poemless. a slap in the face of public taste.

March 17, 2011

Checking In (with politics, art & poetry)

Filed under: Too Much Information — poemless @ 3:17 PM
Tags: , , ,

The past week or two has left me feeling like I’ve been trampled by a drunken crowd, and I am not even referring to St. Patrick’s Day. You might imagine that a person with major depression would spend all day lying in bed. Oh how I’d give anything to spend a whole day in bed. But construction season has arrived in Chicago with the spring air, and peace is elusive. A few mornings ago I awoke to two turtle doves on the windowsill by my pillows. It was magical… until they were swiftly chased away by the clatter of jackhammers below. A metaphor for my emotional state.

I hate Spring. I REALLY hate Spring.

Monday evening I met with my politically-minded friends at a bankrupt hippie joint on the outskirts of town to celebrate our recent victories in the the local Aldermanic elections. Most notable was that of Ameya Pawar, a young, first-time, independent candidate who, to everyone’s surprise – including his own, won a seat that had been held by the same machine candidate for 30+ years. Democracy, it seems, does have its moments. In other news of the evening, Ilya Sheyman announced his exploratory commission for for Congress. Ilya is a fabulous young man I’ve known through Democracy For America, a far more nuts&bolts&elbow grease lefty organization than its name belies. He is a smart, community-minded, dedicated guy with gobs of organizing experience, and perhaps most importantly, he bought me a drink. Tell Ilya to Run!

I must confess that having several attractive Russian Jewish men buy me drinks within the course of one week has got me thinking that this is a habit I could really get into. Perhaps I should have dramatic life crises more often?

Tuesday and Wednesday were spent having a hysterical breakdown after two separate people took it upon themselves to send me wholly inappropriate emails. It’s a miracle I survived.

NEVER. EVER. CONTACT ME ABOUT MY FATHER.

Some people find the peace they seek in churches; I find it at The Art Institute. So I gathered the shattered pieces of myself and made a pilgrimage, to escape my ego and remind myself why life is worth living. The John Marin and Margaret Bourke-White exhibits were especially divine. Side-stepping the intellectual debate over What is art? and what is good art, I admit I approach it like wine: consume a lot, try anything once, decide what you like and just go with it. Marin’s compositions had an airiness (thanks, ds) and playful pastels like Duffy but with a modern, edgy abstraction. Bourke-White’s Depression Era photographs were too timely, but I preferred her highly stylized decontextualized industrial photos that reminded me of Vertov’s Man with Movie Camera. I could fill my apartment with the works of both of these artists and feel as though they’d all been created especially for me. I was also able to revisit my old friends the Chagall windows, Picasso’s Old Guitarist, Van Gogh’s Bedroom, Miro’s Circus Horse, the still life with a monkey and that reclining female nude with her back turned to the room.

Friday through Monday was a blur of social engagements and visits with dear friends, old college dorm-mates, family, gluttonous amounts of food (Spires’ favorite Cafe Selmarie, Spacca Napoli, croissants, butternut squash kugel…), too much generosity, good long talks, glasses of wine, and everything else one does everything else in hopes of enjoying. And Tuesday I crashed. Very hard.

During it all I continue daily therapy, struggle to sleep (though I am eating again), remain overwhelmed by my obligations and take medicine I hate. I take the medicine because I saw a PBS documentary about PTSD and depression which explained that scientists have recently discovered that these tortures, in addition to making you feel like shit, KILL YOUR BRAINCELLS. Well, so long as I absolutely must continue in this world, I’d like to have all the braincells I can get. So, drugs…

I’ve also become obsessed with the situation in Japan. I am told it is not wise for someone so emotionally fragile as myself to watch the news. Neither is it wise to drink or chase boys, but they way I see it, a bad decision is still a decision, and therefore an improvement over the anxiety-induced paralysis in which I had previously been trapped. So I am addicted to the shots of terrible disaster, emergency alerts and incomprehensible press conferences on NHK, which is constantly on my TV. Sometimes it is not even in English, but I watch anyway. This happened to me during Katrina, 9-11 and the cloning of Dolly the Sheep. I bought all the magazines with Dolly on them. It’s morose, really. Yet it does seem weirdly therapeutic.

It’s not all so awful. I did buy a book at Borders’ fire sale. I know. I feel really horribly guilty about it. I was just posting hysterically about the threat of homelessness. But when my step-brother was sleeping on my studio floor I realized the only bedtime reading I had was an anthology of erotica that arrived in a care package from a friend. It was mortifying. I suppose a better idea would be to go to the library, but I keep having my books recalled before I finish them! And besides, I was not only buying something pleasurable for myself, but supporting a cause my readers know is near and dear to my heart: the contemporary literature in translation movement. Yes, I purchased the Best European Fiction 2011, edited by Sasha Hemon. Oh! I know! It seems it was only yesterday that I was reviewing the inaugural edition of this project. Oh, halcyon days!

In closing I was going to post a poem written by my Russian poetry professor, Ilya Kutik, about a Tsunami. But hell if I can find the damned thing on line. I did, however, find this, which seems just as appropriate:

A Hermit Pets a Cat, WhileThinking About the Ocean by Ilya Kutik
(trans. Andrew Wachtel)

I

O, my verse! Walk, don’t run…

Why run anyway? And where to…For you can’t

roll outta here like a tear drop

from grief—because the ocean’s made

of the name teary doremifasaline…

And I don’t want to add saltiness

to the world—much less to the water..Tears

have a lot to learn from the ocean: they are suicidal

flashes…While the ocean’s breast bursts against the shore

and, shazam, rises again…Which proves

once more that—despite the eternal

self-torment, it’s not worth taking your own life.

As always, thanks for reading.

March 3, 2011

Chicago doesn’t believe in tears.

Filed under: Culture: U.S.,Too Much Information — poemless @ 6:14 PM

Lamest. Title. Ever. I know. Look, I am depressed. You should be thankful I am writing anything at all! However, for those of you who normally come here looking for a shot of All Russia Lovefest All The Time and have had nothing but my personal problems thrown in your face, appeasement is at hand. It’s one thing to alienate my family and friends, from whom, let’s be honest, one can never truly alienate themselves, regardless the effort made to do so. But readers I live to please. It is precisely because I owe you nothing that I owe you everything…

Anyway, I’ve not really been paying close attention to anything going on outside of North Africa, Wisconsin or my own head recently, so I have no insights into the Russian political outrage du jour, nor do I even know what the current source of today’s outrage is really. Other than what it always is: awful Russia, being awful Russia. The nerve… In better times, I would be able to tell you about Surkov’s latest attempt to portray modern art as a spiritual justification for the Kremlin’s current political philosophy, or what our Vova had for breakfast. Now I am more concerned with my own breakfast and obnoxious justifications.

Poemless, you said you were not going to write about your personal problems!

Ok, so I was getting on the bus Tuesday evening to go to Aldi. This is probably the most depressing sentence I have ever written. Yet I was not depressed. Across the street from my apartment is a church which hosts a food bank each Tuesday evening. The longer the recession lasts (yes it is) the longer the line for the free food grows. For a moment I wondered if I should not be in that line. But the thought of limited resources and limitless need propelled me past the line and toward the bus stop. I had never seen so many people in the food line, and there is always a long food line. On this particular evening, there was less a queue than a mob. As I waited for the bus – a Kafkaesque routine wherein the driver sits in the bus with the doors closed for 15 minutes while people wait outside, peering in, until the scheduled arrival time appears on the digital display – the mob slowly transferred itself from the church to the bus stop.

Suddenly I was surrounded by like 30 Russian pensioners examining the contents of their newly-filled pakety with vocal suspicion and judgement. There was much trading of ground beef for cranberry juice, hemming, hawing, rustling about and interrogation interrupted periodically by sighs of resignation, “Nu… zdorovo… zdorovo…,” a brief silence and then another round of grumbling. The driver’s shift began and everyone piled, not filed, but piled into the bus. It was me, a boatload of aged Russians and a young black woman, all shooting similarly distrustful looks about. It reminded me of Moscow and those crowded buses along Varshavskoe in the evening. Not just the language being spoken, but the whole scene: older women in their fuzzy pastel caps, flourescent lipsticks, cheap dye jobs, smiling eyes and depressing coats, lugging plastic carry-alls half their weight, conversing as though everything in the world were simultaneously revolting, humourous and proof of their own unquestionable wisdom. Men in their slippers, sitting across the aisles from their female companions, looking like young boys who had just been told a pornographic joke in church, speaking like characters in some existential play. “Why?” silence “Why what?” silence “So come sit here.” “You.” silence “Why?” smile “You know why. Why don’t YOU come sit HERE.” silence smirks “You know.” “What do I know?” And this when on for like a mile.

The whole time I really wanted more than anything to ask them how they felt about leaving the breadlines of the Soviet Union for the breadlines of America. But I didn’t. Mostly because, had I been in line for handouts, I wouldn’t be in any mood to discuss my questionable life decisions with judgemental strangers. I also kept thinking back to that Dmitry Orlov piece about Americans and shame:

The Russian author Eduard Limonov wrote of his experiences with poverty in America. To his joy, he discovered that he could supplement his cash earnings with public assistance. But he also quickly discovered that he had to keep this joy well hidden when showing up to collect his free money. It is a curious fact that in America public assistance is only made available to the miserable and the downtrodden, not to those who are in need of some free money but are otherwise perfectly content. Although it is just as possible to be poor and happy in America as anywhere else, here one must make a choice: to avoid any number of unpleasant situations, one must be careful to hide either the fact that one is poor, or the fact that one is happy. If free public money is to be obtained, then only the latter choice remains.

It is another curious fact that vast numbers of Americans, both rich and poor, would regard Limonov’s behavior as nothing short of despicable: a foreign author living in America on public assistance while also earning cash! It seems reasonable that the rich should feel that way; if the poor can’t be made miserable, then what exactly is the point of being rich? But why should the poor particularly care? Another cultural peculiarity: what dismays them is not the misappropriation of public funds. Tell them about the billions wasted on useless military projects, and they will reply with a yawn that this is just business as usual. But tell them that somewhere some poor person is eating a free lunch, and they will instantly wax indignant. Amazingly, Americans are great believers in Lenin’s revolutionary dictum: “He who does not work, does not eat!” One of the rudest questions you might hear from an American is “What do you do for a living?” The only proper response is “Excuse me?” followed by a self-satisfied smirk and a stony silence. Then they assume that you are independently wealthy and grovel shamefully.

Most shockingly, there are many poor Americans who are too proud to accept public assistance in spite of their obvious need for it. Most Russians would regard such a stance as absurd: which part of “free money” don’t these poor idiots like—the fact that it’s money, or the fact that it’s free? Some Russians who are living in the US and, in trying to fit in to American society, have internalized a large dose of the local hypocrisy, might claim otherwise, but even they, in their less hypocritical moments, will concede that it is downright foolish to turn down free money. And rest assured, they will mop up every last penny of it. Mother Russia didn’t raise any dummies.

Well, I’m not one for sweeping generalizations or assumptions about what goes on in the minds of strangers. But my fellow passengers did not seem to possess the demeanor of those who have just been subjected to a degrading experience, and I think most people I know would consider standing in line for the food bank a degrading experience. OTOH, most people I know are not from countries where standing in line or otherwise hustling for basic necessities was an unavoidable fact of life for years.

Yet.

January 7, 2011

… To this great stage of fools.

That was a difficult year… I was prepared to acknowledge that it left me with little to crow about, yes, but it wasn’t until I broke into tears as “Happy New Year!” left my lips at the stroke of midnight that I felt the full weight of it. Like I’d been holding my breath since June. Horrible. A bit terrifying actually… This is my MO. I didn’t cry at my mother’s funeral. People kept informing me, “It’s not normal, T–” “You should be sad, T–” Eventually I did cry, when everyone else had gotten on with their lives and stopped wondering what to do with me. My emotional timing is always off. I managed to hold myself together as I suffered some freak neurological nightmare all year. Now I am crying all the time for no discernible reason. I cried at my step-parents’ house. Well, the holidays are stressful and emotional when you are orphaned-like. But I cried, inconsolably sobbed, when my step-mother kept asking where her box of chocolates was. Like I knew. Like the whole house were not filled to the brim with sweets. Like if she kept asking eventually I would confess to lifting them. I sat on the couch and wailed hysterically. Obviously not about the chocolates. Just like I did not cry about the arrival of the new year. I have no idea why I am suddenly such a drama queen lately. Certainly not pregnant, and don’t seem depressed or blue otherwise… I expect a decade from now another random blood test will reveal an imbalance of some magical chemical recently discovered to control one’s emotional sensitivity. … Eventually we’ll all be robots.

Well, like I said, I am not actually depressed. Just profoundly relieved 2010 is over. And one week into 2011 I’ve little Russia watching to boast of. I got nothin’, I tell ya. If you want serious political analyses, go visit AGT or that… Ioffe, I think, is her name. Yes. They have the dish on the liberal infighting and Putin’s corruption and our man in Chita and all that jazz. Nothing new under the Russian sun, as far as I can see. But then, just when you think that, there will be a coup or collapse or Vova will issue a “Putin sings Motown” LP or something else no one could have predicted. But that’s not happened since I last posted, so in the meantime I busy myself with the following:

Cinema

Black Swan. It’s not technically Russian, I suppose. On the other hand, it is directed by a guy named Aronofsky, takes place at the ballet, in a very dark and ill-defined reality, is set to Tchaikovsky’s music, and has a lesbian sex scene between two rather emaciated but beautiful women. And it isn’t French. So…

Inverse to my peers in the audience, I came for the ballet and stayed for the lesbian sex scene. But the draw, it turned out was neither. The psychodrama and Pyotr Ilyich’s score are responsible the film’s genuine intensity. Each on its own would be enough to make your heart pound, but the combination of two work like that of an illicit drug and alcohol. You arrive a bit jaded and cynical but braced for some adventure, get cinematic rush, leave the theater with your head spinning, and feel the full ugly weight of it the next day. It’s kind of like a terrifying nightmare you awake from the next day and, in the harsh light or reason and reflection you think, “Fuck. That didn’t even make SENSE.” Or maybe like a one night stand: insane in the moment, but now you’re in no mood to repeat it, wonder if you haven’t been made a fool of, suddenly remember that one annoying matter you blocked out of your mind in the heat of the moment but which now seems a bit cheezy and revolting (<-Winona Ryder zombie. Really?) But it just might haunt you for the rest of your life. Or not.

Well, did you want a proper review? Something about Kubrick and maybe some interpretation (metaphor for the creative process? stress-induced nightmare? complete mental breakdown? REALITY?) Oh, the Internet is full of that. Go google it. I liked it. I also like every aspect of this movie in its own respect (ballet, the score of Swan Lake, horror stories, psychotic break stories, artistic process stories, lesbian sex scenes, Flashdance-era fashions…) If you don't like any of these things, I can't imagine why on earth you would possibly want to see this film.

Er… I am a bit hesitant to post this here; I fear either no one will believe me, or my college peers will come crawling from the woodwork. But I simply must share! I beat Darren Aronofsky to the punch! In a performance art class taken in my undergraduate years, I -why? who even knows? it was performance art!- did one performance set to the score of Swan Lake which involved, among other things, a sharp blade and a stupid amount of my own blood. I went to a university that churns out actors and directors and other industry professionals. Who in that class is now hanging with Darren Aronofsky? Until I find out, I will be gracious and just mutter something about great minds…

Literature

Sister Pelagia and the Black Monk. Someone (Spires?) was advising me to read Akunin. My New Year’s resolution is to read Borges, but this was at the library, and seemed more … doable. I am slowly realizing the reason I have never read Borges is not laziness, but a sincere desire not to. Akunin. It’s ok. Pretty routine mystery stuff. I love mysteries, but that’s the problem. After so many of them it becomes a struggle to not see the formula. In fact the first few pages were intolerable, very talky and haughty (I want to blame Andrew Bromfield,) but it suddenly became interesting just a I was ready to chuck it. And it has remained interesting. I would not conflate “interesting” with “genius,” but it is certainly not … low brow. Pretentious? A little, which has the effect of making something respectable seem a bit cheap. But it is nevertheless enjoyable in an “I’ve been reading Latin all day and I don’t even know Latin, so brainpower is now on standby” way and great for the train. To quote an Amazon.com review, “I enjoyed the Dostoevsky references.”

On the topic of Russian literature, let us pause to appreciate this stunning article from the Guardian:

Why western authors are in love with Mother Russia.

I am “western,” in love with Mother Russia and … uhm, I have a blog. Maybe he’d gotten to the root of my madness? I was quite intrigued. Until I was reminded that the reason this western girl has a blog about Mother Russia is to combat the utter crap being written about her elsewhere.

Choice:

Russia has recently inspired an abundance of novels. I mean, specifically, novels set there by English-speaking authors, from thrillers such as Martin Cruz Smith’s Arkady Renko mysteries, to Helen Dunmore’s Leningrad books. (By contrast, surprisingly few home-grown, contemporary Russian writers have found wide foreign readerships. The Putin era has not in general been conducive to great literature.)

Dear Mr. Miller, YOU SUCK. I don’t write this stuff for my health, you know. (Well, actually… but that’s neither here nor there.) Yes, if London bookshops are not crammed with Russian novels, it simply MUST be Putin’s fault. But, let’s not get started about the crimes Mr. Putin would be accused of if London bookshops were crammed with Russian novels.

Martin Cruz Smith is “great literature?” I am going to go shoot myself. You can continue reading…

There are multiple ways to think about Russia’s extremes. The obvious one is physical. Much of the vast country is lethally cold for half the year or more. Virtually any outdoor activity – starting a car; walking down the obstacle-course, snowbound streets – can be its own microdrama. This harsh environment helps to explain why Dostoevsky and others always seem to be stretching up their hands to heaven. The fundamental questions – Why are we here? Is anyone in charge? – somehow seem sharper at -20C, or on a three-day train ride.

Well, considering London just absolutely ceased to function period after a few inches of snow, I can see how the author would attribute Russia’s penchant for drama to … cold weather. Still, it doesn’t explain the dearth of Canadian lit on London bookshelves. Personally, I blame Stephen Harper. Not conducive…

Classic:

Russia is not, or not only, a sort of moral zoo, which writer and reader can visit with a safe sense of superiority. It is also a place to test their moral pride and presumptions.

Russia has for centuries been a distorting, fairground mirror for the west. It is both like and unlike the tamer nations. Throughout the cold war, it was alien, unknowable, the other, enemy world, and an easy setting for thrillers. Something of that menace persists, partly in the guise of the Russian mob, one of the elements in John le Carré’s latest book Our Kind of Traitor. At the same time Russia is European, notionally Christian and industrialised. It has a familiar high culture and recognisable architecture. Go to Moscow for a day or two, and you might consider it a normal northern European city, with extra neon and worse roads. You have to stay a little longer to uncover the wildness. As the Marquis de Custine put it after visiting in 1839, it is “only too easy to be deceived by the appearances of civilisation”.

Don’t be deceived – they’re animals, not like us! It’s a “zoo.” Brits go there to get their moral superiority on. Someone should tell them they really do that just fine at home and save them the plane trip. And 3 hour train trip. In the cold.

One question posed by some novels set in Russia is whether this place that sometimes looks the same actually is the same: whether everything that happens there could happen here too, could happen to us, if we shed our inhibitions and our own “appearances of civilisation”. … Would we cling to our integrity today, if almost everyone about us was selling theirs?

Uhm, other than to read his own articles, has the author picked up a newspaper lately? Who the fuck is clinging to their integrity?! Please, I want to start a commune with this person. Tell me who we’re talking about. We should breed, and save civilization! Well, I never did find out why we westerners are in love with Mother Russia, but I did learn that Brits are apparently so boring they must travel to inclement and morally depraved places to find interesting people to write about. That’s depressing.

Lastly on the topic of Russian literature, from Muse Daily.

Brodsky’s mentor, the great Silver Age poet Anna Akhmatova, laughed at the K.G.B.’s shortsightedness. “What a biography they’re fashioning for our red-haired friend!” she said. “It’s as if he’d hired them to do it on purpose.”

Plus ca change…

I need to run off and return to real life.

But I was going to add something about there being a world food prices crisis which the UN reports may lead to uprisings. (Do hungry people have the energy to fight?) And on the same day I read about an article in our local paper highlighting a recipe using obscure, gourmet ingredients in some kind of contest among local chefs to make the most unique and over-the-top cuisine no one would ever want to eat evar. One step in the recipe involved covering a lemon in salt and letting it set “for 4-6 months.” Meanwhile, Americans are shopping at the Dollar Store and starving Indians are on the verge of revolt. Karlin just posted something about people living in sewers under Las Vegas.

It is just not right.

No wonder I cry…

But I must run! Ok, thanks for reading. Ciao!

December 29, 2010

2nd Annual Holiday Reflections: The good, the bad and the prickly.

Previously: 1st Annual Holiday Reflections.

Again I went home for Christmas to see my crazy family, eat too much food and feel like an alien on planet Earth.

The Vast Wasteland.

While I stayed with my brother, I was put up in the kid’s bedroom, in which there was a TV. We didn’t have television sets in our bedrooms when we were children! Let alone with cable. And we walked uphill to school, in the snow, both ways. … Now, even as an adult, I own one small, old-timey (still works perfectly with a digital converter) TV set that I keep in a closet. I do not have cable or that combination of 900 channels of cable, HDTV, On Demand, Netflix and Pay-Per-View which perplexingly remains so bereft of quality programming that you end up watching Jerseylicious because it will do the least amount of damage to your karma. At home, I receive a mere 37 channels. But I can watch them without that sinking feeling that I’m a character in some dystopian morality tale or without prompting my brain cells to commit mass suicide. In fact, at home, the more ridiculous the programming, the more likely it is to be in a foreign language, so it is educational. Also, it is free.

So there I sat in horror, flipping through 900 channels late into the night. Scary smiling people with the acting skills of zombies trying to sell me revolutionary bras and rakes. Jerseylicious. Every crime against food you can imagine and some you cannot. Bimbos making out and then complaining and then making out again. Then … people dancing ballet in strange costumes to what sounded vaguely of Tchaikovsky. (Why do we put a T there?) After the freakshow I’d just witnessed on the previous 899 channels, I first took the man flipping around in a naked fat suit to be another attempt to shock a terminally bored American populace into looking at the screens in front of their faces. But unlike the previous 899 channels, I simply could not flip. I was mesmerized. It turned out to be the Casse Noisette Circus performed by Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo. AMAZING. I highly recommend it if you love ballet, or if you don’t like ballet but do like Cirque du Soleil and the theater, or do not like ballet but do like the Nutcracker but have been there and done that and are back to not liking ballet.

Speaking of ballet, I am planning to see the film, The Black Swan this weekend. Unlike everyone else who sees it, I do not like Natalie Portman. At all, actually. But I do love the ballet and Darren Aronofsky. And I would like to see Portman do something interesting for the first time in her career. Anyway, the only reason I mention it is because I found these posters for the movie and think they may be of some interest to people who come here expecting a post about Russia an just finding my annual Christmas complaints:



Gorgeous! So … what the hell is this called? Art Deco? Constructivist? Russian Avant Garde? The second one is very Erte… God, those people selling me rakes killed the brain cells that used to be able to identify early 20th Century Russian art movements! Fuck. Anyway, I want these.

p.s. In last year’s Christmas rant, I mentioned that my step-parents had like 3 universal remote controls for one TV. They now require just one! Progress!

In Which I Fail To Remember The True Meaning Of Christmas.

Also, I believe I devoted a shocking amount of space in last year’s rant to the Christmas presents I received and their general lameness. It’s beyond unseemly. So little class. I was raised better! I truthfully don’t even care when I get since I will probably hate it anyway. I am one of those people who say that shopping for other people’s gifts is the best part, and are telling the truth. Because despite making it abundantly clear what I want, and having a pretty unique but I think identifiable personal style, I remain absolutely impossible to shop for. And I am such a snob that I think gift certificates are second rate. Anyone in the position of ever having to buy me presents must end up resenting my very existence at some point. Also, I am a terrible liar. That doesn’t mean I won’t try to lie! My mouth will say, “Thank you for a the wonderful gift!” But it comes out all drenched in resentment and hollowness and I feel like I’ll start hyperventilating. So I try to make things easy by stating exactly what I want. Not my fault if people don’t buy it. For example, every year I ask for this perfume I wear and go through buckets of. Every year. It’s available online and in all cities with a mall. For like 10 years I have asked for it. Never got it.

UNTIL NOW. Thank you Candi and Tom!!!! You have just progressed to the next level in the game of “Try to give T– what she wants and save the princess from the monster.” W00T!

Another well-received present came from my brother, who gave me the GN’R Appetite for Destruction CD to replace the cassette tape version he stole from me in middle school. “I even upgraded it to a CD.” A true Christmas miracle!

Also, my brother’s girlfriend, in addition to be an overall outstanding person with no shortage of life skills and generosity, can shop for me. She makes it look downright easy. Spa products and this thing you put nice smelling wax into and makes your whole home smell like baked goods. She told me it was “reindeer themed,” and I pouted as I carried a ceramic reindeer I’d never display in public all the way home. But it turned out to be rather classy compared to what I was expecting. I am even displaying it. Now my apartment smells like cookies.

Everyone else got me gift certificates, chocolate and socks. Do you know what you get people you forgot to buy presents? I am infinitely appreciative, though. Truly. I am not just saying that as a CYA. Even for the weird, ginormous box of Russian chocolates that are not actually Russian but made in Latvia and taste like soap. Why are Latvians producing crap chocolates and slapping photos of Peterhoff on the boxes? I hope the fine people of Russia are getting a cut of the profits you are making off whoring their historical sites to peddle your disgusting confections! BTW, is it just me, or do Russians make the best semi-sweet chocolate in the world? I know Belgium and Switzerland are famous for that cloyingly sweet milky stuff I wont touch with a 10 ft. pole, and France is great with dark chocolate ganachey type things, and these days it is really best to buy chocolate fair trade from small Venezuelan farmers (small farms, not small Venezuelans). But seriously, the Russians can do semisweet! What is that about? Oh, my coworker also brought in real Russian (from Russia, not Latvia) chocolates called “bird’s milk.” Bird’s milk? Really? Russia is forever bitching that no one in the West takes them seriously, everyone is irrationally suspicious of them, and then they do things like give candy a name that evokes the horrors of Chernobyl. Like, great, just when we think we understand you mysterious people, your birds produce milk. I give up. (It’s from some skazka, I know. But lactating birds is still upsetting.) They were delicious.

On the topic of sweets, both my brother and my cousin Sally made buckeyes, which are chocolate candies meant to resemble a kind of nut. My mother used to make them, and now they fall into the category of things that can never ever be replaced since she is dead. My mother would force us to roll them into little nut-shaped balls until our hands cramped. All night. Our tiny child-slave palms would smell like peanut butter for a week. My brother’s buckeyes got the hard, glossy dark chocolate outer shell just right. And Sally got the middle flavor and texture just right. Both failed on the density. My mother’s buckeyes never crumbled. They were packed so densely, you could drop them on the floor and they would not fall apart. In fact, for many years I did not believe they were food and was secretly afraid to eat them.

America, or, In Which I Remember The True Meaning Of Christmas.

I feel like it gets uglier every year. Like physically, aesthetically uglier. Russia uglier. Which is not to say there is nothing beautiful about it. Just that there are random piles of junk in muddy fields, and businesses are too concerned with trying to afford the electric bill to care about a new paint job. There are empty business parks and stores where you go to buy your furniture, eggs, prescriptions and socks all in one overlit, characterless, impersonal giant shed. You know what I am talking about. Grimy. Dated. Bleak. I used to watch 70’s films set in NYC and romanticize grimy, dated and bleak. I still do. But when suburbs become grimy, dated and bleak, I worry. People in America buy food at the Dollar Store now. Employed people. People forgo art and hang TVs purchased on credit cards on their walls instead. I’m noticing a lack of seating. People are hanging out in kitchens – Soviet like, or in front of their TVs. Hunkering down, prioritizing. Repeatedly I heard Democrats and Republicans and unengaged alike complaining about the homeless. The homeless! I am not even sure there are homeless in their neighborhoods. Or why they are not complaining about the bankers getting bonuses. I even interrupted a weird group rant about the poor to say -and I am the non-Christian in the room!- “Hey, it’s Christmas, a time to appreciate what we have, and keep those not as fortunate in our hearts.” Everyone looked at me like I was an alien! Awkward silence followed. I’m not better then they are, and they are not bad or selfish people. I just think it is the insecurity. It’s pervasive. No one is even pretending things are alright anymore. Which is a relief, in a way.

Somehow it all seems easier to handle in the big city. Here no one thinks I am a failure if I don’t have 900 TV channels and a car and a baby. And if they do, it’s impersonal. People fail, a fact of life, nothing to see here, move along. The American dream will not come crashing to its death because I stopped believing in it. Cities seem to reserve judgement. We don’t look at an unwashed crack junkie under a bridge and blame them, “You failed! Look at what you are doing to the nation! Shame!” We feel sad and a bit helpless and blame our selves. “We failed. Look at what we’re doing to our people. Shame on us…” Some people would say this is socialist thinking devoid of personal responsibility. “Personal responsibility” is American shorthand for “Every man for himself.” What about our personal responsibility to each other? What the fuck is our “nation” if not each other? Yeah, I just don’t get it… Why are we mad at the homeless? They should go out and get a job? People with advanced degrees can’t even find work. (And uhm, if working at McDonald’s won’t support the person with an advanced degree, how do we presume it will support the poor? Without government assistance?) Middle class families are being tossed out of their homes. Which homeless poor do we hate exactly? The nuclear family in the suburbs or the black man in the city?

What I wanted to say was that I always feel a bit humbled and overwhelmed and frankly deprived when I go home to 4 bedroom homes with vaulted ceilings and outdoor hot tubs and $150 bottles of wine and new additions to the house and TVs the size of picture windows in all rooms and cars and endless conversations about how it was all paid for. I feel insecure about my tiny apartment and tiny TV and cat that is not a baby I take to soccer practice and the dirty bus I ride to get places. But by the end of my stay, I decide my bed is more comfortable than most (why are people buying TVs before comfortable mattresses?!), I actually like what is on my tiny olden TV, I can’t be found guilty of using more space than I need or of having a large carbon footprint. I never, ever have to look for parking or pay for gas. I like animals a hundred times more than babies. I don’t even like babies. I pretty much don’t want to see another child under 10 for the next 360 days. Cigarettes are 3 times more expensive here, but that just means I smoke 3 times less. And this overeating culture is out of control. I’m perfectly content with a slice of carry out pizza and glass of cheap wine. (To put things into perspective and illustrate I’ve not become delusional with humility: the tastiest thing on the gourmet Christmas feast menu was potatoes made with truffle oil. I am thinking, “Oof, truffles, in a recession! So Petit-bourgeois…” Then I remembered the truffle oil was a gift from me to the chef. … See, I do give good gifts.) Anyway. What is my point? I love my family. I am mildly terrified of the America lying dormant outside major metropolitan areas.

Speaking of Carbon Footprints…

What else can I complain about? ZooLights. Apparently this is done all over the world now, so I hope you know what I am talking about. Christmas lights all over the zoo. It looks magical, but on my way home last night I was wondering if the animals appreciate it. Maybe they love it. But maybe if they are light-sensitive or creatures of routine, it stresses them out. I don’t know. I hate zoos anyway. Won’t go in them. Too depressing. Maybe it would be less depressing if they kept the holiday lights up all year.

Hot tubs. My step-parents have an outdoor hot tub and we got in it in the snow. That was fun! Except it was not a time machine.

Lastly, when did we collectively cease to be able to function in the snow? What is that about? You can walk in it, blow it away, shovel it, melt it, go home and play in it and drink hot chocolate. I specifically remember there being snow and airplanes when I was little. Hell, I imagine the only way you can even get to Antarctica is by plane. Think about that… And how ironic is it that while we are flipping about about body screeners and the size of a shampoo bottle, it is not evil Muslims but a season that arrives every year pretty much like clockwork that cripples our air traffic and bring large swaths of human civilization to a standstill. But climate change is a fairytale. Terrorists who hate our crappy TV/culture of self blame/Dollar General food shopping way of life want to kills us, and that’s worth sacrificing our children’s lives for…

Whew…

I feel better already! Thanks for letting me get all that off my chest so that I may enter the new year with a clear mind and a light heart.

Ok, who am I kidding, I’ve never known a a clear mind and a light heart.

Baby steps…

Uhm, anyone have NY resolutions? I have to read some Borges. That’s it.

December 22, 2010

“Santa Baby, put a Treaty under the tree, for me…”

Filed under: Politics: U.S.,Too Much Information — poemless @ 5:32 PM
Tags: ,

“Bring Tovarisch Kerry and Lugar a pony, ok?”

So I’ll be away for a bit for the holiday. Well, one is never actually “away” anymore, is one? But the point is, if I’m not responding to your insane comments, it’s because I am busy getting sloshed and overfed and spoiled, or sleeping, or rocking the ‘rents new outdoor hot tub sauna thing… But don’t think that means you can get away with a coup or something. I’m not going into the desert – I can still see what crimes you’re committing here; I just may not be willing to care about them, is all.

On that note, thanks for the intriguing conversation, debate, Nemtsov love-fest action in the comments section of the previous post. I truly -no, really- appreciate your participation, even if I think you’re a bit, well, annoying. I’m all “defender of free speech” that way. Please continue to talk amongst yourselves if you like. Hopefully the solution to Russia’s ethnic tensions will be solved by my extraordinary commenters by the time the New Year arrives. That would be grand. Seriously. And probably nearer the realm of possibility than dissuading me of my perverse Surkov infatuation. In fact, just yesterday I was thinking, besides his own private self-identity issues, didn’t Vladik have a hand in placing the pro-Kremlin gangsters in power in Chechnya, getting flack because their corrupt bandit ways were being ignored because the Kadyrovs would dance to Moscow’s tune? Like, you could even blame Surkov for turning a blind eye to Caucasian gangs, actually! And then I thought, well, in this way, he could be in part responsible… OMG, what if fomenting national extremism and ethnic gangs is all part of his plot to send the nation reeling into chaos? Who would even do something like that? The devil? Scary. I felt kind of ill… Then I thought about all of the candy and cookies I’d eaten – I don’t even like candies and cookies, but people just keep giving them to me – and how stressed I am about seeing my relatives. Then I thought about how unfair it is they don’t come to see me. And I ate some more Christmas treats and packed…

Before I go, I should gloat that I’ve already received want I wanted for Christmas, even though I’ve tried my damnedest to get on the “Naughty” list. There is always next year… In the meantime, baby Jesus has blessed Washington D.C. with just enough sanity (Christmas week one-time special only) to ratify the new START [T]reaty. I know! As hard as the Republicans fought against appeasing the Soviets, it appears the Commies have won this round! Wait, ok, back in reality, it’s pretty fucking pathetic that getting a nuclear arms reduction treaty with Russia rammed through in 2010 qualifies as a huge triumph for the Democratic president. (Past US-Russia arms reduction treaties have been ratified 93-6, 87-4 and 95-0.) But since Obama has some kind of learning problem, it is important to praise his small accomplishments. Though perhaps it is even more important to praise the Republicans who voted in favor, as they are just kind of evil and really didn’t have to. And for all those Republicans wetting their pants now, do not worry. We will still be able to destroy human civilization several times over if we need to. We’re just a small step further from being provoked to do that by the Russians now. That’s a good thing. Really. Think of the unborn children!

Here are the 13 Republicans who voted for ratification of the New START:

Alexander, R-TN
Bennett, R-UT
Brown, R-MA
Cochran, R-MS
Collins, R-ME
Corker, R-TN
Gregg, R-NH
Isakson, R-GA
Johanns, R-NE
Lugar, R-IN
Murkowski, R-AK
Snowe, R-ME
Voinovich, R-OH

Bravo. The Little Lord Jesus, aka “Prince of Peace,” thanks you for understanding the meaning of the season, and Santa’s put you on his “Nice” list. But both warn you that the bar has been set rather low this year, so don’t get too smug.

Ok, wishing you all a safe and lovely holiday, Christmas, Orthodox Christmas, Novy God, Festivus, any excuse for godless drunkenness – whatever you celebrate. Peace out.

August 18, 2010

Notes from the Underground

Filed under: Culture: U.S.,Too Much Information — poemless @ 5:35 PM
Tags:

In Soviet Russia, Dostoyevsky reads You on the subway!

I recently joined Twitter and have been terribly unimpressed. Half of the “tweets” I read are recycled on/from facebook, half of them are cliquish in a way that makes me feel like I am shyly eating lunch/eavesdropping at the popular kids’ table, and the vast majority of them are of positively no interest to me at all. Except for one shining example. The Paris Review.

I don’t read the Paris Review. In fact, I am only aware of its function as something one totes about like an extra limb, usually belonging to moody hipsters with advanced English degrees, forced to spend hours working at the local bookstore information desks, the weight of their fates so unbearable that an extra limb is required to keep them propped up at said desks – and here enters the Paris Review. But when I signed up for Twitter, I searched “books/literature” as a subject of interest, thinking I might stalk my favorite authors, and stumbled upon the Paris Review Twitter feed. Why is it so brilliant, so worth having to slog through a thousand posts about the price of Russian grain for? Their advice column. I mean, I’m not saying it’s any good, that you should take it, but there is something profoundly entertaining about cynical, pretentious literary types giving each other advice. I dare say it is art. Well, anyway, it’s better than whatever you (and I) are posting on Twitter…

Excerpts from “THE PARIS REVIEW DAILY: Ask The Paris Review.”

I read a Richard Yates novel. And I’m fucking depressed. Like wow, what a downer. Give me something to cheer me up. —Jeff Swift

PR: I’m not sure how to recommend this, but are you familiar with “I Am a Bunny?”

Girls. I’m girl crazy. It’s ’cause it’s summer. I’d like to calm myself down. What should I do? —Ronnie

PR: “The Complete Guide to Furniture Styles,” by Louise Ade Boger. This one is new to my collection. I got it off the two-dollar cart at the Strand last week and already I have found it an indispensible settler of the mind. I know what you’re thinking: for a diseased one-track Bonobo like yourself, it’s only the tiniest baby-step from furniture to sex. Trust me. Ms. Boger is an artist. She was bored writing the thing, bored shitless from sentence one, and she manages to communicate that feeling to the reader in real time. To say “The Complete Guide to Furniture Styles” is 427 pages long is to say nothing. The pages are giant; the text bicolumniar; the black-and-white plates, for all intents and purposes, useless. Reading “The Complete Guide” is like popping six Ambien and hitting yourself on the head with a brick.

Can you recommend any books that will make interesting people approach me if I read them on the subway? During “A Moveable Feast,” people came up and quoted entire passages verbatim, and it really enhanced the reading experience. —Alexandra Petri

It was the last question which first caught my attention. You want interesting people to approach you on the subway? I spend an hour of my life everyday trying to prevent this. The subway is the one place I want everyone to be as innocuously normal and silent as humanly possible. And I certainly don’t want them approaching me. But then, as I read the answer, I thought there was something wise and funny about different subway lines having different literary preferences. And then again, I was reminded of how reading on the subway is not a universal experience. This is a realization I had only recently, when maryb at Alone With Each Other posted something about Kindles, etc. replacing hardcover books, and paperbacks will be for the poor. As someone who works with rare books, I went into hysterics about the hardcover’s imminent extinction, but at some point managed to have this exchange:

maryb: And paperbacks will be purchased by people who want to read at home or who rely on the library or book sales, the way hardbacks are now…

ME: …do people really have books they only read at home and books they only read on the go? Generally speaking, the book I’m reading on the train is the one I’m picking back up at lunch and getting into bed with at night.

maryb: You big city people. Here in St. Louis there are no trains to read on except for one scrawny metro line that hardly anybody rides. The fact that I carry a book around with me makes me an aberration. So yes, there are many
people who intend ONLY to read at home.

Somehow I’d gotten the idea into my head that trains exist to 1) get a person from point A to point B and 2) give a person time to read. Of course one can also read at a cafe, the beach, park, doctors’ offices, even in one’s own bed. But the idea that people just sit around, in their own homes, reading… it kind of terrified me. I don’t know why. Obviously sitting around watching tv seems plausible. I think I have a phobia or something. If reading a book is on my list of things to do, and I am at home, I leave. That’s why god created cafes, right? Unless of course it is that certain kind of foul weather morning where curling up under the duvet by the window with a cup of coffee and a book is acceptable, nay, obligatory on aesthetic grounds alone. Anyway, now I am obsessed with reading-on-trains culture.

Are we doing it to avoid people?, to pass the time?, because it is the only chance we have to read?, to seduce men?

According to the website CTA Tattler, Women El riders read more books than men:

Since December, I’ve been recording what books people have been reading, and 17 out of 21 El readers were female. Of those 17 women, 13 were in their 20s or 30s, based on my “best guess.” (You should see me guess
weights at the State Fair.)

To be fair, I see men read. I think I must live on a well-read line. Apropos of nothing, I have been doing my own unscientific study of El riders’ habits, and most Blackberry users are women, whereas most iPhone use is by men. Also, it is mostly men watching tv on their mobile devices. Certainly mostly men laughing while watching tv their mobile devices. The mobile device has almost entirely wiped out the Sudoku fad of a few years back, while book readership appears to have remained steady. I don’t see many Kindle-type things, and I think people look ridiculous reading them. Primarily because such people are usually simultaneously fumbling with their iPods, not hearing their iPhones ringing and checking their e-mail on their Blackberries during the very 20 minute trip while they are flashing about their e-books. It all seems more satirical or dystopian than inspiring.

Here is another take on the literature of the commute:

The Guardian: Give us more literature on public transport: Moscow metro’s murals of Dostoevsky apparently risk making commuters dangerously depressed. But surely travelling with only adverts to read is a far grimmer experience.

According to psychologists, no good will come of the new murals in Moscow’s Dostoevskaya underground station. The vast, black, white and grey depictions of Dostoevsky himself, and the characters from his novels, will make people “afraid to ride the subway”; they will encourage suicidal impulses; they’re depressing. But as a regular London tube traveller, I actually found myself feeling a little jealous. I think they look pretty great, and while they might not actually brighten up a journey they’d certainly make it more interesting.

I become panicky if I don’t have something to read or look at while travelling. If I’ve timed it so badly that I finish a book on a journey, don’t have anything new to read, and have finished/can’t bear to start Metro or whatever free paper has been pushed at me, then I will eventually stoop to reading the adverts while waiting for a train. (It’s less stressful once I’m on board; I may be lucky enough to stumble on one of the Poems on the Underground posters – as part of my pledge to learn more poetry by heart I have been trying to use my tube journeys to commit them to memory). But how much better would it be to be able to gaze on scenes from “Crime and Punishment,” or a mural of the great man, instead?

I don’t think we Londoners can swipe Dostoevsky, of course: we’d need an author with a more British flavour. I think I might campaign for Dickens at London Bridge to start with – an agonised Pip or a worried Nancy would definitely while away a few delays. In New York at Publishers Weekly, meanwhile, they’re wondering about “Paul Auster in Park Slope? Scenes from Bellow’s Mr Sammler’s Planet in an uptown Manhattan Station? Some kind of snarled John Ashbery mural in the confusing transfer hallways of Delancey Street?” Which literary landmarks would you like to see on the way into work?

Which literary landmarks would you like to see on the way into work?

I don’t see how art could make anyone more suicidal than the scenes we are already forced to observe on the train each day. We used to have poetry inside the trains. And at one stop, some artschool student (I presume, since only artschool students use this stop) has done a kind of cheap poetry installation, taping one line on each pillar, so it reads differently from different angles, except it is bad poetry… Probably Chicago could not do much better on the positive vibes front than scenes from “Crime and Punishment,” as our literary claims to fame are Nelson Algren and Sara Paretsky. What people don’t mention in the “OMG those axe killer paintings in the Moscow Metro are depressing!” editorials is that much of Moscow’s subway system creates a kind of subterranean public palace, with great art and crystal chandeliers and marble floors and scale, oh, the scale… They are works of art in themselves, these stations, and momentary escapes from the realities above (well, hypothetically, if no one else were using them.) So let Muscovites be critical and demanding about their subway art and literature. The axe killers and dictators have free rein outdoors, let the innocent people have the damn train stations. It’s a bit the opposite in Chicago. Our El stops look like sewers or Siberian wooden sidewalks and are already home to the psychos and dictators. A bit of art would be nice. Some literature would comfort us during our brief exile from civilization.

We do have a bit of the Berlin Wall, but frankly, that only serves to reinforce the feelings of being trapped and abused that the CTA is so so very brilliant at imposing on its riders. A perfect marriage of symbolism if ever there were one…

What am I reading on the train these days? I have recently checked out the following:

~ Baba Yaga Laid an Egg by Dubravka Ugrešić. She is one of my favorite writers ever in the history of the universe.

~ Best European Fiction 2010 ed. Alexandar Hemon. He is one of my favorite writers ever in the history of the universe. I don’t know what kind of editor he’ll be though.

~ Myth of the Russisan Intelligentsia by Inna Kochetkova. This looks incredibly boring and dry, despite having an intriguing, dishy title.

And am anxiously awaiting:

~ Martin Cruz Smith’s latest mystery book. I know, you thought I was a snob. I also remain of the opinion that Tim of White Sun of the Desert should do a similar kind of murder novel set on the Sakhalin oil rig.

~ The September issue of Vogue. Though this tome falls into that category of works which are best enjoyed while curled up under a duvet on a rainy morning. For aesthetic reasons? Well, it’s also just too damned heavy to tote to the train. So heavy it that, now that I think about it, it could probably serve to prop up a malnourished, depressed MFA or two.

What are you reading, hiding behind on trains and propping yourselves up with?

July 10, 2010

Conspiracy Theories

Filed under: Too Much Information — poemless @ 1:20 AM

Some people have been contacting the owner of this blog to inquire as to the whereabouts of “poemless” and her possible return. Below is a list of the most likely explanations.

1 ) Poemless was caught spying for the Russian government (networking with politicians, friending important people on facebook, looking hot) and was put on a plane to Moscow. Vice President Joseph Biden regrets that such a stunning beauty was deported.

2 ) After 15 years of neglecting housework and as many years battling an addiction to Sunday flea markets, poemless became buried under a pile of her own stuff. Her mental illness but a symptom of larger societal dysfunction, no one noticed.

3 ) Acid trip in desert she’s been meaning to do since ’93.

4 ) Unable to sit by silently and watch the ecological catastrophe unfold in the Gulf of Mexico, poemless dropped everything to devote herself to grooming greasy pelicans. While excelling at the shampoo and blow-dry, she was fired for giving complimentary mani/pedi’s to first time clients.

5 ) Four words: Nashi Camp Mating Tent.

6 ) Poemless formally handed in her resignation, stating a desire to “spend more quality time with her cat,” when an article surfaced online in which she was disrespectful and critical of the current administration.

7 ) Seeking an authentic Houellebecqian experience, poemless obtained French citizenship and took a 4 week package vacation at an overpriced trashy resort somewhere near Thailand where jihadists killed her lover and where she now nurses the pain of grief and sti’s with tropical cocktails.

8 ) In a freak accident like from a comic book, poemless was struck by lightning during a terrible Midwestern summer thunderstorm and transformed into a psychic octopus. Go Spain!!!

9 ) Vladimir Putin had me shot and killed. I mean Vladimir Putin had poemless shot and killed. Damn. It almost worked.

10 ) “Atypical Migraine Variant,” which is medical lingoese for “like if your brain were not working for no reason and no one knew why.

So… I am going with the trashy Thai sex vacation theory. But medical professionals throughout Chicago swear by no. 10.

Alas, visits to doctors, ERs, neurologists and ophthalmologists are not fun to read about. Blood tests, CT scans, eye exams and MRIs are not fun to write about. Steroids, IVs, injections, anticonvulsants and harsh painkillers are not fun to experience. Not being able to work, running up bills and out of vacation time are not fun to think about. And most of all, not getting better after the visits, tests, medicines, time off, money spent and running out is the least fun of all.

So that’s why poemless is not writing. You don’t want to read about that. Poemless doesn’t even want to read about that.

March 29, 2010

March Elegy

Filed under: Culture: Russia,Too Much Information — poemless @ 4:26 PM
Tags: ,

Park Kultury on my mind…

(image c/o bbc.co.uk)

I’ve been working on a post about how the New START and the issue of nuclear deproliferation are dangerously underappreciated in this age of the GWOT. About how terrorism is the new It War because it is sexy and sells but it’s frankly over-rated and largely a ruse blah blah blah.

Call it the Worst. Timing. Ever.

Said diary will be postponed.

It’s a very weird feeling to wake up, open your e-mail and suddenly be in a panic about a bomb blast on the other side of the world. Sure, I have friends and acquaintances in Moscow, but what are the chances they’d be among the 30+ victims in a city of 8.5 million? Besides, I swiftly accounted for the closest of them. Of course, there are the infinite number of people who come in and out of your life, with whom you lose or never bothered to keep contact. Still, those people could theoretically be on any plane that crashes or in any city struck by an earthquake. Why the freak-out, poemless?

It’s been many years since I’ve set foot inside Park Kultury Metro station. But at one time in my life I set foot in it every single day. Moscow must be one of the few places in the world where the metro isn’t just a way to get from point A to point B, but a whole microcosm of society. I once imaged that anything you could get above ground you could get underground in Moscow. And that you could possibly live forever underground there. It was a disturbing concept. Even the subway is above ground where I am from. Only worms live underground, right? I felt like I’d stumbled into some dark sci-fi genre. A Twilight Zone episode. In the Metro, you could buy a puppy and take the puppy to the vet, have its prescriptions filled, buy some lingerie and some guns, grab nachos fromTaco Bell, see a performance, see fine art, see people die and be born, have your hair done, watch fixed, shoes re-soled… The possibilities in Moscow Metro were only limited by one’s imagination. In this way it was like a mini-Moscow. But warmer. My most vivid memory of Park Kultury stop was buying ponchiki on the sidewalk in front of the station during the harsh winter, and ducking inside to eat them. For those who don’t know, ponchiki are doughnuts. But these were not like any American doughnuts. They’d been deep fried and then tossed in a plastic bag with sugar just moments earlier, and a huge waft of sticky steam would escape when you opened the bag. For some reason this had to be done on the down lo. The ticket ladies were not too fond of people loitering with food in the entryway. Which was a bit odd since every human incursion fathomable was taking place in the bowels below us…

Anyway, idiot terrorists blowing people to bits for no good reason is a pretty horrific image to begin with. And I can’t imaging what it was like for those who experienced it first hand. But I guess it just made it a bit more vivid, the bloody scenes on the tv combined with my crystal clear memories. Like a dream. Or a nightmare, as it were.

I’m glad I have been able to account for my friends and very saddened for those who will not be able to. I can’t say I blame the terrorists for changing my memories of Park Kultury. My second most vivid memory of the place was when I discovered a dead body outside the doors late one night. Apparently a homeless drunk had succumbed to hypothermia. Oh, who am I kidding? I saw all kinda of horrors in that place. A lady who walked down the metro car on all fours barking like a dog. Someone hit and kiled by a car on the highway outside. People being generally abusive toward each other. Sad, stray animals (we took a kitten home one night).

And even then there were bombings. Bombings by Chechens, by gangsters, by lunatics…

Life went on. People continued to take the metro to the ballet and library and the university and the park and the museum and work and school and shopping… I don’t know if people continue to duck inside for illicit kiosk ponchiki. I think if I could do that right now, I’d feel a little better about all of this. But I can’t, so a poem will have to do.

March Elegy

I have enough treasures from the past
to last me longer than I need, or want.
You know as well as I . . . malevolent memory
won’t let go of half of them:
a modest church, with its gold cupola
slightly askew; a harsh chorus
of crows; the whistle of a train;
a birch tree haggard in a field
as if it had just been sprung from jail;
a secret midnight conclave
of monumental Bible-oaks;
and a tiny rowboat that comes drifting out
of somebody’s dreams, slowly foundering.
Winter has already loitered here,
lightly powdering these fields,
casting an impenetrable haze
that fills the world as far as the horizon.
I used to think that after we are gone
there’s nothing, simply nothing at all.
Then who’s that wandering by the porch
again and calling us by name?
Whose face is pressed against the frosted pane?
What hand out there is waving like a branch?
By way of reply, in that cobwebbed corner
a sunstruck tatter dances in the mirror.

~Anna Akhmatova

March 11, 2010

Some Thoughts on Russia and Feminism…

Filed under: Culture: Russia,Culture: U.S.,Too Much Information — poemless @ 6:35 PM
Tags: , ,

Oh this will be fun. What demon of masochism has sent me running into this busy highway? I suppose I sense some explanation is required. Some frustration is pent up. Some wiggle room is in short supply. Since I began writing about my interest in Russia, I have repeatedly been confronted with the popularly accepted notion that Russia is generally unenlightened, backwards, conservative or otherwise markedly hostile to feminist ideals. While I’ve no intention of arguing that the opposite is true, these assertions send me climbing up the walls, despite the fact that I consider myself a staunch feminist. Even as I write this, I suspect that the “well, it’s actually a bit more nuanced than that” line of reasoning is next up after “whataboutism” for entry into the trash bin marked “Russophile Apologia.” Good thing I am a feminist and don’t allow the opinions of others to shut me up.

Before I explain why I’m climbing up walls, some clarification:

~ I don’t expect everyone to conform to my ideas about things. I’m not the purveyor of feminist credentials and have no say in who is a feminist and who is not, and of those who are, which ones are bad and which ones are good. Just not interested.

~ I personally believe it is up to the individual woman -not the state, not the church, not men, not other women- to decide for herself what her ideal of womanhood is, and if she wants to pursue it. And that she has the right to change her mind about it. Or to not care about it at all.

~ When I say I am a feminist, I mean I expect women to have the same rights, opportunities, recognition, pay, respect, recourse, protection, etc. as men, and in a way that takes into account the fact that women’s anatomy brings with it added responsibilities and vulnerabilities, and that we live in a world where we have not yet achieved the aforementioned equality and are therefore forced to put up with an incredible amount of unnecessary shit.

~ The following is simply attempt to shed light on my thought process. Nothing more, nothing less.

Now, how is it that I can admire Russia, call myself a feminist and not fall into a self-loathing pit of despair?

1. The Fetishization of Russian women’s beauty, femininity, blah blah blah. When Americans do it.

International Women’s Day Special: Girls Of The Siloviki, by Team eXiled.

Yes, it’s the eXiled. But this is not a condemnation of their treatment of women. This is an illustration of the power of myth and those who propagate it.

“But then there was the other side of Women’s Day that makes us a bit nostalgic: Russia’s devushki. An abundance of devushki. So many devushki it gave you a headache. As this recent Komsomolskaya Pravda story on the “Girls of the Siloviki” shows, even the scariest devushki had a certain tantalizing “Amateur Hardcore MILF” quality about them that made it hard to think responsibly. (If you want to know more about the siloviki, click here. Would you like to know more?)

So here then is a March 8 photo essay showing off Kremlin Femdom at its best: The Girls of the Silovki:”

What follows is a number of photos of women in various professional and casual outfits. Far be it for me to start judging who is beautiful and who is not. But please look at these women and ask yourself, were they in American uniforms, had the article introduced them as the beautiful women of Omaha, would we still be gushing over them? For a country that churns out supermodels and ballerinas, I’m incredulous. Natalia Vodianova is out of my league. These women are not. I think I’m in a pretty nice league so that’s no insult. My point is that American men are just as swift to project stereotypes and see that world through a prism of ideals that don’t nec. reflect reality as anyone else. Another example:

What a Woman!!!, by American Russia Observations.

This post admittedly recognizes a lot of the hard work and achievements of Russian women, but I was struck by this:

“Personal appearance is a top consideration for most Russians, and especially for women. They do not throw something on to go to the store, but rather, like my mother in the 1950’s, get dressed carefully in a feminine way. Russian men are used to being around carefully dressed women and usually do not like the casual American look.

No matter how busy or how tight the budget, the women dress well. Russian women tend to be high achievers but don’t feel this in any way precludes their interest in appearing traditionally beautiful.

No woman will race out of the apartment without first checking the mirror for last minute touches on makeup and hair style.[...]
Russian women accept a feminine role as normal and desirable. What makes the difference between her and a woman in France or the United States is the order of her priorities. Nurturing and comforting are high on her list.”

It may well be the case that the Russian wife who inspired this post by her American spouse meets these criteria. It may be the case that many people have wives who meet these criteria. But can I just say … get out more? Please. I have several female Russian acquaintances who will probably make your brain explode. Why the sweeping generalizations? You do realize that those same Puritan ideals of submissive women also dictate that they don’t go out looking like sluts. Oh wait, Russian women go out looking like sluts all the time. Everyone knows that Russian women are either prostitutes or open to that. They love to slave in front of the stove for their man, too. All American women, in contrast, are frigid and eat microwave dinners. Russian women are just perfect! Perfect for men, anyway!

… Kill me now please.

Russian women do tend to put more emphasis on their looks than American women, because America sets that bar astonishingly low. I won’t leave the apartment without first checking the mirror for last minute touches on makeup and hair style, but I get shit about it. People think I am vain and shallow. The difference is not our natural tendencies as women, but the effect of being judged by others. Every minutiae of women’s lives is subject to social scrutiny, and depending on where you live, you choose your battles accordingly. Compare the women in Manhattan to those in Peoria. I know many American women who’d love to dote more on their appearance but can’t find the time, or if they can, sense no one would care anyway, so why bother?

In the two previous examples, those espousing “objectifying” or “outdated” attitudes about Russian women are … American men. These are relatively harmless examples. But let’s take another: sex work and trafficking. Home-grown economic conditions, organized crime, etc. are certainly directly responsible for the enslavement of women, but without the ostensibly enlightened modern foreigners to buy them, the market would be far less profitable, no? What about the less literal commodification and objectification of women, the promotion of unattainable perfection as a marketing tool? The culprit there is Capitalism. Anyone wanna argue that there is anything uniquely Russian about that?

I’ve no intention of denying the social, legal, economic, cultural Zeitgeist in Russia of responsibility for what has become a sometimes cartoonish ideal of Russian womanhood. But the idea that these potentially limiting ideas about women is a purely Russian phenomenon, borne of and propagated by their own innate backwardness and conservatism, appears to be bullshit.

2. International Women’s Day, or, “Waiter! There’s political correctness in my soup! And where’s the salad? I ordered salad! With no onions and extra olives.”

Domesticating March 8th, by Sean Guillory.

I have to say, this is an otherwise spot on post. But these two paragraphs bring back traumatic memories of of the burqa ban debate:

“Roses, tulips, and other colorful flowers extend from the hands of Russian women like prostheses. One day a year they replace the broom, the pot, and the child. The flowers, like the wedding bands on women’s fingers, are a symbol of property. Almost every woman strolling through the metro or down Moscow’s avenues has one hand around a man’s arm while the other clutches a bouquet. Thus, the object on their left hand says, ‘I’m taken’ while the man on their right says, ‘by him.’

What an ironic scene International Women’s Day has become in Russia. What was once a day calling for a ‘struggle against patriarchy,’ has in many ways become patriarchy’s reinforcement. Nothing says this more than the popular gifts bestowed on this day of ‘struggle.’ According to the Russian polling service VTsIOM, flowers are the most popular gift for March 8. Forty-four percent of women want them, and 54% of men are willing to give them. Candy comes in second with 19 and 39% respectively. This is followed by make-up and perfume. Gender equality has been substituted with gendered commodities.”

Well meaning men (and women) all over the world want to fight the good fight against patriarchal oppression by … uhm, telling women how to present themselves in public. It’s unavoidable. Because they have balls they should not get an opinion? Well… it’s just that… Look, if your female companion finds holding hands and getting flowers or wearing a wedding ring a symbol of oppression, respect it, or get a new companion. If you sire children, you probably have the right to impose your values on them. But why do leftist men have any more right to police the behavior of women than, say, the Church? Do you think the Church doesn’t believe it is well-intentioned? In the end, isn’t it an “enlightened” “feminist” position to allow women to decide for themselves what their attire or relationships “symbolize?”

And come on, Simone de Beauvoir would be the first to remind you that Marxism did a pretty lame ass job of acknowledging the value of women beyond their economic situation.

Ok I’ve done enough finger pointing. I hope no one takes it personally, they’re simply examples. Here’s a perspective that actually seems to avoid offending me, as a feminist:

Happy March 8th! Now smile and put on some make-up!, by Natalia Antonova.

A woman. Shocking.

“International Women’s Day has its roots in socialism, but where I come from – it has degenerated mostly into Valentine’s Day, minus fat-bottomed cupids. I appreciate indulgences as much as the next person, and (sincere) male courtesy besides, but it grates on even my flower-loving, frivolous soul that a day that originally centered female workers and female solidarity has degenerated into a ceremonial throwing-of-a-bone.

“It’s alright, ladies, if your salaries are crap, domestic violence rates remain high, and some of you aren’t even viewed as proper football fans anymore – here’s something pink to make up for it!”

One of my Russian friends – a largely conservative, Christian stay-at-home mom – recently ranted about the present futility of International Women’s Day:

“At least my husband realizes that I don’t WANT flowers and candy on one stupid day of the year. I just want a little respect on all days of the year. Anything else is tokenism. It means nothing.”

When I told her about how Engels viewed the traditional marriage as exploitation of women, she didn’t even bother to respond with a clever retort, as she normally does:

“What do I care about Engels? He’s just some guy who was supposed to help us all usher in a ‘bright future.’ A lot of good it did. Hah.”

Post-Soviet disillusionment is probably one of the main reasons why International Women’s Day is in such shambles across much of the former USSR. The earnestness of this day is a reminder of the crises and failures of the last twenty years – so it must be smothered in roses and champagne. Marx and Engels had us all bamboozled, as it turned out. Might as well pop a chocolate and forget the bastards ever existed.

March 8th-fatigue has been settling over many people I encounter nowadays as well. Last year, the popular Russian site APN.ru published a misogynistic yet oddly hilarious screed by a Russian Orthodox extremist who asked, among other things, that “Does the very sight of champagne bubbles not make one think of the sin of adultery?” [translation mine] as a way of discouraging the faithful from celebrating March 8th.

One can only hope that the vacuum of romance on this day is not going to be filled with foaming-at-the-mouth fundamentalism. If there’s one thing more annoying than advertisements for cheaply made knickers as awesome March 8th gifts, it’s some bearded guy excitedly comparing fizz to ejaculation and how it will bring on the tortures of hell (as opposed to the tortures of a really bad hangover).

I sense more hope in the manner in which women congratulate each other on this day. My inbox has overflowed with e-cards – pink, flowery, but honest and true wishes for a great spring, great sex, tons of love and money, and any success I can ever dream of besides – from my fellow ladies. This makes me happy. A great spring, great sex, tons of love and money, and any success you can ever dream of to you too, ladies.

May you be celebrated for your amazing personhood – on any day of the year. And may somebody *cough* finally bring me some chocolates, dammit.”

Personally, I don’t see revolutionary female solidarity and gifts of chocolate and flowers … and knickers as mutually exclusive. If I am honest with myself, I want them all. If I can’t have one, I still want the other. I dated a boy who refused to celebrate Valentine’s Day for feminist reasons. In a misguided attempt to protect my dignity, he was humiliating me. Here I was in love with someone who was telling me romance was a myth dreamed up by the capitalist patriarchy. Fuck him. If I have to live in a capitalist patriarchy, and I do, can’t I at least be allowed to reap the few benefits it offers? In what universe is having to work a crap 9 to 5 job to line some powerful man’s pockets and getting no flowers, chocolates or knickers progress over having to be a housewife and getting the flowers, chocolates and knickers? [More about the flowers and the women doing it for themselves later.]

The other thing that strikes me about this article is “Marx and Engels had us all bamboozled, as it turned out. Might as well pop a chocolate and forget the bastards ever existed.” How is a country that actually attempted to institute women’s equality less evolved than those of us slowly climbing that hill? I mean hell, the way Russia celebrates International Women’s Day might be as cheap and depressing as all get out, thanks largely to Western influence, but America doesn’t even celebrate it at all. No one has ever asked me how I can reconcile being a feminist with being American. In fact as a feminist in America, I’m mostly just asked for money.

Anyway, let’s look at an “official” interpretation of the holiday:

Congratulation to Russian women on March 8. by Prime Minister of Russia Vladimir Putin.

“March 8 is today – an easy, joyful, spring holiday. But it started quite in earnest – in the fight for the interests of women for equality with men. In this regard, and in this sense, our country, we in Russia have very, very much still to do – and for the protection of motherhood and childhood, and women’s access to various activities, to equal pay to equal working conditions. Let us face it – we still have some to work to do. And of course we will strive to ensure that all these problems are solved. And yet – in pursuit of equality with men – we will always appreciate in a woman that belongs only to women – tenderness, grace, charm.

Happy holiday!”

His actions speak louder than his words. He claims women have a monopoly on charm while putting on his most obnoxiously charmy smile possible. (It’s kind of creepy, so he may actually be right about the charm thing.) This is also the man who teaches little girls how to kick ass in Judo. Weirdly, I’m less offended by this proclamation than Mark’s, Robert’s or Sean’s. I personally find the tenderness, grace and charm shtick a bit rich and it makes me want to scratch his little eyes out. Gracefully, for effect. But at least Vova’s not asking women to choose between righteous prole and delicate flower. He’s clearly capable of holding these two seemingly conflicting ideas in his head. How hard is that? Pretty hard actually. But it’s something we’re asked to do each day. [More on this later.]

So far the most “enlightened” posts -IMO- we have are by a pretty Ukrainian woman and Russian macho man. Damn. It’s the backward brigade! And mysteriously, they’re the ones acknowledging that women are these multifaceted creatures, with both practical and impractical attributes, each of which have value don’t need to be apologized for. To this I can only say, bring on the backwards. It’s better than being valued ONLY for my contribution to the international communist struggle or ONLY for my skills as a housewife/mother/lover. You know what? Both of those perspectives only recognize women for what they’re doing for you. Building your airplanes, fighting your class struggle, making your dinner, sucking your dick. Giving a woman flowers is a way to say, “Today it’s not about me. Me and my airplanes and my politics and my dick. Its about you.” Why is this lamentable, precisely?

No, I can’t get riled up by the sight of a wedding band or bouquet of flowers.

3. Real Fucking Problems.

I bet you are expecting me to pull out some facts about how many American women ever actually win sexual harassment suits, let alone how many even get to court. Nope. Sexual harassment is ubiquitous in even the most “enlightened” countries, but there’s no excuse for not having a law against it. Shame on you, Russian government. And shame on the men who do it. Seriously, I was once pinned in the back of a bus by a couple of frisky young militsia guys who seemed to think I was on the evening’s menu. Who, please tell me, do you run to when the police are threatening to rape you? And you know what, shame on every single person on that bus who saw it and did nothing to help. Shame on your whole damn culture! Shame on your whole horrible country! Am I right? I don’t know. That’s not rhetorical. I don’t know.

4. По вечерам над ресторанами…

~ Do you know who was the first person whom I ever felt maybe had an inkling of what it was like to be a woman mistreated by men? It’s perverse, really. Dostoevsky. Seriously. And you just don’t know how many times in my life when, thinking I must be going mad, alone, feeling that no one could possible ever understand what this is like, there is a shelf of Dostoevsky. How can I explain this? It’s one of the things I don’t force myself to explain, but just accept. He’s there, and has saved my life on more than one occasion.

~ In college I became enamoured with the Russian Symbolists and “Sophiology.” Sophia. Eternal Femininity. Goddess of Wisdom. There was a whole philosophical movement based on women being symbols of this unattainable plane of mystery and wisdom and strength and grace and all of these beautiful, transcendent things. I found myself in the lead role in a theatrical adaptation of Aleskandr Blok’s Neznakomka. I was surprised by how much power I had in that character. It was sublime.

~ You can imagine my shock after growing up hearing my mother talk about the struggle for equal rights, she and her girlfriends in the 1960’s, ahead of the curve, on the front lines, marching for economic parity and political representation, to find that this was accepted thinking among many 19th century Russian revolutionaries…

~ I was floored by women in Russia. Just floored. They ran everything. At the time, it appeared there were neither men for jobs nor jobs for men. Women were doing just about everything. Running the households, the schools, the shops, the trains. Anything you needed permission for you needed to go through a tough ass bitch to get. Old ladies weren’t sitting at home mewing about aches and pains, they were sweeping the street and policing society while raising grandchildren and perhaps engaging in some entrepreneurial work. Young women held several jobs while attending school, and sometimes returned home in the evenings to cook meals and do laundry for the family because mom had gotten fed up with that shit and left. I knew a single woman who was a doctor and raising two boys, doing everything herself – no babyshka, no nanny, no nothing. What was exceptional about this was that she was not at all exceptional. I met a lot of women with similar stories. I thought this must be what the U.S. homefront was like during WWII. And there was something to some of the stereotypes. Dr. Mom also always looked fabulous and didn’t do a heck of a lot of complaining. I think I would have been less intimidated had they all complained more. There was a just a practical resignation: if we don’t do this who will? Not in a defeated tone, but in a, “Well, if we have to save civilization by kicking the Martians’ asses, we’ll just have to do that,” tone. They weren’t doing all this because they were women, and it was in their nature, it was their place or they were submissive. They did it because they were the adults in the room. All of these women deserve a hell of a lot more than flowers and chocolates. Sexual harassment laws would be a nice start. Then, more of those massive monuments recognizing their contributions.

~ You could travel from one coast to another in the U.S. and not see a massive granite monuments recognizing the contributions of women. In Russia, you have be blind to avoid seeing one.

~ One evening, going down Varshavskoe Shosse, the hot summer sun was setting and the hugeness of Russia hit me. A vastness I could not even comprehend. It was a vastness with a heartbeat. I thought maybe this is was it feels like to be in the womb, if we could remember that. The whole “Mother Russia” thing clicked. It was visceral, not intellectual. I dare say spiritual.

~ One of the many many things I like about being a girl in Moscow was the female camaraderie. My girlfriends and I would go around town holding hands, buying each other gifts, having all night commiseration sessions in the kitchen, with loads of blini and Nutella on hand. Maybe it was just that I was a foreigner, but there was always some sisterly or motherly figure looking out for me. A posse. Oh, I wanted to say something about flowers. In Russia everyone was always buying flowers. You didn’t show up on doorsteps without flowers. And chocolate too. People regularly bought boxes of chocolates just because. This in an economic crisis. I really liked these small gestures. Guests expected to make an effort. No one being made to feel guilty for buying a box of chocolates just because. I really liked being able to revel in platonic female friendships without it being taken as a rejection of men. On the other hand, I can see how, being so commonplace, such favors inspire little gratitude on March 8.

~ I also really enjoyed not having to limit myself to one “role” or risk suspicion of having a mental defect if I strayed outside it. I like to dress up. Make-up, skirts, cute shoes, product in my hair. I also expect to be taken seriously. For me, Russia was a magical place where this seemingly perverse combination of attention to beauty (and even, gasp, sexuality) and being well read, intelligent, competent, willing to debate the merits of various theories of film, etc. was not only not considered “weird” but was even kind of expected of me. Which blew my mind. It was a bit heavenly. It made me aware of how strictly compartmentalized we are in America. If you are a mom, you are expected to look, act, be a mom. Anything else is irreverent or sign of an identity crisis. If you are an academic, ditto. Of course, reality forces us into different roles throughout our lives, days even. So the standard procedure is to choose the least conspicuous qualities, preferably ones that can go from day to night with minimal tweaks. Strip ourselves of all individuality or emotion or peculiarity. All the fun things about being alive, cover it up in a shapeless neutral tone sack, learn to deny ourselves things and hate ourselves for wanting those things, don’t be too feminine, don’t be too masculine, choose androgyny-it’s most comfortable. Don’t worry, if you are a mom, you’re not expected to know anything about dialectics. If you are a philosopher, you’re not expected to be familiar with anatomy. Gah!! I hate this!! And don’t even get me started about the horrorshow that is America’s approach toward sexuality.

So this is what I think about when I think about being a feminist and Russia. Most of my love of Russia is feminine (as I define it) in nature. It doesn’t fit nicely into our enlightened but restrictive compartments we are obsessed with over here. Just being a woman alive in the world requires feats of cognitive dissonance. So does giving two seconds of thought to Russia. So if being a feminist who adores Russia creates it’s own cognitive dissonance – it’s not exactly throwing a wrench in anything. Besides, life is more fun when you stop stressing out about consistency. What’s the point of being a good feminist if it means you have to be stressed out all the time? Isn’t the goal less stress, more freedom to be ourselves? And isn’t being a feminist choosing to believe that whatever nightmare situation faces us, women have the intelligence, strength, determination, etc. to confront and improve it? Domestic violence, for example, is routine and sadly accepted by many in Russia, but there’s no reason it must remain so. There are enough Catherine the Greats, Alexandra Kollontais, Anna Akhmatovas in Russia’s history to convince me there is nothing in the gene pool that predestines them to lives of submission. And while Ukraine is not Russia, Yulia Tymoshenko, Russian speaking, born in the USSR, just came incredibly close to being president (and held significant political power before that.)

Perhaps some will accuse me of downplaying the plight of women in Russia. Perhaps some will say I’m only a feminist when it is convenient. Perhaps some will accuse me of imposing my Western values onto a culture that already has its own values thank you very much. Perhaps they are correct. I just wanted to illustrate that actually 1) us modern, enlightened types are complicit in much of Russia’s ill treatment of women, 2) us modern, enlightened types have our own ways of policing women and providing pre-approved options for them and 3) Russia speaks to the part of me that America does not. And that part of me is a woman. An irrational, poetic, emotional, beautiful, fierce, intelligent woman… For all our Cold War rhetoric about Communism, it seems that now it is America who sucks out our souls and everything that makes us messy complicated humans, who values us only for our labor, who demands conformity. Irony of ironies, Russia provides the antidote. My inner feminist rejoices!

November 25, 2009

Giving thanks for chocolate potatoes, khachapuri and BG.

Filed under: Culture: Russia,Too Much Information — poemless @ 1:24 PM
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In a cryptic response to the previous post recounting my quest for the Biophar lavender honey, someone left the address of the Three Sisters Delicatessen on my facebook wall. So last weekend, my cabinets worrisomely low on honey and the weather perfectly warm and sunny, I decided to make a trip to Little Russia on Devon Ave. Mind you, the perfectly warm and sunny weather did not lure me out of the house as much as it motivated me to find extreme distraction. I don’t even like perfectly warm and sunny weather in June, but in November it is positively unbearable. Between the pressure to “get out and take advantage of it” and the thought of starving, drowning polar bears with no icecaps on which to rest … no I really cannot stand a perfectly warm and sunny November day. Thus I set out to take my mind off the fact.

Naturally, they didn’t carry the honey, but that’s really neither here nor there…

The Neighborhood.

It’s not really called “Little Russia.” I just made that up. It’s called West Rogers Park, and more specifically, Devon Avenue, which I wrote about here. That was a long time ago, spurred on by the by the Israel/Lebanon war. But it could just as easily have been about the August ’08 war. For whatever reason, along this stretch of asphalt on Chicago’s far north side, Jews and Arabs, Indians and Pakistanis, Russians and Georgians are all living side by side, with no nukes or tanks to be found. Left to their own devices they all seem to get along as well as anyone, actually. Intellectually we all know this is possible. But the teevees and interwebs try their damnedest to assure us that these civilizations are just incompatible, because at their roots those terrifying Islamic or Russian or vagelymiddleeasternlookingdarkskinnedpeople are products of cultures based on ethnic or religious chauvinism. They hate our way of life and everything we stand for. Well, I’m here to tell you the fine people of Devon Avenue are living proof that talk radio hosts and the French are wrong.

Three Sisters Delicatessen.

The magical deliciousness that is шоколадные картофель:

photo c/o Chicago Reader.

You may be wondering why I have never been to this Russian establishment located just minutes from my apartment. So am I. I’ve settled upon a few explanations. First, in Chicago-ese “Devon” is synonymous for “Indian food that will assure such digestive agony you’ll be begging someone to gut you like a catfish before the night is through.” So I normally decline offers to go to Devon. Secondly, while it’s actually possible that 3 sisters do run the joint, I hate the name. Not because it is cliche, but because I hate the play. Well, “hate” is a strong word. I don’t like it. I’m really not a huge fan of Chekhov. Thirdly, I think I never thought to go to the Russian deli because I never thought about what they might have. When I lived in Russia, there weren’t very many such establishments, and those I came upon were usually -oh, really, it’s too stereotypical- rather empty. If you wanted to buy stuff, you could get almost anything on the street, though it was mostly from the West. The Russian “stores” were basically the same, but under a roof, warehouse-like. Most food was something you made at home from whatever you brought back from the dacha or could obtain through various connections. Or maybe my family were just purists or something…

What does a Russian deli carry? In this case the entire Russian diet crammed into a space about half the size of the old Meyer’s. Tea, kvas, mineral water, jam, honey, bread, cookies, boxed chocolates, anything you could conceivably pickle and put into a jar, kasha, meat, fish, caviar, cheese, those crazy zillion-layer cream cakes, boiled potatoes, blini… the only Russian food groups missing were alcohol and cigarettes. The clientele was just as quintessential: a babyshka with a walker, munching toothlessly on salami and buying pickled mushrooms, an older fellow getting some fish, and separately, 3 young women, each of whom bought chocolates. Behind the meat counter were 3 -yes, 3- middle-aged or older women. Like the ladies behind the meat counter at Meyer, they were stout and clad those white lady-like old world deli uniforms. Unlike the ladies behind the meat counter at Meyer, their Russian counterparts were sporting garish turquoise eyeliner and crazy dye-jobs, and were incredibly friendly. I bought a loaf of locally baked black bread and some jam from Nizhny-Novgorod, and ordered “chocolate potatoes.” And that’s how I ordered them. “Chocolate potatoes.” The older woman behind the counter screwed up her face at me. I panicked. “Shokoladny kartofel. Dva. Pozhalsta. Spasiba,” I managed to eek out, bewildered since, though I read Russian on a regular basis, I only ever speak it, oh, well, pretty much never. The lady smiled with a twinkle in her eye, looked me up and down for a moment, and shouted to someone to get this devushka 2 chocolate potatoes, ASAP. They all began looking at me mischeivoulsy like they knew something I didn’t and weren’t going to tell me. Maybe they just found my terrible broken Russian charming, but I secretly wondered if they weren’t conspiring to take me home and turn me into tomorrow’s lunch special, Baba Yaga-like…

Chocolate potatoes? DIVINE. AT first I regretted that I’ve lived 30-something years without them. Though that may not be entirely true. My mother used to make Christmas cookies called “Russian tea cakes.” They looked like “Mexican wedding cakes” but had a very different texture and taste. They were very dense and moist with a nutty, liqueur-like flavor … just like these “chocolate potatoes.” The only difference is that the potatoes are dusted in chocolate rather than powdered sugar, and are about 5 times larger.

Argo Georgian Bakery.

Hello, my little hachypury. I am going to eat you!

My next stop was the Georgian bakery one block down. Argo Bakery made Three Sisters look like a bustling cornucopia in contrast to its spare interior. A few very small tables. A few awkwardly placed refrigerated display cases. A giant stone slab/oven thing in the middle of it all where the little khachapuri lived their short lives between creation and consumption. I ordered some of the patient khachapuri and a hazelnut churchkhela. Like the ladies at the Russian deli, the proprietor of the Georgian bakery was very friendly. Unlike them, he spoke English. The menus were in Russian, so it should not have felt presumptuous to speak to him Russian, but I’ve watched too much CNN and decided the most politically correct choice would be English. He reminded me of my Sicilian step-father, with a combination of relaxed gregariousness and theatrical humility. I asked it he knew where to buy wine, Georgian wine, and he told me he could only get it either by the barrel, or in 4-liter bottles. Because he was in the “restaurant business.” I looked around the room. Restaurant… I invented a story in my head about a man who opens a storefront hachypurry joint as a ruse so he can import Georgian wine by the barrel. Back in reality, this man asked if I’d like a 4-liter bottle? I declined. He laughed and dismissed my concern: “Four liter! For us Georgian, iz nothing, you know? Iz, just getting started!” Yes – I know. I’ve been to a few Georgian feasts and know how much wine they have to consume to keep up with all of the toasts they make. Considering you have to drink to every toast, yes, it’s probably best to buy wine by the barrel.

The khachapuri were alright. The dough was pretty tasty, but the cheese was a rubbery feta type cheese, not the gooey melty cheese I remember. I have no idea what cheese they were using in Russia, but it was spectacular. The churchkhela, however, were quite a treat. I was afraid they’d be too sweet or leathery, but the grape entrails-looking stuff had the subtlety of a Turkish delight. In fact, that’s pretty much what it is: Turkish delight only with grapes instead of rosewater, on a string, made up to look like intestines. Grape Turkish delight sausages. Too bad there is no way to describe them that does justice. I HIGHLY recommend getting your hands on some of this stuff. Oh, but keep in mind there is a string running through the center. Remember not to eat it.

Русский книжный магазин.

You will never be this cool. Sorry.

The last stop on my shopping trip was the Russian bookstore. Well, no it wasn’t. But it is the last one I will recount here. I have previously been to this place on several occasions, back in college. While I bought books there, it was less a bookstore than some kind of miniature Izmailovsky market crammed into a storefront, with piles of Soviet kitsch and Russian souvenirs everywhere you looked. The layout was more like an attic than a store, and the interior dimly lit, which made it rather disorienting. These days it is “under new management” and the kitsch is all but gone and it is bright and spacious. Perusing the books on display, I saw a few about Medvedev, but nothing Putin. Which only surprised me because the ratio of Putin:Medvedev books I see at work are about 30:1. Anyway, I was not there for books.

Almost all of my Akvarium/BG (and, er, there’s a lot) is on cassette tape and second or third generation at that. I don’t know why. It’s not like I couldn’t find or afford cd’s in Russia. They were hawked on every street corner for spare change. But I preferred to do my own bootlegging, thank you very much. Maybe it was out of some vestigial tradition of samizdat (or magnitizdat, whatever), or more likely it was simply that the cold winter days lent themselves to staying home and eating blini while making tapes. Well, this is how I and my girlfriends spent the time. Those tapes felt like gold at the time, but their value has since been reduced to that of cultural artifacts.

When I walked in, I was met with a “Zdra’stvuetye” from a woman and a “Nuzhna pomosch?” from a little moon-faced man who slipped out from a room in the back. More terrible broken Russian escaped from my mouth as I asked if they had any Akvarium or BG. Ok, buying a cd is not rocket science, but I have to admit I was surprised to find myself conversing in Russian, you know, without having to think about it. Maybe someone who has tried to learn a new language as an adult can appreciate this. I felt weightless. The little moon-faced man was incredibly genial and excitable as he went around picking out cd’s for me (confirming that, no, they were not displayed in any order; it wasn’t just me). Maybe I was the first customer he’d seen all day. Or maybe I reminded him of some daughter who moved to Seattle and whom he hasn’t seen in years. Who knows? He was terribly sweet. He had puppy dog eyes. I was sad to have to go. I left with a couple of cd’s and the intention of returning just to see him again. It was only when I got home, jumping around to “Nikita Riazanskii,” that I fully appreciated how empty my life had been without Navigator and the Russian Album. Or rather, with them on cassette tape wasting away in a cardboard box in a closet.

Coda.

Since it is Thanksgiving and I am inclined to be reflective and thankful, I can’t do the tactful thing and say, “And thus ended my little shopping trip. Thanks for reading.” Except for the thanking you for reading part, of course. No, I need to make some profound observation about it all. So it’s helpful I have one to make. And that is this: I was impressed with Gene’s Sausage Shop. It looks fabulous, from the grand staircase to the aisles of attractively individually wrapped sweets to the infinite selections of meat. An embarrassment of riches. But I was disappointed when they did not have my honey, put off by the service, and generally ho-hum about the whole affair. The Three Sisters Deli, in contrast, was superficially unimpressive. Small, homely, old-school. No row after row of sparkly packaging, no carnivorous gluttony. Likewise, the Georgian bakery was not going for aesthetic appeal but no-frills homemade pastries. And the bookstore, again, not a scene, just a place to go to get what you want. Everyone was helpful and kind. The yuppie consumer/bitter wage slave dynamic was replaced with plain old human interaction. And while I didn’t find what I set out for, what I can home with was of such quality and nourishing to the soul, I totally forgot about the damned honey! I was out of honey and blissed out. Maybe it’s a commentary on the lack of authenticity in our society. Maybe it’s an illustration to all of you who don’t “get” why anyone would “like” Russia. Maybe it’s confirmation bias. I don’t know. I’ll probably go back to Gene’s, because it is right down the street. But I’ll certainly go back to Devon, because it rocks my world.

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