I grew up in Montana, a state where high school basketball was a thing as strong as family or work, and Jonathan Takes Enemy, a member of the Crow (Apsáalooke) Nation was the best basketball player in the state. He led Hardin High, a school with years of losing tradition, into the state spotlight, carrying the team and the community on his shoulders all the way to the state tournament where he averaged 41 points per game. He created legends that decades later are still spoken of in state basketball circles, and he did so with a fierceness that made me both fear and respect him. On the court, nothing was outside the realm of his skill: the jumpshot, the drive, the sweeping left-handed finger roll, the deep fade-away jumper. He could deliver what we all dreamed of, and with a venom that said don’t get in my way.

chronology_of_water_121_200

Given a choice between grief and nothing, I choose grief.”
—William Faulkner

I wasn’t prepared for this memoir, this baptism by fire that Lidia Yuknavitch pours out onto the pages of The Chronology of Water (Hawthorne Books). I was aware of the controversy about the exposed breast on the cover, the grey band of paper wrapped around the book to appease those who can’t stand to see such obscenity. I was lured in by the glowing testimonials of authors I know and respect, people like Chuck Palahniuk, Monica Drake, and Chelsea Cain (who writes the introduction), her close-knit group of fellow authors, her workshop, support group, therapy and champions. But no, I wasn’t prepared for her voice—the power, the lyrical passages, and the raw, crippling events that destroyed her youth, but made her the woman she is today: fearless, funny, honest, and kind. By not being prepared, the opening lines hit me hard, and I in fact stopped for a moment, realizing that this was going to be bumpy ride, a dark story, but one that held nothing back. So I took a breath, and I went under:


It was a packed house. Every seat full, a sea of expectant and exuberant faces in the courtyard of the Korphe mosque in the mountains of the Himalayas, eagerly awaiting the evening’s main event. Greg Mortenson, famous the world over for his work bringing the opportunity of a better life to the children of the world and best-selling author of the book “Three Cups of Tea and Some Salted Nuts” was about to take the podium. An affable, easygoing man, possessing a quiet grace, a stoic charisma grown from his years of naming, claiming, and shaming the world’s great mountain summits.

Mortenson takes the stage, with a little skip and an endearing oafish clumsiness. There’s an aura of sincerity emanating off him like cheap after-shave. He’s a mountain climber, a special breed. He begins to speak.

“I was halfway through my descent” he intoned, “when I became separated from my sherpa. The seatbelt light had turned on and he had to return to business class, far down the narrow, serpentine trail. I was alone in first class. I didn’t see him again for a long time. There I was, in seating group A, walking alone down the boarding tunnel of gate K2 in the northern terminal of the O’Hare region, without any of the amenities we take for granted in our daily lives. I hadn’t showered since the Istanbul Marriott, what seemed like an entire world and a lifetime away.”

The audience was listening with rapt attention. Women in their aquamarine burkhas twisted in their seats from the tension. Men nervously fingered the stocks and sights of their Kalashnikovs as the tale unfolded. It was a tale of personal courage. A tale of adversity overcome. It was the story of how one man reached a personal epiphany about his life mission, deep in the middle of a strange land. A land where the value system we take for granted scarcely exists, a place with strange, consonant-poor tribal names: Illinois; Narragansett; Dallas/Ft. Worth; Puerta Vallarta; Acapulco; Hilton Head; Cheyenne; Bozeman. Logan, LaGuardia and LAX. Taking a sip of water from the gourd in front of him on the podium, Mortenson continued.

“I wandered down from Gate K2, alone. As I passed through the ceremonial entrance gates, into ‘The Lobby,’ I found myself in the center of the village. There were children everywhere. They followed me, all 47.33 of them. The people of the village welcomed me, they nursed me back to health with Au Bon Pain and Starbucks. The indigenous food agreed with me: Simple, honest peasant fare, unchanged for hundreds of years. I slept a fitful, deep sleep, occasionally waking to find that there were 13.75 children leaning over the backs of their chairs, peering into my sleeping face. I approached one of the elders of the village, an aged, wise black man wearing the ceremonial rainbow colored robes of leadership. ‘Where are your schools?’ I asked. He replied, ‘man, we is OLD-SKOOL round these parts.’ He took me over to see the children scratching their lessons into etch-a-sketches and Gameboys. I felt my heart fill with a sudden flood of emotion, as I suddenly knew my calling. I would come back, I promised. I would come back and establish a NEW school here, with iPads and mp3 players, so that the 87.33 children would have someplace to learn, someplace to grow, some sense of hope and opportunity to illuminate their empty lives of poverty.”

Mortenson made good on his promise. Returning the next year to O’Hare Lobby, he built that school, between the American Airlines Executive Club and the baby changing station. But that isn’t all. He’s made it his life work, and founded an organization, the Canadian American Institute (CAI) to help. He’s built more schools within the North American Airlines Duty Free region than any other organization, breaking down bureaucratic walls and political barriers to do so. To date, he’s visited over 170 international airports, bringing funds and resources to the children there, creating hope.

The talk concludes, and the crowd pushes toward the front of the dusty apricot orchard in the side yard of the mosque, hoping for an opportunity to buy one of Mortenson’s books and get it signed by the author. Mortenson stays late, until the last person in line had come through. The mosque then sends all the women home so that the nightly prayers to Allah could commence. All who attended were inspired by the will and perseverance of Mortenson, who has over the years built CAI into a multi-million rupee organization.

But depending on who you talk to, all is not well in this inspired story of charity and hope. Another climber, who was present for Mortenson’s Jet Stream ascent from LAX to BOS, says that there’s more than a handful of falsehoods, and even outright lies in Mortenson’s story. Richard Branson, a mountaineer with more than a little experience in the areas that Mortenson claims to have worked in, tells a tale of lies, prevarication, and embellishment that paints Mortenson in an entirely different light.

“He’s a complete fake.” says Branson. “He says he was coming off gate K2 that day. Well, K terminal is at O’Hare airport. If you check the flight manifests that day, you find that Mortenson flew into Midway on Virgin Airlines. He was never even in O’Hare Lobby, because Virgin doesn’t even fly into O’Hare.”

And all those schools he says he built? In a recent expose aired by Al Jazeera, investigative reporters went to those airline terminals to find those schools. The O’Hare Lobby school which Mortenson uses in his inspiring story? It’s a broom closet between the American Airlines Executive Lounge and the Baby Changing Station. Al Jazeera asked the locals if they had seen any school activities, and they all just shook their heads. Branson doesn’t mince words.

“He’s a liar and a cheat.” Branson says. “His charity, CAI? Go look at it’s books sometime. They’re a sham. He doesn’t spend money in those airports. He blows it all on his tours here in the middle east. He uses that charity as his personal ATM.”

The muslim faithful in Afghanistan and Pakistan find these allegations troubling. Abdulla Nabal Chandra, a businessman in Kirkut and a large contributor to CAI, is cautious in his assessment.

“He is doing great works, I am sure of it. But the reports coming out in the media cast a cloud on his operations,” Abdulla says in measured tones. “I do find it extremely disturbing that CAI spends almost 60 percent of it’s revenue here at home, in Afghanistan and Pakistan, apparently on promotional activities, with only 40 percent of it’s operational budget going toward it’s stated purpose, the airline terminals in the impoverished western world.”

That sentiment was echoed everywhere we spoke with people. Recent revelations haven’t helped Mortenson’s cause. A photo in his second book, “turning gravel into taxiways” showed him surrounded by armed men, apparently kidnapped by the group, in the traditional garb of the terrorist group, TSA.

“Nothing could be further from the truth,” said Leon Hearst, one of the men in the photo. “He was our honored guest.” Hearst produced a photo of his own, showing the group presenting Mortenson with a tray containing his wallet, keys, laptop computer, and iPhone. “It’s not only a lie, it’s slander.” said Hearst.

Mortenson has recently installed a new executive director for CAI, in an attempt to manage the adverse publicity. Upon taking up the Directorship, she released this statement:

“We don’t dispute that only 40 percent of our operating budget went to North American Airports, and that a full 60 percent was spent here in the mountains of Pakistan and Afghanistan. There is not a shred of impropriety in the spending, we are a completely transparent organization and welcome an external audit.”

Mortenson was steadfast in his own defense.

“We have always, and will continue as an organization, to work tirelessly to bring education and enlightenment to the hotspots of terrorism in Canada and America, to build bridges with books; to break the deadly cycle of hate using stones, mortar, chalkboards and the multiplication tables.”

Smiling, I watched as two kids around the age of seven happily grabbed pieces of the chocolate cake we were trying to unload. I worked in the free sample corner of a California grocery store. Usually my job involved cooking food for this purpose, but whenever we over-ordered a product, it conveniently became that day’s sample. The customers got to try something new and we got rid of our excess goods. Win-win.

The children had run away down an aisle toward the back of the store, presumably in the direction of their legal guardian. I was not yet a mother at the time, but the way people let their little ones run wild in public had always perplexed me. Weren’t they worried about the safety of their offspring? Weren’t they worried about the annoyance of others? Now that I’m a mother, I still don’t understand this lackadaisical approach to childcare, but if you disagree with me we can discuss…wait, what’s that? Oh, sorry. I can’t hear you over the chop-chop-chop of my helicopter parenting. Forgive me.

A woman walked up to my counter with an unpleasant sneer on her face. “What about the kids?” she barked at me. “That was chocolate cake! What about the kids?”

She was obviously angry that I’d given the children sugary food without asking their parents. She was not angry about the fact that the kids were completely without supervision–she was angry at me, the girl who was not allowed to deny anyone a sample, as per the boss’s orders.

If someone stood at the counter eating all of my samples, despite the fact that I got in trouble for an empty tray, I wasn’t allowed to say a thing. When the homeless lady came in daily to eat everything at once (and chug the entire carton of milk supposed to be used as coffee creamer), I had to watch in silence. What this abrasive, snarling soldier in the fight against sugar didn’t realize was that I was not allowed to join her military. I was sugar Switzerland.

But did I say any of this to her? No. Why not? Well, first of all, I needed the job. Arguing with a customer certainly wouldn’t garner me a raise come employee evaluation time. Secondly, I am non-confrontational to a flaw. I don’t like it. It makes my stomach hurt. And last of all, and most importantly, she was being rude. I didn’t deserve to be snapped at because somebody didn’t care enough to make sure their kids weren’t taking candy from strangers.

So what did I do? How did I handle the situation? I’m a bit embarrassed to say because it wasn’t very mature of me. In my defense, I had fifteen years of working customer service jobs with the public under my tired belt, and honestly, my patience with mean people was running on empty. I could still fake sincerity with the best of them, but my years of hoping that people are mostly good at heart were long behind me. My jaded inner Pollyanna was sitting firmly on the steps of her imaginary trailer, chain smoking and hollering ignorant invectives at the neighbors.

My temper in absentia, I did the first passive-aggressive thing that popped into my head. I pretended I didn’t understand her. She had a thick Spanish accent, and the way she was saying “the kids” made it sound like “da keys.” So I went with it.

“The keys? Have you lost your keys? The customer service desk is right over there. If someone has turned in your keys, that’s where they’ll be,” I told her kindly, with a beatific smile plastered pleasantly upon my lying jerk face.

“No! The kids! What about the kids?!” she yelled.

I continued to radiate sweetness and innocence, coupled with a not un-dog-like head turn to let her know that I was confused, yet patiently trying to understand her dilemma. I was here to help.

“Oh no. So…your keys? Did you lose your keys? Well, if you go to the customer service center they can help you find your keys, ma’am.” Still smiling. Apologetic nose crinkle. Blank eyes.

She turned beet red. I could practically see the cartoon steam coming from her ears. “No! The KIDS! The KIDS! The KIDS!” she spluttered at me in fury. Except that because of her accent it came out as: “Da KEYS! Da KEYS! Da KEYS!” So I continued to psychologically poke the crazed woman by acting like I thought she’d lost her keys. Nobody does passive-aggressive like a person working retail. Nobody.

She stormed over to the customer service desk I’d pointed out to her and grabbed a manager. It was Jamie, one of the cooler ones, thank goodness. Her anger really helped my cause, as by the time she dragged him over to my counter she looked completely insane. Meanwhile, I thought about unicorns, emanated rainbows, and adjusted my halo.

“She is so STUPID! She is an IDIOT!” she pointed at me accusingly as I widened my eyes in feigned surprise. I held my hands out at the manager and said, “I’m sorry, Jamie. I thought she lost her keys, but I guess I’m not really understanding what she wants. I was just trying to help.”

“That’s okay. How can I help you, ma’am?” he inquired, turning to her politely.

Behind my manager’s back, I gave her a very different smile from the friendly “eediot” smile I’d been giving as I pretended to not understand for what she was berating me. This smile knew she’d been saying “kids” and not “keys” all along. This smile was shotgun-married to the hardened gleam in my eyes and knew the score. This smile whispered “Fuck you” as it passed you in a crowd and kept walking. It was at that moment she knew I’d been messing with her the whole time, and when she realized she wasn’t going to get me in trouble, she became even more enraged.

Without attempting to further thwart my agenda for the corruption of angelic children via evil chocolate cake, she immediately demanded that he refund her money and take back the bag of groceries she’d purchased. Like some sort of sugar police officer noticing a violation while off-duty, she had actually been walking out of the store when the kids took my samples. Now she stormed over to a register with Jamie for the refund, and then flounced out of the building, loudly announcing that she’d never shop in our store again.

(It never fails to amaze me when irate customers say this, as if the employees will take it as an insult. What we’d really like is a promise. Maybe even a legally binding document stating that you will never, ever come back. Please. Do it for the kids.)

The Chocolate Cake Incident happened in Los Angeles, the land of the body-conscious and health-minded. A few years later, I met the man who would become my husband, and we had a baby. To give our child a backyard in which to play, we moved to Oklahoma, the home of the not-so-body-conscious and not-so-health-minded. Sugar flows freely here. Gravy abounds.

In Oklahoma, nobody screams at me for feeding children chocolate cake. In Oklahoma, I am treated like a hippie freak for eating mostly fruits and vegetables, and not really liking meat or processed foods. I am sometimes appalled on play dates with other kids when their mothers hand them unnatural junk foods, or as I recently witnessed, pull out a bag of marshmallows for them to eat with their Capri Sun high-fructose corn syrup waters.

Because it seems to be everywhere, we try to keep the sugar to a dull roar at home without being weird about it. We figure that if we don’t give our son too much daily sugar, it will be a nice treat when he receives it at school or from his grandparents. I recognize that it is my job as his parent to teach him to eat well so that he won’t become an adult with obesity and poor diet-related health issues. But I’d like to do this without making him feel so deprived he winds up overcompensating for all the desserts he missed once he’s grown up. You know. Moderation.

My husband took our son with him to run an errand at the DMV this weekend. As they waited in line, a kind stranger bought our boy a gumball from a nearby machine. My husband was perturbed by the presumption that it was okay to give someone’s child sugar without asking. When he told me about it, I was bothered more that they gave an unknown child gum, as it was only months ago we could finally start trusting him to not swallow it.

As we discussed this, it occurred to me that we had become the sugar police. We were now the concerned adults whining about giving too much sugar to children. I immediately remembered the time I was on the non-parent side in Los Angeles, and tried to put myself into the shoes of the woman who’d chewed me out for giving chocolate to children six years ago. Was she right? Should I have risked losing my job to take the cake away from the unsupervised kids? Had I unknowingly set the obesity and diabetes wheels in motion for them? Should I have explained that my job required me to give samples away to everyone? Had I been too cruel as I pretended I didn’t understand what she was saying to me?

Nah. That lady was a bitch.



In the documentary film Bad Writing, filmmaker and one-time bad writer Vernon Lott culls the worst of his early poetry from boxes stashed in his mother’s basement and subjects them to the scrutiny of literary greats including Margaret Atwood, David Sedaris, Nick Flynn, Yusef Komunyakaa, and Lee Gutkind. That’s right.The likes of George Saunders, Steve Almond, Claire Davis, and D. A. Powell all sat knee to knee with Lott and reacted to the likes of this:

Ich bin ein Berliner

It’s the early 90s and the Berlin Wall is being sold off in numbered chunks.  One piece now takes centre stage in Singapore’s Bedok Reservoir Park.  Another, I’ve been told, is somewhere out there floating in space.  Apparently, Ripley’s Believe it or Not currently possesses the largest unbridled Berlin Wall brick collection on the planet.

East Germany lies in tatters but is slowly waking from its Rip Van Winkle Marxist dream.  The Kraftwerk song “Autobahn” is playing on the radio and seems strangely befitting as we cross into former DDR.  My cousin Miriam, who lives in West Berlin, tells me that all sorts of crazies are rolling across the borders for the first time.  Many of them arrive with jars of pickles and homemade cheese, set themselves down on West German lawns and gawk at the nattily dressed; at least, so Miriam’s story goes.  Across the once-border in the newly reunified German states, the landscape seems unreal, the buildings straight out of some cubist’s sketchbook, the people world-weary.  Miriam and I roar through village after village all the way to the Polish border. Many of them are deserted. It’s almost as if they never really existed.  To the rest of the civilized world, they haven’t—not really.

“Now the Ossies [as their West German cousins call them: a word meaning ‘Easties’] whiz into the West in their dented Trabants and Ladas, oblivious of oncoming traffic.  I mean, they were cooped up like battery chickens for over 28 years.

“Can you believe it?” says Miriam. “These people have never even heard of Michael Jackson, Star Trek or Colonel Sanders.”  You can tell Miriam’s been living away from home for too many years.

According to the Berliner Tagblatt, twenty-two years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, over 62 percent of former East Germans still don’t really feel they belong in their reunified nation, and over one tenth would actually prefer a return to the old DDR.

While the rest of us were splurging on our diet of Doctor Who and All in the Family reruns, East Germans were wondering how they might navigate the sewers, attach themselves to the chassis of a visiting Uncle’s car, or just leggit across the death strip. Booby trapped with land mines and trip-wires, armed guards posted on over 300 watchtowers down the length of the wall, escape seemed futile at best; yet, over the course of those 28 years, thousands scale that wall or dig tunnels beneath.  5000 make it to freedom. 200 or so are shot stone cold dead trying.  Heinz and Karl were not among them.

Truth be told, it seemed to me that Heinz and Karl belonged to that 11 percent that wished for the return of Khrushchev.  I guess back in the Soviet days, a Moscow-trained engineer was part of the Soviet gentry of the DDR.  As Heinz later tells me: “In the good old days, an engineer could go anywhere in the Communist Bloc, get drunk on Ukrainian champagne at state functions, and had the pick of the blondest devushkas.”

In a few days I’m to meet up with Heinz and Karl in Moscow, then head out into wildest Siberia to seal the deal of a lifetime.

Caviar, Caviar

We arrive in Moscow a few days early.  My business partner Dieter has bright ideas about how we’re going to make a bit of quick cash on the slide.  Some months earlier, he had managed to flog a container of Heineken beer to some dubious Moscow businessman named Misha.  He hadn’t exactly made a killing, but it was enough for a first down payment on his spanking-new baby blue Jaguar.

Dieter and I share a room in the exorbitant Palace Hotel just down the road from the GUM department store, where another of Dither’s business partners is selling second hand clothes he imports en-masse from Guangzhou, China.

Misha arrives in a black Mercedes limousine with tinted windows complete with two bodyguards and a driver who dons Ray Bans night and day.  In the car, Misha kisses Dieter on both cheeks then passes us snifters of a one-hundred-year-old Armagnac and a couple of Davidoff cigars.  He reminds us that on no uncertain terms should we discuss politics here in Moscow.  It’s a sure way to sour a deal.

“And for God’s sake, don’t mention Gorbachev. I spit on the Nobel Peace Prize.” he says.

According to the Western media, Gorbachev was Russia’s Saint George who slayed the dragon, he who released the people from the tyrannical manacles of Soviet oppression and the shadow of Khrushchev; but according to Misha, Gorbachev was a traitor, a conspirator of the great American spin-doctors.

“You know five minutes after winning the Nobel Prize, Gorbachev had Pugo shot,” he says.  “Akhromeyev hung himself in his office.  And I don’t believe what they say. It was no suicide.”

I’m still not sure if it’s Misha’s intention to impress (Dieter insisted we stay in the most expensive hotel in Moscow so Misha would know we meant business), or if this is his house-restaurant.  Needless to say, all they serve here is Beluga caviar: boatloads of it.  And it doesn’t come on cute little blinis with chives and sour cream.  No, here caviar is the only course, and you gobble it straight from your gold-inlaid Rosenthal soup bowl with a large silver tablespoon.  On the side, you sip—or in Dieter’s case, guzzle—a glass of Moet Chandon, which you refill directly from the spout of a faux-Grecian fountain (complete with Aphrodite on the half-shell). In actual fact, your Uzbek waiter makes sure your crystal flute is always brimming and bubbling.

Misha pays in US dollars, in advance: counting a couple of thousand from a wad that he rustles out of thin air. One of his bodyguards tosses the Uzbek waiter a 100-dollar bill. We stuff our faces with fish eggs and champagne as Misha leans in with his proposition.

Dieter’s eyes are quite literally fishlike—and believe me, not from all the caviar.

The day before Dieter and I had taken a stroll along the Red Square where hundreds of babushkas in tattered scarves and threadbare shawls were clamoring outside storefronts.  Old men and little girls lined the avenues touting second-hand transistor radios, bits of silver, old boots and chipped teacups.  Smuggled cigarettes could be purchased in foreign currency down some shady alley that led into the back streets of oblivion.

“So,” Misha whispers. “Eight million dollars.  I need you to help me with eight million dollars.”  He doles himself a heaping spoon of Beluga.

Dieter glances over.  He’s doing that thing with his eyebrows.  I know his heart is racing.  I wonder if Misha wants to sell or buy.

“Tell me about your eight million,” says Dieter.

“I need you to get it to freedom.  To Switzerland,” he says. “I have it in cash. In seven different denominations, but I really need it in Switzerland.”

At this stage, Dieter isn’t touching food or drink.  His ears seem to be flapping.

Misha sips his champagne.  “Twenty percent commission.  I’ll give you twenty percent,” he says, grinning.

Quick sum: Twenty percent is 1.6 million US dollars.  Enough for Dieter to buy himself a few Jags.  I’m thinking a chalet on some island off the coast of Brazil, blue parrots in the coconut trees.  Of course we know there’s a snag.  There always is.

“OK, so here is how it works,” he says.  “I can get it to you in cash. I don’t mind how you get it there, as long as 6.4 million arrive in a numbered bank account under my name. Simple.”

Easy peasy.

It’s tempting, but the thought of all that lies between Moscow and Zürich, sends a shiver down my spine.  Back at the hotel I spend half an hour staring at the little map of Europe in the back of my faux-leather agenda planner.  The shortest distance is: Moscow—Belarus—Poland—Czech Republic—Germany—Zürich.  I try to conceive how much we have to pay the border guards.  An image of the Berlin Wall creeps into my head.

Neither of us sleeps that night.

Next morning, Dieter says, “There are ways, you know.  If we can get into Poland, we can transfer the funds to an offshore account, Caiman Islands or something, then reroute back to Switzerland.”

“Sure.  Missing an arm,” I say.  I don’t think Dieter has ever seen The Godfather.

Big Balls

We’ve moved to another Moscow hotel, apparently booked by our East German friends, Karl and Heinz.  This one, the Cosmos, reeks of Chanel Number Five—or something approximating it.  After check in, Dieter proposes that we take the hotel management up on their complimentary drink.  We send our bags to the room and head to the bar; only, you can’t even get to the counter.  The whole place is swelling with women, and these are no apparatchiks—least not any longer—these are all run-of-the-mill Moscow hookers, hundreds of them, swarming around potbellied entrepreneurs like flies to sugar.  Before I manage to order our two vodka tonics, one of them already has her hand on my crotch.

“Big balls,” she says grinning.  “Hey, Big Balls, you buy me a drink?”

“No big balls, no drink.”

She grimaces, but soon has her sights on an Egyptian looking gentleman down the far end of the bar.

All night the telephone rings: It’s always the same thing: “You like try Russian girl? You want blowjob?  You need a good massage.” Finally, I unplug the phone.  At three in the morning, someone’s knocking at the door.  A peroxide blonde in a spotted leopard-cling-film-legging-thing leans against the doorframe.  “You know in Moscow you should not sleep,” she says.  “Your wife’s not here.  Maybe Sasha can be your wife for tonight.” I notice her bag is a Hermes.  She has a pair of Dior sunglasses perched on her head.  What is it about Russians and sunglasses?

“Who is it?” Dieter shouts from his bed.

“Hooker,” I say.

“What’s her name?”

“Sasha.”

“Tell her we are waiting for Marina.”

I do.  She grumbles, wobbles down the hall in her stilettos to the elevator.  She has seven more floors to try before she reaches the roof.

“There’s bound to be some horny Japanese on the next floor,” Dieter says before he starts snoring again.

Marina never arrives.

Aeroflot

Six thirty and we’ve checked in to our flight to Tomsk.  We sit there in the waiting hall dozing on plastic bucket chairs dreaming about eight million dollars.  At least that’s what I’m sure Dieter is doing.  At the airport the infamous Karl and Heinz, who’ve just flown in from Berlin, have joined us.  They’re in great spirits.  You’d almost think they were going on holiday.  Still, they keep a distance—a professional one—sort of.

This is the deal: Karl and Heinz, soviet-educated engineers, former employees of one of the largest petrochemical processing plants in East Germany are old buddies of Vlad, the manager of Tomsk’s largest petrochemical facility. Dieter tells me that the Chinese are screaming for plastic, cheap plastic: “All those American toys,” he says.

Dieter has convinced me, and himself, having procured a manufacturing license from one of the world’s chemical giants, that we can produce plastic resin at this Tomsk facility for half the price of what it costs in the West.  We manufacture the stuff in Tomsk under license, package it with the chemical giant’s logo, then ship it by Trans-Siberian railroad to Beijing and to the rest of China.  Dieter has a buyer in Shanghai.  Karl and Heinz would be stationed in Tomsk during the implementation phase to make sure that quality is up to spec.  Sounds like a simple plan, right?

Simple as getting eight million dollars from Moscow to Zürich?

It takes us three days to reach Tomsk.  Mostly because there’s no gasoline.  We wait at the airport, check out the five shops selling Russian folk dolls, plastic Kremlins, plastic babushkas, probably all made from plastics supplied by the Tomsk Petrochemical Works.  Finally, we make it on board the Aeroflot Illyushin II-62, destination Tomsk.

Dieter, tickets in hand, struts into the plane and finds three Russian army officers sitting in his seat.

“Wrong seat,” he says pointing at his ticket.

The three officers look up.  They have eyes of steel, chiseled jaws and without even a flinch, bark: “Niet.”

Dieter smiles sheepishly, then sits down wherever he can find an empty seat.  Somehow all four of us manage to sit side by side.  Is that a chicken I hear clucking somewhere?

The Illyushin takes off with a bang.  Literally.  Apparently they use water ballast, and as they’re making their way into the stratosphere they shed their extra water-weight.  Feels like a rally of cannon barrage.  Dieter is one of the worst fliers I think I’ve ever met.  He’s brought along two bottles of Johnny Walker Black as a gift for Vlad.  By the end of the six-hour flight one of the bottles is down to its dregs.  And somehow, the airplane’s carpet is not affixed to the floor. Half of it ends up wrapped around Dieter’s ankles. Karl and Heinz slumber through entire thing; Dieter, on the other hand, can’t stop talking.  Anything I didn’t know about him before this, I do now, particularly things that weigh heavy on his conscience.

One thing’s for sure: He swears he will never take this flight again.

“Guess that’s the eight million dollars down the drain,” I say.

“I’m too old for this shit,” Dieter says, knocking back the bottle.

The service on the Aeroflot 101?  What service?  Although the stewardesses are straight out of Vogue they have the manners of a Kazakhstani pig farmer.  They toss you the sticky rolls and bottled water as if they couldn’t be shod of them quick enough, and they don’t speak a word of English—or more likely, don’t want to.

“Don’t they teach them to smile in flight school?” I ask Karl sometime during the flight.

“What flight school?” he says.

And the in-flight toilet?  I’ve seen cleaner toilets on London Transit.  I won’t go into the gory details.  Needless to say, don’t take your shoes off in an Aeroflot flight. Walking around in your socks is not recommended.

Sci-fi City

Tomsk: One of the oldest towns in Siberia.  In 1990, around half a million people live here in up to minus 60 degrees Fahrenheit in the winter.  Lucky for us, it’s summer and a cozy 65 degrees plus. If only it weren’t for the damn mosquitoes.  And the size of the buggers.  I kid you not: bigger than your average housefly.

“Stay away from the trees,” says Heinz.  “Or you’ll be bleeding like a pig. A white shirt is not recommended.”  Difficult to stay away from the trees here since 20 percent of the Siberian forest is actually situated in the Tomsk oblast.

Slap a mosquito in Tomsk in the summer wearing a white shirt, and by the time the evening is through it’ll look more like some pink/red Indonesian batik. The mozzies are little blood pellets.  Still, we we’re not headed out to the forest; at least, not yet.

We rattle into town, down this potholed avenue fringed by forest on each side, through Lenin Square, driving without paying any heed to which side of the road we’re on. The driver’s more focused on the oncoming trucks and the potholes. Dieter, having just recovered from his Aeroflot jaunt, cracks out his second bottle of whisky.  Strangely, despite all the alcohol in his bloodstream he as sober as a schoolmaster.  Must be his adrenalin.

The Tomsk Petrochemical Works is the largest factory I think I’ve ever seen.  It’s like some kind of Buck Rogers’ sci-fi city. Ming the Merciless might appear any moment, ray gun at the ready.  As we get in closer, we can see that the whole machination is crumbling around its ears.  Walls are half-collapsed, rust and holes creep down the giant pipe work suspended above our heads. By the time we’ve finished our factory tour, my new suit looks like I’ve lent it out to a cowhand.  You can smell the plant from miles away and the methanol fumes and the sweet sickly smell of plastics clings to everything: your clothes, your hair.  I’m starting to miss the Chanel Number Five reek of the Cosmos Hotel.

The meeting with Vlad starts and ends with Stolichnaya shots.  Karl and Heinz dig in, rattling away in fluent Russian.  After his two bottles of whiskey, the hue of Dieter’s skin resembles a fragile china doll.  Still, he knocks back the vodka like a true Cossack.  They offer up platters of something that looks like salami, only it has a sort of grey hue and pickles, plates and plates of pickles.  Larissa the translator tells us that Vlad has invited us to his country dacha for dinner.  She won’t be coming.  Heaven forbid. “This,” she says, “is a mans’ thing.”

My head starts reeling.  My stomach churns.

Mosquitoes

Tomsk Forest, 7.00 pm: Vlad’s Dacha.

Some giant of a man with biceps like a circus strongman is massaging half of a cow’s carcass over a giant vat.  The blood is running down his arms and into his sleeves.  Good for him, he’s wearing a black shirt.  Vlad says something about this being Boris’ best barbeque recipe.  On a table next to Boris, a dozen bottles of Stolichnaya glimmer in the forest twilight.  Once again, Karl and Heinz dig in, handing Dieter and me tumblers full to the rim. Nostrovia!

Vlad downs two more, then suddenly drops his trousers, tosses them to Boris, who reaches up from his bloody massage, folds them neatly and drapes them over the vodka table. Vlad chuckles like some kind of half-crazed troll, drops his underpants, removes his shirt and skips off into the underbrush.  If only I had a camera handy.  These were the days before mobile phone cameras. Karl and Heinz, normally the epitome of engineer-seriousness, follow suit and two more butts disappear into the underbrush.  Dieter gawks.  Is this some kind of bizarre Cossack coming-of-age ritual?

“I know, I know,” I tell Dieter.  “You’re getting too old for this shit.”

Minutes later, Karl, Heinz, Vlad, three unknown burly mafia-looking types with tattoos across their backs, Dieter and I, are sitting in Vlad’s sauna somewhere in the Siberian forest.  Vlad is swigging Stoli from the bottle.  One of the mafia-types pours a bottle of beer over the sauna stones.  Lager-haze burns my eyes.

As soon as I step out of the sauna, some old guy grabs me by the arm, spins me around and starts whipping me with birch leaves.  He chuckles like some kind of wild animal. Although I can’t understand him, I get that this is part of the ceremony.  At this stage I wouldn’t have been surprised had a vampire emerged from the shadows, but the old chap simply sits me down and pours me yet another vodka.

Half an hour later, we’re standing around an open fire, plate of meat in one hand, glass of vodka in another, and someone’s strumming the balalaika to the tune of Kalinka.  Where’s Dieter?  I drop my plate and go looking for him.  I find him out in the clearing trying to wrestle a goat.  By this time, he’s well and truly shitfaced.  He grabs the goat by the horns and starts tugging it back towards the fire.  As he nears, the music dies down.

“What are you planning to do with that thing?” I ask.

For a moment there’s a deathly silence, but then he reaches down to the goat’s udder, squeezes and is soon spraying us all with milk.  Vlad bursts into a hail of laughter; Karl and Heinz start doing a Cossack.  Me?  That’s about where everything goes black.  All I remember is that the next morning I wake up fully dressed in my bed back in the hotel.  I still have my tie and shoes on and someone’s knocking at the door.  My head feels like it had been through one of those ancient Siberian barbeque massages.

“Come on,” says Dieter. “They’re waiting to sign the contract. Vlad’s cracking open a bottle of his best.”

Small town living is always the same, whether it’s in Arkansas, Idaho, or Missouri. Built on the backs of linked story collections like Winesboro, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson and Knockemstiff by Donald Ray Pollock, Volt (Graywolf Press) by Alan Heathcock follows the lives of a handful of lost souls, tragedy washing over them like a great flood, people with names like Winslow, and Jorgen, and Vernon. In the fictional town of Krafton, we see what people do when living out in the woods, close to nature. When there’s nothing to do, they make their own fun, picking fights over nothing, running through cornfields, tipping over cows. In a small town, everybody knows everybody, and gets in their business, sometimes to help, and sometimes to enable their own survival.

In his first book (co-authored by journalist Dori Jones Yang), Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz admonished: “Don’t be threatened by people smarter than you.”

(Full disclosure: I represented the book as literary agent.)

Howard went on: “There’s a common mistake a lot of entrepreneurs make. They own the idea, and they have the passion to pursue it. But they can’t possibly possess all the skills needed to make the idea actually happen. Reluctant to delegate, they surround themselves with faithful aides. They’re afraid to bring in truly smart, successful individuals as high-level managers.

If it weren’t for clumsy opening sentences, I’d never write anything.

I generally avoid writing about writer’s block. It can feel lazy and self-involved, like a screenplay about a screenwriter trying to write the perfect screenplay, or a commercial about an ad agency pitching commercial ideas. (Oh, are you a rapper that raps about the awesome raps you rap? Because that would make you a very mediocre rapper!)

But what I find interesting about writer’s block is the desperation. And by “interesting” I mean “hilarious,” because desperation can make you do some really idiotic shit.

Like, you know those key chains that have a built-in sensor so that if you lose your keys you can clap your hands and the sensor will hear the clap and the key chain will beep and you can follow the beeps with your ears to find your keys? Have you had one of these? I have not. But sometimes, after looking repeatedly for my keys, I will clap my hands and hope that my keys will just know what to do.

And, once in a while, it works.

I know I’ve reached that same level of desperation in my writing when I start Googling whole sentences in hopes that the Internet will magically provide a literal answer, which it never, ever does. Say, for example, I am having trouble writing a joke about poodles (which is impossible because poodles are ridiculous and stupid and so easy to make fun of). When desperate, I’ll search, “How do I make a joke about a poodle?!!!”

And, once in a while, it works.

It delivers a needed distraction–my brain’s way of telling me that I am not interested in what I’m writing about, and helping me to connect it to something I do find interesting. So, searching for poodle jokes–searching for anything–leads me on a click-based voyage to Tangent Town, where hours later I’ll find myself reading Wikipedia entries about true crime stories that have been made into Lifetime movies. Then inspiration strikes.

“Poodle owners are like that lady that was engaged to the Craigslist Killer. Even after you show them piles of ripped up panties under the bed, they refuse to believe they live with a monster.”

And if inspiration refuses to strike, it doesn’t mean those hours spent wandering around online are a total waste. By running out the clock on my deadline, I can stop caring altogether. Out of time means out of options means I just have to just poop something out and move on.

“Poodles? Gross.”

Is it a perfect solution? No. Have I failed terribly? A little. Is it the end of the world? Of course not. (I mean, I hope not, for my sake. It would be very stressful to live in a world that depends on my constant supply of innovative and imaginative poodle jokes.)

I guess what I’m trying to say is,


I can’t save the world, but I want to save the world. This has always been the case. Many times as a child, I thought I could save the world or otherwise do the impossible. Many times, I was proven wrong.

Why My Phone Is Probably More Interesting Than You

Skynet was supposed to attain self-awareness last week.

Yep, that Skynet, the fictional global grid of linked computers featured in the Terminator films that started as an automated global defense network intended to reduce human error and swiftly evolved into a renegade global power that fired nukes against Russia, launched a protracted war against human threats and sparked the only cinematic franchise which featured a governor naked. Three times.

Unemployed and looking for an inexpensive way to not feel miserable and lonely? Richard Ford has edited a new anthology of short stories about work and class: Blue Collar, White Collar, No Collar. It features an array of established authors—Ann Beattie, Donald Barthelme, Junot Díaz, John Cheever, Joyce Carol Oates, Tobias Wolff, and more—but collecting a bunch of stories about work and slapping a light blue cover on it is nothing new. In 1999 Signet Classics published a similar compilation, The Haves and Have-Nots edited by Barbara Solomon, and in 2004 Random House published Labor Days—I think you can guess what those stories are about—edited by David Gates.

Dear Dust

I DARE you to print this. I know you won’t. And when you don’t, I’m going to start posting this on comment boards around the site.

Why? Because I’ve been studying “The Dust” ever since the (I won’t say your, because you are not you) first column. I’ve done a good deal of research: cross-checking, old posts, word comparisons, repetitions, likely suspects. And I’ve finally narrowed your identity down to one person.