Wednesday, March 8, 2017

English as a virus

My first morning in South Africa is bright and Sunny. Today is to be a relaxing one with a spa treatment and some sunning as I convince my body I should be waking up instead of going to sleep. I just came from breakfast and had the joy of reading a local paper. There was nothing about He who shall not be named in the whole paper except for a reprint from Dallas News of an opinion about the revised travel ban.

The paper was full of news about the economy, budgets cricket teams. It is a vacation. On the back of the first section was the reprint of an article by Braj Kachru from The Financial Times titled English adapts like a virus to any way of life. It is an imagery that so fits what I have seen. A quick summary is that English has spread more widely than any other language in the history (Greek, Latin, Sanscript) of language diffusion with well over 2 Billion speakers, and far more 2nd language speakers.

It seems I have watched this change since I started traveling in the mid 80's. Kachru attributes this not to the desire to communicate with we native English speakers, but to solve the Tower of Babel problem in countries with many native dialects. He also says that the English spoken in all these many countries may not be understandable since people learned it from non native speakers.

I first came to Africa in 2002, to Tanzania and Kenya. The common tongue across the tribes was Swahili. Here in South Africa as it will be in Zambia, Zimbabwe and Botswana, it will be English with a twist. As I learned at breakfast this morning, I will have to really listen to understand the words.

This virus that is English is opening up schools with readily available texts and letting the Internet google the world into the most remote corners. The driver who picked me up at the airport was proud of Johannesburg and said he hoped it would become like New York City. I told him it was spread out more like LA. He said he wanted to go to Las Angels and I told him that was Spanish for The Angels. He asked me what languages I spoke and I told him some Spanish, a little French and even less Italian.

I asked him about his English. He said he was from a small town where all the children were taught in English. Things had improved there from when he was little. Now they have running water, electricity, a computer in there home, but still an outhouse.

I wonder if they still speak Swahili in East Africa.

Monday, July 4, 2016

Into the wild blue yonder

I dreamed of flying. It was a wonderful joyous dream that came to me repeatedly as a young adult. It was always the same. I was with a group of people I knew, either from work or my current friends and sometimes old friends. We were outside talking and for some reason one of them would remind me I could fly. I would remember, all of a sudden, how. I would flex some hidden muscle, concentrate and soar into the sky, flying over trees and landscapes with a joy that made me laugh out loud. I would always wake up about the time of my laugh, and for a few moments as I emerged from sleep, I would try to flex that hidden muscle that gave me the power to soar.

These dreams left me with a glow to the day from the residual joy of my flight. Then I had a different dream. It was more of a sample of a day in my life as a child, a memory of a hot summer evening at my childhood home on Highland Avenue in Dublin, GA. During the summer, when the heat was stifling, we kids had to play quiet games in the shade of porches or carports. If it was really hot we spent the day in unnatural stillness, building up a backlog of unspent energy. The dream was about the end of such a day when dusk came, we had all had dinner, and our parents walked out in the yards and the children of the block hit the street. My brother got on his bike to ride up the street and I ran after him. All the other kids ran too. We ran for the sheer joy of it back and forth up and down the block, a herd of screaming laughing kids. I felt the feeling of being 8 and running just for the joy of it, the release. I was flying.

After that dream I had the same after-glow as my flying dream, and then I realized that I had been able to fly after all. My father would swoop me up in his arms and lift me over his head. At the pool he would throw me up as high as he could. Swings, slides, races, chases, as a kid, I flew every day. It was only as I got older, too big to lift and too grown-up to run just to run, that I became anchored to the ground. I never had that flying dream again.

As an adult I flew many times, on planes and even a hot air balloon. There was one flight that was particularly memorable because of what almost happened. It was several years ago, after a long business trip. I was landing in Pittsburgh, something I had done hundreds and hundreds of time, on a crystal clear sunny day. Just in that moment when the wheels were down and I looked out the window at the runway, expecting the bump of touchdown, the engine revved up and we aborted the landing. We were going slow and flying really low. We didn’t seem to be picking up speed or height. I thought we may crash. The pilot was weaving his way between hills that were higher than the plane. I looked around thinking these may be the last people I will ever see. I looked back and met the eyes of a man, another road warrior. His eyes told me I was right, we were in trouble. The plane was completely silent. No one spoke. We all kept our eyes glued to the windows hoping to feel the plane rise. I remember thinking that some of us might survive because we are low and going slow. Then we felt the plane gain speed and with it altitude. We cleared the hills and went back up and around to land. The pilot came on the intercom, it had all taken about 2 long minutes. He said we had to avoid an object on the runway, but that all was well and we would land soon. It was a near thing.

Two nights ago I dreamed I died. The fuzzy part of the dream had to do with being in a plane that was crashing. I knew there were other people around me, but I only felt them there I couldn’t see them. I really couldn’t see the plane either. Unlike the near miss, I knew this was a hopeless situation. We were all falling, fast, toward a green ocean that was shining in the sun. For a second I thought of my death, and had a quick flash of all the people I would miss and who might miss me. My stomach began to clinch with a hint of fear. The I thought no, that’s not me. I was in the air above that beautiful ocean plunging toward it as it glowed in the sunlight. I started singing/screaming with the same sense of joy as when I was flying “Off we go, into the wild blue yonder”. It seemed the others around me joined in, “Flying high into the sun. If we live..”. Then I hit the green green water. It was like a shutter on a camera clicked. Just as I hit the water everything went silent and gray. I knew I was dead, but all I felt was peaceful and happy. It was not a nightmare. I think I hit the water because I don’t know the rest of the line of the song.

What does it mean when you actually dream that you die? What does it mean when you fly joyfully to your death? I have been puzzling over it. Maybe it is because the subject of death has come up too often lately. Maybe it is because the arc of my life is clearly over the apex. It could be because I don’t have the certainty of faith that comforts many of my friends. But I found comfort in my dream. We fly as children, in the joy we find in motion and the simple things in life. There is no reason to stop flying, each in our own way, as we move through all life’s stages. We can choose to be fearful or we can choose to be joyful. In my dream, I took the joy.

I called this blog the angle of repose after an engineering term meaning the maximum angle at which an object can rest on a slope without sliding down. I began it after I retired, and only a few months after the aborted landing.

My first post to this blog described my reasons for the name, and what it meant to me:

I read Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose a number of years ago, when I was working around a large number of engineers.  It was the first time I had heard of the concept and I was taken by the beauty and imagery of the term. The angle of repose, what a poetic engineer.   Why repose?  The word is such a rich one.  The Free Dictionary gives several definitions in the noun form of the word: resting; freedom from worry, peace of mind; calmness, tranquility.  The verb form takes the word a little further:  to lay down; to rest or relax; to lie dead.
As the object of this repose, I find retirement has taken me further from the slipping point than I had  been in a while.  There have been times when the angle was quite steep yet I felt solid, and others when only a slight elevation would have made me slip.  We are not engineered objects.  It is more  than friction and gravity that keeps us clinging to our spot.  This blog will follow my travels  as I navigate  the angles that I seek, and those that find me.”
I dreamed I died, I knew I was dying, and I chose to sing all the way to the end.

PS. The song I was singing is in the public domain and is now the official song of the Air Force. At the time it was written, in 1941, it was the Army Air Corp. I was singing part of the first verse:
         Off we go into the wild blue yonder,
         Climbing high into the sun
and part of the third:
         If you live to be a grey-haired wonder
Many versions of the full lyrics of the song are available on the internet.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Atticus' Mother

I have kept them in my life and heart for all these years, Scout, Jem, Dill, Calpurnia, and most of all Atticus. I read To Kill a Mockingbird when my world was changing and the people around me, the adults around me, were frightened and sometimes mean in their talk of the world, of race. Alabama and Mississippi were battlegrounds and the adults feared that Georgia was next. An avalanche of change, left me confused and afraid, and looking for answers that I did not find, because the adults were wrong.

When I read the book, I clung to Atticus. I longed to sit in his lap and get soothing answers to my questions that felt right, that matched what I thought the world would be. I wanted him to explain to me how anyone could kill little girls my age, and why they could be allowed to get away with it. I still find it comforting to read the book again or watch the movie. Gregory Peck will always be the voice I hear with Atticus' words

Harper Lee’s book, Go Set a Watchman, is not a new book and it is not a sequel. It is the parent of Mockingbird driven by the feelings that the massive changes in the south and in our country were creating in sons and daughters of the south. As a young woman in the 50’s Jean Louise faces the same conflict I felt as a young girl in the 60’s. This book helps me understand why Mockingbird rang so true to me. Jean Louise is not the narrator, but her voice drives the story. I understand why the editors pushed her to take the voice of Scout and write that story. Scout had the clarity that only a child can have, when the world is always black and white in every sense of the word. The Atticus that young Scout grew up with could never remain the perfect icon for an adult Jean Louise.

Initially I wanted to read Watchman just to hear the voices of my old friends again. But I was afraid, afraid I would lose the Atticus who had been my rock. I know the world is populated with generations of Atticus’ children, women and men too, who found comfort, guidance and hope from the man who lived in Scout’s words.  He is still there for Jean Louise, and like her, we all need to come to terms with Atticus as a human being. If only Gregory Peck could play the role again and give us the complexity that comes with living in the world and looking at the world through adult eyes.

Harper Lee has avoided interviews since 1964. She told Oprah Winfrey, at a luncheon, that everyone thought she was Scout, but she was really Boo. I think all the characters have a lot of Harper Lee in them. It is Harper Lee who gave birth to Atticus Finch, and you can see the beginnings of him in Watchman. I found myself just as lost in Jean Louise as I was in Scout, but for different reasons. Jean Louise brought back to me the emotions and uncertainty that I felt as I read Mockingbird for the first time. He is not filtered through the eyes of a child. Scout was not afraid when she faced the mob because her innocence kept her from knowing the danger and tamed the mob. Jean Louise does not have that innocence, but she still looks at her father as if he is perfect. Discovering he is not is the essence of this book.

There is nothing to fear in Watchman, Atticus lives. Understanding that this is fiction and that the form of Atticus was still evolving does not change the role he plays in Mockingbird. He remains a moral compass that will always be a part of who I am and who many of us have become. We have just had to grow up.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Dancing Elephants in Tan Kyi Taung Village

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Tan Kyi Taung Village and Salé

In the early morning the people around our mooring in Bagan woke up and began their day.

Brushing teeth, washing, fishing, and working the river. 

Beside our mooring were other boats, and rattan houses and shops on stilts that had been moved back as the water from the Irrawaddy recedes. We are at the end of the raining season and many houses that were moved away from the high water are now being moved back.

Our mooring line watcher removed the big line and we cast off and drifted past the other boats.

I watched from the rail as the many stupas and pagodas drifted past, some sparkling in the sun.

We stopped at Tan-Kyi-Taung Village and walked through the center of town (about 700 people), past homes and livestock.

We arrived at a pavilion, built for the elephant dance. The dance was clever, amusing and delightful. 

Two boys wore the costume, a hot and heavy job. There were several sets who took turns dancing and climbing and spinning like a circus elephant. The one in the back had to be strong to lift the front guy. Here is a short video of the dance:
 The musicians played with concentration.
 It was a joy to watch and the people of the village watched as well.

The village was small and we had left the vendors of Bagan behind for a completely un-commercial site. 

We returned to the boat for lunch and in the afternoon we had an on-board visit by a family who make rattan items.

The family was from the Myit Chei Village with a family name of U Seit. Their village is one hour from Tan-Kyi Taung Village.  
I bought several things and took a picture of the young woman who made the basket I bought. Today had been great so far.

In the afternoon we went to Salé, a prosperous village full of old colonial homes. As we arrived they were holding their pagoda festival, a school holiday when they parade and take gifts to buddha at their pagoda.

We saw their Pagoda parade, the children brought offerings and marched to the Pagoda or rode in buses with dancing on the roof and characters of bulls or creatures and dancing in the street. The town was big enough to have a police presence, and the police were rich enough to wear gold rings.

The British came to Salé because of oil and stayed there until 1942 when the Japanese came. The oil pipelines were destroyed during the war and only 1/3 of it has been replaced, but the people of Salé work the remaining oil fields and are relatively prosperous. 

Many live in the old colonial homes or have homes with non-dirt floors. Although Salé has more infrastructure that Tan Kyi Taung, it is still without most things we take for granted.
These plastic bags of water were hung on every house as required by the city. If they are not enough to put out a fire, then the house would be lost. 

There is a strong value on education in Salé. The children were out of school and being tutored by their teachers. 

We also stopped by a shop where they make cheroots, a Burmese cigar filled with tobacco and wood chips, said to be the first cigar, with fragrant smoke that repels mosquitos.

We walked past the monastery, stupas and pagodas. Talked to the children and young monks in training. Saw the people and the scenes of life in Burma.

As we approached the Irrawaddy we saw this man, with his cheroot, going for water.
Below the stern of our boat, as the day fades away is the colonial era landing, a massive British structure that gives me images of men in white suits and women constrained by Victorian fashions. This town is framed by the skeletons of its British past.

After dinner, although we were all tired, we saw the movie called The Lady the story of Aung San Suu Kyi, who is currently a member of parliament, but spent many years under house arrest after she won election as prime minister and was imprisoned by the military. She was freed in 2010, but can she lead the country, how much freedom is there, and does it make much difference outside of the cities? Her father General Aung San was assinated in 1947 as he was working for democracy and a united Burma. 

Mengalai Ba