Saturday, May 24, 2014

Moscow Morning Reflections

If anyone had asked me truthfully what I thought Moscow would be like, I’d have said the buildings would be more utilitarian and block like rather than the ornamentally crafted sculptured architecture that draws from Greece and Rome and French eras in design. I found one sculpture worn and old on a side of a heavy feeling building of workers looking to the sky with their arms upraised. State idealism enforced by design.  I remembered an exhibit of Soviet paintings I saw in Canada being toured around the world. All the plump and hearty looking peasants had the happy looks of the mentally retarded.  Everyone was ‘brain washed’ with that look only ‘cult’ followers about to take their ‘coolaid death drink’ might have.  I had so long heard how all opposition was removed.
Communism was Aetheism’s first political expression as the western world of mixed capitalism and socialism was Christianity’s political expression.  Aetheists had killed more millions in a hundred years than theists collectively had killed in thousands.  I was truly afraid of the forces of fear and conformity that this killing of ones own people represented. Even today I am made thoroughly anxious by American imprisonment of so many of its citizens competing mildly with the history of the Gulag. But these aren’t work camps or Auschwitz but still, though far removed from outright death, worrying nonetheless. No people is free from the collective inanities that have plagued the lowest and highest of civilizations. The very elite of Europe, sophisticated and privileged beyond record gave us WWI and Gallipoli. Mass slaughter houses for the young.
I was a member of Physicians for Social Responsibility and International Physicians against Nuclear War back when I belonged to the Canadian Civil Rights Association and Psychiatrists Against Political Abuse of Psychiatry. Yet I saw the worst abuses of psychiatry and politics in my home town and thought organizations were coopted when they refused to look inward as well as outward.  The same is true in military today where ‘friendly fire’ accounts for as many deaths and ‘enemy fire’ yet the paranoids always want to look outward and ignore the enemy within.  So more and more I’ve withdrawn from the insanity of those in politics about, less quick to judge, more respectful of snakes and anthills.  A friend knowing me gave me a lapel pin that said, “beware of stupid people in groups’.  One step ahead of the crowd you are a leader, two steps ahead, a martyr.
I enjoy the churches here.  A history of idealism weighted with politics and yet producing the greatest art of all times. I enjoy looking through the icons to the faces of hope twisted by gravity and real politics.  There are young everywhere and I am thankful for their enthusiasm, even more their laughter. Yet in the church, I see the outward and inner search for meaning in an apparently meaningless world. The only real shrine is the grocery store where ever one goes.  The frivolous is found in the fashion boutiques.  People eat, drink, sleep and mate then live the distractions of children until they can once again face their own irrelevance saved from thinking by the outward demands of their gods on earth, work, children, family, friends. Today these manifest in computers, cars and Facebook.
I was not prepared for all the corporate world fashion and food cultures to be so prominent here in Moscow. I have seen their homogenization the world over.  They were most evident in the Galleria of the Northern Mariana Islands.     Chanel, MacDonalds, Japanese chains, the GUM mall right on Red Square, Tiffany’s,  Salvatore, all the evidence of international corporate efficiency and distributions. These are the lucky charms of the jet setter culture.
In the time of St. Paul, the tent maker, it was no doubt the fabric of your tent and especially one made by that master craftsman artist, “Saul, no Paul, Paul of Tarsis?” “ I  can give you the name of my hair dresser too.  He goes on about this new religion ‘one world religion’, or was it Paul who does that. They’re both very good at what they do. I wouldn’t listen to what they say. Servants are always going on about this and that.”
The motorcycles are Kawazaki, BMW, Honda and Vespas but I even saw a Harley Davidson.  Seeing my own motorcycle represented, despite the immanence of the Germans I felt that Russians did have taste. We always think people who share our tastes, have ’taste’.  I’d expected to see more local Russian motorcycles.  I’d owned a Russian, if only because Canada is more known for its body armour that its getaway vehicles. We’re a stoic slow to mobilize people more defensive in our hockey game than some of the more offensive nations.   My favourite hockey memories of all time have been games between the Canadians and Russians.  There was so much evidence of skill and strategy rather than the all too common brash and brawn.
I had  expected more local manufacturers. I appreciate the unique and delightful  local foods I’ve savoured.  I’ve very much enjoyed  startling touches of ingenuity of dress the Moscow women add to old universal motifs of clothing.  A Moscow woman at night in a ‘little black affair’ does wonders with silk and gold accessories and the almost universal 4 inch heeled even shoes that will ensure podiatrists years of future business.   There is so much creativity and novelty here.   I’d actually expected more  conformity.  The Russia of my youth was boring to say the least.  There was so much that was  grim.  I guess I expected more military presence, fewer long haired men, more women weightlifters on steroids,  maybe a  tank or two in the streets.  it’s so easy to forget that Troudeau in my very own Canada had tanks deployed in our cities as every intellectual secretly desires.   There is an element of cold war in the rhetoric.  Yet today the war is economic and oil.  Ideology is trumped by Samsung phones and Peugeot. It’s really hard to imagine that I was checking the Canadian ’travel bulletins’ to see if it was ’safe’ to travel to Moscow given the international posturing and sable rattling going on amongst the world leaders. Yet, there has always been ‘war and rumours of war’.  I’m so glad I came.  
I am bored nearly to tears to hear the Quebec white hairs talk of “Separatism’ still.  Now the radical Feminists in my country are demanding equal distribution by gender.  There must be an equal number of women on every board and physicists must wear skirts whether they are male or female if they expect to get tenure anymore.  Tokenism has replaced meritocracy and if you have a cousin who is stupid as toast but the right ‘flavour of the month’ then they can be  tomorrows brain surgeon without any demand for training or irritating consideration of such irrelevant details as old fashioned ‘competence’.   Meanwhile the racists demand equal distribution by race. No one cares anymore if anyone can do anything just so long as they ’spout’ the right slogans.  Canada is more communist today than Russia was perhaps at its worst and more and more people, especially men, are being shunted off in Canada for ‘political correctness re education.”   Meanwhile the rich and powerful get richer and more powerful encouraging  the divisionary  tribalism fueled by anyone who can profit by promissory materialism and the idea of ’symbolic specialness’.  Denial reigns all over as we collectively forget about death and disease and hope the latest MRI will be available soon for a whole new range of Selfies. Euthanasia is fine just so long as we can share it on Facebook. We deal with our anxiety about insignificance in Andy Warhol 20 minitism. I confess, quietly of course, that I prefer the Bible to the Kardashian Twins and American Reality TV.
I see no difference here in the people and the world as if all has gone ‘global’ and ‘local’ is lost in the ‘one world order’ some hybrid communist capitalist hegemony of corporate power and elite family wealth.  All is so far beyond my pay grade.   I love that I can enjoy a boat ride down a Moscow canal looking at exotic sights in the company of a beautiful girl.  Sufficient is this day.  I am reminded of Arjuna in Bhagadvagita who says to Krishna that it is  his own family that is fighting on either side in this war.  He knows not what to do. Krishna responds that there will always be war but the question is not which side to join but rather whether to participate or not.
So many young people and old are alienated today.  They are lost in a variety of addictions, such a variety of choices. We are increasingly facing the hazards of abundance while the old people still struggle from a position of scarcity . People die of ‘lifestyle’ diseases more than starvation.  Everywhere there are ‘food banks’ when more and more we need the Third World skinnies to offer international ‘work aid’ for western fatties.  I am aware of my own middle age ponch so at home in America whereas here, obesity is present, it’s not as ubiquitous as mid west America.  Fast food has yet to be the scourge but mostly it’s the everywhere present smoking that shortens the local life while maintaining the appearance of health. Where once there was only politics or soccer,  there is so much variety. Perhaps in future wars people will fight over which video game is dominate. It’s amazing we have been able as a species to accommodate PC and Apple operating systems.  This gives me hope.
 I remember hearing that Communist stores had bare shelves because central planning in 5 year intellectual ‘bits’ could not keep up with the winds of change.  Today that now is dealt with by ‘on line’ shopping and on demand delivery and production.  Times have changed but not as one would think, rather from years to minutes, seconds to nano seconds. There are those on the margins but in the centre there is light speed.  The rat race is now a race of great danes and panthers.  One might think the lumbering bear and lofty eagle just couldn’t keep up with the anonymous hare.
I saw horses, sabres and rifles in the Kremlin today.  I love the ancient display.  I reflected how Churchill rode a horse into Sudan and later faced German unmanned missiles shot across the canal. It is an age of smart guns and smart drones and star wars.
But all this is still  a side show to the universal call of spring. Romance was so evident last evening in Red Square.  Couples walked hand in hand, stopping openly to embrace and kiss. They were surprisingly interested in what each other saying, completely unaware that their very attentiveness was driven by reproductive hormones.  We cry ‘freedom’ when we are most enslaved by biological urges.  I noticed a lack of public washrooms and made a point of remembering as my now deceased aunt once said, “never miss the opportunity to use a washroom when you see one.”   Older I’m more amused today than ever I was in my life before. I have  a comic strip representation running through my mind today so much more appreciative of tragicomedy where once there was only the seriousness of tragedy.    People who cannot laugh are social explosions looking for an excuse for drama.  I was once considered an “intellectual’ and view those days the same as when I was merely drunk on red wine.  There’s even more humility in the latter than the former intoxication.
Life is a muddle and may always have been.  The more certain I am the more aware of uncertainty I become.  There is such diversity now that perhaps we are saved by the multiplicity.  Political writers have said that the old dichotomy is splitting into a new regionalism.  I could not overlook the whiteness of this place. The brown face so rare, the yellow skin quite absent compared to my own Hongcouver Canada. .  I heard that gypsies were a concern and thought of our own “Occupy Movements’.  I was a hippy myself for a summer and wore flowers in my hair in the streets of San Francisco. But we were all about love and shouted ‘make peace not war’. Activism today is so much more about anger and selfies.
I don’t know really.. There is always only vagueness. The Moscow I envisioned was gone perhaps with the fall of the Berlin Wall. America itself died in a way when it lost the love hate romance it had with it’s drab dance partner of so many years.  There is so little evidence of the Moscow we still hear of in our news still.  Yet we hear of military rule in Thailand and millions in the street at the same time a friend has sent me a picture of himself and other I know enjoying their time in a Thailand beach village apparently unaffected by the ‘colour coded movements raging in the media and the cities always so easily full of themselves while country folk would rather picnic more often than not.  “Chill”.
Personally, culturally, socially, fashionably this could be another fashionable neighbourhood in a far eastern Canada.  Somewhere even more different than Quebec.  Russia is just another place in that sense  where they have a funny way of talking and a particularly difficult alphabet.   I just learned the Ethiopians have their own alphabet as well.  I was a little irritated when studying Hebrew I had to learn another alphabet and was particularly incensed by the Greeks when I rented a car and found that their traffic signs were all equally illegible.  How dare people not consult me on such a basic matter as alphabet. Don’t they appreciate that while I learned latin, english, french and some spanish I’m tired after all the science and medicine and legalese and beaurocratese I’ve had to learn that others would think not to include me in their very formation of letters and sounds.   I feel I can tolerate diversity a lot but alphabets are just going too far for me personally.  I want to draw a line , put my foot down, surrender, scream I give up. I need the babble fish now from that classic Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy.
Each person has their breaking point.  It was the same in Greece where I was irritated that words didn’t sound at all the way I thought they looked. It’s at the level of alphabet one approaches the rabbit hole of Alice in Wonderland. There is this vast illusion in ‘one world order’ and superficial similarities that overlooks the vast differences that can only be held together by a vast measure of love, maturity and tolerance.  I am reminded of a tourist I met in Germany frustrated by ‘currency’ shouting at a bank teller, “I don’t want any more of this coloured money, give me the real green stuff.” I thought he was an ‘ugly american’ but later learned he was just an overwhelmed Canadian from Toronto on the last leg of a many month travel binge thorough Europe.  I find myself that the desires of the Hobbit are increasingly my own despite the many adventures I have had and the spiritual travels I’ve had with my own Gandolf.  I miss smoking a pipe but still enjoy putting my feet up in my own home after I have closed the days.  I look forward to being reunited with my little dog yet I am only days into this differences and alieness. I really think that indoor plumbing, fresh water, clean air, and electricity are under appreciated.
Here the wifi has been intermittent.  I’m mildly irritated by the lack of constant coverage globally with ‘space age’ technology.  Does no one consider me.  I want my WIFI now.  I don’t want to walk next door  to the WIFI cafe.  Really, Beam me up Scotty!  I  take so much for granted and overlook the heated shower I have every day.
Each place has struggled to improve the lot of life for its individuals. This history has shown in it’s superb museums the world over. This desire for improvements  has been associated with war and all its varied tools, the development of increasing creature comforts from hot springs to engraved hair brushes, intellectual achievements in books and art and scientific and technological advances in transportation and construction and search for meaning in churches where questions of contemplation are engaged. There are libraries and factories the world over. I always feel it is a good place where there are more libraries than arsenals.
I love that this is the centre of empire with so much of the highest achievements apparent. Each power centre, all the empires of the world over have their undercarriage of slavery and addiction , but they also have their glorious works of human endeavour, their architectural wonders, their high speed public transport, their space era technologies.  I’ve been to Crete, Athens, Jerusalem, Rome, all the major cities of Europe, Bombay, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Mexico City, and London and Washington, following the development of dominance through chariots and cannon and calvary and naval and ultimate air power and then space age communication and satellite surveillance increasingly in an age of robots and drones.  It’s an amazing history of external development.  This is one of those greatest of great achievements and places where people came together in common for purpose only to later reflect and change direction, always slouching towards bethlehem, always moving closer to perfection whatever that might be.  It was still thousands of years ago that the world over the greatests nations concluded that the ‘golden rule’ was ‘do unto others as you would have them do unto you’.  Jesus added ‘pluck the log out of your own eye before trying to take the sliver out of your neighbours.”  Not that anyone listens so each generations we learn again what the previous one knew, and each empire begets another and that one learns all over again. Only now the years are nano seconds.
I am humbled here. That is good.  I’m away from the routines that dictate my life. I’m nobody among strangers.  I only must guard my passport, wallet and knapsack, with computer, iPhone and satellite phone.  I’m reduced to minimalist concerns. There’s a lightness of being. I’m Joni Mitchell’s “Free Man in Paris’. Here, in Moscow,  the  word freedom comes from a different alphabet.    
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Ben Nuttall-Smith said...

I might resent the use of the term "prize winning writer" if I had not read the every day rambles of a prize winning writer. Bill, your scribbles are a pleasure and an inspiration to read. You offer such insight to those of us sitting in such exotic cities as Toronto, reading about the moneyed influences of the Coch brothers and their desire to further pollute Citizens of the "Free World" by refining Alberta Tar-- to be shipped at fire-sale prices through pipeline or by rail. We should begin to be afraid to live in communities where rail lines shuttle explosive goods past our homes to further enrich the 1%. See how your writing incites me to REBELLION!

haykind said...

Ben , remembering it was you teaching English to the southern blacks long past so they could vote, suggests to me that you were first and foremost a rebel. There's much that's oily the world over, here as well as in Canada. Meanwhile Obama certainly wants a feather in his cap while he's trying desperately to avoid a tarring. Thank you Ben, for you kind comments.