Prof. Jon Bridgman (1930-2015)

Some academics are endured, some are neither here nor there, some are liked, and some are revered. Prof. Jon Bridgman has passed away. He was one of the most revered professors in the history of the University of Washington, and I had the privilege of majoring in history during his lengthy tenure.

UW hired young Prof. Bridgman in 1961, near the end of his grad studies at Stanford, He joined the Department of History, with a focus on modern European (especially German) history. He retired in 1997. I had the good fortune to attend UW and major in history during Bridgman’s his early fifties, when he was very well established as one of the three or four professors whose class one must take if one were to get the very best out of UW.

In those days, the Daily (campus newspaper) always published a welcome issue for incoming freshmen: best things to do, best professors, best places to eat, everything worth experiencing. It may have been the very most useful issue of each year, the one that a freshman might save for months. Each year, high on the list of professors and classes to take was the introductory Western Civilization History survey series, HST 111 (ancient), 112 (medieval), and modern (113). Bridgman was the reason, and these classes were held in the enormous lecture halls of Kane. Kane 130 seated 764.

Please absorb that for a moment. That’s a lot of people. That’s a substantial movie theater complete with balcony and two lecterns. That requires TAs to teach nearly two dozen quiz sections (on Friday, class was held in a normal room and led by a grad student). All about history. If you have any affection for the subject at all, the prospect is magical in concept, but I assure you I am not exaggerating.

My own early days at UW were inauspicious. Like so many students, I entered higher education on a late September Monday morning by walking into an 8:30 class in Kane 130. I looked around at a classroom that seated more students than even resided in the town I had come from, and the shock set in.

From a graduating class of eleven, in a high school of roughly fifty, in a town of about 750, to a freshman class of thousands at a university of 35,000 in a city of two million. I was seventeen, and immature even for my age, and I was finally meeting my match. This is the jolt: while I wasn’t always happy about the distinction, as it caused me no end of torment, in every class I’d been in from K-12, it had been an article of faith (and unfairly, I think, in many cases) that I was the most gifted kid in the class, maybe the school. It sank in: Guess what, kid: so were all 763 other people in here. Pack your lunch. You aren’t the most gifted student, the most gifted freshman, the most gifted in this classroom, nor even the most gifted of the fifty-two other souls living on 8th Floor North, McMahon Hall.

In fact, I wasn’t even the most gifted student in the cluster holding rooms 801, 803, 805, and 807. I wasn’t even the most gifted student in room 805; my roommate was taking the notoriously terrifying Honors calculus series, MATH 134. Most people took MATH 124 and found it involved enough; the Daily had warned us about MATH 134. Matthew, a very patient and well-prepared young man from West Seattle, didn’t think it was that hard. Meanwhile, I was floundering in pre-calc, which I had to take twice. The lesson of intellectual humility, the ability to see that there were always people brighter than me, and that intellectual gifts did not extend to every field, was the great lesson of my educational shock treatment. I have a dear friend whose typing is peppered with disaster, but at all things in the natural world, she is a genius. I have a wife whom I cannot cure of em dashes and ellipses in writing, but has the magical gift of knowing how to handle all people. My father was a dogmatic idiot when it came to theology, but with computers, mathematics, mechanics, and electronics, he simply understood them in a Spocklike fashion.

In my second quarter, I’d heard enough, and I took Bridgman’s HST 112 medieval survey. This time it was in a smaller Kane lecture hall, but there were still nearly 400 students. I was hooked. My TA, who is now a professor and author, was also the undergrad advisor, and I changed majors. Prof. Bridgman had a great deal to do with that. Until I’d taken quite a few other large lecture classes, I didn’t realize how truly great his method was.

To begin with, Bridgman had a unique voice and diction. To watch him without sound, one might have thought him very nervous and excitable. He would pace back and forth, rubbing his goatee, speaking all the while, then stop and face the audience to punctuate a point with hand gestures. I dug up a Youtube of one of his lectures from 2012, because there is no way to describe his voice. In this video, he sounds much as I remember him, but it seems he became more physically sedate as time advanced. Give him a listen, if you wish:

Bridgman from 2012 lecturing on 1939

In this video, he seems to have a mild case of Tourette’s, which was not in evidence in the 1980s. It manifests as what sounds like bursts of laughter or surprise. I don’t know the story there, but we can see that it didn’t detract from the audience’s rapt attention. Imagine him without those small and rare bursts, but moving between two podiums, scrawling notes on the transparency now and then, making animated gestures. Now, at roughly the age he was when I first took his class, I understand what it was. It was his love of history, of teaching, of sharing his knowledge, of presenting the subject so freshly that the class would vary a bit from year to year. Jon Bridgman did not recycle notes or lectures. A very humble and pleasant man, he said that this was because he could not read his own handwriting on older paperwork.

I only had one personal contact with him, and it had to do with my final grade (I’d rather not say what it was, but it was nothing to be proud of…I had not yet learned to learn, nor had I grown up, and I underachieved). I did it wrong. My transcript came out, and I had received a 0.0. I knew that had to be a mistake. This was in college before e-mail, before the web, and before mobile phones. I happened to encounter him near the HUB lawn, and approached him there. (As you can see, I didn’t have the maturity to realize that I ought to have gone to his office hours.) I was in my ROTC uniform, and I explained the situation. Despite my poor timing, Prof. Bridgman put up with me. “What grade did you expect?” he asked. I told him. “All right. Here is what to do. Please write a note and slip it under my office door, with your name and student ID number and class, and say that the grade should be that.” That simple. And that’s what I got. I never saw him anything but cheerful, and well he might be, considering the place he held in the hearts of the UW community.

One day, as Prof. Bridgman was motoring back and forth between lecterns, he stopped at the left-side one and wrote with the water-soluble marker. Words appeared on the screen. He cranked the roller; the words did not move. He turned it a bit more, then his voice lowered from its usual projected volume as he faced the class: “Good heavens. There’s been a terrible mistake. I’ve written on the glass.” Glancing about in minor embarrassment, like a child caught doing something mildly naughty, he muttered, “Oh, well…” and went to the other lectern, where the transparency wasn’t at the end of the roll.

I recall the day he was teaching the Reformation and events leading up to it. He explained that a key point of theology was the question of what constituted Christian baptism. Looking at the Bible itself, Bridgman explained with a smile, nothing contained therein said that baptism had to come from the Roman Catholic Church. “In fact,” he said, “I could stand here with a hose, read all your names, say ‘I baptize thee…’ and baptize you all. And there’d be nothing you could do about it! You can’t refuse baptism!” The class laughed. Then, in a smaller but puckish voice: “And I just might do that sometime, too.” His sense of humor punctuated all his teaching.

Prof. Bridgman was the one who taught me, in HST 113 (modern), why Orwell’s 1984 was such an important book. In HST 111, he taught me to appreciate the ancient Greek advances in government and philosophy, as well as the Roman sense of gravitas that governed actions of state under the Republic. When one day I stood upon the Akropolis, gazing down upon the Pnyx, where once was said: “Who would speak?” and the voice came, “I, Pericles,” I thought of Professor Bridgman’s voice explaining the importance of Pericles’ funeral oration in Thucydides’ account. I thought of him when I gazed upon the helmet of Miltiades, hero of Marathon, at the museum near Olympia. I listened to his 1939 lecture in the background while composing this, just for the pleasure of the memories his voice brings.

One of his most important books had a key purpose. There remain those who, in spite of all the compelling evidence, continue to attempt to deny or minimize the Holocaust. That is a felony in Germany and Austria; in the United States, it’s simple foolishness. Prof. Bridgman decided to demolish Holocaust denial, and thus wrote The End of the Holocaust: The Liberation of the Camps. An expert in the field, who could not be thought to have any inherent bias, and a job very well done.

When Prof. Bridgman retired, he met with resistance to the concept. Alumni took up collections for two purposes: to endow a Jon Bridgman Professorship in history at UW, and to sponsor a lecture series inviting him to come and lecture as he might desire, on any topic that he might choose. The video presented was from that series, which remained a success and lasted until at least 2012, as you can see. If only I had lived nearer Seattle, I would have attended every one.

Though he was elderly, and his passing was thus not a tremendous surprise, it still affects so many of us. All of us associated with UW will miss him, but those of us whose lives he touched will remember him when we are his age and beyond. My heartfelt condolences go out to his family and personal friends.

As for me, simply, thank you, Professor Bridgman. I didn’t know how much I could love the study of history until you showed me.

I’m late for Women’s History Month

But I’m not punting on it, because this is important, and also because I want something to write about other than a damn real estate deal. Here are some women you might like to know about, not all American, but all important:

Drsa. Maria Montessori (1870-1952): you recognize the name. What you probably don’t know: she was Italy’s first female doctor, basically because she refused to stop petitioning to get into med school, and then refused to be sicked out by efforts to scare her away by making her do her anatomy stuff by herself at night with the cadavers, and then when shunted off to a problem kids’ asylum, refused to quit. Instead, she found that many of the children were quite teachable and salvageable, and developed a method of education that enabled them to learn and grow into mainstreamable people. And after spending her life on this work, she gave it away as a gift to humanity.

2LT Ellen Ainworth, ANC (1919-1944): working in a field hospital at the Anzio/Nettuno beachhead, the facility came under German artillery fire. Lt. Ainsworth was badly wounded, but ignored her condition to supervise the relocation of the patients under fire. She died of those wounds six days later, having given her life that others might survive. The Silver Star and Purple Heart were rare for women in WWII US service, but they now seem terribly inadequate for Lt. Ainsworth’s demonstrated valor.

Plkv. Marina Mikhailovna Raskova, Soviet Air Force (1912-1943): a pioneer aviatrix sometimes called ‘the Russian Amelia Earhart,’ Raskova persuaded Premier Stalin to constitute several all-female air regiments: the 586th Fighter Regiment, the 46th Guards Night Bomber Regiment, and the 125 Guards Bomber Regiment. The night bombers, flying obsolete biplanes, became known as the ‘duty sergeant’ and as the ‘night witches’ for their harassment bombing missions, but all performed very well in combat. She had been decorated a Heroine of the Soviet Union in 1938, and proved its validity during the war until her death in a crash landing near Saratov in 1943.

Abigail Adams (1744-1818): one of the brightest First Ladies in US history (a role that, be it noted, is enshrined in no law and conveys not one dime of compensation). Ms. Adams, our second First Lady was the first First Lady to make strong political representations to her elected husband on behalf of women’s rights. She did not make a lot of headway, but she refused to shut up about it. All things considered, like most Presidential spouses, she was probably brighter than her husband (himself not a fool, unlike some of the cretins we elect) and might have made a better President.

Dolley Madison (1768-1849): yes, my spelling is correct. Ms. Madison, née Payne, had tremendous influence on both the role of First Lady and on international politics. She served as First Lady for eight years, and as Jefferson’s White House Hostess (he was a widower) for eight more, then mentored two more First Ladies. Her charm went far to smooth snooty European diplomats’ ruffled feathers in a White House that was still rather bumptious at the time, ceremony not being an early American strong suit. During the War of 1812, as the DC militia broke and fled, Dolley saved national art treasures from the White House. It is difficult to overestimate her impact on her times, considering the many situations and lives she touched for the better.

Prof. Lise Meitner (1878-1968): born in Austria and very fortunate to escape the Third Reich, she had been the first woman in Germany to become a full professor of physics. Her work on nuclear fission most likely merited inclusion in a Nobel Prize award. She regretted staying in Germany as late as 1938, and was a harsh critic of those who stayed to help work on the Adolfmatomic bomb, which fortunately never came to fruition.

Strsgt. Roza Georgiyevna Shanina (1924-1945): one of many women who served as snipers in the Soviet Army during World War II, Shanina was among the deadliest with fifty-nine confirmed kills. Ordered back from the front lines late in the war, Shanina ignored the order and remained in direct action, often with the mission of picking off German snipers. She gave her life sheltering a wounded artilleryman with her own body. The USSR had dozens like Shanina and Raskova, including combat medics who would crawl into free-fire zones, load wounded men on their backs, and low-crawl them to safety and medical assistance.

Queen Margaret (of Anjou) (1430-1482): wife of Henry VI, King of England. Henry had mental problems, but his Angevin bride did not. She handled most of the duties of rulership during Henry’s periodic incapacity, and during the Wars of the Roses, at times even generaled the Lancastrian forces against the Yorkists. Unfortunately for Margaret, the Yorkists eventually vanquished her side. She died in France a few years after her ransoming by her cousin Louis XI of France, but she remains one of the lesser-known women who have influenced history.

Anne Margrethe Strømsheim (1914-2008): née Bang, she joined in the defense of Hegra Fortress during the German invasion of Norway. The Norwegian campaign was a particularly long and obstinate one given the relative strengths involved, and Hegra was the last part of southern Norway to haul down the national flag. She provided nursing assistance to the wounded, and most likely fired a few shots herself, becoming a heroine of the Norwegian resistance. Decorated several times for her service, after the war she became an advocate for blind children and disabled Norwegian veterans.

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (1938-present): is president of Liberia, making her Africa’s first elected female head of state. African women have a very rough go of it in many countries, and President Sirleaf has received the Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts to advance the welfare of Liberian women. Buffs, Badgers, and Crimson take pride: she has degrees from the University of Colorado, the University of Wisconsin, and Harvard. Liberia has had a number of unsavory regimes over the years (one of which exiled her), and Pres. Sirleaf has worked for reconciliation in order to leave that past as far behind as possible.

AVM (Ret.) Julie Hammer (1955-present): entered the Royal Australian Air Force in 1977 as a junior officer. She went on to become the first Australian woman to hold an operational command, the first to hold the rank of Air Vice Marshal (equivalent to a major general in the USAF), and the first to command the Australian Defense Force Academy. She is a member of the Order of Australia.

SgA Oshrat Bachar (1979-present): for all we hear about women in the Israeli Defense Forces, none were appointed to battalion-level combat command until 2014. Her rank, sgan-aluf, equates to a lieutenant colonel in the US Army. A career intelligence officer, she currently commands an intelligence battalion of the IDF monitoring the Sinai.

LTC Jackie Cochran, USAFR (1906-1980): the American woman pilot whose memory is a bit overshadowed by Amelia Earhart, but she deserves her own display. Cochran’s most notable endeavor was perhaps the drive to convince wartime U.S. leadership of the value of using women pilots to ferry aircraft across the country and over the ocean for delivery to combat units. Over one thousand women eventually received their wings and made this important contribution to the war, As the Space Age came on, Cochran was a driving force behind the space program you probably never heard of: the Mercury 13. In short, the logic was that women might make excellent astronauts; they had proven their value as pilots, and in an environment where mass and air/water/food consumption were of supreme concern, it might be better to employ women. As Vice President, Lyndon B. Johnson spiked the program, which was rough on the candidates who had passed every test, had their bodies sampled beyond belief, and even endured the Vomit Comet (weightless environment testing system). Although it must be admitted that her ego got in the way when it came to the Mercury 13, the fact remains that she invested lifelong effort to show just what American women could accomplish. We are better for her deeds.

Lozen (c.1840-1890): a Chiricahua Apache warrior and seeress, she was a key advisor to her brother Bidu-ya (generally known as Victorio). He credited her as both a tough fighter and a clever strategist. When U.S. troops attacked the band near the Rio Grande, Lozen’s courage inspired the non-combatant women and children to ford the river and follow her to safety. (Naturally, she then went back to the fighting.) She also fought alongside Goyaałé (you know him as Geronimo), and held out with some of the last Apaches resisting reservation confinement. She died sometime after 1887 of tuberculosis while still a prisoner of war.

Newly published: Awacha Nay–For My People, by Heidi Ennis

This Native American historical fiction novel is now available, paperback and e-version. I was substantive/developmental editor.

Heidi originally came my way thanks to Shawn Inmon, author of a number of successful fiction and non-fiction tales, who gave me the kind of buildup I’m not sure I could ever live up to. She had a novel long in the works, begun two decades prior, about pre-contact Native Americans in Washington and Oregon, and was I interested in editing it?

I’m not sure she would consider this a stroke of luck, but it so happened that I had lived a good portion of my life in the regions her story covers. I went to junior high and high school with the descendants of the people she portrayed, had read some of their history, and so on. I also knew the ground, its flora and fauna and climate. This made me rather more exacting in my critique than another editor might have been. Or as she said more than once: “You kicked my ass.”

Yeah, kinda. I suppose most editing involves some form of compassionate ass-punting.

After the sample edit, which satisfied her that I could help her, I did the initial read and commentary. With some mss, I can begin editing; in other cases, I prefer to give the author a shot at fixing the issues using her own creativity. That was the case here. I was blunt: I likened the portrayals of emotion to an ongoing Lifetime movie, and suggested that she dig deeper into the terrain and its Native languages and cultures–especially Sahaptin, the Yakama language, and Chinook Jargon, which was a Columbia Basin trade patois incorporating English and French into a mix of Native languages. “You also need to develop the economics and geopolitics of the region. Oh, and please draw a map and provide some family tree and language glossary stuff, if you add in significant amounts of actual native culture. And one last thing: how about dumping your last thirty pages, and ending the book with a bang at this specified spot?”

There was the possibility she might not like that answer, and might instead tell me: “You know what? My posterior is sore. I think I’ll find an editor who doesn’t kick it, thanks.”

Not Heidi. She expletive did it. Everything I said. Conscientiously.

Months passed. I next received a ms version of similar length, but peppered with well-chosen Sahaptin and Chinook Jargon words that explained the complex relationships that characterized Native trade and culture. The economic flow of goods and exchange, along with the importance of political relations, now helped drive the story. Cultures were richer, based in better research, and more complex. There was emotional balance now, yet without eradicating the ability to inspire a reader to feel. Villains were more nuanced and flexible, as were heroes and sidekicks. It felt much more textured and balanced. All that remained to fix were a couple of plot points I considered to stretch credibility a little far.

That part was hard. She had to kill her darlings, as Faulkner advised us. She didn’t want to draw that blade. I prevailed upon her that she was at the risk of contrivance, which is what happens when the author wants a certain thing to happen so badly she lets the strings show in setting it up. By that time, I think she considered me a darling–in the sense that if she threw a grenade rather than using a sniper rifle, she might have the joy of getting both me and the plot darlings in the blast radius. But again, she did it.

My pace on the edit was glacial. Part of it was the need to keep many characters and locations straight in a 500-page book, but part was of my own doing. Every time I needed a Native American word, I had to refer to a glossary. If it was a name, to a character listing. Most of that extra detail was stuff I had advised Heidi to add. What was I going to do now, start complaining? However, it did slow things down. There was no point beginning a work session unless I was prepared to open up four documents, and when I came to a decision point, often I needed to step back and consider with eyes off for a while. But in time, I did finish my work.

A writer this coachable is one for readers to watch, and editors to treasure.

I think her characters are a bit better than those in the O’Gear books, on a par with Shuler’s. That’s the league I see Heidi playing in. And she has it set up masterfully for a sequel.

camping as my own maid

It’s a strange existence, this staging.

No shoes in the house. Slippers by the door. Have to run out to the garage? Slippers off, shoes on, then shoes off, slippers back on.

For contractors, a big sheet thrown down as dropcloth, since contractors always leave a trail of mess and never clean up properly. As a species, they simply do not care, and therefore, this must be managed, since persuading them to leave at gunpoint would be illegal and counterproductive.

Counterproductive has a new definition: “Anything that could possibly delay selling this house.” All activities that will accelerate the sale are productive. All activities that could slow things down are counterproductive, and all counterproductive activities are categorically forbidden. By anyone, at any time, for any reason short of a femoral artery bleed. (If it’s a wrist, take it out to the cul-de-sac; you won’t bleed out that fast, and blood is hell to clean up.)

Park with truck blocking driveway, so contractors cannot enter it. Why? Because I have oil stain lifter down, to soak up the oil that previous contractors’ trucks leaked on the concrete, and they would a) carelessly drive and walk directly through the drying stain lifter, b) leak new oil onto it, and c) not understand why that should bother anyone. No one, period; yes, that includes you, and also you and you; no, don’t care, you will just have to carry your crap a little farther, cry me a river, boo hooo hoooo.

A cloth on the kitchen counter, to be used when opening the refrigerator door to the sparkling clean refrigerator. Microwave, range, toaster, coffee maker, tea maker absolutely off limits. We wouldn’t want the buyers to think we enjoy coffee in the morning.

My poor parrot Alex relocated to the unfinished area downstairs, with a cloth over his freshly scrubbed cage, and a sign pleading as politely as possible that he be left alone, and yes, that means your children should not get just a little peek to find out what kind of bird he is, and no, I simply do not give a damn how curious they are, and yes, if an eager buyer defies this, I hope their kids grow up to terrorize them into a pilled-out zombie state with their antics. I will go down there daily for some reading time in the evening, just to spend time with him, in a concrete-walled space with the cloth off, just so he can have some company, sitting on a piano stool and reading by a bare fluorescent bulb. Because if all this is anyone’s fault, doing, or problem, it is not Alex’s, and he is my pal.

Firearms carefully unloaded, covered with cloth, and parked deep and high up in the unfinished space among air filters, paint cans, and other stuff that hopefully will not fascinate anyone enough to boost a child up for some unsupervised play time.

Personal care stuff like toothbrushes, mouthpiece, etc. stuffed in a drawer after use. Anything very personal stuffed all the way back, so that eager buyers’ children will not decide they are toys.

Brand new towels, about which I do not care, purchased for unused bathrooms purely for appearance. I may actually burn them later just for satisfaction, wasteful as that would be, so stupid do I consider the concept of bathroom display towels not intended for use.

Using only one of the three bathrooms, chosen because it has the only sensibly designed toilet and is easiest to clean (tub and counter and sink all white), which happens to be downstairs. Gotta pee? Do it before the trip downstairs makes you bladder-desperate.

Cleaning all three toilets daily, with wipedowns after any use.

Hang bath towel and floor towel in boiler room to dry after bathing, leaving only the stupid, color-coordinated display towels in their pristine states in the spots where a sane person would just hang the towel to air-dry.

Anything actually utilized to enjoy life, except for office equipment, positioned on a tray that can be put on a shelf or inside a drawer. Remote, nail clippers, etc., go away in seconds, lest a potential buyer be disgusted by any evidence that a fellow human being has any comfort or fun.

All wife’s beautiful and evocative artwork removed, to be replaced with properly vapid garbage that cannot possibly offend anyone, trigger a phobia, or hint at any aspect of who we are as people. Books chosen for display purposes only, making sure that none of them could possibly cause severe moral umbrage, or worst of all, any sense that we actually read.

Daily vacuuming of any carpet that gets any form of authentic usage.

Daily walkthrough of entire home, to see if any gremlins, elves, leprechauns, bees, spiders, or anything else have snuck in when I wasn’t looking and found some creative way to screw something up. Inspect visible pipes and potential water areas.

Daily walkaround of yard to pick up whatever trash blew in (the RV parking area collects a daily count averaging two Walmart bags, receipts, and/or cigarette cellophane scraps), inspect grass for another mow (every three days), and see if the gremlins and so forth caused anything to fall over, shift, or any other depredations, vandalism, etc have occurred. Or worse yet, any new contractors have snuck in and found some creative way to ruin two things while fixing one, not understanding why anyone might be less than joyous about this.

Have gas? Go outside. Shut door behind you, please.

And for gods’ sake, wait for me, so I can lock it behind me and never have to enter this sterilized, overpriced, soulless, accursed house again in all my days. If it weren’t for the cost, I’d just go rent a monthly motel room. Right now.

For this odd period, the imprecation ‘go to hell!’ is equivalent to ‘come visit me!’

Guerrilla tactics in foreign language learning

Doubt anyone’s going to be too shocked if I say this: I love language and languages. Because of this, and a natural aptitude, I’ve studied a lot of languages. I speak none fluently but English, but enough of enough of them that I am rarely at a complete loss.

The state of foreign language instruction in our K-12 education system is lamentable. I believe this because of the large number of camera-like young minds who, having taken two years of Whateverish, can barely speak two sentences after they graduate. It was true of my generation and I’ve been hearing it from every graduating generation since. So often I hear: “I want to learn a foreign language.”

Okay. If you mean it, I’m on your side. If you are ready to put your time and energy there, I will tell you all the dirty tricks I know and use.

First, assess your basic aptitudes. If you don’t really grasp even your native grammar at all–which is to say that you cannot tell a noun from a verb from an adjective, consider ‘conjugation’ a method for prison inmates to see their spouses, and think of ‘declension’ as what’s likely to happen in your fifties and sixties, look those things up. You do not need to become a grammarian, but you do need to absorb what the basic terms mean, because they aren’t going away.

Another aptitude to consider is your ability to mimic sounds. Our palates form in early youth to our native languages, so you will probably never pass for a native speaker in any language you learn in adulthood. Doesn’t matter. It also doesn’t matter how good or bad a mimic you are; it just matters that you assess yourself and accept it. I know people who will never, ever be able to make certain foreign sounds not found in English. You have heard people with forty years’ residence in your country who probably will never manage to utter certain English sounds. Doesn’t matter. All that matters: if you aren’t a natural at this, don’t let that be your downer. You will simply have a profound accent, so be at peace with it. Even if you can never make a perfect rolled Spanish rr (I have a rough time with that one in flowing speech myself), anyone trying to understand you, will. Anyone trying not to, will not. That’s why it doesn’t matter.

To get an idea of difficulty relative to you, see what family it’s in. It works like this: the languages in a family have much in common. If it’s in a language family in which you’ve never studied a single language, there will be more concepts to learn. Be prepared.

If I hear one more person assign a language an absolute difficulty level, I may start using all the curse words I’ve picked up (including the ghastly phrase in Hungarian my friends taught me). Language difficulty is relative to what you already know. Examples:

Swedish was so easy for me that I still don’t think native English speakers deserve foreign language credit for learning it. One can see where it broke away from the common hybrid ancestor that pathed out into English. In learning terms, this means a native English speaker will immediately understand some words and concepts that the tongues have in common. Thus, for a native speaker of English, Swedish is very easy. For a native Korean speaker, it might not be as hard as English, but it wouldn’t be a walk in the park. German is in the same family, and is harder for me than Swedish, but I could not speak for our Korean friend because I am not equipped to judge the difficulty from any beginning perspective other than my own. Neither is much of anyone.

Hebrew was a bit of a challenge, because I had no background in it and spoke no Semitic languages. These past few months, I’ve been studying Arabic. In essence, on vocabulary and some grammatical concepts, Hebrew lets me cheat. Since I know how to say ‘hour’ in Hebrew, and the Arabic word sounds pretty similar, I will pick it up. Same for the concept of a dual number; Hebrew speakers are used to this, but someone new to Semitic languages has to wrap his or her head around a grammatical number besides singular and plural.

Because I speak Spanish and French, Italian is very accessible to me, and if I set out to learn it, I’d have a tremendous leg up over anyone who had never studied a Romance language. Is Italian easy? That depends on what you bring with you. It would be easier for me than for a native speaker of Russian with no background in Romance languages, I think, but harder for me than for a native Spanish speaker.

Is Irish difficult? It sure was for me, because it was my first Goidelic language (and only three exist). But having learned some Irish, Scots would be much easier. In fact, I can pick out a good many words in Scots, since it is so similar. In Welsh, which is in the other branch of Celtic languages? I have no idea, but it could not possibly be easier for me than Scots. If I already spoke another Brythonic language, for example Cornish, I’d have a leg up in Welsh.

Never let the difficulty of a language (relative to you) intimidate you. That just means it’ll take longer, and require you to get someone to explain some concepts. You can find that information, I’m sure.

Where to start: at least one class in the basics. Best would be a community college class, but if that is impractical, look for a community ed class run through the local school district. Failing that (or in addition), get Rosetta Stone or some other tool. I haven’t used many of them, but any would be better than nothing. The key is to get yourself to a basic sense of the grammar, so you can begin screwing the language up on your own.

Alphabet. If it has an alphabet you don’t know, learn it. However, even if you know the basic alphabet, not all letters are pronounced the same across tongues. Embrace its alphabet. Without this, you can only learn audially, which will stunt the process. Someone once asked my wife if I were also bi-literate in Spanish; I found the question shocking. I’d never considered the possibility one could fail to learn to read as one learned to speak. You shouldn’t even dream of just reading, or just speaking, unless it’s a dead language, for example Gothic or Ugaritic, that can’t be practiced aloud with hardly anyone. Learn the writing system. If it’s got symbols rather than an alphabet, you are better off knowing only five symbols well than none at all.

Your next resource: get to know a friendly native speaker. That is defined as someone who a) will answer your questions, and b) will not be offended when you say something stupid, tactless, or otherwise unintended in his or her native language. Don’t ask him or her the swear words; some people take real offense to that, as they consider it presenting the worst of a language they love. Anyway, this person is your resource. S/he is your source of pronunciation to imitate, encouragement, and so on. S/he may not actually know the grammar precisely, having grown up with it; whatever.

Do bear in mind that a native speaker’s willingness to correct you (or not) may have a cultural foundation. Most native Spanish speakers will praise your Spanish even if it’s lousy, because in many Hispanic cultures, to speak poorly is embarrassing. It might be hard to get them to nitpick you; most tend to think it is more important to help you save face. A German will not only volunteer the corrections most of the time, but will help you repeat them over and over until your articulation is flawless. By their lights, both are being kind and helpful. The Mexican would rather slit her wrists than (as she sees it) embarrass you; the German can not imagine someone not wanting to say it perfectly, and will coach you to do so. Each is showing the best possible manners by the standards of his or her culture, and you will just have to adjust and work with it. You’ll have to figure out what each culture’s weak spot is. For example, it took me a long time to realize that even though most French speakers were delighted to help me pronounce the language correctly, few native French speakers have any ability to slow their speech, which makes it very difficult for non-native speakers. They aren’t trying to make it tough on you; it’s just hard for them. Since you are the newcomer, it is you who adjusts and accepts.

Now arrange to like some music. Yeah. Find some music that you like, with lyrics in the language you’re trying to learn. Look however hard you have to, but it has to be something you enjoy. Once you’ve heard it a number of times, start looking up the lyrics and finding out what they mean. We tend to remember lyrics, so you’ll have some vocabulary and grammar from that without really doing any work. It is also something you can do while driving to the leather bar, waiting at the DMV, or smoking dope–no extra effort needed.

Think of your favorite short book. Ideally, it would be one whose original is in the language you want to learn, but doesn’t have to be. It’s the book you’ve read over and over for years, and can remember passages by heart. It is probably popular enough to be available in translation. Get the translation and start reading it. Feed words you do not understand to an online translator. You already know what to expect it to say, so the cues are already in your mind. If you really want to work at this, read it aloud. This you probably can’t do at the leather bar or DMV, but could do while smoking dope.

If you know of a book in that language that you want to read, but can’t get in English, you have a perfect motivator to start feeding it to a translation website para by para. You’ll absorb a lot. Get it in e-book version, or something from which you can copy and paste.

Speaking of smoking dope: or light drinking, if you indulge (I myself am a light drinker, don’t like weed; not that I advocate either, but I condemn neither), feel free to do so while reading or listening. A relaxed mind absorbs this stuff better. If you find that the relaxant trips your beer-thirty trigger and gets in the way of absorbing, of course, use common sense.

Grab a newspaper or magazine in the language. If it’s Spanish, many American cities have little weekly or monthly Spanish-language newsletters. Try to read it, looking up any word that really has you stuck. A magazine is best, because there are usually lots of pictures that will give you cues and context, but whatever medium you can find. Not only will you see the world as its speakers might see it, but you’ll pick up a metric crapton of vocabulary (this is equal to two English craptons). Just labor through the article so that you get the gist.

If you get cable or satellite TV, or otherwise have access to foreign movies, watch some. Subtitles aren’t necessary; I would recommend some with, some without. All the visual cues are there for you: if the French woman says in annoyance, “Elle me fait chier,” you may not get that this literally means “she causes me to shit,” but you will see that it was said in irritation, and will probably have an idea about whom she was talking. Through watching Mundos Perdidos on HITN, I picked up a lot of Spanish environmental terms without any effort at all, including great stuff like ‘manglar’ (mangrove swamp), ‘alimentación’ (nourishment), and ‘la caza’ (the hunt). In fact, half the time I was reading a book in English, just listening to the background vocals and peering up at the screen now and then.

Laugh at yourself. You are doing it wrong if you are afraid to embarrass yourself. Now and then it’s okay to make a funny mistake on purpose; it breaks the ice. A very nice young Mexican lady who spoke no English was helping me to recite the Spanish alphabet. The letter J, jota, in Spanish is pronounced ‘HO-ta.’ However, joto is Spanish slang for ‘gay.’ (I think it’s only pejorative if you mean it that way. I learned it from a Mexican who was speaking of a brother he loved very much.) When I got to J, I blurted “HO-toe.” She didn’t correct me, but she laughed.

Jokes don’t always translate, but when it’s safe, give it a try. I was explaining to a Spanish-speaking waitress that Deb spoke a little but was embarrassed to try, whereas I had no shame. To describe myself as ‘shameless,’ I used a cultural code word: sinvergüenza. In Spanish, that means “having no moral scruples of any kind,” and would be a terrible insult if I said it of anyone but myself. She knew I knew what I’d said, and what I meant in English, and in context it was comical. Have some fun.

All exposure is helpful. Reading, listening, speaking, writing; if you are doing anything involving the language, you’re making progress whether you feel like it or not.

You will never be perfect. Neither are they. Do we speak perfect English at all times? I do not, and the English language is my line of work. As I often tell people who keep apologizing to me for grammar or spelling, I’m off work; to get me to pick on your English, I get paid for that. Being understood, and understanding, are more attainable goals. Learning any language is like golfing: good days and bad days, good shots and bad shots, gradual improvement through regular application and self-examination.

Not that you shouldn’t strive for perfection, but if perfectionism becomes the excuse to beat yourself up, or be afraid to try, it’s a hindrance rather than a help.

Buena suerte, bonne chance/merde alors, etc.

It sometimes hurts to negotiate

“It never hurts to negotiate.”

A woman just said that to me about an antique dining chair, which needed new cane or other seating material, I was advertising for $10. And I think most people believe it. It goes on the list of “stupid things people have repeated so long and so often that they assume them to be true.”

To me, negotiation is for when the seller is not offering fair value. Suppose someone’s trying to sell some hummels (fine, long as they are sold to anyone but us; good god, but those things are useless). They are worth maybe $170. Someone lists them for $199. Fair enough: offer $150, end up paying $170-175, perfectly reasonable. Another example: car dealers are never offering fair value, because car dealers simply do not do that, ever. But when the seller is offering more than fair value, it can be counterproductive.

I knew that $20 would have been plenty fair for an antique chair frame that would be worth rather more with a little effort. I listed it for $10. Our conversation went:

“Will you take $5?”

“No. When I’m offering something that cheap, and someone tries to give me half of that cheap, I’d sooner throw it away than go along.” My face was smiling, but my brain was irritated.

She backpedaled a bit. “It’s okay, I have no problem paying $10. You know, it never hurts to negotiate.”

Still smiling: “Actually, sometimes it does.” She paid me, took the chair and left. It wasn’t about the $5 difference; it was about how ridiculous it is to dicker with someone at that level.

Most people don’t agree with me about that, which is yet another reason to have confidence in my viewpoint. Plus, it has worked for me many times in life.

Let’s take a couple more examples. I recently bought some collectibles from a fellow. His advertised price was more than fair; in fact, it was an excellent bargain. I could have negotiated, but it would have been stupid. I’d have conveyed to him that he always had to build in some bargaining room when dealing with me, and if we did future business, I’d have paid for it eventually. Or, since what he was asking was a great price, I could just pay it.

We went on to do more business, and for me, the second deal was the big test. If he tried to deliver less value for the price on the second go, then I’d have known it was time to negotiate–if the value was no longer fair. As it was, he was so delighted, the values kept getting better and better, and he kept throwing in other stuff that I would definitely want but he hadn’t promised. I ended up with ridiculous bargains and all our transactions were most cordial. If I’d put him on notice that he had to fight for every dollar when already offering fair value, I would have gotten only what was promised, and I’d have had to pay a lot more.

Here’s another. My wife and I are about to close on a home in Aloverton (unincorporated Washington County between Beaverton and Aloha, Oregon). The sellers wanted $282K. It so happened that my wife got to meet the sellers when she was looking at the home, and they hit it off very well. Our agent advised us that the value was excellent and likely to draw several offers within the day. She suggested a full price offer, more if we really wanted it.

Well, it was about at the ceiling of what we could afford and finance, but I gambled a bit on the seller’s class and relationship to my wife. Had they wanted maximum dollar, they’d have listed it $10K higher, and probably gotten it. It was evident, relative to the market, that they just wanted it sold. So I told our agent: “Let’s offer them a little over full price, just so that if they get more than one of those, we at least are in the club.” She agreed, and we offered $282,500.

The sellers countered with an acceptance subject to a few small conditions (all easy to accept), and conveyed to us that they would like to accept our offer, citing the relationship with Deb and the good feeling that obtained, but could we please respond quickly so that if the answer were “no,” that they could accept one of the other offers. I asked our agent if she thought the other offers were above full price. She said that if she had to guess, one had probably been about $284K and one perhaps as high as $287K. Of course, we jumped on it.

Then came the home inspection phase, an area where we had already had to bust a home purchase deal due to a dishonest homebrew maintenance seller. This house came back with about $1300 in legit repairs, an abnormally small amount on a house selling for $282,500: less than 0.5% of the value. Considering that our home inspector is an absolute stickler who views his work as educating the client about even the fussiest little issues, if he couldn’t find even 1% of the value, it was obvious the place was in fantastic shape. Even so, by reflex, our agent began preparing an addendum to ask the sellers for $1300. She actually didn’t consult us before she started to prepare this, though that’s not bad behavior on her part; as all such agreements say in bold capital letters, “time is of the essence in this agreement.” She was simply being alacritous, if a bit habitual. Considering what a lazy horse’s ass the listing agent had been by comparison, I wasn’t going to grouse on her over an error in the direction of timeliness. We did, however, need to have a meeting of the minds.

Our agent called me to let me know she had prepared the addendum for our signatures. “L,” I said, “we need to get on the same page. See it from the sellers’ viewpoint. We think it very likely they went out of their way to sell the house to us for anywhere from $2-5K less than someone else might have paid them, all for the sake of wanting us to have it. In their mind, in effect, they have already given us a $4-5K discount. They have been splendid throughout this whole deal, although I have no idea what would move them to use such an atrocious listing agent; maybe they are too unwilling to believe the worst of anyone. So here they are, having already given up $4-5K in their minds, and now–now that they are in contract, have declined the other offers, and would have to start all over again if they reject the addendum–the recipients of that value want another $1300? This will signal to them that we think it never hurts to negotiate. Well, it can.”

“I never thought of that,” she said.

I wasn’t done. (I was not angry, just making my points; it was a cordial-toned conversation.) “What’s worse, it has no teeth. Suppose we ask for that, and they say ‘forget it.’ Would we then bust the deal for $1300 in fairly straightforward repairs?”

“I can’t see you doing that.”

“You’re right. We wouldn’t, which means that we’d just be twisting their arms for a small gain. So if we do as you are suggesting, we will change the entire character of the transaction, and worse yet, we will be doing so at the point where we have less to lose than they do. It would be a tremendous inconvenience for them if the sale failed now, so they’d be almost forced to take it–but they’d be on notice that they’d misjudged our business style and approach to life. Or, given their conduct so far, they might simply refuse, preferring to endure the inconvenience rather than have their arms twisted over a trivial matter. I think we should believe our home inspector, waive the contingency without dickering, and move this whole thing forward.”

“Wow. This is very rare, but I see your point. If you’d like to waive it, that makes sense.”

We waived it. The sellers responded by offering us any furniture in the house. Any or all. While we didn’t expect any such thing, it confirmed that we’d read our people rightly.

On top of that, they’d previously offered us a desk and the bookshelves, made by the husband’s own hand before he became more frail. We had to come up with something, though, lest we seem to spurn their generosity, so we accepted the barstools. Not high value in resale, probably spendy to buy ourselves, and least likely to match wherever they were living.

We also learned, along the way, that the listing agent was not keeping his clients apprised of matters that would directly concern them such as the progress of our financing and appraisal process. If I were them, I’d have been nervous as hell about the possibility that either might blow up. So we took steps, quietly, to make sure the sellers knew immediately when each step had finished, including the point at which all was approved and we were all clear to close.

I find it a bit tragic that I, buying this house sight unseen, will never get to meet the sellers. They seem like the sort of people I’d want as neighbors.

And it would very much have hurt to negotiate.

A treatise on Boise: what I will and will not miss

This is a time when I am mostly unable to do a lot of blogging, but as I enter my final couple of months in Boise, I find myself reflective, and desiring to do the same sort of reflection I did when we left Washington for Idaho. Thus, the positive first:

I will miss:

  • The potato skins at Goodwood Barbecue. I’ve never even tried their barbecue. Once I had the skins, the rest of their menu officially no longer mattered to me.
  • The easy friendliness of the average Boisean.
  • The good people we met here, which was most of the total people we met here.
  • Basque food ranging from bar food to cloth-napkin restaurants.
  • A healthy distrust of our precious government.
  • Traffic insignificant by comparison to larger cities.
  • Surprisingly cool museums for a town its size.
  • A superb library.
  • The ‘Idaho stop.’ In Idaho, bicycles treat stop signs as yield signs, and red lights as stop signs, and it works very well. Since that’s what cyclists are going to do anyway, for the most part, making it legal is one less thing for the police to ticket people over.
  • Idaho characters. While characters can be obnoxious, Idaho tends to embrace them, and at heart, most are good folks.
  • Division I-A college football and a passionate fanbase for a team I at least can bear.
  • The Idaho Potato Drop at New Year’s. It’s hilarious, and best of all, it’s owning it.
  • The tremendous and diverse natural beauty of a state that I can’t believe anyone would willingly pollute.
  • A large number of ways to experience that outdoors, with plentiful hiking, fishing, camping, skiing, boating, hunting, and other ways to get out from behind a computer screen and live.
  • A high incidence of volunteerism and generosity.
  • The state liquor stores have a lot better selection than the Washington ones ever did.

I won’t miss:

  • Predatory law enforcement that has revenue generation as its obvious primary purpose, and thus is morally little better than when the Federales stop you in Mexico and you have to bribe them.
  • The perpetually flat coke at Goodwood Barbecue. How hard can it be to fix a pop machine?
  • Zoomtards. You don’t know what that means? Suppose there are two lanes before and after the light on your side, but anyone can see that the right lane will have to merge after the light. A zoomtard is a person who zooms past just to get ahead, rather than merge in at the safe and obvious place, and in Boise there seems to be one in every situation where it’s possible for one to exist.
  • Coal rollers. These are the jackasses who find it amusing to show their hatred for environmentalism by using their diesel trucks to produce a noxious cloud of ugly smoke when a Prius (or whatever fuel-economic vehicle) is behind them.
  • Deep ignorance and corruption entrenched in state government. It’s not your imagination; they really, truly, authentically are that ignorant and corrupt.
  • Lousy schools that produce subpar education.
  • ‘Inversion.’ Since smog is for Californians, Boise is not supposed to have smog. However, it does, but it’s only a problem when an inversion traps it. Thus, people complain about ‘the inversion’ when the real problem is the smog, which is a naughty word. I find the euphemism more annoying than the air quality issues.
  • The idea that a potato mogul could be Very Important. Nothing against J.R. Simplot, but we don’t have to talk about his family name like they’re the House of Windsor.
  • Must surely be the world capital of pawnshops, payday/title loan places, and other vampiric business that, if it were up to me, I would crush without compensation or remorse.
  • Political incontinence. You can’t meet five random people in Idaho without one of them trying to work up a political hatefest. Politics, like defaecation, are bearable when done in the proper venue designed for the purpose. The random person who can’t shut up about politics while people are trying to do civilized things, I rank right down there with someone who gets up from the restaurant table and takes a dump in the aisle.
  • ‘Murrica f*** yeah': the macho mentality that in my opinion has caused so many of our national defects.
  • What must surely the the world’s largest concentration of native English-speaking call centers on earth, mostly so employers can take advantage of Idaho’s serious wealth disparity, rudimentary social services, and of course low minimum wage.
  • Having both a state sales tax and a state income tax.
  • The general halfassedness with which so much is done, from road maintenance to customer service.
  • Dogwhistle racism. As in eastern Washington, ‘rough area’ is code for ‘has Hispanics.’
  • Denial about racism. Here’s the denial standpoint: “in Idaho, racism was Brought From Outside by A Bunch of Neo-Nazis who Do Not Represent Idaho.” That is not 100% true, as comforting as moderate Idahoans may find it to be. A fairer statement: racism has long had a significant presence in Idaho, and while most Idahoans rejected the more extreme versions, there was a hefty minority who looked at the racists and more or less thought: “Well, they’re pretty nutty, but they’re right on at least some things.” And that’s fertile recruiting ground.

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