Wednesday, June 23, 2004

Lingua Franca

Strive as I might, there are a few things I believe are simply not in the cards for me. Washboard abs, for one. Oh, I'm still hitting the gym, doing the appropriately named "crunches" and all that. But with such things, it's always a race between the natural anatomical processes and my own impatience. One always outpaces the other, and it's not in favor of Buns of Steel. I shall continue crunching for the foreseeable future, but I don't actually believe anything will come of it. I'm simply not that kind of girl.

There's another boulder that I fear will never be pushed to the top of the mountain, and that's the ability to truly master a foreign language. Call me Sisyphus, but I just keep backsliding.

It's been ages since I first started trying to learn Russian. Progress was encouraging at first. My knowledge growth was palpable and impressive because, like Russia's booming GDP, there's nowhere to go but up. But you plateau after a time, and you graduate after even more time, and then it's time for the tricks.

I've been trying to trick myself the rest of the way; cheat into fluency. I bought Russian short stories that I never finish reading. I play tapes and CDs of Russian music that are tossed out in favor of The Shins. I watch Russian movies, but don't block out the subtitles. Lately, at work, I've been tuning in to the live Russian broadcast on Radio Free Europe.

It's infuriating, the speed of their words. The goal is not comprehension, though, I'm just trying to get the sound in my ears, the cadence of the sentences. I try to relax my mind and erase my expectations of language and try to hear like a child. But as with the ever-loving crunches, patience wears thin.

I may just have to be content with improvising. Getting across through impressionistic improvisations the point I'm trying to make. Asking a woman on the Moscow streets for the nearest ATM (forgetting the simple "Bankomat" that adorns all these machines) by saying "Gdye blizhayshe mashina dlya deneg?" And only later realizing that you have asked for the nearest "car for money." Though you wouldn't be aware of this at first because she eventually smiled and pointed you in a direction that led to nowhere.

Asking directions in Moscow was alright; people were generally willing to help. Asking for products in a store in Moscow, however, is altogether different. The customer is always wrong, and more often than not, if you're lucky, your business will be greeted with furious scowls and mutterings and vicious, dramatic sighs. You bring your paltry purchases to the counter in supplication; moving slowly and gently so as not to incite any scorn, your lips moving in prayer that you won't be treated to a fine Russian tongue-lashing.

One afternoon, I found myself in the Muscovite western-oriented supermarket "Progress." I was buying a lot of fruit, likely because I was hung over, but who's keeping track? I had been to Progres a few times already, and thought I had the hang of things by now. Don't change your mind about buying kielbasa, and be sure to have your money ready, and you can usually get through unscathed. I didn't know, however, that when buying fruit, you must first weigh your purchases and affix the bags with stickers to indicate their price. As this is the kind of activity that in my experience only goes on at froofy supermarkets like Central Market, I hardly expected this in Moscow.

So there I am, in line at the register. I reach the front and heap my armfull of various fruits and vegetables onto the counter. Bags and bags of them. There are, naturally, many folks in line behind me. The long-suffering cashier lifts one bag to demonstratively inspect it for stickers. Seeing none, and ensuring that all in line see her seeing none, she fixes the Evil Eye on me.

I am toast.

My no-good American friends scatter like the dirty unloyal capitalists they are, leaving me to whither in the fixed glare of Cashier Lady. The blood is draining from my face, the shuffling and coughing in line behind me is increasing. I have to fix this, and fast.

Summoning all the rudimentary Russian I have at my disposal, I dramatically lift my hand and slap myself in the forehead. "Ya dura!" I announced for all to hear. "Ya ne znala! Seychas ya vizhu!" Which means, "I am a fool! I did not know! Now, I see!"

There was a moment of uncertainty, I'm sure, or at least there is one in my revisionist retelling for dramatic effect.

And then, Cashier Lady? She smiled. The tension released. Another clerk grabbed my bags and quickly weighed them for me. I had prostrated myself and sacrificed my dignity to the post-Soviet grocery lady, and it was gloriously worth it.

Thursday, June 17, 2004

Speaking of awesome...

Quote of the Day
[During a discussion of visiting the Savitsky Museum in Asshole-of-the-Universe, Uzbekistan]

KRISTON: I am totally going to go to Uzbekistan and grow a beard and drive a dune buggy around the desert. They have dune buggies there.

SUSAN: It's so expensive to fly out there. You should try to get a research grant or something.

KRISTON: Research grant? What would my topic be? "The Effects of Dune Buggies on My Awesomeness"?
Come On Feel the Noise

I heard that the new album from !!! was really great, so I thought I would see if they have some samples on their website in advance of the show that WE'RE ALL GOING TO on Sunday. But, as it turns out, when you type in !!! to Google, you don't get a very helpful response. Predictably, www.!!!.com doesn't do the trick either.

I don't know if the solution proves that I am awesome or that Google is awesome, but it's probably our combined awesomeness that did the trick. Me, for thinking of trying a search for "chk chk chk," and Google, for being phonetically sensitive to dance punk affectations.

Wednesday, June 16, 2004

Make a Deposit in the Karma Bank ...(by making a withdrawal from yours!)

Dear Loyal Readers,
I am aware that she and I have about a 95.5% overlap in readership and all, but I suppose that there may be a straggling few souls out there who aren't aware that Catherine is running in the Marine Corps Marathon and has to raise $2000 for cancer. Let me put that another way, she is going to martyr herself for cancer, because Lord knows I don't think anyone can survive running 26.2 miles or whatever. And this is from someone who has made it through 1 (one) class of BodyPump!, so you know I'm wicked tough.

Anyway, I desperately hope that some of you will go throw some cash at her. Not because your souls are imperiled, though they probably are. Not because you kicked a cat today and you want to make moral amends, though that's fine. Not even because you believe cancer research is a worthy cause, and the Lombardi center treated Catherine's mother when she was sick. I want you to donate to Catherine because, well, frankly it's getting rather hard to watch her constant begging and whoring herself out. Seriously, she's all "Just give me fifty cents! That'll be great!" She was once a tower of dignity, and look at her now. This is what exercise does to you. Just go help her out and end this sad spectacle.

The Meanest Friend Ever.

Thursday, June 10, 2004

Glad to see that even deep in the heart of Bush country, Texans still have their priorities straight (from the Dallas Morning News editorial page, my barometer of Outside-the-Beltway conservatism):
According to The Wall Street Journal, Bush administration legal memos from 2002 and 2003 argue that the United States isn't bound by international laws prohibiting torture. The Journal says the documents are part of a classified report on interrogation methods assembled for Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. And they put "obtaining intelligence vital to the protection of untold thousands of American citizens" above all considerations.

That's just not right. We don't need to suspend our principles to win the war on terrorism. We particularly don't need to jettison treaties that help us. If we ignore treaties governing conditions of war, then we lose our ability to appeal the next time an American soldier's captors start sticking it to him or her.

Not surprisingly, these memos have sparked a Washington tug of war. Attorney General John Ashcroft essentially says he'll release them over his dead body. And Democrats in Congress say the memos belong to the public.

We side with the Democrats. Mr. Ashcroft works for the president. But he and other government lawyers also work for us. We foot the bills, and we deserve to know what these memos say, even if President Bush never saw them.

The war against terror must be won. But we don't win it by sacrificing the rule of law. We've all heard this before, but the message evidently is not getting through to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. The president needs to add this truth to his set of instincts.

I think this is a good point to keep in mind. You can rationalize torture all you want, but you can't escape the fact that when we flout the Geneva Conventions, we abandon our own POWs to the whims of less scrupulous nations. We don't sign these treaties out of our love of humanity, we sign them to uphold a universal standard that protects our men and women. The Geneva Conventions may well need modification, but these are hardly the channels by which to start that discussion.

Wednesday, June 09, 2004

Ronald Giveth, and Ronald Taketh Away

Just when I was about to burn my Democratic voter registration card in honor of the man who has given me not only Friday off of work, but two extra hours off today, I get bad news.

Our office is all set to close at 3pm in honor of the Ronald Reagan Memorial Traffic Jam scheduled to begin this afternoon. My body, wracked with pain since yesterday's violation of the Geneva conventions, rejoices at the realization that this surely will cancel our 6:30 pm softball game!

But no. Our overzealous softball organizer strongarms everyone into just, I don't know, staying at the office for no reason for 3 hours until game time, then marching into a heat advisory afternoon in the midst of the worst gridlock DC has ever seen and all dropping from heat stroke whilst trying to smack a ball with a stick. I'm obligated to go, as I skipped the last game and swore on my honor that I would be around for the next game. Not that I have much honor, but our overzealous softball organizer also happens to be my direct supervisor. Now, why my presence is at all seen as a boon to our team is another mystery altogether. Regardless, I'm in the lineup for today. So, clearly, this is the second day running of extreme physical and mental duress undergone by your long-suffering correspondent.

What Would Ronald Do?

Hopefully it's take off at 3pm anyway, get drunk for three hours, and show up at the softball field blitzed, 'cause that's my plan anyway.

Tuesday, June 08, 2004

Day 2

I walked into my very first Group Fitness Class last week with some trepidation.

You see, many moons have passed since last I saw my running shoes, much less gave my sweat glands reason to make themselves known. (I've been holding true to the saying [to be read in your best Scarlett O'Hara]: Horses sweat; men perspire; women glisten.)

Anyway, this class was to be the kick in my ass that would get my ass in shape. 30 minutes of HighImpactCardio! and 30 minutes of sculpting, which appealed to my artistic/sensitive side. Entering the studio, I warily appraised my four other classmates—my fellow travelers in Health and Well-Being. What saggy, sad sacks we all were! It was delightful! When the music was pumping and we were all jiggling awkwardly, I watched as our faces all turned splotchy purple in beautiful synchronicity and solidarity. By the end, dear readers, I was even the star pupil! Still hopping and stretching with gusto while the rest were just flopping arms forward in a lackluster display.

Emboldened by my triumph, I felt ready for a mid-day class. Instead of eating Pop-Tarts at my desk for lunch, I opted for Health and Well-Being. At the risk of being a little heavy-handed with my foreshadowing, I'll never make that mistake again.

I walked into the studio, and glanced around in disbelief at the assembled crowd. Where were my four sad-sack classmates? Why does everyone look like an instructor? Why, for the love of Christ, are they all picking up barbells? Little did I know, I had stumbled upon a BodyPump! class, a despicable invention designed to vaporize the connective tissue holding your muscles to your bones in 50 agonizing minutes of lifting things. Lifting things! That's what eager-to-please considerate boyfriends are for! What's next, a class in which I have to squash cockroaches with a 50 pound weight strapped to my back?

As I stood squatting and lunging and pumping and trying to maintain consciousness despite the darkness spreading from the corners of my eyes, I could hear the tribe of masochists around me actually cheering. "Whoo!" "Yeah!" "Awright!"

"Do you feel it?" mocked Tony, our be-muscled instructor, leering sadistically into my house of pain. It was all so very Lord of the Flies, and I was Piggy. By the end of the longest 50 minutes ever, I was left broken and bedraggled; a mere skidmark in spandex on the studio floor.

It took all the strength of character I had to get my rubbery limbs back to my office. Which poignantly reminds one of the urban legends one hears in regard to exercise: it lifts your spirits, it gives you energy, it makes you feel good. Ha! Operation Hot Abs is called off. Someone get me my Pop Tart!

Thursday, June 03, 2004

Dispatches From My Cubicle

I'm drunk!

Welcome to HELL

Fresh back from the therapeutic waters of the Outer Banks, where the easy livin' took the wind out of my typing fingers, and gallons of tequila took the wit out of my brain. But I'm back in shape now, no worse for wear, give or take a couple million brain cells which litter the road from here to North Carolina.

Back on topic.

Ever since Kriston heard about the Savitsky Musuem, he's wanted to trek it to Uzbekistan. The short story, as I understand it, is this Soviet artist, Savitsky, started amassing huge collections of contraband Soviet art, especially around the time of Stalin's purges. Artists were sent to the Gulag, and their non-socialist-realist verboten artworks went to Savitsky. The Soviet government actually supported Savitsky's collection of illegal art, as they figured they could gather all the works made by Enemies of the People into one convenient location far, far, far away from, well, habitable earth.

And that brings us to Nukus.

This little nothing town in the middle of nowhere, Uzbekistan, houses an unparalleled collection of over 30,000 pieces of Soviet art. Kriston, who gets all hot and bothered over Soviet art, is dying to find a way to get out there.

Foreseeing an impending "vacation," I decided to check out this Nukus in Lonely Planet's Central Asia guide. And guess what, ladies and gentleman? My main squeeze? He's trying to take me TO MORDOR.
If desolation attracts you, welcome to the capital of Uzbekistan’s Karakalpakstan Republic, Nukus. Developed from a small settlement since 1932, Nukus might have been a bright and hopeful place two or three decades ago. Today it tries to present itself as the proud capital of newly ‘sovereign’ Karakalpakstan, but it’s actually drab, impoverished, unhealthy and forlorn, its broad avenues and big public buildings now looking like jokes in poor taste. The economy of the town, a long way from anywhere at the back end of Uzbekistan, has suffered badly since the collapse of the USSR.

But worse [!!], Nukus has felt—like the rest of poor Karakalpakstan—the full force of the health and environmental disaster from irrigated agriculture in the Amu-Darya basin, in particular the depletion of the Aral Sea. In this dust-storm-prone wasteland of chemical-doused food and water, virtually all pregnant women are anaemic, leading to many premature births. There are high rates of birth deformities, infant mortality, and diseases like cancer, typhoid, hepatitis and immune depression, along with woefully inadequate medical provision. Furtive drinking seems to be one of the few solaces people have.

And to think. Some girls get trips to Tuscany.