Piecing It Together: What I Have Done and What I Have Left Undone

Word on the train was there was a toxic spill ahead. Hungarian authorities evidently had quarantined a radius of some twenty to thirty kilometers for an undisclosed time. All terrestrial travel was being diverted or held – cars, busses, trucks and trains. It was then that everyone aboard sensed we would not be moving for a long, long time.

But before that came to light, I was alone in my sleeper cabin, enjoying the solitude and relative space, awash with gratitude that I didn’t have to share it leaving Budapest. Not yet, anyway. Each brief stop at one village station or another led to small-scale anxiety that the door would burst open and some pot-bellied Hungarian who hadn’t showered since the 90’s would tumble in, forcing me to the top bunk and thus the radiation from the heatwave of bodily fumes. So far, however, my only complaint was that the electrical outlet didn’t work, which could scarcely be logged as a complaint at all, given that I was on a Ukrainian train moving at Cold War pace towards Lviv. If things stayed this way, I had thought, it would be a miracle.

Now, however, I was weighing out my preference for sharing tight quarters with a hungover Hungarian or being stuck. Other passengers began to rustle after a time, passing my door in the narrow corridor toward one end of the car or the other. Restlessness became nearly palpable. The American in the cabin next to mine appeared in my doorway. He said we would be here for at least another hour and that he was going up to the store at the station. I told him I’d make it up there after a few minutes and set about compartmentalizing in my mind the notion of not moving for some time.

I emerged from the carriage, dropped down onto the tracks, and took stock. The day was bright and cloudless but for high altitude cirrus clouds whisked here and there across a sky that seemed to deepen in hue the longer you gazed upwards. Ahead stood a cluster of low-roofed, A-frame buildings, a drab egg-shell color, with beam supported awnings. So remote this place seemed the word that came to mind was not station but outpost. I walked along and then crossed the weedy tracks and went into the store at the far corner of the building. Inside I found the American and our usher, a greasy-haired, stubble-faced man, seated at a table over tall mugs of straw-colored beer.

“Beer’s like a quarter!” the American said. The usher grinned and tipped his mug slightly.

“Yeah,” I said. “That doesn’t surprise me.”

I negotiated a beer and a bag of chips from the woman behind the counter using the international point-and-nod method, with a smile worked in for good measure, and joined them at the table.

“I don’t think we’ll be going anywhere soon,” the American reiterated. “So I figured I’d have a beer. This guy here wanted one too, and if the man working on the train starts drinking, it might not be a good sign.”

“Probably not,” I said.

We swapped names – his being Johnathan – and I introduced myself to the usher with my limited Ukrainian, though I cannot recall the usher’s name. Johnathan had short sandy-blonde hair and patches of gray in his goatee. He had a good tan, a glow on his face that comes usually from the sun’s reflection off water, with the area around his eyes a shade paler from sunglasses. A sport-fisherman’s tan, as I read it at first.

“You from Charleston?” I asked Johnathan, reading the lettering on his navy-blue sweatshirt.

He said he had lived there for about three years. Now he lived in Seattle, but he often wasn’t there because of his work as a private sailboat captain. He had clients all over the world, people who needed their boats moved from port to port or repair work done. That explained the tan. He had been in Croatia for a few weeks and wanted to explore Ukraine again (he had visited Odessa before), so he was on his way to Lviv too. I explained that I lived in Ukraine, served with the Peace Corps and taught in a university in a city called Ternopil, about three hours east of Lviv.

All this unabashed conversation in English had stirred the Spartan shop. Its few patrons looked at us curiously and before long a disheveled, unshaven man appeared at our table. He spoke in Hungarian, and not one among us could decipher a word, save “Euro.” Johnathan and I glanced at one another and shrugged. I jerked my hands upward, offering my bare palms, supine, in what most circumstances denotes the absence of what’s being asked about. But the man persisted. He took off his watch and ring and offered it to us. I shook my hands and head, but the Ukrainian reached for the items and began inspecting them. The Hungarian moved over to him and began speaking about the ring, and the Ukrainian held it up in front of his face as though it were the Hope Diamond. The ring was a lusterless, tarnished silver, thin and plain, and he handed it back to the Hungarian and shook his head. The Hungarian put the ring back on his finger and slouched off.

Johnathan and I went back to our beers and small talk, and after the usher finished his beer he rose wordlessly from the table and headed back towards the train. Johnathan and I agreed that the Hungarian must have been mighty down to be hustling an all but unknown train station. But I realized, as he and I spoke, that the sale with the cashier and the failed barter with the disheveled Hungarian marked the first time for me in two weeks, after traveling in four countries, that English hadn’t been the language of exchange.

 

What brought me to this far-flung Hungarian village, sitting over mid-day beers with Captain Johnathan of Arkansas, was a trip with my mom. She had informed me the previous winter that she had enlisted an actual travel agent, a career species I had thought severely endangered if not altogether extinct, to plan a loop through the eastern European cities of Warsaw, Prague, Vienna and Budapest. After consulting some Polish acquaintances of mine, Warsaw was scrapped in favor of Krakow, and the itinerary was set and booked by spring.

Mom flew into Ivano-Frankivsk, a mid-sized city in southwestern Ukraine. I wasn’t aware Ivano had an airport until Mom forwarded me the details. It seemed odd to me that a Ukrainian city with an estimated population of 200,000 would even have an airport, but further investigation proved me wrong. Nevertheless, everyone I spoke to seemed perplexed by my mother’s destination. Rare indeed was the international traveler who flew into Ivano.

“This airport is a shit,” my Ukrainian colleague, Iryna, told me. “Just so you know.”

She spoke truth. I had meandered through a fair number of bad and sketchy airports and train stations over the past year and a half, from Indonesia to Kyiv, but if some others had been dumps or toilets, the one in Ivano was the five-day-hippie-fest-port-o-john of them all. Not much bigger than a high school gym, and nearly dark enough to house a planetarium, I waited among the silhouetted people a while before I broke down and drank a beer to cut through the surreality.

Mom finally emerged from behind a door. Just your normal door, door – like she had simply excused herself from the table and returned, rather than flown for a day across the Atlantic. We hugged – unceremonious but welcomed – and Mom showed me where the Ukrainian customs agents cut into her bag to check it because they couldn’t get past the lock.

“So my suitcase won’t zip back up all the way,” Mom said. “Great.”

And we were off.

 

I live in a dormitory flat provided to me by Ternopil National Pedagogic University, where I teach in Ukraine. Most often I’m comfortable. Through the large-paned window in my kitchen, the sun sets behind a soccer field and tree-line, and I’ve cooked some fine meals on my old four-burner range in that wonderful green-gold summer light. I crack open the window to catch a breeze and listen to the kick-drum thumps of the players on the field. I sleep on a hard, spring-laden fold-out sofa (devan) – a piece of furniture almost ubiquitous in Slavic flats it seems – that occasionally feels like sleeping atop a dog cage if I don’t position myself just so. I’ve grown accustomed to the sofa because the single bed in the room is too narrow and its mattress is even worse.

I’m not exactly roughing it, but this past summer the struggle was this: hot water. I was at the City of Ternopil’s mercy. Unless you have a personal boiler, hot water is turned on for the city only at certain times on certain days. It runs all day only on Saturday, and I considered converting to Judaism to amplify its holiness: Shower Shabbos. Tuesdays and Thursdays are the two weekday mornings for a hot shower, and it doesn’t switch on until 4:30pm the rest of the days. But even this 4:30 time-slot is dubious. It’s not like the clock strikes half-past and the faucets are spitting hot lava. It takes until 6pm for it to really get going.

At first glance, this might not seem too bad. And, for a while, particularly in winter, it’s not. However, when the temperature incrementally warms and you want to exercise, or if you get home from traveling in a stifling hot bus, and the only thing you want on this earth is a hot shower and you can’t get one, it is a cruel and unusual sort of torture: Ukrainian Water Torture, let’s say.

“Just take cold shower,” a Polish girl told me late last spring. “Don’t be pussy.”

“You don’t understand,” I tried to explain. “It’s not like it’s just a bit cold. It’s freezing cold.” Indeed, it appeared the melting polar ice caps were being piped straight to my shower head.

“I like cold shower,” she replied. “It’s hot, almost summer, cold shower is good.”

“This isn’t hot,” I said and pointed to my knit hat. “I’m wearing a beanie in June.”

“Don’t be pussy,” she said, laughing.

Perhaps she was right about my wearing a beanie in June. My natural weather preference closely mirrors that of a seventy-year-old snowbird retiree, but she was dead wrong about the shower. If I were under that icy spray and someone tried to converse with me, it’s likely they would think I was a ten-year-old boy, such is its emasculating capability. My life revolved around the hot water schedule. I woke for it, waited for it, held off or otherwise reworked plans for it.

Then one morning in the latter half of June, I awoke and went to the bathroom to shower. I was well within the prescribed timeframe to steam a mirror, but after turning on the water and letting it run for a while, the water was merely the temperate side of polar. I slapped the spigot off in disgust and texted my counterpart, Iryna: Do you know anything about the hot water situation. I can’t seem to get any here.

She responded: Sorry, I forgot to tell you that they shut the hot water off for the summer. It won’t work for something like two months, I think. Sorry.

Thus, began my real quest for the remainder of the summer of 2017 – finding hot water. I had received an invitation to volunteer at a youth camp in the Carpathian Mountains earlier in spring. I did not know the woman who invited me, but I watched a few videos they had made of kids rafting and zip-lining through the mountains, and it looked legitimate enough. I was still non-committal, but as soon as I discovered that I would be without hot water for months, I sent the camp director a message asking if there would be hot showers available there.

Of course there will be. Haha, she replied. I was aware of the silliness of my question, but she didn’t know my plight, and I had to be sure.

A few days later, I set off early in the morning for the Carpathian village of Tartariv, several days removed from cleanliness, in a bus that began to boil at noon. Ukrainians, older generations especially, have a twisted fear of open windows. It is a point of major contention. Arguments ensue. Voices rise. Even as weak-kneed old women, at the point of fainting, have the driver pull over so they can be let off for a few moments of fresh air, windows are likely to remained unopened. The outside air, it should be said, was just above 72 degrees Fahrenheit, slightly over room temperature in many places, but try to pry open the bus windows and you’ll get the stink eye from several woolen-cloaked babushkas who might allow for the free flow of fresh air for a time before raising up from their seats to close off all ventilation and let the steaming resume.

I arrived in Tartariv feeling like a hot glazed doughnut, a film over my skin and my hair oily, but that first hot shower was nothing short of cathartic.

Between the Carpathian excursion and the arrival of my mom, I reasoned that there would only be a few days in which I’d go without hot water, which I decided I could tolerate. I didn’t have much choice.

 

After collecting her from the airport, Mom and I settled in the hotel for the night – phenomenal water pressure, A-plus temperature – and walked around Ivano-Frankivsk in the late morning and early afternoon. During our walk, I tried to prepare her for the bus ride back to Ternopil later. I told her about the heat, and the window paradox, and it wasn’t long before she had me hire a private driver to take us back to Ternopil in a leather-seated, air-conditioned Skoda sedan driven by an affable, round-faced man named Roman. He spoke some English and explained to us on the way out of town that the reason the road we were on was as wide as it was so it could be used at a military aircraft landing strip, if necessary. He was full of good tidbits of information, and pulled over so we could take pictures on the bridge that spanned the Dniester River at the border of Ivano-Frankivsk and Ternopil oblasts. We passed several busses on the way back and, from my crisp leather seat, I looked through the bus windows at the stony, miserable expressions on people’s faces and felt a momentary, small pang of guilt that went away as soon as I realized we’d reach Ternopil fresh, un-swampy, without cramped legs, and an hour ahead of schedule. I decided to relax and ride in the first world through the second.

 

Mom and I spent a day and a half in my adopted city of Ternopil, strolling in unseasonably cold and overcast weather along the lakeside promenade and through a park where rusted Soviet-era space-race playground equipment remains tomb-like amongst the weedy chaparral and birches. The next morning, we took an early train to Lviv. We had a few hours to kill before we were due at the airport, so, after breakfast, we wandered around among the street performers in front of the opera house, snapping photos on various devices, unsure of which scene was camera-worthy or if merely a cell phone would suffice – a juggling act that would remain for the duration of the trip.

While Ternopil has seen an influx of ethnic diversity due to its university populations over the last decade, Lviv leans over a more perceptible precipice between the so-called first world and the second, between an EU feel and a Soviet one. Both cities share a Polish historical influence dating back to the Polish-Lithuanian Empire and both seem to have one foot in Europe and the other in the post-Soviet Union. In Lviv, the architecture is more ornate but still largely monochromatic. Its inner avenues and alleys can feel labyrinthine, yet worn trolley cars and overstuffed marshrutkas (city buses) still plod over pot-holes and cobblestones in the larger, dust-bleached streets. There’s more bustle, more shopping; cafes dot the center and, perhaps most tellingly of all, more English being spoken. I didn’t realize it then, but those few hours in Lviv were to be the last time in two weeks I’d have to fumble away in Ukrainian – until I found myself stranded on the train in Hungary with Capt. Johnathan.

When we reached the Lviv airport in the early afternoon, the day had warmed and become sunny. True to form, Mom had urged that we arrive at the airport with hours to spare, and I, not knowing travel time to the airport or general protocol once there, but sensing it wouldn’t be too much hassle, acquiesced. And, of course, the plane was delayed two hours.

The delay in Lviv resulted in our missing the connecting flight from Warsaw to Krakow, placing us in anxious limbo in Chopin International Airport as we attempted to negotiate a seat on the last plane to Krakow. The trouble was we weren’t the only ones frantically jockeying for position on one connecting flight or another. Each plane in and out of Warsaw that day seemed to be delayed. I’m unclear on the reason for the this, but Polish Airlines appeared to have the B-team on duty. Still, it was hard not to empathize with the overworked and visibly weary desk clerk who couldn’t guarantee us anything but a sub-par turkey sandwich and a warm bottle of water.

The group of stand-by passengers huddled tensely at the boarding gate. The two old, thickly bearded Russian men, one of whom wore a dirty white captain’s hat, were obviously plotting some sort of ambush on the line, and they paced slowly and aloofly on the outskirts. A Turkish family with a young daughter stood near the desk, as the father attempted to reason with the attendant, pointing to his young child and stressed wife. I knew that I had to make my appeal, and so I sidestepped the huddle and explained to the attendant that my mother was suffering from a stomach infection and was very uncomfortable. This was true, as Mom had been released from the hospital back in America only days before our trip after contracting a UTI. The travel caused the infection to come back with a vengeance and she would visit a tremendous number of restrooms during our journey, both public and private, as well as two doctors, one in Prague and the other in Vienna. The attendant acknowledged the plight but seemed unmoved, and I returned to Mom with a shrug and said that I tried.

It turned out that the last passengers to board the flight to Krakow were the Turkish family, the Russian men, Mom and me. We were shuttled around the tarmac and boarded at dusk.

I am not sure if my appeal for sympathy had anything to do with our good fortune, but one thing is certain: I never would have been able to craft such an argument had English not been the lingua franca, as it were, of travel. By the time Mom and I had reached Warsaw, there was no need at all to worry about translation or having to use sweeping, child-like hand gestures to communicate. The cultural arm wrestling surrounding language and travel had largely been dealt with, and I was a beneficiary of the journeymen, colonizers, and conquerors who had gone before me, as well as wars, music, economics, pop-culture, and so on. My very existence as an English teacher in foreign countries stands on these broad cultural shoulders. There’s a real possibility that we got on that plane because we spoke English. Stranded at the Hungarian train station a dozen days later, Johnathan and I discovered, after we returned to our train to check if there were any developments, that there were no Ukrainian passengers in our car. There was an elderly Swiss mother and her middle-aged son, who spoke French, a young Japanese couple, and a Russian couple. English became our language. Moreover, a young Ukrainian man from another carriage informed us, once the authorities had been alerted as to how many international travelers were on the train, only then did they begin to take serious action to get us out. Had the train been full of Ukrainians, he said, nothing would have been done.

 

After collecting Mom’s baggage from the conveyor belt, we stepped out into the night and hired a taxi driver to take us to the hotel. From the shotgun-seat, I looked out upon the smooth and well lighted road, watching the reflective white dashes of the street lines zoom past.

“Ah, infrastructure!” I remarked.

The contrast between travel in these neighboring countries, Poland and Ukraine, serves as a literal demarcation between the first world and the second. What Poland is now is what Ukraine in many ways would like to become. In Ukraine, with its cracked and pockmarked roads, drivers don’t steer so much as dodge the potholes that cluster up every several feet or so. For many Ukrainians I’ve spoken with, this is the manifestation and physical evidence of poor government – the raison d’etre for government mistrust – and I’ve mused on several occasions that if an official or government coalition could repair Ukraine’s road system, a lifetime of power would await. But while the failing roads are indeed problematic, it is more likely a red herring for deeper seated issues. As long as people keep wailing about the poor roads, the longer they will not talk about root causes.

Our hotel was a short walk from the central square, and after checking in and dropping our bags in the wood-paneled room, we wandered to a fashionable-looking restaurant and had a light dinner and a few glasses of wine. All around us, over the candle-lit tables, a din of conversation stirred, with the American accents of the girls next to us cutting though it all like a bad electric guitar solo.

Perhaps chief among the stereotypes of Americans, directly adjacent to fast-food intake, is that Americans are a loud and boisterous lot. Keenly aware of this, I most often try to combat this image by keeping my voice low. If my BAC level remains in check, so too does my decibel level, which is true of just about everyone. Yet, there is something about an American accent that does seem to knife through just about everything else. The hard “A’s”, it seems to me, is the most likely culprit. It comes across as nasal and rough in soft “A” cultures. Say the word “have” in your mind with British and American accent and you’ll get the idea. Same goes for the word “accent” for that matter. If you mix this with a northeastern timbre, the issue compounds itself mightily. No doubt my American heritage is responsible for my feasibly overly sensitive ear. Nevertheless, it’s true that if you put a group of Americans in a room together in a multi-lingual setting, all things equal, we will be among the loudest. I’d wager a group of Spaniards or Italians would beat us in decibel level, however it’d be that differentiation between vowel sounds that would emerge an equalizer.

Obvious to me is that I’ve come to this knowledge by removing myself from American society. This brings about tremendous self-trepidation. While American letters is riddled, and in some ways dominated by those who have expatriated, the ones who leave a lasting mark are those who were able to regain status from abroad. I am unsure of my ability to do so. Yet it was the only way for me to survive as an American: to become truly American, I had to recuse myself. This life I have chosen involves considerable relinquishment. I have consigned myself to the likelihood that I will never be a homeowner; I’ll likely never produce offspring, let alone that which would be privately educated, as I was; I’ll never enter Madison Square Garden, or stand over the Grand Canyon. I’ve been to Hong Kong as many times as I’ve been to California – in the airport for a layover. I cannot, however, say in good faith that these things will not happen. But possibility is moving ever toward probability.

Still, I never would have thought five years ago, or even 18 months ago, that I’d be in Krakow, Poland with my mother, on the first leg of a four-city eastern European tour. And here we were, on our first morning, deciding on how we would spend our three days over sausage and eggs in a brassiere overlooking the main square. Gray clouds swayed and hammocked in the mid-morning sky outside the window.

Mom’s travel agent’s itinerary accounted only for travel and hotel, and we were left to our own devices on how to fill our days. This is where my preferred style of travel butted heads with Mom’s. I’m a wanderer who loathes asking for directions and will sacrifice myself willingly to false starts and dead ends and the almost inevitable circling back. Hailing from an oceanfront city, as I do, my perception of tourists is often low, as they are responsible for the jamming of streets and wait lists at restaurants and the bovine, dead-eyed way they generally tend to mill about. No doubt there’s a certain schizophrenia – and arguable misanthropy – about my stance, as I have been a perpetual outsider the last three years, zig-zagging around the globe from Southeast Asia to Europe, which perpetually places me in the position of a tourist. However, my goal is to ultimately respect the place I’m in and blend as best I can, limiting my speech where English is not spoken, doing road map prep-work, and so on. Once I feel remotely among the tourist hordes, my attitude shifts drastically, which can negatively color my day. Thus, I like to travel mostly alone and avoid American accents. Mom was well aware of this but there were of course dust-ups here and there about our styles.

Perhaps the zenith of Mom’s to-do list was to visit Auschwitz. As a well-versed student of Judeo-Christian religions, she felt it a certain pilgrimage to see Auschwitz, which is a sentiment I completely understand. And so, after breakfast, we set off on foot to find the bus tour office and upon finding it discovered that the tours were (naturally) booked for the duration of our stay in Krakow. Since I had advocated from the shoot-from-the-hip approach, I was to blame here.

I suggested that we keep walking down through the old Jewish District and see if we couldn’t get into Schindler’s Factory across the Vistula River. By the map, it didn’t look so far and we would walk directly through the Jewish Quarter. Though clearly disappointed, Mom said yes, and we set off. Once we descended into the Jewish District, the color scheme of the city changed entirely, like The Wizard of Oz in reverse. Gone were the warm red bricked buildings, replaced by worn and chipped greyish tenement buildings alongside the road. A few blown-out windows had been boarded with plywood, and the paint on the ornate doors was scratched thin, as though they had been worked over for decades by steel wool. There was gritty majesty to them though. The Americanized version of the word ‘ghetto’ has ballooned in our consciousness, and has associations with hip-hop music, Martin Luther King Boulevards, chain-link fences around weedy basketball courts with net-less hoops – in other words, Black America. The government subsidized houses are bloc-like and desolately square and malnourished, a filing cabinet for bootless Americans who are told to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. That ‘ghetto’ is applied to both environments is telling, and knowing what happened (and happens in America) behind their walls, that the buildings and its people had survived at all should supply them with veneration.

After we crossed the river, I went right when I should have gone left, and we wound up in the front of a hotel. Mom had to use the facilities, and I waited outside.

“Ok. I can’t take too much of this walking around,” she said, as she emerged from the hotel.

“I think it’s just over there, on the other side of the road,” I said. “We’re almost there.”

She drew her lips tight, but continued to follow. We looped down under an overpass and it was clear that we had entered the factory district. Ahead we saw a few groups moving in the same direction, and we caught their wave and ended up in a crowd outside Schindler’s Factory. Sold out.

“Well, I bet it looks like any other bombed out factory,” I offered with a grin.

“I hate you,” Mom said.

“What?”

“Well, now we gotta walk all that way back,” she said.

“Maybe we can find a taxi. I don’t know. I can look.”

We stood along the fringes of the tourist groups, all fancy with their pre-paid tickets and itineraries. Mom looked distraught, like she needed a moment, so I walked off and snapped a real quality photo of the plaque on the side of the building.

“So, what do you want to do there, Sparky?” Mom said after I returned. She has a habit of going into her Helen Griswold/Vacation routine once things go tits-up. I shrugged.

A man driving a four-seater golf cart eased up next to us and asked us if we had tickets to the factory. We explained ourselves and he replied that it would be very difficult to get a ticket.

“But I can take you around the Ghetto, if you like,” he said. “I can show you the churches and synagogues, anything you like.” His English was excellent; he had wheels.

Jackpot.

 

 

There was something garish and unsettling about whipping around Jewish ghetto of Krakow in a golf cart. But such paradoxical situations are part of the rationalized moral calculus of tourism, of hovering detached over the site (particularly if it is impoverished) and convincing yourself that somehow your presence is driving some segment of the local economy or at least helping someone buy his next meal. If this attitude remains latent and doesn’t mutate into grotesque entitlement, things remain even keel.

But it was hard for me not to imagine that had golf carts existed post 1939, they would have been a rather expedient way for SS men to patrol the ghetto. A scene burgeoned in my mind – perhaps one directed by David Lynch – of a Nazi shooting a Jew in the head then strolling back to the golf cart, punching down on the gas pedal with his boot – the snap-release of the parking brake – and whirring off to the next hole where he’d tee off again. A juxtaposition of the banal and the horror. And while cruising through the Jewish ghetto in 2017 is obviously a galaxy away from that macabre scene, it’s that lax acceptance and herd-mentality and entitlement that would ultimately lead one to moral desolation, which often comes through misplaced and perverted loyalty. “Loyalty,” writes Charles D’Ambrosio, “—in its darkest form, which left so much death as its legacy to the twentieth century – rids the divided self of anxiety and guilt, so that murder smiles.” (Or uses a golf cart as a getaway car.)

Still, it was an undeniably convenient and quick way to see much in a short amount of time. Our driver, a sturdy man in his late-30s with close-cropped hair named Kris, was the consummate guide, suggesting different historical sites that we would have likely glossed over if on our own. Many of these sites, much like the Schindler factory, were monuments to hope through subversion. Apteka Pod Orlem(Eagle Pharmacy), for instance, the last Polish run store to remain operational in the ghetto, became a social hub as well as a place to secure falsified documents, food and medicine, still sits quietly on the corner of Plac Bohaterów Getta(Ghetto Heroes Square), across from 70 large empty metal chairs placed rather surrealistically in a square to commemorate the departure and absence of the Jews from the Krakow ghetto – a literal life and death crossroads.

From there, we wound our way back towards Rynek Glowny(Main Square) via a succession of churches and cathedrals, each one more ornate and colorful than the next. Kris pointed out the building in which Roman Polanski lived during the war years, and at the Skalka and Pauline Monastery, off the beaten path of many tourist routes, I drank the sulfuric holy water of St. Stanislaus, Bishop of Krakow during the 11thcentury. The water is said to have miraculous powers, and though I’m still waiting for a miracle clear-cut, perhaps the miracle is that I drank from this fountain at all.

 

Eastern Europe, Summer 2017

Mom and I spent a day and a half in my adopted city of Ternopil, strolling in unseasonably cold and overcast weather along the lakeside promenade and through a park where rusted Soviet-era space-race playground equipment remains tomb-like amongst the weedy chaparral and birches. The next morning, we took an early train to Lviv. We had a few hours to kill before we were due at the airport, so, after breakfast, we wandered around among the street performers in front of the opera house, snapping photos on various devices, unsure of which scene was camera-worthy or if merely a cell phone would suffice – a juggling act that would remain for the duration of the trip.

While Ternopil has seen an influx of ethnic diversity over the last decade due to its university populations, Lviv leans over a more perceptible precipice between the so-called first world and the second, between an EU feel and a Soviet one. Both cities share a Polish historical influence dating back to the Polish-Lithuanian Empire and both seem to have one foot in Europe and the other in the post-Soviet Union. In Lviv, the architecture is more ornate but still largely monochromatic. Its inner avenues and alleys can feel labyrinthine, yet worn trolley cars and overstuffed marshrutkas (city buses) still plod over pot-holes and cobblestones in the larger, dust-bleached streets. There’s more bustle, more shopping; cafes dot the center and, perhaps most tellingly of all, more English being spoken. I didn’t realize it then, but those few hours in Lviv were to be the last time in two weeks I’d have to fumble away in Ukrainian – until I found myself stranded on the train in Hungary with Capt. Johnathan.

When we reached the Lviv airport in the early afternoon, the day had warmed and become sunny. True to form, Mom had urged that we arrive at the airport with hours to spare, and I, not knowing travel time to the airport or general protocol once there, but sensing it wouldn’t be too much hassle, acquiesced. And, of course, the plane was delayed two hours.

The delay in Lviv resulted in our missing the connecting flight from Warsaw to Krakow, placing us in anxious limbo in Chopin International Airport as we attempted to negotiate a seat on the last plane to Krakow. The trouble was we weren’t the only ones frantically jockeying for position on one connecting flight or another. Each plane in and out of Warsaw that day seemed to be delayed. I’m unclear on the reason for the this, but Polish Airlines appeared to have the B-team on duty. Still, it was hard not to empathize with the overworked and visibly weary desk clerk who couldn’t guarantee us anything but a sub-par turkey sandwich and a warm bottle of water.

The group of stand-by passengers huddled tensely at the boarding gate. The two old, thickly bearded Russian men, one of whom wore a dirty white captain’s hat, were obviously plotting some sort of ambush on the line, and they paced slowly and aloofly on the outskirts. A Turkish family with a young daughter stood near the desk, as the father attempted to reason with the attendant, pointing to his young child and stressed wife. I knew that I had to make my appeal, and so I sidestepped the huddle and explained to the attendant that my mother was suffering from a stomach infection and was very uncomfortable. This was true, as Mom had been released from the hospital back in America only days before our trip after contracting a UTI. The travel caused the infection to come back with a vengeance and she would visit a tremendous number of restrooms during our journey, both public and private, as well as two doctors, one in Prague and the other in Vienna. The attendant acknowledged the plight but seemed unmoved, and I returned to Mom with a shrug and said that I tried.

It turned out that the last passengers to board the flight to Krakow were the Turkish family, the Russian men, Mom and me. We were shuttled around the tarmac and boarded at dusk.

I am not sure if my appeal for sympathy had anything to do with our good fortune, but one thing is certain: I never would have been able to craft such an argument had English not been the lingua franca, as it were, of travel. By the time Mom and I had reached Warsaw, there was no need at all to worry about translation or having to use sweeping, child-like hand gestures to communicate. The cultural arm wrestling surrounding language and travel had largely been dealt with, and I was a beneficiary of the journeymen, colonizers, and conquerors who had gone before me, as well as wars, music, economics, pop-culture, and so on. My very existence as an English teacher in foreign countries stands on these broad cultural shoulders. There’s a real possibility that we got on that plane because we spoke English. Stranded at the Hungarian train station a dozen days later, Johnathan and I discovered, after we returned to our train to check if there were any developments, that there were no Ukrainian passengers in our car. There was an elderly Swiss mother and her middle-aged son, who spoke French, a young Japanese couple, and a Russian couple. English became our language. Moreover, a young Ukrainian man from another carriage informed us, once the authorities had been alerted as to how many international travelers were on the train, only then did they begin to take serious action to get us out. Had the train been full of Ukrainians, he said, nothing would have been done.

 

After collecting Mom’s baggage from the conveyor belt, we stepped out into the night and hired a taxi driver to take us to the hotel. From the shotgun-seat, I looked out upon the smooth and well lighted road, watching the reflective white dashes of the street lines zoom past.

“Ah, infrastructure!” I remarked.

The contrast between travel in these neighboring countries, Poland and Ukraine, serves as a literal demarcation between the first world and the second. What Poland is now is what Ukraine in many ways would like to become. In Ukraine, with its cracked and pockmarked roads, drivers don’t steer so much as dodge the potholes that cluster up every several feet or so. For many Ukrainians I’ve spoken with, this is the manifestation and physical evidence of poor government – the raison d’etre for government mistrust – and I’ve mused on several occasions that if an official or government coalition could repair Ukraine’s road system, a lifetime of power would await. But while the failing roads are indeed problematic, it is more likely a red herring for deeper seated issues. As long as people keep wailing about the poor roads, the longer they will not talk about root causes.

Our hotel was a short walk from the central square, and after checking in and dropping our bags in the wood-paneled room, we wandered to a fashionable-looking restaurant and had a light dinner and a few glasses of wine. All around us, over the candle-lit tables, a din of conversation stirred, with the American accents of the girls next to us cutting though it all like a bad electric guitar solo.

Perhaps chief among the stereotypes of Americans, directly adjacent to fast-food intake, is that Americans are a loud and boisterous lot. Keenly aware of this, I most often try to combat this image by keeping my voice low. If my BAC level remains in check, so too does my decibel level, which is true of just about everyone. Yet, there is something about an American accent that does seem to knife through just about everything else. The hard “A’s”, it seems to me, is the most likely culprit. It comes across as nasal and rough in soft “A” cultures. Say the word “have” in your mind with British and American accent and you’ll get the idea. Same goes for the word “accent” for that matter. If you mix this with a northeastern timbre, the issue compounds itself mightily. No doubt my American heritage is responsible for my feasibly overly sensitive ear. Nevertheless, it’s true that if you put a group of Americans in a room together in a multi-lingual setting, all things equal, we will be among the loudest. I’d wager a group of Spaniards or Italians would beat us in decibel level, however it’d be that differentiation between vowel sounds that would emerge an equalizer.

Obvious to me is that I’ve come to this knowledge by removing myself from American society. This brings about tremendous self-trepidation. While American letters is riddled, and in some ways dominated by those who have expatriated, the ones who leave a lasting mark are those who were able to regain status from abroad. I am unsure of my ability to do so. Yet it was the only way for me to survive as an American: to become truly American, I had to recuse myself. This life I have chosen involves considerable relinquishment. I have consigned myself to the likelihood that I will never be a homeowner; I’ll likely never produce offspring, let alone that which would be privately educated, as I was; I’ll never enter Madison Square Garden, or stand over the Grand Canyon. I’ve been to Hong Kong as many times as I’ve been to California – in the airport for a layover. I cannot, however, say in good faith that these things will not happen. But possibility is moving ever toward probability.

Still, I never would have thought five years ago, or even 18 months ago, that I’d be in Krakow, Poland with my mother, on the first leg of a four-city eastern European tour. And here we were, on our first morning, deciding on how we would spend our three days over sausage and eggs in a brassiere overlooking the main square. Gray clouds swayed and hammocked in the mid-morning sky outside the window.

Mom’s travel agent’s itinerary accounted only for travel and hotel, and we were left to our own devices on how to fill our days. This is where my preferred style of travel butted heads with Mom’s. I’m a wanderer who loathes asking for directions and will sacrifice myself willingly to false starts and dead ends and the almost inevitable circling back. Hailing from an oceanfront city, as I do, my perception of tourists is often low, as they are responsible for the jamming of streets and wait lists at restaurants and the bovine, dead-eyed way they generally tend to mill about. No doubt there’s a certain schizophrenia – and arguable misanthropy – about my stance, as I have been an outsider the last three years, zig-zagging around the globe from Southeast Asia to Europe, which perpetually places me in the position of a tourist. However, my goal is to ultimately respect the place I’m in and blend as best I can, limiting my speech where English is not spoken, doing road map prep-work, and so on. Once I feel remotely among the tourist hordes, my attitude shifts drastically, which can negatively color my day. Thus, I like to travel mostly alone and avoid American accents. Mom was well aware of this but there were of course dust-ups here and there about our styles.

Perhaps the zenith of Mom’s to-do list was to visit Auschwitz. As a well-versed student of Judeo-Christian religions, she felt it a certain pilgrimage to see Auschwitz, which is a sentiment I completely understand. And so, after breakfast, we set off on foot to find the bus tour office and upon finding it discovered that the tours were (naturally) booked for the duration of our stay in Krakow. Since I had advocated from the shoot-from-the-hip approach, I was to blame here.

I suggested that we keep walking down through the old Jewish District and see if we couldn’t get into Schindler’s Factory across the Vistula River. By the map, it didn’t look so far and we would walk directly through the Jewish Quarter. Though clearly disappointed, Mom said yes, and we set off. Once we descended into the Jewish District, the color scheme of the city changed entirely, like The Wizard of Oz in reverse. Gone were the warm red bricked buildings, replaced by worn and chipped greyish tenement buildings alongside the road. A few blown-out windows had been boarded with plywood, and the paint on the ornate doors was scratched thin, as though they had been worked over for decades by steel wool. There was gritty majesty to them though. The Americanized version of the word ‘ghetto’ has ballooned in our consciousness, and has associations with hip-hop music, Martin Luther King Boulevards, chain-link fences around weedy basketball courts. The government subsidized houses are bloc-like and desolately square and malnourished, a filing cabinet for bootless Americans who are told to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. That ‘ghetto’ is applied to both environments is telling, and knowing what happened (and happens in America) behind their walls, that the buildings and its people had survived at all should supply them with veneration.

After we crossed the river, I went right when I should have gone left, and we wound up in the front of a hotel. Mom had to use the facilities, and I waited outside.

“Ok. I can’t take too much of this walking around,” she said, as she emerged from the hotel.

“I think it’s just over there, on the other side of the road,” I said. “We’re almost there.”

She drew her lips tight, but continued to follow. We looped down under an overpass and it was clear that we had entered the factory district. Ahead we saw a few groups moving in the same direction, and we caught their wave and ended up in a crowd outside Schindler’s Factory. Sold out.

“Well, I bet it looks like any other bombed out factory,” I offered with a grin.

“I hate you,” Mom said.

“What?”

“Well, now we gotta walk all that way back,” she said.

“Maybe we can find a taxi. I don’t know. I can look.”

We stood along the fringes of the tourist groups, all fancy with their pre-paid tickets and itineraries. Mom looked distraught, like she needed a moment, so I walked off and snapped a real quality photo of the plaque on the side of the building.

“So, what do you want to do there, Sparky?” Mom said after I returned. She has a habit of going into her Helen Griswold/Vacation routine once things go tits-up. I shrugged.

A man driving a four-seater golf cart eased up next to us and asked us if we had tickets to the factory. We explained ourselves and he replied that it would be very difficult to get a ticket.

“But I can take you around the Ghetto, if you like,” he said. “I can show you the churches and synagogues, anything you like.” His English was excellent; he had wheels.

Jackpot.

 

 

There was something garish and unsettling about whipping around Jewish ghetto of Krakow in a golf cart. But such paradoxical situations are part of the rationalized moral calculus of tourism, of hovering detached over the site (particularly if it is impoverished) and convincing yourself that somehow your presence is driving some segment of the local economy or at least helped someone buy his next meal. If this attitude remains latent and doesn’t mutate into grotesque entitlement, things remain even keel.

But it was hard for me not to imagine that had golf carts existed post 1939, they would have been a rather expedient way for SS men to patrol the ghetto. A scene burgeoned in my mind – perhaps one directed by David Lynch – of a Nazi shooting a Jew in the head then strolling back to the golf cart, punching down on the gas pedal with his boot – the snap-release of the parking brake – and whirring off. A juxtaposition of the banal and the horror. And while cruising through the Jewish ghetto in 2018 is obviously a galaxy away from that macabre scene, it’s that lax acceptance and herd-mentality and entitlement that would ultimately lead one to moral desolation, which often comes through misplaced and perverted loyalty. “Loyalty,” writes Charles D’Ambrosio, “—in its darkest form, which left so much death as its legacy to the twentieth century – rids the divided self of anxiety and guilt, so that murder smiles.” (Or uses a golf cart as a getaway car.)

Still, it was an undeniably convenient and quick way to see much in a short amount of time. Our driver, a sturdy man in his late-30s with close-cropped hair named Kris, was the consummate guide, suggesting different historical sites that we would have likely glossed over if on our own. Many of these sites, much like the Schindler factory, were monuments to hope through subversion. Apteka Pod Orlem(Eagle Pharmacy), for instance, the last Polish run store to remain operational in the ghetto, became a social hub as well as a place to secure falsified documents, food and medicine, still sits quietly on the corner of Plac Bohaterów Getta(Ghetto Heroes Square), across from 70 large empty metal chairs placed rather surrealistically in a square to commemorate the departure and absence of the Jews from the Krakow ghetto – a literal life and death crossroads.

From there, we wound our way back towards Rynek Glowny(Main Square) via a succession of churches and cathedrals, each one more ornate and colorful than the next. Kris pointed out the building in which Roman Polanski lived during the war years, and at the Skalka and Pauline Monastery, off the beaten path of many tourist routes, I drank the sulfuric holy water of St. Stanislaus, Bishop of Krakow during the 11thcentury. The water is said to have miraculous powers, and though I’m still waiting for a miracle clear-cut, perhaps the miracle is that I drank from this fountain at all.

 

Eastern Europe, Summer, 2017 (Part II)

I live in a dormitory flat provided to me by Ternopil National Pedagogic University, where I teach in Ukraine. Most often I’m comfortable. Through the large-paned window in my kitchen, the sun sets behind a soccer field and tree-line, and I’ve cooked some fine meals on my old four-burner range in that wonderful green-gold summer light. I crack open the window to catch a breeze and listen to the kick-drum thumps of the players on the field. I sleep on a hard, spring-laden fold-out sofa (devan) – a piece of furniture almost ubiquitous in Slavic flats it seems – that occasionally feels like sleeping atop a dog cage if I don’t position myself just so. I’ve grown accustomed to the sofa because the single bed in the room is too narrow and its mattress is even worse.

I’m not exactly roughing it, but this past summer the struggle was this: hot water. I was at the City of Ternopil’s mercy. Unless you have a personal boiler, hot water is turned on for the city only at certain times on certain days. It runs all day only on Saturday, and I considered converting to Judaism to amplify its holiness: Shower Shabbos. Tuesdays and Thursdays are the two weekday mornings for a hot shower, and it doesn’t switch on until 4:30pm the rest of the days. But even this 4:30 time-slot is dubious. It’s not like the clock strikes half-past and the faucets are spitting hot lava. It takes until 6pm for it to really get going.

At first glance, this might not seem too bad. And, for a while, particularly in winter, it’s not. However, when the temperature incrementally warms and you want to exercise, or if you get home from traveling in a stifling hot bus, and the only thing you want on this earth is a hot shower and you can’t get one, it is a cruel and unusual sort of torture: Ukrainian Water Torture, let’s say.

“Just take cold shower,” a Polish girl told me late last spring. “Don’t be pussy.”

“You don’t understand,” I tried to explain. “It’s not like it’s just a bit cold. It’s freezing cold.” Indeed, it appeared the melting polar ice caps were being piped straight to my shower head.

“I like cold shower,” she replied. “It’s hot, almost summer, cold shower is good.”

“This isn’t hot,” I said and pointed to my knit hat. “I’m wearing a beanie in June.”

“Don’t be pussy,” she said, laughing.

Perhaps she was right about my wearing a beanie in June. My natural weather preference closely mirrors that of a seventy-year-old snowbird retiree, but she was dead wrong about the shower. If I were under that icy spray and someone tried to converse with me, it’s likely they would think I was a ten-year-old boy, such is its emasculating capability. My life revolved around the hot water schedule. I waited for it, woke up for it, held off or otherwise reworked plans for it.

Then one morning in the latter half of June, I awoke and went to the bathroom to shower. I was well within the prescribed timeframe to steam a mirror, but after turning on the water and letting it run for a while, the water was merely the temperate side of polar. I slapped the spigot off in disgust and texted my counterpart, Iryna: Do you know anything about the hot water situation. I can’t seem to get any here.

She responded: Sorry, I forgot to tell you that they shut the hot water off for the summer. It won’t work for something like two months, I think. Sorry.

Thus, began my real quest for the remainder of the summer of 2017 – finding hot water. I had received an invitation through Facebook to volunteer at a youth camp in the Carpathian Mountains earlier in spring. I did not know the woman who invited me, but I watched a few videos they had made of kids rafting and zip-lining through the mountains, and it looked legitimate enough. I was still non-committal, but as soon as I discovered that I would be without hot water for months, I sent the camp director a message asking if there would be hot showers available there.

Of course there will be. Haha, she replied. I was aware of the silliness of my question, but she didn’t know my plight, and I had to be sure.

A few days later, I set off early in the morning for the Carpathian village of Tartariv, several days removed from cleanliness, in a bus that began to boil at noon. Ukrainians, older generations especially, have a twisted fear of open windows. It is a point of major contention. Arguments ensue. Voices rise. Even as weak-kneed old women, at the point of fainting, have the driver pull over so they can be let off for a few moments of fresh air, windows are likely to remained unopened. The outside air, it should be said, was just above 72 degrees Fahrenheit, slightly over room temperature in many places, but try to pry open the bus windows and you’ll get the stink eye from several babushkas who might allow for the free flow of fresh air for a time before raising up from their seats to close off all ventilation and let the steaming resume.

I arrived in Tartariv feeling like a hot glazed doughnut, a film over my skin and my hair oily, but that first hot shower was nothing short of cathartic.

Between the Carpathian excursion and the arrival of my mom, I reasoned that there would only be a few days in which I’d go without hot water, which I decided I could tolerate. I didn’t have much choice.

 

After collecting her from the airport, Mom and I settled in the hotel for the night – phenomenal water pressure, A-plus temperature – and walked around Ivano-Frankivsk in the late morning an early afternoon. During our walk, I tried to prepare her for the bus ride back to Ternopil later. I told her about the heat, and the window paradox, and it wasn’t long before she had me hire a private driver to take us back to Ternopil in a leather-seated, air-conditioned Skoda sedan driven by an affable, round-faced man named Roman. He spoke some English and explained to us on the way out of town that the reason the road we were on was as wide as it was so it could be used at a military aircraft landing strip, if necessary. He was full of good tidbits of information, and pulled over so we could take pictures on the bridge that spanned the Dniester River at the border of Ivano-Frankivsk and Ternopil oblasts. We passed several busses on the way back and, from my crisp leather seat, I looked through the bus windows at the stony, miserable expressions on people’s faces and felt a momentary, small pang of guilt that went away as soon as I realized we’d reach Ternopil fresh, un-swampy, without cramped legs, and an hour ahead of schedule. I decided to relax and ride in the first world through the second.

Eastern Europe, Summer, 2017

Word on the train was there was a toxic spill ahead. Hungarian authorities evidently had quarantined a radius of some twenty to thirty kilometers for an undisclosed time. All terrestrial travel was being diverted or held – cars, busses, trucks and trains. It was then that everyone aboard sensed we would not be moving for a long, long time.

But before that came to light, I was alone in my sleeper cabin, enjoying the solitude and relative space, awash with gratitude that I didn’t have to share it leaving Budapest. Not yet, anyway. Each brief stop at one village station or another led to small-scale anxiety that the door would burst open and some pot-bellied Hungarian who hadn’t showered since the 90’s would tumble in, forcing me to the top bunk and thus the radiation from the heatwave of bodily fumes. So far, however, my only complaint was that the electrical outlet in didn’t work, which could scarcely be logged as a complaint at all, given that I was in a Ukrainian train moving at Cold War era pace towards Lviv. If things stayed this way, I had thought, it would be a miracle.

Now, however, I was weighing out my preference for sharing tight quarters with a hungover Hungarian or being stuck. Other passengers began to rustle after a time, passing my door in the narrow corridor toward one end of the car or the other. Restlessness became slowly palpable. The American in the cabin next to me appeared in my doorway. He said it we would be here at least another hour, as he understood it, and that he was going up to store at the station. I told him I’d make it up there after a few minutes and set about compartmentalizing in my mind the notion of not moving for some time.

I emerged from the carriage, dropped down onto the tracks, and took stock. The day was bright and cloudless but for high altitude cirrus clouds whisked here and there across a sky that seemed to deepen in hue the longer you gazed upwards. Ahead stood a cluster of low-roofed, A-frame buildings, a drab egg-shell color, with beam supported awnings. So remote this place seemed the word that came to mind was not station but depot, as depot has a sort of an American Old West expansionist connotation to me. I walked along and then crossed the weedy tracks and went into the store at the far corner of the building. Inside I found the American and our train carriage usher, a greasy-haired, stubble-faced man, seated at a table over mugs of light beer.

“Beer’s like a quarter!” the American said. The usher grinned and tipped his mug slightly.

“Yeah,” I said, and cracked a grin. “That doesn’t surprise me.”

I negotiated a beer and a bag of chips from the woman behind the counter using the international point-and-nod method, with a smile worked in for good measure, and joined them at the table.

“I don’t think we’ll be going anywhere soon,” the American reiterated. “So I figured I’d have a beer. This guy here wanted one too, and if the man working on the train starts drinking, it might not be a good sign.”

“Probably not,” I said.

We swapped names – his being Johnathan – and I introduced myself to the usher with my limited Ukrainian, though I cannot recall the usher’s name. Johnathan had short sandy-blonde hair and patches of gray in his goatee. He had a good tan, a glow on his face that comes usually from the sun’s reflection off water, with the area around his eyes a shade paler from sunglasses. A sport-fisherman’s tan, as I read it at first.

“You from Charleston?” I asked Johnathan, reading the lettering on his navy-blue sweatshirt.

He said he had lived there for about three years. Now he lived in Seattle, but he wasn’t often there because of his work, which was as a private sailboat captain. He had clients all over the world, people who needed their boats moved from port to port or repair work done. That explained the tan. He had been in Croatia for a few weeks and wanted to explore Ukraine again (he had visited Odessa before), so he was on his way to Lviv too. I explained that I lived in Ukraine, served with the Peace Corps and taught in a university in a city called Ternopil, about three hours east of Lviv.

All this unabashed conversation in English had stirred the Spartan shop. Its few patrons looked at us curiously and before long a disheveled, unshaven man appeared at our table. He spoke in Hungarian, and not one among us could decipher a word, save “Euro.” Johnathan and I glanced at one another and shrugged. I jerked my hands upward, offering my bare palms, supine, in what most circumstances denotes the absence of what’s being asked about. But the man persisted. He took off his watch and ring and offered it to us. I shook my hands and head, but the Ukrainian reached for the items and began inspecting them. The Hungarian moved over to him and began speaking about the ring, and the Ukrainian held it up in front of his face as though it were the Hope Diamond. The ring was a lusterless, tarnished silver, thin and plain, and he handed it back to the Hungarian and shook his head. The Hungarian put the ring back on his finger and slouched off.

Johnathan and I went back to our beers and small talk, and after the usher finished his beer he rose wordlessly from the table and headed back towards the train. Johnathan and I agreed that the Hungarian must have been mighty down to be hustling all but unknown train station. But I realized, as he and I spoke, that the sale with the cashier and the failed barter with the disheveled Hungarian marked the first time for me in two weeks, after traveling in four countries, that English hadn’t been the language of exchange.

 

What brought me to this far-flung Hungarian village, sitting over mid-day beers with Captain Johnathan of Arkansas, was a trip with my mom. She informed me the previous winter that she had enlisted an actual travel agent, a career species I had thought severely endangered if not altogether extinct, to plan a loop through the eastern European cities of Warsaw, Prague, Vienna and Budapest. After consulting some Polish acquaintances of mine, Warsaw was scrapped in favor of Krakow, and the itinerary was set and booked by spring.

Mom flew into Ivano-Frankivsk, a mid-sized city in southwestern Ukraine. I wasn’t aware Ivano had an airport, until Mom forwarded me the details. It seemed odd to me that a Ukrainian city with an estimated population of 200,000 would even have an airport, but further investigation proved me wrong. Nevertheless, everyone I spoke to seemed perplexed by my mother’s destination. Rare indeed was the international traveler who flew into Ivano.

“This airport is a shit,” my Ukrainian colleague, Iryna, told me. “Just so you know.”

She spoke truth. I had meandered through a fair number of bad and sketchy airports and train stations over the past year and a half, from Indonesia to Kyiv, but if some others had been dumps or toilets, the one in Ivano was the five-day-hippie-fest-port-o-john of them all. Not much bigger than a high school gym, and nearly dark enough to house a planetarium, I waited among the half-lit or silhouetted people a while before I broke down and drank a beer to cut through the surreality.

Mom finally emerged from behind a door. Just your normal door, door – like she had simply excused herself from the table and returned, rather than flown for a day across the Atlantic. We hugged – unceremonious but welcomed – and Mom showed me where the Ukrainian customs agents cut into her bag to check it because they couldn’t get past the lock.

“So my suitcase won’t zip back up all the way,” Mom said. “Great.”

And we’re off.

 

 

 

 

Off the Beaten Path

Off the main square, tucked in between some of the busiest restaurants and meeting-points in Ternopil, Ukraine, is a red, heart-shaped sign with white letters that read, in English: Sex Shop. Apart from its location and the insouciance with which it’s treated, nothing about its existence is alarming to me. The shop is an easy pitching-wedge away from the large, ornate, gray-stone theater, and on the weekends the owner places another small A-frame sign on the sidewalk. One of my favorite watering holes is a café named Koza – Ukrainian for goat – that sits next door to Sex Shop. Koza has a large and shady wooden deck that offers me a decent perch for people watching in these spring and summer months without being too conspicuous about it. People pass the shop without a glance or second thought. The only ones who loiter in front of its iron gate are cigarette smokers and an occasional pack of young gypsy boys begging for money or a scrap of food since the weather has warmed.

Sitting there, watching the world go by as I do, puts me in mind of how my friends and I would have treated such a place, had it shown up in one of the All-American shopping centers of my youth – next to the baseball card store, let’s say, or across from a 7-eleven. How many scores of boys my age, between 10 and 14, would have pedaled there on hot summer afternoons, as though magnetized, to see the new display, or better yet catch a glimpse of someone we knew inside? But, aside from the rather banal curiosities of the mall lingerie store, we had no such fortune. We hopped up on the latest Victoria’s Secret we’d intercepted, or a cache of swimsuit issues, or, for those among us who had been deemed chosen by the gods of adolescent prurience, the crème de la crème of it all: Woods Porn.

The most surefire place to stash a porn magazine was in the woods. This was certain suburban reality for those of us who came of age in the 70s, 80s, and 90s. Ideally, you’d get a hold of a waterproof container or a Ziploc bag, but the mad-dash panic of having a porno mag often led to snap decisions. A brown paper bag. Or leaving it naked and uncovered, as it were, in one dubious hideaway or another. How many of them met their early death by water? The numbers must be staggering. Their soaked pages would curl and stick together, and the pulpy ink slowly bled out. A tragedy for all involved. But if you could keep it together, think clearly and rationally about the proper steps for the mag’s security and preservation, then it could survive the elements, thriving in its environment as surely as a flowering plant properly potted in natural light.

One afternoon in the spring of 1995, when I was thirteen, the phone rang as soon as I got into the house from the bus stop. It was my best friend Dan. We had just parted moments before, so this quick call was unusual.

“Come over,” he demanded. “Hurry.”

“Why?”

“I…just come over. Meet me at my mailbox.”

I darted out of my house and ran around the corner to Dan’s cul-de-sac. His mailbox was encased in red brick, along with his neighbors’, and he was standing by this postal vault like a bank teller with the keys to a safety deposit box. As I jogged closer, I saw that he already had today’s mail in his hand.

“What’s going on?” I asked, as I slowed and walked up to him.

“Look at this.” He held out an opened non-descript envelope, only slightly bigger than standard. It was addressed to his dad, but seemed to be a mailer of sort. I took it, slipped my hand into the pouch, and removed what felt like two thin cheap magazines. And there they were, beaming and glowing as though lit by black light: two samplers of High Society magazine.

“Holy shit,” I said. Or maybe he did. Or maybe we both did at the same time. We were as wide eyed and jumpy as spooked deer, scanning the cul-de-sac to make sure no one else was around.

“Your dad ordered these?” I asked, trying to parse it all through.

“No way,” Dan said. “Well, I don’t think so. I don’t think he’s that kind of guy.”

I agreed. His dad drove a factory model Aerostar minivan with a Rush is Right bumper sticker on it. He hailed from Toledo, Ohio and his father’s name was Homer. Things didn’t exactly add up that he would have sent off for these, on the surface at least.

“What about Ben?” I asked.

“He’s in college. Why would he do that?” His brother was in then in his second year of what would be a five or six-year stint at Virginia Tech.

“So these just…came.”

“I guess,” Dan said.

Then it struck us: Think everyone in the neighborhood got one? We opened the neighbor’s box and shuffled through their mail. Nothing.

“Maybe my dad got one though,” I said. He was a far more likely candidate, we agreed.

Dan stuffed the other worthless mail back, and we sprinted over to my house. Our mailbox was old, green, and wooden and it opened from the top like a chest. I rifled through it all: crap, crap, hunting mag, Orvis, crap, Talbots, crap.

“Crap,” I said.

 

Despite my hometown of Virginia Beach being the most populated of all Virginia cities, I was fortunate enough to grow up with several different woods in my neighborhood. Each one backed up to a body of water, either a lake or the tidal Lynnhaven River, and as neighborhood kids we explored them all in varying brews of adventurousness and mischief. They rotated in popularity, it seems to me now, depending on interest and neighborhood development. In the early years of elementary school forts were most important, and in a small sliver of woods off a road recently paved we road our bikes over small mounds of khaki-colored dirt until we had to walk down the trunk of an old fallen bark-less pine and into a small clearing among pine saplings. It was amazing: a natural fort with another tree trunk to sit on and a bed of pine needles to soften our footfalls. It seemed to be made just for us.

But there were others. How disheartening it was for Dan and me to find evidence that other, older kids knew of our spot. We tracked the signs like novice native scouts. There might be evidence of another’s presence by the way the pine needles were matted, or that a conspicuous branch had been snapped off. The singularity of our fort was spoiled and lost then, and we complained and wondered to each other what the older kids were doing in our woods.

And so, in between neighborhood sports, we set off exploring and trespassing once again. We ventured onto the Moore’s property and spied on the worn, clapboard house that sat towards the back of the lot along the river. The Moore family owed acres and acres of waterfront property that went undeveloped for years for reasons that were unclear to everyone else except, I imagine, the Moore’s themselves. There were shoddy, decaying barns and woodpiles here and there, and a hollowed out wooden hulled boat half filled with dead leaves that held our attention for a time. Adjacent to the Moore’s property and all but hidden by clusters of thin young pines, was a diminutive one story house, abandoned, though old furniture remained. Next to it sat a rusted Airstream camper, and when Dan and I pried open the door and climbed into its dank insides, we found piles of old Highlight magazines, an educational children’s publication, dated from the 1960s and 70s.

By the time Dan discovered those golden pages in his mailbox that day, our main woods had become the acres a few hundred yards down the road that backed up to the freshwater lake, across the street from the river. Along with two other older neighborhood boys, we carved out a bike course that looped down by the lake and built a makeshift jump from logs and dirt at the bottom of a soft slope.

Dan had brought the mags to my mailbox in his backpack, and we stood there at the edge of my driveway, thinking about the next move.

“Maybe we can stash them underneath the jump,” one of us suggested.

“That sounds good. Do we have anything to keep them dry?”

“No.”

“I’ll run inside,” I said.

I sprinted in and returned with one of my mom’s Ziploc freezer bags – heavy duty. I stuffed them into the backpack and we set off down the street with high-voltage strides, power-walking, as though smuggling launch codes out of Russia. By the time we reached the jump, we were like two Coke cans pulled from a tumble dryer. Dan dropped the bag at our feet and we each took a mag.

There are always strange pockets of silence when males look at porn in each other’s company, particularly at thirteen and fourteen. No eye-contact. Short sentences.

“Wanna switch?”

“Ok.”

“Here.”

 

It turned out that these were among the last times we’d spend in our neighborhood’s woods. Kurt Cobain had shot himself the spring before, the Federal Building in Oklahoma City was bombed that spring, and the Spice Girls were a hit the spring following. It was the time of beginnings and endings. Time was speeding up, our childhood melting away, and one day when I looked up Dan had a driver’s permit and I had switched schools. The bike trail became overrun with weeds and ferns. Our neighborhood succumbed to development and four houses were built on the Woods Porn lot. My family got the internet and I think I’m still waiting for Pamela Anderson’s nudes to load. Finally, Dan’s family moved out of the neighborhood altogether. We emerged from the woods and tried without much success to talk to real girls from time to time.

So defined for me are these memories. Each one a hole on a belt’s tongue that I loosened and re-buckled year to year. And sitting on the deck of this Ukrainian café, I wonder how time and memories are notched for these kids passing by. Much has been said already about technology’s hold on this generation, to which I can neither add nor detract. I just know that I am forever grateful to have had a lucky day with the U.S. mail and those woods.

Notes Delivered at Ternopil Univ. Conference: 5/11/17

Language is a form of currency. Each one of us deals in it daily. We exchange, barter, argue, persuade, describe and narrate with language. And just as some monetary currencies are more valued than others, language currencies are treated much the same way. In fact, I’d wager that if one were to match the strongest world monies to the country’s native language, one would find the so-called global languages at the top, and the English language chief among them. I feel confident that someone has done this already – or else, no one needs to because the results would not be all that surprising. But, as an educator, I must keep this language-as-currency metaphor in mind because it helps my frame of mind in the classroom, and keeps me cognizant of just how fortunate I am to be where I am from and speak the language I speak.

Dr. Jinhyun Cho, a Korean-English translator and professor at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, describes this connection as “market capitalism combin(ing) with academic capitalism.” In my travels and teaching experience abroad – first in Indonesia and now here in Ukraine – I have come to see quite clearly how this relationship plays out. My students overseas, or the parents of students for my younger ones, mostly see English in economic terms. A pathway to university and careers and prosperity in an increasingly globalized world that has positioned English as the language of business. In many ways, speaking English is a status symbol, an indication of good schooling and parenting. In Indonesia, for instance, English speakers are highly sought after in the dating pool. Here in Ukraine, the relationship to English seems to be different, since there are so many languages spoken here, but fluency in it certainly provides clear advantages.

I learned none of this in America. No one even mentioned it – just how lucky I was to have English as my native language. Our attitude towards our native tongue is one of indifference at best and ignorance at worst. I have come to view this cultural apathy about language as a failure of our already problematic education system. American students often treat their language study with a general malaise, like trying to get a small child to eat his vegetables. What appears to be missing from this educational equation is reinforcement from an elementary age on that language has real economic value, and that learning its intricacies and how best to use it can yield real economic results, which, of course, is tied directly to personal development.

But simply spoon-feeding students maxims about the importance of English for personal development would not be a panacea. The modern, globalized era has given rise to other considerations, ones linked to culture and identity. At a time in which nations, despite recent nationalistic backlashes, are promoting the free flow of goods and services and ideas and people around the world there are inherent limitations that are not likely to disappear soon. In a 2014 article entitled “Fragmented Memory in a Global Age” published in The Modern Language Journal, Professor Anne Freadman frames one problem succinctly. “If globalization truly had achieved—or could achieve—the free flow of people, goods, and ideas around the globe, then culture itself would be globalized, with no specificities impeding infinite mutual understanding. What it has produced, a contrario, is an array of diasporas, more or less precariously implanted in new habitats, more or less isolated, their sense of home dislocated between the near and the far” [2]. What we have seen with things like the U.S. presidential race and England’s Brexit vote, are the unsavory results of what can happen with perhaps too hasty globalized initiatives. The fact is that we do not change as quickly as our laws or noble ideas would have us. Rapid cross-pollination of disparate cultures leads of course to miscommunication at least or fear and aggression at worst.

The balance that must be struck then is the promotion of cross-cultural communication and language learning along with a solid foundation in native language and culture. If there could be a silver lining in the largely cursory study of foreign languages in America, it is that it can afford students the opportunity to dive deeply into the English language. However, in my view, there should be no reason that the right note cannot be struck to achieve an outward-looking foreign language curriculum while remaining grounded in native culture and identity. I believe that this might be an underlying challenge as Ukraine moves forward with its educational programs, finding that balance, and instilling in students that English study can provide them with “academic capital” but this does not mean it must come at the expense of personal investment in Ukraine itself.

The English language has opened so many doors for me, as it does anyone who learns it in earnest. Given my advancing age and career prospects, it is unlikely that I will become fully fluent in another language. This is unfortunate. But my own personal failings and the tacit failings of my native educational system to instill in me the personal capital and opportunity that being multilingual provides, offers me a unique perspective to express to my students just how fortunate they are to have more than one language at their disposal. Nevertheless, pride should be taken in one’s native tongue and country, and while opportunity might take our students to lands far beyond the horizon, let us urge them to always think of home, as I do, and look for the ways that they might plant themselves once again in native soil and use their language gifts in the place they got them.

The Fallout So Far…(in total)

It is February now in western Ukraine, and each passing day provides more and more minutes of daylight, a welcome harbinger of an approaching spring that cannot get here quickly enough. When I arrived at my new city of Ternopil in early December, after having spent autumn in the northern city of Chernihiv, a few hours below the Belarussian border, the days were long in darkness. A low-slung sun barely rose above the tree-line and hills beyond the neighborhood in which I live. Gray clouds frosted the sky. The low-watt sun produced no warmth. But the earth’s poles are doing their work, and daylight is advancing its front against darkness. Soon enough, I will find myself standing, shadow-less, under a true high-noon sun. After that, of course, because of my northern latitudinal position, light will reign supreme during the summer months.

I spent last year along the equator in Indonesia. While there was daylight and seasonal ubiquity in a tropical way (what month it is means almost nothing, outside of holidays), there was a natural struggle for balance too: a rainy season and a dry season. Squeeze-bottle squirts of late-afternoon rain fell when cumulous clouds bulged pregnant with accumulated vapor. Deluges thumped sheet-metal roofs and overran street canals. But most often, it seemed, the water evaporated as quickly as it had fallen, and the land where I lived on Sumatra, despite its tropical geography, remained ever parched from dirt and dust — as though the rain had provided nothing more than a silt deposit. The haze would return the next day. The clouds would refill. Rinse. Repeat.

So I’ve become more attuned to the different ways the earth expresses regularity and symmetry — once one is far enough away from the poles that climate can begin to array itself. But I’ve also seen the ways in which we, humankind, either knowingly or unknowingly alter this symmetry. In Indonesia, I landed in September during the fires of 2015, a full-throttle, man-made ecological disaster that claimed lives and enshrouded Indonesia’s largest islands (Sumatra and Kalimantan), up to Singapore and the Malay peninsula, in a smoke and haze so thick that it could dim the sun. No rain had fallen since well before my arrival and wouldn’t fall until November. When it finally did, many stopped what they were doing to watch.

In Ukraine, the climate alterations travel by word-of-mouth, usually upon my complaints about the cold weather. “Holodnya!” I say. “It’s cold.” But Ukrainians generally just stare at me, or either refute my exclamation. I’ve been told several times about the winters of 20 or 30 years ago. How it barely even snows now. How the temperature never quite bottoms out like it once did. Their tone sometimes toes the line between recollection and nostalgia. Leaving aside the political trench warfare about climate change that seems to occur only in my own country, something is going on. Either you hear about it, or it fills and burns your nostrils.

In both places, I have dedicated large portions of my time to defining words for people. I taught English at a school for kids and teens in Indonesia and teach now at a pedagogic university in Ukraine. I’ve come to discover this exercise of telling people what things are and what they mean is sometimes difficult, certainly more difficult than one would reasonably expect. I recall an Indonesian friend of mine asking for the definition of “yet.” And when to use it. And why does it seem to show up anywhere in a sentence. Turns out the definition and usage of that three letter words costs one several words, or several dozen in my case, as I had never really considered it before.

These little lexical gauntlets that are thrown down before me every so often have brought several things into great relief. First, words and their definitions matter. Simple enough. Trite, even. Second, their usage matters. Of course, it does. The third is this often requires a bit more navigation and roundabout explanation to square up those first two simple points. How a culture deals with this is through a time-worn accumulation of shared knowledge and reference points. Consider all the words in English there are that name the passageways from one point to another, particularly by either walking or driving a car. To many, a street might be different from a road, a road different from an avenue, and so on.  In other words, one must find a proper balance between definition and usage.

Nearly every day since December I have walked past a very solemn reminder of this importance, and how much this potentially matters. At the end of neighborhood I live in, along the outskirts of the city, sits a grove of thin birch and elm trees. The trees are well-spaced and there is little undergrowth, indicating a matured wood. A busy thoroughfare runs next to it, and traffic rumbles past. At the edge of the grove stands a gravestone marker with a golden Star of David at the top. It is chiseled with three different language translations. The English version reads: “In memory of the holy martyrs Jews that were ruthlessly killed and buried on this side by the Nazi murderers.” Despite the obviously broken translation overall, the use of “side” is what intrigues me most. Is that what is really meant here? It seems an odd place to remember the dead in any sort of general way. The answer matters. If the writer meant “side,” then this could mean the victims on the eastern side of the front. But something tells me that what is meant here is “site.” In that case, beneath this grove of trees lies the remains of Holocaust victims. At some point, I will translate this marker and discover it’s precise meaning, but for now this ambiguity keeps the importance of language fresh in my mind.

The English language has been my official trade for four years now, in that I have made my meager living, either completely or partially, through my knowledge of it. In some way, I suppose, the way a carpenter uses his hammer and nails, I use my nouns and verbs. My first venture in this trade was, rather counterintuitively, as an adjunct professor in Norfolk, Virginia. While I may have started higher on the food chain education-wise, I was a bottom feeder among a school of newly-hatched post-graduates fighting over morsels to survive. So I had the classes and times that no one wanted: 8am classes of freshman composition. I started each semester by asking my students whether composition should be, and remain, required. In my four semesters of teaching those sections I had maybe one or two undeclared English majors in the lot. Unsurprisingly, the answers were highly mixed and trended towards the abolishment of the requirement.

By the end of my two-year stint, I had become convinced that freshman composition was a very important course. Not necessarily because I was a particularly mind-blowing teacher, but because I saw it as a large part of my job for my students to simply agree by the end of the semester that it was important. I had to persuade, while I taught them Aristotelian tenets of persuasion. I told them that they would use this in the future in ways they could not foresee.

And then, in June 2015, one month after my final class, and two months before I was to leave for Indonesia, Donald Trump took an escalator ride.

Consider for a moment the optics of this forevermore immortal moment in American history: a tycoon descends in a tower bearing his name, built largely with the calloused hands of foreign labor, motivated to run for president — at least in part — because of a presidential roasting he took in 2011; he takes the stage and laces into the very labor his country exploits, “They’re murderers, they’re rapists, and some, I assume, are good people.” That happened.

But so did this: an avatar of the “American dream” descends from the tower he built, through hard work and rugged individualism, motivated to be president because he believes the very people he lives with in these towers have done nothing but make the country worse; he was a part of the broken system, but now hindsight and clarity have prodded him to action, and the first order of business is stopping the reactionary, knee-jerk globalist economy that has deprived Americans from the dream life he has; the problem is the crime and cheap labor, which trace back to immigration, or something foreign at least.

Both versions contain truthful elements. Of course, there are more versions to this story too. The problem is that the issues are thorny and complex and no one has time for any of that. Like history, the truth works better for us when it’s effaced, a tabla rasa, and we can create our own. We make choices each day about how we explain and express our lives, both personal and societal. Turns out, it’s really hard explain the entire truth. But there are two main reasons for that. First, it makes for a much longer tale, complicated by digressions and twists and asides. Second, and just as important, often no one wants to listen to it all.

For example, the social media version of my life says that I’m a single man, healthy and educated, who has devoted his life to quasi-adventure and multi-culturalism. But, in my guts, I’m a man who had trouble traversing the well-worn path to American adulthood and was left with no choice but to leave my country to escape what was sure to become a not-so-slow death. I lived in Indonesia and met wonderful people and found love. I lived in Indonesia alone in a sparsely furnished apartment and watched geckos climb my bedroom walls before I slept.

That first narrative thread, the one for Facebook, is both easier on the tongue and ears. The second is the one for the eyes, the one for the heart. It might hurt to look at it, but it’s the one you’ll keep coming back to like a well in a bone-dry field. If I tell it right.

“We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” opens Joan Didion’s classic essay on the 1960s “The White Room.” This strikes me at once as obvious, confounding, comforting and terrifying. The pedestals upon which our lives and institutions stand are but inventions of mind. “We look for the sermon in the suicide,” Didion continues. “We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices. We live entirely…by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the ‘ideas’ with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.” Didion’s insight points directly toward the chaparral of the American experience right now: If we must find a workable narrative to live, what happens when we awake one morning to find that the story we had settled upon was untrue?

For many, this crisis happened the morning they awoke and read the headlines about Trump’s “unlikely” victory. But for many others it happened long before. When Wal-Mart moved onto the outskirts of town and dried up local retail business. When manufacturing work went overseas. When OxyContin came to town, pushed by big pharma’s false promise to save your life, and left behind heroin addicts. And on and on, which, of course, can lead one to see Trump’s rise not as unlikely but inevitable. There are, as Didion suggests, multiple versions of this crisis, each one as true as the next to the people whose reality has been scratched out by them. Belief in the “American Dream,” tantamount to Didion’s “shifting phantasmagoria,” is what is at stake, if one was even able to scarcely believe in the “dream” to begin with.

Still, we keep these ephemeral narratives alive because, if nothing else, America is very good at telling itself stories.

March has arrived, polite and relatively even-tempered so far, though I know these mild temperatures are likely too good to be true. A Ukrainian winter can’t give up this easily. But to my knowledge, the temperatures haven’t dipped below freezing since my birthday on the twenty-fifth of February, though they might hover just above it on clear nights.

These moderate yet mercurial temperatures contain their own set of concerns. Moving to Ukraine has reintroduced me to how my body reacts to seasonal change, which I’d nearly forgotten about during my season-less year on Sumatra. I’m not a sickly person by nature, but the transition from fall to winter and winter to spring bring about varying degrees of illness. You can usually pencil me in for being under in late October or early November, and then again sometime during the lion and lamb days of March.

The illnesses are the sort you see coming a long way off. A few days before the peak, a vague and undefinable feeling that something’s-off ebbs and flows during the day. Such that I might wake up feeling well, take lunch slightly aching in one random joint or another, and fall asleep at night forgetting all about my aching knuckles at lunch. The next day that process might reverse itself. In October, in Chernihiv, I understood my time along the equator left me vulnerable for sickness, once consistent cold weather set in. And when I came home one day to discover my host mom, Natasha, unwell and asking me to walk to the pharmacy to pick up some medicine for her, I knew my time was short.

Being sick in someone else’s house is a strange feeling indeed – particularly if the language barrier is so acute that a five-minute continuous conversation is a small victory. This is compounded in my case since I am prone to household hibernation and human interactional avoidance, even in good spirits. Huddled on the fold-out sofa that was my bed for three months, mainlining YouTube and South Park episodes, I was as sick as I’d been in recent memory. Natasha persistently asked me if I wanted a doctor to visit. I refused, but a part of me wishes I had accepted just to know what it would feel like to have an actual house call from a doctor. House calls are a sort of Rockwellian vagary in my mind of a time long past in America. I picture these quaint happenings in black and white by default, Pleasantville-style, and have a hard time reading history and imagining it in color if it happened before the mid 1960’s – not coincidentally, when TV switched to color. In a way, I don’t want to. No one watches the color episodes of The Andy Griffith Show.

In late October 2016, of course, America flailing about in the deep end of a political wave pool. The topics du jour were the debates, pussy-gate, and Clinton’s emails – not necessarily in that order. (Ain’t Bea shakes her head; Ernest T. Bass throws a rock). Watching Trump’s campaign rise – or descent rather, as he always seemed to be coming down, by design, from a floor higher than yours or the clouds – from my point of view half a world away in the shallow end of the pool has provided me a bit more clarity. In conversations, which almost invariably turned political at some point, I’d bring up a question that I hadn’t heard anyone ask the entire time. (When I finally saw Jon Stewart bring it up near election time, I felt like he stole my line). What does “Make America Great Again” mean? What are we talking about here?

A part of my teaching in my composition classes was to aim for concrete language and avoid abstraction. It’s difficult to do. I constantly struggle myself. However, it must be done to have the best possible outcome in writing, most of the time, because the meaning or intentions of the work will be clearer. Abstractions such as “love is life,” or some other typically nonsensical notion, muddy the water. But the reasons behind this, and the reasons we so often slip into them like a hammock when we communicate, bring up important aspects of language.

One way to think about the difference between concrete and abstract language is by tangibility. I cannot touch “love,” but I can touch the photograph of my mother looking over me after I was first born. My mother and I are in profile, backlit in soft yellow light and she is holding me in her arms, our faces nearly touching. She is still in her white hospital gown and I am in thin hospital-issue pajamas. My mother is smiling in a way that perfectly matches the light – warm and at ease – and her face is shadowed by her long light-brown hair, draping down along her jawline, pulled back from her face by a headband. I am looking at her, mouth agape, with what looks like an expression of wonder, shock, happiness and acknowledgment.  And so, by describing this photograph, I assign a concrete image to what I mean by “love” when I say that my mother loves me. I wouldn’t even have to use the word, the abstraction, if I present the image concretely. The audience will supply the word for me, as it’s implied by the image.

William Carlos Williams’ poem “The Red Wheelbarrow” is an example of the still-life snapshot of concrete language:

so much depends

upon

a red wheel

barrow

glazed with rain

water

beside the white

chickens.

Had he written “So much depends upon nature,” or art or beauty, let’s say, the poem would have been tossed in the dustbin immediately after it was written. Rightfully so, because “So much depends upon nature” is abstract nonsense – rubbish, to put it concretely. But by using the concrete language he did, the image is simple and clear. Sometimes though the concrete and abstract meld with one another and become harder to distinguish. Scent, for instance, is intangible but it has great power. The smell of golden Dial hand soap returns me to my Grandmother’s kitchen. I see her in her rocking chair next to the stove. Perhaps she is waiting for the cooking to finish and hums along with the classical music playing on the radio. For my mom, it’s Lifebuoy soap that brings her father back to her in a fleeting, treasured moments.

It’s the intermingling between concrete language and abstract meaning that usually provides the most sustenance. This occurs on scales both large and small, personal and societal. The Constitution and Declaration of Independence are stocked full of abstractions, which of course is why we argue about them and their meanings. Most of the language of nations requires this so that the words will be flexible over time. Such suppleness, however, can turn into a dangerous game, as history as born out time and time again.

There’s nothing really groundbreaking about any of this. Everyone knows this on one level or another, and clichés like “the pen is mightier than the sword” abound. But swimming in the culture tank as we do, we too often seem to forget to detach from the goings on and breathe for a moment. We sprint to one side or the other and lob verbal grenades at one another under the guise of critical thinking. But often we haven’t yet done the work.

The creator of the comic Dilbert, Scott Adams, made a few splashes during the election season with his analysis of Trump as a master of persuasion. Adams’s insights are on target. Looking at Trump’s use of language and its effect, a rhetorical analysis that revolves around reason, credibility, and (most importantly for Trump) emotion, was the best possible predictor of his success. This sort of analysis is precisely what should go on in Composition classrooms around the nation. However, the more liberal arts education is devalued, the more likely our public is to fall under the hypnosis of one who, knowingly or not, has keen control of rhetorical tools. No matter where you land on the issue of Trump, there can be no denying this idiot-savant mastery.

The late-winter thaw has produced mud. The melted snow and ice, along with fresh rain, have saturated the ground so thoroughly that I can scarcely imagine it hardening before April. Still, each day I delight in my rediscovered grip on the world beneath my feet. No longer must I do the grandpa-shuffle over the sidewalks and streets. I have a choice in footwear once again, and although winter had not entirely submitted, to quote Bob Dylan: “Any day now, any day now, I shall be released.”

Many of the potholed and pockmarked streets are spotted with puddles. Without sufficient sunlight and heat to fully evaporate them, I suspect they will remain for quite a while. Pant legs are speckled with mud below the knee, along the calves and cuff-lines, an altogether sordid fate for the fashion-conscious Ukrainian – of which there are many. But these puddled streets have been on my mind over this last week, and figure to stay in my mind a great deal during my stay in Ukraine and thereafter.

I hold a rather make-shift (at this point) journalism club every Sunday at the library in Ternopil’s city center, just behind the grand theater that sits at the head of the square. Each week I assign one piece journalism or literary non-fiction, and we discuss it the following week. I try to point out how I read and analyze such things, given my proclivity to read for technique first and worry about content later. Sometimes, I am pretty sure I come across as a pedantic asshole (the type who would use pedantic in a sentence). But people are coming back, and if I play my cards right I think I can turn this into something if I strike the right notes.

To that end, last week everyone read an excerpt by Belarussian author, and 2015 Nobel Laureate Svetlana Alexievitch, who has spent the last thirty-odd years collecting the voices of Eastern Europe, chronicling one hardship or disaster after another. Alexievitch, so far as I can tell, has essentially devoted her life to being a tape recorder. Her words are allegedly not her own. She takes down people’s stories and produces and arranges them in the style of either a dramatic monologue or, if the stories are not long, in a rapid-fire chorus. For example, a fireman’s wife’s story is long and spotlight-worthy, but the soldiers who are reluctant to talk are presented one after another. This is exactly how the selection we read went. The subject: Chernobyl.

Almost all the club’s attendees were alive on April 26,1986. For my part, I told them that Chernobyl and the Challenger Space Shuttle explosion were linked in my mind, as they were the words I remember – very vaguely – hearing from adults during my fourth year of life. These events are separated almost exactly three months. I remember more clearly, of course, the Challenger. The real-life version of a toy I loved exploding in the sky – a forking yellow and white fireball against cobalt atmospheric abyss. The talk of a female astronaut dying. Number of deaths: 7.

Far more abstract was Chernobyl. This foreign word for which there was no fun toy to play with. Nothing concrete, at least until Superman IV came out the next year in theaters, with Nuclear Man as the lead villain, spawned in space after Superman ridded the earth of nuclear weapons. But Lex Luthor had attached the makings of Nuclear Man onto a missile, and when it exploded near the sun, Nuclear Man emerged in a ball of radiation and flew back to earth. Here we go: now an American five-year-old from the 1980s could understand nuclear fallout.

Ukrainians have other images. Not just images, of course, but realities. Mothers telling their children to drink wine because it was said to help against radiation. I’d rather raise a drunk than a radioactive child, they said. Impossibly long, pre-dawn lines in front of all-but-empty markets. Children waiting in the cold too, because the more hands you had the more food you could grab. Looters raiding the belongings left behind in Chernobyl and reselling the radioactive items back to other Ukrainians. Radioactive building material reused in other cities. Crazed cats and dogs. Babies born with cirrhosis of the liver. Infant mortality. Women too afraid to have babies. Zinc coffins. Yellow rain puddles. Number or deaths: 31 (direct).

I have seen yellow rain puddles before: after a fresh April rain that knocks down the pollen from the air, washes the cars and leaves clean, and then swirls in little yellow-green pools in the streets and along the curbs. The same image now has two very distinct meanings for me, and I will never be able to look at a springtime rain puddle the same way again. The abstraction of Chernobyl has been made concrete through story and imagery. Two tragedies that happened over thirty years ago, and are spiced with my childhood memories, have become forever bound now in my mind.

For reasons that are unclear to me, Dwight Eisenhower has been materializing here and there in the zeitgeist; the one I’m privy to at least. His prescient warning in his farewell address about the dangers of the military-industrial complex and its “misplaced powers” popped up in the lead of a Glenn Greenwald article I read in January. From there, I heard “Eisenhower” on the lips of political commentators during the rhetorical and political tug-o-wars between the “deep state” and the transitional Trump administration, as the in-fighting between factions of the military-industrial complex was revealed. Those were overt manifestations. But, if pressed, Eisenhower and the years of his presidency, it seems to me, have been like wraiths in the haunts of American discourse over the last year and a half.

“Make America Great Again” – that limp balloon of a slogan in which one can fill with his own personal air – can mean virtually anything. That’s its rhetorical genius. But coming from Donald Trump, could it mean anything else other than the Eisenhower years? The years of Trump’s boyhood, before the crumbling of Kennedy’s Camelot in November 1963. Before The Beatles played Ed Sullivan and the rest of the “British Invasion.” Before “the day the music died” on February 3, 1959 when Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and the Big Bopper died in a plane crash. Before Col. Parker got his hooks in Elvis Presley and had Elvis dye his hair black. When America’s newest form of manifest destiny was reconquering its land with interstates and highways, fueled by freshly tapped Saudi Arabian oil. If one were to hone in on an exact year, then 1957 appears a logical choice. Four years before Eisenhower proffered his warning of complacency and/or tactlessness during America’s great whirring and humming.

Above all, President Eisenhower called for balance and discretion. “(B)alance in and among national programs – balance between the private and the public economy, balance between the cost and hoped for advantages – balance between the clearly necessary and the comfortably desirable; balance between our essential requirements as a nation and the duties imposed by the nation upon the individual; balance between the actions of the moment and the national welfare of the future. Good judgment seeks balance and progress; lack of it eventually finds imbalance and frustration.”

Eisenhower’s address alludes to the backbone of our government: checks and balances. Eisenhower was wary of unfettered federal, technological, and military growth, which could usurp the “supreme goals of our free society.” It’s impossible now to consider that Eisenhower’s thesis, while often referenced, has been heeded, and that the “scientific-technological elite” and the “military-industrial complex” have evolved largely unbound. Who among us does not sense an “imbalance and frustration?”

Jonathan Rauch, in a 2007 article published in the National Journal, argues convincingly that the relative tranquility hindsight offers on the 1950s is a testament to Eisenhower and his ability to exercise restraint or aggression as needed, with an unsentimental worldview that Rauch calls simply “cold-blooded realism.” Ike accepted the end of the Korean War with a stalemate, refused to be goaded into conflict with China or to send troops to Vietnam after communists ousted the French. The Russians, in an unstable period after Stalin’s death, developed nuclear and aerospace capabilities. Anti-Americanism, an offspring of the larger anti-colonial movements globally, was brewing in the Middle East. Rather than fall under the hawkish spell of many in government, including Richard Nixon, Eisenhower argued we must not “assume that our standard of values is shared by all other humans in the world. We are not sufficiently informed.”

Against the backdrop of America’s second war in Iraq, in our elevated troop insurgence in 2007, Rauch carefully unpacks Ike’s “reptilian” realism and suggests the possibility that only one with the credentials and credibility of an Eisenhower in post-War America could utilize such a policy. More common, of course, are the opposing camps of the hawks and the doves and their competing outlooks. One criticism of Eisenhowerian realism is that it is a “lens” and not a “policy” per se. Realism requires a detachment and case-by-case analysis that in many ways subverts the predictability and stare decisis of policy. Another criticism, and one that mass-media makes all but impossible to surmount, is the matter of humanitarian crises and what to do with them. A realist might have to stare unflinching into the face of atrocity if larger geopolitical considerations do not rise to the level of intervention. Rauch hypothesizes that the president who follows George W. Bush will inherit a situation not unlike Eisenhower received from Truman, and might have to exercise some of the same cold-blooded restraint. Six years later, Barack Obama refused to aggressively intervene in Syria, which could very well be seen as a monumental miscalculation or as cool decision that saved American lives and kept an increasingly hot-headed Russian state at bay. Just as Truman’s legacy was vaulted after Ike, we’ve seen an uptick in Bush’s too – although the reasons behind it would devolve into a swarming debate to the rhetorical death.

Perhaps one reason why my cultural antennae is tuned to such allusions to Eisenhower and the military-industrial complex is a matter of hometown geography demographics. Being from Virginia Beach, Virginia, the complex is my native milieu and the people who populate it in both military and industrial sectors are my neighbors and friends. Battleships offered the backdrop to summertime walks along the waterfront in Norfolk. Jet noise thundered overhead in clear noon skies, sometimes rumbling your insides with a sonic boom. I recall, around the time of the first Gulf War, bumper stickers popping up on cars that read: I ::heart:: Jet Noise. You might see one or two of those relics at a stoplight every now and then, but the sentiment morphed after the second Iraq war into “The Sound of My Freedom.” It’s taken on a different, more nationalistic tone that’s worth considering, particularly in the face of Eisenhower’s warning.

For reasons that are as much economic as patriotic, the military-industrial complex is virtually infallible where I’m from. If starting a scene in a bar is your thing, raise a question about the Navy S.E.A.L.s and see what happens to the conversation or to your face, because chances are fair the guy you’re talking to is a S.E.A.L., or good that he is in the service, or excellent that he knows someone who is. The status of these modern-day warriors, and the elevation of their visibility, appears to me directly related to the narrative the complex has to put forward to keep things humming along. The scattershot, guerrilla-style, missions that American warfare has conducted to combat such a splintered enemy didn’t make for good television and press the way, say, Norman Schwarzkopf and his hum-V’s and tanks did fifteen years earlier. The tactics have evolved. And during the nadir of W. Bush’s second Iraq war, circa 2005-06, the complex was in dire need of rebranding. Enter: S.E.A.L. Team 6, et. al.

There can be no diminishment in how utterly skilled, badass, brave or intelligent these guys are. Any cursory research into what they have to do to become a S.E.A.L and maintain being one will yield staggering results. However, the whole point of the teams was secrecy, and growing up in Virginia Beach there was the requisite shroud around them and what they did. To be sure, there is much that remains secretive; however, when their books become bestsellers, I think it’s safe to say the secret is out.

I returned to Virginia Beach in 2010, after spending almost three years living in Florida. And there was a nebulous yet noticeable change in the city’s timbre, at least the north end of town in which I was raised. Much of it had to do with industry, as many of my acquaintances were connected to government contracts in one form or another. Everyone was getting older and career-oriented and so forth, which is a natural progression, of course, but these businesses, from tactical gear to software, seemed bundled together and offered some of the best sales jobs in town. The more visible the S.E.A.L.s became, the plusher everyone was with cash. This all culminated, of course, with the killing of Osama bin Laden in May 2011.

This turn, naturally, is multivalent and there’s no one answer to the shift in dynamics. However, with the privatization of warfare with companies like Blackwater (headquartered just over the North Carolina border from Virginia Beach), new business ventures sparked and privatized. I wonder how Eisenhower would view this turn of events, given his reluctance about the M.I. complex as he understood and envisioned it in 1960? The parallel rise of the independent warrior/soldier and private sector military enterprise is not an accident. It allows for far more profit and tactical fluidity on the battlefield. But what’s not considered too much on my mind is now that warfare has become more privatized and individual (from the companies to the soldiers), it’s become more personal too. It’s become the identity, in many ways, of my city and the people in it. And it’s hard to think with a clear mind, to be a realist and have detachment, when who you are is so inextricably linked to warfare.

Finding the Center (Part 5)

For reasons that are unclear to me, Dwight Eisenhower has been materializing here and there in the zeitgeist; the one I’m privy to at least. His prescient warning in his farewell address about the dangers of the military-industrial complex and its “misplaced powers” popped up in the lead of a Glenn Greenwald article I read in January. From there, I heard “Eisenhower” on the lips of political commentators during the rhetorical and political tug-o-wars between the “deep state” and the transitional Trump administration, as the in-fighting between factions of the military-industrial complex was revealed. Those were overt manifestations. But, if pressed, Eisenhower and the years of his presidency, it seems to me, have been like wraiths in the haunts of American discourse over the last year and a half.

“Make America Great Again” – that limp balloon of a slogan in which one can fill with his own personal air – can mean virtually anything. That’s its rhetorical genius. But coming from Donald Trump, could it mean anything else other than the Eisenhower years? The years of Trump’s boyhood, before the crumbling of Kennedy’s Camelot in November 1963. Before The Beatles played Ed Sullivan and the rest of the “British Invasion.” Before “the day the music died” on February 3, 1959 when Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and the Big Bopper died in a plane crash. Before Col. Parker got his hooks in Elvis Presley and had Elvis dye his hair black. When America’s newest form of manifest destiny was reconquering its land with interstates and highways, fueled by freshly tapped Saudi Arabian oil. If one were to hone in on an exact year, then 1957 appears a logical choice. Four years before Eisenhower proffered his warning of complacency and/or tactlessness during America’s great whirring and humming.

Above all, President Eisenhower called for balance and discretion. “(B)alance in and among national programs – balance between the private and the public economy, balance between the cost and hoped for advantages – balance between the clearly necessary and the comfortably desirable; balance between our essential requirements as a nation and the duties imposed by the nation upon the individual; balance between the actions of the moment and the national welfare of the future. Good judgment seeks balance and progress; lack of it eventually finds imbalance and frustration.”

Eisenhower’s address alludes to the backbone of our government: checks and balances. Eisenhower was wary of unfettered federal, technological, and military growth, which could usurp the “supreme goals of our free society.” It’s impossible now to consider that Eisenhower’s thesis, while often referenced, has been heeded, and that the “scientific-technological elite” and the “military-industrial complex” have evolved largely unbound. Who among us does not sense an “imbalance and frustration?”

Jonathan Rauch, in a 2007 article published in the National Journal, argues convincingly that the relative tranquility hindsight offers on the 1950s is a testament to Eisenhower and his ability to exercise restraint or aggression as needed, with an unsentimental worldview that Rauch calls simply “cold-blooded realism.” Ike accepted the end of the Korean War with a stalemate, refused to be goaded into conflict with China or to send troops to Vietnam after communists ousted the French. The Russians, in an unstable period after Stalin’s death, developed nuclear and aerospace capabilities. Anti-Americanism, an offspring of the larger anti-colonial movements globally, was brewing in the Middle East. Rather than fall under the hawkish spell of many in government, including Richard Nixon, Eisenhower argued we must not “assume that our standard of values is shared by all other humans in the world. We are not sufficiently informed.”

Against the backdrop of America’s second war in Iraq, in our elevated troop insurgence in 2007, Rauch carefully unpacks Ike’s “reptilian” realism and suggests the possibility that only one with the credentials and credibility of an Eisenhower in post-War America could utilize such a policy. More common, of course, are the opposing camps of the hawks and the doves and their competing outlooks. One criticism of Eisenhowerian realism is that it is a “lens” and not a “policy” per se. Realism requires a detachment and case-by-case analysis that in many ways subverts the predictability and stare decisis of policy. Another criticism, and one that mass-media makes all but impossible to surmount, is the matter of humanitarian crises and what to do with them. A realist might have to stare unflinching into the face of atrocity if larger geopolitical considerations do not rise to the level of intervention. Rauch hypothesizes that the president who follows George W. Bush will inherit a situation not unlike Eisenhower received from Truman, and might have to exercise some of the same cold-blooded restraint. Six years later, Barack Obama refused to aggressively intervene in Syria, which could very well be seen as a monumental miscalculation or as cool decision that saved American lives and kept an increasingly hot-headed Russian state at bay. Just as Truman’s legacy was vaulted after Ike, we’ve seen an uptick in Bush’s too – although the reasons behind it would devolve into a swarming debate to the rhetorical death.

Perhaps one reason why my cultural antennae is tuned to such allusions to Eisenhower and the military-industrial complex is a matter of hometown geography demographics. Being from Virginia Beach, Virginia, the complex is my native milieu and the people who populate it in both military and industrial sectors are my neighbors and friends. Battleships offered the backdrop to summertime walks along the waterfront in Norfolk. Jet noise thundered overhead in clear noon skies, sometimes rumbling your insides with a sonic boom. I recall, around the time of the first Gulf War, bumper stickers popping up on cars that read: I (heart) Jet Noise. You might see one or two of those relics at a stoplight every now and then, but the sentiment morphed after the second Iraq war into “The Sound of My Freedom.” It’s taken on a different, more nationalistic tone that’s worth considering, particularly in the face of Eisenhower’s warning.

For reasons that are as much economic as patriotic, the military-industrial complex is virtually infallible where I’m from. If starting a scene in a bar is your thing, raise a question about the Navy S.E.A.L.s and see what happens to the conversation or to your face, because chances are fair the guy you’re talking to is a S.E.A.L., or good that he is in the service, or excellent that he knows someone who is. The status of these modern-day warriors, and the elevation of their visibility, appears to me directly related to the narrative the complex has to put forward to keep things humming along. The scattershot, guerrilla-style, missions that American warfare has conducted to combat such a splintered enemy didn’t make for good television and press the way, say, Norman Schwarzkopf and his hum-V’s and tanks did fifteen years earlier. The tactics have evolved. And during the nadir of W. Bush’s second Iraq war, circa 2005-06, the complex was in dire need of rebranding. Enter: S.E.A.L. Team 6, et. al.

There can be no diminishment in how utterly skilled, badass, brave or intelligent these guys are. Any cursory research into what they have to do to become a S.E.A.L and maintain being one will yield staggering results. However, the whole point of the teams was secrecy, and growing up in Virginia Beach there was the requisite shroud around them and what they did. To be sure, there is much that remains secretive; however, when their books become bestsellers, I think it’s safe to say the secret is out.

I returned to Virginia Beach in 2010, after spending almost three years living in Florida. And there was a nebulous yet noticeable change in the city’s timbre, at least the north end of town in which I was raised. Much of it had to do with industry, as many of my acquaintances were connected to government contracts in one form or another. Everyone was getting older and career-oriented and so forth, which is a natural progression, of course, but these businesses, from tactical gear to software, seemed bundled together and offered some of the best sales jobs in town. The more visible the S.E.A.L.s became, the plusher everyone was with cash. This all culminated, of course, with the killing of Osama bin Laden in May 2011.

This turn, naturally, is multivalent and there’s no one answer to the shift in dynamics. However, with the privatization of warfare with companies like Blackwater (headquartered just over the North Carolina border from Virginia Beach), new business ventures sparked and privatized. I wonder how Eisenhower would view this turn of events, given his reluctance about the M.I. complex as he understood and envisioned it in 1960? The parallel rise of the independent warrior/soldier and private sector military enterprise is not an accident. It allows for far more profit and tactical fluidity on the battlefield. But what’s not considered too much on my mind is now that warfare has become more privatized and individual (from the companies to the soldiers), it’s become more personal too. It’s become the identity, in many ways, of my city and the people in it. And it’s hard to think with a clear mind, to be a realist and have detachment, when who you are is so inextricably linked to warfare.

Finding the Center (Part 4)

The late-winter thaw has produced mud. The melted snow and ice, along with fresh rain, have saturated the ground so thoroughly that I can scarcely imagine it hardening before April. Still, each day I delight in my rediscovered grip on the world beneath my feet. No longer must I do the grandpa-shuffle over the sidewalks and streets. I have a choice in footwear once again, and although winter has not entirely submitted, to quote Bob Dylan: “Any day now, any day now, I shall be released.”

Many of the potholed and pockmarked streets are spotted with puddles. Without sufficient sunlight and heat to fully evaporate them, I suspect they will remain for quite a while. Pant legs are speckled with mud below the knee, along the calves and cuff-lines, an altogether sordid fate for the fashion-conscious Ukrainian – of which there are many. But these puddled streets have been on my mind over this last week, and figure to stay in my mind a great deal during my stay in Ukraine and thereafter.

I hold a rather make-shift (at this point) journalism club every Sunday at the library in Ternopil’s city center, just behind the grand theater that sits at the head of the square. Each week I assign one piece journalism or literary non-fiction, and we discuss it the following week. I try to point out how I read and analyze such things, given my proclivity to read for technique first and worry about content later. Sometimes, I am pretty sure I come across as a pedantic asshole. (The type who would use pedantic in a sentence). But people are coming back, and if I play my cards right I think I can turn this into something if I strike the right notes.

To that end, last week everyone read an excerpt by Belarussian author, and 2015 Nobel Laureate Svetlana Alexievitch, who has spent the last thirty-odd years collecting the voices of Eastern Europe, chronicling one hardship or disaster after another. Alexievitch, so far as I can tell, has essentially devoted her life to being tape a recorder. Her words are allegedly not her own. She takes down people’s stories and produces and arranges them in the style of either a dramatic monologue or, if the stories are not long, in a rapid-fire chorus. For example, a fireman’s wife’s story is long and spotlight-worthy, but the soldiers who are reluctant to talk are presented one after another. This is exactly how the selection we read went. The subject: Chernobyl.

Almost all the club’s attendees were alive on April 26,1986. For my part, I told them that Chernobyl and the Challenger Space Shuttle explosion were linked in my mind, as they were the words I remember – very vaguely – hearing from adults during my fourth year of life. These events are separated by almost exactly three months. I remember more clearly, of course, the Challenger. The real-life version of a toy I loved exploding in the sky – a forking yellow and white fireball against cobalt atmospheric abyss. The talk of a female astronaut dying. Number of deaths: 7.

Far more abstract was Chernobyl. This foreign word for which there was no fun toy to play with. Nothing concrete, at least until Superman IV came out the next year in theaters, with Nuclear Man as the lead villain, spawned in space after Superman ridded the earth of nuclear weapons. But Lex Luthor had attached the makings of Nuclear Man onto a missile, and when it exploded near the sun, Nuclear Man emerged in a ball of radiation and flew back to earth. Here we go: now an American five-year-old from the 1980s could understand nuclear fallout.

Ukrainians have other images. Not just images, of course, but realities. Mothers telling their children to drink wine because it was said to help against radiation. I’d rather raise a drunk than a radioactive child, they said. Impossibly long, pre-dawn lines in front of all-but-empty markets. Children waiting in the cold too, because the more hands you had the more food you could grab. Looters raiding the belongings left behind in Chernobyl and reselling the radioactive items back to other Ukrainians. Radioactive building material reused in other cities. Crazed cats and dogs. Babies born with cirrhosis of the liver. Infant mortality. Women too afraid to have babies. Zinc coffins. Yellow rain puddles. Number or deaths: 31 (direct).

I have seen yellow rain puddles before: after a fresh April rain that knocks down the pollen from the air, washes the cars and leaves clean, and then swirls in little yellow-green pools in the streets and along the curbs. The same image now has two very distinct meanings for me, and I will never be able to look at a springtime rain puddle the same way again. The abstraction of Chernobyl has been made concrete in my mind through story and imagery. Two tragedies that happened over thirty years ago, and are spiced with my childhood memories, have become forever bound now in my mind.

Finding the Center (Part 3)

March has arrived, polite and relatively even-tempered so far, though I know these mild temperatures are likely too good to be true. Winter can’t give up this easily here. But to my knowledge, the temperatures haven’t dipped below freezing since my birthday on the twenty-fifth of February, though they might hover just above it on clear nights.

These moderate yet mercurial temperatures contain their own set of concerns. Moving to Ukraine has reintroduced me to how my body reacts to seasonal change, which I’d nearly forgotten about during my season-less year on Sumatra. I’m not a sickly person by nature, but the transition from fall to winter and winter to spring bring about varying degrees of illness. You can usually pencil me in for being under in late October or early November, and then again sometime during the lion and lamb days of March.

The illnesses are the sort you see coming a long way off. A few days before the peak, a vague and undefinable feeling that something’s-off ebbs and flows during the day. Such that I might wake up feeling well, take lunch slightly aching in one random joint or another, and fall asleep at night forgetting all about my aching knuckles at lunch. The next day that process might reverse itself. In October, in Chernihiv, I understood my time along the equator left me vulnerable for sickness, once consistent cold weather set in. And when I came home one day to discover my host mom, Natasha, unwell and asking me to walk to the pharmacy to pick up some medicine for her, I knew my time was short.

Being sick in someone else’s house is a strange feeling indeed – particularly if the language barrier is so acute that a five-minute continuous conversation is a small victory. This is compounded in my case since I am prone to household hibernation and human interactional avoidance, even in good spirits. Huddled on the fold-out sofa that was my bed for three months, mainlining YouTube and South Park episodes, I was as sick as I’d been in recent memory. Natasha persistently asked me if I wanted a doctor to visit. I refused, but a part of me wishes I had accepted just to know what it would feel like to have an actual house call from a doctor. House calls are a sort of Rockwellian vagary in my mind of a time long past in America. I picture these quaint happenings in black and white by default, Pleasantville-style, and have a hard time reading history and imagining it in color if it happened before the mid 1960’s – not coincidentally, when TV switched to color. In a way, I don’t want to. No one watches the color episodes of The Andy Griffith Show.

In late October 2016, of course, America flailing about in the deep end of a political wave pool. The topics du jour were the debates, pussy-gate, and Clinton’s emails – not necessarily in that order. (Ain’t Bea shakes her head; Ernest T. Bass throws a rock). Watching Trump’s campaign rise – or descent rather, as he always seemed to be coming down, by design, from a floor higher than yours or the clouds – from my point of view half a world away in the shallow end of the pool has provided me a bit more clarity. In conversations, which almost invariably turned political at some point, I’d bring up a question that I hadn’t heard anyone ask the entire time. (When I finally saw Jon Stewart bring it up near election time, I felt like he stole my line). What does “Make America Great Again” mean? What are we talking about here?

A part of my teaching in my composition classes was to aim for concrete language and avoid abstraction. It’s difficult to do. I constantly struggle myself. However, it must be done to have the best possible outcome in writing, most of the time, because the meaning or intentions of the work will be clearer. Abstractions such as “love is life,” or some other typically nonsensical notion, muddy the water. But the reasons behind this, and the reasons we so often slip into them like a hammock when we communicate, bring up important aspects of language.

One way to think about the difference between concrete and abstract language is by tangibility. I cannot touch “love,” but I can touch the photograph of my mother looking over me after I was first born. My mother and I are backlit in soft yellow light and she is holding me in her arms, our faces nearly touching. She is still in her white hospital gown and I am wrapped in a white cotton blanket. The expressions on our faces match each other: half-smiles of peaceful recognition. And so by describing this photograph, I assign a concrete image to what I mean by “love” when I say that my mother loves me.

William Carlos Williams’ poem “The Red Wheelbarrow” is an example of the still-life snapshot of concrete language:

so much depends

upon

a red wheel

barrow

glazed with rain

water

beside the white

chickens.

Had he written “So much depends upon nature,” or art or beauty, let’s say, the poem would have been tossed in the dustbin immediately after it was written. Rightfully so, because “So much depends upon nature” is abstract nonsense – rubbish, to put it concretely. But by using the concrete language he did, the image is simple and clear Sometimes though the concrete and abstract meld with one another and become harder to distinguish. Scent, for instance, is intangible but it has great power. The smell of golden Dial hand soap returns me to my Grandmother’s kitchen. I see her in her rocking chair next to the stove. Perhaps she is waiting for the cooking to finish and hums along with the classical music playing on the radio. For my mom, it’s Lifebuoy soap that brings her father back to her in fleeting, treasured moments.

It’s the intermingling between concrete language and abstract meaning that usually provides the most sustenance. This occurs on scales both large and small, personal and societal. The Constitution and the Declaration of Independence are stocked full of abstractions, which of course is why we argue about them and their meanings. Most of the language of nations requires this so that the words will be flexible over time. Such suppleness, however, can turn into a dangerous game, as history as born out time and time again.

There’s nothing really groundbreaking about any of this. Everyone knows this on one level or another, and clichés like “the pen is mightier than the sword” abound. But swimming in the culture tank as we do, we too often seem to forget to detach from the goings on and breathe for a moment. We sprint to one side or the other and lob verbal grenades at one another under the guise of critical thinking. But often we haven’t yet done the work.

The creator of the comic Dilbert, Scott Adams, made a few splashes during the election season with his analysis of Trump as a master of persuasion. Adams’s insights are on target. Looking at Trump’s use of language and its effect, a rhetorical analysis that revolves around reason, credibility, and (most importantly for Trump) emotion, was the best possible predictor of his success. This sort of analysis is precisely what should go on in Composition classrooms around the nation. However, the more liberal arts education is devalued, the more likely our public is to fall under the hypnosis of one who, knowingly or not, has keen control of rhetorical tools. No matter where you land on the issue of Trump, there can be no denying this idiot-savant mastery.