Words learned recently (or, I’m finally looking things up, Mom)

Odd plants

One of my mental aspirations for 2015 is to improve my vocabulary, especially my spoken vocabulary. The nonsense of English grammar is easy to denigrate, but the joy of being a native English speaker is that we have this immensely rich and expansive vocabulary at our disposal! And we use just the barest fraction of it. At least, I know that’s my tendency.

Reading Norman Rush’s sesquipedalian novel Mating was the primary inspiration for undertaking this challenge. I read quite a bit, but I tend to gloss over words that are visually familiar to me, (falsely) assuming that I know what they mean. For example, I’ve seen the word truculent many times, but I always thought it meant sweet or even unctuous. On the contrary! I finally looked it up, only to discover that I’ve been very wrong; a truculent person is someone who is openly hostile or belligerent. So. There you go. I’m trying to follow my mother’s oft-repeated charge to us when we were question-filled children: Go look it up. That’s what I’m going to be doing, Mom. Looking it up.

Side Observation 1: App + Audio. I’ve found the Merriam-Webster app very helpful in this process, and I keep it near me now when I read. One of the oddities of English is our unregulated, unpredictable pronunciation. (In Japanese, for instance, there is never any confusion about pronunciation. If you can get down to the basic kana level of spelling, you always know how to pronounce it. No such ease in English. God have mercy on nonnative English speakers; I have tremendous respect for anyone who learns English as a second language.) In the past, I would learn a definition of a new word, but I would often be shy about using it, for fear of committing solecism* (*one of the new words I’ve learned). The simplicity of the audio feature of the dictionary is breathtakingly comforting to me.

Side Observation 2: Latin + French. First, I wish I had stuck with Latin. I learned a smattering of it in middle school, but what a useful thing to know. Again, sorry that I doubted you, Mom. Second, my enthusiasm to pick up French as my third language has been greatly augmented. An estimated one-third of English words are some variant (or bastardization, whichever you prefer) of Old French, and I’m learning that there’s this dazzling French history behind so many of the common words we use.

That said, here are a bunch of words I’ve learned lately (many from Mating) that I’d like to start using.

  • abeyance
  • abreaction
  • agon
  • albumen (*appropriate word to throw about in our domestic parlance, now that we have chickens)
  • bibelot
  • calumny
  • claustral
  • echt
  • factotum
  • febrile (*particular favorite)
  • fustian
  • inchoate (*always thought it meant “sad;” it doesn’t)
  • inter alia
  • legerdermain
  • metanoia
  • midden
  • noumenon
  • oleaginous
  • onanistic
  • pleonasm
  • postprandial
  • sacerdotal

Any words you’ve learned lately? Care to share?

Lately

I think about Gran often. Her great smile greets me every morning from the front of the fridge; it’s the card my Aunt Shel made for her to send out over the holidays. (Her full biography, which I helped compose with Aunt Shelly, is available on the funeral home website, along with this wonderful photo gallery of her life.) I was at the dentist yesterday and she came to mind, notably how vigilant she was about caring for her teeth.

The dental hygienist and I also spent the majority of my appointment talking about death. I’m not sure how we got there, but it struck me that mortality is such an interesting topic to discuss with a near stranger. It started with her telling me that Robin Williams’s children were being jerks about what they wanted from his estate. And then she said that her own children, when her second husband died, were similarly grabby. (“My husband offered his eldest son that beautiful Steinway piano for many years, and his son always rejected it. But then as soon as my husband died, guess what they were all fighting over? Yep. That old piano.”) She concluded by saying that it was wise to go ahead and give your kids the stuff they wanted of yours, instead of letting them duke it out after your death. And that life is short. And we never know when we’re about to go.

What could I leave you? The dogs. You could take them; Pyrrha would not want to live alone with Guion after my passing. He may want to keep Eden, though, because she loves him. You can have my carefully sorted wardrobe and my books. I do not have many possessions that anyone would want to tussle over. Give it all away. I do not take much stock in harboring or hoarding sentimental objects.

I am reading a lot again. Particularly, I’d like to fill some gaps in my knowledge of the Western canon. But I’m never really in the mood to revisit Chaucer or Milton. I also have no desire to slog through Don Quixote. And I’d rather watch a hundred nights of NFL than read Dickens again. (I’ve read enough Dickens! Five novels should be enough! Don’t tell me I have to read Bleak House too!) Does this make me a bad reader? Possibly. But I also feel unapologetic about my taste. I think that’s the mark of pretension. You stop caring about “ought” when it comes to art and culture. And this makes you a less lovable person, but I think it’s somewhat inevitable, when you start to develop a specialty in any subject. People love you less. But you don’t care, because you’re right. And that brings you (me, I’m really talking about me) comfort.

Another recent obsession: learning French and refreshing my knowledge of Japanese. I hope to sign up for an actual beginner’s French class next semester, but in the meantime, I’m teaching myself through the Duolingo app, which is really quite wonderful/addictive.

Learning French has been SO refreshing! After spending about 10 years intermittently studying Japanese, I honestly had no idea that foreign languages can be so easy. I had never tried a romance language before. (As much as I love Japanese, what a grave mistake! If I had invested as much time in French as I have in Japanese, I’d be fluent. No doubt. I could read Proust in the original. Surely. Instead, I know the slimmest margin of Japanese, my abilities having diminished steadily each successive year after college graduation.) But French! What a lark! What a breeze! I can actually read the words, right off the bat, without having to learn three different alphabets! What a marvelous language.

Mastering French pronunciation is going to be grim, however. My tongue is entirely molded by the neat, clipped Japanese sounds that I picked up when I was 11. Speaking French feels impossible. Those sexy French consonants and lusty vowels, they seem utterly beyond powers of my mouth. Que pouvez-vous faire?

No faith in your own language

Irrationally proud of myself for coaxing this #orchid to re-bloom.
Orchid No. 2 is about to bloom again!

Sunset
Louise Glück

My great happiness
is the sound your voice makes
calling to me even in despair; my sorrow
that I cannot answer you
in speech you accept as mine.

You have no faith in your own language,
So you invest
authority in signs
you cannot read with any accuracy.

And yet your voice reaches me always.
And I answer constantly,
my anger passing
as winter passes. My tenderness
should be apparent to you
in the breeze of the summer evening
and in the words that become
your own response.

I think this poem is about God, but sometimes I think it is about marriage too.

We’ve been married for three-and-a-half years now. Sometimes we don’t listen to each other. Sometimes we forget to pray. Sometimes we don’t take the time to stop and assess how the other one is genuinely doing. Three-and-a-half years is comparative blip of time, a twitch of an eyelid. Sometimes it feels like ages; sometimes it feels like we’ve only been married for a few days.

We like to ask each other questions at dinner. What kind of restaurant would you be the proprietor of? If you had to spend an entire week with a relative (excepting immediate family), who would it be? What high school friend do you wish you were still in touch with? If you could have any artist write a review of your masterpiece, who would it be and what would they say?

And we listen to each other’s answers, our eyes open, surprised by this person sitting in front of us.

The fermentation master is back in the game. #coldmuch #kombuchaforeveryone
Starting kombucha again.

Lately, I’ve been waking up in the middle of dreams. It is a disorienting experience, and one of the consequences is that the half-finished dream sticks with me throughout the day. Today, for instance, I can’t stop thinking about how Kelsey is going to get all of that molten silver out of her hair, and why it is that Rebecca, my BFF from elementary and middle school, decided to marry a morbidly obese man simply because he wrote her a letter on a piece of yellow notebook paper. When conscious, I had to remind myself, “Kelsey’s hair is OK. Rebecca is already married.” But part of me still thinks that reality is awry.

My fleeting obsessions* in 2013:

  • Ballet
  • Houseplants
  • Fashion
  • Interior design
  • Real estate

(*I define “obsessions” as topics that are suddenly deeply fascinating to me. I then go and read armfuls of books on the subject at the public library and start consuming blogs and websites on said topic, until it eventually ceases to hold my interest. The only two obsessions that have never failed to captivate me are reading and animals, specifically dogs. For the rest of my life, I will be obsessed with books and dogs.)

I wish my obsessions would trend toward more useful things, like personal finance, basic math, the tax code, or local politics. But, alas. I am only interested in the inconsequential.

I’d like to see myself get back into foreign languages, personally. I only practice a little Japanese during my weekly meeting at work, in which I take notes in a mix of hiragana and bad kanji. (I’ve forgotten so much. Gomenasai, sensei.) I’d like to refresh Japanese and take Level I French. I think I’m ruined for other languages, though. I once tried to speak a line of French in front of a French person, and she said, “Hm. Weirdly, your French has an… Asian accent.”

As an extension of one of my 2013 obsessions, I think I’d also like to get obsessed with bonsai.

What do you think I should be obsessed with in 2014?

For Courtney, because she asked.

Monday Snax

Quiet Sunday
Sunday at home, with all the new books on the shelves.

SUCH a peaceful and pleasant weekend! On Saturday, I went to the annual library book sale at Gordon Avenue and was soon joined by Celeste, Sarah, and Laura. I’ve been to a lot of book sales in my day, but let me tell you: This one takes the cake. High-quality, just about brand new books in every imaginable genre for a few dollars? This is my version of heaven. I walked away with 32 beautiful new books and paid a mere $30 for all of them. Sunday morning at the SPCA and then an afternoon lazing around the house due to a pulled hamstring from overly rambunctious pups. We watched The Fellowship of the Ring and we are not going to apologize for it. (I forgot how LONG that movie is…)

Snax:

My Parents Were Home Schooling Anarchists. A piece in the New York Times by Margaret Heidenry about what it was like to grow up as a homeschooler before it was legal. It’s like The Glass Castle from a homeschooling-centric perspective. Extremely fascinating! It’s so interesting how much the homeschooling movement has changed. When my parents decided to homeschool in 1988, it still wasn’t legal in many states, but in 1993, it was legal in all 50. Since then, it’s a rising trend, although the dominion has shifted from free-thinking bohemians to very conservative evangelicals. (New York Times)

The Piano Lesson. A memory from Jared Nigro about his piano teacher and an unexpected gift of mercy. (The Hairpin)

Women in War, Women in Peace. A plea to stop thinking about war as a male-only circumstance. Men start wars and men fight them, but we never think about the women left at home to pick up the pieces. (The Atlantic)

Democrats, Republicans Have Mirror-Image Views. Just more proof that politics are pointless. (The Atlantic)

Black Cat Auditions in Hollywood, 1961. There were a lot of eager women trying to make their black cats into movie stars in 1961, apparently. Very entertaining series of photos. I feel like training a cat to act would be akin to training a fish to sing. (Retronaut)

How To Name Your First Novel. A helpful series of formulas for naming that novel you’ve been working on. (NPR)

Collection of Rejected Titles for Classic Books. Would you have read The Great Gatsby if it had been titled Trimalchio in West Egg? Yeah. I didn’t think so. Good saves from editors and publishers alike, who usually picked the better title for the soon-to-be classic. (Flavorwire)

The Pleasures and Perils of Re-Reading. These days, I don’t make time for re-reading anything, which is something of a shame. I’ll probably start re-reading in my middle age. Right now, there’s too much still to be read. I do miss the distinct pleasure of returning to a beloved book, however. I bought the lovely and widely acclaimed Pevear/Volonkhosky translation of Anna Karenina at the aforementioned book sale, however, and I may have to return to that soon… (The Millions)

Great Painter: Elizabeth Peyton. Cate reviews Peyton’s work, which I really love. Had never heard of her before, but I’m glad I have now! (The Charlotte)

An Afternoon with Theresa di Scianni. This looks like such a peaceful, pleasant place to live. (Petits Papiers)

Says the Hummer in the Land of the Hybrid. A mother’s reflection on having four kids when having four kids is not especially chic or socially acceptable. I thought of this in relation to my own mother, toting the four of us around in “inconvenient” places. (Girl’s Gone Child)

Misty Manley: Fake Anything Designs. Hot ham water! Night cheese! (Design Work Life)

Beat the Winter Hair Blues. My hair gets kind of gross and limp in the winter. Good tips, especially if you’re prone to splurging on hair care products (which I’m not). (She Lets Her Hair Down)

What Do French Women Have That We Don’t? A lot, apparently. When it comes to fashion, style, and beauty, don’t we all just want to be French deep down? (HiP Paris)

Monday Snax

We are still creeping back to good health, but it has been very nice to have a week at home to hibernate and recuperate. This week I have been fairly possessed by the need to read and exercise. This is good, because they are both included in my 2011 resolution list. I’ve been able to stay active thanks to Rodney Yee (Grace, Kelsey, remember our mornings with him?) and his yoga DVD and the New York City Ballet workout, found on Chinese YouTube by Catherine. Brilliant. Ballet is also freaking HARD. I’m going to keep trying, though. Gotta learn what all those French words mean…

Snax with pastrami, because it is one of the more hilarious meat-like substances:

Books as a Way to Grace a Room. I mean, if you’re not going to READ them–because, really, who does that anymore?–you might as well turn them into home decor, right? I don’t know how I feel about this. Actually, I do. I feel bad about this. I’m all for wall-to-wall bookshelves–it’s my personal dream–but they must be known and read first. Not so for these rich people. (New York Times)

Dream Jobs: So You Wanted to be a Veterinarian. This girl was totally me. Except I decided not to take this path after I endured my first animal dissection when I was 13. I love how quickly this imaginary veterinarian turns into a deranged animal liberator. A hilarious article, at least. The paragraph that describes when the scales fall from your eyes: “As you settled into the routine of your field, it became glaringly obvious that the bulk of a veterinarian’s day is spent giving rabies vaccines, castrating animals so they won’t make new ones, or humanely killing animals whose owners are either unable or unwilling to take care of their supposedly beloved pet. Toss in a prescription flea repellent here and there and that’s the whole job. It was grossly unsatisfying. You weren’t some great caregiver of God’s creatures; you were the enabler of a system that subjugated those creatures for human whimsy.” (McSweeney’s)

Adorable French-Speaking Kids Play with 80’s Technology. And try to figure out what it is. First, it’s true that we wish all children were French. Because listening to them talk is probably the cutest thing ever. Second, I love the boy who thinks that the diskette could be a camera. Twenty-first century children! They think anything is possible. (Flavorwire)

Morimura Ray. I can never get enough Japanese prints. These are so modern, beautiful, streamlined. Also, I also can’t get enough of Miss Moss’s blog. I realize that I link to her stuff all the time. I don’t know who you are, Miss Moss, but I think we’d be friends. (Miss Moss)

Samantha and James: A New Year’s Sneak Preview. This really fun wedding video was shot at the wedding we attended in Durham on New Year’s. It was done by our very talented photographer’s sister and her husband. They did SUCH a great job; everyone probably looks way cooler than they did in real life in this film. Really cute. (Inkspot Crow Films)

A Thoughtful Farewell. I love it when kids express themselves in letters. I remember writing stuff like this. Girls are so mean: Poor Bri and Grandma. (Found Magazine)

Fully Validated Kanye West Retires to a Quiet Farm in Iowa. “So I just want to say thank you to everyone who bolstered my self-esteem by showering me with so much acclaim,” added West, sweeping some dust from his front porch. “Because it worked. I’m good to go.” Also love the picture of him making snickerdoodles for his neighbors. So sweet. (The Onion)

I Think It’s Time for Us to Have a Toast. Josh Groban sings Kanye West’s tweets on Jimmy Fallon. It’s worth it, regardless of what you think of either of them. (Via Dooce)

Joe Biden Thought of a Joke and Will Not Rest Until Everyone Has Heard It. … but it’s not a very good one, and it’s just kind of creepy. (Daily Intel)

Things I Have Needed to Google While Writing Poems to Turn into My MFA Workshop. Guion, I hope your list is quite different from this one, even though we’ve talked about some of the things in this roster. Yours might go like… “Barns Civil War beekeeping horse racing beer condemned buildings,” etc. Maybe? (McSweeney’s)

Bangable Dudes in History: Dmitri Shostakovich. This new blog is amazing. Blog creator Megan takes suggestions and then creates pie charts to describe the sexiest famous dead guys. I’m just happy my dead dude crush–Alex Hamilton–made the blog already. Of course he did. (Bangable Dudes in History)

World’s Largest Hanging Flower Basket. Now that would be a pain to water. (Urban Gardens)

Censoring Mark Twain’s ‘N-Words’ Is Unacceptable. If you use the Internet regularly, then you’re already aware that a publisher has taken it upon himself to scrub The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn of the n-word. I think The Guardian makes one of the many good cases out there why this should not have happened. (The Guardian Book Blog)

The Best Boring Books. More from The Guardian: A list of the 10 best, most boring books. I feel rather proud that Woolf’s The Waves made the cut. It deserves to. Because it is beautiful… and nothing happens. What books would you include? Has anyone read any of these? (The Guardian Book Blog)

How to Make a Decent Cup of Tea. Christopher Hitchens teaches all of us heathen Yanks how to make tea. I drink tea every day, and I daresay I learned quite a bit. (Slate)

Christmas in CT. Brian Ferry, how do you make everything so beautiful? I always want to be exactly where these photographs were taken. (Brian Ferry)

Tilt Shift. Same goes for you, sister. This is from Grace’s new photography portfolio online–which you should all go check out! I really love this technique in photographs and I think my little sis makes great use of it. She is in New Zealand now, about to start her new life on a farm there! So excited for her. (Grace Farson Photography)

The AFP New Year’s Babies. One of the many reasons I’m frightened of having children: What if they turn out looking like one of these!? The chances are high. Why? Premise 1: because we are white, and Premise 2: all these babies are white. (Awkward Family Photos)

“Toddlers and Tiaras” Returns with a Very Special Southern Baby Dinosaur Episode. And this is why America is The Greatest Country in the World. (Best Week Ever)