Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Death of a Blog

For all her faults, Kelli with an aye has some frightfully good insight when it comes to practical matters, and I, being the tragically impractical sort, benefit from her input. She’s also impeccably honest, if a bit brash. Which is refreshing, frankly. For someone to look you in the eyes while telling you the truth (even if it sometimes means your temporary discomfort) is a welcome act of kindness in a world of white lies, damned lies, and devious deception.  

When invited to break bread with her recently, I anticipated a lively discussion laced with Kelli’s contempt for society’s foibles and petty obsessions. I had no idea the lunch was a pretense for an intervention. I was practically ambushed. The appointment (or platonic date) made me rethink my priorities.

We’d already ordered our food at least twenty minutes beforehand, and while we waited for it to arrive, I lost count of the single malts I’d consumed (four or five, not sure). I must’ve been nervous, since I’d also forgotten to wrap my watch round my wrist before leaving my place. Eventually, our hors D’oeuvres arrived, after which I would’ve sworn our waiter had decided to punch out and go parasailing.

Kelli with an aye, a Nigerian with lips as lush as an amaryllis, has long, straightened hair dyed neon blue to lapis. Pair that with skin the rich color of coffee with a splash of crème brulée and you have a recipe for an exotic whose beauty is unparalleled this side of the equator.

Having immigrated with her folks to Great Britain when she was but a child and enrolling in Catholic school shortly thereafter, she’s a fascination in contrast – a playful yet prudish woman, highly educated, worldly but religiously devout, who’s taken up abode in the American south of all places and at the moment drinking that nasty stuff she has adopted from Texans which I, hailing from the windy city, never acquired a taste for – bags of dried leaves from some God-forsaken plant brewed in boiling water poured over gobs of ice.

After teasing her about her handbag resembling a parachute, I asked, “So what’s with the discolored ice water, Kelli with an aye? Have you given up the spirits?”

Kelli froze for a second, perhaps for dramatic effect. Then she shook her head like a poodle might after escaping a near death experience with a bath, thereby not tossing her blue tresses so much as causing them to sway and shimmer. Her heavy sigh animated the napkin to her right. “Firstly, I thought you knew me, stranger.” She leaned over the table and whispered. “I never drink before noon. You know this. Unless, of course, it’s wine. And I have plenty of wine at home better than what they serve here. Secondly, thirdly, and everything else lea, have I not asked you to stop calling me that?”

“Have you?”

She took a cartographic reading of my face, as if measuring my sincerity. “How about simply Kelli?”

“Like the singer Simply Red?”

Leaning back in her booth, she offered me one of those frowns that tells me my attempt at humor landed with a splat. “It’s not my fault. My parents named me. I would have preferred something hinting at my African roots. Ironic that they shared the sentiments of your bloody Kardashians. At least they didn’t name me Porsche or North or Psalm. Had a friend back in Catholic school named Hosanna. Means things like savior and rescue and even help. I liked it, but probably because it wasn’t my name. She was always talking about legally changing it. Of course, she’d already been christened. Poor girl.”

“Should I give you a nickname?”

“You have, you idiot. It’s Kelli with an eye, and I hate it. Sounds as if I wear an eye patch or something. I should never have allowed you to see my credit card that time I paid for lunch. How about Miss Scrimshaw?”

“Your patronym isn’t Scrimshaw.”

“No, but you’ll inevitably post this little exchange on your blog, and I don’t want my real name used.”

“Is Scrimshaw a pun then?”

Miss Scrimshaw glared at me. “Look at you. You’ve officially destroyed enough brain cells to miss my playful train. How boorish.”

I squinted. “Let me see.”

“This ought to be good. Watching you fumble in the dark for the caboose.”

“Eye patch. Pirates. Am I close? They presumably had access to whalebone and shells. Not sure pirates were the sort to whittle, though. Too busy swabbing decks and hoisting sails, I imagine. Still. Scrimshaw. Clever.”

“Can’t get anything past you, old boy. Even if I must wait an eternity for your cogs to churn.” She glanced over my shoulder. “Look.” Visibly distressed, she nodded in the direction behind me. “Have you Americans no class? Look already.”

“Not unless you have a mirror in your purse. I’m not about do a one-eighty. Too conspicuous. Besides. What’s with the fuss about class? This isn’t a Michelin star restaurant. People in this city shop at Walmart in their yoga pants.”

“And parade in public in their track suits and sweats.”

I nodded. “And wear jeans to church.”

“Why does everyone fuss about looking at these embarrassing fashion choices? Perhaps that’s what the fool needs, Mark. Everyone turning, gasping. You know, public shaming.”

Noblesse oblige, my dear. Public shaming extends to only excessively noisy people nowadays. Too much gray area with regards to fashion. Any other embarrassment, such as airline arguments or public fisticuffs or bad driving, is simply filmed on camera phones. Besides, he might be the sort to feed off the attention. Describe him. What am I missing?”

She continued to stare. “Oh, only another one of your country’s Philistines.”

“My country? You’re a U.S. citizen now. And do you not own a hand mirror?”

“Not a citizen of your country at heart, frontiersman.”

“Ah. How about I call you émigré Kelli then?”

“Can’t pin that moniker on me. I’m apolitical.” She lowered her voice. “Go over there and tell that brute to take off that ghastly baseball cap.” She glanced over my shoulder and frowned. “The heathen.”

I knew enough now not to bother turning around. “Show more tolerance. Perhaps he’s going bald and wants to postpone the big reveal.”

“But we’re indoors. Only low-brows wear hats at table.” She offered me a wry grin. “Probably the same sort who wears their boots to bed. You don’t wear your boots to bed, do you?”

“Wouldn’t you like to know. In Japan they remove their shoes when crossing the threshold. Entering the home, for example. Some businesses, even.”

Miss Scrimshaw made a sour face. “That imaginary diploma from the University of Autodidacticism has really paid off for you, has it?” She watched me take a sip from my glass. “Ease up on that liquor you’re inhaling as if you’re trying to put out a fire.”

“I can liquor my handle.”

Miss Scrimshaw didn’t smile. “Are you quite sure? Your speech is already slurred.”

“You’re confusing my southern drawl for inebriation.”

“Miraculously, you don’t have a southern drawl. Don’t get me started on that audible nightmare. Like fingernails down a chalkboard. Look, I don’t want to have to knock you over the head in a public place, take your keys, and drive you home myself. Besides, I don’t have a blunt instrument handy, and I refuse to draw blood.”

“Such compassion. What would I do without you, old girl?”

“Probably talk to yourself. Now listen. I know how obsessive you can be. Fixating on projects. I’m one of the few who keeps up with your blog. But you need to end it. Okay? It’s a farce.”

I feigned surprise. “It’s as though you see right through me. Incidentally, I love the way you pronounce the word ‘farce’”

“Don’t mock my heritage.”

“Mock? More like fawn over.”

“I know my tees are still too sharp, and my letter ahs are still too soft.”

“I wouldn’t have you any other way.”

“I understand you assume alternate attitudes and write in different voices. Bully for you. But for what? For the exercise? Your own amusement? Aren’t you just pounding your chest? Trying to convince the few people unfortunate enough to chance upon your blog that you’re awesome? For the record, you’re certainly not ordinary. But awesome might be stretching it.”

“If I may, and I say this with all due humility, we both know I’m awesome. Still. I realize saying so doesn’t exactly engender –”

“Here’s my advice, Mark. Stop.”


“Stop devoting your free time to a project no one gives an elephant’s ivory about.”

I smiled. “I love it when you’re angry.”

“I’m not angry. I’m annoyed. Don’t speak in primary colors. Use the many hues the good Lord has given us. It’s been, what? Three years since I’ve read your first manuscript. Where’s your sequel? I’ve forgotten half of what happens in the first story. You’ll never complete your trilogy at this rate. Why’s it taking you so long anyway? You’re unattached. No children. Your carrier job consumes only a few afternoon hours per day. You don’t plow or plant or tend your own vegetable garden. You don’t breed horses or –”

“Steady, Marmalade. This is starting to sting. Listing what I have yet to achieve requires a weekend retreat. We have only this lunch.”

“You hardly have a social life. Have you decided to compose the sequel in Latin?”

“That’s the thing. I –”

Kelli raised a brow. “Don’t tell me you’re teaching yourself Latin.”

“No, but that’s not a bad idea. Latin fathered the Romance languages, right? French, Italian, Spanish. Oh! And Romanian, of course. And another one which escapes me 今すぐ.”

“Portuguese. Wait, what did you just –”

“Portuguese. That’s it.”

“Hold on. ‘Emah sugu?’ What does –”  

“‘今すぐmeans right now. Didn’t I tell you I was studying the Japanese language?”

“Yes, you did, and it was all I could do not to laugh in your face. We live in Texas, for the love of God. If you’re going to subdivide your free time for Rosetta Stone and the like, then –”

“Don’t forget Memrise dot com or the YouTube instructional videos uploaded by real native speakers and instructors. Japanese pod one oh one dot com and –”

“Yes, yes. All right.”

“And an armada of other apps, Duolingo being my favorite at the –”

“Enough already.”

“Nan demo ii.”

“Did you just curse me out in Japanese?”

“Of course not. Hardly in the repertoire. Japanese people are more likely to apologize profusely. Their default mode is one of obligation and humility. Which is ironic considering we Westerners, particularly those of us who identify as Christians, are more about righteous indignation than anything else. Hardly Christ-like, eh? No. Nan demo ii is Japanese for whatever.”

“Show off.”

“At worst I was being dismissive.”

“As I was saying, Spanish would be the more practical second language to learn, not Japanese. Especially if you still plan to become a Catholic. What is it with you, Mark? Addicted to hentai or something? You bachelors are all alike. Incidentally, that’s going to be one hell of a first confession at your conversion ceremony.”

“That’s not fair. I hardly know what hentai is.”

“Sure, you don’t.”

“And, no. Not a fan. Besides, ten months into Japanese, I’ve now added Spanish to my list. Been at it for about a month now. So much easier for a Westerner to learn than Japanese, by the way. Also started learning French. Smuggest sounding language ever, and I love it.”


“Shares some similarities with Spanish, too. Cognates, for example, and the whole masculine feminine articles thang. Though you know I don’t like to boast, unless I’m blogging, of course.”

“Of course.”

“Here’s the thing. I’m not a one-project-at-a-time kind of guy anymore, Matilda.”

Kelli growled. “Just who the hell’s Matilda?”

“Do you not know that joke about the woman with the flying hairpins?”

“I’m not wearing a hairpin, bub, flying or otherwise. What is that? An internet meme? Yet another juvenile SNL sketch passing itself off as adult humor? Is this yet another one of your many private jokes no one else in the world understands?”

I shrugged. “Hey, if I can’t join an exclusive club, I might as well invent one of my own.”

“If it weren’t such a cliché, I’d release a sigh of exasperation right about now. But to be a fly on the wall at one of those exclusive gentleman’s clubs.”

“Chotto matte, Kelli-san. Let’s be clear. I’m imagining a trip into the past. Bertie Wooster’s Drones Club or some such. Not a modern burlesque show of women with grotesque piercings, covered in tatts, stripping to the dulcet tones of …” I scrambled to recall a modern American pop idol.

“Ariana Grande?”

“Thank you. And insisting they’re enrolling in college next semester.”

“You and your Wodehouse references.”

“Thank you. Or merci beaucoup, as the French would say.”

“You’re right; that does sound smug. But I can see it now. Single malt scotch. Vivaldi playing in the background.”

“Actually, I was thinking either Babymetal or Band Maid. Maid in Japan, you know.”

“Let me get this straight. Billiards and wainscoting and J-pop? This is what you’re imagining? And Matilda and her flying hairpins, no doubt.”

“That would fill a niche out there somewhere. Location would be the deciding factor in its success, though.”

“Or the Human Rights Commission looking the other way. So long as you showcase Matilda and her flying hairpins as the draw.”

“You forgot to mention we’re all dressed in three-piece suits, and we arrived at the club on vintage motorcycles, smoking tobacco pipes.”

“Can’t imagine why you’re still single.”

“I’m not only teaching myself foreign languages. I’m still working on the Malison sequel. It’s just a matter of getting the words right, to quote from Hemingway, a writer I never really cared for.”

“Ah, yes. The Importance of Being Earnest. Hemingway, that is.”

“What a Wilde reference! I’m also trying to stay fit. Going to the gym.”

“Look at yourself. A paragon for aging men.”

“And growing out my hair.”

“Like a potted fern on Miracle-Gro, it would appear. I meant to ask you about that.” Miss Scrimshaw glared at my scalp. “Surely that doesn’t qualify as a project.”

“Well, maybe a little. I mean, the knots and tangles you ladies contend with. What’s this lunch all about anyway?”

“Streamlining. The trappings of multitasking.”
I leaned back in my booth, old fashioned glass in hand. “Well, Miss Scrimshaw. May I call you Marmalade?”

“You most certainly may not.”

“Fine, Kelli with an –”

“I swear to God!”

“Okay, okay. Miss Scrimshaw then. Mine is a simple life. I return from work, eat, and read until bedtime.”

“Quite the socialite.”

“In the morning, I rise early, occasionally go to the gym, come home and shower, brew a pot of coffee, then I write – either manuscript or blog – before heading to work.”

“I see the problem already.”

“Granted, now that I’m studying foreign languages for kicks, I’m devoting an hour or so a day to that.” 

“You never were a juggler. That’s why I asked you to sup with me.”

“You asked me to what with you?”

“Don’t play coy, old boy.” She offered one of those winning smiles of hers (she has at least a dozen to choose from) while she fiddled with her tall glass of watery tea. “I understand your need to keep busy. You hate television so you read. You’re creative so you write. You’re whimsical so you bounce from one project to another. You hardly socialize because you seek intellectual stimulation in a world gone mad, and your parents and siblings or stepsiblings or potheads or adulterers or whatever the hell those moral reprobates beyond redemption who’ve ostracized you from their pathetic lives happen to –”

“Actually, can we not invoke that dysfunctional lot?”

“I realize that’s a sore spot for you. But I miss my soaps, not to mention your narrative. And your relatives are absolutely bonkers. Humor me.”

“But you’ve heard it all before, haven’t you?”

“That’s what friends are for.”

“Perhaps, but sharing slights made against me can read like bitter ramblings, literary shutter stock of an estranged family in moral disarray.”

“Or like purging. Look at it this way. We’re to forgive those who’ve wronged us. But decades after they’ve still refused to own up to their wrongdoings and insist on treating us like lepers, the ban is lifted, and we’re free to warn others of their character.”

“I never got that memo. Was that the eleventh commandment? It’s a bit wordy. Not particularly Catholic, either.”

“Okay, Mr. Goodie Two-boots.” Kelli raised her tea glass and gestured for me to mimic her. “Repeat after me. ‘May those who love us, love us. For those who hate us, may God turn their hearts. And if He cannot turn their hearts, may He turn their ankles so that we might know them by their limping.’”

“A bit vindictive, methinks. Not my style. Besides, you’ve heard the preamble a dozen times.”

“Refresh my memory.”

“I don’t know. I’ve already forgiven these people for what they’ve done to me. What they’ve done to themselves is another matter entirely and none of my business. Between them and God. And I’ve apologized for everything I’ve done that offended them. I’ve even gone out of my way to atone. The problem is that they’ve never apologized to me. No one in that family thinks he or she has done anything wrong. And the only reason that matters is because until they acknowledge their offenses, they’ll only repeat those offenses. Which they continued to do right up to the point at which I walked away. It took me forever, but I eventually decided I couldn’t subject myself to that anymore and remain sane.”

“Which offenses are we talking about here?”

“I’ll get there. I just need to properly set this up. Given my parents’ tenuous ties to their children – half of whom live out of state, three of whom have criminal records, all of whom (apart from me and my blood brother) still smoke pot daily well into their thirties and forties – the last thing any of them wants to do is deal truthfully with themselves and one another and thereby risk the entire house of cards tumbling round their ears.”

“Sounds tragic.”

“It gets worse. Living a lie means you’re constantly having to defend yourself against truth. Hence, best to renounce the eldest sibling, yours truly, since I’m the only honest ass among the lot. I annoyed the hell out of them because I called them out. I refused to play their games.”  

“Anecdote, please?”

“Let me first point out that I’ve already forgiven the stepsibling in question. As I say, I’ve forgiven that entire lot. I wish I didn’t occasionally miss my aberrant mother and my bitter brother, but I do. They’re blood, after all. The stepsibling in question, in contrast, is one of those unfortunate souls.”

“That could mean anything. Poor conversationalist? Indistinguishable from the hoi polloi?”

“Those two shortcomings for starters. Plus, she hates my guts.”

“Her loss.”

“Thank you. This was some years ago, but it serves to highlight the passive aggressive behavior rampant in that family. Early November, I get an email from this stepsibling. Been years since I’d had any communication with her. We simply led different lives. She invites me to her home out of town for Thanksgiving. I politely decline, partly because we have nothing in common. Another reason is that braving the drive from here to Austin during the Thanksgiving holidays is something I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy.”

“You guys couldn’t have been close. Even I know you avoid crowds and holidays. Not to mention nightmare traffic.”

“Precisely. By the way, this same stepsibling had a run-in with my blood brother over this very habit of hers roughly a decade before. Both lived in the same town. Yet, again, radio silence for ages. She never once tried to contact him. Then one day she accidentally bumps into him at a restaurant. She gushes as if she’s recently escaped an abductor’s basement. Gives him a huge hug. ‘Oh, my God!’ she says. ‘So great to see you! Missed you so much!’

“My blood brother, who despises pretense, says, ‘You’re kidding, right? You’ve had my number. You know where I live. You could’ve contacted me at any point over these years. And now you act like one of us has escaped the Bermuda Triangle? Give me a break.’

“A contrite sib might’ve said, ‘You’re right. I’m acting as if I’d spent the last six years in a convent with vows to shun the outside world. I’m being entirely insincere. I’m sorry.’ But no. His words only pissed her off.”

Miss Scrimshaw grinned. “Well, why should she swallow her pride and apologize when righteous indignation is an option?”

“In keeping with that spirit of hostility, in response to my polite declining of her holiday invitation, despite me thanking her anyway and wishing her the best, she plays that righteous indignation card. How dare I, she says. She takes the opportunity to list all my iniquities, accuses me of privilege undeserved, and punctuates her thesis with what she might’ve regarded as the ultimate burn – she hadn’t wanted to invite me anyway. Turns out my mother and stepfather had put her up to it.”

“Hold on. Your parents secretly asked one of your stepsiblings to invite you to her place for Thanksgiving?”

“Meanwhile, once she admits to our folks’ influence, I kindly explain to her why she should then be pleased that I declined her invitation, not angry, since apparently neither one of us wanted me to spend Thanksgiving at her home. But no. She uses a public Facebook feed to chew me out. It’s the most she’s communicated to me in a decade. The hostility coating her poor grammar would’ve convinced you I’d burned down her house or something. She closes her diatribe by renouncing me entirely.”

“Aren’t grudges great? Pent up rage, maybe. Speaks of insecurities and envy. Ultimately unhappiness, lack of fulfillment.”

“Perhaps. But don’t tell her that. She’ll curse your name, with dangling participles to boot. But no. I’d evidently said or done something to offend her prior to this event, something she never brought to my attention, something about which I’m entirely ignorant. My polite refusal of her holiday invitation was apparently the proverbial last straw that broke the dromedary’s back. That’s the passive aggressive element I’m talking about. Typical of an unhealthy psyche.”

“Telltale signs of an emotionally unstable adult.”

“Four or five years later she and her husband divorce. Her second divorce. She moves to town. Gets an apartment. Refuses to have anything to do with me. Despite her being in the wrong, despite me asking my folks to relay my genuine regret and condolences over her divorce, she instructs them that I mustn’t appear in any family get-together involving her. To my chagrin, parents honor her request. It became satirical. Whatever event they scheduled together, I was either disinvited from or told I couldn’t attend.”

“Your parents are clearly complicit. Whether it’s inspired by indifference, apathy, ignorance, or moral turpitude, their role is an endorsement of her contempt for you. Only perpetuates it, a cycle of hostility, ad nauseum. If your parents had a grain of wisdom, they’d tell her they can’t support her decision to reject you without cause. She can’t simultaneously condemn one of their sons while expecting their emotional support. Don’t they realize that?”

“I think my parents just want a relationship with as many of their children and grandchildren as possible. They’re thinking only in practical terms. Truth, honor, integrity, morality – irrelevant. No. Offspring hates Mark and insists Mark be ostracized. Check. Comply with offspring’s wishes. No more complicated than that.”

“So they took a secret vote and you were shipped to Siberia.”

“I drew the short straw, I guess. I’m the least likable. To ostracize me, to exclude me from anything involving the other offspring, thereby grants parents continued access to the remaining offspring and grandchildren.”

“Pure efficiency. Like the Germans during World War Two.”

“That’s a bit harsh, Kelli with an –”

Kelli frowned. “Would you settle for Machiavellian? Didn’t you tell me your brother cut you out of his life many years ago and that your folks took him in as a reward?”

“Over a decade ago. He and I shared a house. Three bedrooms, two baths. We each invested thousands of dollars into remodeling the place – sprinkler system for the yard, new roof, new kitchen and bathroom tile, carpet, curtains, paint, appliances. Split the costs down the middle. Again, thousands of dollars each.

“Then one day nearly a year in he tells me that despite his hopes, he recognizes he prefers to live alone. He doesn’t move out, however. Nor does he ask me to move out. Instead, he insists I keep my bedroom door closed at all times to spare him the visual reminder that I live there when he walks down the hall.”

“You’re kidding!”

“Tells me to enter the kitchen only when he’s not using it, etc. I considered moving out, but I’d already invested so much money into the home. For weeks I didn’t want to believe it. Told myself he wasn’t serious. Eventually, however, I began to grow resentful. I didn’t realize it at the time, of course, but in hindsight I’m convinced I’d decided to retaliate.  

“Since he made all the rules and refused to abide by a single request I made, four years into this abominable experiment, I decided to make him pay for everything else – utilities, property taxes, etc. Not my finest hour.”

“Revenge usually hurts both parties.”

“When the property taxes came due, my brother packed a suitcase and moved out. I’ve since apologized and done everything I could to atone for forcing him to pay my share of the costs so long as he metaphorically consigned me to the basement. But not only has he refused to accept my apology. He’s never apologized. He’s convinced he never did anything wrong.”

“And your folks took him in. Fifty years old and he lives with his mother and stepfather. Do they not recognize that by allowing him to live with them they endorse his hostility toward you? Do they not realize or care whether that alliance hurts you?”

“That’s the passive aggression I’m talking about. Imagine I say or do something that offends you, whether deliberately or not. You’re emotionally healthy, so you call the offense to my attention, tell me the thing I did or said hurt, right? If I’m likewise emotionally healthy, I apologize, refrain from repeating the offense and do what I can to atone for the wrong. That’s the ideal, anyway.

“Now imagine I’m like any parent or sibling in my family and hence emotionally immature. You say or do something to offend me. I don’t bring it up. I don’t breach the subject. Instead, I keep it to myself. I brood, let it build, grow to resent and even punish you in passive aggressive ways.

“That’s that entire family. To this day. It accounts for the strange behavior. Outbursts which on the surface appear disproportionate to the offense. For example, politely declining a stepsibling’s invitation to spend Thanksgiving with her family and, in response, that stepsibling telling me to go die in a fire.

“The corollary is more immediate. Suppose I say or do something that offends you and you point it out to me. If I’m like one of my parents or siblings, hence emotionally immature, likewise lacking empathy, I dismiss your hurt feelings and insist you’re blowing things out of proportion, that it’s all in your head. Which, incidentally, is what my brother and my mother have done with me. My brother imposed 47 rules on our living arrangement. When I objected, he doubled down, told me my objections were absurd, further offending me for being offended. I could’ve cut my losses, moved out, started afresh. Instead, the younger, more foolish version of me decided to retaliate via passive aggression by refusing to pay my share of the expenses. Yes. I was just like them back then.”

“I’m reminded of Shakespeare’s ‘If you prick us, do we not bleed?’ Like a form of gaslighting only not necessarily deliberate.”

“Precisely. And since my brother hates me and is welcome to live with my parents, he would instruct them that I wasn’t allowed to visit them when he was there. My parents honored his request, thereby acting as proxy for his continued hostility toward me. When I explained how insulting that was, they’d dismiss my concern.”

“Further compounding the offense. They should’ve insisted long ago that he get his own place. But they won’t because deep down, maybe even unbeknownst to them, they bear a grudge against you. Maybe they’re not even aware that they side with him. At least that’s your suspicion. Whatever the cause, that’s weapons grade squirrely.”

“Squirrely and degrading.”

“You don’t deserve that. No one deserves that. Why did you put up with it for so long?”

“I think I can distill it this way. The younger version of me, raised that way, grew to believe he deserved such treatment. Years of such conditioning produced insecurities, invariably resulting in an unhealthy desire to be loved and to satisfy everyone. Looking back at my former self, it’s hard to believe that was me. Due to my spiritual awakening, prayer, and a few insightful books on the subject, I’ve changed so much since then.”

“I’d call it an intellectual overhaul, what philosophers and metaphysicians call the existential trauma, the psychological trial by fire and subsequent transformation. In fact, I must admit, your recent renaissance and personal enlightenment over these past five years is not only rare for anyone to embark upon. It’s staggering.

“The whole Socrates’ directive to examine one’s life, renounce your vices, embrace the virtues, find a faith, read the Catechism, teach yourself foreign languages, not to mention the more surface stuff – adopt an exercise routine, grow out your hair like John the Baptist, invest in slightly nicer clothes. Commendable, frankly. And it makes these circumstances only more tragic in a way. I mean, for whatever reasons, your mother and stepfather have clearly given everyone else in the family a pass while punishing you. And yet you’re the only one who should be pardoned. What precisely did you do to offend them so deeply anyway?”

“I can answer that question with an anecdote.”

“Do they serve popcorn here as an appetizer?”

“I know this’ll sound like the equivalent of that whole ‘my greatest weakness is my strength’ routine, but, in all seriousness, my fundamental crime is telling the truth. As a result, I’m the least agreeable. And that’s all that matters to them. Not who’s right or wrong or honest or truthful.”

“This ought to be good.”

“When visiting my parents’ apartment years ago, my stepfather told me a story about my brother while my brother was out with friends. Keep in mind that my brother is a serious chess player. He competed in chess tournaments.

“The story goes like this. One day my brother asks our stepfather to play him a game of chess. Stepfather doesn’t want to play a game of chess, but he doesn’t tell my brother that. Instead, stepfather pretends to happily consent.

“Stepfather loses game of chess to my brother. Brother then hands a chess book to stepfather. Tells stepfather the book will improve his game. Stepfather smiles and promises my brother he’ll read it.  

“Take note that this is merely three links in a chain of lies over the course of an afternoon. Imagine the breadth of these woven webs of deceit over the course of a relationship, say, thirty years.   

“Here’s my stepfather, confiding in me things he refused to say, for whatever reason, to my brother, his stepson, who shares the apartment with him. Stepfather goes on to assure me he couldn’t care less about improving his chess game, didn’t want to play in the first place, and, no, he’s not about to read the book.

“Damn. Everything about that story is a case study in duplicity on your stepfather’s part.”

“Dysfunctional interaction at its most concentrated.”

Kelli shook her head in bewilderment. “A kind of microcosmic family cat and mouse cloak and dagger snafu.”

“Consider the ramifications of this practice on a global scale. This so-called diplomacy, however well intentioned, this absurd effort to postpone war, if you will, invariably leads to bloodshed. Consider the tens of millions murdered in the past century, deaths predicated on a series of little lies, of telling people what they wanted to hear rather than what they needed to hear or what the authorities believed they were entitled to hear and so on.

“Why, I wonder, does my stepfather choose to interact with so-called loved ones in this way?”

Kelli spread her forearms. “Why not just be honest? Why does he betray himself, his own identity? Pretending something he’s not?”

“And why would he betray my brother’s trust? Especially over something so trivial as a board game? Answer? Because it’s ingrained in his psyche. It’s his default mode. Diplomacy at all costs. Even if it means outright treachery and betrayal of another’s trust.”

“What a knave.”

“But that’s essentially the difference. They won’t risk offending. Instead, they engage in things far worse – gossip, deception, pretense, dishonesty, duplicity. Whereas I’m honest. Unlike the rest of the family, I tell the truth. And it annoys them all. And that’s primarily why my parents are willing to ignore everyone else’s faults but renounce me.

“In fact, I told my stepfather point blank that it’s not up to me to determine what information a friend or relative is entitled to know. Instead, it’s my responsibility to tell the truth. It’s up to them to decide what to do with that truth. I looked him right in the eye when I said it. He only swallowed and looked away. He knew I was referring to him.

“And, Kelli, if I might anticipate your cries of hypocrisy, I’m talking about them behind their backs now only after having exhausted all other avenues – face to face conversations, emails, text messages. Indeed, I’ve talked to them about these things to their faces until all the oxygen has left the room, and they’ve refused to acknowledge its validity or value.”

“Which one of your stepsiblings would call you only when she was both drunk and high?”

“And only to talk about herself? Until I politely told her I didn’t appreciate it? The pothead in Kansas. At which point her calls abruptly stopped. Which, incidentally, is a perfect example of that family dynamic at play. Stepsibling is getting drunk and high repeatedly. She’s married. Has children. She clearly has issues no one else in the family will address. Oh, they’ll all talk about her behind her back. But they won’t discuss it with her. But I will. And what happens? Stepsibling calls the parents, distraught, telling them what a mean brother I am. And what do they do? They console her, tell her it’s okay. Mark is just a meanie. Allowing the pattern to continue.”

“Or the one who pretended she was into the same things you were into?”

“Only because she was lonely and needed someone to talk to and knew I wouldn’t waste my time with someone I had nothing in common with? That was the youngest.”

“Was that the one who told you she was leaving her husband and moving to Texas?”

“Among six dozen other things that turned out to be a lie. I won’t even tell you how much money I sent her for moving. Not only did she have no intention of ever leaving her husband, she kept the money and told the other siblings she could now afford to buy everyone something for Christmas that year.”

“How did you discover she was lying to you?”

“For starters, this was some time ago, back when I was still in communication with my parents. Ironically, they warned me that she was manipulative and deceitful. One of the few times they were honest with me, and I didn’t believe them.”

“That’s only natural, really. Catch someone in just one lie, and everything else they say thereafter is rendered suspect.”

“Then she flew down and spent a few weeks here over the summer under the pretext of first finding a place to live before packing all her things and driving down. I suspected nothing. At first. We’d hang out, listen to music, sip scotch. But gradually, as the alcohol loosened her tongue, she’d confess that nearly everything she’d told me had been to curry favor with me. That she’d wanted to only win my approval. I just listened in horror. Shame it took her being drunk to tell the truth. When I’d quiz her about it the following day, she’d only dig herself a deeper hole. It was pitiable.

“After she returned home, she backtracked on nearly everything she’d said prior to coming down as well as what she’d said while here. I felt like such a fool. Over the phone, I asked her about the dozen or so lies she’d gotten caught telling. I assured her even the parents had warned me about her beforehand. She feigned indignation, denied everything and told me I was crazy. Then she called the parents to verify whether they’d told me she was deceitful. They insisted they hadn’t, that I was clearly wrong, that I’d misheard them, etc.”

“But aren’t your folks Christians?”

“In name only.”

“Hardly Christ-like. What horrid people. Your folks shun the only son who apologizes for causing strife, the only son who makes every effort to atone for his wrongdoing. You go out of your way to demonstrate your sincerity, and your folks dismiss all of that in favor of maintaining ties with unrepentant liars, drunks, drug users, and adulterers in order to occasionally see their grandchildren. You don’t consider that shameful if not outright wicked?”

I gazed at my empty glass of whisky. I couldn’t remember having finished it off.

“You’re better off without them. Let’s change the subject. I’m going to be brutal. You ready?”

“I hope so. I’m sitting down after all.”

“Very well. End the blog. It had a good run. What was it, a decade?”

“I began it eight years ago. November of 2011. A little over a hundred posts.”

Miss Scrimshaw glanced at the ceiling. She may’ve been counting. “So roughly a dozen posts a year on average. That’s about one post a month. Fine. Now take that blog out back and shoot it in the face. Pour that creativity into your fiction instead. Exclusively. You feel me?”

“Is that an invitation?”

“Men!” Kelli rolled her eyes and sighed. “Look. I abhor buttering up anybody, but the secret’s out. I already told you I enjoyed book one of your trilogy. I want to find out what happens next. Meanwhile, your blog’s a wash. Some good posts here and there. A few keepers, actually. But it was an experiment, was it not? Taking on voices. Testing the readers’ patience. Trying to amuse while condemning society at large. Very Fran Lebowitz-like. All well and good for an insomniac.”

“I’m flattered by the Lebowitz comparison.”

“Don’t be.”

“But an insomniac? To whom are you referring? Me or the read –”

“Both. Think of the purpose of storytelling. Consider the value. The truth within the fiction. That’s a paradox worth pursuing. Regardless whether you ever publish or sell a single copy of your stuff, when the authorities find your decomposing corpse, wouldn’t you like to have a stack of manuscripts in the bottom drawer of your desk? That’s the treasure, the – Don’t you dare order another glass of Laphroaig. I swear I’ll quit this dining experience and leave you with the tab. I’m casting my pearls here, Mark. Don’t play the swine.”

“Fair enough. I’ll sip this ice-cold water on tap instead.”

“At least it’ll quench your thirst after eight doubles of something that smells faintly of bogs and iodine.”

“Point out another beverage that tastes like an experience rather than a mere flavor.”

“The fact that it’s room temp is probably the reason you’re still parched. What you need is the cold stuff.” She took a sip of her tea as if she were relishing the gods’ nectar. When she set down her glass again, she gave me one of her signature stares. “Louis L’Amore wrote more novels than years you and I’ve been on this planet combined. And that’s saying something; you’re old. That’s essentially one book for every one of your blog posts. Translated into ten different languages. Yet does anyone remember his blog?”

I tried not to smile. “Not a one.”

“Precisely. So tell thy blog to walk ye olde plank or something, matey.”

“I detect a Treasure Island theme here.”

“Sheer luck, Sherlock. Focus, Mark. Focus on the art of the story. The prose. The unforgettable characters. The pivotal moments. The twists and surprises. Evoking emotions in the reader. That’s what it’s all about. Only books have spines. Those words out there in the ether can’t compare. Even E.L. James had to get a book deal and turn her fan fic tripe into a novel before the widows and single ladies with no discriminating taste took notice.”

“You’re referring to Fifty Shades of Shit?”

“Incidentally, I’m told she managed to piss off the BDSM crowd with her sophomoric approach.”

“That crowd shouldn’t mind, though. They’re famous for enjoying pain.”

“Don’t dodge and parry.”

“Fair enough. So you advise I walk away from my darling?”

“Is your blog your darling? Then in the words of Faulkner, ‘Kill your darling.’ Or at least let it drown out there on the nebulous cyber waves or whatever. Or use it to perpetuate your fiction. Try posting weekly drafts of your sequel one scene at a time. That would keep me coming back for more. Otherwise, don’t visit. Don’t write. See what I did there?”  

“You’re a credit to your sex.”

“Slow down, Romeo. Ours is a platonic relationship.”

“Pity. But I take your point. Plus, it would never work out. I’m smitten by the British accent. I’d end up putting you on a pedestal, romanticizing you as an ideal like the chivalrous knights of your merry ole England would have done back in the day of standing water and cholera.”

“Chivalrous knights? My merry ole England? Surely you jest. My Nigerian homeland is closer to the beautiful Queen Dido’s ancient Carthage than to your fabled King Author’s roundtable. Standing water, though. Nice euphemism for urine. You know, despite your rugged good looks and fine taste in sophisticated women, apart from that obese trollop half your age who took you for the proverbial ride, I can’t get tied down to an artist without a future.”

“Ouch! And she wasn’t half my age.”

“Intellectually, she was a child.”

Our food arrived and we spent the remainder of our time talking about Miss Scrimshaw. I’m sworn to secrecy about her fascinating private life, so I’ll abruptly end my last blog post here.     


Tuesday, December 3, 2019

Fluency Made Easy, by Ikenna D. Obi

My greatest challenge in life is maintaining the secret that I’m awesome. Well, that and avoiding sugar. I’m apparently so good at my subterfuge that strangers and acquaintances suspect I’m only ordinary. The truth is I prefer it this way, since I can’t be bothered with the subsequent popularity such knowledge, were it made known, would inflict upon my personal life. Revealing my superpowers, such as my ability to hear in the dark or read without moving my lips, would most likely send the media to my door faster than you could say fiber optics.

Granted, the unfortunate souls who’ll never be graced with that precious gift the select few in a hushed whisper pronounce as my friendship, who’ll never know what they’re missing out on, certainly invoke my pity. However, part of my value rests in my exclusivity. My standards are high. Gaining access to my good graces is rare, a coveted commodity. Plus, my discerning, discriminating taste keeps the membership to my private club I dub High Brow Comradery low.

As an avid reader and writer (not to mention snob and sophisticate), I naturally require a good deal of alone time. Happily, solitude and isolation are my mantras. Which is fitting, since my privacy, autonomy, anonymity, and smugness are ideal for my immersion into my various passions. In short, I’m a soloist. I work alone.

Despite my infectious personality, my quick wit, rugged good looks and amazing talents, not to mention my commendable humility, I’ve managed to maintain this routine without attracting suspicion or rousing unwelcome interest.

Compound this dynamic with yet another quirk. Perhaps as recently as six years ago, I was terrible at juggling. By juggling I mean multitasking, pursuing multiple projects and extracurriculars. You know the sort. Those annoying socialites who take cooking classes, attend their weekly book club, do yoga, jet ski, volunteer at their local church, build canoes from scratch, and shuffle their children off to ballet and soccer practice, all the while texting their friends about their weekend plans for vacationing in Acapulco or Paris or Rio de Janeiro.

For one, I served in the Navy. I vacationed in enough states and foreign countries to last a lifetime – Singapore, Saipan, Hawaii (seven times), Alaska, Bahrain, Kuwait, Dubai, Japan, Australia, and Bali. Keep in mind I mention these places only to boast. And while I can look back fondly on those episodes in my life, those port visits and the subsequent binges, I prefer to look ahead.

Having said that, or rather written it, throughout most of my life, I’ve tended to put the blinders on and zero in on one thing at a time in the hopes of mastering it. I’d delve, you might say. With abandon. For example, when over thirty years ago I decided to learn guitar, I sold my drum set so that I wouldn’t be tempted to spend any of my free time playing the drums instead. 

Again, until recently, apart from my job to keep the lights on, I was reading books and writing and little else. Which was fine until I began to feel as if I were stuck in a rut. Aware of this proclivity for immersing myself in either one or two things at a time, I eventually decided to expand my horizons. 

If you follow my blog, you’ll know this led me to explore Catholicism, read both The Bible and The Catechism of the Catholic Church concurrently, pray the Rosery, attend mass, diet, exercise, etc. This new lifestyle resulted in lots of positive changes in my life, some of which I’ve chronicled on this blog.

Now, with my fascination for gentleman’s fashion (think GQ Magazine sans the youthful socialism), taking up the fine art of pipe smoking, pushing myself to complete my reading list of thirty books this year (nearly there), writing every day, semi-actively searching for a literary agent (don’t ask), and my plans to find a group or organization in town with whom to affiliate – Knights of Columbus? – my free time has become all the more precious.

Nevertheless, despite my already overly busy schedule, I developed a fascination for all things Japanese. This possibly began with my absolute lust for sushi several years ago, culminating into an appreciation for Japan’s colorful and exotic culture, its Samurais, dynasties, Geishas, calligraphy, and its spoken language with its rounded vowels and sultry sibilants, not to mention its perfection in everything from craftsmanship to cuisine.

These features eventually intimated themselves into my waking consciousness. (Historically, Japanese people have a reputation for elevating whatever they do to an art form. I can’t help but both admire and strive to emulate that.) I subsequently grew ever more intrigued as I explored those videos uploaded on YouTube showcasing Japan’s bizarre game shows, commercials, and extraordinary music.

Finally, despite having no intention of returning to Japan and knowing no one in town with whom to practice, I decided to teach myself its basic touristy questions and phrases, something I regrettably hadn’t done while stationed in Sasebo, a city in the Nagasaki Prefecture, in Japan, twenty years ago.

This effort began back in March of this year and within the first month I could speak enough Japanese to say, “Hello, my name is Mark. Yes. What’s your name? It’s nice to meet you. Excuse me. No. What’s that? Delicious! I’m sorry. May I have some water (or juice or coffee)? Thank you very much. You’re welcome. Awesome! Take care. See you later. See you tomorrow. Goodbye.”

Not exactly a conversational repertoire conducive to intellectual engagement about the geopolitical implications of an homogenous, egalitarian people (126 million of them) living on an island half the size of Texas, entrenched in tradition and convention, but a sincere start nonetheless. Besides, I knew I’d have to crawl before I sprinted, in this case speak like a Japanese toddler before engaging in an adult conversation.  

By April, no longer satisfied with basic words and phrases the tourist should know to function in Japan, I decided to get serious about learning not only the spoken language but the written language as well.

I printed out the hiragana and katakana syllabaries (two of the three Japanese alphabets). I explored lessons covering nouns, verb agglutinations, particles, and so on. (Thanks to the internet, one can learn anything and everything one is inclined to study. I certainly couldn’t have taken on this project twenty years ago as easily, conveniently, or affordably.)

To be clear, I don’t pretend to have advanced beyond the bare bones of it all. In fact, I’ve since learned that Japanese is not only perhaps the most difficult language for a Westerner to learn but that it’s the fastest spoken language in the world as well. Spanish is the second fastest language spoken. Study is never ending. We have 26 letters in the English alphabet, 52 if you consider both the upper and lower cases of each letter, 104 if you add cursive.

In addition to the two kana syllabaries, totaling 142 characters (or digraphs), there are also over 50,000 kanji, each of which represents both a concept and what’s known as readings (the sounds each kanji has depending on its context).

To be fair, Japanese people use no more than about 2,200 kanji in their day to day lives reading magazines, books, road signs, ads, warning labels, directions, menus, and the like. Still. I don’t doubt Japanese toddlers are more proficient than I am. But I’ve made significant progress. This progress is due, in large part, to my efforts to learn from a variety of sources.

The trick to learning any language is to immerse oneself in it – reading, writing, listening, and speaking. I initially explored instruction videos uploaded on YouTube by native speakers,, language learning apps, and even writing out the Japanese names I’d learned for items on my grocery list. I also watched j-dramas on Netflix, all with the Japanese subtitles turned on so I could follow along.

This immersion continued. I listened to Japanese music at work. My favorite hard rock band of all time is now Band Maid, although Babymetal is a close second. Give their song メギツネ (megitsune) a listen. I watched videos that broke kanji into their individual radicals, listened to Japanese audio books with ear buds while I slept. Yes, I was on a mission. And, as I say, I drew from multiple sources, since most instructive websites, apps, and YouTube videos isolate and highlight some aspects of the language while failing to address others.

This immersion improved my comprehension, strengthened my pronunciation, and would eventually give me confidence for employing the basics of a second language with potential Japanese speakers. So far, however, I just annoy my English-speaking clients, injecting random Japanese declarations and interrogatives into the conversation when they least expect it. Although at this point they probably expect it at any given moment. After all, I must practice on somebody.

I further explored how language learning works. According to these lecturers, absorption versus memorization is the most effective process. This makes sense. After all, think back to elementary school. First we learned the English alphabet, how to speak and write out the English letters. We then advanced to words and their meanings. Later sentence construction.

And yet, in addition to all this study in the classroom, we enjoyed the added bonuses that no Learn-a-Second-Language program can hope to provide, namely being inundated with that same language outside the classroom, even prior to beginning kindergarten. Family, friends, media – all of this helped shape our comprehension, application, and understanding growing up.

Here’s the thing. Most Learn-a-Second-Language methods rely on your primary language to get the secondary language across. In English, you’re told, both audibly and often with English subtitles, how to speak and or write language X. Despite my initial gratitude for this learning tool, this lacks immediacy.  

I eventually decided, short of having a friend in town who speaks Japanese, I needed something more effective. I’m not suggesting that I’d advanced to a point at which these free resources were rendered redundant or anything. But I’d discovered both problems and errors. Hence I wanted to see what all the fuss was about with the one company hailed as allegedly offering the most effective method for learning new languages: Rosetta Stone.

Three months in, my impressions were mixed. The approach is relatively simple and probably appeals more to the visual learners. The app presents photos of either individuals or groups engaged in an activity (jogging, swimming, eating, driving) while employing inanimate objects – foods, pools, cars, etc. Throughout, native Japanese speakers indicate these images and activities by speaking exclusively in Japanese. Your task is to pair the audible and written Japanese (kanji, hiragana, and katakana) with these visuals.

On the plus side, Rosetta Stone addresses issues I’d had with other methods leading up to that point in my studies, that is, you’re taught a few nouns and other devices before those nouns are inserted into sentences you’re required to learn. Which I’m convinced is better than introducing the student to all these elements at the same time.

A welcome feature is Rosetta Stone’s pronunciation recognition program. Periodically an audible bell prompts you to speak Japanese into your microphone, initially single words, later full sentences. You’re graded based on your pronunciation and your clicking choices.

Perhaps most important, Rosetta Stone’s teaching technique simulates one’s experience learning one’s native language. As such, you’re required to absorb rather than to memorize. This certainly isn’t the worst approach to language learning, but it shouldn’t be the only approach either.

I’m reminded of another immersion method. Suppose you’re a beginner guitar player and you employ the services of a guitar instructor to teach you how to play, only the instructor doesn’t teach you chords or scales or intervals of even songs. Instead, he introduces you to a group of seasoned musicians already in a jam session and tells you to jump right in.

While you might learn a few things about improvisation and tempo and whether you have an ear, even after several sessions, hell, even after a tour, if anyone were to put a chord chart or sheet music in front of you or ask you to play a simple shuffle or ask you how many sharps there are in the key of G major, your brows would knit a shawl. After all, jamming with the best of them confers only a certain amount of practical know-how. It won’t confer academic knowledge or music theory, for example. 

In Rosetta Stone’s defense, this is a decent facsimile to interacting with live Japanese people in a real-life environment. Unfortunately, because everything is written, read, and spoken in Japanese, you learn little as to what qualifies as a verb or a noun or which words make your speech more or less polite or formal or, perhaps most importantly, how to actually break down the grammar of a sentence so that you might ultimately craft your own sentences to fit your particular circumstances.

As a result, you don’t learn how to say things beyond what Rosetta Stone teaches you to say. Sure, if you’re traveling abroad and come across a bicycle and remember the word in Japanese, 自転車 (or jitensha in romaji), you can point and impress your traveling companion. But that serves little practical value in a country that commutes nearly exclusively by train.

In May I discovered, an app that serves as the nearest thing to flash cards. You select the level of difficulty. Then you’re provided with either a word or a phrase, both written and spoken in Japanese (or whichever language you elect to study).  

This is beneficial for learning new kanji, new vocabulary, and some select phrases. It’s not particularly helpful if you want to learn how to formulate your own sentences, which you’ll eventually want to do. Plus, there’s no real structure to the app. I went the paid route, which was only thirty-five bucks for an entire year. However, lesson plans and exercises are created by the Memrise community. Some of these contributors are professional instructors. Others aren’t. Regardless, language difficulty doesn’t increase as you advance. Instead, depending on the submissions provided, the material varies, fluctuates, and, perhaps worst of all, fails to build upon what came before.

Late September, seven months in, I discovered my favorite language learning app of all so far: Duolingo. Duolingo has structure. It’s game-like. The smoothest and most convenient language app on my phone. In fact, it makes learning more fun than necessary.

Lessons are built upon what was taught in a prior lesson until, several units in, you realize you’re learning applicable material relevant to everyday conversation. Which reminds me. I was watching an unrelated video on YouTube recently when an ad for better internet interrupted my viewing. The person in the ad asked in English, “Is your wifi too slow?” I practically gasped as I instantly remembered the translation for “The internet here is too slow” a month before and instinctively said out loud, “Koko no waifuai wa ososugimasu.” Just like that. And I thought, “It’s clicking. I’m getting it.” Which, by the way, is true. The internet here is too slow. Or ここの WiFi 遅すぎる.

Duolingo excels at teaching sentence construction and grammar by way of repetition, variation, and word substitution. These elements are the building blocks to true communication. I remember the elation I felt once I’d completed all three sections of the Japanese unit Time. Now I can read, write, and speak that time in Japanese (hiragana and kanji), regardless what time, day or night, it happens to be. Learn how to tell someone that you love salmon or that you don’t like hip hop, and you’ll likewise intuit, by way of substitution and arrangement, how to craft your own sentences to cater to your own circumstances and interests, likes and dislikes.

To come full circle, this is equivalent to learning scales backward and forward, chord voicings and positions, rather than being taught a couple of three-chord songs and a few riffs. In other words, you’ll learn the building blocks to communication rather than memorizing a few isolated expressions.

So why the fuss about structure anyway? For two reasons. One, communicating in Japanese is all about context. For example, imagine I told you that responses like “me!” and “guilty!” and “I did!” pack more overtones than those isolated words initially might suggest. This would make sense only within the context of, say, someone walking into a room of people sitting round an empty bowl formerly filled with candy and asking, “Who the hell ate all the M&Ms?”

The Japanese language will forgo this redundancy to such a degree as to omit pronouns or other words denoting the subject after its initial introduction into the conversation. For example, if Miku wants to tell you she likes sushi, she might say, “Sushi ga suki desu,” which in English we’re told means “I like sushi,” but literally translated means “Sushi like.” (By the way, the letter u in both the romaji suki and desu is silent and therefore these words are pronounced ski and des, respectively.) The particle ga is used to identify the object. Desu is the copula, the verb form of to be, such as is, am, or was.

On the other hand, Miku might wish to know whether you like sushi, in which case all she’ll do is add the particle ka, which changes her declarative into an interrogative. “Sushi ga suki desu ka?” Which, again, we’re told translates into English as “Do you like sushi?” but literally translated means, “Sushi like?”

Or Miku might’ve already discussed favorite foods with you before and forgotten what you’d said. In which case, she might ask, not rhetorically but more to confirm, “Sushi ga suki desu ne?” which, in English, means, “You like sushi, right?” or “Didn’t you tell me you like sushi?” but literally translated means, “Sushi like, right?” Again, pronouns are implied based on context. Once the subject of you or Reginald or Scrimshaw is introduced, you guys aren’t likely to be directly identified again within the conversation.

The second reason I’m fussing about structure is because unlike English and other Western languages such as Spanish which follow the SVO pattern (subject, verb, and object) as in the sentences “I bought Twinkies,” or “Archibald drove home,” Japanese sentences are structured using SOV, meaning verbs go last.

As you’ve probably already noticed, providing a literal translation of Japanese sentences into English sounds awkward. In fact, it sounds, crudely put, the way Yoda speaks. “Twinkies, bought,” and “Archibald, home, drove,” with the commas replaced by particles such as wa, ga, te, to, no, ni, and wo to indicate the subject, the object, possession, and so on.

But back to my review. I came across Ikenna’s YouTube channel back in September and decided to get his book based on his sales pitch. Fluency Made Easy, otherwise known as the FME Method, is essentially a booklet in pdf form. The pitch, admittedly, was vague, promising to teach the secrets to language learning. It wasn’t until after buying the book that I discovered the secrets weren’t so secret.

I don’t want to condemn Ikenna’s writing. After all, he speaks (and probably reads and writes) half a dozen languages. Who cares whether the average junior high school student can compose better prose? I believe the polyglot means well. Sharing his method with others for a mere fifteen bucks doesn’t strike me as a scam. However, it does seem especially frivolous. Still. I’d prefer to compliment his choice of tie rather than to lament the fact that he can’t button his suitcoat to hide the stain on his shirt.

But this reminds me of yet another music metaphor. When I first began learning how to play the guitar, I didn’t do what I would later discover many beginner guitar players do. I didn’t employ an instructor, show up for a lesson, go over a few chords with my teacher, and then go home with a page or two of homework to practice for an hour.

Instead, I instinctively taught myself by playing along to music CDs. I bought and poured over music books covering chords, scales, modes, arpeggios, theory, and so on. I didn’t do this for half an hour a day. I did it for a minimum of four hours a day, sometimes fourteen hours a day, nearly every day, for years.

I’ve always taken my self-motivated approach for granted. Some people require a sensei, someone to shake them by the shoulders, point to a thing and say, “Lock yourself away and master this!” Whereas if I’m passionate about something, I require no prodding. Instead, I’m going to don the blinders and dash, find a plateau and dive into the deep end at the expense of all else. This somewhat excessive approach has both its benefits and its drawbacks.

As a result, Ikenna had little to teach me. His tricks of the trade, his so-called secrets, were a list of things I’d already instinctively been doing since I began learning a new language seven months before I’d discovered his YouTube channel or his book. For example, he insists you learn from multiple sources. He cautions using not one but multiple language learning apps. Advises watching Netflix shows and listening to music in that target language. Recommends several brief learning sessions a day rather than cramming a few hours on the weekends. 

As you might’ve surmised from the chronicling of my journey above, none of this was new to me. Granted, he suggested a couple of apps I hadn’t heard about, but it was only a matter of time before I would. I got more out of a 2017 polyglot conference a month later that someone uploaded on YouTube for free than what Ikenna provided for fifteen bucks.        

Nevertheless, if nothing else, Ikenna’s pdf booklet confirmed I’m on the right track, that I’m using my study time effectively, that I’m optimizing my opportunities to absorb. Ordinarily, I’d say one can’t put a price on either confirmation or validation, but in my case I can. It’s precisely fifteen bucks. 

I admit this new endeavor (learning to speak, write, and read Japanese) cuts into my other projects. But I’m thoroughly enjoying the process. Besides, none of my extracurricular activities is particularly practical. I mean, I read for my own pleasure and to learn, not to attend a book club. I write because I can’t help myself. I also have outlandish hopes of one day publishing, but let’s face it. Publishing, should I win that literary jackpot, hardly guarantees financial success.

Going to the gym, studying to become a Catholic, reading and writing, biking to work, learning a new language – these are things I enjoy, things that, for me, make life worthwhile.

Life is short. The older I get the more conscious I become of that fact. I see no reason to curb my drive for learning as much as I can about the things that inspire and intrigue me. In some sense, I’m like a guy who studies carpentry if only to one day build a dinner table for his kitchen or a dresser for his bedroom. Dismiss his endeavors if you must, but it’s still a meaningful, albeit limited, contribution to improving himself, his quality of life, and his sense of purpose. Not to mention continuing to grow and to change while remaining fabulous.


Death of a Blog

For all her faults, Kelli with an aye has some frightfully good insight when it comes to practical matters, and I, being the tragically im...