Saturday, June 09, 2007

Pushistaya Zima Letom - 6/9/07

It is late, and now finally dark. I went for a walk this evening. A faint stain of silver was still visible rising above the Western horizon just before midnight. It is Saturday, but I am staying in. Trying to burn the midnight oil on translating the speech I will be giving this Thursday at the seminar in Saratov. I am both incredibly excited and horribly nervous. I spent all day today alternately thinking about the seminar and writing this speech.

I had a nice moment while writing my speech. I was sitting in my living room, typing on my laptop, when I suddenly looked out the window. I hadn't done so for hours, and I suddenly saw hundreds of thousands of fluff balls rising slowly from the trees like ash from a fire, their cottoney white a stark contrast from the iron storm clouds hanging above the buildings across the yard, stoicly holding back their rain. I came to the window and opened it, and felt the cool air rush in. I looked down and saw that the entire yard enclosed by my building (one of the largest buildings in Samara) was filled with this fluff, hanging in the air. It was as though the whole yard, all it's trees and playgrounds and smaller buildings had just been submerged in some sort of gel, and the second I opened the window, the gel was replaced by cool air, and the little white particles that were previously suspended in the gel just kept on their way as if nothing had happened, slowly floating every which way, to spread the seed.

I went for a jog and saw that this this stuff not only filled the air, but filled every crevice in the asphalt, collected in little dry white puddles. I intentionally stepped in one of these puddles as I was jogging. The fluff quickly flew away as my foot stamped down. A larger-than-life footprint was left in its place.

The air was almost hard to breathe because of this stuff, but each successful breath brought the itch of delight. I felt good jogging, knowing that not only was I making progress on this speech, but that everything around me, all the interesting things I was getting to look at would soon be gone. My time left here is ticking away already, and I feel it all the time. This week is already shot, because I have to spend the whole time preparing for this seminar. When I get back, I'm going on a two day bike trip across the river with my German friend Sören. And then it will be my birthday. I will have one week to say goodbye to everyone and get ready for the arrival of my parents (and for moving back to the States).

I am excited but also sad to go. The heightened nature of everything will have to give way to the hum-drum of being a student. The intense struggle to find meaningful engagement in a community so inaccessible to me, the immense challenge of learning a language on top of the fascinating things I have learned about the interactions of HIV, Russian cultural understandings of health, and local socio-political systems, will all soon be replaced by learning my way around a new academic institution and the memorization of countless biochemical reactions.

But I am thankful for my experiences. Certainly this has been a difficult year. There have been times that I've wanted nothing more than to be at home, surrounded by my English speaking, time-tested friends and working within well-understood and reasonable expectations. But those times have all melded together into a few lessons about what not to do and how to deal with living abroad, and all the miriad rewards are starting to come into view. This has certainly been an irreplaceable adventure and I'm only beginning to be able to apply all the things I have learned. I am now starting to really know what I want to write about when I get back and have the time to sit down and put everything together. The ideas are all there and I just need to put them down and fit them together.

For now, though, I just need to get back to my translation so I can go to bed...

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Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Summertime and the Livin' is Easy... - 5/30/07

It has been hot here for the last two weeks. Hot. Can't-do-much-but-lie-around hot. Though not too humid, thank God. I've enjoyed a couple days on the beach and a couple bike rides to let the wind through my hair. Mosquitos are biting my feet which are left bare by the tevas I am wearing as shoes. We don't have hot water in our apartment for some reason (apparently, this is part of a 'preventive break' that every Russian apartment gets anually, some time in the summer) so I have to take freezing, little mini-showers and partial showers to wash off my daily sweat. They are actually quite refreshing. I've also taken a couple dips in the Volga to cool down.

I am now finding it extremely difficult to do the things I want to get done now that I have less than a month left. The main project, above all others, is to write an essay about case management and translate it into Russian. I must do this as it will be the opening speech for my two day seminar on the subject in Saratov, June 14th and 15th. I also have to fine tune my previous trainings and develop some new materials for a couple new sessions I'm planning. But in this weather, with my time here running out, I just... can't... quite get myself to do it. I've been spending days taking my time waking up, making myself leisurely fanciful breakfasts and then reading all the news that's fit to print.

The worst part of my truancy, though, is that I haven't been able to enjoy it. It just brings back all the anxiety and depression that I've felt countless times throughout this experience. I suspect that part of the problem in actuality is that, at base, I've lost interest in case management as an intellectual pursuit. In general, I don't have the experience, the education or the cultural background to really make a significant impact on moving it forward here in Russia, and the energy and ideas I had a year and a half ago when I wrote the grant application, have pretty much all been spent (albeit haphazardly).

When it comes down to it, I think all of my frustrations with this experience have stemmed with the difficulty of trying to be an amateur everything. In the last couple years, I've been alternately: an amateur social worker, an amateur tour guide, an amateur cook, amateur international consultant and amateur ethnographer. I'm starting to really look forward to starting the next phase of my life when I get back, where I will be learning how to do something from beginning to end before I start doing it for money. I think it will be much more satisfying to be a professional something, at least. Now I just have to wait this month out, which will go by far too quickly, make sure I don't embarrass myself and my colleagues, and make sure I enjoy being around all the wonderful friends I have made here in Samara.

I have been discussing the status of my research project with my colleague in Tajikistan and she has pointed out that even if I had managed to accomplish a serious survery with a large sample, I would have had problems publishing my results because I never had a human subjects ethics committee. She suggested I move in the direction of writing something more like a suggestion of an area for further research based on the preliminary work I have done in the form of participant observation and unstructured interviews. This seems a little more like what I should expect from myself. When all is said and done, I think I take myself just a little too seriously. I probably would have had a much better time here if, from the get-go, I had the same low expectations of myself that the Fulbright program had for me - that I'd learn descent Russian, get a general feel for my subject, and maybe help a couple people in minor ways along the way, the minor ways that have nothing to do with what I'm trying to do with my work.

Oh well, Saratov here I come.

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Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Various and Sunny Sundry - 5/17/07

Spring has finally sprung for real in Samara, and with it has returned not only the full, green leaves. With the air warm enough to enjoy its presence and the days long enough to forget the winter, I have regained some of the hope and enthusiasm I originally felt about my time here. The stale hopelessness and grinding boredom I felt through the winter, no matter what the level of my activity, has attenuated to a thin nagging anxiety. My depression of the last couple of weeks has lifted and I'm ready to finish this grant period with a bang... really, I am... I swear..

There have been a number of things I've wanted to blog about lately, what with all this talk of a new cold war and all the crazy events surrounding Estonia. I've simply been either too busy or too lazy (or both) to sit down and blog about them. Well, there's no time like the present.

I've been trying to gauge the general opinion among my friends of the recent movement by the Estonian government of a Soviet-era memorial to fallen Soviet soldiers in WWII, and the near-violent reaction by Russian pro-establishment youth group, Nashi [meaning literally, "our", but assumed to mean "our people"]. Most of the friends I've asked about it seem to tacitly agree with the Russian media's portrayal of the move by the Estonian government to transplant the memorial from the center of Tallinn to a cemetary for WWII veterans as support for the defeated Nazi government and for fascism in general, though as one friend put it, "it's hard for most Russian people unless they can read English, because they can only get media controlled by the president."

On the eve of Den' Pobedy [Victory Day], sitting in front of a mangal [open grill for shish-ka-bobs] at my friend's dacha, I discussed the Estonia question with a friend of mine who works high up in the local Nashi organization as a tim-bilder [team-builder], who seemed to genuinely share the outrage of Moscow and the Nashi organizers. She felt that Estonians were clearly stating their support of fascism. When she asked me my opinion, I said that firstly, I thought it was a different country, so not really something I would say concerns Russians (who have enough memorials to WWII), and that secondly, from what I'd read, it didn't have to do with support of Fascism, so much as a statement against what Estonians (and the rest of the Western world) see as the Soviet Occupation of Estonia, beginning in 1940, before the front with Germany fell behind Estonian territory and predicated by the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, at the signing of which Stalin was present. She didn't really know how to react to this and we silently watched the fire for a moment. As a conciliation, I said, "well, either way, these demonstrations seem to me to have been paid for by someone, and that this is a case of politicians using people." She agreed with that, though probably had the Estonian politicians in mind.

The issue came up again, more recently in a rather amusing context. My friends Jeremy and Jenevieve, who are here on an English Language Fellowship from the embassy, organized an American Film Showcase at the local American Corner. Both because I like watching movies, and because I feel some degree of duty to participate in the local representation of the good side of American culture and society, I decided to help out. On Sunday, I presented Annie Hall and lead a brief discussion of it. On Saturday, we had showed Crash, the 2005 film about race relations in America. During the discussion afterward, perhaps the liveliest of all eight discussions we held, a young girl named Anna, stood up and said, "our government and youth groups like Nashi make a lot of actions about racism. Does your government also do things about this issue..." Given the vague Russian nationalism inherent in the group's name and what I percieve as the recent xenophobia directed toward Estonia, I was very curious to know what this girl was talking about. After the discussion was over, I asked her about the actions Nashi had lead against racism. She explained that she was referring to the recent protests against Estonian Fascism. I asked, "doesn't the name Nashi refer to the Russian nationality?" "No," she said, "Nashi refers to all the people who are joining together to solve these kinds of problems." In the context of a discussion of the movie, Crash, it seemed like a funny take on the meaning of racism.

A couple weeks ago, I had the opportunity to see another kind of protest altogether. Sveta, an acquaintance I know through the support group for PLWHA told me that people would be meeting on Sunday to hold a demonstration in protection of the regional library from "commercialization." When I got there, I was delighted to see what seemed like earnest and light-spirited political activism, of the kind I was used to participating in when I lived in New York.
When Sveta invited me, I mentioned briefly that I was interested, because I'm usually involved in political activism in America and I hadn't met many Russians interested in Politics. She said, "this isn't about politics. It's just for the interests of the people." This, I think, was an important hint to the way Russian society works: politics is the sphere in which corrupt politicians compete to grab dirty money. Everything else, including the public interest and any action related to it, is completely divorced, a different category.

However, this looked just like political activism in America...and I would say that the Samara government saw it as such as well. Though the police response to our thirty or so demonstrators couldn't compare to the thousands of riot police that come out for the meager demonstrations of "the Other Russia" in Moscow, what started as a pair of cops harassing kids for playing punk music unpleasing to the their ears over a loud speaker from his cell phone...eventually became an escort of two police trucks and two KGB cars (oops, I mean FSB, excuse me).

Considering the demonstration was unpermitted, though, I wouldn't consider the reaction bad at all. There was a TV journalist present who worried me more, because of her open suspicion of the foreigners present, asking me strange questions in disbelief that I was a foreigner. I was worried she was ready to report on the presence of foreign spies at the march (A friend of mine who works for the Moscow Times once advised me, "if you meet a regional journalist, run in the opposite direction as fast as you can." Apparently the guy on the right agrees.) At the end of the march, when we reached the the library under question, the demonstrators performed a little sketch about the need for interest groups to pay money for access to library materials.

One of the demonstrators, Tanya [see below], spoke really good English and I interviewed her, briefly, to get her explanation of the demonstration. I am trying to figure out how to make that file available here.

Last night, I met up with my friend Natasha. I have known her since my last trip to Russia in 2004, and have at times felt very close to her. She is fairly unique in Samara, in that she is an unmarried businesswoman in her late twenties. She has traveled around the world including trips to England and India, and here in Samara, seems to know everyone in the music world. She is particularly into trance, and likes to take ecstasy at raves.

Yesterday, we met up early in the evening and sat with some of her friends and her new boyfriend, who I was meeting for the first time, to drink beer and watch the sunset over the Volga from Ploschad' Slavy [Glory Square]. We chatted about life and music and a little bit about my work. In particular, we talked about empathy and its involvement in sustained happiness, as Natasha had just looked at my website and I guess read my training on empathy and behavior change. Her boyfriend Dima, asked if one can change one's own biochemistry by sheer force of will. I said something about changes in Serotonin that are associated with meditation. "I'm talking about something else," he said. A little later he joined me as I walked down the hill a bit to take a pee. As I stood, relieving myself, he asked me, "In general, how do you relate to HIV," he asked me. "Well, I fight with it, that's what I do," I said. "Because I'm HIV positive," he told me. "Seven years already. I think being happy is the key to staying healthy. I don't take any medicine or anything."

As we walked back to the group, the shadow of the horizon already spreading over the green blades of grass, we had a quick discussion of antiretroviral therapy and I gave a little speech about why I believe it is effective, and why sometimes happiness isn't enough support for the immune system in the war against HIV. As we approached our friends sitting on some sort of irrigation pipe, beer bottles lying on the grass around them, our discussion thinned out and dressed itself in vaguer and vaguer terms. As I sat down, I wondered if Natasha knew and if it was wrong of me to protect Dima's confidentiality, as I automatically do.

A bit later, as the night settled in, we decided to go to Podval [literally meaning Basement], the town's only rock bar, at which I am now practically a regular. There was an emo concert playing of a band from Kiev, called Marakesh. The lead singer was a stringy adolescent-looking kid in his early twenties. Dressed in black and with his long bangs hanging over his face like a wedding veil, he scratched out whiney songs in both Russian and English. He had an awful accent. We sat at a table and got drunk, eating dried fish and squid with our beer. I grew to really like Dima. At one point they passed around poppers for some reason. Dima took a big deep inhale and then sat in a stupor for five minutes.

The subject of drugs came up, and this lead to a discussion of heroin addiction and HIV. Natasha did know about, it turns out, and Dima told me that he had gotten infected by the bad heroin from Central Asia. It was profitable for Central Asians, he told me, to weaken the Russian race. We argued for a while about whether it was possible to infect heroin with HIV, so that all users became infected (it is not possible, because HIV dies in contact with air), but ultimately I didn't push too hard. This is a commonly accepted myth among heroin users in Russia.

Later on, Dima went to the bathroom and I was finally alone with Natasha. "Natasha," I said, "I like Dima a lot. Please just tell me you use condoms." A sad smile came over her face. I had seen this smile before. Months ago we were sitting in her friend's kitchen, when she got a text with some sort of bad news. She was suddenly very upset and tears started to creep from the sides of her eyes. Then she smiled this smile, and from her purse pulled out a little plastic bag with a pill in it. She put the pill on her tounge and looked up at me with her big sad eyes. That very same smile under them.

"Dan," she said. "I'm HIV positive too."
"Really? Since when?"
"Well, probably by now," she said.
"Have you been tested? Let's go get tested. You should know for sure. You should see a doctor."
"It's too early isn't it Dan? There's a window period of six months, right?"

And here I was getting all proud of myself for all these fancy trainings I'm doing. Recently I've been so excited about the upcoming two-day seminar I'll be leading in Saratov, a whole three day retreat planned around my seminar for all the organizations doing case management there. In the face of this reality, though, it all just seems so pallid, so foolish. How do you stop a thing like this from happening?

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Thursday, April 26, 2007

Rusglish 4/27/07

Quite possibly the coolest email I've ever gotten:

Hi Dan,

It is nice to feel your fervour !
Make it in Russian, pls, as the seminar will be in local dialect.
All the best,

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Vesenoe Nastroenie - 4/22/07

I am now nearing the last two months of my time here in Samara, and I feel as though I have entered a new (and, I hope, final) phase. I finally sense some momentum behind my various projects. In fact I am now incredibly busy, trying to keep up with all the translations and various documents I need for all the things I am doing. I have found a renewed excitement for my research and am going to try and give it one last push to get some real, hard and useful data in my last 9 weeks. I'm now creating a panel of questions to be used for qualitative interviews, and am in the process of arranging interviews with up to three different groups (frequent support group participants, people living with HIV/AIDS engaged with the healthcare system, but not with any NGO programs, and people living with HIV/AIDS not engaged with the healthcare system, but in contact with NGO outreach workers). If I could conduct enough interviews to make a valid comparison, I think it would make a pretty interesting study. And if I can talk to a few doctors in the process, I will be quite delighted.

I'm also almost finished with preparing the third training, which I will be doing for the organization I'm now working with in Togliatti. This week, I created a Russian-language website to act as a mini-resource center for case management. It has all my training materials on it and some links to decent articles on relevant topics in Russian. I'm hoping I will be able to write a Russian language article about case management by the end my time here, in which I will mention this website.

Last weekend I took a fun little trip to Saratov, the next big city down on the Volga. It is a quaint little town, nestled between some small hills and the Mighty Volga. I went with my three German friends to visit their colleague there, who works for the Goethe Institute. It was quite fun, and, needless to say, I learned a good bit of German. At the top of one of the hills behind the city sits Park Pobedy [Victory Park] the city's obligatory ode the Soviet Union's defeat of Germany during World War II (or the Great Patriotic War, as Russians refer to it). In addition to the gigantic memorial shown below, there was a permanent exhibit of all the military technology of the Soviet Union, from the first tanks used in WWII to the helicopters and planes used to invade Afghanistan. There were missile launching trucks and gigantic bombs. It was easy to forget that the purpose of all this million dollar stuff was to turn human flesh into unusable mush. I'm glad I'm going to become a doctor not a soldier.From below this monument, you can look out upon some amazing views of the city and the Mighty River Volga (including her longest bridge which links Saratov to nearby Engels).Many couples were getting married on the particular Saturday we were at this vista point, and they almost had to wait their turn to take pictures in front of the city scape and release doves into the immense, cloudy sky.All in all, it was a nice little trip, and I ended up killing two birds (not doves) with one stone, as I managed to arrange for myself a meeting with a PSI representative there who was very excited about using me for their case managers there. In fact, I will probably be returning in early June for a two day seminar of my design for all the case managers they work with in the city of Saratov.

Spring is here and I have been enjoying the changes it has brought with it. Certainly all Samara's young people are out and about gulyat'-ing [literally meaning to walk, but colloquially meaning to hang out], and I must admit to having a bit of a veseniy nastroenie [literally, spring mood, usually a reference to the seasonal desire for companionship]. More importantly, I have been watching some of the most wonderful sunsets over the Volga.

This evening, I went to gulyat' with a friend of mine and her sister and brother. They were running late in meeting me on Pushkin Square, so I sat, looking out over the hill descending down to the bank of the Volga, and watched the horizon flare up in front of me. Breathing in the crisp spring air, clean and shivering from the day's brief, chilly showers, I could feel the immensity of the sky under which I sat; I watched as its churning layers of gigantic, sweetly flavored clouds dwarfed the icey grey waters of the river below them; the reds and oranges and violets stretching from me to infinity made the dark brown forests on the opposite bank seem to hide themselves shyly, to quietly bow in reverence. It was a wonderful moment. I tried to stretch it out and savor it, to notice each moment pass, each breath try its best then disappear.

I'm a sucker for things like drama and catharsis. I have always sought out moments of transformative importance. I cannot say if these ten minutes I spent this evening will succeed toward that end, if this sunset will serve as a symbol of some transition to a new life, one with purpose and discipline and payoff. Perhaps it was nothing more than a nice sunset, that very same phenomenon that is going on constantly as the earth's shadow sweeps across it's surface, seen by millions, unnoticed by most.

Who knows? I liked it, anyway.

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Monday, April 02, 2007

Coming Round the Bend/Anxiety - 4/2/07

The moon hung low and full tonight over the aging concrete buildings along the Volga River embankment. Her full, white eye was engaged in a silent staring contest with Mercury, floating low above the opposite bank. Both shone unblinking silver light into the spring night air. The dim glowing cityscape hugged the river's curve north around the Zhiguli Mountains, lying low and invisible below the scant stars and deep purple night. I spent an hour this evening walking along the naberezhnoi [embankment], unloading to my parents over the phone about how dissatisfied I am with what I have to account for the last seven months here. It was a beautiful night, but I couldn't enjoy it. I was too weighed down by the feeling that I'm wasting a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Now that I officially have only three months left, I feel acutely the need to try to somehow make this fellowhip worth its salt. I have had some relative successes of late at being productive. A little over a week ago, I finally gave my second training, the one I had been preparing about burnout. It seemed to go pretty well, despite the fact that I stumbled over my Russian during the powerpoint presentation. The two case managers asked the woman I work with at PSI to ask me about giving the training to the staff psychologists at the family center where they work. The coordinator of the case management program also gave the thumbs up on me doing three more trainings in my remaining time here. Earlier that week, I had also been told that another CM program funded by PSI in nearby Togliatti had been asking about me and that I should do the first training there. (Why this had only gotten back to me just now is one of those Russian questions that's better left without an answer.)

Last week, I volunteered for a language camp that reminded me of both the satisfaction and the tiredness of having a full-time job. I ended up falling in love with the kids who ranged from a five year old, who could shyly sing a song in french about a family of tortoises, to a pair of cynical fifteen year-olds, with whom I analyzed lyrics to a popular song by Fall Out Boy. The star of the week for me was a hyperactive seven year old who looooved it when I held her upside down in the air and tickled her stomach and such. By the end of the week, she had mastered the sentences, "I want to go upside down, please," "I want to jump, please," and "I want to sit on your shoulders, please." She could even add "again" appropriately to them.

Now that I am back to answering only to myself for my time, I am quite a bit anxious. I must struggle to bring to fruition all of the promising semi-offers of a week ago. I am also now trying to prepare the bases for two publishable articles, one in a Western journal of medical anthropology, and one in a Russian language journal on health promotion. I am particularly anxious, because this is by no means the first time in this grant period that I have had a bunch of ideas and a handful of promising leads toward meaningful engagement in the community; almost none of them have come to fruition in the past, both out of my own lack of initiative and that of others.

After an hour on the phone with my folks, my brother finally managed to cheer me up. "Look on the bright side," he said. "You're alive. You have five senses. Breathe deeply." As he said this, I looked up at the rows of colored lights above one of the fancy new buildings hanging over the Volga and saw them glimmer. I watched dust blow across the little square in which I was pacing. I looked out across the wordless, ponderous river, and saw the faintest strip of violet along the horizon, hanging over the dark forest on the right bank. Slick, silvery chunks of ice slowly floated quietly by in the night. And I was brought back to a nice moment, to a momentary feeling of belonging.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

A Poem - 3/11/07

This year slithers slow like a snake,
each scale moving quickly along the sand
soon to be shed and left for dead,
as I slide upon the next.

I look inside, deep below the tasty layers of my ribs,
and what do I find,
a ticking clock,
a push and pull,
that goes round and round
circulating and cycling,
without direction

There is never a moment so heavy as walking out of a movie theater,
to discover this life is your own

and nothing can be done to hold it in place,
to put it down in celluloid silhouettes
dripping with the sweet melodrama
chopped up and strung together for all to see and understand

My father advised me:
patience – old age comes

I am left to wonder,
what is on his cutting room floor,
how many of his scales slipped away
without meaning

And I love him so.