Monday, February 19, 2018

More Autobiography

A couple more chapters of my autobiography. The earlier ones can be found here, here and here.

Childhood Friends

I met M in kindergarten when we were 4 years old. Our fathers went to enroll us in school together, on the same day. His and my parents were quite friendly in general, which always surprised me because they had so little in common.

M's mom and dad met each other when they were students at Moscow State University, the most prestigious institution of higher learning in the USSR. They were both biologists. His mom is the only person I've ever seen who earned a Gold Medal, the highest award given by the Soviet secondary school system. His dad is the only bearded man I remember from childhood.

Although M is a few months younger than I am, he always seemed more adult. He was not present for many of the crazier childhood adventures that I described in an earlier chapter. Most kids read the same books then, but he seemed to read them about a year earlier.

He had an amazing talent for drawing. By the age of 7 or 8 he got bored with realistic subjects and started to draw funny, fantastic animals, people with a larger than normal number of limbs, etc.

I draw by approximation: the first line is always bad, so I put a correcting line next to it, then a third, a fourth. I think that's normal.

Already in childhood M didn't need that. His first stroke was always right and elegant.

When we were still in kindergarten we used to walk together behind his apartment building and look for caterpillars. He knew all of their names and what sort of butterflies each kind would make. When we found them we put them in match boxes to be later transferred to glass bottles together with leaves for them to eat. Over the ensuing weeks and months M observed the cocooning process in his apartment.

When we were 10 M's grandfather, whom I remember quite well, passed away. My parents told me that since their family was mourning I should stop calling M every damn day. These phone calls usually consisted of me saying "wanna go out and play?" and him saying "sure." AmazingIy, I still remember his old phone number.

My parents forgot to tell me when it was OK to resume calling M, and for some reason I never asked.

There was a deeper cause of us growing apart though: social anxiety. I already knew enough to feel ashamed of my and my parents's manners, of our boring ordinariness compared to M.

We were friendly up until I left Russia a couple of weeks before my 17th birthday. Actually I can't imagine M ever being unfriendly with anyone - he seemed well above such trifles as human conflict. But after the age of 10 we were never again best friends.

The last time I heard of him he had gotten a Ph.D. in biology and was a cancer researcher in the West. He did exactly what he had to do, fulfilling his enormous potential in a precise and beneficial way. I'm quite amazed by that.


B came to our school in second grade, but we became best friends a couple of years later. He was one of only two kids in our class who didn't live in a two-parent household. His father died and his mom decamped somewhere, so he lived with his grandma instead. Even though we were close for years, I never talked to him about any of that. First, I'm nerdy, and nerds are bored by the personal. Second, I guess I didn't want to remind him of anything negative.

B was interested in astronomy. He made telescopes from cardboard and his grandma's old glasses. I've looked through them, and they really worked. He subscribed to academic astronomy journals and could talk about that topic at length.

Our biggest common interest was photography though. I had two cameras: a modern one (for those days), bought by my parents for one of my birthdays and a beautiful Zenit made in 1956 which was given to me by my uncle.

We started by reading a detailed manual written in the 1950s, thinking through every step many times, preparing for them meticulously. We developed film in the bathroom of my apartment, after blocking the space under the door with towels. I still remember the smell of the chemicals - you never forget smells. My parents bought me an enlarger, the biggest piece of equipment you needed for all of this. We made prints in my room, with a special red lamp as the only illumination. This lamp burned out one day, causing me to experience my first electrical shock when I tried to change the bulb in the resulting darkness.

Shutter speed, aperture, film sensitivity, filters: memories, memories. At some point we realized that we could unscrew the Zenit's lens kit and put a special tube behind it, lengthening the distance to film. This allowed the camera to focus on closer objects. We made detailed photographic studies of toy soldiers, our irises, and then of dead flies' eyes.

When a 22-storey building, our neighborhood's tallest, was finished, of course we had to  try to take pictures from the top. The middle-aged man we met in the elevator was suspicious. "What are you doing here, boys? Do you live here?" He escorted us out. We waited outside for half an hour before going back in. The hallway on the top floor led to a balcony. This was the day when I learned that B was much braver than I was - while taking pictures from every possible angle he leaned out over the balcony's rail further and with a more casual air.

The game of badminton was very popular in Russia then. The main problem with it was the wind. There was a school in our neighborhood which was shaped like the letter H. Two areas were protected from the wind on three sides. This is where B and I usually played. We ran around with our rackets until complete exhaustion, then sat on the steps leading to one of the school's back entrances, talking about school, our futures, anything that came to mind.

As an adult I love debating politics online. Well, my first arguments of approximately this kind were with B. As perestroika was gradually destroying civilization in our part of the world, reason suffered many reverses. Faith healers and astrologers appeared on TV, as well as guys who charged bottles of water with "positive energy" by looking at them intently. None of that existed before Gorbachev.

I was a mindless liberal in my youth, but for some reason I took the rationalist position on this topic. B, in spite of his interest in astronomy, always said that I shouldn't be so dogmatic, that there might be a grain of truth in some of these claims, etc.

The events one remembers best often seem random. I have a very vivid picture of a part of one of our trips to a photo chemicals shop. We had just gotten off a bus and started a longish walk. It's fall and the neighborhood, little-known to me, looks cozy in the specific 1970s-built Soviet way. It must be the beginning of the autumn break. The stress of school is behind me and I finally feel relaxed - with my best friend, pursuing an interest we both love. It's quiet all around us, and when we start to talk, it's quietly.


S. appeared in our class in 6th or 7th grade. A few days later he showed us an issue of a literary magazine which he wrote entirely by himself, by hand. It had funny illustrations, also done by him. Even taking into account the less consumerist, more do-it-yourself spirit of the time, it seemed unusual.

Very quickly he became the informal leader of the male portion of our class. He was brilliant, but not nerdy. His attitude to everyone was like that of an amused parent to a bunch of mischief-making but lovable kids.

He used to come to school in army boots made from a material called kirza. This was probably the coolest-looking piece of military garb of that time from anywhere in the world. His father, whom we never saw, was an army officer.

S also often wore a kind of rough jacket called a telogreyka (bodywarmer). An alternative name for that garment has the same meaning in modern Russian as the word "redneck" in English. This wasn't true then yet, but it was funny to see that thing on someone as smart as S. Which was of course the point. He used to top this off by donning a fur ear-flap hat asymmetrically and talking in a hick accent, which I think he mostly invented as he went.

Almost everything I remember S saying was funny, yet he was the most serious person I knew then. Outside of school most of us read sci-fi and adventure stories. He read classical Russian literature instead. I remember telling him that my favorite historical period was the European Middle Ages, which is still true. You know, knights, castles. S looked at me like I had just come from space. Of course HIS favorite sort of history was Russian.

He wrote up his impressions of every book he read in a special journal. Why did it take me almost 20 years after I learned this to start doing something like that myself?

His summer vacations were not like those of the others. One year he signed up for a 150-km trek across the Caucasus. Another time he went on an archeological dig.

S was the most verbally inventive person I've known in real life. Funny nicknames for teachers, hilarious terminology for various aspects of our games, pithy summaries of the main events of the day - all of that seemed to come out of him effortlessly. Any acerbity that accompanied this was obviously a put-on for fun's sake. There was no anger in him.

Whenever I think of S now I feel guilty for not having been brave, good and kind, for often forgetting that those should even be my goals. When people talk about their mentors I want to barf, yet more than 25 years ago I seriously looked up to a real-life person as a moral example.

It's hard to escape superlatives when writing an autobiography. Life is filled with the ordinary. That's boring to talk about, so instead you end up describing the people and things that impressed you the most. And while doing that you run the danger of appearing easily-excited.

I have a weird view of Russia and the USSR for someone of my background. I can think of many theories about its origins: instinctive contrariness, geeky literal-mindedness offended by certain bits of hypocrisy, geeky detachment from social and political norms, etc. I don't really know the reason, but one of the theories that seem plausible to me is that at my most impressionable age I subconsciously absorbed from S a feeling that rooting for Russia is cool.

Does that mean that if he was passionate about sports I would now be a hockey fan? No, someone like S could have never loved anything so trivial.

Everyone, including our teachers, was sure that S would accomplish great things. Unfortunately that didn't happen. Unlike many, maybe most, certifiable geniuses of that time and place, he stayed in Russia. That's not surprising because he was always intensely patriotic. And of course he was never going to cheat anyone in business or lie to anyone about politics.

I don't want to end this chapter on a negative note.

The only party of my youth that approached the "you gotta fight for your right to party" sense of that word by less than a couple of light years was held at the apartment of our German language teacher. She had a cool son of our age, who was an unofficial member of our class, of our little "gang".

I traveled there with S. Of course he never sat down in public transport - that would have been ungentlemanly with women around. And of course there was no drinking or drugs (what's that?) at the party. The closest thing to that was a cigarette tucked behind S's ear all through the trip, which he hid away before we rang the buzzer.

But it was fun. There were about 20 people there. Music, party games, lots of shouting and laughter. Not a bad way to remember that time.

First Love

Sometime around 6th or 7th grade, when we were all 13 or 14, a girl named N appeared in our class. She had a face similar to that of the young Angela Lansbury, but prettier. Whenever I see old Go-Go's videos, Belinda Carlisle makes me think of her as well. There was a great sense of healthy fun about her.

It wasn't love from first sight, because I would have definitely remembered such a moment. After a while it turned out that I couldn't stop looking at her during classes.

I can see her face with amazing clarity to this day. But the way she made me feel then is like a museum exhibit under glass, something I can only marvel at from outside. I'll never have such strong emotions about anything again. Where would I find the energy?

I tried to help her any way I could - with homework, spare pens and erasers, info about upcoming tests, etc. It was only many years later that I learned that women hate helpful subservience.

We were sometimes shown educational films in school. One of those made a particular impression on me. It was about the greatness of the Universe, the billions of galaxies, the enormousness of space. The narration was accompanied by stunning organ music - either Bach's Toccata and Fugue or something similar.

When the movie ended and the lights came back on, I searched for her face, and saw a completely different, but even more moving kind of beauty.

Until I left school and for quite a few years afterwards N was the center of my world in a way that would seem pathetic to most, but which I cherish regardless.

In the end nothing happened of course. It was an innocent world, plus we were good kids, plus I'm an awful wimp.

People sometimes talk about what they'd do on a desert island, what books or records they'd bring there, etc. This will always remain a silly and contrived hypothetical, yet we will all have to die one day. What will you think about when the time comes? I doubt I'll recall any of the physical relationships I've had with women later or, God forbid, anything that ever happened to me at work. Instead I will think back on what I wrote about in this chapter. It is the best memory.

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