Sunday, January 29, 2012

No bailouts, no handouts, no copouts

A quick note to say how AWESOME 2012 has been so far! And the Year of the Dragon too.

I've already gone snowshoeing twice this year, have a snowshoe 5K lined up (to combine two of my interests), have some 5Ks lined up, have some vacation trips planned, and it snowed(!!!) in Seattle.

It also dawned on me randomly the other day that I also missed one more thing from my 2011 "firsts" list:
  • Went to a baseball game at a National League stadium. Still to see the Mariners play, though! I've never seen any other team. Granted, I've only ever been to Seattle and Boston to see them play, but seeing them (blow it in the bottom of the 9th like only my hometeam can) in DC was a cool new experience.
Life is beautiful!

En anglais, bitte schön

An old colleague recommended Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue, a book about the development of the English language. Everybody already knows that English added words from every period of its history (Anglo-Saxon, Latin, French, etc), but this book addresses how the grammar itself changed, not just the vocabulary.

Linguist John McWhorter presents a very strong case for his belief that Celtic, Welsh, and Viking influences changed English grammar. In the first half of the book, he points out that Anglo-Saxon English had no instances of meaningless "do" or progressive present tense (still unlike any other Germanic language) until it came into contact with Celtic and Welsh, which do contain those grammatical oddities.

The book is clearly not written for an academic audience, but I found myself a little irritated by how overly simplified it sometimes was. The fact that McWhorter rarely names the linguists whose positions he is refuting seemed a little disingenuous. He makes vague mentions of "one renowned scholar" or "the pre-eminent linguist in this field", etc. But where I hoped to find easy references for their work, there were few immediately available. The "Notes on Sources" section at the end contained everything, but while reading the chapters there was no way to easily cross-reference. I like my footnotes, damn it!

In the middle, I got bored by an attempt to discredit the Whorf hypothesis. And the book ends with a theory that Proto-IndoEuropean (Proto-German's ancestor and thus English's as well) changed its grammar because of proximity to ancient Semitic languages. I appreciated the round-robin ending: that syntactical changes are part of the history and nature of English and languages in general.

Despite the brief annoyances, I couldn't put the book down. McWhorter presents such a compelling case and writes in a semi-snarky tone that makes linguistics accessible for armchair linguists. Plus, the idea that the Celts most significantly influenced how the English language developed? SOLD!

Monday, January 23, 2012

Zooming to meet our thunder

Back when I was a junior in college and trying to think of subjects for either an honors thesis or a senior scholars project, the Tuskegee Airmen made my Top 3 list (the 442nd and ads between the World Wars were the other two).

Also, since my parents let us watch any historically-justified violent movie (because violence was ok, but sex was not), my sisters and I have seen almost every movie about World War II. (That's basically all we watched as kids. The one movie I have seen most in my life is The Great Escape. )

I liked Red Tails. I didn't love it, but as the war film genre goes, it's not bad (I've seen far worse). The manly bonding, predictable daredevil exploits, caricatured enemy (the one Nazi pilot was pretty bad), woman representing postwar hope ... they're all familiar.

But as a civil rights movie, it was pretty tame. The Red Tails served as escorts for (white) bombers, ensuring that they reached and bombed their targets with minimal air casualties.
While it's clear the skies are segregated, without any connection to the home front, it's a little disjointed: the characters aren't really developed outside of their unit; they rarely reference home or their pasts or their families, so it's hard to tie the storyline to any historical significance that the viewer doesn't already know. Without that connection, the movie is like any other underdog tale: scrappy unit isn't given respect but eventually proves itself after working through some personal issues and passing tests of valor. Though there are many scenes where the airmen face racism and bigotry, there are also many cheesily heartwarming scenes where white colleagues show their gratitude for the air protection the Red Tails provide. (There's also some bad acting on the part of some of the white pilots.)

And then it's sobering to realize that the Civil Rights movement doesn't reach its apex for another two decades, and that racism in the military or anywhere else isn't close to being eradicated, either.

Overall, the movie is pretty light-hearted, as many in the genre can be.

And speaking of the genre... In one subplot, one of the Red Tails is shot down and taken to a POW camp, where he takes part in an escape. The scene where the German guard patrolling the forest stumbles upon an escaping prisoner is taken almost directly from The Great Escape. (See above. The Palmer girls, we have that movie memorized.)

But my big geek-out moment (I believe I squealed in the theatre) was when I recognized Adam from MI-5 faking an American accent in the 3 minutes he's barely onscreen.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Above us only sky

I was really excited when the latest Maisie Dobbs book arrived for me at the library. But then snowshoeing and soccer and Jasper Fforde and Snowpocalypse 2012 took up a lot of my time. So I risked more overdue fines (snow-induced overdue fines, to boot!) to finish the book.

Each Maisie Dobbs book addresses some aspect of the Great War (cartographers, chemists, artists, disabled veterans). In A Lesson in Secrets, conscientious objectors take the stage. Maisie goes undercover for Special Branch, teaching philosophy at a college to determine whether or not political forces that do not have the interest of the Crown at heart are infiltrating Britain's institutions of learning. And of course, there's a murder that she has to solve that happens to be connected to her task.

Maisie as a character has definitely blossomed in the past few books; Jacqueline Winspear does a wonderful job at slowly developing our heroine's character. For much of the series, Maisie was serious and rather dour, held back by an inability to let go of her war trauma. But since both her wartime love and her lifelong mentor died in recent books, sad as those events were, it's as if our heroine finally has wings of her own to grow.

The next book is due out in March. I'm already on the waiting list at the library!

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Virtual verisimilitude

Once again, Jasper Fforde managed to top his last creative achievement. As if the entire Thursday Next series weren't already a testament to ingenuity and imagination, the latest book adds one more meta-layer to the intersections of mind, text, and conceptions of reality.

The first five books star a kick-ass character named Thursday Next, who is able to both book-jump and time travel. She interacts with characters from books as well as people in the "real" word (an alternate-history version of Swindon, England).

One of Our Thursdays is Missing stars the written version of Thursday, a character in the books based on the "real" Thursday's adventures. The real Thursday has gone missing in the middle of a possible genre war, and the key to her whereabouts lies in various nefarious characters' attempts to control natural resources of unmined metaphor in the land of Fiction.

It's Jasper Fforde; it's automatically brilliant.

Reel diversions

I hadn't planned on seeing Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, but Thuter's text that Colin Firth is in it was enough to get me to the theater. I've never read Le Carre's book, but I think I saw the 1979 film version a long time ago. This latest was good; though at times it was rather slow, it was an old-fashioned Cold War spy thriller. (It's been a while since "defection" has been central to a film plot.) The costumes and set design were all admirably (sometimes disturbingly) spot-on for capturing the early 1970s in all its fashion "glory" and technological limitations.

I had to counter the heavy espionage subject matter with something light and fluffy, so a friend and I watched The Adventures of Tintin. I've never read the original comics, but I did read a great article in The Atlantic about how Spielberg handled some of the racist stereotypes from the original Tintin books.

I really liked Tintin. It was good fun, an whirlwind adventure story à la Indiana Jones and National Treasure: there's a pirate treasure, travel by air and sea, the Sahara, and a sheikh's palace. It provided a good counterbalance to Tinker!

Saturday, January 07, 2012

...and beyond

Ammo, amas, amat

I forgot one rather important "first" from 2011...
  • Going shooting at a gun range - It was definitely a cross-cultural experience. I didn't like the idea of shooting at a target that looked like a human, so my friend and I chose a zombie. My only other experience at a gun range was when my father took me and my sisters once, almost 20 years ago, because he thought we should be prepared for the Apocalypse (much like all the camping trips where we had to "rough it"). It's a pretty traumatic memory, so the fact that I went voluntarily as an adult was a huge step. My politics regarding guns and gun laws, probably due to that adolescent memory, remain the same. I know Mi Hermana and La Otra Hermana were equally as affected.

Monday, January 02, 2012

Many a weary foot

I love New Year's celebrations. I love the feeling of starting fresh, of a clean slate (haha, get it?), of the almost religious idea of starting anew with no sins. But I also love the idea of a progression, of time and life moving forward and amassing new experiences every day.

As longtime friends and readers know, I reflect on the past year by being thankful for and celebrating "firsts". And 2011 had a lot of firsts for me!
  • Snowshoeing - I went several times and liked it so much that I bought myself snowshoes after Thanksgiving. Two trips already planned for January 2012.

  • Baking more than I have, ever - I think I baked more in 2011 than I have the rest of my life combined. In the process, I discovered that it's relaxing and that I'm quite good at it!

  • Visiting the Caribbean - Aside from the beautiful beaches and wonderful sailing weather in the British Virgin Islands and the amazing history of Puerto Rico, there were also many "firsts" for food from this trip: mofongo, plantain lasagna, conch ceviche, and Pusser's very excellent rum. Another "first" from the trip was the agonizing realization that I am either allergic (like Mi Hermana) to a sunscreen ingredient or (like La Otra Hermana) to the combination of sun and sweat.

  • Getting help for anxiety and depression - It took 14 years. What college counselors failed to observe and subsequent MSW therapists failed to point out, both a psychiatrist and a psychologist saw immediately. I'm grateful to everyone who was so supportive in 2011: from driving me to that first appointment, to recommending certain doctors, to calling to see if I was okay when first starting the medication regiment, to checking in every now and then since. It might take a long time to work through, but I think 2012 will build on a lot of the foundation laid in 2011.

  • Paddleboarding - This was the coolest accidental "first" ever - I thought I was going pedal-boating, which I've done before, and ended up trying something leisurely and fun.

  • Being pulled over by a police officer - In 16 years of driving, I'd never been pulled over!

  • Getting a traffic citation - In 16 years of speeding, I'd never gotten a ticket! Figures it'd happen in California...

  • Climbing a rock wall - Turns out, I liked it! It was definitely scary at points, but I managed to coach myself through the paralysis and finish.

  • Shopping on Black Friday ... on Thanksgiving - Mi Hermana and I have napped and gone shopping at 4am in the past, but this time we put the kiddos to bed, then drove to the outlet mall a little before midnight. When we got back to the house around 7am, we slept until 2pm. Living and learning... we might be too old for that now!

  • Running multiple 5Ks - I beat my own record of 2 per year. I ran 5 in 2011!

  • Driving a car onto the ferry - In 16 years of driving and 32 years of living in the Northwest, I've never 1) driven a car onto a ferry and 2) never done it alone. My God! The fare is exorbitant! But it was fun, since it was a first.
Here's to 2012, and all the new adventures it will bring!

Sunday, January 01, 2012

Some corner of a foreign field

I didn't read the children's book, but I wanted to go see War Horse on Boxing Day. It reminded me a little of Black Beauty - the horse is sold form an English farm to the cavalry, and through the chaos of the battlefields drifts from the British to the German to the French to the Belgian sides, playing a different role in each. It's also a cute boy-and-his-horse tale (also not unlike many other animal stories).

Being a war movie as well as a children's book, you couldn't escape the fact that death and dying are everywhere - but I thought Spielberg did a tasteful job of showing the tragedy of war without getting an R rating: windmill arms block the execution of two teenage boys, a French girl's death is mentioned (but not described) only at the end, the riderless horse charging out of battle lets the viewer know the fate of the cavalry officer. In a way, it was more poignant and heartbreaking not to show how everyone who loved the horse met their ends. I'm not quite sure how the book pulled it off, though.

In the end, most stories about the Great War are anti-war. This one was no different: the Boer War regimental flag that both father and son took with them to their different battlefields signifies the silence of survival and the hope for an end to conflict.

And the scenes of the Devonshire countryside were also beautiful, even if a bit Gone With the Wind-like with the silhouettes against red skies.