poemless. a slap in the face of public taste.

October 6, 2011

Odds & Ends: “Tomorrow we may die, so let’s get drunk and make love” Edition

I began to write an essay, an anti-hipster creed in defense of N. Clark Street, about how we are all part of the human comedy and can’t we just stop with the judgement and hatred already? Honestly, does everyone have to be as miserable and cultured as you all of the time?

I began to write another essay, a judgemental and hateful screed against the double standards against which society judges women who under eat v. those who over eat. Honestly, you know lying on the couch with a bag of Oreos isn’t any less criminal than skipping meals, right?

I began to write yet another essay, an admission that I genuinely don’t like how negative I’ve become in the past week or two, or three, or four, or more. Negativity is contagious, insidious. Honestly, we all have our annoyances, peeves and impossibly high standards, but let me tell you mister, it’s a real bore when that’s your primary mode of conversation. I would like to think that if every last lame ass person, place or thing in the world were to vanish tomorrow leaving me with nothing against which to exist, my identity and self-worth would remain largely in tact.

Well that didn’t make me feel better either. Also, that last one mysteriously disappeared into the ether after a failed attempt at multitasking. Karma.

So here are some things that I do like! Shallow enough to charm, indulgent enough to gratify, interesting enough to distract, a few odds and ends that I unapologetically adore at the moment.

I. Marlene Dietrich’s Temperamental Screen Test for The Blue Angel (1929)

I have always thought Marlene Dietrich absolutely divine, and I just can’t get enough of this. Her little transformation is particularly appealing to me.

From Open Culture (which you should all have bookmarked):

In 1929, Josef von Sternberg began assembling the cast for the first major German sound film – Der blaue Engel, otherwise known as The Blue Angel. (Watch the English version online here.) A classic of Weimar cinema, the film featured Marlene Dietrich playing Lola-Lola, a seductive singer in the local cabaret. Lola-Lola was, it has been said, a “liberated woman of the world who chose her men, earned her own living and viewed sex as a challenge.” The persona captivated audiences, and it made Dietrich an international star.

Dietrich’s screentest for “The Blue Angel.”

II. Catalogue of the Musee du Montparnasse exhibtion “Les Artistes Russes hors Frontière.”

One of the delights my work gives me in lieu of a proper salary is perusing through art catalogues. The vast majority are modern art, which … well, there’s that negativity again… Anyway, this one recently appeared on my desk and transported me to heaven.

From ArtInfo: “Russian Artists in Paris in the Roaring Twenties”:

PARIS— In connection with the designation of 2010 as “France-Russia Year,” the Montparnasse Museum is hosting a important exhibition of Russian artists who once converged on this storied Parisian neighborhood. Over 70 artists are represented, covering the period from 1915 to the early 1960s, with special focus on the 1920s. At that time, many Russian painters and sculptors left their country in order to freely express their artistic ambitions and to seek out new trends in art.

The museum itself is part of this history: in its building, the painter Marie Vassilieff had her famous studio — a gathering place for Matisse, Satie, and other seminal cultural figures — and her equally-famous canteen, which provided dirt-cheap meals during World War I to those who were literally starving artists.

Beginning during the political upheavals of the early 20th century, many Russian artists decide to move abroad, and many chose to settle in France. While some artists had supported Lenin and taken part in the revolution’s early stages, most became disillusioned when Stalin took power, preferring to leave rather than to accept ethical and artistic servitude. At the time, Social Realism greatly limited the range of painterly subjects. Still, important artists did remain in Russia, such as Rotchenko, who followed Constructivist principles by applying artistic creation to daily life and mass production. But many other influential talents chose refuge in Paris, the world’s artistic capital at the time.[…]

Drawing on their interest in figurative representation, the Russians developed a freely sensual style of painting. The show includes Serebriakova’s series of languid female nudes, where the artist uses a warm palette to bathe her models in a natural erotic glow. In similar fashion, Marie Vassilieff celebrates the female body with Cubist renderings that maintain bodily proportions and extreme colors that bring Italian Futurism to mind. In general, Russian artists depicted physical beauty without stylizing it. This emphasis on the body also found playful expression in Montparnasse nightlife. During the Union des Artistes Russes’s charity balls, guests freely stripped off their clothes or dressed in drag.

The Russian artists who chose to live in France stayed there, whether by preference or necessity. Erased from Soviet art history, many were forgotten until the end of their lives. It took years before significant pieces of this exiled cultural heritage were rediscovered — many of them in flea-markets. The works shown here all come from the same collection: Georges Khatsenkov gathered 300 paintings over 30 years of tireless pursuit. Since Perestroika, the Russians have rediscovered their legacy, and today these artists are featured in Moscow’s Russian Museum.

From the exhibition: Georges Annenkov’s “Nu Allongé”


III. Ken Burns’ “Prohibition.”
Booze! Chicago! Roaring 20’s! I’d been eagerly anticipating the airing of this PBS documentary all summer, and let’s say I wasn’t drawn to it for its educational appeal. The fact that I learned anything new from it was icing on the cake, or a garnish on the glass, as it were. Did you know that there used to be no federal income tax, that women not only led the fight for but also against Prohibition, that men discovered the clitoris in the 1920’s or that elephants can do the Charleston? Neither did I. Did you evah hear of Lois Long? Neither had I. Now that I have, I am in love.

From “Prohibition”:

Twenty-three-year-old, Vassar-educated daughter of a Congregational minister, Lois Long was assigned to cover the city’s nightlife for the New Yorker. She wrote about the speakeasy lifestyle with a liberated woman’s perspective under the pen name Lipstick. Long was the epitome of a flapper and chronicles of her nightly escapades of drinking and dancing in her column enchanted her readers.

“Lois Long’s columns were laced with a wicked sort of sexual sense of humor. She openly flouted sexual and social conventions. She was a favorite of Harold Ross who was the original editor of The New Yorker and who couldn’t have been more different from Long if he had tried. He was a staid and proper Midwesterner, and she was absolutely a wild woman. She would come into the office at four in the morning, usually inebriated, still in an evening dress and she would, having forgotten the key to her cubicle, she would normally prop herself up on a chair and try to, you know, in stocking feet, jump over the cubicle usually in a dress that was too immodest for Harold Ross’ liking. She was in every sense of the word, both in public and private, the embodiment of the 1920s flapper. And her readers really loved her. “

From Wikipedia:

Lois Long (also known under the pseudonym Lipstick) was a popular writer for The New Yorker during the 1920s and the epitome of a flapper.

She was born to a Congregationalist minister in Stamford, Connecticut and graduated from Vassar. Long had worked at Vogue and Vanity Fair before finding fame at The New Yorker. Harold Ross hired her to write a column on New York nightlife. Under the name of Lipstick, Lois Long chronicled her nightly escapades of drinking, dining, and dancing. She wrote of decadence of the decade with an air of aplomb, wit and satire, becoming quite a celebrity. Because her readers did not know who she was, Long often jested in her columns about being a “short squat maiden of forty” or a “kindly, old, bearded gentleman.” However, in her marriage announcement to The New Yorker cartoonist Peter Arno, she revealed her true identity.

To summarize her lifestyle in her own words: “Tomorrow we may die, so let’s get drunk and make love.”

She remained with The New Yorker as a columnist until 1968. She died in 1974 [1]

I don’t really believe in reincarnation or any of that nonsense. But it’s a little eerie, don’t you think? 😉 A toast to Lois Long!

IV. Salon: Why American novelists don’t deserve the Nobel Prize.

This article ignited the absolutely most tedious discussion on my facebook page, but I still like it, and after you read it, I will happily explain why.

An American hasn’t won in 20 years. The Academy finds our writers insular and self-involved — and they’re right
America wants a Nobel Prize in literature. America demands it! America doesn’t understand why those superannuated Swedes haven’t given one to an American since Toni Morrison in 1993. America wonders what they’re waiting for with Philip Roth and Thomas Pynchon. America wonders how you say “clueless” in Swedish.

OK, enough. But the literature Nobel will be announced this Thursday and if an American doesn’t win yet again, there will be the usual entitled whining — the sound of which has been especially piercing since 2008, when Nobel Academy permanent secretary Horace Engdahl deemed American fiction “too isolated, too insular” and declared Europe “the centre of the literary world.”[…]

Four years after Morrison won the Nobel, David Foster Wallace predicted the current rut in which our literature finds itself in a New York Observer evisceration of John Updike’s “Toward the End of Time.” Though he took particular issue with Updike’s autumnal output, Wallace parceled blame to all of the Great Male Narcissists, with their hermetic concerns and insular little fictions. The following is Wallace’s estimation of Updike, but it could just as easily be said about anyone else in the postwar American pantheon: “The very world around them, as beautifully as they see and describe it, seems to exist for them only insofar as it evokes impressions and associations and emotions inside the self.”

Our great writers choose this self-enforced isolation. Worse yet, they have inculcated younger generations of American novelists with the write-what-you-know mantra through their direct and indirect influence on creative programs. Go small, writing students are urged, and stay interior. Avoid inhabiting the lives of those unlike you — never dream of doing what William Styron did in “The Confessions of Nat Turner,” putting himself inside the impregnable skin of a Southern slave. Avoid, too, making the kinds of vatic pronouncements about Truth and Beauty that enticed all those 19th-century blowhards.

As Bret Anthony Johnson, the director of the creative writing program at Harvard, noted in a recent Atlantic essay, our focus on the self will be our literary downfall, depriving literature of the oxygen on which it thrives: “Fiction brings with it an obligation to rise past the base level, to transcend the limitations of fact and history, and proceed skyward.” This sentiment is a sibling to Wallace’s anger — and both have a predecessor in T.S. Eliot’s 1919 essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” where he called art “a continual extinction of personality.”

The rising generation of writers behind Oates, Roth and DeLillo are dominated by Great Male Narcissists — even the writers who aren’t male (or white). Jhumpa Lahiri is a Great Male Narcissist whose characters tend to be upper-middle-class Indian-Americans living in the comfortable precincts of Boston or New York. Swap the identity to Chinese-American, move the story a couple of generations back on the immigrant’s well-trod saga, and you have Amy Tan. Colson Whitehead started promisingly with “The Intuitionist” and “John Henry Days” but his last novel, “Sag Harbor,” was little more than the bourgeoisie life made gently problematic by the issue of race. Jonathan Safran Foer is a narcissist disguised as a humanist. To his credit, Jonathan Franzen doesn’t even pretend.

That makes for a small literature, indeed. The following are words from citations for recent winners and runners-up of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, inarguably our most prominent commendation for a novelist: tender, warmth, heartbreaking, celebration, polished and sensuous. It’s all small-bore stuff, lack of imagination disguised as artistic humility.

Just look back to 2008, when the slight “Olive Kitteridge” won the Pulitzer, but the Irish-Turkish writer Joseph O’Neill told the story of America in “Netherland” with far more eloquence, insight and humor than an American writer had in more than a decade.

That’s not to say our literature is barren. Dave Eggers has written a novel about the Lost Boys of Sudan, “What Is the What,” and a fine “nonfiction novel” about Hurricane Katrina, “Zeitoun.” Best of all, his 826 reading centers have been a wholly selfless bid to get poor children reading and writing in eight cities. Then there is Aleksandar Hemon, son of Chicago and Sarajevo, who writes the kind of fiction that still seeks to span worlds. Johnston quotes him in the Atlantic: “I reserve the right to get engaged with any aspect of human experience, and so that means that I can — indeed I must — go beyond my experience to engage. That’s non-negotiable.”

Maybe it’s the same story as in politics and industry: America, once great, has been laid low. The difference is that great art needs no tariffs, no financial stimuli, no elections or military campaigns. It only requires courage — though a courage of a special kind — to see beyond oneself, to speak across both space and time via what Ralph Ellison once called “the lower frequencies.”

Indeed, compare the Pulitzer-winning descriptions with these words pulled from the citations of recent Nobel Prize-winners: Revolt, visionary, clash, oppression, subjugating, outsider, barbaric, suppressed. And lastly, the one word that seems most elusive to our writers today, so much so that I fear we’ve become afraid of it: universal.

Alexander Nazaryan, a member of the editorial board of the N.Y. Daily News, has written about culture for the New York Times, the New Republic and the Village Voice, among other publications.

Alexander Nazaryan is a writer and teacher living in Brooklyn. He is writing a novel about Russian immigrants in New York.

Are you done giggling at the irony of that last little bit? I could not possibly care who wins what award for what. Anecdotal evidence and recent experience hints that such attention is often reward for a successful combination of kissing ass, having the “right” worldview, exemplifying cultural trends and, we pray, talent. Everyone who leaves home is talented in this postmodern world so I suppose all those other matters are the only way to weed out the worthy from those who must continue to suffer for their art.

Moreover, while I do think that there is a navel-gazing movement in American writing, my grief with the state of contemporary American lit is that it often strikes me as nihilism wrapped in a big bow of preciousness. I would even go so far as to extend this description to most of contemporary culture. However, none of the above would necessarily prevent one from writing well or exploring the human condition in one’s writing.

I appreciated the article because I do find American literature to be shamefully insular, and because I could once more recommend “Against Eternal Provincialism: An Interview with Aleksandar Hemon.”

V. Some music I like. Deal.

Several friends have advised that I, during such times of sadness and heartache as these, seek comfort in music.

I’m a bit burnt on music, having spent the past several months being told I know nothing about it. I’m no expert, it’s true, but my god I have spent the last 37 years listening to the stuff. What a perfectly ridiculous claim! Fortunately whatever breakup-induced illness had befallen me making me never ever want to listen to another song ever again was short lived, and the other night I found myself dancing around my apartment like a hysterical chorus girl to this:

Katherine Whalen singing “After you’ve gone.”

I’ll close with Ella singing Cole Porter. I may not know anything about music, but those two sure as hell did.

“Just one of those things.”

Should it be that these odds and ends do nothing much for you, it’s no deal-breaker. I’ll not interpret it as rejection and look for a corner in which to mope. I’ll celebrate your uniqueness and thank you, as always, for stopping by.

…and then I’ll begin another essay about how YOU ARE ALL WRONG!


March 24, 2011

In which I am interviewed by InoForum!

Filed under: Culture: Russia,Culture: U.S.,Interviews,Politics: U.S. — poemless @ 2:26 PM
Tags: ,

Posted below is the English version of my Q & A with the folks at InoForum, “Интервью автора блога Poemless с читателями Инофорума.” (more…)

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.


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:


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…


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.


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…


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…


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.

November 24, 2010

Pilgrim Weather

Filed under: Culture: U.S. — poemless @ 6:38 PM

I have this memory.

I don’t know if I dreamt it, or if it is an event that actually happened.

It was a Pilgrim weather day, but I don’t know, it could have been in March, it could have been in December. My Kindergarten class took an excursion to see a cow. But it seems to me we were not told the purpose of the field trip until we arrived, and perhaps not even then. Outside, it was dark, but who would take little children to see a cow at night? It must have been in the afternoon, when my Kindergarten class usually met. So it was a dark afternoon, bleak, wet, cold. I remember my teacher, Mrs. Blair, being frustrated or confused or something, something wasn’t going right, though I couldn’t divine what exactly, just the air of mismanagement and possible danger. This exacerbated the already eerie feeling provoked by being on a farm in the dark in the rain and of having been ripped from civilization and parents for perhaps the first time in my life. The wind was whistling, the sky was overcast, and we marched through black mud and into some kind of manger, where a cow was lying down, lit only by a lantern. The cow seemed sad, or scared. I suspect that it was having a baby, or had or was expected to presently. Because it was a huge to do, and why would you drag a group of 5 years olds through the mud just to see a regular cow not doing anything but lying in a barn?

The whole event spooked me.

It sounds like a dream, but I am certain this happened. The memories of small children are basically the same as dreams. Something is going on and, lacking vital information, you cannot make sense of it, so you create a narrative in which it is comprehensible. And add a mysterious animal.

When I was little, I was afraid of Pilgrims. For my Russian readers, I am referring to these Pilgrims. Even before I was old enough to appreciate their religio-capitalist occupation of native lands, their past time of witch-hanging and generally creepy Protestantism, I feared them. Pilgrims were never depicted as being creatures of whimsy, romance or creative temperament. No, they were a decidedly stern, self-loathing prudes who saw the world in the same black and white as their weird Pilgrim clothing. Who would want to spend Thanksgiving with this lot? (Also, how obnoxious is it to thank God for the abundance you reaped from colonizing a foreign land? God didn’t give you that stuff, you took it!) Anyway, I think part of what terrified me about Pilgrims was the weather associated with them. In my little 5 year old mind, every day of a Pilgrim’s life was as grey and bleak and spooky. They were like vampires, unable to coexist with the warmth of sunlight or the scent of blooming flowers. And mid-November was like their midnight. And also in my 5 year old mind, they continued to live among us. Oh sure, maybe the bulk of their society had disappeared, but there had to be some stragglers. Just as today there are still Amish, in 1980 there were still Pilgrims. Right? Lurking in the woods, in their olden days dress, muskets slung over their arms, lying in wait for an Indian, a witch, or an unwitting 5 year old girl on a field trip? I could see the Pilgrims before my eyes. No, they were not exactly malicious. But, like the inhabitants of my small town, their simplicity, fake kindness and prudishness put me on alert. I didn’t know what they were up to, but it was surely straight outta Stephen King.

I really loathed, and continue to loathe, the small town in which I grew up. Not the quaint river town where I was born and schooled and where my family resides to this day, but the town of two thousand, further inland, on the threashold of civilization, surrounded on all sides by cornfield and dirt. One road impaled the beast. The journey heading out of town and toward the greater Metro East area seemed torturous as a kid. Why couldn’t we live in a normal town, the kind that is next to other normal towns, and not separated from normal things like movie theaters and schools and shops and grandparents by a 20 minute drive down a long, straight, narrow highway lined on one side with a railroad track and the other with fields of … nothing? I resented the road more than the town, even. The town had nothing to offer human civilization, but the road seemed to exist to prove a point. The souls who live here have been ostracized. This road was the restraining order those bitches Culture and Society had filed against us. Utterly depressing. There was nothing to do during that drive but reflect upon the desolation and ugliness crawling at the windshield. At night I would rest my head back, look up at the stars (yes) and listen to the radio. But for some strange reason, on days like today, days like the cow pilgrimage, Pilgrim weather days, I kind of loved this road. The blond and rust colored fields slashed with black trenches of mud. The leafless trees -not entirely, a few leaves remained, sitting shiva for their fallen comrades- clawing at the sky. A lone crow on a telephone pole. The way it doesn’t rain but everything is wet, phantom rain. The forgotten train tracks. The absolute silence. The emptiness and no ambition to be otherwise. It was the money shot of every indie filmmaker’s dreams. On these days, Pilgrim weather days, I almost miss that rural hell. Not enough to make me return, not even for a minute, but enough to supply me with the appreciation required of maturity.

For all the gluttony and sloth, for all the religious freaks killing girls and Indians, for all our lurid history and unbecoming behavior, Thanksgiving makes me love America. November in the heartland. There is certain unique beauty about it, something noble, austere, mystical and silent. No one associates these traits with America. Not even Americans. But I so so love this time of year, it makes it impossible for me to hate this place. It even makes me thankful I live here.

Happy Thanksgiving.

October 27, 2010

A Sick and Spiteful Country

Filed under: Culture: U.S.,Politics: U.S. — poemless @ 5:53 PM

Why oh why oh why am I not writing? I am so terribly uninspired. I am blaming the U.S. elections. Everything about them is depressing me, from the inability of the Democrats to actually fight for anything, to the strange, cruel worldview of the Republicans. Everyone is so nasty and petty while serious, real, actually kind of interesting even issues are simply ignored. As I was trying to explain to someone, the country is broke – and broken, no one wants to pay more money to fix things or help those who are suffering, so more things fall apart and more people suffer, leaving people more desperate to hold on to what they have, less trustful of the government, thus even more opposed to giving the government more of their money, money for fixing things and providing services. It is a vicious cycle. Until Americans are honest with themselves, realistic, responsible, I don’t think it will matter who is in charge, things will keep getting worse. Meanwhile Republicans are preaching creationism and stomping on the skulls of their opponents (literally) and Democrats are too timid to run on their accomplishments, and after spending 2 years ignoring and even poking fun at their base, are dumbfounded that their base lacks enthusiasm. Everything is toxic and abusive, and no one is behaving very admirably. It is all very depressing. I don’t want to write about Russia.

The other day I was at the doctor’s office. I have a new doctor. She’s Polish. At one point she began talking about how Americans are so sick. Why are Americans sick? “I am European. Where I grew up, we could not buy strawberries for $2 in December. If you wanted strawberries, you waited until May. May, and June. That’s the only time we ate strawberries. There were many things we did not have. But people were healthy. Everyone wasn’t getting cancer and heart disease… But in America, everyone is sick.” This was part of a larger reflection on how maybe less is more. I almost cried. Now I am in love with her. I want to only eat strawberries in May and June, I don’t want to take a pill for everything, I don’t want to vote for those people on the ballot.

Ok, maybe voting for jerks and morons is not making us sick (though it must certainly have something to do with the healthcare system meant to prevent and treat sickness.) But just because we have more access to the political process doesn’t mean we’re better off for it.

Right now there is a commercial running on the tv. A woman strolls with a cart down the aisles of a large grocery store, complaining about taxes while filling up her cart with soda. “It’s hard enough to put food on the table and feed my family. I don’t need the government telling me how to do it. Now they want to raise taxes on everything from flavored water to soda. Give me a break! Call the government and tell them to stay out of our business.” Or some nonsense. I want to strangle her and rescue her phantom tv commercial kids. You are not supposed to be feeding children soda! If you are having trouble affording food for your family, why the hell are you buying them soda? That is not even food! When I was in Moscow, the fellow I was living with brought home a giant can of Planter’s cheese balls one night. Giddy. Like he’d discovered treasure. I feel bad about it now, because I think he was trying to make me feel at home: Look! American food! “That’s not really food, you know.” That was my response. I sat judging him. Terrible.

America, land of plenty, amber waves of grain. What do we do with it? Make soda and cheese puffs and complain about having to pay for a few cents extra for them so our kids have textbooks.

America, beacon of democracy, land of the free. What do we do with it? Ignore the democratic process and let corporate interests or the few wack jobs that bother to vote pick a candidate and complain about having no good candidates to choose from.

I am not cynical. It’s not the process, or even the mechanism that is broken. It might need some fine tuning, but it is functioning. It’s the human factor that’s broken. And our system is rather built upon the participation of the human beings it is meant to serve.

I was going to write about Russia’s vibrant democracy. Hahahaha. I’m only half-kidding, you know.

Someone sent me a link to a list of parties in the Russian elections a few years ago, what they represent, who should vote for them. Nothing dramatic. You might steal my argument ans say that just because Russia has A WHOLE LOT MORE political parties than we do, it does not follow that they have a healthier democracy. This is true. Well, as far as I can tell, not many countries do. France and England are totally freaking out. Still, what caught me about the list was how … helpful it was. Like a reference guide for the average Joe, from the average Joe. Or Ivan. And to me, that’s really the spirit of democracy, more than any inevitable outcomes.

Then the Kremlin Stooge posted several informative, if opinionated, pieces on the make up of the Russian political system, here, and here.

And then A Good Treaty published a really astonishingly thought-provoking piece, “Aleksei Naval’nyi, Virtual Mayor of Moscow.” It is about a “virtual” on-line election in which a blogger won, and seemingly not entirely as a result of his own publicity campaign. He goes on to discuss the “political” v. the “apolitical” opposition. As I would explain, the apolitical opposition is not lacking in politics, just lacking any need or desire to pick a pre-ordained official camp to identify with, or oppose. Interestingly, they also seem to be the more successful camp. Again, it’s no proof of democracy, but an illustration of that nebulous thing that makes me get all weepy about democracy. Civic participation and empowerment, the citizen lobby being heard. It is at once more subversive, eluding the clearly defined boundaries of parties, and more effective, probably since they don’t pose a threat the basic order they’re ignoring. (It occurs to me those most in a huff about democracy in Russia are focused almost exclusively on access to power, and that is probably why I hate them. There is a man who cannot afford to feed his child and pay for his wife’s surgery. He’s not interested in running for office. What about him?)

But it is difficult to get all worked up about democracy now. When I turn on the tv or radio or computer … even walk down the street, I am bombarded with democracy. With civic empowerment? No. With people spending enough money to feed Africa for a decade to destroy their opponent’s character. With people who have more wealth and power than I will ever know asking me to write them a check. With wild passionate arguments about who was seen with whom and canned, tested responses about how to fix the economy, certain to offend no one and therefore certainly lacking the necessary courage. I really wish we could take the “pandering to the lowest in people” out of the equation. You would think so much civic responsibility would pressure us all to be better. The way the free market is supposed to ensure that only the best products succeed. Soda and cheese puffs. Our stores are filled with junk food, and out ballots aren’t much more impressive.

So much freedom. And everyone is sick.

August 18, 2010

Notes from the Underground

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

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?

May 26, 2010

Of the Hoarders and the Horde.

Filed under: Culture: U.S. — poemless @ 5:50 PM

This is nothing to do with Russia, but it is something which has been seriously freaking me out recently. Indeed, I dare say it is a story which might give any of the “Russian affront to civilzation” news items du jour a serious run for their money:

Tribune: Couple rescued from mound of debris in home.

Emphasis mine

When a reclusive elderly couple were rescued Monday after being buried under floor-to-ceiling debris in their South Side two-flat, the stench was so strong that firefighters donned hazardous-material suits, authorities said.
Thelma and Jesse Gaston may have been trapped for as long as two weeks — the last time they were seen, authorities said. […]

After the discovery, the city’s Department of Buildings issued 16 building-code violations on Tuesday, citing the couple with everything from failure to maintain fences to failure to “stop noxious odors from permeating dwelling or premises.” The city said it will speed up court efforts to clean the home and will also offer the couple help, including mental-health services.

Bill McCaffrey, a building department spokesman, said he does not know whether the city has ever seen a case this egregious.

“I don’t want to sound insensitive to the needs of the residents. We are concerned about their well-being,” he said. “We also have a public-health and -safety concern.”

Relatives said they hadn’t seen the Gastons face-to-face for six or more years. Rosie Gaston Funches of Glenwood said she would knock on her brother’s front door and leave him notes, but he never responded.

David O’Neal, Thelma Gaston’s brother who lives outside Seattle, said he has tried calling her monthly and has made trips to Chicago just to see her, all to no avail.

“Years ago, I noticed there was not a lot of activity in the home,” said O’Neal, 75.

Relatives said Gaston was a retired zoologist and his wife was a former schoolteacher.

Hattie Fields, 83, who has lived next door since 1965, said the Gastons had resided there for more than 15 years, but it has been years since she spoke with them.

“They didn’t communicate with anybody,” Fields said.

The office of Ald. Leslie Hairston said it had received only two complaints about conditions at the home. One was an anonymous call last August about debris in the alley and a request for rat abatement. Both were handled that month, and another rat abatement was conducted in November, said Rosalind Moore, the alderman’s assistant.

This story has been in my local news for several days and it is freaking me out. I’m unnerved about it, the way I was unnerved with the story of Dolly the Sheep when that happened. Yes, it’s a real freak show! But I’m not simply unnerved for the freak show factor of it, for what they did, how they lived. Nor am I very interested in the debate surrounding the disorder known as “hoarding.” Whether you agree such behavior is an illness or not, the fact is that they were clearly incapable of caring for themselves. Regardless if the nature of their actions was moral (laziness, slovenliness), physical (chemical imbalance) or emotional (fear, and what I’m putting my money on) it is obvious they became unable to live unassisted without posing a threat to themselves or others, that they were unable to provide for their basic needs such as hygiene and safety.

I’m not as upset about what the couple did as I am about everything that everyone else did NOT do.

Their family never visited. NO ONE visited. Ever. It’s not like they lived out in the wilderness. Maybe someone showed up, knocked on the door and left when there was no answer. For 6 years. After a few weeks without contact from my brother I am ready to file a missing persons report. After 6 months I’d be willing to risk a breaking and entering charge to get inside the house and find out what the hell happened to him. And when I got in and saw that, I’d be on the phone organizing an intervention. Yesterday.

Their neighbors did not check in on them. And by check in, I don’t mean “see them mowing the front lawn.” I mean knock on the door, go inside and make sure they are well. This was an elderly couple. I know we live in an age when the greatest generation occupies its twilight participating in extreme sports and speed dating. But life expectancy here is still in the 70’s. And death rarely comes out of left field. Things begin not working. Physical things, mental things. When did we adopt the mentality that everyone is expected to be fully self-sufficient up until their hearts wrench out one… last.. beat?

Someone continued delivering the mail, as previous weeks’ went unretrieved. Someone continued writing parking tickets, as prior ones gathered dust. Someone continued catching rats in the alley, as those on the other side of the fence nibbled on the residents. Apparently their phone had been disconnected.

It is as if everyone knew something was probably up, but assumed someone else was ultimately responsible. The family on the other side of the country left it to the neighbors. Maybe there was a family falling out. The neighbors left it to the city services. No one wants to appear nosy. The city has too much on its platter to go around telling people to clean their house and get their mail. It’s un uphill battle just to get sane responsible people to pay their parking tickets. So they fell through the cracks. They were off the radar. The only thing they were to anyone was an occasional cause for complaint.

Many have insisted that the couple were reclusive and refused all offers of help. Yeah they had a hoarding problem, but that is their problem. Yeah they had an antisocial problem, but that is their problem. Men wanting to marry men is moral outrage, a threat to society! But people living with so much garbage in their home they pose a public health risk, they have made a legitimate lifestyle choice? Since when do we give people whose lives are in danger, who are clearly mentally compromised and who are committing building code violations a choice? When my grandmother began doing things like leaving the oven on all the time, we moved her out of her home. Oh boy, she resisted our help! She was pissed. And stubborn. Dear god, was there ever an unpleasant, difficult, heartbreaking scene. But first things first: ensure her (and her neighbors’) safety and then debate her illness and mourn the loss of her independence.

Of course, the only way we knew she was leaving the oven on was because we stopped by a few times a week…

There are messages throughout the Chicago public transportation system: “If you see something, say something.” A more vague demand has surely never been made. They clarify: “suspicious behavior, unattended packages…” Since 9-11, we’ve been thrust into a society of vigilance, suspicion, surveillance. While we’re busy wondering if that’s a bomb in that guy’s backpack, while we’re reporting every white van and spilled packet of Equal between Pittsburgh and Peoria, we don’t see something and say something when the suspicious behavior and unattended packages are right in our backyard. Saving innocent Americans from jihadists makes you a hero. Saving innocent Americans from themselves makes you meddlesome. We’re obsessed with moral decay: drugs, gays, gangs, Lindsay Lohan. Meanwhile hoarding and obesity are looked upon as acceptable failures. Nothing to be proud of, but if that’s the way you want to live your life, go ahead. You’re a public health hazard and a drain on the healthcare system, but least you aren’t smoking pot or having anal sex in your own home.

The whole story is drenched in irony… Our society implores people to acquire, acquire, acquire. Owning stuff will make you happy. Buying stuff with help the economy. Our nation is under attack? Stock market tanked? Go shopping. (Jeez, and no one has told the Greeks this?) People are judged -at least in the tv- according to the stuff they have. No matter how much you have, rest assured, it is not enough. When one mentions “hoarding,” the focus of our collective disgust falls on the hoarder’s unwillingness to discard anything. Often you may hear them explain, “But it s still good. It still works. I might need a new tire iron one day.” I’m pretty sure this was still a morally acceptable position to take when I was born. You don’t throw away perfectly good things. Right? Isn’t that bad for the environment? Doesn’t that illustrate a lack of appreciation for what you have, and others have not? Of course hoarding goes well beyond this. Nevertheless, it’s curious to me that the aberrant psychosis in our materialistic culture is the inability to throw stupid crap away, not the inability to keep from getting stupid crap in the first place.

There is also the matter of what it means to be civilized. Hoarding terrifies us, like most mental disorders, because it defies civility and social norms. People, behaving like animals. It frightens us because, like death and the kind of sex they can’t show on most tv, it reminds us that we are animals too. But we’ve evolved to be civilized! To be civilized means to have everything in its proper place. To practice extreme hygiene and maintain a healthy lifestyle. To have a home where people may visit, and sit and make themselves at home without getting lice. To dispose of trash and hide that which is not disposed of. The closer we are to God, the further we have progressed from our savage origins, and cleanliness is next to, well, you know.

But civilization is a concept that concerns not simply the actions of individuals, but precisely how they function together as a group. I don’t know how we can claim the civilization high ground here. The reactions of this couples’ family, neighbors and city don’t seem very civilized at all. They seem as savage as anything. We are so busy looking out for ourselves, so willing to leave our family and neighbors behind, so mindlessly going through the motions of our jobs. We get the message that we should stay out of others’ business, and we abide it because we don’t want others in our business. Our homes are sacred private property, our castles. And it doesn’t matter if it means living next to a trash heap that reeks of dung. “Not our problem.” How this mentality is anymore civilized or humane than that of our hoarding couple is beyond me.

This story terrified me. I’ll never be crushed under a pile of my own trash. Everything I own can fit easily into one studio apartment, with enough room left for an overnight guest. I’m a clean freak and obsessive organizer. But I live alone. A lot of people say, “Why should we care what happened to this couple? I am not my brother’s keeper.” I suspect such people are lucky enough to have strong families and support networks they take for granted. My family consists of one very close brother, a step family with whom communication is initiated 9 times out of 10 by me, and distant relatives of close dead relatives. All of whom live far away from me. What if my mail piled up? What if I could not be reached? How long before people would notice? How many years could pass without a visit from a family member? I do keep to myself. Would people assume I was just being anti-social? How long would it take for someone to file a missing persons report? I am not always capable of taking the best care of myself. And I’m even less capable of accepting help. How easy would it be for me to fall through the cracks?

I feel like most of my life is spent spackling the cracks so I don’t fall through.

I think spackling the cracks is what we call “civilization.” It’s not just the hoarders who failed at that, but society as a whole.

That’s why it terrifies me.

April 27, 2010

You say To-MAY-to, I say To-MAT-to. Or, Censored in Russia!

Filed under: Culture: Russia,Culture: U.S. — poemless @ 6:00 PM

A case study in the irreconcilable aspects of American and Russian culture. National ideologies, cultural sensitivities, urban legends, or just another way we annoy each other for kicks?

There are aspects of Russian culture which leave me a bit baffled. There are aspects of American culture which also have me baffled. Generally speaking, people baffle me. My general philosophy is thus: I celebrate cultural diversity as a weapon against existential monotony and intellectual inertia; I claim the right to opt in/out of social norms as I see fit and extend this right to everyone else; I harbor a deep suspicion that said norms are the pretty packaging of tribalism, identity, largely constructs which, like a good home, keep us feeling secure so long when we remain locked inside them, provide some peace of mind and a decent road map should we venture outside, yet are hardly immutable or impervious to outside forces. Like, to wolves, for example.

Still, sometimes the I feel like I’m living in bizarro world when trying to navigate the respective moral landscapes of Russia and America. Despite being at times diametrically opposed (though rarely in the cases most often assumed), neither seems very intutive or logical to me. Which is weird, since one prides its culture on the former, and one on the latter.

Example I. Mat.

Recently, a post of mine was republished on Inoforum.

Being an indignant American, I could only bring myself to care about the fact that the F word had been edited out, resulting in the following exchange:

Me: …if you want to post my stuff elsewhere, it is ok, but ONLY so long as you do not censor it.

E–: …as you know, “mat” is not allowed in a civilized/cultured Russian society… A lot of Russian girls dislike mat extremely… Mat is not allowed among kids. Most of us are not kids, but it can’t be ruled out that kids are taking interest of our resource… I said that usually mat is not allowed among adults, however it is also not banned, but requires a justification — mat is good to use only in an adequate situation.

Me: I refuse to let society decide which words are “good” and which words are “bad.”

E–: Poemless, the problem is not that the society imposes what is good/bad on women. The problem is that mat hurts some girls. They just feel negative about it.

Maybe you are thinking that because I’m not up in arms about the policies of one Russian premier, I have some kind of double standard about what is ok for Russians and what is ok for me. Oh, no. I will happily let Putin run my country (may not be a joy ride, but could not possibly be worse than my current choices. Oh who am I kidding – the man is total joy ride.) Likewise, I think that if a devushka wants to say or write “mat” – let ‘er! And fuck anyone who says otherwise! (so… this won’t be getting reposted…)

Who is Russia to dictate to me what is civilized society, anyway? Just because they drink tea and watch ballet they’re the pinnacle of civilization? I’ve been to Moscow – you can’t fool me. Besides, who said I was trying to be civil? Also, what is this nonsense about girls being “hurt” by vulgar language?

I step back. Are there some irrational things that “hurt” me? Yes. Do I know any Russian women who go around swearing like sailors? No… Still, I don’t use such language in any kind of professional or formal setting, and mostly employ it only in creative writing. And when something’s happened that requires me to call maintenance. Or I’ve been put on hold by someone in India. Ok, I swear. Who cares? Some woman in Russia? Really? I start a blog and Russian porn spammers are now an unavoidable part of life, but I can’t write “fuck?” Even if I accept that it were more offensive to the average Russian, even if I were to accept that writing f in Russia were punishable by death, I should compromise my values (you’ll have to pry my freedom of speech out of my cold dead hand!) in deference to your quaint sensibilities? Madness!

Cultural chauvinism? I don’t think so. I’m not interested in dictating to the rest of the world what is or is not offensive. I’m just reserving the right to say “fuck” even if it offends people. Because if the rest of the world can’t handle that, we’re in trouble.

P.S. Natalia Antonova has moved to Moscow. She’s also unafraid of colorful language. So, if the tulips are weeping in Moscow, you’ll know why…

Example II. Kompromat.

So, having been informed that it’s not ok for me to say “fuck,” which, in my culture is considered a lesser offense than, oh, sceewing a prostitute with your two best friends and having a home movie of it posted on the Internet, you can imagine my confusion when said video provokes more silly jokes than moral indignation. Not surprise. Not frustration. I happen to share their ambivalence. In my country, this kind of thing would bring the Puritans right out of the woodwork, be pointed to as the root cause of recent natural disasters. (Which is about as nuts as anyone being hurt by a curse word.) But confused. Because I can’t curse. Given the arbitrariness of national sensitivities (I recently heard a new item about African immigrants being offended that Americans allowed their pets to share their bed) how can I possibly consistently respect any of them? Let alone all of them… That is, if I hypothetically wanted to? Anyway, back to Katyagate.

A Good Treaty (and friends) gives a summary of the reactions the scandal has provoked in Russia. Note the absence of volcano scapegoating.

A. This just proves the people who made the tape know nothing about Russian society, which is is less offended than bemused by the whole thing. The perpetrators are out of touch and the security apparatus is out of control.

B. This just proves the people who made the tape know exactly what they are doing, which is not to stamp the liberal opposition with scarlet letters, but make them appear less serious. Instead of evoking political disenchantment, now these figures will evoke pathetic images in the public psyche.

(C). This just proves Nashi’s looking for a way to justify its existence.

And then there is my reaction, (D) Why do I care? Before now the only reason I had to care about sex scandals was that they might expose the moral hypocrisy of their all-star line ups. Take that out of the equation and all I can think is … more p)rn on the Internet. Reaction (E) this just proves all cultures are sex-obsessed. And lastly, reaction (F) “God, I hope no one ever makes a sex tape of me. I’ve always wanted to sleep with Edichka, but now I am not so sure…”

Note how my own cultural sensibilities prevented me from using the f word in the context of that last sentence. Fortunately, mystical intervention has designated this “Reaction F” making it literarily unnecessary to do so.

What is the moral of this story, dear readers?

I guess that depends on who you ask. If you are asking me, it is that the cultural “norms” of countries and nationalities are no less arbitrated by convenience than are my own individual sensitivities.

But if you ask America, they’ll tell you it’s evidence of how censorship-mad Russia is, no freedom of speech there at all. And Russia will probably tell you it illustrates America’s quest for cultural hegemony and sick, demented relationship with sex.

Ignore them.
Decide for yourself.

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