During my sunrise time search for New Year’s, I stumbled on this description of a perihelion. Today, Earth is at its closest point to the Sun. It’s a separate issue from day length and season: distance instead of tilt. I had probably heard the term before; I forgot.
Upon relearning it, a corner of my brain started waxing lyrical about elliptical orbits. Drifting away, then circling back in again. It’s an idea I like. I’m the sort who will focus intense attention on something for a while, then wander off to think about something else. What makes it different from just losing interest is how I often swing back around to that thing again.
Video games, half played in a few days, will get picked up for round two months, even years, later. Hobbies learned and abandoned catch my interest again, and all the carefully packed-away supplies are broken out. Ideas percolate slowly. Interests wax and wane (to drift with my astronomical metaphors slightly).
How do you recognize the difference between a permanent loss of interest and a temporary one? What things have you drifted away from? What things have you refound? What other old interests might still be waiting, getting closer to the light again as time goes by?
When I finally knew for sure where I would be moving to, I started looking into Local Stuff. Restaurants and grocery stores and movie theaters and museums. If you’re on the mailing list, you’ll know how I feel about museums. (Just imagine me with heart eyes and a misty filter and animated glitter on the edges of the frame. That’s how I feel about museums.) So when I have a chance to go to an air and automotive show at a museum, yeah, I’m there.
Which is how I ended up with a slight sunburn, brain freeze from a shave ice, and a whole stack of research books.
They’re second hand from the museum library’s collection of duplicate books. They only wanted a small donation for a whole set. It’s eight Time Life books from 1977, with titles like “The Battle of Britain” and “Russia Besieged,” and I’m in love.
WWII history is my secret passion. I grew up with the occasional story from grandparents about coastlines without a single light at night and about sailors who had battleships blown out from under them. Mostly, though, it was the Pacific theater and I could never quite cope with the politics of it. The internment of Japanese-Americans makes smoke come out my ears when I think about it. Having virulently racist grandparents telling these stories did not help. So it was always safer to focus on the European front. My love of the home front stories, though, keeps dragging me back to those ugly social politics. This is what I get for taking a special interest in war, of all things.
Someday, I’m going to feel confident enough in my knowledge base to start writing historicals. I’ve got a few ideas rattling around, of course, but I haven’t gotten up the guts to do anything about it. My experience is in writing either the mostly-right-now or the never-happened-at-all. Those are easy. Historicals, though? How can I ever sink deep enough to feel ready? It’s the perfectionist in me and maybe it’s just that someday, I’ll want to write badly enough that I’ll say to hell with one more day of research.
For now, I’ve got Pandora serenading me with Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller. I’ve got the rumble of engines and the whirr of props still in my ears. I’ve got the smell of old books and the dusty feel of paper and the gleam of restored chrome. For now, I’ll spend another day letting half-forgotten slang and tales of heroism burrow under my skin. For now, I’ll give my heart to history.
Learning: that uncomfortable moment when you realize the depth of your ignorance.
The timing of this post is going to be rather more ironic than I really prefer, but so be it. I am teaching myself to write left-handed. To function left-handed, more accurately. This is ironic because, at the moment, I can’t really use my left hand for much of anything. I have problems with my wrists on a good day, but I’ve been doing so much typing I managed to really, properly hurt myself this time. I have a nice big lump on the back of my hand where it meets my wrist. It’s a wee bit painful, just like the occasional numbness in my last two fingers is a wee bit inconvenient. I’m writing this via speech-to-text software. It is slow and frustrating and demoralizing. And damned if that isn’t usually a sign that I’m doing something right.
People seem surprised when I mention this new goal of mine. They ask me “why” in tones normally reserved for someone who’s just announced their intention to perform some home brain surgery. I can only ever reply, “why not?” I’m doing it because I enjoy aggressively forging new neural connections, which is to say, I like learning stuff. I’m doing it because people seem startled when they see a person effortlessly switch from one hand to the other. I like startling people. I’m doing it because I’ve always had a certain level of ambidexterity and I find it ludicrous not to extend that to finer motor control.
I’m doing it, let’s be honest, because it sounds like fun.
What I consider fun tends to have a large overlap with what I consider frustrating. Trying new things necessitates a certain amount of time spent being incompetent. I don’t cope well with that. In fact, apart from stories about sad puppy dogs, that’s one of the only things that can reduce me to tears. When it comes to writing with my left hand, I am really very incompetent. With the understanding that I have been practicing already, this is my left-handed writing at the moment:
Dismal. It’s readable, ish, but it took all my concentration and very careful movements to render it. It lacks the natural flow of my normal handwriting. (In a curious aside, I have been mashing together my left-handed writing with my Japanese practice. My left-handed hiragana is significantly less dismal.) I find it difficult to find times to practice because it’s not as though I can write all my notes to myself with my left hand. That would be the usual recommendation, right? Start doing all your writing with your non-dominant hand to get as much practice as possible. That’s swell, except for the part where I have to be able to read my notes to myself after the fact. Please understand that there is actually an incredibly low bar on this count. My right-handed handwriting is… well, it’s not so much that it’s bad as open to interpretation. See the following samples to understand.
[My right-hand writing when I’m really trying hard to be legible.]
[My normal handwriting. The letters begin to flow into one another.]
[This is what the average lecture notes look like or anything else I have to write quickly. At this point, context may be the only means of interpreting what I’ve written after the fact.]
So it’s not actually that unusual for me not to be able to read my own notes. There’s only so much worse I can make it before I might as well stop writing notes at all. I’ve seen significant improvement by using children’s fonts that provide letters for tracing. It was like being back in grade school. I printed myself up some practice sheets, row after row of a dozen A’s, a dozen B’s, and dutifully traced them. It was agonizing. It was also extremely helpful.
Therein lies the biggest obstacle to adult learning: putting up with the frustration and tedium of being totally useless at something.
We are so accustomed to being competent in our daily lives. Even if we don’t consider ourselves to be particularly talented individuals, we can usually take it for granted that when we pick something up we won’t drop it immediately, we won’t accidentally skewer our tongue trying to eat with a fork, and we won’t fall over trying to move in a straight line. Trying to learn a new physical skill, particularly compared to mental skills, strips us of that privilege. Using our nondominant hand, picking up a fork and moving it to our mouth can become Herculean effort. Though less dire, this is the same process seen in someone who, following an accident, must go through physical therapy to learn to walk again. The action is so familiar, and our brains are so convinced they know how to do it, but our bodies aren’t cooperating. What galls us, what stands in the way of our ever learning this new skill or relearning an old one, is that we must grind through the simple repetition, the child’s games, the tedious practice.
So assuming we are not content to spend our lives only doing the things we’re already good at, what is an adult learner to do? For a start, consider keeping it private (like not broadcasting your intentions on a blog). There’s a certain school of thought that encourages you to create an audience to keep you on track, to keep you committed. That’s great and if that works for you, fantastic (again, like broadcasting on a blog). But that’s about the idea of learning something. I’m talking about the practice of. Don’t let someone watch you filling in your writing practice sheets or show them the results. Don’t show off your new dance moves in an impromptu performance after one class. What I’m saying is, don’t invite criticism. Not just criticism from your audience, but internal criticism. You’ll get enough of that anyway, just by trying something new at all. Don’t give yourself the opportunity to think self-defeating thoughts like, “they must think I look like an idiot” or “they’ll laugh about this later.” Often, there’s no avoiding this aspect of performance if you’re learning a new skill in a class setting, which typically involves practicing with other students. So at the very least, give yourself time outside of class, away from prying eyes, to practice and enjoy your new skill with minimal opportunity for criticism.
Children are such fantastic learners in large part because they are not dissuaded by repeated failures or feelings of embarrassment. That comes later. As adult learners, that frustration can be our greatest obstacle but it can also be our clearest signpost on the way to success. If it feels uncomfortable and weird, there’s a good chance you’re headed in the right direction.
Seek out and chase your own feelings of discomfort and you will always discover new learning territory.
I’ve been learning and relearning Japanese for 12 years, but this time, I’m working out a system to maximize and speed up my success.
I studied Japanese formally for two years in college, but I had been trying to teach myself for years before that point. In the years since, I’ve made some half-hearted attempts to brush up my skills. If pressed, I can actually produce more Japanese than I give myself credit for. I lack confidence in the language, though, and my knowledge brings new and pathetic definitions to the word “spotty.” I’ve decided to really make a go of it again. My hope is that I’m a little smarter these days. The key here is knowing my goals.
In the past, I just knew I wanted to learn Japanese. Like, all of it. That was it, really. Just know stuff. It wasn’t that I really wanted to live and work in Japan. The level of visiting that I would actually want to experience could easily be conducted with only English. So it wasn’t that. I was also convinced that I would never want to teach English over there, just because I never wanted to teach anything at all. I am less convinced on this bit now, but at the time, I ruled that out. Also, I’m not the most outgoing person in the world (wild animals are often more confident and sociable than I am), so it wasn’t like I had a burning desire to go out and have lots of conversations in Japanese.
So why did I want to learn? It should have been obvious to me, considering how I got involved with Japanese culture in the first place.
My first exposure to Japan was through dubbed animation–yes, Sailor Moon, the starting point of so many in my generation. I didn’t know at the time, though, that it came from Japan. Fast forward to my teenage years. Pokemon hit America like a cute and fuzzy mallet to the temple. I watched the show. I collected the cards. I received my first-ever video game. (My deep and abiding love for Pokemon should probably be saved for a whole other post.)
I met, as a consequence of this, the girl who would become my best friend. She added Magic Knight Rayearth, Gundam Wing, Fushigi Yugi, and Yu Yu Hakusho to my world. I collected manga at Kinokuniya. I spent really appalling amounts of money on imported CDs because, holy crap, Dir En Grey happened and broke my brain. Japanese dictionaries started to multiply in the dark corners of my backpack until they spilled over into a second bag, all their own, that I carted around with me. Studio Ghibli films invaded my unconscious mind with talking cats and floating islands and flying girls (oh, no, those things never crop up in my work, not at all). I started attending anime conventions with my mother, the first step in rebuilding our once broken relationship.
Japan remade my life and never even knew it.
It’s taken me all this time to consciously understand this root of my love for Japan. I want to consume. This is not a highly intellectual pursuit for me. I just want to read and watch and hear more of the stuff that meant so much to me when I was a stupid, messed up teenager trying to survive high school. I understand now that this isn’t about employment opportunities, which was so much the focus of my formal education. Learn Japanese and you can make money. Be useful. All I really wanted, though, was to open up a whole market where I could take in more stories. More ideas. And yes, more people with cat ears, because dammit, that stuff is FUN.
My goals finally match that existing passion. My ultimate goal is to read Haruki Murakami’s Wind-Up Bird Chronicles (ねじまき鳥クロニクル) in the original Japanese. This is a suitably ambitious goal–the book is intense even in English. I’ll have to really work to make this happen. Along the way, my smaller goals are to read the Yu Yu Hakusho manga I collected over the years and to watch a Japanese language movie and understand the story on the first try, without subtitles. My beginning goal is to read and understand children’s stories, like the cute fox story I have been hoarding. (Never getting rid of anything comes in handy, sometimes, even if it does mean there’s no room in my house for people.)
How am I going to get there? I’m doing this on the cheap and from home. Partly, this is because I lack the funds to take any more courses or buy expensive learning software. Partly, this is because I want to build a learning system that focuses on my individual goals and interests. To start with, I have all the books I’ve collected over the years, including old coursebooks:
I also have access to some more materials from my public library. Though slightly outdated, I have found some that look useful:
I’m also researching language learning in general, to better understand what our brains do when we learn languages. So far, the best resource I’ve found is Fluent in 3 Months, which has exactly the kind of lunatic enthusiasm I want to capture.
Through Fi3M, I found Anki, which is a flashcard system that lets you determine how often terminology is reviewed. This is great for me, since regular review is not something I’m good at remembering to do and I tend to think I know something better than I really do. I’ve got a few sites lined up for reading practice, like this one on Japanese folk tales for children. I’m also going to try out Slime Forest.
Learning kanji is definitely my main focus and I’m going to let everything else evolve out of that. I have to learn vocabulary to be able to speak, but whenever possible I want that to come from learning kanji. This is an odd approach, perhaps, and maybe not what would be recommended. However, I’m planning this with the understanding that I really do possess some Japanese knowledge–this isn’t my ground level introduction to the language. Kanji also has the special ability to convey some meaning even when you aren’t previously familiar with the word, so guessing becomes more of a viable option.
I don’t know if this tactic is going to work. All I can do is try it and see what happens.
I’ll post follow-ups here as I rework or refine my approach, with an emphasis on figuring out new, unorthodox ways of learning languages. I’m still working out some ideas on progress reports, but I definitely want to use my new-found powers of Japanese to make something interesting. The second key to this project, after knowing my goals, is holding myself accountable. There is no teacher hovering over my shoulder to give me bad mark if I don’t do the homework or pass the test. There’s just me. That has to be enough.
Finally, because it would be stupid to write a whole post about learning Japanese without saying something in Japanese:
As a natural dabbler, the concept of expertise is problematic for me and, fortunately, rapidly becoming irrelevant.
I’m plugging into a lot of new social groups lately and the experience is consistently one of saying to myself, so I’m not the only one, other people are doing this, this is allowed? Fabulous. I’m not an outgoing person at all, but I’ve started reading extensively, and (gasp) even commenting at times, in these circles. What I’ve noticed most, apart from the feeling of relief and acceptance, is that there is constant crossover between the most seemingly unrelated areas. Take, for instance, the Size Acceptance and Health At Every Size movements and multipotentiality.
Bear with me for a brief introduction to both. Size Acceptance is a civil rights movement to end discrimination against and stigmatization of people based on body size or shape. HAES is a related practice, which prioritizes healthy habits, including food and exercise choices, without placing emphasis on weight loss or maintenance as the end goal. Multipotentiality is about a type of person who, rather than specializing in a single, specific niche, has many interests in divergent fields and often a career or ten that reflect that diversity.
What’s the crossover? For me, it’s this:
I have started to understand that conventional results, relevance, and expertise are seldom seen, but the benefits are still there.
I am and always have been a dabbler, someone who becomes interested in new subjects on a regular basis, learns a bit about them, and then moves on when the curiosity is satisfied. I may or may not come back to learn more on a particular subject later. I may or may not incorporate that knowledge into something “useful,” which meets traditional expectations of work and productivity. I have long been told that these shifting interests mark me as “flighty” and “flaky,” a dilettante, poser, and child. I’ve started to figure out that those labels are bullshit and that my dabbling is an asset.
Over at Dances with Fat, there have been numerous articles on the subject of exercise and how to see it outside the filter of weight loss. (Start here and here and then read everything else, because Ragen is fantastic.) One of the issues Ragen has talked about is how people get discouraged from exercise when they do not see immediate results, read: weight loss. Studies show that exercise and other healthy habits do, in fact, improve a persons health, regardless of their weight before, during, or after. Yet there remains an expectation that exercise will lead directly and quickly to weight loss and when it does not, it must be because we are doing something wrong. So we give up and miss out on the health benefits that were there all along. We look for the wrong kind of instant gratification and end up with no gratification at all.
Meanwhile, at Emilie Wapnick’s Puttylike, I’ve had one of the most amazing experiences of finding a place where I finally fit. It turns out there is a whole community of people who couldn’t and didn’t pick just one thing to be when they grow up, stick with it, and settle down for fifty years of doing the same thing every day. (If you get the impression that I regard traditional employment with unconcealed horror, you earn one million points.) There are people who learn just enough about something to be going on with and then go on, just like me. What’s better is that these people are putting together careers and projects and plans that don’t just tolerate this dabbling; they glory in and rely on their desire and ability to juggle lots of different interests. This is the manifestation of no knowledge being useless and it has been empowering to learn that people are making this work for them.
You know what turns out to be one of the best advantages I get from all this scattered, piecemeal knowledge?
Synthesis becomes the word of the day, every day.
See what I just did up there, where I took two largely unrelated interests of mine and found common ground between them? That is the value of all my flighty, childish skipping from interest to interest. I’ve taught myself, along with basic metal crafting, kendo and fencing, and a smattering of veterinary field techniques, how to make connections. How to see patterns. As Emilie puts it, to smoosh ideas together and get something new and better and more perfectly suited to me.
If I sound a little belligerent, a little teeth-bared hostile, when talking about this, you’re not wrong. I’ve been told that I lack focus, ambition, and competitiveness. I’ve been told I need to settle down and get a real job. I’ve been told that my interests are pointless if I can’t be an expert, use them to get or support a career, or both. That might even be true in some fields. If you’re going to be a brain surgeon, yeah, it’s probably best that you be as intensely and deeply educated in that field as you can get. I think, however, the vast majority of people could not only make room in their careers and lives for this kind of toe-dipping curiosity, but could make great use of it. I’m tired of nay-sayers insisting that everything be properly marked and boxed up, without any of this messy crossover. I’m tired of them saying there’s no point in playing if you can’t rank number one.
So let’s have sushi at high tea. Let’s make jewelry commemorating half-forgotten holidays from ancient civilizations. Let’s seat writers and mechanics and personal shoppers at the same table and see what happens. Let’s get messy. Let’s grab a little from column A and a little from box 2 and something from the unmarked bargain bin. Let’s make something wonderful and weird.