On 09/11/2001 I woke up feeling extremely worried. It was the day of the first class in a course for hotline volunteers. How terrifying that this was ten years ago. It was on the very cusp of my adult life. I was starting tenth grade, and was technically younger than the required 16, but had been accepted nonetheless, and was now facing a class in a new place with a roomful of strangers who would, in all likelihood, be older than me. A set of circumstances to cause anxiety in a fussy teen concerned with first impressions, if ever there was one.
As I was getting ready to go, something caught my eye on the TV. It was footage of a plane flying directly into a very tall building. I had no idea what the building was, but I was knowledgeable enough in aerodynamics to know that this was not supposed to be happening. The footage repeated several times, slowed down to give me a chance to study every detail of the fuzzy picture. There were clouds of dust billowing from the building. It was folding into itself. I was being late.
It transpired, however, that I was one of the first to arrive. We sat on chairs arranged in a circle in the attic that would go on to house us, with our bonding, learning, and frustrations, two nights a week, rain or shine, for over a year (and then another year for me, five years later, when I had to repeat the course, having abandoned the hotline in favor of 10th grade exams, and then returned, tired of regretting that choice). We knew none of that yet. We were feeling awkward: two, then three, four people who knew nothing about each other, sitting around waiting. The only common topic we could find was what we had all seen on TV that morning, some having watched more than others.
So we sat there for half an hour, talking about the plane crashing into the building. Some knew more about the event than I did, but I think at that time nobody knew for sure. We thought perhaps war was about to break out. We speculated on whether this had been done on purpose or not. The older members of our incomplete circle explained some things, but I, conscious of being the youngest and wishing to appear clever (my perpetual goal as a teen), did not ask many questions, choosing to pronounce important-sounding opinions instead.
What I learned only weeks later was that one of the people in that circle, a young man who went on to be a good friend of mine, a crush even, was in fact studying to be a firefighter. He was learning all the skills which did not help the men and women who perished saving lives on 09/11, and he was doing it at a school which was, as I discovered, a bus stop away from my parents’ home. He went to the U.S. later for a work and travel program, saying he was sick of fighting fires. I do not know what became of him. I am not sure why this feels important and symbolic, but it does.
The world is small. It is very small and full of coincidences and connections. There is also much evil in the world. That in itself is not frightening. It is as it should be, perhaps. What is frightening, though, is the links that run through everything and everyone, and connect the evil to the good with ties which are impossible to sever. You never know, never can know, who and what will tip the scale that final little bit for the good to pull irreparable evil after it. This is what is scariest to me about 09/11, and I understood or contemplated none of it ten years ago.
The duality of its interpretations – one seeing it as the poetic story of unconditional love between a boy and his tree, and the other as the darkly faithless portrait of a selfish boy who keeps on taking from a tree that keeps on giving – illustrates some of the longest-running debates of moral philosophy: Is there such a thing as true altruism, and are human beings innately kind and selfless or innately unscrupulous and selfish? (We choose to side – and live – with the former.)
What do you think? I’m afraid I have to subscribe to the latter notion—not of humanity in general, but of this story—, although I generally believe in giving people the benefit of the doubt (and often chide A. for being prone to jumping to a pessimistic conclusion). But in this case I really cannot make a case for the boy. This kind of “user mentality” is repugnant. There is no way for me to see past the boy driving the tree further and further down with his passive-aggressive demands.
The greatest danger of reading this book as the story of a selfless tree which rejoices in giving, therefore, is that with this idea comes a justification of the boy’s behaviour, interpreting it, I guess, as gratitude and acceptance of the tree’s benevolence. This is too much of a price to pay for teaching a child that giving is necessary and enjoyable, which message is, in my view, of lesser priority than that of not abusing kindness and practising gratitude and humility.
If ever I have a child, I believe I will read this book with him, and the character I will emphasize shall not be the mono-dimensional, unequivocally good if overly submissive tree. It will be that of the manipulative ingrate who learns at an early age to emotionally bully kinder people into giving him whatever he wants at great cost to themselves. My message will be both Do Not Be That Boy and Do Not Be That Tree—never let anyone do you such an injustice.
A famous Russian designer and as of late, blogger, renames his blog every week with a random quote from spam. The provenance of this post’s title is the same. For some reason, spammers have been insisting on addressing me as Mr. When I was younger, so much younger than today, I would have rejoiced in this mistake, as my greatest grievance was that I’d been born a girl.
Boys do have it so much better, in every respect, from the obvious fact that boys’ clothes, footwear, and accessories are more beautiful than girls’, to the convenient use of upright objects for emergency relief, to not having baby-making factories inside, to a simpler way with exercise, to being able to do certain things without looking funny or too butch, to so many other things.
As a child, I always identified with the male characters in books: they had all the fun, experienced character growth while being forced to perform heroic feats at an early and unprepared age, and so on, while girls were usually portrayed as wimpy, clingy, and histrionic. There would always be a younger sister who’d latch herself onto the hero and make him bring her everywhere. Dump her into a ditch!, I would think.
Being a girl sucks in comparison to being a boy. I may have said it here before. This is the kind of thing I think about a lot. It’s probably 85% stereotype, but I stand by it. And just now in Gtalk someone said “were I a girl…” in regard to something completely unrelated, but it still made me laugh.
Someone said that you become an adult when you have to start working harder for your income and spend it on vital necessities, not on fun. I may add that you become even more acutely aware of adulthood when the additional income you get (by moonlighting or accepting temporary jobs) goes towards the bills and not toys and treats like before.
Also when people stop asking you what you want to do when you grow up and begin asking what you want to do next year.
Today’s strange observation — graffiti conversation in a girls’ bathroom stall at university:
– I want to go to Harvard.
– Well, I want to go to Ravenclaw, so effing what?
– I’m perfectly happy at Slytherin, it’s super!
– People, Harvard is not the same as Hogvard. (sic)
– We know it’s not, but they’re both FAR AWAY :)
– Yes, but Harvard is closer.
– No it’s not, Harvard is in the U.S., and Hogwarts is in the U.K.
So there’s that.
I wonder what the life of someone who works carrying a sandwich board ad in Moscow is like.
He (let him be a man, though women seem to be just as many in the job) lives in a dinky flat on the very edge of the huge metropolis: twenty minutes by bus from the last tube station. The flat is small and gets quite chilly, but it is all he can afford with the rent so high these days – he was not one of the few people actually born in the city and is forced to settle for what little is available.
The owner is a lady in her fifties who wears brown cardigans, paints her nails red a tad too infrequently, and hardly ever shows up at the place, preferring instead to pick the money up every month somewhere on the metro. All the furniture reeks of a mixture of heavy perfume, cat piss, and age. Most of it is brown, the rest – of an indeterminate colour. Nothing matches, not even things that supposedly once came in a set. This may be for the best.
In the morning the tenant wakes up in a bed of flowered sheets, walks the cold floor to the cold bathroom, switches on the light, and brushes his teeth while staring at his reflection in the mirrored drug cabinet above the sink. Toothpaste water splashes onto the mirror, and his face looks as though there are white blotches on it. Shaving feels like too much of a hassle more often than not; probably, nobody looks at a walking sandwich board’s face anyway.
After a breakfast of salami sandwiches and tea (yesterday’s cold slimy leaves in a teapot which lacks a lid, a handle, and any sort of high tea glamour) he heads out. Though it is quite early, the bus is packed, and then so is the metro carriage. People knock and shove each other, trying to make way for their bags and paperbacks. It takes a while to get to the office, where the board is waiting, stored somewhere with dozens of its siblings. He works his head through it, then adjusts the straps.
Outside, the tourists have not woken up yet, and the working people only look at the ground they’re treading in case of encountering gum, litter, or someone they know but would rather not notice. The day is spent dragging his feet time and time again around the block, or repeating whatever the sandwich board says in a dull hollow voice, pestering the people who come out of the underground crossing. Every flyer he hands out gets thrown into the nearby bin or to the ground, never read, much like the board he is wearing.
When it is time to get home, he is worn out and angry. On the tube back home, he kicks and shoves with a vengeance, and does not get up to offer his place even to the oldest, most frail of grandmas. He does not call anyone; there is nobody to call. He watches tv for a while, eating something from a can, then makes some tea for there to be something stale to drink the next morning, goes to sleep, and dreams of being tired.
Or maybe it is all entirely different.
On a house not that far from my own there is a graffiti: A.V. + J.U. 4EVER? Just like that, with a big fat question mark. It strikes me as deep and tongue-in-cheek at the same time, like someone challenging eternity with a can of spray-paint. ‘Oh yeah,’ they seem to be saying, ‘you think you’ll be together till death do you part? I bet there’s an expiration date here somewhere.’ I wonder whether the question mark was pirated on to the love note, or if it was there originally.
It’s summer break, which is weird, because there is nothing much to do, except the daily workout and the two-and-a-half hours I will spend at the hotline every so often. (My first unsupervised shift was today, and boy am I glad that there was a mix-up and I didn’t have to stay for five hours!) I am reading a book or two a day and not really sleeping or eating enough. There is only so much boredom a girl can survive, so I need to come up with somewhere to put myself quickly.
Our laptop is broken again, and no amount of soldering wires to microchips helped this time, plus we lost most of the tiny little screws, so A. took it down to the service shop, and I am browsing on borrowed time. Dad’s laptop is newer than ours and it runs Windows Vista, which is sleek but excrutiatingly stick-prone. It keeps slowing down as if it has forever. Well, a question mark would be right in place there, so please don’t rush to alert the blogging authorities if I’m absent a lot.
This trip turned out to be a learning trip. It was so rich with revelations there was practically no room left for much else.
I learned once again about real friendship, which doesn’t always need to involve personal presence, but is all the more exciting when it does. A friendship I value is a lucky, tricky, strange, full, and happy convergence of two people who couldn’t be more different or more alike. I am lucky to have several of these.
I learned about being the object of the emotions other people usually evoke in myself: concern, kindness, incomprehension, puzzlement, impatience, endless patience, affection, and a desire to share. I haven’t thought much about the way I react to these, and it is probably time to give it more consideration.
I learned a very important lesson about coping with loneliness. I was by myself a lot on the trip, however this was not the self-sufficient solitude of choice, but rather the desolate loneliness of choicelessness. The hours I spent this way left me despairing, with nothing to apply myself to, scared. I want to avoid these.
Finally, I learned something about writing. Someone gave me ‘Lost in Translation’ by Eva Hoffman to read, and the slow, soft, reflective style of someone who went through assimilating a whole new language as their main means of self-expression is an epiphany for me. There is much food for thought in this.
My camera lost its lens today. It just stopped working, and now I feel as if I’ve lost a limb. A very expensive limb, without which the rest of my body won’t function, and sewing it back on will cost me more than I can afford. Probably even more than a whole new limb (I can see my metaphor going weak here, but I stand by it. After all, what are prosthetic limbs for?).
So it got me thinking about material things that I’m attached to enough to let them define me as a person. The things that people identify me with and go ‘Oh, that girl who always carries that thing?’ in conversations. I’m pretty sure this meme exists already, but here goes anyway.
Things that I use (almost) every day
– my glasses
– Nikon D40
– Adidas shower gel (for the gym)
– Nokia 5200 (phone and music box combined)
– thrift store t-shirts
– lip balm
– dorky messenger bags
– face wash
– herbal toothpaste
– different kinds of tea
– tiny elastic bands (for the braces)
– yellow legal pads
– black gel pens
– Skype account (is that material?)
– student ID
– Visa card
– trolleybus pass
I think this is it, the rest is replaceable or interchangeable. How about you? What do you use every day? Which items define you for what you are? I’d be very curious to know.
Just now, my mother handed me, having found it in a book, a chunk of my past. I feel winded. So here’s a text I wrote in Jerusalem, following some of the same past creeping up on me on the one hand, and, on the other, several conversations with friends.
Why do things need to be so goddamn complicated? We look at each other and see, in effect, complications. How can I sleep with her, she’s my best friend – how can I buy this, I earn too little money – how will I graduate, I have no motivation to study – how how how does the world not end when everything is so hard on me – and how, not unsimilarly, do things end so quickly when I want them to go on forever?
Quoth Rufus Wainwright ‘everything I like is just a little bit harmful, a little bit deadly for me’. The human race is inclined to self-mutilate by contemplation. We reflect, and deliberate, and consider, and binge-think – all to our own and everyone else’s damage. Each and every one of us is at some point prepared to hurt another, to hunt them down and eat their fucking heart out (instead of heart, I subconsciously type ‘hurt’), all in the metaphorical sense which, of course, is always worse than the physical.
I, too, have a destructive purpose in life. There can be no happiness, no stability whatsoever, for fear of unbalancing my whole loose rickety construction which holds my life as together as possible ever on the brink of falling apart. This is why I am always so scared; so angry. For this reason I exclude myself from exciting things that could easily determine the rest of my life: I am not ready for the rest of my life to be determined. In fact, I am determined to prevent it at all cost.
Missed calls. Have you ever thought about them in the sense of karma and the noosphere? How every missed call is actually an un-happened conversation; un-happied too. They aggregate just above the space that we humans occupy with our houses and our phones, and eat on our bestial id like everything else that hasn’t happened to us, but could have. Visits count as well. I wonder why we keep calling.
Consider also our promises. How is it that we always promise each other only material, futile things? Gifts and stuff and items and love eternal and fruitful co-operation are all pointless. We never promise each other that we shall speak before we think and say hurtful things and this is going to be the main way we ever express our love and respect for each other, and to be ready. Whereas this is about the only promise we could make with all honesty and respect.
Some people take pride in their truthfulness. They take pictures of themselves without make-up (I never wear any, does that make me especially honest?), and don’t eat meat, and obey orders, and raise their children to be good citizens. Watch me now insult every single person in the whole Western civilization: all this is not honesty. Honesty is admitting that you think your morning face cute; you never liked meat in the first place; you hate initiative – but your children are all your own merit. Honesty is indeed saying it like it is, and not the correct way you think it ought to sound.
God, I hate myself so much now I should go on and kick myself in the nuts. Consider preachers if you will. Their main job is to tell people what to do while they sit in their own shabby fucking hermitage and have no chance whatsoever of committing any wrongdoings. Because they don’t do anything. All they occupy themselves with is talking to people without even the chance to hurt their feelings as everyone could care less what they’re saying.
I am a preacher. I’ll go sit in my hermitage and kick myself in the nuts with such a vengeance that I just might kick myself out into the open. See what I do then, the git.
Remember when I complained about feeling awkward in the locker-room at the gym? That has changed. I have been making amazing discoveries. There is a phenomenon acutely present there which I had never experienced such full contact with before, and it is called womanhood.
The women at the gym are quite an assorted bunch. Some of them are annoying, to tell the truth, but each and every one of them, in her unique way, is a woman, a lady, a female – a girl. The sense of femininity is expressed every second, in their every move and action, in their very being.
I can see women standing before mirrors, gingerly poking their sides to see how they’ll look when they lose several pounds. I can see them stealing furtive glances at other women, comparing, envious, gloating, compassionate. I notice that their choice of undergarments is telling.
A woman of about 60 is putting on her swimsuit after a workout. When the slick fabric covers the bumps and scars of age, work, and motherhood, she becomes another happy ageless girl in the bubble bath – just like the three-year old next to her, come with her mom, laughing loud and hard.
In the locker-room, everyone shares – the space and ergo, for just a moment, their life. As I stand before the full-length mirror (alas, no such luxury at home), I see reflections of women leaning against lockers, drying themselves, chatting and giggling at each other, sorting their belongings.
After the workout, the girls gradually transform out of sharing mode, they cover themselves in layers: body cream, then underwear, clothes, accessories, packed bags, lastly a business-like air. They walk out into the lobby and call their assorted boys to pick them up and back into their lives.
Still, a girl, I’ve found out, is always a girl: when she adds a little extra wiggle to her salsa hips – the instructor is a handsome, amiable guy – and when she blushes in the locker-room, surrounded for the first time by casual nudity. When she lingers in the shower, and when she rushes out, hair still dripping.
I used to say I was unfeminine. In our first months together, A. never gave me flowers, because he thought I’d hate them. He was surprised to learn that I actually liked receiving flowers from him. I am now equally surprised to find myself doing all those things I just described. What do you know – I am, too, a girl.
I finished reading Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by J. S. Foer on Saturday. It’s an amazing book. Among other things, it taps into the issue of boundaries when it comes to tragedy. There is a sense of (property? level of belonging?) about every kind of event, sad ones perhaps most of all.
Let me explain: it is possible to grade the connection one has with something like 9/11. There are the people who lost family members and friends, there are the ones that fought to save lives, then the ones who were close by, but the damage they suffered was limited to psychological trauma, the ones who live in a city whose changed skyline reminds them every day of the tragedy, the ones who lost the sense of safety in their country, the ones who were dumbstruck with fear and compassion, but were physically far away – and so on.
And when you think of it in terms of art (specifically literature) the question arises of the moral position in which one stands when one writes about something – and then reads what the other has written. It is difficult, I imagine, to write about something like 9/11 and not be scrutinized by the people whose pain level is higher than yours, whose sense of (property? again that word) may be offended by your interpretation, however good or poor, just because you are not as close as they are, so how can you understand and what right do you have to? It’s a huge responsibility, and Safran Foer handles it remarkably well, I think.
From yet another point of view, once you’ve faced the challenge of writing about something from a certain level of connection (is this still making sense?), you have then created a bridge for people from other levels to connect through. See, I, the reader, have not experienced 9/11 from as close as the author did, and he, in his book, describes an even more intimate experience than his own. This way I get a look at what it was like through the filter of my own memories and his.
What I’m trying (and failing miserably) to say is that a sensitive topic such as this has a sort of field of conditions around it which are incredibly hard to match; reading the work of someone who has managed to do that leaves a deep effect on someone who, prior to this, had no possibility nor moral grounds to experience that effect.
I am thankful for the fact that this book left me devastated for a day, because that brought me nearer to understanding the devastation that people closer to the tragedy felt for a much longer time – and are possibly still feeling.
NB! Please understand that I am not aiming to offend anyone – anything that you find hurtful is probably just clumsy wording on my part. Please let me know so I can try and rephrase it. I do not in any way imply to pass any kind of judgment in this post, all I’m doing is reflecting on my own feelings determined by a set of assumptions which may or may not be correct.
When one begins to associate oneself with photography in some way, one’s mode of looking at life inevitably changes, dividing the flow of everything around into a series of stills. Some of these stills one is lucky enough to capture – those go into the portfolio. Others remain unphotographed (do check out that project). The only place they go is into the amazing album of memory, tagged maybe with a shade of disappointment, a feeling of could-have-been.
Perhaps it is no coincidence that the usual verb for producing a picture is take. A picture is meant to be carried away to store somewhere, to return to years from now – to reminisce over. Some believe that to be photographed is to lose part of your soul – that part is taken away by the photographer. People often link even the most ephemeral or spiritual matters with material things, like photos. So when one misses out on taking a picture, it is natural to be disappointed.
The photos I could have taken today were, among others: – A young woman, hurrying down a downtown street with a large empty glass frame in her hands. Who knows what will go under that glass. – A man, sitting alone inside a bus belonging to the military orchestra. What a feeling of contrast when you think of the main feature of such bands, their populousness. – A shabby board: ‘Restaurant for those who love their stomachs’. No restaurant in sight.
Maybe some things are best left, not taken. A material anchor has its benefits, but a memory can become even more interesting as it fades, changing one’s past as it transforms with time.
I want to share this story that’s been bugging me for a while. Last year, when we were learning in Jerusalem, most of the people surrounding us were American. Including my chevruta (Jewish traditional for ‘study partner’). A very nice guy, he was excellent to study with, very cool with most of the odd things I did, until one day we were talking about something and I was telling him I’d forgotten something.
And I said ‘well, you know me, I have sclerosis.’ Which is a normal expression in Russian, meaning ‘I’m very forgetful’.
Only my chevruta didn’t know that. He gasped, went literally green, and it took me several seconds to realize what was wrong and explain. I apologized, saying that I realized how awful this must have sounded, how terrible this expression was, and how disgustingly I had behaved. All he said was: ‘Yeah that was awful!’ Not just awful, it was a dumb thing to do and I’ve been regretting that moment ever since.
Yesterday I was fuming about someone being incredibly inconsiderate and obnoxious to someone else. I was all, shut up, there’s no excuse for what you are doing! But now I realize – it’s not always that easy to be considerate. That’s not to say it’s okay to treat people like crap, but just sometimes it’s good to remember my own mistakes before I judge. So it’s a quiet day for me today as I think about these things.