Monday, May 20, 2013

My Own Private Alamo

It's always nice to find that there was someone out there that gets what you're feeling.  Even if they were in the distant past.  
I was shown a new yojijukugo yesterday.  In Japanese, a yojijukugo is an idiomatic phrase made up of four kanji characters.  The majority of them come from Buddhist teachings, but there are others that are based on historical events, or are contractions of other sayings.  Knowing them is considered to be a sign of kanji literacy and eloquence in communication in Japanese.  
The yojijukugo I learned is 四面楚歌.  In romanji, or English characters, it's spelled "shimensoka."  
The compound has three parts.  "四面" or "shimen" means "four sides," or all around you.  "楚" or "so" is a kanji that refers to a switch made from a branch used to flog someone.  "歌" or "ka" means song, and is used in all sorts of related words like "singer," "to sing," "opera," etc.  
Together, the compound literally translates to something like, "All around you, the song of flogging sticks."  A more natural interpretation would be to be beset on all sides by enemies; to be betrayed or forsaken by everyone.  
It's easy to get this meaning from the literal translation.  Imagine hearing, from all directions, the sound of sticks whistling through the air as a crowd of people swing them at you.  
It's kinda how I feel these days.  
One of the native Japanese speakers at our language exchange asked if we had a similar phrase in English.  The English speakers at the table looked at each other for a bit.  One brought up, "Custer's Last Stand," though he couldn't remember a particular phrase or saying one would use.  Someone else mentioned the Alamo.  Someone else made a more natural translation of, "Everyone is against me."  
I turned to someone else at the table and said, "You could say something like, 'I'm in my own private Alamo.'"  
"Yeah!"  He nodded back at me.  "You could say that!"  
The Japanese speakers at the table asked me to repeat it and wrote it down in their notebooks.  I dutifully did so, though I was also trying to figure out just where I got the phrase from.  The first thing I could remember clearly was the B-52's song, "Private Idaho."  A song about getting lost in negative thoughts, sitting there staring out into space as you slowly spiral down into a darker place inside your head.  
"You're living in  your own private Idaho, you're living in your own private Idaho..."  You remember the song, right?  "You're in your own private Alamo," has the same rhythm to it.  And it conveys the sense I was trying to capture.  You're trapped in your life, surrounded by problems, people who seem to be working against you, and all you can do is fight back as best you can while waiting for them to overwhelm your defenses.  
"You're in your own private Alamo, you're in your own private Alamo..."  Top twenty material, I'd say.  
I actually found a reference to the phrase itself online, though.  It was an article written back in March of 2000, for Texas Monthly.  The author of the article was writing about how most people, the casual visitor as he describes them, are underwhelmed by the small, unassuming building they find when they visit the historical site preserved as a monument in San Antonio.  It doesn't seem to find the grand historical drama, the songs and sayings, that we are fed as Americans as we grow up.  "This is it...?" is the reaction a lot of people have, which I had already heard from other sources.  
One point I got from the article, though, is that a lot of what made the alamo, The Alamo, is missing.  The building you see is only one of a much larger compound that has been erased by history and modernization.  The town the Alamo was attached to is gone as well.  He even recommends climbing to the observation deck of a nearby building, called the Tower of the Americas, to view the contours of the old frontier town associated with the famous battle.  
This is also the case, I think, when you try to explain your situation to others.  You almost always get advice that, while well-meaning, doesn't seem to help you much.  "Just hang in there," to "you just ought to take care of yourself," to "why don't you just quit?"  Yeah, sure, I can do that, but...  It makes you wonder if you explained it right.  
I'm going to be going to WorldCon, the World Science Fiction Convention, which will be held in San Antonio this year.  I'm going to take some time to go see the Alamo for myself, I think.  I don't know what the transportation situation is like in San Antonio, but I assume whatever bus lines they have there at least one has a stop by the monument.  I want to see for myself this tiny place that holds more history that most people think it ought to, and try to feel what the defenders were going through.  
At night, they probably could hear the Mexican army surrounding them.  Like the song of whistling sticks carried by people wanting to beat them down, it probably sounded.  In my own small, private way, I'll try to understand what they went through.  


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