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It May Not Be a Pancreas...

August 18

I was supposed to be in Taiwan by now, but circumstances have dictated otherwise. Typhoon Morakot, which has been a major tragedy for Taiwan (a problem which my wife has already donated some money), has made travel difficult, as has my teaching schedule. Tickets to and from Taiwan have been scarce and expensive, so the plan is for me to try to go there during Christmas Break instead. Meanwhile, my wife and step-daughter will go there on August 26 and stay there at least one month.

The United States of Vespucci

Last night I was driving home from my latest socialist session of helping my step-daughter renovate her home, paying for much of the project and doing things I know nothing about nor have any talent for, such as putting sticky wallpaper-stuff on the bottom of some cabinets, when I suddenly thought "Why The United States of America? Why not The United States of Vespucci?" Imagine how history would have been different had we called ourselves Vespuccians rather than Americans.

The name Amerigo Vespucci is a name from middle-school geography or some such, in case you weren't familiar with him. For me, thinking about him is a trip down memory lane, except that I looked him up on the internet, so now I know more about him than ever before. He was an Italian explorer and mapmaker for whom, somehow, two continents were named. Even stranger, two continents were named after his first name. On the other hand, he was one of the first Europeans to go west, first sailing to what is now known as South America in 1499, and made a second vayage in 1501. For those who are interested, here is a link with a short biography of Amerigo Vespucci -- http://geography.about.com/cs/historicalgeog/a/amerigo.htm. An internet search lists numerous descriptions of Vespucci's life.

As it turns out, a German dude who made up his own last name, Martin Waldseemuller, suggested that the newly "discovered" continent of South America be named after Vespucci's first name. Later, Waldseemuller changed his mind (probably preferring Waldseemuller instead), but by then, both North and South America were being called, well, America. I wonder what life in the United States of Waldseemuller would have been like. I also wonder why Waldseemuller -- which means "wood-lake-mill" in German -- chose to use Vespucci's first name, and how Amerigo became "America." Had he chosen Vespucci to scrawl across his map of South America, we would now presumably be living in The United States of Vespucci. That would give our continents a little more of an Italian tone, I should think. Perhaps we would be speaking Italian rather than English, and the predominant ethnicity would be Italian. I can't help but think that with a funky name such as Vespucci, perhaps we Vespuccians might not be in the political pickle we are in now. Perhaps we would be more humble, and not fancy ourselves benevolent rulers of the world, and bearers of freedom and democracy, our style, everywhere. Perhaps we would actually have learned to play nicely and cooperate with the peoples of other nations. I actually like the idea of thinking of myself as a Vespuccian.

I remember going to the Getty museum a few years ago, where there were various statues and portraits of Romans. I was surprised how much I looked like some of them, even though I am a garden variety Anglo-American. That made me think about how the Romans occupied Great Britain for many years. I am pretty sure some intermarriage between the Brits and the Italians took place then. The English language certainly incorporated many Latin words during that period. If we Anglos do carry some Italian genes as well, I seem to have gotten the Italian side of my family's genes. At times, people have asked me whether I am Italian. Other times, I am asked if I am Spanish. The rest of the time, people seem to think that I am Jewish, such as the old man who blamed "my people" a few years ago for taking over the United States and running all of its banks. When I was a kid, one of my friends said I looked like a New Yorker, which I guess he associated with Italians and Jews. Several times, people have said I look like Dustin Hoffman, who is Jewish. Nobody says I look like a pasty-faced Anglo guy. That pasty-faced description pretty much applies to the rest of my family. In any case, I personally would be pretty comfortable with an Italian-themed nation. But on the other hand, that might mean our President would be Silvio Berlusconi. Now, that's a scary thought! I love my Obama. Even my parents love Obama, and they are Republicans, or at least they used to be. I can proudly say "My mama's an Obama mama."

Still, I have to wonder about the little things which set a precedent, then become magnified in their consequences over time, such as the choice of a name. Wouldn't it have been more appropriate to call the United States, The United States of George, or The United States of Washington? After all, he was our first President. On second thought, I don't think George would be a good name for our nation. We just finished having a President named George who seemed to think he owned the whole nation. I think The United States of Washington would not be such a good idea, either. It contains too much of an idolatry theme, idolizing the so-called "father of our nation." One might also wonder, why not the United States of Columbus (or Columbia)? There is also the Spanish version of Columbus, which I saw somewhere is Colon. Somehow, I don't think that would make a good name for a continent, let along two of them. In any event, the problem with the whole idea of using the Columbus name is that Christopher Columbus was a dodo, who insisted throughout his life that the places he sailed to were in Asia. He was just having trouble deciding whether it was China or Japan he was visiting, despite the huge discrepancies between the information available to him about Asia, and what Columbus experienced.

Vespucci was apparently a person with a sharp mind, who was the first person to realize that what are now known as the American continents were previously unknown to the Europeans. At least Amerigo Vespucci deserves credit for that. He also wrote some letters about the native inhabitants of the continents now named after him, describing their culture including sexual, marriage and childbirth practices. His letters about the culture of the peoples he found on his voyages, became very popular in Europe, and as far as I can see, Vespucci treated them and other people humanely, unlike most early explorers such as Christopher Columbus. I even searched the internet for references to any possible brutality by Vespucci, and could not find any. Unlike other explorers, he was not a brutal seeker of riches and subjugator of other cultrues. Instead, Vespucci was more of an amateur anthropologist and naturalist, a true intellectual and explorer, and that is a good precedent that I can gladly accept. I think of myself as a humble Vespuccian, doing my best to make my own little spot in this big world a wonderful place, and hoping that good reverberates throughout the rest of the world.

August 14

It May Not Be a Pancreas...

My father is a retired physician who writes poetry on the side. (I write poetry on the side too, although not recently, and this is not a poetry site.) One time years ago, he told me about going to a poetry group, where certain people were trying to impress the group with their erudite language. He related that one man said "This is not a pancreas for society's ills." He actually meant to use the word panacea rather than pancreas. I guess he was in over his head. And since this is an anecdote, my father also said he heard someone say "antidote" instead of anecdote in one of the poetry meetings, much the way Archie Bunker used to misuse words in "All in the Family." These anecdotes made me think about how difficult and arbitrary communication is.

Comunication may be difficult, and language arbitrary, but it is creative, which offers great possibilities. When I thought of the pancreas saying, I thought perhaps I could extend it a bit. Here is what I came up with. "It may not be a pancreas for society's eels, but at least it sets a good president. And you know, it is important to have good presidents." It's important to have a good sense of humor, as well. One might even say that humor is an antidote (or is that "anecdote?") for many of our problems. That is something that people who try too hard to impress others seem to forget -- which makes it funny.

I have always liked to play with language in a humorous way. I am not unusual in that way. Humor can serve some very important purposes. For one thing, humor is pretty much how I get through my experiences at churches which I find objectionable. I plan to discuss this topic in more detail another time, but to stick to the language issue, here are some modifications I make to the hymns. A pastor whose church I used to go to once said he went to seminary with a guy who kept forgetting the words to the hymns, so he used to fit the word "watermelon" into whatever hymn they were singing, as much as possible. If that was good enough for a seminary student, I figured that would be good enough for me, except I don't actually sing the word "watermelon." Instead, I just think it, usually while thinking of eating big, juciy watermelons, especially during the summertime. Furthermore, since my wife is named Eunice, which easily substitutes for "Jesus," I replace the word "Jesus" with "Eunice." After all, I figure my dear wife deserves as much. Besides, I spend much more time with Eunice than I do with Jesus. Other times, I just replace the words in my mind with "Blah Blah Blah." When the song gets to the end of the line, and it is difficult to use another Blah, I just improvise. For example, the hymn might become "Blah Blah Blah Bleesus." So far, I have yet to be struck by lightning or smote by some dude named David. In fact, if anything, I am blessed. On a future date, I plan to provide some more specific examples of how to endure church if one is a non-believer. Just to make it clear, my wife is a believer, and she makes me go with her to church, a phenomenon which I suspect is far more common than most people realize. There are churches to which I would voluntarily go, just not the ones she chooses.

While I am writing about changing song lyrics, I should mention my reworking of popular song lyrics, as well. Sometimes, I have difficulty following the lyrics, so I make up my own. For example, here's some Red Hot Chili Peppers "Under the Mistletoe" -- it took me awhile to figure out that he was singing "under the bridge so tall." Sarah McLachlan sang something that sounded like "We've got 40 memories" to me. I wondered, why 40? Why not 39 or 41? Eventually, I realized that she was singing "Weep not for the memories." Some lyrics don't make sense to me, so I change them. For example, the Killers (who would choose that name? I guess it's cool to be a killer nowadays), become the Natural Causes, and they sing "Are they tumors, or are they cancer?" That makes far more sense than "Are we human, or are we dancers?" to me. Then there are always different takes on the classics, such as my "Lucy's eating pie with Simon." That certainly seems less harmful than taking LSD, which "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" was rumoured to be about.

Since my wife is Chinese, I am exposed to a great deal of Chinese language (Zhongguohua in Chinese). I have had an informal Chinese-language learning program going on for many years, in fact. If anything, I have learned how difficult to learn and arbitrary language can be through my efforts. Chinese, for example, is a series of one-syllable sounds, each represented by a different character. These sounds may be linked together into compound words, so the words themselves are not necessarily a single syllable, but each character in the written language represents one syllable. There are three further complications to the Chinese language. The first is that many of the sounds of Chinese are very different from those in English and therefore difficult for native English speakers to pronounce, distinguish, or translate into letter symbols. The second complication is that there are 4 different accents for each sound -- accents which are usually difficult for non-native Chinese speakers to distinguish, and probably difficult even for Chinese to distinguish when listening to someone who is speaking quickly. The third is that the same sound can be represented -- and usually is represented -- by numerous characters, each with a different meaning. These meanings usually are similar, but not identical, apparently offering insight into the evolution of the Chinese language. For example, the word "zhong" with no change in tone, as in the first syllable of Zhongguohua, can mean: 1. center or middle; 2. loyal, devoted or honest; 3. end or finish, or 4. bell. Since China is known as the middle kingdom (Zhongguo) in Chinese, I guess its citizens were known as loyal, devoted and honest until the end, and when the emperor's aid rang the bell, they came running. As a result, I have noticed that even Chinese people often have difficulty communicating with each other. A Chinese speaker often has to explain to another which of the various possible words with the same or similar pronunciation is being used. Given the complexity of Chinese language, I find it remarkable how well they do decode each others' meaning, in fact. At the same time, the complexity of Chinese language opens up many interesting possibilities, or at least, so I hear. Chinese language, in particular, often has double meanings, which makes for some interesting Chinese jokes, literature and poetry. For example, one Chinese show which my wife watches called "Go Go Genius" has a segment in which one person gives clues in English to another, who is supposed to identify some phrase. The clues given are enormously varied, often focusing on a single word within the phrase, and often seeming to have nothing to do with the phrase, but rather, with some other association or with the sound of the word rather than its meaning. Even with the clues, the player often has difficulty identifying the phrase.

With English, we have our own ways of playing with words. One of the ones that really bugs me is when cool young people use words that imply something bad when they really mean good -- as in, well, "that's bad," which really means that something is good, or "that's sick," which means something is great. Speaking of the band the Killers, there is the popular saying "That's a killer" as in "That's a killer hairdo," or whatever, as though the word "killler" has a good connotation. Next, I expect teenagers will be saying something like "whoa, you're atrocious!"(if they aren't already) to people of the opposite gender for which they are attracted. How well that will work is another matter. Of course, I am not that young, although I remain young at heart, but even when I was young, I was never cool and thought language such as that was stupid -- just as stupid as using double negatives, such as "I ain't got none." The interesting thing is that we usually manage to decode what is meant even when the opposite of what is meant is said, from the context. This includes sarcasm, which I have been known to engage in on numerous occasions.

As a rsluet of tehcinag pogsloychy celasss, I hvae aslo lneared of a tihcqneue in whcih the ltteers wthiin a wrod are scarmlebd. Dpetsie snilbmracg the ltetres, msot ppleoe hvae no porelbm usmarblnicg tehm and dcdoineg the minneag of the wrods. Our atibily to dodece mneannigs is rmekarblae. Howveer, it is iblinatvee taht smoeitems mutsdinersandgis ouccr. Yeah, I know there are some difficult ones in there. The point is, while this descrambling task makes reading more difficult, unlike computers, which must be programmed with the exact specifications for some task, we possess considerable cognitive flexibility which allows us to deal with the inexactness of language.

As long as language is going to be creative, me might as well have fun with it. The creative use of language is the great tool of the human race, a tool of great power, one which allows the evolution of culture. Language can be used to deceive and destroy, as well as to understand and create. Let us resolve to use it well to serve society and allow greater understanding among peoples.