Friday, May 6, 2016

Linguistalks with Payal Khullar

(Another of my famously bad titles, but it stays.) What studying linguistics entails is not clearly understood, in my experience, in India. Having just finished two years of a post-grad in Linguistics, alongside only about ten students from the whole university, I have grown used to people asking me - Why! What now? And what exactly is linguistics, anyway? It would surely help to have someone better equipped to answer these questions. 

The idea for today's post came from a Linguistics blog I follow called All Things Linguistic, which features a series of interviews with people in linguistics-related jobs. This is not quite the same, but gives a way to interact with people in the field, learn what people do with degrees in Linguistics and attempt to answer some of the questions I tend to be asked; not to mention, along the way, spark in you an interest in linguistics if I can. 

The first interview in what I hope will be a long series, is with Payal Khullar, who simplifies fascinating concepts in language sciences through her blog over at Language & Linguistics. You can check out her site, and keep in touch on Facebook and Twitter. Payal has had an interesting journey to linguistics and I'm glad to have her share it with us. 

1. Tell us about yourself. 
I am just an ordinary person with ordinary talents. I guess the best part about my personality is that I have always been super excited and passionate about whatever I do. In fact, I have hardly been able to do anything half-heartedly for more than a week in the past. 

If you look at my career graph, you would say that I have dipped my feet into deep waters with extreme temperatures in my life. And, well, that is what I like about myself the most. From a studious scholar of botany, to a failed cartoonist, a well-paid online educator, and a not-so-bad content editor at a popular e-commerce website- I guess I have tried it all. I must say, however, that my life has become rather stable for quite sometime now. 

My career took a serious turn after I cracked the JNU entrance exam. During the two years of Masters degree program at SL, JNU, I fell in love with Linguistics. Not many people know that I rejected a cool job offer at a well known publishing house before I joined IIT- Delhi. 

At this moment, I am working as a research fellow and teaching assistant for Linguistics at the Humanities and Social Sciences Department of IIT- Delhi. My research areas include syntax, language variation, language processing and language acquisition. 

Besides all of these things, I am an avid blogger and poet (well, almost). 

2. Why did you decide to study linguistics? 
Honestly, I never planned a career in linguistics. After an Honours degree in Botany from one of the best colleges in Delhi University, I started working in an e-commerce startup. Everything was more or less okay, and, then, one random day, I felt I want to go back to the drawing board and study something interesting; perhaps, something I haven’t studied before. Linguistics was an experiment. One that worked out quite well for me. 

3. Did studying linguistics change you? How? 
Yes, it did. Drastically, in fact. When I talk to people now, I constantly look for evidence of dialectal variation. When I interact with infants and kids, I recollect theories on language acquisition in my mind. 

I have also become highly sensitive to power dynamics between languages and linguistic rights of minority communities, especially in multi-linguistic areas. It’s quite weird, but I judge someone’s character based on how they think about different languages and speech communities. 

I guess, it is impossible to study something for years and not let it effect you on a personal level. 

4. What are some common misconceptions about linguistics? 
I think, all linguists of the world will agree with me on this. When you tell someone you’re a linguist or that you study languages, the first thing they want to know is the number of languages you can speak fluently or the types of scripts you can write in. Then, they ask you which is the best language in the world. If you do not lose your cool, they will continue to discuss how they think Chinese must be difficult to learn for the kids in China. 

Sometimes it gets difficult to make people understand that, as language researchers, we are not interested in studying any particular language. Linguistics is the study of language as a cognitive object, or as a social phenomenon. It is not about learning grammars and vocabularies of standard varieties of prestigious foreign languages. 

Also, I don’t think a lot of us are aware of how research in linguistics has contributed significantly to smart phone technology, highly interactive user interphases, operating systems, online dictionaries, language translation, search engines, etc. People take language for granted. Commercial application of linguistics is not restricted to foreign language teaching. 

5. What is some advice you wish someone had given you about linguistics / university / work? 
I think, it’s very important to read classical, state-of-the-art works in Linguistics or, for that matter, in any field of study one is interested in. Often, at the undergraduate and even at the post-graduate level, students are taught theories and made to learn concepts without giving them a background on how those theories and concepts were introduced in their time, how they got accepted or rejected, how they survived or failed to survive criticism, and how they changed and developed with time. What we often read as a one line definition of something actually is a result of years of research and experimentation in the field. It is important to know that as well. It also sort of brings in motivation for research. 

Also, no definition and no concept must be taught or learnt as gospel truth. We must not fear from deconstructing theories and redefining concepts. 

6. Could you share any favourite linguistics quotes / books / blogs / videos / links? 
There are some very interesting Ted talks on the subject. For instance, this one here by renowned Linguist Steven Pinker: What our language habits reveal. Pinker talks about how thoughts are linked with language. I think, every linguist and non-linguist must look at this once. 

And then there is one that explains origin and evolution of language, language diversity, biblical myths, etc. using very cool animation. Check it here: How Languages Evolve - Alex Gendler.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

On teaching, children and a short month-long volunteer experience

(Has anyone noticed how terrible I am at coming up with titles?)

Today's post is a condensed (yes, it was even longer) form of an essay I wrote for a job/fellowship application. I have since accepted another role, so here I am reposting this to the blog. In November last year, I took up a month-long volunteer position at an NGO called Door Step School. An English teacher at the Community Learning Centre - exciting. 

My meticulous lesson plans crumbled when I stepped into the classroom and found myself surrounded by thirty little monsters yelling incoherent strings of rote-learned ‘missmynameispooja’, ‘hellogoodmorningbye!’ So on that first day, all I did was observe the other teachers handle the class with expertise, a healthy combination of strict and loving. 

Door Step School works towards bringing literacy to the marginalized sections. Some of their biggest projects include day schools for children at construction sites and the innovative School on Wheels initiative. The Community Learning Centre which I joined also had children of construction workers. They had been successfully enrolled in government schools. Now the Centre provided them with a support system to ensure they stayed in school and could manage the school-work. 

The counsellor at the Centre asked me to set up the base for English teaching that the next volunteer teachers could build on. My first task was to build a bond of trust. To really get through to the children, I needed to understand their contexts, the experiences that had shaped them. But all they had were questions for me! So I began to share. I told them about my house and my school, they took real delight in stories of my pet cat, and gradually, they opened up to me.

spelling activities with some 3rd-graders
I didn't realise someone was taking photos, but it did not get past the kids!
We chatted about big and little things - the holiday decorations in their slum, someone’s birthday, their tiffin that day. When they shared their problems, their worries stayed with me, often long after the school hours. My first lesson hit hard, but it was also the most important - learning not to pity them. As our friendship blossomed, the issue of discipline slowly dissolved. As with all the other children I have taught, I planned my classes around the knowledge that eight-year-olds tend to be impatient and need to be constantly engaged. 

All the ‘English’ that these eight and nine year-olds knew was reciting the alphabet, unable even to distinguish one letter from the other or decode the individual sounds. To make it worse, they were too apprehensive to speak up. I don’t know English, they would reply in Marathi to any question I posed, until I had an idea. I drew a picture on the board. Cake! Car, scooter, table, chair, computer, the words came tumbling out. 

outdoor lessons were my favourite (though I've managed to look morose in every picture)
I visited the government school for a storytelling activity. Sitting in that ramshackle excuse for a classroom, with a group of bright twinkly-eyed children enthusiastically talking about their school, I realized with a new light how shameful and infuriating it was to rob them of the opportunity to learn. I decided to scrap my plan for the session and ask them what they wanted. That day we learned some twenty English words they were curious to know. 

Equipped with a set of phonics books, I arrived in class one day and taught them how to write their names. Sound out words from colourful storybooks. Suddenly, spelling stopped being gibberish. Car became c-a-r and different from c-a-t. I made little paper chits with capital and small letters and made them match pairs. Some games worked, others did not. With time, I developed an intuitive sense of which activities would be successful with whom. 

A month sounds too little in the big picture, but I am glad I powered through. I believe I made a difference. By the end of my volunteership, more than anything, I sparked in the children an interest in reading. And there was another outcome. I emerged from the experience ready to face and adapt to newer challenges. Today, I want to teach and learn from it, and do this forever.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Metaphors We Live By by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson

In the last post, I mentioned a project. That is what has been killing my creativity for the past three months. The topic is metaphorical language; how it is stored and processed in the mind. Now, I don't know if I am built for research, have a research bent-of-mind. I don't know, for instance, how flattering it is that I got the idea for my first serious linguistics project from a science fiction novel (Embassytown by China Mieville, if it matters.) But over the past several weeks, I have managed to stumble and bumble along, and in this big jumble of data collection and experimental software and statistical tools, I have (almost) developed a taste for it. 

Metaphors We Live By by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson is the first book I read post topic-selection. It is a book that is (un)popular for its intricate claims. I love it! The essence of the book is the claim that metaphors are the vessel for meaning. Linguistic experience is rooted in conceptual metaphors. 

We generally associate the word 'metaphor' with the literary device. Aristotle said something about a perfectly constructed metaphor being the awesomest thing ever (it's been long since I quoted Aristotle, my memory is a bit rusty.) According to Lakoff and Johnson, we need to stop thinking of metaphors as some sort of flourish that poets add to their language and realize that it is something we all employ. It would be impossible to speak about 'concepts' without metaphors, that is, without likening them to concrete perceptual and physical processes. To explain what they mean, the first example they provide is that of the metaphor of ARGUMENT as WAR. 

Your claims are indefensible
He attacked every weak point in my argument. 
His criticisms were right on target. I demolished his argument. 
I have never won an argument with him. 
You disagree? Okay, shoot! 

We cannot talk about arguments, without talking about war. The experience of ARGUMENT finds embodiment in the language of WAR. As someone who is entirely inept at arguments, always takes them as personal attacks and surrenders in every argument with a 'Fine, I'm wrong. You win,' I can personally attest to this metaphor. 

But that is not the end of their line of thought. What if instead of talking about ARGUMENT in terms of WAR, we adopted the language of DANCE? Imagine a culture where two partners are said to perform an argument, where claims are choreographed to aesthetically please, where strategies are twirls. Will the resulting act of communication be an argument at all? Not as we view it, at any rate. When the words change, they conclude, so does the experience, and with that, the very action changes.

The point here is that not only our conception of an argument but the way we carry it out is grounded in our knowledge and experience of physical combat. Even if you have never fought a fistfight in you life, much less a war, but have been arguing from the time you began to talk, you still conceive of arguments, and execute them, according to the ARGUMENT is WAR metaphor because the metaphor is built into the conceptual system of the culture in which you live. 

They give examples of other such metaphors, a stand out being TIME is MONEY. You can spend time, give someone your time, and so on. These are called structural metaphors, where the language is so structured that ideas are objects that can be spent, stored, buried, wasted and given. The authors stress however that these metaphors are only partially structured, so you can spend time, but there are no time banks like money banks. The metaphors of time don't hold true for all the structures and linguistic usages of money. 

Another interesting kind of metaphors is the orientational one. Anything that is GOOD is UP and BAD is DOWN. So your spirits rise, you are at the peak of your career, you do high-quality work, something boosts your confidence. In contrast, you fall into depravity, you are under someone's control and so on. The authors explain again that these distinctions are not randomly assigned but based on a network of physical and cultural experiences, that may vary across societies according to what is valued more and what needs to be brought into focus. They give many instances, so many instances that you are overcome with awe by the sheer power of their observation and inference-making skills. 

Eventually, things begin to get really complex, when you see that ARGUMENT is conceptualised as more than just WAR. There can be an ARGUMENT is a BUILDING metaphor (his claims were shaky) or an ARGUMENT is a JOURNEY (you can't retract your claim now, having come so far.) This is where the arbitrariness of such a descriptive piece of writing as this book begins to show through. All the hypotheses proposed by Lakoff and Johnson are strictly experiential and with every new page, they stray away from language science and into the realm of philosophy. This is not necessarily bad.

Towards the end of the book, they talk about the meaning and subjectivity of truth. How any statement is true only relative to some understanding of it. France is hexagonal, Missouri is a parallelogram, Italy is boot-shaped. All of these are true to a little boy drawing a map in school and laughably wrong to any self-respecting professional cartographer. 

It is because we understand situations in terms of our conceptual system that we can understand statements using that system of concepts as being true, that is, as fitting or not fitting the situation as we understand it. Truth is therefore a function of our conceptual system. It is because many of our concepts are metaphorical in nature, and because we understand situations in terms of those concepts, that metaphors can be true or false.

The first time I heard of Lakoff had been (I later recollected) in a book where Steven Pinker made fun of his very unempirical analyses. The 'language is thought' hypothesis has been somewhat carelessly thrown out by most linguists. (But if you are interested in some recent relevant research on this, I refer you to a favourite cognitive linguist.)

In Embassytown by China Mieville, the book that gave me the idea for the project, there is a race of aliens called Ariekei. The one difference between humans and the Ariekei is that the alien language has no metaphors. The Ariekei can only talk about things that are physically and perceptually concrete. Unlike humans, you see, the Ariekei cannot lie. Embassytown has many holes, but one thing it did impress upon me was the value of our ability to draw creative links between what is and could be. Metaphors We Live By shows the extent of this, and it is so inspired. It is a beautiful read for any speaker or learner of English. It will give you a whole new perspective on the language and a keen awareness of every word choice you make the next time you speak.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

"Indian in blood, English in tastes" - bilingualism and language education

(this is not a direct reference, but representative of the sad books I am buried in lately)

This past month I have been working on my Masters' dissertation in psycholinguistics. The project is not what this post is about, but something I stumbled upon during my research. My subjects were 13-14 year old students from my hometown. 

In a questionnaire about their language profile, I cheekily inserted a question that had little to do with my study - how important it is to be proficient in your mother tongue (here, Marathi) versus English. An overwhelming percentage of the tiny minds asserted that the importance of English proficiency far exceeds that of Marathi.

Bilinguality has always been of interest to me, as someone oddly comfortable in her second language. And yet, it disappoints me to see children parroting an uninformed English-bias, greatly influenced no doubt by their own language teachers, who really should know better. I am not here to argue against the presence of English in our schooling, but against the pervasive ignorance of language policy and linguistic theory in mainstream primary education. This post is about how we got here, and why we must leave.

How We Got Here: Language Policy and Trilingual Education

Since Akbar's times, Persian was the official language of India. It was during the British rule, obviously, that English took over. In the English Education Act of 1835, T.B. Macaulay emphasized the need for a class of people who were "Indian in blood and colour, but English in tastes, in opinions, in morals and in intellect." (The last bit is particularly tickling.) This is really how English entered Indian primary education, although it would be wrong to say none of our reformers supported Anglicizing our education. 

Post-independence, one of the biggest debates was (still is) the matter of selecting a National Language. Gandhi was in great support of Hindustani, a sort of combo of Hindi and Urdu. South India rejected Hindi as the national language, not surprising considering how little resemblance their Dravidian languages bear to this language of the North. In 1949, a compromise was struck, and both English and Hindi became the 'official languages of the Union' (Part 17th of the Constitution) with no mention of a national language as such. The intention was to eventually push English out entirely, but hey, we never got there.

Much violence and protests resulted in the trilingual education policy or three-language-formula - schools must teach Hindi, English and the regional mother tongue. (Even this was contested in parts of South India, but let's not go there.) The point is this, in a country divided into separate states based on linguistic choices, no region seemed ready to allow official status to the language of another speaker over his own. English belonged to no one and hence, irony, to everyone. It stayed as the lingua franca.

In our post-colonial society, English was the language of the elite - an influential class. Today, our mass adoption of English gives our country one of its biggest economic advantages. Such valorisation is difficult to erase, but why should we? If anyone can pull off multilingualism, it's India. 

Why We Must Leave: The Bilingual Brain versus Popular Opinion

So, political reasons out of the individual control is why English is here to stay. And it is not a bad thing, I am happy that today, sitting all the way here in India, I can talk to the globe with a command on English that only my very early exposure in school could have given me.

But, lately, I have seen far too many parents converse in English with their children. Preachy teachers with fake British accents (or not) encourage it. Infuriating. You see, in India, the aforementioned trilingual education policy makes it impossible not to raise kids as multilinguals. In such a situation, trying to block out the mother tongue to replace it with English is, at best, misguided.

The bilingual brain functions differently from the monolingual brain. It contains in itself more than the sum of two languages, which is why we can speak in mixtures of English and our own language. Linguist Vivian Cook calls this multicompetence. In fact, with every new language you learn, the structure or "shape" of the brain changes. How beautiful is that!

According to Jim Cummins, a Canadian expert in second language education, the two languages in a bilingual brain interact and overlap, such that certain basic cognitive skills and concepts can transfer from one language to the other. Lots of exposure to the second language, plus overt instruction in the first language is enough to develop proficiency in the second language. Teaching in this manner increases the child's comfort, and hence competence. Any child better learns new things while cocooned in old familiar things.

In India, we enter school at the age of 4, our brains fully equipped with the mother tongue. Not to use this as a resource in learning English is silly, but to actively encourage wiping it out is dangerous.

Banning the use of the first language, Cook says, will not stop learners from using it. The brain can't separate two languages just because some random teacher wants it to. What banning the mother tongue will do is make tiny gullible minds guilty of using it to help think, it will demoralize those who realize they need their mother tongue to better understand and learn. 

Banning the first language in a second language classroom takes away an effective learning strategy. It becomes harder to learn English without using the mother tongue. And we don't want that, do we! Banishing the mother tongue from a child's home is attempting to exchange a potentially restructured cool bilingual brain for a simple monolingual one. Neither scenario is very positive. 

And, really! I wish more people understood this. More than anything, I wish we had more language teachers with a fair grasp of linguistic theory and an interest in it. It is easy to underestimate something like language, something everyone can "do," but its widespread application is the very reason it is so essential to get it right.

In that diverse set of some 60 students I spoke to during my data-collection spree, one little girl stood out. All long braids and twinkly eyes. Both the languages are very important, she told me emphatically, each in its own way. I told her to hold on to that thought. 

Friday, February 19, 2016

BBAW Day 5: How To Fight Reader's Block

I missed Day 4!! But between job interviews, submissions and classes, I found no time to blog yesterday. Anyway, here is the last prompt for the Book Blogger Appreciation Week, how do you keep things fresh in your reading?

Short answer, I don't always. If you scroll back through this blog, you will find complainey posts nearly every seven months, about not finding time to read, about being tired of thrillers, bored of fantasy and too swamped to write reviews. I always have phases in reading, the Ayn Rand phase, the horror obsession, the latest is memoirs. But over the years, I have discovered a few ways to make time for reading and make it through lulls. 

1. Visit book stores, book sales and libraries - There is something almost unfairly attractive about paperbacks. Even if they were to lose the convenience argument to ebooks, physical books were the ones that made most of us fall in love with reading. A walk through a bookshop or library can be so inspiring. You never know when a book might pop out at you and open new reading doors. A discount only helps the process.

A couple of favourites I stumbled upon at libraries and book sales: Elementals: Stories of Fire and Ice by A.S. Byatt, Sacred Games by Vikram Chandra

2. Bring diversity to where you read - Do you always read in your armchair? Or on the bed? Or in commute? My favourite is lying on the bed, with the book propped open in front me. But I have realized over the years that if you only stick to one place where you read, you will end up in a rut. Read a chapter on the train, sneak in a page in the kitchen, find a cosy spot in a garden, on a bench, in a coffee shop and even in your library. A creative choice of place adds to the atmosphere of the book. 

3. Join a book club - You will meet like-minded people and very different people. The good thing about being in a book club is, it will sometimes literally force you to read books you would never have picked up otherwise. And while that is not always a good thing, you will end up with some cool new reading experiences. Not to mention, get some worthwhile recommendations along the way. 

4. Consider other modes of reading - Seriously. I am not the biggest fan of audiobooks, but they are a real time saver. And a good narrator can do wonders. I know lots of people who most of their 'reading' through audiobooks, and I can understand the appeal. At the end of the day, it is the content that matters, not the mode. Graphic novels, similarly, are a whole different treasure, and one every reader should branch out into. (I am pretty much a novice when it comes to these, though, but recommendations are welcome.)

5. Find inspiration wherever you can - Be it books you find mentioned on a TV show or in a movie. Participate in readalongs and reading events. Join Goodreads, follow and interact with other bloggers. Take on book challenges. The list is unending.

My favourite inspiration post - Books I Read Because of Gilmore Girls

And to keep the blog from suffering through your reading ups and downs, post about other things, be it travel, recipes, music, movies or interesting stuff from your daily life.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

BBAW Day 3: Thank the Blogger

When I read the prompt for today for the Book Blogger Appreciation Week at The Estella Society, I did not realize we could be talking about bad books. So mine is a politer Thank the Blogger instead of Blame the Blogger. I made a list of some of the books I discovered on my favourite book (mostly) blogs and entirely loved. 

1. The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker, discovered in March 2014, on Postcards from Asia. From my own review,

"The Golem and the Jinni meet by accident, and discover, instantly, each others' true identities. After the initial fear and discomfort, a mixture of curiousity and loneliness brings them together and they become unlikely friends, exploring New York together, strangely free in the dead of the night. The Golem and the Jinni is an absorbing fusion of ordinary and miraculous."

2. The Gargoyle by Andrew Davidson, discovered in March 2012, on Vishy's Blog. Again, from my own review,

"I think the book is worth reading. It is rather unique. It's not long, though it sometimes loses momentum. If you like history, magical realism, dark fantasy, mythology, art, specifically grotesques, give The Gargoyle a chance."

3. The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett, discovered in September 2012, on Nylon Admiral

The Uncommon Reader is a charming little book woven around a simple idea - what would happen if the Queen were to fall in love with books? Among many dollops of wisdom on reading, the book gave me one of my favourite quotable quotes - "Authors are as much creatures of the reader's imagination as the characters in their books."

4. All short stories by Alice Munro, discovered in January 2014, on Viktoria's Bookshelf (now One Sketch A Day

This is my favourite discovery. I remember how blown away I was by the first Alice Munro story I read, only minutes after reading Viktoria's post. I found the story Dimension in the New Yorker. I read it once, twice, rushed to buy a book by Munro, intro-ed her to the book club. Seriously, you haven't experienced short stories until you have read Alice Munro.

5. So You've Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson, discovered in October 2015, on Listen Watch Read Share

When I say You've Been Publicly Shamed, I am only saying it to keep the list consistent. What I actually mean is I discovered a lot of really good music on Denise's blog. So You Have Been Publicly Shamed is a tough, scary book and I did appreciate it; but what you should be checking out is her blog, for all manner of fun things she writes.

The sweetest thing about BBAW is how it is making me stroll down memory lane every day. I have stuck to blogs that are still running here. But I stumbled upon so many I used to follow three and four years, old exchanges and emails and recommendations. I felt like I was in that scene in a movie, where I am standing still and the seasons change around me in fast-forward. Nice, but also sad. (The other thing this post established in my mind is how urgently I need to make a blog roll.)

The prompt also asks which books I keep pushing on people. Oh SO many. And ironically, I can't think of a review I wrote or book I made someone read that got the anticipated reaction. Maybe three. However. It has not kept me from going on an on, yet!

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

BBAW Day 2: Interview

The second day of the Book Blogger Appreciation Week is interviews! Those of us who signed up were assigned bloggers as interviewees. I got Heather from Based On A True Story. And got interviewed here at Tea Time with Marce.

I love this day's task! I perused Heather's blog, discovered so many new books to add to my shelf, was overcome with guilt by how regularly she blogs (look at my sad attempts at consistency) and got to meet her adorable pets. Do go visit her site! 
Bookish Questions:

1. What is your idea of the perfect book?

It needs to pull me in immediately with the writing. I can usually tell on the first page whether I'm going to DNF a book or not. I can feel myself sinking into the story right away. Choppy sentences or poor grammar will take me right out. The subject matter could be anything. I don't mind what the topic is as long at the writing engages me and the story isn't abusive or cruel.

2. Tell us about a book you reacted strongly to and what brought it on?

Throne of Glass. I read it because so many people on my Twitter feed loved it. I didn't. This might be an instance where being an older reader made a huge difference to the enjoyment of the book. Younger readers think it is romantic but all I could see was abusive relationships because of an uneven power dynamic. Then I went off on a rant.

3. Do you have any quirky reading rituals?

I have to know the publication year before I can read. I'm not sure why. I've noticed that a lot of ebooks put the copyright page at the end now and I don't approve. I have to find it and read the year.

4. Which is your favourite genre and why?

Fantasy is what I read the most of. I love the imagination of it. It can be anything. I'm also getting into the speculative fiction aspect of fantasy which is guessing what the world will be like in the future. One of my favorites last year was Ink by Sabrina Vourvoulias.

Blog Questions:

1. Tell us about your lovely critters and how they feature into the blog!

My URL is because I didn't know what I was doing when I was setting up my own domain way back in 2005. I thought it was like setting up a user name and I always used my horse's name.

This is Spirit, the blog namesake, during his retirement from showing so he was allowed to have crazy hair. He died in 2008 at the age of 33. Since then I've gotten out of the horse hobby which is something that I never would have imagined. Now I live with my 11 year old Springer Spaniel/Beagle mix Freckles, a 13 year old cat named Powder, a 11 year old Senegal Parrot named Jules, and a 2 year old cat named Paul. They get to be blog fodder when they do something bizarre.

2. How do you manage to blog regularly? Do you follow a plan?

I don't really have a plan. I write when I'm inspired. I tend to write in advance of when things are going to post. I like to have a least a few posts ready for the next week at all times. I do read a lot and I review most of the books that I read so that helps make up a lot of posts. I use prompts like Top Ten Tuesday if I like the topic. I use blog events to post ideas too. I'm doing Weirdathon in March about weird books so I have a few post ideas for that ready too.

3. I love your blog design. Is there a story behind it?

Thanks! I get antsy with the design every so often and need a big change. My last theme was pretty white and minimalist and I suddenly got bored with it. This theme is called Nice Blog. I liked having more color and the ability to have big featured pictures. The background is an extreme closeup of a cherry tree in blossom that I took in Washington D.C. I think you just see a solid background if you are reading on mobile though. I can't figure out why but it looks ok so I'm not going to argue with it.

4. Which has been your favourite blogging experience?

In 2008 I was going to be in LA to be on Jeopardy (end result - I lost big). The mother of one of my blog readers at the time decided to escort me around on a free day I had. She and a friend came and picked me up and showed me around the city and took me to dinner. 
This year I'm going to Book Expo America for the first time. I'm looking forward to that.

Personal Questions

1. If you were an animal, which would you be and why?

I think I would be a whale. I'd be big enough that no one would eat me and I could go see what was going on in the ocean. Maybe I'd be an environmentalist whale and make seals pull sleds of ocean garbage back onto land for people to clean up. Nnedi Okorafor had a pipeline-fighting swordfish in her book Lagoon. That would be my inspiration.

2. What is one superpower you want? What would you do with it?

Teleportation. I've thought about this way more often than you'd think. I would love to be able to travel all over the world and be back for work tomorrow so I can afford to eat.

3. Which TV shows or movies do you geek out over?

Doctor Who! I went arranged a whole English vacation in a way to be able to go to Cardiff just to see the Doctor Who Experience. I recently got my husband addicted against his strong objections. He got me a TARDIS nightlight for Valentine's Day. I also like anything Marvel and Supernatural and any kind of genealogy television show.

Thanks for the fun answers, Heather! A TARDIS nightlight is such a cool Valentine's Day gift! I would love to meet the environmentalist-whale-you. And thanks for going through how you post regularly, I can sure use some of the tips.