Off on the right foot

Today I feel like my life is a series of setbacks and I pass the time in between them struggling to make up for lost ground. I took off from work today to fight a cold I felt approaching. Result: I feel worse, I spent an hour and a half walking outside in the rain, and I feel like if I see my office again I might have to scream. (I whimpered a couple times today thinking about it, but that was purely optional.)

Maybe that doesn’t sound like much, but I don’t feel like drawing the full-detail picture that would indicate its place in the larger pattern I seem to see. Partially because I’m sure I would be ashamed of the inadequate result. In any case, I would never finish it. The cruelest hit I took today was logging into google documents, I saw that I had nothing showing in my active documents: I haven’t touched a single one of my projects for a whole month. Hoping to shame myself into getting back to work, I had the idiotic idea of talking about one of them in a public place. (That’s the idea. If you’re ashamed of something enough that the thought of it immobilizes you, make sure you know that you’ve made as many people as possible aware of it. Then you’ll be sure to want to get up in the morning.)

I’m not sure what I’ve been doing for the last four months, but I haven’t had anything more important to do. Taking stock of my life, like they advise: I like traveling, I like writing, I’m not doing either, and when I realize that, I’m miserable. I know I have my thirties ahead of me, and I know that is a lot of time. I didn’t use to know that. But now I know it and I’m afraid of it. I don’t even have to be lucky to have a long, grey stretch of unsuccessful, small, marginal and useless life left to live.

Writing is painful. That’s a commonplace, like all commonplaces, worse than useless, without the detail. The proverb is known, the neophyte understands the letter of the proverb, defeats the letter of the proverb with easy experience, and hard experience returns upon him and teaches him the spirit of it. Writing is easy, and fun. Having written is horrible. It’s small, it’s limited, it’s pompous, dismissive, arrogant, uninformative, self-centered, witless and graceless, and it’s you. I can edit anything I like about my writing, I can’t edit that out. I wince when I have to look at it. (Or just close my eyes for a minute, until I can involve myself in some local editing issue and forget the larger image of a giant self-satisfied asinine buffoon baboon.)

The project I would like most to work on, that I’m most likely to enjoy, complete, and enjoy completing, is one I’ve been meaning to write for three to five years. I would like to write a book about my travels. Chapters on Moscow, Siberia, and Istanbul. I like Tristes Tropiques as a travel book, and sadly I can’t like anything without wanting to make my own version. (The cluttered world I would produce, if only I had the power, staggers the imagination.) I would like to write a book about myself, about the world, about art, history, religion, society, and did I mention about myself. That’s the book I’ve started on. And I wonder why I’ve stalled.

In the infinite line of innumerable impediments between me and such a thing, I can see a few in more detail than the rest. For instance: my book needs a backbone, to hang its saggy, fatty, watery, endless and interminable extraneous material on. I had a few structures in mind. I could write the book in a series of lessons. Who was I coming into this phase in my life or this place in the world, who was I coming out, what did I learn in between? Then elaborate, show examples. Charts, graphs, statistics. Anecdotes, senses, soft data. Sounds like a plan. Only what did I learn? Who was I? How did I change? Asking those questions wasn’t easy. Looking at potential answers wasn’t any easier. Looking at myself was harder still. Not least because my target kept moving, and my scope was made out of the same stuff, or its shadow, and changed as it changed, or in changing, changed it.

Before allowing myself to get too deep into that, I had to get deeper into something else. What was I writing about? Why would anyone want to read it? Why did I want to write it? Who was I talking to? What, in the end, was I talking about? That resulted in a worthless chapter-long drool I planned to put at the head of whatever thing I thought would be the end product of this unplanned mess, in which I also blew several of the better stories I thought I had by summarizing them and leaving out everything humorous or interesting in them, not to mention eliminating the possibility of extracting something edifying for myself from them.

Remind me, why was I doing this in the first place? Seems a roundabout way of trying to satisfy my crazed ego-fantasies, by humiliating myself in as many ways as I could come up with.

That’s enough. I’m worn out, I feel worse than I did when I started, and my head it pounding. Remind me to talk about something I enjoy next time.

Personality test

I don’t know anything about psychology, and I’m not interested enough to learn more than a casual browse on the internet will tell me about the Myers-Briggs personality test. (I don’t think my doubts are interesting, either, and I’m sure people are researching more interesting things that if I knew what they were I would agree are more valuable.) But I never can resist a Cosmo quiz or a horoscope. I used this test from, which also features a frightening online marriage assessment. Via OK Cupid, there are three short steps from Jung to an ISO on craigslist. Worse: middle managers, the supposedly responsible ones, the ones who are running the country (on a distributed level) or at least the ones who are sweating over the monthly budgets and taking responsibility for other people’s work and delegating team-building exercises, these people, these faithful tenders of our great nation’s endless cubicle farms, they take this test and study it interpretation, they assess themselves with it, they make decisions by it, and they work guided by its light. Though come to think of it, a manager on my floor, who seems to be doing all right and is trying to study French in her spare time, she’s spent at least one lifetime as a pioneer women living alone with no husband and a wagonful of dead kids, this can’t be worse than that. (I learned this the day I served my stint as a Cuban border guard; I had somehow gotten volunteered without my knowledge to stamp passports on behalf of my subdepartment on an international day on my floor. [No uniforms allowed, or any military insinuation: we had a Cuban political refugee somewhere. Maybe hiding in the mailroom. Could be offended, wherever they were.] I went to scope out my table, saw her decorating: cardboard palm trees, a portable beach mural, a giant flag, fried plaintains [cold], and I called her resourceful. Yes, she said, fluttering the undersides of her corneas at me, I’ve been regressed three times. I’ve been very resourceful every time I’ve lived.)

Anyhow, it thinks I, along with 2.4% of the population, am an ENFJ, whatever that means. I certainly don’t know how to interpret it. This interpretation is flattering, and this one is incomprehensible. Well, not fully comprehensible. Nor neither comprehensive: it’s a personality I can do, but is it total?

I don’t want to lose sight of the original reason I had for posting this. Although I’m not sure anymore. Here’s a run-up on it and a grab-it-from-behind: I am puzzled by the large, heavy fact of personality. The shape of what you have shown yourself to be, the who are trying to be and where you are in your growth towards that, and the border drawn around your possibilities (and their probability gradients), I don’t like any of these things, they unsettle me. Above all, I think, I’m bothered because they shouldn’t be measurable. Because if they’re measurable, they exist, they are constraints on the person. And sooner or later, if I encounter the same constraints and I can’t get them to move, I’m liable to give up. When my blog gets a personality, I’ll abandon it. When I’m used to where I am, I leave it. When I’m comfortable with my friends, I stop answering their emails, or do my best to provoke them into breaking with me. Well, that’s not the whole story either: I’m ashamed of who I am, whatever that happens to be at any given time, and if I think I am losing possibilities or freedom, I panic from fear of remaining the shameful thing I am in the shameful way I am. And the older I get, the more hiding from being ashamed is a permanent personality element, and another dark door closing me off from light and space.

The immediate reason

“If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all!”

If I don’t say anything at all, I’ll never say anything nice. So, resolved: I’m reopening this blog.

The immediate reason for my resolution is as usual I got annoyed at something I read somewhere. This time it was in the beginning to Iris Murdoch’s The Black Prince. The phrase was something like “saints of art” (who consecrate themselves to silence, a pure sacrifice to purity of never doing anything less than perfect and hence do nothing at all), and I wanted to be sure I could never be confused with anyone anybody could approve of with such an awful phrase. (And then I got annoyed because I was being manipulated by a nasty author into an unearned sense of superiority over their main character for their own sinister purposes, but that’s another story.)

Less immediate: I need some kind of anchor on the internet (don’t wander too far from home). I need a place to scattercast my mental chatter from (one person at a time is too slow and I repeat myself too much). And I need something limited to focus my anxiety on (and make it productive). This will be those, and they will be it.

Regular updates to follow. Well, they ought to, but no promises.

Thursday, 13 January 2005

The radiator sounds like: goblins working underground; busy neighbors rearranging their apartment; strange, unhealthy labor at dystopic-type machines; freshman year of college; or Death, walking from door to door, banging on an iron pan.

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.