Saturday, September 29, 2018

Atlas of Endangered Alphabets

Over the last several years I've been supporting various Kickstarter campaigns designed to preserve languages and writing systems from around the world that are in danger of disappearing. These projects have involved quite a few extremely enjoyable efforts aimed at teaching the scripts associated with indigenous languages or mother tongues in countries often dominated by cultures not necessarily in sympathy with native folk. I'll list these with links later, but wanted to take time this morning to alert you all to the latest campaign, described in the above video.

We're about half way to the goal at this point, with not much time left to meet it; so, if you're so inclined and have a bit of spare cash available for an enormously important good cause, please watch the video and go to the Atlas of Endangered Alphabets home page to support the Atlas. As always, there are some nice rewards, although this time I opted just to support the project without snagging any loot. Even if you're not familiar with many of the cultures involved, keep in mind that a number of these endangered scripts are associated with Native American languages.

As Tim Brookes, the founder of the Endangered Alphabets project, mentions in the video, this is an ambitious and expensive project--but I think it's particularly timely in today's fragile political climates.

Addendum (30 September): Here are the Kickstarter pages for the previous campaigns:
Endangered Alphabets

Endangered Alphabets II: Saving Languages in Bangladesh

Mother Tongues

The Right To Read, The Right To Write 
100 Words for a Children's Endangered Language Dictionary
And here are my posts about some of the projects:

The Right To Read, The Right To Write

Revisiting Endangered Alphabets and Languages

International Mother Language Day

Endangered Languages, Revisited

Independence and the Right to Read and Write: A Word from Tim Brookes

Losing Languages

As many of us who have taught in the past well know, language is fragile. If not nurtured, and used well, speakers tend to lose fluency, vocabularies decrease, and the ability to read the great literature of one's own tongue diminishes. The downward spiral can be slow, but often seems inexorable. I urge folks to spend some time on these pages (particularly the Kickstarter efforts) to get an idea of just how important this work really is.

Tonight the Beloved Spouse and I will be attending a Gala in honor of the 40th anniversary of the Center for Translation Studies at UT Dallas, where we were both students. One of the most significant influences on my pedagogical career was the idea of teaching humanities using the translation process as a model--which I learned under the tutelage of Dr. Rainer Schulte, who founded the program in 1978. It seems fitting that this milestone be celebrated at a time when cultural understanding has become so vitally important to political interaction around the world.

The Atlas of Endangered Languages provides an important tool to facilitate that understanding, and I hope that anybody still reading this blog who is interested in its language-related components can help make the Atlas a reality.

Thursday, August 23, 2018

Nature Red in Tooth and Claw

This post title comes from Tennyson's long elegaic poem In Memoriam, written over a period of seventeen years in honor of his friend "A H. H." (Arthur Henry Hallam). I've used the line often to describe the general Darwinian state of life in the wild, and to acknowledge the way things work in the world. As when the cat catches a mouse or a bird, or a hawk makes lunch of a squirrel.

But on Saturday, the 18th of this month, it hit much closer to home than usual, and somewhat ironically, when our well-loved cat Emma was killed by what appears to have been one of the local barred owls.  She squirted out the back door, as she often does, early in the morning when I let Arlo out for his constitutional. And then she coyly penned herself under the patio table so that I couldn't easily get her to take her in. So, when Arlo and I went indoors, I left the screen door ajar so that she could get back in when she got hungry. But she never made it.

A bit later, when everyone was up, we went looking for her. Too late. Instead of feeding her breakfast, we had to bury her, and never have I felt more guilty or been so overwhelmed with sadness about how nature works. I have not, however, felt bitterness toward the owl, precisely because I've spent so many years of my life appreciating the natural world.

I posted a warning on the local neighborhood forum, advising small-pet owners to be vigilant about keeping watch on their "fur people" as many neighbors like to call them. Collin County, where we live in North Texas, is rapidly paving over what used to pass for paradise in this part of the world, costing habitat loss and territorial disturbances for bobcats, coyotes, opossums, raptors, and other native denizens of the prairie. Our town's official motto is "Unique By Nature," which causes many of us to snort ruefully whenever a city official uses it to promote the area. Noise, concrete, and strip malls are replacing the quiet town and open spaces that drew many of us here, and we're all suffering the effects.

In the end, the remaining wild animals have to find sustenance where they may, and sometimes those meals show up conveniently in what otherwise seem like safe havens for the domesticated animals we humans keep as companions. We've often seen the owls swooping from our trees and the top of the house after prey (and heard them courting noisily outside our windows during spring nights); but Emma was not a small cat, and she usually perched on a table under an umbrella, or under the table itself during evening and pre-dawn outings. Although I always kept an eye on her whereabouts when she was out, I became a bit too complacent about potential danger at exactly the wrong time.

Emma came to us later in her life than our previous cats had done.  We were in dire need of a mouser, and her former person was marrying someone who couldn't live with an indoor cat due to allergies, so we took her in. She took a while to adjust to two noisy dogs and living with different people. She was about eleven years old when we got her (about the same as the dogs, actually), and settling in took some time. But she managed to tame the boys enough to allow them all to occupy the same space, and when Woody died, Emma and Arlo settled into a quiet companionship.

As our house became her house, and as she gradually earned the freedom of the back yard, she became the companion cat of my old age. We spent hours in the garden together after I retired, with and without the dog, and in the evenings all four of us would enjoy one another's company as the Beloved Spouse and I relaxed with a glass of wine or beer after long days at the lectern. By the time her male human retired, Emma had become a continuing source of amusement and pleasure.


We will miss her enormously, and am thus grateful that her antics encouraged me to collect hours of video footage, so that I can relive such classic moments as "Emma and the Fireflies" (at least two episodes), and "Emma and the Great Mouse Hunt," and "Emma and the Flying Mouse." I took video of her rolling on one of the back patios a couple of weeks ago, just because it was cute. She certainly seemed to enjoy her life, and both my daughter and Emma's former "mom" describe her situation here as "cat utopia."

As stricken as I've been by her death, I also quickly realized that at my age I can't really spend as much time mourning as some folks might consider seemly. I decided to adopt sooner rather than later, and the story of that experience will follow soon. The effort is still in process, and I'm hoping for a completely happy ending before I describe it for all two or three of you who still read this blog.

In the meantime, I'm going to spend some time reading what Ursula K. Le Guin wrote about both ageing and her cat Pard (who is a black and white Tuxedo; Emma was the first grey one I'd seen except for the one on Carl Lawson's Daydreams poster, which hangs in the stairwell outside our bedroom) in No Time To Spare. I miss both her and Emma, and my world is poorer for their loss.

Image notes: Until this summer, Emma's favorite morning perch was the railing on the front porch. I used this photo on the neighborhood forum when she spent most of a day away from home--one of only two occasions she ever left the yard. The second photo, of Arlo and Emma last autumn in the back yard, illustrates a pretty typical moment between the two of them. The metal lawn chairs, which came from my grandmother's back yard, have since been repainted. Emma also liked to perch near where mice were known to come and go, and she's probably eyeing one here. The final shot shows her in a typical expository pose.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Y'all Gonna Be Here When I Wake Up?

While negotiating my monthly deluge of digital magazines around the cusp of the month, I often save the quarterly Smith Journal to read when I've got time to savor it at leisure. One of those literate compendia of oddities to which I'm mildly addicted (like Cabinet), it comes less frequently than the monthlies--and even less so than The New Yorker, which I now get weekly--and thus requires slow perusal.

I quickly noticed (perhaps because I'm lately attuned to such things) the abundance of articles about dead stuff in this issue. There's so much of it, that a disclaimer of sorts appears on the editorial page:
You could chalk it up to living through these 'uncertain times'--the political turmoil, the 24-hour news cycle, the unseasonable weather harbinging certain environmental collapse. But flicking through the ink-smudged proofs as we corral this thing into something approximating a magazine, I don't think that's quite it. Death, as the platitudes tell us, is an integral part of life; the other side of a coin tossed in the air. Coming to some kind of terms with the fact that we're all headed for the grave seems like a good use of our time on this side of the soil.
Indeed. Just last week I was awaiting my latest flirtation with (I hoped) temporary oblivion (general anesthesia), the single scariest event I've faced since the last time I was under the knife nine years ago. This time it was to correct an artefact of the last one, experienced about a year later when I tripped on a garden hose and landed flat on my torso, tearing a small hole in the incision from the valve job. Said tear gradually grew larger over the ensuing years until my GP's PA, my cardio guy, and my swell new surgeon all decided it was time to repair it. So last Wednesday I underwent robotic surgery to do a bit of boro work on my gut.

The Robot's name was Da Vinci. My surgeon, unlike my art history students, was until recently unaware that Leonardo was the artist's use-name. Da Vinci really means "bastard son of a guy from Vinci," which I never tire of telling anyone who will listen, including my rather affable young anaesthesiologist. (When she came in to meet me, I blurted out, "A chick anaesthesiologist! How very cool!")

In the run-up to the surgery, which required a CT scan (of which I now own a CD copy of the images--although not as nicely colored as the illustration above), I had plenty of time for musing about the eventual outcome. My main concern was that I am totally unprepared, from both a legal perspective (no will, no advance directive) and in the sense of what the Swedes call "death cleaning." A few months ago I bought the Kindle version of Margareta Magnusson's The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning: How to Free Yourself and Your Family from a Lifetime of Clutter, in hopes that it would give me some strategies for getting things sorted out now that we've got time for sorting. I don't really want to de-clutter so much as to catalogue, since one woman's clutter is another's Owls Head. But I do want to get a handle on the collections (inspired by the likes of Joseph Cornell, Rosamond Purcell, and Sibella Court), although I'm not sure if I'll get around to doing anything with them except arranging small, artfully-contrived museum exhibits around the house.

Small tremors of terror began to well up into my psyche to the tune of "what if I die under the robotic knife and I leave all this shit for Esther and Ethan and Rod to clean up?"

Instead of actually doing anything about it, though, I took the time to chill out, sit back, and update my Pinterest boards--which are a visual version of my garage (only much tidier and much, much prettier).

In the end, however, I did not die (at least I haven't yet). I did repeat the question I stole from Mal Reynolds in the "Out of Gas" episode of Firefly, to the amusement of no one but by daughter and my husband, and which provides the title for this post. Back in 2009, as I was being wheeled in for valve replacement surgery, I said the very same thing to them, although more spontaneously. Only that time, the nurse who was taking care of me was a Firefly fan and knew the dialogue every bit as well as we did. The last thing I remember as I lost consciousness was the bed's shaking with her laughter as she guided me down the hallway.

My jokes are all old and well worn, even if they have found fresh audiences. I shouldn't have to dig them up again. Documentation and cataloguing of the archives is still to be done, however, and now I won't be able to put it off once the healing is finished. That may take a bit, because although my plumbing seems to be working again, I'm sore and tired and every now and then feel like somebody's going at me with a hot poker. I've got to wear an abdominal binder for a few weeks, and I won't be able to do the full range of Qigong practices I'd followed faithfully during the last three months for at least another three.

The good news is that by week 4 (according to a vast cache of online literature about healing from ventral hernia repair) I should be able to play tennis.

Which will make my Beloved Spouse happy indeed, since I never could before.


Image credit: The arterial figure, shown frontally with the internal organs indicated in opaque watercolours. An undated and unsigned copy, probably 15th or early 16th-century. Tashrīḥ-i badan-i insān (MS P 19) (The Anatomy of the Human Body)
تشريح بدن انسان by Manṣūr ibn Muḥammad ibn Aḥmad ibn Yūsuf Ibn Ilyās (fl. ca. 1390). MS P 19, fol. 18a. Image at NLM. Available through a Creative Commons license at the Brooklyn College Library.

Note: This is another bit of an art history joke. I used to amuse my students with illuminated manuscripts featuring odd drawings and drolleries of all types. Some of my favorite were from a genre I called "anatomical squats," used to illustrate innumerable ailments in Medieval Arabic medical MSS.