Although finer distinctions could be drawn, how about
I suspect that the definition of eras differs somewhat according toone’s purposes.
Yes, and this is where it gets really interesting.
I have been reading On the Natural History of Destruction By W.G. Se-
bald, essays on the reluctance of Germans to remember and discuss the Alliedbombings of Nazi Germany.
Sebald is a unique voice. Reading him is like visiting The Museum of Juras-
sic Technology (http://www.mjt.org/), a curious institution whose motto is‘. . . guided along as it were a chain of flowers into the mysteries of life’: youknow it’s a construct, you sort of get it, but then you’re not so sure, and lateryou wake up as if from a trance and wonder where the hell you’ve been.
Sebald will be talking about Big Historical Events, and then insert a tiny
detail about some dead English bomber sharing his birthday, or some othertrivial coincidence between History and his own life. You’re not sure what hispoint is, but his writing is so good, you trust him, and continue reading.
I recently finished Off The Map by Chellis Glendinning. It blends essays,
memoir, and timelines that include Big Events with events from the author’spersonal life, especially focusing on incidents of torture and sexual abuse ofherself and her brother perpetrated by their father, a Harvard trained doctor.
I somehow doubt that Glendinning, (a woman living in Chimayo, New Mex-
ico, who is not, I think, an academic), and Sebald, (who is recognized by aca-demic circles in Europe), ever met, but their books seem to talk to one another.
Glendinning articulates her feminist position that the personal is political andshows correspondences by revealing the events of her own life and lives of herNew Mexican neighbors against the backdrop of History. Sebald seems to dothe same thing, not because he is taking a feminist, anti-imperialist stance, butbecause he can’t help it.
As a former resident of New Mexico, I found Off The Map useful because
it helped me to understand the feelings of Native New Mexicans, which I nevercould quite get a handle on when I was living there. My Hispanic colleagueswere mostly warm to me, but somehow, just out of reach. They mixed Spanishinto their English, in the same way my grandmother used to pepper her talkwith Yiddish, leaving me always on the brink of understanding, never lettingme forget that I was an outsider.
Glendinning, who is from New England, records her experience of befriending
a native of Chimayo named Snowflake Martinez, who takes her to meetings ina secluded mountain cabin where villagers plan to confront the politicians inSanta Fe about upholding contracts which they think should mean the returnof their ancestral right to use lands which have been taken over by the BLM,the National Forest Service, etc.
The passages about these meetings are fascinating because they give an
intimate glimpse of forbidden territory, but they are excruciating for me to readbecause I sense how lost the cause is, and that knowledge makes the people beingdescribed seem impotent, ridiculous, and incredibly sad to me. The charactersin the book, who are real people, seem backwards, out of touch with reality,‘quaint’—but when I think of how grotesque Santa Fe has become, the charactersseem correct, lucid and sane.
Glendinning also helps me to understand the historical frame of reference
for Hispanic New Mexicans. This is critical, and utterly lacking in my owneducation, which seemed to be designed to make me feel as if my grandparentshad arrived at Plymouth Rock, instead of at Ellis Island, and that my fatherfought in the American Revolution, instead of in WWII. The public schoolhistory education I received in Massachusetts probably would not have sucha hold on my imagination if my grandparents had told stories about ‘the oldcountry’, or if my father had discussed his experiences as a soldier, but theynever did, not with me, not once.
The television character Tony Soprano is always railing against contempo-
rary culture, about our tendency to whine and assume the mantle of victimhood.
Maybe my elders did not talk about their traumas because according to theirown standards of proper behavior, it just wasn’t done. Or maybe they neverspoke of those things because to do so would be too much like living throughsomething again one could not live through again.
Mr Thomas mentions how concepts of eras can differ by decades and even
centuries, noting that ‘antiquity’ for him is B.C., but for others extends throughthe 7th century. One character in Glendinning’s book mentions a land grantgiven to her family in 1891. For her, the 20th century perhaps begins with theTreaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848.
Mr Young’s list of eras at the top of this post corresponds to the American
Lit. textbook that I recently used while teaching high school English, but myown outline of the 20th century would have to include the irrevocable loss of Yid-dish to my family, which made me the first member to not be able to understandconversations at home; and the cataclysmic introduction of non-Jewish peopleinto the family! I suppose I could tie these periods in with textbook listingssuch as ‘Industrial Revolution’, ‘Pale of Settlement Immigration Wave’, ‘JewishCivilization Vanishes From Europe’, ‘Assimilation’, or ‘The Melting Pot’.
After her death, I learned from my cousins that my grandmother (not Noni,
the other one) suffered a lot, in ways I had never imagined. How is it that myolder cousins knew of these things? Because they understood Yiddish?
Yiddish, Language of Vaudeville. People say that Yiddish is an especially
humorous language, but I wonder if it accommodates sadness equally well?
These cousins always used to say that I was the most like our grandmother.
I never got it. I asked them to explain it once, and they said that like her, Ialways made them laugh. I still didn’t get it, because I couldn’t ever recall mygrandmother being funny. ‘Oh, she was very funny!’ they said, ‘Always tellingdirty jokes!’
My sweet little grandmother? Telling dirty jokes!?!Here’s the one my cousins report she made on her deathbed in the hospital
in 1988, when she was well into her 90’s, told in English with her Yiddish accent.
I like to think of this as her Swan Song Vagina Monologue:
(dramatic sigh) Vell, at least I can still lie on my back!
My grandmother was spirited, intense, and irrepressible and I am insanely
jealous of these cousins who got to hear directly her jokes and her sorrows—butmaybe not, maybe the horrible parts were transmitted in English by their ownparents. Perhaps my grandmother never spoke of those things herself, becauseshe could not find the words, even in Yiddish.
(Wow. For the first time I have made the connection between growing up in
a family where I did not understand the language and my choice to live overseasfor long periods of time. Glendinning writes on p. 139 of Off The Map, ‘Eachtime the story is told for me and the people in this cabin, a new thread isrevealed. Each time the meaning sinks to a deeper place in the bone.’)
The Economist recently had an article about ‘The City Different’. I don’t
have it beside me, but I recall that the thrust of the article is about the citygovernment’s soon-to-be-made decision on whether to raise the minimum wagein Santa Fe from $5 and change to $8 and change. Of course this is controversialto the local businesses, and other cities and states are paying close attentionand challenging the legitimacy of such a law.
I recall that it was stated that the cost of living in Santa Fe is about 20%
higher than the national average, and that salaries in Santa Fe are about 20%lower. Am I correct in concluding that this means the average person in SantaFe is 40% poorer than the average person in the rest of the nation?
As a teacher, I can tell you this: My salary from the school I recently left in
New Hampshire, (where teachers were on semi-strike because pay is low), would
be about $15,000 less if I taught in New Mexico. I recall that in 1989, NewMexico ranked 28th for teacher salaries out of all states.
As of 2003, it has slipped down to the 45th place, (according to the NEA).
Most of the offerings in Santa Fe real estate these days are in the million-dollarrange. I had a chat with Margaret Odell, the placement officer in Santa Fe,and she told me candidly that all of the people who work at the college (non-tutors) have to work a second or third job. She herself is an alumna and worksfull time, but also works outside the school. That’s what I meant by ‘howgrotesque Santa Fe has become’. And to tie this in with the thread aboutwater shortages, another Johnnie mentioned to me that his job last summerwas cleaning swimming pools. Swimming pools? In Santa Fe!?!
I visited Santa Fe recently with my friend Akiko. Back in the 20th century,
we spent a lot of time together in Japan. I was a little worried that whenshe arrived in America in January that I would discover that we weren’t reallyfriends after all, but had formed one of those ‘disposable friendships’ that peoplehave while traveling. But after I picked her up at Logan, we were up all nighttalking and she told me things, things about her wild, unruly life that she hadnever shared with me whilst in Japan. She explained that there was somethingabout Japan that made it impossible for her to speak of those things there, butthat here, in America, in English, she could tell me.
I showed her the SJC website. She reminded me that I had told her once
about Georgia O’Keefe, and that after I left Japan, she had found a book aboutthe artist in Japanese, and was now very interested in visiting New Mexico. Itwas so cold in Boston, and she had some frequent flier miles!—and that is howit came about that Akiko and I were sipping margaritas in the company of theWhitehills a couple of weeks ago.
Mr Whitehill and I made our arrangements by telephone. We were to meet
in the lobby of the St. Francis Hotel. ‘How will I recognize you?’ he asked. Iwas about to tell him that he should look for two women, one who is Japaneseand one who is not, but he said, teasingly, knowing that we were both travelingwithout our husbands, ‘Oh, I guess I’ll just look for two lonely, sad ladies!’
‘And you will find,’ I told him in a stern voice, ‘two Complete, Fully Realized
‘Oh, right,’ he said, ‘It’s V-Week.’Having a guest from abroad gives one the awesome responsibility of teaching
them about America. My vacation was filled with worries over what should beon the curriculum: The Vagina Monologues? Bowling For Columbine? Therewere so many things that Akiko needed to know about, such as Prozac—shehad never heard of the stuff and I’m afraid she was unconvinced that it’s havinga huge influence on this culture right now.
Mrs Jan Whitehill, White African Queen Of Mississippi, presented me with
a teachable moment, as she is a perfect specimen of the Southern Belle phe-nomenon. By Southern Belle, I mean a lady who is feminine, gracious, unflap-pable, and manages to pull off this thing where she puts you at ease, but isin fact hyper-vigilant, and comes up with these seemingly fluffy observationsthat are somehow razor sharp, but totally non-threatening because they are
expressed with a sort of ‘Silly ole me!’ humility that makes everybody laugh.
Southern Belles. Being a Damn Yankee, I don’t how they do it, but they do
As soon as dinner arrived, (red chili at the Shed, yee-hah!), Mr Whitehill
attended to the education of Akiko by mentioning, in a disapproving tone ofvoice, that a concept in this country has no validity until it has been commodi-tized. Without missing a beat, Mrs Whitehill rejoined, ‘But Honey, people havegot to make a livin’ somehow!’
‘I have to work on my Santa Fe style!’ she explained during our post-
dinner stroll around the Plaza, Mrs Whitehill, her arm linked in mine, notingthe finer points of fashions in the window displays, with Mr Whitehill following,grumbling about materialism, capitalism, tourism, and The Decline of the West.
Mrs Whitehill seemed to be ignoring him, but at some point, she tilted her
head up to the heavens and proclaimed, ‘Oh Honey, I’m shallow and I’m tackyand I DON’T CARE!’ It would have happened for me right at that moment,but I was already in love with her.
The Whitehills, their newlywed glow, enchanted Akiko. Later she was trying
to express to me how adorable she found them as a couple. If she were a nativeEnglish speaker, she might have said, ‘The Whitehills slay me!’ but she isJapanese, so she said, ‘They are so CUTE!’
In the parking lot, I hugged Jan, and Jan hugged me. Then I hugged
Stephen, and Stephen hugged me while Jan was hugging Akiko, then, just to befunny, I hugged Akiko, and then we all participated in a group hug and startedall over from the beginning, the way that the drunk or the elderly will tell thesame story again and again.
I probably would not remember that hug-fest in the parking lot as long as I
will remember it if it weren’t for Akiko, friend of several years with whom I hadtraveled all over Japan, who had invited me to her home and to her parents’home (which is unusual in Japan, even amongst the Japanese), who as a co-houseguest had been sharing the same bed with me for the past nine days, whohad told me her secrets in my own language, who had embraced me in everyway—but before the Whitehills, had never expressed affection so unabashedlybecause in Japan, it just isn’t done.
The next day we went to Acoma Pueblo with Marjorie Kaplan, Laura Schu-
urgen Reinzuch—but that’s another thread. That night, we met
Mary Charlotte Domandi and her friend Laura at the Lensic Theater for TheVagina Monologues. I think we went with the expectation that it was going tobe one of those ‘preaching to the converted’ things, with nothing new to say tous, but we were all stunned by it. Afterwards, we four women had a pow-wowabout tampon design oversights, then watched Trey Parker’s Orgazmo on video,which somehow broke the spell.
Akiko said she got about 50% of the Vagina Monologues, but I think she
got a lot more because she told me that during the show she often found herselfthinking about her past experiences as a woman, and because I know fromsitting next to her that she laughed like hell. She told me that she was ableto enjoy the show because it was in English, that if it had been in Japanese, it
would have been too embarrassing to laugh at and would have made her reallyuncomfortable.
Back in 1990, I remember being surprised that some of my New Mexican
students had never been for a hike in the nearby mountains. The discussionsabout the dreaded ‘Enviros’ in Glendinning’s book made me understand whythat is. One particular passage on p. 139 was revelatory.
Snowflake Martinez, during one of the community meetings, describes a
recent herb-gathering trip he and his friends took by horseback up into themountains; his speech is followed by another man named Mambo:
‘It was snowing y my horse fell on the ice. Snap-On lost his pack, pero we
got there. Que sorpresa! There was a brand new paved road built coming infrom the other side of the monte. All of a sudden a bus pulls up. Instead ofalazan, orale, we find a hundred turistas from Germany with their down jacketsy cameras!’
‘What put me to thinking is, if we don’t get our land,’ says Mambo, ‘we will
be turistas, backpackers, environmentalistas ourselves, usando the forest onlyfor . . . ’—he scrunches his thick eyebrows ominously—‘. . . fun.’
As I said in a post sent in the middle of writing this one, a few blocks from
here, downtown Boston may be under attack by terrorists right now. I amthinking of which bridges may be closed and which route I should take if we areforced to evacuate the city. I am not nervous like I was around September 11th.
I have a vague sense of unease but mostly a sense of nonchalance due to all thetimes that downtown Boston has already cried wolf.
I was at my mom’s a few days ago and noticed a roll of duct tape in her
bathroom on the counter. I carried 6 jugs of water down into the basement forher. When I was little, she was one of those mothers that always kept cannedgoods in the basement, ‘because of the war.’
format=printThe above webpage has an essay by Gordon Weaver about Sebald. Weaverwrites:
On the Natural History of Destruction focuses on the Allied air warunleashed by the Americans and British against the civilian pop-ulation of Nazi Germany. He reminds us of what many of us donot know, that the relentless and unrestricted bombing of civiliantargets was an articulated Allied policy, its execution led by Eng-land’s then-famous Sir Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris, a policy vetted byChurchill himself.
The result of this onslaught was the death of 600,000 German civil-ians, men, women, and children. Its effect on Germany’s war effortwas minimal at best; German armaments production was greater in1944 than in 1941 (the air war began in earnest in 1942). If nothingelse, this history casts an unmistakable moral irony on the use ofwords such as ‘terror’ and ‘terrorist’ in our present day and age.
On the Natural History of Destruction should perhaps be read inconcert with George Orwell’s classic ‘Politics and the English Lan-guage’.
Mr Meeder tells us that his German colleagues avoid discussing current
events with him because they wish to avoid confrontation. They want to benice. This must be especially frustrating for him, because if they gave him achance to explain himself, they just might feel a sense of connection to him andmight embrace Mr Meeder as one of their own.
I don’t know anything about Mr Meeder’s level of German, or his colleagues’
levels of English, but I am wondering if they’re avoiding discussing war becausethey fear that somebody’s command of either language will be inadequate forthe task.
What a shame that this conversation is not taking place! Look at how
isolated Mr Meeder is being made to be! Look at what the Germans are missing!(‘Each time the story is told for me and the people in this cabin, a new threadis revealed. Each time the meaning sinks to a deeper place in the bone.’) No,it’s not a shame, this total breakdown of communication, it’s a tragedy!
I am thinking of the great discomfort this List seems to have over discussing
bracing ourselves for possible attack. We make light of it, make jokes aboutit, are maybe a little embarrassed to admit doing it, or are defensive about it.
Why is that?
We all want to remain calm. Some of us are probably on Prozac. (We can’t
all live in Southern California, Mr Breslin!) We know that eventually, sometimesoon even, something is going to happen. And we know that in the future,young people are going to ask us about what happened during this ‘Post-20th-Century-Pre-Who-Knows-What?’ era of ours, and I am wondering how we aregoing to possibly be able to explain it to them when we seem to be so incapableof even discussing it here amongst ourselves.
The title of Weaver’s essay on Sebald’s essay about how Germans cannot
discuss their own suffering during the war because they believe that the regimein power at the time made them lose their moral validity, by the way, is ‘Whenwords can’t voice the horror’.
Parallel Translations as Sense Discriminatorsmeans to distinguish word senses, at least to the Abstract degree that they are useful for natural languagedocument retrieval, and machine translation. equivalents in four languages from differentexploited to automatically determine the senselanguage families, extracted from an on-lineof a word in context (see Ide and Véronis, 1998),parallel
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