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My View: Of foreign languages and animals on wheels

By Dan Schwartz

Much of the difficulty we’re experiencing in the area of U.S.-Russia relations can be traced to a recent speech where Vladimir Putin wanted the Russian people to speak with “vun vill.”

I believe this sentiment has been misinterpreted in the West as a result of many of us not being bothered enough to learn Russian. I believe he meant “one wheel,” not “one will."

When I was a kid in 1960s Buffalo, we were given the choice of taking Spanish, French or German, and a few schools still taught Latin, when more than half the world’s population combined spoke Russian or Chinese.

We used Arabic numerals when doing math, but we never had the chance to learn the Arabic language. In math class, I used to try to imagine how much tougher it must have been to do long division with Roman numerals.

We were told to take Spanish because just about everyone else in the Western Hemisphere, except most Canadians, spoke Spanish.

We were told to take German in case we had to fight them yet again, and every platoon would need a translator.

Dan Schwartz.

We were told to take French because French was the language of diplomacy and love. By the time were were in middle school, we were convinced love was a bunch of hooey, and we were more concerned with the language of surviving middle school.

Latin was taken by kids who got picked on in middle school and only took Latin to become lawyers who could exact revenge on their former classmates.

Anyway, what Putin was really trying to say was he was opposed to the practice of putting bears on unicycles, or “one wheel.”

When I was a kid, just about the only time you ever saw any Russians was on Don Ameche’s European circus show or if Ed Sullivan had the Bolshoi Ballet, a bunch of Russian folk dancers or a circus act. On either show, too often there’d be a bear tooling around on a unicycle.

Talk about cruelty to animals. Have you ever tried to ride a unicycle? I have, and let me tell you, it’s no fun, and not so freakin’ easy.

These days there’s support for not being cruel to animals. When my nieces were young, I’d ask them if they wanted to save the whales. When they’d answer enthusiastically, I’d say, “Good! I’ll drop one off next week. You can keep it in your bathtub.”

When they protested I learned people are a lot more conservative than they profess to be about animal rights. You’ve heard the acronym NIMBY, for "not in my backyard." For too many of us, it’s just NIMB, as in “not in my bathtub."

If we truly wanted to save bears, we’d protest against forcing them to ride unicycles. At the very least, we should advocate for their riding vehicles with at least two wheels.

I write this even though I’m not too crazy about bears, especially polar bears. As a former Alaska resident who actually took a class in how to get along with and survive encounters with moose and bear (in Alaska, “bear” is also used as a plural), I can tell you polar bears are not only dangerous, but sadistic. They are just about the only creature other than man who kills for sport. They will walk parallel to you for miles, and then wait until you weaken and stumble before they attack you.

Like Putin, polar bears deserve to ride unicycles.

Dan Schwartz, Ph.D., teaches at SUNY Buffalo State.

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