Sin raíces: a rambling post that doesn’t quite know what it’s about

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Keillor on location

Words, words, words

My favorite word in Spanish is enraizado (followed closely by ojalá). I like words; I guess it comes with liking to read and write. Somewhere (I lost it) there is a long (and ever-growing) list of my favorite English words. In Russian, my favorite word is actually a phrase: Я с удовольствием (ya s udovol’stviyem), which means something like, “my pleasure.” In Mandarin I’m still searching for a favorite, but in the meantime I like the way 週末 (zhōumò — weekend) sounds.

Enraizado means rooted. I learned it by reading a commentary on Pablo Neruda’s poetry in Spanish. (I found the commentary in Capitol Books in D.C., in the bathroom, which is their foreign language section).  Looking it up, it appears that arraigado is the more common way to say rooted, and so I already like enraizado for being a less common word. I like also that raíz, the Spanish word for root, shares the same root (see what I did there?) as the English word radicle, which reminds me of organismal biology, one of my favorite classes in college. And, less esoterically, mainly I just like the way it sounds, the way it feels to say it (if only I could describe how it feels to say a word so evocatively as Nabokov does).

But its meaning doesn’t gain much traction in my life. And that’s something I often think about.

Impersonal geographies

Feb. ’14 (the brain article is worthy of a lengthy discussion of its own)

Garrison Keillor wrote an article for last month’s issue of National Geographic that he dubbed, “a personal geography.” If I didn’t have so much I wanted to say regarding the article, I would post it without comment as “Better writing than mine.” It’s very easily one of my favorite pieces of short non-fiction.

More memoir than reportage, the piece tells about a place — Mineappolis-St. Paul — by telling about one person’s experience of that place. Keillor was born in the Twin Cities. He’s lived, loved, and lost there. And, now that he’s growing old there, he honored the place with a wonderful essay. His, and the city’s, is a story with roots.

Geography, according to Apple’s pre-installed dictionary, is:

the study of the physical features of the earth and its atmosphere, and of human activity as it affects and is affected by these, including the distribution of populations and resources, land use, and industries.

As an delineation of the province of National Geographic, that definition goes a long way.

National Geographic writers and photographers are reporters essentially. Adventurers, if you want to speak romantically. They go places and give overviews of the goings-on there. Their articles are full of snippets of interviews, summaries of research, brief histories of locations and peoples. They are tourists: in places, in controversies, in conflicts, in lives; so that we can learn something of the “physical features of the earth and its atmosphere, and of. . .” etc.

Science and philosophy

Dorion Sagan (yeah, his son) writes:

The difference between science and philosophy is that the scientist learns more and more about less and less until she knows everything about nothing, whereas a philosopher learns less and less about more and more until he knows nothing about everything.

National Geographic’s typical approach is, by this tongue-in-cheek definition, a scientific one.

You can’t learn all there is to know about a place or a subject from a National Geographic article. That’s not the way it works. You can get the basics. You can learn enough to investigate on your own. But you won’t be an expert. And with such wide-ranging, ambitious subject matter, it’s no wonder that the coverage only just breaks the surface. Even then it only breaks a small area of the surface.*

Keillor’s article hits home closer to the philosophy end of Sagan’s satirical spectrum; we learn a whole lot about not a whole lot. If I hadn’t read the article, I wouldn’t believe that Minneapolis-St. Paul could be an interesting place, a place worthy of National Geographic’s pages. From my perspective, from the outside, I would have thought that it is everything that’s worst in America, especially the Midwest. But I was proven wrong by a writer who has both the ability and the wherewithal to communicate the quintessence and import of an otherwise unexceptional place.

What any of this has to do with me (as you are, of course, dying to know)

I’ve moved a few times in my life, not a lot, but a few, and the trend seems to be that the rate of my peregrinations is increasing — that I can expect to call any new place “home” for less time than I did the last. And every time I leave somewhere that has become home, I am always confronted with the question: why?

When a place is your home, as you spend time there, you integrate yourself into the networks of its reality, its commerce, its society, not unlike Conan Doyle’s image of a man as a spider in the center of a web of which he feels every vibration. You forge an identity relative to the place and its people, as you have come into contact with them. These connections grow stronger with time, and deeper. You put down roots. You gain nourishment from them.

Uprootings are traumatic. Things are lost, irrevocably. Small pieces that may not be vital, but even so formed a part of the whole. A hole is left behind, but it fills. You won’t fit back into it again, not exactly. The deeper the roots, the stronger the organism, but also the more delicate the transplant.

When I leave one home for a new one, I am forced to ask if perhaps I wouldn’t be happier growing deeper into one place, if maybe I couldn’t gain more fulfillment that way. And I am torn. My life goes one way, but sometimes my heart another.

Thoreau, in defending his decidedly sessile stint at Walden pond, calls into question the idea that seeing the world is a good thing in itself. “It is not worth the while,” he says, with characteristic wile, “to go round the world to count the cats in Zanzibar.” If you’re incapable of self-improvement at home, I take him to be saying, then you’re going to be incapable of self-improvement abroad.

I’m addicted to reinventing myself, I think — to learning to live in a new place, as a slightly new person. I cherish the freedoms these errantries provide me. But I also sometimes lament the costs I pay, especially in relationships with friends and family.

Is a life made fuller by growing deeper, or more broad? Is the scientist or the philosopher the better person? Would I rather have the life of a typical NatGeo writer, or that of a Keillor or a Thoreau? Is it pretentious for me to title this post in Spanish? Whenever questions like these keep me up at night, count on me to write about them until I end up more unsure than when I started.

Words, though amusing to curate and hear and speak and write, can sometimes seem insignificant — full, as it were, of sound and fury; here’s to hoping this tale’s teller isn’t quite a complete idiot.**

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* Richard Feynman once said that there is “an expanding frontier of ignorance.” I can’t for the life of me remember where I read or heard it, but I’m aware of someone explaining the acquisition of knowledge in terms that go something like this: think of the knowledge you have as a circle. The circumference of the circle is where your knowledge meets all the knowledge that exists, everything you don’t know; the circumference is the “frontier of ignorance.” As you learn more, the radius of your knowledge circle grows, but as the radius increases, so too, proportionally, does the circumference. The circle is bigger, but it also comes into contact with more of the unknown — the more you know, the more you know you don’t know (read it again; it makes sense). Your awareness of your own ignorance grows as your knowledge grows. Sagan’s scientist then, would have a lopsided “circle” that spikes out extremely far in one direction, but wanes in other areas; the philosopher would have an even circle, but one that doesn’t reach as far in any particular direction. This doesn’t have a whole lot to do with anything, but I’ve always found that illustration wonderfully instructive. I wish I could remember where I first came across it.

** Yes, I’m well aware that if foreign language titles are pretentious, then unattributed Shakespeare references are the absolute height of arrogance.

This is America?

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Let’s get a few things straight here 

North America is a continent. South America is a continent. (Central America is like some sort of weird connective tissue of a landmass, I guess.) The Americas are not, nor ever have they been, a continent en masse. The English and Spanish languages follow roughly the same division as the continents, with some exceptions: Spanish creeping it’s way north of the Isthmus of Panama, and Portuguese making it’s dichotomy-ruining foray to the south.

In Latin American Spanish (I don’t know about Spanish Spanish), someone from, say, the United States is a norteamericano. Rightly so. Spanish is spoken widely in South America, and North America’s asymmetric political presence in the hemisphere necessitates the distinction. Saying you’re American isn’t specific enough.

But in American English (I can’t speak for, or speak, British English), American is synonymous with United States-an (I made that up; did you notice?). It’s a legitimate abbreviation of the country’s official name.

So

I get that when I’m in, for instance, Nicaragua, I have to adjust my customary manner of speaking to say not that I am American, but that I am from the United States. And if I am speaking Spanish, I’ll say that I’m North American. That’s all fine and dandy.

But I’ve had pseudo-sophisticated norteamericanos call me out before when, speaking English with other United States-ans (see? there’s no way to make the distinction without awkwardness in English), I said that I would be leaving America, even though I wouldn’t be leaving the Western Hemisphere.

And that’s just annoying (he knew what I meant).

The correction is equivocating on a cognate. The distinction is linguistic and cultural, not universal. I’m from America. I left America to come to Nicaragua. If I were writing this in Spanish (let’s get real; my Spanish isn’t that good yet) I would say it differently. If you are from South or Central America and I make the mistake in conversation with you, then please correct me. If neither one of those is the case, kindly keep your appropriated indignance to yourself.

Concerning gringos and other Nica hearsay

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I was informed yesterday that I should get used to being referred to as a gringo. This declaration was promptly followed by the story of where the word gringo comes from.

Allegedly, during the war (which war wasn’t specified — being as I am in Nicaragua, I took any mention of “the war” to refer to the Banana Wars, or possibly to the Nicaraguan Revolution), some unspecified group of Latin Americans encountered some unspecified branch of the U.S. military and didn’t much care for them. The U.S. troops wore mostly green, and the Spanish speaking invadees picked up the word ‘green’ and the word ‘go’ from English, and they combined them to express how they felt about the soldiers. Who knows if that’s true.

My day in Managua has been chock-full of other such stories that are usually entertaining and sometimes compelling despite their questionable provenance.

The trees are also on Ortega's ubiquitous billboards

The trees are also on Ortega’s ubiquitous billboards

Like, for instance, the one about (perpetual) President Daniel Ortega’s wife being into some sort of African witchcraft, and him erecting these giant yellow metal trees around the city for her, which trees are apparently occult symbols.

Don’t worry, I was confused, too.

Toying with languages

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Recently I’ve been spending a good portion of my time trying to learn both Spanish and Mandarin. And as I’ve been studying, I’ve noticed that a fledgling theory about the process of learning a new language keeps rearing its head, so I’m going to try to write about it here to get a better idea of what it looks like.

But first, some backstory.

I’ve always been a bit of a language-learning poseur. My friends can tell you about the time I was learning French. Or the other time when it was Russian. Or Spanish. On my bookshelves there is a stack of seldom-opened grammars, dictionaries, notebooks, and phrasebooks in Russian (aunt speaks it), Arabic (I was dead set on backpacking Morocco), French (no particular reason that I can recall, but if you ask Garrett he’ll say it was for the romance), Spanish (high school), and now Mandarin (girlfriend speaks it).

Up until a few months ago, though, I couldn’t have gotten much beyond “Hi, how are you?” in conversation in any of those languages. (This in spite of 4 years of Spanish in high school that somehow granted me 2 college credits and graciously exempted me from Auburn’s foreign language requirements.) I’ve had the ambition, and I’ve made the attempts, but I’ve always stalled out somewhere just south of “elementary proficiency

I’ve had romantic ideas about foreign languages and the people who speak them for a while now, and I’ve long aspired to know multiple languages. Like, a lot of languages (10 seems like a good round number to me). But I’ve never gotten very far into the process. I like the idea of multilingualism, don’t get me wrong — the connotations of cosmopolitanism that it carries, and the promise of exotic adventures I perceive it to hold — but the problem is that ideas tend to lend themselves to idealism. Knowing a language requires learning it first, and learning is a messy, time-intensive business better suited to realists than idealists. It’s exhausting, discouraging, and sometimes boring.

So, back to the present.

Recently, I’ve been making some real progress towards learning a second and a third language. And this is where my theory comes in. Because I’ve noticed that my attitude toward a foreign language starts out in one place and begins to shift slowly away from that place as I learn more. And I think it’s the inertia of this incipient attitude that’s been the downfall of my language-learning attempts in the past.

In the beginning, I tend to think of and to treat a new language as a kind of toy-language. I see it as a collection of funny sounds and constructions that, if I put them together just right, can elicit laughter and sometimes understanding from people who already speak the language. I learn the vocabulary and grammar necessary to talk about some of the things I’m doing throughout the day (maybe some profanity), but that’s it. I don’t take it seriously because any conversations I have in the language are superficial or banal or both. Its utility doesn’t go beyond that of a parlor trick. I know it’s not true, but I feel as though the language isn’t real, as if it couldn’t possibly be used to express complex ideas, thoughts, or feelings. It’s just a childish code that’s fun to play with for maybe a few days or weeks, but that will eventually lose its novelty and fade away.

Obviously this isn’t intellectual. I know that literature is written and scientific research conducted in the new language, that people spend their whole lives speaking it with those they love and those they hate — that it’s just as complex and nuanced as my own “real” language. But knowing that doesn’t help me shake the feeling that all of the time I’m spending learning pronunciation and vocabulary and grammar is nothing more than useless amusement.

And I don’t think this attitude is just a reflection of my own proficiency in the language. No matter how much I learned in the past (I got the farthest in Spanish and Russian), the languages stayed abstract to me. Learning was a largely academic exercise without any emotion in it, without any reality.

I’ve found that hearing the language used for real, by real people for real things, really seems to accelerate the process. I know this is old news — that immersion in your target language accelerates your acquisition — but the way I see it, the reasoning is different from what I’ve always been told. It doesn’t work because of sheer brute force. Because you spend more time with the language or cram more of the language into less time, or whatever it may be. It works because it erodes the early attitude that says this new language is a largely trivial, abstract thing. It gives the learning process social stakes rather than just educational or personal ones. It makes the language real.

Watching a movie, listening to conversations between native speakers, trying to read the news: all of it forces me to look at the language seriously. To realize that I can use it to say more than just, “Where is the bathroom?” I can say important and serious things someday if I spend the time and put in the effort. To me, that’s a more powerful motivator than amusement.

I’ve found that overcoming the initial attitude I have toward a new language is something I have to work through. Maybe now that I understand it better, I’ll be able to make the going a little easier in the future. Maybe that’s why people say learning your second language is the hardest and it gets easier after that. Not because you know more about languages than you did to begin with, but because you understand the learning process more fully and can anticipate obstacles and respond to them before they slow you down too much or stop you.

Or maybe it’s just me.

In any case, in the spirit of putting things in perspective, here’s an discomfiting video that makes English sound pretty silly: