Thursday, July 30, 2009

New Ways to Speak

When a rube disembarks in New York city, he or she is immediatly confronted by a horde of gibbering taxi drivers sporting Bluetooth ear pieces. While half of them reach out to tap you on the shoulder, the other half press the ear piece farther into their heads, speaking in rapidly in a different language. Most tourists, cowed by the cacophony of Spanish, Russian, French and Arabic, put out their hand and allow themselves to led to a parked taxi.

I was already cognizant of my low funds, and I answered in Spanish that I wanted to ride the train. The Spanish-speakers of the group stopped for a moment and stared, bewildered that a white kid had responded in something other than loud, deliberately halting English. The fact that it was a relatively simple sentence (Yo quiero viajar en el tren) seemed to to strip none of the surprise from the answer, and I felt embarrassed as the taxi drivers' eyes followed me.

But I did not know where I was going, and in the seconds that I stood searching for a sign, one of the drivers called out to me in English: "You know, it will be a pain in the ass to carry that duffel bag on the train."

I turned to see a portly Dominican--he was wearing DR hat--smiling and indicating the parking lot across the street from the terminal. His teeth were pearl-white and his silver ear piece glinted in the sunlight. The bags slung over my arms were loaded with two months-worth of clothes, and the humidity made it seem as if my sweat was evaporating and condensing on the tips of my hair. I nodded and together we walked to his cab.

At first I tried to get in the front, but the driver's quizzical stare convinced me to get in the back. I asked him if we could do a flat fee and--to my surprise--he agreed right away. I said $40, to which he countered with $60. We agreed on $50 and drove off. On the highway, as Queens flowed beneath us, he asked me in Spanish where I was from.

"Soy Denver," I answered quietly, my eyes flickering behind my glasses.

Interpreting the low tone of my answer as a lack of confidence in my Spanish, he switched to English. Why was I in New York? To work. In what? Publishing.

He snorted at this answer, and I could tell he was thinking that such a destitute industry wasn't worth the trip. Did I miss home? I miss some things, but I'll see them soon enough. He nodded and turned up the radio, and despite the Reggaeton I dozed.

When I walked into my apartment, I could barely breath from the stuffiness. Someone--the landlord, my roommate--had left open a window and the heat had spread into every corner. I dropped my bags and changed into shorts before walking back into the street.

My belief had always been that Denver was precocious in the bilingual revolution, that the steady influx of Hispanic immigrants had rendered the city to the point where Spanish and English were spoken with dexterity. But walking around Washington Heights, I realized that the folksy Spanish I had cultivated at home was earthy and unrefined compared to the Dominican and Panamanian dialects that were fluttering around me. The rapidity of it, and the exclusion of any English substitutes, dismayed me. I walked into a Rite Aid to buy toothpaste and after automatically asking a question in English and being met with disdain by the clerk, I switched to the kindergarden Spanish that, if anything, was worse. The event repeated itself at the laundromat, and I walked home quickly, afraid that I might have to reveal my ineptitude further.

New York is a mammoth living argument for fluency in two or more languages. Though nearly every one speaks English, reliance on it ostracizes a person as one who his oblivious to a myriad of different worlds that flit around you. Yet people expect this reliance to the point of anticipating it, and subverting the expectation leaves speakers chagrined, like a comedian lacking in jokes.

There isn't any joy to this impulse of superiority, but a great deal of satisfaction. To biliguals, language is a priceless currency of which they can claim to have twice as much as the normal person. Logically, they are loathe to see this wealth emulated, and the awkward attempts of non-speakers to communicate in a foreign tongue serve as reassurances of well-being.

As the days commenced, I found that each one of my conversations devolved into subtle duels, verbal swipes that I found harder and harder to parry. Waiting for the subway one day, I was reading a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novella when the girl staning next to me asked in English if I was a regular reader of his. I answered in Spanish that I loved Marquez. In Spanish she asked if I had ever read him in Spanish. I hadn't, and answered to that effect. With a slight smile, she told me that that was too bad.

There is a hysterical theory that circulates among conservatives stating that in fifty years, English will be a secondary language, which is amusing because in many American cities it already is. While I'm indifferent to this line of thinking--English will never die out since it is usually the language that governs international affairs--the persistence by some people in resisting to learn a new language is peculiar. Why squander the chance to double or triple one's linguistic worth? I suppose that it's an instinct to try fortify one's current position rather than improve it.

It is immensely frustrating to learn a new language. Anything that reduces a person to an infantile state, and learning a language is certainly that, is repellant. But the small astonishment on the faces of the taxi drivers is indicative of its worth.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

In the LA Times

Check out the author in the LA times:

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The Intricacies of Sports Blogging

One of my obsessions that, like so many other Americans, I mull over consistently is my devotion to sports. Though it does not consume me as it once did--literature and movies intervened to take on some of the load--I still find myself, over the course of the day, automatically checking and re-checking the ESPN website and a open sports forum called Bleacher Report to make sure that I haven't missed anything important. I recall the horror I felt when, being from Denver and thus morally obligated to know every piece of information that has the slightest pretinence to the Denver Broncos, that I'd found out about the Broncos' March coaching change, showing the (seemingly) tenured Mike Shanahan the door in favor of Josh McDaniels, a coach that can gloat about being younger than many of his players. There is something permanently unsettling about this, and though it's a testament to the NFL being the ultimate meritocracy, it violates the NFL's lore; the enduring legend of general and troops, of fearsome leaders who conjure up devotion from their charges. It's hard to imagine a 32-year-old general commanding a 40-year-old private. But I digress.

The horror I felt was something that is common in sports bloggers: the horror of being told, the fear of being taught. Like the games themselves, the debating of the games is a hierarchy that can conceivably be conquered by any one. The coffee shop worker can school the investor on the finer points of the 3-4 defense and earn respect for his knowledge built upon information that he had to go out an acrue himself. There is a person in every section of the stadium that annoints themself the sage, the historian, the prophet. Sports forums like Bleacher Report offer the platform to realize these gaudy visions, to become the leaders of "communities" of fans. The rankings provided on each community page are the particular end of sports seminary: those who appear on it have reached the priesthood for the world's true religion.

The motivation to acheive a spot high on those rankings the horror of being told. I am one of those self-annointed sages, the irritating prescence in fan gatherings that compusively corrects and reminds, fields questions with the same snobbishness as a college professor. You punctuate your lessons with longs pauses to lend the information some gravity. Actually...he was drafted in the fourth-round. By the vikings no-less. Pause. We acquired him off of waivers, not having to pay (pause) anything. The friend who told me about McDaniels was one of those people I had corrected for years, and his reaction to the surprise betrayed by face was cold triumph. You didn't hear!? I tried to make excuses. My phone was off, I was engaged, I was somewhere important. But a sage should always know.

The schooling on the internet takes place in the comments section. There one can see the snipes and the satisfaction of one-upping some bold newcomer who believes that somehow his opinions are revolutionary. It is where the meritocracy congeals into stringent castes. There are lectures disguised by feigned cordiality, grudging acquiesces to superior reasoning, snide chiding, and--when a person is becoming too tiresome--outright derision and sarcasm. Sometimes a poster deserves it, other times the correction is addressing something so inconsequential that it could only be motivated by spite. Or in order to fortify one's sagely position.

I suppose that humans are drawn intrinsically to ceremony and that even the equalizer that is the Internet is powerless to change this. The top bloggers always opt for the most impeccable grammar and punctuation, even if their grasp on the rules of the two is slight. Those who post in acronyms, abbreviations and all capital letters are routinely ignored, as they should be. Membership in a community indicates a consent to the community's dogma, and to violate it may brand you as a heretic.

Such ceremony would appear to be enough to drive people away from joining sports forums, but given the slow erosion of the quality of professional sports writing (a direct result of the Internet revolution), fans are leery of relying on the traditional sources. The disgust in that erosion leads fans to conclude that they could do better, and they join the forums to try and break into the rarified air that the sages breath.

The navigation of this word is perilous, but possible. One must always check be sure in one's sources. Wikipedia should be shunned. Never rely on the assertions about a team's attitude or players' character, unless you can connect it with statistical trends. Beware the premature direct confrontation, or there's achance that the sickly horror of the told will resurface in you. Be specific. Don't rush your ending, nor use it to inflate your article's meaning.

Sports are likely the most discussed topic on the web, and at his heart most men wish that they could make a living writing about them. But most of all men do not want to be told. That particular shame is almost too much to bear.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Hip Hop Line of the day:

"I'm concurrent in your hood like a teenage mom." -Redman, from "Dangerous MCs", which appears on Notorious B.I.G's posthumanous album Reborn.

It's inappropriate and cynical but very tongue-in-cheek, like if Ambrose Bierce decided to offer a verse. How would "rapper" appear in The Devil's Dictionary?

RAPPER, noun

1. One who leads the revolution against subtlity.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Empathy For Natives

I've been living in New York for a month--too long to still be a tourist, but too short to count myself a citizen--and, while I first sympathized with them, I've come to disdain the tourists as much as anyone. I'm aware that I have no real right to this attitude, but I've come to it honestly from experience, as opposed to presumptuously.

I should also say that I'm using the term "tourist" a bit generally, since I use it to also describe the "bridge and tunnel people" who flood the city during the week and on the weekends. An acquaintance of mine who was born here often remarks that he dislikes these people more than just the standard tourists. They are ersatz New Yorkers, people who drive badly and, when visiting other cities, tend to claim loudly and boldly that they're as New York as it gets. It is inevitable each morning that one of these people almost hits me with their car. My hope is that someday they stop claiming to be from New York and stop saying "the City" whenever talking about Manhatten. There's something so pretentious about it.