I can never go back to real life

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When my classes end for the summer, I always quip to people that I’m on summer vacation because the only thing I’ll have to do now is go to work 9-5, and then have five blissful hours of freedom in the evenings.

I’ll think to myself that it’s not a true vacation unless you’re doing absolutely nothing, like you used to do in the summer before school started, but then I remember back to my summers in middle and high school. They were filled with summer work: English books to read, history essays to write, current events to synthesize.

We would get the work on the last day of school, or during the first hazy days in July, a package would come in the mail, the dreaded assignments. No matter how I tried to finish them ahead of time, there I would be, the last couple weeks of August, frantically writing, terrified I wouldn’t get an A and be off to a bad start with my new teacher.

This past summer semester was my hardest one in school  yet: I started a new job almost exactly at the same time as three classes started, and I signed myself up to give at talk at Philly WordCamp in the middle of the month. As a result, my June was hell.

These days, I truly am doing nothing.  Or, I’m only do things that aren’t annoying: as you can tell, I’m not blogging, I haven’t picked up my novel since last week.

I have no commitments other than to my friends and family.

I come home, maybe make some dinner, maybe eat some watermelon. Maybe Mr. B and I go for a nice long walk around the neighborhood, maybe we watch some bad Russian tv.  Maybe I eat a popsicle.

My calendar is clear of any school/teaching/tech obligations until late August.

I lay on the couch and read books. I’ve already finished The Luminaries and We Have Always Lived in the Castle.  I start long, thoughtful, angry, poignant blog posts and don’t finish them.  I start short tweets that have jokes and don’t tweet them.

Sometimes I get manicures.

Sometimes I just open the windows and smell the sweet grass Mr. B is mowing.

I have never been this unbusy in my entire life.

And it’s scary how good it feels.

Purim in Moscow

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Purim is one of those American Jewish experiences that most Russian Jews missed out on growing up in America. That’s what I always thought, at least, until Anat sent me an email that she was making a documentary about her experiences with purimspiels, Purim plays that retold the story of Esther,  in the Soviet Union.

Anat is an Israeli filmmaker who was born in Moscow. Her family was 9 when they left the Soviet Union. Before that in the late 1980s, they were part of a tight Jewish student group in Moscow, and somehow got the idea that they should be putting on these plays for friends, family and kids.

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I was thunderstruck by the idea that this happened. First, religion was completely verboten in the Soviet Union, and anyone caught in religious  situations would immediately go to jail. Granted, this was close to the fall of the Soviet Union, but still. Second, I didn’t realize there were Jews in the Soviet Union who knew anything about being Jewish, or about the story of Purim. Third, I have no idea how anyone was able to buy a camera, let alone keep the film for that long, in the Soviet Union.

The documentary Anat made about these secret spiels, interspersed with interviews with her parents and other participants now living in Israel, is touching, and, for me, reflects an entirely different universe from the Soviet Union I knew.

I watched it a couple times, still in disbelief, emotional.

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Here’s the trailer, and the whole documentary (~15 min) is available online for $1 if you’re interested.



I’m tired of apps


Every morning, I wake up by scrolling through my Twitter and Facebook feeds. It’s probably the most unhealthy thing I do to myself all day.  As I scroll through, about 1/10th of the content at any given time is ads, and 90% of those ads are for apps.

90% of Hacker News is now not interesting stories but people begging other people to check out their app.

Every tech-related mailing list I’m on is full of people proud to announce the launch of their web app and you can download it if you’re on iOS.

Marc Andreessen wrote that software is eating the world, which being in IT, I don’t mind. It should. Software only makes peoples’ lives easier on different levels, allowing people to work on other problems that aren’t so routine and repeatable.  And, people as the middle layer between machines will never go away.

But I think the real problem is that crappy apps are eating the world. Because we’ve reached peak app development, with apps that also prototype and design apps, and because of the slim chance of hitting it rich,  it’s extraordinarily easy to think of innovation just as churning out apps.

But I live in technology, and even I’m tired and oversaturated with apps.  I don’t want the opportunity to “integrate my Android calendars on three different levels.” I don’t want a social app that combines my Twitter and Facebook experience into something locally-enhanced. I don’t want an app that’s the same version of the site I access in the browser. I don’t want an ecommerce app that connects me to the latest fashions. I don’t need real-time analytics on my ad conversions.  I don’t want Fruit Ninja.

While apps and their walled gardens are taking over the world, all the best parts of the internet that made no money are slowly vanishing. Television Without Pity, which had the best recaps and reviews written by skillful writers, was bought by NBC Universal. It’s still up for now, but who knows what they’ll do with the archives?  One of my friends is getting married, so I was going to send her a link to Indiebrides, a site for women who didn’t want to plan their wedding by the book and which was instrumental to me in helping me to figure out there were women like me who didn’t freak out about white tulle, and made me feel less alone when I was planning my wedding in 2008. That site, full of hundreds of useful, thoughtful people,  is now gone, replaced by HuffPo filler.

I want technology that will help me think. Actually, I don’t even want technology. I want technology to tell me how to put down the technology and connect to people. I want technology to come help teach me to plant a garden. No, I don’t want a gardening app. I want a person who knows how to grow tomatoes. I want to talk to writers, real writers, not writers who want me to CLICK THROUGH TO READ MORE. I want to talk to doctors. I want to meet people near me, but I don’t want a geolocation service to do it.  I want to be at the beach and have no desire to take any pictures or look at anyone else’s.

The strange, weird world of the internet I knew as it was growing is gone.  When I was 12, I checked out a book from the library called the Internet Yellow Pages by Harley Hahn (obviously no longer in existence.) It listed thousands of the best sites in existence that year, and aside from describing them, he also wrote little essays about what it was like being in medical school, the time he wrote to Isaac Asimov and got a response, and hundreds of other small anecdotes that, today, form my understanding of not only the internet, but American society and also gave hundreds of tips that I won’t forget. One story that he wrote was when he was worried he wouldn’t know enough organic chemistry to pass the class, and Asimov, I believe, wrote back to him and said, “If you have a good enough library at your disposal, you can teach yourself anything. I have.” That’s always stuck in my mind.

I’m tired of apps, monetization, SEO, real-time, optimization, social. I’m tired of the Internet trying to monetize from me.   I want to talk to real people and read real good stuff that’s not clickbait.  But I don’t know what comes next. Maybe just going outside.

Hallmark holidays are not my forte


As you may know if you’ve been reading my blog for any amount of time by now, I’m not normal. I mean, not normal in the regular sense, but also in the sense that I don’t enjoy the things that most women enjoy: manicures, massages, and understanding how to wear clothes.  I also suck at cooking.

As I was growing up, my nonability to know how to turn on a stove was an evergreen source of disappointment for my mom, who enjoys  dressing up, wearing makeup, and doing all of the stuff women are supposed to know how to do so they don’t call their mom sobbing two weeks after living in an apartment on their own because they’re not sure how to boil water for eggs.

My mom was always proud of me for my academic accomplishments and the fact that I wrote my own sequel to Star Wars when I was 12, but she held out in her heart of hearts that one day,  I would turn girly. She dressed me in dresses, but despite her best attempts, all of the ribbons would be dirty after twenty minutes, not because I was playing outside, but because I’d either picked up an ink pen, or gotten some glue on it, or ate something that dripped.  She carefully put ribbons in my hair, all of which would be lost after a couple hours. For my fourth birthday, I got a doll, but  my neighbor got  a huge red interesting fire truck. I cried when he left with it.   I was a terrible lady.

As I grew older, I strayed even further away from what was considered the realm of normal for ladies. I tried to wear ChapStick in 7th grade but had to give that up because it smelled too good and I’d tried to eat it.

These days, I’m a little better about convincing society that I am, in fact, female, but I don’t always succeed. For example, My mom is still always game for talking about the latest shoes she bought, how her new purse looks, and what she’ll be making for dinner. I want to talk about  pogroms.

This year, I figured I would finally repay her for all the tzuris I inflicted during my youth by doing that thing daughters are supposed to do for their moms on Mother’s Day. I signed her up for a spa day/massage.

If you recall my previous post about getting a massage, you may remember that it included the sentence “Finally, after an hour, the torture was over.” So obviously this time around I was very excited to get a massage again. I hid the terror from my mom. 

“Mom, guess what,” I said over Skype one day.

“You’re having a baby?!” she said.

“No, I said. Not at the present moment.”

No response on the other end. Then, a sad emoji.

“Even better,” I said.

“There’s nothing better than that,” she said.

“We’re going for a massage,” I said.

“!!!” she wrote.

“Yes, that’s right,” I said, feeling like a hero.

“How much did you pay,” she demanded.

“Doesn’t matter,”I said.

“Yes it does. I won’t be able to relax. Let me pay you for it. It’s expensive, isn’t it?”

“It doesn’t matter,” I said. “Aren’t you excited?”

“Kind of,” she said. Another pause. “Do I have to be naked?”

“Kind of,” I said.

A long pause. Then typing again.

“I’m worried,” she wrote.

“It’ll be fun !!! And relaxing !!!!” I said. Never trust someone who uses seven exclamation points.

The appointed day came, and we drove to the massage place. “Happy Mother’s Day,” I warbled enthusiastically. My mom had a look like she was going to the Hunger Games as a contestant. “It’ll be fine,” I said. “Just tell them which areas to focus on and relax.”

We came in, undressed, changed. Robed, we walked into The Butterfly Room,  where other women were waiting for their massages. Some reading fashion magazines.  Some were eating crackers and cheese. Some were quietly sipping fizzy water. All of them looked like they had been getting massages for years.

My mom fidgeted nervously with her gown and put her hands in her lap. I examined my toes. When was the last time I’d gotten a pedicure? Had it been a month ago? The big toe paint was chipping-had anyone noticed? It seemed like it was too dark to notice, but if they had, they were probably judging me. What does it say about a woman when she has a chipped toe pedicure? Does it say that she just got a new job and is taking a full courseload? Yes, that’s what it says. No, you idiot, it says she’s lazy and might have graduated from licking ChapStick but hasn’t gone too far.

As I was stuck in these thoughts, my mom’s mind was obviously on the torture ahead of her.  On occasion, a shadow would dart past the lounge, come in, and take a woman to her massage.My mom’s head turned each time.

“Have some crackers,” I told my mom, as casually as I could to lighten the mood. We were having so much fun!

I tried to calm her down by engaging in our favorite pasttime: gossip.  “Did you hear what A is doing?” I said quietly.

“No,” my mom said with a gleam in her eye, temporarily forgetting that she was about to be flayed.

The other women looked at us and quietly went back to their magazines.

“Well, she did x and y and Z said that she shouldn’t be doing it…can you believe that,” I said.

“No,” my mom said with glee and outrage in a tone that was more fitting for a colosseum-style execution than the Butterfly Room. “I bet A doesn’t feel great about that!”

Then she remembered where she was. “How long do we have to wait,” she whispered in Russian. All the distinctly non-Russian women looked at us like we were escapees from the looney bin.

“A couple more minutes,” I said. We were having such a great experience!

A male voice echoed down the hall, past the lounge. My mom stiffened. “You said there wouldn’t be male masseuses.” I lied, but hoped it was a true lie. “We won’t have a guy,” I said.

Two distinctly Russian women came in. “Vicki?” one called. The other called my mom’s name. “Are we going separately?” My mom said in Russian. “Don’t leave me alone with these monsters,” her tone said. “I thought we were going together?”

“No, maybe we can work something out, ” I said in Russian. I had neglected to request a together massage, because I didn’t know you could do such things.

The Russian women switched to Russian. “Are you Russian?” they asked us. “Yes,” I whispered with relief.  Ah, their expressions said. These are our people. “We can get you a couples’ massage room,” one said. “Yes, yes, please,” I said, and my mom nodded.  After a minute, we were escorted into parallel rooms, the door left open between them.

“Strip down and get under the blanket,” the women said, and left. This was all old hat to me. “I have to take my robe off?” my mom said.  “yes, but they’ll be careful about it,” I said, lying down. There was some shuffling, and then silence.

After a minute in the darkness, my mom’s muffled voice said from under the blanket, said, “I feel weird. This is weird.”

“Shhh,” I said. “Enjoy the experience.  Enjoy the quiet.”

“I’m worried,” she said, and then the women came in.

The massage was great, as a good massage is. Very relaxing. Lots of oil. Lots of pressure points. The whole time, though, I was thinking, hoping that my mom was enjoying the experience. I was hoping that when it was over, I would ask her how it was, and it would be a Hallmark card moment. “It’s everything I ever dreamed spending time with my daughter would be,” my mom would say, and then some sappy music from the 80s would filter through the speakers as we hugged and reaffirmed our bonding experience.

Instead, when it was over, we shuffled to the dressing room.

“I wonder how much those Russian women get paid,” she said.

“Probably a lot,” I said. “But probably more if they do it outside this place, because one of them just slipped me her business card and told me to call her if I ever wanted an in-home massage.”

We shared a laugh about sketchy Russian businesses.

“How was it,” I asked, hoping against hope, that she would have loved it.

“It was weird,” she said. “Really weird. I’m just not used to people doing things for me like that.”

“So you liked it,” I said hopefully, hoping I had made it a good Mother’s Day for her. Wilson Philips would start at any moment now. A woman’s voice would come in a voiceover, “Vicki, making sure her mother gets a Mother’s Day treat. The best daughter and gifter of female bonding experiences in the world.”

“It was weird,” she said. “But I’m spending my Mother’s Day with my daughter, and that’s the biggest gift. ” (I added that last part in my mind because Russian moms will never talk like they’re in a life-affirming sitcom.)

And that’s when I understood several things. First, I will never understand how to be a woman. Second, I now understand where my fear of massages comes from. And third, next Mother’s Day me and my mom are going somewhere where we can just talk about how sketchy Russian businesses are , how much they charge for an hour’s worth of services, and how we can’t believe A did X to Z yesterday.

The American dream as seen through Polly Pocket

Screen Shot 2014-05-03 at 7.49.33 AM I am six years old again and I’ve been in America for a year. My cousin has been in America for six months, and somehow by the benevolence of our relatives, someone gifts her a Jasmine Barbie. I see it in her room, where she is staying with our relatives who sponsored our trip to America.

“What’s that,” I ask, eyes wide. Soviet dolls were all huge, ugly, and vaguely mechanical in nature, like if you tipped one over, springs and sawdust would fall out, like they were manufactured at the Petrovodsk Rubber Tire Plant Number 3.

All of my dolls were named Nastya, short for Anastasia. All of them had stick-thin stringy yellow hair, like mine.

This doll was tiny and shapely,and she had huge almond eyes. She looked like my cousin.  You could never name someone that looked like this Nastya. 5784105450_03796cc154_m “That’s Jasmine,” my cousin, who is six years older than me, says matter-of-factly.

My cousin is the sun to my moon. She is pretty, popular, and has beautiful black-brown straight hair and eyelashes that reach her cheeks. When she tilts her head sideways and laughs, the whole world smiles. She walks, dreamily, paints with watercolors I’m not allowed to touch, wears clothes I’m not allowed to wear, goes places I’m not allowed to go.  I am short, little, and have an imagination that the real world can’t hold. I wear hand-me-down clothes that look weird.  I’m annoying.  The only way I can get anyone’s attention is by doing funny things, or saying funny things.  It’s hard to think of funny things to say all the time, so I give up and read books.

Screen Shot 2013-06-09 at 12.50.31 PM “Can I play with her,” I ask, reaching up . She is encapsulated in the box she came in. Most Americans throw these boxes away, but my cousin has kept it, meticulously attaching each piece of clothing to its original twist-tie, organizing all the accessories in one place. “No,” she yanks Jasmine away.

“You’ll lose her earrings.” “I promise I won’t. I’ll stay right here.” She hesitates, then carefully unties Jasmine from her plastic exile and hands her to me. I am pure joy. I stroke her hair. I feel the fabric of the pants, the tiny plastic shoes that come with her. I’ve never seen the movie Aladdin, unlike my cousin, who, even though she’s been in America less than me, already knows everything and has seen everything, but I love Jasmine.

“I want her,” I say.

My cousin yanks her away. “You can’t have her, she’s mine.”

“Can I borrow her,” I say, breathily. “No, no, no!” My cousin leaves the room in a huff. She is used to getting her way. She calls her mom, my aunt, who calls my mom. They break away from their adult conversation downstairs, about how the hell they’re going to do something in this new country, and come upstairs to powwow.

“Let her borrow the doll,” my aunt says. “No, no” my mom says, firmly. “Stop being a bad girl,” she tells me. “Be polite, be nice.” Only bad girls ask for others’ toys. Nice girls don’t say anything, no matter how much they want something.

“Ok,” I say. I don’t like when my mom reprimands me. I try to color inside the lines my whole life. “She wants it, she’s smaller,” my aunt says. “Let her have this doll!” “No, don’t be ridiculous, we’ll buy her her own doll,” my mom says. My mom is proud. We don’t have any money yet, not even for a $12 doll. But she’ll be damned if she lets me borrow my cousin’s.

I start whining. We’re both only children, and we’re at an impasse.  My mom leads me away with promises of dessert and tea downstairs. My cousin looks on triumphantly, but just as I’m about to go down the stairs she says graciously, “You can come play with her on weekends.” 8080862401_12152ebc13_z I am eight years old and we have moved away from Philadelphia because neither of my parents could find jobs there but now we have some jobs.

We live alone, without family, without anyone except ourselves for now, and it’s just the three of us in a tiny apartment, and it’s close to Christmas, I think, although we don’t celebrate it.

I am still short, pudgy, not incredibly attractive, and still wearing funny hand-me-downs, but those hand-me-downs are now being replaced with 80% markdown clothes from two seasons ago from discount outlets,  but at least now I have more teeth and I can write short stories.I write hundreds of short stories, two pages long, about ponies and a town called Maytown where everyone is always happy and it’s always – you guessed it – May.

Now it’s dark, and we’re coming back from a walk along the river. We take a lot of walks along the river because Russians love walking, and because it’s free.

It starts to flurry, and now we’re in the car, driving home. “Can we go to McDonald’s, please?”  I beg my parents. Everyone else in my class goes to McDonald’s. I’m the only one who’s never been. “No, we have dinner at home,” my mom starts to say. I want to go to McDonald’s because every American does, but more importantly, because they have Polly Pocket.

Everyone in my class has Polly Pocket dolls. They come in with them, take them out of their perfect Jansport backpacks, next to their Lunchables lunches, next to whatever else their parents bought them that weekend. I want a Polly Pocket with my Happy Meal so bad.

“No, we have dinner at home,” my mom says.

“Please?” I say. I try to think of how to say this like a good girl, even though my heart is pounding in my chest. I’ve never gotten up the nerve to ask this before, and I am terrified I’ll be turned down.

“No-” my mom starts to say, but my dad overrides her. “Let’s go,” he says, nodding to me. He knows.

We get there. We are at a loss for what to order, so we all order hamburgers without fries, because it’s cheaper. “But the hamburger doesn’t come with the Happy Meal-” I start to protest. “You’ll be fine without it,” my mom says. The happy meal is more expensive. I eye the meat on my tray. I don’t eat red meat. “Go ahead,” my mom says. “I’m not making you anything at home.”

I put up a fuss. I’m a picky eater. The only way my mom got me to eat in Russia was to show me pictures from a picture book while she shoved kasha in my mouth. Eventually she gave up. At eight,  I don’t eat: red meat, pork, cheese, pizza, olives, pickles, beets, or cabbage. I am a constant headache to cook for. My mom makes two separate meals, and tonight she is not having it. She’s exhausted from her new job.

“Eat it,” she says. “Eat it,” my dad says, raising his voice. Through the sting of tears, I take a bite of the hamburger. It is disgusting, because it is red meat. I chew another leathery bite, looking over at the happy meal display menu with the Polly Pockets, picking out which one I would take. Later that night, my mom boils pasta, sighing over the pot.

Later, under the New Year’s tree, I find the Polly Pocket castle. It is the biggest Polly Pocket, better than any of my classmates’. It even has a battery switch where you can turn the lights on. I have never been happier in my life. I bring it in the next day. Bam, I put it down on my desk, and all the other little girls crowd around it. “Wow, I don’t have that one,” they say, and I beam with pride. I know.

DearDiary I am ten or eleven, and ready for a computer. “You can’t have a computer,” my dad says. Computers are really expensive and you have to pick out all the parts from a paper catalog that comes to your house. You have to spend time configuring the memory, the hard drive, the monitor.

We’re not ready for a computer, although when we get one next year, it will become my universe.

I’m not wearing hand-me-downs anymore. We buy all our clothes in stores,mostly from the clearance section, but still in real live department stores where everyone I know shops.

I set my sights lower, thumbing through the Toys R’ Us catalog.  I can ask for things from the catalog now. I won’t get 90% of them, but I’ve built up a Barbie collection to rival anyone. I don’t have to share anything with anyone. The toys are all mine and I hoard them, greedy to own. In the catalog and on TV (we have cable tv now) I see it. Dear Diary. You can write anything you want in Dear Diary, and you can keep it with you. You can organize things. You can calculate things. And you can share secrets. I don’t know about the calculating, but I love writing, secrets, and being really organized. I want a Dear Diary.

But the Dear Diary is $40, so I have to save up some of my allowance for it, and we have to wait for what seems like months. “I just want to go to Toys R’ Us to look at it,” I say, burning with desire. “Ok,” says my dad, giving in. I look at the Dear Diary through its plastic clamshell packaging. “You still want it?” he asks. “You sure you don’t want something else?” Something cheaper, is the subtext. “No,” I say. “I want this.”

The day we buy it, I am giddy with joy. My own diary!  When we get home, I rip it open. “Careful!” my dad warns. What if we have to return it? We have to keep the packaging in tact. I try to turn it on, but it doesn’t work. “Needs batteries,” I read in the pamphlet, my heart sinking. “We’ll get them tomorrow,” my dad says, but tomorrow is not soon enough for a kid with a diary, I need them RIGHT NOW.

So we go to the store again and shell out for super-tiny super-special electronics batteries. “Stupid toys, why don’t they come with batteries?” my dad grumbles, but I’m already absorbed in all the non-functionality of this non-internet-connected non-touch-screen PDA. I spend hours with it, typing my secrets and carrying it around the house. “Put that thing down,  you look ridiculous,” my mom says,but she says it laughing. I am bursting with pride. I bring it in the next day. No one has a Dear Diary. I am the first one. No one else knows how to type.


I am 27, and I have my own job, my own house, and my own Macbook Pro, and sometimes I still can’t believe it.  Thank you American toy industrial-complex, for the toys, to Buzzfeed for the trip down memory lane,  and my parents, for the rest.