Posts Tagged 'russia'

Links (6/11/08)

My regular culling from the interweb:

This is an old news story but it boggles the mind. Lydia Angyiou of northern Quebec tackled a 700 pound polar bear that was threatening her kid.

Stupid things caught on video: Ow my balls. The perils of vandalism. [h/t Ted] And why you shouldn’t use a compact car to pull a trailer.

Stabby strikes terror in Akihabara.

A really unnerving video about cell phones. And there’s the same experiment, but in Japanese. UPDATE: Looks like these vids are fakes. Check out here and here for answers. Damn you, youtube tricksters. [h/t Joan]

And speaking of fakes, that video of that guy freaking out in an office that I linked to last week, is in fact a viral video by that guy who directed the upcoming Angelina Jolie flick Wanted. Damn you, Russian tricksters.

More than you ever wanted to know about the Incredible Hulk.

This is just cool. BMW has released a concept car covered in cloth. As a result, it can change shape. Check out the video.

John McCain’s top ten public freak outs. UPDATE: Here’s ten more notable freak outs.

A fascinating article about the vast freewheeling market of Ciudad del Este in Paraguay.

One shop in particular, I’m told, is a clearinghouse for drugs. Armed with the proper introduction, in I went. In lieu of a traditional greeting, the owner simply asks me what I’m looking for, and how much of it I’ll need. “And, yes, we have cocaine,” he adds as an afterthought.

And then there’s this, scientists are worried about a lack of sunspots, arguing that it might auger another Little Ice Age.

Adventures in Corporate Teamwork

The other day, the company that I work for had an off-site corporate retreat. The sort of the thing that supposed to foster “team building” whatever that exactly means. The company (I’ll call Y) has little events like this seemingly every week. On the one hand there’s always free beer, and there’s never anything wrong with that. One the other, there’s a forced joviality that sort of creeps me out. It reminded me of going to pep rallies in high school. Part of me rejected them wholesale as groupthink idiocy while another far less verbal part felt vaguely jealous of my classmates who were utterly possessed with school spirit. They cheered, whooped and jumped up and down, utterly unselfconscious about how silly they looked or how artifiscial the event was. As with pretty much any social situation I attended in my late teens, I was more comfortable with scowling in the corner.

For the five months or so I’ve been working there there’s been two trivia nights, a karaoke night, cinqo de mayo celebration, bowling night, and a free Counting Crows concert. (I probably could have done without that last one.) But this retreat seemed different. First off, it was located way up in the hills between Malibu and Agoura Hills. Second, they strongly recommended that we wear old, loose fitting clothes. Third, there were numerous liability waiver forms to sign for the ambiguously described ‘ropes course.’ I started imagining of some brutal HR department culling program where we’d be dragged up a cliff face, given a bowie knife and three matches and told to fend for ourselves for a week. Those who survived got a 5% raise. Those who didn’t lost their jobs though their next of kin did receive a gift card for Jamba Juice.

We rolled in around 8 or so in the morning. The retreat’s coordinators were impossibly perky. They all had names like Kira, Sepulveda, and Oceana (“call me Osh”) and I surmised they listened to a lot of Jimmy Buffet. They quickly divided us into groups and forced us to do some mortifyingly cheesy exercises. I could handle the hand holding and group hugs, but publicly making an ass of your for the sake of group identity (20 of us doing the Travolta while singing “Do the Hustle”) almost had me hitchhiking home.

After that, they lead us to a field where I quickly figured out that “ropes course” was a euphemism for “tempting death and gravity.” There were a pair of telephone poles with a third intersecting the two to form an “H”. The horizontal beam was at least 25 feet in the air. The objective was to climb up one end and cross the beam to the other side. Meanwhile, your partner did the same from the other side. The trick was negotiating yourself around your partner without falling off. There were all kinds of ropes and harnesses that, in theory, would keep you from cracking your skull. In theory. My partner and I were fifth in line. The first four pairs met in the middle, spent a few minutes in a half embrace, their feet fumbling to get past, before one or both fell. While this was happening, I was getting suited up in a harness that seemed one part safety gear and one part fetish garment. I was strapped in five different ways across the back, under the shoulders and very very snugly through the crotch. When it was my turn, I took a couple deep breathes and started climbing, wondering why the hell I was doing this.

There was only one person who opted out. A punk chick in a huge black sun hat. I hadn’t seen her before but I knew that she was a kindred spirit. She and I no doubt would have be talking about cool music were this a pep rally. So why wasn’t I sitting this bit of foolishness out? Simple. I hate losing. That’s not the same as needing to win. I’m fine with coming in 6th place, so long as I’m not last. When I was living in Asia, I found myself eating all sorts of bizarre things (grasshoppers, snake blood, raw horse meat) for the same reason. My dinner companions inevitably liked to play ‘what will the foreigner eat,’ ordering the most exotic things on the menu. My rule was if my host ate the squid testicles then I would. I refused to lose. This same sort thinking got me naked and drunk in Russia and got me very nearly gored by a rhino in Nepal.

Climbing the pole was trickier than I thought because the little flange things were set irregularly, but that was nothing compared to when I got on the crossbeam. I realized that I was very high off the ground and the beam was very narrow and round. I stood there for a very very long moment gripping the pole behind me with white knuckles. I knew that the harness could supposedly support a Hyundai but that argument seemed awfully unconvincing when a couple million years of evolutionary impulses were telling me I was about to die. The reasonable thing to do would have been to climb back down and sit under a tree with a beer in hand, but instead I let go of the pole and started shuffling towards my partner with my arms splayed out either side of me. When we met in the middle, we grabbed and supported each other like a couple of drunks. We stood there in a modified tango pose for something like ten minutes trying to figure out how to get past one another. I tried to get one foot past her, then the other. Nothing worked. Then my partner got impatient and just went for it. I don’t remember what she actually did, it was a blur, but all of the sudden we were on the other side of each other. The crowd below us cheered but I didn’t feel the glory. I just wanted down. And that required us to jump. When “Waldo” the rope guy told me jump down, I retorted “Why the hell would I want to do something like that?” When I did, I fell about five feet before the harness caught, making it even more snug in the crotch.

I sent the rest of the day talking music with that punk chick under a tree with a beer in my hand. There was an opportunity to do another course — one that involved climbing up to the top of a forty foot telephone pole and then leaping to a trapeze — but I felt like I proved what I had to prove that day.

This Week’s Links

My weekly culling from the internets:

Super cool video filled with 80static logos.

This news story is just three shades of wrong.

And speaking of wrong, a conceptual artist in Yale is making “art” out of her own self-induced miscarriages. My first thought was “Ick.” My second was “ick.” My third was “I’m surprised she didn’t go to CalArts.” I’m so bored of this kind of shock identity politics art. It’s suffocating dead end that art still hasn’t found its way out of. Besides, it’s totally a rip off of my portrait of McGeorge Bundy done with my own snot.

[UPDATE] Turns out this whole thing was (thankfully) a hoax. Rest assured, if she went to CalArts, she would have done it for real.

[UPDATE 2] Or maybe Yale’s statement is a hoax. This whole thing is giving me a headache. Where’s Stabby when you need him?

And speaking of conceptual artists, in the 90s a couple of Russian conceptual artists decided to make the most unappealing music possible based on polls. The results you can read more about and listen to here.

More about conceptual artists or a sort: Jenna Jameson declares that her upcoming flick Zombie Strippers, is an anti-Bush movie. That might sway me to see it. Y’know, for the political subtext.

Existential World Tour: the Complete Series!

Back in 1998, after I graduated from U of Michigan with a Master’s Degree in Japanese Studies that I knew would prove to be worthless, I panicked. I wanted to go back to Japan, but I really did not want to teach English again. I taught it for two years between 1994 and ’96 and I felt my brain softening a little more with each day I worked there. The few job leads that I had in Japan fell through and suddenly I had no clue what I was going to do with my life. The future looked confusing and uncertain and I was overwhelmed. So I did what any red-blooded lad hailing from the stout state of Ohio might: I sold my car and traveled around the world. Along the way, I wrote a series of mass emails detailing my adventures with included climbing Himalayas, getting chased by a Rhino and getting naked with a room full of Russians. I thought of them as a sort of proto-blog though blogs were at that point a good five years away. So now, ten years later, I finally have these missives in a blog format. You can read the first entry here.

I also have pictures from my Existential World Tour to Taiwan, Nepal, Russia, and Berlin.

Existential Panic World Tour Part 12: New Russians not Nude Russians

Howdy all, I’ve safety navigated myself out of Russia and now aside from some minor liver damage, I’m relaxing comfortably in Prague.

Current Russian joke: A guy walks into a bank and says to the teller, “Hello, I have $10,000 and I’m interested in opening an account. Who should I talk to about this?” The teller responds, “a psychiatrist.”

Anyhow, last week in our waning few days in Yoshkar-Ola, my mom threw a party for her friend and my banya-buddy Andrey. He invited many of Mari-El republic’s high-rollers and held the fest at Onar, the hoidiest toidiest joint in the region. The interior of Onar looked like a bottom rung casino from Ratpack-era Vegas. The walls were painted a ridiculous color of purple with frescos of obese cherubs painted in pastels on the ceiling. Elsewhere were bushels of fake ivy, stone wall covering and lots and lots of mirrors. Robert Ventura would have had a field day here. The place was clearly designed to impress, and hence has become a place known throughout the town as being a meeting place for a ecently emerging tribe of post-communists called “New Russians.”

Back in the Halcyon days of the early 90s, a New Russian was synonymous with ‘yuppie’–a newly affluent individual who wore Reeboks and Swatchs, drove foreign cars and enjoyed pizza. Now as Ruble drops like a stone, and as the prospect of simply getting a paycheck on time is becoming an increasingly rare occurrence here, the New Russians have been coded as if not out and out ‘mafia’ then the ugly rich. While several of the people my mother interviewed have not been paid in four or five months, apartment buildings are being thrown up along the river with enough garish opulence to embarrass a Romanov. One New Russian that we rented our apartment from (a really big apartment by Russian standards though without the Romanesque arches and onion domes of those newer models), was a short balding guy named Victor who bore a passing resemblance to Lenin. Though he’s a ‘sexologist’ (shudder) by trade, he seems to have number of side ventures which neither of us really wanted to know about. Last year when my mother was researching in Yoshkar-Ola, Victor offered her a plastic handgun. “For your protection’ he said. Another New Russian is a good friend of Andrey’s and one of my banya-comrades–a squat guy with a flat top and a Stalinesque mustache named Volodya, or as everyone calls him, Volodya the Sausage King, because, as his name would suggest, he made his fortune by stuffing ground pig parts into intestines.

At this fest, Comrade Sausage Czar was there along with his bitter, stricken-looking wife who spent the night drinking heavily and rebuffing her husband’s clumsy attempts at cuddling. Also there were a couple of other guys I had previously seen nekkid at the banya, and a number of teachers at the local university. The vodka flowed, the champaign was guzzled and the food just kept coming and coming and coming. Around 8 o’clock two guys and a synthesizer came out and struck up a tune. I was about to comment on how bad the music (it sounded like bad karaoke) when Andrey leaned over to me and said, “These musicians are good friends of mine. You like?” I nodded and held my tongue. At the end of the first set, the lead singer said (translated through Andrey) “And now a song dedicated to our new American friends.” He gesticulated vaguely at us and then began a really tinny version of Lionel Richie’s early 80s mega-hit “Hello.” Several older men with their suspiciously young spandex clad dates began slow dancing at the center of the hall. Later, after much more vodka and champaignski, the dancing girls came out clad in ostrich feathers, thongs and little else and gyrated.

Sadly, I had to miss much of this cultural performance, I had an appointment to go out dancing at another New Russian haunt called “Holiday.” My comrades-in-boogie were three of the five ex-pat Americans living in Mari-El: Donna, a very tall very blond English teacher; David, a garrulous lawyer also teaching there; and Jennifer, his astonishingly young blushing bride. David, in particular, has a murky mysterious past. Judging from what he told me in his long yarns about himself, he was at various points in his life–a film student, a bouncer, an army cadet, a tai-chi master, a CIA agent and worst of all, a lawyer. His Russian was, apparently, perfect. Upon arriving at the club, David directed my attention to the pair of armed guards standing at the door and noted that the nightsticks they were carrying had a hard plastic casing with a core of cork and a steel spring. “They’re leg-breakers, man,” he said with a certain lusty enthusiasm. He also reminded me that the club’s entry fee was equivalent to one fifth of the average workers monthly salary. (That is when and if they get paid.)

The club was relatively crowded, very smokey and decorated with a lot of chain-link fencing. The music was largely cheesy but cloyingly catchy Euro techno with the occasional Elton John song thrown in. Once they played the “Laura Palmer Theme” from Twin Peaks. Leather definitely seems to be the material of choice for women’s fashion–leather minis, tight leather pants, high leather boots. Most of the guys wore either leather jackets or ill-fitting suits. I danced some and drank a lot more. Again, Russia is a macho culture. If someone places a glass of vodka in your hands and says “Drink up friend,” you drink or suffer a reputation of being a wimp.

As the night wore on, some of the people from the Onar party drifted into the night club including Andrey, who looked completely out of his element. Though the man can drink Yeltsin under the table, he dances like the Twin Peaks’ dream dwarf. Volodya the Sausage King also showed up, but instead of his embittered wife, he was there with a blond balloon-breasted, er, companion who spent the evening sitting on his lap, giggling and playing with his mustache.

I staggered home around four thirty in the morning, with a group of Russians and Donna and I promptly crashed.

The next day, I managed to crawl out of bed and go to the market with my mom in spite of a killer headache. There I saw, in sharp contrast to decadence of the night before, an old woman with gnarled hands selling a half dozen beets spread out on a blanket on the sidewalk for the equivalent of a nickel. Further on I saw a guy in his 30s selling plastic sheeting. I was told that many factories are so far behind in their paychecks that they have started paying workers in the wares the factories produce. I was also told that the major bank in Yoshkar-Ola has frozen all accounts due to the instability of the Ruble. I really have no idea how the average Russian makes ends meet. I also wonder why there hasn’t yet been blood in the streets or what might happen in Russia’s increasingly murky future. When my mom asked one of the people she’s interviewing, someone who hasn’t been paid for six months, he shrugged said, “I am optimistic for the future, I have to be.” Meanwhile Victor, the plastic pistol packing sexologist is thinking about buying a flat at one of the new New Russian complexes for $200,000.

PS LATE BREAKING NEWS: It’s official. My global romp will be ending on Nov. 6. The tickets have been bought, and limo and dancing girls hired.

Existential Panic World Tour Part 11: Sweaty Naked Men

I’m realizing that this trip to Russia not really much of a tourist excursion. For one thing, there ain’t a whole lot to see here in the hinterland. Instead, this is an exercise in Russian cultural immersion. This became particularly evident on the car ride from Kazan to Yoshkar-Ola, when our burly contact here, Andrey, turned to me and asked in his thickly accented English if I’d ever been to a Russian Banya. “A Russian Barnyard?” I asked. A Banya is basically a sauna but its social significance is much more. The Banya is apparently one of the social lubricants that makes society flow. Like Japanese after-work drinking secession or the American tailgate party, it is a time when men are allowed to cast aside their societal roles and carouse like equals with their brethren.

When I mentioned to other Russians and the handful of American ex-pats living here that I was scheduled for such a banya, inevitability their reaction insinuated that I was really going to be in for something. On Monday, Andrey and a driver (Andrey refuses to learn to drive for some reason) picked me up, picked up an armful of alcohol, and then drove to a soccer field. The banya was a small wooden shack built on the edge of the grounds. Apparently, Andrey and a bunch of his buddies from Mari State University gather at this unremarkable hut and “relax.” Andrey pounded on the metal door for sometime before a squat naked man with a remarkably hairy back answered the door. Inside about a dozen middle-aged men were stripping naked, all of them looked like David Crosby or Wilfred Brimley. It was not a pretty sight. Andrey asked me if I wanted a beer before the sauna. I promptly said yes. After the beer and after I stripped, Andrey lead me to the sauna. Upon opening the door I was confronted with the sight of two naked very sweaty men flogging themselves with birch-branches. “It is kind of Russian massage” Andrey said to me. Ok, I thought. I sat in the sauna, allowed myself to slow cook in the intense heat of the room and followed suit with everyone else and began flogging myself with said foliage. (It feels like getting molested by a shrub.) The manly thing to do is to sit there swatting yourself until you have been so cooked your ears begin to curl. I was never quite that gung-ho. Then, with ears curled, the next thing you do to test your macho metal is to plunge into an icy cold pool of water in the next room. It’s kind of like daring your cardiovascular system to have a heart attack. Another variation is to leap, buck naked, into a snow drift and roll around while. Though it’s blasted cold out, there is, as of yet, nary a snow drift. So my banya-comrades made do with standing outside, naked, smoking cigarettes. We would sit around, make crude jokes, slap backs and make statements like “In Russia, men are men and women are women.” Yes, this was male bonding at its most raw and naked (literally). All that was absent was the drums and the Robert Bly books.

After continuing with the grueling sauna, ice water, exposure rotation, I was already feeling a bit buzzed. But no Russian adventure would be complete without the vodka. We all gathered around a buffet of sorts that a couple of the boys had set up. Handing me a glass of vodka (shots are for wimps) Andrey leaned over to me and said, “Russian proverb…After banya you can sell your pants but you must drink.” I asked him to repeat it, just to make sure I heard that right. I have no idea what this pearl of folk widsom actually means (especially considering no one in the room was wearing pants) but I took it as a subtle hint that I should be prepared for some serious drinking. After a toast, they knocked the entire contents of the glass back, as did I. Then another toast and another half glass. There was an impress array of food on the table before me, sauerkraut, bread, honey, olives and of course a big plate of lard. My banya-mates were somewhat perplexed why I wasn’t partaking in what they considered a staple food, but in my mind a line needed to be drawn. I would get naked, I would be happy to parboil and then freeze myself, and I’d be happy to suck down as excessive about of alcohol, but dammit I was not going to eat a chunk of lard. Moreover, seeing Andrey naked and hairy gnawing on a huge chunk of fat will be one of those traumatic images (if only on an aesethetic level) that will stay with me for a long, long time.

As weird as the experience was, though, I found myself actually having fun. And after two more half-glasses of vodka, I found that I was having a whiz-bang of a time. The final toast was to me, for being the sole intrepid American in this uniquely Russian experience. I counter-toasted them for making my banya-going something I won’t soon forget. And then I knocked back all the vodka in one gulp. Andrey said to me in a grave earnest tone, “you drink like a Russian.” I took that as a compliment.

Of course, after four glasses of vodka and three beers I wasn’t merely drunk, sloshed or plastered. I was out of my tiny head. When I arrived home, mom in true Russian tradition was making Borsch. She was also entertaining Donna, a very tall very blonde college student teaching English here and Shirley, the peevish wife of a missionary computer-programmer. (His life project is to make an electronic Bible in Russian with annotations. Yes, clearly what Russia need more than a viable political system, improved health care and a functional infrastructure is an electronic Bible in Russian with annotations.) I staggered into the kitchen, said something unintelligible I’m sure, and then promptly passed out in my bedroom. It wasn’t yet 6 O’clock at night. Later that night, Andrey called. When mom informed him that I was in a vodka coma, we replied with surprise saying, “But we didn’t drink that much.”

That night I felt like I had seen though the stereotypes to glimpse at the real Russia. And perhaps I saw more than I wanted to.

Existential Panic World Tour Part 10: Kazan

I’m in Yoshkar-ola in deepest darkest Russia. We took off for Russia from Frankfurt on Thursday. When we boarded our plane bound for Kazan, capital of Tartarstan, but were airily informed that the Kazan airport was mysteriously closed and that we might have to land in Perm at the base of the Ural mountains. That’s a bit like boarding a plane bound for Detroit and having it land in St. Louis. Fortunately, about 30 minutes before we did land we were told that the Kazan airport had re-opened. As we descended, my first impression of Russia was that it looked like a massive unrelenting expanse of Ohio. This place is crushingly, overwhelming flat. The horizon seems to exert a strange gravity upon the architecture which no matter how tall seems squat and insignificant in comparison with the flatness of the land.

We were met at Kazan by some one named Sveltlana. Through her job, my mother has made a number of connections throughout the country. Most feel a certain degree of obligation to her, after all, it was her job to recruit Russian scholars and once in Bowling Green Ohio acquaint them to American life by finding them an apartment, securing grant money etc. Thus Sveltlana, a kind, well-meaning but naive person, met us at the airport and arranged for us to stay at the home of a Russian family for the night.

Though the Soviet Union collapsed in 1992, Russia remains an empire of sorts. Within its vast expanses lies numerous “autonomous republics.” where specific ethnic groups reside. The most famous and troubled one is Chechnya. Fortunately, Tartarstan and the Mari-El Republic (where Yoshkar-Ola is) is less eager to spurn Russian control and start a bloody guerrilla war. Nonetheless, I found people, particularly in Tartarstan, were much more eager to identify themselves as Tartars than as Russians. The identification is with one’s ethnicity rather than with one’s nationality.

The next day we walked around the center of Kazan see the sights. Unfortunately, it were was a fierce wind along with some snow. Before I left the States, we packed several boxes full of winter clothes to Prague. The boxes, of course, did actually arrive until the day after my mother and I left for here. Fortunately I had enough sense to buy a $6 thick wool sweater in Nepal along with a $9 “North Face” jacket that was probably lovingly crafted by slave labor in Northern India. Kazan seemed to be in the midst of a building frenzy. Much of the construction seems to be directed towards undoing what the Soviets did, like reconstructing churches that were either actively destroyed by the Communists or through willful neglect. They are even reconstructing a large Mosque that was burned to the ground by Ivan the Terrible. I was somewhat disappointed with Kazan because a) most of the sights were in the process of reconstruction and b) in all of Tartarstan I saw nary a fishstick.

The next day, Andrey–mom’s primary contact here in Yoshka-Ola–picked us up in a shiny black Russia car, the kind you see KGB agents drive in the movies. To further the image, he was wearing a black leather trench coat. Andrey is a massive individual, with a thick ZZ Top style beard, a large gut and hands the size of hub caps. He looks like, if the situation required it, he could strangle a horse.

This afternoon I’m supposed to go to a Russia Banya with him as my mother continues her research. A Banya is a Russia spa, which I’m told entails lots of Vodka, birch branches, saunas and lots of nudity. Stay tuned…


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