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Today's word on journalism

May 12, 2009

The Last WORD

The Fat Lady Sings, Off-Key, Drools

At about this time every year, like the swallows to Capistrano or the buzzards to Hinckley, Ohio, the WORD migrates to its summer musing grounds at the sanitarium —St. Mumbles Home for the Terminally Verbose.

The reason is clear, and never moreso than as this season —the WORD's 13th —peters out.

It's been a fraught year of high palaver and eye-popping transition, both good and not-so-much. An interminable presidential campaign saga finally did end, and in extraordinary and historic fashion. Meanwhile, the bottom and everything that's below the bottom fell out of the economy, with families, homes, entire industries and —of particular interest to WORDsters and the civic-minded —dozens of daily newspapers ("I don't so much mind that newspapers are dying--it's watching them commit suicide that pisses me off." --Molly Ivins). . . all evaporating. What replaces them, from the individual to the institutional to the societal? Are we looking at a future of in-depth Tweeting?

As any newsperson or firehorse knows, it's hard to turn your back on day-to-day catastrophe --we just have to look at the car wreck. But even the most deranged and driven need a rest. As philosopher Lilly Tomlin once observed, "No matter how cynical you become, it's never enough to keep up."

So this morning, as a near-frost hovered over northern Utah, the unmarked van pulled into the driveway and the gentle, soft-spoken men in the white coats rolled the WORD out of bed and into a straitjacket for the usual summer trip to St. Mumbles, where the blathering one will be assigned a hammock and fed soothing, healthy foods --like tapioca, dog biscuits and salmon --while recharging the essential muscles of cynicism, outrage, sarcasm, social engagement and high-mindedness, in preparation for the next edition.
Summer well, friends.

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Feedback and suggestions --printable and otherwise --always welcome. "There are no false opinions."

Life as an 'alien' in Germany is a humbling experience

By Jasmine Michaelson

May 4, 2009 | We had to visit the Foreigner Office last month for the millionth time since landing in Dresden, Germany, this time for visa renewals for my husband, Jake, and me and a first-time visa for our baby, Jethro. I think the petite, poker-faced, bespectacled woman we always get is warming up to us the longer we're here.

In the beginning it felt a little like she was trying to make our lives miserable. I think the lowest point was when she refused to accept our spartan Idaho marriage license because it didn't look official. (We had to write to the Idaho State government, and they had to write to the Foreigner Office vouching for our marital status.) But over the last almost two years, we've tried to maintain our civility with her. I think that, combined with watching my pregnant belly grow with each visit over the last year, and now seeing us with a baby on our laps as she stamps our forms, has softened her up a little. In fact, last week, as she was standing over the photocopier making copies of our expired visas, she actually smiled in response to a happy squeal from Jethro.

The alien experience is a humbling one. Being herded from bureaucracy to bureaucracy and having your existence reduced to documents and numbers can be a little dehumanizing, but I've also come to respect the system. I finally get why you can't just pitch a tent on any nation you want and decide to make it your home. I finally get that the way immigration is handled can make or break a country. Since coming to Germany, I've been acutely aware that I am a guest here. The German taxpayers are allowing me to use their public transit system and their health care programs and their clean and beautiful public spaces, and I feel a strong responsibility to be a good guest.

And part of that is learning their language. Even though most Germans have at least a little English, I've tried (as much as has been possible) to avoid making them use it. This is their country, and I should adapt to them. Not the other way around. I had a little bit of German when we got here, but I still couldn't understand a word of what people said to me or choke out a coherent sentence when pressed. Learning German has been one of the hardest things I've ever done in my life. It has involved countless hours of studying and listening and taking notes. And it has involved looking like an idiot almost daily. I'm sure I've used the phrases, "Langsamer, bitte!" ("Slower, please!") and "Noch einmal?" ("One more time?") thousands of times. I have regularly wanted to slam my head through a wall, and for the first few months I don't think a day went by that my anxiety over the language didn't bring me to tears. It is a painful experience to have your language in my case, the thing I've devoted my life to studying and perfecting be rendered meaningless.

But as the months passed, an incredible thing happened. I started understanding people, and I started to be able to express myself very simply. Today, my German is still very, very rough. I suspect I sound like a 2-year-old to Germans most of the time. A 2-year-old with a weird accent. And I still don't understand as much as I'd like to. I have to concentrate hard when I listen to people. I furrow my brow and squint and stare at their lips. But I'd say that most of the time I understand at least the gist of things, usually more than that. I can hold coherent conversations, follow instructions, ask questions. After about 6 months of pregnancy my obstetrician changed and from then on all my pre-natal checkups were in German, and I got by just fine. Jethro's doctor speaks only German, and we've had no problems so far. I'm an active visiting teacher in the LDS ward here, and, though it may seem like a small thing, a couple of months ago I bore my testimony in church for the first time without notes or a completely memorized routine and I felt golden for the rest of the day.

I appreciate now, more than ever, how difficult it is to learn a language. But I've learned that, with effort and humility, it does come. And I feel more strongly than ever that a country's residents should speak or at least be learning to speak its language. When I think of the all the free services in the U.S. set up to help immigrants learn English, I ache with envy. After going through this here, I have no patience for people who live in the U.S. for years, even decades, and can't conduct a simple sales exchange in English. That being said, however, I also have zero patience for any American who mocks immigrants for their accents or their halted speech or who ever utters the words, "Learn English or go home!" without ever attempting to learn another language themselves.

We aliens shouldn't be coddled or patronized. If we are, the system won't work. But we do need the patience and kindness of the native citizens if we are ever expected to assimilate and grow. So thanks for the smile, glasses lady at the foreigner office. It means more than you realize.

Jasmine Michaelson is a graduate of USU's journalism program.


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