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567 Topics: American Authors – Gertrude Stein; Famous Songs – “Puff the Magic Dragon”; sport versus workout versus exercise; to come across versus to stumble upon; debaucherous behavior

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Complete Transcript
You’re listening to ESL Podcast’s English Café number 567.

This is English as a Second Language Podcast’s English Café episode 567. I’m your host, Dr. Jeff McQuillan, coming to you from the Center for Educational Development in beautiful Los Angeles, California.

Visit our website at ESLPod.com. Take a look at our ESLPod.com Store with additional courses in Business and Daily English.

On this Café, we’re going to talk about the American author Gertrude Stein, one of the most well known, if not most widely read, authors of the twentieth century. We’ll also talk about the famous song “Puff the Magic Dragon.” And as always, we’ll answer a few of your questions. Let’s get started.

Gertrude Stein was born in February of 1874 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, a city in the western part of the state of Pennsylvania, about 600 kilometers east of New York City. Stein spent time in Europe as a young child. She came from a very wealthy family. Her father was a businessman. The family had enough money to travel to Europe. The father later worked in San Francisco, and the family moved to a city near San Francisco called Oakland, California. It’s there that Gertrude Stein, along with her brothers and sisters, grew up.

The parents of Gertrude died when she was relatively young. Her oldest brother took over the family business affairs, and Gertrude was sent out east to eventually study at the Collegiate Instruction of Women in Boston, which later became known as Radcliffe College – essentially the woman’s college at Harvard University – then, and some might say now, the best university in the United States.

So, she received an excellent education. Not only was her education at a very good school, but she studied with one of the most brilliant minds of her generation, the psychologist William James, who was teaching at Harvard during this time. She graduated in 1894 and then went on to study at the Johns Hopkins Medical School in Baltimore, Maryland.

You can see immediately how unusual Gertrude Stein was for her generation – a woman not only graduating from college, but also studying medicine at the best medical school in the United States. She never graduated from Johns Hopkins School but she did study there until 1902. She moved to Europe in 1902 and would spend most of the rest of her life in Europe. She moved first to London, and then to Paris with her older brother, Leo.

In 1909, she moved out of her brother’s home in Paris and began living with her friend and partner, Alice Tolkas. That same year, she wrote and published a novel called Three Lives. It told the story of three different working-class women. “Working class” describes those who have to work in factories or other jobs that often require some sort of physical work – some sort of physical labor, we would say.

In addition to writing, Gertrude Stein began collecting paintings and other pieces of art. Once again, you can see that Gertrude Stein had a lot of money to spend, if she could afford to buy art during this period. The artists that she bought from were mostly from what was called the Cubist School. “Cubism” (cubism) was a style of art that tried to show all the possible viewpoints of a person or an object at the same time.

You’re probably familiar with the work of Pablo Picasso, the Spanish artist. He was an excellent example of a cubist artist, at least during his later career. Cubism was popular during this time, and Stein was an early collector of cubist art, including the art of Pablo Picasso, who was a close friend of Stein. Stein, in fact, had her portrait painted by Picasso. A “portrait” (portrait) is a painting, drawing, or photograph of a person’s face, or head and shoulders.

Stein also collected art from other painters at this time, including Henri Matisse and Georges Braque. Just as with Picasso, Stein became friends with these painters and often had them and other artists and writers over to her house to “socialize” – that is, to spend time in a friendly way. These writers included Ernest Hemingway and Sherwood Anderson – two of the best writers, best American writers, during this period.

As you probably know, many American writers and artists went to Europe, especially between the two world wars. Many of them ended up in Paris and became friends with one another. This created an artistic community, not just American but international. Gertrude Stein was an important part of that artistic community.

She was, in addition to a collector and a writer, someone whose opinion was considered quite “influential” – that is, if she had an opinion about something, it would often change the opinions of other people or change the opinion of those around her. She was, then, a “critic” (critic) as well as a writer and collector. Her opinion mattered, and it was said that if she said something bad about your art or your writing, that this could have a very negative impact on your career.

Stein continued her own writing during this period. She wrote a lot about art, a lot about the theory of cubism and other artistic movements during this time. A “movement” (movement) is an effort to make something happen through people working together. When we talk about an “artistic movement,” we’re usually talking about an approach, sometimes even a formal theory about the way art should be done, about the way art should be executed.

She wrote a book called Composition as Explanation in 1925, talking about the way that art should be composed – that is, art should be arranged and created. In 1925, Stein published another book called The Making of Americans. While many critics and writers thought the book was very good, it was very complicated and difficult to read, mainly because of the way that Stein wrote.

Stein tried to imitate the ideas of cubism in her writing. This, however, produced some very long and confusing sentences that made it difficult for people to understand her writing. This is the main reason why many people, including me, have heard of Gertrude Stein and her writing, but have sadly never read it. It’s quite difficult to understand, at least some of it.

But Stein continued to write and continued to be a popular thinker and artist in Paris. In 1933, she published a book, somewhat strangely called The Autobiography of Alice P. Tolkas. Remember, she lived with Tolkas most of her life. Now, normally an autobiography is a book that a person writes about his own life. However, this book, even though it’s called The Autobiography of Alice P. Tolkas, is actually the autobiography of Gertrude Stein.

It was written, however, from the point of view of Tolkas, and describes their life in Paris as artists and friends. A “point of view” refers to the way in which a story is told, the relationship between the person telling a story and the story itself. We often talk about “first person” and “third person” when reading or writing a piece of literature. “First person” is when the story is told by a person speaking in his own voice – “I did this” and “I did that.” “Third person” is when one person is describing another person’s action, or the writer himself is describing the actions of the characters or people in the book.

The following year, in 1934, Gertrude Stein published a play. Not only was she a writer of criticism and novels, but she was also a playwright, a person who wrote plays for the theater. Her play was called Four Saints in Three Acts, and it was eventually made into an opera by one of the most famous American composers of this period, Virgil Thompson. The opera itself was popular in the U.S., so popular that Gertrude Stein returned to the United States in 1934 and gave speeches and lectures to groups of people around the country.

She then went back to Paris and stayed there throughout World War II. Unlike many Americans living in Paris during the 1920s and ’30s, she did not leave when France was occupied during World War II. Indeed, there was considerable controversy over Stein’s politics. As a Jewish woman living in Paris, she was nevertheless somewhat friendly to the occupying Nazi forces and had good things to say about people such as Francisco Franco in Spain.

When the American soldiers arrived in Paris, many of them visited Stein, and she became friends with these soldiers. She wrote about these men and her experiences in the last book she published, Brewsie and Willie, which was published in 1946, the same year she died of stomach cancer. Even though Stein was a writer herself, she’s probably best remembered as being someone who brought together other famous artists and writers – people we’ve mentioned such as Picasso, Matisse, and Hemingway – as part of her Parisian “circle of friends,” we might call it.

Stein is also famous, at least among some Americans, for having written two sentences that were often repeated, at least when I was growing up, although I’m not sure most people really understand what they mean. The first one, probably her most famous quote, is “A rose is a rose is a rose is a rose.” This comes originally from a poem in which the first “rose” is the name of a woman. “Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose.” Some people have interpreted the sentence, in any case, to mean that things are what they are, or “A is A” – sometimes called in philosophy the “principle of identity,” which in some ways is the basis of reason.

The other famous quote from Stein is “There is no there there.” Many people think that Stein was talking about Los Angeles, meaning to say that because of the way the city is built, there is no center – there is no one place, as there is in most cities, that you could call a “downtown,” a center part of the city (even though Los Angeles does have, in fact, a downtown). She wasn’t writing about Los Angeles. She was writing about the place where she grew up – Oakland, California.

In some ways, she may have been writing about really any city in the western United States, other than perhaps San Francisco. Most western cities are built out – that is, they extend out. There isn’t a center as there is in many other cities in the U.S. in the eastern and central part of the country. San Francisco is a little bit different. San Francisco in some ways is an eastern city located in the western United States. But we won’t talk about urban planning right now.

Let’s move on to our second topic, which is a song that was made famous in the 1960s by a musical group called Peter, Paul, and Mary. The song is “Puff the Magic Dragon.” “Puff” (puff) is used as a first name in the song, but it’s more commonly a verb that describes blowing air out of your mouth or your nose quickly. We also use it to refer to the act of smoking. “I’m going to puff on a cigarette.” We use the proposition “on.” “To puff on a cigarette” means to smoke a cigarette. In the song, however, “Puff” is a name. “Puff” is the name of a magic dragon. A “dragon” (dragon) is an imaginary creature. There’s no such thing as a real dragon, or is there? A “dragon,” usually is depicted or shown as being a big lizard, I guess, that breathes fire. Peter, Paul, and Mary were the first names of the singers of the group – Peter Yarrow, Paul Stocky, and Mary Travers. It was Peter Yarrow who wrote the song, “Puff the Magic Dragon,” back in 1958, but the group didn’t record it until 1963.

The group Peter, Paul and Mary were part of what was called the “folk movement” in the ’50s and ’60s – people who sang songs in the folk song tradition. You may have heard of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger from the ’30s and ’40s. Woody Guthrie’s son, Arlo Guthrie, was also part of this folk music tradition.

“Puff the Magic Dragon” was recorded in 1963. The song is based on a poem written by one of Peter Yarrow’s friends. “To be based on” means that it took ideas from the poem. Once the song became popular, in fact, Yarrow gave his friend – whose name was Lenny Lipton – credit for writing the song, or helping him write the lyrics of the song, the words of the song. “Credit” is recognition, in this case, for someone who helped. His friend also got some of the money that was made because of the song.

“Puff the Magic Dragon” is basically a children’s song. It tells the story of a boy and his dragon. It begins by talking about how the dragon and the boy play together.

Puff the magic dragon lived by the sea

and frolicked in the autumn mist in a land called Honali

“Puff the Magic Dragon lived by the sea” – lived by the ocean. He “frolicked” (frolicked). “To frolic” (frolic) means to play and move about with a lot of energy and fun. Puff “frolicked in the autumn mist” (mist). “Mist” is basically fog – when there is a lot of water in the air and you can’t see very far because of it. The land, the place where Puff lived, is of course an imaginary place. It’s called “Honali.” “Honali” is just a name that Peter Yarrow invented. Don’t try to look on Google Maps and find it. The song continues, talking about the little boy.

Little Jackie Paper loved that rascal Puff

And brought him strings and sealing wax and other fancy stuff

“Little Jackie Paper” is the name of the boy, of course. “Rascal” (rascal) is a person who makes trouble, but not in a dangerous sort of way. “Sealing wax” (wax) is something that used to be used many years ago to close envelopes, among other things.

The song is basically a story about how children grow up and eventually stop playing these games, especially imaginary games. It is in some ways, about what we might describe as a “loss of innocence” (innocence). “Innocence” in this sense refers not to the opposite of being “guilty,” of not having done something wrong, but rather of being perhaps somewhat ignorant about the world around you and still seeing the world as good – not understanding that there are bad people in the world, let’s say.

Interestingly enough, some people didn’t think this song was so innocent itself. In fact, Newsweek magazine in 1964 said that this song was really about “marijuana” – a drug that people smoke, I’m told. The article said that many of the words were actually about drugs and that the entire song was some sort of code for talking about drugs. “Code” (code) here would refer to a system of words or letters that are trying to communicate something secret. Remember I said that one of the meanings of the word “puff” related to smoking. So, this is perhaps why people thought the song itself was about smoking.

Peter Yarrow, who wrote the song, said that that simply wasn’t true. The song was just a nice song for children. Many people, however, didn’t believe him. However, when I grew up in the late 1960s, this song was still very popular and we certainly sang it as children, not thinking that it was related in any way to smoking marijuana. Many people still think the song is about drugs, but I think the song was just what Peter Yarrow said it was – a nice song about a young boy growing up with an imaginary dragon.

Now let’s answer some of the questions you have sent to us.

Our first question comes from Muhammad (Muhammad) in Iran. Muhammad wants to know the meanings of the words “sport,” “workout,” and “exercise.” The word “sport” (sport) is usually used to describe a contest or game involving some sort of physical activity in which two people or two teams – two groups of people – compete against each other to see who is the best. Football, soccer, hockey, baseball, basketball – these are all examples of team sports, but you also have sports such as tennis and golf and certain running competitions such as marathons that usually involve just one person.

Now, some people distinguish between a “sport” and a “game” as being one which involves physical activity, or at least something that requires some sort of athletic skill. We don’t normally call, for example, poker or pool “sports.” Normally those are called “games” – although very confusingly, a “game” is often one sporting event.

So you could go to “a game of baseball,” which would be one afternoon or evening of two teams playing each other in the sport of baseball. So, “game” and “sport” are somewhat confusing, in that “game” can be used to describe a single event as well as an entire activity such as playing cards or video games.

“Workout” (workout) describes a period of physical exercise. It could be running. It could be jogging. It could simply be walking. A “workout” might involve lifting weights or doing some other sort of physical activity, the purpose of which is to keep your body healthy.

Playing a sport is also a physical activity that may keep your body healthy, but a “workout” is just for the purposes of keeping your body healthy – although once again, somewhat confusingly, we sometimes will describe participation in a sport as a “workout” because it requires a lot of physical activity, a lot of strength and exertion – that is, using your body in such a way that will make it tired eventually. When someone says, “I’m going to the gym for a workout,” he’s saying he’s going to exercise his body. He’s going to move his body in such a way as to keep it healthy, to keep it strong.

The final word, “exercise” (exercise), has a couple of different meanings. As a verb, “to exercise” means to do physical activity, and in that sense it is the same as the verb “to work out,” which is to do physical activity so that your body remains healthy. “Exercise,” however, can also be used as a noun to describe something that you do to keep your body healthy. So, in that sense it is the same as the noun “workout.”

“Exercise” can also be used for any sort of deliberate practice, when you are doing something over and over again so that you get better at it. If you want to learn how to play the piano, you might do “musical exercises.” You might, say, play the scales, the major and minor scales, to help you with your musical ability or your musical proficiency – your ability to play the piano.

As a verb, “to exercise” can also mean to use a certain ability or power that you have. “I want you to exercise caution” (caution). That means “I want you to use your ability to be careful, to not do anything dangerous.” That’s another possible use of the word “exercise.”

Our next question comes from Mikhail (Mikhail) in Russia. The question has to do with two two-word phrasal verbs, “to come across” and “to stumble upon.”

The most common meaning of both of these phrasal verbs is similar. It means to find something without planning on it, to find something by chance, something that you are interested in or something that you are glad that you found or discovered. It could be an object. It could be a fact. For example, “While I was reading the newspaper yesterday, I came across the name of someone whom I knew when I was in college.” I wasn’t looking for his name, but as I was doing something else – reading the newspaper – I saw his name. I “came across” his name.

You could also “come across” a person. You could meet a person that you weren’t expecting to meet – although normally in those situations when we’re talking about a person, we would say “I ran into,” which is a weird expression. It literally means that you were running and you hit the person, but it’s actually used to mean “I was in a certain place and I saw someone I knew whom I wasn’t expecting to see,” or certainly wasn’t looking for.

“I was at the grocery store when I ran into my old friend Bob.” We weren’t looking for each other. I certainly wasn’t looking for him, but I saw him there and I said hello. I “ran into” him. Now, I could maybe see “I came across an old friend at the grocery store,” but I think it would be more common for us to say “I ran into” that person. You typically “come across” things, or perhaps names or ideas.

“To stumble (stumble) upon (upon)” something also means to find something unexpectedly, something you weren’t looking for. In this sense, it means the same thing as “to come across” – something I wasn’t expecting, something I found. I think we might use “to stumble upon” more when what we have found is useful to us or gives us some sort of benefit. “I stumbled upon the solution to my problem.” I wasn’t looking for a solution. I wasn’t looking for the answer but I found it anyway, even when I wasn’t looking for it or expecting it.

Finally, from Brazil, Vinicius (Vinicius) – I apologize if I mispronounced the name – wants to know, for some reason, the meaning of the expression “debaucherous behavior.” What are you doing down there in Brazil, my friend? Well, let me explain it.

“Behavior” (behavior) is a way of acting. “Debaucherous” comes from the noun “debauchery” (debauchery). “Debauchery” refers to engaging in some sort of sexual activity that is considered immoral or quite unusual and not acceptable. I will not give you any examples.

“Debaucherous,” then, is an adjective that comes from the noun “debauchery” to describe, in this case, behavior that would be considered immoral or shocking. I suppose sometimes, if you open the wrong door, you could come across “debaucherous behavior” in some hotels.

If you have a question or comment, you can email me. Our email address is eslpod@eslplod.com. If there’s time, we’ll try to answer your question here in the English Café.

From Los Angeles California, I’m Jeff McQuillan. Thanks for listening. Come back to listen to us again right here on the English Café.

ESL Podcast’s English Café is written and produced by Dr. Jeff McQuillan and Dr. Lucy Tse. This podcast is copyright 2016 by the Center for Educational Development.

Glossary
cubism – a style of art that tries to show all possible viewpoints of a person or an object at the same time, with the items represented looking as though they are made out of squares and other shapes

* The artist paints in the style of cubism so the woman’s face looked like it was made up of four flat triangles.

to socialize – to spend time with other people in a friendly way

* Jo enjoys socializing and goes to the club every Friday night to talk with friends.

influential – powerful or important, having the power to make changes happen

* Influential business owners can affect who gets elected to public office.

movement – an effort to make something happen through people working together in organized activities

* The hippie movement of the 1960s and 1970s was about creating a world of peace and love.

composition – the way that the parts of a piece of art are arranged or shown

* The painting had a beautiful composition of blues, reds, and yellows that made it appear as though it was both night and day at the same time.

point of view – the relationship of the person telling a story to a story being told

* The stories of Sherlock Holmes are written from the point of view of his friend and assistant, Dr. Watson.

to puff – to blow air out of one’s mouth or nose quickly and with force; to take short, noisy breaths

* By the time Ida reached the top of the hill, she was puffing and needed to rest.

magic – power that comes from a source that is not human or of this planet

* The boy loved magic and practiced every day, trying to make a rabbit appear out of a hat.

dragon – an imaginary creature that looks like a giant lizard who breathes fire

* Stories of the middle ages tell of brave knights and soldiers who fought dragons to protect their kingdoms.

credit – public recognition, notice, or praise for someone who has done something or helped to do something

* “I can’t take all the credit for my work,” said the actor. “I have to thank my parents for supporting me and telling me to follow my dreams.”

to frolic – to play and move around with energy and a sense of fun

* The children frolicked in the snow, not caring about the cold.

innocence – lacking experience about the world and not knowing about the bad things in life

* Children lose their innocence too early living in homes with alcohol abuse.

code – a system of words or letters representing other words or letters, used to keep messages secret

* The kids developed a code they used to write secret messages to each other.

sport – a contest or game in which people do a type of physical activity with a specific set of rules and compete against each other

* Which sport do you like to watch: basketball, volleyball, or baseball?

workout – a period of physical exercise to improve one’s fitness; a period of physical training

* Our coach requires a workout before school begins four days a week.

exercise – physical activity or set of movements done to become stronger and healthier; something that is done or practiced to develop a particular skill

* After sitting at a desk all day, Hassan likes exercise before having dinner.

to come across – to meet or find something or someone without planning; to meet or find something or someone by chance

* While reading the news, Kia came across a story about her former teacher.

to stumble upon – to find or learn about something unexpectedly, without looking for it

* While looking through work files, Marla stumbled upon evidence of fraud.

debauchery – bad or wrong behavior that involves physical pleasures, usually related to sex

* Don’t let your teenagers see that film! It’s about drugs use and debauchery.

What Insiders Know
Dungeons and Dragons

Dungeons and Dragons is a popular “role-playing game,” or a game in which each player pretends to be a particular character and uses words to describe the character’s actions and reactions as he or she interacts with other characters. The characters are participating in a “fantasy” (imaginary; not real) world in which the characters must solve “puzzles” (challenging problems or mysteries), participate in “battles” (fights in a war), and “gather” (collect) knowledge and “treasure” (valuable objects).

The game is really about the art of “storytelling” (telling stories that “engage” (interest) the players). It is normally played indoors around a table. One person “designated” (named) the Dungeon Master is responsible for making sure that the group follows the “extensive” (many and detailed) rules of the game, which are “detailed” (explained) in three books: Player’s Handbook, Dungeon Master’s Guide, and Monster Manual.

Players also have a “character sheet,” or a piece of paper with information about their character, and several “polyhedral” (many-sided) “dice” (small objects with numbers on each side, used for playing games of chance).

More than 20 million people have played Dungeons and Dragons. The game has won many awards for being the best roleplaying game, and it “dominates” (has more power and influence than any other game) the “genre” (type or category of something) of role-playing games. Now there are many related products, such as magazines, a TV show, movies, a “soundtrack” (music, usually made to accompany a film), books, and “video games” (games played on a computer).

Many people “consider” (believe; think) the game to be “dorky” (nerdy; only for geeks), but many well-known and admired people have played it, including actors Robin Williams and Vin Diesel, basketball player Tim Duncan, and comedian Stephen Colbert.