Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Nothin' Lasts Forever When You Travel Time.

On the regional jet from Chicago to Des Moines today, I encountered an in-flight rarity: a delightful baby. About nine months old, he had neat, wispy bronze hair, big blue eyes, chubby dimpled cheeks, and a ready smile made up of brand-new teeth all crowded into the front of his mouth. From the row ahead, he looked over his mother's shoulder and brightened at the sight of us, his new potential friends in 8D and E.

He was a welcome change from the whiny and unsatisfiable toddler who decided, as we taxied down the runway in D.C.,  that she did not "want to go up," repeating, "I wan drive Chicago." I sympathized with her at first, thinking, "Man, kid. I hope this flight proves your unreasonably premature fear of flying to be as absurd as it seems right now." 

But by the time we were on the ground in Chicago after a smooth flight and I had watched her calm father's every attempt to address various complaints be met with a constant, teary threat of tantrum, I felt nothing but gratitude for all my eggs that went unfertilized. The lady next to me tried to be nice and give her a comics section from the newspaper. "Can you say thank you?" the dad said.

The girl clutched the paper and stared back, vacant and unsmiling. You are one of those toddlers who takes things and, despite being urged incessantly to say please and thank you, will never say please or thank you, I judged silently. Maybe it was her parents' fault; maybe she was just crummy from birth; maybe she would become less crummy later on. I left those questions back at the door of the plane, where her stroller was being brought out from the luggage hold.

Our new baby friend, on the other hand: "How can you resist that smile?" said my seat mate, an older man who reached out and let the Superior Baby grasp his finger, to the endless amusement of both parties. "How can you resist that smile," he repeated to the baby. We couldn't: We were all on Superior Baby's side. He was so sweet that when he fussed, his seatmates looked for ways to distract him, and he allowed himself to be distracted. 

This is the beauty and the hell of domestic travel: Within the space of one short flight, any human—a baby, a 60-year-old, a fortysomething who is secretly 14 inside— has the capacity to embody his or her best (or worst) side. None of Superior Baby's poopy diapers and cranky days existed on flight 3347, just like all of Crummy Toddler's angelic sleeping moments and innocent kindnesses were invisible on the previous flight. Airports are one big morality play.

The man, who was slight with sun-speckled white skin and dark clothes on, gazed at Superior Baby's smiling face over the seat back and spoke in a low voice that I could hear, but was not necessarily addressed to me. "I could be looking at my son 28 years ago," he said, watching SB. "Same cheeks, same eyes...same nose, same dimple." He watched the baby for a little while longer, and over the plane engine I thought I heard a very small, bittersweet moan.

The baby sat back down on his mother's lap and the man nodded off. At the end of the short flight, SB popped back up to say hi. He looked at my seat companion first, then looked at me for an explanation. I made the "asleep" motion with my hands pressed to my cheek. He gamely accepted me as the alternative playmate for a bit, but lit up when the man woke from his nap. 

"He was waiting for you to wake up," I said. 

"What?" the man said, and leaned forward. 

"He was waiting for you to wake up," I repeated, and the boy stretched out his hand for their game.


Here are a few shots from Main St. in Ames, Iowa. Ames is the site of Iowa State, so I had expected a college-town feel, but based on my short visit I have to assume most of the student activity is centered on the campus itself. Main St. felt like the street that time (and hipsters bearing cocktails in Mason jars and other artisanal beverages) forgot.

Not a shop, but a center, not far from the Quilting Connection.

Best store name. Runner-up: It's All About Me.

No pants at the pantorium. The sign on the window said it was a radio station and inside there were some older guys chatting.

The best part about Ames so far is this radio station, on which I heard the items below.

Musics: "The Voyager" and "Beggining to End" (the latter of which, in case you're wondering, is a riff on this)

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Makeup Fail.

The other day Sir UncMo said to me the seven words that no woman wants to hear.

"What did you put on your face?"

He asked this question in the exceedingly neutral, "just curious," practiced tone of a man who is accustomed to treading lightly in certain territory.

I knew immediately that mistakes had been made.

"Oh, no." I said. "I put on a sample cream that was too light and I tried to fix it." The tinted cream from my monthly "beauty" box claimed to make pores disappear. I think it actually did make my skin look smoother. It's just that in the process, it happened to make me look like a cross between a mime and a geisha.

Instead of taking it off, which would have been the correct choice, I layered on a darker all-over cream and then touched up with bronzer and blush.

"Does it look weird?" I asked, knowing the answer.

"It looks kind of purple," he said, as I winced. "With some spots of brown and pink..."

I started cracking up at this point. "Should I continue?" he said, smiling.

"No!" I shouted, and ran to the bathroom sink to wash everything off, laughing.

The scary thing is, I had looked at myself in the mirror just five minutes ago and thought I had gotten away with it. It was not the first time my bathroom lighting and eyesight had failed me. I shudder to contemplate how many times I've gone to the office thinking I looked fine.

One of the nice things about being with someone for a little while: A few years ago, he wouldn't have said anything, and I would have spent the day looking weird. And a few years ago, if he had dared to venture a comment, it probably wouldn't have ended in laughter.

But back to the topic of emotional minefields, here are my general rules on matters regarding physical appearance. Complete honesty is not always the best policy.

- If you happen to notice that your person looks nice, you should say so. Early and often.

- If you have not noticed, or do not care one way or the other, about your person's appearance or what they are wearing that day and they* ask you about it, you should tell them they look great. Beautiful, even. Because they do.

- If you feel that some kind of look they are rocking lately is, let's say, not your favorite, but they do not ask you about it, you keep your mouth shut. That, for any sensitive person, is plenty of input.

- If they ask you about the look they are rocking lately and you don't really care for it but acknowledge that it is a valid choice that you can live with, you should tell them they look great. Or at least, fine.

- If they ask you about a look that you genuinely despise, you are allowed to say, "It's not my favorite" or "If you like it..." Any other ideas for how to say this?

- If there is an underwear or see-through situation, or food in the teeth, or bats in the cave, or you genuinely believe that they look cray (see above), you are allowed to say something, but you must pretend as if it just occurred to you and it's no big deal, even if you've been staring at the same issue multiple times now and have finally accepted that it is time to intervene.

I realize that 90 percent of these scenarios are going to apply to women. But they can happen with men too. I am going to leave it there.

Sometimes I'll be out with my mom and we will see an older lady who colored outside the lines on her face, or made some other terrible surface error. "If you ever see me do that..." we say to each other. "Shoot me." Or, better yet, tell me. We all need backup out here, and bad lighting happens.

Music: "Just Fine"

*I know that technically "they" should be "he or she" here. Screw it.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Letting It All Go.

It's 11:30 p.m. on a Monday in the Metro, and the digital screen that says when the next train is coming is frozen forever, and so I find myself thankful yet again for the smartphone. I still do not take for granted the countless waits that would have been so much more painful without the smartphone. You damned kids have no idea what waiting was like before smartphones.

As I'm looking at the various fun things on my phone, a person to my right comes up and stands not close, but just a little too close for such an uncrowded platform, invading my periphery. My eyeballs lock even more ferociously onto the iPhone. "Hi," this person says, but then he wanders away, and I am glad.

Not 30 minutes before, I'd been talking with my high school friends about getting older, your looks changing. "At what point do you just let it go?" my friend asks. I say, never. My mom has not let it go. She has not had plastic surgery, and she has not let it go. She is fit and does the same things that she has always done to put her public self on. She is nearly 67 and beautiful. But my friend is undeterred from the grim scenario she is posing. "What if you are losing your hair for genetic reasons?" she asks. Is that the point where you let it go? Just give up the caring?

"That's when you say, it's time to go wig shopping," I say. My friend is more in favor of going completely bald. Different strokes. I do not share that my interest in shoes lately skews toward the comfortable.

I said that while sometimes it feels, well, not great to get noticed by men less than I used to be, it is also kind of freeing. That doesn't mean I want to let myself go, but a) I am very happy with Sir UncMo and I do not want anyone but him checking me out and b) even without Sir UncMo, that's just not a kind of attention that I need or want to have any longer from strangers.

No sooner do I say this than I am at the Metro and the space-invading person, who I'm guessing is somewhere between 19 and 22 years of age, is back at my side. "Hi! Were you watching the USA game?" He is drunk and wearing some kind of USA paraphernalia pertaining to the World Cup game that took place earlier.

"No," I say. I was not watching the game. Nothing about me—not my firm dedication to my phone or my refusal to remotely turn in his direction—says hey, let's chat.

He says, "Where are you from?"

I give him a look that says, "Really? Are we going to do this right now? Are you so inebriated that you fail to discern the fact that I could be your mother?"

But USA Boy chooses not to understand my look. "What! I don't know where you're from," he says, defending  himself in the imaginary scenario where I actually care how much he knows about me. "Are you from Montgomery County?"

Yes I am from Montgomery County, but at this point I can't just dispense with this efficiently. I have to draw it out and make it awkward, because that's what I do, and that's why this blog exists.

"No," I say.  I'm not so much answering his question as speaking my truth. "Oh," he says. "Then where are you from?"

I shrug. "Around here."

"What high school did you go to?" Remember, friends, when this question had relevance?

I sigh. "Churchill." His eyes widen. "Oh! Churchill is in Montgomery County!"

"I know, but I don't feel like chatting right now, I'm sorry," I say. Part of me feels like I'm being this really bitchy person when in fact I am just standing my ground against a drunk fool.

USA Boy makes an "aw shucks" motion with his head, pauses a moment in case I want to change my mind, and then moves away. But he doesn't stray far. He manages to pass behind me at least twice and make a comment about how Churchill sucks. I guess he thought that would be the comment that really puts him over the edge, in my estimation. "Whoops USA Boy, I thought I didn't want to have anything to do with you until you started saying that my high school sucked. Now I'm realizing I want you right this very minute."

He gets on a most-welcome train in the opposite direction, muttering about my high school. I am texting my Churchill friend and telling her the irony of our conversation preceding this very rare yet unwanted bit of attention.

"I think I would prefer to go unnoticed," I texted her.

She replied, "Just let it all go downhill from here and it won't be a problem anymore."

Music: "Voices"

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Little Geniuses.

Once a year, a group of anointed explorers converges on my workplace for one week. They are paleontologists, nanoscientists, conservationists, photographers, and adventurers, and they talk to us about what they have been working on.

One of them is a 17-year-old named Jack Andraka who has come up with a paper sensor designed to detect pancreatic and other cancers. The talk he gave this week was not unlike his TED talk: He describes his wild teenage optimism in seeking a new method of detection for this very deadly cancer that had taken away a family friend who had been like an uncle to him; his rejection by 199 of the 200 academics he emailed about his idea; and his eventual success, at age 15, in creating a prototype thanks to the one scientist who agreed to help him.

Andraka’s story, and the way he tells it, is designed to inspire: If an outsider, a kid who “didn’t even know what a pancreas was,” can come up with a potentially groundbreaking, life-saving innovation, why can’t you? Why can’t we open up the scientific journals that are so expensive to access, and make all of this knowledge available so that others can have the same chance at contributing?

The talk did inspire me. But it also pulled at me so hard that I had to hold back tears, and it wasn’t because of the death, the deaths, that enabled him to go on this great, seemingly impossible quest. It was because of the loneliness. His talk in the auditorium this week was a little more raw than the TED one. He talked about how he spent an entire summer holed up alone in his room, causing his mother to worry that he was isolating himself too much, researching proteins that might be early detection markers for pancreatic cancer. He talked about how his biology teacher didn’t like him because he tried to bring scientific papers and stuff that was outside the curriculum into her class. On the stage, he no longer had the nice shiny TED look; his hair was untrimmed, his face less roundly youthful. He is deeply, deeply nerdy—I mean, the kid was sneaking nanotubes into biology class—and also openly gay.

Now, I do not know this person at all. Maybe he had a great social experience in high school. But my sense, watching him talk, was that it had to be pretty devastatingly lonely to be that brilliant, that sweetly different, that full of grief, and that willing to abandon yourself and most of your free time to something so esoteric. When a teenager (or anyone, for that matter) is touched by a tragedy or some other highly unpleasant state of being human, turns inward, and becomes obsessive, why does it seem like that combination of states must turn into something destructive? That’s what we tend hear about, anyway. I loved that he turned it into something beautiful. I wished I’d had the imagination and the fortitude to do the same at so many points in my life. That’s what made the tears come.

It also reminded me of an episode that happened in my junior year of high school in Western Civilization class. This class was supposed to be an “honors” class, but it slowly became apparent that we were learning nothing at all outside of the reading and research we were required to do on our own. The classes were taken up mostly by two things, in my memory: watching videos about cathedrals, and listening to our teacher talk unrestrained about stuff that had nothing to do with history. Mr. C was a relatively tall, big man with a belly, a mustache somewhere between horseshoe and walrus, and a very sharp, incisive way of speaking. His way of holding forth made you feel—in the beginning—that it might be important to listen, because something was going to be revealed. He would punctuate his lectures, which often had nothing at all to do with history, with questions to the group. “Who here has ever had a dream?” he would ask, and we raised our hands, and then waited for the point.

Later, we learned not to bother raising our hands or waiting for the point.

I do not remember much of anything that Mr. C said in class except for this: “How old are all of you? 15, 16? Right now, you are at your peak. It will never be better than this.” I remember thinking, “Well that is extremely disappointing news. Also, what does this have to do with western civ?”

Toward the end of the semester, a kid named Jordan had taken to sitting in the back of the class on the floor, backpack in front of him, and sleeping either slumped over or with his head lolled back against the wall. This was typical teen behavior made slightly untypical by the fact that Jordan was an academic prodigy. He was the kid who got a perfect score on his SATs before we were even supposed to take the SATs. He was brilliant in English, he was brilliant in math. He was brilliant in everything. No matter how smart you were, and I was “honors” smart too, tracked into the same classes, Jordan was a type of smart that 99 percent of other 16-year-olds would never achieve, much less understand, and I think most of us knew that even then.

So when a kid like Jordan sat at the back of class sleeping, it was amusingly refreshing, because kids like us who got placed in those classes tended not to be the ones sleeping at the back of class. But it was also a little unnerving, because he was signaling a truth that was sort of scandalous for this particular track at this particular school at this particular time: this class and this teacher were an absolute fucking joke.

Mr. C tolerated this open act of defiance from Jordan for I don’t know how long before he finally got sick of it. One day, he began yelling. Jordan ignored it at first, but then he was roused to perform a sleepy, casual and yet brutal takedown of Mr. C as a teacher. It was something along the lines of I don’t need to take this class, you have nothing to teach me, I am learning nothing here that I can’t learn from a book. Et cetera. Mr. C lost it. I think spittle formed as he ordered Jordan out of the classroom. The kid picked up his backpack and walked out. I had never seen Jordan act remotely disrespectful, and had never seen a teacher so boldly—no, deservedly—challenged, and it was kind of thrilling but also a little sad. All of us, including Mr. C, were wasting our time in that room, and there was really nothing to be done about it.*

Predictably, Jordan went on to Harvard and then became both a math professor and fiction author. It just so happens that I had this high school memory as he is promoting his new bestselling book. He has come to the same conclusion, apparently, that Jack Andraka already has about genius: It may be that only a handful of people will ever reach the upper echelons of science or math or any other given pursuit, but that doesn’t mean that we should close off encouragement or information sources to people just because they don’t have the same amount of specialness early on.

Writing in the Wall Street Journal, he said, “[T]he older I get, the more I see how many brilliant people in the world weren't Doogie Howser-like prodigies; didn't shine in Math Olympiad; didn't go to the inner circle of elite colleges. I'm embarrassed that I didn't understand at 13 that it would be this way. But when they keep telling you you're the best, you start to believe you're the best. One of the most painful aspects of teaching mathematics is seeing my students damaged by the cult of the genius.”

We need these messages, especially in this country, given our slipping rank in science and math. But when you no longer possess even the specialness conferred by pure youth, and you are still (still!) trying to live up to your potential, whatever that may be, listening to someone like Jack Andraka can feel a little more bittersweet than inspiring. The rest of us, the little geniuses, blessed with brains and maybe education if we're lucky, have so little time, and maybe less clarity, in figuring out what to Do. Our contributions might not make an impact on the level of a life-saving innovation, but it's still up to us to take them seriously, and when it comes to the smart whippersnapper coming up behind you, to get the hell out of the way.

*Okay so now there is a discussion on Facebook among people who had this teacher and it's possible I'm being a bit harsh on Mr. C. Not everyone felt that his class was a "waste of time," I can only speak for myself. And even then, it's not like I was just burning with frustration at not learning enough about western civ. Anyway, the point of recalling the incident in his class, which I sort of fail to make clear in this post, was that it came to mind as I was thinking, what is it like when you're so young and yet on a different level than most everybody else, and when even your teacher just doesn't get you?

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Nihongo 102.

Once a week, I leave my office building near Dupont Circle and walk about 10 minutes to another office building and descend to the basement level, entering a small classroom with my books in tow and my pride swallowed.

Konbanwa....good evening.

Walking into Japanese 102 last month, I was feeling good. Sure, my newly acquired hiragana and katakana mastery had been fading a little, and I had probably forgotten a few vocab words over the month-long break, but I had a solid foundation and was ready to learn more.

In 101, I was one of the more together students, if I don't say so myself. Always had my homework done, usually knew the answer when called on. Like in high school.

The teacher had been new, a little hesitant, and the class was quiet and awkward, but overall the first 10-week session went well. Along with the basic writing system, I learned how to say numbers, tell the time, ask how much something cost, and ask where something was. I still could barely say anything that was not a phrase listed in the first few lessons of my textbook Genki (that means healthy, energetic), but it was progress.

Part of me felt I was not quite congratulated enough by the teacher for being such a good student. I mean, I was just about the only one who showed up on time, every time, homework in tow, and generally could answer her questions correctly. Yet week to week, sensei barely seemed to remember who I was, and she never bothered to grade the worksheets that I proudly turned in.

That's what can happen to someone honors-tracked and overindulged as an American public high school student in life: Your sense of achievement quickly becomes inflated.

Now I was a sophomore in my faux-school, and it was time to meet a new teacher and class.

As I said, I was feeling good. Immediately it was clear that this sensei was more experienced than my previous teacher, and there were only two other people in the room, both younger women, alert and there on time. Wow great!

My last class had been a ragtag bunch of between five and seven people, with only three or four of us seeming to be awake and engaged at any given time. "This class starts at 5:20, no?" the teacher had said many times, as we waited for others who would show up late or not at all.

When I arrived for 102, the teacher was already talking to a grad-student-looking girl at the front about which was harder to learn, Korean or Japanese?

"Definitely Korean," said the woman I have come to call Smarty Pants.

"Really!" said the Japanese teacher, fascinated. Smarty Pants nodded and went on about how complicated Korean is compared to Japanese.

Was I in the right class?

The other woman who came in looked to be a professional in her 30s, very pleasant and a bit tentative, like me. The teacher asked us to introduce ourselves.

Smarty Pants began in facile Japanese. Hajimemashite. Watashi no namae wa A. desu."  She talked about how she likes learning languages and is also studying Korean. A pro.

The other one says she has studied Chinese, so she knows some kanji (the word-pictures also used in Japanese), hopes to travel to Japan one day and is just there because she's interested to learn.

I basically say the same thing: want to visit Japan someday, interested to learn, want to challenge myself. "What other languages have you studied?" the teacher asks me. "I studied Spanish in high school through college," I said. "From that I have also been able to pick up a little French."

Smarty Pants is nodding like this is all so pedestrian. The teacher says to me, "I always felt that I should learn Spanish, it's like a second language in the U.S."

Before I can respond, Smarty Pants says, "Spanish is very similar to English. That's why it's so easy to learn."

"Ooohhh," the teacher says, in a tone of, hm, I'm not so sure. I smile tightly. Yes, I spent high school and college on a language that is just like English and easy to learn.

If I had been quicker, I would have said, "That's funny, because chingate and fuck you sound like totally different languages to me!

The class gets started and I immediately feel behind. This teacher is talking much faster, and because there are only three of us, I have less time to process what's happening as she calls on us successively to answer questions in the textbook.

We are learning the ga arimasu sentence structure. You can use it to say something "is there" in a place, or you can use it to say you have something. "Kuruma ga arimasu" could mean, depending on the context, either "I have a car" or "There is a car." If it's a living thing, you say imasu instead.

We were looking at a picture in our textbook, picking out nouns. Nekko. Cat.

Some deep part of my brain, the part that sat frustrated and scared in Algebra and Calculus and Chemistry and Oceanography (yes, mofos, oceanography. have you seen that charting??), registered the same panic that I had felt whenever out of my depth in high school.

Gee, in retrospect, I guess I wasn't the uniformly stellar student that I remembered myself to be, because this tongue-tied status felt all too familiar. (I will just say that it is continually astounding and humbling to work for a science-focused organization. Despite my teenage hatred of science, I'm reminded every day that it's a science nerd's world, and we just live in it.)

Nekko ga imasu ka?

I realize the teacher is looking at me. What she said is a blur. I'm still trying to catch up from the exchange that just took place between her and Smarty Pants, who is not flustered once by anything.


I look down at my textbook. There is a cat on the page. "Hai. Nekko ga imasu."

Now the teacher is saying something even more complicated to me, and she has an amused look on her face. "Nekko something namae something something." All I heard was "name" and "cat" and it felt like everyone was silently laughing at me. For all I knew, I'd said I was a cat and she was asking me for my cat-name.

When I first saw all the red circles on my homework I asked about the errors I'd made and the teacher explained that a red circle is the Japanese way of saying you got it right. Subsequent homework has not been so full of red circles.

"I'm sorry, I don't understand," I admitted. This was pretty brutal. I didn't expect to be on the spot like this on day 1 of Japanese 102.

"Your cat's name," the teacher said.

I suddenly processed what she was saying. Smarty Pants was looking at me with a dour expression. I paused. Should I just paper this over and lie? I used to live with a cat. His name was Dusty. Should I use him now? Telling the lie in Japanese seemed even more daunting than telling the truth. "Nekko ga imasen," I said. "I don't have a cat."

It went on like this for much of the class: try to keep up, fail, and repeat. The part that sticks in my mind is the part where we were asked what is in our house. Literally: What is in your house? The teacher turned to me.

"Nani ga arimasu ka?" Let me think on that for a minute.

The silence in the room was deafening. Anything in your house. Anything at all. Just one thing in your house. Can you think of things in your house? Anything? WHY COULD I NOT THINK OF ONE ITEM at home that I could say in Japanese? I felt suspended in time.

Smarty Pants grew weary. "I assume you have a bed," she said, chin tucked down and eyes full of judgment.

"Yes I do, and if I knew how to say it, I would," I said.

"Bay-do," she deadpanned, except she was actually serious. The teacher nodded and I laughed. How simple.

"Beddo ga arimasu," I said.

I felt an overwhelming urge to retire to my beddo.

In the next class, I learned that Smarty Pants had actually majored in Japanese and was taking this class for review. Every time she makes a mistake in class, she laughs and says, "I keep thinking of the Korean!" When I can't keep up, it's tempting to say, "Whoops, I keep thinking of stabbing Smarty Pants in her superior round eyes!" but that would not be productive. So I continue to struggle.

There was a brief respite where one of the students from my 101 class showed up in the second session. A very sweet 17-year-old kid who was inspired to learn Japanese because he loves anime, he was perpetually behind and had failed to learn hiragana, so he temporarily took on the role of suckiest person in class. Much as I sympathized, even I was not sorry to see him go after the teacher basically kicked him out of the section in front of everyone.

"You are very smart, but you have a problem. You do not know hiragana," the teacher said to him kindly but firmly while the other three of us looked down uncomfortably at our desks. "So I am giving you a choice. You learn all of the hiragana by next class, or you move to 101."  She was still talking at him when I left class that day.

Anime boy did not return.

At first I was relieved: It's so nice not to have to listen to someone struggle through the material, is it not, Smarty Pants? Now it's me and Professional Peer and you. She and I will muddle through together, and you will have to be patient. I sure wouldn't want to be you.

But it soon becomes apparent that when it comes to repeating back dialogue, I fall far behind. "Leepeat after me," the teacher says.* She reads a longish sentence from the textbook. Three voices chime in for the first few words. Then it's down to two.

"Let's try it again," the teacher says. Again, the other two manage to repeat back what she is saying, and I have given up. I see the words on the page, and I hear what she is saying, but it is going to take me about three times as long to eke out the seemingly neverending string. My lips are pressed together in a nonsmile that says, "This is not happening." The teacher laughs a little bit and talks about how she wants us to learn to speak. I can no longer blame Smarty Pants for sandbagging.

It is clear now who has fallen behind. It is clear who has work to do. Ganbatte. And, mierda.

Music: "Ryokudou"**

* This is just how it is. Neither of my teachers is very strong at pronouncing an 'r' or an 'l,' and the first one joked about it. And the beauty is, few students can properly pronounce the Japanese 'r,' which is a combination of 'l' and 'd' uttered with the tongue pressed back against the roof of the mouth. It was comedy gold to me to see a room full of English speakers trying, and failing, to repeat the Japanese syllable  ろ ("ro"). "Ldo." "Ro." "Okay, try again: Ldo." "Ro."

** I don't understand jack squat of barely any of this song. I just happened to love Ikuko Harada way before I ever aspired to learn Japanese.

Monday, April 28, 2014


It's 9:30 a.m. on Monday and I'm making my usual trip from my office, down the elevator, across the lobby, down the stairs and across my employer's courtyard, and over to the cafeteria in the other building for some desperately needed coffee. The coffee is always desperately needed. 

On my way out I'm behind a guy, maybe mid-50ish, wearing a jean jacket, jeans, and a trucker hat. My shoes are quiet and he doesn't hear that I'm behind him. He opens the double door to the courtyard and half-holds it, not looking to see whether anyone is behind him. I say "thank you," and I mean it, because he really did hold the door, sort of, in the sense that he didn't let it slam on me. He casts a look behind him and then says "Oh! Sorry. Have to hurry ... [mumbling] ... these tourists are too slow..." I just laugh politely, not sure what he's talking about, and we both cross the courtyard.

He turns to me and snarls, "This town moves at full throttle, let me tell you." Grumpy. Not sure what everyone's in such a hurry about.

"I used to live in New York, and that's much worse," I said sympathetically.

"Oh? Well I'm from New Mexico. And there, mañana does not mean tomorrow." We reach the next set of doors and he opens them for me. "It's means I'll get to it when I can get to it."

I said, "I like that philsophy."

He scowled, "Not when it's bureaucrats," and muttered something else.

I went off to get my coffee and Mr. NM went off to find more things to hate about D.C.

Sunday, February 02, 2014

Learning the Language.

Every week, The New Yorker arrives in the mail and I sigh. Another one. For me, that publication is like the gym for my brain. I really don't feel like wading in, but know that I have to. Journalistically, it is one of the few boot camps amid a sea of recumbent bikes and sofas.

I scan the table of contents like a kid hoping for a snow day announcement: Maybe this week's issue will be full of pieces I consider skippable, which usually means they are written by Adam Gopnik (sorry, Adam Gopnik) or are in-the-weeds pieces about politics, here or abroad. But usually I spot some compelling author or a topic and feel a combination of resolve and fatigue: Crap, I will have to read this. There will be no escaping the mental workout today, and my other reading, which is also worthy but usually has nothing to do with current events, will have to wait. But it will be worth it.

Any responsible New Yorker fan knows that The 16,000-word Obama Piece by David Remnick is not skippable. Still, I don't know—Obama. Are you with me? How much do I really need to read an in-the-weeds politics piece about Obama? We've got two years left of this and I've got to pace myself. Hell, even Obama knows that we are over it:
"[B]y definition, the President of the United States is overexposed, and it is natural, after six, seven years of me being on the national stage, that people start wanting to see . . .” 
“Other flavors?” 
“Yes,” he said. “ ‘Is there somebody else out there who can give me that spark of inspiration or excitement?’ I don’t spend too much time worrying about that. I think the things that are exciting people are the same things that excite me and excited me back then. I might have given fresh voice to them, but the values are essentially the same."
But, see, this is why you end up reading the entire Obama Piece by David Remnick. Not just for the fun details about presidential life (never knew Obama's limo is dubbed the Beast and has his blood stashed in the trunk in case of emergency) or insights from the man (it may be disappointing to some, but it's refreshing to me that Obama is willing to see, and argue, both sides of an issue) but for the exercise of following one formidable intellect as it tries to capture another, along the way reminding you of what an elegant, incisive sentence looks like.

Earlier in the day I read this from Ann Patchett, in an essay about writing: "Why is it that we understand that playing the cello will require work but we relegate writing to the magic of inspiration? ...If a person of any age picked up the cello for the first time and said, "I'll be playing in Carnegie Hall next month!" you would pity her delusion, but beginning fiction writers all across the country polish up their best efforts and send them off to The New Yorker."

Patchett argues that in order to be a writer, one needs to practice it like any other craft, and the piece from Remnick, who has been working at it diligently for more than 30 years and has been the magazine's editor for 15 years, is just another proof of that simple truth.

Last month, I began taking Japanese lessons. More than having an abiding interest in that country and culture, I wanted to challenge my own linguistic boundaries. I'd studied Spanish in high school and college, but wanted to go beyond that: learn new letters, new words, new sentence constructions. 

I study for the pleasure of getting better, putting brick on top of brick. Now I know the hiragana. Now I can count to 100. Now I know how to say what my name is. And so on. It is thrilling, for me, when I can see something written in Japanese (say, こんばんは), slowly but surely convert it into sounds (ko-n-ba-n-wa), and understand what it means (good evening). 

I study knowing that there is a very small chance I will ever be able to converse with someone in Japanese. The point is to become better, to push myself.

That is a worthy pursuit, but I also know that it is partly an excuse to step out on my native tongue. Over the past several years, I have fallen out of love with English. I am tired. I don't know what to say. What I have said has been inadequate, in some way, or has already been said. My love of the language, whether it's the epistolary style of Samuel Richardson or AP style, does not seem to have much market value these days.

I have not practiced enough, and thus I have failed. On one level or another, I made the mistake of waiting for the mythical "magic of inspiration." Or, as Steven Pressfield puts it in The War of Art, "the amateur composer will never write his symphony because he is overly invested in its success and overterrified of its failure. The amateur takes it so seriously it paralyzes him." (As you might gather, I'm seeking some inspiration lately on how the hell to rebuild my relationship with writing.)

There's nothing wrong with learning Japanese. But I still must continue to learn English, with the same beginner's attitude: the point is to become better. I still am trying to give fresh voice, as Obama puts it, to the happenings that excite or move me. I still am learning—have not worked hard enough—to articulate the inner world that both sustains and sometimes hobbles me. Recently I was trying to express something to Sir UncMo and words failed me. Tears took their place. Finally I was able to say it. "Why didn't you say that before?" he asked, exasperated.

I didn't know how. I am still learning the language.

Music: "More Than This"