Category Archives: Learning

Back in the Saddle

I had a half-finished draft of a post listing resolutions for the new year, but it seems a bit late to put it up now, so instead I’ll just catch you up with things. (Happy New Year!) I got an iPad and wireless keyboard for my birthday, and it is an excellent on-the-go writing studio. This afternoon, in fact, I biked to town and sat in the coffeeshop, sipping a latte and writing a short story. It felt good to write some fiction again, especially something short and bite-sized. I’ve been trying to get back into the writing groove so I can get motivated to edit one of the two novels I wrote by the end of March. Seeing as how that’s coming up a lot sooner than I had hoped, I really need to just go ahead and start editing.

I’ve been pretty excellent in other ways. One of the apps on my iPad is iTunes U, a cool site that offers free courses from various universities. I took an excellent course on moons, and am currently working my way through a Harvard course on the ethics of justice, a writing workshop, and a rather hard-to-follow introductory medical school course on the pulmonary system. It’s all been pretty fascinating so far. Another app that I’ve enjoyed is Duolingo, a language-learning app. It’s not great for actually learning a language, as it doesn’t really do any explanation, but it is excellent for giving you exercises to build up your vocabulary and practice the correct genders and such. I’m using it to learn French and review German. Finally, I am learning poetry. I found an app where you progressively memorize poems, leading up to a recorded recitation of them from memory. I’m really enjoying it! I used to enjoy memorizing poems as a child (I knew large chunks of Where the Sidewalk Ends and all of And to Think That I Saw it on Mulberry Street), and they say that as an adult you will probably still enjoy the things you enjoyed as a child. I’ve already learned Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day, The Jabberwocky, El Dorado, Death Be Not Proud, and just a tiny smidge of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

I may not be doing great on any of the other focus areas for excellence, but it’s not as bad as it could be. So far, this has been an excellent year, and I’m just really excited to get back into writing again! I may try to get into the editing mood by editing the short story I wrote this morning, and we’ll see how that pans out. Not having done much editing before, it’s hard to know what to expect or how to plan for it. I’ll keep you updated.

Il Mio Cervello è in Fiamme

Recently, my brain has been on fire for learning languages. I’ve always been attracted to foreign languages; as a child, they seemed mysterious and almost magical, like secret ciphers than only a select few [millions] know how to comprehend, but at the same time, they held the key to entire societies and far-off lands of wonder. I think all of the foreign travel we’ve been doing lately (for the first time!) has completely opened up that secret yearning to learn languages, and I have been greedily guzzling up every foreign syllable I can get.

My method of introduction to a new language is always the Pimsleur Method — I find that it works really, really well for me, at least for the initial bits of a language. It isn’t cheap, but it is worth the price. So far, I’ve studied the first 20-30 lessons of Swedish, Hebrew, Romanian, French, and Italian, and they certainly served me as well as my two years of high school German in the typical café-waiter-interactions we’ve had in various countries. Because there are more lessons available in French and Italian, I plan to try to study more than the first 30 lessons in those; I am looking forward to seeing how the series progresses past the most basic interactions. My goal is to take the first 90 lessons of both French and Italian in the next year. But I don’t want to stop there; I also have some newspapers and books that I want to work my way through translating, for practice in reading various languages and learning vocabulary and grammar in action. I would also love to tackle the rudiments of a few other languages that have no similarity to Germanic and Romance languages, languages whose sounds are still magical and mysterious to me, like Arabic or Chinese. My greed for understanding languages is growing unbounded! Senza limite!

I heard a report recently that learning a foreign language can actually grow parts of your brain. Those students who pick up languages more easily tend to grow parts of their cerebral cortex, while those who struggle to learn grow their motor areas. (The growth was larger for intensive language learners than for, say, medical students who also learn a lot quickly but not connected to language.) I used to be afraid that every word I learn in one language would “push out” a word I already knew in another. While it does sometimes take a moment for me to switch contexts from one language to another, I found that when someone spoke to me in French in Paris, I was responding (mostly) in French, even though I had just been studying Italian! I guess I have room for multiple languages in my brain after all!

 

The Beginning and The End

One of my favorite library books as a youth was “The Universe Between”, where scientists slice a hole to another universe when they finally achieve absolute zero. But the twist is that it’s really our universe.

Another of my favorites I can’t remember the name of anymore. In it, a pair of identical twins who are psychic are separated by blasting one into space and leaving the other on earth. Because the ship is traveling so fast, telepathy is the only feasible way to communicate between them. And of course the space twin stays young while the earth twin grows old. And then humans develop a faster warp drivey thing and the space twin comes home and dates his grand-niece.

But this post is about my other favorite book, “The Beginning and the End”, a series of essays by Isaac Asimov about the possibilities for the beginning and end of the universe. Back then, the Big Bang Theory was only mostly accepted, and we didn’t know if the universe was still expanding or contracting. Scientists have such dour news these days: “Everything is not only expanding, it is expanding ever more rapidly. One day, the universe will die a heat death and be a vast array of energylessness.”

Well, I like to imagine that before the Big Bang there was a Big Gnab, where an entire universe contracted to a single point before it became us. I sometimes wonder if the people there lived their life in reverse. Did it make sense to them? Why must we die only to be born? Why does another lead to one thing?

I also like to believe that everything is ultimately curved, like the surface of a sphere. Even though things are accelerating away from each other now, they will all meet back up again on the other side and contract. And then there will be another Big Gnab and Big Bang, and another, again and again throughout eternity and we will become star stuff.

Sudden Storm

There was a crazy huge storm through here last night! We were in bed sleeping when a huge wall of wind roared through and woke us up. I leapt up, put on my shoes and safety vest, grabbed my phone and flashlight/radio and huddled on the bottom floor away from the windows. My Dear Husband just lounged around barely paying it any heed. It’s amazing he can be so calm all the time. But I guess that’s one reason our marriage works so well. If he panicked whenever I did, we’d be in a constant tizzy. Anyway, the wind was incredible! I had never seen the like. The last hurricane seemed mild in comparison. The storm raged for a while, but died down enough after an hour that we could go back to sleep. And it flickered many times, but we kept power.

This morning, we got up early and did our “usual” weekend morning ride to the coffee shop, but they were closed without power. I didn’t ride my bike at all during this week, so my bum is a little sore and it was extra hard to make it up the hill today. (I had to stop and catch my breath part way. On the sidewalk, of course.) There were just a couple of large branches in the road and paths, and a whole slew of missing shutters, but no other visible storm damage. It is supposed to be extra-hot all week, so I may not get much riding time in this week.

I like to ride my bicycle

I am a cyclist! I rode my bike almost every day this week, practicing around and around the school parking lot after work. We practiced starting and stopping and braking smoothly and turning. I am feeling much more comfortable on my bike, and my hinterlands aren’t nearly as sore. I still wasn’t sure I was going to take to this cycling thing, but on Thursday, I finally tore the tags off my helmet and declared that I wasn’t going to return it or the bike. I am a cyclist!

In fact, I was feeling so much more confident in my abilities, that my Dear Husband and I even rode in the street to the corner coffee shop this morning! I was pretty nervous, but we planned it out and I rode in front and we made it there and back without problems. It’s about a three-mile round trip, and there’s a hill right before you get there which about killed me. (The school parking lot is rather flat.) We made sure to go first thing in the morning, when there were fewer, slower cars on the road. I know I’m not yet ready for commuting times, when the cars around here travel way faster than they should in their rush to get to work or home. But I can travel from one place to another on a bicycle now! It’s very exciting!

Bicycle!

I bought a bicycle! My Dear Husband and I are planning to try to do less driving and to use friendlier means of transportation, so in preparation, I’m re-learning how to ride a bike! The first step: buy a bike. I chose a really sleek Trek Cocoa. It’s black and silver and stylish. I sit very upright on it, which makes me feel very in control.

It had been 20 years since I’d ridden a bike. I had one when I was a kid, and enjoyed riding up and down the street, but I was never allowed to ride off our (very short) street, so I didn’t enjoy it as much as my Dear Husband, for whom it was a means of freedom. They say you never forget how to ride a bike. I’m not entirely sure that’s true. When I first got on it at the bike shop for the test ride, I almost hyperventilated. It was completely foreign to me. But somehow I managed to calm down and pedal it half a block down the sidewalk and back to the shop. To test whether I liked that bike more than another, the test ride was useless; there was no way I could compare two bikes when I could barely ride them. But the test did show that I hadn’t lost all my bike-riding abilities. So after debating it over lunch, I went ahead and bought it!

We had to wait for them to install the rear bike rack and bell, and then we took it home and rode our bikes around an empty school parking lot. My old bike had cruiser brakes, meaning you pedaled backwards to stop, so I’m still getting used to using my hands to brake. And the gears are still confusing to me, even though it only has three. Fortunately, they are fairly simple so when I’m ready to learn to use them, it won’t be too hard. I’m also not very good at turning yet. (I’m not sure I was ever very good at it, since most of my riding was straight up or down the street.) My bum is incredibly sore! But despite all that, I am learning how to ride a bicycle again. I’m glad my Dear Husband is patient.

Short weekend

I have too many hobbies, and they all involve using your eyes and hands, so there’s a limited amount of other things you can do while, say, knitting or spinning. Usually I spend the time listening to television. But I recently have gotten on a foreign-language kick, and have been checking out language learning CDs from the local library. Those are perfect for crafting times, since they only involve your ears and brain. (Though they are less optimal if your knitting involves following a very complicated chart with lots of counting.) I began by brushing up on a short German course. (I had German in high school, so I just wanted a brief refresher.) Next, I’ve started a quick course in Spanish, and I’ll follow it up with some French. I also have some Hebrew in the queue. In addition to the CDs, I also checked out a book on Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphs, but I can’t read that while knitting and spinning. Unfortunately, I gave up on Irish, because I couldn’t get through the very first lesson. That language is apparently not for me. (It sounded like every word was some garbled version of “gwaylthgrea”. My American ears just couldn’t figure out the sounds.) Now, none of these are really intensive lessons in the language, but being able to say “please” and “thank you” and being able to ask for food and water are enough for me. For now!

I’m also doing some decluttering this weekend. I’ve compiled one full bag for Goodwill, and that was just old pajamas! (How many pairs of pajamas does one person need?) (Six.) My Dear Husband is coming home with a stack of boxes soon, and I’ll likely tackle the kitchen cabinets next. I’m going to do that halfway thing, where you put stuff you kind-of-like into boxes and then see if you end up missing it. If not, then out the door it goes!