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.

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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.

Night Owls in Apollo’s World (aka: Morning People Get it Done)

The prettiest sunrise I’ve ever seen was during the spring of 1994, in Cocoa Beach, Florida. There was something magical about the way the deep sapphire sky suddenly began to blush brilliant streaks of coral and rose, while I stood in the glistening waves of the Atlantic, watching nature’s show.

Maybe that was the moment I became a morning person.

After that first and best of all sunrises, I began to appreciate more about the peaceful moments of early morning. The way mist skimmed along the surface of mountain lakes. The quiet stillness, like a blank canvas to organize my thoughts for the day. The sweet trill of the early bird, greeting me outside my window. Morning is here! A fresh day! New opportunities! Ahh, mornings, embracing me as I throw my arms wide, spinning beneath the beautiful, pale coin of sunrise. The world is new again, and mornings and I are one.

Until…THWACK!!

The muddy combat boot of some bleary-eyed night owl whacks me in the head. “Will you keep it down, for crying out loud?” they screech. “Some of us sane people are still trying to sleep!”

Night owl with coffee saying No

Oh, night people. Worshippers of the fading, red-gold rays of sunset. Lovers of darkness, and the moon, and midnight snacks while the rest of the world slumbers. I see and hear you.

No, like I literally see and hear you. I see the annoying bright headlights flash through my window at night. I hear your noisy, raucous parties and televisions blaring long after I’ve set my own head against the pillows. If you want to be a night owl, fine. But can you at least try to make yourselves as silent and stealthy as actual owls, so as not to disturb the sleep of us early birds?

Alarm clock nighttime

I sometimes feel such pity for night owls. This world is run by and for the early risers. The go-getters. The ones who have learned to defy mediocrity and complacency, who rise before the sun to meditate, who get in their daily workouts before the others have opened their eyes, who sweep into work each day like Apollo’s chariots, ready to shine.

Morning people get sh*t done.

The night folks eventually stumble in, groggy, still shaking off the effects of last night’s greasy pizza and beer. They are not yet in the moment, still full of nostalgia for their toasty warm beds. They stare like zombies at their computer screens, re-reading the same email three times before anything makes sense, and throwing eye daggers at any chipper morning person who dares to greet them with a sunny smile.

Morning birds vs. night owls

But thank goodness for you, followers of Artemis. Because when 3pm rolls around, and we lovers of sunrise begin to lose steam, you are there. You are there to take the mantle, to keep the flame burning as the flock of morning birds packs up our briefcases and heads home to relax. We thank you for making this possible, so that we can go and drive on freeways empty of traffic, and enjoy time with our families while there is still light outside, and have early dinners at uncrowded restaurants, because we can be assured that the night owls will continue to work. We sleep better (at 8pm) because of your efforts.

We are so appreciative, dear night people, that we will continue to offer you the magic elixir that helps to bring you to life each morning when you finally drag your feet into work. Coffee. Prepared by morning birds, and sold by morning birds, who happily pocket the fistfuls of dollars you shell out for the hot, bitter brew that helps you to function each morning. Isn’t that a hoot?

Drink up, sleepy ones. Then together, let’s go and get sh*t done.

Shower Karaoke (aka: Feel-Good Tunes)

When I was in the car yesterday, an old song came on the radio. The Greatest Love of All, by Whitney Houston. Naturally, I turned up the volume and belted it out along with Whitney.

THE GREAAAATEST LOOOOVE OF AAAAALLLLL IS EASY TO ACHIIIIIIIIEEEEVE!!!

It’s such a feel-good song. One of those songs that you can’t help but sing at the top of your lungs, even though you know perfectly well that your voice is nothing like Whitney Houston’s, and you’ll probably hit more sour notes than an American Idol reject. But still, the music starts, and your heart starts racing, and next thing you know, you’ve transformed into Whitney.

LEARNING TO LOOOVVVVE YOURSELF, IT IS THE GREAT-EST LOVE OF ALL!!

Easy A Pocket Full of Sunshine shower scene

Of course, it’s not always Whitney’s music that grabs you by the throat and compels you to break out singing even louder than your shower spray. It might be We are the Champions, by Queen. Or The Wind Beneath My Wings, by Bette Midler. Or Hero, by Mariah Carey. For the longest time, my instant karaoke favorite (when no one was listening) was Hold On, by Wilson Phillips.

I wonder whatever happened to those songs? The songs so rich with encouragement and self-appreciation that we all loved to sing them in the car (or in the shower, or at karaoke night after one drink too many). I guess Katy Perry’s Firework comes kind of close. Or Rachel Platten’s Fight Song. I’m even kind of fond of Meghan Trainor’s Me Too, despite the snottiness of the repeated verse (“If I was you, I’d wanna be me too…”).

Regardless of the song, or the singer, we have all experienced what it’s like to get a boost of positivity from music, whether we sing along or keep it in our own heads. Whoever you are, I dedicate to you the lyrics of the song you find the most uplifting. I hope that sometime this week, you get a chance to belt it out, and let the message fill you.

Wayne and Garth Bohemian Rhapsody

If you care to comment, please share one of your favorite solo karaoke songs.

Raise Your Glass! (aka: Beat the Year)

Guess what, everybody? According the Under Armour, the company who makes my favorite running app, Map My Run, I beat the year! Hooray, me! *Cheers, sets off fireworks*

What does that mean, beat the year? Well, I’m not exactly sure. Last April, I signed up for a fitness challenge to see how many kilometers I could run during 2018. My grand total was 1,019 Kilometers. I’m not sure how far that is, exactly, since we Americans generally don’t speak metric without the help of Google or Alexa. But it sounds pretty good to me!

Now, this whole “Beat the Year” thing might be even more impressive if my opponent had, say, a set amount of kilometers I was actually competing to beat. I’m pretty sure the year was just lying on the couch, watching the rest of us run like rabbits and laughing her head off.

“Look at you!” the Year says to the slowpoke who ran like, two whole kilometers throughout the whole year. “You beat me! How about that?”

Still, despite my cynicism, I feel like a winner. Why? Because I did stuff. I made an effort. I challenged myself to grow. And in my interpretation, that is what it means to “Beat the Year.”

Each new year in our lives is like a big ol’ champagne glass, minus the bubbly stuff. Our goal is to fill that glass with as much bubbly stuff as possible before it’s time for the final toast at the end of the year. (Champagne, soda, sparkling water, take your pick).

champagne bubbly New Year

Everything you do, for yourself or for others, earns you a splash of bubbly in your glass. For every choice you make to the detriment of yourself or others, you pour a splash down the drain. Help a family member move to a new town? Increased your workout routine? Ate a lot more green, healthy stuff? Fill your glass just a little bit more. Wasted money on stupid stuff? Ate a lot of fast food? Spread negative gossip about your coworkers? Dump your hard-earned bubbly into the sink.

In 2018, I:

  • Maintained my almost-daily workout schedule.
  • Ran so much, that I rewarded myself with my first-ever 20-miler race (How many kilos is that, Alexa?).
  • Volunteered a few times in our community, side-by-side with my teens.
  • Drove to SoCal with a couple of the kiddos and one of their friends, and had an AMAZING time together at Disneyland and our favorite beach.
  • Landed a role as the technical lead on a very important, prestigious statewide project at work.
  • Read a lot of books.
  • Learned to step outside of my comfy cubicle and initiate conversations and walks to the coffee shop with coworkers.
  • Stood right next to the stage at an Imagine Dragons rock concert and sang my heart out.

I mean, what an AWESOME year! True, I still walk a pretty lonesome path with only my teens to keep me company. And somewhere out there, somebody else accomplished way more, or had way more fun, or learned way more great things along the way. But so what? My glass is so full right now, on this last day of the year, that it is overflowing with bubbly stuff.

The final countdown for 2018 has begun, dear readers. It’s already next year in Australia. Wherever you are in the world, whatever your stage of this life’s journey, and whoever you walk beside (even if it’s only you), I hope that your glass is full. I raise mine to you. May we beat the pants off 2019.

Cheers!

Archery in the rain (yes, I’m a curly girl 🙂 )

It All Makes Scents (aka: Aromatherapy)

Step into my living room and take a deep sniff.

Smell that?

Yeah. It smells like Christmas. More specifically, my living room is filled with the sharp, pungent smell of noble fir tree, mixed with fresh-baked sugar cookies, and the fragrance of First Frost. Do you know what first frost smells like?

Neither do I.

But, according to Bath & Body Works, it smells like this $10 candle flickering on my TV stand, along with Caramel Apple Cider, Winter Wonderland, and Autumn Woods. If I were light them all, then I could bottle the new scent and label it, “Holiday Overload.” Better yet, I could call the combination of scents, “Childhood Christmas,” then ship it to my kids when they’re all grown up and living away from home.

Our scents…I mean sense of smell is pretty mingled up with our memories and emotions. More so than our other senses, as the olfactory bulb is pretty well connected with the parts of our brains that process emotion and memory. That’s why, when we smell a freshly sharpened pencil, your memory evokes the stern face of your 4th-grade teacher. Or why a whiff of fresh, damp mint may suddenly whisk you back to that group hike through the woods one summer thirty years ago. I tend to associate the stench of cigarettes with family road trips when I was a kid, hanging my head out of the car window to gulp in breathable air while my mother chain-smoked.

Smell is such a powerful thing. Do you know that sniffing certain essential oils can treat pain, nausea, anxiety, depression, insomnia, sore joints, and dementia?

Neither do scientists.

But that hasn’t stopped people from turning to aromatherapy as a form of alternative treatment for thousands of years. Need an energy boost? Inhale the scent of lemon or tangerine. Fill your home with lavender to boost memory, or ylang ylang to enhance intimacy. 

Despite the fuzzy science, I enjoy being surrounded by good smells. I shower daily in sunshine and daisies (according to to my favorite body wash), then lather my body with Happy Vibes skin cream. Every now and then, when no one is looking, I lift my wrists to my nose and inhale deeply. Maybe little bits of fragrance are actually releasing some feel-good chemicals in my brain, or maybe it’s totally psychological. All I know for sure is that when everything around me smells good, I feel pretty good, too. It all makes scents.