New York on a whim

This weekend, I was in search of a couch. Well, I’ve been in search of a couch since January but this weekend is the first weekend life’s slowed down enough for me to be able to focus on the house again.

We want to create a reading/TV-watching nook in our office/library  on the third floor, and we need a really comfortable couch to put up there.

American furniture is 100% ugly, and Russian furniture is 98% ugly, AND Mr. B  and I don’t agree on anything, so I was extremely lucky that we found one couch we agreed on:

 

The only problem was that I kind of wanted to see a couch I was going to spend more than a grand on, and the closest CB2 store is in New York.

And the house was a mess. And I had homework to do. And I was lazy.

But hey, it’s only spring once a year, right? And we love New York. So we decided to go to Manhattan to see a couch.

I’m so glad we went.  It was fun.   The weather was beautiful, the couch was perfect and we decided to buy it, and we spent the rest of the day wandering around the city.  I think we walked 6 miles.

There’s a certain vitality that New York has that not even my beloved DC can match.  Just being in New York, you feel that everyone is hustling, doing something, and even sitting in a coffee shop observing people feels somehow more productive than it does anywhere else.

At Pearl River Mart.

 A store selling Britannica.  But nothing Scottish whatsoever.  Racism!  I did almost buy a very beautiful teapot.

We tried to go to the 9-11 Memorial, just like we’d done at the Pentagon before, but there are annoying lines and you have to pay, which, WTF? By the way, if someone can tell me how this monument depicts or comforts survivors of terrorism, and does not instead commemorate maraschino cherries, I will pay you $100.

Lunch as at Taim Falafel. OMGSOGOOD. We sat and watched hipsters go by.

Then we spent an hour or five at The Strand, where I got this.

By the way, If you’re interested in a 100% legit Chanel/Louis Vuitton purse, I found this great spot:

On our way to the car, I bought some strawberries for a dollar a container in Chinatown. As we drove away from the city, I took my shoes off , we ironically put on the Russian rap, and ate strawberries all the way to Hoboken.

Life is good.

How writers lie (or, eel-hunting)

Carnival Duet 2, Andrei Shwidiky

 

Elif Batuman, one of my favorite writers (who else has the Twitter handle Banana Karenina?), wrote in semi-defense of Mike Daisey‘s blatant lying of his portrayal of his investigation at the Foxconn Apple factory in China last month.  Since she herself wrote a memoir about the quirks of being in a Russian Studies graduate progrma that was beautiful and odd precisely because it was true, she had some thoughts about Daisey’s lie:

But I think the critique Mike Daisey got isn’t quite the critique he deserved. I think his offense is less the misrepresentation of truth than self-aggrandizement. It’s important that he didn’t invent the stuff out of nowhere. He just said that he was there when he wasn’t.

Somehow, to me, the labeling isn’t the most important thing here. I guess I’m not that disturbed by the liberties that Daisey took with the facts. He set out to tell a story about working conditions in Chinese factories, in a way that would affect public opinion and eventually maybe public policy. And he did tell such a story. And This American Life checked that story, and it checked out. I don’t feel betrayed or manipulated. The phenomenon he described, and got people to care about, was real.

As a reader, I was really angry with Daisey. I felt betrayed.  Although the details didn’t mater to Elif, they mattered to me.  If he was lying about the fact that a factory worker whose hand was mangled by making iPads had never seen an iPad, then what else had he lied about? Why did he make up the fact that he had met Chinese workers at a Starbucks when it didn’t happen?  Did he think it would make it more relatable to American audiences? Since This American Life is true stories unless they say otherwise, I believed all the details. And I felt suckered.

As a reader, I’ve always wanted to know if everything I’ve read in nonfiction is true, especially in travel writing.  “Did Tom Bissell really eat sheep’s head in Uzbekistan with a whole clan watching him? Did Rory Stewart REALLY walk through ALL of Afghanistan? Did he really pick up a dog there? Did Lisa Napoli REALLY feel like she was going to fall off the edge of the earth?”  These details, too outrageously beautiful to be false, are what make me excited about how random life is, and how the writer was lucky enough to capture the moment.
Millais, The Boyhood of Ralleigh
But  I read a recent interview with Paul Theroux that made me angry. He said, simply, that non-fiction writers hide everything,
One of the things the Tao of Travel shows is how unforthcoming most travel writers are, how most travelers are. They don’t tell you who they were traveling with, and they’re not very reliable about things that happened to them. For example, everyone loved John Steinbeck’s book Travels With Charley. Turns out he didn’t travel alone, his wife kept meeting him, yet she was never mentioned in the book. Steinbeck didn’t go to all the places he mentioned, nor did he meet all the people he said he met. In other words, Travels With Charley is fiction, or at least half-fiction.
Why couldn’t Steinbeck just have written that his wife had been with him? It would have made the book even more beautiful, because it really was true. He could have spoken about love and companionship on a journey. He could have written about love, or a fight they had.  But he didn’t because it ruined his romantic vision of the solo traveler. It killed his bromance.

There were a lot of things Steinbeck didn’t consider essential to the story, and Wikipedia has a whole entry on how fake his trip is.  The reader-me was very disappointed to read this. I remember reading Travels with Charley in 9th or 10th grade, lapping up every word. “People really do this stuff! They really have these exciting lives!”
When I was working on my book, I kept the reader-me in mind.   I tried to be as honest as I possibly could, given that my book is nonfiction.  I remembered how angry I became with Mike Daisey, and with bloggers who lie, as well.  I wrote down everything exactly as it happened with rigid detail:

We stepped back out onto the street and I spotted a statue of Adam Smith, who was always one of my heroes when I was studying economics, but who I never realized was Scottish. Did Scottish people have British last names, I wondered as I groped the statue for a few candid shots of me climbing Adam, me hugging Adam, me taking Adam’s hand.  How could you tell British people and Scottish people apart if they had the same names?  When did Scottish names come about?

We retired to a café to drink cappuccino and read BBC on our iPad.  It finally stopped raining, and we were finally warm.  Life was good.  However, as a Russian, you learn to live with guarded pessimism, and it served me well for Scotland.

Groping Adam Smith, Boykis

It’s boring, right?  I mean, maybe kind of funny, very painfully earnest, and really, really boring.  I was really thinking all of those things, and seeing the statue of Adam Smith was really important to me because he was the first economist I learned about, and how conveniently cool that he also turned out to be Scottish, and that we stumbled upon him by accident.   It was also so cool to me that I could sit and drink coffee next to Adam Smith and really old stuff:

 

But the way I remembered the memory didn’t translate well on paper and wasn’t interesting to ayone except for me. So I took it out completely.

Does it mean that the book is 100% false? No.  The spirit of the book is 100% true. Everything I’ve written about really happened as well, to me.  The only question is the degree.

Here’s another very early shitty first draft, of the introduction:

There was no single event that turned me into a Scottish nationalist. It was the sum of the minutiae of five days quietly observing an ancient-but nascent- country going about its day-to-day business. It was the thousands of sheep in quiet misty fields, a tiny saltire waving quietly from a fallow windowbox planter in Inverness, the glimmer of the ghost of the sun on Loch Ness, the tiny snippet of Gaelic overheard in a café filled entirely with overenthusiastic amateur Japanese photographers who annoyed the shit out of me.

All of that was true, too.  That’s really how I felt, exactly when I felt it, with all the boring, glowing details about travel no one cares about.  “Glistening lakes, ephemeral fields,” all of this is great in your head. But, like the millions of pictures you want to show people when you get back, no one cares.

I couldn’t get an introduction that pulled anyone in.  I was bored by reading my own writing.

Then, finally, Mr. B said, “Stop writing around the issue.  Just be yourself.  Stop describing everything in detail and get down to the heart of what you wanted to say.”   “But what if people I know read this book? I’ll feel so vulnerable.”   “That’s the point, isn’t it?”

So I lay curled on the floor in a fetal position for fifteen minutes.  I took my imaginary audience entirely out of my head until it was just me, writing for me.  I remembered what I had written mid-journey:

 

And I got up, sat at the computer, and wrote,

Scotland has shitty food, godawful weather, and no political future.

I love Scotland so much.

And it wasn’t 100% true, because not all the food in Scotland was terrible, nor because my love for Scotland was all-encompassing. But it was true enough and funny enough to mean everything I meant.  And I kept it as the beginning of my book.

As writers and performers, especially for non-fiction, we are constantly on the wrong side of a math equation.  The truth is out there, like an eel,  and we are always asymptotically trying to approach it, to get our hands around it, but we never quite succeed.  If we’re writing non-fiction, especially, be it a book or a blog, we don’t want to lie.  But sometimes the truth is boring and it doesn’t fit in with our narrative. Sometimes what we mean by the truth is different than how the reader perceives it.

So, on one level, I understand Mike Daisey’s need to embellish his story in order to highlight the truth as he thought he saw it, and I understand Elif’s defense of him. I understand that John Steinbeck didn’t mention that he stayed at pretty nice hotels instead of his camper during his trip.

But the second level of writing is that we need to get as close to that asymptote as possible, no matter how boring it is, and make it not-boring.  As writers, we need to grab our net, and start eel-hunting, both for the sake of the reader, and more importantly, for the sake of ourselves.

And if we can’t get as close as possible to the truth, we need to let people know.

“Hey, I couldn’t grab the eel, but I glimpsed, and boy, it was glorious.  Here’s what I did see as it moved away from me in the murky water.”

 

Philly’s Women in Tech Summit at Wharton: Better than expected!

 

I hate women-only conferences and networking groups.

The reason is that while all the women are together at one conference, all the men that make decisions are at another, and the women don’t have acces to them.  You also start to get scope creep, like where you have panels called “Social Media Magic: A Woman’s Touch.” Then,  women start talking to other women about clothes instead of their industry.

So it was with hesitation that I signed up for the Women in Tech Summit. I did so for a couple reasons: one, it was at Wharton, which, as you may recall, is my mother ship. I was really hoping if I stayed there long enough, they’d take me.  Two, it was part of Philly Tech Week on a weekend, and I didn’t know if could make any of the other events due to my crazy work/school schedule. And three, well, yeah, I was interested to see other women working in technology.  I’m one of just a few at my job and I wanted to catch a glimpse of my species in the wild.

I was expecting the worst when I saw that the website was pink.  Because women are pink, right?  I also braced myself for impact when I saw women entering Huntsman in full-on business suits. No one ever goes to regular tech conferences in business suits unless they’re trying to sell you something.   The third sign was when, as soon as I got in line to find my name badge, I overheard one woman telling another, “Oh, I like your necklace.” I realize this is the female equivalent of, “Oh wow, that’s a really cool [insert gadget here].” But why can’t we be complimenting each other on our gadgets instead of our necklaces?  I love your browser. It’s so sleek and sexy.

Luckily, the conference went way uphill from there:

 

Once I registered, I wandered around.  Most of the women were already talking in groups, and I HATE, HATE, HATE having to but tinto conversations.  But I did it anyway, and I ended up meeting someone who’s starting her own coworking space with childcare in Philly (this is really cool), someone curating women writers online, someone who’d just launched a digital branding startup with her husband.

I got to meet Gloria, one of the people at the center of the Philly social media scene, who I’ve been following on Twitter for a while, as well as Yael , who writes for Technically Philly, my favorite local tech site.  I also got to practice being socially awkward.  “Are you Israeli,” I asked Yael immediately when she introduced herself.   “Yes,” she looked pained. “Because I love the name Yael,” I said, dying slowly inside.  And, “You’re different in real life than on Twitter!” I exclaimed to Gloria, getting ready to dig a nice neat hole for myself.

Like most introverts, I HATE networking with a passion.

After forcing myself to be social, I went to a couple of sessions that were really interesting: one about test-driven development, led by Audrey. (Here’s more detail if you’re interested)

 

and  one about working with open data, led by Dana.  Here are some pictures from that workshop.  These were both really interesting, especially the second one, because I work in data, and it was fun to complain about data issues:

What was more interesting was the twitter feed of the sessions I wasn’t in.  At the workshops, I was pleasantly surprised to see that we were not covering anything related to equality, or why there aren’t enough women in the workforce, or work/life balance.  The women presenting and attending were women were actually just…doing it. There were Android developers, project managers, and, in the case of Audrey, new moms.  They were  leading by example.

The generalist sessions focused more on how it felt to be a woman in the workplace and what to do about it. Well, I already know how it feels to be a woman in the technical workplace. I’m sure most of the women at the conference did, too.  Since my boss hasn’t taken me aside and told me, “Gee Vicki, we’re really going to need you to ramp down being a female because it is just affecting your work in crazy ways,” I think I’m doing pretty well.  In fact, 90% of the time, I don’t think about being a woman at work because I’m….working.

So you could easily tell the tweets coming from the generalist and the non-generalist sessions apart:

 

This is one of my other favorite tweets:

 

Probably my favorite session was Joanne Lang’s.  She’s the CEO of AboutOne, which just launched at 5:30 the morning of the conference, but she didn’t skip a beat in talking about how funding and running a start-up works. Start-ups as portrayed by the tech media always seem so glamorous and cool.  Joanne broke it down for what it was: hard work, and having enough business savvy to understand where to cut costs, and constantly not knowing if you’re on the brink of succes or failure.  Her session was really great for me and, in forty minutes, taught me more about business than my MBA has all semester. Hey-o!

Although there were a few “pink” moments, and unfortunately as of now I am still not a Wharton student, I did enjoy the conference.  It was helpful to see some of the career paths in technology that women had mapped out for themselves, and it was fun to see people into data as much as I am.  One of my favorite parts was meeting Marina, who’s currently an artist of pretty stuff, but is making her way into the tech sector. There’s not a lot of guidance for people that want to transition into tech (as I found out recently,) so this conference served yet another purpose.

I came away with two prevailing thoughts that wrapped the whole thing up:

and, most importantly:

Thanks to everyone who organized the conference for making it happen.

P.S. I also  really liked tech conference organizer Yasmin’s post about becoming an American citizen recently.

I found another Russian thing that is terrible for everyone: Russian children’s books

So, the other week, Mr. B and I were trolling around in the local Russian bookstore. It’s actually very cute because it’s called “Knizhnik,” which loosely translates to “Booker,”  from the word for book, knizhka. It’s named after the owner, whose last name IS actually Knizhnik.  With a last name like that, I can only imagine you’re destined either for book store ownership or tax evasion.

Anyway, none of that was  relevant to the picture I’m about to show you. Brace yourselves.

This book is titled “Magical Riddles,” but the only riddle I have is why the hell the wolf on the cover of a book targeting the 3-7 age group is dressed like Tupac Shakur? With his own bling, which reads “волк ” or wolf in Russian.

When I first Tweeted this picture on Instagram, a couple of Concerned Citizens pointed out that, even in English, it looked like the wolf was up to no good:

I have no explanation for this cover illustration and why it’s appropriating American gangsta rap culture.

 Are Russians hoping to corner the hip-hop marketing segment of children’s literature? Do they think the wolf (W-Dawg) appeals to those 4-year old toddler girls who are dreaming of someone sexy and dangerous, yet safe, to escort them to Grandmother’s house? (Yes, that is little Red Riding Hood, but in Russian she’s Little Red Riding Cap, because, you know, communists)

More importantly, if the wolf  can afford bling, why can’t he afford a nice pair of Prada pants without patches, like Kanye? Is it because the illustrator is trying to show that, while daddy has a Boomer and a 14-k gold nameplate he’s still relatable to the proletariat?

We many never know.

But while you’re puzzling over that, there’s another Russian children’s series I’d like you to check out.  It’s called Tanya Grotter and it has no resemblance at all to anything in English-speaking culture whatsoever.

This pacticular book is called “Tanya Grotter and the Hammer of Perun,” Perun being the Slavic pagan deity of fire, mountains, and plagiarism.

I can just imagine a marketing meeting where the publishers of these books got together.

“How can we sell our own rich literary culture, spanning back hundreds of years and including such beloved Russian children’s authors as Marshak, Barto, and Nosov?” One suit says to another.

“We can’t.  Now that everyone has the Internet, Russian culture is boring. America, America, America, they all want.”

“So what are we going to do?”

“We will plagiarize and appropriate everything, by God.”

“ALL of American and Anglophone culture?”

“Yes, all of it.”

“But it’s so overwhelming! Where do we start?”

“How about you draw a Hip Hop wolf, and we’ll go from there?”

“But even if we develop a hip hop culture, we don’t have the ‘hood. How do we rap without a ‘hood to objectify?”

“Are you looking around you?  You have a whole country full of rusting post-Soviet machinery that hasn’t been maintained in over 40 years  just waiting to give you tetanus, and you’re complaining that we don’t have a ‘hood? Get back to drawing that wolf, bratan.”

 

Friday Links, now engineered to make you appear witty and urbane to others.

Can I just gloat for a second that the most-read article in The Economist this week was on my beloved Shotlandia (which would be an excellent name for a vodka, by the way)? So if you are buying my book, which contains a brief but maybe kind of inaccurate history of the issue, you will be all the hotness at your suave cocktail parties this year as you wow people with your expertise.

“Did you know, Mittsy,” you’ll say to  your fellow chatterer holding an appletini, “did you know, Mittsy, that Scotland has been trying to become independent for the last three hundred years and that its future now lies in hydroelectric energy? ”

“Really,” Mittsy will say and adjust her Lilly Pulitzer purse.

“Oh, yes, quite,” you’ll say.  “Did you also know that people almost get shanked there on a regular basis?”

“What,” Mittsy will choke on her olive.

“According to Vicki Boykis, it’s true,” you’ll say smugly.  “If it’s in a self-published book being advertised on a blog read by four people, two of whom are the author and her husband, it must be 100% legit.”

Links:

  1. “Positively Ageless: A Tribute to my Grandmother”
  2. Life in the US Foreign Service
  3. The Arabic breakfast
  4. Russian caricatures
  5. An interview with Dorie Greenspan
  6. Is Facebook making us lonely?
  7. Cool new Philly site
  8. The winner of the Pulitzer isn’t and more about it
  9. If I know someone on Twitter and they become awesome and famous, am I also awesome and famous?