Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Must He Be Like Putin?

I think there's something terribly wrong in Russia.

Not like that's a particularly bold statement. You could make the argument that the huge and disparate entity known as "Russia" has never really been "right--it's just been in various stages of barely-holding-shit-togetherness. This is a place where winter wins wars, where the country practically exists in all four hemispheres at once. It's a freaky place, which I suppose is inevitable when you live right next to the Mongols*.

*Just a note on what the Russians were up against in the Mongol Golden Horde. The Mongols under Genghis Khan were the first truly modern army, in that they were organized, professional, and hierarchical. The bulk of the army consisted of horse-mounted archers, a concept which really is quite ingenious. It's built on a the very simple principle of me being able to shoot at you without you being able to catch me. The Mongols utilized one technique known as the "Parthian Shot" (named after the Parthians, a steppe people who used it to bitch-slap the Romans a thousand years before). They'd ride like bastards up to the enemy, firing all the way, fight for a second or two, then pretend to panic, wheeling around to retreat. When the enemy gave chase, they'd fire while running away ("parting shot"--get it?), and when the enemy was dispersed, tired, and scared, they'd turn around and massacre them. To get an idea of how well this worked, bear in mind that "Mongolia" used to mean "Southeast Asia, Russia, the Middle East, and Poland".

Now, a lot of this explains why the place is so weird, but I think it's recently entered a special level of screwed-up. After a brief period of being one of two big dogs on the world stage, Russia's been on a really noticeable tailspin for the past twenty years or so. Think of it this way: Russia had a really hot girlfriend, lost her, and is now showing up to parties in an old and sauce-stained sweatshirt, drooling all over himself, refusing to take a shower or pay his soldiers. He's knocking back vodka like it's water, creepily hitting on all the hot chicks there, and failing to keep track of his nuclear stockpile, so there's about a ten percent chance the entire place is going to go up in a blinding flash of nuclear light. It's just awkward for everyone involved.

But then, along comes Putin.

Vladimir Vladimirovitch Putin is a former KGB agent and the current Prime Minister of Russia. All you really know about him is that he used to be Russia's President, but he seemingly got bored of that, so he nominated some crony to be President, and took the PM spot for himself. But no one talks to the new President, because Putin basically switched up the role of President and Prime Minister. He's at the point where he does whatever the deuce he wants and gets away with it.

And they love him for it.

Don't get me wrong: the election was probably a bit rigged. First, he got 71 percent of the vote, a wee bit too high unless you're Reagan or something, and second, this is Russia we're talking about here. It's not like there's a longstanding democratic tradition in place.

But for a guy who really hasn't brought Russia out of the doldrums (the economy is better, but the country still isn't going anywhere), it's astonishing how much the country loves him. They have Vlad Putin fan clubs, Vlad Putin youth groups, Vlad Putin posters. I recently came upon a Vlad Putin music video, presented here for your consideration:

Just so we're clear on this, you just watched two appallingly hot pop stars sing about how they want to jump a president's bones. Again, just so we're clear.

So, why does Russia love Putin? I think it has pretty much everything to do with image.

Every shot I've seen of Putin has a certain quality to it:

Namely, it makes him look badass. I don't think he purposefully had that particular lighting done just for that picture, but it seems to happen to him an awful lot. He probably just naturally creates ominous lighting.

If you're a country, down and despised, spitting up all over itself at a party, wouldn't you want someone out there who at least gives off a good impression? The impression of "don't mess with me?"

Or, "do what I say, before I smack you?"


A lot of the guy's pictures show him shirtless. I think it has something to do with virility.

There's a lot wrong with this whole situation. Putin is practically a dictator. He has opposition leaders jailed, kills journalists who disagree, and likely steals a great deal of money from the country. The love he gets is part fear, but I have the sinking feeling that at least some of it is genuine.

But that's not what bugs me. At least not truly.

I don't think Putin is a real person. I think he's escaped from some lost Ian Fleming novel, one that he wrote but never finished. It lies, forgotten, in a safe deposit box somewhere, and the pages are blank, because the idea inside was too powerful to be contained, and made itself flesh. My problem isn't that Putin is a dictator. He wouldn't be the first.

But when have we had to deal with a real-life, honest-to-goodness supervillain?

I don't know about the rest of you, but I for one am not looking forward to dealing with the nuclear bomb drills heading toward the Earth's core. A man can only do so much in a day.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Fear Itself

"Diplomacy, like seduction, only improves with practice."
Ben Franklin

When I took swimming lessons at the pool up the street, I never "got" the concept of diving off the side of the pool. The first time I tried it, the girl diving before me dove straight down and scraped her face against the side of the pool. She came up crying, bleeding, and scared.

In the process of analyzing and remaking myself, I've come to determine that *why* I fear is more important than *what* I fear. I don't think anything is really scary, in and of itself. Nothing is immortal or implacable. You can charm that stunner at the bar, if you have the right words. You can kill the robber in your house, if you shoot first and straight. You can move the world with a big enough lever, at least according to Archimedes.

To dive, all I need to do is fall forward and down. To let myself go.

If I had gone before the nameless girl who reddened the pool at Blue Hills Regional High School, I probably would have been fine. I wouldn't have had to think about it.

This will come as a surprise if you know me at all, but I am a consummate planner and obsessive worrier. I try to reduce the disparate tendrils of my life into a bound and catalogued series of steps, all laid out like a grand table map in my head. It's how I keep myself company when I'm bored or lonely, or if I can't sleep, or simply when the mood strikes me.

In approximately five billion years, our sun* will have finished converting all its available hydrogen into helium, and will expand to a monstrous size, engulfing all the inner planets, including ours. I used to worry about this. About something so far into the future that the actual number is practically meaningless. It kept me up nights, worrying while my brother (who's always been much more laid-back) slumbered in the next bed over. How would we survive? What would my future descendants do about the slow, inevitable destructive kicks of a dying star?

*The Sun technically has a name other than "The Sun"--it's actually called "Sol". Which means "The Sun". Kind of like the Earth is "Terra", which means "The Earth" and the moon is "Luna" which means "the moon". This is part of a weird syndrome which, I think, maybe be peculiar to America--we'll call something what it is, but we'll need another language to do so.

Eventually, I consoled myself by rationalizing that any future version of humans would have left Earth long before the Sun went boom. That didn't solve more pressing issues, of course. What would I do about a vampire attacking me in the middle of the night? (solution: grab bible and rosary, wake up brother, force vampires out door while chanting "The Power of Christ Compels You!", arm rest of family with facsimiles of wooden stakes)

Well, that's fine, but say there's a bully at school, and he tries to punch me from behind? What then? (Duck punch if possible, kick backwards with heel of my foot, hopefully impacting the shin, spinning elbow to the nose, run away if bully is not incapacitated).

Like I said, I did this for pretty much everything. I tried to do the same for diving.

Go to one knee at the edge of the pool.

Put your hands over your head so that they form a point.

Lean forward, hands first.

Follow your hands into the water.

And, like almost everything else I had planned out step-by-step, it never worked. I always belly-flopped.

I can fall into conversation with a pretty girl with no problem, but ask me to cold approach one and I'll get flustered. I am unimpressed by famous people, but when I interned at a local newspaper, I would stammer when asking people on the street their opinion of the weather. I can catch screaming line drives right at me, but every high popup is an adventure.

This isn't to say that planning is a bad thing. It diffuses and makes ordinary the concept of the lion in the tall grass, or the monster outside your window. But I've come to realize that , while step-by-step instructions are fine for working out and assembling furniture, they'll only trip you up in the end. You replace one fear with a more insidious one: that of unexpected situations. Better to form your plans on the fly, around the pursuit of concrete goals. Get that girl's number. Get a quote from Joe Public. Pluck that popup out of the sky.

Sometime this summer, when the Get Jacked plan is in full swing and producing truly tangible results, I'll find a pool. I'll kneel at the edge, imagine the blood in the water, and dive. Then I'll do it again, and again, and again, until the blood disappears and the blue welcomes me.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008


About a week ago, I was at work when I saw my friend Jamar drinking some kind of flavored grape drink. It wasn't Gatorade, it was more like a knockoff energy drink that's like Gatorade, only packaged to look slick and modern.

"That's disgusting," I said. "I bet you like grape soda too."

"I love grape soda," said Jamar.

Now, grape soda--really, anything grape-flavored except actual grapes--and I have a simple understanding, namely I hate that shit and won't let it touch my lips. I think we've been able to replicate pretty much every flavor with varying degrees of success*, but science has simply failed to make artificial grape. It's TERRIBLE. It just tastes like purple--widely acknowledged to be the least tasty of any color. Blue is the best, in case you were wondering.

*We can replicate popcorn in jellybean form, for chrissakes.

Jamar is the first person* I've met IN MY LIFE who will admit to liking grape soda. I see it on supermarket shelves all the time, so someone has to be buying it. You'd think I know more of them.

*It has come to my attention that Adam Small and Marc Puleo both enjoy grape soda. Whatever. Point still stands.

Occasionally, I see advertisements for Christian music on television, and they fascinate me utterly. Apparently there are armies of people who go to these concerts and know every lyric, who close their eyes and do that thing where they lift their arms up in affirmation. That freaks me out a bit. I guess it allows you to commune with your fellow man in the spirit of group worship, but what if, like, someone steals your wallet? I guess theres a lot of trust at these things.

I don't know how popular said music is, but I gather it's got a pretty extensive fan base. I've met two people in my life who listen to it. Ever.

Preference and taste are important things. I may not be my khakis* or the music I listen to, but they define parts of me.

*Do I even own khakis anymore? I should check.

Could I be missing some key element in that whole process? Could all of us?

More than ever, it's appallingly easy to edit one's cultural experience. I don't listen to the radio anymore, so it's not necessary for me to hear music I hate in order to get to music I like. I can know everything about every movie that's out there right now--from plot, to cinematography, to character background--months before opening day. I read sports blogs by writers friendly to sabermetrics and the Red Sox. Ever get mad at something Bill O'Reily or Rush Limbaugh has said? I used to, but not anymore, cause they literally do not exist in my world. I don't know anyone who watches them.

Just now, my friend Yaron is editing movies of trips he's taken. His Mexico trip movie is on Facebook. Maybe fifteen years ago, this would have been a VHS tape. Thirty years ago, a slideshow. He couldn't just put it out there. He'd have to have people watch it, face-to-face.

They wouldn't be forced to, per se, but it'd be awfully rude not to. But now, it's buried somewhere in my mini-news feed on Facebook (made up only of people that I want to know), as an option. Only if I feel like it.

I've only tasted grape soda once in my life. How do I know I still don't like it?