The Law of Attraction on Metro-North

About once a month somebody starts a conversation with me on the train. I don’t go looking for these exchanges, but I must emit electromechanical impulses that pull the lonely talkers toward me. Call it the Law of Attraction on the Harlem Line. I never completely ignore the talkers since I’m curious about where the conversations will go. While some get a polite murmur or two as I keep my nose in a book, I avidly engage others when I sense a common ground. Sometimes I’ll even start the conversation if the person is reading a book I’ve enjoyed or is wearing some obviously orange-and-black Princeton attire. Usually I do more listening than talking, knowing that, one way or another, I’ll exit the train an hour after it leaves Grand Central Terminal.

Two talkers grabbed me in the past week, both times on the way home from New York. The first time, I was sitting in facing seats, with two visiting tourists laden with bags across from me. I sat down after they moved some bags. Then a man got on at 125th Street and offered to move the remaining bags to sit down. The women didn’t understand English and couldn’t tell what he wanted.

“Ok, I’ll go stand out in the vestibule,” he said with a belligerent edge in his voice. Finally they saw the point and he moved the bags to an overhead rack. I was deep into reading the book “The Beautiful Bureaucrat,” and put out now conversational vibes. I did notice the man didn’t have a backpack or briefcase, just a cell phone and a tablet. He made some calls, either to family members or business related. We sat knee to knee but I studiously avoided interacting with him.

The train moved along and he started talking about how lousy the train system was. “The German and the Japanese, after the war, got the latest technology. We’re still using train technology from the 1840s,” he groused.

“I think the Germans and the Japanese paid a pretty high price to get that technology,” I said.

“If we had the $7 trillion we spent in the Middle East we could rebuild the infrastructure.” He sounded like a man on the edge, needing only one comment cross-ways from his world view to push him in a direction I didn’t want to see. I gave fewer and fewer details to questions about my family or work.

Then he began griping about real estate prices, how he had lost a lot of the value of the home he bought in Westchester. I said I wasn’t aware of that since I didn’t own any real estate. I really began to back away when he said people weren’t moving to communities in our area because the public schools were becoming, shall we say, more diverse, and guys like him had to send their kids to private schools even as their property values tanked.

He finally got the point I was trying to avoid him. “I’m sorry, you’re reading,” he said. I relaxed for a stop, then he started in again. I feared he was getting off at the same station I was, but he left a few stops before, to my relief.

Saturday night, I was coming home after seeing the play “A View From the Bridge” by Arthur Miller. My favorite newstand at Grand Central happened to have the Jewish Press,the voice of Orthodox and black-hat Brooklyn, and I buy the paper when I can find it; the newstand veers in and out of stocking it. I snapped up a copy and settled in to browse the paper, which is now far thicker than the venerable Village Voice, another publication I’ve read since I moved to New York in 1980.

I’ll admit I liked to display the Jewish Press to see if anybody notices it. Not only am I one of the rare souls on the train reading a print publication, but I was reading one a little different from, say, the New York Times Magazine or The New Yorker. For some people, the Jewish Press may be a provocative as American Rifleman.

Sure enough, before the train left Grand Central, an elderly woman across the aisle asked me where I got the paper. I said my favorite newstand happened to have it, so I bought it.

“Is is Orthodox leaning?” she asked.

I pondered my answer. “It IS Orthodox, and moves out from there,” I said. “You’re not going to find any Conservative or Reform or Reconstructionist tendencies in the Jewish Press.”

I said I have subscribed to the Forward newspaper since it began publishing an English edition in 1991, and she was interested in also subscribing, but didn’t know who to contact. She lacked a computer and didn’t know how to proceed. I looked up the subscription number on my phone and jotted it down on the Press’ front page — and told her I’d give her the Press when she was leaving the train.

The talk went in a political direction. First she asked what I thought about the death of Justice Scalia, and I told her the vicious comments about his passing saddened me. She felt his positions went against Jewish values and she had no problem with his death. For the election, she was a strong Hillary Clinton supporter. I wondered how she would react if I declared, “Hillary doesn’t belong in the White House, she belongs in the Big House!” but that would have been unfairly provocative and cruel. As with the earlier conversation, I simply let her talk.

“Do you like Bibi?” she asked, referring to Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.

“He’s the right man for the time,” I said, and we moved into Israeli politics, where her views surprised me. Besides liking Netanyahu, she also was a huge fan of Ariel Sharon. I would have never suspected. Then again, she had lived in Israel and had experienced the country first-hand.

We talked more about family issues, dating, and she asked about my Significant Other, knitting and listening to a podcast beside me. We exchanged business cards in case topics of mutual interest arose, She asked me to keep an eye out for a not-tall cultured single man who was looking for a similar New York Times-reading woman. I made a pitch for my dating book, so we both used our chat as a sales opportunity.

Her stop came and she left, Jewish Press in hand. I’m glad we engaged.  I’m looking forward to the next encounter that the Law of Attraction throws at me.

 

Synchronicity, Cubed; Or, the Greatest Blog Post Never Completed

[I started to write this almost three years ago and I had a brilliant topic in mind. Then I got distracted and completely forgot what I was going to write about. But here it is, in all its frustrating glory. Maybe lightning will strike again and I’ll take better notes.]

When a phrase or concept appears twice in unrelated contexts, that’s notable. Twice, it’s proof of intelligent design in the universe. Three times, and I need to write a blog post about it.

I had the brain-tickling but unnerving triplet of coincidences lately. I always pay attention to these connections because they happen so rarely.

Let Me Have a Euro-Word With You

As a language buff (or dilettante), I found the book Lingo: A Language Spotter’s Guide to Europe riveting. Author Gaston Dorren covers a lof ground in 60 chapters organized into nine parts. I can pay this book the highest compliment: it made me stop and think about languages, including my own, those I have tried to learn, and those I hadn’t heard of it. His book is best enjoyed as a feast of individual items, selected according to a reader’s interest, rather than a single integrated explanation of linguistic issues.

Dorren ranges across the history of obscure and major languages, and how they survived and struggled. He stops in Iceland to consider a language that’s mostly unchanged over the last thousand years, makes a pit stop at Esperanto and ponders the number of ways the language of the Samis, better known as the Lapps, refers to the concept of “snow.” After a while my head started spinning, especially with languages and ethnic groups that weren’t familiar to me. From Polish name formation to the struggles between Russian and Belarusian, Dorren covers the linguistic waterfront.

Let’s start with the last entry, titled, “The global headache: English.” I’ve always sympathized with those trying to learn English, with its maddening spelling and pronuncation. Dorren takes the difficulties one step further and compares English to Chinese in degrees of difficulty as a global language with the most speakers. Dorren comes down on the side of English as the more difficult language. While learners of Chinese get used to the pace and varying tones of Chinese, it can be done. But English vowel sounds and the subtle differences in them are baffling to learners. Moving on the spelling, Dorren thinks the Chinese are more likely to come up with a simplified spelling system. The lack of inflection is a plus for both languages, so nobody gets extra points for that.

The comments on Finnish also caught my attention. I’ve always heard that Finnish is one of the truly hard languages to learn. in fact, it’s the easiest of all European languages to spell, with its economy of letters. He writes,

When it comes to the letters themselves, Finnish is also easier to learn. There is no c, q, w, x or z, except in foreign words, and even these are often respelled: pitsa, taksi, kvanttimekaniikka. B and f are only seen in loan words. For a genuine Finnish word, 21 letters suffice (19 common ones plus ä and ö, which count as separate letters). In other words, five fewer than in English. This amounts to a savings of nearly 20 percent.

The chapter on Italian jumped out, detailing its wealth of diminutives, augmentives, pejoratives and affectives. The process is common enough with other European languages, but Italians excel at this. What was striking is I had never contrasted this aspect of language to English:

In English, however, they are quite scarce, though the -ie suffix is used to create diminutives such as “Ronnie,” “hottie,” “sweetie” and so on. And English does have a lot of old diminutives, such as kitten (a small cat), darling (a small dear), towelette (a small towel) an buttock (a small butt — have the size, to be exact). There is, however, no mechanism for the routine production of new ones. In Italian, on the other hand, there are loads.

Dorren provides some examples relating to women, mostly with negative connotations, which is too bad, since I immediately conjured the image of Sophia Loren when I read the chapter. There’s donnicciuola, a simpleton of a woman, and donnicciuoluccia, a very small woman, and then donnina, donnetta and more. For the big-boned ladies, Italian has donnona, donnone and donnotta, each with shades of meaning. On the more pejorative side, with an aspect of size, you have donnettaccia, donnacchera, donnaccia and donnucciaccia — nothing I would want to apply to my dear Sophia.

I thought about how English covers this topic. While Italian has a system in place to create a bewitching edifice of words based on donna, in English takes another direction. Some of the concepts exist but they are distinct words, not flowing from a common root. That may just reflect English’s status as a language with a huge vocabulary that easily borrows from other languages. A little German, some Spanish, a little Old English, maybe some Irish (“lassie”?) and you’ve got your word list in place.

Now, what language am I inspired to study (or re-study) based on this? What Sophia Loren movie is next up on Netflix? Che bellissima!

Apocalypse Now, and Then

I recently watched seasons 4 and 5 of The Walking Dead (TWD). I found the series mesmerizing and haunting, brimming with moral questions about survival, loyalty, the need and nature of violence, how societies function, how societies evolve when traditional structures vanish. I kept putting myself in the show, wondering what I would do and how long I would survive (probably answer: not very long).

TWD is simply the latest in my long chain of fascination with apocalyptic literature and film. I never tire of the genre and I’m not the only one to look for such works. The new NBC series You, Me and the Apocalypse is just the latest.

As with so much in life, I can trace my apocalyptic vision back to adolescence.  In junior high school, I read the book Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank. Published in 1958, it is about a town in Florida that survives a nuclear attack.

What really drilled the end times into my consciousness was the Charlton Heston film from 1971, Omega Man, for my money still one of the best of the genre because of Heston’s rock-like presence, the stark images of a deserted downtown Los Angeles and the kill or be killed relationship between Heston’s character, a scientist with plenty of weapons, and the light-sensitive cultists who survived a plague and want to kill Heston and his representation of technology. Fellow survivor Rosalind Cash, tough talking and sharp dressing, introduces a wary romantic angle.

Sex and death go together in Omega Man. Heston’s violence and his coupling with Cash and her big Afro hairstyle hit me at just the right age to be dazzled by the combination of love in a time of danger.

The impressions stayed with me as I read Stephen King’s The Stand, wordy but with powerful images, and saw the mini-series with adorable Molly Ringwald. Independence Day, 28 Days Later, 28 Months Later, The Day After Tomorrow (the rare apocaptic movie where global cooling is the threat, not space aliens or zombies or viruses) and the compelling World War Z, with an Israeli angle. Lately I’ve found myself turning to books with the long slog of Seveneves, when the disintegrating moon creates a hard rain that destroys life on the surface of Earth with the survivors reduced to seven women in a space station; Station Eleven, a very well done novel of survivors after a fast-moving virus (is there any other kind?) wipes out most of humanity, with some very eerie imagery, such as planes taking off from an airport and never returning.

Read enough and patterns emerge. What’s left of society inevitably returns to a Hobbesian jungle where life is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short; the Age of Aquarius isn’t part of the picture although false hopes of new ways of living tantalize survivors (a theme in TWD).

The fearful attraction of the literature comes down to the question of a personal test: Could I survive? Against the weather, the aliens, the breakdown of civil society; could I bring any useful skills and the mental toughness to make fast, sometimes bloody decisions? My Significant Other says about herself, “Oh, I would be the first to die.” I’d like to think more positively, but I know the feeling. I’m an Eagle Scout, so if being able to tie a square knot, pitch a tent and find the Big Dipper enhance the odds of survival, I’m all set. But the characters on TWD and in the world of Station Eleven need more of the stalking and skinning skill set, not to mention lethal combat.

Still, I try to nudge the odds in our favor. I’ve already planned our escape route if society goes totally haywire. We’ll load up backpacks, put on our sturdiest hiking boots, stock up on granola bars and my multi-tool Swiss Army Knife and we’d hit the road (driving, I’d hope, not walking) to my brother’s ranch in the Houston area, stocked with a fish pond, cattle, trucks and enough other protective devices to keep a small army of zombies, foreign invaders or overly sensitive college students at bay.

And I’d take a cell phone charger. I don’t know how I could survive at all without that.