Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Santa Virus ... it's not just lumps of coal

It is humbling to be so grateful to something that has caused so many to lose so much.

Yet, here I sit on my quiet deck looking out over Lake Almanor in Northern California as a gentle breeze cools the late afternoon air. For me not to be grateful for this gift would be an affront to life. I am reasonably sure I wouldn’t be sitting here if it weren’t for the pandemic that has stomped across the planet tossing plans and expectations into the air as if they were merely bits of plastic in the world’s largest Legos set.

Most of us could tell a story, or many, of where we were, what we were planning to do, when we realized that we were in the midst of something serious, something unlike we had seen before. Dream trips were suddenly cancelled; children were home all day, every day; jobs were lost, income streams halted, purpose derailed, and identity masked; loved ones were hospitalized with no way of holding their hands or offering them comfort. A microscopic lion blasted its roar into every corner of the Earth.

In the first week of March, I returned to Reno from visiting a friend in Florida. My first impulse was to go see my kids but then I realized I had no idea what I might have picked up there or on the cross-country flight. Thus began a self-quarantine I thought would last only 14 days while I tried to figure out what all of this meant. I had returned from two years in Mexico a few months earlier and had just purchased my permanent home. I was ready to start reaching out, getting involved, sketching the shape of the “rest of my life.” I still knew almost no one in Reno and now the mechanisms for meeting people were starting to slam shut. What now, fair child?

My curiosity about this novel virus plunged me into the deep end of the sea of information that was rising rapidly. It was something I couldn’t stop watching as the numbers exploded and the human drama of greed and generosity took the place of the movies that were no longer “coming soon.” A creeping form of insanity crept across the landscape with a bit of cloth as the line in the sand that divided the world. It was a story unfolding and we still have no idea how it will end.

For three months I wrote and made art about the global phenomenon that had shut down cities, wreaked havoc with economies, and killed hundreds of thousands of people. And then I stopped, called it done, printed the 130 page book and wondered what was next. 

The world was still topsy-turvy and there was no place to go. The US had done such a horrible job of flattening the curve that no one wanted us, our magical American dollars, or the contagion that blossomed in our wake of ignoring the obvious and arrogantly parading our rights as a free country to do whatever we wanted regardless of the consequences to others.

I dithered, generated a slew of new ideas, none of which stuck, and, in the meantime, summer arrived in Reno like an oven with its own wind tunnel. I was locked down by a virus and locked in by heat and wind. I needed fresh air and water. When I had returned from Mexico, I bought a kayak and a nifty lift that allowed me to single-handedly put it on and take it off of my car. A friend coached me through the buying of an easy-up tent and the necessary camping equipment.  I had a plan. God’s laugh was only a whisper ignored.

Nevada is an amazing state and I’ve fallen in love with it. However, it’s a bit like having a lover wrapped in barbed wire; it can be a bit harsh. However, I was determined to explore my new state, so off I went to Washoe Lake for my shake-down cruise and two or three nights of camping. I found a spot, set up my tent and all my stuff and headed for the lake. It was glorious … a little breezy and the water a little murky … but I was outside and on the water.

It doesn't look windy.
It doesn't look windy.

Back in camp, the breeze grew stronger, the air hotter, and white caps danced across the lake. Definitely not a day for an evening paddle. As I sat at my cute, red and white checkered picnic table getting hotter and dustier, I allowed my expectations and my inner weather wuss to have a tantrum and then slowly repacked all my camping gear and went home. Defeated.

There is a certain edge to defeat at age almost-75. That little voice I had banished so long ago has tiptoed back into my head. “Maybe you’re just too old,” he said. “You don’t know what you’re doing. You’re all by yourself … you could get hurt. It’s time to act your age.” That night, as I slipped into my comfy bed, I thought he might be right. I should just sell my camping gear and my kayak and settle into my little-old-ladyness.

One of the things I like best about myself is that when morning comes, the person who leaps out of bed (well almost these days) is ageless and positively anxious to start a new day, learn something new, find beauty, create art or words or almost anything interesting. Morning-me is a doer with no limits, enchanted by everything she sees through her rose-colored glasses.

Morning Hibiscus
For the next couple of weeks, I looked for ways to deal with the heat and the wind: walking early in the morning, putting a sunshade on my deck, focusing on finding a project that excited me. Somewhere during that time, a memory from decades before returned, creating an OMG reaction. 

Many years ago my first husband and I had spent a night camping at Lake Almanor and I remembered how beautiful it was. Now it dawned on me that it was only a two-hour drive away, so the next morning, I jumped into the car and drove to the lake thinking it might be a place to camp and kayak. On the way, I started thinking that if I could find a place to park an RV, I could have a place to go in the summer, a place for kayaking, swimming, walking among big trees. All those thoughts were clouded by the issues of moving a trailer or 5th wheel, storing it in the winter, spending money I might need later, and dozens of worries about this and that.

The lake was everything I remembered and I checked out a few spots for an RV with little luck. As I drove around the lake, the magnitude of what I wanted seemed just too daunting. And, just as I was thinking myself crazy for even thinking about this, I turned into a small RV park … Vagabond Resort … and saw a trailer with a deck … with a For Sale sign on it. It had a beautiful lake view and I assumed it would be entirely beyond my budget … especially since I had no “budget” for such an extravagance. However, I took a picture of the sign and the phone numbers.

On my way out of the park, I found another trailer for sale, no deck, no view, cramped location. I called the number and exchanged photos and information with the owner, only to discover it was definitely out of my price range. I tried the other numbers on the place I really liked but no one called me back. Conclusion: nice idea but obviously wasn’t going to happen.

The next morning, before reality set in, I tried the numbers again. Bob answered and I discovered it was within shouting distance of affordable. My heart leaped and reminded me that there are no certainties in life, a microscopic predator was actively proving that point. One thing led to another and three days later, we had a deal and here I am now in my dream location, kayaking when I want, swimming in lovely clear water, surrounded by friendly people, and feeling an overwhelming sense of gratitude.

There are still wildflowers here.

I know this virus has created enormous problems for the world, however, I believe it has also offered us a chance to stop and think about what is truly precious in our lives. Buried deep within obstacles are unexpected gifts. May you find ways to give yourself gifts that will make your heart sing during this strange time.

QUESTION: What were you planning to do when corona interrupted everything?

Friday, July 17, 2020

Love Letter to My Life #25: The Frank Sinatra school of language learning

by Joyce Wycoff 

(We know the day we were born, but most of us do not know the day we will die. This love letter to my life is written on the day I've designated as my death day, the 17th of every month, and reminds me to be grateful for my incredible life.) 

I am learning Spanish … again! It's becoming something of a dance.  I’ve had three significant failures in this endeavor and an uncountable number of lessor failures.

Este tiempo es diferente. This time is different. Why? I’ve found a way to do it my way … and … I’ve taken away the need to actually use it. .... screech ... halt! What? Why learn a language if you're not going to speak it?

It didn't start out that way.  My journey began when I wanted to speak to people while on vacation in Mexico; later that broadened and became the desire to speak to my neighbors and to the artisans who were featured at the  Feria del Maestros del Arte in Chapala. I had a purpose and a way to judge success ... and, most often, failure.

Of course, I would still like to speak Spanish, and I live in a mixed neighborhood where … assuming we ever get past COVID-19 and can actually have conversations with our neighbors … I would be able to use the language. However, I’m finding now that “success” is not dependent on my ability to have conversations ... a bit surprising since that seems to be the only definition of success currently used.

How does that make sense? How can I feel like a success as a language learner when I still can’t speak the language? I like Spanish and  I like to read so the ability to read Spanish would be one success indicator. I also like the sounds of Spanish so being able to understand spoken Spanish, songs, and shows would be another.

The one ability that has shown up recently surprises me. Turns out that I’m starting to be able to think in the language … and my thinking has a different quality when it’s in Spanish. I tend to think fast, skim a lot, and skip to the bottom line. Reading and writing in Spanish slows me down and somehow creates a thought process that feels deeper as I explore the nuances of word meanings.

Over the past three years, I’ve put in a significant amount of time studying Spanish and have clawed my way onto the lowest rungs of intermediate Spanish. When I left Mexico, I assumed there was no point continuing to study the language since I’d probably never use it. However, when I arrived in Reno, I started hearing Spanish and listening for it. I could feel myself leaning into it, yearning to know more. 

A couple of synchronicities happened and suddenly I was pulled back into the vortex of learning. However, this time, I was determined to do it my way. I gave myself permission to learn the language even if I didn’t speak it to anyone other than myself. (Aside: almost every language teacher says this is the WRONG way to do it.)  I realized if I wasn’t hitched to the star of spoken Spanish, I could learn any way I wanted to, and just enjoy it along the way.

Glimpse of the Truckee River
While thinking about this learning journey, I remembered my history with photography. I bought my first camera when I was 18 and the next several decades were a frustrating blur of trying to become a good photographer … classes, better equipment, photography tours, books, clubs … everything I could think of … but the quality of my images seldom brought me joy. Plus the cost of film and development hindered my learning process.

Then came digital and my world broke open. Within the first six month of shooting digital, I learned more than I had in 30 years. The instant feedback and being freed from the cost structure of film set my creativity free. I wasn’t aware of how much I had progressed until several years ago when I went to Aspen to shoot the hot air balloon festival and the spectacular local scenery. (Maroon Bells is one of the most photographed places in the west.) For some reason, I wanted prints so I dropped off my camera card at a local print shop. 

When I went to collect the prints, the manager of the store handed me the package and started talking about what a good eye I had. In over 30 years of photography, I had never before heard those words. I don’t think my eye changed, I think the instant feedback that comes with shooting digital taught my eye how to see and how to capture what caught my attention.

Suddenly, a light bulb went off: I needed instant feedback on my learning journey … but not the kind that comes in a “real” conversation. Think about it … when you’re chatting with a friend, how often does he stop you to let you know you’ve mispronounced a word or used it incorrectly? And, if she did, what did that do to your focus and the flow of the conversation?

I needed instant, non-judgmental, implementable feedback.

Google Dos Pasos

It was in Google Translate that I found the instant feedback I needed. People will be quick to tell you how bad Google Translate is, but I’m here to tell you that, while it may not be perfect, it is a teacher with infinite patience. And, it depends on how you use it. If I want feedback on my Spanish, I have to make the first step … in Spanish. From a learning perspective, it’s not particularly helpful to just put some English into  GT and then use whatever Spanish comes out.  It makes a weak impression on your memory.

For example, in the simple sentence at the beginning of this post, I wanted to say “this time is different.” As you can see from the Google Translate image, the English came out the way I wanted. Yay, me! I was right and a tiny endorphin rush streams through my body.  However, that's just Step One.

Step two is to copy the English translation and move it to left side and let it translate from English to Spanish. It comes back: “Esta vez es diferente.” While only one word is different, it’s a learning moment. The word “vez” means time, but more of an occasion rather than clock time.

Not surprisingly at this stage of my journey, step two is seldom perfect. However, the process let's me tweak and learn, learn and tweak until the sentence meets the objective of meaning what I want to say and GT agreeing that it says the same thing in Spanish.

Journaling in Spanish

Using this process, I began writing 20 sentences a day about my life and using new words that I put on tiny cards. These aren’t flashcards because there is no English, no translation on them. If I forget the meaning. I have to look them up again.  However, they stimulate me to write more complex sentences while still trying to stay relevant with my life and the world around me. That additional stimulus pushes me into new thinking ... not only about Spanish but about my life.

This is a slow process, usually taking about 2 hours to write the 20 sentences, but in the past several days, I've discovered a side benefit: because it takes longer to think about what I want to say and how to say it in Spanish, my thoughts seem to go deeper and get clearer. And, as I tweak the sentences to get the Spanish and the English aligned, I’m giving myself more time to think through different aspects of whatever it is I’m thinking about.

Every time a tweak is required, its a learning moment. My most frequent one right now is forgetting to use the personal "a." Without the Google Two Step, I wouldn't have that constant ... and gentle ... reminder. Someday, because of this process, I know that the personal "a" will become second nature.

Spaced repetition and reading out loud

The rest of the process helps to embed the sentences and the sounds more deeply in my memory. Once I have the sentences formed, I print them out and tape them to cards: 5 sentences to each side of two 4x6 cards. The cards are dated for review the next day, 3 days later, 6 days later and then 13 days later, a process called spaced repetition which every memory and learning expert seems to agree is a critical part of the process.

Before I put the cards in a box with date separators, I read each sentence out loud. Sometimes when review of a card from a previous day, I've forgotten what I was trying to say or the meaning of a word. That forces me to rethink the sentence or look the word up again. Reading out loud deepens the memory impression and trains my ears and my tongue.

Bottom line: I'm having fun

The bottom line is that rather than thinking about my learning time as a chore, it’s also a time for contemplation and reflection. It’s a gift I’m giving myself ... and it's fun.

I've now written over 400 sentences and can already feel my growing ability to express myself in this new language. I'm beginning to feel successful, erasing years of feeling like a failure. One day this success may show up in the world, in conversations with Spanish speakers ... or not. Either way, I'm grateful for this journey.