Wednesday, September 21, 2005

It's settled

Call in your arguing uncles, let Cain once again sit at the table with Abel: the argument is over. Creative Writing cannot be taught.

Such are my feelings at least after my first class yesterday. Eight students, all lined up in chairs across from me, each looking as if his family were being audited because of something they had done the previous night, while drunk, with the police chief's daughter or Mercedes, depending on where his allegiances may lie.

I explained the course: we will read stories from the perspective of an author, we will discuss what makes a story work, character, voice, plotting, and in the end we will all produce a story to present to the class. "Tuh!" A student sighed, audibly, without even trying to hide the fact that she was sighing, audibly, and turned to the student to her right. I kept my eyes steady. Is there a problem? "But I am not a writer! You must be born for this!"

I had anticipated a problem. After all, in the states I taught only those students who expressed a desire in writing. Here, it's a foreign language class. "I'm sure we'll adjust things here and there as we go," I said.

As for the reading list, it too is in flux, though I was promised I'd have complete control over the syllabus. "About this Stalin story," my faculty advisor said, and I pursed my lips, lifted my brow. "Oh? Something wrong with the Stalin story?" I'd thought not to include it, but then I kept hearing no, no, the Fulbright experience is meant to bring new ideas and approaches into the university, we should welcome this, and so in the end I thought it would have been rude to mention the Stalin story (one of my very favorites, The Twenty-Seventh Man by Nathan Englander). So yes, Stalin was purged from the reading list, a little poetic irony there, and other stories were shuffled around (TC Boyle's "Drowning" was too shocking to start the course, for one). All of this is proving interesting enough to me for me to write an essay about it. Perhaps I'll post an excerpt in the days to come. For now, I'm off to twenty-seven students -- repeat, twenty-seven students. Maybe I'll keep it simple today, focus on the difference between lie and lay or something. Though of course, with my course reading list having already been called very sexual (if you want young people to read, give them stories about love, I say), lie and lay may be the wrong lesson entirely.

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Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Eyes, Smiles, and Candles

The picture above shows Kharkiv National University, where I'll be teaching three classes (the first in a couple of hours).

Some details from my journey so far.

While boarding my flight to Kyiv in Chicago, an airport employee – the type of guy who waves the plane home with those neon orange paddles – slipped in front of me on the gangway and into the cockpit. When he emerged, he was holding a cardboard box with a bright orange sticker: Human eyes for transplant.

In Kharkiv, while posing for a passport photo I needed for a university pass, the camera person told my interpreter to have me stop smiling, which only made me – and them – smile all the more. “In our country,” my translator said, “we look very serious for such photos.”

I have already been ill (a good thing, I think; the quicker Ukraine gets into my system the better) and so I was lucky enough to see a doctor and have this exchange with my interpreter as the doctor sat slumped behind his desk:

“And he will give you something for the pain, a powder,” G. said, “and some candles.”
He nodded. “For the anus.”
A look of sheer terror. “Candles for the anus?” I’d been told of the three medical traditions: oral, injection, and suppository. But what was this, a fourth? I pictured something like ear candles used to melt the wax, but they weren’t stuck in the ear and I didn’t know what they were doing there.
“You stick them up and”—my interpreter must have finally seen my expression—“how do you call them?” he said.
I call them not in my ass. “Suppository?” I said.
The doctor eyes lit up. He nodded. “Suh-pah-zuh-toe-rhee,” he said.
G. smiled. He shrugged. “We call them candles,” he said.
“Okay, then. Candles.”

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Friday, September 16, 2005

Why I Majored in English: An Essay

When anyone asks that inevitable question, “Yes, but what can you do with an English degree?” I will now tell them only one thing: In Kharkiv, where I went to teach on a fellowship after earning my Master’s degree in English, my class, in a historic, co-ed state institution, was comprised entirely of young women, all of them as beautiful as the rumors of Ukraine. The men were off studying math and science, I'm told, their lives given over to hard lines and facts, not the curves and angles of the literary arts.

The classroom I was shown to was short and narrow and filled with pews, giving it the look of an old Southern church. A portable square blackboard, its color streaked by chalk that after so many years wouldn’t entirely go away, sat on the desk up front. The girls occupied the pews to the right, all of them attentive and with their eyes facing K., their teacher. It was hot. Suffocatingly so. K. introduced me and went over some homework, then turned to me and asked if I would say a few words. Nothing prepared, I stood and fumbled through a brief bio – raised in England, brought to America – and then did the one thing I wasn’t supposed to do: speak broken English. “So I was taught both Englishes.” Englishes? “Both versions – or variants, I should say. American-English and English-English. There are different spellings, you know.” Idiot, idiot, idiot. “Did I say I was a writer?”

I don’t know if it was my performance (I am the first native English speaker all but two of these girls have known) but K. rose at the end of my speech and said we had better leave, it was just too hot and this room too small – it was the worst one, she assured me – and so off we went, K. and I leading the pack, the girls to the murmuring rear. K. had any number of things planned for me, the significance of which I did not understand. I couldn’t keep up. I’d been meeting people all day, being shown into offices to shake hands with men who spoke no English, being stopped on the stairs to lobby for various university memberships and privileges, being given names I just as promptly forgot. Spacibo. Ochen priyatna. And still there was more, it seemed (perhaps a session with the dean, who’d been on the phone when we first tried her) but I wanted a mobile phone, needed one in fact, so I mentioned this and she stopped and turned to face the girls (K. is a precise woman with a need to control her time, teaching as she does 22 hour per week) and said, “Class, okay, class? Today is not normal. Today your task is to go with Stephan and find him a mobile phone. I have told him you are all experts.” Giggles. “No skipping,” she said, “and no Russian – it is rude to speak Russian in front of our guest, English only please.”

And like that I was released, out the doors and onto the streets of Kharkiv, first led to this store, then to that one, with the girls surrounding me the whole while. It was dizzying. As we walked, I would speak with one girl (Had I been to Arkansas? I was an exchange student there.) and then she would fall away from my side and another, like a member of the Blue Angels, would move forward to take her place. “In our country, we address someone in a position of seniority with respect. How do you say it?” “With a patronymic.” “Yes, a patronymic. What is your father’s name? So you would be Stepan Robertovich. I like this very much.” Friendly, I had expected. But with a sense of humor? No, hadn't seen that coming. I had expected something closer to the brooding stoicism you usually see on the catwalk and given to Eastern European characters in western movies and TV; instead I was met with laughter and the sort of easy-going, let’s-have-fun attitude that I’d more easily associate with people who grow up in a reality-free suburbia.

By the time we returned to the English Philology Department on the seventh floor, a phone was in my pocket and a smile must have been on my face. “How has your day been?” asked G., a department administrator. “You do not need to tell me. I can see you have enjoyed yourself.” Yes, I should have said. I’m glad I never learned how to build a bridge.

And of course, though I'd only agreed to teach two classes, by the end of the week I was in G.'s office agreeing to a third.

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Thursday, September 08, 2005

Seems I missed the party

Confronting allegations of corruption, Ukraine's President Victor Yuschenko "has sacked his government in a move that may mark the end of the coalition that won the Orange Revolution," according to this BBC Report found at Blog de Connard.

Oh well, I'm better suited to dysfunction anyway. And it's not like I didn't entirely expect it, what with recent reports about rampant corruption and stories of Yushchenko's 19-year-old son living large with fat bank rolls, a BMW, and a bling-bling cell-phone worth more than $5,000.

The director of the Kyiv Fulbright Office sent an email to all the incoming Fulbright scholars and students this morning, welcoming us (even those, like me, not in-country yet) to "what seems to be another interesting year in Ukraine." I'm sure all this is what she meant.

As for me, I leave tomorrow morning to run some final errands in Davis and Sacramento. From there I'll take a rental car to San Francisco and stay over night in an airport hotel. My father's flying to Norway Saturday afternoon, so he's with me, though his flight is less convoluted than mine. I catch an 8:30 a.m. plane to Chicago, and then connect through Munich and Kyiv, before finally arriving at Borispol International Airport (after three or four hour lay-overs in each city along the way) at 3:30 local time Sunday afternoon.

Don't know when my next post will be. Maybe a couple of days, maybe a week. If you want to know for sure, subscribe to Everybody I Love You by scrolling to the bottom of this page and entering your email address in the box. If you're worried about me doing something nefarious with the information you provide, don't worry: I wouldn't even know how. I'm simple that way.

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Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Squat: It's What God Wanted

While trumpeting one toilet over the other in my last post, it seems I was exhibiting a case of cultural elitism, for as the literature of evacuation tells me:

Just as each country has developed its own culinary specialties, each country is silently aware of its cultural tradition of how to most comfortably evacuate the bowels.

In other words, don't knock the squat; it'd be as unseemly as frowning on the Chinese just because you don't like Kung Pao Chicken. And if you listen to these hippies, "Western Man" has been paying the price ever since switching to the sitting position 150 years ago:

Two-thirds of humanity use the squatting position to answer the call of nature. In those cultures, appendicitis, diverticulosis, hemorrhoids, colitis, prostate disorders and colon cancer are virtually unknown.

But don't worry; now you too can squat, even if your prim and proper parents did brainwash you (while calling it "potty-training") into using a sit-down toilet. Just buy Nature's Platform, which promises to "comfortably" hold the weight of even a 300-pound man.

Created by Jonathan Isbit, who dropped out one semester shy of joining Yale's class of 1972, the Platform owes its creation to a man who is no stranger to these pages, the Maharishi Maheesh Yogi.

Thirty-one years ago when he was a junior here (at Yale), Isbit went to a lecture on transcendental meditation. Inspired, he found himself buried in the stacks on the sixth floor of Sterling Memorial Library, reading every book he could find about yoga.

One of the pages in one of the books showed a yogi, fully clothed and squatting on his Achilles tendons, he said. The caption read, "Proper yogic measure to use for elimination." For Isbit, these words were the beginning of a life's work.

To read what this Victorian dared not excerpt, go here. The life you save may be your own.

For a more pleasant experience, take a pictorial tour of The Toilets of the World, from Ancient Non-Biblical Toilets (Phrygian/Hittite) to the crapper that belonged to the man who believed in Permanent Revolution, though probably not here.

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Monday, September 05, 2005


When I visited St. Petersburg last summer, I was told to bring toilet paper, nice soft American toilet paper, especially if I planned on using a public loo. Now, I don't like using the public facilities in America, so I avoided any problems in Russia by keeping my problems at home. There, in the room I rented at the Herzen University dorm, I had not only a toilet bowl but a toilet seat. Private too. This, I learned, was a luxury not to be taken for granted, for while touring St. Petersburg and its environs I saw so many seatless toilets I thought the Kappa Alphas must've followed me over and committed a rash of pranks. But no, it was more devious than that, though I learned of this only upon my return home, when my first Russian professor told me of his year studying at a Russian college. "The students stole the seats from the dormitory toilets before the first class even began," he said. These seats were then spirited away and hidden beneath a bed or inside a closet, guaranteeing the owner's bum a warm welcome on a cold winter's day.

The head may be a Communist, I thought. But the bottom is always a capitalist.

All this, I'm afraid, proved to be only half of the problem, and the less troubling half at that. For then I came upon Leningradsky Station, where Lenin first emerged from his sealed boxcar to lead the Reds in revolution. It was here that I found my first squatter, which looked only slightly better than this one from China. Now, Leningradsky Station is a place of deep historical significance, a place akin to our own Bunker Hill, and though I've never been to Bunker Hill, never even been to Boston, I think it safe to say that the Senior Senator from Massachusetts wouldn't have me setting my feet against the tread marks of even the fanciest squatter and steadying myself over its hole.

How is it that more than ten years after the fall of Communism the toilets at Leningradsky haven't been improved? And for that matter, how could they have remained that way even in the 80s? I imagine President Reagan arriving at the station and being met by Gorbachev, the Gipper saying he just needed to duck into the little boy's room, and then Gorby saying he'd do the same. And then what would happen? What would you see? Gorby and The Gip squatting over two adjacent squatters, with nary a door nor a Secret Serviceman to shield them from view.

These toilets, I'll tell ya: Few things have instilled such fear in me. This is a device that belongs in Tora Bora, hidden in a cave as it speaks calmly into the camera and describes the death and mayhem it will bring to men and women and children and small dogs. I didn't dare use it, if only because I didn't know how to use it. Was it broken? Were my hamstrings strong enough? Had someone stolen the throne? And what was that brush and bucket doing in the corner? Was that there in place of toilet paper, because I sure as hell didn't see a roll hangin yay-high with the paper facing down, rather than up. You asked the question first Lenin, now let me give it to you. What's to be done?

I'll tell ya, these toilets: Few things have left such a lasting impression on me, and so it is now, less than a week before I arrive in Ukraine, that I must confess to all and sundry: I may just hold it.

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Sunday, September 04, 2005

The Voice of America: Get Married

The Voice of America profiled Natasha Spivack -- "a modern day matchmaker who arranges marriages between American men and Ukrainian and Russian women" -- last Valentine's Day, though it failed to report how a woman was awarded $434,000 in damages after Spivack set her up with an abusive American man. Don't expect the deep reporting from the VOA, just look for what it does offer, like an explanation of the type of men who use an internet marriage agency.

Ms. Spivack says they generally fall into four categories. “One group, these are men who are divorced, who have been married all their lives and have basically lost their dating skills, she says. They're used to family life and they want to continue that. The second group has never been married, they're probably in their late forties, early fifties. They are very picky. They probably are not married because all their lives they had this ideal, dreaming of somebody that they never found, and now they're trying Encounters International as something different. Typically, we find the woman of their dreams. And these are the happiest men, because if we cannot find [a match] for them, nobody can find it!”

Another group of clients are men who have Slavic roots, and are seeking a Russian or Ukrainian wife as a way of re-connecting with their heritage and culture. The final group includes what Ms. Spivack calls the neediest men - the hardship cases, men who are either handicapped or scarred or deformed. Natasha Spivack says she has been able to find matches for all her clients, no matter what their situation. And the divorce rate among her former clients is about 13 percent - as she points out, considerably lower than the divorce rate for the United States in general. Most of the divorces happen because of unrealistic expectations, she says. She herself is very clear-eyed about the matches she arranges.

A reprint of a Washingtonian profile of Spivack from 1998 is found on Spivack's Encounters International website. If you'd like to read more about "the land of milk and battery," go to this feminist news source.

The VOA also links to an article on the popularity of internet dating:

Jeff Cohen, a commentator and author of the e-book '30 Minute Guide to Online Dating' says, "In the US alone there is 30 million people that are online dating sites and they are generating $300 million per year in the US alone. So you can imagine as it grows into other markets like Asia and South America, the numbers are going to continue to grow."

ComScore Networks, a company that tracks e-commerce data, estimates people spend over $500 million a year for the most popular matchmaking companies such as Yahoo Personals,, and

* By the way, Galina, one of the women in the flashing photo, she's a dead ringer for First Lady Laura Bush.

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Saturday, September 03, 2005

Hurricane Katrina and John McPhee

The New Yorker updated its site today, and the next issue (as could be expected) is focused on Hurricane Katrina and the devastation it caused. Though only an excerpt of John McPhee's The Control of Nature is available in the print magazine, the full piece can be found online. It's also one of many timeless essays in Literary Journalism, one of the books I'm bringing over to Ukraine.

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