My husband and I are among the first in our group of friends to get married, let alone to have babies.  Our oddness engenders an uninformed curiosity that expresses itself in the vaguest of questions.  People with kids ask, “How’s she sleeping?” and “How is breastfeeding going?”  Young urban hipsteresque kids we know from college chit-chat about Pitchfork and artisan beers before awkwardly asking, “So… how’s motherhood treating you?”

I’m not complaining.  This kind of impossible question always comes up with life-defining milestones.  After the 15th “How’s college?”  or “what do you think of marriage?” you want to respond, “Terrible, and how are you?”, just for a change of pace but instead you smile and say, “It’s great, thanks for asking!”

To the motherhood question, I always say I had steeled myself for the worst and that I am very pleasantly surprised.

So I’ve been trying to figure out where my expectation of the worst came from.  There are, of course, our friends who had an exceptionally bad sleeper and slept in one-hour shifts for an entire summer.  For the most part, though, my News Feed is inundated with gushings about the cuteness of infants and careful documentation of every milestone in video, photograph and status form.

I think it has something to do with this:

and this:

There is in some parts of our culture, and by that I mean the hyper-educated, mostly-white, culturally-savvy, urban 20-something culture that my husband and I sort of fit into, this attitude that a woman’s life ends when she gets married and especially when kids come along.  One becomes a pearl-necklaced automaton with a feather duster and a cookbook, as in Kimbra’s video, or is kidnapped by family and buried alive despite providing appropriately pineapple-studded hams for dinner, as in St Vincent’s.  No wonder so many people wait until they’re much older to have kids – or, as many of my mother-friends of all ages are tempted to do, including myself, exaggerate their pursuits outside the home in order to prove they’re not one of those repressed Friedanesque housewives.


On “Russian”ness

At the recent International Turkological Conference I attended here in Cheboksary (mostly former Soviet folks, with a few Turkey Turks thrown in), some of the participants asked me what Americans think about the status of non-Russian nationalities in Russia. I was mildly ashamed to admit that the average American doesn’t really think about the fact that more than ethnic Russians exist in the Russian Federation. In fact – and I noticed this while I was talking – the English language doesn’t express the important distinction between “russkii” and “rossiiskii,” which is really especially important to any Chuvash, Tatar, Yakut or Mari. Recently, my Chuvash teacher was mildly offended when a Russkii woman asked me how I was feeling on “russkii” land. (“It’s first Chuvash land, then Russian! We are in the Chuvash Republic, after all…”)

“Russkii” is primarily an ethnic designation. It refers to the Russian ethnic group, which supposedly “originated” in the 15th century (this according to Wikipedia‘s approximations). The name comes from Rus’, the Slavic political entity which (confusingly) encompassed more than just the people who would become modern-day “Russians.” Regardless of the history, “Russkii” today refers to people from that ethnic group (or, according to Soviet-style calculations, anyone whose father’s father’s father was Russkii – you could have 1/32 Russian blood, and still be considered Russian.)

“Rossiiskii” is a political category. The Chuvash republic is part of the “Rossiiskii” federation. The most delicious chocolate factory is “Rossiiskii.” “Rossiiskii” publishing houses include all publishing houses in Russia, whether they print in Arabic, or Tatar, or Udmurt, or whatever.

One important exception is the “Russkii” Orthodox Church. That name appeared before the ethnonym, and it refers to the political context in which it formed beginning in the 10th century. But not everyone in the “Russian” church is necessarily Russian in the ethnic sense; in fact, in our town there is a church that holds services in Chuvash.

Why I cry every time I read about Central Asia in the news…

While waiting for our train in the Kazan train station in Moscow, Mark and I were approached by several decidedly un-Russian looking beggars, who crossed themselves and asked for money “for Christ’s sake.” Of course they could have been Georgians, or Christian Tatars, or some other sort of Orthodox Christian, but I had an overwhelming sinking feeling that if they were Muslim, they would be less likely to receive money from Russian Orthodox Christians. That they had to cross themselves and their babies to “prove” that they weren’t Central Asians, that they were deserving of donations from Russians…

I also recently encountered this article about the rise of polygamy in Tajikistan, and its connection to the huge emigration of workers to Russia. (It just illustrates the huge demographic shift that Central Asian economic refugees are giving rise to).

I was also really impressed by this really nuanced recent report about child labor in the cotton harvest in Uzbekistan. You know they must be really bad when H&M and Wal-Mart boycott them.

children’s books and the iconography of socialism

For my job, I spend hours and hours in the Special Collections reading Soviet children’s books. Those Soviets took their children’s books seriously. Many of them are written by famous poets, like giraffe-lover and slogan-writer Vladimir Mayakovsky. Others are illustrated by artists that are still highly respected in the grown-up world too, like Alexander Deineka. Many of the children’s books writers still hold a special place in the hearts of people who were raised in the USSR. “I was raised on Marshak,” said a friend of mine on the project nostalgically the other day when we found some books by him. There’s so much I could write about these books. It’s impossible to get bored with them; every day I find something amusing, or disturbing, or beautiful, or all three at once (that happens most often). But in order to avoid sabotaging our exhibit by leaking all our fascinating discoveries on my blog, I’ll have to limit myself to a couple really cool examples. All my images come from the U of Chicago’s Special Collections Research Center.

Today, I came upon a really interesting do-it-yourself book. I remember having books like this as a kid: one of my favorites taught you how to make pom-poms out of rolls of newspapers and indoor gardens out of carrot stubs. This one has a little twist that dovetails very nicely . The book is called “Conveyer Belt,” and it contains instructions to help children make paper lanterns. But this is no old-fashioned, inefficient craft project. Soviet kids make paper lanterns in an assembly line.

First they show you the principle of the thing, a principle that’s being put into practice at the factories where these kids will get to work when they grow up:

For now, stuck in kindergarten, these kids practice with origami. Every kid does one fold in the paper and passes it on to the next.

When everything’s done, the class has made some lovely new toys and decorations (and very efficiently, I might add):

That’s one of the more plain sets of illustrations, but most of the books have really colorful and striking illustrations. There’s a book entitled “May” with this really disturbing image (and it’s meant to be disturbing, too):

Priests, Pope, and Capitalists tread on the small, downtrodden black-and-white poor folk at the bottom of the image. But never fear: Red Army soldier is on his way to stop them.

Apparently, in the 1920’s and 1930’s there was a National Anti-Religious Publishing House. (Surprisingly enough, the above book wasn’t published by them). One of their books is about the building of a giant new factory. The biggest illustration in the book takes up two pages. It depicts a protest against religion, which is here portrayed as an obstruction to all the workers attempting to construct Socialism.

The big banner reads, “You won’t be able to build socialism with this!” The long red one says, “No days off for church holidays!” Behind the parade of protesters, garbed in red, is the new iconography: smokestacks, airplanes, and automobiles. The new “godless way of life” espoused in the text has no need for the Cross and no time for its Feasts.

There’s not much to say about these: they speak pretty powerfully for themselves. Maybe later I’ll post some more of the most striking ones.

smoked swiss and butter cream

Last week, Mark and I went on the cheese run. Our ostensible job was picking up all the cheese curds, seven-year cheddar, smoked swiss, and Midnight Moon we’ll be selling in the next couple weeks. In between stops we ate a huge Wisconsin pastry (a couple cups of butter cream at least, I think), bought butter burgers and a chocolate milkshake at Culver’s (we don’t eat like this every day, I promise), and drove through Beloit (a really nice old town with, as far as I could tell, a good combination of urban edginess, Victorian architecture, and Midwestern pick-up truck culture). On the way back we stopped in at my aunt and uncle’s house in rural Wisconsin. They adopted two adorable kids last year, and it was great to meet them for the first time.
Mark got along swimmingly with the kids.

Aw, such a cutie. (I guess the kids are cute too.)

In other and news, Lila and John are moving here!! We await their arrival with great anticipation.

Things to do after May 12

Before May 12, I have two midterms, a response paper, weekend-long Fundamentals exams, and I have to finish my BA.

I’m camped out in the Reg with all my new friends who live up here too.  When I leave home in the morning, I pack lunch and dinner, because I know I won’t be home anytime soon.  I scurry to class and back, occasionally, but mostly I write, and read, and nap, and eat, all from my spot up here.  Needless to say, I spend a lot of time thinking about what I’ll do when I’m all finished.  Here’s the hit list:

1. Have a couple shots of vodka.
2. Attend theAbbott Smile show at the Empty Bottle on the evening of May 12.
3. Actually go to the Art Institute instead of rushing out on Fridays.
4. Sew the buttons back on my winter coat, denim jacket, and batik dress.
5. Do my laundry.
6. Cook some spicy tofu.
7. Bake some ginger snaps.
8. Start selling cheese again.
9. Fix my bike.
10. Ride the lakeshore trail.
11. Indulge in senioritis.
12. Read Prince Caspian.
13. Go to Salvation Army with Tirsit.
14. Go back to the Su Casa Catholic Worker.
15. Write Lila, Carrie, Margaret, Zhenya, Ira, etc., etc.
16. Go to Jimmy’s.
17. Reminisce with fellow-seniors.
18. Attend Summer Breeze.
19. Visit my people in Oak Park.
20. Go to the beach.
21. Get my driver’s license.
22. Plan my wedding.

There’s more, but I think that’s enough for now. Now I have to get back to work.

Pithy Female Vocalists

At least I occasionally watch good stuff on YouTube.  For example, PITHY FEMALE VOCALISTS: my favorite music, most of the time, except for SWEET FOREIGN CHOIRS, which often include pithy females anyway.

Take, for example, Lauryn Hill, who’s pretty much wonderful in every way.  And most certainly very, very pithy

Parisa is another, both on the front of staggering technique, and on the female-vocalist-in-a-predominantly-Muslim-Country front, which can require a lot of finesse (not that being a classy singer doesn’t require a lot of finesse pretty much anywhere in the world).  Some of the runs in this song are just jaw-dropping.  Also, the discussion board is the most nuanced I’ve ever seen on YouTube. (I know, that’s not saying much at all)

Oum Kalthoum can never be passed over on any list of Pithy Female Vocalists.  The list that passes her over is wide open to accusations of Eurocentrism, Orientalism, and I’m sure a host of other “isms.”  This link is only for about an eighth of an entire song, as most of her songs are about an hour long (her voice only comes in toward the end of the clip).  Her voice is unbelievably expressive of romantic love, even when I can’t understand the lyrics (though I do know this one is a love song).

Then there’s Divna.  She has the clearest tone I’ve ever heard in a voice, male or female.  Very devotional too, obviously.  This is a version of Psalm 102.

There are more, but maybe I should make a separate post for “pithy female country/ folk vocalists.”   They deserve a post of their own, as do all of the above.