Too Big For Comfort (iii)

The last time I wrote on this I was back down to 77kg and things have progressed nicely so that I am looking more like the slim version of myself weighing in at under 75kg. Normally at this point I start to switch over to more strength training but with so many things ongoing at home and at work I haven’t yet made the switch. What I notice about the changes to my diet is that my mind has stabilized around the new regime. My diet is strict but not painful. It would be possible to go another step and not have toast after cereal at breakfast time or decide not to have a small bowl of cereal for a sweet after my dinner. The thing is though that those changes would take me into the misery zone and I just don’t need to go there in the dark months. If I need to change something it will be to train more rather than eat less.
It’s not like life changes when your slimmer especially for somebody like me because most people don’t even notice it if I have put weight on. Still though it is a relief for myself and stops me thinking that I am getting old. The chalazion in my eye has taken forever to heal even after the antibiotics last month helped me overcome the worst. You have to accept that you decline with the years but this is one thing that I can at least take some preventative steps to minimize in the future. Eye problems are really annoying even when they are just cosmetic.
So basically I am getting back to being the size I prefer being and things are gradually coming back to normal in as far as life ever allows that.

How many languages do you speak?

‘The more I learn, the more I learn how little I know.’
– Socrates

Certainty is something I miss about my youth. I stopped being certain about most things when I realized how little I know. The more I expanded my horizons the more I realized that there are no truths, that everything splinters and fractures and mutates. I graduated this year with a degree in English, my mother tongue, but I don’t feel that I know my own language perfectly. I don’t think that anybody can know a language inside out. English has so many specialist domains with their own vocabulary. The boundaries of the language you use are dictated by your own experience and necessities. Even within the boundaries of my profession I can only go so far in understanding specialist discussions. Within the boundaries of general English my knowledge is perfectly proficient but even then I might read an article in the New York Times or the Sydney Morning Herald and come across a word I do not understand. This does not undermine the fact that I am a native English speaker; it merely indicates the fluidity of the boundaries that delimit language fluency.
It also explains why I hate being asked how many languages I speak. How can I answer that question with any authority? Saying that you ‘speak’ a language means different things to different people. I speak some Polish every day (but not a lot) and what I say is confined within the boundaries of family life. I can watch Polish soap operas about ordinary life and understand a great deal. However, I would be lost in any discussion about politics or economics. With German or Spanish on the other hand I can read a novel or magazine without great issues, I can understand complex discussions on a variety of topics but I can’t speak with the ease that I have when using Polish because I just don’t practice them often enough. I have a French DALF diploma that put my level (at the time) at near native speaker but my skills are so rusty that I forget French words for very common things. I have read Simone de Beauvoir in the French but a teenager on a three month language exchange probably speaks better French than I do right now. With Swedish and Italian the same is true, strong on the inputs but terribly weak on the outputs. Speakers of those languages would be mistaken if they thought I was not able to follow them but judging on what I can easily say they would probably assume that I was clueless. Irish is hard-wired to a certain extent so I could always say something but following a native speaker from the Gaeltacht would be much more problematic than understanding Croatian.
Of course Dutch is different because I use it almost as much as English. Right now all of my energy is going into Japanese. Can I speak Japanese? Well, yes I can, I wouldn’t starve there and I am sure that I would be able to really quickly improve on my level if I was in Japan for any length of time. The thing is though that I would be lost in most everyday conversations where I would only catch word here and there. Japanese leaves loads of information out and certain particles have multiple uses and you need to know which context is applicable. How do you learn? Practice, try, fail, practice, nearly sink, swim.
I don’t like to answer the question of how many languages I speak because the answer is not relevant. What languages does your life need right now? What is the colour of love? Why is the word for the wind and a cold the same in Japanese? How did you feel the first time you read an e-mail without realizing that you were reading Japanese and not English?

How I learned Dutch (and could I do it again?)

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

When I had just turned eighteen I had a summer job in a Butlin’s holiday camp in Skegness in the north of England. It was an unusual place, enough said. During that summer there were a lot of French students working there as well and I was quite friendly with one guy whose name escapes me now. When I was with him I used to insist on speaking French especially when we were drinking. At a certain point in the night though he would also go off to talk to the ‘real’ French gang and I would go back to the English group. As much as I wanted to fit into the French group with ease I couldn’t do it. I didn’t know it well enough at the time but I was deluding myself about how good my ‘school’ French actually was. My friend was obviously the tolerant sort but there were limits to his patience.
That summer I met a girl and we started a relationship which was very turbulent, enough said. I was in the blackest of black phases and I somehow failed to see that the relationship was hurting and not helping. We went out together for quite a long time all considered. In my third year of university I had the chance to study in Orléans. I knew at the time that it was an opportunity that I should take. Yet somehow I allowed my girlfriend to talk me out of it. Soon after that we broke up anyway so I learned a very important lesson about decision making. You make a choice and you take a path but that was a big decision that I got wrong.

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

When I lived in England I was always conscious of the differences between Irish and British people. In general northern English people treated me no differently than they would have treated Scottish or Welsh people. They didn’t really regard Irish people as foreigners and as long as you stayed away from the contentious issue of the north of Ireland you could fit in without major issues. All of the foreignness and feelings of alienation were inside me. Every day I lived in England it felt like I was a pressure cooker about to explode. My feelings were irrational to a large extent but conversations with other Irish people at the time made me realize that it was par for the course. The biggest problem I had was that the British people didn’t see me as a foreigner but I saw myself as being no different to a French or German person who happened to be studying in another European country. The language issue really was a problem. On that point my argument towards British people was that Ireland had its own language and sports and many other culturally specific things. The counter-argument was that nearly everybody in Ireland spoke English and watched English soccer and television and so on. I was having an argument with an empty room. Nobody cared (but I did).
This all made the Orléans decision much worse. If I had have gone to France then I would have been true to my convictions. Moreover, another big difference between Irish people and British people (at that time at least) was that most educated Irish people could speak French reasonably well. The arguments about monolingual English speakers did not apply to us. Our country might have been an economic disaster but we were good Europeans and we spoke three languages at least. The problem with this rhetoric on my part is that I failed when it came to the big tests. I notionally spoke these other languages but not near the level of native speakers. My French friend in Skegness had revealed an inconvenient truth that took time to acknowledge.

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

The decision to finally make a language my own beyond the level of evening classes and language tests came much later. I lived in Holland for while in 1992-93 when I was doing an internship at Philips Research. At that time I didn’t actually take any Dutch classes but I did develop a passive understanding for the language. A few years later I started to learn Dutch on my own with Teach Yourself Dutch and by reading things on the internet. In August 1997 I managed to convince my employer to fund a summer university course at the University of Amsterdam. After that time my Dutch was at an upper intermediate level so I just kept on reading Dutch newspapers and listening to Dutch when I could. When I decided to move back to Holland in 1999 it was my intention to make sure that I would speak Dutch as much as I could from day one. Things didn’t work out as I expected because I ended up being assigned to Duesseldorf in Germany for the best part of the year. At that time my German level was around the same as my Dutch level but mentally I was committed to making Dutch my second language. I saw life in Holland through rose tinted spectacles and I had the idea that speaking Dutch would somehow bring me a greater reward. The key to learning Dutch was perseverance in the face of continual discouragement (e.g. – Why are you speaking your terrible Dutch when my English is so good?). I did what all of the total immersion types suggest. I read Dutch newspapers and magazines, I watched Dutch television and I spoke Dutch where I could when I could.
It didn’t happen overnight but a day did arrive when I realized that I don’t think at all in English when I am in the Dutch world. Obviously Dutch is the language of the country I live in so it was a logical evolution. However, the majority of English speakers here do not speak Dutch very well so it is not a self-evident outcome. Even beyond living here though I don’t know if I could make another language my own in the same way as Dutch. I don’t have the same optimism as I had and I was able to fully immerse myself because I was single and without children. When you have a family then that is your primary focus. You don’t get to pursue goals as doggedly as you did in your earlier days.
Not a day goes by though that I don’t think of what it would be like to have that third ‘home’ language. Obviously I could try to move one of the languages I know well up a level but there has to be something more. There is always part of me crying to go back to Irish and French and Spanish and even German in a really serious way. The thing that I need more than anything else though is to have the heart for the effort required and right now I don’t have the passion for any language like I did for Dutch at that time. I still think of Orléans though and it hurts.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

(from “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost)

In these oceans I drown

One of the things that I really appreciated about the OU was the amount of help and support you could receive from (and indeed give to) your fellow students. There were very few students who seemed to be overtly competitive and intent on demonstrating how brilliant they were. In fact some of the most helpful and encouraging people were actually first class students themselves but did not make a point of letting everybody know about that. In a way it kind of fitted with my ideal of a feminized world where the value system is not centred around objective measures of attainment but around collective wellbeing and joint achievements. I am just as vulnerable to being overly competitive as the next man but I was happy to be part of a community demonstrating other behavioural traits.
Although women tend to provide an overwhelming majority of students on language courses at universities and educational institutes the more obsessive language learners tends to be men in my experience. It’s partly to do with the need to dominate and collect and to be something more. The polyglots who adopt a high profile on the internet always seem to be men. Whatever language you are learning there will be various internet forums and Facebook groups available and most of the active contributors tend to be men. One of the reasons for that is definitely the competitive attitude that some contributors display that works to shut out more reserved people. Rather than supporting other language learners some people make it their business to demonstrate their superior ability in whatever the target language might be.
With Japanese this effect seems even more pronounced than with other languages I have studied. The fact that learning Japanese is something of a life’s work means that people struggle for years with many aspects of the language. The writing system alone takes a long time to become familiar with. I have been learning on and off for years but it is only now that I can read Hiragana without thinking about it but I still get caught on some Katakana letters and I can only recognize three hundred or so Kanji. The fact that some people on forums have learned the Kana in a week or two and know a thousand Kanji after a year does not so much encourage me as induce a severe inferiority complex. I read another discussion about various grammar constructions that a basic learner should have mastered in a month but that I didn’t even recognize. As for listening comprehension, I do manage to catch words in Japanese conversations and I have even understood full sentences but I have never been able to get more than the gist of a conversation. Again, I read all the time about how easy spoken Japanese is and I wonder if we are talking about the same tongue.
It comes down to this. If I read that kind of stuff I feel like I am drowning in an ocean. I feel like I am incapable and incomplete. I have to remind myself that I speak one language other than my mother tongue fluently and many others more than adequately. If I get so discouraged by forums on the internet then it must be even worse for others for whom Japanese if their first adventure in language acquisition. It makes me miss the warm glow of the OU where the groups I was involved with were all about encouragement and respect and everybody taking steps towards their goals. Learning is not about being better than other people, it’s about bettering yourself. If you can help somebody else along the way then it’s a win-win. Isn’t that humankind at its best?

Changing from the inside

“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.”
– Samuel Beckett

The omnipresence of the camera lens in modern life means that transitions in a person’s physical appearance are generally a matter of public record. There are whole years of my life where the only photograph I was in was the obligatory family portrait at Christmas for my grandmother in Manchester. I don’t regret that at all. In many ways the unrecorded parts are best left as they are, they weren’t the happiest of times anyway. By the time the camera re-entered my life things were on the up. Most photographs of me date from after I got married but I am mostly a cameo figure and not in the centre. That’s the way I prefer things.
Photographs tell us little about what is going on inside. In the past I would have said that the written word reveals a lot more but that has its limits too. A blog or even a private diary has an audience and the writer is always aware that there is an intended reader. I don’t generally read older blog posts unless they are about something factual. I don’t generally enjoy confronting anything that might trigger an unwelcome memory. My mind is sailing on a course with stability as its destination, the ports of the past are an unwelcome diversion. If I had a whole wealth of memories from a better, happier past I might allow myself a measure of nostalgia but my previous lives really were not better. I don’t want to be the people I was and frankly I don’t even recognize them in many cases.
Visual images allow us to observe the incremental effects of physical change. The changes on the inside are so much harder to elucidate. Today’s world allows so little room for patience and gradual change but much of what one wants to achieve in life cannot be done without years of gradually shifting towards that goal. If I look back at what I was blogging about ten years ago you can see some common themes emerging. In June of 2005 I was beginning to learn the Japanese Hiragana characters and I had hopes to get a diploma in the language within five years. Ten years later I can read Hiragana, Katakana and basic Kanji. I didn’t get a Japanese diploma but I did manage a degree in English and a diploma in French in that time. In November of 2005 I was talking about going dry and giving up booze for good . It took me a long time to actually follow through on that wish. I quit drinking for ever longer periods but I would then fall back into my old habits. I never felt happy with drinking because it would become an end in itself. It’s more than two years now since the last time I drank and I can’t see any way that I would ever drink again because I just don’t want that loss of control that comes with it. Any mistakes I make in life now are a result of decisions made with a clear mind, I feel a lot better with that but it’s evident that where I am now was a result of a gradual mental shift and a strengthening of my will power. It’s so clear reading what I wrote over the years that I was trying to find a way out of but I just couldn’t find the key. I couldn’t find the key because sometimes you need to play the long game.
You are so many different persons in a life but so much happens on the inside. It’s that world that is so unknown and so unmodelled. Everything remains so empirical and full of contradictions. In a world that pushes inexorably towards ideals of flawless presentation the level of the individual keeps revealing that humans are a mass of contradictions. We set ourselves goals we often fail to meet, we plan for the best without considering contingency options when the unexpected happens and we continually find ourselves surprised. I try to think now in terms of destinations and allow for the route to meander. The changes that have come over me were a reflection of will but the route to get there did not reflect any ideal path. Instead I stumbled, crashed and burned on the way to being somebody I can be relatively happy with. Failure is achievement’s father after all

Once more into the deep

There was a time a few months back when my brain was so frazzled that I almost stopped recognizing myself. I could work just fine but everything else went into hibernation mode. It was a useful time because it was like a return to my origin, this was what I was when all was stripped back. If everything is deconstructed you have a clearer perspective of how you might want to rebuild yourself when it comes to putting the pieces back together. What I realized is that there are a few vital ingredients that are key to my happiness. After years of finding ways to be more outward facing it’s a relief to just accept that I am an introvert. Family is important, the people I might call friends are important but after that I am just an insignificant player in a much bigger game. I can do my work as well as I can but after that the main source of happiness for me comes from learning.
I spent years studying English with the OU and there were times when that was the right thing but it’s only now that I can go back to learning other languages that I feel fully rewarded. For years I have been thinking about the third ‘home’ language (after English and Dutch) but it’s been very hard to really get there. I know that I could live in Germany or France or Spain and easily make the national languages my own since I speak and understand them all well enough. However, it’s finding a third home language without living in a country that speaks it that has proved elusive. Obviously it would have been easiest to make Polish that language with ready access to the language at home but I have always had a resistance to going too far with my wife’s language. I am happy enough speaking okay Polish but I have never had the motivation to really make it my own. At various times I have gone back to Irish but again and again it made me depressed to put effort into a language that has been so rejected by its homeland. Recently I was looking through my language books on Turkish, Swedish, Italian, Icelandic, Czech, Greek, Russian…… There have been so many flirtations and dalliances but the third home language remains a distant, elusive dream.
Maybe it’s a dream that’s not really meant to come true. The ambition is enough to keep me learning and always wanting. Right now I am very much back to Japanese which is not even a candidate for being a home language because the effort and time needed to get really fluent is probably more than my remaining life can allow. I am going to start taking private, individual classes once a week. I had classes at work for a while but the level was too low and I wasn’t making progress. I know that I have a big Japanese vocabulary but I have an enormous struggle in bringing it into active use. I really hope that these private classes can help me to make the transition. At the same time I have been dabbling in Croatian and my plan is to start taking classes on the internet once I get this Japanese up and running.
It’s enough to keep me satisfied in a life where the girls and what they need comes first. There is a certain amount of space left for me. If I am true to myself then learning languages is my art though I stumble and fail in my execution. When all else is gone words are left and that will always count for something.

Rhythmic Gymnastics – In Orange

The new gymnastics season has started and it’s all change again. Last year the three girls had changes at club level so they had to get used to new training environments and teammates. This year the changes are a little different but they bring their own challenges. Luna started training with the Jong Oranje team that is aiming for a place at the European Championships in Budapest next year. In practice that means that she is training every Saturday and Sunday with the Dutch group as well as three times per week with the club. Right now there are 12 gymnasts in the group which will gradually reduce to 7 as they decide on the exact makeup of the international team. Obviously we hope that she makes the cut but there are ancillary benefits in doing extra training. She has been doing far more ballet than in the past and that is improving her stability and body positions. It’s hard to judge how much extra training really translates into improved performance and results especially in the Dutch system. In national competitions the highest scores tend to come from good material technique and the ability to execute elements without fault. Younger girls who perform advanced elements often don’t get points for Difficulty while also being penalized for mistakes in their execution. From a results point of view it can be beneficial to have an element worth only 0.3 that you can perform easily without fault rather than do something more difficult at 0.4 or 0.5 that leads to a deduction. The girl who does the easier element gets 0.3 while the girl who goes for a higher score might get no D and a deduction of 0.3 or 0.4. That means that the girl who is nominally the better gymnast ends up 0.8 behind just on one element. Across a routine that effect does get balanced out somewhat but it often leads to a ranking that surprises the audience.
Daisy has been training this year four times a week and she will probably have a new partner. She is really enjoying her sport, it is always great to watch her and hear her passion for what she does. Nadia has moved to training three times a week but her motivation is a bit of an issue. She often complains about not getting the chance to do other sports like hockey or horse riding. We are not really happy that she doesn’t have the chance to do the things she would like but it is impossible to allow that logistically and financially. We think that she has great talent as a gymnast so hopefully she will learn to enjoy training more. It was a big issue with Luna and Daisy at times when they were younger too. It’s hard for a young, distracted mind to focus on training but sport is not all about competitions, you have to put in the hours to get there. We’ll have to see how she progresses this year and with a bit of luck she will start to enjoy things more.