Musings of an Earnest Reader who Loves a Turn of Phrase

Da Chen, a Chinese student who interpreted for English speakers, was not accustomed to indoor plumbing. He was set up in an air conditioned hotel for his first interpreter gig, with spectacular accommodations he clearly was not used to…

He said he could —

“hardly believe his stinky naked toes had once touched the carpeted hush of the vacuumed hallways and that his farting ass had once spoken hoarsely into the echoing toilet.”

Poetry! I encountered this passage a little past midnight and as I lay there I resisted the urge to giggle aloud. There’s something eerie about that sort of ‘alone in a quiet room’ laugh —I’ve done it and it often startles me.

When Da Chen first got to college, he remembered his dad’s sage advice: “look around first, make no fast friends, and only say 30% of what you really want to say.”

I have to agree that his dad’s advice is timeless and wise. 

When I read the above passages in Chen’s book “Sounds of The River”, I knew that this author, whose second language is English, had a command of words, a real gift for writing in a colorful way. While not a life changing book in the way that Khaled Hosseini’s books prompt you to consider your worldview, and also the Hosseini books just stay with you, Chen’s book was entertaining and parts of it thought provoking and amusing. Get this for example-

Da’s first job as interpreter (during a rough time where he endured sickly college food and living quarters under a fascist dictatorship where excellent grades, hard work,  resourcefulness, playing the system, and bribes got you visas to America, something he dreamed of) was when NBA players came to town for a game on tour. Mind you Chen and his fellow students are a short people. He was warned by his superior that American basketball players were:

“regarded as superstars in a rich America and very well paid. Some being spoiled professionals who are highly regarded in society… and they expect utmost respect. Some may even desire worship.”

 When Da Chen first saw the NBA  players arrive at the airport (one of whom was Kareem Abdul Jabar) he saw:

“… fairytale giants. They were walking columns. They walked with the calculated and nimble slowness of giants. Their shiny heads rose above onlookers like giraffes on safari.” 

He had no concept of their popularity and fame. Nor did he realize they made MILLIONS… that revelation came later and he was floored!

Da felt “like a mushroom in a forest of ancient timber. Like a shouting ant climbing the mount of their toe callouses.” 

His ears “rumbled with alarming vibrations” when a giant (NBA player) spoke to him. 

“Long vines of sinuous hands dangled almost to the ballplayer’s knees. He swept his hand across his face; leaving a gust of wind behind and walked away with that robotic mechanical smoothness. Like an episode of Gulliver’s Travels, the giants had landed on small man land.” 

This book has startling overtones of a controlling government-they called ALL your shots including where you’d eventually work. 

I do love a turn of phrase. Chen has that gift. There is the story (we’ve all of us got ’em) and then there is the telling of it. It’s like whenever I read a memoir written by a journalist. The story is told well, like a finely hewn golden chain, but it tends to be factual, with no precious stones, fanciwork, filigree…

Interesting turns of phrase are in the unlikeliest of places to be found. I was reading an Annie Dillard book last month when I came upon an amusing antecdote. If I remember correctly, the main character went into the kitchen just as the sports announcer on the radio shouted,

 “Terwilliger bunts one!” 

It set her off laughing as it struck her as so incredibly a musical turn of phrase and impossibly obscure too, that it became an inside phrase/joke in the family for years to come. All she had to do was whisper to a family member (when things got serious and overwhelming,) this phrase that shattered the mood and lightened it- and got everyone to giggling at the turn of phrase whispered out of context: 

“Terwilliger bunts one!”

A ‘turn of phrase’ has been compared to the turning of a lathe, in manufacturing the word choices and phrases into something akin to the shaping of a piece of wood into a form. It can be an art. 

I came across one recently that haunts me a little, but first here’s some background. The book is “Forty Autumns” by Nina Willner and it’s about that terrible time in history when the Berlin Wall was erected. East Germany, being under Soviet CONTROL was clearly the worst side of the wall to live on. But they weren’t allowed to leave. 

The people were forced to give land and food to the rulers who then doled it out to all-as they deemed fit or not at all. Freedoms were stripped away. Impossible work requirements were enforced. They were required to speak well of communism. Or else. 

Many tried to escape the East side of the wall to the West and some made it – under the wall through the sewer system, above it in hot air balloons. Many were shot, though. 

Forced into compliance, anyone who dared question the dictatorship could be tortured, imprisoned, murdered. Many women were “spoils of war” and raped brutally -which was legal. 

Children were the next generation of what the Soviets wanted to be “good communists” and so the vulnerable youth were put into Youth Groups, manipulated; where they were retaught, there was to be complete mandated compliance in the retraining of youth, who they encouraged (taught) to spy on others (even parents) who spoke badly of the regime, then the kids —–they were praised and rewarded for the spying. They were brainwashed. Molded. 

Eventually of course, protestors, angry and frustrated, finally put down their tools and rose up, overwhelmed police, tearing down banners, lashing out loudly against the communist rule. Not all of them protested violently, but to those for whom violence was always their default, they too protested. Violently. But not all of them rose up in protests that way. 

There were tanks in response. Fire and bloodshed. People were tired of having freedoms stripped. Hundreds lay dead. Thousands were injured as demonstrators – even the peaceful ones, were subject to violent crackdown. 

In one paragraph early on in the book, a desperate (quite intelligent teacher, musician, highly educated man who was respected) father who needed to conform to keep his job, explains to his wayward daughter the necessity in conforming to the rules of the new Soviet regime; he surrendered to the rule to keep his job and feed his family of 9 fed. He encouraged her to comply, to not attempt escape, to surrender freedoms and accept communism rule. Here is the turn of phrase that is not sitting well with me. 

He says to her, 

“This is a new beginning for Germany. We have a chance to make our country great again.”

Why is it we rarely learn from the mistakes of our past?

In other news, I have finally realized why over the last few months my paintings have changed. They seem sadder and I know now they are a reflection of the world around me-that I am seeing and barely believing-a troubled world at large. 

I’ll end on a weird note now and share a few memes that struck me funny and relevantly recently. 

Whatever your views : no one gets to say you can’t have them. That’s my view. That’s what freedom is. 

Now here’s a turn of phrase that popped up in a “words with friends” game after I drew letters randomly:

I never saw that one coming. By the way, when I saw it, I did laugh aloud and startle myself.

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