Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Haikus, Short Stories, A "Love" Letter

Here's some creative writing I've done over the past few weeks.

1. Haikus: these have been a saving grace. In moments of excruciating boredom when the mind feels more like a wad of watery mush than it does an incredible muscle capable of the extraordinary, few activities can be as uplifting as writing haikus. Haikus are a form of Japanese poetry that can take on many different forms and variations, but I focused on the common 5-7-5 syllable construction. I usually wrote these in lectures when I felt that the speaker did not engage me. With some of them, I had my friend give me a prompt. I'll include those too. Enjoy!

I
Follow a blind man
Down an alley that has no
Way in or Way out

II
Seven sleeping frogs
Sit on seven sleeping logs;
Oneness with the world

III
Could you imagine
What would happen if God came
To Earth and said, "yo"?

IV
Let's swim in a pool
Of rules, tools, and jewels for mules
If you're up for it

V
Eyelids are drooping
Brian is aloofing; the mind
Struggles to keep qi

VI
Ocean to ocean
We have traversed vast spaces
And now are at one

VII
Little chimpanzees
Held captive by hords of bees:
Honey bananas

VIII
Nine planets revolve
Around nine planets, revolve
Around nine planets

IX prompt: Dorothy's shoes
Dorothy's brick shoes were
A hit at the high school prom;
The next fashion trend

X prompt: filet
Fundamentalist
Philistines feed on filets
Fetched in the river

XI prompt: moon
Fat, full, quarter, half,
Dusseldorf's dingy giraffe
Looks up and up and

2. Short Stories. Here are two. The first one I wrote on the flight from DC to Baltimore. It's about what happens inside someone's mind the moment they are about to take a foul shot in basketball. I think that it works on multiple levels. The second still has yet to be completed, but I really like the imagery and decided I wanted to share it instead of letting it sit in my notebook for only my eyes.

"Suspended at the Line"

I'm a dog. Sweating like one, that is. God. My shorts are soaked, cheeks danked. My shirt is drenched, beads of sweat drip off the nip. I can smell my socks. Did I douse them in a bucket of raw, decapitated fish robed in rotting banana peels, or did I simply forget to shower again? I'm huffing and puffing. Who He Who He. Trying to control my breath like they've taught us at those yoga classes where the instructor implied they had some sort of connection with cosmic beings which we were too feeble-minded to attain or understand. Just stretch, maybe you'll get it.

I shuffle my feet, callibrating my balance. Gravity still works - the rules still apply.

I look down at the short rectangular slips of wood sealed together and spot the nail, the universal nail they told me about at basketball camp that lines up with the rim. Sweat slides down my nose and splashes onto the wood. Good defense, I think to myself; they'll slip on the sweat and faceplant onto the floor. I line up my right toe with the nail and give the ball three steady bounces, holding the ball, noting its shape, its weight, its texture, its contours, its history, its personality. I ponder its creator: the man, the machine, whoever. Then I ponder its creator's creator, and so on. Who were they? What did they do? Where did they go? On and on.

The rim is still. Just an open, unjudgemental receptical twice the size of the guest it must accomodate. And the net hangs like one of Sandy Calder's mobiles, uniform shapes puncturing the fabric, rewarding the successful release with its approving swish.

Another three bounces just to be sure everything's in order, all in check, in balance, in harmony, in line, in the seven seasons of time. Maybe I won't release. Maybe I'll just stand here and simply embrace this moment. What need to go beyond? Life is predicatble enough anyways. What need to wreck this tranquility?

The others are impatient. They gleam at me with fifty-fifty eyes. In or out, in or out. Run off and let up if in, jump up and snag if out. But they won't know until I release.

Maybe the zebra will blow his horn and penalize me for delay of game. Then what? I wouldn't give him the ball even if he did. He'd have to pry it from my cold, dead hands. I would stuff it under my shirt and lay on my side, clutching the ball like an eight month fetus on the verge of a tremendous transition.

An emptying exhale, thoughts gone, clear-mindedness. Just the sound of time suspended. Three preparatoy bounnces in my knees. I check my elbows down by my stomach, let my arms flow upwards, and release.

Up it travels, ejected, empty nest, on its way, going home, going home.


"Street Corner Sushi Man"

A great whit blanket of clouds filtered the sunlight in a chameleon collision of colors swirling and waving through the air, but noone seemed to notice or care. The sushi salesman on the street corner with the city's only portable-outdoor-sushit cart executed his craft with great precision and what you might even call virtuosity, in complete oblivion to what was going on around him, including the sky's transformation. The rice blew steam from its kettle, surrounding the chef in a mystical haze, raising the eyebrow of the unsuspecting passer-by, even the one's with eyebrows whose emotional dispositions are difficult to detect - the unibrows, draw-ins, and transplants. He kept his collection of assorted fish, fruits, and vegetables in separate Hodge-Podge plastic containers. Hodge-Podge was the container's brand name, after its late CEO who died in a freak accident too horrific to recount (all I can disclose is that he confronted his greatest fear in his death).


3. "Love" Letter. My apologies for misleading you if you thought the object of my affection in this letter was a person. In fact, it is my pen. Or rather, was my pen. Ironically, the ink ran out as I was writing this note, and that's where this letter will end.

Dear Pen,

I want you to know something. You empower me. You are the vessel by which I transmit intangible brain activity upon a piece of paper (worry not, my dearest paper, you too will receive a message). Feeling you rest between my thumb, forefinger, and middle finger gives me a sense of comfort, as if I'm with an old friend. You are indeed a special pen to me. I don't always get my hands on a pen whose contours compliment the shape of my hand like you do. My hand doesn't hurt when I write with you, even after hours and hours of scribbling.

I fear the moment your blood will stop coarsing through your veins and onto the paper. I will have to lay you to rest and seek out a replacement. I'm not looking forward to this process. Most pens are just so obnoxious. Some are excessively thick, obese. Whey they had to bulk up so, I know not. Others insist on wearing a grip? For what? To look sexy? To feel good? To make my hand more comfortable? Akh-excesses. Some pens are just too high-browed. I need something practical, not something studded with a lofty pricetag and snobish brand name. I will never understand why some believe these upper-class pens make good gifts. Others are too thin, some uncomfortable in my hand, but you are just right. When I click your head, I hear the sound of opportunity, of possibilities, of innovation. Are you writing me?

You are a humble servant. As selfless as the seeing-eyedog. Our union is one experienced by millions before us. Shakespeare and his five acts. Checkhov and his three sisters. Darwin and his finches. Twain and Tom. Lao-Tze and the Dao. Plato and his cave. Marley and his exodus. Da Vinci and his golden ratio. And our union is one to be experienced by millions after us. Sir Hogarth and his flaming hot dogs. Master Chamberston and her mobile necklace. Jean-Paul-Marue Adolè and her facefest. Czar Ogilby and the transplant basketballs. The narrow sparrow of the Tepid Snowman.

When I drop you I don't feel bad because I know you won't judge my clumsiness. In any situation, under any circumstance...Dear Pen, your blood has stopped flowing. You have expired and I'm already frustrated with the temporary replacement I'm using to finish my note to you. It's got a grip!! I had so much more to tell you, but I hope that what I've shared conveyed my feelings for you, an object society has dubbed "inanimate", but one which I consider worthy of adoration.

Your Friend,
Raffi

Thursday, June 19, 2008

baguette maguette


Yes yes yes it’s been a while, dearest blog. I truly thought I would be able to write you more, but believe it or not, since we last spoke, our schedule has been absolutely jam packed. Judy Goldstein, the program’s director, wasn’t lying when she said this fellowship would be an “intellectually exhausting” experience. Since leaving Denmark and arriving in Paris, we have endured a bombardment of readjustments, lectures, and interactions.

The second part of our fellowship ended last week in Tisvilde, Denmark. I posted some photographs in the previous entry J. Humanity in Action threw us a big party in the middle of the woods, complete with a camp fire and a 3-drink open bar. Add 50 European and 50 American students to the mix and you get quite the trans-atlantic bash. The strength of Thor pulsated within us. It was the land of the Nordic gods. Playing music, dancing to European techno music, and swimming in the Baltic at 4am.

For the third phase of our fellowship, arguably the longest and most important one, we split up into our country groups. Some went to Poland, some to Germany, others to the Netherlands, some stayed in Denmark, and we flew to France.

France has a very different vibe from Denmark. Denmark is rather homogenous – lots and lots of Danes (although the Arab and Turkish populations are increasing as in many countries, but they are still very much the minority in Denmark). In France, the multiculturalism permeates every level of society. Sarkozy is the descendent of a Hungarian Jew. Zidane is of Berber origin. Multiculturalism is a fundamental component to French society, a reality often eclipsed by romantic visions of baguettes and the Tour Effel.

Our first day we assembled at the cozy Humanity in Action office near the Bastille in Paris. From there, we received our modest stipends and were each sent off to meet our host families. My destination was an area beyond the city limits called Chatillon. In fact, I am living at 57 rue de Roissis, so if you happen to be near you should stop by to meet our dogs.

That’s right. We’ve got dogs. Big dogs. Two of them. One is a German Sheppard named Molly who is absolutely hilarious. She likes to wave a toy in her mouth but refuses to let go, and she has the strongest motherly instincts towards the kitten of the house, a 3 week old black-with-silver-streaks kitty named Deeky. Deeky spends most of her time upstairs while Molly and Ulehan (the other dog - I know, what the hell kind of name is Ullahan for a dog?) stay downstairs. I would estimate that Molly spends about 70% of her time sitting at the bottom of the steps looking up, just waiting for Deeky to come down and play. When Deeky does come down, an incredible display of acrobatics and tomfoolery ensues. Today, Deeky climbed all the way up a curtain while escaping Molly. Molly began to whine out of concern. Anyways I could talk about these dogs for hours. Just to be quick, Ulahan loves to bark and jump, which startled me at first since I used to be scared of dogs. Thankfully, I got over my fear during high school, thanks in large part to Dutchess, the dog of my high school band’s bass player, Brian. So I’m over the fear, but there is always still a part of me that can be a little edgy around dogs. This unease resurfaced with Ulahan’s barks and jumps, and it took me some time to get used to it, but everything is fine now and I hope to pack these dogs in a suitcase somehow and take them with me.

As for the family, I live with Gerrard and Martin Pumoyel. Their daughter, Severine, is 22, studying to be a vet, and lives in the room right next to me. The family is very warm, very loving, and very French (according to our program coordinator, I am living with the most “French” family – apparently something about me indicates that I can handle it.) Both Gerrard and Martin are Buddhists, and Gerrard practices regularly. The house is scattered with Tibetan Buddhist symbols, prayers, and maps. In the backyard we have a tree that has a multi-colored assortment of flags tied to it. The flags each have a prayer written in Tibetan. They have another son, Sebastienne, 20, who lives at a Buddhist monastery in upstate New York (Greenvile, NY to be precise, which is ironic since this is the place where I was a camp counselor in the summer of 2005 at St. Vartan Camp) and wants to become a monk. My other host brother, Carter, spends about half the week at home and half the week at his apartment near his school. He has a lot of friends that come over to the house, and I've had many opportunities to hang out with them. Both Gerrard and Martin work in microbiology, and Martin also does veterinary work. She is also an artist, and today after dinner she showed me her fantastic art work, and then let me fix up the old bike in the basement which I now use to commute into the city! It's a 30 minute commute approximately, which is fine by me. Paris is fine for cycling, although the only helmet we had in the house was one for horse back riding, so aside from looking ridiculous, I get to keep cycling!

The work we’ve done thus far has been extremely diverse, intellectually strenuous (per the warning), and often fascinating. Let me give you a run down of a sample day so you can get a sense of what’s going on with this fellowship. Yesterday, we heard a lecture in the morning from a journalist who writes about mistreatment of French minorities in the banllieurs (“suburbs”). For the record, every session (lecture, group discussion) lasts an hour and a half. After the journalist, we heard from two young activists who work on reforming the prison system to improve the standard of living for prisoners. France’s jails are notorious for their inadequate amenities and prisoner neglect, and learning about the facts and figures in this lecture was very eye opening. After the activists, we listened to a writer who leads creative writing workshops with inmates. Together they developed a play, and once our talk ended, we went by a metro to a different part of the city (a communist enclave to be exact – take note that communist in Paris has a unique meaning and fits into Parisian society) to watch the actual play. The performance was essentially French slam poetry performed by prison inmates to fresh, smooth jazz-fusion/afro-beat music. It was an awesome experience.

When the play ended it was already 9 pm and we had essentially been going non-stop all day. When the play ended I couldn’t wait to go home, but as we stepped outside, we heard loud music from the down street. We traced the source of the sound to find a huge open air cultural festival covering 5 blocks of the city. A Berber band performed their cultural music on a huge stage with gleeful spectators waving Algerian flags in the air. So much for going home. We soaked in the atmosphere for a few hours before calling it a night. Today has been our first day off since the program started June 3rd, and next week will prove to be equally dense and intense.

One thing I love about this program is that I feel like I’m grasping the real Paris. No city, no matter how glitzy (and Paris epitomizes such glitz), has its problems. We face those problems every single day, all day, in all parts of the city. I’m glad I’m not sitting on top of a bus snapping photos of buildings and streets that I’m told are supposed to be important because they are more beautiful, older, or more architecturally impressive than other parts of the city. The ritz is nice, but the grit is real, and I want my understanding of the world to be rooted in reality, no matter how ugly or disturbing. The photograph I posted above demonstrates this. It shows Paris' ultimate symbol of glamor towering over an unpaved playground doused in spray paint - a point of expression for contemporary artists frustrated by Paris' overwhelmig conservatism.

Also, I’ve already made contact with the Armenians of Paris! I got together with my Bulgarian-Armenian friend Hripsime who now lives in Paris. We met in Armenia the summer of 2007, and went to cite universitae to a residence called the The Armenian House (Mezon du Armeniennes). This section of the city holds over 40 different housing units divided by nation. Residents in each are typically of that house’s origin, but it’s not a requirement or entirely true rule. For example, Japanese students live in the Dutch house, or Arengtinian students live in the Armenian house.

Me and Hrips went to the Armenian house to hear a lecture about the Armenian complex of constantly seeing themselves as victims. The program was in French, so I did not understand about 80% of it, but I did manage to map out a book in my journal about a theory I have (and I’m sure others have it to and there probably is a book out there on it which I simply am not aware of) that nationalism did not begin with the French Revolution as most scholars argue. I look at the nationalism produced out of the French Revolution as belonging to a progression of nationalism which stretches far back into human history. There are very important aspects of social psychology in this subject, and incredible insights to be gained from studying group behaviors of humans. Anyways, the meeting was great, and I had a blast talking to the many different Armenians from all over the world. Today I was wearing my Armenian alphabet shirt and was looking for a place to eat, and shop owner came out into the street and pulled me into his store. He recognize the letters on my chest and invited me to eat at his restaurant. He was an Armenian from Istanbul named Hagop, and I had a kebobesque sandwich called the “Adana” sandwich, which is ironic because Adana is the name of the hometown of my grandfather from my dad’s side. Unfortunately Adana was greasy, but still went down good.

video

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Baren Baltic Sea Beach Party



Today I saw ten naked Danes. All shapes and sizes, genders, ages, etc. No, I didn't join a nudist colony; locals just feel comfortable wearing their birthday suits on the beach. We have reached a Baltic Sea coast town called Tisvildeleje, Denmark (good luck pronouncing it!). Our group is staying at a conference center/farm/wooded "kommune" out in the bush. It's beautiful here. Let's back-track for a moment back to the USA.

We spent the first 2 days of our program in DC. Most of our time was spent at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) because the scholars who designed and created the museum are closely tied to the organization and answered many of our questions about the museum. It's not everyday one has the opportunity to pick the minds of those who edit Holocaust history into museum format. They fielded all types of questions revealing the behind-the-scenes decisions, struggles, tensions, and processes that went into creating the museum.

I asked a question about something that has always bothered me about photos in museums. Historical museums will have captions under photographs explaining where the image is, who the image's characters are, and what is happening. As you can imagine, the images in the Holocaust museum were rather shocking, but some of them struck me as generally vague - the captions described a story that seemed very presumptuous. For example, an image of a Nazi guard standing in a court yard with a priest and a bunch of men sitting on the ground had a caption that said something to the effect of, "Monks in Bucharest held at gunpoint by a Nazi guard before being sent to a death camp." I wondered how the museum's creators knew those details about the photo unless they were specifically written on the image. SO I asked them how much of the image's captions are postulation vs. 100% true historical fact (any historian will tell you such a thing doesn't exist - sadly). The response surprised me.

They admitted that they do in fact do quite a bit of postulating, and shared a story that has frightening implications about the assumptions we make about how accurate museums portray history. Story goes something like this: a day before the museum opened in the early 90's, a large photo in the exhibition depicted what the caption described as women survivors leaving the Dachau concentration camp just after liberation. What surprised the curator about the photograph was that the survivors in the photograph looked in surprisingly good shape. A week into the opening of the exhibit, the museum's directors were approached by a film expert who told them the photograph was not an authentic. The museum's directors apparently were unaware that there was a feature length movie filmed at Dachau about its liberation, and it turns out the photograph was taken during the shooting of the film which was shot at the actual camp a few years after liberation, but was not an authentic image of the camp while under Nazi occupation.

Another admittance to historical tweaking was in reference to the children's section of the museum. It's called "remembering Daniel". This part of the museum is dedicated to the story of a child named Daniel. Turns out Daniel doesn't exist. The facts used to create his story were real, but his actual identity was invented - a fictive composite of different children's stories combined in a way to be most accessible and relatable to younger viewers. The main point is that the USHMM, probably like most museums, does not display 100% historical fact. It must be taken with a grain of salt, and the viewer should always be skeptical, but also respectful of the amount of work that goes into these things.

We flew over to Denmark today. Everyone around me knew nothing about Denmark, and I had a blast telling them all about the Danes on the plane ride, pointing at windmills, etc etc. I flipped when we bused past the old cycling route I used to take under a set of 30 windmills hugging the Baltic coast. I have to go now because my friends are waiting for me so we can go sleep. It's beautiful here.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

In The Beginning...

Confucius said, "A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step."  

How utterly, completely true.  Today I'm sitting in DC.  It's 4am, and the anticipation of leaving America is stirring up me up like a rabid, starving ape chained to a plank with a pair of ripe bananas dangling before its face but just out of reach.  In other words, I can't wait to go!

Yesterday was the first official day of our fellowship called "Humanity in Action".  Thanks to a friend from college two classes ahead of me named Robbie Whelan who happened to swing by our house one day in the late fall, I learned about this program three days before its application deadline.  I had recently been rejected by the Fulbright scholarship (I proposed researching the relationship between academic achievement and physical school quality in Armenia's villages of Ptghni and Aramoos), and another grant through our university called the Walsh (where I had proposed to compile an all purpose hiker's guidebook to Nagorno-Karabagh's rapidly improving network of hiking trails dubbed "Janapar"), so at that time I had been feeling pretty dejected and growing more and more desperate to figure out how my time after college would unfold.  

Finishing the application was not nearly as hard as mustering the gusto to blindisde two very awesome and kind professors, Robert Freedman and Melanie Shell-Weiss, for a recommendation within three days.  They were both so generous and willing, and without their help, I would have never been sitting here on the verge of boarding a plane for Europe with everything paid for by this great organization!

Yesterday was our first day.  I had the chance to meet the other 40 or so fellows in our group.  One thing about these individuals - they are ALL ridiculously brilliant, articulate, insightful, and very accomplished, often making me feel small.  It's not everyday I sit down to dinner next to the son of America's ambassador to China who studies Art History at Yale, and another girl about to enter Harvard for a PhD in history.  And their vocabularies!  I keep a small green notebook in my pocket to jot down the crazy words that fly around as if it weren't a big deal - The lofty and brazen alacrity of their candor left me taciturn...or something like that!

Anyways, I'm going to keep this entry short because I've got a lot of things to do before bedtime - more to come.