Archive for the ‘Musings’ Category

An unexpected gift

There is no better moment to become acutely aware of your humanity than when you find yourself in a position of privilege (however deserved of serendipitous).

Flying to England to give a lecture, I am, through a lucky set of circumstances, bumped into business class (the joy is heightened by the preceding disappointment of a messed up reservation and a prospect of a lousy seat on a ten-hour-long flight).

As much as I’d like to be accustomed to luxury — and really, I would take to it in a flash, though not flashily, I promise — I am, sadly, not used to it.  At least not on its business class incarnation.  So I notice keenly and gratefully every gesture which would be unattainable to me in the coach.  I have seen elite passengers sipping champagne as I wrestle my bag past them to the back of the plane.  But I was not aware of warmed nuts served with cocktails, crisp tablecloths spread over folding tables by patient hands, the whipped- cream softness of the blanket in its astronomically high-cotton-count sheath. Nor have I ever been treated by flight attendants like a queen.

And then came their greatest offering to me:  humility.

Would I lose track of its sweetness if I were flying like this all the time, my eye turning jadedly away from the minute ministrations of these men and women, bending low over my armchair?  I hope not.  I hope I would retain the acuteness of this sensation that descended on me like a gift—like that glass of Spanish wine recommended by one flight attendant, or the smile of the purser addressing me by my name as he took my dinner order.

Somehow, by being so solicitous, they made me aware and appreciative of the fact that were just like me, not servants to cater to my whims, nor inferior beings for  hovering over me while I lounged in my recliner.  They were normal people doing their job well.  And the more they fussed over me, the more kindness and respect they invoked in me.

I hope I can carry this feeling back to the coach on the return journey (for miracles, alas, do not happen twice in a row) and retain that generosity of spirit as hassled and unsmiling flight attendants on the other side of the magic curtain rush past without a glance in my direction as I sit there, crammed into my sardine can, and tell me curtly that my meal choice in no longer available. I will, I am pretty sure, be very acutely aware of my common humanity then, as for the bigness of heart, I might have to try a little harder.


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The random magic of life never seizes to amaze me.  I may walk past, ride alongside, casually exchange words with countless strangers.  Some of them I might talk to for a few minutes, others I see regularly, swapping insubstantial remarks, their existence touching me but little.  Then, suddenly, for no reason in particular, one person strikes a chord in me, peeks my curiosity, enters my life.  It tends to happen when I least expect it, have no energy to give to a new relationship, am preoccupied with too many balls I am already juggling.  And yet this one stranger compels me to pause and pay attention, gently, but insistently knocking at the door of my soul.

I look at his face that in a sea of others suddenly swap up to the surface, like some exotic fish, and wonder at the randomness of our encounter.  How easily I could have not noticed, not intersected, not spoken to him.  I am fascinated by how someone I do not know can make me feel so fully myself.  I converse with him as easily as if we have known each other for years, the words between us waltzing and sparkling, alive with feeling.

Perhaps because I am an introvert, cautious at opening my heart, impatient with shortage of wit and intelligence, such meetings take me by surprise.  I keep the walls of my castle in good repair, I dredge my moat regularly, to make sure it remains deep.  Yet this person seems to walk in through the gate, past all the defenses as if he were some wizard, impervious to the laws of physics, skirting the obstacles I have erected around myself.  He comes through the door, sits down beside me, and starts talking as a friend who has been traveling abroad for a while, returning to fill me in on his adventures, trusting that I will understand his idiosyncratic diction and expression, quirky turn of mind and phrase.  And somehow I do.

I am infatuated by these moments like a child – wide-eyed, innocent, alive to the wonder.  As if someone brought a toy I have dreamt of as a prize out of my reach, put it in my hands, and said “here, it’s yours, take good care of it and let it bring you happiness.”  I am befuddled at my good fortune.

This delight might not last.  (It’s not the matter of romance.   This magic happens for me with men as well as women.  My joy is sparked by both.)  The novelty might wear off, life’s crazy schedule might interfere, distance of space might dull the intensity of contact and stifle its flowering, excitement might fade.  Yet a few of these serendipitously ignited friendships remain for life, burning quietly in the background, giving off heat and radiance that warm up my heart, flaring up just when I am feeling low and lonely, answering my smile when I am content.

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I met an extraordinary man this week.   A security guard at the Getty Villa.   He sat in a little booth at the back gate of the museum, checking visitors’ passes and controlling the automatic bar that lets through the approved cars.  He drew my attention by his courtly manner, announcing me to my waiting party as “a very beautiful woman” and requesting that I be treated with special care.  It was not his flattery alone that captured my attention.  It was the dignity of his bearing – he was in no way pretentious, but somehow courtly – and his strange accent that I could not quite place.   His voice had an Indian lilt to it, yet with a touch of something Germanic, and his face could have come from Eastern Europe.

He manned that gate again a couple of days later, and this time we exchanged a few more words.  He said that he knew a few phrases in Russian, including “do not touch” – a must for a museum guard and a sentence he could say in many tongues, including Chinese.  I asked him the origin of his diction, and he replied that he had studied for his Masters Degree in India and then taught in Germany.  What did he teach, I asked.  Persian languages.  He did not look Iranian, but that intrigued me less than the fact that here was an extremely educated man, a savant and a teacher, earning a living in this lowly job.  And yet he was serene and sweet, with no trace of bitterness about the injustice of life.  When I commented on how so many people are forced to change course abruptly and harshly – especially these days – he responded that there are so many Russian immigrants – doctors, engineers, other professionals – who have come to the states and had to adjust to humble work.  Yet we can still create our own unhappiness.

Wazir’s (I read his name on his badge) predicament struck a resonant chord in me.  In this wretched economic crisis I have been forced to descend the spiral staircase of my ivory tower and embark on a hungry wolf’s quest for employment.  It is a difficult task under the best of circumstances;  in this climate it is a dispiriting prospect.  It is a harsh landscape in which to re-invent myself.  Although I have a Ph.D. from a prestigious university, have written and published 6 books with major presses, have received big prizes, taught college students, been invited to speak at international conferences – I am suddenly a nobody, chasing after jobs that are below my qualifications because I have no clearly defined specialization in the job market.  I can write beautiful prose in my sleep, can conceptualize projects and ways to accomplish them with clarity and creativity, readily charm people with my intelligence and tact, think with acuity and learn in no time.  Yet I have no credentials for “regular” jobs that can be demonstrated by an employment history on a resume.  I can do so many things if someone would give me a chance, but that someone remains elusive.   For the moment I have to forget my training and my successes and start from scratch, somewhere, somehow, in some job with a modest list of requirements that would give me at least some income, and maybe an opportunity to prove myself.  The process is distressing and unmooring.

And yet, here is Wazir with his smile and his sanguinity, his noble bearing in a guard booth.

I Googled him, to find out more about him.  He received his undergraduate degree in Pashto literature from Kabul University and within 3 month of graduation was hired as an assistant professor there.  A lover of languages, he traveled to Delhi to study Sanskrit and earn his MA in Linguistics.  Probably escaping the war that ravaged his country in the 1980’s he moved to Germany and taught Pashto and Dari languages at Humboldt University in Berlin.  I do not know what brought him to the States and what happened to him in the last three decades.  I will be sure to ask next time I come across him.  I am fascinated by his history, and by his ability to weather its challenges with such grace.

I will admit, no matter how Zen I wish to be, I am not ready to reconcile myself to a job as a security guard, a secretary, or something else that so jars with my occupations to date.  I hope that life will not play cruel games with me and that I will find a fulfilling application for my talents and skills.  But I also hope that despite whatever difficulties may lie ahead, I will be able to preserve my dignity and radiate peace, wisdom, and benevolence, like Wazir.

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Russian New Year

When I was growing up in Moscow, our winter celebration was New Year’s night (well, it still is, though until a few days ago I have been thinking about it in the nostalgic past tense).  Since religion was deemed by the Soviets the “opium of the people,” Christmas was not much in evidence.  We put up and dressed in fragile glass toys and tinsel a New Year’s fir and gathered on December 31 with family and friends for a great feast.

As the day progressed, apartments filled with anticipatory buzz (Soviet citizens did not live in houses, but crammed together in tiny flats, with 9 square yards allocated per inhabitant).  My grandmother spent hours in the kitchen, stirring up magic over the miniscule stove.  Our next-door neighbor concocted the Napoleon (layers of filo pastry interspersed with velvety crème patissiere) the very thought of which kept me salivating for a full week beforehand.  Towards 10 pm we set the table, crowding it with a profusion of salads, cooked beef tongue stuffed with slivered garlic, bread and herring, potatoes and cheeses.  Bottles of vodka, cognac, and wine provided vertical accents.  Having hungrily awaited this moment since morning, we took our seats with delight and, to the sound of smacking lips, toasts, and anecdotes fluttering over the plates, devoured the lovingly prepared food.

Sometime around 11 pm we began to usher out the old year, recalling its travails and drowning them in glasses of clear, amber, and burgundy spirits.  Then we turned on the TV, and in place of the Time Square ball dropping, watched decrepit Soviet leaders mumble their holiday address to the by now thoroughly inebriated and well-disposed nation.  As the clock on the Kremlin tower struck midnight, we greeted the new year with champagne, hopes for better times and more freedoms, and presents – exchanged then, often just one per person, and received with genuine gratitude and joy since there was so little to be bought in Russian stores and everything seemed precious.

It’s been years since I’ve celebrated the New Year in this way.  There is something to Russian gatherings – the directness of interactions with no carefully guarded personal space (physical or emotional), the quantities and types of food piled on the table, the small rituals that order the proceedings — that is different from such evenings with American friends.  Somehow, for most of the New Year’s eves since I left Moscow, ions ago, I have not made the transition from the old to the new calendar in the company of Russians.  Immigrants can be quirky that way.  Some stick primarily with their kind, others make a break from their past as they forge a new life in a foreign country.  I’ve been the latter kind, never cultivating friends on the national principle.  Yet now, as of five days ago, I feel that I may have lost some lovely opportunities.

This year I made Russian friends for the first time in many years.  Not because they are fellow-countrymen, but the commonality of culture – the fact that we “get” each other without having to explain anything – has nurtured the bond between us.  They feel like family to me, and they are subtly returning me to my roots.  I met the New Year at their table – a table nearly invisible under bowls of salad, plates of pickles, bread, cheese, and cold-cuts, home-made blintzes of sublime tenderness and tastiness, and other treats in such quantities that there was enough food for many subsequent meals.  We ate ourselves to the point of breathlessness, said our farewells to 2009, and at the stroke of midnight clinked champagne glasses and exchanged presents.  It was not a rambunctious celebration, but there was something to the tone of it, the warmth of our rapport, the coziness of the atmosphere, the pace of the evening that was distinctly Russian, bridging the gap between my childhood and the present, the old continent and the new.  I think I would like to commemorate the passing of each year with my people from now on, marveling at how even as I tried to spin out into another orbit, I ended up returning home, spiritually, if not geographically — and relishing the fact.  I could not make this discovery without my Russian friends.  I think I am going to dedicate 2010 to them, and to the powers of friendship.

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Please smile

I think I’ve figured out a new source of fuel:  Smiles.  They are an under-appreciated power supply.

A single smile can absolutely make my day.  Not being a morning person, I often set out on my walks with Audrey with sleepy steps and grouchy spirit.  My brain is still powering up and churning all sorts of gloomy thoughts that have accumulated like a sediment overnight and are yet to be chased away by some profitable day’s occupation.  I shiver in the chilly air and wish I were back home, curled up under a blanket and tucked into the comfort of a book.  I trudge along, until suddenly I encounter some stranger:  a gardner blowing leaves on someone’s lawn and stopping to offer me a broad smile, a dog lover smitten by Audrey and beaming admiringly at her, an older lady taking her mourning stroll and bestowing on us a cheery greeting.  These little gestures possess an immense force.  They dispel my cloudiness and give me the energy and the will to face the world.

I’ve always been sensitive to such small, yet jolting moments.  I have a very crisp recollection of walking to high school one day and passing by a man who smiled at me and said a friendly hello.  It was not such an extraordinary occurrence, but I was not in a good mood, and yet his smile was like a wave of a magic wand.  I still think of it every time such little wonder recurs.

The other night I was out dancing, feeling iffy — doubting my skills (for tango, my addiction of choice, is an ever demanding task master, and for a perfectionist — a source of endless self-deprecation), fighting pain in my toes (another hazard of this activity), mulling over some anxiety-inducing things that life has been sprinkling on my head.  But a smile from my partner re-injected ease and playfulness into my step, and a huge grin from another leader, amused and delighted by my embellishments, made me feel like a star.   Re-invigorated, I danced on for another hour and went home exhausted, but content.

Smiles come in various forms:  a generous note from a friend asked me to keep writing this blog because she is there, reading and enjoying it;  a funny e-mail forward from my mother about the Onion story on Al Sharpton blasting Tiger Woods for lack of racial diversity in his mistresses made me burst into giggles and,  putting me in a happy state, re-inspired me to work.

Smiles are so cheap, yet so effective.  And giving them is as pleasurable as receiving.  I wish I were a better person, continuously bestowing smiles on those around me.  Not emptily or stupidly, but thoughtfully, as a conscious act of kindness and a small contribution to making the world a better place.  I am too moody to maintain such a positive outlook all the time.  But I will try to do it more ofter.  At least today.  And maybe tomorrow.

You know how every so often you receive these chain letters asking you to pass them on to seven friends and then something good would happen to you?  I always throw them out.  I am too skeptical and think they are BS.  But I think it might be different with smiles.  I got three smiles this morning and passed one on.  I am feeling happier already.  And the day is still young.

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There has been quite a crop of recent infidelity scandals involving public figures.  No need to name them all here.  The list has been recited too many times.  Suffice it to mention the most recent one of Tiger Woods.

I don’t think affairs have become any more prevalent of late, but their coverage has certainly exploded.  As if it’s almost become a sport to hunt after the next transgressor and splatter all the lurid details of his deed across the pages of newspapers and television screens.  Whether these stories provide a diversion from economic woes that hold so many of us by the throat, prurient outlet for the self-righteous, or titillation of celebrity news, they occupy the attention of the nation for far longer than they deserve.  Or at least the men in them do.  With the women it seems to be another story.

What seems to me to be missing in these accounts is a genuine sympathy for the cheated wives.  These women, who are going through emotional agony more painful than physical hurt, must first endure the probing eyes of the cameras as they stand, tense and pale, next to their spouses at press conferences.  Then they become subjects of speculations as to whether they will stay with their errant mates, or leave.  Then they are glimpsed here and there, fighting for their dignity as they try to chart a new course for themselves.

In idle discussions of their husbands’ conduct, which crop up at dinner parties and other social gatherings again and again, I’ve heard many men say that, well, these things happen, or politicians are all liars anyway, so what’s new, or he is a great athlete and that remains unchanged.  What unsettles me every time is how easily the cheaters are forgiven or taken as a given.  And how little the “collateral damage” — the suffering endured by their wives (and what about their children?) seems even to register.

Yet the discovery that your trust and love have been betrayed is devastating and unmooring, the humiliation of experiencing it before the whole nation cuts the wound deeper still, the process of coming to terms with what happened, coping with one’s fury of emotions, figuring out how to proceed through the minefield that the marriage has become are all successive circles of Hell.  They are, however, far less exciting to dwell on than the details of the lies the men have devised, the trips they took on the sly, the phone calls they made and tried to cover up, the exorbitant fees they paid for services that would, most likely, be little different at a fraction of the cost.  I do not advocate probing into the women’s stories and digging through their agonies (and in plenty of other cases the cheated partners are men who go through similar grief).  But I would like to hear some commensurate acknowledgment of their misery, of the fact that it’s not regular business to them, that their hearts have been shattered.

Why is it that people are prepared to mourn the death of Diana or John John Kennedy, but have little sympathy for more ordinary tragedies?  Why is someone else’s anguish so easily unnoticed or dismissed?

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Creative spark

“Necessity is the mother of invention” – I am living it.  And dare I say, I find it oddly satisfying.  In fact, I think this dour expression does not do justice to the pleasures of creativity sparked by a lack.

When I was growing up in Soviet era Russia, my friends and I did not watch TV because aside from a couple of cartoons and lots of movies extolling the triumph of the Russian spirit – during World War II or in the post-Revolution years — there was not much to see.  We also did not have many toys – piddles, compared to the piles of plush animals, whole societies of plastic robots, endless the computer games that constitute the world of American kids.  But though we occasionally hankered after a particular toy (a plastic doll manufactured in Yugoslavia and looking like a deformed midget, was, to our eyes, Helen of Troy), we possessed a limitless imagination that generated for us far never ending excitement.

My best friend and I spent countless afternoon inhabiting a fictional world we devised in which we were captain of pirate ships (we each ran our own).  We were very hip, and sexy, and commanding – however that looked to our pre-teenage eyes – and men served us faithfully, though they were no ordinary sailors.  Our crew consisted of our favorite Musketeers (I loved Atos, my friend pined for d’Artagnan), popular Russian singers, suave movie stars, and other idols who were at least twice or three times our age, but revered and lusted after us as if they were school boys.  Frankly, I have no idea where our notions of romance came from – Russia in those days was not flush with movies, magazines, or romances that proffered such information.  I think it is safe to say that our notion of sex did not extend much beyond necking, but that did not slow us down.  We enacted our adventures with our plastic dolls in the first and second grade, moved on to paper cut-outs which significantly widened our scope since that way we could generate any characters we wished.  Eventually, by sixth grade, we took to writing stormy accounts in our notebooks.  Out of very few material supplies burst forth a very busy universe.

Recently, out of economic necessity, I learned to bake my own bread.  I am loving theconstant process of invention:  what shall I mix into my dough next?  Sesame was nice.  Pistachio nuts not bad.  Pecans and apricots very yummy.   I begged a friend with a Costco membership to take me on a shopping spree there so that I could buy a year’s worth of whole wheat flour and yeast.  Astonishingly, they don’t carry such basics, but I stocked up on sun-dried tomatoes and olives to fold into my loaves.  Now I am pondering potatoes, leeks, spices, herbs.  Is there such a thing as porcini mushroom bread?  If not, not for much longer.  My imagination is firing away.  I may, actually, like inventing and experimenting with new flavors more than eating them, not because they don’t come out delicious, but because the loaf in my mind and in my flour-dusted hands is like fresh romance, with possibilities still only dreamt of and thrilling in their anticipation.  Once the bread emerges out of the oven and the first bite is taken, the novelty is gone and I wonder what I should try next.  I am tickled by this generative force unleashed by my restricted budget.

Historians and art historians have discussed whether prosperity or adversity makes art thrive.  There is certain logic in thinking that being free from worries gives you more time and peace of mind to create something beautiful.  But now I am wondering, based on my experience, whether the reverse is actually true.  Renaissance Italy was cursed by constant wars, plague epidemics, and power struggles.  And yet it gave birth to marvelous and lasting art.  Or fantastic ephemeral art that was talked about for decades and which we glimpse in commemorative prints.  Pushkin wrote his sublime verses while hounded by the tsarist police, and his literary successors endured even greater persecution under the Soviets — and produced stunning books.  If given a choice between untormented lives and the ones they had to endure, few, I would venture, would have chosen hardship for the sake of greater creativity.  Yet struggle gave depth and majesty to their works.  And then there is that old joke about the Swiss inventing only a coo-coo clock…

One of my fondest memories is of a New Year’s celebration a few years ago.  I was not flush with money then either – that state is not encoded in me genetically – but I wanted to have a glamorous party.  So I asked my friends to gather at our house dressed in tuxes and black cocktail dresses, looking as elegant as their wardrobes would allow.  We ordered a cheap Chinese take-out so that no one had to cook or spend a lot of money, and spend an uproarious evening playing Pictionary with nothing more than pens and pieces of paper.  It was a magical night.

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