Chez Shaffner

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Roasted Turnips and a Pervasive Sense of Underachievement.

Classes began two weeks ago at Harvard, my alma mater and current pass-through employer (my current consulting gig is there). Sometime last week there materialized a red newspaper box at one end of the crosswalk I navigate every morning between eight and eight-thirty. The Harvard Crimson, producing another batch of future featured columnists and eventual editors-in-chief of reputable glossies. Available for the unbeatable price of $0.00, and perfectly positioned for me to read while crossing the Square. (Reading while navigating heavy foot traffic: I highly endorse this sport). Today I share with you two trivial observations from my week’s readership.

Two days ago I was appalled--no hint of hyberbole here; my jaw actually dropped open for at least ten seconds--to find the dinner menu featuring, as one of its five items, roasted turnips. I remember mocking some menu items in my day. I mean, “bell-ringing beef?” Mmm. But roasted turnips? Wonder if they track any statistics on how many pounds of a given item they present vs. how many pounds end up in the dumpster?

Which brings me to today’s announcement that three MacArthur Genius Grants (that’s $500,000 for your information) went to Harvard alums. Cool. And not terribly surprising. But here’s what blew me away: two of the winners graduated from the college at the end of my freshman year. That pegs them at…young. So I dive into a few days of quiet wallowing in the reality of my underachievement. Used to happen once each year, but it’s starting to occur more frequently--at least once every four months. Makes me stop to rethink so many decisions over the years. Should I have found a way to suppress my distaste for biology and pursued a cure for cancer? Or studied econometrics and cured third-world poverty? Or devoted two years to teaching ESL? Why haven’t I started my own company? And on and on...

I suppose it’s healthy…inspires me to bang away 10% harder at the keyboard. Unfortunately I’m spending that 10% on this blog and my six loving readers instead of writing the Great American Novel. Speaking of which… I’d better get back to work--got a new chapter to write!

Monday, September 24, 2007

Across the Car

[[An experimental thing…]]

He nestles a stuffed raccoon under his arm like a sacred game ball. I lose interest in Grammaire Progressive du Français Avec 600 Exercises. But don’t let me mislead you quite yet: there was no taxidermy involved. Just a man and his plush raccoon. Just another day aboard the red line.

The strange man balances on his lap a yellow tackle box identical to the one at home wherein I keep the haphazard tool collection necessary for assembling deliveries from IKEA I haven’t yet ordered. (The catalog arrived today in my cramped aluminum box; hope remains Daddy’ll have a new end table by Christmas). This man’s chest houses not tools but something valued enough to warrant combination locks. Two, in fact, jury-rigged to secure a latch not designed with security in mind. But what could be so important? Packets of jam stolen from restaurants? Airplane bottles of Jim Beam? A lifetime’s nail clippings? I’ve read of stranger things in magazines.

I ponder the scrutiny with which they inspect flip-flops at the Rochester airport. Through my brain rumble the words of an overworked TSA thug at IAD two years back, when I balked at removing my sweatshirt: “This is America, bucko.” I won’t repeat my unspoken retort or I’ll end up on the no-fly list before the honeymoon. Yet this man carries his mystery tackle on the train without a second look. Hmm.

My fingers itch to write how he stroked the soft hairs behind the raccoon’s ears and moaned low. That didn’t happen, but it sounds right. I’m glad it did not happen, though I can’t say for sure that it wasn’t the first thing he did upon reaching his destination.

He solved both locks and opened the top. Like the mystery briefcase in Pulp Fiction a yellow glow illuminated his face, reflected off the so-stereotypical-the-author-must-be-making-it-up horn-rimmed spectacles.

That’s a lie. Instead, he pulled out a stack of baseball cards and yanked a thick elastic band free before leafing through the cards. He smiled. When the automated voice announced the upcoming train stop he hastily packed his things and secured the locks.

I wanted to tell him the rubber band would compromise the value of the cards, but he stepped onto the platform before I had the chance.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Go Jott Yourself

There are already too many ways to communicate, but that doesn’t prevent me from getting really excited about new toys that I’m convinced will change my life. I’ve been through this with the PDA, which sits idle in a dresser drawer beneath several sweaters I have no intentions of wearing in this decade. And I’ve been down this path with a dozen task management doohickeys (sp?) on my laptop. I’m still boycotting the BlackBerry and as a result I suppose I’m destined to use ten different devices for music, telephone, calendar, email, into the distant future.

But my new favorite gadget-of-sorts is a free service from Jott. Here’s the nutshell: you can call a toll-free number from your cell phone and the system automatically recognizes you based on caller ID. You speak for up to thirty seconds and send the transcribed message to yourself or anybody in your address book. The messages are sent as text messages or emails or audio files. It’s awesome, and although I earn no commission (hint, hint to the Jott guys) I’m spreading the news to everybody I see. So far I’ve found excuses to “Jott myself” during meetings, while waiting for the bus, and in between bites at dinner. It’s only the beginning…

Now, I full expect my obsession to wither by the time the Red Sox fall apart this season (wait, that’s already happening? Damn.) Until then, I’ve got a Jott to make: “Don't forget to post that blog about Jott, you lazy slacker!”

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

My Mind a Muddle

Today my mind contains a muddle of Franglais, Spanglish, Engtalian, Italnish, and every other permutation of the one language I (seem to) know and the three I've learned over the years to the same pathetic adolescent levels.

How did I arrive here? The proximate cause is the adult education course I began last Monday and continued yesterday: Low Intermediate French, because they cancelled Beginning II, the course I intended to take in the name of Preparing For Our Honeymoon.

The disaster stems from my remarkable accomplishments in the little-known academic field of Foreign Languages at Third-Grade Comprehension. My story begins with my roots: mono-lingual parents and grandparents and great-grandparents. Two first cousins have a Bolivian father, but that had little impact on my linguistic upbringing.

My first exposure (other than Sesame Street, natch) to the study of foreign languages came by way of a most unusual test they administered in seventh grade. As I recall, it consisted principally of incoherent nasal tones and multiple-guess options for which combination of letters might lay beneath. I was confident I scored 0%, but somehow I qualified for eighth grade French. After four years of study I was well enabled to talk about the respective countries of origin for Alain and Celeste, and I knew to say that Claude washed himself the hair rather than his hair. Inexplicably enough I also knew my instructor’s brother’s U.S. army serial number (a long story). As for securing myself a hotel room for the night? Or to say that I prefer my steak cooked medium rare? Forget about it.

I managed two years of high school Spanish as well, but failed Harvard’s absurd placement exam and enjoyed the privilege of reviewing everything I had already learned in high school. By senior year, my French and Spanish forgotten, I enrolled in an intensive Italian course. Five days per week, extensive language labs, yadda yadda, and I could say that I had an exactly overlapping Venn diagram of grammatical knowledge in three languages. Yippee.

The acme of my linguistic accomplishment thus far remains an afternoon meal in the eighth arrondissement in Paris wherein I managed to transact three courses without my waitress once responding in English; I give credit not to my speaking abilities, but to her profound generosity.

A colleague in Puerto Rico once told me that I spoke my elementary Spanish with an Italian accent. Better than an American one, no? I asked.

And so I return to my homework for next week. We’re learning the past tense. I’ve learned it five times before in three Romance languages. Let’s hope this time it sticks. Or maybe I should just give up and take beginning Portuguese next semester…

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Back from the Dead

According to my Blogger home page, it has been more than three full months since I posted a blog. Any blog. Now that’s just pathetic, innit? Meanwhile all those other blogging peeps have posted two hundred million words. So what have I been doing that has kept me away from my extensive fan base?

1. Working, mostly. Work-work not me-work. Two jobs for most of June, which was pretty taxing. Literally. But JHU went live and my project at Harvard is really interesting. That’s about all you can hope for in my business.

2. Wedding planning has taken a goodly portion of my time, but in a good way. We have a brilliant venue, an officiant, and a rock star photographer. But those are stories for another day, and possibly another blog (assuming I give the full-on Lazarus treatment to that other blog now that Keryn’s about to head off on the road for another year of recruiting).

3. Went on a reading bender through July and August. God is Dead by Ron Currie, Jr. was awesome, and I finally got around to reading The English Patient. Ian McEwan may be the only writer alive who can make the cooking of bouillabaisse truly riveting (in Saturday) but On Chesil Beach is a strange read. Finally, J.M. Coetzee is my new favorite author after reading Elizabeth Costello and Disgrace over the summer.

4. Three weddings in three weeks. Need I say more?

5. Some writing. But I’m ashamed to say that my current project is yet another revision of my first novel, in preparation for submission to a few contests and a “final” volley of agent queries. I love my book, but when you start editing sentences back toward where they were three years ago, you know you’re in trouble…

It may take a few weeks to get back into the swing of things, but I’m glad to be back, and I hope to have an audience again soon, too!