Concert Review – Dave Matthews Band @ Heineken Music Hall, Amsterdam (November 2, 2015)

I was really looking forward to seeing the Dave Matthews Band in its full ensemble for the first time but the experience was a little bit different to what I was expecting. The band gave a high energy performance and Dave showed remarkable stamina as he switched from up tempo to slow and back again. The big issue for me was that so  many of the faster numbers turned into extended jam sessions that often lost any connection with the original song. The last time we saw Dave was at the Paradiso in 2007 in a very special acoustic performance with Tim Reynolds but the full band gives a very different show which doesn’t appeal as much to me.
The songs that worked best were the trusted, slower songs. There were two newer songs – ‘Black and Blue Bird’ and ‘Death on the High Seas’ that were pretty brilliant. ‘Proudest Monkey’ was my personal highlight, the arrangement was wonderful especially with the clarinet phases. Well known somgs like ‘Satellite’, ‘Lover Lay Down’ and ‘Space Between’ were as enjoyable as expected.
The problem for me was that so much of the concert felt like a live version of ‘Before These Crowded Streets’. I am sure that a lot of fans enjoyed that but I prefer the kind of concert he does with Tim Reynolds so if I see him again it will be for an acoustic evening.

Too Big For Comfort (iv)

The last time I wrote my weight was back down to 75kg so I didn’t have too much left to lose. I weigh 72kg now so I am back at my ‘slim’ weight. I have kept up the clean diet and I have started working out more often but with a focus on strength exercises rather than cardio. I am trying to do the weight exercises that I enjoy so I do chin-ups and barbell curls as well as work on the pec deck. Since the last time I did weights for any length of time I have become considerably weaker. In a way you expect that but it always a shocker to realize that you are struggling with 20kg less than when you were at your peak.
Since I don’t really have to think so much about my weight any more my focus is switching to what I can achieve in terms of improving my physique. As well as weights exercises I am doing kettlebell swings and I am delighted to have discovered the joy of bashing the punchbag in the gym so that is another thing I have added into the gym visits.
From here on out I am going to be working a lot more in the gym and just keeping to the diet. I don’t have any problem with being overweight any more so now it’s back shaping up as much as I am able to.

Japanese!?!  (or how I keep learning how to learn)

When I was in my first week of university in Sheffield I met a beautiful girl called Lara from the town of Guilford who was studying Japanese. For some unknown reason she seemed to like my pathetic 17 year old self but I managed to make a hames of that situation very quickly. In many ways she summed up the exotic and the unattainable. I was condemned to study engineering because of simple economic rationale while the beautiful ones got to study the things that I really wanted to study. A world in which I would study Japanese was a galaxy or two away. The Laras of this world would hover on a higher plain for many a year to come.

1989 is a long time ago now and who knew? Life would bring Japanese to me in many different incarnations. My first employer in the dreary Irish midlands was Japanese. It was an awful time but I did meet many Japanese folk and Irish people who had lived in Japan. It was always a fascinating place to talk about. My brother went there with a university bursary and that’s where he met his future wife. I didn’t imagine that I would end up with another Japanese employer but as ways lead onto ways that is what has transpired.

My first Japanese course wasn’t so helpful. The thing is that the people who teach Japanese don’t know what is easy for an English speaker to learn. At the end of that course I was bogged down in the logic of the Japanese counting system but really that was focusing on a relatively unimportant thing. After that I spent years dabbling in and out with various books and podcasts but it’s only now that I have really got to grips with what I need to do to make progress.

What’s true for me might well be true for many others too. The ideal learning method is quite personal and tailored. Taking private classes has been a revelation and now that I have a teacher who really pitches at my level and higher I feel like I just about treading water but I am speaking real Japanese! Moreover, the biggest lie in learning Japanese is that Kanji should be avoided. The opposite is true. The more you read the more words stick in your mind. For example, I came across 意味 yesterday and I didn’t recognize it. I did know 味 (aji) but not the compound but then it turned out that it means meaning and the pronunciation ‘imi’ stuck in my head straight away. Now I know the word and how to write it. If you avoid reading you get nowhere as far as I am concerned. Sure it is painful when you have to look up countless characters but that’s why you can best use materials aimed at your level or higher.

I am still making slow progress in Japanese and learning how to learn but at least I can look at what I know now that I did not know before and then I know that I am getting somewhere. It would have been a lot better to have had the confidence to talk to Lara as an equal way back then but so much was unknown and I was so unprepared. The place I had come from had been preparing me to be a man in a way that was never likely to match with where I was headed for. The twists and turns of life mean that many roads remain open. I am so glad that I still have the chance to climb the mountain that is Japanese.  In that other galaxy when Lara told me that she was studying Japanese I smiled when I answered ‘me too’.

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?