Envelope or envelope?

Texture: Envelope - Green
Flickr Photo by: Jeric Santiago

I sometimes listen to a show called A Way With Words, which I usually catch on Sunday afternoon. Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett host the hour-long program, covering topics like regional sayings, idiomatic expressions, word origins, and so on. They invite listeners to call in with their stories or questions about language. I’ve never gotten a response, but I wonder about word pronunciation.

For instance, I hear some people pronounce envelope like ahn-ve-lope, while others pronounce is with a short ‘e’ sound at the beginning (ˈen-və-ˌlōp). It’s the same with enclave. I never hear anyone pronounce entourage with a short ‘e’. I wonder why we don’t pronounce courage the same way. Either, neither, be-lie-ver?

I asked once whether Caribbean should be pronounced with stress on the ‘i’ or on the ‘e’. (kə-ˈri-bē-ən vs. ker-ə-ˈbē-ən). The person simply answered, “it depends on whether or not you’ve been there.” (Not helpful, even if it was just a sarcastic jab.)

I’m pretty annoyed with malapropisms. That’s when a person uses one word in place of another similar word, or maybe not so similar. For example, well, here. People say things like “for all intensive purposes” and “he told me pacifically.” I’ve heard someone use the word “jubilee” when talking about jambalaya. One surprising one to me was that apparently “another think coming” is correct. I’ve heard people say (evidently incorrectly), “she has another thing coming”. I believe most people were unaware of this.

English is hard for many reasons, but mostly because it has been adulterated over the centuries. Modern English does not resemble its ancient roots any more than Icelandic resembles Japanese. Well, perhaps that’s an exaggeration. Every language has its problems. French is described as having a few rules and the rest is idioms. I’m reminded of a Star Trek TNG (The Next Generation) episode, Darmok. Here, Captain Picard is stranded on a planet with an alien adversary whose language is incomprehensible to anyone in Star Fleet. Picard and the other captain finally do work out their communication obstacles, but at great cost. It’s one of my favorite episodes, and I recommend watching it. I believe Netflix is still streaming the show.

It’s time for bed now. I tend to dream in English, but sometimes also in Spanish. Perhaps that’s why I find all this so interesting. Language is entirely too complex a subject for me to tackle in this publication. I’m looking forward to hearing back from “A Way with Words” soon. By then I’ll probably have 100 more questions.

 

Advertisements

Vikings in Oklahoma?

We recently went camping in Oklahoma in the Ouachita National Forest near the town of Heavener (pronounced “heave-ner”). The town has a nice little diner called the Southern Belle, an old passenger rail car converted into a cozy eatery. I had the S.B.C. (Southern Belle Chicken) sandwich. For dessert, we shared a slice of cherry cream pie. While we2018 04 23_5043 enjoyed our food, we struck up a conversation with a few of the locals who told us about the “Heavener Rune Stone”, but they were hesitant to say much more. We were intrigued, so we went in search of this mysterious thing from the past. We drove for what seemed to be much farther than “just up the road”. Eventually, we saw signs for the “Rune stone” with unclear directions about which way to turn. Finally, there is was, a former Oklahoma State Park, now the park is privately run. There was no entrance fee, but the gift shop is a pleasant place to spend some money. One of the volunteers (apparently, they don’t make enough money to pay for staff) was pretty enthusiastic about the stone, reportedly carved in the 7th or 8th century by Viking explorers to North America. While many scholars have come to acc

ept the notion that Vikings visited as far west as modern day Canada (Newfoundland), it seems very unlikely they would have ventured to the Great Lakes via the St. Lawrence River, then somehow past Niagara Falls, eventually making it to the headwaters of the Mississippi River, connecting to the Arkansas River, and into Oklahoma. Possibility and probability are two very different things. I suppose it’s possible that Native Americans traveling up and down the Mississippi could have come into contact with these Norse explorers. It is also possible that these or similar Native Americans could have copied Norse runes and etched them onto the giant monolith. Regardless, we were there, gawking at the enormous stone, with the faint runic message of “glome”. It is a matter of intense debate, not just the meaning of the supposed runes, but also the probability of Vikings ever having visited Oklahoma. The site was cool, with a “waterfall” and a treacherously slippery stone path. There is a handrail on some of the steps (but not all). And there is a precipitous overlook. The gift shop/museum store sells souvenirs and books, especially regarding all the evidence of the Viking presence here.

We recently went camping in Oklahoma in the Ouachita National Forest near the town of Heavener (pronounced “heave-ner”). The town has a nice little diner called the Southern Belle, an old passenger rail car converted into a cozy eatery. I had the S.B.C. (Southern Belle Chicken) sandwich. For dessert, we shared a slice of cherry cream pie. While we enjoyed our food, we struck up a conversation with a few of the locals who told us about the “Heavener Rune Stone”, but they were hesitant to say much more. We were intrigued, so we went in search of this mysterious thing from the past. We drove for what seemed to be much farther than “just up the road”. Eventually, we saw signs for the “Rune stone” with unclear directions about which way to turn. Finally, there is was, a former Oklahoma State Park, now the park is privately run. There was no entrance fee, but the gift shop is a pleasant place to spend some money. One of the volunteers (apparently, they don’t make enough money to pay for staff) was viking4 pretty enthusiastic about the stone, reportedly carved in the 7th or 8th century by Viking explorers to North America. While many scholars have come to accept the notion that Vikings visited as far west as modern day Canada (Newfoundland), it seems very unlikely they would have ventured to the Great Lakes via the St. Lawrence River, then somehow past Niagara Falls, eventually making it to the headwaters of the Mississippi River, connecting to the Arkansas River, and into Oklahoma. Possibility and probability are two very different things. I suppose it’s possible that Native Americans traveling up and down the Mississippi could have come into contact with these Norse explorers. It is also possible that these or similar Native Americans could have copied Norse runes and etched them onto the giant monolith. Regardless, we were there, gawking at the enormous stone, with the faint runic message of “glome”. It is a matter of intense debate, not just the meaning of the supposed runes, but also the probability of Vikings ever having visited Oklahoma.

The site was cool, with a “waterfall” and a treacherously slippery stone path. There is a handrail on some of the steps (but not all). And there is a precipitous overlook. The gift shop/museum store sells souvenirs and books, especially regarding all the evidence of the Viking presence here.

Whether you believe any of it or not, it’s a beautiful site. They even have led-lighted viking helmets. Say hi to the staff at the Southern Belle, and order the cherry cream pie. You will have a good time. You just have to kind of roll with it.

Playing it Safe

I take up space. I sit at a desk most of my life with two zero-bezel high-def monitors blasting artificial light in my face, meanwhile sitting underneath a battery of fluorescent lights and the constant din of office chatter, mobile devices and white noise produced by climate control. An utterly gray existence. Actually, gray is somewhat pleasant. My life is more beige.

But, I love hiking and camping; I may have mentioned it before. I’m very fortunate that my wife loves the outdoors. We’ve been on many hikes together, from Palo Duro Canyon in the Texas Panhandle to Hickory Nut Falls in North Carolina. She loves waterfalls, and she’s kind of particular about them. For instance, at Hickory Nut Falls, she loved the mists created by water cascading down a nearly 200 meter cliff, creating a unique ecosystem where ferns and other plants clung to the rocks in the perpetual spray of the falls. Abrams Falls near Cades Cove in Tennessee was larger in volume, but she didn’t like it as much.PaloDuroCCC

I recently went back to Palo Duro with some work friends. We have been on several hikes in Texas and Oklahoma, and one of two of the guys started talking about a hike in Arkansas, the Eagle Rock Loop. This hike is over 45 km, over steep ridges and river crossings. Some can finish it in two days. I question whether our group should attempt it at all, especially since we’re basically weekend warrior types. On our trip to Palo Duro, one of the guys developed a painful blister on his right heel. Fortunately we were able to return to camp and rest. If we had been backpacking, we might have been forced to turn around or add a day to our trek. My proposal was to try one overnight backpacking trip. A couple of us are in our 50s, and not all of us are in decent shape. But I’ve been accused of playing it safe, not seizing the day, carpe diem and all that bullshit. I think a person is only as old as he or she feels, but there are some realities we must face. Mature bodies do not bounce back like they did in their 20s. That said, I didn’t even try hiking until I was in my 40s. Who knows if I would have enjoyed it at all. I did enjoy mountain biking in my 20s, and I still have the desire to ride canyon trails, but I discovered my physical limits when I attempted this in Palo Duro a few years ago.

I think playing it safe can save your butt. It means being better prepared and better informed. I watch other people’s videos about a trail before going on it. I listen to what other people are saying about what to watch for. I also like to take my time because the reason I hike is not to reach point B quickly. I want to see the nature that I’ve surrounded myself with. It’s also important to be aware of hazards like poisonous snakes, ticks, biting insects, and large animals like bears and pumas. Large cats are not present in most of the US, but black bears are found in large parts of North America. Oh, and there’s this:

Maybe playing it safe takes the fun out of things. Well, Dwight wan’t likely to maul Jim for encroaching in his space. Fact: bears eat anything they can find, including food in your tent. Backcountry camps sometimes provide food storage cabling like those along the Appalachian Trail. You can not play it too safe out there.

I’m hopeful I will be able to persuade my fellow hikers to wait before taking on what some have called, “the most difficult Arkansas has to offer.” But eventually, we’ll need to do it. It is what our beige existence requires, apparently.

 

Really?!

Some of our preconceptions are just plain wrong. That’s okay. I mean, where else would stereotypes come from? Without these misguided perceptions we wouldn’t ever be amazed or mystified by new things. Nothing would ever take us by surprise. We would never have any reason to travel beyond our city limits or past our front porch. Maybe it’s okay to have the wrong idea, but we should never be content to assume we know the world outside the confines of our comfortable existence without checking it out for ourselves.

As much as I like to preach about reaching out past your comfort zone, I am confined by economics to an extent. My only trip outside the US was to Baja California. I was a little ashamed to admit this one day, but the person to whom I mentioned it said, “California’s in the US, dude.” I said, “No, Baja California.” He subsequently appeared to think I was proving his point.

The funny thing is that people have held very strange notions about where I grew up, near Dallas, Texas. There are 25 million people in the triangle that joins DFW, Austin, San Antonio, and Houston. Once, a customer was asking me if Houston was a big enough city to hold an event. I said, “sure, it’s the largest city in Texas.” He was incredulous and asked me if the downtown region had buildings or was it just cows. I wasn’t sure if he was fucking with me, but I politely and diplomatically corrected his misconception. To this day I’m not convinced he wasn’t puling my leg.

 

Cottonwood Trail 3

In the Texas Panhandle, there is a large canyon, Palo Duro Canyon, carved into the Caprock Escarpment where visitors might be surprised to find a lush grove of cottonwood trees. Other parts of the park are a haven for birds and butterflies. And, of course, there are rattlesnakes.

Many people have visited Las Vegas. And even though the city and its suburbs has nearly 2 million people, the casual tourist may not think about the city beyond the Strip. 2 million people in any city would need places to buy groceries, shop for necessities, get their hair cut, attend religious services, and just about anything we might do in a given week. Of course Las Vegas has kindergartens and laundromats, mundane and non-Las Vegas-y things you don’t want to think about while you’re watching Cirque du Soleil. One of the most blatantly unremarkable meals I’ve ever had was in Vegas (I would hope that Red Lobster has made some improvements).

I will be making my first trip to the Grand Canyon in May. My preconceptions are coming with me, like anything else I will pack. My plan is to leave them behind, which is the only thing, aside from a footprint, that one should leave when visiting a National Park. I expect to be pleasantly surprised, which is certain to happen. Even when I’ve been to a place repeatedly, I will always discover something new; and no matter how small it may seem, it is still enough to make me grateful for the experience.

 

 

In Search of the Walking (not Dead)

Summer began abruptly this week in Texas. Later in the week it was spring again. It has been said that if not for air conditioning, the population of Dallas would be much smaller. The population of Plano, Texas in 1960 was 3,695. By 1970, the population had increased by almost five times. (Latest estimates are now between 260,000 and 278,000). If you drive through Plano you will notice a couple things:

  1. Most of the city was designed around the automobile
  2. There is no central district; “Downtown” Plano is actually a revived, gentrified area on the east side, filled with trendy bars and restaurants, as well as several novelty shops.

One of the most frustrating aspects of cities like Plano is that they are laid out in such a way as to make walking from place to place not only impossible, but it seems that cities make a concerted effort to discourage it. Pedestrians are seldom seen, and it is rare that they are spotted along the road, like Spring Creek Parkway, for instance. (By sharp contrast, people in Washington, DC are often seen walking along crowded sidewalks.)

If you live in a city that was built before 1950, you probably haven’t seen the kind of urban sprawl in cities like Plano or Phoenix, AZ. After the end of WWII, especially during the prosperous decade of the 1950’s, cities were transformed, and with low gasoline prices, owning a car shifted from being a luxury to a necessity, especially when urban planning was encouraging some people to live in the suburbs, at longer distances away from the city center. Eventually, businesses would move out of the city to the ‘burbs, triggering further expansion – read “white flight.” All the while, this pattern would make walking to work something of a quaint oddity. Nowadays, everyone must have a car. Larger cities have public transportation, but riding a bus is seen as indication of lower economic status. Walking is worse. If you are on foot in certain communities – and not wearing activewear – one might assume you are a homeless person.

In my neighborhood, I do see people on foot a little more than elsewhere. It’s kind of encouraging, and I don’t know exactly what to make of it. I see people of various ostensible means, young and mature, walking along certain streets, apparently to and from the shops nearby. Well, the big-box stores, anyway. But it’s a start. On that note,  my version of a perfect world may be unwelcome to the next person. I might like to have shops within walking distance from my front door. The downside of that is that you must live close to where many people might congregate. There would be noise at all hours, and there might be an increase in crime from the temptation of so many people with money to spend. This is what city living is supposed to be, and suburbs have tried to manage the dichotomy of both urban life and country living.

Cities need to step up efforts to encourage fitness and community among their citizenry. Constructing sidewalks and installing drinking fountains are a good start. Walking is one of the best forms of exercise available to everyone. It doesn’t require special equipment other than decent shoes, and it costs absolutely nothing to participate. Perhaps walking is not so popular by design. Fitness centers would not be making money if everyone knew they could get the same results at no cost. But walking outdoors has hazards. The sun can be harsh (especially here in Texas), and there is the rain (which we don’t see much of). Traffic can make walking a risky activity. My advice: leave the headphones at home. You need to be able to hear what’s going on around you.

When you lace up your walking shoes and head outside for a stroll, remember that people have been doing this for hundreds of thousands of years. It is the original means of transportation. We were meant to walk. Not walking is in fact bizarre and unnatural. You don’t have to be in a hurry. You can walk as quickly – or as slowly – as you wish. And there is no clock or finish line. Protect your skin from direct sunlight as much as possible, and drink plenty of water. And if you come to Texas, be prepared for some heat, especially during summer. Well, my Fitbit is telling me to get off my ass. Ciao!

 

 

To Serve Man

A day before my 25th birthday, having been accepted to graduate school, my new bride and I packed up all our belongings into a smallish U-Haul trailer and left town. We had spent all our cash on securing an apartment, and we had no wiggle room for the unexpected, which was bound to happen. With no credit cards and an empty bank account, we took a leap of faith, being assured that some grant money was coming in and we had at least a place to land once we got there.

We arrived later that afternoon and checked in with the apartment manager. She confirmed that our rent was paid up for the duration of our lease – six months. Relieved, we asked for the keys. The manager informed us that we couldn’t move in yet because the apartment was not ready. It seems the carpet needed to be cleaned or something. After a longer-than-was-comfortable episode of pleading she pointed us to a few hotels in the area. We explained that we (unwisely) arrived with no money. Our best bet was the local homeless shelter, a ministry run by a local church group. Reluctantly, we made our way to the inn, as it were, for, at the very least, some sleep.

Years later I would repeat this story with the message that everyone should deign to have that experience, letting go of pride and humbling oneself. Yes, it was only for one night, but my student ID photo the following morning would capture the gravity of the situation. There we were, newlyweds, separated by floors – women on the second floor and men on the third. The accommodations were meager, as you might expect. It was a cold night, and sleeping in the car was out of the question. We were grateful, and a little terrified. The whole shelter was entirely chaotic; people were shouting and having conniptions. I was constantly worried for my wife – that concept had still not sunk in. Was she okay? Was she scared? Then came the delousing.

Many years later (actually, I think it was only 6 or 7) we attended a church in an upper-middle class area. The gentry that made up the congregation formed a shelter ministry group. Those familiar with church-going folk of this mostly white, suburban, middle class ilk will be familiar with the over-achieving endeavors to reach out to the community, or even beyond it, in keeping with several places in the Bible where Jesus tells the people that they should heal the sick and feed the hungry, visit those in prison, and so on. Basically, things people in their 20’s don’t think about, outside of hearing sermons and seeing ads for charities bringing some relief to famine-struck areas in the world. Our particular church’s mission was, in teaming up with other churches in the city, providing a hot meal on Sundays, and making sandwiches that would last until the next weekend. It was unclear just how far those sandwiches went, but the hot meal we ported down there was fully consumed by the men, women, and sometimes homeless children in the shelter by the end of the night.

My wife and I signed up, being the social realists that we are, hoping we were doing enough, inasmuch as we would be returning to our comfortable, if modest, suburban home later that night. As much as I knew it was a good thing, I often would dread it. How much I would rather have been enjoying a Sunday evening, watching TV or some equally banal activity. This was before the web was prevalent, and much before social media and streaming video arrived on the scene, if you can imagine it. Late in the year, it was already dark when we would set out, so it was kind of a drag. But the experience was so fulfilling. I think about how it must sound: schlepping hot food in minivans to an unwholesome district across town to assuage our need to be redeemed. I don’t know why most others did it. But to this day I think I made a difference. The shelter had a couple hundred “beds”, but on cold nights there were close to 300 people. One by one they came through, extremely grateful as they received some hot food and a sandwich. Some of them looked like they could be anyone. And a lot of people in the ‘burbs are one crisis away from such a fate, which is pretty damned scary.

Like I said, I used to tell people they ought to spend a night in a shelter, if only once in their lives, to understand how fortunate we are. But I’ve changed my message over the years. Those bedrolls, cots, and mats are at a premium. Taking a spot from someone who really needs it isn’t proper. If you have a place to stay, go there. I still think we could learn a lot by walking in another’s shoes, but shelters need the space. So, give money. Serve a meal. Donate time and talent. Raise awareness. There is always going to be great need among us.

While You Were Sleepwalking

As I was driving through the parking lot at a local shopping center recently, I was stopped by some pedestrians leaving a shop. Courteous and watchful motorists should be on the lookout for people on foot always. This is especially true in crowded commercial districts that allow a mix of vehicular and foot traffic. What’s more, seasoned city dwellers will tell you that, essentially, pedestrians and cyclists alike are invisible to the average driver, and it is known among the non-motorists that extra vigilance is in order. On behalf of the casual urban ambler, it is the duty of every driver to be extra watchful, because for the occasional walker, we are their eyes and ears.

Back to my recent encounter. Various shoppers were crossing traffic to get to their cars, where, it is hoped, they would assume a commensurate position of vigilance while behind the wheel. A mother and her daughter were walking across my path, both captivated by tiny screens. I expected the pre-teen holding her mobile device would not be paying attention to the world around her. People born in the 21st century are not afforded any skills beyond those required for them to interact with the virtual world through technology. Human interaction is as foreign a concept to them as using technology would have been to my grandparents. This is not a judgement but an observation. A sobering, devastating observation.

The youth, engrossed by her smartphone, walking into the path of moving cars would be disturbing enough without the image of her mother, 4 meters ahead of the girl totally engaged with her own tablet and oblivious to me, also not looking up to make visual contact with, well, anything in her immediate vicinity, apart from the small screen, and especially not paying attention to her child. Now, the fact that this scene alarms me is testament to the rarity of such extent, and most parents probably do watch their children with eyes in the backs of their heads, like mine apparently had. So it is a bit of a relief that it is uncommon to witness such neglect, but imagine how much goes on without anyone watching.

Ever since the Palm Pilot came onto the scene, followed by the Blackberry, humans have been bowing their heads in adoration of the silicon god, the mobile device that connects us not to the person seated across from us, but to the technophile at the other end. Worse things can happen than simply missing out on human contact, I suppose, but we may be approaching the apogee of stupidity while glued to our screens. Meanwhile, the President of the United States seems to be leading that charge.

I believe the blind leading the blind will never really understand the peril they are putting themselves – and their children – in by blundering through life playing Pokemon. I don’t mean to say I disapprove of video games. I enjoy a few on my phone. But sometimes it’s good for us – maybe necessary – to put it away, if only until we make it across the street. I’ll just continue to be their eyes and ears. Oh, and next time, I’ll drive through a nearby puddle just to make it interesting.