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“How many languages can you speak? Do you wish that number were higher?”

This is another Plinky prompt, from way back in October.  I hang onto these things if they look interesting, and then, if I don’t care for the NaBloPoMo prompt, I have a few spares to choose from.  Today’s NaBloPoMo prompt was something about “talk about a time when you ran out of energy and were exhausted,” and that requires too much thinking – there were so many of them.

Languages.  First of all, define “speak.”  Fluently, conversationally, basic, “kitchen [fill in the blank]”?  “Kitchen” speech refers to the kind of thing you would use around the house, by the way, but not necessarily at work, or in a formal situation.  A perfect example of “kitchen speech” is the story I heard from a girl whose mother was Russian and her father Russian-American.  The father had learned Russian first from his grandmother and then from his wife, so “household Russian” was all he knew – and “household Russian” uses a lot of diminutives.  You would never say you were taking the bus, for example, you would say you were taking the “bussy” to work, or that you had seen a cute little kitty-cat on the way to work.  Well, whatever this guy said at work one day – probably something about making some itty-bitty copies – he got some strange looks from his colleagues, until one of them took pity on him and said, “We don’t talk that way here.”

So you might surmise from this anecdote that I actually speak Russian.  Put it this way:  If I can summon up the vocabulary, I can express myself grammatically, and if I listen in on the conversation of Russians, I might understand one word in a hundred.  But hey, I understand that word.

And come to think of it, that’s pretty much how I learned German, which I do speak fluently, to such an extent that one day, I was having a conversation with a member of the German Consulate staff in Boston, who asked me where I was from.  When I told him, “New York,” I thought his eyes would fall out of his head.  Apparently, he had been listening for regional clues in my speech, and not being able to pick up where exactly I was from in Germany, decided to ask.  Sorry, this is not a regional accent you ever heard im Vaterland.

Anyway, when I lived in Germany I had a neighbor who wanted to be able to practice her English, so we got to be friendly.  The only problem was, she soon cottoned to the idea that I knew a few words in German – I was taking college-level courses at night – and that took care of the English lessons; it was simply easier for her to express herself in her own language.  And I understood maybe one word in a hundred.  Until the day, maybe about a year after I’d landed at Rhein/Main Airport, when I was sitting in a German laundromat, waiting for my laundry to get done (the base laundromat being on the fritz yet again), and, bored out of my mind, picked up a German ladies’ magazine.  And I understood enough of it that when I got out of the laundromat, I stopped at a grocery store on the way home and bought my first foreign-language publication.  Once I could understand about half of what I was reading, the other half came easily.  And of course, being able to converse daily in that language was a great help, as well as the fact that we only listened to German radio (we liked the music better than Armed Forces Network).

So if I could do the same thing with Russian, I guess I’d get fairly fluent in time.  However, there really aren’t enough people to speak it with; I get to see my church family maybe twice a month, and they all want to improve their English (and who can blame them?).  As for reading…well…I can, if I take the time to sound out the letters.  But I don’t usually have the time to put into reading that alphabet.  Yes, I know, if I really wanted to, I’d make the time.  I guess I’m just comfortable with the idea that if I wanted to, I could, which is dangerous for actually learning anything.

This post is already long enough that I can only give a passing nod to my first foreign language, which was French.  I could speak that fairly fluently, when I was fresh out of high school, and if France had had the sense to stay in NATO, and we had been posted there, I would have been a  huge hit with the French:  As Henry Higgins put it in My Fair Lady, “The French don’t care what you do, actually, as long as you pronounce it properly.”  And thanks to my musician’s ear, I can get foreign words out with near native fluency, in any language.  I may not actually understand them, but I sound as if I do.

So…what’s the Girl Thing?  Think about it.  Don’t women have a reputation for talking people’s heads off?  Of course we do, and it’s not undeserved:  This post is already at about nine hundred words.  Now:  Imagine being able to do that in four languages.  Yeeeeaaaahhhhh.  /beatific smile/

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Aptly Named

At what time of day do you feel the most energetic and productive?

Oh, dear.  People are going to hate me for this.  My only excuse is, I was born at 6:30 in the morning, and have never gotten over the impression that 6:30 – or 5:30, or sometimes even 4:30 – is the right and proper time to get things done.

Which is to say, no matter how groggy I am when I get out of bed, by the time I have completed all the necessaria of daybreak, I am up and at ’em and rarin’ to go!  Just ask my poor, long-suffering husband.  He is by no means a night owl, but when he gets up, he stumbles out to the kitchen, puts on the kettle, and makes coffee basically on auto-pilot.  If I have wakened before him, and am full of whatever I found in my inbox or on Facebook, I will leap up to tell him and be met with “Shhhh” before I have uttered a word, by which I understand that he is not yet ready to face the day.

This can have its problems, however.  Back when we were a Normal couple – that is, before he was retired, when he had a place where he had to be by 8:00 a.m. – back then, he would be out the door by 6:30 or 7:00.  I would have been awake since 5:00 or so, and, fully breakfasted, would be ready to get into my own workday, putting on laundry and completing the basic housework chores before I set foot out the door.  Now that he is retired, I can’t get anything done before 9:00 a.m. – and by that time, my level of productive energy has already begun to decline.  By 11:00 a.m., it will be gone completely, and I will be good for nothing but needlework, reading, or fooling around on the computer.

I have schooled myself, over the years, to put some effort into producing a pretty darn good evening meal; but I am secretly greatly in sympathy with the way things are done in Europe (big surprise), where they eat their main meal in the middle of the day.  If I had my druthers, I’d get the meal prep done in the morning, eat around noon, and have the dishes out of my hair by 2:00 the latest.

So I have come to accept that I am wired differently from pretty much all of America.  As a young woman, before I was married, I was the world’s worst date – I’d be ready to go home by 10:00 p.m., and heaven help you if you found me still awake at 11:00.  Then I met a guy whose last name was Lark.  There actually are other reasons I married him.  But if I had thought about it, I would have seen the handwriting on the wall the moment I heard his name.

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Yes, I missed another day – the hubster was online all blessed day yesterday.  Retirement does have its drawbacks.  That said, today’s prompt is:

“Do you tend to cover up your failings or admit your mistakes?”

Frankly, at this point I’m too old not to have caught on to the idea that everybody makes mistakes – some of them whoppers – and it’s easier if you just own up to them and get on with repairing them.  That doesn’t mean that I like admitting to mistakes, or that I’m proud of them; too many years of getting reamed out for minor, and honest, mistakes in Catholic school keep getting in the way.  I mean, yeah, if you forget one of the Persons of the Holy Trinity on a test, that’s definitely in the Serious-Error-Bordering-on-Heresy category.  But if you’re in second grade, and have barely learned to print, let alone writing in cursive – I think the Holy Spirit would find it in His heart to forgive, which is more than the Dominican nuns would do.

No, this actually did not happen to me.  Being in a perpetual state of terror made it impossible to forget any such thing.  But there were many other occurrences, most of them so minor that I have forgotten them, that have left their cumulative effect on me, and as a result, it takes real courage to admit, “Yeah, I messed up here.”

But that courage is necessary, if only because the rest of the world, not having been terrorized by Dominican nuns (or any other kind of nun), actually does understand that nobody’s perfect, that mistakes are made, and that “that’s why there are erasers on the ends of pencils,” as the saying goes.  (Interestingly, we were forbidden to write in pencil after second grade, nor could we use ballpoint pens – fountain pens only, and if you did make a mistake, you crossed it out with one line.  More than one mistake, and you rewrote the whole paper.)

I’ve made a couple of real whoppers, but probably the worst was the letter I wrote to the Bishop of our Diocese on the strength of a rumor, asking him not to appoint a certain priest to our parish to replace the one that had left.  Normally I would never do such a thing, but having heard that this priest had definitely been selected, I wanted to know more about him; so I logged onto the website of the parish he was serving, and there found an icon of a decidedly non-Orthodox saint, and a quote from her, as well.  I mean, really.  We have plenty of our own saints to choose from.

So I wrote to the Bishop about this matter, along the way mentioning the parish I was from and to which this priest was supposed to be appointed.  Several years later, having endured much puzzling contumely from various and sundry, I learned that not the Bishop, but his Chancellor, had read my letter, gone to the website of my home parish, and not finding any such icon or quote there (because it wasn’t there), telephoned the departing priest and asked him if I was some kind of nut case.  This poor soul came to the conclusion that I had lied about him in order to get him into trouble with the Bishop, and it wasn’t until his best friend in the parish enlightened me that I found out about the whole mess.

Now, how do you fix that kind of mistake?  You don’t.  It’s out there, and nothing I could possibly say or do will correct the false impression left by an overworked Chancellor who transposed parishes – or maybe he was barely literate in English, for all I know – and caused grief, mayhem, and aggravation all around.

But as a result, I have learned not to write to Bishops.

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I was originally going to respond to the NaBloPoMo prompt, “Are you good at hiding your feelings, or is your face an open book?” but something else related to the topic of Masks has been on my mind lately, namely, do you hide from your roots?

There used to be an expression when I was young, “forgetting where you came from.”  It was used in talking about people with humble beginnings who had risen to great heights, like Donald Trump being from Rego Park in Queens, NY.  Rego Park is a nice enough neighborhood, but it will never have the same status as being from Jamaica Estates.  Or Gramercy Park in Manhattan.  One of the highest compliments anyone could pay such a person was that “he hasn’t forgotten where he came from”; to “forget where you came from” was despicable.

And it’s on my mind lately because I know two people who seem to have forgotten Where They Came From.  One of them is my own daughter, who has apparently decided that her parents are too ordinary for her to bother staying in touch with.  Or maybe it’s that our house, all 950 square feet of it, is too modest.  It may even be that she has unhappy memories of growing up among us, though that was never an excuse for blowing off Family.  Be that as it may, she recently acquired a hot-shot job with an international company that involves jetting back and forth across the Atlantic – I won’t say where – and other than apprising us of that fact (after telling her immediate world on Facebook), she hasn’t said a word to us about her life.  Or her husband, or their children.  The situation has gone on for so long that I’m not sure it can ever be repaired, and that’s not something anyone should be able to say about her children.

The other is an old friend of my husband’s from grade school.  These two boys were over at each other’s houses every day, and were as close as brothers.  They stayed in touch through high school and college, and even after military service, for a time.  But military service seemed to change things between them, as (despite having a college degree before enlistment) my husband was assigned to the enlisted ranks, and this other fellow became an officer.  After the service, he and his wife had us out to their home a few times, and we had them to ours; they lived on Long Island, in increasingly tony neighborhoods, and we lived in Queens, not too far from where we had grown up.  He went on to a career in nuclear physics, my husband went into occupational safety and health.  And one day, this guy simply stopped writing, and didn’t return telephone calls.  We never figured out why.

Recently, my husband went to some trouble to look him up on the internet.  He’s now living in the Southwest – I’m being deliberately vague – but he has an important position in his community, and is very obviously among the ranks of the Successful.  My husband got an address for him and sent him a note, together with his e-mail address and an invitation to renew the friendship.  That was three weeks ago, and he hasn’t heard a thing.

Meanwhile, over on Facebook, I’ve reconnected with a number of people who are cousins, or friends of cousins, from the old neighborhood.  It’s so much fun to talk about the old haunts, to catch up on one another’s lives, to see what we all look like now – you can see the resemblance to who they were 40 years ago – just to reconnect.  When we are “together,” even via the internet, the masks come off, and we are still pretty much the same group who enjoyed laughs together, and shared the torments of Catholic school (about which we laugh, now).  Every once in so often, one or another of us will reconnect with yet another branch of the family, and the fun starts all over again.

I feel sorry for my daughter, and for my husband’s friend.  Sure, it’s nice to have the toys and props to impress your new friends – maybe – I mean, aren’t you always on display?  Don’t you always have to wear that mask?  When do you get to be yourself, to slip and say “cawfey” when referring to your morning beverage, instead of whatever pronunciation of “coffee” is locally acceptable?  Or talk about what it was like to move from a four-room railroad flat in Ridgewood to a single-family house in Maspeth?  (A railroad flat is an apartment with rooms just like a railroad car – you have to walk through all the rooms, even the bedrooms, to get from front to back.  A lot of Brooklyn and Queens apartments were railroad flats.)

Home has a lot of definitions:  Home is where you hang your hat, home is where, when you go there, they have to take you in, home is where the heart is – my favorite came from the German author, Max Frisch:  “Home is where we understand the people, and they understand us.”  Home is where you can take the mask off.  Home is where you came from.

Don’t forget where you came from.  The loss is permanent.

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What is the coolest thing you ever saw?”

I had to think about this one.  I am about as far from “cool” as it’s possible to get, in the sense of “hip” or “with it” (are these terms even still around?!  The fact that I can both use such terms and ask if they are still around should give you some idea of just how un-cool I am).  Then I thought about “cool” in terms of temperature – and I had it.  Both in terms of temperature and in terms of culturally cool.

It was a frosty December evening when  my husband and I went out to dinner in the small German town where we were living.  We had been living in Germany for nearly three years at this point, both of us were fluent in the language, and had adopted many of the cultural norms of our neighbors; so we walked the mile or so to the restaurant, had a pleasant, quiet meal, then headed out for a stroll home along the main street of the town.  As I said, it was frosty, but not unpleasant; the stars were out, the railway station across the street was bathed in light.

Suddenly we heard a piping voice:  “Nikolaus!  Nikolaus!”  “Look!” said my husband, and pointed to the railway station, in front of which stood an old woman, bent with age, and…St. Nicholas.  As we watched, the two greeted each other affectionately.  “Bist du ein gutes Maedchen gewesen?”  asked St. Nicholas.  “Have you been a good girl this year?”

The old woman giggled.  “O, ja, ja!  Yes, yes!” she replied.

“Also, dann,” said St. Nicholas.  “Well, then.”  And he reached into his sack, pulled out a small gift, and gave it to the old woman, who responded with another giggle and high, thin cries of, “Danke!  Danke!  Thank you!”  And the two parted ways.

Of course.  It was December 6, the feast of St. Nicholas.  Children all over Europe were being visited in person to find out if they had been “naughty or nice”; the nice ones, and I’m sure they were all nice, got small presents, cookies, and fruit.  But for us, the unseen witnesses, the exchange between the old woman and whoever had dressed as the saint was pure magic.  I’m sure we both had stars in our eyes as we made our way home.

In later years, our children would leave their shoes in the kitchen on December 5, and wake up on December 6 to find them full of cookies and fruit.  St. Nicholas, we would tell our kids, had to visit all the German children personally, so he only had time for a quick overnight stop on his way to Germany.  “And we actually saw him when we lived there!” we’d tell the kids, “so he’s a real person, not like Santa Claus!”

Was it a stretch?  Yeah, well.

Maybe not.  After all, it was his feast.  And saints can do whatever they please. How do we know it wasn’t St. Nicholas?

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“Are you okay with letting people see you cry?”

This question fries me.  Crying is such a profoundly personal thing, a window into your soul.  Even if you’re crying from happiness – yes, it is possible – every time you cry, you tell the world that something has touched the very center of your being, you put your soul on display for public consumption.  You might as well stand naked in the middle of Times Square.

The worst part, for me, is that inevitably, people want to make you Feel Better.  There’s this assumption in this culture that crying is a sign of sadness, and people want to know what’s Wrong.  And sometimes – nothing’s wrong.  Everything is right, so right that you’re awestruck, touched at the core of your being, and the only possible response is tears.  Or you’re so proud.  Or, okay, so disappointed.  I have even wept tears of anger – I was so angry that I was literally trembling with rage, and the tears spilled over.  It only happened once in my life, and it was something to do with one of my children.  What, you think I get that bent out of shape over things that happen to me?!

One of the chief things I prize about being Orthodox is that you can cry to your heart’s content in church, and nobody says a thing.  In Orthodoxy, tears are actually considered a gift – there are so many comments in Orthodox literature about the “gift of tears” that you almost feel deprived if you can’t cry.  (Which makes me one of the wealthiest women on the planet…)

We know that tears are healing – even the most ardent atheist will admit that, if he reads any kind of psychology literature – so why, as a society, do we consider public tears so taboo?  Why do we look down our noses at people who “can’t keep it together,” “break down,” “lose control”?    Heaven forbid you should lose your self-control.  Heaven forbid that anything in life should matter so much to you that a response is not only called for, it’s inevitable.  Do we seriously believe that it’s better to walk around in a permanent state of spiritual illness?

Still, even knowing that – I hate to let people see me cry, even my nearest and dearest, probably because they always want to make me Feel Better.  And actually, I’m not all that crazy about crying itself, either.  I hear so many women talk about how much better they feel “after a good cry.”  All I feel is a headache.  Not to mention all that wetness.

There is one exception.  St. Paul tell us to “weep with those who weep,” and, I’ve discovered somewhat to my horror, that seems to be a talent I have.  When someone is in real distress, tears well up in me, as well, and somehow, that does seem to help them feel better.  I guess it validates their pain.  Interestingly, I don’t cry when somebody else is crying tears of joy – only when they’re hurting, and I hurt, too.  Then I don’t mind.

But otherwise – no, I don’t like for people to see me cry.  It’s like hangin’ out there nekkid.

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When you are speaking with someone, do you prefer to look them in the eye or talk over the phone?”

Neither.

However, people who know me will certify me as a genuine phone-o-phobe.  “Give me a call!” says a new acquaintance, and I’ll smile and nod – and a year later, we’ll run into each other, catch up on news, and repeat the cycle.  Or I’ll ask for the person’s e-mail address.  Making appointments?  I’ve been known to drive miles out of my way to make an appointment in person.  I’d go without things I needed for months, rather than pick up the phone and order them – online ordering has been a godsend.

And my best friend from high school cannot bear to pick up a pen, or sit down to a computer keyboard, to write.  She’s a confirmed telephoner.  You can imagine how often we really communicate, outside of Christmas letters.

So to answer the question:  No, I never telephone if I can help it.  It isn’t just that I like the face-to-face contact.  It’s the risk of inconveniencing the person I’m trying to reach.  I mean, what if they’re In Bed?  I’m of a generation when, if the telephone rang, you answered it, dammit, and never mind what stage you and your partner had reached.  I still haven’t really gotten used to the idea that other people actually let their answering machines screen their calls.

But neither am I entirely comfortable with looking people smack in the eye.

Again, generationally speaking, I was taught that this was rude, almost confrontational, and I have to remind myself that nobody thinks that way anymore.  I did learn a trick that seems to keep people from being suspicious of me:  If you stare at a person’s nose, it seems they perceive that as being looked in the eye, and thus keeps you from getting a reputation for being “shifty-eyed.”  (Agatha Christie had a great description, incidentally, for a shifty-eyed person, something to the effect of “someone who looks you right in the eye and never blinks.”  I’m going out on a limb and say it was in her novel, A Murder Is Announced, which I think was one of her greatest.)

Well, I’ve gotten this far in life with minimal telephone use and gazing at the bridges of people’s noses, and have yet to be accused of anything more serious than being Too Quiet – and that was in fifth grade.  Meanwhile, it’s time to get supper on the table, so, as Tigger would say, “TTFN!  Ta-ta for now!”

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