with dreadlocks missing two teeth and a woman wearing high-heeled sneakers, pushing a stroller with one hand and pulling along a wobbly toddler other. To my right, an illuminated vertical sign announced that I was passing “Pasquela’s Salon.” Up ahead, several boys huddled under a purple shimmer-y awning labeled “Sylvia’s: Queen of Soul Food.” Good-bye Newark airport, I thought. Good-bye CVS and Borders and Starbucks. Hello Harlem.

I would be the first to say that I felt out-of-place as a white twenty-two year old, wearing jeans, a fleece, and a bouncing ponytail, dragging my suitcase around Harlem at 6 p.m. Sure, I went to a half-black, half-white school district for six years and studied abroad for a semester, but the more I travel, observe, and interact with people of other races and cultures, the more I realize how little I truly know or understand about the tangible differences there are between us. Race is such a touchy subject, everyone likes to immediately go for the feel-good, “everyone is the same underneath” appeal—which, to some degree, is true. We all share the same degree of humanity, the same essential human desires and raw emotional qualities. We are all capable of suffering or rejoicing, of feeling envy or gratitude or sorrow or relief. However, there are fundamental differences that, oftentimes, everyone seems to not so much ignore as to avoid. The more I recognize this avoidance in myself, the less cultural understanding I realize I have. It makes me wonder how equipped I am to handle certain situations.

For instance, I have never thought twice about dating someone of a different race. It simply has never crossed my mind as an important or deciding factor. However, when I stop to consider it more seriously, there would almost certainly be repercussions from the outside world if such a situation came to pass. Say, for example, I dated an Asian boy. I don’t know this for a fact, but I would anticipate that most people would expect him to be extremely academically intelligent, while perhaps lacking English skills. If I dated a black guy, on the other hand (and please excuse my choice of language—it just strikes me as more “real” than saying African-American, since no one says German-American or Italian-American or Spanish-American), some people would pat me on the back for "crossing racial boundaries" or some such perceived “achievement”, while other people would abhor the very notion of dating someone so “different”, for who-knows-what reason.

Plus, I have no idea what the guy's family would think. Would they treat me like some sort of foreign outsider? How could I ever become part of their traditions and customs without seeming like an imposter? This is how I feel a lot of times (like an imposter, that is) when I interact with people of different cultures or even from different geographical areas of the United States. I often innately pick up how they talk, and then when I catch myself imitating their speech patters, I start to worry that they think I've been making fun of them. I don't mean to--it just happens.

Can a white person use Ebonics without being labeled a “wigger?” Can a black person play Scrabble or listen to soft rock without being called an “Oreo?” Do these things matter, or should they matter? I had a conversation with my cousin while I was staying with her in NYC concerning the importance of clothing as a representation of status. In certain cultures, wearing the right kind of shoes represents a specific sort of stigma. You don’t step on someone’s shoes. Maybe that would be equivalent to spitting in their face, or maybe to tearing up a page of their notes, I don’t know. But I remember those pristine white sneakers with the laces—untied—tucked under the big white tongue, from high school. Me and “mine,” we didn’t value that. Some of us may have bought expensive footwear, some may not have, but no one paid any attention. It just goes to show that value systems are different. I am finding out more and more that I don’t know what those value systems are. I want to know, but more than wanting to know, I want to understand. Maybe by understanding, I will find that small little way to slip inside the system.

Friday, January 18, 2008

A Unique College Essay...finally

If this individual had applied to College Prowler's contest, I may have championed him for the scholarship.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Interesting comments on language

I just finished Bill Bryson’s The Mother Tongue. While I found this book much drier than his comedic I’m a Stranger Here Myself, there were some notable quotes, particularly because I am so fixated on language, as of late. Here are a few, or rather, several . . . . okay, a bunch of the passages I most enjoyed.

  • English speakers dread silence. We are all familiar with the uncomfortable feeling that overcomes us when a conversation palls. Studies have shown that when a pause reaches four seconds, one or more of the conversationalists will invariably blurt something—a fatuous comment on the weather, a startled cry of “Gosh, is that the time?”—rather than let the silence extend to a fifth second. (36)
  • If you have a morbid fear of peanut butter sticking to the roof of your mouth, there is a word for it: arachibutyrophobia. When you are just dropping off to sleep and you experience that sudden that sensation of falling, there is a word for it: it’s a myoclonic jerk. Vellacitydescribes a mild desire, a wish or urge too slight to lead to action. There is even a word for a figure of speech in which two connotative words linked by a conjunction express a complex notion that would normally be conveyed by an adjective and a substantive working together. It is a hendiadys. In English, in short, there are words for almost everything. (67, albeit a bit out of order)
  • This is of course one of the glories of English—its willingness to take in words from abroad, rather as if they were refugees. We take words from almost anywhere—shampoo from India, chaparral from the Basques, caucus from the Algonquin Indians, ketchup from China, potato from Haiti, sofa from Arabia, boondocks from the Tagalog language of the Philipines, slogan from Gaelic. You can’t get much more eclectic than that. (73)
  • Garbage, which has had its present meaning of food waste since the Middle Ages, was brought to England by the Normans, who had adapted it from the Italian dialectal word garbuglio (a mess), which ultimately had come from the Latin bullire (to boil or bubble). (73)
  • We pronounce many words—perhaps most—in ways that are considerably at variance with the ways they are spelled and often even more so with the ways we think we are saying them. We may believe we say “later” but in fact we say “lader.” We may think we say “ladies,” but it’s more probably “laties” or even, in the middle of a busy sentence, “lays.” Handbag comes out as “hambag.” We think we say “butter,” but it’s really “budder” or “buddah” or even “bu’r”…. We think we say “granted,” but really say “grannid.” No one says “looked.” It’s “lookt.” “I’ll just get her” becomes “aldges gedder.” We constantly allow sounds to creep into words where they have no real business. We introduce a “p” between “m” and “t” or “m” and “s” sounds, so that we really say “warmpth” and “something.” We can’t help ourselves. (87)
  • [Chinese] radicals can stand alone or be combined to form other words…. Mouth and bird make song. Two women mans quarrel and three women means gossip. (117)
  • When you look into the background of these [grammatical] “rules” there is often little basis for them. Consider the curiously persistent notion that sentences should not end with a preposition. The source of this stricture, and several other equally dubious ones, was one Robert Lowth, an eighteenth-century clergyman and amateur grammarian whose A Short Introduction to English Grammar, published in 1762, enjoyed a long and distressingly influential life both in his native England and abroad. It is to Lowth we can trace many a pedant’s most treasured notions: the belief that you must say different from rather than different to or different than, the idea that two negatives make a positive…. Perhaps the most remarkable and curiously enduring of Lowth’s m any beliefs was the conviction that sentences ought not to end with a preposition. But even he was not didactic about it…. He suggested only that he thought it generally better and more graceful, not crucial, to place the preposition before its relative “in solemn and elevated” writing. Within a hundred years this had been converted from a piece of questionable advice into an immutable rule. In a remarkable outburst of literal-mindedness, nineteenth-century academics took it as read that the very name pre-position meant it must come before something—anything. (141)
  • “I’m hurrying, are I not?” is hopelessly ungrammatical, but “I’m hurrying, aren’t I”—merely a contraction of the same words—is perfect English. Many is almost always a plural (as in “Many people were there”), but not when it is followed by a, as in “Many a man was there.” There’s no inherent reason why these things should be so. They are not defensible in terms of grammar. They are because they are. (143)
  • It can take years for an American to master the intricacies of British idiom, and vice versa. In Britain homely is a flattering expression (equivalent to homey); in America it means “ugly.” In Britain upstairs is the first floor; in America it is the second…. Presently means “now” in America; in Britain it means “in a little while.” Sometimes these can cause considerable embarrassment, most famously with the British expression “I’ll knock you up in the morning,” which means “I’ll knock on your door in the morning.” (176-177)
  • Among the Chinese, to be called a turtle is the worst possible taunt…. Among the Xoxa tribe of South Africa the most provocative possible remark is hlebeshako--“your mother’s ears.” In French it is a grave insult to call someone a cow or a camel and the effect is considerably intensified if you precede it with espece de (“kind of”) so that it is worse in French to be called kind of a cow than to be called just a cow. (214)
  • Some cultures don’t swear at all. The Japanese, Malayans, and most Polynesians and American Indians do not have native swear words. The Finns, lacking the sort of words you need to describe your feelings when you stub your toe getting up to answer a wrong number at 2:00 A.M., rather oddly adopted the word ravintolassa. It means “in the restaurant.” (214)
  • Cool Anagrams: circumstantial evidence = can ruin a selected victim; a stitch in time saves nine = this is meant as incentive; funeral = real fun; The Morse Code = Here come dots; intoxicate = excitation; mother-in-law = woman Hitler. (230, minus a few)
  • A holorime is French word game comprised of a two-line poem in which each line is pronounced the same but uses different words. A short exemplary pair of English phrases would be “I love you” and “isle of view.” An old children’s riddle comes as close to an English holorime as any attempt that has been made. It is the one that poses the question “How do you prove in three steps that a sheet of paper is a lazy dog?” The answer: (1) a sheet of paper is an ink-lined plane; (2) an inclined plane is a slop up; (3) a slow pup is a lazy dog. (taken from 231-232)
  • Incomprehensible

    Have you ever noticed how the most important information is almost always communicated in the least comprehensible manner?

    I was in NYC, recently, trying to navigate the subway systems. Thus, every time there was an announcement as to which stop was next or which stops would be skipped, I definitely needed to know what they were saying! Now, you would think that, because I am in an English-speaking country this time (unlike many of my prior experiences trying to navigate the transportation systems of a city), I would be at an advantage. Not so; those NYC metro intercom announcements were usually made in a voice sounding something like the teacher from the Peanuts cartoon (i.e. a weird alien dialect comprised of vowels and static, spoken through a mouthful of mushy peas). In short, without prior advice and a good map, I would have been as good as lost.

    Another, less mechanically inhibited example of incomprehensible language is the type of language used in the medical field. A good doctor will use the medical term for the condition you have and then explain what it “really mean” and how you are going to treat it, but honestly, if I were a doctor, I don’t know if I would have the patience for all that. Would most of my patients even want to know the “real term?” (For instance, if your baby cries for hours at a time “no matter what you do,” he or she has colic. Who cares what it is called? Just make the kid stop crying!) In effect, I would have to dumb it down for them, but then what was the point of having a term in the first place? Why must we put labels on everything? To sound smart? To feel prestigious? To make sure no one can have access to our “higher knowledge” unless we want to them to? This is a topic I struggle with quite frequently (and therefore spawned last semester’s research paper “The Case of the Missing Agent: and Other Issues of Passive Voice in Scientific Writing”).

    Speaking of important yet inaccessible terms, I take serious issue with restaurants that place foreign items on their menus and then fail to explain to the predominantly English-speaking population of America exactly what these food items are. How am I expected to know what an empanada is, or Tzatziki, or how about Orecchiette con Cima di Rape? (In case you are wondering, the first is a savory Spanish/South American pastry, the second is a Greek appetizer dip, and the third is an Italian pasta dish.) As a self-acknowledged picky eater, I want to know what I am spending my money on before it arrives at my plate—much less in my mouth—thank you.

    They say a picture is worth a thousand words, and in all three of these cases, I believe this could be true. In the first instance on the NYC metro, I never had a problem navigating when I had the rare opportunity to ride on one of the newer train cars that had marquis above the doorways announcing “Next Stop is….” as well as stop schedules that showed a glowing yellow light beside each stop the train had already passed. I might gripe about technology in many cases (such as what an inconsiderate culture cell phones are making us and who in the world needs over 500 television channels), but I will never claim that it does not have its useful purposes. On these “techno-trains,” I never once missed my stop.

    In the second and third instances, also, I also feel that visual aids could do a great deal of good. If I were a doctor, instead of speaking a lot of technical mumbo-jumbo to my patients, I would simply show them a picture, a flash card of sorts, of what will happen to them if they do not follow my instructions to take care of their condition. This way, if my diagnosis is wrong and the treatment does not work, at least the patient will know what symptoms to look for. And if a flash card would not be sufficient, a short two-minute video would work. Likewise, if there were just pictures of every food item on a menu, I would never have to worry about what each thing was called—I could see it! Granted, seeing the dish does not necessarily mean I would know every ingredient used to make it, but what restaurant lists all of that information in its descriptions, anyway? Pictures would simply make life easier.

    Maybe I should have been a photographer.

    Saturday, January 12, 2008

    New Year's Shout-Out

    I just want to give a great big THANK YOU to any and all of my readers.

    The only way I know if you read my blog regularly is if you leave a comment (which I absolutely love) or otherwise tell me (in conversation, e-mail, etc.). Therefore, I apologize if I miss anyone in the following list, but I espeically want to thank: Mom and Dad (my lifelong fans), Julie, Kelly, Rome, Mike, Gordon, and Colleen. If there is any mysterious reader out there whom I did not mention, please let me know what you think of my posts! I love receiving any and all feedback.

    Meanwhile, thank you all for keeping up with me, my life, my thoughts, and my writing. This is as close as I am to being "published" right now, and you are my audience. I could not appreciate you more!

    People-watching in Dullus Airport

    I knew they were English. Before I could even hear a word they were saying, I knew. Don’t ask me what particular features they possessed that made me peg them as Brits; British people, after all, really do not seem all that different from American people, at least superficially. Our clothes are basically the same, our food is basically the same,, our language is basically the same. We even look basically the same (WASP-y, usually). Therefore, I am not entirely sure what it was about these three boys and their father, sitting at the far end of the waiting area, that struck me as especially culturally different.

    I guess it was a culmination of different little things. For one, all of the boys had straight, blond, too-long hair that came down over their collars and almost into their eyes so that they constantly had to be twitching their heads to have a clear view of each other. This could be considered “sk8ter” style, but they boys were of the age where their mother would have still had control over their hair styles, so this must have been one indicator. (Not that I was performing all of this mental “hair analysis” explicitly. In retrospect, it seems silly; I only mean to say that I noticed their hair and it made me think, “Hey, that family is English.”)

    My second clue was their teeth. Now, this is not to say that the “All Brits have bad teeth” stereotype is necessarily true. I didn’t really notice poor oral hygiene as a significant British feature while I was in England. However, the boys in this airport were all a bit bucktoothed, and it simply made them look English.

    Lastly—and there is simply no good way to explain this—the way they moved their mouths when they spoke clinched my certainty. Maybe it is because of the accent, but English people manipulate their mouths differently than Americans when they talk. I never would have noticed this difference had I not studied abroad and had some basis for comparison. (Granted, I never stopped to study the speech movements in fine enough detail to actually describe them, but they most certainly are different.) Imagine watching someone speaking in a southern drawl versus someone speaking in a Brooklyn accent—completely different timings, completely different lip formations.

    Still, I could have been wrong. Needless to say, the moment I made out an audible word from one of the sons, my suspicions were confirmed. “Papa! Papa, where are you going?” [stomp] [stomp] “Papa!” Doesn’t it just sound so much more pleasant than the American “Da-aaaad…!”?

    Wednesday, January 2, 2008

    The Single Life

    Ordinarily, being single does not bother me. In many regards, I quite like it—I enjoy the broad freedoms that people in relationships simply do not have. For instance, no one can lay claim to my time except for me. I can hang out with whatever friends I want whenever I want. I can move to England for six months without feeling like I am cutting off a person-shaped appendage in the process. I do not have to worry about whether or not to have sex before marriage (well, I suppose I could still worry about that, but without a guy to whom I am immensely attracted and feel an intimate emotional connection, the option seems much less appealing). I can seek whatever job I want wherever in the country (or even world) I want without the risk of feeling like I am leaving someone behind. Basically, being single provides me the freedom to think of myself and my own desires first.

    Needless to say, being single comes with its disadvantages, too. Perhaps it is my age (isn’t early twenties when women approach their sexual peak?), perhaps it is my personality, perhaps it is even what the media has taught me I should want, but if there is one frequent regret I have about being single, it is that I have no big warm male body to cuddle with. (I’m a girl—I want to be held!) Also, I have no automatic company for attending functions; I must attend them alone. Granted, this “lack of partner” can be a positive aspect of singleness, as it probably facilitates meeting new people and being social with all of the members of a party/gathering/event, but there is also no one on whom to fall back when I feel excluded, unknown, or simply bored.

    However, the disadvantage to being single I have most recently confronted is the fact that I have no one to spend the holidays with. Now, I readily acknowledge that this is a very “blanket” statement, and one which is easily refutable. “What about your family?” “Don’t you have any friends?” Both family and friends are viable options on most occasions, hence why I have never considered this feature a serious disadvantage before. I always spend Christmas and Thanksgiving with my family. I celebrate my birthday, the Fourth of July, and Halloween with my friends. However, New Year’s has always been split. I used to spend it with my family and family friends when I was growing up. Sometime near the end of junior high school or at the beginning of high school, I began to attend New Year’s Eve parties thrown by friends. Effectively, where and how I would spend my New Year’s Eve has never been a problem…until this year.

    Originally, I was supposed to spend New Year’s Eve with my dear friend Emily. However, when she later decided to spend the evening with her boyfriend Jake’s family and sleep over at his house, my invitation was (understandably) revoked. My friend Kelly had plans to see the Clarks play at First Night downtown with her boyfriend John, so I could not very well invite myself along to that concert. My other friend Emily invited me to hang out with her and her boyfriend at their house, but at this point I decided that being a third wheel would not make for a very pleasant New Year’s celebration, so that option was out, as well. This left me with two remaining possibilities (or, rather, three if I decided to stay home and sulk instead). On one hand, I could spend the evening with my parents. They were going to see a movie and get dessert, and my dad repeatedly assured me that I was “more than welcome” to come along. However, this again would make me a third wheel, even if the couple was my parents. On the other hand, my alternate option was to attend a party being thrown by a friend of Vicky’s. At this party, I would allegedly know very few people (including the host, whom I have only met a handful of times) and most likely spend my night watching everyone get drunk and play beer-pong.

    In short, neither option sounded great; so in the end, I chose to try both. First, I went and saw The Great Debaters with my parents. At the theatre, we ran into several other couples—all my parents’ age, and all sans-kids. Every time we ran into another couple, I felt like there was a great big sign around my neck announcing: “No, I do not have anything better to do than tag along with my parents on New Year’s Eve. Yes, I am single.” Afterward, I drove to Vicky’s friend’s party (his name is Drew), where I spent a majority of the time declining celebratory liquor shots and refilling the beer pitcher for the pong table.

    On a positive note, I do enjoy spending time with my parents, and the movie was better than I had expected. I like Denzel Washington as an actor, and the other younger actors and actresses in the movie were very talented. Additionally, the party was not a total loss, since it allowed me to spend time with a few old high school friends. One of them even flirted with me pretty shamelessly, so I cannot claim to have had a miserable time.

    My New Year’s Proposition: Embrace single-ness. You never know when it might end.

    Welcome to 2008.