(Story Day) Land of the White Nights

(Story Day) Land of the White Nights

The first half of the New Year (2007) came with the most exciting and demanding speaking schedule I had ever accepted. I began simply, with a weekend in San Antonio and several Sundays at a new church in Abilene. Then, as the semester ended in April, I packed my bags for May and June with stops at the H.E.B. campground (the same place Dana and I would go in 2010), the Pepperdine Bible Lectures in Malibu, California, a seminar for preachers in Austin, two weeks teaching at the University of St. Petersburg, Russia, and a conference at Rochester College (in northern Detroit).

I was excited about all the travel and teaching. I never had stage fright, only butterflies for whether or not I would connect with the audience. And I’ve never understood how imagining an audience naked or in their underwear could help a speaker. If I tried this the first time I preached, at the ripe age of 17, I would have been stunned into an awkward, gawking silence. But put a hundred adults in front of me (fully clothed, please), and something turns on inside me. I thrive on the challenge of engaging people in a crowd. There was only one small problem worming its way into my schedule.

My left foot began to hurt again—or I think it did. At first I thought I might be imagining things. Then, I realized that I didn’t know if my foot ever really stopped hurting from the first stress fracture. It just felt the same. So, I ignored the pain (again), for several weeks (again), until it was beyond dispute that my symptoms were real and getting worse—and not just a figment of my imagination or an over-reaction to a little discomfort.

When I went limping back to Dr. B— in early March, I already knew what he would say. I had done it again. Somehow, I caused the stress fracture to reopen. When I stood teaching, visiting with students, or walking across campus, my foot hurt just as before. And when I got off my feet at the end of the day, the same steady ache put down roots. The symptoms were the same; it had to be the same problem.

But I was wrong (again). The only thing Dr. B— could see on the X-rays was a little osteoarthritis that might be to blame for some of my pain. So he gave me medication and, for the first time, injected a steroid solution into the middle of my foot—a new experience in the world pain.

Two weeks later, I returned with no improvement. So, we agreed it was time to bring in the big guns. The MRI came first and returned as clear as a sunny day in West Texas. Next came X-rays of my back. For this, I met a new member of the team, Dr. V—, a neurologist who ruled out any spinal problem. Instead, he put me through nerve-conduction studies on both lower legs. The basic idea of this test is to put electrodes on parts of the foot and lower leg—and then use a pen-like device to shoot quick bursts of electricity down each major nerve; measuring the time it takes to make the trip and how much of the impulse gets through the nerve. If it takes too long for your leg to fly completely off the table—you have a problem. Or, in simpler terms, the longer it takes for you to be in utter agony, the worse the condition.

In mid-May, I returned to Dr. B— to discuss the nerve conduction results and my options. The neurologist found two slight problems: a small Morton’s neuroma (a non-cancerous bundle of nerves) between my third and fourth toes, and a slight compression of the nerve running through the inside of my left foot between the protrusion of the anklebone and heel (the Posterior Tibial Nerve). In other words, I had a slight case of Tarsal Tunnel Syndrome (similar to Carpal Tunnel Syndrome for the wrists or hands). Both the neuroma and Tarsal Tunnel Syndrome cause pain, and both could be surgically corrected—if absolutely necessary. But if possible, Dr. B— advised, it’s best to ride out the pain, treat the conditions with medicine, and avoid surgery. He had no argument from me. So he gave me a script for pain relievers and another injection into my ankle/foot.

In between trips to the doctor’s offices and testing centers, I finished the spring semester, gave my lecture at Pepperdine, taught at the seminar for preachers in Austin, and then on May 26thattended my daughter’s graduation and boarded the first of four flights that would take me to Russia. Twenty-six hours later, at 10 PM on Sunday, I landed in St. Petersburg and stepped out into an eerie twilight. Until this moment I hadn’t realized that St. Petersburg is almost as far north as Anchorage, Alaska. Nor did I know that from the beginning of June til mid-July, the sun never sinks below the horizon, but instead creates long hours of dusk throughout the night: my first big surprise of the trip. Even more surprising, I left the airport to find city fully awake and alive. My driver (and host) explained that this weekend was the celebration of the “Scarlet Sails”—an event that marks the brightest days in the season of “White Nights.” Traffic was a mess, in part due to the hundreds of thousands of residents gathered for the party and the fireworks, and in part because the Neva River Bridge was opened for boats sailing down the river as part of the celebration, closing a major artery into the heart of the city and to the university. (Photo below taken near midnight.)

It was well after midnight when we reached the room used for visiting professors. The space and its furnishings were quite nice: a large, comfortable bed, private bath, desk and chair, television with a VCR, a collection of movies, and most important—large pull down blinds to cover the windows at night. I was relieved to see them—at least until I finished unpacking and closed the blinds to get some rest. The Russian blinds refused to deprive me of the experience of the White Nights. I found another promising solution in the nightstand: a sleep mask to cover my eyes. I tried to use it, but unfortunately I am a restless sleeper and the mask traveled all over my face. So with resolve, I decided that I would just have to be Russian for a couple of weeks and live with the glowing dusk of the White Nights.

I’d like for you to be impressed by the fact that I taught for two weeks at the Institute of Theology and Christian Ministry (ITCM) housed within the prestigious University of St. Petersburg. But to keep the ninth commandment and tell the truth, I only know three Russian words: “hi” (“Privet”-Привет), “thank you” (“Spasibo”- Спасибо), and “good bye” ("Do svi-danya”-До свидания, literally "until the next meeting"), and I admit that I speak these with a Texas accent. So, I needed a little help and received crucial assistance from an older student who wrote on an index card: Два Биг Мак, картофель, и средних кокса пойти (“Two Big Macs, an order of fries, and medium Coke to go”). So I could walk to the McDonald’s across from the subway station (several long blocks away from my room), stand in a line for twenty minutes, push my way to the counter, present my card, pay, and take dinner back to the room.

To further supplement my Russian vocabulary, the ITCM hired two young students at the university to do simultaneous translation while I taught—the second big surprise of my trip. The process was nothing less than astounding. As I spoke into a microphone, the translator listened through his headphones and converted my words into Russian, speaking into his microphone that was connected to the students’ headphones. I never had to stop and wait for the translator; I just kept teaching. Then, when the students had questions or presented their projects (see photo), the translator flipped the switch (and his brain) so that I could hear his English translation through my headphones. With this minor assistance, I was able to teach at a Russian university for two weeks. I did have to slow my pace, and I learned quickly that any inflection of my voice (such as excitement or emphasis) was translated without distinction. I fell flat on my face when I tried to use humorous sarcasm (a very bad idea), and my jokes were dropping to the bottom of the Neva River (only a block away from the classroom).

After my first morning, it was clear that my normal shtick with students back in Abilene was not going to work in St. Petersburg. I was in deep trouble: no matter what I said or how I said it, by the time it passed through all the microphones and headphones it came out with the same monotone rhythm. And I would have sunk for sure if not for the enthusiasm of the students. They were incredibly eager to learn no matter how dull I might be or how flat my voice might sound in Russian.

That said, any way you look at it, the two young translators were impressive. Rarely did either of them ask me to slow down or repeat words. Word for word, sentence for sentence, hour after hour, both young men stayed with me. I still don’t understand how anyone can provide a spoken translation while at the same time listening to the next phrase or sentence to translate. During a break, I asked about their future plans, expecting that there must be a lucrative market for simultaneous translators—and in fact, there is a strong market. But neither young man planned to continue this work for the long term. They explained that despite the demand, there is a sizable downside to the career: those who work long term in simultaneous translation run a significant risk of developing serious mental health problems and committing suicide. I suppose all that switching back and forth in the brain is bound to singe a few wires and burn a few fuses. I affirmed their wise decision not to make a career out of simultaneous translation.

The weekend between classes I ventured out to see the city...

to be continued—

Next Week: “From Russia with Love”

Excerpt from a working manuscript, A Fire in My Bones: A Memoir of Life with CRPS (copyright Glenn Pemberton).

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