Friday, August 31, 2012

Growing Old-ish

I'm starting to feel my age a little bit.  Now, before anyone older than me takes exception to that statement, I'll put your fears to rest: Yes, I know I'm still in my mid-20s and that I'm still technically a young adult.

Still, there were a number of moments over the past week that made me feel not-so-young.  One such moment came when one of my Juniors mentioned that SHE felt old working as a TA in a 5th grade classroom.  The Juniors are 10 years younger than me.  When I was their age, they would have been in 1st grade.  While I realize that their saying they feel old is about as ridiculous as my saying I feel old must sound to people 10 years older than me, it still does boggle my mind that these students of mine have students that they themselves are responsible for.  Students who make them feel "old".  The ripple effect of this whole thing makes me feel like I need a hip replacement, false teeth and one of those clippers that trims nose and ear hair.

Oh, and then Cross Country makes me feel really old.  I've got a bunch of 6th graders this year.  This current crop of 6th graders would've been born in 2000-2001, approximately.  There are several people I went to school with who dropped out of school and had children that year and the year after.  Granted, that was not the norm by any means, and most of my former classmates who have children either have infants or toddlers (and a majority don't even have kids yet), but the fact is, there are still people my age, people I know, who are the parents of 6th graders (or just a little younger).

When I started teaching, I thought it was amusing that so many of my students were around the same age as my sister, who was still in high school at the time.  What a drastic jump this is, though.  It simultaneously makes me realize how unready I'd be for parenthood and also makes me realize that I cannot put off thinking about dating, marriage and children forever.

26 never felt so old until now.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

One Week Down

Today marked a week of school completed.  I asked my Humanities class how many felt like it had gone by really quickly, like "how could it be a week gone by already?"  Only several raised their hands.  Most raised their hands when I asked how many felt like a lot longer than a week.

Interesting how different people experience time differently.  For the large number who are starting to feel time dragging with the school routine back in session, I am going to have to do my part and redouble my efforts to keep my classes relevant and interesting; I packed a lot into this first week of class--too much, I think, and till today didn't really give my class a chance to catch their breath.  I need to...... s.l.ow. d..o..w..n.. and allow time to absorb, reflect, process.  I'm finding there is no certain recipe for good teaching or a good class--there are things I should do, of course, and characteristics I should nurture in myself as a teacher, but ultimately, I need to read each class as they come in and figure out how best to reach them.

I like this new group of Juniors.  They are easy-going and good-natured.  They are not complainers, and willingly do whatever task is set before them.  I need to be careful not to burn them out this early in the game  (My hours of summer planning, I'm finding, has resulted in more good ideas than I actually have physical time for and so my main job as I follow my plans through the school-year will be to prune things back to a point that will still stretch the kids and help them to grow, but will not bury or exhaust them.  It's a tough balance to strike).  My Humanities class already has 6 separate assignments in the grade book--I think it took me a month last year to get to that number :P.  Time to ease up, and remind myself that coverage isn't why I teach... I need to allow time for uncoverage, deep thought,  reflection.

Fortunately, this group seems responsive and easy to work with, so finding a good balance to the work-load should not be too difficult.  And, the start to the year with the freshmen has been good, too.  The first two days were quiet, but I've had them doing storytelling practice the past two days (practicing to tell various creation myths) and that seems to have created at least a basic level of comfortability, and I noticed many more students being animated and expressive in their practicing today.

I'm working harder than ever.  Too hard, I think--after several hours of work at school two evenings ago, I started getting strange twinges and pains in my chest and tonight, I'm barely functioning due to sheer exhaustion... (maybe another sign that I need to ease the heck up with the pace that I'm setting).  That aside, the actual teaching has never felt so easy--I'm a long ways past the terror and bewilderment I felt nearly every day during my first full year in 2009-2010.  This is a job I love, and far from being a place that I am apprehensive about stepping into, the classroom is THE place I want to be.  Each day when 6th period ends, I start looking forward to 2nd period the next day.  This may also be a signal that I need to start actively building a personal life.  Hmm.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

And we're off!

On Thursday, I began my 4th full year of teaching.  Considering that stress, heavy work-loads, and bad experiences in the classroom drive a number of teachers out of the profession during the first couple of years, I feel some sense of accomplishment in being at this point.  I recognize that I am nearing the end of my "new teacher" phase--never have I had a feeling of being quite this settled and at peace (even though I've still been working hard on prep).  In the past, my hard work was accompanied by a sense of panic and apprehension at whether or not what I was planning was actually any good.  This time, I am fairly confident in my ability to plan, and if a particular plan turns out not to work as well as I thought, I have other ideas and activities that I can implement without a whole lot of hassle at a moment's notice.  In those early days, I always felt for some reason as though my reputation and relationship with the class were at stake with every activity, with everything I said.  Perhaps that was true, and perhaps not--either way, I just don't worry that much anymore.  One mom came up to me after school on Friday and told me how much her son was looking forward to my class: "So many of his older friends told him to take your class and kept saying 'Oh, Mr. Gibson is such a good teacher'."

Of course, I know that such a complement fails to give credit to the wonderful students I've had who gave me a chance to grow and improve, but perception is a powerful thing.  I'm always conscious to verbally acknowledge that the good moments I've had in the classroom have been as much (if not more) because of the students as because of personal ability on my part.  Still, it's comforting and exciting to know that I'm perceived as a good teacher.  It has led me to realize that the world is not at stake every time I open my mouth or plan an activity.  If something doesn't go well, I'll try again with an assumption of trust between myself and my students;  trust that what I do and how I teach holds their best interests at heart and that I will do my best to put things right if anything goes wrong.  

It is tough to recognize growth while we're in the midst of growing--typically it is later that we recognize it, and by comparison to how we were before.  Each August finds me in a different place, further along than I was several months before in June, and much further along than I was the previous August.  I'm eager to see how this year goes, and how both I and my students will be grown through the experiences we'll have together.  

Wednesday, August 22, 2012


The stage is set: it's hours until curtain, and I've just finished making sure the props are in place to create the setting for the first scene, a classroom.  It's my fourth time doing this show; it's one of my favorites, though I don't think I've ever managed to give the same performance twice--each time I tweak my emphasis and my blocking, I add pauses to underscore poignant moments that I hadn't recognized in the previous show and I change my dynamics to try and interpret lines differently, trying to find the delivery that works best.  Sometimes I even try different accents!  Usually, I don't keep the accent for very long.

I'm not the star of the show.

I'm just the stage manager.

But, I'm the first one on stage and I have the first lines of the production--all of this to set the stage for the wonderful ensemble cast, where each character is as important as the next.

Sometimes it's a cast of 18, sometimes 28.  Sometimes it's a living room-style comedy with a tight-knit but quirky family.  Sometimes, it's a bustling marketplace scene, with singing vendors, dancing street urchins, stone-faced constables, and always a group waiting for the first train out of the town (which has started to feel a bit too small with all of its singing vendors, dancing street urchins and stone-faced constables).

The catch is, they don't realize they are the stars of the show.  The actors and actresses show up, thinking that they or their parents have paid for tickets and that they will sit back and watch, and maybe it wasn't even their idea to go to the stupid show and now they're stuck.  Little do they know that they'll be handed scripts and told to perform, to be the show they thought they were destined to watch.  The script doesn't even have words, just a summary of how each scene should end, approximately--the details and the characterization?  All up to the cast.

I make sure the actors have the props they need.  I make the scene changes happen.  I occasionally help actors think of what to say or do next when they get stuck.  Sometimes, I am deus ex machina, but honestly, that gets boring if its overdone and what character development can happen then, anyway?

I hand out stage notes and I coach on delivery and remind the cast to please avoid having their backs to the audience.  I drop into scenes from time to time; sometimes, I am basil exposition, sometimes comic relief, sometimes the stern judge for the dramatic courtroom scene.  However, I prefer to help from the wings as the cast makes the show their own.

There are moments of mirth and laughter, moments of frustration and rage, moments of human grief and sorrow and moments of joy that are beyond description.  When the actors and actresses take their bow at the end, they close the show as very different people than the unsuspecting audience who came in so much earlier.  I cannot claim credit--that goes to the director who knew each actor, each actress, before the show started, knew their lines, knew their thoughts, knew the plot long before the performance even started.  Heck, I didn't know any of that stuff!  So when the curtain closes on each new performance, I stand grateful and admiring of my faithful cast who impressed me so much and my director who makes the show and each outstanding performance possible.

As I make one final adjustment and push a desk closer to stage right, it occurs to me that I have the best job on earth.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Learning How I Learn Best

Developing self-awareness is in vogue.  Not that anybody would have argued that it was a bad thing, mind you--it just seems as though more energy is being devoted to helping people develop self-awareness earlier and earlier: personality profiles, multiple intelligences, learning styles tests, you name it!  Perhaps it's amplified somewhat at CAJ, where a lot of emphasis is placed on the students developing self-awareness as Third Culture Kids (TCKs) as is, and so we as teachers go in with the mentality that a few more questionnaires and tests really won't hurt.  Students complain that the tests are redundant or inaccurate; sometimes they are, this is true.  However, when the results of several such tests are taken together, with a good measure of reflection and thought thrown in, the students actually end up knowing a lot about how they learn and what conditions they need in order to learn most effectively.

I guess Lynden Christian tried to do this a little bit while I was a student, but I think we took less tests (I remember the Myers-Briggs for sure) and never really coupled the tests with any kind of follow-through or reflection on the results.  I could have told you that words were my strongest ally in the classroom, but that would have been it.  Most of what I now know about my learning style, I've had to scratch out through experience.

Here are a few realizations that I've come to recently:

1. I can't follow directions that are only spoken.  If someone tells me what to do, and it involves multiple steps, I'll get hung up on one of the steps as they are listing the directions, and miss out on a lot of other stuff.

2. If someone shows me how to do something (whether it's mechanical or on a computer), I will likely need them to show me several times, coupled with me actually going through the process along with them to practice.  My first two summer jobs (Premier Agendas, doing typesetting work and Haggen, stocking shelves) were terribly discouraging and frustrating because I found that my bosses/supervisors were often frustrated with what they perceived to be my incompetence.  I always felt self-conscious about asking several times to be shown how to do something, and I could tell that asking wore down on my supervisors after the 3rd or 4th time, but I also knew that it was the only way I'd learn how to do my job well.  It's given me a degree of patience with students who need to ask me how to do something several times before they get it.

3. If I have written directions (particularly well-written and clear directions), I can accomplish even fairly complex tasks on the first attempt.  I honestly think that my summers at Premier and Haggen would have been downright enjoyable if there had been written directions for the basic routines and duties of my job.

4. I need to punctuate long meetings or classes with time to stretch and move around.  I didn't realize this about myself in high school or college, but have noticed it more and more as I've taken summer classes and as I sit through a variety of different meetings as a teacher: I will zone out, get antsy or fall asleep if there's no opportunity to stand and stretch every so often.  Fortunately, teacher's meetings are usually led by teachers who have the sophistication to know that even teachers can't sit still forever.  While summer classes could likely be a mixed bag, with tenured professors who don't belong in the teaching profession lecturing incessantly in some ill-lit rooms (I'm assuming), I've had fairly good professors who either incorporate activities that involve moving or who give periodic breaks during which the students can stretch or take a short walk.  I need this, and classes or meetings where no such opportunity is presented will ultimately be a loss in my book.

5. I need a basic level of noise and activity happening around me in order to work most productively.  This is actually the lesson I've learned most recently, based on the past (almost) 3 weeks of curriculum work and planning at Tully's.  I spent about 40 hours at Tully's for the purpose of work, and I'd say about 95% of that time was focused and productive.  This stands in stark contrast to my trying to work in my apartment (productive less than half the time) and working at school with all of my colleagues back last Friday (barely productive).  I find that I can't work effectively if I'm in a setting that is too quiet, as I find the silence stuffy and stifling.  Weirdly enough, it's not a quick-fix just to turn on the TV or play music in the background: I find this distracting, and will often end up watching TV or listening to the music and not working.  I need the background noise of a public place.  BUT (and this is a big BUT), I can't be surrounded by friends or people I know, like I was at CAJ last Friday.  I can't count how many times I left my desk to go find and talk to people.  Likewise, the 5% of my Tully's time that was unproductive came from occasions when I'd started working and someone I knew had come in and started chatting with me.  Generally, though, Tully's has struck a good balance: not too noisy or distractingly filled with friends; at the same time, not too quiet or isolated.  It's some of the best planning that I've ever done, and on the heels of my resolution to eat out less this year, I'm actually resolving to spend MORE time at Tully's.  If I make a small iced tea a part of my evening routine, it will be an entirely reasonable price to pay for a very good and reliable work-space.

It's fun and exciting to arrive at such realizations--it makes me feel less self-conscious about what I'd always thought of as shortcomings and limitations, as I know that this is simply how I learn and how I function and that there's a mode of operations that will bring out the best in even me.  Let the games begin!

Friday, August 17, 2012

One Year

It was one year ago today that I decided to dust off my Blogspot account, which I hadn't used in months.  I had been thinking through how I would introduce myself to my students on the first day of class, and decided that it was a given that I'd say I loved to write.  Then I thought, "how often do I actually write?"  Writing a few Facebook notes or blog-posts each year hardly deserved a mention.

The truth was, I really did love writing, but I had not been particularly disciplined in making it a habit, and so my love for writing was by no means evident.  I resolved that if I would be trying to impart a love for writing to my students, I needed to actively model that love.

It hasn't been smooth, and I haven't been consistent: you'll notice that there are long stretches during which I posted infrequently (particularly the first few months of 2012 and then the summer months).  Yet, I do inevitably return to my writing before too much time passes--and I've made it to the one-year mark with a degree of regularity.  I hope to maintain this regularity over the course of the coming year--I may dial back the frequency for fear that I'll start repeating myself.  One goal that I have for myself in this coming year is to push myself to do more creative writing: following in the vein of the poetry I wrote this past year, as well as the short story about my childhood adventures on the farm.

I realize that many perceive blogging as technological narcissism, and either avoid it or engage in it but ironically on those grounds... and perhaps that's true... but I choose to see my sharing of what I write as a means of building the rare relationship between a writer and audience; to create an atmosphere of accountability in that I'll take my resolutions and my professed values as seriously as I claim to; and yes, a little of the narcissistic hope that what I say is important and may be worth my reader's time.

Above all, though, I hope this blog makes obvious and contagious my love for the written word, and my desire to develop and exercise this gift for the glory of the One who blessed me with it.  I hope that this, more than anything, continues to be my motivation and my drive for writing.

Monday, August 13, 2012


Any job well done starts with a goal, and a question: how can I reach that goal?  Defeatists might suggest removing the "how" but making it a question of "can" or "can't" essentially answers the question as it is asked.

We look at the box and then the heap of pieces; look at the scene before us and then the blank canvas; the music and then the keys and synapses fire at a million miles an hour, faster than we can possibly detect to figure out how we'll put together the puzzle, paint the picture or play the prelude.  The process is a matter of care, of patience, of practice and muscle memory as we build, as we create.

Perhaps we'll finish and realize that we're short of the goal we set out for, but even then, it's a question of "how" and not "can", and we must learn from the job we've done and acknowledge that no task given our full effort and attention can be called a complete waste.

When we return to the drawing board or sit on the piano bench, we find ourselves stronger, quicker and the goal closer, clearer.  Little do we realize that the goal we strive for is greater than the puzzle box, the dazzling sunset or the complex sheets of music; and too often we forget that grace remains when our efforts come up short.  Still, we strive, for to strive is to be human.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Preparation and Reflection

Though the last 10 days have been fairly solitary compared to the constant family and friend time in Washington, the hours have sped past.  A decent percentage of those hours have gone into curriculum planning... I'd say roughly 25 hours since last Tuesday.

This is work that is very difficult to start in on--the summer before my first year of teaching, I spent hours staring, helpless and intimidated, at a World History textbook not knowing how I would even begin my planning.  "Should I try to get through the entire book or should I go more in-depth on selected topics?  And, if I decided to go in-depth on selected topics, which events and historical figures should I choose?  And, how could I teach the material in a way that would be engaging and meaningful, and...?"  Curriculum planning is an intellectual work-out, which is something that teachers don't discover until they actually start teaching (as a student, even while taking education classes in college, I'd always assumed that teachers had it easy; "how hard can it be to give assignments, right?").  I've been in that terrifying place where I never got over my curriculum-writer's-block, and I know what it's like to plan a day at a time, but never really feel good about the product of that planning.  Thankfully, we're only first-year teachers once.

Despite the toughness of starting the process of curriculum work, it is immensely rewarding work once started.  I'm in a unique position this year... well, unique for me, anyway.  For the first time, I'll be teaching the exact same classes two years in a row.  This will be my 3rd consecutive year of teaching the Junior Humanities and English classes, and my 2nd year of teaching Freshmen World History (I guess 3rd if you count my very first year in which I taught a Freshmen Humanities block... but I'm choosing not to count that).  This means that I had a foothold for all of my planning, going in.  The bulk of the planning that had gone into my Junior Humanities class happened two years ago, before I taught it for the first time.  That was an exciting summer, as I adapted a really strong curriculum that had been passed down to me from the superb teacher who had architected the Humanities class.  My own planning and later while teaching the course, my own style took that class in a different direction from the notes and framework I'd been given, but those notes had a spirit of joy and enthusiasm for learning that I tried my best to inject into my teaching.  It was an exciting year, through and through, fun for both myself and my students.

Last summer, I did something very illogical, something I really wish I hadn't done: I essentially overhauled the framework I'd built for my Humanities class the year before (in spite of having a wonderful year).  My best excuse for doing so is that I'd read too many books on pedagogy over the summer (which actually has the potential to be very counter-productive) and was trying to work in every last piece of advice from all of those books: the result was a class that was structured thematically, had good essential questions, but suffered from a lack of concrete content, a lack of connectivity and most significantly, a lack of direction.  It was stuffed with good, miscellaneous activities and assessment tools, but still stuffed in the way that a child might cram toys, clothes and other random objects into a closet when told to clean their room.  All of this might have worked out smoothly if I'd at least put in the hours of careful thought and planning that I'd done a year before, but I was still riding high from the success of the previous year and I (wrongly) assumed that experience and good essential questions would be more than enough to capture the imagination of my students and to inspire them with a love for learning.  Don't get me wrong, I'd still planned, just not as much as I now realize I needed to, and not as carefully either.  And, students still learned, but it was very much despite my poor planning and lack of coherency in the content of the class.  It turned out to be a good year, and probably about on par with what would be expected of a third-year teacher... but it was a let-down after my 2nd year, and a personal disappointment on my part.  Please note that I do not blame my students in the least: they were patient with me, and did strong work--they finished the year well and not only met but exceeded my expectations for them... I just feel like I could have done more for them, had I just kept building on my existing Humanities framework rather than trying to do something new and different.  Fortunately, we learn from our mistakes.

Thus, this year, I decided to revisit what had worked so well for me before, but this time I started a step back with deep consideration and examination of CAJ's learning targets (which had been conspicuously missing from my planning the first time around).  I developed new essential questions based on those targets, tweaked old questions that I wanted to fit in, and launched into my planning from there, using my notes and calendar from two years ago as a reference.  It was like putting a match to gunpowder: the ideas have sparked, crackled, and exploded in glorious, rapid-fire fashion.  Everything seems to be falling perfectly into place, and already, I have my first semester planned out, almost to the day.  I've loved every minute of it.  I go to sleep at night looking forward to the work I'll get done, the progress I'll make the next day.  I've crafted assessments that I feel really get at the targets, but are engaging and meaningful for the students; I've planned out activities that I feel will be helpful and fun; the spirit of joy and enthusiasm for learning that I'd tried to inject into my first Humanities class is very much present in what I'm doing now.

I must confess, it just wasn't there at this time last year.  I started the year excited about one thing: storytelling and the possibility of including storytelling in my classes, having just taken a really good class over the summer.  And the storytelling unit was fun, but things fizzled out after that, and I was left feeling directionless... a sense of "okay, where do I go now?"  For a time, I was upset that the students weren't excited about the class, or what we were studying, but I eventually came to realize that I wasn't all that excited about it, either, and that the problem was mine because how could they be excited if I wasn't?  I was working hard, and I think my dedication showed, but tireless dedication is not all that inspiring or infectious if it's not coupled with a genuine, visible joy in one's work.  I'd been so focused on taking the suggestions of so many experts that I'd completely done away with the ownership I'd had before.  I'm grateful for the wisdom of those whose books I read, and I hope to one day reach the level of mastery that those teachers are at... but that doesn't happen overnight, or even over a summer.  Nor should I try to make it happen.  I need to reflect and improve my courses and my teaching, but it's a process that needs to happen organically, with breathing room for my own style to grow, too.

I think I've got that in the planning I'm doing now.  I'm feeling confident and eager to bring into the classroom what is currently on paper and in pages documents.   I've got a little bit more planning I'd like to do, but there's no panic; just excitement, joy and an enthusiasm for what I do.  I need to hold onto this feeling!

Monday, August 6, 2012

Book Review: "Cloud Atlas" by David Mitchell

I'm not typically one to write reviews of books, movies or TV shows, but the book that I just finished was fairly interesting, and I felt it merited a review.

I first heard about "Cloud Atlas" roughly one week ago when a friend of mine showed me a trailer for the upcoming film adaptation (slated to hit theaters Oct. 26).  The trailer caught my attention: from what I could tell, the plot followed six different stories from vastly different times and places that seemed to overlap and connect in mysterious ways.  Plus, a superb cast, including Tom Hanks, Halle Berry and Jim Broadbent, appeared to give the obviously unique story some traction (at least based on the short clips that were included in the trailer).

I discovered later, courtesy of a wikipedia search, that the movie was based on a 2004 novel by a British author, David Mitchell.  Mitchell's story intrigued me, as he had spent years living in Japan, met and married a Japanese women and eventually settled in Ireland with his wife and children.  Additionally, the book seemed highly acclaimed, so I decided to give it a read.

The book begins circa 1849 with the journal of a young American notary, Adam Ewing, as he begins the long journey home from the South Pacific on a small ship.  Out of all iterations of the English language that might now be considered archaic, mid-1800s is my absolute favorite: Civil War-era journals, letters, speeches and newspapers are precisely written, yet always with colorful description and sharp wit and Mitchell mimics the patois masterfully.
At one point, the journal is interrupted, and the reader is brought into a series of letters written from a mansion in Belgium by young English composer Robert Frobisher in 1931.  Frobisher has just become an assistant to an ailing, aging composer and writes about the struggles he endures as a poor, put-upon assistant to his friend (and implied lover) Dr. Rufus Sixsmith.  Frobisher, it turns out, had discovered Ewing's journal in his new home and started reading it.
The letters are interrupted and the scene shifts to the 1970s, as journalist Luisa Rey attempts to uncover a scandal that could go to the very top of a Nuclear Energy Corporation (for which Rufus Sixsmith works).  This story, written in the style of a bad detective novel, follows Rey as she gets closer to discovering the truth and simultaneously puts her life in peril.
At a cliffhanger moment, the story is interrupted and a new story begins in present-day England.  This story follows Timothy Cavendish, a crotchety publishing executive who goes on the run after a jailed client's brothers demand a cut of the profits from their brother's book.  Cavendish happens to read the Luisa Rey novel at various points, as it has been submitted to his firm for publication.
The story then jumps to Korea in what is meant to be a not-too-distant future (perhaps 100 or 200 years).  A clone named Sonmi~451 (a "fabricant" designed specifically to be a waitress at a large fast-food chain) is being interviewed prior to her execution for developing the intelligence to lead an insurrection.  At one point, Sonmi mentions watching the film adaptation of Cavendish's misadventures.
The final story takes place in a post-Apocalyptic Hawaii in the far-distant future, and is narrated in the storytelling tongue of a tribal goatherd named Zachry, who describes his encounter with the Prescients, a civilized people from across the sea, and who happens to worship Sonmi as a goddess.  Unlike the other stories, this one is told in full without interruption, concluding the chronological narrative.  But, the book is only halfway done at this point and goes on to revisit and finish each story in descending order, from Sonmi to Cavendish to Luisa Rey to Frobisher, and finally back to Adam Ewing.  The book concludes in the Pacific, in 1849 with the end of Ewing's journal.

"Cloud Atlas" is a valiant undertaking, epic in its scope, yet intimate in its characterization; the words are delightfully and skillfully crafted and each story feels authentic to its genre.  However, all of these wonderful features more or less end with themselves.  The book and its author clearly strive to be something new, something transcendent and because the style of the book succeeds hands down in this regard, I built up my hopes for a profound message befitting the end of such a grand adventure.  Yet, the book's ultimate conclusion is somewhat of a whimper, when one considers the medium: Ewing reflects on the greed in the hearts of man, a greed that he believes will ultimately be the undoing of mankind.  Considering that Mitchell puts this same thought in several other character's heads at various points, it feels tired and obvious to the reader (though perhaps not so to Ewing, to whom the future is a blank slate, unwritten and mysterious).  Don't get me wrong; it's not a bad ending, or a bad message to leave in the reader's mind--it just feels flimsy considering the innovation and intelligence of the writing and storytelling up to that point.

Overall, I would recommend this book to anyone who enjoys writing.  As much as I was let down by the ultimate conclusion and substance of the story, the author's mastery of style and language is to be commended.  Evidently, Mitchell spent months researching and reading through old letters, journals and diaries to perfect his imitation of the 1849 diction and 1931 diction.  His skill and brains as a writer are obvious throughout the journey; it's just too bad they run out of gas before the destination.

Overall: 8.5/10

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Settled back in

I sat down with the intention of writing several times over the past few days, but somehow managed to get distracted each time, or else simply give up due to the mind-numbing effects of jet-lag.

I've been back in Japan for 5 days, now, and this evening, I'm not feeling remotely foggy or exhausted. In fact, I'm feeling pretty well adjusted and settled in.  That's saying something, considering that I hadn't even set foot into my new apartment before Tuesday.

It's been a week of trying to feel out and craft a new normal for myself: namely, determining how living in such a nice apartment just a stone's throw from school on one side and two stone's throws from the eki (train station) on the other side will change my routines and patterns of living.  When I first discovered I'd be living in this apartment several months ago, my prediction was that I'd be eating out more, due to an even closer proximity to all of the restaurants surrounding the eki.  However, I hadn't banked on having such a spacious kitchen, an actual oven (which was conspicuously missing from the place I'd lived in last year), and a giant freezer that was just asking to be filled with meat and vegetables.

In addition, this was a week of small-talk:

1. I chatted with one of the regular waitresses at Jonathan's (a chain notable for making western-style breakfasts) about the challenges of studying Japanese.

2. When a ¥1000 bill that I'd used was not cooperating with the cash register at Jonathan's, I explained to the cashiers that I'd accidentally put my wallet through the wash and that had probably messed up the bill.  They laughed and told me it would be okay.

3. Later that same day, I chatted with a Tully's barista about Ichiro's move to the Yankees.

4. During Friday's matsuri (festival), I asked a police officer who seemed to be monitoring traffic during the fireworks display how much longer the fireworks were going to be, and he replied that gradually the show was coming to an end.

5. I chatted with another Tully's barista about the highlights of the matsuri as it was ending.

6. I asked several of my students who I'd bumped into at various times about their summers.

7. Talking with several people at church, I asked how their summers had been and they asked how mine had been.

What's significant about each of the above conversations is that they all happened in Japanese, by and large!  I still contend (and not just because it's the appropriate cultural response to a compliment) that I'm not skilled at Japanese and I still have a long way to go.  This is true.  I tried listening to the sermon at church today without an English translation headset and understood only individual words; very few entire sentences or overall ideas.

Furthermore, there's still a lot that I have no idea how to express in the Japanese language.  Each conversation eventually ends with me asking the speaker to slow down, to repeat a word, to define a word (if they're bilingual), or to actually look up a word myself.  Several conversations have ended in blank stares of confusion, and inevitable apologies from me.

However, what's changed from even two months ago is that some back-and-forth actually happens before the blank staring and confusion stage.  As recently as June, I'd go to a restaurant or Tully's, perhaps, say the lines that I'd memorized, and if I was lucky, the waiter/waitress/barista/whoever would stick to the script that I'd anticipated.  If they threw something new in, I'd typically panic and freeze up. No real back and forth, just a "wakarimasen" from me.  Now, there's on-the-spot thinking involved; active listening; active responding. No, I'm not skilled, but I've taken a huge step forward thanks to Japanese 202!  I plan to visit the shiyakusho (city hall) this week and see what courses they offer; even a weekly conversation class would be wonderful.  In the case of the Tully's and Jonathan's workers, it has been strange and cool to actually have conversations with people I'd seen on a weekly (with Tully's, even daily) basis, but never actually spoken to beyond placing orders.  It is refreshing.

And, I've found that no matter how limited I am in my Japanese abilities, no matter how foolish I think I sound, most Japanese people seem to genuinely appreciate the effort I'm making.  It's been encouraging--I'd love to secure this level of skill as a foundation and build up from here--learning a language, even a little bit, changes the world that you live in.  This Japan feels so different from the Japan that I first set foot on more than 3 and a half years ago.  A little bit of understanding goes a long way.