November 19, 2004

The Rabbit Joke

Last summer, my Russian partner and I went to the military recruiting station so we could drum up a couple statistics for our story. This fresh-faced kid in a lumpy bulletproof vest took us up to the top of the building and we met an honest-to-god colonel with stars and such on his shoulder straps.

Our interview lasted about 30 seconds, and it was so rudimentary that I translated all by myself: “No. Sorry. No. Statistics something-or-other, no. Sorry. No. Thank you.” Elena zipped her mouth closed and squinted through her librarian-glasses; my Russian journalist buddy had contracted my American impatience and self-righteousness like those strains of chicken flu that everybody worries about catching in foreign countries. “We need to get a piece of paper with a stamp,” she said.

So we walked across the street to a grim waiting room with a row of reception-windows, each one closed up behind wood shutters; Elena knocked and a bored lady told us to use the special phone and call a special number to get the piece of paper with a stamp, and we went across the room to a rotary phone encased in a maroon plastic bubble, obviously a prop from some Soviet-era sci-fi movie; so then Elena dialed, and a person told her another number to call, which we did, and then that person told us to call back later; we waited another hour in straight-backed chairs staring at the closed reception desk shutters, but finally the person answered on the other end of the special phone and told us that they would call the Colonel in the morning and set up a meeting about the statistics the NEXT morning—“Why didn’t you just call me from your office?” asked the man on the other end of the special phone, and I almost knocked myself unconscious head-butting the oak door that led upstairs, trying to bust my way through to his office so I could explain why in the international language of kung-fu death and destruction.

A Rostov University professor told me a Russian joke in Spanish the other day; my Spanish is better than his English, even if his English stomps all over my Russian. The joke is a bit ragged in translation, like a piece of paper with a stamp passed through seven different people on the other end of a special phone: A wolf took a stroll through the woods one day, and he happened upon a rabbit pounding his hand with a hammer. “What in the world are you doing, Rabbit?” asked the wolf. “I’m making pleasure,” said the rabbit. “How could you be making pleasure?” cried the wolf, “You are pounding your hand with a hammer!” The rabbit looked up and smiled, “Sometimes the hammer misses, and then I feel pleasure.”

No country on earth grows up with fairy tales like that, so grim, doomed, sublime, anti-Zen and un-American, and that makes me feel pleasure. For instance, I was writing this story on a breezy European sidewalk park-bench, but I still managed to be neurotic in the middle of all this peacefulness. The sky started to sprinkle on my writing book. “Please don’t rain,” I mumbled. And it did not rain.

That’s how I figured out that I’m just one of those anxious and doomed people that will pound themselves anyway. But I’ll tell you, when the rain stops or you finally get the paper with a stamp, everything comes up lovely—that’s the secret of this country where wolves philosophize with rabbits instead of eating them like they do in America. I came a long way to figure out that I’m happiest when I’m mixed up, overwhelmed and pounding away. I’ve got piles of good stories about Russia now, and I’ll never put down my hammer.


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