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Starting Over

A while back, I received a guitar as a gift and decided I would learn to play it.  I jumped right into it, using online lessons and a simple beginner’s book the same way I learned to play the harmonica and ukulele.  But I found that it was much more difficult than I expected.  Also, since the guitar has many similarities to the ukulele, songs that I struggled with on the guitar have been easier for me to play on my uke, so after getting frustrated with my guitar, I would put it away and play the song on my ukulele instead.  This isn’t the only situation where I have been experiencing this, though.  I learned Mandarin by taking a class, and then it was pretty easy to learn Cantonese by self study after that.  But now that I am really trying to learn Japanese, which has very little in common with Chinese, I find that my progress is much slower than I like.

Do you readers find you have similar problems learning something new?  Here are some things to consider:

Keep a positive attitude!  In many ways, this is my secret to life.  Whether I am having a rough time with work or I am just frustrated by lack of progress in my latest unusual hobby, a positive attitude does the most for carrying me through it.  I know that as long as I keep practicing I will improve, and even if I don’t want to practice, I know that the results will be worth it.  I look for the light at the end of the tunnel, and I know that the future will hold better things.

Is it worth it?  Sometimes I forget to ask myself this.  If I am too busy with my job or my personal life, and my unusual hobbies are causing me undue stress, sometimes it helps to pause and think about it.  Earlier in the year, I wanted to take up photography. However, after I started doing more photography, I found that it was difficult to make the time, and I wasn’t enjoying the daily sessions I was trying to force on myself.  In my case, I decided it was best to give up photography as a serious pursuit–at least for now.

Swear off the other.  If you are trying to learn something new that is similar to what you have already learned, this may be worth trying.  For example, when I decided to learn Japanese, I gave up practicing Cantonese.  For one thing, studying two languages at once is very difficult, and it is nearly impossible to focus on both to the extent that is necessary in order for there to be progress.  Additionally, there is a high degree of negative transfer, where learning both languages at the same time can interfere with each other. I try to think of vocab words in Japanese, but all that comes to mind are the Cantonese words.  By taking a break from one, I can focus and improve on the other.  If only I had the will to do this with my ukulele so I could learn guitar . . .

Set goals.  This goes hand-in-hand with a positive attitude, and accomplishing your goals can make it easier to keep the optimism.  Make sure your goals are attainable, but don’t make them too easy.  With my guitar playing, it can be as simple as, “I will be able to play this whole song without pausing between chords.”  With Japanese, maybe it’s, “I’m going to go to this restaurant and order without using English.”  These things are attainable, but still a challenge for my current skill level.  But I know that if I build on it, I will eventually progress to “I’m going to learn this entire difficult song,” or “I’m going to understand a movie without subtitles.”

If it’s what you want, then never give up!  Don’t get discouraged, and stay motivated.  If you know that the end results are worth it, then be sure to keep it up.  Look back at your progress and realize that you have come a long way, even if you feel you still have a long way to go.  For me, I know that guitar may be more difficult, but once I reach my goals, I will know how to play a much more versatile instrument.  Japanese may be a struggle for me now, but once I can speak a bit, I will be able to communicate better with my Japanese friends.  These things make the challenges worthwhile for me.

What about your struggles?  Are you having frustrations over something that you’re trying to learn?  What worked to help you overcome your obstacles?  Leave a comment and let me know!

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Metablog: A Return to Writing

It appears I’ve gotten out of the habit of writing, and with NaNoWriMo coming up that’s a bad thing, especially because I have volunteered to help lead the local group by arranging events and activities, and I also volunteered to act as assistant director for a Christmas pantomime for my local theater group.  I’m hoping that from this post on, I can ease myself back into it by maybe posting once a week.  The strange thing about it lately is that writing, which was once a stress reliever for me, now feels like work.  But to be fair, over the past few months, many things I used to love, like playing my ukulele and studying languages, have become difficult.

This post is really just meant to be a quick update on the doings of Your Friend Tony.  As mentioned a few metablogs back, I am in the process of getting divorced, which now has me geographically separated from my children.  And when I say “geographically separated”, I mean, like, 7,000 miles–that’s a long swim.  On one hand, it gives me more free time, on the other hand, I miss those brats a lot and frequent Skype dates aren’t really enough.  Fortunately, I might be taking some leave soon to go visit them so I can crush them to death with Papa Bear hugs.

In the mean time, I have been putting extra effort into work.  I got a unit-level award a few months back, and I recently got selected for promotion, although I will most likely have to wait for about a year to put on my new rank.  Outside of work, I have been gradually assembling a respectable bachelor pad, and I have picked up a few new unusual hobbies as well as rediscovering some old unusual hobbies.  And, as always, I have been making new friends wherever I go.

Does your bachelor pad have a bonsai? Mine does.

Does your bachelor pad have a bonsai? Mine does. There’s also a urinal. This place was meant to be a man cave.

It has been a while since I’ve read the blogs of all my blogger friends, so let me know what’s been going on for all of you.  I’ll try to stop by each of your blogs and play a little catch up.

As far as what to expect over the next few weeks, here are a few possible topics:

  • Man Crush: Jim Henson – Jim Henson is a long time hero of mine, and I may time this to come out in preparation for SJ’s Dark Crystal livetweet/drinkalong on October 5th.  (If you’re a Twitter junkie like me, you should consider joining us.)
  • Bachelor Life: Feeding Yourself – I have never been afraid of the culinary arts, and I can certainly follow a recipe. This will include a few cooking tips for people who live on their own that have worked for me.
  • Things I Like: Roller Derby – Lately, nothing has gotten my heart racing as much as watching a bunch of Amazons on roller skates slamming into each other in their wicked costumes.  This is quickly becoming my favorite spectator sport, and it’s getting very popular among the military community in Okinawa.
  • Unusual Hobbies: Martial Arts – I’m still not sure if this one is going to happen. I went back to a jiujitsu class for the first time in a couple years, and I think I found a good crowd this time–as opposed to the douchey, MMA-obsessed braggarts that really turned me off of it when I left a few years ago.

Comment, comment, comment. All the feelings for you guys!

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Never Stop Exploring

They say familiarity breeds contempt, and I know that the longer I stay in a place, the more I take it for granted.  In fact, many people I know (myself included) have spent much of their lives near many historic and beautiful locations and never gone to check them out.  I’ve been living on the gorgeous Japanese island of Okinawa for over five years now, and I remember my amazement at the beauty when I first arrived.  Not long ago I was thinking that I had pretty much seen everything there was to see there; I was beginning to be bored with the place.  Then I went for a drive and drank in my surroundings.  Fluffy white clouds drifted lazily across blue skies with scenic views from every hill.  That was when I realized that I’ve barely scratched the surface of what Okinawa has to offer.

White Beach

One of the numerous gorgeous views in Okinawa, taken at White Beach

But it’s not just Okinawa.  My home town in Indiana was a similar story.  I grew up riding on country roads where scenic barns and farmhouses set in the middle of a corn field framed in blue sky was so commonplace that I never realized how beautiful they were.  Not until I went back to visit last year.

Indiana Farm

A typical farmscape viewed from Indiana State Road 252

On a recent trip to Maryland, I made friends with someone who had lived by Baltimore all her life, but she had never really taken the opportunity to hit any of the the numerous nearby landmarks.  Likewise, my Oma grew up in the shadow of many historical castles in Germany, but she never visited any of them until her most recent trip back a few years ago.

I hear you asking, “So what’s the point, My Friend Tony?”

I’ll tell you.  There’s cool stuff to do and appreciate all around you.  All you have to do is stop taking it for granted and keep a positive attitude!  Here are a few of my recommendations for finding something new experiences close to home.

Research

How often do you research your local area?  Probably never.  After all, you know everything about the place, don’t you?  No, you sure don’t!  I had never really read up on my home town until I looked it up on Wikipedia the other day.  I found out that my humble high school math teacher was one of the athletes who inspired the movie Hoosiers.  I also discovered interesting facts about my town and historical sites that I didn’t even know existed, despite having lived there for over twenty years.  Next time I go back to visit, I intend to check some of them out.

Pay Attention to Signs

So you’re not a planner, huh?  Spontaneity is more your thing?  Then try paying attention to your surroundings.  Driving around Okinawa, I see signs that point toward castle ruins, shrines, parks, and all kinds of places that are tucked away in locations I never would have thought to explore.  Some of the neatest things I’ve seen are just things I happened upon because I noticed a sign and decided to go check it out.

Hit the Tourist Sites

You’ve lived in a place for several years–maybe even your whole life, but there’s a good chance you’ve never hit a lot of the places that tourists come to see.  People come from all over the world to visit the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, especially for the Indianapolis 500 or the Brickyard 400.  I lived about thirty miles from it for most of my life and I never went.  Don’t be like me!  Go to the museums and the monuments and the state parks!  Go to the annual events and the festivals!  It’s almost embarrassing to say you’ve grown up by them without having gone to see them.

Visit with a Friend

If you’ve already been somewhere, try going again with a friend (or a different friend than the one you took before).  Sometimes the company you’re with can completely change the experience.  I used to go to the same bookstore by myself all the time, and I would always browse the same sections for books that interest me, but one time I went with a friend who wanted to browse a completely different section of the same bookstore.  Not only did I find new kinds of books, but the books she showed me sparked good conversations and new interests.

Try New Activities

Another way to make your old surroundings seem new is to pick up a new activity or hobby.  The boring old field that you drive by every day on the way to work might be an awesome place to fly kites or radio-controlled aircraft.  That paved trail that cuts across your whole town would be a great place to go skateboarding or bicycling.  Think of ways to make the commonplace not so common.

Don’t Overlook the Simple Things

Sometimes even going to a hole-in-the-wall restaurant or dive bar can turn into a surprisingly great time.  Even if it’s terrible, that can be a story in and of itself.  Like the time I went to a mom-and-pop seafood place:  The catfish and clams were so over-fried I nearly broke my teeth on them, and the bartender was a flirty cougar with little concept of service.  I met an eccentric old man who did his best to indoctrinate me with redder-than-red-state political ideas and convince me of the truth behind several sinister conspiracy theories.  I doubt I’ll ever go back there, but it sure made for an interesting experience.  I never would have known if I hadn’t tried it.

Take Advantage of Unexpected Travel Opportunities

Not only should you look for these opportunities at home, but look for them when you travel.  When on business trips, visiting far off relatives, or attending conferences, don’t just sit in your hotel room; get out and see things!  Even if you’re going somewhere that doesn’t seem to have anything nearby, I guarantee you’ll be able to find something interesting to do–especially if you try the suggestions above.  I’ve heard a lot of people complain about how there’s nothing to do around Misawa Air Base, but on a recent trip there I left the base with some friends and checked out the local area.  We saw a really huge Buddha statue, a bar full of Robert De Niro memorabilia, and a surprisingly good Irish pub.  On the same trip, I ate sea urchin (uni), mantis shrimp (shako), and the best oysters I’ve ever had.  I also sampled a lot of different kinds of sake, and met a young Japanese woman who could speak Mandarin as badly as I can.

This is the Big Buddha (Showa Daibutsu) that I saw.

This is the Big Buddha (Showa Daibutsu) that I saw.

The best oysters ever

These are the best oysters I’ve ever had.

Adventures are all around you and close to home, so don’t miss out just because you’ve gotten used to the place.  Follow some of these suggestions and take the chance to find something new to do near you!  Do you have any stories about interesting things you’ve found in your local area?  Leave a comment and tell me about them!

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Rich & Eccentric Checklist: Your Friend Tony’s Retirement Plan

As I’m sure my faithful readers are aware, I have a long list of things I’d like to do when I’m no longer at the mercy of something so conventional and restrictive as a job to make my living.  After giving it much thought, here’s what I’ve come up with for my retirement plan.  Don’t worry; you can do it too!

Phase 1:  Retire from the Military

I’ve got several years to go before I’m eligible for this, and there’s always the chance that the government will turn off the flow of cash to able-bodied military retirees.  But if it all pans out, this is my plan.  Most military retirees I know have moved on to start contracting jobs or similar careers after they finish their time in the service, but I think I’ll be ready to start something new.

Phase 2: Move to a Third World Country

It would be best if it looked like this.

It would be best if it looked like this.

Preferably somewhere warm and close to the sea.  The key here is to find a place where U.S. dollars are worth a whole lot more than the local currency.  This way, the modest pension of a military retiree will actually be a hefty salary.  Some have suggested Thailand, Panama, or the Philippines. I suppose it will depend on the world situation when I reach that point.

Phase 3: Buy a Mansion

Something like this, except with a more glorious labyrinth

Something like this, except with a more glorious labyrinth

I don’t really need a lot of living space, but I could certainly use a nice rich & eccentric estate with enough land for my labyrinth, Segway jousting tiltyard, and my elephant pen.  In addition, I would like to have a karaoke bar, a manly scotch lounge, and an appropriate space for all of my unusual hobbies.  Likewise, there would be plenty of guest rooms for friends to crash in.  Naturally, I don’t plan to do all my own cooking and cleaning, so I can support the local economy by hiring groundskeepers, a cook, a few maids, and two beautiful young women to fan me with palm leaves and feed me grapes.

Phase 4: Live Out My Days as an Artistic Bum

This will be the time to do all the things I’ve always wanted to do but never had time for.  Learn to play the banjo? Check.  Write a series of novels? Check. Figure out how to use watercolors without all the colors running together? Check. Falconry? Definitely going to do that.  I’ll have plenty of time to finish reading every book that I’ve always wanted to read.  I’ll be far enough removed from society that I can write manifestos and treatises.  It will pretty much be awesome.  I’ll be a true jackass of all trades.

So there it is: Your Friend Tony’s rich and eccentric retirement plan.  What about you, friends? Do you have your own retirement plans, or are you going to borrow mine?  Leave a comment!

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The Evolution of an Insatiable Bookslut: Tony’s Tale

This was originally posted on Insatiable Booksluts.

Unlike many booksluts, I was not a natural born reader.  I have no stories about teaching myself to read or learning to read before I started school.  But I had a lot of people in my life who read to me at a young age.  My mom read Little Golden Books to me all the time, and so did my Aunt Jill and Aunt Stephanie.  I could recite my favorite books from memory, even if I couldn’t understand the letters and words.

One of my childhood favorites

Once I started school, it wasn’t until near the end of kindergarten that I learned to read very simple words, and throughout first and second grade, I struggled with reading and usually got placed in the slower reading groups.

But my love for information and a good story overcame my difficulties.  Despite my challenges with school-related readings, I started reading books on my own.  I always loved library day, and I would check out books from the A New True Book series to learn about different kinds of animals and dinosaurs and whatever else I was interested in at the moment.  They fed my information addiction like a 1980s children’s version of Wikipedia.   At night I read stories by my nightlight when my parents though thought I was asleep.  I had a variety of storybooks and an illustrated book of surprisingly graphic Bible stories that my dad used to read from.  This one quickly became my favorite, and when Dad’s job got too busy for him to keep up with family readings, I started reading it on my own.

All I see now is a bunch of white people posing as Hebrews.

Before long, I was moving on to bigger and better books, and my school librarian guided me to the mythology section.  I read everything in it.  Then I spent a while devouring Choose Your Own Adventure books.

For summer vacations, I would ride my bike down to the park, and then to the pool, and then I’d go to the public library in damp swim trunks with the moisture soaking through the bottom of my T-shirt.  I checked out how-to books, and I read about all kinds of different crafts and artwork, drawing, origami, and making neat toys out of junk.  I also read even more about animals and some of my favorite books were the ones about where to catch critters and how to keep them alive in homemade habitats.

I apologize to all the creatures who suffered this fate at my hands. Animals once considered me a super villain.

Those first years of reading were great, and I enjoyed them very much, but as I got older I moved on to different kinds of books.  At the age of twelve, I spent a day at my Aunt Tina’s house and I told her how I planned to read The Hobbit and then The Lord of the Rings because one of my friends had suggested it.  She put the conversation on hold as she ran into a different room to dig in her closet, and she came back with a bare green hardback copy of The Silmarillion.  I’ll never know what the dust jacket looked like.  “This is what came before The Hobbit,” she told me.  She let me borrow it, and I read the whole thing before I read any of the other books.  How, as a twelve-year-old, I had the patience for dry reading like The Silmarillion, I can only attribute to my previous readings of mythology and the Bible.  I quickly moved on to Tolkien’s other works, and finished off the entire Tolkien section of my middle school’s library, including Farmer Giles of Ham and his translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

Following Tolkien, I made a deal with one of my friends that if he read The Hobbit, I would read Mossflower by Brian Jacques.  I loved it for the anthropomorphic rodent heroes, and I read every other book that was available from the Redwall series.  Even better was Watership Down.  After that, I became an indiscriminate sci-fi/fantasy junkie, which continued throughout my high school years.

Redwall

Strangely enough, I very seldom enjoyed the “literature” I was assigned to read for school.  I won’t hate on A Separate Peace or The Great Gatsby too much, but I never got myself interested in them enough to match the enthusiasm that my English teachers had.  I was never assigned to read Hemingway, so naturally, he became my favorite literary author.  Of all the things I was assigned to read in high school, the only two I really appreciated were Grendel and To Kill a Mockingbird.  I obsessed over the dragon’s lecture to Grendel, trying to puzzle out all the big words and make sense of what my teacher had summed up as “a bunch of gobbledegook”.

Like Susie, I joined in academic competition and got to read and analyze a few literary works.  The one I remember best was Antigone.  I don’t know if it was the work itself or just that particular translation, but I found it moving.  Other than these few exceptions, though, I spent most of my time in high school reading pulp sci-fi and fantasy novels.  If I could have unread all the Terry Brooks books and been given the time back to socialize, perhaps the Virginity Fairy would have relieved me of my V-card much sooner.

The Virginity Fairy visited me a little later than she did most people I know.

The Virginity Fairy visited me a little later than she did most people I know.

Near the end of my high school days, my friend Eric introduced me to Stephen King by getting me The Shining as a Christmas gift.  I got a few chapters into it before my dad confiscated it for religious reasons.  Undaunted, I read ‘Salem’s Lot, keeping it discreetly hidden.

Given my unwillingness to read most assigned books, I really wonder what possessed me to major in English when I started college.  Nevertheless, I did.  During my years at Indiana State, I hardly had time to read anything that wasn’t part of the curriculum.  It turned out that this was my time to finally gain an appreciation for some of the classics.  I tore up Things Fall Apart by recently departed Chinua Achebe.  I also loved me some Nathaniel Hawthorne, Bram Stoker, and Mark Twain.  Over the summer between my freshman and sophomore years, I decided to embrace my heritage and read the Bible from cover to cover.  I liked Ecclesiastes the most.  At that time in my life, it was comforting to know that everything is meaningless.

I kept reading and working my way toward a degree in English literature.  I was required to read Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone for a pop culture class.  I followed the morbid misadventures of Bigger Thomas in Native Son, and I finally got a lesson in Chaucer where the professor assigned the Miller’s Tale.

Not all of my reading was in English.  For my classical studies courses, I translated Ovid, Vergil, and Catullus into English.  I especially liked Catullus.  His love affair with Lesbia mirrored my own heartbreaking college romance, so I really related to the euphoric poems at first, and the miserable ones later.

I graduated and took a break from reading literature for a while.  Instead I read self-help books about business as I tried to find my way in the world.  Thinking journalism to be a viable option for making a living, I started reading magazines and newspapers more than books.

In the decade since college, my appreciation for books has continued to develop.  For whatever reason, I did Cliff’s Notes on A Tale of Two Cities. (I had blown it off to read Fight Club and Choke.)  I remembered that the lecture made it sound interesting, so I went back and read it years after I graduated.  I read the remainder of the Harry Potter series after the last book finally came out.  I also discovered Gregory McGuire, Christopher Moore, and George R.R. Martin.  Finally, my best friend Eric–the same one who got me The Shining–talked me into reading The Gunslinger.  I shirked a lot of my personal responsibilities as I got sucked into that world.  Not long after, I began my love affair with audiobooks.  I usually listen to books I’ve already read, but occasionally I listen to something completely new, especially if it’s non-fiction.  I’ve done On Becoming a Leader, How to Win Friends and Influence People, and Pimsleur courses for Cantonese and Japanese.

My most recent discovery is Haruki Murakami.  I just finished Norwegian Wood, and I have The Wind-up Bird Chronicle in my to-read queue.

So there it is: Tony’s dirty, dirty past as a bookslut.  What about you, fellow booksluttians?  Did we read any of the same books?  How did you come to be a bookslut?

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Life in the Military: Sometimes We Die

When I go to work, I do my job.  I do it with all of my heart because I take pride in what I do.  Some parts of it suck, but I do it anyway.  I think most of the people in my community feel the same way.  The day-to-day becomes a mixed-up blur until we get sent away, and then we fall into the blur of a new routine–be it stateside training or overseas operations.  Whatever we’re doing, wherever we’re doing it, it usually feels like it’s just a job.

Until it’s not.

A few days ago, four members of my community died in a plane crash in Afghanistan.

When the news came out, the press didn’t release any names because the U.S. military wanted to notify families first, but the news was enough for us to know that we’d lost some of our own.  Many of my close friends have been on that same deployment, and all of their faces flashed across my mind.

Monday, we finally found out who we had lost.  Among them was a close friend to many of my friends–the brother of one of my coworkers.  To hear my chief tell us the unfortunate news in a wavering, tearful voice . . . he made it sound like it could have been any of us.  It could have been any of us.

That’s the moment when you realize that this is more than just a job.  Sure it pays the bills.  Sure it’s stressful and monotonous.  Sure the benefits are good.  But sometimes the things they ask us to do are dangerous.  Even when it doesn’t seem dangerous because you’re used to doing it.  Sometimes we go out and don’t come back.

I don’t really have much else to say.  I did not know the guy personally, but so many people I’m close to knew him very well.  Whatever the case, it hurts to lose one of our own.

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Things I Like: Taking Pictures

In February I took a month-long photography class with weekly two-hour sessions, and when I was done, I decided to take and post a photo a day in March.  A photo a day may have been forcing it, but I still got some pretty good results on some of them.  Here’s a gallery of a few of my favorite photos since February.

I thought these were my best of the month, but not necessarily that good.  As always, comments are welcome, and so are constructive critiques.