Thursday, July 15, 2010

Living in New York City Simmering in a Kettle Cooking a Language Stew

Foto by tgw, Penn Central Building, New York City, 2010
[Sad News:
The owners of the Pennsylvania Hotel here in Manhattan are appealing to the NYC city council's planning commission for permission to demolish this grand old landmark hotel that sits directly across 7th Avenue here in Manhattan from Madison Square Garden that sits on the site where once sat the magnificent Pennsylvania Railroad Station, from whence the hotel got its name--from the railroad not the state. The hotel was the site of the now long-gone Cafe Rouge, a small nightclub on the 33rd Street side of the hotel that was made famous by appearances there in the 30s and 40s (of the last century) of the most famous bands in the land, with the Glenn Miller Band making the hotel the most famous hotel in New York City and the USA for a while with their hit tune, "Pennsylvania 6-5000," which was the Hotel Pennsylvania's phone number (and I think it still is). The Pennsylvania is a 1700-room hotel and is very popular with tourists and the sports crowd--as of this minute, all 1700 rooms are booked. The owners (and these are still the original family owners) want to build a high-rise luxury condo building there. And we thought with the economic downturn it would put some of these condo developers out of business--but, no, they're still wrecking the hell of my hometown. There is a group already formed to fight this demolition--and there is still going to be a public hearing on the matter--but--just like they couldn't save Pennsylvania Station, I don't think they'll be able to save the Pennsylvania Hotel either. The Daily Growler has posted dozens of posts on the ruining of New York City by the superrich and divinely privileged who are determined to drive the poor off Manhattan Island, for sure, and turn it into a Rich White Man's City, totally owned lock, stock, and barrel by the superrich who have pooled their billions into these invincible hedge funds and private equity funds that are going about the world buying up all of We the People's land (our foreclosed on homes; our razed landscapes, including our swamps and riverbank and shoreline properties); our natural resources; our public schools; our highway systems; our air rights; our communications networks; our culture...IT IS HAPPENING RIGHT BEFORE OUR EYES...New York City is not changing naturally--it's being changed artificially. You see, what this means to the Plutocrats is that New York City is being CIVILIZED! The POOR of this city (the unemployed; the old; the weak and sick; those just out of prison; single mothers; thousands of foster children and orphans; the homeless; the ex-Vietnam, Gulf War, and now Iraq and Afghanistan War vets; any family making less than $42,000-a-year are considered too poor to live in New York City. The POOR have become the NEW SAVAGES: the new peasants (pissants); the new untouchables; those who are tenants and not BUYERS. Yes, the new savages are We the People who are POOR, but also in particular, WE the PEOPLE who are NOT WHITE...think about that as you watch the spectacle of the beloved old Pennsylvania Hotel being imploded--maybe it will be a special on Fox--complete with a speech by our billionaire mayor on what a great moment the event is in the changing of New York City's future...ALL HAIL OUR NEW CAESARS!
The Hotel Pennsylvania]
What Language Do I Think In?
L Hat at posted several days back a post concerning a Chinese-American writer who had written an opinion-ed piece in the NYTimes (I never read it anymore--ain't that a shame?). Here's an excerpt from that post so you'll see where I'm fixin' to go (I used to love those commercials Roy Rogers did for a chain of hamburger joints that bought the use of his name back in the 80-90s 'fore Roy kicked the bucket. After describing how fat, juicy, and greasy "his" hamburgers were and how easy it was to order one at his hamburger joints, he added, "...then take your Roy Rogers burger over to our fixin's bar where you'll find all the fixin's you need to make my Roy Rogers hamburger just like you like it"). And now off the Happy Trails and back to the superhighways of reality--from my old pal L Hat's post of t'other day (he got a hell of a lot of comments on it, too; it set linguists on fire with good argument and incite):

But it is folly to expect a member of the general public to get things right. To expect the public at large to grasp the fundamentals of physics or chemistry is setting oneself up for disappointment, but at least they are taught these things in high school, so one can, if one is so inclined, blame them for being inattentive or for forgetting what they once knew. No one who has not taken a linguistics course can be expected to know about, let alone understand, the scientific view of language. So I was not pleased to visit Language Log this morning and find Victor Mair attacking the Chinese-American author Ruiyan Xu for a brief op-ed piece she wrote for the NY Times a couple of months ago (finding her "claims to be highly dubious, some to be rather troublesome, and yet others to be downright annoying") and saying "Mark Swofford, over at, has just written a masterful dissection: 'Chinese characters: Like, wow', 7/2/2010." Upon visiting, I found Swofford saying Xu writes like "a stoned grad student with a large vocabulary" and dissecting her little op-ed practically word by word as though it were a dissertation, or a paper in Language, scrawling contemptuously "No, no, and no.... No, that’s wrong...." and hauling out the big guns of sarcasm ("Alas, poor English! How confused we must be to be using a mere alphabet. Oh, if only we could achieve linguistic, aesthetic, and historical meaning!") and irrelevant snide observations ("The author of the poem... lived from 1140 to 1207 and was thus a contemporary of such Western poets as the troubadours Bertran de Born, Bernart de Ventadorn, and Giraut de Borneil — hardly poets whose work suffered for having been written with an alphabet"). I am reminded of Pope's line "Who breaks a butterfly upon a wheel?" (though I'm afraid I tend to remember it as I first learned it from William Rees-Mogg's famous 1967 Times editorial attacking the prison sentences handed down by a vengeful court to Keith Richards and Mick Jagger, the title of which ended "....on a wheel").

What was Xu's sin? Talking about language in general and Chinese characters in particular the way virtually everyone who has learned any Chinese and is not a linguist talks and thinks about them. What was her main point? That something valuable is lost when the phrase 百度 bǎidù 'hundred times,' which in Chinese alludes to a well-known poem by Xin Qiji (or, for people who still use Wade-Giles, Hsin Ch'i-Chi), becomes in a non-Chinese context the meaningless Baidu. Is her point correct? Unquestionably. Does either Mair or Swofford appear to understand or care about it? No. They are far too concerned with bashing her for not being a linguist.


The rest of L Hat's post is more and more interesting if you care to pursue it, but the above is enough for me to have gotten to thinking about what language am I writing in when I write? Stupid question, you say, of course you write in a standard English.

And I started thinking about when I'm writing how am I thinking in terms of the language I'm writing in. I think the everyday English I know is still the English I was taught, first by my parents during my pre-school years, that language that evolved out of "goo-goo" and "gah-gah" into actual words, "Mom-mah," "Dah-Dah," "No," "Yes," "Dat dere is a kit-tee."

From the language I started learning from my parents and relatives (those who I first met leaning over my crib and "Ooooh, isn't he the cutest baby...'Hi, baby'--er-ah, what's his name again? What? The Growling? You're kidding, of course. No, you're not."), I went on to a whole host of different schools and English teachers from first grade on up until I failed my first semester of college English 101 my freshman year in college. Why did I fail college English 101 (I had to take a remedial English course during summer school to make that F up)? Because at the beginning of the semester, this English teacher (he was a famous Texas poet who was a big friend of my brother's) told us all he'd give us Fs if we ever made what he called "a comma blunder" (leaving a comma as correct where a semicolon is legally required). As a freshman I was clueless as to what this professor was teaching me. Grammar. Come on, man, I knew grammar already. In my family if you used bad grammar you got corrected. My grandmother was a published poet and novelist and she'd correct your bad grammar on a damn dime--turn on you, "Don't you use 'ain't' in my presence." And ain't was one of the worst words in the lexicon of sinful (illegitimate) words. Ain't wasn't even worthy of being legitimized by poetic license to my grandmother. What ever level of grammarian my grandmother was, her set-in-stone demands were pretty high reaches for a pre-school chap, but her editing my speech at that young age sent me into grammar school a champion speller and a kid who learned quickly to write complete sentences and to parse them correctly and BANG...after 4th Grade, I must admit, my ego advanced me far above the heads of my English teachers from then on. However, during my sophomore year in college when I tried to put my head above an English prof named Priddy, she slammed me back headfirst into reality. The first book she assigned for us to read was Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms. And oh how the reading of that book opened up my literary eyes--and I had never read anything like it, having just finished a book on shooting wild tigers in India by a British Army Colonel who did big-game hunting as a hobby. And Mrs. Priddy gave a wonderful detailed analysis on that famous first paragraph of A Farewell to Arms and I read that paragraph over and over and for a long time, I couldn't get past that first paragraph to get to the rest of the book.

And then this woman named Priddy double-whammied me and assigned us Faulkner's An Intruder in the Dust to read and review. This was Faulkner's brilliant attempt at proving he loved "knee-grows," and a splendid book it is, too, as Faulkner shows the conflict in his Old South White mind--the bitter conflict of knowing enslaving human beings is totally wrong; yet traditionally weaving his Black characters into the background of an all-White tapestry--some of them examples of those "knee-grows" liberal Whites like Faulkner felt somewhat qualified to be able to adjust to being absolutely freed. Faulkner came out of one of the famous Mississippi White families that made their fame and fortune off the backs of their Black slaves. But outside his "it takes time" attitude about Blacks and their civil rights, this Faulkner dude could write, man. He didn't just write like most writers either. No. He wrote differently than just-so writers, or ho-hum writers, or some highly praised writers--he certainly wrote differently than the pop writers, than the formula writers, than the academically trained writers (writers workshops--one which Faulkner taught at the U of Virginia in his last years). If Faulkner needed a word and he couldn't find the one he was looking for in his Merriam-Webster, he made his own word. And he was the master neologist.

In my junior year in college I fell in love. A student actress named Cherry. I took a poetry course with my favorite English prof, Mr. Lazenby, and he introduced me to Ezra Pound--WOW! I didn't understand any of Ez's poems when I first read them but gradually, the more I read him and got into his life and loves, the more I became fascinated with how this unique man thought and the many manipulations with words he could do in his multi-referential mind--and he thought in several languages--and some of the languages he learned critics said he learned wrong--like his Chinese translations. And then I found the Cantos and who can resist trying to conquer the Cantos? And from Pound I found Gertrude Stein. What language did Gertrude write in? And Henry Miller, a master of his own language. And Lawrence Durrell with his British sense of the blackest most humorously wicked situations in Egypt. And I discovered Knute Hamsen in the college library and his wonderful, wonderful books--Hunger, God, what an exciting laying down of words and turning them into the god-damndest hungrily written piece of writing you'll ever read. And what languages did I pick up from these "different" styled writers. Were they linguists? Most of them couldn't do anything but write. Gertrude Stein was a student of the earliest of American psychology, studying at Harvard under the great pragmatist, William James. Hemingway? Did he finish high school? If he did that was it for him. Henry Miller...high school graduate...did take some college courses at CCNY, but that didn't last long at all. Hemingway admitted he couldn't spell for shit. Neither could Faulkner. Both men were also bothered by editors and had to be controled by only the most daring of editors, like the sly fox Maxwell Perkins in the case of touchy Hemingway.

And when I am writing at full speed--am I figuring out metaphors to use in my head? Where do my metaphors come from? I'm not conscious of forcing them into my writing. So if they are there, how did they get there? I'm really dumb to this. And I'm only thinking in one language. English. But even within this English of mine are so many subtext languages--like Texian with its strange drawling pronunciations of English smeared with Native American and Mexican words, salted and peppered with Tex-Mex, or hearing German spoken on both sides of my family to my surprise one time--and then in college I had to develop a reading knowledge of French and German to do my graduate Sociology work--and I once could read French pretty good--but think in French? Think in Spanish?--and I lived in Mexico City for a year, remember--and I did speak Spanish while living there--and I had a wife who spoke fluent Spanish and looked Mexican--but I can't think in Spanish, no way. Here in New York City I live in a building housing several versions of Asians; yet their languages go way over my head--and while I'm hearing them conversing, I'm reasoning, these people are talking above my head--were they speaking English their conversation would be silly stupid everyday talk--"My neighbor is a pain in my ass!" Though that said in Chinese sounds so complicated and intellectual to me.

I don't surfacewise consider the language I'm using to write while I'm writing. I know it's English, yes, but how I bend that English to fit my motifs or how I defile it or use it in expletive forms just comes along natural with what I'm writing about. Like, I would not write something say about a Polish girl coming to New York City and speaking only Polish school-kid English with so broken an accent even that English sounds foreign to an American ear unless I had experienced a relationship with a Polish girl with that background...and that's all I'm writing about in a way--relationships I have had.

Here's what I think is a paragraph from Henry Miller's Books in My Life that I think parallels the point of view I'm trying to convey--I know, I didn't do a good job of it, but anyway, here's how Henry feels about reading Jean Giono's books:

"Giono gives us the world he lives in. The world of dream, passion and reality. It is French, yes, but that would hardly suffice to describe it. It is of a certain region of France, yes, but that does not define it. It is distinctly Jean Giono's world and none other. If you are a kindred spirit you recognize it immediately, no matter where you are born or raised, what language you speak, what customs you have adopted, what tradition you follow. A man does not have to be Chinese, nor even a poet, to recognize immediately such spirits as Lao-tse and Li Po. In Giono's work, whatever sensitive, full-blooded individual ought to be able to recognize at once is 'the song of the world.'" [p 120, Henry Miller, Books in My Life, New Directions, 1969.]

To me it's all parallel-line thinking, considering, "striving," passion, working in similar realities no matter at which spot they are originated and in what language they first come out in. I'm going to dare to say that since a kid one of my hobbies has been to find words spelled almost the same way in several different languages of different origins.
In the Noose
George Steinbrenner died and oh how the NYC commercial television stations are singing high tribute to this disgusting specimen of a human being--a true Massuh with an old Plantation mentality who treated his high-priced ballplayers as high-priced possessions. George grew up with "love me, daddy" problems. George was the son of a self-made man who took a Great Lakes shipping business and made it a total success only to die and leave it to his worthless son, George, who then allowed that business to sink deep into the debt-depths of the Great Lakes. Little George blew his father's hard-earned money trying to get some way into sports. He was a weak kid so he didn't excel in any sports. And guess who he was competing with? His own father. George's father had been an Olympic-quality athlete--and a successful businessman--both qualities that failed to arise in Little George. George had no luck with his Cleveland Pipers basketball team. He never had any luck with his race horses. Then, this pompous rich brat got an opportunity to buy the New York Yankees for a song after the franchise was almost wiped out when CBS bought the team and managed to mismanage it until the team stunk badly for years--the Major Houk (Ralph Houk their manager) years--where they dived into the second division for the first time in a very long time, though they immediately got city tax break money to reconstruct the original House that Ruth built--a total remodeling that they at least kept on the original grounds of the old park--and they at least kept the original fences, though they did put the old monuments behind the fences. In the original ball park the monuments (bronze plaques honoring all the old Yankee stars) were in the deepest part of the outfield--I recall outfielders in Yankee Stadium chasing well-hit long balls that rolled all the way out among the monuments--like balls used to get lost in the ivy that covered Wrigley Field's brick outfield fences. I don't miss George Steinbrenner at all. No boo-hoos for his lucky life. For whatever good things he did for baseball, he hurt the game more. Like ruining the careers of several of his ballplayers: like Bucky Dent; like Bernie Williams; like Bo Winegar; like Jason Giambi; like Matsui; like Soriano; like Roger Clemens! Like Melky Cabrera. You had to kiss George's big white ass to stay on his good side. Otherwise, look how the senile old bastard treated the best manager in baseball, a man who only was going to manage two more years at the most; a man who took the Yankees to at least the playoffs nearly every year he managed, even the last year, the year in which George decided he knew better how to manage the team than Joe. George and the growth in his asshole, Brian Cashman the know-nothing-about-baseball general manager who's still the general manager. (Did I just read the Mets have a new general manager?) And that was George's big ego problem--he thought he knew baseball better than his managers and players. Don't get me started on this big pompous asshole! I'd rather defend Marge Schott--at least she loved baseball--than George "Hee-Haw" Steinbrenner.
Unka Dick's back in the hospital. This time they had to crack back open Dick's old gnarly chest and put his old sagging soggy heart back into operating condition once again--by the way at the expense of We the People since Unka Dick is certainly still getting the best free healthcare in the world. The Grim Reaper is knocking hard on old Unka Dick's door but he's so on-the-dark-side wicked, he just won't answer the door--looks like the Reaper's gonna have to break the damn door down to get in so he can sickle down old Worn-Out Dick to a size that will fit well in Charon's boat as they sail old deflated George off down the River Styx to the Holiest of the Deepest Pits of the Hottest Hell.
Remember the government spokesman saying all last week how, "The oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico will be a thing of the past by Monday [July 12th] due to choreographied robots methodically cutting off the old broken cap and replacing it with a new-venture-type cap that will finally contain the oil so it can be collected into tankers and hauled off for processing and finally put back into the company's profit cycle. The rest of the oil that leaked will then be quickly cleaned up by the fleet of oil skimmers...."? Remember that. So, "Whoaaaa." Did you forget to remember that anything a government representative or a BP representative says is backwards thinking and should be translated as such. What this government-spokesman fool was actually saying was, "BP is trying another trick-bag job on our dumb asses saying this time, for the 10th time, they really ARE going to stop this otherwise what seems to me like an unstoppable leak. They are going to cut the old cap off and replace it with this new cap--this revolutionary new cap...except, er-ah, we really kind'a already know this new cap isn't going to work just like the giant metal covering didn't work or the second-well drilling didn't work, nor did the world's largest oil skimmer ship work...." And sure enough, 4 days after Monday, today BP is saying, well, the gusher is still gushing, this time from a new leak caused when they put this new cap on the well. Holy shit. How come We the People haven't confiscated all of British Petroleum's holdings--BP is selling their leases in the Prudhomme Bay Alaska wilderness--why are We the People not confiscating those drilling sites?--isn't that We the People's oil? That Alaskan Wilderness belongs to We the People--we own most of Alaska. I once heard a Sociologist pundit say that the US owns land (including great portions of Nevada, Hawii, Wyoming, Alaska, Montana, and Idaho), multiple structures (like buildings), and resources enough to easily use as collateral in paying off this enormous debt we're now sweating under--it just grew another half a trillion or so. Like so we sold Alaska to Russia for 5 trillion dollars. We'd get out of debt and come out 2 trillion ahead. Let Russia deal with Sweet Sarah Pallin.

for The Daily Growler

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