In the new year, I am trying not to lose Japanese. I spent so many years of my young life studying this impossible language, and it would be a great shame to forget it entirely.
I have been plowing through kanji flashcards on Memrise. I vacillate between feeling super-proud of myself for not having forgotten everything and super-frustrated because I have forgotten most of it. I console myself, weakly, with the knowledge that Japanese is often called the hardest language for English speakers to learn.
The frustrations are rife. For instance: I’m re-reading War and Peace now, and a good deal of the social dialogue is in French (preserved by the translators, with footnotes providing the English). I have spent about 3 months of my life studying basic French grammar and vocabulary and I can more or less read and comprehend an entire paragraph in French (but don’t ask me to translate any spoken French).
In contrast, I have spent 15 years, off and on, studying Japanese, and I can’t read more than a few sentences in a simple Japanese news story. (A simple explanation for this is that I can remember only about 200 out of the 2,500 requisite kanji. I literally cannot read most of the words yet.)
But I have been thinking about the pleasures of incomprehension.
I have been watching a Japanese reality TV show for a bit at night, while preparing dinner. Even though I understand about 5% of the dialogue, I am resting in unknowing. I can find some happiness in letting the vaguely familiar sounds wash over me. Just hearing it spoken in everyday conversation (albeit between flirtatious twentysomethings in a Tokyo mansion, Real World style) is beneficial. I put on the Japanese short stories CD that I have had in my car for three years. I am still totally lost in the plots, and I couldn’t tell you anything about the stories aside from a few nouns and key actors, but I am learning to be OK with this lack of knowledge.
You have to start somewhere… even if “somewhere” is building on 15 years’ of forgotten knowledge.
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?
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.
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:
(*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?
“I think sometimes that the best reason for writing novels is to experience those four and a half hours after you write the final word. The last time it happened to me, I uncorked a good Sancerre I’d been keeping and drank it standing up with the bottle in my hand, and then I lay down in my backyard on the paving stones and stayed there a long time, crying. It was sunny, late autumn, and there were apples everywhere, overripe and stinky.”
— Zadie Smith, from her essay collection Changing My Mind
. . . . . . . . . . . .
Things I’ve been thinking about lately:
One’s heightened powers of observation of the natural and social worlds, which come when you know that you might have to write something and then share it with someone.
Relearning Japanese and how it is killing my brain. I feel only slightly justified to learn that the Foreign Service Institute ranked Japanese as the hardest language for an English-speaker to learn. Should that make me feel proud, or super-super depressed? I’m really leaning toward the latter.
Getting a (canine) sibling for Pyrrha. But only kind of thinking about this, because two dogs is a lot of dogs. And I think Pyrrha is pretty perfect, and what if we ended up with a four-legged terror?
Interiors. I absolutely love all of these rooms and had to resist the strong urge to pin them all myself. (TeenAngster)
Hot Tea Is More Refreshing than Cold Tea. Wow, so interesting. So my Japanese host mom knew what she was doing when she repeatedly gave me piping hot cups of sencha on 103-degree days. (Discovering Tea)
Circles of Influence. A fun graphic showing famous writers who influenced other famous writers. (English Muse)
At Home with Elke. Yes, please, glorious home in Provence! Doesn’t this also look like the setting of one of the recent Anthropologie catalogs? (French by Design)
10 Questions for Ellen Picker. Ellen is a friendly face around town and a great young photographer. The Charlotte asks her a few questions about work and inspiration and includes some beautiful examples of her work. (The Charlotte)
Frida’s Corsets. A sad but interesting detail from the life of Frida Kahlo. (The Paris Review)
Super-Saturated Colors. The juxtaposition of these dabs of color really appealed to me. Paintings by Michelle Armas. (Anne Louise Likes)
Weekend no. 3 of house guests: Family Edition, Part III: Family Women Descend. (And Mike, for a night!) We had a raucous and wonderful time with my sisters and mom this weekend, who were here for a humid visit and happy celebration of Mom’s birthday. We got to eat lots of delicious food (including perennial favorites Eppie’s and Himalayan Fusion, which Grace gainfully guided us through), see Nettles in concert at the Tea Bazaar, watch “Parks & Rec” and laugh a ton. I miss them already! Complete set of photos on Flickr.
Snax with perfect summer orzo:
Overeducated, Underemployed: How to Fix Humanities Grad School. OK, fine. Maybe I won’t go to grad school after all. This is depressing. The author exposes how humanities Ph.D.s may actually be more disadvantaged in the job market than people who only have bachelor’s degrees. Burdened with thousands of dollars in debt and no job skills, save the weak consolation of your knowledge of critical theory? Sigh. Maybe I’ll just get a master’s degree. (Slate)
We had a beautiful weekend in Charlottesville; the weather was exquisite, as the humidity had fairly retreated and we were left with idyllic warmth. Paul and Christie invited us on their Friday date night and a small group of us went to Blue Mountain Brewery in Afton (a few photos above; more on Flickr). We went to a church potluck and then we hosted a potluck of our own last night. It was all very wonderful.
Win and Tracy were visiting with the purpose of scouting out a place for Win to live in a few weeks. By the grace of God, Win is living in probably the coolest house we’ve ever seen in town: the Massie-Wills historical home, built in 1830. It’s amazing. He is one lucky dude.
Pratt’s Ex Libris Collection. Well, of course I’m posting this (if I haven’t already…) The Pratt Library’s collection of gorgeous book plates. I wish people still used these things. I know I would. (Where the Lovely Things Are)
Weird Writing Habits of Famous Authors. I enjoyed reading about the habitual quirks of some of my all-time favorite writers, including Eudora Welty, Vladimir Nabokov, Flannery O’Connor, and T.S. Eliot. (Flavorwire)
Other People’s Houses. A collection of dreamy photographs from the domestic lives of some of today’s most beloved bloggers and photographers. Who doesn’t love a dash of beautiful voyeurism? (Other People’s Houses)
Iceland, Part 10: Blue Lagoon. I know I just keep posting Kris Atomic’s photos of Iceland, but I can’t help it! This place looks so otherworldly. I must go. (Kris Atomic)
Kimono. A collection of gorgeous, modern-looking kimonos from 1920s-1930s Japan. (Anne Louise Likes)
Wasabi Wonder. More from Japan: Ever wanted to know what wasabi looks like in real life, i.e., coming straight out of the ground? Take a look! It’s such a fascinating and weird plant. I bet that friendly-looking farmer just reeks of wasabi all day long. But what a gorgeous place to farm! (Tokyo Photojournalist)
Paper & Kyoto: Shops to Visit. Even more from Japan: Uuugh. This post just confirms what I already ardently believe: That I have to get to Kyoto soon and that the Japanese create the world’s most beautiful stationery and paper products. (Upon a Fold)
Sarah Palin for Newsweek. Noted photographer Emily Shur talks about her casual cover shoot of Sarah Palin for Newsweek. Shur really humanized Palin for me in a way that the “liberal media” have not. It’s an interesting little vignette, at least. (Emily Shur)
Dear Mom. Catching bunnies snuggling together? The best thing ever. Guion, I think you should know that even though I’m obsessed with getting a dog, I’m also still obsessed with getting a bunny. Or three. (Maura Grace)
The Lost Roles of “Arrested Development.” Rainn Wilson as Gob Bluth?? Can you imagine it? I certainly can’t. I love Rainn, but let us all say thanks that we were gifted by the glorious presence of Will Arnett. (The Bluth Company)
I’ve been thinking about gaps in my education lately. These are some things I should know more about:
The war in Afghanistan.
Financial markets and the principles of basic investing.
The human body.
Divisions and functions of the branches of the U.S. military.
How to make things grow.
The Federal Reserve.
How to fix a spare tire.
How to read music.
Calculus (and by “know more about” I mean “learn anything about”).
Currency exchange rates.
How to drive a manual transmission.
The Supreme Court.
Latin and Greek roots.
The difference between Central and Latin America.
The reason why I don’t know more about these things is because, I suppose, I don’t find them fundamentally interesting. Even though I feel like I should. Do you know about these things? If so, enlighten me. I want to know.