My prose appears somewhat formal, but not uncomfortably stilted. My spelling is impeccable and my grammar is flawless. I can, to be sure, put a thought to paper and am often called upon to help others in their endeavors. Indeed, a friend used to rely upon my skills and asked that I “translate” his innovative ideas into comprehensible and cohesive sentences for his superiors at Chevron Research until he was rebuked for his “pompous” writing style. Yet, this style has served me well. Miss Berman, my 6th grade English teacher, would be proud as I expertly excise dangling participles and split infinitives, and remember never to use a preposition to end a sentence with. I pedantically adhere to the rules as I embrace a vocabulary augmented with terms taken from the bowels of Roget’s Thesaurus.
And although I remain fluent in several languages, I am careful not to brew the gemixte gumbo [example] endemic to those bi- and tri-lingual. One proud polyglot once boasted to me, “I speak 17 lankwiches and Hincklisch is ze bestest of zem all!” An exasperated Mark Twain once told of an American “who used to fly to a certain German word for relief when he could bear up under his aggravations no longer—the only word whose sound was sweet and precious to his ear and healing to his lacerated spirit. This was the word Damit. It was only the sound that helped him, not the meaning [“herewith” in English]; and so, at last, when he learned that the emphasis was not on the first syllable, his only stay and support was gone, and he faded away and died.”
I have neither died nor withered gracefully away, surely to your chagrin. Instead, I am in my element as I manipulate words to express thoughts and share these contortions with my hapless readers. Perplexed by this treatise, you now wonder why I have tormented you with my immodest commentary. Portentous as it may be, my style has been inflicted upon and welcomed by a new and appreciative audience which has just rewarded my efforts with the top score in my writing class at law school! (I just felt like bragging.)
No Language Barriers
“Americano! Americano!” Gesticulating wildly, the middle-aged woman announced my already conspicuous presence to all of the train passengers. They couldn’t miss me: At 125 pounds, I was the only “fat” round-eyed person dressed in shorts and tank-top amongst a bevy of petit and chicly-garbed Japanese commuters quietly conversing, reading newspapers, or discretely whispering into cell phones and minding their own business.
Having ascertained my name during a strenuous game of multilingual charades, my personal sponsor proclaimed, “Americano! Monica-san. Americano!” once more. Discomfited, I clung to the overhead strap and tried to shrink from view, but all eyes were upon me. And soon the chatter began. Comments were exchanged amongst my fellow passengers and then directed toward me. Questions came at me in rapid-fire fashion, lengthy discourse was engaged, suggestions were proffered, and always more questions. I had not a clue what was said in Japanese, but I returned the engaging smiles and answered without hesitation… in hurried English.
The conversation was lively and not in the least hindered by our mutual language barrier. As I was given helpful travel pointers with historic, geologic and geographic references, political commentary, and economic analysis, my guardian began to frantically rummage in her handbag. I watched as she juggled its contents in her hands, unhappy that she couldn’t find what she wanted. Hoping to distract her from her obvious distress, I pointed to her ring and mimed that I liked it. She accepted the compliment, took off the ring, presented it to me, and continued her frenzied search.
The train slowed as it approached the station. My anonymous benefactor reached deep within her purse and finally found her keys. She quickly removed her favorite talisman, pressed it into my hand which still held her ring, scampered off the train exclaiming “Americano!”, and disappeared into the night. Left amidst the crowd she had incited, I was gruffly shoved off the train two stops later. Perplexed by this sudden inhospitable behavior, I stood on the platform in some unfamiliar village and held tightly to the gifts given to me by the generous stranger. And when I looked back upon the departing train, I could see that all of the passengers were waving goodbye just before they settled back into silence. With relief, I realized this was my intended stop.Top
There's always a way
Significant but not insurmountable, I was handicapped by my ignorance of Chinese while travelling in China. I couldn’t get the hang of even the simplest words. Maybe because I am fluent in German and semi-fluent in French and Spanish and have always managed to pick up other languages quickly, including Italian, Portuguese, Dutch, Swedish, and Russian, I expected more of my linguistic skills. But in Beijing, I managed only one word and elicited smiles each time I uttered "ni-ha" (hello).
Nevertheless, I managed brilliantly (?) in sign language. Ever friendly and helpful, the locals had difficulty with non-verbal communications and so I was forced to live and die by the city map. I always knew where I was and where I wanted to go, so I just pointed and then looked stupid. Invariably a crowd would gather. The map would be turned around and around, over and over. The Chinese simply could not orient themselves graphically. More people would gather. The map would be passed around. A discussion would ensue: Everyone seemingly had a better idea. And then more people would assemble. Voices would rise as each person thought his way was the best way.
I was reminded of a time when Dad and I were lost in a Czech village. When we asked for directions, we were helpfully advised to “go left at the next corner; then take a right at the stoplight; go straight until the gas station and take a left…” “No, try this: make a U-turn here and go back to the junction; take a right; head for the…” “Wait a minute—this is better: Bear right where the road splits; go ¼ mile and turn left…” “No, that’s not correct either. You know, I just wouldn’t start from here!”
My Beijing guides never gave up in the same way. Inevitably they would elect an unofficial spokesperson who would give me detailed and proper directions… in rapid-fire Mandarin.Top
It's all Greek to me (or is it?)
Married first to me, then Joanne (a Vietnamese immigrant), and finally Emily (a Hong Kong native), Byron has been exposed to many languages. Yet, he has absorbed NONE. His mother was not surprised. She told me that Byron merely grunted until age 3 when frustrated during Thanksgiving that his non-verbal demands were ignored, he angrily shouted, “Will someone please pass the cranberry sauce?!”
Byron has kept everyone entertained with his fractured German, French, Vietnamese, and Chinese. Unable to make sense of these languages, he makes hilarious literal translations by sounding out foreign words in English. Byron’s son Brandon on the other hand can communicate with his mother in Mandarin and his grandparents in Cantonese. Byron is understandably proud. Hoping to hone the 2-year old’s skills during Emily’s recent absence, Byron quizzed Brandon. Pointing to his nose, Byron asked Bran to say it in Chinese. Byron was pleased. “Now say eye in Chinese.” “That’s great! Now say ear.” “Terrific!”
Byron couldn’t wait for Emily’s return to show off their genius son and beamed as he pointed to his eyes, nose, and ears, asking Brandon to recite the Chinese names. Bran did so flawlessly but his mother was unimpressed. Disappointed that she did not share his pride, Byron persevered. When father and son finally took a break, Emily inquired, “So what’s he saying? That’s not Chinese.”Top
The Sound of Music
The Viennese patois has a special lilt. It’s German with a musical incantation that sets it apart from sister dialects and lends a Mozartan note of sophistication. It’s truly enchanting!
I grew up in Austria in a small village atop an alpine peak. I lived in an old farmhouse—400 years old, to be precise—with no indoor plumbing and a big manure pile by the front door. I walked to school in the snow; 3 miles each way, uphill in both directions. Winter lasted 7 or 8 months each year. To some, my story evokes the romantic image of Heidi, epitomized by the jubilant Shirley Temple as she happily befriended a goat-herd. Others just chuckle indulgently and assume that I am telling ancestral tales. Alas! It was my unhappy reality. Yet I also have unparalleled memories for which I am truly grateful, including those of snowdrop blossoms growing hesitantly beside frozen blades of grass on the slopes of glacier-capped mountains. Nevertheless, for me that’s a picture that belongs on a postcard. I’ll take city living over alpine roughing any day!
Except when I visited Christine at her home in Beverly Hills. A long-time family friend, Christine hailed from Vienna and brought with her the classic allure of her dialect. I would visit just to hear her talk. Within minutes, we’d fall into German. Sometimes we’d switch back to English but more often than not, we’d slip deeper and deeper into the vernacular and soon enough I would be awash in childhood memories. And somehow, I never objected. As long as Christine accompanied me down memory lane, I remembered the quaint charm of a culture and a country that served as an unwanted host to this American abroad.Top
Sounds of Silence
“Hello darkness, my old friend…” These iconic lyrics, written by Paul Simon in early 1964, were intended to capture the emotional trauma felt by Americans in the aftermath of President Kennedy’s assassination. And although I’m not inspired by any tragic moment in history, I am taking the liberty of borrowing the phrase as well as taking poetic license to interpret the ballad’s lines to suit my own meaning. And fit they do!
“People talking without speaking.” Alas! I do plenty of talking but once again have laryngitis and so can readily be accused of not speaking. I respectfully ask my audience to turn up their hearing aids. Yet… “People hearing without listening.” “Hear my words that I might teach you.” I beg of my students. Indeed, I begin each session by admonishing them to listen well for I do not have the voice to repeat words unheard. My warning works to capture and hold everyone’s attention. It works so well that I’ve even thought about faking the laryngitis.
But there’s scarcely a need for that, given that I lose my voice often and for prolonged periods of time. The last bout began at year-end and lasted 14 days; hardly worthy of mention when compared to 47 days during the first quarter of 2008, 32 days in early 2007 and 67 (!) days mid-year, 44 days in late 2006, and so on. Yes, I catalog the onsets and duration in part to share with my physicians who have variously scoped, scraped and prodded my larynx, throat, and vocal cords without medical conclusion and partly because no one truly believes me when I refer to my condition as “the usual.” Considering that I’ve whispered for a total of 204 days in the past three years alone (or 19% of the time), I truly do not exaggerate when I claim the being voiceless is indeed the norm.
“Silence like a cancer grows.” Well, at least I know it’s not that. Actually, I don’t know that for sure. The experts have not issued an opinion. Perplexed, they have sent me home with orders to come back “the next time it happens.” (They never have to wait long.)
Where clients and students are often put out by my inability to project, certain individuals relish the calm and look forward to the next spell when I’m forced to be quiet. Mother on more than one occasion and with total exasperation has asked, “Don’t you ever shut up?” Not willingly. I suppose that each attack of laryngitis offers her respite.
Yet, mere inflammation of the larynx and chronic hoarseness will hardly keep me quiet. “I've come to talk with you again.” After all, I’m a teacher. In fact, a few days ago, I was scheduled to present a lecture on tax refunds—why you don’t want them—to a group of seniors. A tad worried that these already hearing impaired individuals would collectively tune me out, I needed an opening that would garner goodwill and entice my listeners to listen harder. So, I asked the mothers and grandmothers in the audience for sympathy and even suggested that I would happily and hungrily accept all offers of homemade chicken soup to cure my ails. And then I turned to the husbands in the audience and asked them to close their eyes, to imagine a sultry woman with long legs and high cheekbones, and to pretend that I was Lauren Bacall. I don’t sound sick; I sound sexy! Or, so I wanted them to believe as I “whispered in the sounds of silence.”Top
Giving a Speech
All-nighters. Do you remember them? In the good old days? Or, at least, in our younger days when we could stay up all night and actually feel good the next day? Typically, we hadn’t finished our term paper or had some sort of big exam to study for and had to work right up until the deadline, even if that meant hiding out in the library with our noses buried in books or pecking away at the typewriter and liberally applying white-out as our eyes became ever more bleary during the early morning hours. In my day—before the advent of Starbucks and Red Bull—we were jacked up on the natural adrenaline of youth. We stayed awake, always made the deadline, and were raring to go the next day.
Today, I can’t stay up past 10 PM—9 o’clock, really. I fall asleep in movies, theatres, and lectures. My head bobs, my neck is cramped; embarrassed, I awaken and shuffle in my seat and soon nod off again. Regretful that I missed the key plot point (again), I head home and to bed only to toss and turn throughout the night. I sleep in fits and starts, but never do I stay up. I can’t. It’s late!
Until last night. Tom hadn’t done his homework and was scheduled to give an in-class speech today. He wasn’t prepared. And so at 11 PM I chased him off to his desk, periodically peeking in to offer help. You’d think he had to prepare for a presentation to the joint chambers of Congress when, in fact, he merely had to talk about himself. For three minutes. (His first Speech 101 assignment.) And Tom’s a talker! Just like author Bill Bryson’s dad…
The problem with my dad was that he was a great talker… always a dangerous thing in a person who gets lost a lot. He would go into a café to ask the way to Great Fungus State Park and the next thing you knew he would be sitting down and having a cup of coffee and a chat with the proprietor or the proprietor would be taking him out back to show him the new septic tank or something. In the meantime the rest of us would have to sit in a quietly baking car, with nothing to do but sweat and wait and listlessly watch a pair of flies copulate on the dashboard. After a very long time my father would reappear, wiping crumbs from around his mouth… “Darnedest thing,” he would say… “Guy in there collects false teeth. He’s got over 700 sets down in his basement. He was so pleased to have someone to show them to that I just couldn’t say no. And then his wife insisted that I have a piece of blueberry pie and see the photographs from their daughter’s wedding…” By the time he finally returned… the flies on the dashboard would have a litter of infants.
And so it goes with Tom, except that Tom is also a collector and has amassed items of equal uselessness and distastefulness—no false teeth, but rusty motors, faulty screws, broken computer parts, and used paper towels. Don’t ask! Actually, do ask and Tom will be happy to tell you that the computer parts came from a dumpster at FOX Studios and that he inherited the frozen engine parts from his uncle’s old Model T. He’ll tell you that he needs the paper towels to wipe a surface clean so that he can sort the screws. He’ll tell you anything. In great detail. Any time. But give a speech? About himself?!
We were up until 2 AM. The homework got done—the deadline was met—and we finally went to bed. Tired, exhausted, and today I have a headache you can’t believe. No more all-nighters for me. (Not even half-nighters!)Top
Clear as Mud
IRC §751(c) defines unrealized receivables: “For purposes of this section and, sections 731, 732, and 741 (but not for purposes of section 736), such term also includes mining property (as defined in section 617 (f)(2)), stock in a DISC (as described in section 992 (a)), section 1245 property (as defined in section 1245 (a)(3)), stock in certain foreign corporations (as described in section 1248), section 1250 property (as defined in section 1250 (c)), farm land (as defined in section 1252 (a)), franchises, trademarks, or trade names (referred to in section 1253 (a)), and an oil, gas, or geothermal property (described in section 1254) but only to the extent of the amount which would be treated as gain to which section 617 (d)(1), 995 (c), 1245 (a), 1248 (a), 1250 (a), 1252 (a), 1253 (a), or 1254 (a) would apply if (at the time of the transaction described in this section or section 731, 732, or 741, as the case may be) such property had been sold by the partnership at its fair market value.”
A Florida ordinance aimed at reducing the amount of exposed flesh in nude dancing establishments attempted to define “buttocks” as “the area at the rear of the human body (sometimes referred to as the gluteus maximus) which lies between two imaginary lines running parallel to the ground when a person is standing, the first or top of such lines being one-half inch below the top of the vertical cleavage of the nates (i.e. the prominence formed by the muscles running from the back of the hip to the back of the leg) and the second or bottom line being one-half inch above the lowest point of the curvature of the fleshy protuberance (sometimes referred to as the gluteal fold), and between two imaginary lines, one on each side of the body (the outside lines) which outside lines are perpendicular to the ground and to the horizontal lines described above and which perpendicular outside lines pass through the outermost point(s) at which each nate meets the outer side of each leg. Notwithstanding the above, buttocks shall not include the leg, the hamstring muscle below the gluteal fold, the tensor fasciae latae muscle or any of the above-described portion of the human body that is between either the left inside perpendicular line and the left outside perpendicular line or the right inside perpendicular line and the right outside perpendicular line. For the purpose of the previous sentence the left inside perpendicular line shall be an imaginary line on the left side of the anus that is perpendicular to the ground and to the horizontal lines described above and that is one-third the distance from the anus to the left outside line, and the right inside perpendicular line shall be an imaginary line on the right side of the anus that is perpendicular to the ground and to the horizontal lines described above and that is one-third of the distance from the anus to the right outside line. (The above description can generally be described as covering one-third of the buttocks centered over the cleavage for the length of the cleavage.)”
Englishman Arthur Symonds criticized the verbosity of lawyers who might draft the following paragraph simply to say “I give you that orange”:
I give you all and singular, my estate and interest, right, title, claim and advantage of and in that orange, with all its rind, skin, juice, pulp and pips, and all right and advantage therein, with full power to bite, cut, suck, and otherwise eat the same, or give the same away as fully and effectually as I the said A.B. am now entitled to bite, cut, suck, or otherwise eat the same orange, or give the same away, with or without its rind, skin, juice, pulp, and pips, anything hereinbefore, or hereinafter, or in any other deed, or deeds, instrument or instruments of what nature or kind soever, to the contrary in any wise, notwithstanding.
Instructions for Form 2106-EZ explain the deductibility of unreimbursed employee business expenses: “An expense does not have to be required to be considered necessary.”
California felt the need to clearly define “hot dog” for purposes of enforcing sanitation standards for food vendors: Hot dog' means a whole, cured, cooked sausage that is skinless or stuffed in a casing that may be known as a frankfurter, frank, furter, wiener, red hot, Vienna, bologna, garlic bologna or knockwurst and that may be served in a bun or roll.Top
Naming Legislative Acts
CAN-SPAM = Controlling the Assault of Non-solicited Pornography and Marketing (2003)
FCSIA = Fostering Connection to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act ( 2008)
HERO = The Heroes Earned Retirement Opportunities Act (2006)
PETS = The Pets Evacuation and Transportation Standards Act (2006)
TRUIRJCA = The Tax Relief, Unemployment Insurance Reauthorization and Job Creation Act (2010)
SNIFF = Safe Notification and Information for Fragrances Act (2000)
USA Patriot Act = Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriated Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism (2001)Top
English is my second language. My first is German. Whether Dad hoped to prove that kids have unlimited abilities or Mom wanted me to have a marketable skill, my folks spoke only German with me. When my sister came along they added French, but spelled out words in Spanish when they had secrets. Others would always strain to guess where we were from. “Was willst Du essen?” “Laves tes mains!” “Aw Maw, ich habe mich schon gewaschen.” „Quiero mandar estos niños P-R-O-N-T-O. “
We learned English from our playmates and weren’t allowed to speak English at home. If we slipped up my folks would admonish us, “Sag es in deutsch!” even if we talked about school and tried to justify any linguistic faux pax by explaining that “it happened in English.” The rule changed when I moved to Europe and was allowed to speak only English at home. That discipline paid off and so today I am trilingually fluent.
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