Tuesday, November 30, 2021

Loving French

When it came time to pick a language for my high school's foreign language requirement, I chose French. I liked the sound of French, so fancy, so melodic. Around the same time, I was interested in the Tour de France, and that greatly contributed to my Francophile desires. It was the language that I wanted to master, that I dreamed to be fluent in.

I liked the crazy rules of French: nouns having gender, choosing the correct articles, negating verbs, conjugating verbs. I liked reading in French. A whole world of books open up when you learn another language. I thought that being a translator would be a fine career, and advertisements for the Middlebury Language Schools would always catch my eye. The idea of immersing myself in the language sounded very appealing.

Of course, it's difficult to achieve any kind of fluency unless you're practicing the language with other native speakers. I was able to mimic the accent, but that's all I was able to do: imitate. Forget understanding, or speaking off the cuff. I was good at passing French tests, but that doesn't make one a French speaker.

As I got older, I began to acquire French experiences: going to a French store near Rockefeller Center in NYC (I remember buying a copy of L'Equipe, the sports newspaper), visiting Quebec on a family trip (I ordered 3 small sodas which turned into 3 large sodas), then being roommates with a Frenchman in college (though we spoke mostly English together).

I finally got to live out some of my French dreams when my wife and I took a trip to Paris for our 5th anniversary. By then I was many years out of school and very out of practice. I bought CDs to brush up on the language and a pocket French/English dictionary. We were only there for a week, but as the days progressed I felt my fluency improving. How could it not? Everyone around us was speaking the language of my dreams!

I remember the last French conversation I had there. I asked the hotel shuttle operator if this was the bus to the airport, and if so, when would we be leaving. Simple questions, with simple answers. I was able to understand the shuttle driver, and he was able to understand me, and for a quick moment I let myself believe I was this different person. Incroyable!

Photo by Jason Taellious

Sunday, October 31, 2021

COVID-19: Returning to The Office

Since July 1, I have been working at my desk in my company's office building, just like before my company's work-from-home mandate (back in March 2020). I work at a high-tech company doing software, and as I've described before, I can just as easily do my job from a beach resort or a coffee shop. I only need a laptop and the Internet (and maybe some headphones).

However, when the company announced that vaccinated workers could return to the office voluntarily starting in July, I welcomed it. I was eager and ready to return to my nicely appointed work environment, my office amenities, and the work and social chatter that marks a busy office. Primarily, I welcomed the normal separation between work space and home space.

There weren't a lot of people who shared my enthusiasm to return to the office. I'm sure commuting distance is a large factor in deciding to come in. Roughly 50-100 people make it into the office with any regularity. (I go in three days a week.) Since not everyone comes in, I still wear headphones and participate in Zoom meetings daily, talking to co-workers wherever they are.

There are moments when I walk to the coffee machine, and I am dazed at how empty the floor is compared to "the before times." There are mornings when I walk into my cubicle area, and the motion-detector ceiling lights turn on, signalling that I'm the first person to arrive. I sit on an office floor that is nearly a half-acre in total size, and many times I won't see a single person.

The company has instituted a Wednesday catered lunch, which helps draw people in. The parking lot seems more full on Wednesdays. Certain groups have made this the "work from the office" day, and I seek them out in the cafeteria at lunch. It has become the social highlight of the week for me. One time a co-worker yelled out to me "Greetings human!" and I laughed.

It's a strange work world, and I'm sure the company's leadership is trying to figure out how to navigate a future in which such a large office space isn't a requirement to get work done. Lots of high-tech companies are thinking about this. For now I have the best of both worlds: I come and go as I please, I can get a parking spot near the front door, and there's never a line at the coffee machine.

Thursday, September 30, 2021

9/11: Twenty Years Later

For the years immediately following September 11, 2001, I'd spend part of its anniversary day reminiscing about that morning. I somehow found a copy of Howard Stern's 9/11 broadcast, and I would listen to it during work, reliving the events through the changes in his voice, his bombast turning into alarm, then into resignation. "No one's listening to me anyway," he said.

In the evening, I'd put on the movie "United 93". United 93 takes place in one of the hijacked airplanes, and its kinetic imagery is breathtaking. In later years, I bought "Tuesday Morning in September". This 'home movie' puts you in Jersey City, NJ, watching the horror unfold across the Hudson River. I'd spend the movie in a reverie, ruminating on the day, and its aftermath.

I never thought that another building could go up in Lower Manhattan so quickly, but in 2015, One World Trade Center was opened. I look online and learn that the Twin Towers were designed and built in roughly the same amount of time (11 years). I have not stepped foot in that area of New York City since 2000, though I hope to visit to the 9/11 Memorial someday.

I imagined many trips back to the World Trade Center. It was one of my favorite places to visit. After 2001, those thoughts vanished. I took a good number of people to its observation deck when I was growing up, all through college. I took my wife, back before we were married. She said she felt a little sway in the building as we stood atop its 110 stories.

I took it for granted that I could go back. If time heals all wounds, then I suppose time will have to keep doing its work. 


 

Tuesday, August 31, 2021

Naptime

I used to avoid taking naps. Not anymore. I now have a short nap every weekend day (or non-work day, who am I kidding?).

I wonder how much this is related to having a kid? Maybe fifteen years ago, I was showing someone a home movie I had made of my daughter at the playground. On the screen, we saw the camera slowly turn towards the ground. The person watching with me laughed and said "You were falling asleep!" Without a doubt.

I wonder why I don't nap during the workday, especially since I'm working from home. Maybe my brain is engaged, powering through the afternoon doldrums, while making the computer do things. When I traveled for work, I remember sometimes taking a walk outside and I seeing some people fast asleep in their cars after lunch.

I try not to take too long a nap. 30-40 minutes is my usual duration. I lie down in bed, and read my book, letting my natural tiredness dictate when naptime starts ("reading with my eyes closed"). When I get up (thanks to an alarm), I sometimes wonder how long have I been asleep. 30 minutes seems too short for the grogginess that I feel, or the long, complicated dream I had.

I know some countries have instituted the afternoon nap, called a siesta, as a way to stay cool during the hot weather months. The United States is not one of these countries (though some companies are open to corporate naptime). Productivity at all costs, even if you have to nap in your car! At least I can nap guilt-free on the weekends.




Saturday, July 31, 2021

Birds

Over the holidays, my wife got me a Page-A-Day calendar from the National Audubon Society. So every day I look at a new bird. I'm no birder, but they have been a source of fascination for me. What's not to like? They're pretty, they sound nice, and they provide a gentle reminder that nature is all around us. 

Growing up in a city, the only birds I noticed were grey pigeons. I didn't pay them any particular attention, except when they didn't fly away as I walked towards them. Some pigeons seemed braver than others! I have memories of people sitting at park benches feeding pigeons, and the birds would be a bustling, murmuring swarm as they pecked for the food at their feet.

Where I live now I rarely see pigeons. Instead I see blue jays, cardinals, sparrows, mourning doves and crows. We live near a few ponds so sometimes we'll see an egret (or is it a heron). There are also plenty of Canadian geese, and though they can be a bit of a nuisance holding up traffic and defecating wherever they want, it's nice watching the small goose chicks become larger and larger.

My favorite bird sighting so far is the cedar waxwing, a pretty bird with distinctive stripe of color at the tips of its wings. We first saw them in the Spring of 2020, and it took us time to figure out what kind of bird it was. They perched on a tree right outside our window, and we could see them picking at the fruit. We haven't seen them this year though. It's possible they varied their migratory patterns, so our apartment complex is no longer on their route. 

One of the things I learned about birds is that they are always busy, building nests, foraging for food, finding a mate, or caring for children. One book says that they rarely take breaks, which made me a bit sad. I like to think every bird consciously enjoys flying around and seeing things from on high. I wonder if they notice us looking at them, when we stop to watch them in the trees or in the sky. Maybe we're their reminder to take a break once in a while!

Cedar Waxwing (photo by Stan Lupo)


Wednesday, June 30, 2021

Some Quotes I Liked

I sometimes write down quotes from books that I read. I type these into a computer file, then forget about this file, then find it again, surprising myself. Of late I will take pictures from a page or two of a physical book, so I can capture something I liked.

Here's a few:

The Three Body Problem, Liu Cixin. "The long years has ground away all the hardness and fierceness in their personalities, until all that was left was a gentleness like that of water."

Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison. "What and how much had I lost by trying to do only what was expected of me instead of what I myself had wished to do?"

Killing Commendatore, Haruki Murakami. "No matter how vivid a memory, the power of time is stronger."

When We Were Orphans, Kazuo Ishiguro. "It is hellish enough moving about the warren in daylight. At night, it will be like drifting through one's worst nightmares."

Wall of Books, by Mr T in DC

 

Monday, May 31, 2021

Found Money

A month or so ago, I was walking into a restaurant to pick up some takeout, and I saw a dime on the ground. It was early in the morning, and the sun made the dime shine brightly, like some precious stone. I paused, to confirm: yes, 10 cents, right there on the ground. I hurried into the restaurant, leaving the dime where I found it.

The dime didn't leave my thoughts however. I remember as a kid how precious spare change was. A dime could get you a piece of Bazooka gum. If you added up those dimes, you could convert them to quarters, and a quarter was good for one game at the stand-up arcade machine at the grocery.

It's perhaps some measure of time or maturity that a dime is fairly meaningless to me now. I remember a conversation with someone fretting about some purchase. He wanted to get it right because he could afford a $100 mistake, but not a $1000 mistake. I remembered that conversational snippet, thinking that I could safely afford to leave ten cents on the ground.

And yet the dime stayed on my mind when I got home. It would have been found money if I had picked it up, and put it into our coin jar, the one that we empty into the Coinstar every few months. A penny saved is a penny earned. Spending is quick, savings is slow. Save for a rainy day. It takes money to make money. You know the sayings.

My mother told me recently about how banks in the 1970s used to offer Christmas Clubs. These were short-term savings accounts to which you could direct some money on a weekly basis. This account would earn a little interest. When the holidays arrived, you had extra spending money. Seeing how she saved helped shape my attitude.

Later, after college, I was fortunate to attend a financial planning presentation conducted by the father of a co-worker. It was eye-opening, and it led me to fully appreciate mutual funds, stocks, 401(k) plans, and dollar-cost averaging. My money attitude became more refined. On top of "own, save, avoid debt", I added "make money work."

Some time around seeing that dime on the ground, my wife and I were cleaning out a drawer and found a gift card. We had bought something a while back, and received a $100 gift card reward. We got excited, thinking about some free takeout. However, when we checked online, the gift card had expired! "Oh well," we said. A $100 mistake. Maybe I should have picked up that dime.

Photo Credit: Paul Albertella