Monday, May 31, 2010

More on Birthdays

I find it funny that you say "congratulations" on someone's birthday here. It implies that living another year was quite an accomplishment, and after I've chuckled I am reminded that, in fact, it is. It feels good to have survived another year on this dangerous planet. The other day I tripped and fell on the sidewalk, in the direction of the street. I suffered only a sore leg and a scraped forearm, and I quickly realized that if I had fallen just a few inches more to the left, I could have been run over. I didn't even break my glasses--that would have been a very expensive accident.

My wife was hit by a bicycle last year. We called an ambulance to take her to the emergency room only as a precaution--I was worried that perhaps there had been some internal injury we couldn't detect. She turned out fine, and our minds were preoccupied with all of the worse things that could have happened in the same instant. It could have been a motorcycle, or car. She could have hit her head on the pavement and suffered a concussion.

I don't want to reveal just how morbid my imagination gets on a daily basis. I'm very much a Monty Python, "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life" kind of guy. And looking on the bright side often means considering the greater extent of the harm we didn't come to.

I have been thinking about some people I have met who have always made a point to take the day off for their birthdays, something I have never felt compelled to do as an adult. I have been unlucky enough to work the same shift as one such person, and every other breath I'd hear, "I can't believe I'm working on my birthday." Gets old quick.

Well, I can't believe I'm blogging on my birthday. Later, dear reader.

Parabéns Para Mim!

In Portuguese, instead of hearing the equivalent of "happy birthday," one usually hears "Parabéns!" or, "Congratulations!" The "Happy Birthday Song" starts off with "Parabéns para você..." The title of this post, then, is "Congratulations to me!"

But enough about my "special" day. It is this day every year that we also celebrate the birth of Walt Whitman, a poet I discovered in high school and one I keep revisiting.

Also celebrating his birthday today is Clint Eastwood, another American treasure if you ask me.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

The Hazards of Learning Haphazardly

Last night I started screaming. My wife kept saying, half-laughing, "Calma! Calma!" But I only replied, "NO! NO! You of all people know how frustrating this is!"

The problem? For the past year and a half I have thought that the Portuguese word for eyeglasses is "o óculos." The first "o" is the masculine singular definite article meaning "the." So, I had thought that even though the word "óculos" appeared to be plural, it should be treated as singular. "Meu óculos" instead of "meus óculos." (You've probably gathered by now that in Portuguese articles and adjectives have to agree in number and gender with the nouns they modify.) I looked it up in my textbook, and sure enough it said "o óculos," just as I've been saying it lo these many months. But when I checked two different dictionaries, they listed the noun as plural. So, was there a typo in my textbook?

No. It's common to hear the noun treated as singular. But technically it is plural. And this is something that baffles Portuguese speakers who are savvy enough to question it. I just consulted an opinion online, and there is a theory that "óculos" has been lumped in with a bunch of nouns that end in "s" but are singular. (My own theory is that, sometime in the history of this word, the phrase "o par de óculos" (pair of glasses) was common, and over time the words "par de" were elided, so that when we say "o óculos, we really mean "o par de óculos"--as in English when we say "a pair of glasses.") Because of this little linguistic anomaly a gringo nearly suffered a stroke last night.

It didn't stop there. I was asking my wife about the phrase "não se preocupe," (don't worry) which I had thought should be rendered "não se preocupa" because it is an -ar verb. We argued back and forth about the correct ending before I realized that in order to form the imperative for an -ar verb, one must use "e." For example, "call me" (by telephone) is usually: "Ligue para mim," with the infinitive being "ligar," an -ar verb. Once we remembered how to form the imperative (and after I sighed relief--I knew I wasn't going crazy, only getting forgetful), we were still confused about the reflexive pronoun "se"--but I won't go into all that.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Turtles and Monkeys

I woke up at 9:00 this morning intending to set the world on fire. Instead I wasted a lot of time browsing various entertainment blogs and by 11:30 had washed the dishes, satisfied for having at least done something useful to somebody. It's only 2:30, now, so I have the rest of the day ahead of me. Perhaps genius will strike. I have been dividing my free time among various little projects--studying Shakespeare's plays (right now I'm plodding through A Comedy of Errors and am not impressed, having just spent weeks immersed in the Henry IV plays), studying Latin (I'm on my way to completing Wheelock's by December), and of course practicing and studying Portuguese.

While I was picking up a sandwich for lunch, I had the idea to watch the copy of the original Ninja Turtles movie dubbed in Portuguese that we acquired the other day. That way, I'd be able to indulge in some infantile nostalgia while also improving my listening skills in Portuguese. And it was a blast. Some of the dialogue was over my head, but I was able to comprehend a surprising amount of it. We don't get television in the apartment--we detest Brazilian TV so much that we didn't even bother hooking up the antenna. The down side to that is that we only watch DVDs, and they are almost always in English. Television and movies are a great way to study a language, of course, and I have been depriving myself of this invaluable tool. No longer. I'm going to make it a daily habit to watch one movie in Portuguese a day.

Most of the people I see on a daily basis at the school where I teach are only interested in speaking English with me, and I don't blame them. So, I don't have many conversations in Portuguese, not as many as one would think since I am living in Brazil. My wife and I have always spoken English to each other, and it's difficult to break that habit. Someone recently told us that there have been studies on bilingual couples, and that they usually stick with one language when talking to each other, finding it very difficult to change. Our experience jibes with that. Still, this week I have forced myself to start conversations with my wife in Portuguese, and it's been very helpful. And funny.

I wish I had some specific little mix-ups to mention, but I haven't made any translatable mistakes lately.

There is an expression here, "Pagar um mico." To pay a monkey. When you make a mistake, you have to pay a monkey. When they taught me this expression, I said, "Já pagei muitos micos!" I have already paid many monkeys.

There are a lot of expressions involving my favorite animal here... the word for coveralls is macacão, meaning "big monkey." In English, "monkey suit" denotes a tuxedo, which in Portuguese is "smoking," likely borrowed from the English "smoking jacket." Back to monkeys, the word for "jack," i.e. the device one uses to lift a car to change a flat tire, is called "um macaco." A monkey. And, when one becomes an expert, one is then um macaco velho, an "old monkey."

I have hopes that I have only scratched the surface of monkey references in Brazilian Portuguese. I knew that I would love learning this language.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Laughter as a Foreign Language

Even the vocalizations that seemingly need no translation from one language to the next feature different spellings and phonetic identities. In English, a dog goes "ruff ruff ruff" or "bow wow wow," but in French he goes, "oua oua oua!"

I've been taking note of the different ways laughter is spelled by my online Portuguese-speaking friends. One spelling is "rsrsrsrsrsrsrsrsrsrsrs," which to my ear is more of a snicker than a chuckle. Incidentally, another popular spelling is "kkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkk." Em fim, finally, there's "asuhasuhasuhasu!" I have no idea how that's supposed to sound, but it features a few vowels which leads me to think it's a bit more booming than the other two.

A scene from The Simpsons comes to mind. I can't remember the exact episode (sorry, comic book guy), but it involves either Lisa or Bart interrupting a French class in Shelbyville. The teacher, of course, is a beret-wearing, prison-stripes Frenchman cliche. The children laugh in the usual adolescent American idiom: "heeheeheehee," but are stopped by the gruff teacher, "Non on on, en français!" And so the children recommence: "ron ron RON!"

In one of my first French classes, before the professor entered, I asked my fellow students if they had been practicing their French laughs. They looked puzzled. Then I broke into a loud "ron ron RON!" They laughed in English.

Monday, May 3, 2010

The Writing Life

I am simultaneously drawn to and bored by articles, blog entries, musings on the writing process, rejection, writing rituals, and all the related minutiae. I suppose I am drawn to them to see how my own haphazard processes compare, and am often bored since we are talking about what amounts to sitting alone in a chair, in front of a computer screen, a typewriter, or with a pad and writing instrument. The excitement happens somewhere between brain and page, and I'm not sure there's a way to capture that excitement without dropping into the banal. Then again, counting the number of drafts a poem takes to "get there," or detailing how many times you've sent off a manuscript before acceptance, isn't all that fresh when you compare the hundreds or thousands of such chronicles that one finds online or in writing magazines like Poets and Writers. The finally product of all this busywork, one hopes, will turn out infinitely more interesting.

I am reminded of the Bob Dylan biopic I'm Not There, a flick I flat-out hated. I had seen so much potential in the concept only to be disappointed by a more-or-less conventional rock and roll story, more of the same drugs and broken relationships. It was more or less the same movie that Walk the Line had been. I realized that everything I liked about Dylan and Cash was in the music, and the personae that came through the songs. I don't care to know much about their personal lives.

All of that to preface a few comments on the writing life.

I recently threw in my two cents in a discussion on Facebook concerning editors' requests for re-writes. I think that fiction writers get these a lot more often than poets, but I have had a couple in my day. They were minor requests to fix little bumps in the meter or to tone down an overly sentimental line here or there. In each case the poem was made stronger, and I was grateful for the careful editorial attention. Others in the discussion treated the issue as deplorable, as high and mighty editors believing they know more than the writer. I can see how this must be true in some cases. But I think it should be taken on a case-by-case basis. I'm not so great that I can't take a bit of advice or a suggestion from an editor devoted to putting out the best work, and patient enough to help me get my own work there.