Writing: About Travel

Clouds offer a gorgeous range of landscape-like forms…

Having been unable to travel for so long due to the COVID-19 pandemic, I have a wicked case of wanderlust.

Some of my wanderlust is just caused by escapism: I’m dealing with lots of dull obligations, so the appeal of being AWAY is as alluring as the idea of specific places I may enjoy! I know myself well enough to recognize this, and am evaluating my fantasies carefully, to see what they are REALLY about.

As part of thinking about why I travel, I’ve been reading my writing about past trips, from my first, solo, trans-Pacific trip (to Japan) to my more recent writing about my taxing, trans-Atlantic business travel, where I was able to convey both the hardships AND the glamour.

That first solo trip was an amazing experience, but writing about it while I was sick with a persistent case of bronchitis skewed my reporting. Writing to friends who didn’t share my interests in art narrowed it further. I managed to convey the difficulties well, but not the gorgeousness of misty paths leading to ancient shrines in wet, shady forests, or the beauty of clouds clinging to mountain tops, or the satisfaction of soaking in deeply sulfurous waters… While my friends (fairly) interpreted my writing as disappointment, and I did describe negative experiences and states of mind, I still enjoy memories from that trip: of oversized leaves that fell so noisily while I sat in a forest, lush carpets of moss in a chess-board-like temple garden with stone lanterns as chess pieces, the unexpected appeal of my German hiking companion as he boarded his departing train, the hot lemon drink that warmed me when I was rain-drenched, the bliss of soaking up to my neck in deep hostel bathtubs that I didn’t describe…

The frustrations of the noisy crowds and the jostling students are also vivid, but are less important now: that wasn’t my only trip to Japan, that wasn’t my only visit to those sites in Kyoto, and my subsequent experiences at popular tourist sites mean I understand the limits of what they can and can’t offer me in a way I didn’t at the time.

That trip helped me see and accept what popular mass tourism is. I accept that there are lists of “must-see” destinations (which I don’t actually have to see), and that some of those destinations may be worthwhile if I am willing to accept the consequences of their popularity. (This has also led to my intentional photo series of tourists taking photos at crowded sites, which I enjoy making, and which are only possible due to the nature of such sites.) Accepting this helps me make more informed choices about opting-in AND opting-out. I freely do both.

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My business travel was also highly educational. Being overseas as part of an initial team that dispersed at the end of the business day/week, leaving me unexpectedly alone in a new place, I had to orient myself, and then decided to use my newfound knowledge to orient others. I recognized and appreciated the collegiality of someone with more experience there, and ensured I repaid that collegiality when our project changed sites, and that I followed his example in general. I knew what kinds of social and logistical support I had wanted, and I provided that to those who followed.

I gave tours, and took newcomers to my favorite spots if they shared my interests; I wrote a brief visitors guide; I recommended restaurants, dishes, beer, museums, hotels; I met up for meals with colleagues who didn’t want to dine alone; I translated; I learned train lines, bought tickets, and guided colleagues to work, and in doing do, expanded the practical hotel range for a suburban office with a limited pool of hotels, so my colleagues could spend time in a world-class city rather than sit in a remote, rural hotel at night; I took colleagues on field trips… That felt GREAT! I felt useful, I made things easier, I enjoyed good company, I had good fun.

With multi-country business trips that spanned several weekends, I had a chance to learn about different approaches to exploring: about how to use hotels (the sort that are too cramped to linger in, and the sort that are a pleasure and destination of their own); how to pace myself based on my energy levels, moods, and the weather; how to go away for a weekend; and how to stay put.

Both on business and on my vacations, I learned about the complexity of traveling with others. Of how the wrong traveling companions complicate a trip, and the right ones make my experience of a destination better than I could have managed on my own. This last point is the best lesson: I do have a few friends whose company is great ON THE MOVE, and I should experience places with them more often!

I’ll now return to my daydreams (and online research and list-making) of safe and enjoyable travel, with expectations well grounded by my actual travel experiences…

Writing about Reading: Intentional Omissions

I mentioned before that I don’t write about EVERYTHING I read recreationally, because I don’t strongly recommend everything I read. I wouldn’t feel great about spending my time dwelling on things I didn’t enjoy.

There’s a web comic site that’s been advertising on Twitter, and I eventually caved and logged in to see what they have. Their ads are promoting a tale about an abused, sheltered heroine who was married off to an ab-heavy giant who doesn’t communicate well. She is terrified by everything and requires constant rescue. That is… NOT my cup of tea – I love competence (though I’ll settle for high spirits or a good attitude). The drawings are cute, but you will not read about that here.

Likewise, there’s a well-drawn manga I’ve never mentioned here, which packed the first collection I bought with adventure, but… the story got derailed somewhere in the second collection by the artist’s obsession with looking up all the girls’ skirts and gratuitous shower scenes. Later chapters seem to be mostly shower scenes? I know the conventions of awkward falling and “it’s not what you think” physical humor, and I have laughed at good versions of that (it’s possible!), but this one is just about drawing girls’ private parts now. I’ve given up, won’t buy more, etc.

It’s still fun to write about books and stories that impress me, so I’ll stick to that! 🙂

Culture: World Postcard Day is October 1, 2021

Yes, for some of us, nearly every day is World Postcard Day, thanks to the hard work of our postal services! There is also a SPECIAL day for those of us who aren’t already sending and receiving them regularly! The winning design for the card this year is cute, and everyone likes to receive a note in the mail. Try it!

Words: 800 Days of Duolingo

The Duolingo app is still a regular habit of mine! I’ve been using it in different ways for different languages, and with even more practice behind me, my favorable opinions have grown even stronger.

My Sunday profile. My 800 day streak isn’t PERFECT: there is an option to be forgiven if you make up for it the next day. Which I have used.

During the course of my studies, Duolingo has been adding lessons and improving exercises. I appreciate and like the improvements, which I feel have increased my understanding of topics like verb tenses.

Separate scores for separate languages; “crowns” are displayed in the app for each course, reflecting each unit/chapter you have completed.

German is the language I still use the most, and it is the one I have completed all of level 1 for. I have pen pals who don’t speak English, and this has increased my need to be able to write skillfully and expand my vocabulary. Duolingo introduces practical topics that are more current than the lessons I learned so long ago. (I remember the word for reel-to-reel tape player, because I had some old books – I’m trying to move AWAY from that!) I’m moving through all the lessons in a linear fashion, and plan to complete all of level 2 this year.

Since I first studied German in the 1980s, I can think entirely in German for periods of time, so when I am too tired to study another language, I return to German.

French is my runner up, and a language I always THINK I should speak, though I mostly have reading experience. (I’ve used French transactionally in France, with success but no depth. I’m much better with written French than spoken.) The best part of the app for me with French are the listening exercises: there were sounds that I couldn’t distinguish before, that I can now! My pronunciations remain dodgy, and the app is trying to help.

Spanish is a language I have heard all my life, since I grew up in San Francisco’s Mission District, and would need to use my height to get objects off of high shelves for other people’s abuelas. Talking to abuelas only taught me NOUNS, however, so I’m using the app primarily to learn verbs and form complete sentences!

Spanish is the course where I started writing out notes on verb conjugations, and it turns out I REALLY need those for reference. My note-taking has helped improve my answers, since I recall things better when I have written them out. I also use independent references for verb conjugations. Duolingo helped me finally think a few thoughts spontaneously in Spanish, which is new and exciting.

Japanese is a recurring interest, and a language I studied independently for a brief time in the early 90s. (I learned hiragana and katakana, and tourist phrases; I have visited Japan twice on multi-week trips, and was able to translate signs for other foreigners both times.) Japanese for English speakers is a relatively new Duolingo course that I had been eagerly awaiting, and I’m really impressed by it.

This language program is INTENSE, since there are new characters to learn in nearly every lesson. It helps to be familiar with hiragana before beginning, but the program covers it, and then replaces some words you’ve learned in hiragana with their kanji equivalent, which is how students there learn kanji, I believe.

I’m finding weak spots in my katakana, and am learning that note taking for the new kanji characters is ESSENTIAL. I was clever enough to subtitle the kanji with hiragana early on, but making notes in English is a fair enough habit.

My characters aren’t well-formed, but I’ll improve with independent practice on sheets that schoolkids use.

I’m learning the Japanese counting method, where the number is modified by the shape of thing being counted, and it is a tribute to Duolingo that they have introduced this gently enough that I did NOT run away screaming.

I am not super confident that I can recall some of these lessons where multiple new kanji were added, and so I may use the course differently from how I use it for other languages: instead of completing level 1 for all lessons, I may keep stepping up my levels in the early lessons until I really feel comfortable.

SO: Duolingo is a useful tool. You can set your own pace, and use it as a standalone study method (especially if you are already familiar with the languge) or as a supplement to other tools. If games and competition motivate you, you can get competitive in your ‘league’ against other students working at a similar pace. The courses are regularly improved based on the data they see across students. It has options to skip ahead and test out of levels that you are acing. I’m happy to see the addition of Japanese, and the care that went into designing the lessons.

I still recommend it! 🙂

Language: German Conjugator

I write in German regularly, but not fluently. What I mean is, my conversational German is okay (I can talk about my life and the weather), my transactional German is okay (I can buy shoes and order food), but my new pen pals keep raising topics I’ve never discussed in German, and so I’m learning new words. Which is GREAT! But… I don’t know how to conjugate the new verbs.

Google Translate (translate.google.com) is nearly magical in its application, and I rely on it while traveling. The image to text instant translations are AMAZING! And the translations are pretty smart. I think I’ve mentioned before that it misses context and nuance, which makes some sense: when I had large Swiss bills and smaller denominations, it offered transformation in place of change, because the nuance is a little different in German: I needed small money. But I knew enough German not to ask for transformation, so it was FINE.

Anyway, Google Translate is my go-to for trying to say new things. However, for all of its excellence, switches between conversational past (I had eaten) and simple past (I ate) in a way that distracts me, and which I don’t seem to influence by my English wording. I want to be more consistent, and this tool, which is called Reverso Conjugator, can help me!

We used conversational past in school, so simple past is kind of exciting – close to how I speak in English, but also unfamiliar in a few ways. So, I’m using it to learn, and it’s been great so far! I recommend it!

Books: Writing Fiction during an Implausible Time

I write legal and technical materials professionally, AND I recreationally write a range of other things. Blogs like this, web pages, a surprising number of letters and postcards, diaries, notes for stories, and fiction. Writing is something I have always enjoyed, and I am always writing something, at least for my own satisfaction.

As with so many other fiction writers, the current pandemic has been a wake up call that the popular fictional narratives we have around plagues are not accurate. Yes, in nearly every popular movie, there is a warning from scientists that goes unheeded, and there is needless suffering. Yes, there are rumors and superstitions and panics, and we see those in films and playing out similarly in real life.

Yet, the level of denial visible in real life in response to the global COVID-19 pandemic is shocking. People are devoting significant time to announcing that the pandemic is: a hoax, a domestic conspiracy (despite its global nature), a foreign plot (it is somehow not real but also a foreign bioweapon), a domestic power grab (preventing illness is oppression?), a disease carried by outsiders (again, somehow it is not real but also something strangers bring? WHAT?), something that isn’t real so they flout precautions, something that isn’t real so they sabotage the medicines (but if it isn’t real, why bother sabotaging medicines?), a situation where the vaccine is free but a counterfeit card that falsely claims you were vaccinated costs $400 (so it would be cheaper to go along with the treatment than pretend you did), a private sector plot to embed microchips into people (for generally unexplained purposes, though when they are explained, it always involves something like the location your smartphone already records, which means an additional device would not be necessary)… In this bizarre current reality, the pandemic is somehow BOTH a situation where precautions against catching the illness are banned by a governor AND a situation where that governor’s state requires federal emergency supplies of hospital ventilators and monoclonal antibody treatments for the seriously ill, which the governor suggests people somehow self-medicate with for this illness he says isn’t serious?

If I had written ANY of these things into a fiction story, my writing would have been rejected as implausible. The publishers would have told me that people are not that stupid, and that I should feel bad about making my fellow Americans look so ridiculous.

-I mean, really.

I want people in my fiction writing to be both realistic and smart, but it feels like I can only have one of those two.

I am inspired to post this after reading the tweet above, about news that a sci-fi movie has been interpreted as reality by the anti-vaccine-far-right (who failed to even grasp basic details about the movie they are basing their nonsensical conspiracies on). Their nonsense has gotten so much press that the screenwriter for this remade sci-fi movie had to make public statements emphasizing that it is fiction:

(It is still strange to read something on Twitter and later find the tweets I read subsequently inspired news articles…)

The past several years have inspired many discussions about the death of parody in the face of an absurd reality, but the current absurd reality also is killing off the premise that the vast majority of people could consistently act intelligently. Maybe we could get to half, or nearly half, but not an overwhelming majority.

I want a future where people ARE actually intelligent. I want to WRITE futures in which people are intelligent!

I suppose my defense for stories with predominantly intelligent populations will be: yes, but I told you this is fiction.

Book: Palimpsest: Documents from A Korean Adoption by Lisa Wool-Rim Sjöblom

Palimpsest: Documents from A Korean Adoption
by Lisa Wool-Rim Sjöblom
published by Drawn & Quarterly, Montreal, Canada
2019

This is a beautiful, non-fiction graphic novel about an adopted Swede of Korean origin, her life experience as an adopted person, and the corruption and bureaucracy of the international adoption industry.

Drawn & Quarterly is a great publisher, and the excerpt of this book at their website drew me in. The story is charmingly illustrated, but the subject matter is serious. Who gets to decide what the narrative of adoption is? For international adoptions, why is the story always that heroic white people saved a child from their terrible relatives and/or homeland? Why are so many children who are not actually orphaned adopted out of their families and culture?

The narrator looks into her own family history, and it takes years of effort and abundant support from her friends and family to dig through layers of lies – constant lies, omissions, and half-truths – to learn the circumstances of her birth. She illustrates and narrates her experience wonderfully, and makes an excellent advocate for adoptees.

I had to double-check my understanding of the word palimpsest: it is a document that has been erased and written over, and so may have different layers of meaning. It’s a strange Greco-Latin word, and a fitting one for the identity layers adopted people experience.

~~~

I’ve had friends who have been adopted, and a colleague who made an international adoption. My adopted friends shared their perspectives about their adoptions with me, how they processed revelations about their origins, and their desires to eventually meet their genetic relatives. (They did!) Their views were the opposite of the adoptive parent colleague, who baselessly villainized his child’s anonymous birth mother to a degree that shocked me, but which fit into his desired heroic narrative. So much of what Ms. Sjöblom wrote made sense to me because of what my friends had shared, but her story should appeal to anyone who wants to know who they are and feel that they “belong.”

Life: Actively trying to be inactive

My mother apologized a few years back for keeping me so BUSY in childhood. Her mother did it to her, and while her family was Catholic, it still felt like a “Protestant Work Ethic” problem: busy people of all ages with no time to think will be docile and have no time to sin! Business = godliness!

Being “busy” to the point of not really having a life is a difficult habit to break, and so there are self-help articles about how other cultures do it. Wrapping the idea of rest or passivity in labels and costumes from another culture feels hip and exotic.

My favorite versions of these are my various Zen Buddhist books, which encourage us to sit, breathe, and observe our thoughts. (I have a list of friends who confide that they MUST NOT, under any circumstances, be alone with their thoughts, and I honestly worry for them.)

The Dutch are hip and have a word/concept for what we in California might call “chilling,” about being in and aware of your surroundings without multitasking, which is a nice reminder that such things are possible.

Perspective | The Dutch have a name for doing nothing. It’s called niksen, and we need more of it.

Last year, I quit a terrible job in corporate middle management. I was stressed all the time, traveling once or twice a month, occasionally internationally, and work followed me everywhere: from the first email in the morning, sometimes as early as 5 a.m., until the last texts late into the evening.

~~~

My holiday time off – several consecutive days in a row! – is jarring, since I’ve been doing metaphorical firefighting for so long that moments of calm almost make me uncomfortable.

As a creative person, I need this time to unwind and think my own thoughts, yet can still feel like I need to be “busy” with work that OTHERS deem “productive,” and that will never get me anywhere I want to go.

It’s nice to be reminded that I can (with effort and practice) relax and appreciate being alive without judging myself harshly for doing so.

Life: Lights

I decorated today. For the solstice/Xmas holidays, I mean.

I’m usually visually understated about this time of year. I have simple tastes, leaning toward one or two colors (gold, red, green, white, OR silver) and some sparkling visual calm. This isn’t rebellion, but I’ve had loved ones who needed ALL THE XMAS THINGS all the time, which was too much for me. As in: if the soap in the bathroom wasn’t Xmas-themed, the world might end. I’ve swung HARD in the other direction.

A solid, pagan solstice/northern European-themed Christmas for me is: a really good, gluten free cake or pumpkin pie, a fresh-smelling wreath, cozy pajamas, feasting on favorite winter foods with loved ones and chatting most of the day away, curling up in front of a fireplace (or bank of candles), and some light entertainment.

This year, all the social elements of Xmas are unsafe, so I’m going a bit out of my range to do something cheerful with lights that is NOT monochromatic (gasp), cycles through MANY colors (gasp!), and is even visible outside.

I’m afraid I’ll get so used to them, I won’t want to take them down. 🙂

Life: Language Study (with Owls)

I made a cheerful little owl more excited.

Duolingo, the language study app/platform, showed me this cute graphic summarizing my progress this year. I study every day for a couple minutes, and I’ve been using it for about 550 days consecutively…

My eavesdropping in Spanish is getting better, and I made an actual (bad) joke to myself today (about podemos vs. perdemos) which is a good sign for me, though perhaps not for anyone near me.

My Spanish translation and/or guessing ability is improving, but my independent recall and sentence formation isn’t so great, so I’ll need to do some independent writing. I’ve only had spontaneous thoughts in grammatically proper Spanish a few times, whereas I have entire conversations in my head in German, so there’s a long way to go! The Spanish past tense has really bowled me over, perhaps because I hadn’t fully mastered conjugations for the present tense, and I haven’t recovered conceptually. (I ate, you ate, s/he ate, we ate, they ate IS SO MUCH EASIER than the Spanish versions of those: female: Yo comí, tú comiste, ella comió, nosotras comimos, ellas comieron; and then the same verbs for male, but different pronouns for those last three: Yo comí, tú comiste, él comió, nosotros comimos, ellos comieron. YES, German does something similar, but I’ve been practicing that for YEARS longer!)

On the days when I want to study, but can’t focus on Spanish, I return to German. I use German somewhat regularly, thanks to a friend and Postcrossing, so it feels like laziness. Or, less frequently, I switch to French, which I’ve still cumulatively spent more app time studying than Spanish. The issue with French is the random shared words: my trés bien could sabotage my muy bien. This is a really lucky problem to have!

It’s nice of Duo, the owl mascot of Duolingo (die Eule, le hibou, or el búho, depending), to encourage me with this certificate.

I still enthusiastically recommend Duolingo as a nice way to improve language familiarity as part of a bigger study plan suited to your personal learning/method needs.