Monday, December 31, 2012

Hail the new year, lads and lasses

(Fa la la la la, la la la la)

New Year’s isn’t a very big deal in our household, but it’s still the octave of Christmas, so I’ll stick with decking the halls and cramming in as many holiday movies as possible before the rest of the world takes down the lights and packs away the wreaths.

Carols, of course, are one of my favorite aspects of celebrating the holidays (vying with baked goods and decorating the tree).  The funny thing about carols, though, is that we often learn them long before we have enough command of the language to understand what they mean.  This situation leads to no end of nonsensical lyrical constructions, but we probably don’t even realize it until we sit down and try to figure out what our childhood brains did to make words out of sounds we didn’t understand.

For instance, my mother tells me that as a kid I was convinced that “Away in a Manger” was about cats: “the cat-tle are lowing”—I don’t know what I thought “tle” meant.

I wondered why, in “What Child Is This,” we were urged to “haste, haste, to bring Him lard.”

I thought “we three kings” were from a place called Orientar.

It always confused me that “The First Noel” was the only place one ever heard “to certain” used as a verb (meaning “to reassure [poor shepherds in fields as they lay]”).  I could get a pencil and paper right now and diagram that whole sentence as I understood it as a child, but it wouldn’t result in anything like its actual meaning.

I was probably about 15 before I realized that “Angels We Have Heard on High” was not a Caribbean song.  How was I supposed to know that “in excelsis day-o” was not to be followed by “daylight come and me wanna go home”?

And yes, I also thought that “Deck the Halls” was a New Year’s song (see the title of this post).  Because nobody uses “ye” nowadays.

Of course, it probably doesn’t matter that much, as long as we’ve got the Christmas spirit.  No one really cares about a few malapropisms here and there.  That is, no one cares until someone asks us to lead the caroling at the office Christmas party.

Fa la la la la, la la la la!

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Things I’ve learned during two months in the South

--The farther south you go, the smaller the squirrels and the larger the cockroaches.  In Boston I’ve seen squirrels that outweighed my cat; on the other hand, in South Carolina I’ve seen roaches that could be mistaken for moderately sized magnolia leaves.

--In the south, ants don’t build anthills.  They build mountains.  I’ve seen mounds of cinnamon-colored earth spring up across the grass overnight.  If I didn’t know they were anthills, I would guess someone had been burying the evidence of a grisly crime.  They’re certainly large enough to hide most major body parts.

--Grocery stores are different creatures in the south.  Where, north of the Mason-Dixon Line, would you find any of the following?  1) A large selection of lard in variously sized cans.  2) Pickled eggs (pink, no less!).  3) Pigs’ feet.

--Distance is relative.  Even as far south as the DC area, a 30-mile drive is something you do to get to Grandma’s on Thanksgiving and avoid at all other times.  (Unless you’re a victim of that infamous thing called the Commute, in which case you spend at least 50% of your waking hours hunched behind the wheel trying not to get run off the road.)  In this part of the Carolinas, 30 miles gets you to the above-mentioned grocery store.  One way.  However, you’re very unlikely to be run off the road on your way there, unless it’s by a deer.

--Temperature is also relative.  The weather recently dipped into the 50s and my coworkers immediately started expressing concern that I was still roughing it and walking to work in the cold.

--Attitudes toward weather are contagious.  I scoffed (secretly, of course) at those fair-weather walkers who thought I was some sort of masochist exposing myself to the chill for an hour every day.  But as my memories of a whole winter hoofing it around Reykjavik fade, I fear I’m starting to see my coworkers’ point after all.  Could it be true that the blood thins when you don’t have to contend with the bone-chilling cold of the Northeast?

Time will tell….

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Doing the Wave

In small towns in the South, they wave.  At cars, at people walking, at joggers, at bikers, whether they're walking or driving.  (A friend here tells me that you drive with one hand at the 12 o'clock position to facilitate a casual wave that doesn't require you to take your hand off the wheel.)  It doesn't matter whether they know you or not, they wave to you.

Only sometimes they don't.  And sometimes they say, "How ya doin'?" and other times they look at you funny if you say anything.

As an outsider, I have spent the last several weeks attempting to figure out the rules: when do you wave, when do you not wave, and when do you actually say hello?

Here are my preliminary findings, subject to revision upon further field research:

When not to wave:
- When you are walking and the car approaching you is going more than 35 miles an hour.
- When you are driving and the pedestrian you're passing has his or her hands full, making the obligatory reciprocal wave more inconvenient than it's worth.
- When there is an obstruction, like a crepe myrtle tree, between you and your potential waving partner.
- When you're driving in a town big enough to have more than two stoplights, or more than one elementary school.

When not to say hello:
- When you are driving with your windows up and they can't hear you anyway (duh).
- When you are walking and the person you pass is farther than 20 feet away (for instance, folks sitting on a porch when you pass by their lawn).

Circumstances that oblige one to wave regardless of the factors above:
- If you have made eye contact.
- If you think you might have made eye contact.
- If you are the only two people in sight.
- If the person has a baby or dog in tow (usually requires additional complimentary comment).

Circumstances that oblige one to say hello:
- If you pass each other on a sidewalk, or in any scenario that brings you within 5 feet of one another.
- If the other person says hello first.  (Note: "How ya doin'?" is not a question.  The proper response is either "Good morning" or "How ya doin'?" which, in turn, does not receive an answer.)
- If you know the person.  In this case, crepe myrtle or no, you stop and say hi, even if it's raining or you're running late.

Emendations and suggestions are welcome.  The 20-foot rule for obligatory vocal greeting is still very much in the experimentation stage.  Porch-sitting produces a very complex social situation completely foreign to northerners, who might have porches but who never use them.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

I wish I was in Dixie…Oh wait, I am!

I had always kind of thought of Virginia as a southern state.  Except for NoVa, of course, which from all appearances cut ties with the rest of the state decades ago.  NoVa went corporate, the rest of Virginia went south.  It did secede from the Union, after all, and in most parts of the state it’s only about half a mile to the nearest statue of Robert E. Lee.  They grow peanuts and tobacco.  Sounds southern to me.

Then I moved to South Carolina.  Now, South Carolina is not the deepest of the Deep South: even as an outsider I know that.  But as soon as I found out that my neighbor hunted squirrels…in the backyard…well, I started to worry about what I’d gotten myself into.  And there’s definitely plenty of southern culture to adjust to.

Like the fact that the nearest grocery store is the Bi-Lo two towns over, nine miles away.  And the fact that there is one (count ‘em, one!) sit-down restaurant in my town and it’s closed when school isn’t in session.  And the fact that the town hall is right next to a place called Sassy Butts.  A BBQ bakery (whatever that is), not a strip club.  And the fact that I’ve walked to work for three days and already I’m known locally as “that strange girl who walks everywhere.”  And the fact that vowels and diphthongs have switched places in all sorts of words: “dog” is “dawg”—a diphthong leaning heavily toward two independent syllables—but “light” (for us Yankees, a diphthong) is the simple-voweled “laaaaht.”

But there’s a lot about southern culture that’s downright charming.  Like the fact that my landlady invited me over for a chat whenever I’m free.  And the fact that the guy down the street, without being asked, helped us lug my heaviest items up the stairs when I moved in.  And the fact that people mention God around here and nobody threatens to sue them.  And the fact that, when I’m walking in the street because there’s no sidewalk, instead of honking at me as they pass, drivers give me space and wave.  And the fact that a complex mail delivery problem was solved simply by speaking to the mail carrier in person on her morning route.  And the fact that I hear crickets and cicadas at night instead of passing cars and subwoofers.  And the fact that this is my neighborhood:

And these are my neighbors (the ones who don’t hunt squirrels):

So maybe this place will take some getting used to, but I suspect not very long at all, really.

In fact, I think I’ve got to visit this Sassy Butts place pretty soon, to see exactly what it is you bake at a BBQ (or BBQ at a bakery?).

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

There and Back Again: A Medievalist’s Holiday

I’m forever recommending Iceland as a vacation spot to my friends.  And when I discovered, as I planned my trip to a conference in Denmark, that Icelandair has free stopovers on the way from the US to Europe, how could I not take my own advice?

So I spent two wonderful (if jet-lagged) days in Reykjavik with a friend, and on the second day we took a tour to Thorsmork (in Icelandic, Þorsmörk: Thor’s Woods)—because what trip to Iceland is complete without a bus tour?

Thorsmork is a strange forested oasis in the midst of the most dramatically bleak subarctic landscape I’ve ever seen.  I don’t know how it got there, I only know that once you walk in, you think, “This looks like Virginia.”  In fact, I’m told that the Iceland the Scandinavian settlers saw when they arrived (before they cut down all the trees) probably looked a lot like it.  They probably arrived and thought, “This looks like Denmark.”

But in order to get there, you have to drive in a jeep or specially equipped bus over a volcanic wasteland, ford a river at least four times, and pass under the shadow of Eyjafjallajökull, the volcano famous for stopping air traffic in Europe for two weeks in 2010.  (And causing my visiting family to evacuate in the middle of the night.)

Have you ever forded a river in a bus?  It’s a rather thrilling experience.  I was not 100% convinced we weren’t going to tip over.

The way to Thorsmork used to pass by a beautiful glacial lagoon, but the jökulhlaup (the flash flood caused by an eruption under a glacier) from the 2010 eruption smashed through the natural dam at the lower end of the lake and left only a steep-walled ravine in its wake.  They discourage jeeps from driving down into it because the glacier is still melting into the old lakebed, leaving swaths of quicksand in the ash.

The gray ash, by the way, is still visible in the soil two years later.

I love hiking, and the main attractions of Thorsmork are the trails frequented by foreign and local campers all summer long.  Our tour guide took us up a short but steep mountain in the middle of the nature reserve (I never thought one could get so hot in a country where the temp maxes out at 60 degrees!), and the view from the top was spectacular.  To the north, Mýradaljökull, to the east, Eyjkafjallajökull, to the west, the sand-colored mountains traversed by the 50 km Landmannalaugur trail, to the south, the vast gray lava plain running to the sea and the Westman Islands.

By comparison, Denmark was homier but rather less dramatic (though the plane my friend and I took to Copenhagen was called Eyjafjalla-jökull!).  The conference was in Aarhus, up north on the Jutland peninsula.  I’d been there before in mid-winter, but it’s much more inviting in the summertime!  The view from the train that goes from Copenhagen to Aarhus looks rather like the American Midwest, only with more windmills.

And when I visited Himmelbjerget (a 147-m “mountain” beloved by Danish poets and naturalists since the mid-19th century), I could pretty easily convince myself I was looking down into Hobbiton.

Some interesting personal observations about my trip to Denmark:

* Rain puts a damper on everything, especially when one is drenched by a passing bus 15 minutes before one’s presentation.

* The field of medieval Icelandic studies is rather like a large village: you might not know everybody, but you’re no more than two degrees of separation from even the most preeminent of scholars.  In the same session in which I (humble young interloper from the English department) gave my paper, another paper was given by the granddaughter of the man who pretty much founded 20th century saga studies.

* Cobblestones, though an aesthetic choice for pedestrian walkways, are hazardous even when one is completely sober and wearing sensible shoes.

* When a red-eye train claims that the ride will last four and a half hours, what that really means is that you experience about 15 twenty-minute train rides, each one punctuated by people shuffling on and off, conductors passing through to punch tickets, and the recorded voice interrupting your nap to announce the “næste station.”

* Denmark may not have Iceland’s “midnight sun,” but its summer days are a lot longer than the ones we get back home, and that means more time for being outdoors and exploring!

* I have become accustomed to the European hostel practice of requiring guests to rent their linens.  I was unprepared, though, for our hostel in Aarhus to limit “linen” to sheets and a blanket.  If it hadn’t been for a very kind (and better prepared) fellow conference goer, I would have had to use my pillowcase for a towel.

* No matter how much I hate the American tourist mentality that everything should be in English, when the instructions for buying a ticket and boarding the correct train were all in Danish, I was completely miffed.  I was scolded both on the way to Aarhus and on the way back for not punching my ticket correctly and my only response was, “I can’t read Danish!” (the second time uttered rather peevishly because it was 1:30 in the morning and I couldn’t fathom why the Danes didn’t cater to a sleep-deprived monoglot like myself).

So, object lesson: bring an umbrella, follow the advice of Hitchhiker’s Guide and always know where you towel is, and make friends with someone who speaks the language.

And stop in Iceland on your way to Europe.

Monday, June 18, 2012

The Do-It-Yourself TV Crime Drama Template

(The result of watching too much television over the summer)

Lead Character Personality Traits (choose two):
Socially Inept

Lead Character’s Traumatic Past (choose one):
Parent/sibling/spouse/child murdered by unknown Master Villain
Parent/sibling/spouse/child disappeared, unknown Master Villain supsected

Supporting Cast (all positions obligatory):
Antagonistic Love Interest
Comic Relief
Hot Chick
Minority (select male or female)
Supervisor Who Does Not Like Lead

Supporting Cast Traits (assign at will to above characters):
Emotionally invested/overly empathetic
Married (preferably to another member of supporting cast)
Trivia champion/movie buff
Voice of reason to keep Lead in check
Outsider whose ignorance allows other Supporting Cast to explain science

Episode Template
Exposition (choose one):
The innocent outing (family picnic, birthday party, beach trip, romantic encoutner, etc.)
è Discovery of dead body by child or pet
The red herring (crime in progress, chase scene, etc.)
è Discovery of dead body by character who audience thought would be either victim or murderer
Story Development (all elements obligatory, order flexible):
Investigation at crime scene
Lead makes clever quip and/or intriguing discovery that no one else notices
Exposition of victim ID and backround information by Supporting Cast
Character development/drama involving private life of Lead
Montage sequence in which Supporting Cast processes evidence in lab (realism optional)
Identification and apprehension of Suspect Number 1
Questioning and exhoneration of Suspect Number 1, who leads to Suspect Number 2
Questioning and exhoneration of Suspect Number 2, who leads to Suspect Number 3
Repeat previous three steps as necessary
Return to forensic evidence: second montage sequence in lab
Unrelated situation in private life of Lead, resulting in breakthrough on case
Climax/Resolution (choose one):
Return to previous Suspect who had been mistakenly disregarded
Dramatic standoff leading to lengthy confession by Culprit
Shootout/explosion that kills Culprit
Surprise twist revealing Culprit that Lead did not suspect
Ending (elements can be combined):
Explanation of what brought Lead to suspect Culprit when no one else did
Heartfelt scene resolving episode’s private drama
Moment in which Lead and Antagonistic Love Interest almost but do not quite confess their feelings
Optional Elements (to be distributed over course of season):
Wounding of or imminent danger to Supporting Cast
Kidnapping of Antagonistic Love Interest or family member
Meddling by Supervisor and/or outside agency
Discovery that case is connected to Unresolved Mystery and Master Villain

Series Story Arc
Season One:
Rely on episodic narrative while hinting at Unresolved Mystery
Establish characters
Work up chemistry between Lead and Antagonistic Love Interest
Season Two:
Continue to rely on episodic narrative
Show more gore to retain audience interest
Intensify relationship with Antagonistic Love Interest
Kill off at least one character in a tragic fashion
Season Three:
Find stranger and stranger ways for people to be killed
Begin to lose interest in episodic narrative
Refocus on Unresolved Mystery of Lead’s traumatic past
Include at least one comic/halucinated alternate reality episode
Manufacture break in relationship with Love Interest
Season Four:
Episodic crime becomes a minor plot point
Master Villain becomes central focus
Massive conspiracies surface
Lead and/or Antagonistic Love Interest is seriously wounded and/or has a mental breakdown
Lead and Antagonistic Love Interest decide to be “just friends”
Season Five and following:
Episodes grow more and more bizarre
Lead comes within an inch of solving Unresolved Mystery and catching Master Villain
Supporting cast replaced as actors quit
Lead and Antagonistic Love Interest become passionately involved, break up, marry, or procreate (choose one or more, accordingly)
Final Season:
Abandon all pretext of plausibility (death by air compressor, fingerprints from linguini, etc.)
Let Lead finally catch Master Villain
Realize relationship between Lead and Antagonistic Love Interest has killed series
Manufacture satisfying wrap-up for whatever viewers are still hanging on

Saturday, May 12, 2012

With apologies to Simon and Garfunkel

I hope nobody (scholars OR music fans!) will take offense at a gentle parody of the profession, in honor of the famous annual conference in Kalamazoo.  Really, truly, we mock because we love!

Something tells me it's all happening at the 'Zoo.
I do believe it. I do believe it's true.
Hmm, hmm. Whoa! Hmm.

It's a light and tumble journey
from the East to the Midwest,
just a fine and fancy ramble to the 'Zoo.
But you can drive a rental car
if you can't afford to fly;
the medievalists will love it if you do.
If you do, now....

Something tells me it's all happening at the 'Zoo.
I do believe it. I do believe it's true.
Hmm, hmm. Whoa! Hmm.

Assistant profs spend all their time
collecting names and contacts,
and the rookies all try not to look so young.
Emeriti will dominate in every Q&A,
and Spenserians think most of this is dumb.

The tenured profs won't watch the clock.
Our funding's on the chopping block.
The amateurs are Tolkien fans.
The grads drink all the wine they can.
What a gas, you'd better hop the van
to the 'Zoo! To the 'Zoo! To the 'Zoo!

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

English - not the mess we thought it was

 Unlike Will Rogers, I may have met a man or two I didn't like, but I've never met a language I didn't like.  Every language has its own music, its own aesthetic, its own cultural history wrapped up in its lexemes and idioms.  Icelandic shudders at loan words and prefers to revitalize ancient phrases or invent new compounds for new elements of culture--the nation has declared its linguistic independence from the world.  Latin fits together like a jigsaw puzzle, completely opaque to any but the elite few who are worthy to tread the hallowed footsteps of Virgil, Ovid, Caesar, Augustine.  I can't imagine how it was ever spoken by people with brains as ordinary as my own.
But English!  What a wonderful beast is English!  A hybrid creature half Germanic and half Romance--like a griffon with claws at one end and golden feathers at the other.  It can sing, it can march, it can threaten, it can woo.  English welcomes practically every newcomer as one of its own: to the linguistic world, it offers the sentiments of the Statue of Liberty.  All are welcome here, if they are willing to bear an -s in the plural or an -ed in the preterit.
English has its troubled past and its troubling present--its grammar bears the scars of half-forgotten conquests, of oppression and rebellion, of the vacillating fortunes of its speakers.  Once, King Alfred had the Bible translated into English when most of the world insisted it remain in Latin (which was, of course, itself a translation from the original).  Then, generations of continentalized elites declared English incapable of expressing the complexity of theology, of court, even of love.  Now, we might more properly speak of Englishes in the plural, as this omnivorous creature has caught footholds all over the world, changed and adapted itself (some might say cuckoo-like) to its new surroundings in the mouths of new speakers.  Pedants fear that English is in decline--that the fact that some speakers don't generally us the verb "to be" is somehow going to cause us to forget what it is "to be," or as if saying "two deers" instead of "two deer" somehow represents a dumbing down of a more intelligent system.  To the former, one must point out that many languages have gotten on just fine without ever having a "to be" verb--and august Latin barely ever used the one it did have.  To the latter, I would just point out that, if we hadn't always regularized odd words based on our normal patterns, we would not say "had helped" but rather "had holpen," and the plural of "book" would now be "beech."  Enough said.
All the same, as a student of linguistic history, what I think is loveliest about English is this very hodgepodge heritage that comes down to us in what seem like the arbitrary rules and spellings of our strange and hybrid language.  Isn't it fascinating that we spell "taught" with a "gh" not because we're perverse and like to confuse students in spelling bees but because those letters were once pronounced--with the sound of "ch" in Scottish "loch"?  And isn't it wonderful to know that we don't mispronounce "subtle" when we ignore the "b" but that it was always pronounced our way, and the "b" was added retroactively to make it look more Latinate?
So this is a love letter to English.  Here are several things, dear language, that are wonderful about you:
* Some languages, like Thai, have different "registers"--a completely independent set of vocabulary for talking to a sister versus a teacher versus a political leader.  English, while too disorganized for that, still has its approximation.  I can "say you have pretty hair" or I can "compliment your elegant coiffeur" and, while both mean the same thing, one sounds significantly smarter than the other.  The fact that the former is Germanic and the latter Latinate doesn't mean that all Germanic formulations are inelegant.  One of the most evocative phrases in English, "to wreak havoc," is entirely native Anglo-Saxon: it literally means to set one's hawk loose upon songbirds.  What an image!
* English, along with some other languages, has this wonderful ability to take the past tense of an intransitive verb and turn it into the root of a new transitive verb. So the verb meaning "to perform an action oneself" makes a new verb that means "to cause something else to perform that action."  Examples:
"To fall" (as in, I fall down) becomes "to fell" (as in, I fell a tree--I cause the tree to fall)
"To lie" (as in, I lie down) becomes "to lay" (as in, I lay the fork down--I cause the fork to lie down)
* Most of the time, a verb means the same thing no matter what tense or inflection it.  ("to walk," "I walked," "I have walked" all refer to moving at a slow pace.)  But English seems to find this dull and predictable.  Hence, we have wonderful oddities like this:
"To strike" means to hit something.  "Struck" (past tense) means the same thing.  But "stricken" (the past participle) is almost always used as an adjective of emotion.  One can be "stricken" by the death of a loved one, but when one has been hit by a foul ball, we usually now say he was "struck" (where long ago it would only have been proper to say, he was "stricken").
"To smite"--this is something pretty much only God gets to do these days.  And although in medieval literature people "smote" each other all the time (usually on the "helm"), I don't know if anyone has done so more recently than when Gandalf "smote" the Balrog on the mountaintop.  However, anybody with half a heart can be "smitten"!
That is the wonder of English.  Well, one of its wonders.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Snow: Remember When?

Remember when we used to do the snow dance in hopes of getting a day off from school?

Remember when your first thought about snow was “Sledding!” and not “Shoveling”?

Remember when coats were nothing more than an encumbrance to playing on the monkey bars at recess? (In my school we always used to bundle up under Teacher’s watchful eye, then go outside and promptly dump our coats in a pile, no matter how cold it was, because the recess monitors didn’t stop us.)

Remember when wet socks, runny noses, numb fingers, and wind whipping through zippers were no reason not to lie down in the snow to make snow angels?

I remember those days. They seem very long ago and I’m not entirely certain I want to recover them. (I like being warm, dry, and weatherproofed, thank you very much.) But when we had an unexpected snow storm over Presidents’ Day weekend, I did the best I could to do justice to the weather.

I made myself a cup of hot chocolate and watched the snow fall (from indoors), and the next morning I took pictures like no one’s business.  (I have many more, but apparently there's a glitch in the program I used to change orientation, so everything upright comes out sideways on the blog: these will have to do for now!)

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Twas the Season (recently)

Do you know what I like about Christmas? Well, what I like about the celebration of Christmas, “apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin”? What I like about Christmas…is presents.

I like giving presents: I like sitting down around Thanksgiving time and thinking about my favorite people in the world, about how I can show them what they mean to me, pondering what they enjoy or need that I might be able to find for them. I like fibbing, finagling, and faking to discover the perfect gift, the right shirt size, the favorite color. I like making things for people—baking, painting, crocheting, or sewing. I like taking price tags off of boxes and wrapping them in festive paper (or last week’s comics, if I haven’t got any paper). I especially like it when my gifts are square or rectangular, because then I can make the package look nice without using half a roll of tape (the overuse of tape is a family trait). I like curling ribbons.

I like leaving packages on door steps or in mail boxes for the friends I don’t catch in person. I like putting the presents under the tree at home (this year at least we knew that we didn’t have a cat who would systematically go through the packages, eat the ribbon, and then give it back to us in cold, wet surprises on the carpet). I like waiting on Christmas morning while the recipient negotiates through my varying amounts of tape to unwrap what I’ve kept secret for a month. I like getting hugs in return.

And I like receiving presents—not because I want more “stuff,” not because it saves me having to buy something for myself—but because every year I’m caught off-guard by at least one gift. It wasn’t on my list, I hadn’t even thought about it, but it’s just right. It usually isn’t expensive; it’s often home-made—but it’s perfect. That kind of gift tells me that someone knows me very well, they notice me, and they care. I was caught off-guard several times this Christmas, and I was profoundly touched. I have a feeling my mother will read this post and immediately start worrying about how she’ll manage next year, but she doesn’t need to be concerned: the best thing about these “perfect gifts” is that they always happen, probably without the giver even planning it to be as special as it is. Something given from the heart and not the pocket always bears the mark of its origins.

I always hope to catch a few people off-guard myself.