Likeness: What Makes for Successful Impressions

One trait I have inherited from my mother’s side is mimicry and impersonation. I’m grateful for this ability, and it is an almost-visceral need or habit when I hear someone with a particularly salient speech pattern, or see a celebrity or well-known individual with distinct mannerisms, to do an impression of that person. But I am not alone in this, as there are many voice actors, dramatic actors, comedians, and individuals who share this trait. TV shows such as “MadTV,” “Saturday Night Live,” “In Living Color,” endless viral videos, and comedy clubs all attest to the popularity of mimicry and people’s love for seeing their celebrities re-created. Sometimes, this is not comedic, as we can see a film like “My Week with Marilyn” or the series “The Crown.” What makes for a good impression? Contrary to popular belief, it is not simply “sounding just like” a person and replicating them exactly, but something much more. Let us explore.

The voice is, certainly, the most important part of an impression. But the voice is made up of components and is not one singular thing. The timbre of someone’s voice is often what lends itself most to a successful impersonation. Does their voice sit in the same place and have the same tone color as the person they are trying to imitate? For example, Alec Baldwin’s voice sits in the same low, raspy register as Donald Trump’s when he plays him on “Saturday Night Live.” The late Carol Channing had an unmistakable sound that’s funny to imitate. The physiology lends itself to creating the same sound. Another big part of the voice is the speech pattern. How slow or fast does someone talk? How do they pace their speech? Are there particular cadences, rhythms, ways they emphasize their words? Are there particular things someone says? A pilot on a British Airways flight I once took was a vocal dead-ringer for Hugh Grant, not only for the class of British accent, but also the timbre and the particular cadences. Naturally, it entails that an impression may involve an accent. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s sound was unmistakably Brooklyn Jewish and Bill Clinton still hasn’t lost his Arkansas drawl over the decades. Tracy Ullman is a genius with her impersonations, for she is able to catch the speech of endless celebrities and accents with her flexible voice.

Beyond voice, there has to be an understanding of the type of utterances by the person one is trying to imitate. Trump’s bombastic, self-congratulatory language, and Queen Elizabeth’s small talk that is friendly but not personal, or a particular culture’s way of speaking insults are all examples of how one must use the meaning behind the speech to create a successful impression. In other words, this is creating character and not simply repeating sound. Unsuccessful impressions don’t understand the personality of the person speaking or the culture of the accent being done. One can speak in a British accent as an American, but if you don’t understand the nuances and subtleties of the way a Brit uses language, you won’t be successful. Conversely, Brits imitating the American accent overexaggerate the “Americanness” of our language and our enthusiasm, and it sounds forced. Granted, exaggeration can be an element of an impression. Think Jim Carrey as Joe Biden. Joe Biden will never go over the top as he is a leading political figure. However, Carrey always pushes boundaries and he knows where to go too far in order to create a humorous effect. 

We have to look next at gesture and the physicalization of the person we are trying to imitate. James Brown had his famous dance moves, sliding back and forth on the floor–something captured so well by actor Wayne Brady. Physical comedians have a gift of being able to imitate another person’s body language. How do they sit, move, gesture? George W. Bush’s frequent smirks, Barbra Streisand’s stroking of her hair with her long, manicured fingers, a Japanese woman’s bow, and the infamous Indian head nod are all things we would immediately recognize are central to conveying someone physically. There is the danger with this of gestures being reduced to tics. This is all too frequent on “Saturday Night Live,” which is not necessarily a bastion of good comedy.

Physical appearance is probably something most viewers would say is important to creating an impression when the impression is in acting. You might do a spot on impression of Chris Rock, but if you are a heavyset redhaired man, you might not be too convincing (not to mention potentially offensive to some black people). In “The Crown,” the characters do not closely resemble the royal family. The wonderful Helena Bonham Carter does not have Princess Margaret’s facial shape or piercing blue eyes, nor did Claire Foy recreate the Queen’s relaxed, polite expression, wearing an impenetrable cold, wide-blue-eyed stare instead. However, most of the cast does a strong job in portraying the royals as complex people and capturing their personalities. So one need not necessarily closely resemble the person being mimicked in order to capture them well. Cate Blanchett did a wonderful job as Katharine Hepburn in “The Aviator” despite the lack of the angular face and famous cheekbones, and no one would have said Michelle Williams resembled Marilyn Monroe before the film “My Week with Marilyn” though she did a wonderful job in the film. Certainly, an excellent hair, makeup, and wardrobe team can help, as can lighting and understanding how a person moves. Of course, we love best the people who actually resemble the people they are impersonating: Tina Fey as Sarah Palin was beyond belief and the Australian musician who is a double for Kim Jong-Un. There is something so primal and human about having a good laugh at someone who strongly resembles a celebrity.

Impressions can also be nonverbal. The Prince William and Kate Middleton wedding video parody was fantastic, not only because the cast closely resembled the members of British royal family, but also because the choreography was so apt for each character. Of course Prince Harry would gyrate his pelvis, Princess Anne would do a dance move like she was riding a horse, and the queen would smile and clap in a dignified way. So there is also the physical aspect of movement that helps to create an impersonation of someone in addition to the looks.

Finally, the impersonator needs to capture that elusive quality known as essence. This is why, even when someone does not exactly resemble the person in question, they are able to give you an impression so convincingly. It’s a question of understanding what makes someone tick me: what do they say, do, how do they react? If Woody Allen was being interviewed, an impersonator might have him start off by trying to clear his name from the MeToo blame and go off on a tangent about all the women who told him he was a nebbish. The late genius Phil Hartman’s SNL skit as Bill Clinton jogging into a McDonald’s and sampling the other diners’ meals was perfect, because it juxtaposed Clinton’s keen intellect and knowledge of global affairs with his appetite for fast food. Naturally, this is not something the president would have done, but it was just so fitting and in character with Clinton!

Of course there are unsuccessful impersonations. Usually these are because someone does not resemble the original person, is trying too hard, or makes a caricature out of the original person when not in a highly comedic setting. Personally, I found Natalie Portman’s Jackie Kennedy quite bad, for her accent was forced, she had no resemblance to Jackie, and she captured none of Mrs. Kennedy’s strength and iron will that was masked by her graciousness and seemingly delicate manners. Though graceful, Jackie Kennedy was no shrinking violet. Will Ferrell as Alex Trebek was something I never found funny, because Alex Trebek is not stiff and mannered in the way Ferrell portrayed him.

All of this falls under the umbrella of acting, an art form that is not easy to do. It takes a lot of skill, a lot of understanding of all the choices that one has to make. Doing impressions is certainly a lot of fun, and something that is universally funny, part of the human experience. After all, who hasn’t been accused of being a “copycat” at some point in their childhood?!

They Come to America: The Enduring Attraction of American Higher Education

They Come to America: The Enduring Attraction of Higher Education in the U.S.

What is it about an American university education that makes millions of students want to compete, struggle, sacrifice, fight, and beg for admission? For example, the idea of a Harvard Bachelor’s or an engineering degree at MIT is something tantamount to attaining godhood in many countries. It is the finishing touch that will supposedly make one’s life complete, along with acquiring a Mercedes, oceanfront property, and dividends from high-yield stocks. All of this is ironic when one considers the sad fact that America lags far behind its industrialized world counterparts in primary and secondary education, embarrassingly so. It is also ironic when one considers the variety of social problems that are present on a number of campuses, such as binge drinking, drugs, cheating, date rape, or lack of basic classroom respect in an age of texting and social media. America’s universities are much younger than its international counterparts; Princeton’s architecture is laughable when one considers the thousand-plus year old architecture of Oxford. And many of these universities, like Oxford, Bologna, or the Sorbonne hold much older traditions of higher education that go back centuries, if not millennia. Needless to say, the cost of higher education in the United States is staggering; while people in France might protest a €200 tuition increase per year, people here are paying $200,000 for their entire university education.

But there is something very special about studying in the United States, despite all these problems and the relative youth of our institutions. Why is an American education so sought-after?

-American universities are well-funded. Granted, not every university has a Harvard-sized endowment. But American schools generally all have decent libraries and laboratories. There is computer access and technology. There are great resources for both inside and outside the classroom, extracurricular activities, and campus housing and dormitories that make for a complete experience. There might be strong sports facilities, concert halls, art studios, media labs, and more. Even in an age-old prestigious university overseas, there might not be suitable facilities to further one’s development.

-The style of liberal arts education. In a majority of countries around the world, students are tracked into a single discipline upon entry. There are very few electives and classes taken in fields that are not pertinent to one’s major. In America, there is almost always some form of a core curriculum and requirements that serve to broaden one’s mind, requiring humanities majors to take a math class and engineering majors to take a social science class. In the classroom, the style of education is not rote, but seeks to challenge and knock down students’ beliefs in order for them to be rebuilt. There is much discussion, original thought is valued, and critical inquiry is key to learning and growing. There are sacred texts and new thinkers; the canon lays the groundwork in many schools and in others, students get to choose classes that feel relevant to their style of education. America is particularly strong and cutting edge in the STEM fields, and so it is a popular choice for many students from overseas. 

-The diversity of institutions. If you want a research school where you attend classes that are lectures given by global experts in their field, America has that. If you want a state university where you get to mix with the locals and have an authentic American experience with lower tuition, that is available. Perhaps you learn best in a small setting, and so a small liberal arts college fits the bill. Maybe you come from a conservative country where there is gender segregation in education, so a women’s college is the only choice your parents will approve of. If you are a genius in a STEM field, you opt for one of the top universities in the country that focuses on science and technology. Or you might be a future leader in your country that has deep political trouble, and so you choose an institution that supports refugees and political thinkers. Whatever your pedagogical goals or style, there is a school to meet your needs.

-The best universities are truly global. Students will make friends with people from every corner of the earth and the United States, make friendships for life, and even connections that will help with their careers. Embracing diversity at a young age reduces prejudice, and it creates a global culture that is so necessary in an age of a terrifying rise of the right wing. 

-There is an openness and positivity to American education when it is working well. The higher education systems in many other countries serve to weed out students, allowing only the elite to continue, or discouraging otherwise good students who have not been at the top of their class. French people often complain about the pessimism and negativity of their education system, and people in many countries have lamented the fact that they were not able to study medicine because they did not make the cut in the entrance exams, though they otherwise would have been excellent doctors. Students here are allowed to change their mind as to what they are studying, and there is a tremendous support system for students in American universities with academic advising, counseling, and career centers. The attitude is yes rather than no, and there is a pervading sense of equality that allows for anyone, no matter what their background, to succeed if they are willing to work hard. Professors are willing to talk to students in office hours, and students are allowed to criticize the professors in end-of-the-term evaluations. This, in turn, encourages immigrants who choose to stay to contribute to American society, and these immigrants are a huge factor in America’s success.

-Finally, American undergraduate culture is fun. Granted, in too many schools there are not healthy boundaries with what is considered “fun,” and it becomes a very toxic, partying culture that wastes education. But at the bottom of it, college is seen as a time when students grow, bond with each other, enjoy their experiences and learning and outside the classroom, forming friendships for a lifetime. There are fun activities for holidays, traditions that are unique and specific to each culture, even great rituals specific to each institution (MIT hacks, anyone?) Undergraduate learning is not only about learning, but about enjoying one’s youth.

These are just some of the reasons why American universities are a popular choice; certainly, many more exist. And in turn, many Americans love going overseas for a study abroad or an internship, wanting to broaden their own horizons and see the world.

Further Reflections from the Polyglot Conference

Much to everyone’s delight, the polyglot conference was extended by another week, and we have been able to continue listening to the hundred or so lectures by various speakers on an incredible variety of topics, and avail ourselves of the various language chat rooms and general meeting room on Zoom. This has been one of the most wonderful experiences in recent years, and one that has truly made me feel like I have found my tribe! I have learned so much about the world, people, and languages, but also so much about myself. Here are some of the things I have been reflecting on.

-Monolingual cultures are really insular and lacking. I always felt like an oddball growing up bilingual, but I have grown to really appreciate it and have come to see that there are so many others in America who are natively bilingual or trilingual or more. Many other polyglots I have spoken with have commented on the negatives about monolingual cultures (especially in the context of our Anglophone countries) and it is something I see more clearly now. English-speaking countries, as a whole, really do seem to take an attitude of “the rest of the world speaks English, so why should I learn a language?” Frequently, someone in an Anglophone country says that they had X number of years of Y language in school, but they can’t remember a word. Why not? Granted, there are always individuals who do not learn languages well, but this type of statement should not be considered a proud confession and instead a reflection on the flaws in our education system. There is no impetus to use foreign languages on a regular basis in America, unless one makes a certain effort or is able to speak with people in ethnic community. This really needs to change.

-It is perfectly normal and wonderful to have a deep passion for words and languages. I have met people who have been studying Ancient Hittite, Eastern Armenian, and the languages of indigenous Californians. I have met people who love learning different scripts as much as I do, even someone who knew how to spell my name in Tamil! There is nothing wrong with being curious about the various dialects of any given language, and knowing the differences between them and discussing them with others. These kinds of things often make one a freak in mainstream American society. But one does not need to be a scholar or trained in linguistics in order to be highly knowledgeable about any language or languages–I’ve met people from various walks of life, from warehouse worker to professor to computer programmer.

-It is perfectly normal and wonderful to have a deep passion for geography. One group activity involved people filling out the different regions of different countries, and it was really amazing to see how knowledgeable people were in knowing the different areas of so many different countries like India, Germany, and more. This is so necessary in a world that has become extremely globalized.

-Knowing multiple languages really changes your brain structure. If you grow up bilingual or multilingual, this has really shaped your brain and cognition, and even if you have learned languages later, this is very important as the brain has so much neuroplasticity. I enjoyed watching talks by neuroscientists and scholars who showed data and images from fMRI studies. There are even some studies that show that learning languages can keep Alzheimer’s at bay!

-Language is inseparable from culture and meaning. How we use gestures, express certain thoughts, ideas, and shades of meaning all relate to language and our need to communicate. Certain concepts exist in some languages, but not in others. Grammar reflects the subtleties of expression; the more cases in a language, the more precise it is about relation.

-Language is connected to history. It is endlessly fascinating to learn about how various languages developed and branched off within any given language family. Sometimes this process has been over millennia, and at other times, in a matter of centuries. The history of English is incredibly fascinating and complex, and the more we know about its linguistic roots, the more we can understand how we think and what influences shaped our language.

And finally,
-Humor is humor, regardless of the language, and is truly global. People from all over the globe will keep giggling when trying to pronounce the Georgian word, gvprtskvni, that is all consonants except for the final letter. Everyone will find it funny that someone is still awake at 5 AM to be on a Zoom chat, like a vampire. Several people will ask, in a Hindi lesson, for expressions on how to bargain, knowing that that is an ingrained part of Indian culture. And my favorite, a question posted in the chat on what country you will end up in if you dig a hole through the earth from your country? Whether people were from Uruguay, America, or Sweden, the answer was China!

Language can often divide us and is what makes us so distinct and unique from culture to culture. But, as this polyglot conference has shown, it can really unite us in the most amazing ways. Many thanks to everyone I’ve learned from and connected with!

The Poetic Nature of Led Zeppelin

We often think of Led Zeppelin as hard rock and roll, the Gods of Rock, Robert Plant with his golden bravado and Jimmy Page with his cocky virtuosity, and the understatedly brilliant John Paul Jones and his effortless basslines. Their antics were as famous as their music, though John Paul Jones remarkably managed to stay free of trouble. The death of powerful drummer John “Bonzo” Bonham cemented their place as legends, legends who, like in any Greek tragedy, live a heroic life but face tragic mortality, paying a price for their hubris. But there was more to Zeppelin than outrageousness; their music speaks volumes even today, and is truly legendary. These late 60s-early 80s bards could be incredibly tender when they wanted to be and elegant, poets in their flowered shirts and flowing hair. Even under their thundering rhythms and powerful guitars, there is a lot of beauty in their music that we can still appreciate today.

It would almost be too cliché to talk about Stairway to Heaven, but it does beg a brief mention in that the beginning opens like an old English ballad, arpeggiated with a guitar and then a flute. Plant’s plea, “There’s a lady who’s sure…” at the beginning could be from a roaming minstrel during Shakespeare’s time. The equally-well-known “Immigrant Song” with its delightfully discordant, violent opening recounts history, the Viking invasions of Iceland, and there is memorable rhyme in the forceful opening lyrics: “We come from the land of the ice and snow/ from the midnight sun where the hot springs flow…” Plant then croons the next lines softly, in that line from which she derives his nickname, “The hammer of the gods/Will drive our ships to new lands.”

One of the most tender and beautiful songs by the band is “Ramble On,” inspired by Tolkien. The strumming guitar at the beginning, muted bass guitar, and rhythm that is beat on some still-unknown object (possibly but not certainly the drum) lead the way for Plant’s introduction in a tender, slightly scratchy voice, “Leaves are falling all around/Time I was on my way…” Perhaps he is Bilbo Baggins or another character about to embark on a hero’s journey through the English countryside. “Mine’s a tale that can’t be told,” Plant continues. “My freedom I hold dear.” This wandering narrator is the man by the roadside, the itinerant Traveller, the poetic vagabond.

But it is not just their lyrics that are poetic; their music is also particularly lyrical and complex. Think of the guitar lines in “Over the Hills and Far Away”: Robert Plant’s invitation to his lady intertwines with Jimmy Page’s acoustic guitar, and when the song breaks into full out rock, there are two guitar lines and the bass doubles one of them. The piece diminishes into the air in an ethereal fashion, a graceful diminuendo of sound and emotion. On the tragic “All of My Love” (written for the death of Plant’s son Karac), bassist and multi-instrumentalist John Paul Jones’s gets to showcase his prodigious talents with a fugal, almost Bach-like solo that is beyond the usual scope of a rock song. Even the animalistic Bonzo knew when to hold back and keep the beat in a quiet fashion, and when to let his drums speak as a whole symphony unto themselves as in “Bonzo’s Montreux.” (Bonham, some may be surprised to know, grew up listening to the great jazz drummers.)

A discussion of Led Zeppelin’s music is endless, and so we must conclude with the poetic nature of the musicians themselves. Long-haired and sometimes flower-shirted, the men of Led Zeppelin were in touch with their feminine and poetic sides, not afraid to be soft and emotional while still being brash, aggressive, and wild. They were at the tail end of the hippie era, yet they could also be blues musicians, proto-punk rockers, heavy-metal men, folk singers, and so much more. They loved the black culture of the American South’s Delta, the folk traditions of their own land, musics of the non-Western world (“Kashmir” was actually inspired by a trip to Morocco). Robert and Jimmy were the most poetic of them all, in terms of appearance: the former with his long flowing golden hair, like a flower child, and the latter with his dark, silent, Byronic personality and interest in the occult.

With rings on their fingers and bells on their toes, they screamed and riffed and captured the attention of audiences everywhere. Like the heroes of the Greek myth, they flew high and close to the sun, indulged in wine, women and song, these traveling troubadours who are immortalized in music history. However, the band ended up crashing and burning like Icarus when John Bonham was found dead, due to his drunken excesses. The other three musicians could not imagine continuing without him, and thus concluded Led Zeppelin. An unnecessarily heartbreaking, dreadful ending–but perhaps a grimly poetic one, as would happen in any great tragedy.

Rarer than Platinum: The Minority Artist

America is a very business- and professional-minded society. It is also the land of tremendous opportunities for immigrants, the place to pursue the proverbial “American Dream.” The country is not one to rest on its laurels in terms of history, arts, culture, or anything else that is not pragmatic and geared towards professional success, STEM advances, or money. Even our language is very efficient and to the point: compare American English with the more flowery nature of British English. These are not bad things in and of themselves.

But what about those who are more right-brained, more creative-minded outside of STEM fields, those who like to create works of art that are political or art for art’s sake or crafts? It is not easy to be an artist in American society, period. And what of those who are artists, but come from a minority group, some sector of society that is socioeconomically disadvantaged or from an immigrant background whose primary motivation is to stay alive and establish themselves in American society, or whose members prefer other professions and values?

Being a minority who is an artist is probably one of the most difficult pursuits anyone in this society can undertake. Understandably, many minority groups, especially immigrants, place a high value on professional careers that are stable, solid, provide benefits, and socially recognized. Art is already seen as a luxury in American society: add to it the stresses of immigration, and it becomes almost frivolous. Many minority artists are not understood by their own communities, for if they are not seen as frivolous, they are perhaps simply not appreciated. “Art” for many immigrant groups can often be formulaic, such as blockbuster movies, soap operas, or community/cultural/folk traditions. There may not be any desire for individual creative output, for it can challenge the norms of what is understood to be art. Those who strike out on their own are often not emotionally or financially supported. At the worst, they might be ostracized in their own communities for making obscure films, odd paintings, or music that is unfamiliar.

This is all the more reason that minority artists need to be supported. What is an artist after all? Someone who has a unique vision that they want to bring out to the world. Whatever medium they work in, there is something that is so intrinsically and personally beautiful to this artist, it is the best language they how to express themselves in. Part of the difficulty that arises with supporting minority artists is that minorities often get lumped into certain groups and there are certain expectations. If one is a non-white writer, they must write “trauma fiction.” If one is a minority pop singer, she might have to fit into a “cute” mold that is like an ethnic Barbie doll instead of an ethnic Patti Smith. If one is an ethnic painter, they may be discouraged from bringing influences from their own culture into their work.

Ultimately, any artist, minority or not, must be allowed to create what is uniquely their vision, in a way that nobody else can see it or do it. And society must allow for that to happen. Here’s to all the minority artists that dare to do what they love.

Je Suis Samuel: Freedom of Speech, Cancel Culture, and the Need To Educate

Yesterday’s shocking news of the beheading of French teacher Samuel Paty resonates with- and horrifies educators all over the world. Paty was a beloved teacher in a middle school who wanted to discuss ethics and morality and the freedom of speech using cartoons from the infamous Charlie Hebdo magazine mocking the prophet Mohammed. He gave Muslim students the option to look away. He did all the right things an educator should do in choosing material that was thought-provoking but very educational, understood particular sensitivities and allowed students not to participate, and continued with what was presumably a detailed, complex discussion of the subject matter, examining different sides. And yet, he paid the price with his life for attempting to engage in freedom of speech in an educational context.

As an educator myself, I am so deeply saddened, outraged, and disgusted by the murder of this well-intentioned man that was conducted in the most gruesome way. I’m also outraged at the way the murderer and those who support him could not have the moral complexity and nuanced thought to be able to understand that Monsieur Paty was not personally doing something to mock Islam, but trying to present a controversial topic to his students in a classroom setting. His beheading is the worst possible example of cancel culture, for if we cannot discuss the most difficult subjects in an educational institution, what hope do we have for the rest of society?

Religion, race, culture, and sexuality are extremely fraught topics; they are loaded with centuries of history and baggage, they are often used as means for discrimination, and they become a lightning rod for morality. While teaching, I tend to use a very diverse curriculum, but I am always very careful to listen to those who disagree, whose viewpoints might be conservative, politically incorrect, or generally not “acceptable.” This is important, for we need students to see differing opinions on subjects they may hold near and dear. We all have our hot buttons, or triggers that will be pushed for some issue or other. But a good educator will steer the discussion carefully if someone says something too off-color, or will try to ask more about where this person is coming from and look at the flaws in their logic.

This becomes especially challenging when we are discussing subjects that involve people who have been historically and/or systematically marginalized. It is true that there may be a “right” answer (i.e. there is NEVER an excuse for the police brutality against innocent black people). France has had a long history of not being successful with integrating Muslims into society, and of statistically verifiable discrimination. While I love satires and parodies, Charlie Hebdo is sometimes repulsive and tasteless. In any case, we need to allow the dissenters to speak, to be countered by those who disagree, and to allow discussion to continue in a constructive, healthy way. Not doing so, in my opinion, is what creates all kinds of backlash, trolling online, violent protests, and frightening political climates. We did not listen to the poor, white conservatives in the recent past; Trump gave them something to latch onto, and now what we have is worse than anything we could have imagined. Liberals AND conservatives and people on all points of the spectrum all need to speak out and be heard.

A terrorist/extremist is a terrorist/extremist no matter what the belief system or location. The Chechen-origin Islamic extremist Abdoulakh Anzorov, who murdered Samuel Paty (and who was himself shot by the police), exhibits the same thought processes and behavior as the six Michigan militia man who wanted to kidnap Gov. Gretchen Whitmer or the Basque separatists back in the day. These sociopaths generally feel marginalized, on the outside of society, and feel that something valuable of theirs is being attacked or taken away. Horrible deeds committed by these asocial individuals have always occurred through history, continue to occur, and unfortunately probably will always occur to some degree. We need to be watchful both of these individuals and of the social conditions/psychological factors that create these them. Intervention is key, just as we saw in the plot to kidnap Gov. Whitmer, to foil any violent acts.

Many young people today engage in cancel culture, where they do not want to hear, discuss, or read about points of view that differ greatly from their own, due to their own sensitivities. We must learn to separate the personal from the idea in an educational setting, to practice a sense of detachment, even when we may feel very offended or outraged by something. This is not to say that there should not be healthy limits, for sometimes in America there is an excess of freedom of speech that allows all manner of anti-black, anti-Semitic, anti-everything hate speech. Facebook and other social media companies have done a terrible job of monitoring hate speech. But I am talking about carefully moderated, academic debate for the sport of it, because that is the only thing that can truly develop our minds and make us better human beings in a world that is becoming frighteningly violent.

Speaking in (Many) Tongues: The Benefits of Being a Polyglot

At the end of this week is the international polyglot conference (www.polyglotconference.com, for those who are interested), an event which I am greatly looking forward to. There will be numerous talks in all aspects of language, learning languages, what it’s like to be a polyglot, and more. People from all over the globe will be attending, bonding not through the common enemy of Covid-19 but through language. This is something that is truly heartwarming and uplifting to the soul. When we think about what separates us from all other living beings, it is our specifically verbal mode of communication. Cats may meow in different ways to get different things, as any cat lover knows all too well, primates have different shouts to express their distress in the forest, and birds can deploy a variety of calls during mating season. We are also the only living creatures that have a written mode of communication, thanks to the ways our brains have developed from our pre-verbal days. 

What does it mean to be a polyglot? The word polyglot itself, as per the Merriam-Webster dictionary, comes from the Greek, “polyglottos” which is made up of poly- (many) and glotta (language). Fairly self-explanatory. But in reality, what it means is having to grasp different grammars, syntaxes, vocabularies, phonetic systems, expressions, idioms, and even physical gestures. When one is a polyglot, it requires one to shift modalities in thought and in one’s very being. Naturally, polyglots will differ in their levels of fluency with the languages that they speak. Neuroscientists and linguists have studied how the brains of people who speak more than one language work, and it differs from those who speak only one language. A linguist once told me, for example, with people who are bilingual, two sets of vocabularies are coming up simultaneously, and the speaker will choose whichever one is appropriate to the situation. This all happens in a fractions of a second, a completely subconscious process that one has no idea of. 

On the day-to-day level, what this means is there is a certain richness of language and expressions one can choose from, a sort of “word palette” with many verbal colors to choose from. Certain languages just “get it right” with expressing certain emotions or thoughts. Whenever I see cats, I immediately lapse into Tamil because I find it more suitable to speaking to them in ways that are humorously chiding, loving, and expressive. There is a certain intimacy of the language that I cannot find in any other language I speak, and I confess I think cats love being spoken to in Tamil. A Korean native told me that Korean is so much more expressive with colors, that there are multiple words for yellow. Italian is incredibly robust and rollicking and highly physicalized, Russian is very rich and melancholy, English is very inventive and has a tremendous vocabulary that draws on many languages. The list goes on, and for each polyglot, the buffet of languages offers much to choose from. There is of course always the difference between speaking and reading and writing language. For some people, the auditory skills are much stronger, whereas with others, the literary skills dominate. 

As one polyglot who speaks 7 languages told me, he feels that he has a different identity in each language. This is very beautiful and also very true, for each language will bring out a different facet to our identities, freeing us or confining us or perhaps allowing us to be more serious or more humorous, more or less expressive. Many children of immigrants struggle, for they do not speak their parents’ native tongues easily, and often report feeling “forced” to speak those languages. This is truly a shame, for I feel that so much of culture is attached to language; perhaps many of our multicultural problems in the United States would be ameliorated by people speaking more than one language, therefore having a window into another culture. In many parts of the United States, such as California, it is advantageous to speak Spanish and one can initiate a conversation with a native Spanish/non-English speaker who will usually be grateful and this can facilitate an interaction to go much more smoothly. 

Sadly, language education begins too late in most of the United States, past critical periods, for when it comes to language acquisition, younger the better. I saw an example of this when a French woman brought her five-year-old daughter to a sewing workshop. They had only come to the U.S. five months before and her daughter was placed in kindergarten without knowing a word of English. The little girl watched me and asked, “Where are you putting buttons?” Though spoken with a mild French accent, it was astonishing, for the child had grasped vocabulary, syntax, and understood how to formulate a question in a remarkably short time. Children are like a sponge at a young age, and we must teach them non-native languages as soon as possible. A friend sent her children to Spanish language preschool so that they would have the advantage of another language; her children spoke Spanish with perfect accents, and no one would have suspected it was not their native language.

Language is a great way of uniting the world, and I can only hope that as so much tension and strife is tearing apart our world now, we can come together through the beauty of language, whatever those languages may be. If there is a language you’ve been yearning to learn, try it! It teaches us so much about ourselves, about others, about humility and patience. And it might just bring you a new friend, lover, or colleague. 

Who Got It Right as a Woman II: Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis

Femininity is something very controversial in the discussion of feminism, as are traditional gender roles. Being ladylike–even the use of the word “lady”–can draw a lot of ire from many women. Being a woman who appeals to men is also often a taboo topic, as women are often told to be strong in themselves and never to need a man. Taking an interest in one’s appearance is also regarded as frivolous. But Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis was feminine, somewhat traditional in her gender roles (at least earlier in her life), ladylike (she was, after all, the First Lady), a woman who appealed to many men and was thought quite desirable, and a global icon of style and elegance even decades after her death. She always seemed to have a suitable man on her arm to escort her to the American Ballet Theater, and made it classy to go to Studio 54. Jackie never quite defined herself as a feminist, though she supported Ms. Magazine and Gloria Steinem, went back to work later in life, and did not marry her third “husband,” her beloved companion Maurice Tempelsman. And we can consider her a role model for women, someone who really “got it right” and was not bitter about her gender. Let us examine why.

Jackie had conviction. From the time she was small, she knew what she liked and what her tastes were. She read Chekhov as a child, had a passion for the arts, and a longing to go to Paris. She carried her passions with her when she went to the White House: she restored that historic mansion, she brought the fine arts to great visibility, making it fashionable to be cultured, and thanks to her efforts, the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts was founded. After a level of a few years, she eventually found her way back to her love of books, becoming a well-respected editor in New York. She fought for causes she believed in, like the preservation of Grand Central Terminal. Despite that infamous whispering voice, she was no shrinking violet, and she knew herself and her mind. That is why Natalie Portman’s portrayal of Jackie was so poor, for she conveyed none of the strength of Mrs. Kennedy.

She was emotionally intelligent. Jack Kennedy’s presidency would not have been the same without her. As recently released audiotapes reveal, she was a shrewd observer of politics and politicians, seeing through people’s façades and offering her own opinions. She raised two children well, putting their well-being as her priority, knowing that extensive contact with the Kennedy clan would possibly lead them into a downward spiral like Ethel Kennedy’s kids. But she did not shelter her children, sending them out on their own as teens and young adults to spend time in Appalachia or India. Jackie wanted her children to toughen up and not to be pampered, to get out there and see the world and people from all walks of life.

She was highly cultured. Though she gave the appearance of being a mere clothes horse, Jackie was very well read in the classics, history, and spoke other languages like French. She appreciated great art, classical music, and clothing design. It was not enough to be an American first lady; she was global, show the world how enjoyable it was to visit other countries, make it admirable to be more than just a socialite. Thanks to her, high culture in America experienced a renaissance, something that was so necessary after the war and America’s revival. Later in life, after being widowed twice, she became a book editor and finally was able to use her intellect that she had had to hide away as the first lady and as the wife of powerful men.

She moved with the times. The beribboned 1930’s girl with her horses at shows, the elegant debutante of the 40s, the prim and proper young socialite of the 50s, Jackie Kennedy reflected the zeitgeist of America. Through the 60s, she went from graceful First Lady observing protocol in her manner and her dress to jet setter in minidresses without stockings who enjoyed dancing late night on a yacht or walking barefoot in Capri. And when she was widowed again in the 70s, she showed us how to adapt: she put on pants and a sweater, went downtown to a high-rise office, and became a single working mother. She enjoyed the company of men, but she also came into her own at this time, befriending Andy Warhol and enjoying New York City and her career. And then as relationship conventions changed, her companion Maurice moved in with her and lived with her for the rest of her life. They never married, despite Jackie being a devout Catholic. And yet it always remained acceptable, for Jackie was always dignified.

She promoted diversity decades before it was fashionable. She brought African-American opera singer Grace Bumbry to the White House, was a friend of gay Jewish composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein, and adored Nehru, just as he adored her. She had a lifelong love of India and Russia and traveled there multiple times. 

She maintained a sense of mystery. That Sphinx-like smile the lack of interviews, the low voice–it all added up to create a personality whom we wanted to get to know, but who did not want us to get to know her past a certain point. Tabloids speculated on every aspect of her life, and yet she remained silent. In an era where everything is on Instagram and celebrities make candles named after body parts, Jackie remains a paragon of how to keep to oneself and let only those who are close into one’s confidences.

She enjoyed being a woman. Jackie loved fashion, decorating, motherhood, and marriage. She loved presenting herself elegantly, be it in Oleg Cassini or jodhpurs. She loved it when men took an interest in her, offered her courtesies, drove her places. In short, she loved men. Even as she always did as she wanted, being her own kind of feminist, she still always loved men. Various writers have described her as “seductive” or “a geisha”–there is nothing wrong with that. She often used her feminine wiles to get what she wanted, and even charmed Nikita Khrushchev.

American feminism can often be very prescriptive as to what is correct or not regarding how we present ourselves as a woman. If we dress too nicely, we might not be taken seriously enough. We are forced to work in a work culture that is really set up for men, and that often penalizes us for wanting to be who we are, be it a tomboy or a princess or anything in between. Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis showed us that we can embrace our womanhood and it does not mean any compromise of strength or independence. She showed us how to have a will of steel wrapped in a velvet glove. The fact that we still admire her decades later shows us that she was a timeless role model as a woman.

Celebrating 8 Years!!

Celebrating 8 Years!!

When I started this blog eight years ago, I had no idea what it could become and how much it would nurture and support me. It’s been a wonderful journey through literature, art, politics, social issues, interviews, and anything and everything to do with creativity. During this time, I have grown as an opera singer and developed a writing career, finished two book manuscripts, and completed an MFA. This blog has been there for me during some very very difficult times, which is a testament to the healing power of art. 

In my first post on September 30, 2012, I paid tribute to my favorite American author, Willa Cather, the Grande Dame of American letters. It only seems fitting to pay tribute to her through a quote from The Song of the Lark, in which she describes the heroine’s artistic awakening in her soul after seeing the Chicago Symphony perform. The heroine, Thea, realizes this inner light is so powerful and yet so fragile, and she is afraid that it could be taken from heron her crowded journey home. Cather writes, 

“They might trample her to death, but they should never have it. As long as she lived that ecstasy was going to be hers. She would live for it, work for it, die for it; but she was going to have it, time after time, height after height. She could hear the crash of the orchestra again, and she rose on the brasses. she would have it, what the trumpets were singing! She would have it, have it–it!

This breathlessly passionate scene in the novel was what propelled me forward and led me to where I am today. I can only recommend that everyone find what magnificently inspires them, that ecstasy that drives you forward and can’t be taken away. 

Thank you, Willa, Lev, William, Oscar, Wolfgang, Giuseppe, Antonín, Jan, Niccolò, and all the countless artists of all media, dead or alive, who have magnificently inspired me!

Who Got It Right as a Woman: Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Today’s post was supposed to be about Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, another excellent example of American womanhood, but it only seems fitting to pay tribute to Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a.k.a. RBG, a titan of American law and arguably the best feminist America has ever had. Her death is nothing short of tragic, and it leaves our country and its women with a huge loss. This is a painful post to write, understandably. What makes her an exemplary model of womanhood? Here are some thoughts:

-She was always a lady. Her mother had given her advice to be a lady, meaning she needed to be independent, and not let negative emotions control her. RBG embraced womanhood, never denied the fact that she was a woman, always presenting herself elegantly. She loved wearing different collars with her robes, had good taste in art, and came across as someone with a sense of propriety rather than brash vulgarity. Diminutive and soft-spoken, her demeanor belied a formidable intellect.

She was smart as hell. The first time I saw Ruth Bader Ginsburg speak was on a panel of women in law that was being presented on C-SPAN. Never in my life had I heard anyone choose their words so carefully. It is a tremendous accomplishment even today, for anyone male or female, to attend Harvard and Columbia Law schools (where she made the review) as well as Cornell University (where she graduated Phi Beta Kappa). She knew her facts and she knew them cold. She spent countless hours researching and writing and was highly informed–perhaps this was why her male peers were so intimidated by her, because the open secret is that nothing is as intimidating to men as an intelligent woman.

She used facts and stayed calm in order to create great social change. While numerous activists were outspoken, radical, and even abrasive, RBG worked within the system–the most rigid system in the country: the law–and quietly and steadily helped dismantle policies that discriminated against women, minorities, and even men. No one could dispute her ideas without being equally informed and calmly persuasive.

Feminism was about gender equality. Many feminists in the 60s and 70s became quite radical and partisan; their strategy was to remedy the centuries of gender-based oppression by fighting for things as individuals and dismantling patriarchal structures in society. For many of them, this meant opting out of marriage, childbearing, or even relationships with men. Unfortunately, American feminism still often bears the stigma from these individuals–even Gloria Steinem, the poster child for this movement, has in some ways done ordinary American women a disservice. But RBG never bore a deep hatred or contempt for men even as she fought vehemently against the entrenched discrimination against women. Her greater belief was in gender equality, for when she encountered a case in which a widower and single father, Stephen Wiesenfeld, did not receive his late wife’s pension after she died in childbirth, she fought for him to be able to receive benefits just as a widow would. While she stood up for women like nobody else, she also valued men.

She got along with the enemy. This is especially important at a time like now, when America (both its people and its politicians) is more polarized than it has ever been for decades. She vehemently disagreed with the conservatives in the court, like Justice Antonin Scalia; however, the two of them were very close friends outside of work, sharing many common interests such as opera and celebrating holidays together. She was often questioned about this, and her response was to say that their shared humanity and friendship were greater than their differences. An opera was even made about the two of them, thereby immortalizing the justices through art.

She was happily married and a mother. Ruth Bader Ginsburg had the great fortune to choose a spouse who would support her not only in her career, but also in her personal life. Martin Ginsburg valued his wife’s intellect in a way that was rare for his time and encouraged her to do what she believed in. While many men do this today, they do not often take the action needed to ensure a woman is not overburdened at home. Martin Ginsberg famously did the cooking, helped care for the children, and reputedly campaigned for her to be nominated as a Supreme Court justice. What comes across in interviews is how much Ruth loved her husband, and how happily married they were for decades. It is inevitable that she would have struggled with work-life balance. But the point is, she did not become radical or bitter about “traditional” life choices even as she lived as a very modern woman.

She never let adversity stop her. This is also extremely significant, as we live in an age of cancel culture, hypersensitivities, and a lack of personal responsibility. Ruth Bader Ginsburg scarcely got to know her sister who died as a child. She still graduated high school, despite the fact that her mother died the day before. She chose to get married even though many educated women had to stop working once they bore children. She still spoke fondly of her husband even though she was battling the very male establishment. She persisted in becoming a lawyer, even though she had to make a case for her presence simply because she was a woman, and even though no one would hire her, despite having a degree from Columbia Law. Later in life, when her serious ailments arose, Ruth Bader Ginsburg valiantly battled them, not letting them stop her pursuit of legal justice. Feminists such as Gloria Steinem or–even worse–Andrea Dworkin and Catherine MacKinnon seem to be excuse makers in comparison. Ruth Bader Ginsburg faced the same obstacles as everyone else, but she did not seem to feel the need to adopt some sort of radical role as a woman.

It is a tragic loss for our country, and now we are left with a crisis. I personally belong to the camp that feels she should have retired during Obama’s administration. It is true that there would have been no guarantee she would have been replaced by another liberal; however, anyone Obama chose would have been better than anyone Donald Trump chooses. It was not wise to bet on having another Democrat in the White House after two terms of Obama as we have not had three consecutive Democrats as president since FDR (and his was a special case due to the war). This was her one great flaw in a lifetime of tremendous public service to this country. One can only hope that there will be another female superhero in the legal system of this country, although nobody could truly take the place of the tiny, elegant woman with the owlish look and calm, measured voice. Thank you, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, for being such a wonderful role model for young women–and men.