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Sunday, March 10, 2019

Snow Vacation

I have never been a snow person.  I don't like being cold and snow is, by definition, cold.  So why anyone would want to go up and spend several days in the cold is beyond me.  I can understand skiing, as I used to ski in college, but really I'd rather go somewhere warm.  Everyone has their preferences.

But I have come to enjoy playing in the snow over the years, much to my own shock.  It's kind of fun if you have the right clothes and the weather isn't too bad, and the children do enjoy it.  So this winter I decided that we needed a little family snow vacation.

Uzbekistan has several ski areas (resorts is much too strong of a word) within 90 minutes of Tashkent and there are lots of little hotels and dachas in the area.  My Russian teacher, who knows everything, recommended a 'resort' with both a hotel and cottages. 

It looked okay on the website and I liked the idea of a separate cottage, so we took the plunge and booked a cottage.  I was kind of shocked at the price - $180 a night is a lot for Uzbekistan, but I figured that's the cost of going on vacation.

The weather here has been very spring-like recently so we were a little unsure how much snow there would be up in the mountains.  The drive up was very sunny and cheerfully spring-green and we didn't see any snow until the last half hour of the drive.  But as we climbed up into the mountains, the snow got deeper and thicker until we got to our destination.  Everyone breathed a sigh of relief.  It's not any fun to go on a snow vacation without any snow.

And it was a good thing there was snow because there wasn't much else to do.  The 'cottage' was disappointing (to be generous), especially for the price.  I was imagining a fireplace and couches perfect for lounging but instead we got a kitchen smaller than the bathroom and a table.  With three bedrooms upstairs.  

Thankfully the children were happy to be somewhere else, so they thought everything was great.  Hm.  Brandon reminded me that I was expecting too much from Uzbekistan, and he was probably right.  

Thankfully there was a pristine, untouched meadow within walking distance of the cottage, so we had lots of snow all to ourselves.  

Brandon hates crowds which is why we stayed away from the ski areas, and skiing with small children is always a terrible idea anyway.  There aren't any ski schools to abandon them at, and there's no way I'm going to try to teach them.  Not even I am that crazy.

The children had a great time digging holes, 

Climbing in holes, 

And building snow persons.

The weather was warm enough to be hot if you moved around too much, so we made sure to spend a lot of time just hanging out.  A chaise lounge would have been nice.

One definite downside to snow vacations versus beach vacations is that the tolerance for snow playing is about two hours and then everyone has to come back inside and warm up and dry out.  This is the part where the 'fireplace and couches' would have been really nice.

But sadly all we had were uncomfortable chairs and a TV with about five working channels, all in Russian.  So we watched Russian TV.  Because any TV is better than no TV, right?  Thankfully we found a sports channel and got to hone our appreciation of diving, ice skating, downhill skiing, hockey, and cross-country skiing.  Also, we got to watch a Women's Day concert which was too bizarre to be borne for more than fifteen minutes.  Watching TV from other cultures is always entertaining in an anthropological kind of way.

Thankfully I didn't have to cook dinner in the practically non-existent kitchen because there was a restaurant of sorts.  The options were limited, but they didn't require any work on my part which is about all I wanted anyway.

What the 'resort' did have, however, was plov-cooking facilities.  I wondered who in the world would come up to the mountains to have a vacation and cook plov, but they were very popular during our time there.  In America, we grill; in Central Asia, they cook plov.  

By the end of our three days, Brandon and I were happy to go home and get sleep after two nights of amazingly hard beds, William waking up in the middle of the night, and the children waking up early in the morning.  But accommodations aside, the rest of the weekend was quite pleasant.  It's fun to get some snow time and away time every now and then, and the children all declared the entire thing a success.  But next year, I'm looking for somewhere else to stay.

Sunday, March 3, 2019

Getting into a Rhythm (Finally)

This school year has been the school year of the new schedule.  Because my children are all two grade levels apart (sadly, William broke the pattern and will be three grades behind Eleanor), our school years go in two-year cycles.  The first year is the more difficult year because everyone has increased responsibilities.  The second year is easier because we have the same routine, just different grade-level curriculum.

This year Joseph started first grade, which is always a shock to the system for a child when they've previously spent most of their days doing whatever they liked.  Edwin started third grade and most of his school work is now done independently without my direct oversight.  Sophia started fifth grade and started taking online classes which meant deadlines and assignments graded by someone other than me.  Kathleen started seventh grade and in addition to her own school work, got to help Joseph (and therefore me) with his history and science assignments.  It's been a busy year.

Third grade is one of the hardest transitions for my children.  They move from fairly strict oversight to being mostly independent, and with that independence comes lots more ability to waste their time.  We've termed this the 'third grade slump,' and I get the joy of experiencing it every other year.  It starts when they realize that nobody is making them do their school work and maybe they can just play instead.  Their school work piles up and they get increasingly onerous punishments which they believe can be put off indefinitely.  Then they actively fight against having to do their work and won't work even when I try and help them.  At this point I start fantasizing about traditional school.

Eventually after multiple try fail cycles, the child realizes in the core of their being that schoolwork is something that is as unavoidable as death and taxes, and maybe you have a better chance of escaping those things than you do escaping your school work.  My sanity returns to normal levels, everyone breathes a sigh of relief because mom isn't yelling all the time, and my chocolate consumption goes way down. 

Edwin and I reached that happy place a few weeks ago and our lives have become so much better.  Every morning he does his chores, comes down to the school room, and pulls out his work for the day.  Usually his finishes everything before lunch and then has the rest of the afternoon to himself.  I had to leave mid-morning last week for an appointment and his moral will fell off as soon as I left.  But the next day he applied himself and was able to finish nearly two days' school by one o'clock in the afternoon.  He is so much happier knowing that he can get the job done and I am so much happier having a relationship that isn't dominated by discussions of why he hasn't gotten his work done.

I've definitely learned a few things on this third cycle of the third grade slump.  As much as it feels like yelling at your child will work, it doesn't.  Sadly.  I really, really felt that if they were just scared enough they would get their mind right and get to work.  I still don't quite understand all the psychology behind it, but it doesn't work. 

Same for getting angry.  I realized that I was mostly getting angry because I was afraid that Edwin would never ever learn to get his school work done.  If I took a step back and thought about it, I wouldn't actually believe that, but in the moment it was a real fear.  The best reaction to yet another failure is shrugged shoulders and an insistence on getting the work done.  Emotional hysterics actually aren't as effective as they feel they should be.

You have to have some sort of consequences, but they don't have to be terrible.  I thought up the most amazing things to do to Kathleen, including cutting her hair and taking away her toys.  Brandon took her for walks to the local bazaar to show what she would be doing as an adult if she didn't do her school work.  Sophia got to write sentences (which just made the work longer).  Edwin got fined a lot.  But really the most effective consequence is losing free time.  Edwin spent months inside while everyone else was playing because he hadn't finished his school work.  I knew that I was finally getting to him when he sighed to his brother, "I wish I could go play outside.  Instead I'm stuck here doing school work."  After all, as an adult, the you get the same exact consequence when you don't do your own work - you just have to do it when you could be resting instead.

I also learned that success is the biggest motivator.  It has to be real success, not something manufactured by forcing the child to do something.  They have to have put in the effort and see that it has paid off.  However, you can help make circumstances be more conducive to success.  After letting Edwin do things his own way (and fail) for awhile, he was willing to work with me to have  more structured oversight.  And once he realized that the structure worked well for him, I didn't have to be nearly as involved because he knew that the system benefitted him.

Most of all, however, I learned that you just have to be patient.  Learning is a process and it takes time to really understand things.  You can tell your child that getting their school work will benefit them, but they don't really feel it until they actually get it done.  We all learn by running into the negative effects of our actions, but it takes quite a few times before those consequences are a pattern and not just random effects that maybe won't happen the next time.  But eventually, like water wearing away at a stone, those actions and consequences will start to form a pattern and they will see how to get things done.  It just make take a lot of secret chocolate breaks to get there.

I am very glad to have a fully functional third grader who knows how to get his school work done.  This is an essential skill that gets learned in elementary school, but it sure is painful to go through the lessons.  I'm going to enjoy my break until Joseph enters third grade.

Why I Love Two-Year-Olds

Last month William turned two years old.  I think that every mother has a particular age that is their favorite, and mine is two.  Although two is often given a bad rap - 'terrible twos' - I think that really three is the hardest young child ages to deal with.

Two is in the perfect middle between helpless baby and attitude-filled older children.  Two-year-olds can feed themselves, and it is a beautiful thing to put a plate of food in front of them then turn to eat my own food while they cheerfully fork eggs or chicken or macaroni and cheese into their mouth.  After two years of being the meal provider, it's a wonderful thing to just sit and eat my own food again.  William can walk up and down stairs alone, get his own toys, and will go play outside when he gets bored of happenings in the house.  I like having a child that isn't wholly dependent on me anymore.

I also like that two-year-olds are verbal enough to let you know what they want, but not verbal enough to give you sass.  Their conversations are very straightforward, "Please, give it rawr [dinosaur]" without any extra whining or pleading.  I love that they understand when you say no and (mostly) put things down when you tell them to.  They've had enough experience with getting in trouble that they know what it means and don't want to get on your bad side.  

Two-year-olds are young enough that a cuddle from mom is enough to make them feel better when they've been hurt, insulted, or denied something that they want.  This past week William got shots and after he'd he howled indignantly for a few seconds, he was calmed down by saying, "Ow! That hurts!" and getting a cuddle from me.  Half a minute later, he was happily sucking on a lollipop, all pokes forgotten.  Sometimes I'm secretly happy when William gets a little hurt because I get to hold him as he curls up in my lap while sucking his fingers.

I also like that two-year-olds can be sent to bed when they're being obnoxious.  Six-thirty or seven is still a completely reasonable bed time and two-hour naps are totally expected.  We haven't moved William out of his crib yet, so he can got in baby jail when he's gotten out of hand.  He understands that crib means bed, and although he might protest for a few minutes, he gives up pretty quickly.

Two is also the age when children start saying hilarious things.  Yesterday at breakfast William was protesting having to eat crepes and Joseph accused him of being a communist (a very common insult in our house).  Enraged in the completely hilarious way only a two-year-old can be, William screamed back, "Joseph, YOU commdudist!!!"  We all dissolved into laugher while William sat huffing indignantly about not being taken seriously.  It's hard to get mad at such little things with such outsize emotions.

Children this age are also very happy to go along with whatever their older siblings think up.  And the older siblings are happy to have their own cheerfully compliant baby doll who loves their wild schemes.  A few days ago I went outside just as Joseph zoomed past, pushing the little red car while William rode in it.  Joseph pushed as fast as his wiry frame could go and William, bumping and lurching wildly, sat calmly enjoying his crazy ride.  Kathleen likes to put William on her shoulders while he tells her various horseback riding commands that she has taught him in Russian.  I love watching all of the children playing with William.  

I know that my days of two-year-olds are numbered, and so I'm trying to enjoy them as much as possible.  I understand how parents spoil their youngest children, as they know that those sweet innocent ones will be grown up all too soon.  One day all my babies will be grown up and I'll never have the magical power of making everything right in the world again simply by pulling them up in my lap for a good cuddle.  I won't be able to delight them with a good tickle and they won't prefer me above anyone else.  I know that growing up is the only way we progress and become capable of more joy and able to do good things in the world.  I look forward to seeing as my babies grow into someone amazing who have lives of their own.  But I certainly don't want to rush it.  I'll enjoy two for now.  

Sunday, February 24, 2019

First and Last Snow - and Spring!

Tashkent's winter has been disappointing all around.  It has been disappointing for my cold-loving family members (Brandon, Sophia) because it rarely got below freezing.  It has been disappointing for my snow-loving family members (Edwin) because we have only gotten two light dustings before this week.  It has been disappointing for my sun-loving family members (me, Kathleen) because it has been uncharacteristically grey and rainy.  Also, it came much too early.

So bad job, Tashkent.  Nobody liked your winter this year.

This week it finally snowed.  As I said earlier, the winter has been stubbornly rainy and gloomy.  Joseph keeps a weather graph as part of his math lesson, so I can say definitely that we have had two times as many gray or rainy days as we have had sunny days and that is not okay.  If I wanted gray, rainy, drizzly winters, I could go to the Pacific Northwest and I don't want to live there.  Too much gray. 

So even I was happy when the forecast for snow didn't magically disappear as we grew closer to the day that the snow was forecasted to fall.  There have been many predicted snowfalls with very few actual flakes falling from the sky.  But Wednesday morning we woke to snow falling, and by Wednesday afternoon we had a respectable three-inch accumulation.  The children donned their snow gear and went outside to play in the only snow they were getting for the entire winter.  I watched from the window.

Today it was sunny and fifty-seven degrees.  Sophia and I took a walk around the neighborhood this afternoon and we saw the daffodils and tulips and irises pushing their green spikes up out of the ground.  The fruit trees' buds are swelled to bursting point, with some trees jumping the gun and popping open in anticipation of spring.

I can hardly believe spring is finally coming myself, after spending so much time in the cold and dark (those of you who live in places with real winters are now welcome to laugh uproariously).  Being female, I have a terrible memory for physical sensations - which explains why I have given birth six times now - and by the middle of winter or summer I can hardly remember what it feels like to be anything other than cold or hot.  I know intellectually that one day the seasons will change, but I just can't imagine what that will feel like.

I am very happy for the coming of spring.  I am looking forward to the flowers, when everything puts on its finery to welcome warmth and sunshine back to the world.  I am looking forward to walking outside and not immediately wishing to be back inside again.  I am looking forward to wearing sandals and dresses again.  I am looking forward to not having jackets dirty socks strewn across my front hall.  There are so many good things about spring.

I used to think that I would like to live in a land of eternal warmth, and then I lived in Egypt for two years.  It was nice to enjoy seventy-degree January days at the park, but after awhile the sameness got to my northern European brain and I longed for some change that wasn't just warm-warmer.  I don't like the bare naked trees of winter, but I do like the bright spring green foliage on those once-naked trees.  I don't like being cold, but I do like the sweet relief of a warm spring wind.  Winter isn't that great, but it's what gives us spring, so I guess I'm okay with it. 

Transportation, Old and New

Last weekend it was sunny and warm, so I met a friend at the train museum.  I've been meaning to go for some time, but first it was too hot and then it was too cold.  Since the entire museum is just old trains parked on tracks outside, it's essential to have nice weather for a visit.

My friend brought four of her five children and I brought all of mine, so everyone had a great time climbing on all the cars.  The children love Tashkent's hands-off approach to old machinery.  If you can figure out how to climb on or in something, feel free.  After all, the worst thing that's going to happen is to you, not the trains.

Brandon, the sensible one in our relationship, was at home so I let the children climb wherever they wished.  After all who doesn't want to climb on top of a very large train?  And when would you ever get the chance?

The children were all quite disappointed to discover that most of the trains were locked.  However, being resourceful, they found out how to worm their way into a surprising number of places.  My favorite was the boiler.  They reported that it was very dirty.

William, whose climbing skills aren't quite up to train roofs yet, mostly enjoyed pushing his stroller around.  

He also enjoyed sitting and posing for the occasional photo.

The children even agreed to posing for a picture on a large old steam engine.  Great fun was had by all.  Now they can say they've played on steam engines and tanks.  Not too bad!

On President's Day the weather was not warm and sunny, so we took the children indoor go-karting.  Well, we took almost all the children.  William was ditched with the housekeeper because outings without two year-olds are always more enjoyable than outings with two year-olds.  

It was noon on a Monday so we were the only people on the track.  I love American holidays!

It was pretty expensive, costing almost $40 for a ten-minute drive, so we only took one turn.  Driving go-karts is fun, but not $80 kind of fun - especially when I can drive a car whenever I want.

Sophia and I won the race, lapping cautious Kathleen five times before our ten minutes were up.  We were warned of a two hundred euro fine for damages, so she was very careful as she motored her way around the track.

Edwin declared go-karting to be 'okay,' as did Sophia.  Kathleen enjoyed herself, having her first experience driving a gas-powered vehicle.  Joseph, who was barely tall enough to go, was the most enthusiastic about our outing and has already asked when we will go again.

We finished the outing with gelato at a very tasty gelato place that had a price tag I was much happier with - $8 for seven double-scoops.  As we sat around the table chatting and enjoying our gelato (and nobody was fighting, making messes, complaining, or getting out of their seat), I marveled at how much I have grown to enjoy spending time with my children.  It's taken quite some time to get here, but I'm grateful that we can do it every now and then!

Sunday, February 17, 2019

Tashkent after Seven Months

We have now been in Tashkent for more than seven months, although it feels like it's been much longer than that.  Our house has been unpacked long enough for many things to have gone missing into strange hidey holes, furniture has been broken, and wallpaper peeled off the walls.  It's safe to say that we're quite settled.

I can't say that I feel like I've gone through the typical adjustment schedule here in Tashkent because there wasn't much (if any) culture shock, and we pretty much hit the ground running and haven't looked back.  I never had a honeymoon stage and a I never had an undying-hatred stage, it was just a gradual settling in until Tashkent and no longer Dushanbe was now 'home.'

Dushanbe is starting to recede in memory (I can't believe that we left almost eleven months ago), and Tashkent is our new reality.  And I must say that I like our new reality very much.  I can say that this post is definitely our favorite all four that we've lived at.  Cairo had nice weather in the winter, but it was much, much too crowded.  I liked our house in Baku, but the traffic was terrible.  Dushanbe was close to the mountains, but there wasn't much else going on.

Here we have a house that I really like (especially considering that it's not an American house) (and sorry for no pictures.  It's never clean all at once).  It has nice living spaces - we have a dining room, living room, TV room, school room, toy room, exercise room, and a upstairs landing that fits two-full sized couches and four bookshelves.  All of the four bedrooms have their own bathrooms and they bedrooms are all nicely sized.  And of course it has a great yard and a pool.  Just based on the house alone I would be happy to stay here until Brandon retires.

Tashkent is also (for me) the perfect mix of not too big but with still enough going on that we have stuff to do.  It has several water parks, amusements parks, ice skating rinks, and malls.  There's a trampoline park, and indoor go-karting parks, a horseback riding stable, and a decent Turkish restaurant with an indoor play-place that is perfect for a rainy, cold Saturday.  There are enough restaurants that we don't have to go to the same ones every other month, and they also have an online delivery service which is great when I don't feel like cooking on a Saturday evening.

And when I feel like cooking, there are real grocery stores everywhere, one which is half a kilometer from our house.  I've even heard rumors that they accept credit cards.

There are also multiple in-country travel opportunities and the mountains aren't too far away (although farther than I'd like).  We are taking the kids up to the mountains to stay for a few nights in a few weeks, and when I showed Brandon pictures of the house we're renting, he confessed to being shocked at how decent it looked.

If you want to go somewhere else, there are direct flights to fun places like Rome, London, Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, Frankfurt and Dubai.  Even better, the tickets are reasonably priced enough that I've been researching Malaysian beach vacations.

The traffic here really isn't terrible, although the city is big enough that virtually anything takes 20 minutes to get to - but it's better than an hour.  I usually only have to wait one light cycle during the day, although some lights can get backed up in the evening.  And even better, Google maps has just starting providing turn-by-turn directions.  I'm starting to finally find my way around town without a map, which has certainly taken longer than it did in Dushanbe.

I also enjoy the embassy community here, and have found a good circle of friends, as have the children.  We have been much more social here than we ever were in our other posts (probably combined), and I've really enjoyed it.  Most of the children have, too.

To sum it up, we love it here in Tashkent, having found our Goldilocks post of 'just right.'  I'm already sad when I think of having to leave and am trying to scheme some way that we can stay another tour, even though that is highly unlikely.  A girl can dream though, right?

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Happy Birthday to William

This weekend William turned two.  I remember older mothers telling me - when I was a new, young mother - that the time just goes so fast when your children are little.  At the time it felt like my days were endless and my years eternal and I wished that time would hurry up a little because I could only take so many more days of crying, diapers, incessant questions, and constant messes.

I am officially an older mother now because the time has gone so fast.  A few months ago, Facebook showed me a memory of William's baby shower, and I caught my breath when I realized that it was two years old.  I really thought for just a few seconds that he had been born only a few months ago.

But William is definitely not a newborn anymore.  He is (fortunately, unfortunately) fully ambulatory and can climb just about anything to reach interesting items like my medicine cabinet, food left out on the counter, the knives on the knife strip, and the children's candy stashes.  He can also, sadly, open doors by himself.

Although not as conversational as his older sister Sophia was at two, he's pretty verbal for a Sherwood.  I find him to be quite clever with his limited vocabulary; although he might not know the word for a particular thing or action he wants, he works very hard to make sure he gets his point across.  When he wants someone to turn on the faucet to enjoy the perennial two year-old classic of playing with the water, he requests, "Please, open it," in his chirpy little voice.  Cinnamon rolls are requested with, "Please, have it, cakes," and if he can't get you to understand what he want,  he simply grabs your hand with a grunted, "Come on!" and takes you to whatever he needs help with.

He is adored by his siblings, and often I'll look outside to see him in a stroller being pulled by his siblings who are hitched up as his carriage horses while he calmly sits and sucks his fingers.  One day his world will undergo a serious shift when he realizes that everyone else's world doesn't revolve around him and everyone wasn't created to adore and worship him.

We kept William's birthday celebrations pretty low-key because he's two years old.  I took the five other children ice skating for a church activity yesterday and William got to spend his birthday home with his father.  We did eat pizza, however, while watching Mary Poppins and he does enjoy his pizza.  He got to drink as much as soda as he wanted because, birthdays.

Today I made him a chocolate cake (always a good idea until they start eating it) and we sang "Happy Birthday" to him.  He was quite delighted with the candle and very happily blew it out, followed shortly by demands for cake.  And since it was his birthday, we gave him a second piece as his birthday present.

We're very happy to have William in our family and I'm happy to have a two-year old again as that age is my most favorite of the younger ages.  Happy birthday, William!

Happy Birthday to Me

A few weeks ago I had a birthday.  It's a little (but not too) unsettling to realize that I'm definitely closer to 40 than I am to 30.  Back when I was 35, I could legitimately say that I was only halfway in between those two milestones, and 36 was close enough to 35 that it hardly counted if I was a year older.  But 37 is the age when all pretense at youth is gone.  I'm two years past the 'advanced maternal age' category of pregnant mothers.  I'm more than twice the age of high-school graduates.  Even stranger to realize, I'm more than three times removed (19 years) from that age than Kathleen is (6 years).  As I'm fond of telling Brandon when he moans about his advancing years, old age happens to everyone who doesn't die first.

That's not to say that I consider myself old anymore, I just don't consider myself young either.  Which I'm perfectly fine with; I would never ever go back to the mistakes and inexperience of my youth, with all of the uncertainty and wondering what my place was in the world.  I'd much rather have the beginning of wrinkles, freckles making serious takeover attempts on my arms, and minor health problems, thank you very much.  It's nice to see how the story has turned out so far.

To celebrate, Brandon took me to a local hotel for the night, where we enjoyed a pretty good Italian dinner (especially for Central Asia), sleeping in, and hot chocolate and cronuts for breakfast.  It's wonderful to be financially comfortable so that the occasional splurge isn't something that has to be carefully planned and painfully paid for.  See the above observations on getting older.

For my present, Brandon took me jewelry shopping at Chorsu bazaar, which has a surprising number of jewelry stores with surprisingly expensive jewelry.  I choose to splurge on things other than jewelry (carpets, hotel stays) so the thought of spending $130 on a pair of gold earrings that I would wear a few times a month didn't appeal.  Much to my (and Brandon's relief), we were able to find some pretty silver earrings with a matching necklace for less than $50.  I'm not sure how the locals afford that kind of jewelry when the average salary in Uzbekistan is around $150 a month.

It was a good thing that Brandon and I celebrated before my birthday, because I was sick on my actual birthday.  I spent the day in bed (Brandon brought me breakfast) and only came down for my birthday dinner of french onion soup (also made by Brandon).  But the children had pooled their money and bought me a pretty glass swan candy dish and were very happy to give it to me after my birthday dinner.

I remember deciding in high school that children were probably a good idea because nobody cares about your birthday when you're 85, and I've definitely seen the wisdom of that insight over the years.  It's much more fun to have a birthday when there are people who love to celebrate it with you.

Here's to another year older!

Sunday, February 3, 2019

Adventure Saturday

Last week I looked at the forecast and was shocked.  The weather here in Tashkent has been unusually grey and rainy for most of the winter; according to Joseph's weather graphs for math, we've had more rainy and cloudy days than sunny days.  It's put a real damper on any adventures.

So when I saw a perfectly sunny fifty-degree day forecasted for Saturday, I unilaterally declared a hiking day.  Brandon and I have come to a compromise - one hiking adventure a month - and we hadn't gone hiking yet in January so I knew that I could probably get Brandon's agreement.  When I asked the children about hiking (occasionally I consult my children's preferences), they were lukewarm about hiking, but said that they would be much happier if friends could come.

I got Brandon's buy-in to invite two other families who have claimed to like hiking, and we had a date set.  I was hoping that hiking trails would be more well-known here in Uzbekistan, but some internet searching and querying of friends yielded nothing.  So, armed with years of experience, I got on Google maps and started looking for likely prospects.  I eventually found one that looked like it 1. had parking, 2. had a trail, and 3. was pretty.  At least, it did on the satellite pictures.

I let everyone know that they were following me off on an adventure that I wasn't going to make any promises about, and we headed east out of town to a village, Sukok, that was about 35 miles from Tashkent.  I had found a restaurant that looked to be near to the canyon we wanted to hike in, and after a short detour into the village, we were able to find the restaurant and a place to park (which is not something to be discounted in small mountain villages). 

One of our group who spoke Uzbek asked the gathering crowd of onlookers if there was anywhere we could go 'walking the mountains,' and we were directed to a somewhat unpromising, muddy path.  But, as it was a beautifully sunny day and we had driven more than an hour to get there, everyone enthusiastically started squelching up the hill. 

After snow, mud, a stream or two, and some livestock, we made it to a large gate barring the way.  To our surprise, a gatekeeper poked his head around the door and asked us if we wanted to come in.  Brandon acted as interpreter and was informed that we had stumbled upon a national forest (or preserve, or something similar) and it was 6,800 soum for adults and 3,000 soum for children to get in.  After a few minutes' discussion, we decided to chance the five or six dollars and see what was behind the gate.

It only took a few feet to decide that we hadn't wasted our money on a lovely walk through an equally lovely forest.  The children went haring off together exploring paths while the adults companionably trudged through the muck, enjoying the unexpected pleasure of a forest on a perfectly sunny January day.  Eventually we stopped for a picnic before slipping our way back to the car, everyone having gotten some much-needed winter sunshine.

Evidently Sukok is known for its shashik (shish-kebab) so we'll probably be back in the spring when there's less snow and more lovely green trees.  I'm already looking forward to it.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

So Much Effort for So Much Incompetence

I have now been taking Russian lessons for three years, and - if you count my childhood lessons - riding for six years.  Those figures sound pretty decent.  Three and six years, after all, are starting to be fairly sized chunks of time.  In three years a child can go from an eight-pound wiggling handful of baby that can pretty much only suck to a child that can walk, talk, use the toilet, dress themselves, and feed themselves.  And when you're the mother of that three year-old, those three years feel like an eternity. 

When people ask how long I've been taking Russian, and I confidently reply, "Three years!" we both feel like that's a pretty good accomplishment.  Three years, after all, is longer than a whole lot of people actually live Russian-speaking countries.  And when I figure that I began riding when I was ten, that was a whole twenty-six years ago.  It sounds fairly impressive.

And if you figure that three years ago I couldn't even read Cyrillic and now I can usually make my point across and read menus with some accuracy, I've made a lot of progress.  I am able to conjugate verbs in past, present, and future tenses (which, thankfully, are all the tenses that Russian has), I can decline words in several cases, and I even understand numbers when people tell them to me.  To someone who speaks no Russian, that sounds like a lot of Russian.

If one considers the horseback riding ability of most people, I ride a lot better than them because I can make a half-ton animal walk, trot, and canter - and don't even fall off when I'm doing it.  I can make that same horse go in circles of particular diameters, serpentines, diagonals, and even over jumps.  I can do arcane things like posting on the correct diagonal and picking up the correct canter lead.

Those things really sound like accomplishments.  If I sit down and list my abilities, I feel like I really am capable of doing some pretty cool stuff.

But then I go and try to do those things and I realize exactly how much I am not capable of speaking and reading Russian or riding horses.

Our stable is a perfect confluence of both my miserably inadequate skills - I ride there and everyone there only speaks Russian.  I will be riding around the ring and my teacher will shout something at me.  I'm sure they're probably saying something like, "Okay, now that we've been working on your trot, let's work on the canter.  Your cantering is pretty terrible.  Work on sitting deep before asking for the canter and give firm aids.  Remember to keep your shoulders back and don't lean forward!"   What I hear is "mmm hmmm mmm mmm trot hmmm mmm hmmm then hmmm mmm hmmm canter." So I nod my head and then proceed to do everything she helpfully told me not to do and don't do anything she told me to do.   Then she probably wonders if I might be brain damaged.

There's a very definite pattern to acquiring skills.  When you start out, every little thing you learn is momentous.  After all when you don't know any words, knowing twenty words is a 2,000% increase.  You make very rapid progress and everything is so fun and so easy.  "Wow!" you think to yourself, "I'm going to be a [sewing, Arabic speaking, tennis playing] superstar!!"

I remember my college Arabic class.  When you learn Arabic, you have to start out by learning an entirely new alphabet.  It took a week or two to really master the alphabet, and by the end I was feeling pretty skilled.  "Hey, look how awesome I am!  I can read Arabic!  That is seriously impressive!  This Arabic thing will be no trouble at all,"  I said, while high-fiving myself.  Then I quickly returned to reality when I realized that I didn't actually understand anything I read.

After about six months to a year, you have acquired most of the easy skills.  You have achieved a basic level of competency.  Then the real work begins, and the vast yawning gulf becomes painfully apparent, the gulf between what you're capable of and what being truly competent looks like.  It's very depressing.  And to add to the despondency, you realize that there is not one single shortcut that gets you over that gulf and to the distant, hazy, probably imaginary land where your learning has given you effortless, easy ability to work your skill with pleasure.  The only way to get there is teeny-tiny steps that require pounding those skills into your muscles and brain over and over and over again.  For years.  And years.

Brandon likes to call this the swampy middle.

I am in this swampy middle and have started building my house here because I don't have any expectations of leaving for years and years to come.  I'll come back from a riding lesson and Kathleen will ask how it went and what I did.  "Oh fine.  The same as always - walk, trot canter!"  Our Russian lessons will inevitably involve words that I don't know and I'll think how great it is I have this new word - like earthquake - that I didn't know before.  That night when Brandon asks about Russian lessons, the word will have fallen right out of my brain.  I know that I knew the word for earthquake, but I don't remember anymore what it is.

Sometimes I get to look back and see that there has been some progress - my teacher's statements have less mmmm hmms and more actual words in them and I can pick up the correct diagonal without thinking about it - and I am surprised.  When you feel like you're running in place for so long, it's shocking to look back and see that you've actually gotten somewhere.

And so I persevere.  But I also don't expect to be able to see progress either.  I know that as long as I don't give up, I'll get better an infinitesimally small bit at a time and eventually that will add up to something that is measurable.  And then one day in the far, far distant future - maybe when our robot chauffeurs drive our flying cars to drop us off at the spaceport - I will look back and be surprised when I remember that once I was terribly incompetent at these things.  I will have reached that golden, sunlit upland where talking in Russian doesn't require a complex road map that cobbles together all my available words while avoiding all constructions or topics where the gaping holes (so, so many holes) lie.  My horse will do what I want when I want because my aids - like my Russian - will have finally become intelligible.  I will have - finally, inevitably, mercifully - become competent.

But until then, I'll continue beating verbs into my brain and movements into my muscles one day at a time.