Friday, April 17, 2009

Reading, Writing, Teaching

If I am less prolific here lately, it is because of limited internet access. At the moment, I am at the mercy of internet cafes charging one real an hour. But locals staring at the gringo, that comes free of charge. Everywhere.

This has been a strange week. On the one hand, I have had to put up with guests in the apartment, in-laws. But the past few days have been quiet, the in-laws staying with another relative, and we have enjoyed an empty, cool apartment with a big office, tons of space to pace around in. That is how I get a lot of thinking done, by pacing around like a lunatic. Been that way since I can remember. Gets the blood going.

This morning was especially idyllic. Woke up, made some toast for breakfast. Girl already had the coffee going. Laughed and talked through the meal, then took my coffee to the office. Stayed there going over drafts until it was lunch, making minor corrections and revisions.

Spent most of yesterday emersed in various critical essays, and Ciardi's translation of The Inferno, which I am rereading for the first time since college. I also have his translations of The Purgatorio and The Paradiso, which were not taught in my undergraduate survey course. It will be interesting to take the rest of the journey with Dante.

I used to be intimidated by this most welcoming and genial of poems. The subject matter, of course, is not welcoming, as is forces even the modern reader, I think, to come to terms with the worst of his sins. But to paraphrase Ciardi's comments on the task of translating it, Dante's language is the common language at its perfection. Thanks to the generous notes, I am able to catch a few levels of the allegory, but the poem would be enjoyable--and the importance of enjoyment mustn't be scoffed at--even on its basic level of denotion. There is pleasure, too, in revisiting the poem after a span of years.

I mentioned Boethius in an earlier post. I caught a reference to Boethius that the editors of this Dante did not mention, and I gave myself a pompous pat on the shoulder. Figuratively, of course. I don't want dear reader to get an image of the author alone in his room, patting his own back. Too late, I guess.

I have been teaching for a few weeks now, maybe a month. I am loving it. Last night I was especially on a roll. It was a conversation class. The conversation classes I teach are a lot less structured than the other classes, which rely on a series of drills and listening exercises that must be painstakingly broken apart, explained, and repeated. Those classes are very fun in their own way, and allow for moments of fruitful discussion. The students with the most English, of course, they have multitudinous questions. Conversation class is a great time for them to ask those questions, and I have ample time to turn those questions into conversations, getting them to pull up more words and phrases from their learning. The challenge of the class is that there is a mix of skill levels--some of the students are in the early stages of the course, others more advanced. But even then, I sometimes get the advanced students to help out the beginners.

I also spend a lot of time talking, myself, and I am trying to do less of that because the goal is to get them comfortable speaking themselves. But I can't help but list tons of phrases, informal and formal, for their use. Kind of like Homeric epithets, those little cliches that have so much cultural cache and provide a fast rhythm to our verbal conversations. "Bring it back in one piece," for instance. A student asked if the word "wicked" always carries negative connotations, and I got to briefly talk about the idiosyncracies of Bostonian English. Last night, I think, struck a fine balance between class participation and teacher running his mouth. The students left with tons and tons of phrases scribbled in their notebooks, and I think everyone was happy.

I felt very high after the class, and a fellow teacher (who is taking the class herself) told my girl that I was really energized and "on" this time. I just had to give myself a big pat on the back.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Good Friday

We left our new apartment in Garanhuns yesterday for Arcoverde, where we had lunch with an aunt and some cousins. She, the aunt, called me a gatao, meaning "big cat," meaning cute, handsome, a ladies' man. I have learned to get a laugh around here by saying "Eu sou gatao...I am a big cat." 

The aunt lives on a farm... Fazenda de 2 irmaos, Two Brothers Farm. We admired the cocks and hens, sows and boars, Holsteins and a turkey. Some kind of garden spider... I think the English name is Crab spider, for what I saw... had built a web between stalks of red flowers, and was enjoying a meal of some kind of insect, looked like a katydid. Brought back memories. My father, when he was a boy, born in the Depression and poor all his childhood, used to catch those huge, black and orange crickets you see in Louisiana in the dog days of summer, used to catch one and toss it into the conspicuous web of a black and yellow garden spider. When I was a boy, he showed me this in our backyard. We would watch the spider, awakened by the tremors of his strong-as-steel silk cables, wrap the panicked prey like a wrapper at the slaughterhouse wrapping a mound of ground beef (my father was a butcher). 

Speaking of meat, I am eating less of it. I have learned to avoid fried foods here. The other week I ate a pastel -- basically a deep-fried pastry filled with shredded chicken and bacon--and paid dearly for it. You want to know what Hell is like? Imagine being stuck on a toilet with the music scene from Return of the Jedi inexplicably stuck in your head, you know, the scene at Jabba's palace where the pot-bellied alien with stalks for legs and puzzling, glittery lipstick squalls over a horrible dance beat, and the disturbingly attractive alien with tentacles growing out of her head dances moments before her grisly demise. Imagine having that awful music in your head in a moment of intestinal distress. 

Getting back to my newest diet... I think if I can remind myself to avoid the temptations of ice cream (at least at the volume of consumption I am used to) and the very delicious new pizza place (I love getting the frango com atum,  chicken and tuna pizza... and coating it with ketchup and mayonnaise)... anyway, if I can avoid those monsters of saturated fat, I could really get in shape, because almost every day we walk over a mile, usually up some very steep inclines. 

Looking over that pizza description disgusts me... mayo on Brazilian pizza is tasty, but it can't be good for my arteries. I can't believe how unhealthy I have become... my eating habits in Boston were atrocious. But I am correcting that here. We go to a very clean, health-oriented Self-Service (a buffet) often, where I eat mostly salad, some rice and tomatoes, just a little chicken for protein, etc. At some point I think I'll completely cut out the meat, to see what these self-righteous vegetarians are all yelling about. Not sure if I will ever give up dairy entirely. 

Which brings me back to the farm. They asked if I wanted to watch the cows being milked. Normally I am interested in seeing real people perform real labor, only to remind myself that I have nothing to whine about, being a life-long pencil pusher. But I find the very idea of milk disgusting. It's glandular discharge. For years I have looked for an adequate way to describe my distaste for it (granted, it's not the flavor of milk but the thought of its source). I finally found the proper description. By putting it in latinate, clinical language. Glandular discharge. Think of that next time you have a glass of warm milk before bed. 

Now, you're looking at a guy who relishes the opportunity to consume snails. (And I don't want to hear it from anyone back home who will gladly suck the head of a crayfish, or slurp down a raw oyster, how disgusting it is to eat snails. Or, for that matter, anyone who will eat shrimp. Shut up.) I also don't mind tripe, if it's cooked right. And I have gnawed on chicken feet with my Chinese friends, with some enjoyment. I have had pig ears without complaint. I remember jellyfish being kind of tasty, at least for its texture. If I ever find myself in a really good Japanese restaurant again, I'll probably order the Uni. Hell, I once woke up with a craving for blood. Blood sausage, that is, in the form of black pudding. Thankfully I was living in the Boston area, and headed over to the nearest pub pronto for a filling Irish breakfast. Much to the chagrin of my poor arteries. 

But a tall glass of milk? Don't make me vomit. 

But I love dairy. I also love pretty much anything made of tomatoes, but I hate unprocessed tomatoes themselves, unless they are diced into tiny cubes. Their seeds have the same consistency of snot. 

As an old roommate of mine was wont to remind me, there's no accounting for taste. What she had against accountants, I'll never know. 

Ouch. Now that's a joke that'll lose me some friends.  

Tuesday, April 7, 2009


Starlit is the new compact disc release by Louisiana-based composer Stephen Suber. Suber's career spans over thirty years and includes everything from electronic music/tape manipulations to symphonic works. This new disc collects some of his best orchestral and choral pieces. Not to be missed is the title track, "Starlit," which is a perfect blend of seriousness and playfulness centered around a violin exercise based on the tune of "Twinkle, twinkle little star." Another highlight is the choral piece "Soleil," as vigorous as it is haunting. The album truly has something for everyone. Seasoned classical music fans will find much to appreciate, but the less experienced listener will find that he has not been left out.

While available on iTunes, I urge any interested buyers to pick up the CD for the bonus of liner notes, written by yours truly. This is a great way to support contemporary music of the highest quality from an independent classical music label based in Louisiana. The sound quality on this recording is simply astounding.

Full disclosure: I am a former student and longtime friend of the composer, and we have collaborated in the past. I am also a native of Louisiana and can't promote the good things of that State often enough.

Thursday, April 2, 2009


As things stand right now, we only have running water three days of the week in our current apartment. For the rest of the week, we have to fill buckets at a nearby spigot, and rely on the kindness of an uncle for real showers. We have talked to the landlord, and a solution is definitely forthcoming. It all has to do with the way the water is delivered. Each house has a tank that collects water when it is available, and the tank is meant as a backup when the water is no longer running. We have a small tank. The landlord is buying and having a bigger tank installed. We just have to be pushy to make sure it happens. The guys who do the work tend to be slow on the pick up. We're talking about running water, here.

A meddlesome neighbor had one of the workers turn off our water when she saw that we were travelling this weekend. Luckily, a relative visited the house and turned it back on. So, we had running water for as long as we have been back in Garanhuns, but it has slowed to a trickle by now. On top of that, we have contracted a stomach virus that is going around. It takes a whole bucket of water to satisfactorily flush a toilet.

So that's a taste of the ugly side of life here, but it isn't so bad. I was talking with my family this weekend, and they brought up Katrina. I think we went ten days without electricity then, although at night we would run a generator to cool the house down with AC, to bathe, etc. In fact, I had running water during Katrina due to my pump's connection to the generator powering my family's business. There was a lot of belly-aching during Katrina, but mostly not by me. I read a lot, helped out with various tasks when asked, and pretty much did all I could to ignore the heat. We were lucky, being as far inland as we were. And everyone knew it. It is wholly possible to count your blessings and belly-ache at the same time.

I think the tone of this post may be a bit colored by my recent reading. I have been reading the The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius. It's a wonderful little book, in case you don't know it.