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I should have titled this post: “So You Want to Learn Spanish After Age 50”, because that is something I REALLY know about. The brain, she is not as quick as she used to be, and it’s surprising how little a person retains from two, drug-fueled semesters of beginning Spanish that said person took in High School…THIRTY YEARS AGO. Needless to say, it’s a challenge, and it became quickly apparent that I was going to need all the help I could get on this journey.

I’ve been actively learning Spanish for about six months now, not counting the few months I spent toying around with Duolingo on my phone. In that time, I’ve been gathering resources to help me on my journey and, in this post, I’ll share the bulk of them with you so can have access to the quality materials I’ve found and, hopefully, avoid heading down all the dark alleys I did in order to get here.

Websites and Apps

First, let’s talk about websites and apps. If there’s one thing I love about this digital age, it’s the access to crazy good learning materials for anything you might want to know. If there’s anything I don’t like about it, it’s the amount of badly produced, incorrect, and shoddy information that’s out there in equal measure.

So, here are the top, rock-solid options for language learning in the land of ones and zeros that I’ve discovered:

iTalki: (app and website, free) I first learned about italki when I was watching videos from the polyglot conference on YouTube, because I’m a nerd like that. What is italki? In short, it is a website (and app) that promotes language learning by helping you find a teacher online, connecting with others who are working on your target language, and giving you the opportunity to help others realize their dream of fluency in your native language.

How does it work? When you log onto the site, you have the option to explore a few different links…several of which are “discussion board” pages where learners can ask questions about their target language and have them answered by the community. There is also a section called “notebook” where people can post short essays they have written in their target language and have them corrected by community members. This is a great way to give back to the community, and you can even earn credit to use toward lessons by doing this.

The most important section is the “find a teacher” link.  Here you have the opportunity to browse through hundreds of teacher’s profiles in your target language and to choose who you would like to work with. Most teachers list their qualifications as well as including a short video to introduce themselves.

 

When you begin to browse the teacher section, you will notice that there are two different kinds of teachers you can take lessons from on italki. First are the community tutors. These are folks who are native speakers but hold no special certifications in language teaching. These lessons can be hit or miss, but the price is definitely right. My community tutor, Juan, charges me $6 an hour and he is fantastic. We just speak in Spanish for the whole hour and don’t bother too much with grammar. Juan loves cars and futbol and his dog and we talk about whatever has been going on in our lives. He has seemingly endless patience for my  vocabulary/grammar mistakes and glacial speaking speed, and even though I am in my infancy, speaking-wise, Juan always makes me feel very comfortable and asks me questions when I get stuck to keep the flow going.

The second type of teacher is the “Professional”. These folks are more expensive, but tend to have a better grasp on tough grammar rules and such. My professional teacher, Charles, is great. He’s living in Tijuana getting his Phd in cultural studies and is an extremely talented teacher. He charges me $20 an hour and it would be worth it at three times the price. We usually work on the meat and potatoes of grammar and vocabulary. He has a very clear presentation style and has obviously put a lot of thought into how he teaches the stickier grammatical issues, such as direct/indirect object pronouns and such.

I usually schedule one lesson with each of them, per week. Lessons are booked and paid for through the italki site or app and the lessons are conducted over Skype. I have found the italki experience to be very smooth and extremely beneficial as a supplement to the regular classes I take, in-person, during the week. I highly recommend giving it a go if you are trying to supercharge your language learning. And, if you find another great teacher on the site, please let me know in the comments!

Duolingo (app, free): I started everything with Duolingo. It gave me a great jump on vocabulary and by using it in tandem with its flash card app, Tiny Cards, I was able to learn a lot of words, fairly quickly. Can you learn a whole language from Duolingo? Maybe, but I’d hate to try. It does what it does well, but it is far from comprehensive. Plus, it has some definite weirdness to it. If you only use duolingo, you may end up thinking that manzana (apple) is the most important word in all of Spanish, because it comes up a million times. And you may never know the word vaca (cow), because I’ve never seen it…not once! Having said that, I think Duolingo is still a handy study tool to have in your quiver and its kooky look is definitely welcoming and fun…and it’s FREE!

SpanishDict (app and website, free): Sounds like what it is…an indispensable Spanish/English dictionary that can translate both ways. Also included are articles and quizzes on common Spanish grammar and vocabulary. I use the app every day, probably fifty times a day, at least. It’s a must have.

Google Translate (app, free) This is the damned future, right here. This bugger is scary good. It does all the mundane translation work of other apps, like SpanishDict, but it has some other features that will blow your tiny mind. For example, right now I’m reading a novel by Roberto Bolano in Spanish. I probably know about 20% of the words. I could look up every word I don’t know by typing them into SpanishDict, but I would be dead before I finished. With google translate, I can take a picture of the page I’m reading and then swipe my finger across any word, sentence, or paragraph I don’t understand, and google will translate it for me. It’s an absolute godsend. It even knows idiomatic and slang phrases. So, if you’re trying to work on reading, writing, and speaking, simultaneously, and you need an app that can help you with all three, download this immediately.

 

Fin

This list is far from comprehensive and I’m sure there are dozens of sites and apps that I have yet to discover that are equal or better, but these are the ones I use the most and find the most benefit with. If you have a favorite language learning site, please drop it in the comments and I’ll check it out. Good luck and Happy learning!

Part 2 – Spanish Videos – coming soon

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Night Bus to Mismaloya

As I walk up to the unmarked stop in front of the OXXO (Mexico’s version of 7-11), I can tell by the already long line that it’s going to be a full bus. It’s either this or a two-hundred peso cab ride, though, so I dig out eight pesos for the fare and roll past the line of drunk gringos and Patas Saladas, finally setting up camp at the end of the queue next to the old man selling cacahuates to the tourists from a beat up card table.

It’s the same scene every night. The cast may change, but this prelude to the first act of the public transportation play we are all part of is nearly identical. Characters are introduced, the mood is set, and when the doors open to the accompanying roar of an aged diesel engine and a cloud of smoke, the play begins.

Tonight’s cast features a large group of tired Mexicans on their way home from a long day of serving tourists in one capacity or another, a gaggle of Canadians fresh from watching a hockey game at Steve’s Bar, several baby boomers in Maui Jim sunglasses and Tommy Bahama shirts, living out their Margaritaville fantasies one binge at a time, and a couple of nervous looking Americanos who quickly take the handicapped seats at the front of the bus and crane their necks to see past the driver for the whole ride so they don’t miss their stop and end up in Boca de Tomatlan for the night, by accident.

As I suspected, it’s a crowded bus, but I manage to swing into the window seat that is perched atop the rear wheel well and requires you to sit with your knees in your chest while you absorb the shock of every pothole and speed bump on the half hour journey. Beats standing, though, and my feet are already thanking me for the respite.

After I settle in, the seatmate lottery gets underway and I draw a drunk woman from Calgary as my neighbor in claustrophobia. She seems baffled by the lack of leg room and asks me if these seats are for “kids or midgets or something?”. I try to explain the wheel well concept, but she’s already getting up to move, so I abandon my spiel and say a prayer of thanks for her exit. A few seconds later, the woman from Calgary is replaced by a young, Mexican mother, carrying her sleeping infant in her arms. “Buenas noches.” she says with a polite smile. I return the greeting. She looks tired.

When everyone is settled, we ease onto the two laner that leads down the coast and for the next fifteen minutes, we bump along, stopping at every resort and condo complex to drop off the noisy, inebriated tourists until, eventually, the bus empties out and the only people that remain are me and a handful of locals.

As we pull out from the last major hotel, leaving behind the remainder of the Canadians, the bus gets quiet and I feel a warm weight start to push against my arm. When I  look over, I discover that the young woman next to me has fallen asleep, relaxed her arms, and her baby’s head is now resting against me.

I hadn’t noticed much about the little boy when they got on because he was completely swaddled in his blanket, but now I can see his seraphic, sleeping face, peeking out from under jet black bangs and I can feel a small, sentimental pain begin to form in the center of my chest. I slip my hand under the boy’s head to support it and just watch him breathe for the next few miles while his mother sleeps.

God knows how to pick her moments.

Eventually, as we approach my stop, I wake the mother and she looks up at me, embarrassed by the situation. “Esta bien. Esta bien…” I say, smiling and trying to be reassuring in a language not my own.  “Su hijo es muy guapo.” I say as I get up and move toward the door. “Que pases buena noche”.  “Buena noche” she says, as I slip down the stairs and into the darkness.

Making my way up the road, past the tiendas and the stray dogs to my little house on the hill, I’m thinking about signs. I’m thinking about the visceral quality that some simple things can possess. I’m thinking about how fast something can change your outlook on the experience you’re having. I’m thinking about the weight of that little boy’s head in my hand.

It’s one of those scenes that feels significant, but I’m not entirely sure what the message is. Maybe there isn’t one. Maybe the universe is just poking me so I stay awake…keeping me from taking small miracles for granted. Not everything has to be soul shattering in order to have meaning. Some things are just reminders to stay present to your experience so you don’t miss the things that matter…like sleeping babies on the night bus to Mismaloya.

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The Love Bomb Collection

 

Hey Everybody! I made a thing!

I was futzing around drawing the other day, and this Love Bomb jumped out of my head and onto the paper. I loved it so much, I made a shirt out of it and ordered one for myself. Now I’m giving you the chance to do the same! If we’re going to drop any bombs in 2018, let’s make sure they’re Love Bombs!

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It’s Moving Day!!

Hey Everyone! Going forward, please join me over at my Patreon page here for new content. Details below:

“In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer. And that makes me happy. For it says that no matter how hard the world pushes against me, within me, there’s something stronger — something better, pushing right back.”

– Albert Camus

I found this quote years ago. I always liked the idea of an “invincible summer” from the moment I read it and it became an aspiration of mine to achieve, if not an “invincible summer” than at least a “fairly hearty spring” within myself. Having been a cynical, sarcastic, and mostly miserable gen-x bastard for most of my life, this seemed like a tall order…and it was.

But I found my summer.

One day I woke up and realized that if I didn’t turn my focus inward and begin to consciously move my life in a direction of joy and enthusiasm, that I may never make it. So, I quit my job, got rid of most of my belongings, and set off on a spiritual quest that has brought me to where I am today…a much happier, relaxed, and purposeful place. It has been a long journey and, of course, the process is ongoing, but I can tell you this: I have never been happier and more content in my entire life…and now I am chronicling the journey that brought me here in the hopes that others might find some benefit in the path I’ve been walking.

Over the next year, I’ll be writing a book about my experiences in transformation and techniques I used to encourage, nurture, trick, and cajole my mind to change itself into a machine that can produce joy, regardless of the circumstances it finds itself in. I’ll also be writing my usual “slice of life” essays and producing videos on my experiences in creating a better life, wherever you are.

By becoming a patron, you will have access to chapters of the book as I finish them, essays, videos, chats with me, and behind the scenes peeks at my process. When all is said and done, book-wise, you’ll receive a digital copy of the finished work…all for just $1.00 per month!

Of course, you don’t have to join in order to see content! There is no paywall. Pay as much or as little as you want. Pay nothing if you don’t believe you should. And if you ever do become a patron, but decide to stop, no hard feelings. But if you’re digging what I produce and you’d like to support a writer in his dream to go full time…by all means…throw me a dollar. I promise I won’t spend it at the saloon or the card table. Any help is wildly, gratefully, and sincerely appreciated!

Visit my Patreon page here.

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Joy is a Choice

Often, we simply react to the events we experience without realizing that we have choice when it comes to how we feel about them. We operate under a “conditional happiness” that only appears when the world conforms to how we think it “should” be…but we don’t have to. We can choose joy under any circumstances and cultivate an unconditional kind of happiness that isn’t dependent on reality conforming to our ideas about it. Subscribe to my YouTube channel here.

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Phenomenal

I was standing in line at the grocery store awhile ago, it was late afternoon, and the sun was streaming through the windows and backlighting the redwood trees across the parking lot. The line was moving slowly and I decided that, instead of getting stressed out about waiting or pulling out my phone to distract myself, I would use the time to just be there…to notice things…to do a standing meditation of sorts. The truth was, I was in no hurry. I wasn’t late for anything, nobody was expecting me at a certain time, and I didn’t need the line to be moving any faster than it was…so I relaxed and just took things in.

About five minutes later it was my turn to go, and when I got to the register, the checker asked me how I was. Now, we all know that 99% of people that ask this question don’t really want the answer. “How are you?” is just the socially acceptable opening salvo in any transaction and “good” is the expected response…or “can’t complain” or “okay” or any other middle of the road, non-committal mumbling that you can muster before getting on with the exchange. But I didn’t say any of these.

I said “phenomenal!”

I don’t know why I said it. Maybe I was still in meditation mode. I didn’t think about it…I know that.  It just came out. The checker gave me a bemused smile and said “good for you” in a way that let me know she thought I was clearly insane. Maybe I was, a little, but the weird thing was that saying it immediately made me feel better. Like, a lot better.

When I got to the parking lot, I started trying to figure out where that came from. What prompted me to break ranks with “good” or “okay” and shoot straight to the unmistakably, overtly positive, “phenomenal”?  I still didn’t know…but the resulting feeling was interesting.

When I got in line, I certainly wouldn’t have described my mood as phenomenal. I was in a subpar Safeway at 4:45 in the afternoon on a Friday, waiting while a mass of humanity emptied carts, packed bags, and dealt with malfunctioning chips on their ATM cards. Phenomenal doesn’t normally appear under those circumstances. Was I lying? Did I just put on a front to appear as a more positive person who, on the surface, looked like he was doing better than he actually was? Maybe.

Once I said it, though…I started to believe it a little. It was like my brain started to make up reasons as to why I might feel that way. I had called “phenomenal” into being by accident…and now my day felt lighter. It might have started as a small lie, but calling it forward had transformed it into truth.

Since then, “phenomenal” or similar descriptors have become my standard reply to “How are you?”. Sometimes people will be curious enough to ask why, and then my brain will go about making up all the reasons I have to be “phenomenal” or “amazing” or what have you. It’s a neat trick to raise my vibration for myself and it definitely changes people’s perception of me. They don’t know what to do with a “phenomenal” in a sea of “goods” or “okays”…but they seem to be mostly delighted in their confusion, so I count it as a win for both of us.

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Setting Intentions Like a Bodhisattva

How taking the focus away from the ego and turning it on the world can open up a tremendous space for joy and transformation. Subscribe to my YouTube channel here.

The Bodhisattva Prayer

May I be a protector to those without protection

May I be a leader for those who journey

May I be a boat, a bridge, and a passge

For those who desire the further shore

May I be the doctor and the medicine

And may I be a nurse for all sick beings in the world until everyone is healed and the pain of every living creature is completely swept away

And for as long as space remains

And for as long as sentient beings remain

Until then may I also remain

To dispel the miseries of the world

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Working with Fear

The two questions I always ask that bring me out of fear and back to the present. Subscribe to my YouTube channel here.

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French Fries and The Meaning of Life

People make money in a lot of different ways in Mexico. One way that you see quite often down by the beach is for parents to take out their youngest and cutest child and to have them walk up to tourists with a tray of small candies or gum and ask for five pesos in return for one of the treats. It’s a little like reverse trick or treating with commerce involved.

One night, I was sitting at an outdoor restaurant, eating what was possibly the worst veggie burger I’d ever had, when I was approached by the cutest little girl on the planet, who was carrying one of these small trays with assorted candies. She was probably no more than four years-old and she had eyes as big and as deep as the ocean. When she walked up with her tray and turned those blinkers on me, I was helpless. A puddle. I selected some Chiclet-like gum from her tray, then gave her five pesos and a hearty “gracias” for her offering. But after the transaction was over, she didn’t leave. Instead, she gave me a big smile and pointed at my french fries.

After a quick glance at her dad to make sure it was okay, I gave her a french fry and I had one myself. I made a big deal out of enjoying it…making “mmm…mmm” sounds and rubbing my belly like it was the best thing I’d ever tasted. She thought this was really funny and joined in. We sat there goofing off like this for three or four more fries and then her father let her know it was time to push on. Before she left, I handed her the bag containing the rest of my fries and she skipped off to join her father and to show him her treasure. As they were walking away, I saw her offer her dad a french fry (which he took and made a big deal out of enjoying just like I had) before they joined hands and disappeared down the street.

It was so sweet that it made my heart hurt. Not because I felt sorry for their financial situation, or because I wished I could have helped them more (that’s automatic). My heart was hurting now because I realized that, after all my years of beating the bushes for meaningful experiences from life, it turns out that there is little that is more meaningful to me than sharing a french fry with a four year old.

I mean, if you’re looking for the meaning of life, one doesn’t have to go much further than that. The innocence and playfulness of a kid, the love between a father and daughter, the making the best out of a difficult situation, the simple joy of tasting a french fry. It’s all there, if…and this is key…if you are awake to how deep the small moments like this can be. That’s the difference…and that’s why my heart was hurting now. I was mourning the loss of all the moments like this I probably missed because I was looking for something bigger. Something earth shattering.

We humans spend a lot of time chasing meaning like it’s some big, external, mysterious thing…but is it really? Is the secret of life, the universe, and everything some huge and unfathomable riddle that we never have a prayer of solving…or is it the joy of a little girl, the love of her father…and some potatoes, fat, and salt thrown in for good measure?

I’m siding with potatoes.

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Rich

I got up this morning when my alarm on my incredibly well engineered and reliable phone went off. I filled my electric kettle with clean water from the tap and poured myself a bowl of oatmeal that I cooked in my microwave. When the water was boiling in the kettle, I poured myself a cup of coffee which had been grown, picked, transported, roasted, and ground for me to enjoy. After breakfast, I sat down on my well made meditation cushion and wrapped a wool blanket around me to stay warm. When my meditation was over, I switched on the light, made my way to the bathroom, turned on the shower, and hot water came out. After my shower, I pulled on my clean clothes from the dryer, threw on my warm winter jacket and headed out the door. Once outside, I got into my reliable used car which started on the first try and drove to my usual, free parking spot. From there I had a brisk and beautiful two mile walk to work, during which the sun rose over the hills and I traded smiles with the all the regular commuters that I see every day. Twenty minutes later, I said hello to my friend Pete and gave him a dollar to help him out before heading to the corner store to buy my usual two bananas and to say hello to Rosie who works behind the counter. Once outside, I put my headphones in, dialed up the exact song I wanted to hear on Spotify and bounced down the street to my job, where I work with a bunch of nice kids and one of the best bosses I’ve ever had…and where it is my job to take care of beautiful, energetic, and hilarious birds all day.

By my count, that’s thirty-two things to be grateful for…in only the first three hours that I’m awake. How could I ever think that I was anything but rich?

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