Free Advice from a Novice Expert, Molly's Miscellany

The Year of No Resolutions

My resolution on January 1, 2016 was to not make any resolutions.

If you know me, you may find that resolution surprising. That’s because I’m usually very goal-oriented, and I often find myself setting goals as a way to channel my energy into tangible results, whether those results are as big as saving money for a European adventure or as small as growing a strawberry from a potted plant.

So when I decided in early January not to decide on any specific goals for the year, I initially feared that my life would descend into a slothfulness not seen before on this side of the Mariana Trench.

And at first, it did. January is a cold, dark, and mirthless month, and February is similarly cruel. It is difficult to move about in those winter months, much less wiggle yourself aimlessly here, then briefly there, then back here again, with no goal to wiggle towards.

Last year, the year before the Year of No Resolutions, I’d resolved to donate my hair to the Make a Wig Foundation. Last year I could spend my quieter moments contemplating the concrete specificities of my hair’s slow but deliberate progress towards its acceptable length. Last year I had goals.

This year, staring the the Year of No Resolutions right in its dull, unfocused eyes, I had nothing to do in my idle moments but twiddle my thumbs while contemplating the mystery of why Germans “squeeze their thumbs for you” instead of just crossing their fingers for good luck. (If you are German, by the way, and can somehow rationalize this idiom, please contact me immediately. You have a lot of explaining to do, but I also have a lot of resolution-less time on my hands.)

After a few weeks of pondering thumbs, I got bored, so I decided to modify the Year of No Resolutions into the Year of Generalized Lifestyle Improvements. I convinced myself that this plan was still not a resolution because I had no specific goal in mind, apart from my plan to make myself feel slightly less like a molten Wicked Witch of the Northwest Arkansas Metropolitan Statistical Area. Because let’s face it: my muscles, my brain, and my self were all melting right into the couch.

So off I went, developing Generalized Lifestyle Improvements but avoiding resolutions like the plague. I started with yoga, then soon after added in running. At first, I just ran to run. I knew I wanted to improve my heart’s health, so I followed the American Heart Association’s recommendations of a 75-minutes-per-week regimen of vigorous aerobic activity complemented by a twice-weekly muscle-building activity.

Initially, my only requisite to exercising was to put in the time: I decided to commit to three days of running and two days of yoga per week. And then I started, running Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays; and doing yoga on Mondays and Wednesdays.

I spent the first few weeks just trying to acclimate my body to the routine. As the weeks progressed, though, I began to see running as a refuge. The regularity of the schedule I’d built around it, combined with the “mind-clearing magic of running,” became a haven to me.

In mid-April, after surprising myself with nearly three month’s worth of wholehearted commitment to my running schedule, I decided to add a third project to my Year of Generalized Life Improvements: writing every day. This was also around the same time I first learned about Jerry Seinfeld’s secret to success: start making a consistent chain of activity, then simply “don’t break the chain.”

I was astonished by this recommendation. I had never considered success in such a simple and straightforward way. All I had to do was work a little bit on my chain every single day, and then, over time, those little bits would accumulate into larger bits? It seemed obvious enough, and I had seen how this accumulation process worked from watching strands of hair collect into larger and larger tumblehairs in the corners of my bathroom floor. But I’d never thought of accruing links on an activity “chain” as a way to move towards success.

I decided to try it anyway. And sure enough, my tiny clumps of words that I wrote each day slowly formed into bigger—well, bigger clumps of words. But still; as of today, I have clumped together 23 days’ worth of words. And who knows how much bigger the clump of words will be in 46 days, and in 346 days?

My Year of No Resolutions started out as an amorphous challenge to my goal-oriented self to try simply living in the moment, but it has since evolved into something much more interesting. It has turned into a year of teaching myself how to create sustainable habits. Because I’ve learned that habit is a key foundation of long-term success. If I want to run a marathon, first I have to build the practice of running regularly into my schedule. If I want to write a book, I have to foster a routine of writing every day. Goals can focus my plans, but I also have to have well-developed habits to lead me closer those goals each day.

Squeeze your thumbs for me and my habits and goals. I’ll keep you updated.

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Free Advice from a Novice Expert, Molly's Miscellany

Yoga is 90% Mental and the Other Half is Physical

I have a tendency to see myself as an expert at an activity if I have heard it described by a friend, seen it demonstrated on a Youtube video, or attended a lecture about it once on a rainy Tuesday evening of my sophomore year of college.

This bad habit gets me into trouble most of the time. You may remember how well my expert level knowledge of German treated me in Germany. And I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sautéed myself into a corner after reading a blog recipe that is “so easy even a five-year-old could cook it.” I will probably never be able to stomach ground cloves or lentils after the disaster that was my attempt at this recipe.

The past few years, I have harbored a particularly strong delusion of being naturally skilled at yoga. In my mind, yoga is a relaxing opportunity to do some deep stretches, think calm thoughts, and maybe also wear some comfortable pants. But every time I convince myself to go to a class, thinking it will be a rejuvenating re-centering of my mind and body, I end up leaving with nothing more than an unseemly sweat stain on my center.

Last spring, for example, I convinced myself that it would be reasonable for me to attend the yoga class sponsored by my company’s monthly employee educational program. I had forgotten which day the class was occurring, so when the day arrived, I was wearing my favorite red Fair Isle thick-knit sweater, a pair of sturdy jeans, and some leather boots. I contemplated not going to the yoga class, but then was told that “it would be very basic yoga” and that “other people were wearing their work clothes too” and to “just come on, Molly, and stop being such a stick in the mud.”

My body may have fared better that day had it been a stick in the mud.

After that perspiration-soaked hour of slip-sliding on the inadequately-glued-down carpet squares in the makeshift work yoga room, I swore off all forms of yoga on principle. What good was an exercise if my skill level didn’t soar from novice to virtuoso in the span of ten minutes? If I was looking to break a sweat, I could do that on the running trail, where judgment from others was dealt out in quick, matter-of-fact, “On your left!” bursts as the faster runner blazed past my sluggish body.

I steadfastly maintained my aversion to yoga throughout the rest of 2015 and into the first three days of 2016. But then, in the midst of my pursuit of lazy fitness, the unexpected happened: the public library sent me an email announcing their free weekly classes. Would you believe they dared to place beginner’s yoga at the top of the list of classes? The announcement startled me so completely out of my complacent lethargy that I stumblingly gathered a crew of coworkers and went to the class the very next week.

I expected to leave the class feeling frustrated and still confused about why I found yoga so difficult while everyone else seemed to find it so simple. Instead, it turned out that library yoga was the absolute easiest yoga class in the galaxy, even for the person who had failed the basic hamstring stretch portion of her college health class. I was able to do all the moves without injuring myself physically or psychologically.

I therefore left convinced that it was a trap. There was no way I was good at yoga. Since I had given it two tries in the past and failed, library yoga was clearly just not real yoga.

My coworkers and I went back to fake library yoga two more times, and it turned out it was neither a trap nor fake yoga. It was way too crowded, though, so we transitioned to Youtube-guided yoga that we now do after work once a week.

The only explanation I can give for what happened in library yoga is that it tricked me. So I guess I’ll take back what I said about it not being a trap and say it was a trap. Library yoga met me at my mediocrity and showed me what yoga could do for me if I gave it a real chance. It reminded me what I knew all along but was too stubborn to admit: yoga, like most things worth doing, is not a simple exercise that can be easily mastered. I can’t go strutting into a yoga class expecting to have a perfect chaturanga the first or four-hundred-and-fifty-fourth time I try.

But I am still assuming that my four-hundred-and-fifty-fifth chaturanga will be gangbusters.

I am far from being a master yogi, but yoga is already showing me how to be more patient with myself, how to accept where I am now, and how to work steadily towards becoming stronger in the future. It is a slow process, but I think it helps that now I leave my boots and red Fair Isle thick-knit sweater at home.

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Free Advice from a Novice Expert

The Secret of Life, According to Penn Jillette’s Dad

I often ask other people for advice. If I suspect you have even a grain of experience related to something I want to know, I will declare you an expert in that field, award you a Ph.D. in Advice, and proceed to blitz you with a storm of one hundred questions so that I can store your wisdom in my brain’s Advice Database for forever. In this way, I have moved from having Absolutely No Idea of what I’m doing into having just Mostly No Idea. My goal is to one day join the society of people with Vague Inklings of what they are doing.

The other day I heard a story told by Penn Jillette about a time he asked his dad for advice. Here it is:

Toward the end of my dad’s life, I really focused and wanted to take him out and get all the wisdom I could get from him.

So we went out to his favorite restaurant, which is a place I think called the Shady Glen, which is a good name for a restaurant: the Shady Glen. It was in Turners [Falls, Massachusetts].

I went out with him and wanted to sit down and talk to him about what life meant, and what he’d learned in his over 80 years on the planet, what I could take away from that.

He ordered a big lobster roll on a toasted hot dog bun, you know, with butter, the way they make lobster rolls in New England.

And he just ate that lobster roll.

I said, “You know, Dad, I just wanted to get any wisdom I can get from you. You’ve lived such a wonderful life, and you’ve been so kind and so good to everyone, and worked so hard.”

And he said, “Just enjoy the lobster roll.”

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Adventures in Arkansas, Free Advice from a Novice Expert, German Living, Traveling

Epiphanies in a Foreign Land

When you live in a foreign country, you have lots of epiphanies. Most of them are focused around realizing how very little you actually know about absolutely anything in the world. Like for one thing, did you know that there are other languages floating around out there, and people actually speak them, and they are not English, nor do they require English to exist alongside them in order to be understood? People just speak these languages to each other and their children and their pets, and everyone seems to understand everyone else just fine without translation dictionaries or friendly roommate interpreters or flailing hand gesticulations.

At other times, you have epiphanies about how wonderful the magical foreign land is that you’re living in. I mean, let’s be real here: Germans have recycling (the Pfand!), beer (Augustiner!), chocolate (Ritter Sport!), public transportation (Deutsche Bahn!), and outdoor adventuring (Alps!) figured out. Germany is great.

But sometimes your most significant epiphanies are related to what you value most. Mine personally came to me about seven months ago, when I started thinking about what it is exactly that I care about in my life. I love traveling, going on adventures, and experiencing new things, but I also love all my family and friends. As I considered these many loves, I realized that the first set of loves, all related to adventures and foreign lands, will always be waiting for me, ready and rearin’ to go. My family and American friends, however, are doin’ their thangs and livin’ their lives, and the moments I miss when I’m seven time zones away can’t always be explained over FaceTime or illustrated in a 10-second Snapchat picture.

Because of this epiphany, I decided to come back to America at the end of July.

When I made this decision, my German roommate, the Queen of Culinary Delights, got really sad and threatened to lock me away in her apartment dungeon so that I would never leave her ever. I was also very upset with myself for deciding to put such a great distance between myself and my personal live-in chef and interpreter who made homemade pizzas with me every Sunday night, who welcomed me wholeheartedly into her friend circle and helped me make lots of new friends, and who made me snortlaugh by pointing out my vast ignorance of German, especially when I would buy things like heavy cream with a shelf life so long “that you can take it with you to Mars” (I’m still convinced this was her subtle way of telling me to go back to the planet where I came from).

I was also afraid that when I moved back to America I was going to regret my decision and want to go immediately back to Germany. The second my plane lifted off German soil, I mentally confessed my love to Germany and promised to come back as soon as possible. But now that I am back in America, I feel like I made the right decision. I miss all the delightful adventures and fun of Germany, but I have realized that there are plenty of delightful adventures and fun to be had here in America as well. I also miss all my lovely and wonderful German friends, but I have promised myself that I will go visit them again as soon as possible. Of course, this is only assuming my dear roommate will host another four-hour long brunch in my honor. I am a demanding person when it comes to breakfast feasts, and accept nothing but the best.

So now I am back in America, still singing the praises of Germany and occasionally trying my hand at cooking German cuisine. I’m also still learning new things and going on adventures all the time.

From here on out, this blog will still be all about me learning new things about the world and making a fool of myself along the way, but most of the goings-on will occur in America instead of Germany. I hope you’ll stick around for more fun as I continue my adventures, because I sure do like sharing them with you!

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This is me saying, “Hello America! I am back in the world” to the passport control camera in the airport. Are you supposed to smile for these things? I look like I just got busted for all the chocolate I stuffed into my suitcase and smuggled into the country.

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Free Advice from a Novice Expert, German Living

Arguing with Germans: a Lesson in Futility

Here is my advice to you: never get into an argument with a German.

Germans are rational people, and they usually have reasons for the things they do. For the most part, I agree with their reasons and admire their focused attention to the sense of things.

But sometimes Germans do things that just plain don’t make sense. When a crosswalk light is red, for example, you will not find any decent German human being who will dare to cross that street. It doesn’t matter if there are no cars or trams or anything to be seen anywhere. They are out there somewhere, waiting to run you over at the slightest hint of your dodging out into the seemingly nonexistent traffic. And Germans will also argue that who even knows who is watching your sinful ways when you cross the street on red? Several crosswalks around Munich have the following sign posted next to them: “Nur bei Grün– den Kindern ein Vorbild!” which means “Set an example for the children– only cross on green!” Because heaven forbid having to explain to a child, “No, my cute mouse, that’s just a reckless American sprinting across the street on a red crosswalk light. Ignore her. As you get older, you will learn that Americans do a lot of disturbing things, like riding the train illegally (black riding!), being halfhearted about recycling, and just really butchering the good name of all things sausage.  You must figure out a way to both accept their madness and also completely overlook it.”

When Germans do things like this that don’t make sense, you shouldn’t try to talk sense into them. Instead, you should just accept that you are about to lose an argument.

I learned this over the summer when I went to a German birthday party. On the way to the party, my roommate asked her boyfriend if he happened to know the exact date of the person’s birthday. He didn’t, and my roommate looked slightly concerned at his response. After finding out that I also didn’t know what day this person was born, she began a hasty internet search to find the mystery birthdate. I asked what the big deal was, and she explained that in Germany you are only allowed to wish someone a happy birthday if it is actually their birthday. I was getting confused: “But the other day when we went to your friend’s birthday, I told her ‘Happy birthday’ and it was the day before her actual birthday.” My roommate’s eyes widened in alarm, and she exclaimed, “Why do you think everyone sang the Happy Birthday song at midnight?!” And I retorted, “Because the [World Cup semi-final] game was over!” “No,” she replied. “It was because it was her actual birthday!”

While she and her boyfriend anxiously texted their way through their list of friends in a desperate attempt to uncover this all-powerful exact birthdate, I asked what would have happened if the party had been after the person’s birthday. “You would have said ‘Happy belated birthday,’ of course.” I was pretty sure I would have still said ‘Happy birthday,’ but I was having a hard time getting them to understand that a birthday should be celebrated whether the celebrating happens early or late.

Since I was quickly getting nowhere in this argument, and especially since I don’t like to lose, I poured all my logic into one emphatic response: “You don’t have to celebrate your birthday only on your actual birthday!”

And then I heard the one German word that silences all opposition: “DOCH!”

Doch translates roughly as “How dare you contradict me when I am clearly right in this rather tiresome dispute?” It starts out sounding like the sound Homer Simpson makes and ends up with the velar fricative “ch” of loch, and if you hear this word, you know you have been defeated in your verbal dispute. It doesn’t matter if you are actually right, because once your opponent has unleashed doch, the rest of the conversation can only continue in strings of “Doch!” battling your armies of “No!” until both sides are exhausted and want nothing more than to sit down together and enjoy a Weisswurst with a side of sweet mustard.

You will also be defeated with “Doch!” if you say, “Football and soccer aren’t the same thing!” Germans will shout at you, “Doch, football is football and American football is weird.”

You could try out, “Germany doesn’t have the best football team in the world!” But even still you will hear: “Doch! Wir sind Weltmeister!” which means “Hahahahahahahahahaha you Americans are hilarious.”

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You: “Molly, you aren’t really German.” Me: “Doch! I have a German flower lei and am therefore the German Kapitän of the World.”

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Free Advice from a Novice Expert, Learning German

First Babbling, Then Talking

There are two ways to learn a foreign language. The first and most common way is in a classroom setting. You read one hundred books, memorize one thousand vocabulary words and one million grammar forms, listen to your teacher speak the language, and occasionally tongue-twist it for yourself.

The second way is through total immersion. Children learn their native language this way, and crazy people who move to other countries sometimes do the same. The second way is harder and scarier, but ultimately better. It’s only through total immersion that you’re forced to communicate in that language, regardless of whether or not you know the word for dog or potato or humiliation, and regardless of your understanding of the past perfect progressive tense.

The school I teach at uses the total immersion technique in its classes. Whether the students are complete beginners or have three black belts in English-kwando, I only speak English to them, and they only speak English to me. This method is an excellent idea in theory, but in practice it is terrifying. And here’s why: as humans, our greatest desire is to be understood. Language is our primary tool that we use for attempting to achieve this. We use language to communicate what’s going on inside our brains. And when you take away the biggest tool a person uses for explaining herself and the world, you expose an enormous and all-consuming fear of being misunderstood.

Most people grow up learning one language. As they get older, they learn about themselves and the world around them through the lens of that language. Their identity and worldview is shaped by language. This is known as linguistic relativity, or the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.

When you switch to a new language, you have to change that lens through which you see and understand yourself and the world. Raccoons are no longer raccoons; they are Wash Bears. You aren’t cold; it feels cold to you. And you don’t say “you’re welcome” when someone thanks you; you say “please.”

One of my advanced students is nearly fluent in English, but he confessed to me today that he sometimes has no idea how to formulate English sentences out of the thoughts in his head. Even though he is quite eloquent and has a vast vocabulary, he sometimes just can’t say what he means in English. I was immediately reminded of Vladimir Nabokov, one of the most brilliant writers in the English language, who described his experience with using a foreign language in the following way:

“My private tragedy, which cannot, and indeed should not, be anybody’s concern, is that I had to abandon my natural idiom, my untrammeled, rich, and infinitely docile Russian tongue for a second-rate brand of English, devoid of any of those apparatuses–the baffling mirror, the black velvet backdrop, the implied associations and traditions–which the native illusionist, frac-tails flying, can magically use to transcend the heritage in his own way.”

Learning and speaking a different language thus requires you to accept two things:

1. You cannot and will never be able to express yourself in that language in the same way you are able to in your native language.
2. You can still communicate important information and make yourself understood.

My knowledge of German is on the same level as a very small child, so I am not comparing myself to my student or to Nabokov. But I think the key to my progress in learning German is focusing less on the first point and more on the second. I cannot be like Goethe or Rilke or Schiller, but I can be like the little kid on the train who is memorizing her multiplication tables, or the toddler who tells his mom that he wants to take off his coat. I have to babble before I can talk.

“Everything that you can do, you learned through practice: first crawling, then walking, first babbling, then talking. By playing you learn something new every day.”

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