Archive for March, 2009


March 31, 2009

Set me free, sleep come free me …

For some reason I have not made the 8-hour transition to Russian time so sleep has been elusive, and the debt piles up. I work long hours here, and after the obligatory meal, I toss and turn. So I jumped at the idea of an exhausting banya before bed. It turns out to be a very Russian, and very male, affair. Dima assured me we are going to a ‘VIP’ banya, and by the time the class sifts out at the end of the day, it is Sergei, Sascha, Dmitriy – 3 very large men and my diminutive self.

Standing at the warped door in the muddy back yard does not look promising, but then little does in Russia. The architecture on the front streets is amazing – the pipes and tiles on the inner courtyards reveal the real state of things: the ongoing neglect, the increasing disparity between the rich and poor that led to the economy grinding to a halt in the US. Inside, the décor downstairs is 50’s gym.

We are given what amounts to a couple of thin hospital sheets and shown to the small changing rooms upstairs. The lounging rooms are walled with 70’s ribbed paneling, the furniture an unfortunate and tired Spanish modern, the art is Maxfield Parrish meets Grimm Brothers meets Motel 8. There is a small 30’s-style (probably last felted then too) pool table. The Russian version of pool seems to allow you to hit any ball toward any other; the cue ball is irrelevant after the first breaking shot. These three guys’ huge frames tower over the table, and they hit the balls too hard to sink them, frequently jumping the table.

The banya, however, is the real thing, an old oven with darkened wood seats like a sauna. They insist that it is not a sauna, but it is at least as hot at a sauna (80 degrees C), and you throw water on hot rocks, and there is a cold plunge pool just outside. Back and forth we go – banya, plunge pool, pool table – until I am dizzy and dreamy. For those of us familiar with joys of a real wood Finnish sauna (as opposed to those annoying electrical or infrared ones), the unique feature of banya, it seems, is to be beaten about the body with branches. The favored birch not being available, my friends use ‘doob’ – a form of round-leaved oak, as far as I could see. The tied-together twigs, about the size of a tennis racket, are covered in soft-leaves and soaked first, so it is not a seriously scratchy operation. The method involves shaking the water out of the leaves over your body, and then thumping you resoundingly (lest anything other than brotherly love be implied) in various patterns.

I was told that I was done in Siberian style, and then some other style of an old Russian region whose name I could not transliterate, but if there was a difference to the pattern or vigor of the slaps and whacks, I could not discern it. Red, stimulated, and eyes wandering in my head all at the same time, I was glad I did not have to drive. Dima, of course, wanted to go eat and have vodka after this, but I put my foot down, drawing on my seniority and status as a presenter, and insisted on being dropped at the hotel, where I finally fell deeply and immediately asleep, having only the presence of mind to ask for a wake up call (itself a fraught activity over the phone – finally I just went to the desk, mimed phone, and wrote down 8 o’clock. The call came at 8:15 – on time Russian style.)

TOMAC MANEPC(my name in Cyrillic)



March 29, 2009

It’s amazing how close the tolerances are in the mouth.  Open and close your mouth (in a milling way, the way you really chew, not just open and close like a hinge) and feel how the teeth ‘guide’ – certain surfaces on the top match certain ones on the bottom, especially via the canines.  This is such a familiar neurological feeling that we go back to it even at the cost of maintaining TMJ dysfunction. Intra-oral work to fix the jaw is sometimes unsuccessful if the client returns to the same guiding patterns that resulted in the problem in the first place.  It is necessary to retrain how the sub-conscious experiences the meeting of the teeth.

Today I bit on the inside of my lip, and resulting swelling feels huge.  I turn my lip down in the mirror, and I cannot even see a lesion, but I can certainly feel it, and the tendency to find that piece of lip between my incisors and re-do the injury is very strong.

SP: Inconvenient

March 29, 2009

St Petersburg is not a city built for rain.  Long white nights or snow and darkness, yes; but rain flows down from the gutters across the pocked sidewalks, taking one’s eye from the stunning architecture to the dirty streets.  I am so tired I am stumbling – little sleep on the plane, little sleep on the first night in the room beside the traffic (air or noise? you decide).  But I cannot say “Please deliver me to my hotel”, it is not ‘convenient’, and I must go to dinner at a Georgian restaurant.  Very good food, and Armenian music reminiscent of Peter Gabriel’s Last Temptation score, but I am literally holding my head up.

St Petersburg redux

March 28, 2009

Back in the land of the Cyrillic alphabet.  (I won’t repeat the charms of this city – see for previous posts on St Petersburg.)

CNTNBAHK seems to be doing much better here than in the US.  In the corridor outside my hotel room is a door marked in Russian, with a helpful plaque in English: ‘Stuff Only’

30 hours running, and a class to teach tomorrow, better get some sleep.


March 28, 2009

Although another trip through another airport into an economy seat on a full plane from Logan to Schiphol doesn’t figure into my idea of a good time, this send-off was leavened by a departure lounge visit from my daughter.  After the usual dancing around the immediate topics of papers due, courses anticipated, news and views, and fatherly grunts, there was – initiated by her – a moment of such extraordinary closeness that overwhelmed me – us both, I think – with fellow feeling.  Arms gripped, faces wet past utch either’s shoulder, sterna pulsing together as if they would blend.

So full was I of love for her – always, but seldom does it surface with such force – that I forgot completely what I usually do at the end, as a substitute sop for real love: give her money.  I got on the plane with a full heart and full wallet, and she went her way back along the lines of the mass transport of Boston, no richer in her pocket, but God! I hope she took some of that fullness with her.


March 21, 2009

Finally, home.  Been here for less than 24 hours since the 18th of February, more than a month. The last two weeks I have lived a strange discipline, staying in a plastic hotel wedged between two freeways.  One student, seeing her urbanized city through my eyes tried to get me to run in the ravine that surrounds Toronto, or the park not too far from my hotel, but with a writing deadline over my head, I limit myself to long hours of teaching and then long hours in the hotel, running on a treadmill and rarely seeing the outside during my whole time there.

Whacked with lack of sleep, delayed planes, and stale air, I walked out in our woods in the late afternoon to where a corridor of sunlight sneaks through the trees to fall across what our local water witch (she’s 90, and has saved our wells three times already) calls an Indian burial ground, a power spot.  I have taken it as the place of my ancestor guides, whether it is or not, and I lay down where the sun has melted the snow down to last year’s leaves, where my bare and ample belly can touch the living earth.

May be signs of spring abound where you are, but here the winter lingers.  For all the cold we’ve had, I can feel through my body that the ground is not frozen more than two feet down.  The ever-lovin’ planet pulls the dreck from me and restores a bit of sanity.

Oddly, having seldom seen another living soul in my walks and skis all winter, on this one day I run into Rick, the retired Marine chaplain restoring his grand-dad’s hapless house, and have to hear his unending tales of woe with the foundation, the drains, the timbers, the setbacks, the plans for a house that he will never, in the opinion of his neighbours, occupy.  What I hear is loneliness, and I linger longer than I should, deliberately opening my belly to let some of his dammed up feeling flow in with his words, and letting some of the energy I got from the guides flow back.  He relaxes and expands – his life, months on end in his camper is more restricted than mine in the hotel – and he won’t let me go, “And look at this…”

Walking through the rest of the woods to the wind-scoured hilltop to view at least the afterglow of the sunset over the river, the old snow holds me up.  The ice is still thick enough on the lake for the ATV’s, the fields are tundra.  Thank you, Earth, but now, here, awaken! while I sleep the clock around.


March 19, 2009

A strikingly vivid dream of living in a mountain kingdom – timeless, like Nepal, with no cars or electrics of modernity.  In the dream I pass years of walking the paths among the grey rock and climbing among the sparse trees under blue white skies of sere clear air.   Our houses are stone towers with spiral stairs, the carpets rough but warm, the food simple and nourishing, the footwear homemade of elken skin, the language a variant of German, the talk of projects to help the community or some troubled member.  The outside world is present beyond our view but it never impinges.  It is another, simpler life than mine own.

Second half, somehow, of the same dream: I have been convicted and sentenced in the accidental death of a girl, a young woman.  Not someone I knew, maybe I hit her with a car; that part is dim.  I am being led to my death.  It has all happened very suddenly; there has been no time for anyone in my regular life to show up – my daughter, especially, I wish to see one more time, but the forces of Zeus and Pluto are implacable.  We go into this tiny office – we are back in the modern world, it could be any large building’s small room: industrial carpet, light wooden door, fake wood-veneer table, neither threatening nor beautiful – where I learn there will be no reprieve.

A woman I don’t know (in retrospect I recognize her as a professor I once knew in Cambridge), convicted of something else, is killed in front of me by a blow to the lower stomach – it seems a moment of pain, but a surprisingly easy and quick death.

I expect the same, but I am to be executed by lethal injection.  I ask to pee first – I don’t want to die with that urge – and I am allowed to walk on my own through the rest of the office.  There are dozens of people – white-collar workers, women mostly, averting their eyes; they know my fate.  There is the sense that everyone I am passing knows that the death I caused was more accidental, but justice must be done.  No one is holding me, but my dignity will not allow me to make a useless run for the doors. It seems to take forever and monumental effort to find and use the toilet and come back – everything is in slow motion, the air as thick as honey, the vivid last appreciation of the totally mundane.

It seems the life that I have had – which seems to combine this life and the life in the mountain village as well – has come to this useless end, a pointless god-joke.  I want to pray, but it seems the gods already have me in their hand, so I prepare myself for whatever comes next – no clear sense of what that will be.  I see them getting the large needle ready, and as it approaches my arm I wake up, drained and grateful for the hotel clock.

Great Lake

March 11, 2009

I favor waterside venues for our classes, and the Argonaut Rowing Club has a string of windows overlooking Lake Ontario, which was whipped into a frenzy by the west wind today.  The dirty green chop tried to reach us, gripping the jetty with fingers of foam; the wind, as in Cape Town southeasterlies, scything the tops off the waves, moaning in glee and throwing the spray at the building. No weather for oarsmen; too much even for sailing… well, maybe with a double reef, a good hand on the sheets, and an able boat.  And gloves – as 3 degrees above freezing makes a change from the 38 (100F or so) to which I became accustomed in South Africa.

No rest for the wicked, as I unspool the fascial song and dance for another class. It’s becoming too familiar – time to reinvent my work again.

ZA Postscript: Passport Kontrol

March 11, 2009

My friend A suddenly stood up and went to bed.  In someone else, I would have interpreted it as pique, but he just didn’t want the conversation to tail off into those empty things you say when you are leaving and you don’t know when you’ll see each other again.  In the same spirit, I silently gathered my things in the dawn and slipped out the driveway before he awakened.

I thought I would be pressed for time, but it was not to be.  Retracing my steps into Cape Town’s heat, as hot as blood, I got the rental car settled and took the couple of hours hop to Jo’burg, checked in, went to the Mugg & Bean to do a few emails (this is my 4th time in this airport this trip), and when I returned to go through security, I had no passport.

I am quite unconsciously careful of such things, being fairly experienced at travel, but either the agent never gave it back to me, or it slipped out or – this is Johannesburg – someone lifted it deftly from my jacket.  That desperate feeling – going through everything six times, running back through the airport to everywhere I had been.  Of course I was mortified and enraged with myself at such a stupid error, but what to do?  A helpful agent got my luggage off the plane in case it had slipped in there, and then the plane was gone, the airport deserted, I feel grimy and suddenly worn down in immunity where I had felt strong until that moment.  How fragile is our physiology, our psychoneuroimmunology!

I had fancied that I was reluctant to descend back into the maelstrom of more travel, more teaching, even the varied demands of home, after the few days in the whispering desert.  But not going back was worse by far.  And what about my trip to Canada on Monday, and the Russian visa?  I missed home with an ache that was all too palpable.

But there was nothing to do but take a cab downtown, toss and turn through a night at the hotel, and show up at the American consulate at 8am.  Armed with Tammy’s faxed documents, I got the new passport in a couple of hours.  I had my taxi driver, Sam, wait, and it was a good thing – when I finally got to the head of the line, I could not take my computer in under any circumstances.  I left my backpack in the taxi, and went inside to do battle with the bureaucrats.

While I was inside for these hours (they had numbers, but they called them in utterly chaotic fashion, you had no idea when you would be called), I hoped fervently that Sam would remain outside with my computer, and more money than I would like him to have known was in the pack.  I was counting on him wanting the follow-on fares, and, sure enough, there he was when I emerged.  I could have kissed him – or anyone, so glad was I to have a passport, however temporary.

My wanderlust is utterly sated – I spent the day by the hotel pool, reading and content to withdraw from any engagement with the sociology of South Africa.  Sun, quiet, a book, and with my passport on me at all times, my hand was going to my pocket more often than a 15-year-old boy.

But this rime it was all alright, and I made it home to Misty and Quan and the cats for a 24-hr blitz of changing suitcases, before finding myself in this hotel in Canada, awaiting my next class. But for this last screw-up, South Africa is a dream, a good dream.

ZA 8: Schwartburg Pass

March 5, 2009

A is up unusually early, and we are on the road up the valley not too long after the sun is.  It soon winds into a cool defile, towered over by the swirls of red sedimentary rock.  We climb up and up the road, built by African prisoners under Boer control.  (Later, I visit the Boer-run museum, and there is nothing about the workers – all about the white engineers and the bosses, but not one picture of the work being done.  This country, its Truth and Reconciliation Commission notwithstanding, still, like Germany, prefers to forget a lot of its past.)

Unbelievably in this treeless landscape, there is water, occasionally in the central riverbed we cross and recross, occasionally off a rock wall as we ess around a climbing curve.  Finally it opens up on the higher ridges.

This is the world the word ‘primeval’ defines, with its hidden middle word of ‘heave’ for the great tectonic forces that shaped it when all the land was just cocoa skim on the molten center of the planet. As it cooled, the skim thickened, water fell, laid down great sediments, which were piled upon pressure producing slates of shale, itself upended, and water worked again.  The folding is of giants; the air has ancient smells hidden in its dust.

In the desolate area near the top, we come upon a couple of new houses, Boer style – they must be a research station or something, no one could live out here.  In Switzerland it could be the last cattle chalet, but here there’s been nothing but bad dirt road for miles.


Just above is a picnic ground, but inexplicably it is littered by tree stumps with blackened roots.  How can this be, with no trees visible down thousands of feet of slope? Further investigation finds other sawed off stumps still in the ground – this was a stand of trees, and they have been cut down for lumber, I guess, and the stumps left to attest to this silly – doesn’t matter, black or white, this is sad and disheartening – waste of a desert landscape’s one copse of trees.  Later we come upon another, where some kind of underground ledge has backed up the water to make a good stand of thick trees, gone, nothing but stumps – even if they replant, it will be 100 years.


On the other side of the pass is a dramatic fall of scree, into a verdant panorama of lush farms up into the soft folds of the nearest hills, but the row upon row of these valleys stretching back, each bluer than the last – now it’s California: this is Sonoma writ large.


As we descend into the valley, which is more touristy than Prins Albert, we come across an animal farm.  The small trickle of water in the upper reaches have been harvested, ponds created, camels are there for riding, ponies, goats among the palms – the whole thing as lush and tacky as a Florida roadside attraction.  Who knows who’s running it now, but this is originally a Boer farm, carved out of what was as arid as the other side, now full of animals and prolific gardens surrounding a couple of solid Dutch houses.  We drop into a canyon again and are just as suddenly back in the dry chapparal, the sudden little vision of a Shangri-La hidden away within these sucked dry soils in these red folded mountains..

In the end, it was a Boer farmer who hiked up into those hills a couple of hundred years ago and set about making that spot into something beautiful.  Having come set against the Boers and the Afrikaaners, I have come to a grudging respect for their dedication to the land and conservation, if not for their recent forms of governmental control.

The other end is the small town of Oudtschoorn in the middle of the valley.  The kind of middle class security one wants to promote in South Africa (but not to live in, too provincial) – we stop for a drink and a stretch.  The parking attendant (they are self-appointed, but a regular service, even in this small town we saw three) asks if A is voting DA in the upcoming election. (Democratic Alliance is white Cape Town party, actually a pretty good chance for a sensible government, but this was the first black DA proponent I had seen).

A, intrigued, asked him why he was voting for DA. “We’ve got to get rid of the kaffirs” – in Afrikaans, this is more outlandish than our N-word, but of course the speaker is black, and continues: “Will you vote for the local candidate?”

“And who would that be?”

Tapping his reflective vest, “That would be me.”

On the way back via the roadway, we do pick up a hitchhiker, Mathies.  He is thumbing over 700 kliks / 500 miles to take a job in Kimberlee.  He has to be there by Monday to take up work as a security guard.  We get him 40 kliks shorter, down at the black end of main street, in the baking noonday sun.


I have oversimplified this whole situation in South Africa, completely eliding the distinction – one we do not make at home – between ‘black’ and ‘colored’.  Isaac is colored, even the parking attendant, as black as ever I have seen a man, is ‘colored’ – mixed race.  In the US, we have just elected a mulatto – half-white, half-black – but there was never any question that he was anything other than ‘black’ to us.  This man has every intention, based on his words, of governing from the center right (by any European standard), but it is assumed that because he is black, he is just waiting to take us to the political left.  I don’t think so, and I wish we could get around these stereotypes to begin to look at people.

Isaac is a colored man with blue eyes (working for A, an Egyptian with blue eyes).  Barack has dark eyes and a white education.  As the aspiring Southern white politician said, “I may have white skin, but inside my heart is as black as yours.”