Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Aunt Rose, of Blessed Memory

Aunt Rose would have turned 100 this month. She died last summer shortly before we left New York. We were lucky to have lived in the same city as she did for the last seven years of her life.

She was too sick for a 99th birthday party, but two years ago for her 98th we joined Aunt Rose, her daughter Sue, and a bunch of Sue's friends (when you're 98, your own friends are dead) at a Chinese restaurant near her old folks home in Battery Park City. I was very glad that I had managed to find her mother's ship-docking record from the Ellis Island records online a few weeks before her birthday. She had forbidden us to bring presents, but she wasn't going to turn down the reproduction of her mother's ship-docking record we brought along! In fact, just about every guest turned up with some sort of non-gift gift that Aunt Rose couldn't refuse.

One of the guests was professor of public health at a local college. She told Aunt Rose she would be reporting back to her gerontology class about having dinner with a 98-year-old. Perhaps Aunt Rose could give her some insight to share with her class about how she managed to live so long? Aunt Rose turned to the professor, gripped her wrist with icy cold fingers, looked deep into her eyes, and spit out, "Bad luck."

A little while later we were opening our fortune cookies. Aunt Rose couldn't read hers because the type was small and the light was low. She handed it to Sue to read out. Sue read out in stentorian tones, "You will live to be 100." Aunt Rose got a horrified look on her face. "It doesn't really say that, does it? You're just torturing me." Sue passed the fortune to me. I concurred. "That's what it says." We strung her along for a while. Finally, we acknowledged it wasn't true. What the fortune actually said was, "Never smell the inside of a hat." That is actually what it said, but by that time everyone thought we were just making things up.

That 98th birthday party was one of the most fun evenings I ever spent in New York.
Miss you, old lady.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Now Officially Cranky and Middle -Aged

I had a genuine old fogey moment on my commute home this evening. I was actually prompted to forgo my Canadian "pretending not to hear what the person beside you is saying in a perfectly audible voice" practice.

Two physics graduate students were talking on the bus, sitting across the aisle from each other in the manner of young men who wish to avoid being thought a fairy by sitting beside--and possibly brushing legs with--another male. As I was sitting down beside one of them, the guy across the aisle said, "And you can't even go study with Schrieffer anymore because he's in jail."

The guy beside me said, "Yeah, I heard that. He got two years for vehicular manslaughter. That's awesome! Well, I mean, not for him."

"No, but it was great for the guy he killed," I said. I honestly don't know where it came from.

"Uh, no I guess it sucked for him too," the kid acknowledged. I pulled my book out of my bag and went back to "pretending not to hear what the person beside you is saying in a perfectly audible voice."

I think the guy across the aisle must have agreed with me, because he said, "Yeah, apparently he had a whole long record of being pulled over going 100 miles an hour, and he would say, 'I'm a Nobel Prize winner, I can do what I want'."

They went back to their topic about where to go after grad school, eventually settling on two post-docs as the most they would take before going into industry. I sighed inwardly. Both those young fellows, should they actually complete their doctorates, will accept not only as many post-docs as they can, but one-year 4-4 teaching contracts and anything else that comes their way. If Schrieffer weren't in jail, they still wouldn't be going to study with him, because his in-box would be full of fawning emails from graduate students at small Canadian universities.

I can't really blame them. They're just young and, uh, young. But I wish they'd either sit beside each other, so I'm not thrust in the middle of their conversations, or shut up. Remember that scene in Star Trek IV where they go back in time to more-or-less now, and Spock uses the Vulcan nerve pinch to render unconscious a guy playing loud music on a bus? No? Well, I think of it often.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Moon Falling Into Earth's Shadow

This evening after dinner Winnifred insisted we go outside to look for the moon. I didn't know what she was on about, but it turned out there was a lunar eclipse underway. Boy was that ever pretty. Red and soft like a water colour. As we watched it got streakier and smaller. It was almost dissolving. We watched for a while from the front porch, and took some pictures. An hour later, when we left the house to go to the gym, the moon wasn't visible. An hour after that, we came out and it was back: whole, white, perfectly undisturbed. As if the whole thing had never happened.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Smoking and Mirrors

The scene: a suburban grocery store, 9 pm on a Saturday evening

A man and woman, both 40-ish, are at the cashier, where a huge pile of food is being rung in. The man is at the end of the checkout counter piling full bags into a cart. He murmurs something about starting to take it out to the car; the woman nods distractedly. She is talking to the cashier--a young woman I estimate to be 16--about not being able to find liquid laundry soap, only powder. The cashier looks down the closest aisle, ducks her head a little. Spots it, and seeing the recognition on her face, the woman turns around, all but smacks herself on the forehead: oh gosh, right in front of me! Can't see a thing. She walks off to get some, grabs a few other things, comes back and piles them on the end of the conveyor belt, pulls out her wallet--the cashier is almost done--then looks around and says, "oh geez, he's probably out there having a smoke!" and trundles off to wrangle errant hubby back to help carry the rest of the groceries. The cashier finishes the job no more than five seconds later, looks around; no sign of woman or hubby. She waits--we wait--then it starts to seem too long. Something in her manner alerts the night manager, another young woman, this one probably all of 20. A whispered colloquy. The manager shows the cashier how to suspend a transaction, then goes out to the parking lot to look for the missing customers. The cashier rings in our five items; we pay. The manager returns, alone; more whispers. They are examining the amount on the bottom of the receipt.

On the way out to the car, Winnifred says, I bet the smoking ban has been a real boon to the grifter community. Ready-made excuse to step outside.

(No such excuse was available to Ryan and Tatum O'Neal, who, in 1973, when I was eight, introduced me to the concept of the con man.)

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Currently Reading

A few minutes into my commute home this evening I finish the story I'm reading (Avrom Reyzen's "Gvirishe Matse" from his collection Lider, Dertseylungen, Zikhroynes), and while I do have a book in my bag, it is one I've already read and am returning to the library on my way home.

But no worries! I always have my palm pilot with me to get me through just such inkless moments, and I have another 100 pages of Moby Dick to get through. I love reading big books on my tiny palm pilot. It makes me feel particularly geeky. Reach into my bag for my palm pilot... not where it usually is... not in the other pocket... left it at home, it seems. At least, my cell phone isn't there either, so presumably I left both of them charging on my desk. Just when I need it! How irritating. Fume my way through the rest of my commute. I mean, how can a person go 40 minutes without some text? I start looking over the shoulder of the student beside me: she is reading about speciation in a particular kind of conifer. It works for a few minutes, but she reads too slowly and never gets around to turning the page. Oh, I get it. She's not reading, she's studying. We are already at mid-terms. She is committing the speciation of conifers to memory. The guy across the aisle has a newspaper but I don't see a spare section I can ask for. He is going through it very systematically as well, not a good sign in terms of sharing.

I get off the bus at Main and Hastings and walk over to the Carnegie Library. I return my book and ask the fellow to check if my holds have come in. Two have! They are The Myth of Mars and Venus, yet another linguistics book, and, you probably won't believe this, Reader, but the other book is Duma Key by Stephen King. I have never read a Stephen King novel before but something about the reviews for this one made me curious. And the great thing is, if you read American reviews before the Canadian edition has come out, you can get on the hold list early on. So now I have this 600-page hardcover novel to haul around, just when I was congratulating myself on reading big books in a more convenient format. Still, my first Stephen King novel. I will keep you posted.

I know there is still one question in your mind, and I should answer it before I go to bed. Your question is, I assume, "How was the Reyzen story?" Well, I'm so glad you asked, because it was really interesting. It is set in a matzoh factory in, one assumes, Belarus. The workers are excited because the richest woman in town is coming to bake her matzohs at their factory. This is a tradition, for those who have the time and money, where you can actually go into the matzoh factory and take part in baking some matzohs so your Passover table will be graced with the fruits of your own labour. (Perhaps the Chocolate Lady can give us more input on this custom.) Anyway, the bigshot lady is coming to bake her matzohs, she's coming to bake her matzohs--they are all excited about the prospect of the tip she will leave them and the new silk kerchief they can buy for Passover... well, I won't give the whole story away, but suffice to say that Avrom Reyzen knew a thing or two about class struggle.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Gung Hay Fat Choy

For the 1985 grand opening of a new grocery store in Chinatown, the advertising campaign took the form of a series of hand-drawn images of products, rather than photographs.

Cream Wafers, with the box decoration carefully copied.
Soy sauce, only 79 cents.

We found this delightful ad while sorting out the 1985 issues of the Chinese Times, a Vancouver Chinese-language daily that ran from 1915 to 1992. We're now up to 1987 in our scanning; by mid-year the whole run should be online.

A whole immigrant experience is summed up its pages, even if you can't read a word. The paper gets suddenly larger in 1979, when the community is able to afford more advertising. It stops just as suddenly in 1992, when the influx of Hong Kong immigrants brings with it rival newspapers. Over the years the publication wavers back and forth between left-to-right and right-to-left page order, hovering between worlds, between ways of speaking and organizing ideas, between there and here and between then and now. Advertising acquires more English words; headshots of women begin to appear; addresses move out and away from Chinatown, down the Fraser and Cambie corridors to begin settling middle-class Marpole.

Like most newspapers, there are masthead mistakes. Dates repeat or are different in the English and Chinese headers. English words are inserted by hand or on pasted-in typewritten strips. Pagination is suddenly reversed, with the pages of the middle section running backwards, then just as suddenly rights itself to run forward again. The same ad appears on the same page for months, years, decades; then drops off the page and is never seen again. Another ad runs twice in one issue, even twice on the same page. I imagine a cramped series of offices on the top floor of a Chinatown building; the frantic rush to get tomorrow's paper ready; the search for someone who can type in English but take direction in Chinese. I imagine a new, younger compositor putting a section together Western-style: the editor finds out but it's too late to remake the section. When the same guy goes on holiday for a week, none of the old-timers remember to change the English date on the paper.

The new Hong Kong newspapers can't compete with this. They are more professional, they have more pictures, they get the dates right. But can they tell these stories?

Saturday, February 2, 2008

E. E. Cummings vs. Virginia Woolf

I have been reading and enjoying a fun book of linguistics, with about the best title I've ever heard, Far From the Madding Gerund.

The book is a collection of entries from a multi-author blog I read religiously, Language Log. Even so, the book is useful because it brings together entries topically, and because I have not gone through the entire online archives to find entries of interest that were written before I started reading the blog. Of the book's two main authors, one tends more towards elegance and reasoned argument; the other towards bombast and apoplexy.* I find myself agreeing more often with the first, but wildly enjoying the writing of the second. Is that so wrong?

I bring this all up, reader, because an item from the book caught my eye as I was reading on the bus yesterday. Mr. Bombast objected to this poem by e. e. cummings (or E. E. Cummings--turns out either one is right):

since feeling is first
who pays any attention
to the syntax of things
will never wholly kiss you;

wholly to be a fool
while Spring is in the world

my blood approves,
and kisses are a better fate
than wisdom
lady i swear by all flowers. Don't cry
- the best gesture of my brain is less than
your eyelids' flutter which says

we are for each other; then
laugh, leaning back in my arms
for life's not a paragraph

And death i think is no parenthesis

Because I'm not American I did not read this poem in school. Apparently it is widely taught; several web sites refer to it as Cummings' best-known poem. Although I read a bunch of Cummings as a teenager, I don't remember ever coming across this particular poem; more surprisingly, perhaps, I never had to help a student find criticism of it when I was a literature librarian in New York, where it may even be on the syllabus. So you see, I found it a pretty rude shock when I read it yesterday on the bus.

Now, Mr. Bombast disputes the opinion given in the first stanza. "When a grammarian kisses you, you stay kissed," he says. I have no means of evaluating this statement, but I am willing to take his word for it (and frankly, if either he or Mr. Elegant felt like kissing me, I wouldn't object--that's how much I like their book). What shocked me, by contrast, was the last few lines. "[L]ife's not a paragraph," Cummings claims. It isn't? As someone who finds books as vivid and meaningful as any other aspect of life, I can't seem to make this assertion make sense. I toss it back and forth in my head, but no, life still seems a lot like a paragraph. But there is worse to come: "And death i think is no parenthesis"--surely this is a veiled criticism of Virginia Woolf?

You see, in the second part of To the Lighthouse a number of events, both consequential and trivial, take place in tiny vignette flashbacks or flash forwards, marked by parentheses (or brackets in some editions). One such is this:
[Mr Ramsay, stumbling along a passage one dark morning, stretched his arms out, but Mrs Ramsay having died rather suddenly the night before, his arms, though stretched out, remained empty.]
And as if that weren't bad enough, a few pages later one of the daughters, having been married parenthetically, also succumbs thus:
[Prue Ramsay died that summer in some illness connected with childbirth, which was indeed a tragedy, people said, everything, they said, had promised so well.]
When I first read To the Lighthouse, which I only did well into my thirties because Shmu told me I had to, when I got to Mrs. Ramsay's death I actually gasped. When I got to Prue's I was all but done in. So there you have it. Life is a paragraph; death is a parenthesis. What was Cummings thinking?


* He begins one entry: "I'd like to take a minute of Language Log time to slap [a certain New York Times science writer] real hard upside the head, if that's all right." What follows is more like what I'm used to calling, in scholarly situations, a serious spanking.