Monday, March 31, 2008

Complaints and questions

C: I do not think your newspaper should try to pick who anyone should vote for. You should report facts and not influence your opinions. Let voters choose who they want in office. - W.M.

A: We've covered this topic before, but it's worth bringing up again with the primary approaching. We've never, in recent memory, bothered to endorse presidential candidates in a primary because the candidates have always been chosen by this time. This Democratic primary is different, and we'll probably favor one of them in an editorial. Endorsing candidates is one of those things we've been doing at this newspaper for 200 years. But doing so because it's always been done doesn't necessarily make it right.

Some newspapers have ceased endorsing candidates because their editors believe that it damages their newspapers' credibility as objective observers of the news. We continue to editorialize in favor of candidates because we believe our readers are intelligent enough to distinguish between opinion - that which you'll find on the editorial page - and news.

We believe it's important for us to share with our readers the conclusions we draw from being in much closer contact with candidates for local offices than individual readers can be. Of course, unless Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama troop up to our newsroom and submit to a barrage of our questions, we have no more information to base an opinion on than any other average reader, and a good case can be made for not making an endorsement of either.

We like to think that readers have respect for our opinions, but how much those opinions might influence those of our readers is anyone's guess. We are not presumptuous enough to think that readers will vote solely on the basis of our editorials, and we certainly hope that they do not. Voters choose candidates based on information they receive from many sources, and usually after much thought and debate.

Our primary concern here at the Observer-Reporter is that people vote, not for whom they might cast their ballots.

Life of Enos, Part 5

Enos Christman found San Francisco an exciting place, although outrageously expensive. "Gambling here is an occupation, day and night, Sunday or any other time," he wrote in his journal on Feb. 22, 1850. "The grey-headed father and the beardless boy are seen side by side vying with each other who can win or lose the fastest, and even beautiful women engage in these games with the same earnestness of the sterner sex, betting their last ounce. I have even heard of preachers delivering a good sermon and going directly from the pulpit to the gaming table... Money here goes like dirt. Everything costs a dollar or dollars. What is considered a fortune at home is here mere pocket money. Today I purchased a single potato for 45 cents."

Prospecting for gold was not all that it was cracked up to be, Enos discovered. He and Atkins left San Francisco by steamer up the Sacramento River on March 11 and began an overland trek to the foothills of the Sierra Nevada range a week later. "Our long voyage at sea unfitted us for such a tramp and hence we have been almost worn out, but a day or two's rest, we hope, will restore our usual vigor." Enos wrote on March 19. "For the past few days Atkins was apparently improving rapidly, but today he took a relapse and I fear he may have a hard sickness…"
Rest never came. For weeks they traveled slowly through rain and across swollen streams, through land tracked by grizzlies, wolves and hostile Indians and bandits, to the high ground of the gold fields. When they finally reached Mariposa, pickings were slim.

Panning for gold proved to be backbreaking labor, a day's work often yielding not enough gold dust to buy even a loaf of bread. Through the spring, Atkins remained too ill to work. They sold off much of their belongings for food and soon were down to almost nothing.

May 9, 1850 – While going up to camp to get my dinner, I saw the express wagon pass down towards the city. I expected letters by it and immediately after dinner I put all the money I had, seven dollars, in my pocket and went down to the express office and enquired for the letters. Four were handed me at two dollars each, making eight dollars. I paid the seven I had and asked them to trust me for the other until evening, knowing that I had five dollars due me for a day's work last week..."

Enos and Atkins followed other prospectors in a search for betters diggings, or some other way to make money. Their trek took them near Stockton on June 1. It was there, after 11 months of hardship, poverty, illness bad luck and grueling work that the sun finally began to shine on Enos Christman.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Walk the talk

It's easy to complain about litter on the streets, and not so easy to do something about it. But about 30 people showed up this morning with brooms and garbage bags and walked the talk. Among them, at right, were Judge Tom Gladden, left, and John Ullom, husband of Washington Councilwoman Virginia Ullom.

Although a little chilly at first, it turned out to be a beautiful morning, made much more so with the satisfaction of doing something useful for the community. There's talk about doing this every three months. That would be great, but it certainly would help if the city could come up with a more effective plan to use the street sweeper and its street crew to do some of the work.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Life of Enos, Part 4

Enos Christman, his friend Atkins and most of the other 50 passengers aboard the Europe suffered from seasickness through the first two months of the voyage. After passing the equator on Aug. 31, boredom set in, followed by peril. Following are a few snippets from Christman's journal:

Sept. 9 - There is nothing to be seen from one end to the other but a dreary waste of blue sky above the rolling water below... But notwithstanding all that has been said of its charms, its novelty is now over and it hath no charms any longer for me. It is nearly 10 weeks since we left port. Truly a long time to see nothing but sky and water and our own good ship, and yet it will be a long while again before we reach port...

Sept. 30 - Deep, low mutterings usually ensue after meals, and not without cause, as this is an almost intolerable place as far as table luxuries are concerned. Our bread now contains worms half an inch in length, and is a little musty, and our duff is very badly cooked, not better than mere dough heated. Complaint was made to the Captain and he gave us directions to flog the cook next time it came to us in such a manner. I shall go to bed supperless. I have been much below par and in bed the greater part of the day.

Oct. 21 - A tremendous wave struck the vessel Tuesday morning, covering the deck with several feet of water and rolling some of the passengers from side to side, ducking them most thoroughly. The same wave rolled a volume of water down the hatchway, covering the greater part of our cabin with three to six inches, which floated some of the trunks about and wet some of their contents… Friday morning the startling announcement was made that on account of this continual tossing about by the storms and waves, we had unexpectedly lost about 1,400 gallons of water out of a large square iron tank and as a consequence, the passengers would be allowed but one quart per day for all purposes...

Dec. 19 - Yesterday afternoon, Mr. Sterling's little boy met with a slight fall, and in the evening he was seized with a severe fit... About 11 o'clock this forenoon the child died. This afternoon his body was sewed up in a piece of canvas, with three cannon balls at the feet to make it sink, and then placed on a plank with the American flag around it… and his mortal remains were cast into the ocean.

Jan. 12 - While lying in the harbor in Valparaiso (Chile) we were almost devoured by fleas, but we were not troubled long after we left. Since then a new scourge has been sent to trouble us. For a few weeks past some have been unable to sleep on account of something biting and creeping over them. Upon search they found their bunks to be infested with bedbugs of monstrous growth and great numbers...

Feb. 7 - About nine o'clock the joyful cry of "Land, ho!" was heard and by going aloft to the fore-topsail guard, I was able to see the dim outline of several ridges of land. At the first sight of the land of promise, oh how my heart leaped with joy!

But for Enos and his friend, their greater hardship was only just beginning.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Complaints and questions

I've been getting a lot of complaints about home delivery of the newspaper lately. I've got nothing to do with that part of the business and pass those complaints along to the manager who does. But the problem causing the complaints is not likely to go away on its own and should be discussed. Here's what's happening:

Most of the papers we deliver are done so by motor-route drivers - independent contractors who use their own vehicles. They put a lot of miles on those vehicles because the area we cover - all of the southwestern corner of Pennsylvania - is so large, and we pay them a per-mile reimbursement.
As the price of gasoline continues to rise, the profit for these independent contractors continues to shrink, and more and more of them are deciding this line of work is not worth it. Finding replacements is tough. You might ask: Can't you just raise the rate of reimbursement? Consider that raising it just one cent per mile translates to an $80,000 annual expense. I don't know about you, but we don't have that kind of money just lying around. So in order to raise the mileage rate, we'd need to pass that cost on to the customer.

When you think about it, having a product delivered to your door 364 days a year for the price of a newspaper subscription is a pretty good bargain. But many subscribers are unwilling to pay more. So, if you were the publisher, what would you do?

There's no simple answer to that question. What I fear is that the rising cost of fuel will eventually make home delivery of the newspaper not economically feasible. In five or 10 years, you may have to drive somewhere to buy your copy or subscribe to it online.
I'm not looking forward to that day, but I'm afraid it's coming anyway.

Life of Enos, Part 3

Enos Christmas booked passage on the clipper ship Europe, but its departure from the Philadelphia port was delayed for several days. While waiting, Enos exchanged letters with Ellen and fellow apprentice Peebles Prizer and learned that his good friend DeWitt Clinton Atkins would be joining him on the voyage.

The couple's prolonged parting proved painful. "I had a daguerreotype likeness taken, which will be sent to you with this," Enos wrote Ellen on June 30, 1849. "Take it, and may it ever be a source of comfort to you. Should I have the good luck ever to return, I hope the mutual pledges given by us may be fulfilled, and believe me that I cannot change. My feelings at parting now, you can better imagine than I can describe."

Ellen was candid in her reaction, writing on July 1: "I return many, many thanks for your likeness. You could not have sent me anything which would have been half so valuable. When I look upon it, it will serve to call up pleasant recollections of the past. But I shall need nothing to remind me of you. The likeness is most excellent but what an unspeakable pleasure it would have been to have taken one more look at the original. I must bear the trial and keep it to myself. I must appear cheerful and indifferent while my anxiety for your future comfort is beyond description…"

The Europe departed the harbor on July 4. It would not reach San Francisco for another 221 days. Enos had anticipated stormy seas, seasickness and even regret of his decisions during a voyage of many months, but he could never have imagined what else he and Atkins would endure before their feet once again touched land.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Life of Enos, Part 2

Ellen A. Martin was born in Philadelphia in 1829. Her mother died when she was just a toddler, and so she was sent to West Chester to be raised by the family of her uncle, Capt. William Apple, as one of their own. She was known to all as Ellen Apple.

Enos Christman and Ellen began courting as teenagers, and by the time Enos had completed several years of his apprenticeship, they pledged themselves to one another. Marriage would have to wait, however, until Enos could manage to make a good enough living to support her - not a likely prospect for a small-town printer working for someone else.

It was near the end of his fourth year at the Record when Gold Fever struck Enos. After the discovery of the precious metal at Sutter's Mill, thousands of men dropped everything and headed for California, inebriated with the desire to strike it rich. Enos saw this not just as an opportunity to flee the drudgery of the print shop but as a way to make enough money to enable him to return home financially secure enough to marry Ellen.

Of course, leaving for California was a problem. There was the matter of his bound position at the Record, and the journey there - by sail around the southern tip of South America - would be costly. Where would he get the money for that?

Much to Enos' surprise, Record owner Henry Evans shared his young employee's enthusiasm, released him from his job and advanced him $400 for the voyage, gambling on the prospect that Enos would make a fortune in the gold fields, much to the benefit of his backer.

And so in late June 1849, Enos Christman left West Chester and Ellen to begin what they both knew would be a long and perilous journey. They both realized that he would be gone for years. They could never know, however that this was also the beginning of a great love story.

Today's gripe

You know what an ear worm is, don't you? It's a song that gets stuck in your head and drives you crazy. Sometimes it's a tune you hear on the radio, and a couple of days later it's playing around the clock between your ears. Sometimes, you have no idea where it's crawled from.

So, for two days I have been pestered by this insidious ear worm - it's a tune my daughter used to practice on the piano, over and over again, when she was about 12 years old. There are kids getting ready to graduate from high school who weren't even born when she was taking piano lessons.

It all goes to show that you never really forget anything. Stuff just finds a place to hide in your brain, just waiting for the right opportunity to wiggle out and annoy the hell out of you.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Life of Enos, Part 1

Life was good for the Christman family in West Chester, a village just a day's journey by carriage west of Philadelphia. George, the grandson of German immigrants, had become a successful miller and millwright, and he and his wife, Sarah, had three sons who would one day follow him in the business. Then in 1843, everything changed.

When George Christman died that year, childhood ended for his eldest son, Enos, not yet 15 years old. While still attending public school, Enos found work as a clerk and did farm chores to help support his widowed mother and younger brothers. That being not enough, a year later he was bound into a five-year apprenticeship at the West Chester Record to learn the printing trade under the supervision of its editor, Henry Evans.

The position was a fortunate opportunity for the Christman family, made possible when apprentice Bayard Taylor left the Record. After publishing a book of poetry, Taylor would go on to wander Europe on foot and to write about his experiences for the New York Tribune, and would wander the globe as a journalist, poet and lecturer of great fame, but that is a story for another day. This is the story of Enos, whose life's journey was launched by the death of his father.

Enos took well to newspaper work and thoroughly enjoyed the camaraderie of his fellow apprentices. He might have been content to finish out his indenture and stay on at the Record as a career, as meager the income might be, if it were not for one significant distraction. Her name was Ellen Apple.

Monday, March 24, 2008

The next story

"One Man's Gold: The Letters and Journal of a Forty Niner" was first published in 1930, and there's a good reason that it's still in print. Enos Christman's account of his odyssey of more than three years and the letters to and from his fiancee and a fellow apprentice may be the definitive fist-person account of the California Gold Rush.

What makes this a particularly intriguing read is the local connection: Christman became part owner of The Reporter in 1857 and 20 years later made the weekly a daily newspaper. He was a decorated Civil War veteran and one of the most important and influential citizens in Washington's history.

The contents of "One Man's Gold" were extracted from old letters and papers found in a box in Christman's West Prospect Avenue home after his death in 1912, and were edited by his niece, Florence Morrow Christman. It is a harrowing tale of a 222-day voyage from Philadelphia to San Francisco around Cape Horn, of the violent, boisterous and risky life in the gold fields, and of a return to Ellen Apple, the love of his life, only after a voyage during which 17 of the passengers died from disease.

This is great reading, but it covers only a few years of a fascinating life. During research for this newspaper's bicentennial, I have learned much more about Enos Christman, which I will share with readers of this blog in yet another serialized story.

We'll call it "Life of Enos."

And one more time...

Just one more example from today's collection of reader gripes...
C: I am writing this is regards to what was on the front page of todays paper......"Woman plagued by improper fit"..........I found this to be very "improper",,,,especially for a front page NEWS article,,,With so much happening in this world today, surely you could have found something else to have on the front page!!!! This was like opening one of those awful tabloids,,,,,,,and I found no worth or value to a article such as this. What is happening with your paper and who are you trying to reach with articles such as this?? I use to think your paper was conservative and wrote articles that pertained to today's problems and once in a while,,,some good things that are happening (we don't see much of that!) but this article was of no value or interest to us in light of the world situation and it was ridiculous for you to even have it in the paper let alone the front page!!!!!!!!! ! The above article was about "4000 troops dead",,,,,how can "eight out of 10 women wearing the wrong bra size" be even considered to be of that magnitude!!!! or importance???? Get real !!!!! - M.C.

A: Whoa, looks like there was a sale on punctuation marks.
Readers often complain that all we print is bad news. I wasn't aware that that's all some readers want to read.

More complaints

C: Your choice of lead story for Monday's edition of the Observer was tasteless. Must you lower yourselves to society's standards? - B.P.

A: Our lead story on the front page this morning was at the top of the page under the banner headline, "Grim milestone: 4,000 troops dead." We apologize for tastelessly reminding our readers of the human cost of war.

Whine, whine, whine

Our switchboard opens at 8:30 a.m. At 8:31 this morning, I received a call from a reader upset by our "What's Up With That?" feature - a front-page article we publish every Monday. The article was about how 8 of 10 American women wear the wrong size of bra. It's not exactly breaking news, but it is an attempt to start the week on a lighter note with a little fun.

Apparently, the photo of a department store clerk measuring the bust of a mannequin was just too disgusting for this reader to take. For all of you out there who are getting ready to call me and chew my ear about this, please be assured that we will make every effort in the future to make your newspaper as boring and predictable as possible.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Russian Affair, Part 15

It's been 50 years since I huddled under my desk at P.S. 8, worrying about the day when this would not be a drill but the real thing, when Soviet missiles would rain on New York and we would all be blinded by a flash of light moments before our incineration. I could never have imagined at that vulnerable and impressionable age that the world would survive for another half century with no nuclear warfare. And I could never have dreamed that I would spend so much of my time as an adult on the other side of the Iron Curtain.

I doubt that I will ever return to Russia, our work being done. Our sister newspaper not only survived but is thriving. And Books for the World, like so many other small humanitarian organizations, is no longer welcome. But we are proud of what we accomplished: equipping the Chemal village school with books, furniture and school supplies; furnishing more than 17,000 books in English to Novokuznetsk's schools and university; and donating a 40-foot container loaded with clothing, diapers, sporting goods and sewing machines to 12 Siberian orphanages.
It's a big world, though, and there's no shortage of places that could use our help. In June, I'll return to Lithuania along with Alice and six members of the Washington Rotary Club. We plan to spend a couple of days in Obelei with Diana Kanciene helping out at Arteities Vardan in any way we can.
If you look at a map of Europe and zero in on the Baltic states, you'll notice something peculiar about Lithuania. In the southwest corner of that country, along the coast of the Baltic Sea at the border with Poland, is a tiny piece of Russia that's cut off and separated from the motherland. It’s called Kaliningrad. It's a little piece of Russia that won’t go away.
That map is like my heart. I have a little piece of Russia there that will remain forever. It is a pocket stuffed with joy and sorrow - the memory of my Russian affair.


Thursday, March 20, 2008

Russian Affair, Part 14

(Diana Kanciene and two of her daughters)

Even before my "breakup" with Russia, I admit to "seeing" other countries on the side. My work for the newspaper and also as a volunteer for Books for the World took me to other places in the former Soviet Bloc. In Ukraine and Poland and Lithuania, I met people every bit as warm and hospitable as the Russians. I could go on for many more chapters telling their personal stories, but all tales need to come to a conclusion.
I need to tell you about Diana, however. We hear so much about greedy oligarchs, Kremlin bullies, criminals, xenophobes and communist backsliders in the aftermath of the Soviet collapse, and so rarely hear about the good and the unselfish.

You'd think with six children of her own, Diana Kanciene would have enough to do at home. But she and her husband, who have two other adopted children, are raising a village. Diana operates Arteities Vardan (For the Future), a community organization dedicated to improving family life and the welfare of children in Obelei, Lithuania, an impoverished town racked by alcoholism, where the unemployment rate is typically 60 percent. The heart of the organization is a safe house for abused and neglected kids. At any given time, between 20 and 24 kids come to the house for meals or to spend the night, whenever necessary, to do their homework after school, or to participate in games and other activities impossible for them in their own homes.

Diana's thin and frail appearance is deceiving; she is a woman of great strength and energy. A devout Catholic, she is as much concerned with children's spiritual health as she is with their physical safety.

Even while she strives to rescue kids from the dangerous environment of their homes, she also has launched innovative programs to form better relationships between parents and their children: a sewing club for mothers and their daughters; a workshop where fathers can teach their sons things like carpentry and bicycle repair.

Diana is tireless and is bothersome to many villagers. Still, her boundless love of kids has won her respect and a nickname: Saint Diana. It's a name that causes this shy and diminutive woman to blush with embarrassment. She likes to give credit to the teenagers and young adults that have come up through Arteities Vardan and now volunteer their time with the younger kids. They'll grow up to be good parents, and that's a future worth working for, she says.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Russian Affair, Part 13

How do you know when you've fallen out of love? I don't remember, because like pain and grief, falling out of love is difficult to recall. But I think one day you realize, much after the fact, that things are different.

It happened that June of 2004. One Sunday afternoon, some guys from the newspaper invited me out for the day. We'd drive to Mezhdureshensk to meet some of their friends, then have the banya – the Russian sauna - and eat shashlik (meat on skewers) in a park by the river.
We went to the office of their friend Victor, who had lunch prepared for us. I soon realized that Victor was the type of person who expends most of his energy trying to impress everyone else with his wealth and power. After lunch, we picked up Victor's mistress - a tall and stunning blonde half his age - and then to a computer shop, where he bought her a printer. Then we were taken to the mayor's office so that Victor could give the mayor a birthday present. The large and lavishly appointed office was crowded with hangers-on, who were there to give the mayor expensive gifts also. It was an ugly display of pomposity and bootlicking. I looked at the gifts - a laptop computer, leather briefcase, imported champagne and scotch - and thought about the orphanages that I had visited in the area in the past few days, overcrowded dumping grounds for Russia's unwanted, where there were not enough blankets to go around, and infirmaries without even aspirin. The largess of the mayor's office sickened me.

I saw other signs. Putin was proposing to halt foreign adoptions and allow work only by charitable organizations registered with the government – an impossibility for a small charity like our Books for the World. On a more personal note, the excitement and energy had gone out of some friendships, and my original Russian colleague had inexplicably severed our communication. I began to feel as if I had overstayed my welcome.

I had seen almost nothing of Julia that visit, save for a brief meeting for coffee on my last day there. To her, and to my friends at the offices of the Kuznetsk Worker, I said "da svidanya," even though that literally means "until later" in Russian, and I knew that there would be no later. I knew that I would never ride that slow, clattering trolley across the Tom River; never again see the clouds of orange, black and white smoke billowing from the stacks of those steel mills; never stroll along Kirova Street in the evening; never again, never. It was really "goodbye" this time.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Russian Affair, Part 12

Back when he was fresh out of university, Yuri was assigned to teach school in a remote Siberian village. Marooned there that winter by heavy snow, he and a couple of other teachers whiled away their time studying a book about rock'n'roll and listening to music.

Today, Yuri is just as passionate about that music, spending what free time he has fiddling with his turntable and stereo equipment and enjoying his collection of LPs, some of which he bought here in Washington when he visited in 2001, others of which I mailed to him - albums by the Turtles, Beach Boys and Atomic Rooster.
Yuri is dean of foreign languages at a state university in Novokuznetsk. He teaches English literature, and his favorite author and the subject of his doctoral studies is the science fiction writer Ray Bradbury. He is, in a way, comically and typically academic. His speech is so influenced by British English that even when he's speaking his native language, Russians ask, "Is he Russian?"

He is as enthusiastic about art, good wine, whiskey and conversation as he is about music, and as ambivalent about politics as religion. As agreeable and laid-back as he is, Yuri has no tolerance for laziness or deceit.

I spent a couple of weeks sleeping on Yuri's couch in the early days of summer in 2004. I would commute back and forth across the river to the city on the street car, and for that short time lived almost the typical life of a Siberian city dweller. I bought food in the street markets and cooked dinner for Yuri, his wife and teenage daughter.

Since then, Yuri had divorced and remarried, to one of his former students, and now has another daughter, still and infant. Like their country, he and his former wife have started over. It has been rough, but life will be better, eventually. Hard times come like heavy rain, but always a few dry spots of hope remain in the corners.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Russian Affair, Part 11

(Misha and his mom, Novokuznetsk, 1998)

Some boys don't grow up. They go on making impulsive decisions and end up paying dearly for them. So it is with Misha.

He started out working for the police department in Novokuznetsk, and then became police reporter for the Kuznetsk Worker. He was a respected investigative reporter, but that wasn't enough. When a local television station offered him a job, he jumped at it. But a few years later, he found himself out of a job. Now he's working as a security guard and writing pieces on the side for an agricultural weekly.
Misha is no stranger to Washington, Pa. He came here for the summer of 1997 on an exchange program with our newspaper and fell in love with America. His first day here, he was taken to the Shop n' Save. Standing confused in front of the meat counter, with its hundreds of different cuts all shrink-wrapped, he asked, "Is this some kind of meat museum?"
He took a tour of the county jail and had lunch there. He said that he would be perfectly content to spend the rest of his life there in that jail.

Back in Novokuznetsk, his bedroom in his mother's apartment became a shrine to all things American. He wanted nothing more than to leave Russia for the U.S., and he did return for another extended summer visit. He made plans to emigrate. But Misha is a man torn between desire and obligation. His mother suffers from diabetes and other ailments, and there is really no one else to be there for her. And then there is Misha's foster son, the result of another impulsive decision.

The tone of his e-mails to friends here is miserable; he is in Purgatory, between duty and his yearning. Still, even though he's past 40, a boyish optimism peeks through. Someday, he thinks, everything will be better.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Russian Affair, Part 10

(Lera, left, and Lindsay in Moscow, May 1999)

I first met Lera 10 years ago, when she was 15 years old and interviewing for a chance to come here - to Washington, Pa. - on an exchange program. But I had seen her a couple of years earlier, while touring her school. It was hard to forget her - tall and such an uncommonly beautiful child with such a command of the English language at such a young age.

Lera was one of a dozen finalists for a program sponsored by the Observer-Reporter and the Kuznetsk Worker that would send two students from her city to ours for a couple of weeks, to live in American homes and attend school here, and to return and write about their experiences for the newspaper. In the interview, I asked her to tell me a little about her home life. It was April then, and snowing every day. She told me she had the most important chore in her household: to grow tomato seeds into plants. She said she had to be very careful to keep the seeds pots watered, but not too wet, and to make sure the plantings got sunlight but were not too close to the windows to freeze. She said that if she failed, her family would suffer dearly, so important to their survival was their summer garden.
Her parents were both medical doctors, who were, oddly enough, among the lowest-paid workers in Russia at the time. It makes no sense, but a worker in a fast-food restaurant could make twice the money as a surgeon.

Lera did come here, attended classes at McGuffey High School, went to the Homecoming Dance and a football game, experienced pizzas and malls. She was astounded at the deer that wandered in the yard of her hosts, the Logue family, my next-door neighbors. "Why aren't you shooting them and eating them?" she wondered.
When I took my neighbors Linda Logue and her daughter, Lindsay, to Russia in May 1999, we saw Lera in Moscow, where her parents had moved in search of better jobs. She gave me a copy of the New Testament in Russian, to sharpen my reading skills.

We never saw Lera again. Her e-mails to Lindsay stopped. Some friends in Novokuznetsk had heard that she was planning to immigrate to Israel.
She would be 25 years old now. I wonder about her; wonder if she was able to avoid being exploited or demoralized in the harsh environment that surrounded her; wonder if she is still the innocent, sincere and thoughtful person she was as a teenager.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Russian Affair, Part 9

"Starving artist" is a figurative term in this country. Artists struggle to make a living here, but they don't actually starve. In Russia 10 years ago, that description would have been more literal.

At a time when Russia's economy was in chaos, the crew at the morgue in the city of Novokuznetsk - about the same size as Pittsburgh - picked up, on average, 12 bodies a night, most of them victims of starvation or malnutrition. To be a painter or sculptor in Russia at the time meant pure dedication to art, because selling anything was out of the question. Few people had money enough to even visit the local art museum, let alone purchase paintings.

Alexander Popov (pictured) remembers when the mayor of Novokuznetsk pleaded with the arts community to paint large murals celebrating the city's 380th anniversary. The mayor grew angry when the artists, who agreed to work for free, asked for paint. "How were we supposed to buy all this paint? With what money?" Popov recounted as he filled cups with steaming tea in his 8th-floor studio in a high-rise on the outskirts of town. The building was occupied almost entirely by artists, "so that they can keep an eye on us," Popov joked. I think.

Complaints of artists in this city are so familiar. They feel unappreciated and marginalized in a society with vulgar tastes. But Popov, jovial and mischievous, has no time for whining. His canvases, thickly layered with slashes of primary colors, are youthful, exuberant and expressive. A hundred of them cover the walls to the tall ceiling in his studio.

I visited him again there two years later, when eight of us crammed in around a kitchen table meant for two for a whole night of feasting and drinking and joke-telling. On a hallway wall, we all signed our names in marker, adding them to the scores of other guests who had done the same.

I bought a couple of his paintings and gave them to my son and daughter, who are both painters themselves. I wish only that they could know the man who made them, know how difficult it has been for him to work in a place where artists have been pushed to the fringe.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Russian Affair, Part 8

Julia was a college student when this photo was taken and when she first met me and my colleagues from the Observer-Reporter on our visit to Novokuznetsk in 1998. She was a volunteer interpreter for our group, eager to brush up on her American English. So few of her teachers knew anything about the way Americans talked, she said, and she should know, because she had spent a year in Vermont as a high-school exchange student.

I felt a special bond with Julia - and still do - because of an odd coincidence: She and my daughter were born on the same day, actually just a few hours apart. Because in all of my trips to Russia I was never able to learn Russian well enough to conduct interviews on my own, I spent a lot of time with her and was a guest at her parents' table often.

Julia has always had a love for travel and has done much of it. Her Russian passport lists her nationality as Ukrainian, like her mother. Her father holds a Jewish passport, as hard as it is for us to comprehend that sort of discrimination and profiling.

After graduating, Julia took a job teaching at a business college in Novokuznetsk. Although she was grateful to have any work at all, she complained bitterly in e-mails to me over the years about the low and infrequent salary and the lack of motivation in her students. I think she very disappointed, too, that so many of her friends and classmates had moved on, away from the city to Moscow and abroad, leaving her - of all people - behind.

Eventually, Julia met Ralph, a German, and fell in love. (She is as fluent in German as she is in English.) They had a lengthy long-distance relationship and were married a couple of years ago. But Julia had to return to her job in Novokuznetsk to wait for approval to live in Germany legally, which finally occurred last summer. The separation of this only child from her parents hurt.

Here's a little of the last e-mail I received from Julia:
"We celebrated New Year with Ralph's friends in Berlin which was very nice too.
Shortly after midnight everyone went outside to make small fireworks, it lasted for about half and hour and then it was very quiet - in Russia you can't sleep for another week because Xmas comes after New Year and then comes Old New Year.
"Of course I miss my parents and friends but I can always pick up the phone and make a call. We can also watch Internet TV in Russian and Ralph has hundreds of CDs and DVDs with Russian music and films. And I can always speak Russian to him. Some of my classmates moved to Germany, so there are people around me who I can talk to. I can't say I feel myself at home but it's better than I expected."

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Comments and complaints

C: I wonder when educated people will stop adding an "ly" to the end of a word in order to show the world they are proficient in English grammar.
True, we know it should be "walk slowly" and only the uneducated would say "walk slow"!! But does that mean one can just randomly add an "ly" to impress the world? Your editorial today used "more importantly" !!! Wrong---what you wanted to tell us is "more important"!! Think about it---relive your grammar school grammar!!! (That's an interesting phrase! I like it!)
More important, it is not firstly, secondly, thirdly, etc. which has been used in your paper from time to time. It is first, second, third!!!
Oh, and I hope you never "feel badly" because that could only occur if the tips of your fingers had lost all sensation! And, then you would really "feel bad because you 'feel badly' "!!
I do like your paper and enjoy reading it on-line. - J.V.

A: Sorry, but our use of importantly was not wrong; it is rather an example of the evolution of our language. Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, 10th Edition, notes: "A number of commentators have objected to importantly as a sentence modifier and have recommended important instead. Actually both the adverb and the adjective are in reputable standard use in this function."

Our language is always changing, and although the use of such adjectives as first, second, third and important are now often used where adverbs once were, our use of more importantly and secondly may be old-fashioned but correct.

Today's gripe

Aw, criminy, here it starts. First Bill Clinton comes to town, takes over the place. Next it will be Chelsea, then Hillary, then Obama. They'll all probably be back several times before the primary.

Their minions will probably be pestering us to allow the candidates to troop up to our offices for interviews with our editorial board. I say, let 'em buy an ad!

Russian Affair, Part 7

How to get to Chemal: First, fly to the opposite side of Earth – Novosibirsk; then, get in a car and drive south all day, through Barnaul, Biysk, Gorno-Altaysk, following the Katun River toward the border with China. You reach the village of Chemal after the road turns to a rutted muddy track. It seems as far away as you can go without leaving the planet, an it is a place of astounding beauty and simplicity.
That is where I met Edvard and Nadejda Schmals, in April 1999. Then, and on another visit 13 months later, I spent several nights in their home and learned just a little about what life is like in rural Siberia.

Edvard and Nadejda live outside the village, along the dirt road that beyond their house gets narrower as it courses through the forest until it reaches the end of Russia. Across the road is a wide stream, a tributary of the Katun, that in the spring roars with the rush of snow melt. Along the boulder-strewn bank is a deep pool in which the couple bathe every day. Beside it, leaning against a tree is a heavy iron bar with which they use to break the ice in winter.
Every day, Edvard insists, regardless of the cold. It is the secret of their health, he says. He is a strong, broad-shouldered man with ruddy cheeks and hard, calloused hands. I went with Nadejda one day for a dip. I measured the temperature of the water at 42 degrees F. I could get into the water no farther than my knees, my bones ached so badly. She submerged, then shot up from the bottom, laughing hard at my timidity.

My hosts are the same age as my wife and I; their son and daughter are the same ages as ours. But oh, how different our lives are. Although they have electricity, their home has no running water. Well water is poured into buckets suspended above the sinks; push up on a plunger in the bottom of the bucket and water comes out. There is an outhouse beyond the extensive vegetable garden, and a banya, which Edvard fires up for weekly baths, and a cow barn.
A massive stove made of brick and rounded with stucco sits in the middle of the house and warms all the rooms. I can't imagine leaving that cozy warmth in winter, when it can reach 45 below zero, for a trip to the privy.
At that time, Russia's economy was in chaos, and there was no money in Chemal. Nadejda worked in the village museum and Edvard as a road supervisor - both government jobs - but neither had received pay for almost a year. They survived as did everyone - by bartering, and by taking firewood and wild mushrooms to Gorno-Altysk to sell on the street. Edvard owned a Jeep-like car, because of his work. Many others in the village got around on horseback or in carts pulled by horses or livestock. Life in Chemal was more like it was 100 years ago than the final moments of the 20th century.

But as hard as life was for them, it was simple, uncomplicated, pure. We have the clean water from the mountains, we grow our own vegetables, we milk our own cow and raise our own animals, Nadejda explained. This is why we are healthy, and it is why, when times are so difficult, that we are so happy, she told me.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Russian Affair, Part 6

Just shoved from the door of a bus and standing ankle-deep in slush on a strange street in St. Petersburg, I felt confused and afraid. I began walking toward the center of the city and passed an impromptu flea market. A boy ran up to me, waving a sheaf of mimeographed illustrations. I stopped and looked at them. They appeared to be of Kalashnikov machine guns, pistols and - possibly - grenade launchers. The boy pointed to a man standing in front of the open trunk of a Mercedes-Benz. I hurried on, wondering how this country had gotten so out of control.

Russia appeared to be going insane in 1994. The value of the ruble was tumbling dramatically, from one day to the next. Criminals and prostitutes seemed to operate freely and openly everywhere. I was alarmed, but I was also fascinated. Russia had gotten my attention, and soon I would be seduced.

Maybe it was the rhythm of their language; maybe it was the romantic severity of their weather; or maybe it was my roots in eastern Poland that caused me to fall in love with the Russian people. Sometimes I would find myself sitting around a table pushed up close to a warm stove, my ears still burning from the cold outside, sipping tea and listening to others talking in a tongue I could not understand, and I would be hurtled back in time and halfway around the world to the kitchen of my great-grandparents - my Babu and Jadgi - and I would feel I had come all the way back home.

In the morning in Novokuznetsk, the sidewalks flow with people headed to work. I liked to walk against the current and watch the parade of faces: some old, some gleeful, some tough, some drunk, some tired, each with its own story. The word Beauty conjures many images, the first of which for me is the oval of a woman's face, framed by the fur of her hat, her cheeks ever-so-slightly reddened by the cold. There may be no expression, but the eyes tell everything. I saw in so many of these eyes sadness and resignation, but also strength and perseverance.

I came to know many of the faces, and the stories behind them. I tell you about Edvard and Nadejda next.

("Olya," oil on cardboard, 1998, by Ivan Bacharev)

Friday, March 7, 2008

Whine, whine, whine

C: We don't read anything political in the Observer as it's so far left that it's become a bore. We get it, we know where you stand, we want the whole story, the truth, we want to be knowledgeable on everything - all sides, you owe it to us!

A: Is it really the truth you seek, or do you just want confirmation of your own prejudices?

Russian Affair, Part 5

Few people at our sister newspaper, the Kuznetsk Worker, spoke any English, so Boris, one of the editors, asked his brother, Lev, to interpret for us. Like so many Russians, Lev was younger than he looked. Life expectancy for men in Novokuznetsk, a city the size of Pittsburgh and with air quality as poor as Pittsburgh's 50 years ago, is 59 years. Lev was in his early 50s then, but looked 10 years older. Tall and still athletic, Lev's craggy, handsome face was almost permanently cracked in smile. Within him was a much younger, more mischievous man.

No one could tell us what Lev did for a living. He would only admit that he worked as a translator for the government. Tom and I liked to think that he was once a spy for the KGB, as unlikely as that seemed. But he did enjoy some uncommon privileges, like his collection of guns.

During our first visit and another in September 1997, we went on manly outings: bathing in the Russian banya, gathering mushrooms in the forest, eatings chunks of meat on skewers and drinking vodka around a campfire, and target shooting with Lev's Kalashnikov carbines. Through all of these activities, Lev behaved like a social director on a cruise ship. Hard to imagine, but inside him was a schoolgirl striving to create the perfect party.

Boris and Lev invited Tom and I to their apartment one day for dinner, prepared by their "sainted mother." In addition to the food and drink, Lev planned a full slate of activities, including singing and target shooting. We took turns sitting at the head of the table and firing with a pellet gun at a target on the wall on the other side of the room. "Be careful, Mother!" Lev shouted several times as the poor old woman was nearly wounded carrying platters to and from the kitchen. Later, he hung medals around our necks that he had made from string and cardboard, carefully painted.

Lev's childish nature was magnified by alcohol. Clearly, he had a problem, like most Russian men, sadly. It must have gotten worse, because even though I returned to Novokuznetsk four more times over the next seven years, I never saw Lev again. When asked, his friends told me he was working, or living in another city. Finally, someone responded with that Russian gesture - a flick of the fingers against the side of the neck - that indicated he had surrendered to the bottle.

Everyone who has knocked around this life for a while has known a Lev. We are richer for it.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Russian Affair, Part 4

Almost three years later, in November 1996, I found myself back in Russia under cover of snow. This time it was with Observer-Reporter publisher Tom Northrop on a mission to meet the staff of our sister newspaper in Siberia. Arriving in Novosibirsk before dawn, we met Rita, with whom I had corresponded for more than a year, waiting for us on the tarmac, bundled in a hooded coat, buffeted by the blizzard, marching in time to keep warm in the sub-zero temperature.

Eight hours later, our car reached Novokuznetsk. We ascended to Rita's 9th-floor apartment in an elevator the size of a phone booth. She unlocked and swung open a huge steel plate covering her door. There were thieves everywhere, she explained.

Rita and her husband, Vladimir, had moved out of their apartment so that Tom and I could live there for a couple of weeks. She would come every morning to fix our breakfast, she said, and at night to make our supper. We had been traveling for 40 hours. Tom took the bedroom, I the couch in the other room. I woke frequently, bothered by the sound of the water running ceaselessly in the toilet tank. I thought about getting up to fix it, but didn't. (I stayed in this apartment frequently over the years, and six years later, despite my fiddling, the toilet was still running.)
Rita had heard that Americans are hearty eaters and consume huge breakfasts. We sleepily sat down to a tiny kitchen table covered in platters of baked chicken, boiled potatoes, pickles, tomatoes, cheese, bread and fruit. "What to drink? Beer?" she asked.

We pleaded with her to just let us have a little coffee or tea and a piece of toast for breakfast and no more, but she refused. We were just being overly polite, she thought.

In Russia, the heat is turned on in everyone's apartment in October and is turned off in April, regardless of the weather. The hot water comes from a central heating plant somewhere across the city. When the lines break or are shut down for repair, there is no hot water. When the heat is turned on, it stays on, and when the apartment gets too hot, you open the windows. Opening our window, I could see the waves of heat-distorted air rising from the many open windows of apartment houses across the street and beyond.

At night, we would return to the apartment, often walking up the nine flights because the elevator was not working, after having been guests of honor at huge and lavish meals, comparable to Thanksgiving dinners, that simultaneously seemed to be vodka-drinking contests. Rita would be waiting for us, with yet another meal. "Please, don't murder us with all this food," we pleaded, but she ignored us. She seemed to survive on cigarettes and tiny cups of strong coffee, boiled in a copper pot atop the miniature stove. The only way to make her stop feeding us was to clean our plates and then protectively cover them with our forearms, and threaten to leave immediately and go back to America if we were forced to eat any more.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Comments and complaints

C: The silence regarding the John Pettit corruption, that broke 4 weeks ago, is deafening. Last I heard, he was in New Zealand fishing ( ya, right). Since then: nothing. Makes you wonder what kind of deals are being made behind closed doors. ex: "Plead guilty to malfeasance in office and we'll get you a suspended 6 month sentence". There may even be judges, police and politicians who hope he never returns to testify against them. Can't imagine someone as corrupt as him not keeping a "little black book". Just some thoughts in this world of ever-increasing ( it seems) criminal public "officials". - F.S.

A: You may not have heard anything, but if you had picked up the newspaper, you'd know that our former district attorney has returned from his golf trip to New Zealand and is at home in Washington, embroiled in divorce proceedings, which now involve his pension, and is the subject of a continuing grand jury investigation.
Because the grand jury probe is secret, we can only guess at what charges, if any, might come out of it. We here at the O-R prefer not to guess. We like to think we're in the news business, not the rumor and speculation business.

Russian Affair, Part 3

No one at the hotel outside St. Petersburg could tell me how or where to buy a bus ticket so I could get into the city. I followed footholes through a field of knee-deep snow to the bus stop and waited with a dozen expressionless pensioners, bundled against the cold and clutching tattered plastic shopping bags. "Bilets?" I asked some of them, but they just smiled faintly and shook their heads.

The electric bus arrived. I made my way to the front and tapped on the glass, but the driver, never even turning his head, raised his hand and pointed to a hand-lettered sign on the window: "NYET NYET NYET."

I moved toward the back of the bus and found a place to stand by a pole. At every stop, more old people with shopping bags crammed aboard. A few took tickets from their purses and stamped holes in them at the canceling devices below the iced, opaque windows. Paying for bus rides was on the honor system, most of the time. But not this time.

A short, broad-shouldered man in a carmel-colored leather jacket boarded the bus at one of the stops, nodded to the driver and began working his way down the aisle. "Bilets!" he demanded. From everyone's pocket or purse appeared a canceled ticket, which the plain-clothes transit policeman wearily scanned. Everyone knows the system – everyone but me. Then his eyes met mine. His jaw tightened.
"Bilet, pashalusta," he said to me after a few tense seconds. I shrugged, pointed to the driver, opened my wallet, shrugged again.
"Bilet! Bilet!" he repeated. No one on the bus was talking; they were all watching this little drama. Miraculously, a woman stepped beside me and offered to interpret.
"I don't know how to pay," I pleaded. The transit cop looked straight into my eyes without blinking. I'm sure that this was not always his job. Perhaps, before the fall of the communist government, he was a KGB officer, or perhaps the managers of a chemical plant, and now he was checking tickets on a dilapidated electric bus, just to make ends meet.
"In your country, how do you pay for the bus?" he asked. I told him we put coins in a machine at the front of the bus.
"Here, if you don't have a ticket, you must pay a fine of 2,000 rubles," the interpreter offered. At the time, that was a little more than one U.S. dollar. I glanced into my wallet and was embarrassed to realize that I had only a 50,000-ruble note.

The cop tilted his head to one side and looked deeply into my face. I could almost taste the resentment in the air. I couldn't imagine what would happen next. Then the woman interpreter grabbed my arm and pushed my up the aisle, away from my tormentor. "You must buy tickets from driver," she said.
"This is your stop," the woman whispered before pushing me down the steps and out the door of the bus and into the slush of the street.

The doors slammed shut and the bus moved away, leaving me in the wind and dim northern light, wondering where to go and what next to do.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Russian Affair, Part 2

I tagged along with a group of Washington & Jefferson College students and professors touring what once was the Soviet Union in January 1994. My first look at Russia came in the gray light of dawn, through the sooty window of a train rolling slowly through frosted brownfields. The car rocked, its silent cruising punctuated by the clack and screech of wheels on track. Gray, white and brown clouds spewed from smokestacks. My forehead pressed against the cold glass.
"Gloomy, yet dirty," one of the students sharing my view joked.

A little later, we entered the Metro station and descended deep into the earth on a long, quick escalator. At the bottom were three-foot-thick steel doors, meant to shelter a population huddled underground in the event of nuclear holocaust.
Those doors are symbols of the philosophical divide between East and West. In America, we stocked our own private fallout shelters; each house has its own water heater. In Russia, the fallout shelters are collective, and hot water is piped to your apartment from a central heating plant.

I did a good bit of exploring on my own that January, which nearly proved fatal. Intending to visit the Moscow bureau of the Associated Press, I called and asked for directions and took the Metro to the suggested stop. But walking from there, I realized I had to cross an eight-lane avenue. There were no crosswalks or traffic lights to be seen, and the traffic was heavy and fast. I waited for a break in the traffic for a few minutes, then made my move. I sprinted onto the pavement but realized halfway across that I had miscalculated the speed of oncoming cars. I was caught in the middle, with no median. This was at night, and I was wearing dark clothing. Vehicles, blinding me with their headlights, flashed by so close as to buffet me, their horns blaring.
At last, I dashed for the other side, then stood bent over, hands on knees, sweating, thighs aching and shaking from the rush of adrenaline.

Later, after my appointment at AP, I faced the same problem getting back to my hotel. There has to be a better way, I thought. This time, I entered the stream of pedestrians that flowed a few hundred yards past where I had crossed the furious avenue. I followed people down steps and into an underpass, well-lighted and lined with kiosks. Emerging on the other side of the avenue, I realized my earlier stupidity.

I often think about that moment of terror, and how easily I might have been killed. Every experience since then seems like a bonus.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Russian Affair, Part 1

Fire sirens sent shivers up my back. Every time I heard one whining from a distance, I thought: Is this it? Is this the end? Is this a call for firemen, or is it a warning to find a fallout shelter?

I would anxiously scan the horizon for mushroom clouds. Too young to know the difference between real and imagined danger, too old to be oblivious of the news and what grown-ups were talking about, I was convinced that it was only a matter of time - hours, days, months - before we were all incinerated by nuclear bombs.

Back then, just about everyone in our neighborhood was stocking shelves in their cellars with blankets and batteries and cans of food and water.
One night, my parents had friends over for drinks. My sister and I lay on our stomachs at the top of the stairs, secretly taking in the conversation.
"It's all a waste of time, this fallout-shelter business, I tell you," the man from across the street said. "We’re 15 miles from the target, and the Russians have H-bombs. We don't have a chance."

The Russians were our enemies, we were told. But I had my doubts. Oh, sure, some of them were. Just about the only photos we'd see of Russians were of grim-faced officials in fur hats watching hundred of missiles parading through Red Square. But there were millions and millions of people there, and they couldn't all be like that. My grandparents and great-grandparents came from that part of the world, and they're not the enemy, I thought. There's got to be people just like them over there – people just like us. Maybe there were kids just like me who were just as terrified of being nuked.

A few years later, even though both sides were stockpiling enough nuclear weapons to destroy Earth many times over, things calmed down a bit. The poet Evgeny Evtushenko was reading his poetry about beauty and memory and love. Khrushchev seemed more and more like someone's merry old grandpa than an evil titan. Some photos surfaced in magazines showing young Soviets who looked remarkably like us.

I began to feel my skepticism had been justified, that it was never right to fear and hate people just because your teachers and your parents and your government encouraged it.

I could not have imagined then that I would someday not just meet "the enemy" but know him and share his food and sleep on his couch; that I would know many of them - good, bad, kind, cruel, passionate, indifferent; that the courses of their lives and mine would become tangled and snarled.