That’s So Brazil

Post #8: Age is but a… oh, never mind

The other day I was standing in a long line at the bank when I suddenly remembered: as someone over 60, I was entitled to hop over to the caixa preferencial, which had a much shorter queue. A sign above the teller’s booth served as a helpful reminder: “This line is for old people—anyone as old as 60 or even older.”

Old age 1“Coming right up,” I felt like saying. “Just hang on while I retrieve my walker and pop in my hearing aid.”

Along similar lines, the Brazilian novel I’ve been reading recently brought a new character into the story, a “very old man” with wrinkles criss-crossing his face, cocker-spaniel pouches under his eyes, and the weight of the world on his rounded back. A couple of pages later the author let it be known that the man was 60.

With insults and injuries such as these, I can’t be blamed for being a wee bit twitchy about my age. I turned 61 a few weeks ago, but damned if I was going to let anyone know. Not here in Brazil, where people “refresh” their cheeks and breasts and butts as one might rearrange the furniture in a living room. Brazil cosmetic surgery

For most of my midlife years, the guess-my-age game has given me a reliable ego boost. “You’re really 52? I would have guessed mid-forties.” “Fifty-seven? No way.” As recently as two years ago, I was propositioned by a handsome Italian man on the boardwalk in Cannes. I put a quick end to his nocturnal aspirations,  but still… ego boost.

In the past couple of years, though, something has changed. I look in the mirror and don’t see it—I have no frown lines or turkey chin, and my body hasn’t gone all sausagey on me—but clearly the rest of the world does. People are no longer shocked when they learn my age, and on my third day in Brazil one person actually guessed higher.

After that I stopped playing. I have no interest in seeing people’s un-shocked faces. Now, if someone asks me how old I am—and Brazilians often do—I just smile and say, “A gente pode mudar de assunto?” Can we change the subject?

Let’s face it, youth is a currency, and I don’t have quite as much coin as I might like. Before meeting Brazilian cyber-buddies IRL for the first time, I’m tempted to give them fair warning. You know, truth in advertising. “Hey, just letting you know that I’m 61, even though I feel like 25, both physically and mentally.” I actually wrote this to one young dude I was planning to meet for English-Portuguese conversation exchange. He never showed up.

To be fair, I’m meeting a ton of people who don’t give a fig about my age. (If anything, Brazilians seem less concerned about age-gapped friendships than people back home.) I’m making friends of all ages, just as I’d hoped. But I would be lying if I said I wasn’t peeved at this “betrayal of the flesh.” I have worlds of energy inside me. I’m ready to rock, roll, and samba. Why didn’t my epidermis get the memo? Ω

Edited to add: Today a woman in a second-hand clothing store asked me if I was 50 yet. She also told me that I speak better Portuguese than many Brazilians, so she’s clearly not a reliable source, but I’ll take what I can get. Ego off life support—for now.

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Blog: That’s So Brazil

Post #5: There’s no cure for this. But what’s the alternative?

I’ve been reading a slim Portuguese volume called As Mentiras Que Os Homens Contam—The Lies Men Tell—and it’s charming the pants off me. The chapters are mercifully short, and I read a new one every night before bed. Savor it, like a good Riesling. I chuckle, I guffaw. This is a seriously funny book.

On this particular night, in paragraph two of my latest chapter, I run into a word I haven’t seen before: caixão. I know that caixa means box and that the ão suffix makes things bigger, so caixão must mean big box. A few lines later I get it. Caixão means, ah, ah, what’s that word again? It’s the box you put dead people in before burying them. You know the one, right? It’s called, ah, ah… Damn it, why can’t I think of the word? Memory leak 2

A torrent of related terms floods my mind: hearse, procession, gravestone, undertaker, pushing up daisies… But not that word.

I try to picture myself at a funeral—maybe that will jog my memory. Well. The funeral that jumps to my mind is my own mother’s, twenty-nine years ago. I had to choose the box myself. I remember standing in the funeral parlour, the reality of having no more parents just beginning to sink in, while the funeral director showed me samples of mahogany and cherrywood. It was not a fun time. No wonder I’ve blocked out the word.

But I haven’t blocked it out. I remember it in French—cercueil—and I now know it in Portuguese. Just not in English. I call up its distinctive hexagonal shape and imagine myself opening it, hoping to find its name inside. Nada.

Pink coffinThis wouldn’t have happened to me at thirty. Or forty. Or fifty-nine. There’s no escaping it: it’s the beginning of the big biochemical blowout, the synaptic switch-off, the slide into vacant-eyed oblivion. By the time I get to Brazil I’ll probably have no words left, just chin hairs and missing teeth.

What am I doing, trying to learn another language when I can’t even remember my own? I should just invest in a rocking chair—a model that comes with knitting needles and a lapdog—and call it a day.

But no, I can’t do that. I’m enjoying Portuguese too much. And if I give up on my sputtering synapses, I may as well buy a nice little plot and bury myself in my own… ah, ah… it’s coming, it’s coming… my own coffin!

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.


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.