Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Living in a Natural Disaster Area

When I was young, droughts were something that happened elsewhere: as a punishment from God in the Bible, or in far off Africa, where unfortunate babies with distended bellies would die in the scorching heat of an evil sun. In Scotland, by contrast, there was never a shortage of rain - quite the opposite, in fact: We hardly ever saw the sun, and might have thought its existence a mere rumor were it not for those people who came back from holidays in Spain burnt red, toy donkeys under their arms. 

Flash forward a few decades and suddenly I find myself living in Texas where droughts are a regular occurrence. Currently we are enduring our ninth month of epic dryness, my second drought in five years, which - depending on which website I consult - is either the worst or third worst in the history of the state.

Will America Go Into Default?

The debt ceiling, the debt ceiling, everybody says the debt ceiling. Apparently Obama has to raise it if Uncle Sam is to pay his bills. The big issue is the question of how to get more money so America doesn’t have to keep borrowing cash from foreigners: cut spending and cut taxes? Or keep spending and raise taxes? The answer depends on which baseball team you support. I mean, political party.

Well anyway for a long time I dismissed all this debt ceiling talk as the usual shenanigans from the plutocrats in Congress. But then I read that if an agreement could not be reached between the Blue Team and the Red Team then America would default on its loans. Pensions would go unpaid! Babies would be forced to shovel coal! And so on! Apparently Moody’s - an organization possibly related to the burger joint of the same name at the end of my street - is threatening to downgrade America’s “Triple A rating” (which I believe describes the quality of its hotels).

My Local Mega-Mosque

Georgetown is a small-ish town north of Austin located in a notoriously conservative county that - until recently - did not permit the sale of alcohol in restaurants. The judges there are very fond of inflicting harsh punishments on criminals; social life centers on the church, the golf club and the high school; the average age of residents is 45; and so on.

Anyway, I lived there for a few months after I first arrived in Texas and quickly started to lose my mind. After all, I had just spent 10 years living in Moscow, that mega city of beauty, evil and horror, and now, here I was in small-town America, in a place so perfect it shimmered like a mirage. The boredom was intense. Is this how I shall spend the rest of my life? I wondered, scarcely able to suppress my panic.

July 4th, Russian Style

I first celebrated American Independence Day in Russia, surrounded by Russians. Now you might think that curious, given the history of (at worst) enmity and (at best) mistrust that exists between the two nations but… hell, Russians love to celebrate and any excuse for a party will do. That’s why in the last 10 or 15 years they have enthusiastically embraced hitherto foreign festivals such as St. Valentine’s Day, Halloween and even St. Patrick’s Day, while surrendering none of their own “indigenous” holidays.

The Independence Day party I attended was held at Kuskovo, a large estate in Moscow’s Deep South. At one point the vast territory had belonged to some aristocrat who (if I am not mistaken) had built a serf theater on the grounds. Or maybe it was a serf art gallery; I’m not sure, it all happened a long time ago. A lot of the historic buildings still stood, and it was a pleasant enough place to stroll, even if it was located a ridiculous distance from the subway. And on July 4th it always filled up with a large crowd, looking to par-tay.

A Helpful Warning to All Residents of and Visitors to the United States

Recently a friend of mine decided to sell the antique Indian headdress she kept in a Perspex box in her house. I was baffled by this decision as it was a thing of great beauty and she did not need the cash. But she had made up her mind: she was moving house and the headdress had to go.

I asked how she had acquired it in the first place:

“My grandparents picked it up at a train station in the 1930s,” she said. “They used to travel around the South West and the Indians would come to the platforms to sell things. So they bought the headdress. They probably didn’t pay much for it, either.”

Of Rock Stars, Slaves and Free Men

Ever since I left the university 15 years ago I have led a strange life, one which has been short on cash but rich in unusual encounters. Recently for instance I have been spending a lot of time in the house of a musician acquaintance whose band had several hits in the 1980s.

He bought himself a nice house with the proceeds of his success: a ranch-style compound located high on a hill in west Austin, set amid 10 acres of wild scrubland. Lizards and armadillos and deer roam the territory. Once a porcupine attacked his daughter’s pony and he had to pull ten inch needles from the whimpering beast’s wounded flesh. I’m sure there are some evil serpents out there also.

The Sound of Silence

Recently I took out a subscription to Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov’s pet project, SNOB magazine. Terrible title, I know, but in between the sympathetic profiles of people who stole a lot of money in the '90s and ads for luxury real estate you can find some interesting articles. This month for instance, Alexei Yevdokimov asked a question that had never occurred to me before: Why has nobody written a book or made a film about 1991?

1991 of course was the year that Yeltsin stood on a tank to defend democracy, shortly after which the Soviet Union collapsed, shortly after which Yeltsin spent eight years making a mockery of democracy. Pretty important, then: and yet as Yevdokimov pointed out, that key year, the moment of annihilation of the old world, is a theme that has been almost completely neglected by Russia’s artistic elite.  

These Days I Get My Truth From the Tabloids

When I first came to America I read a lot of supermarket tabloids. These differ from the notoriously salacious British tabloids in that they contain no politics, preferring to focus on celebrities and weight loss stories. Also, everything in them is completely imaginary. Consider for instance the World Weekly News, which regularly reports on the latest doings of the Loch Ness monster, and frequently cites Nostradamus as an authority - marvelous stuff. 

I was fascinated by the flow of fabricated stories about celebrities, and soon became an expert on the alleged misdeeds of famous people whose TV shows and movies I had never seen. These tabloids struck me as the purest form of anti-literature: joyfully garish and crass, written in the simplest language, perpetually straining after the cheapest sensationalism. I also admired the writers who operated at a level of ego killing anonymity that would put a Buddhist monk to shame. It’s not easy for a writer to kill his ego, but these guys did it.