November 2019

The Scales of Justice

In these regressive times, it’s a pleasure to find something progressive, especially from a source as unlikely as PG&E. They’ve announced this year’s California Climate Credits of $29.38 and $39.42 to be applied to all customers’ gas and electric bills, respectively, whether they live in enormous mansions or efficiency apartments. My apartment is not hooked up for gas, and the electricity credit is 125% of last month’s bill.

My only brush with that system was in 1964 when I was an Army Security Agency 2nd Lt. at the USASA headquarters in Frankfurt.  I was in my office minding my own business one day when one of my men asked me if I’d play the role of defense in an upcoming dishonorable discharge trial for one of the men in their housing company.   My guy had to ask me because the soldier in question was not ASA and couldn’t come into our secure area.

Of course I said yes since I was so gung ho that I wanted fulfill my duties to the utmost; but it turned out to a bit nightmarish because, when I started digging into the whole thing, I learned that he’d committed more offenses than the prosecution had discovered, that he was utterly deserving of a dishonorable discharge, and that he’d been lying to me just like he did to everyone else.  Furthermore, he had obviously come to me rather than to one of the lieutenants in the housing company because nobody who knew him would have been willing to defend him.

Even so, my duty was to defend this scumbag to my utmost ability, and, as I dug around and talked to more experienced officers, one of them pointed out a little loophole in the Uniform Code of Military Justice through which the accused could slither.  Actually, it was a gaping void.  But to make sure, I gathered as much extenuating evidence as possible.

So come the trial, I began my defense by quoting the UCMJ to the panel of officers and stated that it was clear that the line in question perfectly applied to Droopy (his nickname among the other soldiers because he was).  This set them back on their heels because it was pretty clear to me that they thought I was right.

But yet, they didn’t throw the case out but rather shut the whole works down for the morning to resume after lunch.  The previous year Droopy had been acquitted in a similar trial because a verdict had not been suggested to the panel of officers and his defense lieutenant then was brilliant and indefatigable and was able to round up believable character witnesses for the guy. 

What my panel did during the break was take the UCMJ line I’d found to the folks who’d suggested they convict and were informed that in this case the UCMJ didn’t apply because this man was so loathsome that his removal was imperative….or something like that. So they ruled against me and I continued my prepared defense, but I’d scraped the whole damn post without finding anyone over the rank of E3 willing to stick his neck out for Droopy.  Word had spread.

Of course I appealed, and that, of course, was denied.

My disappointment over losing the appeal was mitigated by knowing that Droopy was worse than worthless, but I was also a bit disillusioned to see a large olive drab thumb on the scales of justice.

Meanwhile, when I took this shot beside the new Transbay Terminal, I was thinking it was some kind of prehistoric Pterodactyllian creature.  Then I looked closer and realized it was a flying bat skeleton with wings.  That’s Droopy trying to escape. Didn’t.

A bat out of hell

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The Editor? C’est Moi

Editor? Well, in recent years I seem to have fallen into the role of first reader/proofreader/editor for manuscripts from various friends: a Taiwanese former colleague and friend who’d had to return to Taiwan for family reasons and was writing English business correspondence at a Taiwanese company, a retired doctor who’d been under the impression that since he was smart enough to be a doctor and had made an A in English 101, he could easily write a memoir, a former colleague who’d written a science fiction short story; a gifted anthropologist/linguist who sent me his English translation of a three-volume memoir dictated to him in Penan by a Sarawak nomadic tribesman and already published in the Penan language. And finally, proofreading on a near-daily basis for a decade a dear friend’s blog so popular that I was a light chartreuse with envy. But now there’s more.

I’ve just finished busying myself editing a screenplay written in English for a new feature film by the “enfant terrible of Dutch film”, Cyrus Frisch, who happens to be the son of my best Dutch friend, Rina.  His English is fluent, but he’s not a native speaker. A problem for me is that becausehe’s set it in London, he wants to conform to British spelling.  Have you ever tried to read a manuscript and pick out all those ugly American spellings and change Americanisms like “trash can” to “rubbish bin”? I’m sure I did a half-assed job of that because I doubt whether Cyrus realizes how totally American his English is. Ummm, make that “arsed” and “realises” for the Brits.

I’ve helped Cyrus before. By beautiful chance, I happened to be on one of my month-long stays with his mother in Amsterdam in 2005 when, near the end of the stay, a stage play of his, Oogverblindend (Dazzled), premiered in Amsterdam.

The dialog was entirely in English because the play consisted of a telephone conversation between two characters, a Dutch man and an Argentinian woman, whose only language in common was English.  Shortly after I arrived, when the play was in rehearsal, it occurred to him that he ought to run the dialog past me.  I said of course.  He brought me the hard copy, and I was surprised at how good the English was. 

His English speech is fluent; but writing is much harder than speaking, so I picked at a many nits. As an aside here, I’ll mention that the evening when I’d started working on the play, Rina dropped by to plan our adventures for the morrow and then hovered nervously, glancing out of the corner of her eye at all my marks on the open page of her son’s manuscript. She asked how his English was. I reassured her that it was excellent and remarked that surely she knew this.

She shot back: “How would I know? We don’t speak English with each other.” A couple of days later, he came over and we went through the piece while I explained the parts I thought needed an explanation or a change.  At one point we came to a minor difference between the languages, that English routinely uses a present participle where Dutch employs an infinitive.  But just as I was getting warmed up for a deep explication, he stopped me cold with the observation that he didn’t know what infinitives and participles were.  I sat there for a moment stunned as it swept me that there are two ways of learning a foreign language. My way has been through tedious academic study; but his way, the better way, was through watching American television starting in his childhood, at first in the presence of his mother who could provide translations.  With the latter method you grow to fluent adulthood blissfully unencumbered by grammar.

Regarding Cyrus’ new work, the screenplay for a feature film about how a relatively small change would would greatly improve the functioning of the global economy, he’s now looking for funding. Considering his successful track record in the Netherlands, he’ll probably succeed, but if you happen to know of a potential investor, please contact me.

Meanwhile, here’s an architectural shot that for me evokes Escher.

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Why I Study Spanish

​​​I gotta tell somebody else even though I told this to my Spanish class yesterday.

I was at the Civic Center Farmers’ Market and stopped at a stall where I thought I remembered buying cheap feijoas last year. I made a good chutney out of them and want to do it again this year.  Wasn’t sure it was the same vendor, though, so I walked up to the woman at the cash drawer and asked if they were the ones who sold feijoas last year.

After a beat, she said, “No speak English”, but I picked up from her body language that she did speak English but just didn’t want to waste time on someone who didn’t have something in his hand to buy. But then it sprang full blown in my mind, and I said immediately, “Has vendido el año pasado la fruta se llama feijoa?”


That backed her into a corner since she looked Latino and didn’t look like Russian or any variety of Asian and thus had to speak Spanish.  After asking me to repeat the name of the fruit (which I did in Spanish, Portuguese, and English) she told me that they didn’t grow them.  So I’ll keep watching for them at other vendors but consider this encounter a success since I was quite pleased with myself for so quickly thinking of an entire sentence in Spanish.

When I’m in the presence of someone who’s fluent in English, I get all tongue-tied and entrapped into thinking about grammar rather than communication.

But when I’m in front of someone who doesn’t speak English (or professes not to), I have a vocabulary that covers the things I’m interested in; so in those areas, I can get along just fine. And OK, I’m under no delusion that I’m even close to being a real Spanish speakerRather, I’m a speaker of necessity Spanish.

Meanwhile, here’s another San Francisco doorway, this one featuring a passing bicyclist stopping for a selfie:

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