Blog: That’s So Brazil

Post #3: Testing, one two splat

On the day I turned 60 I took a memory test. I was about to learn a new language and wanted to know if my brain would cooperate.

The last time I had taken a standardized test, I was 21. It was the GMAT, the test required for admission into MBA programs. Cornell University liked my score enough that they offered Brainme a spot, even though I hadn’t applied.

This time I would get tested by the Toronto Memory Program, a clinic that specializes in researching dementia and treating patients with wobbly memories. In other words, people nothing at all like me.

The backwards-sevens test was a cinch. So was the psychomotor test, which had me tracing lines between letters and numbers as fast as my muscles would allow. I was nailing this thing! Next, I had to list all the zoo animals I could Zoo and farm animalsthink of in 60 seconds. I hadn’t been to a zoo since my kids were in diapers, but how hard could this be? The first few animals rolled easily off my tongue: lion, tiger, cheetah, polar bear… then a little imp flipped a switch in my brain and all I could picture were farm animals: chickens, turkeys, sheep. What the hell was going on?

I moved on to the cognigram, a computer-based test of visual memory and reaction time. Each time a playing card appeared on the screen, I was to press “yes” if I remembered seeing the card before and “no” if I didn’t. Every time I got a wrong answer, the computer beeped. I got a lot of beeps.

Drumroll, tally, score: “normal range, about one standard deviation above average for my age.” How could this happen? I’d scored 98th percentile on the GMAT! I’d gone to graduate school at Harvard! (I quit after a semester, but still.) All my life I’d woven a story about myself, a story that flowed from the premise that I had a rather special brain.

Like all people who don’t ace a test, I started in on the excuses. I was nervous. The test didn’t assess higher-level thinking. It was biased toward visual memory. If they had tested my auditory recall, I would have knocked it out of the park. Yeah, whatever.

Looks like I’m no longer a member of the special-brain club, just another schmo trying to learn a language. Whatever I accomplish will be through hard work, not turbo-charged synapses. If nothing else, I’ll get an A for effort.

Blog: That’s So Brazil

Post #2: It was supposed to be Greek

The project I now call That’s So Brazil began life two years ago as Gone Greeking. For two years I looked forward to the day I would turn 60, start learning Greek, and get my Big Fat Greek Adventure off the ground.

At first I kept the idea to myself, but eventually I told a few people. TGreek Island Patiohen a few more. I never doubted that Greek and Greece would work for me. The language seemed suitably challenging, and what’s not to like about feta cheese and ouzo on a cliffside patio in Santorini?

Then came the big day. I opened my husband’s gift—a set of Greek language instruction manuals with nine CDs—and began studying.

By day three, something started to feel wrong, and by day five I just knew.

It’s hard to say why Greek didn’t do it for me. It was difficult, certainly, but then so was Japanese, which I learned at 33. In fact, the U.S. Foreign Service Institute deems Japanese to be the most difficult language for an English speaker to learn, and that didn’t stop me.

All I can say is that Greek was difficult in a different way. Learning Japanese was like landing on Mars. Nothing looked, sounded, or felt the same. But once I accepted the change of planet, I found I could get around after all.

Greek was not Mars, but the rote memorization that lay ahead seemed endless: three genders, four cases, and a bunch of rules no less arbitrary than tax laws. And the writing! Try telling a 60-year-old brain that what looks like a V is actually pronounced N, what looks like an N is an E, and so on. I wanted not only to challenge myself, but to enjoy myself, and I couldn’t see that happening. There was nothing to do but move on to Plan B.

Grazil 2Talk about embarrassed. I had paid for a Gone Greeking blog site! A domain name! From Greek to Portuguese, Greece to Brazil—surely people would find me capricious and random. They would snicker as they waited for me to ditch Portuguese and take up Swahili or Djinang.

Fortunately, my husband was there to remind me that people don’t really care what other people do. They’re too busy having fits about their cell phone bills, deciding which Netflix shows to watch, and wondering what other people think of them. Drew was right, of course. People didn’t snicker, at least not within my earshot.

And I’m happy to report that I won’t be hitting the Swahili or Djinang textbooks anytime soon: Portuguese has stolen my heart. So has Brazil, though I haven’t set foot there yet. Go figure.

Blog: That’s So Brazil

Post #1: So Here’s The Plan

I used to fantasize about how life would change when I turned sixty. I would no longer waste time. I would no longer overeat, under-exercise, snap at my loved ones. I would stride fearlessly into the autumn of my life, approaching friends, strangers and literary agents with equal aplomb. In a nutshell, I would kick ass.

That’s not exactly how it went down. On the big day I had the flu. While the aches and pains subsided quickly enough, my mind stayed unwell. I spent two weeks lying in bed, learning about ceiling cracks I never knew existed. All I could think was: I can now go to The Bay on Tuesdays and get a seniors’ discount. The horror.

Anyone with a half a brain could have predicted this outcome: I had set the bar so high that it was bound to topple over.

Two months later I’m finally hitting my stride, sort of. I’ve been studying Portuguese for the past seven weeks and making preparations for my Brazilian escapade. The short version: This time next year, I hope to touch down somewhere in Brazil and spend about six months there. I’ll be going alone.

brazil-abstract

Why Brazil, and why now? I could tell you that I’d like to inspire other chronologically advanced people to get off their Obusforme lounge chairs and bust through their limitations, and there might be a speck of truth in that. But when it comes right down to it, I’m doing it for the same reason anyone does anything: Because I wanna.

When I was 33, I learned Japanese and spent fourteen months in Tokyo. The experience changed my life in every possible way. For reasons I can’t fully articulate, it seems important that I repeat the exercise at least once more before I eat dust. And Brazil has always had a pull on me, just like Japan.

The obvious difference is that I’m happily married this time, ergo not looking for male attentions. (Even if I were, I doubt many men would drop everything at the chance to gaze into the eyes of a discount shopper with varicose veins.) And no, I do not take my husband’s loving support for granted.

Other than that, I plan to pretend I’m twenty-five and see what happens. I hope you’ll join me in this experiment in ungraceful aging. Your participation, and especially your thoughts, mean the world to me.