Tag Archives: thoughts

On Mastering a Second Language

When I was a baby, my parents spoke to me only in English, so naturally I grew into a child who could only speak English. And as it went, that never really changed.

After seven years of Hebrew school, I could read the Hebrew language and understand a few key words. But immediately after cashing in my Bat Mitzvah, the comprehension disappeared to the point that it’s like I never learned anything at all.

Spanish was a little different. Thanks to some great teachers over five years of high school and college classes, I found myself enjoying the learning process and actually picking up some of the language. My conversational skills held up when my family traveled to Costa Rica senior year of high school; while far from fluent, I could converse haltingly with just about anyone. And with the help of a small flask of coffee liquor in La Selva, my first real one-on-one Spanish conversation took place with an overnight security guard named Antonio. The more I drank, the more Spanish I spoke. We poured our hearts out on that jungle night and I understood everything he told me. It was nothing short of miraculous. I’ll never forget Antonio and I hope that he was able to overcome his intimacy issues.

Aside from brief interludes of travel, until recently, my life had been mostly conducted in English. It’s hard to maintain a language when you never speak it. After my last Spanish class in 2005, my limited knowledge started to fade away.

My boyfriend’s first language is Spanish, but we met in English, which he speaks perfectly. Shortly afterwards, when I told him I could speak a little Spanish, he was delighted. He came at me with a barrage of words so fast and intense that I could only respond with… “┬┐Que?” And from then on, we stuck mostly to English. Unless, of course, we were drinking. Or texting – the iPhone’s international keyboard has a remarkable capacity to help with pesky accent marks or misspellings.

The more I texted, the more I realized that I really do know a lot of Spanish words. But my ability to follow them spoken aloud was limited. What good is a language if you can only write it? It looked like my future in Spanish-speaking places would consist of walking around with a notebook and pen, writing notes to anyone I wanted to talk to. After I met some of Xavier’s family for the first time, it was hard to imagine anything else. They spoke mostly in Spanish, and although everyone in the group spoke slowly so that I could follow, I still found myself hopelessly lost. If I tried to contribute something to the conversation, all I received were strange looks – I’d completely missed the point. Lesson learned: real-life conversations don’t work well when you’re filling in the blanks a la Mad Libs. The only way I could converse was one-on-one at a snail’s pace, or when fortified with alcohol.

Clearly, more practice was necessary.

The next year, we arrived in Ecuador. Despite the fact that I’d spent a year listening to Spanish music, watching every Spanish movie that hit Redbox, and constantly attempting Spanish conversation with my native-speaker roommate, things were confusing. As anyone who has learned another language knows, the line to understanding is best crossed with deep attention. If you pour all of your focus and concentration into following a conversation, you will be amazed at your prowess and understanding. “I do know this!” you will marvel to yourself as the lively conversation blossoms around you.

After about six minutes, you’re mentally exhausted. Your gaze bounces around the group, following the speakers, smiling when they do, frowning when things get serious, just trying to stay engaged – and then you realize you’re just going through the motions and your only thoughts are in English and they’re something like “oh, no. I don’t get any of this!” because all of the words have become strange sounds. You mentally slap yourself awake, re-engage, lock onto the conversation. Wait, what’s that word? You ask someone quietly, hoping it will make you look good: you’re comprehending enough to have caught a word you don’t know in the midst of everything. “Laverde? Oh, no, la verde – the green one.” Yeah, you knew that. Facepalm. It’s over. Maybe tomorrow you’ll try again.

The other problem is that lots of people want to practice your language. You’ll try your best to converse en Espanol and they reply without a second’s thought in English. While this is incredibly helpful and comforting during those times of mental exhaustion – and those times are numerous – sometimes you just want an immersion. You want to be forced to speak the language, because only speaking it constantly will make you fluent.

When I was actually able to speak Spanish , I realized just how many random words I have picked up from living with a native speaker – and not all of it’s good. The first incident happened when we were in the car with a group of family members. Driving into Quito, a motorcyclist cut us off and Xavier had to jam on the brakes. Everyone was jostled a little bit. Always happy to comment on a traffic situation, I muttered something that we say frequently around the house, thinking it meant “dumb motorcyclist!” There were gasps. The word was actually an incredibly crude way to refer to a part of the male anatomy. Fortunately, this was the second day that we were spending with Xavier’s mom – so it wasn’t like that was her first impression of me, or anything.

Another day, we were pulling out of a parking garage and I opened our car window to give the attendant a tip. “Here, juebon,” I called to get his attention – I’d heard this word often when Xavier talks to his friends. In context, it sounds like “dude” or “buddy.” Well, when everyone gasped and then cracked up laughing, I learned it actually is referring to a bodily orifice.

Lesson learned: learning words in context is great, but be sure to clarify their meaning before using them yourself.

One of my goals for 2012 was to improve my Spanish. How am I doing?

After our trip, I’d say much better. But there’s a long way to go.

Worst blogger ever

Atlanta, dusk – my photo

So much for New Year’s resolutions, right? I started this blog to keep up with my writing and motivate myself to keep working out. Now it’s mid-March, two and a half months into 2012. Let’s do a little review:

– I wanted to write. I wrote a lot in January. In February, I got busy and stopped writing. March has been similarly barren thus far. Grade? Fail.

– Exercise. I wanted to work out at least four times a week. In January I faltered. In February, I ran a lot. Then I began experiencing stabbing pain in my ankles, not just during runs but all the time. I stopped running. But we did start rock climbing, and with that, attending an abs/core class at the gym. I can now climb a 60-foot grade 5.8 route with an incline. Not bad for a beginner. Grade? Pass.

– Learning. I wanted my Spanish to improve, my guitar playing to improve, to learn piano, to take more photographs, to apply to grad school. Well, it’s embarrassing to admit that I haven’t put much effort into any of that. Grade? Epic fail.

I could come up with any excuse in the book to explain how poorly I’ve been doing with my goals. But the truth is, it’s poor time management coupled with constant exhaustion. If we climb four times a week, then come home to prepare and eat dinner, I’m completely spent and will pass out on the couch by 11:30 at the latest. I must be awakened and dragged to bed, lest I spend all evening curled into a back-tweaking crescent shape against the angle of the couch. Also, we’ve been on a mission to eat at home as frequently as possible. There’s no excuse not to: I can cook, and it makes much more financial sense for us at the moment. But food preparation, and then cleaning the kitchen, takes more time and energy. It’s worth it, but between a full day at work, exercising, and then making dinner? There’s not much time for anything else.

Things are somewhat frustrating on the exercise front at the moment. I’ve been working out hard, putting on tons of muscle, and eating very carefully, but I’m stuck in that awkward stage that’s in between muscle addition and fat burning off. So the scale hasn’t changed a bit. My clothes aren’t fitting better yet. I’m trying not to be discouraged, but it’s hard to stay positive when I feel like my hard work hasn’t paid off. I am trying to focus on the fact that I feel stronger, better. And I know that muscle weighs more than fat, so the fact that the scale has stayed the same while my arms are jacked and a serious six-pack has taken up residence under my belly fat means that I have to have lost something. But it’s tough.

On a brighter note, climbing is awesome. I’ve been having so much fun! It’s so incredible to think about how far we’ve come in just a month. When we first set foot in Stone Summit, we were limited to the bouldering room. Bouldering is ropeless climbing, where the climber follows routes set along a 10-15 foot wall. It’s highly dependent on endurance and brute strength, and you spend a lot of time using your arms to hoist yourself up and do crazy moves across the wall. The routes are rated in difficulty from V0, which is basically a staircase set onto the wall, to much harder ones (V14, I think is the toughest). As the route difficulty increases, the holds are smaller, farther apart, harder to grasp, and set onto tricky slopes.

Where we started

At first, I could barely ascend a V0. It wasn’t so much the difficulty of the route that held me back. My issue was mostly in the comfort level of the climb, and my fear of heights. When you’re scared of heights, leaving the ground in any capacity is a challenge!  But I kept at it, and eventually I was able to reach the top of the wall and scamper down quickly.

After a couple of weeks, Xavier and I took a belaying class so we could learn how to top-rope and climb on the larger walls in the gym. Ever since, we’ve been having a blast. This type of climbing requires more endurance than brute strength, so there are many more options for us. We started on the easy walls, just to get the feel for it. Now, we’ve progressed to some of the more challenging routes. As I climb, I’m realizing that I’m doing things that I couldn’t do last month – lift my entire body weight with one arm, for example. I feel much more comfortable on the wall, and am having a great time. The panic still sets in sometimes, like when I look down from 50 feet up and my arms are so tired that I can barely hang on. But I know that I’m perfectly safe with Xavier belaying me, and that helps me to make it up and reach that last hold. It’s a really cool feeling.

Where we climb now- well, not the upside-down parts yet.

The only problem I’m having with climbing is that my hands are becoming very tough and callused. It’s not exactly conducive to shaking hands, giving massages, or really touching anyone without hurting them. Fortunately, my boyfriend’s hands are the exact same way, so I think he understands.

Does anyone have a story to share about their own mental blocks while exercising?  How do you stay positive when your hard work has resulted in your jeans still feeling quite uncomfortable?

Things I Learned This Weekend

Doesn’t it seem that the older you get, the faster time flies by? Approximately three minutes ago, I was leaving work on Friday afternoon. Now it’s Sunday night and I’m full of gotta-get-up-early-for-work dread. Don’t get me wrong, I like my job. I just hate waking up early.

Albeit short, this has been an interesting weekend, I’m feeling a little bit motivated to write.

This weekend, I learned that writing a blog post with an interesting title will get many more page views than any previously-written boringly-named post will get. But, as you can see from today’s title above, I am not going to take advantage of this lesson. I’m writing for me, not you. But it was interesting that so many people read my blog this weekend, and very nice to hear comments from friends old and new! Thanks for your feedback, everyone.

This weekend, I learned that tattoo removal hurts like freakin’ crazy. Should I back up a little bit? How did I learn such a thing? Well, when I was in college I took a religious studies course about Islamic Mysticism. It was a really cool class. This was way before I had fully developed my current views on theism, and I really appreciated learning about Sufis. The Sufis love their god, and some were known to express this love in the form of poetry. Have you ever heard of Rumi? He was born in 1207, but his work is beautiful and relevant today.
Let the lover be disgraceful, crazy,
absentminded. Someone sober
will worry about things going badly.
Let the lover be.”


I’d always wanted a tattoo. Although I wasn’t sure what to get, I knew I was looking for something with a meaning that could resonate with me for as long as the tattoo lasted. While Sufi poetry was mostly about love, they tended to use imagery of drunkenness and ecstasy. Of course, they were really inferring that a union with God was intoxicating and ecstatic, but in college, I liked those ideals regardless of intent. Along those lines, here is what I almost got tattooed on my body at age 19:

That, in case you’re wondering, is a love poem by Rumi. It’s still bookmarked on my Safari, the list of favorites having been imported from computer to computer over the years. And I’m so glad I settled with the tattoo I ended up getting, because the laser would have proven unbearable as it erased every last character of that poem.
That was my first tattoo on the first day of its life. It was supposed to be an Arabic word that meant “do beautiful things.” It was the name of a Sufi philosophy that dictated all Sufis should be on their best behavior at all times, as though Allah was watching them. While I couldn’t quite identify with that, I loved the idea of being the best I could be at all times, no matter who was there or why. As it turned out, the tattoo wasn’t quite right, which can happen when a word is culled from the recesses of Google and Arabic websites. It was missing a couple of dots. After it was fixed, I got the itch for another tattoo; getting the ink is kind of a rush, like a runner’s high. I ended up with the word “love” in Hebrew tattooed on my left ankle. It balanced out the Arabic for this lapsed Jew, I figured. This was a terrible tattoo. It was free because it was one of the artist’s first attempts at permanent body art. That explains why the letters faded away around my Achilles, like a whisper or afterthought.
Almost as soon as the tattoos became a part of my personal landscape, I knew that they would have to be removed at some point. The Arabic, for example, became particularly annoying. When I wore dresses or skirts in an attempt to present myself nicely, the word was somewhat of an eyesore. People would say “You have a smudge of dirt on your leg… oh, wait…”
So, to make a long story short, thanks to Groupon and an early birthday present, I was able to do something about the tattoos this weekend. And if you take nothing else from this post, let it be this: that laser hurts like hell. Getting the tattoos removed was approximately 5,452,921 times more painful than having them done in the first place. At the studio, I lay down nonchalantly on my belly at first, waiting for the laser. After the first blast – which felt, incidentally, like a white-hot beesting that resonated up past the knee and down towards my toes – my entire body clenched. I gripped the sides of the chair until my fingers went white, every muscle aching from the restraint of holding myself down against every instinct to get up and bolt. This continued for, fortunately, only a few minutes. Although I don’t remember saying anything during the procedure, Xavier heard me cursing like a sailor from the waiting area outside. It hurt so bad that I was dizzy for 20 minutes afterwards. Crazy, right? I’m not the bravest person ever, but trust me: this hurt. Keep your tattoos, people.
They did offer Lidocaine cream for an additional $20, which I deferred in the name of saving money and acting as tough as possible. This was an epic mistake that I shall never repeat, not for any of my remaining five sessions. Now the tattoo remnants are bandaged and I can’t wait to peek and see how much they’ve changed. I got a glimpse before the healing cream went on, and they definitely looked faded.
Although my “do beautiful things” tattoo will soon become a thing of the past, I want its message to live on. Today, I was saddened upon hearing the news story that Representative Gabrielle Giffords will not seek reelection to Congress. I just finished reading the biography that she and her husband wrote together, and it was an amazing and touching story that left me in tears. (Look for it in a What I’m Reading Wednesday post shortly!). Rep. Giffords, as you may remember, was shot point-blank in the head by a deranged gunman as she hosted a Congress on Your Corner event last January. She survived, but seven others did not, and many others were also injured. Reading the story of all that she did for her country and her constituents before her injury, then learning about her long and difficult recovery, made me wonder what more I can be doing with my life to help others. Although I have the opportunity to work with patients on a daily basis, my job is more about helping doctors to come to a diagnosis, not actually helping them in a hands-on way. That is still my ultimate professional goal: to help people feel better.
I don’t know if I believe in karma, not in the traditional sense. However, I believe that putting forth positive energy into the world will result in a better place for everyone, and you will ultimately be happier for it. This attitude hasn’t always been kind to me in return – I’ve been burned badly after trusting others. But I’ll keep trying to see the best in people, and treat them the way I’d like to be treated.  That’s what my idealistic tattooed self would have wanted, and I’m going to remember that even after a laser burns away my best-laid plans.

Why I Hate Panera Bread

Panera Soup & Sandwich
Panera chicken noodle soup. image from Flickr by john-pittsburgh

Panera Bread is the absolute worst.

I didn’t always feel that way. The first time I visited one was in Princeton, NJ, and I adored the bread bowl with French onion soup. It felt like an unimaginable luxury: a bowl made of bread! The vessel for deliciousness was also delicious, leaving diners drunk on carbs after stuffing their faces with a rapidly disintegrating bowl. The experience of eating at Panera was exhilarating.
When a Panera outpost finally opened near my house, I was in high school and didn’t have my driver’s license yet, so I only went on rare occasions. It was always a delicious treat. Although I eschewed the bread bowl on most visits, preferring to leave the restaurant not feeling like I’d eaten an elephant, I loved the “You Pick Two” combination. Often I’d indulge in a delicious dish of salad. Paired with creamy chicken soup, or my standby French onion, the meal was an affordable way to feel like a classy grown-up.
Then a few things happened that began to taint my love for Panera. One afternoon, I suggested to my mom that we eat there. That was the first mistake. My mom is an incredible cook who takes great pride in dismantling the culinary efforts of others. We both had French onion and after one spoonful of hers, she sniffed derisively and deemed the soup to be thickened with cornstarch.
“Is that bad?” I asked.
“Not necessarily,” she replied, her denial actually meaning that soup thickened with cornstarch is an abomination ranking right up there with genocide and shoulder pads in women’s suits.
To this day, I don’t really know why thickening soup with cornstarch is bad. I happen to make a corn-poblano chowder that’s healthy precisely because I thicken it with cornstarch and not cream. But that day planted the first seeds in my mind that Panera might not be the wood-paneled, lushly upholstered garden of dreams that I’d always imagined it to be.
Next, some of my friends ended up getting jobs at Panera and their reports from the kitchen were less than appealing. Soups, they claimed, came to each store in huge freezer bags, which were thawed and served as-is from the corporate kitchen. I’d always pictured my Panera meals crafted by cheerful elves slicing onions and tending to giant vats of soup with overgrown spoons, so this image came as a surprise. It pained me to imagine my Panera meal stripped of handcrafted love, born of a huge industrial factory.
When I moved to the desolate tundra of upstate New York for college, my opportunities to eat Panera were limited. But on the few occasions that I did indulge, I couldn’t help but notice that each bowl of soup was flavorless, overly salty, and greasy and left me feeling uncomfortably full. When I ordered salad, the leaves were wilted. Tasteless strips of chicken had the funny texture of sponges. Strawberries were still partially frozen. Fried noodle strips outnumbered everything else. I started to feel ambivalent about Panera.
A few months ago, I moved to a house that’s very close to a strip mall. There are many worthwhile vendors in that strip mall. To name a few, we’ve got Boardwalk Burgers, which serves Georgia grass-fed beef and double-fried spuds. Ansley Liquors, serving your booze with a side of hilarious hand-written signs. The list goes on. Unfortunately, occupying a storefront like a blight among the gems, is a Panera outpost.
I’ve gone there a few times recently, in need of a quick bite to eat. And somehow, no matter how hungry I am, I can’t bring myself to purchase anything at Panera. Reading the menu just makes me angry. For a cup of mediocre soup, they charge $4.79. Almost five dollars! For spongy old chicken and greasy croutons! Every time I’ve walked in and surveyed the menu, thinking I could maybe go for a bowl of soup, I quickly grow disgusted and leave without purchasing anything. 

Complaining is useless without providing an alternative solution. So here’s my alternative solution: you can make your own damn soup. It will taste infinitely better than anything from Panera, it doesn’t require as much effort as you think it would, and it’s practically free.

my chicken soup, practically free
Recipe to follow.
In the meantime, please don’t support Panera. They are taking advantage of people who don’t realize how inferior and overpriced their product is.
(However, their bread is pretty good. I’ll give them that).

Wrench in the works

Bad news, world. Remember how I wrote that I was going to start kickboxing again? Well, it’s not happening. I had every intention of going to kickboxing classes. Then I heard back from the school and classes are too expensive. As much as I’d be okay with spending money on something worthwhile, I just don’t have the cash. Not until I pay off my credit cards, at least.

So it looks like I’m going to be focusing exclusively on my running plan for a little while. That’s disappointing, because I was very excited to add kickboxing for the variety. Things could be worse, though! Let’s look at this in a positive light. I don’t know why, but I have it locked into my head that running is the best kind of cardio. Where did I learn this? Who told me? No idea. But it holds true in my experience. You can spend an hour doing something like tennis, swimming, rollerblading, cycling, or the elliptical, and you never feel as tired as you do after an hour of running.

(I’ll be starting in half-hour increments, but whatever… a start is a start).

I’m not a natural runner. My body is not built for running, and it is a great challenge for me to get running and stay running. But it’s important to be challenged, because it pays off in the form of results. With something like cycling, I can get on my bike and ride for hours and be perfectly happy as long as I have a chocolate-chip Cliff bar tucked into my jersey. As fun as riding is, it never seems to get me as trim as I’d like to be. Going out to hit the pavement is much less enjoyable, but it gets results. So every time I go out to run and it starts to hurt, I’m going to think about that… and then keep going.

(As I am writing this, I’m realizing that it sounds kind of silly to force myself to work out. I wish I had a problem where I hated cooking and eating, and needed to force myself to do that. No offense to anyone who has suffered from an eating disorder, which is no joke. But seriously! Life would be so much easier if I could escape the siren call of Antico pizza and basically every carb covered in cheese. Oh, first world problems).

When I finally can afford kickboxing, it’s going to be that much more awesome – being more fit to start off, I think I’ll get more out of those workouts right from the beginning.

Have you ever had a wrench thrown in your workout plans? How did you recover?