Wandering Seasons

Big Booth Words is now available in AUDIO! Click to listen along!


          It’s loquat season where I live – out in the countryside, embraced by rolling hills and sweeping vistas. On my walk, I pick a few straight from their inviting perch and pop them in my mouth without bothering to wash them. The juices from the perfectly ripe fruit dribble down my chin, and I wipe the sticky sweetness onto the shoulder of my worn shirt. I could also pick mangos. There are a good three dozen mango trees in this countryside community and, though their time is winding down, plenty still dot the landscape in all their tempting red and gold splendor. Or native guava, also in season, and so ubiquitous they bring birds of all feathers to the surrounding areas. But as this is loquat’s annual debut, I invite it to center stage and delight in it alone. Next week or next month, it will be another vegetable or fruit. And so on, and miraculously and deliciously so on, year after year.

It has always seemed intuitive to me that nature is an easy access, catch-all cure to half our modern ailments, and certainly the Zen-like key to my finally learning to check my tongue, focus my ideas and time, and be more deliberate in all that I do. I truly feel this or, as Brazilians would say, I feel this on my skin. But my intuition (sample size of one) doesn’t hold a candle to broad scientific findings that everything about being out in nature, from coniferous essential oils used in hospitals to stave off skin diseases, to exercising visual fluency and diminishing the anthrophone so as to strengthen our internal system for reducing stress and heighten our sense of joy through aesthetics, is boundlessly beneficial.

When the opportunity presented itself to keep an apartment in the city but make this masterpiece my home base, I snapped it up. I was starved for the unbound wild of nature. Through love, through marriage, I was invited to tap into this very basic, unmet urge – to regularly replenish myself through the natural world, and I latched onto it like sticky seeds to pant cuffs. It had been fifteen plus years in one or another smoggy, Latin American megalopolis, and three in a rather circumscribed city in the US, for a grand total of twenty years skirting my screaming inner monologue to, please, please, swap out the grays for peaceful variegated greens.

Just shy of two years in the countryside, on the day following a long, moonlit walk scored for a prodigious chorus of frogs and boisterous drum circle of crickets, with special effects from meandering fireflies, I pause to write out a small homage to my home. It’s warm and inviting. It’s peaceful and healthy and generous. I have lived in so many houses and apartments, six cities and three countries; I am frequently asked where I belong; and I shy from pinpointing my physical place. And now, now I find myself joyously falling into the embrace of nature’s exuberance on a near daily basis and recognizing that this same exquisite wholeness is what has washed over me in every hike I have ever taken, in every walk through the woods, all the long runs over dirt roads, and in my earliest memories of my five-year-old self catching fireflies after dusk. The peace of all the thens in nature are now my every day. And home has become the most beautiful word in the world.

Happy words,

* For the science and psychology behind our intuitive need to have meaningful contact with the outdoors, and for the following five words I will use in next month’s post, read “Call to the Wild: This is Your Brain on Nature from National Geographic:

* Bonus: repeat appearance:

Matters of Laugh & Death

Big Booth Words is now available in AUDIO! Click to listen along!


          Death may be a rather outré topic to shore up this lapsed blog, but I promise not to dampen your spirits. Some would wax solemnly philosophical to bravely confront the frightening specter of death. Not so my late father. Guided by pragmatism and wit, Dad was wont to allaying the fear of death by regularly asserting deadpan that death is a perfect opportunity for a big blowout. No joke, my father was divinely bestowed with just the right mix of dark humor and foresight to request and then correctly predict that his own funeral actually be a party since “it’s hard enough in life to get everyone together.” And so, I present you with a light-hearted anecdote about my recent comical encounter with the Málach Hamávis (the endearing Yiddish term for Angel of Death).

Last week, while indolently milling about the house pre-coffee, I received a call from an unknown number in Israel. I pressed mute to allow myself time to industriously procrastinate further. But the caller was obstinate, and I intrigued, so I yielded. It was Avraham from the Israeli Ministry of Justice, Administrator General and Official Receiver, Department for the Location of Property Owners and Transfer of Unclaimed Assets to the State, whose soporific voice made it sound like I should not have been at all surprised to be receiving a wake-up call from the Israeli Ministry of Justice, Administrator General and Official Receiver, Department for the Location of Property Owners and Transfer of Unclaimed Assets to the State on my cell phone in Brazil. His monotone recitation of quite possibly the longest job title in existence seemed proof enough that this was no prank call. As fortune would have it, Avraham explained, property in Israel was long ago bequeathed to one Yankel Machonbaum, who may or may not have been my paternal great grandfather, b. 1884, d. 1960, and to which all living heirs, yours included, may now have claim.

Suddenly perfectly alert, I walked Avraham painstakingly through the knotty family tree, which I had meticulously drawn up but a year earlier because – oh the irony! – a childless great uncle Abe had died with a will scrawled on a paper napkin that had never been probated. The lawyer I retained to dig through the red tape on I’ve-Never-Met-You-Uncle Abe, unfortunately for me, did find legal standing to probate a paper-napkin will (translation: no lucky lottery win for me), but, by some twist of fate, I now found myself once again entertaining the possibility that I stood to draw the lucky inheritance card from a real-life version of Monopoly. How’s that for a good party, Dad?

While Avraham droned on (and stressed more than once how unlikely it is that I am heir to Yankel’s gelt), I found myself thinking how completely ironic it would be to make money (dare I say, make a killing?) off two people I had never met and who certainly had no intention of granting me, my father or any living relative so much as a penny. And from there, I asked myself what moral could possibly be drawn from this spiel. Is this a wake-up call to get my affairs in order before Death comes knocking? Maybe this is all happening to ensure I don’t inadvertently become someone else’s Great Grandpa Yankel and let random people benefit from lethal loopholes. Could it be a ghostly message from my father to make my funeral party wishes known in life so surviving family members can make the most of a typically dour situation? Maybe this is just some guilt-inducing sign to finally sit down and fill in all the missing information on ancestry.com.

And then it dawned on me. The prospects of becoming filthy rich were offering me a whole morning of heady amusement. Jauntily though I may have walked off after hanging up with Avraham, I was keenly aware that the thrill of an unexpected financial windfall drew on elaborately imagining my newfound life as a multi-millionaire and not on any likelihood of such a vision materializing. I thanked the deceased for giving me a laugh and prompting me to let my creativity have a good run. And then, none the richer and all the richer, proceeded to go about my day.

Happy words,

* For more happy halloweening in the dead of January and for the five (small booth) words I will use in the next post, read How death got cool from the Guardian:

* Bonus: repeat appearances:

Grandma’s Story

Dear English-B Interpreter Friends,

(First, my letter to you to using words from Post #20)

This year I’ve pledged to read the most famous work of fiction that takes place in each US state. The list includes a seductive potpourri of classics (To Kill a Mockingbird, East of Eden), fast reads I’d otherwise dismiss (The Shining by Stephen King), and a few publications that will be a harrowing test of my resolve (A Painted House by John Grisham), yet, on the whole, my year in words seems promising. If I do not cop to my usual urge to leap to a new novel almost immediately after finishing another, I should be able to honor my secondary pledge to review all 51 mini-projects (yes, there are still only 50 states; out of reverence for my college years, I included the Washington, DC-based novel as well).

I found myself talking recently with Grandma about this venture (the famous Grandma who had a cameo in this earlier blog post), and her face lit up. She agreed that the current book (The Jungle) must be good because “everything by Upton Sinclair is wonderful” and commiserated at the thought of my having to read Stephen King and inquired fondly of authors she respected but who did not make the cut. This went on for some time. Then she paused, and in the quiet I tried to interpret her guileless, 92-year-young facial expressions forming and vanishing as she silently pondered a lifetime of words.

Her still blue eyes are now weak, and she misses the days when reading words did not equate to physical strain. I suggested audio books, which she peremptorily rebuffed: to Grandma, there is a look and feel to grasping a “regular old” printed book; there is the distinct smell of a new book, or a book on loan, or a book fortuitously pulled off an under-dusted shelf. The printed book invites our eyes to dance across pages and to delight in the subtle waft of air formed by ruffling back a page or a chapter; its weight and spine (paper or hard) force our hands and arms to bend or contract to accommodate; its font bespeaks whatever the typesetting trend at the time of publication. To Grandma, and I’d imagine to a great many, the printed book is a temptress, an impressing (pun intended) minx, a siren whose song lures more than audible books and echoes far deeper than e-readers or other digital screens that numb us with their extraterrestrial glow.

I find solace in books, whatever the format, and had made my suggestion of audio books in hopes that Grandma could latch onto the same sense of general reading pleasure I derive from my digital experience and not lose all claim to her precious pastime. But Grandma was obdurate; she understood perfectly well why I am partial to listening to fiction or traveling with an e-reader, but she merely smirked when she saw that I didn’t seem to comprehend why she was against abandoning printed books in favor of something new. It took me another two days of reflecting to grasp the depth of Grandma’s spurning my well-meaning recommendation. Her strongest argument had been in those priceless seconds of silence, when she was not referring at all to mere books, when the flickering  of her near-blind eyes was actually offering me a speechless narrative, gently revealing to me that life’s best stories can never truly be adapted to other formats.

Happy words,

*** From a 2015 article in the New Yorker that opened my eyes to the profession of bibliotherapist, here are five words to bring into the booth:
— from Ceridwen Dovey’s “Can Reading Make You Happy

So Nu? Who Are You?

So Nu? Who Are You?

Dear English-B Interpreter Friends,

(First, my letter to you to using words from Post #17)

Late last semester, I had the opportunity to interpret a lecturer who spoke the language of my childhood, which is not English. Well, not exactly. Or not so narrowly. I grew up speaking an English generously peppered with words from two other languages (Yiddish and Hebrew), patently molded by the cultural mindset of American Jews, and uttered with the telltale lilt of an Ashkenazi Jewish community now well-established in metropolitan pockets mostly along the coastal United States. It has a beauty, a timbre and a doleful humor all its own.

I hear this language infrequently now, the attenuated strains of a once-ubiquitous cant. Like most of my assimilated generation, I have moved off (our unofficial sections in big cities), moved on, moved away. And with the moving, I – we – have doggedly doffed the verbal garb of parents and grandparents. (The irony has not escaped me that one even older trait of this culture-cum-language-cum-religion, the endless wandering since Biblical times, remains so ingrained as to have sardonically trumped the attempts of all of us less religiously observant to neutralize our childhood Northeast-US-Ashkenazi-Jewish-sons-and-grandsons-of-immigrants-and-of-Holocaust-survivors English.)

I wax mildly wistful now when I hear it, on those exceedingly rare occasions I do: when I meander in one or another Jewish enclaves and listen in on conversations, or stick around for a shala shudis and hear fellow Jews expound on the weekly Torah portion, sometimes at weddings and sadly at funerals too. What once seemed an irritating revelation of geography, upbringing, social class and culture is now something I appreciate for the intimate understanding, and thus (noisy) comfort, it  affords. And I see, years later, in an interpreting booth 7,700 kilometers from my hometown, that to some extent what framed my childhood still frames my adulthood.<

Happy words,

*** A short article by Maria Popova to contemplate who we truly are and how our personalities change over time, with five words (in befitting context) to bring into the booth:<


— from “What Is Character? Debunking the Myth of Fixed Personality

Fueling the Feeble Mind

Dear English-B Interpreter Friends,

(First, my letter to you to using words from Post #19)

….musings at just over 23 hours into a full day of fasting…. I don’t merely keep silent on the countless thoughts I entertain on a regular day; nine times out of ten, I brush them off entirely. Quixotic at best (“what if I set up an online board for interpreters to see which event planners, agencies, shady professionals and all out gonifs stiff interpreters on pay?”), supremely mundane at worst (“can I get away with wearing these jeans once more before washing?”), most of my thoughts come crashing in and go scurrying out in a matter of seconds. I dwell only where sentiment is involved (and then, I sheepishly admit, I brood, holding hour-long conversations with myself about all the witty retorts I could have made but didn’t to that dolt at the immigration office (ahem, ahem)).…

But today the thoughts, the explicably meager few, are lingering. Since early morning, they’ve been jutting out beyond the habitual limit of disregard, and, despite a few activities that would otherwise let occupation trump contemplation (some gardening, some Facebook scrolling, some home improvements), they’ve laid down roots. Nothing more profound or less profound than the usual, just thoughts – thoughts latching with strange and peculiar zeal. Hardheaded, in every which way.

Fasting is actually not too hard on the body, but day-to-day I cloak myself in physical comforts, so it is indeed hard on the mind. The denial of victuals that fuels my sense of hunger (23 hours, 30 minutes, by the way) has a more tenacious grasp on my mind than does the actual food that could allay the reality of an empty stomach. And I sit here, typing, pondering, mentally bucking the pangs brought by the idea that I am not satiated with the enervated knowledge that I have enough fat stored in my body for three times this experience. And so it is that Nourishment and Satiety have become the underlying, incessant, ironic, obvious, obstinate thought of my day.

By the last minutes of the fast, what grips me is how often the other 364 days a year I do not explore the limits of what nourishes my mind. Or… I fuel my mind from the automatic base of physical satiety and rarely let non-emotionally charged thoughts settle in and hold tight. It’s not that I don’t think on non-fast days (obviously), it’s that I don’t think nearly as deliberately when I feed the part of me that cries the loudest before I nourish the part of me that cries the deepest.

My Jewish New Year’s resolution is to spend this year carving out more days to heed and then indulge the muffled recesses of longer, sweeping, earnest thoughts, independent of whether they be singularly unsophisticated or exceedingly intricate.

{In case you were wondering, I waited two days to review these reflections to make sure I wasn’t sending out a hallucinatory post, as eccentric as this rambling might be.}.

Happy words,

*** From the book review “Emma Donoghue’s Art of Starvation” in The New Yorker, here are five words to bring into the booth:



— from “Emma Donoghue’s Art of Starvation

On Running, Rushing and Rolling On

Dear English-B Interpreter Friends,

(First, my letter to you to using words from Post #18)

Last week
My (new) nephew came rushing into this world with inexplicable pressing urgency ten days before his due date, and we rendezvoused briefly over the internet hours after the well-deserved pomp of his arrival. It was a fleeting video chat, a precursor to a week that went from walk to trot to canter to gallop in short order. To keep me on my toes, variegated interpreting assignments included coliform, city planning and cerebral tumors. Smack in the middle of my booth-and-mic madness, I spent a day at a corporate acting job where I was wryly tasked with getting fretting candidates in a simulation exercise to squirm but not snivel during my unforgiving English-language mock interview. At one point in the week, I nearly ran out of gas along a solitary stretch of road flanked by endless sugarcane fields and no place to fill up in sight (reminding me – since happenstance makes for a good story – of the time I managed to get lost in the mud-soaked trails snaking through uncut sugarcane already 75 kilometers into my first ultramarathon four years ago). And on one day of what turned out to be a rather adventitious week, in exactly 20 minutes: I dropped off my car, hightailed through a parking lot, hurtled through an airport, careened up and down a flight of stairs, hastily sweet-talked the ticket agent to let me cut a massive line – all at a speed befitting an Olympic sprinter – and helter-skelter squeaked through a last call for boarding, collapsing in a profuse sweat in my assigned middle seat on the day’s last flight out to my destination. And now, having debunked the façade of being a good planner and well collected in general, I have begun frantically type out this digest while flying back home. Draw the curtains on this most motley week and cue…

This week
I am now seated at the federal police station located at the outlying airport (and having outed myself as the living version of Mr. Topsy-Turvy, it should come of no surprise that I arrived here two documents short of what I needed and had to trudge back into and out of the city to produce what will ultimately serve as file stuffers and dust collectors, that I had to look for two ATMs to take out money, that I had to work through the notary line twice because I forgot to photocopy one page of a passport that is no longer valid, that I had to convince the valet to watch my car at the notary while I found a place a few blocks away to take my morning mug shot, and (as the cherry on the cake) that I had to negotiate the cost of my cellphone repair because I had broken my phone precisely twenty-four hours after the previous repair). Also true to character, while sitting on uncomfortable waiting-room chairs, occasionally looking up to face the utterly unadorned walls of a government agency, I am smiling. It is my great fortune that my happiness does not at all hinge on outsmarting Brazilian bureaucracy, reconciling São Paulo traffic with airport schedules, knowing in advance when meetings will occur, or ensuring never getting lost among sugarcane fields (not that mastery of this omnibus skill set wouldn’t be most welcome in my life). To be sure, the cycle of running, rushing and rolling on underpinning the daily events of my life this week and last proved just a slightly (ok, substantially) more acute manifestation of my usually spirited approach to life. And as long as I can laugh (at myself) a shade more than I fret, I hold to the belief that these usual day-to-day adventures will continue to unfold in all their mysterious and masterful serendipity.

Happy words,

*** From this fascinating NYT article that weaves together the science, the culture, the joy and the oddness of running and racing, here are five words (in context) to bring into the booth:


— from “Man vs. Marathon

A Very Merry Unbirthday

A Very Merry Unbirthday

Dear English-B Interpreter Friends,

(First, my letter to you to using words from Post #16)

I’ve been musing on birthdays and anniversaries and celebrations. My own birthdays have always triggered an odd sense of detachment and nervousness because the plethora of communication wishing me all the best (though heartfelt) simply overwhelms me. On the other hand, I have always relished the actual celebration (the party, the drinks, the dancing, the conversations, the laughter). My internal disconnect: I get skittish about calls and cards and gifts but I truly enjoy the parties and commemorative dinners I occasionally host.

A recent celebration (someone else’s, thankfully, where all I had to do was show up and be happy, a perfect situation indeed), prompted me to rack my brain (presumably the neurons that had not been drowned in the prior evening’s libations) for a logical explanation for this seeming contradiction within. I concluded that relentless communication has left me (and doubtless many of you) flustered – those day-in, day-out phone calls, voice mails, e-mails, e-cards, social-media messages, text messages that go endlessly, endlessly, endlessly on. As well intended as birthday tidings may be, I now understand that the fact that they come in diluvial fashion is what befuddles the type-A, clear-out-the-inbox, check-off-the-to-list side of me. But the birthdays themselves, like anniversaries, holidays and all celebrations, are such a magnificent way to mark the passage of time.  So I also understand that it is the genuine rejoicing that courts the type-B, sensorial, creative, happy-go-lucky, let-go-and-feel-the-music side of me.
As I sit here ironing out (read: more e-mails and phone calls) end-of-the-year travel plans (which include a number of birthdays in the extended family, holidays, rituals both religious and secular, and welcoming the new calendar year), these perceptions of requirements versus revelry seem piercingly relevant. And bowing to optimism, I am quite content thinking on the essence of festivities, hoping I can learn to better accept the mundane, and trusting that the grandeur of time, ritual and celebration ultimately prevails.

Happy words,

*** To celebrate the life of Oliver Sachs, who passed away yesterday and who recently published a short piece on ritual, the Sabbath, and his time and place for ritual and for rest, here are five words (in befitting context) to bring into the booth:


— from “Oliver Sacks: Sabbath


Dear English-B Interpreter Friends,

(First, my letter to you to using words from Post #15)

This post is a digression from my normal palaver cum personal self-mocking anecdote. Plus, the hyperlinks this week point to enough material to tide us over to the next post.

I’ve read more than my share of unsettling articles this week: on the demise of the US Pacific Northwest, on a conceivably impish head of state, on our uncanny need to pontificate on the inherent evils of technology in an attempt to gloss over our own social and psychological shortcomings, and so on. But I was most struck by one on downtrodden climate scientists, specifically on how they currently suffer from collective depression partially because we (read: armchair environmentalists) ponderously shuffle our feet in the face of their glaring doomsday data. At the risk of my despondent remarks being heralded as facetious, I’ll let the article speak for itself.

Happy words,

RACK (verb)

— all as used in the article “When the End of Human Civilization Is Your Day Job

Political, Plane and Plain Patience

Dear English-B Interpreter Friends,

(First, my letter to you to using words from Post #14 while en route back to Brazil after the harrowing experience of nearly getting barred from embarking on my flight back because of confusing Brazilian visa regulations, the birdbrained people who seemed to be assigned en masse to my (and only my) departure gate and a dearth of Portuguese speakers or airline employees willing to use minimal brain power to Google translate my visa-status certificate (and now that I’ve let off steam…))

Among my million and one interests, I have a fascination for the subtleties of communication strategies (clearly sadly wanting at gate C108 with the lone exception of a department head who resolved the issue at the very last minute), for all things Norwegian, and for geopolitics (just to dispel any glimmer of hope that I am normal). And because the heavens seem to smile down on me whenever I pull out a magazine while on an airplane (although maybe this time I just got a dose of divine pity after nearly having to unwillingly spend a night on the threadbare airport chairs while the nitwits confirmed my right to fly back to Brazil), I hit upon an intriguing article that managed to engagingly address all three topics at once: the Norwegian-led UN peacekeeping mission in Cyprus, considered either a wild success or a total failure depending on how one analyzes current political communication. Plus, as a bonus for those who enjoy descriptive fiction over fact-filled political science, the author shows coruscating creativity in describing the scattered relics in the buffer zone that hark back to the decades leading up to and including the war.

The gist of the article: the UN’s longest-running peace-keeping mission has famously been doing pretty much nothing all day long for 40 years on the border between the Republic of Cyprus and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. The underlying question: is this good or bad? The 850+ UN soldiers have become a muted backdrop to the island, so much so that there are hardly any talks ever to devolve control to the Cypriots or somehow come to some solution that would eschew the need for a peacekeeping force that boringly busies itself mediating between soldiers on each side whose main transgression is feeding stray dogs inside the restricted buffer zone. I found the quote by the Norwegian Major General of the mission, when describing the role of her country, a tragicomic metaphor for the pacifically divisive (or divisively pacific) reality of both Cyprus and the peacekeeping mission today: “We are a small country and we don’t have an agenda. We understand we have to learn another language to communicate.  The UN has always been at the back of Norwegians’ heads. We had the first Secretary-General and there was a reason for that. We are not a threat to anyone; we stopped attacking people after the Vikings. I think we are just straightforward. Sometimes too straightforward.” Which begs the communication question: in the face of disagreement, is it better to call in an even-tempered middleman to calmly keep fighting at bay like a just parent sternly and lovingly putting quarreling siblings at opposite ends of the room, or is it better to seek a solution where there is ultimately no need for the mediator and the two sides are forced to hash it out? History, classic logic (and today’s experience of holding myself back from going all out Viking on the moronic airline personnel) show that both approaches have their many merits and equally as many drawbacks.

Happy words,


— all as used in the short (i.e., there is no excuse not to click and read), insightful blog post on diplomacy  “What Comes First: War or Diplomacy?

The Sky’s the Translating Limit

Dear English-B Interpreter Friends,

(First, my letter to you to using words from Post #13)

I am reading the New York Times Magazine while squeezed in the middle seat of an airplane between a Brazilian and an Italian as a flight attendant uncreatively drones on about air-travel protocol in French and English and a middle-aged couple in front quietly deliberates in what I guess to be Korean about where to store the lady’s handbag: an intriguing assemblage of anonymous globetrotters so unassumingly and perfectly representative our this last half century. As the captain stultifies passengers with weather conditions in the Canadian plains, I flip open the magazine to drown out the monotony and the buzz. “Is Translation an Art or Math Problem” by Gideon Lewis-Kraus contends that Google’s mission is arguably to make language superfluous. The word lover, language nerd and avid reader in me feels the conspicuous vein in my neck protrude. The initial paragraphs of the article are treading rather carelessly on my sacred translator ground, and I, now visibly nervous, imagine I am about to read yet another auger of the death of my profession swathed in wistful pity. But I plow on.

And thankfully too. Because the article does not ultimately portend the demise of this millennial profession. Nor does not it claim some covert Google agenda to usurp the need for human translators per se. In fact, without over-romanticizing or over-criticizing, it astutely argues in favor of both man and machine as necessary contenders for delivering words from one language into another by acknowledging that the purpose of each of these two forms of translation is patently separate: machines, where time must essentially trump contextual aims; humans, where subtle, sympathetic purpose ranks foremost. And it most notably argues the need for both types of translation working in tandem. To the sentimentalists who cry out that machine translation is mere snake oil prettily packaged for an undiscerning, fast-paced market, it is time we recognize the countless benefits that rapidly improving, lightening-fast, computer-coded rendering affords humanity. To the staunch defenders of the supremacy of ones, zeros and blurred lines between science fiction and reality, we cannot but acquiesce to the emotionless limitations of code and to our unique human skill of imbuing words with empathetic and historical purpose that will fall forever outside the the realm of computed bits.

Granted, you already implicitly understand this fine balance, sensitively pondering these reflections in English as you call upon Google Translate for the occasional unfamiliar term.

Happy words,

— all as used in the article “Is Translation an Art or a Math Problem?”