Friday, August 29, 2014

Shining my shoes for the fat lady

I subbed for Walt a few times when he was in a cast—remember when he was in that cast? Anyway, I started bitching one night before the broadcast. Seymour’d told me to shine my shoes just as I was going out the door with Waker. I was furious. The studio audience were all morons, the announcer was a moron, the sponsors were morons, and I just damn well wasn’t going to shine my shoes for them, I told Seymour. I said they couldn’t see them anyway, where we sat. He said to shine them anyway. He said to shine them for the Fat Lady. I didn’t know what the hell he was talking about, but he had a very Seymour look on his face, and so I did it. He never did tell me who the Fat Lady was, but I shined my shoes for the Fat Lady every time I ever went on the air again—all the years you and I were on the program together, if you remember. I don’t think I missed more than just a couple of times. This terribly clear, clear picture of the Fat Lady formed in my mind. I had her sitting on this porch all day, swatting flies, with her radio going full-blast from morning till night. I figured the heat was terrible, and she probably had cancer, and—I don’t know. Anyway, it seemed goddam clear why Seymour wanted me to shine my shoes when I went on the air. It made sense.”

–J.D. Salinger, Franny and Zooey

Like many young and bookish people suffering from a sort of diffuse angst, I read Catcher in the Rye along about middle school. At that time, Holden Caulfield resonated with me powerfully and hypocrisy, once given a name, became the worst sin I could think of. Salinger’s novel ran on a sustained irony in a way that I hadn’t yet discovered writing could, and scratched this terrible itch for an echo chamber for my own adolescent sarcasm that had been absent from the stodgier pockets of the American literary canon I’d been frequenting in all my teenage nerdiness. In retrospect, it was probably my first encounter with postmodernism, a love affair destined to endure for decades.

It wasn’t until some years later that I read Franny and Zooey and, if you haven’t read it yet, I should warn you that I came dangerously close to revealing what I regard as the book’s climax by citing the above passage. I don’t want to do that, because I want you to read it. But I should warn you: not much happens in Franny and Zooey. Franny Glass has a Caulfield-worthy nervous breakdown and comes home from college to mope on the couch for a few days. Her older brother Zooey talks her through it. In the part of the novel I’ve shared with you, Zooey remembers his time on “Wise Child”, a radio quiz program that, over the years, featured each of the brilliant Glass children as contestants (including the eldest, Seymour, who later committed suicide and with whose death the family continues to grapple). It’s a book with a great deal to say about failure and quitting and why hypocrisy and pretension still rankle but there’s a tenderness to it that, to my mind, is absent from Catcher in the Rye.

After I read Franny and Zooey, shining my shoes for the Fat Lady became a sort of covenant for me. “Sure, you’re smarter than a lot of people out there, and you think about things harder, and you struggle to withhold judgment and probably always will,” Seymour’s mandate to Zooey (and, as it turns out, to Franny as well) seemed to say. “But that doesn’t absolve you of living in the world; moreover, it gives you a huge responsibility to be what those other people maybe can’t or at least won’t, but delight in believing that you can and will.”

Since I first imagined her, the Fat Lady has taken on many incarnations. Sometimes she’s a member of my family; sometimes, she’s one of my students or a random person I desire, for one reason or another, to unburden of some notion I consider benighted. Other times I’ve found her in the vague administrative process I’ve had to play along with in order to secure myself the privilege of making a living off of being smart.

Now that I’ve had the time and leisure to give postmodernism a bit more thought, Salinger’s Fat Lady seems to me a harbinger of the post-postmodernism I long for these days and catch occasional glimpses of in contemporary art, music, film, literature. Yes, morality and perception are relative. Yes, truth is socially constructed. Yes, everything is inherently meaningless, and everybody’s a hypocrite, if you want. We’ve been telling ourselves this story since the mid 20th century; it’s no longer a revelation for thinking people, but instead a boring ‘fact’ of our times. But here’s the thing: you still have to live in the world. This is what Salinger’s Zooey seems to get – what Seymour knew, but couldn’t put into practice. And it’s what Salinger seems to have understood, better and more fully in Franny and Zooey than in Catcher in the Rye: that irony, cynicism and self-referentiality are among the many tools at our disposal for expressing how we relate to the world, but as an ethos they are largely adolescent and empty.

This morning, for the first time since reading Franny and Zooey at age, oh, I dunno, 22, I woke up thinking I had made a conscious decision not to shine my shoes for the Fat Lady. Presented with the option of not turning in the annual review my university requires of its faculty, I decided to skip it. I chose to forego the bureaucratic task of describing my scholarly and professional efforts to my peers and supervisors so that they would see that I’ve worked hard this year, and know that I’m determined to behave like Every Inch The Professional, even though at this time no one is demanding that of me other than me. Instead, I woke up having decided to pursue this new thing I’m calling “good enough is good enough”. This is something academics have an extraordinarily hard time actually believing. But faced with the recent setback in my career as a scholar, as well as the physical, emotional and spiritual challenges of becoming a mother, it's something I very desperately need to wrap my head around for my own well-being and for that of my growing family.

It won't be easy because in a sense, I think I’ve come perilously close to becoming my own Fat Lady (now, in my eighth month of pregnancy, I am a literal fat lady of sorts). At very least, I’ve started conjuring her where she doesn’t belong. I’ve been misapprehending what she wants and needs from me. Little by little I’ve conflated the Fat Lady and the pursuit of perfection demanded by my academic career, which has robbed me of the belief, deep down, that good enough is good enough.

I will always, always shine my shoes for the Fat Lady. But from now on I will try harder to remember that she loves me.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Why I hate it when you say "it's always the leader's fault"

When a misstep occurs in Argentine tango (and, I imagine, in other social dances), regardless of how it occurs, it's become commonplace for the man to take responsibility by saying "it's always the leader's fault." Even though I understand that leaders have only the most gracious and gentlemanly intentions when they say this, every time a man says this to me while we're dancing, I can feel the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.

As a follower, I have spent six years searching for the place on my partner's back that will produce the greatest amount of mutual comfort and communication when I rest my hand there. Searching for the place on the floor that matches the size of the step he's proposing, and the part of my foot that will create stability for me and transparency for him when I move onto it. For the position of my spine that will allow me to remain present and alive to his intentions without burdening him with the weight of my upper body. For a way to salute my favorite moment in that magical tango by Canaro when the bandoneón says this and the piano answers that - but without derailing the intentions of my partner - and for the stillness of mind that awakens me to the spontaneous possibility of each moment, never presuming to know what my partner will ask of me, but trusting that it will move me through and through.

Six years in, I am still searching. And if you think nothing ever goes wrong with that endeavor, you're crazy.

If the message a leader sends is murky, lacks confidence, or contradicts itself, then certainly he's at fault: if you don't lead it, I can't follow it. Leaders are also responsible for gauging the level of skill of their partners. If you take a follower into territory that she obviously lacks the skill level to navigate, then you are to blame when she doesn't respond as you had hoped. But to say that "it's always the leader's fault" is to undermine the importance and sophistication of the follower's task.

I know you don't mean to, but when you say "it's always the leader's fault", you underestimate my potential to detract from the dance - and, by extension, my potential to add to it. In essence you're implying that what I do doesn't matter, which renders me irrelevant, just a hapless, passive vessel for your intentions rather than a co-creator of our shared experience on the dance floor.

Moreover, it's disingenuous. We've all led the Compulsive Ocho-er, the Great Anticipator, and the follower who is so much the master of her fate, the captain of her soul, that - try as we might - we cannot settle her down into the state of interdependence that the dance thrives on. Surely at some point, it's reasonable to expect her to assume some responsibility. As we say in the States, "it takes two to tango". Convincing ourselves that it's always the leader's fault has the potential to breed lazy, entitled followers, and who wants to dance with one of those?

At the risk of reading too much into this whole thing, I think it stems from the relative value that society assigns to speaking and listening. We tend to associate action and subjecthood with the act of speaking or sending a message; inaction and objecthood to the act of listening or receiving a message. In fact, in life just as in tango, the art of active listening is extraordinarily challenging. It's a skill that tango followers must master early on, and in my experience the best leaders are the ones who cultivate it as well.

So, leaders, the next time you feel tempted to take responsibility for a follower's error, instead take her at her word that she did something she wishes she had danced differently. Engage her as an equal partner with strengths, aspirations and vulnerabilities worthy of your respect and recognition. You'll both be the better for it.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Gringos know no boundaries

Here’s something to know if you’re going to Prague: the city is divided into several numbered districts.  Prague 2 is adjacent to Prague 10, which is tucked between Prague(s?) 3 and 4.  If memory serves, Prague 5 is across the river from Prague 2-3.  If this seems confusing and disorienting, don’t worry: there are two completely different numerical systems in place that make about as much sense as the one described above and are also still in use, and in practice it is often difficult for a foreigner to tell which system is in play in a given context.  So you should pretty much not rely on that stuff anyway.  Also, most houses have two numbers on them: a red one, which has to do with the order in which the buildings were constructed within that district, and a blue one that’s the postal address.  Also, blue numbers ascend or descend along a street depending on which end of the street is closer to a river.  So there’s another valuable navigational nugget to put under your cap.  

In short, Prague is perfectly easy to navigate if you are a riparian historian.

I should have known we were in trouble when we stepped off the train, exchanged some money and found our way to the vending machine for subway tickets.  There were at least seven different possibilities according to the fare structure, which appeared to depend on who you were, what numbered zone of the city you were traveling to, and how long you figured it would take you to get there.  Which is great, as long as you know where the hell you are, where the hell you’re going, and what the hell distance separates the two.  As you have perhaps intuited by now, we did not.  In fact, as I would later learn, I had somehow managed to print not one but two Google maps that, in each case, were just zoomed-in enough to cut off the subway station nearest to our destination in the city.  This meant that we approached everything – on foot and with luggage in tow – from the second-nearest subway station instead.  We showed one such Google map to a person who looked young enough to have studied English, and he helped us buy our first subway ticket in Prague – the cheapest one.  That ought to do it, he said.  (He was right, by the way – I realize I might have just created some incidental suspense, but in fact much of the ensuing debacle could have been avoided if only we could have hired that riparian historian to follow us around for the rest of the day).

Having left Berlin at 6 a.m. and made a beeline for our tango lesson (to which we arrived only ten or so minutes late, miraculously enough), at 3 p.m. we hadn’t yet touched base with our hostess.  We thought we’d find her house, ring the bell and hope for the chance to plunk down our suitcases before scoring some late and much-deserved lunch. So, we dutifully approached the second house on the right from the corner, number 28, and looked for the red button at the top of the right-hand column of buzzers that her very descriptive directions had mentioned. 

“Maybe the sun has faded it,” I said hopefully, after carefully checking each buzzer and finding them all equally dark brown.  The hubs shrugged.  I tried the street door.  It gave, opening into the cool of the apartment stairwell, so we went inside. 

The building was non-descript and indeterminately old, in the way European apartment buildings are indeterminately old, and on the ground floor were Apartments 8, 26 and 14; a panel of glossy black mailboxes; and, dead ahead of us, the elevator.  It was sleek and gleaming, made of glass and steel painted racecar red, and it had obviously been imported from the future.  Since we were looking for Apartment 11 and had exhausted the possibilities of the ground floor, we climbed inside with our three bags and pressed the button.  Nothing happened for a while.  Then, just as the hubs – a patient man – was poised to hit the button for a third time, the doors closed with an irritable little sigh and we shot off to the second floor at the speed of an old-world elevator. 

Floor two revealed Apartments 4, 18, 6, and 21, and I believe Floor 3 contained all the apartments that were prime numbers between 3 and 19 (except, of course, 11).  By this time I felt tired, sore, hot, hungry, unusually culturally intolerant and more than a bit cranky with the Czech notion of mathematics.  At least by the time we were approaching Floor 4 we got wise to the sluggish elevator door and devised a plan to leave all the suitcases on board, hit the button, and each scout out in one direction for Apartment 11.  A quick glance was enough to tell us that Floor 4 consisted of apartments 1, 2, 22 and 15, but by this time our elevator had somehow finally figured out what we were after and zoomed off toward Floors 5 and 6 with our bags, expending all the haste it had saved up during our trips from floors 1-3.

Fortunately, the building was not that tall, and Floor 6 finally coughed up Apartments 9, 23, 16 and, yes, 11.  I rang the bell.  Nothing happened for a while.  Then, just as I was turning to go, a tiny voice called out what I can only imagine was Czech for “Helloooooo?” 

“Hello,” I said.  Nothing happened for a while.  Then, just as I was getting ready to ring the bell again, the tiny voice called out again.  “Hello,” I said again.  Eventually the door opened, and a woman who was the age of all the apartment numbers added together blinked blearily at us, clearly not expecting two sweaty Americans who were pretty sure they had a reservation.  I showed her our overly-zoomed-in Google map and the address we were looking for.  She shook her head and told us something that lasted about 8-10 seconds and was, I like to think, intended to be helpful, and then shuffled back inside #11 and closed the door.

I crumpled on her doorstep, but the hubs pointed out that that wasn’t a very considerate place to lose my mind, so we took the elevator from the future back to the ground floor and I crumpled down there instead.  The hubs headed back to the street and retraced our steps against the instructions we had been provided, only to find that a. we had followed them to the letter, and b. there was a third number, etched in the glass pane above the door we had just passed through: 1701, which was neither red nor blue and had nothing to do with anything.

As I waited for my hubs to return, I examined the bank of glossy black mailboxes more closely and found that it corresponded neither to any system of counting I was familiar with, nor to the actual distribution of apartments in the building.  It was at this time – marveling at the valor of Czech mail carriers and trying to look purposeful and casual while lurking, hot and grouchy, in the foyer of a foreign apartment building – that I realized the relevance of the red/blue number system to our current predicament.  When the hubs came back, we picked up all of our luggage and walked down the block to the other #28 and rang the conspicuously red doorbell.  

Our Czech hostess was out, but eventually came home.  After showing us our room, she fixed us an espresso as we recounted our adventures.   “Didn’t you follow my instructions?” she asked, incredulous.  When I remarked the numbering system over at 1701, she said, “Ah.  Probably the apartments were numbered in a spiral, starting on the fourth floor and then going up and around.”

I still have no idea whether she was joking.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

on grief

The texture of my grief keeps changing.  At first it feels like I have swallowed a cold and bitter stone that pulses like something radioactive.  In the ensuing days it feels as though my heart and mind and senses have all been packed in cotton batting, like I'm something carefully packed into a box in preparation for a move.  This sensation deadens the contours of things, but it can’t take the pain away.  And throughout, the moments when grief is this fierce animal come scrambling and yowling out of my chest.  This grief, I keep shifting it around, trying to get ahold of it in such a way that I can carry it.  So far it's more unwieldy than heavy.  Heaviness will come.

Flying is expensive and hard to book so close to departure time. And even though it gets you to your destination faster you can’t think how you will fill the hours until the plane takes off.  Flying would feel callous in its convenience.  So you drive, and the driving - the cramped car, the crummy road-food and the tedium of the highway register as a tribute and a lamentation.     

Now and again this weird stillness descends, a state of grace like nothing has really changed.  The anticipation of seeing loved-ones, the nostalgia that hasn’t been colored yet by loss.  Strange how the body keeps functioning: my digestive system keeps working, my lungs keep inflating, the blood flows to all my fingers and toes… my body doesn’t ask why it does all these things. It doesn’t ask for permission, just keeps me alive so that I can be a vessel for this pain.

Next come the days of non-sequiturs, a room full of people drinking coffee and exchanging commonplaces interspersed with a recognition that breaks over us in waves.  He isn't coming back.  We talk about anything at all.  We crack jokes and talk politics, grow morbid, grow silent, crack jokes and talk politics. He isn't coming back.

At last, a normal day.  We wake up, we have breakfast, we leave the house and go out for lunch, we visit an art gallery, we watch a movie on DVD.  This day is exhausting.  

A week on, and every conversation is still a minefield.  We cross it so tentatively, hand in hand, and then one of us says something and detonates another of us, or all of us.

Because language is what makes things real to me, I want to tell you these things.  I want to hear you cry when I tell you these things.  I want my speaking them to make you cry.  I want to proclaim them to everyone until everyone is crying.  And then maybe, once everyone else is crying, I’ll understand why they are crying and fully admit it to myself.  Yet in crying him, we relive him, a little.

Monday, April 23, 2012

owning tango

I don't think I write enough about tango.  Anyone who doesn't dance it and has been reading this might disagree with me, but if you really look at the proportion of my time I spend dancing tango, thinking about tango, talking about tango, listening to the music, it would be clear to you that I spend a disproportionately weensy amount of time writing about it as opposed to about other things.

Thing is, I think I may have had a bit of an epiphany this weekend with respect to my dance (which inevitably translates into an epiphany about my self - or at least I can imagine it does).  Despite having danced tango for about 6 years on and off (luckily, more on than off), I don't think I have ever thought of myself as a "tango dancer".  Tango dancers have always been my teachers, or the people who come in to teach me and my teachers, or the graceful, willowy people I see at milongas in Washington, D.C. or New York or elsewhere.   I think I've always perceived myself as an interloper, someone who hasn't been at it long enough to assert my interpretation of the music or call myself "good" enough to not have something to prove.

I'm an innate teacher; it's something that I do without even meaning to and in fact, articulating my experience of things to someone else helps the lessons imprint upon me.  So, if it's in the context of learning among my peers or with those who have less experience than I do, I'm all confidence and certainty.  Get me into a social setting where the dancers are truly good, though, and suddenly I'm a clutching, cowering ball of nerves whose walk and embrace say  "did I get it right?  Is this what you wanted?  How am I doing?  How about now?"

I mean, I danced for four years before I finally allowed myself to buy a pair of regulation tango shoes.  I felt like I had to earn them somehow, to graduate to those stilettos.  They are the most beautiful thing, by the way.  If a fire burns our house down, I will save them after the dog but before my wedding dress.  But I held that door closed to myself until I managed to meet some unspecified, murky criteria that I alone invented.

Since then, I have written about and sung the music, DJ'ed events, danced successfully with strangers far from my own cozy little community (always a big test), met some of the people in those YouTube videos and found them human, I even started learning the leader's role... yet I still somehow haven't thought of myself as an insider.  Just because I dance tango three nights a week and think about it constantly and try to get everyone in my life to do it, just because it's become my pet metaphor for life, the universe and everything, doesn't mean I think I'm any good at it or have any claim to it.  Yet I don't begrudge anyone else that ownership and pole star of identification regardless of their level of expertise.  My criteria for belonging applies uniquely but unappealably to me and me alone.

After a private lesson with teachers I respect, I now think this is a big part of what's holding my dance back.  The next frontier of learning for me is to dance without apology, but with every ounce of joy it gives me.  To turn off the perpetual evaluation machine in my head and just be present to my partner inside the music.
To concern myself less with doing exactly what's expected of me, and to be more open to the possibilities that are offered to me...then, to go boldly forward (or backward, or sideways, or around, depending), because this space is mine to claim.

Uh-oh.  This is almost certainly telling me something about my life.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

brains think the darndest things

I have heard it said (and debunked and said some more) that we humans only use some 10% of our brains. Have you ever had one of those moments when you suddenly, unexpectedly became aware of your brain and all the things it does when you're not paying attention? The fact that I'm having a hard time even phrasing that question suggests to me that I should probably illustrate what I mean. So, what follows is a list of curious things I have learned about my brain and how it processes reality, for better or for worse.

Fun fact #1: My brain thinks no one can recognize me if I'm wearing my glasses. I believe this in spite of the fact that it is patently ridiculous. I have no trouble identifying other people who normally don't wear glasses if I chance upon them with glasses on, or vice versa. Why would my brain think that my identity could be more transformed by glasses than anyone else's?

How I noticed: I had been waiting tables in a diner and some regular customers didn't know who I was. At the time I attributed this to the fact that I had stopped (started?) wearing glasses since the last time I had seen them. This situation recurred, in one form or another, for several years. In retrospect, I am forced to conclude that I am just not that memorable.

Fun fact #2: My brain perceives the wearing of earrings as a sign of competence. Whenever I am wearing earrings, I feel more self-possessed, connected to the world, and ready to confront unfamiliar circumstances.

How I noticed: Standing on a subway platform in NYC. I was a bit lost and felt like a conspicuous tourist, and then I remembered: I was wearing hoop earrings. Clearly, I belonged here and was in full command of this situation. I remember thinking something irrational like "Everything's fine. You're wearing hoop earrings. You've got this."

Fun fact #3: With the right encouragement, my brain is very good at identifying and synthesizing important pieces of information in a hurry.

How I noticed: I arrived at the train station in downtown Montreal four minutes before my train was supposed to leave. I had never been there, and it was a sprawling, bustling, multi-storied building...yet I still made my train. I told my brain "your train is here and so is the information that will guide you to it. Find." My eyes sought and found the relevant arrivals and departures board, then pin-balled from arrowed sign to arrowed sign with my body in tow until I just strolled into the right train car headed toward the right destination moments before we pulled out of the station. I've since been able to repeat this experiment in turning myself over to my brain's command with almost uniform success. This is why I am in charge of all the snap decision-making in my marriage.

Fun fact #4: My brain thinks that because it speaks two languages, it speaks all languages. I speak fluent English and Spanish, and have a smattering of French and vestigial German from minoring in it in college. My brain gets really irritated when I overhear someone speaking anything that isn't one of those languages and continues to struggle impotently to understand.

How I noticed: I was in the grocery store and heard some gentlemen conversing in Hebrew. I couldn't quite accept that I couldn't understand them, and just about wore myself out trying to make sense of what they were saying. It's a wonder that I didn't get kicked out of the grocery store for following them around and (not very effectively) eavesdropping on their conversation. I have also witnessed several situations in which people are having a hard time communicating due to a language barrier, and been tempted to step in and say "I'll handle this", only to discover that I have no better linguistic or extra-linguistic tools than the actual participants in the conversation. I suppose it's true that my odds are better than many people's, but still... seriously, brain? Who do you think you are?

Fun fact #5: My brain inherently trusts the prematurely balding. This is either a genius insight into the human soul, or potentially perilous. Regardless, combined with Fun Facts #1-2 and 4, it would make me an exceptionally crummy secret agent.

How I noticed: I have actually written about this episode before, somewhere, and maybe I can even look it up for you, although I probably won't, but suffice it to say that it's probably a miracle that I'm still alive. I was stumbling around Veracruz, Mexico, trying to overcome the previous night's food poisoning armed with nothing but a digital camera, a bottle of Gatorade and the sheer force of will, when I decided to take a break from the oppressive heat by slumping against a heavily-graffitied wall in a somewhat secluded part of downtown and laying my head against the cool concrete. A young man in a baseball cap approached me and tried to convince me to come home with him, because I was green and obviously foreign and dehydrated and lost under the midday sun and it was about 97 degrees out. This (yes, this part, specifically), I thought, was a bad idea. I spent what was left of my energy trying to get him to go away and leave me alone, when after about 20 minutes he ripped off his baseball cap in frustration. I immediately noticed that at age 27, he had lost nearly all his hair. "Oh," my brain said. "In that case." I went home with him, and he introduced me to his grandmother, and we ate pineapple and listened to the radio for a while.

Although it doesn't happen often, I really enjoy it when my brain makes itself so transparent to me. I depend on it pretty heavily because, like many people, I think for a living. When my brain declares its independence from me in these little ways, I get to remember that it and I are not synonymous. It's comforting, somehow, to know that my brain isn't always empirically correct, and that other parts of me might have the right idea from time to time.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

in defense of second-language curricula

It's the end of exam week, which means that Intermediate Spanish students here at Liberal Arts College USA are rejoicing that they have fulfilled their requirement and will never, ever have to take another foreign language course again. Their professors are rejoicing as well, grateful that, for now at least, we work at an institution of higher ed that still places a value on making one or another of those languages a bit less foreign.

Language programs have been significantly pruned back by universities suffering reduced federal and state funding, the most prominent example being SUNY Albany, where several tenured and tenure-track professors in the French, Italian and Classics departments were unceremoniously dismissed. Students majoring in these disciplines, meanwhile, were invited to complete their degrees at other SUNY campuses, but SUNY Albany discontinued the majors in those languages arguing that this decision affected only a handful of students. Universities and colleges around the U.S. have made similar decisions with regard to their language programs, or moved introductory and intermediate courses on-line to pare spending. This is a grave mistake.

There is simply no substitute for the time students spend in the classroom speaking an unfamiliar tongue. Language is so profoundly bound up in our sense of who we are and of the world that surrounds us that it is almost impossible for us to make sense of things without it. Here's an example: in English, we have a single word for what we generally consider an irreducible concept: corner. Yet in Spanish, the word rincónrefers to the intersection of walls where a parent banishes a naughty child's nose, while esquina denotes the edge of your sheet of paper, or the place where the sidewalk in front of your house meets the cross-street.

There. I have just slightly changed your perception of reality.

What's more, for all that English possesses enough synonyms to keep Roget publishing thesauruses until kingdom come, this simple example shows that the English language is lacking when it comes to some pretty basic distinctions. How else can we account for the fact that we love strawberries, our puppy dogs, our siblings, our friends and our spouses with the same verb? In fact, although many of us are fortunate enough to form at least a provisional understanding of the concept of love over the course of our lifetimes, "I love you" is still one of the most ambiguous statements one can make in English.

I would need the Matrix - or at very least a team of neuropsychologists and a lab full of fancy equipment - to know whether a mind that distinguishes between rincones and esquinas organizes spatial relationships fundamentally differently from how my mind does; and, if so, how this translates itself into differences in what's considered appropriate personal distance in social situations or how to build a city. But I am nearly certain that my internal map of the world is different from that of native Spanish-speakers as a consequence of spending the first twenty or so years of my life never having thought about such a distinction. Contact with other languages reshapes our perception of reality, and of the reality that is available to us to perceive. Perhaps this explains why so many students have such a visceral dread of language classes, and interpret the university's second language proficiency requirement as a perverse act of abject torture - such learning is inherently uncomfortable because it strikes so close to the heart of what makes us who we are.

Most educators are agreed that requiring students to take at least a couple of courses in the humanities - in anthropology, sociology, history, philosophy - is fundamental to providing them a broad understanding of the world they inhabit. These classes ask students to think about, read about, discuss, analyze, and legitimize different ways of interpreting the world. However, they are no substitute for language classes, as language courses require students not only to consider other perspectives, but for a moment to embody them. The practice of speaking the world through another's tongue compels students to practice empathy - a skill that grows ever more urgent in a shrinking world.