A Taste of TESOL

I let a couple of days pass without writing anything because my feelings of uselessness in retirement were gnawing at me. Weeks slipped by, but a remedy turned up.

Two years ago I accompanied my wife on a sabbatical to Lucca, in Tuscany, where we went to school to learn some Italian. LuccaThe method by which the Koinè Center taught us was communicative: all Italian, generous encouragement to speak, little correction of errors as long as what we said was comprehensible. After three months I came away with enough language to converse with a patient native speaker, read the newspaper and derive something (though at times not much) from Italian talk radio. To Italians who, hearing my American accent wanted to exercise their English, I explained, Sono qui per imparare l’Italiano, and they would graciously let me have my way.

Once we got home, lest I lose what I didn’t use, I read and discussed La Coscienza di Zeno with a retired Italian teacher, and wrote little stories for him, until he went back to Napoli for the summer. I replaced those lessons by joining a Meetup group of Italian speakers, where I met a woman who had lived in Italy and Spain, spoke those languages fluently, and made her living teaching English as a second language by what, she explained, was the communicative method my Italian school in Lucca used.

What was teaching like? How did she get into it? We chatted in Italian, and afterwards in English. She started in Europe with no more qualification than being a native speaker, but there are courses that teach you how, and give you a certificate. Hmm… Might I sit in on a class to see what it’s like?

Over these weeks I have visited free ESL classes for new immigrants in a public school as a guest fly-on-the-wall, and visited a TOEFL preparation class a member of my writers’ group teaches at a nearby college. I get it: the victories and humiliations of my months in Lucca helped me understand what was going on and appreciate the teachers’ grace and professionalism.


I wanted to do it myself, so I visited, applied to and interviewed at three schools around the city that teach you to Teach English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL, which is about the same as Teach English as a Second Language, TESL, and Teach English as a Foreign Language, TEFL). The courses run full time for four weeks, certify if you pass that you know how, and cost two and a half times my 1963 medical school tuition.

I might have signed up on impulse for one that started four days after my visit, but I have given hostages to fortune: commitments to be places, do things, travel on non-refundable airline tickets. While I mulled the possibilities, the teacher at the free ESL class dubbed me a volunteer sort-of-teacher’s-aide, and let me teach part of a lesson. I thought it would be easy, but I mistook where the class was, tried something a bit too hard, and felt I’d bombed–but (after she had tidied up the mess I had made, with aplomb) she said that everyone does that at first, and not to worry.

For now I shall continue to sit in, and study my calendar for the fall. Stay tuned.

Unnecessary X-ray Vision: the Doctor as Superman

The art and science of unnecessary radiation has come a long way since I was a boy. The recent New York Times article and the comments thereto don’t quite convey the flavor of where we used to be.

At the end of WWII I was a small boy living in middle class comfort in a not-yet fashionable side street on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. My educated parents, an assistant district attorney and a high school Spanish teacher, cared about my health and promoted it about as well as anyone in their position at the time.

My mother made sure I had orange juice for breakfast, and I had to finish my glass of whole milk before before she administered my vitamins and tonics. Vegetables bought fresh from Mr. Mazella’s shop four blocks away graced our table. My father smoked a pipe, my mother cigarettes. They took me to a pediatrician for checkups.

At every checkup good old Doctor Anderson poked, prodded and listened, but he got the real inside story by performing a fluoroscopy. In a dim room filled with banks of science-fictiony equipment they sandwiched me stripped to my skivvies between a huge machine behind me and a cold flat plate in front of me. Dr. Anderson, who had covered his white coat with what I remember as a thick red rubber apron with a high bib and a hem that touched his shoes, stood across the room. The way it used to beMy mother, wearing her fashionable suit, sat erect on a steel stool beside him. I watched them over the top of the plate as he donned red ski goggles and commanded the machine with a device connected to a cable wrapped in shiny metal. The room darkened. The machine buzzed and hummed as a Halloween image of my bones and organs danced on a screen on their side of the plate. I enjoyed it in a mirror on the wall behind them, reversed left for right.

Doctor Anderson narrated a leisurely tour of my organs, pointing out items of special interest with the same six-foot wooden pointer a later ancient history teacher would use to locate Athens and Sparta on a pull-down map in the front of the classroom. My mother’s cigarette glowed brighter than the image in the mirror as I learned to control the show by holding my breath, swallowing, coughing.

The fluoroscopy was the last diagnostic procedure of the checkup. Inoculations came next, and afterward I dressed so my mother and I could receive pronouncements and prescriptions in twin leather chairs across the huge desk from the doctor.
Shoe-fitting fluoroscope

I liked seeing my innards on the screen so much that in later years I went half a mile out of my way home from school to wiggle my toes in the shoe-fitting fluoroscope at a Thom McAn store. Now, of course, I find the idea that Dr. Anderson’s fluoroscopic examination led to any therapeutic decision preposterous, and dismiss the shoe machine as a sad manifestation of a dark age.

No harm has come to me from all that radiation, so far. As an orthopaedic surgeon I wore a radiation badge to track what was going on in the hours I spent around x-ray machines. Now my dentist shields my thyroid and gonads with lead when she makes images of my teeth. As low as the radiation dose from airport backscatter machines may be, the harm is stochastic; that is, every little bit adds its little bit to the risk of harm. I haven’t been offered such a screening yet, but since the complications of a patdown (delay, embarrassment) are easier to get past than the complications of radiation (cancer), I might decline the machine.

It’s good we are more aware of the issues. Everyone should pay attention, and bring to the question of which x-ray to have, if any, the same horse-sense she would employ in buying, say, a new refrigerator.

Images courtesy of New Haven Health and National Museum of Health and Medicine

Rest for the Tired Mind

What tires the mind is apt to be a computer task: finishing an article by a deadline; sorting a year’s paperwork for taxes; doing something about enough email so that what remains in the inbox will fit on one screen. Tired mindI work at it until I can do no more, and then what? I could walk outside or work out at the gym, or see if someone wants to meet for a cup of coffee. But in the moment I consider what might be possible, I am sitting before this lovely, powerful device that connects me to worlds beyond my reach, facts I don’t know, and a universe of possibility through its colorful screen.

Computer games lurk a few keystrokes away. Think of it: I don’t have to move, and in less than a minute I shall be delighting in the easy elegance of this device. But I haven’t done well at the games I’ve tried, or cared much for them. I’ll admit my incoordination and inexperience, but stand up for my gloomy sense that such play wastes time and attention, and therefore life. (Before you dismiss my attitude as a loser’s whine, remember that I had sufficient sitzfleisch for medical school and dexterity for orthopaedic surgery.)

I did get caught up in computer mahjong solitaire, where I found something soothing in applying my full attention to a puzzle that was simple but not easy, and surprisingly satisfying when won.Mahjong solitaire The swoosh sound the virtual pieces make when they disappear from the board has a certain appeal. But I tired of it, even though it reminded me of my brief flurry with real mahjong, when the physical tiles in their leather box possessed some of the shiny appeal of my computer.

People I love and respect play solitaire games a lot, computer and otherwise. My better half recovers from writing lectures by playing Sudoku, or solo computer Scrabble; as I write she is sharing a new enthusiasm for KenKen with one of the twin house guests whose presence has kept me from blogging for a week. They are amused and absorbed, but I have found something I like better.

A search for a passage I wanted to quote from a book I read when I was ten led me to Project Gutenberg, from where I discovered Distributed Proofreaders. As they scan old books which have passed out of copyright, they need the texts to be proofread to correct errors in the OCR output. You can volunteer to do some on line, at your convenience. (It’s the same kind of sharing as the SETI@home screensaver, which you can think of as the same kind of relief for your computer’s mind.) Distributed Proofreaders shows you how to do it. A page or two takes about as long as a game of mahjongg, and demands the same kind of attention. For me, it provides a similar satisfaction when I win (i.e. finish a page). You can do as little as a single page or as many pages as you want. And participation offers two additional rewards.Books Beyond Copyright

First, you get to read about something you might never have dipped into otherwise. In the few weeks I have been doing this I have read from Experiments on Animals, The Recollections of Alexis de Tocqueville, Principles and Practice of Fur Dressing and Fur Dyeing, Metapsychical Phenomena and Lorenzo de’ Medici, the Magnificent—among others. And second, what you accomplish when you finish a page helps the world in a way that playing with images that disappear when you are done does not. Try a page; you might like it.

Images courtesy of Mia Bruksman, Shurikane and Liz West.

I Was a Cheerful Omnivore

When I get caught up in a book, I’m apt to recommend it as if it were the best book I’d ever read, because at that moment it’s the only one in my head. David Grossman’s To The End of the Land grabbed me that way.

Cover To the End of the LandI want the friends I recommend a book to to share my experience undiluted and undistorted, to read the book as I did, unladen with either expectations or knowledge. This austerity infuriates my wife. Why should I read it, she demands, if you won’t even say what it’s about?

Okay. It’s about a family in a land at war, and what that does to those who go off to war, and to the others. The piece I want to hold on to for a moment appears when a boy between his childhood and becoming a soldier demands his parents explain to him where meat comes from. Wishing to spare their son that knowledge of killing, their awkward answer makes him a vegetarian for some years of his adolescence. That decision of his set against other decisions he makes, moved me, and ought to move you. Enough said.

To the End of the Land is set in Israel and translated from the Hebrew; its protagonists are Jewish; kashrut is in its air. A few weeks after I read it, I stumbled across Eat Not This Flesh, Frederick J. Simoons’s fascinating (I was going to say, ‘delicious’) scholarly account of food avoidances in many cultures through history. He explores people who eschew pork, or beef, or fish, or fowl, or dogs, or horses, and the religious, historical, practical and cultural reasons they do so. I couldn’t put it down.

PigsLet me offer you a taste. In 1973, Simoons tells us, nutritious, low-fat, reasonably priced, legally slaughtered horsemeat was subject to federal inspection, and a horsemeat shop in Connecticut set up fifteen franchises in New England and New York which sold 4000 to 5000 pounds a day. Tongans learned to like horsemeat from European missionaries, and from the mid-1950s (many of them Mormons) migrated to Utah, where they purchased horses to eat. This impaired their public image and made their children the butt of jokes in school. When in 1983, a Hartford, Connecticut packing company sold horse patties and steaks in Utah through the Harmon’s, Inc. supermarket chain, stock sold out quickly—until public protest by 200 horse lovers led Harmon’s to stop selling it and leave the Tongans on their own. (pp.192 ff.)

Or a bit further afield:

“Dog eating in modern sub-Saharan Africa is found mainly in the rain forest and adjacent savannas of West Africa and the Congo Basin, where to some groups it is a preferred form of flesh. […] Dog eaters in central Nigeria have special names for dog parts, which derive from a perceived resemblance between the dog and a Peugeot 404 station wagon. The dog itself is called 404 station wagon; its head, gearbox or loudspeaker; its legs, 404 wheels […]” (p.229)

For what it’s worth, I don’t think I’ve eaten a dog, but I found my cavallo in Puglia the sweetest pot roast ever. This should help establish my credentials as a cheerful omnivore. I wasn’t always: this skinny kid whose mother had a cooking disorder, as a New Yorker cartoon had it, grew from liking nothing into an adventurous eater, married a marvelous cook, and when I found myself responsible for feeding myself, I discovered that if I apply to making dinner about a third of the care, planning and attention to detail that orthopaedic surgery demands, the results will delight me, please others and nourish all. I like sharp knives, cast iron, good wines, and the savory better than the sweet. I admire the work of Michael Pollan and Mark Bittman. (I’ll write about appetite another time; despite everything, when I got out of bed this morning I weighed the same as I did the month Buddy Holly and the Crickets recorded That’ll be the Day.)

With all this in my head, I picked up Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals. Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food had made me aware of the subsidized corn monoculture and the evils of factory farms, and led a portion of a locally grass-fed beefalo into my basement freezer. Foer’s book, however, upset me. I hadn’t realized how completely factory farming, with its cruelty to animals, brutalization of employees and impairment of the quality and healthfulness of meat most Americans eat has replaced the kind of farm or ranch I thought my animal protein came from. And the way Foer writes about his concern for his son and the example he would set by eating and feeding him food from these places resonated with the feelings Ofer’s vegetarianism in To the End of the Land provoked.

Foer has become a vegetarian, and he has made me uncomfortable. Might I stop eating animals over these issues? I don’t think so, but the truth is that I don’t know. I frown on activists who don’t bear witness themselves: I stopped smoking cigarettes in 1963 in the era of the Surgeon General’s report because it would have been wrong to go to medical school as a smoker. Now I shall take more interest in where the animals I eat come from, and how they got here from there. I can cook hearty, tasty meatless meals that will satisfy me and many vegetarians, but the dinner table I share with another omnivore matters, too. Give up meat? For good? Is that what the question is?

A Little Perio and a Little Anatomy

Fear and ignorance led me to stall for three months between my dentist’s suggestion that I see a periodontist and my doing so. When in the sixties I told my thesis director, an obsessive Austrian with military posture, that I wouldn’t be in the lab the next afternoon because I had to see a periodontist, he barked, “Don’t!” I jumped. Why not? “Once the gum dentists get a hold on you, they never let go!” I took that for a warning, not humor, and declined the attentions that first gum dentist offered, but in the army a few years later, I let a full bird colonel do terrible things to me for reasons, which, in retrospect, did not convince, and after that I steered clear.

Nevertheless, here I was again with deep pockets and deep pockets. It turned out that the man she referred me to had treated an old friend of mine, who spoke well of him. The periodontist in person was clear, kind, straightforward, young enough to remember his training and old enough for humility about what treatment could achieve. We set a date for him to scale my roots.

He greeted me, acknowledged that my experience of the injection could be negative, characterized the swab and the needle stick to follow as ’little,’ but never said ‘just.’ Once numbness had set in, he went to town on my upper teeth while I, soothed by Donizetti through ear buds, ignored him. I rinsed. Now for the lowers, he said. Is your tongue numb? It was not, nor were my lower teeth. When the block doesn’t work you go high and wide, he said, and injected more anesthetic.

More minutes, but no less feeling. My gum dentist frowned. Let me give it a try, he proposed, but his first ultrasonic dig left me ready to betray the movement and confess anything. Yet one more injection scarcely dulled what I felt when I tapped my tooth and left the sensation of my tongue and the skin over my jaw intact.

Something like this had happened before. Other dentists who had had trouble numbing my left lower teeth opined that I had an anatomical variation that made the block hard to do, but in the end they always succeeded. This periodontist and I stared at each other: it was a node, a moment of decision. I will try to be good, I mouthed carefully, if you will try not to compromise what you have to do.

What followed rated solid sixes and sevens with a scattering of eights and a nine or two for crown jewels. When it was over, my shirt was soaked, my mind addled, yet that second part of the procedure seemed quicker than the upper half. In the afternoon I felt wrecked and couldn’t concentrate so I put in some miles on an exercise bike at the gym. I needed cocktail hour and a night’s sleep to regain my composure.

The next day, with half my mouth still unscaled, I wondered how rare my odd wiring might be. A 2007 article in the Journal of Dental Education quotes an anesthesia handbook to the effect that the standard inferior alveolar block I had is “one of the first clinical skills students learn in dental school,” but it has a fifteen to twenty percent failure rate when properly administered. Another article blames improper technique for more failures than anatomic variation. Other less familiar ways to block the nerve named Gow-Gates and Akinosi may have higher rates of success without more complications, but seem to be used less because “alternatives to the conventional inferior alveolar nerve block remain, for the most part, absent from formal predoctoral dental training in the United States.” The Intertragic notch

The Gow-Gates technique, described here, may, indeed, have been the way my periodontist did my last, partially successful injection. Note that Doctor Spiller calls the external target for the tip of the needle the “intertragal notch” (the notch between the tragus and the antitragus), while the illustration he provides labels that structure “intertragic.” Today, looking back, I consider my experience in the chair to have been troublesome rather than tragic. In a few weeks I shall return to that chair with my ignorance reduced; I’ll estimate my fear as the day gets closer.

The Stock Market and Matters of State

When the Dow put its toe over the (arbitrary) 12,000 line I was reminded of how much I valued the wisdom I found some thirty-odd years ago in Mamis and Mamis’s When to Sell. Their subtitle is Inside Strategies for Stock Market Profits, but I thought then, and see even more clearly now, that what they had to say should be proclaimed no less on Main Street and Pennsylvania Avenue than on Wall Street.

The authors’ main point is that amateur investors are most comfortable sitting with losses because they cling to the hope that the stock they bought would go up rather than see its decline for what it is, evidence that the stock is not doing what they supposed it would do. Hope is not a strategy. “By not selling,” they write, “by tightly holding on to his stocks, the investor never has to face reality.”NYSE's bull from behind

This is not to say that the wise investor must realize every small loss that comes his way, or that he should cash in every small gain—only that he must acknowledge that the changes are real. The price of my stock or my soybeans may go up this afternoon, or it may go down, but right now it is what it is, and that’s all I can get for it, and it might be better to take that than to lose more. The past is gone and the future doesn’t exist. You have to decide without being certain, and sometimes you will be wrong.

I read When to Sell for the first time during an unhappy year toward the end of a marriage. Waist-deep in unhappiness, shame and lawyers, my commitment to the idea of (permanent) marriage remained deeper and wider than the commitment anyone would make to a stock, which should be no more than the money one paid for it. But wishing and hoping had not made things better, so I moved on.

Beyond the personal, the authors recognize the application of their idea to the political. With regard to Viet Nam, they quote Peter Bourne to the effect that

“The overwhelming desire for the success of policies to which a strong emotional attachment has been made also leads to an attempt to alter those facts over which one has control, making them consistent with the outcome that is desired. It is as though there is an expectation at a magical level that events over which one has no control will then also fall into the desired pattern.”

More precisely, it is not the facts, but the selection and report of the facts that a public figure may control. George W. Bush and Hamid KarzaiWhen the audience is the nation, when the motive to control morphs from a hapless hope for magic through passivity before the momentum of past decisions to a wicked wish to impose a personal goal on everyone else, decisions get made that don’t serve the people who pay and bleed for them.

Even though a member of the body politic may not be privy to all the intelligence the president has about bank regulation or Afghanistan or global warming, she has the right, even a certain obligation, to consider what she does know and form an opinion. The real control the small investor has over his stocks is not over what the price is, which is the fact of the situation, but over whether or not he sells. In regard to matters not of stocks but of state, the citizen who thinks it’s time to sell or prefers we go the distance need not wait for a phone call from a pollster to express that opinion. She has a vote, but need not wait for an election. Anyone with a pen or a phone can let elected representatives and editors of newspapers and their friends and their networks know what they think.

Image courtesy of hmerinomx via Flickr.

Of Posts, Pests and Pasts

Looking out at snowIt’s snowing again, daylight pale, hues muted. I have set myself the morning task of writing another post, yet I find myself immobile, gazing out at individual snowflakes swirling through the spaces between the branches of trees, telephone poles, mounds of snow on cars; studying shapes, contours, textures. All that detail delights me.

Some years back, as part of an effort to see the world as it is, I set out to teach myself to draw. I bought a sketch pad, pencils and an eraser, and made all-but-daily efforts to render what I saw: strangers in public places, buildings and statues, landscapes, flowers, objects on tables. It was hard to do, and absorbing; it made the rest of the world fade out in a way that pleased me. Trying to render what I saw made me look harder, and as I did so, and moved the pencil on the paper, what I drew became my own. Ruskin was right: drawing also changed the way I visit art museums. Once I stopped comparing my results with, say, Ingres’s, I could enjoy trying to figure out how the master did what he did—but I also enjoyed envisioning what he must have seen, in order to draw it that way.

I think the trick isn’t in the doing, it’s in the seeing. For me, the hard part of learning to do surgery was not manipulating the tools, but seeing, and understanding, the structures that needed to be fixed. Once you get a good look at the problem (and that requires making the incision in the right place), you ought to be able to do something about it. After that some surgeons make it look hard, others make it look easy, and there will be differences in how things come out, just as two students copying from the blackboard will do so with different handwriting.

In any case, I took yesterday’s bright sunshine and uncommitted morning to make my first visit to the MFA’s new Arts of the Americas wing. Another time I may write more about visiting museums and about that museum. For now, let me say that during the hour before the school groups and their vocal docents arrived, when I had the nineteenth-century floor almost to myself, the richness of the collection overwhelmed me. When the alarm on my phone reminded me that I had to go home to meet the Orkin man, it was hard to tear myself away.

A truck like the Orkin man'sHe parked nearby and rang the doorbell. He had negotiated pest control services with my wife a year ago, while I was away. After six pest-free years we had canceled periodic carpenter ant treatments only to find a thousand of them in a porch under repair two years later. When he came to control them, he found termites in the wood pile, though not in the house.

We exchanged pleasantries and started our tour in the basement. The treatment of pests in old houses was likely to be chronic, he remarked. I understood: it was something like periodontia. He chuckled. We swapped periodontist stories. Complete cures were an ideal, I said, and since I had been an orthopaedic surgeon, I knew whereof I spoke.

He fixed me with an odd squint. Oh, where did you work? I told him. You fixed my ruptured Achilles, he proclaimed. He told me his name. I studied his face. He showed me his (gratifyingly fine) scar. Ruptured achilles tendonHe had done so well that he had returned to playing over-40 league soccer until he ruptured his anterior cruciate ligament in another game, and after he recovered from that, he gave up soccer.

That he had done so well made me feel good. The moment was a welcome change from my habit of mind which remembers patients who did not do well more easily than the ones who did. It’s a habit I don’t like, but I haven’t been able to break it. The transaction with a patient has always felt more ‘over’ when he feels ‘completely cured’ than when he is left with symptoms, or can’t return to his previous level of function. Of course, who of a certain age can function the way he once did?

So maybe this bad habit of mind which has plagued me over the years is just another failure to see and accept the world as it is. I can’t help how I see things, but I am beginning to get the idea that the way I see them may not be the way they look to someone else.

Notes from the Blizzard of 2011

Without television and Internet and computer models we should have expected nothing. The eleventh turned raw and damp before the cloudy sky faded to black with nothing falling out of it. The next morning I awakened to silence, and snow so deep it muted the high-pitched part of the sound of steel scraping asphalt.

I bundled myself in a warm sweater and padded downstairs. Furnace working, steps and sidewalk a foot deep, more falling fast. City plows had already constructed a three-foot rampart across the mouth of our driveway. If the newspaper had been delivered—unlikely—black truths and yellow journalism alike lay concealed under a white blanket. I went downstairs to drink coffee I had roasted in fading sunshine the morning before.

What do you do on a snow day when all quotidian obligations are canceled or postponed? Curl up with a good book? Skype the meteorologically better-favored? Push toward a new blog post? Light up a joint and spend the day in bed? Start a new game of Diplomacy? Or shovel your snow?

We live on a corner, where we get more light in summer and more snow in winter. A few years back, the city built a traffic-calming bulge on our corner where plow drivers leave me compacted wads of other peoples’ snow to dig. But shoveling snow offers the same secret obsessive satisfactions as washing the blackboard did in school.

Snow on the sidewalk outside my house, which is not my property, becomes as much my responsibility as what falls in my driveway, which is. Because the city forbids me to abandon my snow in the public street, and because my house and my neighbor’s bound our shared driveway so closely, I must carry what falls into it out to the street shovelful by shovelful, and away from the driveway’s mouth, to pile it on top of the rampart the plow makes at the edge of the sidewalk. The pile I construct must be secure as an igloo to avoid collapse either way.

How much snow confronted me? On our 160 feet of sidewalk the city demands a walkway three feet wide, but that looks stingy, and the melt-freeze after a storm can turn so narrow an alley into a skating rink, even salted. Out of concern for mothers pushing prams and oldsters pulling shopping carts I do four. So let’s see. Four feet times 160 feet means 640 cubic feet of snow for each foot that falls before I start the steps or the path or the driveway. A good eight hundred cubic feet for each foot that falls, and they predicted a foot and a half.

According to Reade Advanced Materials, freshly fallen snow weighs ten pounds a cubic foot, and compacted snow, like what the plows leave, thirty. Call it twenty on average, though the weathermen warned that our blizzard would bring wet, heavy snow. I would have over a ton of snow to lift two or three feet when I started and four or even five as I built the rampart taller. I had only to lift what fell along the sidewalk, but I would have to carry what landed in the depth of the driveway more than the length of a car, some thirty feet.

I used to pride myself on shoveling my own snow, and enjoyed the exercise. I saved the price of a gym and enjoyed brief interactions with neighbors and passers-by, eyes rolled at nature’s perfidy, a thank you for shoveling, a grim eyes-front march across my territory to duck away from my effort, as if I might expect a tip.

Alas, my lumbar spine has aged faster than the rest of me. Three years ago, when a snow storm coincided with a low back storm, I tried to take less in each shovelful, slow down, but it hurt. When a young teenager offered his services, I negotiated a price, but he did a poor job and sulked when I told him so, so I paid him off and resolved not to employ him again.

In the aftermath of that storm my thigh and calf burned for a week. One time in years past when we were away, the local landscape company did a crappy job, and the fee they proposed as the next winter approached was outrageous. The responsibility for the snow which had been a sometimes burdensome part of the texture of life here became a worry, worsened by having to admit to another bit of age and infirmity.

On Craigslist I was lucky enough to find a young man who shovels snow the way I would if I were able. He is about thirty, with a young son who sometimes accompanies him when he shovels, and well-spoken; in his other life he may be a graduate student. After each snow storm he bills me what his work is worth, and either of us can cancel at any time. Knowing that he will help eases my terror.

Bicycle in snowTerror? Snow may be heavy, but it isn’t terrible. It may fall at inconvenient times, and if it freezes on the pavement, provoke worry in a litigious society. But if you wait long enough it will go away by itself. The terror comes from knowing that my body is as transient as the snow, that my waning capacity to move snow is another hint of changes to come.

Snow is beautiful, too, so for now I shall enjoy it.

A Figure of Speech

My Times Digest, which I receive by email, today reported

Headless Bodies in Acapulco
The once thriving resort area of Acapulco suffered another blow on Saturday with the discovery of 19 bodies, 15 of them headless, from a round of assaults that bore the earmarks of organized crime.

I went to the New York Times site to get a link, and found

Bodies Found Beheaded in Assaults in Acapulco
The once thriving resort area of Acapulco suffered another blow on Saturday with the discovery of 28 bodies, 15 of them headless, from a round of assaults overnight that bore the earmarks of organized crime.

Things change, but they’re still below fifty percent. I don’t mean to make light of this, but bad news gets worse with a bad choice of words. For the record, I’m against crime, beheading, and unmindful use of stock phrases.

Image courtesy of Sjors Provoost via Flickr.

What Do You Recommend?

The other night a robot from a polling organization telephoned to ascertain my opinion about the economy, the recovery, and the stock market. The robot spoke in the friendly voice of a midwestern female of a certain age, rather like my college roommate’s mother. I communicated my responses to her by pressing buttons on my telephone keypad. For every question she offered me a ‘don’t know’ option, but out of several dozen I needed it only once, not because I didn’t know what that question was about, but because I thought the offered answers were equally wrong. I try to stay informed—I read the newspaper every day, prefer C-SPAN to game shows and listen to internet radio—and I was happy to share the opinions I have.

The next days brought news I considered bad: the assassination of Punjab governor Salman Taseer by his bodyguard because of his opposition to the Pakistani blasphemy law, and Professor Alan Gribben’s decision to edit the word ‘nigger’ out of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn because it might offend contemporary sensibilities.

I know how I feel about assassination, censorship, and giving needless offense: I am against them all.

But what if the robot had asked me what we ought to do in or about Pakistan or Afghanistan? I’m not sure. The national leaders who look after my safety and make the tactical decisions know more about what’s really going on than I do, and I do believe it’s in my interest for them to keep some of that to themselves. I study the faces of the young men and women who have died, presented in silence at the end of a newscast that has recited the cost of what we are doing in dollars, and in my sadness I’m unconvinced that what we are getting for the price is worth it. But I’m uneasy about my gut reaction because I don’t trust the reliability or validity of what I have been told—despite my regular consumption of publicly available information.

An old imitation flavor“Don’t eat out of the chemistry set.”
—The Author’s mother.

I do, however, have a thought about the new editions of Twain. Just as the red Jell-O I used to enjoy once was labeled ‘Imitation cherry flavor,’ the new editions should be labeled ‘IMITATION LITERATURE’ and, ‘Warning: The Poet Laureate (or Secretary of Education) has determined that reading politically altered books may be detrimental to your appreciation of American history and literature.’