Monday, 23 November 2015

I dreamt a dream tonight

Dream: I am watching an episode of a detective series on TV. The series has the gritty, hard-boiled, get-to-grips-with-it title of Kiss the Banana.

Tuesday, 10 November 2015

A Day in the Life V

This week is a reading week, meaning that the students in the university (as opposed to our little antechamber) have no lectures and are thus free to enjoy the luxury of immersing themselves totally in International Business Management books, and treats like that. Or just to bugger off and do nothing for seven days. I say 'reading week', but the university has decided it is actually 'Enhancement Week' because they think that sounds kind of like all positive and dynamic and stuff. Anyone who can coin such a term will never be persuaded of its cheesiness, and so Enhancement Week is the official designation. pending coinage of a cheesier. Anyway, reading week gave me reason to hope that my silent Monday evening Undergrad Language Support students might give the class a miss, allowing me to get home for seven instead of nine.

I asked colleagues how long one is expected to sit waiting for students to arrive before dowsing the lights and getting the fuck out. Fifteen minutes was the consensus. But then suppose just as you were gleefully hightailing it out of the building, comble de malchance! you met a single student coming in the opposite direction, late with a legitimate reason. You'd be forced to return to the classroom, reboot the computer, get all your bloody books and papers out again and resign yourself to trying to drag language out of a lone Trappist for an hour and three quarters. With a colleague who uses the same room for the same purpose, I discussed tactics for escaping unnoticed:

  • The windows don't open very wide and in any case appear to give onto an enclosed area, so forget it. You'd have to climb back in - and think what an unteacherly figure you'd cut to any arriving student, stuck there like a trapped burglar. 
  • There's a long, narrow corridor which is a definite risk: there'd be no chance of avoiding an approaching undergrad unless perhaps you were wearing a burka, which really would be taking it all a bit too seriously. 
  • The corridor successfully negotiated, you could go up the stairs, across the first floor and down the staircase on the other side of the building...
  • ...then you'd have to get your head down and charge through the brightly-lit entrance hall like a spider tear-arsing across a living room carpet before reaching the escape-hatch of a back door that can only be opened by staff with swipe-cards.

I cannot believe that we actually sat and discussed this. Even so, on getting to the classroom I was pleased to find at the near end of the corridor a hidden staircase of the kind that permitted servants to move unobtrusively around grand houses. Perfect. I passed this on to Emma today.


In the event, five young Chinese ladies show up. Not as good as none, but better than one. They greet me cheerily but as always, once the lesson is underway they revert to the downward gaze and shy whispering that for them betokens modesty and respect but drives me scatty. We are doing presentation skills this evening, something they have requested, because they have presentations to make. The usual Chinese ploy is to write out the entire presentation, commit it to memory and then recite it. We spend a lot of time telling them not to do this: it makes you sound robotic, your written text will be denser than spoken discourse and thus more difficult to decode, and an unexpected interruption can put you off your stroke and once you have lost your place it can be hard to remember where you had got to. Fear of grammatical error dinned into them at school makes them reluctant to comply with our instructions, though. So this evening we make notes on the whiteboard for a chunk of presentation, and to their horror I require each of them to come out to the front and present the material from the notes only. This they do very well, so the atmosphere lightens. They have, as requested, brought with them the presentations they are working on. Thank fuck for that, because I am getting fed up of everything having to come from me, and the material I have brought is thorough but dull as a vodka and tonic without ice.

I call a five minute break. There's no teachers' room to retreat to, so no chance of tea. I take the lift to the third floor, walk down the stairs to the ground floor, go for a pee and, having thus exhausted the opportunities for diversion that the building affords, return to the classroom. I'm hoping for a buzzing, workshoppy hour with the girls collaborating on their presentations.

Lydia shows me her PowerPoint presentation. We reduce the amount of text on her slides and I persuade her to come to the console and present a bit of her work. This she does, and I give feedback.

'When are you giving the presentation?' I ask.

'I make last week,' she says.

Right. The thing is done, graded, fed back on, dead. They will not be making any more presentations this year. Nothing I did this evening was of any immediate use. 


Do not put yourself forward to do undergraduate English language support.

Never take anything for granted. Never assume that students see the logic in teachers' questions and suggestions. Check all your instructions even if you fear you are treating adults like morons - and this is my greatest fear.

Let's go home. There's gin and tonic to come.

Wednesday, 28 October 2015

A Day in the Life IV

An evening, actually. 

On Monday and Thursday evenings, I teach undergraduate language support groups. I don’t look forward to the Monday class. In a remote and cavernous classroom at the end of an unlit corridor of the nearly empty Dennis Wheatley building, I have a group of eight Chinese kids who have obviously taken a vow of silence - never a good thing in a language learner. On a dark Monday evening at half-past six, half way through our two-hour class, a chill and lonesome mood will often steal over me: fuck, what am I doing here? 

I arrive at the empty classroom at five in the evening to make sure the computer and the sound are working. The room could accommodate ice hockey, so I drag four tables to the front to make two islands close to the screen and whiteboard. The first student to arrive is Viola, a small girl who shuns all expression, facial and verbal. She does not return my greeting but sits down and begins solemnly jabbing at her smartphone. Over the next fifteen minutes more students drift in, silent as ghosts, park themselves and begin to prod their phones. I go out to the loo, then treck to the water cooler to fill my bottle of water and return at five thirty to find all eight students present, silent, intently flicking and poking their private mini-screens. Even though they are sitting in groups of four around the two tables I’ve placed close together, each seems completely alone. I’m supposed to teach them seminar skills.   

‘Right you buggers, for Christ’s sake put them fucking phones away and let’s get cracking!’ I shout. (Use the higher end of your vocal range for this, you sound friendlier that way.) We are going to do a dictation, but first I elicit phrases you can use to get someone to speak more slowly or more loudly, or spell a word for you. Or at least I try. Nobody speaks. I ask again for ways in which these functions might be realised and eventually Viola makes a suggestion. Even though I didn't hear what she said, I receive it as enthusiastically as a parent greets baby's first poo in a potty. Nobody else heard either but she will not be prevailed upon to repeat it. It's as if she expects to be billed for any word she utters. Never mind. Here are some phrases I prepared before the show, floating in on the screen:

  • Could you slow down a bit, please?
  • Could you speak up a bit, please?
  • Could you spell that for me, please?

We practise the stress and intonation and probably they are all thinking: ‘why did he spend ages trying to drag these out of us when he had them on a PowerPoint all along? Why the cat and mouse?’

So, the dictation. I make it clear that they can use the phrases on the screen should I make it necessary, and then read the whole paragraph at a rattling pace, finishing it in about ten seconds. Silence. It’s the same hermetic, solipsistic silence that accompanies the smartphone jabbing. I begin to think I may be invisible. The room gets bigger and colder. Weeks pass. Then Cassie says in a tiny, timid whisper: ‘could you slow down a bit, please?’ 

Now once they get the idea, it begins to work. Each member of four pairs is given a short text to dictate to the other and they actually start to laugh a bit as they use the formulas.  We are still a long way from seminar skills, the ten minute warmer has now lasted nearly half an hour and the speaking they are doing is one hundred percent scripted, but they are at least speaking. I suppose it’s a start.

At six thirty-ish I allow a five minute phone-poking break while I go to refill my bottle of water, and return to find the eight of them in silent, rapt communion with their screens. If there were such a thing as an e-monastery, a meditation period would be like this. The cold, lonely, far-from-home feeling visits me again: all this preparation for so little response or enthusiasm... I have this pathetic need to feel useful and appreciated and they're not making me feel either... Right, sod this. Only an hour to go and we can all get the hell out. Get a sense of proportion, you wuss. 

We watch a seminar discussion on You Tube. It’s staged by teachers and is rather too full of phrases for agreeing and disagreeing and holding the floor and what-not to sound entirely natural, but the kids manage to pick these out. I then give them a partial transcript of the discussion which they act out in their groups. They have not produced a single spontaneous utterance all evening, but they have practised a lot of useful language and done lots of pronunciation work, and next week they’ll participate in a discussion if I have to resort to water-boarding.

Seven twenty-four: sod it, let’s go. They troop out. Two even say ‘good night’. I must point out that they are nice kids. If I see them on campus they always smile and wave. It’s just that classrooms turn them into wraiths. I wait for three minutes or so, time enough for them to go along the dark corridor, round the corner and out of the building, before letting the fart I’ve been bottling since six forty-five. Instantly, the door opens and Cassie is back. I dive across the room towards her so that she might not enter the zone of befouled air, but to her I must look almost suspiciously pleased to see her. She will not be able to come next week, she tells me. Fine, fine, no problem, thanks for telling me, I gabble, almost forcing her out of the room. 

Usually I leave work in a hurry, anxious to get the earliest train possible. These Monday evenings I have nearly fifty minutes on my hands before I get the eight eighteen. I go to Sainsbury’s, there to purchase gin, a small reward to myself for not visiting GBH on anybody this evening. By half past nine I’m home. I shower, slip into something shapeless, light the candles and pour a devastating G&T. The sweetest part of any day is when you’ve shut the door on the world for the coming twelve hours.


My Thursday group  - all Chinese again - did the same lesson this evening and it went down a treat. Lots of participation, lots of spontaneity, lots of discussion. Even the most reticent of the students were drawn in and said their bit, and we all left together carrying on the conversation down three flights of stairs to the exit. I wish I knew exactly what made the difference.

Monday, 14 September 2015

And now the good news...

A few years ago a reader commented that I have a tendency on this blog to make my job sound like hard work. What with all these tales of awkward students, culture clashes, linguistic train wrecks, plagiarists and cheats, you'd be forgiven for thinking we have a very hard time of it at the Little CHEF (Centre for Hammering English into Foreigners) But just as your local rag never tells you how many houses were not burgled in your neighborhood last week, Lathophobic Aphasia tends to regard only the exceptional as newsworthy. A typical day provokes no great hilarity or indignation, and though it might not be boring to live through, it would be to read about, especially for those readers who are not teachers.

So just to balance things out a bit, I paste here part of an e-mail I received on Thursday last week from a student from Saudi Arabia. She is a teacher herself who has been a student of mine since October last year. Similar sentiments were expressed to me (and no doubt to many more of our teachers) face to face by students on Friday, the last day of the course. I shall make no comment on it. I shall entertain no thoughts on the lines of 'do you really think it was anything to do with you? Why base so much of your self-worth as a teacher on praise from a very hard-working student who simply kept her half of the bargain?' No. This will not be permitted to cross my mind.

Dear Steve,
I clearly remember when I first came to this country and how I was confused , nervous and afraid of faliur. At that time, a lot of questions were buzzing around in my mind about Am I going to pass this real exam ? and how I can manage to survive and deal with the homesick. I went to my first class with all these negativity but once i step in my class and introduced myself and met my teachers and friends all these feelings immediately vanished. I don't know how and when it happened all I know is I didn't feel that anymore. Day by day, my love and loyalty to my teachers and friends become stonger. I don't feel that I am only a student but I feel that I am a part of this institution. Now, we are approaching the end of this journey so I owe you all my teachers and friends and those who gave me a hand to change myself positively. I can't reward you but I will always be thankful for the rest of my life. Thank you to those who accompany me in this journy specially to my teacher and guide ( to you Steve). You were a friend and brother before being a teacher. You tought me how is a good teacher look like.Thank you again from the bottom of my heart.

Sunday, 30 August 2015

That's August done with.

Last month I mentioned that several members of a group that I taught had screwed up on their writing tests and were in danger of being kicked out of the university. I had entertained the hope that this might indeed be the outcome. When adult students who have been with us for four months are still pushing their written work under my nose and saying ‘is OK?’, I begin to lose patience. ‘Well, is it OK?’ I ask. ‘Does your introduction give some background to the topic? Does it tell us why the topic matters? Is there a thesis statement? You tell me if it’s OK!’

The failures were allowed to take a second test, and only one nose-dived again. I felt sorry for her, because she was hard-working and earnest, not like some of the blokes, who still blame me for their earlier failure. Their present teacher tells me that they are chastened, more hard-working and less complacent than before. Well, except for Hani. He says that if he does not get the required IELTS grade on this course, he will go back to Saudi Arabia and pay someone to do the test for him. It’ll rush him 2,000 quid to cheat the system.

‘You’ll pay 2,000 pounds?’ his teacher asked incredulously.

‘Is cheap!’ he replied, completely misconstruing the reason for her indignation.  

Even if these students are indeed chastened, it seems they still blame me and not themselves. They used to greet me enthusiastically in the corridor, and now they stare through me as if I were made of glass. Once upon a time, having a bunch of students blame me for their failure would have had me worried sick. These lazy, entitled bullshitters don’t faze me, though, as I can point to all the materials I made, a record of exactly what we did in class, and the fact that the majority of the students I teach did not fuck up on the same test. Still, teaching can be a cause of some paranoia. It can for me at any rate.

Ten years ago at Essex University a young man from Thailand told me that he liked my lessons. Flattered, I asked why. ‘Because you’re not serious,’ he said. I wondered then how flattered I was entitled to feel: did he mean I was a push-over? Not as rigorous as his other teachers? This was my first university job and I wasn’t as sure of myself as I would have liked to be. A week or two before this, passing me on the stairs, the course director had asked me how it was going.

‘Fine!’ (What else am I supposed to say?)

‘You’re the calmest first-timer we’ve ever had!’ she said. So of course then I fell to thinking I might be screwing up without realising it. More recently I withdrew from an MA module I was teaching because a period of depression had convinced me I was useless at everything and that the very plants of my sitting room were fed up of me. Someone else took over. I met one of the students as he was on his way to a lecture with the new broom, and asked how it was going.

‘OK…’ he said, rather grudgingly. ‘But I’d rather have you a thousand times.’

New bloke must be cracking the whip and working them harder, I thought. He’s a lot pointier headed and academicalish than the likes of I. Imagining that students were happier when not being pushed said a lot more about me than it did about them. (They like me because I'm not good enough?) Oh, for Christ’s sake, learn to take a complement, people tell you when you’re in your teens. Well, I try, but my usual reaction is 'must think I'm somebody else.'

In my present group a woman from Greece flabbergasted me the other day by telling me I was a strict teacher and everybody in the class was scared of me. This is so far removed from my perception of myself that I was temporarily speechless. We are using a new book and so every lesson, however carefully planned, is to me as a dress rehearsal, and I’m constantly noting how I’d do stuff differently in future, or that I’ve accidentally skipped a stage or deliberately omitted something that I only now realise was integral to the unit. How I could come across to anybody as intimidatingly knowledgeable and academically rigorous is beyond me, but it appears that at least to one student, I do. I’m not sure I buy the bit about everybody being scared of me. This is probably Argyro’s own projection.

So, when students are happy, I tend to assume it’s because I’m not sufficiently exacting, and when they tell me that I am indeed punctilious and demanding, I worry that I’m scaring the shit out of them. This sort of barmy logic is not what I'd  expected to be stuck in now, all grown up as I am at fifty-six and a half. I suppose you never really get it together, you just get better at spotting how bloody stupid your thought processes can get if you don't watch them.   

Meredith Monk and Vocal Ensemble - Dawn

Monday, 3 August 2015

Acid Test

I have a week off. It feels unearned, despite the last five weeks being full-on, for there hasn't been much work this year. Anyway, the break comes between two five-week blocks of teaching known as Pre-sessional A and Pre-sessional B, courses on which students from China, Brazil, Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Thailand and I know not where else beside are taught how to write an academic essay, participate in a seminar, listen to a lecture and make sense of a journal article or chapter in a learned book. That’s the idea, at any rate.

I’ve been teaching for thirty-four years and trained scores of teachers, but pre-sessionals always make me feel like a rookie. I frankly haven’t a clue how to transform the word-salads churned out by our Mohammeds, Salehs and Saeeds into coherent essays, but I go sailing in there with my PowerPoints and task sheets, bossing, coaxing, cajoling and joking, and by pretending to know, somehow I persuade (or dupe) them, and they do usually improve somewhat. I have decided that Blagging Your Way Through is an indispensable ingredient in language teaching, and training courses really ought to include modules on ‘Looking the Part’ and ‘Sounding Like You Know What The Fuck You Are On About’ and 'Getting 'em On Your Side'. I taught a one-off lesson with a group of Chinese kids on the Friday in July that was Eid, when Muslim students and staff had the day off. The last hour in the muggiest room of the Hugh Pokemon building was a slog, and they hated me. Epic chutzpah fail there: I hadn’t convinced anybody that they were in exactly the right place at precisely the right time. I texted a colleague: ‘went on last act Friday at the Hugh, and I fucking died, darling.’

To be fair to myself, most of the Chinese undergraduates sit in ostensibly respectful (but more likely resentful) silence for 20 hours a week while their teacher uses everything short of thumb-screws and branding-irons to get the buggers to talk. The post-grads are usually slightly older, more confident, more forthcoming and more independent. I always make a special plea early in the year to be assigned to the post-grads come pre-sessiontide, as these days silent Chinese kids who are culturally and linguistically at sea try my diminishing reserves of patience: enough already. So I had an easy time of it with my Group 1 post grads, most of whom have been with us for quite some time and are used to the way we do things. I had a less easy time of it with the Group 2 post-grads, most of whom have been with us for just as long, but never really got it. Of them, more anon.

Every course ends with tests, one per skill: listening, reading, speaking, writing. Testing is always a headache. What do you test? How do you test it? How do you present the fact of testing to students without exaggerating or trivialising it? All our students come from learning cultures that are test mad, and many of them expect a course that ends with tests to have no aim other than to equip them with the complete linguistic wherewithal to pass them – not just the skills, but the exact vocabulary and grammar. I did three lessons with one group on critical thinking, introducing them to logical fallacies and getting them to spot strawmen, red herrings, slippery slopes, poisoned wells, question begging and all that good stuff.

‘Will this be in the test?’ Abeer wanted to know.

Stupidly, I said it wouldn’t, and omitted to point out that while there would be no requirement to spot and name examples of dodgy reasoning, being able to avoid them in one’s own writing would surely be a good thing. So I left Abeer with the impression that I was wasting her time, and handed her ammunition against me should she fail the tests.

Group 2, then. It fell to me to do quite a bit of essay writing with them. They were a lively, humorous bunch, and not terribly conscientious. I hammered introductions and conclusions, topic sentences and supporting evidence, a bit of sequencing (firstly, secondly, finally) and a few discourse markers (although, however, despite) You don’t want to overdo these: students tend to see them as indispensable to sounding sophisticated in writing, and cram their paragraphs with on the one hands and on the other hands until the ideas are completely obscured by the glue that links them - and there are usually few enough ideas without drowning them. We spent whole days analysing sample essays, noting how ideas from source texts were incorporated and moreover how they were evaluated. We saw how the writer didn’t merely use stock phrases and as many linking words as could be bunged in but actually constructed an argument. At the end of the last lesson, several students came up to me to thank me for all my help. This is gratifying, but it must be borne in mind that it’s at least in part intended to secure your good will when you mark the essay. Then everyone went and did the writing test and dive-bombed spectacularly.  

Christ, but the essays were awful. I am a generous marker as a rule because I know how difficult it is to write, and how much more so in a foreign language, but, well, even Mister Niceguy had to acknowledge that to call some of these essays crap were to malign faeces. The aggregate test scores for all four skills meant that we would be losing about half of Group 2.

Last Friday was the day we handed out the students’ reports with the scores. Group 1 was my main group and only two of thirteen had failed the course. ‘But it was very difficult, everybody thought so!’ said Reham, shocked and tearful. I tried to persuade her that starting a Masters next month with her present level of reading and writing would be very stressful for her and she would probably end up withdrawing. Abeer was equally upset though less surprised. I bundled both of them off to the centre director, assuring them she would have helpful suggestions, although if pressed I couldn’t imagine what these might be. I felt like a cruel landlord turning penniless tenants out into the snow.

On the train home I texted the colleague with whom I shared group 2, imagining the scene when she broke the news to the perpetrators of those bloody essays. ‘Did you have a nice afternoon?’ I asked, flippantly. Her reply:

Good god. U are a shit teacher, Laurent is a shit teacher and all the tests were too hard is all I heard for an hour. Hani shouted at me so I shouted back saying he is a child and needs to grow up and stop blaming everyone but himself. Nearly walked out on them. Just had Sami on at me too saying his essay was amazing and structured with lots of ideas – he got 34%! They are deluded!!

So from thanks-for-all-your-help-Steve last Monday, by Friday I’m a shit teacher. Well, did I not spend all the last five week plotting their downfall? Did I not tell them to cram their essays with stock phrases and to hell with the ideas? I dismissed concerns about accurate spelling and grammar – who cares! Bugger analysis, sod evidence, screw referencing, I said, we’ll see you all OK. Suckers!  
Naturally they all summoned a huff and went off in it to tell the course director how they were merely cheated of their hopes by grifters. My suggestion by text that he have them all shot was considered but probably rejected, so I await further information now he’s had the weekend to think it all over.

Next course, I have my nice group 1 again three days a week, plus two days with a new group not yet arrived. I really, really don’t mind if they are silent Chinese kids. Once I’ve confiscated their phones, we’ll establish a modus vivendi whereby they won’t think my colleague and I are their best mates who’ll scrape them through, whatever bollocks they produce.    

Tuesday, 30 June 2015

From a You Tube thread

As some of you know, I can't stop myself getting into (largely pointless) arguments with US Jesus People on You Tube, some of whom are more convinced than ever that the end-times are upon us. Christians in the US, they assert, are an oppressed minority (despite being the majority) and soon the queers will have outlawed Christianity, and they'll be forcing everybody to collect porcelain, serve pureed salsify, worship Barbra Streisand and introduce water sports at church weddings. Be ready now for much fizzing of Evangelical mouth-froth, for the fags have won. Here's part of an exchange I had with one Scott Payne, servant of Jesus and gob-smackingly presumptuous twerp. Scott opens the conversation.

Well, I take it you are a little gay?

Not a little, totally. Do you know what that means? I have no interest in women sexually. That doesn’t license any other inferences on your part about my life or beliefs.

Ok, I Iived in San Francisco from 1982-2008, and one of the jobs I had took me though The Castro on my way home. You know what The Castro is?

Vaguely. I don’t live in the same hemisphere as you, so why should I?

My opinion's (sic) are based on first hand experiences. No I did not meet every gay person in SF

I’m sure you didn’t.

but having lived in a "gay city" I've had enough of an experience to decide on an impartial basis

Impartial basis? (Quote: 'Sir after I die, I will be with Jesus.') First-hand experience of some denizens of the Castro does not equal first-hand experience of ‘gay life’, whatever that is. It’s like claiming you know all Christians from having lived near the Amish. Do you know anything of how a homosexual man or woman might live in Saudi Arabia, North Korea, Uganda or working-class Glasgow? Or anywhere else far removed from the Castro?

My decision is not my own, and I will be happy to tell you how I arrived at it,

OK, go on then. So long as you realise how ridiculously parochial you sound already.

but, first if you are gay, I want you to explain in explicit detail what does really happen in a gay relationship in the bed room,if you will?

If I asked you to tell me in explicit detail what you do in bed, you would quite rightly think me an utter creep and tell me it was none of my business, so why do you imagine it's OK to ask me that question? If I asked you what happens in heterosexuals’ bedrooms, I hope you’d have the intelligence to tell me that that is a stupid question, because there is far too much variety, and anyway, what consenting grown-ups do in the sack is of no interest to anyone else.


That last line was a mistake. People like Scott are obsessed with what other people do in the sack, as obsessed with sex as anorexics are with food. I hope that after a brief period of hysteria, gay-hating evangelicals will in due course back off and quietly die out.  

Monday, 25 May 2015

Humour failure

I saw the above on a friend's Facebook timeline the other evening and attacked it with all the Merlot-fueled contempt at my disposal. Well, I'd been reading Irish Catholic priests talking about how their message will now have to be reworded, and how they'll have to find new, more loving ways of calling gay people disordered, and my sense of humour had evaporated. Almost every other commenter and clicker 'liked' it and I was chid for not being able to see the joke, or rather, for huffily refusing to laugh at it. But I thought then, and think now in sober daylight, that it is thoroughly offensive. I'm not so priggishly PC that I'd write to the Beeb to complain that there was no validation of LGBT rights in the shipping forecast, or that as a short gay man I feel marginalised whenever Stephen Fry appears on the telly without mentioning that not all gay men are as tall as he is, but dammit, this one pissed me off. Women experience the gamut of emotions through the course of a day, but men know nothing but smug entitlement from waking to sleeping? Men are simple-minded, one-dimensional creatures whose reactions are wholly predictable - and we are supposed to find that funny?

 Fucking hilarious.

Seems I'm in a minority and I promise I'll get my sense of humour back soon.


As Scarlett's Mum points out in her comment, the message could just as well be anti-women, portraying them as emotionally incontinent flibberty-gibbets. That reading hadn't occurred to me.

Monday, 20 April 2015

Two things life has taught me

1. Wear your glasses more. Soft-focus is attractive but deceptive.

2. Don't leap too quickly to worst-case scenarios.

Passing unspectacled through the sitting room en route to the bathroom, I notice a small white stain on the floor. It looks as if someone's heel has forcefully ground approximately three and a half  Mint Imperials into the carpet. I don't eat sweets, so I know this cannot be the cause, but am temporarily stumped. It can't be soap powder because I use liquid. It isn't flour, because I don't bake. I get a cloth from under the sink and start to scrub the stain, which is unyielding. I apply Vanish and more elbow-grease, to no avail.  I decide that somehow I must have splashed the carpet with bleach and that I am therefore stuck with this blemish for good. Shit. How to cover it? A rug would look ummm, unmotivated in this spot, but I go and dig out a throw and a large cushion to experiment with. I arrange the throw and cushion as if for a picnic. They do not cover the stain which now appears on the throw, even brighter against the dark red.

I realise that I have just spent ten minutes trying to wipe up a patch of sunlight.

Saturday, 4 April 2015

Happy Easter

Friday, 20 March 2015

Lost in Translation

In which I'm a complete spoil-sport. Tell me if you think I'm missing the point.

Prepare to be amazed, for there's a collection here of ‘‘foreign words so rich and layered in meaning that the English language, despite its own unusual vocabulary [whatever that means] renders them practically untranslatable.’’ Except that the compiler, one Ella Frances Sanders, despite over-egging each lexical pudding, manages to make the meanings clear enough. Sanders makes Susan Polis Schultz sound hard-boiled:

The words in this book may be answers to questions you didn’t know to ask, and perhaps some you did. They might pinpoint emotions and experiences that seemed elusive or indescribable, or they may cause you to remember a person you’d forgotten. If you take something away from this book … let it be the realization or affirmation that you are human, [it's easily forgotten, after all] that you are fundamentally, intrinsically bound to every single person on the planet with language and feelings.
Writing her review, Maria Popova is as rapt as Sanders. She wants to know '...what happens when words are kept apart by too much unbridgeable otherness?' Anybody want to take that one? I haven't a clue what she means, so let's move on. On the Japanese word komorebi meaning ‘sunlight filtered through the trees’ Popova goes all precious on us:

These words invariably prompt you to wonder… whether a culture lacking a word for the sunlight that filters through the leaves of the trees is also one lacking the ennobling capacity for such quality of presence, for the attentive and appreciative stillness this very act requires.

Yawn. You can appreciate the sunlight that filters through the leaves of the trees whether you call it 'komorebi' or ‘the sunlight that filters through the leaves of the trees’. But amateur language fanciers are usually more impressed by words than by phrases, subscribing to the fallacy that one word always equals one meaning, and that if language A lacks a word found in language B, then that concept is lost to speakers of A. The fact is that one meaning potentially gives rise to many words and phrases, and this Japanese word is not a single block of meaning like table or milk. Ko-more-bi can be analysed as ‘tree-leak-sun’, i.e., ‘sun leaking through the trees’, a phenomenon frequently observed and appreciated by people who live where there are trees, whatever they choose to call it. 

The Yiddish word Luftmensch ‘air person’ is one of the more interesting words in the collection, because it immediately brought to my mind the English ‘airhead’. But beware connotation: the English word means a person with not a lot up top, whereas the Yiddish means an impractical dreamer. I think connotation might be a bit too prosaic for Sanders: she’s for awe, life-affirming interconnectedness and umm, stuff like that. In search of these, she often homes in on a single use of a common word and presents it as an amazing affirmation of the fundamental intrinsic human bonds and what-not that she’s blathering on about. I submit that it would not be unreasonable to suppose that the rest of the words in her book are as easy to demystify as komorebi and these five after the jump. (Go on, jump.) 

Sunday, 1 March 2015

Of Aging, Yoga and Demons.

It’s my birthday again today. I’d swear that this is becoming a biannual event. (Christmas, too.) ‘It’s only a number!’ people tell you cheerily. Yeah, yeah. I mentioned the other week that a student told me he was forty-four, and added ‘I think same like you?’ thus underestimating my age at the time by eleven years. I felt quite chuffed. Then last week a dental hygienist making small talk asked me ‘so what do you do then? Are you retired?’ effectively transposing the digits of my real age as they stand as from three o’ clock this morning. I wanted to tell her that holding hairdresser-like conversations with people whose mouths are full of tubes and mirrors is pretty pointless, but couldn’t because my mouth was full of tubes and mirrors.

I decided last week it was about time I started to take more exercise, so I dragged my yoga mat out of the cupboard and began once again to yoge. Nine years ago in Kalamata I had a private teacher and was quite good. Nothing rubs in the fact of aging like restarting yoga after nearly a decade off: I felt as if I were wearing full armour. The pose janusirshasana, or head-to-knee forward bend, is one I could do quite comfortably back then but is now among the many I can’t even contemplate for the time being. The site from which I took the photo lists diarrhoea among the counter indications for the pose and it’s easy to see the logic here, though why anyone with afflicted with the shits would even attempt it is harder to fathom. 

You might think that the risks of yoga would be confined to trying too hard and thereby pulling muscles, snapping tendons or stippling the wall with your channa daal. But you’d be wrong. Some grey-faced drama queens in the Catholic Church have warned us of the unsuspected dangers of trying to put your forehead on your knees. Gabriele Amorth is the Vatican’s chief exorcist and so presumably has lots of spare time to think on these matters. He says that yoga is of Satan and it leads to evil ‘just like Harry Potter’. (He's not mad keen on sex, either.) One Fr Roland Colhoun has recently made a tit of himself by telling his flock that yoga may lead Christians to the Kingdom of Darkness. Apparently ‘there is a great body of research (theological, spiritual and psychological) already done on it.’ I’m very curious as to what ‘theological and spiritual research’ might be, and how it is undertaken and especially how it is peer reviewed. Do they have evicted demons on the panels?

Well anyway. Happy birthday to me.


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