Thursday, January 24, 2013

My Quest for a Second Soul

To have another language is to possess a second soul
-- Charlamagne

I’m trying to learn Spanish. Let me rephrase that: I’m learning Spanish. I’m banishing negative self talk about it like, “I’m way too old to learn a whole new language,” and (imagine a whiny voice) “This is hard.”

I do at least have a bit of leg up on people from some other parts of the States and Canada who come to Mexico since I lived for over 30 years in Southern California. It was, of course, part of Mexico up until 1849 and still remains a largely Hispanic city. You pick up a certain amount of Spanish by osmosis. I already knew, for example, that Hermosa Beach translated to beautiful beach; that Puente was bridge; and that you didn't need to say La Brea tar pit because La Brea meant tar pit. I could correctly pronounce Sepulveda, La Cienaga, and Cahuenga boulevards. And in general I developed an ear for what Mexican Spanish should sound like.

Olvera Street in down town LA: really

When I made the decision to move to Mexico I frantically started listening to Spanish language tapes in my car. On arriving here, I noticed people looking at me funny when I attempted to speak and discovered that I had been studying Spanish Spanish and not Latin American Spanish. They’re the same language of course, but with subtle differences in usage. My Pimsleur tape instructed me to say, “Encantada” on meeting someone. Mexicans are much too polite to snicker but I’m sure they were amused inside when I said the flowery, “enchanted.” I learned quickly that here people say, “Mucho Gusto.”

The year I lived in San Miguel de Allende it was all too easy to be lazy about it because there is such a huge ex-pat population and so many of the Mexicans that work in the largely tourist industries speak English. You could go days without hearing anything but English spoken. Still, I bought and started plowing through Rosetta Stone Spanish, which many people swear by. I find it a bit tedious, but perhaps because I already spend so much time at my computer that another hour a day is a chore. I do, though, like a podcast from, of all places, Scotland called “Coffee Break Spanish.” They’re 15-minute conversation sessions on specific topics and I’ve learned a lot by listening while making my dinner or doing other chores.

When I moved to Mineral de Pozos, the situation became more urgent. The foreign population is much smaller and far fewer of the locals speak any English.

Pozos: not a lot of English spoken here

I’ve discovered that learning functionally is a good method for me. If I need to say something, I use a translation program that lets me see and hear what to say. Then once I’ve used it, it tends to stick. The flaw with this method is that then people respond and I have no idea what they are saying! My Mexican friend Rosa wants to learn English so we spend an hour every week helping each other. I also watch movies with Spanish sub-titles and usually pick up a word or two each time.

Rosa and I: able to communicate against the odds

In the last year and half, I think my Spanish has improved exponentially but I have problems conversing because I’m still translating everything in my head. By the time I’ve figured out what to say, everyone else has moved on. I also understand a lot more than I can speak.

This year my resolution was to get fluent. In talking to friends, I discovered that several others in our little town had made the same determination. So we got together and hired a Spanish teacher from San Luis de la Paz to come to Pozos twice a week. The lovely and patient Lourdes is taking us rapidly to the next step. But, it seems, there’s no getting around the issue of learning some things by rote: like verb endings. It brings up memories of sitting in a hot African classroom chanting French and Latin conjugations.

I was struggling yesterday to memorize the Spanish verb ser “to be” (not to be confused with estar, the other Spanish verb “to be”), when out of a brain cell lingering from around 1965, up bubbled the Latin conjugation for “to be” in all its tenses! Spanish is not identical to Latin, but close enough that it was like a light shining on it and I suddenly got it. Right after that, I also called up the Latin conjugation of “to love.” Again, the verb endings were so close that it became a tremendous shortcut for me. There was also something about the memory of the rhythm of chanting them that helped me chant the Spanish verbs.

And hey, I am living in Latin America.

So here’s a shout out to Miss Linder, who as a young women in the 1960s valiantly drilled Latin verbs into the heads of a bunch of fidgety teenagers at Umtali Girls High, most of whom couldn’t really figure why we needed to learn a has-been language. Miss Linder is advanced in age and still living in Umtali (now renamed Mutare) so she might like to know:  it came in handy after all! 

Somebody posted this picture to my old high school facebook page, 
showing Miss Linder back row left: still teaching long after I had gone.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Of Elevens and Pennies

When I was a kid, I commandeered the number 11. I declared it my favorite number, and for some reason, felt warmly attached to it. Perhaps it was the pleasing three-syllable word, sounding a little like elfin, or maybe it was the look of the figure, the symmetry of the two ones. In any event, whenever I was asked to “pick a number” or ascribe a number to anything, it was always 11. Eleven was “my” number.

Jump forwards a few decades. From editing a book for a numerologist, I learned that 11 is regarded by many as a master, even magical, number.  For the purposes of their trade, most numerologists reduce numbers down to a single digit. For example, 176 would be reduced to 14 and then again to 5. Except for 11; it stays as is.  In some interpretations, 11 represent balance; in others a gateway. By all accounts, it’s a good thing to have in your life.

My birthday falls on the 29th of the month, so based on all of this, it turns out 11 actually is significant for me. At the time I was working on the book, I lived in a house in the Mt. Washington area of Los Angeles. The last two digits of my house number were 65; the last two digits of my zip code were 65; and the last two digits of the phone number randomly assigned to me by the phone company were 65. I just thought it was an amusing co-incidence. I started to incorporate the numbers 11, 29, and 65 into all my pin numbers and pass codes.

I also was vaguely aware that there was something called the 11:11 phenomenon. People all over the world claimed that they saw this number with unusual frequency. I thought it sounded a bit silly, but truth be known, since I regarded 11 as my personal number I was mildly miffed that I was not privy to this.

That is until a couple of months ago.

Then it started. Suddenly I began to see 11, 11:11 or even bigger multiples of the number everywhere I looked. I’m not kidding; everywhere.  Yes, it seemed to be 11 minutes passed the hour whenever I looked at the clock, but it was way more than that. Here’s just one example I caught with my camera. I was sitting in a coffee shop and glanced at the building across the street. There were two number 11s on the one wall.

You could put this down to what some people call “red car syndrome” where you see a red car of a certain make and then notice it everywhere. I believe in the psychological world it’s called perceptual vigilance, where your attention is drawn to things you are interested in. That could well be the case some of the time, but there have been too many weird occurrences that seem to fall outside of that explanation.

For example; before I went out for the night on New Year’s Eve, I checked my blogger dashboard to see how many hits my blog had had. The tally for the year was 111111 and the post with the most hits for that day had 111. Yesterday, I was listening to a podcast of NPR’s Morning Edition while I did some chores. It stopped broadcasting as occasionally happens if the internet goes woozy. But instead of coming back on in a few seconds, it stayed off. I went to look to see if I could click it back into action. The little slider thing that tells you how much time has elapsed was stuck at 11:11. When I glanced at the time in the corner of my screen it was 11:11. And oh yes, the date was 1:11. It is kind of strange; no?

It’s not the first time something like this has happened to me. There was the case I refer to as pennypalooza. For a few months before I left my California home and moved to Mexico, I found a one-cent coin almost every time I left the house. I would be walking Henry and glance down and see a penny at my feet. Or I’d take the trash out and find one in front of the dumpster. They would be next to where my car was parked. Once, I found one as I walked across a grocery store parking lot. I dropped it into the little plate on the checkout counter that had a sign saying “Leave a penny; take a penny” and promptly found another while walking back to my car.

The incident that really made my hair stand on end was when I'd been out for a short while and came home to find a penny that hadn’t been there when I left, on my doorstep. I had not told a soul about what was happening with the pennies so no one had put it there just to mess with me. And I lived in a gated complex of just three units. The people in other two homes were at work all day so only I was around. Even the mailman and delivery people couldn’t get in without someone to open the gate. I could think of no rational way that penny could have got there. I actually started to wonder if I was having some kind of psychotic breakdown and was dropping the pennies for myself to find!

I saved the coins in a jar. When I was packing up to move to Mexico I decided to cash them in at one of those Coinstar machines that they have in supermarkets. Just for fun, I thought I’d buy lottery tickets with the money. I went to two stores and the machines were both out of order. So I put the bag of pennies in my glove compartment and gave them no more thought once I got caught up in the frenzy of moving. Until I started writing this, I had forgotten they were there. I just found the bag under all the papers and other stuff that accumulates in the glove compartment. Here they are.

There’s a tendency to want to find some meaning or message to things like this. Is the Universe trying to tell me something?  If so, what the heck is it? There’s no point in the 11s and the pennies having significance if I don’t know what it is. That’s just plain frustrating. So as far as I’m concerned, it’s just odd co-incidence; maybe synchronicity.

Oh, wait a minute. Eleven’s made up of two ones and a penny is a one-cent coin. Perhaps it’s number one  that’s haunting me ... ? 

Okay: After typing that last sentence, I looked to see what the word count was for this blog and this is what I saw. Hand on my heart, I did not arrange this. Now I'm all creeped out again.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

When Did Skinny Become a Good Thing?

According to the University of Scranton, the number one New Year’s resolution made by Americans is to lose weight. I'm the first to applaud this goal if you are overweight and dropping a few pounds will reduce your risk of diabetes or heart disease, but why, in the name of all that’s holy, do so many people – make that women – today desire to be “skinny?”  

I’m not coming down on those women who are slender without even trying; I appreciate that there is a range of genetic body types and all can be healthy. So naturally thin girls; no need to get up in arms. But what concerns me is that women who are predisposed toward other body shapes feel the need to starve themselves into skinny jeans. And what evil genius came up with those anyway?

When I was a preteen, I was so thin I looked like eyes on a stick. I was so thin I could span my waist with my own bony fingers. In the words of the 1958 Bill Haley song, Skinny Minnie, I was ¨slightly slimmer than a fishing pole. ¨ It's worth noting, too, that he sings that Minnie is six-foot high and one-foot thick, which is about the dimensions of most supermodels, so that body type is nothing new. 

Speaking of Minnies, did you see what Barney's did to everyone's favorite cuddly rodent in their window display this holiday season?

Evidently, they didn't think Minnie's "real" figure
did justice to the Lanvin gown 

Between the ages of about eight and 12, I was twice hospitalized because the doctors thought I must have contracted a tropical wasting disease. We lived in Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia) in central Africa at the time. After a couple of nights stay each time, during which I was tested and probed and prodded, I came up free from any ailment that might cause me to wither away. I was asthmatic, but apart from that appeared to be healthy.

My stick figure phase of life

The point is: in the 1950s and 60s, skinny was considered a symptom. If your ribs showed and your elbows looked like letter openers, it was cause for concern. Back then, skinny was the antithesis of fat – and yes, we did say fat, not overweight or obese – and neither was something you aspired to be. Until I hit puberty, when I become robustly healthy, I continued to be extraordinarily skinny and treated as sickly as a result. I still have no idea what that was all about. But it left me with a clear idea that skinny is not a good thing.

So I´m perplexed today when I hear people talking about skinny as something to aspire to. There are countless books about eating to be skinny (huh?); drinking to be skinny; thinking skinny, the science of skinny, how to get skinny in a hurry, even instantly; how to work out to get skinny, how to dress to look skinny, how to look like other skinny people, the rules for being skinny, how to be skinny forever… Some of them have been major bestsellers. Some are written by emaciated looking woman whose bodies are far from inspirational as far as I’m concerned; others are written by so-called fitness experts, even doctors, who should know better but are clearly jumping on the skinny bandwagon. I was offered the opportunity to write such a book but I turned it down. (Sorry, but as far as I’m concerned, there is no “healthy way” to be skinny unless you’re born that way.)

Food producers are getting in on the act also. There are too many products to list with skinny in the name (and besides, I don’t want to promote them) but one needs special mention: skinny water! 

Look at that: Unlike that wet stuff that comes out of the tap, it has no calories, no sugar, no sodium. 
I swear I couldn’t make this shit up. 

There is clearly a perception that skinny is a word that attracts consumers because even products that have absolutely nothing to do with body weight are co-opting it. Didn’t you just always desperately need some skinny shampoo,skinny lip balm, or skinny earrings? Don't stop there: while you're at it, get those skinny treats for your dog.

Look, I’ve spent over 30 years as a health and fitness journalist. I’ve written countless articles and some books on how to lose weight but they’ve always been directed toward getting rid of excess fat and becoming healthier. If the culture of fitness that I’ve been involved in all these years has somehow inexorably led to this vastly unhealthy focus on skinniness, then I’m probably going to hell. So let me do penance now by pleading that in 2013 we dump the word “skinny” just as in the past we’ve made “fat” politically incorrect. While we don’t need our young girls growing up obese, we also don’t need them growing up thinking that skinny, rather than healthy, is the answer either. In fact a slew of recent studies have shown that there are just as many health risks for underweight women as there are for overweight ones.  Can we perhaps make "healthy balance" the key words going forward?