Dealing with Culture Shock – Don’t Isolate

Many experts describe culture shock as a psycho-physical phenomenon that presents in 4-5 stages: Honeymoon, Negotiation/Depression, Adjustment, Mastery, and Re-entry. One of my colleagues, however, thinks of it as something more akin to bi-polarity with fluctuating periods of enchantment/excitement and frustration/homesickness. So far, my experience has been conforming mostly to that latter model. It’s been mostly positive, but there have been some intense bouts of acute stress and anxiety that have sent me reaching for the prescription bottle in the last three weeks. The pattern that colleague described supposedly plays out over long periods, but the fluctuations have felt more rapid to me, cycling from high to low in as little as hours. This past week was especially difficult due to apartment search drama, about which I may say more if I can find a way to make it interesting.

There are, of course, ways to cope with the fairly inevitable sense of disorientation that comes from adjusting to a new environment, be it a new country, job, or school (or in my case, all three). But one of the hardest pieces of advice to apply, I think, if you are an introvert or have a history of depression (or both) is to resist the urge to isolate. When it’s difficult to communicate, when the environment is intimidating and draining, the pull of solitude is incredibly powerful. At least it is for me. Solitude is my way of recuperating and restoring myself. At my healthiest, it is the best, most effective form of self-care that I can practice. So, it’s difficult sometimes to recognize when I shouldn’t be doing it.

Moving to a new country and getting situated in a new job is definitely not the time to turn inward. This is a mistake I made early on in graduate school and one I’m trying not to repeat now. Intimidated by people who seemed so much smarter than me and an academic environment so different from what I was accustomed to or expected, I pretty much never went out. And it meant that while I had some friends, I felt cut off from the social life of my department most of the time. When you repeatedly turn down invitations, people tend to stop asking you to go out drinking with them. And that–rather than classes–tends to be where a lot of people do their bonding.

This is why three Friday nights in a row I’ve done the unthinkable and gotten half in the bag with nearly complete strangers instead of succumbing to the desire to go take a bath and fall asleep watching Netflix. This is why tonight I forced myself to stay at a party and make small talk for longer than was comfortable. And to my surprise, I haven’t regretted those choices, even when it meant racing to catch the metro before it closed at 1:00 am. I think perhaps it will take someone with a similar temperament to mine to understand what a big deal this is, how unnatural it feels to cope with the stress of moving into a new apartment and adjusting to a new set of students and trying to manage the various and occasionally bewildering differences between the US and Russia by seeking people out rather than turning inward.

I have never and still do not see my strong tendency toward introversion as a liability or a defect. If anything, it fosters a sense of autonomy that makes certain parts of this transition easier. But navigating this whole process does also require me to draw on interpersonal resources that I, and many like me, am not accustomed to developing or utilizing.


Putting My Social Media House in Order

I’m juggling a lot of different platforms right now and am trying to figure out what works best for what. For for foreseeable future, I will continue using this blog for more extended pieces, illustrated with occasional photos. If you are interested, however, in more pictures and shorter tidbits about Moscow life, follow me on Tumblr and/or Instagram.

The Russian Diet

(TW: Diets, ED)

I have been here for almost exactly a week, so n=whatever here, but one of the most interesting differences I’ve noticed coming from the US to Russia is an almost complete lack of a visible diet and fitness culture. I’m sure there are teenage models starving themselves somewhere. And you can find health clubs and yoga studios on just about every block, but I have yet to see anyone walking around the city in gym clothes, much less jogging (an activity that is probably only feasible a few months a year anyway). There is no health food section in the grocery store, and I have yet to see a Power Bar. Heck, you are lucky if you get nutrition facts on food labels.

And as someone who finds American diet culture exhausting, demoralizing, exploitative, and most likely counter-productive, this is pretty refreshing. I came here from Dallas, where every other billboard is advertising a weight loss clinic or bariatric surgery and the phenomenal barbecue and Tex-Mex comes with a heaping side of “you are horrible and disgusting.” Here, people–fat and skinny people–order desert whenever they want without so much as an “oh, I skipped lunch” attempt at justification. It probably says a lot about where I am coming from that I was surprised–shocked even–to see one of my lunch companions order ice cream after the meal and then have an afternoon coffee buddy do the exact same thing that same day. People just seem to eat whatever sounds good, and food and body shame don’t permeate the very atmosphere quite like they do in the US.

I went hunting, and a 2005 article in Pravda suggests that this actually a thing. As in most of the world, obesity rates (and obesity alarmism) are on the rise in Russia, though it is behind most Western countries and (interestingly) appears to be more prevalent in rural areas than in cities where fast food is widely available. This article attributes the rising obesity rates to the adoption of the more modern, sedentary lifestyle. Though, the author notes:

Russians have not adopted another aspect, though – a critical attitude towards themselves. June Stevens and his colleagues from University of North Carolina found out that Russian teenagers suffer from obesity as much as American kids do. Unlike Americans, Russian people do not acknowledge that they are fat.

The article obliquely suggests that this is a problem, and I’ve found others that argue that this push toward modernization must include more education about nutrition and changes to traditional Russian diets that tend to be high in sugar and animal fat. But as someone who comes straight from the heart of Diet and Fitness Nation, who grew up less than a mile from Cooper Clinic and has been indoctrinated since birth into Health Culture, who knows how to count calories and carbs and does vigorous exercise 4-5 times a week and is still technically “overweight,” I think the Russians calling for this sort of thing had better be careful what they wish for. Because educating people about the benefits of eating well and moving around is fine. And I have to say that the availability of fresh produce and amenability of this city to outdoor activity during warm weather is phenomenal and probably unmatched by anything I’ve seen in any large American city. I mean it, there is a fruit and veg stand on like every corner. There are even dudes selling it in the metro (though I probably wouldn’t buy from them). More of that, please.

But if, as it does in the US, “awareness” about healthy living has to come with a helping of shame-based “motivation,” I think Russia could do without. For me and most other Americans, waking up every morning feeling like shit about ourselves hasn’t made us any thinner. Today, while I was eating lunch, I saw a group of very well-dressed, put together middle aged women order a three-course meal with vodka shots. And I’d like to be them when I’m 60 rather than still feeling like a monster for eating so much bread. 

Language Barriers, Introversion, and the Status of English

There are many practical difficulties involved in trying to function day-to-day in a language that you don’t speak or understand well, even if you speak or understand a little. There’s ordering in restaurants and making sure you got the right change at the grocery store, of course. And things get additionally complicated when you are trying to get a mobile phone or talk to a potential landlord. 

But there’s problems that arise that don’t necessarily seem obvious on the surface, and I’ll venture to say that they are additionally stressful if you are naturally pretty introverted and are taxed by social interactions in general. If you add a dose of needing a bit too badly for every single person to like you and judge you kindly to that, it’s even worse. Because going out every day and living life in a country where you can’t communicate all that well means learning to cope with the fact that you are going to sometimes be perceived as unintelligent, that people are going to get frustrated with you, and that you aren’t going to be able to read people and adapt to interpersonal interactions in the way that you are used to. 

I learned enough Russian before coming here to make life significantly easier than if I hadn’t. But because of lack of exposure to native speakers and my learning style, I read and write it a lot better than I speak and understand it. So over the past few days, virtually every time someone has come at me in Russian, I’ve just sort of frozen and either looked at the person accompanying me or stammered out, “Я не говорю по-русский” (I don’t speak Russian). I’m assured that this will improve substantially in a few months time. But in the meantime, it takes a little bit extra effort to go do normal stuff because in addition to the hassles of trying to communicate, I have to confront a sense of exposure, vulnerability, and ineptitude that is distinctly uncomfortable. I suppose that’s what makes this a character-building experience.

I have to keep in mind, however, that English is in many ways an aspirational language. In just a few days, I’ve had multiple Russians tell me I don’t really need much Russian to get by and to express wonder that more young people in this country don’t learn it. I was hired to help Russian college students become better writers in English because it’s a critical competency that they need if they want to enter the international academic and business communities. “English is the language of the world,” one person–who speaks five languages–said in response to my lament that American students receive relatively little foreign language education.

It’s perhaps for that reason that my interactions with Russians have involved more confusion and awkwardness than outright hostility (though I’m sure there will be some of that eventually). No one on Russian television has said that these Americans should learn Russian or go back to their own country. And while xenophobia is a thing here and there surely are those who hold that sentiment, I think that does suggest something about the relative privilege native English-speakers experience.

David Sedaris said in one of his books that there are two types of French: hard French and easy French. Hard French involves the conjugation of verbs and memorization of vocabulary. Easy French is just English spoken slowly and loudly in a French person’s face. The sense of entitlement that informs Easy French isn’t something I identify with. And that’s not because I’m such a good person. It’s because I am an awkward person who cares too much about what people think of me. Still, this experience makes me think about the foreign visitors and immigrants and exchange students I’ve encountered back in the U.S. who have had very little English and the exasperated attitudes I’ve heard expressed by all sorts of people, including fellow educators. It sucks to think that I might be the target of that sort of hostility, even if it isn’t expressed.

So, if you encounter someone who doesn’t speak English (or whatever) all that well, consider that this is a person who is not just struggling with the inconvenience of trying to get stuff done. Recall that this is a person who may also be experiencing a very profound sense of alienation from other human beings due to the difficulty of reading other people’s intonations and moods, of feeling heard and understood and not judged. This is not (necessarily) an unintelligent or lazy person. Learning a new language is hard and takes a long time (and English is a monster), and this person just needs some signals that you are on their side. It makes a big difference when someone else is willing to laugh at the awkwardness and just bumble along with you and point you in the right direction in a non-condescending way. 

Moscow – Days 2 and 3

Jet lag is not a joke, ya’ll. I’m sleeping at night, which is a plus, but it’s in four hour chunks from roughly 6 pm to 7 am. I can tell my body needs food, but absolutely nothing sounds good. And I have a headache all the time. Lucky for me, my employer has kept my social calendar very full, so I haven’t had a lot of time to feel sorry for myself.

On Saturday, the International Office hired an undergrad to teach me how to be an adult in Moscow. He showed me grocery and drug stores, gave me recommendations for not-too-expensive restaurants, and we discussed such essential diplomatic issues such as which English words sound sort of like Russian profanities and vice versa. We also went to get a SIM card for my phone, where I learned that in spite of all its egregious problems with civil liberties, Russia is a veritable land of the free when it comes to telecommunications services. There’s none of this signing over your life for two years in exchange for a discounted smartphone. You’re expected to pay full price for the phone itself (and a lot more for American models), but in exchange you get extremely cheap, fast, and flexible phone and data plans. You can change rates and/or carriers any time you want, and it costs like 20 bucks a month, as opposed to the 150 we’re paying in the United States. Of course, first, I had to get my three-year old iPhone released from AT&T’s proprietary stranglehold, which took three tries, even though our contract has been complete for over a year.

IMG_0649 IMG_0651 IMG_0659 IMG_0665 My twenty-year old guide said you can tell a Muscovite by whether or not they have been to the Tretyakov Gallery, a gallery entirely comprised of Russian art through the centuries. Moscow natives, as a rule, have never been. Like most major landmarks in big cities, it’s a tourist attraction. So, naturally, he took me there (said guide is from the sticks himself and had just taken an art history class and really wanted to go). It was, indeed, swarming with tourists, but there was also quite a lot of gorgeous art.

I like the religious art quite a bit, though looking at icon after icon from the medieval period can get rather monotonous. I think my favorites from the Tretyakov were the genre paintings from the nineteenth century, which are moody and dynamic and violent.

IMG_0725On Sunday, my guides were another faculty member and his wife, who are from Siberia and Belarus respectively but who both went to university in North Carolina. Moscow contains a surprising amount of green space. Virtually every neighborhood has some kind of park. Stas and Tanya took us to one of their favorites, Kolomenskoye, which contains several old churches and used to be the site of the summer palace of Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich, father of Peter the Great, before it burned to the ground. It probably didn’t help that the palace was built entirely of wood, as most buildings in Moscow were back in the day. Happily, at some point, they built a replica of of it (complete with a bathhouse), so you can see exactly how the tsars lived in the sixteenth century. Just outside, we had kvas (a mildly alcoholic fermented grain beveraged) and blini (Russian crepes).

IMG_0713Kolomenskoye is also in the middle of a honey festival, where you can walk into a tent and go to stand after stand and sample local honey and things made from local honey. Because I am a philistine, the only honey I’ve ever had is the stuff that comes out of the bear and that you buy at HEB, so this was something of a revelation. Artisanal honey is apparently like fine wine or beer. Even samples of the same type and preparation taste different depending on the farm.

In Moscow parks, they do not mind if you walk on the grass, and they also do not mind if you climb right up into the trees and pick the apples that are starting to turn ripe right about now. So we did that, though the easiest trees with the ripest apples had already been picked pretty clean. I think it’s been about 20 years since I last climbed a tree.


Moscow – Day 1

So, like, what day is it right now? This crossing 10 time zones thing is kind of a beast. I’m experiencing Memento-levels of disorientation here where whenever I wake up, I have to kind of do an inventory to figure out what the hell is going on.

But jet lag aside, Day One of my journey was wonderful. And by Day One, I’m referring to the roughly 36 hour period of non-stop wakefulness that concluded at 8:00 pm Moscow time when I finally passed out.

Except for the sheer amount of time it took, the trip here from the US was uneventful. I need to get in a glowing review of Singapore Airlines, which has completely ruined domestic US air travel for me. I mean, you walk onto the plane, and the air is perfumed. There is a pillow and blanket waiting for you at your seat. Prior to takeoff, they pass out hot towels to everyone. The booze is free, even in coach (Paul, the new NES intern and fellow Longhorn who was on the same flight, tried to drink his way through the menu and was not in great shape when we arrived). The food is edible. At one point, they give you a pair of fuzzy socks in a little Givenchy bag. Despite all of this pampering, I didn’t sleep a wink. I blame the in-flight entertainment system. Each seat has a little screen loaded with dozens of current movies and television shows, including complete seasons of Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead. I was honestly a little disappointed when we landed.

Russian passport control and customs were surprisingly efficient, and my bags were already out and helpfully grouped together on the floor when we got to baggage claim. Good on you, Moscow Domodedovo. Paul the Intern and I were greeted by a driver and representative from the New Economic School, and we immediately got a taste of Moscow traffic, which is like New York traffic but with fewer rules.

My employer is putting me up in a temporary apartment in the Zamoskvorechye District while I look for a permanent place to live. Quick geography lesson: Moscow is laid out in a series of concentric circles that radiate out from the Kremlin. I am currently staying inside what’s called the Garden Ring, the oldest part of the city.

Moscow mapBy the time I was left to my own devices, it was about 3:00 pm. I decided to combat jet lag by staying up until an hour that more closely resembled nighttime (I made it to 8:00). Also, I was super hungry, so did what I like to do in most strange cities: I picked a direction and just started walking (it was totally safe, I promise).

On my walk, I figured out how to turn my dollars into rubles (easy with an ATM card) and how to spend them (even easier, as a latte costs the equivalent of about 7 bucks). I went into a few stores and cafes to see what was available and to practice my terrible Russian, only to discover that a lot of people know at least some English. I spent my time in line at a coffee shop mentally practicing my order, and when I cheerfully fumbled through it, the barista just smiled at me like “what an adorable moron” and asked, “For here or to go?”

This area of Moscow is pretty much everything you could possible want from a European city. The streets are charming and lined with charming, tiny eurocars. The young people are impossibly hip, and I saw at two fashion photo shoots in progress on a roughly 3 mile walk. There is an open-air market right outside my apartment building, where I bought fresh fruit, pastries, and tea for tomorrow’s breakfast. There was an entire kiosk just for caviar (икра).

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There is a dizzying mix of the ultra-modern and stuff that’s older than anything in the US. And around every corner, you stumble over things like this:

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I walked in the general direction of the Moskva River and suddenly realized that on the horizon, I could see the domes of St. Basil’s Cathedral and the outline of the Kremlin. It’s impossible to convey through crappy iPhone pictures just how breathtaking this was.


I promised Ed I wouldn’t go see the big stuff without him, so at this point, I started heading back. On the way, I turned down a pedestrian-only street near the Tretyakov Gallery and found this little impromptu concert and just stopped to relax and listen for awhile. Over where I was sitting, a group of dudes who looked very high were dancing and playing bongo drums. I was just high on sleep deprivation, but this somehow felt like the perfect way to cap off the day. It somehow felt like Moscow and Austin all at the same time.

Purse Tacos and Other Travel Disasters

True story: I actually really enjoy air travel, which is a good thing, because I have been doing a lot of it lately. Time spent on an airplane always feels like the epitome of free time, the perfect excuse to read a book for pleasure or shotgun a whole season of Portlandia on my iPad because what the hell else am I going to do? Work? Psssshh. It’s not that I don’t do those things on the ground. It’s just that I feel a lot less guilty because the range of possible activities I can perform at that moment has been narrowed to a list that mostly includes my very favorite things. Even waiting around in an airport isn’t all that bad, provided the available food options are passable and I’m not trying to be somewhere at a specific time.

That said, having nearly completed a summer travel itinerary that has gone from Austin to Birmingham to Austin to Denver to Austin to Dallas to Boston to Denver to Boston to New York to Dallas to Moscow, there’s been some inevitable…discomfort. Two weeks ago, I got to spend the night in Logan Airport. On the trip to and from Birmingham, I got to experience Houston IAH’s B-terminal, where someone had actually been shot and killed a few weeks prior. More specifically, I got to hang out at gate B-84, which has the most awesome Foursquare reviews I have ever seen. “IAH flight crews call the B-84 gates the ‘litterbox,'” says one. And of course, I’ve had my baggage lost twice by Delta.

But that’s fine. Because last summer set the bar travel disasters in my life in a way that makes pretty much everything else seem manageable. I think I would have to actually be detained by Homeland Security in order to top it.

This was one of those tragedies that was slow to unfold, and as with all the things that ruin your life, the consequences of what happened wouldn’t really start to become apparent for days after the precipitating event. See, as my family does every summer, we were visiting a Colorado ranch owned by some family friends. And one of the highlights of this ranch experience is the food. The menu has been carefully honed and perfected for decades by a woman named Sue who is married to the spitting image of the Marlboro man and who looks like, if she needed to, she could field dress the animals she cooked herself and also churn the butter. This food is unbelievable.

Tuesday afternoon at this ranch is always a Southwestern/Mexican buffet. Being from Texas, I am critical, but this buffet is very good. I should mention also that this ranch attracts families with small children. And often those small children are accompanied by adults with very little common sense. Otherwise, I can’t imagine why it would have occurred to this one gentlemen that it would be a good idea for a four year old to carry a heaping plate of tacos back to his table all by himself. I think you see where this is going. Said child tripped and spilled the entire plate directly into my open bag, which was sitting right next to me. I mean, he scored a perfect hit. This was one of those bags I use for travel that has all kinds of useful pockets and stuff, and the taco ingredients were in all of them. It was a miracle of physics.

The adult accompanying this child just kind of stood there while my husband escorted me away so that I wouldn’t drop the f-bomb in front of a toddler. Outside, I cleaned guacamole and sour cream out of the grooves around my iPhone and determined that pretty much everything else in the bag was destroyed, including the bag itself. Taco meat juice doesn’t age well in a purse.

When we left the ranch, my sister gathered up all our trash and picked up the bag–which, if you recall, had a lot of pockets–along with everything else. If you think you know where all of this is headed, I congratulate you. I did not. It was only as we were pulling up to Denver International Airport that I realized that I was missing my driver’s license and the key to our car, which was in a parking lot at Austin-Bergstrom Airport. Oh, also our house keys. And my university ID. These were all critical items that I keep in a specific pocket when I travel so that they’re, you know, safe. This was the pocket I forgot to clean out.

Like any right thinking human being, I first turned on my husband. And when yelling, “Did you clean out that pocket??!?!?!11” over and over didn’t change the situation, I rapidly progressed through the next few stages of grief. This realization, if you recall, happened as we were pulling up to the terminal, so I walked straight to a Southwest agent to ask what you do if you lose your photo ID. It turns out, you can get through security, but you have to be grilled by a TSA agent for a while and explain to him that your ID is missing because purse tacos. Lucky for me, I am a white lady.

While standing in the security line, I called the Mazda dealership to try to figure out how to get a new key for our car. Turns out, it costs $300. Oh, and we’d have to have the car towed. And we’d have to wait until Monday to do that because this was Saturday evening, and they are closed on Sunday. At the same time, I placed a call to Barb, who works at the ranch office and who was appropriately horrified when I told her what had happened and informed us that the trash hadn’t been collected yet, so there was hope.

When we arrived at our gate, it turned out our flight was delayed, which gave me time to connect with my sister and find out exactly what she had done with the bag and to relay to Barb the excellent news that she didn’t actually need to go dumpster diving. The bag was retrieved, and they promised to FedEx my IDs and keys Monday morning. That was the last break we would get the rest of the night.

A 45 minute delay turned into a 5 hour delay, which meant, of course, that we would have missed our connection in Phoenix. Our only option was to go to Houston and from there to fly to Austin first thing the next morning. I had to be back for something at noon the next day. I may have yelled at the gate agent.

So we went to Houston, where we slept in our clothes for four hours in a terrible hotel before repeating the whole “I don’t have photo ID because, see, four year old and tacos” show once again. It took longer this time, but my white privilege and I did eventually make it through. And we did make it back to Austin, where we had to rent a car, drive to my sister’s apartment so that we could get their spare key to our house, go home, and figure out that a spare key to our car probably existed if we could just find it.  Fortunately we did, though I had to go fulfill my noon commitment and we wound up not returning the rental car or retrieving our car until much later in the evening.

So kids, the morals of this story are: Beware toddlers carrying Tex-Mex. Check all  the pockets. And most importantly, get the four year old’s dad to pay to replace the bag, no matter how old and ratty it is. Because the fiasco might just wind up costing you a couple hundred in FedEx and car rental costs.

The Biography of a Dissertation Chapter

The Moscow move approacheth. I depart on Thursday with The Husband following a few weeks later. Blogging has been sporadic because I have heretofore been incapable of tackling creative problems more demanding than, “How many of these books and clothing items can I live without for a couple of months while I wait for our shipped items to travel to the other side of the planet and clear customs at multiple borders?” This, however, is a post I have been meaning to write, and there was a new development today, so I might as well go with it. 

I think even seasoned writers need reminders of just how intense and even repetitive the revision process can be for pieces that actually get published. One time when I was doing a revision workshop for a freshman comp class, I brought in the six extant drafts of my dissertation prospectus, each covered with advisor comments to make a point. The point was that at multiple points during the production of a successful piece of work, you are probably going to want to put your eyes out with a fork. This is normal.

In about a month, I’ll finally see my third article–which originated as a dissertation chapter–in print. Without a question, this is the piece of work I’m the most excited about, but also without question, it has been the most labor-intensive. In order to remind myself that I don’t completely suck and to show ailing grad students out there just how normal this sort of thing is, here is the story of how my beloved monstrosity was brought into the world.

July-August 2011 – During my first research trip to Boston, I made a significant finding that ruined my plans for the dissertation chapter I thought I was writing but turned into something way more awesome. In a sort of fugue state, I hammered out multiple drafts (probably 3-4) of a 14,000 word chapter in two weeks, edited the rest of my dissertation, and sent it all off to my co-chairs before my 5 week stay was up. I felt like a freaking god.

September 2011 – Co-chairs make a bunch of suggestions for small changes but deem the dissertation defensible. Graduate Advisor pushes for Fall semester defense in order to make it for certain job market deadlines.

November 2011 – Dissertation is successfully defended. Committee members note that because of the sharp left turn my research took in the summer, that chapter no longer really fits the rest of the project in terms of scope and methodology. They suggest publishing it as a stand alone article instead of including it in book revisions.

January – February 2012 – I work with a committee member who is enthusiastic about that chapter to turn it into an article submission. It goes through a couple of additional drafts (we’re at like 7 or 8 now) in which I strengthen it’s claims, explain central concepts for non-experts, and completely rewrite the first third and the conclusion Because we are planning to submit it to a flagship journal with no length limits, I add a new section based on more recent reading. 

March 2012 – Major scholar in the sub-field gets wind of my project from a couple of sources and requests the article for a special journal issue to appear in Fall 2013. The special issue topic is a perfect fit for this research, and multiple mentors advise me to go ahead with it. 

April – June 2012 – I revise the article again to better suit the theme of the special issue and to speak more directly to the concerns of scholars in that sub-field rather than to a more general audience. I submit my “final” draft to the editor well ahead of the deadline.

January – February 2013 – Editor gets back to me with several suggestions and asks for the changes in six weeks. I go ahead and make them, and the editor is pleased with the results.

May 2013 – Editor has bad news: the amount of space available for the special issue was radically overestimated, and in order to keep costs in line, the journal is asking all contributors to get their submissions under 11,000. At this point, my article is 18,000, which is an absurd length, but I was so close to getting away with it. I am also in the midst of selling/giving away most of my earthly possessions, submitting final grades, planning another research trip and an international move, and having a nervous breakdown. This latest development becomes the topic of my next couple of therapy sessions, and for two weeks, I’m sort of paralyzed by the whole thing, unable to look at the article without wanting to cry.

June 2013 – I finally finish making the cuts, and admittedly, the article is better for it. I remove certain sections that were admittedly digressive and indulgent entirely. I streamline some paragraphs and remove extraneous examples. I combine sentences and paragraphs to say the same thing with fewer words. The very apologetic editor is again pleased with the results.

August 2013 – The journal editor (different guy, reads this blog apparently – Hi, Tim!emails me the publication contract and a list of minor changes that need to be made before the thing goes to press. This is what I’ll be doing on the 12 hour flight to Moscow. 

So that’s like 14 drafts or something. I don’t even know anymore. Because I’m a psycho, I save a lot of intermediate drafts (though not all of them) as new files. One day, I might print them all out and show a class to make a point. That point will be that writing and professoring are stupid things to do for a career if you want to keep your sanity. But somehow, sometimes, it’s kind of worth it. 

The Book of Mormon and the Delicate Balance of Religious Satire

(I saw The Book of Mormon on Broadway last weekend, and I have a lot of thoughts. Assume that there will be spoilers below.)

1289926514-Mark TwainUnbeknownst to most modern readers, Samuel Clemens spent most of his final decade on earth obsessing and writing about a small religious movement that seemed to be taking the world by storm: Christian Science. In a series of articles that were published in book form in 1907 under the title Christian Science and in an unfinished short story that Clemens thought of as a sequel to A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court and called, I shit you not, “The Secret History of Eddypus, World Empire,” the pre-eminent American satirist had a heaping ball of fun at the expense of Mary Baker Eddy’s followers but also just at people in general.

Finding it at best unfunny and at worst incoherent, most scholarly readers tend to set this particular part of Twain’s opus aside and back away very slowly. Without understanding the complex debates about religion and religious freedom in which the writer was engaging, these texts remain nearly incomprehensible to the twenty-first century reader. Granted, many of Clemens’s contemporaries thought so too. While his critique of Eddy was uncompromising, Twain refused to conform to the prevailing public narratives about Christian Science. Having tried just about every form of non-traditional medical treatment available during his lifetime, dared to take seriously their claims about spiritual healing (as did William James). Likewise, he rejected the positivist narrative that linked religion as a whole to ignorance that could simply be combated with secular knowledge and instead linked Christian Science to recursive historical cycles of human fallibility in a way that implicated both religion and (small “s”) science.

The_Book_of_Mormon_posterThe point is that though religion in general offers plenty of fodder for ridicule, good religious satire is really, really hard, a comedic problem that even one of the most successful humorists in American history struggled to render intelligible to his audience in a way that was both funny and honest. And that is why what Trey Parker and Matt Stone manage to accomplish in The Book of Mormon is perhaps nothing short of miraculous and why it is one of the most poignant and insightful things I have ever seen on Broadway in addition to being really, really funny.

Recognizing hat when it comes to the truth claims of the Latter Day Saints, they are dealing with low-hanging fruit, Parker and Stone take what could have been a succession of easy jokes and instead reflect on issues of faith and religious exceptionalism through a story that treats the spiritual and material struggles of all of its characters as both comedic and entirely serious and real. And that’s why, I think, it has managed to capture the imaginations of both religious and non-religious people in spite of its epic profanity (the refrain of one song is literally just “Fuck You, God” over and over and over again, and at one point, Jesus has a boner) in ways that Bill Maher just never will.

The protagonist of The Book of Mormon is Elder Price, a Mormon golden boy from Salt Lake City who thinks of himself as a protagonist in every possible way. About to embark on his two year mission, he sees the experience as an opportunity to continue proving himself worthy to God by being awesome. The people he is allegedly going to help and his companion, Elder Cunningham, are merely supporting players in the ongoing drama of his life. Naturally, the script he has written for himself gets disrupted when it turns out that Elder Cunningham is a nerdy beta male with a compulsive lying problem and that they are being assigned, not to Orlando, but to an impoverished Ugandan village where 80% of the population has HIV and a warlord who shoots people in the face and demands that all women be circumcised.

Trained to believe that his sacred texts offer answers to all of life’s possible problems, Elder Price is unprepared for the fact that nothing he has to say about a dude who dug up some golden plates in upstate New York has is even remotely relevant to the bleak circumstances of these people’s lives. And he is equally disillusioned by the fact that his Mormon brethren have nothing to offer him in the face of his doubt but the recommendation to “Turn it Off” (in my opinion, the funniest number in the entire musical), just as they do with pesky problems like being attracted to other men and being forced to contemplate their own mortality.

Elder Price’s subsequent melt down essentially ushers him out of the limelight, and his character development happens in the background as other characters start to come to the front. One of these is Nabalungi, the daughter of the village leader, who thinks that maybe these white guys and their weird religion will offer them a path toward a better life. The other is Elder Cunningham, who due to his partner’s hasty exist, is in a position to play missionary to the villagers. The problem is that he has never read The Book of Mormon and gives in to the impulse to start making shit up when someone asks him why, exactly, God thinks FGM is bad. What results is a village full of converts to a weird religion that is a hybrid that is part Joseph Smith, part JRR Tolkein, and part George Lucas in a kind of absurdist redux of the LDS origin story. But, of course, because that religion is tailored for them, it is actually relevant to their immediate circumstances.

But what is remarkable is that while there is plenty of absurdity to be had, the text never treats any of these characters–from the impossibly naive Elder Price to the increasingly megalomaniacal Elder Cunningham to the benighted Nabalungi and her family–as contemptible.  They are presented sympathetically with inner lives worthy of taking seriously. There are extremely thorny issues of race, gender, and the consequences of imperialism, but Parker and Stone manage to convey the horrors of, say, rape, while also making jokes about it. It is a particularly vertiginous kind of balancing act that feels like it could come crashing to earth at any second but somehow never does precisely because they manage to remember that these are people who deserve our empathy. So, you can have a song in which a group of Mormon teenagers, elated by the number of baptisms they have racked up (though they have no idea why), sing “We Are Africa” with all of the gross ethnocentrism and exceptionalism that implies, and yet they are never exactly villainous. Likewise, when Elder Price returns to sing “I Believe” in the moment where he re-commits to his inherited vision of Mormonism just before his final fall, he can say a bunch of weird stuff (“I believe that the Garden of Eden was in Jackson County, Missouri”) without becoming an object of ridicule.

And the same goes for the Ugandans who, to the surprise of both the Mormons and Nabalungi, interpreted pretty much everything Elder Cunningham said in the light of myth and metaphor. Her disillusionment and anger with the fact that she was lied to is real and justified, but her community has transformed the message into something so much bigger than their dubious prophet. The play essentially takes the Jamesian position that what matters about religion isn’t its truth claims but the affective resources it gives both to the individual and the collective to rise above circumstances, resist oppression, make ethical choices, and form interpersonal bonds. The Ugandans, along with the Mormon missionaries who have been soundly rebuked by the Mission President, create a new religious community that, like the original Latter Day Saints, exists outside of institutional structures and remains intensely meaningful despite the improbability of its origins.

This is a height of comedy and profundity that something like Religulous will just never be able to attain. Because what works about this musical, like what works about most comedy that has to do with religion, is that its sense of the ridiculous is mingled with genuine affection both for the Mormons and for the Broadway tropes it satirizes.


How to Get a Russian Work Visa

I finally got my visa application to FedEx yesterday. I thought I’d post everything I needed/did here just because:

(Disclaimer: this assumes that you are employed in Russia and that your employer will be providing you with an invitation. This is not the procedure for getting a tourist visa, which is far less complicated)

1. Apply for/renew your passport. Your passport must be good for at least six months after you plan to leave Russia. Recommended: make scans of all your passport pages, since it will be out of your hands for a couple of weeks while your visa is processed.

2. When you get your passport, ask for extra photos if they don’t already give them to you. You will need two for your visa. However, if you are using an existing passport, go have extra photos taken. 

3. Gather official documents, including:

       a. Diplomas for all baccalaureate/post-bac degrees

       b. Marriage license for accompanying spouse

       c. Birth certificates for accompanying children

All of these documents need what is called an “apostille,” which certifies these documents as legit for all Hague Convention countries. Apostilles in the United States are obtained through the Secretary of State/Commonwealth for the state in which you live (some documents, such as marriage licenses and and birth certificates have to be apostilled in the state in which they were issued, but I was able to get my BA from a college in Virginia certified by the Texas SOS, and it was no big deal). In general, what you need to do is:

        a. Make photocopies of your diplomas (you do NOT want to send your originals) and have               them notarized. You can have this done at the UPS store for seven bucks.

        b. Obtain copies of children’s birth certificates and marriage licenses from the state in                     which they were issued. These do not need to be notarized because they come from the             issuing authority.

        c. Write a cover letter that explains what you need the apostille for and which country you               are travelling to. Include contact information in case there is an issue. Also make up a                 self-addressed, self-stamped envelope.

        d. Send it to the Secretary of State’s office in your state along with any required fes. It took             about two weeks to get our stuff back from Texas, one week for our Virgina marriage                   license.

Put this stuff in a file and hang onto it.

4. Get an HIV test (both you and your spouse). This was the biggest surprise for me, but you need a negative HIV test no more than three months old in order to work in Russia. Since I am away from Austin and my usual doctor, I went to a local women’s clinic and got the results in 10 minutes. 

5. Once you get your invitation, apply for your visa (spouse’s and children’s come later). Use a travel service and you will not regret it, though you will have to pay. You will have to mail your passport, the original invitation, HIV test, and extra photos along with the application itself. 

Getting all of this stuff together wasn’t exactly hard but did require quite a bit of legwork and a lot of trips to FedEx. Get on it early because it will take a lot longer than you think.

I’ll be back with more interesting stuff next week. I’m headed to NYC this weekend to see the sis.