Confessions in November 2010

Updated November 14, 2010

Fall Colors - Roadside 1

November 13, 2010 - I'd meant to write about this earlier, but...

A while back, there was an article in the New Yorker about procrastination. Per the article, the latest research on procrastination suggests that when we procrastinate, it is because there is within us a multiplicity of selves and the self who favors an immediate pleasure wins out over another who favors longer term pleasure. We know the idea from cartoons - the devil over the one shoulder and the angel over the other. But it's more complicated than that.

When we think through an issue like whether to study, watch television or go to bed early so we'll be alert at that early morning meeting, it is not a clear-cut case of a good and responsible voice counseling what's best while our worst instincts pull us toward eventual ruin. First of all, there be multiple good things (and bad things!) available as options and several may present themselves in our internal debate. More important, though, the slacker within has its own reasons and they aren't all bad. True enough, in the long run we may wish that we'd worked a little longer on that proposal. But as Keynes famously observed in a not altogether unrelated context, In the long run, we're all dead.

Procrastination, per se, is neither vice nor virtue. It is simply, and literally, pushing something to tomorrow (pro - forward + cras - tomorrow). We have a number of aphorisms about not putting off until tomorrow what can be done today, but the truth is that sometimes it is better to get your rest now and tackle the job tomorrow. Indeed, the tendency to procrastination can be a valuable signal: It lets you know when something has become work. If it is, in fact, work, there's not much that can be done about that. But what if it's something that is supposed to be fun? If you're putting off getting together with friends, going shopping or, heaven forfend, even your language studies (!), it's a sign that either you need a rest in general, or you need a new perspective on what was once fun.

If you've been putting off your language studies, the first thing to try is to trick the slacker self: Put your book where you normally leave the remote. Replace your regular iPod playlist with some listening exercises. You could even leave a note on the door of the snack cupboard asking if a Romanian lesson wouldn't be more (ful)filling. If something like this works, you may just have been in a minor rut, and in need of something to turn you back in the right direction. But if you find yourself going down the hall to get the remote from the den where you'd "hidden" it from yourself, it's time to look for a different course, a different approach to study or even a break from studying until you start to miss your language learning again.

When we recognize procrastination not as a failure of will, but as one of the possible outcomes of weighing our options and choosing what appeals most, we have within our grasp a tool to find out what we're really thinking and feeling, and to get a sense not just of our immediate preferences but also of our energy and enthusiasm for life in general. So if you find yourself headed down the hall to bed and you see your textbook on the table, don't beat yourself up for not studying. But do take a moment to ask yourself if this has been happening a lot lately. If so, you need to look at what's changed that your studies are no longer capturing your interest the way they used to - but after you've slept on it, of course! No sense sitting up tonight, thinking of what's better dealt with tomorrow!

North Mountains - Blue sky

November 6, 2010 - The Interlinear Experience
or How to read Latin without really trying

A long time ago, John Locke - he of tabula rasa fame - authored, of all things, a textbook for Latin. The book consisted of a collection of Aesopian fables rendered into Latin. He put the Latin words into the order they would occur in English (more or less) and put English underneath. His plan was this: First the student would read all the fables while relying on the English to understand, and by this process the student would acquire familiarity with the vocabulary. Then the student would learn the most common Latin conjugations and declensions and re-read the fables, this time paying attention to how the endings determined the word's role in the sentence. Next, the student would study syntax and approach the fables again, this time (I presume) with the original word order. Locke's idea was that the student would learn Latin by experiencing it as a vehicle for expressing meaning, not by memorizing pieces to be put together or by dissecting that which had already been written (though the student would learn parsing and its value once he had enough Latin to appreciate what it could reveal).

Years later, a series of textbooks was released following on Locke's plan but with modifications. The first of these used a different Latin edition of Aesop's Fables, but for the following steps, rather than reverting back to the Fables, the student went on to Ovid's Metamorphoses, Virgil's Aeneid (with a separate book for practicing parsing), then Caesar then Tacitus. I've read the first half-dozen Fables from this series, first with the interlinear, then as written with the original order (this is given in the back of the book). It's surprising how much it lightens the load of getting through the syntax of Latin poetry if you have this advance preparation.

Nowadays, the place where you usually run across interlinear translation is for religious texts, the idea being to help the student of the religion better understand exactly what the text says, and with the word order faithfully preserved. But I think the interlinear has a better application as a tool for starting to feel what's in a text, with word order rearranged, as a preparation for reading the original text on one's own. And it's a very useful thing with classical Latin poetry. Schoolboy Latin is enough to get through later efforts like the Carmina Burana:

Tui lucent oculi sicut solis radii
Your shine eyes like the sun's rays
Your eyes shine like the rays of the sun

Sicut splendor fulguris lucem donat tenebris
Like a flash of lightning light gives to darkness
Like a flash of lightning illuminates the darkness

- Carmina Burana - Circa mea pectora, verse 2

But then you take Ovid:

In nova fert animus mutatas dicere formas
In new makes mind changed to tell forms
Corpora... / Bodies

From the first line you're lost! So with the Locke system, instead you read:

Animus fert dicere formas mutatas in nova corpora
(My) mind makes to tell of forms changed into new bodies

Once you've worked through a couple lines, then you can go read the original, to get a sense of the sound and the flow since you'll have some idea of the meaning and which words go together. Such a system can help you get comfortable with reading Latin by working all the way through. But as important, I think, reading texts this way can give you a feel for the language and the poetry without having to achieve perfect mastery. Because, let's face it, not many people are going to have the time or motivation to master Latin these days. But the interlinear experience lets you take a step in that direction with some of the foundational texts of Western Civilization.

If you want to be able to make the claim of having read a little Latin in your day, even to be able to nod knowingly when Ovid and Virgil come in for a mention, you can download some of these books as PDFs from Google books. If you're really ambitious, you can work through them as intended, including the volume for parsing Virgil - there are instructions at the start of the Fables - or you can simply dip into them. And since these are on Google books, this little project only costs you time. The links follow. In the upper right hand corner, you can choose to download all of these as PDFs if you don't want to use the Google books reading pane. I also include links for those books in the Ancient Greek series that I have been able to locate.

1. Fables of Phaedrus
2. Metamorphoses of Ovid, Book 1
3. Aeneid of Virgil, Book 1
4. Parsing Lessons to the first book of Virgil's Aeneid
5. Caesar's Invasion of Britain
6. Agricola of Tacitus*

1. Lucian's Dialogues
2. Odes of Anacreon**
3. Iliad of Homer*
4. Parsing Lessons to the First Books of Homer's Iliad**
5. Xenophon's Memorabilia
6. Herodotus's Histories

* I have substituted a different interlinear text as I could not find the one belonging to this series.
** I could not locate the original or an appropriate substitute for the text.