PLAYING WITH CROWNS, LIKE IN CHECKERS

Last week, I wrote about relearning Spanish and the tree of Crowns the online Duolingo course uses.

As I’ve been earning Lingots for rebuilding those, I’ve had a series of sessions where I’m presented with a sentence or phrase to translate and a set of mosaics or buttons to choose from, one word on each. It’s kind of like a Magnetic Poetry Kit, except that you have to click on the word you want.

In the first hour of my day, my mind wants to run off in whimsical directions.

Here are a few examples.

Approved answer: The girl wants sugar on her apple.

Rejected answer: The girl wants sugar on her husbands.

(Or just a sugar daddy?)

Approved: Are you going to school today?

Rejected: Are you going downstairs today?

(There are days we don’t want to get out of bed, right?)

Approved: I want to go to the movies with my friends.

Rejected: I want to go to the movies with my girlfriend.

(Except that she doesn’t like the action-adventure stuff we do?)

Approved: I always go to work by bus.

Rejected: I always go to work by duck.

(There’s an opera about a guy who goes to work on a big swan. I’d settle on a big yellow duck, wouldn’t you?)

Approved: Do you have to work today?

Rejected: Do you have to speak today?

(Some days simply speaking is a lot of work … especially if it’s in Spanish. That’s the polite explanation. The other one is “Firme la boca,” I think.)

Approved: We don’t open the messages.

Rejected: We don’t open the refrigerator.

(You never know what’s inside.)

Approved: We are buying a car.

Rejected: We are buying a brother.

(Hope he’s worth it.)

Approved: My husband never gets up with me.

Rejected: My husband never gets up on me.

(That would lead to a lot of words we haven’t learned yet.)

Approved: I want a modern kitchen.

Rejected: I want a modern husband.

Also rejected: I want a modern dog.

(Oh, don’t even try to make the connection. Puleeze!)

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THOSE MISSIONARIES DON’T REALLY KNOW US

Recently, we got a white packet in the Quaker meeting post office box. The label was addressed to our Inner Light Preacher and came from the Columbus Missionary Society in Ohio.

We do get some weird mass mailings.

One mailing list has us as the Religious Order of Friends, which sounds to me like a monastery. Officially, Quakers are the Religious Society of Friends, quite active in the wider world.

Pieces targeted to the Proprietor or the Chief Purchasing Agent always amuse me. Nobody owns us but God, for one thing, and even that can get unruly.

And then, like many other Quaker congregations, we have no paid staff, much less a pastor. Vocal messages arising during our hour of mostly silent worship each week are kept short and delivered without notes or, we hope, earlier intention.

Preaching? I’ve been accused of crossing the line, but we never have anything like what this is addressed to. Homiletics are out of the question.

Oh, yes, while many consider a doctrine of Inner Light to be a distinctly Quaker teaching, it was originally Inward Light, with a much different emphasis than is given today. To see my take on that, look at my pamphlet, Revolutionary Light.

So this envelope was a first.

Inside was a 53-page booklet titled Holiness (be filled with God) Or Hell (or spend eternity in Hell) by William Baxter Godbey, and inside that were three more. I decided to Google this guy, only to discover he was a Wesleyan evangelist who lived from 1833 to 1920. No wonder his text had such an old-fashioned ring!

One of the others was a 1741 sermon by Jonathan Edwards, and a third was by abolitionist and pioneering revivalist Charles G. Finney.

I can’t find anything about the missionary group online, but they did put some money into this mailing. What was their intent? The works simply don’t speak to us today, apart from some fundamentalist Christians. For the most part, Friends (to use the more formal name of Quakers, the Religious Society of Friends, based on John 15:14-15) have moved far beyond the confines of these arguments. I look at the writings as historical curiosities but am not moved by their legalistic thrust.

In short, I’m left baffled.

The cover letter, by the way, was signed merely, “Love, A Brother.” And since there was no return address, only a Zip code, I can’t exactly ask him, either.

I START MY MORNING WITH SPANISH

For the past two years, a daily online language class has opened my day. The practice began shortly after the annual sessions of New England Yearly Meeting of Friends, where repeated happenstances with our guests from Cuba had me realizing how much of my high school Spanish I’d forgotten.

Well, a lot of my recall also got tangled up in my college French, but that’s another story.

A conversation with my elder daughter, the linguist, convinced me to try a free online refresher course via Duolingo, which some of you probably know of. The high school text I’d carried since 1964 soon went into the trash – it was terribly dated.

So I rise, usually before dawn, brew some full-bodied, fair-trade Cuban-style coffee beans we get at Costco (they’re like espresso but better), and head off to my laptop in the attic for a half-hour of language learning. Let’s say that at that hour, I make a number of stupid mistakes. I’m still groggy.

A few months ago, the powers-that-be behind the free course decided to alter a few things. It’s inevitable when it comes to anything computer, isn’t it? So instead of seeing something like “You are 67% proficient in Spanish” on the home page, they were taking a different tack. Most startling was that my Crown Level had decreased significantly. Look, that was something that would occur if I missed a few days of practice, but I had been faithful. I felt robbed.

That’s when I started thinking about some of the motivating factors the Duolingo brain trust applies.

The first is something they call Lingots – kind of like Monopoly game cash you can hoard, like me, or spend on things like commentary or idioms. If you do 10 uninterrupted days of study, you’re awarded Lingots – one point when you hit the first 10 days, two more at 20, three at 30, and so on. You can also wager some of yours for other accomplishments. Look, it’s stupid but highly addictive, especially when you reach 150 straight days. That’s 15 Lingots, hombre.

The Crowns, meanwhile, are part of a “learning tree” Duolingo has for advancing. When you start a language, you begin by clicking on a little button labeled “basics,” do the required number of lessons within it, and it soon turns color. You earn a Lingot or two and move on to the next, maybe “articles” or “vocabulary.” Eventually, all of them – 30 to 50, maybe? – change color and you go back to raise each of them to the next level.

Or from that point you can simply do a random set of practice questions. Oh, but that option doesn’t win you a lot of Lingots.

What I really want at the moment is to hit a thousand in my account. Hoard them, in fact. Es muy loco, verdad, but it keeps me going.

And then I move on to the latest manuscript in progress or check up here at WordPress. Both in American English.

TIME TO BLOW THE DUST OFF A FEW STACKS

As my wife and I started listing what’s keeping us busy these days, we were both surprised to find that one thing – one important thing – was missing.

What we both realized is that regular reading … as in books … had been pressed out of our schedules.

Instead, we’ve been doing bits and pieces of reading online. It’s just not the same as luxuriating in a deep volume.

How about you?

REWORKING A TEXT

When several of our lifeguards were complaining about their high-school term papers and having to meet the length requirements, I decided to show them a couple pages of my novel in progress, the book that’s emerged as What’s Left.

They were blown away.

It wasn’t any different from what I’ll assume all serious writers do. Just look at the examples in the Paris Review’s acclaimed author interviews. I remember my own shock at the first few I saw – what, we don’t write flawlessly the first time? Oh, the folly of youth!

Well, nowadays we don’t always work from typescript or even printouts – what I showed the teens-to-whom-I-fully-trusted-my-life had now become the exception. I should have photographed some for posterity but instead trashed them during a purging of my studio under the rafters.

Few readers imagine how thoroughly a serious writer or editor will rework a text – major sentences, even paragraphs, are struck out, new words and notes are scribbled everywhere, even fresh pages of inserts are taped to one side or the other of the page.

Tell them this is from the fifth or seventh revision of the manuscript, they’re even more incredulous. The discarded material is a flood compared to the drop or two they struggle to compose.

As the saying goes, inspiration goes in the first draft, genius comes in the revisions.

As we might add, if one’s lucky.

TEN MINUSES FROM A SHORT SUMMER

Anyone else felt pretty AWOL all summer?

  1. My daily schedule’s been way out of whack: I’ve been awaking around 3 a.m. most days, doing a half-hour of Spanish study online, and launching into some compulsive writing and revision. That’s led to a deep afternoon nap, which makes sense on very hot days, but even so, my evenings are rarely in alignments with others’. It’s like I’ve become a hermit.
  2. I missed a whole week of July: Yes, when I sat down to write some checks and realized the next day I was a whole week behind, I was shocked. How’d that happen?
  3. I skipped a whole month in my journaling: That was the real shocker. Opening my journal in early August to catch up, I had to look twice to confirm that my last previous entry had been in mid-June. It’s not like nothing was happening in my life, either.
  4. Didn’t get to the marketing drive: From a practical point of view, the thing I should have been doing for the past nine months is pushing my new novel into readers’ awareness. Instead, I was compulsively revising and drafting new material while the inspiration was still percolating madly. (What would you do?)
  5. Block party nearly didn’t happen for the first time in 18 years: The neighbors behind us always have a boffo block party, and we’re included. This year, however, it almost never happened. First, the event got postponed from the usual time in late June or early July. Good reasons, I’d say – one family was off in Mexico, the grandparents’ of another family weren’t coming as usual, all but one of the kids who had grown up with the party were now off in college and the exception had a full slate of alternatives – that sort of thing. And then August got just as crazy. Somehow, on short notice, it happened on the penultimate Saturday of the month. Was there even a collector’s poster by the resident graphic designer? I was beginning to wonder if we’d be trying to catch up with it with their annual Soupa in November.
  6. No hiking in the mountains or swimming in the ocean: I mean, we’re so close, but now that I have the yearlong pass to the Dover indoor pool, I have less motivation to drive an hour or so away to hit the water or trails. Not if I’m engaged in other stuff, especially.
  7. We didn’t do much grilling: Summer typically means dining in what I’ve called our Smoking Garden, but I didn’t even get the strings of lights up overhead till early July rather than the beginning of May. When we have grilled, the food’s come indoors for the meal more often than stayed on the table outside. We’re not blaming all of it on the bugs, either.
  8. So much for getting together: Had hoped to spend some time with three guys, especially. It just didn’t happen. Mea culpa. They’re all fascinating. Part of it was that out-of-whack schedule.
  9. Too many weeds proliferated: Anyone else garden? Were they worse than usual this year?
  10. Lost some of my favorite lifeguards: Look, there’s no escaping the reality that America’s graying. Some days it seems like there’s no one under 40 about in the nation. One of my principal connections with living, breathing youth has been at the indoor pool, where I’m trusting my life to their abilities. Keeping them from getting bored on the job’s been a pleasant challenge, but now the majority of them have graduated from high school and are off to college. Premed or the like for most. Did I mention they’re smart, even when they try to pretend otherwise? Seems like we should have had a party, but I don’t think they even had one for themselves. Best wishes, all the same.

THE LONGEST GRASS AND THE SEARCH FOR A WORKABLE ITINERARY

Back in my college days I came across a column by a magazine writer who was retiring. He mentioned something he had recognized early in his career, that if you want to be a writer or a serious reader, you need to get comfortable with having the longest grass on your street. (An editor is something of both.)

It’s been a powerful – and to me, helpful – image.

Studious reading and writing require large chunks of time and concentration. Sacrifices have to be made. Quite simply, you can’t hope to do all the things everyone else does … or seems to do.

With my wife back in the workplace (and me now retired from paid employment), she’s looking at the list of things she’d like to see done to keep this old house and our big garden in shape. As that editor was saying about the grass?

A few weeks ago, I revisited some notes I had made in looking forward to retirement. It was embarrassing. I had always anticipated this as a time I could finally devote fully to my literary and spiritual callings rather than as a time to kick back and indulge in a life of leisure. (No golf clubs or even tennis racquet on my horizon.) Still, even then, I felt challenged in trying to find a balance for all that I wanted to accomplish. Frankly, these plans looked like boot camp for a senior citizen. Rise at 5, sit down to meditate, exercise, and hit the keyboard for three hours. That sort of thing.

What my theoretical charts didn’t include was housekeeping and the like. And then when I did retire, I hadn’t anticipated taking up daily swimming in the city’s indoor pool or online Spanish lessons or weekly choir rehearsals in Boston.

As for the big household projects like painting or ongoing repairs or time in the mountains to the north or at the beach to our east? Fuhgetaboutit, as a New Yorker would say.