No Problem?

“… Now happy as I was to hear that it was ‘no problem’ for these young people to have done what they did, the fact remains that the transactions that brought us together in those two instances were, in fact, commercial transactions, in which one party offered a good or a service in exchange for pay from the other party. Thus, as far as I have always understood, the notion of a problem doesn’t enter into it.”

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no problemAn erstwhile reader of my column has just advised me about a piece he just read in the Wall Street Journal about the use of the phrase “No problem” in place of “Thank you.” This man remembered that I had written about this same custom myself few years back, and so I had, as I saw when I went hunting for it on the web. “No problem,” one young waitress had told me back then when I thanked her for bringing my order. “No problem,”’ the young barista had said after I thanked him for my decaf latte.

Now happy as I was to hear that it was ‘no problem’ for these young people to have done what they did, the fact remains that the transactions that brought us together in those two instances were, in fact, commercial transactions, in which one party offered a good or a service in exchange for pay from the other party. Thus, as far as I have always understood, the notion of a problem doesn’t enter into it.

Consider, by contrast, another part of our common life, that of the daily commute. It’s darn hard to spend two or more hours on the road to get back and forth to your job week in and week out. It’s hard to have to stand out in the elements in wet or cold or sizzling-hot weather waiting for the bus that will get you there and back again. Ask any random group of adults what time they have to GET UP in the morning in order to get themselves and their family members fed and dressed and out the door to work or school and what you learn will back up the statistics: Americans are among the hardest working people on the planet. And yet you rarely hear them using the word ‘problem’ about what it takes for them to get to their jobs, so I have to ask: what’s with this ‘no problem’ phrase that has become the norm among so many younger people? 

I don’t mean to be grouchy here. It’s just that ‘No problem’ is the wrong response to ‘Thank you’ and don’t we all know that? Don’t we all remember the right response, the one we were all taught as kids? The right response to ‘Thank you’ is ‘You’re welcome.’ In Italy and Spain they say, ‘It’s nothing’ in response to a ‘Thank you.’ In Germany they use the word for, ‘Please,’ which, handily enough, also means ‘Thank you’, ‘Care to have a seat?’ ‘After you,’ and a host of other things as well.

In English we sometimes say, ‘Don’t mention it’ when someone says ‘Thank you,’ which, come to think of it, feels a lot like ‘It’s nothing.’ So too, the German word ‘Bitte’ serves to say “You’re welcome,” as well as standing in for  ‘Please’, Thank you’, ‘Care to have a seat?’ and ‘After you.’

‘You’re welcome’ means ‘You are welcome to my help’, or, in these instances, ‘I am happy to be the one providing you with your coffee/ dinner. No matter if the person is not all THAT happy; we say ‘Thank you,’ ‘Please’ and ‘You’re welcome’ because it is courteous to do so; because it oils the social machinery.

But enough beefing from me on a lovely October morning. Let me save my complaints for the next weekday morning when some postal clerk, who knows at a glance that I can name the entire cast of the Howdy Doody Show, tries calling me ‘Young lady’! 

Posted in Uncategorized

Oh It’s Cryin’ Time Again They’re Gonna Squeeze You

You’re almost done at your doctor’s office door when they drop it on you: “And of course you’ll have the yearly mammogram before the end of the month?” chirped my primary care person last April, with the same merry tone as when she orders up the dread colonoscopy.

Oh, I’d  go get the darn mammogram, of course I would – and I know I am lucky to be someone who can show up and fulfill this yearly obligation. Still, we all vividly remember what it’s like, don’t we ladies? The way the tech lifts and nudges those poor delicate tissues onto that cold glass plate? The mechanical squeeeeeze as she brings the second plate down upon them? The way she then tightens that diabolical vise to ‘hammer’ them flat as a couple of veal cutlets?  It’s a never-changing ritual, only this time as I held my breath the way they make you do, the room started to wobble in my sight, causing me to begin my internal mantra of old,  “I will not faint, I will not faint…”

I didn’t faint  but this was the first time in many, many years that I had come so come close. It would be a real bummer if I had, since fainting right in the doctor’s office means forever after they will label you as a ‘faller’ and snap a plastic bracelet on you advertising the fact to everyone in the place. This is the worst. If you have to faint you want to do so anonymously.

In my childhood and teen years I got to do a lot of anonymous fainting: I fainted all the time in church, first going fish-belly white and then melting down in the pew until large male hands heaved me up by the armpits and hustled me up the aisle toward the back of the church, limp feet dragging behind me. I fainted when a doctor unfamiliar with wart removal burned two cigarette holes in my right arm, scars I bear to this day.

I fainted once in the Men’s Department of a fancy store and woke just in time to hear the manager say, “just drag her behind the counter” because you can’t have a lot of passed-out people standing in the way of commerce.

But looking back now I see that the most embarrassing lapse into near-unconsciousness occurred at my own wedding, up on the altar. Cocooned as I was in a complex wedding veil and a peau de soie gown with full-length sleeves that came to a point at the base of the finger bones, I felt my young self mist over with a sudden wash of fine perspiration. Ah, I can see it all before me even now: Here was the priest intoning away. Here were the wedding guests, a sea of blurry balloon faces out their in the congregation. My bridesmaids were there too but I was unaware of them in this moment of need.  The only help I could look to at all came in the person of my similarly young, similarly perspiring groom. We were each facing the priest and not each other so I had to whisper my SOS to him out of the side of my mouth, like a gangster.

“I’m going to faint! I hissed, my eyes on the priest and my face frozen into a death mask of a smile as we stood there holding hands as instructed.

Fake smiling himself, he hissed right back. “You can’t faint!” he said and punched the side of my leg, pretty hard too, under cover of all that silk.

It worked. I didn’t faint, we were officially joined in marriage seven minutes later and have remained joined, basically thigh to thigh, every day ever since.

All of which leads me to wonder if I shouldn’t bring HIM to my next mammogram to help keep me awake and upright. Though as I think about I’m guessing that even one quick look at this whole Inquisition-style process would have out cold and flat on the floor before the tech had time to even duck back behind her screen to start taking pictures.

mammogram

How It’s Done (not me however)

You Hate Us, We Get That.

We Baby Boomers have become one of society’s favorite piñatas, that much is obvious but why? Is it because we’ve always acted like our music was the best music? Is it because many of us still have all those heavy dark furniture ‘sets’ from the 70s and the kids are jealous haha?

Really I think it’s because we rode such a long wave of prosperity when we were young. We acted like it was just normal when, as soon as our school days were behind us, lots of us said say sayonara to the folks and set ourselves up in funky little walk-ups with candles stuck in empty rosé bottles and wooden-bead curtains to separate our sitting area from the so-called kitchen. In the apartment my cousin and I sublet the year I was 20 the fridge we inherited with the lease was found to have, in the 4-inch thick ice cave of its freezer, many jagged shards of a broken whiskey bottle and a lone human hair. Even so, it was all ours and what joy it was to do your underage drinking in a place where nobody ever yelled you to cut out the foolishness and go do your homework. Those were the days all right.

So if you guys coming along behind us envy that far more affordable life we had, well, I get that. I get why you’re sore, but I have to ask myself: Why do you have to go after our CLOTHES? A person can’t turn around these days without seeing list after list of Fashion Don’ts for us Ike-and-overs. (And, of course 90% of these lists are directed toward us women, since a man in this age group can go out looking like one of the Walking Dead and nobody thinks a thing about it.

It stings, kind of, in no small part because half the things on the list are things most of us ladies are still wearing.

I speak of sleeveless or cap-sleeved shirts. These we’re not supposed to wear because people will recoil in horror and be turned to stone by the sight of our upper arms.

Also, a pair of shoes with a matching bag is now a major no-no. But didn’t we used to pay people to have the bag and shoes dyed to match the dress?

And how about the fact that we’re told never, ever to wear a fleece outside the house? Instead, the list makers say, we should wrap ourselves in “cool, slouchy cardigans,” presumably over large loose ‘boyfriend shirts’ and never mind that this get-up is exactly what I wore in 8th grade while pacing the floor and trying to memorize The Quality of Mercy is Not Strained for Mrs. Meehan in Fourth Period.

To top it off there’s this most galling prohibition that makes it to every bossy list I have seen this season: We women over 55 aren’t supposed to ever, no matter what, wear “neutral” pantyhose, which I first thought meant the really pale kind that make your two legs like a pair of uncooked sausages, because surely they can’t mean those nicely tinted ‘Suntan’-hued L’Eggs that I have favored for the past 40 years?

Alas, they can and they do. Instead of wearing any type of translucent pantyhose we’re meant instead to pull on black or solid colored TIGHTS. Tights, like a babies wear over their diapers! Tights, like court jesters wear under their bloomers and inside their curly-toed shoes!  So now – what? – am I expected now to wear tights with a cocktail dress?

Oh no, they say, heavens no, certainly not. In these cases we are invited instead to – get this – go barelegged, which to me is truly insane since what if it’s freezing out? Or what if we have long walks or waits at a bus stop in our daily working life? And how, in the name of all that is holy, does it make sense for us ‘elders,’ who are asked to hide sight of our upper arms to then inflict on the world the veiny fireworks going off ON OUR LEGS?

I’m on to these youngsters though. I know they’re trying to make us all crazy so they can lock us up, or put us by our millions out on a giant ice floe off the coast of Antarctica. I know they’re just dying to take a big old bat to the piñata that is us.

Well, let ’em, I say. For revenge, we’ll die and leave them all our dark old room sets with the faux-carved wood – like this one I just found on the internet – and see how they like that haha!

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Dodging the Falling Anvil

falling anvil

Many Floridians feel that they dodged that old falling anvil in the wake of Hurricane Irma, and I know the sense of relief of my own family members in that area is immense.  Anyone lucky enough not to be flattened by the falling anvil,

or the falling safe,

falling safe.jpg

or the falling piano…

falling piano

…is bound to feel relief, though sometimes there is guilt too, or at least a heightened compassion for the folks who were not so lucky.

I’m thinking of the people of Cuba, of St. Martin/St. Maarten and Barbuda and Antigua. I’m thinking of the people of St. Thomas and St. John – any of these places where things are very bad indeed right now, with no power and scant food and structures that look as though a gaggle of elementary school kids just walked away from a giant game of Pick-up-Sticks. The New York Times described things most vividly in their lead story yesterday: “The wind whipped the tops of palm trees around like pompoms in the hands of a cheerleader,” it said in part. “The flooding in Key Largo had small boats bobbing in the streets next to furniture and refrigerators like rubber toys in a bathtub. Shingles were kidnapped from roofs; swimming pools dissolved into the ocean….”

Here’s a picture I took a couple of winters ago when, due to promised financial inducements, we got talked into staying at the Ritz Carlton in St. Thomas, a hotel the likes of which I have not been a guest at before or since. (I posted about it back then if you’d care to take the detour.) Until last week, this was their pool. That’s the ocean in the background of course, but the whole foreground is pool. I had never seen a swimming pool this lovely where, on the ocean side, the water brimmed up clear to the rim, as on a spillway, and did in fact trickle gently over.

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I don’t know what this pool looks like now. I only know the hotel’s website advises the world that the hotel is closed until further notice.

I can only think that the vast cleanup effort to get back to where folks were before the storm must be keeping them in that unhealthy-over-time state where the stress hormone cortisol just keeps pumping and pumping.

I felt stress myself this past summer, though in a very minor key by comparison. Back in the first part of the summer while we were on a ship in Russia for two weeks, our hot water heater died, peed all over the cellar floor and left us, on our return, with a waist-high pile of travel clothes in such a state of UNcleanliness that it was practically steaming, like grass clippings in a compost pile. Lucky for us in the modern world of detergents, you can also wash in cold water.

Then, some weeks later, we came home one day to find that the handle-slash-control panel of our dishwasher broken. Just broken and hanging off, so that for 15 days we were washing glasses, china and cutlery by hand until the repair guys could get the part shipped here from Louisville and they could come install it. That finally happened yesterday.

The point is, we lived. We were fine.

The real falling anvil that we dodged, we dodged at the end of August when, in their regularly scheduled walkabout, our local utility discovered a major leak in the gas going into our house.

As it happened, we were away that day too, but a close, near-family member had offered to look after things for us.  When he walked up our street from the train station after work, he was greeted by the sight of a big white truck, a team of workers busily moving about our property and a trench two feet deep and three feet wide running in a wide gash from the far side of our street, over our lawn and clear over to the house’s foundation.

“Are you the homeowner?” they asked our kind caretaking friend.

“No, but I can call them.”

He did that and ten seconds later I was on the phone with the job’s boss.

“The pipe from the street is very, very old and very narrow!” he said with what seemed like genuine surprise.  It’s leaking,” he said, “and we need to stay right here and fix it. Will that be all right?

“More than all right!” I yelped, “and thank you SO much! I’ve been smelling gas outside my house since 2008! I called then and when you guys came you said it was just minor.”

“It probably was back then, but it isn’t minor now,” he said. “Can we get inside and fix it? Will somebody be here?”

Our friend agreed to stay, though he was just home from work and mighty hungry. He stayed until they were done some three hours later, a little bit after 8pm.

So our house did not blow up which is what happens with a gas leak and we felt relief. My Florida-based sister and her husband did not see their home on the bayou destroyed, either by the winds or by that predicted  storm surge. Their kids’ home was fine too, as they learned yesterday from the place where they sheltered after their mandatory evacuation last week. Miraculously, they none of them even lost power and maybe all that was because of prudent building, and strict codes, and careful planning.

But prudent foresight will only take you so far in this world. At the height of Irma’s fury on Sunday, when the winds were so strong they sucked the water right out of the Tampa Bay, that city’s mayor Bob Buckhorn said it best:  “Everybody’s got a plan ’til they get punched in the face.” He was quoting Mike Tyson.

Look more closely now at the sign in that cartoon of the falling safe here at the top. It does  “Warning,” yes, but it also says “This is a Safe Area.” As IF there could be such place on this old earth!

10 Tips at the School Year’s Start

schoolroomI guess we’re ALL back to school now, so how about this: How about we pretend I’m the teacher seated on one of those pint-size elementary school chairs and you guys are on the floor in front of me. Pretend we’re sitting in a sunny classroom where dust motes from the chalk lazily circle. Pretend everyone’s tummy is nicely full and we’re thus all feeling peaceful enough to take in some words of advice.

In that hope, I offer the following:

One, sit up front, whether your classroom is a literal or a figurative one, and let yourself be known, by both your teachers and your fellow students.

Two, if the teacher writes something on the board and you’re at an age where note-taking is the norm, then copy when s/he has said in your own notebook, even if it’s just a few word. If your teachers are going to the trouble of setting down something large and neat enough to be read from 30 feet away, then you should go to a little trouble too.

Three, make sure you actually LOOK AT this notebook after class. Even just glancing at what your teachers said and what you heard and copied down will help you begin knitting things together in your mind. I know someone who, for the Con-Law class she took in college, copied out all 27 Amendments to the Constitution and taped them at eye level around her dorm room, then read them twice a day as she brushed and brushed her waist-length hair. Does that sound old-fashioned? Maybe, but who can sniff at the reward of  a Magna Cum Laude served up with a side of Phi Beta Kappa? I can tell you the effort felt worth it to her!

Four, don’t wait ‘til the last minute to write that term paper, composition or Compare-and-Contrast paragraph. Doing so will cause you to become unduly fond of what you have finally managed to get down on paper, just because it IS down on paper, and falling in love with your first draft is like growing fond of your shortcomings. If we are very lucky in life, the people who love us will grow fond even of our shortcomings over time, but that’s for them to do, not us.  Waiting until the last minute will also cause you to panic and freeze as the deadline approaches, leading you to decide not to complete the assignment at all and take the F.

Five, never give up and take F. Making the effort in life counts way more than you can imagine at this stage of things.

Six, stay strong, as the saying goes. Remember who you are. Be mindful of the dignity of your family and of their struggles, and the dreams that have been dreamed for you.

Seven, about ganging up on others, even “in fun”: Do not participate in such behaviors, ever.

Eight, Don’t engage in gossip, or listen to gossip. Ugly speculation about others harms everyone. It withers the soul.

Nine, since sexual gossip is even worse, there is corollary: Do not speculate about what other people may or may have done or be doing in the sexual realm. If there was ever a topic that was none of your business this is it.

And finally, Ten, never laugh when someone asks a question.  We’re here to ask questions, the little questions and especially the big ones. So ask away and think hard with your well-rested post-summer minds. Then come back and teach the rest of us what you’ve learned.

 

A Last Word

wounded in leningradThis picture illustrates in a woefully small way what the people of Russia went through in the last century, one such horror being this Great Patriotic War – World War II to us – that cost some 20 million of them their lives.

The once beautiful city of St. Petersburg became Leningrad after Czar Nicholas II was overthrown in 1917 and it was renamed. Then, just 25 years after that, this ‘Leningrad’ became…. a graveyard: Hitler’s Nazi troops laid siege to the city in early September of 1941 and held it by the throat until the end of January in 1944.

For those 900 days, it was surrounded. Supplies of coal and oil were cut off. Then, because the siege began in the autumn, the cold weather began bearing down, bringing nights below freezing as early as in October.

As winter set in for real, and with no heat source, the pipes all froze.

There was almost no food. Potable water was scarce.

And then there were the daily shellings.

Amongst The Rubble

According to an account by someone who lived through this unimaginable time in Leningrad, the unlucky souls who collapsed in the streets in the morning were just a few more snow-covered mounds by night. Even after the ground thawed enough to allow for burial, the dead were interred without coffins, their families standing by hollow-eyed and in silence. One witness to this history reports that “on the whole men collapsed more easily than women, and at first the death-rate was highest among men.” Was that because women have more adipose tissue you wonder? He goes on: “However, the women felt the after-effects more seriously than the men. They stopped menstruating and many died in the spring, when the worst was already over.”

People no longer smiled, it was reported. The city’s four-legged creatures began to disappear, killed and eaten, even the rats. By some silent accord it was agreed that one would not speak of ‘real’ food. In the end, by the time the siege was lifted ,fully a million of the city’s residents had died.

It is hard for us Americans to even imagine this kind of suffering. I have learned from reading my own family’s diaries and letters that during that 900-day period here in the States my mother was pursuing her life as a hale and energetic woman running the family business, ordering all the food, hiring and managing staff and maintaining its 120-acre grounds. Her 70-something father was, for his part, still happily working as an attorney and a district court judge and keeping a journal in which he marked the comings and goings of the birds he looked for on his long strolling walks.

It’s true that there was some privation stateside: gasoline was rationed, as were shoes. Butter also ‘went to war’ so folks had to make do with oleo.

But as far as I have been able to learn, people didn’t go hungry ,and women didn’t stopped menstruating because their bodies had shut down all functions not necessary for survival. In fact mother and my aunt were living so far from survival mode that they were still delivering babies well into their 40s.

Here is my mom now, pregnant with her first child a few months after Victory over Japan Day in August of 1945. (VE, or Victory in Europe day had of course occurred the previous April.)  The only thing World War II did to her was to deliver to her doorstep the blue-eyed coast Guard officer who would one day become my father.

mom 6 mos pregnant

I’ve been home from Russia for more than two months now but I still can’t entirely process what I’ve learned about its history. There was this war, and then there was rule of Stalin who with his purges and the famines his decrees caused brought about  the deaths of another 20 million people – and 20 is the conservative estimate. Then there were the grim years under Khrushchev, and Andropov, Brezhnev and  Chernenko. Then came Gorbachev in the 80s with his talk of Perestroika and Glasnost but all that ended with his resignation when first Yeltsin and finally Putin took up the reins of authority.

Now, those Russians who remember the Soviet era look back in a kind of sad wonderment at all that has changed in their country and in their lives.

“The Soviet regime?” recalled one in Secondhand Time, The Last of The Soviets, by Svetlana Alexievich, the 2015 winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature. “It wasn’t ideal, but it was better than what we have today. Worthier. Overall, I was satisfied with socialism: No one was excessively rich or poor; there were no bums or abandoned children. Bela Shayevich who was Secondhand Time ‘s English translator, called the book a kind of update of 19th-century Russian literature for the 21st century. “People read Russian novels not for the happy endings because there is great catharsis in great pain and then something that is sublime.” I get that.

But then what happened? The abandonment. The Save Your Own Life phase of Russian living that arrived almost overnight. It had a devastating effect on the people:

“Imagine working that hard, your whole life, only to end up with nothing. All of it took the ground out from underneath people, their world was shattered; they still haven’t recovered, they couldn’t assimilate into the drastically new reality. When they started selling salami at the privately owned stores, all of us ran over to ogle it. And that was when we saw the prices! This was how capitalism came into our lives… Wild, inexplicable avarice took hold of everyone. The smell of money filled the air. Big money. And absolute freedom—no Party, no government. Everyone wanted to make some dough, and those who didn’t know how envied those who did.”

“I get indignant whenever people start talking about Marxism with disdain and a knowing smirk,” says another. “It’s a great teaching, and it will outlive all persecution, and our Soviet misfortune, too. It wasn’t just about labor camps, and informants, and the Iron Curtain, it’s a bright, just world, where everything is shared, the weak are pitied, and compassion rules. Instead of grabbing everything you can, you feel for others. ”

I find this last the most touching part of all: the feeling we all have about what our country could be. I think of a section from Reg Saner’s short poem “Green Feathers” which expresses our universal longing:

In the early air we keep trying to catch sight of something lost up ahead,

A moment when the light seems to have seen us exactly as we wish we were.

Like a heap of green feathers poised on the rim of a cliff?

Like a sure thing that hasn’t quite happened?

Like a marvelous idea that won’t work?

Routinely amazing –

How moist tufts, half mud, keep supposing almost nothing is hopeless.

How the bluest potato grew eyes on faith the light would be there.

And it was.

We all still look for that light and we pray, like the small and buried potato, that it will one day reveal itself to our sight.

Even More to Learn

lenin for sale

Soon I’ll go back to reporting on the kind of personal, certainly more trivial, thoughts I have been posting on this site for the last ten years – although even on the subject of Russia I seem capable of great foolishness: I found in my notes just now the observation that on sampling a thimbleful of homemade hooch at a Russian couple’s home, I felt my eyebrows instantly pluck themselves. But how can I end this series without offering one last glimpse of what I saw and learned in my brief stay in this vast country, only the small northwest portion of which I actually visited?

The answer is, I can’t.

One thing I have learned with all the reading I have done about the place, both during my two weeks in the country and during the two months since my return, is how sharply its citizens feel their loss of status since the time when Gorbachev, in their minds, simply ‘caved’, as they see it, ‘giving away’ much of their nuclear might along with their standing in the world. A further shame-inducing is the fact that this country, so vast, so rich in natural resources, today stands in only 12th place for GNP according to the International Monetary Fund’s annual tally. That’s after the US, the EU, China, Japan, Germany, the UK, France, India, Italy, Brazil, Canada and South Korea.

A woman interviewed by author Svetlana Alexievich in 2011 about the brief moment of hope after the Soviet Union was first dissolved put it this way. At first, she said, “everyone had very high hopes for the future. I remember the conversations we had in the staff room: ‘Socialism is ending – what’s next?’ ‘Bad socialism is over, now we’re going to have a good socialism.’ We waited… Pored over the newspapers… Pretty soon my husband lost his job and they shut down the Institute. It was a sea of unemployed people, all of them with college degrees. The kiosks appeared, then the supermarkets where they had everything, like in a fairytale, only there was no money to buy any of it. I’d go in and come right back out. I’d get two apples and an orange when the kids were sick.

“How are we supposed to get used to this? Accept that it’s how things are going to be from now on? How? It hurts your pride. That’s why people seem so tired these days. God forbid you were born in the USSR but live in Russia!”

The wealth in Russia is now concentrated at the very top. It is held by the oligarchs, as this gangster class is euphemistically called since the early 90s. That’s when the State stepped away from ownership of the factories, the farms, the oil and the gas, and this class of enterprising bandits stepped in to grab everything up.

Oh, to be sure, Moscow today shines like a jewel. It’s the prime showcase for all this wealth. But Moscow is also the place where, as our Russian tour guide advised us, the great preponderance of housing lies miles beyond the means of all but the very prosperous. And the GUM store, situated in Red Square formerly the world’s largest department store? The GUM store is a department store no more. Now it is merely an immense Fabergé egg of an indoor mall housing shops that as far as I can tell, not even prosperous tourists can afford to patronize. I spent two hours in the place, walking past the Louis Vuitton store, the Cartier store, the stores under signs reading ‘Pierre Cardin’ and ‘Versace’ and ‘Hermès’ and did not see a single soul in the process of purchasing anything in any one of them. I saw only the sales personnel inside and the security personnel standing at the doorways. As one disillusioned Russian said in an interview “Right now there’s a commercial on TV for copper bathtubs that cost as much as a two-bedroom apartment. Could you explain to me exactly who they’re for?”

Oh but see here, the government will say, the older folks still get their pensions. Only the skyrocketing inflation that followed the dissolution of the USSR almost immediately rendered those pensions worthless. As one older woman told oral historian Svetlana Alexievich “There IS no surviving on today’s pensions. What can you afford on them? You get yourself some bread and milk, and then there isn’t enough left over for slippers. It’s just not enough! Old people used to sit on the benches in their courtyards, carefree. Prattling. Not anymore. Some collect empty bottles around town, others stand in front of the church, begging. Some sell sunflower seeds or cigarettes at the bus stop…”

I saw those begging elders, as I wrote in my last post. I also saw countless other Russians at these kiosks or under improvised canopies or just out in the open, attempting to sell what they could sell – and for sure most were NOT the glowing young people such as the one pictured at the top of this post.

Some, like this grimacing man, sell trinkets outside the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, this on the June day when it was 38 degrees with a windswept sleet and all of us tourists were quivering like so many aspen trees.

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Some sell CD’s outside the Catherine Palace, like this versatile gent who exemplifies three different ways to sing for one’s supper, all in this 14-second video.

Maybe you can even argue that the Russian husband and wife we met are in the business of selling their very privacy – to the touring company that brought us to them – in the sense that many times a month they allow the various tour boats’ large cushy couches to lumber down their narrow rutted road and visit them for a mid-morning snack.

The man of this couple built the house himself, with the help of his dad, he told us through our interpreter-guide, adding rooms one by one over the years so that it is made of several different materials. Out in back, the two have a small vegetable garden, and chickens, and a tiny screen house that would maybe fit two webbed 1970s-style lawn chairs but when we were there was being used to store a bent plastic baby pool propped up on its side.

They showed us some family photographs, like their wedding picture below…

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…and with great grace they offered us food: half a piece of toast and a slice of cheese apiece, as well as a cut of an oblong pastry lathered in a red glaze.

Oh and a plate of the ubiquitous pickles you find everywhere in Russia.

And, to wash it all down, shots of that powerful hooch.

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But as I noted at the start here, it isn’t mainly the straitened circumstances under which most folks live that they find so disheartening. For those old enough to remember, it is also the sense of all that is lost – and that topic I can address in greater detail tomorrow.