Wednesday, April 11, 2018

A few warm days

I arrived in the San Francisco Bay Area much later than I’d planned, but still on the intended day. By the time I got to John and Meredith’s house, they’d put the kids to bed and retired to a back room to do some work. I let myself in and crept past the bedroom where James was theoretically asleep. He called to me through the door, and I stepped in to say “hi.” Though we chatted for a little while, my eyes never adjusted to the dark enough to know where he was, a small boy in a big bed. We agreed to play together first thing in the morning and I crept out.

Saturday, then, we played a lot. John builds brilliant vehicles and buildings from James’ toys, and James has learned from his dad. We built some excellent stuff before going out to visit the Heller Aviation Museum. We expected to see just aircraft but got a special treat because several model train clubs had brought in their gear and filled the usually-open floor with intricate model railroads. We did see a lot of things that fly, but spent our first hour with the trains. Here are a couple of photos from a Boeing 747.

On Sunday, we went up to San Francisco to meet Johnny’s dad at an aquarium. As a special favor to James, we rode the last mile on one of the classic trollies the City of San Francisco runs along the waterfront. Continuing our "transportation" theme, we also rode a carousel after we finished in the aquarium.

It being school vacation week, I stayed an extra day and Monday included a picnic in a park and other outdoor activities. I enjoyed the warm weather, but I especially enjoyed the warmth of the family I had come to visit. I'll miss them until I'm able to return in summer.

Saturday, April 7, 2018

Visiting Auntie Bea

For some reason, it’s hard to visit my aunt in Oregon. Last time I tried, I got snowed out. This time, I got there but now I’m a bit stuck in Oregon.

I flew out yesterday, leaving home at 4:00 a.m. so I could arrive in time to eat lunch with Auntie Bea. We did have lunch together, but later than we expected because the highway got closed and I had to cross two narrow bridges with lots of traffic in order to follow the Columbia River on the Washington side instead of my usual route on the Oregon side. I would like to say that I got great views, but it was raining so hard I couldn’t really see much or even look around much.

Fortunately, it wasn’t raining in The Dalles, and I managed to take a little walk after we ate. The Dalles calls itself the end of the Oregon Trail because there was no good way to take a covered wagon farther west from here and travelers had to choose between a difficult and dangerous trip over mountains or a very scary and dangerous raft trip down the rapids of the Columbia River. I didn’t walk far, but enjoyed seeing spring blossoms in this small but cozy town. Spring hasn’t made much of a show yet in Boston.

Today we went to the Columbia Gorge Discovery Center, toured the museum and stayed for lunch. It’s situated on the Columbia River at a beautiful place with an attractive walkway. Though my aunt wasn’t up for the walk, we had an excellent time at the museum. I was surprised to see a couple of historic wagons rotting in the parking lot, one of them filled with rotting wooden trunks. It seemed too valuable to leave out in the rain.

My flight to San Francisco got canceled for reasons I never learned. The next flight wasn’t a lot later, and they promoted me to first class so I figured it would be OK. But then the later flight got delayed because of some air traffic control problems. The San Francisco airport is running on a very reduced schedule, and my flight won’t even go there. They will fly me into Oakland and then take me in a bus to San Francisco airport. As I said, visiting Auntie Bea hasn’t been easy. I hope it goes better next time.

While I'm thinking of it, here's a picture of my aunt's staircase. I can't believe that we slid down that banister as kids. Or that the adults let us:

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Real life

As I prepared to pull the plug today on Facebook, I spent some time thinking about how I’d replace its better features. I made a list, for example, of the people I tend to “see” only on Facebook. It’s woefully incomplete, but it’s a reminder that I need to take steps to stay in touch with people important to me. I’ll try to write at least one personal email every week. I won’t hit everybody. I don’t even know everybody’s email address. But I hope that improving the quality of key relationships will polish some of the pain from losing touch with, for example, some of my dance friends. Ideally, I’ll see the dance friends at social events anyway, so it won’t be a total loss. We’ll see how it goes.

Facebook demonstrated its adroit understanding of my soft spots when I began to deactivate my account. On the first of their “are you sure?” pages, they strung a garland of pictures. On each picture, it said “<Person’s name> will miss you if you leave Facebook.” The people they chose to feature weren’t necessarily the people with whom I interact most often. Some of them don’t appear to use Facebook much at all. But Facebook accurately chose some of the ones dearest to me. I’m not sure how they did that. I suspect, based on things I’ve read recently, that they look for words of emotional connection in our communications. I don’t know what else. But since I am leaving largely over concerns about privacy, they effectively illustrated what I’m worried about (while suggesting that the benefits may outweigh the costs.)

Meanwhile, life goes on quite nicely. As the weekend approached, I got an Easter card in the (postal!) mail from a friend in Belarus. Then on Friday I had a great time at the regular weekly dance near Boston. On Saturday morning, I went to the Institute of Contemporary Art with a group of alumni from my university. We enjoyed the exhibit we came to see, and then I especially enjoyed another exhibit there, called “Art in the age of the Internet.” They had some amazing stuff, all of which would have been impossible to create without computer assistance. After the show, we went out to lunch, where we enjoyed spirited conversation and a delightful waitress.

The whole weekend is going that way. I’ve always liked real life, and today I am savoring it with new commitment since I have nothing else.

Monday, March 26, 2018

In lieu of Facebook: Family

I haven’t disabled my Facebook account yet, but I’m already living apart from it. So far, so good. I’m trying to make good use of the extra free time, choosing a small number of priorities for each day. This blog is a part of that.

I identified family members on Facebook long ago, but then I hid my friends list because it creeped me out when a former classmate started “friending” all my prettiest female acquaintances and none of the others. So; here I am on a new platform, and I want to say something about the cast of characters I may mention in my blog posts.

I have a large and expansive sense of family. I grew up close to my cousins, and we did stuff together regularly enough that we built strong and lasting bonds. And then my sense of family expanded to include Luci’s brothers and cousins. Luci was my first wife. When she passed on in 2002, her cousin Nants flew out to spend a week with me and helped me take the first steps in giving away Luci’s clothing and the personal items that might have been hardest for me to sort through. Nants assured me that she thought of me as a brother, and she’s been quite consistent about that. We’ve leaned on each other from time to time in hard times since then, and I’m delighted finally to have a sister.

The rest of her family is just as close. I love her Trump-loving gun-toting brother just like my own. He and I talk politics from time to time, knowing that we’ll never agree. But Tom’s alright. He’s always got reasons for his opinions, and he shares his reasoning without being offensive. I need to understand how other people think, and Tom makes it easy. Their sisters are the ones who usually organize family gatherings, and they’ve continued to treat me as a full member of the family even though the blood relative is no longer among us. I love them deeply and enjoy feeling loved by them.

One other member of that group stands out, a fellow from the next generation. Johnny went to Princeton, which is a lot closer to Boston than to San Francisco, so Johnny spent a lot of time with Luci and me during holidays and breaks. When Luci passed on, Johnny was there for me. Just as I realized that I might have made a terrible mistake not providing myself with a son or daughter, Johnny took on the role. He’s an amazing guy, a total credit to his parents as well as to himself, and I love him dearly. He‘s brought other wonderful people to the family, starting with his amazing wife Meredith. Maybe some time I’ll tell you about how she brought reconciliation between my dad and me, but that would be for another essay. For now, just take my assurance that John, Meredith and their kids are all extremely important to me.

A few months ago, I told my story to one of the visually-disabled kids whom I’d been guiding around. Her own family situation left a lot to be desired, and I felt like it was time I should pay forward the kind of inclusion I’d received from the people I described above, so I told her that if she wanted to consider me a brother or some kind of a parental figure, I’d be up for it. Not long after, she started calling me Papa, and I like it. Her name is Tanya, but sometimes now I call her “dochka.” That’s a diminutive form of “daughter” in Russian. Once again, my family is expanding.

You’ll hear more about these people if you keep reading my blog. All of them bring me great delight.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Goodbye Facebook

I’ve never trusted Facebook. In the eleven years I’ve been a member, I have too often seen them disregard users’ privacy and violate trust. Persistent concerns prevented me ever from turning on the application platform or installing the mobile app. Granted, I’ve been an active user of the service and enjoyed it in many ways. But today I’m not so sure that the benefits outweigh the costs for me. The Cambridge Analytica scandal pushed me over a tipping point.

Studies show that Facebook generally decreases users’ happiness, and I’ve tried not to hang my sense of welfare on comparisons to other people’s lives. On the other hand, I may be a part of the problem, presenting an overly pretty picture of myself online. Like most other people, I filter. I post the good stuff, but don’t talk much about my failures. Anyway, I’m confident that my happiness derives from sources other than Facebook and don’t imagine it will hurt me emotionally to part ways with the company.

What I like about Facebook is the sense of connectedness it offers. I’ve learned lots about race relations, culture wars, my friends’ political beliefs, beautiful vacation spots and numerous other things on this platform. I’ve offended, been offended, soothed hurt feelings and attempted to buck up the depressed. It’s been a big part of my life. But is it life?

On April Fool’s Day, I’ll begin an experiment. I’m going to deactivate my Facebook account and try to live a little more like I did in the old days. I’ll initiate more conversations on email and telephone and hope that others will do the same. I won’t be in touch with quite so many people but hope that the loss will be compensated by deeper relationships among those who are left. Please feel free to reach out to me at your convenience: I’m easy to find through my website. You can leave comments on blog posts or find my email address and phone numbers on the “About me” page.

I’ll try to share a little more on my blog, so the seriously curious can know what’s up. I don’t have a lot of followers, however, so if you’re reading this then you’re already special to me. Please feel free to get in touch. I read Russian and English, and I will respond in whatever language you write. (But answers in English tend to be much more nuanced.) Meanwhile, I’ll keep trying to keep up, but I’ll get my information from truly-personal or reliably-professional sources.

I hope to see you in the real world!

Saturday, December 2, 2017


I guess I’ve always liked puzzles, but I came to understand the fact on the day I decided I didn’t want to go to kindergarten. I had been going to school for at least couple of months already, and I’d had enough. I told my parents that I didn’t want to go that day. My mom didn’t know what to do, but my dad assured me that I would indeed go to school, but that I didn’t have to walk. He’d take me in his car on his way to work.

I resisted this idea, and he had to carry me to the car. When we got to school, I went limp as he tried to walk me up the pathway to the kindergarten classroom. Dad kept up his pace, holding my hand high enough that I couldn’t sit down. Mrs. Canavan came out to meet us. Mom must have phoned ahead to warn the school that they’d have a problem child that day.

Mrs. Canavan wasn’t worried, and I don’t think Dad had any doubts either. He drove off to work, leaving me in the care of my teacher. She apparently knew that I liked puzzles, so she took me over to the puzzle cabinet to choose one. We assembled it together. Then we assembled another one, and she helped me less. By the third puzzle, I started enjoying myself and decided I might as well stay at school at least one more day.

Everything was OK until nap time. Before we took our “naps” (we never actually slept), we got one Graham cracker apiece and a little carton of milk. I understood why Mrs. Canavan started passing out the crackers with the kid to my left and went around the circle clockwise, leaving me for last. I’d gotten a whole lot of attention that morning, and I knew that she didn’t want to look like she were playing favorites. Still, she had me worried because she had warned us that she was down to her last box of Graham crackers and it didn’t look certain that she’d have enough to go around.

Still having my “bad day,” I didn’t know what I’d do if the crackers didn’t reach me. Nobody wanted to find out. They nearly made it. By the time she got to me, Mrs. Canavan announced that she’d reached the very last cracker, but it was in pieces. All I saw was a bunch of junky pieces from the bottom of the box. I felt cheated, and started to melt down. Mrs. Canavan, however, assured me that I had a complete cracker, but it was a puzzle. She assembled the pieces on my paper towel. Wow! They really did form a whole cracker! This was great.

Often after that, I’d break up my cracker to make a little puzzle to reassemble before I ate it, but it was never as hard when I’d broken it up myself and knew how the pieces went together. Perhaps I should have asked a classmate to break it up for me. If you bring me crackers, we can try it out.

Here are a few pictures of my school as it looks today. It’s about the same, but with an adult clientele.

Sunday, November 19, 2017


People who haven’t seen me in a year or two tell me my Russian’s getting better. I’m not really aware of the change, and don’t remember my Russian being all that bad a couple of years ago. Then again, there are still some things I just don’t get right. Honey, for example.

Honey. It’s even simpler in Russian: мёд. Three letters. One syllable. Everybody knows what it is, and you can buy it just about anywhere. But I can’t buy it anywhere, because nobody knows what I’m talking about when I ask where it is in the store.

Today I went to a big supermarket called Green City. The sign is even in English. The store is huge and I had no idea where to look for the honey, so I asked a clerk stocking one of the shelves. She looked across the aisle at the health foods and asked me what kind. There were bottles of colorful fruity-looking stuff on the shelf she was looking at, but I couldn’t see any honey at all. I said, “Regular. I prefer it runny.”

“Maybe we don’t have it,” she replied.

Certain that they sold honey, I asked, “Do you understand me?”

She clearly wanted to answer yes, but she looked at me long and hard, a pained expression on her face. “Maybe not,” she admitted.

I repeated, “Honey. From bees.” Her face didn’t change.

“Bees,” I said. “Do you know what they are?”

“No,” she admitted. She didn’t.

Finally, I got out my phone and wrote on the screen: мёд.

“Oh!” she said, clearly embarrassed. She took me directly to the honey, two aisles away. As we walked, I asked her what she heard me say, how I might improve my pronunciation.

She was too embarrassed to answer, so I pressed her. “Please,” I asked, “say ‘honey’ for me.”

She wouldn’t do it. “Sorry,” she said, “I didn’t understand.”

“But if you say ‘honey’ for me,” I said, “I’ll learn how to say it right. Please, say ‘honey.’”

She said it. I could tell that the vowel sounded a little different, and she said the letter “d” without resonance. It just stops. My English-teacher friend Natasha tried to school me on this earlier, and I thought I’d gotten the point, but clearly I still need practice.

I’ve told stories like this before to friends who have gotten used to my American accent. They usually tell me that I say мёд just fine, that the problem is with the other guy. One of them repeated it to me today, as I relived my grocery-store trauma. It’s very nice, but I don’t believe it.