Monday, May 02, 2016

you are 48% fluent in spanish

Or so says the wise little owl that acts as the avatar for Duolingo.

I'm not. But Duolingo is one of those smartphone "apps" designed for the children of our age who have never been told anything harsh in their lives for fear of making them feel as if their "safe space" has been fouled.

Hobbes was correct. Life is "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short." But you are not going to hear anything like that from Duolingo. Instead, the very polite program repeatedly tells me "That is almost correct" when it should truthfully say "Not even Desi Arnaz could understand what you just said. Have you thought of trying Greek?"

Well, I have tried Greek. And Russian. And German. And Italian. And Latin. I liked them all. And I did quite well at learning them -- without the smarmy reassurance of Duolingo. My Spanish lessons are not going that well.

Last August I decided to cut back on writing my essays -- along with most of my other official charitable and social activities -- to focus on learning Spanish. Daily, starting in October, I sat down at the computer and worked my way through The Learnables program. It helped me attune my ear to listening.

In November I drove up to Oregon with my brother. Because we were on the road, I could not use my laptop efficiently. So, I signed up for Duolingo on my smartphone. Several readers had highly recommended it.

I was skeptical. I had looked at the program a couple years ago. The exercises were seductively simple. My score was perfect each day. The problem is that I could not recall a single thing I had supposedly learned. So, I set it aside.

This time, I stuck with it -- on the road north, in Bend, on the road south, and back at the house. Duolingo is based on the concept of units. Food. Animals. Plurals. Past imperfect verbs. That sort of thing. Maybe it was Duolingo that was the genesis of one of my favorite Lincoln quotations: "People who like this sort of thing are going to find it is the sort of thing they like."

The idea is to complete a unit successfully enough to be allowed to proceed to the next level. It is a little like being an initiate of the Scottish Rites Mason. (Just to reassure you Illuminati conspiracy theorists out there, I am not.)

Due to some glitch, I lost all of my progress twice and had to start over. (For the record, I actually finished the entire series last night. Thus the 48% fluency award.)

But, at some point, I needed outside classes. Duolingo is based on inductive reasoning. By completing the exercises, you are to infer the grammatical rules.

I am fine with inductive reasoning. After all, we use it every day of our lives merely to survive. But, when it comes to learning languages, I often require a bit of deduction. I want to know the rules that describe why Spanish sentences are peppered with two letter words that make no sense to my English-speaking mind with its Germanic sentence structures.

So, I started Spanish classes last January -- for one day. It was not a good start (back to school). I started again in February -- attending two one-hour classes from Monday to Thursday.

The classes were almost exactly what I needed. My primary reason for learning Spanish is to get me through the language requirement of the Mexican citizenship process. In our area, applicants are required to pass an examination that is the equivalent of a college-level Spanish course.

Most of my fellow students are not as concerned about the grammar. They are there to learn how to enjoy conversations with their Mexican neighbors.

My ideal course would be a formal instruction with a lesson plan and tests to measure my progress. But that would suit only me.

Amy, our teacher (a native Spanish speaker from southern California who now teaches high school Spanish in Maine, but is on sabbatical here until June), has a great technique of easing us into the complexities of the language. By teaching us the usual greeting phrases one would encounter on the street, we were already exposed to reflexive verbs and direct pronoun placement before we discussed them formally.

Here I am, three months into my 8-hours a week lessons, and I still feel uncertain about my progress. The subjunctive and conditional verbs still baffle me. And I often cannot find the word for "anathema" or "reprehensible."* The more likely candidates are "knife" and "left."

My concerns may be groundless. Even though I often have trouble performing in class, I received the best endorsement of my progress this week from Dora, the woman who cleans my house.

We were talking about Barco's latest destructive episodes. There I was recounting tales like Cervantes in prison using my limited language tools. The preterite. Past imperfect. Gerunds. Nouns that I did not know I even knew (probably implanted there by Duolingo and Amy while I was not looking). With Dora correcting me where necessary.

When I finished, she commended me on how well I am doing. It was high praise indeed. Even the neighbors seem to wear less baffled looks when I stop to chat with them.

I have two more years before I need to sit down and take the formal test that will help prove my assertion that I want to be a member of the country in which I now live permanently. There will be plenty of tie for me to keep slogging through the plains of Spain.

Right now, I feel as if I have been undergoing several months of root canals. I trust it will all prove to be worthwhile.

As for Duolingo, I have one word for you -- a word I learned in class:

* -- Yes. I know. They are cognates. As J. Edgar Hoover once said: "To ask the question is to answer it."

** -- I suspect you can figure that one out without any resort to a Spanish translator.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

sanders takes minimum wage to the maximum

30 April 2016

Indianapolis -- After a thrashing in four out of five northeastern primaries that should have been far more receptive to his socialist message, Senator Bernie Sanders announced today that it was time to "get real about economic policy for America."

Sanders has long been an advocate for a national $15 an hour minimum wage. During the past month, Hillary Clinton has attempted to close the gap by supporting an ambiguous increase in the minimum wage.  Sanders met the challenge with a speech at DePauw University this afternoon that had his mainly young and white audience repeatedly on its feet.

"Let's get real. Secretary Clinton has been treating America's economic policy as if she ran one of Donald Trump's roulette wheels. One day she says she supports a minimum wage of $15. The next day it's $12. The next it's $12.50. And then it's a sliding scale of $12.50 to $15.

"Einstein may have been correct that God does not play dice with the universe. But my opponent has no trouble playing dice with your economic future -- and the economic future of all Americans.

"Let's get real. Who can live on $15 an hour? No one. You would need to live in your parents' basement for the rest of your lives. So, why don't we start talking about real wages.

"Let's get real. What we need is a real living wage in America. When I am elected president, on my first day in office, I am going to sit down and issue an executive order that every American business that receives the benefit of the labor of one or more employees will be required to pay each of those honest, hard-working representatives of the people -- $100,000 each year. Payable in full on the first day of employment.

"Let's get real. No one can obtain a doctorate in comparative languages on $15 an hour. With $100,00 each year in your pocket, you will be able to stay in school as long as you like. All you will need is a part-time job in one of our many essential industries -- industries we will not allow to go extinct. Like vinyl record shops and local independent Trotskyite book stores.

"Let's get real. That's what the forces of imperialism and reaction are going to say to us. That we are a bunch of fuzzy-math intellectuals who know nothing of economics. But, you know what? You know what I'm going to tell them?

"Let's get real. The big banks have been hiding a simple truth from all of us. Washington, DC has a mint. It prints money. It's part of the executive branch.

"As president, I am going to walk over to the mint and tell the director: 'Mr. Olijar, there are a lot of hard-working people out there who cannot make ends meet. Some of them are working at two, three, maybe twenty jobs. We need to do something to give them a hand up. Here is what I want you to do. Let's crank up these presses, print lots of money, and get it to our friends out there.'

"And, you know what? He's going to do it. Or I will find someone else who will.

"Let's get real. It isn't as if there are not a lot of precedents for this type of idea. Countries I love and admire have done similar things and are the better for it.

"Che Guevara did it in Cuba. Hugo Chávez did it in Venezuela. Robert Mugabe did it in Zimbabwe. All three are lighthouses of social justice and economic prosperity.

"Let's get real. The only thing that is getting in our way of making everyone in America a member of the upper middle class is our imagination. And I assure you, there is nothing wrong with my imagination. And, if you are supporting me, you must also have a big imagination."

Following the speech, the DePauw football team stormed the podium and carried Senator Sanders three times around the stadium to the roaring standing ovation of the crowd.

Classics professor Hugh Nates remarked: "I don't think anyone has seen anything like this since Trajan's return to Rome -- complete with the donativum. Or maybe that was Joaquin Phoenix."

Just as the football squad was making its fourth pass, Jane Sanders shook him saying "Bernie. You're talking in your sleep again."

Thursday, April 28, 2016

face value

My political sensitivity meter is not functioning properly.

A week ago, I opened my Kindle to find a newspaper headline: "Tubman to replace Jackson on $20 bill." I actually said: "Oh, no."

In my defense, I was confused.

I thought the story was about the $10 bill -- where I had been an advocate of keeping Alexander Hamilton's portrait. I completely missed the fact that the story was about the $20 bill, where Andrew Jackson (choose one: a. founder of the modern Democrat party or b. slaveholder and oppressor of Indians -- and then draw up sides) has held sway since 1928.

Not any more. He has been demoted to the back of the bill. Harriet Tubman will take his place up front. And I say bravo -- despite my misinformed initial reaction.

We all know her accomplishments. Civil war spy. Engineer on the underground railroad. Recruiter of insurrectionists for John Brown. Abolitionist. Suffragette.

And best of all, she was not a president or political hanger-on -- like the rest of the faces on American notes. Washington. Jefferson. Lincoln. Hamilton. Jackson. Grant. Franklin.

All of them worthy American heroes. And all of them flawed -- certainly when we apply presentism historiography to their lives. (Undoubtedly, people two generations from now will look back at us in horror that we ate plants. "Weren't they aware carrots have feelings?")

Why should our currency be populated by the faces of political figures? After all, government (fortunately) affects only a small portion of our day-to-day lives.

Why not put the faces of people on our bills who really matter to our daily existence? Harnessing the power of electricity matters a lot more to me than the man who won the Battle of Shiloh. I know far more about the human condition from reading great literature than I do about listening to a presidential speech.

American history is replete with men and women who invented, built, composed, traded, and simply made our lives better to live. Those are the people who we should be honoring on our big bucks.

I would propose a list, but then the names would be the issue -- not the concept.

Right now, I am looking through the Mexican peso notes in my wallet. The faces are a fine mix of what makes up Mexican society.

A full Zapotec Indian who served as president. A mulatto Independence general. A pre-Columbian Acolhua chieftain noted for his poetry and philosophy. A seventeenth century criolla poet. The Mexican general who gave us Cinco de Mayo. The criollo priest who is known as the father of Mexican Independence. And probably the best known of the Mexican muralists -- with his equally talented wife on the reverse.

Mexico's mix gets the concept correct. A few more business heroes or inventors would not hurt. I would nominate the woman who first came up with the idea of serving a chicken breast stuffed with goat cheese and walnuts on a pool of jamaica sauce.

So, good for Harriet Tubman. Let's see more faces that are not restricted to the confines of that little piece of land that once belonged to Maryland.

The nation is a far larger (and better) place than the District of Columbia.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

the bank of barco

Banking has topped my bête noire list for a couple of years now.

It took me about a year of living in Mexico to perfect a system where my pension proceeds would be directly deposited in an American checking account that would allow me to transfer dollars to my Mexican peso account. I reduced my ATM fees to zero and received the boon of an almost-wholesale exchange rate.

All was well -- until the current White House decided to fight drug dealers and billionaire tax cheats by shutting down almost all foreign American banking accounts that allowed electronic transfer. That was the great FATCA fiasco.

Expatriates reacted in various ways. Some simply pulled out all of their money from American banks and relied solely on their Mexican bank accounts. I am still considering that option.

Especially, after I lost all ATM access for this past month. Fortunately, the dollar drought ended when my friends the Millers showed up with a new ATM card in hand.

But I had another solution right under my nose -- and I never knew it.

Our area is almost a cash exclusive economy. And that cash is pesos. Because most of the businesses I patronize are small, low denomination notes and coins are at a premium. All of us here tend to carefully shepherd those denominations.

Over the past week, though, I have noticed an odd fluctuation in my coins. I thought I had a handful at the end of each day, but when I headed out the door to start my new day, the coins were few.

But, I am old, and I often forget when I have used them.  Or, so I thought.

A couple days ago, while cleaning up around the plants Barco loves to strip of foliage, I thought I saw something shiny. When I pulled the leaves away, I found a cache of coins. It was not a leprechaun's trove, but it was good enough.

You already know Barco has a fondness for bank notes. I also knew that he loved to mouth coins -- just as he does rocks. But I had no idea he was saving up for a special occasion.

Perhaps, he was planning on running away. Or buying his girlfriend a new collar. Or, far more likely, a trip to the pet store for a bag of rawhide bones.

He watched me retrieve what he had stolen and looked absolutely perplexed at what those coins were doing in the plants. "Steve, I wonder who put those there? Probably a cat. Or a squirrel."

The coins are back in my pocket. But the dog may have a good idea. The best place for my money may be to bury it in a hole in the ground.

And, if you see a young golden retriever driving a green Escape, you will know he has advanced from misdemeanors to grand theft auto.

Monday, April 18, 2016

putting jack to rest

It has been over three weeks now since my friend Jack Brock died.

I told you the news in jack is dead. A terrible bike accident whose details serve no purpose to relate. They serve no purpose because the accident was not who Jack was.

A large group of friends and acquaintances got together during the first week of this month to celebrate the Jack we knew.

People who knew Jack very well shared the parts of him that he shared with us. When everyone who wanted to have a say had said what they were going to say, I was asked to give the final toast.

Some people have asked me to publish what I said. Here is my best recollection. For some reason, it has taken me two weeks to get to the point where I could publish it.*

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

I recently heard a story of a man who died in North Carolina. At the funeral, the pastor asked family members if they could say a few good words about the deceased. Everyone turned him down.

The man had been a nasty piece of work. But a nephew agreed to speak. When the time came, he stood up, went to the podium, and looked around at the audience. “Mah uncle was one mean man. But some days were not as bad as t’other.” He then sat down.

I don’t know how true that story is, but I can promise you two things. First, that eulogy would never apply to Jack Brock – as your stories today have shown. And the second promise is that I will not be as brief as that nephew.

It is a bit ironic that I am standing up here today. I thought it would be Jack talking about me.

About two months ago, Jack and I had dinner with the type of discussion we both loved. The question before the house was: “Resolved, this house believes that a person should live his life as if he were living his own obituary.”

Neither of us thought the proposition was true. We agreed a life should be lived justly and morally, but it had to be lived as we chose to live it, and not as how we would want others to remember us. That meant when it came eulogy time, all of the warts needed to be displayed along with the accomplishments.

All of the great stories we have heard today were true. They were part of Jack’s life. He was a joy to know. He had a great smile. He lived life to the fullest.

But he also had his faults. Being critical when a little grace would have sufficed. Being impatient and frustrated over things he could not change. Seeing failure, and missing the glimmer of hope.

Of course, that simply says Jack was human. And his failings were another reason we liked knowing him. He was a real guy.

A philosopher once said there is a reason people come into our lives. If we let them, they will teach us things we need to know. In the process, we also help them.

There is probably some truth in that – certainly there was with Jack and me. Because, in knowing Jack, with all of his positive attributes and his personal foibles, he has changed me for good. And, in many ways, because he was my friend, for the better. I am certain all of us can say something similar.

So, Jack – we raise these glasses to you – in honor of a life well-lived. Thanks for leaving your hand print on our hearts.

To Jack.

* -- I borrowed some of the more mawkish sentimentality from Stephen Schwartz. But even the most mawkish sentimentality can be authentic.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

the bikeman cometh

He stood in the door of the church, looking as if he had just finished a hundred laps on the velodrome.

During the summer months, our church attendance here dwindles from around a hundred and fifty in the winter to five or six -- or even two. On that July day, eight of us were meeting to discuss Philip Yancey's What's So Amazing About Grace?
I was facilitating our discussion. We had just reached the final question: "What do we do when God gives us an opportunity to show His grace?"

That is when he walked in. Almost as if on cue.

Bicycle shoes. Bicycle jersey. Bicycle hat. And, yup, bicycle shorts.

Having been to law school, I dusted off my inductive skills to conclude this fellow was somehow associated with bicycles. The only thing missing was a Parlee slung over his shoulder -- in Lance Armstrong style.

Our group stopped talking and welcomed the stranger in to join us. We are like that. If a  guest arrives, he has our full attention.

He sat down, but he was not there to join us in worship. He had a tale to tell.

His name was Gerhard von Kopfschrumpfen -- or something like that. And despite the vaudeville German accent, he told us he was a psychotherapist specializing in therapy through bicycle riding. (Remember, he said he was from California.)

When I asked if he was a psychotherapist or perhaps a cyclotherapist, he did not crack a smile. But he did relate a tale of woe in Teutonic tones.

He was on his way to Manzanillo (about an hour south of us) to participate in a meeting concerning his therapy of cycles. He had spent a night in a hotel in San Luis Potosi. In his haste to leave, he had left his wallet in his room. (I could empathize with that.)

He had driven the 460 miles to Melaque and arrived the prior evening. It was not until then that he discovered his wallet was missing when he stopped for gasoline. Without any money in a town where he knew no one, he slept in his car.

In the morning, he went to the Catholic church for assistance. The priest referred him to us.

All he needed was some gas money to get back to San Luis Potosi to retrieve his wallet. Of course, that would mean missing his meeting at noon in Manzanillo.

Without any discussion, we put together a couple thousand pesos to let him get to both his meeting and back to San Luis Potosi. All we asked him to do was to show the same grace to the next person in need he met.

We then re-initiated our group discussion. Oddly, Dr. Kofschrumfen stayed to join in the discussion.

Our group unanimously agreed that we should be generous with the people we need who say they are in need. Giving to an "impostor" still helps someone who has needs.

Dr. Kopfschrumfen disagreed. He claimed that our position would only enable fraudsters. That struck me as an odd note --considering what we had offered him.

When we closed our worship service, I asked the good doctor if he wanted to join us for lunch. I thought he would say "no." After all, he would barely have time to get to Manzanillo for his meeting. He surprised me by saying he would come with us -- asking if he would be a guest.

I am very free with my charity. But the lawyer in me constantly monitors circumstances. Even though I put a few pesos in the doctor's hand, I thought his story needed a bit of work.

Driving 400 some miles all day without discovering a missing wallet is -- well, a narrative sieve. Let alone sticking around after he made is mark when he had a meeting to attend.

When I asked him, at lunch, where he had done his internship, he started to show me his credentials on his web page -- and then showed me photograph after photograph of him (and several beautiful female assistants) on bicycles. I let the matter slide.

I then asked him what school of psychiatry he endorsed. I am a Jungian myself. Or, at least, a proto-Jungian. Anyone with a rudimentary college education could have faked an answer. He slyly changed the topic by turning to another member of our group.

That was good enough as a scent of blood for me. I asked how long he had been practicing in San Diego. It was fifteen years or so.

I then said certainly he must know my friend Nathaniel Branden, the promoter of the self-esteem movement. After all, he operated out of La Jolla, just 13 miles from the doctor's purported office. (I checked it on my smartphone at the table.)

He had never heard of the self-esteem movement. But I just dropped it. After all, even Professor Harold Hill does not need to be tripped up every time the freight train is leaving town.

So, off he went in a very battered car -- with no bike rack and no bike.

That was almost three years ago. Even though we provided our email addresses and contact information for the church, none of us has received a bit of news from him. No "thanks." No "I made it." Nada.

But we do not show grace to receive thanks. In this case, my grace was not giving the cash. I gave that because I thought there was a possibility the guy really needed help.

The grace was not outing him in front of my fellow congregants. Even though my secular training would love nothing more than to shame a fraud, no good would have come of it. The "doctor" knew I knew what he was doing.

And it did not matter. After all, even though his story was absolutely bogus, he was a thirsty person.

It may not have been a coincidence that I had read another piece by Philip Yancey the day before my encounter.

That scene of Jesus and the Samaritan woman came up during a day I spent with the author Henri Nouwen at his home in Toronto. He had just returned from San Francisco, where he spent a week in an AIDS clinic visiting patients who, in the days before antiretroviral drugs, faced a certain and agonizing death. “I’m a priest, and as part of my job I listen to people’s stories,”  he told me.  “So I went up and down the ward asking the patients, most of them young men, if they wanted to talk.”

Nouwen went on to say that his prayers changed after that week. As he listened to accounts of promiscuity and addiction and self-destructive behavior, he heard hints of a thirst for love that had never been quenched. From then on he prayed, “God, help me to see others not as my enemies or as ungodly but rather as thirsty people. And give me the courage and compassion to offer your Living Water, which alone quenches deep thirst.”

That day with the gentle priest has stayed with me. Now, whenever I encounter strident skeptics who mock my beliefs or people whose behavior I find offensive, I remind myself of Henri Nouwen’s prayer. I ask God to keep me from rushing to judgment or bristling with self-defense. Let me see them as thirsty people, I pray, and teach me how best to present the Living Water.
After all, I am a thirsty person, as well.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

how great is my god

I do not write often of my faith.

My feeling is that faith is to be lived -- not to be paraded on street corners. Jesus had something to say about that in Matthew 6.

Sometimes events change our style. And that happened this morning.

I am not certain why, but I was searching YouTube for one of my favorite choruses. I should stop here and tell you I share C.S. Lewis's assessment of church hymns as "fifth-rate poems set to sixth-rate music." And choruses are much worse with lyrics that would make Ziggy blush.

But some music touches all levels of my reason. "How Great is Our God" must have at one point lodged itself in my head to be visited again. And, so I did.

This is what I found -- a world version of the song written (and performed here) by Chris Tomlin. For a rather fluffy piece, this performance hit several  theological chords with me. Too often, we, in the West, forget that Christianity is a worldwide religion; it is not just for middle-class shopkeepers in Topeka. Millions of people worship God under the same banner in many tongues -- all proclaiming that God is indeed a great God.

This essay is not the place for me to discuss how the Muslim declaration "Allahu Akbar" may be related to the Christian assertion that "God is great." That is for another day. But it is a connection well worth discussing.

For whatever reason, listening to this version of Tomlin's little song lifted my soul this morning. And I think I know why. C.S. Lewis provided the answer in his critique of Christian hymns:

But as I went on I saw the great merit of it. I came up against different people of quite different outlooks and different education, and then gradually my conceit just began peeling off. I realized that the hymns (which were just sixth-rate music) were, nevertheless, sung with devotion and benefit by an old saint in elastic-side boots in the opposite pew, and then you realize that you aren’t fit to clean those boots. It gets you out of your solitary conceit.
The song also answered a challenge that fellow blogger Kim offered me. He suggested I could improve my Spanish listening skills by listening to music with Spanish lyrics.

The trick was finding music I could listen to without getting bored. And that was difficult. I am not very fond of most Mexican music.

But this morning's video provided a solution. The answer has been all around me.

My neighbor plays Christian music through most of the day. I know that because I recognize the tunes.

I hear familiar Christian choruses wafting out of our local evangelical churches on Sundays and week nights.

When I went to Cuba in 2001, I attended services at the sole Salvation Army in Havana the Castro brothers has deigned to leave open -- even though all of the Army's social services, but one, were stripped from them. The sermon was a mystery to me. (I then knew no Spanish.) But I could sing the choruses. They were the same as those we sang in Salem.

So, I am now searching the internet for Christian choruses in Spanish. There are a multitude. Thanks, Kim. I think your learning exercise will work.

And, now, here is the video that started my morning reverie. I hope it means something to you.