Real life skill tree


I am infatuated with languages. I really like the idea of learning languages. Emphasis on the word “idea.” Because I’m not good at the actual sitting down and learning the things part of language learning. Tim Ferriss’s 4-Hour Chef claims that you can break down a language with a handful of phrases, that you can teach yourself the way that a language is structured with a handful of words. And maybe you can, I don’t know. I found his actual breakdown of how to break learning down pretty vague and hard to apply, in all honesty.

A few years ago I was fascinated by the idea of building myself some sort of structure for learning languages. I remember looking at language families and trying to plot out a way that I could acquire one language, then another, then another. I made notes, then I made charts, then I made the language-learning equivalent of a video game skill tree.

At this point, I spoke English, French, and a little Finnish. Since Finnish is a lonely language with little in the way of family and my knowledge of it is limited to conversations with my great-grandparents when I was three, I used French as my starting point. Which led me to take a Spanish class (because they’re both Romance languages).

I didn’t speak Spanish “like a French street urchin” the way some of my classmates did (the prof actually said “street urchin”), but I had a lot of trouble keeping my brain in the right language. I’d be responding to a question in Spanish, everything going fine, and then all of a sudden I’d hit a cognate and be speaking French. It was really frustrating.

And led me to think that maybe my very rough plan to gradually conquer a video game skill tree of languages might be a little flawed. So I decided I should flip the script a little. Instead of trying to learn languages in families, I would jump between different language families. I didn’t feel like learning a whole new alphabet, so I took German.

I also thought about trying to improve my Finnish by learning it in Spanish, but it quickly occurred to me that that was crazy. Finnish isn’t much like most languages, so whatever language I learned it in, it would be difficult to learn.

I did use my Spanish textbook to structure my Finnish language learning. For a while. It’s a lot of work to do without knowing if you’re actually doing it right. I ended up downloading a bunch of Before You Know It apps for my phone and getting the phrasebook basics of a couple languages before school started up and I lost all concept of time. And the ability to think about personal projects.

I’m still really attracted to the idea of a video game skill tree for life skills. I feel like there are a lot of things I could learn, that anyone could learn, if things were laid out in an order that let the skills build on themselves gradually. I grew up playing piano, so I’ve got a lot of baseline knowledge about music that can be applied with other instruments and in other areas, similar to the what I tried to do with languages, but hopefully more effective.

I realize that now that it may not be the best method for language learning, but I do still think it could work for something.



P.S. I’m a liar. I’m probably going to try to use my video game skill tree to learn languages again, somewhere down the line.


Boadicea or a toy poodle


I’m about five foot, two inches tall. I come from a family of “teeny, tiny women.” Which is what my mom used to say when she worked at the bank and clients were getting mad at her about something she had no control over. “Why are you yelling at me? I’m a teeny, tiny woman. Do you want me to cry? Cause I can’t do anything about the stock market, but I can cry if that’s what you want.” And usually they would calm the fuck down, because they didn’t want to see her cry, they were just being inappropriately angry in her direction.

It’s recently come to my attention that my perception of myself is somewhat askew. I know that I’m short. But I don’t know it. I don’t think I’m overweight or anything like that, but I seem to think of myself as being more physically formidable than I actually am. I was in a play a while ago, and I recently got some stills from it where I was standing with some of the other actors and I think that’s when it struck me that I was not the warrior that I am in my own head. Not physically, at least.

I guess what I’m saying is that I’m the human equivalent of one of those toy poodles that thinks it can boss around the Labs. Because usually I can.

A friend of mine has a theory that people feel more comfortable invading the space of a short person because they don’t find them intimidating. I think it might also be harder to gauge appropriate distance, cause it’s easier to look down at someone than up, so when you get too close to someone who is shorter than you, it isn’t necessary to awkwardly crane your neck to look at them. But maybe it’s a bit of both.

Anyway, it occurred to me that there are things that people do around me that they wouldn’t do if I were as outwardly imposing as I am inwardly. As an example (and most of the reason I’m writing this to begin with), here’s something that happened to me yesterday:

I’d gotten a lone seat on the train, one that looked out the window at the front of the car. This made me pretty happy, since I hurt my foot a few days ago and I’m still not up to a lot of standing. I put in my earbuds and got out my book and started reading.

About a quarter of the way into my trip, someone nudged me. I took out one of my earbuds and looked around. There was a girl, about my age, who’d been pushed back by the rush hour crowd and was now sort of pressed halfway between my seat and the wall.

She saw me looking at her and apologized for bumping me. I said, “No, no worries,” because apparently I’m some kind of hippy these days. And then she said, “Thanks” and sat down on the edge of my seat with me.

And I thought, Okay. I wonder what she thought I said.

Because I’m sometimes an almost crippling degree of Canadian, and because she looked kind of sad, I just sort of budged over a little and kept reading. It didn’t really occur to me that it was odd to share a small seat on the train with a stranger, or for a stranger to feel comfortable doing that, until about halfway through my trip.

I texted a couple of my friends about it, to make sure that it actually was weird, and was told that it was.

And I thought that the absence of real discomfort on my part might be because, despite the fact that in my head I’m Boadicea, I’ve spent my whole life with people treating me like a toy poodle. Without really knowing that’s what they were doing. It’s like when you’re a little kid and you sort of assume that everyone has had the exact same experiences as you, but as you grow you realize how different our individual experiences are. How abnormal your normal is to other people, and vice versa.

And I also thought that what the girl on the train did was the kind of thing I would do. So maybe she was a toy poodle, too. Maybe there’s some signal I’m giving off without realizing it.

I’m not entirely sure if there was ever a conclusion that I wanted to reach with this story, except to tell you one of the weird things that happens to me every now and then.

I overdid it with my hurt foot the other day, so I’m home. (The reason my foot is hurt, by the way, is that I was climbing over some tables, because they were arranged in a semi-circle and I didn’t want to go all the way around. I tripped on something, fell off, and landed hard right on my heel. In support of the “I’m a poodle” theory, when I tell people this story, they seem not at all surprised. The reaction has generally been, “You’ve got to stop climbing stuff. You’re not a cat/child/Spider-man.” Which seems like defeatist thinking, inappropriate for either Boadicea or a toy poodle. So I’m going to continue climbing things.) I may post something that actually has a point later.

If nothing else, you know me better now.





Have you guys ever heard the term “meatspace”? In case you haven’t—cause I hadn’t—the idea is that, more and more, we operate in the digital world and the physical world. Because more and more of life takes place online for so many of us, it becomes necessary for a distinction between the reality that we operate within online and the reality we inhabit with our physical bodies.

“Meatspace” (which always makes me picture ground beef in my clothing) is where we are. It is where we eat our food and wear our clothes and read our books. It’s wear we drink and sleep and reproduce. Cyberspace, on the other hand, is a space in which the physical realities of the human condition can be compressed. Distance becomes, in many senses, meaningless. Realities like weight (like in the case of books) can be minimized to the point of nonexistence (ex. books vs. eBooks).

Something I’ve been finding interesting in my publishing program is that there’s tacit, possibly/probably unintentional, minimization of “meatspace.” Even the term “meatspace” can be seen as somewhat pejorative. That’s part of what I think is so strangely perfect about it. It seems almost derogatory towards the physical state of being.

The fact is, we still live in meatspace. We still perform the acts that sustain our lives in meatspace. Until we hook into the matrix, that will be an undeniable fact of human life. We are in meatspace, and the majority of our largest problems are there, too.

There’s a problem of multiplicity in publishing right now. There is just so much stuff, so much fiction, so many essays, so many blogs and books and badgers (honey badger don’t give a fuck) to demand our attention. Before the explosion of ePublishing, there were already more books in the world than any one person could read in a lifetime. We have more movies, more televisions shows, more pictures and pieces of artwork than we could ever have the attention for and even if we did, mankind has a notoriously shitty memory. So when is it enough? And, with so many services moving into the cyber, how do we continue to exist in the meat? How do we orient ourselves in the reality of physical distance when cyberspace has the capacity to compress those distances, at least for some of the senses? And how do we sustain ourselves?

I think it’s the issue of sustainability that is nagging at me, and contributes greatly to my various existential and/or quarterlife crises. I personally think that everything is cyclical, and that we’re in a cycle of change. Gutenberg’s press prompted a cycle of change in publishing, and I think we’re in another one now. Not just in publishing but in many, many fields. Something that we’ll have to figure out along the way is how the cyber and meat relate to one another, how they connect to one another, and how they can sustain one another.

In my class today we talked about how the cultural capitals of the past always had a surrounding hinterland. Paris was surrounded by vast stretches of sparsely populated agricultural areas, London had places like Manchester to sustain the rapid growth and cultural consumption. Someone argued that Silicon Valley was/had been the cultural capital of the technological era, and that it had the world as it’s hinterland. But how do you live in that hinterland? We’re in the strange position of privileging the local as far as meatspace goes, and seeking employment in cyberspace. There has been a systemic devaluation of things like books, just because of the sheer number of books being produced, and it has negatively impacted the possibility of the existence of a career creative. But then, the career creative is a recent occupation. Some of the most famous artists of the past were starving, or had the patronage of politically/socially/economically powerful figures, some of them highly questionable in character. So maybe it’s just another cycle, another pattern being repeated. Everything is a remix.

I don’t have any real conclusions about this right now, this is a stream-of-conscious ramble on a topic that has been weighing on me.

If you have any thoughts/contributions/etc. let me know in the comments!



A pseudo-philosophical ramble about the importance of fiction


I don’t know if you guys read Brain Pickings but you should check it out, cause it’s awesome and full of a lot of food for thought.

I was skimming back posts the other day and there was an article talking about David Foster Wallace’s commencement address to Kenyon University (the whole text of which has been transcribed and which exists as audio files all over the internet which I will link to when I’m writing on a computer rather than on my phone). There were a collection of quotes from the speech, which covered a lot of ground and discussed, among other things, the nature of art and writing, and the general solipsism inherent in every persons life. And the loneliness that can come with that.

Solipsism is, to a degree, something common to all people. You can view your life through the lens of your own experience. You can only know as much about a given situation as your own senses reveal to you. You are the center of your universe, not through a kind of deluded narcissism but because that’s all you really can be. You are the only person you are capable of ever completely knowing and you are the only one who is living and can live your life. And that can be terribly lonely. I’m not stating any of this as eloquently as David Foster Wallace did, but hopefully the point comes across.

Something I’ve always felt but couldn’t really articulate until I was reading that article, and the commencement address itself, was that the power of art and particularly of stories lays in its ability to make people feel less alone. Not just to show people that they are understood but through presenting people with an opportunity to deeply understand and connect with someone else, even if that someone else is fictional. The fact that we have the ability to empathize deeply with another can be vastly reassuring.

As someone who loves to read and write, who studied literature in school and who is studying publishing now, I’ve often felt a need to defend literature, why the love and the teaching of it should be protected and encouraged. I think that stories are part of what makes us human – both that we tell them and that we are told them. I think that empathy is one of the things that stories have the power to give us, the ability to feel a deep sense of connection to another person, to more than sympathize with them but to understand them so intensely that we feel what they feel. Good stories, good writing, have the power to do this. And I don’t think that’s something that people are ever going to stop needing.

Because I think everyone has felt alone at some point in their life, but stories give us a way to be alone together.



Binge-watching the golden age of television


I watched Orange is the New Black on a whim yesterday at my friends house. It was awesome. I’m actually going into a bit of withdrawal from it right now. Because I don’t have Netflix, or money to get a Netflix subscription. I considered camping out in front of her television and binge-watching the whole first season, but since she goes to school in London and will be going back in a few days, I think that maybe her parents wouldn’t be cool with me hermit-ing it up in their house.

Or maybe they’d be totally cool with it. They’re nice people. Still, it would be a little odd, even for me.

This is an amazing time for television. If I didn’t have to take care of my dog and go to school and feed myself (I didn’t realize that was the order of my priorities, but I’m not entirely uncomfortable with it), I could probably happily lose all muscle definition in my entire body from sitting and staring at the TV.

Breaking Bad is over, and the void still looms in my psyche. I’d gotten used to the constant buzz of anticipation while waiting for new episodes of that show.

I wonder if the “Golden Age of Television” as it’s so often called, will transition to books. I mean, in a sense, it has. There are more books being published then ever before. The publishing industry is in a bit of a state, but it seems to me that people are reading more, more widely, and in more varied forms than ever before. There are so many options for getting new books. But the curatorial aspect is kind of lacking. There are so many books, and so many of them are probably good, but it can be really hard to find them because of the vast quantities.

I think that the ease of publishing is a double edged sword. It means that there’s so much possibility for new, interesting works, stories that take risks and don’t necessarily conform to accepted practices as far as storytelling goes. But there are so many people who don’t understand how to tell a story flooding the market. Everyone seems to have written a book lately. And sometimes it seems to have been done with the mistaken assumption that there’s a lot of money in books. Which, generally speaking, there isn’t. Even when a book is a bestseller, it doesn’t even approach the kind of numbers that a Hollywood blockbuster brings in.

I don’t remember where I was going with this.

I really want to watch Breaking Bad all the way through again. Maybe I’ll binge-watch that while I manufacture reasons to go to my friends parents’ house to watch Orange is the New Black on their Netflix.



Reading, writing and New Year’s resolutions


My mom gave me my 2014 wall calendar two weeks before Christmas. She didn’t feel like wrapping it, and I was cool with that. It’s a nice calendar. Like nearly every calendar I’ve received from the age of about nine, it has tigers on it. I’m starting to notice how many of these images are recycled.

What my mom couldn’t have foreseen when she gave me my calendar, but maybe should have, was that I would immediately open it. I did this, first, to write in birthdays, because I always forget them despite the alerts I’ve got set up on my phone, so I try to note them down in a couple dozen places so that I can’t help but notice one of the reminders. It’s not that I actually forget the birth date, it’s that I usually have no idea what the current date is. I spent most of today sure that it was January 2nd, but it’s actually the 3rd.

After writing in birthdays, I decided to start working out my goals for the year. My goals for this year started out pretty simple: I want to read more, write more, and build my communities.

Things quickly got out of hand.


I made a bunch of piles of the books I wanted to read in my bedroom sometime in the summer, then gotten so overwhelmed at school that I barely touched them. I decided that, since my ability to make decisions takes a nosedive when school is on, I would list out all the books in my reading piles (that sounds unappealing) and try to portion them out throughout the year. I tried to change it up (one sci-fi book a month, one fantasy, one play, one history, etc.) but I didn’t have enough of some categories for that to work. Anyway, I’m supposed to read about fifteen books a month, which will put a dent in my to-be-read piles but will still leave some left over. And I probably won’t get through all that, but I’ve mentioned before that I’m prone to extreme, and extremely unrealistic, goal-setting. But I’ve always sort of figured that if you got halfway to an impossible goal, you were in pretty good shape.


I never used to have trouble finding time to write. In high school I wrote a lot. I didn’t like school, and I didn’t like to bring schoolwork home with me, so I usually tried to get as much done in class as I could. So I didn’t usually have much homework when I got home, and I had a lot of time to write. I wrote more than 500,000 words over the course of my high school career.

University was, and is, different. I suddenly had to work at home. There was no real time to get school work done in class. Class was for discussing what you’d read. And I worked on one of the student literary magazines, and had a job at a bookstore besides. Suddenly there were things interfering with my writing time, so long an uncontested part of my day. But I didn’t really notice, because I was writing a lot. It just wasn’t stuff I particularly wanted to be writing. It was essays dissecting books based on different literary theories. Some of my classes gave the option of doing a creative response instead of an essay, and I grabbed those opportunities every chance I could, but they were few and far between.

I had never had set times to write before university because I had never needed set times to write before university. I’d just had time. And so I slowly fell out of the habit of writing something of my own every day. I wrote essays or read books for classes (some of which I am eternally grateful to my professors for exposing me to, some which I still don’t think should have been published at all), went out with friends or just tried to get some fucking sleep. Every university student I’ve ever met has been at least a little bit sleep deprived. I imagine it makes for interesting papers.

I had ideas for stories. Reading always makes me want to write, and discussing books with other interested and intelligent people only enhanced that tendency. I always had an extra notebook and I jot down ideas as they came to me. Then I’d get home, look over what I had written, and resolve to do it on the weekend. Or during the reading break. Or in the summer. Whenever I got a chance.

Only I didn’t get a chance, because work will fill whatever time you give it, and I wasn’t setting any aside to write.

This is something that only really became clear to me recently, the fact that life won’t make room for what I want, I have to make room for it. It’s the kind of thing that I always knew but didn’t know.

First I decided that I should make it a goal to write one thousand words a day. Then, being prone as I am to overextending myself, I decided that I would gradually increase the number of words I was supposed to write a day so that by the beginning of next year I would be writing two thousand words a day. And I could continue to increase the word count infinitesimally every day the following year until I got to three thousand a day, and so on and so forth.

Then I had my realization about how useless it would be to set goals about how much to write without setting aside time to write. So, after looking over my schedule, I’ve decided that, during the week when I have classes, I can set aside a block of time from 7-10 and probably not be completely overwhelmed.

I wrote the word count on my calendar and the block of time in my phone and in the agenda that my school gives out each year.

Building communities

There are a number of writing communities out there, both for critiquing and making your own story available to an audience. Some of them are scams, some of them are well-intentioned but not necessarily helpful (at least for me), and some of them seem pretty fucking cool but I don’t know whether they’re worth the effort. All three varieties have plenty of people on them, whether writers or readers or both.

I’m not going to break them down here. This post is long enough already. For all intents and purposes, all you need to know is that I’ve decided to take part in the latter two groups.

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m a lonely-garret writer, not a coffee-shop writer. I don’t really like to talk about my work in progress unless I have a specific problem. Though I don’t actively think about it this way, it almost feels like to talk about a work in progress while it’s doing well would be to jinx it. I don’t like to receive feedback on something until I’ve done a first pass, because I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing at that point, so I’m in no position to know whether or not someone else knows what the fuck I’m doing, which might lead me to lend their words too much weight or not enough. But I do like helping people untangle plot lines and offering constructive criticism. And I imagine that writing critique groups probably talk about books a lot, so that’s cool.

I like the idea of making a story directly available to the audience that reads it, of serialization and interactivity and all that jazz. I have difficult not wanting to change everything in the first draft after it’s done, though. I thought about the ideas that I already have, and they were either too plot-y or not really suited to the medium. So I think I’ll fly by the seat of my pants with the audience ones. Just start something. See what happens.

And I’ll let you know how it all goes.



P.S. In the interest of keeping you in the loop, I’ve written 3501 words in the last three days, read Notes from the Underground by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, four chapters of A Brief History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson, and about half of Alice Munro’s Still Life. I am slightly behind on my reading but ahead on my writing so I think it balances out. I have started accounts with a couple of online writing communities and commented a bit. I haven’t posted anything of mine yet.