I woke up in a strange place

By Marc Heiden, since 1997.
See also: a novel about a monkey.

June 2, 2010

Here's another entry I started writing months ago, using bits of letters home from travels even longer ago (September 2004, to be precise). Just scraps, not a complete chronicle or anything, but I enjoyed digging these out of emails and setting them to pictures. Most of what I wrote during that trip was lost — I only have what was quoted in people's replies back to me, which is sort of apropos.


The provodnitsa.

The Rossiya, Trans-Siberian Railway train.

Tomorrow evening I board the train for three days (!!!), the longest continuous portion of the trip, and then I'll be in Irkutsk. I'm not sure if I'll be able to check email during the next stretch. I'll be in Siberia, after all. Is Siberia still Siberia if you can check your email there?

Siberia in autumn.

On the train (in retrospect)

My train cabin.

I shared a train carriage with a huge military guy named Nikolai. I was alone for the first couple of hours after we left Vladivostok, and had fallen asleep by the time he came aboard. I think I gave him a sleepy hello in Russian and went back to sleep, because my first thought after I woke up was whether he was going to expect me to speak in Russian the whole time, which I obviously could not do. But he knew right away that I was a foreigner. I've noticed tourism professionals can spot that right away, and so can anybody else if they pay close attention, but random people on the street who need directions think I know my way around and know it in Russian.


Anyway, Nikolai had a big knife that could gut a man quite easily, but was shy about not knowing much English. I believe he had completed some military maneuvers and was now on his way home to see his family, although I am not positive. He showed me photos of a hunting expedition, and was keen to critique the photos I took with my digital camera (very positive and encouraging, though occasionally puzzled by my choice of subjects, particularly signs at train stations).

Warning at the train station.

Nikolai was eager to share his food, and he had more food than I did, so that was quite generous. I hate tomatoes, but fucked if I didn't eat a whole tomato for breakfast every morning and it tasted right every time. Also a hard-boiled egg, and salt. That is the Russian breakfast, as far as I can tell. I couldn't get Nikolai to try the Kasugai Peas that I have been toting around since Kyoto, but you know what those look like, you can hardly blame him. At some of these remote Siberian towns (and they're all remote), old babushkas crowd on the station platforms to sell food they've cooked to train passengers. This was even more awesome than it sounds. I bought loads. Nikolai was grateful for the bread, but seemed to be discouraging me to eat any of this sack of potato stew that I bought. I didn't press the issue, so most of it got thrown out. I had no idea what was in the stew, just that there didn't appear to be any meat.

Yesterday, Nikolai admitted that the day before had been his birthday and that he hadn't had a birthday party for 12 years (I think I had that correctly — I am solid on Russian numbers), so I made something of a ruckus, singing and all, and reluctantly shared a beer with him (he really wanted to share a beer, as I'd already declined vodka). I found the beer gross, but it was probably fine. Just before the sun was down, we stopped for a couple minutes in a mid-sized town (by Siberian standards), so I sprinted into the station house and bought a huge bottle of fizzy orange booze (to forestall any further offers of beer) and ice cream to share. Nikolai was immensely touched and left the carriage for a moment. When he came back, he had what looked like pound cake, and was very proud to offer me a slice. (If I understood correctly, he got it from the provodnitsa.) I thought, excellent, I will enjoy pound cake with this ice cream. Actually, it was some kind of raw flesh. I can imagine how it was meant to be a delicacy, definitely, but it was the most horrible thing I have ever eaten. After the first bite, I did the old rest-into-the-napkin trick and excused myself to the bathroom. (The toilet opens directly over the tracks. Now it's food for the tigers.)

Once we were drunk — or, let's face it, this was a huge Russian guy, so once I was drunk and he was still fine — he was ready to talk about politics.

(There's more to that story, but the email didn't have the rest of it. Basically, we took turns rating presidents and premiers. Later, we had another passenger take our photo, but that memory card got lost later on the trip.)

When I left the train today he shook my hand enthusiastically and made me promise to email him sometime. Good man.


I am just disembarked from three consecutive days on the train and am feeling a touch of motion sickness but am otherwise fine. I walked past a 300+ year old wooden building today (in Irkutsk) with 'BECHAM FOREVER' graffiti'd on the side. Which was, you know, not exactly what I expected to see.

Beckham fans in Irkutsk.

Decembrist wood-carved house.

Have not been let down by the Lenin statues, though, let me tell you.

Lenin again.

Am sorry to hear that the appetite for revolutionary fervor back at the office is going unmet without me. I have purchased a train ticket for one of the Lenin statues and am sending him over on the next train. He is not a Native Speaker but he looks kinda European, hopefully you can pass him off.


So, yesterday was pretty fun. I walked for absolutely ages and my legs are a bit sore but ready to do the same today. I! didn't! get! lost! despite covering vast swathes of ground on foot. (I did take one subway ride and it was undescribably cool.)

Komsomolskaya Metro

I think the pictures — of which there are gobs — will probably only be of interest to me, but I'm excited as hell to see them. I love sculptures, and I have what I guess is an odd interest in cemeteries: just walking around in the stillness, the quiet and the melancholy (but not weepy) mood. I found this Soviet cemetery (a few famous people: writer Chekhov, director Eisenstein, premier Khruschev, others)...

Grave of Anton Chekhov.

Khruschev's grave.

Eisenstein's grave.

...that was huge, slightly overgrown with trees and just had the most unbelievable statues and designs, such incredible character and range of expression. I was dizzy with discovery. So I think anyone who sees those pictures will be interested in the first few but will begin to think it odd somewhere in the 20s and by the time the collection passes the hundred mark they'll be asking to skip...but there were just so many interesting ones.

Song and dance and dog.


Loving it.

Anyway, I also wandered into a Russian Orthodox religious convent, saw some churches and domes, tried to go to the Tolstoy Estate Museum ("closed on the last Friday of every month", I learned) and spent ages in a museum with an immense collection of Russian art from 1900 to the present. (Fantastic, but it just kept going! I had to skim everything from 1970 onwards because I couldn't handle any more.) Then I hit Gorky Park and came across a Sculptures Garden, a nice aimless park with statues of people the Russians don't like any more (i.e. Stalin) and sort of whimsical modern work as a counterpoint, also some playgrounds for kids.

Stalin, with broken nose.

Stalin's victims.

Bent statue.

Still in Moscow

I'm back and weary from another long day on the streets of Moscow. The day started out on a failure: I left the hotel way too late and meandered about trying to get my bearings around the Kremlin, so it didn't seem likely that I'd make it in to Lenin before he closed shop for the day (1pm).

Stalinist architecture.

I hastily constructed a completely new itinerary for the day. It took a while to stop feeling like a screw-up for messing up the Lenin visit, but I did some cool stuff: a river cruise, a cosmonaut museum and this gigantic (2km by 1km) old Soviet expo center. Lots of random, atmospheric discoveries. And I bought a new watch! It has a submarine on it. Hot diggity.


The author, reflected in a space helmet

Proletarian statues at VDNKH

So, tomorrow has a lot of pressure on it: I need to get in to see Lenin. I don't want to say the trip will be a failure if I don't, but it will. Just before midnight my train leaves for St Petersburg, arriving around 8am. Nifty timing. I'll probably check in by email before departure, though.

Still in Moscow

I saw two very exciting things in Moscow today.

1. A man named Lenin, who founded Soviet communism;

Lenin's Tomb.

2. A monkey named Anastasia, who has been in many magazine advertisements. She had her press clippings with her, and she would pose in a photo with you for $3. (No photos for free. This point was not left ambiguous by her manager.) I felt like I was meeting royalty. There's just a level of class in these Moscow showbiz monkeys that, say, Vladivostok showbiz monkeys simply cannot match.

Children with monkey.

Rubbish, right? Hope all is well. Obviously I am a profoundly changed man for those meetings, though only time will tell exactly how.

St. Petersburg

I'm about to charge out for the last day of this long odyssey. Actually, I'm not feeling very well. It was cold and rainy (sunny in the afternoon) yesterday, and I was out for a very long time. I probably have a head cold, but not a bad one, hopefully it'll clear up soon enough.

View from the ramparts of the Peter and Paul Fortress.

I'll spend most of the day at the Hermitage and most of the night in disbelief that I'll spend the next morning on an airplane.

Entrance of the Hermitage (on my way out).

Paintings of old generals.

A giant jade dish.

Anything's OK for Friday. I think I am going to have to buy some new socks at some point, though.

January 18, 2009

This is from a brief journal that I wrote four years ago.

Off the coast of Vladivostok, 2004

Fushiki port, through my port-hole.

The ride from Kyoto to Takaoka was extremely stressful. I missed the 12:10 train due to a fiasco at the post office, trying to ship my possessions back to the U.S. As a result, I could only catch the 2:10, which would make me 1h33m late for the immigration formalities at Fushiki Port. Having already deactivated my JPhone, I called Yoshida-san from a pay phone in Kyoto Station. Yoshida-san is the representative of the United Orient Shipping & Agency Co. Ltd. who has been given the unfortunate duty of dealing with foreigners like me. He ran through train timetables with a muted desperation matching my own, and agreed that there was no faster way for me to make it to the port than the 2:10 train. However, the Japanese immigration inspector would be long gone by the time I arrived. Yoshida-san was not sure if he could convince the immigration inspector to make a trip back to the port for me. He gave me a phone number to call once I arrived at Takaoka Station, and pleaded with me to hurry.

Alarming alarm.

I had to stand for all but the last half hour of the train ride, close to three hours in total, and was stared at by toddlers, whose mothers did nothing to dissuade them from thinking that this was a strange sight, indeed. I made the requested phone call from the squat, orange pay phone on the platform at Takaoka Station, after a quick consultation with a stranger to confirm that it was, in fact, a phone. The recipient of the call was a cool, calm, collected sort of fellow, not easily ruffled by not knowing why he was being called or how to speak the caller's language. I told him my name, Yoshida-san's name, and the name of the United Orient Shipping & Agency Co. Ltd. That done, I raced to a taxi and tried to give evidence of my panic to the driver; he performed admirably, tearing through the streets of that small Japanese town. I hurried through the fence and down to the edge of the water, where bored-looking Russians stood in small groups, smoking, clutching boxes of Japanese electronics. A short, young man in uniform led me up the gangway to the ship with urgency; I was, apparently, expected. Once aboard, however, total calm fell over the proceedings. The Japanese inspector asked if I intended re-entry to Japan, took my gaijin card, and had me fill out the disembarkation card that had been stapled inside my passport for the last year and a half. That was all. I smiled and gave him my thanks in Kansai-ben, which never fails to crack up Japanese people. The Russian captain collected my passport and tossed it into a plastic tub, the only blue passport visible among dozens of red ones.

My pleasant cabin.

A tall woman led me through the halls of the ship to my cabin. She carried herself with a dignity that stood in stark contrast to her discomfort with the English language. The cabin had two berths, 'a' and 'b', but 'b' was mercifully unoccupied. (I noticed immediately a box on the wall that said 'CCP', meaning 'SSR', meaning Soviet-era. The photos of Putin on the main deck served as reassurance that the rest of the ship has moved on, though.) I thanked her with a spa-si-ba. She seemed surprised and delighted, and responded with a sultry pazhalsta as she closed the door.

When I was alone in my cabin for the first time, I began running, jumping, and cheering Public Enemy lyrics — for a couple of minutes, at least, before I collapsed and slept for a little over 14 hours. I awoke briefly as the ship was leaving port, about two hours after I'd arrived, and briefly again as the ship was out to sea, and there was only darkness through my porthole.

They said there would be a swimming pool aboard.

According to documents that I received with my ticket, the RUS — our ship — was built in 1986 in Poland. Its maximum speed is 18 knots, its maximum capacity is 400 passengers, and it has three decks. The amenities were significantly fewer than what the floor plan sent by the United Orient Shipping & Agency Co. Ltd. described. The duty-free shop and barber shop did not appear ever to have been open. The pool had cars in it; there was no sign of the sauna or the table tennis, and I didn't really want to find the casino, whether it was there or not. As I walked past on Saturday afternoon, a man was giving a speech with paper and markers in the Night Club Bar (described as the Night Disco Club in the floor plan).

Motivational speaker.

In another room, there were instruments set up, and glittery letters read "Bis Band". Late on Saturday night, there was the sound of live music, and Russian men and women head back and forth in that direction. After all of my time in Japan, I am floored by the presence of so many tall women, so many of them wearing very short skirts.

Locked hatch.

I spent Saturday afternoon studying Russian and then exploring the ship. Cars were crammed into every space possible above deck; smaller things with engines, like motorcycles, occupied the spaces left over. There was nobody around. You could steal a car, but where would you go with it?

Cars from Japan to Russia.

The crew all seemed to know that I was the one and only American on board — they recognized me by sight. For dining purposes, I was seated with the three Japanese passengers, which was fine — we hit it off immediately. Our first waitress, a dour woman, did not respond to our pleasantly proferred spa-si-ba. Another waitress, a young girl whose blonde hair had a purple tint, went from dour to happy upon receipt of our spa-si-ba, and shouted a cheery "thank you" my way when cleaning our table later.

Food has been surprisingly favorable from a vegetarian perspective. I slept through dinner on the first night, but a phone call alerted me to breakfast on Saturday morning. (I missed the call twice while trying to get the receiver free of the metal frame. Fortunately, there was a third call.) A pleasant, spongy bread was in plentiful supply for all three meals. Breakfast included a few thin slices of something that may have been sausage, warm oatmeal, and eggs with small diced tomatoes. (In my disorientation, I initially believed it to be a slice of grilled fish.) Lunch had a small salad, soup with onions, potatoes, and some kind of meat. Dinner was a different small salad, different soup, and mashed potatoes (quite yellow, but quite good) along with some mixed greens and chicken. My stomach suffered little ill effect from separating out the greens. There was tea for breakfast and dinner, with iced tea for lunch.

Etsuko is a chatty young nurse from Kobe. She has traveled to an immense number of countries across the world and knows scraps of many different languages. Her English is okay, although she denies it. (She has particularly good command commend of the simple future and past progressive tenses.) Mitsuo is a taxi driver from the countryside. He is also traveling, although his English is too basic to talk about his plans in detail. Tomohiko is young, 20 or so, and wishes to become a baker. He is traveling to Europe to study from master bakers in France, Italy, Switzerland, Germany, and others. He has a fair vocabulary but no grammar or fluency (which is overrated for international communication anyway). He speaks with pride of Japan's recent victory (over America) in the Baking World Cup.

Tomohiko, Etsuko, and I

Tomohiko, Mitsuo, and I

We sat in the "cinema room" on Saturday night — closer to the TV, people watched a Russian variety show, some music videos, and a dubbed version of "The Full Monty". No one laughed or made a sound, but many people stayed for the entire film. Behind us, there was a bar. Mitsuo gave me $6 to buy two bottles of Sapporo beer, specifying "four glasses". (The Japanese entrusted all negotiations with the Russians to me.) The purchase economy on this ship accepts yen, dollars, and rubles. Prices are rounded evenly for each currency. Hence, a bottle of Sprite is 100 yen, the two bottles of beer are $6 — no calculations of each day's precise exchange rates are done. (One is at the greatest advantage paying by yen.)

In a companionable mood, I drank one glass of beer, as did Tomohiko and Etsuko, and Mitsuo polished off the rest as we talked about where we'd been and where we were going. There were occasional glances from the silent Russians toward our direction, but no comment. After the movie, some other Russians began a card game; the table had an empty bottle of Absolut Vodka and a full bottle of something called "Red". These Russians were amused by Etsuko's comically exaggerated threats to steal their whiskey. Mitsuo and Tomohiko bid Etsuko and I goodnight and headed back to their cabins.

On Sunday morning, after a halting translation of the other Cyrillic letters on the 'CCP' box, I realized that one of the two metal knobs was for volume. I turned it up and heard, of all things, "Your Woman" by White Town, released by Parasol Records of Urbana, Illinois. Over the next half-hour, Russian pop songs were alternated with English ones, until someone apparently grew impatient and switched radio frequencies in the middle of a song, bringing us to a Russian-language cover of "Here Comes the Sun". It did, in fact, look brighter through the porthole of my room. Seeing another cargo ship was an almost dizzying burst of color, clouds aside.

First glimpse of shore through my porthole.

And that's where it ends.

December 22, 2005

I have new software for managing this here website. On the right, you can see a list of Categories. Click on one, and it'll take you to a page with all of the entries I've written on that subject. The archives have grown too unwieldly, and since I only have four or five different things that I write about, I wanted people to be able to find, say, all of the panda porn entries with ease. If you have recommendations about categories that I should add (e.g. stuff I'm always yammering on about), please let me know. So far, I've assigned categories for everything from Japan onwards and the entire college era. I'll get the rabbi era done eventually, but I don't know if I'll ever do the Beelzetron entries, because there are so many of them, and I need to do new things to write about.

A lot of people are up in arms over the recent article claiming that Stalin had a secret plan to breed half-man, half-ape super warriors, but I don't really buy it. Look, everyone wants to make a connection between communism and monkeys. If we could place a chimpanzee at Trotsky's side during his "dustbin of history" speech flinging poo at the Mensheviks as they left the hall, we could pretty much draw the curtain on the human drama, take a bow and exit stage left. But we can't. The basic idea of this story is that, in 1926, Stalin found a scientist who had built his reputation on the artificial insemination of race-horses for the tsar and gave him a bunch of money to create obedient, powerful monkey-men who were "insensitive to pain, resistant and indifferent about the quality of food they eat." The scientist failed, as the story goes, and was duly punished.

Predictably enough, there are no corroborating sources on the web other than one brief reference to the scientist in question and bloggers linking to the article and going "woo woo monkeys". (Has anyone ever noticed how much the proliferation of blogs has diluted the usefulness of search results? It'd be fine if any of them had something to add to the topic. Instead, you just get a two hundred winners linking to the article and going "woo woo monkeys".) As I said, I don't believe the story. I could be wrong, but let me drop some history and see what you think.

By 1926, Stalin had the upper hand in the leadership struggle, but he was not the absolute ruler yet. He was still cutting deals under the table with other members of the Politburo and pitting various factions against each other. Trotsky was still on the scene; Zinoviev wasn't far removed from his power base in Leningrad, and Bukharin was at full strength. The Five Year Plan was still up for debate. Stalin and Bukharin hadn't even allied yet, let alone agreed about the shape of collectivization. There's no way Stalin could blow the 1926 equivalent of $200,000 on a whim. Also, armies of super-soldiers were not really his area of concern. Back then, Stalin's thing was Socialism in One Country. It was Trotsky who wanted to get other countries involved in the revolution early and often, and Stalin built a bunch of political capital by deriding him for it. (Yes, that's a deliberate turn of phrase.) People mistake the Iron Curtain Stalin of post-WW2 for the original version, who was far more interested in screwing with Russians than anything else. He was infinitely insecure; he probably would have been content to exert his dominance over the psyches of Russia for the rest of his life if Hitler hadn't forced him to deal with, you know, fighting a war.

But it's the quote about wanting soldiers who were "insensitive to pain, resistant and indifferent about the quality of food they eat" that gives the lie to the whole thing. Since when did Stalin give a fuck about whether anyone liked their dinner? Whenever he needed a new labor force for a construction project, he just arrested a bunch of people, sent them off to the work site and told their families to mail them food care of the labor camp if they wanted them to eat. He loved that sort of thing. Read his memos: arresting people was the light of his life. It would have stressed him out if the prisoners were "indifferent about the quality of food they eat". He'd have moped around for days and worn the same underwear until it had holes in it.

VOROSHILOV: "There's a petition going around the gulags to have Pizza Night moved to Mondays."
STALIN: "Why?"
VOROSHILOV: "Bit of a pick-me-up. You know, hard labor is hard enough without a case of the Mondays."
STALIN: "Oh, those gulags. I try to say no to them, but one look just melts my heart."
VOROSHILOV: "Ho, ho, ho."
STALIN: "Ho, ho, ho."

May 19, 2005

As I started to gather my thoughts for this entry, an email from my friend Eamon arrived with a link that put me in a reflective mood. As some people may know, when I finally returned to Chicago, I spent a bit of time bored and depressed and obsessed with getting the entire Bolshevik Party across the Oregon Trail successfully without any fatal "accidents" along the way. (I believe that my use of Lenin, Stalin, Trotsky, Zinoviev and Bukharin was a reasonable distillation of the original Politburo. Some will criticize the omission of Kamenev, but I feel that he is given fair representation as an implicit member of the Zinoviev - Kamenev power axis. Granted, I would rather not travel across the country in a wagon with a whiny shit like Zinoviev, but this is a matter of the historical record, not my own personal comfort.) I wanted to test whether the Bolshevik Revolution was an elitist, murderous sham from the start (the Richard Pipes view) or whether, given more careful stewardship, the substitution of a party vanguard for the proletarian masses could have developed into a true dictatorship of the proletariat (Isaac Deutscher, et al) and successfully led the workers of the world to Oregon.

Because I am fucking amazing at science, I set up the trials very carefully. I hadn't played Oregon Trail in several years before setting out. (Contrary to the assumptions of many who downloaded my copy of Oregon Trail and looked at the high scores, it was my younger brother who obsessively tried to shepherd the 1992-93 Charlotte Hornets across the country, not me.) My feeling was that they had to start out as farmers from Illinois ($400 start-up cash) if they were to have any credibility as friends of the laborer, and if the only way to get them all across was to allow them to be bankers from Boston ($800 start-up cash), then they were basically kulaks and the whole thing was bullshit by definition. (You could argue that was the case anyway because I wasn't about to set out on the trail in October anyway, but I felt that if I could land them in the Willamette Valley by then, that was a suitable corrollary.)

So I spent a while working on that. I am a big believer in blowing a ton of money on oxen and just eating whatever you can shoot along the way. I tried to be fair to all members of the party, regardless of their historical deeds. For example, there were a few incidents on the trail when Stalin got the measles and I was disinclined to rest so he could recuperate - when Trotsky's dysentery was treated with much greater care - but ultimately I did not overstep the bounds of fairness. The other ground rule I had - and this is based on the fact that Lenin only ever wore a suit and Stalin only ever wore a trench coat - was what brought this entire story to mind when I read the link from Eamon, an interview with the creators of the original Oregon Trail, with questions from grade school children:

Mindy Pontzon, age 10, writes:
"What happens when you start the game with zero sets of clothes? Do you become an Indian?"
Bill: We weren’t allowed to use the word Indian. But when we first wrote it we were reprimanded because we were in Minneapolis which has a high Indian population and we were told that you don’t want to put the kids in the position where the Indians are enemies. That was one thing I remember because we kind of made up things that would happen to you on the trail before Don did some research, and helpful Indians would show you how to find food. We could use Indian in that context.
intern jeff: They also helped you cross the river. For a price.
Don: That was actually true, though the historical records show that Indians were often helpful, even moreso than hostile but anyway if you go on the train with zero clothes, you will die fairly soon. You’ll probably get pneumonia or something.
Paul: Not to mention the stares you would get too.

So, yeah, as far as I was concerned, no Bolsheviks were allowed to buy any clothes, either at Matt's General Store or any of the trading outposts along the way. That seemed like a very important rule to me at the time. You have to remember that I was kind of depressed and wasn't wearing any pants myself. I never got around to posting my findings on this webpage. I should probably hold out for a prestigious journal, but it's embarassing when they fight over me, so I will settle for this, instead.

1. It was extraordinarily difficult to get Trotsky and Stalin across the country together. I shit you not. One or the other was almost always dead by the end. (Usually Trotsky.)
2. Sorry, socialists, but nude Bolsheviks on a farmer's salary don't get very far. Believe me, I tried, but I only managed to get them all safely across once, and Bukharin had the shits right before they arrived. Zinoviev was on death's door with a fever, too.
3. The Politburo was remarkably good at caulking their wagons, but they tended to freak out and drown when they tried to ford the river. Many oxen were lost. Also, and I am not pointing any fingers here, but nobody in the Politburo could repair a fucking wagon tongue.
4. Although the game allows you to "Talk to Indians" or "Talk to other travelers", it does not allow you to "Talk to Stalin about why Trotsky has a broken arm all of a sudden".
5. Whatever its merits as a strategy toward overthrowing the government, Lenin's theory of revolutionary defeatism will not get you across the rapids at the end, where you have to paddle the raft back and forth so it doesn't crash into the boulders.

The fact is, the Bolsheviks had a pretty easy time on the trail as bankers, and they couldn't hack it as farmers. Does that prove Pipes' thesis once and for all, or does it merely presage the antagonism that developed with the peasantry post-NEP? I'm not going to pretend that my findings are conclusive. If someone will give me a grant and a copy of the Great Maine to California Race, I could probably get some definitive answers.

(news) A Russian village was left baffled Thursday after its lake disappeared overnight. NTV television showed pictures of a giant muddy hole bathed in summer sun, while fishermen from the village of Bolotnikovo looked on disconsolately. "It is very dangerous. If a person had been in this disaster, he would have had almost no chance of survival. The trees flew downwards, under the ground," said Dmitry Zaitsev, a local Emergencies Ministry official interviewed by the channel. Officials in Nizhegorodskaya region, on the Volga river east of Moscow, said water in the lake might have been sucked down into an underground water-course or cave system.

You'd think they'd be used to things disappearing in the middle of the night by now in Russia. That's always how it works. First they come for the dissidents, and then they come for the lakes. And if you tolerate this, then your porches will be next.

February 18, 2005

You can look forward, or you can look to the past; it was Kim Jong Il's birthday on Wednesday, and it is mine tomorrow. Either way, there are going to be a number of wild, unsubstantiated claims about revolutionary feats, glorious historical achievements and the progress of humanity, not to mention the usual manic over-deployment of the word 'powerful'. You would be arriving fairly late to Kim Jong Il's birthday, however. Even the Communist Party of Russia was more on top of the occasion than you were, adopting resolutions of praise for the world's foremost bulwark of socialism that really must have chafed when they sat down and thought about it; the Chinese academics showed up a day late, but they did bring gifts, which you had certainly better do, being even later than they were. (Perhaps you could figure out what the Chinese academics brought, and then buy accessories for it, or batteries.)

Honestly, though, my impression of life in North Korea is that one is more or less expected to celebrate Kim Jong Il at any point in the year, such as lulls in conversation or waiting for the elevator, so in that sense you could probably make up for your absence with a concerted effort to demonstrate links between Kim Jong Il and, say, St. Patrick's Day, which has been largely unsuccessful thus far. Has it been said that my birthday is the greatest auspicious day of the nation and the greatest holiday of the nation and the common holiday of humankind when a triumphant advance of the cause of global independence is promised? No, admittedly, it has not. I am trying not to let it get me down. I have other things to be proud of, and I will concentrate on those.

Interestingly enough, this news release tends to support my theory that while the Bush administration may have viewed shifting from the use of the term 'axis of evil' to 'outpost of tyranny' as an olive branch, it was not, in fact, received that way. Kim Jong Il, you sensitive little bitch. My feelings are far more difficult to injure than yours.

I was writing about the video game Gauntlet last week and one of my friends sent me an email about it, saying that she had just seen the game for the very first time and wanted to know why there was so much ham on the ground. The truth is, I don't know. As someone who doesn't eat meat, I assumed people who do eat meat do things like that, just leaving entire cooked chickens and turkeys and hams on plates around their apartments and eating them whenever they walk by. Apparently, that is not true. As I enter my 27th year, I still have a lot to learn.

February 11, 2005

On my way home from work last night, I stopped by the Division Street Russian Bath House. I asked the man at the counter if they have memberships. He repeated the word, nodded, and wrote down a name and a phone number for me to call between select hours the next morning. Now I am wondering if I just applied for a job with the mob. I haven't called yet. I will think about it over the weekend. Perhaps I should prepare a list of salary requirements, just in case.

(news) The parents of one of the teens asked for a restraining order against Herb Young, accusing him of making harassing calls. He admitted calling the Ostergaards once after hearing the teens were talking to a newspaper, and at one point saying "the gloves (are) off," which apparently was taken as a threat.

This is ridiculous. A person is being threatened when the other party takes the gloves off? Am I the only person who has ever heard of metal gloves with spikes on them? What the hell was Gauntlet all about, anyway? The naivete of the older generation, most of whom have never ventured into a dungeon as a wizard, a warrior, or a valkyrie - let alone as a Quester, the elf - fills me with dismay. Health care costs are going to skyrocket over the next few years when the terrorists get word that they can knock on the doors of older Americans, announce "the gloves are on" and then punch the unwitting older Americans in the face with metal gloves with spikes on them. And I, as a taxpayer, am not pleased.

I should mention the Super Bowl. It was a pleasure to be back at one of my friend Kevin's annual Super Bowl parties, held in scenic Bolingbrook, Illinois. The game itself was all right, and I broke even on the betting in which I engaged, leaving my lifetime earnings as a gambler well above the water mark. (If you are looking to turn your quarter into two quarters, then I am your man.) Although I supported the underdog Eagles of Philadelphia, I was not displeased with the outcome, because the victorious Patriots are a fine team. The real question, though, is whether a series of excellent commercials - in this case, the ones where the one guy was working at the office and all of his co-workers were monkeys - can redeem, in any way, a company whose service is utterly shite - in this case, Careerbuilder.com. It's a bit of a conundrum. In this ideologically reductionist age, does my stand against the cynical, heartless manipulators who perpetrate the ongoing con that is the online job market (Monster.com, HotJobs et al) represent an ipso facto denunciation of commercials involving monkeys? Because it's not even as though this was a poor use of monkeys. They did very, very well with it. So how can I support the use of monkeys in advertising while remaining in principled opposition to Careerbuilder.com? I feel like one of those helpless leftists from the 1930s who feared Stalin but were paralyzed to denounce him because they were committed to the eventual victory of socialism. Well, I am committed to the eventual victory of commercials with monkeys in them. And I don't know what to do.

January 11, 2005

Today is the same as yesterday, only with snow outside. My project manager is out sick again and she is the only person I have been working with. I called the temp agency to let them know that I am just hanging around here with nothing to do, because I like this company and I do not wish them ill. No problem, said the temp agency, go back tomorrow and get paid some more. And so, my last day lasts another day.

I bought an interesting book called Lenin's Embalmers, written by the son of the doctor who figured out how to preserve Lenin's body for public display and then was in charge of keeping it in near-mint condition for the next thirty years. (Until Stalin, in a reach even by his own standards, charged him with conspiracy and sent him to Siberia.) In the book, there are a couple of photos from right before Lenin's death, when he was recuperating from a series of strokes, and I found the degree to which he looked bat-shit crazy to be rather striking, so I decided to spend some of my idle time trawling through Google to find the most deranged Lenin pictures available on the web. There weren't many, unfortunately. People who created or distributed images of Lenin looking anything less than dignified were generally shot. But you may enjoy these:

Light-bulb Lenin;
Spar'anything Lenin;
Melting Lenin;
And, on the bottom right,
Holiday Lenin.
Which is awesome.

You may also enjoy this statue, although it is from a different, less deranged area of Lenin iconography, namely the 'half-amused and implacable' school. I saw it when I was in Moscow and thought it was great. Most of the collection found here is pretty good stuff, actually.

October 12, 2004


Dinner is ready -- no, almost ready. The chef pauses, tastes the food. What does it need? It's a basic meat and potatoes sort of dish, nothing too fancy. The recipe called for salt and pepper. The chef adds a dash more salt -- yes, much better. The salt goes well with this. Now the dish has flavor, zest. But the dish is still missing something. What else? The chef reaches for the pepper, but it is over by the sink at the moment, and the nutmeg is next to the salt - so the chef adds an extremely large dose of nutmeg instead. Dinner is served. After the first few bites, which are surprisingly flavorful, everyone begins to feel nauseous and feverish. The pepper is blamed for this; it is revealed, to the surprise of many, that the recipe called for salt and nutmeg, not salt and pepper, and the pepper, far from making the dish more delicious, nearly ruined it. The pepper is thrown through the window of the restaurant and nutmeg is dumped all over the next course, the dessert and the after-dinner mints. Everyone gets very sick.


After guiding the car out of the driveway, on to the interstate and through the first toll plaza, the right hand finally leaves the steering wheel and goes to its armrest. Many assume that the left hand, which worked with the right hand in bringing the car alongside the unleaded pump at the gas station, will take control of the car; the left hand, however, does not return to the wheel immediately, as it is busy scratching the head. The right knee, which was barely involved in the driveway and was only responsible for nudging the door shut at the gas station, forms a coalition with the lap and the left knee to assume command of the vehicle. With the left hand out of power, the right knee betrays the lap and the left knee by spilling coffee on them and begins to dictate the course of the road-trip. Although speed increases, the car is unprepared for the second toll plaza and must veer off the road into a cornfield. As the car shakes violently, ears of corn thumping against the windows, the left hand - which has long since been sat upon - is blamed for the rock-block of Foghat that comes on the radio.


After the Chicago Bulls win their third consecutive NBA championship at the end of the 1992-93 season, superstar guard Michael Jordan shocks the sporting world by announcing his retirement at the age of 30. Now the Bulls' playoff hopes fall upon the shoulders of Scottie Pippen, a three-time All-Star whose unparalleled defensive abilities were crucial during the team's first title run against the Los Angeles Lakers, royalty of the league throughout the 1980s. Pippen, however, elects to have minor back surgery in the off-season, and he misses the first week of training camp due to his rehab schedule. In his absence, Stacey King - a former first-round draft pick who was not a major contributor during any of the championship seasons - signs a 10 year $22 million contract under mysterious circumstances and installs ex-CBA players loyal to him at the point guard and small forward positions. When Pippen returns to the court, no one will pass to him. He loses his place in the starting lineup and is finally waived at mid-season. It is revealed, to the surprise of many, that Pippen's 17.8 PPG during the first title run were actually scored by King, whose own statistics were kept low in order to mask his true role, which was to cover for Pippen's defensive lapses. Fans who order copies of the Bulls' 1991 championship video "Learning to Fly" and its 1992 sequel "Untouchabulls" find that they now feature a six-minute montage of Pippen turning the ball over and having friendly conversations with players from other teams during the All-Star break. (1993’s video, “Three-Peat”, omits mention of Pippen entirely.) Guards Jo Jo English and Pete Myers, initially loyal to King, suffer torn ACLs before the beginning of the next season and are forced to retire. Meanwhile, Pippen finishes out his career by playing two games in a semi-pro league in Mexico that is forced to fold when all of its basketballs are found deflated by an unidentified sharp object.


Well, there goes that burst of antic energy.

I woke up in a strange place is the work of Marc Heiden, born in 1978, author of two books (Chicago, Hiroshima) and some plays, and an occasional photographer.

Often discussed:

Antarctica, Beelzetron, Books, Chicago, College, Communism, Food, Internet, Japan, Manute Bol, Monkeys and Apes, North Korea, Oregon Trail, Outer Space, Panda Porn, Politics, RabbiTech, Shakespeare, Sports, Texas.


January 2012, December 2011, January 2011, September 2010, August 2010, June 2010, March 2010, October 2009, February 2009, January 2009, September 2008, August 2008, March 2008, February 2008, October 2007, July 2007, June 2007, January 2007, September 2006, July 2006, June 2006, January 2006, December 2005, September 2005, August 2005, July 2005, June 2005, May 2005, March 2005, February 2005, January 2005, December 2004, October 2004, July 2004, June 2004, May 2004, April 2004, February 2004, January 2004, December 2003, November 2003, October 2003, September 2003, August 2003, July 2003, June 2003, May 2003, April 2003, March 2003, February 2003, January 2003, December 2002, November 2002, October 2002, September 2002, August 2002, July 2002, June 2002, May 2002, April 2002, March 2002, February 2002, January 2002, December 2001, November 2001, October 2001, September 2001, August 2001, July 2001, December 1999, November 1999, October 1999, May 1999, February 1999, January 1999, December 1998, November 1998, October 1998, June 1998, May 1998, April 1998, March 1998, February 1998, December 1997, November 1997, October 1997, September 1997, and the uncategorised wilderness of the Beelzetron era: 010622 - 010619, 010615 - 010611, 010608 - 010604, 010601 - 010529, 010525 - 010521, 010518 - 010514, 010511 - 010507, 010504 - 010430, 010427 - 010423, 010420 - 010416, 010413 - 010409, 010406 - 010402, 010330 - 010326, 010323 - 010319, 010316 - 010312, 010309 - 010307, 019223 - 010219, 010216 - 010212, 010209 - 010205, 010202 - 010109, 010126 - 010122, 010119 - 010115, 010112 - 010108, 010105 - 010102, 001229 - 001224, 001222 - 001218, 001215 - 001211, 001208 - 001204, 001201 - 001124, 001124 - 001120, 001117 - 001113, 001110 - 001106, 001103 - 001030, 001027 - 001023, 001020 - 001016, 001013 - 001010, 001006 - 000927.

Written by Marc Heiden, 1997-2011.