Naturalization

Here’s a lovely article about naturalization that brings back some memories. To be fair, when I took the citizenship test (at 19), my examiner accepted my smart aleck, hyper correct answers that didn’t always match the book. I got the question about who makes the laws in the US and offered an elaborate spiel of an explanation. I think I may have not only described the role of the President in signing and vetoing, but also delved into the topic of Congressional committees. I mean, when else was I ever going to use all that AP US History knowledge? (The official answer to the question has one word: “Congress.”)

My examiner was a stylish middle-aged woman with a slight Spanish accent. She listened to me, looking quite bemused, accepted the answer, and then responded by asking my wise gal teenage self the hardest questions in the book for the exam’s remainder.

The woman’s next appointment was my mother, and the officer was extra nice to her. Apparently, half an hour with me had made her quite sympathetic…

 

Research Diary: Soviet cars

Wolgaauto1

One game we played when we were kids was spotting black Volgas that sped by the playgrounds. To procure one of these cars, especially for free and with a driver, one had to be not just a ranking official, but a ranking official with the right job in the right city. The rest of us plebes got a Zaporozhets. So as kids, we’d run after the Black Volgas and scream and keep daring each other to flip off the passenger. And when the car disappeared, we’d cough up its dust and someone would say that she’d really done it this time, that she’d flipped off the Volga. “Yeah, right,” we’d say. “Well, I did. Behind my back,” she’d tell us. At the end of the day, the girl who saw the most black Volgas won.

Of course, to an American visiting USSR, these cars looked dated. I’ve heard many of them say that all the cars looked ancient. The truth was that some of the vehicles were brand new, but they still looked old to a foreigner. Unlike in the West, in the USSR the car manufacturers did not offer a new and improved (and expensively redesigned) model every year. Year after year, they just kept making the same car.

This was why, as I tried to figure out what the Volga looked like in 1970 this morning, I half expected it to look just like it did when I was a kid in the 1980s. So what I found was a little surprising.

BEHOLD: a souped up Volga manufactured especially for the KGB.

Looks just like a Volga 21, doesn’t it? I gather they used the Volga model for camouflage, then gave it some muscle with a better engine, a 195 horsepower V8 that could get one of these babies up to 100 mph and from 0 to 60 in 16 seconds.

What’s that? That doesn’t sound quite like the super-powered, James Bond car you imagined KGB would be driving? Me either. Then I remembered that the car I drive today, in 2011, has a 115 horsepower engine. So in a drag race against my little Nissan Sentra, the KGB would still win.

My father, by the way, pulled a similar trick on his used Zaporozhets. He tinkered with that car until he was back to being able to overtake any other automobile on the road.

TANGENT: apparently, a few year ago, a Moscow oligarch had a Volga look-alike custom-built using BMW chassis and engine. Helloooo, gorgeous. Do you come in a hybrid?

A Volga coupe

A Bedtime Story (courtesy of Bob Taylor)

This bedtime story comes to you courtesy of a talk at UT Austin by Bob Taylor.

On the last day of a three-day retreat for the top people at Xerox, Bob Taylor was asked to show the men the products of his Xerox PARC research team’s labors. And so he put on the stage the Alto, the first personal computer. The mouse, the Ethernet cord, an email system, a graphic display, and a laser printer were all attached–all in use at the Xerox PARC laboratories for some years by then and all shown to the men responsible for the future of the Xerox Corporation. It was the 1970s.

The presentation was followed by an opportunity for all of these titans of industry to test out the goods themselves, in an exhibition hall with little booths set up with the equipment. The men all stood around the periphery and chatted. The only people who approached the researchers’ tables were the businessmen’s wives. In Taylor’s account, the ladies had a grand time of playing with the gadgets.

Looking back, Taylor thinks that the man-repellents in his exhibits were the keyboards.* At the time, men didn’t type. Their secretaries did that. And many of the wives had come from the secretarial pool.

Which is perhaps why you did not buy your screen, your laptop, your Ethernet cable, your Internet service, and your mouse from Xerox. And why, in some alternate reality, Xerox is the largest company in the world and the dictionary entry for the word “xerox” continues for several pages.

* Alternative explanation: not enough lolcats.

Names

I have ideas for you, blog. Because I have them all the time, J is used to them. In fact, he thinks that the only blog I have a chance of keeping is a blog of blog ideas.

Of course, as always with new online projects, what I want first is a new theme and a new domain name. My plans for pimpin’ my new web projects always precede plans for executions. Perhaps this explains why my sites usually see more theme changes than posts.

Now, in the same conversation where they go on at length about new revenue models and guerrilla tactics, marketing types mention that for an artist, a web presence should build name recognition. We all know of course that what I have is not a web presence but a web absence. What this blog here should be called is Waiting for Kolendo.

The point is that I’m coming around to the idea that my name, my real, phone-book-findable name, should have a starring role in my web adventures (or lack thereof) since I think–now that I finally no longer get carded when buying tickets to R-rated movies–I’m finally safe from being stalked by another pedophile.*

Which I suppose poses the question of which name to use. At my mother’s, I’m still Nastia Kolendo but no one else I know can pronounce it. Anastasia Kolendo is on diplomas and IDs, though I prevent so many mispronunciations nowadays by introducing myself as Ana that I should get a Crimestoppers Badge of Merit. And Anastasia is such a feminine name. I feel like people who have just the name to go on expect 5 o’clock tea involving cozies and forest creatures who come to braid my hair.

Surprisingly, for years, kolendo.com, kolendo.net, and kolendo.org were all taken. Though go-daddy, my former web host and registrar, of course suggested brilliant alternatives–like mysexykolendo.com.

Luckily, the inability to keep a blog seems to be genetic. The guy who used to own kolendo.com must have gotten tired of paying for hosting for an error page he had parked here for a few years, so now it’s my turn to do the same.
—–
* For those of you who haven’t heard the story, don’t worry. My pedophile was shy. After finding my address in the white pages, he dropped by unannounced to ask me “to go steady.” There were no attempts at inappropriate touching, though my parents will forever assume his behavior to be typical of American men.

On Style: quotes

[Good style] is an intimate and almost involuntary expression of the personality of the writer, and then only if the writer’s personality is worth expressing. –Bertrand Russell

Write, and after you have attained some control over the instrument, you write yourself down whether you will or no. There is no vice, however unconscious, not virtue, however shy, no touch of meanness or generosity in your character that will not pass onto the paper. –Sir Walter Raleigh.

Both quotes included among the hundreds collected in Ben Yagoda’s The Sound on the Page.

Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Blue Flower

In Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Blue Flower, the protagonist and the future German Romantic poet Novalis, reads a beginning of a piece he is writing to his friend Karoline Just. Then he asks her what the story is about. He seems to be honestly at a loss himself.

The unlooked-for privilege of the reading was fading and Karoline, still outwardly as calm as she was pale, felt chilled with anxiety. She would rather cut off one of her hands than disappoint him, as he sat looking at her, trusting and intent, with his large light-brown eyes, impatient for a sign of comprehension.

What distressed her most was that after waiting a little, he showed not a hint of resentment or even surprise, but gently shut the notebook. ‘Liebe Justen, it doesn’t matter.’

When I first read this passage, I wondered at Karoline being able to tell him nothing useful about his Blue Flower. Now that I finished the novel, I reread this passage and smile with recognition.

This is the first book in a long while to leave me speechless. I don’t know anything about it, except that I liked it. Fitzgerald has charmed me out of my need to dissect every piece of writing into intelligible little pieces. It seems only fitting–Romanticists like Novalis were in some measure reacting against rationality.

Ostensibly, the story is about love. But part of Novalis’s legacy to the world is Liebesreligion, “the religion of love,” and it’s unsurprising then that here talking about love entails discussing everything. Underneath the dainty peak of Fitzgerald’s beautiful, breezy prose sits an iceberg of wit, philosophy, and impeccable grasp of history. In the end, The Blue Flower is the most awesomely strange novel I’ve read all year, and the originality doesn’t even seem to be the primary intent.

What is? Liebe, to me it didn’t seem to matter.

SXSW

Dear residents of Austin, Texas—

There are 1300 bands in town, and you will be listening to some live music. Too broke to buy badges? Not going to 6th street? Oh, that’s all right. We’ll just wait for you at the place where you get your morning coffee. That neighborhood bar? Already there. Not planning to leave your house? You naïve motherfucker, because you haven’t soundproofed your windows, that’ll be just fine.

And if you don’t like the three-chord repertoire of the whiny alternative band playing down the street, you best go and get yourself on a guest list at a place that has a more discriminating taste in music. All your ears are belong to us. Resistance is futile. You will find a show you like or bleed out of your ears trying.

Sincerely,
South By

The Literary Provenance of Blogs and Other Lessons from Capote

If Borges presaged the Wikipedia, Perry Smith of the In Cold Blood fame was one of the hardcopy blogging pioneers.

On the cover of the second notebook, the handwriting of which he was so proud, a script abounding in curly, feminine flourishes, proclaimed the contents to be “The Private Diary of Perry Edward Smith”–an inaccurate description, for it was not in the least a diary but, rather, a form of anthology consisting of obscure facts (“Every fifteen years Mars gets closer. 1958 is a close year.”), poems and literary quotations (“No man is an island, Entire of itself”), and passages for newspapers and books paraphrased or quoted. For example:

My acquaintances are many, my friends are few; those who really know me fewer still.

Heard about a new rat poison on the market. Extremely potent, odorless, tasteless, is so completely absorbed once swallowed that no trace could ever be found in a dead body.

If called upon to make a speech: “I can’t remember what I was going to say for the life of me–I don’t think that ever before in my life have so many people been so directly responsible for my being so very, very glad. It’s a wonderful moment and a rare one and I’m certainly indebted. Thank you!”

Read interesting article Feb. issue of Man to Man: “I Knifed My Way to a Diamond Pit.”

“It is almost impossible for a man who enjoys freedom with all its prerogatives, to realize what it means to be deprived of that freedom.”–Said by Erle Stanley Gardner.

“What is life? It is the flash of a firefly in the night. It is a breath of a buffalo in the wintertime. It is as the little shadow that runs across the grass and loses itself in teh sunset.” –Said by Chief Crowfoot, Blackfoot Indian Chief.

This last entry was written in red ink and decorated with a border of green-ink stars; the anthologist wished to emphasize its “personal significance.” “A breath of a buffalo in the wintertime”–that exactly evoked his view of life. Why worry? What was there to “sweat about”? Man was nothing, a mist, a shadow absorbed by shadows.

But damn it, you do worry, scheme, fret over your fingernails and the warnings of hotel managements: “Su Día Termina a las 2 P.M.”

The view of blogs as anthologies of obscure facts masquerading as personal journals seems spot on to me. But so much of Capote’s writing is similarly revealing in this quiet, unassuming way. His choices have nothing exhibitionist about them. The words, even when unusual, are simply right: Perry’s, the murderer’s, pastiche of scribblings is an anthology. In another passage, Capote describes the winter winds on the Kansas prairie as “razory.” The measure of how great these descriptions are is that they immediately supersede all alternatives. After you read a passage of his, what else can cold February winds be other than “razory”? Here they are, the newly-minted clichés of our future.

The other voices the book includes–Perry himself, as in the quoted passage, the town’s postmistress, the dead girl’s boyfriend–are always distinctive. Perry omits subjects. His phrases are choppy. “But damn it, you do worry, fret…” : you can feel it’s Perry thinking at the end of that quote above on the basis of style alone–no quotation marks required. Other voices are different too. Myrtle Clare speaks folk; she calls her neighbors “lily-livered” and refers to herself as “this old girl.” Dick’s speech is covered by a veneer of obscenities and cockiness. He says things like, “there was mud up to your cojones.” They all have affectations. In contrast, the narrator’s voice seems natural and invisible, a kind of a glass Riker mount to better pin the specimens he collects to.

Then there are those perfect rolling rhythms. The sentences go on for miles, but I didn’t pause once because I had to reread. But Lord I wanted to. The difference between your standard style short stuccato sentences and Capote is the difference between driving through Kansas and the Rockies.

I could gush on and on, but instead, I leave you with this quote from Capote from the Paris Review interview (a long chunk available here [PDF]):

“Do you read a great deal?”

“Too much. And anything, including labels and recipes and advertisements. I have a passion for newspapers—read all the New York
dailies every day, and the Sunday editions, and several foreign magazines too. The ones I don’t buy I read standing at newsstands. I average about five books a week—the normal-length novel takes me about two hours. I enjoy thrillers and would like someday to write one. Though I prefer first-rate fiction, for the last few years my reading seems to have been concentrated on letters and journals and biographies. It doesn’t bother me to read while I am writing—I mean, I don’t suddenly find another writer’s style seeping out of my pen.”

Research Diary: Black humor

I am writing a novel about the Ukrainian famine.

As you might imagine, that statement is a conversation killer.

“So, what are you working on?”

“A novel about the man-made Ukrainian famine.”

“Ah.”

It only gets better when I say: “It’s a comedy.” Which it is. In places.

The usual response is an arched eyebrow. Most people have trouble picturing the topic as being funny. I find it hard to picture it as anything else. It’s a man-made famine. How could the logic of the “man” in question be anything but absurd?

Here are some examples. These are some of my research notes from one of the chapters in Robert Conqust’s The Harvest of Sorrow.

Catch-22. By late autumn, any peasant not yet swelling up from hunger was deemed suspect by the Party. His or her home was promptly searched for food. If any were found, it was taken away.

After a directive from the Politburo that any attempts to damage state agrarian property (like crops, animals, and food rotting in store houses) were to be punished by an immediate execution or a ten year sentence, a teenager was arrested for cavorting with a girl in the stable. The charges said he was disturbing the pigs.

When the villagers piled the corpses of their dead in the streets, the event was glossed as a kulak protest. The famine did not exist. The corpses did not exist. And if they did, they came from the kulaks.

Stalin wrote a letter justifying the suffering of the villagers by claiming that the “bread-workers” were the ones who had tried to murder the Red Army by hunger. The food requisitions were merely meant to stop them. I guess he figured the punishment fit the alleged crime.

Some of the requisitioned food was kept in storage houses. It began to rot. That’s when the bureaucrats took over. When the potatoes rotted, for example, they were transferred from the Potato Trust to the Alcohol Trust. I imagine there were quite a few papers for some poor cog in the machine to stamp. I also imagine that after the Alcohol Trust still did not use the rotting potatoes, transferring them eventually to the Compost Trust instead.

Last but not least, there was a Party activist who, after being pestered by center for more food from his village, told them the only way he could meet the meat quota was by requisitioning corpses. The young man disappeared shortly thereafter.