Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Barbara bush kept a fetus in a jar?

So says George W. Bush in an NBC interview (reposted from Towleroad).

George W attributes the beginnings of his pro-life beliefs to his mother's miscarried fetus in a jar. And of course that's stunning hypocrisy--after all, if a fetus is equivalent to a baby, then Barbara has kept a baby on formaldehyde-pickled display somewhere in Bushville, and that doesn't seem like a terribly proper burial.

But I must admit that I rather like the idea of Barbara Bush's private menagerie of horrors. What else might she have pickled back there?

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Conspiracy junkies

Whenever I get a call from an unknown number, I google it to try to figure out who called. But I just got a call from 000-000-0000, and I have to admit it creeped me out for a second. Is it a call from the Nothing? From my empty, terrifying afterlife? Most likely no--just another trick to get me to answer the phone and get the donation shpiel--it is a week before election day, after all.

But the weirdest thing happened when I googled the call: results #1 and #2 were 800notes.com and whocallsme.com--no big shocker there. #3? Redstate.com, one of the biggest conservative blogging communities of the web. #4--callferret.com. Again, no big shock. An appropriate place to blog about a weird phone number. #5? Freerepublic.com, one of the nastiest conservative blogging communities of the web. Page 2 of results was all what you'd expect--answers.yahoo.com and a score of other sites dedicated to tracking telemarketers. Oh, and also two tech bloggers, both of whom talked about caller ID spoofing.

The result at the top of page 3? Stormfront.org, a discussion board for white supremacists.

So before I give my suspicion, some big caveats: at freerepublic.org, the commenters joked about checking outside for black helicopters; they suggested wrapping the house in tinfoil, "shiny side out." In other words, very few took the conspiracy bait. At redstate.org, only one commenter seemed to think that the calls might have been a conspiracy to siphon funds from conservative candidates (as the call when answered ended up being a fundraiser for Marco Rubio, Republican candidate for Senate from Florida). And even at stormfront.org, even though the main poster was worried that "someone [was] trying to remotely program some listening-in device" on the phone, most responders said it was most likely a telemarketer.

So the voices on the posts are mostly voices of reason.

But here's the thing: I've never seen such a high showing of forums from any political leaning--actually I've never seen anything besides results from telemarketer trackers at all--when I've checked out phone numbers. But you get a number like 000-000-0000, and the conspiracy theory is just too luscious not to pluck. And is it at all surprising where folks turn in the heat of their conspriacy-porn moments? Redstate.com, freerepublic.com, stormfront.org.

We all get addicted to certain kinds of stories--no surprise there. And it programs us to see the world through some very skewed lenses. We all have these problems of perception from various routes--but it worries me to see just how easily far-right and white-supremacist sites seem to stoke those paranoid fires.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Our shades still linger, even when digitized

Google has made a good business recently of digitizing the real world--but there's a problem.The real world, uppity as it is, keeps asserting itself.Whether it's phantom pink fingers in scanned books or adeer impacted by the Street View van, it seems that our actuals keep on sticking their grubby bits right into the middle of our digitals.

Sometimes, though, the reminders aren't so disruptive.I was looking for books by Yeats in the Google Books collection and came across this image on the copyright page of The Cutting of an Agate.It shows two tiny pencil sketches of faces in profile--both with long noses and downcast eyes.It's hard to say when the drawings might have been made--the hairstyles look awfully turn-of-the-century--but the book itself is from 1912.But unlike street-view shots of burning houses, this is a much gentler reminder of the real world's tenacious fight to be more than an object for mapping.More than a species of itself.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

I leave Russia heavy with gifts and gratitude.

I'd thought I'd do more of these posts while I was traveling--as it turns out, time on computers has been tight.My journal has received the majority of my writing as I've been traveling.

Before I leave Russia, I want to take some time to reflect on one encounter here. Often I've been angered, frustrated, and confused by my everyday interactions here--especially when it comes to bureaucracy.But for the most part this comes from a need, I think, to represent any number of faceless entities--businesses, governments, that have shown you the same coldness.

But right now, on the eve of my departure, I'm feeling nothing but gratitude.Yesterday morning, I was in a bit of a tough spot.I was Trying to leave Artybash, on the shores of Lake Teletskoe in the Altai Republic.The town has become a bit of a tourist spot for Russian looking to escape to the mountains and the water--indeed, I as a foreigner was so rare that at one point a girl in a souvenir shop said, "You're Ian, yeah?We've heard about you."

That said, most folks here arrange their transit through tour firms or simply drive down in their own cars.They're not quite accustomed to the wandering traveler who shows up in town, tracks down the next bus, and then disappears.To the extent that, though I heard several *rumors* of them, no one could tell me for sure when, or from where, the buses out of town left.The spot advised to me by my guidebook and by the owner of my hotel was in front of a cafe that was no longer open--ostensibly, the time schedule should have been listed inside there.But when I showed up, nothing was there to greet me but a locked door and a few stray dogs.I asked around and no one had the same story about the buses. The only thing they knew:the bus I needed, to Barnaul, had already gone, and there wasn't another till the next morning.

A fellow wandered by named Ilia.He looked to be about fifty years old, dressed in clothing that hung with age and dirt.All of his top teeth were metal, as one often sees here.I thought naively, when I first arrived, that it was decoration; of course it's a prosthesis.But he engaged me in conversation right away, seeing the worried look on my face.I said I was from Seattle, and this is the first thing he asked:

"Have you visited the grave?" he asked.
"I don't understand," I said."The grave?"
"Of Bruce Lee."
"I've never seen it," I said.
"But how?" he asked in disbelief.How on earth could I live in Seattle and not have seen the grave of Bruce Lee?
For this I had no answer.
He asked me for some American money, as a souvenir, and I gave him four quarters--he loved seeing "our George Washington" on the front and was confused that the back of each coin was different.

But he told me, too, a new story about the buses--that another would leave from Barnaul in just two hours.We crossed a bridge over the river Bia (where, for some reason, both the moths and the cows always swarm) and he showed me to the stop.Here, too, no schedule posted.

Less than confident, I headed on to ask further.At shop after shop, each person had new times and new scenarios, but no one had a schedule.After about thirty minutes I spotted Ilia again--with a group of three friends.He called me over to introduce me.He'd given each of them one of the quarters, saving one for himself.They asked if I was American, and I said yes--then launched quite quickly into my tale of woe, saying that I had been visiting Lake Teletskoe and was now stranded in town.

One of them, a fellow named Sergei, then asked:"Where are you going?"I said Barnaul, eventually, but could stop at any of the cities on the way:Gorno-Altaisk, Biisk.It so turned out that the three of them--Sergei, Nail (a Tatar name, pronounced in two syllables, like "Nah-yeel"), and a blond fellow whose name I never caught, were heading right in that direction, and they invited me along.I offered to pay for the gas, and they readily accepted the offer.Though none looked quite as poor as Ilia, it was clear that all three men were working-class.

They showed me to a rusting Zhiguli--a small Soviet car that would show to be less than reliable.Within just a few minutes, we were off to Gorno-Altaisk, from where it would be easy to find a bus to Barnaul.

At least, so I thought.Minutes later the blond received a call--someone had money for him.I still don't know why.Nail, the driver, turned the car around--back to Artybash we went.The blond met with his mysterious income source at a hotel at the edge of the river.As we waited for him to return, Sergei chatted with me about the Altai.He said much that one might expect, decrying the coming of tourism and trash and money as despoilers of the region, which is truly beautiful and has, in its native population, a long and very compelling mystical tradition.Sergei told me of shamans who could part the clouds with a wave of the hands, then said this:

"You know, thought travels on water.It crystallizes and floats with the tide."

The blond soon reappeared, stuffing a neat fold of bills into his pocket, and off we drove again--until the Zhiguli broke down with an audible pop.Nail pulled the car to the side of the road and popped open the hood.Pulling out one of the car's massive spark plugs, he fished a spool of wire from his pocket and went about binding the top of the plug.This seemed to do the trip, as we went off driving again.

For about fifteen minutes.Another pop, another deceleration."Again?" cried Nail."We should swap cars," said the blond, and I thought it was a joke--I laughed at the suggestion.Soon enough the new spark plug was freshly bound and we drove off again.

For, once more, about fifteen minutes.This time we neared a spot by the side of the road where a collection of women stood behind carts and under umbrellas.One, said Nail, was a former classmate.So we pulled over.

I walked up to one woman's cart and bought blini--crepes, basically--stuffed with farmer's cheese and wild strawberries.The gentlemen then called me over to their friend's cart--she sold a number of folk remedies, including a small bottle of thick, pungent pine resin that they insist I buy (for about three dollars).I indulged the request.We all had glasses of tea then readied for the next leg of the journey.

Or so I thought.

"We're switching cars," said Sergei.He fetched my bags from Nail's car and walked over to another fellow--shorter and more solidly built than the three I'd been traveling with.He showed us to a Nissan, much more stable and modern.As we walked to it, Sergei said casually--

"You know, seventy percent of the cars out here are stolen.How much is a car where you live?$150,000?"
"For a BMW, maybe."
"Exactly, $150,000 for a BMW. And how can we afford that? So we just buy stolen ones."

He put my bags in the Nissan and I took a seat.The blond joined me, sitting behind the steering wheel, and the new fellow whom I'd not yet met.Sergei and Nail then went back to the Zhiguli.They drove off.The blond gunned up the Nissan, then turned around and drove in the opposite direction."How do you like traveling with us, eh?"He grinned as he said it.

At this point, I panicked.I thought for sure I'd been scammed--the blond and the new guy were about to take me out to the woods, take my belongings, maybe beat me up, leave me there.How naive I'd been, I thought, to just trust anyone.How silly, how American.But I tried to stay positive.

"Where are we going?" I asked.
"Out of gas," said the blond.Sure enough--we pulled into a gas station.

OK, I thought--but I'm not paying to fill up this car too.And, to my surprise, neither of them asked me for money.With a full tank, we were back on our way.The blond drove like a video game, dodging potholes and cattle and old ladies walking by the side of the road.In fact, I think "Siberian Driver" could be one hell of a number in the arcades.

But as we swerved along the road to Gorno-Altaisk, I realized--the change of cars had been arranged for my benefit.After the breakdowns, the blond had realized that the Zhiguli couldn't get me to my destination reliably.He'd clearly called a friend and arranged the rest of the trip.For me.

Gorno-Altaisk is not exactly close by--the entire trip, breakdowns and blini and car-swaps included, took us about three hours.And when we arrived at Gorno-Altaisk's bus station, the blond offered me a shake of his hand and said, simply,

"If you come back, look us up."

A bus to Barnaul departed about an hour after my arrival--time enough to eat in the station's cafeteria (grilled fish, buckwheat, and instant coffee).Behind me, I left a gift I'll never be able to repay.So many times, in fact, a group of Russians have taken me under their wing, guided me, aided me--and asked nothing of me in return than my own safe travel.They've let me leave, disappear forever.Though I have some of their email addresses, chances are good that I'll never see most--if not all--of them again.

But I carry with me the gifts of time, of effort, of intention, that they've given.So many, in fact, that I could not lift the bags that would hold them.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Riddle, on the road to find his dad

Across from me on the ferry is a teenager with a mohawk and two silver earrings on his left, heavy and pendulous like you'd expect to see on kids in the eighties.Dressed in gray sweats, he carries a bedroll tied tight with a blue-green bandanna.He tells me to call him Riddle--says this is what everybody calls him.

The day before, his dad called him from a payphone in Arcata, California--he'd just been released from jail.Riddle took off right then, hitching down from Silverdale to Bremerton, now taking the ferry into Seattle.It's eight in the evening, and due to a heavy storm the sky is already dark.He'll sleep tonight in a spot the street kids called The Stage--a concrete dais near Westlake Mall where the shopkeepers let folks sleep in their doorways till morning.When he rises he will head on south to Arcata to seek his dad out.

His dad had been jailed for attempted murder, second degree; he was apparently defending his son against an attacker.At the time, Riddle wore Hollister and Abercrombie and Fitch; now he wears his hair like his father does.Riddle's dad beat his son's assailant down but didn't stop once he'd won; he picked up a rock and kept hitting.Riddle says that this was why the cops had arrested him; had he not picked up the rock, they would have called it even.

Riddle's dad is almost 70--it takes Riddle a minute to get the math right in order to figure out when his dad had him (when he was over 50).Riddle says he's got seven brothers and three sisters; one of them, his closest younger, was killed driving drunk.It's his bandanna Riddle now wraps around his bedroll.His youngest is gone; Riddle put him in the hospital on what he tells me was his last drinking binge.His brother stopped talking to him, then disappeared soon after.He says he gets aggressive when he drinks, and this is like his dad, too.

He borrows my keys to jimmy the safety off of his lighter.

There is so much more he tells me:Riddle's young daughter lives in Arcata, but he's not allowed to see her; the girl's mother slapped her baby, then blamed the hit on him, he says, so he got the restraining order.He's seriously considering kidnapping the girl, he says, but he knows too that her life will be better with her mom--"because she's a, what do you call it?A gold digger."Her daughter's in a good house in Arcata now, and if Riddle finds his dad, the two of them can squat together in Humboldt County and keep an eye on the young girl.Then, after his dad's probation is up in two years, Riddle and his dad will go traveling, and Riddle will stay with his dad till he buries him.

He says he wishes he could kill his daughter's mom, and he's not proud of this. Regardless, Riddle says he'd take a bullet for any female, "beautiful or ugly."He attributes this to the pain and the duress of childbirth; he says that men owe their lives to women, so men must be willing to offer those lives back up.He also tells me that men have the same parts as women, just reversed--men's went out and women's went in.This means, he says, that men can get pregnant; that we have ovaries too, but we would never inject them with sperm because we cannot face the pain of labor.

Riddle tells me he can barely spell, that he is dyslexic and he has hit his head too many times.He's eating a snickerdoodle and drinking an energy drink (Rockstar, I think--whichever is sold on the ferries) and he says it's the first food he's had in two days.He's got fourteen dollars and is trying to decide between a new pair of shoes and a better jacket.The soles of his shoes have worn through and the sweats he's wearing are still soaked with water from his walk to the boat.He's fresh out of jail himself, he says, wearing the sweats he wore in, the same sweats they returned to him two years later on his way out.

Heading off the boat, he wishes me a safe journey to wherever it is that I'm going.I, too, am soaked--the rain fell more heavily than expected and more is coming--I tell him I'm just going home.It's not something I need to have emphasized.I leave him at the footbridge, he choosing now between the Stage for the night and the possibility of a bus down to Tacoma.He has new energy from the sugar and the caffeine, and Tacoma is one hour closer to Arcata, and somewhere down in Arcata is a payphone where his dad stood, newly free, just a day before.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Reflection on a soldier in a pile of bones

This pic from a Russian gallery called "Retrospektiva" caught my eye yesterday: a soldier crouches over a pile of bones--mostly skulls--all bleached white.Holding up two femurs and a skull (and using his fingers and knee to hold the jaw in place), he fashions a skull-and-crossbones on his leg.The expression on his face, to my eyes, is inscrutable--parodying savagery or menace, perhaps, or maybe with his mouth open in imitation of the skull and jaw he holds.

It's the nonchalance of his stance over the skulls that shocks me, and the symbol he makes (whether it traces back to the pirate insignia or the symbol for poison isn't clear) is too literal a take on something that, at least here and now, has fallen to the innocent savagery of childhood--you build pirate ships out of Legos, you see the skull-and-crossbones on old bottles in cartoons.You certainly don't see the emblem built out of actual bones.

This is, of course, the crux of the image's intended humor, but the effect instead hits like terror.It reminds me of the difference between old fairy tales and their Disney counterparts--and, though I can't be sure the picture itself is Russian (also in the same gallery--shots from Lewis Hine and day-in-the-life pictures from Nazi Germany) the banality with which the soldier crouches in the bones and raises them up definitely feels so.Even the inclusion of Nazi shots in the image stock--one is of a women's hocky team, all proudly displaying the swastikas on their sweaters--speaks of a comfort with horror that we here don't (can't yet) share.

This seems contradictory, considering our comfort with other types of violence.We love the bravado of it.We love guns, we love beef.All that shit.But something here pushes beyond an American sense of spectacular violence.Something here is too banal, really--too everyday, too easy.And in this, maybe, is its horror.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

A dream:the spider

I have left a gigantic spider in the dirty dishes.I did it initially as a prank, or as some sort of lesson, but now I have left the spider in the dishes for far too long.I am now waiting longer, hoping that the spider will have drowned in the dish water.

The creature is immense:the legs measure a foot at least.This spider has visited me in dreams before--last time, in a cave where I visited my mother. (She was bound to a chair there.No analysis, please.)Then, the spider hung at the cave's entrance, and its legs (many more than eight) writhed above my head.Now only these legs are visible, poking out between plates, floating limp atop the water and the scum.It must be dead by now, I think.

I touch its legs--they writhe slowly in response.This weighs heavily on me, as I placed the spider here myself, and I hoped it would simply die on its own through my negligence.But it has stayed here, head submerged, at the edge of death, and now I must complete the job that won't complete itself.

I take a layer of plates off--the spider's body sits just beneath the water, though there's too much murk and debris to discern the outline.All I can see is the slight undulation of the water as the spider moves.Some of its hair breaks the surface--a patch at the abdomen and a patch at the cephalothorax.

I have in my hand a heavy silver spindle, sharp at the tip.In my brain its purpose is clear; I have since forgotten what it might be used for.But I drive this into the spider's body.This feels like accomplishment; I'm finally addressing my darker corners.I relish my horror--I've earned it.

But the task is not yet complete.I'll need to use a knife.The silver spindle, firmly piercing the spider's body, moves up and down with its heaves. I'm envisioning the plunge of the knife and the cut as I awaken.

And this dream stayed with me all day.The creature was fearful and pitiful, and I had made it myself--through negligence.This I took as didactic.The monsters rise up when you fail to take the knife into your hand at the start of your adventures--or perhaps the monsters arise at the intersection of evil and negligence.

I feel a sense of gratefulness to the dead spider now, and I don't know if this too is a relic of the dream or a product of wakeful reflection.I spent the morning stabbing some of my hoarier spiders, and the horror I felt I'd definitely earned.
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