Thursday, August 24, 2006

Starry Starry Night

Ok, I think I might be ready to return. It has been a grueling couple of weeks here, camping out in our empty house (the moving van finally arrived on Tuesday), sleeping on the floor in the same room with my children, trying my best to help them cope with the upheaval, and enjoying no break (in the way of child care) to collect myself and my sanity. I have not had the opportunity to allow any random or extraneous thought enter my head, and anything I might've posted during this sojourn would've been sour, if not bilious.

Taking out the recycling tonight, however, breathing in the clean river air and looking up at the sky -- which bursts here with stars from every horizon -- I finally felt some peace. I use the word peace with some trepidation and due reverence, as -- sorry to go somewhat maudlin here -- the one thought that kept entering my mind -- that is, each time I felt I was on the verge of losing it -- was it could be much worse, my kids could be in Beirut.

For as long as I can remember, the word "Beirut" has coded for a generic sense of chaos or disorder. Were world events not as they are at the moment, I'm sure I would have said at some point, in the past day or so, with boxes and belongings strewn about the house, that it's "like Beirut around here." One cannot be so flippant these days, however, as the reality of "Beirut" recently became vivid to us all in a way that renders its generic, metaphorical usage in our argot indecorous, if not callous. It's not like Beirut here, no, not at all.

Indeed where we now live could not be farther (a word for distance) or further (a word for concepts) from the bleak reality of Lebanon's capital city, and it was that very sense of general safety and imminent well-being that helped me endure, even when my special-needs son was unleashing his third or fourth unendurable tantrum of the day. (An interesting loop here: recall my series of posts on the Italian football [soccer] player Materazzi, who claimed he didn't know what the word "terrorist" meant, and that he only used it to describe his young child. . . I know what he was driving at, but still . . . ugh).

Ironically, this sentiment became most present to me on an occasion when my children were keenly frightened: we had a blackout a couple of nights ago. Sure, we lost power from time to time where we last lived, but in a suburb only a couple of miles from the Chicago city line, it never really gets dark. Here, however, a blackout means black. The only lights I could see were those twinkling in the distance from upstate New York, far across the St. Lawrence. Blythe and Ollie were (as they say) seriously freaked (especially in the house, which was still empty), but to "redirect" them (as they say in parenting lingo), I took them outside to look at the stars, indeed to behold an assemblage of sky lights such as they have never seen.

The Milky Way washes across the sky above our house, and all the major constellations (e.g., the big and little dippers, Casiopeia, Andromeda, etc) are crisp and clear. That night we saw two shooting stars (August is high season for them), and I taught them the difference between a satellite (a steady light that moves swiftly across the sky) and an airplane (which has blinking lights), as well as how you can tell a star (which twinkles) from a planet (which doesn't: whither Pluto?). Enthralled by the sight, they nonetheless remained anxious, and I marvelled, empathetically, at the sense of disorientation my children felt in being precipitously disconnected from the electronic media that had been an ineluctable part of their world (views).

It reminded me of when I was teaching in East LA, and had helped chaperone a field trip a new and innovative biology teacher ("Mr. Libby") arranged for his sophomores to visit the desert. Joshua Tree Monument Park, to be exact (where that U2 album cover was photographed). These kids were so accustomed to the unrelenting din of the inner city -- the music, the street noise, (yes) the gunfire -- that they were visibly and audibly unhinged by the silence of the desert. They "acted out" by making as loud a ruckus a hundred or so fifteen-year-old Mexican-American boys can possibly make. It was too quiet for them -- they had to compensate, somehow make that tranquil ecosystem their own.

Being the nature groupie I am, undaunted, if not buoyed, by the delectable silence, I led the boys off on all sorts of excursions, and, leading them down off of Jumbo Rocks, proceeded to fall into a crevice and break my arm. But that's another post (Miz Doo-har-deen, Miz Doo-har-deen, are you okay?) . . . though, as I think about it, not really. In the middle of the California desert, on a steaming school bus, no hospital for miles and miles, my arm visibly (nauseatingly) very broken, we finally reached a care center: but the medics wouldn't give me any painkillers because I was still technically supervising children. Ouch.

The beauty of that story is this: that on the long trip back to East LA, I had fifteen-year-old Mexican-American boys offering me their gang bandanas to soak in water and lay on my arm. Despite my pain-induced delirium, I will never forget the sight of red and blue and white bandanas -- the colors of opposing gangs -- wrapped together around my zig-zag forearm. A beautiful sight -- really, the kind one would hope to see in places such as Beirut.

Asleep right now in Arcadian Ontario, my children won't see the likes of the inner city for some time (until they follow their mum to work there of their own volition). For them it's another peaceful starry starry night. I wish the same peace for everyone's children, from East LA to Baghdad to Beirut.

And yes, I am consciously citing Don MacLean's "Starry Starry Night" (which has been threading through my head since I first began this), MacLean's tribute to Vincent Van Gogh. . .

"And when no hope was left in sight on that starry, starry night, you took your life, as lovers often do . . . but I could've told you, Vincent, this world was never meant for one as beautiful as you . . ."

Bon nuit.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Breakfast in Ontario

When I first moved to the midwest US in the mid-1990's, I was immediately struck by how often I heard John (ne Cougar) Mellencamp on the radio and at parties (back when I was so green that parties were still keggers). Sure, we'd all heard "Small Town" and "Jack and Diane" aplenty in the early 80s, maybe even tapped along, and (surely) couldn't miss the videos. But to this day in the American midwest, as when I first traced Ferris Bueller's path down Lake Shore Drive, the pride of Bloomington, IN, still gets a conspicuous amount of radio play.

Likewise, if you ever travel to the northeast (the tri-state area of NY, NJ, and CT, where I'm originally from), you can't scan the dial for long without hearing the distinct tenor of Billy Joel. I was away for ten years or so and hadn't heard one tortured line from "We Didn't Start the Fire," one gratingly peppy clip of "Uptown Girl," when, bam, I keyed up whatever rental car I had hired at the time to have "Movin' Out," then "Piano Man," then "Big Shot," then "Tell Her About it," immediately and incessantly assault my ears.

Of course, John and Billy made their careers as local boys, so it's apt that their tunes serve as regional soundtracks.

Here, however, in Ontario, Canada, who might you expect to dominate the buttery-clean airwaves? Shania Twain? Alannis Morrisette? Rush (yep, they're from Canada)? Nope.

Supertramp. Can't get away from 'em. (And they're from the U.K. -- part of the Commonwealth, with Canada, I know, but still hardly local.) "The Logical Song.""Long Way Home.""Give a Little Bit.""Dreamer." I've heard them all, several times over, since we've been here (and many for the first time since the late 1970's).

In fact, the first night we tuned in to Canadian TV, none else but Canadian Idol was on (ha!). The celebrity guest? Rodger Hodgson, lead singer of Supertramp. And Dennis DeYoung of Styx, too, but I haven't yet been aurally afflicted by "Lady." (I suppose "Renegade" wouldn't be all that bad, for the laff with the kids, you know, just to embarrass them. Mommy, stop singing, pleeaase . . . Sorry, kids, Mommy's feeling 13 again)

Of course, Supertramp's Canadian club has been only one surprise, and easily the most benign, since we've arrived. . . the others shall make up the next post (I'm just easing us all back into this; thanks to those who have kept checking in).

There but for the grace, go we, as we are here, and the area is indeed so lovely. Tomorrow we vacate the extended-stay Days Inn on Division to move in to our (St. Lawrence) riverside house, though saying we move in is something of an overstatement. It'll be more like squatting, for a while. That is, for reasons that fail comprehension, our worldly goods, which (as reported here) I had packed and witnessed being loaded on to an Allied truck on August 2, remain in Illinois (musically accompanied by the Cougar, one would think). But again, that's another post of a wholly different tenor.

Besides (rock snobs bedamned), I kinda like Supertramp.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

O Canada

By the time most of you read this, I will be in Kingston, Ontario. As I'm not sure when I will have internet access, you can expect a lull in the next few days. I look forward to reporting all my discoveries (and errors) in Canadian English. All best, friends. Peace.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

My spelling bee comfort counselor is not allowed to leave my side

Responding to my 8/2 post, a kind reader anonymously informs me:

A Canadian dollar is spelled "loonie." A "looney," generally, is someone locked up for his or her own protection.

Take me away, and lock me up, for it would appear that I have orthographically gone off the rails.

I will allow the misspelling to remain below, as evidence of my abundant need to be committed. Good thing I found this out before I moved to Canada on Saturday (though I've got precious few loonies at this point to spend).

P.S. to my kind anonymous reader: I note that you're visiting here from Queen's, where I will be taking up my appointment in the English department. Don't be a stranger! There's an e-mail link in my profile.

Weighing my words

There is an article in the Times this morning about married men who come to full awareness of their homosexuality, and wish to pursue relationships with men, but are reluctant to leave the comforts and stability of married life (through divorce). The piece reports on one such husband who openly pursued other relationships with men, but had promised his wife that he would not have sex with them (a promise he was evidently unable to keep):

But she wasn’t fooled and forced him to move into an in-law apartment in the family home, a way station to a more formal separation.

Reading this, I was immediately struck by the term "way station." I thought the term was spelled "weigh station," foggily assuming that the locution was related to off-road service stations for trucks, i.e., where trucks get weighed; and, that the term captured not only the sense of "off-road," but also the idea that "weigh stations" were places where one weighed things, weighed one's options, before resuming one's journey (as it were).

Ding! (I'm making my comfort counselor work overtime these days, aren't I?)

No, the term is indeed "way station," and derived not from trucking but from trains (my train-mad son would be appalled). Also known as a "way-side station," a way station is an "intermediate station on a railway route" (OED). I think I like mine better, but that's not the way these things work.

Meanwhile, Mickey Kaus (at Slate) and Andrew Sullivan (at Time, and his blog, The Daily Dish) are currently embroiled in an online spat about decorum in writing (or speaking) about homosexuality. In this vein, it might be noted that there is no word from the article about marriages in which the wife pursues other relationships with women. (No way! Way.)

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

You know, knick-knacks, trinkets, curios . . .

. . . Tchotchkes! If I only had a (Canadian) dollar (a looney) for how many times I heard someone say this week that they didn't know how to spell it. The "correct" spelling is perhaps remote, related as it is to Yiddish. Still, I've been surprised that a phonetic spelling (say, chotchkies?) was so untenable as to give my helpers pause when marking our boxes.

Regardless, the Allied truck pulled out today, with far too many boxes marked "tchotchkes," and boy are my dogs barkin'. I've got Barney Rubble feet right now, they're so tired and swollen.

To make matters worse, my associates and I were so thorough these past few days that in preparing to sit down now, finally, I couldn't find a corkscrew. Curses. When was the last time you shoved a cork into a wine bottle with a screwdriver? (I started with a phillips, to create the necessary aperture, and then used a flat-head to jam the cork into the unsuspecting Pinot Gris. Splash! Relief.) Next thing you know I'll be setting up beer bongs and doing upside-down margaritas. That's right, kids, professors gone wild!

The OED informs me that another Anglicized Yiddish spelling variant of tchotchke is tsatske, and that there is also a diminitive form of the word (yeah, all those little buggers impossible to dust and which require far too much newspaper wrapping), which is spelled tsatskelah. I'm surprised that the OED only dates the word back to 1965, to a W. Markfield text titled "To an Early Grave" (?); but in my work in early modern English, I regularly find earlier usages of words than the dictionary has thus far recorded (FYI).

L'chaim, no doubt, and to peace and well-being.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Gross Headline Pun of the Day (8.01.06)

Oh, man. Posted today on Slate:

Mel, Atonin'

The hed to an NPR broadcast, featuring Slate contributors, on Mel Gibson's late apologies.

On a scale of one to ten: zero. First, because there is no rational semantic link between skin pigment and Mel G.'s regret for his malignant bacchanalia. Second, because you've got to a. work through a comma and b. grasp the upshot of the apostrophe in order to c. get (I refuse to say appreciate) the pun.

Pretty gross. And far too much work for little (to no) payoff.

I suppose I should post my evolving rationale for my point system, but am I pressed for time at the moment. A look at the last entry should clue you in until then.

My budding linguist

Out of the mouths of babes. Yesterday my six-year-old daughter inquired: "Mommy, why did the person who made up words make up bad words we can't say?"

Why indeed, as once again I found myself speechless.