The joys of incomprehension

A tree grows in Makuhari. Chiba-shi, Tokyo, circa summer 2008.

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.)

Engaku-ji. 2008.

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.

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?

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!

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.

It wasn’t human nature

Louise Glück

Unreachable father, when we were first
exiled from heaven, you made
a replica, a place in one sense
different from heaven, being
designed to teach a lesson: otherwise
the same–beauty on either side, beauty
without alternative– Except
we didn’t know what was the lesson. Left alone,
we exhausted each other. Years
of darkness followed; we took turns
working the garden, the first tears
filling our eyes as earth
misted with petals, some
dark red, some flesh colored–
We never thought of you
whom we were learning to worship.
We merely knew it wasn’t human nature to love
only what returns love.

. . . . . . . . . . . . .

Get it, Louise Glück. Happy weekend, y’all. I’ll be spending mine clinging to Guion, begging him not to leave me for 10 whole days, since he’s taking off with Nettles and The Hill and Wood and Camp Christopher (hint: all the same people) to play SXSW! I’m SUPER excited for them, but I’d like to raise this point: Wouldn’t this absence be easier to bear if I had a dog to keep me company? Wouldn’t it?? Le sigh. These days, I feel like June is a year away and I am going to die dog-less.

Week 4: Studying Japanese

In honor of my sister Grace, I am imposing a set of weekly challenges on myself. For 12 weeks, I will attempt a different “challenge” each week–to do one thing every day for seven days, ranging from serious to silly. At the end of each week, I’ll let you know how it goes.

I have been studying Japanese since I was 10 years old. Whoa, I should like, totally be fluent now, right?

Wrong. For a few reasons. One is that I live on the East coast and currently in Charlottesville, where I have seen perhaps five actual Japanese people. Essentially, there are no true opportunities to keep the language alive where I live. Two, I was one class away from a minor in Japanese at UNC when I was confronted by the choice of keeping my minor and losing my majors. I kept the majors and lost Japanese as a minor and thus had to drop the classes. I cried about it for a little bit and Emily consoled me in a way that only my fellow non-Romance-language comrade could. But, honestly, I was slightly relieved, because there was no way I could have taken and survived advanced Japanese my senior year (during which I was writing an honors thesis, working an internship, applying for jobs, and oh, planning my wedding). Japanese is a very difficult language to learn. This week, I’ve been remembering that fact with fresh attention.

I decided to learn Japanese when I was a child. My mother’s good friend Janet had lived in Japan for a number of years and had managed to maintain her knowledge of the language. She would tell fascinating stories about her life there and I quickly became enchanted. Japan sounded like a living fairytale kingdom to my 9-year-old ears. I announced to my mother that I wanted to learn Japanese. She told me that was great, but she didn’t have the ability to teach me such a difficult language. She wasn’t about to let my dream die, though. My mom found a handful of native Japanese women that lived in our city and hired them to teach me Japanese once a week. I learned the language through private tutoring from late elementary school through high school.

By the time I got to UNC, I placed into the second year of Japanese classes there and began more intensive study of the language. My primary goal was to get the chance to study abroad there. Through a series of amazing blessings, I was able to get a handful of scholarships to study abroad in Tokyo during the summer of 2008.

Living in a Japan for just a few months felt like the fulfillment of a lifelong dream. Even though it was one of the hardest summers of my young life, I loved my time there. My host family, especially my host mom, was unbelievably great. We would stay up after she had put the kids down and talk about culture, politics, and families in a wonderful mix of Japanese and English. My ability to speak and comprehend the language improved exponentially in just a few months. But the minute I returned to America, I came crashing down from this pinnacle of Japanese language achievement. After having to relinquish my minor, I lost almost all contact with the language that I had devoted myself to for so many years.

I don’t regret learning Japanese. I love the language–its crisp sound, its organized grammar structure, even its impossibly complex writing systems–and I love the Japanese people and culture. But it is not a practical language to learn. Unless you are a businessman from the pre-bubble 1980s or a total nerd about anime and manga, there isn’t much use for an American to learn Japanese today. This saddens me, but only briefly, because I feel very privileged to have had the opportunity to learn this beautiful–if increasingly obscure and “useless”–language.

For my weekly challenge, I bought this book at Barnes & Noble and it has been an excellent re-introduction to Japanese for me. The book, edited by Japanese scholar Michael Emmerich, takes six contemporary short stories by Japanese authors and then provides a gloss of the more difficult phrases for English-speakers and furigana over the kanji. The reading level is about what mine used to be and I have found it surprisingly easy to fall back into a pattern of comprehension. Kind of like getting on a bike again after a few years or something. I’ve also been studying old word lists, kanji sets, and trying to get into the habit of writing journal entries in Japanese again. So far, it’s been my most intellectually challenging week, but I have been very grateful for it.


  • Well, for one thing, dozens of new words that I will probably forget again because I have no real opportunity to use them. Although I have been told that the CEO of my company is fluent in Japanese…
  • Visual memory aids help me to retain my recognition of new kanji.
  • Reading out loud was very helpful for my comprehension. Although, when I listen to natives speak Japanese, I get lost in the words. My listening comprehension is not superb.
  • I don’t want to lose this language entirely. It still means a lot to me. I hope that when I’m 50, I’ll still be able to form sentences and recognize basic kanji. I need to find a way to keep this language present in my life.

Next week, I’ll be writing one letter each day to a series of my favorite correspondents. Stay tuned!

With my host family, the Koyasus, the night before I returned to the U.S.

Monday Snax

With every day that passes, I become more and more excited that January is almost over. I know a lot of dearly beloved people who have January as their birth month, but I’m sorry, guys: It is by far the worst 31 days of the year. I will forgive it once it’s gone. However, the bright side of January is that it has given me ample time to read, drink tea, and–yes, I admit it, world!–watch “Lost” with my husband. He’s doing a pretty good job of convincing me that it’s addictive. We also bought a coffee table yesterday, which was pretty exciting, because I think it means we’re done with buying furniture for our apartment. Mainly because nothing else could possibly fit

Snax in a white bowl of pomegranate arils:

Sit. Stay. Parse. Good Girl! A Border Collie–who knows 1,000 words–teaches us about language. A quote from the article: “Chaser proved to be a diligent student. Unlike human children, she seems to love her drills and tests and is always asking for more. ‘She still demands four to five hours a day,’ Dr. Pilley said. ‘I’m 82, and I have to go to bed to get away from her.'” (New York Times)

Space Invaders: Why You Should Never, Ever Use Two Spaces after a Period. Slate Writer Farhard Manjoo, I LOVE YOU. FINALLY. Someone is talking about this! “What galls me about two-spacers isn’t just their numbers. It’s their certainty that they’re right. Over Thanksgiving dinner last year, I asked people what they considered to be the “correct” number of spaces between sentences. The diners included doctors, computer programmers, and other highly accomplished professionals. Everyone—everyone!—said it was proper to use two spaces.” Me too, same as me, I’m the same! Please. If you are a repeat space offender, read this article. Spread the word. (Slate)

Same Books, Three Ways. Cate’s excellent post about how she’s chosen to display her books as she’s moved. Beautiful! (The Charlotte)

Fashion of the Future. Probably the best video I’ve seen all week: Fashion designers from the 1930s predict what clothes we’ll be wearing in 2000. Totally amazing. (The Charlotte)

Life on a Farm. Brief thoughts from Grace as she begins her stint on a New Zealand farm. (Como Say What?)

Figure-Figure. Lovely pairings of photographs and paintings. (Miss Moss)

Look: Napping. I’ve never been one who was actually able to nap; I feel guilty for napping. But these photographs could almost change my mind. Everyone looks so peaceful. (Where the Lovely Things Are)

Morbid Curiosity Leading Many Voters to Support Palin. “A recent poll shows 62% of Americans say they don’t want to vote for Palin, but just kinda have to see what what would happen.” (The Onion)

Dogs in Ginza Wearing School Uniforms and Glasses. Japan, this is taking your little dog obsession too far; too far, I tell you! (Tokyo Times)

However, Since You Are Twelve… “We appreciate your interest in the Marine Corps. However, since you are twelve, you won’t be eligible to be a Marine for a while.” (Letters of Note)

New Game! Is it Etsy or Anthropologie? Hah. Loves it. And it can be very hard to tell. (Regretsy)

This Is the Brooklyn We Live In, This Is the Brooklyn I Remember. A beautiful post about growing up in New York City and then raising your own kids there. It makes me think about what a different life she and her daughters must lead, compared to those of who weren’t raised in the greatest metropolis. (Sweet Fine Day)

Postscript: Reynolds Price. A thoughtful eulogy for North Carolina writer Reynolds Price, who passed away last week. (The Book Bench)

7 Common Investing Mistakes. A place to start, at least. (Wise Bread)

Light Locations. Such a beautiful photographs of such peaceful, bright space. I want to create rooms like this in a house one day. (Ill Seen, Ill Said)

Bruce. I feel like there’s a great short story in this. (FOUND Magazine)

Top 10 Books of 2010: #10

For the next few weeks, I’ll be thinking back through the books I read in 2010 and ranking my favorites in a top 10 list. Today, I start with number 10: Vladimir Nabokov’s epic, Ada, or Ardor.

Ada, or Ardor

#10: ADA, OR ARDOR: A FAMILY CHRONICLE, Vladimir Nabokov

One of the best things my mother did when I was young was set me free in the library. Unlike most of the homeschooling parents in our community, my parents never censored my reading; they never told me, “You have to read these types of novels; you can’t read these types.” When confronted by other parents about this liberated policy, my mother’s response was always, “She reads way faster than I do. It would be impossible for me to read everything she’s reading and screen it first. If I had to do that, she would never get to read anything at all.” And so I read everything. By early middle school, I had positively devoured the entire young adult section of the local library, to the point that the librarians were on a first-name basis with me and I was responsible for writing 75 percent of the YA book reviews on the library website. This literary freedom allowed me to discover good and bad authors and a large range of genres. My independence also introduced me to messages and themes—e.g., sex, crime, obscene language— that I’m sure my parents would have objected to if they had known what I was reading. But they didn’t. So I kept reading, good and bad.

I relate this episode to try to explain why this novel by Vladimir Nabokov is on my top 10 list for 2010. Because, frankly, if I told a stranger on the street the plot of this novel—a fantasy-tinged family epic about a brother and sister from a fake planet who are involved with each other in a passionate love affair—I’d get more than just a few raised eyebrows. I’d probably get a strong, “You LIKED it? What is WRONG with you?”

Probably a few things, but yes, I did like it. Here’s why. This book thwarts expectations of the novel and does so in a sprawling, complicated, thoroughly messy way—and yet it’s beautifully done. Ever since reading Lolita (which, coincidentally, made my Top 10 list for 2009), I have been fixed on reading as much Nabokov as possible. I am mesmerized by Nabokov as a person—for his genius, for his disturbing and repetitive themes, for his ability to make all of his twisted characters somehow transparent and compassionate.

I ended up taking Ada, or Ardor on our honeymoon. It was certainly not a thematically appropriate book for the occasion: this 900-page monolith of a novel is about, more or less, a brother and sister who fall in love with each other and continue their all-consuming, destructive love affair even after the discovery that they are blood siblings. It is Nabokov, after all. From what little I know about his body of work, I know that you are going to find incest and pedophilia featured. Ada, or Ardor features the life story of Van Veen, a young man who grows up in the imaginary Russo-American world of Antiterra, and his romance with his sister, Ada. The novel takes the form of Van’s memoirs, which he is supposedly writing when he is about 90. His love for Ada has not dimmed, even though their lives have now grown apart. But the plot is not what matters about this book. And the characters’ actions are not the primary vehicles for the movement of the novel. It’s why you can read this book without endorsing pedophilic/incestual relationships—in the same vein of why you can read Harry Potter without becoming Wiccan or why you can read The Bell Jar without descending into madness yourself. Ada is about a love affair between siblings, but it is less about them and more about the pattern of their lives, the way daily events intersect to form a fabric of memory. As a whole, therefore, this book carries a distinct whiff of Proust; something perhaps Nabokov was aware of; I really don’t know.

Joining the theme of complicated memory and the retelling of the past, accurate or not, Nabokov’s diction is compelling. His language is so complex that it’s almost unbelievable. His sentences are rigged with Anglo-Russian neologisms, various puns, and allusions so dense that almost every line requires annotation (as demonstrated by this now-abandoned website). The language itself is part of the journey of Ada and one of the main reasons why I enjoyed myself throughout it. If you approach it with an open mind—as Nabokov flatly demands of all of his readers, of this book or any other—I think you would have a similar experience.

Monday Snax: Holiday Edition

More excessive light display weirdness for you. Happy Christmas and all the rest from the Pratts!

Well, friends. Your last dose of Snax until the New Year! I’m unspeakably excited about going back to North Carolina for the holidays. We leave Wednesday morning for Southern Pines. I’m looking forward to sitting around the fire there and wrestling with Aoive and her complicated psyche. It’s going to be great. Then we’re off to my grandparents’ place for Christmas day, and then back and forth between Davidson, Southern Pines, and Durham for the next few days. Exhausting! (A wedding in the middle of it all doesn’t help the simplicity.) But I’m looking forward to it all the same.

Today’s featured website: The New York Times

OK. So it’s not like I discovered the NYT or anything, but they’ve just had a lot of beautiful, striking content lately. So I’m going to share some of it with you.

Let It Dough! The perfect holiday feature from NYT. Hilarious, brilliant, and oh-so-tasty. Thanks for the link, Granddad! (NYT blog, Abstract City)

Fourteen Actors Acting. “A video gallery of classic screen types.” These black-and-white minute-long pieces feature well-known actors playing intense, briefly realized characters. What makes it so interesting is that the only sound is the orchestra in the background. The inability to understand anything the character says gives considerable license to the imagination. My favorites: Natalie Portman, James Franco, and, of course, SWINTON. (NYT Magazine)

10th Annual Year in Ideas. The ideas are almost as great as the design of this page. Really fun to tool around in. And so much weird stuff to learn! A bra that converts into gas masks? The world could always use more of those. (NYT Magazine)

In Germany, from Derelict to Pristine. The slideshows from “Great Homes and Destinations” are my favorite way to kill time. I could look at these wild houses all day long. This couple lives in a posh, converted water tower. Crazy! (NYT)

Regularly scheduled Snax:

The Angela Simulator. “No need to miss me over the holidays,” Angela’s e-mail read. Because now you can generate any potential conversation with Angela on her website. It’s brilliant. It makes me feel closer to her, so I just sit there clicking on “What else?” for 10 minutes. (WXTCHOU)

Printable Holiday Gift Tags. Still wrapping? Try out these cute and colorful gift tags; they’ll liven up any present. (How About Orange)

What Languages Should Liberal Arts Be About in 2011? This is for Emily. We liked to hate on romance languages a lot, basically because they are so darn easy to learn compared with Japanese and Arabic. In this piece, James McWhorter takes our side, but argues that romance languages are essentially useless to learn in the new decade and beyond. It’s Chinese for everyone, baby. (The New Republic)

Closet Visit: Momo Suzuki. Basically, I just want to BE a Japanese woman. Their sense of style is impeccable: peaceful, simple, elegant. (Jeana Sohn)

William Merritt Chase. A feature on the well-regarded portrait painter. It makes me want to go to an art gallery. (Miss Moss)

Vintage Kardashian Holiday Cards: Old Noses, Awkward Poses. I’m ashamed to say that I enjoyed this a lot. The fact that they once did the white shirts/jeans Christmas combo like the rest of late 90’s America humanizes them to me. (Jezebel)

I Like the New Girl, But She’s a Little Cold. Pretty amazing. Borzoi snow statue! I’ve always wanted one of those great Russian dogs, too. So glamorous. (Cute Overload)

Eli the Australian Shepherd. Love the name, the puppy, the breed. He looks a lot like our Emma when she was a baby. (The Daily Puppy)

Max Fischer’s Extracurricular Pencil Set. Like every good Anderson aficionado, I want it. I also want to watch that film again. (A Cup of Jo)

In the Scheme of Things. This dialogue reminds me of the look my mother shot my father when he was choking on the pit of a plum. After his esophagus had cleared and he was recovering from the trauma, he announced, “Wow, that was like having a baby.” I will always remember the look of pure disgust on her face. (Dooce)

Jon Rafman: Google Street View. Somewhat related to a post from last week, but these images will always fascinate me. How does he find them?? Rafman must spend all day on Google Maps. (Sub-Studio Design Blog)

Putting the “Gold” In Your Golden Years. I know retirement is very far from our young minds, but it really shouldn’t be. This is one of the many things I’ve learned in my short tenure at work. This is a great graphic from the folks at Mint explaining some of the basics of retirement saving. (Mint)

OK! Happy holidays, friends! See you soon!

Love, love, love,


A change of style

It is true that I have never been so neglectful of this work of mine. I think I can foresee in my reluctance to trace a sentence, not merely lack of time & a mind tired of writing, but also one of those slight distastes which betokens a change of style. So an animal must feel at the approach of spring when his coat changes. Will it always be the same? Shall I always feel this quicksilver surface in my language; & always be shaking it from shape to shape?

— Virginia Woolf, 15 November 1919, The Diary of Virginia Woolf, vol. I