Duo the Dungeon Keeper (aka: Learning Languages)

So I’m fluent in Spanish.

Mostly. I mean, I can follow the majority of a conversation, and speak well enough to be understood, and read and write in Spanish. Sure, there’s a lot more vocabulary to learn, and plenty of idioms that I’m not familiar with. But for the most part, I’m fluent.

So now what?

It’s on to German! Or I should say, back to German. I studied it for a year in high school, and learned how to say Guten Morgen, and count to 20, and basic words, like girl and boy. The vocabulary of a two year-old, basically. Then a few years ago, our public library introduced free Rosetta Stone for all. Wow! I jumped into German lessons here and there, and managed to increase my vocabulary to that of an almost three year-old.

Then they cancelled Rosetta Stone and replaced it with Mango Languages. Let me just say that replacing Rosetta Stone with Mango Languages is like replacing a Tesla with a 1998 Ford Taurus.

A week ago, I discovered an app called Duolingo. (Yes, I know, I’m kind of late for that party). It’s designed to work a lot more like Rosetta Stone. But instead of costing a gazillion dollars, Duolingo is free!

Except that it’s not.

Yes, you can use the app to study languages without paying any money. But what you save in money, you lose in time. Duolingo’s mascot, a seemingly innocent green owl named Duo, is actually the prison guard appointed to make sure you never escape the Duolingo dungeon.

Duo is very skilled at guilt-tripping you into making sure you log in and study. He is worse than any helicopter mom hovering over your shoulder to make sure you get your homework done. It’s time for your daily German Lesson! Take 5 minutes now to complete it. If you ignore Duo, he’ll let you know. If you need to watch more commercials to earn more health points so you can keep taking free lessons, he’ll let you know. If you drop out of the top ten, he’ll let you know.

My teens pointed out that the internet is all abuzz with memes about Duo and his Duolingo reminder notifications. Here are a few of my favorites:

15 more correct answers, and I release your family!

If that’s not bad enough, once you’re in the dungeon, Duo forces you into the pit, where you must compete with other language learners around the world. Stay in the top ten for your level for the next week, and you’ll advance to the next level! So I pulled on my boxing gloves and tackled my Deutsch lessons each day, eager to discover what surprises awaited me when I made it to the Silver league. Would I get a super-secret bonus lesson? A shiny new badge on my profile? Full health points for a month?

No. All I won was the chance to get on the leaderboard to advance to the next highest league. Apparently, this morning, I dropped out of the top ten, and I’m out of health points. So now I get to watch more commericals just to get to the German vocabulary of a 4 year-old.

I like Duolingo. I think I might actually be learning stuff. Not a lot of German, but plenty of stuff about how to reel people into using your app and trap them there, and encourage them to watch commercials or buy your product (which probably costs as much as the Tesla of language apps, Rosetta Stone). Maybe I can steal borrow some of Duo’s ideas and get rich off of my own app, once I develop one. See? Learning new languages can be good for you.

Advertisements

Three Little Letters (aka: it’s Better to Know)

It’s time for us to talk about something with three little letters. Something you’ve all heard of, but many people are afraid to talk about.

No, not sex. *Rolling my eyes* Believe me, I am the last person you’d want to discuss sex with. It’s really not one of my strengths.

But it is related to sex. And the three little letters are an acronym. Today’s topic is HIV.

HIV stands for Human Immunodeficiency Virus. In the U.S. alone, more than 1 million people are infected with HIV. And 15% aren’t even aware that they are infected. That’s 1 in 7 of you who are walking around with no idea that they are carrying a potentially lethal virus. https://www.hiv.gov/hiv-basics/overview/data-and-trends/statistics

Don’t you think it’s better to know?

HIV used to mean a death sentence. Not even that long ago, up to half of those diagnosed with HIV would go on to contract AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome). Today, if HIV is diagnosed in time, those living with the virus can be treated with ART drugs (anti-retrovirals) to suppress the virus and help you to live a longer, healthier life.

HIV never even used to cross my mind. It just wasn’t something that had anything to do with me. In my entire life, I have had only 3 sexual partners. The first was my husband of 17 years. I naively thought that STIs (Sexually Transmitted Infections) don’t apply to married couples. I was totally safe. Protected.

Until my ex-husband began cheating with prostitutes.

The moment I learned about his misdeeds, I did two things. 1 — I stopped having sex with him forever. And 2 — I had my gynecologist test me for everything.

Because it’s better to know.

Note: HIV can be spread through semen and vaginal fluids, through oral sex, or blood, such as during a blood transfusion or by an infected needle.

My second sexual partner was an acquaintance of mine. We had a sexual relationship that lasted for months, and was, to the best of my knowledge, monogamous. We also used condoms. But still, after it was over, I got tested for STIs.

Because it’s better to know.

My third sexual partner was a man I met on eHarmony, whom I nickname “Z” on this blog. (He is also my final sexual partner, as I will never again have sex with another person). We lived in different cities, but we dated for a few months by telephone and text, as well as in person. I enjoyed every aspect of our relationship very much — including sex, which was surprising to me, given my past negative experiences.

After he broke up with me, it took me more than a year and a half before I worked up the courage to get tested. I didn’t want to admit to myself that I was afraid, that there was even the slightest chance that he hadn’t been honest with me about his HIV-negative status.

But knowing your own status, I realized in the end, isn’t about your partner. It isn’t about how much you love him, or how much you trust her. It’s about your own personal health, and the ability to make wise decisions.

There are a number of ways to get tested for HIV. You can ask your primary physician, or your gynecologist for a test. (Remember — they are not there to judge your lifestyle!). You can visit a walk-in testing clinic. You can use a home sample-collecting kit, which you mail in for results. Or you can do as I recently did — use an over-the-counter oral testing kit called OraQuick, which costs around $40 and is available at Walgreens drugstores. Be sure to test at least 3 months after having sex, as there is a false-negative window if you test sooner than that.

If you are sexually active don’t know your HIV status, then it may time for you to test and get some peace of mind for you and your partner or future partners. Or for yourself, even if you are celibate, like me.

It’s better to know.

Not Just a Man’s World (aka: My Awesome Tech Career Journey)

My job is awesome.

Every day, I realized how blessed I am to be able to say that. To be able to wake up each day and look forward to the work I get to do. To be able to use my unique skills and talents to impact the lives of other people in a positive way. Yes! *Pumps fist*

It feels good.

I never used to imagine that one day, I would not only have a successful career, but that I would find so much fulfillment from my work. In my early years, work was just something I did to pay the bills, and my ambitions were small. I used to be a teacher of young children — a low-paying career that led to a seamless transition into full-time mothering. Mothering as a SAHM was, of course, fulfilling in its own way. It was also the thing to do among young conservative Christian women in my circle, at the time. To focus on raising your kids, cooking meals, cleaning your home, and supporting your husband, the breadwinner, was considered the most honorable, ideal role for a woman. Even a woman with a 4-yr. college degree.

Gag.

Quick digression: I’m no longer sure how I ever bought into that philosophy. I now believe firmly that the responsibilities of child rearing, caring for the home, and financially supporting the household belong to both partners, rather than to one or the other based on gender. But since I’m no longer married, none of that applies anymore anyway.

Anyway, at some point, when my youngest kid was in grade school, I went back to work as a teacher in the local school district. I was good at it, but it was tiring, brainless work. Not to mention it paid very little. So when I was laid off due to state budget cuts, I decided that it was time. I would return to college to pursue a career in the one field that made me excited to think about.

Information Technology.

Code on a computer screen

After all, I’d been using computers since my Commodore Vic 20, back in 1981. I used to listen to my now ex-husband talk about the IT work he did, and think to myself how i could easily do his job. Plus, let’s face it — IT is a lucrative industry. But for me, a teacher of young children and former SAHM with literally no IT job experience, switching careers was like climbing a mountain that was largely hidden in the clouds.

I started off with the goal of doing IT support. People would call me with issues, I would tell them to reboot their computers, and everyone’s happy. When I first went back to college, I knew pretty much nothing about the other branches of IT. Coding? Zip. Databases? Zilch. Networking? Nada. But one cool thing about IT is that each of these areas is somehow interconnected. The more classes I took toward becoming a tech support girl, the more I learned about the rest. Suddenly, I knew about subnets, and protocols, and network layers, and basic coding. And I fell in luv with System Administration. That was my dream job.

It was a little intimidating, at first, heading into the world of IT. There are still very few women in this industry, compared to men. Especially in the higher-up positions. I intend to change that. So does my daughter, who is preparing to study Computer Science or Software Engineering when she heads off to college this fall. *More fist pumps* When you’re working in a world largely dominated by men, you have to learn to assert yourself pretty quickly. Ask questions. Speak up when you have ideas. And study your brains out, because until female-male ratio is even, we women still have to prove our worth and competence.

Men and women in a business meeting

Today, I am a System Admin (which is pretty much like God, in case you were wondering), as well as a declarative developer (who just happens to do some software engineering, as well). I get to analyze business issues, then come up with technology-based solutions to solve their issues and improve their processes. Then I design and build those solutions, train the users, and provide ongoing support. I guess you can say I wear a lot of hats. And I like it like that.

Me at work

So, here I am. Career-Focused Single-Mom Barbie, armed with a laptop and a cellphone. It feels good to be able to use my brain every day to create systems that actually make things better for a lot of people. It also feels good to bring home a decent income, to pay the bills and support my family. Yes, I’m still a great mom. Yes, I still cook and clean our home (as do my teens). Yes, i still get plenty of me-time to relax. Whoever said that we can’t balance it all was clearly trying to discourage us. Don’t buy it.

When I look back on how far I’ve come in just a few short years, and how I managed to switch careers and land a great job in midlife, I feel pretty satisfied. It’s like climbing to a mountain peak, then looking back at where I began. I did it! Now, I get to enjoy my work while assessing that next mountain peak. It’s pretty high, half-hidden in the clouds. Just like my current job once seemed. But I’m confident that I can get there, if I just keep climbing.

For the Throne! (Aka: International Women’s Day)

Winter is here, people.

Those of you who know what I’m talking about are glancing at your calendars, counting how many days remain before the series finale of Game of Thrones — one of the most exciting TV shows of this decade. Who will be brutally murdered next? Who will sleep with who? Most importantly, who will take the throne and become king (or queen) of the seven kingdoms?

But that’s not really what I want to discuss. Today is International Women’s Day. All around the world, people are taking a moment to acknowledge women and the contributions we have made and continue to make to society. So it only made sense to take a look at the women of Game of Thrones. Why? Because their timeless archetypes are common among many women, young and old, throughout the globe.

Arya Stark

The tomboy, who eschews femininity in favor of wearing pants and wielding a sword. Later, we see in the character Brienne of Tarth, a glimpse of the great knight Arya could become in the future.

Sansa Stark

The feminine “good girl” princess, who dreams of marrying her fairy tale prince, Joffrey. When her prince turns out to be a sadistic monster, and the world turns harsh and cold, Sansa quickly grows up and develops an exterior of steel.

Catelyn Stark

Catelyn is deeply devoted to her husband and children, which is apparent in everything she says and does. Far from perfect, Catelyn struggles with her role as a stepmother to her husband’s bastard son, Jon Snow.

Cersei Lannister

The opportunist (some might say bitch), who will stop at nothing to get what she wants, for herself or for her children. Seduction, betrayal, and murder are only a means to an end for her.

Daenerys Targaryan

“Miss Independent.” Plays her role as the dutiful, obedient sister and wife until she figures out who she really is. Once she embraces her true self, her power is unstoppable. She gathers an army and pursues her goals relentlessly, all without having to rely on a man to rule at her side.

My personal favorite? The Khaleesi, Daenerys Targaryan. Not only is the badass Mother of Dragons born to be a queen and rule the seven kingdoms, but she is true to herself and always tries to be kind and just (though sometimes she fails). I identify strongly with her sense of independence.

Other women may read this and find that they identify more with the disillusioned princess, the tomboy, or the devoted wife and mother. But most of us may agree that we are multi-faceted. That many of us are sometimes the princess, and sometimes the tomboy, and sometimes the devoted wife and mother, and sometimes the bitch. Kind of the Game of Thrones version of the Breakfast Club archetypes.

But whatever type of woman you define yourself to be, and no matter who you are rooting for to take the throne at the end of the final season, I hope that today you will celebrate being a woman, or celebrate the women in your lives.

Pluck! Pluck! (aka: Swimming Against the Current)

While shopping at the mall, I came across a gorgeous bracelet, strung with polished stones in varying hues of grays, blue-grays, and green-grays.

“That is so you,” my daughter said. “You have to buy it.”

Ten minutes later, the bracelet was paid for and dangling from my wrist. It really was a perfect piece of jewelry for me, because more than half of my wardrobe is gray. Gray sweaters. Gray dresses. Gray flats and tights and t-shirts. I even own a gray overcoat and a gray faux-leather jacket. Such a smooth, sophisticated color. Neutral enough to be a blank palette, but far cooler than beige, and softer than black. Ambiguous. A mystery.

My love of all things gray doesn’t end there. I find comfort in gray, cloudy skies. Our living room furniture is mostly gray. My car is gray. In fact, I even identify as a heteromantic graysexual, or gray-asexual.

Which is what makes this little problem so ironic.

Sometime during the past several years, a tiny sprig of gray appeared among my off-black locks of hair. When I first discovered it, my heart sank. Oh my god. Here it is. The first official sign that summer has come to an end.

But then, I plucked it out, and all was right with the world again.

A year later, the sprig had multiplied. I had two — count them — two strands of gray hair. Pluck and pluck.

Now, at the age of 43, I have counted as many as six tiny sprigs of gray among my curls. Possibly more, hidden in the back. This has officially become an invasion. A takeover. I can still pluck the little suckers, but they come back with friends. And they’re so unruly! Not at all as well-behaved as my other soft, springy curls. The little gray punks like to poke out from my head in unpredictable directions, making their appearance super obvious.

It’s silly and vain of me to care so much, I know.

I’m middle-aged. The appearance of crepey skin and gray hair is perfectly normal. Although I’ve often been told that I look quite young for my age, I couldn’t expect that to last forever. The other silly thing is that gray hair on other people doesn’t bother me in the least. Never do I look at another person’s salt and pepper tresses and feel the temptation to start plucking. So why does the appearance of gray in my own hair freak me out so much?

Maybe because it is a reminder of my own mortality. Youth is not eternal. Life does not last forever. Like a tree, we blossom, then bear fruit, and then the leaves, like our hair, begins to change color. And we all know what that means.

Winter is coming.

Unlike a tree, we don’t lose our leaves and vibrancy only to have them return again, green and new, in the spring. For us, once the lively browns and blacks and reds and yellows that graced our heads throughout our lifetimes have faded, that’s it. They’re gone. Nature’s not going to give us brand-new hair.

Something about knowing that something good is only going to be in my life for a limited time makes me want to savor it. Capture it. Hold onto it for as long as possible. Change is inevitable, of course. Nothing lasts forever (except maybe the diamonds in my old wedding ring, which still sits around, useless, in a box somewhere). But if that means I have to always go with the flow, to accept it as it comes, to age gracefully, then I have one thing to say.

Screw that.

I think that Dylan Thomas said it best:

“Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

I will not accept that beauty is chained to youthful age. I refuse to lie back and float along with the current that will eventually dump us each into the sea. I will not go gentle into that good night. Instead, I plan to keep struggling, keep swimming hard against the current until my body is too old and too sick and too tired to take another stroke.

Last week, my cousin died of breast cancer. She and I were around the same age. Both single moms, though her children are mostly younger than mine. Since our teen years, she was the cousin I went to get my “hair did.” Thanks to her skill and deft fingers, I went through hair phases of long, braided extensions and sleek, straight, flat-ironed styles. When I wanted to try a new color, I sat in her salon chair, and we gabbed about family members, raising children, and TV shows as she worked her magic, transforming my ordinary black hair into a honey-streaked marvel. She snipped and shampooed and braided and styled so many women, and made so many of us feel beautiful.

Cancer robbed my cousin of her own hair, her beauty, her youth, her life. Far too soon. If not for cancer, I’m sure that she would have continued to help women in our struggle to look and feel our loveliest, no matter our age. Gray hair? Why settle for bland, unruly gray hair? Why not dye it auburn, raven, or gold? Why not curl it or straighten it or try something new? Why not try new makeups that decrease our wrinkles or bring out the shade of our eyes, or wear clothes that make us feel sexy, or cute, or strong, or alive? Why should we settle for frumpy, dumpy, and bland, just because we’ve arrived in middle age?

I love the color gray. But I do not love the gray hairs reminding me of the end we must each face. So I reject the idea that fighting them is vain or silly. Instead, I choose to make myself look as young and alive on the outside as I feel on the inside. If my cousin were still here, I would ask her to highlight my hair to hide the gray intruders. Hair dye — such a fun and simple way of raging against the dying of the light. I wonder how I’d look as a blonde?

Don’t Panic! (Aka: That Famous Band You’ve Never Heard of)

I almost left early.

There were just too many tics. Too many little warning signs that I was not in for the fun evening I had planned.

The day went fine. I had a productive day at work, where I shared with a few coworkers what my plans were for the evening. “I’m taking myself to a concert at the downtown arena,” I said.

“Oh yeah?” My coworkers said. “What band?”

“Panic! At the Disco,” I said.

The reaction was almost universal. “Who’s that?”

“Oh, just a famous alternative rock band no one’s ever heard of.”

To be fair, I did run into exactly two adults who had some inkling of who the band was. And several teens, one of whom only knew the band from a reference by Phoebe, on an old episode of Friends. But I’m pretty used to being excited about things that people around me couldn’t care less about. So off I went, ready for fun.

I managed to snag a $5 parking spot around 4 blocks away from the arena. Sweet! So far, so good. Then I took myself out to dinner at a trendy new burger restaurant, where I ate a bland, overpriced quinoa veggie burger, a side of garlic fries, and a Blue Moon — always a safe choice for decent beer. Then I slung my backpack over one shoulder and headed downstairs to the concert security zone.

“NO BACKPACKS MAY BE BROUGHT INTO THE ARENA,” an official voice blared over the loudspeakers. Great. Tic one. But no worries. I had thirty minutes before showtime, and I could just hop on a Jump Bike to get to my car quickly.

So I tried. Three different bikes, in fact. But apparently, they were all having connection issues last night and wouldn’t accept my account number. Thanks for nothing, Jump Bikes. Tic two.

By then, it was growing cold and dark, and I only had fifteen minutes remaining before the concert began. But hey, I’m not a runner for nothing. So I began to sprint toward the parking lot.

Bad idea.

Because I was not wearing a sports bra. And maybe certain women can get away with running in a dainty, lacy thing. But we um…well-endowed women really cannot. Thanks to that little race against time, I will now have to replace that bra, which couldn’t handle the jiggle. Tic three.

I put away the backpack, speed-walked back, and made it into the arena. A ticket-taker looked at my phone, then directed me toward the tallest, steepest escalator I have ever seen. Ever. It was like a mechanical stairway to heaven. And that wasn’t all. Once I got to the top and went through the doorway, I had to climb a lot more stairs. At last I found my seat, then sat down and looked around.

Worst. Seat. Ever. Tic four.

I was up so high, I felt dizzy and nauseous. Altitude sickness, I’m sure. Or maybe it was due to the beer. When the concert began, and the singer stepped out on the stage, he looked like a teeny, tiny doll I could pick up with my fingertips. So did the lucky duck viewers seated down on the floor. A sea of itsy-bitsy miniature people. And then, there was the screen. You know those big screens that display the band so that the people in the back of the arena can see their faces?

Yeah. Those don’t work for people with a side view. I had a nice view of — the side of the screen. Tic five.

But as the music began, I began to relax. Even though I couldn’t see the stage well, I could see the lights. Dozens of pretty colored lights, swirling and flashing in time with the music. Like a fireworks show without the fire. Because fire would be really bad during a concert. But hey, I was so high up, and so far off to the side, that I’d only have to climb over like, four people to get to the nearest exit.

A view from my terrible seat.

Besides gaining a new appreciation for the lights display, I also realized that the music sounded really, really good. The teeny-tiny, miniature lead singer of Panic! At the Disco had an amazing voice, and the instrumentals were awesome. So I couldn’t actually see them performing. but I could hear them. And I did kinda go to enjoy live music, so that was important. And eventually, I got swept up in singing along and dancing in my seat, along with all the other fans.

By the end of the show, I was too busy feeling jazzed to care about the tic marks that threatened to ruin my good time. True, it wasn’t as fabulous as standing in front of the stage at the Imagine Dragons concert, waving my homemade sign and getting showered in confetti. But I still enjoyed myself. And the way I see it, getting out there, doing fun stuff, and having adventures is way better than not having a life at all. Even if you have to be stuck with one of the cheap seats.

I’d been debating buying myself a last-minute nosebleed side view ticket to see Pink in concert soon, too. But know what? I think I’ll save my money until I can party on the floor, close to the band. And next time, I’ll leave my backpack at home.

The Many Flavors of Love (a Valentines Day Love List)

I love the sound of rain drumming against the roof, splashing against the pavement, trickling down the windowpane while I watch, warm and cozy indoors.

I love the way a good book transports me far away from the world I know, inserting me, like a fly on the wall, into the lives of other characters, in other places and times.

I love my three teens, who are now 14, 17, and 19. I love spending time with them, sharing laughter, traveling to new places, enjoying meals. My middle daughter is getting ready to graduate from high school soon, and head off to university. Then I’ll have three years left before my nest is empty.

I love trying new foods, and incorporating recipes from around the globe into my daily repertoire. In our house, vegetarian curries and Asian soups are just as common as spaghetti.

I love my sister and her kids. We talk surprisingly little for sisters who actually get along (She doesn’t respond to texts or phone calls often). But on rare occasions we do manage to connect, it’s pretty positive. She began her family much later than I did, so she and her husband have three very young daughters. Two of them have finally reached an age of comfort with being away from their mom and dad, so now we are beginning to have Auntie outings. Since my own kids are nearly grown, it’s really nice to be able to hang out with my young nieces. The next best thing to being a Grandma.

Fun outing with my daughter (right) and two of my young nieces (center)

I love my ex-boyfriend, who I refer to as “Z.” (The last letter of the alphabet for the last man I will ever date or fall in love with). Yes, it’s been more than a year and a half since we were together. But that means nothing to my heart. I hate that he is gone from my life. I love remembering the wonderful, though brief, relationship we had, how kind he was, and how happy we both were together.

Z and me perfect date San Francisco Japanese tea garden
“Z” and me on a couple of unforgettable dates during a weekend together in my favorite city.

I love my career. I love what I get to wake up and do every day. I work in IT, designing and building software systems that revolutionize business for many people. It’s very fulfilling (and pays well, too).

I love that feeling of euphoria I get at the end of a really intense workout or a long weekend run. Runner’s high is not a myth! Now if only we could experience that in the middle of the run, instead of the burning lungs and aching muscles…

I love writing. I especially love to write stories for other people to enjoy. If you read my stories and find yourself transported into another time and place, like a fly on the wall in some character’s life, then my job was well done.

I love a perfect cup of coffee (Decaf dark roast with cream and Splenda), or a perfect cup of tea (earl gray or chai, splash of milk, plus Splenda). Especially with a good book. Long ago, when I had friends, then sharing a perfect cup of tea or coffee while spending time with a good friend was pretty much nirvana.

Hot cup of tea

I love that this list is actually far longer, filled with music, and flowers, and candles, and soccer, and great movies, like Amelie, or Pride & Prejudice (2005), or Shakespeare in Love. I also love how this list continues to grow throughout my life, as I travel more, try new activities, and grow. Ideally, much of this list would be people-based, since really, things and experiences, while worthy of loving and enjoying, can’t love you back. (But then, I have grown quite used to not being loved back. That has never before stopped me from loving).

Whoever, or whatever you love, may you love them fully today, and every day. What’s more, I wish for you what I have always lacked most in life — that you feel fully, completely, and unquestionably loved in return.