ALCStudies Journal

Advanced Labor & Cultural Studies Web Site & Blog

Category Archives: Storytelling

On Volunteering at Quillette

Please see a new essay published by our Director of Outreach, Chuck Lanigan, at Quillette, titled Something for Nothing — the Importance of Mindful Volunteering . — DA

Tolkien’s Legacy

Please enjoy the following long-form piece by a member of the ALCStudies team. Happy holidays. — DA

J.R.R.Tolkien’s Legacy to the Modern World

Courtesy Tolkien Gateway (http://tolkiengateway.net)

The biopic of J.R.R. Tolkien released this past year1 reinforces the relevance of his life and work in our modern (or post-modern world). Tolkien conceived the creation of Middle Earth in The Hobbit, which he initially wrote for his children and published in1937. The final book of The Lord of the Rings followed in 1954. The film focuses less on Tolkien’s writing than his life, but gives insight into the evolution of his ideas.

Tolkien was caught up in the forces of industrialization and global conflict during his childhood and adolescence. In the second decade of the 20th century these culminated in a war devastating and profound. Rather than being a war to end all wars, the First World War, the 100th anniversary of whose end we observed recently, unleashed a conflagration of economic, technological and cultural forces that few understood then and which we fail to understand today at our peril. It raised the curtain on the carnage and brutality of the last century and the one in which we live now.

Tolkien and his boyhood comrades served in the trenches where artillery, high explosives, aerial warfare, gas and machine guns shredded bodies, maimed souls and devastated minds. The trauma the war and its aftermath inflicted on the soldiers and the populations on both sides led Sigmund Freud to question the value and prospects for western civilization.2 It is not too much to say that Tolkien and his companions, along with the populations of most of Europe, never knew what hit them. Their lives were divided forever by their experiences.

The comfort-loving hobbits encounter similar threats to their existence. The Lord of the Rings is set in the fictitious land of Middle Earth inspired by Tolkien’s study of Old English, Norse and Anglo Saxon myth and language. The Catholic-raised Tolkien claimed his story of the one ring was not an allegory, as opposed to his Oxford colleague C.S. Lewis’s Christian-influenced Narnia series. But given The Lord of the Rings’ mix of good, evil, ambition, sacrifice and loss, it’s hard not to see at least allegorical elements.

My two friends and I read the series starting when we were twelve, when it was popular on college campuses and in communes across the country. On the threshold of adolescence and just beginning to confront the complications and realities of the adult world, we were enthralled by the story populated by elves, wizards, dwarves, men, goblins, orcs and hobbits confronting dark forces beyond their understanding and control looming beyond the the Shire. While our other friends were playing cops and robbers and army (somehow still innocently in the Vietnam war era), we created our own fellowship, undertaking quests among the mountains of central Pennsylvania as our stand-in for Middle Earth while quoting passages and dialogue from the books,.3

Tolkien’s legacy resonates today in contemporary games such as Dungeons & Dragons, Peter Jackson’s film interpretation and in television shows such as Game of Thrones.4 Tolkien did not originate the archetypes and mythology these contain of course. From creation stories told around campfires to the Greek’s Odysseus to the Wizard of Oz, books and stories have always allowed us to escape or at least re-frame our experience to make it bearable through narrative. But long before film, television and web technology commodified the process, Tolkien tapped into a visceral desire among his readers to undertake heroic quests and inhabit a secondary world of their imagination.5 In our ostensibly civilized, rational, enlightened and data-driven age, the popularity of television shows such as Game of Thrones, online gaming sites, sword and sorcery graphic novels, films such as the Matrix and Bladerunner and fan fiction sites reflects a persistent yearning to connect to some human part of ourselves and transcend the world that often disappoints. Many of the people involved in developing and promoting the Internet came from the counterculture generation of the 1960s and 70s and were influenced by The Lord of the Rings.6 As our lives today seem ruled by obscure forces and impersonal algorithms, our souls threatened with being reduced to a series of data points solely for the profit of others, often hidden from us, it is perhaps useful to revisit the tale of the one ring again.

Steeped as he was in Edwardian education ranging from Greek and Roman classics to Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, it’s easy to think of an orphaned young Tolkien creating scenarios that allowed him to prevail against dark forces and vanquish his grief. The trauma of the trenches, the loss of his friends and a bucolic way of life, preceded by the loss of his parents confronted Tolkien with an almost unbearable reality. After 1914 the trauma was compounded tenfold. The world he had known was gone, along with childhood friends killed. His relationships with his friends and remaining family were immeasurably altered. It is a cliché by now to say that soldiers enduring combat have difficulty relating to others who don’t share their experience. But you don’t need to have an official diagnosis of PTSD (Shell Shock) to be affected by the constant stress of battle and witnessing your companions blown to bits.

Perhaps Tolkien and his surviving comrades felt in the aftermath, as Bilbo tells Frodo, their spirits ‘stretched ‘ like butter scraped over too much bread’. The Lord of the Rings (and before it the Hobbit, along with The Silmarillion) where forged in the smithy of Tolkien’s soul as an anodyne to his pain and confusion as a survivor of the 20th century’s opening apocalypse.

My two friends and I had no clue of this when we read the books in the early 1970s. While the generation ahead of us occupied themselves with the Vietnam War, accelerating changes in technology, the environment, the threat of nuclear annihilation, and opportunities provided by protests, drugs and sex, we found a more youthful and innocent escape from the anxieties of adolescence. We inhabited a world filled with swashbuckling heroes carrying swords such as as Aragorn, Boromir, Gimli, Legolas, and of course Gandalf, along with elvish queens and princesses such as Galadriel and Arwen. We could have found worse inspiration to counter the excesses and incipient narcissism around us. Many since have found solace in the books’ mix of Christian moralism, ancient mythology, and presentations of chivalry. Maybe that accounts for The Lord of the Rings’ persistent popularity as a best-seller.

In creating the tale of the Hobbit’s journey there and back again in the mythic Middle Earth, Tolkien undertook a personal journey to expunge the horrors of the war. This allowed him to live his life in England with a wife and family with a measure of peace and acceptance. Like the hobbits,Tolkien and his comrades were small, seemingly powerless beings caught up in events beyond their understanding that challenged their capacity to endure, let alone survive.

The story resonated with college students, professors and others in the 60s and 70s beset by rumors and realities of war, clashes between East and West, and threats of Armageddon. Tolkien’s tale of life in the Shire is filled with gardens, second breakfasts and parties. Their existence is interrupted by distant events that threaten the occupants’ bucolic way of life: a ring, a wizard, rumors of disquiet and revelation, forces and visions, machines and technology and the passing of an age.

Today in a reality increasingly of our own construction, our individual and collective fantasies provide an alternative to a world that daily challenges our capacity to understand or endure it. We seek refuge in our own private secondary worlds, spending time in social networks and in possession of smartphones and other technology that reflect a narrow slice of reality to suit our desires. These representations are not always benign. Many appeal to our herd instinct and need for reassurance in return for our uncritical allegiance to an organization, group or ideology.

We are caught between those who would unleash dark forces to control the world in their own image and the quest to preserve our humanity7. Perhaps we are more like Saruman, the foolish wizard, than Sauron, the manifestation of evil who seeks to bring all of Middle Earth under his thrall. Saruman possesses the craft and desire to rival his nemesis. But he falls prey to o’erweening ambition similar to the Greek’s hamartia.8 He becomes himself possessed by the will to power, drawn into Sauron’s circle and seduced.

One ring to rule them all, one ring to find them, One ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them.

In The Lord of the Rings good ultimately prevails. The ring is cast into the ancient fire of its origin. The old world passes away and a new world emerges through the combined efforts of former enemies — the peoples of Middle Earth. But as with Tolkien’s wartime experience, no one escapes unscathed. The one ring corrupts those who wear it9, testing the will of the most noble and brave. It causes the breaking of the Fellowship and the death of one of its members. Frodo, the protagonist, receives a permanent wound: The portion of a Morgul10 blade pierces his flesh and makes its way toward his heart. The wound would prove fatal to his soul except for the ministrations of Aragorn and the elf-queen Galadriel. The pain flares yearly on the anniversary of its receipt.

Far from being a book for children,The Lord of the Rings presents an adult tale of suffering, hope and redemption. People die and don’t return. Frodo, Bilbo Sam and the others don’t simply move on with the right therapy, medication and a positive attitude. They are permanently altered, even damaged, by their experiences. At the end of The Return of the King, the final book of the series, Frodo and Bilbo leave Middle Earth forever with Gandalf and the elves at the Gray Havens.

Whatever Tolkien’s original intent, The Lord of the Rings contains elements of allegory still relevant to our own age. The ring itself is being re-forged by those who would obey only the power of technology. Saruman has incorporated as a consultant, headquartered at his tower of Orthanc – offering his dark satanic mills and workforce of orcs, half-men and goblins for offshore manufacturing. The dark riders are abroad, sowing fear and distrust on social media. Each of us carries our own personal palantir which draws our gaze and through which we are gazed at by the unblinking eye of consumerism.11 Anyone who attempts to assert their agency and think critically about the world we are creating risks being labeled of subversive or malcontent.

The Lord of the Rings reminds us there are consequences to dedicating our efforts solely toward the unchecked machine of progress. We surrender our peril those small gardens of humanity where love and laughter flourish and are shared, where we are free to enjoy elevenses and birthday parties. It was a world Tolkien grew up in and enjoyed before war destroyed it. But of course that was just a fable. — CDL

# # #

1Tolkien, Fox Searchlight Pictures, 2019

2Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents, 1930

3Including naming specific geographic features of the terrain after those in the LOR, such as the Carrock.

4Often unacknowledged

5Tolkien wrote about the appeal of such secondary worlds and standards for their success or failure in his essay On Fairy Stories.

6Tim Berners-Lee, a co-developer of the ArpaNet and Stewart Brand, author of the Whole Earth Catalog and current promoter of trans-humanism, to name two.

7See David Noble’s, The Religion of Technology; The Divinity of Man and the Spirit of Invention, 1997

8Greek ἁμαρτία, from ἁμαρτάνειν hamartán, a fatal flaw leading to the downfall of a tragic hero or heroine.

9Even, significantly, those who would use its power for good.

10Signifying the black arts, sorcery or necromancy. (Tolkien Gateway).

11See Shoshana Zuboff’s Surveillance Capitalism ( “Big Other: Surveillance Capitalism and the Prospects of an Information Civilization.” Journal of Information Technology 30, no. 1 (March 2015)

Words & Pictures

There seems to be an overabundance of words recently: describing, explaining and inflaming our reactions to events from those in my previous home town to politics, to immigrants at the border.

Words seem to have lost their power to change anything. My own are no exception.

Emails, tweets, texts, blog entries, advertisements demand our attention this time of year and encourage us to buy and consume. We’ve all become desensitized to loquaciousness.

We send words out into the void, hoping for an intelligent reply, an acknowledgement from the common mass of men and women that we are not alone. Yet our own intimate conversations suffer. It’s obvious words have their limits. So I am drawing the birds in our garden.

Hummingbirds hover in the bamboo and sip nectar from the flowers. Doves land like B-52s and strut around like they own the place.

A pair of male and female gorriones (house sparrows) arrive each morning hopeful of finding breakfast if the doves haven’t eaten it all.

I stopped drawing and painting when I was younger, frustrated by a lack of skill and afraid of being a dilettante. The word dilettante is close to the more positive word amateur, with its root in the Latin amatore. You could do worse than to do a thing motivated by passion and love.

Drawing provides a different way of seeing. Cellphones allow us to collect images without looking, look without seeing. In our obsession with immediacy and sharing, we lose the interest and capacity for reflecting and appreciating the world around us in our own hearts and minds.

We all want to create and maintain an image of ourselves in the eyes of others. But our desire to be heard and noticed competes against all the other images and undifferentiated content, including cat videos.

At the same time our institutions seem increasingly in the hands of dilettantes, men and women who pursue politics, business, education and the arts serve mainly to fill their own hollowness; fulfilling an image but not the reality.

The Roman Empire fell because its citizens failed to create and support the substance beneath their institutions. Governing was given over to amateurs, or worse. The society maintained the image of civilization until reality intervened in the form of Goths, Vandals and internal corruption.

The Romans left behind wonderful sculptures, architecture, roads and aqueducts, and some not bad literature and theater. But ultimately their civilization failed to endure. – CDL

# # #

 

Tick, Tick

Labor Day has come and gone. the black bears along the Tangascootack are eating acorns like the lunch  crowd at the Bucktail.

The rattlesnake roundup went fine. No one got bit. By a snake anyway. No one asked the snakes their opinion of the event.


Ed Blezny retired in May from the Credit Union. He’s been sitting around all summer getting cabin fever, not quite sure what to do with himself. Over the weekend his wife suggested he take their dog Red over by the reservoir to blow some of the stink off both of them.

Loois acting as a stand-in.

It did him good. September in the central part of the state has brought cool mornings and hot, dry days. A few trees are beginning to turn on the ridges. Red looked for squirrels and chased chipmunks till Ed whistled.

On the way back they stopped at the Chat ‘n Choo at the old railroad station in Cross Fork for coffee. Earl and his cousin Troy were there. Troy’s niece Maxine was pouring the coffee. She’s a nice, smart kid with tattoos up to her ears and in places she won’t say. She’s working at the Chat n’ Choo for the summer with plans to go to Triangle Tech in October.

When Ed came in with Red, Troy looked at them.

Be careful he didn’t pick up a tick. They’re bad this year.

Ed said he would. He always checks Red’s ears, under his chin and neck.


There’s just a few ways you can remove a tick from a dog, or a human, for that matter. The first is you take yourself some kerosene from the local hardware. Dab the skin around the tick so it can’t breathe. When he backs out, grab him with some tweezers. Be sure not to break his head off beneath the skin.


Two, light a match and hold it near the skin where the tick is burrowed. When he wriggles backward, grab him with the tweezers.

Just don’t use the match with kerosene at the same time. You want to avoid canine combustion.

Maxine started talking about her Facebook page. She uses it to stay in touch with her friends, but she also uses it to post messages about politics. She’s an opinionated young lady and not a fan of the nation’s current leader.

Troy looked uncomfortable. Like most people in the region, he voted with the Republican Party. He thinks the world of Maxine, but isn’t quite sure how to take her. He’s also not too sure any longer about the current White House resident.

Earl is less shy about his opinion. He lost his job at the sheet metal fabrication plant two years ago. Then he lost his retirement benefits when the company got a buyout. He’s fed up with politics. He says, The way I see it it’s like you got a tick stuck between a dog’s shoulders. The harder you try to get at him, the harder he digs in.

He holds on, a suckin’ away at the dog’s lifeblood, getting fat. The madder you get, the fatter he gets, head jest a blowin’ up like a balloon. Folks would rather get mad than do anythin’. But don’t do to get mad at a tick: it’s his nature. He’s along for the ride as long as it’s comfortable. You can accommodate them for a while. But at some point you have to come to a parting of the ways.

Just don’t set the dog on fire. — CDL

###

Bon Voyage, Tony

I enjoy cooking. I find it creative and practical, and I’m not bad it it. I used to joke that I wanted Anthony Bourdain’s job. Now I guess that’s more of a possibility.

His death Friday from apparent suicide hit me. He was my age. I have the usual thoughts and questions:

  • He had such a cool job
  • He had a girlfriend and a young daughter
  • He traveled all the world, talked to people, ate with them, got paid for it
  • He kicked heroin

What the hell?

As a survivor of someone who committed suicide, over the past year I’ve reached out to friends, family, strangers, professionals and colleagues. I sought comfort, peace and reconnection. With important exceptions what I encountered disappointed me. Our get-ahead go-ahead society turns our thoughts, feelings, need for intimacy, friends and acquaintances into commodities to be bought, sold and easily discarded. (And thanks for capitalizing on that Facebook.) Most people I tried to connect with did not have time or patience for the grief, loss, nagging thoughts and memories I experienced and am still experiencing. You may have spent a week with someone or a lifetime, known them casually or intimately, said hello at the office or woke up in the same bed, who was enmeshed in so much pain, confusion and despair in their head (or body) that they decided to leave this world. As you struggle to comprehend, to move on, people you’ve known for years throw a few clichés at you. They tell you to see a therapist, ask if you’re on meds, and are gone. No time for conversation, tears, laughter or reminiscences or even a meal together. And sure as hell not serious questions.

I don’t know why Anthony Bourdain killed himself. We’ve created a world that pushes our buttons and makes us constantly doubt and feel afraid and anxious about whether we fit in and at the same time makes us feel isolated. That requires us to do crazy things and pretend to like it. Then, when we act out and feel bad, we sell ourselves services and products and meds and therapy. Nice little business you got going on there. Be a shame if anything happened to it.

I was told that people often don’t know what to say. Certainly this life (and death) can leave us at a loss for words. But people know what to say about plenty of other things, like politics or their sex lives (or other people’s sex lives if they don’t have one). My expectations are not high. Maybe I’m idealizing here (Thank you Big Chill), but give it a shot. Knock on the door of someone who’s experienced a loss like I and millions of others have. Take five minutes to give them a call. Invite them them to lunch or to take a walk or have a beer, or take a bicycle ride. And for the sake of whatever belief system you have, mention the name of the person they lost instead of pretending they never existed. Even if you’re afraid it might upset them (um, what, more?). Grow an anatomically-correct pair of ovaries or testicles. Or a heart. Dare to be brave. Don’t make them do all the work themselves in isolation, which helped create the mess we’re in in the first place.

I don’t know whether Anthony Bourdain was depressed (as if that explains anything) or narcissistic or had a personality disorder. I’ll leave the armchair therapizing to the self-appointed experts. To me cooking and enjoying good food and traveling and telling stories and getting people to share their stories and recipes around the world and having an ego does not mean you have a personality disorder. It means you contributed just a tiny part of the solution in this crazy mixed up world.

In my mind I imagine me and Tony drinking mojitos in Cuba and arguing baseball. Or sitting down in Istanbul for shish kebab or in Barcelona for tapas.

My sense from watching is that he could be a cranky son-of-a-bitch: standoffish, opinionated and garrulous. He also appeared witty, wry and self- deprecating, generous and kind. And to genuinely savor life. We could use more of that in the human species.

So for me now keep your tributes, your marches, your causes, your ribbons, your 1-800 suicide hotlines, your therapists on the clock, your platitudes and statistics, your by-the-book support groups, your medications that distance those of us left behind from our anguish and questions so we can work and buy groceries and feed the cat and ourselves and maybe our kids. Don’t ask me for money, or to write my congress-person.

Show up.

And I don’t want Anthony Bourdain’s job. I’ll skip the heroin, thanks. I think I would hate running a restaurant. But for a long while he seems to have recovered and turned it into a pretty good life and work. I want him back so i can continue watching him show us how it’s done.

Bon voyage, Tony. Buen provecho. – CDL

 

Our Stars, Ourselves

Nuestra Estrellas, Nosotros Mismos

‘The spirit of sect and bigotry has planted its hoof amid the stars .
H.D.Thoreau, Life Without Principle

‘The fault is not in our stars, Horatio, but in ourselves.
Hamlet, Act I scene 1

In January this year I spent an afternoon walking in Quito, the capitol of Ecuador. Near the cathedrals and shops of the colonial city, I came across the Observatorio Astronómico ( Astronomical Observatory). Completed in 1878, it’s a museum now. The entrance fee was ~5.00 usd, so I went in.

Coincidentally, I recently read American Eclipse by David Baron. I wasn’t sure at first the subject was my thing, but his storytelling is superb. And of course I like most any history of technology. Barron’s book tells the story of the 1878 race to capture a total solar eclipse in the western U.S. The event took place at the start of the gilded age, when the country became obsessed by wealth and figures such as Pittsburgh’s Andrew Carnegie and J..C Frick made their fortunes. The book mentions Samuel Langley of the Allegheny observatory.

A few weeks ago mi novia texted me that drug dealers from Columbia murdered three journalists kidnapped in Esmeralda province in her home country of Ecuador. She and I traveled through Esmeralda on the way to La Costa. It’s a lush green landscape, but poor.

It’s hard for me to ascribe any cosmic meaning to the fates of three journalists unless we address the causes of their deaths on earth. A year ago I couldn’t tell you why events in Ecuador would amount to a hill of beans for me. But looking up at the stars today makes the world seem a very small place. — CDL

Speaking of Facebook…

Three recent articles on technology. One takes a ‘Don’t worry, trust us’ approach. The other two  are more critical:

Victor Frankenstein Is the Real Monster (Ronald Bailey, Reason)

Uber’s Fatal Crash Raises Big Questions About Self-Driving Cars (Video, Wired)

Does My Algorithm Have a Mental-Health Problem? (Thomas T Tills , Aeon)

And should I be worried about the elevator that keeps closing on me? — CDL

The Troubadour & the Gypsy Princess

We live surrounded lately by dark made-up events, people and stories confabulations. I figured I might as well make up one of my own with some light.

The Fable of the Sleeping Troubadour & the Gypsy Princess1

A troubadour lived in a village long ago and far away. He made his way telling stories and singing in return for a meal and a bed for the night. Once he had a family, but something happened and he was alone.

He met other travelers in the village who told him of their adventures. For a night or two they shared songs and stories by the fire. They laughed and drank and entertained each other against the darkness and cold and loneliness. Then the other travelers went out into the world again, bidding each other to be safe and happy until next time, leaving him behind.

The troubadour was no longer young, but neither was he too old to dream. Everywhere he went he encountered ghosts and memories of his former life. Some of these he remembered fondly. Others were so sad he could barely stand to live with them. His friends and relatives told him, ‘Forget the past. Stop dwelling on your memories.’ They were part of his life that was gone. He wondered about the future and what would become of him.


The travelers he met in the village told the troubadour about a land to the south in the middle of the world where the sun shone and winter never came. The troubadour decided he wanted to see it. His friends and relatives warned him, ‘It’s dangerous. Stay here with us where it’s safe’. The troubadour answered, ‘You tell me me to forget sad memories and the past. Alright, I’m going to leave and make new ones.

The troubadour traveled through the jungle and saw strange beasts. He paddled through rivers and lagoons. He drank with local people and ate their food. They spoke a a language he didn’t know, but he laughed and talked with them anyway. They welcomed him. The head of one village offered the troubadour his daughter in marriage. ‘Stay here with us. You’ll have land. You can have many children and become rich.’ The troubadour considered the offer. He thanked the man and said, ‘I am a stranger and traveler in your lands. My settling down days are over.’
After many miles and many days the troubadour arrived at a great city in the land to the south where a gypsy princess lived. The gypsy princess had the face and spirit of a girl but was no longer young either. She had had lovers but never settled down. She enjoyed children, but had none of her own. As a maiden she went to distant lands on her own, carrying her harp and sword. She fought battles and suffered wounds and deep scars. Even those she trusted to care for her had hurt her. Maybe that’s why she left.

After many years she finally returned home to the city of her birth to rest. But she felt strange among her own family and friends. Her aging parents worried about her. ‘What will become of her? ‘There must be something wrong with me,’ the gypsy princess thought. Her family, friends country-men and women told her, ‘Who do you think you are? Why don’t you get married and settle down?” No one knew she was a gypsy princess. Or if they knew, they forgot to tell her.

When the troubadour arrived in the city of the gypsy princess, the journey had begun to make him feel anxious and afraid. He wasn’t sure traveling all that way had really been a good idea. He wanted to rest. Generally people were kind, but it tired him to constantly learn a new language and new ways. On his second day he came across a magnificent mansion. The people there gave him something to eat and a place to stay for the night. In return he sang a song and told a story about his home to the north. When he lay down to sleep, the troubadour didn’t wake up. His songs and stories were silent. His memories went away, both the happy and sad ones. He knew nothing that went on around him in the world any longer. His friends and family forgot about him as though he never existed. Thorns and thick vines grew up around the mansion. The people who owned it went away. What had once been a resplendent home filled with life and happiness appeared as a crumbling ruin to passersby .

Each morning the gypsy princess woke in the bed she had slept in as a girl. Her parents slept downstairs. Possessions of her childhood surrounded her. But now when she had nightmares, no one comforted her. Since her parents were getting older, she decided she would devote herself to caring for them. If that would be her life, so be it.

Sometimes she would take out her harp and sword and look at them. When she did her old wounds twinged. The sword bore the nicks and scars of her battles. The harp was tarnished and missing a string. She would carefully put them away and tell her parents she was leaving. Then she went out into the city to meet her friends. They would go to entertainments and talk about when they were younger. Many of them were married and had children. Her former suitors had gone on to make their own lives. Once she imagined marrying a star in one of the entertainments. When she saw her friends’ comfortable lives, her old scars and wounds bothered her even more. She grew angry and frightened of the busyness of life in the city, and the obliviousness of people. The streets were filled with noise and traffic and people with lives unlike her own. She felt unconnected, floating in the world.

On her walks the gypsy princess often passed a crumbling old mansion covered in vines and surrounded by cedron trees. It had once been owned by a local family. Some tragedy befell them and their home was abandoned. There was a beauty about it that intrigued her. She returned again and again. Sometimes she climbed the wall to get a better look and see what might be inside. But the vines and thorns were too thick to see more.

One evening she noticed dim light shining in one room of the mansion. The next evening she took her sword from the drawer. She lifted down her dusty harp from its place on the wall. She told her parents she was going out for a walk as usual. The streets of the city were quiet. The moon shone strongly through the leaves of the cedron trees. She went straight to the old crumbling mansion. With the harp slung over her shoulder, she lay the sword on top of the wall and hoisted herself up onto it. She peered through the dense foliage toward the window on the second floor where the light shone. Twisted trees with thorns filled the yard like beasts and dragons. Only one spot in the yard near the wall was clear. The gypsy princess leaped down and landed with a thud. Her knees bent and her feet hurt. Her old wounds pained her. She shook her curly red hair and gritted her teeth. She grabbed the sword from atop the wall and began hacking through the undergrowth. Her arm and shoulder found their rhythm. Though nicked and long disused, the blade retained its power to cut. The thorns drew blood from her fair skin. She raised her arm to shield her face. But the sword did its work. Branches fell to the ground beneath her feet. The night was silent except for crickets. The sounds of the city faded. She cleared a path until she stood outside the mansion wall covered in vines. She stood for a moment looking up at the window, then began to climb.

She turned her head to avoid branches hitting her in the face. She inhaled the scent of bird droppings. Her legs and arms shook. Finally she reached the second-floor window. She pulled herself over the windowsill and looked in. Through a gap in the heavy curtains the moonlight revealed a figure on a bed. It was a man. She could see that much. A graying beard covered his face. His arm lay across his face. He was sleeping. The glass was broken from one of the window panes. The gypsy princess reached in and undid the latch, swung the window open, and stepped inside.

The room was still and quiet. Dust and broken plaster covered the floor. As the gypsy princess approached the bed, the man’s chest rose and fell. His nose was straight and his lips full. Lines showed around his mouth, but his chin was strong. His hair, which at first appeared entirely gray, was mostly covered in plaster dust. The gypsy princess reached out to touch his sleeve, but he did not stir. She touched his hand. His skin was warm. She looked down, wondering what to do. Should she she let him slumber? She touched his face gently. She felt his beard with her fingers, touched his strong nose. He was not an apparition. He had flaws and imperfections on his skin, a scar on his cheek. A bit of dried saliva showed at the corner of his mouth. Some impulse made her touch his hair. When she brushed away the dust, gray showed there like frost. She leaned down and kissed his lips, feeling their warmth. She lay her head on his chest. Her heart beat twice to every one of his. She unslung the harp and began to play. Sound filled the room. The strings miraculously sounded notes as she plucked them with her fingers. Slowly at first and uncertainly she remembered a tune from her childhood. The stranger drew a deep breath, then another. His arm moved away from his face and he opened his eyes. A puzzled expression crossed his face.

I’ve been asleep.’

She didn’t understand his words as she continued to play.

He looked around the room, then at her. His eyes were blue in contrast to her own of warm hazel. He spoke again, and suddenly his words were as clear as water.

Yes,’ she answered. ‘I found you.’

You are beautiful,’ he said.

She shrugged. ‘I am a little strange.’

He shrugged. ‘And I am a lost stranger.’

The troubadour touched her face and smiled at her. The gypsy princess took his hand. It was warm and strong. The mansion was no longer derelict. Dust and plaster no longer lay on its floor. Birds sang and the smell of the cedron tree came through the open window. Outside darkness gave way to light.

They stood and embraced. The mansion became a cottage by the sea. And instead of being in the city filled with noise and confusion and worry, they found themselves in a village surrounded by friends. Outside waves rolled against the shore and the delicious smell of the ocean surrounded them. From that day forward the gypsy princess and the troubadour lived together surrounded by light and love and laughter. — CDL

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1For all gypsy princesses, hidden or otherwise, and one in particular.

 

Found in Translation

Riqui’s en Quito

I’m in touch with new friends in Ecuador through an application on my phone called WhatsApp. Their English is often far better than my Spanish. I’ve been using Google Translate to help me correspond. When I arrived in Ecuador for the first time in December last year, I knew barely a lick of the lingua franca. My mental phrase book was limited to Hola, Como esta? and Como se llama? I’ve learned a few more words and phrases since then, including some curse words and slang for communicating inspiration, frustration and desire.1

Technologies exist now that purport to remove the necessity for our ever having to learn a new language. A person from a local university showed me an app on her phone that allows her to hold it up to a person in a foreign country, ask them to speak into it, and receive an approximation of the corresponding phrases in her own idiom. While this eliminates the effort (and the fun) of learning a language, I’m not sure shoving your phone in someone’s face to hold a conversation will endear yourself to local residents.2

Douglas Hofstadter rips Google Translate a new one in the Atlantic. Hofstadter’s beef is that GT’s algorithms don’t understand the meaning behind what you are trying to say. Therefore, it can’t really replace a real human translator (and take his job). I find Google Translate useful. Of course GT doesn’t give a rat’s ass about what you are trying to say. I’m guessing it correlates words and phrases based on proximity and context against a history of similar words and phrases in a different language stored in it’s vast Google-ian deep-thought-like3 repository. The actual translation is likely based on probability and pattern recognition. That’s a guess. Anyone with more knowledge in this field feel free to correct me.

Artificial intelligence, natural language processing and machine learning have been around as concepts in business, academia, science fiction and prognostications of the future for years.4 The technology has gone from theory to practice and is finding its way into call centers, banking, medical transcription, and most usefully, assistive devices for the vision- and hearing-impaired and cognitively and physically disabled. It now allows us to look up phrases and get almost instantaneous pretty good okay-ish translations on the web that that give the gist and allows us to understand and be understood.

As Hofstadter points out, speaking and writing across cultures contains idiosyncratic and unique phrases and meaning.5 Even human translators find balancing nuances of meaning against accuracy and clarity challenging. Grammar checkers and thesauri included in word processing software reject work by writers such as Hemingway and (especially) James Joyce as ungrammatical and wrong. Machine-only translation often produces borderline gibberish.6

As a bit of assistive technology, GT has its place for helping those who sometimes want a quick and dirty7 way to communicate in a different language. Replacing real translation with this sort of tool makes us complacent and robs us of the worthwhile work and pleasure of finding and appreciating the beauties and subtleties of another language.

In the utilitarian bottom-line world we live in, too often we believe we have no other choice. The scary thing is when people start taking these pieces of technology as gospel and assuming they are the only game in town. – CDL

1 Which is one of the the main purposes language serves.

2Como dice ‘Vete a la mierda?’ This might kill the mood in more intimate circumstances, but who knows? People can get used to a lot.

3See Douglas Adams’ Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy (the original radio play, not the lame film).

4See Alan Turing (The Imitation Game) Charles Babbage’s Difference Engine, and work at universities in Pittsburgh in the 1980s.

5Which lend themselves to delightful wordplay.

6Mi amiga especial, who originally recommended Google Translate, told me over WhatApp, ‘It sounds like a robot’. She resorts to texting ‘GT, phone home.’ whenever the app fails her. Muy adorable.

7Sometimes literally. GT is very accommodating. If you put in the filthiest phrases you can think of, it’s a lot of fun. Try it with a friend.

Political Advice from Poets

Proto Surfer-Dude & Fellow Subversive

From 19th-Century American manly man and poet, Walt Whitman:

The genius of the United States is not best or most in its executives or legislatures, nor its ambassadors or authors or colleges or churches or parlors; nor even in its newspapers or inventors …  but always most in the common people … the air they have of persons who never knew how it felt to stand in the presence of their superiors… the terrible significance of their elections – the President’s taking off his hat to them them, not they to him…

– DA

 

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