Wednesday, February 22, 2017

How do you say "panic" in Japanese?

I think most of the things I’ve learned in my life have been absorbed gradually. I noticed, became familiar, picked up new information: a nice, steady process of learning. But every now and then, I’ve received a sudden burst of knowledge, a direct infusion to the brain, a BLAST of realization.

I speak two languages (Spanish also) and have, in previous Thirds, spoken two others: German and Hebrew. (I have trouble keeping more than two in my head; the extras just get pushed out.) I’ve lived in a Spanish-speaking country, traveled in countries that spoke other languages. I teach English to refugees and immigrants. I thought I was pretty aware of what goes into language acquisition.

But a couple weeks ago, in a class at the Alaska Literacy Program, Polly demonstrated how she’d begin teaching English to someone who didn’t know a speck of English. She had to start with pointing to herself when she said “I,” pointing to us when she said “you.” We got it. She held objects up, said it was a “bird,” a “dish.” We got that, too. And we got it when she wrote on the board “bird.”

And then Polly pointed to herself and said something in Japanese! She pointed to us and said something else. We had to repeat.

Repeat? I wasn’t even sure what I’d heard. How could I pronounce what I couldn’t even hear right?

And she didn’t stop. She kept saying things in Japanese. My heart rate went up. I think the bird was a “tori,” but there were other sounds around it. Did those mean “This is”? Or is there some suffix that goes with nouns? How could I figure out the grammar when I couldn’t even be sure what I was hearing?

She just kept on. Everything was Japanese.

Then she pulled out some charts:
That was the bird. That sound in front was the T sound for that “tori” sound.

Polly pulled out cups and dishes and horns and her hand and said a lot more Japanese. They jumbled up terribly in my head. If I learned one, I forgot another. So Polly put them all in sentences:
By then, I think I’d describe what I was experiencing as “panic.” But deep down, I also knew it would end. Eventually, Polly would stop talking in Japanese and she’d return to English. My world would return to English and I could breathe easily again.

But Yousef in my class can’t return to Sudan. Muna can’t return to Iraq. They left war-torn countries and had to leave their languages behind. They had to land in a world of English and ADAPT. Street signs, TV, magazines – wherever they look, it’s English. And the remarkable thing is, they’ve learned it.

I am in awe.

Researchers say that immigrants have a greater forward focus than other people, that they’ve opted to make a future for themselves, to tackle the major changes that future requires. They’re motivated. They’re brave.

And what do they want to do? They want to volunteer, to contribute, to do something helpful while they improve their English. They want to make friends who’ll have the patience to let them speak English and get better at it.

It’s been two weeks since my Japanese trial by fire, and I can’t remember a bit of it. I haven’t tried because … because it was uncomfortable. It was a New Thing I was glad to ditch … and I could.

But it was a major blast of awareness, a staggering recognition of how very, very hard it is for our new immigrants. That’s the New Thing I’m glad to re-learn over and over again.

Monday, February 20, 2017

The Public Restroom: A Technological Challenge

I’m sure you’ve seen them, the women praying in public restrooms. It’s an interesting rite: they wave their arms about, bow down, do incantations over the sinks. It would be curious … if you didn’t realize you’re one of them.

We are not praying. We’re simply trying to figure out how to turn the water on, get the soap out of the dispenser, and receive a paper towel.

We may be engineers, technological wizards, Nobel scientists; but the technology of public restrooms is getting out of hand. With electronic sensors and infrareds, hands-free means your hands wave around instead of touching. Sometimes the sensor is under the faucet and designed to turn on when your hands go underneath. But underneath up or underneath down? You wave around. Speed matters. You have to move at just the right speed in just the right direction at just the right angle to get water.

Or you notice some extra knob sitting on the side of the sink or on the wall with those curious inserts as dark as Darth Vader’s helmet. You wave in front of that. The water turns on. You race to put your hands under the faucet. The water turns off. You do it again, faster. Finally, you hold one had in front of the sensor while the other gets wet.
Then you look for soap. We used to know that we pressed something in or up or down, and liquid soap came out. Now we just stick our hands under something and soap comes out. Or doesn’t. I recently walked into a restroom in an office building (not on a spaceship) and faced this:

Now, you tell me. That thing on the left, that looks like the soap dispenser, right? I put my hands under the big central thing and it gave me water (as expected), but I waved and waved in front of the little thing on the left and nothing happened. I looked all around. I waved again under the faucet, and a green light lit up. I raced to put my hands under it, but I was too late: the soap had been expelled and was dribbling down the side of the sink. No matter what I did, I couldn’t get the green light to turn on again. I actually returned days later to photograph it so I could paint it. I waved and waved, got a photo of the green light but was never able to get soap into my hands.

Now that we’re wet and perhaps soapy, we look for the means to dry. Gone are the ancient rotating drums of dingy white towels (thank goodness), and gone are most hand-crank paper towels, too.

I’d gotten used to holding my hands in front of the red light on towel dispensers and having towels come out. There must be a setting because some places give you four inches and some give you two feet.

But on some, the red light has been replaced by a little hand directing us down, to another waving location. It’s under there somewhere, but I have yet to find it. (sigh…) That must be why there’s a roll of regular old paper towels balanced on top.
I used to press a big silver button and hot air would come out and dry my hands. But now touching is a no-no so I stick my hands into big, industrial-looking hand driers that blow my skin around. Sometimes they arbitrarily turn off in a couple of seconds so I’m back to waving up and down, in and out.
I actually walked into one restroom once with a hole in the wall. You held your hands out and water came out. You kept your hands there and soap came out. After you scrubbed, more water came out. Then the whole hole in the wall blasted hot air onto your hands.

But I was just trying to fill a water bottle.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Stealth De-cluttering

I didn’t notice it at first. It snuck in under my radar. It started with a plastic plate left at my house during a party about a year ago. I tried to find the owner, waited for him or her to call, but they* never did. Maybe they considered the dish disposable. Maybe they thought of it as a paper plate, so they left it. I washed it and kept it, thinking the owner might eventually materialize and reclaim it. It’s still here.

A while later, Peggy came over and brought some fruit in a bowl. As she was leaving, she said, “Oh, keep the bowl. I don’t want it back.”

It was a nice bowl, lots of color and a good shape. I thanked Peggy and admired her generosity, adding the bowl to our kitchen cabinets. I didn’t yet understand this as a phenomenon, as some harbinger of clandestine redistribution.
A month or so ago, we had another party and people brought lots of hors d’oeuvres. When all the clean-up was over, there were three dishes left unclaimed. Only one had a name written on the bottom. (What a good idea, I thought: they simply did it with a marker.) I waited, hoping to hear from the others.

And waited.

Finally, I emailed everyone who’d been at our house. Attached photos.

First Terri replied. The red bowl was hers. She’d “meant to let you know I left it.” I was free to recycle it.
Then Dawn came to the door, and I guessed: “The platter is yours, right?” It was, she laughed, she’d hoped to ditch it, but knew that I was trying to de-clutter so she’d better claim it. Now she’d have to find another way of dispatching it.
And then it hit me: everyone was covertly de-cluttering like a game of hot potato. When the music stopped, and the guests went home, their de-cluttering detritus was in the hands of the host. How could I have missed the premeditation of it? I thought everyone was just getting forgetful; I didn’t realize it was intentional.

Think of this: if we put bar codes on the dishes instead of our names, we could track their journey from potluck to potluck, just like tracks books “released into the wild.” This could be exciting. How far can one unwanted platter travel?

We’ll see. I’m starting with the plastic plate left at my house a year ago. If I show up at your house with some snacks, you’ve been warned.

* = singular they

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Cutting the Mustard

This was one of those days when all I wanted to do was sleep. Even after a rare good night’s sleep, I was ready to sleep some more. I shoveled the driveway. Shoveled it again, and REALLY wanted to sleep some more. I felt like I was in a holding pattern just till I could sleep again.

But as I was dropping off some books at the library, I spotted a sign: “Medieval Mustard.” Even the librarian had to look that up. Turns out it was a program that night in mustard-making: “Mustard-making kits will be available. Ready your whomping arm and come make the mustard.” We had to look up “whomping,” too. Could my snow-shoveling arm still whomp?

After dinner, the agony of choice: sleep or try a New Thing? The couch or the road? The Lounge or Col. Mustard? As always, curiosity was the great decider: What’s in a mustard-making kit anyway?

This being Anchorage, fifteen mustard makers would have to include one friend I hadn’t seen in years. Kerri and the others are part of the Society for Creative Anachronism (the Renaissance Fair-type people) so we had a whole lesson in mustard. 13th century households would consume between 160 and 190 gallons of mustard a year!

Our teacher, Nicole, was a master of preparation. We had our histories of mustard, our recipes, our supplies, and our mustard-tasting options. Mustard-making is even easier than sauerkraut-making!

We added wine to our ground mustard seeds, a bit of water, and our choice of herbs. All in a big red cup. Then we whomped.

(Whomping is stirring with a plastic fork.)

Then it sits for 20 minutes. Then you have mustard!

During our 20 minutes, we tasted mustards. Chinese mustard had zing, whole grain mustard had texture, honey mustard was sweet, and the yellow mustard was awful. (Nicole had added jalapeños to it to liven it up.) Her recipes include strawberry mustard, molasses mustard, mustard with Worcestershire sauce, mustard with Tabasco and horseradish. Mustard with white wine, mustard with red.

One can go nuts with mustard options!

Our salad dressing used to come in a bottle named Annie’s or Kraft or Wish-Bone. In fact, I just discovered some very old Ranch dressing envelopes in the kitchen cabinet … for when I was getting earthy and “making” our own. A few years back, Sophie taught us to make vinaigrette and add mustard as an emulsifier. Ooh, that was revolutionary; we took to whisking up fresh salad dressing each night.

Ah, but now I’ve discovered the big, wide world of mustard.

Salad may never be the same again. Not hot dogs either.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Getting Back Up

How does a person in her Third Third handle disappointment? I mean, have we learned things? Are we better at this?

I still repeat a quote I found once: “Heroes are not born, they’re cornered.” Sometimes I think any coping wisdom that arrives in the Third Third is more a factor of having kids (so you can’t be the baby), having a job (so you have to get dressed), knowing how much things cost (so you can’t throw things), or generally having responsibilities. We’re cornered into getting on with it.

But by now, we’ve also learned that “this too shall pass” or that one door closes and another opens.

My friend Linda recently closed her business. She poured years and heart and money into creating a wonderful space for the community in Terra Bella, a space that my women friends and I inhabited every Friday morning. And now it’s closed.

Meanwhile, I knitted and knitted and organized and arranged, and on Friday, the group met earlier so Sunnie and I could leave to go yarn bomb the trees at Westchester Lagoon. It was cold, but the tree sweaters were colorful, the Guerrilla Knitters energetic, and the crowd appreciative. Bicyclists stopped to ask if they could help. By the time we were done, it was a landscape of art. It was a totally happy day. Joyful even. People took photos, everyone smiled giddily.

And the next day, we discovered that vandals had destroyed every piece of knitting, torn them off, thrown them in garbage cans.

In the royal order of things, I can’t even compare my disappointment with Linda’s. But I bet we’re feeling some of the same things. We’re wondering if there’s something we could have done, something that might have created an alternative path. We’re wondering when we’ll be able to plunge into something with unbridled optimism.

We tried to add our little bit of positive to the world, and we got foiled. In my case, there’s a bogeyman. In Linda’s, it was just too much uphill.

When I told my friend Connie how the day had been such a happy one, she said, “You still have that day. That day happened and was happy.” She’s right. They could take away the art, take away the experience from people who didn’t see it, but they can’t subtract those hours of happiness. Instead of being an art exhibit up for three months, it turned out to be a performance piece up for several hours. It was theater; ephemeral but inspiring. Terra Bella lasted a lot longer, but the group of us forged in its space will last even longer.

You can tell I’m getting over disappointment because I can write things like this now. I’m focusing on what doors may open, how maybe people will see that building a positive community takes all of us to have lots of ideas. Some will fizzle, some won’t be your cup of tea, but some will take off. Parks & Recreation wants us to try again, TV news wondered if there will be a groundswell of knitting, and Rue at the newspaper captured the whole mood in this video. My friend Pam said knitters will rise again.
It’s not about knitting. It’s about trying. If I’ve learned anything by my Third Third, it’s that trying doesn’t mean succeeding. It means trying.

It’s about way more than knitting.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Procrastination Tribulation

Yes, it is possible to get overextended in your Third Third. It is possible to fill up January until you don’t know how you’re ever going to face January. Except that January happens.

And then, rather than tackling your too-many projects and commitments, rather than chipping away at them one by one, you simply stop. Freeze. Become immobile. Paralyzed.

That’s why there were no blog posts the week of January 15. There was almost nothing the week of January 15. I was too busy procrastinating.

And then, just when I was analyzing my procrastination, NPR ran a story about Why We Procrastinate – And How We Can Stop. I was sitting in the car and Tim Pychyl was talking to me. It was like the voice of God. He said, “We have to recognize that procrastination is not a time management problem, it’s an emotion regulation problem.” While he said it’s a voluntary delay, it’s a self-defeating delay.

It’s true. Every day I put everything off, I felt worse. In researching this, I found Tim Urban’s very funny TED Talk. He said that procrastinators have an Instant Gratification Monkey who encourages them to do Easy and Fun Things. Hmm, paralysis didn’t mean I was doing Easy and Fun Things. It meant I’d entered the Dark Playground (his word). My Dark Playground is immobility.
So I made a list of my January ordeals: big party, fulfillment of resolutions (squats), coordinate interviews of high school students for my university, organize yarn bombing of more trees, do project for art group, prepare Olé presentation, arrange rental/flights for my future month in London, straighten out finances, host book club, etc. That doesn’t even count my usual teaching or painting signs for protests. It doesn’t even count cooking dinner or shoveling snow.
Okay, you don’t need my list. You have your own.

But I looked at my list and tried to figure out why some things were SO HARD. You will be surprised what was THE HARDEST thing for me: logistics, as in arranging airline tickets. First I had to find my rental and select my dates for London. That meant another VRBO gauntlet, which turned out to be miraculously less traumatic and more magical than my first time. But then I had to find flights.

That meant I had to go upstairs and hyperventilate a little.

I think it’s hardest for me to do things I don’t understand. I have no idea why certain flights cost more, why a flight shows up on one schedule but not on another, why a price suddenly changes in the middle of my search. Inexplicable forces bat me around willy nilly, and they make me pay if I do something wrong. It seems so irrevocable.
I opened PowerPoint on my computer. Once I’d done that, it followed that I’d create the presentation on my list. And then it was done. I’d made a dent.

So I pulled out a jigsaw puzzle and spent a few days working on it because I just couldn’t face the financial transactions. I guess that’s the Dark Playground.

There are different theories about conquering procrastination. My sister said, “Just do one thing.” But do you do the hard thing or the easy thing? The thing with the nearest deadline or the thing with no actual deadline but still needing to get done? Because you could keep putting those things off forever.

Which is why I have done exactly one set of squats in a month. They could take two minutes so obviously, time is not the issue. There’s no deadline, but if I never do squats, I’ll be an old woman who can’t get up from her chair.

Tim Pychyl says to do the “next action.”

Pressed “publish.” Done.

Friday, January 27, 2017

A Happy Yarn Bomber

I’m knitting again. (Still knitting, no purling. I haven’t progressed that far.) I’m still using very big needles and very fat yarn so I can see very fast progress.
Knitting was one of my first New Things in my Third Third, and it was part of one of my happiest discoveries: yarn bombing. We covered the trees in front of the Anchorage Museum with knitted art. You can read all about it here, but the big thing was that we made Art! It was spectacular and fun and … joyful.
So now, I’m knitting again. I still can’t do anything fancy, but I can make rectangles, and that’s all that’s needed. Then the rectangles get stitched onto the trees. And this time – next Friday – we’re decorating the trees at Westchester Lagoon and the nearby Coastal Trail. You can, too.

This is the amazing thing: Even my dopey, non-fancy rectangles with bizarre yarn combinations make Art. When all the knitters bring out all their rectangles, and all the trees get sweaters, it becomes Public Art. All those decorated trees! It makes people smile to see something unexpected, something colorful, something happy.

I’m thinking back over my recent year, and I have often been happy. I’ve even made people laugh when I tell a good story. But I don’t think I added as much happiness to the world as when I helped knit the trees at the Museum. And it mattered that it took many of us to make all that happiness.

So yes, I’m knitting again. I had to go back on YouTube to learn how to cast on and bind off. I still can’t do anything but knit while I knit because I have to concentrate. But there’s something meditative about moving needles, finishing rows, starting new rows, seeing progress. The transformation from ball of yarn to knitted rectangle is so concrete, it satisfies. I’d forgotten this. I even forgot that when I knit, I don’t snack.
I’m a confirmed beginner, a nincompoop knitter. I don’t want to get fancy about it. I’m just going to knit rectangles because that’s all I have to do to add to world happiness with my knitting. I don’t have to follow a pattern, count rows, worry about dropped stitches. I can just click my big needles, throw my fat yarn around, and it turns into Art. What a discovery!

If you’re a knitter, make some rectangles. If you’re not, help us dress the trees. Otherwise, just take a look and smile. That’s why we’re doing it.

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