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March 31, 2003

Theological porn, delivered to your inbox

There's nothing like the Christian fringe to turn any day into Aneurism Day for me. So imagine my apoplexy at seeing, on the MSN home page this morning, the question "Is the Rapture upon us?" No, Billg's house organ is not stumping for apocalypse... but some very wealthy Christofascists are. It was a banner ad
for Left Behind - Interpreting the Signs, a/k/a the Left Behind Prophecy Club.

I took at deep breath and clicked the link to find, in screaming type, "Will WAR IN IRAQ launch an unstoppable chain of events that lead to ARMAGEDDON? Find out when you subscribe to the Left Behind Prophecy Club." (Note the lack of subject-verb agreement there.) In other words, it is yet another revenue stream for Tim LeHaye and Jerry Jenkins, who must be God's favorite moneychangers in the temple. For just $29.95 a month, you can get even more dangerous twaddle about world events piled into you inbox!

For those of you lucky enough to have missed all this, Left Behind is a best-selling series of sub-Clancy-grade thrillers that riff upon the should-never-have-made-the-Bible prophecies of Revelation. The absolutely flabbergasting thing to me about this is that two well-known fundamentalist theologo-politicos would dare touch this material; Revelation is, after all, the only book of the Bible with a tripwire. To wit:

For I testify unto everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book, if anyone adds to these things, God will add to him the plagues that are written in this book; And if anyone takes away from the words of this book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part from the Book of Life, and from the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book. (Revelation 22:18-19)

But of course the Fundies ignore what they will despite the ridiculous claim that every word (even the self-contradictory ones) are the infallible Word of God.

So anyway, on this shifting rock have LeHaye and Jenkins build a towering edifice: an 11-book (and growing) series based upon the supposed signs of the coming of the end, with titles like "Apollyon: The Destroyer is Unleashed" and "The Indwelling: The Beast Takes Possession" and even (in full colonic fugue) "Assassins: Assignment: Jerusalem, Target: Antichrist." The truly sad and terrible thing is that millions and millions of these books have sold-- not only to people who were admittedly already victim to the worst fire-and-brimstone brainwashing but to a whole new class of otherwise normal people. For God's sake even David-- who is afraid he will burst into flame if he so much as darkens the door of a church-- has a copy of the first book, which he actually liked as a thriller. (Along with his blanket fatwaagainst leather furniture, this was the only moment I have doubted our otherwise wonderful relationship. But I digress.)

If they take any of this even half-seriously, how many of these Left Behind readers now bear the mark of what I call Eschatophilia? Because make no mistake... LeHaye and Jenkins love The End and want you to, too. The believe the world is so bad that it needs to end, right now. Eschatophilia is a sick brew of fear and anticipation based on a misguided theology that actually brings more happiness to its adherents the worse things get in the world. As you can imagine, that pretty well trashes the impulse toward improving things. And war with Iraq? Well, anything that brings the Second Coming closer is fine by them; if American oil companies get some sweet contracts in the mean time, even better.

If we agree to call this phenomenon eschatophilia, is there any avoiding the fact that Left Behind and its ilk is a species of pornography? It gives us something that creates a combination of thrill and dread and release, reliably enough that we know what we will get every time we open it up. And for pre-millenial true beleivers, every reading of an eschatophilic will send one prayerfully back into the arms of an angry God, begging forgiveness-- and that sounds just like every good little Christian boy I grew up with, right after he had borrowed Dad's Playboy for the thousandth time.

As you can tell, I am fairly bitter about this sort of thing. Having been raised in a church that bordered on outright holyrollerism, I got a fairly steady diet of Four Horsement and Seven Bowls of God's Wrath, etc. My family kept me from watching scary movies, but had no qualms with my reading, at age seven, Hal Lindsey's Late Great Planet Earth--previously the best selling prophetic page-turner. Of course all of its prophecies (chief among them nuclear war between the US and the Soviet Union over Israel) failed to come true. But somehow these prognosticators are never held to account for their paranoid rants.

My biggest problem with the Left Behind series is that its authors seem to have hit on a strategy for removing the risk from prophecy: make it self-fulfilling. If enough people are programmed to see The End coming in every headline, they will support ever-more-reckless policies that just might bring it about. Of course, knowing that Bush and senior administration officials have read these books is terrifying. Republican administrations have been openly infested with End-Timers at least since the Reagan era, when Interior Secretary James Watt said that protecting the environment was a waste of time because "I don't know how many future generations we can count on until the Lord returns."

Know your enemy: those of you who are less familiar with the "premillenial" theology behind the books would do well to read the Christian Courier's excellent and scripturally-grounded debunking. (And this is not some lefty Episcopalian site, either; it's a pretty conservative Church of Christ site with thoughtful articles arguing against the use of musical instruments in Christian worship; though it's pro-life, it is also passionate in its denunciation of the Lambs of Christ and other scary groups.) Among its other wise explanations, it deprives of its Biblical justification the unswerving commitment among many evangelicals to absolute Zionism, at whatever cost.

For the founding of the modern state of Israel is the hope upon which Eschatophilia is based. I want to be clear that there is a difference between supporting the right of Israel to exist (which I do) and believing that complete Israeli domination of Jerusalem and all of ancient Canaan is necessary for the Second Coming of Christ (which I think is the worst kind of fantasy). There is Zionism, and then there is Zion-fetishism. Zion-fetishism among Christians has contributed mightily to the current impasse by pushing the US towards a blank-check endorsement of the current Israeli administration's ruthlessly inhumane treatment of Palestinians. To the degree than Zion-fetishism influences US foreign policy to the region, it risks bringing about... exactly the catastrophes fringe Christians want to see.

Let me be clear here. I am a Christian, down to the last syllables of the Creed. That is why these people make me so unaccountably angry. What kind of a wimp do these idiots think Christ is? If God is omnipotent, His return does not depend on our petty human real estate arrangements; to believe otherwise is the worst kind of idolatry. These people seriously believe that The Temple is some sort of key that we have to unlock for the Almighty. Umm, hello? This Bible you claim to know so well and love so much? "For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief at night."(First Thessalonian 5:2) Like a thief in the fucking night, people. Notice the Bible doesn't say, "Like a thief in the night who makes sure people can read in MSN with their handy Revelation decoder ring to know when he's going to break in." I mean really.

"No man shall know the day or the hour," (Matt. 24:36) and that's how it should be. We should get back to the real work of Christians-- feeding the poor, healing the sick, and generally trying to be like Christ (which is, of course, far harder than turning prophecy into best-seller big business).

The real risk (in addition to eternal damnation for themselves and a purely human-wrought apocalypse, see above!) these people run is actually delaying the thing they are trying to hasten. The Jewish commitment to "good works" on Earth is motivated by a belief that we humans are charged by God with "Tikkun," roughly translated as "repair." The Fall of Adam broke a few things, and we should do our best to fix them. God is disappointed in us when we fail to do so. Kafka summed up the project by writing that "The Messiah will come only when he is no longer needed."

I might not go quite that far, but I will say that the mass of American Christians, to the extent that they waste their time and energy reading the Left Behind books and ticking off their lists of the "Signs of the End Times," don't really seem to me to deserve the First Coming, let alone the Second.

March 28, 2003

"Calibrate me."

I'm hitting the Slate pretty hard today-- in the midst of being wildly productive at work, I assure you. And I just found my new favorite phrase: "Calibrate Me".

While I technically agree with Timothy Noah that this Rumsfeld coinage is a bit arrogant, I'm going to use it anyway. I am, after all, in need of frequent calibration. (Hey Paulette and Julie: "You know who else is in need of frequent calibration? I am.") And I often depend on it from those around me.

Saying "Calibrate me" is way better than, say, insisting (like I did last night) that "Every Day is Like Sunday" is a Smiths song, not a Morrisey solo song. I even tried to bet David $50 (that I don't have!) that I was right-- thank God he wouldn't shake on that. Truth is, I needed calibrating. Which he did, as soon as we got home.

The War or The Core?

It's official. David Edelstein is now my favorite movie reviewer. I can't bring myself to say "film critic" as he just seems miles away from the Cahiers du Cinema crowd. And this is despite the fact that my college friend Michael Agger writes about film for The New Yorker (and apparently also Slate sometimes).

But this is about Mr. Edelstein. After my post yesterday, I now have to follow it up with a link to this hilarious review of The Core. He makes the excellent point that jitters about scary things going on in the world are perhaps best treated with movies about even scarier things going on in the world. (On that note, anyone up for watching Signs on DVD this weekend? Oh, here's a better link-- to Signs on my Amazon Wishlist!)

Anyway, how could you not love a review like this?

Here's the scariest stuff in the world organized according to the age-old rules of melodrama, complete with cartoony special effects. Here's a chance to empathize not just with the guy who has the bad fortune to be on the bridge as it collapses (i.e., the guy that most of us would be), but with the genius scientists and stalwart astronauts who pilot their super vessel (here a giant phallic drill made of something called "unobtainium" and nicknamed "Virgil") into Mother Earth. In the great tradition of Armageddon (1998), The Core spells out the American resolve in the face of disaster: Drill That Bitch.

Anyway, sounds much better than watching GWII on CNN all weekend.

March 27, 2003

Asstobust non disputandum est

While studiously not commenting on the (as it were) underlying issue, I do love the title of David Edelstein's Slate review of Dreamcatcher: Little Brown Men - The aliens of Dreamcatcher have a taste for human rectums. He actually manages to (ahem) top that in his review:

The FX guys have devised some great squiggly thingummies, and the pivotal toilet-bowl scene has a black-comic charge you're not likely to forget. Maybe that's appropriate: I am tempted to say that what King has concocted, consciously or not, is an elaborate allegory for homosexual panic, complete with anal intrusion by toothy phalluses and a resulting (Mr.) Gay Plague. There are practically no women in the picture: It all comes down to four buddies, a frail momma's boy with a terminal disease, and a bunch of "blue boys" devising a sort of catcher's mitt for killer eels and worms—

No, sorry, I can't go on. As Bill Murray put it in Tootsie (1982), "We're getting into a weird area here." Maybe Gus Van Sant could have run with it. But Kasdan is boringly straight, so whatever is really at the core of Dreamcatcher remains well, er, impacted.

More from Lisa in Moscow

My aunt Lisa in Moscow has just posted another item appropriately titled It's So Sad. I think she may need to get away to Seattle for a while!

March 26, 2003

Explanation for Albin

With entries like the one Paulette just wrote (following those links resulted in uncontrollable spastic laughter, in my third day on the job), f.a.n.s. is sure to be a huge worldwide hit by, like, next week. Until then, we apparently have a huge readership at the Williams-Sonoma call center in Oklahoma City.

That is, of course, where The Judy works. The Judy is, of course, my very own personal mother, the woman who gave birth to me lo these (almostbutnotquite) 30 years ago. So you can imagine The Judy's pride (The Judy's Pride being one of The Judy's great and unassailable qualities) at her very own personal son's very own personal blog with the son's very own personal writing up there on the World Wide Web for anyone with a browser to read.

I mean, it's not like her very own personal son is an actual published writer with a loving remembrance about a mother bearing an unmistakeable resemblance to The Judy on the New York Times Best Seller list for 87 weeks in a row, but clearly having a weblog is really really close to that kind of literary mega-celebrityhood-- just with no royalties, no publicist, and no pied-a-terre overlooking Central Park.

Anyway, having told several coworkers about this website that is really much better than filial megacelebrity what with all the lurking media attention that would entail, The Judy found herself having to explain this week why her very own personal son referred to her as The Judy in this post. Which was a challenge, as The Judy has never really understood this particular nomenclature system and has (on occassion) seemed fairly nonplussed by it. One coworker in particular, Albin, whom The Judy adores immensely, took some umbrage to The Judy being called The Judy (by her very own personal son, no less). According to The Judy, he said something along the lines of, "Don't they know that Judy is this sweet little thing we all have to protect and take care of?"

So here's the explanation, for Albin, and others. It's well timed, as The Judy is about to visit Seattle for her very own personal son's 30th birthday (which hasn't happened yet, not quite).

My sisters and I (whom, I should point out, are sometimes referred to collectively by The Judy as "The Porter Sisters," which I actually kind of like but which, you know, sort of makes you feel not too bad for calling her something funny, too) have had this thing for some years where we call each other Woobie. (This comes not from the rather obvious potential source Mr. Mom starring Michael Keaton but from my college roommate Sara, but that's another story altogether.) Or Woobs or Woobina or Woobster or some other permutation of the word. This is our collective term of endearment for each other, permissible for use by nobody else, and accurate in reference to nobody else. It's not like we three have some Jodie Foster "may tay in whinnn" idiolect or something, but if we did it would be known as Woobish. (Things can, by the way, exhibit woobish or woobitudinal qualities or act woobily.) Various significant others have at times felt somewhat excluded by this, but even they have had to learn the hard lesson that love alone cannot make one a Woobie (just a Woobie-lover). Woobiehood depends on blood and a deep shared experience of childhood at 8233 (to wit: avocado shag, schnauzer high-fives, and a deep hatred of umbrellas). Clearly, none of that made any sense to any of you, which is why we're Woobies and you're not.

All that to say, we kind of thought our beloved Mother felt left out of this world of Woobieness. And back about five years ago, she was going through a bad time with a bum hip and a lot of pain. It was in this time that the Woobieumvirate had a collective epiphany about the power, beauty, and grace of the very small woman who bore and birthed us. Mother, Mom, and Mommy seemed commonplace, inadequate monikers. In this moment, we realized that she is The Judy-- larger than life, action-packed, and robo-hipped. Able to cook for 25 while on powerful (perscription) narcotics, undaunted by the loudmouthed opinions of the children she raised to be fiercely independent, and just generally kick-ass in every way (even at those rare moments when she doesn't quite believe it about herself).

The Judy is our ultimate term of endearment. Truth be told, it also captures that ur-Mother element in her personality, her sense of drama (Drama!), and the John-Hancock-shaming sweep of her magisterial signature. But rest assured, Albin, and all lovers of The Judy everywhere: no one loves The Judy more than her Woobies three.

And that's why we call her The Judy. Any questions?

(Thanks to the W-S Posse for reading f.a.n.s., and to some of them for saying in The Judy's earshot that I'm "so hot!" and most of all for loving The Judy in an appropriate-for-the-workplace fashion. Apologies to David Foster Wallace for the appropriation of "my very own personal" and the highly appositive style of this post.)

March 25, 2003

nonedible nonfood

Not since the heady days of my mother's infamous creation "hot dog soup" have I been so frightened by the appearance of something purporting to be dinner. Well, there was also Doctor Zabdiel Boylston's Honeycomb Pudding, which had too long a name not involving food products that I should have been suspicious well before making it, but I was young, my dad was the head chef that day, and all I know is that the name was only descriptive if either the good doctor or a honeycomb generally resemble the title creature from the Blob. And can move by it's own willpower. Yeah, it really did that. Right off the cutting board and across the counter. I still get nightmares about it.

But I digress, which I do a lot, because, well, probably because I've got a serious and undiagnosed attention deficit disorder. Or because I've killed enough brain cells with alcohol, stress, and other such nonhealthy nonsmartening pursuits, that I'm incapable of staying on point for more than the first four or five words of a given sentence. See?

So where was I? Oh yes, I was being disturbed by food. Which is hard. I'm the kind of gal who actually seeks out such generally frightening dishes as sweetbreads, tripe, salt cod, and pickled fish. Hell, I ate a wide array of unidentifiable floral and faunal squiggly items in Japan without flinching. I ate fish face, eyeballs and all. So, you know, I'm hard to freak out when it comes to food. Unless, of course, the food in question is hot dog soup which is just sick and wrong, or something called Fluffy Mackeral Pudding which is even sicker and wronger. Yeah, the name is scary ok, but not half so scary as the image of "onion sauce" which really looks more like A Fish Named Carrie if you ask me.

What the hell? That's what you're thinking, isn't it? Well, I mean, unless you've already seen this site and know what the deal is. But basically, some guy posted all these recipe cards that Weight Watchers put out back in the '70s with amusing commentary, which couldn't have been that hard to come up with because, well, the cards are pretty fucking disturbing on their own. I mean, do you really need someone to tell you that anything called inspiration soup would be anything but to the tastebuds, or that rosy perfection salad must have been created by someone who understood the meaning of the word irony much better than Alanis Morissette?

Now, I'm a fan of Weight Watchers. I recommend them like crazy because, well, you know, they kind of saved me and all, got me back on the straight and narrow, or at least, thinner, and I never really thought of them as some weirdass "Here drink this...uhm...Kool-aid" kind of an organization that pulls you in and exerts weird mind control over you, but these cards are kind of making me wonder if Jim Jones didn't go on to take over their culinary design division after making such a mess in Guyana.

March 24, 2003

Wine me, dine me, put me on the Web!

Nothing like a trip to the Continent to wake up one's inner wine snob (which, truth be told, wasn't sleeping too heavily)... Some web searching today led me to a great site onWA, Seattle Wine Dinners, Tastings, Classes And Education. What I was-- and still am-- really looking for is a decent wine club, but this works. The weekend of my birthday there is a fabulous Washington Wine Event at the Stadium Ex, but $85 a person sounds kind of high. Still, a great list of participating wineries and restaurants, and it sounds like something The Judy would love.

Bizarre Schwab spot

Just to vindicate a comment I made last night during the Academy Awards, I'm not the only person who found the new Charles Schwab add freakish. Slate's Rob Walker (always astute) had this to say in this wrap-up of how advertisers are dealing with the war:

Be vaguely inspirational: By far the strangest ad of the night was a spot for Charles Schwab, the discount broker. Shot in black and white, it showed people filing out of Wall Street buildings, forming a huge crowd, and marching away from lower Manhattan over the Brooklyn Bridge as the announcer talked about Schwab having sparked a "revolution." Last time we saw people streaming out of downtown on foot was, of course, Sept. 11. To echo that image, at any time, is bizarre in the extreme.

But I totally disagree with this estimate:


And Washington Mutual hit all the wrong notes with a couple of Jackass-esque ads. In one, a dirt-biker flies off a cliff and smashes into the rocks below. In another, a guy endures a bad drill job by his dentist, then gets hit in the crotch with a bowling ball. What does this have to do with Washington Mutual's services? Actually, what are Washington Mutual's services? These spots were pointless in a way that transcended current events.

We were all howling at the WaMu ads-- maybe they're just a hometown favorite, but I love all their recent ads.

Where is Raed?

A citizen of Baghdad who calls himself Salam Pax is somehow still updating his blog Where is Raed ?. As the Guardian reports, speculation among the worldwide blog community (and now even mainstream journos) is rife. Where does he live? Is Raed his gay lover? Who knows, and who cares? It's a fascinating read.

March 23, 2003

We're home!

Well, the trip back was uneventful. It was a great trip, but it is really wonderful to be home.

I wanted to get photos posted before Miss Brooks got all upset... they are here, and I'll add some more musings on the trip in the next several days and do some link annotation as well.

Also, apparently there was some trouble with the link to "Tompkins Abroad" I sent out, but it is up and running here.

March 19, 2003

Oh yeah, another thing

I adore Tony Blair. The man rocks!

Paris in the springtime

So I'm in London, meeting up with my friend Jackie this afternoon for some museum-going followed by dinner and the Meeting of the Significant Others, but right this minute my leg hurts, I'm sweating under way more jacket than I really needed to bring today, and in sum I am just not feeling like a terribly adventuresome tourist this morning. So I decided to stop and catch up on my electronic life.

I should begin this by mentioning that as excited as I was to rendezvous with David in Paris for Phase II of the "Jay Porter International Gimp of Leisure European Tour 2003," I could easily have stayed in Moscow another week. A great city, a great trip, and (as I have long kown) such wonderful and amazing family. I was so sad to say goodbye to Rick and Lisa and have Lisa and Pavel drive me to Sheremetyevo. Once there, I faced an entirely chaotic check-in area and a long line at Passportne Kontrola-where my wish to stay in Moscow was almost granted!

The woman (who bore an alarming resemblance to Bert from Sesame Street fame) in the kiosk looked at me, then looked at my passport photo. About 100 times. Then she called over another officer. More comparison. I am commanded (I finally figured out) to turn in profile. None of this satisfies them. I should point out that although the passport photo shows me in my Dr. Evil shaved head phase, it's still a pretty good resmeblance-only two years old, unlike the aged photos of many people I know. Anyway, they call over a Russian Army officer, with what I can only assume was a Kalahnikov in tow, and parley with him for a moment. He looks at me, they talk some more, he inspects my passport thoroughly, and then walks off. Bert-woman holds up her index finger in the universal signal for, wait a minute. I'm now completely freaked out. Two more minutes pass, bringing my time at the kiosk to easily seven minutes. The enture queue is now scrutinizing the perspiring American in leg brace and with cane who is, by all appearances, trying to travel with forged papers. I'm standing there, wondering what the problem could be, when Bertevna miraculously just waves me on through. I look sheepishly for Kommandant Kalashnikov but it's clear that she's decided I can go. The though passes through my mind that my Russian hosts might just pick every 10th American for a little sport harrassment.

Anyway, my Aeroflot to Paris was lovely-again, a great meal, a good seat, and nobody next to me. Landing at Charles de Gaulle, just as when I arrived in Moscow, the Russians on board broke out in applause. I cannot overstate how disturbing this is, as if they all knew how tenuous our in-flight survival had been-as if there had been an all-Russian announcement mid-flight: "This is your captain speaking. Please do not scare the American in seat 26D, but we forgot to fill up the plane and we're going to run out of gas any minute. This is our lot in life as Russians. The flight attendants will now bring you vodka. Thank you for flying Aeroflot!"

Anyway, I cleared immigration and got my bag without incident. Given my leg, the vagaries of getting to Paris, and the romance of arriving together, David felt strongly that I should just wait for him at the airport-which was quite sensible. I arrived a little before 3, and he was due in just after 6 from Basel. But his plane kept getting delayed, 5 minutes at a time, and gate information was never available. So I waited. By 6:20, I was a little freaked out-like they didn't really know where it was, or something. Perhaps Air France was secretly as iffy as Aeroflot? Anyway, when the gate information did appear, it was "1"-which looked a lot more like a terminal than a gate to me. In one of those errors one could only make after obsessing about something for too long, I decided that he was arriving at Terminal 1, not Terminal 2 where I had been waiting. So I jumped on the next shuttle for Terminal 1. Arriving at Terminal 1, where no Air France arrivals were in evidence, I realized my own stupidity. So I hastily called David's phone and left voicemail apprising him of the depths of my ignorance of the ways of Roissy Aerogare Charles de Gaulle. Then I immediately caught the wrong shuttle, prolonging my journey a good 10 minutes, requiring a hasty change to a terribly crowded tram, and generally frustrating myself to an astouding degree. I finally arrived back at Terminal 2, redfaced and sweaty, to see David calmly waiting for me. Being the prince that he is, he didn't even laugh at me. Well, maybe one chuckle, well earned.

As I see my Internet time dwindling on a handly little count-down bar, I realize that I should really just compress the whole stay in Paris into a single impressionistic sketch. The colors are sky blue, wine red, and the amazing range of slates and greens and creams that is the inimitable architecture of Paris. Every meal was amazing. Our first night David took me to his favorite place, just blocks from our charming hotel-I kept wanting to go back! Our last night I instinctively recognized that a little spot I passed by coming back from the Centre Pomidou would be great-and it is now tied for the title of "favorite restaurant in Paris." Of course Paris is every bit as romantic as promised, and David and I had a wonderful time. We did the Orsay and the Picasso museum and I caught the truly stunning Philippe Starck retrospective at the Pompidou. (Link to come, I promise!)

Lisa and Rick will understand what I mean when I say that I really missed Pavel in Paris! Having a full-time driver will REALLY spoil you! (Right Miss Welch?) The Metro is great, blah blah blah, but it is a huge pain in the ass with a bum knee-so many little flights of stairs, with hurried Parisians buffeting me on all sides. And I emerged with a strong opinion that children should not be allowed on the Eiffel Tower. Getting around without my leg brace is nice and all, but it offered visible evidence that I was not in full working order; one might assume that a cane would convey the same message, but no. About 20 kids almost knocked me over, and one bumped into my leg with such gleeful abandon that I was tempted to lobb his yipping American ass over the side. (David is only too happy to hear me speak ill of children, as he tends to hear the phrase "well-behaved child" as an absolute oxymoron.) I did learn to do the city busses pretty well-and they have the added benefit of showing you the sights. I probably could have saved 20 Euro and not done the silly tour bus. When I go back, I look forward to walking Paris just as thoroughly as I did Rome.

Oh, and just as dicky as my knee is my French. As with my Italian in Rome, I can speak fairly well if I consider carefully what I want to say. But my listening comprehension is terrible. Of course I could read Le Figaro in its entirety-which is really great if you want a first-hand perspective on how much the French hate and fear America Rex Mundi, but just not as useful as being able to carry on a conversation in a bar. As promised, I avoided using my French any time David was in earshot. It is really, really nice to be in London after first Moscow-where even decoding the alphabet was a challenge-and then Paris where I was mocked by my former mastery of the language. I really should have cemented my high school studies (I was, after all, awarded "Best French Language Student in Oklahoma" in 1991, for what little that is worth) with a visit to France back then. But as I told David at least once (OK, four times), the joys of seeing Paris for the first time with such a wonderful guide made it absolutely worth the wait.

Well, my time is up and a sunny London afternoon beckons. I'm off!

March 13, 2003

A nonfamous sister site!

nonfamous.com now has a sister site-- or rather, an aunt-and-uncle site:
Tompkins Abroad. Thanks to the miracles of the MovableType system, I used up only 30 minutes of my vacation (well invested, I might add) setting Rick and Lisa up with a blog of their own. If I have ever forwarded you any of her emails, you know how much our life is about to be enriched!

Lisa's first post , about her kitchen sink, is hilarious.

March 12, 2003

More Moscow notes

I am awfully taken by Moscow. It is filthy with slush and sand and salt in the roads and on the sidewalks; the traffic approaches Rome levels of threat to passenger and pedestrian alike, with the worst system of one-way streets imaginable; and it is a terribly expensive city. But despite all this, despite the fact that it still hurts to walk and climb the million stairs involved in going anywhere, I am loving my stay and already plotting my triumphant summer return when I plan to be fleet of foot and warm under a canopy of birches.

Of course a great deal of this is due to Rick and Lisa’s amazing hospitality. We are having so much fun—especially Lisa and me as Rick has had to work (except for Monday, a holiday). Monday we went to Novo Deveichy monastery, which was lovely but treacherous; I very nearly fell and as it was tweaked my leg a bit—but I swear, no serious harm. Then we went to the Old Arbat, full of street vendors and souvenir shops. Rick bought Lisa a couple of gorgeous lacquer boxes, and I upgraded to a larger and somewhat ornate rosewood cane (which has prevented two other ass-over-teakettle moments).

Monday night for dinner we went to a truly fabulous restaurant called Pushkin. It is the epitome of classic pre-Revolutionary Russian style, with about a million black-suited waiters, a six-level dining room, and the most ornate and ancient elevator imaginable. The friezes along the ceilings, the light fixtures, the books on the shelves—it was exactly what you would imagine late-Romanov dining must have been like. Rick and I had an amazing borsch—which I love—followed by sturgeon for Rick and some sort of deer sausage for me, which was slightly disappointing. (I cannot remember what Lisa had!) I tried to order the very same bottle of Bandol that figured so prominently in my SS+K dinner, but they were out; we settled for a 1996 Pomerol that did quite nicely (at around $85 a bottle it was nearly the cheapest on a list that went into the high four figures). For dessert, our waiter misheard us and tried to bring some sort of stuffed tomato item, which we dispatched back to the kitchen to the waiter’s brief distress. We enjoyed these tart cherry rice dumplings and a pistachio crème brulee that was out of this world. Rick did at least let me get the wine, but only after I threatened to “pull a Papaw” over the check.

Imagine my utter shock the next day when Lisa’s wonderful book club friend Julia informed me that Pushkin is a complete confection—“it was a whole lotta nothin’ two years ago. They made it out of whole cloth.” It is a little bit of Disney on the Tverskaya Ulitsa. While I was a little heartbroken to have been so completely taken in by a fake, I was somewhat consoled that not only Americans indulge in this kind of simulacrum. In any case, there is no faking amazing food.

Back to the book club. Lisa is a member of (truth be told) quite an exclusive and hard-to-get-into book club for expat women. They were very kind to accept me as their interloper du jour. Tuesday’s topic was Bulgakov, a writer whose work I knew too little about. It was a fascinating disucussion, led by a well-versed if terribly clumsy academic, about his life and work, focusing on “The Heart of a Dog,” his astounding mid-30s satirical novella. The book, which comments on the New Soviet Man by way of a doctor’s wild experimental grafting of human testicles and thyroid into a street mutt, is quite nearly perfect and a very quick read; the full version was confiscated by the KGB and remained locked in its archives until 1988. I am dying to read his great work, The Master and Margarita, which is among other things a meditation on Christian themes in a soulless Soviet context. As other writers and public figures were executed for far lesser critiques of the Soviet system, Stalin actually helped keep Bulgakov alive; they had a bizarre relationship, full of official sadism and apparently avid readership by Stalin himself. Our professor speculated that in fact Bulgakov was allowed to live because Stalin was one of the few to read The Master and Margarita as it was serially confiscated by the authorities—and that killing the troublesome writer would have prevented its completion. I will add some more notes on Bulgakov in coming days, but he is definitely my new favorite Russian writer.

The book club was held at an expat home north of the city in an exclusive gated development—but one a little less scary than the adjacent development, which is basically a Houston suburb plopped down a 30 minute drive from the Kremlin, with Preston Contemporary homes starting at $8,000 a month.

Which brings me to the topic of driving again. One of the defining features of our visit is Pavel, Rick and Lisa’s driver. Neither my aunt or uncle are insane enough to drive in this city—virtually all managerial expats have a car and driver supplied by work. Especially given my gimpy state and the black ice on the sidewalks, Pavel has been a lifesaver for me—but perforce Rick and Lisa depend on him a lot themselves. Lisa takes the Metro some—and at times it is more convenient than battling traffic—but Rick’s office is not easily accessible except by car. Pavel, who is apparently a teetotaling evangelical Christian father of three, logs many hours and probably 100 miles in the car every weekday, and then some. He speaks good English, but is always asking questions to improve it further. Rick and Lisa will probably never find an equal to Surono, their beloved Indonesian driver, but Pavel is a great, good-natured guy with an encyclopedic knowledge of every Moscow sidestreet (or “perulok”). I am all for the revival of religion after the brutal Soviet suppression of the Church, but Pavel does give me an odd feeling that the pendulum is swinging awfully hard the other way. An attempt to discuss Russian literature ended with a flat dismissal: “I’d rather read the Bible.” I fear his worldview does not include a bedside table where the Bible and Bulgakov jostle for space. But the oddest moment—one that showed me that tech geeks are the same the world over—was when he looked at my (quite serviceable) digital camera and said, “Hmmm… Only 2.1 megapixels.” I suppose I really have to upgrade now.

Last night Pavel had to rush back up to Rick’s office to pick him up in time to get him back home in time for us all to get to the Bolshoi Theater for the 7:00 opening of “1001 Nights” staged by the Azerbaijani Ballet and Opera Company. Pavel’s mom had arranged for the tickets; if you get a chance to sit in the fifth row of the Bolshoi, I really can’t recommend it highly enough—no matter how is dancing. The theater is altogether astounding, with its six levels of boxes and ornate loges that have served several versions of a ruling class since their construction. The ballet was spotty, but good toward the end; the shaky moves of some of the dancers was balanced by the sure knowledge that dancing at the Bolshoi was an indelible moment for them. We clapped hard, but cleared out before the rush so that I wouldn’t be trapped on the stairs—a constant occurrence this week as busy Muscovites swarm around me. I may still have to set my brace to asskicking and get all Jackie Chan with my cane before I get to Paris; of course there’s no doubt I’ll want to hit somewhere there upside the head, so perhaps I should practice.

After the Bolshoi, we headed to Petrovich, a restaurant/club recommended to me by Masha, one of David’s coworkers who is a Moscow expat in LA. It is owned by a well-known cartoonist; though it is putatively members-only, Masha felt they would let a troika of nice foreigners in. After an exasperating exchange with the dashing but dour doorman, we were allowed into the dining room—where the truly sorry state of our collective knowledge of Russian became obvious. It is one thing to see a huge sign on a building and work to decode the Cyrillic into something that might sound familiar. It is another thing altogether to face a 10-page photocopied menu (made to look like bureaucratic forms from some gulag circa 1962) with scarcely a word of English. Thank God we had the world’s most patient waiter; among the four of us, we managed to order an amazing meal that featured three times more food than we needed. The highlights were Rick’s borsch (excellent), Lisa’s blini with red and black caviar, and my amazing steak—and a huge mound of frites that we barely made a dent in. All that plus lots and lots of piva (beer) set us back less than $30 a person—definitely our best dining value yet.

When we got home, I was able to call David, who arrived in Berlin without incident (or, sadly, an upgrade). I realized speaking to him how torn I am—so eager to join him in Paris yet so enjoying my time here. And everyone’s prediction is true—with no work worries, I have just totally relaxed. I must say that I do think the expat joke is true—all the men pray every night to come back as expat wives after they die. While I know that there are many trials and tribulations for Lisa and her peers (learning how to go grocery shopping in a strange culture, being far away from family, etc.), I’m definitely going to tell David that his company needs to open an office here. Or perhaps SS+K wants to help build some of Moscow’s odd native brands into global superpowers. If anyone wants to send me here—to be a high-paid executive or a well-read house husband—I’m game.

So I’m trailing off, but today was the Big Kremlin Trip. We were all honestly a bit worried about the logistics on this one—it’s not that I can’t walk, it’s just that the effort of staying on my feet with a world of icy flagstones below is both physically and mentally exhausting. (Actually, it’s the 300-year-old footpath that gently slopes down toward the main entrance to too many buildings that is the real trouble.) Anyway, Lisa and I met our tour guide at 10 and figured out that it would be better not to walk the half-mile to the Kremlin gates—Pavel to the rescue again. We caught up with our guide—and an uncharacteristically dour Canadian family—at the gates after 10 minutes in a cold wind off the Moskva River warding off sketchy types intent on selling me a Red Army hat (which I really sort of wanted, just not that second). The outdoor sections of the tour were cold and treacherous (relatively speaking—the 4 degree Celsius weather was actually pretty good on both counts) but beautiful; I know we all know this by now but the Kremlin so does not look the part it was cast during the Cold War. The restored (and reconsecrated) cathedrals were really moving, particularly the Cathedral of the Domition of Mary with its lovingly restored frescoes and towering iconostasis. The Armory, too, was almost too much to take in—the Cindarella carriages, Catherine the Great’s wasp-waisted gowns, and centuries’ worth of mindbendingly ornate decorative arts given to the ruling family by European powers. We were especially taken by the 16th-17th century English gilt silverware—the world’s finest collection, as London’s lot was smelted by Cromwell and company to make coins—and by Boris Gudonov’s chain mail suit, whose every ring is inscribed “If God be with us, who can be against us.” (The answer, of course, was “some scheming scumbag in your family who wants your throne,” as it ws the answer for half of Russian history.) Oh, yeah, and the Sevres collection that Napoleon sent over just before he laid waste to half of the Russian Empire. (If you ever forget what a bastard that Napoleon was, visit Moscow.)

We continued the week’s Bulgakov theme by dining at the very same Café Margarita mentioned in the book, right at Patriarch’s Pond. Our waitress really couldn’t have cared whether we lived or died, but lunch was great and we were starving. After lunch, we ended our sightseeing today (Wednesday) with a brief stop at the Museum of the Revolution—or more precisely, its dingy but rewarding gift shop, where Lisa and I scored huge with Russian Propaganda posters. I think I took care of pretty much everyone on my list—so if you don’t like Soviet Realism, please email me immediately and I’ll get you a miniature Eiffel Tower in Paris.

Once home, I iced my knee and took a nap (the first of my visit). When Rick got home from a fairly shitty day at the office, we all went to Maharaja, the Indian restaurant where everybody knows his name (it was his favorite standby while Lisa was back in the States this Fall). Yum—and everyone spoke English. (I must say, despite my fears of using “nous” instead of “on” and generally embarrassing myself in front of M. David Francophone Smith, my return to the Roman alphabet and a language I’ve had more than a day’s study of will be only too welcome.) Back safely in our perch above Zkukovsgogo Ulitsa, we watched another episode of Six Feet Under, almost catching me up to where I became a regular viewer.

So… Tomorrow the Tretiakov Galleries (both old and new) and who knows what else.

March 10, 2003

Welcome to Moscow

Well, I arrived mostly without incident and am having a wonderful time with Rick and Lisa here in Moscow. The sob story of BA's inability to get me an aisle seat landed me an upgrade to World Traveler Plus from Seattle to London (thanks, knee-- and the lovely Charlene!) and I had a whole row of four to myself on the surprisingly enjoyable Aeroflot into Moscow. (Great food, shockingly.) My bag did not make it until the next day, but this was not tragic. After a stop on the way home from the airport for pizza and "piva" (beer), I slept really well. No trouble from the knee, apart from a little stiffness.

Sunday was great-- we had a little light breakfast and then went to lunch at a truly fabulous restaurant called Nostalgie. It was old world charm meets new Russian money, with spectacular results. We had amazing blinis with red caviar, and the foie gras with Rick's tuna was absolutely the best I have ever had (Paulette, I was thinking of you!). My steak was excellent, and Lisa's crepe Suzette for dessert was the perfect end to the meal (Rick and I ate almost all of it). After that, R&L's really nice driver Pavel (more on him later) took us to Red Square. Wow. Again, more on that later after we go back. We could not get into GUM-- the giant amazing department store-- due to something that looked like a cross between crowd control and military exercises. We walked over to the Hotel Metropole (and I was a bit cold and sore of knee by now) and had tea. Pavel picked us up, and after some reconnaissance for a bar David's coworker Masha recommended, we returned home.

Rick and Lisa have the DVDs for the first season of Six Feet Under-- which I had not seen. It was their first viewing of any of the series, and they love it. Especially Rick. We had to cut him off after four episodes so we could get some sleep (not that I got too much... I am a bit out of sorts with the 11 hour time difference). We watched another this morning with breakfast, and as soon as I sign off we are off to the Novodeveichy Monastery. My big victory of the morning: calling and confirming in my phrasebook Russian that it is indeed open today. Score one for phonetic transcription!

More updates later.

March 07, 2003

Project Steve

As a scientist, the whole creationism debate infuriates me. Why is it that those that are wrong always have the best PR, and can whip up a list of "scientists" to support theories that no real scientist even gives a second thought to? The media eats that shit up though. So it's nice to see something like Project Steve. A list of 200+ scientists -- including 2 Nobel laureates -- willing to sign there name behind evolution ... all called Steve. Classic! Check out the media links. Nice to see scientists for once tackling the problem not with reason (which rarely works to sway public opinion), but with wit.

March 04, 2003

This... is... JEOPARDY!

Originally emailed 2/27/03 following my sound drubbing on Jeopardy...

The Short Version:
I didn’t win. I did have fun.

The Slightly Longer Version:
I was fodder for the Jeopardy mill, falling not ignobly to a true machine of a Jeopardy player who was, I feel certain, on his way to being a five-time champion. And at some point in the future I will receive a $1,000 check for my troubles. All in all, a very memorable and enjoyable experience.

The Full Version that Reveals Details You Might Want to Save for the Show’s June 17 Air Date, So Don’t Say I Didn’t Warn You:


The whole weekend was great (this was, after all, a vacation as well as a Syndicated Television Trivia Ordeal!). David and I arrived late Friday and made our way to my dear friend Steven’s great new apartment just off the beach at Venice. David and I tooled around Saturday in our rented convertible, saw the sights, went to the Getty Center, got a bit of a sunburn, and then joined Paulette for our friend Jason’s thirtieth birthday party in Manhattan Beach. Sunday we were mostly bums, with a nice dinner at a funky Polynesian place off Fairfax with Paulette, our friend Daniel, and his friend Troy. Steven’s return from Acapulco on Sunday added even more fun to the mix—catching up with him was a highlight of the weekend. Monday excepted, it was a fun, relaxed, and surprisingly restful time. (Oh, I got food poisoning from a chicken sandwich at LAX on the way back—thus the day’s delay on answering all the urgent emails and phone calls about how I did on the show. I’m better now.)

Everyone at Jeopardy was incredibly nice and very, very concerned with my well-being given the gigantic leg brace sitting atop the trousers to my new suit. (Hey, if you’re going to lose, look good doing so—that’s one of many lessons I’ve learned playing rugby with the Quake! I was the best-dressed contestant that day, by a long shot.) Every 5 minutes some Jeopardy staffer would ask if I wanted a chair to play from (emphatically, no), needed to put my leg up (a good idea, actually), and if I was in any pain (“Oh, it’s really nothing—just enough to keep me sharp”). At three weeks after my ACL surgery, I was actually in pretty good shape, but to hear the Jeopardy folks you would have thought I was crossing the Sahara with a couple of bloody stumps... But of course I didn’t mind the attention, as it unnerved my 12 fellow contestants endlessly. The whole morning of coaching and makeup and “Hometown Howdy” practice kept rolling back to my injury. I even got to sit in a directors chair right offstage so as to avoid the stairs where the other contestants were sitting, cracking jokes with the assistant stage manager. If you are going to be on Jeopardy, I highly recommend being maimed to that precise degree that evokes sympathy—everyone else was treated pretty much like the carefully selected cattle we were. (Well, no cattle prods were used, but they move a lot of contestants through the Jeopardy feedlot in a year and for obvious reasons try not to get too attached to many of us.)

Having David, Paulette, and Steven in the audience was the greatest feeling— they are the kind of friends who just make you more confident by their presence, even if their confident smiles were a good façade for deeper turmoil. (Steven later reported that David was nervous enough for the both of us... Given his generally unflappable nature, the fact that he was visibly shaking through my entire match is really sweet.) I knew that they would love me even if I lost badly and just as importantly refrain from commenting on my errors until I had consumed at least one martini.

We did some practice questions, during which I actually outplayed the aforementioned Jeopardy Machine. Then I watched as he demolished his two opponents in the first match of the day; but I knew all but a handful of the questions asked, so I felt ready to go up against him. Pride goeth before a fall.

In the random draw of contestants, I was chosen for the second match of the day. Against the Machine and a Nice Gal from Atlanta. If she had been a slightly weaker player (like either in the first match) I would have had a better chance of beating the Machine. But she was smart and fast and despite the fact that I led her for most of the match, I was fighting a two-front war.

And a war on some nasty territory. The categories in the first round were in some weird TV-show schema— with names like Monk, Taken, and “ER.” The questions were not about these shows, but the overall effect was a bit confusing. I did OK, but Machine got an early lead and the round’s one Daily Double. He was just blindingly fast on the buzzer.

The second round had some killer categories (International Law and Unusual Trees) but I did well, coming within a couple grand of the Machine at one point. So when I hit the second Daily Double (he, of course, got the first) I gambled big-- $5,000 of my $12,000. Damn Unusual Trees—that’s all I have to say. So left with little money, squarely in third place, I went for broke— literally. I made some quick guesses with the few questions left on the board (a got a couple, lost a couple) and bet the remainder on the Final Jeopardy category— which I will not spoil for you. I got it wrong (but don’t feel too bad about my guess, which was at least a well-founded guess), and Nice Gal got it right, and so came in a respectable second place. So I ended the competition with no money and an odd sense of pride that I had managed, as Joan Didion would put it, to play it as it lays. This is perverse, but for a second I was almost glad to have had my turn and moved on... I could tell that winning at Jeopardy was quite likely the highlight of the Machine’s life, and I was inclined to let him have it and go on to other competitions, other rewards. (Not to mention my trip to Moscow, Paris, and London that starts next week— nothing like a dream vacation to salve a loss.)

I also just wanted to sit down. By the end of the match, my leg was really shaky— standing stock still that long was quite a test. But we had to stand and banter with Alex after the match, and I must say we had quite a nice conversation, to the absolute exclusion of both my competitors. (Clearly, Alex was already bored of The Machine.) As it turns out, Alex needs his ACL done and has been putting it off for years. I extolled the virtue of modern arthroscopic techniques and urged him to get it done before he hurt it worse. He told me he knew he should, but that I was young and athletic and his recovery would not be as easy. That was the end of our banter— he had to dash off to change.

Not one but two Jeopardians brought me my crutches and helped me down off the stage, reuniting me with my friends, who seemed happy just to have me back from the war. I signed my receipt for $1,000 and took my Jeopardy home PC game (gag) and headed for the green room (not green at all, actually) to retrieve my unneeded changes of clothing. When you lose, none of the other contestants will look you in the eye. I made a point of congratulating my elders and betters from the match, and both were gracious. I told the Machine to keep winning, because I didn’t want to go down to a mere three-day winner— I’m not sure his next two victims appreciated that. I will be quite eager to watch that whole week of matches!

Bag in tow, I met my dear friends outside the soundstage and hopped on the little golf cart that was carrying us to the studio exit. Within 10 minutes, we arrived at Campanile, the charming lunch spot Paulette had selected—housed in what used to be Charlie Chaplin’s home. We had a great lunch (thanks Steven!) and I sat there, made up like a streetwalker (or at least a weatherman) getting pleasantly plastered and enjoying repeated assurances from some of my favorite people in the world that I had gone down like a champ. That and $1,000 felt pretty good, even if it was about to rain in Los Angeles, and even if at some point my family, friends and 15 million viewers would soon learn that I couldn’t come up with Cate Blanchett’s damn last name in a crunch.

That, friends, is my Jeopardy story.