Friday, September 29, 2006

The Cost of the War in Afghanistan

For the Soviet Union, it was Exit, Stage Left.

For America, the war in Afghanistan (and Iraq) now costs $8 billion a month, including $70 billion in the newly approved $448 billion Pentagon budget.

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To omit or to include

A couple years ago, saying a history textbook should foster "a sense of pride in one's history and one's country," President Putin got interested in the textbooks being read by Russia's young students. Some had been discovered to include passages suggesting he was an emerging dictator; others seemed too heavy on all that gulag stuff and too light on the achievements of the Soviet past.

"Textbooks should provide historical facts, and they must cultivate a sense of pride among youth in their history and country,"
he said.

But opponents of the President, as well as the American press, were quick to remind the President of the dangers of such "censorship."

The Post began one article: "Rewriting history was an important part of the Bolshevik project to remake the world. Throughout the decades of Communist rule, the U.S.S.R. was a country with an unpredictable past: Russia's -- and in fact the world's -- history was continuously being reshaped by Communist ideologue."

The newest textbooks in Russia reduce the emphasis on Stalin's crimes and portray Putin in laudatory terms; Japan has recently performed a similar make-over on the history it teaches its young. Now, putting aside the obvious and uncontestable (no textbook could land in American public schools if Washington considered it "partisan," the way we neuter the truth in this country) let's move on to this, evidence of how a similar story is viewed in another light when it's set in America.

Earlier this year, there was little national press attention when California State Senator Sheila Kuhn authored a bill requiring California textbooks to "accurately portray in an age-appropriate manner the cultural, racial, gender and sexual orientation diversity of our society."

As noted in this Alternet report, when the state senate approved the bill 22-15 on May 11, "LGBT (lesbian, gay, bi-, and transgender) activists celebrated because, in academia, what California does matters. Along with also-populous Florida and Texas, it's an "adoption state," which means that books selected by California's school boards are fast-tracked to being adopted nationwide. Kuehl was optimistic, telling ABC News that she envisioned future textbooks describing James Baldwin not merely as "an African American writer" but as "an African American gay writer." (Baldwin himself preferred being called simply "an American writer" to "a black writer.")"

Gov. Schwarzenneger vetoed the Kuehl bill when it reached his desk earlier this month.

"It comes down to the same old skirmish," the Alternet report states. "Should individuals get column inches because of what they did -- or because of who they are in terms of involuntary identity-definers such as gender and class? Who goes in? Who stays out? Says who? Not everyone can fit. The books are already overstuffed: Houghton Mifflin's 747-page A More Perfect Union, a typical middle-school social studies volume, weighs four pounds."

The article is too lengthy to continue to paste and cut here, but it's worth reading on for its passages on the encroachment of religion into American school systems, both Islamic "history" and Christian fundamentalist "creationism."

The problem I see with the Kuehl legislation is perhaps an overly academic one: the word "homosexual" has only existed since 1869, and most scholars support some version of Foucault's claim that there was no such thing as "homosexuality" before the term's invention. So to celebrate gay history, we'll have to out history: "Paul Revere -- gay man? Riding alone in the night? You decide, children. Why's he not home in bed with Mrs. Revere?"

Or: "Could we see something gay in the future president's chopping down the cherry tree? What's really at stake here? Remember the power of the sign and the signifier. A cherry tree, children. He's taken an axe to it, one of your Founding Fathers -- or Framers of the Constitution, I should say."

Inclusion isn't a new concern. Since 1976, California has asked that certain groups be portrayed in a postive, upbeat, inspirational manner, and American textbook publishers, operating in the system of supply and demand, have done what they can to please the market.

Again, from Alternet:

"In one of this country's most popular history textbooks, World Cultures: A Global Mosaic, Michelangelo ranks among the nine figures profiled as history's top "Builders and Shapers." The other eight? Zapotec Mexican president Benito Juárez; Canadian feminist Emily Murphy; 10th-century Baghdadi doctor Muhammad al-Razi; Filipino president Emilio Aguinaldo; Zulu king Shaka; 16th-century Mughal King Akbar the Great; 20th-century Soviet nuclear physicist and activist Andrei Sakharov; and 15th-century King Sejong, "Father of the Korean Alphabet." Not to totally dismiss discerning the difference between smallpox and measles, as al-Razi allegedly did, or winning women the right to sit on Canada's senate -- but we're talking the history of the whole world here."

Look forward, my Soviet people. What do you see?

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Thursday, September 28, 2006

Give me the shot

My baby just got her rubella shot, another one of those things the guv'ment requires before letting her in the country. She's not spinning yet, but she was told to expect to feel dizzy all day.

It must be love. No one's gotten a rubella shot for me before.

What's next, Cupid? Polio? Rabies? Dip that arrow, sling that bow -- we'll take everything you've got and get up and ask for more.

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Wednesday, September 27, 2006

I pledge allegiance (and 125 percent of the federal poverty line) ...

When you marry a foreigner and want to live with her in the United States, there are a lot of things required of you that are not required of American-on-American newlyweds. You have to prove your relationship's validity, for one, a process that I imagine entails correctly answering such age old questions as "Boxers or briefs?" and providing photographic evidence that shows beyond all doubt that you're in it for love, not a green card. "And here's one of my wife and I kissing, one of us on vacation, then kissing in front of a historical monument ..." My wife's interview is next month. The time is nigh.

The other big demand on you is a pledge of financial support. The guv'ment doesn't want any immigrants coming to the United States to enjoy the benefits of the modern welfare state, which so far as I can tell has been reduced to not having to feed the meter on Sundays. So yeah, you have to show that you are capable of providing for your loved one at 125 percent of the federal poverty level, even if your spouse, if simply given the opportunity to enter the free market, will no doubt out-earn your garden-variety writer of literary fiction in a matter of months.

The affidavit of support is eight pages long, and is enough to terrify someone not employed in investment banking. You're asked to provide three years of tax returns, evidence of any assets, stocks, bonds, savings certificates, old and new W2s, 1098-T's and 1099s, certified banking documents, notarized forms -- I've never bought a house, but I imagine it's a little something like this. And that one year when I took some time off to work on my novel? The one that's still not done? Oy vey, a writer considers a year productive if he produces a lot of words, not if he's able to visit Target and Wal-mart everyday.

Enough. The meter's ticking.

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Friday, September 22, 2006


You may have noticed the labels now appearing beneath the posts. These allow me to group similar posts together under one banner. For example, profiles of many of them men I interviewed in Ukraine -- be they bride-hunters, marriage agency owners, Peace Corps Volunteers, or men with locked hearts (Mormons on a Mission) -- are now collected under the profiles label.

This post, meanwhile, is collected under the "Nothing of Lasting Importance" heading, because there's really no reason you should need to find it two weeks from now.

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The Bachelor Husband

I went out the other night, caring little for matters of grooming or personal hygiene. The event was a fiction reading at the Mountain bar in Chinatown. It was a student thing -- student organizers, student readers, students in the audience -- meant to showcase the talents of the writers in the creative writing program at USC.

I'd been working all that day, rewriting the opening of my book on Ukraine in preparation for sending it out to agents. I didn't really want to go -- thought I might still have a few productive hours left in the day -- but two of my classmates were reading, and I knew I might one day be the one on stage, so I went -- only right, I thought.

But I was either the distracted writer, or the bachelor husband. Maybe both. I've been the one before, but only since leaving Russia -- and, more importantly, my wife -- have I become the other, and maybe the combination is extreme.

I was running late, so whereas before I might have spent my final few minutes changing clothes, shaving, running some water through my hair, I instead opted to eat. Had apparently forgotten to do that much of the day, and it felt like I was carrying an anvil around inside my belly, the nagging weight of hunger. So I ate: beef chorizo and eggs, some bread, then a quick look around (nowhere) for an Altoid.

When I got to the bar, there were already maybe twenty-five or thirty people there, so many of them hip and clean, their eyes roving, turning, locking, the language of being single and heat-seeking missiles. I approached the bartender, conscious of my appearance. Jeans and a linen shirt, the latter pulled out of the former and wrinkled by use, the sleeves rolled to the elbows, the buttons not high against my throat. A two-day beard: that stage of facial hair which is not yet full of purpose, not yet soap-opera sexy. Then of course the lack of a shower and the searching self-examination, How about yesterday?

But as I sipped on a Pellegrino and looked around at all the others, I wondered what I was supposed to do? A single man dresses up and goes out. A married man is no slob. He at least throws himself together and joins his wife for a night on the town. But a married man, whose wife is seven thousand miles away due to the vagaries of the immigration system (the one thing not made more efficient in the age of computers and the global economy) this man is neither here nor there, a bachelor husband who doesn't feel at home out on the town or at home in the bedroom.

So if you bump into me, on the Metro, say -- yes, I'll be the other rider that day -- you might want to keep your distance, just in case it's one of those days when I'm proving my love without a razor and reminding myself I really should buy a bar of Irish Springs, because taking a shower with liquid soap only takes you so far.

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Thursday, September 21, 2006

2 Brothers and a Bride

I finally saw 2 Brothers and a Bride, originally called A Foreign Affair. The film is about the mail-order bride industry and stars David Arquette and Tim Blake Nelson. In it, Arquette and Nelson play two overalls-wearing rubes, farmers by profession, who go looking for a bride in Russia (on a romance tour provided by the company A Foreign Affair) when their mother doesn't wake up one morning to fix them French toast. Mom's death leaves the men at a complete loss. Dirty clothes pile up, dishes too, and food can only be found if it's scaped out of the bottom of a jar.

The first plot point comes when Nelson, who played a great slack-jawed dope in Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?, sees a newspaper advertisement for A Foreign Affair, and then goes to the library to ask the librarian (the secretary from the 80s TV show Moonlighting) how to use the internet. When the librarian learns what website he wants to visit -- -- she warns him, "I'll be watching you."

From there, the brothers go to St. Petersburg, where Nelson is all business on their two-week romance tour, calling the women by their number and interviewing them to see who fits his order: homebody willing to cook and clean for two years in exchange for a green card. Arquette, the shier, more sensitive younger brother, has more of a Russian vacation, moving from the polar opposite of where he began . "What if she wants to kiss or something," he asked, when his brother first suggested they spend $7,000 on the romance tour. "Don't worry," Nelson answers. "I'll be right there with you. We'll tell her that's not what we want."

I certainly never came across a guy like this, who went to Ukraine looking only for domestic help. Though I was told about one man who married a woman and then reduced her to that. He was impotent, from what I gathered, and wanted someone to look after him. The woman had left Ukraine looking for a better life, and so she might give a better one to her son with her absence. He was then ready to marry, and the mother left her apartment for him. I should dig up my notes and give a little more information on that.

Anyways, I was glad to see the movie, if only because I got to hear the approach of a Russian metro again, see some great, beautiful footage of St. Petersburg in the winter (the movie was shot on location) and even hear "Gorka! Gorka!" -- the command for the bride and groom to kiss at a Russian wedding.

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Sunday, September 17, 2006

If the Swedes ruled the world ...

I forget the title, and I'll probably mess up the plot, but there is a movie in Russia, a very famous movie I was told about more than once, that tells the story of a man who gets so drunk the night before his wedding that he winds up in another city without even realizing it. Did his friends put him on a plane? I can't remember. But he has a key to his apartment, and when he sees his complex -- for they all looked the same in the Soviet Union, the same set of plans used between Vladivostok and Minsk -- he enters and goes up to his door on the whatever floor it is. Then he puts the key in, and lo and behold, it works, and inside -- no difference too, the furniture and the layout is all the same.

I was reminded of this when I walked into IKEA's Burbank store yesterday, just a few miles from my apartment in North Hollywood. I saw people of every color browsing the display rooms, heard a handful of languages and even the accented English of young men from France and Italy. Everyone imagined their future with the same Mikael table and the same Stefan chairs, the same Aspelund bed frame and the same designer lamps.

There were cars wrapped around the street out front, the cars inching forward to move into parking-lot where they could pick up their boxed furniture and hurry home to an evening with an L-wrench.

Usually, I see American culture as the homogenizing force in the world, or enter certain parts of Los Angeles and I feel as I have entered a different country, one of the future, where Spanish is the lingua franca and tortillas are sold in bulk. But going to IKEA, I get to imagine how the world might look if the people of Scandinavia, my spiritual ancestors, ruled the world.

Would it be so bad? Sweden and Norway give you maternity leave, and the trains are clean and quick. The air smells good, the grass is greener than any greeen you've seen. Are there Norwegian football hooligans? Have the Swedes invaded another country in the last two- or three-hundred years? No, this would be a good world, with plenty of naked wood. Yes, IKEA's furniture is now so widespread, you can walk into another person's home and feel you've mistakenly entered your own. But this isn't so bad; it just makes me wonder how Communism in Russia might have fared if it had been led not by V.I. Lenin but by V.I. Leninsen. A Commissar of Design? Yes, that's what we would have had, and isn't that why the Berlin Wall fell? People wanted color, they wanted smooth lines, they said enough with these circles, give me square plates. And they didn't care if the expensive was cheap and not built to last. Just give us the impression of comfort and wealth; this is all we want. Revolution in a pedestrain shopping-and-dining setting.

sketch lifted from this website, where other humorous Ikea-themed drawings can be found

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Monday, September 11, 2006

Drunken Boat Launches

A very brief story of mine, set during the Soviet purges of the 1930s, can be found online at Drunken Boat. The piece is entitled "Yagoda's Bullets" and was originally intended to serve as the preface to Kamkov the Astronomer, which can be found in the current issue of The Cincinnati Review. But Kamkov already had a preface, so instead of having a preface to a preface, something even Don DeLillo might have difficulty pulling off, I hacked it away and gave it a life of its own.

"Yagoda's Bullets" was one of two pieces given special mentioned in the inaugural Pan-Literary Awards, judged by Sabina Murray.

In other news, my neighbors -- or a large group of people congregating in some neighbor's apartment -- are clapping and chanting in unison, singing in a way, the words not English but not discernable as any other language, maybe just nonsense syllables all members of a cult are forced to know. I will report back here, with pictures, if virgins are sacrificed or Kool Aid served.

I did say I'm living in Los Angeles, didn't I?

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Tuesday, September 05, 2006


We have a date. In October. For the interview at the embassy.

Everything seems much better now.

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Sunday, September 03, 2006

Customer Service

In the days leading up to filing our I-130 in Moscow, I feared we were filling in some blanks wrong, maybe using a maiden name when we should be using a new name, and vice-versa. So, to make sure my wife's Green Card didn't get lost in the shuffle, I called the telephone number I'd found on the web, expecting a little customer service. Instead, I got a machine, voice mail, and was asked to punch in the code of the party I wanted. I did. The machine said this party does not subscribe to this service, goodbye, and promptly hung up.

It's now been almost six weeks since we dropped off that I-130, and we're still waiting for a call-back that says your paperwork has been approved by the Department of Homeland Security, we'd like you, the alien relative, to come into the Moscow Embassy for a final interview. I'm getting anxious, I'm saying, so I called a 1-888 number given to us in Moscow, from the woman at window #4. I thought I'd ask, "Hey, any chance you know what's going on? When we'll be seen? If this type of delay is normal? Because when do you start to suspect something's wrong? If you hear only silence, do you keep your head, knowing your government -- I'm from the government, I'm here to help! -- always has your best in mind? Or do you call?"

I called the 1-888 number, and what did the machine say?

This number is no longer in service.

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