Ramblings

THE RUSSIAN CONNECTION

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I recently received a gift from friends in Russia—a piece of embroidery that arrived via a convoluted route involving Midwestern Americans who had been traveling in Russia. (Apparently Russians still don’t trust their own postal system.) A nice note from Boris and Marina came with it.

In the ‘90s Marina was my counterpart in a student exchange between her school in Ivanovo, Russia (a textile producing town 300 km NE of Moscow), and my school in Ramstein, Germany. At the time, Boris was Ivanovo’s representative in Russia’s first freely elected Duma (parliament). These were those euphoric days after the “fall of the wall” and the collapse of the Soviet Union—the days of Gorbachev and Yeltsin. Marina’s note this month ended with a PS: “—and don’t believe all they say on TV about Russia.”

I am not exactly sure what she means. I shouldn’t believe that Russia unilaterally invaded the Crimea? I shouldn’t believe that Russia has a huge number of troops on the Ukrainian border poised for action? However, I am sure of some things about Russia:

(1) The Russian people are warm-hearted, generous, and hospitable. They go all-out to entertain guests. Westerners are always flabbergasted by elaborate entertainments and laden tables in both public and private venues. Their young people are imbued with the same kind of idealism and enthusiasm for a better world as ours are—witness the growth and popularity of the Model United Nations program in Russia!

(2) I think in the last three or four centuries—that same time frame that carried America from the Mayflower and Jamestown to Barrack Obama’s presidency—the Russian people have not been well served by their governments. Under the czars, the common people were held in oppressive serfdom; the czar was to be seen as the “Little Father” (as opposed to the big father—the Deity?). He would take care of a populace too stupid or too naïve to care for themselves. For those who did not wholly accept such benevolence, there was always Siberia.

Lord Acton’s famous adage, “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” was as true for Russia in the 20th as in earlier centuries.

The communist ideal sought to alleviate the plight of the people, but soon evolved into a reign of terror in which the Soviet dictators “improved” upon the czars’ holdings in Siberia.

It appears to me that the hope and promise of the Gorbachev-Yeltsin years has been swallowed up in the greed and ambition of Putin and the oligarchs.

(3) I would add: “No, Marina, I am not assuming a ‘holier than thou’ position.” America’s history has certain parallels with Russia’s: black slaves in America were treated as badly as Russia’s serfs and we are still—a century and a half later—dealing with residuals from that sad institution. Stalin’s forcing the Kulaks to give up their land and their way of life had a parallel in the U.S. government’s treatment of Native Americans. And Russia’s oligarchs certainly have their counterparts in the Koch brothers and Washington lobbyists who own Congress.

My opinion of the “real” Russia has not changed in the last quarter of a century, but I must admit that my view of world politics and world leaders has become severely tarnished!

CARPE DIEM

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I just had cortisone injections in both knees in an effort to stave off raging arthritis.

Getting old is a bitch.

Do spare me the clichés: “It ain’t for sissies.” “Except for the alternative.” “You’re only as old as you feel.” (True—but some days I feel every decade, every year.)

Whoever—in his or her teens, twenties, or even thirties—contemplates being “elderly”? I surely did not. And now I am. When did that happen, for heaven’s sake?

I fought it as most of us do—by pretending it was not happening. I started dyeing my hair when I was still in my twenties. Two years ago I quit doing so. And I am still often startled when I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror. Who is that white-haired old broad?

Years ago Cynthia Ozick wrote of aging: “It’s a kind of second adolescence, though much harder. . . .

Before you were always full of the future: some day you are going to do this. And now some day is here or it’s never going to be here. It’s frightening, as if a needle got stuck in the record of life.” (The analogy is dated, but it fits!)

But I have promises to keep (if only to myself) and miles to go before I sleep! And miles to go before I sleep. . . . (Apologies to the ghost of Robert Frost.)

Seize the day.

LEST WE FORGET

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Always LostI have a great deal of admiration and respect for military people, in both history and in our own times. A certain bumper sticker always makes me smile: “If you can read this, thank a teacher. If you are reading it in English, thank a soldier.” OK. It’s simplistic, but it has a grain of truth. A whole loaf, in fact. We owe our military people for everything—for our very way of life.

I recently revisited the Always Lost exhibit which honors those who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan. (The title comes from Gertrude Stein, the American writer who survived the Nazi occupation of her beloved Paris: “War is never fatal but always lost. Always lost.”) The focus of the exhibit is the Wall of the Dead—huge panels of wallet-sized photos of men and women we have lost since 9-11. Those faces, smiling, pensive, stern—7,000 of them now—are challenging to say the least. The rest of the exhibit consists of visual images: photos (some taken by professional journalists, some by service members) and written images: poetry and meditations. (I am proud to be a part of the latter.) But those panels of photos really get to you! They are as moving—and sobering—as all those names chiseled into the Vietnam Wall in Washington.

The exhibit has been replicated. One copy is touring Nevada, the other the nation (currently Minnesota, then on to California and Texas). A group in New York also wants it. Reproducing all those pictures, mounting the displays, packaging and crating them for shipping are all expensive—let alone the sad task of keeping the exhibit current.

And the money has dried up!

Every tear-jerker story on the internet prompts people to dig out their checkbooks. Congress continues to fund barrels and barrels of pork—not to mention $400 hammers and the like. Surely . . .

A century and a half ago, Abraham Lincoln enjoined us to “resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain . . . ”

But first we must remember them.

And not just them. Also those tens of thousands who have returned to us maimed in body or spirit.

We owe them that much.

Always Lost helps us remember.

THE BEST OF TIMES; THE WORST OF TIMES

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“May you live in interesting times.”

This line sounds like a blessing, but I’m told it was meant as a curse and had its origin in Ireland—or China—or India—or ??? Regardless, “interesting times” resonates as a description of both the Regency and our own period. The parallels, which are not particularly positive, are astounding.

During the Regency, England was embroiled in distant wars that had already gone on for years, drawing resources from domestic matters. Urgently needed social and political reforms—e.g., child labor and broadening the electorate—were delayed for decades by a fearful, increasingly conservative Parliament that was more interested in its own power and personal wealth than in serving the people. Think immigration and election finances. England’s “rotten boroughs” were not unlike the gerrymandering we see in America today.

England was then entering a period that would see it as the richest, most powerful nation in the world for the next hundred years. Yet that wealth and power did not “trickle down” to any degree. It remained with what amounted to the top 1%. The contrast between the obscenely rich and the desperately poor became even more stark. The rich got richer; the poor got poorer. Let them eat cake.220px-BrummellEngrvFrmMiniature

Public attention then, too, was diverted to such important matters as the elaborate wardrobes of the social elite. People were as obsessed with certain purveyors of style as some are today with whom (not what) Kate or Michelle is wearing. Never mind their good works—what is in their closets or on their backs? Afternoon promenades in a London park must have been very like the “red carpet” circuses we see monthly (weekly?) now—only without the gushing of a Joan Rivers. Beau Brummell was surely the fribble equivalent of the Kardashians.

The industrial revolution changed where, when, and how people worked—and played—just as profoundly as technology is changing our lives today. Displacement and uncertainty were side effects then, too.

May you live in interesting times . . .

FRIENDS

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I’ve been thinking about friendship lately. I have always considered myself inordinately LUCKY in my friends!

I was reminded of this by a recent visit from Barbara Vermeersch and her husband, Steve. Barbara and I taught next door to each other at Ramstein American High School in Germany. Like ex-pats of other nations, Americans serving overseas tend to create surrogate “families” within our insular communities. I treasure many of those relationships and still maintain many of them—though we are literally spread all over the U.S. now.

Barbara is the only person I know who still communicates with real, honest-to-goodness letters—USPS type LETTERS! So we have kept in touch, but I’ve seen her only once before in the intervening years. Within minutes—nay, seconds—we had reestablished that intimacy that is born of mutual trust, shared experiences, and shared (but not identical!) views of life in general. Mind you, this is not the first such experience I’ve had. It has happened before. I’m guessing that is one of the rewards of friendship: instant pick-up.

Robert Frost once said something to the effect that “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” He was talking about family, but I think the same sentiment applies to enduring friendships. The difference is that a sense of obligation drives family members—a moral judgment hangs over them—but your friends choose to accept the place you accord them in your life (and vice-versa).

Fate—or Chance—or God plops each of us into a given family with no regard to our—or their—druthers. But we get to choose our friends. In the best of all possible worlds, there is some (or a lot of) overlap, though, and you find yourself related to someone you would have chosen as a friend anyway.

As I say, I am inordinately LUCKY!!!

FAMILY VALUES?

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Now there’s a term that gets used and abused to an incredible degree—especially in election years. Many unthinkingly assume “family values” is a monolithic term (i.e., written in stone), one that has universal meaning like “a blue sky” or something. It conjures up images of motherhood and apple pie, Ozzie and Harriet (not Archie and Edith!), but I daresay there are as many variations of family realities as there are families. What’s more, individuals within a given family unit often have very unique views of their experiences.

I don’t know. Maybe it was inevitable that I would grow away from my family as I went off to college (the first and, so far as I know, only one of my generation to do so)and then took a job that would have me halfway around the world for the formative first half of my adult life. Certainly I have not—with most members of my family—achieved the degree of closeness I must have desired in moving back to the west coast. And I don’t think I am merely stubborn. I am not particularly happy about this state of affairs, but I am not unhappy either. It just is.

People evolve as human beings from their experiences, and my experiences have been very different from theirs. But does evolved suggest something superior? Or only different? When I was a kid I must have seen black people in that year that Mom and we three older kids lived in Portland, Oregon, to be nearer Dad who was then stationed at Fort Lewis, Washington, but I don’t remember any making an impression on me. Certainly when we moved back to the southern Oregon coast, I never knew any. I do remember liberal use of the word nigger, especially from my father. And Myrtle Point at one time was rather proud of its “sundown rule” about black folks. There were very few black people on campus when I went off to college—just as the civil rights movement was heating up! As for gays, I never even knew what a homosexual truly was—just that “homo” was a pejorative term (though I did not know what the word pejorative meant either.)

Today I am embarrassed and ashamed of how ignorant I was. But I truly think I have grown from what I was. Grown. Evolved. Are those words of arrogance? I surely hope not.

TECHNOLOGY—FRIEND OR FOE?

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Technology has long been the bane of my existence. When the college required that instructors post their syllabi on-line, I had to have a student aide virtually (no pun intended) do it for me! However, this IS the age of technology. Those who don’t have at least a bit of a handle on that entity are likely to be considered troglodytes—or worse. The whole world is ruled by computers these days.

Alvin Toffler once wrote a book, The Third Wave, in which he discussed three “waves” of human development. The first was the agricultural revolution when man became a food producer rather than a food gatherer. The second was the industrial revolution when manufacturing moved from homes to factories. The third is the age of technology. Toffler wrote the book in the 70s, I think, and it has resonated with me more and more over the years. In fact, I need to reread it.

Technology has given us the age of information. Information overload, in fact. Google is trying to record every book ever published—that is, they were doing so until, as I understand it, they ran into a snag with copyright laws. In any event, there is more information at one’s fingertips (literally: just put your fingers to the keyboard!) than any one person can hope to command. A parallel to this is, I think, the transformation of American culture from being a manufacturing culture to a service-oriented culture—basically, that is. We shall always have to produce “goods” to a great extent—we still need to eat and drive and furnish our homes—but it seems to me that more and more the job openings are in service areas. And this change-over appears to be part and parcel of the huge issue of lack of jobs in today’s economy. Such monumental turn-arounds in culture are always accompanied by social and economic unrest. However, I’m sure that idea offers little comfort to folks standing in unemployment lines!

IN THE WAKE OF ISIS (OR ISIL)

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Fear mongers delight in spewing hate.

Since 9-11, one of their favorite targets seems to be Muslims. Muslims in general—no distinctions among sects and offshoots. No hoods and burning crosses in the 21st Century. Today they hide behind the anonymity of the internet, polluting cyberspace with stuff often innocently titled “Information about _________” (insert topic: Obama, the evils of government, Muslims). Sounds innocuous, doesn’t it? After all, most Americans are willing (eager?) to learn about people and cultures with which we are unfamiliar. But, often as not, the stuff that frequently gets passed around today is vicious MISinformation.

The writers generalize about a whole umbrella culture by focusing on beliefs and actions of fanatics. The fear is upped several degrees when we see the “success” of groups like ISIS, but I wonder how self-styled Christians would like it if they were to be judged by humanity at large on the actions and beliefs of, say, snake-handlers or a Jim Jones cult?

Recently, one of these diatribes popped up in my email purporting to lament the plight of women under Islam with a dire warning about what the jihadists have planned for American women when they (inevitably) establish Sharia law over the ignoramuses in main street America.

True: Women in the Middle East pay a heavy price for their life as human beings because fate gave them a certain set of chromosomes. For a sober look at the life of ME women behind closed doors and under Taliban-like edicts, I recommend three books. Jan Goodwin’s The Price of Honor is a collection of real-life accounts of how women fair in several Middle East countries. If nothing else, the book shows a tremendous variety of laws and beliefs that parallels the variety one finds in Christian-dominated states. The Price of Honor predates America’s invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan, but it is still appallingly accurate, I think. Reading Lolita in Tehran, by Azer Nafisi, gives another insightful look at the struggles of women in a country run by the most conservative (fanatical?) practitioners of their religion. Finally, I recommend a novel by Khaled Hosseini, A Thousand Splendid Suns. Hosseini, a naturalized American citizen who grew up in Afghanistan, knows and understands well the women of his native culture.

It is an on-going struggle, but women in the West may rejoice that we are freer than our sisters in the Middle East. Had it been up to most “Christian” men in America, though, women today would not be able to own property on their own, vote, serve on juries, enter certain professions, and so on. Few American women would even consider living life under Islamic law as practiced by the ayatollahs or the Taliban, but how many would like to return to 19th Century America or England? My point is that in the West women themselves were largely responsible for their “liberation” (aided and encouraged by enlightened males!), and it will probably be women in the Middle East who win their own freedom (aided and encouraged by enlightened males).

Spreading fear of some grand jihad is not going to advance the conservative (evangelical?) cause—nor is it going to make America a better place. In an area at least equal in size to the U.S. and with a total population exceeding ours, one finds as many disparate religious and political factions in Islamic as in Christian nations. As for Muslims or any other religious faction “taking over” in America— Well, call me naïve, but I have more faith in our system—and in our people—than that!

A LAST GOODBYE

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BridgeSaying a final goodbye to a treasured friend is never easy. Audrey Clarke was my English pen pal when we were in our young teens. (Do kids today with their text-messaging, etc., have pen pals?) Later we met many times over the years. She set the date of her London wedding for Thanksgiving weekend so I could be a witness as she married. (Her husband died a few years earlier than she.)

Audrey loved the United States, especially San Francisco, her favorite city in all the world—and having traveled widely, she had seen many of the world’s metropolises. Early on she insisted that one day she wanted her ashes scattered in San Francisco Bay. So it came as no surprise that before she died she arranged for that to happen. Several months after a ceremony celebrating her life in England, her friend Tony Feld arrived in San Francisco with her last remains.

I and another friend met him at Pier 40 where the three of us boarded a 25-foot boat manned by two very personable young men. Getting Wilma and her arthritic knees into the boat was no easy task, but we managed. It was a beautiful day, though a bit warm. We cruised the bay to the far side of the Golden Gate Bridge. One of the young men plied us with food and drinks as the other piloted the boat. The pilot suggested we actually scatter the ashes in a small cove very near the bridge as the wind was likely calmer there. He cut the motor; I read Dylan Thomas’s “And Death Shall Have No Dominion” to mark the occasion. (Audrey, originally from Northern Ireland, was reared as a Catholic, but as an adult she had little patience with organized religion. However, I thought she would appreciate something.) Some of my favorite lines:

Dead men naked they shall be one
With the man in the wind and the west moon;
. . .
They shall have stars at elbow and foot
. . .
Though lovers be lost love shall not;
And death shall have no dominion.

Tony emptied the urn into the water and said “Goodbye, Audrey” and it was over.

As we returned to Pier 40, we swung around Alcatraz Island where the buildings looked naked and bleak. Back on the dock, we again struggled to get Wilma off the boat, but managed with a strong young shoulder to lean on. All in all, it was a lovely excursion. Audrey would have loved it—except for the unseasonably warm sun. She never handled heat well. . . .

SERENDIPITY

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Serendipity. That word sums up my life—at least my adult life, starting with my going off to college. In rural Oregon in the 1950s, it was decidedly out-of-the-ordinary for loggers’ kids to go to college. Just graduating from high school was pretty wonderful. Boys went to the woods or took over the family farm; girls got married and had babies (usually in that order). But I won a scholarship that would pay about a third of my tuition and fees at a small state college. It was worth $50. Fifty dollars!! But that made all the difference.

Somehow my mother managed to come up with another $250 to complete the amount needed for my first term at school. Actually, when I started out, I think I had no idea of really finishing. It was just an adventure “to see what it was like.” But after that first term, I was hooked. I begged and borrowed and managed to last out the year. And the next three—with lots of help from various sources.
By such means are lives changed. Fifty dollars. It is still mind-boggling!