Babel Revisited

The Old Testament story (Genesis 11: 1-9) recounts a myth about why there are so many languages out there. This is not my long suit by any means (although chemistry does have languages). As a consequence of our history and geography, we Americans are much less conversant, as it were, of languages other than American English (a form of the language which is different from the British version). We do make feeble attempts to educate ourselves, largely through foreign language requirements in schools and colleges. Most of us don’t need to know any other languages, since American English is, by far, the most important to be fluent in, due to our economic superpower status. We kind of force others to learn it, because we can.

I was born into an immigrant family (French) in Queens , NY. My parents, although fluent in English, spoke French in the house. When I came along, the language I heard (and subsequently learned) was French. In 1944, I started kindergarten. Shortly afterward, my mother went to Open School Night, and was confronted by the teacher, who suggested that my speaking German was inadvisable, since we were at war with Germany! This is illustrative of our collective tin ear for languages. To this day, I can’t imagine anyone confusing spoken French for spoken German. My parents took the hint, and began speaking English in the home. I quickly learned English, and pretty much forgot French.

Both in high school and college, I took the easy way out and selected French as my foreign language. To this day, I have never regained fluency, although I can read aloud from a prepared text and sound almost like a native speaker. One of my many functions as a forensic chemist at DEA was to translate “french connection” recipes for making heroin into English. I can also write English-to-French translation (with the heavy aid of a dictionary). What I cannot do, however, is watch a French movie without subtitles and follow what is going on.

George Bernard Shaw put it best: The United States and Britain are two nations separated by a common language. If you listen to a debate in Parliament, and then a speech or two in Congress, you get the idea.

As I struggled with French, it often vexed me with verbs. There are three major conjugations: those with the infinitive ending in -er, -ir and (I forget the other one- I think it’s -re). These account for, maybe, a third of verbs. Then there are the exceptions……..Then again, I have learned the difficulties with English as a second language. We often mock people new to this country who just don’t seem to get it. But when you stop to think about it, American English is loaded with traps. A few of them:

-two, too, to. Shouldn’t the first one be pronounced ”twoo”?

capital, capitol – Pronounced the same, but vastly different meanings

the suffix “ough”: Cough, though, tough, through, rough

the word “close” – in near proximity, or to unopen a door or window?

Different pronunciations (one, a verb,the other, an ajective)

“invalid” – A disabled individual, or a prohibited action, or interpretation. Again. different pronunciations

I could go on, but you get the idea. Learning English is not that easy. Back in the day, we made no allowances for immigrants. However, soon we might be linguistic immigrants in our own country. After all, we will be a majority Spanish speaking nation pretty soon, according to recently released 2020 census data.

I Just Don’t Get It

Why is there so much cruelty practiced by religious people who follow Jesus of Nazareth? The shorthand term for these folks in “Christians”. In the name of Jesus, the Son of God, one of the most (if not the most) gentle people who ever lived. Wars and many other forms of violence have been fought in His name. Would He have approved? One saying which was popular late in the last century went by initials: WWJD, standing for What Would Jesus Do. My personal beliefs notwithstanding, why are we so cruel to women seeking abortions? The Catholic bishops in this country seek to bar President Joe Biden (only the second Roman Catholic president) from the sacraments. Would Jesus approve?

Why are they so hostile to LGBTQ people? God made them, too, for reasons we don’t understand. Does the fact that they have sex upset some people? (living in sin, and all that), Do they have nothing better to do than ban trans people from restrooms?

Why do so many pro-life people seem indifferent to the children they “save” once they are born? We can afford tax cuts and breaks for (mostly white male) rich folks, but deny poorer parents family leave, affordable child care, and health insurance, among other things, because we can’t afford them? I realize that education is basically administrative overhead and doesn’t make any money, so we can only spend the bare minimum. And then wonder why children’s test scores are so low?

At the risk of sounding like a socialist, we reward the wrong behaviors and the (mostly) useless pursuits, such as rock stars, college basketball coaches, hedge fund managers, etc. , at the expense of productive endeavors such as first responders, nurses and teachers, among many others.

Most of you have watched tapes of the events at the Capitol on January 6. I know we can’t believe our lyin’ eyes all the time, but was this really typical, harmless tourist activity? If the President at the time really did egg then on, is this treason? Sure seems like it to me. Why is he still walking around free? Since my formal education was in chemistry, rather than political science, there’s a lot I really don’t understand. Who financed all this stuff? Yes, we need an investigation. What is the Grand Old Party so afraid of?

Why not let the people vote? Is it really about election fraud? Does one of our major parties truly sense an existential threat? Maybe some of our founders were right- the masses are asses (or maybe just the colored…). The notion that the People should decide who rules, and how they are governed, rather than some “royals” who qualify merely by birth was a truly revolutionary idea. Why don’t we bring it back?

Again, I’m not qualified to be an expert in government (see formal education, above), but isn’t the Senate somewhat unbalanced? Wyoming, with a population of fewer than 600K people, has the same number of senators as California, whose population is around thirty million. The world’s greatest deliberative body. Does this mean it does nothing? Do we need a filibuster? Or, for that natter, do we need a senate?

Many of us are looking the proverbial gift horse in the mouth. I refer to folks who haven’t gotten around to being vaccinated. Vaccines developed in record time that are shutting down the virus so effectively are virtually miraculous gifts from God, or science, depending on your poini of view. I am a child of the Fifties who well remembers how the scourge of polio was just about eliminated through the Salk and Sabin vaccines. Today, we worry about the virus coming back through variants, when we have the means to end the whole business. Why is it that “red” states with low vaccination rates are experiencing a resurgence? Does anybody understand cause-and-effect?

I’m sure that people and entities with lots of money are pulling strings to maintain the sttatus quo. What about the rest of us? Are we really a democracy? Were we ever?

The P.S. 102 Playlist

Back in the day (1949-1952) the New York City public school I attended taught Music Appreciation in Grades 5-8. Probably about 12 or so pieces were taught per year. The teachers would play a few minutes of the selection (probably on 78 RPM records, remember them?) and we were required to learn the titles.

For the uninitiated perhaps puzzled by the title, New York City, then as now, operated so many public elementary schools that it was inconvenient to name them all. Instead, they were given numbers. Moreover, since there were (are) 5 boroughs in the city, the schools were designated , for example, Public School #102 Queens (there were probably at least 100 schools in each of the boroughs (Manhattan, Brooklyn, the Bronx, Queens; much fewer in Staten Island). You get the picture. To the best of my recollection, here are some of the selections:

J.S. Bach, Air on a G String; (arranged by Charles Grounod), Ave Maria

Beethoven, Minuet in G

Brahms, Lullaby

Chopin, Minute Waltz; Waltz in Csharp Minor

Schubert, Flight of the Bumble Bee; Ave Maria

Rossini, William Tell Overture

Liszt, Lieberstraum

Dvorak, Humoresque; 9th Symphony (New World)

Bizet, Carmen Overture

Saint Saens, Danse Macabre

Rachmoninoff, Prelude in C Sharp Minor

Tchaikovsky, Marche Slav

Mendelssohn, Spring Song

Grainger, Country Gardens, Shepherd’s Hey

Von Weber, Invitation to the Dance

Major omissions to the Dead White Europeans listed above: Joseph Haydn, W.A. Mozart. And, a point was made by a teacher that Dmitri Shostakovich would have been included, but “he’s a red” (this was, after all, the beginning of the Cold War and McCarthyism).

A couple of Americans made the list:

MacDowell, To a Wild Rose, and varoius songs of Steven Foster. Numerous omissions: George Gershwin, Aaron Copeland, Scott Joplin, Duke Ellington. Couldn’t include everybody!

Some of the selections claimed a niche in popular culture. Danse Macabre was a fixture in Halloween rituals (and still is). The Finale from the William Tell Overture was part of the theme music for the radio program “The Lone Ranger (remember that?). Then, as now, the Largo movement from Antonin Dvorak’s Ninth Symphony almost seems like a second National Anthem. (Musically, it would be a considerable upgrade to “The Star Spangled Banner”, based as it is on an (at best) vocalist challenging English drinking song).

If the aim of all this was to instill a love of “classical” music, it certainly worked with me, although I was raised in a musical family, where I was exposed to this type of stuff from infancy. To this day, whenever I hear one of these pieces, I still recall it was from the P.S.102 Playlist seven decades ago.

Cars

Cars. It is a guy thing, although women love ’em too. I have owned quite a few of them, since I got my licence in 1960, on my fifth try ( in those days, you had to parallel park). My first was a 1953 Mercury, bought from a friend. I have since purchased new ones: 1964 Ford Galaxy, 1970 Ford station wagon, 1984 Ford Granada, 1990 Ford station wagon, 1994 Ford (I forget the type) and a 1987 Ford Ranger. Get the picture? Fix or Repair Daily. I always preached Buy American to my kids. After the Turn of the Century, we bought a Honda Accord (my son assured me I had paid my dues). Two hundred thousand miles later, I got a 2009 Accord.

The Fords ran well, until they didn’t. Things would break down, such as A/C, heater or some other ancillary function, which usually cost an arm-and-leg to get repaired. My two Hondas just keep on running, and (I hope the universe doesn’t get me for saying this) never need repairs, or so it seems. The best longevity I ever got from my Fords was maybe 100K .

Lots of interesting things happened along the way. For example, I performed long distance maintenance on my Ranger. My daughter had it at Old Dominion University, when she was a student there. ODU is located in Norfolk, VA, I was working at a DEA lab in Washington, DC, about 200 miles away. Got a call from her one morning at work. Dad, the heater’s not working, but the engine seems to be running hot. OK, Jen. Can you pop the hood? You see what looks like a milk container? OK, is there any fluid in it? It’s dry? OK, you need to get some water in is as soon as you can. Then start the car. Let it run for a minute. Getting some heat? Good. Now you need to buy some antifreeze, and pour it into there before you go anywhere……..All this before there were cellphones!

Since we were a two worker family (working about 5 jobs between us) we had to have at least two cars. The second car was generally a clunker. Some of these rides provided some thrills and chills:

3-Wheel Buick

Bet you never knew that some Buicks only had three wheels. I was driving a 1970 V-8 (which was given to my by a friend). I was moonlighting as an adjunct chemistry professor at Prince George’s Comminity College at the time (1993). I left campus after teaching to drive home. I got on the Capitol Beltway, accellerated to 65, and moved into the left lane. Suddenly I felt like I had run into the mother of potholes, and the car dipped momentarily. A split second later, it did it again. I slowed down glanced out my side view mirror and saw a shower of sparks astern. I stopped on the shoulder, got out and saw only three wheels. I never saw the fourth wheel again.

Non-Electric Granada

We have, as a society, become accustomed to (at least the concept of) electric cars. I once drove the diametric opposite, sort of. One evening, I left my day job to go teach some chemistry at PGCC, about a half hour drive from New York Ave in the District (not a nice neighborhood). Since the car was old and decripit, I didn’t bother locking it. Class was at 6PM. When I went to start the car, it was dead. Battery? Upon lifting the hood, it was apparentt that I didn’t have one, dead or alive. Midnite Auto Supply strikes again! I went back to the lab , borrowed a car from a coworker, drove to an auto supply store, bought a battery, dropped it in the car and made it to campus on time (only had to cancel office hours).

VW Rabbit Diesel Non-starter

I bought it used. Car soon developed a compression problem; it wouldn’t start. Fortunately, it was a stick shift. You just had to get it rolling and pop the clutch, and it would start. I learned to park on inclines so it would roll, or sometimes, the kids on my street would push. An engine job would have cost too much (had two in college at the time). One of the pusher kids was a senior in high school. They told me that when she received an acceptance to college, she wondered what I would do when she left town. Who would push Mr.Canaff? Cheryl, where ever you are, thank you so very much……

As the song put it so well, thanks for the memories!

Bookends

I was born late in Franklin D.Roosevelt’s second term. There are those in the media who are comparing our current president’s accomplishments and aspirations with FDR’s, which seems almost unbelievable at this point. From my perspective, at age 82, I can’t help wondering if, FDR having been president at my birth, Joseph R.Biden, Jr. might be my last. No. I do not have a terminal illness, but let’s face it, how much longer do I have?

Even comparing the two at this point in Biden’s term appears to be ludicrous, but it seems to be happening. There are similarities. An old metaphor from my Navy days speaks of the relieving watch officer being handed a “wet bag” (this is well before the widespread use of plastic bags…). The bag is handed off to the relieving officer, and the bottom falls off, spilling the contents…you get the drift. Both men were handed wet bags. Roosevelt faced a collapsed financial and banking structure, massive unemployment, near starvation of much of the citizenry, to name a few. Biden was handed a pandemic which killed off somewhere north of a half million Americans. While vaccines had (miraculously) been developed, no mechanism had been set up to get them into folks. Shutting down the country to try to slow the spread had resulted in massive layoffs and unemployment.

FDR was lightly regarded by much of the pundits when first elected. Not much was expected by many of this upper crust lightweight, who, by the end of his first term had many complaining that he was “a traitor to his class”. Biden, on the other hand, was largely to be a placeholder. At 78 years of age when inaugurated, he was considered a genial bumbler. His greatest virtue in the eyes of many was that he wasn’t Trump. Unlike FDR, he was a product of an Irish-American working class family, a state university alum, the first since Ronald Reagan not to have Ivy League creds.

When it became time to build up the military, FDR was shocked to find that a large percentage of men called up for service failed to qualify physically, due to inadequate diet, caused by the Great Depression. Biden inherited modern day breadlines, 21st century style, consisting of long lines of cars waiting for food baskets.

One major difference is that Biden seems to deal in trillions, while FDR spent millions. There are, of course, about three-plus times as many of us. Both men faced flak about overspending, this from the other party which, then as now, has no problem bestowing lower taxes on corporations; a rising tide lifts all boats, after all, (except I have never seen this work).

There are other similarities, and differences, between the two. Biden has only had the job for about four months as I write this. A good start. Let’s see what happens.

Recycling

The earth is drowning, or maybe being buried, in trash. Pope Francis, for one, has deplored our use of the planet as a “garbage dump”. Many of us would be glad to reduce much of this stuff by recycling. Most of us, however, don’t have a clue as to how to do it effectively.

In my senior living complex, we are (sort of) set up for recycling. Our kitchens

are equipped with dual pockets for trash bags, one for trash, the other for recyclables.

Trash (and recyclables) are picked up five days a week, out of a single trash container. The same white kitchen bags are used for each. Nobody looks inside to see what is there. There are trash rooms on each floor, each having a receptable for “rubbish” and “recycling”. Works fine on the trash collectors days off, not so much the rest of the time. One wonders whether building codes are being prepped for eventual adoption of mandatory recycling, or a fig leaf for inaction. (The complex I live in is less than four years old).

Then there’s the issue of what should be recycled. Not as simple as it seems. Plastics, for one, should be recycled. What kinds? According to the U.S. EPA website, there are specific types which can be, and others which cannot. Plastic grocery bags, Saran wraps and black plastic are not acceptable. Also, there must not be any food waste clinging to the item. Who knew? Aluminum foil and cans are valuable because they save considerable energy over producing the metal by electrolysis of bauxite ore. In an earlier life, I taught college chemistry students that a large percentage of the output of an electric power plant in Frederick, MD was consumed by an aluminum refinery nearby.

How many of us know anything about this? We’ve our all seen the TV ads about how the plastic bottles can be recycled into useful stuff. Unfortunately, nowhere near enough is being done to prevent whole sections of the oceans from being dumps of plastic waste. Recycling in most localities is voluntary. In places like New York City, it is mandatory. This came about late in the last century when Virginia stopped sccepting the city’s waste (Virginia is for lovers, or was it the Garbage State??). Sooner or later, we have to come to grips with solid waste; get serious about it. The planet is not getting any bigger.

While we’re (not) at it, we need to recapture CO2. The substance is acidifying oceans and destroying coral reefs, among other things. So what? Coral reefs mitigate storm surges, which have become increasingly deadly as the planet warms. The technology to do this currently exists, but is too expensive. So is extinction……

I often wonder whether our species is really capable of reversing some of the mess we have created. One hopeful precedent is the salvation of the ozone layer about a quarter century ago. Seems like chlorofluoro carbon compounds, widely used in air conditioners at that time, had decimated a layer of ozone, which filtered harmful ultraviolet light from the sun. The compounds were banned from use in many nations, and the layer seems to have restored itself. Yes, we can, so it would seem. Perhaps we can do this on a larger scale and save ourselves. But we need to start soon!

Before I Check Out

Before I check out……also, to be able to converse with my adult children, I need to

know:

What is the difference between 4G LTE and 5G LTE? Apparently, it will change my life forever. You hear about it every cell provider commercial, so it must be true. What exactly is Bluetooth? Incidentally, has anybody noticed that cellphones are being introduced faster than they can educate the reps in the AT&T and Apple stores on how to work them?

Medical terms abound in drug ads. I must ask my doctor what is “medullary thyroid cancer”. How abour “certain fungal infections”? I have had AFIB for a quarter century; not sure what that is, either. And what on earth is Multiple Endocrine Neoplasia Syndrome Type 2? Could I take the med if I have Type 1? The people in these drug ads seem so well off, and having such fun! Let the good times roll……….

On to popular culture. What is WOKE? Is it the same as Cancel Culture? I grew up before there was an Internet. No Twitter, Facebook, YouTube. Phones were hardwired. No text messages. Imagine that! This gave us a chance to be opionated, bigoted, stupid, etc. before taking the show on the road. Yet today, you are judged by every utterance, at any age or stage of maturity. I often wonder at these politicians who spouted all forms of nonsense at tender ages – on line, of course. Did they really think it would never come out?

What goes around, comes around. I came across another term recently; POC. Stands for Person of Color. I well remember growing up in the 1950’s. Darker hued persons were “colored people”. The term fell into disfavor in the 60’s. Well now it is a respectful descriptor or label. I only wish we didn’t need these terms anymore.

For many more years that I’m comforable admitting to, I have heard that Product so-and-so “is far superior to the leading brand”. Well, if it is so, why is the leading brand still leading?

All I can think of (remember), for now.

Gateway

Of all the retirement gigs I have enjoyed, none have been as satisfying as my time teaching community college. As noted in a previous post, I taught chemistry (the central science, “the toughest course in high school”, etc.). Community college was a valuable start in higher education for a couple of my family members.

Without this sounding like a poorly written resume, I taught courses in three different systems in Maryland and Virginia, all as an “adjunct professor”, spanning about two decades. This fancy, high sounding title has been called the “stoop labor” of the industry. It didn’t pay all that well, there was no tenure in any meaningful sense, and no job security. It was, however, the highlight of my working career.

I also taught in high school for several years, including a year of Virginia Governors.School. I taught undergraduates for a year or two at what is now called University of Mary Washington. My students at the various “junior colleges”, though, were special to me. As a group, these people tend to be a little older. Many had been through the school of hard knocks. They were more focused on why they were there, and what they wanted as a professional goal. Near the end of my “career”, I taught mainly nurse wannabees. The course was titled ”Chemistry for Nurses “, and was the only chemistry course needed to qualify as an RN. (By contrast, a niece of mine took several chemistry courses at Villanova University in the mid-70s for her degree). To further add insult, the course had no laboratory!

These kids (pardon me for use of the term; at my age, anybody under age 60 or so is a kid to me) had more complicated lives and struggles than most late-teen undergrads. I tried to be as flexible with assignments as I could be. One overarching characteristic of most of them was “hustle”. They were anxious to better their professional lives.

I had a few rules:

-No question is stupid, except the ones you censor yourself from asking.

-I assigned homework problems. You didn’t need to do them, unless you were interested in succeeding. Exams were based on the assigned problems.

-Exams were open book. Life is an open book. Having to memorize physical constants and facts is a waste of brain power.

-What to call me? Mister, or Professor. Don’t call me “Doctor”. I haven’t earned it, and I worked for a living.

Unfortuntely, I saw a lengthy article in The Washington Post earlier this week. Seems like community college enrollment is down nationwide. The pandemic may have something to do with this. I sure hope so. We need all the help we can get. Now that we seem, as a nation, to have loosened restraints on participation by women in professions, it’s time to get guys back into the game. Our survival as a species may very well depend on it. Male participation has been dropping in the professions, dating back to when I was teaching. (When I was hired to teach in high school, lack of participation by girls in science classes was flagged to me as a problem). Have times ever changed!

The drop in enrollment in these institutions comes as proposals are being considered at the federal level to provide free (or reduced) tuition. This is part of increasing awareness of our need for skilled workers. Back in my day, more than a half century ago, high school graduation was sufficient for most occupations paying a livable wage. This just doesn’t cut it anymore.

Arms and the Man

I hate guns. I don’t have any problems with the Second Amendment, target shooting, hunting, self defense (if you know what your’re doing) or any legitimate use of them, I just don’t care for them.

During my naval service, I was once required to carry one in an official capacity. I was summoned to the XO’s office and entrusted with an important mission- seems that one of our crew was busted in a small town near Boston. I was to take another sailor in a government car to retrieve the offender. I was ordered to carry a pistol because the sailor had been reportedly drunk, violent, etc. My first thought was, what am I going to with it?

Anyhow, we made the trip south. Upon arrival, I asked the cop in charge what my sailor had done to warrant being locked up in the local slam overnight. Turns out he was caught speeding (something like 55 in a 30mph zone). Unfortunately, he couldn’t come up with the $50 to release him on bail (this was near the end of the month). Was he violent? Drunk? Did he resist arrest? None of the above. I settled matters and took him into my custody.

Upon arrival back to the ship, I reported to XO, whose small office was next to the captain’s stateroom. After a short post-mortem with my superior, I prepared to leave. NOT SO FAST: The Commanding Officer, having heard the conversation, entered, with the air of an avenging angel, “What’s this I hear about speeding? At 55, you’re not driving the car, you’re aimimg it! I want this man at mast immediately”.

For the uninitiated, Captain’s Mast, aka Commanding Officer’s Non-Judicial Punishment, is the mildest form of dealing with offenses. It ts convened by Command to deal with relatively minor infractions under the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ). More serious charges can be dealt with through various levels of Courts Martial. (Does any of this suggest a kangaroo court?) In any case, the sailor was found “guilty”, and reduced in rank from Boiler Tender 3rd Class Petty Officer to pay grade E-3 Boiler Tender Fireman. Of speeding.

A quote attributed to John F. Kennedy asserts that “life is unfair”. I should mention that I often drove well in excess of 55mph on the same interstate. I was stopped at least once, but having been an Officer and Gentleman, I was never charged, let alone tossed into the clink for the night.

All of this occurred in the early 60’s (Vietnam Era), when nobody thanked us for our service, I managed to get through a few more years of duty, without having had to fire a weapon, or, worse yet, get shot with one.

Wisdom from my Father

My father is long gone now (which is to be expeced, since I am past 80, myself). He was a man of very few words, which, I have finally begun to learn, is the secret to being listened to. Many of the things he said to me only make sense now, having (hopefully) learned a few things, myself.

He was, for all his working life, in the hospitality trade (for the most part, a waiter and maitre’d) in New York City, and a proud union man. One of the things he told me was that strikes rarely benefit the strikers; he felt that it was all but impossible to recoup wages lost. Like most rational people of his time, he felt his most important role in life was to support his family.

Wars, he always said, were fought over money, irrespective of the patriotic patina governments always painted on them to justify their rationale.

He was never a fan of insurance. Life insurers were basically betting on you to stay alive, so they wouldn’t have to pay. After all, paying out benefits is not part of a good business plan. To this day, I marvel at the chutzpah of these TV ads that promise to replace any of your appliances if a “covered” part or system fails. Somehow, it’s never the one which fails in real life .

The main thing he taught me regarding politics is one I have never made sense of: the Republican Party. (“Roger, the Republicans are the party of the rich; the Democrats are the party of the working man”) . Correct me if I’m wrong, but this is a democracy, the majority rules. Aren’t there more poor people out there than rich folks? If so, the GOP should have been out of the electoral business ages ago. Ya think?

These words were uttered to me in the late 1940’s. The old man had to be wrong. But, guess what? He was right then, and is still right today!

In a previous post, I wondered whether the republic created by our Founders could be kept. I see, in events of the just-completed presidential election, real hope that the present generations want very much to keep it. Although it took a pandemic to do it, much of the Republican voter suppression was shattered, and we got a huge vote total out of it. Yes, it took a long time to count the votes, and an unofficial result finally became available on the Saturday after Election Day (even though our President has not acceded to the inevitable). Counting continues, and the President-elect’s popular vote margin has crossed the five million margin, which constitutes a landslide, given the bitterly divided state of our politics.