How a bookstore coupon changed my life

Just over four years ago, a friend of mine at work gave me a little magenta coupon for a bookstore that a friend of his was starting up. Although I had a backlog of books to read and wasn’t very interested, he practically pleaded with me to visit the bookstore, and help his friend out, if possible. Since I strongly believe in supporting independent booksellers, and I’ve never met a bookstore I didn’t like, I gladly accepted it and decided to check it out after work.

Ned FlandersBut getting there wasn’t easy; its only sign wasn’t readily visible from the road and it was in a run-down neighborhood. The building might have been a laundromat in its previous life, but whatever it had been, it still wasn’t attractive. I walked in, and was greeted by a very friendly blond-haired guy with an ear-to-ear Baptist smile and the most desperately helpful attitude outside of Ned Flanders’ yard.

I explained I was just looking, and he let me browse, begging me to let him know the instant I needed anything. I don’t know how long he had been in business, but I had the impression I was one of only a very few customers to walk in that day, and maybe the first. Browsing was disappointing. There weren’t very many books, maybe just a few hundred titles in the entire store. And at least half were in Spanish! (Anything you don’t see we can order for you, the owner had assured me.)

None of the English titles appealed to me; they were all overstocks of unpopular titles. I browsed the Spanish titles (I couldn’t read any Spanish, but I recognized the name of a familiar author. There were several titles by Paulo Coelho, the author of one of my favorite books, The Alchemist as well as others such as The Fifth Mountain, By the River Piedra I Sat Down and Wept. I found myself looking for a copy of The Alchemist in Spanish. I couldn’t read Spanish, but hey, how hard could it be? I had grown up on the Mexican border, taken some compulsory Spanish in school, and could recognize lots of cognate words. (I had never had any trouble understanding “Se Prohibido Fumar” on signs!)

I thought if I bought it, I might be able to learn Spanish from it, and who knows? Barcelona had intrigued me ever since the ’92 Olympics—maybe someday I’d visit it. Maybe I’d even learn Catalan. Who knows, maybe I’d even pick up my long-forgotten, never-spoken Esperanto? Probably not, though. Mainly I just wanted to buy something, because I couldn’t stand the prospect of walking out empty-handed of this guy’s store even though his business was obviously hopeless. I announced I was looking for The Alchemist in Spanish, and there was a little problem; that was the only Coelho title that he didn’t have in stock. (Apparently even El alquimista was too popular to make the overstock collection he had purchased.)

Finally, after several weeks, my special order of El alquimista came in. I found out that night that there’s a big difference between being able to read a No Smoking sign and a single prosy paragraph of a novel in a foreign language! But I was stimulated now. In my high school and college years, I had studied German and Russian, and on my own I had studied some Esperanto and Biblical Greek and Hebrew. Of course, I hadn’t learned much of any of those, and what little I had learned was unused and long-forgotten. But maybe I could actually accomplish what I and the majority of my countrymen fail to accomplish: learn another language to the degree of actually being able to use it.

I commenced teaching myself Spanish with simple grammars, audiobooks, and podcasts. After about eight months, I was very frustrated, and felt I needed to learn a simpler language first, and return to Spanish after I had successfully trained myself to learn a language. I decided to concentrate on Esperanto for a while. I found I really enjoyed Esperanto, and launched a very small Esperanto club with the help of a friend. Esperanto was designed to be exceptionally easy, and within six months, I found I was fairly conversational, and made plans to go to an international Esperanto congress in Montréal, Québec.

But I knew Esperanto would be enough only as long as I hung with just the Esperantists; the main language of Montréal was French; so surely I should study some French, too! That I did, visiting Alliance Française meetups, while I continuing to focus on Esperanto. I had four wonderful days in Montréal where I used Esperanto and French almost exclusively.

Back from the conference I continued to study Esperanto and also Spanish as well. I was determined to visit Barcelona sometime. Esperanto fell into place as my second language without much further active study as such. Practicing with friends at the Esperanto club, listening to Esperanto podcasts, writing my journal in Esperanto, and reading in it occasionally made it almost effortless. And over the next two years, I went to national Esperanto congresses in St. Louis, Missouri, and Washington, D.C., where I made friends from all over the country.

Spanish was much more difficult for me—the irregular verbs seemed almost impossible—but I persisted and made it beyond the beginning barrier into an intermediate zone through study, reading books and websites, watching Spanish-language movies, and practicing the language at meetups. (I also studied what little Catalan I could.)

I made it!This summer, I realized my dream of visiting Spain and spent a wonderful two weeks in Barcelona and Palma de Mallorca. Naturally, I did a lot of sightseeing, but my greatest experiences were simply talking with people. I struck up conversations in plazas and parks, on the street, and in the subway. Language enabled me to have a far richer experience of the country than I could ever have had without it.

I’m planning on going to California and Brazil for more Esperanto-fueled travel, and I want to return to Spain, for a much longer stay in the future. Linguistically, I’m continuing work on my Spanish, and will probably learn a little Portuguese as well for the Brazil trip. (And I still intend to pick up French where I left off, and to “reactivate” my high-school German sometime.)

My last four years have been full of language meetings, books and film in foreign languages, travel across the country and far beyond; friends, acquaintances, drinks, meals, and memories. And I’m looking forward to a future filled with travel and language ahead of me.

Which all started because of someone giving me a coupon for a doomed bookstore.

How will what you do today change someone’s life? How will someone change yours? The most insignificant thing you do today might change the course of events beyond anyone’s expectations. This is life, and it’s amazing!

Marathon (and other) updates

I won’t be running in the Shamrock Marathon this month. I had some substantial problems with my left Achilles’ tendon, and after some rest, a lot of physical therapy, a couple of shoe changes, and wearing an ankle brace, I think that’s behind me, as long as I go slow in building up to the distance. These problems started in late December. At that time, I changed my plans to run in the half-marathon event instead of the full marathon, but my Achilles’ problem kept flaring up, and I was never able to run more than seven miles without tremendous difficulty.

So now, I’m training for the Rock-and-Roll Half Marathon in Virginia Beach in September. That should give me ample time to train without hurting myself. I’m looking forward to it!

Other news:
I’ll be going on vacation to Barcelona and Majorca this summer. I’ve dreamed about this for years. My dad will be coming along with me, and I think this is going to be an amazing experience for both of us.

I’ve been trying to studying both Spanish and Catalan this year, but I’m finding that studying two languages at once, especially if they’re closely related, is really difficult. The result is that I haven’t really studied much of either so far this year. I have a pretty good base in Spanish now, which I’ve been studying off and on for about three years, but my Catalan is very basic, and it’s tough to find good learning materials and anyone to practice with.

I love Catalan and really want to learn it (it’s like a cross between Spanish and French, spoken with a Russian accent); but I’ve come to realize that I need to give Spanish priority. That way I when I get there I’ll have a very decent grasp of one of the area’s languages. If I try to concentrate on Catalan alone for a few months, I probably won’t be very good in either one when I get there. (Sigh.)

I’m planning not just on going to Esperanto USA’s national congress this year as usual, but I may actually be giving a workshop in Esperanto there. (Public speaking in a foreign language! Just a couple of years ago that would have been unimaginable to me.)

Back from Montréal

I’ve just returned from a trip to Montréal for a joint conference of the United States’ and the Pan-American Esperanto associations. I had a wonderful time, and my only regret was that I had to leave early for travel and work considerations. It was a wonderful experience. In the year since I began seriously studying Esperanto, I still hadn’t met another Esperantist (they’re hard to come by in Norfolk!) and now I was completely immersed in Esperanto, surrounded by hundreds of speakers, mostly fluent, from not only the whole Western hemisphere, but from as far away as Japan.

The whole experience was a blast. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve had a great desire to travel, and other cultures, languages, and belief systems have always fascinated me.  Here I was having “three-language” days, speaking with the other attendees in Esperanto and with the locals in French and English. (I tried to use French as much as possible, and to switch to English only when necessary—it usually was … my French is very limited).

Although some of the presenters were sometimes challenging for me to understand, it was mostly because of their poor public speaking abilities rather than a matter of language itself. In conversations, I could understand everyone almost perfectly for the duration (with one notable exception!) and I only “crocodiled” for a very few, short instances (krokodili is Esperanto slang for speaking your native language with with other Esperantists). Ninety-nine percent of the time I spoke and listened in Esperanto, and I now feel I can truly consider myself a bilingual person.

Esperantists often speak about the “internal idea” (interna ideo) of their language. The entire reason for the existence of the language is for people of all cultures to have common access to an extremely powerful, descriptive, and fairly easily-learned means of communication, that belongs to no one culture or country and so, puts none at a disadvantage. Somewhat ironically, the desire of a planned “universal” language is to protect linguistic and cultural diversity. The conference exemplified the internal idea quite well, as its theme was diversity and sustainability regarding ecosystems, languages, and cultures.

The “internal idea” has other names outside of the context of Esperanto: love, compassion, tolerance. Interestingly, the more we realize universal truths, such as the fact that everyone of us is simply embodied Spirit, just as every other one is, the more we can appreciate the uniqueness of every wonderful soul.

The Payoff of Esperanto


Esperanto flag


Something that many Esperantists have to contend with is the perception that a planned language is somehow useless, something on a par of Pig Latin. (One of these is a co-worker and friend of mine, who often reminds me of this opinion.)

But consider this… On Friday, I IM-ed a complete stranger in a foreign country and we chatted for an hour completely in Esperanto… After introducing ourselves, we discussed our respective blogs, programming languages such as PHP and C#, languages in general, mystical perspectives in Buddhism and Christianity, personal experiences and viewpoints, etc.

What’s remarkable about this, is I’ve only studied Esperanto seriously for about five-and-a-half months. If I had to guess, I’d say I’ve spent at most 120 hours actually concentrating on the language, and probably less than that. Although I made many minor mistakes, I was well-understood by my fellow speaker (whom I now consider a friend). This was confident and easy communication that enabled me to say whatever I wanted to. Esperanto enables me to have the ability to communicate easily with any of the hundreds of thousands throughout the world who have taken the time to learn it, whether they’re Dutch, Spanish, Brazilian, Chinese, Japanese or Iranian… And that investment is miniscule compared to what’s required even with relatively "easy" Indo-European languages like Spanish.

Last year, I studied Spanish for twice as long as I’ve studied Esperanto, and I was nowhere near having the ability to converse easily about anything… I’ll return to studying Catalan and Spanish soon, and I expect the experience of attaining proficiency in Esperanto will help greatly in learning those languages more quickly and easily. (Numerous studies have shown that to be the effect.) My suspicion is that it will go like this:

T(Esperanto + other language)   <   T(learning other language alone)

Language rules my life.

I told my teacher today that my life has become language. In addition to studying, “classical” ASP, OOP, and C#, my boss asked me a few days ago to become an expert in XML and XSL. (He knew I’d love those languages.) I said yes.

Regarding my study of human languages, over the last ten months, I’ve gotten a very decent start in Esperanto, Catalan, and Spanish. I wasn’t able to take my dream vacation to Spain this year, but I’m continuing to study those languages. I decided to try to “finish” them (i.e. attain conversational competence) over the rest of this year and next year in the order of increasing difficulty: Esperanto first, then Catalan, then Spanish. I expect to be able to translate the “spirituality” section of the site into Esperanto not too long from now. (Also, with the load of computer languages I’ve got to study, Esperanto is the only human language I can handle.)

When I spend more time staring at screens and books, racking my brain to try to force new association, it becomes even more important to take frequent breaks, and re-root myself into what is beyond words, beyond logic, beyond association and thought. I feel it in the presence of my teacher. And in playing with my cat, and in watching the sun shatter itself upon a million ripples on the Elizabeth River.

That’s always what’s really important. Even more important now. I haven’t forgotten.

Writing my first Firefox extensions

Firefox logoOkay, if you’re tired of hearing me tell you that you should get Firefox, don’t worry… that’s not what this post is about. However, if you do use Firefox, you probably know that its rendering is only a part of what makes it so great; the Firefox community has developed thousands of plugins and add-on tools to enhance the Web experience.

Among these are hundreds of search engine plugins. Besides Google, IMDB, and Amazon searches, I constantly use the Wikipedia search plugins. To aid in searching foreign-language Wikipedias, there are plugins available for most. (I’ve been using the Catalan, Spanish, and Esperanto Wikipedia search plugins for months now.) However, one huge problem with Wikipedia is that the Wikipedia search engine truly sucks. A slight misspelling of a word (even an accent) generally returns no results, and searching for a word or phrase that doesn’t match the actual title of the article usually returns nothing helpful.

Fortunately for English readers, there’s a wonderful plugin that allows you to use the Google engine to search the English Wikipedia. This makes searching for relevant articles in the English Wikipedia a breeze.

Tonight, I finally wondered: why doesn’t someone do the same for the other Wikipedias? Well, I’m someone, so I did. It was extremely easy; the guys at the Mozilla project did a wonderful job in making it a piece of cake to create them. Check out the list of Wikipedia search plugins, and note the big green ‘N’ for new by three of them, made by yours truly.


Just some quick notes on what’s going on now:

  • Peaceful Warrior was great. My teacher’s Zen and martial classes saw it together on Sunday. Everyone loved it. The audience as a whole seemed very appreciative. Hopefully, it will stay in theaters a few more weeks and the word-of-mouth approach will bring more people to see it.
  • I’m doing fairly well in Spanish, now. I can make myself understood on a variety of topics, although I make tons of mistakes, and understanding spoken Spanish is still pretty difficult. I can read simple books, like The Alchemist (El alquimista, en español) fairly easily. On the other hand, books like El arrecife, are still quite intimidating.
  • I’ve begun studying Catalan as well. Catalan is the everyday language of most people in Catalonia, Valencia, and the Balearic Islands of Spain, as well as of Andorra, a small part of France, and one city in Sardinia, Italy. Catalan is very cool! It sounds something like French, but without the nasalized vowels. It’s almost a cross between Spanish and French. Pronunciation rules are regular, though more complicated than in Spanish, but actually pronouncing words seems to be easier to me. Catalan uses an L like the English L after vowels, single S’s are voiced between vowels just as in English, and it has plenty of schwa sounds so you can relax a bit instead of having to keep every single vowel pure. Also, Catalan words are amazingly short for a Romance language, and often even shorter than words in English. Consider: bo (good), vi (wine), (hand), nu (naked), xei (lamb), mòn (world), net (clean).
  • I got a press kit and CD in the mail today to review a movie called “Simple Things.” I might not have time to do it till the weekend, but I’m looking forward to it. When I was in college, a friend of mine said I should become a movie reviewer. Well, after doing a number of reviews on this site, I guess I am one of sorts… still, WTG is just a modest personal site and blog; I never thought I’d be contacted by a media company to do a review! Move over, Ebert! 🙂
  • My car is in the body-repair shop for a few days. (It got hit while parked a little while back.) So some more opportunity for car-pooling or bike-riding to work.
  • I am happy. I am very happy. I hope you are, too.

Language Exchange

Among other sources, I’ve been learning Spanish from a cool podcast site, called Notes in Spanish. The site’s run by a husband and wife team (British husband, Spanish wife) who met as intercambios. The intercambio (exchange) method has apparently become quite popular in Spain and elsewhere in Europe. It consists of usually two people who meet regularly to help each other learn the other’s native language, spending half the time, say, speaking in Spanish and half the time speaking in English.

It sounded like a pretty cool idea. Yet, even though I have some acquaintances who speak Spanish, none were really excited about actually spending time to help me learn. An intercambio seemed out of reach for me even for Spanish, yet alone the other languages I want to study, Esperanto and Catalan!

Then I discovered This is a site used by a half-million people helping each other as penpals and intercambios through email, text and voice chat sessions. I just signed up for a year’s membership (a whopping $24—just two dollars a month). 115 languages are studied at MyLanguageExchange, and some of the less well-known ones are very well represented: (Currently 2045 Catalan speakers are available to help English speakers, and 2311 Esperantists want to practice.)

This is really cool! hoping to start learning more with an intercambio soon.

I resolve…

Not to assume I know who I am.

Yes, there’s other things, too, relating to exercise, meditation, etc. All the usual stuff. And, I made the “guilt resolutions” very, very light… There’s a reasonable chance I can keep them.

But I realized that I want to go a bit deeper than that this year. If the reason we make resolutions is to change ourselves, maybe the fault lies not in needing to change this “person” we’ve come to think we are, but in assuming we’re that person in the first place.

Yeah, I’ll take a silly Internet personality quiz in a heartbeat… but I really want to see what happens if I scratch off some of my major assumptions about Jon. For instance:

I’m an introvert.
Am I this year? How will I know?
I don’t go out much.
That was true… what’s true now?
I start lots of things that I don’t finish.
Really? Who says?
I live more in my head than my heart or my body.
Interesting. We’ll see.

In other news:
I’m getting ready to restart the WisdomReading group as a separate blog. If you’re interested in reading The Gospel of Thomas, The Dhammapada, The Tao Te Ching, or The Upanishads, drop me a line, and I’ll email you the URL and other details when it’s ready. If you participated in the WisdomReading group last year, the format will be different. There will be posts once a week for each of those Scriptures, so if you don’t like the Upanishads, for example, but can’t get enough of Thomas, no problem. just read the weekly Thomas post and comment on it.

My language study is coming along quite well. I started studying Spanish in October, and I guess I’m at an intermediate level now. I grew up on the Mexican border, but had a strange resistance to learning Spanish… really, I could say “please,” “thank you,” “Where’s the bathroom,” and little else. Now I’ve got a better-than-beginner vocabulary, pretty good knowledge of the simple tenses (except the damn subjunctive), and I can read fairly decently, such as El Pais and Yahoo! Spain. Now, I’m working on more complex grammar issues, listening, and speaking.

I plan to continue working hard on Spanish for the next two months, and to start studying Catalan in March. I’ve been brushing up on Esperanto along the way. I wonder if I could really be quadrilingual by the end of the year? By then, I’d like to be able to translate the “Spirituality” pages of my site into Spanish, Catalan, and Esperanto, and to be able to correspond in those languages.

I’ll soon be doing a series of posts on love.

Everyone, Happy New Year! Bonan Novjaron! Feliz año nuevo! Bon any nou!