Saturday, January 29, 2011

Media for moron-Americans

I wasn't paying attention

We have been treated to a fascinating spate of right-wing commentary on President Obama's state of the union speech. Former half-term governor of Alaska, Sarah Palin, used an interview with Greta Van Susternen (on Fox, of course—the only media she's permitted to appear on) to inform us that it was inappropriate for the president to cite Sputnik. After all, the Soviet Union won the space race, you know. (Unless, of course, you're intelligent and informed—and therefore not part of Palin's key demographic.)

I already knew about Obama's major faux pas since I had caught a few choice minutes of KSFO talk radio on the morning after the speech. Low-rent talk show host Brian Sussman—who replaced the high-priced Lee Rodgers in an economy move—babbled cheerfully with sidekick Officer Vic:
Brian Sussman: So you had Obama giving references to Sputnik. Okay, come on. This was a Russian spacecraft in 1957. Okay. Case in point, Obama went after the young voter to get elected. Right?

Officer Vic: That's correct.

Sussman: Okay, there's a young voter in the room right now with us. Young Katie's here.

Vic: Yeah.

Sussman: Katie's going to be helping us out next week with some news and stuff.

Vic: You should pop on the mike there, Katie.

Sussman: Okay, so Katie, here's my point to you. Here you are, young person, right in Obama's prime demographic, and when he talks about Sputnik—that we need to have our “Sputnik moment” in America—did you have any idea what he was talking about?

Katie: Absolutely not.

Vic: [Laughter]
Katie has a throaty contralto voice that suggests she has a bright future as a Coulter clone, as well as the forgivable ignorance of sweet youth. Her older-but-not-wiser radio companions pressed the Sputnik issue.
Sussman: When you think of the word “Sputnik,” what comes to your mind?

Katie: For some reason, a potato.

Vic: [Laughter]

Sussman: We need to have our potato moment!

Katie: Exactly!

Vic: That would be “Spudnik”!

Katie: I had trouble relating to anything he was saying, though.

Sussman: Well, I'm just wondering how many people were turned off by the Sputnik thing.

Vic: What's a Sputnik?

Sussman: Again, you know, Vic and I, we're middle-aged crackers. All right. We're middle-aged crackers. I didn't know what he was talking about! Come on!
Sussman was born in the year before Sputnik's launch. By the time he got to school, science and math curriculum had been revamped in the post-Sputnik furor. Despite his first-hand experience of growing up in the Space Age and the nature of his profession as political commentator, Sussman confesses that he knows nothing about Sputnik or the shock it delivered to American society. He's too young, of course, to remember having stood outside to look up at the “red star” arcing through the night sky over our heads, but the impact of this epochal event echoed down the decades.

But never in Brian's head, despite the excellent acoustics it must provide.

Idiot America doesn't need history or book-learning or context or even accurate memories. It cramps their style. No problem, though, if they listen to KSFO. It's media tailored to the needs of moron-Americans.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Not acting Christian

Playing the jerk

In older literary works one sometimes encounters the expression “Christian gentleman.” This description had less to do with religion than with comportment. The so-called Christian gentleman was a model of courtesy and dignity, a man whose word was his bond. The Mystery of Edwin Drood by Dickens contains the line, “This condition fulfilled, you will pledge me the honor of a Christian gentleman that the quarrel is forever at an end on your side.”

I fear my friend “Steve” has instead picked a quarrel with a “Christian gentleman,” although in this instance I mean the term strictly literally. This Christian is not particularly successful at comporting himself as one.

But I'll let Steve tell the story:
Brace yourself, Zee. We are having a flame war at AR. A colleague has taken offense at our oppression of Christianity. People are using "Reply to All" to argue about it in campus email, which is where it all started.
Steve is a former student of mine and is now a math teacher at American River College in Sacramento. ARC is famous (infamous?) for having had its student government taken over by a right-wing Christian cabal, now mercifully gone. To my chagrin, Steve's latest missive related to an incident involving a math colleague. Aren't we math teachers supposed to be rational people? Not always.
Our sister college in Folsom Lake just unveiled a new performing arts center. It looks nice. Everyone in the district got a message promoting the center's schedule of performances. Recently we got an email announcing an appearance by a touring group: "We are delighted to announce that the Tibetan Monks from the Gaden Shartse Monastery, India will be honoring us with their presence at Folsom Lake College! Everyone is welcome to enjoy an evening of Tibetan multi-phonic chanting (often referred to as throat singing)."
This struck me as familiar because I had read Tuva or Bust!, an account of Richard Feynman's desire to visit the Soviet republic of Tuva. The famed physicist had wanted to experience the practice of Tuvan throat-singing in its actual place of origin, but was frustrated in his attempts by unresponsive government bureaucracies and cold war politics.

It sounded as if Folsom Lake College had accomplished quite a coup. A math professor at Sacramento City College hastened to disagree. Steve forwarded the message to me, which had gone out to everyone in the school district:
To: SCC-Everyone-on-Exchange, ARC-Everyone-on-Exchange, FLC-Everyone-on-Exchange, CRC-Everyone-on-Exchange
Subject: The Monks are coming to Folsom Lake College and HONOR??????????????????

I thought we were a non-denominational, non-religious school when they hired me, but once again it sounds that having Budishm monks is an honor, but any other religion,- specially the religion of most Americans, including American Founders of this Country (sorry you have to guess, because to some even the name seems to be an offense!) - do not have any rights and/or would imply that the school is violating separation of school and relion.

Sorry but I am getting sick of Yoga and Easter religions preferences over any other! It is just UNfair
Wow. It was written by a college professor, but it bears all of the stigmata of the nutcase teabagger: profligate punctuation, careless misspellings (“Budishm”?), and a sense of profound resentment and frustrated entitlement. I was astonished and dismayed, but I burst into laughter while reading the rest of Steve's forwarded messages and annotations. The “Christian gentleman” received a quick rebuke at Steve's hands:
Subject: The Monks are coming to Folsom Lake College and HONOR??????????????????

Thank you, XXXX, for this astonishingly immature outburst. If, for example, the Benedictine Monks of Santo Domingo de Silos were on tour with their program of Gregorian chant, Folsom Lake would be fortunate to book them into their new performing arts center. It wouldn't be a religious service (even though the songs might be religion based), it would be a performance. Similarly, the Gaden Shartse monks know multiphonic singing, which is a rare and challenging art form. Congratulations to our sister college for hosting them.

By the way, XXXX, adding 18 question marks to the subject line doesn't impress anyone. It just makes you look intemperate. Try to calm down and think twice before sending out any more silly messages to everyone in the district.
Steve reports that there was a lot of outraged reaction to the “Christian” diatribe, although it has now started to die off. In fact, most of the messages posted to the thread in recent days consist of people using “Reply to All” to tell people to stop using “Reply to All.” Even in education circles you can't help but run into a few silly folks now and then.

Hang in there, Steve! (Are you going to the throat-singing concert?)


The irate Christian who objected to the Buddhist chorus is probably unaware that he works in a building named in honor of the local state senator who appointed the California senate's first non-Christian chaplain—a Buddhist minister—back in 1975!

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Chains of gold

Saying it with money

There are people who like to pick up the check. Some insist on it. I presume it's a kind of dominance game to them. See how superior I am? I have lots of money and I am generous! (Bow before me.)

I have often paid the tab for a meal with a friend and sometimes I reach for the bill without even thinking of it. I claim, however, that the habit has developed innocently. While I take turns with many of my friends, others are more routinely my guests. For example, one friend was raising a small child as a single parent. We fell into a routine of my taking them out for a meal each weekend. We all enjoyed the visit (unless the kid acted up, of course) and I could readily afford it. Another friend developed health problems and employment difficulties and began to drop out of a regular lunch group we both attended. To keep his company and restore him to our social circle, I began to treat him. (And others step in when I'm not there; we like him to stick around when he can.) And then there was the case of the penurious grad student, which is a condition many of us might recall.

You get the picture. My “generosity” is an act of enlightened self-interest. It provides me with more opportunities to hang out with good friends who I might otherwise see less often. There's no demeaning noblesse oblige about it at all.

Or is there?

I'm re-examining things and I'm just a little uncomfortable. Am I really as discreet and unobtrusive as I imagine myself to be? Certainly I don't wave cash or a credit card in the air. I don't lunge across the table when the server sets down the bill. I don't play the seigneur.

This examination of conscience is prompted by my brother. Since his older brother (yours truly) “ran away” from home, it has fallen on him to manage our parents' financial matters. No, Mom and Dad aren't incompetent to handle their own affairs (though their rationality is suspect in matters of medicine and politics), but their doughty local son already manages the entire family business and may as well, therefore, take on the relatively minor additional job of looking after their affairs.

And that is why he called me.

“What are you going to do with your check, Zee?”

“I don't know. I guess I could shred it.”

An exasperated pause.

“I would really prefer it if you didn't.”

“Why not? I don't need any money from Mom and Dad. I didn't ask for anything and I don't want anything. Am I supposed to feel beholden?”

My brother doesn't like it when I talk like that.

“Look, Zee. This has nothing to do with your disagreement with Dad, okay? Our folks have an estate plan and it's my job to follow through. Each of us gets a tax-free gift from them each year in a scheduled distribution. It kind of screws things up when you don't deposit your share.”

“I just stashed the thing without cashing it. That's all. I didn't go out of my way to cause anyone any trouble. I just find it somewhat irksome that Dad ignored my request to leave me out of it. Why don't they give more to our kid brother, huh? He's a single parent with young kids now. He could actually use it, right?”

“It doesn't actually work that way. All four kids are getting the same amount according to the estate plan and all you're doing is messing up the calculations. It's your money. You can do whatever you want with it. Give it to our brother, if you want. Do anything. But I'd really appreciate it if you'd let me clear it from the books.”

Hmm. I do rather owe the guy. His presence next door to our parents has relieved me of the standard eldest-son responsibilities. I have no desire to further complicate his life, even if I suspect that our father is dispensing largess at least in part to demonstrate his dominance. He's been a check-grabber all his life, even at dinners where someone else issues the invitations and has acted as host. It's a kind of game with him, demonstrating his overweening generosity. There are worse vices.

Observations such as these have caused me to grow up into a person who suspects that everything comes with strings attached—even (especially?) gifts from Mom and Dad. I'm sure you pity me now. Such problems I have, trying to decide whether to accept lumps of unneeded cash. Such a big favor I would do my brother, cashing the checks he sends out to his siblings.

I pondered the matter. My brother did say I could do whatever I wanted with the unrestricted gifts. No strings? Really? Ideas began to form in my head.

So far in recent weeks I have endowed a new student scholarship and made preliminary arrangements to boost another scholarship endowment to sustainable levels. I sent a few bucks to Roy Edroso of Alicublog and Gary Farber of Amygdala (and perhaps you should, too; thanks, PZ, for bringing their plight to my attention). I've contributed to a few liberal causes and a few liberal politicians. (Barbara Boxer may have never gotten my father's vote, but she got a few of his dollars.) And my baby brother's children are getting better-than-usual presents from their Uncle Zee.

Now if I can only maintain my air of discreet insouciance.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Identically different

You're not alone

Every semester begins in the same way. Students show up, a bit disoriented, and try to figure our their instructors and their classes. We instructors usually have the advantage of more experience (although some of our students have been here a long time), but we're a little disoriented, too. What will the new crop of students be like?

One thing is all but certain. Some of them will fail.

I know. That sounds like a defeatist attitude. Is the fact that it's true a defense? There are solid reasons why a college instructor cannot realistically expect to shepherd an entire class of forty (or more!) to passing grades at term's end. (Please take it as read that the instructor has actual standards and does not simply hand out C's for “trying.”) I'll enumerate some of them:


In a class of any size, you're going to have students who run afoul of emergencies, whether anticipated or unforeseen. I've had students distracted by health issues (all the way up to and including life-threatening physical conditions or debilitating emotional difficulties), family problems (divorce, custody disputes, offspring with behavioral issues), and legal matters (such as probation violations, lawsuits, restraining orders, evictions, and incarcerations). While some of these circumstances could be mitigated by high-functioning and responsible individuals, many would overwhelm any mere mortal. Severe illness, in particular, is not something easily managed. No one blames a student for not doing well in a class if he or she is simultaneously struggling with a debilitating illness.


The lazy student exists. I seem to have a few every semester. They're apparently not quite sure why they're in school, but perhaps it was the path of least resistance. They like to sit in the back row and drowse—or play surreptitiously with their electronic toys. Each semester I fight the temptation to label students as indolent too quickly—their characteristics are often so overt—and instead give a good college try to getting them involved and learning. If they don't snap out of it, they're doomed. But they mostly don't care. At least, not enough.


Perhaps this one is new to you, but it's a commonplace to me. My struggling students frequently suffer from singular situations—or so they think. No one has ever suffered as they do! It finally occurred to them that I should try to disabuse them of this notion.

Sure, absolutely everyone is unique. Even identical twins (DNA isn't everything). But people are unique in their assemblage of traits and experiences, not in their components. The various traits and experiences, when viewed individually, are part of the common legacy of humanity. In other words, you have more company than you realize.

The poet Hugo von Hofmannsthal said it in a way that impressed me back when I was in graduate school. The original German is not at my fingertips (as if it ever was), but the English sense of it is this:
No matter how embarrassing or isolated your seeming situation, you nonetheless have thousands of companions of whom you are unaware.
Quite right. And thus I try to get my students to understand that they are neither the first nor the last to have a problem with mathematics. Literally millions of other students have had problems with algebra, for example. No professor during office hours or tutor during drop-in assistance periods in the help center is going to recoil at a student's question and say, “Oh, my God! I've never heard that question before! No one has ever had this problem before!”

Been there. Done that. Students and teachers and tutors alike. (Okay, a few of the newer teachers or tutors might have that reaction, but they'll get over it pretty quick.)

You are unique yet the same. No one else has quite your special combination of characteristics, but every part of you is shared with others. Don't fall into the trap of thinking, “No one has ever been this confused before. No one has ever made such mistakes before. No one has ever been this bad at math.”

Plenty have, and they have done so in ways that are both different and the same as your missteps and failings. Many of them have found assistance and solutions that are also as different and as identical as the ones available to you. Go find them and swell the ranks of the successful.

Monday, January 10, 2011

No comment needed

GOPUSA Eagle advertisers slow on the draw

Today's e-mail brings the latest issue of The Eagle from GOPUSA. The subject line is “From Tragedy to Pathetic Left Wing Attack.” It's all part of the right wing's duck-and-cover response to the unfortunate coincidence that someone in Arizona decided to put the GOP's eliminationist rhetoric into practice. They're hoping and praying that the “even-handed” national media will dutifully blame both sides for unseemly political rants, somehow missing the fact that “second amendment remedies” is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the teabagger crowd.

It's too bad that no one thought to proofread The Eagle more carefully before sending it out. Sure, they were careful to include the photo of the accused assassin with long hair (he's a left-wing commie hippie, you know) instead of a more current short-hair portrait (looks like a Young Republican!), but they overlooked the gun imagery in the advertisements of their sponsors. Oops! But hey, what father wouldn't want to discourage his daughter's potential dates by wearing a T-shirt with a rifle and cross-hairs logo? All in good fun!

Sunday, January 09, 2011

Right-wing lies about Gabrielle Giffords

A first-hand account

Last summer's visit to the family homestead was replete with political nonsense, as I have already recounted elsewhere. However, I didn't relate one incident that seemed redundant and less significant at the time. Now I think otherwise.

As he is wont to do, my father bombarded me with supposed examples of left-wing stupidity, all of them borrowed from hate media outlets like Fox or talk radio or randomly forwarded extremist e-mails. One of them involved “a stupid congresswoman from Arizona.” (Yes, it was Gabrielle Giffords, but Dad did not remember her name at the time.) He chortled as he reported that this dumb Democrat wanted our troops to use knives and rocks to “stab and club” the enemy in the war on terror so as to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. Bombs and bullets are so environmentally unsound, don't you know?

“That's ridiculous,” I said. “No one ever said any such thing.”

Dad's hair-trigger temper flared up.

“I saw her say that on video!” he declared.

“I don't believe you,” I said.

He quickly decamped to his computer to find the proof (just as he had earlier in the morning when he trotted out the “Obama is a Muslim” canard). He slipped away quietly to do something else when he couldn't find what he wanted. I was spared the time-wasting exercise of pointing out (yet again) that he was either misinterpreting something or getting suckered by a clumsy video cut-and-paste job.

The incident passed without further comment, but I did a tiny bit of Google research when I got home and shared the information with my father:
Date: August 15, 2010

There's an interesting contrast, Dad, between what you thought Congresswoman Giffords said to General Petraeus and what she actually said. Perhaps you got your information from Glenn Beck, who played just the clip where she's asking about energy sources and Beck mocks her for asking the general about "sustainable energy".

Beck clip

When you see a more complete clip, however, it shows that Giffords wanted to know if the army's facilities had sufficient alternative resources in case their supply lines were threatened. It's not a silly question when you include the part where Giffords mentions that "supply lines have been increasingly threatened either by enemy action or through international crises," the part that Beck left out. Here's the whole thing:

Gifford clip

You'll see that Petraeus takes the question entirely seriously, and not just because he's trying to be polite to the congresswoman. He has a good answer about reducing power consumption at the army bases and improving the efficiency with which they use their supplies.

This is why labels the original story mocking the congresswoman as false. So does

And here's what Giffords herself says about protecting our military's "umbilical cord":

Gifford campaign post

By the way, where's the part where Giffords asks the general to reduce carbon emissions by using knives and clubs instead of guns and bombs? It's nowhere to be seen. Looks like a made-up quote being passed around on the right-wing blogs as propaganda. Google demonstrates that lots of people have reprinted this claim as if it's true, but YouTube has no clip of her saying it and there's no congressional record showing that she said it. Under the circumstances, it looks like a lie.

I thought you would be interested in knowing that.

But Dad wasn't really very interested. This is what I got in return:
I did not get that from beck because I am seldom home when he is on. I heard a news clip on radio.

I know that liberals are elite and feel that they should control the country because we do not know how. however the Idea that the redistribution of wealth is not a Marxist ideology can not be denied. and that is what is going on. He spent much of his youth in Indonesia as a Muslim and I'm sure taught to hate America because that is what they do. and with a name like he has anyone facing reality should realize that he is not one of us.

He has a law degree, that does not impress me, a part time senator, a commune organizer. These are not qualifications to run the country, he never ran a business or managed anything.he is completely inept But he knows that he wants to change this country for a capitalist to a Marxist and for that he is doing a good job. Behind closed doors and back room deals. What happened to transparency and all the openness that we were promised and all I hear are lies and more lies, I guess the end justifies the means, I'm familiar with that too. Some Liberals are starting to see the light I hope you do too.

Best wishes always.
What can you do about that kind of bone-deep ignorance, prejudice, and misinformation? Perhaps nothing, but I gave it one more try:
I'm merely pointing out to you that a lot of your information is based on falsehoods. That should give you pause.

The notion that Obama hates American is really ridiculous. He didn't work so hard to become the nation's leader because he wants to be in charge of something he despises. He's spent all of his time in office so far trying to clean up the mess left by his predecessor, and it hasn't been an easy task. He spend part of his youth in a predominantly Muslim country. That's hardly the same thing as spending it "as a Muslim." One of the schools he went to in Indonesia was a Catholic school. That doesn't make him a secret Catholic either. Or does it? Maybe Protestants should be frightened.

The scare tactics about Marxism are also pretty absurd. The bar sure has been lowered for being considered a socialist these days. The one industry temporarily taken over by the federal government during the big recession was the automobile industry. Though not many people are talking about it, that rescue worked just fine, the auto industry paid back its loans, and the companies are being run by their own boards of directors again instead of by some federal "czar" (as the news media likes to call them). That's pretty lousy Marxism, to let an big industry get away like that.

Predictably, my rebuttals had no impact at all. Soon thereafter he sent me the e-mail that called me a liar and created the breach that remains to this day. For Mom's sake, we operate under a flag of truce, but I am firmly resolved not to waste any more time trying to talk sense to an irrational right-wing extremist.

In closing, here's an illustration from a fringe-element website in Arizona. Its politics are so far out that a moderate like Giffords is deemed worthy of being depicted as an Obamanoid-communist dunce. Nice work, jerks.

Friday, January 07, 2011

The pope explains the Big Bang

Sweet reason from Benny Hex

Even many Catholics are confused by the concept of papal infallibility. Benedict XVI has put his foot wrong often enough so that anyone could be forgiven for thinking the current pontiff is just a bit off. Or a lot. But papal infallibility applies only to official doctrinal pronouncements. Not to anything else (which is surely obvious by now with this pope). Occasionally, however, the pope gets something sort of right.

Benedict has come forward with a straightforward pronouncement concerning the Big Bang. He accepts it! As far as he's concerned, cosmology's reigning theory for the origin of the universe is simply God's technique for initiating creation. In brief, nearly fourteen billion years ago God said “Let there be light” and the Big Bang happened.

Benedict's acceptance of the Big Bang naturally upsets the hardcore creationists who believe in a young earth, but it's welcome news to Catholics who want a little distance between themselves and their anti-science Protestant brethren. Forward-thinking Catholics can also take comfort in Benedict's sound logic, as illustrated in this morning's San Francisco Chronicle. God was behind the Big Bang for all the best reasons.

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

A twitter-pated pioneer

The first tweet?

I have been wending my way through some of the Jeeves oeuvre of P. G. Wodehouse. The comic misadventures of the feckless Bertie Wooster and his unflappable gentleman's gentleman Jeeves are quite engaging. I was startled, however, to come across a curious concatenation of prose in the early pages of The Code of the Woosters.

Bertie is dismayed upon returning home to his flat to discover that a pile of telegrams awaits him. He has learned from sad experience that such missives are a reliable harbinger of difficulties with his wastrel upper-crust friends or demands from his daunting aunts. Jeeves enters to find his young master brooding:
“Are you ill, sir?” he enquired solicitously.
I sank into a c. and passed an agitated h. over the b.
“Not ill, Jeeves, but all of a twitter. Read these.”
Imagine my reaction upon reading these lines. Bertie is in “twitter” mode and has lapsed into obscurely abbreviating his prose. The Code of the Woosters dates from 1938, so this is a most remarkable and quite prescient anticipation of today's trendy tweeters.

Of course, I buckled down and began to decode Bertie's hidden message. The “c” could easily stand for coma or catalepsy, but couch makes for a less sensational reading. Then Bertie passes an “h. over the b.” He notes that the “h” is “agitated.” Passing a haddock over a brazier would serve, since that would undoubtedly agitate a haddock that was not quite dead. But perhaps we should content ourselves with imagining that Bertram Wooster was merely passing an agitated hand over his brow.

Right-ho. That's the ticket.

Monday, January 03, 2011

E.T. goes to hell

Therefore he doesn't exist

Sound reasoning is a good basis for religious beliefs, wouldn't you say? So what about this example? It's from the first 2011 issue of Answers magazine from those geniuses at Answers in Genesis:
Because Adam's sin affected the whole universe, it would also affect any alien. But as nonhumans, aliens would not be eligible for salvation (this is one reason we are confident that intelligent aliens do not exist). So baptizing an alien would be pointless at best, and a mockery at worst. Jesus did not die for Martians—only descendants of Adam can be saved.
See? Simple, isn't it?

So is Ken Ham, who offers this profound observation:
Secular astronomers claim that the universe evolved slowly over billions of years. But this conclusion does not come from the facts they see but from the assumptions they must make to interpret the unseen past. This issue of Answers, written by leading creation astronomers, shows how the facts actually line up with God's account of a recent creation but can't be explained by evolution over billions of years.
Ken's tight reasoning suffers only from prolixity. I can help him shorten his statement by removing excess words. For example, for “secular astronomers” read “astronomers.” For “creation astronomers,” read “cranks.”

All better now.

Sunday, January 02, 2011

Of two minds

Reflexive code-switching

Quentin Crisp once gave some encouraging advice about maintaining one's residence: “There is no need to do any housework at all. After the first four years the dirt doesn't get any worse.”

I have occupied my current domicile for more than a quarter-century, so I'm well past that initial quadrennium. Unfortunately, I do not have Crisp's strength of character. Once or twice a year I feel compelled to do—or at least try to do—some serious cleaning. The big problem, of course, is the clutter created by my ever-growing collection of books and papers.

At the conclusion of every semester, I feel the pressure of the responsibility to tidy up after myself. Stacks of books need to be picked up from tables and chairs and floors (and any other surface that is at least approximately flat) and shelved (occasionally with some attempt at an organizational rationale). Stacks of papers need to be picked up from those same locales and sorted into the filing cabinets or recycling bins.

The room I call my library is usually an especially grueling undertaking. It has long served as my home's emergency reservoir, its pressure-release valve, a place where random items get shoved out of the way. The shelves of the library's bookcases are packed to overflowing—those shelves that I can see, anyway. The lower ones are obscured by stacks of miscellany. I recently made an effort to cleanse the Augean library.

A funny thing about housework: I sometimes find myself channeling my paternal grandmother, who was always tidy as a pin (whatever that means). Hands on my hips, I'll gaze into the turmoil of the library and say, “Credo! Tal lástima!” Loosely translated, it means, “Can you believe it? What a disaster!” Another good word is porcaria, which means filth and evidently owes something to pigs (porcos).

In this frame of mind, it's easier to get down to work, occasionally muttering Avó’s favorite imprecations to myself under my breath. It's just a little weird, but it's okay. Whatever works. But I noticed something the other day that gave me pause.

I dug my fingers under a stack of old school papers and tugged at it, preparatory to lifting it up and moving it to a desk for sorting. My right hand slipped and I received a sudden and sharp paper cut on my index finger. I cried out involuntarily, but I did not shriek “Ow!” or “Ouch!” What I said—rather loudly—was “Ai!”

I was in Portuguese mode and I used a Portuguese cry of distress. As I sucked on my finger, distressed but bemused, I pondered this curious occurrence. Cries of pain, you know, are reflexive. You don't think about them. You just say them. (Thus a painful mishap could give away an undercover operative in a foreign land.) I tried to remember if this had happened before, but I could not recall for certain. I imagine it was standard operating procedure when I was little and Portuguese was my principal language, but my childhood memories are not that detailed.

In graduate school a few years ago, I learned for the first time about code-switching, the blurring of the boundary lines between languages in the speech of multilingual people. For me, it was just a new name for a phenomenon I had long been familiar with. Sometimes we grind the gears in our language transmission box as we shift among the languages we know. Since English has long been my dominant tongue, I don't experience this as often as I did in my youth, but apparently it's still there. Or, at least, my first language remains so embedded in my nervous system that I can still use some elements of it reflexively. I just need to be in the right mode.

Grandma would be so proud. (But not about the state of my library.)