Friday, November 19, 2010

Thoughts from the Wendy's in Terminal C at Dulles

I’m sitting at the Wendy’s in Dulles Airport. Not a Wendy’s, but THE Wendy’s that I eat at when I’m on my way to parts east. I’m on my way to Kabul again for the 6th time, a trip that is always one I get excited about but there’s always that fear that I may get hurt or something. My mother always says when life is stressful, go to McDonald’s and have a Big Mac and a cup of coffee. Not very healthy advice but it does the trick. There are no McD’s here in Terminal C so Wendy’s will have to do. It is also the place where one of my former students’ host father works (I believe he’s the manager). Two years ago, this Afghan boy gets of the plane at Dulles and is met by his host family, a Muslim couple from Egypt I believe. I’m surprised that his family can meet him at the gate but as I find out a little while later, hs host dad works at Wendy’s! What a shocker for me (and the boy) to think that we send kids from Afghanistan to the US for a year and they wind up living with people who work at Wendy’s.
That boy is now in Toronto, he didn’t last long that year, I believe leaving almost as soon as he arrived. He’s repeating his senior year in high school this year because he frittered away last year and failed. Such is life up north without real guidance. His host dad is still working here, he just waited on me. I wonder if he recognized me? If he did, he didn’t show it.
So who knows what waits for me in Kabul in a day and a half. I’m actually looking forward to the trip and excited for some inspiration for my book that I’ve been struggling to write. Maybe I’ll get some of it written while in Kabul, it seems that life in New York is just so crazy that I can’t focus on the book. The story is inside of me and now and then gets scribbled down on my computer but I need a quiet place to push it out of me. I notice just here in the Dulles airport that away from the Big Apple my creative juices flow. The stresses and worries of daily life; money, t-shirts, teaching, a social life, house, cats, etc. can be very distracting to a budding novelist. Guess I should go away more often.
Now why, you may ask am I going to Kabul in November? Well, let me tell you. It’s sort of like finishing unfinished business. 9 of my kids from the summer didn’t come but will come in January for a semester. Prior to their arrival, they need to have a pre-departure orientation (PDO), which I have been asked to run. This is the same work I do in summer, not to confuse anyone. That’ll be my first three days in Afghanistan. After that, I will be interviewing potential candidates for next year’s program. A busy ten days with not much breathing space but that’s OK, it’s all enjoyable work for me.
This time away from NYC will hopefully give me some time to reflect on where my life is going these days. It seems there is no direction, but full of activity which I enjoy, some of which I don’t really enjoy. How much more time do I really want to spend on my t-shirt business? Do I want to do more work overseas? When will I make time to get this book finished? How will I pay my bills if I do? Well, I have a 13-hour plane ride to Dubai awaiting me. Besides catching up on reading the NY Times and watching some movies, maybe I can ponder these questions. I’ll talk to you later, let me go get on my flight. They’re boarding in a few minutes.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Mama Suly--In Memorium

Yesterday I had to put Mama Suly to sleep. After almost two years of dealing with cancer, and 17 years of a wonderful life, this little Siamese gave me the look that I had been waiting for and it was time to go to the vet for the last time. She had a seizure and was writhing on the floor so in a moment my whole Monday plans changed. Meetings, emails, chores—all that seemed irrelevant on 9/13/10 as I walked up the street with Suly wrapped in a towel in my arms.
I had been rehearsing this day over and over in my head so I was prepared. Still it was hard and the tears streamed down my face as I got closer to the vet. People on the street either thought I was crazy or knew what I was going to do. A very personal moment played out in public. My neighbor works at the vet and when she saw me with the towel held in my arms, she knew why I was there. She went into action and got me into a room and a doctor there in a matter of moments so Suly didn’t have to suffer long. No one wants to have to put their animal to sleep but I knew this was the time to do it. This was a rite of passage that I had played out in my head over and over these past few years. It was done out of love and Suly knew that.
17 years ago this little creature came into my life when I was living with Artem on Mosfilmovskaya Street in the Lenin Hills section of Moscow. I came home one night to find my cat Bancroft chasing around this small, white and brown fuzzy kitten. Someone had given it to Artem, “Tom has a cat, and you need one too,” was the rationale. So while walking on the Arbat, the pedestrian street filled with art, souvenir and pet sellers downtown, Angelina (the giver of the kitten) decided to pick up a little gift for Artem. This is how animals come in to people’s lives in Russia, as unplanned gifts. I can just imagine how some of my American friends would react if I showed up with a kitten as a gift and not a bottle of wine or flowers.
The old ladies who sold their kittens on the Arbat by the big “Zoomagazin” (Russian for pet store) had little marketing tricks to make their wares more sellable. With the fuzzball Persians and Siberians, they used to brush all their fur forward to make them look fuzzier. With white and crème colored cats (as in Suly’s case) they would bleach their fur to make them look whiter and cleaner. So Suly came into our lives a little bleached, white and pristine.
Bancroft wasn’t too hapy at first to be sharing the 2 bedroom apartment with this little cat and let her know it. After a day or two though, he had accepted that she wasn’t leaving and let her snuggle with him and was more cordial. That was spring of 1993. In a year, Bancroft would die and she was the only one in the house but not for long. Felix came onto the scene one Sunday afternoon at the “Ptichy Rynok” (Russian for pet market) in Arpil of 94. She was happy for the company and treated him like her own, snuggling with him, washing him, and sometimes giving him a whack to know who is boss.
By summer of 94, I took a job in Ekaterinburg and Artem went to Berlin for awhile. The relationship ended and I took the cats with me to the Urals. My job in Ekaterinburg had me traveling a lot and during those trips, Felix and SUly were getting it on and thus in July of 95, Suly gave birth to two little black kittens. How a Siamese and a tabby had black kittens is a bit of a mystery but I credited genes of a grandfather that skipped a generation. So there they were, the little family of four on Ulitsa Bolshakova in the Parkovy rayon of Ekaterinburg. Lulu and Eddy were the names of the offspring and one was given away to an American teaching in town and I kept Lulu to make my duo a trio. There it was, my trio of cats no more to be added, just a little family of mom, dad and the baby. In 1997, they made the big move from the Urals to New York City, an event so noteworthy that the local TV and newspaper came to cover the story. There was suspicion that I was stealing away Russia’s pedigree animals but when anyone saw them, journalists or local vets, they would ask, “Why are you taking these animals to America?” Apparently they didn’t find them worthy enough of a trip abroad. One lady vet sheepishly asked if she could be one of my cats and go with me.
Suly almost didn’t make the trip for the day before I was to leave, little Miss Siamese got out of the apartment as I was taking stuff down to a waiting car. I went out for about 30 mins and came home to hear her meowing somewhere ein the hallway. She was hiding behind the trash chute, scared yet happy to see me. Thank God none of my neighbors took her, that would have been so upsetting for me. August 4th, 1997, we all flew off to the US, me upgraded to business class and my three fellow travelers in a giant cage down below. Felix and Lulu were so nervous about the trip and Suly furtively liked both of them to calm them down. I’m sure by mid-flight, they were all snuggled together in a pile, Suly keeping them at peace.
Upon arrival in New York, I was homeless, but had friends I could stay with. The only problem was no place for my cats, so they had to spend 3 weeks at the Paws Inn, a pet hotel in midtown Manhattan. I would visit them every day so they knew I hadn’t abandoned them. I did go awayf or 2 weeks, which worried them enough to make Suly’s brown face get flecked with white hairs from worry. By the end of 3 weeks Suly, Felix and Lulu had had enough of life in a big cage and were happy to be moving into an apartment in Brooklyn.
That apartment changed into a house after 6 years and in Russian style, the cats went in to the house from the front door on their own. This is so they sense whether the house is good or not. It seemed to pass their test and they set up residence on the second floor. Suly loved running up and down the stairs, going into the basement to explore and lay out on the patio in the morning sun. One of my favorite things she would do was race down the stairs and bound out the back, racing toward the big, white bench at the back of the yard. There she would meow loud enough to wake the dead and roll around on the bench, basking in the warm sun. That was one of her spots she loved to sleep on, as were there many more inside and out. They would change from time to time over the years. At night, when I would go to bed, Suly would come up and paw at the covers until I lifted them up, and she went under to snuggle between my legs or at my side. A loud purr would emanate from under the comforter as she happily settled in for her night’s sleep.
Over the years, you don’t always realize the love you have for your animals. They can be annoying, as Suly could be at times—overly needy, in your way, on the table drinking the milk out of the creamer, under fott so you step on her all the time. The one thing she did that would piss me off royally was to clumsily step on the saucer of my tea cup and send the tea spilling all over my desk or table. One time, in the Moscow days on New Year’s Eve, Artem and friends were preparing salads for a big dinner party. Amid all the fracas in our little kitchen, she managed to sneak into the fridge and start eating one of the fish salads. When someone opened the fridge, there she was smothered in mayonnaise, happily chewing on some fish. Despite the annoyances, you forgive your little animals for they are innocent and love you unconditionally looking over your flaws as well. In my life, love of another person, as we all want it, has not shone on me greatly but I don’t bemoan that. I have had the unconditional love of three cats, who warmly have greeted me when I come home for the past 17 years. Now we are down to two and the love still goes on. I take care of them and they reward me by showing their affection and love. Sounds a little strange but it makes sense to me (and I’m sure a lot of other people in this world).
When Suly got ill with cancer, at first I didn’t know what to do. I followed the vet’s advice and made her comfortable as possible since her diagnosed life was about 3 months. Then I found Dr. Wen on Long Island. He was the famed vet who used Chinese herbs and accupuncture to cure dogs and cats of the life-threatening illnesses. Driving the 1.5 hour drive every month or so, with Suly asleep on my lap or in the seat next to me, I felt love in my heart. I was doing something for someone who has been with me for so long. It was the right thing to do really after so many years of loyalty. Some would give up and put her down, I decided to give Dr. Wen’s herbs a try and they worked for almost two years.
Yesterday afternoon, I made another drive out to Long Island, this time with Suly wrapped in a towel in the back seat, on her way to be cremated at the Regency Pet Cemetery. They were very caring about the whole process. Chuckie, the man operating the crematorium snipped some fur as a memento for me before she went into the oven. I gave her stiff little body one last snuggle and kiss and in she went to be turned into ash. As Pete and I waited for her ashes, we walked through the small little cemetery full of tombstones of beloved dogs, cats, horses and even a donkey. $238.89 for cremating a cat was a drop compared to the amount of money people spend on their pets’ graves. Ornate tombstones with pictures of dogs or cats, flowers, statues—it’s incredible. Like I said, a pet’s love is a mighty force. I found the tombstones with the religious symbols on them the most interesting, as if to say “Muffin was a good Jewish dog”, like Mufifn went to temple all the time. Most of the pets had Italian or Jewish last names so I guess we can make a genralization about ethnic groups and post-mortem pet worship. If you ever need a new drag name (first pet’s name + mother’s maiden name is the standard rule), or are stuck for names of characters in your next novel, take a stroll through a pet cemetery. My favorite was Dolly Sokolinski, Pete like Guinevere Cardavallo. There are many more out there for you to enjoy. Unfortunately I didn’t take my camera to get them all.

Today I have to learn a new way of feeding my pets, buy smaller cans of cat food, and get used to not having Suly walking around my feet. She is still in her little tin, wrapped up with green tissue in a nice little gift bag from Regency. There will be time to deal with her yet. Maybe a little sprinkle in my rose garden, a little sprinkle in Russia when I go next, and the rest mixed up with the other two when they go. A cat era has come to a close and today I want only the quiet of my house and Felix and Lulu sleeping peacefully at my feet.

Monday, March 22, 2010

When Life Gives You A Blank Wall...

So the deserted building next to me that was gutted last fall has sprung to life again. Well, with the warm, spring weather it is possible for the owners of this eyesore to begin work anew. They left a giant hole in the backyard in fall (a planned extension of the house) which took on alife of its own and began checking out the neighbors. Slowly but surely the big hole started coming into my yard and my patio started to fall into the encroaching pit. Last week with a major rain storm, the hole claimed more of my patio and part of my tomato bed. Then fence began to do a lean that way as well. Fortunately we had excellent weather all week and the workers dug more as well as fortify the earth a wee bit to stop the sink hole from getting bigger. What they also did while I was away at work, but a necessity I suppose, was cut down the fence, take down my pergola and put up a giant plywood wall on my property. That I wasn’t expecting but when it was all done, there wasn’t much I could say. They do promise to put it back the way it was and I have a signed note to prove it.
What does one do when life throws a giant blank wall into their life? Well I know what I do—I paint it. Last Saturday I pulled out the paints and went to work to relieve some stress by painting giant cats sitting in a garden of big, red flowers on a sunny day. That’s all I did for now but who knows, more cats might go up along the the plywood. Lights were hung too so we have some sort of festive illumination out back to take away from the dirt and shabbiness. Who knows how long the fence will be up but if I have to look at it, I might as well look at something I enjoy, right?

Thursday, February 25, 2010

40 dnei Andreya

The 40th day came and life slowed down to remember a loved one. Since I heard the news of Andrei’s passing, it slowly seeped into me that someone I cared for is truly gone. It took a few days for me to get over the shock and come to terms with this news. If I knew earlier, could I have helped him? Why didn’t I know earlier? Why didn’t I call to find out? These were questions that kept going over in my mind. But in the end, it doesn’t bring him back to life.
On Tuesday, I was feeling pretty down and alone—not around anyone who knew him well. I wished I could transport myself to Russia to gather with his friends and family. So in a small, quiet way I honored the memory of my friend. Of course a few shots of vodka were done (7 to be exact) and words were said (maybe he heard them). In addition I went to a Russian Orthodox church to light a candle and have the priest pray for him (panikhida is what they call it).
Lighting a candle and sitting in the dark church, alone with my thoughts, was a real comfort. I needed to do something a little more serious and heartfelt than down 7 shots of vodka to a friend and a panikhida, as recommended by my friend Liz, was just the thing. I wrote Andrei’s name (first name only, no last names) on a piece of paper and put it in an envelope with $17 (suggested donation). With the change from a $20, I lit a big $3 candle and placed it at the designated spot in front of an icon of Jesus on the cross. It’s like a little stand, always on the right side when you first walk in to any Russian Orthodox church. I stood in the growing darkness of this small church, the sweet smell of beeswax candles, the rustling of people in the lobby and the pitter patter of rain on the roof. In my own quiet way, I said goodbye to Andrei and knew that his soul was in good hands. This small ritual may seem silly, but it brought much peace to my heart.
As I left the church on my way to teach, I felt a huge release of energy off me. The sadness was gone and I was embraced by a sense of comfort and goodness. On one hand it wasn’t so much that I was saying goodbye to a friend on the day when his soul leaves this earth and ascends into heaven, as the Russians believe, but rather that I was upholding a tradition I learned in Russia, and after all these years of not living there, still found value in it. This act reaffirmed how accultured I became in Russia and how much of Russian traditions, values and ideas are still in me. It’s nothing to be ashamed of, it is a part of who I am—an added layer to my way of thinking and feeling. And on a cold, rainy February afternoon in a small Russian church on a busy street in Brooklyn, it was the most important thing I did all day.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

V Traure (In mourning)

I got some sad news the other day. Andrei, a friend of mine from Russia died last month. I’ve been emailing him and trying to Skype him for the past few months and no answer. I thought maybe he was busy or mad at me. So I called him yesterday only to find out that the news wasn’t good. He died on January 15th at age 35. This was not the news I expected to hear nor wanted to hear. My Andrei dead? How could this be? Apparently he died of AIDS-related pneumonia. Had I known about this, I could have got something to him to save his life. No one with AIDS dies of pneumonia anymore, not in this country at least. There’s profylaxsis for that, it’s treatable. I can just imagine the treatment he got once the doctors found out he was HIV+. Nothing they could do except judge and isolate him. His friend Yura told me all the details about his sickness, death and funeral. All his friends are in shock and grief. I’ve been in shock too. I can’t believe I won’t see him anymore or hear his voice over Skype. Now he lies in Kushva, a small town north of Ekaterinburg, six feet under the snow and ice.
Andrei was more than a friend, more of a boyfriend, who came into my life around 1995. What I liked about him is he was simple. He had no expectations from me nor looked at me as the rich American who would be his meal ticket (like so many other guys did). He was in the travel business which opened up his world to places to go and see. He came to visit me twice in New York and I would make the trek out to Ekaterinburg to see him when I was in Russia or nearby in Kazakhstan. The last time I saw him was 3 years ago. By then we weren’t really boyfriends anymore, but the love and friendship was still there. There was always a desire to rekindle the flame but the big question was where. We tried to meet up in places around the world but the timing was off. He took his vacation in September just as I was getting home from my 2 months overseas. This year would have been different, we were definitely going to meet up somewhere in Europe. Alas it will not be. Our timing was off again, and one month to the day after Andrei’s death, my Christmas card arrived and I phoned to get the sad, sad news.
I can’t go over to Ekaterinburg and bring him back to life. I can only remember my sweet, fun friend who made me laugh and was always a pleasure to be with. A picture of him and me sits now on a table in the living room. I can celebrate what was, and will try not to mourn what could have been. Next week will be the 40th day since his passing. According to the Russians, that’s when his soul will ascend up into heaven. As tradition has it, that is when we gather and remember the departed and send him on his way. The vodka will be flowing in Ekaterinburg as well as New York that day. A nice tribute to a small-town boy with an international flair.
Poka Andrei, do novykh vstrech.

Monday, January 04, 2010

Reflections on a Market past

I never did get to more blogging while I was at the market. It was a busy time and a lot of fun to boot. Our “F” row became quite the little family and we all had a great time; joking, dancing, singing, shooting the breeze. I miss everyone now that it’s all over. It’s the family of vendors that makes it all fun and enjoyable work. Sort of like carnies but probably with less issues and rap sheets.
Business was OK, I expected better from Union Square but it was what it was. The question on everyone’s lips was “When will they start shopping?” They didn’t come out in droves the last two weeks as they usually do. Nothing can be predicted these days about shopping mentality. People aren’t spending as much as they did and you can’t force them to buy your wares. A lot of looking and thinking but no immediate buying. So I have a lot of product left over. I don’t have to worry about inventory next year. Still, the let down I feel after the market makes me wonder about the future of my t-shirt line and whether it’s all worth the effort. I would like to focus more on my web business and less on markets. We’ll see how that all pans out.
One thing that kept me busy the last two weeks of the market was stockings. Apparently no one was selling them so I began to make some, and they sold like hot cakes. After putting all my sewing supplies away and cleaning the living room, out it all came and the room was awash with fabrics, looking like a sweatshop again. Out of 33 stockings, I sold all but 2. Not bad at $25 a pop! Each one was different so no one got the same stocking. I’m going to start making more for next year later this month.
The market ended on Christmas Eve and Maruska and I loaded up our UHaul with our things and went home. All I wanted to do when I got home was take a shower, drink some tea and decorate my house for the holidays. I’m not about the weeks leading up to Christmas, but rather about the days after and into January. You know the Twelve Days of Christmas don’t begin until the 25th and go to the eve of the Epiphany. Plus I like to include Russian Christmas and New Years (the 7th and 13th respectively) so my celebrating goes on until mid January. Anyway, post-market found me putting the lights up in the backyard and decorating the tree until the wee hours. I was tired, I should have gone to bed but something kept me going until the house was aglow with Christmas from front to back and inside too. Eddie, my neighbor, and I have a competition to see who can put up the most lights in the yard. He had already done his so I needed to respond now that I had a free moment. At 1 in the morning I was having a cup of tea in my garden, snow everywhere and softly glowing from all the lights I had strung up along the fances and 2 of the 3 wise men looking up toward the big star I wired up on the laundry ladder at the back of the yard. Very apropos to have them following the yonder star, just too bad I don’t have the third one. I found 2 in the trash about 5 years ago and have been searching for the third ever since. I recently saw one in a display in Williamsburg and wanted to stop and steal it but it was on a roof and might have been a little tricky. Anyway, my search for Melchior (that’s the one missing) continues so if you have any leads, let me know.
Christmas was quiet, ate roast beef with my neighbor Eddie, my friend Eric came over in the afternoon. New Years was a bit more raucous as it should be. I go into 2010 a bit unfocused, wondering what life has in store for me this year, the first in a new decade. I know teaching 4 nights a week is one thing to look forward to (beginning tonight) as is a trip to see my Afghans in Toronto next weekend. Other than that, we’ll leave it up to fate I suppose. Happy 2010 y’all!