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The show-me state of self-promotion in realtime

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lenta

A couple months ago, Paul Ford, one of my favorite internets writers, tweeted that he was sick of self-promotion.

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There’s a reason over 150 people retweeted it, and it’s because we’re constantly deluged with announcements of other people’s success.

I’m no less guilty of it than anyone else. In the past month, I’ve announced at least three obnoxious things on Facebook and Twitter about how great I’m doing in my professional and personal life. Last week, I posted that I was excited to start a new job in two weeks (why not wait until I’ve actually started and done something useful?), and that I was 2/3 of the way through my MBA (why not just wait until I have the diploma in hand?)

Before,  I’ve written before how I’m losing weight, working on a novel, and getting an MBA.  None of these things are completed yet, but I’m still chattering about them. Why?

Countless friends have posted about their pregnancies as soon as they found out themselves, linked to races they’ve signed up for that are months away, and announced conferences they’re going to long before they happen. Kickstarters beg for money for half-finished projects (“Just had a great meeting about phase one, stay tuned,” they chirp), and “Coming to your city,” authors cry.

Then, there is a couple who made a wedding trailer. Yes, a trailer for their wedding.

Epic Save The Date {Bambo + Janice} from Major Diamond Productions on Vimeo.

What’s this obsession with updating people on how hard we’re working, how fast we’re growing human beings, and how often we travel, how many helicopters are going to take us to our nuptials? For businesses, it’s obvious. It’s advertising.

But what are we non-corporate entities advertising? I think it’s our success and our happiness. Humans can be quirky, but in the end we’re all wired the same: we all want to be standing next to the most popular guy in the room, even if we’re not the ones doing the talking.  In the age of social media, when connections are easier than ever, we want to signal as much as possible that people should pick us as friends, business partners, travel bloggers.

We all want to be doing great at work, at home, abroad. Every time we see someone doing even better, we feel worse. Why aren’t we doing as well? The grass is always greener on the other side, especially if that grass updates in five-second increments, with Five Stunning Photos.

It also seems  that it’s an inherently American thing to talk about what you’re doing without any thought to who’s reading and what they might be thinking.Of course, there is the history of the humble, quiet Puritan work ethic, backbreaking years of mindnumbing toil until we meet our maker. That got boring as soon as we realized we were the Beacon on the Hill, the country of Big Shoulders, and if we don’t pat ourselves on the back, who will? Capitalism ensures that the loudest and the best rise to the top, and being glued to our phones, combined with the 24-hour news cycle solidifies it.

Russian and Jewish social norms, like those of many other Indo-European cultures,  on the other hand, frown upon showing anything good going on in your life, lest someone cast the evil eye on you.  Jewish tradition prohibits baby showers until a baby is born. In Russian, there’s a word for messing up the good vibes going on in someone’s life by simply glancing at them with the evil eye of desire or hate, sglazit’.

“Don’t post that picture on Facebook. Kto-to sglazit‘,” Someone’s going to ruin your good luck by coveting what you have. When my aunt got back to Russia, she didn’t show anyone pictures of my parents house. Sglazyat. “Who needs that? Better keep it to yourself.”

This is, of course, wearing away, because I see hundreds of thousands of Russians using VKontakte, Russian Facebook and posting Instagrams of their amazing vacations in Turkey. And Jewish bar mitzvahs costing thousands of dollars. Oy.

So, where’s the middle ground between self-promotion, genuinely wanting to share good things going on in your life,  and worrying that God, or an angry mob of passive-aggressive comments,  is going to strike you down because you mentioned you might be taking a weekend trip to Atlantic City? I don’t know, but I’m working on figuring it out, and once I find out, you’ll be able to read about it right here ON MY BLOG.

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In Miami and in Vapiano

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South Beach Bathers, John French Sloan 1907

Swamplandia! by Karen Russell, is a weird jewel of a novel about a nuclear family running a slowly-dying gator wrestling park on a small island  off the Gulf Coast of Florida.  Russell’s Sunshine State is surreal, dreamy, swampy, thick with mud, mosquitoes, and warbling birds.

Florida, in those days, was a very odd place: a peninsula where the sky itself rode overland like a blue locomotive, clouds chuffing across marshes; where orange trees and orderly rows of vegetables gave to deep woods, and then, further south, broke into an endless acreage of ten-foot grass.

The seeming impossibility of a tropical paradise combined with the exuberance and proximity of South America, the salt and heat, and, of course, a python-killing contest, makes for a unique atmosphere unlike anywhere else in the U.S.  It’s a unique brand of chaos and laziness.   It’s Florida:

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Mr. B and I flew down to Florida for a weekend in March, the week of Spring Break. We went with two friends to visit a third friend who had moved there recently from Philadelphia. It was actually in no way like Spring Break since all of us have full-time jobs, some of us have kids, and none of us want to do wet-t shirt contests because our Gap cotton blends are tumble-dry only.

We weren’t going to shotgun beers, go to clubs where they played Pitbull, or stay out past 12. But damnit, did we need spring.

Just a couple months ago, I wrote,

It’s cold enough to heat up the car for fifteen minutes before you go anywhere. It’s cold enough for soup every week, almost every day, for scarves and for the wind to bite your lungs as you walk outside. It’s cold enough to be sick every week, which I am, and it’s cold enough for my thighs to tingle through three pairs of pants on the walk to the train.  It’s cold as hell. It’s cold and miserable,  and the world seems large, dark, and unforgiving outside of our small house.

Going back through my archives, I realize that I’ve bitched about winter almost every year, which makes me believe I need to either move to Florida or stop blogging from September to March for the sake of humanity.

But, the plane emerged from the clouds and into Florida air space into blobs of green, brilliant and sparkling, oceans and pools of water lapping in marshy, lazy bays, life, pulsing on its very vein! Here it was! Warm Valhalla!

“That’ll be $6 if you want the in-flight snack,” the stewardess said.

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We landed in West Palm Beach, about an hour from Miami and rented a car. It was so warm that we opened the windows.  We turned on the club mixes. You can turn on the song below and feel like you’re in Florida, too.

Driving into Brickell, Miami’s new,  wildly-sprawling financial district, we passed ceviche stands, palm fronds, glimpses of the waving ocean. We saw an old guy jogging in just a Speedo. We looked away awkwardly, because it was gross. But inside we were happy it was shorts (no shorts?) weather.

Coming to Miami from the buttoned-up, rigidEast Coast in the winter is an exhale, a descent into warm, toasty madness. Anything goes.

So we exhaled.  We drank coconut water out of coconuts that a guy hacked at with a huge machete.

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We ate paella out of shared plates.

We smoked cigars in Little Cuba. Some of us with the chromosomal capability to do so grew Castro beards. We were ON A BOAT. We passed Key Biscayne and there, in the middle of the ocean near the island, was a flock of twenty or thirty small boats, strung together, bobbing with the rhythm of the EDM coming from them. These were the Spring Breakers. They dove in and out of the water, between the boats, guzzling cheap beer and swaying like palm fronds. 

We laughed at them and looked seaward. Some of us unfortunately continued to look like Fidel Castro in the 1940s.

Screen Shot 2014-04-22 at 10.05.43 PMWe did all the Florida things you’re supposed to do, and while we were doing them, I was thinking about how eclectic, weird, and wonderful Florida is, and what joy it was to be able to experience it. 

If I were a normal person, I would end the post here on a high note. But you know me.  I can’t have normal-people fun. I’m neurotic.  I’m Slavic-pessimistic, and I’m pretty sure if I’m having a good time, the world’s going to end tomorrow. So I’m going to tell you that there was one shadow in our sunshine-y vacation, and that shadow’s name is Vapiano.

Vapiano is chaos that happens when restaurant industry ambition, combined with wishful thinking, goes unchecked and descends into anarchy. And, let me tell you, anarchy tastes like olive oil drizzled over bruschetta. It’s a restaurant “that is defining the future of fresh casual – a new and refreshing niche in the restaurant industry”, according to the website.

Vapiano is like if you take the worst parts of an Italian restaurant, graduate-level math, and guilt and blend it together into a hurricane of extreme social awkwardness, according to me.

For dinner on Friday, our friend recommended that we go to Vapiano because he had a Groupon and had been before, and the food was great. The way Groupon works if you’ve never bought one is, you sign over your email address to the devil, who will send you approximately 11 Groupons per day until they break down your will to live. Most of these, your spam filter will catch. Until you see one that looks like vaguely a good idea, but that’s 10 miles across town and there’s a 5% probability that you’ll go, but you buy it anyway because “it’s 50% off and you want to try something new.”

If you actually go to the restaurant, there is a 95% chance you didn’t read the small print correctly and you end up paying more money because 1) if you don’t, the restaurant sues you and 2) You’re too embarrassed to pay for a $12 meal with a $5 Groupon. You then begin to wonder if you can put the tip on Groupon and all of a sudden you’re a horrible person and the societal norms of Western humanity are collapsing.   All of this would be fine, though, if Vapiano operated like normal.

But Vapiano operates on hipsterism, whimsy, and vague suggestions.  As Jack Donaghy would say, there are no rules, just like check-in at an Italian airport.

When you walk into Vapiano, They give you a card. “Hang on to this card,” the Hostess says in a breezy voice that has a hard edge to it, not unlike Soviet bureaucrats handing out housing applications in the 1960s. God help you if you lose your Vapiano card, because then you can’t pay for your meal. And I’m not so sure there aren’t any legal repercussions.

After you get your card, the hostess leads you to believe you’ll be seated, but you’re really funneled into an open space with three possible choices: the alcohol bar, the pasta bar, the pizza bar, and the salad bar. “You can go to any of the three,” our friend encouraged us while we stood like lost sheep, bleating at the options. He strutted to the appropriate line without any hesitation.  He was an expert. He made it look easy.

“Oh, one quick thing,  but if you’re going to the pasta bar, go there before you go to the pizza bar because you have to pay differently for each one.”

“But don’t we just pay with the swipe card?”

“Yes and no. You do need to swipe it, but you also need to pay after you’re done eating. So hold on to the card.  But if you’re getting a drink, get that last, because you have to pay with cash and leave the tip on the card.”

“Ok, so we should go get a drink?”

“Probably not. You should order the pasta first.”

“Can we order the pizza?”

“Not until you’ve ordered in the pasta line. The salad is in the pizza line.”

“So we can get salad and pizza?”

“Yes, but you have to pay for pasta separately.”

“And we tip separately?”

“Yes. They’ll bring the meals to your table.”

We became desperate. “Do we need a PhD in Mathematics and Logic Theory before we order?”

“Probably.” Our friend laughed. “It’s not that hard you guys.”

We tentatively approached the pasta line. There were other prisoner-diners behind us, and they were fidgety. “I’d like a pasta?” I said. “What kind,” the chef glanced at me. “You can have four toppings, but you have to pay for the fifth.”

“I have a Groupon?” I said tentatively. “Not here,” he said. “You’ll have to pay separately when they tally you up at the pizza line.” The fun quirk with our Groupon was entitled us to two entrees and one appetizer per person, as well as a free drink. Which were appetizers? Which were entrees? Would the world ever make sense again?

We struggled through our pasta order. “That will come out later,” the chef said. “You can go sit down.” He reached expectantly for our cards. My heart was racing. I hadn’t been this stressed out since I watched March of the Penguins (WILL THE EGGS MAKE IT??? WILL THE DADS STAY ALIVE???). We swiped the cards. “This isn’t the only place you swipe. If you order a pizza, you have to swipe there, too.”

We moved into the pizza line. “Do you want a salad?” they asked us. “Yesmno,” we mumbled. And mumbled our way through the toppings and salad choices. We swiped the card again.

Then we tried to order drinks. “Do you bring those out to the table, too,” we asked. “No, the drinks, you pay for here,” they said. “How do those work with our Groupon,” we asked. “Not sure,” the bartender said.

We ate, gulping down huge doses of basil nervously. The food was great, but all the time we were eating, I was panicking. “Do we tip the waitress? Do we put the tip on the chip card? Do we split out the difference of the Groupon?”It was like H&R Block during tax season in there.

The waitress came up, smiling. We needed to swipe our cards once more to pay the bill. “I think I threw mine out,” Mr. B said. The table went silent. The waitress stopped smiling. He finally procured the card from his pocket. “We have to split the bill into three, with three Groupons,” our friend said. Steam visibly started coming out of the waitress’s ears.

Finally, we paid, and got out of that Godforsaken, delicious place.

“Vapiano is a fast casual restaurant with a twist – customers use a “chip card” to personally order their food or drinks from the bar or from the individual fresh pizza, pasta or salad stations. With this new innovative technology, Vapiano is going to change the way restaurants do business!”

Watch out, America. Vapiano is coming for you.

And that was my Florida.

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Why it’s important to learn how to speak tech

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For six weeks between junior and senior year of high school, I went to the Governor’s School for International Studies, where I took an immersion class in Japanese. The first week, we learned the words for chair, teacher, and bathroom, and verbs. The second week, we weren’t allowed to speak English. As much as I enjoyed learning the cadences of Japanese, what I enjoyed even more was the getting rid of the nuances that made me sound American.

For example, Japanese has a special stop sound that people make instead of “umm.” It’s either “anoo” or “etoo”, depending on context. I spent the six weeks of my Japanese class consciously replacing every time I said “umm” with “anoo.” It is damn hard to catch yourself making unconscious noises.

Later, when I was in Israel, I forced myself to practice my rhotic Rs so I could get the Israeli discount at falafel shops.

I was insufferable in high school. (Ed. note – only in high school?)

I love languages, but what I love more about languages than the mechanics themselves is they allow you into someone’s culture, and if you speak the right phrases, knowing a language beyond its bones is like a lock that opens a key to a different, deeper level of that person, and that culture.

What’s really cool is that you don’t have to leave English at all to experience this. silicon-valley-hbo

Truck drivers have different slang than doctors (just read the archives of one of the first blogs I started following 8+(!) years ago, the Underwear Drawer, when its author was still in med school), who have different slang and worldviews than stay-at-home moms . If each of these different communities could  understand that when we’re communicating with someone they’re perceiving it from their lens rather than ours, it would reduce all miscommunication by half.

Unfortunately, culture is one of the things you can’t learn from a classroom.  You have to learn it by living it and absorbing it through your skin.

Mike Judge is one of the best people at thinking this way today.  When he created Office Space, one of my favorite movies of all time, he brilliantly captured the feel of corporate America with even every single nuance accounted for. Even just the tiny things like the printer not working (printers never, ever work in offices) and the pieces of flair that are so prevalent in places like TGIFriday’s and Ruby Tuesday add to the overall experience so much so that thousands of people swear Judge worked at their office.

He’s made it clear that he can speak different languages in his latest show, Silicon Valley, on HBO.

Part of this probably has to do with the fact that he worked a stint in Palo Alto before moving on to TV, but it doesn’t matter, because  startup culture today has its own special nuances different than the culture decades before it, and he was able to grok it as well.

Judge nails the way startup culture, and to an extent, tech culture works today, and in doing so, shows how ridiculous it is.

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In the show, the main character, Richard, is a mild-mannered beta-geek who works at Google-like giant Hooli manned by a charming psychopath visionary (played by the same guy who was creepy Albie on Big Love.) In his spare time, he lives in a startup incubator with a couple other guys, working on a lossless compression algorithm that scans all known media to see if the music you own is out of copyright compliance.

The brogrammers at Hooli make fun of him, but word of his startup eventually gets to the CEO, who starts a bidding war for Pied Piper with a Peter-Thiel/Paul Graham-like figure who drives in a compact car that’s the size of a bicycle to reduce his carbon footprint. By the end of the episode, Hooli and Peter Graham are in a bidding war for equity or a buyout of his company, and Richard’s on his way to becoming a millionaire.

Does any of that seem funny? If it does, you probably work in tech or read Hacker News.

To me,  it’s perfect.

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All the right signals, the ones that say, “Trust Mike Judge, he knows what he’s doing,” are there. For example, the main character constantly wears a hoodie. This is  a blatant nod to Zuckerberg, but also signals the fact that Richard is very insecure. Or, it could mean that he’s just wants to be like every other dude from 25-50 working in tech, all of who wear casual clothes as much as possible.  The way everyone else on the show dresses also gives signals. People who wear jeans but really nice shirts that make it seem like they’re not really wearing jeans are executives. People wearing shirts with startup logos are broke and don’t have money to do laundry.

Second, the technology is correct. When I saw the teaser trailer, I did a double-take. A guy had an HTML5 shirt. HTML5 is an actual thing! It’s not something that the producers made up! And what’s even cooler is that HTML5 is the new hotness right now, so it’s actually relevant, as well.

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It shows how most of us use tech on the go: not pristinely, glamorously sitting on a counter. Usually, it’s  juggled on our laps, in thick cases, with our work badges splayed out for everyone to see.

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And, they write code just like the rest of us!

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I couldn’t get a great screenshot of this, but it’s obvious that the show put up real code editors: SublimeText and Powershell. This seems really stupid and pedantic, but to geeks, it matters, because we’ve been subjected to decades of bad code on TV. Hollywood doesn’t care about portraying code correctly because code doesn’t make for good action shots. But it should, because if you get the little details right, you’ll be the larger ones right, as well.

And, the culture. It’s just so right, and it can be summed up by this one picture:

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I guess what I like most is that Judge made a smart show filled with accuracy to the people like me who are pedantic about it. He’s trying to appeal to a mass audience, but he’s really speaking to people who know the industry and can vouch for it. Details matter.

Compare this to supposed favorite nerd-festival Big Bang Theory, which is so popular not because it glorifies smart people, but because it’s coming from Penny’s point of view. “Look at these geeks,” Penny says to the audience, snickering, every time Sheldon or Leonard do something. The scientific facts they spout aren’t meant to educate or further the plot, but just serve to point to the fact that these nerds are talking way too much about stuff regular people couldn’t care less about.

What’s really interesting to me on a personal level is that, a couple years ago, half of this show wouldn’t have made any sense. There are hundreds of billions of dollars of jobs in the tech industry. The tech industry is going to save America.  But for all its luster, it’s still incredibly hostile to newcomers, not because of any inherent bias, but because it’s still largely merit and knowledge.  There is a LOT OF STUFF to know, and the more you know, the more regarded you are. Some people will be encouraging and teach you things, but sometimes, it seems intimidating to ask questions, especially of people who have been programming since they were fifteen. Some of these people programmed in assembly language. Some people were so hardcore that they didn’t even wait until computers came out. They were writing programs on notebook paper and running them by burning the pages.

But, all of a sudden, tech an economic boom and everyone and their sister wants to get into it, which is great, because it means more people making more great stuff. But, how to get into it? A couple weeks ago, I had coffee with someone who’s looking to get into analytics and was looking for advice. “What should I do to understand the tech industry,” they asked.

And I thought for a minute. How do you learn a language that you can only learn by being exposed to the culture? There are books for learning Italian. There are no books for learning to speak tech. I mean, sure, there’s O’Reilly.  But reading is one thing.

You can only learn what a server is by that feeling in your stomach when one goes down, what rm -rf does when you wipe out a directory you didn’t mean to, and how much space in gigs things take up when you run out of memory and can’t back up your data.

So I thought for a minute and said, “Read Hacker News. Read it every day.  You won’t understand 90% of it to begin with, and you won’t care about 95% of it. (I didn’t. As I write, the top ten stories are on two-factor authentication, DOMS,Tarsnap, and Lispy Python. I’m excited that I know what all of these are, but it took months and months of reading to absorb. ) But the more you read it, the more you’ll get. Look up words you don’t know. Ask me questions. Click on comments. Read people’s experiences. Wander loose around the Internet, your mind open like a sieve, and let the writing wash through it. Some of it will stick. Later, more of it will. ”

In addition to being in the thick of the action, it helps to have a second place that reads, kind of, like a dictionary.  It took me over three years to “start getting it”, and I’m still learning by reading, and less frequently, by breaking things.  So maybe what I really appreciate about Silicon Valley is that it’s obvious that someone else knows stuff because they broke stuff, too.

So, I’m curious how both tech people and non-tech people perceive this show that I think is so great and so spot-on, and does it matter? And what is it saying about where we are as an economy, as a culture?I’m don’t know, but like I said, I do appreciate the full-on cultural and linguistic accuracy.

Here’s the pilot episode, in full for free from HBO. You can Judge for yourself:

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The best books are conversations

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I like to read so much because I’m an introvert.

In real life, I find it hard to get into in-depth conversations with interesting people I’ve just met  because I’m too embarrassed to ask probing questions and come across as a dork.  But in a book, it’s like the author is having a private audience with me on their own volition, and I don’t have to say a word.

A good writer can make you feel like you’re sitting beside them in the passenger’s side of a car, on a road trip, or in a cafe, sitting over cups of coffee. A terrible writer makes you feel like they’re the only person you know at a cocktail party, and you want to jump out the window.

In addition to looking for generally-interesting books to read, I also specifically scan the landscape for books written about being Russian, partly because I want to confirm and validate my own experiences, and partly because I want to learn something new about Russia that I haven’t already learned from hundreds of family stories and GIFs of Putin riding a bear.

So, I got excited about Anya Von Bremzen’s book Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking early on. Von Bremzen has been a food writer for most of her career and decided to write a memoir about growing up with Soviet cooking.  The cover looked lively and snappy, and I was interested in what she had to say about Soviet food: a genre ripe for memories.

The American press thought so, too, because  As soon as she came out, she was first covered by the Jewish-oriented sites, then the Russian-oriented sites, then, of course, NPR and literary sites glommed on.

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I went into this book with huge expectations, both to validate my experiences with Soviet and Russian food. I was also looking for a friend who I could relate to, to share immigrant horror stories with me.

I did find Von Bremzen to be a skilled writer. She does an interesting thing: going through each decade of Soviet history and offering a recipe, as well as parallel stories about how her family survived the time period.

She starts by making a kulebiaka, a tasrist-era food, with her mom, and works her way through the 30s, the war-torn 40s, gray 50s, all the way to the 70s and 80s, when she and her mom left and immigrated, interestingly enough, to Philadelphia.  She describes food with all the necessary gustatory descriptions. “Crispy brains in brown butter”, “burnished-brown lamb and potatoes enlivened with an angry dusting of paprika.”

She also talks about interesting movements in Soviet food history- did you know that the humble kotleta was taken directly from the American hamburger after Anastas Mikyoan, a party leader close to Stalin, took a trip to the U.S. in the 30s?  Both me and my parents, who also read the book, were blown away by this.

However, in spite of all of this, I just wasn’t sympathetic to her experience.

Her writing is the perfect tone for Food and Wine magazine. Check out the first paragraph of the prologue, which is titles “Poisoned Madeleines”, a literary allusion to Proust.

Whenever my mother and I cook together, she tells me her dreams. So rich and intense is Mom’s dream life, she’s given to cataloging and historicizing it: sleek cold war thrillers laced with KGB spooks; melodramas starring duty-crushed lovers.

Her writing is interesting when talking about food, but when she uses the same types of phrases to describe her family, I check out. The chapters about her family seemed interesting on the surface: they were involved pretty deeply in the Soviet government, and her dad worked on keeping embalmed Lenin..well, embalmed.

The chapters on food were more interesting: Salat Olivie, sosiski, and all that fun stuff, were stripped of their nostalgic aura and examined at the root. If all the personal chapters were excluded the language toned down, it would have made for a great read.

But check out that first paragraph! I already had to struggle to care about this paragraph, and I was on the author’s side! I love the KGB. I love Soviet cooking. But,  I felt like I was sitting on a couch, glass of terrible-tasting hipster tea cupped meekly in my hands, while Von Bremzen was starting what would be a very long, proselytizing lecture that I couldn’t get out of.

On the other hand, there’s Lenin Lives Next Door. It was sent to me gratis by Jennifer, whose blog I’ve been reading for a couple years now,  but I would have definitely paid for it.  Although I know Jennifer a bit through her blog and Twitter, from the moment I opened the cover, I was sitting next to her on a couch, gossiping. I was involved in her adventure.

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Her style is light, conversational, and easily-accessible. “Hey, here’s a crazy thing that happened to me,” she says, “and I’m sharing it with you.”

To give you an idea, the first paragraph of the book is,

You have to really want to go to Russia. The briefest of visits involves a lot of paperwork, and if you want to hang around for any length of time, they make you take a leprosy test.

Eremeeva started a tsar-struck student in the U.S. and worked her way through Russian classes, arriving just as the Soviet Union collapsed. That would be historic enough for anyone, but she decides to stay in-country, eventually marrying and raising her daughter there.

What’s even more interesting than any of that (Americans choosing to live outside of America are always a perennial interest of mine,) is that she doesn’t enclose herself inside the diplomatic/expat bubble that many North Americans abroad tend to.

She knows about blat, the best place to get cigarettes in Moscow in 1993, how to work the corporate ladder at a shady Russian conglomerate, and how to plan a party for 400 people.

She knows everyone foreign in Moscow, and a lot of Russians, too. She speaks Russian. All of this lends itself to chapters rich in experiences and joie de vivre and a life that reads like a novel bursting with colorful characters: HRH (Her Russian Husband), who is ex-military and steadily more involved in Russian business, Joe Kelley, a “six-foot-four, three-hundred pound Irish-American former Ohio State linebacker, who came to Moscow on a hunch, spoke no Russian, and knew exactly one person,” and Jesus Arismendi, who is Venezeulan, gay, and somehow wound up in Russia, drinking Kir Royales.

Some of her adventures include trying to get HRH to buy life insurance (something Russians don’t believe in) in a chapter called “The Preexisting Birkin”, watching as HRH pays for a suit on Saville Row in London in cash, helping her daughter with Russian geography, and being disinvited from the tyrant-run “depressing-books book club on Prechistinka.”

In spite of the fact that Russia in the 90s was gray and depressing, you never get that sense from the book. It’s hard, for sure, but also interesting, and has plenty of things to laugh about.  It’s a different Russia from the one I know: exciting, frustrating, and, most importantly, interesting and lively.

I used to want to write a memoir about my family’s immigration, but then I realized, after a certain point, that I had nothing interesting left to say, and if I did, it would probably come out like Von Bremzen’s book: overloaded with family sob stories, sappy cliches, and some overwrought descriptions of terrible Soviet food.

I’m more than happy to sit quietly on my couch, spiked  and listen to Jennifer tell me about her Russia, the Russia of the present and the future, which is a little less gray, and gives me some hope that not all is lost.

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Use cases

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portrait-of-a-married-couple

I read a lot of tech news to keep up with work. One of the things people in tech who want to sound hip always talk about is “use cases.” What’s the use case of the 10-inch tablet-phone?”  People who want to make important business calls from the bathroom while reading the news.   “What’s the use case of the iPhone 5c?” People who want a phone that’s cheap and colorful and makes a good paperweight.  “What’s the use case of  Twitter?” People trying to be funny but just coming across as jerks.

Companies do use cases to figure out which technologies work best for what kinds of purposes, but I am betting you a million dollars companies will never be able to figure out my parents.

Since I force-gifted my mom an iPad for her birthday last year (“It’s too expensive! I don’t need it! Why are you giving me this thing! It’s too complicated! Oh wait…do you have WiFi in your house? I need to sync my iPad…just a minute, I think I forgot my iPad and I can’t leave the house without it”), she has been becoming progressively more technical.

She’s been reading Kindle books (that I buy and force-gift her through the Kindle lending library,) listening to Russian radio through TuneIn, and generally doing crazy things like using Yelp.

On the other hand, If there’s anyone the NSA won’t be able to find, it’s my dad, because, although he is extremely smart and has repaired non-working televisions from start to finish, he is too lazy to internet. “Google me up some information,” he’ll tell my mom from the couch.He has checked his email probably once in the last six months (“too much work to log in. Just tell me over the phone.”)

“Google it yourself,” she’ll say, not looking up from Flipboard, and he’ll sigh and wonder why he married her.   Even though he’s lazy, he still needs all the latest information about Mashina Vremeni, so he’ll get up and find the laptop.

Things have been progressing in this manner for a couple of months, with the iPad really fueling some new use cases for them. For example, last week, my mom called me on Skype from vacation in Costa Rica to tell me that A) This was the most awesome hotel she’s ever been in and B) I needed to call my grandfather.

My dad, while refusing to learn how to use the iPad has, on the other hand, been lovingly accessorizing it, like a pet. “This is a good case,” he said, lovingly showing me the leather stand-up folio he purchased. “It will protect it. I also got Bluetooth speakers.”

“But what are you going to use them for, Dad? Have you used the iPad at all? Downloaded any guitar apps like I told you to?”

“No, and I don’t intend to. But I want to see if I can connect to HDMI.”

One of my dad’s burgeoning fantasies has been to hook up the iPad to TV  so they can watch movies off their WiFi.

I’ve never heard of the iPad-movie use case before, and this problem gets more interesting with the fact that, although I bought them an iPad with 3G capability, they refuse to pay the monthly fee for it, partly because it seems expensive to them, and partly out of principle, because paying for things is for suckers and Americans.

Between the laziness, the payment workarounds,  and the technology splurges, things finally came to a head a couple weeks ago, when they decided to get smart phones.

“We’re getting smartphones,” my mom told me via Skype.

“We’ll see,” I said. I have been hopeful that they’ll convert to 21st century for the past five years so I can finally send my dad texts in Russian and email my mom stupid articles people are posting online so we can judge them in real-time.  That’s MY use case for my parents.

But they’d been talking hazily about smartphones since 2011. The only thing stopping them, really, is that you have to pay for them.

“We’re really going to do it. Even I’ve decided it’s time,” my mom said. “Maybe the iPhone? Or the LG?”

“Really,” I perked up. She was talking specific models. This was serious.

“Yeah, we need a phone that’s compatible,” my dad yelled in the background of the chat.

“Compatible with what,” I asked.

“The iPad,” he said.

“Why would it need to be compatible with the iPad?”

“I want to hook up the phone to the iPad and watch movies on it for free.”

“Let me get this straight. You won’t get 3G access on the iPad, but you’re willing to get a cell phone, connect it somehow to the iPad, and pay for the streaming data anyway, because you think it’s more free than just paying for the iPad?”

“Yes.”

Companies, take note to design your use cases around my parents. And Verizon or AT&T, watch out. You have two new super users coming on board. (Maybe.)