About K.A. Severson

Writer, copyeditor, optimistic cynic.

New year musings

In January of 2006, I traveled to London for a semester of studying abroad. Since I decided to live at home through most of college (it seemed wasteful to get an apartment when I went to university where my parents lived), studying abroad was my first experience of being (nominally) out on my own. I teetered between terror and euphoria on the day I left Colorado, but I slept well on the flight. How has a decade passed?

I’ve always wanted to spend time living abroad again, but my attempts at finding a suitable teaching position abroad didn’t succeed. For the most part, I’m happy they didn’t. If I’d taught abroad when I wanted to, I would not have been able to go home when it was important to me. Three people I love have passed away in the last couple years. With the most recent, I was able to fly out to Colorado soon after the cancer diagnosis (July 9th, 2015) and visit for a couple days while my uncle was doing well on treatments (Labor Day weekend). There was never any doubt the disease would be fatal; the question was only “how soon?”

This last summer, I took my first international vacation since 2007. I went to Scotland for about 10 days, and it was everything I hoped it would be. I even went so far as to stand in front of 30 people I knew from the tour group and played Irish flute. My playing is not yet good (rhythm and the bottom register in particular need work), but I forced myself to chuck some of my shyness and play the hornpipe “The Rights of Man” and the slip jig “The Butterfly”. Stretching myself and experiencing new things made June a wonderful month.

My current path does not really have a branch that would take me abroad, and I am quite certain I do not want to change tracks and teach. At this point, putting a potential career on hold would not be beneficial if I ever want to retire.

This year my goals are not too ambitious. I want to finish at least one writing project, continue playing Irish flute, get back into studying Japanese, and learn to be more organized. Maybe focusing on the things I know I can achieve will help me find some answers for the larger picture as well.

JLPT madness redux

Last year I took the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT) N4, as a motivational challenge. I did not do very well on it, not so much for lack of trying as it was for lack of time in which to study and the joys of having a cold when taking the test. Oddly enough Sudafed and caffeine do not help my concentration any (wait, you mean being shaky and hyper is distracting?), but I didn’t have a choice if I wanted my ears mucus free so I could hear during the listening portion of the test.

The test is held each year in December. When I signed up for it in August, I thought I’d have plenty of time to study, since I was still only working part time and could study at my weekend job. Then later that month I started interviewing for a new job in Boston, my grandfather passed away (which delayed the third round of interviews to Friday the 13th), I got the job and started it in October, my grandmother passed away the week I started, and I had a wedding to go to the weekend after the funeral. I did what I could to keep up with studying, but man. Life. Thankfully I like my new job, I have great coworkers, and I’m really enjoying have weekends again so I can spend more time with my friends who also work full time.

I’ve started studying with a group of friends who are also considering taking the JLPT this year. Since I feel like I should set myself challenges, I’m studying for the N3. I’m striving to pass, but if I’m going to fail, I should fail upwards.

One of my reasons for taking the JLPT is that I would like something tangible to point to so that, if it’s relevant, I can put Japanese on my list of skills on resumes. I never took Japanese in college, and I’ve never taken formal classes. I probably wouldn’t have added it if I’d passed the N4 (it tests very basic Japanese), but if I pass the N3 I’ll be able to show a reasonable level of understanding. I’m still too shy to speak in Japanese very much, and I’m also pretty lazy about posting writing in Japanese, so my skills are still reading and listening centric. Mostly reading. I’m playing Final Fantasy X, X-2, and XIII in Japanese, and if the dialogue did not include Japanese subtitles I would probably have far lower comprehension.

Visiting family

I’m quite often reminded what an awesome family I have. I traveled quite a lot in the last month to visit people, partly in reaction to the tragedy on Patriot’s Day (I live and work very close to the Boston Marathon finish line) and partly because I hadn’t gotten to see some of my favorite Colorado people at Christmas because I had spent the latter half of my trip suffering from the flu. Visiting my 92 year old grandmother and 95 year old grandfather while contagious seemed like a particularly awful idea, so I did not see them in December.

Hugs and getting to talk freely about how things are really going is healing. So is laughter, and I got to do a lot of that as well. Mom helping me train my new (and first) smartphone to recognize curse words was especially amusing. We went to a lot of my favorite places in their town, and a couple places I had not been before.

My grandfather (who turns 96 next month) was more energetic and present than he’d been the last time I saw him, which was at Thanksgiving. My grandparents moved into an assisted living facility a few months ago, and they seem happier there. Grandma seems to have made a few friends already.

I had the opportunity to catch up with friends I hadn’t seen in a couple years, which was wonderful. They’re all just as awesome as ever, and the changes in their lives during the last two years seem like they were largely for the best.

As always, I came back with more in my suitcase than I had started out with. I’ve been getting more into cooking, and I found a pretty bento box at one of my favorite independent stores in Fort Collins. My Japanese is getting much better. The store didn’t have any English literature on the boxes offered, but I managed to recognize an unfamiliar term for “dishwasher” (apparently the one I knew is less common) as being a word for dishwasher. I dislike washing things by hand, and I was quite pleased to find one that’s dishwasher and microwave safe. Once I had the dishwasher bit figured out, I was able to puzzle out the rest of the directions without using the dictionary much at all.

Two weeks ago, I went down to NYC to visit my brother and sister-in-law. That also was fun, I hadn’t seen either of them in almost a year. I got quite a few opportunities for long conversations with both of them, despite the fact that our opposing work schedules meant I had to visit on days they were both at work. Spending time wandering through the Met was lovely, as was getting to browse a new favorite and an old favorite bookstore. I came home with a thick stack of books and manga from Kinokuniya, a Japanese bookstore, which was a place I’d never had the opportunity to visit before. I’m enjoying improving my Japanese reading ability. As I’ve said before, working on something that allows me to see measurable progress makes me happy and keeps me from going nuts. I’m still underemployed, and still searching for something good in my field.

I haven’t written publicly about my feelings and reactions to the recent bombing, and it’s unlikely I will. I scrapped several drafts, and in the end I feel that other people have already said what I want to say with more grace than I can muster. I was home that afternoon with a headache, so I was spared the worst.

Studying: less effective when tired

Stress from searching for a job has led to me not sleeping nearly as much as I need for the last week or so. By Friday, exhaustion scrambled my brain to the point it took me five minutes of staring at a chunk of text before I figured out that no, I cannot in fact read Chinese. Recognizing that something is in Chinese and not Japanese shouldn’t take me more than a couple seconds because, to anyone who can read one language or the other, they look completely different. I started laughing at myself and decided that going to bed early was a grand idea.

I’m up to an almost intermediate reading level with Japanese, which is what makes Friday more funny to me. Even though I was once again not chosen for a teaching position in Japan, I’m continuing to study the language. As I’ve said before, I like the language and I enjoy studying. Reaching milestones and making measurable progress in something is satisfying.

Awhile back, I was only half paying attention to something playing in the background when the sentence “朝食に納豆を食べました” (I ate natto for breakfast) came up. I gagged. Apparently I hated the slimy, fermented soybeans so much seven years ago that I still have an immediate, visceral reaction even when I’m not fully paying attention to what’s being said. I was cheery for the rest of the evening because I knew that understanding simple Japanese had stopped being a struggle.

My ability to speak and write, however, suffers because I do not practice enough. Most times that I’ve wanted to go to the local language exchange group, something comes up last minute. Someday, I’ll get it together and manage to go. Someday.

Eyewitness Accounts, or, Why Nonfiction is Tricky

Eyewitness accounts are always tricky, as a plethora of psychology experiments and historical records show. Lately, my facebook friends are reminding me of this with some of the politically-slanted reshares making the rounds. The more on-the-nose a piece is for a given political view, the more time I will spend googling its veracity. Items with strong bias are the least likely to pass even a cursory round of fact checking. I could save myself a lot of time by muting updates from people who hit the share button without considering whether something is likely to be true, but I think expanding my knowledge is never a waste.

The gist of the one that’s bugging me is that it’s an eyewitness account with some glaring factual errors. I’m all for adding the eyewitness perspective to history and to debates, but only if context and fact checking balance it out. The need for research is even stronger when the eyewitness did not keep records throughout his or her life. Given how unreliable eyewitnesses can be five minutes after seeing an accident, trying to write a coherent account decades later is going to be riddled with errors. This is even truer if the witness is trying to talk about politics and events from his or her childhood. I challenge you to think of a major national or world event that happened when you were, say, 12 years old. Now, go and find a few articles on said event and tell me just how many details you misunderstood because you were twelve and also because so many years have passed.

My sensitivity to the challenges of nonfiction do not come from writing workshops alone. I’ve lost count of the number of times I had to change what I intended to write in a history paper because that great parallel I intended to draw didn’t hold up when I went back and found the source I’d read three months or three years before.

I know I can be an unreliable narrator of important events in my own life. I tend to go to other people who were there at any given event to see if I can confirm the chronology and any details I’m afraid I may have got wrong. Usually the details I’ve gotten wrong are minor, but in a couple cases they’ve been major enough I had to scrap a draft and start over.

The internet would be a better place if people fact checked their own work and if people thought a bit harder before hitting the “like,” “share,” or “retweet” buttons. Wanting something to be true because it supports one’s bias and something actually being true are not always the same thing. We all know this, but it seems a minority of us are curious or cynical or obsessive enough to do the work of checking sources and statistics.

On a tangentially related note, I’m glad we’re well past the 2012 election. I found 2012 a bit wearying due to the usual slew of misrepresented statistics, offensive remarks, and general hoopla. The bombardment of information is the main reason it’s been so long since I last posted. Anything I attempted to post went something like this: RANT RANT RANT thoughtful comment RAGE factoid RANT why do politicians hate women’s rights RAGE. Between that and a lack of bloggable new things in my life, I elected not to post.

Speeches and Boston rain

Having attended a college that prides itself on communication programs and media arts, all the speeches from the graduate program commencement ceremony are on youtube. Emerson College streamed the whole ceremony live, which is great for people whose families are far flung. Tony Kushner (playwright and screenwriter) gave the address, and I would say it’s the best commencement address I’ve seen live. He was funny and he kept the focus of the speech away from his own work and centered on themes related to graduation and the future of we the graduating class. I did not feel like it was a 20 minute speech, and I admit I was surprised when I saw the time stamp on the youtube video.

The saddest part of graduation, for me, is that the reception afterwards was supposed to be outside. By the time we left the theater, rain poured down. Neither my parents nor I had remembered to bring umbrellas. I would have liked to say goodbye to the wonderful faculty members I had the pleasure of working with while at Emerson, but I didn’t want to wander through the rain only to discover no one bothered to stick around for the reception on Boston Common. No one I asked knew if they’d set up tents or not, and the invitations had said the reception would be held “weather permitting.” I did see my thesis advisor (Megan Marshall) briefly, and I wish I could have delayed a little to ask her how her new book is coming along. I enjoyed her book on the Peabody sisters and I’m quite looking forward to her book about Margaret Fuller. All of us graduate students were being herded out of the theater and into a plaza outside, which at least had an overhang to protect us somewhat from the rain. We stood in our graduation regalia texting or calling our families to let them know where we ended up, since no one had bothered to inform the guests that we’d all been sent outside.

Once I found my parents,  we wandered over to a nearby restaurant instead of getting soaked in a quest to find out if anyone had stayed for the outdoor reception. Our waitress happened to be an undergraduate at Emerson, still a year away from graduation. She immediately identified the purple and yellow lining of my master’s hood as Emerson’s colors and we chatted a little about the school. Someday she may be an editor I’ll work with. Delicious food and a chat with a fellow Emersonian served as a good ending to the day.

As I had hoped, attending graduation provided a good sense of closure to my experience at Emerson College. I’m happy I have my master’s hood for my graduation regalia, too. Someday I may need it if I choose to teach at a college or university. At present, teaching college students isn’t something I particularly want to do. My writing career is not yet advanced enough for me to have a hope of finding gigs that pay well, so for now I’m exploring other teaching options (and career options in general) that might pay all the bills.

I’m… done?

I still find it a little difficult to believe I’m done with my Master of Fine Arts degree. The diploma itself has sat on my desk since January, protected by the stiff cardboard envelope it was mailed in. Until I walk in the graduation ceremony on the 14th, I don’t think I’ll feel like I’ve finished. A piece of paper with my name on it doesn’t seem as concrete a finale.

The months since receiving that expensive bit of paper have been filled with me wondering what to do next. Teaching abroad had seemed like a sure thing, but circumstances dictated that it won’t happen this year. Maybe I’ll get into one of the programs I like on try 2, maybe I won’t. For now I’m working on getting some teaching experience and generally figuring out Plan C.

I’m continuing to study Japanese because I enjoy studying, not because I feel I need it. During my thesis semester, studying helped keep me sane. To a nerd like me, making and studying flash cards is soothing and having the structure of studying something is also a sanity saver. I started to pick Japanese up again faster than I expected, so I suppose all that time I spent watching anime and half-heartedly studying Japanese as a teenager did pay off. I can say a lot more than just 私は日本語が少しわかります(I understand a little Japanese), and I can back up that sentence with evidence. Once upon a time, my fluency in any language other than English was limited to a few pleasantries (please, thank you, hello, goodbye) and the all-important “I don’t speak this language.” For French, Spanish, and German, that’s still more or less all I can say. I’m still surprised how often I was stopped in Europe by natives asking for directions (my favorite was in Amsterdam, where the woman went on to say “English! Second time this has happened today”). Apparently my choice not to dress sloppily paid off, and I managed to somewhat blend in.

One of the best things that’s come out of me beginning to shed my monolingual status is the international community of language learners. I never realized how many fantastic online communities there are, where fluent speakers take the time to correct speakers who are not fluent. I like helping people who are trying to learn English and it’s invaluable to have people correcting my still-sketchy Japanese.

There are other things I ought to be focusing on, such as my writing career, but for now I’m taking it slow while I decide exactly what I want my focus to be. I write, or at least work on plotting and development, almost every day. That too keeps me sane while I figure out all those larger life goals.