Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The First Thing to Go ...

Yesterday I took my second quiz of the semester. I got a 75 percent. Better than the first quiz (50 percent on that one), but still not so good. I really studied for it – I made flash cards and had almost every member of the family quiz me on them. I did all the homework and reviewed each night. The day before the quiz, my son-in-law sat down with me and read off the English words and checked to make sure the characters I wrote matched the ones on the cards he held. I thought I was ready. But I got a C.

Thirty years ago I would have been crying my eyes out. I would have questioned my intelligence and considered dropping the class. My head would be hung in shame and I wouldn’t be able to face my parents. I’d be a failure, unsuitable for intellectual pursuits.

I suppose if I were to look it up I would find a physiological reason why I’m not able to retain these bits of information. I imagine it has something to do with aging. But I’m not worried. I happen to have the luxury of not needing the class or the grade for a degree program, so I don’t have to stress about the bad grades. Yes, I’m still attending class each day, and yes, I’m definitely going to study, but rather than representing the extent of my shortcomings, the quizzes will simply be another form of review.

I’m sure the words and characters will eventually become part of my knowledge base, as long as I keep working at it. My aunts and cousins have begun writing to me, mindful of my limited vocabulary. And I’m able to decipher a lot more. I found some Japanese children’s books my relatives sent long ago and actually figured out a few phrases. I’m making progress! Maybe not at the same speed as the A students, but I’m getting there.

Maybe someday I’ll figure out a way to remember where I put my glasses …

Friday, September 25, 2009

Mental Cruisin'

Last week I attended my writers’ group meeting. I enjoy the monthly meetings. We meet at a great restaurant, and I get to schmooze with a lot of intelligent people who love to write. We have a business meeting, and then we have a speaker. This month one of our more prolific members spoke about Character Arcs – the emotional journey a character takes, caused by internal and external conflicts. It was a very informative talk and we all started thinking about the emotional journeys our characters are taking. I guess it makes sense that the more strenuous the journey, the more compelling the story.

After the meeting, did a few chores, and sat down to read. I just got the latest Stephanie Plum adventure from the library (yes, I’m too cheap to buy it!) And then I thought about some comments the speaker made. When a character’s story covers several books, the character’s arc in each individual book tends to be smaller. Especially evident is the lack of character growth in this particular series. Though she always solves the murder mystery, she never resolves her issues with either Morelli or Ranger. It’s hard to believe either one of them still shows any interest in her.

So, does that make me a literary simpleton? Why am I so attracted to a character who remains stuck in the same dead-end job where she gets abused both physically and verbally, where she struggles to earn enough to pay her bills, and where her mode of transportation either gets smashed, stolen, or blown up on a regular basis? What’s so compelling about a female who apparently has what it takes to attract the attention not one, not two, but occasionally three (if you count the mysterious and sporadic appearances of Diesel) sexy men, yet chooses to remain unattached?

The truth is, I love reading about Stephanie and her misadventures. A part of me wants to shake her and say, “You idiot! Why are you running around working for your cousin Vinnie? Why are you and your hamster Rex still holed up in that little apartment, eating your mom’s leftovers, when a hunk like Morelli is pining after you? Marry the guy! Live happily ever after!” But then, of course, Stephanie would be too boring to read about in future books. Part of Stephanie’s charm is her tendency to land in disastrous situations. And the men are attractive because they can be counted on to help her get out of them.

I still enjoy the deeper, more involved stories with the soaring character arcs and dramatic plots. I have to try and write them if I ever want to get a story published. But every now and then, I don’t want to go on an emotional journey – I just want a nice, easy ride, and Stephanie and her friends are perfect for that.

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I was hoping to finish a scarf and hat set this week, but my head is too big, so I have to take the hat apart and make it bigger! Oh, well, maybe next time.

Friday, September 18, 2009

In Search of the Thirty Hour Day

This has been an extremely busy week. Between my two jobs and keeping up with my homework, I haven’t really had time to write or work on crafts. Part of me is frustrated with this – after all, one of the perks of retiring is having time to do what you want, or so I thought. But another part of me is happy about this. Each day when I get up I have places to go, people to see, and things to do. I have a reason (or several reasons) to get up.

Granted, not everything I schedule into my day qualifies as a “must do.” I don’t HAVE to go to my sewing group. I don’t HAVE to drive 18 miles to have lunch with former co-workers. I don't HAVE to stop at the library to pick up the latest comedy/murder mystery. And I don’t HAVE to keep playing Spider Solitaire until I manage to hit a score of 1500! But my days are getting too full to fit in all the things I did this summer.

It seems I’m going to have to adjust my daily goals. When I started this blog, I promised myself I would write 200 words each day, and spend at least one hour a day on a non-writing creative project. Now that the school year has begun, other responsibilities are vying for my time. I could probably continue if I disowned my family, hired a maid (my dear husband cooks and does laundry, but there’s a limit to what I can ask him to take on), and cut back to two or three hours of sleep per night.

So – where do I cut back? If I reduce my writing goals, I’ll never get this infernal book finished. I think I’ll save that as a last resort. I’d really, really like to be able to write “THE END” sometime this year on at least one of my writing projects.

I’ve also got a lot of unfinished craft projects, but I can’t work on them every night. There just aren’t enough hours in a day. So as a compromise, I think I’ll simply broaden my definition of “creative project.” For example, if I spend two hours preparing a PowerPoint Presentation for my students, I’m creating something that wasn’t there before. If I spend time selecting music to illustrate my lesson and burn a CD with those selection, I’m also creating something. Of course I’ll have to tackle the usual projects when the “have to” stuff is caught up. But this way I’m not really reducing my goals, just redefining them.

Phew! I feel better. I’ve written my 200+ words. Now I can move on to something else.

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In light of my adjusted goals, I am considering the preparation of food as a creative project – especially since I don't cook all that often. Last week I went to a Japanese potluck/movie night. My contribution was a pan full of onigiri (riceballs) sprinkled with a Japanese seasoning called furikake. It’s not a particularly challenging dish, but it was food, and the kids at school wolfed it down in a hurry!

Friday, September 11, 2009

A Fish Out of Water

Last week the fall semester began at GVSU. As I mentioned last week, four times a week I sit in a classroom of children. Actually, they’re all legally adults. But in the scope of my world, they are practically infants.

I’ve seen movies depicting the adult sitting in a classroom of kids. The Adam Sandler movie “Billy Madison” and scenes from Robin Williams’ “Jack” come to mind. The adult stands out, mostly because of his size. In my case, my graying hair and wrinkly skin are the things distinguishing me from my classmates. It takes me a little longer to get to class, and my back aches from sitting on the molded plastic seats. And in classrooms that have the seats connected to the tiny desks, my matronly figure doesn’t fit as well as it used to.

When I enrolled in Japanese 101, my original intention was to sit in the back of the room, absorb as much as I could, and keep my mouth shut. After all, in my experience, the last person kids this age want to interact with is someone older than the instructor. So I showed up, did my work, soaked things in, and left. But language is an interactive skill, improved only when used. So I cautiously entered in class discussions, asking questions when a grammar point was unclear, or when the instructor’s use of vocabulary differed from what I had heard.

A funny thing happened when I actually “joined” the class. Instead of regarding me with disdain, the students simply accepted me. I discovered I wasn’t the only “non-traditional” student (though I was definitely the eldest). When we were instructed to work in groups, I didn’t have to wait for other groups to form and then work with the lonely student left behind. And when passing classmates on campus, I would often be greeted with a cheery “hello.”

Perhaps young people are more accepting of other people’s parents than their own. That was certainly the case with one of my kids. Or maybe these kids have matured to the point where they can accept someone of my generation as a peer. In any case, I no longer feel like an outsider. If it weren’t for my aching joints as I walk across the campus, I can almost imagine myself back to the first time I actually was a college student.

It seems that the news is full of horror stories about young adults who make terrible decisions. Television often depicts teens as lazy, self-absorbed, and rude. I guess it’s natural to worry about “the younger generation.” I recall the WWII generation worrying about the hippies in the 60s. But we survived then, and we’ll survive now. And from what I can see, there is no shortage of intelligent, well-mannered young adults who will take good care of me when I’m no longer able to walk to class. In the meantime, I’m thrilled that they are allowing me to swim in their pond for a while.

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I took some pictures of the fleece hats produced by our “Warm Ears” sewing group, as described in my “Senior Road Trip” post on August 17. So far this year we’ve made more than 2500 hats! Visit warmingears.com for more information about our group.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Making the Connection

After a half century of communicating almost exclusively in English, I decided it was time for me to learn my mother’s native language – Japanese. I tried once before, thirty-some years ago, when I was in college. But the course wasn’t very intensive, and I didn’t really use what I learned, so I never developed the skill. When mom’s relatives came to visit, I could understand a word here or a phrase there, but I couldn’t really join in the conversation.

Last year, the university where I teach hired an energetic new professor to teach the Japanese language. I decided that it was time to get serious about learning it and enrolled in the class. Before long I was making flash cards and asking my kids to quiz me, completing homework drills and listening to tapes. It was like being in high school Spanish again, except a lot more difficult. Besides learning the words, I had to learn the characters – hundreds of them! Twenty-six letters seemed much easier to memorize.

I started to rethink this ambition. How in the world would I do this? I’m not exactly young anymore, and sometimes I have trouble remembering where I am and what I’m doing. I’d hear the same words and phrases over and over, and each time I’d have to look them up. I’d practice making the characters, and wake up the next day wondering what I wrote.

Fortunately I had my own private tutor, who urged me on. Each evening mom would listen patiently as I read through my homework questions, correcting my grammar. Each weekend she looked over my workbook, catching the mistakes I made. I realized that she learned all this during the first quarter of her life, before she married her handsome American soldier and sailed across the ocean to a totally different world. She then had to learn our twenty-six letters, and she had to remember how to combine them in different ways to make strange-sounding words.

Learning this language is having several effects. It’s giving me a closer link to my mom and her family. I’m learning about the culture she came from, and appreciating more and more about what she gave up by coming here. I’m learning to appreciate what children go through as they learn to read and write. Even when I know the words, the meaning behind the characters doesn’t come easily to me. I have a greater empathy for those who struggle with the symbols we use to communicate in the written word.

So this week a new semester started, and once more I’m sitting in a classroom of students younger than my own children. (That’s something I’m going to explore next week!) I have a fresh pack of notebook paper and pencils, a stack of flash cards, and my dictionary. And I have the determination to someday be able to carry on a conversation with my aunts, uncles, and cousins.

So – how do you connect with family? Are they nearby, or far away? If they’re far away, how do you keep in touch? Or don’t you?

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Switching to the crafty side of my life, I finished another project this week! Here’s the afghan I was working on during the trip I described in “The Family Afghan” post on July 20: