Listening to Dvorak with God

The second movement of the American Quartet commenced, and even as the beautiful arpeggios began carrying me away to Spillville and beyond, the perfectionist in me wondered if it was loud enough. However, my heavy limbs could not be moved to reach for the remote to turn up the volume, and I rationalized my inertness by dismissing my perfectionism: If I gave up trying to create the perfect experience (at the ideal volume) and simply let it come to me, then perhaps it would.

At that moment of surrender, the whirring clothes dryer in the next room shut off, and the Dvorak came through in all its purity. I smiled and thanked God for rewarding my faith.

And then the air conditioner clicked on.

Hammered by Kindness

Sharing my diary entries detailing my “long way home” return from Taiwan via Europe in 1992, and reliving my decision to switch from flophouses to luxury hotels, I’m reminded also of how my sudden reintroduction to attentive restaurant service, after weeks of Chinese and Russian shabbiness, produced literally intoxicating results.

It was in the Xx Restaurant in Budapest (or was it Munich?) that the waiter, on bringing me my menu, asked if I would like to have an aperitif, while I looked it over. What a considerate question! This was more like it, I enthused, someone who knows how to treat a guest. Not wishing to profane the moment with a “No, thank you,” I asked the nice man to bring me a gin and tonic, which I remembered was customary for summer, even though I wasn’t really thirsty.

I sipped at the fizzy drink while perusing the bill of fare, and when the tuxedoed veteran returned to take my order for dinner, he asked me what sort of wine I would like with it. Of course! I remembered. One drinks wine with dinner at civilized establishments such as this one. I told my man that I would rely on him to provide the most appropriate ambrosia to match the veal I’d selected; and he brought the excellent white Burgundy for me to begin enjoying well in advance of my entrée. Naturally, I was careful also to finish off the gin and tonic, to avoid being rude.

The veal, balanced perfectly with the wine, melted in my mouth, and I leaned back in bliss, recalling how one week prior, I had considered myself lucky to be given a cold bowl of borscht, assuming I found the dining car of the Trans-Siberian open. When my hovering host cleared away my plate and asked me what I wanted for dessert, I started to cry, it had been so long since I’d been so well taken care of. I requested the chocolate mousse, and when he inquired, off-handedly, as to what sort of cordial I should like to go with it, accepted his recommendation of some sort of cherry liqueur.

A good half hour later, at the close of my repast, I wiped my mouth with the cloth napkin, paid the bill, took a deep breath of the fullest contentment and gratitude, rose to leave, and found that I could not walk.

Travel Journal: No More Roughing It; Arrival in Budapest (1992)

After the two [Ukrainian oil field workers] had both detrained, I had a very sublime conversation with my remaining compartment-mate. He was a Hungarian physicist who was “hanging up” whatever job he had in Moscow and returning home with his cat. For most of the conversation, it was this reserved gentleman who was asking me questions about Taiwan and other aspects of my life. Much as it happened during the Trans-Siberian conversation with the Australian woman, the relating of my exploits was quite therapeutic, but on this second train, this gentleman was the older-generation figure whose occasional encouragement and understanding I greatly appreciate, nay, crave. His questions also were aimed right at the point, the main idea, of each aspect we were talking about; he was [always] asking, “What was your purpose” for doing such-and-such? I was happy to have a purpose that guided me [and] that I could tell him. I think I meant that he was one of the few people who could understand my lofty life goals, as I expressed them; most folks simply smirked at how impractically I’d lived, “wasting” all that time in Taiwan, with little to show for it but weird experiences.

He also confirmed my observations re the Trans-Siberian, i.e., that trains in this part of the world were dangerous. Furthermore, it might have been a self-aggrandizing remark I’d made in Taiwan, that now was the last opportunity I had to adventure in Eurasia (before disunity and war, etc.) ; but my Hungarian companion seconded the emotion, explaining that the trains were daily witness to robbery and murder, and that he was leaving Moscow, in fact, on the strength of the sense of growing instability there.

True enough, our conversation had been initiated by the abrupt, uninvited entrance of two Ukrainian youths who had barged in for shock value (it sure shocked me as I looked and saw one of them sitting next to me and the other one blocking the door) but who finally didn’t seem to want anything other than to whine at the Hungarian before they got off. My companion later said that they were generally confused and specifically a bit drunk but at heart nice boys.

The effect of this gentleman’s descriptions of train-borne chaos was to put me on my guard during the crossing of the Hungarian border, in the early morning after my friend left, during a sunrise trip to the w.c., and upon arrival in Budapest, but after reaching that place, I saw that I’d definitely arrived in affluent, touristy, Europe and soon turned my thoughts from flight to food and other indulgences.

The first need-turned-indulgence, that of lodging, achieved its more luxurious state by the following means: The [homestay] hostess recommended by the [Moscow travel agency] turned out (after begging for change to use the pay phone) to be in Italy on holiday. I next was compelled by residual greenhorn desperation to book a guest room at a hostel through the services of a travel agency. Said travel agency gave me an address and a trolley number, but after riding the trolley all the way out to the burbs to where the room chanced to be, I found the host not at home. His absence was actually a blessing in disguise, for I opted on the spot to return to the center of town (before the host came back) and try my luck with a hotel.

I was not the only backpacker wandering the streets that morning, and after a while, I found the experience degrading. The prospect of carrying my belongings through city streets, looking for a room, I mean looking for a cheap room, was not inspiring. I therefore resolved to inquire for rooms at the first hotel I came across, which chanced to be the Astoria Hotel.

Rooms were US$100 a night, and I humiliated myself one last time by asking after cheaper flops in the area before I decided to reward myself for surviving a month on trains in the PRC and Russia. “You know what? Just put me up,” I said. My backpack and I were very happy for the pampering.

Travel Journal: You Can’t Always Get What You Want, from Moscow to Budapest (1992)

I took the long way back from Taiwan, traveling through Japan, China, Russia (via the Trans-Siberian), Hungary, Germany, France, and the UK. I had grown accustomed to peaceful, meditative train rides in my earlier adventures (the photo is from my first train ride, in China, in 1986), but I was not destined to enjoy another such experience, when I boarded the train in Moscow, bound for Budapest.

Munich, Bavaria, Germany                          August 7, 1992

To catch up with myself, the Moscow-Budapest rail journey was both potentially disastrous and lucky. The train itself was just like the Chinese soft-sleeper that seemed a rolling palace to me when I was twenty and which has grown less novel in my eyes (not as soft) during this trip, until this most recent ride, in which the train seemed to have lost all potential for a pleasure excursion and to have become the scene of an irksome flight. There does not seem to be the “hard sleeper” [available] in Russia, so there is no class boundary to hide behind; [in other words,] there are no hard sleepers, so all the soft sleepers are hard sleepers.

The first one in the compartment, I think I managed a “Not bad, Mr. Miller,” when I discovered my bunk to be the lower, trailing one that would allow the best view. Very soon, though, a loud man with a gold tooth entered the compartment with his copious bags. He immediately took off his shirt and began fussing with his gear, while I, out of necessity, arrogance, passivity, or what have you, began to constrict my space into the corner. He signaled that I should stow my bag below the bunk, out of the way (this was done, of course), and then he began to pile items onto the small table, where I had unsuccessfully staked a claim for my book. First, he set down about six cans of beer; then came two bottles of vodka, cigarettes, garlic (the items must have been chosen in order of aroma – all these smells could be discerned emanating from his bared torso); and finally came the main staples of bread, roast beef, canned sausages, parsley (another item selected for the prime merit of its fragrance), mustard, dried fish, cooked chicken, etc., etc. The flies came later.

The only position from which he could work the table was, of course, my window-seat refuge, so I yielded same to him as graciously as I could. I removed myself to the corridor, while “my” berth became a smorgasbord. The shirtless M.C. sliced the meats while his mustachioed friend and an older, more reserved man, imbibed. My impotent inner ranting in the corridor during this interval need not be detailed here. I presently tried to cop out by requesting a battlefield promotion to a first class berth, but this avenue of escape was soon found to be closed.

(Paris, 8/9) I think it was the shirtless gentleman who invited me back into the compartment and back to my seat, which he yielded; his timely invitation opened my window of acceptance, as it were, for I was then enabled to decide to submit completely to the situation and give up all frustrating hope of spending a clean, serene, evening.

I ingested the oily meats and breads and swilled down that warm beer, [sacrificing] the washed hands and face and brushed teeth that I’d prepared in advance for the trip.

(Paris, 8/10) Finally (actually, it was rather quickly), I was able to put a half-drunk smile on my face and lean my head back against the side, sometimes looking out the window, sometimes dealing with the questions that were thrown at me. The M.C. wanted me generally to eat more and drink vodka; I turned down the vodka by accepting a can of beer, with which I toasted him until he turned his attentions elsewhere (and I was toasted). In short, then, I found on this trainride out from moribund Eurasian ex-Communism that I had one final lesson to learn in the School of Submission. Having forfeited all control over the (initial) situation (which only would have led to conflict, if insisted upon), I was finally able to pass the time as peacefully as possible. I think it’s called buying popularity or respect. Later, the M.C. perceived that I was tired and actually prepared my bedding for me while I was (re)washing my hands.

Of course, a glass of vodka spilled during the night [due to] a sudden stop [illegible], and then the food ritual was resumed again in the morning. I had by then gathered enough respect to request that uneaten food be thrown out and not left out for the flies. Both the M.C. and his friend were Ukrainian and were returning home from their lucrative employment in the northern tundra, where they[‘d] worked on an oil rig. Before the afternoon was up, they had both gotten off the train. I was glad to have met them and also happy to see them go, before the food business got too monotonous.

On Goodyisms

Once, several years ago, I was driving around with a close friend whom we’ll call Socrates, when we saw a bumper sticker proclaiming, “I Support Women in the Arts.” Socrates turned to me, rolled his eyes, and groused, “Well, I do not support women in the arts.”

I understood. My friend Socrates, who was (and remains) quite supportive of women in the arts, was mocking the bumper sticker’s implication that he wasn’t.

Socrates was reacting, in a natural if unfortunate way, to a goodyism, or weaponized platitude, a non-controversial statement designed to elevate the status of its invoker. Cheap to the point of costing nothing, the goodyism yields a great return, in the form of moral superiority and its concomitant political advantage. Holier than thou is a phrase that can be associated with goodyisms; yet for the balance of this essay, I would like to discuss not the holiness that the goodyism confers upon its wielder but the opprobrium that it delivers upon thou.

Many goodyisms, especially those one might see on bumper stickers, are subtle exercises in demagoguery. The goal of demagoguery is to make its audience ask itself, “Who could possibly be against _______?” In the current example, the operative question is “Who could possibly be against women in the arts?” The real answer is “Nobody,” which points to the hallmark of the goodyism: the lack of any serious opposing position, its non-controversial nature. However, the implied answer is “Scum,” and since the goodyist has taken a certain position, it follows that everyone opposed to him is scum. It matters not that no one really is opposed to him on the ground beneath which he has raised his banner (women in the arts, in this case); all that matters is that the banner has been raised. Defying no one, he has nonetheless issued a call of defiance. Hearing it, his audience is compelled to choose sides, either to stand beside him on the moral high plain or to sink into the scum.

That the audience is indeed so compelled is illustrated by the Lenny Bruce routine about one-upmanship in religion, in which one villager promises to give up five farms and three rivers for the Lord, and the next villager, not to be outdone, promises to give up ten farms and eight rivers. In our example, we are invited to pledge our farms and rivers for the sake of women in the arts, and nobody wants to be behindhand in making the pledge. The member of the flock who offers the fewest farms and rivers is branded a profane person; and the one who remains silent must surely be a lurking devil, for “Whoever is not with me is against me.”

The goodyism, therefore, is an offensive weapon disguised as a defensive one. It is passive-aggressive. It is designed to provoke a response (or a non-response), to divide the community on the basis of that response, and to anathematize everyone on the wrong side of the divide. The fact that it is gratuitous, based on an obvious proposition, highlights its offensive character.  Since silence gives consent to the demonization implicit in the goodyism, there is really no choice but to push back against it. The worst thing you can do, however, is to return fire with irony, as Socrates did, if only to me, by joking that he was against women in the arts. Remember, the goodyist has set a trap for you; he has all but accused you of heresy. You have ample reason to be irritated, but giving vent to your annoyance with an irreverent jest only makes it easier for him to spring the trap. It is much better to answer with a purer form of humor, to cut him down to size. The next time someone aims a goodyism at you like “I Support Women in the Arts,” say to him what my father would often say to me: “Bully for you. Now what do you want, a dog biscuit or a cat biscuit?”