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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.

Sunday, January 6, 2019

Three-Hour Church

When President Nelson announced back in October that our church schedule would be changing to a two-hour block, I wasn't one of the millions jumping for joy.  After all, we've been enjoying two-hour (and often one-and-a-half-hour or even one-hour) church for years now.  Nothing would be changing for us.  Now everyone else would be the ones who were getting in line with the way we do things here in Central Asia.

But after Elder Cook's talk that outlined the new church schedule, I realized that I was in trouble.  That third hour that was getting lopped off the church schedule wasn't just disappearing - it was moving to home study!  This meant that instead of keeping church the same, we were adding a third hour of church.


Sometimes all of the bragging comes back to bite you in the most unexpected ways.

I briefly toyed with the idea of ignoring that third hour of church - after all we haven't had a third hour for years - but realized that Brandon wasn't going to let me get away with it.  Once something is announced over the pulpit at Conference, it can't be ignored.  And I'm pretty sure that the third hour now counts as 'attending all your Sunday meetings.'  Sigh.  Again.

This last week Brandon and I got down to discussing when exactly this third hour of church was going to be happening.  Our Sundays - despite only having two hours of church - are pretty full with meals, naps (which were also discussed in Conference talks about Sunday appropriate activities), individual time with the children, game time with the family, and personal time to write this lovely blog.  There wasn't exactly a spare hour floating around that was dying to be filled with a third hour of church.

The only solution I could come up with was making the naps shorter, one that wasn't too appealing.  Brandon suggested cutting out game time, but I was pretty sure the children weren't going to be very happy about swapping games for church.  

Then he suggested getting up an hour early and having church before church.  After thinking about it for a few minutes, I realized that I'd rather get up an hour early and still have a nap rather than skipping the nap altogether.  Brandon did too, so we set our alarm clock for six o'clock this morning - the first time we'd been up that early for over two weeks.

Everyone bathed, dressed, ate breakfast (for those who weren't fasting), got ready for church, and by 8:45 we were all seated on the couches, ready for church to begin.

The lesson started rather slowly, but one really can't expect six children to be excited about another hour of church when they too have been enjoying a shortened schedule for years.  But by the end, we had to cut the lesson off so that we could leave for church on time.  I'm not sure if the children were enjoying the lesson, but Brandon and I were certainly enjoying unloading our pearls of wisdom on them.  And even better, we had the backing of the Prophet to do it so nobody had a justifiable reason to complain (although they complained anyway).

Our departure for church was much more orderly than usual - no ties being frantically searched for at the last minute, no hair unbrushed, no shoes lost somewhere in the toy bins, no parents haranguing children for being the last one ready again.  And when we all settled down for the sacrament, I (at least) felt much more prepared for the ordinance, having already spent an hour discussing sacred things with my family.

So, I can say after the first week, I like this new two-(three-)hour church schedule.  I'm sure there will be mornings where I will sorely miss the extra hour of sleep and things don't go as smoothly as they did today, but I'm looking forward to having that weekly hour set apart where we can sit together as a family and learn from each other.  And in the end, the extra hour of sleep sacrificed will be well worth it.

No Somsas for You!

I like street food.  A lot.  When you get it from the right places, it's very fresh because they're constantly making it.  It's also really easy to get - you can drive (or walk if you're really lucky) right up to the stand, buy your food, and walk away.  No need to mess with menus or waiting around for restaurant orders or waiters.  It's also really cheap - we can usually feed our entire family for less than ten dollars.  Take that, fast food.  The last time we ate at Wendy's it was $25.

I know that eating street food is risky, but I've gotten sick from more often from restaurants than from street food.  Also, I'm lazy and cheap and don't mind taking risks if they usually pay off.  Plus, street food can be really tasty.

Here in Tashkent, the most common street food is somsas.  Somsas are very unique to this area (in Tajikistan, they were called sambusas), and are quite yummy - especially when they're hot.  They have a flaky pastry wrapped around a filling which is then baked inside a tandir oven.  The most common filling is meat, either ground or in chunks, but I've also had potato and (my personal favorite), diced pumpkin.  Until you've had a somsa, you can't quite grasp the amazing deliciousness, and if you're live in any but a few cities in the U.S., you probably won't ever get the chance.  

Somsa stands are everywhere here - on semi-major streets, there are somsa stands about every hundred feet.  They're pretty easy to set up - get a tandir oven and a gas connection and you're in business - so they must be every other Uzbek's dream of a small business, to judge by how many there are.

About half to two-thirds of the somsa sands seem to be defunct whenever I drive by them, so I've stuck to a stand that is about seven or eight minutes away from our house.  Their somsas have always been tasty, they're always open when I go to buy somsas, and they always have them.  It's this amazing business model - have food when people want to buy it and they'll come back to you for repeat business.  Crazy.

This last week was the big holiday of the year - New Year.  The whole country has work and school off and it's time when everyone is visiting family or out and about.  We spent the holiday days (the embassy had already given everyone three days off even before the shutdown) cleaning the house in our annual Put Everything Back Where It Belongs celebration of the New Year.  To celebrate finishing, we took the children to a local trampoline park.  The winter so far has been very cloudy and rainy, so we've had to take our fun inside.  

The children finished their hour of jumping right around lunch time, so I hit on a wonderful idea - stop by our local somsa shack and get some hot, flaky somsas for lunch.  All of the children were happy with having a yummy meal and I was happy to feed everyone for about seven dollars.  It was a brilliant plan.

When we got to the somsa stand, the man at the window indicated by waving at the covered oven that they somsas weren't finished yet.  It was cold and I didn't want to wait for an indeterminate time (my Russian fled me when I tried to remember how to ask 'how long'), so I hopped in the car and we drove to the next stand, about 150 feet down the road.  This one had a lock on it, so we figured that meant closed and did a u-turn to circle back to our original stand.  

By the time we returned, there were two or three men waiting for the fresh somsas.  As we watched, three or four man joined the crowd.  Sophia, who really wanted somsas, decided to claim her own place in line and made Kathleen join her.  I didn't want to stand in the cold, so told myself I was letting my children learn to be independent.  By the end of ten more minutes, there was quite a crowd milling around and we were starting to get nervous.  I tried to calm everyone down.  "These are just individual people," I told the hungry crowd, "they're probably only buying a few apiece."

Finally, the somsas were done and the man at the window started handing them out.  When the first customer walked away with several bags stuffed full, I started getting nervous.  When the third customer walked away with an entire basin full, I started panicking.  How many somsas does one person need??

I cheered the girls on as they detirminedly pushed their way to the front of the crowd - they've definitely learned the art of the shove while living in this part of the world.  But as bag after bag and basin after basin walked away with hot, fresh, meaty, flaky somsas and the girls never got any, my confidence flagged.  After all, a tandir oven can only hold so many somsas.  By the end there were no people and the girls came back empty-handed.

"We kept telling them we wanted двадцатъ, but nobody paid any attention to us!  They kept talking over our heads and taking all the food," Sophia told us dejectedly, "When we got to the front and asked for twenty, the guy at the window laughed and said he had only two.  Then someone else bought those two."

I told them that they had done a good job and it wasn't their fault that they were two short girls in a crowd of somsa-hungry men.  The boys made up all sorts of insults for the people who took our somsas.  

We decided to press on.  The next stand was fresh out, but we decided we weren't going to give up until we found somsas.  We headed to another area and drove around looking for stands.  We found plenty of stands, but not a one was open and finally, after an hour of seeking somsas, we went home empty-handed and dispirited.  We thought briefly about returning to the first stand for the next batch which was probably ready by then, but were too disheartened to try again.

It would have bad enough if all of the stands had been closed or even if they had all be sold out.  But to wait twenty or thirty minutes, all the time tasting that crisp of fresh pastry and imagining the savory meat juices fill your mouth, only to watch those somsas fill someone else's bowl, is worse.  And to know that they could have been yours of only one person had stopped to let a few little girls who had gotten there before them get some somsas, is even worse.  And worst of all is to know that you could have gotten those somsas yourself if you had been a little less lazy.

So, lesson number one for the day is this: don't try to buy somsas the week of the New Year.  Everyone wants them and it's just easier to cede the field to the locals.

Lesson number two: In a shoving match, grown men will always win over little girls.  Especially when it involves meat.

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

2018 Roundup

This year has been a busy year.  If you ask Brandon, it probably rates as one of the bottom three, with 2011 continuing to hold first place.  It's hard to beat being in the middle of the Arab Spring for making a bad year.

The year started off in Dushanbe.  We were starting to thinking about our next move to Tashkent when the Mysterious Medical Mystery appeared and moved up our timeline by five weeks.  So instead of spending the last part of March and all of April getting everything neatly in order for our departure, I spent it in North Carolina twiddling my thumbs and wishing I could be back in Central Asia.  Brandon spent those weeks desperately trying to finish up the loads of work he had while getting the house ready for pack-out.  It was not how I had imagined our move to be.

After Brandon got things finished up in Dushanbe, he joined us in the US for home leave, affectionately referred to in the FS as homeless leave, when we spend thousands of dollars to spend more time with relatives than either they or us are happy with.  We drove to Missouri and back, went to the beach, Brandon went to Utah to see his siblings, my siblings came to North Carolina, and Brandon and I ditched the children with my parents for five days.  It was very busy.

Then we spent three and a half weeks in a corporate apartment rental in Arlington where the children watched entirely too much HGTV.  The last week we spent fighting with DC over Sophia's medical clearance, finishing with an okay to fly thirteen hours before our plane took off.

Thankfully the second half of the year was spent coming down from the first half, and we were able to settle in to Tashkent fairly painlessly and are now very happily here for at least the next two and a half years. 

I'm happily looking forward to 2019.  We don't have any moving even near the horizon, I love my house, and we have lots of things to explore here in Uzbekistan.  My children are getting older and I'm enjoying the freedom of being able to leave the house knowing that it won't be in shambles when I get home.  My baby is potty-trained, starting to feed himself, and making real strides in communication.  I have made some wonderful friends here, as have the children, and we get to see them quite often (thanks to having two cars!).  I've gotten to resume a much-beloved hobby and share it with the children.  Brandon's job is perfectly reasonable, as jobs go, and he has a boss who thinks that not using all your available vacation time is a crime.  Our church group here is very cohesive and functional, something I'm increasingly grateful for. 

I'm sure that 2019 will bring surprises - both good and bad - but I'm looking forward to seeing what they are.  Happy New Year!