I pride myself on my talent for languages. I’ve studied at least twelve and can get around in eight. Not only that, but when it comes to English, I’m a published author with 12 books and have three degrees in English from Yale, the last a Ph.D. But today I spent the better part of an hour listening (and seeing on Zoom) a talk nominally in English by a fellow American native speaker that left me clueless...
Now I was prepared a little for today’s experience by yesterday’s “blessing-of-the-backpacks” service at our Episcopal church, St. John’s in Boulder. Students in our school district begin classes in the middle of this mid-August week. This is weird for me because when I was growing up, admittedly as someone born in 1939, school never started until after Labor Day. But I digress. As part of the kids-oriented service, boys and girls functioned as readers. Most of them I could follow, but one girl, perhaps eleven, read so fast all I caught was an occasional “the” or “and.” You had the distinct feeling she wanted to get off that lectern where she faced, gulp, 100-plus adults not to mention a few dozen kids as fast as she could. Since I was unable to follow her, I tried speaking a sentence or two in my mind asfastasshewasgoing. Impossible! I couldn’t do it. Well, at least I knew what I was trying to say!
Okay, so what about today’s adventure into the no-comprendo zone? Here’s the context. My wife and I have a nice garden-level studio apartment with a separate entrance. For the past five years we’ve been renting it out as an Airbnb. Our current guest is a young woman from Upstate New York. She arrived Friday evening and will leave tomorrow morning, the following Tuesday. Today, Monday, however, she was defending her doctoral dissertation in astrophysics at C.U., the University of Colorado at Boulder, an institution noted for its expertise in space science. She invited my wife and me to either attend in person or see her performance on Zoom. Cedar was unavailable, but I endeavored to watch on my computer. I was not alone. Some 41 participants were there along with her dissertation committee and others, doubtless grad-school colleagues, who chose to attend in person. As she went through her 76 slides, mainly diagrams, I had the dizzying feeling of being in a foreign country where I didn’t speak the language or could even read the signs. As in church I managed to get the occasional “the” and “and,” but the terms, concepts, and scientific formulas were beyond Greek to me. Soon I turned down the sound to close to zero, and while I stayed in front of my computer in solidarity, I began reading the little guidebook to Auschwitz that a fellow church member had thrust into my hands. The subject matter to the contrary notwithstanding, this English I could understand. For which fact I can only offer this precious term my people have gifted to the world: Oy!