Mar 6, 2015

What's your addiction?

Bet you didn't know this use for an iPhone! Free app available in the Apple Store....
Yesterday was not a great day. In fact, it's been a bad past week. The downward slide started with an unrecognized synonym when talking to a receptionist at a medical clinic where I had gone to get my foot x-rayed. Out of nowhere, a panic attack. I began to hyperventilate and stepped quickly into a nearby courtyard outside and around a corner to face a wall and calm myself. But they found me. Would not go away. Then it got worse. Thinking I was having a heart attack, they called paramedics. How do you tell someone to fuck off and go away when you just need some quiet to get centered and you cannot remember the words in a new language?

Yesterday, again. I went to the post office to pick up a package. Took a ticket, waited for my number to come up. It did. At the counter the clerk looked at my ticket, made a face and began to berate me in somewhat harsh tones, almost as if she had learned her manners in Oranienburg, near where I used to live in Germany. As the rush of incomprehension took my ears, I left quickly, sat in the car nearby, hyperventilating. Coffee, I thought, and headed to my cantinho for a galão. Still feeling the alienation and panic I remembered an unpaid vet bill, so I went by the clinic and settled it, though the tightening of muscles amplified the pain in my feet and caused me to move in a way that added half a century to my chronological age. Afterward, I sat in the car, hearing the rush of traffic behind me, fearing I could not pull out of the parking space and drive home safely. Back then to the cantinho for another dinner seasoned with solitude and muito vinho tinto.

In the two years I have lived in my new home, I have acquired an ever greater appreciation for what involuntary migrants, aka refugees, might experience in their dislocation. It's not the country. It's not the language, which is usually a musical massage to my ears and spirit even when I cannot yet discern all of its meaning. And it is certainly not the people or their culture. In fact, I say truthfully to my friends and others here that the worst of my days in the Alentejo are better than most days for me in a place like North-Rhine Westphalia or Brandenburg.

I have spent a lot of time meditating on what it was that I sensed in my first days in Évora more than two years ago which makes this place feel more like a home or a potential home than any I have experienced in decades. My stress reactions are minor and normal for anyone in a new environment where the networked roots of existence and social life are barely sprung from the seed. But the soil here is fertile, and those roots do grow, albeit sometimes not quickly enough to support the plant, windblown and wondering and alone in its field of dreams.

The answer to that question and many others came in an article referenced by a faraway friend this morning. The essential message for me was nothing new; in fact, I have been stating it quite plainly in other words for most of the past week. But the article did solve a few other mysteries, like how it was that I kicked a pain pill addiction last autumn and realized only weeks afterward that I had done so after simply forgetting to medicate my arthritic foot because I was busy.

About the time that I moved to Europe 15 years ago, Portugal had the worst drug problem on the Continent. Then the natural, good sense I appreciate so much in this culture took over, and the society surrendered in the War on Drugs and embarked on a very different path to peace than the usual one taken. Not only was drug use completely decriminalized, but steps were taken for the social integration of addicts. No big deal I suppose, not here where respect for human dignity is so deeply ingrained in the culture that so many of the Portuguese do not realize the extent of their true wealth.

But look at the results: drug use has plummeted. Addiction rates are half of what they were. And the prisons are not full. Alas, there is not much future in a career as a prison guard in Portugal unless you feel like watching over corrupt politicians.

The article shared by my friend and colleague is one of a number I have seen lately about drug use and treatment and the "astonishing" success of Portugal where every other country I can think of has lost the war. Portugal's surrender is a victory in fact, one which we can all share. But it's not about decriminalization. It's not about drugs. It's really about human connection.

The article referenced talks all about the "chemical hooks" we all know that drugs have for us. But what about gambling? Or porn addiction? Or any of the many other addictions commonly spoken of today. Power? Money? Smart phones? Software solutions to human problems? Machine pseudo-translation, anyone?

We talk about "addictive personalities". You know, that common flaw of that weak and worthless human refuse found in our dirtiest, most dangerous alleys. Or corporate board rooms.

Are these personalities truly more prone to addiction? Controlled studies do seem to indicate this. But the gifted scientists who were my teachers, Frank Lambert in particular, often warned me about drawing such conclusions without looking carefully at the design of the system and my assumptions and whether I was dealing with a closed or open system. And that, my friends, is the real problem.

As we translators like to say, context is everything.

As Johann Hari wrote in the article:
".., in the 1970s, a professor of Psychology in Vancouver called Bruce Alexander noticed something odd about this experiment. The rat is put in the cage all alone. It has nothing to do but take the drugs. What would happen, he wondered, if we tried this differently?
So Professor Alexander built Rat Park. It is a lush cage where the rats would have colored balls and the best rat-food and tunnels to scamper down and plenty of friends: everything a rat about town could want. What, Alexander wanted to know, will happen then?
In Rat Park, all the rats obviously tried both water bottles, because they didn’t know what was in them. But what happened next was startling.
The rats with good lives didn’t like the drugged water. They mostly shunned it, consuming less than a quarter of the drugs the isolated rats used. None of them died." ...
"... addiction is an adaptation. It’s not you. It’s your cage." ...
"After the first phase of Rat Park, Professor Alexander then took this test further. He reran the early experiments, where the rats were left alone, and became compulsive users of the drug. He let them use for 57 days—if anything can hook you, it’s that.
Then he took them out of isolation, and placed them in Rat Park. He wanted to know, if you fall into that state of addiction, is your brain hijacked, so you can’t recover? Do the drugs take you over? What happened is—again—striking. The rats seemed to have a few twitches of withdrawal, but they soon stopped their heavy use, and went back to having a normal life. The good cage saved them." ...
"Professor Peter Cohen argues that human beings have a deep need to bond and form connections. It’s how we get our satisfaction. If we can’t connect with each other, we will connect with anything we can find—the whirr of a roulette wheel or the prick of a syringe [or a smartphone]. He says we should stop talking about ‘addiction’ altogether, and instead call it ‘bonding.’ A heroin addict has bonded with heroin because she couldn’t bond as fully with anything else."
This is the sort of thing which bothers me deeply about the profession of translation in its current state. It's not about machine translation. It's not about technology of any kind, nor about "linguistic sausage". But it is very much about Linguistic Sausage Producers and processes, very much about technology as The Golden Calf and very much about the sausage into which we grind and extrude people when we put the tools and methods above them.

I was told once by a friend that "the world needs the machines made in small German villages to run". No we fucking don't. That statement upset me so much that I gave away most of what I owned some weeks later and simply got in the car, drove 2800 kilometers and started a new life. A good life, even when the inevitable isolation at the start of it makes some days hard.

I saw some of this last week in a professional context when I had lunch with Joaquim Alves, owner of JABA Translations in Porto, who is now starting a new venture, the JABA Academy. He told me the reasons for starting this new company and his goals to promote better professional skills in the translating communities His translation company does not rely on massive databases of virtual slavelancers. His slaves are right there on the plantation, in-house.Making a decent wage for Portugal, with health benefits and paid holidays. And educational oportunities, paid by the employer, like mine were in the US decades ago before neo-Regeanite madness and Randian cults took over.

Is JABA an evil sausage shop like thepigturd and others? I don't think so. The Devil is in the details, but so are the angels not yet fallen. What I see there is an environment, perhaps not one for which I am personally suited, but in which professional language workers are part of a supported community of work, with integrated training and support. I imagine they are less likely to go shoot heroin, talk to their smartphones instead of their girlfriends or neighbors, less likely to live their "lives" on Facebook.

ISIS has ambitions to take over the world, with vegans in hot competition. Both will inevitably fail, above all for their lack of respect for other people. My money is on Portugal to conquer, at least by example. The addict in me certainly hopes so.


  1. Excellent insight. I always thought that alienation and lack of a developed social interaction is in fact the root of sadness that brings about addiction to other stuff.

  2. Thank you, Kevin, for this excellent article.


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