Io non so niente

Although I primarily speak and write in English, I am a bit of a language magpie, collecting words and phrases wherever I encounter them.  These days, I speak enough French to get by in Paris, enough Spanish to struggle through my bilingual Bible, enough Yiddish to entertain myself, and enough Italian to humiliate myself thoroughly.  That is to say, I speak none of these languages at all well, but perhaps better than many Americans do.

When I was working in Italy, I asked one of my coworkers how to say “I am a manager” in Italian.  He smiled, and said “Io non so niente.”  Literally translated:  I know nothing.  From the perspective of a shipyard worker, this was probably an accurate translation.  While the Spanish “no se nada” flows more readily from my tongue, both phrases have become integrated into my English-language conversations for the past few decades.old-spice

But I’m not here to talk about Italy, or even management.  I’m here to talk about body wash.

A few years ago, I started using Old Spice body wash in my shower.  I don’t know if it gets me any cleaner than plain old soap, but my wife likes the scent, and keeping her happy is a primary CTQ in my morning routine.

Recently I was reading the back of the bottle and noticed that the sales pitch is presented there bilingually in English and French, presumably because I live so close to Quebec.  The final phrase (and its translation) caught my eye:

Drop-kicks dirt, then slams odor with a folding chair.

Lutte contre la saleté et les odeurs et les envoie au tapis pour le compte grâce a une impitoyable savate japonaise.

Google translate has a really hard time interpreting this French expression, primarily because it contains two idioms:  “compte grâce”, which is a variant on “coup de grâce”, or “knockout blow”, and “savate japonaise”, which is the French term for karate.  I suspect it’s an appropriate translation for the English that precedes it, which is equally idiomatic.  Both carry militant masculine notes that would carry well with their target audience.  The WWE reference to chair shots is so well-known in the US that it even shows up as a joke in Shrek.

Recently, I’ve been doing some world building for a society that practices matrilineal inheritance, like the Minangs of Sumatra.  Since it’s a desert society, I’ve been trying to work Pinglish names and terms into the cultural backstory.  Imagine Iran with all of its benefits, but with an egalitarian society where all property is owned by women, and you’ll see why I find the idea so appealing.

Still, my struggles translating the body wash bottle have me worried.  Farsi is a right-to-left language with a font my brain simply doesn’t want to parse into distinct letters, and while there are several nice online tools that will translate Pinglish into Farsi, I haven’t found one that will go the other way.  And the most important things, culturally, for which I would hope to use a Farsi term, are concepts that are best translated idiomatically.  I suspect this is going to be a long road, and I hope I can get there without mangling the language too badly.

Children’s Literature

My house is full of books.  Library books, and books we own.  Technical books, and fiction. Biographies, mysteries, histories, and a heavy dose of speculative fiction.  My daughters grew up with ready access to all the greats:  P.D. Eastman, Dr. Seuss, Eric Carle, and more.  But with all these books, perhaps the children’s book dearest to my heart is the Golden Press Guide to Familiar American Birds.

Great children's literature.Wait, what?

Great children’s literature.
Wait, what?

Twenty-plus years ago, when my oldest child was just learning her first words, this field guide was our first picture book. My parents, knowing my wife and I like to feed the birds in our back yard, gave us this book as a gift.  And I would spend evenings after work with my daughter in my lap, labeling pictures in the field guide for her.

I didn’t think of it as “teaching” at the time.  It was simply a father, sharing time with his daughter, talking about something we enjoyed as a family.  But like all children, she learned to model what her parents did.  While most children learned “bird”, she learned “cardinal” and “robin”, “eagle” and “duck”, “blue jay” and “sparrow” and “grossbeak”.  As time progressed, our reading patterns changed, and she would race to label the pictures before I did.


the backyard bird feeder from later years

She learned our patterns of speech, too.  We were labeling everything we saw for her, so she did the same.  And when she mislabeled something in her eagerness, my wife, ever the preschool teacher, would guide her to the right word.  “Actually,” she’d say, “it’s a _______.” And life went on.

Until the day my daughter turned away from the book to look at the birds outside our window.  It was perhaps a full year later, and my little girl had graduated from single words to full sentences.  And when her mother said “Look out the window at the birdie,” my precocious little girl replied “Actually, Mommy, it’s a junco.”

Naturally my wife rushed to the field guide to look it up.  Page 116 has a drawing of a junco on it, which she dutifully compared to the bird at our feeder.  She matched the gray back, the white belly, the shape of its beak, the markings on its tail.


My  little girl had it right.

The Dark Side of Humor

My family has a strange, sometimes irreverent sense of humor.  I find this useful, because it opens me up to the juxtaposition of ideas that can lead to new lines of thinking.  These ideas, which more sensible people might flee, are excellent fodder for my stories.

Socially, this can be a problem, and I have learned to conceal my stranger thoughts from people I do not know well.  I habitually self-edit my speech, and if you are one of those people with whom I have shared one of my bizarre free associations, it means you are someone I trust.  Self-editing has its own difficulties, as when I studied acting, but it seems to work out better than the alternative.  Still, unusual humor hasn’t always worked out so well for the rest of the family.

More than a decade after my Nana died, my grandfather, still mourning his loss, sent a letter to his brother in Pennsylvania.

“I visited her grave last night,” he wrote.  “It’s cold, and it’s dark, and I hate it.”

In response, my great-uncle dodged the emotional depth of his letter, and instead sent him a Christmas present:  a flashlight and electric socks.  The whole family hailed this as a brilliant joke.sox-flashlight

And then my grandfather got sick.

Cholesterol was beginning to impede blood flow to his brain.  The doctor recommended a “Roto-Rooter” operation–they would open up the affected blood vessels, clean them out, and put him back together.  This same surgery had worked for another man my grandfather knew, and he had no reason it wouldn’t work as well in this case.

While under anesthesia, however, my grandfather’s blood pressure shot dangerously high, and when they gave him medication to control it, his BP crashed.  He was dead from the complications of his stroke within a week.

As they were packing up his belongings in the hospital, my parents came across the flashlight and electric socks. From what we can tell, he had considered the hospital where his wife died a significant enough health risk that he wanted to be ready to leave it in a hearse.  In response, the family decided to put the socks and flashlight into my grandfather’s casket when he was buried.

Except I can’t help but wonder.  So much of our health is predicated on our willingness to fight against entropy and live.  And I wonder if my grandfather chose not to do it.  I wonder if our inability as a family to face suffering and talk about how we really feel made him give up the fight.

I wonder if we chose to be funny instead.

Echoes of Mortality

Nothing has influenced my perspective on retirement so much as what happened to my grandfather. He was a truck farmer seventy-odd years ago, growing vegetables in the Hockomock swamp for sale in nearby Brockton. But New England farming isn’t ever going to be a fast track to riches, and he had other jobs as well.
But the time I was born, his farming days were mostly past, and he worked as a janitor in the public schools. He sold the big farmhouse and moved with my Nana into the cottage he had built years before for his then-newlywed daughter, who had moved away. Much of the farmland he sold to Cumberland Farms, who used it to grow cattle corn.


My grandfather, with the bow tie, third from the right.

His plan, when he retired, was to drive around the U.S. with his wife and visit the places he’d never had time to see before. But he was a good worker, and the district wanted to keep him on. They asked, and he agreed, to one more year of work before retirement.
That year, Nana died.
Having lived through a major health scare in 2014, my wife and I have both been given just cause to think about how and when our lives may end as well. But I’m relatively young for a heart patient, and unless I manage to miraculously pen the next Harry Potter novel I can’t see myself financially able to quit my day job, much less retire, for another two decades or more.
But if, between now and then, I agitate for the chance to blow some money on a holiday trip with my wife, I hope you understand why it matters.

SF World Building with Polymers

So you want to design an extrasolar planet for your hard-SF story, and cast about your house looking for ideas.  There, you find all manner of of man-made materials:  polystyrene coffee cups, polycarbonate eyeglass lenses, PVC pipes.  Nothing could be farther from the natural, organic compounds of life, right?


Polystyrene, polycarbonate, and PVC are all examples of polymers, a class of chemical compounds made by bonding sequences of smaller chemicals (“mers”) together into long chains.  We didn’t think of this concept first, though.  Consider the following examples of polymers from life:

  • Cellulose, the building block of trees and the roughage in your whole wheat bread, is a polymer made up of sugar molecules strung together into long chains.  It is a polysaccharide.
  • Proteins, which provide structure to cells and control the chemistry of life, are built from sequences of amino acids linked together.  They are polypeptides.
  • DNA, the design template of life, is built from long chains of base-pair sequences.  It is a polynucleotide.

It would seem, therefore, that whenever a big molecule was needed in nature, a polymer was used.

What does this mean for the chemistry of world building?  Pretty much any polymer chemical invented by man might exist naturally in the life chemistry of a distant world.  Imagine a world where animals use lightweight PVC as a skeletal material instead of the protein collagen.  Suddenly the need for calcium in the diet is greatly reduced, but the need for dietary chloride is increased.

Of course, a world that makes use of PVC is going to be subject to all the chemical problems that PVC might have.  For example, PVC is degraded by exposure to ultraviolet light.  It might, therefore, not work well on earth, but might be effective on a world that orbits a red dwarf sun, or one with an extremely dense atmosphere.

If a compound exists naturally, however, it is more likely to be part of the food web.  We can’t digest cellulose, but cows can—and so can many bacteria.  If animals use PVC as a structural material, there will certainly be other animals and bacteria with the enzymes to digest it.

Modern man is surrounded by polymers:  Nylon, Lexan, Teflon, Kevlar, Dacron, and many others.  Any one of these could be a starting point for the design of an original life chemistry on your planet.

Note to regular readers: I plan to work through the exercises in #blogging101 when it starts next week. I have no idea what kind of assignments will be required, so please forgive me if my blog becomes suddenly inhabited by posts about sentient protozoa or the potential of Rick Moranis to star as the romantic lead in your next non-comedy action film.