« April 2004 | Home | June 2004 »

The De-Bearding

When I started growing out my beard last fall, I had every intention of shaving it off come springtime. Seasonal growth is much more hip than being the token bearded guy from Wisconsin, plus it's no fun to have a beard in the heat and humidity that is the Midwestern summer. The obvious perk of shaving is that on the way back to a clean shave, I could try out all the looks that I have never been brave enough to attempt. Taking Jon's cue, I documented the whole process with a slew of pictures that Dinka would probably like to see thrown out. I am making them public for two reasons: 1) for your amusement, and 2) for your feedback. My facial hair will return in some form next fall, but which will it be? It's up to you to decide.

Note: At least two of these growth patterns may result in Dinka leaving me. Please keep that in mind when casting your vote.

Launch The De-Bearding

May 28, 2004 | Comments (4)

On Pnin

As I attempted to gather my thoughts on Pnin this past week, I came across this timely book review in the Guardian, which put into words many of my impressions about the novel. Every time I finish a good book and want to say something about it, I am frustrated by the fact that I do not have the sufficient language with which to frame my discussion (see my thoughts on Borges for an illustration). I suppose this is the type of thing that comes with studying literature, a task I regretfully neglected in college and am trying to catch up on now.

So instead of struggling through my own interpretation here, let me present a couple of paragraphs from the article that I thought summed up my feelings quite well:

A formidable body of commentary and exegesis has by now accumulated around this slim volume. But even first-time readers cannot fail to appreciate Nabokov's marvellous and distinctive way with words. The apparently effortless fertility of his metaphorical imagination is never employed ostentatiously for its own sake, but always to give us an enhanced awareness of reality. For example, Pnin's habit of breaking off from the prepared text of his lectures to interpolate some personal reminiscence is described as "those unforgettable digressions of his, when he would remove his glasses to beam at the past while massaging the lenses of the present" - a brilliant fusion of the literal and the metaphorical, of the physical and the emotional. Or take the more elaborated account of Pnin's reaction to the extraction of his teeth:

"It surprised him to realize how fond he had been of his teeth. His tongue, a fat sleek seal, used to flop and slide so happily among the familiar rocks, checking the contours of a battered but still secure kingdom, plunging from cave to cove, climbing this jag, nuzzling that notch, finding a shred of sweet seaweed in the same old cleft but now not a landmark remained, and all there existed was a great dark wound, a terra incognita of gums which dread and disgust forbade one to investigate."

Pnin was a joy to read. Nabokov's style and choice of words are impeccable yet so seemingly effortless that all one can do is marvel at his ability. As if all this wasn't enough, he accomplished it in his second (or third?) language. His treatment of fictitious Waindell College is a hilarious commentary on academia. I also loved the character of Pnin for the traits of my father-in-law that were echoed in him (only positive, Kegla!): a passionate and humorous émigré trying to articulate himself (and his jokes) in a foreign language and culture, and holding a nostalgia for the country of his birth just below the surface.

As one Russian novel is completed, the next is begun. This time it's the big one: The Brothers Karamazov. It is a summer's work but I think it will be well worth the while.

May 22, 2004

The Story

On this our fourth anniversary, Dinka and I thought it would be appropriate to present the story of how we met, with all its over-the-top romance, angels shining light down from heaven, etc. This is actually something I have wanted to do for a while and I'm reminded of it every time I meet a new person and I can feel the inevitable question coming on: "So...how did you meet?" Ideally I could one day respond to that question with a link to this entry but I don't think I'll ever be able to stop telling some version of this story. So without further ado, here it is. Dinka has told her side of the story, now here's mine.

In the fall of 1998, I arrived on the campus of Valparaiso University, a fresh-faced Wisconsin boy with a shiny new laptop (the same that I'm typing on right now, sadly). With college came a new and unusual freedom, but instead of boring you with another "how I found myself in college" story, I'll cut to a more relevant feature of campus life: broadband internet access. I had never known anything but dial-up before so having access to a connection like this was a revelation. I probably spent a little too much exploring these new possibilities and not enough on CS 157 but within a few months, I had a hard drive full of more music than I could listen to, a renegade FTP site (well, forbidden anyway) and a network of reliable sources. I am proud to have been a part of the mp3 old school.

One afternoon I got an ICQ message from someone in Austria saying that she was having problems downloading songs because the connection was too bogged down. We talked for a bit about the music and that was it. After that, we would occasionally chat when one or the other would sign on, which progressed to longer conversations, and then onto email. For all the interacting I had done with people online, I had never really talked to anyone before that so it was exciting to have a new friend, especially one that helped me procrastinate by being several time zones away, providing conversation into the wee hours when all good freshman had finished their homework and gone to sleep. We often joked about our "relationship" and used pretend terms of affection. I sent her a t-shirt, she sent me cookies.

Everything was going along smoothly and we were having a good time when I received a birthday present from my aunt--a check that was meant to pay for me to go wherever I wanted on spring break. I was completely stunned. I had nowhere to go and no one to go with but that wasn't about to stop me from taking advantage of such a generous and unique offer. I mentioned my dilemma to Dinka one day and somehow the suggestion bubbled up that I might be able to stop through Vienna if I was in the area. I don't remember how it came up or how it became a serious possibility in my mind but I started thinking about it and the more I thought, the better it sounded. I would simply stop by Vienna on my whirlwind tour of Europe, visiting all my international friends.

I should probably pause here to point out that I am neither impetuous nor daring but rather quite the opposite. I'm a worrier and a planner in most things, not the type to jaunt off to another continent by myself without a knowledge of the language or a solid acquaintance to fall back on. I shudder to imagine what would have happened if Dinka had not shown up at the airport and I was left to my own devices for ten days. Best case scenario: I manage to ride a lot of trains around and take pictures, talking only to hostel clerks and fast food employees the entire trip; worst case: I sleep in the airport for the duration of the trip, dining at the Irish pub and reading every English-language magazine in the house. However none of these frightening possibilities concerned me in the least and I don't know why. I'm sure my mom did enough worrying for the both of us and I can't say that I blame her. I must have been confident enough in my online penpal that I didn't honestly think I'd have to fend for myself, but even if things went well, I should've had at least a week on my own.

Anyway. Dinka and I spoke a couple of times on the phone to dispel our mutual fear that the other was a dirty old man. She warned me that all our plans were tentative and that I shouldn't depend on her but I was totally unfazed (to put it nicely). Maybe I was just so overwhelmed by my collegiate busyness that I couldn't fully process the consequences of my decisions. Before I knew it, I was emailing my Flannery O'Connor paper to my professor (two days late) and on a plane to Vienna. I hadn't slept the night before (because of the paper, not the anxiety) and could not sleep on the plane, so by the time I showed up I was a sleep-deprived wreck running solely on nervous energy.

I wandered off the plane, managed to find my luggage and then anxiously approached the exit. I knew what Dinka looked like from the few pictures we had exchanged for that purpose so we spotted each other with no problem. We were both a little wound up with all the excitement and this led to a few uncomfortable moments in the early going. When Dinka's nervous, she talks; when I'm nervous, I shut up. But that all passed quickly and in no time we were talking like old friends. I didn't realize it then but we had talked so much before meeting that most of the uncertainty was taken out of the equation and it made for an easy transition. That evening we sat and had coffee in a nice Viennese cafe and talked, even though that's what we had been doing all day. I cringe to remember some of my more youthful moments in that conversation but I think that generally it was wonderful. Talking face-to-face was nice, very natural. In our ambition to pack as much into the day as possible, we saw an ill-advised film and I was fighting back sleep the entire time.

I have no explanation for what comes next (you will notice that this is a trend in this story). We walked back to my hostel together and on the corner outside, we kissed. It was something of a relief, which surprised me because I wasn't aware of all of these emotions that were building up inside, waiting for a chance to spring out. It was impossible to say goodbye that night. My heart was beating a million miles an hour with the excitement of new romance but alas, the trains are not late in Vienna and the last one out of town (Dinka's only means of getting home) was leaving at midnight. I went up to my room and stared straight up, my mind reeling from the events of the day and my heart thumping away in my chest.

Dinka had an exam the next morning (I wonder how that went) and we planned to meet afterwards. I remember sitting in the lobby of the hostel, wondering if it could really be true, needing to see just her smile to confirm that I was not alone in all of my feelings. I wasn't. We spent the day at the zoo, sitting on a park bench and watching all the families go by with their strollers. I am not ashamed to admit that I was already thinking about the possibility of having a family with Dinka, as crazy as it may seem. I'm probably lucky that I wasn't hit by a bus that day because my head was entirely in the clouds.

From that day on, everything was simple. I never had a doubt about Dinka or about how our little fairy tale would "end." I didn't know much about what I was doing or where I was going at the time, but I knew that it would be with her. In the midst of all the craziness, I felt at peace and complete for the first time. It was a whole new world.

The rest of our story is no less unlikely but the path was always clear. I left at the end of those two weeks with a heavy but determined heart. Dinka came to visit me five months later and stayed for three weeks. I went back to Austria in December and asked her to marry me (a mere formality). In May of 2000, fourteen months after meeting and having spent only two months together in person, we were married in a small church outside of Vienna. The rest, I suppose, is history.

Whenever I remember this story, even after living it and retelling it a hundred times, I am still dumbfounded. The sheer improbability of it all is mind-boggling yet I know that it could never have been another way. This part of my life is my own little proof of the existence of God, a theorem to be confirmed much later by the arrival of Veronika. Beats the heck out of Pascal.

May 18, 2004 | Comments (3)

The Right to Reminisce

I believe that one of the advantages of aging is that one is allowed (perhaps even expected) to provide a certain amount of commentary on the aging process and publicly reminisce about days gone by. The older you are, the more that others must tolerate. I happily join in this tradition but since I am but a young lad of twenty-four, I will try to know my place and keep it brief.

May 07, 2004 | Comments (1)