It is hard to talk to my baby in Russian

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There is a meme going around the internet that is a picture with two eggs on it. The first, on the left, is a whole egg, round and white and smooth. The second, on the right, is the egg smashed into tiny bits and pieces. The whole egg is your brain before kids, and the right egg is your brain after kids.

I’ve found this to be accurate. Before I thought about all kinds of esoteric things, like the Kurdish oil region in Iraq, random blogs I used to read three years ago (what happened to Gubbi of Arabia?) , people I hate online, and losing weight.

Now, my thoughts usually go in this sequence: I’m glad baby is fed. Wait, do we have enough formula? I need to order more on Amazon. While I’m at it, I need to buy more diapers. Is she still size three? Maybe I should buy some in size four just in case she fits those? She’s been growing so fast. Oh, that’s right, she has her four-month checkup this Friday. I need to make sure she’s ok because she didn’t handle the vaccinations well last time. Her check-up is at 1:45, which means we have to start getting ready to leave the house at 12. We’ll need to pack the diaper bag. Oh, right, wipes. I think I’m low. I guess I should buy some of those too. Essentially, my brain loops around Amazon.com in an endless cycle of worry.

Then I get worried that I’m not spending enough time thinking about Mr. B. We used to be two married people with common interests and interesting conversations. Now we still have interesting conversations, but they’re mostly about the size of the baby’s cheeks.  When will we be a team again?

When my brain is not looping around the baby and Mr. B, it’s looping around work. I’m working three days a week now, which means I need to get everything done and squared away before I’m unreachable with the baby for two days a week. Which means my brain loops around work projects, and then, since they’re tied to staying home with the baby, it goes right back to the baby.

For some reason, my drive to and from work breaks the loops. I listen to music or audiobooks, and I feel a little bit like my old self again.  Yesterday, I thought about the California water crisis and avocados. But, as usual, no matter how far away my thoughts start, they always come back to my daughter.  Avocados are a recommended first food because they are soft and mild in flavor, and the baby will be able to start solids soon.

In order to save my sanity,  I’ve been trying to get further and further away from babies on my commute.  Two weeks ago,  for example,  I was thinking about  about Ben-Zion Ben Yehuda.

When Ben-Zion Ben Yehuda was born to his parents  in British Mandate, the first sounds he heard from his adoring parents were most likely in Hebrew. This may not have been remarkable, except for the fact that Ben-Zion, who later called himself Itamar, was the first native-born modern Hebrew speaker in the world. His father, Eliezer, a Zionist from Belarus,  was almost singlehandedly responsible for reviving Hebrew from a dead holy tongue where God be blessed this and God be praised that, to a living, breathing language full of refrigerators, telephones, and swear words.

Ben Yehuda the elder  spoke Yiddish, French, German, and Russian. But,  he believed that the only way Jews around the world could develop a single identity was to have a single language.

In order to raise a fluent Hebrew speaker in a country that was full of intellectuals from Germany, British soldiers, Arabic-speaking Bedouins, and Romanian refugees, Ben Yehuda imposed very strict rules on Itamar’s upbringing. In his autobiography, Itamar describes an incident where his mother forgot herself and started singing a lullaby to him in her native Russian. Ben Yehuda overheard her, come in shouting, and caused a great scandal. Friends had to pantomime around Yiddish in intellectual discussions, all newspapers were translated or banned in the household, and New words were invented to encompass modern every-day life. Yiddish and Russian, the language both of Itamar’s parents had grown up with, were persona non-gratis.

I thought about Itamar’s mother, Hemda, and how hard it was for her. To start with, her original, real Russian name was Paula. Ben Yehuda made her Hebraize it. Her whole identity was wiped out in an instant.  Then , there was the matter of the lullaby. I can just imagine her, hopped up on post-natal hormones, sitting in the filthy, undeveloped swamp that was British Mandate Palestine, trying to offer her screaming baby, and herself a bit of comfort in a song from her childhood. Maybe it was Ryabina. Maybe it was Oi, to ne vecher. Whatever it was, she couldn’t sing it because her husband had a Vision.

I thought about everything she gave up, and as usual, my thoughts circled back to my new tiny family because I speak to my baby in my first language, Russian, instead of my native language, English because I want her to know her roots, her culture, her people.   But,  good God is it hard to talk to my baby in Russian.

When I was in college,  I decided that I would marry a Russian speaker, and from that moment, I, like Ben Yehuda, had a Vision for my baby. My baby would not grow up monolingual.  She would not be described in biographies as “of Russian extraction,” or “having Jewish roots,” a vague way of abstracting away a person’s culture, of dissociating them from their family. My baby would not be plain American.

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I had a lot of grand plans for my baby.

As soon as I became pregnant, my husband and I would start speaking to each other only in Russian.

But then I actually became pregnant, and even saying, “я беременая”, instead of “I’m pregnant,” felt false and fake. The former felt like I was speaking from the mouth of a 60-year-old woman, or some show on tv, like I was putting on an act, like I was distanced from myself, like a puppet in a play. The latter felt like I was really saying what I felt.

I am Russian and Jewish to my very core, in my values, my beliefs, my sense of humor, my pride of my culture.  But I was five years old when I left and all of my Russian is my family’s Russian, not my own thoughts and ideas. My Russian is a shallow barrel of utility words that I’m constantly scraping the bottom of in an effort to explain myself, a pool that doesn’t include any of slang, cultural references,  or silly words I can make up myself.

My Russian is children’s books I was read when I was four, words for food that are untranslatable like kalbasa and kotleti, my parents murmuring to each other downstairs on Saturday mornings when I am warm and comfortable under the covers.

My English, on the other hand,  is a vast ocean that I have explored on my own. It’s my entire adolescence, my youth, my college experiences. It’s all of the slang I learned in AOL chatrooms, all of the nicknames my friends and I made up for each other. It’s the Babysitters Club Series, Shakespeare, Lev Grossman, any, every book I’ve ever read under the blankets late at night. It’s the language my husband and I lavish each other with endearing nicknames in. It’s this blog.

So when I became pregnant, I couldn’t bring myself to speak in Russian to my husband. And on the day my daughter was born, I lay in the hospital bed at 7 in the morning, three hours after her delivery. “Are you tired,” my husband asked me in Russian. “Yes, I’m tired,” I said in Russian back to him, cotton in my mouth.  We were starting this thing, but I was resisting it with my entire being.

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Later, when they brought her in, I asked her, “Eva, how are you,” in Russian, and it felt, again, like a completely different person, a cheerful and fake paper doll, talking to my baby, instead of the real me. I almost cried from frustration, because I had just had my first baby, and I couldn’t tell her my emotions in the language that I felt them.

Every day, I almost gave up. I almost switched to English. Mr. B didn’t even talk to her in Russian at all for the first week. I tried to police him, to remind him to switch, but eventually I realized if I did that, I was just being a hypocrite, because I didn’t want to speak Russian, either.  I wanted to call her “kitten,” and “my baby,” and tell her about my understanding of the world, make up stories for her, do all the things I had been dreaming about when I was pregnant.

For a writer not to be able to tell stories in the language they are most comfortable in is sheer torture.

Every day, I would ask her if she was hungry, if she was thirsty, why she was crying, all in Russian, and I just felt like a fraud, because there was no emotion attached to those words. It got to the point where I didn’t even want to talk to her, so I would go for hours at a time of being mute,  just changing her diaper, feeding her, watching her, waiting for her to fall asleep so I didn’t feel the guilt of not saying anything. Nighttime, when you’re not supposed to talk to the baby anyway so they understand that it’s time for sleep, was my favorite time. I felt like a hollow robot.

Relatives continued to come and heap praise on her in Russian, making up cutesy nicknames for her, singing songs that I didn’t know, making up handclapping games that I couldn’t replicate because I had never been to Russian kindergarten or daycare, even.  I started reading books to her because that way I didn’t have to make up the words- they were there for me. We read Konek Gorbunok, the first couple pages of A Young Doctor’s Notebook, Meduza.io.

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I can’t say when it started to get better for sure, but probably sometime around six or seven weeks old, I started feeling less like I was forcing cold, jagged letters through my mouth and more like I was actually talking and saying things I want to say.  Eventually, I was able to come up with some Russian nicknames for her, which I started using, although the number of English nicknames I have for her is 11. The number of Russian nicknames is 2.

I also started making up songs that semi-rhymed because I couldn’t think of words that rhymed quickly enough. Slowly, those songs turned into rhyming ones that made sense. I kept Russian TV on in the background, Russian radio on in the background, Russian music on in the background, everything Russian on in the background all the time until I started having some dreams in Russian.

The only thing that helped was constantly forcing myself, and Mr. B to speak Russian to her. We still speak English to each other, but we’ll cross that bridge when we get there.

Today, speaking English to her feels strange and foreign. But Russian, somedays, is just as unnatural. And so here I am in a land of in-betweens, unable to be truly affectionate with my baby, but unable to bring myself to deny her of a second language that will open an entire universe to her, as well as a much better connection to her family.

So, I’m still speaking Russian to my baby. It is the hardest thing ever, to speak Russian to my baby. I feel like Hemda-Paula, stripped of myself.  But, I think of Itamar Ben Yehuda, and I still do it, in the hopes that I will get somewhere, and that her first word will be Mama, not Mom, and that by losing a part of myself, I will be able to give that part to her to keep.

 

The one about Friends

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The entire series of Friends was released on Netflix on January 1, just in time for my maternity leave to start.  Friends is the perfect show to watch when you’re dealing with the rhythms of a new baby because it’s so lighthearted that you don’t need to concentrate on it for more than a snippet at a time. It’s perfect to have on in the background while breastfeeding, pumping, changing diapers, or while you’re dozing off at 2 in the morning. Plus, I’ve already seen each episode so many times in syndication on TBS that I approximately know each story line very closely, making it easy to dip in and out.

Today, I finished the 230th-some episode, which means I’ve been watching Friends for over 90 hours. When you watch something for that long, you’re bound to have questions. I’ve discussed it with Mr. B, but now I’m putting these questions out into the world, since the show’s re-release hasn’t prompted that many  thinkpieces  (except for this one, this one, which is a whole DISSERTATION, and this one, which is a PODCAST. ):

  1. How the hell did Joey afford anything until he became Dr. Drake Ramoray full time? He lived in what was at least a $2100 apartment and regularly went out on dates, to the coffee shop, etc. For that matter, how did ANYONE afford anything? Rachel didn’t start making good money until 3 years in, Monica was only a second-rate chef until she started working at Alessandro’s, and Chandler had a lowly corporate job until he got promoted.
  2. How did Rachel get any of her jobs? She seems to be completely incompetent and is even fired when she interviews for Louis Vuitton. How did Ross get away with getting her a raise at Ralph Lauren? Additionally, how were any of her outfits work-appropriate? Also, it seems like she was wearing short skirts well into winter.
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  3. Why was Monica so selfish and and why did she let Chandler pay all of the money he saved from his job over years for the wedding?
  4. Why don’t they ever emphasize the fact that Monica, Ross, AND Rachel are Jewish? The fact that Rachel is Jewish is mentioned maybe once, even when it’s so obvious that she’s a JAP,  and in later episodes, Ross and Monica have Christmas trees. There is the Holiday Armadillo, but even in that, Hanukkah falls kind of by the wayside.
  5. Where are all the non-white people in the show? And I don’t just mean Charlie. Also, why was her name Charlie? WTF?
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  6. Why does Monica name her baby boy Jack after her dad if her mom and dad always favored Ross since he was a “medical miracle”? By the way, as a Jew, you’re not supposed to name babies after living relatives.
  7. Why does Phoebe marry Mike? He totally does not seem like her type, at all. He’s so straight-edged and she’s so zany. He seems very…corporate and bland. Paul Rudd is such a funny guy and he is so underutilized in the show, except in the episode where he plays piano.
  8. David also does not seem like Phoebe’s type, AT ALL.
  9. Rachel and Ross: It’s supposed to be the greatest romance in sitcom history, but I’m not feeling it. They have nothing in common, even when they were going out I didn’t find their relationship believable, and I found them getting back together totally impossible. I mean they couldn’t even live together when their daughter was born!
  10. Speaking of birth: There is no way you would not find out you’re having twins.
  11. How is Joey Ross’s best friend? He is totally not his type (i.e. stupid)  And how do Chandler and Ross not do more stuff together or seem closer? They were college roommates, so it only makes sense that they have more funny escapades than Ross and Joey.
  12. Also, based on the back story of the show: i.e. Ross and Monica are brother/sister, Rachel is Monica’s best friend from high school, and Chandler is Ross’s roommate, the four of them should be much closer than the other friends. They are not. Why?
  13. Why do they all call each other “Honey” so much?
  14. How was Matthew Perry allowed to gain weight so much through seasons 4-7?
  15. Why is Ross always making fashion mistakes (i.e. the girl’s shirt, the spray-tan, the white teeth, etc.) Do paleontologists even care about that?
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  16. None of them look 25 when the show starts.
  17. Why did Rachel and Monica never wear bras on the show? (no picture necessary)
  18. Chandler is in the field of big data before it’s known as big data. Why aren’t the Friends more impressed? Or even know what he does?
  19. Where is Ben in season 9 and 10? Free Ben! And poor Emma just basically feels like an afterthought in general.
  20. The duck and the chick: Why?Chick-and-Duck-Friends
  21. How was there not more cultural blowback about the jokes about Monica’s weight and Chandler constantly alluding to the fact that watching Miss Congeniality and enjoying musicals made him seem gay?
  22. Additionally, how did they all constantly make gay jokes but were accepting of Carol and Susan’s wedding?
  23. How were they all in the coffee shop at what was seemingly the middle of a work day for days on end?
  24. Seriously, how did Ross not get fired for sleeping with Elizabeth?
  25. And how did he even manage to get her? How did anyone in the show manage to have as many partners as they did?
  26. Why are all of their cultural references from, like, the 70s, when they were maybe 8 or 9 years old?
  27. How did Rachel have the mental energy to go through her pregnancy basically alone? Not to mention work a full-time high-powered job, and live in her friend’s ghetto apartment?
  28. Who decided that Chandler’s last name would be Bing?
  29. Why does Chandler date Janice  in the very beginning if he hates her?
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  30. How does Monica always have enough food to feed the random people that are constantly stopping by her apartment? And did her grandmother really paint the apartment purple?
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  31. How do none of the props in the apartment ever change, even though it’s 10 years later?
  32. Why were all the sets for the restaurants and anywhere that wasn’t the apartment/coffee shop so ugly?
  33. Joey and Rachel…seriously, what were they thinking with that story line?
  34. Why overalls?
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  35. Are Ross and Rachel still not over each other, six years later?
  36. Who reserves a table for 10 years?
  37. Why was every episode “The one about..”? The show is so mainstream it’s not smart enough to have sarcastic titles.
  38. How are they all so selfish? They basically hang out at the coffeehouse, Monica’s apartment, Joey’s apartment, and just complain about their own lives without any regard for others.
 

My favorite books of 2014

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I’ve always been kind of a homebody. But I have never wanted less to leave the house (and the couch) less  than when I was (still am……) pregnant.  In addition to buying tons of books, I also started commuting by car, which meant more time for audiobooks.

Because I was reading so much, I decided to make it my first year to do the Goodreads Challenge. Since I also luckily had a couple days off at the end of December, I was able to wrap up 52 books, a year’s worth of reading a week.  Here are my favorites of 2014 (not necessarily published this year,) in no particular order.

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Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

I listened to this as an audiobook when I started commuting to my new job in June, and the narrator’s voice really helped transport me to Nigeria. I was lucky enough to see Chimamanda live a couple years ago in DC, and she seemed just as gracious and interesting in person as she does in the book through her narrator, Ifemelu, who leaves behind Nigeria, and her first love, Obinze for the United States.

This book is more about what it’s like to be African (not African-American) in America and London than it is about either of the characters, I think. It’s a perspective I as a European white person could never have, so I was really interested in a lot of the observations she made, especially about African women’s hair, American academia, and politics. The other interesting part to me was the history of Nigeria, woven throughout the story.

Although, what was surprising to me was, that no matter how different of a background the author and I have had, we share a lot of the same outside views of America and Americans, leading me to believe that all immigrants to America are basically the same.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t identify at all with Ifemelu, the main character who decides to go to America after endless university strikes in Nigeria, leaving behind her one true love, Obinze She seemed cold to me at times and the life choices she made not predicated on anything but whims. But,  Chimamanda’s warm, playful voice flowed throughout, and Obinze was so real – he reminded me in a lot of ways of men I know in my own life.  A definite must-read if you’re looking to get a different perspective on America or start learning about Africa from what is, essentially, a series of blog posts.

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Gulp by Mary Roach

I don’t read a lot of nonfiction because I find it tends to be dry, but this book is most definitely not.  I’d heard about how lively of a writer Mary Roach is before, and this proved to be true. I had no idea what an alimentary canal even was before I started, but Gulp really goes in depth into what happens when you chew, in a way that’s not disgusting at all. I love all the research she did, but mostly the way she packaged it as entertaining and engaging. A true nerd’s book, probably best not to be read before your doctor’s appointments.

 

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The Magician’s Land by Lev Grossman

If you have not already read The Magicians and The Magician King, this book will not make any sense.  Also, why have you not read these books yet? They are the greatest new fantasy books to come out since The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman. I feel very strongly about this.  If you have read them, it will be like returning to an old friend. Grossman has this way of writing certain passages that will imprint them in your memory. I’m still thinking about Mayakovsky and the whales.  By the way, you don’t need to love fantasy to love these books-just be interested in real, flawed people making choices.

 

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Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan

I used to have an economics professor from Singapore who was one of the hardest professors I’ve ever had, also one of the cheekiest and most fun. Aside from what she told us about the canings, I knew almost next to nothing about Singapore, or the rich people of Singapore, before I read this book. Don’t let the chick lit-y book cover fool you.  There is A LOT to learn within.

The plot involves a rich Singaporean dude who hides how rich he is, lives modestly in New York, and has to go back to his insanely rich, spoiled family for a wedding with his girlfriend, who is Asian-American, and knows nothing about his background or culture. It’s a really fun plot, and a really fun read. I hesitate to call it chick lit because it’s definitely not and delves into some serious issues about wealth, fitting into families, eccentricies and secrets, etc, but it’s that kind of flavor-light, gossipy, fluffy, with lots of brands bandied about, and a huge sense of humor. This one went very quickly.

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The Orenda by Joseph Boyden

I bought this book in the Montreal airport coming back from a conference, because I’d heard that it was a huge deal in Canada and it was plastered over every book stall. It is an Enormous book, not in the page-count sense of the word, but what’s within, and it’s written by someone with enormous talent.  Written from the perspective of a Huron warrior, an Iroquois girl, and a French Jesuit priest kidnapped by the Huron tribe, it delves into both personal and enormous national history in the 1700s in Canada. The chapters give no indication of who is narrating at any given time, but that’s the book’s biggest skill – the writer is so good, you can tell who’s speaking within a matter of sentences.

I was hugely drawn into the world of Huron culture – the research done was meticulous. The most amazing part was that I came away with the book not being able to hate either side, in spite of the atrocities done to each other.

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The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri

I resisted this book just because it’s been hyped so much in the press, and I’ve already been let down by The Goldfinch and a couple of other blockbusters, but Lahiri delivers. It is so powerful. I wanted to cry in several places. She knows exactly how to write to elicit responses from the reader that make you think, “This is how I feel about my family, too,” especially if you’re an immigrant.

The first half of the book, about the Naxalite movement, which I didn’t even know existed until I read Lowland, was riveting. The second half, about living in America in the aftermath of decisions made decades ago, was a bit more static and seemed to lose steam at the end, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t pick it up. There is a lot in here to take away, about how we make life choices and compromises, about what’s important to us, about what family means, and about death. All the makings of a Lifetime special, if Lifetime weren’t stupid.

 

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Swamplandia by Karen Russell

I loved Russell’s short story collection, and I loved this book too. It is just so weird and creepy and quirky and shining, like a small jewel. Russell’s word choice is nothing short of amazing, and the way she manages to make the swamps of southern Florida a magical place where reality blends with otherwordly elements is to be savored. The characters are sympathetic and it’s easy to identify with them. It’s not quite magical realism, and it’s not quite not.

 

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The Middlesteins by Jami Attenberg

Another book I held off on because it’s just gotten too much praise. I need to stop doing that. It was good. It’s about a Jewish woman, Edie, who is nearing 60 and just can’t stop eating to save her life. Everyone calls this a Jewish book but I really think it’s more about American suburbia, how it impacts people, and families in general, how they react to certain things, how different family members view disturbances in the family and deal with them. It’s not quite funny in the way reviews say it is, but it is very heartfelt.

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The Marrying of Chani Kaufman by Eve Harris

This is definitely a Jewish Book. Written about the Hassidic/Orthodox community in London, it takes the reader inside a world they would otherwise not be allowed to enter. I’ve been to this world in other books, such as Shalom Auslander’s, but the author here is not cruel or gawping, just kind and introspective. It’s written from several perspectives -that of a new bride about to get married, the groom, the rabbi’s wife, the rabbi’s son, and others knitting their way in and out. The characters make you feel sorry for them and frustrated with their life choices, but at the same time, you are rooting for all of them to come out ok.

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What It is Like to Go To War by Karl Marlantes

A must-read for getting behind the headlines of Afghanistan and Iraq, to the individual psychology of the soldier. Marlantes, who served in Vietnam, is not saying every soldier feels this way, but that the system is designed to make most soldiers act a certain way. He also goes into great detail why we need to take better care of our soldiers once they come home. Reads almost like fiction, but, unfortunately, is the truth.

Previous years: 
2013
2011