alexpgp: (Visa)
Back during the time I worked as a production editor at Plenum—and totally unrelated to that work—I ran across a book by one Mark Popovsky, the title of which was best translated into English as Manipulated Science. The style made me think of Solzhenitsyn's multi-volume GULag Archipelago, but the Popovsky book was much shorter, so the enumerations of various perpetrated outrages were much shorter as well.

I made notes as I read the book—typing them out on my dad's old Smith Corona (with a great many typographical errors, which gave me loads of editing/proofreading practice, I might add) and I effectively created a summary of the book as I went along.

I ran across those notes a few minutes ago, and realized that a chance encounter with an editor from TIME magazine could well be looked upon as the watershed between the twenty-five cents per column inch I was paid to write up the results of my high school track meets for the Locust Valley Leader in 1968 and 1969 and the long, uniformly dry path that brought me, in 1982 or thereabouts, to the first of what would prove to be many sales of articles to computer magazines and contracts for two programming books.

That chance encounter took place during a softball game played between the Plenum team (I played third base) and a team from TIME magazine, under the auspices of a summer "publisher's softball league" that took over a chunk of Central Park real estate on a regular weekly basis.

Somewhere in medias res during the game—I may have been talking to a TIME runner on third, I don't remember exactly—I mentioned the Popovsky book and floated the possibility of maybe, possibly writing a bylined review. All I got was a grin in return as the next TIME batter grounded out to short to end the inning and the teams swapped sides.

However, as the game was breaking up, another member of the TIME team came up and asked me for some details about the book, which I was happy to provide. A business card was then pressed into my hand, with a request that I call. I did, and in the end, I received a check for $50, as a sort of "finder's fee." Something appeared a couple of weeks later in TIME about the book, but it was too short to be a review, and appeared with no byline.

It was not as satisfying as writing a review, but I did not send the check back, either.

All of this occurred before I took my first baby steps in translation, so the thought of actually translating Popovsky's book never really occurred to me. A year or so later, a translation was published, by Doubleday, if memory serves.

Those notes have been scanned, and the paper is in the recycling bin.

Progress, of a sort.

alexpgp: (Officer)
I've got an old Mont Blanc Meisterstück №146 fountain pen that's been lying around for years, unused, because the last few times I filled it and tried writing with it, the flow of ink would quickly become excessive and any joy associated with using it to write would be washed away. Research suggested this excessive ink flow is a common problem with the №146, and the solution is to have the pen "serviced" (in exchange for a hefty chunk of cash, natch).

I had hoped to drop by Dromgoole's in Rice Village one of these Saturdays when "The Pen Doctor" was in, but the one time I managed to do so—about a year ago, if memory serves—found me at the end of a pretty long line of folk in need of his services, and so I thought I'll come back another time, and went home. Not surprisingly, "another time" has yet to come around again. My bad.

This leads me to something that happened during a break in yesterday's work, which is that I ran across a paper titled Luzhin and the Freudian Chessplayer, which (according to the title page) I wrote for RUS 217, taught by Professor Radley, during my undergraduate days at Stony Brook. One of the few clearly memorable moments of those days for me was the afternoon I stopped by Professor Radley's office to pick up—discuss and pick up, actually—the graded paper, because it was during the discussion that Professor Radley took out his Mont Blanc Meisterstück, posted the cap for writing, and scribbled some additional comments in the margin as they occurred to him. Among these was the following:

I recall thinking, watching Professor Radley continue to make notes as we discussed the paper, that he wasn't just writing, he was writing! And that impression was long-lasting, so much so that when a book I wrote about Turbo Pascal was finally published, I got a Meisterstück №146 to celebrate.

As it turned out, that pen went AWOL during a trip to Las Vegas about five years later, the result of my putting the ink-engorged thing down next to my place setting at a restaurant instead of back into my pocket, and then forgetting to pick it up as Galina and I left the establishment. We returned ten minutes later to find the table cleared and alas, nobody knew anything about any pen. In the end, my current pen was purchased to replace that one.

But returning to the paper, its purpose was—if memory serves—to "compare and contrast" views of chess play (and in particular, of a strong chess player) from the point of view of Nabokov as expressed in The Luzhin Defense, on the one hand, and of Freudian psychology, on the other. In rereading the text of the paper, I conclude that I must've really been feeling my Wheaties when I wrote it, because some of what I wrote clearly lacks the appropriate stodgy register of a term paper:
Was young Luhzin unconsciously egged on by a desire to kill his father? Was he motivated by a fear of castration? Or did, perhaps, an unfortunate incident which transpired in the course of his toilet training condemn him to the unceasing contemplation of themes chessic?

Unfortunately, Dr. Freud, the world's resident authority on subliminal urges, cannot comment on this state of affairs. He is dead. And while he, in fleeting about this veil of tears, did no theorizing as to the motivations lurking in the psyche of the chess player, there are those who, in spreading the Joyous word, have done so.
I then went on to present some of the ideas stated in The Psychology of the Chess Player, written by Reuben Fine, a world-class player and Freudian psychologist. I seem to recall that this was one of the "easiest" term papers I ever wrote, from the perspective of marshaling my ideas.

In any event, like any good writer, Radley saved the important part for last—there, on the final page of the paper, was my grade, an A-.

(Professor Radley died late last year, and I feel fortunate that I was able to visit with him some years ago, at his Manhattan law office (where he was a partner), and tell him just how much the subjects he taught and the passion with which he had presented them to us had meant to me over the course of my life.)

After reading the paper and Radley's comments yesterday, I felt it was time to take matters in hand (it doesn't take much, go figure), so I gathered what I needed to "service" my Meisterstück (a large paper clip and some silicone grease, as it turns out) and spent entirely too much time disassembling the pen, cleaning it, "greasing" what needed to be leaktight, and then reassembling it. (Apart from the two false tries that occurred when I attempted to reinsert the nib and feed into a part that I had just finished screwing back into the pen, the whole procedure went surprisingly smoothly.)

I then filled the pen with Iroshizuku ama-iro ink (made by Pilot) and, between yesterday and this morning, set about writing on all sorts of paper. The ink flow is strong, but not overpoweringly so, and what is most important—the ink flow hasn't gotten out of hand!

Other time-wasters yesterday included cutting the grass around the house. Our "landscapers" have exhausted their good will, and I am inclined to divert what would have been paid to them for my own nefarious purposes.

And now, back to translation!

alexpgp: (Aaaaarrrggghhhhhh!!!!!!!)
The weather this past Saturday morning was marvelous and constituted the nearest thing to a gilded invitation that nature could issue to entice me to spend some time in the back yard. So I finished my morning coffee, got dressed, and walked around it for a while, getting reacquainted with the place, and I thought about the future as I did so.

Ours is not a very large back yard, or very unusual. Some time ago, however, my wife and I had planned to put in a water feature next to the garage (once we got rid of the plants and bushes that had sunk their roots into and currently occupy that space). We'd even gone so far as to pick up one of those thick plastic liners for the pond part of the feature.

Over behind the garage is a large, flat area where, over the past couple of years, I've hastily set up my "container garden" (as there never seemed to be enough time to properly till and prepare the soil). Over near the back corner of the house is a location I had scoped out to install a "stealth" amateur radio antenna—one that would not be noticed by the folks that run around making sure everyone in our development obeys the homeowner association's rules, which strictly forbid such antennas—but I'd never gotten around to installing it, either.

After strolling past these places, I found myself in a part of my back yard that, from the perspective of the living room windows, looks like an inviting nook in which to sit and think, consisting of a small bench in front of a tree, situated next to a plaster statue of a seated old man wearing a toga. One of the man's arms is either writing or pointing at something in a book laid out on a pedestal next to him, but it's hard to tell which, because the statue is old and most of the end of the man's arm has worn away with time.

I wasn't thinking about that, however. My mind was filled with a jumble of concerns about the course my life is about to take, given my recent diagnosis. So I sat down on the bench and tried to make sense of it all.

"Do you want to know a secret?" asked a voice, after a few moments.

I looked around and found myself alone.

"Hello?" I asked, feeling somewhat silly doing so. "Who said that?"

"I did," said the voice, and my gaze was drawn to the statue. "Very good!" said the voice. "Your hearing apparatus works well. My voice does indeed appear to come from the statue. Allow me to introduce myself—I am called Marcus."

"As in Aurelius?" I asked, and heard a chuckle in reply.

"I prefer simply 'Marcus'," said the statue.

"Ri-i-ght," I said, and then changed the subject slightly. "You say your voice 'appears to come' from the…"

"It's complicated," said Marcus. "And it is what it is. In any event, it's nothing that you or I have any control over, and so it is not worth our attention. We can converse, which is the important thing."

I mulled that over for a bit and then returned to his opening line. "So what's the big secret?" I asked.

"It's not so big. It is, merely, to confine yourself to the present," said Marcus, "as each day provides all that you need to make a happy life. Never let the future disturb you."

"That's easy enough for you to say," I said. "You're a voice in a statue. Me, I'm human and I've got…"

"I know all about your ailment," said Marcus. "But what you need to realize—and the sooner you realize this, the better off you'll be—is that if your ailment does not kill you, something else will, eventually."

I said nothing.

"Just a few minutes ago, when you paused at that spot next to the garage where you would like to see a pool with lilies and exotic fish and a cheery, splashing fountain, were not your thoughts sorely clouded by the possibility that you might not be here at this time next year?"

I nodded ever so slightly.

"And aside from the sadness you felt about the prospect of dying," continued Marcus, "were you not also impelled to think of building that fountain now as a foolish exercise—as time poorly spent—given the circumstances?"

I nodded again.

"Yet here you are, in your sixth decade of life. You are—let's be frank—closer now to the end than to the beginning. If medical art does succeed in prolonging your life by curing your ailment, you must still face the fact that—somewhere within the next, oh, half century, to be generous—you will die anyway. Does that make you feel better?"

I said nothing.

"And should a cure be effected, will your becoming a 'survivor' speed the construction of your fountain, or simply make it easier to again put it off to 'someday' in an indeterminate future?"

"The future," I said, quoting a line I'd read somewhere, "outwits all our certitudes."

"Hmmm-mmm. But I'm afraid that is an opinion, not a fact," said Marcus. "As I have come to learn, the past only exists in our mind and the future, flimsy construct that it is, only possesses the power we give it. The only thing that really exists—that you can do anything about—is the present, and your job is to live in that present, to confine yourself to it, and to accept the things to which fate binds you."

"So what do you suggest I do?" I asked.

"If the answer to that was something that could be scrawled upon one side of a small parchment and sold at the market for a copper or two, we would not be having this conversation," said Marcus, and laughed. "Still you asked, so let me essay a response, however abbreviated it might be."

I leaned forward on the bench.

"Upon arising in the morning," said Marcus, "think of what a precious thing it is to be alive—to breathe, to think, to enjoy, and to love. Leave the past behind you, entrust the future to fate, and live in the present, for it is only in the present that you will find happiness."

I stood up. I'm not sure I believed it all, but I had already experience a change of perspective. "Thanks, for the advice," I said.

"You are welcome. Come back and visit soon," said Marcus. "The bench is a poor conversationalist."

"I will," I said, and as I headed back to the kitchen, I stopped by the side of the garage to figure out just how long it would take to uproot the plants and bushes that were there.

Not as long as I expected, it turned out.

alexpgp: (Aaaaarrrggghhhhhh!!!!!!!)
Reporting back to active duty for "infantry training" after my ten-day leave following graduation from Parris Island, I really didn't know what to expect, but whatever it was, it was nothing like this.

I and a group of other freshly-minted Marines stood at attention in a small formation on the concrete outside our barracks. There was a pile in front of each of us, consisting of the carefully packed contents of our seabags, which we had been ordered to dump on the "deck" to be inspected. Now, the team of sergeants in charge of our training was picking through our belongings, making the occasional disparaging remark about this or that personal item and tossing "contraband" articles into a garbage can.

It was almost like being back in boot camp, though as we soon learned, there were some major differences.

Perhaps the greatest difference was in the routine at the end of the day, when a training sergeant came by to inspect us before allowing us to "mount" our "racks"—climb into our beds, in civilian-speak—and get some sleep. The way it worked in infantry training, a sergeant would come by at the appointed hour and look in through the window set in the door at the entrance to the squadbay to see if everyone was standing at attention in front of his rack. If so, he would enter, inspect us, give the order to "mount," turn off the lights, and leave. However, if even one of us was not standing at attention, the sergeant would enter, wonder aloud as to why the platoon wasn't ready to go to sleep, and then leave. Depending on his mood, he would return after a few minutes, or in half an hour, and the scene would play out again.

As a result, while eight hours of sleep had been pretty much the rule in boot camp, it had become the exception during infantry training, and in our platoon, much of our lost sleep was attributable to a fellow named Murdoch, who well and truly didn't care to "get with the program."

After the sergeant had put off inspecting us a number of times over the first few days of training because Murdoch couldn't be troubled to remain at attention on his own for longer than a few seconds, one of the Marines who stood across the aisle from Murdoch—I forget his name—tried to reason with him, but Murdoch wasn't having any.

"Get screwed, man," he said. "I'm not letting any sergeant tell me what to do on my own time."

"But it's not your own time," said his antagonist. "And some of us would like to get some shuteye, y'know? Is it too much to ask for you to stand at attention for a few minutes?"

"You gonna make me?" asked Murdoch. "You try, and I'll toss you into the next county." None of us doubted that Murdoch could make good on his claim, as he was easily the largest and physically fittest man in the platoon, and he intimidated those around him with his mere presence. If memory serves, we got to bed at a little past midnight that night. Reveille was, as always, at 5 am.

On the first Sunday afternoon of infantry training, the duty training sergeant had our platoon assemble behind the barracks building. He carried with him two pairs of boxing gloves.

"I expect that by now, some friction may have developed between some of you Marines, so we're going to work that out right now," announced the sergeant, who then held up the gloves. "Anybody here want to challenge anyone else to a little friendly sparring session?" A wicked grin flashed across his face.

"Yo!" cried Murdoch, and stepped up to the sergeant. "I'd like to go up against him," he said, pointing to his critic from across the aisle. "I've had all the ragging I can stand from him." The sergeant tossed the second pair of gloves to Murdoch's intended victim, and after both men were gloved, the fight began.

Murdoch moved easily, despite his size, and knocked his opponent down with one punch. His victim got up, the fight resumed, and Murdoch knocked his opponent down again. After two more knockdowns, the sergeant stepped in, announced the fight was over, and asked if anyone wanted to challenge the winner.

"I will!" said a voice that belonged to Vega, the only Marine in the platoon who had been in my recruit training platoon on Parris Island. What he lacked in size he made up for in spirit, for I had seen him beat recruits almost twice his size during pugil stick training. I also knew he didn't like bullies.

Vega donned the gloves and he and Murdoch went at it. Vega got some good shots in, but Murdoch seemed unaffected, and he managed to knock Vega down a number of times until the sergeant stepped in again and asked for a new fighter.

Inspired by Vega's action, I help up my hand, which was not a particularly good idea because frankly, I knew about as much about fighting with my fists as most people know about Einstein's theory of relativity. After donning the gloves, Murdoch and I circled for a while, exchanged a few jabs, and then he hit me, once. I saw stars and fell down, hard. The sergeant called for a new fighter, and one stepped forward.

Murdoch was having a really good time, knocking us down, one after another, and I don't think it ever dawned on him that there was no shortage of volunteers who wanted to take a shot at him for having robbed us of so much sleep.

Murdoch eventually tired, to the point where he got knocked down a few times. This time, however, when the sergeant asked for a new fighter, the next volunteer announced he wanted to challenge Murdoch instead of the winner. The sergeant motioned the winner to take off his gloves.

"W-wait! I don't get it," spluttered Murdoch, "I'm the one who lost! Shouldn't…"

"This ain't 'challenge the winner'," said the sergeant. "It's 'challenge anyone you want'. You want to get some rest, you can, if someone will volunteer to take your place." The sergeant turned to the rest of us. "Anyone want to put on Murdoch's gloves, so he can catch his breath?"

Nobody said a word.

"I suppose you could just refuse the challenge and just quit…" began the sergeant, but Murdoch shook his head.

"Nah," he said. "I'll fight."

Over the course of the ensuing matches, Murdoch was able to score some points and get in a few knockdowns, but the tide had turned dramatically, and more often than not, it was Murdoch who found himself getting back up, albeit more slowly as time went on. The sergeant kept asking if anyone wanted to don Murdoch's gloves, but there were no takers, and Murdoch wouldn't quit. And so the afternoon dragged on, while Murdoch literally fought everyone in the platoon.

That night, as it turned out, the sergeant visited our squadbay only once, after finding everyone—including Murdoch—standing at attention in anticipation of his arrival.

alexpgp: (Aaaaarrrggghhhhhh!!!!!!!)
The first time I heard of Stoicism was in junior high school, in social studies class.

The subject under discussion was ancient Greece, and the teacher was telling us about some of the different philosophical schools that thrived at that time, each seeking to find the key to living well. I cannot recall anything at all about what my teacher said about the Epicureans or the Cynics or the Skeptics, but I remember clearly what he said about the Stoics, because it was so… blunt. He said:

"And then there were the Stoics, but they didn't care about anything." Period. Paragraph. Nothing to see here; let's move on.

Years later, I was reading a self-improvement book and zeroed in on the idea that the only thing you have reliable control over in life is not the things that happen to you, but how you react to those things. It made sense. That book led to other books, and eventually, I found multiple references to Stoicism and learned more about it.

To me, the Stoic worldview made a neat counterpoint to the idea of the "Copernican principle"—which, when you get past the solar system aspect, basically says we are not the center of the universe, but a part of a larger whole—because as far as each of us is concerned, each individual is positioned at the center of his or her own universe. And here, I'm not talking about being "self-centered" in the sense of being preoccupied with oneself or being self-absorbed. I'm simply pointing out that one can view the totality of what exists as being composed of the world, on the one hand, and our own mind, which perceives that world, on the other.

And the more I read about Stoicism, the more I realized my teacher's description of Stoics had been wrong.

It wasn't that Stoics didn't care about anything; on the contrary, they cared very much about living well. They just didn't want to waste time and energy caring about things over which they had no control. In Stoic terms, once you've taken the time to identify and accept those things over which you have no control, you have nothing to fear. Stoics live in the moment, taking pleasure out of things like time with loved ones, but they do so with a set-in-concrete understanding and acceptance that any or all of it can vanish in a heartbeat.

Alas, that—in a very sketchy nutshell—may be the theory, but putting that theory into practice is no easy job, unless you've spent a lifetime cultivating that practice. This is a theme that Stoic writers often dwell upon, and for good reason. In my own experience, the word "aspire" crops up a lot in my mind when I think about how Stoic principles might apply to my own life.

Some things are easy to deal with. Did someone call me a loser? Insult my school? Say nasty things about my loved ones? I'm not sure those things have ever bothered me, and I find it easy to let go of such issues.

Other things are a bit harder. Am I faced with unexpected bill with nothing in the bank? It took me a while, but I've gotten to the point where I may allow myself "a three-minute pity party" before settling down to deal with problems such as these.

Still other things can seem insuperable, like that letter, a while back, from the IRS asking for—gulp!—quite a lot of money. And even though the situation was cleared up to everyone's satisfaction and it turned out I didn't owe the money, I did a mediocre job of keeping my mind on the problem, at first. Try as I might, there were nights my mind would not let me fall asleep, worrying about things that ultimately, never came to pass. With time, the way I reacted to the problem improved, but to tell the truth, I don't ever want to get good at dealing with those kinds of bumps!

And yet, life is filled with them. Both bumps that occur in the night and those in broad daylight. I don't know which are worse.

The most recent has been gathering force, like a low-lying thunderstorm cell, over the past week. It culminated today in a rather long visit to a doctor. I am scheduled for a biopsy tomorrow.

There is an essay by the Roman statesman (and Stoic) Seneca "open" on my Kindle. As it happens, its title is On the Shortness of Life. It would appear I have some reading to do.

alexpgp: (Aaaaarrrggghhhhhh!!!!!!!)
I and the rest of second platoon had spent the entire day in the field, training. That meant we had marched, crawled, walked, double-timed, and occasionally lay in ambush within the confines of a depressing chunk of North Carolina real estate that was mostly sand, covered here and there with detritus from the pine trees and clumps of underbrush that liberally dotted the terrain, as did shallow depressions marking the locations of fighting holes dug by those who had trained there before us.

Dusk was falling as our platoon emerged onto a flat expanse of sand that would be our home for the night. Our amenities included a "water buffalo" containing potable water, a fire pit planted next to a wholly inadequate pavilion-like structure, and a line of latrines on the side of the camp away from a strip of beach that led to a body of water that smelled of sea salt. A truck roared in from somewhere, unloaded crates of C rations, and departed.

As the light waned, I and my squad-mates hurried to erect our shelter-halves and clean our M-16 rifles of the gunk that they'd picked during a day of firing blanks and being dragged through environments that made finely machined parts jam when they tried to operate. Once it got dark, we'd have to take turns holding flashlights for each other, which would needlessly prolong the process. As it was, we were looking forward to an evening meal and sleep.

Just as we were finishing with our weapons, our attention was attracted by some loud words coming from the pavilion, situated not far from our squad's tents. The lieutenant and the senior NCOs had congregated under the pavilion's roof earlier, and wood was being piled in the fire pit.

"After we get back," I heard the platoon sergeant say, "I will tear those supply guys a new…"

"Settle down, sergeant," interrupted the lieutenant. "It's not the end of the world. Anyway, you can't know it's supply. Maybe motor-t is having fun at our expense?"

"No way, sir," replied the sergeant, "those truck jockeys wouldn't have the balls to pull a stunt like this!"

As we learned, the "stunt" he was referring to was the systematic replacement of the variety of meals normally packed in C ration crates with boxes containing a single type of main course, "Ham and Lima Beans," a universally despised meal that NCOs had been known to force onto uncooperative Marines as a field-expedient form of punishment.

"Given the circumstances, sergeant," said the lieutenant, "I suggest we improvise if we are to eat something other than ham-and-mother-humpers tonight, what do you say?"

The sergeant thought for a moment, looked out toward the water, and then a smile creased his face. "Aye-aye, sir!" he said, and as he left the pavilion, he bellowed "I want all lance corporals and below to strip down to their skivvies, grab their helmet, take out the helmet liner, and then fall in on me carrying their steel pot. As of now, you are all on bait detail." Sensing a hesitation as those of us affected by the order wondered what, exactly, a "bait detail" was, the sergeant added, "Chop-chop, people! Do it now!"

After a couple of minutes, a small formation of young men—myself included—had assembled at the pavilion, dressed only in underwear and carrying the hard outer shells of their helmets.

"Where are we going to go look for bait now, when it's dark?" said a voice, quietly, off to my right.

"You're not going to be looking for bait, Marines," said the sergeant, picking up on the question. "You are the bait!" Any fatigue we had felt while setting up camp now evaporated, as the sergeant explained what job our "detail" was to do.

It turned out that the body of water adjacent to our camp site was home, along with many similar water bodies up and down the coast, to the North Carolina blue crab, which is renowned as an item of seafood cuisine. However, such crabs do not simply walk out of the water and throw themselves into a pot of boiling water, oh, no. You have to catch them, which is done by providing them with something edible that they can grab with a claw and consume at their leisure. After a little while, you haul the bait out of the water, and nine times out of ten (especially in waters like these), you'll find a crab stubbornly hanging onto it.

Since we didn't have the proper equipment for crabbing, explained the sergeant, we were going to use a more direct method, which consisted in us wading out into the water and waiting for a crab to grab us by the foot, whereupon we were to reach down into the water, detach the crab, and put it in our steel pot. We were each assigned a quota of six crabs, which were to be delivered to the pavilion for collection and examination before being dropped into a barrel of water that, we could see, was being put in place over the fire pit, to be heated to a boil. Thus instructed, we stepped into the water, which was pleasantly cool, and waded out to a point about a dozen yards from the shoreline.

The night air soon began to echo with cries and curses as crabs started nipping at our bare feet in the knee-deep water. "Knock it off!" boomed the sergeant's voice from shore. "You'll scare all the crabs away!" That wasn't likely, since if noise really did scare away crabs, the sergeant's outburst would have done the job (to as far away as Wilmington, I suspect). We fell silent, in any event, and worked diligently to fill our quotas, which we did, quickly. Let me tell you, there was no shortage of crabs in the water!

After we returned to shore with our plunder, we added it to a pile near the now-steaming barrel of water and the corpsman checked our feet for injuries. We returned to our tents, got dressed, and then everyone sat down to a memorable meal, consisting of plenty of boiled crab and whatever crackers and dessert we could scrounge from the C ration meal boxes.

We turned in with bellies full and more important, with improved confidence in being able to overcome obstacles, even though the idea for a "bait detail" hadn't been ours. Since then, the lessons of that night have served me well, but those are stories that, alas, must wait for another time.

alexpgp: (Aaaaarrrggghhhhhh!!!!!!!)
A photo surfaced on my desk, recently, of me at a camp one summer over half a century ago. The black-and-white image brought back pleasant memories, and I paused in the course of my day to let them have free rein for a little while.

I learned to do so many new things that summer! I learned to swim, albeit barely, and how to shoot an arrow from a bow and consistently hit the target. I learned to cook an egg in a skillet over a campfire, as well as how to select and arrange the wood and the kindling so as to reliably get that fire going without worrying about the wind or a few drops of rain. I sang new songs, I learned to play croquet, and I made a small bookshelf out of wood.

I recalled the excitement I felt playing a camp-wide game called, if memory serves, "capture the messenger," and I was suddenly struck by how the significance of one aspect of that game had eluded me until now, when the photo reappeared.

You see, in that game, campers were divided into two teams, the camp itself was divided into two team territories, and counselors were assigned the role of umpires. The point of the game was for each side's "offense" to deliver messages, written on slips of paper carried by some (but not all) team members, to a point situated deep within "enemy" territory. Defenders were tasked with "capturing," using the "two-hand touch" technique, members of the opposing team who had invaded their territory, whereupon "prisoners" were searched (under the watchful eyes of an umpire) and any found message was confiscated. At the conclusion of the game, delivered and confiscated messages were tallied using some arcane formula and the wining side was announced.

What I remember is being assigned the role of a "decoy," meaning I was supposed to try to get to my team's goal even though I carried no message. The idea that my purpose was to deliberately get captured to make the other side waste time searching me (thereby possibly allowing a real message-carrier to reach the goal) never dented my skull, nor do I remember my role being explained to me that way.

I recall only two things about that game. First, I never crossed the dividing line into "enemy" territory because—as best as I can reconstruct my thought processes at the time—I wanted to make the other side think I was carrying a message that I didn't want them to find if they captured me. Second, at one point, a fellow teammate—an older camper who was also a "decoy"—casually strolled across the dividing line with arms raised, making no attempt to evade "capture," and was immediately subjected to a search.

* * *

A few years later, after a series of humiliating defeats at chess at a different summer camp, I set about improving my chess skills during the course of the following school year. My "teacher" in this undertaking was a paperback book written by one Fred Reinfeld, whose introductory books on chess are still read today. I forget the book's title, but it seemed like just what the doctor ordered, roughly along the lines of How to Play Brilliant, Winning Chess.

I blew through that book like a hurricane through a dilapidated straw hut. Then I went back and read the book again. This time however, I could look at the printed position diagrams and move the pieces around in my head without having to set up pieces on a board. I kept going back to that book, from time to time, until the end of the school year, whereupon I returned to camp and took my revenge (but that's a different story).

The move sequences Reinfeld was illustrating were pretty direct, and weren't long or complicated. They stressed two major things. First, moves often had to occur in a certain order to mate the opponent's King (a concept that, serendipitously, helped me with algebra that spring). Second, the point of the game was exactly that—to mate the opponent's King—as opposed to merely avoiding the loss of one's own pieces, which would eventually result in a lost game. What this meant in practical terms was that, for example, giving up a Queen for a pawn is absolutely the right thing to do if you win the game as a result.(Not only that, but it's something you can brag about to all your chess-playing friends if you manage to pull it off, but I digress...)

* * *

So now, looking at the photo in my hand and knowing the importance of keeping one's eye on the goal, my mind goes back and I vividly picture that older camper as he was being "captured." I recall the smile on his face and light-heartedness in his voice as he teased his captors, saying "You'll never find any message on me...or maybe you will!" And I cannot help but wonder: Was he trying to set an example for me and some of the other younger campers around me? Was he trying to show us how the game was supposed to be played?

If that was his point, it eluded me at the time. But whether he was trying to enlighten us or not, it was a lesson I eventually learned.

alexpgp: (Aaaaarrrggghhhhhh!!!!!!!)
It was 1976, and the Cold War was on hold, or so they said. "Détente" was on everyone's lips, and while things had gotten to the point where U.S. astronauts and Soviet cosmonauts had flown together in space the previous year, bumps remained in the road. A stranger on the street had handed an American diplomat a package wrapped in brown paper, resulting in the latter's immediate arrest on charges of espionage. Soviet citizens seeking to join family members abroad under the terms of the Helsinki Accords did so at the risk of becoming immediately unemployable and the object of social ostracism and official harassment. And as far as anyone could tell, there had been no layoffs to speak of in the Soviet propaganda and disinformation industries.

I spent that Bicentennial year working in Moscow for a U.S. travel agency as a "tour escort," which was most assuredly not the same as "tour guide," a distinction that had been carefully explained to me over a mostly friendly glass of hot tea by a functionary of Intourist, the Soviet government tourist agency, whose name was a contraction of the Russian for "foreign tourist." It all sort of made sense, when you considered that Intourist was tasked with managing every aspect of a tourist's visit—what was seen, what was heard, what was done—all orchestrated to make sure said tourist went home with only the most positive impressions of the USSR. It was not a job for amateurs, or the "politically unreliable." I, apparently, was both, so my function was limited to representing my company, and listening to customer complaints.

Intourist, on the other hand, had been staffed by politically reliable professionals since 1929. It was created that year by order of Joseph Stalin and staffed with personnel from a direct predecessor of what, in 1976, was called the "Committee for State Security," otherwise known as the KGB.

People who worked for Intourist in those days basically collected their paycheck from the security services, and anyone who, like me, lived and worked in the Intourist Hotel, in the heart of Moscow, moved through spaces where the density of KGB employees per square foot was second only to the density a few blocks away, on Dzerzhinsky Square, within the KGB headquarters building itself (at least according to the maître d' of the hotel's second-floor restaurant, who told me this jokingly—but only after glancing over his shoulders).

So it was with some surprise that, while tending to some routine duties at my company's "hospitality" desk in the hotel lobby, a man about a dozen years my senior walked up to me and informed me, without so much as a by-your-leave that I can recall, that he was a dissident.

Just as he said the word "dissident," I felt my mental state change. A little voice commanded Shields up! somewhere in my head. This was because, in a country where just about everyone I had met—like that second-floor maître d'—paused for just an instant to determine who was within earshot before saying something that might be "misunderstood" if overheard, this meathead shows up out of nowhere and tells me straight out—no looking around, not even a token lowering of the voice—that, in effect, he's a troublemaker who's not a big fan of the local Powers That Be, because that's what it meant to be a "dissident" in those days.

Not only is he telling me this, but he's announcing it to me in the lobby of a hotel run by the KGB! A scant thirty yards away, in fact, there stood a door to a room I had mentally dubbed "the penalty box," after I had seen the door opened to admit some poor jamoke that was being frog-marched out of the lobby by a couple of burly bouncer types, doubtless for being a troublemaker of some kind.

My initial reaction to my interlocutor's opening line had been to say something stand-offish, like "So, you want me to give you a medal?"—but my Russian was not up to the task. Before I could formulate something less flippant, the man dragged up a nearby lobby chair, draped himself across it, and began to rant about how bad conditions were in the Soviet Union. I did my best to ignore him, until he did something that made me really sit up and take notice, mentally.

He prompted me to agree with what he had said.

Why would he be doing that? I asked myself, surveying the lobby and wondering why my visitor's presence had not elicited any response from the people who normally did a workmanlike job of keeping the hoi polloi out of the hotel. And then it occurred to me—my interlocutor was probably not who he claimed to be, and I was very likely being subjected to a "turn your head and cough" moment, a test to see if anything untoward would emerge should I be prompted in just the right way.

You see, over the course of learning the ropes of my job, I had from time to time been the subject of casual efforts to gauge my political leanings, my views on the issues of the day, and similar subjects. The questions I was asked had always been such as to allow me to come across honestly as someone who was suitably pro-American, as befit my origin, yet undecided about things Soviet (this last, frankly, involving a bit of prevarication on my part the longer I stayed in-country).

"Why should I agree with you?" I said to my visitor. "You sound like a lunatic!"

"What do you mean, 'you sound like a lunatic'?" he said.

"Did I say it incorrectly?" I said, and added, by way of explanation, "I am still only learning Russian. I meant to say, 'The ideas you express make me think you are crazy'."

He blinked and glanced to the side for a moment, eyes wide open, as if thinking How do I get through to this idiot? He refocused on me and rephrased his question: "What is it about what I said that makes you think I'm a lunatic?" His tone reminded me of an encyclopedia salesman I once knew, who was always eager to overcome any and all objections a prospect might offer.

"Well, the question you just asked does, for one thing," I said, and before he could sort that one out, I added: "Look, I've got to get back to work, so if you'll…"

"Okay!" said my visitor. "Look, I'm sorry. I apologize. My question was out of line." He waited a beat and then continued: "I've been under a lot of stress." Another beat, and he said, "Can I ask you for a favor?" Taking my silence as a "yes," he continued: "I'm desperate to leave this wretched country. Will you sign a document saying you're a distant relative of mine, so I can start the emigration process?"

"No," I said.

"Why not?" he asked.

"Because I'd be lying. You and I are not related," I said.

"So what?" he said, "Nobody cares. The authorities just care that I have a relative living abroad."

"I'd care, because I'd be lying," I said, and I didn't doubt that "the authorities" would also care, and would view my lie as an affront worthy of cutting short my career in the hospitality industry and deporting me, or worse.

"I can pay you!" he said.

"Being paid to lie is even worse," I said, and my thoughts returned to that encyclopedia salesman, and I realized I was being drawn into a protracted "sales" pitch.

"But…" said my visitor, whereupon I stepped up close to him and, in a calm voice, interrupted him before he could get another word past his teeth.

"Look," I said, "I've got work to do, and if you don't stop pestering me, I'm going to go over to the front desk and ask that you be removed from my work area. Do you understand me?"

Upon hearing my words, my visitor got up, took his leave, and started to walk aimlessly about the lobby. I followed his progress for a while, but eventually had to turn my attention to my duties. The last I saw of my "dissident," he was headed not for the hotel doors leading to the street outside, but in the general direction of the door to "the penalty box."

The Cold War may have been on hold, but I felt as if I had just survived a minor skirmish in it.

alexpgp: (Aaaaarrrggghhhhhh!!!!!!!)
My first visit to the venerable Moscow Chess Club took place in November 1975. After depositing my coat in the ample lobby cloakroom, I went upstairs into what, were I baseball fan, would represent Fenway Park, Yankee Stadium, and the Cooperstown Hall of Fame all rolled into one. I peeked in through the door of an auditorium and saw former World Champions Spassky, Petrosian, and Tal playing at tables set up on the stage of the main auditorium. They and their opponents were participating in a tournament organized in memory of an earlier World Champion who had fled the USSR in 1921 and never looked back, but whose name had since been co-opted by the State either out of respect, a desire for prestige, or perhaps both.

As I walked around the other club rooms, I could not help but notice the dark, polished wood paneling, decorated with photographs, caricatures, and various artwork. (If memory serves, there was even an oil painting of Lenin—playing chess, naturally!) In those rooms, those who could not find their way into the auditorium were either analyzing the positions shown on the giant chess diagrams that hung above each table on the stage, or playing their own informal games. I ended up sitting across the board from an intense, dark-haired woman several years my senior.

I learned that her name was Natalia Konopleva, and we struck up a quick acquaintance while setting up the pieces for an offhand game. It turned out I was one of the few Americans she'd ever actually met, and very likely the only one that played chess. I lost that first game, but only after dogged resistance on my part, I can assure you.

As we set up the pieces for a rematch, I asked Natalia a question about something that had been bothering me. You see, a few days previously, I had visited the "House of Books," a ginormous store situated on one of the main boulevards of the city. I had made my way to the "Physical Culture and Sports" department—where the chess books would be, based on what I had learned at the Four Continents Bookshop in New York, which sold select Soviet books and periodicals and was officially registered as a foreign, i.e., Soviet, agent—but upon looking at the books on display there in Moscow, I was surprised to find there were no chess books on sale! Not one!

"How can this be?" I asked. "Chess is so popular here!"

In response, Natalia leaned over to borrow a book from the players at another table and opened it to the back.

"You see this information?" she asked, pointing to some print at the bottom of the last page of the volume. It looked like a bunch of numbers and arcane abbreviations. "It summarizes the typographical information about the book that is required by state regulations. This information includes the number of copies that were printed of the book. Here, take a look." And here she held the book out to me, with her index finger pressed against the page. I leaned forward to look at the number at which her finger was pointing; it was "10,000."

"Do you know how many chess players there are in the Soviet Union?" she asked when I leaned back in my chair.

"I recall reading an article that said there are 3 million members of the official Soviet chess body. I would imagine there are many more who play chess but are not members," I said, as the light dawned. "You mean to tell me that only ten thousand copies of…" I began, and here I leaned forward, took the book from Natalia, and looked at the cover, "Bobby Fischer's My 60 Memorable Games was printed for the whole country?"

"So it would appear," she said, as she took the book from me and returned it to our neighbors at the adjacent board.

"So how does one acquire a chess book in this country?" I said, with a little laugh.

"Well, in most bookstores," replied Natalia, in all seriousness, "the clerks put such books aside for 'good' customers, which means customers who pay extra to get the book. Or sometimes, you'll see a book on sale as a 'secondhand' book at a news kiosk, since such books can be sold at whatever price the buyer is willing to pay over the official price printed on the back cover."

Our conversation was one of my earliest eye-opening lessons on how things worked in "the land of the Soviets." We then played another game of chess, and I lost that one, too.

As my job made great demands on my time for what remained of my stay in Moscow that year, I did not see Natalia again until the following year, when we met over lunch at my hotel, the Rossiya (new then, now demolished), which stood not far from Red Square. Since our first meeting, I'd learned (completely by accident, from reading an item in the weekly chess newspaper "64") that Konopleva hailed from Murmansk, up above the Arctic Circle, had been an All-Union Girls Champion in the late 50s, and had earned the title of "Woman International Master."

After lunch, we played what turned out to be our last chess game. I managed to draw that one, but only by the skin of my teeth.

alexpgp: (Aaaaarrrggghhhhhh!!!!!!!)
A friend of mine, who emigrated from Russia to New York in his youth, observes Christmas according to the Russian Orthodox calendar, on January 7. Early in our friendship, I asked him what it was like to celebrate Christmas almost two weeks after "everybody else." He smiled, thought for a moment, and said that it all boiled down to two main points.

"On the plus side," he said, "you wouldn't believe the great deals I get when it comes to purchasing gifts during the sales that start on December twenty-sixth!" After we both enjoyed a hearty laugh, he added, "On the other hand, it takes somewhat of an effort to hold on to the spirit of the season after people have put their decorations away and the world has returned to the everyday rule of 'screw your neighbor'."

I knew what he meant. Not long before, I had been walking north on Seventh Avenue in midtown Manhattan when a man, also walking north a couple of dozen yards ahead of me, took his hand out of his left trouser pocket for some reason, and when he did so, a roll of bills dropped out of his pocket onto the sidewalk. Almost as soon as the money hit the concrete, an individual who had been walking in the same direction a pace or two behind this unfortunate fellow bent smoothly down, picked up the cash, and put it in his pocket, as if it was the most natural thing in the world to do. I was a little shocked at this rather straightforward example of 'screw your neighbor,' and I doubtless contributed to it by doing… nothing.

From time to time, though, things do move in the other direction. One day, after our family had moved to Colorado, news came of a vacationing couple that had driven back to our small town from the top of Wolf Creek Pass, where they had found a wallet lying on the ground, stuffed with over $3,000 in cash, and turned it in to the local police. As it turned out, the wallet had been dropped by a local college student who had stopped at the top of the pass to enjoy the view on her way to her freshman year at school and her first semester away from home.

And while most of the time, the news seems to be a serial compendium of tales about individuals who, for no good reason, go out of their way to inflict harm to others, there are stories out there—and I believe they are much more common than you would believe, because they are so rarely told—about people who, for whatever reason, do what they can to lend someone a hand.

In my own past there was an incident that occurred a few weeks after my wife and I had moved from New York to Jacksonville, Florida. Various expenses associated with the move had tapped us dry, financially, and I came home a few days short of payday to find my wife in tears. She had gone to the grocery store down the block yo do some shopping with our last twenty-dollar bill—about sixty dollars in today's money—but when the time came to check out, the bill was not in her purse. She had dropped it somewhere, or lost it, or something.

Then and there, on impulse, I hied us to the store, where I stepped up to the manager's counter and asked the bespectacled man there, who was just hanging up the phone, if anyone had turned in a twenty earlier in the day. Clearly, I thought to myself as I asked, this was a mad act of desperation, for I had been born and bred in New York and I knew how the world worked. To my surprise, the manager's face lit up when he heard my question, and he exclaimed "They surely did!" And he reached down behind the counter and handed my wife a twenty. Both my wife and I stood there, for a few moments, in disbelief, before we thanked him and shuffled off into the aisles to do our shopping.

That was not an isolated incident in my life. Shortly after moving from a condo in California to mobile home in Colorado, my wife drove our van back to the West Coast to take care of some unifnished matters. On the return drive to Colorado, the van broke down some distance from Bakersfield, California. She was safe and was coming home by train, but the van would require major repairs to put it back on the road.

Our new neighbors—Shari and Lloyd—were kind enough to lend me a car to drive down to Santa Fe, where I picked up my wife at the Amtrak station. All during the drive back to Colorado, we tried to figure out the logistics of getting our van back from the garage owner, who we had begun to call "the Bakersfield Bandit" (given the size of his bill for towing and storing the car). How would we ever manage to get the van back to Colorado?

When we got back home, our neighbors came to the rescue. "Lloyd's got a pick-up and a trailer," said Shari. "If you can cover the gas," said Lloyd, "we'll go get your van!" I forget the rest, except that Lloyd and I pulled an all-nighter and a half driving to Bakersfield and back over the next thirty hours.

After we got back, I recalled the idea of "paying it forward" that I had learned about from Jerry Pournelle, an author known for his science fiction and whose monthly column appeared, in those days, in BYTE magazine, where a number of my articles had also been published. Over sushi one evening, during one of my trips to the Los Angeles area, Pournelle related to me how Robert A. Heinlein—yes, the Robert A. Heinlein—had been of great help to him back when he was first starting out as a writer, and later, after Pournelle had become established, he asked Heinlein how he could pay him back. "You can't pay me back," said Heinlein, according to Pournelle, "but you can pay me forward," by lending someone else a hand, some day.

And so, over the years, I have been "paying it forward," in my own way: some here, a little more there. And as I've become older, I become ever more convinced that "screw your neighbor" is far from the default setting for human interactions. If it were, we would never have survived as a species.

In any event, I always make sure to send my old New York friend a Christmas card timed to arrive just before January 7. It's the least I can do.

alexpgp: (Aaaaarrrggghhhhhh!!!!!!!)
I was going through my chess books the other day with the idea of reducing their number to some manageable quantity when my eye fell on a single hardcover tome, bound in black, that had somehow found its way into the "humane society donation" pile, along with—among other things—an old (but complete) Monopoly game and a nearly mint "Monkeys in a Barrel" toy. I turned from my task, took up the book, and sought out a place where I could sit down, flip through the book's pages, and think about whether to really donate the book or not.

The book, written by World Champion Alexander Alekhine and straightforwardly titled My Best Games of Chess: 1924–1937, is certainly not a keeper. The book is not rare, my specific copy is not in particularly good condition (in fact, to tell the truth, it's falling apart), and the moves are written in a notation nobody uses any more (although admittedly, I can still read the moves).

A penciled price on the inside of the back free endpaper suggests the book was sold to its previous owner for $3.50. There are additional notations on that endpaper, made by me, indicating the book was given to me in August 1967, and the scrawled name and address of the previous owner, a fellow named Tom, who—as it turns out—drove the Good Humor ice cream truck that delivered frozen, sweet treats to our summer camp, timed to coincide with the end of the post-lunch "rest hour." Tom, who also happened to be quite a strong chess player who had drubbed me soundly over the chessboard numerous times over the previous weeks, had given me the book as a gift as the summer wound to a close.

That address was important. Without it, Tom and I would never had been able to start playing chess by mail.

Now, it may seem, to the normal, average person, that playing chess by mail would be about as interesting as watching paint dry—and might even take second place to that broad, chromatic spectacle—but there are certain aspects to correspondence chess (as it is more formally called) that give this pastime a certain appeal to some chess players.

First, unlike when playing over-the-board, where reflection time is limited to an average of a few minutes per move, in correspondence play you are free to think about a single move for two or three days, if you like. You can even refer to books and magazines to learn what other players did in similar situations (doing so in over-the-board play is considered cheating, and is punished with forfeiture). Correspondence players can also move pieces around on a board while analyzing variations, which is a far cry from the draconian over-the-board rule of "touch-move," i.e., if you touch a piece, you have to move it. In short, chess by mail really lets a player get into the game.

That said, you might think that—given the opportunity to really think through your moves, play over variations, make notes, refer to books, and so on—it'd be fairly difficult to play poorly.

You'd be wrong. I'm living proof.

My over-the-board record against Tom during that summer of '67, though poor, had at least included one win and one draw out of about two dozen games. In correspondence play against him afterward, though, I fared even worse. To my credit, I suppose, I didn't lose heart; upon finishing a game, I'd doggedly start another one. After a couple of years of exchanging postcards, however, our extended correspondence match came to a close. I don't recall winning a single game against Tom, but I learned quite a lot about chess.

In the years that followed, I entered a number of correspondence chess events, more to play the game than to win any prizes. A couple of my games—wins, naturally—were deemed "good enough" by various editors to publish in chess periodicals, thereby adding my own modest contribution to the mass of reference material used by correspondence players in their games.

As I continued to flip through the Alekhine book, and read the various notes I made here and there, back when I avidly played the game and analyzed the games of the great players, I realized it's been ages since I've played chess by mail.

One reason has to do with how, for me, much of the enjoyment of correspondence chess lay in the tactile feel of physical postcards and the "vacation" one got while cards traveled through the post, during which one could analyze a position (or not). These days, most players seem to prefer electronic mail to transmit their moves, which is certainly less expensive and more reliable than the service offered by the post office, but it speeds the game up too much for my taste.

A far more important, and perhaps deciding factor in my decision to stop correspondence play has been the widespread availability of chess analysis software, with the result that all too commonly, I can find myself playing chess against a human opponent who is satisfied to act as an intermediary between me and a computer program. How anyone could derive pleasure from such "play" is beyond me, but I prefer not to participate in such a charade. If I want to play against a computer, I can do so in the privacy of my own home, thank you.

I completed my examination of the book and put it in the appropriate pile, for reasons of my own.

Soon after, I picked up the latest copy of Chess Life, the official publication of the United States Chess Federation, the delivery of which I had (in my capacity of Life Member) recently resumed after a hiatus of about a decade.

It turns out they still organize old-fashioned, snail-mail correspondence chess matches!

How about that! Hmmm…

NOTE! Due to a miscommunication, I ended up listed as taking a bye in the current poll. That is not the case, so if you liked what you read enough to vote for me, please do so even though the poll—which cannot be edited once it's been put up—says I'm taking a bye. Thanks!

alexpgp: (Aaaaarrrggghhhhhh!!!!!!!)
"Mind if I join you, Marine?" asked a male voice from over my shoulder.

Shields up! I thought to myself as the speaker came into view and deposited his coffee on the other side of the small table I was sitting at in the air terminal in Dallas.

"Depends what you're selling," I said, hoping the intonation in my voice made it clear that while I wasn't being unfriendly, neither was I exactly pining for someone to talk to.

"Oh, don't worry, it's nothing like that," said the newcomer, as he sat down. That's what they all say, I thought, but held my peace. My visitor was a couple of decades older than me, wore a business suit and carried a leather case. There were laugh lines around his eyes. "People been giving you a hard time?" he asked.

I thought about the "flower children" who saw me off, so to speak, in New York that morning, and how they appeared to truly enjoy feeling superior as they cast every variety of aspersion in my direction—"baby killer" was perhaps the least offensive epithet they threw at me and my uniform. Then there were the Hare Krishnas who had accosted me and the rest of the passengers on my flight upon landing in Dallas, but they seemed like a harmless bunch.

I shrugged and said: "Not a lot of people seem very friendly toward Marines, I guess."

"Tell me something new," said my companion, and stuck out his hand. I've since forgotten his name, so I'll just call him "Mac."

We shook hands, and by and by, Mac told me he'd served in "The Crotch" at about the time I was born (except he called it "the Green Weenie," in the slang of his era). Spent time in Japan during the Korean "kerfuffle," as he put it. He had a way about him, and after a few minutes, it was as if we were old friends.

He eyed my PFC stripe and asked: "You just graduate?"

"No," I replied, resisting the urge to add "sir!" to my reply. "I finished boot camp six weeks ago. Since then, I've been at infantry training, and now I've got orders to report to my first duty station."

We were both silent for a minute or so. Frankly, I half expected him to start lecturing me about "The Old Corps" and how he and his buddies were in every way superior to the sad excuse for Marines Parris Island was currently churning out for the jungles of Vietnam.

"So," said Mac, to keep the conversational ball rolling, "did you get any good advice in boot camp?"

Pleasantly surprised by the direction the conversation had taken, I laughed and asked, "Does telling me I better get my head and ass wired together count?" He laughed in reply.

"No, I don't mean that," he said. "I'm curious to know if any of the DIs took you aside to give you a tip, some advice, or some help. Something not out of the book; something intended for your ears only."

I thought for a moment or two and blew out a long, slow breath. Then I said: "Well, while our platoon was out at the rifle range, our lieutenant announced that anyone who fell out of this one particular Monday morning PT run would get recycled, and since I was usually among those who fell out of such runs, I guess you could say I got some advice from my Senior Drill Instructor about what to do." Getting 'recycled' meant being sent back to repeat several weeks of training and it was, to quote Shakespeare, "a consummation devoutly to be avoided."

"Oh, yeah?" said Mac. "What'd your DI say?"

"He told me there was nothing physically preventing me from completing the run," I said, "and that my problem with running was sitting squarely between my ears."

"So what happened?" asked Mac.

"I really didn't believe him, but I figured I had nothing to lose, so I started to brainwash myself," I said.

"Wow. How'd you do that?" asked Mac, taking another sip of his coffee.

"I just kept repeating stuff like 'I will run… I will finish…' in every spare waking moment, up to the morning of the run," I said. "I probably sounded like one of those Krishnas over there," I continued, waving in the general direction of a flurried flash of saffron I'd spied a few moments earlier.


"I finished that run and all the runs after that," I said, and then asked, to change the subject: "Did you get any good advice when you were in boot camp?"

"Actually, I did," said Mac, "but my problem was, I was too undisciplined to pay attention. I thought it was a waste of time, and I guess, in the end, it was a waste of my DI's time, too, because I ended up stumbling through boot camp by the skin of my teeth, and then having to learn all of it later, the hard way."

"So, why did you want to know about my experience?" I asked.

"Basic reporter's curiosity," came the reply. "I'm a newspaperman, these days," said Mac, "and after getting enough answers to my question, I'm convinced there's a link between listening to good advice and moving ahead"—and here, he leaned forward and tapped my PFC stripe.

I looked at my stripe, then at him, and raised an eyebrow. "That seems pretty obvious," I said.

"It should be," said Mac, "but in real life, few people act like they believe it. I think it's because most people actually resent advice, so they would rather blow it off than follow it and possibly benefit from it. Which is not to say that all advice is necessarily good, or that following anyone's advice guarantees any kind of reward," Mac continued, "but if I had a nickel for all the people I've met who systematically ignore advice and insist on making their own mistakes… well, right now, I'd be on a beach somewhere, sipping a Mai Tai."

Mac then shot his arm out of the sleeve of his suit jacket and looked at his watch. "It's time I got going, Marine," he said, and rose. I told him it had been a pleasure to make his acquaintance, which it was.

"Fair winds and following seas… semper fidelis!" he replied, and turned to walk away. A few moments later, he was lost from view.

alexpgp: (Aaaaarrrggghhhhhh!!!!!!!)
"Never volunteer for anything," is offered as wisdom by the more cynical among us. However, like much repeated wisdom, it is… unreliable. I became aware of this in the Marines, of all places, where being the one to step forward—even if it was to volunteer to spend a day navigating the physically grueling "motivation" course (so named as it was normally meted out as punishment to "motivate" slackers)—typically resulted not in horror and humiliation, but in some kind of "attaboy," an adventure, a memorable experience, mayhaps a new skill, or some combination of these and other payoffs.

Between us, it's even better when you ask life to "volunteer" right back!

In early 1990, newly hired by California software publisher Borland International on the strength of my technical writing skills, I smoothly took up the strain of the murderous workload and put in the necessary hours to help launch new products for our business unit and develop presentations for Philippe Kahn, the company's CEO. When I found out Borland intended to have a presence at a computer forum to be held in Moscow that June, my reaction was, "Okay, I may be the new guy on the team, but I can help you in Moscow. How about it?" After a day or two of vacillation, I got the thumbs-up.

After all these years, some things still stand out about that trip.

It started out with a car breakdown on the highway on the way to the airport. As my wife confabulated with the tow-truck driver, I thumbed a ride from a guy wearing a nasal cannula, enthusiastically sucking oxygen through a tube. He drove his vehicle with the careless abandon of a man with nothing to lose, and no time to waste. The ensuing flight was... quiet.

The steely-eyed border and customs guards I had last seen in 1976 were still at their posts upon arrival in Moscow, but there were no more "floor ladies" on duty at the hotel. Those dour women—who typically had the demeanor and couth of stevedores—were ostensibly there to "serve" hotel customers, but their real job had been to keep track of who came and went, and when. Now, back in a USSR that had less than 18 months to live, the porter who brought my bag up to my room was overly obsequious, but asked for a tip in cigarettes. Changes were afoot.

Before our departure, the company legal department had nixed the idea of us taking our portable computers with us, so as not to run afoul of US export control regulations concerning the "advanced technology" of the day, specifically: computers equipped with 80386 processors. The conventional wisdom held that such processors were being scrounged by the Soviets to upgrade their ICBMs, or something. Upon arriving in Moscow, however, we found programming shops awash in 80386-based computers, bought from Pacific Rim countries. If such CPUs were being used to upgrade the Soviet nuclear arsenal, it wasn't being done by filching them from computers possessed by foreigners.

My duties were ad hoc in nature, and improvisational in execution. I volunteered to sit in front of Philippe during his keynote address, listening to the simultaneous translation, where I would raise my index finger to signal him to slow the enthusiastic pace of his presentation whenever the interpreters started to fall behind his train of thought. Several times, I was asked to set up special requests, such as the one for a limousine to take Philippe and select guests on a midnight drive around points in Moscow, including Red Square.

I made a point of meeting and greeting conference attendees at the Borland booth on the exhibit floor, and when asked to, followed Philippe into several invitation-only receptions, to do some rudimentary interpretation. In the evenings, I'd help order dinner at restaurants.

As the conference entered the final day, my confidence in my spoken Russian, which I had not previously exercised for nearly a decade and a half, was solid enough to allow me to be so bold as to suggest that I stay behind in Moscow for a few days to provide in-depth briefings to our local partners and representatives about the company's newly released products. My suggestion was accepted with enthusiasm, and without vacillation.

It was, with the exception of the car trouble at the outset, a most successful trip.

* * *
You might expect, after all of this, that I would have had a stellar career with my employer. In truth, I did well at Borland, and my tenure there was one of the best times of my life, but it eventually came to an end. As it happened, I got my walking papers three weeks shy of the day the Soviet Union ceased to exist.

After being let go from Borland, and faced with a choice between pursuing a position at Microsoft or striking out on my own, I chose the latter. In retrospect, I don't know if it was because I had learned the value of saying "Yes!" to life's challenges, or because I had developed the skill to ask life—that "poor player / That struts and frets his hour upon the stage / And then is heard no more"—to reciprocate. Or maybe I had it in me all along, and I was just doing what came naturally.

In the end, do actions inform habit, or do habits inform action?

I don't think I'll ever know. But I don't think it matters. Curtains fall on all performances—be they scripted or grand improvisations. In the end, what matters most is what the player brings to the next audition.

alexpgp: (Aaaaarrrggghhhhhh!!!!!!!)
Before Godwin's Law ("As an online discussion grows longer, someone will almost surely make a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler") there was what I privately call Kostik's Law.

Kostik was one of our neighbors back in my childhood, a cantankerous old so-and-so who had an opinion about everything—invariably wrong, according to my stepdad—with rather peculiar notions as to what it was to be a "true Democrat," a "true capitalist," a "true Frenchman," and so on. In fact, I can't recall an instance, on those occasions when he and my old man discussed the events of the day, where Kostik wasn't eventually driven to sidestep the issue and observe that "no true [fill-in-the-blank] would [fill-in-the-action]," at which point my old man would smile and let the issue drop, since in his mind he'd won the argument.

Forty years later, I thought of Kostik and let a faint grin cross my face after a young man with short black hair and intense dark eyes—I'll call him Simon—looked at me and declared, "I don't care what the State Department thinks. No true interpreter takes notes, and I'm not going to do it." I had no time to smile, because two of the other more experienced interpreters at the meeting vigorously nodded their heads in support of what Simon had said. No outsiders were going to get away with telling them how to do their job, no sir!

What's an interpreter? It's a person who listens to what people say and repeats it in another language, working in both directions as two parties interact. Interpreters perform generally the same function as (and are often mistakenly called) translators—who reproduce written information in another language—but besides the obvious difference of working orally instead of in writing, the job of the interpreter requires a significantly different skill set.

For example, interpreters can't consult dictionaries on the job, so an excellent working vocabulary in both languages is a must. There's also no time to polish sentences, so interpreters must have the improvisational skills to quickly compose grammatically correct and accurate phrases, again in both languages. Interpreters must, to some extent, also have the presence of an actor on stage (because there is always an audience listening), and when working in "consecutive" mode—where speakers pause from time to time for the interpreter to interpret—the memory skills to recall what was said.

Simon's outburst was in response to the recommendations we had received from the State Department's Office of Language Services, which had been engaged by our space agency client to audit the performance of our company's interpreters, which was a factor in determining the size of the company's periodic contract bonus. Our team had received uniformly high marks, except in one area: taking notes.

Apparently, the standard procedure among interpreters at State was to scrawl marks of varying intelligibility (i.e., "notes") on paper while working to aid the memory, and as it turned out, none of us—from those of us who were self-taught interpreters, like me, to those who had been formally educated to do the job, like Simon—did so.

It was my job to call a meeting of the company's interpreters to let them know the results of the audit and maybe figure out how to deal with the State Department's comment about note-taking. In the course of the meeting, I told everyone that as a first step, the company was going to bring in an expert (someone from State, natch) to explain what note-taking was all about, but what Simon had just said—and the support it had elicited—told me my job was far from finished.

At the end of the meeting, I announced I was personally going to incorporate note-taking into my interpretation job performance, encouraged everyone to follow suit, and asked Simon and his two like-minded supporters to stay behind for a word after the meeting broke up. Simon apparently thought I had asked him to stay so we could argue the point, and he seemed eager to do so, but since (in my mind, according to Kostik's Law) he had already lost the argument, I had another goal in mind.

"Look," I began, after the door to the room closed and before Simon could fire his first volley, "I understand your point. You are the best interpreters on our staff and I don't remember the last time anyone across the street"—I pointed at the space agency buildings that could be seen from the window—"had a bad thing to say about your work. So having some visiting pukes from the State Department ding us for not taking notes while we work is, basically, so much horse pucky."

This was apparently not the direction in which the group had expected me to go. I was preaching to the choir. The conference room remained silent as I took a slow breath to continue.

"But not all of us are as good as you. Heck, I'm certainly not as good as you, even though my work got pretty high marks during the audit." That admission was definitely not what they expected to hear. "At any rate," I continued, "I recall a certain company party during which the argument was advanced that we self-taught people weren't 'true interpreters' anyway, because we lacked the training." This drew grins, including from Simon, whose opinion it was that I had just restated. "So, if there's a chance taking notes will give any of us an edge while working, I think it's worth a try, don't you?"

There was a general grumbling in reply, the tenor of which seemed rather equally divided between "I'm still not going to do it!" and "What do you expect us to do?"

After things had quieted down, I said: "As far as your work is concerned, I certainly have no complaints. Continue to do what you do so well. But the next time State audits us, I want you to 'take notes', even if such notes consist of doodled stick representations of the State guys with pins drawn through them, okay? Because our bonuses—yours and mine—depend on the audit results." I could see the point was not lost on my audience. "As far as note-taking in general is concerned, I'd appreciate your support of the idea, even if you choose not to practice it. Let's keep an open mind; the results may surprise us all."

In the months between audits, the State expert visited and imparted his knowledge, and I started taking notes while interpreting, as did a number of staff members. Simon continued to grumble, at first, but less as weeks passed. I kept my fingers crossed during the next audit and waited for the results.

At the next "debrief" of audit results, our interpretation grade had improved (to the extent that it could, as our previous score had been high to begin with). This was because—surprise!—interpreters were now taking notes. Frankly, I could not begin to guess the extent to which the notes taken were the result of straightforward effort and the extent to which they were made for show, the scrawled equivalent of so many "Potemkin villages," created to make the State auditors feel good about our work. Personally, I found note-taking to be a helpful tool while interpreting, and I use it to this day.

In the end, however, the most surprising result of this experience was finding out—completely by accident, mind you—that by the time that next audit had rolled around, the most diligent note-taking interpreter on the staff had become… Simon.

And that really didn't surprise me, you see, because no true fair-minded person can afford to keep a closed mind.

alexpgp: (Default)
In 1955, the site of what was to become the Baikonur spaceport in Kazakhstan was selected because it was remote, close to railroad transportation, remote, situated near a major river, remote, in a seismically stable region, remote, and enjoyed around 350 days of sunny weather annually. Today, all of that is still true, especially the "remote" part, so in planning to spend any length of time at Baikonur—as I do, from time to time, as part of my work as a translator and interpreter—you must bring along whatever you'll need, improvise, or do without.

One April evening a couple of years ago, the setting sun was turning the sky all sorts of pretty colors as our little group emerged from our hotel's dining room to sit in the garden out front and talk, have a drink, and maybe even smoke a cigar. A group of technical specialists had arrived earlier in the day, and it was time to renew old acquaintances and make new ones.

"So, I had no idea how international this project is," said Sven, an engineer from Sweden who was in Baikonur for the first time. "Russians, Kazakhs, Americans, French," he extended fingers as he counted, "Germans, British, an Italian, and me, the Swedish contingent—quite a collection!"

"Yeah," said Eddie, a veteran member of the propellant team, "and to think we're all here to put six metric tons of satellite into an orbit that takes exactly 24 hours to complete, allowing it to remain forever above a point—uh—" He paused and raised his eyebrows in puzzlement.

"Somewhere in Africa," said a voice, "right on the Equator."

Wendell, the campaign safety engineer, took his cigar out of his mouth and sighed. "You guys think on a whole different plane," he said, and held up his drink, which looked like a wine glass filled with water. "Me, I'd really like to be able to enjoy my martinis properly, in a martini glass." He took a sip.

"Just a couple of hours ago you were telling the 'fresh meat' the water was safe to drink and not to step on manhole covers," said one of the security guys, referring to what Wendell had said to the newly arrived campaigners during the mandatory safety briefing. "This ain't Kansas, y'know."

"I am most definitely aware of that," said Wendell. "In fact, I am reliably informed that the 'middle of nowhere' is ten clicks thataway." Wendell waved a hand in the general direction of the horizon.

"So what's the complaint, Wendell? You want eggs in your beer?" said one of the satellite technicians, with a laugh.

"No," replied Wendell, in mock seriousness. "I'd just like my martini in a martini glass."

About a week later, during the next trip into town (the city of Baikonur, which is located about 60 kilometers from our work area), I ran some errands and then stopped by my favorite eatery—a restaurant that bills itself the "Palermo Pizzeria"—and happened into Wendell, who was just sitting down at one of the outside tables. I joined him and we placed our orders.

As we ate, Wendell told me of the latest excitement, involving a member of the French team who had escaped injury earlier in the afternoon when a leg of the plastic chair he had been sitting in at a café down the street had collapsed, spilling the unfortunate Frenchman to the ground, along with his stein of beer.

"There was broken glass all over the place," said Wendell, finishing the tale, "but the main thing is, nobody got hurt."

"Did the management ask the guy to pay for the stein?" I asked.

"It's funny you should ask," said Wendell, "because the owner did want the poor guy to pay for both the stein and the chair. What's with that?"

I explained how, in my experience, it was common for restaurants and hotels in former Soviet countries to be fairly aggressive in having customers pay for damaged items. "Back in the mid-70s, when I first started working with tourists in the USSR," I said, "one of the people in my group was climbing into his tub to take a bath and leaned on the bathroom sink while doing so. The sink fell off the wall, broke into pieces, and cut the guy on the leg. Believe it or not, the hotel wanted him to pay for the sink."

"That's crazy. What happened?" asked Wendell.

"I told the hotel manager the same thing, that he was crazy, and that if anyone should be made to pay for the sink, it was the crew of incompetents who installed it, along with the staff of the hotel that allowed such a hazard to remain unaddressed."

"So how'd it all end?"

"Our group left without paying. When we got back to Moscow, the powers-that-be told me that I had been out of line, and that things weren't done that way, but that was it."

By this time, our plates and glasses were empty and our stomachs were full. Wendell glanced at his watch and motioned to get the attention of our waitress. "We better get going. The bus back leaves in about a quarter of an hour."

Our waitress, who had served us many times before and whose name was Nargul (which means 'flower of light"), came to the table and asked, in Russian, if there was anything else she could do for us. I asked for the check, and then, struck by a sudden idea that popped into my head, added: "Listen, if I were to break a dish or a glass here, would I have to pay for it?"

Nargul didn't quite know what to make of the question. "I—I guess so. Why? Did you break something?" There was anxiety in her voice.

"No. But if I did break something, like, say, one of the martini glasses you have in the rack above your bar, how much would I have to pay for the damage?" Nargul looked at me as if I was crazy.

Seeing Nargul's reaction, Wendell shot me a quizzical look. "Is there a problem?"

"No, no problem. But I'm working on solving one of yours." Then, to Nargul, again in Russian: "Could you bring me a martini glass and find out, please, how much I would have to pay if, by some misfortune, it were to be broken? And please bring the check, won't you?" Nargul smiled uncertainly and left.

"What's going on?" asked Wendell once Nargul had gone inside.

"You know how you're always complaining about not having a martini glass and how they don't sell any here in town? Well, I'm finding out how much I'd have to pay if I broke one of the bar's martini glasses." Wendell started to say something, but I held up a finger to pause our conversation as Nargul came back with a martini glass and the check.

"The fine for breaking a martini glass is 150 rubles," she said, as we paid the bill. About five dollars, I calculated mentally. I took the glass from Nargul and gave it to Wendell.

"Due to our clumsiness, Wendell," I said, in my best nudge-nudge-wink-wink voice, "that martini glass you're holding right now fell on the ground and shattered into a million pieces. Nargul just told me her boss requires reimbursement for the broken glassware, in the amount of 150 rubles. Why don't you dispose of that glass—say, by putting it in your bag—and then pay the lady?"

Wendell carefully laid the unbroken glass in his bag and reached for his wallet. "Please convey my apologies for being such a fumblefingers," he said. There was a big smile on his face and proper martinis in his future.

alexpgp: (Default)
It was a mild, sunny afternoon and there was a light wind blowing from my right front. I aligned the sights of my M-14 on the human-sized target standing over a quarter of a mile away, got my breathing under control, and gradually increased pressure on the trigger until the rifle fired. Almost immediately, my target dropped from sight.

I called the shot as a dead-center bull's-eye, but a few moments later, the target reappeared and a red disk was raised to its top right-hand corner. My shot had scored a "3" and a small black spotting circle sat a little above and to the left of the "head" of the torso-shaped target. I took a deep breath, let it out slowly, and uttered a one-syllable expletive.

"Don't dwell on it, private," said my coach, a Marine PFC who had himself only "graduated" from recruit training a few weeks before. "Clear your head. You've got plenty of time. You can still qualify as 'expert'."

It was the Friday of our platoon's second week at the rifle range at Parris Island, the day all of us had been training for during the previous two weeks: Qualification Day.

Ever since the start of boot camp, we had been taught that every Marine, no matter what his day-to-day job, was a marksman first. This had been true back in 1775, when shipboard Marines fired at enemy sailors and officers from their own rigging and tops, and it was true that Friday, almost two centuries later. On "Qual Day," each of us was expected to shoot our rifle and qualify as a marksman (or better, as a sharpshooter or expert).

Pretty much all our waking time during the first week at the rifle range had been spent alternating between the classroom and "snapping in" on the grass. The classroom instructors had introduced us to the terminology of marksmanship—concepts such as "firing line," "sight picture," and "aiming point"—as well as to the actual how of accurately firing an M-14—sight adjustment to account for target distance and wind effects, trigger control, posture, breathing, and so forth.

"Snapping in" involved learning how to hold the rifle while contorting one's body to become an Immovable Object—or as close to such an object as possible—that could fire at a target a football field or more away and consistently hit the bull's-eye. Learning the positions was easy, practicing them until they became second nature was tedious and, at times, painful.

We also worked in the protected "butts" at the target end of the range, pulling targets up and down, marking and scoring shots, and covering the resulting holes with small squares of adhesive tape in preparation for the next shot. While there, we learned the arcana of scoring. A shot that hit the line between two target "rings," for example, was scored at the higher ring value. If two shots appeared in a target before it could be pulled down—from time to time, recruits did mistakenly aim at the wrong target—the shooter was given the benefit of the doubt and awarded the higher scoring shot. A clean miss was called a "Maggie's drawers" and was signaled by waving a red flag across the target from left to right.

I had done well in the days leading up to qual day. Although I had "jerked" a few shots here and there and "chased the bull's-eye" once from 300 yards, overall, I had scored as a sharpshooter twice and once as an expert. I had also noticed an improvement in the tenor of recruit life, because there had been a perceptible change in the way our drill instructors treated us. I couldn't quite put my finger on it, but the DIs were so supportive, we recruits almost felt human.

After scoring the "3" from 500 yards, I had eight shots to go and needed to shoot 36 of a possible 40 points if I wanted to qualify as an expert. Halfway to that goal, my coach was called aside by Sgt. Beadle, who took my coach's place next to me on the firing line.

"How're you doing today, private?" asked Beadle, as he checked my posture and the tightness of my sling.

"Sir, the private needs to score 17 of 20 to qualify as 'expert', sir!" By now, the end of the seventh week of boot camp, enclosing everything I said inside a matching pair of the word "sir" and referring to myself (and to the people I spoke with) in the third person had become second nature.

"Outstanding, private!" said Beadle. "I have every confidence in you. In fact, there's something I would like you to do for me. Purely voluntary."

"Sir, yes, sir!" I said, and wondered what service I could possibly perform for Beadle from the firing line.

"I will return in a few minutes and comment on your shooting position," explained the sergeant. "When that happens, I would appreciate it if you shot your next round at the target immediately to the left of your own. Preferably a bull's-eye, private. Any questions?"

"Sir, by doing so, the private will be giving up all chance of shooting 'expert', sir!" I said.

"That may be true," said Beadle, "but you'll be helping a platoon-mate qualify. The choice is up to you." The sergeant took his leave and my coach resumed his position.

Several minutes later, with two rounds left to fire (and needing to score 8 or better for the expert badge), Sgt. Beadle paused at my firing point to nudge my left leg with his boot. "Watch your posture, private," he said, and nodded to my coach as he continued on his way. I made my decision and deliberately fired at the target to the left of mine, almost in unison with the Marine to my left. When the target reappeared a few moments later, a white disk stood at its center, indicating a bull's-eye. I was happy to see the score, but disappointed at the same time. Still—qualifying as a sharpshooter was not all that bad.

Before I could settle down to fire my last round, Beadle materialized at my side. Without making a big show of it, Beadle produced one round and put it on the ground next to my marksmanship notebook. "You would appear to have two shots left, recruit," he said. "Make them count."

My spirits lifted, those last two shots I fired were both bull's-eyes. I had scored 'expert' with two points to spare. The recruit to my left had qualified, just barely, as a marksman, and quite dramatically, as it turned out. You see, two holes had appeared in his target on his last shot: a dead-center bull's-eye and a shot in the 4 ring, above the silhouette's right shoulder and perilously close to the 3 ring.

For a long time, I felt a modicum of pride in having justified my drill instructor's confidence in my shooting skill and in having helped a fellow Marine avoid the disgrace of failing to qualify as a marksman by a single point.

And then one day some time later, in a blinding afterthought, it occurred to me—maybe the shot that missed my neighbor's bull's-eye had been... mine?

alexpgp: (Corfu!)
It was the first of June, and if I had correctly understood the message being delivered by the captain visiting our unit's morning formation, as of zero hundred that day (what civilians call "midnight"), every poisonous snake within the boundaries of Camp Pendleton was authorized to "lock and load" its fangs with "live" venom and to consider the vast territory of the Marine base a "free bite" zone.

The captain went on, instructing us on how best to avoid getting bitten—give reptiles a wide berth—and then explained what to do if a snake did bite you—put your lips on the wound and suck out any injected poison.

When the time came to ask any questions that may have occurred to us during the briefing, I was about to ask how the Marine Corps had arranged for rattlesnakes and copperheads to refrain from biting base personnel before the first of June when I was beaten to the punch by an unfamiliar voice from the back of the formation.

"Cap'n, sir, you said to suck out the poison if you get bit, but—what if you get bit—uh, you know—like, in the ass?"

Whatever human-caused rustling there might have been within the formation ceased at once, to better hear what the officer might have to say in response to such a frank and indelicate question.

The captain cocked his head slightly to one side, smiled a little, and replied: "Well, private, I guess that's when you find out who your true friends are."

Rim shot, I thought to myself as I and the rest of the men in the formation chuckled politely. The joke had doubtless been old when the Marines began to recruit "a few good men" at Tun Tavern in 1775.

After the formation was dismissed, I reported to my truck for the trip out to our work area. "Work," for our little group, was a series of assignments to remove and collect lengths of copper wire from sites that were no longer in use. Our latest job was at the extreme north end of the base, thirty klicks east of the middle of nowhere, where our objective was to recover a strand of copper telegraph wire from a string of widely spaced hilltop utility poles.

The temporary assignment, as a lineman at Pendleton, was actually pretty challenging, though not without its risks. A few weeks before, our truck had been sent to an abandoned prison compound that was being "deconstructed" piecemeal to maximize recovery of materials for later reuse. There, I was assigned the task of climbing the guard towers to disconnect some wiring inside each guard hut. Everything went smoothly until I got to the third tower.

There, I climbed the vertical ladder the same way I had done twice before, and as my head came up above the level of the hut floor, a huge white owl that had built a nest under the hut's duty desk spread its wings and lunged directly at my face. My hands instinctively flew up to protect my eyes as a defensive reaction.

With both hands in front of my face, however, I started to fall backward, off the ladder, which is not something you want to do while positioned thirty-some-odd feet up in the air, so without really thinking about it, I quickly jerked one hand back away from my face and grabbed for the ladder.

It wasn't a graceful move, but it worked, even if my feet slipped off their rungs, leaving me in an awkward, painful position with one leg actually sticking through the ladder as the owl flew off. By some miracle, aside from some abused muscles, I escaped injury. Shaken, I went back to the truck to get my safety belt before climbing any more towers.

On that first day of June, my job involved waiting by a wooden utility pole on hill A while our truck dropped other crew members at poles on adjacent hills B and C before proceeding to a pole on hill D. As the truck drove away, I sat down on a large rock for the 40-minute wait until the truck was in position. While I waited, I put on my climbers—steel contraptions that doubtless took their inspiration from artifacts in medieval torture chambers and were outfitted with small, sharp steel spikes called gaffs to support the wearer's weight while climbing, working on, or descending wooden utility poles. Then I directed my attention at the hill that was the truck's destination.

After some time, a stream of green smoke billowed from the hill, which was the signal for me and the two other linemen to climb the poles on our respective hilltops and stand by to cut the strand of wire that had probably been strung when Woodrow Wilson had been President. I put on my tool belt, safety belt, and heavy leather gloves and then waded through some dense brush to the bottom of the pole, where I secured my safety belt around the pole and began climbing. Once at the top, I prepared to use my wire-cutters.

A few minutes later, I saw red smoke erupt from that same hill, which was the signal for everyone to cut wire. The wire was cut at each pole at pretty much the same time, thereby averting any unfortunate consequences that might occur if the wire's weight and tension were to be suddenly relieved on only one side of any given pole.

My job done for the day, I began to climb down the pole.


I stopped. So did the rattling sound. I waited a few seconds and then, incredulous at the thought of there being a rattlesnake below me, I unstuck a gaff and took another step down the pole.


I froze once more, but this time the rattling sound continued for several seconds. It was coming from somewhere near the base of the pole, but the waist-high brush prevented me from seeing anything on the ground. From my position, some yards up in the air, the only real way to give the reptile a wide berth was to stay where I was. That, or—


I threw my wire-cutters down at the base of the pole. The rattling sound stopped. I counted to ten and took another step down.


I threw the rest of my tools, one by one, down at the hidden snake. Then I threw down my gloves, but the rattling resumed any time I would fidget, and as the time passed and my legs became weary, I fidgeted quite a bit. The rattling continued.

Eventually, with the muscles in my legs screaming bloody murder, I decided that—snake or no snake—I could not allow myself to be caught in this position when the truck arrived to pick me up. I would never hear the end of having been "treed" by a snake! As I noisily descended the rest of the way to the ground, I thought I heard something slither into the thicker brush on the side of the pole away from the road. But even more important, I heard no rattling.

By the time the truck returned, I had removed my climbers, retrieved my tools, and was sitting on the rock near where I had been dropped off, massaging my legs but otherwise acting as if nothing at all had happened.

"Just another glorious day in the Corps," yelled our civilian supervisor, a retired Marine, out the driver's window as the truck pulled to a stop. "Good work, private! Get in, and let's go home!"

I was only too happy to comply.

alexpgp: (Chess)
My earliest recollection of chess, aside from recognizing the word as describing a game of some kind, occurred when I was about 5 or 6, when my mother - in anticipation of gall bladder surgery - sent me off to spend a few weeks with one of my aunts Catherine, the one who had kids. (My mother had two close friends from the time she attended Hunter College, both named Catherine, and both my honorary aunts as a result. One had a family and kids; the other preferred to devote her life to law at a time when women weren't supposed to exhibit such tendencies.)

I remember only a few things about that experience. First, I was keenly aware that I was the only male child - and the youngest child - in a household with several female children. Second, I remember being taught how to play "Chutes and Ladders," but only after I declined an offer to learn how chess pieces move.

Chess didn't enter my consciousness again until fourth grade.

Fourth grade was the year of Mrs. Rosenstock, the "Pill." The nickname was my mother's invention, and fourth grade was my introduction to an adult that sought actively to take me down a peg or two, although perhaps that's too strong a statement.

Up until fourth grade, I had been a fairly low-profile kind of kid, neither at the top of the class or the bottom. In third grade, I recall, I was among the trailers in the race to read the most books (and to write concomitant book reports, naturally), but in other particulars - math, perhaps, excepted - I was a member of the pack.

That didn't mean I refrained from reading, oh no! In somewhat the same way as the Chukcha of Russian ethnic joke fame, I considered myself a reader, not a writer (at least, not of book reports!).

Things changed for me in fourth grade. I recall one time Mrs. Rosenstock went out of her way to illustrate poor narrative technique by reading one of my book reports to the class. Another time, I was caught red-handed, reading a book about the life of Kit Carson during a mathematics lesson, and suffered the ignominy of a tongue-lashing that seemed to last until the dismissal bell.

My mother made it clear that in life, there are times you just have to play the hand you're dealt, and that year, the New York City Public School System had dealt me Mrs. Rosenstock. My mother indicated that my proper response was to make the best of a bad situation, and wait for fifth grade.

That didn't mean I didn't resist, because I did, using every resource at my disposal. The most convenient was to convincingly exhibit signs of some horrible communicable disease that did not require hospitalization. Amazingly, from time to time my mother would play along with such malingering.

During one such time at home away from school, with both parents off at work, my rummaging in the hall closet uncovered a box of so-called Renaissance chess pieces. I didn't really care about the historical aspect, because frankly, I didn't understand it. What did attract me, though, was how the pieces - some of them - looked like toy soldiers, and there was an instruction booklet in the box.

Oh, what a grand time I had that day! I'm not quite sure I learned much chess, but the pawns, Bishops, Queens, and Kings looked like people, the Knight looked like a mounted warrior, and the Rook - well, I just couldn't wrap my mind around a brick tower balanced on the back of an elephant, y'know? Still, I managed to make up rules of my own, which included prisoner exchanges among the lumpenproletariat pawns, which entertained me until it was time for my parents to return home.

Having related all of that, I ask myself: When did I actually start to play chess? When did a rudimentary knowledge of how to set up pieces and of how they moved pass from a "mechanical" state - the one where every aspect exists independently of every other - into an "integrated" one?

I cannot answer with any certainty (at least, I cannot recall who it was I might have played against). When next I see myself at a chess board, I am at summer camp, in the dining hall playing chess during the hour after lunch instead of flat on my back on my bunk - thinking more about the Good Humor Chocolate Eclair I will buy at the end of the mandated "rest hour" than about anything to do with chess. Life was good.

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Back in the epoch when Galina and I started looking for what eventually became our house here in Pagosa Springs, our real estate agent asked the customary getting-to-know you questions that were - as one might expect - directed more at figuring out whether we were worth said agent's investment in time than as any sort of overture of friendship (though I will concede that the two goals are not mutually exclusive).

The conversation started innocently enough, and was almost immediately derailed.

"So, what sort of work do you do?" asked our agent.

"I'm a translator," I said. "I translate documents from Russian to English."

A troubled expression flashed across the agent's face. "I see," she said. Then: "Actually, I'm confused. You're not him."

"I'm sorry," I said, "'him' who?"

"Well, I mean, you being a Russian translator," she said. "One of the people at the office recently dealt with a Russian translator named Alex here in Pagosa, but you're not him. At least I don't think so."

"But we haven't spoken to any real estate agents before this," said Galina.

"I'm pretty sure there must be some mix-up," I said. "I mean... Russian? Translation? Pagosa? Named Alex? Hello? That's me. I'm who your colleague must be referring to, but as Galina just said, we haven't dealt with anyone here in town about real estate."

On the way home from the meeting, Galina and I joked about what the odds might be of there being two translators, working in Russian and English, both named Alex, in the thriving metropolis of Pagosa Springs, Colorado (population 1,200 at the time). We had a good laugh. Two days later, the real estate agent left a phone message.

"You know that translator I spoke about the other day?" she said after identifying herself. "Well, I've got his number right here, and it's not your number." She then dictated the number into the phone, and suggested I might want to call and find out for myself.

I did, whereupon both translators named Alex, translating in Russian and English and living in Pagosa Springs found out that as unlikely as it sounds, something like this can - against all odds - happen in real life.

It was Alex who would introduce me to, among other things, mushrooming.

alexpgp: (Corfu!)
I sweated blood over the "welcome to the USSR" speech I gave to each new group of tourists arriving from the United States that bicentennial year. I polished it, and practiced its delivery, because it had to be quick and thorough, yet interesting enough to hold my audience's attention for the length of a long commercial television interruption back home. While delivering a generally upbeat and wholesome message (summarized by "we're going to have a great time!"), the principal point of my spiel was to convince my newly arrived charges to avoid striking out on their own: don't exchange currency on the street, don't buy item such as icons, samovars or antiques, and above all, refrain from associating with political dissidents.

As in any such endeavor, there will always be that 10% of the crowd that fails to absorb the message.

In my experience, membership in that last decile is not necessarily due to a lack of education or intelligence. In fact, my most memorable interaction with a member of this never-quite-up-to-speed group involved a university professor of economics. On the evening before his group's departure for home, said professor knocked on my door as I was getting ready to join the group for dinner, and asked me to come with him to his room.

"Is everything okay?" I asked.

"I don't know," he said. "I need some advice."

I followed the professor into his room. On the bed, half-buried in a mound of well-wrinkled newspaper, there was a samovar. It was old and grungy, and not in the best of condition, but it was an honest-to-goodness antique samovar, dated 1869, which doubtless had boiled countless gallons of water and brewed many, many kettles of tea over its lifetime.

"Where did you get the samovar?" I asked.

"I bought it at an antique shop," said the professor. "Isn't it a beauty? The reason I knocked on your door, though, is that now I'm hearing that I won't be able to take it out of the country. Is that true?"

"Well, you heard right," I said (mentally adding probably from me, back when you arrived). "Foreigners need to jump through a number of hoops and get proper appraisals and approvals before the authorities will let an antique like this out of the country."

"But it's not as if this is some kind of national treasure," protested the professor.

"I can only agree, but I don't make the rules," I said, and gave a little shrug.

"Isn't there anything that can be done?" he asked.

"I don't think so, but let me give the problem some thought," I said. "In the meantime, we're about to be late for dinner and we can't let that happen, can we? I'll see you downstairs, okay?"

I left the professor's room and took the elevator down to the second floor, then turned left, toward the main dining room. As I passed by the display window of the hotel's Beriozka shop – one of several state-run souvenir shops for foreigners situated strategically around Moscow – I saw a number of people from my group standing in line to exchange their foreign currency for all sorts of knick-knacks, including nesting dolls, lacquered boxes, and modern, electric stainless-steel versions of the samovar up in the professor's room. Business was good.

They have a strange saying in Russia: "If it's forbidden, but you want to very much, then it's permitted." I'm not saying I understood it very well, but the saying echoed in my mind as I mulled over the professor's predicament and made a decision. A little while later, I buttonholed the professor as he left the dining room.

"Professor, are you a risk-taker?" I asked.

"Well, yes. Sometimes," he said. "Why?"

We had a brief discussion about his immediate problem, which ended with the professor nodding agreement, whereupon I told him what I wanted him to do, and arranged to meet him in his room in half an hour. I went up to my room and fetched my multipurpose Swiss Army knife.

When I arrived at the professor's room, I saw that he had fulfilled my instructions to the letter. With the greatest of care, I used the various implements on my knife to undo the knot in the string that was tied around the package from the Beriozka shop. Then I laid the undamaged string to one side and carefully unwrapped the several layers of rough paper imprinted with the Beriozka logo that had been used to wrap the contents of the package.

Moving with care and deliberation, I replaced the utilitarian stainless steel samovar the professor had bought in the hotel's Beriozka shop with the purchased antique article, then I carefully rewrapped the samovar with the Beriozka paper and retied the string around the package. Unless the departure customs examination was particularly thorough, there was no reason to think the Beriozka package would attract a second glance while clearing customs the following day at the airport.

"So, what happens if I get caught doing this?" asked the professor as I admired my knot-tying skills.

"Well, as I mentioned in the dining room downstairs, if you get caught, I'm to be left out of it. I will disavow any knowledge of this, is that clear?"

"Yes," he said, "you have my word on that, but if I am caught, what can they do to me?"

"They may make you fill out a bunch of forms," I said, "but in the end, about the worst they can do to you is confiscate the samovar and kick you out of the country. Maybe fine you. The way things stand without this scheme, they'll still confiscate the samovar and you're leaving tomorrow anyway." The professor nodded.

"Okay, I understand, but why did you have me buy all this other stuff?" asked the professor, pointing at two bags of other souvenirs that I asked him to buy, including a set of nesting matrioshka dolls, some wooden spoons, and a mandolin-like balalaika.

"You want to give the impression that you're a harmless souvenir-hound that went crazy inside the Beriozka shop," I said. "Whatever you do, do not treat the samovar package as if it is your nearest and dearest possession." The professor nodded once more, and handed me the steel samovar as I left his room. "This is for you," he said.

By the time I got back to my room, it occurred to me the samovar I had been given was overly heavy for its size. I removed the cover, and discovered the professor had managed to stow a compact bottle of cranberry liqueur inside the samovar while I had fussed with the decoy package. Fair enough, I thought, and grinned.

The next day, I accompanied the group to the airport and watched as the group slowly percolated through the customs stations. When his turn came, the professor put the samovar on the ground so that he could give the customs official his passport and declaration, and then scooted it along the floor with his feet while carrying his other two bags of souvenirs through the gate to the check-in counter. Bravo, professor!

After the entire group had been processed, I turned to go claim a table in the airport's coffee shop while I waited for the new group arriving on the same plane taking the old group home. I pulled out my carefully worded welcome speech and a pen. The text needed a little more polish, I thought - a little more oomph! - to better get my message across.


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