Know Thyself in 2014

Here’s what I learned about myself in 2014.  I’m pretty slow to perceive stuff about myself, so it’s a short list.

1.  I need expensive shampoo.  Need.  For decades I was buying the cheapest shampoo possible.  When I landed in Taiwan in July, I bought a random shampoo off the shelf; I think my only criteria was seeing the English word “shampoo.”  I noticed pretty quickly that the stuff I bought seemed to clear up a lot of dandruff and skin problems I had been having since forever.  I got around to reading the bottle after a while (it was mostly in Chinese, so I had been disregarding it).  It was some kind of olive oil, super wholesome, no-harsh-sulfates-or-parabens-havin’ bottle of magic syrup.  When I got back to Seattle I made sure to buy something similar.

Just a few days ago, I ran out of it, and I had to use some of the old harsh stuff for a couple of days until I could make it to the drug store for more ben & jerry’s shampoo.  Those were dark days. One afternoon put my forehead down on the case of my laptop, and when I pulled away there was a huge, oily grease spot where my forehead had been, complete with rainbow slicks and suffocating sea birds.  It was bad.

So now, at age 42, I’ve finally learned my lesson… I buy $10 bottles of shampoo instead of $1.50 bottles.  I don’t even know what sulfates and parabens are; I just know that my skin is healthier and I imagine that fewer dust mites are crapping and sexing all over my face.

2.  I hate the Santa Claus lie.  I hate that an omniscient elderly white clown from the Arctic is judging me and rewarding my behavior with retail merchandise, by means of breaking and entering.  I hate the anxiety that it causes in kids, anxiety that is usually interpreted as wonder and joy, anxiety which adults create for their own entertainment.  I hate that people bust their asses to earn money and then crawl all over each other to shop for these gifts, only to give all the credit to the freakishly-dressed elf.  What if you just gave your kids gifts, instead of lying?

I know people are going to call me a grinch and a killjoy for all this, but I don’t give a crap. I have small nieces and nephews, and their parents don’t have to worry about me ashing all over their Santa Claus lie, but when those poor kids are old enough, I will apologize to them for the lie on behalf of the adults, and get them good gifts, gifts made of metal.

(I’ve felt this way since I was very young, but today’s TAL finally pushed me over the edge).

4.  While I’m at it, I want to say that I also really hate watching when people surprise/ambush little kids with their soldier parents returning from war.  I know most people interpret this as joy and euphoria, but what I see is kids crying; months or years of horrible anxiety, finally bursting like a blister at the sight of their parent, and then BROADCAST ON TELEVISION.  Yes of course it’s a good thing to be reunited with a parent returned from war, but it never looks to me like the kids want to be on TV.  It looks to me like they are crying, burying their faces, they want time alone with their parents.  I for one think they deserve time alone with their parents, every second, and the television spectator has no business gawking at them. Maybe that’s just me.  Also the fact that that whole ambush has to be set up with their classroom teacher or on the Ellen show… I’m pretty sure that the tears and the crying happens regardless of the ambush set up.  I know people see joy, but what I see is all the agony they must have gone through.  Maybe it is joy, I don’t know.  What I do know is that it looks highly, highly personal, and if it were me I wouldn’t want cameras in my face.

4.  I can still acquire language in the wild.  I started Mandarin in 2006 and took a slow road to competence, including a few “intensive” programs that were just garbage, and a year and a half in Shanghai where my Spanish improved immensely, but my Chinese pretty much stalled out.  I know I go around preaching language acquisition like a prophet with his pants on fire, but… after stalling out in Shanghai, I still had my doubts.  I wondered if I was ever going to make it to advanced proficiency.

This summer in Taiwan, I didn’t pay people to present grammar to me, and then test me on it.  Testing is a waste of time.  Instead, I paid people to let me talk my face off every day. The result?  I felt like I was learning faster than I could academically manage it.  I felt like my brain was not only soaking it up like a sponge, but actually attracting any stray language that happened to wander near me.  I know the feeling because I’ve been through it before.  People notice it happening.  It’s exciting.

Now, my Chinese is still not yet where I want it; probably Intermediate (High).  There are good days and bad days.  When I’m among close friends, it’s a good day.  When I’m with strangers or second language speakers who are more proficient than I am, I feel my own level sink down to Intermediate (Low), which is disappointing but I am used to it at this point.

When will I make it to Advanced (Low)?  Who knows, maybe I’ll never get there; that can’t be my goal.  My goal is to have lifelong, fulfilling relationships with Mandarin speakers, and to enjoy myself; if I can accomplish that, I know I’ll blow past Advanced (Low) without even thinking about it.

5.  I love salmon cream cheese.  It’s all I want to eat.

I am pretty certain that I will abusive comments about what a jerk I am for hating Santa and for wanting to deprive people of their constitutional right to watch kids to get emotional broken when their parents are home from a dangerous deployment on a couple weeks leave.  I don’t care anymore.  I don’t really go onto other people’s blogs to take them to task about opinions they are entitled to, but Santa Clause is a sacred cow, and so is gawking at kids whose parents we’ve literally sent into a war zone.

Maybe someone will take me to task over salmon cream cheese.  That will be a relief.

Numbers 1-99; Teacher of the Year

Get ready to shine the trophy and cut the check for a million dollars.  I’m about to win Teacher of the Year for my Numbers 0-99 lesson.  Please make sure to spell my name right on the certificate. Here’s how it’s going to happen.

First, pass out the pre-printed bingo sheets, one game per card.  It only took you 5 minutes to print out all the bingo cards from Print-Bingo.com.  Like a bawss. Review the numbers with the class.  Set your iBingo Caller app  to Chinese audio, manual advance, and play the first game slowly, reminding students to auto-mental-repeat each number they hear, and not to freak out when they miss something.

Declare the first bingo game a practice run.  Then go for double bingo.  Then blackout cover-all. Award a sticker for the winners who can call back their winning numbers.

Then roll out the double game:  two games per card.  Set your iBingo Caller app to 5 second auto-advance and turn it loose on the classroom.  Resist the urge to intervene when students freak out.  Light a cigar and wait until someone yells bingo.

By the time you’ve gone through the single/double/blackout cycle, the students will be hungry for more cash prizes and ready for regular bingo.  By the way, cash prizes are a great way to spend department funds.  Also, depending on the size of the class, only one cocktail waitress is necessary.  If you want to mix it up a bit, you can play hard-way bingo, the six pack, the 9 pack, krazy kite, postage stamps, you know.  Make it fun for the kids, worth the $200 buy in.

The final step is to pass out the quadruple game:  each student plays eight cards at a time. Set the iPad Caller App to auto-call the game at 2 seconds per ball, that’s plenty.  Make sure the representative from the IRS is there; when multi-million dollar prizes like this are awarded they like to be on hand to counsel new millionaires, so they don’t blow through all the money before they can pay their tax bills.

Only one of them can win the big prize, the rest will naturally be despondent, so it wouldn’t hurt to have information about counseling on hand.  But by that time, the bell will ring, and you can send everyone to study hall.

During study hall, you can work on your acceptance speech for the Teacher of the Year Banquet.  Remember, you only get a minute thirty to say everything, so plan it well and rehearse; you don’t want to be one of those fools who squanders all their time talking about how they’re squandering all of their time.

After you win, you’re set for life.  Schools will start showering you with job offers and you’ll watch your salary triple or quadruple.  Of course, you’ll decline those offers and take the more lucrative book and movie deals. There will be paparazzi, so this might be a good time to invest in some sun glasses.  Dark ones, which can make sleeping in the back row of a faculty meeting a whole lot easier.

Actually, you know what, I’ll just buy the glasses and skip the bingo.  Make the kids swap phone numbers and call it a day.  Besides, that iBingo Caller app is $1.99, who wants to spend that on an app you use once a year.

Interrogative word posters

You know a Jedi’s training is complete when they fashion their own light sabers. Similarly, I must really be a language teacher now, because I have fashioned my own interrogative word signs and laminated them.

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Some of them are bilingual Spanish/Chinese. Some of them are Spanish on one side, Chinese on the other side. No English nowhere.

The Rubric! It’s alive!

A few months ago, this post dropped the idea all over me to give students a picture of what improving proficiency looks like.

So I copied it exactly. (Teachers share stuff, it’s a thing).

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It’s only been a couple of days, Already my students have a) discovered it and b) started conversations about where they live on the chart.

I always ask them if they like how the arrows rise; they give me a surprised look and tell me they thought I was just really bad at lining up arrows. Then I ask them if I should change it, and they say “no.”

Are you looking at me?

I wasn’t feeling well today, but I still need coffee. So I went down to Zeitgeist with iPad in tow and sipped my tall americano as I poked out a worksheet on definite articles.

A lady with a sunhat and a paper copy of the Stranger (guh, paper) sits two tables away from me. After a while I realize she’s staring at me. I look up to check.

Yes, staring directly at me.

I smile and nod and she keeps staring so I put my head down and keep working.

“I need one of those pens,” she tells me. She’s talking about the stylus I’m using. I tell her it’s a microfiber tip, and it’s a screaming deal at 3 for $7.77 on Amazon.

“Tell me what it’s called?” she asked.

“It’s by the Friendly Swede,” I offer.

“Oh,” she says, “I’m Swedish.”

“… Are you friendly?” Sorry, kids, that’s all I got.

Now is the part where it gets alarming.

“I like to think I’m friendly,” she says, “Seattle is a hard place to get to know people.” She is, of course, referring to the Seattle Freeze, which is real.

“Yes,” I agree. It is indeed a difficult place to get to know people. You can’t just go around insinuating passive aggressively that you want friends and expect people to become your friends. You have to actually make an effort, which out-of-towners hate.

“Maybe that will improve,” she says hopefully, “as more people move here.”

“Maybe so,” I say, as I reach for my panic button. Soon all that I hear is the sound of mechanical motors moving little gears, and titanium clamping securely against titanium as my Seattle Freeze armor deploys automatically from this psychotic person who wants people to move here and change our culture… a person who wants to TALK to me about said atrocity.

I think she feels a chill, because she looks down and starts reading her paper Stranger (guh, paper).

My Seattle Freeze armor has completely sealed me in, and the solid, crystal ice barrier is gleaming and shimmering gloriously around me.

A few minutes later I was finished with my worksheet, so I packed up and hovered my ice fortress out of there, an invulnerable frozen Colossus gliding heroically over the horizon into the sunset.

Hint: if you want to get to know us, you don’t start by insulting us. If you want to find emotional support among other non-Seattlites.. well, then I’m not your guy, am I.

Touch Screen Styli: a product endorsement

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I’ve been using a stylus with my iPad a LOT over the last couple of years.  A LOT.  More than most people.  Here’s my recommendation.  

The kind with the little plastic disk is AWESOME until it breaks after a couple of weeks.  

Any kind with a rubber tip (a.) is AWESOME until the rubber rubs down a little and starts sticking to the screen in the middle of the 漢字 character you’re trying to write.  

I’ve been using the 5 inch micro-fiber mesh tip (b.) for the past two years, and the tip is awesome, but the pocket clip dug into my hand.  Still, it was better than writing 漢字 characters with my fingers.  

Earlier this week I saw on amazon that the micro-fiber tip was available in a 7.3-inch model (c.) and I ordered it so fast my head was spinning.  Today I waited on my front porch with sandwiches and tearfully hugged the delivery person when he finally showed up.  Ok, maybe I’m exaggerating.  

But I have been geeking out over it for the last few hours.  Order a 3-pack of silver ones for $7.77 from AmazonPrime.  The other color options are more expensive.  

It’s Supposed To Be Fun! and Lingo Interactive

A friend of mine today was telling me about his summer learning project.  He was in Guatemala, learning Kaqchikelone of the dozens of indigenous languages spoken by the Maya.  He’s been at it for a couple of years, and he said this summer he felt a breakthrough.  Of course, ever since he started, he’s been fighting off some pretty unimaginative people who say “Kaqchikel, WHAT are you going to do with THAT?!”  

The answer to that question is always, “I’m gonna talk to some people in that language, dummy.”  I think some people think that there has to be some kind of million dollar business opportunity at the end of it, otherwise it’s not worth the effort.  

Anyway, my friend went on to say that he told himself that it was about the journey, and that he made a decision to enjoy it. So he enjoyed Guatemala, he enjoyed his teachers, He enjoyed the process.  

This is the Way of the Language Learning Jedi.  The satisfaction and gratification don’t come at the end of some long road of suffering and toil  If it’s not fun along the way, you’re doing it wrong. It’s supposed to be fun.  

I’ve been doing language learning for 25 years now, and I hope people don’t think it’s because I have some kind of special talent, or I have some kind of amazing memory, or I somehow enjoy suffering.  None of those things are true.  I’m a serial language learner because I find the process rewarding.  I’m a serial language learner because it’s fun to do. I get to travel and meet people, try new foods and do new things.  Sure, crappy people can be a drag sometimes, but that happens if whether you learn language or not… why not just learn language.  

Sometimes it’s little fun.  Sometimes that “fun” is that tiny spark of self-satisfaction when you remember a vocab word in the wild, or when you meet cool native speakers who are happy to talk to you, and treat you like a person.  Sometimes that “fun” means soaring above the mountain canopy in a sky lift to a tea house, where you drink tea and over eat for hours.  Some times that “fun” means drinking a little bit of beer and then nominating your friends to kiss at a loud, screamingly funny Japanese-themed restaurant so that your table can get free pork.  Sometimes it’s big fun. 

Anyway, I’m glad for my friend, and I love to hear success stories from people that get it.  

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Speaking of loving to hear success stories from people that get it, my friend Frank’s kickstarter campaign for Lingo Interactive dropped earlier today, and I hope he gets funded!  I met Frank seven years ago in Shanghai, and we’ve been good friends ever since.  For as long as I’ve known him, Frank has been passionate about language learning media, and wanting to get it right.  He’s got a few demos made over at the website Lingo Interactive, and they are sharp.  I’m excited to see this project take off, so please support the fundraising effort to get it off the ground!  

#IceBucketChallenge: Behind the Shivers

So the famous ALS #IceBucketChallenge has been a mid-August fad this summer. The fad came and crested, and I was quite relieved that it seemed to be fading away, without my having participated.

And then Senyo tagged me, on the second to the last day of summer break. Guh!

I’ve challenged podcaster and educator Mark Pentleton of Radio Lingua, storm chasing photographer James Reynolds of Earth Uncut TV, and author Markus Zusak.  

I’ll admit I felt a little bold challenging these guys, and if they’re anything like me they’re cursing their challenger right now. Also, a few weeks ago I was pretty convinced that the #IceBucketChallenge was some slacktivism,  Plus, it’s been getting some bad press lately:

But then there’s the good press; a NYT article today said that they’ve raised $41 million; that’s nothing to sneeze at… That’s gotta be the opposite of slacktivism.  

For more info and to donate, please link below….

So why did it take two takes?  I set up my phone to record the video, I did it… and then when I went to press “stop record” it told me I didn’t have sufficient memory.  Heartbreak.  So I changed my shirt and did it again.  Advice to anyone who’s doing it:  take the water straight to your forehead.  I used a lot of ice and did it twice, but it wasn’t that bad.  

UPDATE:  btw, this video represents a personal achievement, as it is my first time working with iMovie for iPad.  Wasn’t that bad!  

What’s In My Carry-On? 2014

“What’s in your carry-on, JP,” asked absolutely nobody.

Well, let me tell you.

Starting at the top left: kindle, because it’s easy on the eyes and has good battery life. US Passport. iPad mini. Sunka (weekly pill organizer… mine broke in my first week in Taipei, so I bought that rainbow number at Daiso. Empty water bottle, which I fill up later at the soda fountain after security. Yellow plastic folding iPad stand.

Bottom left: toothbrush, crumb brush, headphones, iPad charger, floss picks, and Dr. King cigarette holder (which is full of business cards).

Actual Conversation at a Cafe in Seattle

BARISTA
What can I get you?

ME
I’ll have a short iced americano, please.  Also some whole beans.  (turning over several bags of whole beans to check roast dates…)  Whoa!  July 3rd?!

BARISTA
Whoa!  That can’t be right…

ME
(handing the bag to the BARISTA) Maybe the sticker’s wrong?

BARISTA
Maybe.  Do you want to just take it?  You can have it for free (holds out bag to offer it to ME).

ME
(looking at BARISTA) …

BARISTA
(looking at ME) 

ME
(looking at BARISTA) …  No thank you.

End scene.