life as understood

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


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.