Wednesday, February 22, 2006

The Свущ, Syringes, and Norwegian-American Pride

Last night, I watched the tail-end of what used to be one of the most anticipated matches in any sporting year, at least for me and many other Americans: USA versus Russia, hockey. I don't even like hockey, but I'd always watch this. The match had juice, sizzle, it was us versus them, tension. You could imagine the President staying up late, the first wife at his side saying, "It's just a hockey match, Ronny." But it was more than that, always it was. And now. Last night's match ended 5-4 Russia with sticks flying in front of the net and a possible last-second shot sending it into overtime, but, yeah, you know, now I really couldn't care less.

These days, the Russian fans chant Ross-see-you! Ross-see-you! just like the US fans chant U-S-A! U-S-A! (which I'm told started back at Lake Placid). Then there're the uniforms. You'll still find each country using the name they follow at the United Nations (one Russia, the other the US) but now they both share a Nike Swoosh. I'm not saying the Swoosh is the Mark of the Beast; I don't know if all the evidence is in. I'm just saying I remember a time when one country wore Nikes and another wore a pair of shoes. Or skates. You know what I mean.

Norway has a lot of medals. More medals per capita than any other country. I don't have a crack staff of interns. I don't even have one intern. But I can at least provide you with a general idea. Norway, with 18 medals as of this writing, is populated by 4.5 million people. Meanwhile, the United States of America, also with 18 medals, probably has just as many or more Norwegian-Americans.

Austria has 19 medals, but there should be an asterisk -- or hell, a transfusion machine -- by the side of that country's name. On Tuesday, after raids against the Austrian ski team yielded 100 syringes and even a blood tranfusion machine, the country's Ski Federation President said:

"I think they're going too far with the whole thing. This is not sport ... We won't live with this. We can't have our guys going through this. It's no longer about sport, it's just about rumors.''

I find this quote most enjoyable when I picture the guy, a Peter Schroeckschnadel, stepping over a pile of syringes and then side-stepping a blood tranfusion machine.

The transfusion machine, he and other Austrians politely pointed out, was found in a room without any blood. So you know, it wasn't necessarily being used. No transfusion, no foul. Perhaps it came with the rental. The Stones played Torino last year, didn't they? Maybe Keith Richards had the house last.

They should do away with the Olympic Village, all the separate living quarters, and just have one Big Brother-like house. All the athletes come in, there're cameras everywhere, and when NBC1's airing some of the events, NBC2's airing the reality show.

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Friday, February 17, 2006

When the Landlord Came for the Key ...

My landlord sent me a text message this morning asking to pick up the rent. We arranged for an 8:30 meeting, after I visited my Russian tutor and went shopping. I looked forward to the meeting, as it’d be our first since I’d paid $80 to fix the lock on my front door (see below). It’d be pay-back time, I thought. If she asked for a copy of the key, I’d say, “Shto-shto?” (what-what?) to mimic her way of lapsing into Russian whenever she didn’t want to hear something. That, or I’d say Nastia had them, all four, and that maybe she’d remember to bring them in time for the rent next month. I was so set on pay-back, I didn’t even change my Ukrainian Griven into US Dollars.

But then at 8:15, just minutes after I got home, following a message confirming that I was ready, Lena sent me this: “My husband will come for rent next hour, ok? His name is Alexej.”

I didn’t know his name, but I remembered his gun. He’d worn it while installing my washing machine. It had been our first meeting. You see a gun once, you always remember.

I sent an SMS back. “Ok.”

“Give him new key, please,” she replied.

Now I imagined trouble. I thought he was coming over to rough me up, to take my key and kick me down the stairs, stand over me with a gun. Panic took over. I sent Nastia and email, explaining the situation and saying to text me in an hour, for if I didn’t answer – well, call the militsia and request a full and thorough investigation by the US Department of State. “That’s Alexej, A-L-E-X-E-J.” I’d just cleaned the dishes, and so while straightening up – butter here, cutting board there – I placed the baby blue kitchen towel over the blade of the serrated bread knife. Draw him into the kitchen, I thought. And if he gets confrontational when I refuse to give him the key, then go for the bread knife. “How you like me now, Alexej!? That’s right, say, ‘Puh-zhal-stuh.’”

Nastia still hadn’t gotten back to me. I wanted to know if I should give him a key, or take a stand. I’d certainly keep a spare, I thought, and so I pulled it off the ring with all the other spares and slid it beneath the mattress, only to hear the doorbell ring after this, with the three keys still on the same ring. I went to take one off, but I couldn’t manage – my fingers didn’t have the coordination, not this quickly, and I didn’t want to keep him waiting, you don’t keep the Russian mafia waiting.

So it went down like this. I opened the door. I let him in. He looked as mafia as ever, black jeans and a fur lined jacket, his hair flat and close to his skull after he took off his shapka. We stood there, indecisive, neither comfortable with this new relationship. Then I realized something: he was looking for a place to put his things, a place to hang his jacket. There would be no fight. He just wanted what was his. I slid open the closet facing the door. “Puh-zhal-stuh.” Please. And then as he hung his coat, I went for the key ring and came back to say, “The new keys.” Like a normal person might.
He then did as Lena did, though he did not speak English like her. He checked the electrical meter, made a few calculations to bring in the cost of television and phone, and then I presented him with the money to make us right, explaining that I had my Russian lesson today and I was studying so much I forgot to exchange the Griven into Dollars. I hope you understand? He did, and so like this it continued, polite and pleasant, until at last – after he’d turned up the heat on the radiator and called the phone company to return international dialing to my service – we were parting at the door. “Dos Vidanye.” “Poka.”
Another Friday night.

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Sunday, February 12, 2006

Kharkov Philharmonic

If you're in town, support the Kharkov Philharmonic Orchestra. Tickets are 9, 11 or 15 Griven (or no more than $3), and performances are given in a nicely refurbished room with good acoustics at 21 Rimarskaya Street (it's just one block back from Sumskaya and to the side of the grander Opera House). Yuri Yanko is the principal conductor.

I went for the second time last night and was treated to a performance by Rodion Zamuraev, a violinist visiting from Moscow. Zamuraev gave a quick little encore after coming out for his second bow, and though I found this a little unusual (never seen such a thing when taking in the San Francisco Symphony) I won't say it was unwarranted. Zamuraev's playing during Bruch's Concerto for Violin and Orchestra was furious enough at times to get me to stop thinking and just listen. All I'm ever after.

This classical music publicist describes the orchestra's beginnings:

The Kharkov Philharmonic Orchestra was founded at the beginning of the 19th century. One of the orchestra's first conductors was the Russian composer Konstantin Vilboa. The early history of the orchestra, which then performed under a different name, includes concerts conducted by the composers Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Alexander Glazunov, Sergei Taneyev, Sergei Rachmaninov, Anton Rubinstein, Alexander Scriabin and the legendary Serge Koussevitsky.

The site also says that after coming together under its present name in 1929, the Philharmonic attracted such visitors as Mstislav Mostropovich and conductor Kiril Kondrashin.

To see a schedule of performances for the current month, go here (and be prepared to read Cyrillic).

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Thursday, February 09, 2006

The Inevitable "Search Term" Post

Visitors to this website come from all over the world, but every now and then they arrive in bunches that just defy that god of the secularist, statistics. Like, Canadians will stay away for weeks as if I've said something rude and they're too polite to tell me, and then inside of five minutes three guys from Edmonton will arrive. I had a visitor from Greenland once. I didn't even know people lived there, let alone people with computers. But yeah, Greenland. One guy defies statistics there.

Lately, the anomalies have been bunching up around search terms. A while back it was, "Ukrainian women will sleep with you on romance tours." Then today, in the space of three hours, these two: "Stupid Russian brides" and "Ukrainian brides for everybody." (For those curious about the latter, it is not a Ukrainian politician attempting a chicken-in-every-pot, last-ditch vote-grab before the March elections. The visitor came from Algeria (and perhaps we should consider this a victory. That's one less person searching for those Mohammed cartoons, which was what I was doing when I came upon Clifford the Big Red Dog, below, and learned of his role in advancing the Homosexual Agenda.))

Spay and neuter your pets, people. Remember. Spay and neuter your pets.

But where was I? Searches, yes. It'd probably make for a good coffee table book -- the searches that brought people here, with a nice little artistic representation of each. Carolyn, you reading? Get your camera ready. I think it's a great idea, yes?

I've had some real sad ones. I remember one from Pakistan or India. "Brothels that take deformed men." Then one from Estonia that was so long I could only think the user imagined Google to be the Oracle at Delphi. She wrote, and I'm paraphrasing but not exaggerating, "What to do when you're a 59-year-old woman and your 56-year-old husband is sleeping with young women much much younger than him."

The answer, apparently, look for a "mail-order bride."

I must be the Statue of Liberty of blogs. Bring me your tired, your desperate, your confused and your crazy. Give me your deformed and your lustful, your Estonian house-wives and your Indian amputees. Give me your lonely men in Montana.

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I was going to say something about the cold. It's cold again. Below zero Farenheit, a frightening number when you go metric, -16 or -18, cold enough for the hair inside your nose to freeze. The wind is coming from the east at 10 to 15 miles per hour, a cold that's unending and relentless, from December to February, day after day after day, until even the inside of your shapka's cold when you're sitting on your sofa in the living room staring at the wall straight ahead because it's so damn cold out you don't want to move.

Cold, I'm saying. The type of cold that requires a bath, not a shower, because a good warm bath reminds you of that feeling you once knew, a sort of California gold, let's say, a radiance that could be felt way down deep in the marrow of your bones. Only in a bath do you remember that, especially on the day your mother writes to say it's sixty degrees in Sacramento, and how is it there? Cold, mom. Thanks for asking. It's cold.

I'm amazed the Ukrainian population is declining. The cold seeps through the stones in the walls and creeps into your apartment. Every few minutes, you check the radiator. Is the radiator still working? They're working on the radiator. Your radiator works? Mine doesn't. It becomes the subject of conversation, it brings people together, it takes on the sort of gravity that I'm sure the Cro-Magnon gave to the fire and charred flesh. I would think men and women would find each other over this. Forget astrology, forget what's your sign? These are the lines of the decadent west. Is your radiator working? Babies are born because of these words. I'm sure of it. How isn't the population soaring? And why do American men seeking a "mail-order bride" for the most part stay away during the winter? In the spring everyone feels good. It's warm, the clothes are coming off, there is no sense of desperation. Right now, in a winter like this, there is only one thing to do. Buy many, many blankets and stay underneath, hopefully with something more substantial than your fur-lined shapka.


The photo above doesn't necessarily reflect my political persuasion. I think the Washington Times said it best in a link somewhere far below -- paraphrasing now: if you supported Yushenko and his calls for integrating with the west, you have to support Gazprom charging market prices to Ukraine, Georgia and all the rest. Is there a reason Russia should help prop up its former Republics? In his expansive talk to the press last week (nice site), Putin said:

The subsidizing of former Soviet republics at the expense of Russia has been going on for 15 years ... Germany spends a huge amount of money for the regeneration of its eastern territory. But they are spending it to unite their country – and what exactly are we paying for?

Do Ukrainians and Georgians consider it a matter of reparations? Do they think they should get the same deal as Minsk, if only because Belarus' buddy-buddy rate shows Gazprom isn't entirely market-driven and that's not fair? What is the reason?

Well, regardless of all that, it is cold. Did I mention it? The person who took the photo ("Gasputin" it reads in Cyrillic) no doubt agrees. She writes a blog about her experiences as a Fulbrighter in Georgia, where it's also cold and where Gazprom is believed to be behind the pipeline explosions and gas shortages that left the capital without heat or electricity for much of the last month.

Today, the blog's author wrote about other concerns:

I was whining to my Georgian teacher about the noisy neighbor kids, and she sledgehammered my complaint by pulling the Stalin card.

I guess when you live in the same apartment building as the grandson of a genocidal despot, you win the annoying-neighbor contest.

The blog is a good read. Sue writes very well. I don't know what she's going to grad school for next year, but I hope it's not for applied mathematics or some other subject that doesn't require much by way of the pen.

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Tuesday, February 07, 2006

The Lock, Part Two

Nikolai came back over right on time, just as the maestro was lifting his baton on Shostakovich's 15th, and got the lock assembled and operating in no time. My girlfriend was over, so when Nikolai finished up he talked to her, saying there was a form to fill out that essentially said I, State Your Name, have paid X Griven and received five keys. Also, there was the matter of payment: 392 Griven, almost $80.

"That's too much," Nastia said.

I nodded, I bounced my head from side to side, but Nikolai was a good man and apparently there was some work he'd had to do in the shop.

"I'll just call Lena," I said.

Within moments, my landlord was on the phone and I was telling her about the form and the total.

"Do you want me to pay? It's 392 Griven -- minus the 50 I paid the night before."

Hearing the number, she asked to speak to Nikolai. They communicated briskly in Russian. I understood what was being said. There was an offense and a defense involved. The price was the football. It was being moved up and down the field. Nikolai handed the phone back and picked up the mug of tea I'd made for him. I returned to my conversation with Lena.

"Because if I pay now," I said, "you can just deduct it from my rent."


She speaks English very well, but in the past she has shown an ability to lose her proficiency in the language when she does not want to understand.

"Do you want me to pay this," I said, "and then pay less rent because of it?"

"Shto-shto?" What-what?

"I said"--was deduct the word she didn't understand?--"do you want me to--oh here, let me put my girlfriend on."

I put my girlfriend on. Nastia spoke, she paced, she shook her head. At one point, she covered the phone and whispered that Lena, after feigning a lack of understanding even in Russian now, had handed the phone to her husband. I'd seen this man twice before. The first time, he'd been installing my washing machine in the kitchen while wearing black jeans and a black shirt. Because of the color scheme, I'd only made out his holster and handgun after several minutes. "Is that normal?" I asked my translator when we were walking away (I'd gone to pick up the key and pay the first month's rent). My translator assured me it was.

Nastia asked the man with the gun about the fridge. She was firm and director, a hero of mine. "And if the refrigerator breaks," she said, "will he have to pay for that too?" I nodded. I showed her my approval. This is what you needed to say. They were being ridiculous! All I had done was tried to enter and exit my lawfully rented apartment!

But it was all for naught. Details went back and forth, scenarios and warranties were discussed, and in the end it was determined that I had broken the lock, or that I at least must pay. After all, the lock had been installed just a few months before, and so it was all but brand new. Why would they have to replace a new lock?

"Because it's brand new and broken?"

Nastia shook her head.

"So I have to pay for it?" I said.

She nodded.

I pocketed the phone and turned back to Nikolai. This was unfair. This was unjust. This would never happen in America. I wanted satisfaction, to write a letter to the editor, to do their business harm. I thought of refusing to give the landlord a key if ever she asked for one. I thought of writing the State Department to demand a full investigation if ever I went missing, along with $77. But in the end I reached for my wallet and paid.

Nikolai gave me change, returned his wallet to his back pocket, then raised his mug. Hot tea, thank you. He was a good man. If nothing else, I liked him. Maybe he needed the money.

"Do you still have the broken lock?" I asked.

He appeared confused.

"The one from yesterday," I said.

He nodded, he pointed down at the box the new lock had come in; the old one was inside.

"And how much will it cost to put it back in?" I asked.

He shrugged, though he was quick with a number. "Fifty Griven." Maybe ten bucks.

Now I nodded. "Good. Because when I move out," I said, "I think I'd like to see you again."

He gave me his card.

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Monday, February 06, 2006

Clifford the Big Red Dog and The Homosexual Agenda

Okay, this has nothing to do with "mail-order brides" or the Soviet Union (unless you cross-reference Clifford's color with Reagan's "Evil Empire" speech and find significance there: "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!"). But all the same, I had to post the following, even though it dates back to August 2005, because every now and then, in my effort to search the internet and find the right needed to disprove the wrong, I discover something else entirely.

In this case, we are all of us lost.

Exhibit A, from Christians Against Cartoons:

While the greatest congress ever convened recognized the liberal and homosexual agenda of so-called “public” television’s programming, even the most righteous republicans among our government were utterly cowed by the GRAVEN IMAGE of “Clifford the Big Red Dog.” Seeing this FALSE IDOL marching on the steps of our capitol caused the congress to RETHINK and RESTORE budget cuts to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting! These budget cuts were moral and they were right! Congress was right to slash the public moneys collected and subverted for the pagan and homosexual agenda and perpetrated by children’s programming.

My young nephew Collin watches Clifford the Big Red Dog. After reading this, I pictured him walking up the steps of Congress with this Graven Image, Collin's tiny little hand hidden in the Furry Paw of his beloved False Idol.

Jesus, tell me how Clifford wrong?

I'm afraid I'm going to have to leave you with another cliff-hanger. My post explaining the significance Of the Dog and the Devil (sounds like a familiar Russian novel, no?) isn't finished yet -- and I know, I've already got one unfinished post below. Still, this is good. Mull over the above. React. I shouldn't continue with the rest until you've had a chance to first see this anyway.

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Sunday, February 05, 2006

Friday Night's Not All Right For Locking

I buy groceries only two bags at a time (one for the left arm, another for the right) so every fourth or five day I'm stepping out of the Marshala Zhukova Metro stop and heading into Target, Kharkiv's food-and-electronics super-store, for a needed tour of its well-stocked aisles. But last Friday, after working all of the week on my novel from my morning coffee to my midnight snack, I looked into my fridge and realized I must've missed a trip, maybe two. Wasn't much of anything left. Gathering together the sum of my cupboards and produce bins, I needed a mathmetician's imagination to see a meal. X + Y = It'll see me through the night. When at last I didn't even have any more drinking water (the novelist's war for oil wouldn't stray from the equator's coffee-growing regions) I stepped away from the keyboard long enough to dash off to the corner store.

But I didn't get any water, and I didn't even get down the steps and away from the fourth floor. When I was trying to lock the door to my apartment behind me, the key wouldn't turn -- not easily at least. I used both hands to move the dead bolt into place, only to stop about halfway there after two minutes, having realized if it's this hard to get the dead bolt into place, it might be even more difficult to slide it out. Now I used both hands and a shoulder to turn the key in the other direction, though if the first thing was like walking downhill in the snow, this one was going up. Twenty minutes later, with the dead-dolt stuck half out and the skin of my hands reddened from the effort to get it that far, I did something much easier. Called the landlord and expressed my displeasure -- didn't complain, just expressed my displeasure.

Lena, it turned out, was en route to a birthday party -- it was 8:30 on a Friday night. But I tried to make it known that this was one of the services I had expected to be covered by my rent, the right to enter and exit my apartment both freely and (here is the word I stressed) easily. "I can't close my door right now," I said. No accusation in my voice, just stating the facts. I almost become British at moments like this. "If it weren't for the draft, you understand, it'd be fine. But being January and all, I was hoping you might be a sport and pop over. Mmm?"

Lena agreed, somewhat reluctantly; she said she'd be here in thirty minutes and that she'd bring the original key to the original lock. I had asked for this three times before, but always she'd said I didn't need it, as it was a Soviet-era thing that had possibly been copied by any number of people since my Stalinki, or Stalin-era apartment, went up. Still, I'd wanted it. When you turned it in its mechanism, four metal bars slid out the side of the door and into the wall. Incredibly reassuring, even if it is a mirage.

While I waited for my landlord, I text-messaged my girlfriend and heard back that the locksmiths didn't work 24 hours in Kharkov. I wanted to get back to my novel, but then too I wanted to sleep. And how could I do either with a door open to all the crime and distraction of the outside world? Ten minutes passed. My apartment got colder from the stairwell air coming in. Twenty minutes passed. Then the landlord phoned. She wouldn't be over -- a birthday, she reminded me, once a year and all -- but a locksmith would.

I thanked her. "Thank you," I said. Most pleasant. And then Nikolai appeared, just as she said he would, forty minutes later. It was good. My command of the Russian language didn't get in our way. See the door ajar, letting in the cold. Note the key in the lock, unable to turn. Nods, short phrases, a nice man. "Can I get you something to drink?" I asked. "Some coffee or tea?" He was a tea drinker. "If you need sugar," I said. But no, he took it straight.

Nikolai wore a spelunker's head-light as he worked. While speaking with him about the situation (every idle conversation here seems imbued with international significance) I learned the words for "lock" and "broken," and dared the phrase, "Can you fix it?" Nikolai inspired confidence. My girlfriend called, I laughed and said everything was fine, he was replacing the lock as we speak -- and then I hung up and the ordeal was all but over.

The new lock was secured in its casing. Nikolai took one key off a ring that held five, handed me the rest, then reached for his tea -- Hot tea, thank you -- and bid me inside to test his work.

I closed the door behind me and inserted the key. I turned it one way and jiggled the handle (I always get this wrong) then went back in the other direction and jiggled the handle. Again, nothing. "Nikolai?" I said. I pumped at the handle. "Nikolai?" He set down his tea and helped get me out.

Nikolai, to his credit, was a perfectionist. He shook his head. He studied the dead bolt as it slid in and out and said it was snagging on the casing. I looked to the bag behind him. He'd brought with him three different locks, but I didn't see anything else. He answered my question before it was asked. He said he'd need to get a part from his shop but that he'd be back tomorrow.


He nodded. "Zaftra."

I asked what time. The Philharmonic was doing Shostakovich's Fifteenth. It started at six. "What time?" I asked.

He did this thing with his head and his shoulders. He tried to express his uncertainty. But at last he said a number. "Six."

"Six?" I said.

He handed me the mug and thanked me for the tea.

In tomorrow's installment, Stephan will learn the phrase, "And how much will that run me?" Lena will come over at 1 a.m. from her birthday party. And The Girlfriend will appear as a guest star to ask what happens if the refrigerator stops running, does he pay for that too? Will the door close? Will it lock? Will the drunk neighbors from upstairs mistakenly go to sleep on the fourth floor instead of the fifth? Be sure to watch the next episode of Soap when it airs tomorrow at the same time.

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Thursday, February 02, 2006

American Journalist to Speak Monday in Kyiv

I've been silent lately because I've been so busy working on my novel -- finally, and such good progress of late too -- but I thought I'd drop in to advertise this, an event put on by the Public Affairs Section of the U.S. Embassy. It is a talk on contemporary American poetry and literature (I'm hoping more of the latter than the former) by Christopher Merrill, a journalist, poet, writer, teacher (contemporary poetry, American Literature) and Director of the International Writer’s Program at the University of Iowa.

The details are:

Monday, February 6 from 4:00-5:30 PM at the English Teaching Resource Center Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, Building # 3, Room # 121

To register, please contact ETRC by telephone (044) 238-6610 or email

Here's the abstract that caught my attention:

In despair and out of a longing to end his spiritual desolation, Merrill became one of a handful of visitors permitted entry to Mount Athos–a mysterious land that for more than a thousand years has been the secret heart of the Eastern Orthodox Church. There, amid the beautiful terrain, the ancient rhythms, and the spiritual rigor of this holy place, he found a haven in dramatic contrast to the rest of the world.

As Merrill’s story unfolds, we, too, hike the rough trails of Athos, exploring a place and a way of life scarcely altered since medieval times. We share encounters with monks, wolves, and spiritual seekers; visit Athos’s twenty monasteries, where exquisite art treasures are sequestered; make our way to lonely hermitages that clutch the cliffs above the sea. And like Merrill, we come to consider existence in a new and different light.

Part journal of personal discovery, part meditation upon the history and traditions of the contemplative life, Things of the Hidden God takes us where the temporal and the eternal intersect, where community and solitude coexist, and where centuries-old practices provide insight for how to live today.

CHRISTOPHER MERRILL’s books include four collections of poetry, including Watch Fire, for which he received the Peter I. B. Lavan Younger Poets Award from the Academy of American Poets; translations; several edited volumes; and three books of nonfiction, The Grass of Another Country: A Journey Through the World of Soccer; The Old Bridge: The Third Balkan War and the Age of the Refugee; and Only the Nails Remain: Scenes from the Balkan Wars.

A literary critic and journalist, his work has been translated into sixteen languages. He has held the William H. Jenks Chair in Contemporary Letters at the College of the Holy Cross, and now directs the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa. He and his wife, the violinist Lisa Gowdy-Merrill, have two daughters, Hannah and Abigail.

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