Friday, November 4, 2011

Running In Siberia

      In many ways, this blog is like confession. No, wait--I didn't mean it that way. You can keep reading without having to be exposed to the fact that I watched a movie with kissing in it last night or that, even though I promised her I would, I haven't always been wearing the rape whistle my mom gave me before I left. I just mean this blog is similar to confession in that, the longer I wait in between confessions and, in this case, blog posts, the more I have to say, and the less I can seem to sort it out. My overabundance of information feels instead like a deficit of it, and in both cases, in the end, I just feel like I haven't sinned in months and I don't owe anything to anybody. Instead of either writing a blog or going to confession, I end up sending yet another petition to the Pope for my premature canonization. I say premature because in grade school, they taught me that only dead people could become saints. (Of course if people had always listened to the poopooing of nay-sayers, then Alexander Graham Bell would've never invented the telephone, Lady Gaga would never have learned the alphabet, and the grandfather clock in my bedroom would have never have overcome his polio in order to a dance for me on my birthday this past summer.) In other words, watch out editor of the next edition of Lives of the Saints. There's an unwritten chapter of your next edition with my name all over it.
       Anyway, now that I've gotten the "I'm an insecure 22-year-old, and I can't write something for people to read without trying to be funny" portion of this blog off my chest I will get back to the initial point, which is that so much seems to change here in my life with every day, that if I haven't written a while, its hard to figure out what to write. There's like a million things I'd love to share with you about my life right now, and I'm not sure where to start. I guess I'll try my hand at something I've been asked about a few times, and that I keep meaning to write about--running in Irkutsk.
       I will start by saying that for about six months before I left for Russia, all of my runs were completed in a pair of canvas white bobos that I bought at payless for fifteen dollars. Did I say I bought them? I meant to say that I borrowed them so much from my roommate who bought them for fifteen dollars that they then became tattered and dirty within a short time, and I then bought her a new pair because I felt guilty, while continuing to run in hers. These little dandies had no arch-support, no cushioning, and in every way conformed to the mandates of the "less-is-more" fad founded upon a return to prehistoric values that has been sweeping the running nation since the publication of Cristopher McDougall's Born to Run. In short, I thoroughly loved them (as I do many fads.) And the teasing nature I use in describing them is only the result of an insecurity on my part that renders me incapable of showing too much enthusiasm for any popular thing without simultaneously making fun of it. (By the way, I really think this is a common Irish trait--to be really emotionally invested in something and then have to be sarcastic about it. Irish people make fun of themselves for being over-emotional, but the fact that they're making fun shows that maybe they're not as emotional as they think...more on that another time, though).
          At any rate, before I left the old США, I purchased a pair of Asics second-hand, more or less because my bobos were falling apart and the soles had literally been taped together for the past three months (not a joke lie) and also because I was sick of people giving me looks when I left for a long run. Perhaps ninety-percent of the things I do to improve the general comfort of my life I do merely to avoid having people sympathize with my lack of comfort. It hit a point where "You know, Rose, you should really buy yourself a decent pair of running shoes," was becoming unbearable for me, and I caved.
       So the day I left for Russia, I took a long run through the city of Philadelphia in the old canvas sneakers, and on the way home, I chucked them into in the garbage. There was a ceremoniousness and finality to it that struck my fancy. It felt like the end of something more than just my roommate's sneakers, and of course, it really was.
      Later that day, I was on a plane bound for Siberia. I arrived in Russia two and a half days later, and after spending the first day getting myself organized (What does that even mean coming from me? After 2 months, I still haven't even unpacked yet), I hit the road in my new Asics on the second day.
     Running, I got to discover the city a bit and I also learned a little a thing or two about Russian culture: Not many people run, and everyone feels the need to comment or make jokes if they have the good fortune of catching you in this bazaar act. It was interesting and funny, and I was so happy to be back on my feet again after days spent sitting. There was just one problem--after only three miles, my feet were already killing me, and I still had three miles to run home even if I were to turn around right then.
     The first week I had fun running around the city and it was great to get some new experience going up and down hills (Philadelphia and South Jersey are so flat), but my feet were absolutely killing me every time. Of course I can't blame this on the shoes exclusively. I think they're probably just too small for me. You see I've taken it upon myself to never actually memorize my shoe size, operating under the vague notion that when the time comes to buy shoes, I will just sort of know "by feel" if the shoes are right for me or not. Because, you know, "those sizes are all so relative anyways, right?"  I argued. 
           No Rose, they aren't. They're really not that relative, not nearly so relative as, say, figuring out the right shoe size "by feel." This has probably resulted in me owning several pairs of ill-fitting shoes, but that's the sort of thing I would never notice on my own, unless it was actually painful for me, as in the case of the Asics. Also, when I'm running, I'm way more focused and aware of my body than I am generally, so of course I would notice the wrong size then, in a way at other times I would be oblivious. At any rate, after about a week or so, I knew I could not continue in the shoes.
     I immediately decided that I would just run indoors and without the Asics. I soon found my university's gym or more to the point, the "sport's room," as it is called in Russian. The "sportivnii zal" is on the second floor of the same building where all of my classes are. This building also holds the library and all of the university's offices and classrooms. In short, the entire university is housed there. The room is a smaller-than-regulation sized basketball court, and I decided that from then on I would do my running in there, barefoot. The place seemed about the same size as a basketball court down the block from my parent's house in Wildwood, whose dimensions I knew. I figured twenty laps at the most probably constituted a mile. I could run around the room 140 times without dying of boredom, right?
    The first day I came into the sports room, I was met with some resistance from the woman who worked there, but thanks to a pursuasive group of tall young men in Allan Iverson Jerseys who wanted to practice their Russlish with me, the problem (whatever it was) was soon solved and the woman who worked there allowed me to run. At the time I thought that it was probably the result of some fear on her part that my entire reproductive system would fail and then walk out of my ear canals if I ran too close to the rough-housing young whippersnappers who had come to the gym to shoot some hoops at the same time I wanted to run. In retrospect, that's probably more reflective of some culture shock I was experiencing at the time regarding the difference between gender relations in America and Russia. Most likely, she just noticed that I was carrying running clothes but no running shoes and was worried about me scuffing up the floor with the flats I was wearing.
     All's well that ends well though, and so I continued to come back there every day for about two hours after my classes. The woman who works there and I are on the very best of terms now (we always share a word or two about the trashy beach novels she's reading) and I've come to recognize the other people who work in their two. 
        In short, for the past two months, its become something of a schedule for me, and that's just kind of how I've been running--barefoot, in a small b-ball court, going in circles for about two hours. Of course its tedious, but not nearly so much as I would've expected. I focus on my stride, try not to daydream too much, and watch the entertainment of the day. Mondays and Tuesdays are "Fizcultura," in other words, gym class. Russia is overwhelmingly female (People say its because of wars, alcoholism, and other things claiming the lives of males, but I've been to a few high schools here, and even among younger groups it seems like the room is just full of girls.) Anyway, gym class is just a bunch of girls sitting on the bench and texting, going to smoke cigarettes in the locker room, and then occasionally running with me for a few laps as they good-naturedly try to practice their english, while the only two young men in the class play some balencesta. Wednesdays I have the gym to myself, and Thursdays the boys who initially helped me on my first day play basketball. They're friendly and cool and sometimes we chat a bit, which is nice too. All of these days are pleasant in their own way, but none of them, none of them, compare to Fridays, which are by far, my absolute favorite day to run.
       In Russia, there aren't majors, there are faculties. Students are arranged according to faculty and you have all of your classes with the kids in your faculty. For two hours on Fridays, the international faculty has the gym all to themselves. Its even written on the calendar. Well, as I've already mentioned, with the exception of me and a few others,  the International Faculty consists almost entirely of Chinese people. Therefore this effectively means that Fridays are a completely fabulous weekly celebration of Young Chinese Men Play Basketball. Occasionally like two girls come too, but they never play. They just stand on the other side of the railing and clap for absolutely everything that happens. People get applauded for shooting, for passing the ball successfully, for passing the ball unsuccessfully, and for having successfully solving difficult math problems. Sorry. That was stereotypical. The point is, on a more politically correct note, Chinese Basketball Day is the best damn day of my week. This is true for multiple reasons:
     First of all: I (as well as the other occidental girls) am in love with every boy in all of my classes. Everyone is incredibly cute with their big brown eyes and soft dark hair. Moreover, while a huge deficit of females in Russia has led Russian men to be able to do nothing and still get girls, a huge deficit of females in China has led to the sweetest most respectful boys I have ever met. (One of my Russian teachers said that the Chinese should start exporting husbands to Russia the way that Russians export wives to America.) It is actually impossible to imagine the boys I'm in class with even being at a typical college party in America. I am so curious to see what they would act like in a bar. These guys are so sweet, and it makes me feel like a jerk to realize that I'm probably a little coarser than all of them, and I'm not even that coarse.
    Second of all: Watching the boys in my class play basketball is really funny. Yes, yes, I am well aware that there is no particular race or ethnicity that is more athletic than any other. Please don't accuse of me of being a racist. It is true though that every culture has its sports that come naturally to it. Basketball I do not think comes naturally to these particular Chinese boys, if only because, considering the large scope of the country's history, basketball is a very new thing. Whatever the reason, Friday basketball at the Irkutsk State Linguistics University is sort of the sports equivalent of this. I can't comment on anybody's athleticism or lack there of, its just that, well, basketball doesn't seem to be the right sport. In the two hours I'm there I might see one basket scored, or I might see people kicking the basketball into the nearest hoop. I might see someone box someone else out for a second, or I might instead see a group of boys who aren't really interested in touching each other too roughly laugh good-naturedly when they want the ball from one another and then start doing pushups in the middle of the game. Whatever I see though, its going to be great.
      Unfortunately, recently something came in between me and my weekly viewing of Chinese Basketball. In fact something came between me and running, generally: Winter. Tennis teams that previously practiced outside now were using the gym in the light of the cold weather. The coach begins by having the children spend the first hour hitting the ball against the wall, so I can't continue running laps the way I can when people are merely playing basketball. To make up for it, I was running up and down the steps in my school, and then spending some time doing push-ups and squats in the locker room, but still it wasn't the same, and I didn't feel like I was really getting anything out of this. Something had to be done.
    Sitting in class Wednesday, I finally made the decision, I was going to run outside in the shoes again. This time though it was five degrees below celsius (please don't ask me to convert that, I think its somewhere in the twenties?), and there was snow on the ground. It may sound silly but I thought this might work to my advantage. The snow would make my shoes wet and therefore more maleable, and then maybe they wouldn't feel so tight. Also the fizcultura coaches had been coming into the locker room almost every day to jam about running with me and try to bully me into running outside.
    "You have to start running outside."
    "Its too cold!" I would respond, not up for explaining the whole shoe fiasco in a second language.
    "Its going to be too cold if you wait. You've gotta start early and get accustomed to it," They'd say, eyebrows raised, hands poised on their hips, staring down at me as I put back on my shoes.
     Now maybe, I could avoid the argument. So after class I headed up to sportivinii zal to grab my running clothes. The two coaches were sitting side-by-side on the couch where I leave my things, and I told them excitedly that today I would be running outside.
     "Yeah, well, you keep telling me to run outside."
     "Today you don't need to."
     "There's snow and ice outside."
     "Well, I'll try it for twenty minutes, if I can't, I'll return."
     "Okay," they let up, much to my surprise. Being an adult female in Russia means that you automatically have license to tell everyone exactly how they are supposed to do everything at all times. I as another adult female could probably counter this, if I were firm enough in my speech, but its generally hard. When any woman (not just these two track-jacket wearing amazons) tries to tell me I need to do something, even if I think they're crazy, I usually do it here. Fortunately though, they didn't argue the point too much.
      So I grabbed my clothes, changed in the locker room, and then left. I was terrified at first, but soon found that I wasn't even cold. I really enjoyed the run but spent a lot of it in fear of when it was going to start becoming unbearable. In a way it seemed too good to be true. I ran around the other side of the city--Irkutsk is split in half by the river Angara--and up and down hills through the snow, and really it was all very wonderful. I felt so cheery after a bit, and it seemed other people who I passed felt that way too. It was a sunny bright day, the first with snow on the ground, and as I ran by people for the seven and a half miles I was gone, groups of people congratulated me or simply beeped and gave a thumbs up. By the time I returned to the school, I was actually hot from running so much, and the good news was, although my feet did still hurt a bit, it was so much to focus on running over the ice ( I mean ice and snow literally covered the entire way I ran) that I couldn't even really think about my feet. It was great.
     I did the same the thing the next day, and then yesterday couldn't run because I cleaned my running clothes and they were drying all day. Hopefully, though, I can keep it up for the rest of my time here, without being too afraid of the cold. I guess we'll find out! Alright well that's more than enough from now.
Catch you later,

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Creating Unusual Harmonies to Peter Paul and Mary's "All My Trials, Lord"...

... while your host family listens confusedly from below: A complete guide to winning popularity. I know that I already published one post today. I'm terribly sorry for this, but as you may have noticed, most of my writing described the events of Wednesday. It is now Monday--almost a week from then--and besides, you still haven't heard about my beautiful weekend in Listvianka and my ingenious new weight-loss program that involves consuming poorly cooked Siberian fish (I mean honestly, why did no one tell me about the effectiveness of using food poisoning as a way to shed pounds?)
            On Friday night, I stayed up later than usual chatting with my Host Mom, Sarah (I think I called her that last time, right?) again. Every time I have these conversations, they remind me of nights spent in the kitchen of my older sisters' homes whenever I was in town for a few days. I'm sure you realize this, Kathleen, Lisa (Can I add Dan in here too?), and Liz but these are times I really cherish spending with you, and when I conjure up an image of your homes, I usually think, among other things, of these late night chats and the peacefulness that can only exude from a home where little children sleep. (So like...if you don't have kids, your house isn't actually as peaceful as you think it is.) I always think of the dim light above the kitchen sink which reflects your face as you dish out some kind of wisdom about motherhood (/fatherhood) or life whenever I listen to Sarah talk about her youth, about her children, or about soviet times. I'm not being poetic or whatever here. I really mean that. (Also, if you are related to me, you have your own house, and you are not listed above: (Sarah, Bridget, Amy, Mary, and Colleen, it is merely because I haven't spent a lot of time in your kitchen recently...or ever...Mary. So anyway, don't hate.)
         The next morning, I slept in late and eventually headed down to the university to meet with some other Americans and a tour guide (it was part of our study abroad program). From there we left for Listvianka, a town forty miles from Irkustk, that rests on the Lake Baikal. I can't even begin to describe how beautiful this trip was. Everywhere there were mountains covered in trees decked out in their autumn finery. Back in the city, things were mostly still green, but here there was every shade of red, yellow, gold, and orange imaginable. Furthermore, we stayed in a little place right near the Lake Baikal, which is a body of water so clear that one can see forty meters deep into the water at its clearest times (right after the snow melts in the Spring.) Even without its peak clarity, I could see the exact shade of  every stone and every peddle; it was beautiful.
        I don't really feel like describing this trip in detail (although, I will add here, because I have nowhere else to write it, that we hiked up a mountain and rode the ski lift down, the view of the autumn trees, the water beyond, and the frozen mountains even farther beyond that was AMAZING), but I will say that overwhelmingly, I was left with the impression that it is not Irkutsk, but the entire world, that is completely gorgeous. Is that bad to think while traveling? Maybe it is, but I couldn't help thinking it. And I've been thinking it a lot since I've came here.
        I sat on the sand and watched the waves go in and out on this huge beautiful lake, and I just kept thinking, "This water is clearer than the water at home. Its bluer and sweeter, and more impressive, but for some reason, it has the same exact effect on me as the water on the shore a few blocks from my house. The sunset, too. It seated itself behind the mountains, and the sky then took on icy blue with touches of pink in response. There are no Mountains and Wildwood, and nothing but tall sad buildings in Philly to frame my view, and maybe there isn't even this particular shade of icy blue with touches of pink. Still the sunset there makes me feel as quiet and as honest as this one here. And in the end its all kind of equal to me, you know?
          There's this poem I used to like by Samuel Coleridge about a guy who wants to go for this beautiful walk with his friend but sprains his ankle and is obliged to wait in his garden instead. While he sits, bumming about this cruel fate of his, the sun starts to set and he looks at the light playing on the leaves around him, and suddenly, he feels like his old garden is just as pretty as the walk he would've taken with his buddy. I remember this one line in particular, because it really struck my fancy when I was younger, where he says, "No plot so narrow be but nature there," and you know, I think about this line often, especially when I wander around Philly.
           I'll be walking down this crumbling sidewalk where determined little dandelions poke their way through the cracks, or at some hideous, dilapidated old chain link fence with leaves climbing through the spaces, and in my head I'll hear this line, and I think, he's write. Nature's still here. They've tried to build over it, to snuff it out to make room for the poor and the unwanted, but here it is still, thriving and wonderful. And even if they managed, even if that determined little dandelion were finally bested by the asphalt, still that poor little unwanted person is a part of nature. And as long as their are humans, there is creation, and it is all as equally wonderful here as it is in Zimbabwe as it is in Wildwood, New Jersey, and Philadelphia, PA.
         And that's all I keep thinking here, that I am exceedingly, exceedingly happy here, but this "travel abroad experience" isn't really what people make it out to be in movies and in life. Don't get me wrong, I don't regret coming. I think is really the right move for my life right now. I'm finally learning the language whose grammar and vocabulary I've spent the last few years memorizing. I see goodness in my absence from America, not just for me, but for the people I'm absent from, and most of all, as I lay in bed the other night, chatting for hours with another American girl who came to Listvianka with me, I knew that this was exactly, exactly where I was supposed to be. It just feels very right right now.
        You'd expect my opinion would've changed about that Sunday Night as I sat in my host's bathroom, vomiting out some bad fish for the fifth time that evening, but I didn't. As I was busy defiling the bathroom in all sorts of ways, I still felt grateful and...can I use the word happy? I mean I obviously wanted to die, too. I was certain that it was "the most sick I had ever been in my life," but if you've lived with me, you've heard that one before. Still, somehow, in between heaves I actually found myself thanking God. And in the in between times, I offered up the ugly stuff for the peace and joy of my compadres back home. And by the way, Mom, I was kidding about the weight-loss program. I didn't actually lose any weight.
With Love from the Middle of the World,


"Happy Birthday to Irkukst, and Other Stories," by Rose Boyle, age 10

    I have decided to start approaching this blog as a diary, or more correctly a one-sided correspondence (which by the way, most of my correspondences are.) Previously, I edited a lot and wait to write until I had some kind of complete-thought about the goings on of my life in Irkutsk. Hindsight imposes some sort of structure on our days, and without this structure, its hard for me to write well. My former approach of waiting for the structure to appear culminated in only one blog entry, though, so now I'm going to try another avenue. Hopefully, I can keep up with this thing better now.
          First of all, I would like to make it clear that I did not, in fact, sing "The Sun Will Come Out Tomorrow" to a group of strangers in a Moscow Airport. That was a merely a joke-lie told in the hopes of impressing (with my easy wit and charm) the mysteriously gray-haired twenty-something-year-old boy who I sometimes see walking around Temple's campus. I'm sorry if I disappointed you, believers (A.K.A,  Mom.) To make it up to you, I promise a private performance--for you and two loved ones--of "I'm My Own Grandpa," from the 1996 oscar nominated film, The Stupids, starring Tom Arnold. As an added bonus, I will also wear a straw boater and paisley tie to complete the aesthetic.
          Now that I've gotten that off my chest, I'll fill you in on some of the latest deets on my trip abroad. Wednesday, Irkutsk celebrated its 350th anniversary, and the scene was awesome. The closest thing I could probably compare it to is St. Patrick's Day back home. Everyone was rolling around with beers; the kids had balloons; and the pedestrians (which were many) wished each other "Sprazdnikom" (Happy Holiday) as they passed by. If you know how rarely people in Russia smile at, speak to, acknowledge the existence of, believe in the existence of strangers, you realize what a special occasion this was. 
          The roads were all blocked off for the even. In the day, there were pony rides (minus the plastic bags hanging from the animal's posterior region--why no one thought of this detail is beyond me. On the other hand, if there are no toilet seats in the ladies bathrooms, why should anyone expect people to accommodate the digestive needs of miniature horses?), and at night there was a huge concert. Everyone was packed in pretty tight, and I wish I could explain in this blog how wonderful it felt to be dancing amidst thousands of strangers to the Russian-accented versions of Disney hits ("Can You Feel the Love Tonight?" was actually part of the program) that came from a large, well-lit stage on a beautiful night in September, where everyone could feel the same electricity and warmth that shot around the center city square, but no one tried to mention it, for fear of breaking the spell. I really wish I could describe it. I just can't.
          Afterward everyone in the city center walked over to the waterfront, where there was a fireworks display. I sat with some friends in the Veterans Memorial Park, which is a place that feels eerie and sweet and sacred to me for more than one reason. On the one hand, in the center of it burns an eternal flame commemorating the fallen of World War Two ("Our Great Patriotic War," as the Russians call it). This alone is moving in its own way, but in addition to this, the park is nearby to the site of what was formerly one of the largest cathedrals in Irkutsk. In 1932, the "Cultural Preservation Society"  (or some similarly absurd name) decided it would be best to explode the building. The church was so large that even after the debris was leveled, the ground where it stood was still a meter higher than the surrounding area. Its debris is still lies beneath the Administrative building that has replaced it, and also the Veteran's Park behind. (Its things like this that make me realize I have absolutely no clue what these people have been through. Imagine seeing a church exploded to prove a point.)
          At any rate, I sat in this park and prayed for the soldiers of WWII commemorated here. I prayed for their families, their loved ones. I prayed for the church, for its congregation, for anyone who was left heartbroken while watching it explode, and soon the display began.
           I love fireworks. I love crowded nights, full of warm bodies huddled together under the heavy hood of darkness. I love the cold, and I love the hint of early autumn. All of these things leave me with a sense of bittersweetness, regardless of how good the display, how sweet the air, and how pleasant the company. So just try to imagine the aggregate effect of all of these causes at once. Now imagine it was the most beautiful firework display I've ever seen in my life. You can't, can you? I knew you couldn't. 
          When I got in, my host mother was still awake doing work. She made me hot tea and we chatted for about an hour. I forget about what, but I remember that the conversation only contributed to the sentimentality I was already indulging in.(If you know me and what a sentimental old fool I am, then by now you can probably imagine that I was swimming in a pool of my own tears, showering flower petals on the floor on the way leading up to my bedroom, and somehow, simultaneously blaring some song about a woman coping with her mother's death from nowhere in particular because it seemed like the appropriate soundtrack for my life at the moment.) After spending some time cleaning up the mess of rose petals and water caused by your imagination, I drifted easily off to sleep, trying to save in my memories the smell, the colors, the texture of this time in my life because when I am eighty-three, I will be the only one who knew it ever existed, no matter how many times I will try to describe it to my snarky grandkids.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Greetings from Half-way Around the World!

      (Unless of course you are not half way around the world from me right now, in which case, consider yourself ungreeted.) So as I said in my last post, I am so over writing about the female reproductive system and I'm now ready to tackle the hefty topic of the old USSR. On Thursday morning, I arrived in Irkutsk and was met by my host here, Sarah. The plane itself was kind of a funny experience. In the airport in Paris all of the Russian speakers were eavesdropping on one another's conversations and making comments to eachother in voices dripping with sarcasm. (I imagine it was sarcasm; it may have just been their accents. I didn't catch much of it anyways.) An old lady would say something to her daughter, and then some nearby forty-something-year-old man in a jean jacket and matching jean pants (for whatever reason, this is a really popular outfit for middle aged men here) would comment and everybody would laugh. It was kind of cozy, and it almost seemed like we were all at some big family party where the uncles were drinking too much and cracking jokes. So, in the spirit of things, I of course joined in with my trademark performance for everyone of "The Sun Will Come Out Tomorrow" as I would do at just such a function back home. I'm pretty sure they loved it, because they paid me by throwing vodka in my direction.
        (Important: Did I steal this joke about having things thrown at you and thinking its a good thing from somebody, maybe Sarah Walsh? Perhaps not the same thing but something similar? It feels maybe a little too familiar. If so, I apologize. As a sign of my repentence, I give you this as a peace offering. That way, I can make amends at the cost of an innocent person totally unrelated to my transgression, in this case, George Bush.)
        The Russians seemed really cool in Paris so I was excited about what the next few months had in store for me, but once the plane landed in Moscow, the whole vibe changed. It was as if once they got back on native soil, they no longer owed each other anything. And because they were all now just Russians in Russia, as opposed to Russians in Paris, they could finally go about their business, being as rude to one another as they were able, and perhaps make some sort of sport of it, which may one day be acceptable to the olympic commission. Such is the way of Moscow, I suppose.
        Irkutsk was another matter, as I soon found out on my flight further east. On the way over, I sat beside an expat from Russia who was returning to her home in Irkutsk for a visit with her parents. She talked to me the whole time--except for the periods when, after a mere yawn, I would immediately become comatose. I could've imagined it, but I had the distinct feeling that she was trying to help me. I actually thought she might have been talking to me with the mere purpose of giving me a chance to improve my Russian before landing. We had little to say to eachother. Still, in between conversations she'd have this look on her face as if she were fishing for something. Within the minute, she'd have picked a new topic replete with its own set of specialized vocabulary. We'd begin talking about this new thing, and the whole time she would provide me with better ways to say whatever I had just said, which for the most part, would have been something like, "Fooding. We stand, stand? Giving the hand, under the--Good Morning. Who. Fooding, Spatulaing," in English. Some how, she still understood, and managed to help me get out whatever I was trying to communicate.
       Occasionally, if I got a little teary--which by the way, I did several times, especially when talking about home, she would grab my arm and say "Ne Grusti, Rosa. Vsyo budet horosho." (Don't be sad, Rose. Everything will be fine.) I didn't get to thank her for making my transition to Siberia that much easier, but I was soon to find out that her behavior is pretty typical of the area. She was merely like so many other Irkutsk people, and the first of several kind women I would meet in this city that is so cold, and yet somehow, so full of warm people.
          When we landed, I was met at the airport by my host, I'll call her Sarah, who is an amazing woman. She is a gynecologist and endocrinologist and also a wonderful mother to her thirteen-year-old daughter Lily (another made up name. I feel bad using their names without them knowing I'm writing about them), who is also incredibly sweet and affectionate. Sarah is extremely bright and full of interesting things to say about the Soviet Times and life in general. My only regret is that I can't communicate better with her, because I have questions about some of the things she says, but can't really ask them because, as of now, I can speak about as well as those cardboard sheets that come inside shoes to keep their shape before they are worn.
         In addition to being bright and interesting, she is also loyal and kind. On my first day in the country, when she took me to the University to get everything situated, it turned out that I had accidentally thrown out my migration card at the airport. This is a small piece of paper which the person entering the country has to fill out. It doesn't seem like a big deal, especially because you write it yourself, but it gets stamped when you land in Moscow, and that is the important part. Its just as necessary to have on you as a passport; you really gotta have this thing to be in the country. I was on the verge of tears at the discovery that I had lost it, but Sarah kept telling me it was fine. When we were in the office of the University, as the woman behind the desk was finally able to fix this for me, Sarah said, "See, Rose? Its fine."
           "Its not fine," the woman replied. "This is very bad." She looked at me, and not Sarah, as she said this last part.
           "No, everything is fine."
           "No, its very bad."
           "It turned out alright, right? Everything was solved. Its fine," Sarah responded with finality. That was the end of the conversation.
          On the ride home, I looked around at the city, and--I can admit this now that my opinion has changed--I was a little disappointed. The city, although a sort of historical center, looked run-down to me. So many crumbling steps led over so many muddy hills, stained brick buildings, well built, but unkempt, with random piles of wood or stone in their back yard. (I have no idea where they even get that stuff from, but its there in a surprising majority of the Irkutsk yards), and circling all of this, massive apartment buildings erected during the Soviet Era, now in a period of decay, the gloom of which, no amount of joy could ever usurp. (or so it seemed to me at the time.)
        I doubted the correctness of my choice in coming to Irkutsk. I was kicking myself for it even, but then I would comfort myself with the knowledge that, if nothing else, I was getting an immersion course in Russian, and no less, in the comfort of a loving home full of wonderful people. On top of that, I was sleeping in a bedroom from which I could see the beautiful Lake Baikal, the oldest (what does that mean though? Seriously,) and deepest fresh water lake in the world. Even as I write, this wonderful slice of moon is rising over the lake and the sky is inky blue like the water below. Sarah's apartment, like all Irkutsk apartments I have seen, is in an enclosure of several other huge apartment buildings that sort of wrap around one other. In between the buildings sandboxes, mud parking lots, and sad playgrounds on whose benches sit only old men, pensive and hopeless, the whole day long. Here in these enclosures, there is a coziness that cannot be felt in America because all of the apartments leave their doors and windows unlocked and open, even on a night like this when the air is crisp and it feels like Thanksgiving outside.
        The benefit of this (and some other factors) openess is, that you can experience the best of both the warmer seasons and the colder seasons simultaneously: the sounds of other people's lives (i.e. babies crying, people chatting amongst themselves after dinner, etc.) and the smell of fireplaces. The combination is heavenly. Also, I can't really get a good idea of school hours here, but I know that a lot of the kids, including Lily, don't go in to school until about noon, and then get home at about eight. The effect of this is that there are a lot of kids out playing in the evening when most American kids are inside watching TV. Around nine o' clock the apartment complex is suddenly brimming with children, and its so nice to hear them all. It is really sweet here right now. There is so much else about the city I'd like to say, but I'm tired for now. I'll try to write more when I can. Goodnight from Siberia,

Friday, September 2, 2011

Some More on Menstruation and Its Affects on Climate Change

        It has been some time since I've written. This is chiefly owing to the fact that after writing two posts back-to-back, the public (although always delighted with me) may have begun to think that I had nothing better to do with my time than writing about my ovaries. This would have given them the wrong impression of me. I do have other things to do with my time. I am infinitely cool, have several friends, and I never once spent a week practicing (and recording) introductions of myself to others so that I could understand what it was that I was doing wrong at the beginnings of so many failed friendships. This never happened because I already have several friends. I have no failed friendships. For this reason, I didn't want to write too much, lest you got the wrong idea.
      In addition to not writing, I haven't really been tracking my cycle, either, which of course, was the reason I began writing this blog in the first place. To me, its kind of unfortunate that all young women are not taught how to do this in their "tweens" (a really cool word that was invented after small plastic containers of roll-on glitter, faux diamond studded bellbottom jeans with built-in belts, and Ashley Olsen came together in a secret conclave, and after three days of much debate, finally decided the English Language was lacking. Their solution, which came after another three days of even more debate, was the word "tweens.") Really though, to get back on track, women should know how to tell when their fertile! Growing up--and even recently, I had heard at least a dozen ways (mostly in contradiction with eachother) to tell when ovulation was occurring. These ranged from "feeling a slight pain in the lower abdomen" to "slaughtering and eating a horse from a nearby farm." How was I to know when I was fertile if I didn't live near a farm? I would wonder, as I sat looking at maps, considering a move to a more rural area. Thus began my quest to track my menstrual cycle and share my findings with the world.
       My intentions were good in this respect, but my resolve was lacking. You see, yesterday I moved to Russia--Siberia--to be specific, and after a day here, I have found the trip to be infinitely more interesting to read and write about than the many different facets of a good discharge on a Sunday afternoon. So here's the deal: I'll write a few things about tracking the menstrual cycle in this blog (most of it is so do-it-yourself that there's really nothing to write about regularly anyways) and then from here on out, my blogs will be about Russia. If I figure out how to upload pictures and add some aesthetics to this thing, then we'll really have a reason to take off our headgear and party. (There's a link there but it won't let me put it in red).
       So here are the basics:
The first day of bleeding is day one of a cycle, and as you know, cycles differ in duration for every woman. The first few months of tracking may just let you know whether or not you have the same length every time. Ovulation occurs 12 to 16 days before the next cycle. (so you could be ovulating while you're perioding if you have really long periods and really short cycles). An egg can be fertilized in a 12-24 hour period of time. (In other words, you ovulate 24 hours at most.) Because sperm can live in the body for up to five days, the window of time when a woman can conceive is a little bit longer. Here are some signs of ovulation:

   • Change in cervical fluid
   • Change in cervical position and cervical firmness (Yes, I just wrote cervical firmness.)
   • Brief twinge of pain or dull ache that is felt on one side of the abdomen (I think it switches sides every month, but I'm not sure. You can look it up if you want. I don't feel like it right now.)
   • Increase in sex drive
   • Body temperature chart that shows a consistent change
   • Breast tenderness (Again, yes I did say breast tenderness, if you have any other questions, you know how to reach me.)   
   • Heightened sense of vision, smell or taste. (Totally cool, and I actually notice this one, especially with smells, but sometimes with tastes too)
     And those are the facts. As you can see they're pretty vague which is why its kind of important to know you're body and understand the signs its giving you. I keep a health journal. In it I write how I feel when I wake up (emotionally and physically), how much I have slept, what I have eaten during the day, how much I ran, and how much water I'm drinking. This is all for the purpose of being aware of my general well being. I also write my weight, where I am in my cycle (what day), and anything I notice occurring in my body, especially things that relate to the above list. (The fun part is noticing what sort of people I find attractive at different times in my cycle. Maybe you'll enjoy paying attention to that when you track as well, right boooyyyssss?) I don't keep track of my temperature, for the simple reason that I couldn't find a thermometer until like a week before I left home, and I didn't want to buy one because I knew we had one in the house. Although I've heard the temperature is the dead giveaway for most people who are trying to determine when they are fertile. This was of less importance to me because ovulation isn't really the main thing I'm "looking for" by doing this. I'm not tracking my cycle to prevent pregnancies (unless, of course, you can become pregnant by writing in your diary, wearing too much headgear (the orthodontic kind) for recreational purposes, or listening to Ani DeFranco while crying, in which case, I really will need to start taking more preventative measures). Seriously though, I track my cycle for a better understanding of my body, and actually, I think all women should. (This part is funny for those who remember from the top of the page that I'm not even doing it now. Oops.)
         Our mood, and consequently our behavior, are always under the influence of a thousand different forces at a given time. The music we listen to, the people around us, the places we live, and many other things are constantly affecting who we are and how we treat those around us. Some of these forces we can choose, but some (like the menstrual cycle) are simply something we are kind of just subject to. For this reason, I think its important to be aware of what is taking place within your body, so that you at least have a sense of what you're working with.
       I say "working with" rather than "up against" because I truly believe this is a quality of the female experience that we should work with, and not against. Perhaps a week before your period you feel a little bit surly, and you want to be alone a lot. (In addition to that, you consider eating anything that even closely resembles chocolate, including the really tan pastor of your church.) Well, the surliness you can do without, but there's no reason why you can't turn the desire for alone time into something really positive. I think that there is a great opportunity within the menstrual cycle to embrace every aspect of one's personality. No woman is only rambunctious, only solitary, or only ravenously in need of ice cream and cheesy romcom adaptations of Jane Austen novels starring Hugh Grant. We are each so much more than these qualities, which, for whatever reason, we get in the habit of associating with ourselves. By tracking your cycle, maybe you can give vent to sides of you that you are not in the habit of embracing. In this way, you can make something that has previously held you back, extremely productive. That's all for now folks.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

What This Blog Is Actually About (this time, for real)

            I think it noteworthy to mention that today is my twenty-second birthday. Noteworthy, at least to those of you who want to write "Happy Birthday, Rose!!! : P" on my facebook wall and, in so doing, contribute some positive data to the chart by which I gauge my sense of self worth. I’m sure I could’ve taken the day off  from the “the old blog,” as the people around town affectionately call it. This would certainly disappoint my strong contingency of follower (Sarah Walsh), but I’m sure "she’d" get on okay without me. I could have spent the day  relaxing among family and family without the burden of quipping egocentrically about my reproductive system in a writing style that is at once hip, casual, and undisciplined, a writing style that really presents me as the fashionable and easily-distracted young sprite, gallivanting about town, that has been endearing herself to homeless men masturbating on street corners for years. (Seriously friends, these guys just love me!) 
            To get back to the point of taking a day off from my busy blogging schedule to kick back and enjoy my birthday, I will say this: Despite the fun, there would be consequences. Not the least of which is that all my cool new friends from the COED lunch table (they haven't called yet, but they will if I continue leaving messages on their home phones) would never know what a special day it was for me, and in this event, they wouldn’t be able to invite me out to the roller skating rink tonight to have a few Sunny Ds and rip on how shoddy the new Bruce Lee figurines are that they're making these days.  I know those crazy coeds would be disappointed to miss out on all that fun, so I had to write today.  Furthermore, I haven’t even explained the real premise for this thing yet or even impressed my friends with my strong verbs and minimal usage of passive voice.* So I'm writing today in hopes of accomplishing these things.
               At any rate, I greeted this first day of my twenty-second year the same way I greet just about every twenty-first day in a string of twenty-eight, lying in bed wondering for how long the tedium of life will continue for me. If I were to die today then I would never again have to endure the cold sweat that inevitably saturates my pours anytime I consider adding a friend on facebook or getting the number for a classmate with whom I have to create a group project. By day, I would never again have the public humiliation of having to pronounce the word edit in the past tense, or by night, the private humiliation of catching myself in the mirror (yet again) as I try to open a particularly stubborn candy-bar wrapper with my teeth. If you have ever seen yourself involved in this process, then you know the utter feeling of emptiness that ensues from perceiving yourself in this light. The ravenous determination and animalistic vengeance poured out on the unfortunate Heath Bar wrapper in question are eclipsed only by the sad and almost vulnerable eagerness that inspired this act of mastication in the first place. Is it you that has aggressively dominated the wrapper, or is it the thing inside the wrapper that has aggressively dominated you?
               On the one hand, if I died, all of these anxieties and humiliations would disappear forever. On the other hand, I'd be dead. And I don't really want to be dead yet. But I thought about it this morning when I woke up, and I often do on the twenty-first day in a string of twenty-eight. I'm kidding (sort of) but the point is, I woke up feeling a little irritated but mostly just bummed and kind of lonely, and more than anything, I was keenly aware of (and we're talking in approximations here) around three thousand extra pounds of flesh hanging from my hips that hadn’t been there last week. In addition to the physical weight hanging on me, there was some emotional baggage as well. As I rolled over in bed, there were at least thirty offenses I had committed the night before that were now attacking my guilty conscience with two cannons, three swords, and a sickle that was engraved with the Ten Commandments. Despite the fact that about twenty-nine out of the thirty guilty offenses did not in any way conflict with the dictates of the Ten Commandments, this detail still bothered me.  (The one that did? Using the word “vajeen” on the internet where everyone could read it. I’m not sure which of the commandments I broke in doing this, but I obviously broke one of them.) In this state I dragged myself to the closet in my parent’s bedroom—no matter that they were naked and changing with the door open when I walked in—and plopped my pockmarked, unhappy, scaly, hooved, gangrene self on the scale inside. 
              At the time, I hadn't yet remembered that it was my birthday, but had I remembered this fact and realized that the number glaring back at me was the weight with which I was going to greet this new year in my life, I probably would have just gone back to my bedroom, stripped naked, eaten a can of Chef Boyardee ravioli from the can and spent the next hour cutting out pictures of movie stars’ heads and glueing their faces over mine in the family photos in my room. Occasionally I would have taken breaks to take a few swigs of O'Douls and sing “Seventeen” by Janis Ian through tears while pretending to be drunk. Mostly, though, I'd just keep cutting and pasting.
               I will say that midway through breakfast, I convinced myself into a swell of gratitude, because after all, it is an incredibly sacred thing  to just be alive. To be alive and surrounded by a string of gorgeous nieces and nephews who were excited to go out to breakfast with me for my birthday, well that was a sacred thing of unimaginable proportions. In the end, everything turned out okay, but the relevancy here is that I’m pretty sure we’re all familiar with mornings like this, whether we’ve had them our selves or witnessed them in others. Some people who have trouble maintaining good mental health (maybe myself included) may wake up every morning feeling a little down and kind of lonely, but if you’re a woman, even if you cultivate really good emotional wellness, you still probably experience something kind of like this every twenty-first day in a string of twenty-eight.
               This is the side of the female experience that most of us are already familiar with, the side of it that gets a lot of air time in real life and on television (AKA really real life). Maybe we hear a lot about it because it gives self-indulgent, irrational women named Kimberly an excuse to not take tables at Sunset Bay Bar and Grill on a Saturday night, or maybe because it gives self-indulgent men named Charlie Donnely an excuse not to listen to both rational and irrational women who are either not taking tables at Sunset Bay Bar and Grill on a Saturday night, or who are acting like the imperfect human beings they are, or who are simply being demanding. The moral is, we all know about premenstrual irritability, blues, etc. but we know very little about the rest of the reproductive experience of women. An experience that takes place twenty-four hours aday, thirty to thirty-one days a month (unless you want to include those little troublemakers that call themselves February), and twelve months a year. The reproductive experience is in action always and everywhere, whether you are actually reproducing or not, although the only times we tend to think of it is during menstruation.
               For example did you know that women enjoy more acute senses of taste and smell when they are fertile? That’s one of the highlights of ovulation. Really weird discharge that sneaks up on you and makes you feel like you urinated in your pants on one of the rare occasions that you didn’t is one of the low lights. There are so many little things like this about women’s bodies, but still our cycles remain largely a mystery to us. Anyway, that’s what  I’m kind of trying to deal with in this blog, not that I’m any great expert. I’m just a woman, but that should really be enough for me to figure out when I’m ovulating or at least when I’m bleeding from my vagina. That’s what this blog is for. To help you figure out when you are bleeding from your vagina.
               I’m looking forward to figuring that out with you. And also, Fiscal Year.

*I actually use passive voice allllll the time. I don’t even see a problem with using it. Now you know just how much of a rebel I really am.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

What This Blog Is Actually About*

     "But Why Females' Vaginas?" is a question I'm often asked by fans of my blog. The answer is a complicated one which I have thought over many a quiet night as I sat listening to the ocean waves outside my window and drinking liters of biodiesel gasoline (because its packed with both saturated and aromatic hydrocarbons--including alkylbenzene!) The answer is not, my friends, a simple one, and though I have struggled with how best to take on this query, I think I have done so reasonably well in the paragraphs that follow:
       I will begin by saying that I first conceived the idea of this publication (It is a publication, Mother. Yes--Yes it is, Mom, It is because I'm publishing it on the interweb. This cannot be disputed.) about a month ago when I realized that I had absolutely no understanding of how my body worked or even what certain parts of it looked like.
           To illustrate this point, I will explain to you that this is coming from a woman for whom it took no less than eight months to master a skill which most thirteen-year-old girls learn in only a few minutes. I am of course referring to the centuries old practice of shoving a mass of rayon wrapped in a tube of plastic up the vajeen, in layman's terms, using a tampon. At an age that is so shamefully old  that I will not even disclose the number here for fear of embarrassment, I spent eight months trying to acquire the special combination of attributes that were necessary to accomplish this daring feat; the very same special combination of attributes that I believed every young woman in the modern world—myself, of course, excluded—already had: Remarkable physical prowess, magical powers, and a meter wide, gaping, black-hole between her legs. In this hole she could easily put in and pull out anything which the moment required of her. "Oh you forgot a sleeping bag? Its okay, I've got one in here. Hold on a sec, there are two more in here I forgot I even had stashed away. Wait, there's a bunk bed with a trundle attached up here too! Looks like we can forget the sleeping bags, right ladies? Also, I brought snaaaaa-aaakks!!!!!" (Seriously tampax, couldn't you just make a more detailed illustration in your instruction manual?) 
       These were hard times for me, hard times filled with frightened trips to the bathroom, prayers to the Blessed Virgin Mary and Saint Rita, one of the many "patron saints of hopeless cases" that Catholicism has to offer. (Should we be concerned that there are more than one?) In the past when I had given myself a bad haircut, lost the previous evening's homework assignments, or accidentally killed a friend's parrot whom I was supposed to be babysitting, Saint Jude had been the preferred patron-saint-of-hopeless-cases to which I would turn, but desperate hopeless cases called for desperate hopeless measures. Also, I preferred to have this talk girl to girl. 
      "Dear Blessed Saint Rita," I would plead, "Please show me a hole (there were apparently three???), any hole, really, up which I may push this mass of cotton and rayon swaddled in plastic tubing." I had fallen from the toilet onto my knees. "Sweet, blessed Rita, any one of these orifices will do." I was now shifting from kneeling into the fetal position and beginning to suck my thumb.
     I would end decked in my least fashionable sack cloth, swimming in a pool of ashes as I begged the dear lady, "Show me the way, Saint Rita. Do not abandon your humble servant in this period of darkness. Also, if you could keep my grandchildren from walking in on me like this, I would be much obliged." (Did I say I was a slightly too old to be learning how to use basic feminine hygiene products?) Still, I was embarking on a journey that would, I was sure, ultimately be consummated in the act of complete vaginal occlusion! There was no wrong time for such a noble pursuit!
          Of course it was hard, and in those days such abysmal, low periods in my existence were inevitably followed by a forlorn look in the mirror, a shame-filled unlocking of the door and--perhaps most harshly-- the confused realization that I was the only woman in the entire universe who had to bleed from a vagina without actually having her own vagina to bleed from. Afterwards with a sigh of defeat, I would walk over to my rocking chair and take up my knitting until one of the little ones would toddle by. Taking little Suzy into my arms, I would nuzzle my nose against her soft chestnut hair.
          "Great-Great-Grandmama?" She'd ask me. Dear, Precocious, Suzie, so young, so innocent in my arms.
          "Yes, my child."
          "Don't you know that filling your blog with puns relating to the female experience is just another bit of cheap and lazy comedy?"
          "Ahh Suzie, my sweet one, of course Great Grandmama knows that," I smiled down at her. "But as any fool will tell you, the only thing worse than a few puns now and again, is breaking the fourth wall with a little self referential humor...Lactation, Uterine Lining."
           Thus the idea of writing a blog about one woman's journey to familiarize herself with all her lady-parts was germinated. The rest is just herstory.

         *This entry does not in anyway explain "what this blog is actually about."  In an attempt to be considered cool by my peers, I have opted to not write an entry which seriously explains the real purposes of this blog. In this witty and charming entry, I have undoubtedly constructed something that will finally convince the kids who sit at the coed (this detail cannot be emphasized enough) table in the corner of the cafeteria of my unfailing awesomeness.
       In the next entry, however, I will attempt a more serious bit of writing in which I will actually explain "what this blog is actually about." In it, I will use adult phrases like, "menstruation," "fallopian tubes," and "fiscal year."