Tuesday, 1 June 2004

I think the solution I’ve happened on is a happy one: this way I won’t feel like I’m pestering you when you have to finish your papers, and I won’t feel I’m neglecting the three or four people who look forward to reading something here.

I haven’t told you much about work recently. The Lawn & Garden section of Walmart is its own little walled-off kingdom, with bare, untiled cement floors, without the views down half the store that the other areas have. That makes it attractive to shoplifters – I usually find at least one empty package of something a night, and often it’s soda bottles or cookies – they bring them from grocery, hide out in my zone, and eat them. One guy I won’t forget for a long time, he came in around three a.m., walked past me without seeing me, wearing a black jean vest, a black safari hat, black jeans and silver belt and boots, and with tatoos on his arms and a well-trimmed silver beard and long white hair, looking fit, and when I gave my usual Hi there how are you tonight anything in particular you’re looking for? he stopped short and looked at me in astonishment and said No, I don’t know what I want yet, turning his shopping cart halfway around as he said it. I said my usual, Well okay, just give me a holler if you need anything, but he was already headed out, saying, I don’t know what I’m looking for yet, I don’t know, in a real defensive tone.

Fun stuff – if at that age you can still get spooked out of shoplifting by a friendly overnight stocker. If I wore all black and had tattoos, I’d consider it an obligation to myself never to show fear, at least not until physically threatened. Later, I saw him in hardware, squatting in the aisle behind a pile of boxes, fiddling with something in his hands, but he was just too cute for me to spoil his fun twice.

We get mainly farmers, so far as I can tell, coming in to Lawn & Garden overnight, at least I think they’re farmers, looking like my old crayola burnt sienna color, wearing mesh caps, old clothes, friendly attitudes, but you get the feeling they’re not in the habit of holding conversations, not that they’re quiet, usually, just, you know, not quite keeping their balance in the old give-and-take. There’s one couple, who don’t farm, I think, but keep a garden, who’ve come in several times and who I’m always happy to see. He’s got a moustache and a serious mullet, down to his shoulders, and arms that I’d call woman’s arms, because of their flattish cylinder shape, lack of definition, and pinkish color, only he ports them masculinely, and I’ve seen women’s arms with topographical detail, so there goes the comparison. His face is lined deeply on the cheeks and finely around the eyes and on the forehead, and I feel there’s some secret there, since he never makes the least change in his facial expression any time I’ve been looking at him. What faces does he make in private? His eyes are bright blue, to make you squint. His wife has dull brown eyes, with large, flat pupils that seem to take you in no matter where she looks. I am fascinated by her, she’s blonde and has a manner like someone who knows themselves to be mentally unstable, and she speaks to me with wide eyes of times agone when she worked at this Walmart. She probably thinks I’m just a flirt, but I’m always genuinely glad to see the two of them, and if it helps her speak to me and put me in her stare along with everything five feet to either side of me, well, let it be. The two of them wanted to buy bags of cement once, but a Walmart superstore being what it is, the cement had been left outdoors, and the only bag out of five that wasn’t ripped open and half-empty was hard as a rock from being rained on.

I generally work at Subway/Exxon/Family Convenience/Laundromat alone with the owner, but over the holiday weekend we doubled up to cover the extra traffic through, so I got to work with Mildred, a seventy-six year old. She had retired, but got bored, and came back to work. She can’t mop, since she’s got two replacement knees, a replacement hip, and two replacement vertabrae, but she’s spry enough to square dance, and as soon as we share a night off we’ve planned to go together to a bluegrass concert. She makes her own pants out of denim, and says her twin brother, still in Kansas, can make me a custom suit of clothes that won’t fit anybody else, only me. She sometimes makes me pause a little, for example, today she told me I had a real smart co-worker, and I was puzzled for a few seconds, until she followed it up with Yep, she’s very intelligent, and I knew to reply What did you do? Then later she asked, Why you got your watch on your right wrist, and I couldn’t think of a reason then, apart from I think my grandfather wore his that way. It occurs to me now I keep trifles – watches, keys, money, trinkets, passports, in my right pockets, and important things, books, good luck charms, walkmen and discmen and tapes and cds in my left ones.

Thinking of Mildred reminds me of Darya Alexeevna – that’s not her real patronymic, but it’ll do, since no amount of beating my brains brings the right one to mind. I met her in the winter of 2002, when I brought her two grandchildren from Aginsk to Ulan-Ude to visit her. She seemed to be in her early seventies, and I think she said she was, but the ages of her children made me wonder. She worked as a nurse in a kindergarten, and probably still does, leaving the house at seven in the morning every day during the colder seven months of the year to load and light the stove so the school is warm when the children arrive, and, while I was there, she made kasha out every morning before she left and put it out for her grandchildren and came home at two to make them soup, and was home in the evening to make them dinner, enviably healthy and strong and happy.

Her three children make a picture together in my mind, but of what I can’t quite articulate. The eldest lives on the island of Olkhon near the west side of Lake Baikal. It’s considered a sacred place to the Buryat, and it’s in the sacred sea, though I remember thinking often that that and similar words were used without any clear idea of what they meant among Buryat speaking with interested foreigners. She painted, she told me, laughing, I recall she would show her throat when she laughed, and look up at the ceiling, and lean back, but the laugh itself didn’t seem to fill the space she gave it. She spent a lot of time alone, that was obvious, and was content to sit in silence. I only met her after banging out “Heart and Soul” for the grandchildren on an out-of-tune piano in Darya’s apartment; she stepped up after I stood, and, standing, rattled off one of those Chopin fingertwisters, then she sat down and gave me a giant Bach thingamabob, and then something I didn’t recognize, and then something else, all without a hesitation or a and then said she hadn’t touched a piano for ten years. She has no phone, she lives alone with her cow and chickens, and her electricity, like everywhere on Olkhon, is only on for a couple hours each day. She’s fifteen years older than me.

Her younger brother, five years or so older than me, I’ve told you about, he and his wife were my closest friends in Aginsk, he is an actor and a director and plays the guitar, writes his own songs and plays, and she paints and makes souvenirs. The children, his mother’s grandchildren, aren’t his, they’re from his wife’s previous marriage, but he cares for them as if they were his own, and takes special interest in his daughter, a budding poet and fairy-tale writer. He feels stranded in Aginsk – they moved there from Ulan-Ude because the local government promised to support them, if they would help to encourage local arts and cultural activities. But Aginsk, for someone of his talents and interests, can feel very small and provincial, and he misses the cultural and intellectual interchange he enjoyed in Ulan-Ude, and now that I’ve gone, I think he feels entirely isolated, since his wife dislikes abstractions and discussions of taste. He came into adolescence when the Russian underground music scene was just beginning, and still feels strongly he belongs with the groups that were part of that scene.

And his younger sister is five years or so younger than I am. She wears false eyelashes, dreams of emigrating to America, likes to dance in clubs and listens to Russian techno-pop. She’s not like her older sister, she needs companionship and, you can tell, gets lonely easy, but on the other hand, she’s never quite comfortable speaking with you, unlike her brother, who is a master conversationalist, especially when he’s interested in his interlocutor and the topic. This girl, she doesn’t seem to get in deep, either, very unlike her two older siblings. The youth, say older Russians, are very different from us, something new. Who knows what goes on in their heads, they say, and I had more difficulty relating to people my own age, with a couple exceptions, than with people in their thirties and forties.

Darya Alexeevna began to model for me, as I came to know her, a certain admirable character trait. She only brings enough of herself to light as is called for at a time. She’s lived a long time, she’s seen much. Kulak is Russian for fist, and in post-revolutionary time it was used to name rich peasants – the idea being that they kept their fists closed and did not share with an open hand. Her father was called a kulak and shot in the thirties, and she remembers seeing it happen. She lost much of her family in the war, but managed to find her way to Ulan-Ude from a tiny village in Ust-Orda, a Buryat autonomous area to the west of Lake Baikal. She never spoke of anything but my needs, or the needs of her grandchildren, or practical matters, until I mentioned I’d been reading the Akhmatova on her shelf, and I was struck by how clearly you could hear Pushkin in her, which drew out her astonishing knowledge of both poets, and later, of Akhmatova’s son, Lev Gumilev, the historian of Central Asia, and although his books don’t seem to be well-respected in the west, because of his tendency to play fast and loose with the facts and his theory of Ethnogenesis, I was extremely happy to meet, for his contagious excitement and vivid style and storytelling ability.

Speaking of Central Asia, Nathan at the Argus linked to this fantastic collection of photographs from Afghanistan, and gave me foot itch that-a-way. Here’s one picture, with his caption below:

Concerning this picture I am often asked: “Did it really look like that?” No, of course not. The human eye can see a range of light which is far greater than the contrast range to which films are sensitive, and films can record a greater range than that delivered by any work of art on paper. The eye can see 3.6 log or twelve stops on a camera, twelve doublings of light, while a painting or a photograph can only carry 2.1 log or seven stops. The real scene was much brighter and more vivid than this picture, and I can only hope to remind the viewer of the sparkle of creation. As I stood there composing the picture, clouds rolled over, rapidly mottling the scene with changing patterns of light and shadow. There were smells and bells, wind, dust, and donkeys singing in the distance. How could a simple print on paper or an image on a screen be just like that?

Reminded me of lines from the poem “The Hanging Gardens” by Les Murray.

No one here
believes in green deeply enough. In greens
so blue, so malachite.

I had just read it a few moments before, following a link from dumbfoundry.

And thinking of those hills reminds me of driving in the valley today. The rain had cleared, Massanutten the divider of the river was ahead of me as I went north, and to the side giant steel set far away in the mountainside read “Endless Caverns” in fifty-foot letters, and the clouds scattered discrete above the ridge to the right made pied beauty with their shadows on its sloping side, turning the green to a color almost like the purple and brown of a bruise on fair skin.

Monday, 3 November 2003

Say what you like about empire, it makes things simpler for the tourist. On four days and change on the Trans-Siberian from Moscow to Chita, I had interesting conversation with, on my count:
three Kyrgyz
two Ukranians
two Russian Russians (one with a Buryat grandfather)
two Kazakhstan Russians (one of whom had, I think, some Kazakh ancestry)
one Tatar
one Azeri
one Tajik
one Armenian,
and we can count the one Moldovan who drove my taxi to the train station.

And, speaking of imperial remnants, the Azeri spoke his Turkic language to one of the Kyrgyz and was understood, and he his to him, for several decently long intervals, though they preferred to speak Russian with each other, both being fluent. After such a long separation, and over such a distance, still retaining mutual comprehensibility, well, I was even wondered whether they really understood each other as well as they said. But they both howled along convincingly to Sezen Aksu’s choruses when I played her for them, and agreed with me she’s at least as good as Tarkan, when she’s good.

The Azeri never tried to speak anything but Russian to the Tatar, a girl who said she was twenty but looked pretty young, and who he spent a good deal of energy working on. And he claimed that Yakuts and Tuvans wouldn’t have the same degree of mutual comprehensibility he had with Turks and Kyrgyz. He was even a little offended when I suggested it. And then he claimed that if there were any words in common, they would be as coincidental as if Turkish had a word in common with English, and it would signify nothing. Though he didn’t seem that well-educated – he was careful to have me write both my address for him and his for me before I got off the train, and puzzled for a few minutes, examining my passport, over what my visa actually said. He seemed to have no idea of calculating money: he was visibly surprised both times I questioned why he would buy food or beer on the train when he could cut his expenses in half by buying at the station, and then both times he went and demanded to know why the prices were so high. He complained, revealingly if you want, about written Russian, that “A word means one thing in conversation and then mathematically, grammatically I mean, it’s something totally different.” He was very proud of the fact that Azerbaijan had switched to the Roman alphabet, and that fact was what he seemed to think would attract me most, as a tourist to Azerbaijan. “You won’t have to ask directions or anything, you just look and everywhere it’ll be written, on the buses and on the streets, and you can just read it,” regardless that I was sitting there reading Gogol in Russian in front of him. He was traveling from Bratsk to Blagoveschensk on business, he said, and the business turned out to be illegal logging, which needed to be arranged with the Armenian and the Tajik only there. Sometimes it seems half the people I meet in trains or shared taxis are working in logging, and half of them are doing it illegally.

The three Kyrgyz, on the other hand, were traveling with several bags of goods from Ulan-Ude to Blagoveschensk, where they hoped to sell them. The Azeri told them that the flow of trade was going the other way – everyone buys Chinese goods in Blagoveschensk and takes them back east to sell. The Kyrgyz he spoke with was a little disappointed by this, since he?d been hoping to set up a semi-permanent shop there with the help of his sister and cousin, who were traveling with him. He was trained as a doctor and works in Bishkek in a hospital, where he only gets about $26 a month, which he supplements by working half the year as a merchant in Siberia. His wife is a college professor, and gets even less, near $20 a month. But, he told me, “It’s really nice for foreigners in Bishkek.” Though it’s a pretty small town, it’s nevertheless a national capitol, so lots of international organizations have outposts there, and they’re up to their neck in foreigners. And the countryside is marvelous, I’ve seen pictures. But as for the doctor, he says his cousin tells him: “You studied all these years, in Moscow, in Almata and Bishkek, and at the end what’s in your head and in mine is the same,” only she’s got more money because she’s been working longer at selling things.

Between the Azeri and the Kyrgyz, I didn’t have to buy any food or drink after Irkutsk, which was good, since I’d nearly run out of the $10 I’d budgeted for the trip, and I could save $2 for the taxi in Chita. Tovarisch, it seems, isn’t just a word, and though people don’t use say it as much as it seems they used, they still behave comeradely to one another. Once somebody’s made up their mind whether they like you, you can count on them to help you out as far as they can. The first day out of Moscow, we left in the early afternoon, and my lower-bunk neighbor, a former tank officer originally from Angarsk, was pretty well-marinated. He thought I was a deaf Polack at first, and then he took me for a proud Finn, and I take both those assessments as compliments to my command of spoken Russian. But my upper-bunk neighbors, the Russians from Kazakhstan, though they loudly complained him being drunk and mocked him pretty well, nonetheless they patiently made his bed for him and searched for his bags all over the car, since he’d stuck them in some wrong place after getting on, and he didn’t remember where. I complained about my throat, and instantly they’d unpacked their bags and searched out some Turkish powder they dissolved in hot water for me to drink. I don’t know whether it helped, but I felt better the next day (we all four slept all afternoon, night, and most of the next morning), though I’m worse again now.

After we all woke up, though, I had my first strong impression of returning to Siberia when the tank-officer gave me his salo to eat. Salo is well-salted raw pig fat, and you eat it with bread and it’s marvelously good. I don’t know if they have it in rural America, but I didn’t realize how much I missed it, or how much was associated with it in my memory, until that first chunk. At least an hour after we pulled into Novosibirsk, though it was midnight and nearly the whole wagon was asleep, the Angarsk man sat by the window and looked out with his chin in his hand, which he didn’t usually do, preferring to drink with me or doze. After we’d been in the station for a couple minutes, his son came on board with him, and he was clearly quite proud of him. He sat straighter, looked me in the eye more, and said his son “shoots rockets into space”, which his son quietly corrected to “I do satellite links”. After his son left, he wept quietly for at least half an hour, and the next day told me that his son was too good for him, his daughter too, and his wife was sick, but he was the only one in the family who’d fallen apart himself. Though I know he was a drunkard, he still seemed dignified then. After finishing his term in the army, it seems he’d worked on Sakhalin island for a few years, then traveled all over Siberia as a forest surveyor, and now he’d moved to Samara because of his wife’s health, which, naturally, got worse as soon as their move was completed.

Our cross-corridor neighbors were two older Ukrainians, who told me such awful things about Ukraine that I never want to go there. You often hear people from former Soviet countries (except the Baltic states) complaining about how good things were in Soviet times and how awful they are now, but between capital flight, unemployment, corruption on all levels, youth crime and suicide, and inflation, I have real difficulty understanding how they manage at all. I couldn’t get as good idea as I wanted of the details, since they also had some difficulty with math, and couldn’t keep straight which was Russian and which Ukrainian currency in the first place, which made conversion difficult. But it was clear that they’d be in big trouble if they didn’t have their plot of land in the country to grow their food on, and if their pensions weren’t as big as they are. And even so, the husband has to supplement their pensions working as a security guard, though he hears quite poorly and is nearly blind, and of course unable to afford glasses. And for the youth, they say, there’s nothing in the way of work more skilled than security, and all the factories get sold and closed, and the money taken abroad where somebody spends it on high living.

So after long enough, I made it back to Chita, where you can buy 44 Akvarium albums on MP3 for $8, and where it was a brisk minus seven Celsius as I got off the train. This was a week and change ago, and now winter’s getting serious. Anyhow, I made it to a friend’s in Chita, rested there for a couple days, and headed on to familiar Aginsk.

Sunday, 22 October 2002

Before last week, I had never seen an animal being butchered. I somehow didn’t expect it to be so conveniently built. If you keep its legs perpendicular up while you’re working, nothing falls out, but if you want to get something out you only have to cut a couple tubes. The skin slips right off, whole, and makes a rug, so the floor doesn’t get bloody and the meat doesn’t get dirty. The blood also won’t shoot out, if only you wait long enough after you kill it before cutting, but collects conveniently, so you can spoon it right out. The appendix is easy to find, and easier than anything else to cut out and throw away, since it’s only attached on one end, and the intestines make very useful sacks for boiling meat and blood in. I expected myself to be disturbed, watching it, since the last time I saw anything nearly as grisly was my freshman year of college, when I couldn’t watch a set of heart and lungs getting cut up; but I showed disappointingly insensitive, this time. I wasn’t quite capable of touching it, and didn’t join the others (including a five-year old) in a piece of raw liver. But I only felt a little discomfort watching it getting cut up, and that was probably only because it was a sheep. If it had been something less sympathetic, it wouldn’t’ve bothered me at all, I’m sure.

For example cows, I don’t like, and I like them less the more I see of them. They are willfully stupid and small-minded, suspicous creatures. They are completely unaware of how awkward they carry themselves, they are even proud of what they consider is their grace, although they’re always inadvertently blocking roads or stepping on dogs. They love to act superior and snort at me. But you can see they’re really terrified, they’re incapable of hiding the fear in their eyes.

Goats are an entirely different story. They are clearly intelligent, and they don’t bother trying to impress me. I’m not enough of a threat for them to even bother. Their eyes are very cold and cynical, and they burst out laughing from time to time, absolutely without warning, and without changing their facial expression. I find them very disturbing. I understand completely now why they are associated with satire. They seem to understand everything they see from somewhere higher up, and from there everything here seems small and everyone who bothers about such small things is almost too ridiculous to laugh at. They have a local reputation for intelligence as well. One goat I know never used to butt anyone, until the daughter of the woman who owns her got married to a man who turned out to be an unemployable drunk, who she now has to support in addition to her mother’s family, since the mother has gotten fired from her job as cook at the school where I work. Every time, nowadays, the daughter turns her back on the goat, she does her best to knock her down.*

Goats carry themselves well. Even though walking by they look goofy and unbalanced, like breakfast rolls on four trotting toothpicks, I don’t feel I have the right to laugh at them. They have such an elevated, calm attitude, somehow. I still don’t see why they’re supposed to be lusty, they seem just the opposite, entirely spiritual, to me. Their dung is very tidy: hard, nearly perfectly round, small, in tiny piles, out of the way of traffic, unlike cows’, which is the most untidy, wide, shapeless stuff, and they spread it all over the roads.

I’ve surprisingly easily adapted to life here, although, of course, as everyone keeps reminding me, it’s not winter yet. But I don’t want them to hear me complain, because it’s humiliating how they treat me, like I was the weakest, softest creature. I imagine they want to pride themselves on their own endurance, so they constantly apologize for all the inconvenience I must be suffering. I don’t know what kind of life they think I had at home, but once I even received instructions on how to boil an egg. I think the other American here told them about powdered mashed potatoes. Even the things they consider the most awful, like the toilets all being outhouses and there not being running water, I don’t think much about them anymore.

No one here believes me, either, that I don’t miss home. I don’t, and I’m not sure what there is to miss. I brought some tapes with me, and some books, and that seems to be all I need of home. What friends I would like to see I have, I think, carried with me here, and the same goes for the places I feel especially strongly about. I seem to have a lot on tap, internally.

Not that I feel completely at home here, of course. Although I have ceased to notice, I’ve noticed, some things that quite struck me at first. Dirt roads, I realize now, I had never seen in real life. For the first few weeks I would feel like I was watching a movie, when I saw a car in the distance at the head of a cloud of dust. Also, the ditch I cross through every day on my way to school is filled with trash – since there’s not much trash collection to speak of, and no public trash cans, people just toss everything in there they can, tires, bottles, paper, iron rods, cans, and I’ve seen a car door and a cow skull lying in there among everything else. On the road I take to the center of town there are three railroad car bodies lying there by the side of the road, here where we are forty miles away from the nearest railroad.

The trash ditch is apparently a stream for two months during the summer, and dry the rest of the year. That brings me to one thing I do miss, large bodies of water. Until I lived in Moscow, the year after I graduated from college, I had very little idea of my landscape needs; until, that is, I couldn’t fulfill them anymore. In the four places where I had spent any significant length of time: Arlington, Annapolis, Shennandoah, and Hawaii, I regularly encountered wooded hills and flowing water. In Moscow, though I came by the river often enough, the woods I met were flat, and when I did meet a hill from time to time, it was generally in the city and I was on it, in a bus. There, and in Chicago the following year, I realized how good it was to have inclines, and especially to see them in the distance. Here, on the other hand, there are plenty of hills about, some wooded, and very good hills too, as good as Hawaii or the Shenandoah. They remind me of patient shoulders, ready to carry whatever load, if you just give the word. Very calming. But there is little water, and the “river” in town is the most depressing thing. It flows twenty yards away from its banks on either side.

There’s no real point in going out specially to visit it. In fact I would rather avoid it. The only times I see it are when I go to the local datsan, or Buddhist monastery, about an hour’s walk away. I’m not as impressed with Buddhism as I thought I’d be. I always expect a lot of religious institutions and religious people, and they almost always disappoint. For two reasons: it seems to me, first, that the inner life is aweful, and the way that religious types speak about it is right. They are serious about what is most serious, without trying to dominate it. For instance, at the datsan, you are supposed to go everywhere you go in the track of the sun. That means if the exit is north-east of you, you go all the way around the datsan to the south-west until you get there. It makes sense to me that you would want to do something like that, and that you would find a meaning for it. I respect that no one here wants to explain it in psychological terms. They take it the way it comes: as something about the world, not about the people themselves. In the same way, I avoid walking through triangles, I wear certain clothes based on the powers they can give me during the day I anticipate. But the second reason, the reason I expect a lot and why I am disappointed, comes from my own inability to take seriously what I feel should be taken seriously; I feel that anyone capable of it must be a very special kind of person, a stronger or wiser breed, different from me, and I continually discover that they are no different, and often stupider and weaker.

One student I met at the datsan impressed me, however. He used to be a gangster, he says, until he gave it up and came to the datsan. Explained that it was karma that brought him, as well as me, that nothing ever happens without its being karma. In that kind of karma I already half-believe, except I think of it as someone in me who knows what he’s doing all the time, and causes me to do things I don’t know what I’m doing them for. This student, however, couldn’t explain to me how in the world turning a yellow metal cylinder could possibly count as praying. There is much more about Buddhism that seems ridiculous to me, although I had had such high hopes, it had seemed as if it had so much to teach me. For example, there are debates: will the next Buddha come on a white elephant, or a white tiger? That question seems completely alien to what I take to be serious about the religion. One person explained to me that this might be a symbolic expression: that the tiger, for example, may symbolize a cat. Or the habit of bringing offerings of wrapped candies and 10-kopek pieces and rice to the statues in the datsan. If the gods like candy, and are capable of unwrapping it, why can’t they also go fetch it themselves? If they can?t unwrap it, they certainly can’t go and spend the money. Where will they boil the rice? In addition, so much of the datsan seems oriented towards the superficial inquirer. Everything is we believe x, y, and z, nothing is a, b, and c are true for the following reasons. Apart from the one student I spoke to, with who I found I agreed on a few subjects already, like that learning is (or is like) recollection, and that having a lot of money is not any easier than not having it (provided you have food and so on).

I did hear a nice story during one discussion of Buddhism, however. One student finished his preparation period, and went into a cave for a long time and meditated. He meditated for years and years, and decided he was ready. He left the cave, and the first person he met on the road from the cave was an old man, holding a large iron rod, half again as tall as himself, and thick as his leg. He was scraping and scraping away at this rod with his fingers. The student asks, after watching the old man for some time, “What are you doing?” The man replies “I am making a toothpick.” The student decides he is not yet ready, he returns to his cave. He meditates there for several more years, decides he is ready. He goes out, and the first thing he sees on the road is a bird, who is flying, over and over again, in a circle towards a large stone, larger than several men, which he scrapes with his wing at the perigee of the circle, and flies up and around again for another pass. He asks a man, sitting and watching the bird, what it thinks it is doing. The man says “He wanted a flat place to land, and has decided to make it there.” student decides he is not yet ready, and returns to his cave. He stays there for many, many years, and finally, after a long time making sure he is ready, he again departs. The first thing he sees on the road is a dog, suffering terribly. He has an open wound in his side, and worms are growing in it, and eating him alive. He wants to save the dog, but he can’t scrape out the worms without injuring them. So he kneels down, closes his eyes, puts his mouth to the wound, in order to take the worms into his own mouth, so he won’t injure them. But his tongue touches, not worms, but cloth. He looks up, and sees the Buddha standing before him. The Buddha says “You have shown me that you have achieved enlightenment, realizing that even these, the smallest, most disgusting of creatures, worms, feeding on another creature, deserve compassion. I was with you in the cave, all the time you were meditating, I was with you on the road, I was the old man scraping the iron rod, I was the bird and the man who explained the bird’s behavior to you, and I was this dog you saw, I was the worms in his wound.”

I also had the privilege of hearing, as old Buryat tales, handed down from a genuine Buryat grandfather, the story of King Midas and his donkey ears, and the story of the old Roman and the fasces. This, it seems, is one limit of oral tradition, especially in modern times, when so many people travel and are educated in different places from where they come to live. Interestingly, the woman who told me these stories didn’t even consider they might not be original. They were a little changed: King Midas had horse ears and wasn’t given a name, the rumor of his ears spread “from yurt to yurt”, and the Roman man was a Buryat woman, who instructed her daughters to bind themselves together, in place of his sons. I don’t know why it didn’t occur to her that Buryats didn’t have kings, so they couldn’t have a king with horse ears. Regardless, she also told me a very popular Buryat story, the national myth. It seems one day three brothers came to Lake Baikal to fish. The two older brothers, in some way I didn’t understand, offended the youngest, who went off to fish by himself. When he arrive at the place where he intended to fish, he saw three beautiful women bathing there. One by one, they put on feather cloaks and turned into swans, and flew away. However, he stole the cloak of the third and hid it, so she couldn’t fly away, and he forced her to marry him. She bore him thirteen sons, two of whom ran away, and the eleven remaining became the eleven Buryat tribes. After bearing the thirteen sons, and after they had all grown up, she found her feather cloak, which her husband had kept all these years. She asked him if, after having done him the service of bearing all these sons, she could leave and rejoin her sisters. He refused, and stood in the door of the yurt, blocking it. But then as now, every yurt had a hole in the roof where the smoke could escape. So she put her cloak on, and flew out with the smoke, out of the yurt. As she was escaping, her husband lept forward and grabbed her feet. His hands were so dirty they stained her feet black, and that’s why swans have black feet, to this day.

Buryats, I had thought at first, weren’t, culturally, much different from Russians nowadays, except in the most superficial, brittle, sense of culture: that they had statues of Buddha meaninglessly sitting on their bookshelves instead of icons, that their weddings weren’t in churches but in tents at homes, that they tied rags to trees and threw money and candy around when they were feeling religious. Now I’ve begun to see some differences that feel more real to me, that would probably go under the heading of national character sooner than under culture. The differences are difficult to describe, but it’s quite clear to me when I’m dealing with a Russian, and when with a Buryat. There’s more respect for authority among the Buryat, and they keep their feelings to themselves more easily. In Moscow, I was often invited to other people’s houses, and into their lives, quite easily talked on deep topics, quickly made close friends with very different people. Here I’ve only been invited over to a Buryat house once in two months, and the woman who invited me over later backed out.

Though their own sense that they are different is of course necessary to their having and maintaining a separate existence, it still irritates me how importantly they refer to their traditional culture, especially since they always have in mind these dead, stale bits of life, the tourist attractions, the parts of their life they feel sufficiently distant from to have ceremonialized, the rote everybody learns as rote. Meanwhile their lived lives become more and more a cheap imitation of the life city Russians lead. They speak Russian, dance to the emptiest Russian music in the lifeless way the Russians dance, watch Russian tv programs, organize their schools according to the Russian models. Their ambitions are directed towards succeeding the way city Russians succeed, in the city, and they even give their children high grades, so that they can go to Russian universities in a higher proportion than the Russians do.

This is what, it seems to me, is the real problem of globalization. It’s not that picturesque costumes and “interesting” music disappears, although that is also too bad. If local culture were only replaced with another, completely living, centralized one, that would be fine. My ancestors having abandoned their parents’ European life for the surrounding American makes no loss for me, nor, I think, did it for them, because I have a full life with the full resources of American life, which are fully available to me, and were for them. But here a local way of life is turned into a suburb of a way of life with its center elsewhere. The local life only stays on in hardened forms, while the space of living spiritual food it used to provide is taken over by imports, themselves spiritually empty, the worst and most easily exported forms of the life which is associated with the greater power. What was living becomes only traditional, something to show tourists, and its replacement is the leftovers and scraps of the dominant way of life. The worst part of this is it isn’t a change enforced from above. The most ambitious children abandon a way of life that seems to have no future for one which belongs to the dominant power quite naturally. Even if they return to work for their people after being educated elsewhere, they can’t help but contribute to the destruction of their parents’ life. Which is all too bad, but irreversible, it seems to me. Also I wouldn’t have been able to come here so easily if people weren’t so eager to grab on to my, international, language, and hoist themselves up with it.

These kinds of thoughts never entered my head, or at least never stayed for long, the last time I was in Russia. I came to Moscow with my head full of the Brothers Karamazov and Joyce’s Ulysses, and threw myself into what was, for me, the sensual life, and found spiritual meaning in it. I was more open and sincere with more different types of people there than I have ever been, and I paid even less attention than I usually do to concrete questions broader than what is this person here like, where can we come together. The abstract broad questions I still pursued, though less than in college, but quietly and privately. This time I’ve come with my head full of Levi-Strauss’s Tristes Tropiques, which inclines me to look around at rather than live in, and to try to fit what I see into larger contexts that are still concrete. I?m still not used to it, so what you see here are my first stretchings out into these areas, which need to be forgiven like any first efforts.

Reading Levi-Strauss reminded me of Montaigne, who I hadn’t read since college. They both have such an easy range, so subtle and sensitive without sweating about it, a quality I know I need. So I glanced through Montaigne before I left, and decided to take him along, which I’m really glad I did. T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets I remembered having particularly liked in college, so I brought them along as well, and started reading them last week. I was extremely irritated with the first one, the first time I read it through. When it was discursive, it seemed shamelessly incoherent, and when it was concrete, it seemed irrelevant to the discursive parts, as well as random and half-hearted, like he only wanted to insinuate that there was something he could make public, if he wanted to, but wouldn’t. But I wanted to make sure the thoughts were incoherent, so I spent a little longer on the first quartet, read it for a couple of days, and started to understand it a little better, that it really was not as arbitrary as it first seemed. I began to follow its movement more closely. It really is well constructed, and though I’m still not sure I follow it, I trust it much more than I did before. I moved on to the second quartet, which I’ve only read once. Its effect on me after the first reading was so powerful that I’m afraid to read it again. It seemed much clearer, and, as I say, very powerful. I’m also reading Henry James’s The American Scene, which is surely the strangest travel book ever written. I can’t describe it. I’m continually surprised by an author as distinct from all others as James is being so different from book to book. I never would have guessed he could write as he does about the character of small towns in New England, for example, although all the familiar James phrases and bizarre sentence constructions, the bemused, patient narrator persona, the gigantic impressions with complete lack of concrete detail are all present and accounted for.

I’ve been reading some in Russian: the Gospels, Tolstoy, and Chekhov. The New Testament I can remember well enough that I don’t need a dictionary, but it seems very different from how I remember it. I don’t know if that’s because the language is different, or because I am. I think I’m very different from who I was last time, but I didn’t expect that the Gospels would seem that much more dignified and serious to me. I thought they were very inferior to the Old Testament books last time I read, although not as bad as Paul’s letters. So that might be the effect of the language. Tolstoy also seems different to me. I can also read Anna Karenina without a dictionary, but that isn’t only because I’ve read it before. It seems even if I remembered nothing from the book, his language is so simple and clear, and his thoughts have no unexpected corners to turn, I would still understand everything, even though there are many individual words I’ve never seen. His language also reminds me of the Gospels, because it’s simple, and also because both are unusual, in Russian, in how often they use participles, which are very rarely used in modern Russian. It makes Tolstoy’s everyday life seem much more serious and universal, that link. Chekhov’s plays, which I’d never read before, I need a dictionary for, but distinctness of the characters and the clarity with which the relations between the characters are presented would make the plays easy to follow even without it. These plays, as everyone but me knew, are very, very good, and are excellent excuses for avoiding work, even after you finish reading them.

My Russian is improving much less dramatically here than it did in Moscow. There, to begin with, I understood almost nothing, worked very little, and lived with people my own age. Here I work much more, and so have less time to simply speak with people, and I live with older people who are less interested in talking with me. But I’ve noticed, speaking of globalization, that scientific and bureaucratic language are more generally comprehensible to me than the language of household things and jobs and children’s songs and jokes. Partially it’s because more foreign words appear in the more complicated languages, but also because the subjects that those languages speak about are more generally shared as well. The gimme questions on the Russian Who Wants to be a Millionaire I can never answer, and usually can’t understand, but the higher level ones I don’t do much worse on than I do on the American version.

While I’m on my habits and present occupations, I have found out I really like to sing, and people like to listen. I’ve found out that not all songs I think are tuneful do well apart from instruments. Midnight Oil is a complete failure without its drummer. But tunes like Scarborough Fair or O Come O Come Emmanuel I never get tired of singing, as I undoubtedly would listening to them if I had recordings. It’s too bad I can’t remember the words to Some of My Favorite Things or Misty, those songs sing quite nicely. When I get back I need to join a choir.

I hope I can write a little more regularly from now on, now I have a start to follow up.

* The husband has apparently been cured of drinking by a local shaman, one who I’ve happened to meet. The same shaman cured another man of drinking two years ago, and he hasn’t touched it since. The mother was fired from her job as the only school cook because she was expected to begin working on Saturdays in addition to her regular five-day weeks, without, of course, any question of a raise in her $40 monthly salary. Never mind that at the other local schools the cooks are paid more and work in weekly shifts. Not surprisingly, they haven’t found a replacement for her, and the children (and teachers) are tired of being hungry all day, so the director has opened negotiations towards her reinstatement.

Tuesday, 6 Aug 2002 (2)

Now the question is, Where am I going to fly to, on my new ticket, in the next two weeks? – since I can’t use it to go abroad, and I can’t fly while I’m abroad, and it expires in a year. I suppose I could give it away. That’s not likely.

While I’m asking questions, the other question is, What do people blog about? I had thought, before I started this blog, that it was an ideal solution to the problems of I’d come across while keeping journals. Keeping a journal, when I’ve managed to stick to it for any length of time, has always proved to be an extremely valuable activity.

But I couldn’t ever manage to stick to it for any length of time. I had two explanation for that. One was that, since I didn’t have any audience for what I was writing, I couldn’t really give myself a character for what I wanted to say. The only possible audience I could imagine was an older, wiser self, or an older, less energetic self, and the character I assumed in playing up to that audience shamed me terribly. It’s very shameful to deliberately play false, and humiliating as well, when the only one who might think poorly of you for doing it, or not doing it well enough, is yourself. The other explanation was that, since I had no audience, no one hearing what I had to say would be hearing news. That makes it difficult to select things to say. Select is the wrong word, since I would, more often than not, simply not have anything to say.

Correspondence with a few individuals seemed to solve both these problems, and looking back over my old emails I see they’ve been at least as valuable to me as journals to organize my thoughts. Except that in correspondence, my thoughts have been necessarily limited by other concerns associated with those I write. There are topics that I know don’t interest, or irritate, certain of my correspondants, and other topics I don’t feel comfortable pursuing that I pursued with these correspondants.

As I say, blogs seemed to be a wonderful solution to the above problems. Only now, I can’t quite get a handle on how the format’s supposed to work. I have the feeling that an online journal isn’t quite what I have on my hands here – so I’ve been looking around at blogs, to see what I like to read. I’m not quite on track yet, though.

Tuesday, 6 Aug 2002

I’m right now sitting at a public email terminal in the LA airport, waiting for my connection to Honolulu. I’m waiting an extra four hours for it, because I gave up my seat to some standby passenger, a course I recommend to all. I get a fresh new (1st class!) seat, a free ticket to anywhere in the continental US, and I don’t have to talk to a single family member for an extra four hours. Bliss… Of course, I should use this time to work on my master’s thesis, due in six days, or one of the other two papers I need to finish to get my master’s, but I feel that would be a misuse of a laziness windfall. And coincidentally, just this minute my friend Chris from high school emailed me from, guess where, LA, asking where I am. Maybe I’ll even get to see him again. My cup overflows. In addition to all this, I’ve got an idea of how I’m going to finish one of those two papers, on Tristram Shandy. That lovely “now I can go on” feeling. Quite a change from this morning, when I found out I had only half the time left I thought I did to finish my thesis.

Monday, 5 Aug 2002 (3)

Samuel Johnson (quibble=pun, obselete):

A quibble is to Shakespeare, what luminous vapours are to the traveller; he follows it at all adventures, it is sure to lead him out of his way, and sure to engulf him in the mire. It has some malignant power over his mind, and its fascinations are irresistible. Whatever be the dignity or profundity of his disquisition, whether he be enlarging knowledge or exalting affection, whether he be amusing attention with incidents, or enchaining it in suspense, let but a quibble spring up before him, and he leaves his work unfinished. A quibble is the golden apple for which he will always turn aside from his career, or stoop from his elevation. A quibble poor and barren as it is, gave him such delight, that he was content to purchase it, by the sacrifice of reason, propriety and truth. A quibble was to him the fatal Cleopatra for which he lost the world, and was content to lose it.

True, that.

Monday, 5 Aug 2002 (2)

When I got off the bus from Chicago in DC last Thursday, lugging my far-too-heavy bags (I’m sure they were over a hundred pounds, but I couldn’t say how far over. I can say, though, that I would have been better off mailing some of those books), I was intending to walk to the metro, two blocks from the Greyhound station.

But as soon as I got out the door, an old man with pop-eyes, crouching like a deaf, undernourished, stupid, hairless gorilla, said “Patrick?” I said “Yep,” which seems to have been accompanied, in his mind, with the implied continuation “I was indeed looking for a taxi, thanks”: he motioned me to follow him toward his.

I think it was either it was hot and I was tired, and it would have been stupid to carry my bags (I would have had to stop and put them down every twenty feet or so to rest for a few minutes), or I figured that my parents, who had promised to met me when I got off my bus, had decided to call a cab for me instead, and it would be unfilial of me to refuse. I usually like to meet a new place on public transportation or on foot, so we can get used to each other on a broad scale before I start getting used to the individuals who live there.

So I dragged myself and my stuff after him (he encouraged me: “I know you can carry that, Patrick, you can do it”) got in the cab, ready to be driven home, only he’d never heard of my neighborhood. After I had made a couple casts around for other nearby places he might know, we settled on a nearby road, which he said he knew. Unfortunately, it turned out, he didn’t know how to get there, a fact which we discovered halfway over the Potomac on a bridge of his (apparently random) choosing.

To add to my annoyance, he couldn’t hear barely at all, and his responses were very slow. A couple times we nearly caused an accident switching lanes far too late, long after I had initially suggested it. I became quite irritated with him, and may even have popped out my own eyes a little bit, trying to make them blaze with indignation.

As we neared the agreed-on street, I suddenly remembered a quicker way home from where we were, and recommended a new direction. That was nearly too much for him, and he, in his turn, became angry with me. “I thought we were going where you wanted,” he muttered, more than once, and struck his turn signal.

When we finally arrived, I had intended not to tip him at all, but he didn’t offer me any change, and I was busy dragging my bags out of the street, so I didn’t think to ask before he drove off.

So if that was my Askeladden test, I failed it.

Monday, 5 Aug 2002

After spending four days in Shennandoah County, I find, retrospectively, Chicago is very flat. I didn’t realize, or had forgotten, what terrain was like. It makes you live in places a little differently.

In Shennandoah, there’s usually only one way to get somewhere and that way is determined by the land it goes through. Directions are limited to from town and to town, and when you’re walking, to upstream, downstream, uphill, and downhill.

Chicago, on the other hand, has a way of stamping the four points of the compass on the brain. Other means of reference don’t seem as fundamental. Streets go straight, there are as many ways to get someplace as there are lateral blocks to the longer axis of your journey, and you need only know the address of a place to know how far it is.

I’m periodically struck by this difference. It differentiates the two places more, to my mind, than some of the differences between city and country that more readily spring to mind, when I consider the subject abstractly.

Thursday, 1 Aug 2002 (2)

So soon already, less than a month until I’ll be heading to Russia, to teach English. I’m extremely nervous. The high school where I’ll be teaching is in Aginskoe, Chita region, a predominately Buryat area. These people have arranged it for me, and I’ll be there all next year. I’ve never taught in a high school, and I wonder whether my Russian will be adequate: many of my students won’t have had English before I get there.

The region is interesting, though: the Buryats (in my area) have been Buddhist for some time, in fact they are one of the few indiginous peoples whose religion the Russians (and later the Soviets) didn’t manage to suppress. Then there’s Lake Baikal, one of the natural wonders of the world by any standard. So I don’t think I’ll be bored, just cold.

I also plan to visit Mongolia and China, while I’m in the neighborhood, if my money extends that far, so if anyone has any travel tips for those countries, let me know. And of course, if anyone is taking the Trans-Siberian and feels like a rest stop, I’m only two hours off the line…

Thursday, 1 Aug 2002

Welcome to my Blog. I’m writing my master’s thesis on Claude Levi-Strauss’s book Tristes Tropiques, a kind of memoir, travelogue of his ethnographic journeys in Brazil, and meditation on world history and the present age. Here’s a sample passage (the most often quoted, far as I can tell, and surely one of the most melodramatic, but hardly the only good one):

Now that the Polynesian islands have been smothered in concrete and turned into aircraft carriers solidly anchored in the southern seas, when the whole of Asia is beginning to look like a dingy suburb, when shanty-towns are spreading across Africa, when civil and military aircraft blight the primeval innocence of the American or Melanesian forests even before destroying their virginity, what else can the so-called escapism of travelling do than confront us with the more unfortunate aspects of our history? Our great Western civilization, which has created the marvels we now enjoy, has only succeeded in producing them at the cost of corresponding ills. The order and harmony of the Western world, its most famous achievement, and a laboratory in which structures of a complexity as yet unknown are being fashioned, demand the elimination of a prodigious mass of noxious by-products which now contaminate the globe. The first thing we see as we travel is our own filth, thrown into the face of mankind.

It’s a marvelous book. It’s full of remarkable details – gems of observation and description of characters, landscapes, and cultures. Plenty of the kind of funny stories travelogues excel in: mutual misunderstandings, eccentricities, impossible annoyances, and sheer bungling. It’s not just memoirs, but some of the most stimulating thoughts (if frustrating – it’s not always easy to travel along with some of his more outrageous speculations) I’ve ever encountered. The writing is dense but fantastically pleasurable. Exquisite, on every page. I recommend it to everybody.