Tag Archives: being better than yesterday

What Can It Hurt?

My room is crowded with furniture and things, because I live in a small house and I enjoy being surrounded by stuff. Blankets overflow onto mountains of stuffed toys, books cascade across end tables and doll armoires, video game consoles perch on guitar cases. I have four separate wind chimes in one room, three windsocks, two kites, and a toy glider plane.

I also have terrible balance. One day, I tripped over my own pant leg–of course it wouldn’t be over any of the actual clutter, that would make sense. In the infinite stretch of time between losing my balance and actually hitting the ground, I had the presence of mind to really consider my potential landing places. I was initially headed for the doll armoire, both filled and topped with ceramics and glass.

“Not great,” I thought to myself. “What’s in reach to brace against? Window? Mm. That…is not going to hold me up. Death by broken glass sounds unpleasant.

“How about the cat bed? Not occupied by cat. Good start. Is occupied by yarn and, ah, sewing scissors. Questionable. The cover is on them, though. Probably not capable of stabbing me. Okay. Let’s do this. What’s the worst that can happen?”

So I executed a beautiful pirouette and landed on my ass in the cat bed, entirely unstabbed.

Sometimes, that’s the only real question: what can it hurt if I…?

Right now, I’m working out the logistics of quitting my day job and everything that comes after doing so. I’ve written elsewhere about what a fiasco it is. Bad boss, unhelpful coworkers, long hours without breaks, physical demands unsuitable for a body breaking down like mine.

Change scares humans, though, as a general rule. Right now, I’m trying to get past the paralysis that says, no matter how bad it is, leaving will ruin everything. That even this mess has to be better than the unknown.

There’s a game played by those managing their anxiety. Best case, worst case, most likely case. It forces your anxiety to test the logic of its assumptions.

Worst case if I leave my job? I lose my income source and can’t get anyone else to hire me. The writing doesn’t bring in enough to cover my expenses. I lose my health coverage, get substantially sicker, and rack up medical bills. I run through my (surprisingly decent) savings and can no longer help pay the bills. We stop being able to pay the mortgage, lose the property, and die of starvation in our cars in the riverbed.

(Pause to shake and whimper in a corner.)

Best case? I don’t have to answer to an incompetent who can’t do the job I’m saddled with. With my suddenly open schedule and increased rest time, my fatigue and pain improve or at least become manageable. I start spending all that time on writing. I get brave and creative because I’m not constantly on the verge of collapse. I publish frequently, get noticed, make a name for myself, and start making real money. I replace my lost income with money made doing something I love. I stop feeling like a stranger in my own house. I have the time to pursue other creative projects, and my career just keeps growing.

Most likely? I use some of that new free time to job hunt. I still write and publish more. I find another low-income job to help make ends meet. With the benefit of experience, I avoid some of the pitfalls of my current job, like working many hours off the clock. It stays just a job, kind of crappy but not actively harmful to my well being. The writing still starts to pay off, thanks to the increased attention. My career is slow and steady, and I still eventually get to quit having a day job entirely.

Okay, so, really. What can it hurt if I quit? How likely is it that going through the window is unavoidable? How much more likely is it that the worst I will face is scissors with the safety cover on? What sort of balletic moves do I need to pull off in order to minimize the fallout?

(In this metaphor, the best case scenario is one where I spontaneously sprout wings and never have to hit the ground at all. I’ve always wanted to fly. Maybe even that isn’t as unlikely as I fear.)

Implicit in all this is the answer to another question: what can it hurt if I stay and change nothing?

My body. My spirit. My future.

I’m working up the courage to jump, to brace for impact while trying to grow wings on the way down.

AWAKE: Joyce Discovers Caffeine

(Preemptive disclaimer: I ain’t science. Neither I nor the websites produced by a five minute googling are qualified to make medical decisions. I went and did it anyway, but you should probably consider talking to real professionals.)


Holy shit, caffeine is a thing!

I’ve never been a coffee drinker. Possibly because my childhood experiences involved horrifically overboiled black coffee, drunk after coming in from the chill of winter rain. Eventually, I developed a strong aversion to it, which now sends me fleeing the room if anyone opens the can of grounds. I’ve also never been a fan of colas. I love tea, but I’ve discovered it gives me heartburn pretty quickly. I basically just drink water, carbonated when I can get it, very rarely flavored with sliced fruit.

That being said, I’ve started deliberately drinking more tea specifically to get some caffeine into my system.

In part, this is the product of finally getting around to reading this post by Alexandra Erin about the things she does to make sure working from home involves actually getting work done. She had some interesting points about caffeine, dopamine, and motivation, which sent me on a minor research spiral for more information.

In part, it’s also the product of April, a month in which I got almost nothing done due to a pervasive case of “what the hell is wrong with my body?” If it wasn’t the headaches and muscle pains, it was the lethargy and insomnia and joint pain. I’m too young for this shit. In the absence of access to meaningful health care, I needed to figure out how to counteract, at the very least, the chronic fatigue sapping my will to do anything but watch other people play video games on Youtube.

So I figured some experimentation was in order, starting with “What happens if Joyce starts drinking tea like she’s getting paid for it?”

Now, I’m going for green tea. Less caffeine, but particularly good for dopamine and L-theanine-related reasons. Considered generally good for human-types. Doesn’t really need to be sweetened. There’s not much by way of downsides here. (More on that later.) And it seems to be enough, because I can feel it hit my system.

Question: Is it really the tea/caffeine, or is it a placebo effect?
Answer: Hell if I care!

That’s not quite true. I want to know the truth too much to ignore the question entirely. But this is what I’m seeing: when I’m dragging, particularly in the afternoon, a large mug of tea takes the edge of the exhaustion. Normally, I would have almost no choice but to go nap, my tiredness is that pronounced. Moreover, when I sit down the write, I feel sharper, more ready to go, even in the morning. The words start flowing with less effort and keep going longer.

do pay for anything more than one large mug with heartburn, as expected. There’s always a price to be paid, though. At the moment, this seems to be the cost of getting writing done without feeling like I’d rather feed myself to starving rats than work. The disparity between what I want to get done and what my body and brain can make happen seems to be getting smaller. For now, at least, that’s enough value to make the price worth it. We’ll see.

Half a Lifetime Later, at the DMV

I played the most boring game of Bingo today with the DMV. Now serving. B-zero-three-point-one-four at. The forbidden window. Two and a half hours for a two and a half minute license renewal. The one interesting bit is this: for the first time since getting my learner’s permit, nearly half my lifetime ago, I had my picture taken again. I decided to really look at that old photo before it goes away.

JS at 15 according to the DMVBaby Joyce Doesn’t Know Curls

I come from a family of people with wavy, frequently short hair. My hair, left to its own devices, curls into tight little ringlets ready to strangle passers-by. With no one to guide me, it took until adulthood for me to learn how to take care of curly hair. So Joyce at fifteen had some problems in the this department.

This was about a year after hacking all my hair off for the second time. (I grew it out when I decided I wasn’t going to crossdress any more. I miss passing as a boy, but I would do the hair very differently now.) Now at that agonizingly awkward length between chin and shoulder, I insisted on pulling the top back, because then it would dry straighter. I hated my curls. They just turned to frizz and got everywhere.

Oh, Joyce, sweetheart, you’ll learn. You don’t have to hold so tight all the time to keep things under control. Also, next time you dye your hair, go for a brighter red. Better yet, go for orange. Subtlety is overrated.

Baby Joyce Doesn’t Know How To Smile

If you tell me to smile, I probably already think I am. I have trouble gauging my facial expressions, and “normal” ones don’t come naturally. I taught myself to make faces other people could recognize, which means they tend to be exaggerated. You get nothing or everything. At fifteen, I seldom felt happy enough to show off my Cheshire grin. So this was what I produced when ordered to smile: an awkward, tight-lipped expression that has more in common with a grimace than anything else. That is not a pleased face.

When I get my new license and see the photo, I hope I won’t look like I’m smiling at all to anyone else. I coached myself in the bathroom and car rearview mirrors before going to the DMV. I wanted to get my real smile, the one no one else looked close enough to see for all those years. The slight tilt at the corners, the opening of the eyes, the way even my ears pull up and back to show it. I hope, in the new photo, I see myself.

Joyce, my darling, you’ll learn. You have your own way of doing things. You don’t have to pretend. There will be people who see all the same.

Baby Joyce Doesn’t Hide Well

Oh, the spiked collar. At fifteen, I wore layers, I wrapped my hands in cords and charms, and I wore a spiked collar for maximum “don’t touch me” vibes. You can’t tell in the picture, but I’ve got two, maybe three (month-to-month memories of that time fail me) of my sets of ear piercings. Two years from this point, I would have my neck draped with about six necklaces daily. I wore enough rings to qualify as permanent brass knuckles.

I warded myself and branded myself with all that metal and twine. I wanted to declare my loves, and my allegiances, and my protections. I wanted to be seen and understood. I wanted, with all the terror of being fifteen and lonely, to show the world my heart and have them covet it. The spikes, in retrospect, were hardly adequate protection for that.

Joyce, you half-feral stray, you’ll learn. You don’t know it yet, but you’re going to find bigger stages and louder microphones as time passes. There will be value in showing your heart to strangers through elaborate codes, and symbols, and outright rooftop screaming. (It’s called storytelling, and also the internet. You’ll like them both.)

That, after half a lifetime, remains true.

Left Hand Complement

Learning: that uncomfortable moment when you realize the depth of your ignorance.

Dominant vs. passive is becoming old vs. new (by Erik Wannee)
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:

Left-hand printing, as of 3/12

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.


Right-hand printing

[My right-hand writing when I’m really trying hard to be legible.]

Right-hand normal writing

[My normal handwriting. The letters begin to flow into one another.]

Right-hand scrawl

[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.

(Re)Learning Japanese

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.

Ginkaku-ji, Jishō-jiSunset over Shinjuku
Two views of Japan (by Σ64 and Sasanoha)
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:

My old textbooks and dictionaries

I also have access to some more materials from my public library. Though slightly outdated, I have found some that look useful:

Library finds

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: