Monday, December 30, 2019

Mother Tongue

From The New Yorker:
Oswaldo Vidal Martín always wears the same thing to court: a striped overshirt, its wide collar and cuffs woven with geometric patterns and flowers. His pants are cherry red, with white stripes. Martín is Guatemalan and works as a court interpreter, so clerks generally assume that he is there to translate for Spanish speakers. But any Guatemalan who sees his clothing, which is called traje típico, knows that Martín is indigenous. “My Spanish is more conversational,” Martín told me. “I still have some difficulties with it.” He interprets English for migrants who speak his mother tongue, a Mayan language called Mam...

Pedro Pablo Solares, a specialist in migration and a columnist for the Guatemalan newspaper Prensa Libre, travelled throughout the U.S. between 2010 and 2014, providing legal services to migrants. He found that the “immense majority” of Mayans were living in what he called ciudades espejo—mirror cities—where migrants from the same small towns in Guatemala have reconstituted communities in the U.S. “If you are a member of the Chuj community and that is your language, there are only fifty thousand people who speak that in the world. There’s only so many places you can go to find people who speak your language,” Solares told me. He described the migration patterns like flight routes: Q’anjob’al speakers from San Pedro Solomá go to Indiantown, Florida; Mam speakers from Tacaná go to Lynn, Massachusetts; Jakalteco speakers from Jacaltenango go to Jupiter, Florida.
Rachel Nolan, "A Translation Crisis at the Border" (January 6, 2020 issue)

Monday, December 23, 2019

Notes for a Commonplace Book (27): Lost Powers

Charles Dickens:
The air was filled with phantoms, wandering hither and thither in restless haste, and moaning as they went. Every one of them wore chains like Marley's Ghost; some few (they might be guilty governments) were linked together; none were free. Many had been personally known to Scrooge in their lives. He had been quite familiar with one old ghost in a white waistcoat, with a monstrous iron safe attached to its ankle, who cried piteously at being unable to assist a wretched woman with an infant, whom it saw below, upon a door-step. The misery with them all was, clearly, that they sought to interfere, for good, in human matters, and had lost the power for ever.

A Christmas Carol

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

From the Guardian

This brings us back to impeachment. The question it poses is not whether it will be the thing that drives Donald Trump from office or whether it will be an unalloyed political boon for Democrats or other progressive forces in the country. It won’t be any of these things. Instead, the issue raised by impeachment is whether America, at this stage in its history, has what it takes to stand up against the forces of tyranny – whether there is still a passion among its people, and enough vitality in its institutions, to defend the American ideal against an unprecedented assault.
Andrew Gawthorpe, "Impeachment won't force Trump out of office. But it matters for our republic." Guardian.

(Photograph: Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA)

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

The Wolf (Paul Bowles)

Last night's Jeopardy featured, of all things, a clue that referred to Paul Bowles's venomous short story "The Frozen Fields," which is one of the few pieces Bowles set in the US and which is also, in its twisted way, a Christmas story. Of course I had to pull it out today and read it again.

The story is set at a family gathering at a rural farmhouse somewhere in the northeast, presumably in the early decades of the twentieth century, and is told largely through the eyes of Donald, a boy of six who is visiting the farm along with his parents. Despite the Norman Rockwellish ambience, all isn't well; there are whispers of illicit goings-on, and Donald's father is a surly martinet who eventually precipitates a family crisis with a rude insinuation uttered during the course of Christmas dinner.

There's no love lost between father and son (the story almost certainly draws on Bowles's difficult relationship with his own father), and when Donald lies down to sleep in the farmhouse bedroom he lets his imagination run free:
On his way through the borderlands of sleep he had a fantasy. From the mountain behind the farm, running silently over the icy crust of the snow, leaping over the rocks and bushes, came a wolf. He was running toward the farm. When he got there he would look through the windows until he found the dining room where the grown-ups were sitting around the big table. Donald shuddered when he saw his eyes in the dark through the glass. And now, calculating every movement perfectly, the wolf sprang, smashing the panes, and seized Donald's father by the throat. In an instant, before anyone could move or cry out, he was gone again with his prey still between his jaws, his head turned sideways as he dragged the limp form swiftly over the surface of the snow.
So, in the end, this atypical Bowles story maybe isn't so atypical after all. It has the same sudden, pitiless violence of many of his North African tales, and the frozen fields of the rural US turn out to be just another kind of desert.

Sunday, December 08, 2019

Notebook: December Blue

Sunday afternoon. Close enough to shake a stick at to fifty years ago, in my lonely and melancholy youth, Joni Mitchell's Blue was the one record I could never listen to enough. Shut in behind dormroom doors, I played it over and over on a clunky portable hi-fi that was already a museum piece by the time I got hold of it. There was nothing unique in this; Blue was a very popular record, at least among the people I hung out with. Mitchell sang beautifully, in spite of whatever minor technical imperfections she might have had at that point in her development, she was beautiful to look at, but most important, nothing she did before or after, not even gems like Hejira (maybe her "masterpiece," overall), and certainly nothing anyone else was doing to that point, seemed to have the same emotional directness. Sparely produced, with just Mitchell's piano, dulcimer, and guitar and a scattering of contributions from other musicians, Blue seemed to suggest that art — whatever art it was you practiced — could, if wielded with honesty and passion, not to mention genius and dedication, cut through all the pretense and posturing and give a glimpse of how we might talk — or sing — to each other if just once we could drop the masks we all carry around with us, both the ones we show to others and the ones we show to the mirror. All an illusion, perhaps, but that's not how it felt at the time.

Anyway, today I got in the car and drove a few miles to a place I like to go hiking, and I brought along a newly-purchased copy of Blue on CD for the ride. I still have my original LP, but I don't really have a functioning turntable and I'm not a big fan of streaming, so this was actually the first time I'd heard the whole thing in many years. (How did I go so long without being able to listen to "A Case of You"? It's hard to figure.) And I have to say it sounded great, probably better than ever since, whatever the merits of the CD vs. vinyl argument, my car's music system is undoubtedly better than my old hi-fi was. And the emotional impact? Yes, it's still there.
Just before our love got lost you said
"I am as constant as a northern star"
And I said "Constantly in the darkness
Where's that at?
If you want me I'll be in the bar"

On the back of a cartoon coaster
In the blue TV screen light
I drew a map of Canada
— Oh, Canada —
With your face sketched on it twice
But enough of that. It was a seasonably cold but not uncomfortable December afternoon, the skies were partly cloudy, and I hiked for a couple of miles to an overlook I like to visit in the winter when the leaves don't obstruct the views of the nearby reservoir and the surrounding hills. As I neared the top I sensed movement in the sky ahead of me, and looking up I saw an enormous hawk — a red-tail, I think — settle at the top of a bare tree not far off. I switched on my camera but the angle and the light were bad, and before long the hawk leaned forward, leapt off the branch it was perched on, awkwardly bumped another nearby branch, and took flight, quickly disappearing in to the woods behind my shoulder. I finished climbing and sat on the bench that marks the summit for a while, then as I got up to leave I saw the hawk again, in flight above me, and with it a second hawk, probably its mate. The hawks wheeled above me, each in its own tight circle, in effortless command of their element, then gradually drifted further off and out of sight.

On the way home, having traveled several miles by now, I took a back road, and when I neared a small family cemetery adjacent to a horse farm I slowed, thinking it might be a good time and place to see something. Sure enough, as I pulled up, I saw another pair of hawks perched in a tree directly above the cemetery. I switched the camera on even before I opened the car door, but once again the angle was bad and the hawks were too wary. First one then the other took flight, making the same tight circles as the earlier pair, regarding me for a moment or two before likewise moving off.

After I got home, just at dusk, I looked out my kitchen window and saw yet another hawk perched in our peach tree — the one we haven't gotten a peach from in years because of our resident squirrels. This one we've come to think of as an old friend, as we see it in our yard almost every day, and the same or similar hawk has been visiting in the winter for years. It lingered only for a moment, then flew off.