I write this with the knowledge that it can and probably will be used against me, in untold ways, for years to come. At the very least, it probably won't be interesting. We'll see.
October 18 (Day 1)
Put Sarah and the kids on a plane, literally. Went through security as an escort, and all the way to the back row, by the bathrooms. Could have EASILY flown to Salt Lake City for free. Didn't. Kissed them goodbye for 10 days. Since our wedding in 2008, I don't believe I've ever been home alone for more than 24 hours.
Worked. Felt a strange mix of foreboding and excitement. Went to Jack in the Box on the way home, opened all the blinds, watched part of the Giants game, Skyped Sarah, then returned to Palo Alto for the International Documentary Film Festival. Got in free. Learned how Stanislav Petrov may have saved the entire world from nuclear war in 1983. Need to research more about that on Wikipedia.
Decided just to finish Adam's whole milk instead of going to the store for more 1%. Began cleaning the apartment. Got the drum set from Rock Band out of the closet, but too tired to play. Studied Russian verbs instead.
October 19 (Day 2)
Stayed in, watched the Giants, ate leftover casserole, folded laundry. Was dreading having to iron about 8 of my nice shirts, which had been building up in a wrinkled pile for weeks, but realized I could just put them all through the laundry again, since I was washing the couch slip covers anyway and there was room. They remained wrinkly. Played Rock Band for far longer than I had planned. Started spreading out on the bed.
October 20 (Day 3)
Saturday. Found I'm no longer capable of sleeping in past 7:30 or so. Not the worst affliction. Stayed in bed and read Doctor Zhivago. Later, got the car smog certified and took it into the city. Wandered around The Mission, climbed Telegraph Hill and Coit Tower, and got some Persian food downtown. Love the city, but it was lonely wandering around it solo, which shouldn't have been surprising, since I've read books.
Attempted to purchase 2% milk and ended up with skim -- even worse than whole. Blue used to mean something. Watched Being John Malkovich.
October 21 (Day 4)
Went to church. Attended a potluck and didn't bring anything.
October 22 (Day 5)
Visited both the dentist and the DMV today. Finally ceded my Idaho license plates, despite not having lived there (really) since 2003. Was sad at first, but then I almost cut somebody off on the way home from work, and didn't beat myself up over it, for better or for worse. It's liberating to no longer carry the burden of representing my homeland with every move I make on the road. Traffic maneuvers rarely contribute positively to stereotypes.
Watched the Giants win yet another elimination game and advance to the World Series.
October 23 (Day 6)
Looked at a lot of pictures of Sarah on Facebook at work. Got jealous of a co-worker (my exact counterpart in another center) who has her own brand new office with a desk that rises and descends at the touch of a button, as if from the future. Watched a bunch of TED talks and a documentary about Hollywood extras. Cleaned the fridge.
October 24 (Day 7)
Staved off madness by staying at work until 7:30, then going straight to a friend's house on campus. Watched Arrested Development there for a while and didn't end up getting home until 12:45. Didn't so much as touch my beloved couch all day (also missed all but the first inning of Game 1).
October 25 (Day 8)
Ate a ton of Persian food at work. Stayed late again. Both of these long days, though, have come with dinner and lots of good language practice. Watching the end of Game 2 from the couch -- the only family I have left.
October 26 (Day 9)
Was able to leave work early, so went up to the temple in Oakland. Got caught in horrible traffic. Vowed, as I often do, never to return to the East Bay.
October 27 (Day 10)
Saturday again. Managed to sleep in until after 8:00 this time. Dreamt I was back in my childhood home and everything was unchanged. Also, Kim Kardashian was there. Went to the beach. Tried Capitola first before ending up back at good ol' Santa Cruz. Finished Doctor Zhivago in the sun. Got a gigantic serving of shrimp and Gilroy garlic fries on the boardwalk, threw away half. Drove and checked out UC Santa Cruz, which is without question the most unique college campus I've ever seen. It reminded me of a cross between USU and a Montana mountain ranch, only with an ocean view.
Came home, went shopping, cleaned out the car, put air in the tires, ironed, and patched up the couch. Wanted to go out for the evening, but realized I'm not sure what married guys are supposed to do at night when alone. Just watched the end of Game 3, then Donnie Darko on Netflix while studying more Russian verbs. Thought my family would only be gone for 10 days, but don't seem to see them yet.
October 28 (Day 11)
Went to church. Played cards with friends. Vacuumed, cleaned the windows, and tidied up the bedrooms. Watched the Giants win the World Series. Heard people whooping, honking horns, shooting off fireworks, presumably high-fiving, for more than an hour. Felt the urge to join in, but wasn't sure how. Whooped a little. Stayed up way too late doing nothing.
October 29 (Day 12)
Didn't get much done at work in the morning. Arrived at the airport pretty early, waited. Felt nervous for some reason. Saw them come out with the pilots -- the last to leave the plane. Adam spotted me and ran straight into my arms. Avery beamed. Sarah kissed. All was well.
I write this with the knowledge that it can and probably will be used against me, in untold ways, for years to come. At the very least, it probably won't be interesting. We'll see.
Maybe it should be story problems, like in math class. Sure, let's do that.
Thanks to the Affordable Health Care Act, an attractive young woman -- let's call her Tara* -- returns to her father's health insurance through Insurance Company A. She's married, but under 26, so it's cheaper that way. Then, despite a hearty birth control regimen, she becomes pregnant.
Certain health issues make hers a high-risk pregnancy, and she could legitimately give birth anytime from March to May. In late March, after one or two labor scares and hospital visits, her father receives word that his company is switching everyone over to Insurance Company B, effective April 1 -- almost immediately.
Tara is in no position to switch doctors or providers at this point, especially since she has been receiving special high-risk care, and she knows the baby could come anytime before or after April 1. And besides, pregnancy is a clear pre-existing condition that she is assured will be covered by the new plan. Tara is issued a brand new Insurance B card on April Fools' Day. Four days later, she gives birth at Hospital AB, the only option afforded by her provider.
Thankfully, mother and baby are reasonably healthy, despite negligence on the part of Hospital AB that requires the baby to be re-admitted and placed in the NICU at Hospital K less than 48 hours after discharge.
Months later, Tara learns that her father's company, under the new Insurance B plan, will not in fact cover the birth, since the baby is the dependant of a dependant. She would have been covered under the Insurance A plan, and Insurance Company B itself even said they would cover it, but according to dad's company, as of April 1, "we don't do that anymore." The baby has been on Tara's husband's insurance (Insurance Company K) since birth, but Company K covers very little at Hospital AB, where Tara was forced to deliver.
Tara and her husband do not have the means to pay for the birth, and they're not sure how this all happened.
Question: what could Tara have legitimately done differently? What can she do now?
A man calls Hospital K and finds out he has an outstanding balance of several thousand dollars. The billing agent asks, "Would you like to take care of that now?" The man expresses surprise at the amount, as it seems well in excess of his out-of-pocket maximum.
"But this says you were uninsured," the agent says.
"No, in fact, we're insured with you -- with Insurance Company K."
"Oh," says the agent. With almost no effort, he pulls up the correct account.
Some time later, the man receives a much smaller bill, which he pays immediately. He is never issued an itemized statement, however, despite his having asked upward of four times for such a document over the course of two months. If the receipt is not received and faxed to the debit card provider soon as proof of an eligible medical expense, the payment will be rendered null, the card will be disabled, and the bill will likely be sent to collections.
Question: Is this also an indication of our broken system, or is it simply that the people who process billing at health care providers are broken? How many people end up paying more than they should?
A man -- Josh, perhaps -- and his wife receive a call from a collections agency regarding thousands of dollars in unpaid medical bills at Health Provider AB from more than a year before. They're confused. This is the first they've heard of any such charges, and in fact, they don't even make sense. Josh's wife is listed as the patient, but she received no medical care during the specified time period.
Josh makes a call to the collections agent, who is just as confused as he. She can't figure out what the charges are or why they weren't covered by their insurance. Josh makes several calls to Provider AB, and is given different answers each time. None of them seem to believe Josh's story -- that his wife never received any such care. On the third or fourth call, a Provider AB billing agent tells yet another story, that the charges are not, in fact, for Josh's wife, but for his son. The agent says the charges are so high because Josh's son was uninsured.
Josh knows that his son was on the state's Medicaid program at the time, and that Provider AB had billed it correctly on several other occasions. But at the time of these phone calls, Josh no longer has his son's Medicaid card, as that account has been inactive for almost a year. Josh spends hours and days on hold with the state's Medicaid program, which actually usually ends up with him being transferred to phone numbers that don't work, and therefore simply hang up on him. When he is able to speak to a human, the human often tells him that Medicaid numbers can not be released over the phone. He orders a Medicaid verification letter to be delivered to his house. A month passes, and it never comes. He spends more hours and days on hold, and then once, for no apparent reason, a human is more than happy to give him his son's Medicaid number.
Josh gives the number to Provider AB, who says they'll work on reversing the bogus charges. The outcome remains to be seen.
Responses will be accepted in the comments section, though aggressively partisan arguments risk deletion. These problems (especially as expressed in Story #1) are at once nobody's and everybody's fault. I'm not sure if dealing with them feels more like the eastern hemisphere, the past, or fiction. It could be Dickens's Circumlocution Office, which I guess is technically all three. Anyway, for the first time ever, I think I've actually lost all faith in an American institution, and that makes me sad.
*The names have been changed so as to not make it sound like I'm just whining, though I suppose I am. I'm honestly just more blown away by the failure of the system than anything. If you hadn't figured it out (Josh and Tara -- come on), each of these stories is about us. This may be the first time that sheer exasperation has driven me to blogging, which goes to show just how out of ideas I am.
a work in progress
Today, my baby girl is three months old. Three lunar cycles, more or less. But it was my son's diaper that made me late yesterday, one full rotation of the earth ago.
By the time I got down to the Jeep with my running shoes, Uncle Greg was already in the driver's seat. He sat with the engine off, listening to NPR. "What do you think about the Higgs boson particle?" he asked. The name sounded familiar, but I hadn't heard the news -- that this morning, physicists at CERN announced they had almost certainly discovered it, the so-called "God particle" that may be all around us, and may explain how mass is created. The implications are enormous.
By the time we reached the base of Bald Mountain, the report ended, leaving us to consider the cosmos on our own. As we hiked past the mountain bikers and up the rocky trail, we hit on topics ranging from the origins of the universe to extraterrestrial life to the Sumerians' and other ancient measurements of time and distance. More accurately, I inquired and he responded. I inhaled his observations, as I always do, along with his dust.
Avery came out way ahead of schedule, but only spent a couple extra days in the hospital. She's strong. Already she looks like her brother and smiles with her mouth wide open. She has a large birthmark on the second toe of her tiny right foot -- an evolutionary anomaly.
She's our second unexpected child. Twice now, life has been created in spite of our unenlightened schedules and plans. I tend to be too liberal with that information, as though it makes me less irresponsible somehow. After all, among the educated elite of 2012 California, walking around with two offspring while only having experienced 27 revolutions of our tiny planet around the sun is ludicrous. Allowing the universe (God and/or nature) to foul up a resume or a happy hour betrays weakness. The fittest become those who decline to perpetuate their species.
One of the great ironies is that in fact, having children doesn't fully allow one to keep up with the pace of that society. I can't read all the articles, attend all the receptions my single acquaintances do when I'm not only changing diapers, but occasionally working extra hours to pay for the diapers. As a result, I lately find myself falling behind in worldly conversations. With so much in our ever-expanding universe to see, learn, and experience, it seems a crime to erect such personal-enlightenment roadblocks by producing and focusing on a new life outside one's own.
It seems that way, but then, it isn't, is it? The truth is, I wish my wife and I had possessed the foresight to want children as quickly as we got them. No experience could be more formative, more refining. Considering the vast expanse and the history of mankind on a cosmic scale is exhilirating, and doing so perched on an overlook high in my Idaho mountains is all the more fitting. But thinking on that scale isn't terribly useful to most. When I returned home from the hike, I smelled my daughter's hair as I drew her up to my chest. We locked eyes, and then -- then, the earth spun a little faster. Time is relative, and creating mass is not the same as creating life. I suspect nothing is. I suspect science would say that in her, I find my cosmic, evolutionary charge, my raison d'etre, to carry on my species and see it progress, however minutely. And that's great. All I know is I hope she never stops smiling.
Yesterday, I was looking for channel 42, and I accidentally typed 422, which to my surprise, is not only a channel, but a channel we apparently get. I've never been higher than 63. Incidentally, this month's Comcast bill was also higher than expected.
After a few minutes of searching through my newfound three-digit wonders to determine what I actually have access to, I stumbled upon an old friend: RT. RT is a Kremlin-funded station based in Moscow that broadcasts in English, but from what they call a "Russian perspective." In my experience, however, it comes much closer to what I call "state propaganda." It used to be known as Russia Today, but the name was recently shortened to RT seemingly in an attempt to pass off its ridiculous reports as coming from some sort of objective global network (with authoritative British accents), as if that sort of thing exists anymore. Get with the times, Russia.
Anyway, yesterday was a rather fortuitous day to re-discover RT, since I had been wondering how I could get live reporting on today's presidential elections without all that onerous typing. This is what I found when I turned it on at around noon Pacific time (midnight in Moscow).
-With about half of the country's ballots processed, preliminary results show Putin at 63 percent. This is about what I expected, and about what his poll numbers were showing last week. (There are five candidates, and he needs 50 percent to avoid a second round of elections in a few weeks.) Zyguanov has 17, Prokhorov and Zhirinovsky have 7 or so, and Mironov has 3.
-RT's anchors keep noting that the final tally won't be in until tomorrow morning in Moscow, emphasizing the vastness of the country and the nine time zones. This reportage is clearly not for people who know Russia with any sort of intimacy, begging the question of who their target audience is.
-Putin declares victory and delivers a speech outside the Kremlin at which he is visibly emotional. A tear track traces down his right cheek. Thousands of people surround the stage. In his speech, Putin says "the people have spoken." Medvedev gets up and thanks the people for voting for "our candidate." The two anchors (one with an American accent, one with a British accent) keep accidentally calling him "President Putin" before catching themselves and laughing.
-RT's anchors and correspondents are rather diverse ethnically. They almost all speak with British accents, though they pronounce Russian names much better than most Brits. This is totally a BBC rip-off.
-They somehow score an interview with Prokhorov, the New Jersey Nets owner, and the anchor asks him how he feels about his 7 percent, which is higher than expected. He doesn't answer. He can't hear her, so her partner asks the same question, which ticks off the first anchor. It doesn't matter, because Prokhorov can't hear anyone. They cut to a different segment.
-RT notes that the elections were graced by more than a million observers, and "more than of 700 of them are international"! A correspondent interviews one of them, a bumbling British senior citizen who talks mostly about the palatial polling stations he saw, which were "much nicer than what we have back home." The correspondent gets him back on track, and he admits that his "observation" took place so early in the morning that almost nobody was there, and the only question he was able to ask to election officials was "have you tested the webcams?" (In a last minute response to expectations of fraud, the Kremlin spent hundreds of millions in taxpayer dollars to install webcams in each polling station across the country. No word on how that will actually ensure fairness.)
-The 1-minute RT worldwide weather report breaks in. Reminiscent of BBC, it moves around the globe showing temperatures, three cities at a time. It starts with Moscow, St. Petersburg, and Kaliningrad (a west-facing exclave), then swoops across the whole country and hits Anadyr (a small village and Russia's easternmost point), Oymyakon (another small village known for record-low temperatures), and Vladivostok. The globe keeps spinning, and other continents are covered. The rest of Russia is never mentioned. Maybe I'm looking into this too much, but this seems to epitomize RT's missions to appear international, emphasize Russia's vastness and extremes, and skirt anything in-depth in the country where most people actually live.
-Having declared victory, Putin is now sitting in a conference room speaking with a group of on-site, in-uniform factory workers, though it's the middle of the night where they are. One holds the microphone, and dozens of his comrade workers stand nearby. He asks a little girl to come to the microphone. This is the most Soviet thing ever. They praise him incessantly and congratulate him on his victory. Putin corrects them, calling it a mutual victory. He tells them that they have proved that the workers of Russia are smarter than the "so-called intellectuals" who have been "complaining" as of late. Nice.
-In a surprising twist, Putin summons all the might of socialist labor, instantaneously grows a mustache, and actually turns into Stalin (minus the genocide).
-No, never mind, I just imagined that.
-The same scene at the factory takes place with the Pres, er, Prime Minister talking to groups of his supporters in different cities. Putin vocally points out one particularly attractive female supporter. He says he'll visit her city soon, as well as the others, because "there are things that still need to be discussed."
-Putin finishes his conference calls, and the anchors talk new numbers. With 60 percent of the votes counted, the Prime Minister now has 64 percent of the vote.
-A smug Washington correspondent comes on to "gauge the media reaction" of the West. She holds up an Economist magazine portending "the beginning of the end of Putin," which she smirkingly juxtaposes with the fact that he just won an overwhelming majority. She never mentions which publications are saying what, but she says the talk in the Western press has focused on the public discontent and the protests. (True.) However, she also notes that it would be ridiculous if everyone agreed with the government, and that 41 percent of Americans "strongly oppose" President Obama. On the election results themselves, she notes a "lack of respect of Russians' decision" among Americans and others.
-The anchors ask the question, "If the West doesn't like Putin, who would they have wanted to win?" Someone with a Columbia University affiliation gets on in Brussels and talks about how all Westerners want is for Russia to have a weak president, like Medvedev. Merkel and Sarkozy liked him because they could "push him around."
-The phrase "most Americans don't know" is bandied about at least two more times.
-An RT promo shows off its motto, "Question more." That's a new phrase for the Propaganda Committee -- of course, RT is not broadcast in Russia or in Russian.
And then the coverage starts repeating itself. It is, after all, an election, and there likely won't be much new news for several hours, especially since it's now past 1:00am in Moscow, which means it's even later everywhere else.
Meanwhile, back home, Fox News spurts some scary news about the autocrat being reelected and probably uses the phrase "a new Cold War" like a hundred times. I'm not paying much attention. CNN says next to nothing, ostensibly because nothing surprising happened. It really is hard to get the full story if you don't speak Russian, and even then, who do you trust?
On that note, allow me to introduce my newest project, The Post-Soviet Post, which among other things, aggregates the biggest stories in Russian (and Eurasian) media, condenses them into narratives, and translates them into English, while providing information about the reportage and the sources themselves (who funds them, etc.). At last!
I've had thoughts recently -- I really have. You can't know them yet, though. They'll be appearing as a column in the March issue of Idaho Magazine. Meanwhile, here are three vignettes from early 2012.
* * *
I arrived at the train station 15 minutes early for my first commute of the new year. I'm not sure how that happened. As I stood, back against the wall, I first glanced down at my ripped shoe, then began to pan slowly from the bystanders all the way to a point far down the empty tracks.
For one of the first times in my entire life, I wore earbuds in public. As a rule, I never do that. For one thing, it's always seemed to me a little rude to shut the entire world out so forcefully, even as the rest of my generation has been doing it ad nauseam for years. Mostly, though, I'm strangely bothered by the thought of missing whatever natural sensory experiences are occurring around me.
But this day it was earbuds, because I had two new Coldplay albums and I hadn't yet had the opportunity to really take them in -- something I would normally have done in the car. And here I was, leaning back against the wall, combining art and life, and feeling the melancholy, rhythmic waves transform my ripped shoe and the train station into something beautiful. "Warning Sign" seemed to have been written specifically for wall-leaning and gazing down the tracks.
I'm still uneasy about musicians explaining my surroundings to me, no matter how meaningful their conclusions. But imposing a little beauty on the mundane moments doesn't seem too sinister. I'm about 10 years late, but I think I understand my own generation a little better now.
* * *
Last week, I planted a mini bonsai tree in the cold windowsill in my office. I've always liked those. Growing a plant from the seed up appears to be quite the delicate process, though, and I don't have much faith in this, my first attempt. However, regardless of whether it thrives or dies or never even opens, it seems like this little tree will provide a convenient metaphor for my overall experience in this job, whatever that turns out to be. My legacy in stifling/fertile world of higher ed administration sure was formative, as I discovered it truly was possible/impossible for my real potential to blossom in such an environment.
You're welcome, future second-rate biographers.
* * *
Growing up, I never had a clear idea of what I wanted in a future spouse, other than the list of obvious, vague attributes most people want. At some point, though, I developed a boiler-plate answer for whenever the subject would arise. "I want a girl who will go with me to a hockey game one night, and to an opera the next," I said. It seemed the best way to illustrate the importance of well-roundedness and general lust for life.
Tomorrow night, Sarah and I will be watching the Sharks play Ottawa at HP Pavilion, and on Saturday, we're going to see the new production of West Side Story. We surprised each other with tickets for Christmas. West Side Story isn't the opera, but the juxtaposition still seems significant.
Last Thursday, I added something to the list of ideal wife attributes. Sarah was preparing lunch on a low table when Adam made an inexplicable mad dash from across the room straight to the boiling water. Sarah jerked it away and the water cascaded over her arm, and a little on her pregnant belly. She sustained massive second-degree burns from her elbow to her wrist. She's been in intense pain, and her arm has looked like something from a zombie movie ever since. It will heal entirely, but there will be a permanent stain as a mark of her selflessness. Adam would have had it much worse. The water could have landed anywhere on his body and he would have had irreparable, disfiguring scars for life. Instead, her instinct kicked in, and he didn't sustain a single burn. Sarah saved my boy's life. I want a wife like that.
I just wanted to write to thank you for a pleasant visit to your fair city, Washington, DC. As always, I have found your restaurants delectable, your hotels luxurious, and your Newseums informative. Yesterday, I enjoyed a brisk walk across the Connecticut Avenue bridge over Rock Creek Park and past the Algerian Embassy, and I kicked myself a little for ever having left this place after that hot, romantic summer of 2008. The streets still vibrate with life, history, and hope in all that our country is and can be. I was even honored to hear the name of my beloved hometown on all of your local news broadcasts last night. What hospitality! I hope to be back again soon for a longer visit.
PS: Sorry one of my townsmen tried to kill you the other day he doesn't represent us but I must say I was standing about the same distance from the White House today and it would have been a pretty darn lucky shot although of course you were out of town that day which he probably didn't know because our internet is slow but either way I know not many of us voted for you in 2008 and even fewer will next year but we're not all insane and in fact a few of us have some pretty good ideas and even some progressive tendencies so please don't cut our INL funding or the Areva project and besides that guy's family owns a really good restaurant in town which you should try if you come visit never mind that'd be weird but the point is it's a wonderful city and probably less than 20 percent of us are backwoods anarchists. Tops.
Some days, it's almost unbearable not to be in Siberia. Lately, that's been happening even more than usual. Yesterday, in public, I had a daydream about stepping out of a plane and onto an icy tarmac and I almost wept with joy, like a pansy.
Two weeks in, my new job at the Russian Center, where I'm surrounded daily by books and words and photos, neither satisfies my longing for the sleeping land, nor makes it worse. The commute to and from work, however, does both. It brings me closer, possibly, than anything has in the five years since I left. And now after two short weeks, I'm addicted.
The morning commute opens with a 15-minute bike ride to the train station. This leg of the journey qualifies on the merit of its smells -- cigarette smoke and exhaust and laundry left on balconies. Rotting furniture, uneven sidewalks, and weedy vacant lots add to the effect. It's not an upscale neighborhood.
The train, of course, is really where it's at. The methodical, metallic whirr, the whistle, the way the upper body bobs around on a fixed seat like one of those inflatable boxing opponents that's weighted at the bottom so it swings right back up. For some reason, I never get motion-sick on trains.
There's one spot on the commute where pine trees line up next to a wooden house at just the right distance from the tracks. Other than that, most of the sights from the window bear little resemblance to Siberia. The magic, though, isn't in the objects, but rather in how the train passes them by -- in three-second panoramic snapshots of lives. They're tragically static shots, though. Even when the back side of a house sits only a few yards from the tracks, it might as well be a world away, since the train doesn't stop. Getting there could take hours. The railroad offers only the illusion of intimacy, vivid though it is.
My run on the train only takes seven minutes -- no more than a frustrating teaser. According to the Siberian scale of time and distance, such journeys should last hours and days. After seven minutes, a bus takes me the rest of the way to work.
Lately, when I've been on my bike in the evening, on the way home, the sun has been in roughly the same position that it was on my first night in Siberia, when I ventured out of my new apartment and internalized just how far away I was. I suspect that memory will own that particular time slot each day for as long as I'll live. On my ride, the aromas dance more now than they do in the stale mornings. It's not the specific smells so much as the sheer number of them fighting for space.
Smelling Russia in America is humbling. This is where the epiphany comes in. I am condemned when I consider how I blamed the Russians for so much, as if it was a nationality that made the sky there so gray. In Siberia, I was a sheltered small-city boy who had never seen anything but trimmed lawns back home. My America was far from a complete picture. Had I smelled low-income Northern California on an early evening, I might have been more empathetic than I was. So much of what I initially passed off as "ghetto Russian," as it turns out, is really just "working class" and "human." That's not to say our nations are one and the same. There are no trimmed lawns in Russia. Not that I ever saw, anyway.
The Russians came eastward 9000 miles from St. Petersburg to reach California in 1812. That's a longer commute.Three weeks ago, I had the surreal experience of approaching Super Siberia's southeasternmost outpost, Fort Ross, from the southeast. And the pine trees and the dirt there smelled familiar, as they must have to the explorers. Maybe that's what heightened my senses.
I'm grateful for the unexpected daily glimpse that is my commute. The real territory is too vast to see in ten vacations, so even when I do make it back, I know it'll never be adequate. So for now, I'll hurry and get my fix before the commute stops reminding me of Siberia, and starts reminding me that I have to go to work. And then I'll have to get my fix somewhere else.
They handed out Hershey's Kisses on 9/11. It's not integral -- just an anecdote. I wondered how United would commemorate the tenth anniversary of their darkest day without scaring the passengers prior to takeoff. The flight attendant handed out Kisses, and mine melted on the surface when I held it too long in my lap, waiting for the drinks.
The candy was a cheap and imperfect way to remember the thousands of lives taken a decade earlier, but anything would have been inadequate, and besides, it seemed like the Kiss money came straight from the flight attendant's own pocket. United didn't plan anything for this flight to L.A., so she stepped in to fill the void. She clearly wasn't accustomed to using the intercom for weighty matters, so her ad-libbed speech about her fallen comrades was stumbling, but genuine.
Perhaps the greater commemoration was that it was a full flight. Ten years later, and on a day that had seen multiple threats, dozens of people were not afraid to go up again. At least not too afraid.
Our connecting flight to San Francisco wasn't full, because we weren't on it. Upon landing at LAX, our plane sat waiting for a gate for so long that our ride home took off without us. It was the last flight of the night, and the hotel voucher wouldn't get me to Stanford by work time in the morning, so I made an executive decision. I took my undersized wife and baby, rented a Mercury Grand Marquis, and headed off through south-central Los Angeles at just before midnight.
Despite what the movies show, L.A. to Stanford is a full six hours, even without traffic. I don't remember most of what happened during that time, though I was technically awake for nearly all of it. It was dark. Radio stations came and went. Sarah, my sweetheart, never complained once, even though the likelihood of us veering off of I-5 into a lake at 4am was probably far greater than getting hijacked and rammed into the Golden Gate Bridge at 11:30.
In the light of day, after a single hour of subpar sleep, I arose and attended the orientation for my new job at Stanford -- the job that is our reward for taking a leap of faith, or rather, several. I'm not sure if my rash commitment to punctuality would have impressed or perplexed my superiors. Almost certainly the latter. I never brought it up.
The point is that I have a job. At 26, for the first time, I have a salary, benefits, and an open-ended position that could last as long as I want it to. The freedom from doubt and worry is exhilirating. But after months of searching, schmoozing, applying, it all came down to me being in the right place at the right time. Perhaps the midnight drive was my penance -- the toil I owe to my superiors and to Stanford for entrusting me with this position, which should have been harder to come by. Freiheit isn't frei. At least, it shouldn't be. But how refreshing it feels.
Notice: I've altered the subtitle/byline of this blog to reflect a recent development. I am now a Master of the Arts. Going about changing the subtitle has not come without hesitation, however. Ever since the previous subtitle was penned, it's been unclear what would transpire when I inevitably reached this point, since proclaiming Mastery right in the subtitle seems a bit much. In addition to reminding me of Don Quixote, calling myself "Bachelor" had a suave unassumption to it. A Bachelor connotes someone who has, at best, a casual, open relationship with the Arts. Such a man enjoys the benefits of his association with the Arts without a great deal of commitment or expectation.
By that logic, advancing from Bachelor to Master in less than a year seems awfully reckless. Perhaps I would have benefitted from some sort of intermediary step, like Partner or Roommate of the Arts. In fact, glancing back on my brief moment as a graduate student, I'm still not entirely certain what qualifies me to be a Master. Ergo, labelling myself as such still seems overly audacious.
What's more, I may be a Master at some Arts, but surely not all of the Arts. I can no more lead authoritative tours through the theatre district now than I could before. My opinions on Jackson Pollock carry no more weight. Even the Arts that I have ostensibly Mastered -- Russian history, literature, and language -- I have Mastered only in comparison with other non-Russians. Millions of high schoolers east of Kaliningrad could potentially out-Master me at a number of said subjects, and with their hands tied behind their backs.
No, being a Master of such Arts is not likely to win me any new friends, respect, or anything really worth having. It may not even win me a career. But alas, I am a Master all the same, and I've the paperwork to prove it. My Bachelor days are past. So let it be written, up there in the subtitle: I am a Master of the Arts. I cannot paint you a picture, direct you a play, or play you a tune. I cannot find me a job. But if you bring me some Russian, East European, or Eurasian Arts, I will Master them. And I will Master them good.
If anything I've learned in grad school that has really sunk in personally, it's this: there truly is a place where my career aspirations are realistic and my specific skills are valued to their fullest extent. Unfortunately, that place no longer exists.
"The writer is the engineer of the human soul."
Among the endless array of reasons that make the Soviet Union a mind-bendingly fascinating place, first and foremost are the ideas and circumstances surrounding its foundation. If you're not a historian, stick with me here. No other revolution, before or since, has been more ideologically driven than the Bolshevik Revolution of October 1917. Of course there were everyday, бытовые reasons which paved the way: no bread, death in an unpopular war, idiot tsar followed by indecisive provisional government. But most of all, the Bolsheviks just saw this time as an opportune moment to seize control. Their new experimental nation was supposed to signal both the beginning and the end of history, and the glorious era when injustice would perish, and utopia would finally, finally prevail. (They were all philosophy majors.)
It's funny that in the early days, the Bolsheviks actually used the word "utopia" to describe their bright, socialist future, considering the word's etymology (no place) and the fact that no truly "utopian" society had ever, in human history, survived for a significant period of time. Of course, we know how it all turned out--revolution immediately followed by a bloody civil war, immediately followed by 30 years of history's cruellest mustache, millions of deaths, disillusionment, stagnation, quagmire, and dissolution. The fact remains, however, that behind each major state decision was a vision of paradise.
In this world aspiring to perfection, the artist, and especially the writer, was king. Literature and sloganry were among the most powerful tools employed in order to accomplish whatever the state needed: patriotism, enmity, espousal of new ideas, subjugation. And for better or for worse, the Soviets were incredible at it. Good writers are respected everywhere, but in the USSR, wordsmiths were gods. As quoted above, Stalin called them the "engineers of the human soul," which pronouncement carries hefty connotations. A writer doesn't just interpret the soul or enliven it. He creates it, teaches it how to be a soul. Besides, engineers were important in early Soviet society, and nothing is more precious to a Russian than his soul. If I didn't ruffle too many feathers (or starve), I could have scored a meaningful job in the Soviet Union.
I don't live in the Soviet Union.
My design/marketing class last week was all about storytelling--how to use words, and specifically characters and plotlines, to sell products and persuade people. The professor was lively and convincing. She told how the human brain is wired to remember and learn from stories, not facts or logic. She gave examples from business, as well as support from cognitive psychology and other fields. She didn't have to tell me, though. I already knew. But as I glanced around the room, I beheld a strange and startling sight. My class of 44 students, almost all Stanford MBAs, stared blankly ahead. They didn't get it. They didn't remember the powerful story from the class before--only the numbers that came after. They asked really stupid questions. It was as though their human brains had been re-wired. From the back of the room, I reluctantly lifted my hand time and time again to address the softball, supposedly human, questions because nobody else could.
In this current era of relative material stability, people seek stories more than anything else. They seek to contextualize themselves, to surround themselves with beauty, to feel like protagonists in a narrative that makes sense, and is moving toward a resolution. Literature isn't dead, but magazines, newspapers, literary journals, and other organizations touting the real, but invisible power of words and stories are dying off by the day. The Soviet Union went out of business in 1991. Alas, after all this time, the soul remains unquantifiable.
If my classmates of today are going to be my bosses of tomorrow, I may have some more explaining to do about how a writing background and humanities degrees make me a smart hire. I thought it seemed clear.
Here's a writing portfolio of quasi-journalism. Contact me for quasi-fiction.
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