Translations

College English professors shuffle the greater influx of language into two distinct categories: what is said and what is meant.  That is, what the greater number of these tenure-track sweater vests may define as ‘denotation’ and ‘connotation’ when restricted to single word or phrase, or those thinly disguised political allegories that has kept Orwell’s Animal Farm for years from the hands of Disney’s animators. 

“No duh,” the kids say. 

Frankly, plain honest integrity is a relic of the storybooks.  Most conversations require translators, word-sherpas to cut a path through the various layers of polite or veiled rhetorical BS.  Advertisers spin half-truths; politicians conceive full-lies; one girl I dated in college doubted everything but her religion: God exists here on Earth, dwelling in the body of one, David Matthews.  Don’t drink the water, indeed.

The only saving grace for our species lies in the unilateral agreement among peoples of all races to never say what they mean.  As such, our honesty depends entirely upon the propagation of lies.  The sweater-vests would call that ‘situational irony.’

Thus, for a moment, let us peel back the curtain, shall we?  Take a look at the truth behind the words for a change:

Ryan’s girlfriend, Mary, visited the house last Saturday.  The rest of the family had already left to the kalee, a month meeting of Irish dancers established by the state Hiberian Society — lovers of all things Irish.  Every month Mom, Dad and the kids visit a local lodge or Knights of Columbus hall to dance, cavort, and play cards until the music gives out or the ladies grow tired.  It’s all good family fun, so of course I try to avoid it like the slug shuns sodium.  Shannon and I sat downstairs engaged in a FIFA 2009 match on the Xbox, when Ryan shouted that he and Mary were leaving for the dance.

“Ryan, make sure bring home you know what!” Shannon shouted back up, scoring another goal on me.  In the background, Mary tutted.  “Mary, I know you’re thinking that I’m talking about alcohol, but I assure you that drinking is the devil’s brew!  If you booze, ya lose!”  He’s talking about alcohol. 

“Riiiight . . .” Mary muttered in the kitchen. She suspicious but clearly has no idea.

“Oh and Ryan!” Shannon screamed again.  “Make sure you get the dark stuff!”  He’s talking about Guiness.

“Are you talking about porn?” Mary retorted quickly after.  I . . . I have no idea what she’s thinking here.

Shannon and I burst out laughing.  Fade to black.

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Old School Tennis

In the year of our Lord 2011, several young lords have gathered to do battle on this ground.  Lord Shan, Berserker King, hath paired with the gallant Murph Dragonsbane against Lord Leo the Magnificent and Ryan, last descendent of a noble but cursed race of giants.  At the evenin’ repast – a culinary delight featuring the finest Italian cheese of the Mac, stuffed Arctic sea bass, and meat of the loaf – the gauntlet had fallen among these lusty young men, eager for battle and opportunity to prove their worth. Not since the Versailles Oath of 1789 have such a momentous occasion graced a tennis court.  Lord Leo and his partner Ryan the Stouthearted quickly announced their readiness to play while Shan the Great and Dragonsbane braced their spirits with a rowdy shout.

“We await your serve, sir,” speaketh Murph Dragonsbane, champion of the Undead Court.  “Lest you be a coward as well as a knave.”

“No knaves we have here, sir,” Ryan sneereth.  “We come to play with men not babes lost in the woods.  Play on!”

“Yeah, yeah,” Leo mutterest in the common tongue.  “If you ladies are finished playing knights or whatever the hell you call it, we can play some tennis.”

The sport of tennis is a sacred one in these parts.  To the Murphey family it transcends the mere appellation of ‘game’ or ‘sport;’  tennis is life here, robbing young men of glory as it bestows it upon another.  Thus, the common tongue cannot adequately illustrate the gore-strewn horror and beauty of the game.  I, your humble narrator, shall describe the game in the kings-speech, the language of God’s living representatives on this sin-soaked sphere. Continue reading

Gibber-Jabber

. . . dispersing the human population into nations, cultures, and warring soccer communities.

. . . dispersing the human population into nations, cultures, and warring soccer communities.

The fallout from the whole Tower of Babel debacle left man and his children rather befuddled.  As the dust settled, humanity severed all connection to those that did not speak and therefore think like themselves, dispersing the human population into nations, cultures, and warring soccer communities.  Of course, the children are the hardest hit.  Lacking the independence and foresight to band together, children remain a scattered genealogical nation of nomads resplendent in ages, height, and various levels of facial hair, adopting the customs and language of their parents, who – more likely than not – attribute their bairn’s misunderstandings to stupidity or laziness.

In truth, children possess a language all their own, one that has fairly escaped the notice of adults for several centuries.  In this case, as in many others, the confusion is mutual, and while much can be said of education and maturity, memory and spite, we might funnel centuries of misunderstandings, punishments, and pouting into two central archetypes: diversion versus responsibility.  Children cannot fathom why their elders choose CNN over Bugs and Daffy, and parents cannot come to grips with little Billy’s refusal to clean his room:

“Seriously, how difficult is it to carry your discarded jeans into the laundry or return your Legos to their plastic bins?  Come on guys, this is ridiculous.”

In retaliation, a child will shrug and say it wasn’t a priority at the time, cleaning would risk missing Wile E. Coyote on the receiving end of an Acme anvil.

Fortunately enough for my younger siblings and cousins, my maturity level has remained fairly constant since learning how to read Uncle Scrooge comics, age six.  It helps that I’ve never actually grown up.

Now my philosophy towards children is that one should never talk down to them, assuming their level of understanding is akin to that of a stone-deaf savage: “ME UNCLE MURPH.  YOU BRANDON.  BRANDON MUST EAT CE-RE-AL.  THE SQUARES ON PLATE.  YOU.  PLACE. ON. TONGUE.  CHEW.”

Nor talk to the child as you would a to a fat lady’s Chihuahua: “Oh wook at the widdle-liddile toesee-woesees.  Does that tickle?  Dooes dat tickle-wickle?  You are a good boy, yes you are.  Yes you are.  Have cookie-wookie . . .”  Frankly I cannot fathom how dogs put up with such nonsense, and children possess four-times the learning capacity.  Without the stimuli and addiction of video games (my little brother is learning Japanese on his DS), we’d be a nation of idiots.

In most instances, you’ll realize that children are smarter than you.  After babysitting my younger cousins, Paul and Molly, during a recent family vacation near the Outer Banks I discovered that conversation necessitates a vivid imagination and rather flexible self-image, unencumbered by adult-type barriers like self-esteem.

Taken from http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sea_foam.jpg

Taken from here

“Murph-y,” Paul says to me, his voice breaking his words into different syllables.  “Wha-ta are those?”  He points out into the water, now sitting low between the muddy banks coating the Hilton Head Island inlet.  Hours earlier the boats and docks sat high upon the water, sea currents flowed freely through the reeds and grasses, swelling the marina like the locks in the Panama Canal.  Moments later as if someone pulled a plug, the currents shifted and the cove was drained; grasses reemerged cutting maze-like paths for boats, washing reeds and flotsam out to sea.  The water trickling out into the marsh was now flecked with white foam, which Paul pointed out and reminded me of powdered creamer floating insoluble in my morning coffee.

“Sea foam,” I answered, swinging his hand back and forth as we cross the footbridge.  The slightly rotted stench of sea and fish waft up from beneath, intoxicating senses far too long separated from the Carolina shore.

“Wha-at?”

“I’m not sure how it’s formed,” I continue. “The churning of the waves combined with compounds in the water perhaps.”

“You use stra-ange words,” Paul giggles.  He then roars at a small crab scuttling across the pier.  It stops for a moment as if to consider him, and continues on its way.

The innocence of children is a widely held myth that in practice just does not hold water.  Those fabled illustrations you see in Mass missals or prayer books of the young cherub dressed in his Sunday’s best, hands clasped tightly in prayer, eyes gazing heavenward illuminated by some holy light are largely creatures of pure imagination, sprouting from the artist’s mind as much as a manticore or unicorn.  In most Masses children retain the same attention span as grandfather Dave, who sleeps through most of the service, snoring – loudly – and sputtering “damn bastards” through most of the homily.  Many parents cannot convince their little angels to sit still long enough to sleep or snore.  During the closing hymn, Paul closes his eyes and mimes the canter, tilting his head from side to side like Ray Charles at the piano.

hhi_pirate1Without a thought, Paul’s younger sister, Olivia, would have stomped on the crab, and then turned her face towards us with a smile that would have melted the heart of the Grinch.  Paul however is not always so fearless.  He remains fixed beside me as the crab disappears beneath the pier, joining its fellows among the barnacles.

“Barn-ankles?” Paul asked after I suggested as much.  The crustacean having vanished, he strode forward once again bravely.  An older couple passed us, smiling behind large sunglasses.  The man waved at us.

“How are you, young man?” he asked.

“Okey-dokey, old man,” Paul said, spreading his wide toothless grin.  The couple kept on walking, much too fast for even the hastiest apology.

Less than fantastical is a child’s sense of honesty, often harsh, cruel, and uncompromising.  Rather hilarious at times as well.  I once had the pleasure of sitting through a parent-teacher conference, hosted by a rather pompous math teacher (“I teach only the most exceptional students.”).  One of the children sitting just ahead of me bent over to her father’s wilting head and whispered: “Daddy, is that the guy you and Mommy think is a liberal prick?” I masked my laughter with a sudden and violent fit of coughing.

“Paul!” I chided as soon as we were out of earshot.  “You shouldn’t call people that they . . . they might get insulted.”

“Why?” he asked, widening his smile into a Cheshire grin.  “He was old.  What are barn-ankles?”

hhi_pirate2“Underwater crustaceans or possibly mollusks, I forgot which,” I responded quickly, welcoming the change in subject.  “They attach themselves to the bottom of boats and pilings under docks, like suction cups.  I believe they feed on tiny little animals that live in the shallow water.”

“You use lots of big words,” my little cousin comments matter-of-factly.  He swings my hand in his.  “I’m going to call you Mr. Smarty-pants.”

“Oh, um . . . thanks . . . uh bud.”

“No proba-lem, Mr. Smarty-Pants.”

Paul’s sister Molly has other names for me, titles far less flattering.  They say that children often ‘see’ or sense auras that emanate from others, subtle feelings or attitudes that remain ignored between less perceptive adults.  Several of my cousins can take a crying babe in their arms and sooth it in an instant; others’ presence will inevitably provoke tears.

Michael Critchon in his autobiographical memoir, Travels, discusses the notion and how if properly trained one can develop and see individual chakras or – as I understand it – our emotional and spiritual state.  Red for example is often associated with anger or frustration, orange with cleansing, and blue with sensitivity and calm, while sections of the body such as the crown (our center of wisdom) or throat (speech center) indicate the important chakra cores.  I’m not so sure how much of this I believe; certainly none of these beliefs are supported scientifically, yet part of me wants to accept the notion that we sense or adapt to one another in non-specific ways.  Moreover, children have the ability to perceive the world in a totally unique way; perhaps they are more receptive to feelings or auras.  If such is the case, I’m fairly alarmed at how my cousins consider me . . .

“I’m going to call you Mr. Cheesecake-Head.”

“I’m going to call you Mr. Cheesecake-Head.”

“Murph, I’m going to make up a nickname for you . . .” Molly giggles as we sit waiting in the movie theater.  Both my younger cousins retain a welcome interest and love for dinosaurs, an obsession I encourage in every way possible (I introduced Paul to Jurassic Park, both the toys and the movie, and both he and Molly have been hooked since).  Thus I thought they might enjoy the latest Ice Age movie at one of the local cineplexes, an ancient declining theater with cement floors, 1960s seating, and no pre-show commercials.  Arriving fifteen minutes before the show, the kids faced a dim room, a blank screen and little to distract them before the previews.

After two minutes crunching on popcorn, Molly turns in her seat and crouches to stare at me, into my eyes.  Suddenly she draws back and announces, “I’m going to call you Mr. Cheesecake-Head.”

Paul seated next to me disagrees.  Further down the aisle, my siblings silently dip into their pockets, sucking down hidden treats while the younger kids argue.

“No Molly, he’s Mr. Pumpkin Pie Head,” Paul shouts spitting half-chewed popcorn on my lap, “with candy stuck to his hair . . .”

“ . . . and grilled cheese stuck to his nose,” Molly giggles, her tiny teeth now red from Hawaiian punch, our shared jumbo cup tilted precariously in her lap.

“Uh guys,” I mutter.  “What’s with the desserts? All the pastry and candy-imagery?  I . . .”

“You’re Mr. Polka-dot Underwear Head with a nose and candy on your head . . .”

“. . . with gummy worms, Molly!  Gummy worms instead of hair.”  Molly topples in her seat, giggling to death.  I grab the jumbo-sized drink before it falls to the floor.

“Hold on guys, that’s much too much like Medusa,”  I suggest, trying to change the subject.  A noble quest if ultimately ineffective.

“Who’s that?” Molly sings.

“A monster in Greek mythology called a Gorgon who had snakes in her hair,” I begin, writhing my finger behind my head.  “They were cursed by Athena, but finally killed by Perseus son of . . .”

“Oo-kay, Mr. Smarty-pants.”

“Smarty-pants, smarty-pants,” Molly giggles, “with cheeseburger brains . . .”

“. . . and flip-flop head . . .”

“ . . . and lollipop ears.”

“Smarty-pants, smarty-pants,” Molly giggles, “with cheeseburger brains . . .”

“Smarty-pants, smarty-pants,” Molly giggles, “with cheeseburger brains . . .”

Paul removes his sandals and points.  “This is what your head looks like . . . hmmm,” he says pausing amidst his metaphor to sniff the soles.  “They smell like chocolate.  Wanna smell?”

“No, no thank you, bud.”  Molly has toppled over in her chair, giggling, her eyes wet with tears.

“. . . flip-flop head . . . la la la, lollipop ears. Murphy has lollipop ears . . . so funny.”

She’s still laughing when her body falls from her seat; Paul stomps his foot down on the floor and smells it again, scouring the theater perhaps for the chocolate.  Kevin returns his hand to his pockets and smiles.  After several frightening moments – Paul’s eyes dart to Kevin’s mouth just as Molly’s feet disappear beneath the seats – the lights dim and the previews start, which settles the kids . . . momentarily until the flick ends.  Who knows what terminology they’ll devise after the movie, their imaginations primed and tantalized with talking mammoths and dinosaur babies: Lizard Brain? Mammoth Belly?  Dino Doo-Doo Nose?  The possibilities . . . those horrible horrible possibilities were endless.

For the moment I settle back and relax, resting my flip-flop-shaped head on the chair and relishing the absence of communication from the seats beside me.   Halfway through the movie, Molly jumps into my lap, laying her head next to my lollipop ears, and falls asleep.  Paul leans on my shoulder and sucks his thumb.  A subtle message but an important one, I suppose.  Truth is core to communication; honesty cannot exist in a vacuum.  However, in a world saturated with words, speeches, and empty promises, the old clichés ring true.  Whatever age or generation our actions, even the most fragile gestures, speak the loudest.

However you choose to interact just remember that if you happen to wake Molly or Paul, then they’re all yours.  I’ll be communing with a glass of wine and good book for the rest of the evening.dino_table4

The Fool’s Guide to Wine-Tasting

wine_bottle_glassThe first skill of any successful wine connoisseur necessitates the ability to speak the lingo or at least French. I reason that people are more likely to tell you what you’re suppose to taste if can correctly pronounce the label. This in turn allows the fake connoisseur to easily impress his or her friends while still having little to no idea about which you are talking. Take for instance Saturday’s wine tasting party at one of the local colleges, a lavish affair full of wine merchants and connoisseurs alike, the perfect setting to test my use of the vernacular:

“Yes, this particular white possesses a good finish with an oaky flavor, cultured for years by the French who as you well know, know wine,” the attendant laughed, after I had correctly pronounced Viognier. Vee-oh-nay.

“Oh yes, that is oaky,” I tell Mom and Tiff with a sip.  “I can taste the oak.”

“Can you?” Mom asks.  “Is that the sharp bitter taste?  Is that the oak?”

“Uh . . . sure,” I shrug.

“I don’t know about trees,” Tiff scowls, “but this definitely tastes like unwashed Frenchmen. Next table!”

Tiffany’s aim for the evening – apart from making goo-goo eyes at the chocolate fountain – which I had seen first and thus claim dibs – was to locate a brand of white wine as sweet and drinkable as Linganorre’s Mountain White.  In her efforts to locate said brand the countless sampling had induced a fit of intense giggling, which Mom echoed, much like a mother loon cooing over her child’s first manic dive into the water.

Station 5 featured two white wines and a Merlot, which Mom sampled.  Tiff chose the cabernet, while I sought the subtlety of the Pinot Grigio.

“And you sir?”

“Yes, can I have a bit of the Grigio, please?”  I said this nonchalantly, well-practiced in my wine-merchant slang, certain that the attending seller would immediately sense that cultured air – or at least the reek of wino.  Possibly he would proffer a full glass instead of the usual sampling to reward me.

“Excuse me?”

“The Grigio.  The Pinot Grigio,” My use of the vernacular was perfect.  I ordered my wine with suave charm, a Yankee-born Sean Connery introducing himself as the world’s foremost secret agent.  In true Bond style, I tried to straighten my tie but, upon finding none, feigned a neck rash.

“Uh . . . we don’t have any Pinot Grigio here.  Only a Pinot Noir . . . Um, sir, do you need some ointment?”

“Oh no, no, I’m.fine.  Just a bug bite.  You say pinot noir?”

“Yes, would you like a sample?”

“Um, sure,” I fumble.  My eyes glazed a little, refocusing on a spot just to the right of the man’s ear. “Musta’ve read the label . . . wrong.  That’s red, right?”

“Yes, sir,” the server smiled.  “Dry but an excellent wine.  This particular winery has been growing grapes for nearly fifty years in Napa Valley.”  He poured me a hearty glass – perhaps out of pity – and turned his attention to another taster.

Humbled, my feet shuffle me over to the girls, who naively – and effectively – decided their next selection solely on the color.

“What is that you’re have, Murph?” Mom asked while Tiff finished off her sample, coughing.

wine_basket“Oh some pinot noir,” I shrugged sipping slowly, rinsing away the unpleasant taste of humble pie.  “It’s not bad.  Dry though, not a lot of taste.”  That guy in the movie Sideways waxed poetry about pinot noir; therefore, until inspired or drunk, I would uncover its secrets.

“Ugh . . .” Tiff moaned.  “Like sandpaper in the throat.  I think I need a chocolate fountain to wash this down.  If only we had one near . . . oh, there she blows!*”  [NOTE: This last phrase was in truth not uttered at all but is merely the product of interpreting the speaker’s squeals (Kyaaa!) and the author’s latest literary excursion through the works of Herman Melville.]

My sister-in-law scampered off to cavort among the strawberries and pound cake, piled near the fountain.  Pat had joined us again when she returned, her cheeks full with chocolate-dunked fruit, her chin adorned with a chocolate-goatee.

“They turned the fountain off.  It’s just a chocolate pool now.  I had trouble dipping the pound cake without causing any to crumble,” Tiff said, stabbing a piece of chocolate-coated cake with her skewer.  “But if you pierce it lengthwise, directly in the center, all is good . . .”

Pat and I discovered the entrance to the kitchen and positioned ourselves appropriately in front, like roadside bandits lying in ambush.  Quickly we relieved our servers of their dainties: barbequed pineapple-chicken, steamed shrimp and peppers, spinach pasties, and warm asparagus wrapped in prosciutto.  Using complimentary glass clips, we attached our wine glasses to our plates as we walked around, giving Dad the opportunity to talk to some clients.  Mom sampled some cheeses that supposedly enhanced the taste of her merlot.

clip“Hey hon,” Pat said turning to Tiff.  “Do you want some che . . . uh, what are you doing?”  My sister-in-law was sucking on her glass clip.

“Awhaaa,” she laughed, re-attaching her clip.  “Some chocolate fell on it.  I was just cleaning it off.  Hey, Ms. Patty, we should try the other room again.”

Mom walked home with nearly twelve-hundred dollars worth of wine, procured with the wine god’s blessing in raffle.  The prize proved a double-edged sword though as upon discovering the one-hundred dollar per bottle price tag, she vowed to never open any of it.

Humbled I walked out, my head full of wine and empty of all pretension . . . or my precious jargon.

On the way to the car, lumbering under the weight of six bottles of wine and one faux copper-green fiberglass bowls each, Pat and I pleaded with our claustrophobic mother to take the elevator in lieu of walking down the required four flights of stairs.  Under the influence and fearing the safety of her swag she relented, confident that if the machine should fail ample rations – of the liquid variety – would be available until help arrive.

wine_grabAs the doors swung shut, sealing her inside, Mom’s eyes bulged with terror.  Wildly scanning our cell, she screamed: “Oh no!  Does anyone have a corkscrew?!”

We of course did not, but Tiff eased Mom’s panic with a little MacGuyver-ism.  “Don’t worry Ms. Patty, if we need to, we can just break off the neck and drink it that way.  You know, like pirates.”

Somehow this seemed to work, though honestly how she intended to break off the neck without breaking the bottle or worse spilling the wine is beyond me.  Still Mom calmly stood (or wobbled) while the elevator continued its ride down, choosing to breathe again only when the doors opened.  Laughing the girls met the cool night air, and discussed their favorite brands as we walked to the car.  Half-way home I managed to glance back at Mom, as she fallen fast asleep her arms gently embracing the two large tubs of wine, cuddled beside her.