life as understood

by jeff carr, master of the arts, -------------------------------------------------------------------------- presumably from a couch


dear mr. president

courtesy of Jeff |

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.


the commute

courtesy of Jeff |

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.


die luft der freiheit weht

courtesy of Jeff |

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.


a new title

courtesy of Jeff |

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.


no place

courtesy of Jeff |

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."
-Josef Stalin

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.


at the art museum with Tsune

courtesy of Jeff |

Everything echoes in the Asian wing of the Cantor Arts Center. Even with mountainous canvases lining the walls, all vocalizations bounce. Tsune has a hard time communicating over the phone in English, and I have to assume whispering will be similarly hard, but there's no other way.

He points out how the left gargoyle's mouth is open, unlike the one on the right. The slight asymmetry is immediately noticeable and almost jarring to the Western eye, but Tsune explains how the faces represent two separate but simultaneous invocations for the people entering the building. He can't remember what exactly--something like justice and mercy. Though I can't catch every word from his still, small voice, the article on wabi-sabi he printed off provides enough context for me to fill in the gaps. The intentional asymmetry demonstrates the Japanese man's healthy acceptance of his inability to reach perfection. It's in the pottery too. Obviously, I'm the one being tutored.

Another hour, and we've only seen a small fraction of the museum, so we agree to come back later in the week. Then, we'll traverse the Western wings and I'll do the explaining. As that day approaches, I'm apprehensive. I'm not an art historian. Tsune isn't either, of course--he's a visiting scholar in the computer science department. But he comes from a nation with a consistent, influential, and overall "rich" culture, and he has no trouble discussing it definitively, even in English. All I'm taught about my own people is that we're money hungry and fat. Innovative, maybe, but generally only at others' expense, and intolerant. When American and Western ways are spoken of, it's almost always derisively, as an impediment to human progress. What could I ever hope to teach a Japanese man about culture?

Two days later, torsos greet me at the entrance to the first European wing--perfect, granite male and female torsos on ionic pedestals, straight from ancient Greece. To one side, a portrait of a lower English nobleman, a medieval diptych of two saints, and a breathtaking painting of a fantastical palace with imaginative architecture, and lighting and perspective so perfect, it could be an extension of the museum. Tsune is speechless. I realize I can explain almost all of it, and without the help of any specialized knowledge. I teach him about classical influences, Renaissance humanism, and Catholic patronage, and the Bible. And it hits me that I am part of a unique tradition--the Western world is unique, even if it's huge--I've just never seen the forest for the trees.

In the Native American gallery, I don't have as much to say, but Tsune correctly surmises that the drawings, masks, and artifacts are closely tied with the belief systems of each specific people. There, under the brightly colored totem pole-arch, I am shocked by another silent, almost spiritual realization--that I belong also to far more unique and tight-knit subsets of Western culture by virtue of my specific geographic and religious backgrounds. We even have our own art. Most of it may not be museum-worthy, but an outsider could learn a few things about me from studying it. It's good to contextualize once in a while.

After a short time, I'm forced to take leave of Tsune and the museum, but he decides to linger. I walk out less alone than ever.


a month of war and peace

courtesy of Jeff |

The fact that I'm writing now means it's peace, assuming that the lull between measured attacks constitutes peace. I feel like if we turned off the TV, I could hear the bombers doing fly-bys overhead and the soldiers (hussars, mostly) milling hungrily in the courtyard.

Lately I've been talking a lot about how late I stay up studying--my classmates must surely have noticed. 4:00. 3:00. 4:30. I wear it like a medal. Far beyond the family obligations or the part-time job, though, the truth is that I'm just a slow reader, and as a graduate student in the humanities, that's everything. Literally. No problem sets, group projects, even presentations. A few days ago I had, going by my normal rate, about 21 hours worth of reading to do in 22 hours. I skimmed.

The moral battle starts around 1:00. Chances are, I could slip by without reading every page. I could skim a couple chapters and hyper-focus on certain other things to buttress the discussion in class. One well-aimed comment and my work could be done. In another class, I could potentially spurn the entire 400-page assignment and get by just fine. After all, the discussion is mostly just criticizing such-and-such historian for attempting to wedge this bit of Russian history into a larger theoretical framework which doesn't quite fit. Tolstoy hated that kind of history.

Over the past month, the new longest book I've ever read has taught me all about freedom vs. necessity, chance vs. predestination, consciousness vs. reason, but I've yet to apply any of its lessons to my present situation. Ironically, I'm far too saturated with knowledge to think. I'll take fewer units next quarter. But for now, that reading is finished, and the battle continues.

"On the narrow dam of Augesd, on which for so many years an old miller in a cap used to sit peacefully with his fishing rods, while his grandson, his shirtsleeves rolled up, fingered the silvery, trembling fish in the watering can; on this dam over which, for so many years, Moravians in shaggy hats and blue jackets had peacefully driven in their two-horse carts laden with wheat and had driven back over the same dam all dusty with flour, their carts white--now, on this narrow dam, between wagons and cannon, under horses and between wheels, crowded men disfigured by the fear of death, crushing each other, dying, stepping over the dying, and killing each other, only to go a few steps and be killed themselves just the same." (War and Peace, I.3.XVIII)


the day my childhood hero called me a dumb-a**

courtesy of Jeff |

This was yesterday during maybe hour four of my epic read-athon just to keep up in class. After the history book, I had decided to shed my outer shirt and settle into the couch for a long winter's 140 pages of War and Peace when the phone rang. It was Rob.

"I got you a present," he said. My first reaction was one of mild self-loathing, because Rob is the sort of thoughtful friend who gives presents for no reason. I, on the other hand, am the sort of friend who forgot his birthday last week, and already felt bad about not calling and saying hi. Hopefully, I thought, he's joking.

Rob said he wanted to surprise me, but he couldn't wait. Jeff Hornacek, he said, drawing the name out for effect, came into the campus gym where Rob works, to hold some sort of one-day basketball camp. I instinctively rose up from the couch, walked to the kitchen, and looked down at a recent frivolous purchase of mine--yet another Utah Jazz t-shirt, this one faded green, with the classic old logo emblazoned across my chest. Hornacek wore that same logo on his chest when I was eight through fifteen years old. Notably, he wore it on November 23, 1994, when he went 8 for 8 from behind the arc against the Sonics, and I made shots from across the room as I listened on the basement radio. I remember that night specifically. Later, I modeled my own amateurish game after his.

"Do you like Jeff Hornacek?" Rob asked, knowing only of my allegiance to the team itself. I told him that Hornacek's jersey number, which now hangs high in the rafters, makes up the only two numerals in my internet password--the password I use for everything. It's not a coincidence. As an idol, Stockton reigned over my early childhood, but when we picked up Horny in the most lopsided trade in NBA history, my heart found room for him and his quick release jumper right away.

Apparently, being the good friend that he is, Rob chased down the former All-Star as he was leaving the gym. He said he had a friend who was a huge fan and who just got straight A's at Stanford. Rob explained that he strategically threw that part in as sort of an extra hook, which evidently worked. Mr. Hornacek turned and said something to the effect of "oh, a real dumb-a**." He was being ironic, I assumed from context. Then he signed a T-shirt with a personal message for me. Rob's sending it in the mail today or tomorrow.

After hearing a story of such personal import and bidding farewell to my dear friend, my reading went extra slow for a while. Mostly, I was wired from my vicarious brush with minor fame, but after a while I became distracted by more fundamental questions. What if Jeff Hornacek was right? In the few seconds he thought about me (ME!), I fear he may have exposed me in the sort of shocking, direct way that only a personal hero can. Here I am, like a fool, slaving over the New Testament in Old Church Slavic, a dead language, when all I really had to do was work more on my free throws and get open on the left wing.

Stanford may not have been enough, but mark my words: someday, Jeff Hornacek, somehow, I will make you proud.