Thursday, March 3, 2016

On Coffee

When I first came to Russia in 1994, I was a confirmed coffee head. At that time, coffee meant Pele, a canned instant coffee that had the same relative components of coffee in the way Tang had the same relative components to orange juice.  In other words, there were only vague similarities. It wasn't that the Russians didn't like coffee (that trend would come and go later on as a matter of principle as per the odd mechanisms of the Russian consumer mentality) but that they had just never had it. Most Russians first encounter with Pele happened in circumstances of dearth - at a kiosk in a railway station where there was no tea, at a friends house in the morning after a late night and so on. Pele was not hard to find in stores. I had it as a coffee substitute pretty regularly but without copious amounts of sugar and milk, often also difficult to marshal all at once at any given breakfast table, it was a last resort. I wasn't in any way against drinking tea and because everybody else did, tea became my drink of choice by default. I never really had coffee withdrawals. It was a smooth transition.

After coming from the Netherlands to live in Moscow permanently at the turn of the century, I had coffee in my blood. The Dutch do coffee well and I was a pot a day coffee head. In Moscow, corporate environments became my daily dwelling and I was pleasantly surprised that coffee - real coffee - was pretty much everywhere by that time. This is when I saw that Russians hated coffee. I had missed some kind of transition in the late 1990's when Pele had all but dissipated (its back now, by the way, with a marketing vengeance) and a plethora of instant and whole bean coffee was circulating in break rooms and offices all over. The instant coffee was better, but head and shoulders above the grey sand powder that came in metal tins in the early 1990's. Whole bean and ground coffee was available, but nobody knew how to make it. I witnessed many Russians make 'cowboy' coffee by putting expensive ground coffee in plastic cups with hot water. This didn't work and most thought it was crap because it was - when prepared like instant coffee.

The office I worked in had a drip coffee maker and whenever I started my day in our office instead of at a clients office I was the guy everybody asked to make coffee because I was the only one who could figure out how to replace yesterday's filter with a new one and brew fresh coffee. My colleagues often brewed several pots with a single filter, sometimes adding more grounds on top of the old ones.  Cleaning the pot came as a revelation. Pretty soon all the guys drank coffee but the ladies were slow to adapt. I worked there for a few years and everybody got the hang of it more or less.

Making coffee at home has gone through several phases. I had a pot with a filter on top for a while and then several incarnations of an automatic drip coffee maker. I was the only coffee drinker at home so we got the small ones that only make a single cup or two cups maximum. This got ugly when guests came over - which was frequently and I eventually invested in a full on drip coffee maker with a big 6 cup pot. Almost immediately I dropped the pot and since then I have only used French press coffee makers. At first they were expensive, but now every hypermarket has several cheap-o variants to choose from and if you break it, which you will, replacing your French press doesn't' constitute a sacrificial offering.  Now that my eldest daughter also needs coffee to function in the morning, our stand by French press is a large one that holds 4 whopping cups and is also suitable for having guests.

My work routine involves going to a local cafe to meet clients pretty regularly and as a cheap guy, I've moved from ordering cappuccinos to ordering double espressos. It started out as a more bang for the buck approach (the double espresso is cheaper than the cappuccino and  only marginally more expensive than the Americano) but now I am simply a double espresso guy. I order it with a shot of hot milk on the side. I don't take sugar. My cafe is pretty decent and so shifting to double espresso was not a major ordeal. I am pretty much a regular coffee guy at home and a hard core coffee guy in town. Having reached this equilibrium, I also like to switch up brewing methods when I'm out and about.

A friend introduced me to Turkish coffee and I was mildly enthusiastic. I was not a big fan of the dregs. Over time, I have learned that 'Turkish' not a hard and fast term and that similar methods of preparation are popular all over Southern Russia where coffee has always been more of a staple alternative to tea, even in Soviet times. Georgian coffee is also prepared in a ibrik, but the method is different - sugar is put into the coffee before brewing and the shape and mouth of the pot are designed to keep the dregs in the pot and not deposit them in your cup.  Georgian coffee is often prepared with cardamom or other spices and they don't freak out if you put milk in it.

I have been contemplating getting an ibrik pot for a while when a friend came to Russia after spending a prolonged tour in Italy. She arrived with a Bialetti 'brikka' coffee maker, a slightly modified version of the classic hexagonal shaped 1950's stove top espresso maker. She let me borrow it for a few days.  Despite following the detailed instructions rather scrupulously, I couldn't manage to produce a cup of the famous 'crema'  that the stove top coffee makers are famous for. I made several attempts, but as each experiment used the same amount of coffee I normally use for a full French press, my cheapness significantly hindered my learning curve. I managed to produce some dashing little cups of coffee that curdled the inner lining of my brain - this was also a factor in my limited ability to experiment - but I couldn't get the 'crema' to form. Besides, drinking a demitasse of rocket fuel coffee disrupted my more leisurely at home coffee routine. I like to drink coffee in the morning - several cups in fact - and I don't need my head to pop off like a champagne cork.

It was a good experiment, however, in that I have learned that I don't need espresso gear at home. 

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

On Courtesy vs Charity

I have never had a flair for fashion. In college I was called Professor and Doctor Hoffman largely because I wore sport coats and vests year round. In Russia my sport coats were less obtrusive among people my own age in the warmer months, but it the winter, which in Russia starts in November and drags on until April sometimes, I struggle because typical Russian winter clothing is simply too heavy for me and because of the indoor sauna effect in almost every Russian indoor space - if its minus ten outside, you can bet its plus 20 inside. The colder the weather, the more insane the indoor central heating. Managing the outer-garment as aspect of this thermal anomaly only became an issue for me in Russia. Adjusting my clothing to real seasons was and remains a serious financial, physical and behavioral challenge for me. Early in my experience in Russia, I had a lot of help.

One of the most amazing acts of charity I ever experienced in Russia was in 1995 when I was living in Optina Pustin. When I first came, the monks gave me a scratchy handmade woolen coat. This was a simple, short waist coat, the kind used by manual laborers on the kolkhoz. It was plain grey, with a small flared collar and four black plastic buttons - a poor imitation of a military issue design. It came with other stuff, too, mittens and a white dress shirt - all handmade. Not elegant, to be sure, but they fit and were durable. Wearing the coat, I felt very much a part of things and must have looked the part as well because, if I kept my mouth shut, fewer people asked me where I was from. I blended in.

I was informed that the coat was 2nd hand, part of a very small collection of worldly possessions left behind by a certain monk Lazar, who had died only recently before I arrived at the monastery. Lazar was one of many who had been working at the Chernobyl Nuclear Facility in the Ukraine in 1986 when they had the meltdown. There simply wasn't much more information on the man - he became Orthodox as a result of his condemned state and when the cancer progressed to a certain point in the 1990's, he departed for Optina and became a simple monk in the hopes to spend his remaining time on earth in repentance. He died in the summer of 1994. He was in his mid 40's.

This coat was my treasure. It was the perfect coat for me. Warm, but not super warm and not at all heavy. It was the kind of coat you took off when coming into a building but could leave on in Church if is wasn't that hot. It had pockets. I literally wore the jacket threadbare and after I was married – 6 years later - my wife, not caring a fig about its sentimental value and seeing that is really not much more than a dirty rag, threw it out. I can't blame her, but I would still have liked to have kept it.

The following winter of my first year in Russia, I became acquainted with Hireodeacon Iliador, a massive grizzled Georgian man with a hook nose who was reputed to have been a notorious bandit haunting the area around the monastery before it was returned to the Church in 1988. He became a monk early in the history of the re-opened monastery and before long he became a deacon. He had the strongest, most majestic voice I have ever heard in church. Though in personal communication it was clear he had a pronounced lisp, when he bellowed out the litanies during services this defect somehow enhanced the musicality of his voice. Fully decked out in his Church vestments, he resembled nothing short of a Georgian king. His voice made me weep, especially when he sang the prokimenon during vespers on Sunday evening: 'the Lord is enthroned, He is clothed with Majesty' - I felt and still feel that I am not on earth when I hear him erupt with this solemn but triumphant point in the All night Vigil.

Fr. Iliador was known for his generosity and he always had something in the deep pockets of his podrasnik. Toys, candy, money, prosphora, fruit, tools, handy items and unusual items – he seemed to be a bottomless pit of stuff. He was always giving something to everyone, to strangers and friends. He would often give me a bag of candy or a candle or prosphora. I can't remember the exact occasion, but sometime after the Nativity season, where there was still heavy snow, he gave me a magnificent black overcoat. He called me to follow him to his cell, a place where pilgrims at the monastery were not supposed to be except in special circumstances like for obedience or to get a blessing. He went into his cell, rummaged and returned with this fantastic black Russian winter coat, the heaviest I have ever worn and virtually unused. It had a silk lining and deep outer as well as inner pockets. It was the kind of coat that I had seen on lay priests and, having long hair and scruffy beard myself, I was very often mistaken for a priest when I wore it. I have never seen winter coats like these in stores, but it was extremely well made and I couldn't tell if it was a product of mass manufacture or the work of a professional tailor. The coat was so heavy that I could dress very lightly underneath, without layers, and still not even feel the wind. It must have been 5 cm thick. It was a bit uncomfortable indoors because taking it off was like removing armor and as it didn't fold easily, it was sometimes hard to find a place to put it if there wasn't a coat rack. It was easily the most luxurious item of clothing I have ever possessed. It totally changed my perception of the Russian winter and my feeling of acceptance in Russian society, which moved from being invisibly enumerated among the locals to loosing my title as the anonymous 'maladoy chelovek' (young man) and gaining the formal (plural) personal pronoun 'vyi' – a common sign of respect for adults opposed to the more familiar 'ti' used by peers or adults addressing youth. I wore the coat for the remainder of the winter and lugged it around when I returned to Moscow. When I left Russia in the summer of 1995, I couldn't take it with me because it was so huge I had no place for it in my luggage. I gave it away. I cannot speak of the number of times I have kicked myself for this, nor how I wish I had such a coat now.

Material things flowed very freely in the monastery, but less so in Moscow. Still, the generosity of Russians is never to be underestimated. I have found charity in Moscow to be effulgent in a different way, partly because I have established myself and perhaps no longer look like an obvious candidate for charity. My integration has also hardened me a bit, too. I am less vulnerable to 'attacks' of goodwill and the fascination with 'white elephants' that are so often traded in acts of spontaneous generosity has waned. Having acquired the familiar trappings of routine and responsibility, I am also simply less open to the primordial depth and earnestness of contact with strangers in Russia. I no longer see how special these moments are, I think about my personal space and my time as if they were, in fact, mine. There is, for sure, an patent aggressive element to contact among strangers in Russia that is managed by common courtesy and higher levels of personal shame in other countries. You can ask a stranger for the time, but your average Russian might just as often start a philosophical conversation. Mental illness not included. This goodwill without a seat belt often throws me off balance. I used to find it fascinating to engage unknown people on issues of love and culture in the train, but now I feel awkward. Furthermore, I simply don't know how to receive unwanted gifts very graciously. One would think this would be a talent that didn't need to be exercised very often – but in Russia such a social skill is a staple of everyday tact.

I see our priests in Church at the analogion confessing the huddled masses. They are literally getting gifts in one hand and passing them out with the other. They don't even look. I recall the story from the life of Archbishop John where a wealthy parishioner wanted to make a donation to Vladika's charity programs and gave a substantial sum in an envelope to the archbishop. The man observed that Archbishop John never even looked at the envelope but simply handed it to the very next person, a poor woman, who had come to get his blessing. I have witnessed and even been the subject of such charity here in Russia. But interaction with ordinary people on this level can nevertheless be quite a culture shock, even for this guest who has been here for more than 10 years now.

It is deep fall in Moscow now. The ground has frozen and patches of stubborn snow refuse to melt in the clear afternoon sun. For me, it is paradisiacal weather - warm enough not to require a winter coats but cool enough to be a refreshing break from the stifling heat of indoor environments. I go to church wearing (surprise) a sport coat. With the local villains all bundled up in Antarctic fervor, I naturally get looks from people on the street. It’s as if I am walking about naked or with a sign on my head. Sometimes it’s funny. Sometimes it’s just weird and hard to bear.

I was accosted the other day outside our parish church by a woman who insisted I was cold and demanded I take some socks she magically happened to have in her purse. Surreal moments like this require cool-headedness. The bizarre context of the situation caught me off guard and as the difference in spoken Russian between the bewildered inquisitive 'Aren't you cold?' and the incredulous accusation, 'YOU ARE COLD NOW!' can only to be determined by the subtlest variation in tone and inflection, I was duly flummoxed. To those unprepared for the authoritative Russian approach to concern for their fellow man, the two phrases are, grammatically speaking and word for word, identical. Instead of just saying no, I'm fine and I don't need the socks, thank you, I let myself be overwhelmed by the annoying Russian paternalism that grants moral authority to those who would be your benefactor.

I asked the woman in the unabashedly annoyed voice of a frustrated foreigner if she thought I was a homeless person.

She paused to consider her answer. I think she initially assumed I was a homeless person but reconsidered this opinion when it became clear I was a foreigner. She was unprepared, I think, for my resistance to her offer.

She repeated her insistence that I was cold (now it was clearly not a question but a statement of fact) and wagged socks at me, insisting I take them. ''Really, I have lots of them. Its no trouble.'' I still had the opportunity to politely refuse, but instead indignation took over when annoyance left off and I mumbled something in my less than articulate Russian about my capacity to know if I was warm or cold myself, without the advice my adopted mother on the street. We both entered the church a little self conscious about our physical proximity to each other in a house of God.

Of course, I thought to apologize – I do sometimes. I was just so mentally eviscerated by the Russian approach to concern for others, which however well intended is just plain aggressive at times. I felt very much like a object and not a person and I was both shocked and aware of my misplaced cultural sensitivity at the same time. As an American, I am so used to maintaining a threshold of perceived independence and right to my opinion that when someone crosses this invisible line, I allow myself to feel violated in a way I know is not intended or even understood by those who step over the line. It is, after all, a rather deranged proposition to feel threatened by charity. Yet I continue to insist that common courtesy and consideration for the inevitable differences of opinion on matters of personal comfort are also forms of charity, however undervalued these notions are in Russian society. I keep telling myself that I am a guest in Russia and that it is I who must adapt, but some dispositions are too deep to be moved. In preserving my fake inner world, I miss opportunities to connect.

I am reminded of other themes from the life of Archbishop John, who was a foreigner in three different countries for most life as a bishop and archbishop. He was often subject to the indignant attitude of fellow clergy (invariably Russians) when he didn't wear shoes or went inappropriately under dressed in cold weather, which he did often. He was known to growl a bit at these perfunctory foibles. In one incident in which fellow hierarchy demanded that he wear shoes, he simply carried a pair around with him but didn't put them on his feet. When they later would ask him where his shoes were, he would produce them and show that he indeed had them (the word for 'wear' and 'carry' is the same in Russian).

These stories make me smile and I allow myself the illicit pleasure of identifying myself with Archbishop John in this regard, however dissimilar we are in our manner of life and disposition of soul. Archbishop John was a saint, of course, and the flames of Divine love in his heart were no doubt stoked by greater pains than the mere stings of ants. But for me there is real anguish of soul, and I see that however elementary, my self induced suffering is real enough. More than just ingratitude, it is hurtful to others. Archbishop John was perhaps mildly irritated with the focus of his fellow clergymen on the mundane affairs of fashion, but I am embarrassed to behave so rudely to people who are after all just being nice. I hope someday I can just take the socks without grumbling. It won't make me a saint to accept the gruff but well intended kindness of Russians, but it will take a little humble pie to go down without the salt of flippant commentary. I hope the Lord will accept this as a sacrifice on the altar of love, for my sake. I can't possibly entertain the hope that my Russian hosts will understand such a disposition.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

The Guitar Player

I went to high school with a young rocker, V.A., who had considerable influence on me. I felt the impact of his personality and musical ability less in my own attitude and musical ability that in my understanding of relationships and what it is I was looking for in friends and heroes. I saw him as a creative peer and was drawn to befriend him because of this, but in reality our creative powers were really not that similar. What struck me most was his confidence, which as a teenager was remarkable. It remains unclear whether his confidence stemmed from his prodigy-like talent or if the talent was unlocked by his disarming confidence. I had hopes it was the latter and that I would discover how to unlock my own dormant musical ability by leveraging my own confidence, which was thin but more developed than many of my peers. Our friendship was brief and intense, not the least because I wasn't much of a musician, but in that brief space I gained more front and center insight from him than from any other another person to that point.

I recently watch a program in which Neil Peart, one of my intellectual idols from the same time, was discussing role models and whether society was 'getting dumber.' He was on a talk show. He commented that he didn't think human nature changed so much as the social environments against which we measure ourselves and that people look up to heroes and role models in the media and literature because they want to be smarter or better, whereas the obsession with stupid television is not a result of society having become dumber, but that we are less threatened by examples of people who are clearly not as smart as we are. We get affirmation through negative stereotypes, seeing that we are smarter than, say, Beavis and Butt Head, or at least not as dumb as many others who have prominent roles in the abstract world of media. I think this speaks volumes about how our identity take shape when we are young including our the social groups we hang out with and the influences that touch us from outside our immediate experience.

Young people naturally have a desire for an elevating experience, for the opportunity to enter into the world of a person or group that is obviously smarter than we are to somehow become smarter or better ourselves. In traditional societies, such experiences are often forced upon us when we enter adulthood. In our contemporary society, the voluntary nature of this exchange is highlighted. To seek out intelligent or 'high culture' requires a bit of self abnegation, a kind of vulnerability that opens us up to thinking and reflecting. It is the exact opposite of seeking identity with the like minded or security with those who are clearly below us in some way, even if only though prejudice and insularity. Because our fragmented society with a plurality of values and ethics is less capable of helping individuals meet basic self esteem needs, affirming ourselves against the dummies plays an absurdly important role in both forming (and arresting the formation) of our identity when we are young. This is why V.A. was such a compelling figure, because he clearly had talents that were unusual which I wanted to associate with and emulate, but he was at the same time a peer, not an abstract hero from a record sleeve or the sound bits of an interview on the news.

V.A. could really play guitar. He could hear something and then play it. He preferred to create his own music, but he drew inspiration from many sources. In was struck by the fact that he could literally play any instrument, that he could puck up an instrument and, with a few minutes of fiddling, could not only play it but he could bend its voice to his own. He could make it do what he wanted. There was no gap between his hearing, his mind and his ability to physically control the guitar. For anyone who has ever tried to play an instrument, seeing this in another person is a revelation. For him, there were no obstacles to musical expression except that which he couldn't yet conceive in his mind or hadn't heard before. This kind of talent has a magnetism that speaks for itself and V.A. was surrounded by friends and admirers.

With the exception of a few other good musicians, the people who hung out with V.A. were mostly beneath him, though. My own status was uncertain - clearly he saw me as a peer in a creative sense, but musically I was as much a turd in the tub as the next guy who couldn't play guitar at all. Our relationship dissolved when it became obvious to me that my musicianship couldn't add much to his experience and that we didn't really have much in common otherwise. My admiration became awkward jealousy in the face of my lack of talent.

Still, there were great moments of illumination. He was constantly practicing, making it look so effortless. More than this, he was focused on music, whereas I was still very undecided and guarded about what I wanted to give myself to. Seeing this contrast was very important and edifying, although it made me feel weak and vulnerable in a way I didn't really understand. Also, V.A. never criticized my playing, even when I knew it was really shit. I had a good creative sense of the possibilities in music, but a very poor sense of rhythm. I simply couldn’t keep time with other musicians. I don't know what motivated his magnanimity, but it came off as a kind of brotherly acceptance and patience. This had an encouraging and even empowering effect and was perhaps the first unspoken trust I shared with another person. To me, this was a sign if his real genius. I have since found it in others, but it is rare nevertheless. Finally, he was just very open to music of all kinds and this contrasted my own insecurity with new things. He had his own taste, but could see something valuable in anything - classical, country, rap, whatever. Given his otherwise juvenile behavior and outlook on life, this musical maturity was all the more impressive and influential. These attitudes set the tone for my understanding of musicianship and represent one of the most important learning experiences in my life, even now. I have struggled on and off to be a better musician most of my adult life, but despite my failure to achieve the level of proficiency that I desire, I have a solid inner vision of what it means to be and what it will take to be a good musician.

When we were alone together in one moment of unusual stony lucidity near the end of our time hanging out together, I asked him how he just 'knew what to do' when playing and how I could learn the 'rules' of music to express myself more freely. His advice, though existentially dark, was nevertheless profoundly liberating. It has followed me ever since.

He simply replied, 'There are no rules.'

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Brain Surgeon

by Thomas

A philosopher at a community college felt a sudden calling to be a brain surgeon. He went to a hospital and declared himself.

“Attention everyone,” he said a little awkwardly in his tweed coat. “Uh, actually I am not really a philosopher. I am really a brain surgeon.”

Some people objected, of course, but he was prepared for this resistance. He quoted Kant and the pre-Socratics at length. “I have studied the human mind, nuances of thought and epistemology – and I fixed my kitchen door once.”

“But you’ve never been to medical school,” objected the head doctor.

The philosopher was hurt. “I have just as much education as any doctor here,” he pouted.

After a shaky beginning (he took a while to get used to the equipment and the fact that he couldn’t smoke his pipe during surgery) the philosopher settled into a practice alongside other brain surgeons in the hospital. It wasn't easy. Other brain surgeons snubbed him constantly and made snide remarks about his corduroy pants and sandals and, most annoyingly, he was also frequently reminded of his very low success rate with patients. He tried to brush it off as jealousy, but after a while he grew indignant at the immaturity and intolerance of these supposed professionals who he had stoically hoped would understand him in time. He felt he was being marginalized by a clique of narrow minded philistines obviously threatened by his different but still quite rational approach to brain surgery.

He got a lawyer and sued the hospital for libel and harassment. With the millions he was awarded in damages, he bought a golf club membership and a large house in the suburbs to more fully steep himself in the culture of brain surgeons. He bought some scrubs to replace his tweed jacket and got some PBS videos on brain surgery to improve his success rate on the operating table.

He left the hospital and soon landed a job on a cable television show about ‘alternative brain surgeons’. With a little make up and some pointers from other TV doctors, the successful recovery rate of his patients soared. The show became a prime time hit and celebrities lined up to get brain surgery. He was interviewed by TV columnists and appeared on talk shows where he was praised for his more rounded, intellectual approach to brain surgery.

There was a big rift in the traditional brain surgery community. “We could learn from his experience,” said one eminent surgeon, hoping to patch things up. “His media techniques have brought brain surgery into the modern age.” Hospitals everywhere were divided into camps.

Medical bookstores experienced a massive demand for the works of Aristotle, Schopenhauer and other great philosophers. Medical schools scrambled to install resident philosophers in their programs and courses in Platonism, dialectics and existentialism became required for all medical students. Pipes became the rage.

The philosopher-brain surgeon enjoyed the patronage of ever more famous clients. Even people without brains came to him for consultation. At the peak of his career, he even operated on the president during a special CNN live broadcast, removing the presidents damaged, useless brain altogether and replacing it with a genetically bio-engineered sheep’s brain wired to a remote control. Everyone cheered at the tremendous success he had achieved after such horrible repression and discrimination from ultra conservative traditionalists.

Other brain surgeons lashed out, defending the increasingly embattled traditional brain surgery establishment with more and more abstruse and outdated arguments, harshly demanding extensive medical education and respect for proven techniques. Some fanatic fundamentalist brain surgeons wrote propaganda tracts on the health dangers of brain surgery from untrained people posing as actual brain surgeons, protesting the plethora of increasingly bold philosophers who were inundating medical clinics and setting up private brain surgery practices all over the country. Other reactionary extremists banded together to found exclusive hospitals that open rejected all but a dwindling number of brain surgeons trained in the traditional manner. They had excellent success rates, but the media ignored them.

Philosophical brain surgery went completely mainstream. Most patients were very glad that now they had a choice. The zeitgeist took root and soon a number of traditionally conservative professions like lawyers and astrophysicists opened their doors to those outside their sphere of education and experience. Plumbers became psychiatrists, yoga instructors became electricians and politicians became child care specialists. Laws protecting those untrained in the area of their chosen expertise entered the books and those previously barred from professions just because they had no relevant experience, training or education enjoyed every legal protection.

The philosopher brain surgeon became famous, an international hero. He wrote a famous book called The Alchemy of Identity in which he explained that, “We are all really the same. You don’t have to change to become what you want. You can change what you want to be what you are.”

After years of brilliant television brain surgery, the good doctor announced his retirement from medicine. Asked what his plans were, he smiled in an intellectually stimulating way and announced his future occupation.

“Why, to become God, of course,” he said lovingly. “After all, what could possibly stop me?”

Monday, August 24, 2009

Naomi Milliken (1935 - 1984)

Everyone called her Naomi, but her real name was Masako. She was from Nagasaki and spoke English with a pronounced accent, her l's sliding into r's and she dropped articles with abandon. I became accustomed to the way she spoke and from a young age understood everything she said. I still hear her voice when I bump into certain words like 'linen' and 'Halloween'.

My best friend Bert was her oldest child. She called him 'Bet' and when reprimanding him, 'Betoran' and for a time I thought this was his name in Japanese.

I spent most days after school in their backyard and much of the summer there as well. Their house was an incredible mixture of smells: incense, fresh bread, warming rice. Their suburban yard bloomed with life - chickens, rabbits, dogs, a huge well tended garden complete with a beatnik dad who was home a lot, puttering. When Naomi wasn't doing any number of household chores, raising her three children or crafting beautiful glass trees, which was their family business, she was on her knees in front of her butsudan chanting away in Japanese. As a child of 5, I thought nothing of the fact that my half Japanese friend's mother was a practicing Nichiren Buddhist.

Though I was never emotionally close to Naomi, she was in many ways a very special person in my life. She was not a nanny or any kind of close caregiver, really. Nevertheless, because I spent so much time at their home after school and over the summers, she was perhaps the most prominent adult female role model in my life, even more so than my own mother, whose illness prevented her from taking a more active role in my young life.

Before she died, she had one last burst of life in which I saw her not as a mother of my friend, but as a woman. She dressed up and got out more - with lots of make up and a wig - and was more active socially than I had ever seen her. She came unannounced to my 15th birthday party and was very talkative to everyone, laughing and drinking wine. She did something she had never done before - she touched me. It wasn't anything personal - just sliding her hand on my shoulder and hugging me close to her like any tipsy adult might do to show affection. I had never asked for it and never thought about it, but for the first time I realized she liked me. I couldn't categorize the feeling - was it sensual? desperate? alcohol? It was a haunting moment of nascent sexual awareness, both familiar and strange like an intimacy that I remember having wanted long before and was now surprised to experience in the unexpected conditions of the present moment. It was also my first contact with the living dead. I knew she was dying and that made me uncomfortable and happy at the same time, seeing her enjoying herself and looking very unlike what I thought death would look like.

By that time, there was already distance between Bert and myself. We had different interests and schedules. We talked here and there, but didn't hang out. Naomi's death was the final chapter, her death providing faux closure. I didn't know what to say and so much of what what was going on in my teenage mind didn't seem to flow well with, 'Gosh, your mom is gone.'

Recently I reconnected with Bert and his own family. It was terrific. We spoke briefly of the time when his mom died, how hard she worked and how lucky he was to get into a good school. He seems to be a very well adjusted person. I didn't know how to tell him I loved his mother, how to speak of a 25 year old loss for someone who I still can't clearly define what they meant to me but somehow had a deep impact on my view of life, relationships and death.


Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Snapshots of People

I was asked recently what person has had the biggest impact on my life and I squirreled around the question by dropping a few names to satisfy the curious. I wasn't satisfied though, because there have been so many people that have had tremendous impact on my life. Some of them lord it over me and some haven't a clue. The lords know who they are, but the clueless can't even begin to imagine. It is my design to dedicate a little corner of Dystopia to these people, to pay a little homage to what they have meant for me.

I will use their real names whenever possible, but I can't promise I won't switch names to protect my innocence.

Some of these people I hardly know at all. Some have wandered in and out, and others have larger or smaller hooks in my life from odd angles. I have no hope to do any of these people justice for who they really are. I just want to share a few sketches of interesting people and the fleeting moments in which I saw them shine or reflect something significant.


Monday, July 28, 2008

In One's Hair

I have not had a haircut since I was 17, when I had my hair cropped rather short to emphasize a 'duck tail' that I was told was very fashionable. I was so mortified by the idiotic results that in the intervening 24 years, I have had my split ends trimmed only once during my sophomore year in college. My hair is a little longer than shoulder length and it has been a long time since stopped checking because I am terrified that my glacially receding hair line is only one of a complex of hair movements taking place on my person. Long hair enthusiasts have tried to convince me to get 'hair therapy' to make it grow longer, but this is silly. I am not a hippie. I just want my hair to be the same. In this I am more like an Orthodox Jew - someone who gets uppity and digs for theological reasons for why he doesn't want to change when the real reason is that he couldn't be bothered. My wife likes my hair this way (and beard) and so I am in a sort of a perpetual hair rut paradise.

The thing is, I have frizzy hair. This is the result of curly hair grown long and not pampered by fru-fru hair people. I have spit ends. And as I mature, I am getting my Dad's 'Brezhnev effect' - there must have been radiation in our family gene pool somewhere way back when because my eyebrows are not only getting bigger, but they are getting squirrely long and kinked. My wife noticed this and offered to pluck them (what is it with women who pluck hairs?) but I declined. I like the Brezhnev effect. If I can't grow more handsome as I age, then I want to be more arresting in my presence. These 'wild hairs' do not make me look thinner, but I do feel more powerful and this is important for a declining fat guy.

My sideburns are also experiencing a change. They remain curly and virile, but they do not grow in any satisfying manner. There was a time when I could brush back the hair growing from my temples and tie it into my perpetual pony tail. This provided a tidy look. Nowadays, however, these tufts of hair are unmanageable - too short to be easily coaxed into the pony tail and yet too long to successfully blend in with upper beard elements a la shaggy dog manliness of the 'Era of Good Feelings' presidents. These frustratingly unmanageable virile temple locks go sideways and will not be tamed. I have tried cutting them, but this gives me the low rider Mohawk look. Fortunately or unfortunately, they grow back quickly and assume their Bozo the clown position.

So my secret is hair gel. Ok, please get your chocking guffaws out of the way now. Here is how it happened: I slapped some on one day when I had to go to an engagement with my wife immediately after returning home from work and I didn't have time to shower or freshen up much. I slicked my fuzzy side hair tufts back with some water - often effective but very temporary - and when I saw that my temple bristles were just too powerful, I just somehow lost my fear of hair gel and grabbed a blue can of goop and plastered it onto the sides of my head. It was breathtaking. The effect was, indeed, too good. I had puffy, frizzy hair everywhere except on the sides of my head, which were perfectly flat and smooth with the wet look. My wife was aghast, but since then I have learned portion control (just a finger swipe will do) and she doesn't even notice - or if she does, what is more important, she doesn't say anything. Here are some 'before' and 'after' images to give you an idea how it looks:

I glop on hair gel most mornings now and I have for some time. I won't tell you exactly when I started as I want it to remain somewhat of a mystery. I am peculiarly satisfied with these arrangements despite the fact that they appear to go against my rather National Socialist personal hair dictums. I looked at myself int he mirror recently and I noticed that, with my hair gelled and beard trimmed and in a proper two piece suit, if I stood still, I couldn't even see my pony tail behind my head. It is as if I have become a bullet-head, my hair adding a certain precision gliding mechanism to my head a it pierces the atmosphere when I walk or trot in heavy-guy fashion to the bus. Indeed, the suppression of the bozo sideways frizz effect has marked a new era in my life, even. I am now not merely resigned to wearing appropriate clothing to work, but am actively involved of my own volition in the accommodation of fashion's tyranny over my appearance.

My only hope to retain some of the 'free flag' of my eternally imagined youth is to emphasize my eyebrows. Though hardly the weapons of youth, my eyebrows retain something of the rebel and it is my sincerest hope that there is no gel for this, no treatment and no cure.