Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

The Law Says She Should Have Been Protected From Birth. Instead, She Was Left in the Care of Her Drug-Addicted Mother, Who Killed Her.

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Governments in the US are not doing their job and in fact are betraying the public. That’s harsh and not entirely true, but examples of the failure of government are myriad, including those described in this ProPublica report by Emily Palmer and Jessica Huseman:

KOSCIUSKO, Miss. — The adults in her life began failing Jasmine Irwin before she ever left the hospital.

Born severely underweight — just 4 pounds, 3 ounces — to a mother with a history of dealing and abusing methamphetamine, Jasmine might have been exposed to drugs in the womb, doctors believed, which should have jump-started intensive efforts to keep her safe.

But hospital records show staff never followed up, failing to conduct drug tests on the baby or her mother, Tami Mann, before letting Mann take Jasmine home to the family’s trailer in this small town north of the state capital.

Countless children live with neglectful or abusive caretakers, which is why federal law requires states to ensure that certain professionals — like doctors and police officers — intercede when they suspect a child is in danger.

But a national survey by The Boston Globe and ProPublica found that not a single state fully complies with the nation’s primary child abuse law for children who are not in state custody. Mississippi is a significant offender. During Jasmine Irwin’s life, the state violated the law in multiple ways. For example, the state did not have procedures in place to protect infants affected by their mother’s drug use when Jasmine Irwin was born on Christmas Eve 2013.

And so she went unprotected. For almost two years, Jasmine lived in a home plagued by her parents’ violence and addiction. Ten months after giving birth to Jasmine, Mann made clear that she was struggling to parent her children. When she entered drug rehab, she wrote on medical forms that the sight and smell of children triggered incredible anxiety for her.

But Mann’s cry for help didn’t bring the support she needed — including protections that could have started the day Jasmine was born. Instead, Mann, struggling with both addiction and domestic violence, snapped. One day in September 2015, Mann grabbed Jasmine by the legs and pounded her head first into the living room floor as Jasmine’s older brother watched.

“My mom just keeps being mean to her,” the 4-year-old boy told investigators at the time. “And, finally, she had to go to the doctor.”

Jasmine died three days later. Her short life casts a long shadow, marking her as a casualty of both a brutally dysfunctional family — and of America’s ongoing failure to effectively combat child abuse. The Globe and ProPublica reviewed thousands of pages of legal, criminal, medical and child welfare records, along with recorded interviews, to piece together a full picture of the failings that led to Jasmine’s death, an all-too-common tragedy.

Child abuse and neglect have never received the national attention of other American scourges such as AIDS and terrorism, even as an estimated 700,000 children are mistreated in the United States each year. It’s not that Americans don’t care about protecting children, but Congress and the White House have long regarded combating child abuse as a state or local concern rather than a national one. It is an attitude that goes back at least to the 1970s and the presidency of Richard Nixon.

And almost 50 years later, that ambivalence persists — down to the most basic understanding of the issue.

Today, the federal government doesn’t even know how many children die from abuse and neglect — or whether the death toll is rising or falling. The most commonly cited numbers, from the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System, put the death toll at 1,750 in 2016, the most recent year available, the highest total since the government started keeping track in 1992. But researchers believe that the voluntary reporting which yields that figure badly undercounts child deaths and that the real number of fatally mistreated children could be more than twice that: somewhere between 3,000 and 4,500 each year.

The nation’s primary child abuse law for children not in state custody, the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act of 1974, was supposed to help address this tragic toll by requiring states to make public the name and some basic information on almost every child who died from abuse and neglect.

But when the Globe and ProPublica tried to obtain this information from all 50 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, nine simply refused to provide it, while many others released only some of what’s required. The result is a murky, incomplete picture that makes it impossible to calculate the national death toll.

And that’s only the beginning of how states are failing.

In addition to filing reports on child abuse, the law, known as CAPTA, requires states to create plans to protect infants affected by drugs and provide mistreated children with representatives in court proceedings, among dozens of other mandates, in order to receive federal dollars dedicated to child abuse prevention. But still, noncompliance runs rampant.

“Every single state,” said one leading child welfare expert, Michael Petit, is “vulnerable to successful class action litigation for being in violation of federal law, every single one of them.”

Vulnerable but also, strangely, protected. One glaring weak link in CAPTA is that it severely restricts lawsuits by private organizations, meaning children’s advocates can rarely file class action lawsuits to force change. As a result, attorneys have largely given up on using the federal law to protect children who have not been taken into state custody. By comparison, federal laws protecting foster children give advocates more power to sue to improve their care.

But the survey of state governments by the Globe and ProPublica, the first such national assessment of the law ever conducted, shows Petit’s assertion of noncompliance is spot on. Although states routinely file reports with the federal Children’s Bureau — the agency charged with enforcing the CAPTA requirements — broadly claiming to follow the law, the Globe and ProPublica’s survey shows that is not true. In fact, not a single state upholds all 27 provisions of the anti-child-abuse law.

The 76-question survey, which was answered by 49 states, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico, focused on five key areas of CAPTA, including proper care for drug-affected infants. State responses to the survey suggest that many treat strict compliance with the federal law as optional. Mississippi’s record is nothing special — in fact, its level of compliance puts the state in the middle of the pack. As a result, vulnerable children across the country are left in the lurch.

Survey analysis revealed that:

  • 49 of the 52 child protection agencies surveyed don’t follow federal rules to protect babies affected by drugs during their mother’s pregnancy.
  • 49 of the states as well as Puerto Rico are unable to show that they follow rules mandating that children receive representation for any court proceedings regarding their possible mistreatment. The result is that, far too often, no one speaks for the best interests of the mistreated child.
  • 45 agencies, including Mississippi’s, do not comply with three or more of the five CAPTA mandates that the Globe and ProPublica asked about. Yet, almost every state, including Mississippi, routinely files letters with the federal Children’s Bureau claiming to follow the law in order to be eligible for federal funding.
  • Six agencies, including those in Florida and Michigan, do not comply with any of the federal rules the Globe and ProPublica asked about. And not one agency was found fully compliant with the federal law.

The Globe and ProPublica monitored state compliance with the five provisions over the course of two years, contacting about 100 agencies in the process. Some states seemed almost to welcome the rankings, even if the findings made them look bad. Louisiana was found fully compliant with just two of the measured CAPTA provisions, but Catherine Heitman, a spokeswoman for the child welfare department, said that the new scrutiny could force systemwide improvements.

“We need help, we need funding,” she said. “And, hey, this might actually get us the help we need.” . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

Mahatma Gandhi: “The true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members.”

Written by LeisureGuy

13 December 2019 at 8:21 pm

Why the Media Are Ignoring the Afghanistan Papers

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Alex Shephard writes in the New Republic:

This week, The Washington Post published the Afghanistan Papers, an extensive review of thousands of pages of internal government documents relating to the war in Afghanistan. Like the Pentagon Papers, which showcased the lies underpinning the Vietnam War, the Post’s investigation shows that U.S. officials, across three presidential administrations, intentionally and systematically misled the American public for 18 years and counting. As Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers in 1974, told CNN earlier this week, the Pentagon and Afghanistan Papers revealed the same dynamic: “The presidents and the generals had a pretty realistic view of what they were up against, which they did not want to admit to the American people.”

The documents are an indictment not only of one aspect of American foreign policy, but also of the U.S.’s entire policymaking apparatus. They reveal a bipartisan consensus to lie about what was actually happening in Afghanistan: chronic waste and chronic corruption, one ill-conceived development scheme after another, resulting in a near-unmitigated failure to bring peace and prosperity to the country. Both parties had reason to engage in the cover-up. For the Bush administration, Afghanistan was a key component in the war on terror. For the Obama administration, Afghanistan was the “good war” that stood in contrast to the nightmare in Iraq.

The Afghanistan Papers are, in other words, a bombshell. Yet the report has received scant attention from the broader press. Neither NBC nor ABC covered the investigation in their nightly broadcasts this week. In other outlets, it has been buried beneath breathless reporting on the latest developments in the impeachment saga, Joe Biden’s purported pledge to serve only one term, and world leaders’ pathological envy of a 16-year-old girl.

The relentless news cycle that characterizes Donald Trump’s America surely deserves some blame: This isn’t the first time that a consequential news story has been buried under an avalanche of other news stories. But one major reason that the Afghanistan Papers have received so comparatively little coverage is that everyone is to blame, which means no one has much of an interest in keeping the story alive. There are no hearings, few press gaggles.

George W. Bush started the Afghanistan War and botched it in plenty of ways, not least by starting another war in Iraq. But Barack Obama, despite his obvious skepticism of the war effort, exacerbated Bush’s mistakes by bowing to the Washington foreign policy blob and authorizing a pointless troop surge. Now, although both Democrats and Donald Trump seem to be on the same page about getting the U.S. out of Afghanistan, there has been little progress with peace talks. The pattern across administrations is that any movement toward resolution is usually met with a slow slide back into the status quo, a.k.a. quagmire.

The political press loves the idea of bipartisan cooperation, which plays into a notion of American greatness and its loss. It also thrives on partisan conflict, because conflict drives narrative. It doesn’t really know what to do with bipartisan failure.

During the impeachment hearings, news outlets gleefully covered the conflict between Trump and members of the foreign policy establishment, holding up the latter as selfless bureaucrats working tirelessly and anonymously on behalf of the American interest, in contrast with the feckless and narcissistic head of the executive branch. The Afghanistan Papers don’t provide that kind of easy contrast; they demand a kind of holistic condemnation, in which Trump and those bureaucrats are part of the same problem.

The media also has a long-standing bias toward “new” news. The Afghanistan War has been a catastrophic failure for nearly two decades. Because little changes, there is little to report that will excite audiences. (Though the Afghanistan Papers are startling, they are hardly surprising.) Given that the president is the greatest supplier of “new” news in recent history—his Twitter feed alone powers MSNBC most days—more complex stories, like the situation in Afghanistan, are often buried in favor of the political equivalent of sports sideline reporting.

The result is that this massive controversy receives disproportionately little coverage. Despite wasting thousands of lives and hundreds of billions of dollars, everyone in the U.S. government gets off scot-free. . .

Continue reading.

It is increasingly difficult to see how the US can get back on track. Too many different forces have motivation to stay the current course, which leads directly over a cliff.

This is How a Society Dies

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Umir Haque writes at Medium:

When I ask my European friends to describe us — Americans, Brits, who I’ll call Anglo-Americans in this essay — they shake their heads gently. And over and over, three themes emerge. They say we’re a little thoughtless. They say we’re selfish and arrogant. And they say that we’re cruel and brutal.

I can’t help but think there’s more than a grain of truth. That they’re being kind. Anglo-American society is now the world’s preeminent example of willful self-destruction. It’s jaw-dropping folly and stupidity is breathtaking to the rest of the world.

The hard truth is this. America and Britain aren’t just collapsing by the day…they aren’t even just choosing to collapse by the day. They’re entering a death spiral, from which there’s probably no return. Yes, really. Simple economics dictate that, just like they did for the Soviet Union — and I’ll come to them.

And yet what’s even weirder and more grotesque than that is that…wel…nobody much seems to have noticed. There’s a deafening silence from pundits and elites and columnists and politicians on the joint self-destruction of the Anglo-American world. Nobody seems to have noticed: the only two rich societies in the world with falling life expectancies, incomes, savings, happiness, trust — every single social indicator you can imagine — are America and Britain. It’s not one of history’s most improbable coincidences that America and Britain are collapsing in eerily similar ways, at precisely the same time. It’s a relationship. What connects the dots?

Let me pause to note that my European friends’ first criticism — that we’re thoughtless — is therefore accurate. We’re not even capable of noticing — much less understanding — our twin collapse. Our entire thinking and leadership class seems not to have even noticed, like idiots grinning and dancing, setting their own house on fire. They are simply going on pretending it isn’t happening — that the English speaking world isn’t fast becoming something very much like the new Soviet Union.

So what caused this joint collapse? How did the English speaking world end up like the new Soviet Union? To understand that point, consider the fact that you yourself probably think that’s an overstatement. But it’s an empirical reality. The Soviet Union stagnated for thirty years. America’s stagnated for fifty, and Britain for twenty. The Soviet Union couldn’t provide basics for its citizens — hence the famous breadlines. In America, people beg each other for money to pay for insulin and antibiotics, decent food is unavailable in vast swathes of the country, and retirement and paying off one’s debt are impossibilities: just like in the Soviet Union, basics are becoming both unavailable and unaffordable. What happens? People…die.

(The same is true in Britain. In both societies, upwards of 20% of children live in poverty, the middle class has imploded, and upward mobility has all but vanished. These are Soviet statistics — lethally real ones.)

Politics, too, has become a sclerotic Soviet affair. Anglo-American societies aren’t really democracies in any sensible meaning of the word anymore. They’re run by and for a class of elites, who could care less, literally, whether the average person lives or dies. In America, that class is a bizarre coterie of Ivy Leaguers pretending to be aw-shucks-good-ole-boys on the one side, like Ted Cruz, and Ivy Leaguers pretending to be do-gooders on the other, like Zuck and Silicon Valley. In Britain, it’s the notorious public school boys, the Etonians and Oxbridge set.

That brings me to arrogance. What’s astonishing about our elites is how…arrogant they are…and how ignorant they are…at precisely the same time. Finland just elected a 34 year old woman as a Prime Minister from the Social Democrats. Finland is a society that outperforms ours in every way — every way — imaginable. Finnish happiness is way, way higher — and so is life expectancy, mobility, savings, real incomes, trust, among others. And yet instead of learning a thing from a miracle like that, our elites profess to know a better way…while they’ve run our societies into the ground. What the? Hubris would be an understatement. I don’t think the English language has a word for this weird, fatal combination of arrogance amidst ignorance. Maybe cocksure stupidity comes close.

And yet our elites have succeeded in one vital task — what an Emile Durkheim might have called “social reproduction.” They’ve managed to reproduce society in their image. What does the average Anglo-American aspire to be, do, have? To be rich, powerful, careless, selfish, and dumb, now, mostly. We don’t, as societies or cultures, value learning or knowledge or magnanimity or great and noble things, anymore. We shower millions on reality TV stars and billions on “investment bankers.” The average person has become a tiny microcosm of the aspirations and norms of elites — they’re not curious, empathetic, decent, humane, noble, kind, in pursuit of wisdom, truth, beauty, meaning, purpose. We’ve become cruel, indecent, obscene, comically shallow, and astonishingly foolish people.

That’s not some kind of jeremiad. It’s an objective, easily observed truth. Who else in a rich society denies their neighbours healthcare and retirement? Nobody. Who else denies their own kids education? Nobody. Who else denies themselves childcare and elderly care? Nobody. Who else doesn’t want safety nets, opportunities, mobility, protection, savings, higher incomes? Nobody. Literally nobody on planet earth wants worse lives excepts us. We’re the only people on earth who thwart our own social progress, over and over again — and cheer about it.

How did we become these people? How did we become tiny microcosms of our arrogant, ignorant, breathtakingly stupid elites? Because we are . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

13 December 2019 at 11:14 am

Quora’s brusqueness

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Quora has an overarching rule, corresponding to Google’s “Do no evil”: “Be Nice, Be Respectful.” That seems to be a rule for Quora users, not Quora Moderation, which is often arbitrary and disrespectful.

Recently, for example, I got this message from Quora Moderation:

Your answer was found to violate a policy on Quora and has been deleted.

There was an “appeal” button, so I first looked at the answer to try to figure out what policy had been violated. The question I answered was “What can I do to lose weight naturally?” (and that was merged with What is the most natural way to lose weight?). Here is the answer I posted:

Losing weight is almost totally driven by food choices (what and how much). Exercise (such as walking, running, and workouts) is needed for stamina and strength and for making sure that the weight you lose is fat and not muscle, but purely in terms of weight loss, exercise is neither necessary nor sufficient. It’s not necessary, because even if you don’t exercise, you can lose weight; and it’s not sufficient because, even if you do exercise, you cannot eat anything you want and still lose weight.

In contrast, good food choices are both necessary and sufficient for weight loss, so I see food choice as the main driver of weight loss. (It should also be recognized that genetics can drive food choices—see This Genetic Mutation Makes People Feel Full — All the Time.)

In Dr. Michael Greger’s book How Not to Die, he notes:

Surveys suggest that most people believe controlling diet and getting enough exercise are equally important for weight control.9 It’s a lot easier to eat, however, than to move. To walk off the calories found in a single pat of butter or margarine, you’d have to add about an extra half-mile to your evening stroll. For every additional sardine [sic] on your Caesar salad, that’s another quarter-mile job. If you eat two chicken legs you’ll need to get up on your own two legs and run three miles just to make up for it—and that’s stewed chicken, skin removed.10

The numbers in the text identify footnotes that specify the studies whose findings support the statements. (And Caesar salads are made with anchovies, not sardines.)

Part 2 of How Not to Die describes in detail a whole-food plant-based diet that works well to lose weight (as well as improve health), in part because the diet is very filling and satisfying while being of relatively low caloric density.. Both the vegan diet and the whole-food plant-based diet are plant-based, which excludes meat, dairy, and eggs, but unlike the vegan diet, the WFPB diet is restricted to whole foods and thus specifically excludes refined foods such as refined sugar and foods that contain it, foods made from flour, and fruit juice (though whole fruit is fine). Moreover, the WFPB diet excludes product foods manufactured using industrial processes from refined ingredients with a variety of additives and sold packaged under a brand name: imitation “bacon,” imitation “sausage,” imitation “burger,” imitation “cheese,” bottled salad dressings, and so on. Refined/processed product foods are particularly to be avoided if you’re trying to lose weight — see It’s Not Just Salt, Sugar, Fat: Study Finds Ultra-Processed Foods Drive Weight Gain.

For more details, see this answer: Michael Ham’s answer to If someone goes vegan, but also takes both pea protein and rice protein regularly, will they meet nutritional needs?

That said, cardio exercise, though it contributes little to weight loss, is necessary for cardiovacular health — a good diet is also necessary, but not sufficient. Dr. Kenneth Cooper, who spent his career studying cardio exercise and its effects, developed a point system to measure the cardio effects of different exercises at various durations and intensity levels. He recommends a minimum of 35 points per week for men, 27 points per week for women, exercising at least 4 days a week and at most 6. (He specifically recommends taking at least one day off each week.)

His point system tells you for each type of exercise the number of points earned for various times and distances, as shown in this table: https://www.cooperaerobics.com/Downloads/About/Aerobics-Points-System.aspx

The table starts with Walking/Running, but scroll down through the document to see the points for cycling, for swimming, and other cardio exercises, including some sports.

To determine your current level of fitness, you can use Dr. Cooper’s 12-minute test: Cooper Test: A 12-Minute Run to Check Aerobic Fitness. For example, if you do only weight-training and believe that provides cardio fitness, you can put it to the test.

High-intensity interval training (HIIT) is also a good cardio exercise and is more efficient in terms of time required, but keep in mind that you must enjoy whatever exercise you choose. If you don’t, you’ll constantly have to push yourself to do the exercise, whereas if you enjoy the exercise you will be drawn to it.

I did appeal, and this morning I received this notification from Quora Moderation:

Quora Moderation reviewed and rejected your appeal regarding your answer to What is the most natural way to lose weight? This decision cannot be appealed. Learn more about Quora’s policies here.

Notice what is missing (beyond simple courtesy and respect): The initial deletion notice (and the answer was deleted, not just collapsed) gave no reason for the action. Quora has a plethora of policies (beyond “Be Nice, Be Respectful”) and I read them and could find no policy that my answer violated. Indeed, I thought my answer was helpful and informative.

And the rejection of the appeal gave no reasons for the rejection. Quora, unlike (say) judges in criminal and civil courts, does not issue an opinion that explains the rationale, but simply gives the decision with no reasons attached. And of course, in keeping with the brusqueness, there is no way to contact Quora Moderation to seek information. Quora Moderation does not interact with Quora users.

I continue to answer questions on Quora from a desire to help those asking the questions, but Quora Moderation periodically will step in and (without explanation) delete answers.

Written by LeisureGuy

13 December 2019 at 9:06 am

Slow your beating heart: Beans v. Exercise

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You may have noticed yesterday that my pulse rate on the pharmacy blood-pressure meter was 64 bpm. That’s because I was out and about and had been walking the supermarket aisles, lifting boxes of frozen mixed berries (on sale!) into the cart, and so on. I just now took my resting heart rate, sitting in my chair at home, and it is 53 bpm. I did ask the doctor about this bradycardia and he said it was good. I looked back and I see that in March it ran in the mid to high 70’s and once even 80 bpm. And mid-March is when I switched to a whole-food plant-based diet. That may be why my pulse rate has slowed — I do generally eat 3 servings of pulse (beans or lentils) a day. (Interesting that “pulse” has two meanings.)

Written by LeisureGuy

13 December 2019 at 8:42 am

Yardley lathers well but its fragrance is faint

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Yesterday I used my vintage Lenthéric shaving soap and commented on the excellence of this fragrance. The Yarddley soap pictured above is from the same era, and though it produces an excellent lather, its fragrance is fleeting. One possible reason: the wooden lid sits loosely atop the bowl, whereas the Lenthéric lid fits fairly tightly.

Still, it was an extremely nice lather in terms of consistency, and the fragrance, though faint, was appealing — a light lavender. Phoenix Artisan’s Green Ray did a fine job, and then the Stealth — wonderful slant! — removed every trace of stubble in three passes.

A splash of the wonderful Diplomat aftershave finished the job, and here we stand looking the weekend in the eye.

Written by LeisureGuy

13 December 2019 at 8:25 am

Posted in Shaving

Why learning a new language is like an illicit love affair

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Marianna Pogosyan, a lecturer in cultural psychology at the IES Abroad in Amsterdam and at the University of Amsterdam’s Politics, Psychology, Law and Economics (PPLE) college in The Netherlands, writes in Aeon:

Learning a new language is a lot like entering a new relationship. Some will become fast friends. Others will hook their arms with calculus formulas and final-exam-worthy historical dates, and march right out of your memory on the last day of school. And then sometimes, whether by mere chance or as a consequence of a lifelong odyssey, some languages will lead you to the brink of love.

Those are the languages that will consume you – all of you – as you do everything to make them yours. You dissect syntax structures. You recite conjugations. You fill notebooks with rivers of new letters. You run your pen over their curves and cusps again and again, like you would trace your fingers over a lover’s face. The words bloom on paper. The phonemes interlace into melodies. The sentences taste fragrant, even as they tumble awkwardly from your mouth like bricks built of foreign symbols. You memorise prose and lyrics and newspaper headlines, just to have them at your lips after the sun dips and when it dawns again.

Verbs after adverbs, nouns after pronouns, your relations deepen. Yet, the closer you get, the more aware you become of the mirage-like void between you. It’s vast, this void of knowledge, and you need a lifetime to traverse it. But you have no fear, since the path to your beloved gleams with curiosity and wonder that is almost urgent. What truths will you uncover amid the new letters and the new sounds? About the world? About yourself?

As with all relationships, the euphoria wears off eventually. With your wits regained, you keep dissecting and memorising, listening and speaking. Your accent is incorrigible. Your mistakes are inescapable. The rules are endless, as are the exceptions. The words – gracebless youonce upon a time – have lost their magic. But your devotion to them, your need for them is more earnest than ever. You have wandered too far from home to turn back now. You feel committed and vulnerable, trusting of their benevolence. On the occasion of your renewed vows, the language comes bearing gifts of inspiration and connection – not only to new others, but to a new you.

Many renowned writers have revelled in the gifts of their non-native tongues. Vladimir Nabokov, for instance, had been living in the United States for only a few years before he wrote Lolita (1955): a work that has been hailed as ‘a polyglot’s love letter to language’ and had him called a ‘master of English prose’. The Irishman Samuel Beckett wrote in French to escape the clutter of English. The Canadian Yann Martel found success writing not in his native French, but in English – a language that he says provides him with ‘a sufficient distance to write’. This distance, observes the Turkish novelist Elif Shafak of writing in her non-native English, leads her closer to home.

When Haruki Murakami sat at his kitchen table to write his first novel, he felt like his native Japanese was getting in the way. His thoughts would rush out of him like out of a ‘barn crammed with livestock’, as he put it in 2015. Then he tried writing in English, with limited vocabulary and simple syntax at his hands. As he translated (‘transplanted’, he calls it) his compact English sentences ‘stripped of all extraneous fat’ into Japanese, a distinctly unadorned style was born that decades later became synonymous with his worldwide success. When the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jhumpa Lahiri started writing in Italian – a language she had been loving and learning for years – she felt like she was writing with her weaker hand. She was ‘exposed’, ‘uncertain’ and ‘poorly equipped’. Yet, she writes in 2015, she felt light and free, protected and reborn. Italian made her rediscover why she writes – ‘the joy as well as the need’.

But affairs of the heart rarely leave any witnesses untouched. Including our mother tongues. My grandmother has a collection of letters that I wrote to her after I left Armenia for Japan. Once in a while, she takes out the stack of envelopes with Japanese stamps that she keeps next to her passport, and reads through them. She knows all the words by heart, she insists with pride. One day, as we sit across each other with a screen and a continent between us, grandma shakes her head.

Something changed, she tells me ominously, skimming my sentences through her oversized glasses. With each letter, something kept changing, she says.

Of course something changed, grandma, I tell her. I moved to Japan. I hit puberty. I…

No, she laments with teacher’s remorse, your writing changed. First, it was the odd spelling mistake here and there. Then, the verbs and the nouns would pop up in wrong places.

Silence settles between us. I keep my eyes on the procession of English letters on my keyboard.

It’s nothing dramatic, she tells me, mostly to console herself, but enough for me to hold my breath every time I stumbled on errors that weren’t there before.

She opens another envelope.

Oh, and then, she exclaims, the punctuation! All of a sudden, there were too many commas. Then a single dot at the end of your sentences.

She lifts her glasses on top of her puff of white hair and begins to wrap her treasures back into my late grandfather’s handkerchief.

The last one that you sent me, she says with a defeated simper, that’s when everything changed. You wrote in our letters, you used our words, but it no longer sounded Armenian.

The truth is that entering an intimate relationship with a new language often colours everything. Our eyes expect the new words. Our ears habituate to the new sounds. Our pens memorise the new letters. While the infatuation takes over our senses, the language’s anatomy etches into our brains. Neural pathways are laid, connections are formed. Brain networks integrate. Grey matter becomes denser, white matter gets strengthened. Then, splatters of the new hues begin to show up in letters to grandma.

Linguists call this ‘second language interference’, when the new language interferes with the old language, like a new lover rearranging the furniture of your bedroom, as if to say – this is how things will be done around here from now on. Somehow, writing exposes this interference (this betrayal, as grandma saw it) more than . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

12 December 2019 at 8:21 pm

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