Monday, August 30, 2010

Lenin's Logs

(Because I leave for Colorado tomorrow, I am writing two posts today.)

In recent months I have become mildly obsessed with Eastern Europe. To explain how my interest arose would be a long and ridiculous story, so I'll spare you all the tale. For now, I'll just say that these days, I study with the music of Goran Bregovic, Gogol Bordello, Leningrad, or Garik Sukachev playing in the background. I almost get hit by cars on a daily basis because I am reading Vladimir Sorokin or Aleksandar Hemon while crossing the street. I carry Russian language flashcards in my purse. (The only phrase I've managed to memorize is, "It is snowing"!) A Soviet era painting of Lenin carrying logs heroically is on my computer desktop background. I constantly bombard my Russian friend (whose surname I am SO envious of, because it means "magpie") with questions about Russian authors and history. I haven’t yet learned to make kvass (which I read about in a Sorokin novel), but I’ve been looking for recipes online. Uh… yeah… I’ll let you all know later how that turns out!

So now you all know why I was so excited about finding the Russian neighborhood when I was in San Francisco. That is why I took the bus to Outer Richmond. My first goal was, of course, to find food.

I walked into a cute Russian deli/grocery store, where I was greeted by the smiles of four adorable middle-aged Russians who were standing behind the counter—three women and one man. I suddenly felt very shy. They were all looking at me in expectation, as if I might actually know what I wanted. My face turned red and I giggled stupidly. I looked for a menu and was relieved to find one. Then I realized that it was printed entirely in Russian, and I don't actually know ANY Russian food vocabulary, or any vocabulary outside of “It is snowing”. One of the women smiled at my helplessness and asked if I'd like to buy something. "Uh...I want to try Russian food, but I don't know what to order!" I confessed with an embarrassed grin. "What do you like?" she asked. "Everything, really," I said. "Ah! That's the kind of customer we like!" she said, laughing, and she set about piling food on a plate for me. While she prepared it, I walked over to the beverage refrigerator. From what I could tell, it was filled with all kinds of Russian (and other Cyrillic-alphabet-using countries') beer. I had no idea which one to choose, but I finally saw a bottle that caught my attention on the very bottom shelf. It was green and had a fascinating picture of some sort of melon or squash on the label. Oooooooooooo! I had to try that one!

So I went up to the cash register and paid for that and my food. I sat down at a table, opened the bottle, and poured the contents into the cup that had been given to me. Imagine the glittering excitement and surprise in my eyes when a liquid of the most unearthly green came pouring out into the cup! The photo I took does not do this green justice! The color was like something from the Land of Oz. It looked like a magic potion... something that could turn Alice big or small. I took a sip, and found that it was not alcoholic at all. It seemed to be some sort of unbearably sweet soda. (I saved the label, and when I showed it to Magpie, he said it claims to be some sort of Georgian fruit drink. I don't think there was any real fruit to be found at all in that enchanting greenness!)

Here is a photo of the meal and drink:

Before I left, I thanked the lady who chose my food for me. "It was really good," I told her. "I think I could live in Russia!" She gave me a look that told me I was pitifully naive about the realities of Russia, and said, "No. How about you live here? Just come to our shop every day!"

I then walked up the street, past the Russian Orthodox church (see my post on San Francisco's churches). I walked past several Russian video stores, many of which had clearance carts of 1990’s Russian romance novels for sale on the sidewalk. Soon I found myself walking into a shop that sold all kinds of Russian trinkets, cards, and lacquerware. An endearingly homely old man stood behind the counter. He kind of looked like a used car salesman, and appeared to be trying to talk an elderly Russian woman into buying a watch that she obviously thought was a piece of junk. I wandered over to a shelf of used books as they haggled. Among the books were mildewed encyclopedia sets, pulp detective novels, and—jewel of all jewels!—a hardback children’s fairytale book with wonderful illustrations!

By now, the elderly woman had left the store (in disgust, I think), and the owner was looking at me curiously. “Those are Russian books,” he said, just in case I thought they were, you know, Arabic or something. I asked him how much the fairytale book was. “Nine dollars,” he said. “Because it’s nice. Pushkin!”

Fairytale book in hand, I wandered over to the counter, where a bunch of Soviet Era pins were displayed on a piece of felt. I asked the owner about one with a matryoshka doll on it. “You know, it is thing carved of wood,” he said. “Nice carving, very nice.” He picked up a gaudy painted wooden goose from a nearby shelf. “Like this, carved of wood,” he said. “Ooooooooooooooh, I see,” I said, and then chose some pins. Here are the ones I bought, in a bag with Mr. Volovnikov’s (the owner’s) business card:

I recently showed the pin with the matryoshka doll to Magpie. He told me the pin is from some toy company, and that the matryoshka doll is decorated like a civil war soldier. Oh, and that fairytale book? Magpie says it’s not by Pushkin. And just the other day, I discovered a pencil price written on one of the inside pages: $7.50. Dare I say that Mr. Volovnikov deceived me?

Planned Parenthood Journal: Part 2

It is the first day of the Lent “40 Days for Life” campaign, so there are more protesters than usual. On most days, we only have three or four at a time, but today, there are as many as twelve people on the sidewalk in any given hour. (They come in shifts.) Among them are two middle-aged women with black smudgy crosses on their foreheads for Ash Wednesday. One of them holds a sign that reads: “I Regret My Abortion”. A box on the sidewalk displays gaudy plastic models of fetuses at various stages of development. One of the fetuses has fallen out of the box, and a postal carrier absentmindedly steps on it as he walks by. None of the protesters seem to notice. They are too busy approaching cars leaving the clinic's parking lot. They motion for the drivers to roll down their windows. If the drivers do so, the protesters shove pamphlets, rosaries, and little plastic fetus key chains in the window and say, "Life saving information! God bless you."

A bilingual protester approaches any Hispanic patients who walk out of the clinic, offering to take them to pray for “los son estan sufriendo” (those who are suffering). An elderly protester takes photos of our volunteers as he walks the perimeter of the clinic property. He seems convinced that we are up to something especially sly, so he hides behind the bushes where he thinks we won’t see him. He peers out at us, hoping to catch us doing I don’t know what. (Butchering late-term fetuses right there on the sidewalk? Performing nude Satanic dances?) He wears a baseball cap over his thick blue beanie. On the front of the cap, Jesus of the Cosmic Rays is embroidered in neon oranges, greens, and pinks. The strange thing about this seemingly conservative old man: he drives a little blue and white Smart Car. Goes to show that you can’t lump people into generic categories, right?

A man in his late twenties keeps coming out of the clinic to smoke cigarettes. His girlfriend is inside, about to have an abortion. He is visibly distressed. I offer to accompany him across the parking lot so the protesters won’t bother him, but he makes it clear that he’s not interested. The fourth time he comes out to smoke, the protesters motion him over and he goes and talks to them. They give him some kind of pro-life newspaper, and he vents to them for a while. He tells them how he and his girlfriend already have one baby, and have also already had one abortion. He’s not happy about his girlfriend having another one today, but she’s made up her mind, and there's no talking her out of it.

Half an hour later, he comes out to smoke again. This time he starts talking to me. “She just had the procedure. I just watched my baby get sucked out and plopped into a little cup,” he says. “A little bloody mass, plopped right into a cup.” I try to comfort him by giving him some thoughts I've picked up from Buddhism. I tell him that any soul that gets sent back will return to this earth someday, even though I don't really believe in that. It seems to comfort him, and he relaxes a little. His jeans are sagging over purple boxer shorts. His teeth are crooked and look unbrushed. He is wearing a black t-shirt that says, “Stupid People Need to Be Shot”, and he laughs bitterly over the inappropriateness of that being the shirt he chose to wear today. “I just grabbed what was clean,” he says. “I didn’t even think about it.” Soon his girlfriend comes out. There is palpable tension between them as they smoke their cigarettes angrily. I hear the girlfriend say the word “fuck” several times.

Fifteen minutes later, the boyfriend’s mother pulls into the parking lot to pick them up. Their little girl is with her. The kid is eight months old and wearing a fuzzy hoodie with pink rabbit ears. Her cuteness brings us all together--patients, volunteers, and protesters--to "ooooh" and "aaaawwww" over how adorable she is. We all forget the discomfort we felt earlier in the morning, if only for just a few minutes.

If anyone assumes they understand all sides of the abortion debate, I say they don’t. I have been volunteering with Planned Parenthood for eight months now, and I am only beginning to understand how complicated it is.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Me, Lolita, and the Catholics

I still have more San Francisco pictures to post, but I will get back to those later, because there is something else I have been working on for a while and have finally finished. So here it is!

Twice per month, I volunteer to stand in the rain (or sun, as it’s been lately) and look formidable at the entrance of a Planned Parenthood clinic. I volunteer on days when abortion services are offered. I wear a bright yellow “Volunteer Escort” vest, and if protesters try to take photographs, I shield the patients with a gigantic blue and white umbrella. If protesters step onto the clinic’s property, I warn them that they are trespassing. And that is about where my responsibilities end. I am not a bodyguard. I am not there to argue with the protesters, and frankly, I don’t really care to. I understand that their beliefs mean as much to them as mine do to me. I am simply there to make life easier for the patients.

I like the protesters, for a few reasons. One, they force me to learn patience in the presence of those I strongly disagree with. Two, they are a constant reminder of something I love about this country: freedom of speech, for EVERYONE. (I believe it was Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. who once said that freedom of speech doesn't mean just protecting the speech that we agree with. It means protecting the speech that we hate.) I also like the protesters because most of them treat me courteously, even though I stand for everything they believe is heartless and immoral. They wish me a good morning when I arrive for my shifts and send me off with a sincere, “God bless you,” when I leave for the day.

Most of the protesters are from local Catholic churches. They stand on the sidewalk (public property) holding rosaries, chanting prayers. Most are retired men and women, or young mothers who bring their small children along to help them hold protest signs. Here are some of the most common signs I see. (I hope you'll all vote for the best one! My personal favorite is Jesus-of-the-1970's-Cosmic-Rays!)

This one is kind of hard to make out, but the sign that reads "We Care" also says "We want to help" at the top and has a bullet list of the following services: Free pregnancy tests. Ultrasounds. Housing. Medicare. Counseling. Adoption.
The sign does not tell who "We" is.

This Planned Parenthood clinic is located in a suburb of Seattle. The majority of the patients are low-income women. About half are mothers who already have at least one toddler in tow. Most of the women are in their twenties, but they look ten or fifteen years older as they smoke cigarettes out on the sidewalk, squinting through weary eyes, telling me their bitter life stories. Sometimes I get more information than most people would want to hear, but because I am who I am, I eagerly drink it all in, greedy for the grittiest details. And the details are definitely gritty.

Since January, I have been keeping a sort of journal of my volunteer experiences. My next few blog posts will probably be excerpts from that journal, starting with this one:

Day 1:
I am the only volunteer who showed up today. There are three protesters on the sidewalk, and one of them has brought her young son. Two of the protesters are Hispanic women in their twenties, and the third is a middle-aged white woman wearing a sun hat with a gigantic fake flower. Rosaries in hand, the women chant. “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee, blessed art thou among women, blessed is the fruit of thy womb…” They have several signs propped up against their SUVs, which read:

Women DO regret abortion.

Abortion: the ultimate child abuse.

Abortion stops a beating heart.

Since I have no one to talk to, I pass the time by reading Lolita as I march back and forth in front of the clinic doors. (Remember my Lolita? Black cover? Title in big flaming orange letters? Deliciously scandalous looking?) The protesters’ chanting is somehow a most beautiful soundtrack for Humbert Humbert adoring the golden hairs of Lolita’s sunshine-browned legs. My smile couldn't get any happier.

Not far away, The Blue Angels are practicing for an upcoming air show. The roar of the planes’ engines intermittently drowns out the protesters’ voices. It causes their chanting to lose synchronization, so that their prayer starts to sound like demonic static. Humbert Humbert approves.

Out in the street, a man who lives in a neighboring house is flying a kite. He is one of the happiest people I have ever seen in my life. He is in his early forties, and can be seen in the middle of that street on almost any weekday morning, wearing a jaunty fedora, flying kites or elaborate paper airplanes. When cars want to pass him, he ignores them, refusing to move, even if they honk. This man is my hero.

Behind me, a young gentleman slams the clinic door closed and walks angrily down the sidewalk toward the protesters, his jeans sagging halfway down his thighs. “Man, those fuckers wouldn’t give me a free STD screening, but they give them to women for free!” he complains to the protesters. (I don’t bother to tell him that Planned Parenthood only gives “free” STD screening to those whose incomes are low enough to warrant state subsidization.) The protesters coo to him sympathetically. They give him some of their pamphlets, which feature Jesus with rays of light emanating from his savior’s heart. “God bless you,” they tell the young man as he stomps away, muttering to himself.

Twenty minutes pass. By now, only the two younger women are left on the sidewalk. Their hatted companion has gone home. The little boy has grown bored of standing with his mother. He grabs the “Abortion stops a beating heart” sign like it's a battle shield and starts running up and down the sidewalk, howling warrior whoops. His mom gets irritated and shuts him inside her SUV. He wails loudly for several minutes, his mouth a gaping black cavern, like when kids yell in a Peanuts cartoon. “Maaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaama,” he screams. Mama keeps chanting. “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee, blessed art thou among women…” I get tired of the kid’s screaming and look over at her. Only then does she do something about it. She says to him through the open window, “What happened?” then takes him out and holds him as he continues to bawl.

Eventually the women get tired of the heat, and they sit in the SUV with the AC on. Then they leave, and no new protesters come to replace them. And I read fifty more pages of Lolita.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Quick Announcment!

I will be going to Colorado next week to hole up in my hometown for six weeks to study for the Foreign Services exam, distraction free! I will go to a library to use the internet when I can. I probably won't answer many emails, because I need to study as much as possible, but I will post here at least twice per week so you all know I'm alive!

Churches of San Francisco

San Francisco has some beautiful churches all throughout the city. I took pictures of more than what I have here, but unfortunately, a lot of them didn't turn out as well as I had thought they would! Here are the ones that are okay. My favorite is the Russian Orthodox church, located in the Outer Richmond district.

Here are two buildings that are not exactly churches, but I think they should go with the churches anyway. First, we have a very impressive Masonic lodge, with some close-up shots of the emblems on its outer walls.

Second we have a building that is kind of a mystery to me. (Maybe Minima can shed some light on this in the comments section!) It is on Sloat Boulevard in the Sunset District, and there are no signs outside of the building to give a clue as to what it is. At first, I thought it was a church, because of the Bible verse on the side of the building, but a look at this website tells me otherwise. The website says, "Also on the north side of this square block, facing Sloat Boulevard, sits a large, windowless building. This is the Central Pump Station, built in 1915. It has an imposing look, its wide, columned door surmounted by the following inscription from the Bible: "LET THY FOUNTAINS BE DISPERSED ABROAD AND RIVERS OF WATERS IN THE STREETS." (Proverbs, 5:16). Above this, along the frieze, is another biblical quotatition: “BUT THE LAND WHITHER YE GO TO POSSESS IT IS A LAND OF HILLS AND VALLEYS AND DRINKETH WATER OF THE RAIN OF HEAVEN.” (Deuteronomy, 11:11) There are representations of human-faced fish on each corner, their twisted tails ending in a red trident, with a vase spilling water from above. In the center of the facade, above the frieze, is a cartouche, surmounted by the face of an old man and flanked on either side by a draped female figure and an eagle. Little is known about the architect or the significance of the religious inscriptions, other than to remind San Franciscans of the precious gift of water." Fascinating, eh? Here are the photos:

Sunday, August 22, 2010

The Storm

I have to interrupt my series of posts on San Francisco to talk about The Seattle Storm, Seattle's professional women's basketball team. A friend of mine gave my husband and me tickets to a Storm's game last night (against the L.A. Sparks), and it was one of the coolest things I've seen in a long time. I've wanted to go to a Storm's game for over a year now. Not so much because I'm a huge fan of watching sports (because I'm not). It's more that I really respect The Storm's players. Everything that I've heard about what these women mean to the Seattle community has really impressed me. Also, I am tired of men's sports getting all the glory. Personally, I'm glad The Sonics left Seattle. Especially after what I watched last night. I think Seattle should use the loss of the Sonics as an opportunity to show The Storm the wholehearted support they deserve. They are INFINITELY cooler than The Sonics could ever hope to be! To all of you who live in Seattle, I STRONGLY urge you to go to a Storm's game. These women put on an awesome show, and they are GORGEOUS to boot! (Honestly, after watching them play last night, I don't understand why heterosexual men have any interest in men's basketball at all! You guys are SERIOUSLY missing out!)

Here are photos of some of the players, including my favorites: Sue Bird (#10), Tanisha Wright (#30), Ashley Robinson (#43), Jana Vesela (#7), and MVP candidate Lauren Jackson (#15):

Score at half-time:

Another thing I really liked was that children were allowed to participate in the half-time activities. From what I've heard on radio interviews with some of The Storm's players, getting kids (especially girls) involved in basketball is really important to them. I like that The Storm is making an effort to be involved with the future of our community. Here are some photos of the kids:

The last quarter of the game was SO exciting. Especially the last half of the last quarter. The scores of the two teams were rarely more than two or three points apart. The Sparks would score and then The Storm would score, with a constant alternation in who had the lead. Players from both sides were getting knocked over left and right because they were all playing so hard. We couldn't be sure who was going to win. Here I had been afraid I might be bored at a live sports game. (I had secretly considered bringing Chinese flashcards to memorize if I got too restless.) Instead, I was jumping up and down, screaming with everyone else, bopping my husband on the head with my inflatable Seattle Storm cheering stick, and dancing like a giddy high school girl to all those typical sporting event songs. I had a WONDERFUL time, and will definitely be attending future games. In the end, this was the final score:

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Charming Homes and Buildings of San Francisco

The architecture and color schemes of houses and buildings in San Francisco is one of the most striking things about the city. As I walked around, I collected photos of houses and buildings that fascinated me for one reason or another. In some cases, it was the colors that caught my attention. In others, it was the decoration or architecture styles. My photography skills are poor, but these photos will at least give you the general idea!

This house was one of my absolute favorites. It is located in the Sunset district, and Minima told me that when the wind blows, you can hear all the metallic things in the yard chiming.

San Francisco has a large Asian Buddhist population. Some houses have little private shrines like this:

This is another house in the Sunset District. After I took these photos, a really jolly Chinese man leaned out the window and told me, "You like the house? Take more pictures, take more!" He then explained the meaning of the phrase on the windows, because I couldn't make out some of the characters due to the semi-fancy script they are written in. I can't remember exactly what he said the meaning was, but it was something about how drunkenness causes misery but flowers bring joy!

This house is near the Mission. I thought this house was AWESOME, and those of you who know me well will know EXACTLY why!

Tee hee!

Here are all the other houses and buildings I took photos of: