March Odds & Ends

Another small group of things from March that were not enough for an individual post:

New sunglasses and reading glasses.

  • I have my makeup and new glasses all pretty well figured out now, although I’m still walking into stores with my sunglasses on and wondering why everything stays dark. Four pairs of readers was the ideal amount – I always have a pair nearby no matter where I am: red in the living room, blue in the bedroom, aqua at work, and pinkish-red in my purse.
  • We’ve had somewhat low water pressure since we moved in to our apartment last summer, but a couple of weeks ago the pressure suddenly dropped even more throughout the apartment and the kitchen water faucet and sprayer just sort of went crazy – the faucet got stuck in spray mode (we have a pull down spray nozzle) and started spraying in all directions, creating a mess every time we needed to use the faucet. Maintenance came the day after Brett called and we got a new hot water heater, a new kitchen faucet, new bathroom faucet, and new fancy shower head. The hot water heater had apparently been the problem – it was old and internal corrosion was clogging up everything and causing low(er) water pressure throughout the apartment. Everything works wonderfully now! We also love not having to pay for these types of repairs.
  • Brett and I have decided we want to move to a larger apartment when our lease on this one expires this summer. Our current apartment remains uncomfortably small, especially when the grandkids are here, and there is almost no storage space – we feel like sardines packed in a can (and we have so little stuff too). For what we pay now or close to it we can get a larger apartment on the other side of the complex, which in our opinion is lovelier than the side we’re currently on and seems quieter as well. We also no longer want to live on the ground floor – we’ve had enough of the noise coming from above and also having all the noisy heat exchangers/air conditioners for the building outside our bedroom windows. If we take an upper floor apartment we can possibly have a wood-burning fireplace, something we would love and would use. We’ve talked with the main office, and can see on the first of June what’s coming available, tour a couple of the larger floor plans, and then make our choice. Our daughter-in-law and grandkids may also move to larger apartment here or they may move to a different (but close by) apartment complex, still on the way for drop-offs and pick-ups.
I love, love, love my new breadbox! Besides holding a lot, the bottom of the lid can be used as a breadboard.
  • WenYu and Meiling both surprised me with early birthday presents this month (my birthday isn’t until May). I have no idea what I did to deserve this generosity, but I received a lovely rechargeable lighted makeup mirror from WenYu, much needed because the lighting in our bathroom is awful. The mirror is about the size of an iPad, perfect for future travel. Meiling sent me the bread box I have been wanting! It’s as lovely as it looked in pictures, and the “bread clutter” on our counter has been taken care of.
  • We also had a great visit with our son while he was here. He obviously spent most of his time with M and the kids, but they took us out to dinner and he came over a couple of times to visit with us. He’ll be back at the end of April for another week’s visit, and then back again for six weeks in the summer.
It’s sort of amazing the mischief this little dog can get into in just a couple of minutes.
  • We love our little Kaipo so much, but we were having an awful time keeping him from tearing up everything, from his toys to his bed. We stopped one day at a local pet supply store and bought him a few natural chew items (dried tendons, trachea, collagen – all things that “melt” as he chews versus breaking or snapping off) to see if we could redirect his chewing. He loves them, and it’s been like having a different dog living with us, one that’s content to sit calmly in his bed and chew instead of looking for things he can rip to bits. We’ve stocked up on a few more of the items so he should be good for a while.


February Odds & Ends

A few miscellaneous things too small for individual posts:

  • Grandkids: We spent quite a bit of extra time with C and K this month beyond our usual duties. M came down with Covid the second week of the month so we kept the kids with us as much as possible until she recovered. Getting them up, dressed, fed, and off to their respective schools in the morning was a challenge – we were definitely out of practice!! Their schedules don’t sync at all either so there was lots of driving for Brett. Both kids are somewhat picky eaters, so getting them fed was also a challenge at times but we managed. I have baked like crazy all month making cookies, brownies, muffins, and cakes for some of their snacks, and have vowed to be better prepared next month. For those who might wonder, we are generously reimbursed for gas, snacks, etc. every month even though we don’t ask for or expect it.
  • Eye surgery: My first surgery went very well, with a much faster and easier recovery than I expected. The almost-immediate improvement in the eye that was done was absolutely remarkable – I have 20/20 vision in that eye again. The other eye will be operated on tomorrow morning. I cannot wait to get all of this over and get new glasses (for close vision) but that won’t happen until the end of March, when both eyes have fully healed. In the meantime all I need now are inexpensive reading glasses.
  • Breadmaking: Count me in as the latest convert to no-knead Dutch oven bread. I made my first loaf at the beginning of the month and it was instant love for both of us. I’ve been making a loaf per week since (the grandkids love it too), and have tried the cinnamon raisin version which we enjoyed as well. The main challenge is not to eat too much after it comes out of the oven! I’m still kind of mad at myself for taking so long to try it because it’s so easy and makes such a delicious loaf of bread. We’re also very happy with the take & bake items we’ve gotten from Whole Foods: blueberry scones, cherry turnovers, and croissants. The cost per item is the same or less than already-baked goods, but this way we get the items fresh and warm from the oven, so we’re going to continue to keep them in rotation (we have a pastry around once a week for breakfast).
  • Reservations for Maine: I made our hotel reservations for four nights in mid-coast Maine following Meiling’s and KN’s wedding this summer. At first I thought it might be too early, but some places were already sold out for the dates we wanted! We’ve reserved a pet-friendly room in a well-reviewed place that provides a site-made free breakfast every morning, and the location will be perfect for exploring up and down the coast.
  • Weight update: I was weighed the morning of my eye surgery and was very happy to find my weight far less than expected. I honestly thought I had gained a lot since we’ve been here, but even being fully clothed with shoes on my weight was only a few pounds more (less than 10) than I weighed when we left Hawaii. I don’t get as much exercise here as I did there, so all things considered I’m calling it a win. I’m very motivated now to keep up the walking and the way we eat! Brett is in good shape as well – he’s the primary dog walker and regularly gets 10,000 – 15,000 steps a day.
  • Happy birthday, Kaipo! Our little pup turns one year old on Sunday. We are so happy and grateful to have this little guy; he’s everything we hoped for when we decided to add him to our lives. I can’t get over how much he’s changed since we got him last August – his breeder said he was pretty much as big as he was going to get, but he’s actually bigger and more filled out more than expected. He’s matured in other ways as well although he still loves to chew on things (thankfully not the furniture), and is a digger – he “digs” in his dog bed and “buries” his toys under the cushion. I felt bad for a while because we don’t have a yard for him, but can see now it would either be full of holes or he’d dig himself out under the fence. Meiling sent him a box of cute, fun birthday toys the other day and he had them all chewed up or damaged in less than 48 hours. I’ve repaired them as best as I can, but we knew when we first saw them they were doomed. We still love this little guy to pieces!
  • Taiko concert: Brett and I are attending the Kodo One Earth Tour concert on Monday evening in Nashville courtesy of M and the Japanese Consulate. If it’s like any other taiko event we’ve attended it will be a very exiting evening!

The taiko: a traditional Japanese drum with limitless rhythmic possibilities. Kodo’s mission is to explore these possibilities, and in the process forge new directions for a vibrant living art-form. Since 1981, Kodo has given over 6,500 performances in 52 countries on five continents. This figure includes 4,000 performances under the “One Earth” banner, a theme that embodies Kodo’s desire to transcend language and cultural boundaries, all while reminding their audiences of the common bonds we all share as human beings. 

Time is flying by: just a few more days of this short month to go and then it’s on to March!

What I Did On My Vacation

Taking a few weeks away from blogging was a good thing for me to do, and gave me time to think about how I want to do things going forward to avoid burnout, and make sure writing stays a pleasurable activity for both me and my readers.

I managed to keep busy with a few things during my time off:

  • Our daughter-in-law called me the Sunday before Thanksgiving and asked if I’d like to go along with her and K to World Market. A sensible Laura would have said no because I don’t know of a store that has more temptations to spend on than that one does (it’s the most dangerous store ever for me), and I always buy more than I intend when I walk in. However, Brett said I should go so I promised I would be careful, or as careful as possible. I somehow got out of there with just four bags of stuff, including a throw pillow and warm thrown for the sofa, but I also came home with a chair – never saw that coming. I kept walking back to look at it, loved the armless style and fabric pattern, and thought it would look good with our sofas. I finally looked at the tag and discovered it was on clearance for 50% off so . . . I sent Brett a picture and asked what he thought and he said get it! We now have a super comfortable, sturdy, and stylish chair that provided some much needed additional seating at Christmas. And with the addition of our new print, our home feels “complete.” (Our DIL liked it so much she almost got one too!)
  • I got my hair cut. I loved my curls, but they are not simple or inexpensive to maintain so I went to a barbershop and got my hair cut short-short again. I got a great cut (barbershops are all about grooming versus just style) for less than half of what I would have paid at a salon.
  • I attended a Nashville Symphony Orchestra “Home Alone” concert with M and K (K’s new “favorite movie ever”). We watched the movie on a big screen in the auditorium while the orchestra played the soundtrack below – it was fantastic! Since one of us still has to stay home with Kaipo, Brett stayed with him that day, but I watched him when Brett went with them another weekend to see the ice exhibit and all the Christmas decorations at the Opryland hotel.
  • Our very good friend Denise came through Tennessee on her extended road trip and we had a grand time catching up before it was time for her to be on her way again. We had dinner at our place and the next day Denice and I explored historic downtown Franklin. Both of us were grateful to have our dogs along (she has two!) as they limited us to window shopping only. We were able to snag an outdoor table at the Irish pub across the street from the historic Franklin theater and enjoy a delicious lunch there.
  • I tried three new recipes in November and December: pumpkin lasagna, easy dulce de leche, and an amazing apple pie that we had at both Thanksgiving and Christmas. Recipes will be coming up in the next few weeks!
  • Brett and I hiked at the nearby Marcella Vivrette Smith Park – there are four well-marked trails through the woods and fields – and we walked around historic the Ravenswood Mansion which is located there as well. The mansion, built in 1825 for the Wilson family, is currently used an an event site (weddings, etc.) so no tours were available of the interior, but the home and several exterior buildings have been well preserved. As I’ve said before, I’m not much interested in plantation homes unless slavery is discussed right up front, and the write-up of Ravenswood does not shy away from it.
  • I read several books, and brought my total books read for the year to 58! I ended the year with several new books on hold at the library, so those will be interspersed while I reread other books throughout the year.
  • We did a big stock-up on toiletries for 2023 throughout December, buying (hopefully enough) shampoo, shave cream, shower gel, moisturizer with SPF 55, body cream, razor and blades, toothpaste, deodorant, mouthwash, and dental floss to get us through the year. We also wanted to buy vitamins but they go on sale this month at Costco so we we’ll pick those up this month. The bath bombs are for when K spends the night with us. I got a big Target gift card for Christmas and as we honestly don’t need another thing for the apartment I’m going to use some of it to stock up on tissues and toilet paper.
  • I applied for a job at our nearby Trader Joe’s. I am having some second thoughts about it, especially with our grandson staying in Tennessee and having to fit in his new school schedule with K’s, but I haven’t heard anything from TJ’s either, so will just wait and see what happens.
  • I had fun making a special Christmas “Cocoa Bar” for our son and family that I took over to them a few days before Christmas. I found two big red mugs at Goodwill last fall for the grandkids, and along with a container of Cadbury drinking chocolate added miniature peppermint marshmallows, double chocolate marshmallow spoons, and vegan cocoa sticks from Trader Joes, a box of big peppermint (stir) sticks and snowflake marshmallow toppers from World Market. I was planning to arrange everything in a basket but found the cute wooden “Cocoa Bar” box at Target’s dollar market at the front of the store for less than a basket would have cost.
  • We signed up for a new travel card and earned enough miles for a free trip to Mexico (in 2024). YaYu wants to see San Miguel de Allende and asked us to go along with her and now we can . . . for free!
  • Preparations for our big family gathering kept both Brett and I busy throughout much of December, and the actual time everyone was here was crazy but wonderful, especially after Southwest cancelled the girls’ and KN’s flights home. We still had an absolutely perfect family gathering for Christmas and we all said we’d like to do it again next year – WenYu has suggested maybe at her home in Massachusetts!

Thank you again for the time away from the blog – it was necessary but I feel ready to get back to it again.

Coffee Time: A Giveaway from Mexico!

I am typically not a big fan of flavored coffee, and ones I’ve tried in the U.S. have always been disappointing (to me), but during our time in San Miguel de Allende I rediscovered how good flavored coffees can be if done right. The lavender coffee we enjoyed at Lavanda Cafe was amazing, and so are these wonderful flavored coffees I found at City Market. We brought home several bags of it for ourselves, and I also picked up a few extra for a giveaway. Brett and I enjoy a small cup every evening with our dessert and it will be a sad day for us when it runs out.

There will be three winners for the giveaway. I will choose a first, second, and third place winner with first-place getting first choice of the flavor they prefer: cinnamon (canela), vanilla (vainilla), or hazelnut (avellana). The second-place winner will choose between the remaining two flavors, and third place will receive the remaining package.

All three of the flavors are delicious! The coffee is a darker roast, and the flavor is present but not overwhelming. There are no added sweetners. Each resealable bag contains an approximate half pound of coffee.

To enter, please leave a comment on this post only. You can enter once a day to increase your chances of winning, and receive an extra entry by either letting me know you are a subscriber or subscribing to the blog. Previous giveaway winners are eligible to enter again. This giveaway will be open through midnight CST Friday, September 3, with the winners chosen by a random name selector and announced on Sunday, September 4. Entries are limited to those in the United States or Canada. I will contact the winners to get addresses and mail the packages out during the first week of September. I apologize that I can only accept entries from the U.S. and Canada.

I’m looking forward to hearing from you! Please remember to leave your entry on this post only, but that you can enter every day.

Happy Birthday To Me

(photo credit toa heftier/unsplash)

Tomorrow I enter my eighth decade. I remember thinking as a child that teenagers seemed incredibly old and I couldn’t even imagine, let alone contemplate, how old my parents and grandparents were, and yet here I am now, an official old person.

I read this short essay by Annie Lamott the other day on turning 68 and thought it expressed my feelings pretty well about turning 70. Life is pretty crazy and awful right now, but it’s also pretty wonderful too.

Thank you to all of my readers for being a part of my life. And, don’t forget to look up!

I am going to be 68 in six days, if I live that long. I’m optimistic. Mostly.

God, what a world. What a heartbreaking, terrifying freak show. It is completely ruining my birthday plans. I was going to celebrate how age and the grace of myopia have given me the perspective that almost everything sorts itself out in the end. That good will and decency and charity and love always eventually conspire to bring light into the darkest corners. That the crucifixion looked like a big win for the Romans.

But turning 68 means you weren’t born yesterday. Turning 68 means you’ve seen what you’ve seen—Ukraine, Sandy Hook, the permafrost…Marjorie Taylor Greene. By 68, you have seen dear friends literally ravaged by cancer, lost children, unspeakable losses. The midterms are coming up. My mind is slipping. My dog died.

Really, to use the theological terms, it is just too frigging much.

And regrettably, by 68, one is both seriously uninterested in a vigorous debate on the existence of evil, or even worse, a pep talk.

So what does that leave? Glad you asked: the answer is simple. A few very best friends with whom you can share your truth. That’s the main thing. By 68, you know that the whole system of our lives works because we are not all nuts on the same day. You call someone and tell them that you hate everyone and all of life, and they will be glad you called. They felt that way three days and you helped them pull out of it by making them laugh or a cup of tea. You took them for a walk, or to Target.

Also, besides our friends, getting outside and looking up and around changes us: remember, you can trap bees on the bottom of Mason jars with a bit of honey and without a lid, because they don’t look up. They just walk around bitterly bumping into the glass walls. That is SO me. All they have to do is look up and fly away. So we look up. In 68 years, I have never seen a boring sky. I have never felt blasé about the moon, or birdsong, or paper whites.

It is a crazy drunken clown college outside our windows now, almost too much beauty and renewal to take in. The world is warming up.

Well, how does us appreciating spring help the people of Ukraine? If we believe in chaos theory, and the butterfly effect, that the flapping of a Monarch’s wings near my home can lead to a weather change in Tokyo, then maybe noticing beauty—flapping our wings with amazement—changes things in ways we cannot begin to imagine. It means goodness is quantum. Even to help the small world helps. Even prayer, which seems to do nothing. Everything is connected.

But quantum is perhaps a little esoteric in our current condition. (Well, mine: I’m sure you’re just fine.) I think infinitely less esoteric stuff at 68. Probably best to have both feet on the ground, ogle the daffodils, take a sack of canned good over to the food pantry, and pick up trash. This helps our insides enormously.

So Sunday I will celebrate the absolutely astonishing miracle that I, specifically, was even born. As Fredrick Buechner wrote, “The grace of God means something like, “Here is your life. You might never have been, but you are because the party wouldn’t have been complete without you.” I will celebrate that I have shelter and friends and warm socks and feet to put in them, and that God or Gus found a way to turn the madness and shame of my addiction into grace, I’ll shake my head with wonder, which I do more and more as I age, at all the beauty that is left and all that still works after so much has been taken away. So celebrate with me. Step outside and let your mouth drop open. Feed the poor with me, locally or, if you want to buy me something, make a donation to UNICEF. My party will not be the same without you.

In Praise of Duckfeet

I expect to be wearing these sandals for years to come.

I don’t often highlight specific products, but in an age where products don’t often meet the hype, Duckfeet is the real deal.

I have very difficult feet when it comes to finding comfortable shoes. Both my feet are wide, with high arches. Thankfully they are not as bad as they were in the past but they are still troublesome at times. I had bunion surgery in 2013 on both feet; one foot was a success, the other not so much, so my feet are now essentially two different sizes. I have tried many well-known, expensive brands of shoes over the years in my efforts to find comfortable, well-made shoes, but those experiments have often ended with one shoe that falls off and one that I can barely squeeze my foot into.

When Meiling was a baby I had a pair of fisherman sandals, made by Rockport if I remember correctly, that I quite literally wore out. They were extremely comfortable, and I walked everywhere in them for nearly three years until the leather fell apart. Every since I have looked for a similar pair but never found any that matched the style and quality of that pair I loved.

Last month Meiling sent me a picture of some sandals she was preparing to buy, fisherman sandals made by a company called Duckfeet. I got very excited when I saw them because 1) They were exactly the style of fisherman sandals I had been looking for over the years; and 2) Duckfeet shoes are naturally built for wide feet with a wide toe box.

Duckfeet are known for their minimalist, foot-formed design that offers ample room for toes to move and air to reach the feet . . . . Each pair of Duckfeet is handcrafted in Europe without the use of synthetic materials . . . . No two pair of Duckfeet are exactly alike. Every pair of boots, shoes, and sandals is naturally tanned and processed by hand, allowing for subtle variations in the leather. These variations are highlighted by the way you wear them, giving each pair its own story.

I had a pair of black sandals on my provisioning list, and since last month was a “Laura month,” I went ahead and bought a pair of Duckfeet black fisherman sandals to try. I was honestly expecting to be disappointed once again, but instead have been happy and impressed with my purchase. I received free shipping and they arrived quickly. They fit both of my weird feet right out of the box. The larger foot was only slightly tight at first but after wearing the sandals around the apartment for a few days it now fits comfortably. In fact, I like the sandals’ fit so much that I’ve added a pair of Duckfeet’s Chelsea boots to my list and will purchase before we leave. I have finally found a brand with stylish shoes that fit my weird feet, that are waterproof, and are built to last. I expect to wear these sandals for years, which is fine by me – the style is classic.

The Roskilde Chelsea boot in black: my next Duckfeet purchase

Duckfeet shoes have been making shoes in Denmark since 1975. Offering many styles, from sandals to boots, each pair is handmade made from high quality leather. The finish on the leather is naturally waterproof, and the crepe soles can be replaced when they wear out. A pair of Duckfeet shoes or sandals are not cheap, but prices are not into the stratosphere either or as high as other brands (like Mephisto, etc.). In spite of their width, they are stylish and come in a wide variety of colors.

I love my Duckfeet. May they give me years of wear and happiness!

Here & There: A Story

On our return trip to Florence from the Cinque Terre, an incident occurred on the train that shook Brett and I to our core, and still haunts us to this day.

We were assigned seats at the back of a car on the train. There was another couple sitting up toward the front, but otherwise the car was empty. Right before departure two young men entered the car. They spoke to each other briefly, in a language other than Italian, and one sat at the window in the row directly in front of us; the other chose a seat across the aisle and one row forward and they ceased communication. Both had small bags with them, and after sitting down produced laptops and stayed busy with them.

After a short distance, the conductor entered the car from the rear, to check on tickets. We showed him ours, then he asked the young man in front of us who showed his ticket. Then he approached the second young man across the aisle. He did not have a ticket.

The young man started out playing dumb, like he didn’t know what the conductor wanted and couldn’t understand what he was saying. The conductor was persistent, in both Italian and English, and offered to sell him a ticket if he didn’t have one. The young man continued to shrug his shoulders, try to look helpless, and so forth. The man in front of us watched carefully, but made no move to help his friend.

The standoff escalated, and eventually both the young man across the aisle and the conductor were shouting at each other. The tension grew thick enough you could have cut it with a knife. Brett and I sat in our seats, feeling more and more terrified as we began to feel there was a good chance of a gun being produced, with the conductor being shot. We calculated where we were sitting, and that we would be in the line of fire with no place for us to go or hide if shots were fired. We were too afraid to speak to each other, but held each others’ hand tightly and hoped things did not get any worse than they already were.

And then we remembered we were in Italy. The conductor was not armed, and although he got in the young man’s face he did not physically touch him or threaten him in any way. The chance of a gun being produced was not impossible, but about as close to zero as it could get. This was not America, where the young man could easily have been carrying a gun in his bag and less hesitancy to use it. Our joint relief at this realization was almost palpable and our grip on each others’ hand eased.

At the next stop the conductor escorted the young man out of the car; police were waiting on platform. The young man in front of us left as well, staying a short distance behind the conductor and his friend. We wondered if he had been the “handler” for the other.

Men, women, and children have been shot in U.S. while shopping at the supermarket or at the mall, while watching a movie in a theater, or attending a ball game, sitting in their classroom, or while in church. There is no place anyone is truly safe from being shot in our country any more, and I think we all carry that fear inside of us, whether we’re willing to acknowledge it or not. We know a shooting can happen anywhere, at any occasion, and affect anyone. The small incident we encountered on a train in Italy brought that fear home for us, and we remember and feel it again every time we read about another shooting in our country.

I have no problems with gun ownership whatsoever, but there is something much deeper going on in our country than any arguments over “freedom” or the ownership of guns, and a sickness that has taken hold. And we seem to have made a choice to live with that sickness day in and day out.

Learning Another Language As an Adult

(photo credit: Leonardo Toshiro Okubo/Unsplash)

(This is an updated version of a post I wrote in May of 2018)

Brett and I have once again been thinking a lot about taking up another foreign language in preparation for our future travels. It makes sense for us to have some basics in another language if we’re going to travel and stay in another country for long period of time. I know enough Japanese to not get lost, buy things, and so forth, and found the basic French I learned last time helped us to get around in that country as well if for nothing more than reading signs and simple directions. Current plans are that Brett will go with Greek as he studied it for a while back in his navy days, but I’m torn between German and Italian, both of which I’ve studied before. I have spent a considerable amount of time (like years) trying to learn Japanese, only to still find myself with an ability less than a two year-old. Because my professional  background is in adult language learning and acquisition you would think I’d have this all figured out by now and would know all sorts of tricks to make learning faster and easier, but sadly, no. That’s not how language learning works.

Children pick up new languages very easily, at least the spoken part, typically because they are usually far more immersed in a new language than most adults (i.e. in school all day with other native speakers). If children learn a second language before the age of twelve they usually become fluent speakers with no accent. Although adults learn a language in the same steps as children, how adults process what they are learning is different based on cognitive differences and other previous learning experiences, and the reality is it takes adults longer to acquire a second language. The good news is it’s not impossible.

When adults are learning a second or foreign language, there are three main aspects that come into play: 1) motivation, or the reasons for learning another language; 2) how an adult views themself as a learner; and 3) who an adult sees themselves to be when they speak another language. All three of these are important, but any one of them on their own can have a profound effect on the learning experience. Being aware of these forces and the roles they play can help adults through the process.

Motivation falls into two classes, intrinsic or extrinsic. That is, motivation to learn another language either comes from within or from without. Are you learning a new language because you want to or because you have to or need to? How strong is the desire or need? A combination of both intrinsic and extrinsic reasons for learning is best, and together can provide powerful motivation to push through difficult stretches and improve.

Language learning has often proven to be a sticky problem for adults who have always seen themselves as successful learners or talented in other respects. Recognizing that language learning calls on a whole different set of skills than learning math or history, or participating in a sport or hobby, and that it might not be as easy for you as you thought (or as fun) is an important step in staying motivated and continuing to learn.

One’s self-image when learning a new language can sometimes take some serious blows. As a native speaker of English, I view myself as a confident, skilled adult when I speak, read, write or listen to English, able to know what to say in almost any situation or figure out what someone else is saying or inferring. With a new language I often find myself with less ability than a small child, making lots of (sometimes embarrassing) mistakes, sometimes unable to order in a restaurant or ask directions, let alone manage any other social or professional situations. It’s very humbling, and can also be humiliating at times. Also, there’s the aspect to self of fitting in socially and culturally where the new language is spoken. Knowing that these feelings are perfectly normal can help you stick with language learning.

Based on my many years of teaching English to adults learners, here are some tips for making language learning more productive and less painful:

  • Communication should be the goal. Not fluency, not perfection, although you can strive for those. Can another person understand what you’re trying to say or write and communicate back to you? That’s what really matters.
  • Know how difficult a language is to learn. Russian or Chinese or Finnish are going to be w-a-y more difficult for an English speaker to learn than Spanish or French. All language learning takes time and effort, but if you want to learn one of the more difficult languages, give yourself even more time. Although the goal may be much less than professional proficiency, here is the Foreign Language Institute difficulty ranking for English speakers, and how many hours of study it takes to reach General Professional Proficiency in Speaking (Level S3) and Reading (Level R3) in different languages. Notice that for a Class 1 language it takes less than six months to reach this level; to reach the same level with a Class 5 languages it takes closer to two years! This is honestly not meant to be discouraging, but provide a realistic look at what you’re taking on.
  • Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Seriously, mistakes are how we learn, especially in language learning! Think of all the mistakes children make when they’re learning to speak. Adults go through the same steps, and mistakes will happen. The important thing is to keep trying to produce the language in some form rather than shut down. An ideal instructor (or online program) will always model the language correctly for you when you make a mistake and give chances to try again. It’s also important to find a classroom and instructor where you feel safe to make mistakes. My Japanese instructors in college didn’t go for safety and it was an incredibly stressful and miserable experience. I remember nothing from those classes other than wanting them to end (although I did get my thesis topic out of the experience!).
  • Be prepared to memorize. Memory is a very big part of language learning. We memorize constantly when we learn our own language (as an example, I took weekly spelling tests from first through the eighth grade because much of English spelling and pronunciation is based on memorization, even for native speakers), and the same will be true for any other language. It’s more difficult to remember things when we’re older because we’re carrying around and having to deal with so much more information in our brains than we did when we were younger. The best way to remember what you’re learning is to practice every day.
  • Don’t sweat pronunciation. The ability to speak another language without an accent ends at about age 12. That’s when our mouths and oral muscles “solidify” around our native language. Not worrying about pronunciation doesn’t mean not trying to pronunciate a new language correctly in order to be understood, but sounding like a native speaker doesn’t need to be the goal.
  • Find ways to expose yourself to the language. Learning French in France is going to be a whole lot easier than trying to learn it in the U.S. Why? Because learners are immersed in the language there – it can’t be escaped and has to be dealt with. In your own country, once you’re out of the classroom it’s difficult to find opportunities to practice and use the language you’re learning. Immersion experiences do exist though. Shop in international markets and read the labels or ask questions in the language you’re learning. Pick up a newspaper or magazine in the new language, go through it and see what can be figured out. Watch foreign films or TV shows in the new language without subtitles. For example, when our girls were learning Chinese, they found that all their favorite Disney Channel shows could be watched online in Mandarin, so they got lots of extra listening comprehension practice from those. Go to a church service where the language you’re learning is spoken (they exist). See if you can set up conversation experiences through local colleges, or hire a tutor and have them provide a weekly immersion session. I was sometimes able to match up my students, if they had time, with an English speaker who was trying to learn their language. They’d spend one hour together in one language, the second hour in the other language.

Knowing another language opens doors for understanding a new and/or different culture, but language learning is a process that takes time, in some cases LOTS of time. It’s important to remind yourself, especially if you’re struggling or on the fence about sticking with it, that you didn’t learn English (or any other native language) quickly as a child either. Unless necessary for professional reasons, fluency doesn’t need to be the goal of language learning; rather, you should strive to learn enough of a new language to communicate effectively, and as a means to better understand and enhance experiences in a different culture.

Finally, If you’re a native speaker of English, one other interesting side effect of learning another language is that you will probably learn more about English as well, and what a crazy, difficult, and sometimes impossible language it is. I thank my stars every day that English is my native language, and that I didn’t have to learn it as a second or foreign language. My years of teaching gave me an immense amount of respect for anyone trying to learn English, a daunting task if there ever was one.

A Wonderful, Happy Life

When I found the online pictures of our San Clemente beach house a few weeks ago, I sent the link to my brother and sister knowing they would most likely enjoy seeing the house as much as I did. A few days later my sister sent me two photos, including the one above, which was taken at the beach house, in the vacant lot next door. I have no memory of the picture being taken or who took it. I don’t know how old I am in the picture, but I believe the photo was taken by my mom. I think it came from her collection of photos and slides that my brother took with him after Mom died, and transferred to jpgs. He sent some (all?) of the photos to my sister, including apparently some ones of me.

My first reaction when I saw the photo was, “What a sad, serious little girl.” Maybe I didn’t want to look at the camera that day (was the sun’s glare too much?). Was my mom going for an arty sort of photo with me looking pensive or serious? Was I there just to provide a contrast to the giant sunflower? Whatever was going on, the end result was a picture of a not very happy child.

A couple of other things leaped out at me from the photo as well. Growing up I always wore my hair boy-short because it was supposedly “too curly” and Mom complained she couldn’t manage it. What I see in that picture though is lovely thick, possibly wavy hair, and not the unmanageable curls my mom always inferred. Also, I was told that I couldn’t own or wear a skirt because I “didn’t have a waist” and a skirt would slip right off of me (I didn’t own a skirt until I reached high school). And yet, there I am in a pair of shorts with a waistband and they are not falling off or anything close to it. The reasons/excuses I was given as a child for not getting to wear a much-desired skirt or grow out my hair do not match the reality in the photo.

I did not have a miserable childhood by any stretch of the imagination, but I did have an unhappy one, and the photo above triggered deep memories of having to often live with different rules and expectations than were applied to my brothers and sisters. I know now that much of the sadness I felt back then was actually depression, something that did not go away until I reached my mid-20s. It took only a moment for this single photograph to quickly bring up so many of the old feelings, and a few days for those feelings to evaporate. Even decades later the memories have power.

When I look at that picture I wish I could go back and whisper in that little girl’s ear, to let her know even though life will be hard at times:

  • She will have a long and happy marriage, and the best friend ever for a partner.
  • She will raise four smart, successful, caring children, gain the best daughter-in-law, and have two beautiful grandchildren.
  • She will form deep, long-lasting friendships over the years.
  • She will make dreams come true, and learn to trust her own power to make good decisions and follow them through.
  • She will have more determination and strength than she can imagine, and yet remain full of hope and optimism.
  • When she needs it most, there will be people along the way who see her potential, and who will be there to support and encourage her.
  • She will grow up healthy, with strong legs, a strong heart, and a strong mind to keep her active and carry her into old age.
  • She will travel the world, and visit and experience places she can’t even dream of now.
  • She will grow up to enjoy a full, wonderful, happy life, one that she is going to create.

I am thankful that in spite of the unpleasantness of the memories this photo brought back it also led me to reflect on how fortunate I have been with the life I have had, and for all that I have experienced, learned, and been given along the way . . . a blessed life.

Bad Year/Good Year: Goodbye 2020 (and good riddance)

New year 2021 and old year 2020 written on sandy beach with waves

I am not going to waste a lot of words on all that went wrong in this seemingly never-ending year we’re about to step out of. Our family has been fortunate, more fortunate than many if not most, but it was still a year full of surprises, disappointments, and things happening we didn’t expect. It was an expensive year for us as well – our move back to Kaua’i was not cheap, and we decimated one of our savings accounts to set up housekeeping again. We’re grateful we had the funds, but it was still a blow we were not mentally ready for.

However, in many ways it was a good year as well, and I feel it’s far more productive and satisfying to reflect on all the good things that happened this past year as well as the things that went right for us:

Our family has stayed healthy. I consider this our biggest accomplishment, not just for Brett and I, but for our entire family as well. Meiling has stayed isolated and worked from her apartment in NYC since March, and WenYu and YaYu have stayed safe in Massachusetts and in Pennsylvania. Our son and daughter-in-law worked at home for most of the year in Japan, and the grandkids survived months of remote learning. Brett and I have stayed in our apartment most of the time this year other than weekly trips to Costco or Walmart for food, up to Kukuiolono Park to walk, or over to the nearly always deserted beach at Barking Sands, but with vaccines becoming available this year we’re all hoping we will be able to gather here for a big reunion next year.

Here are the other good things that happened for us this past year:

  • We ended up back on Kaua’i. We were frankly surprised last Christmas when our girls sat us down and said they hoped we would return to Kaua’i whenever we finished traveling. That got us to look at Kaua’i with fresh eyes when we visited last January, and when it was time to return to the U.S. because of the spreading pandemic, we knew just where to come. We couldn’t be happier and we know now for sure that Kaua’i/Hawaii is our permanent home.
  • We found a great place to live this time. After living in an attractive but uncomfortable house and dealing with the Landlord from Hell for nearly three years during our previous time on the island, this time we lucked out and and found a great location and space to live in on the south side with great neighbors as well and a terrific landlord, and all for hundreds of dollars less than we were paying when we lived here before. The microclimate here is nicer as well, and we have everything we need just a short drive away, including great beaches and a wonderful weekly farmers’ market. We started from scratch getting ourself settled, but generous merchants on the island opened their stores for us so we could buy basic furniture, and we were able to get the rest of what we needed from Costco, Walmart, and Amazon over the next few months. The arrival of our storage shipment topped things off and our little apartment is now a comfortable and relaxing home.
  • We saved more than expected in 2020 for future travels. When I set up a new travel savings account I thought we’d be lucky to put $1000 away this year for future travel, but we instead saved nearly $2000 ($1984.19), which includes a $500 Delta Airlines gift card I earned through doing Swagbucks. We put away everything “extra” that came our way all year (change, $1 bills, refunds, rewards, rebates, etc.), and it really added up. We’ve given ourselves a goal of saving $8000 this year – it will be a challenge, but we think we can pull it off.
  • Both Brett and I have lost weight and are in better shape than ever. We completely changed how and what we eat, and I have lost 28 pounds since last June and Brett has lost 10. We both want to lose another 10 pounds this coming year and will be working toward that end. When we started walking up at Kukuiolono Park last May (a venue that has yet to lose our interest), we could barely manage two laps around the Pavilion (slightly over a mile). These days we’re walking nearly an hour each day and putting in almost five miles, and have a goal of doubling that by the end of 2021. We both honestly feel healthier than we have in ages, and we’re both sleeping better as well. 
  • We’re living better than ever with less. We downsized a lot before we left Kaua’i in 2018, and having to start from from scratch again means we began here this time with a greatly reduced amount of stuff. We bought just 12 pieces of furniture and one rug, a few kitchen items (including an InstantPot), and a reduced number of linens and it’s all more than enough. We’re very much enjoying having less to keep track of and clean, and if and when we ever move in the future that will be a whole lot easier as well.
  • Another child graduated from college. Although we missed her celebration, and she missed all the hoopla (literally) and traditions, another highlight of this past year was WenYu’s graduation from Wellesley College, with a degree in Computer Arts & Science. She has been able to earn money from her art since graduation, and has been hired as a graphic design instructor at an area tech school and will begin teaching after the first of the year. YaYu is now our only remaining student, with another year and a half to go, but this past fall we filled out a FAFSA for the last time! Yeah!

Good or bad, I’ll be happy to see 2020 go this week, and although life is most likely going to stay as it is now for the new few months, I’m looking forward to better and brighter things overall in 2021. I’m feeling hopeful that better days are coming – here’s to a wonderful new year!