New Year

My mother – a World War II surgeon, the permanent chairman of the family Politburo she had installed in our Leningrad kitchen, and a mirror image of my Soviet Motherland – was lying in Valley Hospital in Ridgewood, NJ, hooked to an IV and an oxygen tank.  She had grown frail within a week or two prior to her scheduled departure for New Orleans for an annual three-month winter stay at my sister’s.  The day before her flight she had difficulty breathing and could barely get out of bed.  I was at work on the morning when I called her doctor, who told me to dial 911.

It was the last day of the semester; I had thirty students to advise and register.  When I reached the hospital around 3 in the afternoon, my mother was just being admitted to the cardio unit.  “Congestive heart failure and probably a touch of pneumonia,” said Dr. Sharma, a soft-spoken woman in her 30s, whose badge identified her as a hospitalist.

My mother smiled when she saw me, relieved.  She looked small in the middle of the tangle of tubes, her gnarled fingers over the cover, like a small bird’s claws.  When did this all happen?  Did I miss the obvious signs of illness, the inevitable cues of aging?  Did I ignore her complaints of dizziness, her frequent refrain that her legs refused to walk?  Or was the deterioration so gradual, so insidiously slow that I simply did not notice it, like you don’t notice a rotting tooth until one day the pain stabs through your gum and the dentist tells you she has to pull the tooth because it is too late to save it.

Or maybe it was much more simple and ordinary.  I lived my life – teaching ESL classes, making soups, checking my daughter’s homework, walking the dog – a life where my mother, living downstairs in the basement apartment of my house, was nothing but a parenthesis.  In the morning I heard a vent go on in her bathroom; in the afternoon I heard a knife drumming on the cutting board as she chopped vegetables for salad.  Her Russian TV programs used to boom all the way up to my kitchen, until we bought her a pair of headphones.  Then I barely heard her at all.  As years passed, I talked to her less and less frequently.  Back in Leningrad, I used to have heated arguments with my mother, needing to defend my ground; here, with our roles reversed – with her living with me and not the other way around – I no longer had to assert myself.  In essence, I stopped talking to her about anything but the most trivial things: dinners, television news, birthday cards from our Russian family.

I come back home from the hospital and go down to the basement where a packed suitcase is still sitting on her bed.  What needs to happen to push us out of the rut, to break through our apathy?  What is the final crisis that makes people take to the streets to protest as they recently did in Moscow?  My mother, a mirror image of my far-away Motherland, makes me wonder if it is at all possible to slow down in order to notice important little things, if we are capable of gaining even a shred of insight into the fragility and impermanence of life.


From Russia With Shock

My NYT essay From Russia With Lies was translated into Russian by Inosmi, a Russian-language news website, where it received 399 comments, mostly registering outrage.  People who read it, just as Captain Louis Renault in the movie Casablanca, were shocked, shocked.  Clad in scuba gear, Vladimir Putin emerged from the Black Sea with two ancient amphorae that had been placed in 6 feet of water.  “It isn’t lying; it’s just a publicity stunt,” wrote one indignant correspondent.  “Don’t touch Putin!” warned another.  “He’s a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch.”  I should have known that writing about Putin’s lie was as grave as touching the third rail.  As serious as announcing that there is no God.

Russians shamed me in their comments. My Motherland gave me a happy childhood and a good education, and now, by writing this essay, I’ve betrayed my country all over again.  This made me think of my Leningrad University Dean, the Communist leader of the University party cell, who used the same words to admonish me for marrying an American back in 1980.  One correspondent offered this explanation: “They are simply writhing at the idea that Russia is rising, and the U.S., in front of the entire world, is turning into shit.”  Another comment suggested that Putin’s lying isn’t really lying.  It is exactly the same as George W. Bush clearing underbrush at his Texas ranch.

As much as I detest watching George W. Bush, I have to say that it is not exactly the same.  U.S. journalists who uncover illegal actions by the government publish articles and books that unravel government officials’ careers.  Russian reporters who expose state corruption and fraud get harassed and murdered.

In their indignation, my former compatriots failed to see that my essay is not about Putin’s staged athletic feats.  It is about the sad state of democracy in Russia.  It is about President Medvedev and Prime Minister Putin swapping posts in March in what will be called an election.  It is about soon-to-be-President-all-over-again-Putin’s fundamental lie, which seems to be condoned by many Russians and which is much more dangerous than “finding” an ancient jug in 6 feet of water.

From Russia With Lies

We hear so much about Vladimir Putin these days.  When he isn’t driving race cars and snowmobiles, he dives to the bottom of the Black Sea.  But something was off in that picture of the Russian prime minister wading out of the water with two ancient amphorae…

Please check out my essay in the New York Times Magazine:


To do all this walking in Austin, Tx, I need a pair of sneakers, says Robert.  He points to the white and blue shoes he wears to walk to the university every morning.  Sneakers, he says, so I’ll know what to ask for when I get to a store.

After peering into the windows of several stores on a shopping street near the university, I finally see sneakers displayed on the wall in orderly rows.  The store is small, and a man behind the counter looks bored.  He springs into action when I ask him for sneakers, size seven and a half, vanishing into the back of the store, then reappearing with the pair I’ve selected.  He is cheerful and enthusiastic, his balding head gleaming under the neon light.  I don’t know why I chose sneakers with white and green stripes made of what looks like suede; maybe they reminded me of the shoes I once glimpsed in a magazine called England left open on my boss’s desk at the Leningrad House of Friendship and Peace.

The salesman points to a stool for me to sit and kneels, a sneaker in his palm like an offering.  Please, I plead silently, don’t try to put these shoes on my feet.  I’m not ready for this, having just arrived from a land that had no shoes at all.  Twenty-four years of nothing have warped me, and now I’m stupefied by all these choices, all this enthusiasm and kneeling.

The man takes hold of my foot and slides on the shoe.

I walk around the store, supple suede enveloping my feet.

“They look great!” exclaims the man, watching me turn in front of a store mirror.

I think so, too, but how do I ask him about the price?  When do customers ask salespeople here how much a product costs?  Should I have asked before he knelt in front of me, thus possibly preventing all this cheerful prancing around?

As soon as I take off the white and green sneakers, the man scoops them up and puts them back in the box.  “Terrific,” he cries out, another word I don’t know.  “So we’re all set here,” he says and heads toward the cash register.

I can no longer delay the agony.  “How much are they?” I ask.

He looks at the box label.  “Forty-four ninety-five.”

I open my Russian wallet, not big enough for dollar bills, and examine its contents.  One twenty, three fives, and a couple of singles.  I pour the bills onto the counter where the man is already writing out a receipt.  “This is all I have,” I force myself to utter.

The man stops writing and looks at me as if I’ve suddenly turned into Grishka, a drunk with a battered face who used to sleep under my Leningrad courtyard archway.  He picks up the bills and counts them, already knowing that it is eight dollars less than the amount on the box.  There is annoyance in his eyes, but also suspicion.

“Don’t you have a credit card?” he asks curtly.

I don’t know what he’s talking about.

“Visa?” he says and peers from above his glasses.

“I have a visa,” I assure him.  “I am a resident alien,” I say and pull out my green card.

The man throws up his hands in frustration, probably lamenting the moment he kneeled before me, his balding head glistening with drops of sweat.  I feel guilty for entering this place, for sauntering before a mirror in sneakers I couldn’t afford.

“Take them,” sputters the man, nodding toward the box.  “And go,” he adds and waves me out of his store.

West Cork Literary Festival

Cork greets us with corkscrew roads, or at least, they feel corkscrew because we’re driving on the wrong side, past the emerald fields blanketing soft hills dotted with cows and sheep.  West Cork Literary Festival is held in beautiful Bantry on the Bay, home to dolmen, blowholes, and Jeremy Irons.  The dolmen we’re shown is a cave-like space made from flat stones and dating back to the Stone Age.  We climb black rocks that jut into the sea, one of them resembling the hull of the Titanic, which picked up its final load of steerage passengers not far from here.  Blowholes – deep wells with sea waves moaning on their bottom – have been carved by time through the thick body of black rock.  You look down, carefully, holding onto a fence pole, and see the water sighing and wheezing and, as we’re told, weeping during a storm, as if the Earth were giving birth.

The Festival has attracted stellar talent, which seems so plentiful in Ireland.  Every reader and workshop leader has so many gifts that anyone born elsewhere feels instantly inferior.  Pauline McLynn, who has appeared in numerous film, television and stage roles, has also written several novels.  Peter Sheridan, a writer and playwright, is also an actor and director, whose short film, The Breakfast, won several European awards.  Conor O’Clery, a reporter for the Irish Times for over 30 years, is the author of several books and was Journalist of the Year in Ireland twice.  They read from Joyce and Beckett and their own many books, their versatile talents making me feel tiny among them.

The Festival’s extraordinary program was put together by Denyse Woods, herself the author of five novels.  For the seven days of the Festival, she rushed and directed and forgot to eat meals, crunching on chips at midnight when entertaining yet another evening speaker at a pub.  Denyse brought together a constellation of names whom we should know better on this side of the pond: Hisham Matar, whose first novel was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize; Gillian Slovo, President of English PEN and the author of twelve novels and a best-selling memoir; David Mitchell, the recipient of every possible prize, it seems, although he looks way too young for so many awards; Michael Morpurgo, the author of War Horse; Lynn Truss, who wrote Eats, Shoots and Leaves; Michael Holroyd, an outstanding memoirist and biographer who is also president of the Royal Society of Literature, Tim Mackintosh-Smith, “one of the truly mythical heroes of travel writing,” according to the Irish Times – the names that don’t even begin to paint the whole picture of the artistic heft of this festival.  And, of course, there is Jeremy Irons, or rather, his castle, which dominates the southwestern bay coast: a tall tower painted peach (restored to its original color) erected in the Middle Ages, surrounded by a stone wall with a massive gate.

On the day of our departure, the clouds parted and the sun shone through the waters of the bay, making them turquoise, illuminating the seaweed on the bottom several meters deep.  We drove to Cork airport past herds of milk cows and the wooly balls of unfleeced sheep, past tiny towns with row houses painted in red, purple and yellow, dominated by churches and pubs.  It started to drizzle, the typical soft Irish rain that fell several times every day – a good sign for a departure, as if someone above were sad that we were leaving.