The Rules

I graduated from college nearly forty years ago.  So it was with a bit of trepidation that, late last month, I began a Saturday morning Spanish course at Sacramento City College.

Honestly, I thought it would be over before it began.  Even one four-credit course is costly, once you consider tuition, books, parking permit, supplies, and gasoline at $3.16 per gallon.  My hope was that perhaps my employer would pay for it.  Keep in mind that I work for the state government, where red tape is the name of the game.  I was surprised and grateful when I was able to obtain the proper signatures and the paperwork went through.  If I get through successfully, I plan to make the expense well worth the taxpayers’ while.  I hope that this will be the start of an adventure in the Spanish language that leads to certification, enabling me to assist with Spanish interpretation and translation whenever needed.  And I look forward to never again being flummoxed when I answer the phone at my desk and the voice at the other end begins to plaintively ask me for help en español.

I knew this wasn’t going to be easy.  For starters, I knew I’d be bidding adíos to lazy Saturday mornings sleeping late.  (Or “sleeping in,” as most people say in California.  I hate that phrase.  Is sleeping in an alternative to sleeping out, as in camping in the backyard?  Even after all these years in California, my first reaction upon hearing the phrase “sleeping in” is always “sleeping in what?”  My PJs?  My skivvies? Hmmm.)

More than hauling myself out of bed at 5:30 a.m. after a week of early rising for work, however, I couldn’t help but wonder what college is like in the new millennium.  I fully expected to see my fellow students arrive in class with their mini-laptops.  That doesn’t faze me.  While I am far removed from the Twitter and Snapchat generation, and lack the depth of tech savvy of my younger peers, I feel confident enough to hold my own in a Spanish class with my old school looseleaf notebook and hard copy textbook.  I planned to study, study, study to pull off that coveted A and make my employer proud.

Surely class participation, tests and homework couldn’t be that different than it was in the 1970s, right?  Pay attention in class, copy down what the professor writes on the board, memorize all the stuff you need to know for the tests — surely the rules haven’t changed that much even since my elementary school days.

Let’s just say that I was in for a bit of a surprise.

First, there was the syllabus presented by the professor on the first day of class.  It was 30 pages long.

One of the pages of the syllabus informs students that a loss of class participation points will result from any of the following in-class responses to questions from the professor:

  • I don’t have the textbook
  • I did not get that far.
  • I did not do that one.
  • Can I do a different one?
  • I did not understand the assignment.
  • The library did not have an available textbook copy.
  • Incoherent/unrelated/random answer.
  • Answers in English/failure to use Spanish.
  • “I don’t know.”
  • I am trying to connect to the eBook.

The last time I recall trying any of these was in sixth grade.  Why is the professor doing this?  Surely no one who has made it to college would stoop to such depths?  This professor must just be trying to show that she’s strict, I decided.  There are always some teachers who like to lay down the law on the first day, right?  Surely such grade school style micromanagement is unnecessary at this stage of education.

During the second class session, I was sadly disappointed.  Nearly every one of the excuses listed in the syllabus was uttered by someone in the class.  With twenty years of teaching experience, clearly this professor knew exactly what she was facing.

What really surprised me, however, was the list of rules I found posted on the wall when I sat down at a study carrel during the class break:

PANTHER PRIDE

Keep your voices down.

Do not sit on the tables.

No sharing chairs!  Only one person per chair.

Offensive language and bullying is unacceptable.

I was shocked that the college has to call out potty mouths and, um, bullies?  Like on an elementary school playground?  So, like, should I expect a fellow student to shake me down for my lunch money or kick me in the balls?  Whoops, I don’t think you can say “balls.”  Sounds like offensive language to me.  And, um, sharing chairs?  I don’t even want to know!

My junior high school was known as the Panthers, and the similarities are not lost on me.

Just when I thought I’d seen it all, fate conspired to play “Can you top this?” during Saturday’s class.  It was rather warm in the building, and the professor had kept the door propped open to allow air to circulate.  About halfway through class, a skinny young man strolled into the classroom and sat down two desks away from me.  He was wearing no shoes and no shirt.  Kenny Chesney notwithstanding, all of us immediately knew that there was indeed a problem.

“You’re not in this class,” the professor said calmly.  That’s when I noticed that the young man was holding his T-shirt.  It looked filthy.  His body began jerking and shaking as he struggled to put on the shirt.  “Yeah, I am,” he responded.  “I’m late.”

It was fairly obvious that this kid was tweaking.  When he finally got the shirt on, he jumped up out of his seat and ran out of the room.  The professor had to stop the class to call campus security.  I suppose we were all lucky that he didn’t have a weapon.

Welcome to college in 2018.

 

 

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Palabras Con Amigos

no es exit

I know the word “exit” is good in Spanish.  I have the proof:  Here it is on a Spanish sign in a restaurant!  Why won’t the Spanish version of Words With Friends accept it?

I’ve been playing Words With Friends on my phone for a couple of years now.  I usually have about a dozen games in progress at any given time.  Yes, I sneak in turns at work.  Yes, I check my games when I wake up in the middle of the night.  Yes, I play in the car on the way to work in the morning.

Alright, so I’m addicted.  Don’t judge.

Anyone know of a good 12-step group in northern California?

I play in very competitive rated Scrabble tournaments all over the west coast.  On some level, WWF (not the wrestlers) seems like a logical extension.  And yet, many of us Scrabbleheads won’t go near it.  Admittedly, it’s not for purists.  For what I assume must be copyright reasons, the values of many of the WWF tiles are different than those in Scrabble.  Plus, WWF accepts quite a few words that are not legal in Scrabble.  Words like FI and ZEN, for example.  And the “dirty words,” all perfectly acceptable in Scrabble, are no-gos in family-friendly WWF.  Well, except for shit.  I wonder how that one made it through?

Allow me to tell you about my current opponents.  In no particular order, they are:

  • A coworker from three jobs ago
  • A retired lady who used to work for me several years ago
  • One of my wife’s friends
  • A stranger named BigJo who has a Rottweiler avatar
  • Another stranger named 6Griffins
  • Someone named Daphne with whom I play in French
  • A woman named Mely from Argentina with whom I play in Spanish

So I play in three languages.  What’s it to ya?  You already knew I’m a strange one.

At least I speak French, unlike Nigel Richards, who won the Francophone Scrabble Championship in Belgium this year without understanding a word of français.  How is that possible?  He said he did it by memorizing the French Scrabble dictionary.  Go figure.

I didn’t say I speak French well.  But I can get by after having spent my teen years studying French in junior high and high school.  I even visited Paris once and found that I had no problem communicating at all.

Spanish, however, is another story entirely.  Not only do I not speak español, but I haven’t even imitated Nigel by memorizing the Spanish Scrabble dictionary.  Sure, I can order lunch in a Mexican restaurant (the poor employees try so hard not to laugh), I can ask where’s the bathroom and I once told a stranger soy perdido when I needed directions in Laredo, Texas.  I’ve gotten pretty good at reading the labels on cans in the grocery store, at least as far as distinguishing between proteína, grassa and carbohídrato.  I know some of the words to “La Bamba.”

This should give you a pretty good idea of just how very bad I am at my Spanish language WWF games.  One of my first problems was figuring out what to do with that maldito W.  That nasty little critter is worth 10 points in the Spanish game.  That’s because there aren’t any words in the language that use that letter.  Why should there be?  There is no “W” sound in Spanish.

Gradually, I discovered that the W can be used in Spanish to spell some international words that are pretty much the same in every language.  There is won (a monetary unit of Korea, or what does not happen to me at the end of any game played in Spanish) and there is watt (as in a unit of electricity, a thoroughfare here in Sacramento, or watt the hell am I doing playing in a language I don’t know?).  That’s about the sum total of my Spanish W knowledge.  All of my other attempts have bombed out.  I tried web (apparently, the word is la red), I tried war (it’s la guerra), I tried west (nope, it’s oueste).

Actually, that about sums up my strategy for playing Words With Friends in Spanish.  There are no “challenges” like there are in tournament Scrabble, so I can just try one combination of letters after another until I get lucky.  Throw it at the wall and see if it sticks, as they used to say back in the day.  If at first you don’t succeed, try again, try again, try again, grit your teeth, curse, hold yourself back from throwing the phone across the room because it cost $750 and you can’t afford to replace it.

Amazingly, I recently played my first bingo (play using all seven tiles in the rack) in Spanish WWF.  The word was melones.  Actually, I first tried an anagram, lemones, but then I remembered that the Spanish word for “lemon” is actually citrón.  No matter, I got my bonus points!

Of course, I finally got busted.  Mely, good sport as she is, tried to start a conversation with me over Zynga’s chat feature.  In Spanish, of course.  I was able to fake a few sentences before I had to sheepishly admit that no hablo español muy bien, soy gringo.

What really surprises me is that she still keeps playing with me, two Spanish games at a time.  I figured she’d stop at the end of our first few games, but nope, she keeps rematching me.  I guess I had it coming.  Serves me right for trying to be a big shot.

I’d better turn on the SAP function on the TV or start watching Univision or listen closely to the lyrics of all those unintelligible songs, replete with choruses of ¡ay, ay ay! that they pipe into Chevy’s Fresh Mex.

The ultimate irony is that I recently won my first game with Mel en español.

Su idioma es mi idioma.

Tomorrow on A Map of California:  Can a sane person support both Trump and Sanders?

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Babel

Reno sign

SPARKS, NEVADA

Virginia Street runs through the heart of downtown Reno, but no longer through its soul.

Where once a vibrant crossroads stood, partyers spilling out of casino doors onto the sidewalk, now only a shadow remains.  Alas, poor Yorick, I knew you well.

Sure, many of the casinos are still around:  Circus Circus, with its overhead skywalk to the Silver Legacy; the Cal-Neva, where my wife and her friends used to get 99 cent breakfasts; Fitzgerald’s.  But the Virginian is long gone, its abandoned facade grotesquely greeting visitors like an insect’s cast-off exoskeleton.

Saddest of all is the lack of people.  An old man in a wheelchair waits to cross the street; a woman wanders about in a glassy-eyed stupor.

But mostly the sidewalks are empty, the revelers of yesterday having moved on to greener pastures.  We creep down this once thriving artery, hitting every stoplight and gawking at what once was.  The pickup in front of us has a half-full bottle of water sitting on its bumper; the traffic moves so slowly that it remains upright and unjostled.

Past the federal and county courthouses, a few signs of life begin to appear.  A butcher shop features a large overhanging sign:  Walk-ins welcome.  There are tattoo parlors, vintage clothing boutiques, pawn shops, tiny convenience stores, Indian and Korean restaurants, fleabag motels with names like the 777 and the Lucky Strike.  But Zephyr Books, with its thousands upon thousands of eclectic volumes filling endless shelves and heaped upon tables, is gone.

Farther south, the urban vibe vanishes, as Virginia Street takes on a decidedly suburban cast.  Smallish shopping centers line both sides of the avenue:  Burlington Coat Factory, Kohl’s, Outback Steakhouse, Foley’s Irish Pub.  Wal-Mart.  A branch of the public library.  Border’s is gone, of course, but Barnes & Noble is still there, along with BJ’s Brewery, Olive Garden and the multiplex movie theaters.

Check-in time at our motel is 3 pm; we showed up at 3:05, hoping to settle in before heading out for the evening.  When I provided our reservation information to the desk clerk, she seemed perplexed.  She wasn’t sure whether our room was ready yet.  Over a crackly walkie-talkie, she asked the housekeeper whether 127 had been cleaned yet.  An unintelligible squawk issued in reply.  The clerk looked at me sheepishly.  “She doesn’t speak English and I don’t speak Spanish, ” she ruefully admitted.

I realized that I would have to help her.  “Just say ‘Cien veinte-siete, ¿esta propio?'” I coached her.  Ignoring me, she tried again in English.  She took the return crackle as a “yes” and proceeded to check me in.

What is wrong with this picture?  I have always believed that the barriers we throw up between each other block the empathy that is the essence of humankindness.  But have we really descended to this?  Have we reached the nadir at which employees are unable to understand each other sufficiently to perform the jobs for which they were hired?

Like the desk clerk at our motel, I don’t speak Spanish.  With the encouragement of my mother, I studied French throughout junior high and high school.  This was back in the 1970s, when Spanish was widely pegged as the “easy” language, suitable for study only by business track students.  The college bound were expected to study French or German, the languages of academia.  Also, I grew up in New York, where the vast migrations from Latin America hadn’t yet made the kind of impact that they have today in California.

And yet, as a resident of my adopted Golden State, I have made it a point, in middle age, to pick up enough Spanish to at least be able to ask “Where’s the bathroom?” or “What’s the price?” or, I don’t know, perhaps “Is room 127 clean yet?”  What kind of world do we live in when we can no longer communicate our most basic needs or even say, “Good morning, how are you?”

At a Scrabble tournament a couple of years ago, a good friend of mine bemoaned the fact that he was unable to communicate to the Spanish-speaking housekeeper that the public rest room was out of toilet paper.  “Papel hygiénico,” I coached him.  But he was clearly uninterested in even trying.  What little Spanish vocabulary and nonexistent Spanish grammar that I can lay claim to, at least I know how to say “toilet paper,” for heaven’s sake!

I hear so much talk these days about how immigrants to the United States should learn to speak English.  Perhaps so, but shouldn’t we meet them halfway?  Wouldn’t it be a kind gesture to at least learn enough Spanish to make our neighbors feel that we are making an effort?

After watching the Olympics for the past two weeks, I couldn’t help but notice that athletes from the four corners of the world speak excellent English, while their native tongues remain shrouded in mystery to Americans.

So here in Nevada, we stopped at a convenience store to fill up our gas tank a couple of nights ago.  It quickly became apparent that the clerk spoke very little English.  I’m sure that a little Hindi, Tamil or Pashto would have come in handy.  Lacking any knowledge of these languages, we were still able to get across the message that we wanted the clerk to turn on Pump #1 so we could fill up.

Or so we thought.  Although I pumped more than $30 of petrol into our vehicle, the clerk handed us a debit card receipt reflecting only ten dollars.  Despite our arguments to the contrary, he insisted that it was correct.

When we later checked our debit card statement, we found the $30 charge on there.  Along with the mysterious $10 charge from the clerk’s receipt.  When we returned to complain, we were told that no manager would be available until Monday.  In the end, I’m sure we’ll have to work it out with the bank.

Welcome to Reno, Tower of Babel.