Monday, April 18, 2011

Let A Thousand Concealed Handguns Bloom!

Strange things happen to your mind when it’s transplanted to a foreign culture. Events and ideas that would have once appeared outrageous become very normal, and before long you accept them without batting an eyelid. It takes a serious jolt for you to realize how normal the hitherto abnormal has become.

Recently I had one of those jolts, when I read that the Texas State Legislature was about to pass a law forcing college campuses to permit students to carry concealed weapons on their persons. There is already a law that says Texas colleges can decide for themselves if they want students to wander around with secret firearms. None permit it; that’s why state lawmakers want to force them to grant students their 2nd Amendment rights.

O brave new world, that has such people in’t!

Robocop Forever!

The United States is a troubled nation, friends. The economy is a mess, the political culture is unbearably shrill, ponytailed types are rioting in Wisconsin, etc. Fortunately there is some good news: Detroit is getting a statue of Robocop.

This is how it happened. Last week, via Tweet, somebody proposed a Robocop monument to the city’s mayor, Dave Bing. Bing replied sniffily: "There are not any plans to erect a statue to Robocop. Thank you for the suggestion"

Almost immediately an Internet campaign began which raised the $50, 000 required to build it, after which a local non-profit organization donated a site. Bing’s diktat was overruled by the will of the people - kind of like Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, only completely different.

Life After Wartime

I’ve always been fascinated by the military. Well, not always. In fact, when I was younger I was bored senseless by it. I couldn’t stand war films, war comics, or anything war related. The only exception was war in space. I loved laser guns and watching aliens die.

And then, at some point, my attitude changed. After all, nobody can deny that war is a phenomenon worth pondering, given that humans like killing each other so much.
Suddenly too I found that I admired military people. I was jealous of their ability to rise early, keep their hair short, and submit to external authority. Bohemianism is overrated: disciplined habits can help a man progress in life.

Ice Storms, Snowfall And The Last Man On Earth

Growing up in Scotland, I didn’t see much snow.  1979 provided the only white Christmas I remember. After that (with the exception of one year when blizzards closed school for a few happy days) you’d get two weeks of slushy stuff at the end of January/start of February, and that was about it.

In January 1997 I moved to Russia. I vividly recall the banks of deep snow in front of my dilapidated khrushevka in northwest Moscow. I waded through it with pleasure, astonished as I sank in up to my waist. Of course I was walking in an un-trodden area beneath the trees, which greatly confused the handful of Russians who were using the smooth, flattened path like regular people.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

A Brief Encounter With Holy Death

For a while now I have been hoping for an encounter with death- Saint Death, that is, or Santa Muerte, affectionately known to her (largely Mexican) followers as La Flaca- the Skinny Girl. She’s all bones, you see.
I don’t remember how I first found out about Lady Death. It was some time last year, while I was prowling the Texas-Mexico border. For the uninitiated, Santa Muerte is a crypto-saint not recognized by the Catholic Church. Nobody seems to know where she came from- one source I read speculated that the cult was new, dating back only to the late 1960s. Another speculated that it was much older, and arose as a result of peasant confusion between a Catholic Saint and an Aztec deity of death. Whichever variant is true, Holy Death emerged looking like a figure from a death metal album cover: grinning skull face, scythe, hooded robe etc.

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. “

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.

Was it a more productive way to spend time than watching TV? Slightly, I suppose. I only watched TV when I was tired, at which point the brain doesn’t really want to get engulfed in a book, or write a masterpiece. So I had simply replaced one form of frittering time away with another.

In the U.S., however, I felt relief when I abandoned TV. You see, I had developed an unhealthy habit of watching the 24 hour news channels. What I liked most was to watch a bit of right-wing demagoguery on Fox, and then change to the rival news channel MSNBC to get even more berserk left-wing demagoguery. This perpetual rage machine was occasionally amusing but usually churned out nothing but boring, annoying, apocalyptic fluff. Every second I spent watching it, I was aware that I was wasting my allotted fourscore and ten.  But still, it was hard to turn away. Like millions of others, I was hooked on my daily dose of venom and paranoia.

And yet, once the supply was cut off, it only took a few days to get clean.  Soon my head felt clearer and my step was lighter. I didn’t know anything less about what was going on in the world. You pick that up just by breathing these days. But the accompanying angry soundtrack was gone. In fact, my entire house became soothingly quiet. I’d play music, of course, but I like music. What the TV had generated was noise.

An unexpected side effect of canceling cable was that I spent less time on the Internet. Suddenly a lot of rage fuelled blogs and columns made no sense to me. They were parasitic on cable, which you needed to watch to understand who and what was being discussed. It turned out that all those reality stars and political hysterics existed only as a weird, electronic hallucination. I pulled the plug and they ceased to exist.
Last weekend however I discovered that my escape from the Moebius loop of Internet-cable gibberish was not total.

No doubt you heard about Jared Loughner, the gunman who “allegedly” shot a Democratic Arizona Congresswoman and killed numerous others. It was a tragic event, of the sort that will always occur in a country so free that its citizens have easy access to guns. Every now and then a lunatic will go wild. If anything, it’s surprising that it doesn’t happen more often.

Anyway, having spent a good few years hooked up to the rage machine, I suddenly realized that I could hear what the talking heads were saying even though I didn’t have a TV. I was like an amputee, who still feels his ghost limb. The shriekers on the left would be using Loughner’s act for political gain, attempting to tie him to the Tea Party, forcing his victims’ corpses to jerk like puppets on a string for the sake of vilifying Sarah Palin, Republicans, etc.

After a while, curiosity got the better of me. I went online and saw that yes indeed, my ghost limb’s twitching was accurate. These squalid freaks must have been at their computers within seconds of hearing about the shooting, gleefully hurling accusations of complicity at the people they devote so much energy to hating. Stunningly exploitative, I know, but that’s how you get ahead in the American media.

What I didn’t expect was the response of some on the Right, who in reply accused their foes of a “blood libel.” Now, don’t get me wrong: exploiting a tragedy to smear people you disagree with is reprehensible, but “blood libel” specifically refers to the anti-Semitic belief that Jews use the blood of Christian children when baking matzos for Passover. For centuries in Europe and Russia, this poisonous myth was cited as a justification for periodic massacres of Jews. But conservatives in America are not subject to pogroms, no matter how sorry they feel for themselves.

Suddenly I felt exhausted and switched the computer off. But it was too late. Outside my window I could hear screams and howls - not of the actual wounded and grieving (who had been reduced to bit part players in another drama) but of cynical, hysterical media monsters hurling invective at each other.
Somebody – anybody - make it stop!


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.