Thursday, December 11, 2008

Being a girly girl for a moment

Disclaimer: this post is as self-centered as it gets. As the title may suggest, the post follows a stereotypical albeit momentary obsession with weight.

I haven't been eating healthy meals recently. Since I've been working on most evenings, dinners especially are on the go and if its past 6 or 7pm, I no longer have any desire to eat. To my utter dismay, I had to give up while trying to finish a slice of cheesecake last night! Tista not being able to consume infinite quantities of something sweet is certainly cause for concern!

Keeping this in mind, I wasn't too surprised this morning when I noticed in the mirror that I looked thinner that I have in a few years. (About 5, I'd say, pinning the date to some point before my US chapters of half-and-half drinking, among other things). I went ahead and checked my weight, and to my shock, it was 4 kgs less since last time, which was only a couple of weeks ago! While on the one hand, I too have bought and partially internalized some of the social messages that permeate human existence, including ideas like thinner is better, I must admit I was perfectly happy with my previous weight and had no real desire to lose any of it. Sure, there are pockets of flab I wouldn't be devastated say goodbye to, but this looked like a matter of muscle loss. I sure haven't been exercising.

I confided my angst to my mother, when she exclaimed that she too had lost some weight in the recent past- 4 kgs, to be precise! We soon pinpointed the culprit, the faulty weight machine, which, in its defence, has had a bed collapse on it recently. The only way we could think of to check it was to put five 1kg bags of sugar (ah, sugar) on the machine. Lo and behold, it only registered less than two kilograms. I promptly discarded still nascent resolutions of planning to eat healthier and dug into a slice of cake, before 8 am in the morning. Hey, I promise I'll have a real breakfast in a hour or so and I have to make up for last night's betrayal, after all!

Monday, November 17, 2008

Ложкой снег, мешая

Ложкой снег мешая,
Ночь идет большая,
Что же ты, глупышка, не спишь?

Спят твои соседи -
Белые медведи,
Спи скорей и ты, малыш

Мы плывем на льдине,
Как на бригантине,
По седым суровым морям.

И всю ночь соседи,
Звездные медведи,
Светят дальним кораблям.

It is posited that part of the secret to the success of those who have been able to do much in their lives is the fact that they slept very little, thus being more productive than their hibernating counterparts. Why, then, do I feel so tired and not at all grateful for the gift of sleeplessness?

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Personal Statements

Several people recently asked for help with personal statements (must be that time of the year) and so I decided to compile this quick list to help plan and write. Of course this is my personal opinion, based on my understanding of what Colleges and sometimes Universities (mostly in the US) want to see in a personal statement. It may or may not be relevant, so take what seems right to you.

Since personal statements are generally restricted by a very tight word limit, don't waste your time saying something that is already clear from the rest of your application. This may include your name, your high school or other such details. Any detail that you do add, should be added with a clear purpose (unless you can show a clear connection, its not relevant to talk about your experience with a High School Choir when applying for a Master's Program in Public Health, for example). Also, don't beat around the bush, using ten words to say something that can be just as clearly expressed in five. Instead of "I was working as a teacher, teaching X" say "I taught X."

A personal statement is not a list of courses you took, jobs you held or places you traveled to. Of course any of these may be relevant, but remember to draw a clear link. What did you learn from a job that will be directly relevant to the course you want to study?

Remember your audience. The statement will be read by someone at an Admissions Office, someone who probably has to read far more statements than there are positions in the program. They are trying to use this short piece of writing to decide who the best candidates might be. As an applicant, you want to get their attention, stand out from the rest of the applicants, while still being straight forward. The statement may only have a few seconds to both get someone's attention and convince him or her that you would be a very strong candidate for the program, so avoid too many literary maneuvers that would take too long to be understood. While a level of creative writing can make your statement unique, don't write a poem. The chances of it not being appreciated are high.

You are essentially answering two main questions in the personal statement: why you are a great candidate for a program (what you would bring to the table) and why the program is perfect for you (what exactly is personally relevant). Saying that you are applying because it's a famous program, it's in a country of interest or because it's cheap, for example, are not the best reasons. If there is something about the program that cannot be found elsewhere- a faculty member with ground-breaking work, for example- praising it would probably be a good idea.

Another element that you might be juggling with while writing a personal statement is how this program and your time with it would fit into the larger scheme of things. What in your past prepares you for the program, and what will successfully completing the program allow you to do in your future?

Of course these are a lot of details to juggle with (and this post is probably a bit longer than your personal statement should be) but I hope this is helpful.

Я вас любил (with amateur translation)

Can it really get any better than this! (The poetry, not the the situation, of course).

Я вас любил: любовь еще, быть может,
В душе моей угасла не совсем;
Но пусть она вас больше не тревожит,
Я не хочу печалить вас ничем.

Я вас любил безмолвно, безнадежно,
То робостью, то ревностью томим;
Я вас любил так искренно, так нежно,
Как дай вам бог любимой быть другим।
~ Пушкин

I loved you, and love, perhaps, still,
Hasn't faded completely from my soul;
But let it not disturb you any further.
I do not want to upset you in any way.

I loved you wordlessly, hopelessly,
By bashfulness, by jealousy, tortured;
I loved you so sincerely, so tenderly,
As, God willing, another may love you.

The Russian original is by Pushkin. Thanks to Maria Zolotova for assistance with the translation.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Small People in Big Cities

The year was 1990. We used to live in Gol Market, New Delhi. An uncle of mine came to visit us with his friend Bhanu and Bhanu's wife, Savita. Apparently, they arrived on the day of Laxmi Puja. How do I remember? Well, I don't, but my mom does. She claims that she remembers details extremely well. Even in school, she would always remember where the answer to a question on an exam, for example, would be. She would remember the book, the page, the location of the text on the page, and even the day on which she had read the information. The only thing she tends to forget is the answer itself- what the text actually said! But this story isn't about my mother's memory, but about Bhanu and Savita.

Since they had come all the way from Bengal to visit us, and it was their first time in Delhi, we went sightseeing around the city (yet another time). Bhanu was very excited about documenting the trip and used the camera slung around his neck copiously. Such shutter-happiness was rarely seen, this being before the time of the digital camera. At the Qutub Minar, Bhanu asked everyone to huddle together in a group, with the tower in the background. He wanted the picture to be just perfect and felt that his wife's purse was not quite the right color for the composition, so he asked Savita to put it down for a minute while everyone posed according to his directions. A young boy, about 12 years old, offered to take the picture so that Bhanu could be in it too, but Bhanu declined the offer. "You can never trust people in big cities such as Delhi," he explained later.

Once Bhanu was satisfied with the picture, we walked towards the tower, admiring the architecture and talking about the news of a suicide attempt from the tower. The view of Delhi from the top of the tower was great and we were disappointed to see that the stairway was closed because of the latest jilted lover trying to deal with his pain by jumping off the top. Suddenly, Savita realized that she had forgotten to pick up her purse.

"How could you forget your purse?!" yelled an indignant Bhanu, to which a distressed Savita replied, "it was you who told me to put it down!"

"I told you to put it down, but I didn't tell you to not pick it up! Oh God, don't you realize, this is Delhi. People can steal your money while you are still holding your purse, minding your own business while standing in a crowded bus. And now, your purse is gone! You know money doesn't grow on trees. I work hard to make money, and you just let it slip out of our hands! I bet it was that kid, that urchin, who stole your purse." Convinced that the boy must be the thief, Bhanu walked off in a rage, in search of the boy. To our surprise, he even found the boy, not far from where we had originally seen him.

Bhanu took a firm hold of the boy's collar and demanded that the purse be returned. At first the boy looked confused, but he soon realized that a purse had been stolen and he was being held responsible. Denying his involvement, the boy tried to be helpful. "Was there a lot of money in it?" he asked. Bhanu was almost breathing fire by this time and mention of the money further stoked his anger. "Of course there was a lot of money, you little thief. Retun it with all its contents right now or I will take you to the police." The boy was also indignant, denied his involvement in the affair, and pointed out that he didn't have a purse in his posession. He was being accused without any proof and taking him to the police station would only waste everyone's time. He had a point and the rest of us explained this to Bhanu. Eventually, Bhanu understood, and, still seething, reluctantly let the boy go. We walked a bit further while Bhanu complained about Delhi, crime, hooliganism, lost youth and the loss of respect for elders among the younger generation.

A few mintues later, the boy came running back to us, this time dragging along another, slightly younger boy with him. "I told you I wasn't a theif," he exclaimed. "This guy picked up your purse. Please take it back and you can check to make sure that everything is intact. If not, we can go visit his parents." The younger boy thrust the purse towards us and a speechless Savita started to fumble through it. "Check everything properly," Bhanu instructed. Savita started taking everything out and we all saw that there were some slips of paper, some old bills, ticket stubs, a half-empty pack of tissues and about 18 rupees. Bhanu seemed satisfied with the inventory and decided to let the boys off with a scolding and a warning to never engage in such hooliganism again.

The older boy meekly asked, "Sir, can't I get a tip for my good work?"

"Are you crazy! It was your friend who stole the purse in the first place. You expect a 10 rupee tip out of this?! Fool!"

I'm sure the young boy deeply regretted his honesty at that moment.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Moscow Metro: love-hate-love-hate

Things I hate about the Moscow metro:
~The swing doors- they are pretty heavy and people are content to let the doors swing into the face of the person right behind them ~Its almost always crowded. Sometimes there are too many people in the train to get on
~The smell- sometimes, it smells really really bad. Think dead fish on wet dog
~Having to walk in baby-steps in the bottleneck near escalators during the 4 or so rush hours on weekdays
~Drunk people sleeping on the floors of wagons
~Trains suddenly stopping mid-way along the scheduled path

Things I love about the Moscow metro:
~The magnetic tickets can be used while still in your purse
~Doesn't matter where you go, same price- less than $1 per ride
~Much faster than by car, most of the day (Moscow traffic can be terrible)
~Its public transport! (hundreds of people running around by metro is much better than hundreds of people rushing around in a car each)
~Once you get the hang of it, getting anywhere is easy enough with a map. Labels are copious and clear
~There's always Pirojhok stores nearby, for a quick snack on the go
~40 seconds between trains during rush hour
~Beautiful stations. Some of them are truly breathtaking. Check out the exit at Mayakovskaya, for example
~Classical music in the tunnel between transfers

I guess, overall, I kinda sorta love it. Except for the times when I hate it, that is.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Rootedness and rootlessness

The original plan was to graduate, spend the summer traveling in the US, spend about a month in Moscow, a few more months in other parts of Russia and then move on south into Central Asia, eventually making it to Japan or Thailand. I graduated alright, but that's about as far as I stuck to the plan. My US trip ended up being several months spent between New York City and Mystic (of the Julia Roberts Mystic Pizza fame). They were both good enough in their own ways, but this was not what I had originally (i.e. about a month before graduation) planned. In Russia, I also started out well, going down to the Black Sea for a month after spending about as much time in Moscow. But then I came back to Moscow and have been here ever since- haven't even made it to SPb yet! And now I seem to have agreed with myself to stick around for about a year. I've started teaching classes and while I have no formal contracts, I get paid for some classes a month in advance. So I'm tied down by commitment for at least a month. And I still have to break it to my parents that I don't intend to go back to University next year either...

Today, thinking more economically than, in retrospect, I would have liked to, I bought a 3-month metro pass. Small things, but these little ribbons of rootedness feel slightly too tight for comfort. I'm not sure if I'm more worried about having to stay in one place for a while or about constantly making elaborate plans and then only sticking to the lowest common denominator, but I guess it was a terrible idea to name me after a river. Apt, but (insert a healthy dollop of melodrama a la Bollywood) terrible.

Monday, November 10, 2008

In TEFL mode and to teach without 'teaching'

Today started with me trying to create a list of good links for learning English- Podcasts, lists and explanations of idioms, grammar explanations, etc. Despite there being so much out there, its so hard to find something that is perfectly relevant. So if you, dear reader, know of any podcast that would be perfect for beginners who want to learn terminology specific to "Narrative Psychology" or even Psychology in general, please send them my way. So far, the only ESL podcasts I found were slowed-down speech, discussing the US elections, how to get out of credit card debt and other equally interesting things for the potential immigrant to perhaps the US, but not for the people I have in mind. In addition, I think the sound stream was slowed down mechanically, so it sounded like I was listening to robots. I understand that when you speak slower, things are clearer to the beginner to the language, but the Podcasts did not sound like a good model for the eager student to learn pronunciation, for example. Oh well, I guess it will take me at least a week to compile a list of things that would be relevant, comprehensible and somewhere near the target language.

After a day of running around and teaching some classes, I went to Perekryostok (a psychology center that works with 'troubled teens') this evening to meet the teenagers that I want to start volunteering with. For them, it is an evening club where they play games, watch movies and listen to (or perform) music. The last person who tried to teach them English left frustrated because as soon as she mentioned the word "class," all the kids were either ill, too tired, or otherwise unavailable. Learning our lessons from the mistakes of others, the psychologists and I decided to not mention the C word again, focusing instead on introducing me as a volunteer who wants to be friends and participate in their activities, but who primarily speaks English. Its been nice enough so far, with all the kids smiling, saying hello and us watching a Spanish movie dubbed in Russian, probably called something along the lines of "The Fawn of the Labyrinth." Bizarre movie, but a pretty good opportunity to bond with some of the kids. So now I'm racking my brains for ways to bring English into the group, without there being any semblance of a class. Watching movies in English is one of the easiest things to try out. In addition, we can start with games such as Twister- something that requires minimal knowledge of English vocabulary. Apparently, the kids love bands like Nirvana and Slipknot, so I need to 1. find out who these guys are, 2. listen to their music, and then bring audio and text to the group. With some lyrics in hand, we can listen and try to work through the meanings of the songs.

So far, that's all I've got. Any suggestions of what else I could do? (and while we're at it, if you have great suggestions for activities with toddlers, send 'em my way too ;) ) I love this job that's all over the place- feels so much like the rest of my life!

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Onto The Classics

There are many possible relationships between people that one doesn't normally even think about. This evening, I went to a classical music concert at the conservatory and the piece that left the most tangible impression was an unscheduled addition to the program. The show had started one hour before schedule to make room for this piece (at my puzzlement, a friend succinctly explained: this is Russia). I don't even know the name of the near-forty minute piece, but it had my undivided attention for the entire time. There were two grand pianos on stage and a man and woman played on them, facing each other (with the audience to one side of them). Sometimes their eyes met and at other times they concentrated on the frenzied movements of their fingers on the keys. The piece had several sections, ranging from the passionate to the disconsolate, the frivolous to the heavily serious. As the sections changed, so did the relationship between the two pianists, who remained oblivious to the audience throughout the piece. They played in perfect synchrony, without either of them looking at any notes. I hadn't paid much attention to classical music before, but this was simply beautiful. I must have grown old, I guess.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

First Day Jitters

Although I went to bed fairly late last night, I woke up really early today (6:30 am!). I think its because it will be my first day of Teaching English to toddlers (2 of them). The lesson is in the afternoon, but since I was awake and it's probably not a good thing to postpone everything to the very last minute anyway, I spent the first couple hours of this morning doing a little research and creating a lesson plan.

Update: The class went much better than I had thought it would. We almost abandoned the lesson plan- which was definitely the right thing to have done. The two mothers stayed in the room the entire time- a good thing, since the boy, when unable to wrestle a toy from the girl, burst into tears. Twice. The girl was preoccupied with a guitar for most of the first half of the lesson. Nonetheless, they enjoyed the singing and dancing ("Here we go 'round the mulberry bush" was particularly popular) and by the end of class, both had said a few words in English. Who would have thought I'd be working with toddlers, without it being a complete disaster?!

Monday, October 13, 2008

Silent E

"Who can turn a can into a cane?
Who can turn a pan into a pane?
It's not too hard to see
It's silent e

Who can turn a cub into a cube?
Who can turn a tub into a tube?
It's elementary
For silent e

He took a pin and turned it into pine
He took a twin and turned him into twine

Who can turn a cap into a cape?
Who can turn a tap into a tape?
A little glob becomes a globe instantly
If you just add silent e

He turned a dam - alikazam! - into a dame
But my friend Sam stayed just the same

Who can turn a man into a mane?
Who can turn a van into a vane?
A little hug becomes huge instantly
Don't add w, don't add x, and don't add y or z,
Just add silent e "

A CouchSurfer and fellow English Teacher came over today and while talking about names of places in Russia, Tom Lehrer's Plagiarism song came up (there's a nice list of Russian cities in it). We started listening to his songs on YouTube and came across the "Silent E" song. I hadn't heard it before, but it can be such a perfect supplement to a lesson on pronunciation. I love Tom Lehrer!

Friday, October 10, 2008

Flight- in search of travel or perfection?

In a class last week I mentioned to my student that I was reading "The House of the Dead" and that it had put me in a strange, brooding frame of mind. "I have just the thing for you," she claimed, and started rummaging amongst her things. Finally, she triumphantly pulled out a small binder from the storage space below her bed. It was a bilingual copy of Richard Bach's "Jonathan Livingstone, Seagull," printed from Cool, I thought. Here's something that should help with my Russian. I can try to read the Russian text on the right and use the English on the left for words I can't understand. I certainly wasn't expecting the thin little binder to get me thinking about 'life, the universe, and everything' (i.e. what I'm doing with my life today, and where I want to be tomorrow- so technically, my life, my universe, and everything to do with me).

To start with, our main character is a seagull who is different from other seagulls, with unconventional values and aims. He is not interested in screeching and bickering for scraps of food. Instead, he wants to spend his days perfecting the techniques of flight, to fly higher, lower, faster and slower than all other gulls. For this, he causes his parents immense grief and worry and even gets kicked out of the flock. Sticking to the professional, "definitely a good book for a Teacher to discuss with a Child Psychologist during an English lesson," I thought.

But then entered the sage gull Chiang. Some of his philosophies seemed reminiscent of Buddhism, and, I want to say Daoism (but I really dont know enough about the latter to make that claim with any conviction). John initially believes that the enlightened gulls, those who place a greater value on flight than food, are in heaven, but Chiang explains that "Heaven is not a place, and it is not a time. Heaven is being perfect." I can be particular about things, but I'm not exactly a perfectionist, so I was simply reading along when Chiang threw another nugget of wisdom at me, and this one made me stop in my tracks.

"The gulls who scorn perfection for the sake of travel go nowhere, slowly. Those who put aside travel for the sake of perfection go anywhere, instantly."

Sunday, October 5, 2008

On the way back from Puja tonight an ambulance passed me by on the road. The sirens were wailing, the van was slicing through traffic and there was every sign that they were up to something important. The woman sitting in the front seat was exhaling a cloud from her cigarette. Smoke therapy?

Friday, October 3, 2008

Нехорошая квартира (Not-good Apartment)

No. 302 B on Sadovaya Street is (in)famous, at least as far as apartments go. On his last widely publicized visit to Moscow, the Devil a.k.a. Professor Woland stayed with his retinue in this very same apartment. As this was during Soviet times, apartments, particularly in the city center of Moscow, were hard to come by and the devilish group had to decapitate one man and magic another away to Yalta in order to be able to lay claim to this place. Oh what deliciously evil, majestically comical events took place here! In addition to Woland (who, according to all the atheist authorities, could not possibly exist), a thin man in a prince-nez, another sporting fangs, and a decidedly cat-like man (or was it a man-like cat) romped around the place, startling passers-by and terrorizing visitors of the official kind. They held a grand ball of the most famous damned in history, shot at cards while looking away, drank vodka in copious quantities, committed arson and partook in much other revelry. It is in this same apartment and through the help of these same characters that the gorgeous Margarita was reunited with her clinically insane and self-deprecating lover (who, fondly named “The Master,” plays the role of a societally shunned author in a book that was certain to never be published during the period in which it was written). All in all, the apartment in question has been the site for a lot, literally and literarily.

Luckily for Bulgakov fan(atic)s, one of the main locations in his most famous novel is the same place he himself used to live in- that is, a real place that exists outside of fiction. No.302 B on Sadovaya, christened the ‘not-good apartment’ by the author, is now a Bulgakov museum, open to all enthusiasts, the mildly curious and everyone else in between (and entrance is free!). The modern tourist can see the same rooms that the historical Bulgakov and the fictional Woland and his posse lived in, filled with the paraphrenalia of the writer’s life and pictures and paintings depicting scenes from the novel. For the truly enthusiastic fans, there are even midnight tours of Moscow city a la Master and Margarita, including a walk near the ponds where Muscovites had their first conversation with the devil, not far from the street where the tram-car decapitated the unfortunate non-believer, Berlioz. Unfortunately, unlike the novel, this tour does not include visits to locations in Jerusalem, despite the fact that it costs approximately $40 per person. For that, read the novel- at the very least, its much more economical!

A (not) Bad Area

I recently discovered, on an online blog not unlike this one, that the metro station closest to my apartment is considered one of the scariest places in the city. Sure, I've seen a man brutally beaten by policemen near the entrance, a drunken crowd perpetually hovers near the entrances and exits and yes, I agree that the tunnel that feeds into one of the entrances does smell like a putrid combination of urine, faeces and vomit. While the general public is very well behaved and lines up incredibly peacefully and with a strong emphasis on fairness, the crowd at the ends of the escalators can get suffocatingly large (every time the thought of an emergency comes to mind, I promptly banish the ensuing visions of stampedes). I'd read articles detailing high rates of hooliganism among teens and heard stories about foreigners who had been beaten up (even killed) by 'skin-heads' in broad daylight. I know a certain dark-skinned expat who has lived in this city for decades, but who refuses to take the metro alone at night. Certain others, who don't speak the local language well, refuse to go anywhere for dinner, as it would mean returning home late at night. During my first week here, while quietly standing in the metro, I was yelled at by a man who mistook me for a "Kavkazi" (someone from the Caucassus and thus apparently highly inferior due to murky but nonetheless racist reasons). I didn't understand the language at all at that point, so the word 'Kavkazi' is the only thing that stuck.

Although in turns puzzling, annoying and terrifying, I assumed such features were simply 'how things are,' and besides, which city doesn't have its share of problems? Passing the drunken group on my way to and from anywhere I may be going, I have gotten used to it. I always ignore the crowds, the sights, the smells, and they, in turn, almost always ignore me too. On the rare occasion when someone decides to attract my attention, I play both deaf and dumb (the latter in all senses of the word). So, I guess, I have gotten used to it. I have heard the advice to "come home before dark" as I must pass a "not nice area" on my way home, but since its incredibly difficult to follow such advice, I have convinced myself that it is ridiculous.

Going back to the list, I have to admit that since I considered the sights at my metro station as 'normal,' I was indeed surprised to see it on the list of 10 Scariest Places in the city. I mentioned as much to a local friend, and she agreed wholeheartedly with the list. Stating her last experience visiting me, she used this opportunity to explain why next time, I should be the one visiting her home instead. Someone who has lived all her life in this same city found this particular area "creepy."

I still can't see (or perhaps, refuse to acknowledge) a very significant difference between my metro station and all others in this city. Sure, this is not the best part of town, but it certainly can't be the worst! Or perhaps this is self-deception based on a need to survive and the desire to acclimate- since I can't live anywhere else, the more 'normal' this place seems to me, the better. The only other option is to stay at home- the mere thought makes me feel claustrophobic. All over this city, there are people who meet, dine, dance, and I want to be part of it all too. And so, the sights at my station must be normal, and I too continue my life as usual.