Sunday, October 31, 2010

Episodic imagination

I've read an essay recently by a philosopher Galen Strawson, in which he argues that people differ in ways they experience self in time. The two polarities are Diachronic and Episodic self-experiences, where a Diachronic person imagines self "as something that was there in the past and will be there in the future," while an Episodic person "has little or no sense that the self was there in the past and will be there in the future, although one is perfectly well aware that one has long-term continuity considered as a whole human being." I strongly identify with this second type of experience, the Episodic.

An example: I can never pack right for the weather. I look at the weather forecast, I estimate how much hotter or colder it is than San Francisco, I advise Dave (or whomever I'm traveling with) what would be, theoretically, the right clothes to bring, and then I go on to pack my own suitcase with completely random stuff that has no relationship to what I'm going to need on the ground. I don't do this intentionally. At the outset, I firmly decide to break the pattern, to plan the trip right, to pack for all eventualities. And I always end up with the wrong clothes, trip after trip after trip. I seem to be simply unable to project myself into the future, cannot imagine ever needing or wanting to wear anything other than what I'm comfortable with at the moment.

Here, in China, I ended up with a bathing suit and sandals I haven't used once, and without a proper jacket for the low 40F temperatures in the evenings. My suitcase is filled with tank tops and summer skirts, and only three long-sleeved shirts. I did pack an umbrella and several scarves, but I didn't bring a single sweater. I'd worn my favorite sleeveless vest on the plane -- and this was the warmest piece of clothing I had with me. So one of the things we had to do in Hangzhou -- before we got to the supposedly cold Beijing -- was to buy me a jacket.

This is pretty much how I get most of my shopping done. I end up in various parts of the world without necessary articles of clothing and have to improvise. My previous jacket, I got two years ago when I ended up in Ireland over New Years without warm clothes (what kind of a person would show up in Ireland in January without a good jacket? An Episodic, unable to imagine self in the future). And last year, in Israel, I bought two skirts and a dress, because Israel in January was quite summery. In the past, I'd had to buy boots in Spain and T-shirts in Germany. The only reason I rarely buy new clothes in Russia is because I can always wear my mom's stuff there. And also, she has a tendency to plan for me and buy me clothes whether I need anything or not.

My wardrobe is a hodgepodge of uniquely patterned, brightly colored articles from all over the world (but actually probably all made here in China), most of it bought at the time of need and in a rush. A lot of it has been acquired even without my presence. Few articles fit me well, and the notion of matching is unthinkable. Even if I can wear my Israeli skirt with a plain black shirt, it's never going to look right with my purse made of complex geometrically patterned material in moss green, brick red, pale yellow and other colors, a purse I cannot give up because my mom brought for me from Armenia (even if it had been made in China or India, so what).

Here's what happened in Hangzhou. Our friend David had brought the report that Beijing was having a cold spell, that the temperatures in Beijing approximated 0 degrees Celsius (32 F). I was already feeling uncomfortable in my vest (a birthday gift from my mom several years ago, she'd mailed it to me from Israel) worn over a pair of long-sleeved shirts -- and we were still in Hangzhou, where the temperature climbed to 15 degrees Celcius in the daytime. The prudent thing to do was to buy the jacket before we left Hangzhou, especially since we had time to shop after dinner.

David and Cici took us to a few clothing stores -- luckily, they were all on the same street (did I mention I hate shopping? I blame my Episodic imagination for my inability to select what I would actually ever want to wear). Nothing fit right. Everyone was advising me to try larger sizes -- in China, the sizes are marked based on height; I am 164 cm tall, and the sizes range 160 - 165 - 170 -- and I did try 170, but it was no use. I must've tried on ten different models of sweaters and jackets, and it all just felt wrong. This is part of the problem with buying clothes in foreign countries: I never know what the right models for my body type are. The clothes were too tight and too baggy at the same time; one jacket seemed to fit fine but then it had a hood lined with bright orange fur, and even I could tell that I would never wear something like this in San Francisco.

Finally, at what I was determined to make our last stop for the night -- the exercise was getting ridiculously stupid -- Dave pointed to a nice looking men's pea-coat, just for the hell of it. "Try this." The first one I tried on was it. The shoulders were the right breadth, the sleeves the right length, I had enough room in the chest to button all the buttons and still be able to move my arms up and down. The material was thick enough for cold weather and the plain gray color classy enough to look good even when I picked up my crazy purse. The only thing about it, being a man's coat, it buttoned on the right side. I figured, I'd get used to it.

We bought the coat without further ado, and I walked out of the store wearing it instead of my old vest. Will I be able to wear it in San Francisco? I don't see why not -- but of course, I've said so about many things that are currently gathering dust in my closet. Being gray, this coat seems pretty easy to match with a lot of things -- if I were suddenly to take up matching as a hobby. The coolest part about it is the story that goes with it: Hangzhou, hanging out with David and Cici who seemed to get a kick out of the fact that the only thing that fit me right was a men's jacket. Also, the company I bought the jacket from -- Meters/Bonwe, a local chain -- is one of David's clients, and this added to the fun of the experience.

These kinds of stories are the best part of my wardrobe, the reason why I have such a hard time emptying my closets, donating anything to Goodwill. Being an Episodic, I don't have ready access to my memories as a Diachronic person, perhaps, might: to imagine (Diachronics would say "remember") myself in the past, I need the physical objects to prompt the memories. So I insist on wearing my random clothes, even if they make the task of getting dressed in the mornings extremely challenging.

Happy Halloween, everybody :)

Friday, October 29, 2010

Tourist will eat

A tourist moves through a foreign city driven by desire. She is looking for an undefined, unknown experience that will somehow effect change upon her. The more unfamiliar the culture, the more opportunities it seems to offer for radical transformation of her consciousness. She yearns to study, to learn, to grow, to understand. At the very least, she's looking for some kind of human interaction that will allow her to feel less foreign in this formidable city, less alone. She finds souvenir shops and street food. Buns of sticky rice wrapped in bamboo leaves. Hot dogs on sticks. Spinach dumplings. Corn on the cob. Chestnuts. Pearl milk tea. Black sesame cookies and cream-filled pastries. Hard-boiled eggs. Bowls of noodles and cabbage. Pancakes with scallions and unspecified meat. Melon on sticks. Barbecued chicken on sticks. Baked potato. Stinky tofu. She samples these by pointing and counting out coins; at the end of the day she still hasn't talked to a single human being, and if she's been in any way transformed by what she has seen, the transformation has been so minor as to go entirely unnoticed. But the desire--an undefined yearning for something extraordinary--has been successfully channeled into hunger, and the hunger satisfied. Stomach full, she keeps walking, stuffing her purse with baggies of dried fruit and nuts, hard candy, sesame balls, lychees and apples, bars of chocolate, boxes of miniature mints, gum. The desire has been transformed and satisfied, and yet it's still there, burning in the back of her mind, driving her down miles upon miles of narrowly paved roads, through crowds of goal-oriented locals, by ways of hundreds of vendors that offer more opportunities to put off the inevitable realization that what pushes her along has nothing to do with her surroundings. The desire is born of something deep within her self, and must be answered by looking inwards, not outwards. She sits down at a cafe, at a bookstore, at a curbside, leans against a lamppost or a granite facade, and starts writing. This, isn't this what she was looking for in the foreign city: the way to stop looking. This, she thinks, is freedom. This is happiness. Her thoughts are fueled by the full stomach, and the supplies in her purse will ensure that her stomach will remain pleasantly full at least until the next day.

Meantime, Dave's conference ended somewhere between 3 and 11:30 am this morning, and the touristy part of the trip has officially started. Our new friends David and Cici drove us to the nearby city Hangzhou. On the way, we stopped by what looked like a truck stop in a town called Jiaxin to try a local specialty dish, zongzi -- a bun of sticky rice wrapped in bamboo leaves and filled with deliciously soft pork. David and Cici were telling us the tidbits from the history of this dish in Jiaxin, and while they were talking they started remembering all the wonderful Hangzhou specialty dishes: shrimp cooked in tea soup, Beggar's Chicken cooked in lotus leaves and ashes, fried tofu skins dipped in tomato sauce, fried ice cream, Dongpo pork, named after a poet and a governor of Hangzhou from the 11th century, Su Dongpo (also known as Su Shi). After finishing our snack, we rushed to Hangzhou, quickly toured the famous West Lake, had tea with lotus root starch soup in one of the tea houses on the island in the middle of the lake, then took the boat back to shore, and rushed to the restaurant where we could sample all these other famed dishes. Today offered a kind of culinary experience that puts the idea of a "Chinese restaurant" to shame.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Tourist, know thyself

I am not entirely unfamiliar with Chinese culture. True, I don't understand even the basics of the language and know only tidbits of history, but I've read a classic Chinese novel, The Dream of the Red Chamber (紅樓夢), for my Master's exam -- at least three of the five volumes. And in high school, we'd studied the history of the Chinese revolution. At that time in the evolution of USSR-PRC relations, my teachers were a lot more sympathetic to Chiang Kai-Shek's cause then they were to Mao. Oh, of course, I've seen Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon -- who hasn't?

This doesn't add up to much, but it turns out to be a decent jumping-off platform. For example, The Dream of the Red Chamber, written in 1759, gives a very detailed account of the philosophy and aesthetics behind the construction of the traditional Chinese garden. So when yesterday I found myself getting lost in the vistas and nooks of Yu Garden in the Old Shanghai, I felt like I was revisiting something very familiar. In the last few years, I've visited Chinese gardens in Portland and Vancouver, but the scale here is completely different. And size matters: Yu Garden is much more than a garden, it features, for example, a classic theatre ("Ancient Opera Stage") with a live music show of traditional china instruments ("china music is a great invention of China"). And that was just one of the two dozen pavilions and attractions.

I got a very good tour of the Yu Garden by inadvertently eavesdropping on guides speaking to German, Russian, and British and American tourist groups. Of the languages I didn't understand, I heard Chinese, French, Spanish, and Italian. It was very amusing to compare the different spins each guide put on the stories they told. For example, one American English-speaking guide pointed to a two-storied building and said: "This is called the Heavenly tower. In China, young women of noble families were not allowed to step out of the garden until they were married. And when they were married, they left the garden and went out into the world. So to prepare themselves for it, they climbed to the second floor of this tower to look over the wall into the world outside: and so this is called 'Heavenly Tower.'" The German speaking guide pointed to the same building and said (I'm paraphrasing): "Metaphorically, the second floor is 'above the clouds,' thus, the name of the tower, Heavenly." (I am unable to confirm either story on Google -- I'm finding only very bare-bones descriptions of the garden. And very basic, inaccurate maps.)

All the pavilions were very well marked in English with a few words describing their history and purpose. Since the pavilions frequently served purely contemplative, aesthetic purposes (to enjoy this view or that), the descriptions require a poetic interpretation: "Viewing the scenery of the big rockery by the wooden rails one feels carefree and joyous." Indeed, one does.

I've stuck to my decision to focus my explorations of Shanghai around literature and literary figures. One of the streets near my hotel, Fuzhou Lu, is apparently known as the Book Street. My friend Yvette has told me that most bookstores in China are owned by the publishers, and so I'm guessing that all the different bookstores on Fuzhou Lu are owned by competing publishers. One of Dave's coworkers said that the bookstores in Shanghai are having a hard time staying in business these days because most people buy books online. In any case, I've walked by several multi-storied bookstores on Fuzhou Lu, and spent time in one called "Foreign Language Bookstore" that had plenty of books in English, from popular paperbacks to textbooks for people studying Chinese to novels and nonfiction books about China in general and Shanghai in particular. I picked up and started reading Chuang Hua's "Crossings" -- it was very hard to put down, but I decided to check it out of the library back in San Francisco. English books are ridiculously expensive here, probably because they have to be imported. This little paperback cost more than $20.

And the day before yesterday, I visited a museum dedicated to Lu Xun, one of the founders of the modern Chinese literature at the beginning of the 20th Century. He is one of the rare writers who is well known (and well loved) in both US and China. I've read several of his stories before (although I'm yet to read his most famous one in English, A Madman's Diary). Lu Xun never joined the Communist party himself, but he was very much a Socialist and was friendly with many of the Communist leaders. He died in 1936, before Mao came to power, and so in a way this helped to preserve his legacy in both worlds. This museum, located in the middle of the park bearing Lu Xun's name, was a big, modern building, featuring a lot of interactive exhibits and clay models depicting scenes from Lu Xun's life. The focus of many of the exhibits was on the development of Lu Xun's political education and ideas, suggesting perhaps that had he lived a little longer, he would've become a member of the party. As it was, "He became the most loyal comrade-in-arms of the communists."

Political pathos aside, it was very touching to see some of his personal items on display: a pair of black socks, a watch, a purple woolen sweater, his cup and saucer, a graph that monitored his body temperature for several days before his death, an umbrella "with which Lu Xun attended in spite of rain the memorial meeting for Xang Quan at the International Funeral Directorate." It's been a long time since I've been to a museum dedicated to a writer; last time Dave and I tried to go to Moika 12, where Pushkin died, it was closed for a holiday.

Lu Xun died in Shanghai, a few blocks away from the memorial museum. His flat -- which is also open to tourists for a nominal fee -- is located in a very typical Shanghainese building block, it's end wall facing the street and long narrow alleys in front and back separating it from the other blocks in the development. This was a great opportunity to take a closer look at the way this system works: even if Lu Xun's place is a museum, all the other apartments in his and surrounding blocks are still very much occupied. The apartment itself consisted of three floors: living and dining room on the first floor, a bath and a toilet on the half floor between first and second, master bedroom and his study (a bed and a desk next to each other) on the second floor, and his son's bedroom on the third floor. There was also a room for visitors next door to the master bedroom, and plenty of closets on the half floors. The view was not much: all the hustle and bustle of the alleys, but as one of the stands at the memorial museum implied, this kind of setting was exactly what he needed for inspiration. In any case, I had an impression, that this was a rather upscale lodging.

Oh, another cool thing about the Lu Xun museum. The alley leading up to it was decorated with stone plaques inscribed with short quotations from love poetry by poets from all around the world (and maybe also Chinese poets, although those weren't translated to English, so I'm just guessing): Plato, Goethe, Sándor Petőfi (Hungarian revolutionary poet), Rabindranath Tagore, Omar Khayyam, Alexander Pushkin (oh that Pushkin, he gets around!), Percy Bysshe Shelly, William Butler Yeats, Pablo Neruda ("I like for you to be still"). And one of the exhibits at the memorial museum highlighted this idea: "Li Xun had an extensive access to Western Literature and foreign friends in his earlier years. ... Meanwhile, the foreign works he read could not be numbered. Therefore, his ability of critical thinking had been improved."

Anyway, this post is hugely long and rambling, and I didn't even mention half of the things I've seen in the last two days. I've visited two museums of contemporary art -- one featuring contemporary art from Saudi Arabia, the other from Hong Kong; accidentally stumbled into a fashion show of Italian designers (catwalk and all!) on the third floor of MoCA--the Museum of Contemporary Art; two temples, one Taoist and another Buddhist (the Taoist temple featured Gods of Literature and Wealth sitting right across the courtyard from one another, God of Literature with a wily smile on his face, and God of Wealth with a stern scary look); tried lots of street foods and pastries (OMG, pastries -- delicious) and walked through all kinds of neighborhoods. More on all that in the days to come.

Keep up with Dave's work adventures in Shanghai here.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Shanghai: accidental Pushkin

Yesterday morning I walked out of the hotel with the intention of walking over to the Shanghai Museum of Arts and Crafts, supposedly located only a block and a half from the hotel. I decided to take the long way there, and turned right where I could've turned left. I used the opportunity to explore the quieter residential areas of the French Concession. Battled some school kids in line for candy and gum (I, too, it turned out, wanted candy and gum), watched men on rickshaws transporting bags of Styrofoam in all directions (recycling?), people opening market stands for the day's business.

The French Concession boasts not only platane-lined streets, but also once in a while tiny little parks at street corners. In one of these, I spotted a familiar face. "Boy, can this statue here, in the middle of Shanghai, really be a monument to the greatest Russian poet of all times, Aleksandr Pushkin?" I asked myself and crossed the street to look. The curly hair and abundant sideburns, the flamboyant collar and tie, the eyes gazing into the distance all fit the traditional Pushkin image. The name on the monument was inscribed only in Chinese characters, but the dates of birth and death were given in Roman script: 1799-1837. Pushkin!

I guess this is not surprising: Russians have a good long history of engagement with China in general and with Shanghai specifically (and I mean besides the shared Communist history), but it was really lovely to keep encountering the physical manifestations of this relationship all throughout my day. On the Bund, for example, I saw a strangely familiar-looking building that, on approach, turned out to be a former "St. Petersburg Russo-Sino" bank building, now a foreign exchange center.

(As a subset of this history, there's also a story of the Russian Jews in China -- but I haven't come face to face with it yet).

In the afternoon, I moved with Dave and his coworkers from our hotel in the French Concession to the new hotel on the Bund -- the actual site of the conference that started yesterday. This took up a big chunk of the day, and then Dave had to get back to work again, and I set out to explore the town on foot. I walked all the way back to the French Concession and spent the evening at a foreign language bookstore/ice cream parlor, Garden Books. Pushkin is great and all, but I know virtually nothing of Chinese literature (or culture, or language -- but fiction is a good place to start from), and now that I'm in love with Shanghai, the lack of information is unacceptable. My plan now is to see as much literature-related sites in the city as I can manage, more bookstores and libraries included. Sightseeing in a completely unfamiliar land is a daunting proposition, and limiting what I should try to learn and to remember makes it seem much more doable (and fun!).

Oh, meanwhile, the Shanghai Museum of Arts and Crafts is perfectly charming. The coolest part about it is that in addition to displaying works of art (mostly 20th Century handcrafts: intricate ivory and wood carvings, silk embroidery, clay figurines, etc) they provide space for artists to work on new projects -- and to sell their work to the visitors. Almost every piece in the museum had a price tag attached to it, and some of it was very reasonable. Or, rather, the prices were conveniently arranged to match the pockets of all kinds of depth.

Dave has a contest running on his blog today. Check it out and participate!

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Shanghai, Day 1

Dave has been telling me all along that he finds Shanghai very charming, but the general buzz one hears about China is so filled with stories of poverty, industrialization, poor ecology, and communism, that I had trouble hearing him. Downtown Shanghai is charming. Definitely the part of town we're staying in, the French Concession (the area was maintained by the French from the mid 19th century until 1946). Dave says it's the only part of the city to feature tree-lined streets. This morning, there were also a bunch of stands selling delicious dim sum -- buns filled with spinach, purple potato, brown rice. We were on our way to a brunch place Dave's pre-approved for us, but we couldn't pass these by.

Dave took the afternoon off today, and we went to the World Expo. Dave's coworkers and my friend Yvette have been warning us that the Expo is crazy busy. The rumor had it that today was the last day the Expo is open to the general public; after today it's invitation only. Somebody said that the day before, on Saturday, there were 1,2 million people at the Expo, that it took them four hours to get into the US pavilion, that after spending a full day at the Expo, they'd only made it inside three pavilions. Yvette had advised me to go in the evening, when the crowds thin out a bit. But Dave wanted to go, and we had to fit the trip around his work schedule.

It was drizzling lightly. Exiting the subway at one of the Expo stops, we were guided through metal detectors (we'd also had to go through a metal detector to enter the subway!) -- and emerged in a sea of people. All the country stands were divided by continent affiliation. Asia and Middle East to the right, Europe, Australasia, and the Americas to the left. We made the game plan on the spot: to skip all the big, popular pavilions, and go to the ones we can get into, the ones with short or fast-moving lines. We turned to the right, and went to Sri Lanka.

Inside Sri Lanka, we found booths with blown up photographs of ancient ruins and Buddhist sites; ancient-looking vases and statuettes in glass cases; a few models of architectural structures and parks; food stand; a guy making silver anklets; lots of tea, scarves, saris, and jewelry for sale.

This proved to be the pattern of the pavilions: photographs; glass cases with artifacts; some food items; stands selling souvenirs and parts of national costuming. Usually, in every pavilion we found one creative way a country distinguished itself from all the others. In the Sri Lankan pavilion, there was that guy making silver anklets. His work was quite intricate, and he had a full set of tools in front of him, from fine saws and files to pliers to other instruments I couldn't identify. If we didn't get pushed around by all others who wanted to take a peak at his work, we could've watched him for a good long while.

In the Afghanistan pavilion (they didn't have a full pavilion, but a space within Asia Pavilion 1), a woman from Nepal painted a henna drawing on my hand. In Uzbekistan, there was a map of the world with Uzbekistan at the center of the world, and "New York" occupying a third of the United States. In Viet Nam, there was the building itself, adorned inside and outside with bamboo in gothic church-like curves. Inside, there was also an oversized statue of Buddha and a zen pond with lotus flowers that might have looked very tranquil and zen, if not for the crowd that was stepping on our heels and rushing us along. In Nepal, there was another very beautiful building with intricate wood carvings for awnings and hand rails, but after we'd waited in line to get inside the pavilion, we found another line of people waiting for their turn to climb a ladder to the top of a two-storied globe, with indefinite rewards at the top. We opted out.

The lines were intense. Dave and I stuck to our resolution to choose only the fast moving lines, but in these lines people kept moving fast right past us, as if we were completely invisible. To keep up with the crowd, we had to get aggressive, to work elbows and shoulders, to push forward or to push back, to hold our ground and inch forward. At the end of Nepal, we were completely exhausted. But we wanted to meet up with Dave's coworker Laura, and Laura's local friend. And we also wanted refreshments: we were thinking, Belgian beer, why not.

To get to Belgium, we had to walk the length of the Expo, across all the continents, to Europe. We walked by a lot of long lines. The China pavilion had a long line. The Japan pavilion (that looked like a pig about to take off into space) had what we thought was a ridiculous line. The India and South Korea had people looping around and around in wait. But then we saw the line to Saudi Arabia that seemed to dwarf all the other lines. To get into Saudi Arabia, some people waited for six hours or more. Laura's friend told us that Saudi Arabia had the best attraction: a 3D movie right at the entrance.

Belgium shared a pavilion with the European Union as a body, and there was a long line there, too. But we'd figured out how the pavilions worked by then. The food parts of the pavilion usually had back entrances, so that you could skip the pavilion and go straight for the food. We looked for that, and found an entrance to a cafe. A long staircase led us to the second floor of the pavilion, and right away we saw the blackboard with brand names of beers, the Leffes and Chimays and Duvels and Kastels and Kwaks adorned the ceiling of the long bar. We sat down -- the first time Dave and I sat down in about six hours -- and had some Belgian french fries with mayo, a second course of red snapper, and a glass of highly alcoholic sweet beer, Kastel. The ordering when like this:

Do you have this beer?
Let me check, ummm, I don't think so, no.
What about this one?
And this?
So what do you have?
What do you mean?

They are dismantling the restaurant in the next few days or maybe weeks, so their supplies were dwindling.

A receipt from the cafe got us inside Belgium pavilion -- and this is another good way to skip the crazy lines. Belgium boasted the Magritte museum, the solar plane that, judging by the movie, could lift itself 6 inches off the ground, the solar powered car for one skinny driver, and the chocolate samples that they'd just stopped giving out the minute we approached the stand. They also sold chocolate in another part of the booth, but that's not the same.

For more of Dave's adventures, check out his blog:

Friday, October 22, 2010


After I almost missed a dentist appointment on Tuesday, I've implemented a new task organization system, my third this year. I was sitting at a cafe with my friend Sarah and admiring her beautiful calendar: she keeps the handwriting tiny and neat, the tasks are color coded and prioritized in columns by days of the week, and there's also room for sketches and pretty little drawings in the margins. Sarah's calendar is an imprint of a beautiful mind, a mind that knows what her priorities are and sees a clear path to achieve them.

I wanted to have that -- I yearned for it. So I came home, and pulled out the smallest blank journal I had, and used my tiniest handwriting to enter the tasks that came to mind. Write a story. Read this, this, and that. Write a story. Edit. Revise. Do dishes. Revise, edit. Turn off the heater before I leave for China. Vote. Revise.

This is the second time I've almost missed a dentist appointment this year. In the spring, I missed one by fifteen minutes, but they called, and I said I'll be right there in five minutes, and they said okay, just be here quick, and I made it in ten minutes. This time, I was still in bed, reading a novel when they called. I couldn't have taken a shower and brushed my teeth and gotten dressed in ten minutes. The thought flashed through my head when I saw the caller ID. Luckily, this time they called ahead -- to tell me that they were running ten minutes behind. I made it with minutes to spare.

The problem with keeping task lists is that if I don't want to do something, I'm not going to do it, no matter how many times I have to carry the task over from one page of my calendar to another. I'm much more likely to abandon the journal (so new, so attractive today) because I can't face all the tasks I'm carrying over. Task lists intimidate. They scare the hell out of me. The failures embodied by a task list dwarf all possible future and past accomplishments.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Aron Zinshtein

On Sunday, I got a phone call from a legendary underground Leningrad painter, Aron Zinshtein. I'd met him in St. Petersburg this summer -- my friend and editor, Galina, introduced us, she'd brought him to my presentation in Bookvoed. In the 1960s and 70s, Aron had been a part of the world that's mostly familiar to me through stories: the world of artists who wanted to exist independently of the Communist party, and thus were unable to sell their art through the official channels, forced to earn their living by sweeping streets and operating furnaces. (I actually don't know how Aron himself had earned his living back then, I should ask him).

In any case, Aron's is having a show of his work in the Bay Area this coming weekend -- the show starts on Friday, in San Jose, and he is staying with friends about 50 miles away in Richmond (the town north of Berkeley). His friend who lives in Richmond doesn't drive on the highways, and the friends who are helping him organize the show in San Jose work during the week. So he needed my help to deliver the paintings from one place to another -- which I was happy to do, especially because I'm going to miss his show this weekend -- I'll be in China.

Theoretically, I've always known that there exists a sizable community of Russian immigrants in the Bay area, but I had no idea where they were or how to find them, especially the artists and the writers. Aron introduced me to a very friendly couple, who until a year or two ago published a Russian-language magazine Terra Nova (they even did a bilingual issue once), a magazine of interviews and essays written by the local Russian-speaking physicists, mathematicians, poets, musicians, architects and other "people of the arts and sciences." They generously gave me copies of the back issues: it felt like receiving a treasure chest. I signed up to their mailing list as well. Even though the magazine is temporarily defunct, the community is going strong with art shows and lectures and talks with all kinds of visiting Russian (and, if I'm not mistaken, particularly St. Petersburg) celebrities. The only problem: they meet in San Jose.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Home alone

Dave left for Shanghai on Saturday morning. The day before, my parents, who'd been visiting with us for three weeks, went back to St. Petersburg. My brother is working in Israel this week. I need a computer just to keep track of the time zones. I've spent the weekend reading. I've read from a few books about China, some magazines, a couple of novels, I've even picked at some poetry books and started Dead Souls again -- I must've started this book a dozen times already, and I never make it past page 50. I find it painfully boring. But then, I always run into the Dead Souls enthusiasts who make me think I'm missing something. Last week, I was talking to a person who not only lavishly praised Dead Souls, but also told me Marcel Proust has changed her life. Luckily, my weekend is almost over.

In the spirit of international travel, I had lunch yesterday at a Korean BBQ at a food cart a block away from my house. Check out San Francisco Street Food Cart project. The neighboring cart sold pretty awesome cupcakes.

Last week, my Russian book Keys From the Lost House went on sale at the Russia's largest online bookstore, (if "ozon" sounds like "amazon," I'm sure the similarity is intended). Check it out here:

Two Sundays ago, I read my story "Sweet Dreams" at the Barely Published event, a part of Litquake. The crowd was very friendly and laughed a lot, so I count the reading as a success. Our local literary reporter Evan Karp wrote up the event and filmed all of it on video available through youtube. Here's Evan's article: Scroll down to Barely Published and click on my name to see and hear my bit. But all the readers were excellent, and I highly recommend listening to all of them.

And here's a link to Marie Houzelle's story "Égalité" that is now featured on Narrative Magazine as a Story of the Week. Marie is my friend from a writing conference I attended at Skidmore college over a year ago, and I'm very proud to be able to link to her story. Her writing is profound and hilarious at the same time, there's an unmistakable voice in everything she writes. This story, like much of her writing, is set in Paris in the 1970s, in the middle of all kinds of social and personal turmoil. So good!