Small Wins

Today I finished reading my first book in Japanese. “Reading” and “book” are both perhaps exaggerations; the book in question is the first volume in a manga series called Shirokuma Café, widely recommended to beginning Japanese learners. It is 165 pages long, and it took me 7 months of painstakingly reading a page per day (whenever I had time, which during the working semester was not always) to finish it. Most of the text made use of furigana (phonetic transliterations in Japanese kana) of the kanji (Chinese ideographic characters), making it possible for a beginner like me to look up words even if I didn’t recognize the kanji themselves. With the help of an excellent online dictionary and an excellent online translator, I collected 25 pages worth of vocabulary notes that I will probably never use for anything but that serve as a record of my progress.

60 days ago, I accomplished something else that seemed worth celebrating: a 500-day streak practicing Japanese on Duolingo. And yet, I didn’t celebrate it, not anywhere: not on Facebook where my friends might congratulate me (I had already posted when I reached 365 days, so another post so soon seemed gratuitous). Not in conversations with anyone but my husband (he high-fived me, but that’s kind of his job). Not even here; I began writing a post about it, but quickly realized I had nothing to say other than what I and plenty of others had already written (don’t use Duolingo as your only tool, use the web version and not the app…even the title I’d chosen for the post, “500 Days of Duolingo,” was already in use by a NYT article). So I let that milestone pass by without acknowledging it outside my living room.

When I finished reading Shirokuma Café, I felt similarly disinclined to make a fuss about it (except, of course, by telling my husband, whose first response was sympathy, as he knows how much I’ve liked hanging out with Shirokuma-kun, Panda-kun, and Penguin-kun and participating in their adorable adventures each morning. Fortunately, I have four more volumes on my shelf, so I’m not sad yet.) But something stopped me from just closing the book and moving on. It seemed worthwhile to note this small achievement. So here I am.

A small win of this kind contains within it many other small wins: the first time I was able to recognize and understand a kanji I’d learned elsewhere; the first time I read an entire page without looking anything up (it only happened once, but still); the first time I laughed aloud at a Japanese pun. Stopping to acknowledge the advancements I’ve made since the day I decided to start studying Japanese a year and a half ago is something I need to remind myself to do, because in the moments when I feel like I’m making little progress at all (when, for example, I earn 57% on my morning Wanikani reviews), I need to remember the moments that show clearly that I’ve come a long way.

This morning, a handyman came to install a new bathroom fan for us, a task I wish I could do myself. I regularly feel shame about my uselessness when it comes to home maintenance, and that shame translates into nerves and mistrust, as I have no way to evaluate whether a contractor is doing a good job. One way I’ve chosen to combat this is to first look up YouTube videos about DIYing the task, and to then ask if I can hang out and watch and ask questions during the work, not to monitor but to satisfy my curiosity about the process and about the weirdnesses of our old and irregular house. By the time the handyman was done, I did not feel confident that I could install a bathroom fan myself, but I did understand why the fan I’d chosen was the best one for the job, how to use a fibreglass and aluminum patch plus some plaster to repair a hole, and what our very strange second-floor ceiling looks like inside. I know more about home repair than I did yesterday. High-five, me.

The main reason to celebrate small achievements is to maintain motivation, which is notoriously difficult when learning a language. Frustrations and setbacks are more likely to remain embedded in our memories (and in our visceral reactions, like the way we feel when we sit down to study each morning or when the bathroom fan stops working). Positive moments are less crucial to our survival (remembering which berries are delicious is important, but remembering which ones brought us to the brink of death is much more so); however, the positive moments are what make us want to keep trying even when we fail, as this article reminds us: “The positive feeling you get when you succeed is what ultimately builds confidence. It builds hope that you will be successful again. When you are confident and hopeful, that improves your ability to focus naturally. When you feel that way, you are more likely to concentrate again on a challenging task in the future because you will feel motivated to get that feeling back.”

So here I am, noting to myself and anyone else who’s interested that I just read an entire book in Japanese. Tomorrow I will start on a second one (probably Yotsubato!, another manga widely recommended to beginning readers). I will try to note whether this one goes more quickly, whether my vocabulary list is less extensive because more words are familiar, whether I am better at reading Japanese than I was a few months ago. And when I’m done, maybe I’ll buy myself a bottle of shouchuu or at least a nice plate of sushi, to embed the small win in my memory a little more firmly.

Please do the same for yourself – you did something today, however small, that you might not have been able to do yesterday or ten years ago. This is important! Give yourself a high five.

Keep Going: Maintaining Motivation

At first, learning a new language is super fun. So many interesting words! Quick progress from zero to … something! Apps apps apps!

But then things become a bit routine, and then, stale. The dopamine hits are less reliable. You advance more slowly, or hit roadblocks. For Japanese learning, apparently (according to my very scientific collection of data from random YouTube channels and discussion boards), this often happens when students are approaching “intermediate” level. There are lots of fun resources for beginning Japanese students, but once you’ve completed the whole Duolingo course, have mastered the most elementary kanji, and have started to grapple with more advanced grammar, it’s harder to find learning aids that meet you at your level.

I’m not at the intermediate level yet, and my motivation is still intense. Even though I have little time on my hands, I cram in a bit of Japanese study every day by getting up early, and by grabbing moments between classes or as a break while marking papers. There’s nothing I’d rather do with my free minutes than go through some kanji flashcards or write a four-line composition for my class.

I’m obsessive by nature, but my obsessions don’t last forever; this one has sustained itself for over a year, which is promising foreshadowing of a possible long-term commitment, but sooner or later, the morning will come when I just won’t feel like it. So I’m trying to put good habits in place to get me through that morning and those that come after it. I’ve gleaned some tips from learners with more experience than I, and also from my own past practice as both an English teacher and a learner of French. I’ve made four important choices about my approach to studying that have contributed to keeping my motivation strong so far.

1. Take it slow.

When I was in training to become an English teacher, I learned that limiting new input is essential. One rule of thumb is that you never introduce more than ten new vocabulary items in a lesson. Another is that spaced review is much more effective than cramming – reviewing an item at longer and longer intervals leads to longer-term memory, whereas trying to ingest a lot of stuff quickly, say before a test, leads to loss of all that info once the pressure is off.

So I try to ignore any compulsions I have to go fast. For example, I practice kanji using WaniKani, a 60-level program for learning 2000 or so basic useful characters. I’m currently on level 5, and have been for some weeks, because every day I complete all my reviews and then do just a tiny bit of new learning. At this rate, I might never reach level 60. That’s ok! I’m retaining what I’m learning quite well, and so far there hasn’t been a single day when I haven’t wanted to do my lessons.

2. Mix it up.

I’m not a gym-goer; I prefer to get my exercise outdoors. However, when I visited family in the north of Canada one January, the forecast was for unrelenting -40º temperatures. The YMCA wasn’t far from my father’s house and offered a free week to new members. Their pleasant sunlit workout room was usually mostly empty, so I discovered the fun of spending ten or fifteen minutes on each machine rather than, for example, dedicating a whole hour to the mind- and butt-numbing recumbent bike. This bouncing around kept me eager to go every day, whereas if I’d tried to slog through one activity for the whole hour, the gym would have been a chore.

When it comes to studying Japanese, doing a little bit of everything, instead of spending a lot of time on one tool or item, helps me avoid saturation. In the morning I do one small grammar lesson, about 15 minutes of kanji practice, and a little bit of reading. If I have time, I add a few other activities throughout the day, including but not limited to listening to Japanese music on the metro and watching some Japanese TV at night. If I get tired of one activity, I swap it out for something different.

This summer, I’m hoping to dedicate a month to intensive self-guided Japanese study, and one principle I’ll be sure to follow will be to have a wide range of activities and tools so that I can move my attention around and reinforce what I’m learning in a variety of ways. It’s good for my learning, not least because it’s fun, and so I want to keep it up.

3. Set new goals.

When I started serious Japanese study back in December of 2020, I had no real objectives. I just loved doing it. Progress through the absolute beginner levels was quick. There was so much to discover: inventive textbooks, apps, YouTube channels, anime and Japanese reality TV, other people as excited about Japanese as I was. I didn’t need goals. And I still don’t, really. The process is its own reward.

But the tools that are working well for me are no longer as shiny and exciting, and I have recently found myself wondering if I’m making any real progress. I can feel the day looming when I might open しろくまカフェ and think, “Hmm; maybe I should go for a walk instead.” So I’m putting some motivators in place for when that day comes.

For example, I just ordered an assortment of books to help me prepare for the Japanese Language Proficiency Test. I’m not even sure I’ll write it any time soon – I have to travel to another city to do so, and the lowest level is one that learners often skip, as it’s pretty basic; the next level will take me a lot more time to prepare for. Nevertheless, studying for that lowest level will give me an attainable goal, and even if I don’t write it, getting to a place where I feel I could pass it will give me a sense of accomplishment. The study process will also prepare me if I decide to write any of the higher-level tests. So this is a small, achievable step.

(Also, the textbooks are so cute! Look at that little chipmunk face just waiting to teach me vocabulary.)

Sometimes a goal pops up unexpectedly. I love haiku, for example, but now that I know a little Japanese, I see that English translations of Japanese haiku are missing something important. The thing is, I don’t know what. Could I become good enough at Japanese to understand haiku properly? Or even to write haiku in Japanese? Probably not, but I won’t know unless I try.

4. Congratulate yourself.

Every time I recognize a kanji I just learned, or I’m able to read the hiragana on a package at the Asian grocery down the street, I give myself a little fist bump. Singing along to random J-pop choruses while I make dinner makes me feel like I just won a medal.

But I might have been proudest of all when, in class the other day, we were practicing the construction のまえに (before…), and our teacher went around the class asking what each of us does before we eat breakfast. I said that I study Japanese. “本当に [Really]??” she exclaimed. “本当に,” I assured her. She was so impressed that I was embarrassed, but I decided to take it as she meant it: a recognition that working hard at something deserves applause.

I mean, accomplishments are fine. But that time before breakfast is one of the happiest moments in my day, and creating happiness for yourself is worth celebrating.

A Japanese Study Routine

YouTube is full of videos with titles like “How I Became Fluent in Japanese in 4 Days!” or “My Journey to Knowing 10,000 Kanji Even Though Japanese People Ask Me Why I Bother,” or even just “Study Japanese Like I Do and Soon You’ll Be Really Jouzu [good at it]”. I watch these videos occasionally. They seem to be mostly by people who have made Japanese study their whole lives, or who live in Japan, or who live at home with their parents and so have limited responsibilities. They sometimes involve gauzy lighting, a massive collection of kawaii notebooks, and a pretty young woman with an ASMR voice writing perfect hiragana with a feathered pen.

As an obsessive but middle-aged person with a full-time job who lives in Canada and has terrible handwriting, I sometimes find useful resources in these videos but can’t relate whatsoever to the study routines. First of all, I’m in no rush and have no lofty goals. Also, if there’s one thing I’ve taken away from the ones I’ve watched, it’s that effective study routines are intensely personal.

I’ve found a method that works well for me. I can’t vouch for this being a good method. After a year of study, I still struggle to put together a simple sentence orally, I can’t read a newspaper article, and I can’t watch Midnight Diner without subtitles. But after a year, I still look forward to practicing a little bit of Japanese every single morning before work. And when I get the chance someday to immerse myself in some serious full-time learning, I will have a good head start.

(Please note that no one is paying me to mention any of these resources; I’ve found some stuff that works for me right now, and that’s it.)

Things I do every day:

  • Duolingo: I do one review lesson and one new lesson on Duolingo every morning. This takes 5-15 minutes. When I have more time, I do more. I currently have a 439 day streak, unbroken since my first lesson. I use the website, and not the app, which I find full of distractions. I haven’t tried the paid version, nor do I intend to.
  • Wanikani: This is a kanji-learning website. It is an SRS (spaced repetition system), meaning it introduces new kanji and then has you review them at longer and longer intervals until they are “burned” into your memory. Every morning I complete all my reviews (usually about 30 radicals, kanji or vocabulary) and then do one new lesson (5 radicals, kanji or vocabulary). This takes me around 15 minutes. Then I complete reviews as they pop up during the day, whenever I have a moment. I started using it in December, and have used it every day since I started. It costs money, but for me it has been well worth it.

Things I do most days:

  • Reading practice: If I have a bit more time in the morning, I do some reading practice. I’m currently working my way through a manga that’s often recommended for beginners, called Shirokuma Café (Polar Bear Café). It’s a very cute, quiet story about Shirokuma-kun and the customers at his café (Panda-kun, Pengin [Penguin] -kun, and so on), who go on adventures like becoming a part-time employee at the zoo or learning to drive, so it helps me start my day happily. (There’s a nice review of it here if you’re interested.) I started by reading the first volume from beginning to end, understanding very little but trying to glean meanings from context. Then I went back to the beginning, and I now reread a page each day, using Jisho.org to look up vocabulary and, when necessary, Google Translate and/or web searches to try to understand unfamiliar grammar. I have a Word document in which I list the new words in kanji, then hiragana, then English translation; this list won’t be of much use as a reference, but the act of keeping it helps me focus.
  • TV/Movies: For the past year, I’ve mostly watched only Japanese programming. Netflix is a real treasure box for this. They have almost all of the Studio Ghibli catalogue, as well as plenty of anime series and a bunch of reality shows (I just finished watching Love is Blind: Japan, which is fascinating; this review reflects many of my thoughts about it). I still haven’t found any J-dramas that I much like, but Alice in Borderland is next on my list to try. I don’t love anime enough to subscribe to a service like Crunchyroll or Funimation, but I do occasionally buy DVDs of series I can’t find elsewhere (Steins;Gate, for example) or things I can’t rent from AppleTV in the original language with English subtitles (a strange number of their films are only offered dubbed in Canada, like Makoto Shinkai’s Weathering with You). I have also found plenty of Japanese movies through my local library.
  • Music: I only listen to Japanese music these days. See this post for details.

Things I do once a week:

  • Language course: Monday is a very long day of classes and meetings, and then I have to stay at work to do my online Japanese course, because I don’t have time to get home first. I don’t mind. The course itself is not even that fun – we’re struggling beginners, we’re learning basic rote stuff, and we can’t even be in the same room together. Nevertheless, I look forward to it. It’s my only chance to speak the language, it reinforces things I’m learning elsewhere, it provides me with grammar explanations, and I get to hang out with people who, like me, are mostly learning Japanese for no other reason than that they love it.

Things I do occasionally:

  • Writing practice: I have a couple of kanji practice books that I dip into once in a while. I have a repetitive strain injury that makes all handwriting difficult for me, but I do find the repetition useful for memorization, and it can be quite fun to do a bit of copying while I’m listening to something.
  • Grammar study: I have the first volume of Genki, which I use more for consulting than studying, but when I have time I work through a lesson. More fun, though, is Japanese the Manga Way, an exploration of basic grammar through examples from manga. I take this book with me whenever I know I’ll be stuck somewhere for an indefinite period of time, like a doctor’s office. (Its ancestors, Mangajin’s Basic Japanese through Comics 1 & 2, are harder to come by and more focused on vocabulary, but they are also great).

Things I’ll Do When I Have More Time:

  • Sentence-a-day diary: As I continue to struggle with speaking and writing, I come across more and more recommendations to do something as simple as writing a sentence or two about my day as a regular practice. In fact, my very first Japanese teacher said that, given that I had a little more prior knowledge than my classmates, I could start doing this to speed up my learning, but I balked because it still seemed out of my reach. I’m ready to do it now, and it will be a good way to use the genkouyoushi notebooks I’ve been accumulating but haven’t found a use for.
  • Bunpro: I don’t have time to add another online practice tool to my routine right now, but as soon as summer vacation starts, I’m planning to look into Bunpro, a grammar practice resource. I’ve heard very good things, and grammar is my weakest point, so this seems like a good next step.
  • Individual tutoring: Several places in my city offer Japanese courses beyond the absolute beginner level, but apparently they are often cancelled due to lack of enrolment. As I approach this level, if I find myself without courses to do, I’m going to look into finding a tutor, either in person or through an online resource like iTalki, which comes recommended by a lot of people and is affordable.

My whole life I’ve had a hard time thinking of any of my activities as “hobbies.” It was as if I needed to believe that everything I did was leading to some great goal and therefore shouldn’t be diminished by such a term. Thinking of Japanese study as a “hobby” has allowed me to have a joyful and pressure-free relationship with it. I honestly love every second I spend with it, and that love has been my only objective and my only motivation. If that love starts to fade, I may flounder in my routine, and maybe even give it up – or maybe I’ll find another impetus. For now, though, spending anything from 15 minutes to a couple of hours on Japanese study every morning is a joy and a respite.

If you’re working at learning something – Japanese, the saxophone, tennis, cabinetmaking… – do you have a routine? Do you have experience with the resources I mention above, or recommendations for others? Please leave your thoughts in the comments.

Ten Japanese Pop Songs to Listen to on the Way to Work

My musical tastes are not sophisticated, but they are narrow. I go through long periods when I don’t listen to music at all, as I find it emotionally unsettling and/or overstimulating. When I do, I restrict myself mostly to tunes that are happy, pretty, and a bit weird.

Fortunately for my language learning goals, a lot of Japanese popular music is happy (at least on the surface), pretty (all the way through) and weird. These days I listen almost exclusively to J-pop, J-rock and their relatives. I’ve been pleased to discover that the simple act of listening to a Japanese song many times, combined with my various other forms of Japanese study, means that I’m able to pick out a few more words or phrases, or recognize a new grammatical construction, each time I hear it.

My most important and delicate listening time is when I’m on my way to work. I am a naturally low-energy person, and I often need a spirit-lifter to help me face a day of other humans and their demands. So my playlists are constructed with this in mind, and the songs below appear on multiple iterations of my “on-my-way-to-work” lists.

If you’re a student of Japanese, you probably know many of these tracks. If you aren’t familiar with Japanese popular music but you like the sort of thing I like, some of these will be nice discoveries. And if you know Japanese music, you probably have some recommendations for me – I’d especially like to know about fun stuff that’s a bit off the beaten path. Please leave your suggestions in the comments!

1. Gesu no Kiwami Otome, “Battling”

Gesu is big in Japan, but this is the only one of their songs that really does it for me. I find the hook both hypnotic and stimulating, and the video makes me laugh and satisfies my wish that everything in life be in jewel tones.

2. Yorushika, “The Clouds and the Ghost”

My favourite part of this song is the rhythmic alarm-clock sound, which feels right when I’m heading out of the house in the early morning. Everything Yorushika has done is worth checking out; the singer’s voice gives me nape-of-the-neck chills.

3. Vickeblanka, “Yumesame Sunset”

It doesn’t matter what I’m feeling when I turn this song on; by the time it’s over, the world is a place where fun things happen.

4. Necry Talkie, “Frog Quest II”

My husband walked into the kitchen one day when I was playing Necry Talkie and said, “I’m pretty sure this track is sped up.” “I don’t think so,” I said. “I think that’s her real voice.” NT are not for everyone but I love them; they’re very strange and very cute and yet their lyrics will mess you up. See also “Kita e Mukaeba [You Should Head North]“, which makes me jump up and down.

5. Ømi, “You”

If you’re a fan of BTS, you probably know this one already, as BTS’s Suga is the main producer. It’s a silly happy love song, and the kicky beat is irresistible.

6. Wataru Hatano, “You Only Live Once”

This is the closing credit track for the delightful anime series Yuri!!! on Ice. It doubles as one of my dancing-while-making-dinner songs. If I ever go to a club again, I might harass the DJ to play this (sometime before my 9 p.m. bedtime).

7. Perfume, “Saisei”

Another song with cartoony female vocals and enigmatic/distressing lyrics, but so so catchy. I often find myself bopping in my seat on the metro to this one.

8. World Order, “Have a Nice Day”

I once asked a colleague who is also studying Japanese for song suggestions, and she recommended World Order, this number in particular. The song is great, but the video – with its choreography critiquing conformist salaryman culture – is almost better, and makes it either perfect or devastating for the beginning of your work day.

9. Kenshi Yonezu, “Eine Kleine”

Kenshi Yonezu is another huge star that I don’t know that much about. His biggest hit is a fun and complex tune called “Lemon,” but the melody of “Eine Kleine” is always a high point of my commute.

10. RADWIMPS, “Nandemonaiya”

Ok, not cheerful. But this is one of my favourite songs ever, and if you are a non-Japanese person studying Japanese, there is about a 60% chance that RADWIMPS is your favourite Japanese band (as it is mine). “Nandemonaiya” is the closing credit track from the blockbuster anime Kimi no Na Wa (Your Name.). There is a devastating orchestral performance of this song, but the video for it features the end of the movie playing in the background, so wait until you’ve seen the film to watch that version. In the meantime, you can listen below. One of my life goals is to learn this song well enough to sing it at karaoke.

What are your favourite Japanese songs? Is music part of your language-learning routine? Please share in the comments below.

Old Lady Studies Japanese

The other day, someone I don’t know well wrote me a short message in Japanese. He’s not Japanese, and I don’t know how he knew that I can read simple words in hiragana (“ありがとうございます” = “Thank you.”). The delight I felt over this tiny connection turned my day around.

Last week, my Japanese teacher asked about my favourite anime. I told her it’s currently Yuri!!! on Ice. She didn’t seem to know it, but during pair work later, my partner excitedly pulled out her Yurio doll and we squealed about him together. Part of me thinks that being in my fifties and bonding with someone over an anime figurine is unseemly. But it was a true shared little joy, like the moment I discovered that the Japanese equivalent of the Facebook “Like” is “いいね!” (“Ii ne!” or “Isn’t that great?”) and immediately texted my one colleague who is also studying Japanese and who I knew would understand how charming I found this.

As an older person embarking on learning an (almost) new language, I face some obstacles. In my Language Acquisition classes in university, much was made of how unlikely it is to achieve full fluency once one is past a certain age. There are some factors that make things a bit easier for me: I have learned one language (French) as a grown person, and this experience is supposed to have made my brain and ear more flexible. I already have some familiarity with Japanese; I lived in Japan for a couple of years in my twenties, although I was a lazy student and came away ashamed of how little I had absorbed.

I sometimes think with regret about that missed opportunity, but that regret is softened by two factors: I’m having so much fun studying Japanese now, and throughout my life, I’ve always learned things better the second time around. I pecked away at a typewriter with two fingers and a self-study book for years until I finally took a typing class and aced it. I failed my childhood beginner’s swim class three times, but when I finally passed, I flew through the next-level course with no problems. I even hold out hope that when I decide to take driving lessons again, I will come out actually able to drive, and maybe even to park. I’m a slow learner, but if I care about something enough to do it more than once, it starts to stick.

What I do regret about my time in Japan, however, is how closed-off I was, not just because I knew no Japanese, but also because I felt like a helpless and ignorant child in a world that made no sense to me, and this made me defensive. These days, treating the people and events around me as curious and interesting universes to investigate and connect with, rather than threats, is my main psychological project. When I go to Japan again someday, I will go with this goal.

It’s been a long time since I last posted here, because I felt I had little left to say about teaching. Where learning is concerned, though, I’ve barely begun. If you are interested in learning, or Japanese, or exploring curious universes with an open heart, then please stay tuned.

My Top 10 Books of 2016

It’s time again for the list of books that I enjoyed most this year.  As always, only some of these books were published in 2016, but they were all a part of my 2016 experience.

the-trespasser1. The Trespasser by Tana French

I have loved all six of French’s “Dublin Murder Squad” novels, and when she has a new book out, it always makes my list. The Trespasser is close behind 2014’s The Secret Place in the running for my favourite. We revisit the two main detectives from The Secret Place, Antoinette Conway and Stephen Moran, but this story is told from Conway’s point of view, and she’s not doing so hot. She’s unable to let her guard down for a second, convinced as she is that everyone but her partner is trying to orchestrate her professional demise. When a new case lands on her desk – a pretty, stylish blonde is found dead in her own well-appointed living room – Conway can’t shake the feeling that she’s seen the victim somewhere before. As usual, the case looks simple at first but turns out to be anything but. After I finished The Trespasser, I went back and reread Broken Harbour, Into the Woods and The Likeness in quick succession, because there’s so much more to French’s novels than finding out who did it.

americanah2. Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

I’m cheating here – I’m only halfway through Americanah. I feel confident in my assessment, however. Ifemelu, a young Nigerian woman, leaves home to seek a fantasy life in America, and finds, of course, that America is no fantasy. Ifemelu’s alienation and moments of desperation are tempered for the reader by her humour, her eye for nuance, and her implicit but unshakable belief that she deserves far more than the people around her – white Americans, African-Americans, other immigrants, family, lovers, employers and friends – are willing to accord her. She returns home years later to face the changes in herself, the people around her, and her country. I haven’t gotten to that part yet, but I very much look forward to seeing what becomes of her.

shrill3. Shrill by Lindy West

Lindy West is currently my favourite essayist. She writes a lot about being fat, being a woman, pop culture, and politics – her recent articles for The Guardian have titles like “Disney’s Moana strikes at the heart of proto-Trump America” and “Dear Barack Obama, thank you for not being an evil robot accountant.” Shrill is mostly personal, and mostly about being a woman and being fat. Chapter titles include, “Are you there, Margaret? It’s me, a person who is not a complete freak,” and “You’re so brave for wearing clothes and not hating yourself!” One of my favourite chapters, “Lady Kluck,” details the fat pop-culture role models West remembers from her childhood, from Maid Marian’s chicken maid in “Robin Hood” to Miss Piggy (“she invented glorifying obesity. But also…is kind of a rapist”). You will find that chapter excerpted here. Also, you should follow Lindy West on Twitter. Unless you are fatphobic, in which case, she will destroy you. [Update January 3, 2016: turns out, you can’t follow Lindy West on Twitter any more. This is as much a harbinger of the apocalypse as anything else that’s happened in the last few months – or maybe it’s a preventative? Not sure, but her explanation is worth reading.]

another-brooklyn4. Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson

This is a story about childhood friendship. August grows up in Brooklyn in the 1970s and learns that being a girl is dangerous, but other girls can help. At the very least, they can spin the danger into a story, thus making it an adventure. She also longs for her missing mother and grapples with the reality of death. Woodson drew great acclaim for her young-adult novel-in-poems Brown Girl Dreaming (on my list of what to read next), and, having read this brief, absorbing novel for adults, I can see why.

eligible5. Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld

Because you are reading this blog, I figure there’s a probability of about 40% that Pride and Prejudice is your favourite novel. I’m a big fan of modern retellings of classics (see Zadie Smith’s On Beauty [a retelling of Howard’s End], Cathleen Schine’s The Three Women of Westport [Sense and Sensibility], Michael Cunningham’s The Hours [Mrs. Dalloway], Baz Luhrmann’s “Romeo + Juliet”, etc.) I didn’t love Sittenfeld’s Prep, her 2005 breakthrough debut, as much as the rest of the world seemed to, so I wouldn’t have thought of picking up Eligible if it weren’t for a host of excellent and intriguing reviews. It’s charming. Lizzie is Liz, a magazine writer in New York who, along with her sister Jane, a yoga instructor, is called home to Cincinnati to help the family when their father’s health takes a bad turn. Kitty and Lydia are orthorexic ninnies, Chip Bingley is the former star of a Bachelor-esque reality show, and Darcy is a pompous neurosurgeon. You can probably read this book in an afternoon, and I recommend it. So much fun.

nest6. The Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney

The Nest is neurotic family drama at its sharpest. The adult Plumb children have been waiting their whole lives to inherit “The Nest,” a trust fund that is bound to resolve their myriad financial difficulties and keep them comfortable into old age. Their legacy is jeopardized by black sheep brother Leo, starting with a DUI accident in which his passenger, a teenage waitress, is maimed for life and now wants restitution. The siblings come together to try to find a solution, but of course, they each in their own particular way make everything worse. This is a juicy read, but also a moving tribute to the destructive and redemptive power of family love.

dietland7. Dietland by Sarai Walker

Plum Kettle is fat, and unhappy about it. She is waiting for weight-loss surgery and, in the meantime, works for a teen magazine, responding to letters from desperate readers.  One day, she notices she’s being followed by a mysterious woman, and thus begin her adventures. She discovers an underground community of feminist activists hell-bent on teaching women to love themselves, with sometimes deadly consequences. This novel starts out intriguing and becomes steadily more bananapants, so it is not for those who resist suspending disbelief. For the rest of us, it’s both a rollicking page-turner and a bold political statement.

what-the-dead8. What the Dead Know by Laura Lippman

Laura Lippman is now on my list of crime writers whose back catalogue I will devour. If this novel is any indication, she is both a skilled prose stylist and a master genre craftswoman, a rare combination in my experience (see Tana French, above). Responding to a hit-and-run, police discover a woman who claims to be Heather Bethany, the younger of two sisters who disappeared thirty years ago and were never found. However, the woman has no ID, and her story is inconsistent and unconvincing. The novel moves back and forth between the events around the Bethany sisters’ disappearance and the present-time interrogation of “Heather.” Couldn’t put it down.

hus-secret9. The Husband’s Secret by Liane Moriarty

Cecilia stumbles across a letter written by her husband, labelled “For my wife – to be opened only in the event of my death.” He’s not dead. Does she open it? This is a soapy, fluffy read, but it moves along briskly, and the narrative weaves deftly between Cecilia’s story and those of two other women whose roles in the story are not immediately clear. A good book to devour on the deck with a Campari & soda or two. After reading The Husband’s Secret, I went back to Liane Moriarty’s other novels, and was also impressed by Big Little Lies (which I have just learned will soon be an HBO series). I liked the others less, but look forward to reading her newest, Truly Madly Guilty, in the new year.

big-girls10. Big Girl: How I Gave Up Dieting and Got a Life by Kelsey Miller

You may see a theme emerging here. About seven years ago, I paid a lot of money to go on a well-known diet plan, and lost almost 50 pounds. I managed to keep most of it off for a couple of years, but, as is the case for most people who diet, I discovered that maintaining such a weight loss was beyond my capacity. After struggling mightily and desperately searching for anything – veganism! intermittent fasting! green smoothies green smoothies green smoothies! – that would get me back to a place where I received across-the-board approval for the way my body looked, in 2016 I decided that I am not going to waste one more second of the life I have left trying to control my weight. This led to a lot of reading, listening and thinking about body positivity, Health at Every Size, and intuitive eating. Is it possible to like one’s body – and, by extension, oneself – even if one is not “beautiful” in the eyes of everyone? I’m still not sure it’s possible for me, but books like Kelsey Miller’s memoir are very helpful. It’s a funny, honest and wrenching story about growing up fat and ashamed, but then learning that “fat” is a neutral descriptor, and that other people’s opinions of our (and their own) bodies, even those of the people we love and want to please most, are at best irrelevant and at worst poisonous. If you’re tired of hooking your self-worth to the wagon of your body size, and would like to be free of that nonsense, I have plenty of book, podcast and blog recommendations for you, starting with Big Girl.

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What did you read this year that you loved? Tell us below, and happy 2017, reading-wise and otherwise.

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Want to see lists from past years? Here are all my previous Top 10 Books posts on one convenient page.

A Query

When one returns a student’s work with the message, “You failed this assignment because your essay is much too short,” and the student replies, “Miss I don’t understand, I failed my essay because it is too short?”, why does one feel a surge of fury? Why does one not just feel a gentle throb of sadness or wry resignation? After all, it is the student, and not oneself, who must suffer the consequences of this intractable cluelessness. Surely one should be able to laugh, with a note of knowing melancholy, and move on without giving it another thought? And yet one finds oneself unable to refrain from shouting “Are you *@#%ING KIDDING ME?” at the computer screen. Why should that be?

How Do I Get Out of the Way?

p7OMedEI was standing in front of my classroom yesterday and I had a professional existential crisis.

My students had walked into their first exam of the semester in various states of tension, resignation and hope, and a couple of them seemed uncomfortable to the point of rudeness – sticking their legs out into the aisle and not moving them as I approached, until I asked them to; not meeting my eye and limply taking the papers from my hand; saying “More paper” without saying “…please.”

It was irritating, and ego-bruising. I often tell myself, “I don’t care how they FEEL about me; I care about how they BEHAVE.” And it’s true that, for their own sake, they need to learn how to treat everyone, even people they don’t care for – their teachers, their bosses, their colleagues, their classmates – with politeness and respect. I have developed a classroom demeanour that insists upon basic manners, and most students, sometimes after testing a bit, comply. But then there are always a few who, for whatever reason – they hate their mothers; they hate school; something I’ve said has triggered them – continue to test the boundaries, and force me to engage in a delicate dance: When to respond? When to ignore? What crosses the line from carelessness to rudeness? What will help, and what will make things worse?

And, fundamentally, as much as I try to detach from taking things personally: when do their feelings about me have a direct detrimental effect on their learning?

This semester, I am teaching two small remedial Intro to College English classes, with a total of 32 students. As I stood behind my desk, slowly grading papers as 17 of them wrote their exam, I lifted my head and gazed out at them. I paused for a moment, reflecting. Then I opened up my class lists for both classes, and did a quick calculation, based on their names and what I could remember of the personal information they gave me early in the term:

Of my 32 students, 7 would probably be classified as being of white European descent. The others can be more or less equally divided between, in general terms, Middle Eastern/North African, East or Southeast Asian, South Asian, and African Canadian; a couple are of South American heritage.

This is to say: approximately 80% of my students are visibly culturally different from me.

Here’s the greater problem: almost 100% of the approximately 70 English teachers at our college would be culturally identified as Caucasian. Some other departments in the college are a little more diverse, but when I say “a little,” I mean, like, seriously, “a little.” This diversity mostly consists of East and South Asian and Middle Eastern teachers. We have very few black teachers at our college, despite the fact that we have many, many black students. These kids spend all day, every day, looking at people whose reality is different from theirs in fundamental ways, people whom they may (justifiably) believe couldn’t possibly understand them. A whole lot of white people.

Does this mean I have nothing to teach these kids? No. Does it mean that a black kid has license to be rude? No, and most of my black students never, ever are. However: when I look at any young person of colour who is sitting in my classroom with an expression of hostility on his face, my first response may be one of fatigue and irritation, but I need to quickly move to a new response. I don’t know why he’s feeling hostile. It may very well be because of something I’ve actually done. On the other hand, I have no idea what other kinds of garbage he’s had to experience today, or all his life, and maybe I’ve triggered his hostility in ways that neither of us really understand, or maybe his hostility has nothing to do with me; after all, he’s usually pretty engaged, he always does his homework, he attends every class. Maybe he just had a totally crap day today and he’s damned if he’s going to pretend to be compliant and cheerful for yet another middle-aged white lady.

So what’s a middle-aged white lady to do?

Well, my existential crisis consisted of this realization: these kids do not need more white teachers.

I can’t do anything about the fact that I’m white, obviously. But as I was gazing out at them, I was reminded of an interview I heard a little while ago with the Daily Show’s Trevor Noah, in which he discussed the abysmal state of diversity in entertainment. The interview is here – I recommend it; I no longer watch the Daily Show but I found Noah charming and his views enlightening.

In essence, his story is that, when the Daily Show was trying to hire black correspondents, they came up empty – the callout brought in no applications from suitable candidates. Then he ran into some friends – comedians – who said, “If you want some black people you’ll let us know, right?” And he said, “But didn’t you send a tape? Didn’t your agents contact you?” And they replied, “Trevor, we don’t have agents. Do you know what it takes for a black comedian to get an agent?” And so he realized that going through the regular channels was just not going to work; that if you want diversity, you have to actively go out and recruit diversity, not wait for it to come to you through the channels that have stifled diversity until now.

The argument in college department hiring committees is the same: we hired from the people who came. The problem is not going to be solved on that level.

What do we need? We need kids of colour to become educators. How do we do that? I don’t know, but I feel like this has got to become part of the agenda. This is not just about helping a kid of colour who wants to be a teacher – it’s about helping the kids whom that kid will teach.

So what can we, as the teachers of right now, do to help that happen? Or maybe: how do we get out of the way?

Image by Dez Pain

 

The Advantage of a Mean Neighbour

Today, anticipating the beginning of my winter semester and wondering if I have anything to say about it, I opened my “Drafts” folder and found this post, written in August but never published. At the time, the experience was too raw, and I didn’t want to dwell on it. Now, looking back, I see that my thinking around this unhappy incident really did shape my fall semester for the better, and I want to remind myself of some of those insights. So I thought I would share it with you now.

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o2wRZTOI had a very unpleasant experience the other day, and its effect on me was surprising: I want the school year to begin.

Believe me, I have NOT been looking forward to going back to work. My summer vacation was fine, but it never quite got off the ground. Once all my grading was done, I had a handful of teaching and research-related responsibilities to take care of that were neither urgent nor interesting, so they were easy to procrastinate: I dawdled about doing them, but I was never able to fully put them out of my mind. I’d also set myself the task of working steadily on my online novel, a task I more or less accomplished, but which meant I woke up every morning feeling I had something to DO. There were also household repairs to schedule, and trees to get inoculated against ash borers, and a million ordinary grown-up obligations that made me want to throw myself on the floor and kick and whine. I just couldn’t relax. Life felt onerous, like a never-ending to-do list.

When August rolled around, I was full of resentment. Course outlines already? Looming department conferences – could I bail? What do you mean, I have to think seriously about the research project I was determined to put out of my mind for the summer but instead brooded over? Again, normal back-to-work pouting for anyone coming off a vacation, but it all seemed like a huge weight.

Then I had a day that was actually bad.

When we first moved into our current home, the first house we’ve ever owned, we were warned by the previous owners that one of our neighbours was a little…unbalanced. We stepped very lightly with her, and did our best to be super nice. She was clearly an anxious and volatile person, someone who would steamroll you in conversation with a volley of aggressive declarations about how her coworkers are “all fucking idiots,” or how we should tell visitors that she “shoots first and asks questions later,” but we made as many gestures as we could to show her that we planned to live here a while, that we were good people and considerate neighbours, and that we just wanted everyone to get along. She seemed to feel okay about us. For the first year or so, everything went fine.

Then one spring day out in the garden, I saw her at our shared fence, hand-feeding a peanut to a squirrel. I made an offhand, smiling comment about how “that’s why I can’t get rid of them.” The squirrels dig up all my vegetable plants and eat all my tulip bulbs. Other neighbours have complained to me about the same problem. Besides, they chew wiring and move into attics. I said none of this to her, however; I just said, “That’s why I can’t get rid of them,” with a smile.

After that, she was done with me.

She would no longer wave to me or look me in the eye, she met my greetings with a terse “hello” or silence, and on the couple of occasions when I attempted to make conversation, she made it clear through her tone that she had no intention of sharing small talk with me. Being a person who has a horror of conflict, I decided that the best tactic was to leave it alone, so we co-existed in uneasy silence, mostly ignoring one another if we were both outside at the same time.

That was two years ago.

One afternoon this past weekend, I heard her in her back yard pulling weeds off our communal fence, muttering angrily to herself, and occasionally groaning loudly as she pulled something resistant out of the ground, so I went over to ask if she needed help. And she lit into me. She called me names, told me that my “grand lady” act might work with others but not with her, made reference to the fact that I “hate squirrels” while our cats are killing everything in sight. (It’s true: our cats are murderers. However, she had had a perfectly civil conversation with my husband in the yard the day before, so this was clearly not about our cats.) When I calmly asked if there was something she wanted to talk about, she went at me again. It was pretty nasty. She said some truly terrible things, including, “You call yourself a teacher, but I’d never let you near my children,” and then some more extremely offensive epithets.

I finally said, “Ok, well, if at any point you feel like you’d like to discuss this, let me know,” and I walked away.

As you can imagine, I was shaken. First of all, I have never had such an exchange with another human being, except maybe with bullies in primary school. And this is someone who lives next door to me, someone whom I pass in the street on almost a daily basis, someone I have to see when I’m working in my garden, someone with whom I have had to negotiate homeowner compromises in the past and with whom I will likely have to do so in the future.

The first thing I did was post the story to my personal Facebook page, asking for advice. The advice was reassuring and almost unanimous: “Do not take this on, do not make it your problem, do not feed her anger. This person is who she is and it has nothing to do with you. Any resolution you come to with such a person will not last. Keep your distance, be civil, and as much as possible, pretend she isn’t there.”

I agree with this advice, and I’ve followed it. Since this incident, I’ve been able to keep a comfortable distance from her. She seems to be avoiding me too, so maybe she’s feeling a little bit ashamed.

But I’ve been most comforted by my interactions with everyone else in the world. For example, yesterday, the inoculation of the ash tree took place, and my conversations with both the supervisor and the technician were so courteous and so friendly that that alone would have made for a good day. On my way to dinner with friends last night, I had a lovely chat with another neighbour about her magnolia tree and whether I should also plant one. The dinner itself was an absolute delight, our server (we are regulars at this restaurant) has become one of my favourite neighbourhood people, and our dinner companions, a couple of our best friends, reminded me that honestly, one of the basic ingredients of happiness is knowing one or two or three or four people with whom you always want to spend time, no matter what, because they are great.

And then today, as I had to start to get ready for school in earnest, I found myself feeling excited. I mean, vacations are all very well. It’s nice to relax around the house and do things on your own time and see only people you want to see (except for the mean neighbour who you can maybe see from the window.) But what does it add up to? What does one learn?

If we don’t engage with the world, if we see the people around us (as I sometimes do) as inconvenient obstacles to the safety of being locked inside our quiet homes with novels and cats, then we could end up bitter, mean old ladies feeding the squirrels and screaming at our neighbours. My life’s project has changed: I will not turn into that woman.

I will start by having a good semester.

The Last Test and Proof

oWlWUwkIf I were to ask, What should be at the center of our teaching and our student’s learning, what would you respond? Of the many tasks that we as educators take up, what, in your view, is the most important task of all? What is our greatest hope for the young people we teach?

In his letters to the young poet Franz Kappus, Rainer Maria Rilke answered unequivocally: “To take love seriously and to bear and to learn it like a task, this is what [young] people need….For one human being to love another, that is perhaps the most difficult of all our tasks, the ultimate, the last test and proof, the work for which all other work is but a preparation. For this reason young people, who are beginners in everything, cannot yet know love; they have to learn it. With their whole being, with all their forces, gathered close about their lonely, timid, upward-beating heart, they must learn to love.”

Need I say it? The curricula offered by our institutions of higher education have largely neglected this central, if profoundly difficult task of learning to love, which is also the task of learning to live in true peace and harmony with others and with nature.

Arthur Zajonc, The Heart of Higher Education

Image by Rainer Schmidt