The Inexplicable Power of a Licorice Stick


clarinet Sometimes when my reasonably fine life gets to be too much, I pull out my clarinet from its beaten case with the sides all sliced and peeling from when it faced various indignities on long ago band trips.

I open the metal clasps on the side and look into that velvet-lined interior to find the five pieces that make up my black wooden instrument. I feel the corks as I slide them together with the reed soaking already in my mouth (I’m always hoping it’s the right reed — the one that lets the tones flow out easily instead of one of those others that have me straining for each note).

I start with the bell, then the two middle pieces, building it from bottom to the top, sliding the bridge carefully together. Then I push together the barrel and the mouthpiece, pulling the barrel up to give it a slightly deeper tone as if trying to tune with a partner or band not in the little office room where I play. After all this, I’ll run through the chromatic scale, fiddle with the keys and maybe pass through my memorized “Sound of Silence.”

If my lip feels strong, I’ll play through old books, looking for fun things. But most of the time and especially if I’m playing to soothe some nameless hurt that came over me before I cracked open the peeling case, I’ll go back to Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto in A Major K 622 Adagio.


I’ll play it long and slow with its climbing and then falling sixteenth and thirty second notes and trills. It’s in a book I used for contest but not a piece I ever played when I was in competition. No music teacher ever corrected me on it, and I think this is much of why I love it. I have no idea how badly I’m doing it. I don’t want to have any idea.

Somehow, when I play, I feel close to the man who wrote it shortly before his death — that crazy genius who died 10 years younger than I am now over 300 years ago. The sounds soothe me in a way that hangs in the air long after I pull the pieces of my well-loved clarinet back apart to let it lie once again in the velvet lining. Thank you, Mozart. Here’s what I hear in my head when I play:

Mother Tongue Tuesday: German


I once was quite certain I would be a German teacher. I knew like I knew that German was fabulous, and I had spent plenty of time already studying it (like 2 years). I transferred from the University of Washington to Western Washington University with the more than rather dour Herr Brockhaus because I was so certain I wanted to study to be a teacher. The UW said to wait on the teaching courses until I had my German most of the way finished. (The perils of the UW would make another story, but I now think 18 years into teaching that they were were right.)

Without writing The Story of My Life in one blog post, it’s hard to explain how I landed in ESL. It’s simplest to say not nearly as many people want to learn German as they do English. Thinking of offering tidbits of this language, I studied more than any but English overwhelms me (not least because I’ve forgotten so very much. I don’t use it except lately on a little language app). But in the spirit of the students I have known both here and for a short time in Germany, I’ll give it a go.

German Tidbits from my Memory and from Ethnologue 

  • It has a 60% lexical similarity with English, meaning many of the words are the same in English and German. (Studying German made reading Old English understandable. German and English, I like to say, are close cousins.)


  • There are several varieties aside from the standard Hochdeutsch (High German). These are often known as Plattdeutsch (Low German). High German translates refrigerator as Kuhlschrank. The Plattdeutsch speakers in my German friend’s kitchen laughed as they told me refrigerator is something that sounded like Hooheehoeshrank with plenty of sounds from the back of the throat. (I can’t verify this so maybe they were just joshing my young self. I did, however, find Plattdeutsch translators like this and wasted a lot time looking for that word, so it looks like their refrigerator joke lives on in my older self.)


  • Over 41 million of the almost 70 million native German speakers also speak English, which explains why I’ve had so few German speakers needing my ESL classes. I have several friends and relatives from Germany but their English is so good I feel foolish using them to practice my German.


  • German has crazy articles. To learn the language well, you need to memorize male, female and neuter articles and then know subjective, accusative, dative and genitive forms of those articles. These make the a, an and the of English look as easy as playing patty cake.

Famous American German Speakers

  • Theodore Seuss Geisel (Dr. Seuss) had German immigrant grandparents and many sources I’ve found say he grew up speaking both German and English.


  • Sandra Bullock grew up in Germany for many years. This video example of German has her speaking it quite well (to my ear).









Visiting My Doomed High School


The wrecking balls plan to smash down Auburn High School this summer so I decided to take one last look during the open house for alumni and friends. I don’t remember setting foot in the place since I graduated 25 years ago.

I’m still unsure how I feel about saying goodbye to those cracked and beat up white buildings. Facing my own mortality comes to mind although the place looked run down to me when I went there. I would say it’s past time for the district to rebuild.

Anyway, here’s a tour of what I saw and remembered. I did feel a sadness of a time gone past and the loss of that wide open future feeling I once had. At the same time, I sure had fun walking through with my family and feeling complete in a way I know I never did while sitting on those concrete benches.

Mother Tongue Tuesday (on Wednesday): Marshallese


The other day in my 1000 Places to Visit Before you Die calendar, I saw Chuuk Lagoon. It sits in the Pacific, far out and filled with sunken Japanese ships. Because it was the naval base for most of the Japanese Imperial fleet, the U.S. bombed the lagoon in 1944.

Now it’s a graveyard and a place where divers love to look under the sea for hulking ships as they slowly corrode away while worrying environmentalists about their leaking oil.

Some of my students come from places near these islands that sprinkle the Pacific. One moved to Washington from the Marshall Islands, which the United States used to launch the attack on the Chuuk Lagoon in World War II. The Marshallese student brought me this headdress I would love have the guts to wear. The next time a crown is in the dress code, I will be ready to go.



Marshallese Tidbits (from Wikipedia and Ethnologue) 

  • This language was much harder to find great chunks of information about since only about 55,000 people speak it. The UCLA Language Project which I so often go to has nothing on Marshallese. Still, it’s use is described as ‘vigorous’ in Ethnolgue and I know my former student and his friends communicate in it frequently because I’ve seen their Facebook posts on my instructor account.
  • It’s has several classifications, including Austronesian and Malayo-Polynesian.
  • Marshallese is also known as Ebon and has two major dialects.
  • One of its closest linguistic relatives is Chuukese, the language spoken on the islands in my calendar.
  • It has many consonants with with a grand variety in ways to form them from patatilized to velarized — two things that push at my memory of pronunciation but which I would struggle to fully explain.
  • Marshallese does complicated things with its pronouns and with word order that involve markers and a radically different way of dealing with nouns.

One of the first things my student told me about his islands involved nuclear testing and its lasting effects on the area. Once again, I learned much from a person in my class, but sometimes I wish they wouldn’t teach me so much. My ignorance on this subject was much more comfortable than knowing what happened when we blew up another pristine place in the world and how it keeps affecting people today.

At least the people there were able to retain their fascinating language with forms and sounds so different from English. I do hope we will be able to do more in the future to help the Marshallese and their words flourish.