The Victorian Error: Rooster

Note: The Victorian Era was a long period of prosperity for the British people, a time of cultural revival, and of great advances in engineering and fashion.  The Victorian Error is a weekly column where I bitch about my life experiences.

I recently read an article that said chickens are becoming popular suburban pets.  When I read this, I was delighted.  What better way to annoy the hell out of your neighbors than having a chicken?  Having a rooster, of course.  How do I know?  I shared the same space as a rooster the summer of junior year of college.  Lived is not the right terminology for what happened, because when you say lived, it usually implies you enjoyed it.

The exact rooster in question.


It was the summer of ’07, and I was interning in Philadelphia.  I have a lot of family that lives in the area, and my cousin graciously agreed to take me in for the summer.  I have a lot of respect for a person that lets me live with her, keeping in mind that I used to pinch her on the back as she was bending down to tie my shoes when I was five.  I settled down in the house, which was situated in a relatively wooded area and where the neighbors were well out of the way.  I went to bed early, not wanting to be late for my first day on the job. I fell asleep, my head full of excitement for what the next day would hold in the exciting world of executive compensation.

At 4:48 the next morning, I woke up to a tone-deaf burglar trying to break into my window, five times in a row.  It sounded like this:

I was jolted out of sleep, my heart racing like a heroin addict’s, looked out the window, scanning the green growth.  I looked around for something to throw at the intruder.  Since I was barley unpacked, the only thing I had was a roll of socks. I felt kind of bad throwing them out the window because I am a cheap Jew and I didn’t want to lose a pair of socks, even if it meant arresting the assailant.  The rooster crowed.  I thought about throwing the socks again.  My pecuniary fortitude prevailed. I slumped back down on the bed and covered my head with the pillow, curling into the fetal position.  The rooster crowed.

I fetaled my way to 5:50 am and couldn’t take it anymore.  I got up for the day.  The next day, I passed my cousin in the hallway.  “Hey,” I put a hand on her arm.  “Do you guys have a rooster?”

“Oh yeah, ” she said, “the neighbors keep the rooster.  It’s a pain, but we can’t do anything about it,” with the same level of casualness as someone would say, “Oh yeah, the lint got stuck in the dryer again.”   I’d never seen a roster before, because I hadn’t grown up in Boone County, Iowa.  We had random roosters around at our dacha when I was little, but I don’t even remember the time a bookshelf fell on my head.  How am I going to remember a rooster? Although, that fall does explain a lot about me.

It was the same way every day that summer.  I threw away my alarm clock.  4:48 am was always exact, anyway.  The second night, I went to sleep dreaming of taking an axe to the rooster.  The third night, I dreamed of Russian roulette.  By July, I had thought up twenty-seven different ways to commit gallucide.  However, somewhere after July 4, I started getting used to the rooster.  He soothed me, in the same way that Beltway traffic is soothing: it’s an inevitable constant that sometimes leads to coronary failure.

By August,  I had succumbed to fate.  I was even crowing a little myself.  I started talking to the rooster, like the heroine from Morozko, who has to knit socks for her step-sister before the sun comes up, or her hair gets cut off by her wicked step-mother.  She begs the rooster not to crow so that she can finish the last few stitches (about 6 minutes in)*.  Except I was just talking to the rooster for the hell of it.

I did end up learning a lot of valuable stuff on my internship. I think the most important thing I learned, was how to live with a rooster.

*Russians, I never understood why she wastes her time talking to the sun, the rooster, and whatevs. Why doesn’t she just finish the stitches? Ah, socialism.


Sands of Saudi

I recently read The Desert Contract by John Lathrop.


As a novel, it was ok.  I mean, it had all the things a novel needs to have: characters, plot, and setting.  The characters were so flat I could probably inflate them with a helium tank and they would still collapse like failed Macy’s floats onto the Sands of Saudi Arabia, which are featured prominently in the book.  Oh yeah, I should probably tell you that the novel is about an American businessman, Jack  Kemp, who is an expat selling investments in the Middle East. He’s come back from LA because the tech bubble and pretty much all of Western civilization as we know it, has popped.  So he’s back in Saudi, shilling his product. And, surprise!  By COMPLETE COINCIDENCE, he meets his lover from the first time he was in the Gulf (after the 1991 War), pretty, Irish Helen.  She’s just so Irish, you know!  She says silly words like banshee and greets Jack with “Dia duit,” because she’s always been proud of her Gaelic.  She is also anatomically perfect.  She is slender, with a column-like neck (as opposed to square,) square shoulders (as opposed to column-like,) and breasts that were full but not heavy.  Her complexion is milk-white Irish.  Three cheers for Lucky Charms!



I gotta give Lathrop a break, though.  This is his first novel.  Aside from the flat characters, constant cliches, and gross oversimplification, the book is pretty good. He does have very keen powers of observation about expat life in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf in general.  In fact, Saudi Arabia is his most vibrant character in the book.   The sands, the chaos, and most of all, the glittering emptiness in the sunshine and winds of the Gulf are what infuse the novel with atmosphere.   Read it for the descriptions alone.

A quote from the novel to get you thinking:

Her husband sat up, his eyes refocused.  “Right above us,” he said, “your next port of call.  Yousef.  Joe, as he prefers to be called.  Our upstairs neighbor.  I expect he passes himself off to you as American.  In fact he’s Iraqi.  Born in Basra.  Grew up like a Saudi in Jedda, but I suspect he’s Shia.  On the wrong side of the tracks.  Made it to the States years ago, when you were still letting in anyone, and got some kind of bogus degree.  You should be careful of him.  He’s the worst kind of Arab: half Westernized.  The kind who don’t know who they are, and don’t know the rules.  Or don’t give a damn.  They think the rules don’t apply.  The kind of Arab who’s on the fence.  And, when push comes to shove, who knows which side they’ll jump down on?”

After reading about his descriptions of Al Khobar, Saudi, and the surrounding area, I couldn’t resist picture-surfing to find out more about Saudi Arabia, which I will never be allowed to visit, because I make Passover matzah from the blood of Christian babies.  Also, I’m a kvetcher.

We reached the outskirts of town.  Sunken oases slipped by on each side-irregular patches of farm, rows of grayish date palms- clinging to a stunted life over a pumped-out and contaminated water table.  Finally we turned back to the coast road.

Here are some pics of the locations described in the book.  Mabruk.


Swimming pool..or fountain.


Subtle half-crescent Islam play park


This is how they do Google in Al Khobar.

The dusty desolation of the highway

The dusty desolation of the highway . Are we sure this isn't Texas?


The Kids Aren’t Alright

I was listening to Mary Poppins post-workout yesterday. The point is not that I’m 22 and listen to Julie Andrews to cool down.  The point is that kids are given crappy movie-watching choices these days.  Or maybe there are movies as good as Mary Poppins with songs of the same quality (i.e. Wall-e,) but there is an uneven distribution of the majority of songs being crap in the childrens’ song market.  Disney Channel, I’m looking at you.  Why are you unraveling all of your years of good work with Hannah Montana and Cody and Zach and whatevs.   Parents, what say you? I don’t know anything.  I’m just groovin’ to Mary P. This song gives me goosebumps.


Added utility of a second language: Eavesdropping at parties

I think from time to time about why more people in America don’t know a second language or at least attempt to learn one.   The common argument goes that, since English is becoming the most widely-spoken language in the world, what would be the point?

Even President Obama admitted during his presidential campaign that he doesn’t speak another language.  Less than 10% of Americans in 2005 could speak another language, according to story reported by NPR. That’s just ridiculous.  I know my four years of Latin count for nihil, and to be perfectly honest, I’m not even sure why I took them other than to punish myself for some crime I committed in eighth grade, but still. It gave me the basis for the Italian I tried to learn on my own and gave me the right push to learn modern Hebrew, which was my gateway drug into Arabic, my current language of focus. I don’t really count Russian because I didn’t learn it independently, so it’s a little like cheating.

What got me thinking about this is a party I was at this weekend.  Almost all the people there were Russian, except for two or three Americans.  One was a person who understood nothing about what was going on, and looked at all of us with the same expression as the parents from My Big Fat Greek Wedding, when they arrive at the house to meet Toula’s Big Greek Family (about a minute or two into the video):

We were foreign, distant, and weird. And you could tell that just by observing their face for a couple minutes.

The other person was an American who had spent quite some time in Russia. As a result, he spoke Russian almost fluently. I was floored. Russian is not an easy language to learn at all, much, much harder than French or German, and here he was, laughing at all the jokes and doing all the things that Russians do at dinner parties, including giving long toasts, as is Russian tradition. I didn’t even realize he wasn’t Russian at first. It was amazing, and for the whole party, he commanded my respect.

Which got me to thinking.  What incentivizes people to learn foreign languages, and which ones do they learn?  Mr.B and I were just discussing this today.  If we have kids, which languages, aside from the obvious Russian (and Hebrew so the little Jewlets can continue to fuel the Zionist conspiracy), will we teach them?  Should we go with Mandarin?  Or Arabic?  Or another language that may make political and economic prominence over English in the next 10 or 20 years.

Luckily, economists and linguists have already done work in this arena.  Here are two I’ve started looking at:

Selten and Pool maintain in their study that their examples illustrate tendencies for those who learn non-native languages to choose the most widely spoken ones (English, Mandarin, Spanish) , for members of small language communities to learn foreign languages more than members of large communities (i.e. Europe) , for few persons to learn auxiliary languages (those without native speakers), even if they have relatively low learning costs (i.e. stupid me and Latin) , and for language communities with chronically poor second-language-learning abilities to enjoy above-average welfare levels (this one really interested me. I wonder if this is true in other studies.)

The second study I’ve started to look at as a stepping stone is: Bilingualism, multiculturalism, and second language learning, which covers reasons why people might want to learn second languages.

I’ll be looking at these over the next couple weeks and figuring out why the hell someone would want to learn Russian versus not, and having my head examined as to why I took Latin in high school.  If you are curious, here is the book we used.  Have fun.