Tuesday, November 25, 2014

At a Crossroads

A recent possible topic for conversation club here was "mid-life crisis." As basically all of my students are under 30 years old, they immediately groaned and asked why the heck we would talk about such a dreary, inapplicable topic. I thought about it for a second - teenagers are in crisis, people in their mid 20s are in crisis, people in their 30s have their "mid-life crisis," people in their 40s are in crisis about being truly old, and people in their 50s are in crisis about their children growing up and actually BEING old. People in their 60s are in crisis about retirement, and people in their 70s are probably in a state of crisis about medical care, but maybe at this point someone might be able to claim some sort of calm about their life. So question: Is there any point in life when someone is safely out of crisis mode?

We decided not to talk about any mid-life crisis.

Of course, not everyone is in crisis ALL THE TIME. Some people might actually be truly happy... like my boy Christian who lives in Russia and loves every second of it. But I will say that my life seems to resemble the performance of the US Federal Government - I conduct my business by moving from one crisis to another.

Again, another overwhelming generalization. But the last 2+ years have been one heck of a roller coaster ride, and at age 24 I'm still stuck between being a child and an adult. Depending on who you ask, it's perfectly normal to be either an adult or a child at this stage in your life. The Uzbek cooks in the nearby cafes think I should have a wife by now, while my older ex-pat friends think I could happily and correctly live as a party-bachelor for at least the next 20 years. Some say I should be building a career and making money; others say I should be traveling the world and have responsibility to no one except myself. You're in your 20s! Don't worry about the mortgage and the family and the retirement plan (let alone starting a family), until you're 30!

Anyway, recently I've been beginning to lean towards trying to be more responsible. Mostly in a professional sense. I've also come to realize I can at times personify a human wrecking ball (not to get too Miley Cyrus on you all here) with the capacity to do some serious damage on the personal level, often entirely inadvertently and with a complete absence of malice. But damage is damage, and I'm afraid I should grow up soon before I do something really destructive, and/or my luck runs out.

And so as I've lived in Novosibirsk, I have had some highly entertaining moments. I still get to feel like a star sometimes, and I meet all sorts of interesting people. I have a relatively high standard of living for a Siberian in terms of material things (but a far cry from the the most well-off here).

But I have grown lazy. I've actually started to grow a little gut. I'm still just as skinny everywhere else (in fact, maybe even skinnier, as my little running muscles have atrophied). My personal discipline is nonexistent. I can't resist even the mildest forms of temptation. I have few goals beyond coming home in the evening each day and being comfortable and warm. I teach almost every day, and don't have the time or the financial flexibility to travel or live as a tourist here.

Sure, I have dreams. I want to be fluent in Russian. I want to be the American ambassador to Russia. In my most dreamy hours I want to be an Olympian. But I also feel that I lack the will and determination to achieve my greatest dreams. My long term goals lack any short term stepping stones. Living here in my current capacity hasn't even helped me greatly improve my Russian skills, as I often converse in English. And finally, I've decided that this environment is not conducive to me living a healthy, fulfilling life.

All of this, and the blunt realization that economic and political stability seems to hang by a thread in Russia (as shown by the collapse of the ruble) have led me to the decision to return to America.

Yes, that's right. I'm coming home.

The time to request a Russian souvenir or trinket is now. Aunt Patty, I know you want a balalaika. You really go top shelf! I'll do what I can.

I leave Novosibirsk on December 25th to spend some time in Turkey and Greece with my cousin Colin. Should be a hell of a trip. I return to Moscow in January for a short time, and I will be back roaming New England by the end of January.

I'm doing this because I realized how I live in Russia doesn't really help me achieve any of my long term goals, and there isn't much of an alternative... at least not without going back to America first.

Many important decisions await in the near future, but my decision to return to America is final. I hope to go to Graduate school for International Diplomacy in Fall 2016. When I finish graduate school, I will be 27. I just might make it into the Foreign Service before I'm 30 after all.

What I do between January 2015 and Fall 2016 is still up in the air. But I'm interested in getting back into running form and living a healthier, more stable life.

I'd actually be interested in hearing from anyone with experience in career development what their recommendations would be. How important is it to have internship/work experience in international relations/policy/public diplomacy/government before applying to Graduate school in that field? Beyond the personal reasons for trying a career track before you go full bore, do graduate schools take that into strong consideration?

In the near future I will be given a choice between the financially secure and stable life which might hurt my future career prospects, or continuing to be financially irresponsible and wandering in order to pursue my desired career 100%.

So I have one last month in Russia. I'm sure it will be just as crazy as the last 13.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Musings on Mentality

I used to think that the "facade of indifference" was a uniquely American ability to be dishonest. Americans try to make themselves invulnerable and attractive by showing how little they care about something. The less you care, the more interesting you are. I was never very good at not caring about stuff. My boy Josh Hardin has got the "don't care" game down pat.

I long respected Russia and Russians for being genuine and authentic. Whereas Americans are always friendly to you in a fake sort of way that doesn't actually imply any genuine feelings, Russians tend to wear their emotions on their sleeves (tend, mind you). They will tell you when you messed up, they will express interest and genuine friendliness directly and quickly, but mostly this cultural aspect manifests itself in that if a Russian is having a bad day, he or she will try to make you have a bad day too. Americans tend to avoid one-anothers' problems, whereas Russian acquaintances will listen to your problems and give you their advice rather freely.

However, as it turns out, in Western terms Russia is just as miserably dishonest in it's own way. There's actually a term for this dishonesty, враньё (Vran'-YO). It translates differently as lies, fibs, tall tales, white lies, nonsense, idle talk, twaddle, or flam, or taradiddle. I'm gonna go ahead and call it what it is - bullshit.

In short, Russians give you bullshit to save face. They understand that this world is dog eat dog (or at least their world is) and they fight for everything they have. The truth is subjective. This exists on the interpersonal as well as the official level, and it's finally starting to drive me crazy.

But don't take my word for it. Take Fyodor Doestoevsky's:

"Among our Russian intellectual classes the very existence of a non-liar is an impossibility, the reason being that in Russia even honest men lie... I am convinced that in other nations, for the great majority, it is only scoundrels who lie; they lie for practical advantage, that is, with directly criminal aims."

Or Leonid Andreyev's:

"Yes, the Russian is incapable of telling downright lies; but seems equally incapable of telling the truth. The intermediate phenomenon for which he feels the utmost love and tenderness resembles neither truth nor lie. It is Vran'yo. Like our native Aspen, it pops up uninvited everywhere, choking other varieties; like the aspen it is no use for firewood or carpentry; and, again like the aspen, is sometimes beautiful."

Russians will show you their emotions and not explain the reason, or give you a fake reason. Or they will tell you how "Russians think in general," but of course they don't think that way. Or you will correctly guess the reason for something (for example, a girl is mad at you because you offended her by being a western barbarian), they will deny it, act offended, throw a fit, and then agree with you.

The point is, again, that Russians can't accept the truth when that truth is negative. They find some middle ground, which is neither true nor false (I find it to be closer to false). Russians use this bullshit to manipulate you into doing what they want, or believing what they want - a skill they are amazingly good at.

Sometimes they use bullshit when you actually hit the nail on the head, but the truth is offensive to them (such as that they are materialistic). They know they are materialistic, you know they are materialistic, but you can't actually have a discussion about the fight you just got in over money because mentioning her materialism is offensive and painful to accept. It seems a lot of communication here is done through tacit understandings, traditions, and subtle hints - all things that lead to complete disaster in cross-cultural communication.

I suppose I'm being a little harsh. This is normal for them. It's not even considered dishonesty here. Maybe because everyone does it. Or maybe because everyone is really good at reading between the lines and they can communicate that way without ever touching any nerves. Maybe the bullshit is why they always ask so many questions to pin you down to an exact answer - they are used to people dodging and weaving, but really they appreciate a straight answer as much as anyone. They just don't like giving straight answers. A straight answer is something to fight for and to avoid giving. Why give away your secrets? Why give the other person an advantage by giving them the truth? They aren't going to give you the truth without a fight, so why give yours away?

I tend to treat people with respect and be honest about my emotions and the reasons for my emotions. I try not to keep secrets and when I mess up I acknowledge the mistake. I'll be the first to apologize - even if you're the one being ridiculous. I will put the blame on myself for being a party to the conflict. Sometimes I think that humility, modesty, and respect will be repaid, but I keep getting burned anyway.

Russians hold their cards close to their chest. Their insecurity and defensiveness permeates every aspect of their society and interactions. I'm not sure if I'll ever adapt to that.

Monday, October 6, 2014

The Half-Marathon and The Birthday

Mr. Lenin got the best view of the finish (Statue on right)

That's me - heel-strikin' it up!

This is me in a lot of pain getting dropped before the half-way mark

The leaders. The eventual winner, smartly, running at the back

See, he won!

And this girl is pretty fast too.
Once a Runner, eh? I think it's about time for Again to Carthage. One book is about a young runners pursuit of glory, and his sacrifices to the get there. The second book is about giving it all up... and then doing it all again. It's almost time to go back...

So while I still may be only running three days a week, and averaging 20 miles a week, I decided that this former runner could still find his way through 13.1 miles of main street, Novosibirsk. And, amazingly, I could, to the tune of 5:30 a mile. They say you lose fitness pretty quickly without training, but darnit, 9 years of a professional training program has a way of sticking with you, mentally and physically. And while if I had stuck with it I could probably be running something closer to 1:02:00 than 1:12:00, I have other things to do with my life now.

On September 13th the city of Novosibirsk held the "Siberian Running Festival," which is held every year on one of the last decent weekends in Siberia. Summer is over here. Winter is coming. The leaves started dropping from the trees at the end of August and the weather has been either crisp or rainy for weeks. This is the weather I missed last year by arriving at the end of September. I thought Fall in Siberia was awful because I actually missed it. October-December is more or less brown winter, not Fall.

There's a joke in Siberia that there are 2 seasons - white winter and green winter. But no, there is a real summer, it's just short. A a short summer, a short fall, a brown winter, a white winter, and a long cold spring.

The marathon was held on a cold, cloudy day and I met with some friends after the race in complete exhaustion, cold to the core. I went home, managed to eat some food and took a 2 hour nap. I couldn't sleep forever though, because I had to celebrate my birthday!

I guess in Russia you're not supposed to celebrate your birthday before your actual birthday. But the 13th was a Saturday night, and the 14th was a Sunday, and where I come from we value practicality more than superstition, so I said to hell with that and asked Christian to organize a party.

He didn't disappoint. The wine, steak, and cheesecake was abundant, and Jean Marc managed to make sure there were a good number of friends and old acquaintances there. He did fail to tell them that it was my birthday, which tended to leave them in a state of shame, more than I would have expected, had I known. My friends even got together and bought me a tripod so I wouldn't have to borrow Lena's anymore and forget the mounting plate. And all of the Russians at the party refused to wish me happy birthday until after midnight had struck. Of all the parties at Christian's this Summer, this was one of the finest.

Unfortunately, since then the weather has gotten colder and rainier, the parties have been rarer, and my running has suffered due to some accumulated fatigue. I have yet to get sick (knock on wood - hey superstitions!) but my life here is fast and busy, and I spent most of my free evenings comatose on the couch in front of the computer after eating a pound or two of pre-made plov (rice pilaf with meat) from the grocery store).

One astute observer with a grudge recently compared me to Dorian Gray from Oscar Wilde's one and only novel. For those who aren't familiar, Dorian Gray is the ultimate anti-hero, embodies extreme hedonism, and makes a deal with an artist to maintain his youth and beauty and let his sins and age be endowed upon his portrait instead. He goes on to live a life of extreme debauchery, break lots of hearts, take a couple lives, do lots of drugs, and otherwise be a miserable human being, and his soul is only saved when he (maybe accidentally) kills himself.

I consider this comparison a little harsh (come on, I ain't in no opium den!!), but I guess some people think it's a crime to enjoy yourself and not dig deep emotional roots. I still have my mission and I am still pursuing my goals. But haters gonna hate.

That said, I do feel as though that when I settle down in a place, I tend to settle into the same bad habits. I waste too much time. I can become anti-social. I can withdraw into my own space and start missing really important communication. My energy and motivation suffers. Time passes and my productivity is crushed. I can feel the stagnation creeping back into my veins. I still haven't found a good way to fight it. It's like I need to constantly be moving or else my habits catch up with me. But you can never really outrun yourself.

At some point, you have to learn to change. A change of scenery might help, but it's something else that makes you really change. I keep thinking a girl will make it happen for me someday, but it hasn't happened yet. But in general, girls keep me shaving, and showering, and washing my clothes, and cleaning my apartment. Without girls I would have a beard to my armpits and live in something resembling a sewer with a mattress.

Or I could just live a life of moving to a different country every 2 months. That sounds pretty nice...

In any case, time is flying, it's already been two months, I'm enjoying my life here (much more than last year) and I'm sure the next 7 months will be as crazy, soul destroying, educational, and cold as they were last year. But hopefully less soul destroying and more educational.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

The Sequel

Sometimes life feels like a continuation. One year more or less flows into the next. You're a little older, your style changes slowly, your music tastes change over time, but it all feels like one story.

But that's not what my life feels like now. No, as I start my second stay in Novosibirsk, it feels much more like not only a new chapter, but a sequel to an old book whose story is forever closed. I was only gone for 1 month, but it feels like I was gone for years.

The only girl I more or less "dated" here is gone for the UK with her British boyfriend, one of my students is now living with my ex-pat friend, I'm living in a new place, I'm not working at the university, and everything just feels different...

In a way it makes sense. I'm far removed from who I was last September, and going back to America helped me get my head in order. Long story short, I'm excited about this "sequel," and everything has started out well this time around. I'm glad it all feels different.

I'm renting my own apartment for the first time in my life, which comes with both excitement and the dread of having to make a $550 payment every month. This is what growing up is about, right?

Anyways, hit the JACKPOT today on my run. Of course I can live here for a year and no one ever tells me there are at least 20 miles of trails on the north end of the city. But I have to be careful about the ticks if I run on any of the smaller trails. Still, I ran for about 20 minutes out and 20 minutes back on a dirt road and it was wonderful.

So my building is brand new. But apparently it's also known as the building that has been under construction forever. It's still under construction. I'm the only person on my floor who actually lives there, and I guess there are people on other floors. Although there might not be too many residents, the elevator is already thoroughly tagged with penis graffiti.

My studio apartment is a bit of a greenhouse - the sun just bakes it, which I hope will make it liveable in the winter, but right now it's dang hot (no air conditioning). So I went out and bought a fan, which I thought would be a simple process. Another insight to Russian culture - they don't really do the whole "fan" thing.

One of my fondest memories as a kid was hanging around on summer days with a fan blowing on me. On those hot summer days (and nights) in July in New Hampshire it was the only way to fall asleep. We had fans everywhere in our house to keep air circulating. My dad would use it in the window to make a draft - I like to have it blow directly on me.

But in Russia it is known that a cold wind causes you to get sick. And while Russians are all about opening the windows when the room gets "dushna" (Stuffy/hot), they don't really use fans.

When I was in St. Petersburg I would turn on the fan so I could sleep, and then in the morning I would find it unplugged and coiled up on the window sill. I guess my host mom would come in in the early morning and turn the fan off. Whether she was doing it for my health or to save energy costs, I'll never know, but it was a little disconcerting.

Now I was able to find one fan in the entire shopping mall by my apartment. It came in a slightly destroyed box, but even so I was surprised when the check out lady robotically (how is this not a word according to this spell check?) directed me to the "scotch" (tape) after I had paid. Was it an order? Was it a recommendation? Whatever the case, it is apparently normal to pack your purchase after you buy something from this home-goods store. They don't have much patience for foreigners in this situation, but eventually I realized what was going on and dutifully secured the box to my cheap, $15 fan.

I took it home and figured assembly would be easy. It was, in that the instructions came in English (shows you who actually buys these fans) except, of course, there seemed to be missing pieces. In the instructions it mentioned a "spring" to be placed in the base of the stand, a spring which I sure as heck did not have in my box. In my frustration, and my apartment covered in my belongings, I worked through the heat to unpack the rest of my belongings in the hope that this "spring" would appear. In that process, I lost the instructions.

With a lost spring and lost instructions, I figured to just forget about them both and put the fan together using my all-to-impressive intellect. I managed to put it together, and it now cools my room as a good fan should, but it stands in the corner a little drunk.

And last night I heard a grinding in my dream. A discomforting, worrying grinding, like a monster preparing to eat me or someone drilling a hole through my front door. I stumbled around my room to find that the head of the fan had tilted forward in its drunkenness and every time it crossed the front of the stand it was rattling against it. An altogether unfrightening problem, but all the same woke me in terror. The last two nights I've been a little paranoid about intruders for whatever reason. Something about living by myself for the first time I suppose...

A note about construction in Russia. 1) There is always someone with a drill drilling something somewhere... at all times. 2) It's always just one or two guys (the most I've ever seen together is three). Like, I can see 100,000 square meters of building space from my window (counting all the floors) and I see 3-6 workers hanging out in the unfinished concrete hulks of buildings, and one guy is welding something. No wonder they've been building my 17 story apartment building for 7 years. But I remember at the university there would be drilling through the walls once or twice a week, and this morning in my apartment there was drilling in the room below me, and in a language school I visited today there was steady drilling through the wall for 2 hours. Construction season?

So I've been here a little less than a week and I've already made my first ever visit to an IKEA, I gave an interview on the radio station Komsomol'skaya pravda, I've fully moved into my apartment and I've run 5 out of 6 days - the last of which was the first run in my new GPS watch (I finally gave in and bought a GPS watch. I had been fighting it for 5 years. But I needed the heart-rate monitor so you might as well get the whole package, right?)

With that, I bid you adieu. Hopefully I will write more often this year. Hope hope hope hope....

Friday, August 1, 2014

The Return

Here I am again at JFK. Heading to Russia. Again.

Sometimes I feel silly writing this blog because I write what I’m thinking at the time and then my actions reveal an entirely different outcome than I profess in my words. Words are only words, and feelings are fleeting. But this is what I am thinking and feeling now, July 31st, 2014, as an American man going on 24, returning to Siberia for a second time.

I may be going back to the same city that I just spent the better part of 10 months living in, but everything feels different.

I’m a year older. I’m a year more “experienced,” and I now exist between two worlds – America and Russia.

Sure, it’s only $800 and a day away, but it’s so much more than that. The people I know, the influences I receive, the cultural biases and perspectives, are all entirely different, and don’t interact with one another.

I’m glad I came home for a month. It got me to remember a lot of things. I realized I forgot who I was before I left for Russia. And, honestly, I realized I like who I was before I left for Russia more than the person I have become.

Again, this could just be the negative opinions I got from most of my friends and family about going back to Russia, and passing up all of my opportunities in America for the time-being. I’m very malleable, and other peoples’ opinions mean a lot to me. Probably too much.

Many of my closest have asked me why I am going back. I’ve actually had a hard time answering. Sometimes it feels like I’m going back just because I said I would. And it doesn’t feel like the right decision. It doesn’t always feel right in my heart.

And as I sit now in JFK, I’m afraid. I’m nervous about going to Russia again. Perhaps more afraid than the first time. But I’m also excited. Being there will change my point of view again, and it won’t seem so scary. But at the moment I am afraid. I’m afraid I forgot something important, I’m afraid that things might not go as planned, but mostly I’m afraid of losing myself.

Living in a foreign country (well, really anywhere where you surround yourself with new people, influences, and stimuli) can (drum roll please!) change you. Duh, right? Well, It really can. And not necessarily for the better.

And mostly I realized after a few weeks at home that I didn’t accomplish my goals in Russia, because I forgot what they were. I got distracted by girls and booze and money. The danger of being an opportunistic drifter is that, as I’ve written here before, your dreams can be subverted by someone else. You start fulfilling someone else’s goals and dreams. I went to Russia to have experiences, and experiences I did indeed have! But as I sit now in the airport, I feel as hollow as can be.

I almost feel like I’m going back to Novosibirsk to make things right. But will it actually happen? Or will I forget it all again?

My goal going into last year was to have experiences. That ended up taking me down a pretty dark path. 
Here are my goals for this year. 1) Perfect Russian, 2) Live disciplined, 2) Save money, 3) Run – Get in shape.

The thing is, “enjoying your life” is all well and good. Especially when you are set financially and so is everyone in your family. When you’ve already secured your own future and those of whom you love.
I can enjoy my life in the short term, but it’s at the cost of long term stress and failure. Having to borrow from your family because you spent all of your money isn’t fun.
I can’t respect myself unless I accomplish something. Drinking and partying are so fleeting.

Some may say that living a life of good honest work is “old fashioned” or “slavery.” I say that’s crap. Unless you are going to play financial games or cheat other people out of their money, you have to do some work. And work can be very enjoyable, if it helps you pursue your own goals.

So my goal now in Novosibirsk is to live disciplined – focus on my tasks, especially learning Russian, and prepare to further my career. My college friend Chris Salvi once posted a status about how the great movers of the world – Ghandi, MLK, Nelson Mandela, etc – didn’t live their lives according to “bucket lists” and buzzfeed. It struck a chord.

I’ve always wanted to be someone important but always stop short of actually fully committing to the things that would earn me importance. I guess I stop short because I’m not totally sure of myself, because I want to put off the responsibility and “I’m still young.” No, I’m not old. But I can’t live my whole life thinking I’m young enough to avoid responsibilities. For a 23 year old to live in a bubble of adolescence is not a normal thing. Sure, in our modern day society you can get away with it, but a 23 year old man should be achieving! He should be a mover of society. He should be a leader, he should be earning, he should be learning. He is in the prime of his life and he should be using it to the betterment of himself and those he cares about (and those strangers he’ll never meet).

These are things I’ve always wanted to do, but I always forget.

So can I live in Siberia my way? Time will tell. As much willpower as I have, I get distracted. Without a support group, I fail to do the things that I actually like to do. Like run.

How many times have I written about running here? I’ve been going through a running crisis for the past two years. The problem is I love running – I love the community, I love the activity, I’m great at it and it’s probably my greatest strength. I’ve had more success running than anything else I’ve done, and it has brought me prosperity and popularity.

Importantly, it gives structure to my life. It makes me feel better: physically and emotionally. It leads to healthy decisions. Being truly successful involves being responsible. But I poured a lot of time and energy and money into it for a long time and wanted to try other things. I've seen the other side - it's not worth it for me.

I do feel like I was more dedicated, more responsible, and altogether more successful when I was 17. But when I was younger I was fueled by utmost confidence in myself as well as anger and bile. I had a huge chip on my shoulder and I was great at funneling negative energy into productive, positive results. But I was bad at doing new things. I refused to listen to anyone. I had a narrow world-view and thought I knew everything – although I knew basically nothing, having lived in a Northern New England bubble.

Now I know more. But, perhaps because of that, my confidence has shrunk. I also haven’t had any clarity.

Here’s my clarity now: I’m going to do what I like to do to accomplish MY goals. I’m not going to forget my goals, and I’m not going to do something I don’t like, don’t want to do, or don’t know how to do to achieve them. I need to fall back on my strengths, instead of challenging myself on my weaknesses. I don’t owe anyone anything, and any decision I make should help me accomplish my goals in a responsible, reasoned way.

For this reason I am going again to Novosibirsk. And for this reason I may be back in America soon. I imagine this time I will stay in Russia for anywhere from 4 -10 months – probably closer to the latter at this point – but I may stay abroad for as long as 2.5 years (I can’t imagine that now though). I’m keeping things flexible.

So this time I will run, I will sleep, I will eat better, I will live on a schedule. This is not a big Russian vacation. I will become fluent in Russian, and I will earn my own respect again.

I feel good about this trip, overall. The question remains – will anything change? Or will I continue to fall into the same traps? Only time will tell.

Saturday, July 12, 2014


This post is not a relay of my cool experiences in Russia. This post gets a little deep, and I apologize if it's repetitive, whiny or frustrating. But you just might get something out of it if you give it a chance... 
Or you might just hate it.

I'm been thinking about "Crime and Punishment" recently. And I remember when we read it in St. Petersburg and our gregarious and amazing Russian professor, Alexander Prokhorov, explained to us the name of the main character, Rodion Raskol'nikov. In Russian, "Raskol" means something along the lines of "split" or "torn." Long story short, Raskol'nikov is emotionally and morally torn in a number of ways, and eventually his guilt destroys him.

I've been feeling torn lately.

No, I haven't committed a crime as my boy Rodion had, but the feeling of listlessness that he carries throughout his book seems to define my psyche at the moment.

I'm back in America for the time-being, killing time until I get my visa to go back to Russia. The weather is beautiful and I get to see my family and eat my favorite foods and watch the Red Sox and go to the beach and climb my favorite mountains...

But for some reason I can't enjoy it. I'm stressed. I'm worried about the future. But mostly I am split between a number of pretty good choices. The paradox of choice most definitely isn't a new idea, but it's something that has only really emerged in my life in the last year or so. When all of your choices seem pretty good, how can you choose between them?

I suppose we could chalk this up to first world problems, but seriously, how can we know what the best decision is? One might say do what you want to do. Well, what if you don't really know what you want? One might say choose the option that gets you closer to your goals? Well, what if one is risky and gets you closer to your goals, and one is safe but will take longer to reach your goals? What if there are several possible options that form a gradient of such choices?

I've been running into problems in my thinking everywhere when it comes to making decisions. I know I don't have full information. But when can you ever REALLY have full information about something? You can never know everything about a situation or an organization until you have experienced it from the inside yourself. So how can you choose? And what if, after you choose, you hate your choice?

Now, the grass is always greener on the other side, right? But what if the grass REALLY IS greener on the other side? What then? And how can you know if your psychology is just playing tricks on your mind, or if you are being manipulated by someone else, or if the grass truly is greener? Basically, how can you find truth in this world?

One might say there is no objective truth. That might be true ;). But I know for a fact that one of the choices I can make is the best possible choice, but I completely distrust my own ability to make that choice.

One problem with living in a foreign country is that you are far from your support base. Even being far from home at university I was never really THAT far. And it was easy to make friends - I met many people with similar backgrounds and I was part of several organizations that provided me with communities from which I could quickly build a support network. Everyone needs a support network - friends, colleagues, mentors, leaders, bosses, parents, etc.

And when you run off to a foreign country for a year you start from scratch, and you meet very few people who have a similar background as you, and it is hard to build this network. Especially if you tend to be an introvert anyway, it's very easy to become a recluse.

This didn't happen to me physically - I had many "friends" and spent much of my time making public appearances of various forms - but rather it happened emotionally. I don't have a friend in Novosibirsk who I can really talk to about emotional things. I don't have someone with whom I can connect on common experiences. Sure, I know young Russians, and I know some Americans, but no one is really like me - as opposed to how it was at university. Being a part of the William and Mary cross country team I had 30 guys at any given time experiencing the same challenges, as well as moments of euphoria, and it was easy to connect and relate. The only form of that I had this year in Russia was our Fulbright group, which is why when we all met in January there was an eruption of friendliness and joy. But when I was actually living and working in Novosibirsk, I was alone.

And this fall I will be truly alone in that regard. And that scares me.

But this loneliness is entirely self-imposed. I don't have to go to Russia. I could stay right here in America and immediately have a community and structure. I could have a job. I could be close to my family. I could make decent money and I could live a normal, decent life, while I look for jobs in the field of international relations...

But there is something about that that scares me too. Precisely because I am alone, because I don't have responsibility to a family of my own (wife, children), because I'm not locked down by a job and a house and expenses here in the United States, I still have a chance to explore the world. I can go live by myself in Siberia and acquire more experience, improve my Russian, and (hopefully) develop my character in a positive direction. If I choose to stay in the USA now, I may lose that chance forever.

One thing I regret about my Fulbright year is that I did not have any concrete short term goals. Sure, I have the long-term goal of being a fluent Russian speaker and eventually working in the Foreign Service, but I had no stepping stones to get there. And when you don't have concrete goals, it's very easy for other people to manipulate you so that you help them achieve their goals. I spent my Fulbright year basically ready for anything, and willing to try anything because, I figured, I didn't know anything about Russian life, I couldn't predict what might happen, so I just went "with the flow."

I still think that's a fine way to start, but eventually, no matter where you are, you have to start building something of your own. You have to live life by your own rules, not someone else's. If you just drift, ready to accept any opportunity someone gives you, someone will manipulate you. And Russians are master manipulators.

It doesn't have to be serious, acute, manipulation, but when you find yourself reflecting and you realize you're doing things you don't actually want to do, that don't help you achieve your goals, you have been manipulated. You are helping someone else achieve their goals, and you are just living.

I've always hated closed-mindedness and ignorance. But let's be honest - ignorance is bliss. Let me explain.

Who is happier - The person who knows how little he knows, or the person who thinks he knows everything? The person who has 1,000 options and knows he'll never have enough information to make a decision with which he is satisfied, or the person with 2 options and an easy decision? The person who chooses to engage every idea, or the person who ignores those ideas to stay in their own, restricted paradigm? The person who believes in nothing because he can never have every doubt eased, or the person who blindly believes and has faith and confidence in something or someone?

It's good to be open-minded, but you have to close your mind eventually. No, maybe that's not right. Maybe you just need a foundation. It's just, damnit, it's dangerous to have your mind open to every opinion, every person, every possibility, if you're not damn good at judging those people, opinions, and opportunities. Maybe it IS better to find something that you like and to say TO HELL with any other options, let them appear good or bad, because it's just not safe.

I feel like I used to be like that. When I was 17 I was closed-minded. I knew everything. I was 100% confident in my personal abilities. I was good at what I did and I was successful in everything I had ever done. As I've learned more, I've grown less confident. Even though I've learned and learned, I feel weaker and less competent. I know how much I don't know, and it infiltrates every part of my character, every one of my actions.

Living in Russia has made me even more cynical, even more skeptical. And negative. Darn it, I've turned into a negative Nancy. I was always a bit of a contrarian and argumentative, but now I find myself having gut negative reactions to just about everything around me. The weather could be beautiful, and my brother will say, "it's a nice day outside," and I will feel the negative response "no, it isn't," boil up from my chest to my throat. And when it reaches my head I realize, "that's a stupid thing to think," and I choke it back down. But why the heck do I think that way to begin with?

I was thinking about starting the second book from the Ender's Game series by Orson Scott Card. I've actually only read the introduction, but he wrote something even there that really struck a chord with me:

"The romantic hero is unconnected. He belongs to no community; he is wandering from place to place, doing good (as he sees it), but then moving on. This is the life of the adolescent, full of passion, intensity, magic, and infinite possibility; but lacking responsibility, rarely expecting to have to stay to bear the consequences of error.
Only when the loneliness becomes unbearable do adolescents root themselves, or try to root themselves. It may or may not be in the community of their childhood, and it may or may not be their childhood identity and connections that they resume upon entering adulthood. And, in fact, many fail at adulthood and constantly reach backward for the freedom and passion of adolescence. But those who achieve it are the ones who create civilization"

I want to help create civilization. But am I done with adolescence? Either way, I need to get better at making decisions, by more clearly defining what I want.

But how? Therein lies the rub.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

The Readers Have Spoken

So the other day a disappointed Russian reader of mine expressed her disappointment that I had effectively thrown away my blog. It was all the guilt trip I needed. Here I am with a nice, full, hopefully entertaining blog post. It's time to finish this Fulbright year strong.

What started as an exciting adventure into the blue has turned into a completely life-path altering experience. But have I grown? I'm still undisciplined and impressionable. I am still indecisive and a little unconfident. I'm still not sure who or what to believe about anything. In fact, I may be less decisive, less confident, less disciplined, and more impressionable than before I left America. Is that possible?

However, I don't regret this whole experience for a minute. No, rather, I feel as though I am on the cusp of truly coming into my own. That's why I plan on coming back to Russia in the Fall.

So before I get too introspective (I'm still here for another 14 days anyway ;)) Let's get caught up with some of my more entertaining recent experiences. 

The Turks and I got up earrrrrrrly to get a good spot

And, well, it was an OK spot

All the kids worked their way to the front

Hello, My Dear General!

These guards were super bored

The Soviet hammer and sickle flew over the ballet theater for a day. It doesn't even look out of place...

That's our NSPU team in blue!

So Victory Day, May 9th, is one of Russia's biggest holidays. Some might say it is the biggest, some might say it is the second biggest (New Year's being the biggest). So some of my Turkish hallmates and I decided to get up at the crack of dawn and get down to Lenin Square to see the parade. The parade started at 10, but everyone I talked to said you have to get there early in order to get a good spot.

We got there at 8:00, and I just about immediately regretted getting there at 8:00. NO ONE was there yet. In fact, it was too early and they hadn't even opened up some of the places where spectators would be allowed to stand.

In any case, we found a decent spot by a dirty rail, and waited. As we waited, people started to gather and the sun started to shine. And right around 9:55, all the babushkas and their grand children started showing up.

Now, I'm usually a gentleman. I always stand on public transportation so the aforementioned demographic groups can sit on the crowded, nauseating marshrutka. But this was different. I had been waiting next to a soot covered rail for about two hours with my camera in hand, and there was no way that I was going to not have a good view of this parade. So I stood my ground. When the old auntie asked if her kid could come stand in front of me, I said "no."

And I immediately felt guilty and as if I were failing my social responsibilities... But not too guilty.

The parade went off without a hitch, and the coordinated marching and the "uraaaaaaaaaaaas!" of the soldiers were impressive, but it was pretty short and the ordinance they had put together for this adventure was not too awe-inspiring. I have a few photos and a whole bunch of video. Some day I'll put the video in an accessible place, but you know how lazy I am.

Later in the day, I watched the relays on Lenin Square. Novosibirsk really likes putting on road race events that include short distances and loop courses, often connected into a relay. I ran in a small one by the river station, but today they found some folks who were better at running 800 meters (I still haven't run sub 2:00. Will I ever? Yes, I will). So I got to watch and film. I also have a lot of footage from the races... that I DEFINITELY need to post somewhere someday... boy what has my life become.

At night, I went and watched the fireworks from a bridge overlooking the river, then went and got some sushi. It was a successful holiday.

More recently, there was a long weekend for "Russia Day." It used to be Independence Day, but I guess they decided it was a little silly to have a holiday celebrating their independence from themselves, so they changed it to just a reason to be super patriotic about Russia. And by super patriotic I mean have a day off from work and go camping.

I was invited by several of my students to hang out at a camp site with them. You're all going to hate me but I didn't take any pictures. I will do my best to describe.

Hanging out at a campsite in Russia involves basically a steady stream of eating and drinking. I hadn't seen so many bottles of vodka since the last active rest party I attended at William and Mary. But a nice piece of roasted meet mixed with some baked potatoes can make anything go down easily.

However, when I first arrived, I was greeted by the site of a bunch of guys in camouflage standing around a circle drawn in the ground throwing a knife. I don't remember what the game is called, but it involves drawing a circle in the ground with a knife, and then carving out a piece of territory for each participant, so it's equal.

Someone is randomly chosen to go first, and you have to throw the knife into the ground so the blade sticks in. Then you draw a line in the direction that the knife is pointing, all while standing on your territory. If you can connect this line with two other lines to make a boxed off area, you get to add that territory to your own, and throw again. If you stink at throwing a knife you flop it once at the ground and then watch some Russian guy mince your real estate.

So I didn't win. But I did learn how to throw a knife at a tree, so that was cool.

The evening involved killing mosquitoes, singing songs and playing guitar, and playing a game called "crocodile." No, not the drug. It's actually just charades.

It was also the typical kind of Russian event where a foreigner falls into a lot of predictable situations. Some Russian will always want to aggressively talk about politics. With skill it's pretty easy to deflect the jabs, but it's one of those things were the harder you resist, the worse everything ends. Debating a Russian about politics is like trying to escape from a Chinese finger trap with brute strength. I've found it's better to be a lover than a fighter.

Which brings us to the next Russian party individual, who reaches a point of intoxication where he wants to fight anyone or anything. Quite literally, "I just want to... kick some ass" was spoken on this occasion. If you're not careful, you might be the one chosen as the punching bag. But it's also pretty easy to avoid - do not respond to any challenge!

Finally this man might decide that it is time to have a heart to heart conversation about the soul. You can feel free to engage in this if you're up to it, but it's also not entirely necessary to get too philosophical at 1am in the middle of a drunken haze in the woods. 

Also, if you're not careful, you may not realize that you take a shot of alcohol every 10-15 minutes. As you converse and your attention is diverted, someone may slyly fill your cup with alcohol and remind you that it's time to drink. It's more or less impolite to refuse to drink, but your decision will be respected if you express that you respect them, even though you are refusing their hospitality. It's better to take the drink and just suppress the effects with as much food as possible.

So it was all pretty fun. But at the same time I felt a little distant from everyone. In Russia I have made many friends, but no close friends. One of the things I regret during this Fulbright year is never pursuing any deep relationships. Most of my interactions were and continue to be superficial. This was no different. I hope I haven't forgotten how to make close relationships. Is it just a cultural barrier thing?

To finish off the weekend, I watched Swan Lake at the Ballet theater with a fellow ETA from Vladivostok. The Ballet in Novosibirsk is actually pretty damn good, but I ain't no Ballet aficionado. Swan Lake was better than Jiselle. 

So that's it for now. The American drifter in Novosibirsk has to sleep sometime. Here's to a successful final 2 weeks before I head home!