Saturday, April 18, 2015

All dressed up for the 308th Birthday Party

...of Albuquerque.  The car dates from somewhere in the 1940s.

The city's Old Town was full of people enjoying the festivities which included Native American and Flamenco Dancers, music from all over and, of course, a car show.

Friday, April 17, 2015


Margaret has made great progress with the bow.  

I'm going to have to work hard to catch up with her.  I did some damage to my bow shoulder by shooting a bow that was a bit too heavy.  I got some lighter weight limbs for our take-down bow, but I need a week or two more before I start shooting again.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Albuquerque's Pride

The baby hippo was born on April 14, 2015.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Language Proficiency; Making the Right Moves

I have completed the second week of the Coursera on line linguistics course.  I am pleased to say that the course has already provided me with some answers to questions I have had about language acquisition and proficiency.  Of course, there also have been answers to questions which had not previously occurred to me.  The exercises in the fundamentals of phonetics, for instance, gave me some insights into how consonant and vowel formation actually takes place and how it can be systematically analysed.

In the end of the week wrap-up video the professor, Marc van Oostendorp, gave a glimpse into the course's demographics.  About 42,000 participants from 190 countries are now engaged in studying the basics of linguistics.  The email referring to participation mentioned that it would be revealed in the video what was the age of the youngest and oldest students.  I approached that revelation with some trepidation as there was a possibility that I might be the oldest.  In fact, while I am certainly located in the narrow right tail of the age distribution curve, the honor for oldest went to "Margaret", an eighty-year-old South African.  The youngest course participant turned out to be just fourteen years old and a resident of India.  It would be interesting to see more on the statistical profile of the student body; I'm sure the U. of Leiden will be paying close attention to those numbers.

Participation in the linguistics course has provided me with the opportunity to reflect on my own struggle to attain some proficiency in Spanish as a second language.  On the one hand, it is a little dispiriting to observe that a life-time of study and practice has not resulted in anything close to perfection.  At the same time, I am encouraged by the fact that I seem to have made some progress over the past couple of years.  I am reading more challenging books than I was comfortable with previously and I feel that my comprehension has improved.  It seems unlikely given the state of my memory that any improvement is due to vocabulary enhancement.  Rather, I would attribute my perceived gains more to some improvement in attention and engagement.

I have found that making a conscious effort to focus on the meaning of the text I am reading actually pays off.  I tested this idea recently by going to the UNM library and sitting down to read a short story by a writer who was new to me, Mercè Rodoreda.  While I did not have the crutch of the Kindle translation dictionary and did not consult a dictionary in book form, I was able to follow the story line without great difficulty just by taking my time to absorb the writer's intent.  Given those encouraging results I went on line and ordered a copy of the author's best-known novel, La Plaza Del Diamante.

At the other end of the spectrum from me is that fourteen-year-old Indian kid.  He is taking a college-level course taught in English, just one of several languages he speaks.  Those facts highlight the well-known capacity to absorb languages at an early age, which seems to atrophy as we get older.  Receptivity to language acquisition is likely based in part on pattern recognition capacity, and that may well extend to other areas of learning as well.  For instance, I am thinking of a news item I saw recently about the chess grandmaster, Sam Sevian, who attained his title at the age of thirteen.  As seems to have been the case with many other chess greats, Sevian was introduced to the game by his father before he was old enough to start school.  There may be a genetic component to Sevin's success in chess given his father's expertise in the game, but it also seems possible that missing that early opportunity to be exposed to the game could have closed the window on achieving the extraordinary potential which was initially available.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Ferrante x2

I wrote the following commentary about Elena Ferrante's novels and some additional thoughts about language in Italy and Spain while participating in a group of Spanish language enthusiasts which meets weekly at CNM in Albuquerque.  Scroll down the page for the Spanish version.


I am reading an Italian author, Elena Ferrante, and have just about finished the first in a series of books she wrote about the friendship of two women in Naples which began in the 1950s.  Ferrante's style and subject matter show some resemblance to the earlier work of Elsa Morante, and it turns out that Ferrante is an admirerer of that older writer, famous for her depictions of the rigors of life in post-war Italy.  With no fluency in Italian I have chosen to read the Italian authors in Spanish translation as that seems likely to be closer to the spirit of the originals than English versions.

Reading Ferrante at this time has given me the opportunity to think about the similarities and differences in the experiences of Italians and Spaniards in the war-time and post-war years regarding history, politics and linguistics.  Ferrante often refers in her writing to the use of the Neapolitan Dialect by her characters who are all members of struggling families of small business owners.  In the early post-war period, there was little access to educational opportunities for most Italians and many in Naples spoke only the local dialect and had great difficulty expressing themselves in standard Italian.  Today, with better access to education and wider media exposure, there are likely more Neapolitans who are comfortable in the national language of Italy, but the use of the popular dialect still continues to be of importance in daily life.  Unlike Spain, however, the historic linguistic diversity of Italy does not seem to have supported the development of robust regional nationalisms as is the case in Cataluna or in the Basque region.

Spain and Italy had somewhat parallel historic and political trajectories during the 1930s and 1940s and before, which accounts for some similaries in linguistic diversity.  The expression of that diversity, however, seems to have taken different paths toward the end of WWII.  Italy experienced a much more intrusive German influence during the war years than did Spain, but then that disappeared along with the dominance of the Fascists with the triumph of the Allies.  Democratic political forms were allowed room to develop in Italy along with a resurgence of leftist parties and some more wide-spread economic opportunities.  In Spain, the fascist dictatorship and economic stagnation dragged on for decades after WWII and included the active suppression of minority linguistic groups.  When the Falangists finally lost their grip on the county, ethnic and linguistic identities became rallying points for the development of regional nationalisms.  In Italy, by contrast, linguistic diversity seemed to survive more as an issue of economic class than as an indicator of political affiliation.  Ferrante indicates in her stories of Naples that Communits and Fascists lived side by side  and all spoke in the same Neapolitan dialect.

My knowledge of Mediterranean history is very shallow, so I am sure there are many errors and omissions in what I have written above about Italy and Spain.  I look forward to attempting to rectify my ignorance by further following the trail marked out by Ferrante, as well as delving into some actual historical narratives on these interesting subjects.


Estoy leyendo la autora italiana, Elena Ferrante, y casi he acabado con el primero de una serie de libros escrito por ella que trata de la amistad de dos mujeres en Nápoles que empezó en los años cincuenta.  El estilo literario y el contenido muestran una semblanza a la obra literaria anterior de Elsa Morante, y resulta que Ferrante es admiradora de aquella escritora mas madura, famosa por sus representaciones de los rigores de la vida en la Italia de la posguerra.  Sin fluidez en el idioma italiano, he elegido leer los autores italianos mediante las traducciones castellanas porque me parece probable que las versiones castellanas están mas cercas al espíritu original que las traducciones ingleses.

Leyendo Ferrante en este momento me ha dado la oportunidad de pensar en las similitudes y diferencias en las experiencias de los italianos y los españoles durante la Segunda Guerra y en los años de la posguerra en cuanto a la historia, la politica y la lingüística.  Ferrante a menudo se refiere en su escrito al uso del dialecto napolitano por los personajes de sus cuentos, todos miembros de familias quienes son propietarios de pequeñas empresas.  En los primeros años de la posguerra había poco acceso a las oportunidades educativas por la mayoría italiana y muchos napolitanos sólo hablaban el dialecto local y tuvieron gran dificultad para expresarse en italiano estándar.  Hoy día, con mejor acceso educativo y también a los medios de comunicación hay probablemente más napolitanos que se sienten cómodos en el idioma nacional de Italia.  Sin embargo, el empleo del dialecto popular sigue importante en la vida diaria.  A diferencia de España la diversidad lingüística histórica de Italia no ha impulsado nacionalismos regionales sólidos como es el caso en Cataluña o en el País Vasco.

España e Italia tuvieron trayectorias históricas y políticas tanto paralelas durante los años de 1930 hasta 1945 y antes, lo cual explica algunas similitudes en la diversidad lingüística.  La expresión de esta diversidad, sin embargo, parece haber tomado diferentes caminos hacia el final de la Segunda Guerra Mundial.  Italia experimentó una influencia alemana mucho más intruso durante los años de guerra que hizo España, pero después esa influencia desapareció junto con el dominio fascista y la llegada del triunfo aliado.  Las formas políticas democráticas se desarollaron en Italia después de la terminación de la guerra y los partidos izquierdistas ganaron terreno, mientras que mejoraba la situación económica con la ayuda del Marshall Plan.  En España, la dictadura fascista y el estancamiento económico se prolongaron durante décadas después de la Segunda Guerra Mundial y se incluyen la supresión activa de los grupos lingüísticos minoritarios.  Cuando los falangistas finalmente perdieron su control sobre el país, las identidades étnicas y lingüísticas se convirtieron en puntos de reunión para el desarrollo de los nacionalismos regionales.  En Italia, por el contrario, la diversidad lingüística parecía sobrevivir más como una cuestión de clase económica que como un indicador de la afiliación política.  Ferrante indica en sus historias de Nápoles que los comunistas y fascistas vivían lado a lado y todos hablaban en el mismo dialecto napolitano.

Mi conocimiento de la historia del mundo Mediterráneo es muy poco profundo, así que estoy seguro de que hay muchos errores y omisiones en lo que he escrito sobre Italia y España.  Espero rectificar mi ignorancia siguiendo el rastro marcado por Ferrante, y también consultando relatos históricos sobre estos temas interesantes.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Language, from Naples to the Rio Puerco

I have completed the first week's assignments for a Coursera on line class entitled "Miracles of Human Language: An Introduction to Linguistics".  The free course is sponsored by the University of Leiden in the Netherlands, and is taught by Marc van Oostendorp.  About 35,000 people are participating in the five-week course which is taught in English.  There are many who are students of linguistics and related disciplines and many are teachers.

The timing of the Coursera linguistics course was good for me as I have recently found myself pondering some issues of language which appeared in the course of my reading and later during a tour of some ancient ruins and a ghost town in the Rio Puerco Valley to the northwest of Albuquerque.

I finished reading a trilogy of novels about a week ago by the Italian author, Elena Ferrante, who writes about life in post-war Italy.  The main characters in the three books are two women who are life-long friends engaged in an epic struggle to survive poverty, violence and crushing social constraints in the city of Naples.  A surprising aspect of the story for me was the central role which the author gave to language in the development of her characters.  The community of small shop  owners from which the two women came are portrayed as using the Neapolitan Dialect almost exclusively in their daily life.  Differences in vocabulary, pronunciation and even grammar from standard Italian create difficult communication barriers for the characters, and a concerted effort to overcome those difficulties must be made by the two women to enable their success in the wider academic and business worlds.

Rio Puerco Watershed -

I described my participation in a tour of the Guadalupe Ruins and the near-by ghost town on the bank of the Rio Puerco in a previous post to this blog.  The interpretation of the village ruins was conducted by Nasario Garcia who had lived as a child with his extended family near the town.  I had an opportunity to ask him at the end of his presentation about the languages spoken in those days.  Not surprisingly, he said that in the far-flung small communities of the Rio Puerco Valley, only Spanish was spoken.  Garcia's first real exposure to English came only when he started attending primary school.  Garcia became the first college graduate in his immediate family, but achieving that goal was far from a certainty as he struggled in his first year an UNM to meet the school's language proficiency requirements. He went on from there to earn a PhD and to author over thirty books.  It was an extraordinary experience to hear Garcia recount that long journey as he stood in front of the crumbling adobe remnants of the village of Guadalupe.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015


One of the downsides of getting old is that any conversation with your contemporaries inevitably devolves into a protracted discussion about health issues.  Since I'm minimally sociable, I generally manage to limit my exposure to such encounters.  Others with a similar aversion and more sociability may need to start hanging out with a younger crowd.

So, let me tell you about my recent health crisis.

I offer in my defense the fact that no one is obligated to read any further.  Also, what I am going to explain along the way is that the ill health episode is really just the setting for an unexpected and more interesting experience.

I had a cold for about five days prior to our scheduled departure for Phoenix and a family reunion there.  I seemed to be on the road to recovery, so I did not really consider not making the drive east on I-40 to Flagstaff and south on 17 to Phoenix, which was uneventful.  Later, during the night of our arrival however, my condition took a sudden turn for the worse.  I could not stop coughing.  I had uncontrollable shaking which I managed to get under control with some Aleve, but I slept little.

At some point during the night I had something of a combination of a dream and an hallucination that seemed very real to me.  I saw an image of a rectangular silver or pewter plate that was pierced with an intricate design; it seemed to be hanging in space over a bubbling, magma-like surface.  The thin metal plate was trembling or vibrating and seemed to be held precariously in place somehow by my own will with great effort.  I seemed clearly to be engaged in an attempt to control the progression of my illness.

The image of the suspended metal plate faded away with no clear resolution.  I then became rather obsessed -- still in a semi-awake state -- with the nature or identity of the plate.  I had the idea that the plate with its intricate pierced design had a connection to a printing process.  It seemed that the name of the plate and the printing process was just beyond my grasp; I kept turning over the question in my mind, but got no closer to the answer.

When daylight arrived we called my daughter and she took us at my request to an urgent care clinic located not far from the little apartment we had rented close to central Phoenix.  I described my symptoms to the clerk and shortly afterward was seen by a young woman who could have been a doctor or a physician's assistant.  She briefly examined me, listening to my breathing sounds from fore and aft.  I was given a prescription for a penicillin-like drug and sent on my way.

We drove to a near-by Walgreens.  I waited in the car while Margaret and my daughter went in to get the script filled.  It was still very early in the day, but the Phoenix air was heating up quickly and I started to feel uncomfortable.  I recall a woman and her daughter arguing loudly in the car beside me.  I opened the door slightly to get more air.  My vision suddenly seemed to darken and I felt myself losing consciousness.

I'm told that I was found sitting strapped upright in the car.  My eyes were open, but I was unresponsive.  They thought momentarily that I might be dead.  My daughter drove us to the nearby emergency room of Saint Joseph's Hospital.  By the time we got there I was awake enough to stagger inside on my own and was able to answer some questions about my condition.  They weighed me, sat me in a wheelchair and wheeled me into an exam room.

I was put in a bed, hooked to an IV and had some blood drawn.  After hearing my list of symptoms the doctor ordered an x-ray of my lungs and a scan of my brain.  The results of the tests showed evidence of pneumonia and a possible blood infection.  The brain seemed unaffected.

The doctor was efficient and pleasant.  He managed to pronounce my name correctly on the first try, and explained he got it right because he was also Irish.  Not surprisingly, he said they would be keeping me in the hospital.

I remember that as I listened to the doctor explain his conclusions and the care plan I had no feeling at all of any discomfort though I had been given no medication at that point.  In fact, though I had no real idea about what the possible course of my illness might be, I was pervaded by an incongruous sense of complete serenity and well-being.  The presence of my wife and daughter and the brisk efficiency of the caregivers no doubt contributed to my mood at that moment.  I don't know if those facts fully explain my state of mind given the obvious uncertainties I faced.  It just seemed undeniable that I was somehow suspended in a time and place of great peace with no concern for ultimate outcomes.

I had three days in the hospital to think about my experience in the ER.  I was impatient to get out of the place in the end, but during the first day and a half much of that serenity I felt during the ER wait remained with me.  Because of my familiarity with Margaret's years of working in hospice settings, I was aware of the possibilities of coping effectively with anxiety and fear in life-threatening circumstances.  To personally experience such an event provided a much more profound conviction that my chances for a good death are really quite good.  Not that there is any hurry, of course.