Thursday, April 17, 2008

This 'n That

Sunshine flooding into the windows, it's like a gift. News junkie that I am, I couldn't not do the morning read and it's grim enough to dispel the happy mood... but it's just not possible to live in a bubble; just gotta learn to balance things...

Caught the tail-end of the Obama-Clinton debate last night on TV. Please don't tell me those moderators, Stephanopoulos and Gibson, didn't arrive with an agenda. It was more like a "Gotcha!" fest. Armed with irrelevant and/or trivial questions, they were in full attack mode. Quite a "show"... no doubt it satisfied those seeking political entertainment. Frankly, it bordered on disgusting.

Three interesting articles that kind of jumped out at me this morning: The $200 Million Bail-Out for Predator Banks ... this current economic mess we're in, learning who's really pulling the strings, who's getting rescued and who's getting shafted, was sort of unnerving.

And American Refugees Are Flooding into Canada: Tens of Thousands of Americans Are Now Economic Refugees ...this was news to me, and as I have a foot in both these countries now, it very much grabbed my attention.

The final item, one that portends even more calamitous forebodings, informs readers: As Hunger Rises, Chew on This. It's difficult when your focus is pretty much on personal concerns: how to pay the bills and how am I gonna afford gas this week; who's gonna watch my kid who's home sick from school and I can't get off work; and if I don't pay the electric bill soon, they're gonna cut off my electricity-- to worry about what's going on everywhere else in the universe ,much less have time to consider the bigger picture. But I think we have to be prepared, start conserving, start thinking about ways to survive when the going gets worse and all our little backups have been depleted.

Bushes of vibrant yellow blooms burst out, welcoming spring--why are you spreading gloom-and-doom pronouncements?, my inner self scolds. In defense, just 'cause you leave the Awareness button permanently turned on and tune into the gathering storm clouds doesn't mean you can't absolutely drink in, with wholehearted, exuberant gusto, the absolute joy of those other things life has to offer. I fully intend to enjoy this magnificent morning.

Onward to Beantown, by commuter rail, to see the l'il bubs. Yay!

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Hello again, Providence

A little walking tour of Benefit Street, an interesting house on Staples Street near the art gallery; a small jaunt down near the waterfront. Back again to reaquaint myself with Rhode Island.

Sign on a gate outside an ancient yellow wooden house on Benefit Street: "Attention: Chien Bizarre" ... and another, even smaller sign, confirming that here resides a "Chien Lunatique!" ha ha ha. Beware of crazy dogs on Benefit Street!

Houses of the 18th and 19th century, blues and pinks and yellows and grays, of wood or red brick, with shutters, little hidden courtyards, gated gardens--and plaques denoting the original owner and date of construction; houses of merchants and ministers, architects and dignitaries, assembled in a stately row beneath budding trees and impertinent robins atop a sun-drenched hill.

I wonder what the street looked like back then, in their day; what they did of an evening, how they greeted one another, these long-dead residents, what sort of neighbors they were to one another.

It's spring vacation and the colleges have emptied. Last night we ate at an Indian restaurant and this morning visited a toy shop and a Russian food store where the chocolates, jam and newspapers all announced themselves in cyrillic. A large fish on a bed of ice with its head still attached stared blankly from behind a glass counter.

On my last visit here we trekked on over to Swann Cemetery to see where H.P. Lovecraft is buried and despite having a map, we had difficulty finding the exact location. A tiny, simple tombstone, I don't know why I thought it would be larger, more ornate perhaps. I mentioned (silently, to H.P.) that I've enjoyed his books, despite the sheer terror some of his tales seemed to have instilled in me. He lies interred in a magnificent park with hillettes and ponds and peaceful trees, one can get lost there.

Now why would someone find that more enjoyable than, say, traipsing through the ornate mansions over in Newport, with their marble floors and chandeliers and dark, tired wallpaper? (Been there, done that, some years ago, when a chance to see the remnants of the Gilded Age for some reason was of interest at the time.) I had thought about doing the cliff walk, skirting the occasional precipitous hidden drops that had you not been careful could send you tumbling headlong into the ocean below, but I didn't bring the proper shoes and to be honest, I'm kind of walked out enough already.

From the third-floor loft where I'm staying I can see the lights of the city, spread out like a million tiny stars. The absolute quiet is surprising... not even a taxi rumbling by below. Good Lord it's after midnight already. Goodnight Providence.

Monday, April 14, 2008

En Route to Vermont

A small sojourn, of several weeks, down to the States ... taking, as usual, entirely too much stuff. We always drive down by way of the islands (North Hero, Grand Isle, South Hero) which takes a bit longer but the scenery alone is worth it.

A barrage of snowflakes cascaded into the windshield from just after the border on to almost Rouse's Point, and small parts of the lake remained frozen but by and large winter's pretty much gone here in northern Vermont. You no longer need a heavy coat and scarf and gloves and boots. What a contrast to back home in Trois-Rivieres where there is still at least four feet of snow in the back yard.

How wonderful to see the lake and mountains again, the farms and cottages and rolling hills--it's like a balm. We walked along Lake Champlain in the biting wind and popped into the new (at least it was new to me) creperie along the waterfront which was crowded, cozy and expensive. I just learned that one of my favorite used bookstores in town is going out of business. So many familiar favorite stores gone, now occupied by other, less interesting venues. It was a bit disorienting. On to Beantown tomorrow, but only as a stopping point on the way to Providence. I've unfortunately acquired even more items to add to my already burgeoning luggage--like books and gifts and fresh roasted coffeebeans whose delicious aroma leap out and remind me of those happy times in the Queen City when I used to live here. [Photo of Lake Champlain taken by Emily A. Cox].

Friday, April 11, 2008

Label it!

I got an email from Greenpeace today, saying:

By the luck of the Parliamentary draw, a private member's bill supporting mandatory labelling of GE food in Canada was randomly selected for debate in the House of Commons in April. The bill has a very good chance of becoming law. We have the power to persuade our federal MPs to support this bill and to choose us instead of Monsanto!

Bill C-517, presented by a Bloc Québécois MP, was debated during a second reading on April 3, 2008 . A second hour of parliamentary debate may take place in as early as two weeks, according to the House of Commons calendar. Following this second debate, the House will be called on to vote on Bill C-517 on mandatory GE labelling in Canada.

In the meantime, there is nothing preventing Canadian provinces from moving forward and adopting their own laws on mandatory labelling of GE food.

Write your MP if you support this.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Nitpickers Gone Amok

A retired professor and some colleagues exchange emails regarding their concern over what they see as a subtle deterioration of their spoken or written language. “I saw this in the newspaper yesterday, and it really disturbed me,” says one of them. “In this sentence, written by X, it seems to me that the subjunctive is not justified”-- after which he provides an example of the correct usage.

The slow creep of anglicisms into the French language in everyday discourse is alarming to some francophones. It's so pervasive, in fact, that even when I remember to use annuler instead of canceler, for example; or boycottage instead of boycott, other francophones tell me it's no big deal. ("People still understand you, right?")

In defense of the nitpickers and those annoying people who find themselves inadvertently becoming the grammar police, I must admit that I, too, sometimes exhibit similar behavior. Maybe it’s the editor in me, but when I see alot written as one word instead of two, or it’s with an apostrophe when it should be its (to denote possession), or hear people say “Walla!” when what they mean to say is Voilà--out jumps that cursed mental red pencil. (Ça me chicote un peu—mais pourquoi?!! ) It is why, I think, I can sympathize with the language purists to some extent. A little erosion is unavoidable. But look how many languages today have become completely extinct. The Melting Pot aside, the idea of One Language for All--if civilization ever came to that point--to me smacks too much of a numbing one-dimensionality.

Replacing words you can't spell or pronounce with easier-to-remember, substitute words reminded me of a friend I once knew from Czechoslovakia. His name was Vladimir. People at his workplace called him "Val" because, he told me, they found it too difficult to pronounce the consonants V and L together without a vowel stuck in between. So rather than try, they simply re-named him. Say your birth name is Josef (pronounced YO-seff.) How does that make you feel when you introduce yourself to someone and pronounce your name and instead of their repeating it, or at least attempting to repeat it, they say: "That's Joseph, right? In English your name would be Joseph. I'm gonna call you Joe (spoken as a fait accompli; i.e., your new name, to this person, is now Joe.)

How utterly arrogant a frame of mind that reacts to unfamiliarity with another culture or language, not by trying to learn something about it but by finding it necessary to ignore, redefine, or change it in order to deal with it. It shows a certain lack of interest and respect, I think, when one succombs to re-naming a person with a substitute name in one's own language, simply to make saying it "easier".

Not only native English-speakers engage in this unflattering practice, of course, and, to be fair, not all English-speakers do. (Perhaps more prevalent than anglicizing foreign names is the predilection, at least in the U.S., for nicknaming. If your name is Robert, for example, be prepared to be addressed and referred to, automatically, as Bob. If your name is Richard, who can guess what your preferred nickname might be? Dick? Rich? Richie? If you're a Barbara, you could be re-named Barb, Barbie or Babs; and if you're a William, it could be "Will", "Willie", "Bill" or "Billy". Take your pick.) (Bush's nickname for Vladimir Putin is "Pooty-Poot" . No comment, haha.)

In our French conversation class we are four. (Before, I would have said, "there are four of us. " The way I sometimes express a thing in English, I notice, has changed as a result of my living in Quebec.)

In class we all speak French with a “foreign” accent: Spanish, Russian, or in my case, "Murrikan". This is good for the ear because spoken French differs: Belgian French sounds a bit different from Algerian French; Parisian French differs from the French spoken in Quebec. Each French-speaking country has idioms other French-speaking countries do not use, much less understand.

When my Spanish classmates pronounce chaque as “chock” instead of “shawk”, or my Russian classmate trills her r’s (making prendre sound like “prrrrrrrrrrawndrrrah”, I learn something about the pronounciation patterns of their native languages as well. As my ancestors spoke Slavic, a rolling "r" is familiar, but Spanish pronounciation is not and it may someday come in handy to be aware of the how things are pronounced in Spanish. We all, in the class, somehow, understand each other when speaking French, though.

It’s the darn word contractions that continue to confuse! When I first arrived here, one day I heard my mate talking to the cat, murmuring something that sounded like “moan tee-CUR.” I recognized “moan” as the personal pronoun mon but the “tee-cur” was a mystery. I went to the dictionary and looked under the T’s. How would that be spelled in French? I wondered. Tikker? Ticur? Tyquer? What he was actually saying was mon petite Coeur (my little heart), but he somehow swallowed the “pe” part before the “t” and I heard the remaining portion, tite, as TEE. (What a delightful term of endearment for one's beloved pet: My little heart!)

All languages do this—contract or eliminate words in daily use. My French grammar says the sentence Je ne sais pas” ("I don't know") should be spoken like this: zhe-neh-say-PAW. But that’s not how people say it here. You’re much more likely to hear it pronounced "Shay-PO." Moi, je pense ... comes out sounding like "Mwashponse ..."

Bostonians do this with their pizza, ha ha. (It's pronounced PEET-za by the rest of the world, but PEET-zer in Boston). "Square" is SKWAY-uh, "park" is PAWK, "car" is KAHH. (Pawk ya kahh in Hahvid Sqway-uh"). "Barb" sounds like BOB and "Worcester" is WOOSTA. "Gloucester" is GLAWsta. "Revere" is Reh-VEE-uh. "Leominster" is LEMON-sta. "Peabody" is PEA-buddy. "Waltham" is WALTH-ham but "Chatham" is CHATT-um. "Medford" is MEFFA and "Woburn" is WOO-ban. (I’m allowed to make fun of this because I'm a former Bostonian!)

Hey, that gives me an idea for a short story! A guy--let’s call him Bernie--becomes an obsessive compulsive nitpicker re: spoken and written language. He forms a little club whose six members take it upon themselves to scan published articles and monitor local television broadcasts, making a note of the grammatical inaccuracies. They then email each other and pontificate on the correct usage. Of course they’re all preaching to the choir, so to speak, but certain members are more observant than others and the less conscientious ones are made to feel, well, less important. One day the group decides to have an election to choose who will be their president. A hilarious competition ensues whereby each member tries to top the others in locating and presenting ever more vigorous erudition about the day's offending texts or emissions. They pout and squabble and bicker and the group finally ends up disbanding. Bernie finds a new soulmate.

Well, that’s as much as came to me this morning just as I was waking up, thinking about grammatical nitpickers and the peculiarities of language, and all things strange and wonderful about the French and English languages.