Я не знаю

I’ve made it through the first three Pimsleur lessons, and my self imposed structure of daily alphabet writings and number recitations. Given my general lack of motivation, I think that’s pretty swell.

Listen, those Pimsleur lessons are no joke. 30 minutes each, and at the end of every one, I’ve said, “Oh, thank god! It’s over!” In three lessons, you come away with about 25 words, 10 different phrases, two verbs, and two forms of masculine/feminine noun endings. That’s a chunk to learn in 1.5 hours, and feel solid with the understanding.

The phrases the Pimsleur starts with all have to do with whether or not the speaker can understand English or Russian. “Excuse me? Do you understand Russian? I understand a little Russian. Do you understand English? No. I do not understand English.” Over and over again, until you are crying out, “да! да! Я понимаю! за любовь бога, двигаться дальше!” Or something similar. I probably misspoke myself there.

But, I keep messing up because I’m trying to use phrases I learned 25 years ago. Three lessons in, I was thrilled to have Pimsleur catch up with what my brain was doing with four things in particular. It’s a lot of re-training. I’m having the same problem with my handwriting.


See that? That’s how I learned to make a little T. I can’t remember why that’s what I learned–I think it’s cursive. Who knows? All I can tell you is that when I am writing, I automatically make that crossed m for a little T. I make my Ds funny, and my Ls funny, and there’s just no hope for my Zh or my Yoo. One looks like a spider trying to creep away sideways, the other looks like I’m playing Hangman and losing. It’s going to take a while before I can write again.


I was able to write “Russian Alphabet” and then, “What?” “Little T?” “What is that?” “I don’t know.”

I find it funny that of everything I used to know, the phrases I remember well enough to write without having to look them up for correctness are, “What’s that?” and “I don’t know.”


Do You Understand Russian?

I started my first day back in Школа русского языка (Russian school) today. I wrote my alphabet five times, and repeated numbers one through ten until my child thought the Matrix had glitched. Four is my favorite Russian number, btw. It just sounds happy. Four is a happy, little bluebird of a word. Five sounds like you are rejecting something with great disgust.

Once I was alone in the car, I switched on my Pimsleur cd (Do you understand Russian?), and started ecoutant et en répétant the Russian lesson. Why did I écouter et répéter? Because for two years, I studied French and Russian at the same time, and I have a tendency to confuse the two. Totally different languages, alphabets, and pronunciations, but I still gargle my Russian Rs like a merry Frenchwoman. The struggle is ulreal. Or uvular. You decide.

So, I got started and listened and repeated, realizing that as I was speaking a word, I was seeing the spelling of it in my brain. Pimsleur suggests (strongly) that you not try to take written notes, or read the words as you engage the language centers of your brain. But as I was saying, “Извините,” I was seeing my own handwriting in my brain.


I can barely read my handwriting in English. Trying to read my imaginary Russian handwriting? Whew. I had a brain cramp by the time the lesson was over. I was also appalled at how rude the instructor was, because he never once said “Excuse me, please?” It was always just, “Excuse me.” Dr. McDowell would not have approved.

But, that’s interesting to me. Interesting to me that when I am trying to say a word, I need to know how it is spelled. Maybe as I go on, that will wear off. Once you’ve learned the alphabet, like Spanish, Russian spelling is very straightforward, so it is helpful for pronunciation. I feel like the grammar is fairly straightforward, too.


I’m going to have to get some kind of plug-in for Cyrillic on my keyboard because Google Translate won’t give me the words I want to use, so I can’t just copy/paste. Boo!

The Year of Living Russianly

You might know that I studied Russian for five years (because that’s how long it took me to graduate college), and that I taught Russian grammar for a semester (because that’s how long it took me to hate teaching first year Russian students). You might also know that I have lost 99% of my fluency since 1995. I mean, I can still scowl at James Bond movies, and feel cranky when people interchange “R” with “Я” or “N” with “И” (because they are entirely different sounds, you donkeys!), but beyond being able to embarrass myself by mixing up “you give me great pleasure” with “it is a pleasure to meet you,” my русский язык is нехорошо. 

I enjoyed Russian, though, and I miss it.

In the past year, I’ve become acquainted with three Russian speakers, and it’s made me even more wistful for the days when I could easily write myself notes in Cyrillic as a means of appearing to pay attention in boring meetings. Cyrillic is like a secret code!

Worse, I’ve found myself missing Russian literature, which just isn’t the same in translation. I am a little worried what it says about me that I’m missing Sholokhov, but there it is. My heart is a vast, winter wasteland, full of Cossacks and ice. Invade if you dare!


After literal months of trying to decide whether I should work on regaining my fluency in Spanish, French, or Russian, I decided to go back to the language of the Greats and the Terribles, and will spend the next year working to achieve a conversation fluency and regain my literacy.

Because I work best with an audience, I’ll keep you posted as I relearn the alphabet, and retune my ears to the language. I will share book reports, and current events, and let you know how it goes when I attempt to cook from a Russian recipe book.

We can laugh together.

And what do we all need more than laughter? Ничего.



Permanent Press Forehead

Years, and years ago, I started a new job, and I was sure that my coworker hated me. Sure, sometimes she would smile at me, but the smile never reached her eyes, and most of the time, she just watched me with a moue of disdain. It was weeks before I realized she smiled and looked at everyone that way. If I’m completely honest, I’d started to think she wasn’t very bright because she never showed even the slightest expression of interest in anything, and even when her voice was laughing, her face was saying, “Whatever. Next.”

It was another couple of weeks before I realized the culprit was Botox, and not the public education system.

She was smart, and funny, and had a wide range of interests. She just couldn’t express anything with her face, and because I relied so heavily on those visual cues, I had quit talking to her before we could connect.

So, when the cute crease above my left eyebrow rolled into a shallow sine wave across my entire forehead, I blew it off with some glee that I had retained at least one mathematical term from college. I wasn’t going to give up my ability to make Mom Face out vanity. No. I cut bangs out of vanity.

That was almost a decade, three house moves, five years in retail banking, and a tween ago. Any one of those things will age you, but together? Well, that charming brow line eroded into a groove that became the only thing I could see when I looked in the mirror.

I started researching neurotoxins to inject into my face. I thought, “I’m 45 now. I’m old enough that it’s not just vanity. My eyelids drape, and this will help lift my lids up from my lashes. I’m 45. That’s closer to 50 than to 30, so that’s a reasonable age to consider upgrades. This is a midlife crisis. I can buy myself a nicer forehead. Or, I could buy this really expensive cashmere sweater from the catalog send to the previous owner of our new home.”

Cashmere makes me itch. So, a month ago, I marched into the dermatologist’s office and said, “Please look at this weird mole, and also, please make my forehead not gruesome.”

Four needle pricks and one dime-sized bruise later, I had 40 units of Dysport seeping through the muscles that control my Surprise Face, and a headache.

Y’all, I should have bought the sweater.

Now, your mileage will vary based on your own face and how you feel about it, but outside of that one big groove, I like my face fine. I like having big expressions. I like that I can look warm, or silly, or interested, or repulsed. Well, I like that I COULD. Now, all I can manage is either “Whatever,” or “Haha. That’s funny. Whatever.”

My forehead is as smooth as a river stone, but my face is also a flatline. I feel like I need to apologize, or explain my apparent disinterest, or disdain to everyone. I have said, “I am listening to you, and what you are saying is so sad, and I want you to know that I am empathizing. I apologize about my face.” I have also said, “That is great! I am so sorry my face will only telegraph that it’s mildly interesting.”

Aside from having become les yeux sans visage, I’m having some interesting physical side effects. For one, the paralysis of the forehead muscle has pulled the upper portion of my face to the sides, away from the center point of my eyebrows. This has pulled my eyelids sideways, rather than up (as I had hoped–thus lifting my lids), and means that my round eyes are now almond shaped. Pretty shape, yes, but that’s had an effect on my vision.

Pull your eyelids sideways. Look around. It changes things!

My eyebrow shape has changed too. Those were always fairly well curved. Now, they are Vulcan straight. I’ve had to relearn how to draw my eyebrows, and how to apply my eye makeup because the shapes are so different. The struggle…so real.

Maybe worst of all, my forehead hurts. I have a near-constant headache just in the paralyzed muscle area. I don’t know if this is because I am trying too hard to make expressions and it’s like turning over the transmission while the car is still running, or if it’s just a reaction to the toxin. All I know is that I already look bored with life, and the headache makes my forehead feel heavy, and it is exhausting trying to keep my eyes peeled open wide enough for my prescription lenses to do me any good, which makes me look even more tired and angry. I’m like Ebenezer Scrooge’s prettier cousin.

This is as happy as I am able to look right now.

I admit to you that I miss the face of my youth. I miss being smooth and pretty. I miss people remarking on how perfect my complexion is. I miss people wanting to look at me. But really, right now, what I miss most of all is being able to look sad about getting old in the face.

And that is why I’m going back to wrinkles, just as soon as this stuff wears off. Youth is wasted on the young, and I want to be able to fully express that with my eyebrows.



Thanksgiving Wish

Thor and I were talking about friends, and I said, “I know this is a silly question, but I know my answer, and I’m just interested in yours. How do you know when you’ve made a friend? What does ‘friend’ look like?”

He thought a moment and said, “I think you know you’re friends when you start spending time together on purpose, and start sharing things because you want to.”

I thought that was an excellent definition, and much better than my own.

According to Thor, you don’t need to have a lot in common, save for the agreement that the company is good, and the interest is mutual.

This Thanksgiving weekend, I wish you good company, with mutual levels of interest, and plenty of good food.