WHY WE MOVED FROM ONE UNIVERSITY TOWN TO ANOTHER IN 1,000 WORDS OR LESS

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1.  We met in Cambridge (Massachusetts).  He was a 73 year old psychiatrist with a private practice. He also taught one class a semester at the Harvard Medical School.  I was a 69 3/4 year old civil litigation lawyer by then practicing at a small firm in Boston that permitted a four-day work week.  The other day a week I would trundle my laptop to the Boston Writers Room (where there was no laundry or internet to distract me) and try to write something that wasn’t a brief or a memorandum in support of a motion.

2. He hated Cambridge because it reminded him of his marriage to his second wife, who still lived in their Cambridge house,  which she had obtained during an acrimonious divorce.  Everywhere we went reminded him of something that had occurred during the marriage, or someone they had met when they were still, as it were, “together.”  So from the day I first knew him, he wanted to leave.  A psychiatrist can practice anywhere, once he obtains a license from the state he has moved to.

3. I didn’t hate Cambridge at all, but would have been willing to leave except I was chained to Massachusetts as long as I needed an income stream.  It’s not that I loved my law practice  so much. (I didn’t, really.) But I still needed money, having begun life as a single woman after a second divorce with a net worth of zero at the age of sixty. Moreover, my right to practice law wasn’t portable without sitting for two days of bar exams all over again, except to a few states that had reciprocity arrangements with Massachusetts. And even then, who would want to hire a 70-year-old lawyer without a book of business or knowledge of state law? So we stayed put where I was licensed.  In my condo on Brattle Street.

4. There are lots of interesting foreign movies, concerts, exhibits and lectures open to the public when you live where Harvard is. (Moreover it sounds very classy to have a Cambridge address, especially on Brattle Street, if you care about that sort of thing. And yes, I confess, I did care, at least a little bit.) Right across the river in Boston — take the Red Line to be there in no time — is also Symphony and the Boston Ballet and three theaters showing road company versions of New York plays and musicals. Not to mention outposts of Saks, Lord & Taylor, Neiman’s and Barney’s, where it’s much easier to shop than in the mother stores in New York and Dallas.  So it was really great to be in Cambridge, if it weren’t for the black ice in winter, and the miserably hot and humid summers, and Bill complaining loudly about how the grass would be greener somewhere else.

5.  Then three of our combined five adult children wound up living in New York. Also both my financial advisor and accountant opined that I had frugally put by enough so that if I remained frugal I could retire and live till 102.  (After that, if I were lucky enough to have an “after that,” I would need to get by on Social Security.)  We could leave! But where should we go?

6. Clearly, New York itself — secretly in my heart for all those many years since I’d left it — was out of the question.  We could probably afford no more than a studio in a good Manhattan neighborhood or a small one-bedroom in a not-good one.  And we needed more space than that, so that we could get away from each other for a while.  Where then? For reasons best known to himself, Bill suggested New Mexico or North Carolina, arguing that if we lived near a university in either of those states it wouldn’t be so bad to be so far from the Northeast where we both had grown up.  For reasons I made perfectly understandable — the three children in New York, one of his in Switzerland, and one of mine in Florida — New Mexico was a geographically bad idea and North Carolina had nothing going for it as far as I was concerned except girlhood memories of having read Thomas Wolfe, who had left the state himself as soon as he could and was now, in any event, dead.

7.  Then one sunny afternoon during our 2004 summer vacation on a tiny Greek island in the Dodecanese, Bill mentioned Princeton, New Jersey. Eureka!  An hour and a half from New York and 3/5 of our children (not to mention my soon-to-be first grandchild).  Home to a major university (think Princeton),  the Institute of Advanced Studies (think Einstein), Westminster Choir College (think free concerts). Home to McCarter Theater, which brings in five plays a year, plus ballet, concerts by world-class instrumental soloists, jazz, and three operas. The university has its own art museum, theater, and Richardson Auditorium, a perfect acoustic venue for Princeton’s resident string quartet, for free concerts by the University Orchestra and for not very expensive subscriptions to the Princeton Symphony Orchestra). And New Jersey is historically a blue state.  (We didn’t know Chris Christie was coming down the pike.)  It even had a Whole Foods!  How could we go wrong?

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Princeton University in the spring.

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This is the historic (and picturesque) part of campus. There is strikingly modern architecture elsewhere.

8. It took us over a year. (Selling Cambridge real estate, buying Princeton real estate, and like that.) When we finally moved, he was 78 and I was 74 1/2, which people sometimes say was brave, given that we knew no one here. But would it have been less brave to go on slipping on black ice at the risk of breaking elderly bones, and (in his case) go on being reminded of an unhappy past lived in Cambridge neighborhoods?

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University Chapel. Convocation and Commencement ceremonies are held here. There are half-hour organ concerts open to the public at noon throughout the academic year.

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A late April flowering. Outside a reading room of the library. (I think.)

9. Anyway, what’s done is done and here we still are, nine years older.   When people ask why Princeton, I sometimes say — because it’s easier — we just threw a dart at a map.  If we really had, it would have been even braver of us.  But I guess it’s too late to try that one.

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Between Firestone Library (left) and the University Chapel (right).

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McCosh, where English and American literature classes meet.

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MEDITATION CONTROVERSY: PLEASE BUTT IN!

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[A little more than two weeks ago, I posted a piece about meditation which included a long quotation from Jack Kornfield, founder of the Cambridge Insight Meditation Center and a renowned leader of Vipassana meditation in the United States. The general response to such a long TGOB piece was quite gratifying.  However, it seems I remain Pandora after all these years. I could not leave well enough alone and sent the post through email to the most difficult (although rewarding) WordPress blogger of whom I am aware — William Eaton of Montaigbakhtinian. I’m not sure what I was expecting.  Perhaps no more than a “Thank you” by return email. 

It’s not entirely apt to say curiosity killed the cat, but my curiosity in this instance produced a lengthy comment on the blog post itself. Never one to let another have the last word if I can help it, I had to reply. Alas, the last word was not yet in sight.  A week later, my reply received a reply of its own, even lengthier than its author’s first comment. By the time I had a free moment to reply to the reply to my reply to William’s original comment, more than two weeks had elapsed since the original post, and between us we had produced a juicy intellectual to-do  — I call it “controversy,” he calls it “dialogue” — which no one other than the two of us will probably read because it’s slipped down too far below subsequent TGOB posts of a lighter, more accessible nature.

And so I present for your reading pleasure (or pain), the selection by Kornfield which many of you have already seen (and can therefore skip if you have), followed by the Eaton/Mishkin skirmish.  I’ve not included again the gracious comments on the original post from Gerard Oosterman, PreciousPen1955, Helena Sorensen, ShimonZ, Nancy and HilaryCustanceGreen, since they were all peaceable.

This will be somewhat heavier going than you’re used to on TGOB, but please slog on to the end if you can, and then speak up!  Participate! Help make it a free-for-all, fun-for-all posting experience, even though it’s already running 4194 words!]

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WHY MEDITATE?

by Jack Kornfield

Here is a story told about the Buddha shortly after he was enlightened. As he was walking down the dusty road he met a traveler who saw him as a handsome yogi exuding a remarkable energy. The traveler asked him, “You seem very special. What are you? Are you some kind of an angel? You seem inhuman.” “No,” he said. “Well, are you some kind of god then?” “No,” he said. “Well, are you some kind of wizard or magician?” “No,” he replied. “Well, are you a man?” “No.” “Then what are you?” At this the Buddha answered, “I am awake.” In those three words — “I am awake” — he gave the whole of Buddhist teachings. The word “buddha” means one who is awake. To be a buddha is to be one who has awakened to the nature of life and death, and who has awakened and freed one’s compassion in the midst of this world.

The practice of meditation does not ask us to become a Buddhist or a meditator or a spiritual person. It invites us to fulfill the capacity we each have as humans to awaken. The skill of becoming more mindful, and more present, and more compassionate, and more awake is something we may learn sitting on a meditation cushion, but this capacity for awareness helps in computer programming, playing tennis, lovemaking, or walking by the ocean and listening to life around you. In fact, to awaken, to be really present, is the central art in all other arts.

What is that which we can awaken to? We awaken to what Buddhists call the dharma. Dharma is the Sanskrit and Pali word that refers to the universal truths: to the laws of the universe and the teachings that describe it. In this sense, finding the dharma is quite immediate. It is the wisdom that is always present to be discovered.

It is different than waiting for God to come down to us in a cloud of glory, or a big spiritual enlightenment, or a wonderful, otherworldly experience. The dharma of wisdom, what we can awaken to, is the truth that is right where we are when we let go of fantasies and memories and come into the reality of the present. When we do that and pay careful attention, we start to see the characteristics of the dharma in the very life in which we live.

One of the first characteristics of the dharma that shows itself in meditation is impermanence and uncertainty. “Thus shall you think of this fleeting world,” it says in one Buddhist sutra. “A star at dawn, a bubble in a stream, a flash of lightning in a summer cloud, an echo, a rainbow, a phantom, and a dream.” The more quietly you sit, the more closely you observe, the more you realize that everything you can see is in a state of change. Ordinarily, everything we experience seems solid, including our personality, the world around us, our emotions, and the thoughts in our mind. It is like watching a movie; we can get so caught up in the story until it seems real, even though it is actually made of light flickering on a screen. And yet if you focus very carefully on what you are seeing, it is possible to see that the film is actually a series of still pictures, one frame after another. One appears, and then there is a slight gap, and then the next one appears.

The same thing is happening in our lives. Because that is so: nothing in our lives lasts or stays the same for very long. You do not have to be a very adept meditator to see that everything is changing all the time. Have you been able to get any mental states of any kind to last very long? Is there anything in your life that stays the same?

This brings us to dharma’s second law. If we want things that are always changing to stay the same to get attached to them, we get disappointed, we suffer. Not because we should suffer — this is not something created to punish us. It is the very way things are, as basic as gravity. If we get attached to something staying the way it is, it does not stop changing. Trying to hold onto “how it was” will only create suffering and disappointment, because life is a river and everything changes.

So when we start to see the laws of nature — that things are impermanent, that attachment causes pain — we can also sense that there must be some other way. And there is. It is the way that can be called “the wisdom of insecurity.” This is the ability to flow with the changes, to see everything as a process of change, to relax with uncertainty. Meditation teaches us how to let go, how to stay centered in the midst of change. Once we see that everything is impermanent and ungraspable and that we create a huge amount of suffering if we are attached to things staying the same, we realize that relaxing and letting go is a wiser way to live. We realize that gain and loss, praise and blame, pain and pleasure are part of the dance of life, given to each of us, born into our human body. Letting go does not mean not caring about things. It means caring for them in a flexible and wise way. In meditation, we pay attention to our body with care and respect.

When we ask, “What is the nature of the body?” we can see that it grows up, it grows old, it gets sick sometimes, and it eventually dies. When we sit to meditate, we can directly feel the state of our body, the tensions we carry, the level of tiredness or energy. Sometimes being in our body feels good, and sometimes it hurts. Sometimes it is quiet, and sometimes it is restless. In meditation we sense that we do not actually own our bodies but rather we just inhabit them for a short time, and during that time they will change by themselves, regardless of what we want to happen. The same is true for our mind and heart, with its hopes and fears, the grief and joy. As we continue to meditate, we learn to relate more wisely to what Zorba the Greek called “the whole catastrophe.” Instead of fearing painful experiences and running away from them, or grasping after pleasant experiences hoping that somehow by holding onto them they will last, we come to realize our heart has the capacity to be present for it all, to live more fully and freely where we are. When we realize that everything passes away, not only the good things but the painful things as well, we find a composure in their midst.

….You can learn that you do not have to fear that which is painful and you do not have to grasp for that which is pleasant. We have often been conditioned to believe this way, but as we meditate, it quickly becomes apparent that grasping for what is pleasant or fearing things that cause us pain does not lead to peace, and it does not lead to happiness. The truth is that things change whether we want them to or not. Becoming attached to things as they are or pushing things away that we do not like does not stop them from changing. It only leads to further suffering.

Instead, in meditation we discover a natural, open-hearted, and non-judgmental awareness of our bodies and our feelings. We can gradually bring this kind and open awareness to witness all that’s in our minds. We learn to see and trust the law of impermanence — this means we begin to see the world as it is really is. In the midst of it all, we begin to see how we can relate to all of it with compassion, kindness, and wisdom.

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[Now here are the four comments this post is about. Take courage in hand and speak up!]

WILLIAM EATON
Thanks for calling my attention to this, Nina. And best of luck with your group meditation!

That said, I must be my curmudgeonly self (and while noting that I have meditated off and on for going on 40 years now, and I’m now trying a new technique that I devised on my own). My curmudge is this: I was happy with the lines from Kornfeld and the Buddha when they were about being “awake.” And trying to be awake then might involve reading Marx or Freud (or working with a good psychotherapist), or many, many other, diverse actitivities.

But then I get to Kornfeld’s “Meditation teaches us how to let go, how to stay centered in the midst of change.” And all the stuff after that about letting go, being non-judgmental and accepting. This does not seem to have much to do with awake-ness, but rather with managing the many enraging aspects of life and managing them in a way that does not involve expressing one’s anger (something that is now taboo). Perhaps someone would say, in our rapidly changing, impersonal world, it is better to learn how to not get too bent out of shape by change than to be “awake.” That I can at least understand. But awakeness, in my book, involves recognizing that change (and mortality and consciousness and our inter-dependence) does indeed bend us out of shape!

I remember going to a yoga class on a Friday evening, and the young teacher proposed that we students begin by letting go of everything that had happened during the past week (i.e. all the “bad stuff,” the enraging stuff). That pretty much ended my yoga career (which had been offing and on-ing for 25 years or so). What did letting go of the bad stuff, the enraging stuff, have to do with being awake? It had more to do with being asleep, with not paying attention to the lives we are living, in which, of course, there is plenty of bad stuff and good (and unclassifiable).

I have also been, since adolescence, an off-and-on attender of Quaker meeting. Here’s another religion that, unfortunately, seeks to suppress anger and its expression, but, as a result, going to meeting can be an excellent way of becoming aware of one’s anger and of other people’s, and of the problems of consciousness and interdependence. An awakening form of group meditation?

This is not to say our anger and the human predicament are all we should be awake to, but rather that awakeness should be to all: to the good and the bad–the “real two,” I’ll call it, after this passage in Emerson’s “Self-Reliance”: “Well, most men have bound their eyes with one or another handkerchief, and attached themselves to some one of these communities of opinion. This conformity makes them not false in a few particulars, authors of a few lies, but false in all particulars. Their every truth is not quite true. Their two is not the real two, their four not the real four; so that every word they say chagrins us and we know not where to begin to set them right.”

Best, Wm. (Montaigbakhtinian.com)

April 14, 2015 at 3:02 p.m.

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NINA MISHKIN
Wow, William! You sure do like to stir the pot! I have indeed read Marx and Freud (although quite a long time ago), worked for twenty-four (discontinuous) years with two good therapists, and even attended several Quaker Sunday Assemblies here in Princeton, on the representation of a Jewish acquaintance of mine that Christ would not be mentioned, which proved to be both wrong and (for me) a deal breaker. But as it was I who invited you to read this post (curious perhaps as to your response), I’m reluctant to go mano a mano with you about it.

Nonetheless, may I suggest that the contradiction you identify between both being “awake” and “letting go” is only apparent? I can’t speak for your young yoga teacher — I was always terrible at yoga myself, even at Kripalu counting the minutes until it would be over. But what Kornfeld seems to mean by “awake” is “aware” — and what he wants us to “let go” of are the fantasies and memories in which too many of us spend our interior lives, so that we can then be truly aware of what is happening now. He is not a perfect guru by any means. But I do understand him to be speaking of meditation as able to affect for the better the state of our interiority, which then affects how we conduct ourselves in the world. And it has been my experience, even without meditation, that one can recognize and deal with the infuriating aspects of the life we are living more productively and with less harm to and suffering in ourselves without the heat of blinding passion which you seem to favor expressing.

It is very difficult to develop the “wisdom of insecurity” that Kornfield advocates as a goal. It is very difficult to be non-judgmental — that is, accepting — of our mortality and the impermanence of everything we love. You seem to be saying we shouldn’t even try. I feel we have to try. It’s too painful otherwise. That said, I would be extremely interested in hearing about the meditation technique you’ve devised on your own. Is it a secret? Or do you share?

April 14, 2015 at 6:00 p.m.

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WILLIAM EATON
Hi Nina. A value of writing and of conversation is that helps us continue to advance our thinking (which is not to say to make progress, nor to say that we ever reach an end. Rather, one interpretation gives way to another, as Bakhtin pointed out.) So my next reflection (which would have to take the place of any “secret” I might have) would be that meditation these days by and large (which does not mean exclusively) serves a medicinal purpose: helping to calm us down, take a break from the action. This can certainly be useful, but, like a lot of such medicines, in doing this work, it inevitably dulls our awareness. Yes, it is good to keep in touch with the fact that we are, in the cosmic scheme of things, next to nothing, and thus that our trials and tribulations are, on some level, without significance and our judgments absurd. But I would not have this keeping in touch involve losing touch with our lives in the world of appearances, let’s call it. In this world we do indeed have trials and tribulations. We do indeed make judgments, continuously, and we have to. You write of the too-painful. Yes, that, too, is part of human life, and to seek to escape from that is to seek to live one’s life less fully, (I often find myself in contentious dialogue with a line from Dag Hammarskold: “Life only demands from you the strength you possess. Only one feat is possible — not to have run away.” To include from the “too-painful” is what I am here proposing.)

I am also concerned that in our devotion to calming practices we are at times, and without pay, coping internally with anger that might otherwise be put to socially useful purposes: fighting the machine, we might call this. Or raging at the dying of the light, to borrow a phrase from Dylan Thomas. The sociologist Norbert Elias wrote about how, with the development of the conscience and super-ego, human beings took on the work of self-control rather than this being done by external agents. (E.g.: We “beat up ourselves” more than we get beaten — or while we also get beaten.) My sense is that “the machine” now has a vast secondary machine attached to it — the machine of meditation teachers, yoga classes, spas, therapists, etc. The point is for us to work — NOT at our jobs, in our families, in our commercial dealings and political lives — but to work internally on getting rid of and not expressing our anger.

Suppose, for example, that I were working for a large bank or Internet company, and it was paying me $100,000 per year, and I was spending $10,000 per year on classes, therapy and retreats. And perhaps my employer was chipping in a little via health-insurance coverage. And much of this money was being spent so that I would be a good worker, so that I would not get angry at the angry things at my job, or would keep this anger inside. (And then go to a therapist to be treated for depression which is typically caused by repressed anger.) All this may be necessary to stay employed and keep the sushi on table, as we used to say. But I would have people be aware — yes, aware — of the system in which they were involved, the work they were being called upon to do, and were in fact doing.

Not to repeat my first comment, but it is from the above perspective that I liked your Kornfeld’s focus on awakeness/awareness, and I continue to like some of the message you report — the being truly aware of what is happening now. Though I would not have us let go of our memories, but rather explore them; nor would I renounce our fantasies, but rather have us recognize them for what they are and recognize our need for them — as a way of dealing with the “too-painful.”

My personal meditation technique is of minor interest, just a gimmick really, but I would close with this basic point. Americans are caught in a problem-solution view of life and of “ethics” (how to live). At one extreme this involves us in various approaches to death (and to medicine) that seem to have as their implicit goal immortality. But mortality is an aspect of the irresolvable human predicament. (Become immortal we would no longer be human.) There are other aspects of our predicament besides mortality. There are the challenges of being a social animal, dependent on others. There is consciousness, having to live with an overlarge brain. There are more transient “predicaments” such as capitalism or the multivarious weapons, military and otherwise, of modern technologies. For me awareness must include being aware of these things, and of the unanswerability of our most fundamental questions, the unrealizability of our most fervent dreams.

Perhaps someday I’ll post in Montaigbakhtinian an old essay, “There is No Solution.” For the moment I’ll close with these three bits from a favorite book, the British sociologist-psychotherapist Ian Craib’s “The Importance of Disappointment”:

(1) “This kind of illusion is often bound up with a kind of counselling or therapeutic evangelism: the not-quite truisms of ‘it’s good to get things off your chest’, ‘it’s important to have somebody to talk to’ and so on. Talking [AND BLOG POSTING & COMMENTING!!] can clarify, can replace impulsive and possibly destructive acting out, it can be a medium for making decisions, but it is not an alternative to conflict and suffering.”

(2) “There are, then, a number of aspects to integration that can make it a not-so-attractive prospect from the point of view of those who see psychotherapy as offering solutions, happiness and satisfaction. It means becoming aware of and suffering conflicts; becoming aware of and putting up with what I have described as authentically bad aspects of relationships, and of the self; and it means coming up against and recognising the limits of one’s abilities and the very real fear of disintegration that that can bring.”

(3) “The movement towards external and internal reality makes life both easier and harder; energy involved, in this example, in denial is released . . . and can be put to other, more productive purposes. The price is experiencing a real and appropriate fear; perhaps the best description of this dimension of psychotherapy is of learning how to suffer.”

Yrs. in dialogue, Wm.

April 20, 2015 at 1:48 p.m.

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NINA MISHKIN
Hi again, Wm. After some reflection, I’ve decided to respond once more, although I must confess I don’t believe we are still “in dialogue” — if we ever have been. You have now written an interesting short essay, at some remove from the original post, which takes as its springboard a few words in my reply to your first “comment” (about what may be too painful to bear) and then soars into a stratosphere of your own concerns, which seem to focus on preserving anger and misery at the human predicament. I would point out that Dylan Thomas, who you reference as urging us to rage, rage against the dying of the light (and as far as we know did not meditate) medicated his own pain with such an excess of alcohol that he was dead in his thirties. I might also observe, as I did in my earlier reply, that we engage more effectively with the “predicaments” of being — as you say — social animals or of capitalism and the dark side of modern technologies when we are calmer and less the victims of our own “monkey minds.” Which is what I take Vipassana meditation and Jack Kornfield to be about for rank beginners like myself.

I agree “there is no solution.” On the other hand, we have to live (as best we can) with what there is. I also agree that happiness is not the goal of psychotherapy, but neither is a steady diet of suffering (except perhaps for very strict Freudians). If I were making $100,000 a year doing work promoting ends of which I did not approve and were unable to find another way of earning an adequate living (that would support and educate my children, for instance), I would consider $10,000 a year well spent to keep me enjoying what there was to enjoy in those parts of my life left over from the wage-earning (such as sushi, and posting essays in Montaigbakhtinian).

In some ways, despite the impressive range of your reading and vocabulary, I find you to be rather an esprit simpliste in your responses; it has to be all either black or white. I too have been called that in my salad days but I’m trying to rectify this attitude towards what I’ve experienced and observed while there’s still time. Not to make bad jokes about the fifty shades of grey one can achieve by mixing black and white, but surely learning how to suffer is not the only thing life must be about.

Finally, I ought to point out that we are typing away here some two weeks after the original post, with the result that you and I are probably alone by now in reading what we have each been at such pains to write. Perhaps I should now open it up to those few followers of TGOB who may have the patience to put up with us and maybe even want to join in. If I re-post our friendly skirmishes, aka “dialogue,” It would be interesting to see what sort of comments we might get.

April 26, 2015 at 11:42 a.m.

AND NOW — IF YOU’RE STILL WITH US — IT’S YOUR TURN! DON’T BE SHY. TELL US WHAT YOU THINK.

NOBODY GOES HUNGRY AT OUR HOUSE

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We have three bird feeders hanging off the railing of our kitchen back deck.  I try to keep them filled with black oil sunflower seed. They’ve been emptying with astonishing rapidity, considering the small size of the several species of bird who come to feed, usually a seed at a time.

The culprit, of course, is one extremely clever grey squirrel. (Or perhaps fungible grey squirrels take turns.)  He climbs from the ground and attaches himself upside down to a feeder, where he can considerably lower the level in one feeding.

Poor little guy.  Why shouldn’t he have his own grub so as not to rob the birds?  Yummy unsalted peanuts from the supermarket.  As soon as he discovered them, he went to work:

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HE ATE AND ATE.

My taking pictures from behind the sliding glass door didn’t scare him a bit.  He looked me right in the eye and went on munching.

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MUCH MORE DELICIOUS THAN BIRDSEED!

At last he’d had enough.

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TIME TO LEAVE. (AND TELL THE OTHERS?)

That night it rained.  What do squirrels do when it rains?

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(NOTE NEAR-EMPTY FEEDERS THAT WERE FULL THE DAY BEFORE.)

Guess we’re going back to the store today.

BONUS FOR FOREIGNERS: WHY ENGLISH IS SO HARD

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OR, DO YOU WEAR BEET ON YOUR FEET OR BOOTS ON YOUR FOOTS?

[Multiple Woes With the English Language]

[Following up on the success of yesterday’s post with Anglophone readers of TGOB, I present more of the contents of the envelope I was given upon volunteering to tutor an international student at Princeton University in English conversation.  As was pointed out by one reader yesterday, none of this is funny ha-ha if you’re learning English from a book. On the other hand, it remains funny peculiar (note the two meanings of word “funny”) even if you are a beginner.  The following poem about the pitfalls of English plurals was first printed in David Booth’s “Spelling Links: Reflections on Spelling and Its Place in the Curriculum,”Pembroke 1991.]

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WHY ENGLISH IS SO HARD

Anonymous

We’ll begin with box, the plural is boxes.

But the plural of ox should be oxen, not oxes.

One fowl is a goose, but two are called geese.

Yet the plural of mouse is never meese.

You may find a lone mouse, or a whole nest of mice.

But the plural of a house is houses, not hice.

If the plural of a man is always men,

Why shouldn’t the plural of a pan be called pen?

The cow in the plural may be called cows or kine.

But a bow, if repeated, is never called bine;

And the plural of vow is vows, not vine.

If I speak of a foot and you show me two feet,

And I give you a boot, would a pair be called beet?

If one is a tooth and a whole set are teeth,

Why shouldn’t the plural of booth be called beeth?

If the singular’s this, and the plural these,

Should the plural of kiss ever be written kese?

We speak of a brother and also of brethren,

But though we say mother, we never say mothren.

Then the masculine pronouns are he, his, and him.

But imagine the feminine, she, shis and shim!

So English, I think you all will agree,

Is the funniest language you ever did see.

HINTS ON ENGLISH PRONUNCIATION FOR FOREIGNERS

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[I take no credit for what follows.  It’s part of a package of materials I was given last week after I volunteered to do one-on-one tutoring in English conversation for the Davis International Center at Princeton University. My international student for the next five months will be a visiting scholar from China, who has come to work at the Princeton Plasma Physics laboratory.

International students at the University must read and write English at an acceptable level or take a remedial course.  Being able to speak so that others can understand is something else.  And then there are the idioms!  I’m meeting my student for the first time later this morning, and so won’t know what his conversational problems may be until then.  In the meanwhile, however, here’s something for you to enjoy.  We anglophones are so lucky!]

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I take it you already know

Of tough and bough and cough and dough?

Others may stumble but not you,

On hiccough, thorough, laugh and through.

Well done! And you wish, perhaps,

To learn of less familiar traps?

Beware of heard, a dreadful word

That looks like beard and sounds like bird,

And dead: it’s said like bed, not bead —

For goodness’ sake don’t call it “deed”!

Watch out for meat and great and threat

(They rhyme with suite and straight and debt.)

A moth is not a moth in mother

Nor both in bother, broth in brother,

And here is not a match for there

Nor dear and fear for bear and pear,

And then there’s dose and rose and lose —

Just look them up — and goose and choose,

And cork and work and card and ward

And font and front and word and sword,

And do and go and thwart and cart —

Come, come, I’ve hardly made a start!

A dreadful language? Man alive!

I’d mastered it when I was five.

T.S.W. (Only the initials of writer are known)

HISTORIC CABBAGE SOUP

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Don’t worry; the soup in this picture was made just a few hours ago.  It’s the recipe that’s historic. I was aiming for the cabbage soup my Russian mother used to serve when I was a little girl. Since she probably learned how to make it from her mother, that would put the recipe back to the last years of the nineteenth century. (Whether or not my grandmother acquired it from my great-grandmother, thereby making the recipe even older, is purely speculative.)

Oddly, my mother always called this historic soup “borscht” even though there were no beets in it. Whatever. It tasted very good. Competitive to the end, she managed with sly evasions never to give me the recipe. Which may have been just as well, because I recall that what she did was a complicated all-day affair involving a huge pot and “goluptsi”  (little birds) cooked in the soup.  And complicated all-day cooking is not for me, irrespective of the taste thrill at the end.  What are “goluptsi?” Big cabbage leaves wrapped around a seasoned combination of chopped meat and rice.  The soup would be the opener, the little birds the main course.

So the recipe I’m referring to here is not exactly my mother’s (or grandmother’s).  However, something that looked as if it would taste very much like their soup eventually showed up in “EAT!” —  a cookbook published by the Parents and Teachers Association of Public School 166 (Manhattan) in March 1975.  I was a P.S. 199 parent of two boys at that time and therefore felt obliged to buy “EAT!” (Especially as I had two recipes included in it myself.)

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The soup in “EAT!” was called “Reena Kondo’s Cabbage Soup.” The contributor of this recipe, known to us all as Miss Kondo, had been my younger son’s kindergarten teacher the year before.  She was of Polish-Jewish descent, and I am quite certain the soup recipe had come to America one or two generations prior to reaching her, probably also through the maternal line, thus escaping annihilation in the Warsaw ghetto.

Instead of goluptsi, Miss Kondo’s mother and/or grandmother had added a few pieces of cut up beef and carrots. I have omitted them. I have no recollection of cooked carrots in any maternal soups of my childhood, and my mother would never have wasted a good piece of beef by boiling it in soup.  However, stripped of these decadent refinements, the following reconstructed recipe will taste remarkably similar to what I was lapping up at the kitchen table in Washington Heights in the 1930’s. It makes at least three suppers-in-a-bowl for two adults as a main course. Easy-peasy too. And remember: cruciferous vegetables are very good for you.

[P.S.  If you can’t find sour salt anywhere, squeeze four or five lemons, salt the lemon juice heavily, and add the salted juice to the pot.]

RECONSTRUCTED CABBAGE SOUP RECIPE, CIRCA 1900

1 head of white cabbage

2 14 oz. cans diced tomatoes

handful (or several handfuls) of white raisins

several pieces of sour salt (to taste)

Regulär table salt (to taste)

Honey and/or brown sugar (to taste)

2 apples, peeled and cut into eighths

Cut the cabbage into small pieces or shred it.  In sizeable pot, cover the shredded cabbage with cold water and add all the remaining ingredients except the apples, which should be put in towards the end.  Cooking time is about two hours, but after an hour or so begin tasting and adjusting the salt, lemon juice (if you’re using it) and sweetener till you achieve a sweet/sour taste you like.

I don’t know about Reena Kondo, but my mother always served it with a big blob of sour cream on top.  I use yogurt. (Goat’s milk yogurt, to be precise, but we’re peculiar. My mother didn’t know about goat’s milk yogurt.)

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At the table, mix with your soup spoon. Serve with black bread, French bread, no bread.

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If you were to make it tomorrow (Thursday), you’d be all set through Saturday.  Who wants to be in the kitchen too often, now that it’s (nearly) spring?