Archive for July, 2011

TT: Have I Got A Word For You!

July 28, 2011

JANE: Welcome to Thursday Tangents. If you’d like Wednesday Wanderings,

New Zealand and Earrings

just page back, but please come back and join us for more strange language trivia.

Alan and I have been discussing how loan words from other languages become part of English, further complicating difficulties in communicating between English-speakers in different parts of the world.

ALAN: Last time you asked me if the words I was using were really loan words or were they just Maori words that I’d learned. In other words, I suppose, when does a word truly become part of the language?

One of the words I used last time was hui – an important meeting. By a strange coincidence, one of the items on the television news tonight was a report on a hui that had taken place that day. And the word hui was used without any translation or qualification. It was just assumed that everyone knew what it meant. So I think we can safely say that it really has become part of the everyday vocabulary.

Other words are perhaps a little more suspect, and while you would certainly be understood if you used them, I doubt that you would use them often, if at all. I drink too much beer and eat too much food and so I have a puku (a belly). Men with a puku are often Kaumatua (respected people, usually elderly). They tend to have a puku because , being tribal elders, their lifestyle tends towards the sedentary. So a puku is a mark of authority and influence. Such people have much mana – which is to say prestige, authority, charisma and great spiritual power.

JANE: “Mana” – as in the term that is now commonly used to mean “magical energy”? I never realized it had a Maori root. That’s fascinating.

ALAN: The word “taboo” also has a Maori root – their word for the same concept is tapu.

JANE: Since I live in New Mexico, I am casually familiar with a great number of Spanish words. Some have equivalents in English , such as using avenida rather than “avenue,” but some do reflect things or ideas that aren’t common in American culture.

One of these came up in a Wednesday Wanderings back in December of 2010 when we talked about coming of age rituals. This is the quinceanera (tilde over the second “n” for you purists), which is celebrated on a girl’s fifteenth birthday. I’ve often wished the secular “Anglo” culture in which I live had something similar.

At the risk of getting too serious, do you think the Maori loan words serve a cultural need for those outside of Maori culture?

ALAN: I’m not sure it works that way. James Nicoll, a Canadian SF reviewer once said, “The problem with defending the purity of the English language is that English is about as pure as a cribhouse whore. We don’t just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary.”

In other words, English speakers seem to absorb words from the languages that surround them without even thinking about it. It’s just something that we do.

Though, as with your example of quinceanera, one very good reason for borrowing a word is because we don’t have an adequate word for the concept it describes.

Consequently when my cat died earlier this year, we held a tangi for him. Essentially the word means to weep or lament, but it is now usually used to mean a funeral celebration which, while being a sad occasion of course, is also an opportunity to celebrate the life and achievements of the individual being mourned. Speeches (korero), both formal and informal, are given. I wrote an article celebrating Porgy’s life rather than making a speech, but nevertheless I felt that it was part of his tangi.

JANE: Porgy was a good cat. His courage in facing illness certainly made him worthy of a tangi.

Now that I think about it, while food and custom are places where loan words enter a language, the arts are another. I’d enjoy discussing that next time.


Retro Isotopes

July 27, 2011

This past Saturday, Jim and I went to a minor league baseball game:

Loyal Tigers' Fan

Albuquerque’s Isotopes were playing the New Orleans Zephyrs. Well, sort of…

Since this was “Retro” night, schizophrenia reigned on the field. The sign boards read “Isotopes,” but stenciled into the dirt behind home plate was “Dukes.” To make up for this, the electronic “chat line” on the score board periodically ran a border containing the old Dukes logo. The players wore old-style Dukes uniforms, but the mascot was the Isotopes very odd alien “Orbit.” However, the fight song was one composed for the Dukes.

All extremely confusing but rather fun. The reason for Retro Night is that until 2003 Albuquerque’s team was the Dukes. Some people have never resigned themselves to the change. Why Dukes? Historical reasons, say the die-hards, and these historical roots are why there should never be a change.

Historical? This is the United States. Surely there were never reigning dukes, not even in these originally Spanish-held territories?

Ah, hah! But the city of Albuquerque was named for a Spanish duke, the Duke of Alburquerque (yes, the extra “r” is intentional), in the hope that his patronage would help the city prosper. I honestly don’t know if it did, but there is a marvelous banner featuring his coat of arms in the basement of the Albuquerque Museum, so it wasn’t entirely a wasted effort.

Okay… Why Isotopes?

Well, that’s more peculiar even than naming a team for a long-ago duke. It seems there was an episode of the television show The Simpsons where Albuquerque’s baseball team is incorrectly and humorously referred to as “the Isotopes.” When a name change was in the offing, Isotopes became the most popular choice. Either we have a lot of Simpsons fans here or some folks just thought it was a cute word. Maybe some thought a nod to one of the region’s most well-known industries – atomic research – was due.

For whichever reason, Albuquerque now boasts a sports team named for a throw-away line in a television cartoon. New Mexico is very good at odd names… For example, we have an entire town named for the old-time game show “Truth or Consequences.” Honestly. Look it up.

My husband Jim is a serious baseball fan. He still roots for the Detroit Tigers after living in New Mexico for most of his adult life. Those of you who know anything about the Tigers’ rankings these past several years (they’re doing a bit better this year) know that being a Tigers’ fan is a sign of tenacity. I’ve always thought Jim’s fidelity to his less than stellar team was a good indication of his strength of character.

I, on the other hand, am not a serious baseball fan. I grew up in D.C. when our Nation’s Capitol lacked a baseball team – this despite baseball then being widely viewed as our National Sport. When I went to college in New York, I started to follow baseball, since several of my closest friends were baseball fans and otherwise I couldn’t keep up with the conversation.

I’m not saying I didn’t know the basics before then: hit the ball, run hard, three strikes you’re out, all that. However, the esoterica of RBIs, ERAs, and the rest of the alphabet soup that true baseball fans love to toss around was unintelligible. After I left New York, I didn’t follow baseball much, but enough of what I had learned had stayed with me so that I could go to the Isotopes game and really enjoy myself.

I suppose for a hard-core fan, the game we attended wouldn’t be considered very good. Not one of the many, many pitchers who trooped up to the mound were in control of the ball. The fielding was thankfully a lot stronger. The score would have resembled that of a football game if not for their efforts.

Those of us in the stands weren’t denied opportunities to go after the ball. Foul balls showered down like rain . We began to think that we were in some new version of the outfield – and our seats were just slightly to the right of home plate!

The game started off badly for the Isotopes because their young pitcher seemed to believe his goal was to make it as easy as possible for batters to hit the ball. He gave up two runs in the first inning. Then another. That nervous state of affairs lasted until suddenly the Zephyrs’ pitcher decided his job was to make the Isotopes’ pitcher feel better about himself by giving away hit after hit. The score mounted on the Isotopes’ side. Then the Zephyrs scored.

However, the Isotopes began to establish a very large lead – although not always because of great hitting or even because of hitting at all. There were some fascinating errors, including one that ended up with the catcher for the Zephyrs scrabbling on hands and knees after a ball that was skittering to the rear right of the plate.

We Isotopes fans were complacently anticipating a win, followed by the fireworks that were to end the evening’s entertainment, when things started going terribly wrong. The Zephyrs didn’t play much better, but the Isotopes played much, much worse. By the ninth inning, the score had crept up to eleven to nine. Bases loaded, full count. (That is, two strikes, three balls, and so no room left for fooling around).

The Isotopes pitcher decided that no one should be sleepy for the fireworks, so to wake everyone up, he walked the next batter. The score was now eleven to ten. Bases were still loaded. Once again, the pitcher brought it to full count. We were all standing now. In honor of Retro Night, the chant of “Dukes! Dukes! Dukes!” was thundering across the field. Behind us, someone pathetically said, “But I want the fireworks…”

Maybe all that yelling of “Dukes” actually inspired the pitcher to live up to past standards. Maybe he, too, just wanted to watch the fireworks. For whatever reason, he pitched neatly across the plate. The batter hit into a double play. Out! Out! Cheers and howls of relief.

Then we settled down to the fireworks – really, really good ones – fired off to the ear-blasting accompaniment of the themes from old television shows. (Retro Night, remember?) The grand finale was performed to the stirring notes of the original Star Trek theme. Turns out that music goes really well with explosions… As if after that game we needed to get our heart rates up!

TT: Borrowing Trouble

July 21, 2011

If you’re looking for Wednesday Wanderings, just wander back a page to find out what sunflowers and the rock band Queen have in common.  Or read on…

JANE: Alan, last week you brought up the question of loan words from other

Maori War Club

languages that enter English, specifically, Maori words into the local New Zealand version of English.

Can you give us a few interesting ones?

ALAN: Well perhaps the most obvious is that Maori refer to non-Maori people as pakeha, and many non-Maori New Zealanders like me think of themselves as pakeha, even though the word is actually a little insulting in its original context.

JANE: That’s interesting. I believe something similar has happened here in the Southwest with the Navajo term Belacani. I’d heard that it was a somewhat derogatory term, but two Navajos working with Jim say it’s merely descriptive. It means something like “people who turn red in the sun, but are pale in the shade.” I can see why early translators would have figured this was derogatory.

Although it hasn’t entered into general use, it seems to have lost some of its sting. There’s a trading post in Santa Fe called “Belacani.”

ALAN: That sounds like a very similar concept. Isn’t it fascinating that two utterly different cultures have a word for that idea? The original meaning of pakeha is specifically a white person of European descent – it appears to be a neologism coined by the Maori to describe these weird pale-skinned people who turned up out of the blue one day.

JANE: Many years ago, for an anthology called Visions of Liberty, I wrote a short story set in New Zealand called “Pakeha,” in which the word and the qualities it has come to stand for are central to the tale.

So, tell me some other Maori words that have entered New Zealand English.

ALAN: There are lots of other examples. We are all of us, of course, Tangata Whenua, which translates as “the people of the land”. Obviously, that is the Maori description of their own place in the world as first settlers, but those of us who feel a strong sense of identity with the place where we live could equally well describe ourselves that way.

There are times when our Government makes unpopular decisions and naturally we all want to protest and make our feelings known. Most countries would have a protest march and a demonstration, but we have a hikoi.

A meeting held to discuss important matters is a hui.

We all like to eat, and food (kai) is an important part of everyone’s life. The sea (moana) surrounds us and provides a rich harvest of kai moana. Barbecues are very popular, of course, but so are hangi where the food is wrapped in leaves (these days they use aluminium foil) and buried in a pit lined with hot stones and just left to itself for hours and hours. In the evening, you dig the food up and have a feast.

JANE: Here we go with food again… I love seafood. Go on…

ALAN: But don’t confuse a hangi with a hongi. The latter is a greeting where you touch foreheads and noses with another person in an encounter. It serves a similar purpose to a handshake and is often used together with a handshake on formal occasions, particularly when taking part in a powhiri; a Maori welcoming ceremony which has become very much part of our culture. Visiting dignitaries are often greeted with a powhiri when they arrive in the country. I was once honoured with a powhiri. I found it to be a hugely emotional experience, very touching.

JANE: Not that I don’t think you’re worthy, but was there a special occasion for your powhiri?

ALAN: Well, yes and no. My parents-in-law were visiting from Australia and we took them on a tour of the South Island. We visited a place that offered “A Genuine Maori Experience”. It was obviously geared very much towards tourists, but nevertheless it was a perfectly genuine reflection of Maori protocols.

A young lady called Tina who was dressed in traditional costume and who had the proper facial moku (tattoo) introduced herself to us and welcomed us.

“You,” she explained, “are visitors to our land. But before you can be properly welcomed, we must know who your chief is. Which one of you is the chief?”

Every eyeball in the audience clicked into place and stared at me.

“Are you the chief?” asked Tina.

“Yes,” I said, “I suppose I am.”

“And is the beautiful woman beside you your queen?”

“Indeed she is.”

And so I became a chief for a day and Robin became a queen.

Tina led us off into the forest, explaining points of interest to us along the way. Suddenly an enormous tattooed Maori warrior jumped out of the bush and confronted us. Eyes popping, tongue sticking out, he waved his spear and roared a challenge. He placed a small, leafed branch on the ground and retreated. I picked it up and held it, thus indicating that I was coming in peace.

I was astonished at the overwhelming emotion of the moment, the sense of taking part in a truly foreign and yet at the same time oddly familiar ritual. There was a feeling of spiritual rightness about the moment. I felt very strongly the deep cultural heritage with which I was now involved. It was all extremely moving,

Later, as we left, I planted the small leafed branch that I had been presented with in the soil. It seemed wrong to take the branch away with me. It belonged here in the forest. But I couldn’t bring myself to simply discard it either. Probably it won’t take root, but nevertheless planting it seemed like the right sort of gesture to make.

JANE: That’s all very interesting, but are these really loan words, or are they just Maori words that you have learned? To me there is a big difference. I know a Spanish word for “watermelon” is sandia – and so do most locals, since the mountains that border Albuquerque to the east are called the “Sandias.” However, I have never been offered a slice of sandia anywhere. Therefore, to me, it is not a “loan word.”

However, burrito, chalupa, quesadilla have all become loan words. They are used by preference, even when American marketers have tried to introduce terms like “wrap” for burrito.

ALAN: Good point! Let me think about that and I’ll discuss it with you next week.

Bohemian Rhapsody

July 20, 2011

This past week, the blossoming of some sunflowers planted at the edge of my

Bohemian Rhapsody

garden bed brought to mind a landmark event in my life, one I hadn’t thought about for years.

As you can see from the accompanying photo, these sunflowers are a bit more exotic than the usual yellow-on-yellow sunflowers immortalized by Van Gogh and others. When I spoke with Jim on the phone, I excitedly informed him of the new ornament to our garden.

He replied, “Those are the Bohemian Rhapsody variety, right? I can’t wait to see them when I get home.”

We moved on to other topics, but after I hung up the phone and was going about my chores, I heard myself singing, “Mama, just killed a man…” Suddenly, I swirled back through time. I was seventeen years old, a senior in high school. For the first and only time, I was taking center stage voluntarily in front of a rather large crowd.

The event was Immaculata Preparatory High School’s annual variety show. Although I loved to sing, I’d never participated in the variety show before. I was just too shy. Even sitting in the front row of the orchestra (wherein I played violin, I fear not very well) made my feet tingle and my heart thump.

However, earlier that year, my best friend Anna Cooke, had tossed out the idea that we should do a sketch based on the band Queen’s song, “Bohemian Rhapsody.” It’s a great piece, a mini-drama centered around a murder trial.

Well, somehow in the flash of this idea, my usual shyness vanished. Not only did I want to do the sketch, I really wanted to sing lead. Anna seemed to think this was a good idea – although as I recall we also considered roping in a girl named Terri and there was some question as to what part she’d take.

Anyhow, we went to Sister Annette Cecile, one of the members of the music staff and the director of the orchestra in which Anna and I both played. (Anna’s a flautist). We ran our idea by Sister Annette, since, as far as either Anna or I knew, this was the first time anyone had done a rock piece rather than something taken from a musical or light pop. To our surprise, Sister Annette agreed we should give it a try, but insisted we look up every strange word in the piece and make certain we knew what each one meant.

Off Anna and I went to the library. “Bohemian Rhapsody” certainly does invoke more than a few strange images. I remember two in particular we were a little concerned about. First, there’s a line where the lead sings “Beelzebub has a devil put aside for me!” We weren’t sure how the reference to devils would go over in our very Catholic context. The other part was in the chorus: “Scaramouche! Scaramouche! Can you do the fandango?”

However, when we came back with our definitions, Sister Annette Cecile passed us to audition. Now we needed a chorus. We roped in my sister Ann (then a sophomore), two freshmen, and the aforementioned Terri.

Anna took over as director. Terri would play both the judge and the mother – a bit of moral ambiguity we were all very proud of, since justice is supposed to be unbiased. Our four choristers would dress as stylized puppets. I don’t remember the full costume, but I remember that brightly colored leg-warmers were involved. By contrast, I would wear all black.

Of course, we didn’t have all the costuming together for the audition, nor did we have the elaborate musical accompaniment from the album. Like everyone else, we would need to make do with Sister Annette Cecile on piano and Sister Mary Ann on drums. No one used recorded accompaniment or the like in those days.

Anyhow, our act was accepted. Rehearsals are a blur in my mind, but I suspect I drove anyone even remotely nearby crazy with my going through the song over and over.

Then the big night. My parents had given me the black jeans I needed, for Christmas, I think. I’d found a black tee-shirt and turned it inside out to hide the logo. I even found more or less black sneakers. (Budget was tight in those years and I didn’t own a lot of black).

No make-up, I think. Hair loose (and a lot darker than it is now, although more red-brown than black). When the skit starts, I’m sitting on the floor of the stage, bent over, head down, arms folded so no skin will show.

In my huddle I hear the chorus begin with the eerie words: “Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?”

The light’s on me now – or that was the plan – and I unfold myself, coming to my feet so I’m standing for my opening line: “I’m just a poor boy. I need no sympathy…”

Anna’s direction is inspired. Terri sits on a stool to one side of the stage, chatting animately into a phone. I come over to her, my confession of murder begging for attention she can’t be bothered to give.

As I move to center for the second part of the song, Terri quietly crosses to the other side of the stage. She’ll be the judge for the final part. We move through confession, to pleading, to despair, into defiance, and finally fury and resignation. Sister Annette Cecile and Sister Mary Ann are – as Anna put it years later – “rocking out” on their limited instruments, doing us all proud.

Yet for my “poor boy,” there is no escape. As he/me tries to get “just out of here” the formerly passive puppets of the chorus provide an unbreakable line. Finally, I move to the front center again singing, “Nothing really matters, anyone can see…”

And on the final line, I fold myself back into a ball on the floor. Behind me, the puppets sing, “Any way the wind blows,” and drop limp, strings cut.

Lights go down. We’re met with complete silence, followed by that incredible pounding applause that comes when you’ve shocked everyone and done it just right.

The variety show goes on, but for me it’s over and gloriously done. We join the rest of the cast for the closing number, I think we did “One” from A Chorus Line, but I couldn’t swear to it.

When the show is over, we go out to meet friends and family. I know we had lots of compliments, but two remain vivid in memory. A young man – I think his name was David Barber – comes rushing up, his expression glowing, “Oh, wow! Surrealism, man!”

Then there was my dad shaking his head, looking amazed and joyful as he says, “It was all the same old stuff and then you guys just took over and lit up the place.”

I’m not going to tell you how long ago all this was, but a lot of you reading this probably weren’t even born. All I know is that something changed for me that day. I didn’t become less shy all at once or anything. I didn’t win any leads. (My sister, Ann, did, though, later on). But I knew I had found something that grabbed hold of my deepest heart – I believe it was the joy of making a story come alive.

TT: Dialectful

July 14, 2011

JANE: Yesterday, I talked about The Secret Garden, a novel that had a great

Land of Many Dialects

influence on my life. One of the main elements in the novel is Mary’s desire to learn the Yorkshire dialect which is spoken by the people in the area where she is now living.

So, Alan, as our resident Yorkshireman, what did you think about the use of your native tongue?

ALAN: The Yorkshire aspects in the novel were very authentic and added a lot to the atmosphere of the story.

One curious thing that struck me – not very far into the book, Mrs. Medlock uses the word “marred” and then there is an authorial intrusion which says “Marred is a Yorkshire word which means spoiled and pettish”. I would have used the word “mardy” (or possibly “marredy” — I honestly don’t know how to spell it) instead of “marred.” However I’m quite happy to accept “marred.” Words do vary across Yorkshire; even villages right next door to each other will often have slightly different vocabularies. When I walk down an alleyway I’m never sure if I’m walking down a ginnel, a snicket, or a twitchell…

One thing I *did* object to. Throughout the book, the word “the” is rendered as “th'”. That’s just plain wrong. A much more accurate rendering would be the simple “t'” I’ve just jumped to a random page where I see the dialogue:

“One o’ th’ kitchen gardens.”

Just try saying that out loud. One of two things will happen. Either you will elide the “th” into “the” or you will say “th” and then pause before you say “kitchen”. Both are wrong and both give far too much emphasis to “th”. A much better depiction of how it would sound is:

“One o’ t’ kitchen gardens.”

Even that is not quite right, but it’s much closer. The “o'” and the “t'” would actually be slurred together and the “t'” would be barely pronounced. The “t'” is actually more of an absence than a presence. It’s not pronounced with the tip of the tongue (which gives an unwanted emphasis). It’s more at the back of the throat, and you slide over it rather than say it out loud. It’s easy to demonstrate, but very hard to describe…

JANE: From watching episodes of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, I have the impression that different dialects go with different British stereotypes. So, what is the stereotype attached to Yorkshire?

ALAN: Gruff and self-contained but with a heart of gold and a certain dry, mocking wit. How can you tell if a Yorkshireman is teasing you? His lips are moving…

There’s also a myth that Yorkshire people are just like the Scots, but without the generosity! We have a saying: “If tha’ does owt for nowt, do it for thysen.” And while there’s a superficial truth to that, there’s obviously much more to it.

Do you have dialects in America? You obviously have regional accents, but a dialect is more than just an accent. It has its own vocabulary and grammar. For example, did you know that when I were nobbut a lad I’d oft go laikin’ taws on’t causey?

JANE: You lost me somewhere around “laikin.” Do I get a translation?

ALAN: Nobbut a lad — nothing but a child (i.e. just a child). Oft go laikin’ – often go playing (the verb to laik means to play). Taws – marbles (I vaguely recall Tom Sawyer using this word in Mark Twain’s novel. Was Mark Twain a secret Yorkshireman?). On’t causey – literally on the causeway. A causeway is a footpath (you’d probably call it a sidewalk). So, when I was just a little boy I’d often play marbles on the footpath. Easy, eh?

JANE: Easy when you translate it, maybe…

By the way, I think we distinguish between “footpaths” or simply “paths” as unpaved, while “sidewalks” are paved. Both, however, are established walkways, so if you cut across a field, even if you leave a trail, this is not a “path.” It only becomes a “path” when lots of people use it.

As for dialects… No. I don’t think we Americans have them to the same extent. (By the way, if a reader wants to disagree, I’d welcome comments!)

That doesn’t mean that strong regional accents don’t lead to different speech patterns. I grew up in Washington, D.C., but summered in an area in southern Maryland called Shady Side. The two areas were within about an hour’s drive of each other, but in Shady Side there was a distinct local accent. “Baltimore, Maryland,” for example, came out much closer to “Balmer, Merlin.”

Another marked difference was that in Shady Side “y’all” functioned neatly as a second person plural, a part of speech I think English – British or American – is sorely lacking. However, when I went to college in the Bronx, New York, the more common second person plural was “youse” or “youse guys.”

ALAN: I agree that we need a second person plural and don’t have a convenient one. I’ve noticed “youse” occasionally in Antipodean speech patterns, but I don’t think British English (or Yorkshire!) has one. On the other hand, Yorkshire does often use the second person singular thee/thou.

JANE: Another regional difference in speech patterns is speed. A friend of mine loved to tell tales of how when, after college, she moved from New York to Tennessee, she had trouble making herself understood – and understanding. She simply spoke – and “heard” – too quickly, so that even though the words were the same, she couldn’t understand them.

Here in New Mexico, there’s a lot of Spanish mixed into daily use, but I don’t think locals think about it much. You just pick it up. After a while if someone suggests you might want to go take a seat on the banco near the horno, you just do so. It would actually sound weird if someone said “go take a seat on the built-in bench near the traditional-style oven.”

So, no dialects, but, who knows? If the United States had been settled as long as England without the “leveling” influence of mass communications, we might have developed distinct dialects as well.

ALAN: English seems to absorb loan words very well. There are a lot of Maori loan words in New Zealand English. I think pretty much everyone would understand you if you said something like “I’m visiting the whanau this weekend”. Whanau (pronounced far-now) means extended family. Words like this are in common everyday use – you see them in newspapers and hear them on the radio and TV and nobody thinks there’s anything odd about it at all.

JANE: Loan words would be another fascinating thing to talk about. I’d love to hear more about what words the New Zealanders have adopted from their Maori neighbors – and even more, why this has happened. After all, why not just say “extended family”? Let’s take that up next time.

The Secret Garden

July 13, 2011

A few lines in a book given to me for my tenth birthday changed my life.

Old Friend, New Flowers

“As she came near the second of these alcoves she stopped skipping. There had once been a flowerbed in it, and she thought she saw something sticking out of the black earth – some sharp little green points. She remembered what Ben Weatherstaff had said and she knelt down to look at them.

“‘Yes, they are tiny growing things and they might be crocuses or snowdrops or daffodils,’ she whispered.

“She bent very close to them and sniffed the fresh scent of the damp earth. She liked it very much.” (The Secret Garden, Frances Hodgson Burnett, 1911)

Like most kids, I appreciated flowers, but these few lines made me realize that flowers were merely the end result of a wonderful and mysterious process. For the first time, I was fascinated by seeds and bulbs. I became interested in soil as something other than what I had to wash off my bare feet at the end of the day.

The spring following my reading of The Secret Garden, I was alert to the first emergence of the pale green points of crocus and daffodils, rather than merely to their latecomer flowers. My mother (who hates winter) had always looked eagerly for the first flush of green in the willows that grew on the Rock Creek Park side of the National Zoo. Now I found myself entering into her enthusiasm – not because it meant the end of Winter, although I’m not much for cold weather myself – but because like Mary in The Secret Garden I had become aware of the excitement of plants becoming “wick” after a winter of seeming death.

And, as regular readers of these Wanderings know, I am now a devoted gardener. This past weekend we picked four rather large zucchini, which became the basis for stir fry, calabazitas

(summer squash cooked with green chile, onions, garlic, and corn), and broiled zucchini dusted with garlic powder. We’re also harvesting ichiban eggplant, various herbs, radishes, and Swiss chard. Just grand.

The influence of The Secret Garden on me didn’t end with awakening an gardening. The Secret Garden also had a great deal to do with my fondness for what, about thirty years later, I would learn was called “liminal space,” a concept very much at the heart of my novel Child of a Rainless Year.

Liminal space is the area – both literal and psychological – that lies between what we think of as “real” places. Liminal space is the place of transitions, the threshold over which the groom carries his bride, the pocket of “waste” land that no one seems to claim and so belongs to no one and everyone at the same time.

My dad had a fondness for these places. When I was very small, he’d take my sister and me on what today would be called “urban hikes” through the deserted back alleys and side paths that thread through otherwise populous Georgetown. He’d encourage us to sample the tiny woody pears (which I liked) and over-ripe persimmons (which I didn’t) that hung unwanted from tree limbs that extended into alleyways. He’d point out this little animal or that untamed flower, awakening an awareness that both beauty and unexpected treasures could be found in odd corners.

The garden Mary discovers in the first half of The Secret Garden is a walled enclosure that has been closed and locked for ten years. Ivy has been encouraged to grow over and cover the door. Because the garden was the location of a tragedy, it is locked away in another sense – no one will talk about it, except in vague statements. The garden’s liminal nature is very important to Mary’s development from a sour, unhappy child to one who learns to reach beyond her own interests.

The second part of the book deals with how Mary and her cousin Colin “come alive” in the private space offered within the garden’s wall. This idea of a secret place to grow healthy in both body and in mind – not through self-absorption, but through the opposite, captivated me. I know that, to this day, when I am troubled in mind, my garden will provide a balancing influence.

Like Mary, I find there is a “Magic” in these places, a magic that has nothing to do with any mystic lore, but very much to do with sun, seed, and good rich earth and how these will touch us into remembering where we fit in the greater scheme of things.

So thank you very much, Aunt “Mereduff,” for a book that awakened me to so many odd and wonderful things. I still have my copy, the very same one you gave me, nearly forty years later! (I also have Mary Poppins in the Park, The Princess and the Goblins, and The Princess and Curdie, too).

How about the rest of you? What are your transformational books? Do you think they’d touch you in the same way today or was it a case of the right book at the right time?

TT: Three Squares

July 7, 2011

Once again, if you’re looking for Wednesday Wanderings, just go back one day for a look at how one writer makes writing work.  Then join me and Alan Robson here for an almost anthropological discussion of mealtimes!

JANE: Breakfast, lunch, and dinner were what I learned to call the three

Late 1950's Menus

standard meals of the day. Later, I learned some people called “dinner” “supper” instead, but it still seemed to be the same meal.

Are the meals the same in English terminology? Are hobbit terms like “elevenses” really used?

ALAN: Most definitely! The English are very hobbit-like in this respect. Elevenses (also known as morning tea) is a very, very important part of everybody’s day. The tea break is sacrosanct and woe betide any employer who tries to prevent his employees from having one! Riots ensue…

JANE: And that brings us to “Tea.” I must admit, it took me longer than it should have for me to figure out that “Tea” was a meal, not just a drink. I was always confused about how addicted characters in English novels seemed to be to drinking tea.

ALAN: But they are completely addicted to drinking tea so it is easy to confuse the two things. The very first thing that happens when you visit someone is that they offer you a cup of tea. And the longer you stay, the more tea is offered and drunk.

A cup of tea is the first response to a crisis and is also the first thing you drink when the crisis is over

JANE: My breakthrough came when I read Agatha Christie’s marvelous novel At Bertram’s Hotel in which the elaborate nature of the “Tea” being served at this old-fashioned hotel awakens Miss Jane Marple’s suspicions.

Pray, enlighten us Americans all about Tea, High Tea, and its associates

ALAN: Ah! Now here is a very pretty can of worms…

The whole thing about what refreshments are taken, the time of day at which they are taken, the exact nature of the food and drink that is served and the name that is given to the meal is very much intertwined with the complexities of the English class system. This is a system of Byzantine subtlety which is not well understood even by its own practitioners. Nevertheless it is hugely influential upon social behaviour even today.

Breakfast and morning tea are common to everybody. But the later the day becomes, the more complicated things get.

Around about the middle of the day, the lower classes eat dinner and the upper classes take lunch. Middle class people may have either lunch or dinner at this time, depending upon their aspirations and pretensions.

In the mid-afternoon there is afternoon tea. This is the afternoon equivalent of morning tea and in more leisurely households it may well be served with cakes and scones and maybe even sandwiches as a light snack.

In working class households, high tea would be the main meal marking the end of the working day and would generally take place in the early evening when the man of the household got home from work. However, when I was a child, my parents would serve me high tea as my main meal of the evening and have their own main meal later, after I had gone to bed. So they didn’t have high tea, they just had tea because it was eaten later in the evening (high tea specifically takes place in the early evening). That same meal (tea) would be called dinner by the upper class (because it was a main meal eaten later in the day), but my working class parents couldn’t call it dinner because that’s what they called lunch, and so the word was no longer available to describe their evening meal.

And then, even later in the day, just before they went to bed, my parents would have supper. This was usually a light snack, perhaps cheese and biscuits (i.e. crackers) and, of course, a cup of tea. I didn’t have supper, because I went to bed after my high tea. Though if my high tea had consisted of just a light snack rather than being a main meal, it would of course have been called supper instead of being called high tea because it was a snack eaten just before bed time. This was likely to occur if my dinner (lunch) had been a main meal. I would then be given supper instead of high tea on the grounds that two main meals a day might be a bit much.

Upper class people would also probably indulge in supper as well, but being upper class theirs would almost certainly be a more elaborate preparation though I’m not sure exactly what because I’ve never moved in those circles.

JANE: Wow! That boggles the mind.

Now that I think about it, we do have one other meal term: brunch. Brunch is “breakfast/ lunch.” Unlike your morning tea and tea and high tea, it isn’t a meal, but rather a substitute for two meals. American breakfasts can be rather light. Some typical breakfasts are cereal with milk, or a hard boiled egg and toast, or a bagel and cream cheese, or bacon and eggs. Ideally, for good nutrition, these would be served with fruit or juice, but that doesn’t happen all the time. By the time noon rolls around, you’re going to want lunch.

Brunch, by contrast, is always a more substantial meal. There will be some sort of egg dish, ham or sausage or bacon – sometimes more than one of these, fruit, toast, a sweet roll or Danish.

I’ve been to restaurant brunches that are so lavish that not only would they substitute for breakfast and lunch, but for dinner, too.

Do you folks have brunch?

ALAN: Yes, brunch is now quite common, especially at the weekend because of course we tend to sleep late on Saturday and Sunday as a special treat. I suspect that we actually stole the idea of brunch from you and then filed the serial numbers off so that nobody could tell.

There was a time when English breakfasts were themselves very substantial – bacon, fried egg, fried bread, fried sausages, fried mushrooms, fried black pudding, fried tomato with baked beans for added fibre – it’s known as the “Full English” and you can feel your arteries hardening as you look at it. But these days our breakfasts also tend towards the lighter side, just like yours.

By the way, I absolutely love the way Americans cook bacon – crisp and crunchy, it’s just magnificent. That’s the way bacon ought to be cooked. My mother used to cook it that way – she would grill it rather than fry it which I think was the secret of her success. New Zealand bacon, by contrast, is revolting. No matter what you do to it, it will not go crispy; it will burn itself black without ever going crispy. What a breakthrough in food technology! Consequently the Antipodean equivalent of the Full English is really rather sad. It sits on the plate grey and limp and oozing goo. Ick!

JANE: Now that I think about it, my siblings and I came up with “linner” as the term for a meal that substituted for lunch and dinner, but that never caught on. I guess Americans are willing to skip breakfast, but not both lunch and dinner.

I think we’d better leave food for a while or I’m going to start eating my way through these conversations. I have an idea. Why don’t we switch over to something low calorie, like dialects?

ALAN: Aye, lass. Gradely!

Battling Against Distraction

July 6, 2011

A few weeks ago, in the comments to my Wandering about the local birds,

Possible Distraction

Dominique asked how I managed to write, especially with so many attractive distractions. Here’s something of an answer, adapted from a piece I wrote for some years ago.

These days, I’m lucky enough to be a full-time writer. However, when I started writing, that wasn’t the case. Looking back, I see that habits and skills I cultivated at the beginning of my career continue to shape how I write today.

I started seriously applying myself to writing fiction immediately after I finished graduate school, even as I worked several part-time jobs, searched for a full-time post, and dealt with the usual demands of daily life. Then and there, I made three decisions. These basic choices remain the keynotes of my writing habits to this day.

1) Writing Gets Priority. This may sound simple, but it’s actually very hard. Life seems to nibble away at writing time. For almost all my adult life, I’ve been in a serious relationship. I’ve owned and/or maintained my own home. I’ve always supported myself. No kids, but pets, gardens, gaming… I love to read. All huge time-eaters.

But no matter how drawn I am to these other things, I write. When I had another full-time job, I wrote seven days a week. Now that writing is my full-time job, I write five. This holds even when I have a “working weekend” doing book events or conventions.

2) Avoid Boxes At All Costs. I put this decision second only because I had to be serious about wanting to write before it could come into play. However, in many ways this is my creed.

There are many accounts of the curious writing rituals. This writer can only write in complete privacy. That writer must have a certain drink or food. Another one has to wear certain “writing” or “lucky” clothes.

I resolved that my ritual would be no ritual. Privacy would need to go out the window. At the start, I lived in a small apartment with another person. Even when I had a larger place, much of my time was spent on a college campus. I shared my office. Students wandered in and out. So did my highly interesting colleagues.

Therefore, my “room of one’s own” would need to be between my own ears.

The same ruthlessness had to be applied to the question of equipment. When I was finishing grad school, the hot new PC was the IBM 286. Bulky. Immobile. Expensive.

I touched-typed easily and quickly, but nevertheless I realized that the machine was a chain. I decided to pursue fiction writing longhand. Sometimes I simply carried a folded sheet of paper in my pocket. Most of the time, I managed to keep my current project on a clipboard along with my notes for whatever classes I was teaching.

Because of these two decisions, I wrote everywhere and every day. My first five novels were written longhand. So were hosts of short stories. I wrote while my students took quizzes. I wrote while waiting for appointments. I wrote when my gaming group met and my character was “off-stage.” Memorably, I wrote an entire short story in a faculty meeting. (“Relief,” published in the anthology Heaven Sent).

Most importantly, I wrote.

Sure, I had to retype those longhand manuscripts, but this was a good thing. Retyping forced me to carefully consider each word. I did a lot of revising as I retyped.

Time of day is the other big quirk by which writers trap themselves. I’ve known writers who need to write first thing or they won’t “get into it.” I’ve known writers who can only write at night when the world is quiet. I’ve known writers who can only write when their routine chores are completed and they feel they now “have time.”

Often these writers adopted these habits for all the best reasons in the world, but what started as a good thing became a trap. I decided that no time would be my time. The reverse of this is that, for me, all time can be writing time.

Makes all the difference in the world.

3) Be Flexible About Goals. This is a two-parter, really. The other half is “But Have Goals.”

When I started seriously addressing myself to writing, I had the good fortune to also be involved in an on-going correspondence (via snail mail) with author Roger Zelazny.

In one letter, Roger mentioned almost as an aside that three or four times a day he’d sit down and write three or four sentences. Sometimes the piece he was working on would catch fire and he’d find himself writing a lot more. Sometimes he’d just get those few sentences.

He commented that he never failed to be amazed how even just a few sentences a day could somehow turn into a finished piece. Roger also mentioned that no matter how well the writing had gone the day before, he never gave himself a “break” because of that. The next day, he started with a fresh quota.

Well, I’ll admit I was somewhat indignant when I first read this. When was I (who was teaching five courses, sometimes five preps) going to find three or four times a day to write anything?

Then a little demon whispered in my ear: “Three or four multipled by three or four is twelve.”

Twelve. Twelve sentences, once a day. Surely I could manage that much. Twelve substantial sentences, of course, not just a “yes/no” conversation.

Suddenly, indignation vanished. I felt eager and excited. I felt even more eager and excited when I realized that this tactic was working. I wrote short stories. Eventually, I wrote my first novel, then another. And more short stories.

I never let any other form of writing take over my quota. My non-fiction writing, of which I did a considerable amount, was done on the side. So was writing related to my teaching.

As Roger had said, sometimes those twelve sentences were enough to make my imagination take hold. I’d write a lot more, sometimes until my hand cramped and I was writing in a weird shorthand.

But I wrote.

When I began writing full-time, I adapted this goal. Early in a project, my goal is still just getting something on paper. Later, I expand that and try for five pages a day. Toward the end of a novel, when I’m eager to find out what’s going to happen, I’m back to those days when my hands are cramping and my back is stiff, even when I shift chairs at my computer.

I suppose that this setting of production goals is a violation of my “no boxes” rule but, on the other hand, if I kept to that, then it would be a box of its own, wouldn’t it?

So, Dominique, does that help? If anything I wrote raised questions for anyone, please, don’t hesitate to ask!