It is a black and hard-covered book, a non-technical and creative title, and the white etchings tickle as his fingertips run through them. The book has been a financial failure yet acclaimed by a niche audience loyal and zealous over the man’s work, which is of a multi-varied and erudite kind, a treatise on the human condition and its eventual ascension into a higher stage. He has recently found a publisher although the publisher is of a certain ideology he does not wholly align with. He considers this a necessary evil.
The man sucks on a cigar shaped like a torpedo and exhales. He tilts off a half-inch nub of ash and watches it crumble and then settle. The orange glow, the heat. He is reminded of a certain collection of imagined scenes. Prometheus bringing fire down from the heavens, parting massive clouds with a flamed spectre so bright. The pulse in him rises sharp yet short. He reposes on his plush chair.
In front of the man is a laptop. On one tab is his YouTube analytics. Views are down. In January they were at the highest due to a political event and the man felt good about this and considered it a turning point. At other times he considered it his one and only zenith. He used the word zenith specifically.
On his laptop he sees some national news which makes him misanthropic. He makes a tweet to his two-thousand or so followers. He uses analogies and terms such as civilization, protean, and singularity. In one hour he gets four retweets. He makes another tweet more personal and bold. Then a persistent and challenging thought occurs to him: a new morality must be pre-established. The new morality will be revealed in his next book and so he deletes this tweet.
Now he struggles to find methods for increasing his reach, not for him lacking the creativity, but for the methods going against exactly what he values. And do I want to be someone with a high follow-ship? he thinks. Then he says the word esoteric. The syllables hiss through his teeth, clack the tongue. The hooves of a mighty and masculine horse stomping in an empty field, a border of thick dark creeping to it- that which he imagines vividly.
He gets up the chair, crushes the cigar-tip into an ashtray, and goes to his bedroom where his wife is in bed. “How is it?” she asks.
During the early day she had recommended to include his face in the video thumbnails. She had learned it increases viewer engagement. He had become angry and argumentative. She now feels cautious, nervous. She knows to keep her responses short.
“It’s okay,” he says.
“What can I say?”
He gets in the sheets. “We’ll see how I feel tomorrow. Maybe I’ll get you to videotape me in the office. Maybe I’ll make a speech. I’ll wake up early to prepare. Whatever. I don’t want to think about it now. In January, they’d watch anything. I can’t get another January again.”
These appetites: Shapes,
And Rimbaud’s regret?
To sprawl oneself bare
On dynamic growth, youth did not have
Age grows too brittle and arthritic
There are worse things than inexperience!
The measure is what one has not –yet what
Was charming of African earth?
-Consistency in the predator’s gaze
-A delicate (simple) joy bending to the sun
Libertineflesh sheathed its poet’s death;
With no remorse in the seasons’ passage
This dead poet’s footnotes trailed
To find art living as concubine
I was working on short stories from January – April of 2019. I’ve now compiled them in an Ebook. It’s near terrifying how personal, revealing, the process of writing can be; and all sourcing without planning or prior thought – a sequence of events created, and by some natural force, linked in a whole both coherent and meaningful.
The story is a testament; it’s always been, and not just for me. And for what, I don’t know, or I don’t want to know. That’s likely why I’m attracted to writing fiction: to play in the mystery.
1. Inertia A painter struggling with authenticity and the influence of others tries to start a new life in a city under political unrest. Loosely based on the October Crisis in Québec.
2. Darwin’s Curse A scientist cataloguing wildlife on a tropical island must reconcile science and faith after his wife miscarries from a genetic defect.
3. The Trial of Davey & Lon Two friends break into a cemetery to rob a precious necklace from the body of someone very famous.
4. We, Among Fools Alternate historical fiction on the bizarre relationship between King Henry the 8th and his court jester William Sommers.
5. White Lilacs In the aftermath of a civil war a husband returns home thinking his wife dead, yet there’s something happening to him that he can’t and isn’t willing to explain.
Artwork: Max Beckmann (1884 – 1950) Left – Departure – 1935 Right – The Actors – 1942
A cool yet sunny August in east Montreal, and the street was crowded, blocked off, and alive with music. I met her, Paris-born, long black hair, eyes like discs of blue china, at the bus station. Then we went to get wine from a convenience store. Bottle and plastic cups in hand, we found a park, sat in the shade of a giant tree, and drank. She told me that she wanted to become an actress, but she didn’t know how to get started. I told her that that’s the hardest part.
“I feel like an alien,” she said.
“Like I don’t belong. I’m thinking of a movie idea where there’s a girl, but she’s not normal. She’s an alien like me. And she has to fit in with normal earth people.” She drank. “Boring people.” Her Parisian accent became stretched, elongated. I listened with calm satisfaction.
After we finished we went, slowly, to the street with the vendors and people and music. I had traveled to Montreal to attend a language learning convention, called LangFest. I had bought the tickets months prior. I didn’t make it. And I didn’t show for the next day, or the last. Of course, I still wanted to improve my French. I was doing that – in a way. “Trottoir,” I told her while pointing. She nodded. “Les nuages sont plein des larmes,” I said. (They weren’t; it was a clear day). She laughed.
After a few blocks I grew bored of pointing to objects and saying their French name. We ended up talking only English.
There were many problems.
First, she didn’t understand my pronunciation, though she did commend me on my accent (because it wasn’t Québécois). Second, I didn’t understand her’s. It sounded like a completely foreign language to me, which for sure it was, but for having studied it over 1 year, it shouldn’t have. Third, I couldn’t string together coherent sentences past the most basic ones. I was mentally blocked. Whatever genuine expression I made took minutes to do.
I started learning French in University. Some of the exercises I did are locked well in my memory, and I'm glad I learned the grammar early and in a formal setting. I do think it helps. It allows one to find meaningful patterns in initially meaningless information (though that can still happen naturally by inference). The real problem of grammar is that it can be boring. And in language learning boredom is a prime enemy, along with its temptress, distraction.
After finishing both semesters of French, I started learning on my own for an entire summer, doing so mostly through literature (reading and listening), which did little for my speaking ability. But if I'm going to learn a language I want to do so while absorbing the culture. So, I enjoyed it regardless.
My favourite website to read (in many languages) is LingQ. A community of users gives definition to every word in user uploaded books, articles, podcasts, courses, etc,.
Basically, LingQ is a website where people serve the function of Google Translate.
Every word is highlighted one specific colour. By clicking a word, a list of definitions pops up. The ones voted most accurate show up on the top, and then you can choose which definition you think is best, then the word is added to your word-bank, and as you familiarize yourself with it, you can change its colour until you fully know it. This is a great system I learned to read quickly from.
I've tried Duolingo; it's okay but you're limited to learn only what's available on the app and its contexts. I've also tried Memrise, which is a decent way to build up vocabulary.
None of these applications on their own are enough.
Barbecue smoke was hanging along the street like wooly sheets. The air of fried rice, baked breads, sweet sauce, grilled beef was mixed with the heavy scent of beer. After my date bought a set of lingerie we went searching the eatery stalls. A stomach half-filled by cheap wine wants one thing (besides more wine): greasy, fatty food.
I was staring at a young man tonging fried noodles out of a barrel-like pot. We approached and I said, “Pour moi,” with my index waving.
“Emprunter ou ici?”
I looked into the pot. The noodles were dark yellow. Slimy.
“Emprunter ou ici?” He was fully focused on me. I shifted my gaze from the pot and to my date. She knew.
“To go,” she said.
When we left I asked her: “What did he say?”
“To go or for here.”
“What was the first word he used?”
“I would’ve said aller.” Then, “Whatever, I still wouldn’t understand it.”
“It’s okay,” she said. “You’re doing okay.”
This was the point I gave up trying to speak French (in Montreal). I was frustrated; I came with expectations and none of them were met. I felt like I wasted my time.
In language learning circles the name Stephen Krashen evokes the same prestige as Sigmund Freud does in psychology.
Stephen Krashen's work
Krashen is a linguist and pedagogist. In the 70's he developed a theory of language learning called Input Hypothesis, which is an umbrella term for five main hypotheses on adult language acquisition.
To be precise, there's a difference between language learning and acquisition. Children are known to acquire language. Krashen's theory focuses on adults learning language, or in other words, second-language acquisition. To Krashen, the difference between the two is that acquisition is subconscious, while learning is conscious. And for him, adults also can acquire language, not just learn it.
Input Hypothesis first states that language input and competency are in a linear relationship. The more one is exposed, the more one will understand. But it's not that simple: the input has to be at first comprehensible (easy) enough for progress to be made.
Think of it as levels. A learner progresses through the levels, going from easy to hard, and their competency adjusts accordingly.
Another hypothesis states negative emotions interfere with acquisition. So, for example, my frustrations in Montreal acted as blinders: from what I couldn't see, I couldn't act on, couldn't acquire. A comfortable, stress-free state is a prerequisite for all this process to happen.
Now, I wonder how my parents, both immigrants, learned English. They didn't take classes; didn't expose themselves to increasing levels of difficulty; in many cases they were stressed and overwhelmed. Yes, they may not have the best grasp of it, but they can speak, read and write. And yes, their current competency might've taken them a few years (and stopped after a point), but in less than a year they were communicating with a proficiency I have not yet attained with over two years of focused effort. How?
For sure, they learned (or acquired) through necessity; their focus was on without their effort having to be. The subconscious engine of their mind was labouring day and night, and gradually, through employment interviews, lineups, TV, street conversations, advertisements, rental agreements, etc., they got it.
A day later we went to an art museum. I was by myself and one of the guides noticed me. He walked up smiling and eager. He began talking about the virtual reality exhibition. He must’ve been going on for two minutes. I was nodding, picking up some, but mostly lost in parsing an amalgam of flowing sound. Then I failed to notice that he was asking me a question. His eyes grew saucer-like. Did he feel betrayed?
Soon she found me alone and contemplative, staring at a talking animation on a TV. I kept replaying the conversation in my head; replaying the moment I stabbed him in the back with my incompetence.
Recently, I've been learning Spanish, listening to the Michel Thomas Method. They're casual recordings of Michel teaching two students, a male and female. He says words and phrases and then asks for the Spanish equivalent. The conversations progress in complexity and become more in Spanish. As he instructs, enough time is given for the listener to formulate their responses; so, you become the third student.
Of course, Michel emphasizes reference-free translations. Spanish should evoke a meaning on its own without you having to refer to English. This is a tricky ideal to reach. At first a learner will be bound to their native language to provide meaning. Through consistent time and effort the binding breaks. No one who's proficient in a second-language relies on their first to make sense of it (bilinguals will know this intuitively).
I really enjoy these recordings. It feels like learning from a Spanish speaker without all the demands that the teacher-student relation entails. Michel even places the onus of learning solely on the teacher, making the experience as care-free as possible.
I've also used the Pimsleur method, but for Vietnamese. It works off the same premise as Michel, though it's much more formal, and therefore "colder". The two students are replaced with two native speakers. Though, the students make mistakes you'd make, and so you learn from them, and they're fun to listen to, especially when you're all progressing as a group. Pimsleur is still good but Michel sticks in your head more, which may be counterintuitive because a structured, "professional" method may seem to do that better; but that's just a prejudice.
For thousands of years language learning did not happen through a curriculum. It was a chaotic, organic, imperfect process. It still is.
Then we walked in Old Montréal, a classically designed section near the St. Lawrence River, reminiscent of Europe. Cobbled streets, colonial architecture with the emerald spires, an earth of pillars and stone.
“My uncle lives in Mexico,” I said. “And he speaks Spanish like a local.”
“That’s natural,” she said; her gaze out to the glassy river.
“His wife is Mexican, so, he picked it up with a passion.”
We stopped to sit on a bench. The waters ebbed slowly and its colour seamed with the sky in a whitish blue. Above us a few long strips of cloud like cascading beams.
“That is how you learn a language,” she said. “Live in the country and fall in love.”
Learning in the traditional sense has some large obstacles.
First, one has to depend on their motivation.
Second, it's too restricted to a specific environment (mental and physical).
The most vital requirement of language learning is that you need to work and be exposed in the language for a long and stable time. And that consistency requires motivation, or the right environment.
My motivation came from culture. Besides speaking the language, I wanted to know the language; the ideas in it, the wisdom, idioms, moods, worldview. I focused on the dimension easiest for that, for me: reading. Speaking was left in the dark, and given some light, it became clear there wasn't much there. I needed to move my motivation elsewhere. But it was hard to pick up without having people around me.
My uncle didn't care for motivation. He was living the language. I, however, was stuck on my laptop or in books.
At night we went to her apartment. It was overlooking an expansive park where the curving trails were lined by lamplights that shone yellow orbs on ponds now looking like dark pools of metal among the dense green. Her kitchen was small and tidy and on a table was a box of chocolate filled croissants. I looked at them for a while.
“Have some,” she said. I sat down. She played French music on her laptop.
“Serge, please,” I said. Then she played “Couleur Café” by Serge Gainsbourg, 1964.
She sung in her Parisian way, dancing across the living room. My mouth was stuffed by buttery croissant; my eyes fixed on her; my head to the rhythm. Serge’s lyrics were so idiosyncratic that even she couldn’t understand them. But neither of us cared about understanding then.
Two years after my trip now and I wouldn’t consider myself as of yet to have learned French, but I’m not worried. I’m familiar with it. Language learning is a lifetime process; not something you do for a few months, then drop, expecting it to last you a lifetime. The language is built around you and your unique experiences. Have fun and enjoy. The main cause of why people abandon this endeavour is due to the expectations they put on themselves. Goals are important, but each one has an opinion. They’ll tell you about your failures; what you could’ve been; what more you still need to do. They can, if you allow them, inspire disappointment, and then disillusionment. Don’t take them too seriously. This is a process that doesn’t conform to their rules.
Hanoi, for you, I without family come 8,000 miles
I, the flâneur, walk between your glass gods and carapace-husks
take in electric smoke, petrol fume
welcoming Sodom where I go
here our dreaming Gautama stuck in never-black night
the very dead patriarch greeting eternal a fleeting sun
and why shouldn't the world (this flesh monopoly)
also reel a crusted cheek out of its starry hole? Nonetheless
a woman bentback on stool
cooks her luncheon patties, smiles to me
waves the broth-drip noodle, mint sprigs, with a tong
I not unwelcoming sit
the gusts, the pasture quakes
bovines yelling in the wheatgrass
the stink of flesh, stink of bile
irises crushed, crackle of tiny bone
flows down the grate drain
the human shapes
in pockets of dark
in dust silhouette
clouds hang over the Occident
and a pangolin is roasted
The hills of Gondwana did not bear your hatred
and split thereby. Nor did the species spread
to your design, nor the arc of planets your geometry
nor does your brain pump its heart for you, nor is a crimson skyline,
the burning juniper, great canyon
and the depth of wilderness perfect for your poem, your picture
Those tears can never wet the desert, even the sun
nukes skin. Even life is a metaphor for death
and all written words, the colours on blank,
a secret reconciliation with that death
The sun is a bastard
Whom I love. Moon does not understand
I am cheating with soil. The mossbeds rise like breath
The crows do not observe, they do not know I cheat
With worms. Locked in leaves, green juice. Find me
Polaris burning in a hovel
We knew the world was dark and feral
Many heads and fangs, as I, pink tongue
Cup rainwater in my milksoft skull. Assail wheat and tawny oat
The sprucebranch I hold bending forever