Viewing entries tagged
Creative Writing

Dispatches From Siberia #41: Homes

“What place do you call home?”

I heard this question a few days ago. It wasn’t addressed to me, but it’s been bouncing around my mind since then, and it’s a deceptively hard question.

Dispatches From Siberia #35.1: Greetings From St. Petersburg

Dispatches From Siberia #35.1: Greetings From St. Petersburg

I'm on the road this week, visiting the incredible, vast, and sometimes confusing city of St. Petersburg. This place is and has a little bit of everything, and I'm busy exploring it, squeezing every milliliter I can from each of my five days in town. Because of that, this week's blog is short, but have no fear: there'll be a mid-week sequel once I get back to Novosibirsk.

Dispatches From Siberia #34: Working Writers

Dispatches From Siberia #34: Working Writers

This week's Dispatch From Siberia examines the important impact of small changes on the creative process, and considers the global ramifications of an American media company's disturbing process of downsizing.

Dispatches From Siberia #33: Collecting Experiences

Dispatches From Siberia #33: Collecting Experiences

This has been a week of contrast. Half of my mind is on tying the loose ends and enjoying the last few weeks of my time overseas. The other half is planning for what promises to be an exciting and busy summer back in the U.S. Half of the week was sunny and warm. Half the week was rainy backed with a brutal, chilly wind. I went for a run on Wednesday, the first chance I’d had to do so in ages. It was nearly seventy degrees. Half the university’s track was clear and bone dry, the other was still caked in a meter of built-up ice. Opposites and dualities all over the place, but in the end it’s just more opportunity and adventure.

Dispatches From Siberia #32: Winter is Receding

Dispatches From Siberia #32: Winter is Receding

Winter is receding from Siberia, which is a great duality. At eye level, it’s heavenly. The air is warming, the coats are turning to jackets, and sometimes just sweaters or even shirts. It feels blissful. It looks blissful. The sun is out, and the days are longer, the breezes gentler, and the people are bright and animated. At ground level, though, it’s a different story.

Dispatches From Siberia #27: Current Currency

Dispatches From Siberia #27: Current Currency

Money can be as tough to translate as language, if not more so: with currency exchanges, cultural norms, and value discrepancies, cash fluency is a moving target.

Dispatches From Siberia #21: Being the Stranger in Need

Dispatches From Siberia #21: Being the Stranger in Need

This week, while my vulnerability was great, an Asian immigrant in an Islamic city deep in the heart of Russia stood by the side of a sick, suffering tourist from Middle America until he was certain everything was okay. That’s the kind of moment that permanently disables a person’s ability to hate, and it’s a sort of moment more people should encounter.

Dispatches From Siberia #20: Points Of No Return

Dispatches From Siberia #20: Points Of No Return

No matter which flavors and sights might escape me as I leave one town for the next, there’s always a next, wonderful place waiting with a new batch of kind, curious, and giving people.    

Dispatches From Siberia #18: My Snow Day Was Better Than Yours

Dispatches From Siberia #18: My Snow Day Was Better Than Yours

I started this week by ringing in the new year at a party in an abandoned Soviet-era metro station/bunker and finished it up with a snowball fight on top of a frozen sea. In between, I was able to have my first unscripted, reactive conversations during Russian lessons, I thumped out the first 12,000 words of a new book, and finally got tickets to see the Novosibirsk professional hockey team play. It’s been a good new year.

As the end of 2016 approached, I saw a distinct trend online: an incredibly high percentage of friends posted sentiments to this general effect: “I know I’m supposed to think 2016 was miserable, but it was actually a pretty good year for me because…” And then the obligatory addendum: “But, don’t get me wrong, it was still a bad year because politics happened and people died and so on.”

I’ll offer the same addendum. Some awful things happened. All over the world, good people died, bad people had success, worse people treated others poorly, and the protestors of the poor treatment were ignored and met with more ugly behavior. But the trend of people having quietly good years under this backdrop is hopeful. Because at the end of the day, most of has have control of nothing more than our own quiet lives. I’m of the opinion that our job as humans on this earth is primarily to be as good to each other when we’re able, to resist and attack evil at every opportunity, and to work together toward these ends when possible. I wish that my sphere of influence were larger. I wish I were in charge of producing a list of presidential cabinet nominees, and that I were in charge of determining whether the people with whom I share a national identity were capable of being racists, criminals, or generally bad people. I think I’d make some pretty reasonable decisions on those fronts, but unfortunately, I don’t get to.

What I do get to do is interact with the great people I love, and to engage in work that I hope will inspire other people to make better choices about the concepts listed above.

Simply, I refuse to be bullied into adopting the idea that personal misery is a badge of honor. I plan to do what good I can for as many people as I’m able, to engage in my work in a way that lifts up as many people as possible and encourages them to be loving and gracious, and to resist panicking about the things I can’t change. That’s been my mode of operation so far in 2017, and it’s yielded new friends, professional success, and new possibilities. That doesn’t mean I won’t find complaints and faults with the world around me and even my community. But for me, personally, the collective handwringing at which so many of us have become so skilled just isn’t effective enough any longer. I’ll spend this year, and hopefully those after it, working to be the best human I can be and producing the best work I can in hopes of helping others to become better, too.

Hockey at the Novosibirsk Ice Palace.

Hockey at the Novosibirsk Ice Palace.

The hockey game I witnessed Tuesday afternoon was particularly interesting, partially because of the opponent. Novosibirsk defeated Yaroslalvl Locomotiv in a shootout. If Locomotiv sounds vaguely familiar to you, it’s probably because of a devastating event. They team’s players, coaches, and support staff were killed in a 2011 plane crash, eerily similar to the 1970 crash of the football team’s plane for which my home campus, Marshall University, is so well known. Similar to the NCAA’s relaxation of some rules to help the MU team get back on its feet, the Kontinental Hockey League relaxed some rules about foreign players, and Yaroslavl is once again a national powerhouse and a national symbol of a team working to overcome adversity.

Preparing the arsenal for a snowball fight. There is a lake underneath for four feet of compressed snow and foot of ice that support me.

Preparing the arsenal for a snowball fight. There is a lake underneath for four feet of compressed snow and foot of ice that support me.

On Thursday, I got to spend some time withFulbright alumnus who returned to Novosibirsk to visit friends, faculty, and students from his time in the community. A group of us trekked to the Ob Sea, an enormous man-made lake south of central Novosibirsk. We spent a couple of hours walking on the frozen sea, engaging in some pretty compelling snowball fights, and generally enjoying the season. Playing in six-foot-deep snowdrifts might not be everybody’s cup of tea, but when there’s been snow on the ground nonstop since mid-October, you’re eventually forced to make a decision about the world of powdery white around you: sulk in your room or learn to enjoy it. I think the attached photos should give you a pretty good idea of which direction I chose on that question.

Tomorrow is Russian Christmas. One of the Russian customs I’ve taken to heart is the way that parents teach their children to interact with the holiday.

Children at the "Gallery Novosibirsk" shopping center visit Ded Moroz and regale hime with poems for the New Year and Christmas.

Children at the "Gallery Novosibirsk" shopping center visit Ded Moroz and regale hime with poems for the New Year and Christmas.

Russian parents take their children to see Ded Moroz (Russian Santa, essentially) just like America parents, but with one notable difference. Instead of the children presenting a list of wants and demands, the children recite a poem as a gift to Ded Moroz—often one that they’ve composed themselves. Then, they accept whatever he gives them with gratitude.

Now, certainly I understand the origin of the Santa wish list: it’s a great way for parents to gather information about what their kids want. But what a great lesson to teach. Give before you ever expect anything in turn, and be grateful whenever something unearned comes your way. Also, the tradition doubles as one big, national poetry workshop, and you simply can’t go wrong with that.

Next week: more hockey, more writing and—wait for it—more snow.

Fulbright Disclaimer: the views represented in this blog are my own and do not represent the Fulbright Program or the U.S. Department of State.

 

Dispatches from Siberia # 17: People Who Made the Year Bright

Dispatches from Siberia # 17: People Who Made the Year Bright

A little kindness, I learned, goes a long way, especially concerning the people who serve others all day. Throughout all my travels and my moves, some of the most wonderful people I’ve met have been in the service industry. Hostel managers and clerks from my travels around Europe. A Starbucks barista who became a friend, a band mate and will be a groomsman for me in a few months. The cleaning guys at the newspaper office. These are the people I’ve connected with most and learned the most from over the years, and the same holds true in Novosibirsk.

Dispatches From Siberia #16: The Physics of Staying Upright on Ice

Ever wonder why Russians have a reputation for strength in the sciences? My best guess, based on personal experience, is that they’ve got to use so much science every day to navigate and survive.

Everyone is an amateur astronomer, interpreting the evening skies, understanding the atmospheric conditions that cause them, and predicting what the wind, the clouds, and—most importantly—the temperature will do.

Everyone is a chemist, sorting out which foods and which drinks at which temperatures are good and bad for the body, which reactions will be beneficial, and which can leave one on their back upon an operating table. Drinking hot beverages outside for example, is a no-go: the hot liquid expands throat tissue and welcomes in all sorts of unpleasant reactions, vascular responses, and various other circumstances, most of which sound connected to doctor’s offices. Carry your coffee outside, sure—but don’t sip it until you’re safely indoors.

The strategies for walking effectively on snow-topped ice are as numerous as they are intricate.

The strategies for walking effectively on snow-topped ice are as numerous as they are intricate.

But physics: that’s the big one. Walking in winter is a six-month, active dissertation in controlling the body with and against the laws of physics. Walking on ice is all about momentum. Adjusting the speed of ascent and descent. Never, never, never stopping if it can be helped. Calculating for the grade of a sidewalk and keeping those critical changes in speed as gradual as possible. Between the entrance to my flat and the bus stop that connects me to the rest of Novosibirsk, there is a pair of parallel sidewalks. One sloped gradually downward, hugging the edge of a narrow street. The other remains flat until a flight of stairs at one end, which leads up to the bus stop. Before the ice, my formative experience as a (very slow) cross-country runner taught me to take the ramp: the diagonal would slightly decrease my workload. Once the ice came, it was a different story: take the stairs and get on flat ground as quickly as possible. The slope means a battle with physics, all the way up or all the way down, depending on the time of day. When someone walks slowly in front of you, there are calculations to be made. Can you pass the walker without one or both persons winding up on the ground? How much is the slow-walking person swerving? How much will you have to speed up or slow down, and how quickly?

It’s more math than I’m comfortable with, frankly, but it’s critical for staying upright.

There are other problem solving tools, too. Shoes with a sharp right angle in the heel are useful: if you strike heel-first, there’s some grip against the ice. There’s also the most critical tool, eternal vigilance. Anything that looks smooth is a bad idea. Anything that looks soft might get you 20-inches deep into a snowdrift. When I played basketball, coaches taught us to defend by keeping our eye always on the ball. The offensive player, after all, can’t go anywhere without first moving the ball. In Russia, you take a similar approach to the ground. Anything you might run into is likely connected to the ground. You can identify people by their feet, signs by their posts, bins by their base, buildings by their footers. There’s no reason to look up. Look away from the ice ground you’re trying to walk, most likely you’ll wind up on your back.

So, like for me during the past few weeks has boiled down to these two critical rules: physics is your friends, and never look up.

Of course, there’s a third option: stay inside.

When the temperature looks like this, staying inside is a good option.

When the temperature looks like this, staying inside is a good option.

I’ve done a lot of that lately, too, especially as the temperature hovers around negative 30, Celsius.

When I’ve gotten out and about lately, it’s been largely work related. The first group of the Siberian Writers Workshop had their final meetings this week. They’ll have some time to revise their wonderful stories before submitting final portfolios, but their work was brave, bold, and exciting this semester. I’m looking for ward to reading their polished work, and also to meeting additional groups of students during the spring term.

An image from Novosibirsk State University's press release recapping the Horizons of Journalism Conference, which included students from Russia, China, and Central Asia.

An image from Novosibirsk State University's press release recapping the Horizons of Journalism Conference, which included students from Russia, China, and Central Asia.

A few weeks ago, I had a chance to speak with a large group of students at a journalism conference, and we discussed the modes of storytelling in fiction, journalistic nonfiction, and in plain, simple daily interaction. One of my fellow presenters, a lecturer at Novosibirsk State University, invited me to come to the school’s campus in Akademgorodok to speak with some geologists who are studying English in order to broaden their professional possibilities. In addition to speaking with them about language and American culture, I was privileged to judge their end-of semester group projects. A couple of the groups finished neck-and-neck, and so there was only one logical way to solve it: dance contest. It was awesome to connect with some students, but perhaps even more exciting to watch students from an intensive and prestigious university cutting loose a little bit at the end of a long term and a high-pressure presentation situation. It reminded me—and I hope reinforced to them—that no matter how serious your pursuits, there’s always room for a little fun.

Fulbright Disclaimer: The views expressed in this blog are my own and do not represent those of the Fulbright Program and the U.S. Department of State.

Dispatches from Siberia #13: Vacation's Over

Dispatches from Siberia #13: Vacation's Over

For a few moments, I played the grump: that whole I-discovered-it-before-you-what-are-you-doing-here shtick, but then I found the place I wanted and parked myself in front of a plate of fruit dumplings and had a quick change of heart: the more the better. Other people are exploring. Learning. Seeing. It’s good for the town’s economy, good for the travelers, and I still got my dumplings. Everyone wins, even if I have to wait in line a bit.

Dispatches From Siberia #8: Let it Snow. And Snow. And Snow. And Snow Some More.

Dispatches From Siberia #8: Let it Snow. And Snow. And Snow. And Snow Some More.

This lady lives at the Novosibirsk Zoo. I'm feeling like she had a pretty good week.

This lady lives at the Novosibirsk Zoo. I'm feeling like she had a pretty good week.

This week was all about work. And snow. And more work. And more snow.

Tuesday’s snowfall was a Novosibirsk city record for that particular date. The snow hasn’t stopped (save for a few brief pauses) since Monday, and the sun hasn’t made itself fully visible for more than a week. And that’s perfectly fine with me: with a mountain of story and book edits, revisions, a couple of fiction contest entries to finish and, two 90-minute conference presentations to prepare, and looming deadlines for a whole slew of book and story submissions, this has been a week at the desk, becoming cozy with the array of teas and coffees I’ve purchased during the last few weeks. Some stories, it turns out, go best with cherry tea. Others with black Sumatran coffee. And sometimes, you just have to take a break and raid the grocery store down the street for a box of Oreo cookies.

The tea helps with writing.

The Oreos help with editing.

I’m working with two different editors on two different projects right now. One situation is hard work but harmony. On the other project, the editor and I seem to have slightly different visions about audience and story direction. It’s a good experience to have—this close comparison of styles. It’s good to be stretched this way as a writer, and it’ll serve me well as I learn, grow, and develop as a writer. But it requires cookies. Lots of cookies.

With all those projects ongoing, organization has become important. Not just organization between tasks, but also the rather key tenant that I have to keep in mind: I’m not just here to lock myself in a room and work. Part of my job is to explore.

Looking and feeling like a proper Siberian.

Looking and feeling like a proper Siberian.

One of the great benefits of a Fulbright Grant is the freedom it allows. That’s also one of the biggest challenges. With new books, books in revision, stories, poems (yes, I said it—I’ve been writing poems), query letters, presentations to prepare, and a number of other projects of various size and scope, I count at least 30 ongoing writing jobs right now. The good news: I generally spend between six to eight hours in the classroom per week, plus a couple hours reading and preparing and a couple hours taking Russian lessons. So, there’s fairly boundless time to work on all these projects. But I can’t do them all at once, or I wind up wasting days on indecision and halfhearted taps toward working on a project, then flitting over to another with no real impact on the mountain of work.

And then, the imperative of seeing the world and meeting people.

So far, this is how I’ve arranged it.

As is the case at home, my first work hours go to my students. Teachers have all sorts of philosophies about this, but my prime work hours each week go toward preparation, innovation, and response to student work. It’s just how I operate, and that will always be the case.

After that, I slice my time into layers. First, I work. Then I explore a little. Then I come back and work, taking motivation from the exploration. Then I venture out again, then I work again. By tackling my goals in stripes like this, I stay invigorated, motivated, and inspired.

This week, though, I had to fall back on a different pattern, one I learned well during my days as a reporter: when the deadlines, come, everything else waits.

So, next week, I’ll resume the stripes. My life this week was a bit boring. Thankfully, though, my students filled in the gaps.

Just going for a little ski at the university stadium.

Just going for a little ski at the university stadium.

The Siberian Writers Workshop is in full effect. Students seem to become bolder and more talkative during each session, and so the class meetings get richer, more exciting, more focused and even more funny. For all their skill and seriousness, I’ve got a fun and funny group of students. The more they laugh, the better the class works, and so I’m excited to see them prodding and joking with each other more and more with each class—while maintaining a seriousness and focus befitting their task. But that’s something we writer have got to remember from time to time: it’s okay to step back from the ledge and have some fun with our work. The world won’t end if we get our ending skewed a little bit in the first draft. Well—unless it’s a draft about the end of the world, and we did have one of those this week.

As a pair of colleagues explained earlier this week, Russian students are quite used to a style called the Pedagogy of Cooperation. There can be critique, but it must first be buffered with kindness and positive remarks. Those versed in the Iowa workshop method (also called the American workshop and simply the creative writing workshop) will understand that there’s seldom space for anything beside unmitigated truth. Often the critique can become quite competitive, intense, bold, and even ferocious. I’m working hard to keep the workshop on a middle ground: I don’t want students to spend too much time on unwarranted platitudes, but I also want respectful and purposeful honesty. So far, they’ve toed the line brilliantly, and the texts have been astonishingly good, even in their first go-around. What I’m even more excited about, though, is the growth of enthusiasm, as the students work together, share ideas, and process through new concepts just what might be possible to accomplish through fiction. This is fun to watch and to read and to hear.

It's a drivable snow. I promise.

It's a drivable snow. I promise.

Now, this snow: there’s a solid foot of it on the ground, even though we had a couple of mid-week melts. This is enough white stuff to shut down a mid-sized Midwestern U.S. town for a week, but the Siberians have it under control. It’d beautiful to see.

When the plows haven’t made it to the street yet, they manage to drive, but with some sensibility. For example, drivers don’t come to complete stops and then look confused when they start up again and fishtail. They slow down enough that they can time their arrival at lights and avoid stopping at all, thus keeping both momentum and traffic. It’s amazing what a bit of knowledge about the properties of physics can do for snow travel.

Thus: I propose a new international exchange. America should send drivers to Russia so they can learn and see firsthand that with just a touch of common sense, snow driving is, indeed, very possible. And Americans could return the favor—since last year featured record summer heat in Siberia, maybe U.S. citizens can share some if our proven methods in sunscreen application.

But seriously (and I’m looking directly at you, Huntington, WV and Cincinnati, OH) after what I’ve seen folks cope with just during this first snowstorm of the year, I will have no sympathy whatsoever later this winter when history repeats itself and your Facebook posts begin chronicle cities incapacitated by the local government’s inability to remove four inches of snow. No. Sympathy. At. All.

In the meantime, be nice to each other. This lousy election is almost done. It’s important, but don’t lose any friends over it. Seriously.

And remember, no matter who wins the presidency, the Fulbright Disclaimer will still apply: The views expressed in this blog are my own and do not represent the Department of State or the Fulbright Program.

A little work in the warm cafe.

A little work in the warm cafe.

Dispatches From Siberia #6: In Which Everyone Asks Whether I'm Alright

Dispatches From Siberia #6: In Which Everyone Asks Whether I'm Alright

About twenty minutes into last night's performance of Anna Karenina: The Musical, a troupe of professional ice dancers rollerbladed onto the stage for a choreographed routine in which they weaved in and out of rolling benches and foot-bound dancers. In the corner, a rapping conductor in a leather waistcoat narrated, while crepe paper snowflakes fluttered from the rafters. Immense digital video boards behind the stage gave a richer visual image of snow meeting the surface of a frozen lake. Down in the orchestra box, the band pulsed energy into the Moscow Operetta Theater: a combination of driving electric bass, and one of the most articulated bassoon lines one could imagine. Later, peasants with sickles would mix traditional Russian dance with elements of American break dancing. A laser show sliced through the constantly moving backdrop, and the intensely talented singers repeatedly put goosebumps on the arms of audience members. It was manic, intense—and actually quite true (and respectful) to Tolstoy's text. Babushkas and teenagers clapped along with the music, from the somber and ominous opening, all the way through the final scene, in which Anna sang herself into the path of an oncoming train.

The cast of Anna Karenina: The Musical

The cast of Anna Karenina: The Musical

I left the theater with that tremendous buzz one feels when they've just encountered something spectacular. You've felt it before: maybe an incredible meal, a sight you've waited years to see. A first kiss, maybe, or something spectacular and unexpected that came from nowhere—that blindsided you with excellence or beauty or power or pure, innovative brilliance. The feeling of encountering something that you know you'll never experience in quite the same way, ever again. A truly singular moment. As I stepped outside, Moscow was glowing. One of the two-ton, glowing red glass stars from the Kremlin was visible just over the near skyline. A sprinkling of actual snow fell. The air was crisp and cool but comfortable. It was a dream.

Then, I turned on my phone.

The world, that phone told me, was on the brink of hell.

Except that it wasn't. And it isn't.

Through Facebook and Twitter feeds, I read that Russia has called the families of its diplomats home, that relationships between our countries have deteriorated beyond the depths of the Cuban Missile Crisis. That 40 million people have been evacuated in the face of a coming war. That in the Middle East, planes with their reds, whites, and blues configured into different patterns are flying ever closer to each other, with ever more ominous cargo loads.

Thing is: none of this is exactly true.

Pieces of this are true, but they're uneventful little shreds that would get a shrug or an eye roll instead of a page click, if stated in their most strictly true form. But we live in a world that revolves around page clicks. The (patently false) rumor that Russia has called home the families of its diplomats in preparation for war actually started to circulate the Internet in the early afternoon (local time) Wednesday. At that moment, I happened to be in the middle of Moscow traffic, seated in the back row of a van full of a dozen Fulbright scholars and program staff, on our way to the U.S. Embassy for an introduction to the consular services available to us while we're here. If the world really was on the brink of war, I don't imagine we would've arrived to find a group of American soldiers tossing beanbags at plywood targets in the embassy courtyard. I won't dignify the British tabloids that initially passed along this information by providing a link, but it's easy enough to find if you really want to. I'll admit that it got my pulse up for a few minutes. But a few moments of investigating the source material led to a simple understanding that in this instance, the truth had been pummeled into submission. Here's a more reasonable explanation, as offered by Snopes.com. Simply put: Russian social and political elites—much like their America, British, Saudi, German, and Chinese counterparts—love to send their children abroad to study at prestigious universities. An official merely suggested (as has happened in past instances, both in Russia and in all the above listed nations) that perhaps one should educate one's children in one's home country. Not unreasonable. But our click bait culture quickly twists that entirely logical suggestion into the brink of mutual destruction.

How NOT to execute global diplomacy: export all your worst ideas.

How NOT to execute global diplomacy: export all your worst ideas.

Reporters in both countries do it. Readers in both countries lap it up.

The evacuation of millions? It's a drill, one that takes place every year. No evacuation, just emergency preparedness. Security is a very real thing here, and it's taken seriously. Malls have metal detectors and guards at every entrance. Most shops and restaurants have security. Where the U.S. Has countered threats of globalized misbehavior through digital means, Russia has taken a more visible approach, utilizing drills and in-person security.

At least three British newspapers would gladly cite this photo as proof that bears have overrun the souvenir shops of downtown Moscow. 

At least three British newspapers would gladly cite this photo as proof that bears have overrun the souvenir shops of downtown Moscow. 

There is a gas mask in the dresser drawer at my hotel. I'm sure if I posted a picture of it, and enough folks shared it, some tabloid or another would use it as proof of some impending calamity. Then a reputable source would pick it up, salivating at the double-benefit: they get the clicks, but there's also plausible deniability to pass off on their source once the threat proves untrue. This is how the bulk of news organizations work now—mainstream or otherwise. I started my writing career as a reporter. Let's just say I'm glad I took up teaching when I did.

Are there very real tensions between our nations? Absolutely, and they require attention and gravity. Panicking about poorly written, half-baked online reporting? Save your blood pressure and go back to arguing about whether Dylan deserves the Nobel Prize. It's more productive, I promise—and that's not saying much.

Politics—domestic and international—have become sports rather than occasions for sober consideration. Maybe we never had sober consideration—but never have we been so loud of a cheering mob when it comes to global affairs. The U.S. Election is case in point. From my vantage, the whole thing seems to have turned into an exercise in arguing or complaining or grandstanding or executing some other personal agenda more than actually treating elections as a tool for corporate and personal growth of the individuals who comprise a nation.

And that's a shame.

During the 1992 presidential election, I remember sitting in the back of the car as my parents drove home from voting.

“Who'd you pick?” I asked.

“That's personal,” my mom said. “You don't tell people who you vote for. You just do what you think is best.”

Boy, has it become decidedly un-personal. It's identity. It's status. It's a marker of intellect or toughness or regional pride. It's opportunism. It's everything except an introspective, personal choice about governance.

Increasingly, we use digital platforms to treat global politics the same.

And if we don't stop making up fake conflicts in the name of being titillated—in the name of having something to share with an OMG! precursor—we're eventually going to talk ourselves into an actual conflict.

So, what's really happening in Moscow today?

What's happening in Moscow? No troop parades. Just buskers hauling in some tips.

What's happening in Moscow? No troop parades. Just buskers hauling in some tips.

In the corner of this coffee shop, a couple of kids are playing guitars. The lady across the table is practicing English with her daughter, using a well-worn textbook. Two tourists are picking out which mug to buy. On the sidewalk, a bigger group of tourists are pointing at restaurant possibilities. Next to them, a man plays the flute for tips, and he's making a killing. A girl in the corner of the shop is eating a piece of cake with her eyes closed and the most complete look of satisfaction that could possibly wash over a human face. The barsitas are playing a game, trying to say latte in the accent they guess belongs to the customer. They're not doing very well, and everyone is laughing.

Across town, parents are watching their children ice skate on a rink set up inside a shopping mall. And the cast is gearing up for another night of Anna Karenina, while another thousand audience members are not yet ready for the transformationally brilliant thing they're about to see.

The people of central Moscow, right now, are doing normal everyday things. Just like you are.

The thing here—and the thing we must always remember, regardless of what headlines say, regardless of which assumptions get baked into opinions—is that most people everywhere are loving, peaceful, friendly humans who just want to teach their children well and work hard and sleep comfortably at night. That's all.

A crisp evening in central Moscow.

A crisp evening in central Moscow.

As mentioned above, this particular dispatch comes not from Siberia, but from the center of Moscow. After in-country Fulbright orientation on Wednesday, I had the opportunity to stay on in the capitol for a couple of extra days, interviewing potential participants in the Fulbright Foreign Language Teaching Assistant program. It was a wonderful opportunity to meet with dozens of bright, motivated young teachers who have dedicated themselves to the teaching and learning of languages, both Russian and English. The best way to get a true understanding for the heart of a culture is to listen to its teachers tell their stories, and there were some spectacular stories during the last two days from people who are passionate about making a difference in the lives of their students, present and future. The future of Russia is in remarkably good hands with these bright, engaged educators moving up the ranks, full of ambition and energy. Many of these folks will be on their way to the U.S. this coming fall, and I dearly hope they'll be treated with the kind of vigorous warmth and overflowing kindness their countrymen and countrywomen have provided to me.

Proof that I'm alive and well here in Moscow.

Proof that I'm alive and well here in Moscow.

Some folks have written this week to ask whether I'm alright and whether I feel safe. I can say that unequivocally, I feel welcomed by a nation full of kind, thoughtful people who are full of the curiosity I value so dearly; full of hope for great days, weeks, and years ahead; full of love for each other and for the beauty and challenge that is life. I feel safe, warm, enriched, and happy, and I hope that when all of us see the fear-mongering reports that will undoubtedly continue to criss-cross the globe in the coming weeks and months, that my dear friends on both sides of this fragile planet will think of each other as the loving and optimistic, cheerful and good people that we all are.  

Now that I've proven I'm alive and well, I'll keep things that way by following the most important rule--the weekly Fulbright disclaimer: The views expressed in this blog are my own and do not represent the Department of State or the Fulbright Program.

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