Let the holiday begin

We’ve made it, in one piece, to our glorious 10-day holiday.

Yesterday the principal strolled by at the end of the day and I showed him how to lock the English classroom doors. He gave me a thumbs up. As I bowed and turned to leave, he said “Bye!”, catching me off-guard. When I stammered “bye,” he asked if I can speak Korean, and chuckled benevolently(?) at my “조금만요 (just a little bit).” I consider this progress.

This morning one of the P.E. teachers greeted me at the school gate, as he always does, “Maddy! Have a beautiful* day!” I answered, as I always do, “Thank you, you too!”, but today he added “추석 잘 보내세요 (have a nice Chuseok [Thanksgiving])!”

*He likes to switch up the adjectives, so sometimes it’s wonderfulgreatfantastic, etc. Then he turns to any students who happen to be walking in and says in Korean “Hey, I’m pretty good at English, huh?”

The 2nd and 3rd graders finished their midterm exams this morning. I had one class with the 1st graders (who don’t have exams in the 2nd semester), and we played a trivia game. Even my occasionally-crotchety elderly co-teacher cracked a few jokes with the kids. Definitely a pleasant anticipatory mood in the air.

The weather is so cool today that I’d almost feel chilly if I weren’t from a state where we know how to handle bitter winters. My students and coworkers are already bundling up in sweatshirts and jackets and I haven’t even pulled out a long-sleeved top yet. “Teacher, not cold?” No, but I’m living for every crisp gust of goosebump-inducing air.

In two days we begin what is in my mind undoubtedly the most beautiful and magical month of the year.

Today, for this one moment if nothing more, all is well.

“I’m so glad I live in a world

where there are Octobers.”

– Anne of Green Gables

 

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Ramblings

I am currently on Stage 4 of an unfortunate seasonal cold – the stages being thus defined by yours truly (you can trust me, I hold an M.D. from the University of Google):

Stage 1. The sore throat

This is the worst. I cannot abide a sore throat of any caliber. Like an itch that can never be scratched – lozenges, honey and warm water, painkillers, nothing can make it go away for long. You just have to deal with it, with every breath and every swallow (which you cannot avoid if you want to stay alive).

Stage 2. The nasal congestion

It is a universal law of viruses that in this stage you will only be able to breathe out of one nostril at a time. And that you’ll get a runny nose at the worst possible moment, like when you’re in the middle of a presentation and you forgot to stuff Kleenex in some discreet pocket.

BONUS! Sweating & aching

If your cold is of a particularly nasty strain, you might develop a light fever and begin sweating profusely even though you’re not doing anything strenuous. Like just sitting down at your desk minding your own business, vaguely aching and wanting to curl up in a limp ball.

Stage 3. The sinuses

Here we introduce pounding headaches and the feeling that your eyeballs will burst out of their sockets at any moment from all the pressure.

Stage 4. The chest congestion and coughing

This lovely stage may last for weeks after the other symptoms have faded out. Isn’t that nice? Your cold wants to leave you a little memento to remember it by. As I’m currently in this stage, I now have a 50-50 chance of choking on phlegm instead of speaking every time I start teaching class. It’s great fun.

This is surely the most dramatic description of a cold you have ever read, brought to you by a person who likes to dramatize all things. Especially illnesses. You’re welcome.


In other news, I was trying to tell my student to add a verb to his sentence: “You need a verb. 동사 (dong-sa).” He looked at me incredulously. “똥싸?” Then I remembered that with just slightly more emphasis on the start of each syllable (which is VERY EASY for a foreign tongue to accidentally do, might I add), the word verb magically transforms into the word shit.

I told my student he needed shit in his sentence.

*pats self on back*

His classmate did understand that I, the English teacher, was in fact asking for a verb and not human waste (flawed pronunciation notwithstanding), and the miscommunication was rapidly cleared up.


I try not to be frustrated with catatonic students, or even students who seem to have an attitude, when they tell me things like “I have academy [private lessons] until 10 p.m. today.” I suppose I wouldn’t be in the cheerfullest mood either, if I was literally in school for 14 hours.


Yesterday I asked the students what was for lunch and one of them said “Pizza hotdog!” I thought he was joking. Nope: one of the lunch items was a hotdog (not a full-size American beef frank, but thinner and shorter) on thick-pizza-crust-type bread with pizza sauce, mozzarella cheese, and some sweet corn and raw garlic thrown in for good measure because this is Korea. Paired, of course, with tuna bibimbap (what pro chef wouldn’t pair these culinary delights together?).

Okay but real talk: I ate it all. Not too shabby.


One of my co-teachers was in a car accident – she’s in the hospital with some minor injuries, and as a result I get a substitute co for some classes this week. The poor woman seems to have literally been thrown into this situation. In typical Korean fashion, a “teacher friend” (probably someone of higher rank) requested a favor (favor being “come work at this random school for 3 days”) and she had to acquiesce.

Anyway, after observing my class for the first time, as we walked out together she commented: “The students are so noisy!”*

And here I was thinking we were having a pretty good, “quiet” day.

(cue the trumpets: wah-wah-wah-waaaaaaaah)

Nah, it’s okay. I already know my kids are a handful.

*She later explained that she works at a middle school with very studious and quiet students. Okay, but are they cute tho???


We were playing a True/False quiz and I asked the teams to hold up their answers (on their mini whiteboards). One of the teams had written “Talse.” Nice try kiddos, nice try. (This is a favorite ploy of many students to try to cover their bases when we play quiz games; if it’s multiple choice, sometimes they’ll write a HUGE letter A and then sneakily write B, C, and D inside the A, hoping that somehow it’ll fool me.) But anyway I love that class and I want to pinch their cute faces because they’re always so cheerful and happy about everything. Even studying.


Four times a week we have guest teachers come in to teach special after-school classes in math and English. A couple of them use “my” classroom, the English room. I’ve seen the English teacher a few times as I’m wrapping up after my last class. We usually just smile and say hi in passing, but today she stopped me and said, “Do you want one?”, holding out one of the snacks she’d brought for her students.

Occasionally weird situations (for a foreigner) come out of Korea’s culture of sharing, but sometimes it can be really sweet.

Small victories

Sometimes our school schedule gets crazy. There are field trips and camping trips and violence prevention classes and fire drills and nationwide tests and unexpected miscellaneous stuff that can mess up the curriculum schedule. I’m not complaining, of course, because cancelled classes = more time to work on whatever I need, but it does do a number on my neatly-laid-out, semester-long master plan for all my classes.

So, sometimes I throw in random lessons for the classes that get too far ahead of the others.

Today was one such random day. All the other classes are still on Lesson 6, part 1, and I don’t want to start Lesson 6, part 2 with my Monday classes because later on it’ll mess up the pre-midterm-exam-review flow.

I crafted a personality lesson for my 2nd and 3rd years.

1. Vocab: Learn some personality traits (‘honest’, ‘brave’, ‘kind’, ‘shy’, ‘outgoing’, ‘helpful’…). I tried to mostly stick to positive ones so they don’t call each other bad things (I know my students all too well), but I did do ‘lazy’ and ‘mean’.

2. Apply the Vocab: Make a Venn diagram comparing your personality + your best friend’s personality and write a short paragraph about that friend using the words learned.

3. Personality Questionnaire*: Heavily modified version of one of those pop psych “personality quizzes” that we’ve all probably taken at one time or another. We’re not talking MBTI here, just a 10-question, multiple-choice, very simplified questionnaire about daily habits and preferences:

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The answers themselves were on the PowerPoint (to prevent certain kids from blazing ahead while others were trying to figure out what the question meant)

4. Quiz Results: Based on point values of each A, B, C, or D answer. I assigned an animal to each 10-point score range, so for example, 21-30 points is “The Cat,” 31-40 points is “The Dolphin,” 41-50 “The Fox,” 51-60 “The Lion,” etc., with a brief description like “you’re confident and brave” or “you’re quiet and smart.” Again, I chose only desirable/cute/nice animals so no one would feel bad. Also I didn’t totally make up the results since higher scores are supposed to indicate a bolder/more confident style while lower scores come from quieter/more reserved answers.

Anyway, the small victories here are:

>> Every class enjoyed taking the quiz and finding out their results. I mean, who doesn’t like answering questions about themselves? Even in a language that you (potentially) despise learning.

>> Even better, one of the notorious troublemakers completed his entire worksheet and quiz, patiently asking for help/translations with the questions so he could answer accurately.

>> Best of all, there’s this one really really quiet/shy girl who has spent over a year totally shut down in my class, barely able to lift her eyes from her desk much less write or speak. But today she was quietly listening to/reading the personality questions and circling her answers, the whole time. SUCCESS.


*The quiz questions I used were compiled by another teacher who posted on this thread on waygook.org, but modified by yours truly.

Today was a good day.

The best days are when you expected them to be the worst, and then they’re not. And then, even if they weren’t objectively the best, they still become the best.

Highlights include:

Special lunch today: jjajangbap (rice in a black bean sauce with small diced potato, veggies and pork), fried pork with a Korean version of sweet & sour sauce, cucumbers & unidentified other green vegetables, and an apple cider pouch.

One of my classes had to get chest x-rays (a normal thing here; this is how they test for TB and various other problems, from what I understand, and students and teachers get them yearly), so we basically had a 10-minute class in which I introduced the topic/key expression and let them do book work for 5 minutes before they peaced out.

Starting to feel a little more connected to the 1st graders. It always takes a couple months for them to get comfortable with me and for me to learn more about their personalities and ability levels.

Managed to be productive even though Wednesdays are one of my busiest days. In my break times and free class periods I polished up my lessons for the next few weeks and started putting together a pop song quiz for the last week of the semester. It’s become a mini tradition that we play a big “guess the pop song” game right before vacation time, and the kids look forward to it.

My after-school class with a dozen 15/16-yr-olds went surprisingly well today.

— We did a “board race” warmup: 2 teams make straight lines. I give them a category like “Food” or “Animals,” and the first member of each team writes a word on the board that fits the category, then hands the marker to the next team member. We continue for 2 minutes and then count up and see which team got more words. I thought they wouldn’t want to get up and move when I introduced this, but they were into it.

— Then I showed them the oldie but goodie “Where (the hell) is Matt?” from 2008. They hadn’t seen it before, and it was really sweet/amusing to hear & watch them “ooh” and “aah” over the locations and imitate his goofy dance (no, my 16-year-olds are not too cool for that). The follow-up worksheet asked them to list some of the countries and cities he visited, and then I showed them screenshots from the video and they had to guess which country it was.

— Finally, we did a lyrics arranging activity that I learned in my TEFL course. The song was “Count on Me” by Bruno Mars (ideal for middle school ESL because it’s not too fast, only 3 min long, his pronunciation is reasonably clear, vocab is reasonably simple, and the kids know & like Bruno Mars). I’d printed out and cut all of the song lyrics into strips, one per team of 4 kids. While they listened, they tried to put all of the strips in order.

I was really impressed at how well they did, actually. After the initial listen, I played it one more time and they mostly just needed to check or add a line here or there that they’d missed.

This is an activity I tried with an after-school class in my first year and my students really struggled. My mistake that time was breaking up the lyrics into super small chunks. This time I used 1-2 full lines of the lyrics per strip and a bigger font for a total of 22 strips of paper to arrange, and that transformed this activity from semi-frustrating and discouraging to fun and engaging. Sometimes all it takes it just that little tweak.

Oh, and best of all? Two words: air conditioning. Amen.

The comforting things

1.  The sound of someone else vacuuming. This is no doubt due to the countless nights growing up when I was snuggled cozily in bed listening to Mom vacuuming downstairs before I drifted off. Thus I feel irrationally safe and cozy when one of my apartment neighbors starts vacuuming and the sound drifts through the thin walls. (Which also means it doesn’t work when I’m the one who’s vacuuming. Too bad, right?)

2.  The crackles and pops in the quiet moments of an old black-and-white film (1930s-1950s). I just love this sound, again because it brings me back to childhood and weekend evenings spent watching old movies (expertly selected by Dad from his vast mental library of old movies) on the sofa with my family.

You can kind of hear the crackling in the background of this clip – actually, it’s not really the best example of what I mean, but I mostly chose it because it’s funny and I love this movie.

“Something horrible has happened!”

3.  The gentle spread of burning warmth after eating food with just the right level of spiciness. I enjoy eating spicy foods, but unlike the other items on this list, this love developed very recently, only since I came to Korea.

4.  When pain finally starts to subside. When you can feel the headache, the cramps, whatever it is creeping out of your body, the resulting not-pain brings a soothing lightness.

Everyone has their own list. What’s yours?*

*That’s the part where I pretend my blog has an actual following and audience participation. LOL.

Jetlag

I wrote this post shortly after coming back from my 7-day visit to America – a 13-hour flight away, and 24 hour journey in total from one home to the other.


Sunday, February 26th.

Do you know why time travel is impossible? It’s not because we don’t have the technology yet or because physics and science say it can never be. It’s because our frail little bodies can barely take traveling across time zones, let alone the time-space continuum. Pretty sure we’d shrivel up and die on the spot if we ever did manage to land ourselves back in 1697 or 1919 or 2015 or whatever.

I spent the last 5 days since my plane landed feeling like I’d been hit by the Korean express train itself. It was the most severe jetlag I’ve ever experienced. In all my trips to and from Korea, I’d never really understood what people meant by this incapacitating jetlag thing until now.

To be honest, the last few days were a fever-like blur of sleep, sleepiness, and wakefulness at all the wrong hours. I recall unpacking everything immediately upon arriving home on Wednesday morning and then promptly sleeping for 6 hours, and from there is a memory montage of nap after nap (almost feeling the need to recover from one nap by taking another), crawling out of bed to eat something at inappropriate hours such as 2 a.m., waking up feeling fine at 9 a.m. but becoming overwhelmingly exhausted 2 hours later.

It really does describe an illness, but I suppose that’s what jetlag mimics at times. Upon googling, it seems there are a myriad of symptoms that can be caused merely by having crossed a few time zones while thousands of miles up in the air.

I don’t know whether I was fortunate or unfortunate that I had those 5 days to recover before returning to work, since maybe having the rigor of a schedule and an obligation would’ve helped. Or maybe not. Yeah, probably not.

Regardless, 5 days later I seem to have pulled through. I no longer feel like a toxic fog is eating my insides from the brain down. Whew.

My recollection of the visit itself feels similarly blurry as I scan through the memories that stand out – singing “Can’t Help Falling in Love” with my sister as she strums her ukulele… sitting in the kitchen with a bunch of former coworkers who took time after a long day to eat and laugh together on a weeknight… watching my friend walk down the aisle looking like a princess… being surrounded by my extended family for a lunch gathering during which we packed Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter, and every other missed occasion into an intensely uproarious, laughter-filled, warm, bright, happy few hours… and hugging my best friends and family as I said goodbye again.

 

Mood

Teaching.

Confident.

Inspired.

Relaxed.

Happy.

Spring.

Light.

This has been my mood over the last few weeks. Mood isn’t just a feeling like ‘sad’ or ‘happy’. There are so many components to mood. And since I’m taking the liberty of defining it broadly…

AMC’s The Walking Dead.

A bit late to the party, I’m a few episodes into Season 4 now and my hypochondria has me 1000x more terrified of [what happens at the start of Season 4] than the zombies I’m supposed to be scared of. I’m that person who can’t watch any type of horror because undoubtedly I will spend the next 2 weeks lying in bed at night in stark fear with all the lights on, trying to push that darkness away from my mind.

But for me, zombie stories get a pass because at its core, a good zombie story is about human psychology, weakness, strength, good, evil, faith, hope, love, the struggle for survival and/vs. morality.

The fundamental premise of a well-crafted zombie saga is something that applies even to our mundane (and thankfully zombie-less) lives: It’s not about whether you live or die; it’s about what you do with the time you have left. Can you hold on to your sense of right and wrong in the face of stark fear? Can you remain kind and good and human (in a spiritual sense) while every day is a physical, mental, and emotional fight for survival? Can you remain open and helpful to the people around you, even if you’ve lost everything? And can you really blame the ones that don’t or can’t do all those things?

The Walking Dead delivers on all of that immensely.

It’s brutal, relentless, chilling, heartbreaking, poignant, beautiful, and inspiring.

daryl

The real MVP. Love him. Also, I googled this image at my own risk while carefully guarding my eyes against spoilers.

First Aid Kit. (Which, incidentally, pairs well with Walking Dead. Matching moods.) They’re a Swedish sister duo singing American-style folk/country music. It’s so melancholy. I love melancholy.

More specifically, this is my mood these days:

What if our hard work ends in despair?
What if the road won’t take me there?
Oh, I wish, for once, we could stay gold

What if to love and be loved’s not enough?
What if I fall and can’t bear to get up?
Oh, I wish, for once, we could stay gold
We could stay gold

(The song references this poem.)

And also:

I don’t know if I’m scared of dying
But I’m scared of living too fast, too slow

Regret, remorse, hold on, oh no I’ve got to go
There’s no starting over, no new beginnings
Time races on
And you’ve just gotta keep on keeping on

Something good comes with the bad
A song’s never just sad
There’s hope, there’s a silver lining
Show me my silver lining

I hear a voice calling
Calling out for me
These shackles I’ve made in an attempt to be free
Be it for reason, be it for love
I won’t take the easy road


postscript. where have i been? after my trip to america last month, i resolved not to blog anymore. the main reason was blogging felt whimsical and unnecessarily vulnerable while i was surrounded by my old life, i guess. it felt silly. so i put it aside.

but today i was brimming with this mood that made me want to write. so, maybe i’ll blog again. maybe.

sunset-gyeongju

Sometimes, the Land of the Morning Calm really is calm.

here today, gone tomorrow

Well, here today, gone next week anyway.

Yesterday the school halls were echoing emptiness back at my footsteps. Today there were stamping feet, loud voices, the whir of heaters doing their best to combat the cold. And soon – in a few days – we will return to the emptiness.

Maybe the purpose is to make all of us remember what our responsibilities are lest we get too lazy during break. To stop us from feeling too relaxed. Get that cortisol flowing again, you know.


The night before a stressful day, I try to cope by making some kind of mantra for myself, typically involving the formula “No matter what happens tomorrow, by [X] time I will be at home doing [Y].”

Yesterday, it was “No matter what happens tomorrow, by 5:00 p.m. I will be at home eating spaghetti and cheesecake* and watching The Office.”

It really does help. With practice.

*Not, like, mixed together. Ew.


The day wasn’t as dreadful as anticipated.

Classes have been shortened to 35 minutes. I waste spend the first 10ish minutes on a group memory game (they memorize the picture, then I hide it and they try to remember all the items). Honestly it really isn’t that much of a waste of time since they often seem to be mute after not speaking English for over a month. I consider it a nice easy way to remind them what English even is.

Then we talk about New Year’s Resolutions. I have them guess the Top 10 most popular resolutions for Americans (based on an article I found) and if we have time they write their own resolutions for this year.

Yes, it’s February, but talking about the new year isn’t that belated in Korea since the Lunar New Year was just last weekend.

Anyway it hasn’t been too bad. We all know no one cares what goes on in class during this mini semester, and the kids were as nice as could be expected in the circumstances. Except for the one truly evil class in today’s crop, who were consistent with their general behavior throughout the year (evil).

But all that matters is I survived it for the very last time, and since they’re graduating to high school next week, now I can truly say:

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There were a few other nice things about today as well.

  • The science teacher came to my office – “Maddy, I have present for you. Name stickers!” She ordered every teacher at school a personalized sticker set as a little new year’s gift and she didn’t forget me!
  • Before I started one of my 3rd grade classes (not the evil one), their homeroom teacher came in and requested a few minutes of my class time (purely with eye contact and body language, that is). She had just received their high school placements, which made them cheer and gasp in anticipation. I guess it’s kind of like getting into college, since they have to apply and might not get the one they want. Anyway, it was cute to see some of them get excited about their new school.
  • Two 1st graders came in at the end of the day to deliver some traditional rice cakes. Another boy popped his head in and said, “Maddy… Maddy? Is it really Maddy? Oh my God. We again meet.” Apparently he’d been convinced he would never see me again after the end of the semester.

I suppose the best part is that after we grind through these few days, there’s more vacation until March!

uncollected thoughts

 

The number of barely-attempted posts in my drafts folder grows.

My lack of inspiration wrestles against both my desire to write something real instead of a list of life updates and my itch to do something productive while deskwarming (having already planned future lessons as much as my still-recovering-from-last-year brain will let me).

But not everything in life has to be structured and “just so” and exactly according to the plan in my head.

Various people have tried to tell me this since I was about 2 years old. I think it was only after my prefrontal cortex became fully developed that I started making a conscious effort to relax my own standards for perfection, organization, rigidity, structure, schedules.

Coming to Korea was simultaneously a cause and effect of that relaxation, I suppose.

Okay, so I still have a to do list and I still plan things about a week in advance, but compared to 5 or 10 years ago when I would be consumed with anxiety if I didn’t have everything perfectly ready 2+ weeks ahead of time, I’m doing much better.

in other news

It’s cold. The cold snap hit this week finally. It had been downright balmy here the last few weeks.

The carpenter who lived and worked (emphasis on the worked, and by worked I mean attempted to break the sound barrier with his power tools on a daily basis) next to my apartment has moved out. A shoe cleaner has moved in.

Goodbye whining and grinding at all hours of the day and night. Goodbye sawdust and wood shavings floating in through my windows. Goodbye weekends spent gritting my teeth to stop from screaming out the window “FOR THE LOVE OF ALL THAT IS HOLY, STOP IT!” Happy New Year to me!

Speaking of which, I don’t intend to post about my goals for this year because the act of publicly declaring a goal can have the unintended psychological side effect of making your brain pat itself on the back (er, pat itself on the cerebellum?) and say “Well done, well done, mission accomplished.”

Essentially it releases similar endorphins to those you would get from actually completing a goal, and so, feeling satisfied and happy with yourself, you immediately lose all motivation to pursue those aims.

Nevertheless, I have high hopes for you, 2017.

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Handmade card from one of my sweetest 3rd grade girls, who is starting high school in March.

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I’ll miss her!

Before Korea, after Korea

I’ve been thinking lately about all the things I can do now that I couldn’t do before I came to Korea / when I first arrived here, and also all the habits I’ve formed since coming here.

So without further ado, let’s begin the list.

How has Korea changed me?

I can now…

  • Fly internationally alone (I don’t like it, but I can do it).
  • Understand most basic Korean conversations around me – to the point where one of the P.E./head teachers has befriended me at lunch and taken to conversing with me where he speaks mostly Korean and I answer in English, which is entertaining for everyone. “I’m funny guy,” he laughed confidently the other day, to the amusement of all.
  • Ride the bus without freaking out (much). (To be fair, if you can’t get a seat and have to stand, you’d best secure a death grip on the nearest object within 2 seconds of boarding because it’s gonna be a wild ride.)
  • Eat very spicy foods like a pro – i.e., no more watery eyes, runny nose, or uncontrollable coughing. In fact, I now prefer for most Korean dishes to have a kick to them. In the same vein…
  • Eat all my Korean food groups like a good little expat. My taste buds have totally transformed in the last 2 years, narrowing my “can’t do it” foods to a very small list indeed. I find that Koreans often strongly connect certain foods with certain events or feelings. Hot, nasty, humid day? Mul naengmyeon (cold soup & noodles). Birthday? Seaweed soup. New Year’s Day? Rice cake soup. Feeling sick? Juk (porridge) or samgyetang (chicken & ginseng soup). Rainy, gloomy day, or feeling sad? Samgyeopsal (bbq pork belly) and soju. Stressed out or angry? Super spicy food and soju. Just climbed a mountain? Jeon (savory veggie pancakes) and makgeolli (rice wine). (Is there a pattern here? Koreans love their alcohol, man.) I’ve come to really enjoy this aspect of Korean culture, and have begun craving specific dishes based on particular emotions/circumstances myself. I’ve even conquered my nemesis, fish jjim, in spite of my former assertions that I was giving up on liking it. It, like everything else in Korean cuisine, has its time and place to be eaten. Namely, after a stressful day when you need something mega spicy to get rid of your stress and frustrations. With soju. Speaking of which…
  • Drink half a bottle of soju.

I cannot now…

  • Make small talk (disclaimer: not that I was necessarily great at this to begin with)
  • Greet people without a head bow
  • Speak without pausing every 2-3 words and monitoring my own sentences to make sure they’re not too long or complicated. I’ve heard this called “riding the brake” among foreigners here.
  • Use articles correctly. It deeply perturbs me how many times I’ve caught myself saying “This is dog.” “I will go to supermarket.” A and the are falling out of my vocabulary. Even worse, this week I caught myself failing at subject/verb agreement- “They are zombie.*” “These are apple.” send help. quickly.

*Halloween week, you know.