Saturday, February 06, 2010

Husband and I are total Olympic junkies. For the entire two weeks we'll be glued to the TV, watching athletes we've never heard of compete in sports we would never normally watch. It's an addiction. Winter or summer games, it doesn't matter, we'll watch it all.

We've gotten into the habit of watching the opening ceremonies with dinner from the host country. For the Athens Olympics we made gyros. The Torino games featured pasta. What the hell are we going to make for the Vancouver games? Aside from Canadian bacon, Molson beer, and Tim Horton's doughnuts I can't think of typically Canadian food. Seal meat? Anyway, we'll have to figure that one out. But we totally love the opening. All the pageant. The over-the-top effects and entertainment. And yes, i still do get a tiny lump in my throat when I see all the athletes marching in. Not just team USA, but everyone. All full of hopes and dreams. All dedicated and young. Healthy and strong. Hoping that a lifetime of work will pay off in the next few weeks. It's enough to make even an old cynic like I get all misty.

Our favorite winter sport is biathlon. Weren't expect that, were you? We got totally addicted to it the last winter games and cannot wait for this year's competition to begin. It's the cross country skiing flat out and then stopping to shoot accurately sport, which sounds less like a sport than a Nazi war tactic. And it did, in fact, stem from a military exercise. But it's so cool to watch because the lead can change so fast. If you miss a shot you get a time penalty, so the first guy into the shooting range might actually end up in fourth place at the end of the round because he missed shots and the other guys went clean. It's nail biting to watch because you'll find yourself cheering for some guy (the big money is going on somebody Nordic) and he'll miss one shot and that drops him back six places in something like 10 seconds.

We'll also be watching hockey. Husband is a huge hockey fan (go Flyers!) and it's always interesting to see NHL players competing on their national teams. It must be odd when some guy you play with on the same team suddenly becomes your opponent because you're from Canada and he's from Finland. Three Flyers (his favorite team -- that's my Philly boy) will be in the games, all playing for team Canada. I'm thinking it'll be a Canada vs. Finland or Sweden final. But it's gonna be a good time no matter who ends up in the finals.

There are a few sports that we care nothing about. Like snowboarding and freestyle skiing. But everything else we'll settle in and actually find ourselves caring who wins in long track speed skating or luge. And yes, we'll even watch curling.
Photo of the day: Cowardice

White feathers were once used as a sign of cowardice. Men who were deserters or even conscious objectors would receive them, usually anonymously (because the senders were too cowardly?) as a sign that others thought him a shirker. There have even been movies with that title, two of them I believe, where, of course, the recipients went on to brave deeds of derring-do that proved the senders wrong. The hero even saves the life on one of his detractors.

But there's no symbol here. Just two white feathers I found on a walk.

Friday, February 05, 2010

Words and Books
My fascination with the English language occasionally leads me towards speculations for which I cannot find an answer.

For instance, is there a word for a word where you have a negative but no opposite positive? As an example, you might here the word "unkempt" but no one is ever "kempt." You might be told that you look disheveled, but nobody will ever call you sheveled. You get the idea. Couth and uncouth. Gruntled and disgruntled. Someone suggested that the concept can be described as "lost positives" which sounds great. But I think there needs to be a word for something where you only hear the negative and never the positive.

Another example. Is there a word for those two-word rhyming nonsense phrases like hocus-pocus or helter-skelter? If not, there should be.

I also have this weird thing where I cannot continue with a book if I come across a word I do not know. I have to put the book down, get the dictionary, and find out what the word is. Usually this is not a problem as I have quite a large vocabulary (no doubt because I am forever looking up words). But every so often I come across a book where there are so many words I do not know that it's disruptive to be forever putting it down. Such was the case with Lempriere's Dictionary by Lawrence Norfolk. I read it many years ago and it is #2 on my all-time favorite fiction books of all time. (Number 1, for those of you who care, is Possession by A.S. Byatt. Rounding out my top three is Pride and Prejudice.)

Now, back to Lempriere's Dictionary. It is a dense and yet captivating story of John Lempriere, an actual 18th century mythologist who wrote about the stories of the ancient Greeks and Romans. The book follows his research and the weird parallels that occur in his life that seem to mirror the classic myths. It is most definitely not an easy read. And it is full of obscure and intricate words that were completely unfamiliar to me. Eventually I jotted down every word in a notebook and would look them all up at the end of the day, rather than having to constantly stop and lose the flow of the narrative. I picked up this book ages ago, and yet just the other day I ran across that notebook and knew instantly what this list of odd words referred to. Nobody I know has ever read this book. I can't even recommend it to them, as it's such an intimidating volume. You must love mythology, words, mysteries, and intricate plots. You have to be patient and willing to work for the outcome. But if you do, you will be highly rewarded.

In case you are even mildly interested, here are my favorite non-fiction books of all time:
1. Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain. Taken from the diary she kept during WWI. She was a sheltered student who volunteered as a nurse on the front lines. During the course of the war she lost her only brother, her fiance, and her two best friends. The loss of all she loved is beautifully captured. It made her one of my heroes. The way she turned such a negative into such a positive. After the war she became committed to the cause of pacifism and worked for it the rest of her life. She's not an entirely likable person, but you cannot help but respect her courage and strength.
2. Between Silk and Cyanide by Leo Marks. A fascinating look at British espionage during the second World War. Marks was one of the code-creators who came up with ways for British spies behind enemy lines to communicate information back to England. The fact that it's true only makes the nail-biting exploits of the brave men and women of the SOE more captivating.
3. The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson. On the surface, an odd topic for a book - a look at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair combined with the story of one of America's first serial killers. But it works. It's a well-researched, well-written tale about a changing world, an amazing event, and an evil mind. It's full of fascinating information about how the fairgrounds were built and what an effect the fair had on both American and international culture. The crime section is equally interesting and you read how one man planned and committed a series of horrendous crimes.

OK, now I want to go book shopping. Thank goodness for Amazon!
Photo of the day: Hardware

I love random bits of ironmongery (how's that for a word?). This is on a telephone pole a few houses up the block. No idea what it is, aside from something that I couldn't resist photographing.

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Another Lost Language
I came across this London Times article about the last surviving member of an Andaman Island tribe dying, taking with her 65,000 years of culture. And a language.

Languages are as endangered a species at the salt marsh harvest mouse or the giant panda. And equally worth saving.

In college, as a Classics major, I spent several years studying so-called "dead languages:" Latin, ancient Greek, Egyptian hieroglyphics, Sanskrit. Useful for nothing, but one obscure proud achievement -- I've read The Iliad in the original. I also studied one modern language, French, which I completely forgot the day after the final exam.

I'm fascinated by languages, and by the way they survive in spite of all odds. When Europeans took over North America and stole land from the native peoples, in addition to smallpox and Christianity, they also made it illegal to speak their own language. Children were forced onto reservation schools and told to speak English only. There were severe penalties for speaking in their mother tongue.

Ironically it was one of these indigenous languages, Navajo, that played a crucial role in the allied victory in WWII. If you don't know the story of the Navajo Code Talkers, you should. Using their ancient language, Navajo Marines set up communications stations throughout the Pacific and spoke to each other, openly over the radio, knowing full well the Japanese were monitoring their transmissions. But the Japanese were never able to decipher the code. It was a simple substitution code, using real Navajo words, (using "turtle" to mean "tank" for instance) but outside of the Navajo reservations, nobody knew their language -- certainly not the Japanese, and so valuable information was able to be transmitted without fear of the enemy catching on.

What I find amusing is that these young men who still spoke Navajo did so because they broke the law. They and their families thought it was important to keep their culture alive and so, in spite of laws against it, they spoke in the old tongue at home. And because so much of Native American culture is passed down orally, many other native languages still survive, thankfully.

For a while, they were in danger of dying. But a new renaissance and pride in native culture, combined with the establishment of tribal colleges, made it possible (and even admirable) for elders to pass on their knowledge. Not just of how to speak Hopi or Lakota, but of other cultural treasures, such as how to weave, make pottery or baskets, and the correct way to conduct tribal ceremonies.

And the ones that kept the flame going were the outlaws. Those who refused to do what they were told. In public they'd learn English, just as the Europeans insisted. But at home, with the doors closed, elders would pass on centuries-old stories in centuries-old languages. And because of that, we haven't lost these linguistic treasures.

Thanks to technology, we'll never truly lose another language. We can record the old ones telling the ancient tales. But it's not the same as having a native speaker around to teach their gift.

Many years ago I was touring the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-Upon-Avon. At the time they were putting together an impressive archive of Shakespeare being read in every language on the planet. Everything from Hamlet in Swahili to Measure For Measure in Mandarin. I'll always remember the guide mentioning how people all over the world had gotten into the spirit of the challenge and gave their grandparents passages of the Bard to read in whatever language they spoke. They had dozens of African dialects, sonnets read in the many languages of India, and everything from Icelandic to Esperanto. They also had one tape that, up to that point, they had never been able to identify. They couldn't tell what play it was from, but it came from Canada and they thought it might have been Inuit or some other First Nations language of Canada. But they weren't sure. They said for a while they asked tour groups if anyone visiting spoke Inuit, hoping they could play the tape and get an "yes" or "no" as to whether they even had the right language. Identifying the play seemed an impossibility.

I have often thought about that, and wondered if they ever figured it out.

Some day I'd love to see a Cherokee version of Much Ado.
Things That I've Laughed At Lately
Because we all need a good laugh:

First up we have Charlie Brooker's Newswipe The World's Most Generic News Report, a hilarious parody of how predictable "news" stories have become. I've watched this three times now and it still cracks me up.

Always good for a laugh, People of Walmart, which demonstrates why I do not shop there. It'll make your jaw drop at how few people seem to own mirrors.

What happens when you have too much icing and not enough education? Cake Wrecks. Dedicated to showcasing the worst dessert errors ever served up at your local bakery counter.

And finally, there's Totally Looks Like, which can be hit or miss. But when it hits, it's pretty funny.
In Praise of Thelma Ritter

One of the things that connects Husband and I is our love for old movies. Further than that, our love for the character actors that made so many of those old movies memorable. Character actors seem to have died out. But "way back when" every hotel clerk, every waiter, every wise-cracking salesgirl was someone worth remembering. Fans of old movies love to play the "hey, that's..." game where you realize the guy driving Myrna Loy's cab was seen two movies ago serving Humphrey Bogart a slice of pie. Today you might recognize a waitress in a movie as a dancing toothbrush from a TV commercial, but these actors have no names and there are as forgettable as a waitress is in real life (with apologies to waitresses everywhere).

My all-time favorite female character actor was Thelma Ritter. She wasn't so much a bit-part player as she was a supporting actress, and every movie she was in was made magical by her dry wit and delicious line delivery.

She was a wonderful actress, earning four Academy Award nominations for Best Supporting Actress, starting with her role as Bette Davis' dresser in All About Eve. Her movie career covered everything from Hitchcock (Jimmy Stewart's nurse in Rear Window) to romantic comedies (the scene in Pillow Talk where she drinks Rock Hudson under the table is a classic) to musicals (acting as Fred Astaire's secretary in Daddy Long Legs. But she was always flat-out fabulous.

She specialized in the smart-aleck roles. The secretary who likes a shot of rye and a snappy come-back. The maid who doesn't hesitate to tell her mistress that she's making a fool out of herself by treating the nice guy like dirt. And there's always something so spot-on about the way she slips in her comments. Of course it helps that back then they wrote scripts with dialogue that was equally memorable. Sadly, that kind of rough diamond with a heart of gold character seems to have gone the way of stockings with seams in them and men in fedoras. But very few people could ever compete with Thelma Ritter for delivering just one line with such an air of dry disdain that she could infuse a word with a world of meaning. In today's movies, I think only Alan Rickman can match her for that ability to make a single word drip with venom.

Only with Thelma, the venom really had no lasting sting. Only a smartness that would make you stand up and take notice.

Oh Thelma, we miss you.
Photo of the day: Welcome Home

Husband bought me flowers as a "glad you got sprung from the hospital" gift. I love Husband.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

The World is Xfinite
Comcast, the world's most expensive and useless cable/internet/media/phone sex/animal cracker company in the galaxy has decided to address its many problems by the cheapest and most ineffective way possible. They are changing their name.

Introducing Xfinity a word that means absolutely nothing, but seems cool, hip, and sexy. Hey, if it's cool, hip, and sexy it's gotta be good, huh? Forget that our cable bill costs about a much as Ghana's national debt. We're gonna have TV that goes to Xfinity. It'll be Xfinite!

Why do companies do that? Decide that the public is so stupid we won't notice that Xfinity is the same company as Comcast, only with a different name? Are our collective memories supposed to be that short? We won't care how much our bill is because, damn it, it's a whole new ball game. It's not just TV, it's Xfinite TV! Not only that, but Comcast's Executive VP of Operations has said "the new brand name communicates Comcast's constant product upgrades and innovation." Really? It does all that, does it?

First off, when has Comcast ever innovated? Secondly, this ridiculous nonsense word conveys all that? Sure it does! After all, putting "X" in front of something is edgy. It's eXtreme. It's like snowboarding, only you have to control the snowboard through the cable box that doesn't really work all that well and sometimes goes to the wrong channel. But other than that, it's just like snowboarding. The kind of snowboarding where you have 125 different channel of slopes to chose from and no snow on any of them. Endless choices. Nothing on. But fuck that, it's Xfinite nothing! And we're all going to forget about Comcast in the rush to be as hip and cool as Xfinite. And the bad service, outrageous bill, and useless'll all be a bad dream once we're living in a world where TV is Xfinite.
Terry Pratchett's Case for Euthanasia
British novelist Terry Pratchett is, sadly, suffering from a form al Alzheimer's called PCA. He and his "stunt Pratchett" (actor Tony Robinson....remember Baldrick from Blackadder?) deliver a powerful, funny, moving, and thought-provoking talk about assisted suicide. Watch the six-part video (part one is here - links to parts 2-6 on same page) or, for those short on time, read the edit transcript here.
Hospitals are in the business of over-reacting. That's what they get paid to do. And rightly so. When it comes to health, it makes sense to be a bit of an alarmist about things that concern you. Which is why I went into the emergency room on Saturday night, and ended up in one of their critical care units on Sunday morning.

Although I was never anything other than fine, they put me in their TCU (one step down from ICU). According to the website for the hospital, the Telemetry Care Unit is a "31-bed nursing unit provides care for patients who require monitoring such as cardiac surveillance following procedures including pacemaker insertion, cardiac or vascular surgery." They put me there because of a racing heart rate. (Which they eventually diagnosed as a combination of exhaustion, dehydration following a day of zarfing, anemia, and pain.) But since my family has a history of heart disease (my father died of a heart attack and my mother has already suffered one minor heart attack), the hospital went into over-react mode and set me up in a 4-bed critical care ward with a group of patients who all sounded like they were just this side of dying. They all seemed to be having breathing problems, one poor man had a cough that sounded like he was swimming in warm pudding and they had to (delightful) repeatedly suction phlegm out of his throat so he could breathe. That was my next-bed neighbor.

So there I am, begging for quiet, next to waterlogged guy. I felt terribly sorry for him, but the sound was both repulsive and loud, and went on several times an hour for the entire time I was there. He was also hardly lucid, so whenever people came to visit him they kept talking ever-louder in an attempt to get a response. Eventually they ended up yelling his name, trying to get him to understand they were there to take him for a CT scan, or to let him know that they were cousin Al and they were worried about him. The man in the bed next to him watched TV most of the night. Loudly. (We were in an open ward, separated only by curtains, so I could hear everything he watched.) And whenever waterlogged man would start coughing, TV guy would turn up the sound.

I was also by the door into the hall, next to the nursing station. So there were phone call and loud conversations all night long. And there I am, in spite of the ear plugs, hearing it all. Trying to sleep and failing. Wishing for darkness but by a window into the hallway where florescent lights glared all night long. Wishing somebody would hand me poor, migraine-wracked head an Imitrex. But nope, no migraine drugs. (t was like those jokes you hear about Amsterdam, where you can get heroin but can't find Nyquil. Here all I wanted was a migraine pill but all I could get was Delaudid, a lovely, warm, haze-inducing narcotic that is lovely for pain but not for all that long. It hits instantly (the good), but wear off about two hours later (the bad) needing you to request another IV dose. I could have all that I wanted, apparently. It was like a drug buffet, but nothing to actually treat the cause of the pain.

And yes, I realize I'm selfish to be all about me when I'm surrounded by obviously incredibly-sick people who don't seem to be in any state to be leaving the hospital later. But hey, this is my blog, it's all about me. If waterlogged guy had a blog it would be all about him. And I'm not minimizing the pain by any means. I know they're suffering more than I was and I did not begrudge them one moment of their treatment. It's just hard to be best by nausea, finally get an appetite back, and have them bring you lukewarm oatmeal for breakfast -- only to have them start vacuuming phlegm from the guy next to you. Truly unappetizing.

All of this was decidedly unnecessary. (I almost used the phrase "over kill.") All I had was a migraine, and there I was in the "I hope you have a will" section of the hospital. It wasn't until I got out that I realized I was in that section. I can't imagine what poor Husband thought when he found out his wife was in a critical care unit. Had the positions been reversed, I would have freaked out. When he left I was in the ER, they had just decided to admit me, it was 6 am, and I sent him home because he'd been up all night. He comes back a few hours later to visit and discovers I'm surrounded by pacemakers and things that go endlessly beep in the night. (Which is good, because when they stop beeping, it's not a good thing.)

As usual with this hospital, the staff was great. I was a bit pissed that I from 6 am on Sunday when they decided to admit me to 1 pm yesterday when the ward doctor released me, I never once spoke to a doctor. That bothered me because I knew I was fine to get out but couldn't get anyone to OK that. Nor could I get anyone to OK Imitrex, which was really all I needed (plus dark and no sucking next door). But the nurses were amazing. And, being in a CCU, when you hit the nurse buzzer they come running. The endless Delaudid kept the pain away for the most part. They do this "how is your pain on a scale from 1 to 10?" thing and, at one point, it was up to a brain-exploding 9. But the lovely cocktail made it go away. The one thing it didn't do, oddly enough, was make me sleep. I hade five doses of Delaudid in ER, from 10 pm Saturday to 6 am Sunday, and I was lucid and awake for the whole time. Man, can I hold my narcotic or what?
Photo of the day: I Spy Something Purple

More flowers courtesy of our recent rainfall.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Photo of the day: I Do the Rock (Part 2)

I like to pick up rocks from places I've visited. Just small pebbles. I keep them in a ceramic bowl and they're all mixed up so I can't tell the rock that comes from Africa from the rock that comes from Hawaii. For some reason, that just makes me smile.

Monday, February 01, 2010

Photo of the day: I Do The Rock

Yeah, I know I missed a day. I ended up in ER Saturday night and they kept me in until this afternoon. Great fun. I'm fine now. I just had a 32-hour migraine that wouldn't go away. They wanted to observe me because every time I stood up my heart rate went through the roof. (Ignoring the fact that I was exhausted, in some pretty severe pain, and severely dehydrated they jumped right to "heart trouble") and put me in with the cardiac care unit. Great fun. Don't ever go there. Especially for a migraine. It's non-stop noise and light -- the worst things when you are light- and sound-sensitive. And they never did, in spite of my repeated requests, give me any migraine meds. What they did give me, however, was Delaudid whenever I was in pain. Which was great fun, but didn't really treat the problem. Anyway, I'm home and well and doing fine. Just need to get my strength back after a few days without eating or much sleep.