"Our most ancient metaphor says life is a journey. Memoir is travel writing, then, notes taken along the way, telling how things looked and what thoughts occurred. . . .This is the traveler who goes on foot, living the journey, taking on mountains, enduring deserts, marveling at the lush green places...as a pilgrim, seeking, wondering." -Patricia Hampl

January 11, 2005

Bobby Speaks: Chronicles, Volume One

Bobby D in NYC

If your 2005 must-read booklist includes only one title from the New York Times 2004 Bestsellers, Bob Dylan's long-awaited Chronicles (Simon & Schuster) would be a soul-charging, edifying choice. From the man who calls mainstream culture "as lame as hell and a big trick" comes a colloquial, introspective, and retrospective memoir that identifies the making of a legend through his own cultural influences.

But I can't even understand his songs, Monica! I hear you whine. Why would I want to occupy my time with the blatherings of a bleater? So you've never been to a Dylan show, you (sadly) don't even own Blood on the Tracks, and you have no interest in hearing what one of the last remaining pioneers of music has to say?

I offer you this: if you take music seriously at all--blues, jazz, even the new, young acoustic rock scene (ala Jack Johnson and John Mayer), you'll pick up this book. In less than 300 pages, Dylan generously spills to us all of his musical and literary influences in a quasi-chronology that adds up to how he conceives, writes, changes--and yes, even sings--his stuff. It is a looking-glass into the soul of a true poet. And he does it with the same lyrical and sardonic grace you hear in every line of his oeuvre, whether or not you care for it.

Take, for example, what Bobby says about hearing Roy Orbison for the first time:

"With Roy, you didn't know if you were listening to mariachi or opera. . . .With him, it was all about fat and blood. He sounded like he was singing from an Olympian mountaintop and he meant business. . .[he sang] in three or four octaves that made you want to drive your car over a cliff. He sang like a professional criminal. . .His voice could jar a corpse, always leave you muttering to yourself something like, 'Man, I don't believe it.' His songs had songs within songs."

Or Johnny Cash:

"Johnny didn't have a piercing yell, but ten thousand years of culture fell from him. He could have been a cave dweller. He sounds like he's at the edge of the fire, or in the deep snow, or in a ghostly forest, the coolness of conscious obvious strength, full tilt and vibrant with danger."

Or his blues-playing predecessor, John Jacob Niles:

"Niles was nontraditional, but he played traditional songs. A Mephistophelean character out of Carolina, he hammered away at some harplike instrument and sang in a bone chilling soprano voice. Niles was eerie and illogical, terrifically intense and gave you goosebumps. Definitely a switched-on character, almost like a sorcerer. Niles was otherworldly and his voice raged with strange incantations. I listened to 'Maid Freed from the Gallows' and 'Go Away from my Window' plenty of times."

Promotion of Chronicles prompted an uncharacteristic embracing of our modern-day Bard: there was the much-anticipated, televised interview on 60 minutes; a rare interview with Dylan in Newsweek, and buzz surrounding Dylan's nomination for the Nobel Prize (which, unfortunately in the case of the Poetry prize, cannot be awarded a musician--if the rules were to be broken, Dylan would be the first songster in the Nobel's history to be granted such laurels). Simultaneously, Dylan and his band happened to be touring the United States, playing only at midsize college gyms (such as R.I.T.'s) and stages as their venues, drawing a young but musically-mature crowd. (It's worth noting here that Dylan actually cracked a cheesy joke on stage at the R.I.T. show in November--a move I interpret as an attempt at bonding, which has never before happened during the 13+ concerts I've seen.)

Could it be that Dylan himself--the man who has openly ridiculed pop-culture for its falsities, its reflexive, staged hype--wants to leave his legacy to the next generation of music-philes? (This is the man, after all, who normally shuns publicity, preferring to remain an obscure figure in a world of sell-outs.) Perhaps it is this reflexivity with which Dylan has made his peace: with the recent interviews and this publication, he is confronting and catering to the curiosity of his admirers who have revered --and misunderstood--him for decades. It his literary investment to not fade away.

Chronicles makes you feel as though you're sitting face-to-face in an empty, dimly-lit, roadside interstate saloon, listening to a deluge of truth. At times, Dylan gets personal, even referencing himself as a Tom Sawyer a few times, and whether that's conscious or not, the allusion connotes that he, too, has been on an improbable journey to seek out that truth. He also, surprisingly, mentions his "wife" (though he doesn't say which, you can do the homework), and some of their dialogue. With this book, he erases his own musical myth and reworks himself to us as common a man as those of whom he sings. He tells us what makes folk an unexpendable genre, what music can tell us about the state of the States, and the agony and the ecstasy of songwriting. When you're finished, you'll wish you'd taken notes. You'll want to take a class in music history. You will have laughed a little. You'll start looking for musicians you hadn't before heard of in odd record kiosks. You might even surprise yourself and dust off your guitar. But surely, you will want to give this book to a youngster, a Brittany-listener, a budding songwriter you know: you will want Dylan to continue to permeate popular consciousness the way he has for decades--growling, skeptical, poetic, and honest.

January 10, 2005

A Letter from Ukraine

Well, for lack of global wanderings of my own, I thought I'd pass along this latest update from my friends Orly and Jamie, who are Peace Corps-niks for the next several months. How many people do you know who've heard Yuschenko speak in person? Okay, then. Jamie also details their Christmas/New Years experiences, as well as a teacher's observation scenario (far, far different from anything we teachers have been through here). Settle in (it's a tome), read, and enjoy!

My friends,
 
No matter how long I manage to write, this note will be far less complete than I would hope, and far less personal than it should be, as these long winter nights and grey days make me feel farther from home and at the same time oddly settled. I hope this finds everyone well after the holidays.
 
Here, they’re just beginning. New Years’ is a week-long affair, and Christmas in the Orthodox church is coming up on Friday. From what I’ve heard, very little will be done across the country, this week. Ah, well.
 
I could go only two weeks back and have enough to fill a novel, but suffice to say that they have a thing here called “Open Lessons”, wherein teachers are evaluated on their performance once or twice a year by a commission of several high-ranking folks from throughout the city. Unlike at home, where there’s meetings with the principal beforehand about what the lesson will be on and a certain amount of preparation on the teacher’s part to make sure things go smoothly, the Ukrainian version is, like one of their favorite Russian words, a spectacle.
 
So, Orly’s teacher had been preparing for this for over two months now. Only the brightest students are chosen from a class, and they rehearse their lines for weeks on end, with Luba screaming at them if they make the slightest mistake. The whole things is so ridiculously scripted, that one would think any educator would see through it, laugh, etc. Nope. They love it. It’s exactly what they wanted. Appearances, appearances, and so sadly little in the ay of substance. The school went all out for this last one – the day before, there was an army of kids hanging curtains, paintings and potted plants in the hallway that had never been there before, and a vodka-n-cognac feast was laid out for the visiting commission (plebes like the actual teachers strictly forbidden to attend).
 
So this whole situation went down without a hitch, by their own standards, despite the mass hysteria it created for those involved. The commission made not a single comment after the lesson, but instead hurried off to their feast and then, as makes perfect sense….
 
For a tour of the meat processing plant.
 
The director was, at first, very distraught that we didn’t’ want to go along, but we managed to politely refuse.
 
There was no real teaching done for a month before or after this, and our library of videos, so generously donated and painstakingly cataloged, has become one huge babysitter for Luba and a thorn in our sides as to how to approach the issue. We’re still on vacation now, and hoping things will clear themselves up.
 
That ate up the first part of December and a good deal of what my dad would call “people renting space in our heads.”
 
The next day was St. Nicholas Day, when Ukrainian kids usually wake up to find small gifts under their pillows. It’s a holiday largely kept only in the West, but a group of Western school kids has been trying to bring it to the east – sending gifts and notes to Donetsk and other pro-Yanukovich areas as a way of helping bring the country back together.
 
For us, too, it brought a nice, needed ray of hope when we found out that Sergei, Orly’s old host dad, had come to the school early in the morning and donated 100 gryven to each of the five orphans in the school, including our friend Lilia, so they could but something nice for themselves. His only stipulation was that no one mention where the money had come from. Even when we’ve been in really negative spaces about the culture here, we keep having these moments where, as Henry Miller said, “Given the slightest chance, human beings will express the best that is within them.” Or something like that.
 
I also found out that one of my students, who thinks she is a pure fashion-plate, wears a wig. From day to day, her hair will vary in color and about a foot worth of length. And, depending on the day, she brings a notebook that is designed to coordinate – she has two, each with a girl that has that day’s respective hairstyle.
 
In the true spirit of Cleo Syph and Oak Hill, I taught a group of kids how to play poker just before Christmas, using Wasabi peas from Orly’s dad to teach them how to bet. The littlest, Misha, kept eating all his “money”, even though it was too spicy for him, and didn’t win many hands, that day.
 
Two days before Christmas, Inna, Orly’s tutor, came by the house to look at our Christmas tree (a nice, big live one, decorated with ornaments from home and dreidels. We tried to be as inclusive as we could) along with a guy we’d never met before. He introduced himself briefly, commented at how pretty our tree was, and then turned to me and said, in Russian, “So how do I get a green card?”
            I told him that we didn’t have any with us, but that we’d try to find out. I also said he would probably be better off asking Orly, since my Russian isn’t very good. He pressed the issue for a while; talking about how he’d do anything, scrub toilets, etc. Just to have a chance to get himself and his family out of Ukraine. Despite the fact that all his responses came from Orly, he continued to address him self only to me, in the traditional Ukrainian tradition of men only talking to men, even when, in this case, the woman is clearly smarter.
 
Politics before the election continued to heat up, with Ukraine’s first ever Presidential debate. In the prior one, they’d only read from prepared statements, but here the candidates actually asked one another questions. Perhaps the best part was the Blue candidate’s seeming misunderstanding of how exactly an election works, in that there’s only one winner, and the loser doesn’t get to play anymore. He kept saying things like: “Are you ready, together with me, right after new years, to implement political reform and form a good government? … And together, me and you, we will work to form a good government of national accord, and strive to unite our country…”
 
Can’t you just picture it with Bush and Kerry’s debates just ending with a big hug and the swelling chords of “why can’t we be friends?” the aforementioned candidate is currently appealing to the supreme court, but no one’s really paying attention.
 
On Christmas Eve, Orly’s class watched “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.” She’d adapted it for the students to do in their literature class the month prior, and my mom’s friend Susan donated her personal copy of the tape to us. There’s really nothing more wonderful when you’re far from home on the holidays than a swelling of heavily accented voices gleefully fumbling over the rest of the words to “You’re a mean one” but then all howling in unison: “Meeesteerr Greeeenuch!!!”
 
After a quiet little night at home and a few phone calls from the states, Orly and I got on a train at 12:40 Christmas morning, and headed to Kiev to pick up her friend Sapna from the airport.
 
When we got to our train car, there were already 3 people in our 4-berth car, and they were very eager to let us put our things under the bottom bed, where they’d be “safe”, even though Orly and I had the top two berths. We declined their generous offer, with slight influence being put on the decision by the six beer bottles on the floor (When we told this to my tutor, she was appalled. “They were drinking on the train?? That’s illegal.” But when we explained further, she said, “Oh, they were drinking BEER. I thought you meant alcohol…” c’est la vie.) We slept with everything of value up next to us, including Orly’s little shoulder bag clipped to my belt. When we got up in the morning, they were gone, and everything seemed fine.
 
But, no.
 
They stole me hat.
 
And the big, beautiful warm scarf that Orly’s aunt Ila had knitted for me. I guess it was the only thing they could get their hands on. So, yes, I got robbed for Christmas. Happy, happy.
 
We made it to the airport, picked up Sapna and got back into the main part of Kiev with minimal stink-eye from the locals and an unwelcomely affectionate couple in the front seat of the bus back to keep us company.
 
That night, we got our first good look at the Tent City on Maidan, which is what you’ve all been seeing on the news. It was possibly the most amazing, inspiring thing I have ever seen in my life. There were rows upon rows of makeshift tents and plywood lean-tos, all draped with the Orange flag of the opposition candidate (now president, inauguration will be only Jan. 13) There were small first cooking dinner and people warming their hands. In the center of the street, for several blocks, people were lined up, facing each other in silence across the road, holding candles and hands, as if in the midst of a vigil, all holding their breaths to see what would be next for their country in the following day’s election.
 
Everywhere we looked in Kiev, there were people wearing orange – scarves, hats, little children done up in entire snowsuits, businesswomen with tiny ribbons tied to their purses. And there was just a wonderful sense of community and friendliness that I’ve never experienced in that city before. Despite what the guidebooks say, Ukrainians aren’t actually known for their warmth, especially not in large cities any more than Americans are, but it was as if anyone we saw in orange was from a different world. They were friendly, they waved at each other – even the Santa Clauses we saw posing for photos in the street were wearing Orange scarves.
 
The sense of immediate community that comes out of something as simple as a scarf makes you wonder if, on a superficial level, the lack of any real difference between our donkeys and elephants is reflected in their perennial scramble to see who can claim red, white, and blue as their campaign colors.
 
We had Indian food that night, a huge treat since the only thing available here has been cabbage and potatoes and seems likely to stay that way, and then caught a children’s theater production of “The Nutcracker” in the beautiful Kiev Opera House. It was my first ballet, and though it was only kids, the tickets worked out to be about 65 cents each, and it was a really great way to spend the night.
 
The next day, the pop music was blaring from the school signaling yet another election day. We went to the market with Sapna and I got a new hat to replace the one that was stolen. It’s got almost an exact replica of the little Celtic knot tattooed on my shoulder. Not what I ever expected to find here. We hung around most of the day, and Orly and Sapna put the finishing touches on this ridiculously gorgeous mosaic that orly’s been working on. She took an old piece of furniture, sort of like a dresser called a toombuchka that was old and ugly before and made a whole Grecian sea-scape on the front doors, complete with Argonauts-style boat and a sun. The top in a brown and green ivy pattern and the drawers are flames. I supervised and listened to Green Day’s American Idiot, which Sapna had brought with her. First new music in English I’ve heard in a long time, and something everyone out there should listen to. Blows my mind that the aptest voice out there today is from the guys who brought us dookie….
 
The next day, we gave sapna a tour of Voznesensk, including the Roerick museum out in one of the residential neighborhoods. It was supposed to be closed for cleaning that day, but the woman at the desk opened up for us and gave us a little guided tour, and even switched on the harpsichord music in the background for us. We bought a new painting for the house and left feeling really happy.
 
That night, at Inna’s house, we took a bunch of pictures, and then Inna, who is in charge of the youngest group of kids at the school asked, out of the blue, “Jamie, what are you doing tomorrow? Nothing? Good. How about you come and be Dyed Marose (Santa Claus) for my kids at the cafe?”
 
So the next day, there I was, the skinniest Santa Claus in the world, in a tattered Blue robe and a socking full of candy, with a red had and a musty, ancient beard sticking its stinky stray hairs up my nose, giving out candy to the kids and yelling “Koodah Ya Pahpal!” (where have I found myself) in Russian and telling the kids they had to either dance, sing or tell me a poem in order to get candy. It was probably more embarrassing for them than it was for me. Only problem is that it was the same little cafe that orly and I usually eat out at. No one has said anything yet since I’ve been back, but I am always paranoid they’re laughing at me behind my back: “Mommy, what can’t Dyed Mahrose speak Russian?”
 
We had a big dinner at Sergei and Ludmilla’s with Sapna, and then took the train back to Kiev, where we were staying for New Years.
 
As always, there were plenty of ups-and-downs. Orly had her wallet stolen from her bag early in the trip, but luckily I had all the passports and documents with me and nothing was irreplaceable. We saw a lot of the city I had never really seen before, ate a lot of falafel at the new place that just opened (we figure diverse food needs all the encouragement it can get here) and saw what was supposed to be a reggae band at this little hip hole-in-the wall place called Art Club 44, but they actually turned out to be a bizarre, slightly upbeat, sometimes-in-Russian Tom Waits cover band.
 
Nothing surprises me, anymore.
 
For New Years’ Eve, I had my mind thoroughly blown. Orly, Sapna, Joyce and I went out to maidan around 10 PM to hear Yushenko speak. (I mean, no we didn’t… Peace Corps has no political affiliations…) there were bands on the stage playing some of the best music I have heard in the country and yelling things like “Let’s party, because we won!” Young guys were dancing with babushkas. Fireworks were going off overhead… people seemed near tears with the joy of it all.
 
The president of Georgia came up to introduce Yushenko, and talked about how he hoped the spirit of the Rose and Orange revolutions would spread across Europe. He read from a prepared speech in Ukrainian, and the crowd bellowed back “Welcome” to him in Georgian. For him to be away from his own country on what is the biggest holiday of the year around here was really touching.
 
Yushenko himself was immediately preceded by his tiny son, bundled up all in orange reading a poem to the crowd, his tiny face serious and strong as it was broadcast on the two huge monitors.
 
The man himself and his closest ally, Yulia Tymeshenko (Ukraine’s princess Leia) gave brief speeches to wish folks a happy new year, and the crowd went crazy. Fireworks everywhere, dancing…. I can’t properly put into words how it felt to be in there with those masses. It was a strong, strong reminder of how much people really value their freedom when it’s new and hard-earned, and the sense of pride that comes from standing up to a crooked government and saying “no, we don’t want this, we won’t take it, and we want our country back.” We cried, we laughed, we barely avoided getting our toes blown off by fireworks, and some guy in a monkey mask scared the heck out of orly in the subway. A great night.
 
It was an ordeal to get home, with transport frustrations because apparently “New Years” means all of January and none of the trains or buses we’d expected were running. We were run out of the waiting lounge by a gleeful cashier because we didn’t have tickets and didn’t want to pay, had really good schwarma really cheap and saw all the usual, lovely freaks and weirdos up close and personal. We finally got home, seriously exhausted, and have been resting ever since, while Orly adapts The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe for her class, and I try to make sense of all this and journal it.
 
I also got my haircut by a crazy midget yesterday while a televangelist told us all about the “proper” relationship between men and women.
 
Yeah….
 
So what did YOU do for new years? I miss you, guys. Make with the stories!!!!
 
Happy new Year, Second Christmas (tomorrow) belated Hanukkah and early Old New Year (they have two here, one from the old Russian calendar pre-Lenin and celebrate them both.)
 
Peace, Love and Orange Scarves,
 
   j

January 03, 2005

Messin' with Texas Hold-'Em

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Apparently, I've been contenting myself in a cave for a while. In my cave, there are no playing cards that haven't been used for any games outside of "war" and "go fish." In my cave, the letters E-S-P-N conjure more the Psychic Network (well, what's the ESP stand for, anyhow?) than its well-known sports coverage. And in my cave, any acting abilities I have are put to revealing emotion rather than reserving it.

I had the great fortune of spending New Year's with a lovely couple in Fairfax, VA. Two brilliant, engaging, gracious, and most cultured folks, Maya and her husband, Howard, opened to us their home, cooked for us scrumptious meals, and took us into D.C. for a dizzyingly divine culinary experience at Cafe Atlantico. We had reservations for 8 on January 1st. What could be more fun than plans to kick off 2005 with promises of mojitos and latin-fusion food in the heart of the nation's capital?

At 4:30 that day, someone suggested we start learning the game. Jason, who'd come with his wife Kathy from Pennsylvania for the New Year's fete, had brought with him a bonafide poker case. If you haven't seen one, it resembles any stainless steel, mobster-type briefcase--the kind that would hold a ransom--and if you own one, you're not messing around. Jason carefully laid his case on the floor, and opened it slowly to reveal a full set of chips, two decks of cards, an extra deck called "Texas Hold 'Em for Dummies," some red dice, and all the poker accoutrements a serious player could dream for. Save for the "Dummies" deck (which, admittedly, I used for three rounds), the glistening, silvery briefcase was like a Vegas oyster shell with all its poker pearls in tow.

I'd never partaken in a poker game before, so the group waited patiently while Jason explained the hierarchy of winning sets of cards. I took notes. (And I tried hard not to crack up--who can forget when Booger tries to explain to Toshiro the rules of poker in "Revenge of the Nerds"?) But this group was serious, and notes taken, it was time to get down to the brass tacks of Texas Hold 'Em.

It must be added here that Jason's true calling is not as a home-based computer consultant, but professionalTexas Hold 'Em play-by-play commentator. Half for my benefit (to learn what was going on during the rounds) and half for his own amusement, Jason subtlely announced each play we made, including his own--in the third person. His friends ripped on him for this. Ah, but for the life of an underappreciated Texas Hold 'Em expert, poor guy. His wife casually rolled her eyes whenever Jason quietly inferred each time a prudent, conservative, or shamelessly outrageous bet was placed on the table. The rest of us chortled. Jason? He held his poker face, eyes to the table.

Don't ask me what makes this game totally different from any other version of poker. All I can tell you is that the betting is different, because that is what Jason said. Jason also explained the ins and outs of strategizing, but I was working too hard on keeping my cards (and eyes) down to ingest it all.

The second most valuable lesson of Texas Hold 'Em is how to subdue your attitude. Think of Stanley Kowalski's pals in "Streetcar Named Desire." (If you don't have the white, ribbed, old-school tank-top, stogie, and fifth of gin at your ready, don't fret--neither do the guys on ESPN.) Feelin' smoked by a bad hand? Throw your cards in with shrug: "Ah, I fold." Win a hand? All you have to do is smirk. Wanna up the ante? Toss a couple of big chips in, and lean back while your opponents sweat. It's about self-control. Maintain your poker face and no one will surmise whether you're bluffing, because they simply won't be able to guess.

The first most valuable lesson of the game, by the way, recalls Kenny Rodger's "Gambler": if you don't know when to fold 'em, you're sunk. (An aside: Thank you, Kenny, for your brilliant gambling-as-metaphor-for-life. There will indeed be time enough for countin' when the dealin's done, and I'll try to remember that when a handsome candy-striper is helping me into the bathroom at my future nursing home.)

By 7:30, we--myself, Howard's and Maya's guests, and Howard included--were immersed in a legit game. I noted silently that I had to get ready for our big night on the town, for Maya wanted to leave for the Metro at 8; and if I wasn't going to appear as hung-over as I felt, that I needed to embark on a makeover project. Two rounds--and a half an hour later--I was happy to just change my pants, put on a necklace and some lipstick, and call it a legit attempt at primping. Headache and baggy eyes be damned.

Somehow, Maya effectively got us all to the train, and we made our dinner reservations on time. A fabulous dinner behind us, we were ready to head back to Fairfax, ready to get in our p.j.'s, and ready to take up the game again, glasses of port and doritos at hand.

I went to bed, having lost all my chips, sometime around 2 a.m. The other losers and I awoke the next morning to discover that Maya, who is, apparently, an outlandishly risky better, was the table champion at 3:30, having beaten her husband by convincing him to throw in his entire pot. Grrrl tactics at their best. Bravo, Maya.

I've been invited out tomorrow night for an evening of Indian cuisine and Swedish film, and have affirmed my presence. But all the while, I know this roamin' girl's heart will be in Texas, waiting for the Hold 'Em championships to be re-aired on ESPN.