Monday, January 31, 2011

Ancient Wisdom of the Apache

Years ago, a friend of mine started dating a vivacious American girl. Being American himself, he naturally included her ancestral lineage in his discussion of her charms. “Yes, Dan,” he said, “She’s part Scottish, part Irish, part German, a little English and also Apache - on her great-great-grandmother’s side.”

“I’m terribly sorry,” I said.


“Well, because her great-great grandmother was raped, of course. What do you think the white settlers were doing on Indian lands in the 19th century? They weren’t passing the bong around at a groovy inter ethnic love-in, I’ll tell you that for nothing."

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Things Coca-Cola Has Taught Me

On Monday, I helped an 88-year-old man move a Coca-Cola vending machine from the floor of an industrial warehouse to the back of his pick-up truck. He was buying it for the employees at his scrap metal business in Houston. The owner of the vending machine was out of town, and I had agreed to meet the old man and help.

Alas, I wasn’t much use. I soon discovered that even if I pushed the vending machine very, very hard with my shoulder, it wouldn’t move. Fortunately there was a man across the street with a forklift truck. If he hadn’t been there, the Coke machine would still be standing in the original spot, or perhaps the 88-year-old man and I would be lying under it, two bloody smears on the warehouse floor.

And so the week began with a new discovery: VENDING MACHINES ARE INCREDIBLY HEAVY. Reflecting upon this, I wondered what other things I had learned from Coca-Cola which, like the air we breathe, is a ubiquitous part of modern life.

The Ghost in the Rage Machine

Shortly before New Year I canceled my cable TV subscription. I resented paying so much for such junk.

It’s not the first time I’ve done without TV. For years in Moscow I had a TV in my apartment, but I was too lazy to connect it to the outside antenna. Deprived of Russian variety shows and dubbed Jean-Claude Van Damme movies, I had to find other ways to unwind. Usually I’d sit in a cafe, or roam the labyrinthine city streets, studying the exotic urban fauna.

Parallel Lives- Russian Literature at Home and Abroad

Recently I received a review copy of an English translation of The Ice Trilogy by Vladimir Sorokin, one of Russia’s most controversial authors. In the early 2000s, his novel Blue Lard, which featured sex scenes between clones of Stalin and Khruschev, led to Russia’s first post-soviet obscenity trial and inspired bizarre scenes whereby “patriotic youth” flushed copies of his books down a giant toilet erected in front of the Bolshoi Theater.

At the time I remember thinking that if I were an American or British publisher, I’d snap up Blue Lard for publication. Scary Putin stories were all the rage in the press, and here was a (seemingly) classic case of Freedom of Expression Under Attack™. In fact, the obscenity case was swiftly dropped and Sorokin today is feted as a modern day classic. But who needs nuance when it comes to marketing? Alas, Anglo-American publishers are notoriously reluctant to publish foreign authors and remained resistant to Sorokin’s charms.  Until now, obviously, when it’s about eight years too late to capitalize on the giant toilet.

Is America Becoming More Texan?

Recently I saw an interesting map of internal immigration within the United States, in which black lines represented people moving into Texas, while red lines represented those leaving. The cities of Austin, Houston and Dallas were three black holes sucking in human bodies from the Midwest, East and West coasts. Los Angeles and San Diego on the other hand were explosions of red as people fled outwards.

This may seem strange to outsiders as California and New York still dominate media representations of the United States. If you believe movies and TV, California remains a paradise of beaches, palm trees and movie stars while New York is a sophisticated metropolis buzzing with music, art and interesting crime. Texas is a nightmare zone of Creationists, hillbillies and death by lethal injection, where towns have strange names, like Chocolate Bayou (pop.60).

Monday, January 24, 2011

For Instant Christmas Spirit, Blow Here

Four years ago, I spent Christmas in Texas for the first time. Shortly beforehand I’d been driving around in the desert out West, and I have vivid memories of the return journey which, late at night, brought me through Johnson City, the birthplace of Lyndon B. Johnson.

Now, Johnson City is a place that nobody needs to visit before they die. But that night it was spectacular. The entire town was illuminated - streets, buildings, front yards, trees and the County Courthouse were all dazzling in the darkness.

I stopped the car to walk around and was immediately struck by the strangeness of thousands of lights representing icicles, snow, and snowmen in a place where it never snows.

Finding Magic in Everyday Places

It’s important to seek wonder in everyday life, to retain a child’s fascination for simple things. This is not always simple - the sheer grind of daily life can easily knock the joie de vivre out of your system. Fortunately you can find wonder in the most unexpected places, so long as you keep your eyes open.

Just the other day for instance I picked up a copy of The Old Farmer’s Almanac 2011 while waiting in line at the supermarket. I am neither a farmer nor terribly old, but I do like to learn new things. Getting home however I discovered that the almanac is not really for farmers any more, but is rather a collection of miscellanies – bathroom reading. 

Flicking through its pages I was less interested in the whimsical articles than I was in the multitude of small ads. Since the almanac is ostensibly for farmers, many of the items for sale were aimed at people with rural tastes - e.g. barn lighting, rustic doodads, Amish goods, and handcrafted Vermont cheese. Apparently even in the land of supermarkets the size of air craft hangars some people are still unsatisfied and prefer to have their cheese MADE BY HAND and dispatched to them via the mail.

And yet on the same page, incongruous amid this fetish for the rural, was a true classic of the American small ad genre, something I’d never seen before: a Litter Robot. A photograph showed a cat peeking out of a gleaming white sphere that resembled something from the 70s SF movie Logan’s Run- a teleportation chamber perhaps, or an atomization capsule. There was a small control panel beneath the opening. Now you can enjoy freedom from scooping litter - just let the Litter Robot work for you!

Everything Was Forever Until It Was No More

Back in the Golden Age of easy credit I’d walk around Britain wondering where all the money was coming from. This abundance of cash was especially baffling in Scotland, where nobody makes anything any more. Who was scoffing down truffles in the fancy restaurants? Who was shelling out a fortune for houses that had been built for miners in the 1930s? Of course, the high priests of money-voodoo insisted that there was nothing to worry about. Then the global economy crashed.

Since then, the high priests have prophesied several resurrections. I distinctly remember some juju men revealing that America’s recession had ended over a year ago, and yet millions of people still cannot find work. Last week, the long-term unemployed had their benefits turned off and then on again as Congress squabbled over how to fund their aid. Meanwhile, over in Europe the proud Irish have become supplicants seeking financial relief packages. And yet I recall that a year ago, following the Greek meltdown, the juju men performed some ritualistic “stress tests” on the banks and declared that the gods would be merciful. But now these same juju men fear that Spain and Portugal might join Ireland and Greece in the outer darkness.

The City and the Country

I lived in Prague for a while in the 90s, back when it was a favorite spot for American college grads dreaming of Bohemian greatness. Once or twice I even attended their open mic nights, at which Henry Miller wannabes would read aloud rancid poetry to similarly minded aesthetes bankrolled by daddy. Years later I still remember my pain, if not the content of what I heard- except for the first line of one mediocre song:

Texas is like Russia- big and hopeless.

At the time I’d never been to Texas, but even so the comparison seemed ridiculous. What could J.R. Ewing and V.I. Lenin have in common?

Friday, January 21, 2011

God and Germs Are Everywhere

I recently moved and one of the things that attracted me to my new address was the church at the end of the street. It’s a white, wooden structure, with a narrow spire: classic Americana, like something out of a movie. Best of all is the message board outside the entrance, which reads:

One out of every one will die.
Life is a terminal illness.
Where are you going?

Now some individuals might object to being confronted daily with this bleak message, but I was delighted. It’s good to be reminded of your mortality, even- or perhaps especially- when you’re nipping down the shops to buy toilet paper.

Whatever Happened to the Fort Hood Shooter?

After living here for four years, American culture still seems LOUD. Cable TV abounds with angry heads yelling at each other, while radio and the Internet are flooded with toxic invective. Waiting at the traffic lights I am frequently instructed by bumper stickers what position I ought to take on abortion; whether to spay and neuter my cat; and who I should have voted for six years ago. This openness can be thrilling or exhausting. It’s never boring.

There are, however, significant taboos. A public figure can end his career instantly if he uses the wrong language when discussing race. Immigration is another issue it is best to tread lightly around. And then there is radical Islam: you know, men with bombs in their skivvies, or beardy types planting bombs on Times Square.

Nothing is a buzz-kill for the American media like this stuff.

Post-election Psychosis, American style!

While the rest of the world has moved on, here in the United States the psychodrama of last week’s elections continues to unfold. On the Right: gloating over the Democrats cast into the outer darkness. On the Left: frantic excuses for the drubbing received. Obama set the tone at his press conference when he explained that people were frustrated that the magical “change” unicorn wasn’t coming fast enough. Well he didn’t use those precise words, but you catch my drift.
Other Democrats blamed Fox News, racism, or the party’s inability to communicate its own wonderfulness. Failed presidential candidate John Kerry simply declared the voters irrational- first they didn’t elect him, now this! These peasants are crazy!

Messiah Time Again- The Apocalypse in Russian and American Politics

For most of the 20th century, the United States and the Soviet Union served as Yin and Yang, each nation opposing its righteousness to the other’s evil.

Even today, with the collapse of the Soviet Union almost twenty years behind us, multifarious hacks in the Anglo-American media remain wedded to a vision of America and her sinister doppelganger. They pine for a New Cold War.

This Russian-American “doubling” runs deeper than politics. Culturally too, Russia is frequently viewed as reflecting American forms in a shadowy, distorted way: Tarkovsky’s Solaris is the Russian answer to Kubrick’s 2001, and Boris Grebenschikov is Russia’s Bob Dylan. Perhaps this is just a crude marketing tool, but the ease with which it is done suggests something more substantial lurking beneath the surface. Would anybody care about the Belgian Bob Dylan? Nope.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Border Blues

I met Sgt. Ron Martin of the El Paso police department early in the morning, and was about to climb into his car when I found my way blocked by an assault rifle, propped up against the backseat like a faithful dog awaiting its master. A thorny issue of etiquette presented itself: Do I push it out the way? But what if it goes off and blows my brains out?

“Go in the other side,” said Sgt Ron.