I’m reminded, every day now, of just how much repetition it takes to get new items into my head and to then refresh them. As a result, I think I’ll back off from my goal of turning all four columns completely green by the end of the year.

A few clarifications: I know more than the words shown of Finnish, Hungarian, and French. These are just the items that I am systematically learning/refreshing with Before You Know It. I know fewer Japanese words than I know “items” on the graph. That’s because (1) Japanese is new to me and (2) I’m including as “known” all items that I have turned bright green on KanjiBox. So I can read the hirigana and katakana syllabaries now. As far as Kanji are concerned… A very large portion of the items are kanji that I’ve learned well enough so that when KanjiBox shows me four kanji and shows me the list of meanings, I can reliably choose the correct kanji out of four. However, there are lots of internal hints about the meaning of kanji thanks the the limited number of radicals that show up again and again, so in some cases, I don’t really know the kanji, but can figure out which one must be the correct answer.

I’m happy to accept this, though, as a stage along the way. Thanks to KanjiBox, there ARE some kanji that I can now recognize if I see them in a different context. Also, other systems of learning kanji begin by attaching just one meaning to a character when, in fact, there are often seven or more meanings. With KanjiBox, I’m at least being exposed to multiple meanings and am beginning to group them in my memory. Eventually, once KanjiBox no longer challenges me on the individual characters (I still have hundreds to turn bright green), I will switch over to Anki, a flashcard system that will require me to recall one meaning for the kanji when I see it.

I am not learning to write the kanji. In the view of many teachers, this is a mistake. However, learning the kanji that well will take more time, and I’d rather have a purely passive relationship with a larger set of characters. My interest in Japanese at this point is mostly conversational.  I want to be able to read some signs, navigate on my own, and ask and understand directions. I also want to be able to, say, change trains and actually end up on the right one!


It’s about time I breathed some life into this blog and also got back to work on language learning.

Below is a chart that I will use to track my progress in the four languages I’m learning now. By the end of this year, I want to turn these four bars from mostly red to entirely green. To accomplish that, I’ll have to learn individual words and phrases and periodically refresh them with tests using my Before You Know It language learning program and the Kanjibox program for learning Japanese writing.

This graph won’t track any progress I make with grammar, but vocabulary is much easier to track. Besides, if I have the words, I can often communicate (sort of) even while I’m still learning the grammar. I just have to be willing to look and sound like an idiot. No problem there!

I’m not giving myself credit for prior learning. That is, I’m starting with a new user ID for BYKI as if I didn’t already know some vocabulary. This will force review from scratch and also give me the feeling of making progress even on days when I only have enough energy to review some of what I learned previously. Or to put it another way, I’m cheating on some days. 🙂

One of the texts I taught in this term’s Short Forms class is William Shaw’s book and web site, 41 Places. Shaw interviewed people in public places in Brighton, collecting their stories and writing 41 of them at a length of about 300 words each. He published a book of these true stories and also did a public art installation, displaying the texts of the stories in the places in Brighton where the stories happened or where Shaw collected the story.


Shaw’s project has me planning to try a similar sort of project with my students this spring in Budapest. And today I also had a glimpse of how I could apply this process to collecting stories in all kinds of ways.

I needed a fire safe for my home office, and I ended up driving across town to buy one from a man who is trying to lighten his load for a possible move back to Alaska. He’s having a hard time finding work here.

He once had a job on the Exxon Valdez, which he gave up to try spend more time trying to nail down his wife’s mysterious health ailments. In the end, it turned out that she was bulimic, couldn’t face her disease, and would not stop.

Sometimes no one is a much a talker as an unemployed man, and I could still be there hearing stories about his other two ex-wives, the motorcyle, the truck sold to pay the rent.

It occurs to me that there is a potential 41 Places kind of book based on items being sold on Craig’s List and the stories behind the objects and their owners.

A NILA MFA graduate posted a link to this New Yorker parody of a publicist’s letter to an author, instructing the author in what was expected of him now that his book was about to come out:


This parody is close to the truth. As I said to the MFA alumnus: I laughed out loud, then went into the next room and shot myself dead.

The truth about this blog and anything else that I might do to stay in touch with readers is that a writer’s life often involves a long list of things to do and things that would be lovely to do. I work and work, and I’m still chronically behind.

I love learning languages, traveling to teach abroad, working with translators, writing stories, writing my novel, working with an international community of creative writing teachers, teaching MFA students, writing about writing…

And it all gets to be a little too much, even before the letter comes from the publicist asking if I already have a blog.

There are times when I think that something has to go, either some of the teaching, one or more of the long-term writing projects, my ambition to get back into literary translation. Does a writer really have to write a blog in order to have a following?

But any ambition that I don’t manage to feed feels like a little suicide, some part of myself that I enjoy, but have decided to kill. The coyote chews off a leg to escape the trap with its life.

I’m not there yet, and at least most of what I feel too busy with is a life that I chose, want, and enjoy. But whenever I hear of something else that a writer can do to build readership, I receive the news with a sense of dread.

Today I was in a store that sells, among other things, wood pellet stoves. There was a man there who was making arrangements for the delivery and installation of a stove, and he said that once everything was totaled up, he’d contact the insurance company which would take care of paying for the stove. As he was about to leave, he stopped to make sure that he was getting the right stove for his needs. “And this is the most expensive one in this store, right? There isn’t another one that would cost more?”

He didn’t want to know if there was a more durable stove or a more efficient one. He just wanted to know that The Man was going to have to write the biggest check possible.

A technique that I have used to write poetry works like this.

1. Find a poem written in a language that I don’t know. Ideally, it’s a language that is at least related to one that I do know so that I sort of know where the verbs and nouns are, but it’s not really necessary for me to be able to figure that out.

2. As best I can, I sound out the first line of the poem.

3. I say to myself, “If I understood this language, what would this line mean?”

4. I write down that line in appropriately poetic English.

5. Repeat for the second line, and then for each line in turn until I have a “translation” of the poem.

The resulting poems sometimes stand on their own as poems, but at other times they give me an idea for a story as the poem turns out to be spoken in the voice of an interesting character, a character who knows things that I don’t myself know, who has had unexpected and often bizarre experiences.

It is proving harder than I expected to make a blog entry daily. The blog one one of several things that I am committed to doing every day, but sometimes when I haven’t exactly been on top of things, it takes a while to get on track again.

Here are the items that are on a checklist that I print out for myself every day:

Must Do:

❒ 5 minutes on Steam
❒ 5 minutes on stories
❒ 5 minutes on nonfiction
❒ 5 minutes teaching
❒ 5 minutes to-do lists
❒ 5 minutes teaching entropy
❒ 5 minutes office entropy
❒ 5 minutes stale BYKI
❒ 5 minutes new BYKI
❒ 15 minutes more Steam
❒ 5 minutes exercise: Did it become 30? ❒
❒ 5 minutes blog

Try To Do:

❒ Listen to BYKI items when cooking, walking, falling asleep, etc.
❒ All stale BYKI reviewed
❒ 10 new BYKI words learned
❒ One FSI tape
❒ 5 minutes general entropy
❒ 5 minutes David Waggoner isolation

The thinking behind this checklist is that there are a number of things that I want to stay on top of. The best way to stay on top of them is to do each of them for just five minutes a day, or a total of 20 minutes when it comes to the novel.

Since I started using this list about ten days ago, there has not been a day when I checked off each of the twelve “Must Do” items, much less all 18, including the optional ones. But working a system imperfectly doesn’t mean that the system doesn’t work. In time, I’ll get more items done each day.

Why five minutes? Five minutes is just enough time to actually begin sinking into a task. I can’t get much done in five minutes. However, in five minutes I’ll be sufficiently engaged by the task to decide whether I want to continue, and sometimes the five minutes will become an hour or more.

And even if I don’t manage to get anything crossed off of my to-do list in five minutes of trying, at least this practice reminds me that I do have a to-do list. Without such a reminder, I can easily forget that I even have such a list for days on end.


English speakers and Hungarians both named common objects for the glass they are made of. Glass for us is something you drink from, and üveg for Hungarians is the corked glass container for storing wine.

As a result, the word for “eyeglasses,” which is a literal translation of the same words, strikes me as funny because I see it as “eyebottles.”

It does make the word an easy one to learn.

I had a devil of a time learning the Hungarian word for “pharmacy,” which is “gyógyszertár.”

Today I discovered the words that mean “to sightsee.”

“nevezetességeket megtekinteni”

This has the advantage of not containing any of the vowel combinations that give me trouble. Even so, my brain hurts.

I don’t worry about running out of ideas. Ideas are everywhere. Take today, for instance. I clipped on my mp3 player with Hungarian vocabulary items and went out for a brisk walk before starting my writing, along the Willamette River, where Himalayan blackberries grow along much of the path. I saw some lovely plump fruit and left the path to pick some.

Picking blackberries can take concentration. I had to reach through the brambles for the ripest berries, playing a game of steadiness in which the reward is a berry but the penalty for jerky movement is a pricked finger.

I felt something moving inside my pants  leg. There are they little lights inside my brain, the little lights that signal that my attention needs to be elsewhere. They all turned on.

I looked down. Ideas were swarming around my feet and legs.  Little black and yellow ideas, each about a centimeter long.  I was standing on a yellow-jacket nest.

More lights turned on in my brain. The flashing red ones. I ran thirty meters down the path, then lifted my pant legs to find several yellow jackets there. One was trying unsuccessfully to sting me through my sock. Another was having better luck on my shin. Two more were just getting their bearings.  I plucked the insects off, dashed them to the ground, and stepped on them. Another yellow jacket made a punctuated announcement of its presence on my sternum. I unbuttoned my shirt, noticing that I had crushed the blackberries in my hand and was now liberally dying my clothes. I swatted and killed this yellow jacket, too.

A woman coming from the opposite direction stopped. I told her what was going on, and she asked if I was allergic. “I don’t know,” I said. “We’re about to find out.”

She was a Australian doctor. Unfortunately, she noted, she didn’t habitually carry epiphedrine.

I took my mobile phone out of my pocket. At least she could call for help. “And,” I said, “you always see on television that someone does an emergency tracheotomy with a pen.”

“Yeah,” she said. “I’ve seen what that looks like. Not pretty.”  She thought for a moment. “I do have a pen, though.”

She stood with me, waiting to see what my immune system would have to say. After a minute or two, another yellow jacket arrived. Whether it was looking for me in particular or was just in an aroused, stingy state, I can’t say. But paid no attention to the doctor. It seemed to be hunting me. I hunted it, too. The doctor served as my field spotter, telling me where it had gone when it retreated and made another run at me from a different elevation or angle. As it came in low at my feet, I stepped on it.

I didn’t seem to be swelling up anywhere but at the sting sites.

I asked the doctor if I could walk with her a little while. I just wanted to talk to her, satisfy my curiosity about the Australian doctor who hadn’t had to save my life. She had been to Saturday Market the day before — the essential Eugene experience. She was headed for the community gardens. I lamented that I didn’t have a business card, but I told her that I hoped she’d remember shortshortshort.com and look up my stories. We talked about learning phrasebook Spanish — she’s heading through Mexico next, and on to South America. We talked about Hungarian. I saw her off near the gardens.

Buen viaje, Anna. It was nice meeting you. If not for the wasps, you would have been just someone walking the path in the opposite direction.

At home, I looked up yellow jackets. The species that stung me was probably Vespula pensylvanica, though my field observations were hasty, and I didn’t look for the distinctive yellow ring around the eyes.

In looking up yellow jackets, I also discovered the Schmidt Sting Pain index, which reads like a wine-taster’s review of hymenopteran aggression:

* 1.0 Sweat bee: Light, ephemeral, almost fruity. A tiny spark has singed a single hair on your arm.

* 1.2 Fire ant: Sharp, sudden, mildly alarming. Like walking across a shag carpet & reaching for the light switch.

* 1.8 Bullhorn acacia ant: A rare, piercing, elevated sort of pain. Someone has fired a staple into your cheek.

* 2.0 Bald-faced hornet: Rich, hearty, slightly crunchy. Similar to getting your hand mashed in a revolving door.

* 2.0 Yellowjacket: Hot and smoky, almost irreverent. Imagine W. C. Fields extinguishing a cigar on your tongue.

* 2.x Honey bee and European hornet: Like a matchhead that flips off and burns on your skin.

* 3.0 Red harvester ant: Bold and unrelenting. Somebody is using a drill to excavate your ingrown toenail.

* 3.0 Paper wasp: Caustic & burning. Distinctly bitter aftertaste. Like spilling a beaker of hydrochloric acid on a paper cut.

* 4.0+ Bullet ant: Pure, intense, brilliant pain. Like fire-walking over flaming charcoal with a 3-inch rusty nail in your heel.

I don’t imagine that Justin O. Schmidt actually poured hydrochloric acid on a paper cut in order to verify the accuracy of his scale. But his descriptions are effective at getting me to imagine what these other stings are like, particularly now that I have been recently calibrated. I remember quite well where 2.0 is on this scale.

I had no trouble, then, finding something to blog about today. And as for story ideas, yellow jackets are a good device for introducing two people who would not otherwise have met. “Hi. As you’re the only other person here right now, would you mind sticking around to see if I’m allergic?” Talk about an ice breaker! And as we walked by the still-buzzing nest, I asked Anna if she was allergic to stings. She didn’t know. Ah, the possible plot complications!

The Schmidt index gives me all kinds of ideas about pain scales, aficianados of pain, and extreme undertakings for the sake of curiosity.

Finally, a new vocabulary item: the Hungarian word for wasp is darázs.  DAHrazh. If you want to say it properly, begin with the English words “doll rash.” Now remove the els and voice the ‘sh’ to make it ‘zh.’

I’m adding darázs to my flashcards, even though I don’t think I’ll have any trouble remembering the word or how I came to learn it.

And there’s another story idea: a list of words and the experiences by which the character came to learn them.

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