Friday, December 30, 2005

On Holiday

Everybody I Love You will not be loving you for the next eight or nine days. Celebrating New Year's, Russian Christmas, and whatever else comes along. Gonna be here, there, and everywhere. Should re-emerge with some stories, or at least a few pictures, including one of a modern wonder of the world.

In the meantime, if you're interested in books, you might visit Read.

If you also like feral cats, try Assbackwords.

Otherwise, I'll leave you with Felix Dzherzhinsky, pictured above, the man who established the CHEKA, the forerunner of the KGB. His likeness is still on a prominent corner of the local Ministry of Internal Affairs building.

And oh yeah, when I get back -- someone better not have turned off the gas.

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Tuesday, December 27, 2005

No stress marriages

Six days ago, I was contacted by a man from America's east coast who'd stumbled upon my site at work. The story he shared with me challenged the most commonly held presumptions of an internet-brokered marriage, so, at the risk of putting forth something that sounds like it belongs in a brochure, I'll post it here. I hope he doesn't mind my posting this truncated version; I asked if I could, but five days have now passed without a response. Perhaps it's the season. Anyways, I see no reason not to, so ...

My New Year's resolution for 2003/4 was to have 5 major international vacations, with most of them being to countries where I haven't visited before. (At that time, I had been to roughly 50 countries in various capacities.) One area of the world that I hadn't been to that I really wanted to go was the FSU (Former Soviet Union). None of the friends that I travel with were interested in going to the FSU, and I speak no Russian. (Even today, I still can't roll my r's.) Since I didn't have any connections there, I thought that I would post an ad on Elena's Models. While I adhered to the standard ad, in a very early mailing, I would always mention that I was primarily interested in seeing and experiencing a new country. What did I look for in a travelling companion? Someone around 30, fluent in English, well-educated with a background or at least an interest in history, and enjoying travel.

Inna had joined Elena's Models at the urging of a friend. She felt it would be an excellent way to practice her English. If someone actually visited, she thought it would be fun to show the person her country. She was planning on becoming a professor of history/philosophy in Belarus upon completing her doctorate and really didn't have much intention of leaving.

So, I went to Belarus for a couple of weeks during the first half of 2004. I selected Inna/Belarus and not some other person in that she was the easiest and most fun to talk with, and I figured we could have an enjoyable time together. At the time of my visit, I was dating a couple of women in the US. Of course, neither one was yet serious, but when I got back from vacation, I would have to figure out which one I wanted to date seriously.

Bottom line, Inna and I had a wonderful time together, and I felt that I got to experience a little of what life under Communism must have been like. When I got back to the US, I decided who I really wanted to date. Much to my surprise, it was Inna. We had a wonderful time together about 5 weeks later in Moscow, then a month after that in Prague, then Warsaw, and finally Lithuania. We continue to have a good time in the US. Inna and I have been married for three months today.

I think the secret to my success is that I didn't go to the FSU to "meet a wife", I went to "meet a friend" and to have an enjoyable vacation. Many of the other successful couples that I've met have also met under lower stress circumstances.

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Winter Photos

Beautiful around here of late, though the sidewalks get more slippery by the day, with little patches of black ice building up here and there. The men pictured above got along just fine, slowly walking through the snow. I took their picture in the park nearest my apartment.

The second shot is a close-up of the statues in the background of the first photo. All of the busts, like this one, are Soviet-era, honoring heroes from the 1920s through the Great Patriotic War to near the end of the Krushchyov era. This guy, I thought, looked a bit like Reagan, at least his hair did.

The final shot, taken in October, shows the memorial mosaic in the far background of the first shot.

Click any of the photos to make them larger.

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Friday, December 23, 2005

Cook's Corner: A discovery is made

I now know how Columbus must have felt when he first saw land on the western horizon, or what must have been going through Balboa's mind when he climbed the crest of a mountain and spotted the glimmering Pacific beneath his feet. I have joined the ranks of the world’s great explorers, because this evening I stopped dumbfounded in a Ukrainian super-market and raised to my eyes a jar of classic American peanut butter -- peanut butter, in the wilds of Eastern Europe!

I wasn’t prepared for this. Just last week, a public affairs officer with the State Department told me of a bazaar held each year at the US Embassy in Kyiv for the benefit of the ex-pat community. “Next year sell peanut butter” – this was what they'd heard again and again. “We can’t find peanut butter anywhere.”

Nor could I, though certainly I'd tried. This very same week, at a market just north of Kharkov National University, I’d thought I’d come across some. It was a small plastic tub, like the type you might see used to sell cottage cheese in the states. On the lid was a picture of a rabbit (related to Bugs Bunny from the looks of him) who was poking up out of a small circle (again, very reminiscent of the opening of any Looney Tunes cartoon -- you quickly get the idea that a copyright attorney would have a field day here). Beneath this (and a word I didn't understand) was a bold amber word, “Maca,” which I took to be the Ukrainian equivalent of the Russian word for butter, “Maclo.” This by itself wasn’t exciting, but the cartoon peanuts that were scattered all around the lid were. I was the holder of a Master’s degree in English, after all -- a linguist you could say, capable of connecting meanings and tracing roots, and here was a word that meant butter and there were pictures that meant peanuts. Synthesize the two and you had peanut butter.

So yes, I put the tub in my basket and walked proudly to the front check-out. And of course it wasn’t the right thing. Opening the lid, I found something inside that was thick, spreadable and white -- certainly nothing resembling the peanut. And instead of nuts, the concoction was spotted by the stray yellow raisin. I tested it out on a corner of bread. It wasn’t bad, but it wouldn’t go with jelly. If anything, it belonged inside a bliny. I put it away, resenting once again, in this city that speaks only slightly more Ukrainian than Vietnamese, the lack of bi-lingual packaging. (And say what you will about Ukraine’s need to assert its independence and establish a national identity, but know too that it’s more than frustrating to leave the pharmacy, as I’ve done on more than one ocassion, with three or four things that include instructions only in a language that’s all but impossible to learn in the American university system. Maybe when Ukrainian politicians don’t need coaching on their country's official language, maybe then I’ll say Ukraine's ready to be mono-lingual. But until then, for the sake of my sanity and the simple health of any Russian-speaking tourist industry that might develop …)

Back to the peanut butter, though, and fast-forward to this evening. That’s when I entered the Target super-market just off the Marshal Zhukova Metro stop. I’d been here before, I’d seen the massive blue and yellow building taking up half a city block and heard it spoken of as the Ukrainian Wal-Mart. But I’d never seen peanut butter inside its concrete walls, and I no longer expected to. Like all dreamers, I’d learned the futility of unrealized potential. I was hoping to buy some eggs, some lavash, maybe a can of peas. I was happy to make-do. But then there it was, arranged neatly on a little island display away from the shelves. A flag planted, as if planted into the soil of a new world, rose from between the many plastic jars: Oreshka Peanut Butter, it read.

The contents of the jar were concealed by a plastic halter on which a striped and amber cat offered a wide grin, looking vaguely like a cousin of Tony the Tiger’s (though with a poofy white hat borrowed from Chef Boy Ardee). Running off to the sides of his cartoon face were pictures of peanuts.

I flipped it over to look through the clear plastic bottom: a thick brown paste. Like gold, Texas tea, most definitely peanut butter. I looked again at the label, which offered up a loving combination of Ukrainian and Russian, belying its origins in the eastern city of Lugansk. Oreshka, it read, classic peanut butter, No. 1 in Ukraine.

Here was the national dish of America, and even the marketing reminded me of home. It was awash in bullshit. Number one in Ukraine? Of course! Because there is no number two! Still, who cared?

I write to you three sandwiches later, content to my very core. This comes one day after cooking home-made, curry-flavored tofu burgers, the blocks of bean curd found at the sprawling Barabashova Market, hidden away from the outdoor vendors and located in the Asian market behind the handful of walk-up Vietnamese lunch counters.

If you’re looking for bok choy, I’ve got a guy who can score me some of that too. Anything else, let's talk.

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Thursday, December 22, 2005

Belarus to restrict marriage agencies

In Belarus, where the state controls 80 percent of all business and the country is led by "Europe's last dictator," a new law has been passed requiring models -- or clothing demonstrators, as they're known by their government labor records -- to be citizens of Belarus. If they're not, they can't appear on a billboard, tv commercial or in a newspaper or magazine ad inside the country.

The law requiring a model to prove her citizenship was passed in April, after President Aleksander Lukashenko fretted over the mushrooming presence of Cindy Crawfords and Kate Mosses last year.

I always imagined Belarus would be the next major source of internet-arranged marriages, if its borders ever became more open. But in the immediate future at least, it looks like less marriages will be brokered out of Ukraine's northern neighbor.

A new law passed by the lower house of Parliament last week, for example, would impose restrictions on Internet dating and marriage agencies, especially those catering to foreigners. It would also restrict college students from studying abroad without permission from the Education Ministry.

The rest of this article can be found in the New York Times.

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Wednesday, December 21, 2005

'Tis the Season

It's been a strange, enjoyable Christmas season so far. No jingles that stay in your head, no plastic Santas on every third lawn, no Christmas sales advertised on tv and radio and in my Sunday paper, no Christmas-themed television shows and segments on the evening news live from Wal-Mart to tell you what's this year's Cabbage Patch or Furbee or Burping Betty. No first day after Thanskgiving. No last day for guaranteed delivery by the 24th. No Kwanza, thank god there's none of that. This is a holiday so cynical and materialistic, people, it was created to coincide with the post-Christmas sales -- the seven day celebration of "African roots" starts December 26th, at a mall near you.

Scrooge, you say? No. Just saying if we used to celebrate a religion, a system of beliefs, now, in the secular world, we celebrate a verb: to buy. The stuff with the family's good Christmas Day, but there's about 30 days of Christmas leading up to that which can induce a crazy kind of anxiousness and fear.

I found this enjoyable read on a friend's blog.

There is nothing in the Gospels about battling other parents for the last Xbox 360 or knocking down other shoppers to get to discounted personal computers. There are no Christmas sales in the New Testament, nor is there instruction on returning the items you didn't like. There are no guidelines on the dubious practice of "re-gifting." (If you look closely, however, you can probably find admonitions against cursing out the motorist who got to that one empty parking space before you.)

Here, a tree went up the other day in the public square. I saw one store that looked a little greener and redder than usual. Nothing on TV. But then they celebrate according to the Julian calendar, January 7, and I hear trees are decorated and gifts exchanged for New Year's as much as anything else. It's like there's a war somewhere, and all the usual color and noise has been rationed, enough left only for a central square and then another tree down at the train station. Oh, and snow. They had enough left over for that.

It's kind of nice.

Photo courtesy of Adbusters, the anti-consumerist group with branches in a handful of countries, including Norway.

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Monday, December 19, 2005

The Baltic States, an unlikely tour

I found myself needing this information today to acknowledge some research for a magazine bio, so I thought to post these links here. You may not be in the area to visit, but you can at least have a click and see. It's important that everyone does, I'd say. The lessons of history and all that, don't know them they repeat today; you know the routine. Anyways:

Two summers ago, I visited Moscow with my girlfriend, who was kind enough to take me, with my interest in the Cold War and 20th century history, to the Lubyanka Building, in the heart of the Russian capital. Here, in a beautiful yellow building, the KGB used to do not so beautiful things in the basement. Isaac Babel is believed to have been killed here, caught up in one of Stalin's purges. His last words: "Let me finish my work!"

From there, I left alone by train for a tour of the Baltic states, and a tour, I'm sure, few travel agents would book. The Museums were located in each of the capitals: Tallinn, Latvia, Vilnius. By the end, I thought to get a faux-rock concert shirt printed: Stephan Clark's Tour of Oppression and Repression, Summer 2004.

In Tallinn, I visited the Occupation Museum, which tells Estonia's history from 1940 until the end of Communist rule in 1991. Located in a modern building on the edge of the city's beautiful Old Town, you'll find lots of video here documenting the period, from the initial Nazi occupation to the take-over by the Red Army and the subsequent authority of the KGB. The website offers Russian, English and Estonian versions.

Riga also has an Occupation Museum, and it too is housed in a beautiful building in the Old Town. No video that I recall, but plenty of personal items are on display here, including many, like this facemask used to fight the cold, that detail the gulag system in ways that were invaluable to my research of "Kamkov the Astronomer," a short story forthcoming in the Cincinnati Review. This website, while beautifully designed and offering a great virtual tour, does not offer a Russian version, like the following website, something I find a little peculiar. The above image was borrowed from this site.

Finally, I visited The Genocide Victims' Museum in Vilnius, which is housed in the basement of the city's former KGB headquarters. You enter it as a prisoner would, moving from the registration desk to those more chilling rooms in back, such as the Room of Inquiry and the Room of Execution. All the while, if you listen to the voice of the poncey Brit on the supplied Walkman, you learn about the many horrors that took place here. It is chilling. An experience best taken alone, on a slow day, when, if you're lucky, you might not bump into anyone with a camera swinging from their neck.

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The White House Goes Red

Whenever one company takes over another, it absorbs those products or techniques that are profitable and discards those that are not. The United States, which governs more and more by the corporate model than the civic version, is no different. When it triumphed over Communism, it might as well have been a corporate takeover. Overnight, the world went from being dominated by two brands to one. Markets expanded for American and western companies. McDonald’s came to Moscow, German supermarkets opened in Kyiv. The politics in Washington, now unchallenged on the world stage, also began to change, pushing out to fill in its new, roomier boundaries. My short story "The Secret Meeting of the Secret Police," which came out in Night Train magazine a couple years ago, talked about where this might lead, saying how easy it'd be for the KGB -- or any other government agency -- to spy on you in the age of the Internet and the mobile phone. Now we have the payoff.

President Bush has authorized the National Security Agency to spy on American citizens without the oversight of even one of the Patriot’s Act hastily-assembled secret courts. I can only imagine what the talking heads are making of this on cable TV back in the states, but if it surprised anyone, I can’t see how it did. Anyone who bothered to read the Patriot Act, either before it was signed or in the months afterward, knew that such a thing was bound to happen. If you’re suspected of being a terrorist (and there’s no evidence needed to justify that suspicion, just the suspicion itself) the government can send the police or its own agents into your house or apartment to perform a “sneak-and-peek” inspection, all without your ever knowing it. This isn’t even limited to terrorism; the powers are granted for the investigation of any criminal offense. So while Supreme Court Justice Anton Scalia insists that the US Constitution should be viewed as it was intended when it was written, I find it hard to believe that he and his fellow conservatives can support laws that pervert America's most sacred legal document. Notification is required in these "sneak-and-peek" intrusions, but it can be delayed indefinitely. That's like saying, "We believe in the Fourth Amendment, but only tomorrow, or next week, or better yet the day before you're dead."

When Ronald Reagan was first promoting his ideas for a laissez-faire Washington, he made a joke about the Democrats’ hands-on, overly-regulated form of governance. With that winning smile of his, he had people imagine the Democrats going door-to-door. “I’m from the Government,” he joked, “I’m here to help.” And yet now I’m sure the same people who laughed at this line continue to believe that the government only serves to protect you, that it should even be able to reach out beyond the borders of the Constitution because it’s just doing what’s good and right and proper.

That's what Condoleezza Rice believes. She defends the President’s right to act without any external oversight, because it's a different world and all. Faster and spookier, full of email and cell-phones and the devices of the Evil-Doer.

Just listen to her.

Under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978, or FISA, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the National Security Agency must obtain search warrants from a special court before conducting electronic surveillance of people suspected to be terrorists or spies. Ms. Rice said the administration believed that it needed greater agility in investigating terrorism suspects than was possible through that process.

"These are stateless networks of people who communicate, and communicate in much more fluid ways," she said. But several national security law experts and civil liberties advocates note that government officials are able to get an emergency warrant from the secret court within hours, sometimes minutes, if they can show an imminent threat.

– From the New York Times.

Maybe there was more evidence that all of this was coming. In 2004, then-Attorney General John Ashcroft reversed the ban that kept the FBI from spying on American organizations. It won’t be abused, he promised. But then J. Edgar Hoover promised the same thing when Martin Luther King and other civil rights workers were brought under small government’s version of Big Brother, COINTELPRO, a secret and blatantly illegal government organization that aimed to “disrupt, misdirect, discredit, and neutralize” groups and individuals the FBI found objectionable.

Which today would be just about anyone, what with your either being for or against the guy in the Oval Office.

But again, it's only natural that it's come to this. After acting unilaterally on the international front, by bypassing the United Nations in Iraq, the President is now acting unilaterally on the domestic front. “Unilateral” is a very clean word, isn’t it? If this unilateralism was happening inside the Soviet Union, or in present-day Belarus, we might be using a word more easily associated with one of those leaders who used to stand atop Lenin’s tomb, his breast heavy with medals and red stars. Dictator. That's the word we might inch toward. But if I suggested there were shades of that word moving into DC, it'd just be more evidence of the contemporary caterwauling that is politics.

At some point you have to turn your back on a President. If you don’t like the United Nations, that’s one thing. But Congress is a pretty sacred institution, cherished in my book, as it, along with an independent court, keeps us from the age of kings. If President Bush needs to act more quickly, he should talk to the country, he should talk to Congress -- hell, if he has to he should watch that Saturday morning cartoon about bills on Capitol Hill and do something about it. Because he's not God's Holy Warrior, sent here to protect us with his great wisdom and valor. He's just another guy in a cowboy hat who walks a little funny.

And remember, for every one crime that is reported, another nine go left unsaid. Do you know what's happening in Washington?

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Friday, December 16, 2005

I’m nobody’s vich

From my kitchen window I can see a school playground. Usually I pay the noise no mind; it’s just a murmur at a certain time of the day. But this afternoon I looked while waiting for my eggs to boil. There were maybe twenty children out on the blacktop, a little after twelve noon on a gray day. Recess, I thought. Lunch time. Then I noticed what seemed to be a beating-in-progress. Four boys were playing at this game, ten or twelve-year-olds all, and one of these had been assigned the role of victim. Poor chap, I thought. Getting a bit of a rough end of it. A fist or two here, another there, maybe a flying foot every now and then. Nothing too dreadful – these blows didn’t pack enough punch to send anyone down – but then I looked up from this group and saw another duo of boys at the far end of the playground, back behind the trees that’ve gone leafless with the winter. Here was another boy getting beat, mittens on a string flying up in the air with each punch. Two other children came in from the left side. I didn’t even have time to hope that they might be the peace-makers. One of the advancing boys got in on the fun, and then the two aggressors were lining up their victims against a wall, an ominous move that touches on the worst of history. I told myself to look away, I had to watch. Nothing too serious, I guess. Just Ukrainian boys having fun. The girls were mostly playing hop-scotch, some of the boys too, but otherwise there were no more options: no jungle gyms over beds of soft tanbark, no four square courts and bouncy red balls, no tetherball poles, no benches on which children were gathered around books of D&D. Just the most natural toys: the stick and the boot, the fist and the elbow, the concrete wall.

In other news, I realized yesterday that I’m nobody’s vich. You know, my neighbor is Yuri Grigorovich. Such-and-such at the university is So-and-So Nikolayovich. But me, I have no patronymic. I’m nobody’s vich.

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Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Notes from Kyiv

Before giving my presentation on American fiction workshops Monday at Kyiv-Mohylo, my Fulbright coordinator said other deans had learned of my talk and asked if I might bring it to their university as well. Then she told me the names of the two cities where these universities were located, and Vinnytsya I knew, but the second gave me pause, because surely there wasn't an administration building so near a concrete sarcophagus and the memories of 1986.

“Where is that?” I asked.


And here I brought in a breath and nodded -- yes, Ternopil -- as she went on to describe its position on the map, a non-irradiated point far from the imagined Chernobyl.


My presentation ended up being half a discussion of fiction and half a talk about how to run a writing workshop. It was attended not by post-graduates, but mostly professors from Kyiv-Mohylo and other area colleges. Many of them taught literature, at least one was in the sciences, a few were just English speakers interested in discussing the stories (see post below) and hearing a native speaker. There were even two budding writers, each of whom proved themselves to be writers in different ways. The first had very strong opinions, the second, after slipping me a note saying she’d like me to read a story, got up and left halfway through my talk.


I thought I’d have several hours to kill after the discussion ended at 5:30 (my train left at half past ten), but I was taken out to dinner by a cultural affairs officer from the US Embassy and her assistant, a native Ukrainian. We dined at a posh sushi restaurant on Shevchenko Street, if only because I didn't relent -- sushi, I thought, it has been months since I've had sushi. The food was good, and let's hope here that it was a product of globalization, as the fish from the Dnepro are closer to Chornobyl, just a short boat ride upstream, than than are to Ternopil.

But the menu, that was a little confusing. It had pictures of the sushi and sashimi and shasliki, and then alongside this three names: the bottom one in English, the middle, in parentheses, in Russian, and the one above it in Ukrainian. I asked the only Ukrainian at the table. “This is Ukrainian, isn’t it?” For while I hadn’t found any of the tell-tale umlauted i’s that give the language away, I had found myself unable to understand any of the words. Like here was salmon, (лосось), and that word on top was just gibberish. But no, it wasn’t Ukrainian, however much Ukrainian is gibberish to me. It was Japanese, transliterated into Russian. Just more confusion in a city that blends Russian and Ukrainian like those in Calexico blend English and Spanish.


I found it interesting that the cultural affairs officer, who wore a furry shapka that for some reason brought to mind Dan Akroyd and Spies Like Us, was persuaded by the State Department (okay, told) to learn Ukrainian rather than Russian. Learning the language is like many noble gestures: wasted. The latest example of this was shown to me when she was assured by her assistant that the waitress at our restaurant would no doubt understand Ukrainian, though she might answer in Russian. This Russian, she went on to say, has incorporated so many English words in the last decade that she wonders how people her parents' or grandparents’ age can still understand thelanguage.

Sometimes I wonder if we'd all just be better off acting like the least sophisticated of tourists, grunting and pointing, ocassionally thrusting the point of one finger into the glass.


The television at the restaurant was tuned to Fashion TV, not a rarity in Ukraine. It is one of four channels with English programming delivered by my cable provider (and when I say English, perhaps I'm being too particular; if you take away the music played over the images of the models strutting down the catwalk, Fashion TV is for the most part mute). The other English-friendly channels are BBC World (which cedes half the day to the German-language Deutsche Welle), the Discovery/History channels (which are two channels, but together offer a few hours of English TV a day) and then Extreme Sports (which is all-English, all skate-rad, all day). More often than not, and more frequently each day, I opt for Fashion TV. Want to talk about Fashion Week Portugal?

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Sunday, December 11, 2005

Not the Marrying Season

Tomorrow, I go to the English-Teaching Resource Center at Kyiv-Mohyla Academy to give a lecture on contemporary American short fiction and to speak about how to run a writing workshop. At first, I was asked to run an actual one-day writing workshop, but when I responded by saying, "To run a writing workshop, I'll need some participants to write a story beforehand," plans were downgraded. Now me and the post-graduates from the university (along with perhaps some professors and administrators) will discuss Nathan Englander's Gilgul of Park Avenue (one of the strongest stories in the very strong collection For the Relief of Unbearable Urges) and Adam Haslett's "Notes to My Biographer."

Later in the week, I hope to track down a translator who works with American men visiting the marriage agencies. He's promised me an interview, but has proven hard to pin down ever since. Anonymous? he said. Anonymous, I promised. So: Soon, I hope. Soon.

Beyond that, what else is there? I've set up several interviews for the spring, when the western men will return in force (Winter is not the marrying season, I've learned). Kharkov's Staprius Club should also be opening its door any day now, if it hasn't already, and so I'd like to document that. I was invited to the grand opening party two weekends ago, but then I never got the call to say if it was on Friday or Saturday -- I can only assume it got delayed, or that I'm an easily forgotten guest. I could also be tagging along on a marriage agency tour in Kyiv near the end of December, which should be fun because it's already got one other tag-along scheduled, a film crew taking footage for a reality show. I'd like to be the camera filming the camera. But on this and much else, we'll have to wait and see. It is the Planning Season more than the Marrying Season.

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Monday, December 05, 2005


I awoke on Saturday morning to snow. Pulled open the curtains and there it was, a thick layer of it on the roofs, the sidewalks, piled up on the balcony -- everywhere, even the branches outside my living room window. Was gone by the end of the day, but it's back again today, with some of the in-between stuff now gone to ice and sleet and slush. You'll walk down one street and be perfectly sure-footed, then turn up another and be slipping and sliding and suddenly feeling the muscles on the insides of your thighs. (I pause to address all those people who do not live in California. Some of us do not know what this stuff is that falls upon the ground and stays there, piling up like so much cotton. We gaze at the Heavens in wonder when simple rain falls, but this, this is truly amazing indeed.)

It struck me, while taking short steps across an especially slippery stretch, that this is the foundation of much of Russia's literature. Because how can you look up, how can you raise your chin with confidence and pride, inflate yourself, so to speak, like Gatsby or some frilled courtier in an Austen novel, if you might fall on your ass at the next corner. Keep your eyes to the ground. Walk slowly, with short, deliberate steps. Wear a face like the angry man, the bitter man that Doestoyevsky wrote about, thrust your hands into your black overcoat like Raskolnikov; this is snow, снег, and it will be here for months.

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The Soviet Union conjurs up many images in the western mind: the hammer and the sickle, the yellow star against a flag of red, the more-than-slightly androgynous member of the female shot-put team. But perhaps nothing remains more prominent to this day (when steroids are the American athlete's drug of choice) than the smokestack.

What exactly is a smokestack? Just a tall tower, spitting smoke? Does it serve a purpose, or is it in fact just a symbol of progress and productivity? Like, Look, there in the distance, a smokestack - we must be a prosperous people, we must be doing something. Or: The people are unhappy? Build another smokestack!

I took a picture of this set of smokestacks in Moscow, a week or so back, from the window of my hotel overlooking the Moscow River (Moscow on the Moscow, I suppose). It was a nice hotel complete with a VIP board in the front lobby. There were the Clintons, Al Gore, Putin's wife, a guy from Microsoft, and Some King or President of a large Muslim island nation whose name was Megawatti Something or Something Megawatti. Makes me wonder if he was named after the light-bulb, his father fascinated by this modern device, this light-giver -- and I name him Megawatti -- like a character in my terminally-forgotten novel is named Aspirina. There were also several rock bands noted on the board, all of whom were popular during the Soviet era: the Scorpions were there, as were Queen, or at least one member (Brian May). That's how it was listed on the board. Queen (Brian May). There's something sad in that. As if Brian May showed up all alone.

I'd like the VIP Suite please.

And who are you?

I'm Brian May.

No response.

I'm Queen (with Brian May).

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