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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.

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