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Language Learning is Weaving a Rope

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If we want to change the way that predominantly monolingual societies think about multilingualism, it’s clear that the public discourse needs to change. How do we do that? One part of the job involves getting teachers and students to reframe what language learning is. How about using a metaphor to do that?

I’ve been following what people say about this since before I began writing Babel No More, my 2012 book about the upper limits of the ability to speak, learn, and use languages. In many popular discussions about learning in general, writers and thinkers find fame and fortune when they play up the role of effort, discipline, and practice. In what I call “the 10,000 hours industrial complex,” it’s good business to hook onto the prominent idea that people can make themselves into anything they want to, simply by applying the right effort in a motivated way over enough time. It’s also good business to downplay the role of inborn organic factors.

I had a recent Twitter exchange with a language tutor in the UK who justified downplaying talent because too many students told her, “I don’t have any talent for languages, so I’m just going to give up.” She tells them that talent doesn’t matter—if they stick to the task, they’ll succeed.

I want to recommend a better response. Before I do, let me tell you more about myself. For five years, I worked at a strategic communications think tank in Washington, DC, where we used social-science methods to reframe social issues such as learning, education reform, early-childhood development, addiction science, and criminal-justice reform. We worked from the assumption that everyone possesses default ways of understanding the world. These are called “cultural models,” and we have them in our heads, passed down by our parents, and reinforced by our informational environment. The cultural models that people possess enable certain messages but can disable others. To know how to communicate to people, you have to understand their models.

When someone says, “I don’t have any talent for language learning,” that’s an expression of a cultural model about language and about learning.

Likewise, responding that “talent doesn’t matter, it’s all about hard work” is an expression of a cultural model as well. That’s why it’s so easy and familiar to respond that way. In individualistic cultures, people believe strongly in the primacy of hard work in shaping individual outcomes. In Babel No More, I called it the “will to plasticity.”

But pushing talent off the table is also problematic. There are four reasons. The first is that it’s scientifically inaccurate. We should be talking about the dynamic interplay between organic factors and individual effort, because creating good learning outcomes isn’t zero sum. We should also be talking about environments and access to resources. Along with “grit” there has to be “fit.”

Saying that talent doesn’t matter can also be detrimental in the long term, when learners perceive that their hard work should be producing better results. In reality, that difference is aptitude (or talent, or whatever name you give to organic, innate factors). But when the teacher has discounted aptitudes and talents, he or she can’t use them to explain what’s going on.

By not talking about aptitudes and talents, the teacher has also removed a pedagogical resource, which is the third reason not to dismiss them. Modern theorists of language learning aptitude such as Peter Robinson talk about aptitude as a cluster of abilities; these clusters are more or less suited for different stages of learning. The teacher should be able to say, “You do bring strengths to this and you do bring weaknesses; let’s orient you to the strengths and boost the weaknesses.” The teacher should also be able to say, “Your strengths will be most useful for this part of the process and not that.” But if you’ve discounted aptitude and talent, you can’t talk about it.

Let me back up and say that the frames around learning and the stories that circulate are very important for what learners think is possible. Change the frames, get different outcomes. I believe this and support research to empirically demonstrate it.

I ought to say that I’ve studied Spanish and Mandarin intensively and lived and traveled in places where those languages were spoken. I also taught English as a foreign language to a range of students in Taiwan in the early 1990s, and I taught writing in university settings. I'm not naive to language learning or to teaching. 

A final reason why the “talent doesn’t matter” response is dangerous: it doesn’t account for another cultural model that I suspect influences how Americans think about foreign-language learning. In her book The Smartest Kids in the World and How They Got That Way, Amanda Ripley notes that Americans have relatively high scores in reading and writing on the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) test compared to their numerical-reasoning scores. Why? She speculates that it’s because Americans believe that you get better at reading and writing if you practice—just like sports.

But math and music belong to a different conceptual category of pursuits to Americans. In the math/music category, Americans believe that performance is a function of something organic and inborn, whether personality, gift, or even ethnicity and race. I don’t know for sure, because no one appears to have researched Americans’ cultural models of language learning, but I suspect that they put languages other than English into the math and music category. If you want to get people to stick with languages, you have to get them to think of the activity differently. (For that reason, you can’t attract Americans to language learning by comparing language to music. It’s better to say that French or Spanish or Mandarin is baseball.)

All this is to say: The best way to answer the students’ frustration is to keep in mind their cultural models about learning.

At the think tank, we recommended that people reframe an issue using a combination of elements that usually involved a metaphor. In this case, I can recommend the best metaphor to use to reframe language skills, because I designed and helped to test it. Out of six candidate metaphors, one worked best to change the way people talked and reasoned about skills: learning skills as weaving ropes.

Ropes, as everybody knows, are made up of multiple strands, and language skills, like other skills, are made up of cognitive, social, and emotional components. Learners have to have those strands modeled, and they also have to be given opportunities to practice weaving those strands together. Some of the cognitive strands are given because you’re born with them (and they include working-memory capacity, brain processing speed, and general plasticity factors), while others are more plastic and can be enhanced. The social and emotional strands involve activities like dealing with boredom, staying focused on tasks, doing fun things, dealing with errors, social anxieties, and seeking out opportunities to use a new language. All these strands are related to each other, and the rope as a whole needs all these strands to be as strong as they can be.

Putting that all together, I’d present this metaphor at the beginning of a class if I were a teacher, and I’d bring it up again at multiple points, including when someone wanted to quit because they “have no talent.”

Learning these new language skills is like weaving a rope. There are a lot of strands that go into a rope, and they have to all be tightly woven together in order for that rope to be usable. Its true that some of those strands are related to abilities that were born with—we all bring some strands to the task of weaving skills. But some strands were given. And no matter what we start with, we all need opportunities to weave those strands together.

What are the types of strands? There are cognitive, social, and emotional strands. Some people come with really powerful cognitive strands, but even they are going to have to develop the other parts of their rope. None of the strands by themselves are going to make this rope usable. So lets try to figure out what you want your language-skills rope to be able to do, and lets figure out what strands were going to need to weave together in order for you to achieve that.

Try out this metaphor and tell me what you find out. The next issue of Schwa Fire will have an editorial about reframing foreign-language learning at the societal level.

Return to the Schwa Fire home page

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11 hours ago
Melbourne, Australia
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Male Allies and GHC

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strings of a broken heart

Credit: DeviantArt / DubiousOrchid

This year will be my 5th year at GHC, my first speaking, and my first in my new post-corporate-job life. It’s been blocked on my calendar since last year, and there has been a long lead time, which means I made the transition from corporate job to independent knowing that GHC was going to be expensive as a result, but deciding that it was worthwhile and not worth delaying the rest of my life over.

There are a few things that have irritated me about the process for speakers. Mostly, I think, around ensuring that people are prepared. You have to send your slides in advance, and use their slide template, etc. Speakers don’t get free, or even discounted, tickets. Which is fine when you work for Big Tech Company, but as an independent is pricey. Students speaking have loads of scholarships available to them, and universities to sponsor them.

A common thread I hear from friends is that GHC is for students, or for really senior women (I managed to get into the Senior Women’s forum once, and the women I met were amazing). What if you’re in between? And it’s aimed at companies, because it’s a recruiting machine for women and most tech companies throw money at recruiting more women to the pipeline full of acid rather than actually doing anything about the acid.

I’ve sympathised, and defended, explained my approach to being pickier about what talks I attend, and making the most of the women that I meet up with every year. I quit corporate feminism over a year ago, so last year I went incognito – I wore nothing branded with the company I worked for, I did not interview, I did not spend time at the booth. This was a different experience than previous years and one that I needed, but I know women at other tech companies where recruiting and being constantly branded is the price you pay for the ticket.

It’s become harder and harder to defend. And now, there’s going to be a male allies panel, this is the last thing – it is about companies, not about the women who suffer in them. And I’ve been tweeting about this, so here’s my long form take.

There’s a lot of discussion about women in tech, and there’s this constant refrain of “what about the men” and I am tired of hearing it. It’s not about the men. It’s about women, and other minorities (who have it far worse). The fact that (some) men have made this, like everything, about them is illustrative of the problem.

The men who get it need to talk to the once that don’t, and you don’t find many that don’t get it at at a conference of 99% women. Last year, as part of “the Australian contingent”, there were 3 guys with us. They came to listen. And for once, they were the minority.

I actually agree with Shanley, (I paraphrase), the system is broken and what we need to do is burn the system down.

But if we’re not ready to burn yet (and with men in charge, will that ever come?) maybe we can keep pushing on the system to make it a little less broken, but this is how we survive, and stay – for now. Within this, there are two separate things: how do we make the line between being a bitch and a pushover wider, and how do we walk it more effectively. Lean In (Amazon) is mostly about walking that line more effectively. There’s space for that, and people who may find it useful, but it’s not the whole story.

There are different classes of problems in Diversity. Easy is fixing your marketing materials. Easy is throwing money at recruiting.

Moderate is throwing money internally (training, minority groups), because (some) men will complain “it’s not fair”. Moderate is handling egregiously gendered interactions, sexual harassment, words use to and about women, and only women. The more blatant versions of “get back in the kitchen”, usually served with a side of poor understanding of biology.

Hard is promoting the qualified woman when there is also a qualified man. Hard is dealing with the more subtle gendered interactions – when he repeats everything she says in a meeting, for example. When she doesn’t get to say anything in the meeting, because he answers everything for her. When he publicly undermines her. Gendered performance feedback.

Extra hard is taking the woman whose belief in herself has been stamped out of her by all the things that were never dealt with, because they were too hard, finding her a good manager, a good project, and helping her rebuild her self-confidence. Extra hard is being a sponsor, believing in someone who The System has told so loudly she doesn’t belong that she has come to believe it.

Within this, there are different levels. It’s easy to deal with egregiously gendered things, but do you have to have them pointed out to you or do you notice? The same within the subtle ones.

Some people are still stuck on the easy problems, but at GHC I’d like to think that we could focus on the hard problems. And the thing about the companies represented on the male allies panel, is there is little evidence to suggest they have moved past the easy ones, and one of them only managed that in the last year.

Two of them have not released diversity data (although I did get some info in response to this tweet). The other two have 15 and 17% women in tech roles respectively, and do not clarify the definition of tech so it may well be broader than the Eng/UX/PM that has been decried elsewhere.

Alan Eustace is from Google, and I used to work there so I know that he is a fantastic ally. He’s the only man who I have ever taken advice from on dealing with the emotional toll of women in tech stuff, which is because he is the only man who has ever offered advice on the topic that wasn’t just telling me how to feel.

But. Even with that, the numbers are terrible. If the experience for women was better, the numbers would be.

So what is this panel going to be? Is it going to be discussing how you can care so much, and work so hard, and achieve so very little because the entrenched problems are too great?

Or is it just going to be a celebration of managing the easy things. Of crawling over that exceptionally low bar of sexist marketing materials. Of focusing on the pipeline rather than the women who are already here. Or I should say, at the expense of the women who are already here, because it takes up their time, and corporate feminism takes it’s toll.

GHC could do better. GHC could do the hard things.

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13 hours ago
Melbourne, Australia
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Stop hacking random stuff. It’s getting trivial.

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Keep_Gate_Closed_mt2ri_FlickrI was gratified to read Dave Aitel’s rant about junk hacking last week [via Peter Lewis and abridged below]:

“Yes, we get it. Cars, boats, buses, and those singing fish plaques are all hackable and have no security. Most conferences these days have a whole track called ‘Junk I found around my house and how I am going to scare you by hacking it.’ That stuff is always going to be hackable

“Yes, there is Junk in your garage, and you can hack it, and if
you find someone else who happens to have that exact same Junk, you can probably hack that, too, but maybe not, because testing is hard.

“Cars are the pinnacle of junk hacking, because they are meant to be in your garage. Obviously there is no security on car computers. Nor (and I hate to break the suspense) *will there ever be*. Yes, you can connect a device to my midlife crisis car and update the CPU of the battery itself with malware, which can in theory explode my whole car on the way to BJJ. I personally hope you don’t. But I know it’s possible the same way I know it’s possible to secretly rewire my toaster oven to overcook my toast every time even when I put it on the lowest setting, driving me slowly but surely insane.

“So in any case, enough with the Junk Hacking, and enough with being amazed when people hack their junk.”

Security is extraordinarily important when you start connecting things to networks that haven’t been connected before. Smart devices can create security risks by two means:

  1. Increasing the sheer number of devices connected to the Internet, and therefore the surface area vulnerable to an attack
  2. Enabling scalable attack methods through standardized, modular hardware and software. Heartbleed and Shellshock, for instance, rendered vulnerable millions of computers that run OpenSSL and Bash, respectively. A vulnerability in a single popular microcontroller could open anything from door locks to agricultural equipment to hackers.

These very legitimate security concerns have made the public receptive to a kind of paranoid, binary mentality in which everything is either secure or not, and the public is outraged when it turns out something is insecure. As Aitel points out, just about everything is insecure, and once we acknowledge that we can engage in a much more nuanced discussion about security.

Security is always a balance between cost and risk. If the security of your home were your absolute top priority, you’d put all of your resources into encasing it in a concrete bunker before you spent a cent on anything else. Likewise, a computer can be made secure by making sure it’s not connected to any other computer, whether by the Internet or a “sneakernet” of USB drives.

Of course, an islanded computer isn’t very useful for most things. Even in cases where it might be useful, as with industrial controls, connectivity can arguably improve safety, if not security — allowing remote monitoring and fast response.

I hope the public conversation on computer security will mature over the next few years, but we’ll hear a lot of noise in the meantime.

Image on article and category pages by mt2ri on Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.

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1 day ago
Melbourne, Australia
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Talk Prep: Grids and Concertinas

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This year, I prepped one talk. Next year, I feel more confident and plan to prep 3 (working titles: Mobile is a Systems Problem, The Myth of The Intersection of Energy, Creativity, and Time, and a Series of Unfortunate Statistics).

This year’s talk – Distractedly Intimate – has been given in timeframes ranging from 20 minutes to 45 minutes. And though I tweak and personalise it each time (especially when it was the final talk of the conference!) it has remained substantially the same.

That is because it is built on a grid.

Screen Shot 2014-09-29 at 9.26.07 am

This means that there are different adjustments that can be made. E.g. including a section – Application is for longer talks only.

Cutting points, so if I wanted to cut to 15 minutes I might remove a point from each section.

Shortening stories. The close contains a video, which is nice because it gives me a short break and I can come back for a strong finish, but the difference between 25 and 20 minutes is removing the video, and cutting some details of the stories in sections 1, 2 and 3.

The above is the maximum time example – in this case, 40 minutes.

25 minutes is as follows:

25 min

20 minutes:

20 min

15 minutes:

15 min

One thing to keep in mind is having the right amount of content for the time. I hate those talks where I feel like someone talked for 40 minutes and only made 2 real points, and I never want to give one. But I also hate it when the presenter tries to pack too much in and loses the audience because they’ve missed out key things, or the content is too complicated for the timeframe.

I don’t think this talk is really suited for the 15 minute version, so I probably wouldn’t give it in that time. I think the base content is right for 20 minutes, and so every longer session I should increase the information content. My favourite version is the 25 minute version, because I love the video and the time frame is less tight. 40 minutes is a long time to listen to anyone, which is why I mix it up a bit and take a different approach to add that extra ~10 minutes of content and focus on application, rather than ideas (this section gets the least laughs, but I hope people find it useful!)

This approach might seem overly structured, but the purpose of each point is to have a takeaway, and weave a story around it. So, the grid is the concept which in one transformation becomes the (heavily visual) slide deck, and in another transformation it’s the structure I weave my narrative around. I don’t need a slide for each point, but I do need slides (because video!) and I think showing my twitter handle on each slide encourages the audience to tweet about it so I create one for each item in the grid, and it works for me.

There are few things more impressive to me than an excellent presentation, without slides, but often I find speakers without slides become a little unstructured and lose their way. For me the change of slide says “here is a new point” which audience member, or speaker, I appreciate, and I’ll keep them for longer talks – for now.

Preparing one talk, really well, and delivering it multiple times (being careful about not to the same people!) has been great for building my confidence, and has made the investment of time in creating the talk much more worthwhile. Now each conference is 1-2 hours of prep time, rather than 20+. This makes the 5 I will speak at between September and November much more manageable.

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1 day ago
neat idea
Melbourne, Australia
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Management is not about sorting apples

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Blameless post-mortems are one of the most notable (and perhaps most misunderstood) features of Etsy’s engineering culture. John Allspaw wrote about them on Code as Craft back in May, 2012. In it, he talks about human errors and the “Bad Apple theory,” which is that the best way to eliminate error is to eliminate the “bad apples” who introduce error.

Most of the time, when we talk about blameless post-mortems, it’s in the context of outages. What I think though is that once you accept the reasoning behind building a culture of learning around outages (as opposed to a culture of blame), it also changes, or at least should change, how you think about management in general.

Etsy’s practices around post-mortems are drawn largely from the field of accident investigation. One of the key concepts taken from that field is that of local rationality. You can read about it in this rather dry paper, Perspectives on Human Error: Hindsight Biases and Local Rationality, by David Woods and Richard Cook. To oversimplify, in the moment, people take actions that seem sensible to them in that context. Even when people take what seem to be negligent shortcuts, they do so confident that what they’re doing is going to work —they just happen to be wrong.

The challenge is in building resilient systems that enable the humans interacting with them to exercise local rationality safely. Disasters occur when the expected outcomes of actions differ from the actual outcomes. Maybe I push a code change that is supposed to make error messages more readable, but instead prevents the application from connecting to the database. The systems thinker asks what gave me the confidence to make that change, given the actual results. Did differences between the development and production environments make it impossible to test? Did a long string of successful changes give me the confidence to push the change without testing? Did I successfully test the change, only to find out that the results differed in production? A poor investigation would conclude that I am a bad apple who didn’t test his code properly and stop before asking any of those questions. That’s unlikely to lead to building a safer system in the long run. Only in an organization a system where I feel safe from reprisal will I answer questions like the ones above honestly enough to create the opportunity to learn. for the organization to learn from the incident.

I mention all of this to provide the background for the real point I want to make, which is that once you start looking at accidents this way, it necessarily changes the way you think of managing other people in general. When it comes to the bad apple theory in accident investigation, the case is closed, it’s a failure. Internalizing this insight has led me to also reject the bad apple theory when it comes to managing people in general.

Poor individual performance is almost always the result of a systems failure that is causing local rationality to break down. All too often the employee who is ostensibly performing poorly doesn’t even know that they’re not meeting the expectations of their manager. In the meantime, they may be working on projects that don’t have clear goals, or that they don’t see as important. They may be confronted with obstacles that are difficult to surmount, often as a result of conflicting incentives.

There are a million things that can lead to poor outcomes, only a few of which are due to the personal failings of any given person working on the project. If you accept that local rationality exists, then you accept that people are doing what they believe is expected of them. If they knew better, they would do better.

All this is not to say that there are never cases where an employment relationship should end. Sometimes people are on the wrong team, or at the wrong company. What I would say though is that the humane manager works to construct a system in which people can thrive, rather than getting rid of people who aren’t succeeding within a system that could quite possibly be unfit for humans. Even in the case where a person simply lacks the skills to succeed at the task at hand, someone else almost certainly assigned them the task or agreed to let them work on it. Their being in the position to fail reflects as poorly on the system as it does on the individual.

These principles are easier to apply within the limited context of investigating an incident than the general context of managing an organization, or the highly personal relationship been a manager and the person who reports to them. Focusing on the system and how to optimize it for the people who are part of it is the bedrock of building a just culture. As managers, it’s up to us to create a safe place for employees to explain the choices they make, and then use what we learn from those explanations to shore up the system overall. Simply tossing out the bad apples is a commitment to building a team that is unable to look back honestly and improve.

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2 days ago
Once you are familiar with it you see this pattern all over
Washington, DC
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I Had a Stroke at 33

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Illustration by Perrin for BuzzFeed

There was a cascade of input — triangles and sky and gravel sound and music on the radio and wind and the feeling of rough cloth near my hands. I could not make sense of it all; I did not know the small triangles were trees, the larger ones mountains, the sound tires crunching snow and Snow Patrol, the jacket Gore-Tex, and that my wrists were the things attached to things called my hands. They were colors and shapes and sound and touch and sensation and my brain was no longer sorting these things out. But when I saw the red snowblowers in the parking lot turned 90 degrees and doubled, I finally had a complete thought. I comprehended what I was seeing. Red snowblowers. Sideways. Strange.

That was what my stroke felt like: like I was separating from myself.

It was Dec. 31, 2006. I was 33. I did not yet know this, but a clot had traveled from my aorta into my brain, and made its way to my left thalamus. As a result, my left brain, the expert at numbers and language and logic and reasoning, a part of it suffocated and died. My right brain, the specialist with regard to color, music, creativity, intuition, and emotions, therefore could not talk to my left brain. Numbers became squiggles, colors lost their names, food lost flavor, music had no melody.

This is not normal; this is beautiful, I thought. But I am dizzy like I am on a boat. And my head hurts.

“I need to sit down,” I managed to say. I had not yet lost my words. I was in the middle of a parking lot.

“I’ll go inside, and you sit here,” my then-husband said, telling me to sit on the curb outside the store. That he would be right back.

He disappeared and came out empty-handed because even he knew there was a problem. “Let’s head back,” he said. “There’s no way I can buy filters while you’re out here. Something’s wrong.”

And eventually, my thoughts subsided. My brain went dark. Dark. I cannot remember that ride back to the house as much as I try, years later.

I was tired, so I napped. (Sleeping is not recommended immediately after or during a stroke.) I dreamed about getting lost in the snowy mountains. I dreamed about walking a frozen Alpine lake. I dreamed about losing my shoes. I dreamed about losing my voice.

When I woke up hours later, I really believed I had been in those mountains hiking — that it was not a dream. And I really had lost my voice. I had lost my words. I was unable to say, “I am trapped in my brain” or, “My memories are mixing with imagination.”

Our friends had arrived to celebrate New Year’s and all I could do was smile and say, “Hello.” Just, “hello.” They were excited to join us, and in the hubbub, I was silent. I am never silent. I also never nap.

“Hi, I’m having a brain drain,” I said. I watched myself struggle. Underneath what felt like 100 down blankets, what was left of the pre-stroke self said, “That is not what I meant to say. Something is wrong.” But no one, not even I, could hear or understand.

I tried to join my friends’ conversation, but the words were too fast, the subject matter switching all the time. I opened my mouth to add something, but I couldn’t form the words. We went out for fondue. I don’t remember if I ate the fondue.

This was what I blogged that evening in an attempt to communicate what I was experiencing:

I am feeling strange. My brain is in a weird state right now — a combination of short brain games and lack of memory. While taking on the concept of a brain game earlier today, I suffered a memory overhaul. Now I can’t say what I want to say or remember what I want to remember. It’s just a weird situation.

Just 17 hours earlier, pre-stroke, I’d written the following in my journal:

So this is how it feels to hole up somewhere: the snow has come on and off this week, the chilly air outside has the snap of a crisp spring peapod, and all is peaceful. There is no external stimulation; my life has turned inward this week. Reading books.

When I checked my blog much later, there were comments from 12 of my friends urging me to go to the hospital. “Something is very wrong,” they said. “We are worried.”

People have asked if anyone around me could tell I was having a stroke. “Weren’t you acting weird?” they’d ask, and my husband’s mouth would turn into a thin line, and my friends who joined us for New Year’s would lower their eyes. I was acting weird, yes. But it was New Year’s Eve. My friends and husband were drunk and jolly. I was not talking. They thought that was odd, but not cause for huge concern. They thought that perhaps I too was drunk.

Besides, I did not have the classic symptoms of a stroke. The Stroke Association uses the mnemonic device FAST:

Face: Ask the person to smile. Does one side of the face droop? Mine did not.

Arms: Ask the person to raise both arms. Does one arm drift downward? Mine did not.

Speech: Ask the person to repeat a simple phrase. Is their speech slurred or strange? My speech was not slurred.

Time: If you observe any of these signs, call 911 immediately. I did not.

Two days after the stroke, we returned home to Berkeley.

“I still don’t feel well,” I told my husband. “I’m staying home from work.”


Our fridge was empty. I went to Andronico’s grocery store and browsed the aisles, a blur of colors and letters and shapes. What was it we needed? I wondered. I could not figure out how the pieces fit together, that I would need onions because we used onions for everything, that I would need bread for sandwiches, that I would need meat for a possible entree. They were shapes and colors and textures. That fleshy pink package was a fleshy pink rectangle. The countless numbers of canned soup and canned vegetables were mere metal cylinders.

I emerged with one thing: a jar of Muir Glen spaghetti sauce. I grabbed it because I had seen it before, because I could read the label. If it was something I could understand, it must be something I needed. I did not need spaghetti sauce.

I still do not remember how it is I paid, whether by cash or by debit or credit card. I do not remember swiping or handing over bills. I just remember blinking in the cold winter sun at my car in the parking lot. Holding a jar of spaghetti sauce.

And wondering how to get home. I did not know how to get home.

I got in the car and started driving. If I just drove, I thought, I would somehow get home.

Each time I thought about whether I needed to make a left turn or right or stop or go, I felt lost. I had no idea. And so I pressed on without thinking, while relying on intuition. Each time I stopped, I recognized landmarks — a tree or a house or a store. I knew I was getting closer to home, but I did not know how to continue.

Intuition carried me when logic and memory failed.

I made it home.

And then I thought, I need to get to a hospital.

I picked up the phone and then I asked myself, What is the phone number for 911?

I looked at the numeric keypad, and I could not figure out what number each shape represented. And what is the number for 911?

I thought perhaps I should try calling my husband. I could not remember his phone number, either. It did not occur to me to look for it in the contacts list on my BlackBerry, either.

I finally decided I would mash a bunch of numbers on the keypad and talk to whomever it was I dialed on the landline. I did not think about the fact that I did not know where I lived, but I punched in a set of numbers anyway.

“Hello,” a man said.

“Hi!” I said.

“Hi,” he said.

“Who is this?” I asked.

“This is A—,” he replied.

“Oh! I have been trying to reach you! I forgot your phone number and I didn’t know how to get ahold of you! I called this phone number, because it was in my fingers.”

“I’m coming right home,” he said.

We went to the emergency room where they gave me a CT scan to get an idea of what was going on in my head.

There’s a dark spot on the CT. “We think you have vasculitis,” said the doctor. In my files, I later read the hospitalist’s dictation: “Patient has focal low attenuating area in anterior left thalamus.” In other words, there was a scar in my brain.

At the time I said, “OK.”

He continued, “We think it’s vasculitis and we need to admit you for more tests.”

My husband joked, “We need Dr. House.”

I loved the MRI the next morning. It was peaceful inside the tube with the thumping noises. I closed my eyes and imagined a beach, ocean waves crashing, a distant horizon. I wondered what kind of imagery that would produce on the MRI — if they would see that I was thinking of water. I wondered if my brain would light up like a beach at sunset.

And then a neurologist came to me with the results. “Hi, Christine, we have discovered you’ve had a stroke.”


What did they think I had?


And what did I have?

“A left thalamic stroke.”

OK. But — what did they think I had?

The thalamus is the hub of the brain, its traffic circle. Each side of the thalamus is the size and shape of a walnut, or the same size, weight, and shape of a marine iguana’s brain. It regulates sleep. It relays messages. Too much damage to the thalamus results in permanent coma.

I slept. And slept. And slept. I slept dreamless then, and dreamless for months. Or maybe I dreamt, but do not remember.

Awake I had a 15-minute short-term memory, like Dory the fish in Finding Nemo. My doctors instructed me to log happenings with timestamps in my Moleskine journal. That, they said, would be my working short-term memory. My memento to my mori.

I was the youngest person in the stroke unit by 40 years. The staff called me Forty-Seven — the last two digits of my room number. I only know this detail now because I re-read my journal, in which I recorded my entire experience, aphasia and all.

I wandered the halls of the hospital, wheeling my heart monitor and heparin on an IV pole. I lost track of time. I wandered outside the boundaries of telemetry. They lost my heartbeat. When I returned, they scolded me. “I won’t do it again,” I said, but then I forgot and wandered again.

At one point during my hospital stay, my friends visited. They greeted me by saying, “You look completely normal!”

The neuropsychiatrist stepped in.



“Do you know who I am?”

“No, but it’s nice to meet you.”

“Open up your journal.” I did.

“What time is it now? What is the timestamp in the last entry?”

“It’s 10:35. Oh! I met you 20 minutes ago! Oh! You’re my neuropsychiatrist.”

“Fuuuuck,” said my friends. “Wow.”

Illustration by Perrin for BuzzFeed

I enjoyed my 10 days in the hospital. They were peaceful. I savored the plain white walls and relative quiet. I slept. I was delighted by the toilet that slid out from under the sink. I had my favorite nurses. I do not remember their names because I forgot to write them down.

When I left, the world came at me bright and fast. I had to ask my husband to turn off the radio. I would not be able to drive with the radio on for the rest of the year. I kept my eyes shut all the way home. I could not handle the input. And then — then I slept for hours.

It was this way for weeks. For every 15 minutes of waking interaction, I slept for hours to recuperate.

I forgot to eat.

I didn’t know how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

One afternoon, I decided to make a pound cake. I used to be an avid baker. While the butter and sugar mixed, the phone rang. I answered the phone. I forgot about the cake. I hung up the phone. I sat down. I forgot the phone call. I turned on the television. I stood up, dizzy. Why was I dizzy, I wondered. And then I thought perhaps I hadn’t eaten. When had I last eaten? I didn’t remember. I went to the kitchen. There was a mixer running. Who on earth left it on? There was a cookbook with its page leafed open. Pound cake. Who was making pound cake? I turn the mixer off. I must have been making pound cake, I thought.

I banned myself from cooking after I put water to boil on the stove and returned to a smoking pot.

I was discharged on Lovenox and Coumadin. Blood thinners. And blood tests three times a week to monitor my INR, to measure the clotting tendency of my blood. The Lovenox shots went into my belly — they stung and left large bruises, big polka dots. Because my thalamus was damaged, I could not control my crying.

Each night, I took the box of Lovenox syringes and carried it to my husband, sobbing. “It’s time for my shot,” I said, tears streaming down my face.

Each night, he pinched skin on my belly as I screamed like a toddler and he injected the medicine.

Each night, I said, “It stings, it stings!” And wept for half an hour.

I was not myself.

On Jan. 30, I withdrew from my MFA program. I ran into a friend on campus after, and told her the news. I could not read more than a paragraph.

“I’m taking a leave of absence,” I said.

She replied, “I wish I had a stroke as an excuse for my short-term memory issues!”

The old me would have told her that was rude. Or that it hurt my feelings. The new me stood stunned, unable to come up with a quip. And then I got into my car and cried.

For a month, every moment of the day was like the moment upon wakening before you figure out where you are, what time it is. I was not completely aware of what had happened to me. I was not completely aware of my deficits, in an ignorance-is-bliss sort of way. I was unable to fret about the past, or the uncertainty of the future.

The sun is bright. The leaves rustle. This is the wind on my face. I am alive.

This is the thing: People pay a lot of money to live like that. To live in the present tense.

The clot reached my thalamus through a hole in my heart. The hole, or more accurately a flap, is called a patent foramen ovale, or PFO. All fetuses have a hole in their heart between the left and right chambers, to bypass the lungs as they take oxygen from their mother’s blood. Once born, that flap fuses. And once born, nearly a quarter of humans have holes in their hearts that don’t completely close. For some, the hole is severe and needs to be closed immediately. For many others, the hole is undetected. Maybe like I used to, you get migraine headaches, or have altitude sickness at 5,000 feet instead of 10,000 feet, or find yourself panting while doing a slow jog, no matter how often you train.

They discovered the hole, the cause of the stroke, with an echocardiogram and a bubble test. A doctor injected a bubbly sterile saline solution into my vein and watched the bubbles travel through my heart on a monitor. If there were no hole between the left and right atrium, the bubbles would be filtered out in the lungs (right atrium, lungs, left atrium). When bubbles appeared on the left side of my heart, we knew I had a PFO. My blood had not been fully oxygenated ever.

A month later, it happened again: Another clot went through the PFO in the back of my heart. It traveled up into my right eye, and then moved to my left. I went to my optometrist, who confirmed that I was visually impaired. “Go to the ER now,” he said.

I called my neurologist, who told me he would meet me in the ER.

“Sorry for bothering you,” I said.

In the ER, my neurologist put his hand on my shoulder and said, “Please don’t hesitate to come in. You’re not bothering me.”

When I was admitted again to the stroke unit, the nurses remembered me. “Forty-seven!”

“Hi,” I said. “I’m back.”

They closed that hole a week later. They used an Amplatzer device, which is a teeny-tiny umbrella-like implant they snaked through my femoral vein in a catheter lab until it reached the heart. In the midst of the procedure, my cardiologist had to defibrillate me. My heart freaked out. My heart didn’t want to be closed. It didn’t want to be touched. I know this because my cardiologist told me this happened.

“Do you remember it at all?” he asked.

“No,” I said. The Versed did its job. An anesthesiologist had once told me that anesthesia without Versed, without its amnesia-inducing qualities, would be cruel.

“But maybe,” I joked, “I wouldn’t remember it anyway.”

“Good,” he said. “You were talking to me the whole time.”

“Oh my god. What did I say?” I asked.

“Don’t worry about it,” he said.

I wondered if I’d betrayed any secrets, but when I stopped to consider them, I couldn’t remember my secrets.

I stayed overnight in the hospital, flat on my back. I was not to move, not until the femoral vein closed. But I bled anyway. The nurses checked me every hour and found me soaked in blood in the middle of the night.

“Have you moved?” they asked.

“No,” I said.

“Hold still,” they said. And I felt a sickening pressure on my leg for the next hour as the nurses took turns exerting pressure on the seam where my leg joins my torso. But this — this was how I healed. This was how I never got a migraine again. I was instructed to keep my heart rate below 120 beats per minute, but once I started running a year later, this was how I became able to run. This was how lifting heavy objects no longer left me lightheaded to the point of nausea and fainting.

In this sense, the stroke saved my life.

Illustration by Perrin for BuzzFeed

I made progress, but if I pushed myself too hard, I regressed. I was always exhausted. I had to stay in bed for days to recover. My memory felt like a sieve; my brain wanted to shut down and made me sleep. When I met up with one of my best friends visiting from out of town, I stayed up late laughing. When she left town, I slept for four days.

No one saw this side of it: the sleep.

“You’re OK,” friends said.

“No, I’m not.”

“You’re OK,” they said.

Other friends said I was overreacting. That they couldn’t comprehend what I was going through. That I was too high-maintenance. People in their thirties worry about jobs and careers and relationships and car payments.

My thalamus was gone; I had no coping mechanisms. I replied, “Fuck you.”

I sought out sexagenarians. I had tea with my friend and former professor who’d suffered a brain injury and was thinking of retirement. We commiserated. We joked about how we would not remember the conversations we had together. I had a meal with my friend who was a new grandmother and who had undergone knee replacement surgery. She said in her gentle voice, “Seek lessons throughout your recovery process.”

“Find meaning,” she said. “Find meaning.”

In the beginning of my recovery, I could only read People magazine. And then a month later, I could read the newspaper. Six months later, I read a Murakami short story. Even when I could not remember, I read as much and for as long as I could. Sometimes this was 15 minutes before I became tired, and other days, an hour.

I wrote what I could. In the beginning, I blogged and wrote in my journal. I often flipped my homophones in my writing — pore and pour, hay and hey, real and reel, feat and feet, aisle and isle, for and four. I would reread and not see the errors.

And, I found, I could not lie. I could not write fiction. So instead I wrote the truth. I started an anonymous blog on which I chronicled my stroke recovery as a writer. It connected me to friends that I have to this day.

I became an introvert. I learned to protect my energy, something that now serves me well in midlife. I learned to take better care of myself. I learned to devote my time to things that reinvigorated me, to things that were important. Write a paragraph in my journal. This person, not that. A bath and not makeup.

My brain was changed forever. The dead spot never rejuvenated. But the brain was making new paths around the destruction. In this way, blood traveled in a new way around my heart. Also in this way, there are new neural pathways in my brain.

I re-enrolled in my MFA program that fall. I wanted to finish. I had one more class — a workshop and a thesis to finish. I had a novel-in-progress. My thesis adviser said, “Let’s get this done. Let’s gather up your short stories and submit a collection as your thesis. Your novel, your novel can wait.”

I finished up my semester. I don’t remember any of it.

To this day, people from the workshop come up to me and recount conversations we had.

“Remember that awesome conversation we had about writing sex scenes in that workshop?”

I smile. “I don’t remember.”

“We said some wicked things!”

I smile.

Because the hole in my heart was closed, I was able to exercise. Because I was able to exercise, I started up running and yoga a few years later. Because I started up running and yoga, the other parts of my body, including my infertility issues, healed and resolved. I got in the best shape of my life, and then I became pregnant.

I had a baby and developed severe postpartum depression. My husband and I decided to get a divorce.

“I think in hindsight, it was your stroke that changed everything for me,” he said.

I thought it was the affair he’d had. But maybe he had a point. “Maybe that was the year,” I said.

Because yes, it was the year my life changed; it was the year my life was saved. It was the year I decided to live every year as if it were my last. It meant spending two years in New York City and focusing on my novel, it meant making new friends, it meant saying yes to many more things. It meant my priorities were no longer the same as my husband’s.

I knew the moment I was back, 22 months after my stroke. I was driving and memorizing license plates. I used to have a photographic memory, and I memorized things like the credit card numbers of men who bought me drinks, for fun, to wile away boredom. I did not realize I was doing this until I was halfway home. I was ecstatic.

I opened up the file to my novel. I knew it was time. I knew I was ready again. But at the same time, I knew nothing would be the same; there is still a black memory hole around Dec. 31, 2006. So much of this essay was culled from my journal and blog entries and stories friends told me, as well as any memories those prompted. So much is still inaccessible. I do not say things are missing; they are inaccessible.

Because I know that all of the things that happened are still in my brain, stored somewhere in the recesses. That the thalamus retrieves memories and weaves them together. That some of those memories drift up later, like the feeling of déjà vu or like when in the middle of the afternoon, you remember the dream you had the previous night, because someone is wearing a red scarf and it prompts the memory of your dream about losing a red scarf on the pitching seas of the Mediterranean. Which in turn makes you remember that yes, two months after your stroke, your mother-in-law was killed and you sat shivah in Tel Aviv, staring at the sun go down over the sea each evening. That really did happen.

So much of memory, I also learned, is connected to emotions. That which makes me happy bypasses the process for short-term memory. I understand why it is I remember the intense events of my childhood. Why that day in the snow, being pelted by snowballs and not any other day. Why that Halloween, listening to my parents scream at each other, and not any other holiday. Why that plane ride leaving NYC for California and not any other. Why I forget all the names of all the doctors except for my neurologist, Dr. Volpi. Whose eyes were kind. Who was the first specialist on scene in the ER. Who was the one who told me I’d had a stroke. That moment.

So much of memory, I learned, is scattered in modules. Over the year, I tried to tell stories, anecdotes — and I could start a story, but I could not continue or end the narrative. Sometimes, when someone piped up and prompted me, Didn’t such and such happen next? I remembered the next part of the story.

I learned stories and memories are pieces of a puzzle, pieced together most likely by the thalamus. This means I couldn’t lie. Because I couldn’t lie, I couldn’t write fiction. But later, knowing this is how stories are told — knowing firsthand that stories are segments woven together — helps. It helps.

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3 days ago
Melbourne, Australia
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