Monday, June 30, 2014

Five years and one month

I am still alive and contrary to the unfounded speculations still live in sanctuary in First Lutheran Church in Vancouver.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Jerome, Zamyatin, Orwell, Bradbury

I've got amazing powers of observation
Pink Floyd Nobody Home
I read Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 when I was thirteen or fourteen years old--the book in Russian translation was in my parents' library. I liked it a lot, but to me the novel seemed too pessimistic; after all, like the majority of the Soviet Union's population, I was brought up to believe that the humanity was just one step away from the luminous future of total prosperity and happiness. So, I thought of Fahrenheit 451 as a wonderful piece of science fiction whose author just happened to be a nihilist. I read all short stories that were included into the book. One of them, The Murderer, was quite memorable partly because the narration had an unexpected humorous tone, and I brought my friends and myself to hysterical laughter reading it to them. Yet, the characters, events and technological fantasies seemed in many cases, like The Fox and the Forest of 1951, improbable or irrelevant--it still was just a fiction albeit scientific, same as The Hour of Bull (1968) by Ivan Efremov (the novel was banned in the USSR in 60s and 70s; I really appreciated it when I had a chance to get it into my hands, but found his The Andromeda Nebula of 1957 too rosy and boring despite the fact that it was highly acclaimed by the Soviet literary officialdom), Stanislaw Lem's Return from the Stars (1961), The Ugly Swans (1972) by the Strugatsky brothers, Isaac Asimov's stories, and others. That was one of the reasons why eventually I lost my interest to the science fiction genre in the early 1980s, but I never forgot those books--they played an important role in forming my philosophic views.

Then I lived through the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the first four years of the chaos and turmoil of the post-Soviet Russia. My family and I were very fortunate to stay in Japan for two years. Since 1997 we have been residing in Canada. It was amazing to witness how rapidly new technologies were changing the daily reality, lifestyle, and psychology of the society and individuals. That was when those books I had read so many years ago started ringing some new bells. Ray Bradbury's The Murderer, published in 1953, sounds like a 2009 story or a news report about somebody who decided to rebel against being wired and online 24/7/365. Ray Bradbury with an astonishing precision predicted what kind of detrimental effects could be brought about to the human nature and behavior by technology. That was impressive enough to revisit his ideas as well as other serious sci-fi writers. Then, I finally read 1984. Despite the fact that it was greatly influenced by Yevgeny Zamiatin's novel We, George Orwell taps into his own power of observation which brings him among other things a foresight of a dispute over the Arctic between the "super-states." However, for the sake of fairness, it should be noted that Zamiatin himself was not completely original in his view on the future of the humankind--allegedly he was familiar with Jerome K. Jerome's (I read his Three Men in a Boat in Russian translation in mid-70s and in English several years ago--one of the best comic books ever written) The New Utopia (1891) and borrowed some ideas from this work. However, it's unlikely that Zamiatin would have included Jerome K. Jerome's concepts into his writing if he had totally disagreed with them; same applies to Orwell. It means that they all, through studying history and observing their contemporary societies, built extrapolations and projections of the future and came to the similar conclusions. And the works of their predecessors confirmed that they were on the right track.

It looks like life is finally catching up with the best pieces of science fiction of 50s and 60s and many of them read like today's accounts. But the work of the observant mind never stops--even the popular culture in the last 10-15 years (films like Blade Runner, Fortress, Outbreak, Twelve Monkeys, Gattaca, The Matrix, Artificial Intelligence: AI, Minority Report, I Robot, The Island, Children of Men to name the few) created a very detailed picture the human civilization can turn into within 100-200 years. This picture doesn't seem very appealing, but it probably shouldn't concern us, should it? Aren't these merely futuristic fantasies of pessimistic culturati, which have no chance to come true? Time will tell, but at least we have been warned.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

The Little Hedgehog in the Fog

One evening, when I stayed in the church's office longer than usual and it was quite a late hour to call my family, I decided to search YouTube for a couple of animated films produced in the USSR, Treasure Island and Adventures of Captain Vrungel, which were very popular in 1980s--I felt like watching them again. As it usually happens in the Internet universe, one search lead to another and I ended up on the site rating Soviet and Russian animated films. I was amazed and pleased to discover how many respondents put on the best spot The Little Hedgehog in the Fog of 1975. This 10-minute film based on Sergei Kozlov's script, in 2003 was voted "No. 1 animated film of all time." I always loved this deceivingly simple but profoundly philosophic and highly poetic work, where answers are intended to be found, not just given away. In 1981, my mother happened to buy for my younger sister a book of short stories by Sergey Kozlov titled The Little Hedgehog in the Fog. I don't remember if I had already seen the film--I don't think it makes any difference--but when on one of my visits to my parents this book accidentally got into my hands and I read two-three stories, I felt like I found Atlantis or something. I borrowed the book to show my friends at the Asian Studies Department--most of us lived in the same dormitory. It was returned to my room a month or so later with visible signs that it had changed many hands. "Man, it's pure Zen," was all one of my fellow students, who was the first I gave the book to, could say. It is wonderful that this masterpiece is available on YouTube with English subtitles.

Another work that is considered one of the best animated films is There Once Was a Dog.

The Soviet and post-Soviet animators created a large number of outstanding films many of which have become an integral part of the cultural identity and contributed into the contemporary folklore. This short account would be incomplete without mentioning three films about Winnie-the-Pooh and his friends--Winnie-the-Pooh, Winnie-the-Pooh Goes Visiting, Winnie-the-Pooh And the Day of Concerns Part 1 and Part 2. Understandably translation is incapable to deliver all nuances of the narration and dialogues, yet the English subtitles these films are coming with are giving a pretty good grasp of the jokes and the language fabric.

P.S. After reading Jakes comment, I decided to add one more animated film which doesn't need translation at all. It's a very cute, warm and touching story. I always loved it to tears.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Cats in the sanctuary. Part Four.

The rest of the day I spent doing the usual afternoon tasks—making phone calls, writing emails, helping around the church. I completely forgot about the cats, the ring and the task a la Sherlock Holmes on my hands. Shortly after 3 p.m., I called Irina and invited her for dinner—the treat was on me. There was nothing special—that would be Superstore's 'Big Bird' leftovers and I was going to cook some rice and prepare organic zucchini from the church's small garden squeezed between the sidewalk and the parking lot. I was one of the volunteers who in mid-May cleaned the area around the church and prepared the soil for gardening. All summer, at least once a week Barbara, a church's member who was in charge of this little plot of land, kept bringing to me or giving away three-four large zucchinis. It happened that in the morning she discovered a zucchini that somehow managed to stay unnoticed for apparently quite some time and grow as big as a Little League's baseball bat. Whoever saw it was amazed and it was impossible not to fool with this thing. We suggested different ideas what use this gargantuan zucchini could be put to. Baseball bat was too obvious. Finally, we agreed that it could be a nice non-lethal weapon—"I have a zucchini here and I am not afraid to use it!"—and fantasized the police force being armed with it. It was childish to picture zucchinis being treated same way as guns—"you are responsible for your zucchini; never leave it unattended; use your zucchini with the utmost caution only in the extreme situations when all other means are exhausted; make sure to keep it locked in the specially designated place; etc."—but it was funny. Luckily, I had fresh zucchinis from the previous week and that giant was spared.

Around 5:30 p.m. Irina came to the church from work. The dinner was ready, the table was set. I was going to give her half-an-hour briefing on my search efforts including the PowerPoint presentation, but she said she would like to see the crime scene again and if possible to talk to the witnesses and suspects. We entered my room—that was the first time I was there since I had left it before noon. S.&O. didn't hide their delight to see Irina—they greeted her with adoration and the deepest respect. They had probably figured out that as long as they were around this beautiful woman with a soft and kind voice they were in no danger. "There it is," said Irina, picking the ring up from the floor about an inch away from a dinner table's leg which was ten feet off the computer desk where she had left the ring two days earlier. She beamed with a joy and immediately put the ring on, "I found it." "I don't know how come that we didn't see it yesterday or I didn't notice it today. It's impossible," I was relieved and disappointed at the same time—I worked so hard, but there would be no reward for my bed-lifting and crawling on the floor, and I had to kiss good-bye my powerful briefing and presentation. "Case is closed. I'm ready for dinner," Irina was heading to the kitchen. I followed her and before closing the door I looked back. Santosh was sitting in the middle of the room. He had a Mona Lisa smile on his face.
To be concluded.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Cats in the sanctuary. Part Three.

It is probably a part of the human nature to question ourselves when something disappears either in front of our eyes or from the place where we had surely put it a short while ago. Even though both Irina and I remembered pretty well that the ring had been left on the computer desk, after unsuccessfully searching for it on the floor around the desk, she guessed that maybe she just thought that she was wearing the ring the day before and it was quite likely that in reality she had left it at home and therefore never took it off and put it on the desk. We decided to give this theory a try and wait until she would go home and look for it where she thought it might be.

The service and the fellowship hour at the church passed quite fast and early afternoon Irina returned home. When she called me to "report" the results of her check up, I knew what she was going to say—the ring was not at home, which meant that the cats either had pushed it into the most difficult to reach spot in the room or—well, it didn't seem impossible—swallowed it. Therefore, I had two tasks on my hands: to search the whole room upside down and inside out and at the same time to be extra careful when cleaning the cats’ litter box—we know that not all that glitters is gold, but…

I chose to start with the first one, because if I were successful, the second, more aromatic task would be then eliminated, but no sooner than the next day—I had some things to do Sunday evening and besides it was getting dim in my room. So, Monday morning the search began. I equipped myself with a flash light, but decided that I could do without a rope, matches, compass, extra clothes, three-day food ration and a Walkie Talkie. The computer desk was too big and heavy to move but its legs were long enough for me to dive under it. My activity didn't go unnoticed by S.&O.—they were totally (not literally) blown away by the flash light and wherever I looked while crawling under the desk I saw cats, cats and nothing but cats and their glaring eyes. "How nice of you! We really appreciate that you've come with this new and wonderful game. Catnip?" It wasn't clear whether Santosh was asking for it or actually offering it to me. I said "no" which was fine to mean “no catnip for you!”, but was apparently impolite to decline his attempt to lift my spirits up (I’ve never tried catnip before—I know cats get high on it, but does it actually work with humans; and what do you do with it—sniff, chew or smoke?), but I didn't care.

My next move was the bed, I mean, I moved the bed. There was not enough room to push it all the way to open the area under it, so I had to resort to the same technique as in the puzzle where you need to move pieces up and down, right and left and back again to try to make a picture but ending up with a soccer player having a ball instead of the head or something even less appealing. Any time I pushed the bed, there was Onni beneath it. With disapproval in his eyes, "What's going on? I thought we agreed that this is MY safe space," he immediately went hiding back under the bed. After fifteen-twenty minutes of the operation "The Obscure Ring," the break seemed to be well deserved. The cats didn't argue. I looked around the room—there was not too much stuff but still enough to spend most of my day moving everything back and forth. “It’s really a lot of work. Yes, yes, indeed,” S.&O. pretended to be very sympathetic. Though, it didn’t prevent Onni from climbing up on the top of the book case, where he comfortably snuggled, happily yawned and closed his eyes. Unlike his brother, Santosh showed more support by nestling next to me on the couch and murmuring away, but I knew that it would take only couple of minutes before he joined Onni. There was no place for me in this sleep country so I got up and went to the door. Later on the cats claimed that I looked infuriated and sounded extremely intimidating, but that’s not true. All I did I said “You’d better, guys, find this… this… this ring, or…” and quietly closed (not even slammed!) the door behind me.

To be continued.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Cats in the sanctuary. Part Two.

That night I had a dream that my room was searched by five or six special agents. I heard them turning every paper, opening cabinets and throwing my clothes on the floor. I didn’t know what they were looking for, but one of them decided to check my head out. Horrified, “I’m hiding nothing there!” I opened my eyes and saw Santosh, as much as I could see in the dark. “I woke you, hah,” he murmured unapologetically and proceeded between my pillow and the wall. There must have been something really important under the pillow, for he repeated his raid about half an hour later. “They will cuddle on the bed,” floated up in my mind Jason’s words, but this time for some reason they sounded more like a warning. Until early morning, the cats had been exploring every square inch of my room, yet in a very random manner, rushing and jumping back and forth and across. It seemed that they were catching up with the time that they were forced to waste under the bed the day before. By 6 a.m. they decided that they had honestly earned their rest, and the room became alarmingly quiet.

Dmitri was still asleep when I got up. It was shortly after nine. S.&O. were seen nowhere, but I didn’t bother to look for them—apparently they retreated to their proven safe haven, under the bed. Closer to noon, I made pancakes with jam and tea, and Dmitri and I had a late breakfast. At around one p.m. almost at the same time came Irina and J.M., a reporter of a Lower Mainland newspaper. After the interview, Irina and Dmitri went home, leaving me one on one with the cats.

S.&O. enthusiastically greeted me at the door when I returned to my room. “Sorry for the mess,” they tried to appease me rubbing against my legs. I made myself comfortable on the bed to read and Santosh, who had shown himself bolder and more open to communication even though smaller than his brother—I didn’t mention that they were twins,—joined me with no signs of hesitation. “I like it here,” he looked at me yawning, picking up the best spot to lie down on the edge of the bed. Onni pretended being very busy with a daddy-long-legs. “Hey, Onni,” called him Santosh, “Come make us a company, will ya? This guy is harmless.” Onni didn’t answer. “Leave this stupid spider alone! You're embarrassing me,” Santosh started loosing patience. “Are you kidding?” growled Onni back, “Leaving this juicy, no—crunchy, yam-m-my… m-m-m,” he had difficulties speaking and at the moment I thought that I saw spider’s moving legs sticking out of his mouth. “Ah, forget it. It’s helpless. You’re a disgrace,” Santosh turned away and closed his eyes.

Later that day, Irina joined me for dinner and to avoid sharing the night with the twins we moved the bed to a small room upstairs on the other side of the church. Before going to our new bedroom, she took off her necklace and a little golden ring with two tiny diamonds to put on a night cream and left both pieces on the computer desk. We told the cats to behave and wished them good night. It was some challenge to cross the whole church with all lights off except the red exit signs but we made it. Probably because it was kind of a different place and we slept on the floor, though we had a mattress beneath us, we didn’t get the rest we expected. Besides, at 8 o’clock in the morning we were woken up by the vacuum’s noise—custodian was cleaning the carpets—and when it had become really busy in the church by nine, it was time to get up. We went down to my room. S.&O. happily met us at the door—they looked innocent and there were no signs of a major damage. Irina approached the desk to put her jewelry on. The necklace was exactly where she had left it the night before, but the ring was gone.

To be continued.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Cats in the sanctuary. Part One.

Our good friends Jason and Elina for quite a while had been trying to go on vacation for two weeks. Not something very difficult to do these days, except for the fact that they have two young cats—Santosh and Onni—and taking them along understandably would be kind of inconvenient. Leaving these gang-, sorry, youngsters, to the care of a pet shop or a vet didn’t seem like a viable option from the start, so J.&E. made an arrangement with a friend that she would come to their place to feed S.&O. and maybe play with them. But picturing those two in the full control of their (not the cats’) home, I think, was making Jason and Elina a little bit nervous and about half a month ago they approached me and asked if I could look after their cats for just two weeks. I’d been around cats for the most part of my life and gladly agreed provided it approved by the church. As expected, having two cats in my room for a short period of time was not a problem, and J.&E. scheduled to bring them on Friday, August 21st.

As decided, on that day, around 2 p.m. the cats arrived. After being released from the boxes, they realized that it was not their home and immediately protested. They kept complaining while Jason and Elina were giving me instructions, saying that Santosh and Onni would calm down soon and by night they would be cuddling on the bed. “Don’t worry,” I said confidently, “I can handle this,” and very shortly J.&E. left. That was the last time I heard anything from the cats—they hid themselves under the bed and I didn’t see them for the rest of the day. Not much to look after. They showed up when Irina came in the evening—they heard her voice and decided to check out who it was—but any time we left the room, they were getting back under the bed.

A day before, my former co-worker Liviu, one of the nicest and funniest guys I’ve ever met, offered that on Friday he would come to the church with pizza, and I was going to have a quiet dinner with him and his charming wife Mikhaela. By half past seven, at the table around two pizzas and mashed potatoes and vegetables that I had cooked couple of days earlier were sitting Liviu, Mikhaela, me, Irina, Dmitri who was just back from the island, Errol who picked up from Tsawwassen and brought to the church Dmitri who was just back from the island, and Olga, one of Irina’s best friends, who is in the process of opening her yoga studio and stopped by to discuss the flyer. I still don’t know whether it was pizza or just me. Nevertheless, despite the fact that there was an attempt to turn our dinner into a meeting of SAWA (Stressed-At-Work Anonymous), we had a lot of fun and spent a wonderful time together.

By 9:30 we wrapped the dinner up, everybody went home, but Dmitri stayed with me. We played tennis, baseball and golf on Nintendo Wii for about an hour—Dmitri was tired after work— and went to sleep. The cats remained hiding under the bed.

To be continued.