Posts Tagged ‘James Baltrum’

By James Baltrum, English Faculty. 

            “Uno, dos, tres, Cuatro… Cinco, seis. siete, ocho… Nueve, diez, once, doce… nos cantamos otra vez.” This is a song that Loretta, my five year old daughter, has learned in kindergarten and has been singing pretty much nonstop ever since: in the car, at dinner, during her bath, in aisle seven of the grocery store… Repetitiveness aside, I very much enjoy the ubiquity of it. My wife is bilingual, and having known her since we were in high school together, it’s not exactly uncommon for her to throw an English sentence at me followed closely by a lobbed Spanish one right afterwards. Often, my wife switches to speaking Spanish, sometimes mid-thought, when she wants me to know something that no one else within ear shot is to know. None of this, though, is to say that I’m comfortable with foreign languages. My wife, for example, might toss a simple-enough sentence my way, perhaps a question: “¿qué quieres para la cena?” and I then grapple with the few words I recognize, wrestle some context out of the situation, and answer, palms sweaty and always in English, “what sort of leftovers do we have” or “let’s go out tonight” or “huh?”

lost-in-translation-bill-murray

James Baltrum?

And, yes, this is with my wife. Imagine then my discomfort when tussling with the foreign tongue of a stranger. A few summers ago, a paletero, an ice cream vendor, began appearing in our neighborhood, pushing his heavy cart along the sidewalks and ringing his bells irregularly. Within moments of hearing the jingling, I always find my children bolting out the door and across the yard and my right hand reaching back for my wallet while I play catch-up. “¡Hola!” I greeted him the first time he came down our block. “¡Hola! ¿Cómo estás?” he asked. “Bien. Gracias… y tú?” I responded. Mnemonically, I was wading into the shallow end of my high school Spanish days with Senora Stopka. The water was tepid, but my feet were firmly planted on a solid bottom. “Bien… ¿Qué te gustaría?” he asked. Water levels raising… no life guard on duty. “Um… Un helado… de chocolate… tres, por favor.” Upon retrieving three chocolate ice cream cones, he took my money and said in a tone that leaned far closer to indifferent than it did to impressed, “Sabes… tu español no es tan malo,” (meaning “You know, your Spanish is not too bad”). Deep end! Deep end! Abyss ahead! I blinked, rapidly. Then I grappled, wrestled, and explained, “mi esposa… is una… maestra… de Español… y una… Mexicana,” which, simply translated, means, “my wife is a Spanish teacher and also Mexican…” but when listened to with a more exacting ear, one hears something more along the lines of “my wife is a Spanish teacher and also Mexican and I feel awkward and apologetic for my culturally cataract-infested eyesight and marrow-deep Anglo-Saxon-ness…” The paletero simply nodded and smiled while I took my change, and my kids began the work of getting as many chocolate-flavored stains on their clothes as humanly possible in the short distance between our sidewalk and the front door.

I am, indeed, horrifically self-conscious about my ineptitude when it comes to learning languages, and my thump-my-head and kick-myself mentality only gets exacerbated by the eye-widening awe I feel when overhearing a foreign language spoken in conversation. They seem so earthy yet so liquid. I simply love the sound of certain languages! Spanish, when coming out of a more confident mouth than mine, is a beautiful language: warm, energetic and playful, almost ticklish to the ear. I can also recall hearing Arabic for the first time, sitting in the family room of one of my oldest friend’s, Shabbir, and listening to him talk with his grandparents in the other room, and thinking I should have a blanket and picnic basket with me – the rapidity of it, the sizzle and pop of the words; I felt like I was enjoying a fireworks show! I’ve always loved the sound of the French language as well. In college, Mike, a friend of mine who is fluent in French, attempted, sadly and unsuccessfully, to teach me some conversational phrases. In sharing a desk with me and realizing my linguistic limitations, his lessons quickly devolved into simple vocabulary, teaching me the French word for anything within sight: glasses (lunettes), pen (stylo), book (livre). So, if I ever find myself wanting to get a near-sighted French author to autograph a copy of his or her novel, then I’m in luck. Otherwise, as with Spanish, I’m lingually lost, dragged under by the riptide. I hold nothing against the language though; I still admire it, finding it more and more beautiful each time I happen across in crowded places. In fact, if by some chance development, scientists discover a spot on the electromagnetic spectrum, maybe between infrared and radar or perhaps just west of gamma rays, where languages visually register and can be seen issuing forth from the voice box, I imagine the French language looking like the unfurling of silken, multi-colored ribbons, each more vibrant and translucent than the last. English, on the other hand, often times stumbles off the tongue and conjures up images amounting to a generous mouthful of gravel, and not the high quality Home Depot landscaping-grade grit either but more like aged, abandoned parking lot rubble, freckled with flecks of tire rubber, cigarette ash, and more than a little dog shit.

I know that all of this should leave me feeling frustrated, perhaps isolated and depressed – cut off from worlds within worlds (or rather words) due to my myopic linguistic limitations, and sometimes my mind moves in these directions, but more often than not, I chose to look at it from a completely different perspective, one of wonderment. We can decide to face things that are new, different, or otherwise unknown to us with fear or anger or rejection. We can be satisfied in what we know as all we need to know and discard anything that doesn’t fit in that design. Or… we can instead take them as keyholes affording us a peak into rooms that remind us how much of the world is still available to us to explore. I appreciate being faced with such reminders from time to time, and for that I say thanks, gracias, dank, grazie, merci…

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By James Baltrum, English Faculty.

Since my first year of graduate school, I have kept a daily “to-do” list, ostensibly to keep my life somewhat moving in the right Imagedirection. Many people I’ve known and have come to know keep such lists, and at the time I was earning my Masters degree at DePaul University as a full-time student, working three part-time jobs (one teaching freshman-level classes at Robert Morris’s Chicago campus; another at an independent bookstore in Lincoln Park; yet another at a bagel and coffee shop just up the street from the bookstore), and helping to plan my and my then-fiancée-now-wife’s wedding. I was busily being pushed and pulled in every conceivable direction, and the little yellow-backdropped with blue-lined slip of paper, torn from a small 3.5” x 2” notebook, sitting in my left pocket, though lighter than a feather, served as an anchor, comfortably grounding me with my head always facing any oncoming current.

I have not abandoned this practice, and why would I? My life has really gotten no less frenetic, just frenzied in different ways. The demands of a Masters program have promoted themselves to those of a Ph.D.; the juggling of three part-time jobs has, in Kafka-esque fashion, metamorphosed into that of two terrific kids; part-time teaching at RMU has thankfully graduated into a full-time gig. Add to this the responsibilities associated with home ownership, PTA meetings, flag football coaching, an ever-aging circulatory and nervous system, etc. and the need for an organizational system seems almost doctor prescribed. The items on my daily “to-do” lists, from day to day, of course, vary from the monumental to the admittedly miniscule:

  • Finish and send off 2nd draft of Melville chapter to committee…Image
  • Stain the deck…
  • Return kids’ books to library…
  • Pick up paper towels while out…

But, whether large or small, they add up. Looking back and unquestionably over-generalizing here, I have kept a “to-do” (nearly) every day of my life since that first year at DePaul. That was 1999. 14 years x 365 days a year (give or take) comes out to 5,110 “to-do” lists, and if I conservatively estimate each list averaged some six errands on it, then that’s some 30,660 “to-do’s” that I’ve turned into “done’s.” It’s undeniably odd if not uncomfortable quantifying my semi-adult life in such statistical terms if for no other reason than I feel the overall total should be much higher. How, for example, might I feel if, by some tragic circumstance, I’m struck dead tomorrow and across my tombstone it reads “30,660 items crossed off his ‘to-do’ list”, the occasional errant green blade of grass shooting up here and there, trying unsuccessfully to obstruct the figure from view? Would the random passerby in search of their own family member, a wandering widow perhaps, dressed in muted colors and (what the hell, why not?) pulled down black veil, hands trembling and clutching the tiny paws of her children at each side, see this epitaph and pause to widen her eyes, push out her lower lip and nod as if to say, “impressive, Mr. Baltrum, whoever you were!” or, more than likely, would she shrug a shoulder, turn a cheek, and continue her search for the dearly departed, cerebrally crushing my life’s “to-do” list total underfoot along with those greener-than green blades of grass?

Disappointing perhaps, but I’ve come to realize my “to-do” lists possess an even more troubling disappointment within them. Along with the boost to one’s organizational needs, the concept of a “to-do” list can, I’d often thought, perhaps benefit one’s psychological needs as well. It makes sense to think of one’s self wrapping things up before bedtime, brushing one’s teeth, and emptying out one’s pockets to find the given day’s list and imagine then the swelling of one’s self-esteem as he/she looks over the checked items on the list. It is as if to say to yourself, “No slothfulness here! I’m a productive member of my community!” or, more simply and more likely, “I got something done today!” On the days when the low fuel warning light on my self-esteem tank flashes desperately bright, I have even found myself taking my list out and adding items to it after the fact. I didn’t mean to get that done today, but I got it done, and I’ll be damned if I’m not going to bask in the reflective glory of its getting done on a day like today (never mind that the “it” in such circumstances regularly read just “picked up dry Imagecleaning” or “called about my wisdom teeth” or “got a haircut”). The troubling disappointment that I’ve come to recognize does not surface during my nightly routine but with the sunrise of the following morning. I wake up, get dressed, make and deliver breakfast for the kids and then sit down to my own with pen and notepad within arm’s reach. By the time my breakfast is eaten, my day’s list is composed and thus the disappointment creeps spider-like across my cranium. Putting my plate into the sink and thinking to yesterday’s list, or back to the list dedicated to the day before, or the day before that, and looking over the dozen or so items on today’s “to-do” list, I have found myself increasingly disheartened by the almost Sisyphean epiphany underlying the question, “have I really gotten anything done?”

So, what are we to do…?

Increase the daily “to-do” items and, in some sort of video gaming high score fashion, boost the overall total? Not likely… Abandon the keeping of “to-do” lists entirely and run the risk of life entering into an organizationally chaotic tailspin? Probably not… Rather, do we need to re-assess what makes for a fitting item on our lives’ “to-do” lists? If the old mindset views an end-of-the-day’s list and reads accomplishment and concludes that accomplishment = success and success = happiness, then how can we find a new path to that end product? What will make up a better list resulting, therefore, in a better tombstone, wandering widow or no?

  •      Teach my son, regardless of what TV of his classmates might say, humility and strength are NOT opposites and that intelligence is a benefit, NOT to be berated…
  •      Teach my daughter that a head held high is far more beautiful than is the size of one’s waist or the number of sequins on one’s shirt…
  •       Express everyday how lucky I feel to have met my wife…
  •       Call about those damn wisdom teeth!!!

I think I can safely say that I’ll be happy when, at the end of the day, I can empty my pocket, look down, and see most if not all of these items crossed off.

So, what will make up your “to-do” list?

By James Baltrum, English Faculty.

Mary Shelley published her novel Frankenstein in 1818. H.G. Wells published The War of the Worlds in 1898. MTV unleashed Snooki upon the world as it introduced us to Jersey Shore in the latter half of 2009. Perhaps this trio may seem less an ironic gathering and have more in come with each other than a first glance allows. Each of these cultural, or pop-cultural, moments addresses in its own way the struggle, danger, or absence of intellect. Tracing the major issues surfacing and re-surfacing throughout sci-fi culture, one finds a border-line obsession with the pros and cons of intelligent inquiry (versus say… emotional awareness or moral rigor), and in most cases such evidence voices a concern for the purely intellectual life. Likewise, evidence demonstrating a preference for the anti-intellectual over the intellectual life amounts to something of an Everest throughout relatively modern American politics and pop-culture.

In sci-fi literature, this obsession with the intellectual, or rather, this obsessive fear of the intellectual, manifests itself with one iconic image: the brain. Conjure up any cinematic version of the Frankenstein tale, and each contains the proverbial floating brain in a glass jar. My personal favorite has always been Mel Brooks’s 1974 parody Young Frankenstein in which Igor (Marty Feldman) has the misfortune of telling Dr. Frankenstein (Gene Wilder) that the brain belonged to “Abby… Someone. Abby Normal, I think.” A classic film from my childhood indeed! The encased and floating brain is entirely removed from its counterpart, the body. In each film adaptation, the brain – whether it’s the brain of the monster or the brain of the doctor who created the monster – is a focal point and a fault. The monster’s body lies limp, useless, harmless; it is only once the brain is jump-started with a few thousand volts of lightning that horror or hilarity ensues (depending on which version you’re watching…)

H.G. Wells’s novel The War of the Worlds (1898) provides its readers with a grim look into its author’s perception of the Industrial Revolution, with its Martian invasion and their mechanized tripods and heat-rays. Wells’ narrator provides albeit brief descriptions of the extraterrestrial beings at the helms of these devastating machine: “the internal anatomy… as dissection has since shown, was quite simple. The greater part of the structure was the brain, sending enormous nerves to the eyes, ear, and tactile tentacles” (142)[1]. The narrator goes on to explain, “our bodies are half made up of glands and tubes and organs, occupied in turning heterogeneous food into blood. The digestive processes and their reaction upon the nervous system sap our strength and colour (sic) our minds. Men go happy or miserable as they have healthy or unhealthy livers, or sound gastric glands” (143). A graphic and less-than-gracious evaluation of the human body and its effects upon our higher psychological functions. The narrator seems almost admiring and envious of the invaders as he concludes, “the Martians were lifted above all these organic fluctuations of mood and emotion” (143). In other words, because the Martians were made up largely of brain matter, they were not constrained or confused by matters of the heart (i.e. “mood and emotion”) but because of this separation between the heart and the head, because of this totality of the brain, the narrator also notes “never before in the history of warfare had destruction been so indiscriminate and so universal” (64) while assessing the ruins of yet another burned our village he happens upon. Wells’s message, in a nutshell, rings apparent: the mind, when left unchecked by matters of the heart such as mood, emotion, and/or morality, wreaks havoc. The 1958 sci-fi horror film Fiend Without a Face takes the culturally presumed dangers of pure intelligence a step further. A not-so-thinly veiled commentary against nuclear science lies behind an army of alien beings made up of nothing but crawling brains with stems or spinal cords in tow. Special effects being what they were in 1958, the creatures flop around in scene after scene like water balloons of cerebral gumbo, but the point is clear. No arms, legs, or body of any sort… not even facial features to distract us. A brain is a dangerous thing on its own!

Science fiction and America’s political arena and pop-culture would seem to make strange bed fellows to be sure, but each has waged its own little battles against intelligence and the value of human intellect. You don’t have to surf too far through the channels anymore to find any number of “reality” TV shows episodically illustrating cast members’ increasingly unintelligent behavior, and it’s almost always assured that the cast member of any of these shows who does the most unintelligent thing (and survives) will be rewarded with his or her own spin-off series the following season. Nothing should be more real than good journalism, and bad journalism can be just really dangerous (if not life-threatening!). Enter Samuel Joseph Wurzelbacher (a.k.a Joe, the Plumber)… In 2009, Wurzelbacher travelled to Israel as a war correspondent for a politically conservative news source, hoping to illustrate that good journalism does not require any special intellect or skills sets and can be achieved, if not improved upon, by any “average Joe.” However, Wurzelbacher wound up providing a lot of other news sources with the expected evidence that, amongst other things, qualified journalists perhaps do possess a level of intelligence not found in the average population, an intelligence sharpened by keen perceptions, critical judgments, and challenging experiences. Then-presidential candidate Bill Clinton, in 1992, walked on to the then-popular (now defunct) Arsenio Hall Show and belted out a saxophone solo-ed “Heartbreak Hotel” in an attempt to show what a regular (and damn cool – if you include the dark sunglasses he donned during the performance) guy he was. Entertainment takes precedence over intelligent discourse… Likewise, in 2008, the McCain-Palin camp attempted to get as much mileage as they could out of the VP Hockey Mom image of Sarah Palin as an everyday working mother contra Obama’s having attended Columbia and Harvard Law School and presiding over the Harvard Law Review: hockey (everyday) vs. Harvard (elitist)…

A new show I’ve been trying to watch regularly, if and when I can watch TV regularly, is HBO’s The Newsroom. Within the first ten minutes of the show’s first episode, the main character Will McAvoy (played by Jeff Daniels) laments that America is no longer the greatest country in the world but thinks back to the days when it was, stating, “We aspired to intelligence;

didn’t belittle it to make ourselves feel bigger.” There’s nothing wrong with the everyday, and there’s certainly nothing wrong with some good old-fashioned entertainment, but there’s also nothing essentially wrong with intelligence either. It doesn’t need to be feared, mocked, or cut down. What it does need is to be nurtured whenever it’s identified. Like a sapling, it should be care for and protected so that when it matures, whatever fruit it bears can be utilized in the best way possible to help as many of us as possible.


[1] Wells, H. G. The War of the Worlds. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 2008.