Oct. 30th, 2013 05:52 pm
hollymath: (Default)
My boss just asked me what I'd like to do a degree in, if I could do anything.

"Linguistics," I said right away.

"You can think about your answer first, if you want to!" he teased.

But I have! I've been thinking about it for ten years!

He's told me to look into what I'd need to do that at one of the local universities or the OU or whatever.

I don't know how likely this is to happen, but it makes the 3.5-hour drive home (well, to Stockport where I have to get a train) a little more fun.
hollymath: (Default)
The first thing I remember him doing was ranting about Princess Diana.

And Mother Teresa. They'd died within a few days of each other, just before I started my sophomore year of high school and thus his English class. (He always made it very clear that he didn't want anything to do with freshmen.) He told us to think about how the news of these deaths, and the mourning that followed, were treated differently and what that said about what our culture values and holds to be important. He made us think about everything.

The second thing I remember was him reading to us. First The Iron Giant, which I guess was made into an animated movie a few years later but at the time we had never heard of it. He told us it was a book for fourth-graders but he was going to read it to us anyway. We were incredulous. I am sure I was. I hadn't even read books for fourth-graders when I was in fourth grade. I'd read those in first grade.

He was the first person to read anything to me since Mrs. Conway had in third grade. She read Where the Red Fern Grows, and cried at the end. I didn't like that much, but I loved Hatchet, which she read next, and became obsessed with all Gary Paulsen's books I could find in the school library after that. I think he was still a favorite of mine when I was in Mr. Nordlie's English class seven years later. Somewhere along the line I learned that his first name was Gary, too. It felt like a strange power to have over my teachers, to know their first names.

"Make a nest," Mr. Nordlie told us when he was going to read to us. That meant we had to put all of our stuff underneat our chairs. If there was a pencil in anybody's hand, or the smallest scrap of paper on their desk, or anything, he wouldn't begin. He said he was so strict about this because he didn't want us to be distracted.

Like most things about Mr. Nordlie, people either loved this or hated it.

He read us Bless the Beasts & the Children next, a little more complex book. And then, I think, came the centerpiece, the single thing that still calls him to mind most readily for me: Of Mice and Men.

He'd read a little bit each day, before we did the regular work of the English curriculum. He said after we'd finished it he'd show us the movie, and warned us he did a better Lenny than the actor playing him. (I thought he was right, too.) "They play him as dumb," I remember him saying. "But Lenny's not dumb."

By the end of that book we were so caught up in the story that a girl who had English in the morning got in trouble with him for telling kids in later English classes how it ended (this was before Google, and I don't think any of us were enterprising enough to check for the book in the library, though I wouldn't have been at all surprised if Mr. Nordlie had checked the book out or hidden it or colluded with the librarian to keep it from the sophomores for the duration of his reading it to us). "Nark!" he teased the girl, and laughed, and I laughed too, even though I wasn't sure yet what the word nark meant.

He also told us how best to bake hash cookies. That was when we were doing Julius Caesar.

His life shone through in everything he taught. He thought that teaching us to appreciate literature was intimately bound up in teaching us how to live life. So he talked about fishing a lot -- he loved to fish, and spent his summer vacation up north as a fishing guide on a lake he talked about so much I still remember its name, Lake Vermillion. (I didn't know the word vermillion yet then either, so it took me a while to get the name stuck in my head and I guess it's stayed.)

He talked about guitars too; he loved playing and had about a dozen (unimaginable wealth to me, madly in love with playing the guitar but still nagging my parents for an electric one). He liked me because I was the only teenage guitarist in the school who didn't want to play the dreary indie music of the time but liked blues, and liked Stevie Ray Vaughan best of all. I liked him because I don't think I knew another human being at the time who recognized Stevie Ray Vaughan's name. Mr. Nordlie brought in one of his dobros once, and let me play it at lunchtime. I'd never done anything like that before (and I haven't touched one since) and I was enchanted. The way they are tuned makes it very easy to sound good, sound like you know what you're doing, very quickly. Of course actually know what you're doing takes a lot longer, but it made for a very satisfying lunchtime. (You might have seen people playing them: the guitar sits flat on their lap and they play it by plucking the strings with their right hand and moving a piece of metal (or, y'know, a broken beer bottle for extra bluesy authenticity, but usually these days a strip of metal specially made for the purpose so it fits just right around the fingers) with their left hand.)

He made us all memorize a list of sixty prepositions -- I remember rather than taking my heavy textbook home for the weekend I just copied them out and just put the piece of paper in my backpack. But then I lost it, or my mom tidied it, or something and I found myself with only a short time after I got to school on Monday to learn them all. He wanted us to learn them because he said he didn't ever want to see us write a sentence that ended in a preposition. This is one instance in which I've parted ways with him since; I don't think it's bad to end with a preposition, or split an infinitive, because I don't speak Latin! He did such a good job of helping me learnto be conscious of the rules I'm breaking, and encouraging confidence in defiance, that I'm sure he wouldn't mind that I use those skills against him now.

He did teach me to love a subject I'd previously hated, so much that a mere two years after I reluctantly left his class to go back to that of the horrible English teacher I had in ninth grade -- the one who ruined everything (except To Kill a Mockingbird, which is so good even he couldn't wreck it), the one who told us not to read the end of Huckleberry Finn because Huck and Jim drifting away ruined the moral of the story, the one who hadn't heard of Anne of Green Gables when someone mentioned it was her favorite book... the one who was teaching because he coached wrestling and there was a rule that you couldn't coach if you weren't teaching -- I still ended up thinking that English was the best thing for me to major in when I got to college. Thanks to Mr. Nordlie.

And tonight my mom told me that he has cancer, and only 2-4 months to live; apparently it's one of the especially shitty kinds.

I'm surprising myself at how sad this makes me. I don't have any way to tell him that I still can't think of Of Mice and Men (or Steinbeck at all really, who ended up another devour-everything-in-the-school-library writer for me after this) without him -- indeed I defended the book, and praised my teacher in so doing, just the other week at Currybeer. Dobro guitars and fishing guides on the lakes of northern Minnesota will always make me think of him too.

But most of all that phrase, "make a nest," sounding so cozy and yet coming from a teacher who made fun of us, who ranted, laughed a lot, sometimes even swore...it was cozy, but not sentimental and not coddling us. He was just teaching us -- me at least -- how to show stories the respect they were due, how to get the most out of them. He was special, and he made my world feel special, and it looks like that effect will long outlast him.
hollymath: (Default)
I was fine when I was listening to the cricket (with [livejournal.com profile] shinydan explaining the jargon and other stuff that confused me as it went along) and doing the dishes, but when they stopped for tea -- they stop for tea! there is no way I couldn’t like this sport -- I’d finished what I was doing too. So I sat down for a minute and ate some yogurt and immediately started thinking too much.

I was glad I’d done the dishes. And earlier today I did some laundry, cooked myself some nice food (English muffin pizzas! an old college favorite; oddly English muffins are a lot harder to find here so I don’t make them very often now), cleaned the bathroom... I’d done all this stuff today, and I felt really good about it. Still a long way from being a domestic goddess, but clearly a lot of progress had been made. It really did seem easier to keep everything okay (or, at least more okay) after we moved. Sometimes these fresh starts do work...

Sure, I thought, it’s working out all right for me now, but what about when I have to go back to work? When I’m working I come home exhausted, mentally as much as physically, suitable for little other than staring blankly at my computer screen or burrowing under the covers of my lovely bed. On my days off I’m little better. And of course as things pile up undone around me, it’s all the easier and more attractive to just hide from it all, narrow my focus so I can’t see the chaos that would drag me down, but being down anyway because there’s nothing good to see in such a narrowly-focused world.

Owning up to my mental state is not the only long-overdue thing I’ve done this week; I’ve been inspired to tidy up the cupboard under the stairs when I tried to yank the vacuum cleaner out of said cupboard and got a cartoonish avalanche of boxes spilling open and CDs crashing down at my feet. So I dragged everything out of it, most if it rubbish, and opened the scary door to the spare room to see what in there might be put in the cupboard under the stairs. I am making lists in my head and on the little whiteboard and trying to kill my procrastinating habits.

The house is in a worse state than it was in some ways; the vacuum cleaner languishes on the kitchen floor, freed from its prison but still not used today because I was too tired after lugging things around and putting them where it had been. Random things that had been there that I’m hoping Andrew will sort out are now strewn about the house. Still I’m not despairing, I’m proud of myself for how easily I’m able to focus on the good I’ve done rather than what’s left to do.

And, inside as well as outside, I’m feeling kind of ugly and strewn-about at the moment. A work mate texted me today, made me smile: “Hey Holly, you ok mate?” I knew this ear would be sympathetic so I did my best to explain, in the limited number of characters, adding thanks for checking up on me; I feel so invisible at work that it really did cheer me up. Still by the end of the two or three texts each that we exchanged, I was feeling wobbly and anxious again, for no reason I could think of but maybe just thinking about work again...

I’ve got a little more than a week left, and I hope it helps a lot because right now I can’t imagine going back. At all. As I sat there eating my yogurt I mentally surveyed my choices. I could, as that mate from work has, return with a reduced number of hours; working four days a week has made a big difference for that person and I think it would help me too. But enough? Do I need to change my job altogether? I have been halfheartedly applying for easy admin jobs (still within the NHS because I haven’t gotten over my wild happiness that it exists, and anyway I guess it has a good pension plan or something) but nothing’s come of it yet.

Man, I used to work in an office, and I hated it so much I can’t imagine what me-then would think if she could see me now, longing to go back to typing and Excel spreadsheets or something, when all she wanted was to get away from them. But a lot of the misery there came from working for a bank, and particularly a part that chased after people who’d missed loan payments. While my co-workers there went on skiing holidays in the Alps and didn’t think anything of spending a tenner on their lunch, I wore ill-fitting Primark clothes I couldn’t afford to replace and brought lunch in Tupperware containers because even the Greggs across the road could be too rich for my blood some days. I felt much closer to the people on the other end of the phone and it was hard on me to work there, even though I knew that doing so was the only thing that kept me and Andrew from getting calls from people like them.

Lots of things have changed and as much as I enjoy the feeling that the work I do is “worthy,” as much as I like my flexible schedule with its lie-ins and early finishes and random days off during the week, there’s a lot about it that I don’t like, that’s driven me to curl up and cry when I thought about going to work on Monday. Compared to this the very idea of a low-stress job is an oasis in the sad empty desert, and the less I have to use my brain the better. I still remember a line I stole from [livejournal.com profile] quuf: drudgery becomes me. I helped stick address labels on a bunch of leaflets for some LibDem thing a couple of weeks ago and worked away happily, thinking of that office job I used to have; on the days the computers weren’t working for me I’d stuff envelopes, a task I found much more to my liking than staring at a screen for umpteen hours a day anyway, filling in hellish little boxes on a database. To work with my hands, even if all I have to show at the end of it is a stack of letters imperfectly folded into envelopes, fingers sticky from the glue, brain wandering gently.

I just have no ambition at all. I don’t resent work like that. I am happy to be given something easy to do and be left alone, unconcerned with failure or success.


For the last couple of months Andrew has been pushing for me to think about going back to university. he’s enlisted my parents and some of his family in this, as if I’d need persuading. I liked school, and even when I didn’t I understood school; I belonged there. And to have left the way I did, to have run out of money and sanity while all my friends were graduating, to know that I’d need at least another year to make up for all the classes I failed and to have no interest in that because I had no resources for it and all I’d learned that year was that I was stuck with the wrong degree... it remains a big ugly blotch on my life, both a cause and effect of all the depression and anxiety that has landed me where I am now, in my pajamas writing this when I am meant to be at work for another 41 minutes tonight, meant to be at the end of another week looking forward to tomorrow as my day off.

So while obviously I’d rather that not be my abiding impression of formal education, it’s just as obvious that I’m not sure I’m any better able to tackle it now than I was then (especially with how atrociously I’ve failed in my OU courses these last two years).

Also, it’d mean I was much more dependent on Andrew’s income even than I am now when he makes twice as much as me. He’s more than happy to support me, it’s me that’s not entirely comfortable with the idea. Among other things, it’s taken me so long to attain any kind of independence (and even longer to decide that I really wanted it!) that I’m loath to give that up again already.

Going back to university is attractively less structured than work... but I also remember the relief it was for me to start working, to just work, and how long it took to stop feeling guilty when I was just sitting around or having fun. For months after I left school I was looking over my metaphorical shoulder and feeling the stress of books I hadn’t read and essays I wasn’t writing even when there weren’t any of those any more. Perhaps as amputees scratch phantom limbs, humanities students stress about phantom essays.

So I’m wary of inviting that demanding on-duty-24/7 feeling back into my life... but I’d be lying if I didn’t say that university also holds some appeal for me. I’ve been watching [livejournal.com profile] taimatsu‘s dissertation take shape over the past couple of weeks, both admiring of her prose style and her complex thoughts on her subject, fondly (or not) reminiscing about my own big essays, and being utterly grateful that I’m not in her position even now because I know I couldn’t handle it. And a lot of it I don’t miss; English literature never suited me as it does her.

And what would then? It’s all fine and good to want to go back to uni but what for, Holly? I have no answer.

But it’s got me thinking (and talking to poor [livejournal.com profile] shinydan, repeatedly) about word-choices in Old English riddles and other things so arcane you have to be an English major to even know they’re there, much less have opinions about them.

As always I’m susceptible to stories, and I think the one I want to tell here is about some dormant part of myself coming back to life, and of course about the intoxicating high of another fresh start.

I take these three ideas -- less work, new job, university -- out and play with them. I pretend they are a deck of cards and have a game of solitaire with them, turning over one and then another and wondering how they go together. I shuffle them around and put them away. They feel like old ideas already, the edges soft and creases worked into them. Feeling helpless to choose any one over another (or to just go along with things as they are, of course) was one of the things that drove me to despair and got me this time off work; a few days later I feel no closer to an answer but at least able to more calmly think about the question.


Mar. 3rd, 2009 12:30 pm
hollymath: (rocket science)
I’m really starting to think distance-learning a language is not going to work out for me.

This notion is brought to you by the fact that my last assignment is a day overdue and I still haven’t started it.

And the fact that a friend of mine was just talking about her own OU course, which thankfully she has far better things to say about than I do about mine. And hers is in astronomy, so I am a bit envious as it is my own first love. I must admit I was never one of those kids who had anything to say when grown-ups asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, a trait that hasn’t budged an inch in the twenty-some years hence to this day, but if I’d had to say anything it would’ve been an astronomer. Growing up knowing people didn’t do things like that, people sold seed corn and taught school, I didn’t really think too much about it.

And from a young age I was humiliated by my math grades. I was told off for them in high school but I knew it wouldn’t make any difference; my parents might think I was too smart to get C’s but there’s a difference between getting a C in English, which is brainlessly easy so I always got A’s in it, and getting a C in pre-calculus where you’re supposed to do things with conic sections and matrices, both of which brought me to actual tears and I never did figure them out anyway. I tried calculus again in college so I could take physics and it beat me to a bloody pulp; I think I only lasted a few weeks, just long enough to memorize some trig derivatives for a quiz I had to take an hour later, and then forget them immediately.

And I’m wary. I’m a lot better at starting over than I am at following through. I’m already on my second go at the foreign-language part of the course I am doing, having made a travesty of French last year -- just yesterday I threw out a few of the books for that year, which I’d never even touched. I don’t need more challenge in my life right now and I certainly don’t need more math.

It’s just this desire I have lately to change everything about my life, to pull everything out by the roots to make sure that whatever’s making me sad can’t still be here.
hollymath: (eyebrow)
My second day back at work. I got lucky; yesterday was a fairly gentle return for me (except the return-to-work interview, which made me feel vaguely like I was being told off for something even though my manager is lovely and I'm sure he didn't intend it to). Today was the kind of day I really like when I'm feeling up to it, the kind that keeps you on your toes and makes you feel busy and productive and helpful. I wasn't ready for that but I knew it was coming and I felt only a little overwhelmed.

I must say it helped enormously that in the middle of it I found time to sneakily check my e-mail, where I learned that I could get the results for my first Open University assignment of the year, in German. Luckily I'd, for once, been proactive enough to get a lot of it done a couple of weeks ago, so I could shamefully ignore it when I was Being Stressed and tie up the loose ends the night before I went back to work.

I was pretty nervous about it, even though the little German I remembered from four years ago (and longer, if you count the not-inconsiderable amount I managed to soak up from my weird friends who'd already taken German before that (most of that was useless anyway; I have not yet needed to know the word for helicopter or had to tell anyone the world is cone-shaped, but I can summon these far more readily than I could ask directions or order a meal)) served me well. Most crucially, unlike last year when every assignment I handed in benefited from the loving help of [livejournal.com profile] taimatsu or a once-over from Andrew, who'd both studied the language in question. With German I don't have anyone I feel I could impose on. The upshot being that when my finger hovered over the mouse pointer hovering over a "Send" button, I felt like I was all on my own, flying by the seat of my pants.

Then of course I immediately forgot about it. Work. And, in between, beer. And flip chart paper. So I was kind of surprised to get an e-mail saying I had TMA results to collect.

But that was nothing to my surprise at what the results were. I let out a little yelp, forgetting I was in the office with a lot of other people I didn't know very well at that point. "Ninety-seven percent!" I half-whispered, half-shouted, doing a little chair-dance.

"What, have you got exam results or something?" the one person I did know asked.

"No, just my first assignment," I sheepishly confessed. But still! 97% is nothing to sheep about. I was thrilled beyond words with my scores in the 70s and 80s last year; this is just unthinkable. I know I won't do so well once we get past the things I vaguely remember -- and I know that won't take long! unless they want me to be able to tell people they are goats, which I can do (preferably in the familiar singular) -- and I know my score isn't as impressive as, say, people who have to write essays rather than just put checkmarks in boxes, and this only reaffirms what I thought last year about how gently they must grade beginners' language students...

But I'm quite capable of forgetting all that and just feeling good that for once I'm on top of something.
hollymath: (quantum)
In about half an hour (and with Andrew's invaluable help: when I was busy staring at an OU webpage moaning "waah! this makes no sense!" he was there to point out I was looking at the wrong page and to make a list of everything I'm going to do, advise me on the benefits of Reading Classical Latin over Reading Classical Greek, and generally be the wonderfully calm and organized person that I am so obviously not being) I went from apprehension and confusion about my Open University course to having the whole thing figured out.

Next February, I'm jumping in with both feet: intermediate German and yes, Reading Classical Latin. So at least now I am apprehensive about specific things. Andrew says the intermediate level only expects a GCSE level of knowledge, which he thinks I'll have when I described my experience with German as "four years ago, and I haven't really thought about it since."

Well, that's not quite true. After taking Spanish in high school (because my dad, who at the time worked at a factory with guys with names like Arturo and Javier, thinks like parent thinks:
The US shares a border with only one country that doesn’t speak English (and we’ll leave the more surly Quebecers out of this): Mexico. They speak Spanish in Mexico. In fact, countries that don’t speak English in the Western Hemisphere tend to speak Spanish or, in a few cases, Portuguese. Most of the immigrants to this country, legally or illegally here, speak Spanish. If you actually want to have the greatest chance of communicating well with non-English-speakers right here in the good ‘ol USofA, Spanish is your best bet.
) I wasn't overly impressed with it, though my teacher told me I had a knack for it and should become a translater. I was baffled. This isn't a career plan that'd occur to someone who grows up in the rural Midwest, where I'd lived my whole life so far without being aware of anyone who spoke anything other than English.

Only when it was too late to get out of Spanish did I realize that all my friends (all four of them) were taking German. the only other language my school offered. They had a blast: they had silly German names and wrote essays about collapsible helicopters...in German. Then I got to college and [livejournal.com profile] setharoo taught me about Die Prinzen, and Grant made me watch Run Lola Run, and my crazy advisor (when your major's still undecided, they just assign you one at random) who looked and sounded like central casting's idea of Albert Einstein, who convinced me to take his class about German expressionist film, which I was incredibly dubious about but adored, and Matthew translated "Why Does the Sun Shine" into German for no reason ("die Sonne ist eine Masse von weissglühende Gas" or something), and German was just so cool.

And then I took a year of German, even though my foreign language requirement had already been fulfilled. It's supposed to be hard, but the intricately-structured grammar actually seemed to stick in my brain (I can still conjugate present-tense German verbs more easily than French ones). Since I ended up in an Old English class somehow, all the stuff I learned about three genders and the dative case and everything came in handy there; English was a lot more German back then. And I actually loved Old English and thus appreciated German all the more.

Somehow the language has taken on strange overtones in the time I've been away from it (see here for an example), and now I'm trying to be careful not to get swept away in mystical weirdness of my own devising. Not least because I don't need that. I think German is cool and interesting enough without having to be a pivotal, life-changing force.

In order to get my head out of the clouds, and also to give myself a little better chance of surviving intermediate German by February (the class is called "Auftakt," which I know is meant to be encouraging and cute as the name of my current French class -- Bon départ -- is meant to be, but auftakt (kick) seems a bit ominous to me!)... I'm once again looking for suggestions of movies, music (though I don't like death metal and I already know about the techno, so I'm not sure what this leaves! maybe more boy bands like Die Prinzen if I'm lucky), or any other kind of media you can think of that might get me used to the sounds and sights of the language, even if I don't know enough to tell what they're on about.

You guys did so well when I asked for French things last year; I hope you can help me out with German too.
hollymath: (pigeon)
I did that thing again where I didn't know what I was thinking until I told somebody else about it.

I was actually telling [livejournal.com profile] textivore not to read that rambly entry just before the one that made him tell me "I bet YOU'D be a grand slam, baby!"

But then I reconsidered my reflexive self-deprecation and admitted that actually I was the tiniest bit proud of that rambly entry. Though it still looks muddled to me, it is the evidence of a lot of mental heavy-lifting. It's about my brain and things I like, and "my brain" and "things I like" happen to be among my favorite things, so I thought a little excitement was warranted, and maybe even that smidgen of pride.

It hadn't occurred to me, until I started trying to explain the context to someone who hadn't really known me at the time, but the linguistic epiphanies (ranging from the small "I know how to use the dative case now" to the big-picture "I really like language, actually") of my last year at university have heretofore been pretty smothered under everything else that happened that year: my undiagnosed and unmanagable depression and its snowballing causes and effects, like quitting my too-stressful-to-be-worth-it-anymore part-time job, my increasing inability to pass any of my classes, feeling I was drifting away from my friends as they did more and more to finish their intensive senior years and prepare for life after college while I was doing less and less, money woes, worrying about my family especially in the aftermath of my grandma's death, and the first person I loved breaking up with me.

There were silver linings to those clouds (the one I talk about most often is that they left me in such a state that I actually didn't think flying to the UK to stay with Andrew was a stupid idea, as I probably would've thought it was at any other point in my life before or since), but the clouds were awfully big and black.

Though I worried about running away from my problems — something else for the angst and depression to latch on to! like I needed that! — I worried about it while I was already running away, so it quickly became a moot point. I was happy to run away, even if it was unhealthy or made me look bad, even if it stunted my emotional growth; I didn't care at that point. I had to run. I already was running, even as I was second-guessing the wisdom of that decision.

Soon I stopped feeling like I was running away from my problems, but only because I was running into more different and varied dilemmas than I could've heretofore imagined. Once I decided I had to be with Andrew I had a whole new set of things to worry about, from the ever-present and occasionally-crippling homesickness to the question of how I could ever eat wild rice soup again to what kind of wedding dress I was going to wear.

My brother's death made some of those things more difficult and some of them absolutely trivial in comparison, but it certainly complicated everything and continues to have effects that ripple outward in my life to this day. Moving here meant packing up all Andrew's stuff even before mine could be unpacked and hunting for a new flat; we had to move within a couple of weeks. And then I had to start looking for a job. (Much as I complain about it, it's almost merciful that I really don't remember much between Thanksgiving of 2005 and June of 2006, when I finally started working and felt like I was starting to piece together a life for myself.)

I've never thought much about my life before that time in limbo. The ugliness of my senior year tainted the few good years before it, and the vague nostalgia I feel whenever I think about getting fries and milkshakes at Don's in the middle of the night, or living with Seth the summer he seemed to live on Star Trek and Cinnamon Toast Crunch, or everybody hanging out in Sarah's and my room freshman year, or the poetry readings Allison used to organize, or Katie and her whiteboard, or some of the posts on Pharyngula, of all things... it still is as bitter as it is sweet. So I've never been tempted to think about that period of my life.

Starting the OU course got me thinking about school again, but it brought back the dread rather than the optimism. I thought about what a diabolically poor student I'd proven myself to be, but I forgot about the excitement that my subject, foreign languages and the history of English. Oh, I knew about them, which is why I picked this degree as my eventual goal, but I didn't really feel the excitement any more. And I certainly haven't felt it in all the time I've been struggling with the French these past six months.

As my frustration with French grows, so does my longing for something more familiar.

When I think of my experience with German chronologically, which is how I usually seem to think, it suffers with connections to one of the most frightening and despairing times in my life. But when I think about it as a subject, I think of the way all my friends took it in high school, and I think of the German film class I'd already taken in college before I took a stab at learning the language, and I think of spending time in the coffee shop in Morris, eating delicious sandwiches and trying to learn vocab: die Tische, das Fenster, der Kühlschrank, and I think of how much I liked to see how German's roots tie into those of my mother tongue.

Now that I can think of it this way, it's easy to connect it up to the point my life is at now. And I like feeling connected to that stuff. I was a pretty okay person then, you know. I hardly even knew it at the time, because I was busy being clever and then busy being sad, but I liked who I was and I still like who I was. I'd like to be more like that and less like this crazy sad fragile person I'm used to thinking of myself as now. I was normal. I was okay.

German can't make me normal and okay, but if it can remind me of the last time that I was, well, that can't hurt.

Clearly I've been thinking about school a lot lately: When I got home from work I felt this weird nagging guilt for not doing anything. But I couldn't think of anything to do. I'm caught up (enough) on laundry; I'm still waiting for Andrew to carry through on his promise of tidying the house (it's mostly his stuff anyway, better if he does it)... so where does that leave me? Today it left me eating crisps and watching QI and being glad I didn't have to feel guilty the same way I did when I was a student, because when I was a student there was always something I should have been reading or writing or studying.

I better enjoy this sloth while it lasts, before I start studying something exciting and all-consuming again.

I think it's time for a nap.
hollymath: (universe)
Je pense que.... the beautiful Parisienne tutor wrote quickly, saying it for us as she scribbled, ...elle est belle.

"But who is this sentence talking about?" a man named John asked. Jean, they were calling him. (I envied the Jean and Pierre and Pauline among us; I have a ridiculously untranslatable name; even though Pauline hadn't seen me since December she remembered me because everybody took such delight in calling me Ollee that day.)

I liked Jean. I talked to him during our coffee break and he spoke my worst feelings about the class, precisely. He had a Ph.D., he told me, I think it was in some kind of science. He also had some kind of job in academia (he was talking about what a stressful time of year this was, with him being on the exam board and all). Ye, he confessed, he was struggling with this more than anything else he'd done so far. I wouldn't wish my frustrations with French on anyone, but I was almost heartened to hear that even Ph.D.s with Radio 4 accents were faring little better than I.

He was pointing to elle, and he wanted to know who she was. The sentence wasn't about a person; it was about a picture of a dress. This wasn't really the point; we were supposed to be learning how to express our opinions, but of course you can't really teach one thing about a language at a time when we need to know how the rest of the sentence got to be the way it is.

It was all I could do to stop from shouting excitedly "It's not about a woman, it's just the pronoun for the direct object!"

I never learned a speck of grammar in my formal education until the day in ninth grade when my Spanish teacher said "Today we're doing lo and la, which are for direct objects." We stared at her blankly, and eventually enough of us asked her what the hell she was talking about for her to get a realliy worried look on her face.

She clearly expected us to have been taught this in our English classes, and we just as clearly did not even know there was so much we didn't know. I was lucky that my love of reading had provided me with enough good examples that I was pretty good at usage and grammar, but it was entirely on an intuitive level based on long experience, I had no way to formally articulate what I knew. And most people didn't have the life of intense reading that I did, so they were really floundering. Soon our Spanish teacher was, too, as she attempted to teach us grammar in a foreign language that we didn't even know in our native one.

The only thing I remember about the year of German I took in college (other than the fact that my first-semester professor told us she'd done the German-language commentary for the curling events in the Salt Lake City Olympics, and the second-semester professor must have been Central Casting's idea of Albert Einstein, with the wild white hair and the thick accent) was the day that the dative case finally made sense.

I struggled with it for so long, stared at examples mystified and listened to belabored explanations in a heavy German accent and none of it seemed to work and then it just did. Some people see angels or hear the Voice of God; the closest I have gotten is reliably identifying indirect objects, and developing a fondness for the word whom, as it seems to be the only fossil of ths phenomenon left in English (and it even ends with m, just like so many of the German datives!).

At least by that point I had a framework for learning about it. I was in my last semester of college rather than my first of high school; I was fresh out of a "Grammar & Language" class that I hadn't wanted to take that ended up being the best thing I've ever done, because it was the closest I've gotten so far to an answer for "what can I do if I'm not airy-fairy enough for the humanities and can't do algebra well enough for the sciences?" That answer seems to be linguistics.

I loved that class enough to take another by the same professor the next semester, even though it was in her specialist subject, something I found even less appealing than Grammar & Language: Old English. We'd touched on OE in the "language" part of that class, the history part, but a whole semester about it? I was dubious but trusted the enthusiasm of my professor, and I was wise to do so. I completely adored everything I learned about Old English. It was the record of an interesting culture, and it made a lot of things about the language I speak make more sense to me.

Including, soon after I had that little epiphany in German, that part of the Germanic grammar that Old English still retained was, yep, the dative case. Most of the dative inflections could be expected to end with m. I was so excited about this that I almost squealed out loud, but realized I never would've been able to explain why.

Somehow, I got hooked on all this. I had loved learning how to diagram sentences, I loved phonology and morphology and semantics and onomastics and if there's anything more fun than etymology, well, I don't know if I want to know about it because I think my head would explode. This stuff seems to light up all the happy places in my brain. I love knowing how words got that way, teasing apart their stories, appreciating how connected they are to times and places and languages I know nothing at all about. I love thinking about language, which infuses everything else I think about and (nearly) everything everyone else conveys to me.

I just love the way it challenges my brain in ways I usually associate with math and science, but the effort I put into it seems to bring greater rewards of understanding and excitement for future challenges in a way that science and math never manage. I feel like I've Found Something here, even though I know I'm still only at the popular-science level of knowledge, at best, in anything to do with linguistics.

Anyway, that's directly related to how I ended up in a chilly room at Manchester Metropolitan University at 9:30 this morning, still woozy on my feet, not having completely gotten over the perfect-storm type combination of hangover and flu yesterday, being all excited because elle was obviously just the direct object. I'm doing this OU course, Modern Languages, because it involves learning a foreign language and the history and grammar of English. It could not be more perfectly tailored to me.

Jean wasn't the only person who admitted to me that he was frustrated and struggling with the French. Gordon told me he wasn't keeping up and had a friend who'd already quit this course. Pauline, my partner for the do-this-activity-in-partners exercises immediately said "I can't do this, Holly, I'm sorry," and started making small talk about her job.

Faced with another activity that involved piecing together a recipe in French that had been sliced into strips of a sentence or so each, she didn't even look at the words but just started trying to match up the unevenly-cut edges of the slips of paper, which had clearly been one sheet originally. "I like jigsaws," she told one of the tutors. "Next time you should use a gullotine!" she told the other.

And when she asked about the difference between two subtle variants of some expression or other, and after a detailed explanation was offered, the tutor summed it up with "This one's usually an adverb, and that one's usually an adjective," she scoffed, seeming almost offended that the tutor thought such an explanation might be helpful to her.

The tutorial was difficult for me, mentally as much as physically on a day when something as taxing as eating dinner made me need to take a nap, but I'm glad I went if only for the surely-unsanctioned benefit of realizing that I am not alone in my animosity towards French.

And that I am lucky because I do at least have a vague ability to take a step back from the language I know, to think about the tools of language and the ways they are similar or different among these languages, and to overlay three foreign-languages in my brain, however rubbish I am at all of them (and I am: I can probably deduce some extremely simple sentences written in French, German or Spanish; I could probably identify a very few spoken words, but I'm useless at saying or writing much of anything myself).

The tutorial made me take a step back and appreciate that while I'm still intimidated by French, while I'm still paralyzed by self-consciousness and confusion when asked to speak it, while I still don't dislike it any less than I did when I didn't know any, I am lucky to have this relatively convoluted history that's brought me to this point, because it's given me knowledge and skills that the people who only want to be more comfortable going to France for business trips or talking to the plumber in their holiday homes do not have.

And it's given me a fondness for language that may not seem to have stuck very well yet in French but which is at least undiminished. I'm still excited about next year, even if I drop the French like a bad habit and go back to lovely German with its supposedly-intimidating strict grammar and overlong compound words; they feel like old friends and I'm looking forward to seeing them again.
hollymath: (france)
So I begin my first day of school in three and a half years not with a bang but a whisper: accidentally and in my pajamas. Such is the joy of distance learning.

The sorrow of distance learning is that I am also sure I'm the worst kind of person for it. (I'm sure I can manage it, but I'm also sure that I always start out this breathlessly excited at the beginning of anything and usually that lasts all of two days.)

I love everything I know about the OU in principle -- the old TV shows, the fact that it's considered as "real" as the brick-and-mortar schools and probably much better than some of them -- and I love it pragmatically too because it's cheap and flexible for someone who needs to keep her full-time job.

But my history as a scholar reveals me as someone who needs to be kicked in the ass and told exactly what to do on a regular basis. And it's shown me to be supremely unmotivated and capable of the most insane screw-ups and apathy, even with all that prodding and all my good intentions. So now that I have only myself to keep me on track, I'm planning to write this stuff down to stay organized and to let any of you who so choose to help keep me honest.

I will filter this stuff, so I wanted to give you guys the chance to be my witnesses, to keep me working and updating rather than just blinking innocently and saying "What OU course?" in a couple of months. And of course to chat about anything I say: I learn better from conversation than most other things, which is another reason distance learning makes me a bit wary.

I have no doubt that they will be the most boring LJ entries I have ever written. I'd hope to make them actually about French but I get the feeling that a lot of it's going to be about the nature of the OU (which I am just starting to get used to) and just the process of doing the work as well as the things I am learning. (I very briefly considered siphoning the boredom off to its own LJ to keep this one pure and beautiful, but then realized I can't be bothered to switch accounts all the time and [livejournal.com profile] minnesattva isn't very pure or beautiful to begin with ... so here they shall remain!) Comment if you want in.

Ooh la la!

Aug. 19th, 2007 08:29 pm
hollymath: (Default)
French! Of all things!

The Open University's Modern Languages degree says you can choose Spanish, German or French.

I took Spanish in high school, learned a fair amount in the first year with the hardcore teacher who brought us Mexican candy and cocoa and went off at the end of that year to teach somwhere she could do more advanced classes. Spanish III was axed the next year. I took Spanish II with the new teacher, a fresh-out-of-college girl who belonged there about as much as her Irish surname did; she was very nice but I didn't learn anything over the din of my newly-undisciplined classmates. Except the alphabet, sung as a drill-sargeant "sound off" army-type chant. I can still do that, upon request.

I took German for a year in college and learned about as much but enjoyed it much more. German's intricate syntax and grammar put me off at first, but once I got the hang of it I loved the way the language "clicked" for me (I'm still quite fond of the dative because I remember how much I struggled to understand it, though the thickly-accented medium of a professor who looked like a Central Casting dream for the role of Einstein with the wild white hair and all, who used to call us all Herr or Fräulein; my last name came out sounding like Matisse from him). In a happy synchronicity I soon found myself studying Old English, a very Germanic language, and found the grammar and syntax a cinch after having slowly unraveled that particular Gordian knot auf deutsch.

I liked Spanish. I loved German. And I've always disliked French. I never thought it sounded as sexy or romantic as it's supposed to. With its linguistic snobbishness and its (to my anglocentric mind) apparent divorce of sound from spelling, it just seemed too convoluted and unrewardng for me ... though I've always included it in that list of things I want to know more about just so I don't feel so alienated by it. Still, I have enough to worry about at this point even if I chose a language with which I already have some familiarity; why would I want to forsake that in favor of a deliberately frustrating language? Why am I shunning the chance to badger [livejournal.com profile] soavezefiretto (who speaks both Spanish and German! (and better English than me!)) to be my language tutor?!

Well, perhaps because I do want to know about everything and the known unknowns in Spanish and German makes me more interested in the unknown unknowns of French. Maybe because, unlike the others, I can have some in-house help at least up to the level of GCSEs, as Andrew knows that much about French.

Or maybe because last week [livejournal.com profile] spinningtoofast told me last week that if moving to Canada ends up being as good in practice as I think it sounds in theory, bilingual secretaries make a lot more.

To this end, I'm really interested in any French (by which I mean French-language, be they from Canada or Africa or whatever) movies you guys could recommend me. Not Amé-fricking-lie, which we already have. Anything else. I dimly remember a couple of fun ones I watched with my erstwhile illustrious roommate (I liked 8 Femmes particularly), but that only adds about three to the Amazon rental list. Just tell me anything that you think is good; I'm interested in good movies but also in hearing French spoken, especially "normal" French, rather than the stilted language-tapes and conjugation-of-irregular-verbs type that you tend to get in school.


Apr. 18th, 2007 10:51 pm
hollymath: (narrativium)
By the time I was in high school I'd figured out the racket.

It wasn't just that the teachers assigned homework and scheduled tests in a way that would make anybody believe the universe was malicious. They piled on homework as if they were your only class, but paradoxically the teachers also convinced me they got together to make sure all the tests were in the same week. Everybody knew that.

But evnetually I noticed something more subtle at work here. The English teachers might tell us how poetry infused everything, but in choir I heard that all was music. The science teacher sees how science infuses everything, and while I was picking acrylic paint off the table during my drawing class I heard all about seeing the artistic potential in anything.

As soon as I got around to having teachers with specialties, they all wanted to tell me that their specialty was best! Most important. Most enriching or interesting or even exciting. It was obvious, at least with the good ones, that their subject had enriched, interested and excited them. But it wasn't always clear how it was supposed to transfer to me. My math teacher for Algebra I and pre-calc was obviously thrilled with math, but I still struggled with it enormously (though less in his class than at any other time before or since); there was no love lost between me and the x you're supposed to Solve For. X is for treasure maps and text messages if you ask me.

They were all charged up about something, and I am very suggestible, so I often tagged along on their enthusiasm. I'm still susceptible to other people's worldviews, especially when they're excited about something, which I think is why I keep ending up with people who think they might have Asperger's. But this means — and it was far more a problem in high school because I was around more people and they were more often trying to tell me things — that I change my mind all the time about whch thing is best.

For while all these teachers were trying to tell me a different academic subject was the best, they did have in common the implicit suggestion that there is a One Best Thing. And they've found it. No wonder they're so happy (by which I mean "good at projecting outward contentment"; I know enough about teaching from my mom and my friends now to know how much I'd get laughed at for saying they're one-dimensional paragons of sweetness and light and Knowledge). And I'm happy for them. But I'm annoyed for me! How am I supposed to find out the One Thing if it keeps changing every 50 minutes, with only three minutes between classes, which is not even enough time to get to the toilet or push past the freshman in the hallway by the science classrooms?

College also attempts to narrow you down to One Thing, which by then they are calling a major. Which says all you need to know about their attitudes toward it: it is biggest and most important. I sort of fell into the English department, accidentally taking the introduction to the major my first semester (I mean, I knew I was taking the class! but I didn't know it was the pre-req for the rest of the major). One semester I tried my hardest to do physics, which meant I dropped out of Calculus I halfway through, and another I took two politics classes (American and World) and thought political science might be good. But I always had a big mealy literature-survey class, usually some random elective like the hideous Introduction to Creative Writing as well, for my penance.

But one of the many reasons I couldn't finish is that I couldn't seem to handle One Thing — any Thing — for that long. Certainly not the things available to me there or then. In my last year I suddenly stumbled onto linguistics and fell in love, or at least into a crush I stlil haven't gotten out of. It was too late for me by then but now I want to go back to school and if I do it'll have something to do with languages.

In the meantime I have sighed and resigned myself to something more important but also less tidy and thus often less satisfying: there's not One Thing, at least for me.

Perhaps it's telling that I was pretty keen on the local monotheistic religion during parts of high school and the first little bit of college. Most religious people are certain they've found that One Thing, and they're pretty eager to share it too. I didn't have a big dramatic moment of deciding to distance myself from the charismatic Christians; it just happened. I think I'd been going along with it just because it'd been one I was presented with in high school and I knew how the stories worked. But I couldn't keep up the story forever; it can be a lot of work.

I think part of the reason I'm annoyed by there not being One Thing is that I can't handle being wrong. I don't like going back and reading or thinking about what I was thinking or doing at the time; this is one of the reasons I found it impossible to keep any kind of journal before (or even in addition to) LJ. I cringe and revise my own history, like Egyptian pharoahs who had the faces of their predecessors chiseled off the records: It has always been like this of course, I insist, grinning that wary grin of one who's just nearly tripped but caught myself at the last second so I'm hoping to pass it off as intentional as I look around for anybody who might have seen. Yeah, I meant to do that. But usually nobody's looking anyway.

Still I long for the smoother walk of more certain convictions, even if they are a little crazy. I grew up with a lot of stability, familiarity; these are the things I long for now (probably because I've forgotten how boring they were).

I have gone on being swayed by everybody else's Things, by the way. I've absorbed a little bit of Andrew's (not nearly enough! I'm sure he thinks; far too much! I am sure). I tend to confuse books that are written well with ones I should allow to change my life. This is probably why I want to write books; I'm much better at style than substance myself. It's nice to think that might be worth something. Of course, I don't have anything to write about yet, as I lack a grand plan to mold into the minds of the peons.

I used to think the best books were the ones that made me think Wow, I never knew that! Then it was Wow, I never thought of that! Now I think it's Wow, I always thought that, but never realized it or could express it so well!

And I guess I am writing all of this because I found and still am reading one of those latter kind of books. It's about the last thing I would expect: The Science of Discworld. I would've thought it'd be all about science and Discworld, and it is of course, but it's also about magic and stories. I like stories. (I like magic too, but that's another story altogether.)

Hell, I am a story, especially here on LiveJournal.

Here's an example:

When I happened to mention Discordianism to a friend (a Real Life one, for once, so she couldn't just look it up on Wikipedia) I explained myself into a big silly mess. So when we got back here I asked Andrew if he could do it better and he said something about a way of communicating something something between certain types of creative something-or-others. I'm not doing a very good job of reproducing it now because I forgot it immediately, of course, but it was brilliant.

Later that night I thought of this again and said "I wish I had your brain so I could think meta-things and describe them that well." He proceeded to offer me compliments and praise about myself, which is nice but I wasn't feeling insecure about my own abilities, just covetous of his. "You know, facts and that! I can't do that. I can only do stories." This is even before I read about them in The Science of Discworld, but even so I was pretty happy actually about being able to do stories.

It doesn't mean I am a good storyteller — I may be, but only in carefully controlled environments (of which LJ happens to be the best so far) — it means things make sense to me as stories the way they make sense to Andrew as numbers and logic and facts which he somehow manages to arrange and retrieve with greater ease and accuracy than you'd imagine was possible if you saw the state of his brain's external hard drives (though what he's done with an empty bookshelf tonight is glorious! a masterpiece unequalled in the time I've known him). Anyway, I digress.

Andrew said, "I love you. And thats a fact." Which made me grin, but also made my reply obvious. Being obvious did not make me feel any less clever or proud for having thought it up.

I said, "I love you. And that's a story."

(Thus proving my point really. That is such a story I'm almost surprised it really happened.)

He laughed and hugged me. He didn't think it was obvious, I guess.

I suppose something else will come along — something always does; that's the great and terrible thing about things — but for now, I just wanted to say I am charged up by stories. Not prose or diction or exposition or dénouement; not the craft they're dressed in, just the stories. I see them everywhere I look and I think the universe makes sense because of them, just as my old teachers seemed to think about science or music or math or poetry.
hollymath: (Default)
I just came across an exquisitely postmodern sentence in the book I picked up off the floor this afternoon (Stephen Jay Gould's The Hedgehog, the Fox and the Magister's Pox), full of phrases like "culturally embedded" and "just one system of beliefs" and "social construction" and even "hegemony." It, as all such sentences do, made me shiver a bit.

Natural aversion might have its part to play but mostly my reaction is due to conditioning. As an English major I beat my head against such sentences to a greater or lesser extent for four years. Even when I could decipher the texts I was asked to read, I often found myself incapable of generating such things in my required responses.

I'm not saying all was postmodernism, but all was ... something. Scholarly, dry, complex (for complexity's sake, it often seemed), referring to other papers and ideas I knew nothing about. Academia sometimes feels a lot like two neighbors arguing over whose property that big tree is on, but they're fighting it out by writing letters to their sleepy town's newspaper: this week X talks about rezoning, last week Y wrote of the sad demise of birdwatching, the week before that X wrote about the quality of garbage collection in the city, and if you didn't know what happened 600 letters ago you'll never get the allusions, the parentheticals, the innocuous cover stories for all the biting remarks. It wasn't a game I cared to follow along with, much less play.

So I was at a loss. I knew what I wanted to write was not what they wanted, so I didn't do that. But I didn't know what was wanted. My easy success in elementary and high school left me unable to cope with any real challenges or opportunities to really learn anything. I didn't know what to do when I didn't already excel. I certainly couldn't be seen to do less! To make the usual silly undergraduate mistakes! I took every criticism personally; I knew it was stupid but I couldn't help it. Still can't.

I didn't belong there, I decided. I made a stab for the hard sciences (I'd wanted to be an astronomer when I was little, and I loved physics), but I had to take Calc I first and that didn't even last long enough for me to get to integrals.

Andrew just asked me what I was writing and I told him the last paragraph was about calculus. "Oh!" he said. "Do you know where the word calculus comes from?" Pebble! I said. "It means stone," he corrected. No, pebble! I was insistent. Little stone! "Oh, calculus," he murmured to himself, "you're right." He took Latin, so he can figure these things out; I love etymology but learn it all by brute force. A rare victory then, I hope you realize.

So, being the sort of person who knows the etymology of the word calculus rather than anything else about it, I crawled back to the humanities, to jack-of-all-literature-master-of-none "survey" classes, to theory and criticism and arguments. My difficulty with them only increased. I found it hard to write essays, not because i was procrastinating or lazy — though I can certainly be those as well — but because even when I sat down with the books and papers I needed and a new word document open in front of me and the best will in the world, I couldn't write. That doesn't mean I couldn't write well, or promptly or anything like that. I mean I couldn't squeeze a sentence out. I couldn't write. I had no idea what to do.

This started worrying me near the beginning of my junior year and things quickly got worse until the end of what would have been my senior year if I hadn't failed so many classes by then, all English classes for my major, all the things that required writing. That "best will in the world" got harder and harder to find as I got worse, but even at the end it would peek up sometimes, look around at this hopeless state and ask What's gong on? How did this happen? What am I doing? What's wrong? I had no idea. The questions scared me because I felt so powerless to answer them.

I would've thought failing out of college would help with that at least, but while it freed me from the need to read postmodern nonsense and write Arguments about everything, it didn't get rid of the gift this experience had brought me: sheer emptiness every time I looked at a blank word document, only a blinking cursor marking the time. The questions still scared me, I still couldn't answer them, I still didn't write.

In high school at least I wrote. In twelfth grade, for the first time in my life, a teacher asked my class to write; I still have a couple of those little essays with glowing remarks on them. I wrote a stupid little feature for the school newspaper. I wrote a silly speech for competition; a decently-written but poorly-performed thing. I wrote a couple of things just for myself, about salad dressing and the like, things that might have ended up in LJ if I'd had one then.

In fact a lot of the first year or two of my LiveJournal looks a lot like I remember them: simple, mundane things, pretty boring, usually with a punchline and/or moral tacked on at the end. Very tidy, they were, honest — always; it's a faiilng of mine — and bland and polished and safe, conscious of their audience (which is funny because my high-school writing had none and my LJ had little audience then, yet now that I've got a big one I'm writing this sort of twaddle).

At 18 I wrote for the pleasure of it; at 22 I couldn't remember there had ever been any.

I am not a flexible writer. That is why LJ is perfect for me; I only write what I want and it's not politics or restaurants or movies I saw, it's just about me. Even now, you can ask me to write about almost any subject — Andrew and his uncle have done so many times — and I will reliably flounder and end up with nothing to show them despite the best of intentions. "I don't know anything about that!" I think (or say). "I don't know where to start!" And it's true. My brain is still blank, the cursor slowly blinking.

Except I know they never know anything when they start out either; they're happy to look things up, make things up, and to write a rubbish first draft. I know this too, but I can't do any of that.

My LJ friends include a bunch of great writers, and many of them offhandedly mention their articles or novels or poetry or short stories. It baffles me — How do they do it? — and also made me envious. Not just for their abilities but their nonchalance; I was sure that if I managed the merest decent novella I'd be shouting it big+3 to all of you reading about holly_lama. And embarrassed: this LJ lark is no big deal for them, but it's all I've got. I can't even keep a paper journal for more than a week without losing interest or hating everything I wrote.

I have no thoughts in my head.

I can't even write a review of a movie or CD or whatever without it all being just about myself. I lack the network of facts and allusions to write the sorts I like to read, even the sort of gonzo journalism I like to read. All I know is me, and even that not very well.

Where Do You Get Your Ideas From?

Not just the reviewers or other writers, all of you. Where do you get all the things you write about: the clothes, the food, the friends, the plans for the weekend? Alan Moore has a character that's imagination personified, and indeed she says "I'm imagination. I'm real, and I'm the best friend you ever had. Who do you think got you all this cool stuff? The clothes you're wearing, the room, the house, the city that you're in. Everything in it started out in the human imagination. Your lives, your personalities, the whole world that you're in."

I know what he means — I remember when Andrew and England only existed in my imagination . But, well, I gues I'm just feeling a little lifeless at the moment. A little personalityless. My mind is still a blank screen.

I'm too old for this.


Jan. 13th, 2006 11:54 am
hollymath: (dysentery)
My mom poked her head into my room last night to tell me something. I opened my mouth to tell her I was on the phone but she noticed it and said, "Oh, you're on the phone."

Fair enough—it's a tiny phone. I don't blame her for not noticing it; the palm of my hand dwarfs the stupid thing.1

Actually, I think she said, "You're still on the phone?"

Fair enough—I'd been talking for a while, longer than I expected. It was the first time in months that I'd talked to this friend. I called him to ask which side Belgium was on in World War I. 2

Anyway, I actually think Mom said—or at least followed up with—"You're still talking to Andrew?!"

My mom is great at these questions that leave me hanging because there's no way to answer them. I just left my mouth hang open for a moment while I could formulate a reply. "Er, no, I'm not still talking to Andrew," I said. "Because I haven't been talking to Andrew at all." I had told her when he was getting here; she should know as well as I did that he was probably still on a plane.

She looked shocked. "Who are you talking to, then?"

I wasn't aware that it was inconceivable that I be talking to someone else. This was already my fourth phone conversation that day! None of them were with Andrew! "Josh..." I said.

"Oh. It sounded like you were talking to Andrew."

I almost started laughing then. Especially considering the particular friend I was talking to: I thought Josh would be amused that conversations with him are apparently indistinguishible from conversations with my fiancé.

Then she ruined it by saying "Because you were complaining about the wedding." That's boring.

Besides, I wasn't complaining about the wedding, I was just stating things, giving him an example of the barrage of endless details I'm assaulted with and doing my best impression of my mom worrying about the arrangement of the church basement for the reception. I think he appreciates the painful ridiculosity of such plans; he's had to deal with wedding plans of his own.

Besides, Andrew and I never talk about the wedding. We talk about music and politics and sex and movies and food and money and friends. We talk about how the gorilla is the least interesting part of King Kong and the wisdom (or lack thereof) of eating an entire chocolate cake at once and the way people named Simon are all weird. You know. Normal stuff.

1I don't see why miniscule cell phones are such a good thing anyway. I think one of the reasons the battery in this one is lousy is that it's half the size of the battery in my old phone. And the buttons on this one are tiny and close together.

2It was listed for both the Allies and Central Powers in the notes Mom asked me to type up, and while I don't imagine it mattered much anyway, I was now curious.

I suppose I could look it up online but it would take longer for the modem to connect and a couple pages to load than it would to call my friend. It'd be less fun, too. And he's a high-school social studies teacher, he should know this sort of thing, right?3 He should be used to it at least; I called him one other time to ask him something else. Something about different sects of Islam, I think. I like to keep my friends on their toes.

3 We decided tentatively that it was among the Allies. Good enough for me to delete them from the Central Powers list, anyway. The rest of the list was pretty obvious; they were the big players; France, Britain, Germany, Russia and (the one with the best name) the Austro-Hungarian Empire4. What was Belgium doing on the list anyway? Who cares about Belgium?

4 I was listening to my Franz Ferdinand CD as I was typing up all this stuff. Not on purpose (I only listen to two CDs these days), but I was pretty happy with the coincidence once I noticed it.


Jan. 11th, 2006 01:23 pm
hollymath: (puddle)
Last night at dinner Mom tols us about this amazing thing that had happened in biology yesterday. (She helps out with the tenth-graders.)

Every year the biology teacher covers one of the walls with blue paper and all the kids have to make a shark or a starfish or a sponge or something else that lives in the ocean.

Apparently one of the groups made a fish ("I don't remember the name of the kind of fish ... started with an M I think ...") that was eight feet long. It had to be brought to school on a flatbed truck. The principal and some other teachers watched it come down the hallway. Fourteen pounds of flour were needed to make the papier-mache used to construct it. One kid had measured the classroom's doorway the day before, hoping it would fit. It did, just barely.

Man, when I was in tenth-grade biology, my partner and I made a sea anemone out of pipe cleaners.
hollymath: (unicorn)
I hated word problems.

Well, I hated nearly everything about math class, from the hellish "time tests" in first grade, where your ability to add and subtract under duress was measured and graphed on the wall for all your classmates to see, to the vain attempts to teach me how derivatives work.

But one of the things I hated most was the word problems. I resented the implication that math could actually be applicable to the outside world. As if I'm ever really going to have two friends who paint such a number of houses that they each have average times for doing so and are then going to paint a house together. As if I'm ever going to be the one the train companies turn to when two of their locomotives are speeding towards each other at different velocities and they must know when the two will meet. As if I'm ever going to need five gallons of water when I have only a three-gallon and a six-gallon jar to measure the water with!

Today Mom left a note asking me to make chocolate chip bars. I put the two sticks of butter in the pan and looked for the measuring cups so I can add the sugar. I need a cup and a half.

We have stackable measuring cups, that fit inside each other. But it wasn't much of a stack today; there were only two there! I figured the chances of them being the cup and the half-cup weren't very good, and indeed they turned out to be the one-quarter and two-thirds.

The solution is simple, of course*:

Look through the dishwasher for the measuring cups you need. Even if they're not clean yet.

I'm never fond of washing dishes but in this case it's a small price gladly paid.

* It should be upside down at the bottom, but I don't know how to make words upside down On The Internet. Plus, I don't want any of you complaining to me when you drop your monitors in the process of trying to turn them upside down, thus smashing them into a million little pieces and expecting me to replace them.


Mar. 3rd, 2005 05:54 pm
hollymath: (Default)
"They had this FFA Olympics thing today," Mom told us at dinner.

FFA is the Future Farmers of America, an institution that I remember from my own days in school as a group of boys with bad skin and matching navy blue jackets who argued about the relative merits of Polaris and Arctic Cat snowmobiles.

My dad was in FFA, too, in his day; now hanging in "the shop" (the small building where we keep tools and old stuff and a wheelbarrow, etc.) is an old sign with his name on it, proclaiming him to be a Future Farmer of America. And that's even true!

Before I could wonder just what exactly an FFA Olympics might entail, she started telling us about it. The kids competed by grade, and the staff had a team. The events included hammering nails and drilling in screws in a sort of tag-team race, seeing who could carry bales of straw from one side of the gym to the other the fastest, and a amilk-chugging contest. (The milk-drinking thing I remember as a lunchtime centerpiece of FFA Week when I was in high school, with kids crowding around to see if anyone threw up.)

But what truly convinced me I'm from a rural area wasn't the fact that bales of straw are easily attainable at my high school, but something Mom told us about the tractor pull. I've seen a real tractor pull or two; they're like a tug-of-war on a big (and loud) scale, but this was the pedal-tractor version, something I've seen little kids do at the fair.

"Anyway," Mom said, "a pedal broke on one of the tractors. And this was a big deal because one of the tractors was a John Deere and one was an International ..."

She didn't have to say any more. I was already laughing. I could imagine the feud that assuredly broke out. Those little tractors may have just been hunks of red or green plastic and metal, but of course it would do no good to point that out to the combatants in this age-old debate.

But then, the pedal tractor my brother and I had was an International. And in our machinery shed, you won't find one speck of green. Coincidence? I think not.


Aug. 22nd, 2004 03:27 pm
hollymath: (lighthouse)
It's getting to be the end of August, and I'm not starting school in the forseeable future. No thoughts of buying books, notebooks, pens, a day planner I swear I'm gonna use. This has never happened before in my memory.

I started school when I was three. The school I went to had preschool for "special education" kids, so there was preschool screening for the three- and four-year-olds. Except the obvious ones; I, as a kid who'd recently been totally blind and was still not seeing all that well, was an obvious one. So I did that for two years, and that's probably why I never saw Sesame Street until I was a babysitter. One of those years, my mom made cupcakes for me to hand out on my birthday (this could be done when there were only a dozen in my class), and my teachers sent me home with a thank-you note for her.

In kindergarten I got the role of narrator in the play we did for the next year's kindergarteners and their parents. This is because I could read. My dad has told me the story of how, after I read the little introductory bit, the teacher said to the parents of the new kids, "Now don't expect your children to be able to read this well"—a story that he, for obvious reasons, really likes and I, for equally obvious reasons, have always been embarrassed by. The only thing I remember about the play is that I got to sit on a chair that was on top of a table. They were our little-kid chairs and tables, sure, but I was thrilled. Two boys were supposed to take my hands to help me up and down from there, and it was awesome; I loved it.

First grade had the dreaded time tests, where we had to do a million addition or subtraction problems in a minute ... but that wasn't the worst of it, the worst was the bar graph on the wall that charted everyone's scores. I was hopeless at math, especially when I was being timed, and of course there was a little blonde girl who got them all right every single time. I also remember reading books like Ramona Quimby, Age 8 and getting so engrossed in it I didn't even notice when the next lesson had started, and I looked up as if I were in a daze and tried to figure out what was going on in the rest of the world.

My second-grade teacher was the first one I really liked. She did great things like take out a kid's very loose tooth with a Kleenex, while the rest of the class clustered around his desk and watched intently. When she heard someone hiccuping she'd make them come up to the front of the room, stand on their tiptoes, hold their arms out and close their eyes. She'd tell them it was very important for them not to laugh, and then tickle their armpits. Then she'd say, "Now hiccup for the class," and they never did. All this sounds stupid now, but it's enough to endear her in my memories.

I used to trade jokes with one of the third grade teachers, who was famous for knowing lots of the kind of jokes a third-grader would like. I tried out all my new knock-knock jokes on him, and great things like "What do you call a hippie's wife?" "Mississippi!" Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark and its sequels had a waiting list at the school library. A kid in my class was famous for eating glue whenever we did art projects, until he read the back of the glue bottle and found there were horses in it. He ate pencil shavings, too.

My fourth-grade social studies class got to the chapter on the Soviet Union about a week after the Soviet Union ceased to exist; I remember my teacher telling us that. I had the same teacher for fourth-grade that I'd had in kindergarten. The rumor was that she'd been moved to the older kids because she was too mean, which was probably not true, but could've been. She was a bit of a sports fan, and so we made little posters cheering on the Twins in the World Series, as we had when I was in kindergarten. The Twins have only won two World Series, and they happened the two years that I had that evil teacher.

I got suckered into being in the local spelling bee (for the second year in a row, but the first time I and some other girl had been nominated by our teacher and this time we had to do it ourselves). I got a morning off school to be in the spelling bee, where I failed to spell ... I think it was "forfeit" that year. (Yes, I remember all the words I couldn't spell at the four spelling bees I was in, and if you think that's crazy, you were probably never in a spelling bee.)

I dropped something in my sixth-grade classroom and bent over to pick it up, not noticing how close I was to the whiteboard, so I hit my head on the little ledge where the markers sit. I felt dumb and hoped no one had seen me. A minute later my head itched and I reached up to scratch it. My hand came away bloody, and I remember thinking Oh, I suppose I should go wash this off. A girl in my class—the one who's very pretty and popular but also manages to be a nice person—soon came in to the bathroom and helped me out. She went to get the nurse, who called my mom, who picked me up and took me to the doctor. That girl signed my yearbook in high school and always wrote something about how I should take care of my head. I suppose that was because it was the only interaction I had with her pretty, popular life, but it still seems less bitter than sweet when I think about it.

Seventh grade was the year I listened to pop music, so I can still spew off all kinds of details about the songs that were on the radio, even though I'll cringe when I hear most of them, because it wasn't a great tiem for popular music. Kurt Cobain died, but that was the first time I heard of him. Grunge was dying, too. Jewel and her ilk were replacing it, and I never thought that was a good trade. We learned the basics of playing guitar in music class that year, and I fell in love with it. My parents ended up buying me one for my birthday that year. It ended up defining a lot of my high-school life.

In eighth grade I had home ec first semester. I could already cook, but, having no friends, I was stuck with the group of mean boys, the sort that'd put salt in the cookie dough instead of sugar and you could never tell if they were stupid or just evil (though I'd vote for stupid, as there was a rule about eating whatever you cooked). I couldn't sew, and couldn't see the teacher's demonstrations at all, so I was atrocious at that. She was unsympathetic and gave me a D. The next semester we had shop. The other girls were scared of the jigsaw, but I was having a good time. I broke the band saw, which the teacher said no one had ever done before. I was proud.

Ninth grade is high school, back in the town where I went to elementary school and where my mom had a job. She used to eat lunch with a couple of my teachers, which was okay unless it was the one who told her when I wasn't doing enough homework for civics and economics that year.

In tenth grade I got an English teacher I liked. It was only because of him that I realized that English wasn't a bad subject, I'd just had bad teachers. He made us memorize a bunch of prepositions, he ranted and raved about Princess Diana, who'd died just before we started school, he was close to retirement so he wasn't afraid of doing anything bad, he made us all learn Mark Antony's funeral oration, he hated it when people said "good" when they meant "well", he read to us: The Iron Giant (before it was a movie), Of Mice and Men (which he did better than the movie; his voice for Lennie was famous), Bless the Beasts & Children, and other good stuff.

I took the ACT in eleventh grade. I didn't read most of the stories in the reading comprehension part, just looked at the questions and paged through the story to find answers. By the time I got to the last section, I'd been sitting in an uncomfortable desk for an entire morning, and I was so bored with it all that I barely looked at the graphs and numbers, just filled in circles. When we got our scores back, one of the kids in my class was showing off because he'd gotten the highest in our school, 29 (out of 36). My results, for some reason, got lost in the mail and didn't show up until a few weeks later. I'd forgotten all about the test--again--but was glad I got a 30 (of course, why else would I be telling this story?) so I could get the annoying kid to shut up.

I really enjoyed my senior year. And then I graduated. That was the best part of being in school: if you hang in there, you'll get out of there.

I was going to talk about college but I'm worn out, so maybe I'll do that later.
hollymath: (stuart davis)
Today was Bring "Rock" Music to Class Day in intro to music.

Despite both [livejournal.com profile] evil_grapefruit and [livejournal.com profile] stealthmunchkin telling me I should've brought a Stealth Munchkin song, I didn't have any of those on CD, so I had to settle for "Don't Let's Start" by They Maybe Giants (as my professor called them). I really like that song, it has immediate appeal but only gets more interesting to me when I actually figure out what they're saying and what kinds of things are going on musically. And it got played on MTV, despite being weird, back when MTV was still cool sometimes.

The best part, though, may have been that our professor brought soda and cookies for us. So I grabbed my handful of cookies and can of Pepsi and was just going back to my desk when the can slipped through my fingers and I had just enough time to think, Damn, it'll get all shaken up and I'll have to wait a while before I can open it before it hit the corner between the floor and the wall and hissed and started spraying soda everywhere like a fire hose. I grabbed the can, bubbling and foaming like a little volcano, and ran out of the room so I wouldn't get too much (more) on the carpet. I threw the can in the garbage (which made it start hissing again) and washed the soda off my hand. There's still some on my sleeve and my pants leg, but I just think that gives me some character. I got another soda, picked up my cookies--only one of which had crumbled when I dropped them on the floor, which I don't even remember doing--and took my snack back to my desk, carefully.

The professor laughed at me. Yes, not only am I the girl who knows what happens to Cat Stevens (she asked, when someone played one of his songs, and it was an easy question for me to answer since I'd just had a conversation about him a couple days ago), but I'm also a font of zany slapstick. I am, therefore, unimpeachably cool.
hollymath: (dancing robot)
Today was rock music day in my intro to music class.

I started writing things down, because they were all so fun.

"Also, there was Elvis Presley, who some people say..." I'm waiting for her to say "the best rock-'n'-roll singer ever," or something, but no. "...has left the building. But some people think he's still alive. They're crazy."

She did a James Brown yell and it made me jump. (Little did I know she'd be yelling a lot today.)

I was the only person who said that Bill Haley and the Comets did "Rock Around the Clock."

She told us Mick Jagger is 175 years old, has big lips, is ugly, and is sexy. I think she got most of it right.

I wonder why she's talking about Bob Dylan in the past tense.

She's so excited, yelling about soul and Motown. It's hilarious.

Anyone who uses "modicum" in a sentence is cool.

She called him John Revolta. Excellent.

Yes, I know Dolly Parton did "I Will Always Love You" before Whitney Houston.

Yeah, I love Sting, too. But that's why I don't love the Police; that stuff's not as good. And really, of all things, why mention "Don't Stand So Close to Me"?

"If it seems like I'm hopped up on drugs," she said, "I'm not. I haven't taken a single amphetamine for years!" I laughed. So did the guy next to me. I have no idea if she was kidding or not, but I do understand how music can make somebody at least as excited as any drug.

About grunge, she said, "I tend to like melodies, probably because I'm a singer. And when I can't find them, I tend to get upset."

For Friday, she told us to bring in our favorite rock song ("rock" in this sense covering pretty much all popular music from the last 50 years; that's what we talked about today: punk, disco, folk, country, rap, reggae, metal, everything). I don't even know where to begin!


hollymath: (Default)

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