Thursday, June 21, 2007

Mexico View

My father was a structrual engineer and an alcoholic. Both of those facts figure in this story.

In 1958, at age 39, my dad was the project engineer for a large natural gas tank in Long Beach, California, a suburb 20 miles south of Los Angeles. The "Green Tank" at the 605 freeway and Carson Street was prominent enough to be the landmark for airplane pilots approaching Long Beach Airport from the east. On initial contact, air traffic controllers would direct pilots to "report inbound at the Green Tank."

Well, nothing lasts forever, and thirty years later, in 1988, the tank had reached the end of its service life and was scheduled to be demolished. Someone must have looked on the old plans, seen my Dad's name as the project engineer for building the tank, and he was hired at age 69 as the project engineer for the demolition of the tank, too.

So with the building and demolition of the project, we have "Part A" of our story, a patch of bare earth to which my father had some connection.

"Part C" must have come from some newspaper article or other my father must have read about the need for low-cost housing in the area.

And now, the years of alcohol, mostly Gordon's Gin and Jim Beam Whiskey, conjured in my father's brain "Part B," a hazy "pipe dream", [what a wonderful term -- originating from smoking an opium pipe] an idea which can only be imagined, and which would be impossible to carry out. Part B would fill the gap between Parts A and C.

My father would combine the vacant land and the need for low housing units by designing a tower on the available land, a tower tall enough to fit all the needed units... about 70 stories or so.... in a suburban area with no high rises at all... It was completely uneconomic and never would be considered for construction!

But, that didn't stop Dad.

In fact, the building would be so tall, that on a clear day, from the upper stories one would be able to see a very, very long way. Hence the name: "Mexico View".

And, so began the torture.

Dad began the structural calculations: "dead load" of the building, "live load" of the occupants and contents, wind loads, seismic calculations.... you name, it he had sketches and notes.

Foundation, structural steel, elevator shafts, plumbing, electrical, heating and air conditioning... every detail was considered... and related to anyone who would listen...

Letters about the project went to the city mayor, city council members, city planning commission, local congressional representatives... who knows who heard about this?

As an aside, in my family, for several generations, a son was given the name "William" followed by his mother's maiden name, then our family name. That is how my father was named and that is how I was named. The flood of letters about Mexico View must have been the point at which this family tradition died.

Mercifully, my son will not have to worry about his name being confused with William-me in a few years. (Maybe the Williams of yore keeled over before they got too batty - it would have been the most humane policy.)

Back to our story. Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter, you name the occasion, blueprint drawings were presented for inspection. Endless monologue.. benefits.... low-cost housing... he called so-and-so they think highly of the project.. oh, God.

Then one day, I drove to Los Angeles airport to pick-up Dad's cousin from England, Barbara. She arrived, along with her son, Michael, his wife and their 5-year old son.

We were having a wonderful conversation driving south on the 405 freeway, Barbara in the front passenger seat, and family in the back. To American ears, Barbara sounds a bit like Angela Lansbury playing Mrs. Potts in Disney's Beauty and the Beast, or else all the ladies in Mary Poppins, except Julie Andrews .

Well, as we got to about Crenshaw Boulevard, the conversation went something like this:

Cousin Barbara: "Oh, Californian weather is so know I've brought Michael to review the contract"

Me:" Oh? What contract is that?"

Cousin Barbara: "Well, the contract to manage Mexico View, of course!"

In an instant shock, I realized that my father had convinced his cousin to wind up her affairs in England and emmigrate to California to manage a 70-story building that didn't even exist!

I have no idea to this day how I managed to keep the car from driving off the edge of the road and what words I must have used to dimishish the size of that big building to make it fit only inside the head of my father.

The family had a nice vacation and all returned to England... Barbara has lived in Florida for a number of years now.

And.. I'm not sure that anyone ever heard of Mexico View from my father again...

Sunday, June 17, 2007

English Speakers: Which Language to Learn Next? French or Spanish? Why not both?

I’m just a 51 year-old amateur student of cultures and languages, but here’s my simplified take on Western languages and where to start

If there are several stepping stones to cross a stream, pick the nearest one, then hop to the next. It’s easier.

By this, I mean that geography and history make German and French the two nearest relatives of English and the easiest languages to hop to from your existing English vocabulary. After some experience with French, it is easier to move to Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese.

Because of the Norman invasion of England in 1066, and the next 250 years of occupation, then integration/absorption of the Norman minority elite into the Angle/Saxon masses, the English language is the child of Angles’ and Saxons’ Germanic and the Normans’ French.

Forgive that accents slid apart over generations, and writing, which came along later, makes the languages look cosmetically different. Recognize the sources of root words you already know, and, other language is easier to grasp.

Basic German

In September 1066, the conquered farmers in England didn’t change their basic, everyday language, and in large, the 1,000 or 2,000 most basic words of one- and two–syllable, everyday English are the same Germanic words of our conquered 1066 farmers.

Mother, Father, Sister, Brother = Mutter, F(V)ater (German now spell it “Vater” but the pronunciation is “F”) Schwester, Bruder (the sounds are much closer than the spellings, sorry.)

Trink Wasser = Drink Water

Bread = Brot

Beer = Bier

Hundred = Hundert

Thousand = Tausend

English animal names are usually the Germanic words, but the slaughtered meat is often the French animal name. Imagine the new conqueror demands “boeuf!!” (beef), The farmers slaughter a “buhl” (bull) or “kuh” (cow). “Schwein” (swine) becomes “porc” (pork), Schaf (sheep) becomes “mouton” (mutton).

Since they sadly fit our pattern of everyday words, even our swear words are Germanic. The S-word and F-word are the same. Listen to a German curse and you feel it viscerally. Listen to a Frenchman, Spaniard, or Italian curse and it’s comedy.

Basic and Advanced French

The first 1,000 or 2,000 everyday words are not the same as English, but an English speaker with a good vocabulary knows roots of words that are easily related.

Mother, Father, Sister, Brother are Mère, Père, Soeur, Frère. We recognize the similarities to Maternity, Paternity, Sorority. Fraternity

The big payoff in French is that a huge percentage of words three syllables or more are the same word or something very close. Gouvernement (government), politique (politics) and science (science) It really doesn’t take any extraordinary brain power, once you recognize it.

Advanced German

German starts easy, but gets harder the farther you go, because many longer abstract and scientific words developed from a German renaissance separated from our English/French/Italian one.

For example English “hydrogen” [hydro=water, “gen”... source of] in French is “hydrogène” In German its “Wasserstoff”, literally “water stuff”. An equally valid way of naming it, but just not the word we already use in English.


With the Roman Empire, Latin “hopped” (In the stepping stone example) from Italy to France, then to Spain.

Geographically, it is easier to hop from England to France then Spain. And the same is true linguistically. It is a longer stretch from English to Spanish, and why not enjoy the trip through French first? since much of the basic French and Basic Spanish are similar.

However, just as the Norman invasion of 1066 changed English, the Moors’ invasion of Spain and occupation/absorption for 700 years added Arabic words to Spanish. By some counts, almost 10% of Spanish words are of Arabic origin.