Dictionaries

Because I am a writer and a linguist, I use dictionaries constantly. The most often consulted are those on my computer, the Merriam-Webster Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language and the Oxford English Dictionary, which runs to twenty volumes in its current hardcopy edition. Close by, I have hardcopy editions of the Merriam-Webster and, open on a stand near my desk, the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, one large volume. On my bookshelves and no longer in use are several other English-language dictionaries.

Then there are the foreign language dictionaries in the seven languages I’ve worked in. I have unabridged-size volumes for Spanish, Italian, French, and German, and smaller dictionaries in Latin, Vietnamese, and Chinese. Of these, the Chinese-English dictionaries are the most interesting because they arrange their entries by the 214 character radicals and by the number of strokes in both the radical and the phonetic components of the character.

Of all my dictionaries, my favorite is the Eugène Gouin Dictionnaire Vietnamien Chinois Français, that is, Dictionary of Vietnamese, Chinese, and French, an unabridged-size volume that offers the French and Chinese equivalents for Vietnamese words, published in 1957. It is almost 13 inches long, 10 inches wide, and 3 inches thick. I bought the Gouin in the early 1960s in Vietnam and in the 1970s, still in Vietnam, paid a bookshop to replace the flimsy original cover with a sturdy leather-covered backing which I have since had to reinforce with heavy masking tape. These days, the dictionary occupies an honored place on a maple bookstand in my office.

The only books that outnumber my dictionaries are my musical scores of operas, symphonies, and piano music that I have been collecting since I was a child. Nearby are tapes and CDs of the music I love, ranging from Bach through Mozart and Beethoven and the moderns. Then there are the books I have reviewed. As I look at the bookshelves surrounding my desk in my office, I can read my own history. Even the books I have written myself are there. An observer could learn a great deal about me just from looking at my books.

Scrubs

Back in my days of caring for AIDS patients (the mid- to late 1980s), I picked up the habit from other caregivers of wearing scrubs, the pajama-like clothing, consisting of a short-sleeved top and pants held in place by tie strings and no buttons. I had scrubs in a variety of blues and greens, ranging from pale to dark. Because I had a doctorate in public administration, other caregivers, as a prank, stole several of my scrub tops and had “Dr. Glenn” stitched above the breast pocket on the left. That meant I was constantly explaining that I was not a physician, much to the amusement of my fellow caregivers.

All these years later, I still have and wear regularly four or five sets of scrubs. They’re easy to jump into when I want to run to the local grocery for a bottle of milk. And they invariably fool people into thinking I’m a physician, scrubbed down for surgery (that’s where the name “scrubs” came from). I often get addressed as “doctor,” as if everyone knows of my advanced school degree.

The scrubs are only one way that my past catches up with me. I sometimes wear my Vietnam veteran pin. When I do, people so often thank me for my service. I guess you can’t escape your past. That’s fine with me—I’m proud of history of helping others.

Scheherazade (2)

Continuing Scheherazade’s story from yesterday:

“Against her father’s wishes, Scheherazade volunteered to marry the king. Once in the king’s chambers, Scheherazade asked if she might bid one last farewell to her beloved younger sister, Dunyazad, who had secretly been prepared to ask Scheherazade to tell a story during the long night. The king lay awake and listened with awe as Scheherazade told her first story. The night passed by, and Scheherazade stopped in the middle. The king asked her to finish, but Scheherazade said there was no time, as dawn was breaking. So the king spared her life for one day so she could finish the story the next night. The following night Scheherazade finished the story and then began a second, more exciting tale, which she again stopped halfway through at dawn. Again, the king spared her life for one more day so that she could finish the second story.

“Thus the king kept Scheherazade alive day by day, as he eagerly anticipated the conclusion of each previous night’s story. At the end of 1,001 nights, and 1,000 stories, Scheherazade finally told the king that she had no more tales to tell him. During the preceding 1,001 nights, however, the king had fallen in love with Scheherazade. He wisely spared her life permanently and made her his queen.”

As I read Scheherazade’s stories, I was mesmerized as much by the setting as I was by the twists and turns of the tales. Many years later, as an adult, I visited the area Scheherazade described. By then, I had already spent a good many years in East Asia and was accustomed to living in a culture different from my own. And yet, for all that, the fictional world of A Thousand and One Nights, devoid of poverty and the destruction of modern industrialization, remained fixed in my fantasy.

As a result, I, as a writer, learned the magic of creating a fictional place so compelling that readers believe it is real.

Scheherazade

One of the first long-playing (LP, 33 1⁄3 rpm) vinyl records I got as a teenager was Rimsky-Korsakov’s symphonic poem Scheherazade. The music, with its middle-eastern influences, captivated me. That led me to investigate the source of the Scheherazade story, the collection of tales called A Thousand and One Nights, also known as Arabian Nights. Here’s how Wikipedia describes the collection:

“The story goes that the monarch Shahryar, on discovering that his first wife was unfaithful to him, resolved to marry a new virgin every day and to have her beheaded the next morning before she could dishonour him. Eventually the vizier could find no more virgins of noble blood and offered his own daughter, Scheherazade, as the king’s next bride.

“Sir Richard Burton’s translation of The Nights, describes Scheherazade in this way:

“Scheherazade had perused the books, annals, and legends of preceding Kings, and the stories, examples, and instances of bygone men and things; indeed it was said that she had collected a thousand books of histories relating to antique races and departed rulers. She had perused the works of the poets and knew them by heart; she had studied philosophy and the sciences, arts, and accomplishments; and she was pleasant and polite, wise and witty, well read and well bred.”

More next time.

Waltzing Matilda

As a child, I had a small collection of 78-rpm records given to me by my parents. Among them were symphonic music and operas (including complete recordings of Aida and La Traviata). And then there was a recording of Marjorie Lawrence singing “Waltzing Matilda,” an Australian song called a “bush ballad.” I noticed that the song, despite its title, was not a waltz. It was in duple time (that is, either two-four or four-four time). It is so popular with Australians that it has been described as the country’s “unofficial national anthem.”

I was surprised when the song showed up again in my adult life—in Vietnam of all places. As part of my job collecting intelligence on the enemy, I worked with Australian troops and civilian intelligence specialists. One day, I heard them singing “Waltzing Matilda.” They were astonished when I joined them in the song and knew all the words, even though I didn’t understand what they meant.

I’ve since learned a great deal more about the song. According to Wikipedia, “The title was Australian slang for travelling on foot (waltzing) with one’s belongings in a ‘matilda’ (swag) slung over one’s back. The song narrates the story of an itinerant worker, or ‘swagman’, making a drink of billy tea at a bush camp and capturing a stray jumbuck (sheep) to eat. When the jumbuck’s owner, a squatter (landowner), and three troopers (mounted policemen) pursue the swagman for theft, he declares ‘You’ll never catch me alive!’ and commits suicide by drowning himself in a nearby billabong (watering hole), after which his ghost haunts the site.

“The original lyrics were written in 1895 by Australian poet Banjo Paterson, and were first published as sheet music in 1903. Extensive folklore surrounds the song and the process of its creation, to the extent that it has its own museum, the Waltzing Matilda Centre in Winton, in the Queensland outback, where Paterson wrote the lyrics. In 2012, to remind Australians of the song’s significance, Winton organised the inaugural Waltzing Matilda Day to be held on 6 April, the anniversary of its first performance.”

These days, when I hear “Waltzing Matilda,” I am reminded of the happy days I spent working with the Australians in Vietnam. We were brothers in arms.

School (3)

By the time my enlistment in the army was finished, I was comfortable in Vietnamese, Chinese, and French, the three languages of Vietnam. NSA hired me at a grade six steps higher than the normal starting level and immediately sent me to Vietnam. I spent more time there for the next thirteen years than I did in the U.S. and escaped under fire when Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese in April 1975.

During those years, I had no time for further schooling. But I made up for it during the next eight years. I enrolled at the George Washington University for graduate work in government and ended up taking a doctorate in Public Administration in 1983. I didn’t return to school for a degree; I went back to learn. I was admitted provisionally because my undergraduate grades were less than stellar, but I earned straight A’s all the way through and graduated with distinction. Turned out I wasn’t so dumb after all.

The study of government was new to me, and once again I was fascinated. This was a new kind of schooling for me, much of it grounded in both science and philosophy which forced me to think at levels I had never before attempted. I loved it.

I was to have one more bout with schooling before I called it quits. That was to study Spanish, the most commonly spoken foreign language in the U.S. which I, a linguist by trade competent in six foreign languages, had failed to learn. After I retired from the government, I went for classes to the Howard County Community College in Columbia, Maryland. Once again, I relished the time in class. But this time it was a new experience. I was the oldest class member. My fellow students were young enough to be my grandchildren.

Hence my schooling. And my thorough enjoyment of learning in the classroom. I can bear witness that school is neither necessarily boring or unpleasant. It can be a distinct pleasure.

Put differently: I’m here to bear witness to the joy of learning in the classroom.

School (2)

After I graduated from college, I enlisted in the army to go to the Army Language School (later called the Defense Language Institute or DLI) to learn Chinese, a language that had always fascinated me. The army, in its wisdom, decided that I should study Vietnamese, a language I had never heard of. This was, after all, 1958, and we called that part of the world French Indochina. So I spent the next year in intensive study (six hours a day in class plus two hours of private study each night, five days a week, for fifty-two weeks) of this mysterious language.

Despite my disappointment at not being able to study Chinese, I was surprised to find that Asian languages were fascinating. Because of my musical training, I had no trouble understanding and using Vietnamese tonal inflections. The whole way of thinking in Vietnamese was entirely different from the western languages I knew (Italian and French, which I had taught myself as a child; Latin throughout the four years of high school; and German which I had taken in college). I looked forward to my daily classes and took great pleasure in learning.

When I graduated from the language school, the army assigned me to the National Security Agency (NSA) at Fort Meade, Maryland. Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. wasn’t far away, so I enrolled in Chinese classes. I found spoken Chinese a good deal easier than Vietnamese, but the written language using characters was a new challenge. The Chinese spend their whole lives perfecting inscription of characters which is actually an art form. I spent countless hours practicing the writing of characters but never achieved anything past the apprentice level.

Once again, I enjoyed my Chinese classes to the hilt. And I came to understand that part of the reason I liked school so much was that learning invariably opened up new worlds to me.

More next time.

School

From all I can observe, it appears to me that we Americans on the whole dislike school. The conventional wisdom is that school is a bore, restricts freedom, and discourages innovation. My recent review of comics in the Washington Post, done to prepare for my blog post on the subject, brought home to me the popular perception that school is a drag.

Once again, I’m a nonconformist. Throughout my life, I have enjoyed school. In my early years, I didn’t do well in school due to my unfortunate home life (father in prison, mother drunk) which, among other things, sometimes led to few clothes to wear and not enough to eat. In those days, school was escape. I cherished my hours away from home at a place where people acted sane.

Because of my mediocre scholastic performance, my high school counselors advised me not to go to college—in their judgment, I wasn’t bright enough to make it. But I was determined to attend the University of California in Berkeley, a mere bus ride from my home in Oakland. As per expectations, I didn’t do well. I had accepted the opinion of my high school advisors that I wasn’t intelligent enough for college. Besides, while attending the university, I had to work twenty hours a week to feed and clothe myself. As a result, my college grades were second-rate, just good enough for me to graduate. I missed my graduation ceremony because I was in the university hospital with exhaustion.

Despite my less-than-desirable grades, I loved attending classes. My studies opened new worlds for me, taught me about things I didn’t even know existed, and deepened my understanding. In my attempt to escape my vocation (writing), I majored in music, one of the great loves of my life, and was in awe of everything I learned.

More next time.

The Comics

I’m an avid reader of both the daily comics and the Sunday comics in the Washington Post. I have my playful favorites, like “Peanuts,” and serious ones I always skip—“Mark Trail,” “Spiderman,” and “Judge Parker.” Over the years, two characteristics of the comics have stood out for me, the plebian use of the English language and a naïve view of the world.

The language used by comics characters is blunt, direct, and frugal. I often recommend it as a model for fiction writers who want to keep their text simple and straightforward. It is also very up-to-date. I regularly come across slang usages in the comics that are new to me. Only later do I hear them in common speech and occasionally read them in the press.

The perception of the world we live in reflected in the comics is essentially the same as I see in most of the people I know. I find it innocent and even childlike. Such a way of seeing life is only possible to those who have never witnessed violent death as occurs, for example, in combat. Those like me who have survived multiple conflicts on the battlefield have lost their innocence and accept a much darker perception of reality. And our memories of those horrific moments never fade.

So I turn every day to the comics for a few minutes of light-hearted innocence. They never fail me.

Vaccine Refusers

Some Americans are refusing to be vaccinated against covid-19. Among them are Republicans who believe that to be true to Donald Trump, they must claim, as he did, that the pandemic isn’t real and therefore oppose vaccination. Others are those who maintain that vaccine mandates violate their constitutional freedom of choice. Both arguments against vaccination are so obviously wrong and indefensible that I won’t waste time arguing against them.

Refusing vaccination is blatantly immoral. Vaccination not only protects the vaccinated against covid-19, it also protects those who come into contact with the vaccinated. Lest I harm others, therefore, I must be vaccinated.

Except for those who refuse vaccination for health reasons, I denounce the vaccination refusers. The U.S. has now suffered nearly 730,000 deaths from the pandemic. Any actions likely to increase that number deserve censure.