Thursday, July 19, 2018

Buy now! Grab 'Em By the Pussy Riot Collusion Insurance! Now with Ivanka Scent!

Hahaha! It's me, Planet 3799 Novgorod, here to help you America with some great product! As a hacker for the Russian government, my only purpose in life is to help make sure your elections produce the best result for the number one country in the world! And can you guess which one that is? Here is a hint for you: Donald Trump is not the president of it.

However, now with this new but great product, you can rest assured that even if we hack the election, there will be insurance to cover you against collusion. And the best part about this insurance? Lean in. I must whisper. Closer. Closer. ... IT'S COMPLETELY WORTHLESS! Hahaha. You just let me shout in your ear.

Except for Ivanka Scent. It is very great product. After all, doesn't everyone want to smell nice when they are getting screwed?

America, you are such a source of great pride for me today. I cannot tell you how it feels to be the team responsible for the election of the worst president ever in America. When we started, we sat down and mapped out all the characteristics of a bad president -- uninformed, inexperienced, incurious, lazy, dishonest, unethical, immoral, cowardly, etc. -- and then thought, "We will try to elect someone with maybe 20% of these characteristics." Then Trump turned up, and we couldn't believe it. "He's the perfect terrible president! He has so many of these characteristics! And he's off the charts as a liar, a coward, and as someone who doesn't give a shit about learning anything! This can't be possible!"

But it was. And did we score. Big time! I am thinking about the World Cup 2018 obviously, which was a glorious thing for us in so many ways. Too bad for our team, but they still represented us well. But America did you see the moment in the Final when France was waltzing to victory 4-1 over Croatia and the French goalie -- overconfident? clumsy? just plain stupid? -- put the ball on the pitch for what should have been a soaring goal kick downfield but instead he tried to dribble the ball around a lone but stellar Croatia player who reached a leg out, intercepted the ball, and scored? Did you see that?

What a moment! That moment right there was the Helsinki Summit. Trump is the French goalie going it alone, dribbling on the pitch against our glorious Vladimir. Trump is completely outclassed by himself on the ground against Putin, but Trump is so deeply dishonest -- even with himself -- that he has no clue.

I don't pretend to know the details of what we have on the poor fellow -- except to say it is money, the only thing that registers in his capital-reptilian brain. It doesn't matter. He is covering himself with shame, and me, personally, I have confessed to feeling sorry for my American adversaries (but only fleetingly, Russian comrades, and never in such a way as to deter me from the pursuit of our goal!) Still, though, one has a romantic notion of the classic joust between two equal champions, like the Crusader notion of Richard with the lion heart against the Muslim warrior Saladin. What can I say except the unpronounceable lingo SMH: America has fallen so short. I can laugh at it, but at the same time I am embarrassed for them.

And to watch Trump trying to "walk it back," and then contradict his walking back, and then "walk it back" again. Who does he think he is, Michael Jackson? I will invent a new dance for him. It will be Russian and it will be a huge hit and it will look like people running around on a soccer pitch with Russian security in hot pursuit and it will be called "Grab 'Em by the Pussy Riot Collusion Insurance! Now with Ivanka Scent"! Hahaha! America, my gift to you! Great product! Buy now! And don't forget to dance!

But what is truly baffling is the people all around Trump who know he is lying and ignorant and a coward! How is it possible that they can't see us behind him, through him, under him, over him, using him to score goal after goal after goal? Can they really not know what's going on? Do they not care? There is a single, simple, easy, obvious thing that could be done to block us: get everyone behind an effort to secure the American system of elections. Everybody would be for that. Unify America, like, you know, it says: the United States of America.

But no. The Republicans are happy to have our help, as long as it beats Democrats. Democrats are the enemy. NATO is in good shape compared to America. America isn't even a banana republic now. It is a banana split. A giant banana split. The biggest in history. All peeled and sliced banana served up with ice cream and whipped cream and offered up for sale! America the banana split! America for sale! No republic anymore, just one big huge economy that anybody anywhere can buy into or hack into or sway or swing to your heart's content! "Give me you tired, your poor ..." Hahaha Miss Tired Statue of Flibbertygibbet! What's tired and poor is your American ideals! Forget them. Eat the banana split! Buy now! What great product! The best!

Who needs a republic anyway? After all, what's a republic? Can't expect an American to know, especially not your president! And he doesn't! He has no clue what a republic is. Don't believe me, Planet 3799 Novgorod who knows more than you about America and who flipped your election? Then be on the safe side! Buy my Grab 'Em By the Pussy Riot Collusion Insurance, now with Ivanka Scent! Guaranteed worthless! Just like the Constitution your cheating President swore to defend!

Hahaha! It would hurt if it weren't so funny!

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Hedonist's treadmill, philosopher's comb (in praise of Folly (Beach))

The waves lap upon the shore as they have done since time immemorial and as they will do for time unforeseen. They were they are they will be: there, beyond the reckoning of any wreckage.

Sometimes they are perfect in form: a long, rolling ridge that rises and then breaks forward into a scroll that comes crashing down into a wash of foam. One after another they come, as incessant as they are patient as they are determined to meet a destiny the same as doom.

From my home in the Appalachian foothills of Tennessee to Folly Beach, SC, is as easy and unbroken a trip by interstate highway as anyone could want. It is also almost the shortest distance between two points: me @home and the Atlantic Ocean. A happy coincidence. As is the overlap between the name of the beach and the name of this blog.

I have been there before, a while ago: before a hurricane washed away all manner of manmade protuberances and appurtenances. Those are back, in greater profusion and lushness than before, tempting another reckoning with the wind, but bravely and brazenly and lushly squeezing every margarita moment until then.

The dry sand is soft and floury. But beyond the tidebreak litter of sharp, broken shells, where it has been wetted and pressed and molded by the onrushing water, it is terra firma suavis; together with the water it is the rhythmic flowing encyclopedicure that needs no looking up and that no algorithm can replace.

Feel is the oldest of the senses, and the deepest, and here is its home, après womb, the closest thing to the garden from which we have all been cast out and to which we seek to return. The other senses are not absent: from afar sight imposes the occasional as the ideal, with a classic sameness, a geometry of gravity upon a graph; sound highlights the distant crashing to which we are only an audience; taste does not seek the overweening saltiness; and smell is rewarded mostly by the absence of effluvia or the spritzy industrial bouquets of sunscreen.

But it is feel that wraps the experience into a single, singular inheritance that begins with a look back over the shoulder at the rising, approaching ridgecomb into which you are pulled by the outward rush of undertow and into the path of which you dive, thrusting the arms back and leaving them by the sides and surrendering to the force of the downward curl that throws you face-forward through the roaring, salty surf and propels you along until you stand in the shallows, always with one desire: to go back and do it again.

Body-surfing is the only way to experience this. Admittedly, compared to the grace and athleticism of surfboarding, it is ridiculous -- indeed risible -- to watch: a head disappears into the foam and moves forward fifteen yards or so. But the point is not to entertain or to be watched or to master a wave with a board. The point is to become part of the wave itself, part of the energy that rises and crashes and propels. You become part of the medium not by embracing it, but by throwing yourself forward into the force that sucks you in and throws you forward, propelling you in a liquid jet through face-striating bubbles and enveloping you in a soothing salt wash.

It does require a modicum of skill: catching the right wave at the right place and at the right moment in its breaking; maintaining a shaft-like form without legs so high or head so low so that you are roughly tumbled, which it seems even the smallest wave can do. But the child can ride as well as the geezer, and vice-versa.

Conditions can be better or worse. Mostly it's a matter of waves being too chopped up by wind or too becalmed or too rude can be better or worse, but current can be a factor as can the quality of the water. I was rewarded (for what, I don't know) this time at Folly Beach with warm (not hot) water and modest but majestic waves, chariots of water rolling in like clockwork.

The hedonist's treadmill. Not a hedonic one. The hedonic one is the one you have to tread to maintain the homeostasis that keeps you at a mere baseline of happiness. Nobody ever mounted a treadmill in pursuit of pleasure. On the other hand, the hedonist's treadmill -- the wave -- is happiness itself. It is flow inside of flow, the cyclical surf in which pleasure reiterates again and again, without any more effort than a little timing and throwing yourself into it. It is the possession of pleasure by the medium of pleasure. The hedonist's treadmill is the philosopher's comb.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Future perfect USASU perfect future

By then it will have been almost time for Independence Day. Whimper. No more bang.

Not long before the rising tides swamped Manhattan, there will have been a nation called the United States of America that no longer knew itself. Americans will have stopped catechising themselves with the Declaration of Independence, which will have been tamped once too often into a fireworks tube for wadding and sent aloft to shower its last smoldering remains onto the grounds of what used to be a state park but which will have become a tent city operated by a for-profit prison company called "Freedom Isn't Free" on behalf of bankrupted people with pre-existing conditions, where the sulphurous smell of the smoking Declaration will have delighted the nostrils of a 2-year-old chasing lightning bugs and listening to her pre-existing brain-tumored, insolvent grandfather rave about the Martian colony's revolt against the USA Space Usurpation: hadn't he seen it coming, he will have raved, because who didn't fucking know that going into a fiscal hole for imperial military adventurism is the root cause of all revolutions? But, he will have already known that, believed that, said that, long before his death throes, which will not have been long off at that point when he was sobbing: what could you expect from people who didn't even know that it used to be, once upon a time, right there in the D. of I. that government had a purpose! A higher calling, as it were! As it might have been! And what was it? What might it have been? "Can nobody tell me?" the grandfather will have sobbed at the sky as the smoldering bits will have showered down. "Chapter and verse! Tell me, slaves of the American Empire! What is the trinity of government?" And what answer will he have heard as his grand-daughter will have gone skittering around after the smoking paper hoping for lightning bugs? Rapid-fire silence behind the smoke. Nothing of securing rights, nothing of safety, nothing of happiness.

No more bang. Whimper. By then it will have been almost time for Independence Day.

Monday, June 4, 2018

Let Us Now Praise: Planxty Richard Martin

If you used a public library computer in northeast Tennessee for Internet access anytime between circa 1998 and 2008, you owe a debt of gratitude to Rick Martin, who made it all work by pulling cables and configuring routers and training librarians. Rick died suddenly of a heart attack a couple of days ago -- one day before his birthday.

I had gone for a walk earlier in the day, extra early so as to enjoy the cool damp before the sun had a chance to burn it away. But I'd been filled with a presentiment of the end of something. It didn't leave me all day long. My mind kept running through the thought, "What if today were the last day of your life?" We all have that thought, occasionally, but yesterday morning it was an unshakeable refrain that my wandering thoughts kept coming back to. Then later I found out via Facebook that Rick had died.

I'm not at all clairvoyant. The world seems to be full of loss these days, and I am on the downhill trajectory looking back, grasping at such straws as a cool, damp morning will give, so my morbidity is not any great surprise. But Rick's death adding a shocking coda to the gloomy refrain shook me. Coincidence is an article of faith with me. The chance overlapping and intersection of planes of human existence is what gives us the hallucinatory sensation of common destiny that undergirds "Love thy neighbor as thyself."

If you don't understand that sentiment, no matter. Rick -- the enthusiastically anti-religious Rick who read the Bible three times as a youth before seeking the essence of religion by immersing himself in music and reading -- would've given it an enthusiastic thumbs-up.

Rick and I soldiered (peacefully) for Tennessee at the Watauga Regional Library of blessed memory. He and the other stellar line staff did the real work out in the hustings. In those days there had to be somebody to bring the Internet, just the way there had to be somebody to bring the bookmobile. The Internet access and network connection provided by the Region was actually given unique statutory existence as a virtual entity: the Northeast Tennessee Public Library. Rick would have been its face, bringing the manna from the heaven of cyberspace to the hills of northeast Tennessee.

But I didn't get to know the inner Rick all that much back then. It was Facebook where Rick flourished and where we became actual friends. There Rick (as I always knew him) was Richard, an intellectual/culture magazine editor manqué who allowed his indefatigable reading and listening to spill out on his Facebook wall to the delight of such friends as I, who had the feeling -- listening to or reading yet another of Richard's dispatches from his passions -- "Hey, as much as I follow Rick's posts, I really should be paying him a subscription fee."

When I say that his knowledge of rock music was encyclopedic, I mean that a Richard Martin Encyclopedia of Rock Music would have been one of those sources that a reference librarian could not have done without. How else to answer those recurring questions about the role of the oud in Bay Area psychedelic music in 1967? (Ironic? Who, me?) Just when you thought you'd come up with a question to stump him, Rick would come back at you with somebody's mother of invention from his bottomless grab-bag of ephemera where every obscurity was someone's necessity, and Rick was the curator.

Speaking of inventions, Rick was an appreciator of my solid-body electric lap dulcimer. And I don't think it was just for its musical qualities. A native of Rural Retreat, VA, with deep roots, Rick was the kind of Appalachian traditionalist who understood that pioneering is in the blood of Appalachia, and pioneering is something that can't be allowed to be shut off by tradition. To stand still is to die. The trick is to pioneer within a tradition, and pioneering meant blazing trails into the universe and bringing your findings back home like some Meriwether Lewis of the mind.

Rick was solidly both the insider and the outsider. He was a curmudgeon, and he admired other such curmudgeons as Frank Zappa and Lou Reed. But that's because they represented the same kind of independent solidity that he possessed. Nobody was going to tell Rick who he was or what he was, or get anywhere with any put-downs. Rick stood on a solid foundation against all the forces that grind people down and belittle them. It didn't matter who you were: if you struggled against the powers that be, or if you were weird and unacceptable because that's how society had labeled you, Rick was on your side, cheering you to hold on and hold out because that's how the people win against the oppressors. "The people are the inside of everything," he might say. "Stand strong. Don't let anybody take from you who you are."

I like to think that Rick is somewhere, reading this, and both giving his quiet chuckle and preparing to tell me how totally I missed the boat about him. Ah well, no matter. His conveyances -- his thoughts, opinions, and the things he sent me to read or listen to -- always weighed with me, because you just knew that that was his life: he put his all into the absorption of what he read and heard, and sometimes share some element of what it was that he liked or didn't like about these things. And it was this that had value, as if it were some kind of nourishment, some calorie of conviction, that would give substance to some things I felt the same way about, but did not "know" about in the same solid way Rick did.

He told me, for example, how he loved drone music -- and I as a bagpiper and dulcimer player had my own affinity -- but there was something about his interest that piqued exploration on my part. And when I came up with a musical artifact that I thought he would enjoy not just for its flatted seventh drone but for the use of an Appalachian lap dulcimer played oud-style, it was only possible to think about it as being a testament to him, something along the lines of what the blind Irish harper O'Carolan did when he dedicated tunes to a patron and called them "planxty." So that was my working filename for the tune, which in its final form became Melungeon Dervish. It happened again when he challenged me to "top" a German fellow playing three recorders at the same time. That time I followed through with a proper dedicatory name and used the tune for an Eastertide video composition.

Wherever it is that Rick is chuckling, he's probably also refusing my wish that he rest in peace with a wag of the finger: "On a trip like this one? Haven't you heard of the music of the spheres?"

Thus it might not be on Facebook (where the wall he built is nonetheless an enduring legacy), but if my experience the other morning is any indication, I haven't heard the last of Rick Martin. However, I sure will miss his generous, intelligent spirit filling the here-below with good stuff to read and listen to.

Sunday, May 27, 2018

How to know when you're drinking too much coffee

The first way to tell is that, after lunch, you will be overcome by sleepiness immediately following your dessert coffee. If you can take a nap right after drinking coffee, you might be drinking too much.

However, the best way is the second way, which is somehow to go ahead and cut back to the point that you don't drink coffee at all after 3 p.m., and the first night of the first day of that regimen you have a dream, which you realize you have not had in some time, but this is not only a dream, it is a prophecy on the order of the Biblical ones in which you go looking for the room where God teaches singing lessons.

It is inside a large brick building that could be a church or a university hall, and you are told -- by a trustworthy entity whose face is a kaleidoscope that keeps changing to the face of one or another of an old neighbor or friend -- that it is in one of the rooms off the band room, which is at the top of the steps, just like at Northside Jr. High, so you go up a stairway to the top, but the band room isn't up there (anymore?) so you go down a corridor and find a door that opens onto another stairway that looks like it is underneath the basement where you cowered once upon a time when you were dropped off at kindergarten on a holiday by your mother who didn't know the kindergarten was closed that day, except now the stairway looks onto a glassed-in, well-appointed mezzanine lounge well-stocked with butterfly-sling leather chairs, which looks so much like a lifeless MOMA design exhibit that something tells you no one uses these steps, ever, and no one ever has done, so it is just you going up past the glassed-in butterfly chairs, taking steps that have never been taken before in the lifetime of the universe, but there at the top of the steps is a door labeled "BAND," which you open to a room in which a couple of people are distributing red and gold pieces of blank paper that does not look like music, but you have no time to investigate because along the side of the room -- which goes on longways as will, like a country dance -- are alcoves with large, solid, wooden doors that look like they enclose chambers of power and influence, but which repeatedly, when you open them, reveal a small nook in which there is invariably some old man puttering away at an enthusiasm, one of whose is model trains and another of whose is feeling miscellaneous swatches of fabric, but on you go until you stand in front of the door to God and the singing lessons, though not with any great confidence because one of the paper-bearing band people has in the meantime commented with a knowing nod-and-a-wink that God often comes to the door "immodestly attired, if you know what I mean," which is where you wake up.

And that really is the best way to know you've been drinking too much coffee.

Saturday, May 19, 2018

When the skeleton in the closet isn't the elephant in the room: The Pentecost Pogrom of Erwin, TN

The approach to Erwin on eastbound I-26 is as attractive a drive as anyone could wish for. The Unaka chain of the Appalachians forms a dramatic and picturesque backdrop. The county seat of Unicoi County, one of the easternmost Tennessee counties that hugs the mountainous border with North Carolina, Erwin has a wealth of outdoor attractions in the vicinity: hiking the Appalachian Trail (Erwin is a favorite location for R&R for trail through-hikers), rafting the Nolichucky River that flows past it, exploring the trails at the relatively new Rocky Fork State Park. A small place with an interesting history, Erwin was for many years the headquarters of the Clinchfield Railroad that connected the coalfields of Virginia to the textile mills of South Carolina; it was the location of a significant Blue Ridge Pottery plant, with some of its workers housed in still-lived-in cottage-style homes designed by "Garden City" architects.

Erwin also has the misfortune of having hosted -- if that is how to say it -- a racial pogrom. 100 years ago this weekend -- May 19, 1918, on Pentecost Sunday -- an incident of some kind (local history says cards) enflamed a lynch mob that killed a black man, corralled the town's entire black population to watch the burning of his corpse, and threatened a similar fate to any blacks who did not leave the next day. Suffice it to say that the warning was heeded. With that, Erwin became a "sundown town" in which blacks were not permitted to live.

I drove over to Erwin this morning to look for evidence of any memory of the event.

"I heard about it growing up," said the librarian at the Erwin library, as she led me back into the local history room, an overstuffed room that looks like it might have been a ticket office back in the days when this was the train station.

Libraries often have files of newspaper clippings and other ephemera related to significant events in local history. The librarian unlocked a file cabinet for me and invited me to browse at my leisure, although she herself had only a vague awareness of the event and no knowledge of any information about it.

There was nothing about the pogrom in the clippings file. There was however a big, fat folder about the elephant, though: Mary, the renegade elephant who killed her circus handler in Kingsport, but, in order to be "executed," had to be brought to Erwin where there was railroad equipment big enough to hang her. That was in 1916, two years before the African-American purge, about which people know nothing. Mary, on the other hand ... Mary is the only thing many, many people know about Erwin.

The library has a very quiet cat who kept me company in the chair next to me while I didn't find what I was looking for.

I then walked over to the town newspaper office and bought the current newspaper (a weekly), which covered a couple of annual culinary celebrations elsewhere in the county: a ramp festival over in Flag Pond and a strawberry festival in Unicoi. There were stories about high school students racing solar-powered vehicles at Bristol Motor Speedway, a visit from a gubernatorial candidate, a fatal industrial accident at a tire plant, and an opinion columnist who allowed as how a front porch might be the key to an agreement between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-Un.

Nothing about a purge of black residents 100 years ago, though.

The day wasn't a total bust. The library in Johnson City had a book that was relevant: Buried in the Bitter Waters, a book about twelve such "racial cleansing" incidents as Erwin's written by Pulitzer-winning journalist Elliot Jaspin and published in 2007. Some previous reader had flagged the chapter about Erwin by dog-earing its first page. I left it that way. "Something in the Air," says the chapter title. On Pentecost Sunday, what would that be?

I feel sure that the feeling in Erwin is probably something along the lines of "why dredge up the unpleasant past?" But don't we commemorate bad things all the time? We make whole religions out of bad events. Disasters from war receive monumental treatment routinely (Pearl Harbor, 9/11). Even events for which the nation must accept blame -- think of the "Trail of Tears" -- are studied, remembered, and memorialized.

Ironically, Erwin itself has done this with the elephant Mary. Hanging an elephant is bizarre and weird and unpleasant. But Erwin thrives on that part of its history. If you go to the town site, you will see that you can "become an elephant artist." The town is having eight fiberglass elephants brought to downtown, and it is soliciting participants for their decoration. After being exhibited for a time, the painted elephants will be auctioned off, with a portion of the proceeds to go to the Elephant Sanctuary in Hohenwald, TN, where "retired captive elephants" live out their dotage.

Now, imagine an entire nation putting that kind of thought and care into deriving some ethical or moral recompense for 350 years of slavery, racial apartheid, and the programmatic deprivation of the civil rights of African-Americans. That's a John Lennon-sized "imagine," I realize, but hey, Erwin, you could be the dreamer that starts the ball rolling.

Like what happened on Pentecost.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Found in translation: helping a town read its Tocqueville

I recently noticed in the Kingsport newspaper's local history column written by Vince Staten a story about Jean Nicaise, a Belgian who spent a year teaching in Kingsport in the late 50's. He recorded some home movie footage during his visit, and it has wound up on Youtube by way of the Belgian Archives and Museum of Literature.

But Nicaise also wrote a memoir in French, which includes some 60 pages describing his Kingsport experience. Vince allowed as how he was having to plug it in bit by bit into Google Translate for an English version, but he provided a link to the original -- also maintained by the same Belgian organization. I took a look at it and thought I might be able to save Vince some time and provide a translation that would be -- it is to be hoped -- more readable and more accurate than anything Translate would crunch out. I volunteered and Vince took me up on it.

He asked how I came to learn French, and the short answer was that it's in the family, what with my father's more settled side steeped in French-speaking Creole New Orleans. Torn from her French Quarter roots and re-settled in Chattanooga, my grandmother maintained her French connection with a weekly "salon" in her home at which only French was spoken. For her services to French language and culture, she was late in life awarded a "palme d'or" (gold medal) by the French government.

I now regret not going to those salons, but at the time I was a heedless teenager. What's more, an episode of antibiotic treatment as a very young child had left me hearing-impaired and oral-language-challenged, and I had a demoralizing chip on my shoulder about the fact that I was a lip-reader with a consonantal speech defect. I didn't realize at the time that the salon would've been an ideal way to practice lip-reading among French speakers. Instead, what did I do? I plugged away in a high school French class, listening to instructional language tapes that were incomprehensible to me -- because, duh, there was no lip-reading -- and completely walling off the idea that it was possible for me to understand spoken French.

But at the same time I loved foreign languages -- because of their music. My parents -- foot soldiers of the international folkie movement, armed with the records and songbooks of Oscar Brand and Theodore Bikel -- sang folksongs in French, Spanish, Italian, German, Hebrew, Russian, and even some in English. More formally, I sang German (Bach), Latin (Pergolesi), and macaronic Latin/middle English (Britten) in the Chattanooga Boys Choir. Rarely did I know what any of it meant. It didn't make any difference. It was music.

(Because of my hearing, I have never understood sung song lyrics in my entire life -- even in English -- by themselves, without the help of printed lyrics. Imagine what a revelation it was when the Beatles printed their lyrics on the back of the jacket of the Sergeant Pepper album!)

When it came to the actual meaning of foreign languages, my first introduction was Latin in junior high school. Because Latin is a dead language, you don't learn it for the chitchat factor. That was my kind of language: printed in a book. You worked out the meaning like a puzzle, with a grammar guide and a dictionary. I went on to more of this kind of language learning in French in high school, Greek and French again in college, and finally to German, Spanish, and Italian in my first dream job in a library, where in the downtime waiting for "patrons" to approach me for assistance I was allowed by management to spend as much time with language learning as I wanted.

But it is French that I know best. Bear in mind that my "knowledge" is of a highly artificial kind, as it comes by way of its written rather than its spoken form. Nonetheless, there are so many printed learning tools -- and so many of them speech-oriented -- that it's possible to get some semblance of spoken nuance this way. Here are some examples from my experience:

  • I first saw Monty Python and the Holy Grail in Paris with French subtitles. I was grateful to the subtitles for helping me understand what the hell the Python boys were saying in my own native language, e.g. "ta mère était un hamster et ton père puait le sureau!" if you get my drift (plug it into Translate if you don't). I have always preferred subtitled foreign movies to English ones because I could follow the conversation better, thanks to the subtitles.
  • Also in Paris I stumbled upon one of my favorite books of all time, La méthode à Mimile: L'argot sans peine, by Alphonse Boudard and Luc Etienne. This book deserves a blog entry of its own. Argot is slang, of course, but it also carries with it more than a whiff of forbidden fruit, since it often derives from the insider language of the underworld. It's like the hip jive of jazzers, knowwhatimeanbro? In true language-guide style, the book is a series of dialogues in argot, with, on the facing page, the translation into standard, "correct" French. In general it gave me a glimpse into how oral French changes (simplifies, corrupts, enriches) the written language. It was my bible for a few weeks. I took it with me when I visited a friend of my grandmother's out in the Paris suburbs, a very proper if somewhat rigid gentleman who took one look at the book and was absolutely horrified that I would be defiling her memory by learning such trash. I was taken aback at this. But today, after years of reflection, I realize it was like going to a D.A.R. meeting and doing a book talk on something with the title I Moved on Her like a Bitch: How to Trump like a Motherfucker.
  • While in Paris I lived in a pension (boardinghouse) that, quite coincidentally, had once been the residence of the French lexicographer, Emile Littré. (The "coincidentally" became in my mind "providentially" and resulted in a novel whose title was the address of the place.) It also just happened to be right around the corner from L'Alliance Française, where I took a French class. In the French way of things, it is assumed that you will learn to converse on your own, and thus incorrectly, so you must be properly educated in the academic version (the King's English of French, or whatever). This involves a highly structured exercise called the dictée (dictation) in which the instructor reads out a passage and the students have to write it out. This played to my strengths of grammar and spelling, but at the same time it padded my conversational weakness, since the passage was read at least three times deliberately and with clear articulation, such as no conversation ever was in the history of the world. Thus I could be an ace at dictation in the classroom and a dunce at conversation out in the world.
These days I follow Catherine et Liliane on Twitter. These are brief, humorous sketches involving two middle-aged female friends (enacted, quite convincingly, by men) in a cafe or waiting in line for theatre tickets and having their say about "le buzz" of the day. Recently for example they were talking about how women needed to take over the job of leading governments because with men it all boils down to dissing each other about penis size, and this is dangerous in the age of nuclear weapons. Thankfully the Twitter feed automatically includes subtitles, which for me are absolutely essential, as without them Catherine and Liliane could just as easily be discussing the weather or soybean futures.

With all this, then, I do think I have the background to do justice to this memoir, and that is what is uppermost in my mind--doing justice to the author, Jean Nicaise, who in his Kingsport pages wants to get at a larger meaning behind his own experience. This larger meaning is the United States of America. Thus a discussion of the history of Kingsport, the tiny pioneer village on the Holston reborn as a planned industrial city, where the hospital can undergo an orderly expansion on land set aside for the purpose, becomes grist for an extended reverie on the qualities of America vis-a-vis the Old World, and how those qualities, unchallenged by a sense of peerless over-confidence, might lead the country into such missteps as the Iraq invasion of 2003. (Nicaise writes looking back and freely mixes in comments about events that took place in more recent years.)

It's hard not to think of the French nobleman de Tocqueville, whose memoir of travels in late 1830's America has convinced many American readers that he knew us better than we knew (or know) ourselves. Whether this will be the case with Nicaise and Kingsport remains to be seen. I just hope that I can help make him understood to readers of English while at the same time introducing some flavors of the Gallic language that might be, as it were, found in translation. The ear, after all, doesn't discern "sense" from "scents." The nose, on the other hand ...

If you want to get a whiff, here you go. Three installations so far. Many more to come!